For quite some time Meredith lay across the bed watching the light sneak through the spaces between the bedroom blinds. The Qur’an that she had read after fajr prayer lay open on her nightstand and the penetrating sun seemed to highlight select words in the surah. She lay across the bed still in her prayer clothes-a long purple skirt too warm for the late June weather paired with a gray long sleeve tunic. After her reading she had tossed her scarf onto a pile of clothing stacked ontop of the corner armchair.
She had quietly made wudu tiptoeing past Bashirah’s room. Later her daughter would complain: “Mommy, why didn’t you wake me up?”
Her reply would of course be a half truth. It would not satisfy the eight year old’s demanding eyes. Those eyes which seemed to relentlessly push for answers and detailed explanations. Those narrowing eyes that seemed to know when her mother was substituting the truth with simple half-hearted phrases meant to dismiss and avoid. She’s too much like . . .Before she let herself complete that thought she spring off of the disheveled bed, grabbed a towel off of the top of the hamper and headed towards the bathroom.
In the shower, with warm water cascading over the tense muscles in her shoulders, she visualized her day. Pancakes for Bashirah. Reading for school. Lesson plans for her class. Lunch for Bashirah. A quick stop to buy a present for her niece Luisa’s birthday party. Then the birthday party with the looks and sympathetic pats on the arm. Perhaps her brother Ricky would make another comment about coming to his church. And what would she say back to him? Whose words would she use to brush him off this time?
No. Not today. Her mother would understand her dropping Bashirah off early.
After the shower she stood facing herself in the mirror her black hair hanging limp around her shoulders. When she had turned thirty one she began to spot fine black hairs growing out of odd places under her chin or on her pale neck. Since then she had kept tweezers in the cup holder in her car, using the natural light of the sun to find hairs that she could not see in the muted bathroom light. Her headscarf wrapped tightly around the bottom of her chin had allowed her to keep her battle with facial hair private.
Yet two months ago she had taken to only wearing a thin bandana tied at the nape of her neck. She would wind her ponytail into a bun so that most of her hair was hidden underneath the triangle of fabric. But the change also meant that the tiny bumps that marked the spots where she ruthlessly plucked hairs were apparent. In her lesser head covering she thought she looked like the tiny Greek lady who had walked up and down her street when she was a kid. She always wore black even in ninety degree weather. Sometimes she would give Meredith a piece of fruit other times she ignored Meredith completely-muttering under her breath in Greek.
She smiled broadly at her reflection. Then just as quickly she let her mouth fall into a non expressive line. She heard Bashirah now, padding down the hallway towards her empty bedroom. With a sigh, she wet her toothbrush and reached for the toothpaste.
In the kitchen Bashirah was already pouring herself a bowl of cereal and adding milk. Meredith walked quietly into the small space and picked up a banana from the fruit bowl on the counter.
“Do you want banana Bashirah?”
“Uh-uh.” her daughter offered never lifting her eyes up from the faded cartoon covered bowl she was eating from. As she ate, she ran her tan finger along the back of the cereal box she was reading. If Anwar was here, Bashirah would read it outloud to him and he would sit next to her-his large frame dwarfing his daughter. He would nod without any type of feigned interest, offering a laugh when appropriate or an approving head nod when the box described a fact about the rainforest or math.
Meredith would watch comparing her husband’s dark skin to his much fairer daughter. While he did not offer melanin to Bashirah’s complexion he could be seen in the tightly coiled brown hair. When Anwar’s sister saw Meredith’s attempt at braiding a three year old Bashirah’s hair she doubled over laughing.
“Meredith! You can’t just put those big old uneven plaits in this child’s hair. Look how it’s pulling apart in the back and so dry. What did you put it in it?”
Meredith noticed that all of the other women, packed in the women’s section of the mainly Nigerian masjid, were staring-most with amused smiles on their faces. A warm blush was making its way up Meredith’s neck.
“I didn’t put anything in it. I just used some kid’s shampoo!”
