I realize that there are a pair of well-worn men’s brown loafers in front of the door next to the shoe cabinet that were not there before. What’s going on? The plates are clattering in the kitchen and I remember that I haven’t said anything yet so I quietly shout-out, “Assalam wa alaikum.”
“Mona, ta’ali,” Nana yells back to me, and I realize we have guests. I hope it isn’t another mother trying to claim me for her son. I hang my jacket on the coat hanger as I head to the dining room but first, I look at my reflection and I don’t like what I see. I pinch my cheeks and straighten my hair, trying to contain it. Maybe these suitors are better than the former ones.
Why is there a guy at the table with my grandma? And why isn’t she wearing her hijab?
“Hello,” he says to me smiling, but it doesn’t come out right. The bald man next to my Nana has tan skin and sad eyes, and his smile begs for forgiveness, but for what? Did he steal her favorite recipe?
“Hello,” I reply.
“My name is Mason,” and then follows with, “but you can call me Muhsin,” when he sees Nana tense, and I know that this stranger is important to us, somehow. “Mona! Don’t be rude, talk to him,” Nana yells at me but I can tell that she isn’t really mad. The man with the sad eyes looks up, “She looks just like her mother…beautiful.” “You know my mother? Wait, who are you?” The second I finish that sentence, it hits me. I see scar on his cheek and round eyes that when he was younger, would’ve broken a billion hearts. My mother’s mystery guy.
“I’m your uncle,” he says quietly and even though I figured it out, it still shocks me. “Mona…Go bring the tea, and bring cookies for our guest,” Nana orders and my body moves without me telling it to do that. “Why are you here, Muhsin?” Nana asks. I sit the tea tray in the living room and sit by her on the sofa. Her gray hair in a messy bun and the wrinkles on her face look deeper than usual. “You decided to betray the family. You were engaged to my daughter, and you decided to leave her to marry a kafira. What do you want now?” Her voice getting louder. “Khala,” he says, voice filled with regret, “I’m sorry for breaking of the engagement to marry Christina but I loved her. I couldn’t marry a woman I didn’t love, and I’m sorry for angering the family but I’m not sorry for marrying someone else.” “Love? Love comes after marriage. It’s haram to love without marriage.” Nana says. “Khalas, what happened in the past is over and cannot be changed. But, how is she? How’s Ahlam?” he says. Ahlam? That’s my mother. My dead mother and from the looks of it, he doesn’t know what happened. “Ahlam,” Nana says hollowly, “Ahlam and Khalid died in an accident.” Nana ignores the shock on his face and continues, “She wouldn’t have died if you would’ve just married her.” “Hold on,” I interrupt, “you were supposed to marry my mother?” I ask Muhsin, and his eyes look sadder. “Nana! Why didn’t you tell me this?” I look at her sharply and that’s when I notice her hands are knotted together, as if trying to crush an invisible force. “I-I thought you knew,” Muhsin says and starts to tap his fingers on his knee. “It’s not your business to know,” Nana says but she doesn’t look at me when she says it. She blinks a few times trying to hide her tears. “Mona,” Muhsin says hesitantly, he picks up the glass of water, looks at it, and puts it down, as if he forgot what it was for, “why don’t you give me and your grandma some privacy?” “Yes Mona, habibi, I’ll talk to you later,” Nana agrees. I leave and as I leave, I hear Muhsin telling Nana about his life with his wife, Christina, and does he say kids? My grandma is quiet but I know that he reminds her of my mom and her past.
It’s 7 a.m. and I haven’t slept yet. My brown eyes look like the darkness of a cave and the bags underneath are the mountains. I take my hair out of the pony tail and start brushing it, and it hits me that it is really long but also, it’s bland. Its reddish hue is nothing interesting and the length, I can’t do much with it.
