Her eyes glaze as they pass over ink-black words on creamy paper whose brown edges remind her of how long this book has sat neglected on her shelf. Letters swim in a sea of paragraphs trapped between pages that are simply beyond her current capacity to comprehend.
She had been looking forward to this moment all day while sitting at her desk. She dreamt between tasks about the relief of the sofa cushions against her back, the warmth of a knit blanket on her lap, a cup of tea or maybe a glass of wine from which she would take unhurried sips, and the central feature of her long-anticipated Thursday night: a romance novel that would transport her from the crowded streets of this country to a swampy port city of Colombia. Even if only for a few hours.
Yet, once she finally lay to rest on the living room sofa with her hands cradling the front and back covers of the book, she felt unsatisfied.
She made a noble effort to concentrate on the bizarre world of the fickle lovesick characters. She wanted them to keep her company, but more than anything they made her feel alone. The beige walls of her apartment seemed to close in on her, collapsing into the beige sofa, the beige blankets, the beige light shining on the beige pages. She felt an overwhelming need for fresh air.
And so she rises from her self-constructed cocoon. She replaces blankets and slippers for an oversized hoodie and tennis shoes. She completes her metamorphosis with a pair of headphones, plugging the jack into her phone and the cushioned buds into her ears. In an attempt to compensate for her failure to read words on a page, she plays an audio book.
Outside, she lets her feet decide where to take her. A cool breeze descends from the hills, playfully kissing her cheek and tousling her hair. It wipes her clean of the stale, heat-conditioned air of her apartment. Her mind settles not on thoughts, nor the thrust of the audio book’s narrative, but rather the quality of the narrator’s baritone voice as it fills her ears.
In the space between daylight and sunset, her neighborhood has transformed itself. No longer is it a sleepy bohemian corner of this sprawling city; it is now a quasi-festival replete with lights and food and drinks and people gathered in celebration of the weekend.
She walks by the hill that overlooks the entire city: the horizon that self-consciously boasts only one or two skyscrapers, the deteriorating Roman columns that keep watch over the downtown storefronts with unintentionally ironic names and borrowed logos that infringe international copyrights, the endless rows of beige buildings stacked against each other like fallen cigarettes jammed carelessly back into their packet.
Upon this hill, groups of young men set up plastic chairs and hookah pipes. One or two brave couples sit side-by-side on a blanket that rests over discarded bottle caps and empty bags of chips. A vendor has parked his van and opened his truck to the night’s pleasure seekers, offering them paper cups, hot water from a thermos, tea bags, and instant coffee in exchange for a few coins.
She keeps going, alone in the company of others who hold no stake in her life.
On the busier main street of her neighborhood, she peers beyond glass walls to the insides of fluorescent-lit restaurants. Families gather around buckets of fried chicken, plates overflowing with crisp orbs of falafel, tables dotted with cans of orange soda and Coca Cola. She notices the crinkle along the corner of a mother’s eyes as she laughs at a story told by her children.
Farther down the street, she passes a man bundled in hat and scarf, selling roasted chestnuts and hot corn. He distributes the snacks to peckish pedestrians. He passes steaming paper plates through the windows of vehicles holding up traffic to pause at his cart.
She chances upon an open-air cafe and hears Fairouz emanating from therein, her mountainous voice rising above the din of the audio book narrator. She pulls off her earbuds and allows the legendary Lebanese singer to serenade her:
Alone they remain, like the elderberry flowers
Alone they harvest the leaves of time
Without her noticing, her feet have carried her back to her apartment. She turns the key slowly, contemplating the groan of the lock’s internal gears as they unclench. The warm air circulating through the apartment no longer feels suffocating, but rather welcoming. Her sofa beckons; she heeds its call.
In her solitude, she is satisfied.