It’s her third August in Barcelona and Mona still gets lost anytime she leaves her neighborhood of Raval. When she’d first moved here, she found the children selling candy bars and the drying laundry on the balconies distasteful; she was used to the mountains of northern Lebanon, the quiet sloping roads and orange groves. But now it’s the other, ritzier neighborhoods that unnerve her. They’re swarmed with tourists, white men with camera straps digging into their fat necks, more Zaras than museums.
She is halfway down La Rambla when she realizes she missed the turn, then doubles back, looking for the yellow awning. This is how Mona marks the city: broken stoplight, graffitied wall, sticker of Rottweiler on bodega window. Her daughter Reem has tried to explain the map on Mona’s cell phone, but she prefers her method.
Reem will be upset about this shopping trip; she’s been begging her not to spend money on the little care packages Mona sends. The postage alone is astronomical and, though Reem never says it, Mona knows her daughter is thinking about the deposits she makes, every month, in Mona’s Caixabank account. But it is nearly her granddaughter Lia’s third birthday. Mona has been eyeing a dress for months.
Barcelona had been for Lia. When Reem became pregnant, something thawed between them, an ancient frostiness bolstered after Mona’s husband Ramzi passed away. Reem had always been her Baba’s girl; Mona she recast as tedious, hesitant, a duty. At her wedding, Reem refused to let her mother in the hotel suite as she got dressed. There was a stupid argument about earrings that Reem would later swear was Mona’s oblique way of criticizing her marriage to a European man.
But suddenly there were phone calls, Reem’s voice small and happy as she asked about pregnancy, Lamaze breathing, stretch marks. There was a photograph of a grainy, black-and-white ultrasound sent by text. Mona became crucial. She knew about baby hiccups and cracked nipples, the precise combination of lemon and soda water that would ease morning sickness. There began a joke, about Mona moving to Barcelona to help with the baby, and then the joke became more thoughtful, and then her daughter was asking her to actually do it, and Mona was surprised to find that she wanted to.
“We can redo the second bedroom. You’ll have your own bathroom and there’s plenty of closets.” Reem, once determined, became clearsighted, and she set about dealing with the visa for Mona, doing something and another thing and another. Mona suspected her son-in-law—a reserved European who worked at the French embassy—wasn’t overjoyed by the turn of events, but he was polite and gentle, picking her up from the airport at 3 a.m. with a mozzarella sandwich.
The move proved unnecessary. Lia was barely six months old when the husband’s work changed. He was being reposted. They moved to Singapore, abruptly, with only two months’ notice. Nobody mentioned Mona going with them. Her son-in-law found her a small but arresting apartment in Raval, a few streets away, ostensibly to regroup before returning to Lebanon. That was two and a half years ago.
There is an irony that sometimes rings Mona like a bell. In the early years of their marriage, she and her husband would joke about retiring in Barcelona. Though neither had been, the city had caught their fancy during a party. They had recently returned from a trip to Spain, and they’d played their guests a home video, hazy reels of Park Güell and the Sagrada Familia and wide shimmers of turquoise sea. Soon afterwards, Mona’s husband had found a poster of Barcelona at night, the city like a summer fruit, glittering with lights and cars. They’d hung it in the kitchen for decades. And now, here she is, living off her husband’s savings, making a little money every month tutoring a group of neighborhood kids—mostly Algerian—whose parents want them to learn Arabic.
Khalto Mona, they call her. How do you say cucumber? How do you say Power Rangers?
She is fond of the children, in a straightforward way that eluded her with her own daughter. They want so little from her. She is something extra in their lives, like a new, lively toy, a presence they take for granted, unquestioningly, another aging matron who drinks tea with their grandmothers.
Though Raval is mostly filled with Moroccans and Algerians, Mona fits in. Beirut’s reputation as a gilded city has miraculously survived the war, and many of her neighbors treated her like a glamorous celebrity when she first moved in. Mona likes to play it up sometimes, slipping in bonjours and ça vas during conversations, though she never did back home. There are many other widows in her building, a Catalan-style apartment complex of mostly one bedrooms, and she has become friendly with them, playing gin rummy and tarneeb on warmer nights. During Ramadan, they broke fast together once a week.
Is this the season you leave us? they like to tease her. Since she moved in, Mona has talked about returning to Lebanon. She’ll often sigh and remark on Barcelona, saying how she’ll miss it.
“I’ll dream of these warm winters when I go back,” she’ll say. Or, “I might as well have another helping of cantaloupe. By the time they’re ripe again, I’ll be gone.”
