No one gave up their house keys, sold their car, and moved across an ocean to an unknown country for a reason that could be explained in a few simplistic sentences at a cocktail party. People lied about a new job or the prospect of adventure. Sometimes they claimed they were bored with life in such and such city, as if that would satisfy the curiosity of the asker. None of those reasons were real.
For Mara, the turning point happened on her 29th birthday, after the bagels but before the flourless chocolate torte.
Mara was still living in her mother’s apartment while working at the Cancer Center, not yet earning enough for her own place. Tarek arrived when the birthday brunch was already in full swing, his green t-shirt darker in between his shoulder blades and under his arms. Over scones and mimosas, there was debate about the policies of former prime minister and distant cousin Moshe Sharett. Was the former Prime Minister too easy on the Palestinians? Tarek blanched at the topic and almost made for the door, but Mara grabbed him before he could escape.
They met on the soccer field in Riverside Park, his tournament ending as hers began. She noticed him stop to talk to a homeless man on a bench, and Mara watched him sit down next to the man and chat and laugh for a full five minutes. She had never seen anyone do that before.
––Do you do that a lot? She asked.
––Talk to people you don’t know. She was suddenly embarrassed to call them homeless, worried he would take it the wrong way.
––I’m talking to you, right?
When they were alone in her mother’s kitchen, Zabar’s bags half-emptied on the counter, he tried to help with the dishes.
––Don’t be silly. You’re a guest, she told him, scraping red onion into the trash.
He leaned on the counter, still perspiring and held out a brown paper bag.
––You said it was your birthday, right? Open it.
––Later, Mara deferred. ––We haven’t had cake yet. She hadn’t opened gifts in front of guests since she turned 16 and her friends pitched in for a man dressed up as a dancing gorilla. Did her best friends not know her at all? A stripper in a g-string would have been less repulsive than the matted fur on the costume. Her smile as she danced was like cracked glass, counting the seconds until the gorilla would leave.
Tarek laughed at the gorilla story, extended a cordial goodbye to her mother and aunt, and pressed the red button in the hall. Turn the lights off and listen to track six on the CD was the last thing he said before the elevator doors closed on his mottled green t-shirt. Track six was about a muse; the singer a blonde woman playing acoustic guitar live in Philadelphia.
Let’s meet tonight, Mara told Tarek’s answering machine after listening to Track six on repeat, trying to find the overlap in what the song meant and why he gave it to her. It was about the relationship between an artist and a muse, and Mara wasn’t sure which part she was cast.
Tarek agreed to the meeting but erased Mara’s message before his wife came home from her job as a dental hygienist.
At the Housing Works café, they sat opposite each other. He looked stricken with guilt, balancing on the edge of a wooden chair, retreating from his own boldness. The rules of their courtship, as set by him, were hard to understand. Somehow the gift of the CD fell within the bounds of faithfulness, but the meeting was not. Outside, the night sky flashed orange around the streetlights. When he took her hand on the table, his palm was cold.
For the next few weeks, they took walks. In Riverside Park, or near the waterfront, avoiding places where anyone would recognize them. One night it was so cold, Mara wrapped her brown corduroy coat around both of them. He protested, guilty again, and shivered in the November air as he told Mara he had never been in love with his wife. He tried to explain how lonely marriage could be, but Mara couldn’t really understand. Her longest relationship, living with a man, had lasted less than a year.
Tarek moved out of the house he shared with his wife and rented a bedroom in Washington Heights with a friend from grad school, which made Mara guess she was being cast as the muse in Track six. It wasn’t so much that he was readying himself for a life with her; more that she had inspired a life without his wife.
When they kissed for the first time, the downy hair above his lip like a flower. The days turned pink. They went to see Hecuba on stage and held hands in a dark theater. She liked to hear him speak Arabic on the phone to his family in Beirut.
In his new place, he cooked while Mara sat across the bar in bare feet. They ate granola bagels and coffee, even though sleep overs were banned. There were parameters he’d set that she tried to break. No showers together. No sleeping in the same bed. No penetration.
You have a perfect back, Mara told him.
Let’s have a baby, he said.
Nine months after it began, it was over. On Christmas Eve, he sat across from Mara as she sobbed in a beer-drenched Lower East Side bar. Forgive me my weaknesses, Tarek said. She hated the flowery words he used. She wanted to stand barefoot and watch him chop a tomato-cucumber salad, douse the vegetables with plain yogurt and mix it all together. His father had come to visit from Gaza, he couldn’t admit what he’d done. He would return to his wife as his father expected.
Her friends tire of hearing her replay her heartbreak. When she got to Zambia, she would have to be careful who she confided in; every time she looked for sympathy, even her closest friends treated her like she had lost her mind. Their nods meant please, stop talking about him.
A month passed and Tarek was on the phone, as he once was. Granola bagels and coffee? Let’s spend the day together. I have been waiting all morning to call you, he said. She might have been angry, or at the very least guarded, but she had been waiting for to hear his voice for too long.
In the park, they climb a hill. The leaves crumble in her hands. In an attempt to warm up her toes, he peeled off her socks held them to his face. Colder than she was, Mara could no longer enjoy the moments when he loved her more than anyone ever had. They walked down the horse path and said goodbye. Mara knew he was going home to his wife’s house.
In the middle of the night, he arrived in front of her airport in a taxi. Let’s leave all this. Go somewhere. Rome. Australia. Zambia? They sit in the parking lot of Kennedy Airport, but never leave the car.
Without any parameters of her own, Mara rode the highs with him, wanting more of the times when the rest of the world receded. It wasn’t enough that he was married, there were other complications. She would have converted to Islam, but they never got that far. Twenty years from now you’ll need your people and I’ll be dead fighting for mine, he told her.
Every walk down Broadway reminded her of him –– and the Hudson River, and every soccer field. She could no longer live in her own city. One night, she finished the application they started together, to play soccer with at-risk teens and teach them how to navigate their lives. As if that made any sense. She sent off her forms without explaining to the organization what happened to Tarek.
Their final walk in Riverside Park was filled with hurtful politeness.
Have a nice time in Africa.
Good luck with your wife.
When the phone rang the night before she left for Zambia, Mara dropped the espresso maker she was wrapping and ran for the phone. It was, inevitably, not Tarek. The person on the other end, someone from the Cancer Center, unaware of the soaring and crashing they had just caused, could not figure out why her voice was shaking. To leave, without a goodbye from him –– to have the last walk of forced cheerfulness stand for their final moment –– was unfathomable, a desert without wind. She packed the CD with track six alongside her soccer socks, leather shoes that will turn red with dust, and a dozen peanut butter Power Bars.
About the Author
Tej Rae is a freelance writer currently based in Addis Ababa, where she writes for the United Nations to support her fiction habit. After teaching high school English for 15 years, she transitioned to journalism and fiction. Her publishing credits include The Washington Post, BBC Focus on Africa magazine, The National newspaper (UAE), Typishly, Wanderlust, Necessary Fictions, Solstice, and Prometheus Dreaming, among others.
In June 2020, she was awarded fourth place in The First Pages Prize by Sebastian Faulks.
Since 1999, she has lived in Zambia, Senegal, Dubai, and Rome with her husband and two children. Many of her publications can be found on http://tejrae.com