A Saint

By Ben Shields

I was unprepared for the attraction to Osama. He was waiting, back against a mossy stone wall, his serene features indiscernible. I slid my fingers under his shirt, traced the frame of his delicate torso. My touch was light, so light I was still asking permission. He bit my lip hard enough to bruise it; I let out a little whimper. Resting both his palms against the wall, he turned around and guided me inside him. I busted too quickly, moved to shirk away. But he handed me his phone, a ‘create new contact’ screen stinging my eyes in the dark. I filled it out, sent myself a message, passed it back. He was gone before my zipper was up.

The usual cabal of Arab cruisers were hanging out on a cluster of large rocks, right beneath the orange light of a street lamp. It was where you went to smoke and chat between pursuits. One guy, a nurse at Hadassah hospital, shook his head at me.

“Stay away from Osama,” he said. This didn’t faze me. Stay away from him was the most popular tune around here. It could mean anything from actual danger to mere jealousy.

But Mustafa, a handsome, muscular man in his early fifties and mother superior of our group, murmured in agreement. “He was in jail, you know,” he said, delighted to interfere. He towered above the others, in stature and in language, since he’d lived abroad in the past. “According to rumor, several years. In Jordan. That’s where he was from. Then he inherited that apartment from a distant uncle and moved here to Jerusalem.”

My phone vibrated: Osama was already messaging. “How could you know all that?” I shot back, but I already believed him. I grilled him for specifics. “Violence was involved, okay?” he said, offering no evidence. “Violence.” He savored the drama of the word, then like a gaunt panther slid back toward the bushes after a person of interest.


Lying next to me one night, Osama said I was his only real friend in Jerusalem. He had a thin, white scar that ran along his abdomen, which I had a habit of tracing with my fingertips while we’d pass the hours in bed. Each tender stroke was an inquiry into the wound’s origin, an inquiry he’d never yet answered. He repeated the compliment: you’re my only real friend, pressing his stiff cock against my thigh, playing with my chest hair just rough enough to sting. I took the simple copper band off his index finger and put it on my bedside table, bringing his smooth hand to my lips. I wanted him more than ever, though I knew he was lying.

Mustafa’s insistence that Osama was dangerous had continued to intrigue me, a seed for the pleasurable fiction of getting to know him. A few weeks prior, I’d even gone so far as to hide behind a tree outside the pharmacy where Osama worked and follow him home from West Jerusalem. Shortly after six, he appeared on the sidewalk, but rather than heading back to the east side of town, he stayed put, checking his phone every minute or two. He was waiting for someone.

After a long interlude, a young man came running up. Baggy pants hung from his skeletal figure, and the straps of a tank top draped like clerical vestments over his pointy shoulder blades. I couldn’t even see his face yet, but I felt sure it would be unusual, striking. One thing was certain: his rail-thin figure was not due to a frail constitution. The toothpick arms had healthy, bulbous biceps crowning the bone, and the thin line of flesh between his belt and tank top advertised a chiseled psoas muscle. Osama planted a kiss on his cheek, and my deeper fascination was fed, the possibility of real danger, so intoxicating that it almost incapacitated me. I trailed them, watching their fingers interlock for a moment. This wasn’t their first meeting: a trusting smile colored Osama’s face, like a drop of blood in water. They separated and descended the slope of Agron Road. I managed to remain unnoticed all the way to the Muslim quarter, and by then I’d only gotten one brief glimpse of the stranger’s face. Every aspect of him was sharp, like a blade: his chin, his elbows, even his canine teeth. I imagined that in bed he probably used his nails. His eyebrows were thick, his neck conspicuously muscular. I hid beside a vegetable stand and watched them slip past the rusted door into Osama’s garret. Just before it slammed shut, I saw their hands link together once again.

“I do get lonely,” Osama whispered to me, moving his hand a bit lower. “But not when I’m with you.” A sadness coated his voice that could not be contrived, whatever else he was concealing. I rolled over and smothered him with kisses. He dozed off with his leg draped over mine, and I reached across his sleeping figure to yank the bedside lamp from the socket. It was easier than fingering the cord for the elusive little switch.


