Fae Dremock ~ The Flyover

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Ann smelled the ele­phant before she saw it. Then a mud-grey foot swung past and just ahead, land­ing to her left. The drover passed, and the tail of the ele­phant whisked out in front of her, stink­ing of loose bow­els. Ann stopped beside the fruit ven­dor and watched as the ele­phant con­tin­ued up the street. Unusually for Cairo, the mar­ket silenced– fruit ven­dors and veiled maids, mouths gap­ing, hands extend­ed toward apples, oranges, dates, mel­on. Then the moment passed, the ele­phant turned toward the Nile, and the bar­gain­ing resumed all around her.

Ann stepped into the cars and peo­ple in the cen­ter of the street and hailed a taxi. She had moved to Cairo after her hus­band died, and for the first months, it exhaust­ed her. In her first year, she had stum­bled into an impromp­tu race at the camel mar­ket, brushed into red blood flow­ing down from fresh-killed goats hung by a hoof and being skinned, picked her way among blue-skinned men crawl­ing along the side­walk. She walked amid veiled wom­en squat­ting in the street cor­ners nurs­ing babies, their breasts and the babies’ heads twitch­ing with flies. She watched as men worked on scaf­folds with­out rail­ing or hel­mets, and twice saw them fall. Once dur­ing rush hour, she even wit­nessed a car speed into the air over the rail­ings of a flyover―a nar­row, bad­ly angled over­pass, falling right into a street mar­ket.

But she had nev­er had an ele­phant stalk her on the streets of Cairo, with its smell of dried blood and warm, wet earth. She decid­ed to take it as her maid might have, as a spring bless­ing from Allah. This felt, in fact, like the first day of spring, and she was late for her jour­nal­ist, an arranged meet­ing in a city where a drink with a Western male near­ly always meant sex.

Pete, his name was Pete, had been liv­ing in Alexandria for sev­er­al years, her con­sulate friend had told her. Pete had no chil­dren, he said, wasn’t mar­ried, ate local. Dinner was in Zamalek, a cab ride across the Nile from Tahrir, at some Lebanese place near the Marriott that Pete said he liked.

It’s not ground camel,” Pete had said on the phone, jok­ing.

When she didn’t laugh, there’d been a long silence.

I know the butcher,” he said, final­ly.

Then she asked about his train trip down. She could hear him typ­ing in the back­ground.

The usu­al hang­ers-on,” he said. “No, actu­al­ly, I saw one slide off the top of the train. I thought he was dead, but then he jumped up onto a water buf­falo and head­ed out to the sun­set.”

Spontaneous evap­o­ra­tion,” she said. “Saw one dis­si­pate in the heat wave last May.” She was play­ing, and he knew it. And that was the game.

But now this. An ele­phant in down­town Cairo. The taxi she had hailed almost caught up to the ani­mal. The cars were at a stand­still behind the ele­phant, taxi doors open, tourists snap­ping pic­tures. She would be very late, but in Cairo you were always late. You could leave your house the day before a meet­ing, and still you could be late.

Ann got out, then paid the taxi dri­ver. She and the jour­nal­ist were off to a great night. She slipped past the ele­phant and through the gawk­ers, then decid­ed she might as well walk the rest of the way. She’d be late, but it didn’t mat­ter. He’d wait or he wouldn’t. At least once she crossed the bridge, skim­ming between cars, she’d be in Zamalek, where there were few­er men on the street try­ing to sell her strings of jas­mine. She tight­ened her bag under her arm, step­ping care­ful­ly over bro­ken pave­ment, past sharp fend­ers, around beg­gars on the asphalt. Second nature now, real­ly, except on nights like this, when there were ele­phants on the street.

