The following day, while Gerald went to the continuing conference, Phoenix excused himself. While he found the topics fascinating the previous day, they were only here for a few days and he really wanted to explore the city.
Besides, he had taken to photography during his previous semester and he really wanted to see if he could capture anything good while in town.
His hunch proved to be good. The city was beautiful, and Eastern culture seeping through in everything, although he could definitely see some Western influences every now and then.
Interestingly enough, he saw many people who either were tourists like him, or otherwise lived here for other reasons, because they definitely weren’t Moroccan. Maybe they were like the Alfarsis, having emigrated here for work reasons.
Eventually, he found himself growing hungry and decided to stop by the marketplace. He wanted to try some of the local dishes and see if he could find some new favorites.
The market was already bustling at this time of day and he was pleasantly surprised to see a familiar face leaving the building.
“Hi!” he waved at Anippe, who seemed just as surprised to see him. Nevertheless, she smiled and waved him over.
“Hello. I bet you’re trying to get a taste of all the local foods, aren’t you? Definitely try the dips and the maakouda – they’re these really good potato fritters. Seriously, once you try them, you get addicted.”
“That sounds amazing. Are you busy? Can you maybe help me pick some things out?” Phoenix asked, hoping he wasn’t overstepping any boundaries.
“Sure, I’m free for the day. Come on, I’ll tell you all the best things to get.”
After an interesting excursion through the marketplace filled with the most delicious of smells, Phoenix had a full platter of what, according to Anippe, were the highlights of Moroccan street food.
“Wow, this is a lot. I don’t think I can eat so much. Share?” he offered.
“Alright, I’ll take a bit. So, what have you been up to?” she asked, taking one of the dishes.
“Just exploring the city, taking pictures, seeing everything. Typical tourist stuff, I suppose.”
“And how do you like it so far?” she seemed genuinely curious.
“It’s pretty amazing. I’ve been dreaming of traveling for years now,” Phoenix admitted. “But this was the only chance I got so far.”
“Oh, there will be plenty more, I’m sure. You’re only, how old?” she asked.
“Nineteen. You?” he asked, hoping she didn’t take offense – he knew some women were touchy about that subject.
“I’m seventeen, but only for about another week,” she explained. “Can’t wait, to be honest.”
“I don’t know, I’ve always thought being a legal adult would be more fun. I guess it’s nice that I don’t need my parents’ permission and signatures for stuff, but yeah, doesn’t feel much different to me,” Phoenix thought about it.
“Who knows, maybe I’ll feel the same way?” Anippe mused. Noting his finished dishes, she asked, “So, what are you planning to do now? Are you going back to the conference?”
“No, not today. I was planning to explore a little more.”
“It’s a big city, so you’ll be worn out by the end of the day.”
“Would you like to walk with me for a bit?” Phoenix offered. “It would be nice to get the inside scoop on all the local spots.”
“Ha, ha, sure,” she agreed. “I don’t need to be home until later.”
As they walked, their fingers brushed, sending a jolt of electricity through both of them.
“Ah, sorry about that! It rained last night and will probably rain again,” Anippe explained. “So, now there is a lot of static electricity in the air. It’ll pass.”
“It’s alright. So, how long have you lived here? Your father mentioned you moved here when it became more profitable do run his business from here.”
“That’s how it was. He’s had this textile company since before I was born. Since before Amon was born, to be more precise. But at some point, he realized that, since many of his clients and suppliers were here, he was incurring huge transportation costs for all of his orders. So, a move to Morocco it was.”
The way she said it made Phoenix suspect she wasn’t all too happy about their move.
“You don’t like it here.”
“I don’t hate it. But I was already a teenager when we moved. I had friends there, relatives, places I liked. And so did the others. I’m not even talking about Dad’s employers in Egypt. A couple of the single ones moved here with us. They liked the pay and wanted to see a new place – Al Medina. The others, the ones with families – they all stayed back in Egypt. As a result Dad had to spend almost as much money and time finding new workers for his company here. And all of this I could’ve told him right at the start. But my father isn’t the sort to take others’ opinions seriously – until what they tell him bites him in the…”
She caught herself just in time, before tripping over a rock.
“Careful there!” Phoenix warned.
“It’s alright. Sometimes, I get really riled up about things. Can’t help it, you know. But yes, it’s a very mixed city. That part is pretty cool.”