Each time, she means it. This is not where she is meant to live. When she dies, she will be buried in the generations-old plot of land next to Ramzi, on a little hill in Shouf, overlooking the olive groves and a distant glimpse of water. It’s absurd, her staying here, spending money on rent when she has a perfectly good house back home, teaching other peoples’ children how to conjugate Arab verbs. When it’s time to go, I’ll miss the sound of the children playing. She always pauses, after she says something like that, for the widows to rush in, telling her Raval will be empty without her, their grandchildren will forget their Arabic, they’ll miss her terribly.
The boutique has a plain white storefront with dramatic lettering—Felpa—for the sign. It is upscale; the dress she wants costs more than a month of groceries back in Beirut. But one of the child mannequins in the display is dressed in it, which Mona considers an encouraging omen. The tiered eyelet skirt flares around the mannequin’s milk-white knees.
Inside, there are clothes for adults as well, and everything hangs from gold wire hangers. There is soothing music playing from somewhere, a few stylish women scanning the racks. A girl, younger than Reem, mid-twenties, is holding miniskirts up to her waist and frowning at the mirror. She is tanned and curvy, with dark hair snaking into dreads. The tips are pink, as though someone dipped them in an ink bottle, like the girls at Mona’s school used to do years ago.
“Puedo ayudarte?” A chic-looking woman in a romper approaches Mona.
“Ah.” Mona makes the universal gesture for helplessness: palms up, shoulders to her ears. “Inglés?”
The shopkeeper sighs, as though she expected better from Mona. “Is there something you are looking for?” she asks in near-perfect English.
“Yes, please. One of the blue dresses. Like in the window. For a little girl, almost three.” Her English has improved exponentially since moving to Spain.
“Perfect.” The shopkeeper’s mood seems to lift and she gestures for Mona to sit. There are two leather armchairs near the cash register, a smattering of sleek magazines on the table between them. “I’ll wrap it up for you.”
Mona watches the woman flip expertly through a row of little dresses, pulling out the right size. The women in the store all move similarly, with a casual grace, something studied, bred like etiquette and an understanding of salad forks. Even the girl with the scruffy hair clearly comes from money. Mona has been noticing this for years—the feigned dishevelment of the wealthy. The shopkeeper folds the skirt ruffles, taming them to fit inside gift-boxes. She piles it with layers of whispery tissue paper, a deep eggplant color. The girl with dreadlocks has stopped to watch. The shopkeeper moves like a ballerina.
“I wish they had that in my size,” she says to Mona. Her face is serious, but she can tell from the lifted eyebrow that the girl is waiting for laughter, and so Mona chuckles.
“Honey, it would fit not even on my wrist,” she proffers and the girl laughs back. She returns to the mirror, the bandage-thin skirt in her hands. Her sneakers are convincingly torn, but Mona isn’t convinced; her manicure alone—a cool and glossy black—is at least fifty euros.
“Do you like this?” It takes Mona a second to realize the girl is talking to her; she doesn’t move her eyes from the mirror.
“Yes.” There was a time, several decades ago, where Mona would have worn a skirt like that. Electric blue eyeshadow, black boots. The war hadn’t halted fashion in Lebanon. “Like something from 70s.”
The girl seems pleased by this. “I have a top that will be perfect with it.” She glances over her shoulder at Mona, a bit coquettish. “Whose baby?”
“A neighbor’s.” As soon as she lies, Mona is intrigued. She wants the girl to like her, simple as that. “We live on the same floor. I see her every day.”
“How sweet,” the girl says absentmindedly. She probably doesn’t know any children. She will be one of those women who have a child fashionably late, after she’s traveled the world and had many lovers.
“Almost done,” the shopkeeper trills. She is wrapping the box now, and Mona feels a pang at the sight of the curly gold ribbon. The dress is too expensive. She could’ve gotten a similar one from El Corte Inglés or Zara’s for half the price.
Her Raval friends would never even enter a place like this. Their lives are different than hers. They came from countries like Libya and Iraq, worked as janitors and housekeepers. They assumed that she was just one of the luckier widows, who lived off money their children sent and, while Reem sent the monthly check, Mona didn’t need it. Her husband had left her a modest but comfortable sum, one that could last the rest of her life. But she never corrects them. She doesn’t tell them that she had her own maid back home, a Sri Lankan woman who lived in a little room next to the kitchen. There is something in the austerity of their lives that she wants to ape.
“Cash or credit?” The woman’s voice interrupts Mona’s thoughts. She rises, holds out a silver card.
“Credit,” Mona says, but looks away when the woman swipes it.
