“I will call you, Insha’Allah as soon as I get home.”
My mother’s voice is almost reassuring to me. She is standing in the doorway of my apartment her face set in a soft smile. She reaches out to me and as I rest my head against her shoulder I feel a fleeting sense of calm. I inhale her familiar scent and we pull back from each other.
“I will not tell you again that I think you need to come home now. Although your father will be disappointed. I will not.”
With those final words she is gone. I watch her from the window of my first floor apartment. She climbs into the cab and then there is just the familiar sights of my street. Men standing on the corner waiting for a fare, women in scarves heading home to prepare dinner and the young yuppies new to the neighborhood who bear with this not so fabulous life because of its close proximity to the city. I stare at the people before closing my blinds.
My nighttime ritual begins as if I had not had visitors for the past four weeks. I light an incense. Drink a cup of tea. Pet the cat. I lay out my prayer rug.
After I have prayed Isha I make a long dua for him. So long that my knees and hamstrings begin to ache.
As I fold my prayer rug I whisper: “Allah take this rock out of my heart. Out of my chest. Out of my throat.”
My parents did not want us to move to Queens. He convinced them. His cousin knew a man who needed someone to work. My father wanted us to move into the garage/guest house until we could find a place near them. My older brother had lived there, my two oldest sisters with their husbands, even my younger brother when he married. I am convinced that all of my siblings will eventually spend their first year of married life in that garage.
My father was proud to provide the small finished room with private shower to his children as they searched for apartments and houses once they were married. New Muslim couples sometimes need more time to settle on living quarters, he said with a bright smile. Although I appreciated my father’s offer I must say that I was excited beyond belief when Ali told him that he had a guaranteed place for us in New York.
My own place. No more fighting for television or the bathroom with my eight (yes, eight) brothers and sisters. My unmarried sisters would not have to worry about throwing their scarves on whenever my new husband entered the shared living space.
My father was, of course, disappointed but Ali had smiled at me knowing that this was what I wanted. I wanted to leave my parents house. And most importantly, I wanted to go to New York.
It did not bother me that the first apartment had only one sitting room for television, a small kitchen and a tiny bedroom. I didn’t even let out a big yelp when I turned on the kitchen light one night, in search of a late night snack, and saw roaches everywhere- fleeing from my sudden intrusion. I simply got up the next day and scrubbed everything with bleach.
We went to the Trade Fair around the corner for Borox Acid and Raid and I listened to Ali speak Arabic with the people who worked there. A few of the sisters eyed me. An Arab with a non-Arab and she’s brown. I knew that was what they were thinking. What a shame for them, I thought.
I have started working again. On my first day the kids give me a huge card and I thank them with a broad smile. They are quieter than usual and more respectful.
Jamal, a Puerto-Rican and black third grader with huge eyes, tells me that the substitute was mean. She yelled all the time and never let them out for recess. I wonder what tortures my class subjected the poor woman to. Jamal plays innocent when I ask him specifically about his behavior.
I never eat in the teacher’s lounge. Instead, I cross the Brooklyn street and eat in a small park. Today I have a cheese and romaine sandwich on a wheat roll. I wash it down with lukewarm water. My appetite has returned.
I have spent the last twenty minutes trying not to hang up the phone on my father who insists that I come home immediately. Key words: Woman. City. Alone. Crime. Bad.
I am tired. The weary tone in my voice mistakenly convinces him that he has finally won.
“Abbi. I am tired. Insha’Allah we will talk tomorrow. I love you.”
I am happy to hang up. To eat a small plate of beans and brown rice for dinner. I pray Maghrib and spend most of the night reading Qur’an, grading homework, and doing lesson plans for the next week. It is Saturday night in spring and people are outside. Hip hop music comes in through the open window. I listen to the excited voices heading into the city and the familiar rumble of the train.
Ali was an only child. His mother died when he was ten and his father when he was thirteen. He was raised by a loving older aunt (his father’s sister) and her husband. Alhamdulilah they were at our nikah. Two years into our marriage she returned to Allah. This was the first and only time that I saw Ali cry. He did not know that I saw him. I came home late from a meeting at school and he was sitting at the kitchen table with his head in hands. I wanted to cry seeing him like that.
By that time we had been trying to have a baby for a year. We had just moved into this apartment and had acquired an extra bedroom. After a year with nothing-the sisters at the Trade Fair (who eventually warmed up to me) starting giving me things to drink, sharing duas that I needed to make and recommending special “exercises.”
Another year drifted by. Still nothing. By this time we knew that neither one of us had any infertility problems. Yet, there was no baby. Until a year and a half ago when two faint pink lines appeared on the test. Ali did a happy dance and made a huge dinner. I ate and ate. Four weeks later I woke up with horrible cramps.
I cried for days after I miscarried and Ali was quiet. He made me soup and read Surah Rahman to me.
At Ali’s janaza I stood shoulder to shoulder and foot to foot with my oldest sister and my mother. I thought my knees would buckle but they didn’t. My body was held too tight between them. They would not let me fall.
How strange that my mother knew that I had not yet washed the bedsheets. On her third day here I awoke to her standing over me. She caressed my forehead and nudged my shoulder. Without a word between us I stood up and watched her gently pull the sheet from the bed’s corners.
I sat in the living room and listened to her collecting quarters. When the door clicked behind her I watched the clock. After ten minutes I was sure that Ali’s scent was being washed away in the basement below me.
I close my eyes and his calm face appears.
“Still asleep…I’ve been talking to you for the last five minutes, habibi.” I laughed entering our bedroom fully dressed for the school day. He lay there on his left side his arm still enfolding my pillow.I see myself laying next to him and hear that first cry rise up from the center of my body.
The cat rubs against my leg on cue.
“You need food don’t you?”
I walk to the Trade Fair and the manager smiles at me. It catches me off guard. She rarely smiles. Her red lips are usually too busy speaking in rapid Arabic or arguing with a cashier over lateness or a customer over a complaint as her huge gold hoops bob back and forth. It wasn’t until I heard her speak Arabic the first time that I realized she was Egyptian.
I walk to the cat food aisle. When I turn around she is there.
I return the greeting.
“I have not seen you in so long. I wanted to check on you but I did not have your number.”
She suddenly stops smiling and touches my shoulder. Her hand stays there firm.
“Allah will take away this pain. Allah will heal you. It was a blessing to have spent so much time with Ali.”
She smiles now and leans closer.
“We are here for you. I want you to come eat with me tomorrow night. Me and my girlfriends we get together, eat, and talk. Allah will reward us for our strength. My husband is gone now too. ”
She says this last part and I see tears form in her eyes.
“I will come, Insha’Allah.”
I have to put the cat food down when she embraces me.
(c) S.A. for Muslim American Fiction 2008-2009