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?”
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.