The Better of the Bitter

In the wide divided light of a rented room, I am standing and will be drinking a cocktail. When your country is at war with itself, when one side would sooner claim authority than responsibility for its people and the other would claim itself only free, when that is what you suck out of your television in the mornings before school, you delight in the promising burn of tonight’s aperitif. In its stiffness, stability, soundness.

I am standing and waiting on my father to come home. He is well-educated and serves quite the purpose in one of the state dailies. He works among the bureaucrats, in their offices without walls, only partitions, and aspires for me to do the same when he is promoted. Promotion is not contingent, it is imminent. Our side will win and the present situation will end, but for tonight I hope political talk will trap itself somewhere on the road from Tahrir to our apartment and that my father and I can focus on our cocktails.

This room will be mine someday, as will my father’s gray partitions, but I am not excited. I think in terms of tonight and not forever, not this decade, not this year. I think in the whispers of sweet slippery vermouth, and I wait for the anger outside of us to end. I am not excited. Our cook hums to herself, old Mama sort of songs, and she boils a pot of chocolat on the stovetop. It’s cold in our little apartment, but no matter what the temperature is I’m not going to drink that hot chocolate, slurp that hot chocolate. I am waiting on my father and tonight we will have drinks, man to man.

Our cook serves herself a mug, turns to me and asks me with her eyes if I’ll have some. I look away, toward the window, into a street we do not own any more than we own this apartment, and she knows I am waiting patiently, graciously, to drink a bitter beverage with my father. The bitterness is ubiquitous here, from the midmorning Nescafe to the evening bourbon my father usually buys at the liquor store, Drinkies, but has not bought tonight. Bitter light and bitter flavors, the bitterness of some street riot apparent in the bitterness of a drink. Cook has been with us a long time, makes a curious tahina, and in the sight of mine, my father’s, and anyone’s looking, she is a fine Luxor woman. She makes a good enough living here, good enough to put her grandchild through a uniformed school, good enough to keep her in her hijab and away from the plaza or the windows on days like today.

She finishes the drink and washes out the mug. Then she leaves without looking at me, knowing I know what I know—that the rice is on the stove and the cucumbers are by the sink, washed, and that if I am so inclined I can have them before dinner with my father. There is red loud noise outside the window, and I do not look. I bow my head. I am not a prophet, and not meant to be, but I know this is not going to be my apartment someday, this room with no address but a number.

There are rooms full of chairs in the house where I’d like to live. The learned men come in the evenings for the taking of aperitifs; they come bearing the best of our country beneath their sandstone skin, offering hope and resolution and revolution. The rooms full of chairs invite them, beckon them, beg them on occasion to have a seat and stay a while, and yes this is my daughter and this is my wife, and welcome, and welcome, and welcome, have a drink. My father will come to the house where I live and prove no disappointment that I do not live in his lighted apartment or work in his downy cubicle. He will sit in a silk-covered chair with his granddaughter on one knee and tell stories of the nights we sat awake and drinking cocktails while I plowed myself into a row of fitfulness. In the house there will be light and shadow, there will be escape from the light on days like today when the streets are filled with filth, and when our minds are on drinking away all of it. But here in my house we distract ourselves only with alcohol, not hot chocolate, not Nescafe. The better of the bitter.

The television is not on and I will not turn it on, for I know what it will tell me, who is dead and who is dying. Which side is right and which is lying. What antiquities have been dashed today, what hopes have been damned or damaged or drawn to a halt. My father will have his vermouth dryer than mine. I will have a feast of the liquor.

I stand in the cold clear light and I can hear the passionate noise without having to flick on the television. It is beneath my feet, above my head, next door, outside, in me. The pot of chocolat sits on the stove, waiting in the patient way that it does, but I am not going to drink it. The bottles of alcohol rest on the shelf above the stove. I remember myself, and my father, and the waiting I must bear. There is an echo somewhere in my belly. Vermouth, simple and abrupt, isn’t what my belly or I would have chosen, but this is the home my father has rented and I have no say in its bar. When my own home is bought and furnished and finished I will stock my own wet bar with scotch and cognac and my own sense of place. At my own place he will not come inside pretending to have bought the vermouth, failing to acknowledge the looting on the square at Drinkies, failing to acknowledge that he would never have chosen vermouth with money he earned. But tonight is vermouth and my father and the echo of intestines that wait.

