Today is my first boyfriend’s birthday. His name was Ezz El-Arab. I think about him once a week, on average. He was my first love. We started going out when I was 12.
I was in Senior One, which is the British school equivalent of eighth grade. I was in the X class (X for exceptional), the nerd class. He approached me in the giant sandlot that was our student center, and said, “Will you go steady with me?” I had never spoken to him before. So naturally, I said yes.
Going steady meant ignoring him at all times and hanging up on him when he called for fear my father would catch me and kick my ass. It also meant that he wrote me sweet letters about how he was mad that I never spoke to him. Girls were pissed off that we were together, because I didn’t appreciate his beauty. And never spoke to him.
Eventually, we spoke. Our families both had memberships at a hotel that allowed residents to use its pool and facilities. I’d sneak off from my family and we’d sit on chaise-longues, and he’d make fun of my leg hair. Eventually, I couldn’t do without these chaise-longue tauntings. I suggested we kiss. So we hid behind a giant wooden gate near some beach bungalows and did. Once, a haaris caught us and we ran like mad. Once, my father almost caught us, and he slapped my cheeks hard. I didn’t care, because I liked feeling Ezz’s tongue against mine.
On valentine’s day, he sent 14 roses to my homeroom. Girls bathed me in angry looks. I was a nerd in the nerd class walking around with my hairy legs, moustache, bushy hair, and an armful of roses.
The summer of ’90, we talked our ears off on the phone, and saw each other as often as we could. I gave him a book I’d stolen from my parents’ “secret” drawer about a talking penis. He blushed.
Then, after the Iraqi invasion, we lost touch. I was so sad to begin with that it was just an additional loss. We moved to Egypt. I enrolled at a new school. The few weeks before classes began, I wandered the streets of Alexandria on my rental bike. That’s when I bumped into him.
We spent the year absconding to stairwells in abandoned buildings and writing each other letters.
The summer before I moved to America, Ezz and I engaged in some serious stealth. We fooled around on the beach almost every day. We’d hide behind some rocks or in a beach cabin. When I found out I was moving we cried like crazy and briefly considered a double suicide. Instead, we ate fried chicken and fooled around some more. He asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I was too shy to admit it. That afternoon, he called me and urgently asked me again, and insisted I answer. I’d never revealed it to anyone because I thought they’d relentlessly tease me about it, but I said, “a writer.” It was the first time I’d said it out loud.
I would meet him on my bike at the top of my street so my parents and/or the bawab wouldn’t see us. We discovered that the mosque at the top of my street was called Ezz El Arab mosque, and that the building across from it was called Villa Randa. We reveled in our discovery, the triumph of being two buildings forever facing one another in a city we both loved.
When I arrived in the US, I cried for two weeks straight, because I missed him, and I missed Alexandria, and he stood for Alexandria. We called each other and ran up obscene phone bills. When my dad found out, he forbade me to ever speak to Ezz again. I ran away to NYC and held myself hostage until my father agreed to let us exchange letters. We did, and our shared history, coupled with Ezz’s physical absence and our revelations to each other, made him my best friend. Just before I turned 16, we called each other and laughed about how we’d been “going out” for 5 years. We hadn’t seen each other in 3 of those years. We said “fuck” a lot on the phone, and my insane father was taping the conversation. He replayed it to me later that night while beating me and telling me I was a slut. He called Ezz’s parents and they all conspired against our deep friendship. We were not to call or write to each other ever again.
I went out that week and lost my virginity to a guy who had raped me in the mouth weeks before.
In 2000, I tracked down Ezz’s address and we exchanged a few emails. But it wasn’t the same. He was someone different. I was someone different. Life had moved on and left our geeky love story like litter by a run down apartment building.
Happy Birthday, Ezz. Wherever you are. Canada, last time I heard.