It was a balmy Friday night. Young people, tourists and locals alike milled about in the streets of Byblos. Local beer was being downed by the pot and people were heartily indulging in Lebanese fare. The speakers were blasting music loudly from the karaoke stage where people drunkenly headed to the podium and sang off-key love songs, their voices thick with passion. The thin, peeling walls of the studio apartment vibrated with the thundering sounds emanating from the bar next door. It was here that Krish aka KS stood, his clammy hands clutching the envelope tightly. The big brown envelope held 15,00,000 INR in cash. Krish was nervous about this sale from the first day that his brother told him about it. His brother had a small but successful curio shop in Chandni Chowk, New Delhi. Occasionally he and Krish did overseas transactions where they personally sourced heirlooms from estate sales or individual sellers, and negotiated acquisitions between the parties. It was one such transaction that had brought Krish here. The seller wished to stay anonymous and insisted on payment in cash, which worried Krish no end. His brother however laughed off Krish’s concerns, asking him to ease up. Krish wore the carpet thin from his pacing and smiled feebly at the old woman next door who was looking at him suspiciously.
“Um… Mr. KS?” a voice sounded from behind him. He turned around quickly. The speaker was a young woman, in her late twenties. She had shoulder length hair with purple streaks in it. She wore a lavender tank top and artfully ripped jeggings with silver jewelry. In that dreary dim-lit corridor, she looked like spring come alive. The corridor seemed impossibly warm and small for the two of them.
“Hi, call me Krish” he said, and extended his hand towards her. Shaking his hand with a firm grip of her own, she said “I am Maya, I work in the curio shop downtown. My uncle sent me here because he had some unavoidable errands to run at the last minute. I hope that will be okay?” Although he had been suspicious earlier, he looked at her and found himself relax. What harm could this young woman possibly do?
“Yeah, that’s okay” he said. Ten minutes of awkward small talk later, she said “Listen, I am hungry. I know a great place here that sells the best Fattayer pastries. Do you wanna come?” He gratefully nodded even though he didn’t know what Fattayer pastries were. He tucked the envelope into his backpack and left, happy to leave the seedy apartment complex at last.
“Where are we going?” he asked, jogging to keep up with her long strides. “Souk el Akel, best street food you will ever have in your life” she replied without turning around, to look at him.
She drove through the streets with an ease that seemed effortless, the night coming alive with her words and laughter. “Are you done checking me out?” she asked suddenly. “I was not… I mean, yes I was. I apologise” he stammered. She laughed. “That’s okay, I don’t mind. Plus, you’re kinda cute” she said, patting his knee. He coloured and said nothing.
They had reached Souk el Akel. The smell of the food alone nearly brought him to his knees, his stomach growling and reminding him that it had been a long while since his last meal. It was a chaotic and intoxicating mesh of colours, textures and smells all coming together to weave the most fantastic sensory experience. They walked some distance, and finally halted at a kiosk that looked quite unimpressive, except for the huge crowd that stood in line waiting for the famous meat and feta cheese pies. Making casual conversation while they waited, he learned that she was an only child of her parents; born and educated in London till age 14, when she was orphaned. She hated moving and her new life in Byblos till one day she discovered her uncle’s antiques shop. She fell in love with the exotic items in the shop and became a shop assistant after school. The passion which she spoke with, and her tender affection for her uncle was apparent in every sentence. As they lazily munched on their Fattayer pastries, he told her how his dream of medical school was thwarted because of his father’s premature passing. After a few years of handling deliveries and client interactions, his brother promoted him to the position of Acquisitions Manager. They traversed through the cobbled pathways of the souk. He thrust his jacket at her when she rubbed her arms, and hugged herself for warmth.
“Do you want to go have something to drink?” she yelled, to make herself audible in the loud streets. He yelled back in the affirmative. She took his hand and expertly guided him through the narrow alleys packed with street food lovers. “Where are we going?” he asked her, when they reached the car. “Have you ever been to a bar here before?” she asked him. “No, didn’t have the time to. Just landed last night.” he said. “Then, I think you will like Frolic.” She said, slamming her foot on the accelerator.
Pulsating coloured lights cast lengthy shadows on the wall. Krish gazed around in wonder at the wooden walls and stone-inlaid flooring of Frolic, the massive mounds of colourful cocktails being passed around, people playing carrom in the same space as couples dancing around. Outside, there was a huge canopy filled with writhing silhouettes.
“Tamma Tamma? This is my favourite song! Come!” Maya said, all but dragging Krish to the dance floor. Even as he danced along with the rest of them, he couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the ophidian movement of Maya’s body to the music. They danced to a few more songs and then she snuck them out towards a quieter part of the city, a six – pack in hand.
They sat in the town square near some rose bushes and drank deeply. “What is the one thing you wish you could do right now?” Maya asked him. “I want to sing. When I was standing there being tortured by that karaoke happening next door, I just wanted to go there and show them how it is done.”
“Oh yeah? Go for it then, show me” She challenged him. He stood up and started singing Un Poco Loco. She laughed and started dancing along as he sang “The way you keep me guessing, I’m nodding and I’m yessing, I’ll count it as a blessing, That I’m only Un poco loco…” He ended it, looking her squarely in the eye adding “For you.”
She clapped and whooped, adding “That was so good, man. Like, really, really good”. “I know” he said, making his magnificent Cara Delavigne – esque eyebrows dance along in a funny fashion. “Teach me how to do it!” she said, trying unsuccessfully to do it.
“Come here, learn from the master” he drunkenly beckoned her forward. No matter how hard she tried, she would laugh and raise both brows. “Not like that. Perhaps we could try this, instead” he said, placing his thumb on her brow and holding it still while the other brow lifted. “I didn’t know you had all these freckles” he said, tracing the light smattering of freckles across her face with his thumb fondly. The cheap sodium powered orange lights cast a golden glow on her countenance. The streaks in her hair stood out even more, their noses brushed up against each other and bumped foreheads slightly. They both laughed. Just as they were about to kiss, everything went black.