I Can't Think Straight, page 1
I Can’t Think Straight
Copyright © 2008, Shamim Sarif. All rights reserved.
ISBN Number: 978-0-95606--7
First edition published in the United States by Enlightenment Productions, London, UK, 2008
I made a trip to Amman to do some background research for this book a few years back now and remain grateful for all the help and information given to me by so many people. Amongst those who gave generously of their time, energy and contacts were Rania Atallah and Abdullah Said who arranged meetings and a visit to a refugee camp. My sister-in-law Maha Kattan and Zina Haj Hasan filled in a lot of detail about the customs and viewpoints of the region. Zein Naber, the most supportive aunt I could wish for, and her daughter Nadine, were also so generous with introducing me to people and showing us around their world in Jordan.
Marwan Muasher, then Foreign Minister, took time from a busy schedule to meet with me and speak candidly and eloquently about his hopes and fears for the Middle East.
I worked on the screenplay of ‘I Can’t Think Straight’ with Kelly Moss, who has been more than a friend in her support and belief in my abilities over the past few years. While the novel differs from the film in many ways, I have managed to shamelessly appropriate some of the best lines that Kelly wrote for the film and use them in this book, and I know she gives these lines willingly and without any cost to me, except the occasional long, liquid lunch.
Lea Porter was foremost amongst those friends of ours who encouraged me to write this story in the first place, and the ‘no carbs’ line is from her, as I confess I had no idea that anyone would willingly give up such a delicious food group!
I thank my family for their continuing support, and a special mention to my sister Anouchka who has always had unfailing faith in me, which I hope I can live up to.
Francine Brody edited this book with great delicacy but also great incisiveness that lifted many aspects of the story and it was a pleasure to work with her. My thanks also to Kirsty Dunseath for introducing us.
And last on this page, but always first in my thoughts, I thank Hanan, my wife, my inspiration and my greatest support. This particular story would not exist without her, and on a more fundamental level, none of my stories or films would exist either. With love and gratitude for all that you have given me.
For Hanan, the love of my life, who taught me that truth could be stranger than fiction, and much more beautiful.
And for Ethan and Luca, my loves, my life.
And then there was the question of getting dressed, and time was running dangerously short. Reema could hardly spend this last hour before her daughter’s engagement party arguing with Halawani about the cake. It was evident from the bulging smear of gold icing that was still slipping down the fabric-draped wall of the vast entrance courtyard that it was her own idiotic staff who had damaged it, probably Rani, wanting to be in charge of the fragile tower of soft sponge and peaked icing, and instead staggering into the wall under its unexpected weight. What did Halawani bake his cakes with anyway, to get that heaviness? As though the more substance and solidity the thing had the better. It crossed her mind that perhaps she should have ordered it sent from London or, better yet, Paris. But if Reema was to be honest with herself (which she had spent a lifetime successfully avoiding, since honest appraisal of one’s motives only caused more trouble than she had energy or inclination to deal with) she had not felt her daughter deserved it. Not for the fourth engagement. Three previous French sponges had already been sent for, admired and eaten, and then she had been forced to taste the bitterness of their regurgitation in her mouth when the engagements had been called off. Although, this time, she was sure that the betrothal would stick. This time, she was hopeful that at the age of twenty-eight, and despite two expensive, American degrees behind her, Tala had finally learned the most important lesson of life – that love and ideals were not actually real. Everyone loved the thought of them. Reema herself loved to read about them in books and watch them on television. But there was a reason why romance and passion were so suited to fiction; and to learn this lesson was a function of maturity, Reema thought, a growth away from the hotheadedness of youth. Over the last week, she had been pleased to see in her daughter’s face a placid calm that was unfamiliar but most welcome. And yet a wriggling worm of tension curled inside her chest. The problem with Tala was that she always did what was least expected. And so if she did ruin this engagement, if it didn’t last, Reema’s one, poor consolation would be that she hadn’t wasted money on the cake.
With only the slightest flinch, Tala had watched her engagement cake crash into the wall. She stood on the landing above, leaning silently over the banister rail, still and unnoticed, watching the flurry of movement in the hallway below. In the midst of the preparations, her mother and the baker were arguing over the smashed cake. She watched them both, body movements and gestures set against each other, heard their rising voices, irritated, pleading. Quickly, Tala turned and went back into her own room. She closed the door with finality by leaning her back fully against it and stood for a moment as if casting around for something to hold onto. Her eyes went to her desk, her laptop, her work. She sat down to finish correcting a contract that had been sent to her earlier that day. The soft shift of her pencil on the stiff paper soothed her in some way, until the chime of her mobile interrupted her. She answered it, while her pencil continued to work.
‘We could just elope, you know.’
She smiled at Hani’s voice.
‘But then you wouldn’t get to see me dressed like a Bond girl,’ she replied dryly. He laughed.
‘Must be insanity over there. With the preparations and everything?’
Tala had just found three errors in one clause and neglected to answer quickly enough.
‘Tala? You’re working aren’t you? Half an hour before our engagement party starts!’
Tala laid the proofs on the desk and leaned forward in her chair.
‘It’s my first order, Hani. I have to make it work. My father’s already pressing me to come back to the family business.’
‘You will make it work,’ he replied, his voice serious, kind. ‘You will. I love you, Tala.’
Tala smiled at the phone. ‘Me too, Hani. Me too.’
When he rung off, she did not pick up her work again, but sat still for a moment, the kind of pause she rarely allowed to punctuate her days. There was music outside floating up to her from the garden – the band was testing microphones and speakers. Closing her eyes, she frowned, straining to hear the song that was being sung.
Heartbreak and sorrow seemed enveloped in the soft liquidity of a female voice, which had an underlying richness that poured along the registers of notes like warm syrup. Her cadences and inflections, the heart-stopping pause as she sang up or down a range, were uniquely Eastern, unmistakably Arab. But the voice was buoyed from beneath by the flamenco rhythms of a guitar and it was pulled higher by the intense, aching stretch of two violins. She listened for a few seconds more, until the band halted their test abruptly, and then she returned, with concentration, to her contract.
Reema glanced at the kitchen clock. For fifteen minutes now, she had been trying to get Halawani to take back the cake and repair it, which he steadfastly refused to do lest she interpret it as an admission of guilt on his part (which of course, she would have). Turning on her velvet-slippered heel, she left the competing protestations of the staff and the baker, not to mention the grating screech of the microphones that were being tested outside, and the irritating itch of her hus
The bed was of gargantuan proportions, adorned with a selection of suede and silk cushions. She liked the romance of the look, and it was echoed in the hand-painted wallpaper, in the florid flounce of the curtains and in the plump pinkness of the sofas which framed the sitting area. Conscious of the time, Reema walked straight into her dressing room, where the much-anticipated pleasure of a strong cigarette awaited her.
Her Indian housekeeper, Rani, was standing in the middle of the room, holding two glittering evening gowns, each arm stretched high above her head in an effort to prevent the hems from touching the carpet. She was only barely successful in her endeavour, since she was a good eight inches shorter than Reema and her dresses.
Reema paused and her eyes flickered intently over each gown.
She pointed.‘That one.’
With relief, Rani laid down the gowns. The tops of her arms ached.
‘Where’s my coffee?’
Reema sat upon the plush, velvet chair before the towering, three-panelled mirror, attached a slim black holder to the end of the cigarette, applied the flame of an alabaster lighter to the other end, and sat back. Her face was not bad, she considered. Not for a fifty-four year old mother of three. She sighed out a cloud of cigarette smoke. She was aware that the continuous dragging on cigarettes had deepened the lines around her eyes and mouth, but they were not as bad as those of the other women in her bridge group (except for Dina, but everyone knew she had a Brazilian plastic surgeon practically on her payroll).
Rani reappeared carrying a pot of Arabic coffee and a small silver cup. She placed these on the table behind Reema, poured out a cupful of the steaming dark liquid and, with a sidelong glance at Reema’s unsuspecting back, silently spat into it.
‘Your coffee, madam.’ Rani crossed the room and politely offered the cup to Reema. She watched eagerly as Reema lifted the coffee to her lips, but only to blow a cooling breath onto it.
‘Where’s my husband?’
‘In the garden, madam.’
‘Did the dress fit Tala?’ Reema asked. ‘She didn’t stop eating at lunch.’
‘Like a glove, madam.’ Rani watched the coffee cup’s movement up and down, the gentle cooling of the liquid. Let her drink it, she prayed. Let her drink it.
‘Lamia – did you take in her clothes?’
Rani nodded. ‘By two centimetres, madam.’
Satisfied, Reema lifted the coffee to drink but then remembered her youngest child. Rani shifted a little.
‘Did Zina like the gold dress I chose for her?’ The cup touched Reema’s lips, was tipped up ready for the first sip.
‘She loved it, Madam.’ Rani’s careful tone was designed to smooth over the sarcasm of the reply, but only caused Reema to lower the coffee cup and throw her housekeeper an evaluating stare. Rani smiled brightly, encouragingly, but it was too late. Reema placed the untouched coffee back into her hands and began to apply her make up.
The moment that Zina had seen her sister’s engagement cake, she had felt blindly impelled to get out of Jordan and back to New York. The teasing restlessness of her limbs, the impulsive desire to turn and walk calmly, coolly through the quiet house and out of the immense double front doors, was almost overwhelming. She pictured herself out there, outside, walking, walking on, picking up the rhythm of her stride as she made her way along the winding private road that led down their own private hill and towards the dark surroundings of the Jordanian countryside. Away to her right, she would see the lights of Amman, winking seductively from this distance; she would look up and see the startling white purity of the stars, studded into the ebony sky, guarded by a desert moon as sharp-edged as a scythe.
