Sayra inhaled deeply from Josue’s cigarette and handed it back to him.
“I’m getting a bagel. You want?” she asked already opening the door to the donut shop on the corner of 30th Avenue.
“Nah. But, yo, hook me up with a glaze donut.”
The coolness of the store’s air conditioning hit her in the face and she let out a sigh. She thought that she could spend all day there-sipping iced coffees sweetened by spoonfuls of sugar, chewing on donut holes and talking to Josue. She looked down at her button down shirt concentrating on how the three white pearl buttons that descended across her stomach strained in their holes. She could hear her mother’s voice.
Sayra…you’re getting too chunky. Lay off the sweets…you’re going to be sorry some day.
But she didn’t feel sorry right now. She asked for extra cream cheese on her bagel and three chocolate holes in addition to Josue’s donut.
“Add an iced coffee with lots of cream too.”
The short Greek lady with frosted hair smiled and nodded. She knew the order. Like clockwork the tallish girl with long black hair always entered the store every summer morning around eleven o clock. During the school year she was usually with two other girls as they walked with a group of kids to the high school down near Vernon Boulevard. This summer she was always with the Brazilian looking kid with the skateboard.
The L rumbled above all of their heads and Sayra turned to look at Josue, who was still puffing on the cigarette, through the window. What would they do today? Maybe he would teach her some tricks on his skateboard under the highway ramp near Astoria park or they could hang out at someone’s house. The point was to stay out all day. With her mother and father busy at their shop in Brooklyn it would have been nice to sit around all day watching court television and blasting the air conditioner. But with Fatimah lurking around the house now Sayra couldn’t stand being at home.
It was only a little while ago when school was still in that Fatimah had ratted on her. She had been hanging with her friends in the park one night. Maria’s older brother and his friends were there. Someone had brought out a radio and people were goofing around trying to do their best old school dance, when Sayra had spotted a small woman standing near the fence. Sayra could make out a head scarf and a long skirt. She instantly felt a sense of panic. Hoping that it was someone she didn’t know-or someone who didn’t know her parents-she had turned her back quickly. When she looked again the person was gone. She almost felt a sense of relief until one of her friends said, “Hey, wasn’t that your older sister, Fatimah?”
When she got home that night Fatimah was sitting at the table with her parents. What followed was an hour long lecture on hanging in mixed company. Fatimah had done most of the talking. Finally Sayra blurted out “Fatimah, why do you care? Shouldn’t you be at home cooking for your husband or something!”
This brought on another lecture, with her mother and father taking turns, about how she should be grateful to have a sister who loved her enough to admonish her. At this Fatimah had shed tears. Sayra had felt nothing.
Hours later Sayra lay with her back flat against the green metal park bench. She dangled her legs over the bench’s side and shut her eyes. The sun infiltrated her lids so that the blackness of her closed vision was rimmed by a thin glow of orange light. The heat made her legs sweaty in her denim jeans. A requirement even in August weather. Her friend’s Zahra’s mother didn’t mind if Zahra wore cute skirts that showed knees and calves during the summer or a tee shirt that revealed Zahra’s feminine plump arms.
Well, Zahra’s mother wears too much make-up anyway Fatimah had responded when Sayra casually mentioned this before. A typical Hassan family non sequitor. You bring up a jean skirt and you get criticisms about too much kohl on someone’s mother’s eyes. Before Sayra could say anything their mother was interrupting-her voice ringing in from the kitchen with a tone of finality.
“We’ve left you alone about not covering your hair Sayra but you will cover those legs, dear.” Sayra had left the living room hoping to avoid Fatimah’s triumphant smile.
“Yo, something’s going on-check it out.” At the sound of Josue’s voice Sayra opened her eyes. She sat up and felt her stomach tremble from the mixture of heat and dairy. She followed Josue’s gaze to the row homes opposite the park. Almost everyone was standing outside-older ladies with pink rollers and robes on, a mom holding a baby talking enthusiastically to another mom holding her toddler’s hand. Someone in the park shouted.
“All the electricity is out-in the whole city!”
As Sayra and Josue walked back up to 30th Avenue it seemed as if the whole neighborhood had emptied out onto the streets. They both remembered the last time the neighborhood’s streets and sidewalks filled with people.