I began coaching Osama weeks in advance exactly how to act around my friend Yusef. I made some gentle wardrobe recommendations, which annoyed him. I thought I’d wrecked any chance of convincing him.

“It’ll be good for you,” I told him. I was practicing some Arabic verb charts while he chopped vegetables for a stew and salad dinner. “And anyway, you need more friends if you’re going to stay in Jerusalem. Yusef is a good person to know. He’s got a lot of…resources. And he can teach you English much better than I can. He speaks both languages impeccably. He went to school in Kent. A very posh person.” I explained the meaning of posh, and Osama used it a few times, all perfectly, delightfully correct. He had a quick mind for language.

“He is a Muslim or a Nazarean?”

“Christian,” I replied, a bit terse. I’d already tried and failed to remove this silly archaism from his growing vocabulary. With the pretense of English lessons, I’d goaded him into opening up more with me. Certain conversations were designated as instruction periods, in which I would correct even the most mild of errors. He insisted I leave nothing out, especially usage of tense. I’d used one of these sessions to ask directly about the scar on his abdomen.

“I get it in the jail,” he’d said.

“I got it in jail,” I responded, adopting a robotic tone for corrections. “Someone stabbed you?”

“No, the cut is from a surgery. I wanted to die, to not be there. There was a man working with mortar in the showers. He left the mortar to go out for a smoke, and I swallow the mortar, to kill me faster.”

“Swallowed,” I said. “You swallowed the mortar. Past tense.”

He described the brutal guards, days with only a few bites of bread to eat. He said he’d been framed by someone he’d been sexting “somewhere in the Middle East.” “Just my dick and my ass, no face,” he said, as if this cleared him of an unspecified sin. “The guy wanted more and I refused. I’m not whore.”

“You’re not a whore.”

“I’m not a whore. He was angry at me, and rich. He paid off the police to get rid of me.” This part of the tale he narrated with no grammar mistakes. I didn’t quite trust it. The reverse seemed equally plausible, that Osama and his rich john had come to some disagreement and Osama blackmailed him, before getting thrown in jail for it. “Who is this Yusef, anyway? Iani, what he does for work?” Osama worked his paring knife with the merciful swiftness of a guillotine. Shirtless, he rotated to scrape the cutting board clean over the trash, resembling a contorted koiros of classical sculpture.

“We’ve been over this. He was a chef, the best in Palestine,” I said, starting another verb. Grammar relaxed me like nothing else, though I had no interest in speaking Arabic out loud. “Yusef cooked dinners for the Pope, heads of state, then he retired early. Now he travels and hosts parties. I’m telling you, you’ll love him. The famous Yusef Zaidan.”

The thudding of the knife came to a halt. “Yusef Zaidan?”

“Yes,” I said, trying to summon the prefixes of the future tense from memory. The second person plural often stumped me. “What? Do you know him?” I turned around. Osama had set his knife aside to ladle the broth into our ceramic bowls. Tomato seeds clung to the blade; a few dripped onto the countertop.

“I do not,” he replied. I resumed with the irregular “to explore.” Soon Osama was serving the stew. It was the most romantic thing he’d ever done for me. Before I could dig in, he massaged my shoulders, then reached down and roughly inserted his hand inside my underwear. “I agree. I will meet him,” he said, bringing his lips to my neck. “Whenever you want.”


Jerusalem’s dearth of high-end shopping made the endeavor less glamorous than I had hoped, but together we found a decent polyester blazer, tight- fitting slacks, and a bottle of Polo Ralph Lauren.

We stopped at Putin Pub on the way home and had several gin tonics. Before this, I wasn’t even sure he drank. He gulped down the first two very quickly. After the third, he was talking with a new effeminate inflection in his husky voice. We both recognized the bartender from gay sex apps, and the two of them had been in riveted conversation for most of the evening. Osama had greased his hair back for our shopping trip, the part in the middle so clean not even a meat cleaver could have equaled the precision. Exquisite, spiky hairs poked out from the cuffs of his new Oxford shirt, and his pore-less complexion attracted stares from men and woman all along the bar. I’d never been more in love with him.

