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Lamya puts on her white scrubs, locks her office door, and heads upstairs to the men’s cancer ward to check on her terminal senior patients. She feels guilty for working the night shift instead of spending the evening with her mum, but it was easier this way. She takes the stairs, stained with old blood and dirt, and wishes they were cleaner. In the corridor, she sees a patient sitting on the floor, cross-legged, a mirror in one hand, a razor in the other, shaving his beard. He smiles, embarrassed: “I have no other resort, Doctor. You know how hard it is to find a free bathroom around here!” She smiles and nods in agreement.
On the third floor she pushes the ward door open and finds herself in the middle of a striptease. A nightshift nurse—whom she doesn’t recognize—is down to her undergarments belly dancing for the patients, who are clapping and waving cash at her from their bunk beds. They all freeze when they see Lamya. She fixes her eyes on the nurse. She notices her bare feet against the cold granite floor. The cheap belly-dancing scarf, still around her hips, shimmers under the bare ceiling light. The bra strap on her right shoulder is loose and frazzled. Lamya’s eyes follow the little drips of sweat running down the woman’s side as she reaches to pick up her nurse’s coat, revealing stubby underarms smudged with the chalky paste of melted deodorant. She guesses she is in her mid-thirties. She is ordinary looking with a thin frame and firm, narrow hips. Her features are plain, and her thick hair, reddish and brittle from henna, is pulled back tightly into a small bun. Lamya begins to feel sorry for her, then realizes as the woman shoots her a cold look that this is not someone who likes to be pitied: she did not like being caught, but she is not sorry. Lamya watches her dress slowly, unhurriedly, as if she has not just been caught stripping in a ward full of dying men.
Lamya watches the nurse from her office door as she disappears down the corridor, her body erect, her narrow hips swaying, and feels something almost like envy.
In Lamya’s office, the nurse begins to explain that she needs the extra cash. She goes home every morning—feet swollen, smelling of blood and vomit—to a husband who also reeks of vomit. He likes his drink and beats her up when she doesn’t hand him her salary at the end of the month. She reports this matter-of-factly as if she is relaying somebody else’s life. Lamya will not report her; nothing good can come of her losing her job.
“You know what you are doing is illegal, right?” Lamya keeps her voice neutral.
“With all due respect, Doctor, the law seems only to apply to the poor. Those who commit the real crimes, who embezzle hospitals’ funds, are never caught. Those men at the ward you are concerned about are eating the worst food and sleeping on worn-out mattresses with springs digging into their flesh.” She continues undeterred. “And what I did is not bad for them, they are so close to death and may never get another chance to be seduced by a woman.”
Lamya is livid. The nurse is not wrong about the conditions of public hospitals, but to insinuate that she was stripping for the patients’ benefit! Sensing Lamya’s anger, the nurse rearranges herself quickly on the edge of her chair and looks nervous for the first time.
“Look doctor, I don’t mean anything by it. I am just trying to make ends meet.”
Lamya needs to get back to her patients. She stands up to signal an end to the meeting.
“I will not report you this time, but if this happens again, I will, and you will lose your license.”
Lamya watches the nurse from her office door as she disappears down the corridor, her body erect, her narrow hips swaying—her walk slow, almost arrogant—and feels something almost like envy.
• • •
Her mother was terrified of her developing teenage body, forbidding her from wearing anything that would accentuate it. Even now there was a part of her that felt wrong about wearing tight clothes.
Since she arrived four days ago, Rashida has been watching her daughter Lamya closely: the intense daily hikes from which she comes back red-faced, drenched in sweat, her insatiable appetite, her jaws tight, as if she is ready to sink her teeth into someone’s flesh. She hears her open the front door, still panting from her workout. She picks the brass teapot from the stove, adds mint and jasmine just as her daughter likes it, and calls her to the kitchen to have breakfast. Lamya grabs two oranges and begins devouring them before making her way to the table next to Rashida. Lamya kisses her on the cheek and proceeds to stack her plate with the spread Rashida has prepared: rye toast, fried eggs, feta, and cured olives. “You don’t have to look so shocked, Mum,” Lamya says, grinning without lifting her eyes from her plate.
