I was twelve years old when I first learned how to ride the bicycle. It was in Taanayel, Beqaa. I used to go there every month or two with my mother, grandmother, and sister. After my grandfather went to prison for the past seven years, my grandmother needed some change, a way out of the miserable marriage that caused her so much pain for years and years. She found this hotel that was set up for a ten-year rental, so she took full responsibility to be in charge of it. The hotel was in West Beqaa, a wide building amidst all the greenery of the area. It was a place surrounded by tall poplar and cypress trees aged tens of years and a little river flowed on the edges. My sister and I spent so much “girl” time with my mother and grandmother at the hotel, especially after our parents got divorced when we were younger.
The hotel was a safe haven, away from all the noise and fighting that echoed between the compact walls of the corridors. In the morning, the sun would rise faintly behind the horizon of the mountain's tip and cover our faces with its light, waking us up from yesterday’s deep sleep. Waking up early was a valuable asset of our day, for the longer it was, the more time we had to create memories treasured forever. We would go down and sit near the currents of the softly flowing river, the sound of the dancing poplar trees strum in our ears leaving the illusionistic sound of waves going back and forth, leaving little kisses on the shores. On the breakfast table, four types of cheese, labneh, plates of vegetables and fruits, and a large variety of jams would be set. My favorite thing to have for breakfast was spreading room temperature butter on a small piece of baguette with strawberry or fig jam, and sometimes I would go for honey if I wanted to be a little extra. Mornings were calm… we all felt content and grateful. We would utter laughs every here and there as my sister played on the swing; we would talk about all the funny incidents that happened with some of the attendants of the hotel. My grandmother told me about that one time she greeted an entire family and how they had this one child who never stopped nagging or crying the whole time. It was a family of seven children, and surprisingly it was only this one child who persistently wanted to do everything to disrupt the vacation they expected to have. Or there was this one time when a family came into the hotel, asked that they could pay before they sign out, slept there for three days, and left without paying because they did not like the hotel's service. I laughed so hard at this one. I mean why stay in the place that long then create an excuse and complain to avoid paying?
After sharing our laughter on the breakfast table, both my mother and grandmother had to get back to their work. My mother’s work was one and a half hours away from the hotel and she came in late at night, so my sister and I were rarely able to spend time with her. That didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy my time, for I had a huge place all to myself with so many areas and tiny corners left for me to discover, and to tell you the truth… I uncovered every hidden spot. From going beyond the river currents to reaching a flat earthed valley, I managed to find an old rusted see saw laying right in the center. I would sit on it and push my legs up and down since I had no one to play with that was my age, but I loved sitting there at 4 pm in the afternoon as the sun’s heat was diminishing and the light peaked swiftly through the trees resting on my face. Up and down, up and down, up… and down.
Other things that I did when I got really bored after exploring all the places there were left to explore, was that I always pushed the secretary away, sat in her moving chair, and greeted the customers by managing payments and giving them their room keys. I was really good at that job, but the secretary sought to murder me in cold blood because I was a child taking care of adult business. Oh well, it was both fun and funny watching her get so angry at me that her cheeks would turn as red as a tomato. Other times, I would patiently watch the people who would come into the hotel, and I would look for someone who’s my age so I could meet and play with them. I guess I felt too lonely because no one would play with me, my sister was too young to understand anything. Speak of prayers and they shall be answered! Finally, as I waited, a girl my age came in with her family and I greeted her with a smile. She felt intimidated at first, she gave me a straight face that was probably creeped out. I gave them the keys to their room, I still recall, it was room 307. One floor under my room. I watched her leave with her family to their room without a word or expression, but her silence intrigued me… I was interested in getting to know her. Plus, mind me remind you that I was lonely. Besides, how long will I have to play on that see-saw alone? I started waking up early and observing the family’s every move. The next morning, they came down for breakfast and the girl goes to play on the swing, she slowly goes back and forth staring down at her shoes. She was sad, but I didn’t know why.
“Hey there”, I said excitedly as I approached her.
She looked up at me as if she didn’t recognize that I was even there.
“Hey”, she replied then tilted her head back down.
“Would you like someone to swing you from the back?”, I suggested.
“No”. A rough rejection.
I stood there thinking, my excited smile turning into a frown, but then it came back as fast.
“Oh,oh! I actually bought a new toy and it’s in my room, would you like to play with me?”
“Not really, my parents wouldn’t let me.”
“We can ask them, I’m sure they would let you! Plus, my grandmother owns this hotel!”
I saw her change and get excited. Fascinating how energies affect one another. I thought that using the ownership of my grandmother was a way to boast of my popularity and importance, but also a way that got me out of my loneliness into make new friends.
“Okay, let’s try asking them,” she said with a bright innocent smile on her face now, yet she still hides a sadness behind those glaring eyes.
Her parents, the sweetest people with one of the kindest hearts I’ve ever met, were so happy to know that their daughter made a new friend in this short amount of time. They allowed her to come into my room and play with my new toy, and my heart fell into this sudden joy of having the company of someone and sharing my thoughts, the places I discovered, and my food with!
“This was fun, can we play again?”, she asked smilingly after we finished playing the first round of the game.
“Yes, of course.”
