They were in their hotel room watching a movie on Netflix when the power went out. Scott had been dozing on the bed with his eyes half-closed; AJ was occasionally glancing up at the television while texting with someone back in the States. Only the glow of her smart phone enabled her to see anything when the room went dark. She switched on the phone’s flashlight and walked up to the balcony window. The promenade along the ocean was dark, save for the headlights of a few cars cruising by the open-air cafes. She opened the sliding door, stepped out, and listened for a moment. With no music blaring from the cafés, she was suddenly aware of the sound of waves from the Mediterranean as they broke and surged across the wide sandy beach toward the hotel. She felt scared.
Scott got up from the bed and joined her on the balcony. He wrapped one arm around her waist to reassure her. He remembered that when he visited the city the previous summer with another girlfriend the power had gone out a couple of times. Marsa Matruh, a coastal resort on the edge of the Sahara, two hours from the Libyan border, seemed more vulnerable to blackouts than other parts of Egypt.
“It shouldn’t last that long,” he said. “Let’s go for a walk along the water. We can come back and go to sleep if it’s still out in thirty minutes.”
AJ nodded reluctantly. She’d been harassed on the streets of Cairo several times after dark when she was out walking with her roommate. Even on the short walk from her apartment off Tahrir Square to the American University, where she was studying Arabic for the summer, she had to use street slang to ward off young men. Egyptians often assumed she was from southern Africa, even when wearing a Michigan Wolverines t-shirt. She didn’t know whether to feel flattered at being mistaken for someone from her ancestors’ homeland or pissed off that they couldn’t see she was African American.
“Only a short walk, okay?” she said. “Where I’m from in Detroit, shit happens when the lights go out.”
“I don’t mind blackouts much,” Scott said. “I think there’s only been one in all the time I’ve been at Oxford.” He didn’t notice her rolling her eyes. He had been living in Egypt for a year on a doctoral fellowship.
They locked the balcony sliding door and hotel room door, then navigated down three flights of stairs to street level. A lone fluorescent fixture bathed the lobby in faded, flat light.
As they walked along the darkened promenade, occasional groups of teenagers cast wary eyes at them. An interracial couple was unusual in Marsa Matruh, which had a reputation for being a more conservative and less affluent vacation destination than other beach resort towns closer to Alexandria. Scott enjoyed the attention, though he thought he probably shouldn’t mention it to AJ. He liked that they looked sort of mysterious together, as if there were an intriguing story to them and people wanted to know what it was.
Though it was only 10:30, shopkeepers and café owners were giving up on the evening. Scott and AJ could see many of them were pulling down the metal doors and securing accordion gates across their premises. The proprietors appeared annoyed at the unexpected turn of events and shouted dismissive comments to each other, though neither AJ nor Scott could follow the dialect. The aroma of thick Egyptian coffee laced with cardamom hung in the air.
“Let’s head back,” AJ said, squeezing his hand. “It feels weird to me.” He turned and kissed her on the forehead. “Sure, let’s do that,” he said. She smiled at him nervously, revealing a vulnerability he had not seen before.
Back at the hotel, there was no clerk behind the desk nor anyone in the lobby. Scott and AJ looked at each other, then headed back upstairs to the room. AJ unlocked their door and they both entered with their phones’ flashlights on.
Their room had been ransacked. Intruders had dumped the entire contents of their backpacks on the bed and the floor. The chair and desk were knocked over. AJ’s underwear and toiletries were thrown near the desk.
Scott looked at AJ and saw tears welling up in her eyes, but she wasn’t crying.
“My computer was in the backpack. It’s gone,” she said.
Scott looked for his own computer, which he had slid under the bed earlier. It was still there. “They missed mine,” he said. “Luck of the draw.”
AJ remembered distinctly that she had locked the door and thrown the deadbolt. Someone must have had another key, she thought. She looked at her watch. They had been gone at most 25 minutes.
The clerk had returned to the front desk but was useless. In broken English, he apologized and pointed toward the sign that said the hotel was not responsible for valuables left in the rooms.
Scott looked up the location of the police station on his phone. It was less than a mile away. He said they should report the theft in the morning.
They tried as best they could to put the room together in the dark, organize their belongings, and crawled into bed. They didn’t speak much. Other than AJ’s computer, nothing valuable had been taken. She felt a small measure of relief that she had backed it up before leaving Cairo. Lying in the darkness, Scott leaned over, gently put his hand on AJ’s cheek, and held it there. He wanted to console her and felt guilty that he also wanted to have sex.
“I know how we can forget about all this for a little while.”
She rolled away from him, though she reached over and held his hand tightly on her chest. “I’m actually used to this kind of thing. I let my guard down—it was dumb to do,” she said. “Assholes are everywhere in this world.”