“My son says it ain’t terrorists. It’s just a plain old blackout” an old man offered to anyone who might be listening. Sayra turned to look at the man standing on the edge of the sidewalk in a stained white tank top and old flannel pajama pants with a rip.
“Dude, these people live for stuff like this!” Josue said looking at her with a smile. They both laughed. Josue’s jokes made her stomach stop trembling for a bit so that she once again focused on her black and white Chuck Taylor’s hitting the hot pavement as they approached a smaller park where people had started to gather.
Moments before memories of her old apartment building had crowded her mind. She had recalled the scent of everyone cooking dinner -the building heavy with the aromas of lamb, onions and cumin. She saw herself on the apartment roof that allowed her to look across her neighborhood into Manhattan’s twinkling lights. Then suddenly that feeling in her chest.
She was grateful that her best friend had a quick wit. The weight in her chest resided and she entered the small park laughing with Josue. Two young enterpreneurs in long tee shirts and baggy jeans were already selling cold water from laundry baskets full of ice. The shish kebab vendor had wheeled his cart closer to the park in order to capitalize on the impromptu crowd.
Soon Josue was skating loops around the park with two other boys-and Sayra, sitting on an edge of concrete near the small fountain, let her ears feel with the whooshing sounds of skateboard wheels hitting concrete and the buzzing of excited conversation. A small little boy with dark black curly hair stood next to Sayra and she smiled at him. He smiled back revealing two small teeth stained red with what Sayra guessed was evidence of a popsicle. Yes, a sticky ring also outlined his pouty mouth.
He moved closer to the stagnant pool of fountain water but before he could reach his hand in a young woman in a paisley head scarf was pulling him back.
“No, darling. No.” she said softly, offering a smile to Sayra.
Sayra watched the mother and child return to their bench. They sat next to a man with a mustache and the same thick, ringlet hair inherited by the son.
Somalian probably, Sayra thought. She studied the woman’s deep set eyes and beautifully round mouth. Yes, Somalis.
Then she wondered if the girl could tell what she was or did she just assume that she was Columbian or Brazilian like most people did-because of her long dark hair, brown skin and “wannabe style” as Fatimah, labeled it.
“But doesn’t it bother you that other Muslims don’t recognize you as Muslim anymore, Sayra? Think of how sad it is to not be able to have people greet you on the street.”
“Well, Zahra doesn’t wear hijab and plenty of people greet her around here.”
Fatimah rolled her eyes: “You know that is because her father owns the market. And since when did Zahra become a role model for you. I swear every time with you lately it’s Zahra this and Zahra that. It’s kind of sad, you know.”
This argument was after they were leaving the Islamic Center on Eidul Fitr. Fatimah had been agitated that as soon as they left the gates Sayra had thrown off the grey scarf that covered her head.
“I’m sure you would like it better if it was Fatimah this or Fatimah that, right?”
“No, dear, I would like it better if you followed the sunnah of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and most importantly the Qur’an!”
Fatimah was flustered. Her breath was coming in short gasps and her voice was raising with emotion.
Sayra was silent. She wanted to tell her sister that, contrary to her assumptions, she did not always want to be recognized. And, at times, she did not want to be greeted. She wanted to tell her that there were times that she just wanted to melt into the crowd-to become nameless and unburdened. There were times that she wanted to ride her bicycle onto Roosevelt Island without anyone finding it strange that the Muslim girl was with a non-mahram boy. And that it was harmless and that he made her feel safer than any uncle ever had. She wanted Fatimah to know that she still loved Allah-although sometimes she felt confused.
Yet she remained silent because she knew that Fatimah would never understand. Fatimah’s refutations would mock her love and demand her obedience.
As the sky began to darken the excitement moved into quiet discussions of candles and flashlights. Josue walked Sayra home despite living in the opposite direction.
“How long do you think this is going to last?”
He shook his head and smiled a little.
“I have no fricking clue! It’s wild, though. Look…not one light is on over there.”
He pointed to the Manhattan sky line. The buildings still loomed large but they began to look as if they were disappearing into the purple-blue sky.
“Oh crap!” Sayra said stopping dead in her tracks.
“I just realized that the air conditioners won’t work!”
Josue let out a large burst of laughter.
The first smell that entered Sayra’s nose as she entered her family’s brick row home was charcoal. A trail of burning candles led Sayra from the foyer, through the living room and into the kitchen. The sliding doors that led to the backyard was open.
