La Marsa, Tunisia: Linework
Silence had never tasted so uncomfortable. Plate by steaming plate, Souad had brought forth a feast from her kitchen. Jelbana (pea stew), nwasser (pasta), brik (fried egg pastry), and other Tunisian dishes whose names I would only learn in later weeks. I expected — hoped, more like — that some of the kids I had seen running around the apartment earlier that day as I hauled my suitcase in would join us for dinner. Children are always easier to talk to than adults when you can’t speak the language. They don’t dwell on misunderstandings; they just smooth out the edges of conversation. But that first night, like most nights, it was just Souad and me.
She had a timeless face, yet the ridges and folds that framed it drew her closer to 80 than 50. She was short and stout, but the slight limp in her gait gave her a sense of precariousness. Messy gray hair dropped to her jaw, and a mole on her nose danced whenever she laughed. Most of her children, fully grown and with families of their own, lived in the same neighborhood of La Marsa, just on the outskirts of Tunis. Souad’s apartment sat at the top of a flight of stone stairs, beyond a rusty white metal gate. The apartment below hers was occupied by her eldest son and his family while the one directly across from hers housed her younger son and his family. Souad’s door always remained open throughout the day. Kids and grandkids would drift in and out of the apartment, sometimes bringing food to share, other times taking a plateful of what Souad had prepared back to their own apartments.
The evening was the only time Souad and I would be alone together — once the sun had set and I had returned from school. My poor grasp of Tunsi meant our conversations were limited to basic questions and answers. Gaps would be filled by broad gestures, nervous laughter, tentative French, or family photos. We would fall into conversational patterns that felt safe and comfortable. She would ask me if I needed to wash any clothes, and I would ask how she was doing. I would ask if she needed help while she was preparing dinner, and she would laugh, the mole on her nose bobbing up and down. I knew dinner was ready when wood scraped the walls, and I would rush to the kitchen to grab the dinner table from Souad and ease it through the door to the living room. She would thank me when I carried the table back to the kitchen after we finished eating, and I would return the thanks and laugh at the absurdity of her thanking me for anything. It was like a script or a choreography we wrote and danced our way through every night. There was space for improvisation, but it was risky. Introducing new lines to each other could lead to discomfort and frustration. One would speak and the other would shake their head in apology and embarrassment, forced to admit defeat. But should we manage to make ourselves understood and stretch the conversation, it meant grasping just a little bit more of each other, adding another piece to what we were both building.
Souad always prepared breakfast for the both of us. Coffee, a boiled egg, chocolate pudding, vanilla yogurt, cookies, halva, toast, and orange jam. Back home, I never ate breakfast for lack of time and hunger. Every morning during my semester abroad in Tunisia, I inhaled the whole cup of coffee, took a bite of everything Souad laid out and shamefully carried the tray back to the kitchen, looking very much the same as it was carried out. I thanked Souad — something I expect she grew tired of hearing, but it was all I could think to do — planted a kiss on both of her cheeks, and rushed out of the apartment to meet my classmates at the corner of the street where our walk to school began.
The television in Souad’s apartment was always on. After dinner, we would both sit and watch TV together. Of course, I barely understood what we watched, but it gave us something to hold on to, a sound to fill the room. When I first moved in with Souad, the time we spent watching TV was a reminder that we needed some artifice to keep the silence at bay. I felt guilty that I couldn’t speak to her and thank her properly for all that she did. But every time we managed to add some dialogue, no matter how trivial, it felt like we were making progress. After more than a month of living together, we still stuck to our routine, to writing our script. We still watched TV after dinner, often in silence. But it was a cozy silence we had made together.
My host mom came home one night brandishing a brand-new pair of shoes: Someone in the family was getting married so she wouldn’t be home for a couple of days. On her first evening away, I took a short twenty-minute nap on the living room couch before intending to study for my Arabic final. I woke up to the email we students had all been expecting to receive for weeks. Before I could even get through it, my parents called me in a panic, eager for their son to come home. They wanted to figure out flights as soon as possible. Their voices oozed satisfaction and relief, even through the phone, to the point where my annoyance selfishly outshone their love.
When Souad returned, I couldn’t find the words in Arabic to tell her I was leaving. I was holding the last page of our script, but the final scene wouldn’t form. I put it off for the next couple of days, and eventually my friend Anna told Souad for me. Without meaning to, of course. Anna’s host mom Ines was Souad’s daughter, so we got to know each other’s host families well. We were used to having family couscous every Sunday for lunch, but I missed that Sunday because I was running some final errands before getting ready to leave. Anna said she mentioned it at the table and only realized later that I hadn’t talked to Souad about it yet. I told Anna it was okay, and I was both relieved and guilty someone else had broken the news.
Monday, two days before our departure, my friend Grace and I walked to a bakery recommended by our Arabic Professor. I bought an assortment of fancy pastries and cakes for Souad, knowing a simple “thank you” would feel insulting. I rushed them home, worried they would melt and sink beneath the sun, but came into the apartment already sorry. I handed Souad the pastries and said, “For you, and your grandkids. I have to go to the U.S on Wednesday because of Coronavirus.” She took the box, sighed, and lifted her eyebrows in understanding. Then she looked down at the ground for a long time. She thanked me and we watched TV.
Wednesday morning, I was so worried I had somehow contracted Coronavirus and contaminated Souad that I was terribly anxious to leave. I was packed up about an hour and a half before I was supposed to meet up with my classmate and neighbor Megan so her host sister could drive us and our luggage to school. I sat down on the living room couch and wasn’t the least bit surprised to see one of the pastries I had gifted Souad sitting pretty on my breakfast tray. I pointed to the pastry in mock outrage, laughed and said, “For you, not me!” before placing it on Souad’s plate as she feigned protest with a knowing grin. After we’d eaten breakfast and Souad’s grandkids had dropped in to say their goodbyes, Souad and I had about forty-five minutes before I would have to leave.
I sat on one of the couches, hands resting on my knees, and Souad sat on the other, the two forming a right angle kissing the walls of the living room. My senses felt heightened, and I knew this would be one of the scenes I replay in my head when sleep was scarce — retracing every angle, every position. The blanket draped over the couch felt softer, the chipped paint on the walls coarser. I was suddenly aware of Souad’s family pictures hanging all around us. Every few minutes, Souad would stop looking at me to get up and fetch a gift from somewhere in the apartment. The first — a beautiful mirror in a red wooden frame — was something she had clearly been planning to give me, but I’m not so sure about the others. In the hour we waited together, Souad gave me the mirror, a metal keychain, a miniature fez, a scarf for my mother, and a pile of postcards. I dug around my bag and suitcase, looking for nooks to house this unrehearsed kindness she had come to embody. I gently reminded her it was time for me to leave. We hugged tightly and she walked me to the door. I shuffled down the stairs — heartened that my suitcase was heavier coming down than it had been going up — and headed for Megan’s house down the block. I turned around only once and Souad was on her tippy toes, her head extending just over the railing of her balcony, her body slightly tipped forward. She didn’t wave and I couldn’t make out her expression. My eyes followed her shape as we drove away, until finally we turned down the street and a building’s shadow enveloped the car in darkness.
Jonas Wanstok was born in France and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is currently a student at Oberlin College, and enjoys playing soccer, learning new recipes, and watching movies with his friends.