Recipe for Disaster (2003) 22"x17" by Janet Bloch
Recipe for Disaster (2003) 22"x17"
by Janet Bloch

Artist's Statement:
My influences include comic books, family photos, advertisement of the 1950's and 60's and the decorative folk arts of various cultures. I interweave the stories with patterns to create a sense of fantasy and interject commentary, humor or horror. Often, the main character in each work is triumphing over the obstacles of life, righting wrongs, flaunting rebellion and battling demons.

POTENT REMEDIES

by Semia Harbawi

Water came to a boil in the pot I reserved for cooking pasta. Laurel leaves swirled idly on the roiling surface in a hapless pattern. I cradled my fantasies in the crook of my addled imagination, churning with visions of plunging my pock-marked face into the bubbling water so that it would cleanly remove the pitted, marred olive skin. It would shrivel and peel in strips and shreds. The sensation would be excruciating, but somehow the blemishes, leftovers of my adolescence acne, would disappear and my complexion would finally be cleansed, perfect. He would no longer jeer at the repulsive texture of my skin. He would caress my cheek with tenderness in his eyes, the way I was sure he stroked her flawless face. The fantasy was snuffed out. But I could not help bringing my hand to my plain face to dwell on those accursed craters. My husband was, of course, right. I was not what you would call a beauty. I was squat, perpetually waddling on my short legs to keep pace with his long, elegant stride. My eyes bulged slightly because of my myopia, though I had discarded my glasses, as Fakhri, my husband, used to tell me that I looked like a bespectacled frog with an acute case of constipation. At this point, he would guffaw and slap his thigh, overwhelmed by the brilliance of his wit, as if it were the first time he stumbled on this dazzling ingenuity.

I was not one of those modern women you see everywhere now in the fashionable cafés and expensive restaurants of Tunis. I had been brought up in a good family by a mother who staunchly believed that women should know their place and not presume on a man's goodwill. A woman should devote every ounce of her energy to ensure her husband's well-being and preserve his honour and manhood. My mother had spent all of her life in the kitchen chopping, mincing, stewing, shelling, curing and bottling so as to pander to my father's gluttony. When I reached the age of thirteen, she would, time and again, recite for the benefit of my docile ears the whole litany of commandments I had to commit to memory if I wanted to be lauded as a good wife: Never nag when your husband comes home from work. Never protest in a blunt way about anything. Twirl that tongue of yours seven times in your mouth before talking back to him. Weather his anger until it is over like a cloud that will soon dissipate itself. Always be ready to gratify his every desire. Never protest or deny him. Don't ever let him smell any bad odour on you, particularly when it is your time of the month. Always cook his favourite meals and give him the biggest portions. Don't wolf down your food when you eat at the same table. Eat before he comes home and nibble at your food when you dine together. Men recoil from greedy women. Go to the hammam regularly and have all that hair on your legs, arms, armpits and between your thighs removed. You're like a porcupine, girl! It's not becoming for a woman to be so hairy. A man needs a satiny skin under his touch.

And so it went on and on, always about men's likes and dislikes in an endless inventory of do's and don'ts that would leave my head spinning and my embarrassed ears tingling. But I could never bring myself to ask how a husband was expected to perform in order to please his wife. I could sense it was an altogether alien notion to my mother, far-fetched and unheard-of. A woman had to accept what her husband had to offer graciously and never whine or pester him for more.

I was Fakhri's cousin on his father's side and our marriage was arranged as befitted the interests of both parties. Fakhri was a pampered only son and his father was soon at his wits' ends as to this son's prospects; the latter breezed in and out of an incalculable number of jobs and did not evince a sustained interest in anything serious. As to my father, he had, very early, conceded that my marital horizon was likely a bleak one indeed. What with my blemished skin and dull, bumbling self, my father had resigned himself to finding anyone who would have me for a wife. My father was a building contractor. His business was thriving. So he hired Fakhri as supervisor to one of his numerous sites and it was soon agreed that we should marry to cement the ties between both families. My father bought us a villa and offered Fakhri a brand-new car. He paid for the wedding ceremony and told me, in no subtle way, that he expected to become grandfather to a healthy boy by the end of the year following our marriage.

Fakhri was most obsequious with my father. His tone of voice would suddenly become mellifluous and an ingratiating grin would be permanently plastered on his full lips. He knew that he was on a short leash that my father could yank threateningly tight around his miserable neck any time he liked. He missed no occasion to curry favour with his uncle, though he could not please him in the matter of giving him a grandson. Fakhri would scrunch up his nose in exaggerated distaste at the sight of my fat body, then switch off the night lamp and go about his business in harried haste. I was a sort of cumbersome obligation or debt he had to discharge once in a while; so our lovemaking was perfunctory at the best of times.