Rashida smiles, reaching for the tea tray in front of her to pour them each a steaming cup. The aroma of mint and jasmine fills the kitchen. “Is it that obvious?” Rashida is reminded of how perceptive her daughter is, a trait she inherited from her late father. She has to be more careful about hiding her thoughts, she tells herself. “I just wish you had the same appetite when you lived with me. I used to beg you to eat. I wish you listened to me then!” She tries to sound playful, unbothered. “I love seeing you eating well and taking care of yourself. The weight looks good on you. I always told you a few pounds would give you the fullness you need!”
Lamya remembers otherwise. Her mother was terrified of her developing teenage body, forbidding her from wearing anything that would accentuate it. Even now there was a part of her that felt wrong about wearing tight clothes.
“Your granddad accused me of starving you!” Rashida adds smiling, shaking her head as she drizzled olive oil on her toast. “You were just fine by most people’s standards, but not his! Any woman who was not a plus size was skinny according to your grandpa!” They both chuckle at this.
“He definitely loved hefty women!” Lamya agrees. “Remember what he used to say about Auntie Rahma? ‘Now that is a woman who is not scared of taking up space!’” She mimics her grandfather’s voice. Rashida squeals in agreement. “And how is Rahma doing?” Lamya continues with her performance. “Such an interesting woman to talk to! Why doesn’t she come around more often?” They were laughing heartily now remembering how obvious he was, this man they adored.
“That used to drive your grandma crazy! ‘He is so unhinged!’ she used to say. ‘I wish he did not have to blurt out every silly thing that went through his mind!’”
Lamya feels a familiar pang in her stomach. She stands up and begins clearing the table to distract herself from thinking about her grandparents. Most of the conversations between her and her mum are about the past and the people they have lost. It was her father who first left, then her grandmother, then her grandfather. They were the only family she and her mum had. She finds herself contemplating her mum’s death.
Rashida’s thoughts drift to Rahma. She does not have the heart to tell her daughter that the vivacious, curvy woman with whom her grandfather was so enamored hasn’t come out of her house in three months, since a stroke left her face half paralyzed. She and Rashida graduated from the teachers’ academy together and worked in the same high school for almost three decades. When they were younger, Rahma was stunning, with the body of a sculpted goddess and a warm, disarming personality. Rashida sighs and wonders for the umpteenth time if it was Rahma’s innocence, her innate optimism that prevented her from seeing the writing on the wall. But they were all optimistic then. It was 1972 and they were the first generation of teachers to work in postindependence Morocco. They too felt independent, full of hope, believing there was room for them to work alongside the men and share in the future vision of the country. But that wasn’t the case. What was expected of them was to move aside and let the men do all the envisioning, while they juggled work both inside and outside the home. After a day of teaching, when their male colleagues went to sit in the cafes, they had to hurry home to bathe their babies and cook dinner for their husbands, struggling to keep a balance, hiring other women with fewer means to look after their children when they were at work.
Rashida remembers the phone call from the police station. Rahma was not coming to school, the voice said. She was at the station being charged with adultery. She was caught in her home with a man who was not her husband.
She reaches for her red lipstick, the only item of makeup she owns and the one practice that survived her days with Amin, her boyfriend of seven years and the man she was supposed to marry.
They all knew Rahma was unhappy in her marriage, but none of them predicted it. It did not matter her husband had already abandoned her bed, that he had a Spanish girlfriend in Ceuta he practically lived with. He was a lawyer from a well-to-do Moroccan family, grew up in Ceuta and considered himself superior because of it. In his mind, he was Spanish, not Moroccan. When his family disapproved of his Spanish girlfriend and arranged his marriage to Rahma, he blamed her for all of it. He abandoned her and went back to his girlfriend as soon as he did his duty and got her pregnant. That is until he caught a whiff of her affair. He bought himself a pair of binoculars then, hid in his car, and waited for Rahma to receive her lover, then called the police. They were there within minutes, ready with handcuffs. He dropped the charges, which they all knew he would, because it was never about that. Rahma’s affair was exposed and that was all that mattered. Her parents disowned her, her son went to live with his father in Ceuta, and shame stuck to her, squeezing the life out of her, leaving her at last alone and half paralyzed.
