Like Mines Beneath the Earth...
"I thought about how there are two types of secrets: the kind you want to keep in, and the kind you don't dare to let out."
As usual, Tremondre stopped by Samir’s house after work to shower. Sweat and grime plastered his body in a thick layer. He smelled. He didn’t need anyone to tell him that a putrid stench adhered and festered in every little crevice and fold on his body. Manual labor would do that to anyone.
Tremondre worked in a small warehouse down Carrier Street. Every shift followed the same routine. Someone would tell him what to carry, what to move, and where to move it. He was only allowed one break to eat and drink. The warehouse’s subzero temperature often held him at an ultimatum––stop moving and freeze to death or work hard enough to stress his joints into early arthritis. To make his job worse, every once in a while his creepy manager would come by to clap him on the back or give him a ‘harmless’ massage. Tremondre tried to avoid the lady as best as he could. But like the lioness she was, she would pounce on him when he least expected it and he would have to put up with her unwanted touching until his time was up.
Every shift was shitty, but coming to Samir’s house was always worth it. There, a warm shower awaited him, food was served hot and fresh, and Samir always had a story to tell. It was usually about a girl to Tremondre’s chagrin. Tremondre never understood the appeal of women. They always seemed to cause more trouble than good, and he was more than happy to forswear women forever.
Well, every woman except Ms. Mustafic. Samir’s mother had greeted Tremondre at the door. Today she wore her long dark hair down. It fell to her shoulders in a cascade of black, its glossy sheen reflecting the sunlight. If Tremondre hadn’t been so lost in thought, he would have composed himself better. His jaw hung slightly agape, stupidly so, as Ms. Mustafic’s gray eyes lit up in pleasant delight upon recognition. It was the first time Tremondre saw without her nursing scrubs and her hair tied tightly back. The dark circles that usually sunk her eyes seemed less severe and her complexion radiated with a youthful glow. Ms. Mustafic was pretty; it was undeniably so, which was why Tremondre quickly veered his gaze down at his feet out of both shame and respect.
“Tremondre! You’re early. Samir had a study group to attend to, but he’ll be home soon.”
“I–I can come back later.” Tremondre said. He suddenly took great interest at the mat beneath his feet.
“Nonsense. You’re like my second son.” Ms. Mustafic stepped aside and left the doorway free to enter.
Seeing that his feet was glued to the porch, Ms. Mustafic entered first with the expectation that Tremondre would follow suit.
“Bathroom already has fresh towels for you!” Her voice echoed down the hall.
Tremondre anxiously shifted his feet at the door. It wasn’t until he noticed an old lady glaring at him from across the street that he dashed inside the house, making sure to close the door behind him.
By the time Tremondre finished showering and dressing up, Samir and Ms. Mustafic were sitting together at the dinner table with a stack of Uno cards at the center. Both of them turned their heads when Tremondre arrived and welcomed him to sit down.
“What’s this?” Tremondre asked. He took a seat beside Samir and ruffled wet hair with the towel draped around his shoulders.
“Uno.” Ms. Mustafic said and reached over to grab the stack of cards. She shuffled them with expert movements, bridging them and folding them until they seamlessly fell onto each other. “Loser has to plate the food.”
“We’re having spaghetti and meatballs.” Samir’s gaze circled the table as his mother passed out the cards.
“Because I’m tired of Bosnian food,” Ms. Mustafic added.
“That’s why Baka and Deda don’t like you. They told me you were always insulting their food.”
Ms. Mustafic passed out the last set of cards before dropping everything to smack her son on the head. Samir swerved, and Ms. Mustafic almost smacked Tremondre instead.
She gasped and her hand flew to her mouth. “Sorry!”
“It’s fine. You missed,” Tremondre said with a shy smile. “So um…what calls for this special occasion?”
Ms. Mustafic and Samir picked up their decks and played. They had mutually agreed to have Ms. Mustafic go first, Samir second, and Tremondre last. Ms. Mustafic put down her first card, a green ‘4’, and said, “I noticed that Samir seemed troubled when he got home. We usually play a game to talk things out. When you have something to do, it makes conversation a lot easier.”
“What’s wrong?” Tremondre asked.
“Nothing.” Samir put down a green ‘9’ and nodded to Tremondre. “Your turn.”
“You’re lying,” Tremondre heard Ms. Mustafic say as he searched his deck and settled on a red ‘9’. He put the card down. “My mommy senses are tingling.”
A hint of irritation crept under Samir’s voice. If there was one thing Samir never learned: it was how to lie. “It’s not a big deal. Your turn.”
Ms. Mustafic punished Samir with a ‘+4’ color card and changed the deck back to green. Samir groaned and took four more cards from a clean stack and nudged Tre with the nub of his elbow.
