In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Fatima telephoned Matussem as she sat soaking in Oil of Paris Midnight Bath Balm. “Baby brother?” she said. “I’ve decided to put a curse on this boy that Jem wants to bring to the family picnic so that he will have a stroke tonight and maybe drop dead. Okay?”
“Okay? What okay?” Matussem cried. “Fatima, why me? Why now? Can’t you just leave it alone? No voodoo, no curses, no evil eye, I’m begging, just give me one break.”
Fatima kicked her feet in the bath. “Fine, fine! You want your daughters surrounded by serpents, pimps, and perverts, that’s fine! You want Cousin Fouwahd to think we just crawled out of the gutter, that’s wonderful! Maybe you’re hoping I’ll drop the phone receiver and electrocute myself. Wait a second, I’ll call Zaeed and have him bring the radio in, too! Zaeed!” she shrieked through the wall. “Bring the Sony in here!”
“Fatima, please,” Matussem was saying. “Would you talk like a human being?”
“He thinks he’s the only human being in the world!” Fatima shouted at the phone. “Fine! Goodbye, King Human Being!” And she hung up.
Zaeed stuck his head in the door. “My mistress calls?”
“Bring the radio here and drop it in. I want to fry.”
“Ah,” Zaeed said, and left.
In her thrashing around, most of the Oil of Paris Midnight bubbles had gone flat and now sat like an oil slick on the water. Fatima thought about sitting there until she rotted away in her own miserable, gray bath. Probably Zaeed wouldn’t even miss her. She’d have to wait until that busybody Auntie Nyla got bored and came poking around.
“They’d see how spotless Fatima Rahmoud Mawadi kept her bathroom,” Fatima said out loud, in her orator voice. “See there? Three bottles of Mr. Clean! Not that cheap generic crap the Abdulabouds buy.”
“Let’s face it, you’re a first-rate person in a second-rate world,” she heard Zaeed say through the door, followed by the sound of his feet descending the stairs.
Fatima nodded, but there wasn’t much consolation in simply having a husband who understood. She yanked the plug from the drain and watched the water curl into a tiny whirlpool.
“This water is just like my life,” she said. “Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, there it goes.” She walked naked to the bedroom, defying the full-length mirror, and picked up a pad by the side of her bed, her book of lists. She considered the first one:
What I can stand about my life
Being in Lady’s Pontifical Committee (good deeds, etc., etc.).
Good bust (hardly sags).
What I can stand about my life
She added a “3” and wrote: “Having a husband who understands a couple of things and is not too much of a big pain in the A all the time. Cooperates.”
Under that was a second list:
What I CAN’T STAND about my life
My nieces (Jemorah and Melvina) who are going to send me to the mental hospital with so much worries about who are they ever going to marry.
Melvina’s queen-of-everything attitude, why does she have to dress like that every minute and why won’t Jemorah file her fingernails and use a cuticle stick?
What I CAN’T STAND about my life
Then some words in Arabic that Fatima crossed out in a fury.
She lay on the bed, gazing at a glossy magazine. Did anyone understand her? She pulled out the lists and crossed out “who understands a couple of things.”
What she wanted was so simple, honest, and pure: she wanted everyone to be happy! Yet she was thwarted at each step. She had a speech she often made to her nieces:
“It’s terrible to be a woman in this world. This is the first thing to know when the doctor looks down at the baby’s thing and says, ‘It’s a girl.’ But there are ways of getting around it. It helps to have a good bust, but don’t worry. At least you didn’t inherit that Irish skin of your mother’s, may she rest in peace. Everyone knows the Irish are pretty when they’re young, but let them hit thirty and that skin? Gone! Horrible! Okay, so let’s face it, you’re built like starved rats and not so pretty now, but you girls wait, when you’re forty, forty-five, everyone will say how handsome you are, I guarantee it. But what good will handsome do you if you haven’t already snagged some man to see it? There are things you don’t understand yet that I know perfectly, and the first and the last is that you must have a husband to survive on this planet.”
All right, it was probably a lost cause with Melvina, since she was born an old maid, fresh from the womb with a face on her like shriveled Auntie Miriam, but at least that was respectable. Jemorah, with that face like a child lost in the woods, anyone might take her home. Hadn’t Fatima herself tried, tried to guide the child, even to drag her? The stubborn thing refused to leave the woods.
You have to make children see, Fatima often thought, even if it meant scooping out their eyes and pointing them with your own hands. Jemorah with that face was locked like a clam against her aunt’s good efforts. Jem simply would not use hair spray or padded bras, no matter how Fatima wept and railed. Jemorah always listened politely, then turned and did the opposite. Fatima knew terrible things waited for her niece in the world. Many times she had told Jemorah, “A woman’s reputation is her soul. It’s her heart and gizzard. You let them rape and murder you before you let them do anything to your reputation.” But the child never listened.
Then there was Matussem, her brother, their father. What did he know about anything? He was an innocent. Nine months younger than she, and he might have been born yesterday and on another planet. Fatima stared hard at the beautiful heads and bodies in the glossy magazine. Was there really a place in the world like that? Young, beautiful women, laughing, sitting on rocks, tawny as cats, while young, beautiful men fanned them with palm leaves. Ha!
