The Refuge

Green shutters in my large studio open to a small balcony, where I can lean out from my post on the second story and watch the traffic of the fruit markets below. The Rif can be seen from anywhere in the city, but looking straight down the street from my studio, I have a particularly alluring view of the grey tops, often (this week) pointing to the undersides of heavy rain clouds. I can get work done here, wasting a minimal amount of time on worrying about things that would take up my head space back home. New work is flowing out of me, not yet great but not too bad. Being a writer is a day-by-day struggle against ‘I’m brilliant!’ and ‘I’m a fraud!’ I’m lucky if I can keep myself somewhere between. I was sick yesterday with a bad stomach, maybe from a peach or a batch of coffee, but two charcoal pills and a banana eased my discomfort. A forceful exhale at the state of one story or another produced a cloud of black ash from my nostrils that dusted the wood of my desk. I looked down at the soot, perplexed. Charcoal.

El Reducto is our own private refuge. Located in the same alley I stay in, a constant trickle of grey water runs down the middle of the walkway, cutting the road in two small paths. Occasional recessed door frames provide shelter to crowd into, with covered women and men who stroll with their hands clasped behind their backs, when the sudden rains appear. El Reducto is run by the Spanish woman and has a fine selection of wines on the menu. The other writers and I find a booth, lined with decadent red velvet and plush pillows, smelling faintly of sweet cigarettes. We are set with olives, walnuts, and golden raisins on the table. Mustapha brings us a bottle of wine. His English is good but his wine knowledge is dismissed with a passive shrug. He has the necessary beard and glasses combination of a young philosopher, wears collared shirts under dark sweaters pushed up his elbows to complete the impression. Even when I have my hair down past my shoulders and my cheeks are flushed from the wine—signs of a loose woman in this pious town—he is kind and respectful, responding to my zeal for a good Cab with timid English colloquialisms, fingers working the heavy coins of my payment. I am minimally in love with Mustapha, but only in the trivial way a hopeless romantic is with everyone she meets. Outside the ornate door and colored glass of El Reducto, three cats sleep on the entrance rug, waiting for calamari scraps while their fresh fighting wounds dry slowly in the damp air. Presently, there are three of us here at Green Olive, all writers. I am younger by thirty years but I talk the same stories, from Chekhov to Munro, Oates and Joyce, and indulge for hours in conversations about literature I rarely have the chance to do back home. It’s ok to tune me out, because those who are closest to me know I could talk about writing forever.

If you know me, you know how I forget my body. I forget to eat, I forget what I’m wearing, I look at people or things and don’t register who or what they are (I have been told I do this, which perturbs my friends). I pay little attention to my physical needs, because they fade behind my thoughts. I forget people can see me. This is not out of any desire to self harm, or a depressive existence which consumes my routine, but a genuine and extreme case of living deep inside my own head. I feel refreshed and stimulated by these nightly conversations, once the three of us have emerged from our separate cocoons of productivity, greasy-faced and slow as we return to the foreign world of ‘other people’. I crave exchanges which make me feel I am outside my body and her physical burdens, and I can live floating in the world of the inquisitive and self-direction of the mind. What is different here is that I am joined by like-minded individuals. There is no gossip. We don’t know anyone to gossip about. As I recline in the luxurious booth, face heating up and wine dwindling in the tinted bottle, soft Moroccan music plays above us and smoke drifts into our corner from the other room. The decorative tiles and rugs soften with the buzz, subduing crimson, gold, and cerulean into the natural background. Mustapha smiles into his phone, tapping the screen as he sits behind the register, his face above the invasive light that remains on when all other power cuts out. Our conversations barely pause: “…and when the fifth child arrives, the tone flips the narration on its head and—oh!—transforms the home into a prison.” Now we sit in the dark as Ruth and Mustapha fret in Spanish over the fussy breaker. Lights pop back on, and, after a few seconds, off again. This continues for a while, the soft music returning and fading into silence over and over as the owner adjusts the switch. Light returns. The wine is almost gone.

“Well, shall we?” the writers ask, wrapping scarves around their necks to leave. I know it’s time to go back to the apartment, before the streets are taken over by the marriage processions that cause an uproar before Ramadan. I know it’s time to go, but what I want to say is no, gracias, dejarme aqui, in my own fortified refuge.

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