The restau­rant he’d cho­sen was small, dark, smoky, filled with small tables and British males talk­ing to Egyptian males. The wait­er walked toward her, bow­ing slight­ly. Ann didn’t know what Pete looked like or if he was even still there. She walked toward the back wall, slid­ing among the men near the door smok­ing from a hookah, the wait­er behind her, beside her, guid­ing her. “The woman’s sec­tion, Madam, please, the woman’s sec­tion.” She turned final­ly, and the wait­er looked relieved. Then she heard Pete’s voice behind her. “My sis­ter.” Ann felt a hand on her arm, guid­ing her around. “My sis­ter,” Pete con­tin­ued in Arabic. He leaned into her slow­ly. “We need to meet out­side,” he said loud­ly, then took her by the arm, qui­et­ly slip­ping the wait­er mon­ey. “For my drink,” he said to him. Then, to her qui­et­ly near her face, “It’s bet­ter if you’re my sis­ter. But you prob­a­bly know that.”

She said noth­ing. Pete opened the door for her, fol­lowed her out. The smog had set­tled in over the bridge, mak­ing a dark brown shad­ow again­st a dark­en­ing orange sky. The pave­ment was hot, the back of her shirt, where she now felt his hand, was soaked through.

I’m sor­ry,” he said, let­ting her go, turn­ing her around to face him. “When I arrived, I real­ized this was a mis­take. I didn’t real­ize. When you didn’t show up, I thought you’d fig­ured it out and just hadn’t both­ered to call.” He pulled her toward the street, hail­ing a cab. “Man, was this a mis­take,” he said again, under his breath, and put her in the back, told the dri­ver to take them to the Osiris Hilton, then said, “I can’t stay long. Got a call. Have to dri­ve out to the Suez. But I can at least buy you a drink.”

She nod­ded. He was about 40. Heavyset. In the cab, she said noth­ing, just lis­tened as he made con­ver­sa­tion with the dri­ver in Arabic. Not much accent. The build­ings blurred into the smog on the horizon―the low-vis­i­bil­i­ty Cairo sun­set. Pete let his arm fall around her gen­tly, no pres­sure, just weight. The men who had lived here for years gen­er­al­ly took care of things. They had to. And the wom­en who had lived here for years knew they had to let them. Her office men­tor Kate had told her that the day Ann walked had in alone on the streets. “You have to learn to pro­tect your­self,” she’d said. “Don’t dis­so­ci­ate when you walk―and if a man you know takes over, just let him. They need to act like men. You’ll get used to it.”

At the Osiris, a hotel Ann hadn’t actu­al­ly ever stayed in, Pete took her to the top floor, the bar that over­looked a now red-stained Cairo, the head­lights far below stream­ing across the city in zigza­gs and pile-ups. “Romantic,” she said.

He looked away, leaned back into his chair, checked his phone. They were both far too qui­et to get along eas­i­ly.

Finally she said, “You’re not stay­ing tonight?” She stirred her drink, feel­ing like a fal­l­en wom­an with a failed tryst. “Should we talk?” she asked. “Or do we stay qui­et in this Hitchcock movie?” She wait­ed. “I saw your brows move,” she said final­ly, although she hadn’t. “A sure sign of life.”

I didn’t intend …” he said. “Hell, I shouldn’t have called you.”

Well, that’s rather encour­ag­ing.”

He motioned to the wait­er. “Want anoth­er?” he asked her. “On me, of course.”

She shook her head. “You can leave, you know. The view will keep me com­pa­ny for hours.”

You’re not bad look­ing,” he said.

You actu­al­ly man­age to date with that line? Hook up?” She blushed, but con­tin­ued. “Your Arabic’s good, by the way.”

This time he laughed. “Journalist,” he said. “I’m a jour­nal­ist. Came here on a Fulbright. Never left. Became a stringer, then became real. A decade now.” He glanced at the win­dows, wait­ed. “Early sun­set,” he said. “What’s your sto­ry?”

Miracle work­er.”

He spurt­ed and shook the drops of drink off his hands.

