CHAPTER ONE: TOE
The antique fan lazily stirred the stale air. It wobbled dangerously every time the single remaining blade made its circle. At regular intervals, a hitch in the circle caused a creak. Then silence. A creak again. And silence. And creak again…
Nothing else in this space has deviated from its appearance in another time. A time now shrouded in half-forgotten nostalgia, with which, besides me, the wind from the bay down there and the floating moon far above the sea were also playing. Occasionally, stray dogs could be heard; it was too late for any call to prayer. Who knew if there were secret agents and other villains still mingling in the streets of this old city, securely hidden in the corners of narrow stone labyrinths, under the flat roofs of the bazaars and tarpaulins of street sellers? I moved to the open window, wrapped only in a towel, and stood there. I paid around ten dollars for a room at the L’Americain Hotel, and I got a million dollar view. Atlantic on the left, over there behind the Cape Spartel, the Mediterranean Sea to the right, and the distant lights of Gibraltar before me. I got some fresh air – salt, algae, oil, spices, I could smell all this – lit a cigarette and peeped back into the room.
When I looked at the bed, I was flooded with emotion. She was lying on her side, completely naked. The distillation of beauty and grace she was, as if flooded with the creator’s benevolence. Her long, black hair was painted in bright silver shades by the moon’s rays through the window; the same rays stroked her beautiful body. There is a God in heaven. Of course there is. And he’s just. Right?
“Let’s run away, away from this crazy world,” I had said to her the day before. “Let’s flee to another country where nobody knows us! Far from this forced giggling and these shallow phrases! All these receptions are slowly killing me, and there’s nowhere to find any decent sangria. As far as I’m concerned, all these Seville colors and colorful facades around us are no more than just a cheerful parade of wealth and kitsch. And the street mariachis at every turn? They have pushed my patience to the edge of despair. I can’t stand it anymore! So let’s go and do something crazy, something absolutely wrong! Let’s ride into the sunset, let the wind lead us. Fate will take care of us, let us surrender to it. C’mon, are we stronger than the creator? No, we are not, and we shouldn’t be. Maybe he’s got some plans for us right now, so why would we reject him? Everything we do at a certain moment is fate, just ask the Arabs. So if we go out tonight and head to the sea, then this is Inshallah, God’s will. Who knows, maybe we get married and have seven children, maybe we become bank robbers or something else. Just go!”
She laughed and said yes. Just like that. There was something roguish in her voice, no doubt, but her answer was yes. Perhaps (most likely) she read me; she knew I was bluffing, and she set herself up as my mirror. Without a doubt, she was interested in how I would get out of my own hole. But that wasn’t all.
“Let’s go, yeah. But since you are mentioning the sea, then you should take me somewhere to the sea,” she laughed and lifted her eyebrows. Of course, this gesture was a pure challenge. Nothing short of a major, decisive challenge. Now it was up to me to find out if our roles might have switched – if she was the one bluffing now.
Unbelievable. I had already sold hundreds of such stories, and from them I have never got anything more than a placid smile and a pat on my shoulder. What could I do now? The worst thing would be to do nothing, because the timid player was even worse than the empty bluffer – not to mention the unpleasant rumors that would start circling around. There was, therefore, the possibility that she was simply provoking me. To see how far I would dare. I could check this in only one way—by raising the stakes with an empty card. (They say that you can only fight a bluff with a bluff.)
“The sea is nothing. Let’s go to where Inshallah is at home. Let’s drive down to the south, across Gibraltar. I know one very good restaurant in Casablanca; what do you say?” I asked her and looked deep into the dark eyes.
In less than an hour, we were driving. We didn’t go to Casablanca, because there was no need for that, and the modern Casablanca has absolutely nothing in common with the romantic spot from that eponymous movie. (That mystical place haunted me for years, so my disappointment on my first visit to Casablanca was terrible.) We stopped in Tangier and settled in a small, “boutique” hotel above the uphill alleys. The hotel itself was not actually a boutique at all—it was only small, with typical colonial facades. But it did have a great view. From an old man on the street, we bought a liter of bad red wine and a large plastic bottle of Coke; the ice we picked up from the machines in the corridor. In the room, I first poured half the cola into the toilet bowl, then filled the plastic bottle back up with red wine. I mixed it well and buried the bottle in the ice. It might be called sangria for the poor, but who cares?
She sat on an ancient armchair, her legs twisted beneath her, and watched me silently. Then she said something that sealed the course of events for the night. She said: “Teach me to play poker!”
That surprised me completely. Again. For the second time. But I didn’t give up so easily. I explained to her that we play poker for money. Just for money. Otherwise it makes no sense. If you want to see a card, you have to pay. If you want to stay another round, you have to pay. That’s just the essence of this game. Even if we play chips, coins or matches—we play with them and not with cards. If not, it’s not interesting. Then this is just another game. For kids. Totally pointless.
We drank some long sips of our refreshing drink in silence.
Then I made this thoughtful face. Kindness prevailed me. Certainly, there must be a way to help this innocent girl, I thought. Pure goodness and honest intentions led me when I explained to her that she may buy her entry with some of her belongings (barter is ultimately the oldest form of trading, so how should I be the one who rejects the universal language of humanity?).
The wise men said that goodness would always be paid at the end, so it did not surprise me when she nodded. I gave each of us two cards and she decided to play. She put her sunglasses on the table silently. I laid mine next to hers and dealt three community cards. We looked at them and calculated the chances of winning. For the next round, we put in our jackets, then came the new card and our T-shirts with it. For the fifth card, we paid with the shoes.
When we showed the cards, I pulled all my gained belongings on my pile and allowed her to buy the entry into the new game in the same way. Altogether, it really became more and more interesting. It’s been a while, and her skirt was on its turn. Then I suggested her bra, which she agreed to. We looked at what else she could use and she found herself and removed the wedding ring from her hand.
Okay, now ... At this moment, I just halted. And stared at her ring. It was quite unusual, made of white gold, with three oblique lines on the side. Somewhere, I’ve already seen the one like this, but where...? I tried to remember.
Then, in one a moment, I just turned pale.
No, that cannot be true!
I shook my head and almost laughed. This is awesome (I hoped this was not seen to the outward)!
We played for some more time until she sat there on the chair completely naked. She was not embarrassed at all, perhaps my sangria had something to do with it.
I put down the cards, but they scattered all over the floor.
I didn’t pick them up.