The blaring ringtone of Lamya’s phone snaps Rashida out of her thoughts. It is Mona calling to confirm Friday’s lunch at Lamya’s. The invitation came from Rashida, who likes to invite Lamya’s close friends over when she is visiting. It is how she stays connected to her daughter’s world. Sadly, she learns more about her daughter from them than she does from her. But she is particularly excited about this gathering because she will get to meet Mona and Younes’s newborn.
She waits for Lamya to get off the phone. It feels like a good moment to give Lamya the kaftan, a surprise she planned for her months ago when she discovered Lamya did not have one. But she finds herself hesitating. The exquisite handcrafted gift that took months in the making, that was embroidered and embellished in silver, was still in its velvet wrapping, sitting in her suitcase. She feels ridiculous.
“My darling” she blurts, “I know you did not ask for a kaftan, but I had one made for you anyway.” She smiles. Tries to keep her voice cheerful, casual. “Maybe you can wear it this Friday when your friends come over?”
Lamya does not notice the slight strain in her mum’s voice. Her mind elsewhere, thinking about Mona and Younes and wishing she did not have to see them on Friday. She absentmindedly thanks her mother for the kaftan and disappears inside her room. Rashida stares at her empty glass of tea, crestfallen that her daughter did not even ask to see the kaftan.
• • •
The attendant hands her the keys and the cleaning bill. She looks at her car and sighs. It is still dirty. They both know it. But he will try to get away with it because he does not think she can fend for herself.
She has to act normal, Lamya reminds herself as she dries off from her shower. Her mum has been watching her like a hawk since arriving four days ago. She inspects herself in the mirror, unaware of the deep frown beginning to form on her otherwise flawless face, which is framed by dark curly hair that flows down to her shoulders. Her eyes are a dark brown, deep-set and intelligent, like her father’s. But her most distinguishing feature is her lips, thick and inviting, offsetting the seriousness of her demeanor and giving her an allure even she does not fully comprehend. But what Lamya sees when she looks in the mirror is a thirty-seven-year-old woman whose chances of having children are dwindling by the day. She reaches for her red lipstick, the only item of makeup she owns and the one practice that survived her days with Amin, her boyfriend of seven years and the man she was supposed to marry. She scoffed when he first bought her the lipstick. It was too loud for her personality, she said, but she felt an instant thrill once she put it on. With time it became a fixture on her face. She feels almost naked without it now.
Outside, she makes her way to the garage where she left her car the day before for a detailed cleaning. The soft morning light envelops her like a cloak. Early days of spring, the air feels crisp tickling her face and nostrils. The trees lining the main avenue whoosh gently. Their rustling will soon be drowned out by the frantic sounds of morning traffic. She is not looking forward to her daily commute to the hospital. It is the one aspect of her job she does not enjoy. She slows down to prolong her walk, enjoying the sound of her heels against the pavement, savoring these moments of a city still waking up. She feels guilty for lying to her mum. She could have easily taken the evening off, but she needs some time for herself away from her mother’s probing eyes.
A knot forms in her stomach as she thinks of Mona’s call that morning. The last time she saw her was at the hospital six weeks ago. She remembers Younes’s voice on her answering machine. “Mona delivered,” he reported cheerfully. “It is a baby boy. Both Mona and the baby are fine.” She headed to the hospital immediately. She can still sense the aching she felt in the pit of her stomach when she held him. She found herself studying his face for traces of Younes and Mona but realized it was a useless exercise. He was a purplish blob, undistinguished, like all newborns. She watched Mona feed him, saw him pull at her nipple until it disappeared in his mouth. She wondered if it hurt, then realized it wouldn’t matter. Mona was already smitten with the little creature. Lamya wanted to cry. In college, she and Mona competed over the names they wanted for their future babies, adding new ones to their repertoire every time they met someone with a name they liked. She made an excuse and left, relieved she did not bump into Younes. He was the last person she wanted to see.
