In Syria, when I was fourteen, my mother and I witnessed a hotel explode at the hands of an angry, vengeful faction. It didnít have much impact on me back then, but later in life, as I searched for an identity anchor in a sea of obscurity, the event popped into my memory as a story that practically wrote itself.
Tired, he signaled the waiter for the bill. After glancing at his watch, he was surprised to see it was three A.M.
The room’s thick cigarette smoke bothered his eyes; oriental music throbbing in the background was annoying and disturbed his craving for silence. The music repeated a sorrowful refrain with a languid rhythm. He threw a bored look around. The atmosphere, still lively for this late hour, was bizarre because of the patrons…a peculiar assembly of characters haunted this tiny bar on the border between two worlds. He felt as if he looked through a kaleidoscope at an inhuman landscape.
Young men in groups spoke stridently, most likely about football—he could not make out the Arab dialect...soldiers spending their mercenary money on drinks...prostitutes wearing garish makeup and scanty attire being closely watched from a discreet distance by attentive pimps...whores and customers—couples for the night or the week, seeking artificial intimacy...men like him, men alone, drowning loneliness in alcohol; solitary and absent from things happening around them.
Irritated, he looked toward the waiter, but could not catch his eye. The next sound he heard was the vivid, live clink of crystal glasses. A quick look back…for a second, time dilated.
A harsh, noisy, careless world desperate for understanding.
Gestures missing, noise but no sound.
Only eyes, which, until then, he’d paid no attention to—now filled with mad excitement and intensely seeking answers to their distress. The world was a sea of opaque eyes, as if imaginary atropine dilated and paralyzed them—allowing fear to spread throughout the room.
Visceral howling brought the world and time back to present. In a fractured second, the room exploded in pieces of furniture, cutlery, pots, food, and personal belongings. He jumped with the others, but the movement was frozen; he remained standing. It was only a second’s hesitation but enough for torrents of bodies to frantically rush the only possible escape.
A woman’s face appeared in a twitch of lucid consciousness—mad foresight—and he understood what to do…not to act on instinct and run. Instead, with a quick gesture, he took off Corinne’s ring a couple of seconds before the room pulverized.
Then he spotted her. As something you catch with your eye in the space appearing intermittently between cars of a fast train…she stood, frozen like him. Young, so young...in the bustle, their eyes met and fugitive questions were answered.
A second of silence, then all cells screamed; his brain exploded into a million synapses of pain. It became dark...
When he woke, it was still dark. He had a weird sense of feeling nothing—no up, no down, no pain. Only pressure without anything discrete on his body. He was caught in a formless trap. He could move one hand. Though unhindered, the rest of the body remained inaccessible.
I'm done for...
He felt no remorse…no fear.
He explored the encircling dark. It was as if his body didn’t exist—never existed. He moved his fingers but felt nothing, just dust...so much dust.
Soon his hand responded better to commands...his fingers became more aware of things on the floor. He felt a soft blanket of dust, gravel and then, unexpectedly, the small metal circle.
His soul bled with the first regret. Disparate images moved before his eyes. He wanted to be buried next to her in the shady cemetery with limestone markers, massive, shadowy chestnut tree, iron benches put there by who knows. He remembered her voice and her timid approach to making love.
But now he was in a foreign country, under a mountain of rubble—what was once a mediocre restaurant on the border. Unknown, unknown...it grew dark again.
He woke to a wail. A low moan...he explored with his fingers, his only contact with the surrounding reality. Dust, and more dust, he was immersed in an endless sea of dust.
Then he found a hand. A warm hand. He felt the fingers, palm, and sought a pulse. He felt it. Weak, intermittent...almost extinguished, but there. His soul filled with joy riding on sadness. She was also a prisoner in the rubble—adrift in the space between life and death. Her fingers—her thin wrist did not move.
“Can you hear me? Hello?”
His mouth was full of debris and blood—and a spurt of blood with each attempt to move his tongue.
“Miss...can you hear me?”
A weak moan—then the hand he held came alive. He squeezed and received an immediate response. Their hands remained clasped...the only link between two held captive by the darkness.
“How are you, Miss? How do you feel?”
He could not resist a smile. Her humor sent a ray of sunshine into his soul. With fondness and gratitude, he squeezed her hand.
“Are you in pain?”
“I do not feel anything except for your warm hand...I think I am very damaged...”
He heard her laughing or imagined it.
“What's your name, Miss?”
“Alana...I think my name is Alana...”
“I am Matthew. Uh, I mean, my name is Matthew...”
“What happened to us?”
“Don’t worry, Alana, they will come...they’ll find us…”
His voice sounded false, lacking confidence and certainty—hopeless.
“No, I do not think so. Matthew...”
Hands held each other.
“Why didn’t you run, Alana? You had time...”
He reviewed recent images. Sitting at the bar, they were immune to the chaos around them, unconcerned about the crowd and panic.
“How can you run from your life?”
He smiled—he liked her nonsequitur.
“You are so young…so…” he stopped.
He wanted to say beautiful…
“You’re nice,” she whispered. She continued without intonation. “I’m a prostitute, Matthew.”
Did his hand leap? Oh, how he wanted not to startle her.
However, he was not sure…his fingers curled around hers and closed. With fingers on her thin wrist he felt her weakening pulse.
“Alana, Alana, stay with me, stay with me...please.”
The only sounds from his blood-filled, debris-choked mouth were whispers and wheezing. Her hand remained still; he heard her voice as though through dream.
“I’m tired, Matthew.”
“Don’t fall asleep…”
His hand squeezed hers but she’d passed out. Her pulse fluttered, chaotic, while she sank in lethargy—a dreamless sleep.
Both of them woke at faint noises coming from somewhere or nowhere above them.
This time his voice sounded encouraging, happy and filled with hope.
“Matthew...yes, I hear…”
Her voice was sad—drowned in despair. To his surprise, he realized their hands no longer communicated. Devoid of emotion and joylessly waiting.
The voices were closer…but they sounded different.
Reality painted itself clearer…neither wanted to be saved, they both wanted to die. His brain revolted at the thought while his soul embraced peace. Years prior, he prayed for his bitter end—he fought with God and asked this world to forget about him…but her?
So young, so...should he say it again? Beautiful. She was so young and beautiful…why didn’t she want life, light, heat, emotion?
She had to live. He wanted her to live. He needed to do something so she could live...
More noises, powerful and increasingly close, intruded on his thoughts.
“Matthew, it’s inevitable…”
She cupped his fingers with a reassuring gesture.
They would save a dog before they’d save a whore. And then, glimpsing the preordained, he remembered…the ring. A word of life and death, a wholesome word of human fate. His hand searched through the carpet of dust. He found the metal circle.
He found her finger; the wedding band slid on easily…it fit perfectly.
“You are a good man, Matthew. You are the best man I ever met…”
He had nothing to say. Nothing. From above, the noise nearly deafened them. Sounds could be identified and differentiated. The first was a sledgehammer...then the noise of pickaxes… He heard dogs barking. Then voices again. Increasingly close—the noises became words. Some he did not understand...but others, though shrouded in dissonance, were clear.
He wanted to shout, to say that she was there, that she expected them, that she was close, and that she should be saved. She must live… His mouth was full of debris, saliva, and blood. He couldn’t speak. Everything was silent.
A male voice.
“Here…right over here...come, come…it's a woman…”
Many talked at once. Someone repeated a question, irritating, but she could not distinguish it…then a voice with clear enunciation.
“No, no…this one’s married…she's wearing a wedding ring…come on people…move, move…she's still alive.”
The activity increased.
“Let go of his hand…let go…do you understand? Let go of his hand…he's dead, ma’am, I'm very sorry…let go now.”
A bright light streamed through.
“Hey, I hear…hey. Lady…can you hear me? How are you doing? How are you?”
“You’re in pain, ma’am?”
“No, I don’t feel any pain. Don’t feel anything,”
“What’s your name?”
“Alana, my name is Alana…”
“Let go of the hand…let him go…you know? Let go of the hand…lady, he—your husband is dead. I'm very sorry…you have to let him go.”