Category Archives: Short Stories

Contributor Magazine issue 11

Interview With a Human Leather Maker

Originally published in CONTRIBUTOR MAGAZINE

‘Is it okay if I close the window?’ I asked.
‘No problem at all,’ said the driver.

I fumbled for the electronic switch on the armrest for a few seconds until I found it. The sound of the wind gradually subsided until everything fell silent. Everything but the seamless drone of the car engine. A sound I like as it usually tends to calm me down. Because when you think about it, I had all the reasons in the world to be nervous: I was in the middle of the Beqaa valley blindfolded in a random car being driven by an armed stranger on my way to meet Rabih El Khoury – arguably the most controversial fashion designer in the industry’s history. I say ‘controversial’ because I have a thing for euphemisms. In fact, since the release of his latest collection, El Khoury has been immediately indicted for crimes against humanity and is currently wanted by authorities all over the world. His felony: the production of leather garments and accessories made out of human skin.

I first met Rabih El Khoury at the Parisian Hotel Amour in the late 2000’s. I was a young graduate who’d decided to take a couple of years off and live in as many different cities as possible, meeting as many bizarre people as possible, eager to gather stories and experiences for my envisioned writing career. El Khoury was an exciting up-and-coming designer, ignored by the mainstream media but cherished by alternative fashion lovers the world over. And of course I’d heard of him. Unlike his fellow Lebanese commercial superstars, El Khoury didn’t feed on Arab princesses and Hollywood celebrities at red carpet events, nor did he content himself with making the same Cinderella-and-her-ugly-sisters-style evening gowns over and over again, sometimes a bit longer, often a tad heavier, always flashier. No. Rabih El Khoury was a real designer, creatively and artistically. A thought-provoker and an innovator. He came over to our table once to ask for a cigarette and my Middle Eastern features must’ve betrayed me because he confidently spoke to me in Arabic. I responded just as naturally, in Arabic, as if the scene was taking place at Le Gray Hotel in Downtown Beirut, and not 3000 kilometers from home. After that, we immediately hit it off and started hanging out whenever we had the chance. He took me under his wing and introduced me to some of the hippest faces and places in the city, then in another city, then in a few other cities. I enjoyed his company because he was a very interesting and funny guy and, to be honest, I kind of loved having access to the most exclusive clubs and restaurants in the world and being constantly surrounded by kill-me-now-gorgeous models. I moved back to Beirut a year later and it wasn’t easy keeping in touch. There was, of course, the occasional Facebook message every few months – the usual “hit me up when you’re in Paris” and “call me when you’re in Beirut” shit; but his career was racing forward, and as his popularity kept reaching newer heights, as did his elusiveness. Actually, it’s kind of weird to think that the last time I saw Rabih El Khoury in person was nearly a decade ago.

I felt the car veering out of the main road and slowing onto a rugged path. Branches and leaves slamming against the windshield. Alien chirping and warbled melodies. And my heartbeat. I felt like Sean Penn meeting El Chapo, but unlike what happened to El Chapo, I really didn’t want El Khoury to get busted. The vehicle stopped and I was escorted out into a 3 minute walk on concrete. And when the light was markedly reduced behind the cloth over my eyes, I knew we’d gone indoors. Then a door slammed behind us. Then voices echoed. Then the bandana was removed and I saw him. And it was like a flashback. Standing tall, clean and sleek, not a single wrinkle on his face, and his usual gorgeous smile. “Smiyeh!” he laughed. He always called me that – it basically means someone who carries the same name as mine.

“Long time, smiyeh,” I giggled back. A warm hug. The whole have a seat thing. The whole would you like a drink thing. The whole it’s been a while thing. The whole you haven’t changed thing. The whole I’ve missed you thing. The whole how’s everyone thing. The whole are you still seeing the guys thing. You know the drill. And then I asked my first question: “Why me?” Because after the initial uproar over his acknowledgement of capturing and skinning humans and producing and selling high-quality leather garments, the Interpol ordered the media and all the main Internet search engines to completely ray El Khoury off their lists – which explains why the designer has been virtually dead for the past 12 months. No articles. No photos. No videos. No biographies. Nothing. In that aspect, El Khoury’s choice to finally break his silence would’ve had to be strategic. Explaining himself as an attempt to redeem his reputation? Fear of being forgotten? A wild shot at boosting his black market sales? Apologize and ask for forgiveness maybe? I had no idea. “Why me?” I asked again. He responded with a silent, wistful smile at first, then reminded me of a specific night in Paris. We were in a club and he had gotten so drunk he could barely keep his balance, but that didn’t stop him from yelling obscenities at some guys at the table next to ours. Then a fight broke out. I instinctively rushed to protect him, made sure no one laid a hand on him, handled the bill, called a cab and threw him in, rode with him to his apartment and tucked him in. Before walking back to my hotel and passing out. “You acted like a true brother back then,” he said. “You barely knew me and you acted like a true brother. And I never had a chance to really pay you back.” Concluded with a wink. Because he knew. He knew this interview was worth gold and that it would definitely be my ticket out: from the bane of writing shitty articles about shitty things for shitty magazines to the rank of a writing superstar. And in all honesty, I knew it too. I sat across from him on a rainbow-like retro Versace sofa, took out my notebook, and we got down to business.

Q: Rabih, I’m going to go straight to the point here because we all know what this interview’s about. The whole world thinks you’re sick. And frankly, I do too. Why did you choose to use human skin to produce your leather pieces?

A: I guess it’s for the same reasons any good, respectable designer picks his material: because it’s great quality, and because there’s a demand for great quality.

Q: But you do realize that what you’re doing is illegal, to say the least…

A: Legality is a frail concept, my friend. Anything that’s illegal somewhere is always legal somewhere else, if you look carefully enough. Besides, am I really the only one in the fashion industry doing something illegal? Last time I checked, child labor was illegal too. And that never kept any brand from producing their pieces in foreign countries where child labor was tolerated.