The boisterous voice of a street vendor wakes her up from her thoughts. He blows her a kiss as she crosses the street. She grits her teeth. At the garage the attendant peeks at her from his kiosk, then hands her the keys and the cleaning bill. She looks at her car and sighs. It is still dirty. They both know it. But he will try to get away with it because he does not think she can fend for herself. She knows he has already inspected her ring finger and her car for the signs of a husband. She walks back to the kiosk, tells him the car is still dirty, he tells her he does not know what she is talking about. Without saying a word, she slaps half of the money on the counter and walks to her car, crunching the balance slip between her fingers. “You haughty bitch! You think you’re all that! What you are is expired goods!” he yells after her as she gets in her car and drives off. She wishes she could sink her teeth in his flesh.
She is in the thick of rush hour traffic now. The guy next to her keeps drifting into her lane as if oblivious to her existence. She presses hard and long on the horn. He blares his back at her, pressing longer, making a point. He pulls so close behind her that he nearly collides with her bumper. She knows he is only bullying her because he can. He drives up beside her again, invading her lane. She pulls the window down and screams at him, calls him an asshole, tells him to fuck off. He snickers, revealing a mouth crammed with teeth, and zooms away, pleased with himself.
Traffic is at a standstill now, the worse part of her commute. She wonders what her mum is doing. She wants to call her, then decides against it. She reaches into the glove compartment for the unopened letter she received the day before. It is from her former professor who runs a clinic in Montreal, inviting her for a summer residency. She has been trying to convince Lamya for years to come work with her, but she knows Lamya likes her job and has no interest in relocating. Lamya smiles as she refolds the letter.
She stares at the long line of traffic ahead. Although she and her mum are not as close as they used to be, she is happy to see her. She is the only family she has left. She was nine years old when her dad passed away, making her mother a widow at twenty-nine. A car hit him on his way home from the hospital where he worked as an accountant. He died instantly. “As simple as that,” her mother always said. But it was anything but simple. He died the same day her mum left him. She was punishing him for another one of his missteps involving a woman. Lamya knew her father never meant to hurt her mum with his affairs—women were his weakness—but he did, and Rashida resented him.
Lamya was ridden with guilt when he died. She realized that, just like her mum, she too was punishing him. She began to yearn for the closeness they had when she was little, when he was her hero, those early years when he included her in his world, made her feel like a grown-up. He was a botanist at heart, loved plants and filled their apartment with them. He taught her their names and their habits, showed her how to water them and wipe their leaves. She couldn’t wait for Sundays when they both slipped into their shorts and flip-flops, lined up all the plants in their big bathtub and gently sprayed them with the shower hose. The sheer volume of foliage spilling over the edges of the bathtub and the intoxicating smell of parched earth being soaked with water enchanted her, filled her with pride. She was sharing in a magical world with her dad where the bathtub was a miniature forest of their own making.
‘Your husband will not leave me alone. He has been blowing me kisses from your balcony since I moved in. Please tame your husband! I am new in the building and I don’t want people talking!’
Lamya was seven or eight years old when she pulled away from her dad, not because of her mum, but because of what she wished she had never witnessed, her father and the maid wrestling in the dark in her parents’ bedroom. She was let out of school early that day, surprised to find their apartment door unlocked, a soft sound of groaning drawing her to her parents’ bedroom. It took her a moment to make out their silhouettes among the ruffled bed sheets, their sweaty faces, lit by the few fragments of light seeping through the shutters. She retraced her steps, walking slowly, carefully until she was out of the apartment, her father’s betrayal a lump in her throat. She never told her mother what she saw that day.
