Controversial

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Farts, Money, and Misery

It was only after Fatima had stepped out of the study room that she realized the gravity of her mistake. The fat stack of money weighed down her pockets, making each step she took a tremendous strain. Whatever adrenaline left from her gambling match completely dissolved in her veins, leaving nothing to mask the pain of her wounded foot. The sharp sensation came back ten fold, and she could no longer resist her affliction without causing further injury.

To secure herself, Fatima gripped onto the railings of the stairs which descended into the university parking lot and hovered on her good foot to ease the pain.

Fatima would have clung to the railing for a good hour had it not been for a certain Dodge Avenger coming to her rescue. The car cut across the parking lot, earning obscenities and complaints from every corner as it screeched to a halt at the entrance. Fatima could only watch with mild curiosity as the front window pulled down to reveal both Joshua and Grace in the car.

“Sorry we were a little late!” Joshua shouted through the window. “Grace wanted to stop by Starbucks!”

“We got you some iced coffee!” Grace added. “It’s got a shit ton of sugar with no cream. Your favorite!”

With the promise of a free drink, Fatima hopped into the backseat and the car drove off.

A pungent musk invaded her nostrils upon immediately getting in. It filled her respiratory system with its odor, strangling her lungs from the inside. Her body revolted by scrunching up her nose, yet she continued to sniff the air for clues.

“What’s...what’s that smell?”

“I farted.”

Joshua gripped onto the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. His head was facing the road, and even the rear-view mirror did not reveal the flustered expression written on his face.

“S–Sorry.”

Without saying another word, Fatima rolled down her window, inviting a roaring gust to burst her eardrums. For a while, the gust was all they heard. The gust overpowered the music lulling from Grace’s Spotify playlist and any possible conversation that started. The three of them sat in awkward silence until Grace rolled up Fatima’s window from her control panel, ending the tyrannical reign of harsh wind.

“I think the smell’s gone now,” Grace said and handed Fatima her cup of iced coffee. The cup’s dewy surface chilled her hands, a welcome relief from the intense afternoon sun. Fatima examined the cup, took an initial sip, and aggressively stirred the coffee with her straw. The sound of ice clashing and rattling inside Fatima’s coffee cup filled the atmosphere with a clamorous cacophony that unsettled both Joshua and Grace.

Sighing, Grace eradicated her music altogether and asked Fatima about her study group.

“Good.”

“Just...good?”

“Yeah! I won four-hundred-and-thirty dollars.”

Grace sneezed an obscene amount of whipped cream through her nose. “Wait. What?”

And Fatima explained everything. Well, almost everything. She told Joshua and Grace

about her study group, how Nadia’s failure to reserve the study room consequently led to a bet with the boys. For a reason she had yet to understand, she left out the truth that Samir was one of those boys and told them all about the debate and the brutal argument that led to her victory and that she had a bunch of money to prove it. By the time she finished telling her tale, Joshua was ready to high-five her from his driver’s seat while Grace had her arms folded in decisive disapproval.

“Fatima. You know you’re not allowed to gamble.”

“Relax!” Joshua said, immediately coming to Fatima’s defense. “It’s just a one time thing!”

The entire car swerved as it crossed four lanes on the expressway. Fatima’s coffee sloshed violently in her cup while Grace’s right cheek squished against her door.

“Let her have some fun!”

Another squelch of flatulence broke the air, and Joshua slumped lower in his driving seat in shame.

“Sorry.”

“Josh, baby. You’re entirely missing the point. Gambling is entirely out of Fatima’s nature. It’s not like her to do something like that. Are you okay?”

Grace glanced over her shoulder at Fatima, who was occupied with counting her new loot. Her fingers sorted through the paper eagerly, only stopping to linger on two twenty-dollar bills.

That’s okay. You can play with me.

Fatima’s fingers instinctually clenched the two bills with an iron grip. She had heard Samir’s voice in her head and desperately wanted to squash it into oblivion, but he continued to pester her as a figment of her imagination.

You wouldn’t have been able to win without me.

That’s what you think.

That’s my money.

“Shut up,” she accidentally uttered aloud.

“What?” Grace’s freckled face paled slightly.