Q: But you can’t just justify a criminal act by condemning another, that’s just as criminal. Besides, murdering and skinning humans is illegal everywhere.

A: Almost everywhere, you’re right, and well, that’s just my luck. And that’s why I’m hiding! In all seriousness, though, “illegal” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”, don’t you agree?

Q: I actually don’t agree. Laws exist for a reason! What are you talking about?

A: Well, “legal” doesn’t necessarily mean “good” either. I mean, slavery was legal for centuries: did that make it a good thing? Of course not. So it’s easy for people to take the moral high ground in the name of legality; but really, if you think about it, it doesn’t really mean anything. I mean, look at it the other way: in Nazi Germany, you were legally forced to report your neighbor if he was Jewish – which means that hiding or protecting any Jewish person was illegal. Did that make protecting your neighbor a bad thing? I’m sure you get the point.

Q: Theoretically, I do, I really do. But this is not about legal texts here, this is about our values and our morals. And you can’t tell me you don’t see the difference: we are talking about human lives.

A: It’s just contextual, trust me. Contextual and hypocritical. I mean, governments legally kill hundreds of people every single day, so they really should give me a break.

Q: Rabih, you’re a fashion designer. You’re not a warlord!

A: And fashion designers kill and skin hundreds of thousands of living beings every single day as well.

Q: Animals, yes, but not humans… Are you seriously putting humans and animals on the same level?

A: Last time I checked, humans were animals.

Q: Thank you, we all know Darwin, buddy. But I’m not sure how strong he can be to your argument here. Yes, humans might be animals too, biologically, but it’s not about biology here either. Humans are the only animals who actually have a conscience, who can make choices, who can distinguish between right and wrong… but apparently you don’t!

A: And elephants are the only ones who have a trunk, whales are the largest mammals on the planet, cheetahs are the fastest animals in the world. How is “conscience” the red line for a killing license? This is all so arbitrary. Are you saying it would be okay to kill a human if he’s asleep or in an unconscious state? That’s ridiculous.

Q: Rabih, as a species, the most natural thing for us is to prioritize the living beings of our own species, those who resemble us the most.

A: Are you serious? But that’s exactly everything that’s wrong with humanity!

Q: What do you mean?

A: Prioritizing what resembles us. When white people prioritize white people over other ethnicities, we call it racism and we condemn it. When men prioritize men over women, we call it sexism and we condemn it. When locals prioritize locals over immigrants, we call it xenophobia and we condemn it. When straight people prioritize straight people over homosexuals, we call it homophobia and we condemn it. How is it suddenly okay to kill weaker, innocent beings just because they don’t resemble us?

Q: It’s a fair point, but you’re confusing everything! We aren’t talking about subcategories here, we are talking about our own damn species!

A: That’s contextual, and arbitrary. For centuries, white people considered black people to be from another species. Gypsies were considered subhuman by the Nazis. Women were considered – and still are, in many countries – half citizens by men. It’s the same logic applied here. In fact, by choosing to kill what resembles me the most, I am making the biggest tolerance statement and the biggest moral sacrifice humanity has ever witnessed. I am Abraham killing his own son. Only that Abraham didn’t actually do it. It may be too soon for you to see it, but history will remember me as a moral visionary. Mark my words.

Q: Look, I understand that you are against animal abuse, cruelty, exploitation and all of that. And some of your arguments are theoretically fair. But why don’t you simply not use animal products in your pieces then? Period. Do you really have to insist on making leather by skinning human beings? Because all you’re doing is denouncing something as criminal while being an even bigger criminal yourself…

A: But, why not? I mean, why should my fellow designers be able to produce leather and not me? It’s up to our civilization to review its whole set of values and bring some consistency to the table, because as long as our societies are okay with wearing the skins and furs of dead animals, I don’t see a problem in my skinning human beings. They just happen to be my animal of choice. It may not be your choice, but it’s mine.

Q: Isn’t there a tiny part of you though that can acknowledge just how barbaric what you’re doing is?

A: Not at all, that’s also a very arbitrary statement. Where’s your sense of perspective? I mean, eating horse is barbaric in North America, but Europeans eat horse all the time. It’s barbaric to eat dog in Europe, but many Southern Asian countries do it all the time. It’s just perspective, smiyeh.

Q: Don’t you feel though that what you’re doing is not only a crime against humanity, but against nature itself? I mean, to ensure the survival of our species is our most innate, natural tendency; and here you are, going totally against it.

A: The very foundation of civilization is about going against our natural tendencies. Do you realize what would happen if we let people behave the way they would behave on their natural impulses? It would be total chaos! Besides, give me a break! Are you seriously calling me responsible for the potential extinction of humanity because I killed a few people?

Q: That’s not what I said. I’m just saying it’s not only a crime against humanity, it’s a crime against nature.

A: There is nothing about my enterprise that is against nature. If anything, I’m doing nature a favor here. If you think about it, human beings are responsible for the highest number of both human and animal deaths, the extinction of entire species, and for the destruction of the environment of the planet, the very body we live on. Human beings are a destructive force who are literally killing everything around them. Human beings are the cancer of planet Earth. And as long as we are not able to acknowledge this simple fact and deal with it, we are doomed, my friend.

A young man entered the room carrying a tray. “Lunch! Great, I was starving,” said El Khoury. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“I could eat,” I shrugged.
The young man unloaded the pots and plates on a low hardwood table between us, a spicy smell and steam hovering under his chin. “Red wine, sir?”
“Thank you,” I nodded. Then, looking back up at El Khoury: “Steaks? After all this PETA-like lecturing I thought you’d at least spare me the carnivorous lunch…” He smirked. I took a first bite. The meat was so tender it melted, almost evaporated under my palate. And I loved it.
“It’s good stuff, huh?” El Khoury said, still smirking. “I’m sure you’ve never tasted anything like this before.”

