Spices and Oil

“Would you mind lying down with me for a bit?” They had been sitting opposite each other on his bed for an hour, talking. Tomás’ small studio permanently smelled of spices and frying oil. He had books open on every surface, and some guitars hanging on the wall. He didn’t ask anything, he just talked about Saman. Gabrielle listened. He talked about how he’d been in awe of her since they met. He had never spoken with anyone so clever, so inventive, so different from other women. He liked to think about it in those terms, comparing her constantly and feeling pleasure in finding her superior. “She was meant to go out with Foad, but she liked me better.” He said it proudly. “He introduced us, actually. I think he realized they wouldn’t have worked well together.” Eventually, he meant to say. Her parents had hoped she would date Foad, who also studied at the university, and whose parents they knew well. He was an approved romantic prospect, and she was encouraged to fall in love with him of her own accord. Foad was a close friend of Gabrielle’s, too, but they’d lost contact after his depression. “He’s just not himself,” Gabrielle repeated, “what a pity. I miss him.” It wasn’t true, but she said it anyway. Neither of them knew how to deal with it, and in their discomfort they welcomed the distance and changed the subject. They lied down next to each other. He continued talking about Saman. “Her family still doesn’t know about me. They wouldn’t be okay with her dating a Jew.” That’s how she’d put it. He flinched as he said it. Her sister would be coming to visit next month, and he would stay at a hotel. She asked him to put away all of his things so her sister wouldn’t notice the apartment wasn’t hers. “She hasn’t moved in yet, but I thought I’d start preparing. I found a locker where I can put most of my things. It really isn’t that much trouble.” She had hinted to her sister she was going out with someone at some point, but the sister had become angry, so she started to pretend they weren’t together. Contact had become conditional. As he was talking, he wrapped his arm around her, and said “can I hold you” without waiting for an answer. They had been together for two years now, and though it was clear they intended to marry, she didn’t’ know when it would be possible. “She is still finishing school and she doesn’t know when the right time will be. She doesn’t know where she wants to live yet. Once she figures that out, it’ll be easier.” He defended himself, and then her, and comforted by their double victimhood, kept talking. He pulled himself closer to her, or rather drew her closer to him. Or to her, maybe. The question of religious conversion had come up recently, and he said he had been thinking about it, but that he had trouble accepting it fully. He wasn’t religious at all, but being Jewish was an important part of who he was, plus his mother wouldn’t take it well. “I’ve stopped buying Kosher, though.” She felt that she was violating her faith to be with him, and that his conversion should be a matter of fact. He was trying, he said, going over every reason why he wasn’t ready, justifying his refusal but also her demands, no, requests, moving his fingers along the curve of her waist softly as he spoke. “Should I feel guilty about it?” Gabrielle didn’t need to answer. They had slept together at the beginning, during the first few months, he continued. Passionately, he added. But after Foad threatened to tell her parents about them she said they needed to marry first. “It became more important to her, for some reason.” It was almost five. Her skin seemed darker with the receding light. It had been over a year since they’d had sex. They shared the bed sometimes when she decided to come over, but even then, she’d often forbid him to get close to her, mad that he still hadn’t committed to converting, or because she felt ignored, or because she thought he didn’t help her enough doing this and that. He said she felt that he didn’t love her. He didn’t know how else to show her that he did, and how much. How much, he repeated almost without inflection. He wrapped his finger around her hair, curling it. “We’ve barely even kissed this past month.” She’d decided she’d be moving in with him at the end of the school year. “Things should get better then.” Once they were under the same roof, and together everyday, there would be no more doubts. Right? He moved his face a little closer to hers as he talked, his breath tickling her cheek. His eyes were turned towards the window. He talked about her smell, her sex, her skin. He described her. He described them together. As he did, he moved his arms closer to adjust to the size of Gabrielle’s body, tightening the embrace, looking for Saman’s shape in someone else’s body. It continued without questions. His eyes still fixed on the window, he rested his chin on her shoulder and his forehead on the base of her head.  They stayed like that, almost immobile, for what felt like hours. On the other side of the door, the wooden stairs finally creaked. He turned, untangling himself, and lied on his back with his hands on his stomach. He said he needed to get back to work, but she was welcome to study there if she wanted to. He could make tea. She said it was okay, she had to go the library. She answered in a tongue not her own. There was a book she needed and someone she had to meet. Her voice felt thick with sleep, her accent dimmed by the strange flavour of her words. He got up, turned on his computer, and went to the kitchen. She got up, her body tight and too warm. She gathered her things and got ready to leave in silence. She felt absent, as though the pain she felt wasn’t hers, as though she didn’t coincide with the body that felt. There was pleasure, too, but she would not recognize it. She felt no guilt, though she wondered whether she should. The apartment was dark, the only light on in a corner by the kitchenette. And silent. When she opened the door, she found herself face to face with her standing in the white light of the hallway. She was looking for her key. “Leaving already?” Saman smiled. She felt uncomfortable, as if someone had caught her looking at her own reflection. She smiled, stepped out of her shadow, and let her into the warm apartment. “See you later”, she replied, walking back into January.