Between 11 and Noon

He mumbles something inane as he sips the last drops of his red wine. I agree with a ‘yeah’ even though I decipher nothing from what he has said. I don’t feel the need to make him repeat. I know it’s just a general comment on the state of the world, something we both already know, about how grey it is in November, how busy this week has been, or the rising price of ale in pubs. Although our red wine tonight is free from the exhibition opening we both happen to be at. Bumping into each other as it is the norm in this part of London, as we all always tend to meet and slowly establish fickle relationships. Muted conversations built around the alcohol units that have been consumed since yesterday and how is so and so doing? Have you seen the new Lars von Trier movie? He clutches at his empty glass, stained with dry specks of red wine that are now magnified by the stem. I look up at him and I know my face is deceptively blank. He is quite tall, and he knows it suits him. I steal a blink and a gulp. The wine is cheap, I can feel it between us. He tells me his red woolly hat is new. He clenches his fist from the cold and his knuckles shine white and uncomfortable. I ask about the tattoos on his chest, he tells me Liam is working on them still, a few more negotiated sittings and then they might be done. Maybe. He has a certain kind of charm, mirrored in the flicks of his moustache. We both observe the silhouettes around us, giving some time for the conversation to mature, or maybe to see if there’s anyone else we know attending this particular event. I am comforted by his presence. He turns to me and grins, and I smile back, maybe trying to make my eyes look seductive, despite the cold biting at my nose and cheeks. I feel short but in a good way. He raises the glass up to his mouth absentmindedly, he is silently debating a refill. I start to roll a cigarette, clutching a glove in the armpit of my coat.

I drown my plate in ketchup, and then in mayonnaise. With a potato wedge in my greasy fingers, I mix them up into a sea of pink. It is blasphemy to eat a burger lunch other than with fingers. I stuff the pink potato in my mouth. He picks up his Guinness and takes a long sip, his eyes staring vacant into the shadows of the empty pub. There is an old couple at the bar, the owner and his grey-haired wife. He picks up his burger, his long fingers wrapped around the buns. His bite is smaller than mine. I stare at him, I know he is most comfortable with silence, and that the air between us is unequal. Although I am mostly quiet, I feel loud in my brisk and enthusiastic movements. I always have. My plate is too pink, my smile too naive, my eyes too intrusive. I am not talking though I feel my volume is too saccharine sweet for his sinuous lankiness. He sits curved in the couch seat, and grabs a wedge. His plate has only red. His eyes are still blank, but I know this only serves to cloud the world around him, probably me included. But today, in this public house, I don’t give a damn. I am enjoying my cheeseburger and whiskey-coke. He finally looks at me and mumbles something only I could decode. He scrunches his nose and stuffs another wedge in his mouth. The tattoo is fresh on his wrist, crust still hanging on to most of the thick black lines. I mentally ask him about its meaning, and imagine his reply. I wonder if he guesses this in the look I inadvertently give him.  I often have mental conversations with him, it’s easier. For him at least. Unless it’s about music or sex, and then his eyes light up and my inquisitiveness is satiated, but only for a short while. I’m almost finished with my plate, I eat too fast and I can already feel my stomach bloating against my belt. With a long stroke of my index finger, I dab at the pink smeared across my plate. He looks at me and smiles with a flash of gums and a cocky tilt of the head as he brings the pint of Guinness to his mouth. He teases me with a mumble. Little Arab pest, he calls me. I lick my finger.

