With the leftover beer I washed down two pills. I took Xanax to help me sleep. The first few weeks it worked, but as time passed, I had to take more and more. This evening I’d had two already, and now came two more.
Lying back in bed, I stared at the wall and waited for the effect. A half-hour passed, my eyes fixed on the mass of scribbles before me as I lay on the grimy sheet. “You’re not alone,” the previous tenant had written in letters of various sizes on every square inch of that wall. I got no sleepier or calmer. By 11 pm it was apparent that, yet again, I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep. I stood up out of bed, reached for the phone, and called Blake. It rang.
“Where are you, you scoundrel?”
“In the Bussy Cat.”
In the sink I washed my face and underarms, got on a clean shirt, and set off. The receptionist, who was sitting in the lobby at a plastic table, watching soap operas on a 1970s color TV, turned his head toward me and said, “When will you pay? It is the end of the month.”
He said it in English, with surprising precision, having presumably practiced the words to perfection. He’d had the opportunity, after all: the previous tenant had spoken English, too, until he killed himself.
“Soon,” came my reply, in faultless Arabic, this being what I had practiced to perfection. My reply seemed not to phase him much: he turned his head back to the TV as I went on, down the steps and out to the street.
The Bussy Cat wasn’t far from the Bluebird Hotel, where I lived. I had to walk two blocks. It was a fine example of a downtown bar where alcoholic Arabs imbibed. To get in you had to pass through a dark entryway that smelled of piss. Inside, too, it was dimly lit, the only source of light being the neon ads above the bar. Arabs were drinking away at the little tables. The filthy plastic tablecloths squelched each time they picked up their beers. Cigarette butts littered the floor along with the yellow shells of the chick peas served as finger food alongside the beer; the chick peas were salty and caused serious diarrhea. Everyone spit the shells on the floor.
Blake was sitting at the bar. Beside his right hand were four empty bottles of Stella.
“You look like shit,” he said after I gave him a slap on the back and sat down beside him.
“My father died two days ago. What’s your excuse?”
I ordered an Egyptian whiskey and downed it in one gulp. The turpentine flavor rushed down my spine.
“Got something? I know you do, you always do.”
“I’ve got Xanax.”
“That’ll do. Xanax is good. It’s funny to drink with. Let’s have it.” Taking the medication from my pocket, I pressed a few pills into his
Greedily he snatched up a pill, swallowing it without even bothering to chew.
“Whiskey!” he shouted, bringing a fist down on the bar. The waiter produced a bottle of that same Egyptian whiskey, labeled “Ballantimes,” with an m, poured a shot into his glass, and turned away.
“For him, too.”
“I shouldn’t. I already have two in me.”
The waiter poured me another. Blake and I clinked glasses and drank up.
Blake asked for another round, and we drank that up too.
“Got money on you?”
“Five hundred genēhs,” I said, using the local term for Egyptian pounds.
“That’s about as much as I have, too. Shall we head out to Ma’adi? I need a woman.”
I looked at my phone: it was almost midnight. Even with a taxi, that leafy suburb was an hour south of downtown Cairo. It was too late for whoring. The Faris closed at two, and the prettier gals were taken by midnight.
“It’s late already.”
“No it isn’t. It’s never too late for drinking and whoring.”
Blake put three hundred genēhs on the bar, asked and got the bottle of remaining whiskey in the bottle, and started toward the exit. I followed. In no time we found a taxi. By the time we reached the Nile, we’d finished the whiskey, and one more Xanax pill was in us each.
It was 1 am by the time the taxi let us out in front of the Faris Bar. People were already trickling out.
“We’re closing soon,” said the bouncer, a black man, after giving us the once-over. Blake convinced him that we want only one drink, and would then be on our way. He let us in.
There were barely a couple of people left inside. Before the bar was a mirror; I stared at myself. We were drunk but still moving. A thirtyish, long-legged Sudanese woman sat at the bar with a beer. She smiled on seeing us. Blake stepped over to her. “Hi, pretty girl.”
“Are you alone? In need of company?”
“Yes,” she said with a laugh.
Blake sat down beside her on a barstool, and I sat down beside them.
“This here is Daniel. I’m Charlie.”
Blake kissed her hand.
“Mira. You’re beautiful.”
“You two are beautiful, too.”
“So I am,” said Blake. “Not the Hungarian.”
“The Hungarian is beautiful, too. Are you American?”
“Yes. What are you drinking, Mira?”
Blake ordered three beers and three whiskeys.
We clinked the whiskey glasses and drank up.
“You remind me of an American singer, Mira,” said Blake.
“Not Ella Fitzgerald, I hope.”
“You know about Ella Fitzgerald?” I asked.
Mira nodded. “We used to listen to some of her records back in Khartoum.”