They were at her grandparents’ house when they received the news of his death. It was after an ominous visit from a new neighbor, a tall, hefty woman in tight fuchsia pants and gold heels. Her hair was short, cropped, exposing a thick muscular neck, her movements choreographed, theatrical as if she were performing for an audience, the girlish faltering of the thickly mascaraed eyes, the rhythmic gesticulating of hands, heavy with bangles, jaws noisily masticating gum. From the hallway, Lamya watched her body tower over her mum’s as they exchanged pleasantries, her large breasts, like two cushions, too close to her mum’s face. She knew her mother, who valued modesty and discreetness, was not going to invite this woman in.
“Lalla Rashida, I did not come here for trouble,” Lamya heard the woman say, “but your husband will not leave me alone. He has been blowing me kisses from your balcony since I moved in. Please tame your husband! I am new in the building and I don’t want people talking!” Lamya’s heart began to beat fast. She realized trouble was exactly what this woman came for. She felt instantly guilty for being impressed with her.
“I don’t know you, nor do I have any business with you, good or bad,” she recalls her mother’s icy response. “Please don’t come knocking on my door again.” Without a word of explanation to Lamya, her mother packed their bags and called her grandfather to come get them. A few hours later, the call came. Her dad did not even make it to the hospital. Lamya reaches for tissues in the dashboard, feeling ridiculous for getting so emotional. She is constantly on the verge of crying these days. She concentrates on the road, hoping she can make her turn before the light changes.
Her mother’s gesture touched her. She could do with a new kaftan. The only good kaftan she ever owned was her engagement kaftan, which she wore only once. It was a beautiful velvet, also a gift from her mother. She was in the thick of finals then. It was Rashida who picked the design and the fabrics, oversaw the handy work, chose the right silver stilettoes to go with the kaftan’s blue. On the morning of her engagement, all Lamya had to do was hand herself to her mum and the hairdresser, who were waiting for her together in her mum’s living room.
Amin looked at her with so much awe that day. They were together for seven years, all through medical school. He was the first person she ever dated, her first love, brought into her orbit by pure luck when they were assigned to work together on a class project. They saw each other every day that week, and by the end of it he told her he was in love with her. She did not know how to take it. Her mother made it clear she did not want her to date yet. She was concerned romance would distract her from her studies. And though Lamya agreed with her mother, she found herself saying yes to Amin. She too was falling in love with him. He was attentive, funny, lighthearted, and, like her dad, he loved her intelligence and made her feel like a grown-up.
She is at the hospital at last, feeling like she needs another shower and another breakfast after her drive. She parks and heads to the cafeteria to grab a café au lait and a croissant. Luckily, she still has an hour before her rounds. She sits on her desk, still thinking about Amin, remembering how it all came crashing down. She and Amin were walking back to his car after a day at the beach, their fingers locked, their bodies glistening, still wet from swimming, the soft evening sun kissing their backs. She was feeling especially relaxed because the seven years of medical school were behind her, the sleepless nights of studying, the long assignments, the endless exams. She was excited about starting her residency and getting a monthly salary at last. She went to pick up her towel from the back seat of the car when she saw a flip phone wedged between the cushions. It didn’t look familiar. She opened it and scrolled through the explicit text messages. She couldn’t bring herself to go through all of them. She looked at Amin leaning against the car with his back to her, singing a stupid love song, and all she saw was darkness.
• • •
Rashida was sipping mint tea and making an errands list for the day. She wanted to stop by the market to pick up the rest of the ingredients for Friday’s lunch. She enjoyed not being on a schedule. Before her retirement a few years ago, the thought filled her with dread, but then to her surprise she found she enjoyed having time for herself, being on her own, delving into all those projects she had postponed for years. She did miss her colleagues though. They were like family to her. She even received a marriage proposal before she left. She smiles as she remembers how surprised she was to see her colleague Dawoud in a suit that day, undeterred by the sweltering heat of the summer, how nervous he looked when he came to see her at her office, wiping the sweat off his face with his white handkerchief. “Lalla Rashida, what do you say to us spending these remaining precious years of our lives together?”
‘Forgiveness? You? After everything you put dad through? You think I don’t remember how you punished him with your silences?’
