Training Wheels

words Rami Karim

1

We are at breakfast and Salim is still drunk from last night, reminiscing about his time with the college student at Imad's party. He finishes his coffee and struggles to make a bite of fried eggs as the sun shines directly on his face. He squints in a way that yields pity and endearment from Amal and me.

Salim is deep in a period of falling in love in short bursts and losing interest when it's reciprocated. He maintains that the spark between him and the boy from the party is active, it just didn't happen this time. He spent the past week sending his crush well-timed texts communicating that he was as interested as he was elusive. He is doing the same with my cousin Yousef who is visiting from Amman and also our waiter, which is why we are at this cafe again. Salim ended a three-year relationship last September, nearly a year ago, and this is the readiest he's been for dating since. He is also the most guarded about love and nihilistic as I've ever seen him.

We had arrived at midnight the night before and it took Salim an hour and a half to leave Imad's room, the site of a more private party where we drank and played cards while Imad socialized with coworkers he wanted to become friendlier with. One of them, the intern, was Salim's crush. Both were too drunk to move beyond pleasantries by the time they met and instead danced together in a way I could tell made Salim feel too exposed, too nervous to be seen with his hand on the back of a an eighteen-year-old. It didn't help that we had spent the afternoon drinking at an old professor's chalet in Tabarja that I look after when she stays in the mountains. She couldn't pay but offered her booze and hash, which we finished on the drive to Imad's.

Amal is smoking her last cigarette and attempting to democratize the conversation. "Let's go to the beach," she says, ashing off the veranda. "Summer's almost over and we haven't yet." Salim takes the hint with an exhale, his self-awareness overriding his self-absorption. He suggests driving north to Chekka where his grandfather stores a fishing boat we could borrow. Amal says that's a great idea, she'd love to try Chekka. I say I'm in and offer to drive. The waiter brings our bill with a generous discount and winks at Amal as he clears the table. Salim invites us to drinks with them tonight and finishes his fourth glass of water. He pulls out his phone to take a selfie with the Mediterranean in the background, his eyes half-open. We are at an obvious tourist trap but the view makes up for it.

2

It is impossible to drive from Beirut to Keserwan in a reasonable amount of time before sundown so I decide to stay the night at Amal's. We are out for drinks in Hamra and Amal says she invited a boy named Philippe. She pulls out her phone to show me pictures and describes him as an attractive but humble nerd. Over our first round I tell her that someday, she will have to learn how to go on dates alone, and that I know Salim agrees. She tends to hide behind us in situations involving potential lovers. She says she wants a boyfriend but somehow manages to sabotage every prospect. Amal asks about my love life as I order a second round and pretend not to hear. We are both silent for a moment before she nudges my shoulder. I roll my eyes and say nothing is happening, that I'm focusing on myself. "Nothing?"

"I would welcome love if it came to me" I reply. Amal is persistent. She asks who I'm hooking up with before being interrupted by who I presume is Philippe brushing up against her. He kisses her cheek and says hello to me without a formal introduction, which I think is perfect for Amal. She is sensitive to people showing effort and finds it unattractive.

Philippe tells us he got back to Beirut an hour ago. On Friday he drove to his grandmother's in Nabatieh for a planned hike to the Israeli border with his cousins. Amal, making an effort, asks what it looked like. He says there were paved roads in every direction, but otherwise it was the same as the Lebanese side.

Salim arrives alone with a round of beers for the table. He serves them as though dependent on our tips and slides into the booth beside me. Before I can say hello he announces that he just left the waiter's house. They had great sex and broke up shortly after—mutually, he says. "He wanted more than I could give him." Salim is trying to be polite in front of Philippe, as is his habit during first meetings with straight men. The truth is that the waiter never stimulated Salim. He told us only about his physique when they first met and eventually it became hard to separate sex from an ostensible courtship.

Salim isn't happy when his brain isn't moving. He is constantly analyzing and needs someone similar. I know because we used to be lovers. Amal introduced us in high school. She and I were classmates and Salim remains her downstairs neighbor in Sin El Fil. We were in love for a year, and for seven straight months I required that we share a bed every night.

Salim and I remember the split differently. His explanation is long winded, drawing on theories of love from a cursory reading of Kristeva. For me, the glib truth is that Salim became bored. A bond that once excited him was getting in the way of something. He also hated his job and wanted to put his Canadian passport to use, so he moved to Montreal and worked as a French-Arabic translator at a legal clinic. On his first week back in Beirut a year later he met Younis, his most-recent ex.

By the end of it, Younis had found security with Salim like a toddler with his parents. Salim felt the weight of it and cheated on Younis with an ex-fling he cared nothing for, really just to press "eject." Since Younis' love for Salim was proprietary, Salim arranged for his own theft. He confessed that night, and they fought until sunrise before completely disappearing from each other's lives.