“With all due respect Ms. Mustafic, I think some things are better left alone. I’m sure the issue will resolve itself.”
Tremondre realized that he had no green cards and skipped his turn.
“Ah,” said Ms. Mustafic with a scintillating wink in her eye. “But you haven’t experienced what it’s like to be blessed with a son like mine. I don’t have to remind you about the restroom incident, right?”
Ms. Mustafic put down a green ‘7’ and smirked. Upon alluding to the embarrassing memory, Samir’s pale face flushed as red as a spring-time rose.
“Your turn, son.”
Tremondre’s eyes flitted from Samir’s burning cheeks to Ms. Mustafic’s cool pallor. His voice heightened apprehensively and he asked, “Restroom incident?”
“Are you going to tell him? Or will I?”
Samir’s hands quivered as he threw down a yellow ‘7’. “In eighth grade, I got suspended for having sex in the girl’s restroom.”
“HOLY SHIT!” Tremondre screamed.
Samir and Ms. Mustafic glanced at him, and Tremondre bursted out in laughter. Both the mother and son stared, awestruck at Tremondre’s booming laugh. Tremondre, who normally restricted himself in speech to the greatest austerity, was now rolling over in his seat in hysterics.
Samir wanted more than anything to roll over and die. The heat he felt had spread to his knuckles, flushing them with pink.
“The enjoyment you get from embarrassing me…” Samir groaned.
“Only because I love you,” Ms. Mustafic cooed. “Tremondre?”
Tremondre clutched his belly and squeezed the rest of his giggles out of his body. “Man, that was too good. Five yellow.”
Another card was added to the stack.
Conversation died as the game progressed. With Ms. Mustafic in the lead, Samir and Tremondre tried to slow her down with every move they could think of. They hit her with ’+4’s and changed the color to deter her from winning. It wasn’t until Ms. Mustafic caught an inkling that Samir was out of yellows that she changed the stack.
“That’s not fair!” Samir whined. “Tremondre get’s to say ‘shit’ but I can’t say ‘damn’?”
“Because Tremondre is not my son.”
Tremondre’s deflated smile was invisible to all.
“You are my son. And you aren’t five years old anymore. Quite whining.”
Samir’s shoulders rose and fell in one deep swoop and he dropped his deck face-up, forfeiting the game. Out of nowhere, Fatima’s words came back to haunt him..
Your choice to look up to a man who so easily turns to murder, who jumps to extremes, who believes that he is doing the work of the divine shows that you are just as dangerous as the man you admire and gives me all the more reason to denounce you as a base man.
Her voice cutted through him, slashing his insides and bleeding him dry.
“Mama? Do you think I’m base?”
Seeing her son’s fallen expression, she dropped her cards as well. “My son, you are many things. Many, many, many…”
There was a far away look in her eyes as if she was reliving some of her greatest and worst moments.
“Mama?” Samir and Tremondre exchanged worried looks. Samir reached out to poke her shoulder, but Ms. Mustafic recovered on her own.
“The point is, you are many things. I have birthed you and raised you. I have seen you at your worst. But Samir, you are not base.”
That was when Samir came clean. He told his mother and Tremondre about what really happened at the study group. He told her how Fatima seemed to know everything, how her tongue slashed him and whipped him until he was sore. He told them both how her intelligence and cold pragmatism wowed him speechless. But as much as he liked Fatima, he could not help but share the same disturbance as others often felt at her harshness. There was something about Fatima that made him truly believe that she saw right through him. She saw past his charm and his politeness and was disgusted at the trash lying beneath. It made him feel gross and ashamed because for the first time, Samir doubted his own integrity and the clarity of his character.
Now that Samir had the time to process it, he was open to agree that Fatima was right. Samir deserved to be embarrassed when his mother brought up his incident of folly. Samir made his mother suffer as a child. Even as an adult, he remembered all the times his mother screamed at him. Her angry tears produced steam as they rolled off her red cheeks. With her balled fists clenched to her sides, she had derided him for his unruly behavior and bringing her shame. He had done and said things that he could not bear to recall and prayed that his mistakes would dissipate into oblivion at the darkest corner of his mind.
“I’m sorry I was such a shitty kid.”
Ms. Mustafic opened her arms to embrace him, but he turned away. He stood up in his seat and muttered at the floor, “I’ll go plate the food.”
His name went ignored as he retreated into the kitchen. Ms. Mustafic stared at her lap in silence while Tremondre nervously fumbled with the towel around his neck. Samir would not come out of the kitchen for a long time and in that period of gloom, Tremondre would realize a truth that had never occurred to him before. Something stood between the Mustafics, something dark and tragic like a secret that lied right beneath the surface. But Tremondre knew a thing or two about secrets: sometimes it was safer for them to remain hidden like mines beneath the earth.