By Hisham Matar

I train my waiting on you. I convince myself of the possibility. I am on the wrong side of a door that keeps me from everything. And I am too uncertain to pound my fist. And even though I am yet to know why I am here, I find it impossible to be myself, to think clearly, to be confident about anything. Who can claim without any doubt to be innocent?

You have always told me I have good instincts. Those instincts now do me no good. The things I imagine horrify me. Memories, images, my name – it is all dissolving in a pit of confusion. And I am horrified at my desire to please. It seems there is nothing to which I am not prepared to yield. I try to only think of myself in the past.

My mind has been returning to the last time I waited for you. We had agreed to meet in the evening. I could not remember whether we had said nine or ten. So I arrived at the cafe just before nine and tried to make myself comfortable, to convey that I was at ease. Keen to disguise any evidence of that most indignant of preoccupations, waiting, I took out a book and pretended to read.

Is waiting a preoccupation?

It is a mute war, a void, emptiness as thick as mud.

This situation had created in me a new nervousness that caused me to turn, almost uncontrollably, whenever I saw anything move in the furthest margins of the field of vision. I fought this by attempting to immerse myself in the text, not in its meanings, but its visual manifestations, until all I saw were small black figures, divorced from one another, marching from nowhere to nowhere. Then a new anxiety took hold: what if your arrival startles me and I jump at the most tender touch on the shoulder, setting the book flying in the air, embarrassing you? I think of how often I have embarrassed you and of how patient you have been with what you call my ‘jitters’, my ‘clumsiness’.

I had already begun to take notice of the couple at the corner table, looking at me and whispering. Who, I wondered, might they be mistaking me for? Someone famous, perhaps, someone they had read about. But when they noticed me looking at them, they looked away. They seemed both excited and anxious; the way some people are when they rush to the aid of a man who had just collapsed on the pavement. Most people would prefer to witness a calamity take place rather than a beautiful gesture.

I tried to read.

The next time I looked up the woman was on the phone, her eyes on me. She cupped the mouthpiece. Admiration tightening the shoulders of the man sitting opposite her. It was twenty minutes past nine. I faced the book again and was now not only uncertain whether I had got the right time, but the correct day too. This made the likelihood of an exaggerated reaction at seeing you even more likely. I caught two or three sirens coiling in the far off distance. In our unhappy city this is no unusual occurrence. But for some reason my ear remained with them as they rose like water in a sink. Then I saw you approach, bag around your shoulder, hair gently swaying with your gait. It had been raining. There perched on your coat’s lapels were tiny crystal pearls. They too seemed to praise you. I felt incapable of doing anything but stand, pull the opposite chair and kiss the cheek you offered. How cool and silken your flesh was against my lips. Under the noisy argument of the sirens I answered each one of your questions, regarding my wellbeing and general affairs, with great poise and a fashioned manner that did not cause in you the faintest suspicion. And I thought, how wonderful you are, how utterly natural.

Now I wonder if I spoke too much, if our brief conversation gave more room to my day than yours. Something about these walls inspires regret. I cannot think of anything I could not have attended to better. I realise too how my clearest, calmest conception of myself has always taken place when you were around. It is untrue what they say; here a man can never know himself.