by Maja Lukic
Among the ruins of the old city, I briefly pause to clean my knee where gravel pierces deep into the wound and tiny shreds of skin curl up to reveal red velvet beneath. Salty sweat moistens the edges of the abrasion leaving behind a barely perceptible sting. With the cleanest corner of my shirt, I gingerly dab around it, brushing blood and dirt away.
The sea stretches before me, luminous Mediterranean turquoise sparkling in the morning sunlight. Behind me, the ancient temples and ruins and paved streets of Tipasa and, further still, mountains in the distance.
The old stones, the archaeological vestiges of a long-ago people, rise majestically toward the clear, unmarred skies and I rest against a decapitated statute, feeling the cool, grainy marble against my sweat-soaked skin.
The back of my throat feels coated in dry tissue paper and, feeling shallow involuntary coughs rise up, I regret leaving the extra water behind.
At the Hotel in Constantine, in the city of bridges, there will be water. And, too, fragrant olive oil, crusty white bread, ripe fruit, sweet wine, freshly caught fish, and candied nuts. The Hotel is set on the very edge of the deep ravine that frames the whole city, where a warm North African wind breezes through the curtains at night while you sleep and dream.
If Josephine’s description of the place held true.
But Josephine had been a compulsive liar long before she said I’ll be right back and then disappeared into the sea in Hanioti, Greece. I was alone on the white sand when our parents came back to find us. And being only nine then, I didn’t know how to explain.
Franco catches up to me and demands, What the hell happened to you?
Never mind that, I shrug it off. I would rather not let him know I got hurt doing the exact thing he said I should not do. Franco wasn’t actually concerned about my cut in any case—only worried I would slow us down.
I’ve always disliked short men for this reason. Time moves quicker for them somehow. It is we tall people who move slowly and sanguinely, like the cool blue surging waves of the Adriatic Sea.
When I woke up on the beach earlier that morning, Franco had stood above me blocking the sunlight and casting a shadow over me. An impatient little Napoleon raising himself to his full, pitiful height, taking great advantage of my sprawled out position far below him.
My travel companion from Málaga to Palermo, the ultimate destination of our journey, Franco had not wanted to stop in Tipasa and every moment in this obsolete old city at the edge of the sea razed his nerves. I suspect, too, that Franco missed sailing the Corinthian. The smooth predictability of travel at sea. The ease with which one could measure progress.
But I wanted to see everything now that I was free of the shackles of the tour guides and the other passengers on the cruise ship, with Franco as my only company.
The essence of our agreement is based on need: I need a knowledgeable guide to navigate the route and he needs a free trip home to Palermo. No written contract—a handshake and a suspicious glance from Franco sufficiently closed the transaction.
We should go, Franco announces.
What about the mausoleum? I stall.
Franco looks back at me, unimpressed. A part of me enjoys the banter.
Franco and I are on the night train from Algiers to Constantine. The dirty old train plunges into the darkness as gusts of cool air stream in from the open windows. Even with the steady influx of fresh air, the thick smell of pungent tobacco and body odor overwhelms the train car and burns my nostrils. Franco’s sonorous snoring is inimitable, but I have been awake since we boarded. The backpack with my passport, our train tickets, and maps is lodged against my right side. A makeshift recliner and a safe.
Constantine was not technically on our route anymore. We were no longer part of the tourist tour that had brought me to this side of the world. Franco was no longer part of the sailing crew on the Corinthian and had no loyalty to his former itinerary; a slight detour toward the East was not on his radar.
I had read through my travel brochures and guidebooks and there was nothing left to be learned. The Pomegranate Hotel does not exist. My research at home in the US had turned up a Pomegranate Boutique Hotel in Turkey. But that could not be right.
Josephine had described a city of bridges that lit up like fire at night, with white buildings and red tile rooftops, and a great ravine.
As I drift off to sleep, I am at the Pomegranate Hotel. A bowl of pomegranates greets me in the room on my bedside table.
In every mirror, Josephine’s hair comes tumbling down. It’s the hair that whips her back as she runs toward the water and dives into the rolling sea. I watch her golden hair on the horizon until she is so far in that I can no longer track her movement. Dusk settles on the beach and the sparkling white Grecian sand turns a lilac rose. And I wait for her golden waves to rise up out of the real waves. But they never do. ■
Maja Lukic graduated from Cornell Law School in May 2010. She received a BFA in acting from the Memorial University of Newfoundland in 2007. Maja is currently working as an attorney and writing in New York City.