Iman Ali shares with us a new short story; which is a great way to close up our “Family” theme. We hope you enjoy it as much we did.
Mizna ran around her apartment just to see if she had missed anything. The living room was in tip-top shape, the cushions resting just so on the sofa, the large television shining brilliantly in the sunlight. She had dragged the rug to the apartment complex’s roof and had pulled a hose up through the dank ceramic stairwells so she could really scrub the thing to Godly cleanliness. It had taken a day to dry and for once she was grateful for the power of the scorching Abu Dhabi sun.
Her two girls were watching a film in their room, one resting on her stomach, her chin propped on her joined palms.
She had always warned Mahra from laying like that but she still tended to do it anyway and she couldn’t quite be bothered to correct her now, she was too nervous. Her other girl sat a ways away from the TV set and she allowed herself a brief smile. She didn’t really worry about Nouf – she had always done the proper thing instinctively unlike Mahra who had always required repeated counsel.
Turning away from her girls’ room she craned her neck into the bathroom which shone even in the dim light. The mirror was spotless, the soap dispenser full, the small towels hanging from their designated hooks and bars. The smell in the bathroom was a fullsome pine from the fragrant candle that she had picked up the other day. It had been a good choice.
Mizna jumped a little when she heard a jarring sound from the kitchen. The casserole was done. As she neared the kitchen her stomach rumbled in complaint. She hadn’t had the time nor the inclination to have a proper meal since had had woken up at seven today.
She grabbed a mitt and opening the oven reached for the pan. She pulled back, hissing when the hot glass had touched her hand. Releasing a frustrated sigh, she slipped her hand into the mitt like she should have and reached for another mitt for good measure. She pulled out the dish safely and placed it atop the stovetop. It looked just right, the cheese having cooked above the bechamel macaroni just right.
Her new burn ruined the satisfaction she felt and resigned, she pulled open the freezer to pull out a bag of frozen corn. Pulling apart the kitchen blinds she sat on the chair next to it and placed the corn on her wrist and sighed.
Outside a lone cleaner was picking litter off the street. A couple of boys were kicking around a ball and she
remembered scolding the one with the blue cap when they had kicked it over the wall next to the gas cylinder. That had worried her. With the seperation there were some things that she hated vexing over but she knew there was no one else but herself now.
Her current cylinder was full to her knowledge, having stopped the gas car just the other week. She had been nervous working with the Indian men who came into the empty, narrow stone-tiled fenced area surrounding the three-storey apartment complex. She was too proud to call her brothers knowing they were busy with their own families. Her mother had invited her to come back to al-Ain but she knew she would be fed up with their presence within a day or two. The old-fashioned bungalow having been built in the seventies had changed so much that she was sure a satellite image of the place across the years would be pretty amusing to watch. Having her brothers marry and rooms built, and re-built, the garden getting smaller, the area where the sheep had been caged being emptied and used a storage place, the kitchen torn down and rebuilt bigger and better – and all on one simple storey.
No, she was definitely not going back, she thought, watching the sweating corn bag run rivulets down her hand to the white tile by her slippered foot. It wasn’t like she was in danger of losing her modest apartment having holding a good accounting job at her current workplace. It didn’t have the best working conditions but she had yet to hear of someone who did. It paid handsomely as a matter of fact, and she was hard pressed to return to al-Ain where the workforce held limited positions, the lucrative ones already having been filled long ago.
“Mama, I’m hungry.”
“You just ate a sandwich, Mahra,” her mother said, but grinned. “What do you want?” The girl had an appetite of a lumberjack but it didn’t show on her puny form.
“I want a fruit salad.”
“That’s for when Yadouh arrives. She’ll be here soon and then you can have some with her,” her mother said, feeling her stomach flip-flop. She knew why she was feeling this nervous and she didn’t want to dwell on the reasons. She had a feeling said reasons would make themselves known soon enough and then she’d lay back and think back on them to her heart’s content. For now she wanted to feel optimistic and good.
