On rooftops and silent e's
words Muriel N. Kahwagi  .  artwork Richard Kahwagi

I first met Dali not long after my tortoise died, leaving me with a bouquet of stale cucumber shavings, congealed feces, and an urticarial flare.

I had named her Elham, after my sixth grade Arabic teacher, who had slow-cooked features and a toothy smile.

Elham was a hand-me-down from an old lover who had attachment issues and kleptomaniac tendencies.

Her tortoiseshell was crushed under the weight of the neighbor's car tire, following a tragically failed escape plot.

My heart was broken, and my abandonment issues exacerbated.

The uninitiated reader may, if he or she is so inclined, input the following into Google's search engine: "What to do with a dead tortoise."

I couldn't quite understand why Elham's death grieved me so, even after attempting to discuss it extensively with my therapist. I was haunted by her death and could no longer bear the thought of living in the same house where I had countless memories of scooping her scat. I decided to move out.

A friend put me in touch with a guy who was subletting an en-suite bedroom in his flat in Dekwaneh. His name was Dali. We exchanged numbers and spoke briefly on the phone.

"It's 300 USD a month, all bills included. And there's a private parking for your car, if you have one."

"Do you have any pets?"


"Do you plan on getting any pets?"

"I don't think so."

"Your answer is inconclusive."

"I mean, I'm allergic to cats."

"So basically, no."


Dali lived on the awkwardly named Slave Street, in a three-bedroom flat on the top floor of a worn-out building. The building entrance boasted a full-length mirror and a Virgin Mary shrine, faintly reminiscent of the one my grandmother had meticulously curated in her living room.

I took the elevator all the way to the eighth floor and rang the bell. I knew what Dali looked like, of course, since I'd stalked his Facebook pictures thoroughly before making my way to his place, so I knew what to expect, though I also knew that I should act like I didn't.

"Greetings!" he said as he opened the door, a toothbrush in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. "Welcome to the lab."

The same day Elham died, I received a text from my adored friend James, who had recently moved back to London.

"You see this heart  
Just because it's within the context of other playing card suits,
It has to sit a million miles away from the other hearts
And yet,
and yet
It is the most beautiful heart"

James knew of Elham, but had never met her. "I refuse to become acquainted with the perverse remains of your borderline abusive relationship," he said. "And I refuse to mourn her death. Couldn't he have given you something a bit more substantial, like an Alanis Morissette box set?"

The selling point of Dali's flat was not the suspiciously cheap rent, nor was it the undeniable convenience of having a place to park my car in the otherwise jammed Slav Street. It was the access to building's rooftop, where I would often makeshift stargaze.

I was up there once, and a tall, dark figure waved at me from the rooftop of the building across the street. I waved back. It was a gawky wave, as though I were afraid of what would happen after a wave. I never saw them again.

Another time, I watched a young man unpack his suitcase. He pulled out a giant inflatable unicorn, a pencil, ferry lights, a Spicy McChicken sandwich, and a bag of Gummy Bears.

Dali joined me once, and we had black tea and cheese sandwiches. I braided his hair (he had long, curly hair that reached down to his buttocks) while he read excerpts from Gertrude Stein's The World is Round. "Did you know that Slaf (Street) stands for Societe Libanaise d'Amelioration Fonciere?" he asked me, perfunctorily. Alas, I did not.

But my favorite memory on that rooftop was of me leaning on the off-white balustrades, opening my arms wide, and pretending to be Rose from Titanic.