The line was good for times like the­se, not that there were many times like the­se since she moved to Cairo. “Here,” she said, and hand­ed him her paper coast­er. “I’m on a con­tract as a con­sul­tant. Water qual­i­ty. I assume you’ve seen the Nile. My work. Cleaning it up. Awful, isn’t it? I get paid a lot, write a lot of reports, and do noth­ing. Except try not to hit men. Or hit on them. Doesn’t work here.” She reached for anoth­er coast­er behind the bar. “And you may have noticed―the Nile still glows in the dark.”

Not as bright­ly as the east har­bor in Alex,” he said. “That your work, too?” He leaned back, wait­ing.

He wasn’t bad real­ly, just tired. “Actually, that’s the toi­lets at work,” she said. “Yours in par­tic­u­lar. I track efflu­ent.” For a moment, she wasn’t sure he’d laugh. Then he did. A bel­ly laugh. She start­ed talk­ing about bac­te­ri­al efflorescence―that dark teal glow at night. He start­ed talk­ing about sew­er runoff, land­fill. After a few min­utes, they both real­ized they were in a dark bar, on a hook-up, talk­ing about bad plumb­ing. They laughed about it, then grew silent. She want­ed to fall into bed with him. Still he hes­i­tat­ed.

She was think­ing about what they’d say to friends afterward―the bad jokes, the awk­ward mov­ing on. First we talked shit, then we did shit, then it became shit in the morn­ing. Recently it had felt like that was real­ly all it was, sex―just doing shit to each oth­er. It was the men, it was her. It was the cul­ture, the Cairo. The walk­ing in the streets, sit­ting in the taxis, wait­ing for food in restau­rants, and all those eyes, the phys­i­cal pres­sure of eyes rolling down her chest, fol­low­ing her steps, pro­pelling them­selves into her at street cor­ners. She had nev­er real­ized that eyes could feel like bul­lets, like truck wheels, like machine gun fire. When she looked up, he was watch­ing her, but at least his eyes were still in his head. He was all right, may­be.

You want to do shit?” she said final­ly. Outside, far below, the head­lights of cars con­tin­ued to stream across fly­overs, in long lines through nar­row streets, fly­ing faster as they reached the edges of the city. Cairo was a tiny, tight hive of 16 mil­lion peo­ple.

Pete sat stir­ring his drink. “Have you seen the Suez?” he asked. He start­ed a long ner­vous mono­logue about the needles they were find­ing in the sand, washed up from the slow freighters, the barges glid­ing through the Canal. “You sit on the beach,” he said. “Chipped shells, hard soiled stink­ing clumps, bro­ken needles, and the­se huge rust­ing ships float­ing past you.”

She want­ed to tell him about the ele­phant, but new drinks arrived, and he was whis­per­ing soft­ly in her ear. At six in the morn­ing, he woke her to tell her to sleep in, he’d be back that night. And he was. She called in sick, and for three nights she slept in his hotel bed. On the last day, he left for Alexandria. “For good,” he said. “These things hap­pen.” As she dressed, he said, “I’ll be back in six weeks.” He didn’t ask her to vis­it Alexandria. “But if you come up … ” he said.

 

Being back at work felt good. Her sec­re­tary had missed her, but her reports still hadn’t been typed up. The lights were off in half the build­ing — wires had short­ed out. There were emails from her men­tor Kate. An hour into the morn­ing, the jan­i­tor deliv­ered her fresh cof­fee, half-sweet, asked about her health. She respond­ed light­ly in Arabic, “Insha’Allah, god will­ing, noth­ing fur­ther.”

Kate had moved back to Idaho, far from door­men and fly­overs. She sound­ed hap­py. “Getting mar­ried,” she said. “Don’t stay,” she said. “You’ll go grey,” she said. “God, my hair is final­ly clean,” she said. The last one: “There is no call to prayer here. I miss the muezzin―can you imag­ine that?”

