Mona Talks

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2015 Barrett Winner

2nd Place Rana Makki

“You were supposed to be home hours ago. What happened to you helping me clean these photos?”

She looks up with her red-rimmed glasses at the tip of her nose. “I was doing homework in school; I’m here to help you now.”

I notice that today Nana’s hair isn’t in its usual bun. Instead it’s open, reaching her lower back, all grey and fading. I go to sit next to her. She hands me the photos and a blue album that will be their new home. I can tell she’s not focused on the old family photos, but on me.

“Did you do anything fun today? Buy some new groceries?”

“What’s it to you? It’s not like you do any cooking.” She rolls her eyes.
 As I put the first picture in, the second one, the third, the fourth and as I’m about to put the fifth one in the album, I realize that I know one of the two people in the picture. It’s a mid-eighties picture and I see the woman with the dark, long hair and the almond-shaped eyes with the big round glasses, my mother. She’s next to a guy who a little older than my mother, with a small scar on his cheek and hazel eyes. “Hey Nana, who’s the guy?,” I hand her the picture, “What? Was he like mom’s boyfriend or something?” I say when she doesn’t respond. Nana not responding makes me think that he was mom’s boyfriend. Wow, she had good taste.

“Nana, are you gonna tell me or should I keep guessing?”

“This is not time for storytelling, keep putting the pictures in” she hands me back the picture with a force and mutters something under her breath in Arabic. She doesn’t have to be so outraged with the picture. It’s just a hot dude.

“Why can’t you tell me the story while I put the pictures in? Kill two birds with one stone, huh., huh?,” I give her my award winning smile as I take another picture to put in the album.

“Hatha ibn okhti.” She says

“I didn’t know you had a nephew. You always said that you only had nieces”

“I lied.” She picks up another pile of photos and starts going through them.

“Why? What did he do?” Dirty family secrets? Don’t mind if I do.

“It doesn’t matter what he did. The better question is, why were you late every day this week?”

“I told you, I stay in school late to do homework.” I put the picture of my mom and her man in the blue album.

“Oh really, wajib even on weekends? Humph.” She hands me another pile of pictures.

“I have exams. Why is your nephew no longer part of the family?” I linger on my mother’s face before I start on the new pile.

“He was studying for exams too” She says with her heavy Arabic accent, and as cool as the arctic wind, closes the album she had with a force.

“‘A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing,’” Doctor Puckett says. My Art teacher who resembles Professor Dumbledore from Harry Potter walks to his desk and does a little swirl thing with his chair. “Do you know who said this? It was Shaw. Although he wasn’t a visual artist, he knew what he was talking about. If you try to make Art by drawing ‘inside the box,’ scared to make mistakes, your Art is redundant. It’s safe. I don’t like safe. For my class, you’ll be graded on how much Art represents you and not on how it would follow the rules.”

In a class of twenty students, sharing a workspace, it’s an organized mess. Everyone getting the utensils they need, the colors, but no one is shoving anyone. Everyone walks cautiously in fear of maybe ruining someone else’s work.

Our project is to make something that represents who we are, where we come from, and to allow the art to speak for itself. I drew a self-portrait with Hijab handcuffs and a prison covered with American Flags. Dr. Puckett comes and views it while twirling a paint brush in his hand, “What does this say?”

I look at him, wondering if he likes it. Does it even make sense to anyone but me? “It’s supposed to represent how I feel trapped by my culture but also, in a way, imprisoned by this new culture.” I tuck a loose strand of hair behind my ear.

“Hmm, keep up the good work” he says as he walks away. He never gives you input. He just asks questions and makes random comments, almost like the real Dumbledore.
As I’m packing my stuff, I see Ahmed waiting for me, looking as beautiful as ever, this time wearing a grey hoodie with tattered jeans.

“How can I help you?” I ask him with mock pretentiousness.

“I never got your name.” It’s kind of cute how he shuffles his feet around.

“I thought we agreed that you need to find that out for yourself,” I look down to hide the smile, pretending that I’m trying to put my art stuff in the bag.
“You drew this?” He looks at my drawing with awe.

I look up, “I’m a girl with many talents.”

I walk out of the class with him by my side but not talking.

We walk out to the quad and I stop next to the statue of some dude wearing a top hat that did some random thing for the college, and when I look at Ahmed, he has that look on his face that almost makes me forget how cute he is, until he opens his mouth.

“I saw you the other day in the forest with…your boyfriend?”

“What are you talking about?”

“That guy you were kissing in the forest…I know it was you!” He blocks my way with his body in a cocky stance that Arabic men have perfected. “You didn’t see anything,” I grab my stuff and push past him.

“Mona,” he screams after me, “I know you’re better than that.”

When I get into my car, I take a few deep breaths and start playing with a loose thread on my shirt as I drive to Nana’s house.

“Assalam wa alaikum,” I say as I enter the living room.

“wa alaikum al salam,” comes the reply from multiple voices.

Nana sees me and smiles, motioning for me to sit next to her with her red scarf and signature red glasses. The man that’s there looks up at me and says, “Your grandmother’s description didn’t do you justice, you’re beautiful,” and I realize that there are two women sitting next him and a boy across from them. The two women who have the eyes of detectives, one with a scarf wrapped so tight, that her face looks like a zit about to pop and, the other one, her sister, I’m guessing, looks like the bright sun…quite literally; wearing a yellow hijab with a yellow cardigan underneath it, and white pants with yellow shoes. But the boy at the party catches me off guard and looks up with an astonishment that reaches his brown eyes. Why is Ahmed here? I’m surprised with how he’s dressed, formally, like he’s going to a ceremony, and that’s when it hits me, they’re here to look at me and claim me for him.

