War Paint, the new story in the States of Love series (Georgia), is out May 25. I particularly like the idea of the States of Love, and their sister series World of Love, because the novella form is my favorite, and the stories point out the way that we are all the same, though our cultures are different.
People are all the same, across time and across place. We have the same weaknesses and strengths, the same needs and desires no matter if we are from Morocco or Tasmania or Siberia. What is different is the way our cultures allow us to express who we are- for writers that is prime grade-A conflict ready and waiting!
This short story is called The Nutmeg King of Marrakesh, and is a shortie to celebrate War Paint’s release. The Nutmeg King is a very small love story set in Morocco.
Michael’s Side of the Story
Amir was leaning against a wooden door painted cobalt blue, set into a sandstone wall the perfect rosy gold of the setting sun. He looked irritated. Not at all the beautiful untamed Sheik of a million romance novels that Michael had envisioned. Amir tossed the tail end of the white turban over his shoulder, crossed his arms over his bare chest. “This is bullshit.”
“Just a few more minutes,” Michael said. “We need the sun. Hey, grab a couple of those nutmegs. Just hold them in your hand. You’re a spice merchant. You’ve come off a caravan. There’s a camel in the alley waiting for you but suddenly you spot her, across the souq, looking at tiny slippers.”
The nutmegs were in a brown paper bag. Michael had also bought some turmeric but he didn’t think they needed more local color, what with the turban, the brown skin, the blue door, and the nutmegs.
The nutmegs were a ploy to get Amir to stop crossing his arms over his chest. He held a handful of the small brown balls, stared down into his hand.
“This is like, really classy and subtle,” Michael said, trying to cheer up his model. “Like late-Victorian porn, all moody and darkly gorgeous.”
“I’ve had enough,” Amir said. “We’re not in Kansas, dickhead.” He pulled the turban off his head, let his riot of black curls loose to play across his face.
“I’ve never been in Kansas, but a boy can dream, right?” Michael lifted the camera. “Drop that turban at your feet, okay?”
Amir picked up one of the nutmegs and threw it at Michael’s head.
“Hey, watch the camera!”
The next nutmeg went winging into a thigh, then a shoulder.
“Ow. What? Are you crazy?” He held the camera protectively behind his hand. The next nutmeg hit him smack in the eye.
“Michael, what the fuck are you talking about, tiny slippers?”
“You’re the one pelting me with nutmegs. You know how much I paid for those things?”
Amir’s Side of the Story
He walked home through the crowded streets, not looking behind him to see if nutjob was keeping up. Late-Victorian porn. What a crock. Amir pushed open the gates, held the heavy door open for Michael to slip in. Michael’s face had turned the color of newly boiled lobster trying to keep up with Amir’s longer legs. It was evening, but the sun could still peel the skin off unwary bones. “Don’t even think about passing out,” Amir warned him. “I’ll leave you where you fall.”
“Are we there yet?” Michael asked, leaning against the door. Amir pointed silently to the clay plaque on the wall that said Colonia, with two palm trees. Michael followed him into the shady courtyard. Amir’s mother was sitting under an orange tree, neatly hemming a pile of linen dishtowels. She looked up when Michael stopped, awkwardly thrust the bag of turmeric at her. “Can you use this? It’s some kind of spice. For food. There should have been some nutmegs, too.” He carefully did not look at Amir. “We lost them on the way home.”
“Thank you! Very kind.” She took the bag, weighed it thoughtfully. “My goodness. That’s a big bag. What did they say in the souq when you bought so much?”
“You can make curry for the next two hundred years,” Amir said, speaking to his mother in Arabic. “Or trade it for a camel.”
“We live in the city. We need the Volvo repaired, not a camel. You could always let him use it to make a trail, like breadcrumbs,” Amir’s mother suggested. “He could keep some in his pockets. That way he could follow the trail and find his way home. I don’t want any more trouble. Not after what happened last time.”
Half the city had become involved in Michael’s attempt to find the riad when he got lost, exploring on his own, and the street outside had been full of jugglers and acrobats and packs of children for days after he had finally stumbled in through the gates.
“I’m sorry,” Amir said, keeping his back to Michael and speaking to his mother. “He wasn’t such a pain in the ass when I knew him before.”
Amir’s mother leaned around him, studied Michael’s drooping shoulders and blister-red face. “I like him. You’re being too hard on him. You were probably just as clueless when you went to Virginia.”
Amir suspected his mother was right, but he couldn’t face the thought. He went up to his room, lay in the cool dark. He could hear Michael down in the courtyard singing. He had his bare feet in the pool next to the orange tree, and he was teaching Amir’s mother the words to that stupid Ray Steven’s song, Ahab the Arab. The words were going to be stuck in his head for the rest of his life.
