(The events below are true. The names have not been changed to protect the innocent. Nobody's innocent.)
I'm being haunted. It's the first time I'm mentioning it to you all because I did not think it would last this long.
I thought she would leave & not return.
But she comes back. Always she comes back.
It started, this haunting, a couple days after I moved in to the little apartment in the Hamra section of Beirut. I moved in on Wednesday, November 11. I'll leave the superstitious connection to you all.
There she was, standing in the vestibule, wearing a long off-white knitted sweater that hung well below her waist, and a black skirt that reached the floor. She looked like she had no limbs under such an armament of fabric. She was small, with big green eyes, and long, greying blonde hair.
She just stood, dead still, all alone in an aura of smoke.
Marhaba, I mumbled, still uncomfortable with greeting people in Arabic.
She tilted her head to the side and started speaking French, but soon switched to English when she realized that my French is worse than my Arabic. She wanted to know what I was doing in Beirut.
She told me that she hated Lebanon, the Lebanese. She told me that "I just want to return to my country," but that her husband had her passport and she had no idea where he was. She leaned in, searched the area with her big eyes for anyone who might overhear her.
"I'm from Tel Aviv."
Nice to meet you, I thought.
I listened to her story, nodding, smiling, expressing concern at all the right times. What started as a polite and simple greeting had become a 10 minute monologue.I excused myself, saying I had to go study. Her eyes flickered, and she asked where I study. Oh, boy, look what I've dragged myself into, I was thinking. I managed to get away with a brief explanation, and a feigned sense of hurry. In reality I was just going to a cafe to do some reading and writing.
When I got to Tmarbouta, the cafe/library a couple blocks away, I realized that I had forgotten my pen. Cursed witch! I figured I'd just do some reading for awhile, then head back home to get my pen, and maybe some lunch in a couple hours.
As I neared my place, I could see her, from across the vacant lot, sitting on a mauve suitcase in the sun outside the entrance.
"Ahh, you finish studying?"
-No, just forgot something.
There must have been 15 cigarette butts at her feet.
"Ahh, ehhmmm, my husband will return after two days. Can I let him call you??
-Uhh...why me? Why doesn't he call you?
Of course, she has no phone.
-OK, sure, no problem. I'll write down my number...my pen is in the room.
Like she didn't already know where my pen was, being a phantasm, and all. She followed me down the hall, and unlocked the door to the room right next door. Of course. I retrieved my pen and wrote my number on a scrap of paper, then stepped out into the hall.
Smoke. More smoke. She was in her room holding up a Xeroxed image of a man in a dark blue suit, blue shirt, red tie. He looked official. This picture, full color, was at the top left of the page, beside it a note in English that started:
"Thees my husband. He write a letter for me."
-Oh, very nice. That's really sweet. He wrote this?
The handwriting was shaky, with flourishes at the end of some letters.
"Ehhhhhh, no...I copy zees letter from him. He work for interior ministry. For zee department of zee energy."
-Oh. I see.
I didn't see.
"He have my passaport. I can't see him. He is anywhere. Maybe Virginia. Maybe Dubai. I Don't know."
-Uhh...well, maybe he'll call.
"Wil you call heem, ehhhhhh, now. Wheez your phone?"
"He have a number. A secret number. He is very important man."
-Right. What was that number?
-Right. What is it now?
I punched in the secret number she gave me, and got that familiar three-tone greeting that lets a caller know that a number is faulty. Fascinating! The disconnected number tone is universal! I have to say that I was not surprised to get this automaton on the other end, for the number Mariame gave me had only five digits. Five secret digits.
-Uhh...it didn't connect. Here, listen.
"But...I don't know. Zaht is his secret number!"
-Uhh...maybe email him? Give him my number. When he calls, I'll get you.
"Yes, but, he usually call after 12 in the night."
-Fine, no worries. When he calls, I'll get you, OK? I have to be going. See you later.
"I just want to go to my country!"
She was trying to be convincing. Trying to push tears out of her big green eyes. The display was hollow to me. I don't know. I feel like I am open to hearing people's stories, even when I know I'm being put on. I'll let them talk, talk, talk for as long as they need to. Tell me of their hardships. Tell me of their daughter in South Carolina, the need to drum up another $18 for a bus ticket to reunite with the little girl who means the world. I've faithfully listened to more of these stories than I can remember. I've given my share of rumpled one dollar bills to people who, after such elaborate stories, sell me the same one a week later.
Something about Mariame reminded me of these story weavers.
I can listen, but I can't be asked to give much more than that, right?