I head downstairs for breakfast and I stop when I realize that Muhsin is still there. I thought he left but I guess Nana made him stay. I think as I see him making himself at home that my grandma is incredibly ‘aware’ of the non-Arabic culture because inviting a guy to spend a night who you haven’t seen in years, that’s not weird at all. He’s wearing a suit and it shows how big he actually is. He’s probably a little over six feet and he has a belly, like all Arab men. “Sabah al khair,” I say, entering the kitchen and it catches him off guard.
He smiles and says, “You look just like her, you know. When she was your age, she was filled with life.” He takes a sip from his cup of tea. I grab a mug and pour me some tea. “Don’t talk about my mother like you cared for her; apparently you didn’t even love her enough to stay.” I take a sip.
“I didn’t leave your mother because I didn’t love her. I left her because she didn’t love me,”
I catch my cup before it tips over, “What? Nana said that you left her for Christina.”
“That’s what we decided to tell your grandma,” he chuckles as he traces the opening of the mug with his finger. I go to take a seat next to him, “You...what?” He looks at me gently, like a doctor giving good news to a parent, “Your mother didn’t want to get married but your grandmother wouldn’t let her back-out. She wanted to wait on marriage and follow her dreams.” He smiles, recalling back memories. “It’s easier on her reputation if I backed out, instead of her.” He takes a slow, long sip of his tea. “Is that how my mother got to finish college and work? By not marrying you?” I say, maybe, I could be like my mother.
I lean in and put my elbows on the table and I see the wind blowing outside and I think that maybe, just maybe. There’s a chance for me after all. He pushes the chair back, stands up and sighs, goes to the sink and washes his cup but not giving me an answer.
“Well,” I say, “Is that what you’re telling me?” I repeat, getting excited. I curl my fingers, hoping, and that’s when Nana comes in.
“What are you two talking about?” Nana asks still in her night gown and waddling to sit next to me at the table.
He kisses her cheek. “Khala, I’m just telling her how much like her mother she is,” he winks at me and I take that as a yes.
As I take a seat in my Art class, Doctor Puckett motions for me to come to him; I untangle myself from my numerous bags and as I’m walking towards him, I almost trip by stepping on one of my shoe laces, he chuckles to himself as he scratches his wizard-like beard.
“You beckoned?” I ask him with a smile.
“Indeed I beckoned you over,” he says it with a smile, “I just didn’t want you to hurt yourself on your way here.”
“Well, it’ll please you to know Doctor, that I did not hurt myself.”
“I called you to ask you about your piece that you showed me last time, “The Invisible Handcuff” he looks down on his notepad while saying this.
“What was wrong with it? Is it not good? I can fix it!” I’m starting to fiddle with my shirt, and pull the loose thread from my pants.
“No no not at all, nothing is wrong with it, actually, and I hope you don’t get offended by this, but I took the liberty to submit it to the School of Fine Arts,” He slowly pulls out papers from a folder behind him, and I see paint on his hands and wrists, “They sent in this for you to see.”
“What is this?” I’m hesitant but he insists on me taking it. It’s a thick envelope that is very much official.
“They loved your piece so much and asked for more of your art, so I sent them your old assignment,” He’s looking at me, waiting for my reaction.
“And..? What’s with the envelope?”
“They want you to be a part of their program. I mentioned to them that money might be an issue but they’re offering you a full ride to go to their school.” He says this with pride in his eyes, “I know it’s a few hundred miles away but it’s an opportunity you shouldn’t miss.”
How will Nana respond?
As I open the door, a couple of children are running around and plates clatter. But why are there even kids in the house? The children look American but with a certain Arabesque tint about them.
“Assalam wa Alakum” I say too quiet for anyone to hear.
I go into the kitchen and there’s an older woman with shoulder length blonde hair, and blue eyes sitting next to Muhsen smiling politely. That must be Christina.
“Hey Nana, I’m home” I say with hesitation.
