With all the talk nowadays of a "clash of civilizations," The Strings of the Lute takes a look at "the little picture." At ordinary people - of totally different backgrounds, cultures, and religions - dealing with some of the extraordinary issues of our time.
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An immaculate eclipse; then - nothing. Where nanoseconds before, pine trees line the road, their pungent scent evoking trips to her grandparents' house on the lake, there is nothing. No stale taste of the hardened gum she has been chewing a bit too long. No obstinate growling of the car's ten-year old motor, badly in need of a tune-up. No rheumatic protest from her fingers too tightly gripping the steering wheel. Nothing.
In the startled silence, she tries to focus her thoughts in prayer. From a corner of her mind, she senses her six-year-old son standing at a distance, just before the lightening. He is not supposed to be there, but she knows he is. "God, please don't let . . . " she begins, but decides not to waste a prayer on something that cannot be changed. Instead, she summons Larbi, her soul mate, her love, and wills him the strength to rescue their son from the looming nightmare.
She struggles with the unfamiliar, sluggish workings of her mind. Just as a thought concretizes, it is lost. Snatches of shattering glass and snarling metal merge with the shards of her past. As one impression surfaces it is nudged aside by another. Even those reluctant to move on are abruptly dispatched.
Her senses and emotions emerge intermittently, pulsing in and out, switching sensations on her like some crazy remote control. One instant, she breathes in the rich, dark coffee as she ceremoniously measures out the spoonfuls, carefully pours the boiling water into the aluminum pot; then detects annoyance with the maid who, arriving early, has deprived her of the coveted morning ritual. She feels the sun warming her back as she bikes to classes at State,reveling in the changing autumn colors; thrills to the crunch of the fallen leaves as she throws herself on a pile, her own laughter mingling with that of her fellow kindergartners. Shivers and leans back against her dad's chest as the sled races down the hill in the moonlight, both of them realizing too late that the snow has turned to ice, winces at the stinging burn even before they hit the bank. Giggles, swings her newly cut hair back and forth as she sits on the booster chair in Best's salon, catches her mom smiling at her in the mirror.
As soon as the blinding light returns, however, she's drawn into the hypnotic trance of oblivion. A line from Dylan Thomas flickers behind her eyes. "No," she protests, "'Rage, rage against the light' is how it ought to read."
Fleetingly, she considers whether some deal was made back in May unbeknownst to her; a case of Him working in mysterious ways. She thinks of her son and The Bicycle Incident; knows she would sign on the dotted line again without hesitation. Her thoughts form a melancholy smile that translates bittersweetly to her lips.
She hears her infant son crying to be picked up from his crib, sending a signal to her swollen breasts to start her milk flowing. She tastes the tears coursing down her cheeks, the jostling crowd pushing her up against the gritty window where she glimpses her love waving sadly, as the overcrowded train lurches out of the station.
Again and again, she comes back to her prayer and her longing for Larbi. Each attempt to complete the psalm is overcome by the radiance. Gradually, the interruptions fade and she surrenders to the brilliant calm.
She knows her prayer has found its voice... she knows true peace...she knows . . .
He sits on the edge of the bed, fingering the sealed white envelope. In the space of a half-hour, the lettering has almost completely worn away with his unconscious massaging of the paper. A twinge of guilt pierces him, as he sees the damage he has done to his wife's finely scripted calligraphy. He absentmindedly smoothes over the paper, an unconscious attempt to assuage his guilt. He can't understand why his finding this letter upsets him so terribly. Perhaps it's a side effect of the sedative the doctor has prescribed. Or simply a desire to hear her "voice" one more time, even if the words are written, not spoken. So many questions, they make his head ache. Still, he does not open the letter. It is not addressed to him. He stares at the envelope, containing what is surely his wife's last written communication, and the flourishing characters which read:
34 Old Oaks Road
Dear Suzanne. How many times had Lorraine described her friend to him as her lifeline to the real world? What she meant, he knew, was that Suzanne was her connection to the States; to her roots. But the implication was that Lorraine's life in Morocco was somehow surreal.