At home, Osama showered while I removed the tissue paper from his new shoes and carefully hung the purchased clothes inside his rickety tin closet. It was all falling into place. A pleasant breeze drifted through the single, barred window of the apartment, lulling me nearer to sleep. My phone buzzed with a reminder: Dinner at Yusef’s tomorrow. Osama joined me in bed, and a rush of excitement climbed from my chest to my throat.


Yusef held a tray of three champagne flutes, balanced effortlessly on one hand, and distributed them before we’d even passed the threshold. At least half a dozen icons of the Virgin Mary crowded the cramped foyer; several knotted rosaries dangled from the wrist of a sorrowful statue of Christ. Since my last visit, a suit of armor had been installed at the foot of the spiral staircase.

I embraced him warmly and introduced Osama. “Divine to meet you,” he said in English, and the two lapsed immediately into Arabic. I didn’t mind at all, taking in the room, letting my eyes glaze over. Yusef took his time releasing his hand from the introductory shake. The religious artifacts cast a preordained quality over the whole scene: Osama and our host already deep in conference, myself on the sidelines, admiring my own handiwork. I’d skipped lunch, so just a few sips of the champagne cloaked the whole world in gossamer. We made our way to the rooftop. “You weren’t kidding!” Yusef whispered behind me. “He’s the most gorgeous boy I’ve ever seen. What bone structure!” He seated us at a round oak table by the bar. The temperature had fallen with the sun; he brought over an electric heater that glowed like a jack-o-lantern in the twilight. “I’ll be right back with the food,” he said giddily, topping off our champagne.

The Dome of the Rock glittered in the pink setting sun; the Church of Mary Magdalene’s bells chimed a quarter past eight. I thanked the god on high I’d had the sense to leave my dull corporate life in New York City. Here I was, drinking in every last splendor of monotheistic civilization, the lay of my lifetime on my arm. What pitiful deference I used to pay the commonplace! I put a hand on Osama’s knee. “How you feeling?” I asked. I moved in to peck his cheek, swooning from the champagne and the velvety warmth of the heater.

The door swung open and Yusef reappeared, followed this time by a servant. Yusef put two enormous trays of shared plates on the table and began to hold forth about what was in store for our palates. The servant opened a bottle of Merlot. When the cork popped I turned to smile and make eye contact. Yusef hadn’t bothered to even acknowledge his presence.

A large gulp of my champagne went down the wrong pipe. Yusef passed me a mini bottle of Perrier without missing a beat in his speech about Galilean cuisine. I tried to stifle the unattractive gasps while the servant, at Yusef’s insistence, poured Osama the first sip. As I’d instructed him, he paused for a moment and declared that it was “fine.” I’d told him to use this neutral word, since the purpose of the first sip was not to flatter the host, merely to see if the wine had turned. “Just fine,” he said. He looked at me with an occult smile, then thanked the servant with a polite air of superiority. All our glasses received generous pours, and the servant retired when Yusef dismissed him without a word, just a wave of a hand. Quite drunk now, I stared at my handsome date. So far so good.

“What is your assistant’s name?” Osama asked, elegantly removing an olive pit from his mouth. I served myself another helping of baba ganoush.

“Mohammed,” Yusef replied, replenishing his glass. “I guess he’s going by ‘Mo.’ Ridiculous, isn’t it? I just hired him the other day. He’s a barber from Nablus. I think I’m going to use him at my Jericho place, actually. I don’t have hardly any help there anymore. Good-looking, isn’t he? Did you notice that Adam’s apple! Wow! He can be pretty boring, though. He doesn’t drink. Muslim.”

Our host rolled his eyes so far back I wondered if they would tumble out his mouth with the next chunk of eggplant. I glanced at Osama to see if the religious insensitivity had upset him; he laughed demurely. From then on, I became increasingly unimportant. Yusef pelted Osama with questions, where had he grown up, gone to school, how had he settled into Jerusalem. The host was well traveled in Jordan and made numerous informed, ingratiating remarks about locales in Irbid, Amman, and places I’d never heard of.