She spotted Fatimah, her small frame covered in a simple green tunic, over the bar-b-que grill. She was lifting a last piece of meat off of the grill, adding it to a round white platter.
“Fatimah-what are you doing?” Sayra said crossing into the outdoors. Fatimah turned to her sister-her typical small smile on her full lips.
“Assalaamualaikum! I’ve been waiting for you! ” she said setting the plate down on the white plastic patio table.
Sayra returned the greeting noting that the table seemed to be full of food-there was grilled vegetables, rice in a disposable aluminum container, flat bread and bottles of water.
“Why are you cooking all this food in the dark?”
“We can’t let this meat go to waste. Daddy just bought it-you know? I was worried about them. But I’m assuming they are at Aunty Rahma’s. She is only about six blocks or so from the shop. Insha’Allah everything is fine. I’ve been making dua since the electricity went out. I tried their cell phone but the networks are all out of wack.”
She was talking a mile a minute in her usual nervous way. She was sitting down now spooning rice onto her own plate and a plate that Sayra assumed was hers. Her older sister had set up a ring of candles that were burning on the table, illuminating the feast.
“Come sit down and say bismillah over the food.”
Sayra did what her sister requested. She spooned the vegetables over the rice and wrapped a piece of meat in bread. The bread was toasty from the grill and the meat perfectly seasoned.
“It’s good Masha’Allah.”
“Not as good as mommy’s but it’s fine” Fatimah responded chewing.
They ate quietly. They could hear their neighbor on the other side of the stone wall that separated the two yards. The older man was calling his cat-his voice more urgent than usual in the darkness. Seconds later his voice softened “Oh there you are you little stinker. Come, I’ve got a treat for you inside.”
The sisters smiled at each other. Alhamdulilah, Fatimah thought. She had gone over hours before to make sure that Mr. Horiates had candles. He had taken her offering with his usual happy chuckle and offered her a box of chocolates. She had declined. The last box he had given the family had been no good-each chocolate square covered in a thin-film of whiteness.
“So what did you do all day?”
Her older sister’s question felt acutely invasive like all of the questions she asked. They were never innocent. Sayra gave her sister a shrug of her shoulder piling another heaping spoonful of rice on her plate.
Ah, there was that wall again. Fatimah felt it falling between them with a thud. She saw another one veiling her sister’s dark eyes. She didn’t want to imagine how her sister could spend a full day away from home. Nine and half hours doing what? She saw the other teen girls all the time-walking up and down the street in the tightest-fitting clothes or openly grinding with boys against walls in broad day light.
Then there was the cursing. The other day while waiting for the bus on Steinway she had been subjected to the most demeaning and disgusting conversation between two girls. They kept calling each other names that Fatimah considered the lowest insult a man could give to a woman. Yet these two girls weren’t mad at each other. They were talking that way and laughing about it!
She looked at Sayra and shook her head. Maybe she was out of touch. That is what Sayra had said to her before. Fatimah, you are so out of touch and you don’t even know that you are. What happened to you?
She had changed. She knew this. Fatimah remembered when she saved all of her money from helping in the store to buy big gold earrings with her name written across them. Mommy had shaken her head and daddy had mumbled something about cheap gold. Yet, she had worn them proudly to her first day of eighth grade with an oversized striped sweater and red stretch pants.
That whole year mommy preached to her about bad influences. Then there were rumblings about going to stay with Aunty Haggar for the summer-her mother’s older sister in Michigan. The rumblings became reality and she found herself on a plane. She arrived in Michigan full of New York attitude only to be met at the gate by Aunty Haggar in a neatly ironed jilbab and headscarf.
Her cousin Bashirah stood behind her mother strikingly beautiful in a simple black scarf and abaya. That summer Bashirah taught her five new surahs, took her shopping with friends who dressed just like her and talked to her about her school-a private Islamic school. Fatimah returned home dressed in a long jean skirt, beige tunic and blue headscarf. Her gold earrings were buried in the bottom of her suit case. Her mother smiled during the entire short ride home from La Guardia to Astoria.
Suddenly she wondered what ever happened to those big gaudy earrings from 9 years ago.
“Hey, Sayra do you remember what happened to those earrings I had with my name in them?”