It had rained over the weekend and the city seems cleaner somehow, the streets and windowed storefronts unusually laundered-looking. Mona doesn’t spend much time in this neighborhood, and worries like it might be terribly evident, but then she remembers the Felpa bag and feels her step lighten. She lets the ribbon handle swing from her wrist like a bell. Barcelona is always a smidgen too hot in the summer; the nearby sea only helps in dampening the air. But there is a sense of merriment in the streets, sweaty girls rolling their eyes at each other, businessmen pulling at their collars and sticking their tongues out, a joke they’re all in on together.
Her daughter doesn’t understand why she doesn’t return to Lebanon. “Baba wouldn’t want you in that city all alone,” she often says, though never addresses the reason Mona is alone.
“I don’t know,” she’d boldly said the last time, knowing it would irritate Reem, “I think he might’ve liked it. He always did want us to travel more.”
There was a whoosh of air on the line, Reem’s distinctive yogic breathing. “He meant to Marrakesh, Petra for a weekend. Not living alone in Barcelona for, what, years now?”
“Is Singapore nicer than Spain?” Mona had asked sweetly. Reem changed the subject. They rarely brought it up, the lack of invitation for Mona to join. Sometimes, she wondered if she’d done something wrong in those strange, chaotic months when they’d all lived together. Those weeks were a blur of washing onesies and testing formula milk—Lia was a fussy nurser—on forearms, the newborn’s cry a call to prayer they’d all rise to.
There were things Mona had commented on. Reem and her son-in-law took turns rising at night, which perturbed her; the baby should see her mother’s face at night. They fed the baby solids too early, and Reem refused to have a traditional snayniyeh when Lia’s first tooth came in, calling the celebratory dessert too caloric. The son-in-law had a fat beagle named Daisy, who would sometimes jump on the dining table and lick the baby’s face, to Mona’s dismay.
“This is how plagues get started,” she’d finally said.
“Oh, Mama,” Mona had caught the quick expression between Reem and her husband. “Dogs don’t have the plague. They just like to clean things.”
“Then she can clean the floor.”
Whatever the exact reason, the job in Singapore came up, nobody told Mona to come, and so she stayed. Reem rephrases it sometimes, saying your move to Barcelona, and Mona never corrects her, never says that she is alone because her daughter left her, just repeats that she is happy enough. The truth is that Lebanon doesn’t hold anything for her anymore. She’d spent decades raising her daughter, going to neighborhood gatherings with her husband. Their life there was made irrelevant without the other.
Better to be pitied by people who hadn’t known her for her entire life.
Her husband had never ended up visiting Spain. There was an impression, that first year here, that she was doing everything for both of them; sometimes she even ordered two mint teas in cafés, a leftover vestige from forty years of marriage. The dead remain dead. That’s what nobody tells you. She could accept his dying, the burial, the bleak and short funeral, the mourners’ faces a fog, lips pressed against her hands and cheeks, murmurs of apology. Even the gravestone, where she made herself repeat the words, Ramzi’s here, Ramzi’s here. But her brain’s hippocampus refused to encode this fact permanently, instead being surprised by it over and over, like a goldfish startled by the plastic ship for the thousandth time.
In Barcelona it became easier to play along with it, the new city unattached to any of their memories, and she could pretend he was elsewhere. She even decided which cafés were his favorite, like the small, dim Crema y Azúcar in Raval, where the owner is Moroccan and always slips Mona an extra ginger snap.
But the longer she lives here, the more the city becomes hers and hers alone. The farmer’s market where she buys apricots and leeks every Wednesday after breakfast. The museum she goes to weekly, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, free admission for the public every Sunday. In summer months, the air-conditioning is sumptuous, and for hours she wanders the darkened rooms, staged to invoke the Dark Ages and Inquisition. She makes a point to go to the exhibits that are usually emptier, the less exciting Medieval Gothic and Romantic rooms, where the air feels a little deflated, as though the pieces can feel their lack of appeal.
Sometimes she thinks of herself as one of the statues, the tourists and school kids and exhausted first-time mothers around her fluctuating, bustling around, her standing still in front of the paintings from the old Crown of Aragon, the travel trunks. Her favorite room is the one with tapestries and drapes of Coptic fabrics, the ones so ancient their labels showed a question mark instead of a year.
Once in La Rambla, Mona doesn’t want to leave. The streets are cleaner than Raval, more pale tourists sharing gelato. Walking around with her boutique bag, she feels like one of them, a busy wife running errands. Perhaps she lives in one of the crumbling houses or otherwise the tiny, modish apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the strip. Mona is a small woman, the kind of petite that elicits lifelong friendliness, and helps her not think about aging too much. In her customary nondescript outfits—jeans, navy blouses—she clocks a decade younger.
“Feria, feria,” a young man calls out, flyers fanned out in one hand. She follows his other arm, pointing towards a residential block filled with people and balloons and food stalls. Another man stops, hand on hips as he examines the flyer.