We played and laughed and ordered lemonade as the heat was getting worse in midday. Then there was a silence that broke into the room, a calmness… it was awkward, it was nice. It was maybe the first time I shared a silence with someone without having to constantly fill it with words or questions or awkward phrases that make no sense at all.
“Are you enjoying your time here with your family?”, what a stupid question I thought I asked.
“Uhm”, she paused looking down again avoiding eye contact, “not much, no.”
“Oh, why is that?”
“Because my brother died.”
“What! What do you mean he died?”
“He died from cancer about five months ago.”
There was a long silence as I was trying to collect my thoughts and words. I didn’t want her to feel like I pity her or her family. I was shocked by the sudden unexpected information pouring out roughly onto my soul. She was still grieving, they all were. They wanted this vacation as a way to slowly heal and surpass this major incident that would affect their lives forever. I did not know what to do or what to say, I never encountered loss, but I could feel it through her eyes.
“Would you like to talk about it?”, it was the safest thing I could ask.
“No, not really”, her eyes water up and a small tear forms to fall on her rosy cheek.
I pause to think.
“Come with me, I would like to show you something.”
The sun was almost setting outside as I took her hand and we walked against the river current and onto the flat land where the see-saw stood in the middle… waiting to be played on and strummed with the music of two bodies reciprocating different tunes to create one melodic rhythm. Up and down, up and down, up…and down we went as the sun was fading away behind the trees, the mountains, and our shadows. The poplar trees danced with us, the cypresses followed and so did all the dry wheat grass surrounding us. Up and down… in silence. The girl suddenly burst into tears and our melody stopped playing. I walked toward her and gave her a warm hug.
“it’s okay”, I whispered into the dark.
After she felt a bit better and the night sky was approaching, we had to get back to the hotel before we were consumed by wolves and other creatures wandering around. When we went back, we found both the girl’s family, my mother and grandmother sitting and talking together at the dinner table. They were happy even though they were talking about life’s deepest pains and sufferable moments. My grandmother shared how her husband was going around behind her back engaging in several love affairs, stealing money from innocent people, and not providing anything for the family. They, in return, spoke about their son and how he passed away. The days they spent with him during his chemotherapy sessions, the times they stayed up with him at night as he threw up in the bathroom, and the day he laid on his bed uttering his last silent breaths. We encounter many losses in our lives, and often we try to avoid talking about them because we cannot bare the fact that they happened…that we lost people we loved. Whether it was death or a time when they had to go away, any loss leaves us rooted in pain. The hardest part is not to acknowledge this pain, but how to deal with it after the incident takes place. Sometimes we keep delaying and delaying, unaware that this pain is like bacteria or the cancerous cells that feed on our bodies… they constantly grow and multiply and spread and damage.
The next day, I woke up. My mother seated on the bed side next to me holding a small paper note. I asked her what it was, and she handed it to me, on it was someone’s phone number.
My mother looks at me and says: “your friend…she left earlier today with her family, but she wrote down her home number so you guys could stay in contact. She says that you are her first true friend.”
I was saddened to the core because I did not get the chance to say goodbye, but I was also pleased to know that someone somewhere wanted to be my friend for a long time. She left but she also stayed. We also learn from some losses that even though they leave us, they stay in the major parts of us…our hearts. I smiled. Then, I immediately ran to the phone to see if the number she gave me worked and if she didn’t mess up or forget a number or two. It worked and my heart regained its peace.
Today, I am twenty-one. My mother has aged, and my grandmother left us… because of the breast cancer that spread throughout her body. She left us quivering in pain, trying to save her as we held her from one hospital room to the next. She left us and she left her own body, but her spirit stayed. She stayed. She stayed in the wave like sounds of poplar trees, in the mourning of cypress trees, in bread buttered with jam or honey, in laughter, in friendships, in jokes cracked at lunchtime, and whispering cries onto my ear in the evening when I was so afraid to sleep alone. Her smile stayed, the perfume she sprayed on top of all her clothes. She stayed in the places I even discovered alone and the places she sat, slept, ate, laughed, and wept at. At first, I was mad at loss. At first, I didn’t understand the girl’s grief over her little brother and all I wanted was to console her, to provide her with something to forget or avoid what she lost. But loss is never forgotten. It can be mended with time but can never be forgotten. It pierces your heart and leaves you reminiscing wherever you go and whatever you do, and even after years and years of moving on with life, you will find it faintly haunting you. My grandmother faded away now into the stars but marked us with her light. What leaves us, stays with us for a long time… what a paradox.
Now, my mother and I visit Taanayel every once in a while, usually in autumn because that is when the poplar trees shed down their brownish yellowish leaves, leaving them as collected puddles on the ground. Even trees die and revive with time, but in order to revive, one must leave things behind…let go of one leaves stuck to the branches. Now, I am twenty-one. my mother and I visit the hotel that is abandoned now, rusted, rotting. We walk around in silence, reminiscing the gaps in our memories. Listening to the river flowing, the tables cloth ripped, chairs were broken where we used to sit, and silence… so much silence that is different now. A haunting calmness. I go back to the see-saw and sit on it alone, just like the first time I discovered it when I was a child. I become the river and my tears flow onto my face. I push my feet up and down, from the sky to the ground. This is life. This is everything and nothing. This is the way we mend and break. This is how we rust and break. This is how we leave and stay. This is how the night fades and comes another.