 

Interview with a human leather maker

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Contributor Magazine // Issue 10

1 JOHN 2:25

Originally published in CONTRIBUTOR MAGAZINE

I’d been trying to kill myself for the past twelve years. Nothing. Rien. Nada. I first heard about the Nurse less than a year ago. It was difficult to believe everything you could hear because very few people dared to speak. And those who did were always the weirdest motherfuckers out there. I’d joined this online forum where people shared stories they’d heard. Hidden behind avatars and usernames. It was impossible to tell who was serious, who was crazy, or if some of them were pranksters or undercover agents. I’d grown so desperate, though, that I ended up building a relationship with a user whom I decided I could trust. Call it instinct. Intuition. Whatever. Don’t ask. It was too risky to exchange any information online so we agreed to meet on the lawn of a park not too far from my atelier. We would pretend to be old friends and stroll around the neighborhood. Grab lunch in a not too crowded restaurant. Kick a ball next to the kids area. He would disseminate the information here and there in between conversations. I would take mental notes of everything. As we hugged goodbye, I would drop the cash in his coat pocket. We would split. He would disappear. I would then walk back to work. And I would hope it wasn’t all a fraud.

Point is: I’d grown sick of being thirty for the past century or so and I really just wanted out. The thing that frustrated me the most was that I couldn’t talk about it to anyone. I tried, in the beginning, though even the people who were closest to me would always snub me. Stare at me with accusatory eyes like I’d just betrayed the whole species. Betrayed everything that so many generations of our ancestors had dedicated their lives to. Betrayed humanity’s biggest accomplishment. Our grandiose victory over nature. A miracle.

And maybe I had.

There wasn’t anything I could do about it. The injections we were given at birth were so efficient that not even crashing your skull against concrete after having jumped off a cliff would have done it. I’d even heard about a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy whom apparently knew where I could maybe find a gun, but the rare cases I’d read about all told the same sad story – the pain would be unbearable for a few minutes, and I would stay alive. In a time where female sterility was induced in potable water, our species could not afford a single death. Point is: our cells regenerated way too quickly and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

On the day of my schedule I went downtown. I was given an address and a time though I had no idea who I was supposed to meet. It was on a tiny street not too far from the space where I had shown my latest collection, and I’d actually spotted the coffee shop numerous times before without ever walking in. I stood in front of it and examined the information on my palm. I stared back up at my reflection in the coffee shop’s window. I looked good and it made me smile.

The terrace looked vintage and reminded me of a photo of my grandparents in Paris, when they were teenagers in the early 2000s. It was almost empty except for a couple of people. A guy caught in a lively online conversation, interrupting his speech with cackles. A woman on the right scribbling on a notebook. Shit. When was the last time I saw a notebook? Passersby slowed their pace and glared but she didn’t seem to care. I walked in and slumped on a bench behind the third table on the left, just as planned, and sat there doing nothing for I don’t know how long. After a while, I turned my head and stared at a clock hanging on the wall behind the bar. My latest show gleaming on a screen caught my attention. I glanced at the figures striding down the runway, clothed in pieces I’d imagined and created, and wondered what my legacy would look like when it’s all over. Which photo of me would they show on the news? There’s a photo of me I really like and I was hoping someone would choose it. It was taken at an award ceremony around twenty years ago and I look really sharp in it. The only problem is that you can see this asshole Kareem in the background but I’m sure they can crop him out or something… Also, which adjectives would they use to describe me? I wonder…

‘Daniel?’ A voice startled me and I rolled back in my seat. A woman was on the chair facing me.
‘How… how did you?’
‘I’m quick like that,’ she smiled. ‘I’m sorry I scared you.’
‘Don’t worry about it, are you the…’
‘Shhhh! Don’t say it, are you out of your mind?’
‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…’ I whispered, bringing my hands up to my forehead.
‘What if it wasn’t me? Huh?’ She snapped. ‘Please, we can’t be too careful.’

I caught my breath for a minute as she sat there and stared without saying a word. The Nurse wasn’t exactly pretty, though she wasn’t too bad either. Her bulging black eyes reminded me of an old popular dog breed – the Pekingese. Her light brown hair was silky, tied up in a bun; freckles were scattered across her fair skin, surrounding a useless nose, and red, wide lips followed her chin up to her dimples. Her ears were small and her neck was delicious, a quasi perfect line.

‘I made this,’ I said, pointing at her jacket.
‘I know, I’m a big fan,’ she smiled.
‘So… is this the part where you ask me why I want to do this?’
‘Not exactly.’
‘How come?’
‘Well, it’s not a job interview…’
‘I guess not… so is it really that simple? Anyone can just show up and get it done? I thought…’
‘How long did it take you to find me, exactly?’
’Twelve years.’
‘Then maybe it wasn’t that simple after all.’
I nodded.
‘When someone’s made it this far, Daniel, who am I to question their motives?’ I nodded again.
’I know why you’re here, I’ve felt the same too.’
‘And why didn’t you do it?’
‘Because I finally found a purpose.’
‘What is it?’
‘Saving people like you.’
I struggled to hold my tears. My lips started shaking and I was sure my eyes had turned red. ’So, that’s it? How are we doing this?’
‘I have to give you three months to think about it.’
‘Three months? Why? I mean, I’ve been waiting for twelve years, how are these three months going to change anything?’
‘Well, now you know it’s possible.’
I nodded.
‘And don’t worry. I’m going to save you either way.’
‘Either way? What do you mean?’
‘I’ll see you in three months. Maybe.’