With each question, Osama’s replies grew smoother and smoother. Was it possible his English was better than he’d ever let on? An infuriating thought suddenly occurred to me, that all of my careful steering of Osama’s appearance and mannerisms had been unnecessary. He was a complete natural with Yusef, on a level that rendered my directions laughable. A loathsome sense of disappointment washed over me.

“Is something wrong, Ben?” Osama interrupted Yusef, whose sizable forehead filled with concerned lines. I sat up straight and wiped my brow with my sleeve. A breeze danced across the patio, so pleasant we might have been in a seaside Italian villa. My forlorn face must have looked positively ghoulish.

“Ab—absolutely not—” I stammered, managing a nauseated smile. “Delicious—”

“I know exactly what it is,” Yusef said, standing up. “Damned heater. This time of year, you’re shivering without it, but sweating with it.” He moved the lamp a few feet away and sat down again. The man had an incredible talent for stopping dead in its tracks anything that threatened his sense of leisure. Normalcy seemed to return to the table. Yusef buttered his fourth or fifth hot roll and passed the bread basket once again, saying something about getting older. It was all said and done in the manner of someone with all the time in the world.

They picked back up where they’d left off. Osama made a remark about a cafe in Amman, something about the proprietor, and Yusef struggled to remain upright from laughing. Osama hollered something in Arabic, apparently an impression of the person with whom they were both familiar. No sound came out of Yusef’s mouth, he was laughing so hard. “You brought a comedian!” he roared, sloshing half a glass of merlot on the tablecloth. After that, English disappeared from the conversation. I was irrelevant. By dessert, Osama’s hand was resting in the host’s lap.

The servant delivered espresso, which had a calming, reviving effect. My goal had been met: they seemed inseparable. I sat back, finished the espresso in one gulp, and announced my departure. No one protested. Osama stayed on the rooftop while Yusef saw me out. “You’re a saint,” he whispered, pulling me toward him, his breath casting a film-like heat over my ear and the side of my face. I shivered and reluctantly returned his embrace. On the walk home, I found a pharmacy still open and bought several rolls of chewable antacids. From my window, I stared at Yusef’s tower, waiting to see how long it would take for him to turn the lights out. The minutes dragged on. Finally, I gave in to exhaustion and sank into a thin, fitful sleep.


I left Jerusalem at five a.m. the next day. My organization was sending volunteers to unrecognized Palestinian villages, places off the power grid with minimal phone service. For eight days I was in agony, wondering what had happened after I exited the dinner.

When I returned home, I had received nothing from Osama. I sent several frantic messages, none of which delivered. I began to talk myself through possible reasons he hadn’t been in touch. He’d always refused to text about anything gay-related. He hated talking on the phone, even briefly. We probably had a different sense of urgency about the matter in general. He often went MIA for a week or two, which never bothered me. As for Yusef, he wasn’t answering his phone or responding to any of the messages that I sent. But that was typical of Yusef. Usually we just bumped into each other around town, which is when we’d make plans.

One night on my balcony I saw Yusef’s emerald patio light burst on. Trying to discern the distant, moving figures was pointless. Maybe Osama is his guest tonight, I mused. Perhaps I’d stop seeing much of either one of them. So be it, I thought. One way or another, all friendships do come to an end.

I stopped by Yusef’s house on the way to the King David the next evening. I thought about buzzing, but hesitated, smoking the last of my Chesterfields, just staring at the old wood knocker. It was so romantic, the dark windows, the slippery cobblestones, the well-fed stray cats. Days must go by without anyone setting foot here except for Yusef, I thought. Remarkable.

When the door opened, a young man stepped onto the sidewalk, starting at the sight of me. He was tall, unnaturally thin, and his hateful expression seemed to ashen the idyllic scene into a photographic negative. Cats shot behind the dumpster out of his way. The bulging neck muscles, the greasy curls, those elbows like stone age hunting weapons—it had to be Osama’s other lover, the one who’d met him outside the pharmacy. I thought maybe he would come toward me, harass me. Instead he raced past, disappearing in the curve of the alley. Shaken, I continued to the King David, stopping for cigarettes and a double espresso at the Jaffa Gate. In the park, it seemed at first that there was very little action, thickets deserted, all the benches empty. A couple of older ultra- Orthodox guys were getting it on near the restrooms, but that was it.

