by Semia Harbawi
Inadequacy: A term that fitted me snugly, espousing all the curvatures, both convex and concave, of the woman I had allowed myself to become. It hung neatly on my frame in the manner of a bespoke suit on a runt; a man whose growth had prematurely been stunted. Inadequacy was an aura whose quasi-palpable radiation hallowed my life; monotonous electrostatic impulses palpitating with the cadence of my breath and heart beats. I perceived it as a variety of in-built transponder, one I got at birth so that I would not get lost on the huge map of cosmic schemes. I always envisioned it as a vibrant red, bright lapis lazuli or malignant yellow bleeping blip marking off my predestined slot.
Inadequacy encapsulated the gist of what I was, who I was supposed to be. I had always suffered from a diluted sense of ‘botchulism,’ a word I read somewhere, which condensed the way I perpetually felt. A sentiment whose exact point of origin I could not clearly pin down. I botched everything I undertook in the sense that I always missed the mark, being out of my depth in social as well as personal contexts. All my decisions had been made up for me. My choices had been foisted on me. And I had been drifting through life like a lost soul mired in random missteps.
I was in a sort of limbo, hovering in the vacuous torpidity of my everyday life: a gigantic gerbil wheel, with my pathetic self crucified on its slowly rotating spokes (my pointed chin and long nose, thin lips and buck teeth unfortunately tend to lend force to the metaphor). One of the few things I was, however, good at was anagrams (the more irreverent, the better). The idea being that the truth about a person is likely to be epiphanically revealed after a certain permutation of the letters making up their names. The mental callisthenics of shifting letters around had a soothing effect on me, lulling my anxieties and providing me with a sense of immediate purpose and a certain measure of control. It had the same effect as intoning mantras or repairing to the relative security of magic thinking; a screen of white noise consisting in letters strobing through a game of musical chairs to the sound of a crazed tarantella. It was a diversionary tangent I devised to shelter my sanity in those moments I felt like popping up in a puff of rage and cinders.
I had spent some time poring over the possible combinations of my husband’s name ‘Mundher Rhaiem,’ hunting for the least flattering one that could most sum up his fatuousness and, lo and behold!, I came up with: “hum! Hinderer am!” Once again, my endeavour, as trivial as it was, fell flat. As pitiful as a slowly deflating soufflé. Apart from invariably starting most of his sentences with “I really think,” ‘my husband’ (‘shun, bad!’) had another pet habit that was slowly driving me mad. He would rattle on and on about the variegated species of phobia, a farrago of worthless fragments of knowledge. He would string them out in a rosary whose beads he would tell with an awed delectation; a concatenation of the grotesque and the improbable, the baroque and the inadequate. They were so many facets of the vagaries of a human psyche gone astray in the meanders of inadequacy.
The barbarous tongue-twisting appellations encompassed the presumption to contain the misery of square pegs teetering on the verge of the unspeakable; a freak show list of the bizarre: Atelophobia- fear from imperfection; cherophobia- fear of gaiety; agateophobia- fear of insanity; aictimophobia- fear of needles or pointed objects; Coprastasophobia- fear of constipation; agliophobia- fear from pain; coulrophobia- fear of clowns; dishabiliophobia- fear of undressing in front of someone; taphophobia- fear of being buried alive; Geliophobia- fear of laughter; Novercaphobia- fear of your step-mother … and on and on and on. I would then picture Mundher as a tapir, his mouth morphing into that long flexible snout aspirating words and feeding on them like so many savoury titbits. He will carry intoning his weird litany, his eyes alight with the uncommon knowledge, smacking his lips now and again as if tasting the sourness of the absurd fears and unheard-off possibilities. He wallowed in the relieved certainty that he was glimpsing from afar, with a voyeur’s delicious shudder, other people’s internal squirming, cringing and debilitating fears. This reinforced his illusion of immunity to the vicissitudes of the slot machine that is fate.
I once enquired, in an innocent girlish voice, about the phobia of ridicule and he rose to the bait. He was impervious to the sarcasm, altogether invulnerable to the irony directed at his pathetic obsession with the pathological. He scrunched his brows, grinned in a lopsided fashion and lingered lovingly on each syllable, drawing out each letter, stretching it to its very limit: “Ka-ta-ge-lo-phobia!” was the triumphant response. You clearly don’t have that one, I mused. His words were like the shallow noises of pebbles ricocheting off the surface of a placid lagoon. On some occasions, I would feel like tenderized steak under the pounding of his unwanted knowledge. Despite indulging his own tedious quirkiness, he had no indulgence for others’ foibles. He held against me, for instance, the fact that my only friend is a thalidomide child whose hobby was painting temperas using the yolk or white of eggs. He always poked fun at her in a most cruel fashion. I would then look at his pronounced overbite, bow-legged gait (I would also think about his tiny …, well forget about that) and cowardly hold my peace.
One afternoon, I was pecking at my computer’s keyboard, surfing the net in a half-hearted attempt to do some research for the dissertation paper I had been tinkering at for almost three years (A comparative study of English and Arab Romantic poets. “I really think it’s a waste of time and energy,” my ‘Shun, bad!’ airily commented). It was when I stumbled on a trailer for an online game which had caused some furore in its wake. More out of boredom than any real inclination, I made my entry into the enchanted realm of what was to become my other life. My mesmerised eyes lingered on the array of extraordinary creatures roaming the recesses of another world of pixels; a world where you could decide what you wanted to be. A god-like puppeteer jerking the virtual strings to an avatar you could mould to your heart’s wishes. I liked the Pygmalionesque element of the venture and was duly awed by this act of creation spawned by intricate algorithms as arcane and baffling as God’s impenetrable ways. I sensed that a small window had teasingly swung open onto a parallel dimension where I could finally shake off my nagging inadequacy with all its infernal trappings. I became an ‘agent’, the term used to denote any participant in the game. I marvelled at the juxtaposition of my name with such a word and all the connotations attached to it.
