Charlie II, Egypt II

It took me a little time. When I first got to Alexandria, Charlie was lying in his hospital bed, blue gown and big beard, his “leg” closer to a red wood: swollen, hard and purple. His face and fingers were pale, so pale. We hugged, after almost a year, and I knew why I had come. Suddenly, I wasn’t there as a lover, I was family. I couldn’t tell if that was more, less, or just different.

He had lost a lot of blood during surgery. To get to his broken bones, they sliced through layer after layer of thigh muscle – no easy task on a touring cyclist – and in doing so, slowly sapped the juice from his body. A normal Hemoglobin level ranges between 13 and 18. Charlies was down to 5. His A negative type is apparently rare in Egypt and finding quarts of blood to pump back into him required mobilizing both the medical and couchsurfing community – networking was key to his survival.

The critical situation came to a climax one night, when finally blood was acquired. Due to his severe anemia, he had a pounding headache and roaring fever. Transfusions are likely to increase body temperature further, so for him to get the fluid he so needed, we first had to cool him down.

Blankets off, air conditioner up, a bucket of ice-water by his bed and cold compresses over any exposed skin. Soak, squeeze, lay over his arm. Soak, squeeze, other arm. Soak, squeeze, leg, forehead, chest, stomach. By the time I returned to the first compress, to re-soak it in the frigid water – it was burning hot. Five hours of this. Finally, after five hours, he could receive the blood. We turned a corner, summited a slope.

Another week went by though (and many more transfusions) before Charlie was discharged. I spent the nights curled up between two chairs in his room, and the days looking for an appropriate apartment for his recovery. Sometimes I could even snuggle up on his bed with him for a few minutes, steal a kiss when the door was closed and feel almost like a lover again.

Once I found us a place, (and a landlord that was convinced we were married – another one I tried, wasn’t), we moved into our new home. Charlies mum, Pam, was arriving in two weeks, so it was a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom affair, with a beautiful balcony overlooking Egyptian chaos. It had been a very long time since either of us had a place we could call our own, and certainly the first we had had together, so although Charlie was still suffering, and barely able to limp along on crutches, it was an exciting time. At last, we could be ourselves, share our secrets, be alone.

We grew closer through the ups and downs and once Pam arrived, our little family was formed. She flew in and soon began filling our space with love, artwork and amazing aromas. Both Charlie and I needed a mum by this point, and Pam, with her gentle, assured and practical manner, provided us all the love we wished for.
Capers, an old friend of Charlies came to visit too, and I felt relief in having other carers share the load.

Six weeks came and went, and finally it was time for me to return. When I left California, I had dropped everything – left unfinished stories, friends, stuff… and of course, Juno… so I was actually really looking forward to getting back.
By now though, Charlie and I had rekindled that passion and light we’d shared a year earlier, and it was burning brighter than ever. His brown eyes made my heart leap, his thoughts, his ideas, his ways of being, looped into mine, jumped under my skin, wove through my core and rested, sparkling, deep inside my soul. It took a little time, but we were in love again.

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Modesty

A young woman walks down a bustling city street somewhere in America. She’s moving swiftly through the sea of white faces, her caramel skin draped in black cloth. A long heavy cotton burqa cloaks her dark hair and most of her face – only the deep brown of her eyes noticeable, accentuated even, through the slits in the garment. Gloves cover each hand, her skirt scurries across the ground.

I’m walking through Alexandria’s busy roads, donkey’s dragging carts full of guavas, men yelling through megaphones, taxi’s beeping continuously, people meandering their way through the chaos. I’m wearing a long black cotton skirt, a t-shirt, and a scarf around my neck. The fabric picks up the breeze and flutters with it as I journey down towards the Mediterranean sea. Either side of me are shops and stalls selling fruit, cheap plastic Chinese-made products and even a few rusty single-speed bicycles. Half way down are two women sitting by a huge bread oven, turning dough over and again, their finished loaves a well stacked mound beside them. At the end of our street is a butcher and a fish stall, their pungent odors carrying far through this humid hot air.