“I’ve noticed. Many people look like they aren’t local.”
“But they are. At least, to the same extent that my family is local. Live somewhere long enough, and you’re considered a local. And that’s the story of the world, in a nutshell.”
As they walked, they passed neighborhoods, important city buildings, schools. Anippe gave him a full rundown of everything, including fun stories about each place and, sometimes, even local legends. Even though she was only seventeen, Anippe seemed to have nearly encyclopedic knowledge about a large number of subjects and spoke in a manner that made him think she’d give his professors a run for their money. Several times, Phoenix found himself feeling completely lost in her explanations of local history and events, opting to politely nod along.
By this point, the sun had risen and Phoenix was experiencing all the effects of Moroccan heat.
“I bet you didn’t think it would be so hot here, did you?” Anippe noticed how labored his breathing was. “Let’s rest in the shade a bit. There’s a nice park right there.”
Not willing to admit how tired he was in front of the young woman, he quietly nodded and followed her.
Inside, the park was a mini oasis. Fountains and plants created a most welcome shade.
“There, that’s better,” she noted. “I hope you’re not allergic to any of the plants.”
“Not as far as I know. What are those, by the way? I keep seeing them everywhere.”
He was referring to the big blue flowers he noticed growing in many places along his walk.
“Oh, this? That’s the agapanthus. Otherwise known as Lily of the Nile,” she explained. “I’m surprised you don’t have them in your hometown. You can probably take a couple bulbs back home with you and plant them in your own garden, provided you don’t take them to New Zealand. Seriously, they are considered an invasive species over there.”
“Fascinating. Say, doesn’t your name mean, Daughter of Nile?” he asked.
“Oh, yes! It does! I’m surprised you know. My name isn’t even that common in Egypt these days. I think that’s why Mom picked it. Dad got to name the other two, so she got to name me.”
“I like finding out the origin of things,” he explained.
“That’s good. Never stop being curious. People who abandon their natural curiosity are missing out on so much,” she encouraged him.
Getting his camera out once more, Phoenix snapped a shot of the garden. She studied him with curiosity.
“How long have you been practicing photography?”
“Not too long – I only picked it up last semester.”
“Can I see your pictures? Amon’s been into photography for a few years now, so I’m always curious to see how others’ shots look.”
“Sure, but be warned, they’re not very good,” he gave her the camera.
Looking through his photo gallery, she smiled. “And you’ve only been taking pictures since last year? They aren’t bad, they are quite impressive, actually. And I’m not just saying that to be nice.”
“Can I take one of you? If that’s alright with you, of course?”
“Sure, go ahead,” she smiled. “Who knows, maybe one day you’ll become a famous photographer and I’ll be able to say I had my picture taken by a celebrity.”
“I see you like to think ambitiously,” he joked, snapping a picture.
She sat down at a table that was well-shaded by the nearby plants. He joined her and instantly knew how much he underestimated his shoes – his legs were killing him by this point. Anippe, however, seemed unperturbed by the long walk
“Not used to this much walking?” she smiled knowingly. “Sorry, I just see it happening to so many tourists. By the time you go home, you end up needing a vacation from your vacation.”
“No kidding. But the wish to see and experience everything is stronger than most people’s need for rest, it seems,” he laughed. “And I’m one of those people.”
“Aren’t we all?” she chuckled quietly. Even though she was smiling, he could tell there was a certain melancholy underneath her demeanor.
“Is everything alright?” he asked. “You seem upset. It’s not something I said, is it?”
“No, don’t worry, it isn’t. It’s just family stuff. More specifically, it’s my Dad. Well, you’ve met him, you know what I mean,” she answered carefully.
“He’s rather set in his ways,” Phoenix nodded, making her snort.
“That’s one way to put it! He won’t see anyone’s viewpoint but his own. Ever. I don’t know if he just doesn’t want to or if he really can’t put himself into anyone else’s shoes, but in any case, as a result, everyone is always walking on eggshells around him.”
“That sucks,” was all he could say. Even though he felt guilty in thinking this, he was glad his parents were always understanding of him and Millie, no matter what they were going through. He tried to imagine a situation like Millie’s teen pregnancy happening in the Alfarsi household and shuddered. Somehow, even with all his talk of family being important, he didn’t see Aharon as the type of guy to accept something like that.
