I woke just before my alarm went off at 5:20. Eating good savory fuul in bread as I passed the Cairo Opera House, handing a pound to the beggar woman who sleeps on the bridge, I was the first one to the boathouse. The sun was inches above the buildings above the Nile. Of course the fisherfolk were already in the water. Gradually athletes and athletes-to-be and coaches showed up. I stayed until 9, rowing or sitting in two different boats. It was the first time I or Karim learned anything, the big-bellied jovial coach sitting in the bow of the tippy four-man boat instructing us. He told me my shoulders were too tense and I realized in 29 years no stranger had read in me such an accurate physical detail. It wasn’t easy; I banged my pinky on one clumsy sweep. He ordered me to look at Karim’s back rather than my oar so I was forced to extend my senses through the oar, to feel it splash too low as I rolled forward, swinging it back, or break free too easily.
We rowed, hardly aware so intent we were, under the bridge humming with cars, and back under. Then he turned his attention on the other two rowers, so Karim and I hunched forward, oars nestled up against our bellies to drag the water’s surface, and watched large clumps of dislodged water plants float past, trailing rainbows of oil, looking like sea monsters in the hazy glare.
We let off the two rear guys and let in a girl and a boy. She stepped in behind me as a dockmate held the slender boat steady, and I heard him ask her name. “Rinfahim,” she said sweetly, and the confounded man blurted several attempts at the unusual name as she laughed and repeated it. “It could be an actresses,” she said and I could hear her smile. I knew she was claimed, for she had sat next to one of our fellow rowers while waiting, both somber as tombs of love, and she was so damn young but that was why I loved being near her, hearing her voice half-shy still, a whisper of breeze amplified by a microphone accidentally at hand, and musical laughter not at all intending melody, as the big coach fell in love with her, standing in the bow, leaning against the cord around his belly, springing any joke into his instructions just to provoke that music, his wispy hair crested up by the breeze over his massive, granite head, his gestures and smiles those of a conductor pouring affection over an adored musician who knows she is adored, and provoked to song. Then I knew what it was for the old to love the young: midway (in two ways) between the girl and the craggy captain.
“Bravo alaiki ya Rin!” he would bellow at her, echoing in me slumped forward, looking sideways and seeing only her oar flash out of the water, not needing to see her face. A big bunch of plants slipped by against the boat and out of it the coach plucked a pink flower and put it beside himself and I smiled at the coincidence of my mind and his, allegedly as distant as two banks of a cultural canyon – and at how alive I felt there on the River Nile.
I also ran a mile waiting for another boat. The only people out on the street at 7 am were men in ill-fitting uniforms with machine guns, and two fisher-folk waifs. The exercise, the girl behind me in the boat, and the coach giving her the stray flower, and being out on the polluted, free water, made me very happy the rest of the day.