Then by the rocks, I saw the old crowd. Of the eight or nine faces, half were familiar, the rest newcomers to me. The scene made no sense without Mustafa. I actually missed him for a second, like when you return to your old street to find a restaurant closed while you were out starting your new life. Christ himself seemed to have been scrubbed from the Last Supper. “Long time,” one guy said in Hebrew. I recognized him: the nurse at Hadassah hospital, the one who’d cautioned me about Osama even before Mustafa had. We chatted for a while about this and that. His Hebrew was, if possible, worse than mine, but we got along. I tried to disguise my heavy breathing; I realized I’d walked to the park very quickly, thinking I’d find answers about my missing friends. But our lounging postures and scant dialogue precluded it. The mood felt more poolside than late autumn, despite the November air. As if it were a plush cushion, I sank deeper into the flat, smooth slab I’d chosen and accepted a cigarette from a neighbor. A cloud of smoke hovered above us all, as if it had been painted there long ago.

The Hadassah nurse—Zayn was his name—suggested we take a walk. His blasé tone only magnified the suggestion’s high voltage. His breath wasn’t all roses, but the press of another body against mine in the shroud of the trees— I’d missed it. When we finished, another guy from our group materialized offering us wet wipes. His payment for watching. Accepting it, I burst out laughing, and so did he. A delirious gaiety took over, as if I’d inhaled the fumes of a household chemical. We walked along the park’s perimeter, soon splitting into our separate ways. Traffic was picking up in the trees, and rather than returning to the rocks, as was customary after an orgasm, I pushed further past the branches, laughing softly at nothing, occasionally stopping to inspect a stranger or strangers coupling. I came out in the parking lot, looking at the tall narrow dome of the YMCA. Soon it would be decorated for Christmas.

I decided to make one more lap. The flock was still lounging on the rocks. I didn’t receive the same warm welcome as before. There was a pregnant pause, as if someone under discussion had unexpectedly appeared—me. Zayn averted his gaze, biting his lower lip. “Lovely evening,” I offered moronically. “I could stay here all night.” They either stared straight at me or averted their gaze. I loitered in silence. One of the ultra-Orthodox guys strolled over and gave me a solicitous look, which broke the tension somewhat. But I waved him away, the way Yusef had dismissed his servant. He slipped onto another path, and the group resumed their easy chatter, all in Arabic. I realized how often conversations in my life took place in English or bad Hebrew for no other reason than my benefit. I moved apart from them and lit a Chesterfield. Smoking is indispensable for disguising discomfort. Even misery.

To my surprise, Zayn appeared at my side. Before he could ask, I gave him a cigarette and raised my lighter to his lips. “Listen,” I said, crushing a butt under my heel. “I’ve got to talk to you. Have you seen Yusef or Osama? You know Yusef. The chef. We all had dinner last week—and, well, they’ve disappeared! Then today, I saw this guy, you don’t know him, leaving Yusef’s —”

Zayn closed his eyes in calm exasperation. “His name is Abdel. Osama’s other boyfriend. You really haven’t heard? Yusef gave his house to Osama. He doesn’t live there anymore. Halas, finished. They say that Yusef returned to Jericho.” He slapped his hands together as if to be rid of dirt.

“That’s not possible…why?” I dug my fingers into the empty Chesterfields pack, getting only a few loose tobacco flakes under my nails. Zayn had the last cigarette dangling from his mouth.

“You know why Osama was in jail right?” Ashes fell on his sneakers as he spoke.

“Of course, of course—some old man…”

“Some old man?” Zayn laughed until his face fell, almost sympathetic when he saw my expression. “Yusef is the old man. Don’t you get it? He gave the house away because Osama gave him no choice.” Zayn made a throat- slitting motion, then shrugged before returning to the rocks. Just my dick and my ass, no face.

I walked home, declining the few offers of a ride. I didn’t even brush my teeth, just fell into bed. I was still awake when the muezzin trembled to life at four-thirty. On the nightstand lay Osama’s ring, the man I was getting to know. The copper felt cool on my skin. I slid it on and off each finger, again and again, until at last I hypnotized myself into slumber.

27 May, 2023