Origingally Published in Rusted Radishes as A Prolonged Insult
“No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty … what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse…” Herny Miller, Tropic of Cancer
Jamal waited in a café and sucked on his nth cigarette. He didn’t usually smoke more than three cigarettes a day, always after a meal, always systematically. His face was tired and bloated from an excursion down the ruins of a bottle of wine.
In the building across the street, two sisters released a barrage of vitriol from behind closed curtains. The familial screams echoed throughout the café, and the cat waiting on the café door was alarmed. It only took a minute for the gazing eyes to stop searching, for ears to habituate, and for the horny traffic to dilute the shouts.
Jamal lit another cigarette and scanned the surrounding. He was supposed to meet a former student of his, but the little rascal, he thought, was late, as always. The cigarette neared its end and he silently muttered, “I need a death. I need to write.” A small cockroach crawled out of the newly dug sewer; a domestic disturbance.
Last night the lady he took home told him that she wouldn’t sleep with him unless he shaved his beard. “Shave your beard,” she demanded, without even a shred of seduction. As an unadorned man, who grew a beard out of laziness, he indifferently obliged. He now smiled at the event. He looked down and grazed the shiny red and black tie he had worn; any other man, he thought, would have hesitated and deprived himself of the most beautiful moment he could experience. The girl he took home, she was still in his apartment. He kept her there. “I need a death,” he thought, “I need to write.” The cockroach crawled up the table and quickly crept along its surface, settling on the Jamal’s white paper. The cockroach stood still, giving its side to Jamal.
The little rascal finally arrived. Jamal licked his lower lip and grazed the bottom of his teeth with his rough tobacco-tinged tongue. His lips were hued with wine. The little kid sat in front of him, the cockroach still between them on the paper. Jamal did not move. The little kid did not move. Eyeballs were transfixed in a moment of stillness authored by the exoskeleton of the cockroach. A sudden mood overhauled the invading decadence of the city; the universe was reduced to this deuce-ace scene. A teenager, an adult, and a cockroach.
No more cigarettes. Jamal found himself to have crawled to the lowest form of beggary, in search of nothingness. Deepest abjection manifested itself in a still cockroach and a youth he wanted to kill. This youth, a former student, had come to give him praise. Praise the Lord, the encomium encounter was interrupted by an insect.
“Hello,” Jamal said, not allowing his eyes to deviate from the sacred arthropod, making it seem as if he had begun a conversation with the would-be carcass of reason.
The youth too did not allow his eyes to drift. He did not answer. There was no need to. He felt a tinge of shame at the way this event had begun. His spine tingled because of the transfixed gaze; all the different scenarios he had imagined of this encounter ran through his head, echoed through his ears, but he couldn’t close his eyes.
Last night, as Jamal and the lady slept naked next to each other, she’d come near him as if to kiss him, but she would only smell his after-shave. Her inspiration started at his chin and went up to his ear. And he’d felt a need to write, preceded by a need to experience death.
Last night, words did not matter as much as the thoughts that blew like fierce winds between the streets of Hamra, blowing curtains, exposing damp rooms with wet whores and angry sisters. The thoughts blew through Jamal’s head like savage and ferocious winds without enunciation. Or to put it differently: a wave of thoughts trapped him in its undertow; he found himself unable to speak, unable to distinguish his necessity to write from his necessity to break free from the inspiration of the lady next to him. His ear trembled and cold shivers travelled down the side of his body. He lay in paralysis until the morning when the wind calmed; the bottle of wine beckoned in the absence of a rooster; he wore his tie like a tight noose and went out the door to meet his former student.
“Hello,” this time he said it in his mind. And he imagined his student’s reply.
“Hi,” his student would smile, “it’s been a very long time,” his student would say.
“Yes, six years to be exact,” Jamal would say, “You were younger, I was still fresh.” But no, too bleak. “You were younger, we were both younger.” Realism invades the imagination.
“I’m really glad I’m meeting with you today, I have amazing news to tell,” his student would say, and Jamal’s desire to kill him would grow strong with such a gleeful remark of the obvious.
“I figured so, I’ve heard rumours,” Jamal would say, ruining his student’s surprisal, ruining the crescendo his student had engineered, taking into account the random variables of human action.
“Oh,” the surprise would turn on his student, but the smile would not vanish, it would only lessen. “Then I guess you know, this will be my last summer here,” the student would say with sudden recalcitrance.
Jamal would nod and force a smile.
“I want to express my infinite debt to you,” the student would academically exclaim, but Jamal’s face would shrivel as if faced with a sublimely appalling nightmare. And Jamal would wonder, What happened to him? How did it ever come to this?
“Please don’t say this,” Jamal’s face would metamorphose into that of a therapist threatened with a knife by his patient. The student’s face would also turn rough, waiting for his mentor to continue speaking, perhaps another lesson? But when do we ever learn?
“Don’t look up to me,” fear into the eyes of the therapist. “Just do not. You did not reach where you are by looking up to me, but by doing the complete opposite.” A lesson would formulate: “The problem with our generation was that we looked up to people, and after the people left us or betrayed us, we still followed with still-born idealisms. Don’t be inspired by people. Be inspired by events, by happenings, by acts and performances. Do not follow, participate. Do not stand on the corner and wait. That’s all they do here. They stand still in anticipation, waiting to be given, never giving, never initiating, always following. They wait and then—
A waiter smashed the arthropod on the page; its limbs squashed resembling a gob of spit. It became formless on the page and its potential now became multiple: a spider, a cockroach, a caterpillar, a worm, goo…the mixture of all creation from which the universe takes its shape.
Jamal looked at his former student looking at him, realizing just now that they have not yet said a word to each other. He had lost track of time only to realize that now there was no time to lose. He saw the defilement he needed; the waiter granted him his desired death. He grabbed the white paper on which the formless death-rattle held the potential of a new idea, the mark of a painful birth, and went to the see the lady he left sleeping.
With trembling fingers his student turned the page.