Chapter 20: Water Under the Bridge
Las Vegas, USA
Vegas was still bouncing through my soul with all of its mayhem. After spending my first night in its embrace, I woke up to my alarm; all alone, without Mariam’s voice calling to me and without the sound of the children playing. It was a strange feeling. I was happy, but I missed my kids. I decided to enjoy this happiness for the rest of the day.
Gilbert had called me several times, but I felt as though I wanted to detach myself from anything that connected me to my normal life. I put my phone on silent so I wouldn’t hear it ring.
I walked the streets of Vegas again, where everything was still new to me: its high buildings and hotels, the flashing lights that shone all night long, painting a picture of the world’s great civilizations. There was an Eiffel Tower that gave the sensation of being in Paris even though the clone was only half the size of the real thing.
Fairy tales became a reality through the nighttime stories presented in various live shows at Treasure Island Hotel. They put on a full show featuring pirates who kidnapped girls, and it was so captivating you didn’t even think about saving them when they were drowned in the water. You just wanted to enjoy the beauty of the show.
Vegas epitomized the American dream because it was created in the harshest of circumstances. Engineers and pleasure-makers had built a city that was bursting with life in the middle of a dry desert and it had become one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Here there was no need for natural resources or attractions; hotels were its resources. The numerous rooms in these hotels were clear evidence that Vegas was a well-spring. Some hotels contained five thousand rooms and they were fully occupied every night.
I had a meal at one of the restaurants, where live music was playing in the sunlight by the dancing fountain. During daylight hours, Vegas declared to its visitors that the nighttime fun hadn’t yet begun, but that they could still enjoy their time without all the lights and the dancers.
I enjoyed the warm breeze of the city. Although I lived in Vegas, I felt as though I was visiting it for the first time and I was dazzled by it. I walked around until the sun disappeared and the bright lights took over. The streets were loud and busy, gamblers and drinkers flooding the streets with their stuttering words and faltering steps.
I reached the famous Fremont Street mall, where the ceiling was covered by the largest television screen in the world, and where the round-the-clock casinos could be found. Gambling was as readily available as water; you could even gamble as you walked the streets! That was why Gilbert hung out here every night.
Everything goes in Vegas: gambling, alcohol and loose women. At the Fremont Street mall you could find Michael Jackson dancing in front of you, despite the fact that he had been dead for many years, and Elvis with his guitar, his white Charleston jumpsuit and his famous hairstyle. Celebrity impressionists could be found all over, imitating and even cloning the celebrities they looked like. I saw Jack Sparrow and Batman. The city needed its superheroes just in case the Joker invaded it at any unanticipated moment. Here in Vegas you could find both love and sin together; they were inseparable.
I took in all the insanity and figured out why I was bored with Mariam. It wasn’t because she was dull or because she ruled our entire life. I was bored of her because of who she was. Mariam’s reactions were so tepid. She didn’t yell like the angry girl in front of me who was publicly rebuking her friend. She didn’t hold on to my arm as we walked, as another girl who passed me with her boyfriend did. She never walked with wild ecstasy, putting aside her system of laws for a moment. She couldn’t sway to the music with me affectionately like the couple dancing in front of me to the melody of a street performer.
Mariam was just like the rigid page of a holy book. Every letter had to be printed perfectly; it couldn’t be distorted or ripped out of its tome because to do so would render it meaningless. That was why I was tired of Mariam. I didn’t believe in holy books, so how could I believe in her? Mariam was the Arabic name for Mary, the mother of Jesus; the most pious woman of all religious contexts. Did Mariam abide too much by her name?
My phone was vibrating, so I pulled it out of my pocket. “Hi Isabelle, where are you?”
“I’m by Fremont Street.”
“I’m there too. Where can I find you?”
“In front of the casino. I’m wearing denim shorts. Wait, I’ll send you a selfie.”
I walked towards the casino looking for the woman I had just received a photo of on WhatsApp. I spotted her right away. She was a straightforward girl with dark skin and curly hair. In spite of her simplicity, I realized why she had enticed me so much when I was on the phone with her. She had an exquisite body and a warm voice, which sounded far more soulful in the flesh than it had on the phone, and her words were full of joy and life.
Her laughter shattered the rigidity of all Mariam’s smiles, and with her swaying walk she made me feel as though I was truly in Sin City. Yes, Vegas really was Sin City. Sin wasn’t just a whim or a business here. It was so prevalent on the streets that you felt as though it made perfect sense.
As I looked over the city through the shimmering lights and my mind wandered through everything I had been through, I felt hypnotized by Isabelle’s beauty. I was overjoyed at having broken free from every chain that had imprisoned me since I had married Mariam.
My mind had still been roaming through my memories as my lips tasted Isabelle’s for the first time. I stuck my tongue in towards her throat. My face appeared lifeless and the kiss tasted of regret and agony. My hands shivered out of excitement and fear, and my heart was beating faster than the flickering lights of Vegas. I was drowning in Isabelle’s presence.
This wasn’t the first time I had drowned in her ocean of desire and lust, but it was the first time I had experienced it first-hand and not through my phone speakers. I suddenly woke up from this long, steamy kiss to find that we were in one of Vegas’ underground tunnels.