“Let’s get you out of those pajama’s,” her mother said, leading her by the hand.
Mizna let out a “oh” when she saw Nouf had fell asleep. Tutting she shook her awake but it was a lost cause. The girl slept as heavily as a grizzly bear. She would just have to dress her this way so when she woke up she’d be ready though she was sure her mother would have a word to say about sleeping at odd hours.
She pushed the thought away and carried Nouf to the bed, then dressed her in tights and a cute A-shape velvet dress.
Mahra said she had wanted that dress but somehow she managed to confess her to wear her strawberry dress she knew she liked so much.
Mizna managed to lure her daughter away with a candy bar and a cartoon while she went to her empty room and rummaged her closet for something good to wear. She slipped into a floor-length one-piece and eyed her chest cynically. While she was glad her stomach had disappeared in the last months her chest had bid her farewell, too. Majed having more or less abandoned her had killed her appetite so that the five kilograms she had always unsuccessfully attempted to lose had effortlessly gone away. She vaguely wondered if Majed would have liked her this way but it was a moot point, really. She felt her eyes burn briefly but hardened herself as she sat by her dresser and applied kohl to her bloodshot eyes. Pushing a couple of whiffs by her pressure points she inhaled deeply and listened to the muathin call for al-Aser.
“Turn down that noise,” she called to Mahra and she, for once, obliged as long as the muathin called.
Having her ablution intact she threw on her prayer garments and performed the prayer. She was thankful for the peace it brought her troubled mind and she got up, still in her loose garb, to the kitchen to put coal upon the stove burner for incense.
A feeling of dread engulfed her when she heard a cry of dismay from the living room. True enough her daughter had smeared melted chocolate all over her dress and the sofa’s armrest for good measure.
“No, no, no,” Mizna muttered, looking at the clock. “I deserve this for giving you that chocolate!”
“I’m sorry,” her daughter said, not an ounce of regret in her voice.
Mizna hauled her daughter to the bathroom where she cleaned the offensive chocolate off of her hands and rubbed it off of her dress as best as she could. She pulled the dress off of the girl and quickly ironed away the water from the dress so it was as good as it was going to get. She could always dress her in another but that was a battle she wasn’t willing to take knowing Mahra to be a steadfast adversary. Leaving her daughter twirling in her minted dress, she rushed back to the armchair and felt thankful that she had decided to get the detachable remote control slip-on piece and simply removed it to throw in the washing machine. There was a time and place for everything.
Vowing that any eating was going to be had with her mother present from here on out she went back to the kitchen to remove the coal to the censer but started when the phone rang. She quickly finished the task and sprinkled some oud upon the coal watching the plumes of fragrant smoke curl up with satisfaction before she placed it upon the living room closet where it always sat and rushed to the phone that had just stopped.
Looking through the phone ID she did not recognize the number. She called back and it turned out to be a long-lost university classmate. She was calling to remincinse about old times and all throughout the call Mizna could only think “Now?” She did not deny to herself that she had been lonely, no one having the decency to visit her as if she was worth nothing without her husband by her side. She had always initiated the visit such as the all-important visit today. It was the first time in a long time that her mother had deemed her worthy to visit and she was not going to let her down by any means.
Giving cursory replies to her friend the phone-call came to a blessed finish and she quickly replaced the burned oud with a piece of intact wood chip that she had been given a present from her brother, Rashid. Aforementioned brother was driving her mother and his wife today and she hoped the painful jabs were kept to a minimum today. It wasn’t like the seperation was recent but she got tired of Rashid. He thought he was such a smooth operator but he was just a giant asshole. The imagery of this disturbed her but it was accurate. Any honorable act from him was to be applauded like common decency was anything but in his world. At least Majed had been respectful, coward though he was.
Mizna turned the TV channel to Mahra’s lament but she did not relent, having drawn her attention to her charged poratable game. It wasn’t the cleverest thing she could do knowing Rashid’s devils he called children were coming but some things you had to face.