“Que es esto?” he asks the promoter.
“Es una feria, señor. Esta aqui toda la semana.”
She can keep up with the conversation without meaning too. She doesn’t want to learn Spanish; it would make her stay feel permanent. But a language, like a sense of direction, can be soaked unintentionally over time, and without recalling how, Mona knows what barrio means, the difference between pelas and pelos, how niña is the female version of child.
Her favorite word is ojalá, had first heard it after she moved to Raval, a group of older men talking, one muttering Ojalá, Ojalá. Mona got an eerie sense of déjà vu, like a dream where people are speaking underwater, the words garbled and unclear.
“What are they saying?” she’d asked the neighborhood women. They told her it was an old phrase, from the days of the Moors, an expression with the root from Arabic: Allah. Oh Allah. Ojalá. They had spoken it throughout the Iberian Peninsula, in the early days of their new empire.
“Señora,” a voice calls out. It belongs to a ratty young man sitting on a velvet blanket. At his feet are various pieces of jewelry made out of cutlery: mustard spoon earrings, a fork curved into a bracelet.
She is feeling courageous. “No, gracias.” His crestfallen face pulls her; she gestures at his handiwork. “Muy bonito.”
The man perks up. He starts speaking in Spanish in earnest, too fast for her to catch, and she waves. “Gracias,” she says helplessly.
At the next stall a pair of young women are selling beaded necklaces, strung up on hammered nails to catch the light. A group of blonde tourists chatter in English, holding them up to each other’s necks. They look like sisters, but perhaps not. The jewelry-makers mostly ignore them, their heads bent over pliers and chains, hammering new rings. They have the self-satisfied air of artists.
A flutter of fingers catches her eye, an arm outstretched for a string of lapis lazuli stones. It takes Mona’s mind a second to catch up: the girl from the store. In her torn jeans, an identical Felpa bag hanging from the crook of her elbow. Mona’s heart speeds up inexplicably.
“Hello,” Mona says, feeling stupid. Immediately she regrets it; what if the girl doesn’t recognize her, what if she thinks she followed her.
The girl turns. She is frowning, distracted, but her face brightens instantly. “Felpa!” she calls out, like old friends running into each other. The girl catches sight of Mona’s bag and clinks her own against it, like two champagne glasses. Her face becomes serious again. She drops her voice. “My healer told me to get some stones for my pillow. I have terrible insomnia.”
“Oh.” How could you know if someone was a healer? Mona wants to ask but knows better.
“Do you sleep well?” There is an intensity about the girl that strikes Mona curiously—repelling and attracting at the same time.
Mona thinks. “Some nights I’m up late,” she admits. “I get nightmares.”
“Me too!” The girl claps. “I have this one dream, where I’m walking in my grandfather’s house and his houseplant turns into a serpent.” Sarp-unt. Even as a non-native speaker, Mona wants to correct her English. She nods instead. “What about you?”
Mona tries to think of something interesting, but lands on the truth. “There’s a boat that fills with water and I’m trying to save someone. I can never remember who it is.”
The girl nods gravely. “Boats mean escape.” Her hands flit around as she speaks. “In dreams, I mean. I studied psychoanalysis in college,” she explains. “It means you’re struggling to take the first step out. Mierda!” She glances at her phone. “I must go. My friend is having a party tonight. I told him I would help set up.”
Mona flushes. “It was nice to meet you, ah—” She doesn’t know her name.
“Isabella.” The long brown arm, again, extended.
“My grandmother’s cat was named Mona! She was a fat tabby, black and white.” Isabella says. In Lebanon, a girl her age would say Khalto or Tante, not her first name, but Mona finds herself endeared. “Is the birthday tonight?”
“Birthday?” Mona is confused.
“Your neighbor’s baby.”
“Oh! Yes. I mean, no. Not tonight. Next… week,” she says vaguely. Invite me, she begs silently. Her wanting disturbs her. What kind of parties do twentysomethings have in Barcelona? She envisions warehouses, cocktails on a fancy roof. Or else something beachy, like the tiny bonfires she’s seen near Barceloneta in July, teenagers swaying to foreign music.
“You should come to this party. It’s in Gòtico. Do you know Plaça Trippy?” Mona nods. “Perfect.” Isabella rummages in her bag for a paper and pen, jots an address and number out, and hands it to her. “Call me if you get lost.”
They say goodbye, Mona clutching the scrap of paper. Then Isabella disappears into the crowd. What about your lapis lazuli, Mona wants to call after her. She considers buying it for her, but changes her mind at the price tag.
