In summer, our neighborhood quiets in phases. The quieting begins in May. Schools give their older kids, the seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, a month off to prepare for the baccalaureate exams. Following a ritual as old as our parents, the students retreat to residences out of town, to peaceful chalets and cabins away from civilization for communal study and living. As noisily as migrating birds, they return for the state exams in June. Then school ends for the year; a couple of families travel abroad, a few more leave for the mountains. An outsider doesn’t perceive the slow but sure change in the neighborhood’s population until Beirut broils in August.
In early July, our neighbors across the landing, the Masris, left for the mountains. They wouldn’t return from their summer home till late September with its cooling temperatures. That was the summer I was promoted to the apartment’s caretaker, taking over from my brother. My father insisted that I look after the Masri home because he thought that at thirteen, I wasn’t yet behaving as an adult should. I needed to become more responsible. I’d been receiving talking-tos, lectures with full arm waving and hand gestures, every day for a month.
In the mornings, in the bathroom, as my father in boxer shorts and T-shirt stood before the vanity mirror, words would bubble out of the snow-white shaving foam. “When I was your age, I didn’t laze about all day doing nothing,” he’d say. “Can’t you find more mature friends? Do things that are more productive? You know, every action has a consequence, and the consequence of doing nothing is that you end up as nothing.”
At lunch, in the dining room, as we sat around the oak table, “Sit up straight. Look at how Wajdi sits, like a man. Enough with this boyish slouching.”
In the den, while watching television, he’d repeat the spiel, except after dinner he made it sound as if the thought had just occurred to him. “You should be thinking about what you want to do with your life,” he’d say. His right arm, as was its wont every evening, held my mother in what I always considered a matrimonial embrace, and she regarded him with admiration, as though each word of his were a tumbling pearl. “It’s never too early,” he’d go on, his left hand wandering and questioning. “What do you like? Solving problems? You can become an engineer. Helping people? An attorney. You could raise your grades if you applied yourself. Consider your future.”
I didn’t mind taking care of our neighbors’ apartment. My becoming-more-responsible chore for the summer involved little work: I had to open the windows once a week to air the place out and make sure that the two canaries were fed and their cage kept clean.
I sat cross-legged on the leather couch in Dr. Masri’s apartment, reading an ancient Harold Robbins novel where all the action happened in the Middle East—and I do mean action. In the best scene, Leila, who as a child refugee was traumatized by both Jews and Arabs, sucked a guy’s sumptuous dick in delicious descriptive detail. Her PLO boyfriend had persuaded her to fellate a fine-looking Mossad agent to extract valuable information. That was the first time I came across the verb fellate. I’d read Jacqueline Susann and Jackie Collins, so I knew about oral sex in literature, but this book was different. These were Arabs giving blowjobs and saying things like their mother’s cunt, which would have worked had it been written in Arabic but sounded utterly silly in English. Robbins was shooting for authenticity and ended up with anything but. Much fun.
I enjoyed reading a book from start to finish, unlike my brother, who read only the good parts. Wajdi would pick any book from Dr. Masri’s library, new or classic, a Collins or a Robbins, and let it open to where the spine was most creased. His technique never failed to ferret out an act of coitus or fellatio, since it seemed that Dr. Masri concentrated on the same parts. My brother’s interest in the books had waned the year before, when he turned seventeen and said he needed to concentrate on the real instead of the imaginary.
Dr. Masri’s entire library was shelved in one piece of furniture in the salon, a breakfront that had been moved from the dining room; thick paperbacks had replaced china and silverware behind the glass, and every paperback contained at least one good sex scene. If, as my father advocated, being a responsible caretaker was the gateway to manhood, I was all for it—those paperbacks would be my Saint Peter.
I had reached the page where Leila gets recruited to be a terrorist when the doorbell rang. I tiptoed to the door, as quiet as a stalking Mossad, and didn’t have to look through the peephole to know that it was Pipo, the bane of my existence. He had warned me to tell him as soon as the Masri family drove up to the mountains.
“If I don’t hear from you as soon as they leave,” he’d told me three days earlier, “I’m going to squeeze you with my hands like a little cockroach.” It would have been funny, how he always used incorrect similes, if his threats hadn’t usually been followed by unpredictable actions. I’d lied to the overweight monster and told him that Wajdi was the caretaker again this year—Pipo was afraid of Wajdi, who was the only boy in the neighborhood stronger and taller than the blob.
Pipo had this most annoying habit of talking to my face while lifting me by the collar of my shirt. That stopped when, during one lift, I told him I was wearing Wajdi’s shirt—I lied then as well, of course, but it was looser than what I normally wore—and my brother would be terribly upset if the collar was crinkled.