“That’s the problem right there. This child doesn’t have white girl hair. You’ve got to moisturize it. Put some coconut oil or olive oil. Twist it. Don’t worry Bashirah. Auntie’s going to give you a nice hairdo after prayer.”
Right then and there Meredith decided that she would never be corrected on how to do her own daughter’s hair. She learned how to condition it, to detangle it and even how to cornrow into neat even rows. She could laugh at the memory now but at the time she had wanted to snatch her tiny daughter off of the prayer rug and march back down the stairs.
“What’s wrong mommy?”
Bashirah was done eating and Meredith realized she still stood with her hand touching the fruit in the bowl.
“Nothing sweetie. I think you’re going over to Nana’s early today.”
The traffic on the 42 freeway to Atlantic City was horrendous. Meredith had expected nothing different. Somehow it calmed her to be sitting perfectly still in a line of inching traffic. The air was warm but she sat with the windows down- no air conditioner. She was playing one of her favorite games since childhood. Simply listening to the snatches of music and conversation that erupted from the cars that she slowly inched by or that crept pass her. She listened to a snippet of music and then visualized what the passengers in the car next to her would look like. Eminem or Jay-Z almost always meant a car full of frat boys that she refused to make eye contact with-a trick that dated back to college. No it would be more accurate to say she learned it from coming into her house after school.
The living room would be smoked filled, MTV music blaring, and Ricky would be surrounded by an entourage of his pot smoking friends. She kept her eyes down. Although her stomach was growling-craving a snack from the kitchen, she, instead, headed straight up the steps to her bedroom. Adolescent male voices followed hers.
“That’s your sister, huh Rick?” said with a snicker.
Her brother was silent.
“Yeah, she’s a wideload!” Her brother always finished their description.
The girls in the car next to her sounded like college girls. Rihanna’s nasal tones were background to their laughter. A foot decorated with hot pink toenail polish dangled from the backseat. A foot dangler. Meredith rolled her eyes. Her roommate from college’s voice rung in her ear.
“What is up with your people and dangling their old pink feet out of the car?”
Rashida spent most of her time criticizing the peculiar things that white folks did. Meredith thought it was funny. At first she was quiet; but after three years of friendship she asked Rashida questions about her people, too.
“Okay, Ra-but what about your people. We might keep ours in the stroller a little too long but why yall make the babies walk so quick and get all bowlegged? What about that?”
Rashida was quiet for a minute, her face a stone, and then she keeled over laughing. She laughed so hard that the white triangular scarf that she had pinned with a safety pin almost slid off. Rashida was the one who taught her how to pray. When Meredith came to her during junior year and told her she was ready to take shahada she gave it to Meredith. She even held a tiny celebration for her in the dorm lounge. It was Rashida who introduced her to Anwar at the Muslim Student Association’s spring picnic. Rashida was married now with three children and living across the country. Meredith hadn’t spoken to her in five years. Suddenly she wondered: How did I lose touch with the one person who understood me?
She did not know where she was going. She didn’t particularly like the beach or Atlantic City but the pungent sea salt smell somehow fit her mood. There was no parking close to the boardwalk. Her Volkswagen fit perfectly in a spot four long blocks from the beach. As she got out of the car and reached for a scarf to dangle loosely around her neck she watched men carrying tray after tray of food through the tiny side door of a brick building. She could hear the horn blares of salsa music coming from an upstairs party. A delicious spicy smell made Meredith’s stomach grumble as a woman carried a tray of empanadas swiftly down the sidewalk and through the doorway.
Meredith imagined herself catching the door before it was closed and dancing herself into the center of the party. Was it a birthday? A reception? A baptism? She stood there gazing up at the screenless window-a thin polyester curtain twirled in the breeze. A tan hand flicked cigarette ashes out of the window and then there was complete silence. Loud Spanish and laughter filled the music less gap. Then suddenly another salsa horn blare helped Meredith to look away from the window and begin to dig in her purse for change for the meter.