Mona’s palms are damp, like she has been jogging. The street fair seems brighter. The blonde sisters have moved on, replaced by two middle-aged women pushing strollers. She wonders what they are doing tonight, what the jewelry vendors are doing. She’s going to a party. For the first time in years, something bright and unexpected appears on her calendar, like a pretty asterisk.
Her daughter had been an artist for a long time. Once, she’d overheard Mona saying that and snapped, “I’m still an artist, Ma.” When she was in college in America, Reem had asked Mona to mail photographs of herself in a wedding dress. Then she started calling Mona weekly; Reem said she missed her. For months, she’d call on Sunday afternoons and ask mundane questions about her days and the neighborhood.
“And what did Tante Leena say?”
“She thanked me for the sunflowers,” Mona would say, beaming. She’d tell her about the peaches growing in nicely or how her husband had decided to start using a new soap for his dry skin. It was bewildering but sweet, having such interest shone on her.
Her daughter graduated that spring. Mona and her husband went to Providence, a small, artsy town in America. Their visa paperwork was in order, but Mona had still been afraid; she’d worn her shortest dress for the flight and the officer at JFK was surprisingly kind. Their first night, Reem took them out to a restaurant where everything on the menu was meatless. She had cut her hair in a bob that was a little unflattering, but seemed happy, chattering with the waitress about the specials.
The next day was the graduation, a long, hot affair, parents fanning themselves with the programs, half-hearted cheers erupting at each new name. Mona screamed when her daughter walked out, but the podium was so far away it didn’t carry. That evening, the art department had their own event, an art gallery near the campus exhibiting the graduating students’ work.
There were photographs and paintings and a few kiosk-sized displays. One student had painted a coffin hot pink and planted spider mums inside. Reem waved them over; she was standing next to one of the kiosk displays, a structure made of wood, the size of the standing shower in their hotel. There was an armchair in the center, a little nest of knitting. A window had been painted in the corner, the view of a disconcertingly familiar garden. There was an exhibit label next to the cubicle: the piece was titled Domesticity.
“Oh, dear,” her husband had said at her side. He had understood first.
“What is that sound?” Once you got close enough, a voice became audible, a running tape playing from some hidden speakers. The voice was familiar. Too familiar.
The tomatoes are a little smaller this year… I can’t stand another day of rain… Your father loved the strawberry pie I baked.
It was Mona’s voice. All those months of phone calls.
She’d been appalled. There was a huge fight, tears, Mona shouting in the parking lot while her husband tried to calm her. Her daughter followed, her face troubled but not too troubled; it occurred to Mona that the scene at the gallery might have been part of Reem’s plan. The icing on the oeuvre. “You tricked me,” she’d shouted.
“It’s my thesis. You can’t tell me what I can do it on.”
“I don’t even knit!” she’d cried to her daughter.
“Come on, Ma,” Reem said. Her voice was cool, distant, final. “It’s just art.”
The sun was lowering like a pulley in the sky, white rooftops turning an obedient scarlet. Mona walks back east, the familiar minutiae of Raval greeting her: children chasing a ball, the smell of too-greasy meat, the rattle of Arabic. There have been a couple of boutiques popping up in the last year, gentrification, even here, even in her little mountain town in Lebanon, nowhere in the world is immune to it, this personification of clout and insatiability. A boutique hotel with half-moons on its sign—clichéd Moroccan style, the developers are smart, working with the existing neighborhood atmosphere, elegant prints of camels hanging in the entryway—has opened, amidst the teashops and dollar stores. The bellboy is from the neighborhood; she’s seen him at the market and he always nods at her.
There is a couple in matching shirts exiting a cab, the bellboy lugging their suitcases onto a velvet-lined cart. The woman is wearing too much blush.
“It’s our first time in Spain,” she trills to the bellboy. “We’re honeymooners!” The woman is clearly savoring the word. Mona imagines her repeating it to the cab driver, the lady at the airport counter. The bellboy mumbles something back.
Mona had gone to Istanbul for her honeymoon, Ramzi surprising her with first-class tickets. It was an extravagance—they were always comfortable, but not wealthy—and she’d felt like Jackie O., sipping champagne from a flute. She’d loved Istanbul, the tapered streets that somehow felt more ancient and modern than Beirut, how the men eyed her appreciatively but with respect, always bowing to Ramzi first. She’d been drunk on sex that week, electric with it, aware of every rustle her skirt made against her thighs.
They’d gone to see the whirling dervishes one night. It was in a massive room, chairs in a circle, a white marbled floor so polished it made her mouth water.
All the dervishes were men, rows and rows curling in and out like the spiral of a snail shell, except one, a woman, her hair short as a boy’s. There were whispers in the audience when she came out, and Mona gleaned that it wasn’t common. But she’d been astonishing, spun faster and longer than the men. Mona hadn’t taken her eyes off her all night. She kept watching the woman’s face, blank, eager, unbearably naked in a room of tourists snapping photographs. The dervishes seemed lost in themselves, never missing a step, turning so fast it was dizzying to watch their feet.