“It does. I think that was why Layla got married so young. I mean, anyone can tell she’s completely not ready for marriage – she just didn’t want to be part of the household anymore,” Anippe continued.
“I was wondering about. She’s married, but she lives with you?”
“Oh, no! She’s just staying with us for a few days. Adam’s on a business trip and their house is getting renovated. My sister isn’t the type to splurge on a hotel the money she would rather spend on herself,” she cracked a smile at that. “She rather likes shopping.”
“What about you? What do you like?” he asked.
“Reading. I like reading,” she admitted. “Everything. Honestly, this is why I spend so much time on the computer.”
“There is so much information on the web and it’s all free!” Phoenix understood.
“Exactly! A simple library registration lets you read journals from databases around the world. How cool is that?”
“I can fully agree with you on that. What kind of databases are your favorites?”
She shrugged. “The scientific ones, usually. I’m always fascinated by how the world works. It’s wild isn’t it? At some point in time, our parents met, decided they liked each other enough to sleep together, their cells combined in one of the myriad of ways in which they could have combined, and now, years later, we are here? Two unique individuals, with thoughts, emotions, wants, ideas… And it could’ve gone so many other ways! Our parents could’ve passed each other on the street and never talked to one another. Or they could’ve hated each other. Or they could’ve been unable to have children. Even if all of those previous checkpoints were passed, even a slight change could have resulted in each one of us being a completely different individual. And when you think about it, it all comes down to science, to those basic molecules and cells that make up everything in our lives.”
“Woah, this is like, the string theory?” Phoenix found himself barely able to follow her thought, even as he enjoyed hearing every word she spoke. “Where multiple universes exist, sort of like branches of our own?”
“Ah, no! You’re thinking of the multiverse theory. String theory is completely different, sorry,” she mused for a moment. “But while we’re on the subject, logically speaking, there is completely no reason for why the multiverse theory is bogus. It could be legit.”
“Do people actually consider it bogus?”
“Some do, in the scientific community, because they can’t prove the existence of multiverses. Which just tells me they are uncreative and should not be involved in any important studies, to begin with,” she huffed. “But of course, that’s just my opinion.”
“They still do their job for the community, though,” Phoenix argued for those hypothetical scientists whose minds were constrained by their limited creativity.
“I suppose. They just don’t get their names into the history books, that’s all.”
“Is that what’s most important, though? Many people don’t end up in the history books. Their lives are no less important than the lives of those who did.”
“I didn’t say that,” Anippe argued. “But I am glad to be living in a world where electricity and vaccines exist. Although, I’m sure there are many out there who would be fine with reverting to candlelight and dying of a simple cold.”
“Oh, come on, they’re not so bad,” he laughed. Although, he knew exactly the sorts of people she was referring to.
“Maybe not. Maybe they’re just the way they are. Set in their ways.”
Like her father, he thought. Unfortunately, problematic family members were usually more difficult to deal with than a simple cold.
He realized the sun was lower than he remembered. Over an hour passed while they talked! She realized it too, shaking her head.
“I should be going. Wow, I can’t believe I got so carried away, huh? My apologies, sometimes I can talk people’s heads off.”
“Don’t apologize, I really enjoyed our conversation. And the excursion through the town was more informative than I could imagine. Thank you.”
“No, thank you. For letting me tell you everything. And just for listening,” she smiled warmly and he felt like he could do anything, as long as she kept smiling at him.
“Could we maybe meet up again? There is still a lot of the city I haven’t seen. We could talk some more,” he asked.
“Really? You want to?” she seemed genuinely surprised. “Why?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why would you want to spend your vacation walking around a super-hot city listening to what’s basically a history lesson?” she clarified.
“Maybe I enjoyed the history lesson? And I loved spending time with you.”
And maybe it was more than that, too. He couldn’t deny the fact that he was extremely attracted to her. If not for the fact that they were in Morocco, he would have already asked her out. As it was, he knew he was already crossing major boundaries by spending an entire day with her, all without her father’s knowledge.
She looked at him strangely. “I enjoyed our conversation as well. But you’re looking at me like there’s something else going through that head of yours.”
“You say that like it’s something bad. I’m only thinking positive things, promise.”
She frowned. “You’ve got that puppy dog look in your eyes. Don’t go there. It’s only the sun and the fact that you’re experiencing a new country – they’re messing with you. That’s why people get into all those vacation romances that fizzle out within a year.”