The boardwalk was crowded with shirtless teens, gambling seniors and tourists. She didn’t like Atlantic City but, as she walked its boardwalk, she was even more certain that if fit her mood. The grandiose white and gold structure that was Trump’s Taj Mahal seemed comical, looming grotesquely over the graying wood planks. It made Meredith laugh to see red, sweaty moms hurrying their children through the heavy casino doors to use the bathroom before there was an accident. For the beleaguered mother there was no pot of gold to be found within, just a place to momentarily escape the heat or clean dirty hands.
Meredith ate a warm, sugary funnel cake taking in the swollen crowd one last time before turning her head to stare at the ocean. The ocean silenced her rambling mind.
If the ocean turns into ink for the Words of my Lord, that ocean will exhaust before the Words of my Lord come to an end, even if We bring another similar (ocean or ink) to refill.
She imagined black wet letters staining the sky with ink. She wanted them to say something to her but she only visualized each dripping letter being replaced by the next dark letter before there could be meaning.
The sky seemed silent and the ocean, with all its depth, garbled on unintelligibly. But do I understand this? She turned her attention back to the boardwalk. Now there were countless couples to study. The young ones with no hint of chastity between them held hands, waists and hips. Sometimes they were the nucleus of a crowd of teens. As much as their laughing companions told jokes or tried to draw attention to something other than each other, the couple remained unchanged, still connected.
She remembered that pull towards the center. She could still picture herself yapping at the ear of a girlfriend-wanting completely attention, fighting to insure that there could be a devotion between friends that outlasted a first kiss or a slow dance. There was ultimately the shocking pain of the rejection. Then there was a waiting period before she would inevitably comfort her girlfriend’s broken heart.
I never was a cornflake girl. The almost forgotten lyrics produced a smile on Meredith’s face. She dumped the oily plate into the trash bin and tossed one end of her scarf around her neck. She stared into the crowd. She had become fascinated with her past in the month and a half since Anwar had left. When they were together she had found her life boring in comparison to his life. His world was full of stories of ancestors, travel, politics and music. What was there to say about a bus driver mother and bullying brother? In the months before their marriage he asked her countless questions.
The questions overwhelmed her. They shook her up so much that one afternoon, sitting on a bench in the middle of campus, she told him about how she lost her virginity at fifteen to her older brother’s twenty one year old friend. She told him that he was drunk and that he forced her.
“And what did your brother do?”
That question demonstrated to Meredith how different their worlds had been. She could not imagine that if Ricky had known he would have done anything. She could not imagine that he would care if someone hurt her.
She had said it to Anwar again and again. You are the only man who has ever cared about me. You are the only man who has ever protected me.
Asr prayer was in.
Inside one of the casino bathrooms she made wudu. She found a corner outside of the restroom area and tied her scarf under her chin. As she said her prayers the shrill sound of the slot machines faded away. She only became distracted when she noticed a white haired woman staring at her intently- standing directly in front of her. Meredith raised her hands and kneeled down pressing her forehead against the rug. When she sat back up again the woman was gone. She let out a slow breath.
After prayer she walked the boardwalk slowly, making sure to stay on the edge of the crowd.
The greeting surprised her. It came from a man in a wheelchair. He navigated the chair with his left hand and pulled himself forward by pushing out his right leg. He didn’t have on any shoes.
“Walaikumasalaam.” Meredith felt under her chin and realized that she still had the scarf tied under her chin. She nodded at the man with a small smile as he passed her and let her hand fall away from where the scarf was secured. The sun had stopped beating directly down on her head. The party was probably over by now and she predicted that Bashirah was already anxious to leave. She might occupy herself by half-heartedly playing cards with a younger cousin but her dark eyes were probably staring at her grandmother’s door. Yet, when her mother appeared Bashirah would not run to her with her arms extended for an embrace. She would simply nod, pack up her purple book bag that was always with her, and walk quietly towards where Meredith stood. She watches me now, Meredith thought navigating her body through the crowd.