But Rashida gave up on marriage a long time ago. Her husband’s sudden death jolted her, left her frozen in time. She was deeply in love with him, despite herself, which is why she could never leave him for good despite his infidelity. She tortured herself long after he was gone, wondering what was wrong with her, why she wasn’t enough for him, why he needed all those women. But he died and took all the answers with him.
She did not want the same life for her daughter, which is why she tried to dissuade her from ending her engagement to Amin. Lamya resented her for it, accused her of siding with Amin when all Rashida wanted was to protect her from the potential of a life of loneliness. Amin was good for her. He appreciated her. He knew how to make her happy. But Lamya did not see it that way. Rashida remembers the day they had their big fight, when Lamya overheard Rashida on the phone with Amin and that was enough to send her over the edge.
“How could you talk to him?” Lamya’s face was mean and twisted. “How could you give him the time of day after everything he did to me? After all the humiliation he put me through?”
“It is not true, Lamya. Amin loves you. He regrets what he did. It was a mistake. He really wants you to forgive him.”
“Forgiveness? You? After everything you put Dad through? You think I don’t remember how you punished him with your silences? How you smirked every time he tried to give you a compliment? I used to wonder why you chose to stay with him. But then I realized you just wanted to make him feel small. And you know what, you succeeded. He was miserable! I thought you out of all people would understand, would try to protect me from Amin, but you just want me to have the same fucked up life you had!”
Something inside Rashida unravels every time she remembers her daughter’s words. She closes her eyes and recites a verse of the Quran to stop the tremor invading her body.
• • •
In the corridor, the head nurse greets Lamya with a conspiratorial smile.
“A woman is waiting for you in the consultation room, the wife of a patient. She has something for you!” she adds, flapping her arms like a chicken before disappearing in the long corridor. Lamya hears the familiar squawking of birds and sighs. She sees the woman hurrying toward her as she approaches the consultation room, three live chickens dangling from her hand, their bodies tangled, their heads almost touching the floor, their distressed screeching having no effect on the woman.
Most of Lamya’s patients were farmers from neighboring villages. She appreciated their kindness and generosity but wished they didn’t bring her gifts that squealed and squawked.
“This is for you doctor. Please accept it. May God bless you and bless your loved ones for everything you have done for my husband! May he give you all you wish for! May he protect you from all harm, may he . . .”
Most of Lamya’s patients were farmers from neighboring villages. She appreciated their kindness and generosity but wished they didn’t bring her gifts that squealed and squawked. The first time someone brought her live chickens, she couldn’t wait to get to her office to untie them. She felt sorry for the poor creatures. She did not anticipate their reaction when they leaped off the ground and charged at her as soon as she freed them, sending her out of her office running, terrified. By the time she asked for help, the birds were already on the loose trotting in the hospital corridors. Her nurses and patients had a good time recounting that story. She had a good laugh at herself, too. But that was a long time ago. Now, after six years in a public hospital, nothing fazed her.
• • •
It is Friday. Rashida is in the kitchen stirring her pots and pans, looking like a sorceress in the throes of her craft. She stews and sautées and steams and braises and simmers, reaching every now and then with her wooden spoon to taste her ingredients. By the time she finishes, the grains of couscous will be as light as fluff, the meat will be ready to fall off the bone, the vegetables will have just the right crunch, and the caramelized onions and raisins will be sweet and crisp. Rashida checks the time. She will wait for Lamya to help her with the final touches. Hopefully she won’t get stuck in traffic. She wishes she was staying more than a week with her daughter. She is leaving in three days and still does not know what is eating at her. She figures it has something to do with her dating life but does not know how to ask her.
• • •
Lamya wishes her mother did not try so hard. She talks to her with so much care, as if any words of criticism will crush her spirit.
Lamya is frazzled deciding what to wear for lunch. She tries the kaftan her mum had made for her but finds it too dressy. Her favorite black dress is too tight, her jeans too casual. She finally settles on a form-fitting purple dress, puts her hair up, and heads to the kitchen to help her mother.
Rashida looks up from her pots, hiding her disappointment that her daughter did not wear the kaftan. “Oh darling, you look lovely. I cannot remember the last time I saw you in a dress. You should wear dresses more often.”