I woke up the next day and decided that I wanted cherries for breakfast. Cherries were some of the very few things I wasn’t completely bored to (death) eternity with, though even on that special morning they tasted as bland as ever. I went for a long run to clear my head and people stared at me like I’d lost it: jogging was an obsolete activity for the nostalgic and the depressed, and you could almost never be one without the other. I ran for a couple of miles and the cold air of February kept my face dry as I couldn’t stop crying. I remembered my father on his deathbed. ‘I’m a happy father, Daniel. Your generation will never know what it’s like to be a parent, but who cares? You’ll find other ways to be happy. You have all the time in the world. I’m ready to leave in peace,’ then he started humming that old song Imagine. Seriously, who would have thought that John Lennon’s dream would turn out to be a fucking nightmare? I kept running and it suddenly hit me that I was afraid. Putting an end to it all was the thing I’d been wanting the most and I was going to go through with it. No doubt. ’Well, now you know it’s possible,’ the Nurse had said. And it was now scaring the shit out of me.

I reached downtown after a couple of miles and I couldn’t help passing by the coffee shop for a quick look. I was trotting by the terrace when I saw Nayla stepping out of the place. Nayla and I were married for ninety-eight years before we decided to call it quits. Marriage was a traditional practice back then, and we’d only done it to make our parents happy. But when you can’t age together, when you can’t have kids, and when there’s no death to do you part, who the fuck are we kidding? Nayla and I broke up around thirty years ago and though we were still on good terms, I hadn’t seen her in a very long time. She was heading the opposite way so I sprinted toward her and called her name.

‘Daniel! Oh my God!’ She said, flashing a smile.
‘Hey you! It’s been ages!’
‘How have you been?’
‘I’ve been great, how are you?’
‘I’m great too! Wait, are you seriously jogging?’ she laughed.
‘Yeah I don’t know why, I felt like it…’
‘You’re still as crazy!’
‘I guess!’ I laughed back. ‘So tell me, what are you doing here?’
‘Oh,’ she paused. ‘Nothing much, I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time…’
‘Here? In this coffee shop?’
‘Aha…’
‘Oh, cool.’
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Not much either, just wanted to grab a bottle of water.’
‘I see. Have you been here before?’
‘No, have you?’
‘Me neither.’
‘Aha…’
‘Yeah…’
‘Are… are you doing anything tomorrow?’
’Not really, no. You?’
‘Not much… do you want to hang out?’
‘Sure, I’d love to.’

The next three months with Nayla were like magic. We would meet outside a museum that used to be the high school we both attended as the last generation of human children. We would stroll around for a while before stopping by a fast food place that used to be another fast food place. ‘Remember when eating animals was legal?’ She would giggle. ’Humans were so barbaric.’ We would order food and I would watch her eat. We would walk to a nearby mall that hadn’t changed much and we would chill there on the stairs with our backs leaned against the wall. People would topple over us and keep glaring like we were crazy. And maybe we were.

Nayla and I wouldn’t talk much. We’d mostly stare at one another. Her eyes were sad despite her constant smile, and I’m pretty sure my eyes looked sad too. Because we both knew. And we never talked about it. She would often spent the night over and it was unbelievable to think that this was the same woman I’d spent a lifetime having sex with. I knew every inch of her body, the sound of her moans, her rhythm, what she liked and what she didn’t, how she closed her eyes and smiled after coming, how her body dropped next to mine after we were done. I knew it all by heart but it was still unbelievable: it had never felt as new. Never felt as real. Never felt as good. Because we both knew. I knew why she was there at the coffee shop that day and I never confronted her about it. She knew why I was there too and we never talked about it.

And we didn’t need to. Nayla and I had grown distant from one another in the past few years so her newfound interest in me, and mine in her, couldn’t have been fortuitous. I knew for a fact that her mind was made up: she was going to go ahead with the procedure. Or none of this really made any sense. She left her job and I took a break from mine. We rented a house in the woods and spent our days hiking and talking. On the week-end we would drive to the city. Go clubbing. Drinking. Make out on the dance floor. Have ice cream. Stroll in parks. Go to the beach. Invite friends to a picnic by the river. Go skiing. Go shopping. We took a trip to the moon and back. Did all the stupid things we’d grown tired of doing. Remembered how meaningless, how stupid all of it really is. And fuck, we enjoyed it. Because time was relevant again. Because time was running out. And after she would fall asleep late at night, I would sit down and sketch my last collection. The final curtain. I would close my eyes and imagine it all. A posthumous show that would cement me as an all-time greatest. Bodies of all shapes and forms parading in black. And nothing else but black. Death will be much more than a theme. Death will be a reality. My ultimate success. My very own funeral.

I had dedicated my whole life to my art and I had to dedicate my death to it too. It was merely thanks to fashion that I’d made it this far. More than a passion, a creative outlet or a career. Fashion had given me the chance to lead a life that was beyond stimulating. I had mansions in every city you could think of. Threw parties that made old Hip Hop videos look like a meditation class. Dated celebrities and celebritants and nobodies. Had the whole world at my feet before, during, and after each one of my shows. In a godless world I was a god. I was loved and I enjoyed being loved. And I loved back. Family and friends and lovers and fans, beautiful and ageless people in a beautiful and ageless time, where hedonism had become harmless and affordable. And there we had made the ultimate mistake: we still believed that happiness was possible.