Father, I will tell him, we will stand arm-in-arm and all up in arms. He will laugh out his burning breath and slap me on the back.

Yes, yes! He will cry back. Oh yes my boy, you will tell your children about these days, you will tell them while you sit here at this same coffee table, and they will be so proud. They will ask you to tell and to tell again how you, and you and I, dissolved a regime with just the power of our humanity.

I will smile with the teeth my wife will like. Humanity that will never be stolen!

Or compromised!

Or beaten out of us!


We will laugh hard and pour more cocktails; I remain standing in the flirtatious light from outside. I hope he does not bring up the cubicle or the end of the revolution. Maybe we can relish in the promise of it for just a few nights more. The square is a living thing at night, the throb and clap of a single being in the form of thousands, thousands of which I am one. But not tonight. Tonight is for the taking of a drink and fruit, pears most likely, with the sauce that cook made.

The Brotherhood is likely to take over immediately, as soon as immediately comes around. We can pray as we will but what happens will happen in the freezing light of the turmoil. You walk into the square at midmorning, like every midmorning before and as you plan to every midmorning after, and you cannot distinguish the offenders from the offended. You want to buy your coffee and tobacco like you have every day of your university studies, but there are men in your way that you do not recognize, that have no interest in recognizing you.

So you shrug off the fact that university is closed today, for now, forever maybe, and you say your prayers with whoever else is praying, anywhere across the world. So it will go, in the hands of the Highest, and you won’t have a smoke and Nescafe at midmorning.

The cucumbers by the stove are humming to me, quietly, but I will wait for my father and our drinks. Now that I am grown we do this almost nightly, but certain nights I feel more reverence is owed to the routine. Tonight is one of these nights, and oh, how different every night is when you take the time to notice. How glad it is when you are together, not only in body but in spirit, and you agree on the track that the country should be taking, and he loves you more than he ever could when he pictures you inside of his cubicle.

I am unsure.

I am sure of the house in which I’d like to live, and its chair and chairs and chairs for all of you.

Still standing, I hear my father outside the apartment door. I am spinning wildly on solid ground, drunk on the idea of drunkenness. I go to the door and admit him, smiling. He smiles too, carrying a briefcase, his shined shoes still shining. I know what it is like outside and he does not have to tell me.

My father goes to the shelf above the stovetop and lifts from it a bottle of vermouth. I am sweating in the cool apartment will all of my excitement. He ignores that about me and pours two shallow glasses, shoves one against me, and we sit down at his coffee table. You and your father, like father like child, but his hair is much straighter than yours. He takes his time with the alcohol but I’ve waited so long that I sip mine a little too quickly and titter something silly he does not hear. This is it, cocktails with my father.

He has brought the bottle to the table and, understandingly, he refills my glass. Maybe tonight, if he speaks something promising about the outcome of the riots, I will say something about my house full of chairs for the scholars, for me, and for him. For us, the new democracy. I finish a second vermouth and my father is looking at me, smiling.

Tahrir is beyond explanation, he tells me with his mossy teeth. The square is homage—convoluted as it may be in meaning, in title—to our rich history, to our people. To you, my son, my legacy. We cannot let this go on, at least without us. Come my son. This is how alcohol will help. You must feel stronger than you did in the bitterness of the afternoon light.

He pours me another beverage and I think about a chair I saw once, in a marketplace. How well we each would look to be sitting in it.

My father smiles again, equally agitated and proud. You will not betray your side of the story. With him, you will stand for your people.

My cocktail is drunk and thus, so am I. My father is not, merely drinking. He runs sandpaper hands through the straightness of his hair and sighs back the ounce of vermouth. He stands and I stand with him, setting down my jigger. A look is exchanged, and there will be no house and no rooms full of chairs and no scholarly visits to my wife and my daughter and no postgraduate degree and no chairs, no chairs, no open bar, and no chairs at all, no beautiful chairs. There will be cocktails in the new life though, cocktails aplenty, but without any chairs in our new home, the new home. They will not be bourbons or wines or gins or scotches, but yes they will be there, just for you, oh—just for you there will be cocktails, Molotov and blinding.


M.M. Locker