My roommate Eva arrived home yesterday looking like she was about to pass out. She said as they were driving in the minibus back from AUC it was possible to make out the visible outline of the bubble of pollution surrounding Cairo. It looked like a wall facing them, and when they passed through the whole sky changed color.
Both yesterday and today the sun isn’t really shining in the sky. There’s just a big bright spot where the sun should be. Even though there aren’t visible dark clouds the way there were during the sandstorm a while back the air feels just as thick and leaden (literally) as it did then.
If you want to know what it feels like to live in a toxic fume chamber, it’s not so good. I feel feeble and forgetful, it’s difficult for me to stay on any given task because I can’t remember what I was doing a moment ago, I need to take rests in the middle of doing things, I’ve already forgotten what I was talking about at the beginning of this sentence… My body feels like somebody has put it in slow motion without asking me. In my head I can do more and do it faster than what my body is actually doing. Having a conversation with Eva is hilarious because by the end we’re both panting through our sentences, unable to complete one without taking a breath or several and finally we both have to stop and take a rest – and possibly a puff on the ol’ ventolin – before talking again.
My appetite is also off, I think partly from my new roulette wheel of asthma medications. I’ve lost at least six pounds since arriving here – soon I’m going to have to start walking around holding my trousers up with one hand. Slightly more disturbingly the weight loss really shows in my face. My cheekbones now jut out really prominently over my extremely hollow cheeks. It looks like cliffs with caves underneath. In response to this dire situation I’ve made an executive decision to go on an urgent crash weight-gain program and to further those ends I’m sitting here with a box of chocolates from the posh candy shop around the corner.
So what do you do when every day isn’t so much a “phone in sick” day as a “phone in because the sun is being blotted out from the sky and it might be the apocalypse” day? Well, I’ve been reading a lot of trashy novels.
I don’t habitually read trashy novels. Even when I go for something that’s fairly light and respectably enough removed from my PhD subject that I can really get lost in it, I don’t tend to pick out things with titles like “Danger in the Water” or “Untamed Hearts”, or by authors whose names absolutely have to be made up because nobody would stand really being called that in their daily lives.
My rule on this trip, though, has been simple: any book I buy must be thick enough to keep me out of the bookstore for at least a week, and it absolutely must have nothing to do with anything even remotely connected to my PhD or my life in Egypt. These books are pure escapist fluff, empty calories for the brain.
I admit that I did buy the latest Umberto Eco novel when I first got here, but that was only because it was thick enough to kill a Florida cockroach with, and therefore long enough to keep me out of the bookstore for at least a week. But to make up for it I’ve also read what has to be one of the worst novels ever written.
It’s by a person spuriously calling himself Eric Lustbader. I mean, that has to be a fake name, right? It’s the kind of thing you would call yourself if you were too ashamed to admit that you’d actually committed the following words to paper: “The tilted blade was just an illustration to a story he was telling. ‘I slit their throats from one end to the other and watched the blood pump out in a slow, sensual rhythm.’”
Normally I can’t read or watch anything vaguely frightening because I can’t get the images out of my head later, but reading this novel was like watching a sock puppet show of a scary book. There were possessed sharks, mystical rocks, a stereotypically grave magical healer Native American, and a pink Thunderbird. Maybe it could be made into a musical.
Or maybe my dismissal of the imaginary horrors in the book (there were lots of entrails in ritualistic killings as well) was so easy because they just pale in comparison to the real horrors outside, where I cannot see the sun.