Laughter erupted outside and she pulled the curtain a tad to see. They were here.
“They’re here?” Mizna muttered, feeling excited. She furrowed her brow when she could not detect a certain figure.
Just as she learned this, Nouf came into the living room, rubbing her eyes. Grabbing a hairbrush, Mizna quickly arranged Nouf’s locks into place and then ran it through Mahra’s. They were picture perfect. She padded to the hallway to pat down her own hair and released a silent sigh just as the doorbell rang two, three, no a clean five times in close succession. More of Rashid’s humour, Mizna thought, rolling her eyes.
Arranging her face into a smile, she unlocked the door and the fakeness turned into a genuine one as her eyes fell upon her mother who had pulled down her face covering so she could kiss her.
“How are you, Mizna? How are the sweet girlies?” She laughed as they surrounded her, waiting for their own kisses.
Rashid’s kids, Salim, Khalid and Hessa peered up at her, before they ran around her to go in. Rashid then came up and in his original fanfare and loudness greeted her, demanding his own kisses, her cheeks brushing with his whiskers. As usual his breath stank of cigarettes and she winced at the closeup of his yellowed teeth.
“Is anyone going to bring us a cup of tea or are we going to make our own?” Rashid bellowed, already sprawled across the sofa, remote control in hand, settling it on a local football match. His children were already dismantling a flower centerpiece she had foolishly laid on a side table. She grit her teeth but said nothing, opting to be the perfect hostess.
“Right away,” Mizna chirped, heading towards the kitchen where she had already made it and was sitting readily in the tea thermos’ she had purchased especially for this occasion.
The thermos was laid in the middle of a silver tray adorned by a doily with the teacups and saucers sitting to the side. Mixed nuts and biscuits were in their respective plates and she braced herself for its weight as she carried it to the living room.
She watched critically as her pristine rug was squashed with bits of dry flowers and decorative marbles that was once part of the carefully thought-out decor. They had settled into playing with the marbles and the only good thing out of this that she could see is that no one was young enough to try to swallow them.
“So, I noticed that Alyazia isn’t here,” Mizna carefully said, as she placed it on a small glass table. “She couldn’t come?”
“She’s here,” Rashid said, avoiding her eyes, playing with his phone. “She decided she needed to go to the salon to get a haircut because she’s going to some friend’s wedding tonight.”
“Oh. Tonight?” Mizna said, feeling crestfallen. She couldn’t believe how rude this was but decided to stay silent.
Her mother was rubbing her feet and Mizna asked how she was doing.
“The rheumatism is here to stay, the doctor told me the last time,” her mother heavily said. “Khalid! Come over here and stand on my feet.”
Mizna poured them all tea, one spare cup remaining empty, and watched as the plump little boy obligingly came and did as he was told. He already knew to lift either foot slowly so that the pressure varied just as his grandmother liked it and he swiped a biscuit from the tray and continued marching, nibbling. Mizna chuckled at the sight before turning her attention to Rashid who asked how she was doing.
“I’m fine. Everything’s okay. The girls still go to their schools, and the maid comes to clean up once a week. I’m still employed and we go out together when I have time – things are just fine,” Mizna shrugged.
She knew it was coming when she saw him lean in closer, smoothing down the front of his kandoura. “Listen. I know the man isn’t what you want him to be, but lots of wives have it worse and Majed’s not so bad.”
Her mother had shooed Khalid away and was pretending not to listen, eyes fixed on the television.
“Right,” Mizna said. “Well, I’m still going through with the divorce. He agreed to it and you know it.”
“Mizna, you have to think of your girls,” Rashid said, as if this should have been an ephiphany to her. “They can’t grow up without a father.”
“They won’t,” Mizna cooly said, reaching for her own cup of tea. “He’s still going to be seeing them weekly. We’ve already agreed to it. There are no hard feelings.”
“How can’t there be when you’ve gone to the Family Guidance by yourself!”
