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Trust your boat
to the winds but never
trust your heart to a woman;
a wave is surer than
a woman's faithfulness.
The trouble with the month of May, George Russell told himself, was that it was just too damned hot to walk anywhere in Tunis and enjoy it; the spring was going to be something of a record breaker, and everywhere you went the talk was of nothing but the weather and how hot it was, and how hot it continued to be day after day without a break, even during the nights (when, if anything, it was worse), and how the early heat boded ill for the rest of the summer.
Even before he got to the intersection of the Rue Bouzaine and the Boulevard of the President, Russell was obliged to stop and wipe off his sunglasses, where the sweat had dripped onto them from the free-flowing stream of his forehead, and stand for a second under the futile gray shade of a plane tree. Ordinarily the walk from the Foundation offices in the Rue Mohammed Cinq down the Boulevard was not too bad; in fact it was a pleasant stroll, just as Tunis was a fairly pleasant place. The city was modern and well-kept, much like the French town of Toulon which it was said to resemble, except of course for the palm trees, the presence of the Medina rising like a ziggurat of white blocks on the hill behind the new city, and the Arabs.
When it was hot like this in May, the old hands said, there was bound to be one hell of a drought later on, worse than the usual summer droughts, which were bad enough.
Russell lit a cigarette and threw the match into the street and walked on. The taste ofcigarette smoke was hot and unpleasant, but after all even the air burned as he drew it in along with the smoke. There was no sun, now, only a glare of white sky which shriveled the eyes and shot sparks off the glass store fronts and the windshields of parked cars and the aluminum strips which adorned the façade of the British Bank of the Middle East. Not a drop of moisture, not a breath of wind. The Boulevard of the President was deserted; even the buses seemed to have quit. On the corner of the Avenue de Carthage, the Café de Paris had only a handful of sunburned German tourists in walking shorts at the tables under the green awning, looking out unhappily upon a street in which there was nothing but George Russell himself slouching past. Their eyes followed him, but he did not even lift his head to look.
He was busy thinking lustfully of a shower, and then bed.
He wouldn't even bother, he told himself, to light the chauffage. To hell with hot water; he'd take it just as it came out of the pipes, tepid, cold, or whatever, and then not towel off but lie down on the bed wet and naked and gradually soak off to sleep. He might even throw a pan of water over the sheets, something he usually reserved for the bad days of July and August.
He was, he thought morosely, fed up with Tunis anyway, and all the endless talk of the weather. When you came right down to it, Tunis in the heat was worse in some ways than the southern desert. At least down in the Sahara you braced yourself against the furnace of the sun and the feel of your own flesh frying in it by learning the trick of pulling into yourself, of living completely inside of yourself and staying there. In the desert you even cleaned your head out as a matter of survival and thought very slow, uncomplicated thoughts, Bedouin fashion. Like water, motion, distance, the condition of the animals, the pace, destination. Whereas in Tunis you chased like hell through the streets, your brain was always busy, and you tried to work and live as though the heat didn't matter. Which was stupid and killing.
The fruit-drink stand in the center of the Boulevard was tightly shuttered, which was something of a small surprise. Usually there had to be some oasis down that way, if only for the cab drivers who had their stands around the median park. It was strange, all that silence in a city full of living people; the whole of Tunis made for its bed when the heat was like this, just rolled over on its Arab ass and went to sleep and to hell with commerce and all the things which occupied insane foreigners. The city slept on until four or five o'clock, or until it felt obliged to get out of bed and take down the shutters and make some money by working well into the night. In the Arab quarter the small shops were open to midnight and past.
The Foundation office operated on a different schedule, like the embassies. The Foundation opened at seven in the morning, when the local population was just getting out of bed, and closed at two in the afternoon, leaving the staff the rest of the burning day to enjoy. Shoving the working day up into the early hours of the morning was supposed to be a better system than the long sieste and then returning to work again.
And Russell supposed it was, for those like Sir Charles Benedict and the ambassadors, who could hop into their cars and make for air-conditioned houses, up by the Tunis Hilton, or their villas at the beach.
At the end of the Boulevard of the President the modern city came to an abrupt stop at the old French cathedral and a pretentious junior-sized edition of the Arc de Triomphe and the bus turnarounds. Beyond the arch, the old city of the Medina opened up its maw of alleys. The modern city was flat, built mostly on fill dumped into the harbor by the French, but the Medina climbed a natural cliff with twisting mole burrows of streets, alleys laced over with rush matting through which the sun fell in intermittent streaks, the whole of it close, crowded, and solid like a giant wasps' nest, as comfy and insular as the Arab mind. In the lower parts of the Medina the shops which catered to the tourists were still open, displaying piles of heelless Arab shoes in atomic colors, machine-made keshtas, and leather pillows. But now there were no tourists, and the shop owners were asleep on piles of merchandise in the back.
Russell's own flat was midway up the hill in one of the dead-end streets of the souks attarine, the section of the perfume makers. But there was damned little perfume being made, since most of the distillers had moved into the new city. As he turned into his cul-de-sac, the nasal, breaking wail of three or four radio singers on as many stations poured out from behind the shut wooden doors and the grille windows above them and seeped under the closed steel blinds of the corner café, along with the peculiarly gassy smell of steaming couscous.
Sweet home, Russell thought. And praise be to Allah, the One God, for the miracle of electronic music.
The thought of the shower grew pressing, like a terrible thirst. He found a sudden burst of energy to run up two flights of dark stairs and bang open the doors to his rooms.
The damned day was his. He was finally alone.
"Goddammit," he said.
Jamila was there, pacing up and down in orange stretch slacks and a white nylon blouse, smoking a cigarette. She turned to him eagerly, defensively.
"Who gave you entrance to my house?" he said in Arabic, not trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. "Who opened the door for you?"
"The concierge," she said in French.
So they were going to play that, he told himself wearily. Her French was a hell of a lot better than his, and annoyingly rapid and slangy. He had a lot of trouble following it. She knew he didn't want her there, so she was going to horse around in the thickets of la langue while she tried to keep the upper hand.
"There is no concierge here. Only the woman downstairs who lets the rooms."
"Well, she let me in, then." She gave a Gallic shrug. "Does it make the difference? I am here. Do you not want me here? I wanted to make the pleasant surprise."
Like hell she did.
"Attend me, Jamila," he said again in Arabic, trying to hold on to his patience. "I want thee gone. Quickly. I need my bath and then my sleep. It is the hour for it, and I am tired."
"You can just say beat it," she told him, inserting the Tunisian word, barra. "You don't have to say all that. It's really very ridiculous; you talk very old-fashioned."
"I know what I am saying, and I am trying to be polite. Now, leave my house. But delight me with your presence," he added quickly, "another time."
"Oh, shit on you!" she cried in French. Her voice lifted a little, taking on the strident Arab ring. She followed him across the room. "You think you are so clever, but you really are very absurd. You don't talk Tunisian very well; you talk like you are reciting from the Qur'an, like the old ones at a marriage bargaining, or the old ladies in the Melassine. People laugh at you, they really do."
He was in the bathroom, trying the taps to make sure there was water.
"I am going to take my bath," he told her over the first few explosive bursts of the plumbing. He came to the bathroom door and stood there, unbuttoning his shirt.
"I am not going to leave," she said sullenly. "I have seen you undressed before." But she followed him with her eyes as he rummaged around in the cabinet to find a new bar of soap and came back to get a clean towel. "Why did you not call me at work? I waited for you to call me. My God, I wait all the time and make a lot of mistakes in my typing, thinking that you are going to call me. And your Conroy, he always comes by and says" -- here her voice dropped to an imitation of the assistant American Consul -- " 'Miss Zahra, there are too many mistakes in your typing. Can't you do better than this?' Which means that he is going to complain to Baxter" -- she pronounced it Bex-tair, gutturally -- "about me. You are the fault of it. You know that? You are the fault of it." But she came into the bathroom with him, as he showered, and tried to shout over the noise of the water. When he came out she said nervously, "How do you like my pants? Do you like the color? It is very chic, this color. And chic to wear them tight, the stretch nylon."
He took one brief look and then said, "Does it make you ashamed?"
"What do you mean, does it make me ashamed?" she screamed. As he had known he would, he had hit a nerve. "Do you think I am some country woman, not able to wear slacks because it shows my body?"
"You forget, I have seen them before. They are very nice." Still dripping, he went to the kitchen and poured himself a Scotch. There was no ice in the refrigerator, and it gave off a dank, buttery smell. The electricity was off again.
Jamila had taken up her showy pacing around the room, darting him little provocative looks.
"What is the matter with you?" she complained. "Why are you being so cold to me now? You are treating me like an Arab man, you know that? Do you think it is very clever to treat me this way, like something you can throw away when you do not want it? I think you are becoming Arab all over, Rosul, and not only with the talk. Yes, look at you. You talk the Tunisian very well -- I did not mean what I said before -- even better than you talk the classical. Does that make you feel very good? But the talk is making you turn into some sort of a camel! You talk to me just like some goat dung of a farmer!" She stopped dramatically, her breasts heaving in synthetic distress, hands clasped to the front of the nylon shirt.
The slacks and blouse, Russell thought critically, were really not very becoming. Jamila's style was too exotic for Western casual clothes. She wore them uneasily, like a desert bedu stuffed into a business suit, and only her fine figure saved her. But she had a hell of a body, unusually slim and long-waisted for an Arab girl, and her face was sharp and delicate like a desert woman's except for the thin slash of her prominent mouth. In fact, with her slenderness and her magnificent eyes and wild bush of wavy hair she looked very much like a Bedouin girl. Once he had made the mistake of comparing her to the good-looking Bedouin, and she had shot into one of her instant rages. She was Arab, all Arab, she had screamed. Pure-blooded, high-born like the best of them.
Like most of the things she said, it was a lot of crap. Damned few Tunisians had the pure Arab strain. She was a mixture like the rest of the population along the coast of North Africa: a little Turkish and Berber and Spanish and maybe a little Sicilian from across the straits and, yes, enough Arab. And maybe some Bedouin, too. The bedu had no class, like gypsies, but the women were supposed to be particularly passionate, and the Arab men sampled them plenty when they got the chance.
And God knows what else, he thought. Half of Europe and the Middle East had raped and screwed across the country for centuries.
"I have been busy; I have been working," he told her, sipping his drink.
"They tell me," she said, eyes narrowing, "that you are going to be with these American girls all the time, like the Peace Corps."
So she had heard that, too. "You have spoken truly."
The high formality sent her off into another burst of idiomatic French which he did not even try to follow. She wandered around the room distractedly, picking up loose objects and putting them down, her fingers quivering as though she would like to go all the way and pick them up and throw them. She was working herself up into a freewheeling rage.
"And of course you are going to sleep with them! This is what always happens with you. And they are very cold in bed, you know that! This is what everyone says -- yes, it is true -- that American women are very bad in bed. They say it everywhere, not only here. Even the Italians say it. And the French say it, too!"
"Oh, shut up, Jamila," he said. He used a very nice, coarse street Arabic, and to his surprise she laughed. Her whole face changed, eyes crinkling in delight. Like the eyes one saw in the streets above a haik.
"Why are you naked?" she said, in an entirely different, curious tone of voice. "You like to stand before me naked, do you not?" she purred. "Well, I tell you now, it does not impress me." She turned away and looked at him out of the corners of her eyes.
He had to laugh. Yes, very funny. If only she weren't so goddamned tiresome; that was the hell of it. It was always the same with these Arab girls only one step away from their girlhood imprisonment; the underlying hysteria was still there. A couple of years in the city only managed to put a cheap veneer over it, that was all. They were still not able to understand enough, didn't have enough education, not enough damned character to rescue them from being an unholy nuisance when they thought you were cooling off. Jamila would not let herself believe that he had been working damned hard, that he had been tied up with the interminable business of trying to arrange for the Youth Commitment Group to come in, and that now he was tired and wanted to sleep.