"This is like something right out of The Arabian Nights!" she would say each time they drove by the Tour Hassan and Mohammed V Mausoleum all lit up at night, the tower like some ancient monolith, the white marble tomb and the green tiles of its domed roof reflected like diamonds and emeralds in the Bou Regreg River below. She'd make the same observation whenever they happened on a Fantasia, watching the horsemen all in white, brandishing their rifles, charging with their horses in a veil of dust, coming to a thundering halt, firing their weapons all at once. "It's not a bad thing, on the contrary. It's just so different." And then, teasingly, "Now I know what it must be like to be a victim of an alien abduction and wake up one morning on another planet."
He starts to smile, winces instead. His sadness and the pounding in his head overtake him. He knows the first year was hard for her, but over time she'd adjusted; had come to feel at home here. Hadn't she? He lifts his head and his glance falls on his own image in the mirror. An incongruous look of guilt meets his stare.
After a week of explaining to their son that Lorraine's death was an accident - nobody's fault - he sees that he does not believe it himself. He feels responsible, being thousands of kilometers away at the time. It doesn't matter that his country's incredibly high accident rate is well documented; that just recently Morocco has gained notoriety for having the deadliest roads in the world. He is convinced that if he had been there to pick up his son from school, or if he had just bought Lorraine one of those sturdy four-wheel drives like he had planned, the tragedy could have been prevented. He cannot echo his father's sad, but resolute, acceptance of Lorraine's death as "God's will."
He slips his finger under the seal and it tears slightly. He stops, unable to unlock the message that his wife has intended for someone else. In their thirteen or so years together, both before and after marriage, they have always respected each other's privacy. He knows that there were "girl things" that Suzanne and Lorraine shared and of which he was not a part. Just as Lorraine would manage to quietly disappear when his brothers visited and she sensed they needed time alone. In a society which on occasion separates men from women, he and Lorraine had created their own gender specific zones, although they did not always coincide with the accepted mores. A scene from a colleague's wedding just a few months before comes to mind. Upon arrival, the men and women are being ushered into separate rooms, as is custom in some milieu, though not in his family. He holds Lorraine back, taking her hand and admiring how enchanting she looks in her gold-threaded kaftan, looking so much younger than her thirty-five years. Talking quietly, they linger in the reception area until other couples gradually join them. Soon the waiters are obliged to bring chairs for them as the crowd preferring mixed company grows. After awhile, he catches Lorraine's eye and they smile together at their small victory over convention.
Remembering this, he closes his eyes, and tries to connect intuitively with his wife. At this moment, however, his efforts are obscured by a throbbing migraine. He gives up, and the contents of the letter, whether benign or some awful secret, remain unknown to him.
He replaces the letter on the bureau. He takes a cover from the shelf in the dressing room, removing it from its plastic casing. The slightly mildewed scent of the blanket is a less painful alternative to the linens on the bed which are still imbued with Lorraine's perfume. He doubts that he will ever breathe in the summer promise of jasmine again without experiencing an unbearable sense of loss. He closes the door gently and, after checking to make sure his son is asleep, he goes downstairs to the TV room. Waiting for the sedative to take effect, he tries in vain to concentrate on the Egyptian soap opera on the screen. As usual, the characters are arguing violently over some inane and incomprehensible issue. They seem to mock his thoughts, locked in a battle of their own. He mutes the sound. The actors grimace and mouth insults, looking more ridiculous, even without the badly mistranslated English subtitles that Lorraine loved to make fun of. Lorraine . . .
As he drifts fitfully off to sleep, his thoughts return to the letter to Suzanne. What if he called her and implored her to come to Rabat? She would read the letter and relay its message to him. A tentative peacefulness envelops him for the first time in over a week and he imagines that Lorraine approves his idea. It will be a comfort, maybe even a release, to commiserate with Suzanne. But, he can't imagine how he will accomplish what his wife was never able to. Despite repeated invitations, and ultimately supplications, she could never coax Suzanne to visit her newfound home.
