Laila, the phantom itch
The cold, empty side of the bed. The twisted sheets. Laila always insisted that I make her bed each morning. She had a 9 to 5 at the time and I just barely slid by with my laptop and a few gimmicks. So I got to sleep in.
“Just lock the door behind you,” she’d say. “And make my bed; you thrash like crazy—it’s like you’re trying to tie bowler knots with the sheets.”
“That’s only when you’re not in bed with me,” I’d say.
And it was true. In my sleep, after my body sensed she was no longer there, I’d thrash about in the depths of my subconscious, searching for Laila.
Laila’s parents were Palestinian refugees. We met in Madrid because of my Lebanon t-shirt; we had both attended the American University of Beirut. She invited me to a dive where we shared Lebanon stories and drank tequila—only tequila. Straight.
Laila was an odd girl. For someone with illiterate parents back in Qatar, she was remarkably socially enlightened and promiscuous. Most of her ilk married by 19. But she was 26 now, she’d had several boyfriends, she loved Guns N Roses almost as much as she did Tequila. She carried herself in such a way that said, don’t fuck with me or I’ll kill you in your sleep.
I never did do anything to cross Laila. Didn’t dream of it. Instead I did any and all things to please her. We pulled off an elaborate hoax to make her parents believe I was Muslim; I learned how to write the basics in Arabic. And when her brother showed up to take her back home, I took him out to strip clubs until he didn’t want to go back himself.
I’m not sure what went wrong, in the end. Sometimes nothing has to. But I remember coming back to our apartment in Madrid and seeing all her things gone. Maybe she was tired of me. Maybe she caved to residual guilt and family longing.
I thought I’d be OK at first. I went out and partied with friends, crashing on their couches on the other side of town. Didn’t come home for a week. Tried to play it cool until she called, which she never did. Eventually, I had to go back. I wasn’t sure why I felt such a need to avoid our apartment until I got there and noticed our bed, unmade, the sheets twisted and tangled like the roots of a tree after a flood, struggling for purchase.
That night I wrapped myself in sweats and slept beneath our bed; we had no couch. And I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle the scent of her shampoo on the pillow.
Years later, I still smell her, like the itch an amputee feels from a limb long since gone.
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