“I can’t be happy because I envy those who are happier than me,” he said as he got up to open the window. The words came from nowhere. He delivered them as if he were reciting an old poem he had learned in the distant past. I waited for him to continue, but he said nothing else. It was getting dark outside.
He unbuttoned his shirt to free his beer belly and came back to sit in the wooden chair he loved so much. Whenever I came to visit him — and I visited him often — I always found him in the same chair. He never chose the comfortable sofa near the window or the leather loveseat that was set in the far corner of the living room.
He placed his hands on his hairy belly and sighed. As the saying goes, he was no longer the man he used to be. He let himself go after he broke up with his lover a couple of years ago. She went abroad to chase her dreams; he stayed in Beirut to rot.
Before the protests that began in October 2019, to rot in Beirut wasn’t such a bad idea if you were a hedonist. But by February 2020, with Lebanon’s financial collapse, those days were already long gone.
My friend wasn’t a good-looking man, nor was he exceptionally smart, but I respected him. He seemed to be who he claimed to be. I personally liked him because we had mutual interests: books, boobs, and booze. He was funny, too, sometimes.
He sat there silently and stared blankly at my shoes as I stood in front of him and smoked a cigarette. His bald and sweaty head reflected the light, and, in my drunken state, I thought that I could see an idea form in his mind.
We were both heavily intoxicated and dehydrated, but we weren’t prepared to drink water to sober up. We were world-class bar hoppers, after all, and we had spent a lot of money to be in this state. The whole country was sinking, anyway. Reality was collapsing with or without us. We didn’t need to be sober.
I tossed my cigarette out of the window and sank into the loveseat. The loveseat was a birthday present from his ex-lover who was now, I was told, working on her master’s degree in French Literature at Sorbonne in Paris.
The loveseat was the only new piece of furniture in the apartment. Every other piece was at least twenty years old, even the television, which was a piece of history — an artifact that deserved to be kept in a museum. It was a heavy box with a square, 25-inch screen. It came without a remote. It was never turned on because its antenna was broken. It had been collecting dust ever since my friend moved in. But that didn’t matter. He wasn’t a movie enthusiast, and he didn’t care much about the news.
“What have you been reading lately?” he asked. This was a question he always asked when we were drinking together. He never asked about my job, my family, or my love life. And the economic crisis Lebanon was going through didn’t interest him. Those were shallow topics that were never brought up in our discussions.
“Kierkegaard,” I answered.
“Umm, I’m reading The Sickness unto Death.”
“Is it any good?”
“I haven’t finished it yet, but I did come across a sentence that might interest you.”
“What does it say?”
“Admiration is happy self-surrender, envy is unhappy self-assertion.”
“Interesting,” he said before adopting total silence.
I wanted to know who he envied so much and so suddenly. We were old friends, after all, and I believed that I knew him well. Did he envy his ex-lover or someone else? I wanted to ask but changed my mind.
With nothing left to say, we took out our phones and busied ourselves. While I was scrolling down my social media news feeds, I could hear him play poker online. I could discern from the sound effects when he folded, when he lost, or when he won the pot — he kept losing.
Soon, I began reading some of the articles I came across, and I forgot all about my friend. COVID-19, Hezbollah Rejects IMF Management, Lebanon to Start Drilling for Oil, etc… When I got tired of news and book reviews, I read listicles until my phone’s battery died.
“What are you doing?” my friend asked, finally, when he was done playing.
“Ten reasons why we should have avocado for breakfast every day.”
“That’s nice,” he said. “Guess what. I lost a lot of money.”
Hours were wasted. It was getting close to midnight, and I was planning to head home. I believed I was sober enough to drive, but that wasn’t the objective truth. I had to wake up early for work the next day, so I had to drive home sooner or later. I didn’t want to leave my car behind.
“Do me a favor,” he suddenly said. “There’s ice in the freezer and highballs in the cupboard above the kitchen sink. Pour me some whiskey, and I’ll tell you something about me.”
“I already know everything about you.”
“You know nothing about me.”
“Okay. Just one drink, and then I’m leaving.”
He shrugged. I could see he was still under the influence of alcohol, too. With nothing valuable to say, I shrugged back at him. Then I went inside to fetch our drinks.
In the kitchen, as I was reaching the highballs, I saw a cockroach. Its antennae turned left, then right, and then left again. When it detected my hand approaching, it scurried away to hide behind a stack of plates.
“There’s a cockroach in the cupboard,” I shouted for my friend to hear.
“Kafka?” came the answer. After a short pause, he added, “Won’t you rinse the glasses before you bring them?”
I did what he proposed. I rinsed the glasses, filled them with ice, and carried them to the living room.
“And the whiskey?” I asked. “Where is it?”
“Ah, I am out of whiskey.”
I waited for him to draw a sinister smile on his face, but the smile never came. I waited for him to say he was joking, but that never came either. I wanted to slap him, but that would have been too much.
“Is there anything else we can drink?”
“Yes, yes, of course. There’s gin in the fridge.”
The gin turned out to be very good, so I had more than one drink. It was made in Lebanon by three brothers who were bartenders. I drank half the bottle, and my friend drank the other half. When we finished drinking, it was already 2:00 AM. I was about to say goodbye when my friend stopped me.
He grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “Opening bottles is what makes drunkards.”
“Are you saying I’m a drunkard?” I smiled because I was the one who opened the gin bottle. “Let me remind you, my friend, that you and I have opened many bottles. I am not the only drunkard in this room.”
“I was quoting Hemingway,” he said. “Did you read that book I gave you last month?”
“Was it a Hemingway book? Because I don’t remember—”
“No, no. The compilation of short stories.”
“Oh, yeah. That one! I liked ‘The Door’ by E.B. White. But, yes, I do remember a short story by Hemingway. I can’t remember what it was about though — two guys talking about baseball and fishing, I think?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“What about it?”
I waited for an answer, but he merely stared into my eyes. He extended his hands and placed them on my shoulders. I waited for his lips to move, for words to come out of them so that this absurd scenario would start making sense.
“You’re not yourself,” I told him. “I need to go now. Let’s have a beer tomorrow and talk about this.”
“There’s nothing to talk about. I said everything there is to say.”
“You’re wasted. You are not going to do something stupid, are you?”
“I may,” he said. “But I’m not going to commit suicide if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Whatever, man,” I said, and I kissed his forehead. “Take care of yourself.”
I couldn’t drive, so I took a taxi home. Having no car in the morning seemed better than being dead in the morning.
It was almost 3:00 AM now, so I decided to shower fast and go to bed. But that’s not what happened. I looked for the short story compilation my friend mentioned, opened the table of contents, and searched for Hemingway. I found the story he quoted from — ‘The Three-Day Blow’ — and read it.
It was about two young men drinking whiskey together. One of them was heartbroken and wanted his lover back, but he did not want to talk about it.