By Marie Baleo
After we finished furnishing the apartment and moving our memories, habits, and bodies into it, I would sit on the living room balcony and watch the sun as it set over West Beirut and the Mediterranean. You could see a small chunk of the sea, small enough to cover with your thumb, staring back at you from between two faraway buildings. You recognized it by the perfect straight line it formed, separating a deep blue stain from an endless sky. I would step onto the balcony and look for it between rooftops and walls drenched in light. It was always there, ready to be found, from my thirteenth to my sixteenth year. La mer.
Let me tell you about the apartment. You’ll be the last person to see it.
It occupies the entire seventh and highest floor of an anonymous-looking high-rise, tucked away in a dead-end just off rue de l’hôpital Rizk, opposite a decrepit building where a heavy-set woman is forever hanging laundry up to dry.
Our building have been outfitted with mailboxes, even as Lebanon lacks a functioning postal service. These mailboxes are travesties, a naive prayer for normalcy in a land of literal extraordinariness. Does the architect believe postal service will soon come? (Is he an idealist?) Does he think it will appear in, say, thirty years? (A futurist?) Can he simply not face the absence of a basic public service in a country that otherwise displays so many signs of modernity? In three years, we never once check the mailbox.
Opposite the empty mailboxes is a small elevator with an actual door (you know the kind). This is the type of elevator you know might scrape you real good if you don’t pay attention. My father always says not too stand too close, but I heed no advice, so I run my hands along the succession of thick floors and thin doors, fascinated by sediment upon sediment of apartments, a layer cake of secret Levantine lives.
Through the front door we go, and into the airy living room where we all but float above the city. Here is the couch where I discover Twin Peaks and Donnie Darko, Beetlejuice and Poltergeist. This is where I watch Urban Legends, Jeepers Creepers, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and whichever piece of manic, blood-spilling, gut-tearing trash I can get my hands on. I prop my feet on the coffee table, engulfed in perfect physical comfort, unseen by all - the only moments when I can take a break from inhabiting my teenage body. The edge of the table carves a thick red mark into the soft and wrinkled soles of my feet.
This couch sits three persons, but my parents and I never sit on it together. It is surrounded, on one side, by a chair of the same burned earth-color fabric (my father’s chair), and on the other, by a similar, smaller couch (my mother’s.)
We bought the coffee table in Norway, a country made almost entirely of trees, in which we had accordingly been swept into a wood frenzy. It seems out of place now, a raw, rugged wooden island in a lake of grayish white marble. On the walls, a couple of reproductions of famed Norwegian paintings from the National Museum in Oslo: a red stave church in Røros, a library in a bourgeois home.
Behind the TV set, an actual window to the world: two large panes of glass, separating us from seven floors of thin air, and, beyond, hundreds of high-rises. Some spring out of nowhere - I watch them grow at preternatural speed over a few weeks. In the distance, a hotel, a motorway, and the hills that cradle Beirut. This is a view best served chilled, at dusk, the shadows eating away at the hills, bending behind buildings, golden light bouncing off thousands of homes, thousands of lives in my line of sight. Like all mountains, these hills are a promise.
Sometimes, I turn out the lights and peep under the rolled-down curtain and into the night. The hills are covered in shimmering stars, lit windows, lit streets, lit deserted roads. Above us, the absence of stars signals the sky.
Early-evening coffee with an Italian journalist at a café in Odéon, just the other day. We talk about Beirut - you know me now: even after all these years, I bring it up anytime I can. This man has never been; he is not part of the tribe who knows the worth of Beirut so much so that no other information need be exchanged, just this: “I’ve been.” Yet this man who has never seen the city, as if moved by some secret knowledge, finds himself asking a question so perfect it catches me off guard. “What is the smell you remember the most from Beirut?”
I hesitate for a few seconds. Then I see them, the flowers, a cushion of white petals on the checkered sidewalk, on the way home from school.
“Chèvrefeuille”, I say. “Ah yes, caprifoglio,” he says.
In our tower, it is forever a hot and heavy summer night, and I am forever walking around barefoot in an oversized t-shirt and cutoff gym shorts. Until the end, my parents retain the sacred tradition of the Saturday night dinner date - but I always check, dying for time home alone: “vous sortez ce soir?”. Out go the parents, in goes the DVD. I dim the lights so that I’ll be scared just enough. I walk around in an AC-ed haze and into the kitchen to get more water from the machine. I hear the rumble of the bubbles as I pour mercifully ice-cold water into a cup that was once, I think, a container for a food I can’t eat, like mustard, or mayonnaise, not that I would know the difference.
