“Habeebti,” you said breathlessly. That’s all it took. A quick syllable, too short, and yet so sexual. The sound of the “ha” rang in my ears and I wondered if you could tell your voice was meant to be preserved and refrigerated for me to drink whenever I pleased. And then it was “Ḥub” that came into my life and seized me by the throat. I needed a vial a day and by day forty, the day I was sure I was in love, I started convulsing when I ran out of you.
“I still have more of me but you need to go to bed with me,” you whispered into my ears and lightly grazed your hand across my waist.
And like the meeting of first-time lovers under white sheets, I was stained by you. I remember waking up to the bright sun but feeling the darkness settling in. My stomach gripped me and my legs shook as I made my way to the bathroom and hurled last night into the pink toilet seat. I flushed but couldn’t get rid of the nausea and the vertigo that invaded my body.
Slowly and carefully, I placed each foot before the other in the dance I had trained my body to do. My body never behaved and because of my illness my neurons would always fire wrong signals one second too late or one second too early. I was never on time. Delay was part of my body and I had been ashamed of meeting any lover in bed because of the tremors that would come and go as they pleased. My overactive bladder would have me running toward the bathroom in the midst of the caresses and I think my body translated touch to a war it had to resist. They were all strangers to my body and you were yet another visitor, except this morning you were gone before I could ask you “how was it?” I always asked “how was it” to ease my shame of having failed to perform, apologizing for my failure, for my interruptions. They would all nod and look the other way and I would cuss internally, never out loud. Mama raised me better.
I spent the morning waiting for your text messages but you never texted and as the clock ticked past maghreb prayer I began noticing a red rash on my neck. The rash was the product of kisses, I supposed. But then I started itching ferociously until I needed an antihistamine from my medicine cabinet. The cabinet I kept all my medications and supplements in and the vials that you had poured your voice into. Each vial had kept me going throughout the day, giving me an excessive dose of energy. I took the antibodies that you transferred along with each breath you exhaled. You were everything I wasn’t. Robust. Loud. Confident. But I had needed to wait the forty days just to make sure this was real.
The antihistamine made me dizzier and the rash wouldn’t go away. The nausea settled in comfortably and I feared its aftermath. I stayed close to the toilet and began losing track of time. I was growing weary with each trip and there was not enough bile left to digest all I had consumed last night – each kiss, each salty bit, each word I tasted on my mouth. My cheek hadn’t gone numb last night (although any exertion on my part would make my facial muscles falter) and I was grateful I had handled all of your inches.
After a sleepless night, the rash began to ease and my stomach began to settle. I didn’t receive any text messages from you and I was left aching in bed. My thighs were sore and my chest felt heavier than normal. I noticed bruises creep up on my breasts and I thought to myself how strange, you hand handled me so gently the night before. You spoke to my intellect before ever touching me. We had stayed up talking about our work, our stories. I was an author who wrote about disability and illness but you couldn’t understand how a woman would write about a diseased body. Women are perfect creatures, meant to be admired and worshipped, you said. Curves that added balance to every move of her hips; never clumsiness, never limping in front of the public eye. You were an author too, but the type that wrote romance novels for women and sold bestsellers. You were a national hit and I was yet another fan. We talked about readership and then you kissed me and I stopped talking about how narrative matters.
Two days after the body aches and the now-fading bruises, I couldn’t write a word anymore. I began to lose my syllables and my fingers shook as I attempted to click the keys on the keyboard. They glared back at me, taunting me. Intentional tremor. A neurological symptom turned into a metaphor. The intention to write but failure to do so. The intention to get up again but being shoved back down, your leftovers still in my veins.
By day six I couldn’t piece any part of my story together and I had to call my editor and apologize about the delay in finalizing my manuscript. I had nothing left. My thoughts dissolved and I began to see an uglier version of me in the mirror every morning. I blinked once, twice, three times, but I would lose count by the time the tears rolled down my now numb cheek.
I hid inside my apartment for a week after that night until Nora, my best friend, got so frustrated with my lack of response to her calls and messages. When she came over and saw my pale face, my shaking hands, and my chapped lips, I had to admit everything. I couldn’t avoid the truth anymore. I had kept you sheltered from the public eye for the entire time I had known you. But now, I gave up and confessed to everything. I showed her your picture, told her who I had willingly submitted to, her jaw dropped. She nearly gagged at the sight of your profile picture on Social Media, the celebrity that you were, the thousands of men and women following you.
And so she narrated the tale, re-told and revised with the most updated version:
Rumor is after you wake up from a very special night together, there’s a microchip that’s placed in you. It happens while you’re dozing off, right after you’ve reached the peak (and point) of the encounter between you. It’s between your thumb and index finger. It can make you really sick while the body absorbs it. Some say it’s like toxic shock syndrome. I’m so glad you didn’t get that far! But your incessant vomiting probably saved you. It’s just – I don’t think you’ll ever be able to finish your memoir. Or any book. The microchip downloads all your plot devices, your characters, and it’s right when you hit the climax (no, not before the rising action, before the rising action it’s all juicy and butterflies). I’m so sorry… I think this happens to every Scheherazade. How many of them do you think helped sell all of these bestsellers? Oh, never mind. Let’s just get you to bed. I think you can pray for forgiveness. Maybe that’s what went wrong. Even Eve paid the price for letting Adam in. Or beg Allah to stitch you back up and maybe the microchip will expire with time.
I saw your next bestseller appear seven months later in my Instagram feed, captioned:
A sick girl falls in love with an angel. This book tackles the hardships of illness through a female protagonist’s eyes. A coming-of-age story that promises to make you cry and believe in the power of love. To order your copy check out our website or send us a Direct Message.
Habeebti: my darling in Arabic
Hub: Love in Arabic
About the Author
Shahd Alshammari is Assistant Professor of Literature at Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait. Her works include Notes on the Flesh (2017) and her disability memoir, Head Above Water (Neem Tree Press, 2022). She works on disability in the Arab world and lives with Multiple Sclerosis.
Read Shahd Alshammari’s review of Crip Temporalities (Special Issue of SAQ, edited by Ellen Samuels and Elizabeth Freeman) in this issue of Wordgathering.