“Sorry. Sorry,” she said and shoved the money as deep as her pockets allowed. No matter how hard she pushed, the bills kept rising to the surface. For some reason, the constant pushing and shoving made her feel worse.

***

The truth was this: Fatima liked money. She couldn’t get enough of it.

It was less like an addiction and more like an innocent desire for ownership. It felt nice to have something of her own, something to hold. Most girls had pets or collectables. For Fatima, it was cash.

She liked how it felt in her hands and how it was the source of both misery and pleasure. Sometimes Fatima would wonder where each individual bill derived from. Blood? Sex? Drugs? The possibilities were endless. Yet despite the sinister stories surrounding the bills, they were the very things used to purchase the necessary elements for survival and the abundance of it indicated rank and power. The dichotomy of pain and pleasure intrigued Fatima, and she thought that if she did not allow herself to be consumed by greed, then having it was okay. It could be her little secret.

Fatima wasn’t sure what she was going to do with the money. It wasn’t like she was poor. Even though her father was the only source of income and they constantly had to pay for her mother’s medical bills, there was always enough to put food on the table and enough to pay the bills on time. Fatima and her family were far from destitute but nowhere close to living the luxurious life her madarbozorg and pedarbozorg lived.

The reason why her family never hit rock bottom was all thanks to her. Despite never having worked a single (paying) job in her life, Fatima knew how to budget. At the young age of thirteen, she sat her father down and presented to him her budget proposal plan and scrutinized every change in influx and outflux of money. She liked the control of budgeting. She liked knowing exactly how it was to be broken down and how much to allot for each necessity.

Whatever joy money bought, Fatima discarded. She had no interest in superficial things, so she buried her cash at the bottom of an old tampon box and left it to rot in the dark corner of her bathroom cabinet.

Fatima took one last longing glance at the cabinet and slowly rose to her feet. As soon as she did, a looming apparition reflected itself in the bathroom mirror. Her jaw dropped open, ready to unleash a scream when the apparition spun Fatima around. She was now face to face with her madarbozorg who was fully decked from head to toe in mourning dress. Fatima’s initial fright converted to relief and she allowed herself to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Her madarbozorg asked with her fists digging into her hips.

Fatima didn’t have the heart to tell her that her red lipstick folded and creased into the wrinkles of her thin lips. Her dark pencil-drawn eyebrows bridged high into her forehead and her stout round body tightly filled her black Gucci gown. She looked like someone had tried to shove a troll high-end tablecloth. Fatima opted to lie instead.

“Nothing. Nothing. Did you just get here, Madarbozorg?”

“Yes. I got here not even five-minutes ago, and I already see you trying to hide money.”

All signs of humor vanished as Fatima bowed her head low in shame. Her subtle gesture served to draw attention to another secret she was trying hard to keep.

Madarbozorg grumbled at the unkempt ace bandage unraveling around Fatima’s foot and the smears of brown blood on the bathroom floor. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Glass.” Her confession came out as a hoarse whisper, which made her Madarbozorg melt with maternal sadness. Somehow, her fondness for Fatima made her harsh makeup seem less severe.

“Sit on the toilet, Eshgham. Let me take care of this.”

And she did. As if they were engaging in some secretive heinous crime, Madarbozorg closed the door shut to conceal their actions and rummaged through the cabinet for a first aid kit. She worked silently which was out of her nature. Madarbozorg, who was normally bursting out loud with gossip and conversation, was hushed into wordless silence. She unraveled Fatima’s bandage until there was nothing but bare flesh, and frowned when she studied Fatima’s wound.

“Fatima. I’m afraid you need to go to the doctor. This wound is really deep. Look.” She showed Fatima the bloody bandage. The morbid sight of it made Fatima wince. “You bled through almost all the layers.”

“It doesn’t hurt,” Fatima blurred out.

Madarbozorg gave a look that said, Oh really? And bent Fatima’s toes towards her heel. Understandably so, Fatima cried and kicked her grandmother, who flew across the bathroom floor. When she realized what she did, Fatima apologized profusely.

“I deserved that.” Madarbozorg said with a wholehearted laugh which Fatima immediately caught on to. Their laughter subsided when Madarbozorg’s eyes doubled in size. “Oh my...”

