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Joseph F. Mailander

What you have heard of transferring at Heathrow is true, no matter the decade. In 1989 it was true. Reenie and I took a whole day in the Smoke just to be sure to have our luggage when we made Cairo; but of course it didn't matter, and of course, even after the long empty flight and the yellow and orange and especially green sunrise over the labia of the African continent that is the Nile delta, the bags never showed up at either airport until two days later. We took something called La Parisienne, a VW camper van with bald tires and whizzing tappets converted into a shuttle bus, to the Dawar El Omda, at which Reenie typically stayed because it attracted other art historians as well as anthropologists. I would stay there too, in a room near Reenie's. The dust and sweat of the city began to rise on us like a Wagner overture; I heard the cry of an infant and realized that nowhere do infants cry as in Cairo, where they emit a mournful ululation closer to that of a dying camel than of promising human life. No wonder nobody else in her circle came, I thought. What had began as a tour to the pyramids for a small circle of graduates who had taken--and adored--Reenie, had disintegrated into the unlikely scenario of her and I taking a holiday together. I think men were intimidated by her confidence, and other women, even much younger ones, did not wish to struggle with her maddening blonde and serene beauty for seven days running. Everyone could tell from slides she showed in our classes--casually, as though she wandered into the occasional frame by chance, or to show us the scale of something--that she looked like every fantasy of schoolgirl romanticism whenever in Egypt, and everyone could also tell that it was impossible for anyone else to compete. Perfectly thin, she walked always as a French Catholic before taking communion, and the attitude stayed with her always. On entering the lobby, she snapped her fingers and was whisked away by white-jacketed boys with gold epaulets, and said, see you for dinner, and I was left to fumble with French and a recalcitrant registration desk. But when I finally managed to check in, there was a message for me: I was invited to a cocktail party by the plane's pilot, who had allowed us, possibly because of Reenie, to observe the green sunrise from his cockpit. I called Reenie's room and told her of our invitation, but lamented to realize that we had no bags, which meant little for me, but Reenie could not go anywhere without a change of clothes. "Cocktails at 6? Where?" I gave her the address. "Let's go," she said. "Meet me in the lobby." "What will you wear?" I asked, but she was off. And down in a moment. We secured a taxi and I asked if we were going to Alexandria. "No, silly, we're getting me something to wear." She said something in French I didn't catch, but I heard the word musée. And within moments we were at the Manyal Palace Museum, riding through the gates, and Reenie asked if I would come in and told the taxi to wait. I followed. Reenie said something to a guard and was waved in, and I with her. It was now near three pm, but inside the closed museum it was dark except for the few cracks of sunlight between the tapestry curtains. We came to a dismally lit room in which there were mannequins dressed with ancient clothing. "Some of this is almost three thousand years old," said Reenie. "Taken out of great tombs. This one may have been worn by a nameless pharaoh's wife." I looked at the garments and could barely believe it. "Ah, perfect," she said. "I knew it was still here. I put it here." She pointed to a white sack of silk which drew in the middle and dangled to just mid-thigh on the mannequin. "This one is 2,500 years old. I've not worn it before." And with that she took off her own flight worn and Cairo-beaten dress, grabbing it by the shoulder straps, and lifting it like a well's rope higher and higher until it was off and flung to the side in haste. Her hair shook, and she shook it more. In the darkness of the closed asthmatic dusty museum I could nonetheless see her body, for she was nude except for sandals and underpants, and I was especially intoxicated by her thin, long stomach, quivering in the dark like the shoulders of an Egyptian nymphomaniac, and while I stood there in breathless awe she said, "You'll have to help me take this off the mannequin and put this on, very slowly both ways, it of course is very delicate." She untied the mannequin's sash and then patiently guided me through helping her lift my side of the dress off of it. My hands touched hers occasionally, and once, noticing perhaps my ardor as she stood there nude, she playfully pushed the mannequin into me and grabbed my arms and clamped them against the mannequin's back. "Lift back here," she said, "It's coming off unevenly." We finally got the damn thing off and she threw her arms out directly in front of her and said, "Now take the bottom of the dress and hold it like a--well, let it hang like a hoop, you know--Actually, like a cannoli, just before when you dip it in oil. Joseph, remember that day you brought the cannoli to my class? You make the most wonderful cannoli, it's the only reason I would ever travel to Egypt with you. Whatever you do, hang onto the dress for dear life." When I had half of it on her arms, she lifted her arms and the dress above her head and said, "Now pull the dress down, just a little at a time. I'll keep it straight with my arms so we don't bind the fabric too much." I had pulled it down to just above her head and she suddenly said "What are you thinking of?" and I kissed her and also put my arms behind her and she started shrieking and laughing a mad Egyptian scholar's laugh but held the dress aloft even as her right leg came up against the back of my calf. "These dresses are complete survivors," she said, and flung it even further than she had flung her own. Wild with laughter, neither leg on the ground, she said, "I've even had one dry cleaned. Egyptian cotton has the reputation it deserves."


Joseph F. Mailander is a writer. He lives in Los Angeles.