“What’s wrong?” Isabelle asked, stopping suddenly.
“Why are we here?”
She laughed. “It seems like you’ve had a lot to drink, Yaser!”
“I didn’t drink a thing.”
“I know…” she smiled. “I live here, darling, and I decided to bring you back to my place tonight.”
I was bewildered. “What? You live here? In a sewage tunnel?”
“Of course. Why are you so surprised? Do you think everyone lives in a house?”
I gazed at her, speechless. Her question had awoken me from the hallucinations of my surroundings.
I didn’t answer her, so she continued talking. “You look like you live in a decent house… Plus you’re Arab, and all Arabs are rich!”
That really made me laugh. Sometimes a trauma drives us to express the opposite emotion of what we are feeling. “Who told you Arabs are rich?”
“We always see Arabs here carelessly wasting their money.”
I got up and tried to wipe off the trash that was stuck to my clothes. I took a look around me to see where I had ended up. There were many homeless people around us carrying their bags and clothes. Several were putting pieces of cardboard beside one another to make some sort of bed.
I couldn’t believe that Isabelle, whom I had spent two years exploring my desire with over the phone, was homeless and that she wandered the tunnels beneath Vegas to find a place to sleep.
The irony was that she thought I was rich because I was an Arab, but she didn’t realize how rich she would be considered by many Arabs if they had known she was living in Las Vegas, not realizing that in Vegas there are many people who make the ground their home.
My eyes were still fixed on hers in astonishment, and she could read the rejection on my face.
“Well my dear, while many people live above the streets of Vegas, half of its inhabitants live beneath them. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas! This is the American dream; just a few words written in the book of Uncle Sam.”
She sighed as she looked into my eyes, which had become a void. “Go home to your wife, Yaser. Betrayal isn’t your thing.”
I walked away aimlessly, unable to process what had just happened. I felt like I was on a roller coaster ride and that I had lost my balance as I stepped off it abruptly. I didn’t know why I suddenly felt scared and uncomfortable. I had wandered the streets watching the drunkards, who had given me enjoyment for many hours, but now they were starting to disgust me. Everywhere I turned people were gambling with little metal discs, while below the ground people’s lives were being gambled with.
I wasn’t a sympathetic person myself, but when I witnessed the darkness and the filth of the tunnels, I had felt sick to my stomach, even when I was holding Isabelle in my arms.
I knew I would never talk to her again; not for any particular reason, but just because I couldn’t any more. Isabelle – the girl who had fulfilled my needs while Mariam had suffocated them with her conditions – was only able to live in America between the tunnels and the phone calls, which had gained her a few cents without giving anything in return apart from her moans and her tantalizing voice. Still, Isabelle wasn’t afraid of appearing in public because when she met me at Fremont Street she hadn’t shivered when her lips met mine.
I discovered that I couldn’t really sleep away from my comfortable bed and its boring crimson sheets. I couldn’t sleep on the floor even for a few moments with a woman I didn’t know against the backdrop of a night full of gambling.
My phone rang and I answered. It was Gilbert and he sounded distraught. “Michael died, Yaser! I wish you hadn’t disappeared last night. He asked for you so many times.”
I fell onto the flickering ground. Despite its brightness I felt utter darkness inside me. Michael had died, Isabelle was homeless, money was being tossed around and trodden underfoot in the casinos just for the sake of fun and Mariam was trying to convince me that there was a God!
What kind of God would allow all this to happen under his authority? And if he had any authority, why didn’t he impose his justice on us humans? Tell me, Mariam, who is this God you pray to when you can see all this wickedness, poverty and weakness on Earth? How could Michael have died when I hadn’t operated on him yet? And then there was Isabelle. How could all that beauty be homeless, wishing the ground to become a mattress that she could find comfort in during the cold, wintery nights. Who is your God, Mariam? Tell me!
Science had told me nothing about her God, but it had proved to me that human beings were nothing more than a phase of evolution. Darwin had been right. What was the problem if humans were simply a clone of other creatures? Here was Vegas, just a copy of Egypt, Paris, Italy and Latin America, and it was still glamorous. Everything about it was glamorous: the people, the streets, the money… even us Arabs.
Isabelle thought Arabs were rich, despite the wars, the displacement, the migration, the poverty and our aspirations to fulfill the American dream, hoping to become rich one day. We all looked so glittery to Isabelle! But she didn’t realize how glittery Vegas appeared to us.
I didn’t think or say a word for a while after I realized that I hadn’t just been murmuring; I had been shouting!
My phone rang again. I didn’t want to answer but I did. It was Mariam.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Aren’t you ever coming home?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yaser, I’ll go to the Adele concert with you. Let’s get ready to go. Please.”
This was typical Mariam behavior. She always made snap decisions before ending the conversation. Then she would remain silent and I would have to try to understand what was going on with her. I didn’t want her, I didn’t want her religion and I didn’t want her God. Yes, that was why I had lost my faith. Not because I didn’t believe in a creator, but because I couldn’t reject Mariam, so instead I had rejected her God.