In the summer, Saudi men stand on the balconies of our beach resorts in Lattakia, leering out from under their red checkered headdresses at Syrian women in bikinis. Street vendors hawk their wares on the sidewalk, in front of pricey French restaurants. Teenage boys rev the engines of their Mercedes and BMWs late into the night, racing back and forth on the two main promenades. But now, summer is over and I’m glad. I ring two old friends from college for a night away from it all.
I pack a bottle of vodka, take the bus going to the villages by the Turkish border, and hop off at Qastal. A flock of kids rush over to me, young enough to be my own.
“Spare a few liras?” One has a slightly deflated soccer ball underfoot. Behind him, one goal is marked by two bricks, another by two cars.
“Candy,” one boy says.
“Books,” another corrects the first, elbowing him in the arm.
They continue begging. “God saves your soul, God protects you, God keeps your kids out of harm’s way.”
I hold a five-lira bill in the air. “Who’s a son of a bitch?” I ask, teasing, and the kids shout, “Me, me, me.” I hand them the money. A few stray cats on the sidewalk look at me like I’m crazy.
I walk past the village center. One of the cats follows me. Four men with grey hair and heavy sticks as canes pause their backgammon game to stare at me—the only outsider in town. One of them closes his fist around a pair of dice. I wonder what he thinks he’s getting. Above them, a sign declares it’s the office of the Mukhtar. I reckon the eldest is the head of the village. Respect—that’s the only thing you get with age.
I walk past houses. Past white birds on black cables. Past trees, and an old building with faded letters spelling “School” in Arabic. The village only has Turks with thick accents: too poor to have private schools in Turkish. The cat is still following me, meowing when I slow down.
I stop at the village store. The cat rubs her cheeks on my hiking boots. Beside her, stacks of newspaper have last week’s date, with headlines claiming 2010 as the coldest European winter in a thousand years.
“As-salamu alaykum,” the owner greets.
I nod. “Beer?”
Not anywhere, it turns out. The town is short a liquor store. My life is short a few drinks. The sky is short a shooting star.
I show up at my friend’s grandfather’s house with the bottle of vodka and a black-and-white cat. My friends, Maher and Abdalla, are sipping tea on the porch, forced outside by the bad smell of Maher’s late grandfather’s old sheep skin rugs.
We start off the weekend with a card game. Abdalla deals Conquian. He shuffles hard. “Don’t bother,” I tell him. “I’m dealt the same hand no matter what you do.”
We go a few rounds, none of us really trying to win the game. “Maher,” Abdalla says, “we need some lady friends.”
“Have you not seen this town?” Maher says. “There isn’t a single woman. Not outside anyway.”
We laugh and shake our heads. We joke about the women we didn’t marry, the jobs our degrees didn’t get us, and the houses we couldn’t afford.
“Forget women,” I say. “The whole town is asleep. Peaceful and boring.”
Abdalla shoots me a disapproving look—raised eyebrow and crooked lips. “Peaceful, my ass. Each house has a gun. A town full of Sunnis. We’re lucky they haven’t killed us.”
Abdalla’s probably right; everyone has a weapon in Syria. But when was the last time a Syrian was killed over religion? He sounds like my grandfather, too afraid to visit the city and be slaughtered. “Grandpa,” I’d finally told him, “that was fifty, maybe seventy, years ago.”
“It was yesterday,” my grandfather said.
I take my cards from Abdalla. “Don’t worry,” I say. “Maher here will save your ass.”
“Save?” Maher repeats with a scoff. “I’m Sunni. Your Alawite asses are on your own.”
We laugh, again.
“Maher,” I say. “Your grandpa’s rugs are worse than horseshit. Let’s get out of here.”
“It’s midnight,” Maher says.
Abdalla hands Maher a jacket. “The woods are not where the predators are.”
We grab the bottle. The cat balances on her hind legs, waiting for me to save her. We leave her behind, our flashlights cutting through the fog on a dark dirt trail. The cat gets smaller, her black fur blending with the black of the night. Her eyes glow until they disappear by the old house.
We walk the length of the hill down to the lake. We skip rocks and drain vodka into shots using the bottle cap, spilling most of it. We lift the bottle up in the air between pours and cheer with the gloomy sky as dark clouds sweep fast from the west.
“Something’s got to give,” Maher says.
I want to comfort him. We’re going to be fine. But I’m lisping. Too drunk to talk. I grab his arm with my hand. Hold tight. Wait for him to put his hand on my face and tell me that we’re fine. He doesn’t, and we let that be what brings us back to standing in silence.
The morning announces itself through dew on thick leaves of oak and laurel trees, and beams of thin light make our breath visible. We pass the bottle back and forth. I watch the vodka drip onto my hand and into the water. We pass the bottle until there is nothing left to pass. We toss vodka between our lips and watch the lake get drunk.
The wind blows on the gentle waves and whispers, “You’re fine.” I step into the light and tilt my ear to the lake. But it doesn’t say it again. And now I don’t know what the spring will bring.
Fajer Alexander Khansa was born and raised in Lattakia, Syria and Tokyo, Japan. He moved to the United States in 2005, where he completed his studies at USC. His personal life and background honed a profound appreciation for diversity of perspective, which he explores in his stories. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as the Glass Mountain Review, Raseef 22 and the Normal School. He is a fiction reader for the New England Review.