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“And your beba?”
She looked away again. It was a Wednesday, Friday was Jumu’ah, and across the street Mr. Mameri was closing shop, rolling the steel gate down over his store window. Khalida shifted her weight from one foot to the other in a nervous dance. “I — I … I don’t think so. I don’t know.”
I began walking again.
“Aysha,” she called after me. Her voice sounded raw, as if she was crying. “Aysha, wait.”
I did not stop. But after school on Saturday I waited until she stepped out, laughing, with another girl. When she saw me she grew quiet, came up to my side. I handed her the piece of baklawa I had saved from break and she accepted it, her eyes hovering around my shoulders. When I started to walk, slowly, she fell into step with me.
We began to get rid of things. Only two suitcases each on the boat, my mother said, and one of mine would be for linens. My father had sold the business, so we would leave everything in the store exactly as it was for the new owners. I imagined the great wooden bowl half-filled with batter, the makrout simmering and the floor dusty with flour when we walked out and they walked in. I did not know the man who bought it, I had not met him, but I knew he would be moving into our home with his wife and three sons. I tried to imagine it: three boys in my tiny bedroom. They would not want pink-striped curtains. They would scuff the clean white walls, fight and curse. I pictured them clearly, each a smaller version of the next, with clenched fists and puckered mouths, and I hated them. As for the man and his wife, they would not know our kitchen the way we did. They would not know that the back left corner of the oven burned hottest, that the black smudge on the ceiling came from the time I set my doll on fire. I had held her to one of the great burners to sniff the flames that burst from it like flowers. Her hair had congealed into a crusted black mat, her eyes were burned permanently open. They would know none of these things, and their makrout would be too jaw-achingly sweet, their baklawa sodden.
We would leave everything as it was in the store, but they did not want our furniture, this family. They had their own. Pieces of furniture began vanishing from our house. One day I came home from school and the coffee table was gone, another the matching pink vases, then the polished oak bench at the back door. Next went my small yellow dresser, my clothes in neat piles on a sheet of newsprint. Mr. Mameri came one afternoon and took away the velvet-upholstered living room chairs as my mother watched, kneading her hands and smiling palely. Only the prayer mat and a framed photo of the Kaaba remained in the living room when he had left. My father knelt upon the mat for evening prayers like nothing had changed, but his murmured words bounced around the naked room as if they could not find a place to settle.
We walked through a house emptied of all but mattresses and scattered piles, mustard lines on the walls to show where our furniture used to be, and our voices echoed in the strange new spaces. But with each day that passed, with each item that vanished, my fear receded a little, as if the less there was binding us to the Casbah, the more lenient the Casbah became. What replaced my fear was the burgeoning sadness, which gradually calcified into the longing that has never left me.
“Don’t you want to see it?” Khalida asked.
I did not need to ask her what she meant. She hadn’t brought it up since we resumed our friendship. This was the theme that had led us into rough, arid terrain; the burns of our sojourn there were still fresh. But I was emigrating in four days. There was not a lot of time left.
“Have you shown anyone else?”
“Of course not.”
We were in the bedroom she shared with her three younger sisters. One of them, Shada, was sitting on the floor playing with scraps of colored paper. She watched us furtively until Khalida hissed at her like a cat.
“Well?” Khalida’s black eyes were full of challenge. “Aren’t you curious?”
I was. Many times I had wondered what could possibly be so mysterious, but also there had been much else to occupy me. Over the weeks our customers had ebbed until yesterday the bell on the storefront door tinkled only three times. The sweets shone in their neat rows, whole platters untouched. My father’s eyes were not soft on my mother or on me; his voice was nearly always brusque. I still watched him, but I could not read his mind, could not tell whether he was absorbed by guilt or worry. Two days earlier, while my mother was dipping katayef in syrup, I saw that the shine on her face was not only beads of sweat. She was crying without making a sound, her face utterly normal, her movements sure and direct as ever. When I placed a hand on her arm she brushed it gently off.
I knew that following Khalida to this mystery meant taking streets my parents would not want me to take, and I did not want to add further to the strain they already felt. So while I was curious, also I was hesitant. “Tell me what it is,” I said.
Khalida shook her head vigorously, so her braid whipped into my face. I pushed her and she giggled.
A strange expression passed over her face. It reminded me of my father when he was praying. “You wouldn’t believe me,” she said, finally.
“Show me,” I said.
Khalida’s mother was not like mine; she did not pay attention to whether Khalida was home or not, so long as she was back by nightfall. We just walked out through the store. Her father was slumped on a chair behind the iced shelves of meat, reading the newspaper, chewing on the end of a smoked cigarette. I had not seen him since Khalida and I fought; usually I came in the back door and stayed inside the house. I tasted bile in my mouth and I could not look at him, at his walrus jowls and greasy hands. This was the man who was most likely to blame for our unbought sweets, for my mother’s silent weeping. He grunted when he saw us, but I did not even look his way, did not offer the respectful greeting a good child should always offer a grown-up. I felt his eyes on me as we walked between the hanging slabs of meat. “Your mother doesn’t need you?” he barked at Khalida.
“No, Beba,” she said demurely. “I will be home very soon.”
When we were outside I cast a hard glance back, but he was slumped over his newspaper again, and only the milky eyes of a sheep’s head stared my way.
Khalida took my hand, squeezed it tightly. I was flooded with gratitude for my loyal best friend, who had chosen to believe me over her own beba.
She pointed to the left, past my house.
I shook my head. “My father might see me.”