For three days, behind glazed win­dows in the very Western Osiris hotel, Ann hadn’t heard the call to prayer. She wrote back: “Been sick. Will write soon.” And she did, but when she did, she didn’t tell Kate about the jour­nal­ist. There was no rea­son real­ly. He was just a short habit of three days. He’d be back, she was sure of that. The sex was hot. She thought about get­ting out of Cairo, but there was noth­ing to do in Alex except track down a dis­tanc­ing jour­nal­ist, so she went to the camel mar­ket instead and dreamed of ele­phants in the desert, car­a­vans led by Arab men whose eyes leapt out of their sock­ets when she passed and rolled along on the ground after her, catch­ing them­selves up in her foot­steps.

The fol­low­ing week, the Ramadan fast­ing began. At lunch she ate qui­et­ly behind a closed door. She didn’t want to be rude. She told Kate how pale Cairo was in the Ramadan day­time, the women’s lips flesh-toned until after sun­set, until they broke their fast with lip­stick and goat meat and dates and yoghurt. She rem­i­nisced about Kate’s drag­ging her through Cairo streets in the hour before sun­set, the streets emp­ty, their Christian dri­ver pray­ing as he ate in case he passed a sol­dier. They had been on their way, slow­ly, to an Egyptian colleague’s house for the fast-break­ing. This Ramadan she was return­ing to that same colleague’s house on Thursday evenings. Not to do so would have shamed him. Over din­ner with his fam­i­ly, she talked qui­et­ly with his wife, a singer, asked their sons about their stud­ies, accept­ed the ride home from their dri­ver.

The last Thursday of Ramadan, Pete called as she was being dri­ven home. “Osiris bar?” he said. Then the line broke up.

Her dri­ver was push­ing through the crowds of men on the street, the dri­ver wav­ing, laugh­ing. The late night pover­ty feasts had end­ed, and there were no wom­en on the street. “Madame,” her dri­ver said, motion­ing to her shawl. She flicked the shawl around her head let­ting it fall across her line of sight. If Ann looked direct­ly at the men now peer­ing into the car, she would give offense. The dri­ver con­tin­ued at a crawl for sev­er­al streets. Pete called her back, and still the con­nec­tion was unsta­ble. She tried to explain, gave up, said yes, she’d get a taxi. She asked the dri­ver to take her to the Osiris rather than her build­ing. “My sis­ter,” she explained.

The dri­ver turned left on the next street and start­ed back the direc­tion they had come. When she got out, he was bare­ly polite to her. Her office col­league would know where the dri­ver let her out. But it didn’t mat­ter. She wouldn’t be back in the office until Sunday, and every­one would be leav­ing town Tuesday to cel­e­brate the three-day hol­i­day.

In the bar, Pete was sit­ting alone at the coun­ter, his back to her, watch­ing the oth­er entrance. As she neared him, she caught sight of fire­works. Cairo Ramadan was car­ni­va­lesque, even with the heavy smog. The Caravaggio of open mouths, pen­i­tence, and debauch­ery ― Cairo at night was not for the weak at heart. Except in hotels, she thought and laughed. She want­ed to ask Pete why he hadn’t called, because that’s what wom­en were sup­posed to do. But that would mean he mat­tered, and he didn’t. And it was late, she was here, and she might as well have him.

How long are you going to stand behind me?” he said. “The reflec­tion in the glass―in the red fog,” he said point­ing to the win­dow. Ann caught her own reflec­tion, her glass­es catch­ing the light, the hair windswept, stick­ing out at odd angles.

I was stuck in the crowds of men,” she said. “Do you ever get scared out there?” The edges of his shirt cuffs were stained dark. His jack­et stank of wet wool and wood smoke.

I used to get scared. Now, no, nev­er. Pointless.”

His hands were tanned, his fin­ger­nails an oily black, and the man sit­ting on one of the stools near­est the win­dow was star­ing at them. “You’re not a jour­nal­ist, are you?” she said. “That man, the one I’m not point­ing to over there, he works in your office.”

No.” he said. “He doesn’t.”

He pulled a stool out for her, moved it closer to him, ordered for her. “I write for oil com­pa­nies. Explaining what your reports real­ly mean. You’re good at what you do.”

