The Mastermind

The Mastermind

David Unger

And so one night after Samir and Maryam have had a light dinner of Lebanese mezzas and their maid Hiba has left, she decides the moment has come. Later, she blames her precipitated actions on Assala Nasri’s voice, as if her songs were responsible for the confession.

They are sitting in the living room, with walls decorated in framed campy photographs depicting images from the Lebanese homeland: olive fields, jagged mountains, the American University campus; all touristic scenes from their trips, separately and together, to Beirut.

Maryam is wearing a dark blue dress. She looks like a nineteenth-century milkmaid, and is on the sofa reading an article in Poder discussing Barack Obama’s election and how it will affect Israeli and Arab relations. Samir is stretched out on the Barcalounger, with his bare yellow feet up in the air. His eyes are closed. He wears a smoker’s robe over his clothes and he might be dozing.

They are listening to Assala Nasri’s latest recording of plaintive Arabic ballads on the CD player. Something about the way Nasri sings about love, adoration, and her terribly broken heart in an Arabic that Maryam does not fully understand unhinges her. She feels her heart is like the River Jordan about to overflow its banks.

She walks over to the CD player and lowers the volume. There are tears in her eyes.

“What’s this?” Samir says, startled, sitting up.

“I need to talk to you about something.”

Her husband shakes his head. “Why is it always when I am enjoying something and in a state of blissful happiness that you feel obliged to interrupt my pleasure? Is the music bothering you? Do you want me to use my headphones?”

Maryam’s heart is pounding. They are both listening to the same music, but their reactions are so dramatically different. She is thinking of Guillermo’s long and powerful legs, how the hair grows in mild grassy ridges along his chest, how his hands are so sure when he is stroking her. How he knows how to move his penis inside of her so that she is constantly being surprised by where it takes her and what she feels. And the way she comes.

And she cannot imagine what Samir is thinking. Perhaps he is recalling the love he once felt for his wife, long dead after twenty-two years of marriage, or his childhood in Sidon. Maybe he is thinking about the shortage of pliers and extension cords in Guatemala. The price of brackets or tortillas.Mastermind

But this is the moment. How can she bring it up? Should she cast her love for Guillermo by explaining her unhappiness in sharing a life with an old, unattractive husband? Can she actually blame Samir who she knows might resort to calling her a woman with a fickle morality or, plain and simple, a harlot? Or should she begin apologetically, instead: admit her guilt as something beyond reason and control, plea for release, and accept the fact that she has acted duplicitously and has betrayed her nuptial vows? Should she say that there is something wrong with her, that she has always felt she was born defective and that in actuality she is self-centered, numbed, impulsive?

In the end, she opts for the raw truth, couched in what she feels are the kindest of words, even though she knows as she begins speaking that he will not reward her for this kindness.

“Samir, I am no longer happy sharing a life with you.”

He closes his eyes and gets a pained and sour look on his face, now creviced with moles and deep gullies. There is nothing attractive about him. He pushes down on the footrest of the Barca so that he can sit up properly, a bit hunched over.

“We have been sharing more than a life together, my habibati.” He puts his feet into the leather slippers at the foot of the recliner, even though he will not stand up. He lets out an amused laugh through his thin, discolored lips. “Am I interpreting your words correctly: you want to break your vows, to divorce me?”

Maryam is disgusted by his mocking tone, but tries not to wrangle with him. “I want to leave you. I don’t make you happy.” She wants to put all the blame, with dignity, on her own shoulders, but then backtracks. “We can’t give one another what we need anymore. You don’t please me. And I can’t give you what you need.”

“And what is it that you think I need, young lady?”

Maryam can feel that she is on the verge of losing control, but tries to stay on course. Under no circumstances can she refer to any of his shortcomings, which he is sure not to acknowledge, or digress to his level of sarcasm. “What you have always needed: a woman to admire you, to comfort you, to mirror your being.”

Samir lets out a little laugh that is beyond scorn. “You have never mirrored my being, habibati. When we first married, you were a sweet pretty thing, simpleminded, to be sure—like a strip of plain, shiny copper. I assumed that your heart had never opened itself to any man, but I thought because of the respect I held for your father, and the respect you had for me, that you would be faithful. This is all I wanted.”

“I did open up my heart to you,” she confesses, dropping her head in penance, avoiding the issue of faithfulness. “I have been a good wife.”

He scrunches one eye as if this will allow him to see better. His voice rises: “These last few months you have slipped away from me like a doe jumping over a fence at night who returns in the morning with its fur soiled. You may claim innocence, but the facts speak for themselves, my habibati.”

“My intent was never to betray you.”

“Of course it was, let’s not be insincere. Betrayal is the perfect word. If anything, you have attempted to destroy me with your insolence and your unwillingness to fulfill the simplest of your marital obligations to me while hiding behind a false smile. Am I so abhorrent to you?”

She peers at Samir, a shrunken, nasty-looking man now, who often goes days without shaving the white hairs that sprout like icy weeds on the hollows of his cheeks. There’s a bit of spittle at both corners of his downturned mouth, and his teeth have yellowed at their flattened tips. He reminds her of Yassir Arafat, who she always found utterly unattractive. She thinks of Guillermo, with his elegant face, the dark wavy hair, the intensity of his eyes. His eyes have fire, for her at least, wildfire, while Samir’s eyes are nestled in sleepiness.

