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Nicotine

Nicotine

Short fiction by Hisham Bustani, Jordanian award-winning author of four collections of short fiction, translated from the Arabic by Maia Tabet, an Arabic-English literary translator living in Washington DC


She wraps her fingers around it, pulls on it gently, takes it into her mouth, and sucks...

* * *

Sitting enveloped in a cloud of smoke was not one of his favorite pleasures, but today was hers. Usually, he was the one to decide where they would meet, but this time he’d left it up to her.
She sat across from him, her face stiff as an untouched canvas stretched on its frame. She cut her food methodically with her fork and knife, placed it in her mouth, chewed, and swallowed without the minutest change in her (non)-expression. 
“Your dispassion is boundless,” he told her. “Like the polar ice plains. Do you feel no pleasure as the food percolates onto your tongue and palate? Don't you smell it or delight in its colors? Although not everyone realizes it, eating is such a sensual experience. Like music, but more so because taste is a really neglected sense."
"I lost all sensation a while ago, one year ago to be precise," she said, tossing her hair back. 
"Then you're no longer human. If music doesn't affect you, and neither does appetizing food that is artfully prepared, and you don't react to a painting, or your skin doesn't tingle when a tongue slides along your neck ... what is left?"
"The hookah."
* * *

The man had opened the world to her and she had become infatuated with him. He'd lavished on her passion, vigor, and jealousy to the point of exhaustion, and after wringing every last drop of juice out of her, so that she was stripped of her senses, he discarded her. She had become a body that was sealed, but only on the inside: a white circular chamber floating in space.
* * *

“There’s nothing left in me,” she said a few seconds later, as if reappearing after being in another world. He'd had to snap his fingers for her to come back to him. “Six whole years. I hadn’t ever been with anyone before him, I’d never done the wild teenage thing, or lavished my emotions on anyone until I met him; I was virginal in every sense when he found me.”
A gaggle of young women in the background then stood up laughing and broke into a loud rendition of “Happy Birthday.” 
She didn't even turn around, and continued looking straight ahead at the colored wall in front of her as the eye stinging smoke streamed from her exhalations, thickening the air.
"You are victimizing yourself, climbing the ladder of your illusions and then falling down and feeling hurt. He's not the problem. He was clear with you and went on his way. But you remain as tightly wound as the bud you first gifted him, going around and around like in an endless maze. Hiba, there's nothing on the wall in front of you but circles, without beginning or end. Don't even try to find your way out, they're like whorls of dry quicksand just sucking you in." 
She didn't respond. She was feeling dizzy, and closed her eyes for an instant; it felt as if everything was spinning around, and she was being pulled downward. It was a nice sensation, a feeling of total surrender, of emptiness, of having no willpower, like a universe devoid of gravitational pull. A parallel universe where the laws of physics didn't apply, where there was only one principle: endless space and nothingness.
She opened her eyes suddenly, startled by the banging of the coffee cup against the glass tabletop, and the apologies of the waiter. She was still in the café, and he was still studying her silently, and the birthday girls carrying on in the background were getting louder and louder. She looked crestfallen, and felt her insides were being ripped by vicious worms, and then a wave of nausea rushed over her.
She fought back the heaving of her stomach — she was a well-brought up girl and wasn't about to throw up all over a café floor in front of people. She took a drag from the hookah, everything went numb, and with the next exhalation, she came back around.
"You know, I don't enjoy the taste of anything anymore, except for the hookah. It's the only thing I enjoy. With every inhalation, the smoke seeps into me, my very pores drink it in, and I feel good. It's my only pleasure, my only remaining sense experience..." 
"Like having sex with a hookah?" he said, smiling.
"Like it's sucking on me..."

* * * 

The extended arm withdraws little by little, and she sinks into the hot sand. She has no desire to raise her hand and no longer even looks up. She pulls deeply on the hookah and becomes weightless.

[Of a sleeping man's visions]

Everything is surrounded by emptiness. No gravitational pull or mass here. Everything light, endlessly light, unbearably light.
His hand moves to the tumbler, which gradually recedes as a slightly viscous red liquid appears in amoeba-like formations floating in the air. He grabs the tumbler, flings it up (is there such a thing as “up”?), harnessing the amoebic substance into the trajectory of his mouth, and then swallows.
In that instant, his vision is heightened, he sees what is unseen, and sees into what can be seen. His ears catch the soft sounds of a song playing in the background: “I’ve been living a lie, there’s nothing inside.” A lie, he asks, as he watches her passing before him? His eyes follow her and she turns slowly, her legs shooting up like those of a synchronized swimmer on the surface of the water, and the soft music turns into a monotonous din.
To him, the droplets on her skin look like water slithering on wax. His eyes gleam, and he glides toward her (is there such a thing as “toward her”?). He has to find her, to pull her out, to kiss her, to have sex with her, and ejaculate his viscous fluid deep inside her. Like the Big Bang, the expansion of mass that took place in the depth of the void, the explosion of semen would reach the confines of her womb.
When he gets to her and extends his arms, there is nothing to grab onto but the palms of his own two hands. She continues to twirl slowly, as his momentum takes him right through her, and total silence reigns.


Translator’s note: 

Dry quicksand is a phenomenon that has a long history in folklore and literature. It acts similarly to normal quicksand but without the water, and it operates on different principles. Dry quicksand was produced by physicists in laboratory conditions in the Netherlands, as reported in the journal Nature in 2004. 

Unbearably light is a riff on The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the title of the famous novel by Czech writer Milan Kundera.

I've been living a lie, there's nothing inside is a line from the song "Bring Me to Life" by the American rock band Evanescence.

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