The sun is shy, it barely strokes our scalps as we walk along the hilly stone path of some lost village of the peak district. His sweatshirt is tied around the waist of his cut-off denims, and his neon hipster t-shirt jars with the pastures and cows of the flanking meadows. I like his moustache, cut from another era, strawberry blonde not ginger he says. He is much younger, an imperfect balance of youthful swagger and cutthroat bookish conversation. My converse shoes shuffle next to his, both white and muddy. For every one of his steps, I need two, a semi-jog to keep up with his pace. I have known him for just over 3 hours. The brief muddled introductions at 8am were endearingly awkward, all playing cool and aloof as we huddled in his little black Golf and headed out of smog London. But I am already charmed, I slip into the 24 year old I was, slightly in awe of the thoroughbred Brit he is. The rockabilly tattoos protruding from under his t-shirt sleeves intrigue me. I try to keep up with the topic at hand, reveries of Paganism and massive phallic boulders we are now on the quest for. I am clueless but interested. He asks about my Middle-eastern roots, and talks of dictators, flatbread and Qatar. I answer as best I can, but here too my limited knowledge of the Levant fails to quench his thirst. He talks History, I am all social observation. His laugh is charming, and is followed by a gum-bearing smile like I like them. He fondles his beard and looks ahead, slightly frowning. I imagine his impression of me, a thirtysomething stranger tagging along on his roadtrip. I hope I arouse some sort of intrigue, the exotic Arab, the older woman, not just another girl. I am still not sure who I am to be on the next 4 days of the quest. More lulling landscapes of cows and hills ahead of us, smoking joints in the 2-door Golf, mapping our itinerary through the morphing local variations of Radio 4. But I am intrigued and I don't give a damn.

I focus on his gums when he smiles. They intrigue me. The bar is crowded and he is nodding his head to the beat. The moth antennas are just about visible above his neckline and they flutter with the waves of his Adam’s apple. I look up at him as he surveys the crowd in the bar. He has bought me a drink, vodka tonic with a dash of lime and I am drinking through a pink straw. I am very aware of the way my mouth scrunches when I take a sip. I really should forgo the straw, but for some reason postpone the relief. I need a hug. I am thinking too much. We resume the conversation we had started before we got to the pub. His train of thought is clear, whereas the bass has made me lose mine. I am feeling slightly uncomfortable, I feel too short and too deaf, I don’t like the strain of reading lips when the music drowns out voices. I wish I were wearing trousers instead of my long denim dress and clunky wedges. He is happy in his big black hoodie. I wait for him to look back at me, finishing off the sentence he had suspended seconds before. I bite at the straw, chin down but eyes wide at him. I must look like a child, I think to myself. Again, he trails more thoughts, voicing them as they come to his head, and I understand the gist of it from the words I am able to decipher on his lips. I nod, and answer back with my own beliefs. People come to us and go, say hi and disappear, exchange of numbers on iphones and high-fives, cheers and clinks, faces and smiles, all punctuating the conversation we are somehow able to sustain amidst the disjointedness of the bar. It is time to go. We walk out the saloon door and the abruptness of the fresh air sobers me up. He is smiling his gum-baring smile. He likes London. I look at him and smile back. For a brief moment, he makes me like London again. Just briefly. And then he hugs me. A tight hug that lasts longer than they usually do in this city. A hug that makes me forget that my wedges are too heavy and my dress too long. A hug that I had dreadfully craved for since waking that morning. And then he disappears into the night as I clonk my way to the bus stop. 

I don’t know what to do today, I say. Masturbate, he suggests. Yeah, why not? I love his dry sense of humour, the kind that delights the mind but does not require of show of teeth or a cackle. The pleasure of twisted wits and play of words. Or a play of emotions. His coffee is smooth, so perfect that I cannot resist closing my eyes with every sip. Dressed in Acne head to toe again today. No, he says, my trainers are Margiela. So is my bag, I say. We turn to the road, the sun is hitting the other side and our bench is in the shade. We sit in silence, but it is always a comfortable one. He has maybe 3 minutes. A man stops by us, stares into the shop window and walks on. Then double-takes and waltzes back into the store. Sometimes I want to rest my head on his shoulder, and sometimes I do. Not always. He looks back through the window, cocks his head, folds his hair behind his ear, and sits back towards the road. So, what are you going to do then? I don’t know, I say. Maybe some work. Or watch the new episode of True Blood. I sigh and rest my head on his shoulder. He pats my hair, a gesture filled with an exact equal dose of genuine affection and awkward Nordic-ness. 30 seconds to departure. The cigarette smoke unfurls in my left eye and burns a few watery blinks. I straighten up and stare at the Tea shop across the road as Johnny walks out with his giant dog. I hope I’ll have beautiful children when I grow up. You will, he says. And then he gets up, wishes me a good day, and disappears behind the coffee counter.

