Chapter 25: All I Ask
Las Vegas, USA
I was back sleeping in my crimson bed, covering myself with the cozy quilt, feeling no will whatsoever to wake up. The heavy curtains gave me an extra sense of lethargy. I wished it could be nighttime all day long so I wouldn’t have to get up.
I asked Mariam to call the hospital and tell them I wouldn’t be going to work that day. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, not even Gilbert.
Mariam was unusually quiet. She avoided looking me in the eye whenever our eyes met, as if she was trying to avoid an argument in case it resulted in me leaving the house again. Apparently, my absence had stirred the notion in Mariam’s head that I might leave her one day, all of a sudden, and reject everything she believed in and cared about.
I wobbled out of bed and went to see my kids, who were playing in the backyard. Spending time with them was always the best part of my frosty life. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed out on their growing up because I had spent all my time working.
Tuleen ran towards me, pretending to scare me, and I pretended to be scared in response. Omair hugged me and tried to climb onto my back. They frequently ran towards me so I could hug them both together, but then Omair would start competing with his sister.
“It’s my turn, Tuleen.”
In moments like these I became aware of how desperate they were for my embraces. They were trying to make the most of every moment I spent with them, as if they knew it was just a vacation and the next day I would have to go back to work. Although I always tried to spend time with them, I rarely felt this happy.
I loved every detail about these kids! Tuleen’s naughtiness and Omair’s laughter filled my heart with joy. This joy had helped me tolerate Mariam’s rituals all these years. Tuleen and Omair were my whole life. They were the only truth that Vegas, in all its glamour, couldn’t take away from me.
“Dad, are you and Mom really going away?” Tuleen asked me as Omair ran towards us.
“Who told you that, Tuleen?”
Mariam interrupted me from a distance. “Yes, darling, we are, but your grandma will come over and take care of you.”
I stared at her, not saying a word, as she addressed me: “I asked your mom to come over and stay with the kids. She misses spending time with them.”
She could see the surprised look in my eyes, so she added: “Yes, Yaser, I called your mom so she can take care of the kids until we get back.”
The kids jumped up and down and ran around, cheering. “Grandma’s coming over! Grandma’s coming over!”
“Why didn’t you call your mother?” I asked her, baffled.
“Your mom hasn’t seen the kids for a long time, so I thought this would be a good opportunity for her to spend as much time as she wants with them.”
She smiled. “Come on, we need to pack our bags.”
“Yeah, we will.”
I watched Mariam as she walked back inside. Had all this happened because I had spent one night away from home? I couldn’t work it out.
My phone rang.
“Hi Gilbert, how are you?”
“Never better! You’re leaving me at the hospital while you get ready to leave, loser!” he said, reproaching me.
I laughed. “I promise you we’ll go on another trip.”
“Since you got married you’ve never considered taking a trip with me. Will you ever think of it now, Yaser? Rome was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will never come again.”
“But the concert’s in Verona, not Rome.”
“You’ll stay in Rome for a couple of days though, right?”
“Then you’re a traitor!”
I laughed and so did Gilbert. “Enjoy your trip, man,” he said.
“Don’t forget to bring me a souvenir back from Italy.”
“What should I bring you?”
“If you could bring a girl I’d be grateful.”
“I won’t bring anything then!” I smiled.
I hung up the phone, still laughing. Then I walked upstairs to the bedroom with a smile on my face and started packing.
We left the house after we had said goodbye to my mother, who had arrived hours early in sheer delight.
We got to the airport and put our bags onto the check-in counter. After our passports had been stamped, Mariam went to the duty-free area and I bought a coffee.
I watched my wife from a distance. Despite everything that had brought us there together, it was a truly desperate attempt to revive a half-forgotten memory. I still didn’t feel like I wanted to revive anything. I didn’t feel that I had any memories of Mariam in my heart that merited a revival. I was sick of her, and all I wanted to do was express this rejection openly.
Apparently, Mariam could read my mind. That’s why she had avoided looking me in the eye since I had returned home. She hadn’t asked me where I had been and she hadn’t even tried to argue with me since then.
She had simply opened the front door and said, “Welcome back.”