Michael Learns the Difference between a Bath House in America and Morocco
Michael was finally relaxing after a difficult day. Amir had been jangling his titanium balls since his arrival a week earlier. He had to admit, things had been more challenging than he had anticipated. He’d taken a few wrong steps. There was the incident with the donkey. Who knew, right, that donkeys still lived in forced servitude? Michael was trying to remember why he had wanted to come to Morocco. Oh, right, Amir. He and Amir had had a joyous two years together as roomies at UVa. There had never been any doubt in Michael’s mind that they were meant to be together for all time, and he personally was willing to move hell and high water to make it happen. Or move to Morocco, whatever.
Amir had mentioned that things were different here. More than a few times. Michael understood that, but what was most different was Amir himself, or, at least, he was pretending to be different, his royal sheikness flung around him like a cloak. Michael was going to do something about the way Amir was behaving. Amir was acting like he’d received some massive Moroccan Testosterone shot in the ass since he’d been home. They were not strangers. This was not culture shock. Amir was torturing him. Michael thought about how he could make him pay.
Amir pushed into his room, holding a gym bag over his shoulder. “Come on. Let’s go to the bath house.”
Michael sat up at this, looking interested. Amir frowned at him. “It’s not like an American bath house,” he said. “You strip off, and the bath house attendants scrub you down with good Moroccan soap. Then you sit in the stream room and then you get in the pool. No touching.”
“Got it,” Michael said, following him down the stairs, “I can’t wrap my legs around your head. 10-4, Kemosabe.”
Amir stopped on the stairs. “That kind of talk could get us arrested.” His face looked like an Arabian thundercloud. “And you would not like to see the inside of a Moroccan prison, my friend.”
“Who’s going to report us? Your mother? I hate to break it to you, but she already knows you’re gay.”
“That word has no meaning here. The only place people are allowed to be gay and wear rainbow colors and hold hands and skip merrily down the yellow brick road is America.”
“Then let’s go to America. Your mother can come, too. I like her more than I like you.”
“This is my home,” Amir said, pushing open the carved wooden gate that closed the riad in at night. “Do you not understand what that means?”
“I’m beginning to.” He forced himself to take a breath, reached out and pulled Amir to a stop. “I know it’s your home.” Michael was trying to ignore the threatening tears. “It has always been your home. It will always be your home, etcetera etcetera. I got it the first time. All I asked was if I could come and see you, in your home. And you said yes.”
“Of course I said yes,” Amir said. “Because you would have come even if I had said no.” He walked on, a few steps ahead of Michael in the narrow street. “And because I wanted you to come as well.”
“But you’re sorry now.”
“No, I’m not.” Amir sighed. “Just chill, okay? Let me get used to you again. Let’s both just chill.”
“And don’t talk in the bathhouse,” Amir said.
“I know what you’re doing, Michael. You’re not the most subtle of men.”
“I’m being myself. The person I have always been. You’re the one throwing nutmegs at my head.”
The hammam was small, but Amir was known to the attendants. They gave him respectful bows and held his clothes when he stripped off. Michael was careful to keep his eyes neutrally on the decorative tile work of the steam room. He handed his clothes over as well, followed Amir to a square tile stool with a waiting attendant. As soon as they were seated, the attendants got to work with scrubbing brushes and black soap the size of a brick. It felt like a brick, too, and Michael thought his scrub brush might have been made out of fiberglass, or horsehair. He kept his face screwed up, trying not to lose what little dignity he had left by twitching or squeaking while several layers of skin were peeled harshly away. Was this some sort of punishment? Was Amir getting roughed up, or just him?
Michael stole a look at him, mouthed help me, but Amir just rolled his eyes, bit his lip to keep back a grin. When the sadist with the black soap was finished with him, which included pouring an unexpected bucket of hot water over his head, he followed Amir to the steam room. He sat where Amir pointed, carefully kept quiet as instructed. There were other men in the room, and speech was beyond him in any case.
Michael was thinking about sweat lodges, and wondered if someone was going to tell a story, or maybe sing a song. Bedouins loved to tell stories, right? He started to hum under his breath, and only when Amir kicked his ankle did he realize he had been humming Ahab the Arab. And here he was, surrounded by sheiks of the burning sands, not a towel between their hirsute dark beauty and his glazed eyes. He needed to learn a calming Navajo song for situations like this. Maybe he could pray to Talking God for some wisdom in the difficult situation he found himself in. What would Talking God suggest? The answer drifted into his mind in Amir’s voice. Just chill, okay?
The other men left one at a time, giving him curious glances but nodding to Amir. When they were alone, Amir scooted over until they were sitting together. “Are you ready for the pool?”
Michael could feel the sweat dripping off his face, knew he was lobster red and lightheaded again. “Do you know what to do if I get heat stroke? Because I can feel my heart beat like this throbbing in my ears. Like my circulatory system is about to blow and blood is going to come gushing out my ears in a fountain. I don’t think I’m acclimating very well.”
Amir looked cool and green in the strange light of the steam room. He pushed the wet black curls off his forehead. “Heat stroke? I know what to do. I will hold you under the cool water until you stop twitching.”
“Hardy har. Your mother will not be happy if I just happen to drown in a hammam with you floating in the pool next to me, oblivious.”