It is past midnight, and we are on the bus number whatever on our way back east. The evening spent at our Dean’s house behind us, a muddle of awkward exchanges, ego bartering and routine questioning of where are you from, what did you do, which section are you in. There are three possible labels, and we must all fit the mould: illustration, design or video. He is one of the few I take note of, I am design, he is illustration. All the others have already melted into a blur of nationalities, express biographies and sticky accents. Students once again, we hijack the seats at the back of the bus, as loud as we once used to be on the class trips of our high school days, though this time fuelled by wine and tobacco rather than Pepsi. The drunken night bus swerves in the night as the last remaining 6 of us head to the safety of Shoreditch. I like his buttoned up checked shirt and Magoo glasses. He is a strange mixture of posh schoolboy and sympathetic heckler, and there is a certain uncanny maturity behind his rat tail and skinny jeans. I try to get his attention, but I feel too clumsy, too Arab, too old. Maybe I cannot be a student again, the thought hits me as I catch myself looking at them all with equal parts of disdain and envy, berating myself for my lack of British humour and witty interjections. But him, I like him, somehow he is a source of comfort and I feel subdued by his charm. He engages in my conversation, though I can feel it is too ordinary, for me and for him. Pleasant, yes, but not yet exciting.. I observe him as he observes her. She has caught his attention and I suddenly know. There is a slight waft of static in the air and I wonder whether anyone else has noticed. Has she noticed? It is so obvious in the twitch of his fingers and the tapping of his boat shoes on the sticky bus floor as he smiles, beatific at her anecdotes. I turn to the window but all I see is my reflection in the pitch black of suburbia. I exhale a frosty mist on the pane of glass as I mentally drown out their wine-fuelled banter.

The 36 pictures are all splayed on the table, rough paper print outs that mark 3 years of self-portraits. 36 versions of myself, breasts exposed in bedrooms and lounges from around the world, vacantly staring back at us while we discuss design possibilities. I like that he doesn't flinch at my flesh, doesn't seem distracted by the various tanlines framing my nipples. He frowns and talks design, paper stock, cover color, and font options, stroking his chin as he hovers around the table. I listen and nod. I wonder if he silently judges my flesh, but I refrain from asking the questions. We are working after all. I like that I can relinquish all the thought process to him. I trust him. I have brought a bottle of red wine, but it sits unopened on the studio desk. In his case, maybe business and pleasure really don't mix. Though I would love a glass to ease my nerves. After all, I am a still a woman, and he is still a man, looking over the varying guises of my nude body. He is wearing navy, streamlined clothes, of the kind that betray an interest in fashion. With his 6 foot frame towering over me, he is the perfect embodiment of an APC man. I like his slightly salt and pepper hair, more pepper than salt. We both speak French but his strong Parisian accent and verlan interjections makes me muddle my words, I am too aware of my bastardized Lebanese French, an academic, even posh variation of the language. I can only keep it up for a few sentences before I slip back into my comfortable English and make him follow suit. I have more control that way. We discuss the size he has chosen for my book. I swivel on the desk chair while he opens up the files on his MAC. He has his cheeky signature smirk, even now as he works. He asks me about my job. The new full-time paid one, not the photography. I know he disapproves, and although I argue my case, money, stability and whatnot, I like that he worries. I haven't been updating my blog as often as I used to, and it's him I always think of when the guilt starts to creep up. I assure him that I am about to pick up a new batch of processed films and he smiles a cocky smile. 'Good. I'll be waiting' he says with a scratch of his light beard as he turns back to the screen. I smile and swivel a complete 360 on the chair beside him. I like that he cares.

When I embarked on "Between 11 and Noon" (2012), I was only loosely aware that I wanted to shoot boys I knew that sparked something in me, a longing maybe. They had stubble on their face, they had tattoos, visible gumlines when they smiled, a certain aloofness in their eyes. They were only a handful, but I realized that they all bore the marks of what I sought out in the opposite sex. As a group, their amalgamation became the fantasy of the other.I made them each come to my house on a light grey morning, between 11 and noon, and strip for my lens. And while their eyes were turned elsewhere, I could scrutinize liberally. And then 20 minutes later, they left my makeshift home studio, but I had their image forever.For each sitter, I wrote a text detailing a brief past enounter, which I then narrated into an audio recording that sits alongside each portrait.

Exhibition at The Running Horse gallery, Beirut, 2012
© All rights reserved. Rasha Kahil, 2021