Lamya wishes her mother did not try so hard. She talks to her with so much care, as if any words of criticism will crush her spirit.
“I know work takes most of your time, but I hope you still get to go out and enjoy yourself?” She hands Lamya a spoon, pointing to the stove.
Lamya begins to stir, tastes the mixture, and adds sugar and a few hairs of saffron. She knows her mother is probing.
“I do go out sometimes mum, of course.” She hopes her answer puts an end to the conversation. It doesn’t.
“Are any of these outings with men or is that a secret?”
Lamya is annoyed with her now and suddenly feels the impulse to lash out: “Exactly, why do you need to know the intimate details of my life? I wish you would stop trying so hard!” She instantly regrets her words. An awkward silence descends on them.
Rashida finally looks up from the plate of couscous in front of her, her fingers still ruffling the grains, feeling for lumps. “I am worried about you. That is all. I see you closing yourself away from the world.” Lamya knows her mum means “men,” not “the world.” “I know a lot of this is my fault. I policed you too much. I did not give you the freedom to be yourself. I should have trusted you more.”
She pauses, waiting for Lamya to turn and face her, but Lamya does not move.
Rashida is almost pleading now. “You were only twelve when your body went from being that of a little girl to a woman’s. I didn’t know what to do. You were so young and innocent. I saw the way all these men lusted after you in the street and it terrified me. I used to hear stories about how young girls get manipulated into all sorts of things and I worried these men wouldn’t leave you alone.”
Lamya keeps stirring, her back to Rashida, eyes fixated on the saucepan. “Well, you have nothing to worry about, Mum. I am sure you must have realized by now that men have left me alone.” She hears Rashida leave the kitchen. She turns the heat off and pulls up the hem of her apron to wipe the hot tears gathering in her eyes.
Her friends arrive and congregate in her spacious living room, chatting and catching up. The star is Mona and Younes’s baby. They all met in medical school, but Lamya was closest to Mona, who was her roommate all through their college years. Mona surprised them all when she got together with Younes the year of their graduation. Younes was vain and immature. They all knew about his philandering, which is why his girlfriends rarely lasted more than three or four months. They were all versions of his mother, running his errands, cooking his meals, and doing his laundry. Lamya always thought Mona was too good for him. She had just split up with her boyfriend of three years when Younes approached her. He knew she was vulnerable. Lamya found it curious he only thought of approaching Mona when he was about to graduate, too scared to face the big wide world without a woman looking after him and holding his hand. And who better than Mona? She was the whole package, kind, loyal, and dependable. Lamya did not share these thoughts with anyone then, not even Amin. She wanted to be wrong because she loved Mona and wanted the best for her.
Lamya imagines herself opening the glass cabinet behind them and breaking all its contents, every cup and glass and plate and bowl.
But that was a long time ago, when she thought she was the lucky one, the one with the good boyfriend, the one who would get married first, have a family first. But look at her now, unmarried, childless, and look at them, sitting on her sofa, the baby between them, looking like a perfect couple, their matching wedding rings gleaming in the afternoon light. Lamya imagines herself opening the glass cabinet behind them and breaking all its contents, every cup and glass and plate and bowl. She wakes from this fantasy to Mona’s voice asking if she can use her bedroom to feed the baby. Lamya follows her and holds the baby while Mona unzips her dress and unfastens her bra. Her body is shapeless now, her ballooned breasts almost vulgar. Lamya hates herself for thinking this. She hands Mona the baby and leaves the bedroom. Rashida is in the dining room with Younes, who is helping her set the table. He winked at Lamya when she walks in, looking happy, relaxed. He is so good at this, Lamya thinks.
The intoxicating aroma of her mother’s couscous fills the air and draws them all to the dining room. The giant plate is a perfect combination of color and texture. Lamya looks at her friends’ admiring faces and can’t help but marvel at the elegance with which her mother makes food, her attention to detail, how she always wipes the edges of the serving plate with a wet napkin, how she smooths the grains of couscous with her palm, adding a dash of cinnamon on top. She looks at her brilliant, talented mother and wants to cry. She misses her terribly.