“Don’t shout at your sister!” Their mother shouted. “We came here to talk to her quietly not like this!”
Mizna felt her throat constrict as the true intentions for their visit surfaced. Of course they couldn’t have come to just pay a friendly visit. This was just a “corrective” call.
“Salim, no!” Khalid called but it was too late. The boy had brought the sound-speaker down upon himself and promptly erupted into a ear-piercing wail.
Her mother sighed loudly, getting up to assess the damage and his father was already rubbing the area where he thought the speaker had made contact. The speaker had broken, and Mizna secretly lamented the money she had paid for it.
“He’s hurt,” Mahra declared the obvious and Mizna rushed to the freezer where it would be the second time the frozen corn would make an appearance today.
“That’s it,” Rashid said, as he applied the corn to the boy who cried louder with renewed vigor when this had been done, trying to wiggle away in vain. “This is for your own good, just sit still!”
Mizna pursed her lips, rubbing her neck. Today should have been cordial and sweet!
After the boy had quieted down, Mizna led the lot to the girls’ room where she fired up the gaming console that usually captived them into stillness and quiet. She really should have thought of this before but it would have been rude to suggest this the moment they walked through the door which was a measly thirty minutes ago.
She sat by her mother and asked after their neighbours back in al-Ain and felt a warmth envelop her as she heard the tales and trials of the people she had known since childhood. A close friend of hers had married last month and she had been grateful that her brother had passed by her and drove her to the wedding down there. She could drive herself but with no male companion it would have been a sin and it wasn’t like her family would have approved, anyway.
Rashid’s phone rang and he got up to loiter in the hallway as he took the call.
“Oh, put that sheikh on, I like his lectures,” her mother said.
They watched the sheikh go on about kindness and bearing offense with grace and Mizna couldn’t help feeling he was speaking directly to her. She felt a pang of hurt in her chest.
“You can’t stay in this apartment forever, you know.” Her mother dropped this bomb in a friendly tone, as if she was asking if she could have another cup of tea. “It’s shameful and I wouldn’t know what to say to Um Saeed when she asks.”
“Tell her it’s none of her business,” Mizna couldn’t help grinding out, stalling by sipping her now cold tea.
“Mizna, we both know they’re no upholding this illusion. You should do the right thing and call Majed so we can finalize this and have things back to normal.”
“Back to normal was hell and I’m not going back there,” Mizna said in a tight voice. “Ummah, please, I don’t want to talk about it.”
They were words in vain. Her mother went on and on and Mizna felt like a little girl, settling into her role of tuning her out perfectly so that she sounded like a summer cricket chirping its loud chatter.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to leave. Mizna, I need to leave the kids here because the wedding is adults-only. You don’t
mind, do you?”
“You’re leaving already? You just got here!” Mizna cried, jumping to her feet. “I already made dinner, just stay one more hour at least!”
“Mazzouna,” Rashid appealed to her in her childhood nickname, “The woman is waiting at the salon. She’s done and I need to drive her there. It’s one of her close friends.”
“She doesn’t have a wedding tonight, the two of you just want to go to dinner together,” their mother snorted, jabbing the remote control angrily. “She didn’t even wear a dress when we came, so stop pretending.”
Rashid pursed his lips and laughed lamely saying it was a wedding and that his wife would be staying in her abaya.
He left with a jumble of car keys and a loud thump of the door.
It called for al-Maghreb prayer and Mizna excused herself to go ablute even though she didn’t need to. She stood over the bathroom sink, hiccuping softly and quickly rubbed the tears from the sides of her eyes when her mother came into the bathroom seeking her out.
“You’re lonely, Mizna, that’s what this is about.” Her mother cajoled, rubbing her shoulder. “Come on, let’s call Majed together and we can compromise, there’s always a compromise.”
“I can’t call him.”
“Why not?” her mother bristled. “I’ll talk to him, don’t worry, we can settle this.”
In a deadpan voice, she whispered, “He always switches off his phone when he’s in Thailand.”
Author: Iman Ali