“It embodies the earth’s orbit around the sun,” her husband had explained. “They are orbiting around God.”
Mona thought about that woman often in the coming decades. It was always at random moments: once after accidentally dropping a box of tomato juice in the supermarket. She thought about her when her daughter was born. She thought about her during the second miscarriage, the one that made her husband decide he wanted to stop trying. He’d told her while she was on the toilet, holding a wad of toilet paper smeared with red. Habibti, it isn’t meant to be. She’d shut her eyes and seen the woman spinning.
She hasn’t been to a party in years. There was a time in their life when parties happened every week—birthday parties for Reem’s classmates, gatherings at their neighbors’ living rooms. She used to love a particular brand of red lipstick, Dior, fragrant, a red so bright her lips felt hot. Back in her Raval apartment, she showers in the small tub, two handfuls of the shampoo with roses on the label. She dries her hair, then pins it up anyway, shy about the streaks of white that reappear like clockwork after each dye. By the time she is done, the sky outside the window is completely dark.
The slip of paper is actually an old receipt and she checks it again, although by now the address is memorized. It’s been years since she wore red lipstick. The prospect is absurd. Instead, she dabs kohl on the corner of her eyelids. Her nicest dress is a black shift, one she bought for a neighborhood funeral last year. She wears the pearls her husband bought her years ago after Reem’s birth.
She studies her reflection; the effect is muted. Ten years ago, her outfit would be dowdy, but there has been a renaissance of the vintage, teenage girls ransacking their grandmother’s closets for kerchiefs and floral dresses. At the bottom of the stairs, she runs into Sana, one of the nosy younger women.
“Auntie!” The woman’s eyes gleam. “Where are you going all dressed up like that?” She drops her voice. “Are you going on a date?”
“Don’t be silly, dear.” Mona has reached that age. She can call forty-year-olds dear. “I have a dinner.”
“With a man?” Jesus, this woman. Mona clenches her teeth.
“No, dear,” she says. “With an old friend.”
Sana tilts her head like a stupid bird. “What friend? From the neighborhood?”
“A friend from Lebanon.” This shuts her up, as Mona knew it would. “She is in town for a little trip and I haven’t seen her in a while, so, if you’d please—” Mona gestures and Sana jumps back. She is, after all, her elder.
“Of course, Auntie. Enjoy, enjoy.”
The evening is cooler. A group of men smoking cigarettes eye her curiously as she walks past. She never goes out this late. There is something thrilling in the air, a specific buzz only possible after a certain hour, that she remembers viscerally from her youth. She and Ramzi used to drive down to West Beirut—it’s been decades since the war, but she still automatically thinks of the city as East and West—for ice cream and espresso, walking hand-in-hand near the American university.
On the walk from Raval, Mona passes bars throbbing with music, young brown men hawking beers. “Cocaína,” one whispers near her and she holds her palms up, though he’s asked for nothing. One of the bar doors opens, a gaggle of British girls spilling out.
“That guy was obsessed with you!” one girl shrieks at another.
“Oh, please. He was all mouth and no trousers.”
Their laughter tumbles behind them like a dog.
The apartment building is old, typical Gothic details, with vaulted ceilings and a heavy iron gate that she struggles to open. She’d been worried that nobody would buzz her in, that the party would be canceled or over, but she can hear the music from the stairwell and follows it, three flights up, to an ajar door with a pile of shoes outside. Glittery heels, flip flops, boots. Mona hadn’t anticipated this and she slips out of her loafers, embarrassed by her orthopedic socks.
The apartment is packed with bodies, girls wearing dress shirts and cologne, men with long hair telling stories in Spanish. A trio in the back is playing music, a guitar in each lap. There is the smell of tobacco and something earthier. Almond candles. Hashish. There is a narrow balcony and people lean against the railing, talking and smoking.
Mona catches sight of the girl right away. Isabella. She is wearing the miniskirt from the store earlier that day, standing near an archway that leads into the kitchen. Someone is telling a story and Isabella nods, her eyes darting around to the other faces. She seems somehow diminished in a crowd, less remarkable. There are other girls at the party who are more beautiful, wearing more interesting outfits. Mona feels strangely protective of Isabella. She has the prettiest smile, she thinks loyally.
If Mona turns and leaves now, nobody will know the difference. Isabella probably won’t even remember her by the morning. It suddenly seems like a good idea, heading back to Raval, perhaps stopping at Crema y Azúcar for a lemon tea. She could ask to sit outside, watch the elderly men play backgammon.