As I pass each shop owner I hear various whistles and questions, men using their two-phrase vocabulary of English, and I can feel their stares trace my steps as I stride by. “Welcome, Welcome.” “Nationality?” “I love you!”

I hold my head straight, keep my gaze averted, and try to clear my mind. Occasionally I’ll turn and speak a “Salam Alaikum” (Peace be upon you – aka Hello) but otherwise I focus only on the inanimate details of the cityscape. I don’t feel physically threatened by these men, I understand all are harmless, most even friendly (a few plainly offended), but out here I can never be within myself, I can never take a moment to breathe, to blend into the bricks… all eyes are always on me. I rationalize that I am just the ‘other’ here, a curiosity strangely magnetic, and I feel a new sort of compassion for all veiled women in the West. A Muslim woman walking down a street in Australia, or America, must feel the same tumbling mix of emotions I feel, she too must be tired and angry with the incessant attention.

Yesterday I took an excursion in a Hijab, the ubiquitous head covering. My arms and legs were clothed, but only in my usual attire. Suddenly, Egypt got quieter. No whistles. No staring. No “hello, hello, christian?” questions. Quiet. And a felt elegant, the light fabric floating over my shoulders… I felt Modest. Modesty is the mantra here, and I’m beginning to understand it’s beauty (though I still question why men needn’t adhere to the same strict standards).

“Modesty is not necessarily meekness or humility or selflessness or pride. Modesty is a beauty in itself and its action is to veil itself; in that veiling it shows the vanity of its nature, and yet that vanity is the beauty itself. In thought, speech, action, in one’s manner, in one’s movement, modesty stands as the central theme of grace. Beauty in all its forms and colours, in all its phases and spheres, doubles itself, enriches itself by modesty. Without Modesty, beauty is dead, for modesty is the spirit of beauty.” Hazrat Inayat Khan – The Sufi Message.

It means rushing to slip on my long skirt before answering the door. It means women covering their heads to step out onto their balcony. It means lying about being married to Charlie. But it’s also a colourful city with bright organic fabrics flapping with the wind. It’s Alexandria, Egypt… and it’s beauty, elegance and poetry.

Egypt

I’m sitting in a room under fluro lights, and though it’s somehow familiar here, no one is speaking my language. A sign on the bin reads “Restmull” and since “Waste” is on my mind, it seems an appropriate word to learn. I’m in Frankfurt, Germany, on my way to Cairo.

Charlie – the brown eyed Wisconsin man, otherwise known as the one responsible for my love of bikes (and of brown eyed Wisonsin men) – has had an accident. He came off his bicycle in Alexandria, Egypt, broke his hip and has just today had surgery. He is lying in an unfamiliar hospital bed unable to walk and looking at a three month recovery process.

My incredible parents, aware of the love we hold for eachother, offered me a plane ticket over. I took a day to think about it… to agonise over it… then booked the flight.

Maybe it’s jet lag (??), maybe it’s these fluros, but the whole thing is making me a little queezy. I’m feeling somehow guilty, foolish, like I know this is the right decision and what I need to do, but that I somehow have a lot of explaining to do.

And it’s not even the fuel consumption that i’m struggling with. I made a point of watching the jet engines fire up – of being acutely aware of what was propeling me so far so fast (650miles an hour!!) and even came to a place of appreciation for the technology.

No, what’s bothering me is that I just spent 10hours in the sky covering a distance that took me five months by land. Five months of people, of culture, of stories… of whales and boats, cities and lovers, bikes and dreams. I’m just not used to popping out of a bubble and having everything be so different. I havn’t had time – to process all this, to familiarise myself with the language and new habits, or even with the idea of taking a plane at all – It all happened so quickly.

But through all this confusion, there is one thing that brings me back down to Earth. Love. Sometimes you have to compromise part of yourself to honour another part. The thrill of seeing Charlie again, of sharing a years worth of stories, and of being there for him when he needs me… keeps me flying high, with spirits up.