After dinner they congregate in the living room for mint tea and baklava. Rashida sits next to Mona, swooning over the baby and giving her advice on how to burp him. Lamya and two of her other friends stand at the balcony chitchatting, enfolded in the smell of jasmine reaching them from the tree below. That jasmine was the reason Lamya picked her apartment. Younes comes to join them. He stands next to her, which irritates her. Lamya tells the story about the belly-dancing nurse, and they all made light of the situation, telling her it is what she gets for working at a public hospital, agreeing that the nurse deserved to be admired for her resourcefulness.
“The nurse was doing the old men a favor by seducing them!” adds Younes.
“You sound just like the nurse!” Lamya responds sarcastically. “Are you sure you two don’t know each other?” The others laugh at the loaded question. Younes’ affairs are a badly kept secret.
“And what do you know about that nurse Lamya?” His voice is cold, his gaze defiant. “Would you do what she did? Would you ever dare seduce a room full of men?”
Lamya wishes she could sink her teeth into his flesh. Instead, she smiles her big disarming smile and changes the subject.
• • •
The cold wind slaps her face as she walks out of the Montreal airport. She wraps her coat around her growing belly and hands the taxi driver her luggage and address. She has not told anyone at home that she plans to stay, not even her mother. Her professor offered her a permanent position as soon as she told her she was ready to relocate beyond the three months of residency. She will have her baby here where no one knows her, where no one will call her child a bastard.
She realized she was pregnant soon after she and Younes broke off the affair. She closes her eyes and leans against the taxi, recalling their fight. His words still ruffle her despite the distance: “You think you are better than me, Lamya? You don’t even like me. You didn’t think I knew that?”
That night, her father came to her in a dream, bringing her jasmine buds in his cupped hands. He explained how jasmine was nocturnal, how it offered its best blooms only at night.
Her body was slouched on the bed, snot and tears running down her face. She wanted him to stop. She stared at the red rug and began to notice how everything in the hotel room was red, making a mockery of her. The silk bed cover, the heart-shaped pillows, the giant tussled floor lamp. She felt her stomach turn. She wanted to leave. Week after week, for six months, she had met Younes in that room, but it was like she was seeing it for the first time.
She was conflicted when she learned that she was pregnant. She conjured up every scenario imaginable to deter herself from keeping the baby: Would she become a social pariah? Would someone report her and Younes to the police for adultery? Would she go to prison and lose her job? And scarier: How would her mother react? Would she understand? Would she forgive her? The thought of her mum renouncing her sent chills down her spine. Yet she knew that what was growing inside her was a gift. She knew she would do what she had never done before: follow her heart, do what felt right to her, not to her mum and not to the social codes. She would not be shamed. She would have her baby and she would not apologize.
That night, her father came to her in a dream, bringing her jasmine buds in his cupped hands, his gentle face smiling at her. The dream conjured memories buried deep inside her of those magic summer nights when the air exploded with the smell of jasmine, when she and her dad walked along the promenade lined with jasmine trees collecting flowers for their evening tea. Her father explained how jasmine was nocturnal, how it offered its best blooms only at night. She remembered how she held up her dress to receive the jasmine he collected in his hands, how she skipped all the way home with her dress gathered, the cool night air tickling her skinny legs, how she waited excitedly at the balcony while her dad prepared the tea.
She woke up crying. Her father brought her memories of him to prepare her for what was to come. She knew then that she would have a boy and she would name him after her dad, Yahya, the one who lives. She wanted to call her mother and tell her she was pregnant. She wanted to tell her she was going to have a grandchild, someone who would carry their faces in his. But she knew it wasn’t time yet.
Maha Marouan is a Moroccan writer and scholar at Pennsylvania State University. She is the author of Witches, Goddesses, and Angry Spirits: The Politics of Spiritual Liberation in African Diaspora Women’s Fiction and made the film Voices of Muslim Women from the US South.
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