Instead, she lifts her hand, waves. Isabella sees her. “You came!” She rushes over, glass in hand. “I swear, I thought I’d never see you again.” Again, that husky, confidential tone, like a parley between girlfriends. “Lupe, that’s Lupe over there, the one with the wine opener, she bought this apartment with her grandmother’s inheritance, her grandmother used to be Pablo’s lover, can you believe it?” A bushy-haired girl nods at Mona from the corner. She wants to ask which Pablo, but nods back instead. The bottles lining the kitchen counter are clearly top shelf, Absolut and Jameson, but there are some beer cans too, the ones Pakistani men sell outside nightclubs.
Is this wealth? Mona wonders. In Lebanon, the wealthy are easily spotted, in their enormous villas and pastel BMWs. Here, it seems harder, the moneyed costumed as hippies. Penniless as chic. “I’ve never been to this neighborhood,” she says honestly.
“Oh? There’s the best Italian place down the street.” Isabella’s miniskirt fits like it was made for her. Her skin has that dewy effect that only youth can produce. Mona tries not to feel envy. When her daughter was young, she’d prayed to keep the evil eye away, from neighbors and guests but also from her. She loved her daughter’s green eyes. Sometimes the person that can harm you the most is the one you’re close to.
“Whiskey or wine?”
“I’m okay, thanks,” Mona replies, though she is tempted. They only drank on special occasions, she and Ramzi: weddings, New Year’s, only champagne, only one glass, and only when they were both present. A good Muslim sins so he can later atone, he liked to say. She hasn’t touched alcohol since he died.
Isabella leads her through the living room, to smiles and holas, Mona unusual enough of a guest—the oldest by two decades, clearly foreign—that the guests are curious, asking about where she lives and how long she has been in Barcelona. A boy tells her his nanny was Iraqi and Mona asks what her name is, as though she might know her.
“It was the funniest thing,” Isabella is saying. “Yesterday, literally yesterday, I was asking my healer for a sign I’d recognize, and she said está viniendo, and this morning I met Mona at Felpa! I wasn’t even going to Rambla today! Doesn’t she look a little like my mother’s Tía Sofie?”
All the people who know this Sofie person agree, say that it’s indeed destino, that they were meant to meet.
“Siempre pasa,” one of the prettier girls says, then explains to Mona, excitedly, “The craziest things happen to Isabella. All the time, she is meeting people.”
“I’m very cosmically open,” Isabella says solemnly.
Mona tries not to laugh. So she’s the girl’s party trick. The quirky spinster. She has a strong suspicion she is not the first guest to be dragged out as evidence of Isabella’s whimsical nature. There is a slight sting to it, but beneath that, surprisingly, nothing; the music is compelling, the breeze from the balcony is practically autumnal, the strangers are kind. She is having a good time.
Youth. The party is lousy with it. Everywhere Mona looks she finds tanned shoulders, shiny hair, expensively remedied teeth, bright-lipped girls and men in eyeliner, gorgeous whose gender she is uncertain of. Being around it is almost enough, because of course you feel young until the body nags otherwise, and Mona is lucky in that way, aside from light cataracts and a bad back. Her forever age—the one that’s secretly transcribed in her brain—is twenty-eight; that was the year of Istanbul, her wedding, sex, the year she felt most fully formed.
Four, five, times, one of the attractive young people offer her something to drink. She shakes her head each time.
“I shouldn’t, dear.” Here the dear is ornamental, playing into the role of cool elder, and they seem to like it. She catches one man saying it to another, the word elongated and carnal in a Spanish accent.
Any duty Isabella seemed to feel towards Mona dissipates within an hour. She darts around with different guests, whispering in their ears—she’s the kind of girl that always has a secret to tell—introducing Mona to strangers, telling stories about her houseplant nightmares then seemingly losing interest, vanishing into the crowd again for a while.
“I’m so happy you came,” she murmurs to Mona at some point, squeezing her upper arm with real affection. Mona wants to ask about her mother, her aunt Sofie. Where does Isabella live? Has she ever seen a serpent in real life? But the girl is like a fish, slippery, impossible to keep still.
A commotion in the living room, near the balcony. A long-haired boy has picked up the guitar, strumming absently.
“Fernando, mi corazón! Finalmente.” At last. Mona is pleased that she can understand. The boy, this boy, is special, she understands. The room quiets for his playing. The smokers on the balcony lean in. The man and woman next to him sit straighter, start clapping along. There is something memorable about the woman. She has long black hair and is wearing a white sundress. The music is melancholy and familiar: a strain of flamenco.