“Never mind what were you seven then? You wouldn’t remember.”
“I was nine. I don’t remember what happened to them but I remember them. They were definitely door knockers” she gestured with her hands pretending to knock on a door near her earlobe and Fatimah laughed.
“So ridiculous, I know. But they were the thing then. You know what- the girls are wearing them again now.”
They smiled at each other.
“I’m stuffed. Let’s take this inside. The mosquitos are killing me.”
Inside, after helping to clean, Sayra contemplated taking a candle and retreating to her room on the second floor. She could listen to her Ipod and maybe read a book by the candlelight. Dramatically she thought that her nightmare had come true-she was stuck in a house with Fatimah without the mediating forces of parents, television or internet. Yet the thought felt unfair and heavy. She could still taste the traces of the delicately cooked meal in her mouth.
“Sayra, would you like to pray Isha with me?”
Fatimah was surprised by Sayra’s quick answer and she suppressed a smile. She could not remember the last time Sayra had said yes to prayer with her older sister without annoyance or reluctance in her voice. Fatimah laid out the rugs on the living room floor and waited for her sister to complete her ablution. She wanted Sayra to lead the prayer but she thought that would be pushing it. She was content to feel her sisters arm against hers and her gentle movements as they moved together from standing, to bending and then to sitting.
After the prayer rugs were folded and scarves removed the sisters returned to the living room each with a piece of sticky baklava.
“Mmmm. This is so good. Where did you get it?”
“From the bakery yesterday. When I was visiting Malik’s mother.” Fatimah answered recalling the afternoon spent with her mother in law and sister in laws. She was ashamed to admit that her biggest hope was that Malik would stop by knowing that she was there. His mother had made excuses about him being busy with other obligations but Fatimah was aware that it was his afternoon off from work. She pictured him in the apartment, gulping down steaming hot tea without caution as he sat with newspapers and law books sprawled in front of him. After his studying was done he would lay across the couch for a quick nap before running to his night classes in the city. She knew it would be this way because it was his pattern. Malik worked in patterns.
She had learned in her first year and a half of marriage the true meaning of clockwork scheduling. He doesn’t miss me. The thought sent a shot of pain through her body. He hadn’t discouraged her from spending more time at her parents. In fact, it had been his idea. She could not hold it in any longer and finally asked him if he could spend more time at home-if he could perhaps cut his late night study sessions short. The look on his face was one of bewilderment.
“It is a requirement Fatimah. It is a requirement of being a law student. Do you actually believe that I want to be out until one in the morning and then go to work at seven?”
She shook her head no. The conversation ended with him recommending that she spend more time with her family so that she would not depend on him entirely for company. She had silently acquiesced resentful that he found her need to spend more time together evidence of dependence rather than something he too desired.
Lately she so often found herself staring into his dark eyes searching for the Malik she had known for most of her life. He was her close friend Suheila’s oldest brother who used to exchange silly jokes with them. Now he had become so serious. His signature dark curly hair was now croped close to his head. His Knicks jerseys and jeans were now replaced by starched button down shirts and slacks. Professionalization, was how he described it to her. She slowly felt herself becoming like many women she knew with professional husbands who seemed to enter another world when they boarded the F or N train. He mentioned names to her casually-Professor Stewart, Andy, Richard, Emily-people he interacted with in that other world.
Was it true? The park talk she heard from the other women dressed like her. Scarves pinned tightly under chins. Was it true that she would probably never meet these people because the men like to keep their wives in Queens and their business in Manhattan? How could that be when her father had always taken her mother everywhere? Her parents had worked along side of each other for Fatimah’s entire life and that was the life she wanted with Malik.
So she told Malik that she was ready to go back to school-to finish the credits she had began before their marriage and maybe even consider graduate school. She knew he would have to agree to this condition of their marriage contract. He did without hesistation but he had encouraged her to take classes close to home instead of out of borough. And now she felt that her entering a world beyond the neighborhood was falling out of her grasp. She turned to Sayra and told her what she had hesistated to tell anyone for months.
Sayra was licking the last bits of honey from her finger when her sister finally broke the silence. She moved her hand away from her mouth and stared at her sister. She heard her sister’s words but she was surprised by the look of sadness in Fatimah’s eyes.
“For real Fati, how far along are you?”