I had gone upstairs to our room and tried to sleep. I didn’t know how many nights I had slept for, but I knew that I was escaping; escaping Isabelle, Mariam, the sounds of the casino machines and the images that were still stuck in my head from Fremont Street.
The moment I laid my head on the pillow I had felt enraged and frustrated. My mixed feelings had stopped me falling asleep peacefully. Those feelings still penetrated my soul now. I had tried my best to hide my feelings behind a cold smile that I kept switched on all the time, but I felt so angry I wanted to shout out loud. It was ripping me apart.
Mariam came over to join me. “Do you want some water?”
“No thank you.”
“How much longer is it until take-off?” Mariam asked.
“I don’t know. Don’t you have the boarding passes?”
“No, you didn’t give them to me.”
“I gave them to you the minute we finished at the desk,” I said, feeling irritated.
“Wait, let me look for them,” she said, searching inside her handbag.
She searched for some time and said, “They’re not in my bag.”
“Well I don’t have them!”
“Look in your pockets,” she said.
“I told you I don’t have them!”
“What’s the matter with you, Yaser? Look in your pockets. You might have put them in there.”
“I’m certain I don’t have them,” I said firmly.
“Why won’t you search your pockets?”
“I just don’t want to!”
Mariam looked in her bag again. “Oh, here they are.”
“Okay, you were right, but why was it such a problem to search your pockets too?” she asked.
“The problem is that you don’t trust anything I say.”
“Trust? What’s the matter with you, Yaser? How is that related to trust?”
“Of course it’s related. You never believe anything I say.”
“It wasn’t like that. I just thought you might have had them,” she said, trying to justify her actions.
“You always believe you’re right and that everyone else is wrong.”
“Is this still about the boarding passes?”
“It’s just a truth we have to accept.”
“What truth is that?” she asked anxiously.
“The truth that our life together has become impossible.”
“What’s… wrong… with you… Yaser?”
It was the first time I had seen Mariam stutter, the fear clearly showing on her face. I don’t know why, but I felt so happy at that moment. I felt happy and in control for the first time in years. I felt that Mariam couldn’t try to dominate me this time; and that she was unable to hide her weakness behind a fragile mask of authority. I realized I had been to blame for giving her all this power over me since the day we married. Gilbert was right.
She was stuttering and I was enjoying it. I realized then that I held grudges like all humans. I wasn’t as perfect as I thought I was. My grudge was like that of a camel. Once a camel holds a grudge, it never fades away. It seeks revenge from whoever caused the hurt, even after many years.
“Yaser, aren’t we taking this trip to save our marriage? What’s all this about?”
“This is just a pointless role-play we’re acting out.”
“Why are you saying that? Aren’t you the one who chose the Adele concert to revive our memories? Don’t rush this. Everything will turn out for the best, even if it takes time,” she said in a strange tone I had never heard before.
“I don’t think so.”
“Yaser…” she begged.
“We’ll never see eye to eye, Mariam. I’ve been drowned in your turbulent waves.”
“No, you haven’t yet.”
“Yes I have,” I argued.
“So what about me?”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t you think that I froze as I tiptoed across your frosty land? Hasn’t it occurred to you that I’m looking for memories for us to revive? Don’t you think I’m hoping to find you and the cup of coffee I almost choked on? I’m eager to find a moment when the ice around my heart can thaw and its burdens can melt away.
“I’m tired of watching you live your life just for the sake of living or forcing yourself to watch TV with me. I’m worn out, Yaser. I’ve been worn out through all the attempts I’ve made to build a house and raise kids with faith and principles when I know their father is still seeking the truth, and that he’s not convinced by what I’m raising them to believe.
“I cry every day when I see that the husband I once fell in love with is now performing prayers just to avoid getting into quarrels with me, and that he fasts for us, not because he believes in fasting. Don’t you think that I have doubts every day about whether our attempts to revive our marriage could ever succeed? Don’t you think that with your ice-cold demeanor you have broken every piece of my heart? Don’t you know that behind all the solidarity I project there is a wounded woman who has pledged to do her best to make this marriage work?
