Purple Magazine
— The Love Issue #34

kabul, day for night

SHORT STORY

text by ANNA DUBOSC
artwork by SIRO CUGUSI

We knew each other somewhat, from here and there. We frequented the same places. We had probably spoken once or twice and then avoided each other, as if we had declared a mutual dislike, though we could easily have come to the opposite decision. There was nothing more to any of this. That’s how encounters were at the time. They were there at hand for you to tap into. You could set them in motion or not, believe in them or not.

At 30, I’d lost my taste for partying and stopped going out. I was 35 when our paths crossed again.

It happened one evening at the Max Linder cinema. I was alone and waiting in the lobby for the theater to open. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around, and it was him. I was surprised. More than surprised, I was moved, and I found that troubling. The gesture, his somewhat ironic smile, the way I’d prepped for no reason whatsoever that evening — it all seemed worked out to bring us together.

The theater was almost empty. We sat next to each other and chatted through the trailers. He was so familiar to me, yet the familiarity seemed shrouded in mystery, as in The Turn of the Screw when the two children pretend to be playing to fool the governess but are, in fact, communicating with the ghosts.

We left the cinema, and he walked me home. We spoke a bit about the film and went on from there. There was no subject — or rather, everything was the subject. I’d have been fascinated had he talked to me about dog turds. Every word, every inflection hit home, like a unique genetic sequence recombining. I couldn’t stop laughing. I was euphoric. He was having fun, too. “It’s crazy,” he said. “I’m so happy to see you. Why is that?”

We kept talking at my door. I looked at his face as he looked at mine, and it was magic. Then, suddenly, it was too much. I wanted to go inside, to be with him in my thoughts. “See you soon,” I said. He replied, “Yes, but not too soon.”

*

My boyfriend was already in bed. I woke him as I came into the room, and he asked how the movie was. “Bah, not great,” I said. “Go back to sleep.”

I ran through the whole evening in my head until my mind went blank.

I dreamed of him and, in the morning, sent him a message to tell him about the dream. He replied with something funny. I replied in kind, and on it went.

There was only him now. The world had shrunk to this new obsession of mine. I couldn’t do anything else anymore. My hands had stopped working. I couldn’t write, either, except to him. All my words were addressed to him. I had no words for anything else.

*

Three days after our encounter, he left for Tokyo on business. When he returned, I was in the countryside, then when I got back, I didn’t tell him right away. Strangely, I didn’t feel like seeing him. He lay at the center of all my thoughts, but I wouldn’t have interrupted a single one of those thoughts to be at his side.

He wasn’t in a hurry, either. When I finally let him know I was back, he didn’t react, and we kept writing to each other as if we lived miles apart.

We spent our days deciphering the episode at the cinema and the rare occasions when we’d met before, poring through our memories for signs of love, trying to pull words and meaning from a tale that, in fact, had no meaning. That was the beauty of it. The more ridiculous and small it was, the more we could fill the space inside.

Yet, he started to worry. Things were getting out of hand. We had to see each other again, even if things came crashing down. At least we’d know what we were about — it’d be real. But I already knew what it was about. The reality was what I felt. “Yes, but that’s not the extent of it,” he’d reply.

*

After a month of this, I finally gave in. We decided to meet at the Place de l’Odéon at 11 o’clock in the evening.

I was dining with a friend, who was leaving for Kabul and celebrating her departure. I was a bit tipsy when I left the dinner party. I felt vulnerable, almost suffocated. On the
way, riding my bike, I nearly decided not to go.

I stood waiting for him near the statue. It was May. It had rained, and the air was warm. I thought that one day I’d regret this moment, and the thought suddenly made me happy.

He got there right on time. I ran into his arms, then gave him a good look.

“You’re allowed to smile.”

“Ah, wasn’t I smiling? Maybe I feel intimidated.”

I left my bike behind, and we crossed the Seine on foot. He’d been right — we needed to see each other. It was so much better, so very crazy. Even more unreal, actually.

We went into a café. I’ve never again been able to find the place, as if it had materialized just for us that evening.

We sat down at a table by the window. It was busy, as I recall. Astonishing for a weekday. I remember the reflection of headlights in the window, too, and feeling a sense of warmth inside those walls.