“Beyonce,” said Blake, putting an end to the guessing game.
We now clinked the beer mugs. The bartender warned us that this was the last round. Blake ordered three more whiskeys.
“Mira, both of us like you a lot, but this place is about to close. You’ll have to choose between us.”
“I can’t choose.”
“But you must.”
“I live three blocks from here. You can both come over to my place for one more drink, so I can make a well-informed decision.”
“You have booze at home?”
“No. But I have khat.”
“We’ll bring the booze,” said Blake, telling the bartender to pack us up six cans of Sakar. The man put them on the counter in a black plastic bag. We paid.
Mira really did live just a couple of apartment buildings away. The wind blowing in from the desert sobered us up a helluva lot, Blake and I, by the time we reached her flat. It was in a two-story concrete block, like so many buildings in Ma’adi. The woman rummaged for a while in her golden purse until she found the key. Blake meanwhile pressed a hand to her ass, to which she said, with a laugh, “That’s not allowed.”
“Because I haven’t yet decided.”
We entered a big living room that led to the other rooms and the bathroom. In the middle was a blue linen couch, a matching armchair right beside it, and a little table. Mira stepped from her high-heeled shoes and went in barefoot. We also took off our shoes. Blake put the black plastic bag on the table, removed a can of beer, opened it up, and plopped down in the armchair.
“Have you chewed khat before?” asked Mira with a grin.
“We have,” I said.
She went to the kitchen and returned with a plastic container. After peeling the lid off the box, she dipped in her finger and removed a big green glob of khat paste she then rubbed into her gums. We followed her example. I opened a beer to wash down the bitter taste.
Blake reached into his pocket and threw a leaf of Xanax pills on the table. Three pills were left.
“What is this?” asked Mira.
“Xanax,” Blake replied. “It’s terrific. Especially if you have a drink to go with it.”
“What are the side-effects?”
Removing the flattened box from my pocket, I took out the information leaflet and read some of it aloud, choosing the most interesting bits.
“Consumption of alcohol is strongly ill-advised. Side effects may include agitation, irritability, anger, aggressive behavior, delusions, nightmares, hallucinations, psychosis, or other unusual behavior. If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your physician immediately.”
“Aha,” said Mira, swallowing a pill and laughing.
“So then,” said Blake, “Have you decided already which one of us you like?”
Mira stood up and sat in Blake’s lap. While kissing him she reached out a hand and began caressing my thigh.
“It’s a really tough decision,” she said with a laugh. “I like your mouth but the Hungarian’s eyes. They are like broken glass.”
“I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” said Mira, “and when I come back I’ll see how he kisses.”
Extricating herself from Blake’s embrace, she staggered toward the bathroom. By the time she returned, she was down to her bra on top, though she hadn’t yet removed her skirt. She came straight to the couch, sat in my lap, and kissed me on the mouth. Her drool was bitter from the khat.
“I think you don’t have to choose between us,” said Blake, stepping up behind her and unfastening her bra.
I opened my eyes. The sun shone in the window, its light on the bed, where all three of us lay. I saw Blake’s hairy leg beside mine, Mira’s black nakedness between us. She was drooling onto the pillow. My mouth was dry, my lips cracked. My head was buzzing. Again I heard the noise.
A child’s delicate voice came from the direction where, I suspected, the bedroom door was.
I shut my eyes.
“Mommy, wake up. Please wake up, Mommy, I have to go to school.”
I lay there completely motionless. I dared not breath.
“Mommy, I’m really hungry, too.”
For a few seconds all was silent, and then I heard sniffling crying from the door.
I turned to Mira and gave her a nudge.
“Wake up, your kid is calling you.”
She didn’t react. I nudged her harder. Her head slipped off the pillow. She didn’t wake up.
The child didn’t stop crying even for an instant. Sitting up in bed, I looked for my underwear. My head was buzzing, my temples throbbing. I felt as if a knife were being plunged into my head with each beat of my heart. My underwear was under Mira, only its edge visible. I pulled it out and got it on fast. I then stepped over to the door, which was slightly ajar, and opened it completely. Standing by the bedroom was a little, dreadlocked black girl of about seven, wearing a floral dress and white shoes with ankle straps. Tears were flowing from her eyes.
“Hey, little girl,” I said, my voice raspy from yesterday’s whiskey and beer and Xanax.
“Where’s my mommy?”
“Your mommy is asleep. She worked really late last night.”
“Who are you?” she asked, sniffling, looking me over.
“I’m a friend of your mother’s. My name is Daniel. Where is your father?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is there anyone besides your mother who helps out sometimes?”
“Miss Lucille. But she’s not here now.”
“I see,” I said, massaging my throbbing temple.