They could make your life hell. They made life hell in their own houses with their own men, and for the same reason.
He remembered that when he had first seen Jamila he had been impressed with her because she had looked so delightfully French, so very pretty and charmingly continental behind her desk in the consular office. In fact, he had taken her for a Parisienne because of her accent -- which was perfect -- her clothes, and the open assurance of her manner. A very damned good imitation of the French girl. But she was all Arab, as he had come to find out, down to the last angry, anxious, pleading pressure of her demands. When she started up her voice altered, turning shrill and slightly hoarse like something out of the secluded back rooms of a village dar.
Now she roamed around in the small space of his rather bare sitting room, shooting him burning looks that were supposed to make much of the fact that he had not bothered to cover himself with a towel.
But on the other hand, he told himself, sometimes she was worth the damned tiresome fuss she always caused. As he poured himself another drink he observed that, although the orange pants certainly didn't suit her, they did cling tightly to her legs and rippled across her backside seductively when she walked. And her breasts strained against the buttons of the nylon shirt.
Damn, she ruined whatever margin there was by swinging her ass atrociously. That was part of it. And the shirt was about two sizes too small. He could never get her to understand that a tailored shirt was not supposed to be as revealing as a cocktail dress.
Still, what the hell, he supposed he couldn't carp. Peeled of her brassiere her breasts were high and round with enormous nipples tapering to long points, very savage-looking. They didn't even flatten out much when he rolled her over on her back. And if she was a little high-assed, the length and shape of her slender legs made up for it.
"If this is what you have come for," he said suddenly, in the same street Arabic, "to offer yourself to me, then take off your clothes." He made a lazy, circling motion with his hand. "And do it quickly. Maybe when I see you, Jamila, I will forget how tired I am and want you."
That was blunt enough. It cut right into her long tirade, and she stopped and looked startled. But he knew that she had heard and understood him perfectly and had caught the use of the dialect and his offhand manner. Her mouth dropped open a little, and then she recovered herself.
"You are a beast to talk to me this way," she said in French.
He shrugged. "Do what I want or get out. Else I might throw you out in the streets."
Frankly, he didn't give a damn. He was not only tired but he had had enough of her scenes and had decided to take the offensive. He doubted that she would leave, but at least he had shaken her up a bit. He had struck the tone she would respond to, just about the level of a good workingman-shopkeeper of the smaller villes.
It was interesting to see her bite her lips, baffled, and try to pick up her harangue where she had left off. But she couldn't. It was obvious she believed him capable of throwing her out bodily if he had to, and that amused him. But it was more than that. In some way he had hit the right note, speaking to her in a way that she apparently knew all too well.
"You are unkind," she blurted suddenly, switching over to Arabic. "So unkind, unkind!"
He said nothing and she hesitated, giving him confused, outraged looks. But he was playing along with it. Dammit, she would just have to make up her mind. She had barged in on him; now it was a question of what it was worth to her.
"You are very cruel," she whispered finally. But she lowered her head and began to unbutton the nylon shirt.
Well, well. He drank his Scotch slowly and watched her, leaning against the doorjamb of the kitchen while she stood in the middle of the sitting room and slowly took off her blouse and then the slacks, keeping her eyes down and her face averted. There was none of the "Parisienne" Jamila in it at all. Even her expression changed, no provocativeness or fake French vivace but growing heavy, veiled, and submissive. Turning into an Arab right before his eyes. She dropped the brassiere on the couch and then slid out of the nylon underwear, finally kicking off her high-heeled shoes. When it was through she even put her hands over her breasts and stood, waiting for him to say something.
Like most Arab girls she still used a depilatory. There was no pubic hair. That made it complete.
Well, he thought, I'll be damned; she did it.
He didn't know why there was any surprise, for after all it was what she had learned first and best, that peremptory tone of command. Her father was a potter in Nabeul who had allowed her to go through the government high school there instead of marrying her off, and after the lycée she had taken advantage of her chance for freedom and had moved in quickly with relatives in Tunis to find a job. And with a job she had bought herself good clothes and had taken up with a crowd of young French boys who had taught her a lot. But without all that, if she had stayed at home, she would have bared herself like this for some lord and master of an Arab husband back in Nabeul. Standing as she was standing now, waiting for him to look her over and maybe order her to bed during the long hot-weather lunch hour.
