In a Divided City

I’d gotten used to the shriek of shelling in my neighbourhood, but was electrified when my love whispered in my ear.

Once, sometimes twice, a week we snuck in a call, although saw each other a lot less. In between, I gazed at the one photo I’d taken of Amira before the uprising, before I joined those opposing the regime. Wearing a sparkly top and jeans, her hair was blowing freely and a big smile lit her brown eyes. She was beautiful. She was also daughter to a high-ranking security official.

One day, my father overheard us talking. When he questioned me, I lied, anxious he would think me an informer. Directly after, I decided to break off the relationship. I texted Amira to meet at an out-of-the-way café in town.

As I put on my jacket, my father wordlessly handed me a scrap of paper. On it was a short list scribbled in pencil. First was medicine, and beside, in brackets, antibiotics and insulin. Next was sugar, and then cooking oil. The last item jarred me: body bags. I sucked in my breath and looked up.

“So much bombing these last weeks. We have no time to bury the bodies. Body bags are the best solution,” said my father matter-of-factly. He turned away and began to rifle through a pile of notebooks on his desk.

I messaged Amira to delay our meeting. My priority was delivering my father’s list to Sami, a fellow graduate from Damascus University who was now a supply runner.

Night was my preferred time to go out. Shells weren’t discharged, and by then the day’s dust and debris had settled.

Unlocking my bike, I remembered the chain had dislodged last time. I greased and spun the back wheel to avoid the same fate.

I had started slipping between my suburb and Damascus very early on. Those at the checkpoints knew me. They didn’t ask questions, just nodded for me to proceed.

I parked outside the ice-cream shop. In the city, it was business as usual even as the suburbs crumbled. Sami was seated at one of the tables. He finished his espresso and came outside.

“Here’s the list.” I pressed the paper into his palm.

Sami’s expression tightened as he read it over. “Sure, I can get these things for you. Give me four or five days.” He stuffed the note into his pocket.

We began to walk, quietly exchanging information about those recently arrested and killed, scrutinizing the eyes of passersby who could be security.

After ten minutes, Sami ducked down a side street. I doubled back to my bike.

Through the window I saw her. She had a book in one hand, her chin was resting on the other. She reached out to brush a stray hair from her face. My heart beat quickly.

I texted to say I’d been held up, that we’d meet another day. For a few minutes I watched her, longingly, then rode away.