“You can’t know that,” he argued. “Just because people meet on vacation doesn’t mean they don’t have real feelings for one another. And romances other than vacation ones fizzle out just as well, if we’re going off on that argument.”
“Exactly. It’s not worth it. Oh come on!” she exclaimed, seeing his crestfallen expression. “You know what, here, let’s get this over with.”
Before he knew it, her lips were on his and she was kissing him and every inch of his body felt like it was electrified. Eagerly, he kissed her back and he could swear she was enjoying the kiss as much as he did, but then suddenly, she pulled away and pushed him away.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I should not have done that,” she breathed out. “This was a mistake. I’m sorry.”
“But why? Did you not feel anything at all?” he asked in confusion.
“Of course I did. We humans are wired to feel these things. Otherwise, the human race would have died out ages ago.”
So she said, but he could see confusion and something else, something similar to what he was feeling, in her eyes.
“So, what now?”
“Now, I go home and you go back to the hotel,” she stated, walking away. “We’re close by – you won’t get lost.”
“Wait,” he stopped her. “You say it’s all just weird brain chemistry. But what if I disagree?”
“Oh, Phoenix,” she turned back, giving him a hug. “Really, it’s simpler to just accept that it’s weird brain chemistry. Besides, I have a fiancé.”
“Oh… do you love him?”
“What kind of a question is that? Goodbye. Please don’t follow me.”
As he watched her walk away, he felt his entire picture of the world fall apart. Many times, since the breakup with Jeanine, he thought poorly of Eddie. The man knew they were dating, yet he stole his girlfriend away, made her fall for him.
But now, he understood Eddie all too well. When you meet someone you feel that connection with, you would do anything to be with them. But, it didn’t seem like Anippe was the sort to fall headfirst for someone, which was all too bad for him. Because he was already in deep.
Uncle Gerald’s text caught him by surprise.
“Phoenix, did you know there’s a winery here in Al Medina? They have the good stuff!”
This was followed by the winery’s address. It wasn’t like Phoenix had much else to do at this point and it seemed like his uncle already sampled the goods quite a bit.
Arriving there, he found that he wasn’t wrong. His uncle was looking flushed and cheerful and he called Phoenix over to a table, where he was pouring from a fresh bottle.
“Some guys from the conference invited me here. They’ve gone back to their residences now. I was just waiting for you, dear,” Gerald explained cheerfully. “You should really try this one. It’s delicious.”
“Thanks, Uncle Gerald,” he took a sip of the drink – it truly wasn’t bad, he could see why his uncle liked it. “Maybe we should buy a few bottles to take home with us when we go back.”
“Way ahead of you, dear nephew, way ahead of you. Well, how has your day been? You look exhausted. Please tell me you didn’t spend the entire day in the hot sun. Sunstroke is no joke, you know.”
“Don’t worry, Uncle Gerald. I took care of myself.” For the most part. “Besides, I had a great tour guide. You’d never believe who it was.”
“Anippe Alfarsi! She told me so much about the city, I pretty much got a crash course about local history,” he smiled, remembering their day together.
“Oh boy,” his uncle noticed. “You’ve got that goofy grin on your face. Don’t tell me you’ve tried anything with her. I don’t think Aharon would be happy about that.”
“I didn’t try anything, Uncle. What is that even supposed to mean?” he countered. “Besides, she’s got a fiancé, so even if I want to try anything, it’s a moot point.”
“Oh, I see,” Gerald sighed. And how did his nephew even find out about the fiancé, unless he was interested in the young woman? But he wasn’t going to press him. “Well, it’s getting late. I’m afraid I’m going to need some help getting back to the hotel, ha ha. Had too much wine…”
They barely made it to the hotel, before his uncle sprinted towards the bathroom as fast as his legs would carry him. Neither he nor his mother had a good alcohol tolerance.
That night, still tipsy, Gerald fell asleep in seconds, while Phoenix spent hours tossing and turning.
Anippe made it clear she didn’t want anything romantic with him. Or believed in love as anything other than a chemical reaction of the brain, for that matter, he realized. And still, he couldn’t get her out of his head.
And she had a fiancé, which meant she was completely off limits. He would just have to forget her.
Now, if only he could get her face and voice out of his head…