I got up to order at the bar. When I turned around, I caught his eye. He seemed upset, as though searching for the right words to deliver some horrible piece of news.

I returned to the table with our beers and sat next to him, crossing my bare legs.

He was so handsome, so alive. How could I have let him get by me? How could I not have seen it and been dazzled? Now that I saw him, it was everything else that blurred out.

At one point, he squeezed my knee under the table and said, “Never mind.” Then he continued talking as though nothing had happened, and it dissolved into the rest of the conversation.

At closing time, he walked me home, as he’d done the first time. At my door, I put my arms around his neck. My memory of this is crystal clear, as memories sometimes are when you’re completely drunk. I kissed him. He gently pushed me away and then went off. It didn’t hit me right away. It came to me later, woke me in the middle of the night with a hangover. That and his goddamn “Never mind.”

*

The next morning, I received a text when I turned on my phone: “Sorry I was cold last night, but otherwise there was no going back.”

I was so relieved and happy. I invited him along to fetch my bike.

*

We met at Odéon, and off we went for a walk, pushing the bike between us. Uphill he’d take the handlebars. “Go ahead,” he’d say. “It’s upsetting to watch you!”

We went up to the Place Monge. We encountered a brass band on a pedestrian street and followed it, then went peacefully off into the sweet light of spring.

We walked along the Jardin des Plantes, went through the Arènes de Lutèce. We took tea at the Mosquée, then had a beer at a small square. We laughed and talked, talked and walked. We’d embrace at every corner and cross at the green, pushing along my bike.

Night was falling, and I had to get home. We turned back toward the center. We spoke less now and no longer laughed. We reached the Marais. We took a right, then a left. “I’ll go at the next corner.” I couldn’t steel my resolve. One more street, then another… Finally I got on my bike. He pushed me at a trot, then let me pedal.

*

That evening, he wrote to me: “I’d have liked to get to know you, but if I knew you, there’d be no turning back, and that’s an even more terrifying prospect.”

I was flattered by his intensity and sense of tragedy, but I didn’t catch on that he was being serious. I’d come to understand, little by little, with every little twist of the knife. He said that he thought about me all the time, but that we couldn’t go down that road. We could talk, write, want each other, even love each other, but only to give each other up.

Things had now become a struggle, and I started freaking out. I was ready to do anything — I’d leave my boyfriend, whatever he wanted. But what he wanted was, in fact, nothing at all. I had to accept it. And anyway, he was sure I’d come to terms with it in the end. That would be our story: the sacrifice of our story.

*

We’d see each other during the day, agreeing to meet at a café — the Fourche or the Lamarck. I’d always get there first and take a seat at a table or at the bar. I’d turn my back to the door, so as not to be watching out for him. He’d turn up sooner or later. I’d get all upset, unable to bear the notion that one day this would all be over. I’d scramble for crumbs every time we met.

We’d smile and then start talking, as if we’d been apart for only five minutes or so. He’d pay for my coffee, and we’d go for a walk. We’d look for a bistro where we could eat lunch. We’d order drinks right away and be drunk before the meal arrived. We’d spend hours in those backrooms ordering another round, so as not to awaken.

Then we’d head out into the sweltering city, crossing half-empty squares. We’d head toward the old belt railway line, the Petite Ceinture, stopping at hole-in-the-wall cafés along the tracks. Then we’d set off again. I’d cling to his arm as we walked. Sometimes he’d wriggle free and cling to mine.

*

“I think I’d disappoint you only in the sense of the veneration that steals over me and makes me run away. At least, that’s what gives me the strength to run: the fear that someday, no matter what, I’m going to lose you. That I’m going to lose your love. The disarray I’m going to feel over that loss, stronger even than my desire for you.”

We were at a stalemate, and I was desperate. I thought of death or war.

One evening, I called my friend who had settled in Kabul and suggested I pay her a visit. For the first time, I felt strong. It was me leaving, not him. “You’re being stupid,” he wrote me. “You’re putting yourself in danger for nothing. It’s not worth it.”

He was beside himself, but he didn’t hold me back.