“I don’t have dinner ready. Next time call before you come,” Nana says scowling at Christina. She has her hair up in her signature bun but instead of her usual house gown, she has pants on and an apron covering her shirt, “for once, she’s home on time,” she rolls her eyes at me but then I see her eyes going up and down as if to check for any…damages, “go change and help me get ready for dinner, we have house guests that decided to surprise us,” she looks sideways at Christina in the most obvious manner.
“Hey Muhsin,” I say smiling gently seeing how tense his shoulders are by how his sitting, “Hey, you must be Christina. I’m Mona.” I shake her hand and she smiles grateful for a friendly face. She gets up to give me a hug and says, “I’ve heard so much about you from Muhsin,” My grandma freezes slightly as she’s cutting the onions, it’s as if Mushin talking about me is a volcanic eruption. “You are nothing like he described. Much prettier,” she laughs.
“What could’ve he had said about her? He only met her once,” Nana spits out the words, “He must’ve been thinking about my daughter, his first fiancée,” Muhsin’s head snaps to her as she says this.
He talks to her in Arabic, I hear “please” and “stop” and the rest is lost on me.
“Excuse me,” I head to leave the room, “I’m off to change.”
After dinner, as we sit around the table in the living room, drinking our tea and the kids are sleeping on the sofa, intertwined with each other. The girl’s head is on her mother’s lap and the boy has his feet on top of his sister.
My grandma starts talking about her friend Ibtisam and how she has a daughter that is getting married soon. She says it while looking at me, as if trying to tell me, get married now. She tells us how Ibtisam’s daughter’s husband is a nice fellow with a good job and how her daughter will finally be a woman and this is where Muhsin interrupts.
“A girl doesn’t have to be married in order to be a woman, khala” he says as gently as he can without offending Nana.
“No! A girl will always be a girl until there’s a man by her side to protect her from society and takes care of her” She smacks down her mug and it surprises me how it’s still intact, “Anyways, I will not argue with you about your ignorance,” she says this while looking at Christina, telling her that she is a mistake that shouldn’t have happened, without actually speaking.
“Nana, why did you mention this random friend of yours and her daughter?” I try to get her back on the topic and take a sip from my neon green mug. That was my mother’s favorite color.
“Well, Ibtisam invited us to her daughter’s wedding and I know how much you love weddings, so you’re going. I also bought you a dress, so you don’t have any excuses.”
I go to up to my room and as I get ready for bed, I hear a knock at the door.
A familiar voice says, “Oh, assalam wa alaikum Muhsin.”
“Assalam wa alaikum Khala,” I can see him as he kisses Nana on the forehead.
“Wa alaikum alsalam, where’s your kafira today and her little demon children?” she shoots out. “Khala, ana mush hina ashan hatha alkalam,” I don’t understand what he just said.
She sighs and I swear I can see some of her soul coming out with that exhaled breath, “Muhsin, why are you here?”
“I need to talk to you about Ahlam,” he says in a solemn tone.
I can’t keep still. They’ve been talking for over two hours now and I’m too afraid to eavesdrop. I’m so deep in my thoughts that I don’t hear my grandma knocking and when she lets herself in, I jump in surprise.
“Hey child,” she says gently, and I’m immediately suspicious.
“What’s going on?” I can tell she’s nervous, she’s fiddling with her wedding ring on her finger, turning it round and round.
“As you saw, Muhsin and I were talking,” she says in a low voice, “he told me about your mother…my daughter,” she looks down and stays quiet. But then she starts again, “I always thought I knew her best, but I guess she didn’t trust me enough to tell me herself about not wanting him.”
“Nana…” I wish I had something to say to her.
“I called Ahmed’s family and cancelled all the arrangements,” she smiles with a vacancy in her eyes.
“Nana, I’m …sorry about everything, ana asif.”
“I know,” she stops playing with her ring and gets up to leave, kisses me on my forehead and before she walks out, she says, “Tomorrow is a new day, we need to start preparing for you to go to school” and she shuts the door behind her. I get off my bed after she shuts the door, and pull out the prayer rug to pray.