There was a brief pause on Fatima’s end. Madarbozorg registered her granddaughter’s stifling fear and reached up to caress her face. With each gentle stroke of her thumbs, Madarbozorg traced the curvature of Fatima’s jawline and the thick low-set brows above her eyes. Holding her madarbozorg’s bittersweet gaze and lopsided smile, Fatima knew that Madarbozorg was seeing someone else.

“Why did you have to be so much like your maman?” Madarbozorg said, fighting back tears. “Look at you. So much intelligence in that little head of yours. Whiplash tongue. The cutting look in your eyes…”

Madarbozorg hugged Fatima over the toilet seat and pressed her foundation-caked face into the hem of her granddaughter’s blouse. Fatima would regret it later, but for now another human’s warmth was all she needed at the moment.

“Ugh, I’m such a silly old woman. I had come here to lecture you and your father about missing your great uncle’s funeral but here I am crying with you on a toilet no less.”

“The funeral!” Fatima jolted to her feet and quickly fell back down on the toilet seat. Madarbozorg sighed and disinfected Fatima’s wound.

“Relax. There were at least two-hundred people at that funeral. The old man never liked crowds...or people.”

Madarbozorg gingerly wrapped a new roll of bandage around Fatima’s food and secured its loose end with a safety pin.

“He’s dead anyways. I never liked him. He breathed so loud and always smelled like onions. I think he went through at least three wives now that I’m thinking about it.”

Fatima was two seconds away from chastising her grandmother for gossiping about the dead when Madarbozorg rose to her feet.

“All done.”

She helped Fatima off the toilet and gave her a good slap on the backside. Together, they left the bathroom and returned to the living room where her baba and maman awaited them. Fatima could not believe what she saw. Her maman was somewhat cognizant today. Baba had seated her in front of the t.v. and let her watch an Animal Planet documentary. The sight of a racing cheetah zipping across the savannah drew an innocent coo from her mother.

Her father, on the other hand, had changed out of his vomit crusted clothes and wore a freshly pressed button-up shirt instead. Some time during the day, he had crawled off the couch, washed up, and trimmed his beard. Upon closer inspection, Fatima noticed that his hair was freshly cropped and gelled. He looked like a person again.

How was all this possible? Fatima thought.

As if to answer her question, Madarbozorg told Fatima to stay in the living room while she marched into the kitchen to talk to her father. Fatima could not hear everything that was said, but she heard enough to know that the miracle that occurred was all her grandmother’s doing.

“Omir. If I catch my granddaughter limping again, you will never see her or your wife ever again. Is that understood?”

Fatima did not need to look over to see. She saw her father’s deflated look in her head.

“Yes, Maman.”

“Your drinking has gotten out of hand. And if you do not already see that, you are a fool. Fatima is your daughter and she will not be around forever to clean up after your mess. Just you wait, Omir. One day she will find herself a man, get married, and leave you all alone. What are you going to do then?”

Too afraid to hear her father’s reply, Fatima ran to her mother and sat with her on the couch. She watched Animal Planet for a while. The documentary shifted its focus to a lone lion who was rejected by his pride. Weak with hunger, he was doomed to roam the savannah alone until he died by a watering hole. As if dying wasn’t bad enough, the vultures swooped down from the sky moments after his death to peck at his innards. A gut-stabbing pain tore through Fatima’s lungs and she cried.

She leaned against her mother who groaned softly at the strange girl threatening to topple her frail body off the sofa.

“Fahhh.”

Her mother mouthed. “Fahhh.”

FAH-TI-MA. She remembered how she used to mouth her own name, back when she had hope that things would get better, back when she used to cling onto the idea of miracles and faith.

FAHHH, her mother would say.

TI-MA. She added. You’re almost there, Maman. FAH-TI-MA.

FAHHH, her mother would say with pride.

The memory stuck to her like thorns. Fatima sucked in a breath of air and blinked back tears.

“Fahhhh.”

“That’s right. I’m here.” Fatima laced her fingers with her mother’s. Their hands were the same size, same shape. She was her mother’s carbon copy. “I’m here. I’m not going to leave. I promise.”

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