“Almost two months. You’re the only one who knows.”
“You didn’t tell Malik? Or mommy?”
“Because I don’t know how I feel about it and that makes me feel really horrible. I thought I would be so happy when this happened, Sayra. But I’m actually a bit numb…a bit sad.”
Sayra was surprised by her sisters words because she knew how much Fatimah loved Malik. Their engagement had been short and their marriage ceremony a simple one after Friday prayers. No one doubted that they were a good match and no one doubted that they were already in love. Watching her sister in a cream colored abaya and embroidered hijab that day sitting across from Malik, Sayra was already picturing her sister pushing a baby stroller down the street with another stay at home mom chatting about the price of fruit and the baby’s first tooth.
Sayra didn’t know what to say. She felt like she needed Oprah so that she could say something deep and meaningful that would put everything in perspective. She managed to say:
“Why, why are you sad?”
“I don’t know Sayra, marriage isn’t everything we make it to be. That’s all I can say. Sometimes people can hurt you without saying anything.”
“Is Malik mean to you?”
“No he just treats me like…how can I say it? Like an accessory-not like something that interests him or excites him.”
“I get it. I’m sorry Fatimah. I’m sorry you’re sad.”
Fatimah nodded. They were quiet watching the candles flicker. A ringing noise came from the kitchen and Fatimah made her way to the counter to answer her cell phone.
“Assalaamualaikum! Yes…I’m alright. Are you at aunty’s? Good. Yes, Sayra is with me. We’re both alright. Yes…Insha’Allah tomorrow. I love you too. Walaikumsalaam.”
“That was mommy. They’re at aunty’s.”
Sayra waited for her sister to settle back down on the floor next to her and she let out a sigh of relief.
“You know Fatimah. I think you’d be a really good mom. Like you might be a litte strict..”
They both laughed.
“But you’re cool too.”
“Really…but you know I want to go back to school for my business classes.”
“So you can still go…plenty of people have children. It might not be right away but you can still go. I’ll watch the baby some nights.”
“Insha’Allah” Fatimah said.
“Yeah Insha’Allah. Like the Malik stuff…I don’t know what to say about that. He seems nice. I remember when he gave that talk on the law and why he wanted to do it-at the educational banquet last year. He really made sense to me.”
Fatimah was surprised. Most of that speech that Sunday at the community center had been punctuated by screaming kids and a bad sound system. Malik had been extremely nervous but he was eager to speak to his community, to let them know their rights.
“The stuff he said made sense and I thought about what happened a few years ago after the towers, ya know. How we felt, what happened to people.”
They glanced at each other and Sayra felt her heart beating faster in her chest. She saw Anwar’s face again. She heard the door creaking behind her as she sat on the roof staring out across the neighborhood. Then he was there beside her his tall frame producing a shadow.
“They took them. They finally took them those bastards!”
He was crying and Sayra felt the tears well up in her throat, tightening it so that she couldn’t breath. She had hugged him and when his lips had fastened on hers she cried even more. A week later Anwar was gone. He left with his mother and little sister. His older brother and father were gone. Rumours circulated that they were sent back to their country. Other people heard they were being detained in another state. There was one letter, months later, from Anwar’s mother that said they were in Egypt living with her sister. They had little money and that they still hadn’t been reunited with her husband or her son. Sayra had listened to the content of the letter without a word. It was only when she was alone in her room that she had cried-wondering about Anwar and if he thought about her.
“I don’t want you to stay mad with me Fatimah about the things I’ve done. And I know it wasn’t right but I still miss Anwar. I miss growing up there and having everybody in one place. In that building, you know.”
Fatimah was quiet but Sayra could see her wiping at her eyes.
“I’m not here to judge you Sayra…although it may seem that I’m always doing that…I don’t want you to think of me in that way. I just have wanted to protect you-to give you guidance. I miss the way things were too before all of this.”
Fatimah let out a slow breath.
“I can’t believe how dark it is.”
“Me either” Sayra said pulling her knees up to her chest. The cell phone was ringing again and Fatimah started to move from the floor to get it.
“No. You stay put. I’ve got it.”
Sayra made her way across the floor careful not to brush against the burning candles.
“Assalaamualikum Malik. Yes, she’s right here with me and we’re both okay.”
(c) S.A. for Muslim American Fiction 2008-2009