Her son-in-law had taken them all to a flamenco show once, when Lia was old enough to leave with a babysitter. The dancer had been tall and stringy, her collarbones prominent between the V of her red dress. The dancer reminded Mona of the dervish. Her life, it sometimes feels, is encountering women who remind her of other women.
The man’s strumming quickens, his fingers expertly skimming the strings, like a seagull nipping at crumbs. The woman’s clapping picks up as well, has a focus to it, and Mona realizes she is keeping some sort of count, a complicated tempo. Her chin lifts and the woman begins to sing, what sounds like a string of otherworldly vowels, exquisite and tender and harrowing. Mona thinks of the lapis lazuli beads, sparkling in the sunlight. Isabella has perched herself on the arm of one of the couches and she, too, claps, but with less concentration. The entire party has hushed, letting the singing fill the room with its lush pulse, a character bigger than any of them. Even the liveliest girls seem solemn; they are in the presence of something holy.
It is painful to watch. Mona doesn’t understand why, but she cannot bear it, finds herself fleeing through the throng of people, towards the bathroom. Someone has drawn a heart on the sink mirror in lipstick; the wastebasket is overflowing. Mona pees, then opens the medicine cabinets. She has always done this, since girlhood. Doesn’t everyone? It occurs to her she’s never asked.
There is a tube of calamine lotion, several hairbands with pale hairs sticking out. A box of Band-Aids. Several empty prescription bottles, and one half-full. Mona reads the label. Viagra.
She giggles without meaning to, covers her mouth. It takes a moment to compose herself. Something about it delights her, this little secret. She knows someone at this party can’t get it up. If only she could tell someone. The thought sobers her. Who would she tell—not her daughter, not anyone back home. Nor her friends in Raval. Pious women and housewives, they’d be aghast. She couldn’t tell any of them. Her mind alights on a sorrow.
Ramzi. Her husband would have laughed. He would’ve loved a story like this.
Some truths become anvils. Mona feels hollow, walking back into the party. She feels as delicate as a wedding veil. As obsolete.
The kitchen is empty. Everyone is still surrounding the music. Several voices are singing along now. There is a tray of champagne flutes on the counter. Some are empty, a few with lipstick stamped on the rim. Mona picks up one that looks clean. She lifts it to her lips and drinks. Just like that. The alcohol tastes expensive, fizzing her tongue pleasantly. That’s how easy it is to break something. From the living room, the music continues. It sounds seraphic. It sounds like something being hunted.
Once she downs two flutes, Mona feels the drink in her fingertips. The music hasn’t stopped, but chatter resumes, guests telling stories and laughing again. She lets Isabella introduce her to more people. She even links her arm in the younger woman’s. “You could be my daughter,” she tells her, and Isabella finds this inordinately funny. Everyone is drunk now. Mona doesn’t want to know the time.
“Let’s go on the balcony,” Isabella says at some point, and Mona is delighted, clapping in agreement. This is what she wanted all along, she suddenly thinks, to stand on the balcony, accepting the cigarette a boy with black curls offers her, laughing at something Isabella is saying in Spanish, because everyone is laughing, they are at a party, they are all drunk and hours away from sunrise, and nobody knows anything about her.
“I was a dervish,” she is saying, an answer to a question she can no longer remember, the audience captivated, leaning in for more.
“Que dervish?” someone asks and Isabella explains in rapid Spanish. She lifts her arms and mimics spinning. She is beaming at Mona. This is a story she will tell over and over, the old woman she met while shopping who was a member of an ancient tribe.
“It’s what I’m meant to do,” Mona says. She tells them she was a dervish for many years. That she met her husband there.
“That’s why we never had children,” she explains. “It’s against the dervishes’ creed.” That evening in Istanbul, during her honeymoon, Ramzi had explained that some dervishes emptied their minds by thinking of a single number, or word, or color.
“Your husband lives here as well?”
Mona imagines her husband’s face, ordinary and kind, the guileless, easy way she’d loved him, how she’d grown to know his wants and moods more than her own. If she says it, maybe it will be true.
“He is in Istanbul now,” she says. “I’ll fly back next week.”
“Mona.” Isabella’s eyes glitter with an idea. “Would you show us?”
The other partygoers like Isabella’s request, echo it. “Si, si,” they beg. “Show us.” Isabella calls something out to the guitarist in the living room, and the music changes, faster, more Mediterranean.
Mona walks to the center of the living room and lifts her arms. The room has hushed again, this time for her. She catches sight of Isabella and the other girls, their eyes wide and curious. They won’t be beautiful forever. This makes it easier to forgive them. She pictures her husband in a café in Istanbul, drumming his fingertips on a table, growing more restless with each passing day as he waits for her. She thinks of white and begins to spin.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.