*

A few days before my departure, we went back to the city’s 18th district, then said goodbye at the entrance to the Lamarck metro station. I was drunk and sad. I wanted him to break down and stop me from going, but I knew he’d stay firm, and that was somehow reassuring. It was like a miracle, a miracle in reverse. It was there and intact, this miracle. I had no doubts about its existence.

*

I’d reserved a flight out of Frankfurt. My boyfriend saw me off at the train, at the Gare de l’Est. When the train pulled out, he started running alongside, to make me laugh, but this time it broke my heart.

I rested my forehead against the window and kept my eyes closed the whole way. Everything was intolerable, crushing — even the light.

The first leg of my flight was to Bahrain, and for the length of it, I listened to the soundtrack of the airline’s ad on a loop. It was exalting and drew tears from my eyes.

There was a layover at night. I went to the bathroom to put on a veil. I was exhausted but on the alert. I spent a couple of hours browsing the duty-free shops. As soon as I stopped walking, panic seized me.

I couldn’t get any sleep on the flight to Kabul. Through the window, I saw the sun rise. There were mountains everywhere.

*

My friend lived on a dead-end street, with a dirt floor as pitted as the streets of Kabul.

The rooms were scattered between three small houses ringing a dusty garden. I could feel dust in my hair, in my nose, under my feet. The dust was keeping my mind occupied, keeping me in the moment.

I set down my things in the room of my friend’s housemate, who was off on a monthlong mission to the south of the country. He’d left a note on the table to welcome me. It was touching to see my first name written down by a guy I’d never meet.

I stretched out on the bed without taking off my sandals. I hadn’t slept in months. Here, far away, with the heat and the din of the street, my defenses finally collapsed.

*

A sound woke me. I went out into the garden. A pump was drawing water from the well to fill a reservoir on the roof. The reservoir full, the water was now draining through a pipe just over my bedroom and falling with great slaps onto the slab floor.

I went back in to check my phone, which had a weak connection. I couldn’t help but send him a note. I waited a few minutes and understood that he wouldn’t be replying anymore. It freed me of all hope.

*

We went out to eat. It was Ramadan, and the only places serving food were the ones for expatriates. We arrived in front of a gate on a deserted alley. An armed man opened the door for us, and we entered a vestibule, where two guards searched us.

We sat at a big table set on a wooden dais in a lovely shaded garden. I felt good, hidden away, far from my thoughts of him.

After lunch, we strolled through a market, along the dry riverbed. The bazaar was spread over the sidewalk. We couldn’t see an end to it. The week before, there’d been a terrorist attack on a market, in the Kabul district. It made me nervous. I tried to avoid the crowd, but people were pressing in from all sides.

*

That first night, I was awakened by helicopters and gunfire. I was terrified and felt unsafe in the bedroom. I went out barefoot into the garden, looking for a place to hide. I climbed the ladder to get onto the roof. There I remained for an hour, until the gunfire stopped.

I was unable to get back to sleep before sunrise. I heard the muezzin of the mosque just behind us turn on his microphone. I listened to the call to prayer and dozed off.

*

I’d write a bit in the morning, and in the afternoon we’d go for a walk or hang around the house. We’d laugh every time the muezzin tapped his mike to see if it was working. I felt I’d found some shelter amid these foreign sounds. I still thought of him, but without suffering. I was far away, as if anesthetized.

*

One day, I accompanied my friend to a beauty salon. There was a young bride-to-be there, surrounded by her family, while she was coiffed and made up. She was smiling and seemed happy.

That evening, as we cooked, it stuck in my throat. I set down the knife, went to my bedroom, and threw myself onto the bed.

*

On the eve of my departure, we drank fruit juice outdoors at nightfall, sitting in chairs on the sidewalk. I was heartsick. I couldn’t believe I was going home, that I’d be leaving these dusty streets and, in time, forgetting them.

END

SIRO CUGUSI, UNTITLED 5, 2017, OIL ON PAPER, 16.53 X 11.69 INCHES, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST SIRO CUGUSI, UNTITLED 6, 2017, OIL ON PAPER, 16.53 X 11.69 INCHES, COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

[Table of contents]

The Love Issue #34

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