“I’m never oblivious when I’m floating in a pool next to you.” And Michael was happy with that.
Amir is Tangled in a Fishing Net
Amir woke alone, in the cool and quiet white bedroom that had been his since boyhood. He’d been worried Michael would try and sneak in, wake up half the street, and now he was disappointed that Michael had made no such attempt. They were tangled in a net of unspoken thoughts and unrealistic expectations, not to mention the morass of feelings that he had never been able to express and that Michael couldn’t keep from expressing. Usually in song, or at the top of his voice. This fishing net of theirs was wrapping around their ankles and getting tighter and more tangled as they tried to tug free in panic.
There was simply no way he was going to tell Michael that his face was the sun rising in the morning, that the blue of his eyes was the sharp sting of the cold salty sea after the heat of the day. That looking into his beautiful face was the way Amir wanted to live, and die. If he said anything so ridiculous, Michael would cry and hug him and then would kiss him on the lips, in the middle of Marrakesh, and get them both arrested.
Michael was not in his room. Amir fixed coffee in the kitchen, took the piece of bread and the orange his mother gave him. “He borrowed a pink scarf and went out with his camera early,” she told him.
“You let him wear a pink scarf out in public?” Amir was outraged, but his mother just rolled her eyes.
“I said he borrowed it, not wore it. He was going to take pictures of the children. Something about getting some work done before the heat stroke cause blood to shoot from his ears. I didn’t really understand that part but I assume it was something you did. If you want my opinion, you’re acting like a jerk.”
Amir took another orange from the bowl on the kitchen table.
There was a small park at the end of their street, with a tiny patch of green that the children loved. Three little girls were running in circles, tiny white flowers in their dark hair. The biggest one had the scarf, and the wind caught the silk as they ran. The scarf looked like the iridescent wing of a dragonfly, pink and gold in the sunlight as the girls ran around and around. The mothers sat together on the bench and watched, smiling behind their hands. Michael was on his knees with the camera.
When Amir showed up, looking very big and stern, the girls ran laughing back to their mothers, flowers trailing on the grass. Amir sat on a bench, started to peel an orange.
Michael collected the scarf and joined him on the bench, took the orange slices he was given and popped them into his mouth.
“What are you doing, Michael?”
“Just the usual,” Michael said. “What are you doing?”
“Feeding you some orange. Checking for blood in your ears. We have some people coming into the riad this afternoon for a week. A family from Spain.”
“Do you need my room for them?”
“No, of course not. Your room belongs to you. I was just telling you.”
Michael ate a piece of the bread Amir passed him. “Maybe I could take their picture on a camel.”
“Maybe you could.” He hesitated. “I want you to be happy here. Do whatever will make you happy.”
Michael stared off down the street. “I would like to have your company without getting yelled at. That’s all. I’m not trying to cause trouble. That fortune teller, I swear that wasn’t my fault. I don’t know why she followed me and I know nothing about the tarot cards.”
Amir started peeling the second orange. “I know,” he started carefully, “that you understand things are different here. Things can be dangerous here. There are expectations and you are so beautiful, Michael, that you attract a great deal of attention. But I believe the people of our neighborhood will get used to you. You will be able, in time, to go with me to the coffee shop without having a man who swallows swords, and his monkey, following us. I know perfectly well it was the monkey who set the awning on fire and none of it was your fault.” He closed his eyes, leaned his head back and sighed. “Maybe even I will get used to you, though I am not holding my breath.” He passed orange slices. “What I am trying to say is you can be yourself in our home. People come to stay at the riad, it is a guesthouse, but it is also our home. Our wing, our rooms and the bathroom, are private.”
Michael sat up a bit. “I was afraid when I went back to the gate there would be a taxi waiting to take me to the airport.”
“I would like you to stay.”
“Stay as what?”
Amir squinted at the sun, divided the last of the bread. “I would like to have your company as well. For my life, I would like to be with you, to talk to you and hear your thoughts. I don’t know if there will be the words you’re looking for, the ceremony and the structure and the understood expectations. Things are different here. I can only say that I would like you to stay.”
Michael looked up at the sun. He could get used to the heat, the ferocious light. Of course, it was early still. The day was bound to get hotter. “Okay.”
Check out War Paint today!
There’s an art to love.
Mural artist Ben has come from Tel Aviv to Atlanta to work on a commission. A successful artist, he’s still lonely and isolated after his family’s rejection. Ben is charmed and surprised when local soldier Eli mistakes him for homeless, and brings him a cup of coffee and a biscuit. This gesture opens the door. Eli is lost, trying to make sense of a future without the Army after a combat injury ends his career.
Art gives them a new language and a path forward. But lost men can reach out, desperate to hang on to anyone close. Is what they find together real, and the kind of love that will last?
States of Love: Stories of romance that span every corner of the United States.
Sarah Black is a writer, artist, veteran, and mother. She’s a Lambda finalist and has been nominated for a Pushcart.
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.