Behind the couch is our dining room, outfitted with a dining table much for the same reason we have a mailbox. We use this dining room perhaps ten times in three years, exclusively when we have guests. The walls on one side of the table are lined with Norwegian-era bookshelves. They are towers of familiarity, present in each of the homes I’ve inhabited since. The books are always the same. They travel with us everywhere, even the ones that I know to be bad, even the ones I know my parents probably picked up in a moment of ennui, perhaps in a train station bookstore in their twenties. These books are a marriage. They are a family.
In our kitchen, hot and muggy, the only room devoid of A/C, is the stove where my father cooks our meals. He and I stick to TV dinners, watching news of a distant homeland that leave me anywhere from apathetic to appalled. In the kitchen, Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah plays every night.
Out of the kitchen and back into the hallway, this time into our real living quarters. First stop, to your left: my bedroom. 16 square meters, cold, white floors, walls covered in Nirvana, Smallville, and Blink182 posters. (There was briefly a Good Charlotte poster involved but it was small and hesitant, because I’d only heard something like two of their songs). Here is the largest bed I’ve ever had, where my dearly beloved high school friends and I sit, all six or seven of us, and talk about whatever high schoolers talk about (this is also the place where, unsurprisingly, my bed breaks under our collective weight).
Large closets are filled up to the ceiling with clothes I can now never admit to having worn: bell bottom pants, polos, knee high Doc Martens and tulle skirts, baseball caps and studded belts, a tie. I can often be spotted sporting an unflattering combination of several (too many) of these items. This is the room where I first hear Enjoy the Silence and Eyes Without a Face on the radio, and it is an epiphany.
On the other side of the wall lies a different world. While my room is filled with 80s music, cheap hits of the 2000s, punk-rock rich-girl anxiety, body hatred, homework, pressure, and Hollywood fantasies, my mother’s study is bouquets of dry roses, maps of the world, Irish music tapes on a tray, a violin tucked in its case under what was once my childhood bed. The beating heart of my mother’s study is the desk, and more than that, it is the computer, her doorway to a world of penpals and long-distance dreams and poetry-writing.
Between the study and my room is a small dusty balcony. Years later I will think of the extraordinary freedom I have, which consists in being able to step onto that it anytime I wish and look at Beirut.
I have to tell you about Beirut, or else you wouldn’t understand, and I need you to understand. I wish you could feel it too- the sweetness of the summer wind carrying sand from Syria, the smell of manaech filled with thyme and cheese, the thick layer of grey pollution hanging over the horizon, the sensation of the sun roasting your idle hand hanging out from the car window. The taste of café blanc. Stifling humidity, the constant sound of honking horns, palm trees.
American-style malls, luxury swimming pools on sunny rooftops, expensive cars and stylish boutiques, the sea. Old Mercedes from the 1970’s complete with wrinkled drivers from the 1970’s who will take you anywhere for one dollar. Haunting call to prayer in the moments before sunrise, missile holes and abandoned buildings left over from the Civil War, uniformed men relentlessly guarding nothing. Being stuck in traffic for hours listening to radio stations that spill out the latest American hits while a Palestinian or Syrian kid with one missing leg knocks on your window and begs you to buy a pack of gum.
I may not yet know how to change my sheets or do laundry, but I know to always take my sunglasses off when we stop at a roadblock, or, after the Prime Minister’s been killed and news of assassinations flow in almost weekly, to watch out for cars that look heavily weighed down; their trunk might be filled with explosives. I know never to talk religion with anyone. I stroll to school nonchalantly, listening to my iPod in an electric trance of bliss and blue skies and adolescence, between tanks and convertibles.
In Lebanon, legend has it that whenever a bomb explodes, the shockwave makes the windows gently arch back and forth for a few seconds, like silent waves. This was told to me by a person with a sparkle in their eye, as if to say: only in Lebanon.
I once wait an hour in the car, parked all the way up in the sky, for my parents to return from one errand or another. Below lies the entire city of Beirut. Magic hour has only just begun, and the Sun grazes every surface of every wall and tower at a perfect angle, and sends a diffuse orange glow. The sea is a deep shade of turquoise overflowing with nuances. Up here in the hills, the manic sounds of the capital are muted, and only a strange rustling seems to rise from the city, as though Beirut is breathing. The air is warm, golden and silent. I leave the car and sit on the ground. The grass under my legs rustles. As more silent minutes pass, a soft fog appears near the sea, reddened by the setting sun. The sky overhead turns into a darker shade of blue, as the pinks and oranges by the horizon become bolder. The city is a fresco, and every passing second changes it. Lights begin to shine everywhere, on towers and in streets, yet the orange glow still numbs everything. Fog lingers over the cornice by the sea.