“I can’t go on like this. I feel that I am dying, little by little.” She sees his wrinkled penis in its thicket of gray hairs, dozing, moldy. In contrast to Guillermo’s rising tusk.

Samir nods his head. “I see, I see. It’s not that I am simply so abhorrent that you cannot lie with me as a woman should lie with a man. I make such few claims upon you and have even stopped asking you to open your legs to me. But that I am sending you to the grave now . . . how horrid a man I must be to put someone as innocent and pure as yourself into a landscape of so much suffering . . . But let me ask you a practical question: how do you plan to live without me?”

“I have my father’s money.”

Immediately Samir smiles. “You have forgotten that when we were married, your father gave me your dowry. The money you had is now mostly ours. I have him and you to thank for that generosity.”

“I have considered that. I am sure my father will take care of me, habibi.”

“Please! Do not say that word. It is blasphemy in your mouth.”

“Yes, Samir.” There are tears again in Maryam’s eyes. It is an existential moment: she never thought it would be this hard to ask for her freedom.

“From the moment you leave me, because you are the one who must leave this house, I will not give you a single cent of support. What do you say to that?”

“I understand these conditions.” She knows she will initially have to rely on her father or even Guillermo for support, but she also knows she has the talent, the skill, the perseverance to live on her own, without props. She can admit her sins, her inability to love him, but she will not crawl to him. How stupid it was to put all the money in their name, sanctified by a marriage contract. “But I must tell you again that I am not happy. Isn’t my happiness worth anything?”

Samir now stands up. He wants to lord it over her, to express his triumph. “Do you have a rich lover? Is that what it is? It’s the most common thing, and it’s what I have suspected all these months. Some younger, stupid-looking man, I would imagine, with sentimental eyes, who is as common as you are.”

“You know nothing about it,” Maryam flares back, and immediately realizes she has said too much.

“Ah, so it is as I expected. I have exposed a raw nerve in my little hamama,” he says in a surly voice. “It must be someone I know. Yes, that’s it. Someone from our church. A Lebanese man half my age. Or perhaps an associate of your father’s?”

“There’s no one,” Maryam says, trembling, certain that her voice betrays her words. She has allowed Samir to unhinge her.

“Oh, but there must be. You would not have the courage to confess your lovelessness unless you had someone else. I’ve suspected something all along, knowing how untrustworthy you are. Why, you are just like your father.”

“Please, don’t bring him into this. My father has nothing to do with it.”

He grabs her wrist. The magazine with Obama on the cover falls from her lap to the floor. He is twisting her arm with his own spindly limb. “Do you think Hiba is beholden to you, simply because you are both women? She has served my family through two wives for thirty years. Do you think I’ve not known all along what has gone on here while I have been hard at work? That lawyer must have had an easy time fooling your father with his charm and his arguments. Or has your papá enjoyed taking on the role of a pimp so that the two of you could create a situation in which your legs, must I say it, are spread wide open to a stranger even as your heart is now closed to me?”

She sees the venom in his eyes. Maryam’s wrist is hurting and she is afraid. It is not going well at all. But she’s physically strong enough to push Samir away, back down into his seat, where he falls and starts laughing.

“You are a sharmoota. Like Gomer in the Bible.”

“You wretched man! Calling me names won’t accomplish anything.”

His eyes are shining. “You are as evil as Tamar, although as far as I know you have not committed incest with your own father. You are not that depraved, I suppose.”

Maryam is in tears, she is trembling. She runs into the hall bathroom, locks the door, and texts Guillermo: Something awful has happened with Samir. I must see you tonight. I will text you when I can get out of here. Please don’t turn me away.

She puts the phone down on the sink counter and washes her face. She scrubs the back of her ears as if to clean away the poisonous words Samir has spoken. She knows she is not innocent, but she is not a whore. Her hands are still shaking as she tries to put on fresh lipstick and dab a bit of mascara on her wet eyes. Five minutes go by, but it feels like three days. What is taking Guillermo so long? Maybe he’s talking to his children in Mexico via Skype or has fallen asleep after too much drinking.

She texts him a second time: Guillermo, please answer me. Now.

Through the bathroom door, she hears Nasri’s voice again, fuller and more plaintive than before. She can’t understand why Samir likes her singing, since it is so over-the-top with romance and emotion, while he seems to have wilted like a prune and paradoxically developed a heart of stone.

What had she been thinking when she married him? That she would be happy with a life of order, boredom, discipline, obedience? That marrying a respectable older man was better than living alone?

She opens the door, goes quickly to the hall closet, and grabs a sweater jacket. She has to get out of the house, go somewhere, anywhere, whether or not Guillermo calls or texts her back. Maybe she will go down to the car and drive around the hilly campus of the Universidad del Valle, where it is safe and quiet. There’s a lookout at the very top where college students go to kiss. Maybe there, protected by a crowd of lovers, she will find peace.

Before she closes the apartment door, she cocks her ears. Samir is actually trying to sing along with Assala Nasri, as if their two voices could form the same anthem of lost love.

While Maryam waits for the elevator, her tongue itching, her cell phone vibrates. One new message.

Ven, mi corazón!

“Excerpt from The Mastermind copyright 2016 by David Unger, published with permission of Akashic Books.

Posted: January 10, 2016 at 9:07 pm

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