It was a warm Spring morning and I was terrified. My mind had been racing all night and I struggled to remain rational. Yes, the past few months had been great, and yes, I hadn’t felt this happy since I was a child. But only because it was timed. You fool. I kept repeating to myself. You were happy only because it was timed, you moron. Don’t you dare act like a pussy now. Look at her, lying there in rumpled white sheets like it’s a scene from a romantic movie. And look at you idiot falling for it. She’s beautiful, isn’t she? But what happens when you’ll have to look at that same fucking face for another hundred years. What hundred years? Two hundred. Make it three. Four. Fuck. Maybe she’s not that beautiful after all, is she? You’re pathetic to even think about it. You know what? Just name one thing you haven’t done yet. What is it? Name one thing you’re going to miss. What are you going to miss? Seriously. The trees? You fucking hippy. What’s to miss about a fucking tree? The sea? It’s just water with salt. Flowers? You fucking hate flowers. The sky? You hate it when it’s cold and you hate it when it’s warm and you hate it when it rains and you hate it when it doesn’t. So fuck you. What else is there? Other women? Other men? Is there anyone on this planet you haven’t fucked yet? Let’s not even go there. Fashion? Aren’t you sick of doing the same shit over and over again in the name of revival? Just for how long are you and all the other fucking designers going to keep on reviving things? Stop reviving things. Leave things alone. Let things die, for fuck’s sake. They deserve a fucking rest. You deserve a fucking rest.

I looked at Nayla one last time and my stomach turned. No goodbyes. No thinking. No more bullshit. I just wanted to get to the Nurse as fast as possible. I put on my shittiest sweatpants and an old t-shirt and dashed out. Wait, maybe I should have some cherries first. No. Stop thinking, motherfucker. Just run to the stupid coffee shop and let that bitch take you wherever she wants to take you and get it over with. Go. Do it. Nayla’s voice called from upstairs but I didn’t look back. Go. I squeezed my lips tight and struggled to keep my tears in. My love. My house. My building. My street. My neighborhood. No. Cut the crap. Stop thinking. Just go. I was so focused on the task ahead that the endless stream of people didn’t phase me. Fucking meaningless zombies. They don’t have the balls to do what I’m about to do. I’m the fucking hero here.

I finally reached the coffee shop and stopped on the other side of the street. My phone had been ringing for a few minutes but I didn’t want to look at it. Through the window I saw the Nurse. Placid. Slowly bringing a cup to her lips and staring at nothing in front of her. Waiting for me. My phone stopped ringing. And then it beeped. A message received. I was about to cross the street but I couldn’t help glancing at the screen. The message received was from Nayla. ‘Daniel, please answer,’ it said. ‘It’s a miracle.’ A miracle? What miracle? What the fuck was she talking about? There’s no room for a miracle, baby. Nothing. Nothing. I was crying hysterically. I dropped down to my knees. I lost my discipline and called her back. She answered immediately. ‘Daniel, it’s a miracle,’ she said. ‘I found the Nurse too,’ she said. ‘Daniel, I’m pregnant.’

I closed my eyes and everything disappeared. And there it was. The sound of the wind. And the sound of my heartbeat.

Contributor Magazine / 1 JOHN 2:25

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A Billion Dead Stars

A Billion Dead Stars

Originally published for SOW by Lara Khoury

Length: 4 pages

‘Are you going to take me to prom?’ she’d said.
‘But we don’t go to the same school,’ I’d answered.
‘I don’t care. Do you?’
‘No. I don’t care either.’

Cheesy love songs made us sick, so did my classmates who couldn’t handle a drink. Oversized kids made a big deal out of a cigarette and a glass of vodka. Obnoxiousness everywhere. Fools marveled at tacky fireworks gleaming on the surface of the swimming pool. A stench of whiskey, smoke and chlorine defiled our nostrils. And the drunken shrieks, our ears. We decided to escape it all and took a stroll on the beach. Strode down a long wooden deck leading toward the sea. Took off our shoes when we reached its edge and drowned our feet in the soft, cold sand. Moved further down and dabbled in the water. Then she grabbed my shirt and pulled me close and whispered: ‘let’s do it.’

I stared at her and couldn’t believe that six years had passed. Six years that we’d been inseparable. Not a single day without her, and each one of them had felt like the first time we met. The same fascination I later realized was love. I gazed at her standing there in her emerald green one-shoulder dress. Emerald green matching her eyes. Long lashes reaching out. Slick hair back à la runway model. A gorgeous pout. And the young girl gave way to the woman. And my best friend gave way to my lover. Of course, the sex was clumsy and we stopped halfway because the sand was nasty. And we laughed it off. We learned that first times and beach lovemaking are overrated. And I knew why she’d picked that moment: because it was forbidden. And we got away with it.We dashed back to the party and caused chaos. Pitched purses in the pool. Set the corny singer’s jacket on fire. Stole the principal’s wig and passed it around the dining tables. Dropped laxatives in a few drinks. Kissed endlessly and kissed again. Smeared cake on the dance floor and watched everyone slip. Tossed shrimp rolls at the teachers we hated. Keyed random cars on our way out. Got away with it all, like we always had. Drove to our favorite spot outside town and made love, for the first time properly, under the ghostly lights of a billion dead stars.

The phone rings once and I’m startled, still lying on the bed, my eyes closed. My fingers rove over my shirt, trace my waist, climb up my hipbone before grazing down and disappearing in my pocket. My hand feels something and I sigh, relieved. Something small, round, cocooned in fabric. I’m able to fumble with it but I can’t grasp it, and I soon remember that my pocket is empty, that the object is underneath my pants, stuck to my leg. I crumple my shirt, exposing my abs. A gust of wind slinks in and I shiver. I slide my hand inside my slacks and peel the tape off my skin, freeing the ring and bringing it up to my face level. I open my eyes and smile. The ring’s been living on my skin for a few days now. Body heat warm. Silver and beautiful. The sun beaming through the window, shimmering on the band’s edges.

The phone rings once again and stops. The ring drops on the hardwood floor and starts rolling away. Reality shifts to slow motion. Everything darkens and everything slow motions. The rolling sound grows louder and images flash in my head. Vividly. A woman in a bridal gown races through a meadow, giant pines arching on both sides of the frame. The wind bays at the sun to set. The soil trembles. The rolling sound deafens me. And as the trees sway wider and the wind bawls lustier, the bride reaches the edge of a cliff. On the other side of the room, the ring hits a large suitcase and collapses. And everything stops. The images vanish. And time resumes its natural course.

In the bathroom I notice a tiny hole in the wall. Flashback to the Bates Motel in a Hitchcock movie. And I blench at the shadiness of this place. I cover the hole with a wad of toilet paper and lose my clothes on the tiled white floor, keeping my flip-flops as I step on the disgusting shower tray. I twist the faucet knob and warm water pours down, stinging my shoulders and massaging my nape. The endless stream of water blends with my tears and I realize that I’m scared. That there’s no turning back. I’m scared for the first time in a very long time and there is no turning back. I leave the shower on and step out of the tray. Pull up the same black harem pants, the same white shirt and the same black jacket I’ve been wearing for days. It doesn’t matter if they’re filthy as long as my shoes are polished. And my shoes are always polished. I leave my hair unkempt because who gives a shit. Wipe the last tears off my face and find the ring on the floor. Put it in my pocket and grab the suitcase. Before dashing out, I expect the phone to ring again and it does. It keeps ringing until I pick up, and she starts speaking:

‘It’s me. Is everything alright?’
‘Hey, yes. It’s all set.’ I’m struggling to stay composed. ‘How are things on your end?’
‘I’m going to head there now. Don’t be late. It won’t be long before they notice my disappearance.’
‘Don’t worry,’ I lie.
‘Yes.’ A pause. ‘It’ll all be over soon. You do remember how to get there, don’t you?’
‘I do.’
‘Good. Once you enter the woods, keep moving forward until you see the sky.’
‘I know. I’ll see you at 7 sharp alright?’
‘I’ll be there.’
‘Cool,’ I say, but I can’t keep on lying. ’Hey…’
‘Yes?’
‘If anything bad happens…’
‘Don’t say that,’ she hampers.
‘Don’t worry, but just in case. If I’m not there at 7:15…’
‘Don’t say that. Nothing will happen. I’ll see you at 7,’ she says.
‘Just listen to me. If I’m not there at 7:15, it means they caught me. Don’t wait. Find a way to reach the port without me, and find the boat SOW 15. It leaves at 8 and will take you to a safe destination,’ I say. Long silence.
‘I’ll see you at 7,’ she says.
‘Yes.’ I sigh.
‘I love you.’
‘I love you.’

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Bespoke Magazine

The Neighbour

Originally published in Bespoke Magazine

I missed the alarm clock. I waddle toward the balcony, navy blue boxers tangled at my ankles. I look down and her black car is still there. I’m seething and panting, my face glistening and morning glory jutting out in front of me. Zoom in on her window across from mine, she’s still asleep. I’m relieved. I walk back to my room and slump on my grey futon. Stare at the off-white ceiling and picture myself lying next to her because it calms me. I use an emollient hand cream to make my palms and fingers as soft as her skin. I’ve painted my fingernails yellow because it’s the colour of the polish she chose last night, as she lay on a wooden chaise longue in a corner of her terrace, ravishing legs resting limply on the low aluminium balustrade, as I perched on a ladder in my coal-black kitchen, eyeing her through a barely open awning, completely losing myself.When I come to, I wobble to the bathroom. Wash my hands in a bucket filled with Badoit because it has sufficient sodium to unclog my pores but not enough fizz to give me a rash. I muster the courage to look at myself in the mirror and notice that the sty on my eyelid has hardened. I refuse to let her see me like this. I retch for a few seconds but manage to stay composed, swallowing everything back in. I slather on a medical cream and put on my Wayfarers – the thought of her noticing my imperfections pains me deeply. I distract myself by removing the nail polish.

I bound up the stairs back to my room and carefully choose my outfit for the day. A grass green cashmere sweater – turtleneck to cover the gash from the liver-grey stray cat that clawed me last night as I choked it to death and dumped it on the new neighbour’s lawn, with a note demanding that he stop flirting with her. A pair of dark charcoal pleated wool trousers, the same ones the now- deceased ex-boyfriend she once loved, wore. An ivory white pair of sneakers with black stripes, vintage to make me look younger because I damn well know she likes them young.

I don’t go to work because I can’t stand not being able to see her. Having a job was dreadful enough, until my wealthy grandmother fell down the stairs when
I’d invited her over one weekend – an accident, of course – and a substantial inheritance delivered me from the working classes. Since then, I’ve been religiously setting my alarm to exactly an hour before she does, waking up and mechanically slinking to the balcony to watch her sleep, then slowly wake. As she just did. I’m aroused again as she gets into the shower, despite the cerulean curtain blotting out her nakedness. I tail her down the stairs and into the street, to her car. Start the engine, methodically allowing three vehicles to slide between us. I park outside the café where she works, adjust my hair in the mirror, smear skin-beige foundation on any remaining spots on my face. I grit my teeth in lust and anger and I don’t know why. I pull myself together. Breathe in. March towards the terrace gate. Breathe out and slouch on a stainless steel garden chair. My mouth waters at the sight of her in uniform – black ballerinas, mini-skirt and a sedulously unbuttoned white shirt. She’s always perfect.“Good morning, sir,” she says, ever so cheerfully.
“Good morning, Cindy,” I mutter. My voice never sounds like my own.
“Always so punctual.” She gives me a kittenish wink and my stomach drops. I nod and look down because I know I can’t contain myself. I start to sweat.
“The usual, sir?”

Her scent overwhelms my nostrils. My hands quiver. It takes me back to the moment before her ex died, squealing like a pig as I watched him fade away, with her scent all over him, slowly possessing me, making me feel the way it must’ve felt when he made love to her. I’m trying to speak but my jaw is clenched. My lips are flapping. I’m losing it. My voice is gone. I somehow manage a nod. Thank goodness. She turns around and leaves my side. The same routine. Every single day.

It’s almost midnight and I’m on the balcony watching her. She opens the door and the new neighbour enters. My heart stops when she greets him with a kiss. I have to endure them having dinner together. And it looks like he’s sleeping over. Foolish child, he leaves me no choice. I’m slavering in anticipation. Images of the future flash through my head. I ruthlessly stab every bit of his body. Sever his full lips. Squeeze his throat until his tongue turns blue. Chop off his perfect nose and try it on my face. Dig his beautiful green eyes out of their sockets and guzzle them instantly. Gulp down his heart and taste the love they shared. I’m turned on by the thought of it all. I take a Xanax to relax. Then another, to help me sleep. I cross out one more day on the calendar on my wall and I realise it’s been ten years. As I crawl into bed, that makes me smile.
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outpost

A Morning in Love

Originally published in The Outpost

I hate the smell of cigarettes everywhere but in her mouth and everywhere but on her fingers. A beam of light brushes my eyelids and I stretch my arms, blindly groping for her fair skin. My hand settles on the far edge of the mattress and I realize she’s gone. We’ve been lovers for about two months and I’ve never seen her asleep because I’m always the first to pass out and always the last to wake up. It suddenly hits me that I’ve never seen her eyes shut and it makes me wonder if she ever dreams and it captivates me even more. I struggle to sit up and squint toward the large window facing the bed and there she is. A beautiful silhouette. Picturesque in contre-jour. Slow motion video. Smoke circling her slim phalanges and rising toward the frosted panes before vanishing into the cold winter sky. A perfect shot.She glances in my direction without making eye contact. She’s not very giving with words either and we only talk about things that matter. Never about the weather or about other people. It’s like a mutual therapy. No censorship and no pride and no holding back on our soft sides. With her I’m naked and vulnerable and I know there will be a time where this is going to hurt but right now I’m happy and I don’t care.

My eyes skim through the hundreds of books aligned on the shelves, standing tall on the right side of the bed. I instinctively start reading through titles I’ve read a thousand times because it’s my morning haze habit and I don’t have the urge to find something to say, unlike the first time she slept over. And I just love to look at her. A delicious neckline and a never ending pair of legs, bare and beautiful. Delicately lounging on a dark grey carpet, light like a feather. And long lean arms, careless and brittle. Tiny wrists and tiny ankles and tiny breasts and tiny waist. A visible ribcage hiding behind a Knicks jersey, Sprewell’s number 8. And wearing nothing else. Long brown hair landing gently on her shoulders, deep brown eyes shying behind a cocky fringe, effortlessly cool. High cheek bones and a flawless face structure. Gorgeous pouty lips, small and innocent, and a rare smile, carnivorous and wide.

I remember the first time I laid eyes on her. A moment in history. Nightclub entrance and cigarette conversations. And suddenly a voice: “hey, you’re Mark’s brother, right?” I turned around and there she was. A childhood fantasy. Sophie Marceau and Brooke Shields and Kate Moss and Donna D’Errico and Xena the warrior princess and Liv Tyler and Selma Blair. All combined in a timeless little black dress. A real life Balenciaga poster. The type of girl that never used the bathroom or had dirty feet or even stumbled on the street. The type of girl who could eat French cheese and still smell like lavender, and she could not shower for a week and you would still devour her. A masterpiece and it was instant love.

“Yes, you know my brother?” I finally mumbled, thank God for Tanqueray.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Mark always talks about you,” she said, “I’m Kate.”

She didn’t go home with me that night and it was unusual. I saw her another time and nothing happened. I saw her again another time and nothing happened. And a few more times and nothing happened. And then a kiss. And then magic happened. David Bowie in the background, ground control to Major Tom. And I couldn’t believe it. How does a 10 year old suburban kid from Lebanon who was too shy to ask for a chocolate bar at the store down the street grow up to be with a woman like her? A beautiful mystery. She was the epitome of success. Never mind living poor for the rest of my life. She grabbed my arm to high school reunions and my rich friends envied me. Bankers and doctors and lawyers and corporate greasy haired bastards in suits, they all envied me. The center of attention everywhere. Boho chic everywhere. The tortured writer and the intellectual model. Both gorgeous to the bones. Bohom glam everywhere. I never felt as proud as when she walked by my side. Holding hands and long promenades and stone bridges stops. Sunsets over the river and love scenes from a postcard on the left bank, she’s a postcard woman and I’m in a postcard life.

She finally gives me a smile. I sense a little something in my stomach and it’s probably my heart dropping. Nothing makes me happier than the sight of her elusive teeth. It makes me feel like an accomplished human being. An existence complete. And I smile back. Her crisp, skinny body casually gathers into a single vertical shape, long and lean, slowly moving closer. Slowly leaning forward. Small nipples showing from the side of the sleeveless jersey. She lies on top of me and her bony hip crushes my waist. She’s too tall for a perfect fit – Correction: I wasn’t tall enough. Because she is perfect. I rest my nose on the top of her head. A smell of smoke and ginger bread and a tender kiss that lasts a moment. And I want it to last forever.

I was once told that in every true love lies a little corner of hate. But my love for her is round shaped and there are no corners and no hate.

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The First Day Of Winter copy

The First Day Of Winter

Originally published in Gate37
Length: 4 pages.

“Butter knife, what a life, anyway, I’m building y’all a clock, stop. What am I? Hemingway?”

What a rip off, he thought. Never able to come up with his own lines, his own rhymes, but she had such fine thighs. With a gap. Just like he adored them. Was it over already? He couldn’t tell. She had been dancing all night like a wild girl in trance. He was barely moving his arms so she wouldn’t smell his armpit sweat. And the music so swell. And that roaring sound. She had a carnivore smile like a pretty dinosaur. She was lean, her eyes were green. And then a scream: “Get up! I need to clean up your room!”

But he was still floating. Was it her moon-like face or the housekeeper’s tight butt? His eyes finally opened. The room became brighter. The roaring sound louder. The housekeeper’s butt bigger. He slowly sat up, resting on the edge of the bed, mentally measuring the room temperature. No slippers. He stretched his neck, closed his eyes again. His hand reached out to the night table and grabbed a remote. A click. Music. Erik Satie on the piano. And he was now in the bathroom. His fingers on his cheekbones. Why can’t they be higher? But the rest was perfect. No pimples. Divine skin. Defined jaw line. A handful of hair. Sleek and reeking of smoke. And green eyes, just like her eyes.

The steam quickly took over. He just loved to stand still there. Thoughts and songs and faces and places. And sometimes a boner. What was her name? It was in London in the early 2000s. He did her in a public bathroom. Teenage vomit on the floor. What was her name? He had just gotten out of a long relationship. She was French. And thick. And she loved the Ramones. They jumped in a cab and went back to his home. What was her name? The water was dripping on his lips. Breathe in. Breathe out. Faster. Faster. What was her name? Who gives a fuck about her name! Breathe in. Breathe out. Faster. Faster. And for a few seconds the world was gone. No more light. No more sound. Just a simple touch.

He opened his eyes. Everything was back in order. The sound of the water. The steam in the mirror. And his heartbeat. And with the sole of his foot he brushed his cum down the drain. He remembered her name.

His loft had been vacated. He was now alone. The smell of cleaning products gave it an air of freshness, much like the freshness he felt getting out of the shower. He stood tall on the 50th floor of Sama Beirut. Glass walls everywhere. A 360 degree view of the sea, Ashrafieh and other less familiar parts of Beirut. The shiny concrete floor — heavily heated all year long — always seemed moist. The high ceiling and roominess made the place feel like constant cold weather. Even when the sun was beaming through the walls and onto his toned body, reflecting every line of every carefully sculpted muscle.

He lounged naked on a lonely Charlotte Perriand chaise-longue in his favorite corner facing the Mediterranean sea. There was something clinical about his posture. Like being at the mercy of a callous dentist. But there was never anyone around. And he loved it. Nothing but the numb feeling of floating in the skies. Above everything and everyone. Above the miserable lives of everyone. Above the pathetic weaknesses of everyone. Above the petty little businesses of everyone. He had worked hard all his life for this. To just be here. Envied by everyone. Detached from everyone.

Most of his time at home was spent on that chair. Like a tiny bubble in a vast wide-open space. It made him feel like an astronaut in exile. An out-of-body experience. Being alive in the quietness of death. And it was all barely furnished. Far on the other side, a dark grey Versace sofa facing a Noguchi coffee table. And nothing else. Not even a single carpet. A never-ending empty land with an indoor horizon. And then a kitchen that felt like a morgue. Stainless steel everything and grey marble tables. And white cupboards for necessary light. Terrified plants were scattered around, always alone and out of place. Trying to call out to each other, but the sound was lost in space. Like a piece of earth brought to another planet. Artificial air, artificial breath, artificial life.

The bedroom was the only area that felt inhabited. Separated by fake grey walls, there was a certain glow to it. A giant oval bed, Shaquille O’Neil size. And mirrors everywhere. Porn windows everywhere. On the wall behind the bed: missionary man. On the right side of the bed: doggy style. A giant one on the ceiling: ride, cowgirl. The mood was set by nonstop Fashion TV on a 65’’ Panasonic plasma screen. On mute. And a mini bar — Smirnoff raspberry, Perrier. Lime. And the unnecessary rest.

The warm leather creaked under his skin as he got up. A slow nonchalant walk towards the kitchen. He opened the fridge. Diet Cokes and red fruits. Strawberries. Raspberries. Pomegranate. Sometimes a banana or two. The housekeeper had left fresh grapefruit juice that he carefully poured into a wine glass. He was a slow drinker. Unhurriedly letting each sip get comfortable with his tongue. Methodically twisting it so the sour taste reaches the back of his mouth. The edge of his throat. Dangerously flirting with suffocation.

It was the first day of autumn. He looked down and realized he was still naked. Nature had been so generous to him. He smiled. It was already 1p.m. He decided to write for the next seven hours. The new novel he’d been working on was going to be another hit. Another love story. Another page-turner. Common people will be devouring it in the subway. On the train. In taxis. On lunch breaks. For Christmas. At the office. At bedtime. For birthdays. Twelve languages. On vacation. All over the world. He was remarkable at it. Digging deep into common people’s fears, common people’s desires, common people’s needs. Never taking any of them seriously. Not anymore. He mocked them. Spurned them. He pitied his characters — just like he pitied common people. He never related to any of them, he knew that common people did. Selling them a dream that wasn’t his own. He was good at it. He also knew how to sell himself: a friendly social mask, spurious smiles thrown around, telling women what they wanted to hear, faking interest in their boring lives. He mastered a variety of handshakes, voice tones, head tilts, eye squints. And a pout, well practiced and gorgeous, causing even mirrors to blush. His mind was constantly — almost literally — split in two: how he really felt, how the mask behaved.

He walked back to his favorite corner, still naked. He started writing.

When the sun had fully set, he decided it was time to stop. Almost 8:00 p.m. Perfect. He reached for his phone and dialed a number.

“Hey David, it’s me. Meet me in an hour for a quick bite. Same place as usual. And cancel whatever plans you have for later tonight, we’re going clubbing again.”

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