The impulse for more sugar guided her to a stand where she ordered a waffle cone full of butter pecan ice cream. She was occupying a child hood fantasy, complete free reign to eat junk food without censure. Her mother had known nothing of healthy eating. She had kept the pantry stocked with salty chips, cookies and candy. Dinner was often fried egg sandwiches with cheese; potato chips piled high on the side. Neither her mother or Ricky were thin but it was Meredith who became the one who was chastised for popping open a second can of grape soda. You don’t need that her mother would assert watching her daughter grab something from the refrigerator. By age twelve, Meredith had perfected a whiny tone that she noticed helped other girls to either escape trouble or appear cute.
Well, what else am I supposed to eat ,ma? She would say that placing her hands on her hips, still standing with the fridge door open. Her mother was not impressed or seduced by Meredith’s foray into pre-teen sassiness. In fact, it made it more apparent to her that Meredith had no real clue or insight into how she truly appeared.
Try taking a walk Mer, how ‘bout that? Ain’t nobody gonna want a woman they can’t carry. Got it!
With that, the door to the refrigerator was slammed and Meredith was forced outdoors to “walk.” She usually walked to the playground a block from her house and sat on a swing, her stomach growling. She satiated herself with fantasies that her mother’s recommendations would pay off. She would walk so that her neck would become elongated and smooth. It would be a neck destined for passionate kisses.
The first time that Anwar saw her without hijab he instantly touched her neck. His fingers traced a trail that ran from right under her ear to the beginning of her collar bone.
The ice cream had begun to drip onto her fingers. She licked at them distracted. She was trying to remember how much money she had in her checking account and if she could afford a hotel room for the night. Why not the Taj Mahal? The thought made her laugh out loud. She wondered if the rooms could out do the exterior. She felt as if she was planning an escape. She could see herself waking up in different hotel rooms, driving across the country. She had always been curious about the West Coast, Oregon in particular. It seemed like a place where the air was lighter, where she could breath. She imagined that she could buy fruit and vegetables from a farmer’s market-ride her bike home on a winding trail. And the house? It was blue with yellow flower boxes, an interior full of books and plants. But where was Bashirah? Where was her daughter?
The dripping ice cream was real in her hand. The setting sun and the seagull picking at a hardened pizza crust inches from her feet were also real. She quickly discarded the melting mess and wiped her hands with a napkin. She started to walk the boardwalk again. She wanted to fight what was pulling her back to her car. She was not ready. She rested her hands on the railing and stared out at the beach. The last of the few people who swam in the Atlantic City Ocean were coming out of the water. A father was walking his son across the sand. Meredith stared down at the pair as they shook their shoes free of sand before ascending the concrete stairs.
Quiet. Anwar’s lips were a straight line with nothing to argue or explain. When you’re done, you’re done. No imam can change hearts or minds. When you’re done, you’re done, Meredith.
The withdrawal was sudden but not unexpected. Early on he came by every day, eating dinner with them, making sure to tuck Bashirah in to bed before slipping out to return to the apartment he was renting. Now visits were substituted with weekly phone calls. She learned to quickly pass the phone to her daughter, to make herself leave the room because she could not bear to hear Bashirah laughing at her father’s silly jokes.
She had no clue how to make laughter erupt from her child’s throat. She had no idea how to make her daughter stop looking at her with those eyes. If only you were pretty mommy. If only you carried yourself with a straight back and with grace. If only you were interesting enough to make him stay.
But didn’t I give him you? Meredith replied to the imagined accusations in the same way. I gave him you and that was not enough. But she knew that she was telling herself the biggest falsehood. Her faith would not allow her to think in such terms-hyperbolic at best-blasphemous at worst.
She wanted to leave it here. She recalled how in the English novels, that she loved reading at college, the characters always travelled to the salty sea to cleanse themselves-to heal an ailment or forget a disappointment. She studied the ocean once more. Its blackness seemed endless. It would not reveal its secret. It was not going to be easy.
She exhaled. Bashirah was waiting. It was time to leave.