There had been seven girls: Rima, Nejila, Nyla, Suha, Rein, Amelia, then Fatima. When Matussem was finally born, Rima told her much later, there was at last ease in her parents. They stopped having babies.
But something happened. An accident? There was another baby, a daughter. Fatima remembers, although she herself couldn’t have been more than four or five. The infant was so small and weightless she could easily be carried by a child, which Fatima did, as her mother asked. She was like a rag doll in her arms, scarcely moving. She didn’t cry so much as whimper. Upon receiving the baby, Fatima had said, “Mama, like a kitty!”
They were going to the river that ran outside the village. It was a branch of the river that she’d later heard proclaimed in American songs, a place of healing and deliverance. Only it wasn’t that to Fatima: she saw it moving thick and dark as blood, the body of a headless creature, cutting the earth with serpentine bulk. It was a strange day, as were all the rest that followed. On this occasion, when Fatima was four or five, there were clouds in the desert sky, these amazing objects in a place usually swept clear. This sky was dense and vaporous, the clouds full.
They were in an isolated spot, far from where they drew water or where women brought clothes for washing. Her mother was digging a hole in the earth with her hands. Why hadn’t her father come?
Fatima placed the baby girl in the hole, as she was told. As she must have been told. It looked like a cradle. The infant stirred, and for a moment Fatima thought it might cry, but it merely bleated, a small, weightless sound that rose through the years in its lightness, floating always near the surface of Fatima’s consciousness. Sometimes she heard it still in the sound of bath water or beneath the noise of a crowd. Or upon rising, very early, in the stillest part of her mind where her departing dream opened its bowl into the open dawn, in the merge of the two silences, came the tiny bleat, scarcely an echo, but enough to push Fatima from her bed to search the house and yard in vain.
Fatima remembers the infant eyes closing against the first handfuls of dirt. She stopped moving almost immediately, as if the sheerest blanket of earth were too heavy. They covered her then in this tender, sandy clay, adding the ticking heart, breath, and substance of the creature like a new pulse to the earth.
Fatima recalled assisting in two, possibly three other furtive burials. None came back to her with the frank immediacy of that first — if it was indeed the first. The memories moved in and out of her in blurred images, and she visited them like an underwater diver, moving aside this object and that in order to gaze through the half-light at the event itself. She did recall, on what might have been the final occasion, her father stopping them at the door, his robes winding around him as he rose in her imagination, tall and dressed in white. He said to her mother, “She’s getting too old now, she will begin to remember.”
Her mother gazed at Fatima with a look touched by rare gentleness, or perhaps it was only the softening of fatigue and heat. Her mother then turned and said, “Yes? And what of me? What do you think I will remember?”
Now Fatima lay awake next to her husband. She had a picture inside her head of a door opening on a door opening on a door. She stepped from room to room, from the tiny rooms she and her mother dug in the earth, to the constant invasions of relatives, sixteen divided among five rooms, to a room on the border of two countries. It was unclear what countries these were or where precisely the dividing line was drawn. She was sixteen in this picture, newly married, and the notion of America snapped and sparkled in her like a lit fuse. She and Zaeed planned to emigrate. But at some point in 1969 — perhaps she was crossing the street to the marketplace, perhaps merely standing at the edge of the road — the border twitched again and she was seized without warning by two men for crossing that line.
The merchants and villagers had fled before the foreign truck. No one spoke to her; if they did she did not hear them. They simply gathered their possessions and ran. And Fatima, who was alone at the time, who was only visiting relatives in the village, Fatima merely stood, watching. She held a paper bag containing a dozen loose eggs. The men wore army jackets; they did not speak Arabic. They put her into a truck so filled with people that she could not see light. Her bag of eggs was squashed and its liquid pressed through the paper.
She could not see where she was being taken; it did not take long to get there. She was held in a room the color of which she would never forget, though there was no word for it in Arabic or English. Later, if she saw this color — in the underbelly of a cloud, or flitting through the pattern of a woman’s dress — she would need to sit and put her head between her knees.
Fatima lived for two, three, four days without a visitor, without food, just a bucket of water in the empty room. She tried to scoop up what was left of the eggs, now just shell and a shimmering pale liquid at the bottom of the bag, long sticky fibers of egg she sucked from her fingers. She tried to eat the shell, which cut her mouth; finally, she sucked on the bag itself. What happened? Nothing. She was released. A mistake, the man turning the key said, this time, all a mistake. He spoke English. Nothing happened. She was not beaten or harassed. She was released into a blue doorway of light, empty, the desert road. Some merchants found her and drove her back to town. Her family rejoiced when she returned. They rejoiced without asking where she had been. Not her husband. Not her mother. And she found that she could tell no one. She and her husband emigrated to America; they left the troubles of their home country.
Sometimes she would tell herself a story about that time, the day in the village. She would think: I was left alone in a room somewhere, just myself, and I waited. Such waiting is worse than a beating, worse even than death. Then she would feel ashamed for thinking so. All the same it was true. She was released into a blue doorway of light, empty, the desert road. They believe they let me out of there, she thought; they never let me out. She would close her eyes and shut the door, the door on a tiny brown room of earth. I’ve been waiting, she thought, room in room in room. I am waiting.