David Lerner Schwartz
Wyatt sat at a coffee shop with a chef he had met months ago at a hotel breakfast bar. The cook, Ayoub, had prepared him an omelet when he’d first gotten there, after the 10-hour plane ride. In line, the two had struck up a conversation about hot sauce, and, yolk-fingered, exchanged numbers on the Nokia Wyatt’s Fulbright program had given him for emergencies.
They now played backgammon and sipped mint tea. Wyatt tried to ignore feeling like the center of attention: the dark-haired men in Rabat stared at him the same way they studied the white women on the street, like they were all television. Wyatt rolled the dice, and one fell off the table and onto the mosaic floor. Ayoub stopped him from reaching down.
“Khoya,” he said, “the waiter will get it.”
The server placed the die back on the table, sighing, “B’sah.”
“People are always watching, here,” Ayoub said. “You go along with it. They want to help the white man.”
Wyatt’s gaze wandered; sometimes he thought of Morocco as a giant Google Map, but instead of those bouncing pins, there were question marks, deep-rooted places of misunderstanding at every mosque or souk.
Ayoub played his turn—Arabs always won at backgammon—while Wyatt became distracted by a woman from whom he couldn’t turn away. Ayoub looked over his shoulder at her and laughed. “You’ll miss her,” he said before slurping down the rest of his tea.
After the two paid, they parted ways. Wyatt walked toward the woman on the bench, passing by pieces of half-eaten bread resting on the chrome of parked cars.
Her attire was baggy, billowing, and she’d wrapped a desert scarf around her neck. A thin, black arrow ran from her elbow down her forearm. Wyatt had been shy in grade school, but he was braver abroad. Somehow, being stared at emboldened him.
“Your tattoo is beautiful,” he said, remembering an online course in pick-up lines. She looked at him strangely, squinting. He translated, throwing in a cultural nicety: “Tatoowaj dialek zwine habibati.”
She laughed. “I love seeing what Americans will say when I do that,” she said, in English. “You know the language. I’m Sahima.”
“Sit, Wyatt.” She patted the park bench. And he thought of her as something like a magnet, in that being as close to her as possible was the only way to avoid the feeling of being pulled.
“I think I’ve seen you at that school, teaching,” she said.
Then, noting his discomfort, she added, “I have a good eye. And this city feels small to me. I see most people.”
“Then why haven’t I seen you before?”
She shrugged. Years later, she’d do the same motion when they would meet in America, in Wyatt’s home city of Detroit where she’d be passing through for a fellowship, excited for the sheesha joints in Dearborn. Wyatt would try to sleep with her, but she’d say she just wasn’t feeling it; she didn’t think they’d kept in touch well enough and was too nice to state the obvious, which was that being back in America had changed him and she’d been expecting him to stay the same.
They sat on that bench for hours. Then, Wyatt asked her out to dinner, and, after, they walked to her apartment.
“My parents are home,” she told him. He frowned. Sahima filled in the silence. “I don’t want to upset an American boy.”
Ayoub was always telling him about how prude the girls in Morocco were. Wyatt had texted him about the date from the restaurant’s bathroom, and Ayoub replied quickly: “Why else did she put herself on that bench? She wanted to see who you were, khoya!” See who you are, Wyatt had corrected as he walked back to the table.
In the hallway of her apartment building, Wyatt told her not to worry, that that was silly, but he kept touching her waist and so they kept walking up stairs, spiraling until they reached the top floor of her parents’ complex. They found themselves in a dark, empty room that smelled like the stale loaves stacked from floor to ceiling within it.
“What is this place?” he asked.
“It’s for storing bread,” she laughed.
He looked around in disbelief.
“Have you noticed the uneaten pieces on the street?” She paused, as if waiting for him. “We don’t throw it out, here. We give it away. Bread’s just not something we waste.” She paused again, in thought. “Don’t you think that everyone deserves bread?” She laughed at herself and then leaned in and kissed him. Her lips tasted strangely like the bread, Wyatt thought, and so he kissed her again to prove himself wrong. And again.
And he thought that that must be what she liked about him, his being so uncomfortable in a foreign place, and they lit up and became flashlights, and she pulled down her pants, and the sex sort of tasted like Moroccan mint tea, like that first time he had drunk it with Ayoub, confused about what it was and why it was so important, but soon had understood its simplicity, its sugary warmth poured into a tiny cup that was never quite enough. He had then wanted Moroccan mint every day, at every meal, until he finally came home and found that he had acquired both such a longing and such a taste for it that when he tried to seek it out beneath the fluorescent lights of grocery stores, between the tanned crates in cultural shops, from vendors’ hands at the monthly Middle Eastern markets, it was never quite the same and no one seemed to know what he was missing.
About the Author: David Lerner Schwartz is a writer and designer living in Austin, TX, where he also performs improv throughout the state. David most recently studied at the Kenyon Writers Workshop in Gambier, OH and graduated from Tufts University in 2013. His work has been published in r.kv.r.y quarterly and HOW. In his spare time, he studies Arabic and travels the world.