The door opened and there was nobody there. But I knew that country, that place where a woman’s jealous eyes could divert the attention of a demon, where a man’s lusty gaze could saddle you with sin. Private worlds bubbled up behind closed doors; there, we shed the layers of our abayas and, with them, our paranoia. And so, because the door stood open, I knew to find her behind it, crammed in the corner. She was small, the way a child is small, and dark in the shadow of the door. It had been more than a year. I pulled her into a hug, burying my nose in the fabric of her hijab. She smelled like flowers and smoke.
Our husbands stood a few feet apart in the doorway, mine holding a suitcase, hers with his hands hanging by his sides. The door clicked closed. Then the kids were there, jumping and hollering and gripping my abaya in fat fists. Their English a dream from which they’d woken. My Arabic stumbling through a jungle at night.
“You speak Arabic good now!” she said, which was a lie, of course, but a kind one. She leaned back and held me in a grip with our hands on one another’s elbows. The dark circles under her eyes could not be concealed with any amount of makeup.
“Uhowwal,” I said. I try. This was before I could add clauses to give my thoughts depth; this was back in the subject-verb-object-and-period phase.
“Masha’allah!” she said. What God has done.
“Mmmmm, I missed you so much!” I said in English, groping about my mind for the Arabic word for “miss” and not finding it.
“I know. I am so happy you’re coming. I really can’t believe it.”
Who could believe it? To meet in one hemisphere, to reunite in another, the two travelers, pilgrims of a kind, though there was no Mount Moriah at the end of our road. There was no final destination at all, only endless road, road, road, unfurling before us like a ribbon, dropping off at the horizon. Our hands clutching constant suitcases, our feet calloused and rough. We startled awake some nights, unsure of where we were. The two of us had known continents.
Her husband cleared his throat, and she slid her hands down to clasp mine.
“Please, come in and sit down, and we will have coffee and cake.”
The floors were cool marble; the windows, covered in heavy drapes; the light, dim and artificial.
That was years ago. Today I stand outside my daughter’s room for a long time, my forehead pressed against the doorframe, listening for her crying, for her body shuffling against the sheets. I’m poised and ready to come inside with singing.
But she doesn’t wake, so after a while I go back out to the kitchen, to find something in the cupboards to eat. I’ve forgotten to shop again. I settle on rice and a handful of red lentils. I pick out the stones and toss them into the garbage. I boil the rice and the lentils together and hoist myself up on the counter to read the paper. The news is bad; more Arabs are dead. They are dying all the time.
My daughter is crying now. It sounds like coughing, like a sickness. There are never any tears, just red-faced wailing, nothing bottled or buttoned. Her gums and lips blossom open, pink and peeled and bursting. I’m dry-eyed and silent. I feel rough, like I’ve been sandblasted.
The part of me that lives here goes in to my daughter, picks her up, and cradles her head against my shoulder. Her hair is drenched with sweat.
The other part of me, the part that never came back, listens to the hissing of corpses burning in Hama, in Cairo, in Gaza. Women and children, and I clutch my daughter so hard that again she cries out.
Rice and lentils: That was something she made for me, back when we met in America. How many times did I watch her in the dim light beneath the stove, her knife flashing as she chopped, her teeth flashing when she laughed? All around us, on the cupboard and appliance doors, fruit and flowers blossomed, collages she’d culled from magazines. She spread feasts like Dionysus: rice and lamb, fried pockets of meat and cheese, salads and fragrant soups, grape leaves folded like origami. Her husband and mine worlds away: visiting separate friends, or away, out of town. She used to string crepe paper through her whole house to celebrate my visits.
“We will have a party,” she used to say, “just the two of us.” So we’d feast, scooping handfuls of food into our mouths with our fingers, and we’d laugh, because the troubles of her world were ten thousand miles away. When I was with her, so were mine.
The night belonged to women, to women’s secrets. We whispered them over our cardamom-scented coffee, the kids asleep on the couch. How I’d been in love for a year before I could say it out loud. How she spent her wedding night quivering in fear on the edge of her bed. We’d sip the coffee, our knees touching.
As the night went on, she’d put on music videos and bring scarves from her room to tie around our hips. “I don’t know how to belly dance!” I’d protest.