And you’re a liar,” she said as she sat down.

He turned back to watch the night sky. They end­ed up in his room.

This time when she woke, he was still snor­ing hard. They had closed the drapes again­st the fire­works and the com­ing dawn. She lay in the dark­ness for a long time. She want­ed to move, but he was hold­ing onto her, his arm wrapped around her shoul­der, his hand grasp­ing her wrist. She was think­ing, “Let me alone. Let me alone,” when sud­den­ly he shift­ed, let go her hand, turned his back to her. She want­ed to turn to him, hold him. Instead she let her back set­tle again­st his, warm in this air-con­di­tioned room. When she left, many hours lat­er, he was once again sleep­ing. She thought she might wake him when she dressed, and may­be she did, but he was snor­ing when she closed the door. In the hall, she ran into a veiled maid, who turned away quick­ly to adjust her gloves. On the low­er shelf of her cart were rows of the ubiq­ui­tous spray cans of pes­ti­cide. Outside it was bright as day. She walked into the street and hailed a taxi.

Weeks passed, but she didn’t con­tact him, yet she kept hop­ing to find his name in her inbox or on her phone. For a few months she kept to her­self, stay­ing home at night, going through old files. Then one week­end a friend passed through town. After he left, she booked a long week­end alone in Malta. In her office, she con­tin­ued to ana­lyze data, write up her rec­om­men­da­tions. The gov­ern­ment con­tin­ued to issue procla­ma­tions of major new improve­ments in water qual­i­ty. And the Alexandrian coast con­tin­ued to glow gen­tly in the dark. Six weeks before the end of her con­tract, she took a train to Alexandria, stayed at a hotel she knew he liked. He didn’t email her back, didn’t call. She was chas­ing a ghost.

She spent her days walk­ing. The Alexandrian streets were emp­ty in com­par­ison to Cairo, the air smelled of the Mediterranean and urine. Her last night in the city, she walked over a mile along the street close to the water, ignor­ing the ven­dors who fol­lowed her with their offers of jas­mine. She stopped at a water­front café of tourists, ordered from wait­ers in bad Spanish, eaves­dropped. She was embarrassed―obsessed with the acquain­tance of an acquain­tance whose name might not even be Pete. Who might not even be a jour­nal­ist or a writer of reports. On the way back to her hotel, she delib­er­ate­ly walked past where he lived. The door­man was sit­ting on the steps of the foy­er. She stopped to ask direc­tions to her hotel, think­ing she might go into the build­ing, knock on his door.

She had done this some­where else once before. Not long before her hus­band became ill, she dis­cov­ered he was hav­ing an affair. “It’s over,” he had told her. She went to the woman’s apart­ment, ready to kill, she thought. But she stopped, turned around, then ran into the two of them com­ing back to the woman’s build­ing. There had been a long dif­fi­cult moment, then Ann had turned and left them both stand­ing on the side­walk. There was noth­ing to do but hail a taxi, go home, wait. When her hus­band died a year lat­er, she had tak­en the long-term con­tract in Cairo. She had no fam­i­ly, and she still felt his feet next to hers in bed at night. Worse, every time she walked into her office, some­one told her how sor­ry they were for her loss. Someone brought her tea or cof­fee or choco­late until she want­ed to throw the cup back at them, stomp on the ground, scream that it wasn’t choco­late she missed. Her boss told her it was a mis­take to move to Cairo. At the time, she thought he was wrong. Now she wasn’t sure. There was noth­ing here, just the empti­ness of the taxis, the bro­ken side­walks she tripped over even after she learned to look down. The mar­ried Americans, the tran­sient Europeans, the men on their knees in the streets, their butts in the air, pray­ing. The maid who cleaned her flat, wear­ing the high heels she found in the clos­et. The door­man in his long blue gal­abeya who didn’t like the men who vis­it­ed her.