Zina sat up on her bed, disappointed – with herself, for wanting to escape Tala’s party – but mainly with the cake. Until she had parted her curtains and watched the garish bulk of that cake being brought into the garden, she had been successfully convincing herself that she was glad to be home. Most of her apparent contentment had been achieved at her own expense, through basic psychological trickery. She knew she was adept at evoking a romantic nostalgia for things like the jasmine trees, the scent of smoked aubergines, even the ageing faces of her mother and father. But it was all a fantasy of the mind, an elaborate structure to enable her to get through an evening, a week, a month in this place, without succumbing to a nervous breakdown. Gold icing. Who, in God’s name, ever used gold icing? It looked metallic, the cake, as though it had been sprayed with car paint and it encapsulated everything that irritated her about the Middle East. The gaudy, unnatural look of it, the probably poisonous taste of it.
And then there was the dress. Draped across the foot of the bed was an offensively gold concoction. Pinned to the shoulder of the dress was one of her mother’s stiff, gilt-edged note cards. In Reema’s florid hand were written the words: ‘No black. It’s an engagement party, not a funeral. Mama.’ She could imagine her mother had congratulated herself for an hour after thinking up that hilarious line. Carelessly, Zina pulled the note off and tossed it into the bin.
As she regarded the dress mournfully, it became clear to her (and not for the first time) that her mother obviously hated her. A tear of self-pity touched Zina’s eye, even as she realised something far more serious – that her dress had obviously been chosen to match the cake. A snapshot of a previous engagement cake, an emerald-turreted confection – had it been Tala’s first? – flashed into her mind, and beside it, her mother, somewhat younger, in a brilliant green Yves Saint Laurent dress and matching eyeshadow that had not seemed so inelegant amid the general style overkill of that period.
Drawing in a long breath, she tried to dispel the vague nausea that suddenly touched her, and made a conscious effort not to recall the other cakes, the other parties, the broken engagements, the desperate fiancés, the feuding families. In one short week she would be back at university in New York, and would have a month to recover from this trip before returning for the wedding. In the meantime, she began to list in her mind the things that would help her to get through the evening without resorting to sarcasm or sullen silence.
At the top of that list was the knowledge that she would not be putting any of that cake into her mouth. If it was bad luck, then so be it. Frankly, she had eaten cake three times before, and not one of the engagements had stuck. Although, a moment later, the thought struck her that perhaps that had been the good luck after all. She smiled slightly and headed into the bathroom.
‘Is this seven millimetres?’
Lamia, waiting for mirror space behind the broad shoulders of her husband, stepped forward and peered at the ruler that he used to measure how much of his handkerchief peeked from his tuxedo pocket. She nodded, and Kareem lowered the ruler and turned away, satisfied.
‘I just hope this is the last engagement party your father has to throw for your sister.’
Lamia tried very hard to concentrate only on her own reflection in the polished glass. She adjusted her necklace, pleased with the way it set off the elegant sapphire-blue of her evening dress. But Kareem was fidgeting at his immaculately ordered closets, checking that the edges of his ties were aligned, needling the perfect rows of socks, needling her.
‘Poor man,’ he said, clicking his tongue.
‘Of course he minds. He’s kind enough not to show it. But for a man of his standing to endure the shame…’
Lamia closed her eyes just long enough to block out the sound of her husband’s voice. She opened her eyes, and cast a half-smile at her own reflection before turning to him.
‘How do I look?’ she asked.
Kareem’s long-lashed brown eyes passed over her figure and for a brief, pleasurable moment, Lamia felt conscious of her own beauty.
‘You could cover your shoulders a little more.’
She looked down. ‘It’s not cold.’
He plucked a shawl from the closet and strode across the room, holding it out to her.
‘It’s not proper.’
The music, over which the first guests were chatting, still haunted Tala as she descended into the garden which was transformed for this night with hundreds of lamps and glowing lanterns that created an expansive circle of light around the crisply dressed tables and the open sided marquees. Beyond the lights were swathes of lush lawn (Reema had insisted on installing an impractical and hideously expensive state-of-the-art irrigation system to crush once and for all the relentlessly encroaching desert landscape) and dotted between were fountains, footpaths and the occasional piece of ancient sculpture, dramatically lit for the occasion. Tala paused in the shadows and looked around. There were softly translucent candles, and music that rose in ripples behind the tide of chattering voices.
There were exquisite dresses cut from elegant fabrics, draped over long, slim bodies; there were jewels that gleamed against tanned, olive skin. There were butlers and waitresses, in starched white and rustling black, moving with purpose amongst the colourful women and the suited men. Tala knew that her parents had outdone themselves. She had been surprised that they had even suggested a party this time around, bearing in mind her dubious history, but it had become clear to her quite quickly that her mother was actively planning to use this fourth and final engagement as a way to wipe clean all the lingering shame and embarrassment of the other three.