“My place in Oxford had three locks on the door,” he said. “But they still got in.” AJ said nothing.
Scott reassured himself he understood why she was so upset. He was upset too. But he felt frustrated by her lack of responsiveness. If he put himself in her shoes, he thought, he could be more empathetic, or least give the appearance of it. He knew he was being callow and that his mates back in England would say the same. Still, the whole strange evening had somehow turned on him.
“I think I want to head back to Cairo tomorrow,” AJ said in the darkness. “It’s not the kind of weekend I was envisioning.”
Just then the lights flickered for a few seconds and the power came back on. They covered their eyes and Scott reached up to turn the light switch off.
“If you want to head back we can, but I have a request,” Scott said. “Stay open to the possibility we can still have a great weekend.”
She turned over, put her arms around him and gave him a hug.
In the middle of the night he felt her hand gently massage his stomach and reach down between his legs, and he became aroused. He had been dreaming he was at the wheel of a car in a driving rainstorm and swerved to avoid hitting someone. It was a young woman walking alone on the side of the road, and while she looked familiar, he couldn’t recognize her. The dream faded away and he felt unexpected happiness that she wanted him in the darkness.
She held him tightly afterward, as if she didn’t want to ever let go. He wanted her to say she loved him, but she said nothing. They drifted back to sleep.
They awoke early and the view from their balcony took AJ’s breath away. The ocean was banded in color from light turquoise near the shore to deep azure as she gazed at the horizon. The ivory white beach was blinding without her sunglasses. A gentle sea breeze cooled her skin, and the salt air lifted away her drowsiness. The promenade was empty except for several families with small children. For a few minutes she stared at the beauty in front of her. The previous evening felt like a distant memory.
“I want to stay in this moment,” she said, turning toward Scott, who was still dressing. “The world feels like it’s okay right now.”
He looked at her as she stood framed by the balcony and the Mediterranean. She was stunning with her deep black skin set against a white cotton shirt and the sea behind her.
“If we grab a quick breakfast, we can head to the police station and be on the beach by mid-morning.”
She smiled. He could tell she liked the idea.
At breakfast, he could barely get a word in. She said she had been texting with her brother before power went out. He was a rookie cop back in Detroit and was getting ready to begin his shift. He always got a little nervous and she was trying to reassure him. She reminded him to reach out to several of their friends who were cops. One was the sister of one her first boyfriends. She had been on the force several years. Another was their older brother’s best friend. He had just been promoted to captain. They were teaching him the ropes. They had his back.
“I imagine that’s a tough job to learn,” Scott said.
“He’s smart and he knows Detroit, he knows what he’s getting into.”
“But I mean you’ve really got to be on your toes, right?”
“Yeah, he knows that—trust me.”
* * *
The police station was in a bland concrete building several blocks from the promenade on a street cordoned off by concrete barricades. Several small guardhouses manned by soldiers with machine guns surrounded the building. A guard by the main entrance signaled they could enter, and they walked up to a thick plexiglass window, behind which stood a uniformed officer. He stared at them blankly. Scott asked in Arabic if the officer spoke any English. Yes, he spoke a little. He looked at them as if he wasn’t sure how he should comport himself, as if he’d never seen a Black woman with a white man.
“Someone broke into our hotel room and robbed us last night during the blackout,” AJ said.
The officer nodded his head but refused to make eye contact with her.
“We want to file a report,” she added.
“Yes, in case the stolen item is recovered.”
He got up and went into another room. A few minutes later he returned came out with another officer more senior in rank.
AJ and Scott repeated their request. The officer listened patiently, nodding his head, alternating his gaze between AJ and Scott.
“Yes, you can file a report,” he said. “We will take all the details and give you a copy.”
The officer buzzed them into an adjoining room where several officers sat at their desks. They exchanged glances with one another, then went back to their work. The air was humid and still. AJ felt as if she were suffocating.
They were caught off guard by the officer’s questions. Were they married? How long had they known each other? What religion were they? Why were they in Egypt and why did they come to Marsa Matruh? Scott fought the urge to get up and leave. AJ remained calm. She was used to being hassled by police.
“Six hundred Egyptian pounds,” the officer said. “You’ll need a copy to claim anything we are able to recover.”
Scott and AJ looked at each other. That was more than $30. It was essentially a bribe.
“Forget it, we don’t need a copy,” AJ said politely.
The officer, looking at Scott while ignoring eye contact with her, told him that since the report had been taken, they didn’t have a choice. It was department policy.
AJ stood up and gathered herself, preparing to leave. Scott looked at her, but she didn’t look back.
“Let me see if I have the money,” Scott said.
He stood up, unbuckled a money belt around his waist, laid it on the table, and unzipped it. He put the 600 pounds in front of the officer.