After the ini­tial adjust­ments, the days were also the same, just as they had been at her last job, her last home. Tomorrow she would take the train back to Cairo. She would final­ly pack. She had accept­ed a job back in Chicago at her old firm. Doubtless, when she arrived, the sec­re­tary would bring out all the choco­lates she had saved up since the funer­al. Perhaps Kate was right: it was time to grow old and fat.

In the remain­ing weeks she packed, spent a few days in the desert, then a few days at a hotel where the Giza pyra­mid loomed above the swim­ming pool. She ate cheap kushari at native cafés. She spent hot evenings din­ing on rooftops with Egyptian friends, went into the coun­try to buy from the fun­da­men­tal­ist weavers. Three days before she was to leave Cairo, her forty-five year old door­man died of old age.

When she had said she was leav­ing, her office tea man said, “You must be hap­py to go back. Who is he? Your man? Is he like you? Will you have chil­dren now?”

To make him hap­py, she made up a sto­ry of a man she loved, the son she would raise. A very Egyptian tale to soothe her staff.

Bring him to Cairo,” they told her. “No one ever leaves Cairo.”

The evening of her last work day, Ann took her­self alone to the Osiris. She watched the stream of cars below think­ing about the very few days she had known her hus­band real­ly, known her jour­nal­ist, aware how fool­ish she had been to get attached to either man. She was on her sec­ond drink when she heard Pete’s voice. Of course, she thought, of course. She turned and saw a wom­an reach up to kiss him. Ann fin­ished her drink, then decid­ed. She had nev­er told him about the ele­phant.

He saw her in time. “Life is full of sur­pris­es,” he said as she walked up.

Pleasant ones, I hope,” she said.

Pete intro­duced her to his wife, a petite French wom­an with black hair. Ann asked the usu­al ques­tions. When Pete asked her to join them, she explained that she need­ed to go home to fin­ish pack­ing, that she was leav­ing in the morn­ing, for good.

Then he said, “No one ever leaves Cairo.”

She smiled, then said, “You know, a few months ago when I was on my way to meet some­one, I ran into an ele­phant on the bridge. The traf­fic was backed up, so I just got out and walked across the river, then along the banks toward the Marriott. The river glowed, real­ly glowed. I was going off to meet a man, some­one I didn’t know.” She felt him grow anx­ious, then relax, saw him smile. “I nev­er real­ly knew him, so I couldn’t leave, not then. But Cairo? I know Cairo. And so I am leav­ing.”

She reached to hug Pete, who eased into her arms for one slow moment, then she let him go and turned to hug his puz­zled wife. “Americans like to hug good-by,” she said. “It’s what we do well.”

As she rode down in the ele­va­tor, the three veiled wom­en behind her start­ed chat­ting in Arabic about her shoes. Their hus­bands met them in the lob­by, and, mag­i­cal­ly, as a group, they all walked out togeth­er into the bright-as-after­noon Cairo haze. The Arabic cou­ples got into a lim­ou­sine, the wom­en in back. Ann stood near the door­men, wait­ing for the call to prayer to begin, wait­ing for it to end.

When one of the door­men again offered her a taxi, she turned it down, walk­ing instead out into the street in the direc­tion the lim­ou­sine had tak­en. The jour­nal­ist stand­ing in the street smiled at her, then offered her a ride, telling her it was going to rain any moment now, they should take shel­ter. She laughed at the idea of Cairo rain in sum­mer. Then she apol­o­gized, told him she want­ed to walk among the Egyptians tonight, this, her last night in Cairo. She waved him away, then stepped out into the street, and blend­ed into the gal­abeyas.

She knew he would watch her dis­ap­pear, that he would hes­i­tate, then, just a moment too late, hail a taxi and fol­low her, or some­one, slow­ly and care­ful­ly all the way home.

~

Fae Dremock is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College. She won an AWP Intro Journal Award for Fiction in 2014 for her short sto­ry “Open at the Throat.” Her poet­ry chap­book, And the Baby Gods Sprout Like Milkweed (2014), is avail­able from danc­ing girl press.