(con’t from part 1)
One month passed, Salam’s silent annoyance got to my nerves and I stopped going to his store to buy things. I didn’t know how to tell him: no reply no reply no reply… just give up. I stopped going to his store, but he started coming to my house after he closed the store, he would stand quietly outside of my window, but he wouldn’t knock, he would just wait until I saw him and told him that there was no letter, then he would thank me feebly, slowly walk back to his shop, sit on the floor and stare at the sky for hours.
After quite some time, one day I opened the postbox. There were several letters, and also a notice from the post office asking me to go there.
“What is it?” I asked people at the post office.
“A registered letter in your mailbox, to a Salam… Hamidah, is that your friend? Or is it the wrong address?”
“Oh…” I cried out. With this letter from Monaco in my hand, I got goose bumps all over my body. I picked up the letter and walked home hastily.
I misinterpreted the whole thing; she wasn’t a con artist. She had written back, and even sent her letter by registered mail. Salam would definitely be on cloud nine.
“Read it, read it now!” Salam said as he closed the store. He was trembling, and his eyes had the glint of a deranged man.
I opened the letter. It was in French, I felt so sorry for Salam.
“It’s in French…” I bit my finger. When Salam heard this he became so anxious he couldn’t stand still. “It must be for me, right?” he asked softly, as if afraid he would wake up from his sweet dream if he was too loud.
“It is for you, she said she loves you.” I could only read that sentence.
“Make a guess, please, what else did she say?” Salam did seem nuts.
“I can’t, we’ll have to wait until José is off work.”
Then I went home, Salam followed me closely like a vampire or a ghost. I had to invite him inside the house, had him sit down and wait for José.
José sometimes got worked up over his colleagues at work, and would look angry when he got home. I got used to it and stopped bothering.
That day he came back earlier than usual. He saw Salam but just nodded coldly, and then he went to change his shoes without saying a word. Salam was holding the letter in his hand, waiting for José to notice him, but José didn’t look at him and went straight into the bedroom. When he finally came out, he already changed into shorts and was heading towards the bathroom.
By then Salam’s anxiety from waiting was at breaking point. All of a sudden and without a word he plumped down on his knees in front of José, holding the letter. He looked like he was about to grab José’s legs. I was shocked when I saw this from the kitchen. Salam had gone too far. I was mad at myself for bringing this nutcase back to make a scene in our tiny place.
José was still deeply engrossed in his own world when Salam knelt before him suddenly and terrified him to death. “What on earth…what on earth is this?” he yelled. “Sanmao, help!”
I struggled to pull Salam away from José, and finally got both of them to calm down. I was so exhausted I couldn’t be bothered with anything anymore; I just wanted Salam to get out quickly and leave me in peace. José finished reading the letter and told Salam, “Your wife says she loves you too. She cannot come to the Sahara now because she doesn’t have money. Please prepare one hundred thousand pesetas and send it to her brother’s place in Algeria. He will use the money to buy an air ticket for her to come here, and you will never be apart again.”
“What? You have got to be kidding me! She wants money again?” I cried.
Salam was not disappointed even the slightest. He just kept asking José over and over, “Saida says she will come? She will come?”His eyes were filled with joy, like he was in a dream.
“Money? That’s not a problem. I can take care of it…’ he muttered to himself.
“Forget it, Salam.” It didn’t seem possible to persuade him.
“Here. This is for you,” Salam was so happy that he seemed to have lost his head, for he took off the only silver ring on his finger and pressed it into José’s hand.
“Salam, I can’t take this. Keep it for yourself.” José put the ring back on Salam’s finger.
“Thank you, both of you have helped me so much.” Salam was very grateful to us when he left.
“What is with this wife of Salam’s? He’s head over heels for her,” José asked in bewilderment.
“What wife? She’s clearly a whore!” This fake flower deserved to be called that.
Since he received the letter, Salam pulled out all the stops to get a part-time job. During the day, he went to the shop, and then at night he baked bread in a large bakery. He worked hard round the clock, only managed to sleep from five to eight in the wee hours.
In just half a month, he lost a lot of weight rapidly and was looking gaunt. His eyes were red, his hair was messy and dirty, his clothes wrinkly like washcloths. But he began to talk more, and as he spoke he was so full of hope in life. Yet I didn’t know why I still thought he was in emotional agony.
After a while, I noticed he had quitted smoking. “I need to save every penny, it is fine not to smoke,” he said.
“Salam, you’re working so hard day and night, how much have you saved?” I asked him. Two months passed and he had become a skeleton.
“Ten thousand, ten thousand in two months. It’s getting there, getting there, don’t worry.” He was talking nonsense. He got really worn out with this prolonged sleep deprivation.
All this time I was thinking, what kind of superpower did this Saida have, that could make this man who had been with her for just three days to love her this much? And how could she have given him such happiness that was so unforgettable?
After some time, Salam was still hanging on like a zombie that lost his mind. Was it necessary for a man to hang on like this till death?
One night, Salam was really exhausted. He put his hands on red hot iron and got them badly burnt, but his brother did not let him close the shop and rest during the day.
I saw him working in the shop; he had to hold things between his wrists to give customers clumsily, taking one thing and dropping another. His brother arrived and watched with cold indifference, which made him more nervous and dropped tomatoes all over the place. He tried to pick them up but it was too painful for him to use his fingers, as they were inflamed and swollen with pus. Sweat streamed down his face.
Poor Salam, when would he be relieved from this crazy obsession with Saida? He looked even lonelier than before.
Ever since he burnt his hands, Salam would come every night to have ointment applied on his wound, and then he would go back to the bakery to work. It was only at our house, that he could be carefree about this secret from the bottom of his heart. He had completely forgotten the suffering that Saida had caused him. The more money he saved, the closer he would be to the happiness he dreamt of.
One night Salam came to our place as usual, I asked him to join us for dinner, he said he’d rather not eat because his hands were still wounded.
But he was still fixated on the one dream he had. “I’ll be fine soon. My hands are starting to scar, maybe I can bake again today, and Saida…”
José listened to Salam with sympathy this time. I was getting cotton balls and bandages to change the ointment on his hands, and I heard him went on and on about her again. I was disgusted, and I said to him, “Saida, Saida, Saida, you talk about her all the time, do you seriously not know that – SAIDA-IS-A-WHORE!”
And the moment those words came out of my mouth, I couldn’t put them back. José raised his head and looked at Salam. The room was dead silent, as if time froze.
I thought Salam would jump up and strangle me, but he did not. What I said to him hit him like a huge bat. Slowly, he turned his head towards me and stared at me. He wanted to say something but couldn’t utter a word. And I stared back at his skinny ghost-like face.
There was no anger on his face, he held his badly burnt hands up and looked at them. As he looked at his hands, he burst into tears. He stormed out without saying anything and ran into the darkness of the open fields.
José asked me gently, “Do you think he understands that he’s been fooled?”
“He knew from the very beginning, but he just wouldn’t wake up. If he was not to save himself, who can save him?” I was sure about what Salam felt.
“Saida must have put a spell on him,” said José.
“Saida could have bewitched him by fulfilling his lust, but Salam took her body as an embodiment of what he had been missing all his life. What he wanted is love, a family, affection and warmth. And for this young man with such a lonely and reserved heart, the encounter with this tiny bit of ‘love’, even if it was fake, would make him give up everything just to hold on to it.”
José remained silent; he turned off the light and sat in darkness.
(to be continued…)