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Respire le grand air

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Salim Halali is still beautiful. The war years have been kind.

If Younes were to give some thought to what Salim might have had to do to keep himself well-fed, unharmed – if he were to give some thought to what Salim would do to keep his voice – he might be disturbed, but Younes does not. He simply stares; heartstruck into silence and thoughtlessness. Salim is still beautiful; his cheeks are still smooth and tinged with blue, his eyes still clear, impossibly light and coloured like the Mediterranean.

Salim is staring back, and not singing.

Younes sits down, and Salim begins to sing. He doesn’t look at Younes again. The song is about longing – all Andalusian songs are about longing – and Younes would probably find it moving if he listened with his ears instead of his eyes. He has not heard music of this kind in years, and he doesn’t like French music. It is not something he thinks about. He is not thinking about it now. He is noticing Salim’s throat, the smooth skin of his wrists, the curve of his spine as he moves on the stage.

Salim looks at the waiters, at the walls, at the other listeners. He is thinking about al-Andalus, and the longing for a lost homeland, for something he can never have. He knows that the music is about longing, and he reminds himself of al-Andalus. He thinks that Younes’s moustache is hideous. He sings ‘La Sevillana’ and thinks that he has never met a girl from Sevilla. This has never occurred to him before. He doesn’t look to see if Younes’s shoulders still loosen when the rhythm hits him.

When the song ends, Salim smiles at his audience, a habit of professional gratitude he developed when he first came to Paris in 1934. He has several professional habits; humble smiles, catching the eyes of certain listeners and avoiding those of others – avoiding those who stare in a certain way – and moving with grace and intent to match the music. Salim is a selfish man, and has had to reconcile himself to the extent of his selfishness over the last few years, but when it comes to singing it is, at least, about the music and not about him. Whatever advantages accrue from the sound of his voice or the shape of his eyes, these are things he thinks about (only has to think about) after the performance. He has a duty to the song; that is what he is for, and anything else is extraneous.

His training should be automatic now, but on stepping down from the stage he accidentally looks at Younes (who has certainly been staring in that way) briefly, but with embarrassing amounts of weight. Salim turns, and sneaks away into the back room. He thinks (hopes) that Younes will not follow. He suspects (hopes) that he will.

There is a knock on the door. Salim stares at it. Pressure mounts on his brow.

“I’m busy,” he shouts. It might not be Younes. Younes wouldn’t accept that.

Younes does not; he opens the door. He is happy, and he needs to look at Salim some more. Salim frowns at him, but he doesn’t mind. He moves straight into an embrace, wordless; pulls Salim out of his chair and into his arms. His face finds Salim’s throat, and rests there.

Salim does not soften, however, and eventually Younes moves back. His hand stays on Salim’s arm, though, unwilling to leave. Younes, who has had a recent revelation of what he wants, does not pause to consider whether what he wants is something he can ask for.

The grip on his arm, reverent and tender though it is, makes Salim suddenly furious. This boy, who spent weeks staring at him with his cow-eyes, his evident longing equal to his evident confusion, has now come back after years of doing whatever activities (Salim knows what Younes has been doing, and it makes him cold) and a hideous moustache, and is touching him. He looks happy to see Salim. He doesn’t, however, look like he’s begging for scraps of Salim’s attention. He stands, still inarticulate, but close enough for Salim to smell the outdoors on his skin. (Salim doesn’t go outdoors much these days.) He would come closer, if Salim would keep looking at him.

Salim looks away, looks down. (Younes notes his eyelashes and lifts a hand to his belly to soothe the sudden jolt there.) Salim’s gaze is skittering, he feels ridiculous, but; he does know what Younes has been doing. He knows, also, what he himself has not been doing. He can no longer command Younes’s attention with his gaze.

“Your moustache is hideous,” he says instead, and Younes back away, comically offended. His hand comes to cover his mouth, and now Salim is looking, and they are still too close but fortunately Younes moves away.

“The girls like it,” he says in Arabic, stepping back, rubbing his face and then his hair with one hand. Younes has many manners of awkwardness, which Salim is horrified to realise he has missed. He walks to the drinks table and pours himself a glass of raki, drinks it. He pours another, and one more for Younes, and when he turns around he is able to smile.

“Salaam.”

“Salaam.”

What do they talk about? They never talked much, before. They are not men who discover themselves in talking. Salim finishes his drink, and watches Younes’s fingers without once straying to his face.

“Are you well?”, asks Younes, in French this time. This used to be something Salim kept track of, what would cause Younes to shift to French when he was clearly more comfortable in Arabic. Certain topics, certain social situations. Polite words in French, intimate discourse in Arabic. Salim remembers being told to get out of bed in Arabic. He remembers ils ne savent pas que tu es juif.

“Je suis bien,” he replies. It would be polite to ask after Younes’s health, or what he has been doing. But he doesn’t want Younes to forget what kind of a man he is. And, he knows what Younes has been doing, and how he is. He is alive, despite what he has been doing.

“You look well,” Younes says. There is a moment of delight when Salim turns to look at him, and Younes moves closer again. The realisation that he has been waiting for this meeting, and that this is something he has promised himself, is not entirely welcome. But the thought fits comfortably between all his other feelings concerning Salim, and Younes does not examine them; he wraps his fingers around Salim’s wrists and pulls him in. They have never touched so much before, and Younes is dizzy with it. His mind is filling with the things he wants to do.

Salim prepares himself to say something cutting (this has gone on long enough, he has plans for the evening, the air is too heavy for him to breathe), but Younes steals his moment, and steals the breath from his mouth, with one hand pushing into Salim’s hair and the other keeping track of his pulse. Younes’s thumb just under his wrist bone. The air is too heavy for him to breathe.

They are not men who talk. Salim puts his hands under Younes’s jacket, strokes up across his chest, his throat, finds his cheekbones with his fingers and turns his head into the perfect angle. He thinks: this is for all your cow eyes, you idiot, this is what you wanted but would not ask for. He thinks: I’m kissing him like I need him, and then Younes surges up against him, pushes him against the wall, entangles their limbs so that they almost fall over. His mouth is on Salim’s neck and he’s shaking, they’re both shaking.

Neither of them think about much of anything for a while.

Afterwards, Salim pulls his shirt back together, adjusts his trousers. His jacket is somewhere on the floor. Younes, his clothes somewhat more torn and considerably more disheveled, is also on the floor. He is blinking at Salim, and Salim wants to bite him again. On the hipbone, this time.

The air smells of sweat and fucking. Salim’s heartbeat, after a moment of calm and painfully deep breaths, begins to grow in speed again. He should open the door. He should walk out.

He stumbles into a chair instead. Younes, still on the floor, rolls over and comes to lean against Salim’s knees. His hand winds its way around Salim’s ankle.

“I could shave the moustache,” he says.