The first task was for me to choose a pseudonym. I racked my brain for a flamboyant nom de guerre and came up with two syllables that collided with a spark of glorious effulgence: Shahnaz. She was all that I was not. The kind of woman who would spit out such retorts as “when I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you!” At first, she had nothing remarkable about her, a pupa in her chrysalis. She was a ‘newbie’ who had very limited access to most of the game’s locations. The addition of any desired traits depended on the amount of time I was willing to spend on the game and the number of tasks I would accomplish.
The more involved I would allow myself to become, the more points I would be granted. Shahnaz’s evolution depended on the degree and seriousness of my involvement. As weeks crept by, she gradually transformed into an incandescent rendition of my secret inner self: When I became a well-liked member of the game community and amassed an astounding number of points, I was offered a breathtaking assortment of possibilities as to my avatar’s physical appearance and personality traits. I indulged each and every fantasy I had ever nurtured and went at it with a vengeance. I created the ultimate limbo bimbo; a collage of motley features that created a Sapphire, a fearless marauder of a cyber twilight zone so enticing in its hovering opportunities. I felt awash with the creative drive. She was Shahnaz the sloe-eyed, tightly-clad Amazon staring me in the eye awaiting my bidding to lead by proxy a virtual life shot with the perks of yet-to be born possibilities. She was my persona, my doppelganger, my sister and my friend. She was my Alice in a cyberspace version of Through the Looking Glass or a post-modern version of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” The Tunisian flag fluttered near her head clamouring my origins and cultural background.
I started slinking out of bed at nights after I had ascertained Mundher was sound asleep. I relished the secrecy and the sense of purpose. The purplish smudges ringing my eyes from lack of sleep were a cheap enough price to pay for the latitude I allowed myself. My days started trundling by as if in an egg-and-spoon race. Day time became a blurred swathe of disjointed insignificant events I waited out in fretful impatience, reparsing every moment of the game. My fantasies whirled about in my head in a dervish-like hyperkinetic swirl. My husband was not even intrigued by my deserting our bed or the glazed look I took to assuming whenever he reeled off the names of his beloved phobias.
The night was the domain where my avatar would take over and indulge all my daydreams. I admired her as she traipsed through the limbo landscape of what became my reality. I eased into my role as effortlessly as if it were a second skin. I wandered estates and parcels at will; a nomadic resident of this virtual world. I haunted nightclubs, preferably the sleaziest kind like the Shaft, a swinging joint. At first, I was reticent to venture in such places and then thought what the hell! I was buffered by her, my avatar. I shunned serious activities and embarked on the more sybaritic ones. Making out and shedding inhibitions, like a snake sloughs off its old skin. I sought to experiment with all manner of partners from diverse nationalities. Shahnaz and I knew no limits. It was an exhilarating experience. I had no dramatic encounters save for a tandem of ‘griefers,’ or attackers in the game’s jargon, who tried to impede Shahnaz’s movements. They inundated my screen with verses from the Qu’ran and many hateful messages about how I was shaming Muslims by indulging in such lewd acts and donning such outrageous outfits. I enquired what the hypocritical bigots themselves were doing in these lurid locations and they called me a slut and a flurry of choice obscenities. I cut them short by ‘teleporting’ Shahnaz to a friendlier place.
When the server hosting the game was hacked into, many agents’ accounts were temporarily suspended for several days. I was one of them. This lull provoked in me the same withdrawal symptoms which might affect a drug addict during her weaning phase. When I finally re-accessed my account, a nasty surprise was in store for me. Much to my chagrin, my dear Shahnaz had lost all her glittering attributes as a result of the data loss occasioned by the virus the hackers injected into the system. We were back to square one. She was a bland, unrecognizable version of her former self. An acute case of mourning sickness washed over me. It felt as if I had lost a beloved person. I could not bring myself to start all over again. I made up my mind to live for her, to become the real-life avatar of my virtual self.
The following day, I woke up with an uncanny sense of resolve. I was a woman on a mission. I nonchalantly picked up my husband’s car keys and made for the door. His car was the apple of his eyes. Mundhir stopped munching his food and looked up in confusion. I had always been crippled by an almighty fear where cars were concerned because I had constantly felt ‘inadequate’ behind a steering wheel. “What do you think you’re doing there?” “I’m going to drive around for a while. Don’t expect me back for lunch.” “Now I really think you’d better …” “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.” This was said in a calm voice and before he had time to digest this new turn in events, I added, almost as an afterthought: “By the way, I really think I’ve developed something called ‘youropinionophobia.’You can add it to your list!” It was not necessary to look at his face to sense his utter bewilderment. I jauntily slammed the apartment door behind me and went down the stairs in record time. As I started walking to where the car was parked across from our side of the street, he came out on the balcony and started yelling first in anger before his tone changed to supplication: “I really think you should come back here immediately Aneessa! You must be out of your mind woman! Nobody drives my car but me, you know that! Please! Stop! Wait!!” I did not even bother to look back. I got into the car and drove off. I put on my ‘shun, bad’s ridiculous Ray-bans and lit one of his smelly cigarettes. I drove with one hand on the steering wheel and the other, which held the cigarette, dangling out of the open window. This most singular posture for a decent woman invited many curious and disapproving stares from passers-by both male and female. I slowed the wretched car down to twenty kilometres per hour and steered it to the very middle of the one-way street. Soon a line of cars formed behind me with angry motorists leaning on their horns and howling invectives my way. I could not care less. I fiddled with the dials on the car radio until I came on a song Shahnaz would have liked. I deeply inhaled the acrid smoke and started humming to myself.