He would turn the full blast of his bottled-up frustration on me. He missed no occasion to throw back in my face my father's scornful taunts and barbed remarks, after the latter ascertained his nephew's arrant incompetence and laziness. I had, in turn, to make amends for my father's behaviour, for Fakhri was so obsessed with his virility that he could suffer nothing to taint it. He always made sure to swagger in tight fitting polo shirts that exhibited his finely toned muscles, and he spent most nights with what I naively supposed were his friends and business associates. He would unbutton the collar to display his chest hairs, jet-black and curly, where a solid-gold Cartier necklace cosily nestled. But he was mostly proud of the bulge at the front of his trousers; he carried it as one might carry his credentials or some profession of faith.

I always tried my very best not to incur his displeasure, haunted as I was by my mother's relentless coaching. I tried to drop some weight. I tried to cook French and Italian recipes. I went to great lengths to girdle my overflowing, dimpled flesh in minuscule lacy underwear. He only smacked his lips and rolled his eyes at my preposterous attempts. You could not change what could not be changed. The more I fawned, the more blasé and disdainful he grew. This was a ruthless, simple law of nature and our universe.

One day I overheard their conversation on the phone. His voice was husky, caressing, and flirtatious. I ducked into another room, lifted the phone extension and held my breath. A woman's voice was at the other end. She gushed and purred about the ecstasy she had felt the night before (there went his alleged dinner with a business associate!) and how unforgettable it all had been. He chuckled in a self-satisfied way. I blushed as the details grew graphic. He told her what he intended to do to each part of her body. I put the extension back as silently as possible. My jaws locked. It was a palsied state of consciousness. Hatred, black and sweet, coated my insides with deliciously exhilarating stickiness. But I had to keep it under control until I found a way to sate it.

That very night, we went to a cocktail party. Moments after we arrived, I was already on my own. It was then that I spotted her. Fakhri was talking to her in dead earnest. I knew it was her with manic certitude. Her name was Sawssen, a name as sweet and frivolous as my own, Radhia, seemed insipid and dour: Fakhri once remarked that "it's drab and old-fashioned, so it suits you just fine." I could hardly take my eyes off her creamy complexion, perfectly manicured glossy nails, long tapering fingers, so much unlike my chapped ones, bleached by detergents and made coarse by being constantly soaked in water. Her smile was predatory, the pouting scarlet lips moist and eager. Her peroxyded hair was stylishly groomed, her ferret-like eyes hard and spiteful under fluttering mascara-laden lashes I could have plucked one by one with gusto. She was perched on sluttish lamé stilettos that I could have jabbed into both of her bedroom eyes. She was the cheap replica of those gorgeous Lebanese singers that had all Tunisian men panting and drooling. When she tilted her head back to laugh, which was often, her lips peeled back to reveal what seemed to be rows upon rows of ad-white teeth. Behind my unassuming, stolid exterior, I suffered the knowing glances, the pitying condescension, the whispers, and the sneers in my back. I was sure almost everybody knew and thought I had no clue as to what was going on. A portly man, clearly the wretched creature's husband, was patting Fakhri on the shoulder. The old fool! He was the perfect cliché of the happy cuckold; but I was the cheated wife, though not that happy about it. I envied the man his blissful ignorance. That night I dreamed that I was munching teeth, not my own, that disintegrated in my mouth and mixed with my saliva. My mind was made up. Fakhri was so proud of his manliness. I simply decided to snatch it away from him.

The following week, after my plans were hatched, I hired a cab to the Medina, the old city, where I roamed the crowded alleys and teeming bazaars until I reached an address I had overheard from two women's whispers in the hazy mists of the hammam. It was a place where you went if you were a woman who would not, or could not, rely on her faith in the Almighty or trust fate's hand to do her justice. It was the ultimate recourse when your womb would not yield the desired son, or when you were over thirty and likely to turn into a spinster, or when you coveted another woman's husband, or you suffered from the pangs of unrequited love, or if ever you wished to ward off an evil eye or get rid of a Tebbâa, a malevolent soul who had been dogging your steps and blighting each and every of your prospects. There was an assortment of grievances that would meet here with a swift and ready solution thanks to the ancestral, forbidden knowledge and practices that were traded in that kind of place, wrought by women for other women who were at bay, driven to their last resources.