He was responding to it; he couldn't help it. Russell put down his drink on the kitchen sink and went to her and guided her to the bedroom, and the bed.
But it had been a long time since he had been out to the villes and the desert; he had almost forgotten how it was. All the old sensations crowded in on him suddenly, the thick, lemony-sweet smell of cheap perfume, the rustle of bare feet, the memory of kohl-smeared eyes. And the whispers.
Tell me, sidi, how do you wish to be pleased? Tell me and I will do it.
A long time ago. The first woman he had had in North Africa had been a Bedouin girl in the Tell, given by a male relative in an excess of hospitality, and he had been so new and raw then he hadn't known how to go about the business of refusing. Scared out of his wits, in fact.
She had come to him in a darkened tent, trembling, very fine-boned and thin, the kind the bedu likened in their poems to the deer of the desert. But her fingers and mouth had gone all over him like mice, driving him crazy. He had had women before, some of them prostitutes, back in the States, but nothing like that. It had been quite an initiation into the outer reaches of sex. You were supposed to lose yourself entirely and rage like the lion that has come upon the roe. Exact Bedouin description.
He still remembered it very well.
Russell pulled Jamila down on the bed, and the quivering heat of her embrace was like that at first: the same submissive obedience, the same understanding that he was to take her for his own pleasure and with little regard for her flesh. He fell into the mood roughly and she began to whimper. That was part of it, too.
"Oh, sidi," she moaned, "spare me!" But her fingernails clawed his arms. "Ah, you will kill me, it is too much!"
The room began to lose focus. It was like being drunk, and her pained voluptuousness goaded him. But at the same time it was somewhat more than he wanted to handle. In spite of the oppressive heat she had plenty of energy, and it was all he could do to keep her in the bed; she must have enjoyed herself at least twice and in between times she climbed all over him in spite of her cries, thrashing over him, urging him to more and more. Finally he lost his temper and slapped her around rather firmly, and that was even better. She began to weep, smothering him with kisses.
"I love your body," she sobbed. "It is so beautiful. So beautiful an American body, and yet so passionate."
He had had enough, and he wanted her to leave him alone. When he was finished the last time he dragged himself into the other room and fell on the couch, damned near strangling with the effort to catch his breath. She followed after him, her naked skin shining with sweat, and tried to crawl in beside him, but he pushed her away, not gently.
"For God's sake, knock it off!"
She understood enough English for that and went sulkily back to the bedroom. She flopped on the bed, and every once in a while he could hear her sigh, loudly and unhappily.
He lay on his stomach, feeling the sweat run off his body as heavily as the water in the shower had run off it before, listening somewhat dimly to the radio singers echoing beyond the drawn blinds, in the Street of the Perfumers.
"Now, my love," the electric voice in the flat below sang throbbingly, "Open thy gates to me and do not keep me here beside thy house in the chill night."
The heat was too much; the damned house and the walls of the Medina closed around him, and his own body turned on him in a rage to get away, to break out of it somehow and return to a place where the air was clear crystal with summer and a cool breeze played over lakes and meadows and trees that were birch and oaks, and one never saw a damned palm tree again.
"Um-mah, um-mah," the radio voice grunted, dropping into the lower registers and insinuating the rapid thrusts of passion. "Um-mah, um-mah, uh, uh, UH." Spelling it out. The voice rose to a frenzy, mixed with drums and clanging oud, hit a quarter-tone agonizingly, and then broke. There was a silence. Then a smooth voice said pleasantly in French, "This is Radio Tunis."
He was, Russell decided, coughing a little into the cover of the couch, going to have to do something. Get rid of Jamila, for a start. Permanently.
And then -- Great God, he remembered, he had to be up at dawn in the morning to meet the Foundation's Youth Commitment Group coming in on the 6 A.M. TWA flight.
Copyright © 1971 by Maggie Davis