In front of my mother’s study is my own private bathroom, a privilege I feel has been granted to me perhaps by mistake. I listen to 90’s rock on a portable CD player nestled between imported products devised to annihilate my hair’s natural curl and makeup I hope will one day make me as beautiful as the American Beauty girl. This bathroom has a toilet! This apartment has three toilets, which I think is the most absurd and luxurious fact ever recorded in my lifetime. This is my toilet, this toilet is mine. In it, I pour bowls of cereal I don’t finish in the morning (never had much of an appetite).
At the end of the hallway is the master bedroom, composed of the a larger version of my own bed, which came from the same store we bought all our Lebanese furniture from - it looks stern, to put it kindly. This bedroom also has its own private bathroom, and a useless balcony which no one ever goes onto. The curtains are always drawn.
Years later, when I return to this apartment that has become nothing but the shell of our home, proof of a disappearance, once my mother is back in France (she will never return to Lebanon) and my father has already left the apartment, I will sleep alone in this room, and shower in the adjacent bathroom. The shower will feel like a foreign experience, illicit, in a room that was never mine to take.
An old woman lives at the end of the street. She looks about ninety years of age. I decide to refer to her, in my mind, as my grandmother. She has the most striking blue eyes. She is almost blind. Each day as I walk home from school I can see her sitting in a garden chair outside her door, but she can only see me when I walk on her side of the street. Once, after over a year of walking by her every day, I see her jump up from her chair and hold out both arms. I hug her as though it’s been a long time coming. We have no common language but this one. It is enough. From then on, everytime I see her, we will hug, and she will have me come through her front door into a single room with four beds. She will prepare tea for me and have me sit on one of the beds. Her smile is a lighthouse.
Have you ever gone swimming in the sea, on a beautiful summer day, in perfectly warm water, and suddenly felt an icy stream wrap itself around your feet? That is what Lebanon feels like.
I was never prepared for leaving home. How could I have known? I had all the affront and the carelessness and the arrogance of young men - no one dare suggest that their lives could veer, that the ground could split under their feet.
The war begins on the day my father turns 40. This will be a strange little war of thirty days. Two thousands will be killed. They will call it “the July war.”
There has been no signal or electricity today or the day before. My parents order me to pack my bag. I open my closets, covered in posters of Tom Welling, and grab my favorite clothes. We make our way down seven flights of stairs in hurried silence.
In Tripoli, we wait for a bus to take us further north and out of the country. A silent TV spits out orange images of Beirut filled with smoke. I recognize places.
Later that night, we are at the border, where I have been on several occasions. It is now unrecognizable. What lies before us is a human sea. Lebanese families and European tourists, running in all directions, scanning the mass for friends and relatives. A blond man in his twenties is lying down on a wall, his head resting on a sports bag. He seems careless, free. Sweat glistens on people’s faces. Cell phones are not working. Buses line up in chaos. Men and women frantically try to board them or get into cars. Confused children begin to cry.
Eventually, we depart. I go to sleep upright in a grey cushioned seat on a new bus. When I wake up an hour later, at five in the morning, we are in Syria. The sun is only rising and everything is completely and forever silent. Nothing has happened here.
Years later, in 2011, during my first time in Beirut as an adult (a delicious kind of first time,) the hairdresser who for so many years straightened my hair into the demanded “Avril Lavigne” fashion informs me my blue-eyed grandmother died right after the war. He sounds sorry I didn’t know - he sounds like perhaps if I hadn’t waited years to return this scandalous moment of naive-ness and ignorance might have been avoided.
I remember two things from our first time in the apartment, before we signed the lease.
One: everything was bare and white: white walls, raw and uneven to the touch, and cold, white floors - marble in the living room, tiles in the actual living quarters: bedrooms, kitchen, and bathrooms. The apartment seemed naked, proper, like it had merely been waiting for us all this time, uninhabited.
Two: a fireball sunset drenched half these walls in powerful, surreal color.
This memory of a sunset is one I know I have, but as I try to rummage through it for substance and ramifications, it recedes, leaving me with nothing but the certainty of this indescribable color, red, orange, and pink coming together to say: this will be your home.
On a late summer evening of 2007, the power is already out, and no furniture remains other than the mattress on which I am to spend my final night in my home. In the kitchen, I pour water into a plastic cup. I head back into the living room and sit on the mattress. In the dark now, I raise my cup in a toast to what I do not yet know is the last place that will ever feel like home. By now, our books are gone, our music is gone. My friends have gone, spread around the world. In a few years, many of us will be estranged. The familiar voices of my parents, intertwined in late-night conversation, are gone, as is the garden chair in which I used to lounge and look at Beirut, the city in which I no longer live. I am the last to leave.
And suddenly, before I know it is happening, I find that all that remains of my world, of everything else, the only proof that it did really all happen, that we were all once here, and that this was our life, is me. And with the walls of my house cradling me, I think it’s unfair, I think it’s sad, and I know it’s an unspeakable triumph to have been this unapologetically happy.