As she hangs up the phone, she checks the time on the clock. It is barely 6:00 AM, but she is fully awake now. Unlike several minutes ago when Larbi woke her up and - rather unfairly, she thinks - caught her completely off guard. She is acutely aware that she has promised Larbi she will travel to Morocco next week, but not at all certain why she accepted his proposal. She plays back parts of the conversation in her head, as though she were rewinding a cassette she'd been watching, realizing suddenly she's missed a vital part of the dialogue.
"I really wanted to come to the funeral," she remembers saying. "I just couldn't take time off from work. We're right in the middle of an audit and everyone is in such a bitchy mood . . . " Her voice breaks, though she is not sure if it is genuine distress or shame at the hollowness of her excuse.
"It's okay," he assures her.
"No, it's really not. I mean, Lorraine was like my sister. I should have come with Mrs. DeVico."
"It's alright, really. I understand. Anyway it's what I'm calling about. I want you to come to Rabat and spend some time with me and Ismail." He pauses, as though searching for the right words. "There is something . . . well . . . a lot of things I want to talk to you about. Lorraine always . . . " His voice catches.
For one absurd instant, she thinks that maybe Larbi will ask her to bring Ismail back to the States with her. The wish she has been harboring for a week now suddenly surfaces. She has told no one, not even Nick, about her hopes of gaining custody of Ismail. While she knows it is a crazy idea, her heart has reasons that, as Pascal once said, reason would not understand.
She is brought back to earth when Larbi explains about the letter; silently chides herself for jumping to ridiculous conclusions. She is tempted to tell him just to put the letter in the mail. But, she can't let go of the thought of her best friend's child growing up a non-Catholic in the Third World; never being baptized. Still thinking of Ismail, she says "yes" to Larbi's plea.
The past week, she has been so swamped at work that she has not had time to mourn her friend. Nick has not been very sympathetic either. His offer to spend last night at his cousin's house, so she could have some time to herself, was really just an excuse for a Friday night out with the boys. In any event, she is grateful for the solitude this morning.
Rising from the bed, she goes to her dresser. She reaches for the photo that is lodged in the left corner of the mirror frame. It is a close-up of her and her friend taken just two months before, while Lorraine was back on her yearly pilgrimage to the States. When they were younger, people always asked if they were sisters, struck by the resemblance in the two Irish-Italian girls and especially the dark, nearly ebony color hair they shared. Studying the photo, she notices the likeness has almost completely faded. Her own hair looks the same, but Lorraine's has taken on a reddish, henna tint. Her skin, which has not been exposed to the sun much lately, is pale next to Lorraine's lusty, year-round tan from years of living in a Mediterranean clime. Her gaze is drawn to something in their expressions she has not noticed before. Ever the "camera animal," she herself is beaming from ear to ear in a perfect "cheesy" grin. Lorraine's smile however has a melancholy, Mona Lisa aspect. Searching her memory, she remembers Nick taking the shot, but cannot place the context that would explain Lorraine's mien. Abandoning the thought, she places the photo back in the mirror.
From the bottom drawer of the dresser, she extracts several photo albums. She places the albums on the bed and goes to the study to retrieve her high school and college yearbooks from the bookshelf. Then, back in her bedroom, she heads for the closet and, realizing she cannot reach, she brings a chair and climbs up on it. On the top shelf, all the way in the back, she finds several boxes, each tied with ribbon. She piles them all up, and deposits them on her bed next to the albums and yearbooks. Crawling back under the covers, she opens the first box marked "1974." The blue aerograms and multi-colored envelopes are neatly stacked in chronological order. "How anal can you get?" she admonishes herself.
Something Lorraine would say. She allows a smile, remembering her best friend. Many teachers and classmates at Rolling Hills High had great hopes for Lorraine, voted "Most Likely to Succeed," and christened a "pilgrim soul" by the English department. An eventual Nobel or Pulitzer Prize winner, they were sure.
She hears herself asking, year after year, "Are you writing?"
And the answer, as always, "Well, I'm writing to you, aren't I?"
"Yes, Lorraine, and I don't think I ever told you how therapeutic it was to have you to write to all those years," she says out loud. "Well, I'm telling you now." She pulls the covers over her and tugs at the ribbon around the first packet of letters.