The 'specialist' with whom I sought an encounter was versed in what 'civilized' people would call 'phytotherapy,' the science of using and misusing medicinal herbs. The place was like a lair, the atmosphere misted over by the effluvia of incense and old sweat. It was a place where mysticism mingled with superstition and lucre with blind faith. The air was thick with despair so much akin to my own that I could sniff it rolling in muggy waves. It had such a peculiarly heavy quality that I could almost touch it. Since I had an appointment, the antechamber was uncannily empty. It led into a room that was diminutive and not unlike the office of an apothecary. The woman sitting across from the table was huge, resting on immense haunches. After I tersely explained what I needed exactly, she extended her chubby fingers to a pigeonhole among what seemed like hundreds at her left side and deftly plucked out a small packet. Her coarse, guttural voice explained in businesslike tones: "A pinch suffices. When you run out of the stuff, come back to me and I'll supply you with more." To my query about what entered in the composition, she answered: "You wouldn't care to know" and then added: "But the effects are guaranteed. I pledge my reputation on it. It's foolproof. You'll thank me as all the others always do in the end. It'll slacken the circulation all through his body and blood will cease to swell that particular organ. He won't be able to service any woman, as desirable as she might be, not even get it up to piss!" She sniggered, her porcine eyes glittering with obscene amusement at the prospect.

I started flavouring his favourite dishes with a substantial pinch of the dull-grey powder the woman had sold me. I even doctored his coffee and liquors. She had assured me that it could in no way be detected by any man's palate. Fakhri would eat the food with a jaded look on his face and only speak to issue commands, with me fetching and carrying. I would observe him from the corner of an eye to make certain that he ate all that was on his platter. I took to overly spicing all the dishes: I was beset with paranoia about his finding out about my treachery. At first my hand was slightly tremulous as I laced his food with the 'remedy'. But I would mentally unfurl the scroll of my mortification and my hand would grow steady and I would hum to myself while a savage glee was making me light-headed. I was driven by a cold anger that I was about to slake. I could not and would not allow it to burn off as my mother had said it should.

His face grew haggard. I could clearly see that he was worried. I could hear his sighs in the middle of the night and feel him tossing and turning as if his thoughts could not surrender his body to sleep. He was wilting. Literally. A smouldering shame consumed his massive frame. He lost weight, subsisting mainly on alcohol and bitter, black coffee. He no longer went out nights. He no longer called her when he thought I was in the kitchen, for when he last did, the exchange was far from erotic. She wanted to break up with him. I eavesdropped as she explained in a reticent, pinched tone that her husband might be suspecting something. I smiled to myself, as truth was plain to see: she could not bring her mendacious lips to say that my dear husband had lost his main attraction and that he had become a liability she wanted to dispose of. Fakhri was unceremoniously dumped and devastated. Good.

He turned to me as an amputee to his old crutch. I would help him insert his shrivelled manhood with my own hands and he would cry like a little boy. I wavered between pity and scorn towards his pathetic show of weakness, though I still loved him in my bizarre, warped way. And yet I experienced no twinge of compunction. An eerie serenity washed over me. Fakhri had, by now, run the whole gamut of aphrodisiacs. Medication, both Eastern and Western, was solicited. He took to munching his way through huge platters of onion and garlic. He gulped gallons of ginger extract and chewed maniacally at ginseng roots and ate asparagus stalks by the dozen, despite the diuretic side effects which he came to experience only too soon. He rubbed his lower abdomen with musk ointment and spooned harissa, a relish made out of squashed pimento, as if it were some delicious marmalade. His breath became rank and he was plagued by flatulence. Good. I proposed to accompany him to a urologist who prodded, probed, pushed, pulled, and finally diagnosed a case of befuddling chronic impotency. "Oh my God!" gasped ashen-faced Fakhri. But God had nothing to do with it, I was tempted to blurt out.

I soon missed my periods for the first time and discovered, miracle of all miracles, that I was pregnant. My father would finally have his will, it seemed, and I fervently prayed for a daughter. Fakhri's spirit was subdued, almost quenched. Gone were the fiery petulance and truculent bravado. Gone were the strutting gait and jaunty manners. He came to regard me as the safe repository of his dark secret and he was immensely grateful for that: "But for your help and support, I could not have shouldered my burden, even if my life depended on it." Then he would add in a properly contrite tone: "You're a good wife. You haven't let me down. God bless your kind soul." I would lower my eyes demurely and praise his fortitude. "God is testing you. You'll soon recover. But rest assured that I will never let you down. Never."

And miss all the fun? I wondered. Not on your life dear husband.

Semia Harbawi is assistant professor in the English Department of the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences, University of Tunis, Tunisia . She teaches English and Postcolonial Literature. Her publications include "Resistive Aesthetics: Jamaica Kincaid's Formal Strategies" (Connecticut Review, 25.2, 2003); short stories: "The Chant of the Odalisque" (Long Story Short, vol.38. July, 2006); "The Good Daughter" (Moondance, September 2006); "Burning" (forthcoming in Miranda Literary Magazine).

Also in Fiction
Only Wounded | In Sickness and in Health