“What’s your name, little girl?”
“Okay, Ella. I’ll get dressed and we’ll find you something to eat.”
Returning to the bedroom, I got on my jeans and T-shirt. I looked at the bed. Mira and Blake were lying there unconscious. The little girl was waiting for me in the living room, sitting, scared, on the couch. The kjat paste and the empty cans of beer were still on the table along with the open condom-wrappers.
“Come on, Ella. Let’s see if we find something in the kitchen.”
She followed me there. Dirty dishes towered above the sink. I opened the old fridge. It was completely empty. For a minute I just stared at the sad little girl as I struggled with the nausea erupting within me.
“Today is a special day. We’ve met each other. Bring your things.”
The little girl ran into one of the other rooms and reappeared a moment later with a cheap, Chinese knapsack on her back.
“Can we go?”
“We can go.”
It was already hot outside. I kept blinking under the blazing sun, and my head hurt like hell.
“Where is your school?” I asked.
“Not far. At the end of the street.”
We walked past two-story concrete apartment blocks that all looked the same, the plants in front of each building covered thickly with dust. At the corner I saw a sign for Costa Coffee, which had locations all over the place.
“We’ll go in here for breakfast,” I said.
The waiter raised his eyebrows on seeing me with a little girl, but said nothing. He stopped by our table.
“What do you want, Ella?” I asked.
“A banana split.”
“I’d like a banana split and a coffee.”
The waiter nodded, and left. I took a cigarette from my pocket and lit up.
“What would you like to be when you grow up, Ella?” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I want to be like Mommy. I want to make lots of money so we can buy a big house.”
“I see. And where is your dad?”
“He stayed in Sudan.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s a soldier. Mommy says he died.”
The waiter arrived, placing the dessert and the coffee on the table, and then left again. The banana split comprised two bananas, two scoops of vanilla ice cream, and chocolate sauce. The little girl wolfed it down at once.
“Once I’m grown-up and beautiful, like Mommy, I too will have nice clothes and white boyfriends. How did you meet Mommy?”
“In a restaurant,” I replied.
“That’s good. I like restaurants. Especially the desserts. Do you have a kid?”
“A little boy. He’s still really little. He’s not big, like you. He doesn’t even talk yet.”
“Is he white, too, like you?”
“Yes. And blond. Just like me.”
“And is his mommy like mine?”
“Yes, just like yours.”
I wiped her face with a napkin. She didn’t like that at all. The waiter came by and I paid.
“Can you get to school on your own?” I asked her in front of the café.
“Of course. I’m a big girl.”
Off hopped Ella along the street, turning around a couple of times to wave. Once she disappeared around the corner, I turned back toward Mira’s building. I’d walked maybe a hundred yards when gut-wrenching nausea suddenly took hold of me. Leaning on a palm tree, I puked repeatedly. On finishing, I wiped off my mouth with the napkins that had been stuffed in my pocket and got to wondering when, the day before, I’d eaten bananas.
When I got back to Mira’s flat, there was Mira, naked, slumped on the couch. She clearly had a helluva hangover; pain was written all over her face.
“Don’t worry about your kid. I bought her breakfast and took her to school.”
For long seconds Mira just stared ahead with glassy eyes and cracked lips. I sat down beside her, in the armchair.
“I don’t have a child,” she said.
I took a big gulp of what was left of a can of beer. Lukewarm, it was, but it soothed my stomach.
SÁNDOR JÁSZBERÉNYI (pronounced shahn-door yahs-beh-ray-nyee), a writer and a foreign correspondent, is the author of the short fiction collection The Devil Is a Black Dog: Stories from the Middle East and Beyond (New Europe Book, 2014), which Kirkus Reviews (in a starred review) praised as “heady, dizzying writing . . . a master class in how to tell a war story.” The book was first published in 2013 in Hungary (Kalligram), in Italian (Edizioni Anfora) and in 2014 in India by the Speaking Tiger Books. As a correspondent he is based primarily in Cairo, from where he has covered the Middle East and Africa for leading Hungarian online news service Hir24.com and has contributed reporting to The New York Times and The Egypt Independent. Jászberényi has covered the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, the Gaza War, the Darfur crisis, and the conflict with Islamic State. He has also reported on the war in Ukraine. Jászberényi’s stories and poems have been published in English in AGNI, The Brooklyn Rail, B O D Y, and Pilvax.
PAUL OLCHVÁRY, a native of Amherst, New York, who spent much of his adult life in Hungary, is the founder and publisher of New Europe Books. He has translated numerous Hungarian novels into English for such publishers as New Directions, Hougton Mifflin, Northwestern, and Steerforth. As a translator he has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, in the United States, and Hungary’s Milán Füst Foundation. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts.