There were signs of life back on the Brighton Beach boardwalk. Brighton Beach Avenue was entirely quiet, but on the boardwalk, husbands and wives strolled to-and-fro. They wore down coats from the bargain basement shops on Brighton Beach Avenue. They delighted in the stillness of the night—engaging in a European mode of relaxation called la dolce far niente—sweet inertia.
To my anxious Egyptian eyes, they looked like zombies.
They say that the boardwalk at Brighton Beach looks like St. Petersburg. Some of the night people of the boardwalk looked like their parents had, strolling in their sensible, Soviet, monochromatic woollens along the frigid Baltic.
I was hurriedly scrolling through my options on Pound, the gay app, while Tony, one of my lovers for the evening, observed the passersby. My grandfather Wassim, who raised me, had always marvelled at how quickly I texted — how fast my thumbs were able to move. Wassim’s last mobile was a flip phone with no internet connectivity. He was not a luddite. He had seen many fads come and go, and he was keen to learn new things. He was learning Mandarin when he died. But something about the way I had become drawn into my phone, the way my head bent before it, upset him. Wassim’s hatred of smartphones was not a question of the privacy concerns that people raise these days. Wassim was not the kind of man who cared whether online marketers knew he loved oatmeal. And yet he was certain that each new generation of smart phone was a kind of progress that takes a step backward.
‘What about this guy?’ I asked Tony, showing him my phone. ‘He’s in Sheepshead Bay — just one stop away on the Q train’. His username was an emoji: a pair of suspicious-looking side-eyes. In Pound parlance, this meant that this Pound user was ‘looking’ – that he was actively seeking a hook-up. His profile picture showed him standing on the beach covered head-to-toe in Adidas athletic wear. He had cropped his head out of the picture. He was 41 years old, 177 centimetres tall, 67 kilos, ‘Average’ body type, male, discreet, single, HIV negative on PrEP, and looking for casual hook-ups.
‘What’s his face look like?’ Tony asked.
‘I thought you didn’t care’, I replied. ‘This guy says he’d be down just to watch’.
‘Well I don’t want him to look scary’, Tony said. ‘It’d be a bit distracting to have a Picasso leering at us at the end of the bed, don’t you think?’
I asked for a face pic. The Pound user blocked me immediately, in response.
‘The little gonad blocked me!’ I exclaimed. ‘Can you believe the nerve of some people?’
Another account appeared on the menu grid of possibilities. Just 1.3 miles away. Blank profile. ‘HOST’ was his username. No stats. Just a few more-or-less words in the self-description: ‘STR8 4 STR8’.
Hey bro, I wrote. What’s up?
Faggot, HOST replied.
The fuck? We’re both on Pound fuck face? I replied.
What a sad, faceless little man. If you had any balls you’d show your sorry little face when you use homophobic slurs on a gay sex app.
Tell me that to my face, HOST replied.
I would if you had one!
I’ll slice you
I reported and blocked the profile.
‘What’s wrong’, Tony said. ‘You look upset’.
‘Nothing — just a whimsical, little Coney Island crackhead said he wanted to slice me up!’
‘Ah the goodly people of the hook-up app, society’s cream of the crop’, Tony said and returned to his people watching.
A yellow sports car pulled up to the roundabout near the bench where we sat. A pale blue and purple strobe light turned on inside the car. The driver rolled down the window and the song Плачу на техно – Plachu na Tyekna — Crying over Techno played with heavy bass from his surround sound. Tony and I watched him look out his window broodingly into the infinite blackness of the Atlantic Ocean for a moment. Then the song ended. He flicked a cigarette out the window and drove off into the night.
I looked back to my phone. I had several messages — not on Pound but on Instagram. It was Akram, my digital friend in Alexandria.
Or goodnight, whatever.
I have a surprise for you, Akram wrote. I spoke with a municipal history expert at the Bibliotecha Alexandrina, our famous library.
My heart began to beat through my chest.
Flower Street is now called Freedom Street.
I went there to take you some photos, so you could finally see it. One moment.
And then they came to me like a dam had broken, in rapid succession — Photos of Freedom Street. I reckoned not much had changed since Wassim’s time. The buildings were just as regal. They had only become a bit more ghostly, beaten about by the elements and cloaked in a film of age. Then Akram sent two videos: one of the large coastal avenues and the glistening Mediterranean beyond them and the second of young Akram walking up Freedom Street. At the head of the street, close to the water, was a Chili’s – تشيليز — one of the American chain restaurants famous for the barbecue ribs. I marvelled at the sight of an American restaurant on a side street off the Alexandrian coast. I was both relieved and disturbed to find something so familiar there. And then I realised that this — seeing Wassim’s street after a lifetime of wondering — was a heavy undertaking. What if nothing beyond the old-looking buildings and the Chili’s was familiar to me? If Flower Street felt as foreign as New York, perhaps the problem of my constant sorrow lied with me and not my displacement.
‘Notice there are some shops here that still call themselves Flower, the old street name’, Akram said in the video, in English. Tony was startled by the sudden high-volume static sound from the video. It was the sound of the winds from the Mediterranean assaulting Akram’s phone as punishment for capturing and transferring to me what I should only have again if I actually made it there. ‘Here’s a battery shop — Flower Street Batteries’, Akram continued. ‘And a little cigarette shop — ‘Flower Tobacconist’.
I thought about the still-living people of Flower Street. Freedom in Arabic — حرية – horiya — is just as sweet-sounding a word as flowers — زهرة – zahra. And yet there was evidently something about modern Egyptian people that would hang onto the old, colonial-era name. Maybe, seen from another vantage point, their nostalgia was not self-defeating and sad. Maybe Egyptians are culturally — and as a function of the culture of Islam and of Egypt’s history with famine, epidemics, and other periods of los and want — opposed to waste. Maybe there are several simultaneous realities.
‘This is it’, Akram said. Our house on Flower Street had become a small apartment building. I wondered if our building had been bulldozed or just updated or expanded to accommodate several, separate quarters. We had no old photos of the house, growing up — only photos from up the street. Then, Akram continued inland from the sea, southward toward Borg el Arab. I saw an alley beside the building where we had lived. I felt as though I had seen the alley in a dream. I tried to zoom in on it with my thumb and index finger, but the video became too grainy to inspect it further. I flipped through the accompanying photos. There it was — an alleyway just beside the apartment building, and over it stood a marble archway decorated with a relief of three oversized jasmine buds, interwoven with ribbon, sitting atop two Grecian pillars. I looked up into the ocean ahead of me. I wondered if I flung myself into the Atlantic, if I would wash up on Freedom Street, beneath this archway, and be buried there by someone like Akram, who would be Egyptian enough to understand why I had come.
‘You’re crying, Sam’, Tony said.
‘No, it’s the ocean wind hitting my eyes’, I said.
‘You’re crying, Sam’, Tony insisted. ‘Those are tears’.
‘This is the street of my grandfather, who raised me’, I said, showing him my phone. A young man who is like him in some ways took these photos because he knows I’ve wanted to see it and couldn’t’.
‘Good man’, Tony said. It was a pleasure to hear Tony say something earnest after all his snark and skepticism about my religiosity, my plan to return, my adventures with hypnosis.
‘It’s a sort of goodness I haven’t felt here in years’, I said. ‘That’s is why I’m going back. In Alexandria, people will know what I need, intuitively. My grandfather would have done this for someone in my situation, and his family too, Heaven rest them’.
‘That’s why you’re going to mentally castrate yourself tomorrow morning’, Tony said. ‘Religion is a hell of a drug’.
‘God forgive you, Tony’, I said. ‘Religion is the only thing keeping me alive until now’.
‘Religion is why you won’t give me more than one night’, he said. ‘Your last gay night.’
‘That’s not true’, I replied. ‘I’ve given men like you more chances than I can count. I banked my soul on a gay Hollywood romance—a fiction I never found. And by doing that, I’ve taken myself farther from this street. The truth is, when this street, and your feelings, and my face crumble, there will still be the Heavens. And if I repent one day, before my death, I will rest my head there and be free from my sorrow’.
And solitude, I should have said. What a beautiful word — العزلة – elaozla – Solitude. The sound of it is like a void echoing from the back of the throat. Some American people name their children Constance, which is beautiful, no doubt. But I love the Catholic faithful of the Spanish-speaking world who dare to name their daughters something as true to life as the name Soledad – Solitude.
‘This is goodbye then’, I told Tony. We strolled along Stillwell Avenue in the direction of the Coney Island Metro station. Stillwell Avenue runs along the perimeter of Luna Park, but something about Stillwell stifles that merriment beside it. Maybe it’s the ocean wind or the humid air, pregnant with water, that quiets the sonorous bells and whistles of the rides and the cacophony of children screaming to express from their chests the joy and terror of careening downward from great heights.
‘I guess so’, Tony said. ‘Sam, I want you to know something—’
Across the street was Nathan’s Famous, where Wassim would take me for a hot dog on the first day of every summer break. We stopped walking and turned to each other. Tony took my hand and put it on his chest.
‘I’ve dated a lot of guys, and I don’t feel myself to have known any of them like I’ve known you in just a few hours’, Tony said.
You don’t know me for shit, I thought silently. And what you think you know, you’d soon lose patience for. And all the sweet things you tell me will return to torture me, in your absence. You’ll have moved on without a second thought, because you’re so calm and collected that you’ve made your living on it.
‘I feel the same about you’, I said. ‘It’s a pity’.
‘That we met too late’, Tony said.
I nodded. ‘And that I’m not a dumb kid anymore’, I said. ‘And that everything ends’.
‘I’ll never stop being a hopeless romantic’, Tony said.
‘Then you must be a glutton for punishment’, I said.
Tony said nothing.
I imagined what it would be like to let this one go. I hoped that our subways were on different platforms or that my train would leave first. I wanted to be the one to leave him. I resolved myself to get on whatever train in whatever direction, as long as it left before Tony’s. From there, I would wait at the next stop for another train headed in my direction. I would hide in a corner of that station, in case his train crossed the same tracks and he spotted me, abandoning him. I would not suffer his last impression of me to be another act of casual psychoanalysis — another judgment.
I heard a familiar popping sound from my trouser pocket. It was Pound.
‘It’s the headless guy with the nice bed’, I told Tony. Tony said nothing.
You’re closer, now, the headless guy said. Where are you?
Coney Island, you?
Same. I’m at Mermaid Avenue and West 44th.
Is that far from Nathan’s?
Very close. I can come get you.
‘He says he’s nearby, and he can host us’, I said. ‘He’s real close — Mermaid and 44th’.
Tony looked down at the ground and then up into the sky.
‘I don’t think I can, Sam’, Tony said. ‘What would this be tomorrow? Just a haunting, painful thing’.
‘We’d have had tonight’, I said. ‘All we ever have is tonight’.
‘And if I want more?’ Tony asked.
‘What more is there?’ I asked.
‘What if I want tomorrow?’ Tony asked. ‘What if this was supposed to be forever, and you’ve made a decision I’ll never comprehend? Because you’ve decided to suffer’.
‘You’re like every man I’ve ever met, Tony’, I said, tongue of a viper, speaking to slice and dice. ‘Either you want nothing much or you want to get married after a few hours together. I’m not stupid like that anymore. I have one night left with a libido. I have to give myself this last moment’s pleasure’.
‘I also have to be fair to myself’, Tony said.
I had nothing else to say, so I said nothing. Tony’s eyes searched mine for something that no longer existed in me. Tony turned and crossed the street into the large, gaping mouth of the Coney Island subway station.
‘Goodbye!’ I shouted.
I realised he had never offered me his phone number. But what good would his phone number have done me the next day? Maybe we could have been friends, I thought. But I had no gay friends. I either dated the gay men I encountered, had sex with them one or a few times, or wondered why they had not engaged me in either course of action.
Moments later, I continued on my trek along Stillwell Avenue, passing the large Coney Island subway terminal and its closed, dark, empty shops. I felt eyes on me. It was perhaps just my imagination — I have no reason to feel I am psychic. If I could have seen the future, I would not have been there at all. I wondered if the feeling of being watched was Tony, surveying me from one of the subway platforms overhead. Around the time of the Twilight series and other such vampire romance fiction, I had begun to imagine that the love of my life had always been watching me, waiting for me to delete Pound and become a more respectable person before he would present himself.
I didn’t feel overcome with romance in that moment. The feeling of being watched put a chill in me, like the feeling of an unseen hand gently caressing the back of my neck. I picked up the pace and began to walk with greater purpose in the direction of my final fuck. And then as the disquiet within me grew, I began to run in the direction of Mermaid Avenue. At one point on that road, there was a near-total absence of light. I imagined that there would be someone in the shadows at some point who would make themselves known. That person never appeared. The farther I ran, the more certain I was of the profound stillness that was ahead.