“In English? Ahh no….” Haitham says. He says that every time we sit and open menus inevitably written in French. I wonder briefly if he is humoring me, trying to make me more comfortable. I haven’t really seen him and it’s become a bit awkward between us.
“Meat or fish darling?” He always asks the same question, and I always give the same answer.
“You pick love, I eat everything.”
He’d picked me up a bit earlier, frenzied and distracted. It was the middle of his work day. Dressed and ready, I felt like a little doll in his dollhouse, excited to be chaperoned through the next outing. He had a lot of unexpected problems that had kept him at work non stop, and I’ve spent my time in Casablanca alone, waiting for him. We were both feeling the strain, wanting our time together to be amazing and having circumstances make that impossible. After lunch, it’s back in the car, and back to his place where I’ll sit and wait until he is done with his day. I feel like I’m barely moving through each day, not participating as much as I’m smiling and nodding at the right times. I don’t know how to be me here. It is all so unfamiliar.
Later, I pace his spacious apartment, peering out to the courtyard imagining throwing a dinner party for our friends under the open sky. Despite it being beautifully furnished, it is nearly empty of personal items. There’s a couple novelty party hats, DVDs, and one pair of pajama pants, but that’s it. I sit under the skylight on the velvet couch and run my fingers along dust on the coffee table, leaving my mark. There isn’t much for me to do but wait. The internet has been forgotten and disconnected. TV only chatters in French or Arabic. The fridge holds cocktail mixers and a few things that needed to be tossed out. The only thing in the laundry pile were sheets and towels. A deep discomfort forms in the pit of my stomach. I don’t understand. “He doesn’t live here,” I think.
It would take me days to get the courage to ask him about it. By then, the thoughts had been ruminating in my mind too long. Especially when he would repeat his customary “I’ll be back in 10 minutes,” which meant anywhere from two to three hours. My thoughts always spiraled…He’s in an accident. He’s not telling me everything. The over abundance of cosmetic products worry me. The stripped bed and lack of personal artifacts stress me out. As does the fact that he doesn’t get ready here. Where the hell am I?
“This is where I stay when I need some time to myself,” he explains after I’d finally blurted out my discomfort one morning as he was leaving. “I’ve kept this place for years but mostly I stay with my parents,” he continued, no doubt perplexed by my outburst. I deflate a bit, not knowing what I expected him to say. Of course he does. That’s the norm here. It’s totally normal for people to live with their parents until marriage. I thought back to the beautiful pics he’d sent from his parents terrace. I’d probably stay there too.
The next day the phone ring splits through my half nap; he’s back to collect me. He’s still distracted from work and doesn’t tell me where we are going. I couldn’t know and don’t really care. Being with him punctuated my day, and I was still hopeful our time together would turn magic again. We speed through the streets and end up at our friend Fatim’s house, the beautiful girl in the red dress I met in Miami. I’m starved for the familiarity, so excited to see her.
“I can’t believe the girl from the elevator is in my living room,” Fatim laughs and sets down a tray of glass decanters filled with three different types of juice. It is beyond surreal. We’re seated in a gorgeous plush room. It’s my first taste of a visit to a home. More drinks and food are brought out by a woman. She nods and smiles at me, eyes cast down.
We’re sitting sipping fresh orange juice, and Haitham’s phone rings. He grabs his smokes and excuses himself, and us girls launch straight into girl talk. We hash about our ex’s, hopeful conversation about how maybe we aren’t damaged from the things we’ve been through, but I know I am. My imagination spins out of control at the slightest hint of absurdity.
“How is everything?” She asks me and I wonder what to say.
“He’s very busy.” I continue carefully, “I don’t even think he knows how stressed out he is. I think this stress level has become normal for him. It’s just too much.”
She nods. She knows.
Other friends show up. I’m enthusiastically introduced, everyone wants to meet the American girlfriend from Miami, except I’m unable to communicate other than through smiles and nods. Everyone speaks French. I sit, sip, and pretend to relax, like I’m not feeling alone in a room full of people.
The topic was our friend Amin and his sister. Their father had passed away unexpectedly about a week before, and the hush this left amongst the group was palpable. They were sorting out heading over to console the family, and Fatim graciously stopped to explain the whys and how’s to me, “When someone we love- friends, or family, has something bad happen,” she paused looking for the way to explain in English,”We share each others pain.”
I’m struck by the tenderness of this. It’s such an incredibly different culture from my own, and I’m regretfully unfamiliar and unprepared for it all. But this? This idea resonates with me deeply. Their foundation is built on a deep resolve of respect and loyalty. I’m drawn to it, wanting to ask more but not sure of the questions.
We all leave and again, as we get in the car I’m not sure where we’re going. I’m surprised when we pull up to a house and I see everyone there too. He brought me to their house? I stiffen with discomfort, aware that this family and their grief is an incredibly personal thing. Haitham senses my discomfort, and takes my arm in his, “We’re going to spend some time here. It is important. This is what we do.” I nod not having a choice, and hastily re wrap my scarf to cover my shoulders. My hair is down, I’ve got makeup on, I’m all wrong for this. I feel uncomfortable. It’s not fair, I wasn’t told I’d be here! I wanted to explain, to pull on his arm and beg to go home, but couldn’t. Instead I walked into a beautiful home full of family and friends to be together; to share their pain.
The hair stands up on my arms from the raw beauty of it all. The house itself is incredible, spacious and ornately detailed, every inch luxury. There are about a dozen women traditionally dressed, hair covered in beautiful wraps with matching Jilbab dresses surrounding the widow who is dressed in all white, as is customary for 40 days after her husband has passed.
Amin greets me like an old friend. Only a few weeks ago we were out partying in Miami, and now somehow I’m in his home in Casablanca with his family. I can hardly begin to absorb it all. He is incredibly kind, bringing me in close with a hug. A wonderful host, he is the one to introduce me to everyone new. I nod, smile, and to everyone in turn kiss both cheeks before perching on a velvet settee in the corner. Tiny china plates with perfectly folded napkins are placed before everyone and giant curved platters follow heaped with pastries and almonds, served one after the other. Next is mint tea, it is ever present in Casablanca and there is nothing like it in the world. I look around at everyone tucked into hushed conversations. What am I doing here?
After a bit, Amin brings his mother over to meet me. Incredibly humbled and grateful to be there, however inappropriate, I bow my head unable to communicate my condolences. “Meaghan,” Amin says, “This is my mother. Mom, this is Meaghan.” Everyone is silent, watching us. She looks at me and smiles, “American?” She laughs and breaks the ice. Everyone laughs, and she continues in beautiful simple English,”Welcome to my home.” In this moment, I admire her strength and understanding. We are just people, in uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations and I’m grateful for her bit of humor. I’m grateful to be there to share it all.
In the car on the way home, Haitham and I are silent. Despite the fact that I’m on vacation, I’ve found myself in the thick of real, raw life. I’d hoped to experience Casablanca to it’s fullest and I had. I was living life here, real life. Emotionally exhausted, in limbo, a bit lost- headed back to the dollhouse I tilt my head back against the head rest and breathe.
Back at the apartment that he doesn’t use, I feel the weight of everything; my friends loss of his father, my loneliness, Haitham’s absence and the longing for our connection to reappear, the unfamiliarity of it all, my desperation to be appropriate…
In Casablanca there is a thin film of red dust that travels with the wind. It covers everything; the buildings, cars, people, the insides of my nostrils and throat. As I wash it off me later, the dirt from my feet pooling in the bottom of the shower, I finally break down and cry.