The officer smiled and thanked him, then walked into an adjoining room. AJ shook her head but said nothing. In a few moments he returned with a copy of the report, which he gave to Scott.
When they got out to the street, AJ walked ahead for a moment before turning around to face him.
“You’re an easy mark,” she said. “They stink worse than any rotten cop in Detroit.”
“That could have gotten a lot uglier,” he said.
“Why did you want to go to the police in the first place?”
AJ wondered whether he was naïve, or had he been trying to impress her in some way.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have.”
Scott reached over, took her hand, and squeezed it. They turned the corner and saw the beach. He smiled at her, but she didn’t react.
AJ remembered dating a white guy during her junior year at Ann Arbor. They had met during a seminar on Middle East economic development. His passion for the subject was infectious, and it was one of the reasons she had decided to pursue it in grad school. She didn’t see many similarities between him and Scott, other than they both treated her as something exotic. It made her feel flattered and lonely at the same time.
They returned to the hotel to change, then took a taxi out to Rommel Beach. Scott told her on the way that the beach was named for Erwin Rommel, the decorated Nazi field marshal. The Desert Fox, as he was known, had used the nearby caves as his headquarters in his unsuccessful campaign to push the Allies out of North Africa. Scott described several battles, ticking off the number of Allied and German casualties, and said that unexploded landmines still littered the battlefield at El Alamein, which they passed on their way to Marsa Matruh. But as he prattled on, he noticed his audience of one began to stare out the window, alone with her thoughts.
The taxi arrived at the beach, which was full of tourists. They rented an umbrella and a couple of lounge chairs, and settled themselves near the water.
“Hey, I’m tired after last night. I’m going to take a little nap,” she said. She saw disappointment on his face.
“Sure babe, I don’t blame you.”
He got up and walked along the beach, a baseball cap with an embroidered Sphinx on his head and his hands in his pockets. He thought back to their first date in Cairo’s Zamalek neighborhood, when she had charmed him with a presence he had experienced with few other women. Her intelligence and beauty had overwhelmed him with curiosity and desire. It had happened one other time with a Scottish student at Oxford. For reasons that still eluded him, it did not end well. A friend told him he tried too hard to impress her. He didn’t agree.
AJ was asleep under the umbrella when he returned. He lay down next to her and began reading a book. She stirred some, and he could hear her breath quicken. She suddenly became agitated, her legs twitched and her torso heaved, as if in a convulsion. She bolted upright and looked around, not sure of where she was.
“What was that about?” Scott asked
“Bad dreams can happen anywhere, even on a beautiful beach I guess,” she said. “I’m fine. You don’t want to know about it.”
“I do, actually—please tell me.”
AJ scanned the beach, her hand over her brow.
Scott sensed the gulf between them widening and felt powerless to stop it. He could think of nothing to say that would re-establish the intimacy of the previous night. He craved it like a drug and thought he could never be whole again without it.
“We’ve gotten a lot of sun,” she said finally. “How about we head back to the hotel?”
“Sure, guess so.”
They said little to each other on the ride back to the hotel and she insisted on paying for the cab. As the driver pulled away, Scott told her he wanted to run a quick errand and said she should return to their room. He ducked into a grocery store and picked up a bottle of Italian wine and some cheese and crackers. It might be fun to hang out on the balcony and watch late afternoon fade into evening before going out for a meal.
When he opened the door, AJ was lying on the bed, quietly weeping. He sat down next to her and held her hand.
“The police station—I had a pretty strong reaction,” she said. “I couldn’t talk about it there or at the beach, I was too upset.”
Scott waited. She said nothing for several moments.
When she started to speak again, he could barely hear her. He leaned down near her on the bed.
“My brother becoming a cop, that was a tough decision for him,” she said. “My father died in police custody when we were in grade school.”
AJ said he was pulled over on a routine traffic stop. Her dad knew the cop. They had gone to high school together and had been friends for a while. The cop had looked up to her father, who was a star football player.
“They got into some stupid argument and the officer asked him to get out of the car,” she said. It was unclear what happened after that. But the cop shot him. He was never charged.
AJ turned to look at Scott, but he was staring at the waves. He knew no one who had died violently; he had never lost anyone close. He wondered why she had come to him in the middle of the night, and why she was with him in the first place.
She told Scott when her brother announced he wanted to become a cop she wanted to get away from the States, as far away from her world as she could.
“Do you understand?” she asked.
He knew he didn’t.
David Harris lives in northern California. His short stories have appeared in Litbreak Magazine and The Concho River Review, and longlisted for The Dillydoun Review 2022 Short Story Prize. Upcoming work will also appear in Calliope. He is a former journalist for Reuters News Agency and has worked as a corporate communications consultant and speechwriter.
Twitter: @David Harris1