“I want you to hold me because you want to, not because you’re obliged to. I want to be your lover, not just your wife! I want you to be there for me, listening when I need a shoulder to cry on. Yes, Yaser, I want our marriage to be successful and happy, not just fake photos of us pretending to be happy on Facebook or Instagram. I want you to keep your promise to me from our wedding day, when you said you would love me as long as you live, only to discover that a year later you were still alive but your love had died! I want to revive every living memory we had and not just the proposal, so please, I beg you, don’t let us lose that last breath.”
My eyes were fixed on Mariam. I was puzzled, not fully comprehending what she had just said. She had known all this time that I didn’t believe in her God. No way! She knew that my rebellion against her was imploding within me because I was rebelling against this ‘higher being’. She knew that I had rejected her and her conventions and even her holiness. She knew all that but she had kept quiet. And behind her arguments she held inside her a volcano of silence just so she could keep her family together!
Mariam knew that I didn’t believe in everything she believed in; even our marriage. But she still hoped we could find a moment that would bring us back together. She was certain that the love we had once experienced could be renewed. Was that why she had agreed to travel? She was as worn out as I was with this empty marriage.
Mariam was and always will be like a sacred page of a holy book. She would forgive no matter how great the sin was; even the sin of blasphemy! She knew I had lost my faith but had remained silent.
Mariam leaned towards me and tried to touch my nervous face with her shaky hand. “Don’t worry, darling, everything will be okay.”
I looked at her, deafened by what she had said. I couldn’t hear any more of her words. Did she really believe that everything could ever be okay between us?
“But how will everything be fine when I’m an atheist?”
Mariam’s hands stopped shaking. They were frozen, motionless, and I could feel the frostiness on my burning face. At that moment I felt as though time had stopped. Mariam’s stares were piercing into my eyes and she was speechless. Although she accepted my claims, she hadn’t been ready to hear them spoken out loud so clearly.
Her words barely came out. “I… I know…”
“Do you think everything will be fine even though I’m an atheist?” I asked again, pulling her frozen hand away from my face.
She didn’t answer. She just sat back in her seat, and said, as if she were asking herself, “What in life is worth blaspheming for, Yaser? Why would you deny your creator when you know that he is your creator?”
“No, I don’t know that, and there’s nothing to prove it!”
“Really? Isn’t there?” she replied in a heartbroken tone.
“No, there isn’t.”
“How about the emergence of life from non-living matter?”
“What?” I asked, looking straight at her.
“You know that we were created out of lifeless substances, so how did we turn into animated beings?”
She drew closer to me, despite what I had said, and rubbed her thumb along my cheek. “God is there for whoever wants to find him, Yaser. For whoever really and truly wants to find him.” She sighed and added: “Despite all this, everything can be okay.”
She couldn’t play the holy father any more. Her offers of indulgences were not enough to save our crumbling marriage. She couldn’t be a saint now! She couldn’t continue to be who she had been. She couldn’t know it all and leave me like a little child, lost in the streets of Vegas and looking for shelter in the arms of Isabelle. That just wasn’t going to happen. Nothing would be okay.
My eyes were still fixed on her as her fingers ran through my hair.
“Even if everything turns out for the best, our marriage can’t be mended,” I said.
She pulled her hand away at the same moment I pulled my head away from her.
“There’s no love between us to bring back to life. I can’t take this trip, Mariam.”
She looked at me, still frozen in her seat as if her body was defending itself against what was happening.
“Yaser,” she whispered as a tear rolled down her face.
I turned my back on her and walked away.
“Yaser, even if our love has died, don’t let God die in your heart too.”
I turned to face her again and saw a weakness in her eyes that I had never seen before. For the first time, I felt as though Mariam had realized that her God had died in me because of her. She was crying because she knew that the past couldn’t be relived; not even through a memory.
As I walked towards the exit, she followed me. “Yaser…”
I paused and turned towards her.
“Will you hug me?”
I looked at her, not knowing what to do.
She asked again. “Hug me, Yaser.”
I hugged her in such a way that we both knew it would be our last ever embrace.
She cried, and then wiped away her tears. “My dear Yaser. In spite of everything that has ever happened between us, I want you to know that I loved you.”
Then she put her sunglasses on and walked towards the exit gates, leaving me to watch her departing steps.
Minutes later, my phone buzzed. It was a text from her containing only the words of Adele’s ‘All I Ask’.
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