“I don’t either!” she’d laugh, so we mimicked the women on-screen, moving our hips in figure eights, our arms spiraling above our heads. It was then I saw how beautiful she really was, her dark hair whirling around her as she tossed it from side to side, her hips undulating to a beat that seemed to live in her bones. Her kids would try to join in and she’d rebuke them, laughing—this was a dance for women, not boys. But then she’d only laugh along with them as they carried on with impish smiles. We collapsed in heaps on the floor, her fingers touching mine.
The sun would finally rise and tint the horizon pink, and then I would leave with kisses, my cheeks sore from laughter.
So our friendship grew in an accumulation of moments, each one a cord circling us, bright and untouchable. We met to pull the cords tighter, tighter, fastening ourselves together inside them.
She left America before I did, but in God’s mercy I was granted a year-long visa to her country a few months later. When we first arrived, I’d speak with her on the phone. She wasn’t settled but kept moving from house to house, living out of boxes that never seemed to get unpacked. The kids missed America, missed the park a block from their house, missed walking to the grocery store to pick up tomatoes, missed the school with all their friends.
“Why can’t we go out?” they wanted to know all the time. But she couldn’t drive, and there was nowhere to walk, and her husband did the errands in a country where women stay home almost all of the time. The kids’ voices got loud, louder, echoing around the walls of the house, incomprehensible. The house became a cage, sunless and claustrophobic. By the time I came to visit, her voice had lost the laughter lilting beneath her words.
Our husbands didn’t know one another, not well. And so conversation between the four of us was never like it could be between two. We couldn’t talk about them, for one thing, sharing notes, laughing in relief: “Your husband does that too? Men!” Nor could we breathe in the intoxicating discourse of beauty, painting one another’s eyes and nails and whirling one another toward the mirror. “You look so, so beautiful!”
So we ate, the four of us, and spoke in muted tones. I kept my woman’s secret; it beat its wings like a moth in my stomach. I put a hand there, a smile pressing at the corners of my mouth. Something to bring us back to our world. A cord to bind us tighter.
She is on a constant trajectory of need, my daughter, with her fierce hunger and helplessness. When I put her to my breast, she closes her eyes, opens her mouth and waits with a blind expectation. I lay her beside me with her skin pressed to my skin, kissing her eyelids.
She drinks deep. I can hear her fat gulps, forgetting to breathe. She clutches at my breast with both hands, pulling it close. If I pull away, she burrows in, cough-crying, eyes squeezed shut.
My love for her has its own fierce hunger. It’s insatiable, devouring; it has teeth. I want to take her body in my hands and crush her back into my womb. I know this is a feeling I will be fighting for the rest of my life. I know it will be the hardest thing I ever need to do: hold her with an open palm.
She flies off my breast with a gasp, both arms raised above her head. Blinking, she comes back to awareness of the world. Or at least of this corner of it, where for now she is safe, warm, worry-free. No explosions blast holes in our walls. No machine gun spits bullets at our innocent bodies. I am so grateful and so baffled that my baby is here, while hers are there.
“I’m not sure,” I told her later, when our husbands had gone (hers to work, mine on to another city). “I didn’t take a test yet. But I am a week late now.”
We stood in her kitchen, the air hot and humid with dishwater, our faces red in the steam.
“Masha’allah!” she said, her voice in the high octave of women’s secrets. “I hope that!”
“I hope that too,” I admitted.
I was making myself sick with belief, drinking it like tequila all day long. I’d gorged myself on little confirmations: the nausea and the tender breasts. I felt tired, like all my limbs were too heavy for me, like I couldn’t get enough breath.
I named the baby. I spoke its name into the dark at night after everyone was asleep. My hand drifted to my belly, stroking it softly, like the child could actually feel it. Like the child was actually there.
We ate our next meals silently. My assertion of closeness—that she was the only one who knew—a construct, a rickety plank set over a chasm. Hands and knees to the other side. Too much sway, too narrow a space. I waited for reciprocity that didn’t come.
It had been more than a year. I struggled to sum that time, to tell coherent stories. And she—she seemed tired, sad, and she said nothing and would not tell me why. Maybe because it wouldn’t change anything—admitting it.
Some days I can’t bear to put my daughter down while she sleeps. I leave her on my chest, stroking her hair. I literally can’t hold her enough. This year, I am her safest haven, the softest place of rest. I fill her desperate need and she fills mine back. And the day will come—I know it already—when she will cry after slamming the door in my face. Someday she will need from someone else and nothing I do or say could ever fill her. One day, she will leave. The knowledge of this gnaws on me, a rat in my gut.
She sleeps, wakes, eats and sleeps again. Endless cycles of need.
My body syncs to hers. If she sleeps too long, I feel the pain of her hunger filling my breasts. It wakes me at night before she opens her mouth to cry. My own need to fill her is quicker than her need to be filled.
“Do you know me?” she asked beneath the veil draped over her face.
No. No, I don’t know you. Every day, I recognized her less. She did not dance, did not laugh. There were no colors on the walls of that home, no art spilling from her hands. Who was the woman walking with the pace of an elephant, silent as a desert dune?
“Who are you?” I said it as though in jest, but the truth was, I didn’t know my friend without her face. Wouldn’t have stopped had I seen her on the street. Wouldn’t have recognized those downcast eyes that she no longer cared to paint. Wouldn’t have known the hands that didn’t move to music through the air, didn’t hold the brush dripping in colors over paper. Not anymore.
We walked hand-in-hand through the outdoor market. It was the first I’d seen of the sky in three days. In the mornings, no sun came into the room to wake me. I’d begun to think the rhythms of sunrise and sunset and starlight were all things I’d imagined. I was ten days late, but I could barely keep track anymore.
It was so hot; the sweat ran in rivulets down my temples. My shirt beneath my abaya stuck to the small of my back. My face was bare, the only bare face of a woman in a hundred miles, and it shone white out of the black circle of hijab, like the moon reflected in a well. The eyes of men were on me up and down each row of hand-woven baskets and plastic sandals.
We walked in silence. All that was left inside me, where the secret had been, was a cave, waiting to be filled. She groped about for English words she’d forgotten. The longest thought I could have in Arabic was four words long. The linguistic disparity between us gaped, a deepening chasm.
Who are you? I searched for glimpses of the woman I used to know. But she was buried in that house, a tomb. I couldn’t resurrect her, no matter what I called from the entrance.
We were walking, and it was so hot, and I was so thirsty, and suddenly I felt sick. Like my gut was a sponge being wrung out. I wanted to throw up. It must have been the sun, beating down at over a hundred. All that black fabric covering me. I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t feel the breeze. My stomach clenched again, and I looked for a toilet. Bright spots floated in my vision, like a thousand fireflies.
“Can you take me home?” I said.
The car ride was awful. I leaned my head against the window, buildings and people whipping past. Each stop and start, I clutched the door and closed my eyes. Up in the front seat next to her husband, she was silent, hands folded in her lap. I needed to be out of there, needed to pull off all that black fabric and stand in the shower, needed the night to come, with its cool breeze and moonlight.
When we finally arrived at her home, I went to lie down, my gut wrenching. Pain popping in my head. I dropped to my hands and knees on the bed, breathing deep. Maybe I should go to the doctor, came the vague thought. Then I felt something wet and sticky, and I ran to the bathroom. There was blood—a lot of it. I jumped up and vomited, barely making it into the toilet. When I straightened, my hands were shaking.
After a long time, I went back to the room, fumbling with a pad that I’d packed just in case. She knocked on the door.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, I—I just need to sleep for a little while, I think. I must be dehydrated.”
“Okay, just take rest now.”
She retreated, her footsteps fading as she walked down the hall. And I didn’t call after her.
We doze together on the bed, sharing her blanket. If she sleeps without me, she holds the blanket close to breathe in my scent. If she sleeps without me, I lie awake. Thinking what would I do, what would I do if we were there? Bullets whizzing in the streets. Women with children clutched to their chests. What would I do? What would I do? I turn over to touch my daughter.
Little stranger, I would walk through fire for her. But even then, I know—I am forced to admit—it would not matter. My powerlessness over her life is crushing. I never had any say, not once, over whether she would live or die.
Beth Malone’s work examines the entanglements of culture, spirituality, and the process of becoming a mother. She has resided in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. She currently lives in Colorado, where she teaches English to Burmese refugees.