Salim touches my thigh under the table and asks if I want to go home. The sun hasn't even set but a ride would be faster than a bus and I could use a night of rest before the beach tomorrow.

On the drive I notice we are almost at Salim's but it doesn't faze me. We climb the stairs to his mother's apartment and sneak into his bedroom, careful not to wake her. His room is just as I left it, down to the Polaroid of us I taped to his sock drawer nearly six years ago. I decide I'm making the most of the early night and lie down to sleep. "Move to your side," Salim says. He shuts off the lights.

3

Jounieh is an overwhelmingly Maronite district north of Beirut. Driving through it is a reminder that there exists a chunk of Lebanese who still fear Muslims might drive them out of their homes and take over the country. It makes me anxious and I am relieved to make it past Byblos.

At the beach we sit furthest away from the entrance so we can drink and talk and smoke in peace. Philippe is here too, and Amal is quietly enjoying it. She asked us to leave them the backseat on the drive here and now they are walking along the shoreline. Salim and I watch and sip on pilsners from our towels. I think to myself that it just might work out between them. Philippe is completely enthralled by her. He is emotional without being demonstrative, so Amal gets the attention she craves without it being showy.

I use the parking lot as a bathroom and return to find Salim talking to a blonde-haired European in a Speedo. He is sitting on my towel. Salim and I catch eyes and he winks, pleased with himself. I see the European get up to leave as I near them. I lie down and put on headphones that Salim then removes. "Hey," he says, "he told me about a party among his cohort in Badaro tonight." "Great," I reply, not caring enough to probe further, "I hope this one works out."

Salim doesn't respond. A few moments pass before he sits up and and darts to the shoreline. He looks back to see if I'm watching and I look up at the sky, grateful for having packed sunglasses. Salim taunts me with raised eyebrows. After a few minutes aestheticizing deep thought I get up and slowly make it to the shore, digging my toes into the sand with each step.

"I knew it," as soon as I get there. "Pretending he doesn't want to swim." Salim is wading a few meters away. I dip my feet and step back again. The water is freezing. He quietly moves closer and splashes in my direction, each frigid drop stinging my skin. Without thinking I dive into deeper water and swim to his feet, grabbing them to knock him over, then I surface. I begin to laugh while I wait for him to follow, which he does with the nonchalance of someone who submerged on purpose. "Bravo," he lets out coolly. My eyes exhibit satisfaction but I swim to shore without letting him see.


Back at our towels I am rolling a spliff despite the wind. Salim creates a barrier around my hands with his towel and I mash a clump of hash into loose tobacco then form it into a cylinder. 

Amal returns with Philippe minutes later, both of them wet and glistening. She wraps a towel around herself and gestures for the spliff. After a drag and asks when we want to leave, which is her way of communicating that she is ready to. I take the bait, anticipating the long drive back to Beirut and yearning to be showered and in bed.

The drive home is quiet. Everyone is too tired and sunburnt to talk or move much. Salim requests that I take the beach road. "It'll take us hours." I say. "Please," he says. "Why not," Amal echoes from the backseat, Philippe’s arm over her shoulder.

I take the Tabarja exit and drop off the chalet before continuing south on the scenic route. Salim caresses my shoulder in thanks.

The road is well lit and traffic-ridden. The radio is playing top 40 and the salty wind is a welcome break from the heat of late August. I realize that I'm not jealous of Salim's boyfriends, but I do miss his friendship. I miss when he treated his friends like lovers. I notice him falling asleep and ask, "Aren't you going to miss the party?" desperate for companionship on the long drive home.

Salim looks at me curiously before remembering. "The party will miss me," he says, his tired cheekiness on full display. I shake my head in disgust. "I can see you smiling so don't bother hiding it," he adds.

I stifle a chuckle and call him a fool. "But you love me" he says. I turn up the volume to buffer the sound of Amal and Philippe making out in the backseat.  It's as though Salim and I are alone in the car. "A fool through and through," I say, this time cackling. Salim puts his feet on the dash and looks at me, then back outside. We are stuck at the casino and the tangerine sun is directly on him again. He reclines his seat and rides the wind with an open palm out the window. Wearing a wry smile he says, "I just like to make you laugh."

Rami Karim is the author of Smile & Nod (Wendy's Subway, 2018). Their work has appeared in The Brooklyn Review, Apogee, Makhzin, The Margins, and Tagvverk, among others. Rami graduated from the Creative Writing MFA at Brooklyn College in 2017, where they received the Rose Goldstein, Himan Brown, and Carole Lainoff awards in writing. Rami is a 2017-18 Margins Fellow at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, a lecturer at the City University of New York and a 2018 artist-in-residence at Cite internationale des arts in Paris.