He gets up to shake my hand and says, “Hi, I’m Ahmed, nice to meet you,”

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 assignments,” 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? It’s not like there’s a children’s factory anywhere close by. The children look American but with a certain Arabesque look 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 seems to freeze 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 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” She grabs her phone just as it starts ringing, and right before she answers it, she says, “I also bought you a dress, so you don’t have any excuses.”

Days go by and Nana has been driving me insane to prepare for this wedding. You would think that I’m preparing to get married. I start getting ready and the dress Nana bought me is absolutely gorgeous. It’s floor length blue silk dress which is perfect since I don’t have to wear an Abaya to cover my legs. It’s well-fitted and the top looks almost braided and it goes into a halter. I straighten my hair and I wear it in a messy bun with some curls lying out, and wear long silver earing that belonged to my mother.

I grab my coat as Nana starts’ opening my door, “mash Allah,” is that a tear in her eye, “you look just like your mother. I swear she was the most beautiful girl. If only you didn’t inherit everything about her” Oh, she sees the similarities. I wonder if that would make her more acceptable to me moving away to school. She’s wearing a long-sleeved Arabic dress with a matching scarf; she never takes her scarf off in public. I guess it’s an old people thing, since none of her old friends take it off either. We get there and the music is loud, and the party-fun is contagious so as we go in, I start dancing with the other girls since it’s a segregated wedding and my grandma heads to sit next to her friends. I dance for three songs back to back and then go to my grandma knowing that she has water, as I get closer, her friends start smiling at me and for some reason, and their smiles make me uneasy.

“Assalam wa alaikum, ladies” I grab a water bottle from next to my grandma, “nice seeing you” I say it more out of politeness as they all start studying me as if they’re the scientists and I am the lab rat.

“Mabrook, we hear you got engaged,” one says.

“Oh yes, mabrook, I hear your fiancé is a looker,” the other one continues the thought of the first but before any more speak out, my grandma interrupts: “She hasn’t agreed to anything yet,” she chuckles, “We’re still talking about all the arrangements”

“Are you sure?” the first one asks,

“We just saw the groom yesterday and he says that you agreed to it,” The second finishes her thought for her.

“He says you agreed to it but trying to keep it hush hush” the first one winks at me implying that she’ll keep my “secret”.

It’s as if those two ladies share the same brain. If one talks, the other seems to need to share her input as well.

“We understand if you’re trying to keep quiet about it but we’re almost like your own grandmothers,” they both chuckle and that’s when my grandma interrupts.

“Mona hasn’t said yes to anything,” Nana says sharply, “I don’t know why the groom would say that but she hasn’t agreed. I think I would know.”

They look at each other shocked as if my grandma just bitch-slapped the two of them at the same time, I hoped she would.

“Oh, maybe he was talking about another girl then,” the first says real quiet, almost afraid of saying the wrong thing

The second lady straightens up and leans in, as if she’s telling my grandma a secret, “Ahmed, “the groom,” told us that there was a girl in the forest with two guys and they almost, you know.” She widens her eyes at this to emphasis her point. “Well, apparently, she gets away but not before they kiss.” She gasps and my grandma freezes mid sip. I can tell this is Ahmed’s way of making sure I know that he will tell everyone. Now it’s just a story about another girl, and once I officially say no, he’ll let them all know it’s me he’s talking about.

The first one pitches in. “The way he described the girl. She almost looked like your girl Mona but we know that she’s too good of a girl to do such a thing.” They both smile at me

“Shu- Shukran,’ I manage to say, there’s sweat on the back of my neck and my hands are starting to shake.

“Are you okay?” they simultaneously ask, one in Arabic and one in English.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

Nana looks at me and I know she knows it’s me. I turn to look at the bride. She does look so awfully happy. She’s dancing with her man all lovey.

“How dare you do those things?” Nana yells at me the second we enter the house. She was so quiet the entire ride from the wedding, holding the steering wheel as if it’s her life line, I was hoping that she’d just give me the silent treatment instead of...this.

“Nothing happened!” I say as she throws her bag down, and the party favors fall out. They’re just a bunch of dollar store candy.

“Nothing happened? Apparently it did!”

“Nana I swear nothing happened! I stopped it.” Please, please understand, I think.

“The party just proved that you didn’t stop it!” Her face is getting redder and redder, “Your reputation is going to be destroyed, KHALAS! You will marry Ahmed as soon as possible.” She takes her glasses off, and rubs her eyes, suddenly tired.

“Nana,” I come closer to her, tears in my eyes. “I don’t want to marry Ahmed,”

She doesn’t say anything, and goes to pick her purse up.

“Nana, he’s trying to scare me into marrying him! He’s the one that spread that story, I swear!” By now, I’m crying and wishing she would go back to yelling, “I can’t marry him.”

“It’s a good thing it’s not up to you,” I hear as I run up the stairs to my room crying.

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 still can’t keep still. They’ve been talking for over two hours now and I’m too afraid to eavesdrop. What if they’re fighting? What if he doesn’t convince her? What if she still insists on me getting married? I don’t think I have ever been so stressed. Will she let me go? I want to go. I can see myself in my dorm doing what I love to do without the stress of having to hide from the eyes of society all the time. 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, and I kind of wish that I had a ring on to have something to do with my hands.

“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 and I wonder, is that it? But then she starts again, “I always thought I knew her best and I was her confidant, 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, something to ease her pain, her heartache but I’m not good at this. I’ve never seen her so broken before.

“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.