Life was like a river, ever moving, ever changing, a cycle within itself. It would stop for no one nor submitted to any plea. We were all at life’s mercy and therefore we must learn how to adapt according to its every whim. Those who dare to swim against life’s currents would only be swept away or drowned.
It was a lesson Fatima had not quite learned.
She had accepted her mother’s fate and did not think twice about assuming her role as lady of the house. She had accepted her father’s affliction and learned how to clean up after his mess. She did not blame Allah for her burdens. She did not pity herself for her lot. But when life sent her Samir, she may as well have tossed him in the river and ran. She rejected him, body and soul, and hoped that the river would carry him far, FAR away. Never to be seen again.
That was why when her father told her that he had invited Samir over for some chai, Fatima dumped an entire bag of tea leaves in the ghuri out of shock.
“Eshgham! With that many tea leaves, he’ll choke from the bitterness!”
Then let him, was what Fatima wanted to say but she knew wiser.
Fatima poured most of the tea leaves back in the bag and left an appropriate amount in the ghuri. She began preparing the kettle full of water and set it on the stove to boil.
“May I at least ask why?” She inquired after regaining her composure.
Her father’s eyes wrinkled smilingly. It had been exactly two weeks since his last hangover and he had stayed sober ever since. Fatima breathed a silent dua within the hidden confines of her mind to beg Allah to keep him clean. She desperately wanted to keep him in the same state as he was standing before her: neatly dressed, healthy, and alert. The image of him made her heart ache.
“He asked me if I could put in a few good words about him to Mr. Lam. He wants a dental internship at my clinic.”
“Why couldn’t he just ask you through the phone like a normal person?”
“The Mustafics are very formal, even for Persian standards.” With a softened look in his eyes, he cupped his daughter’s face with wide gentle hands that made her face feel childishly small. “I understand how this may be awkward for you, but it’ll just be a short visit. You’re free to leave and go somewhere until he leaves.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Baba.” Fatima placed her hands on top of her father’s where they lingered. A memory of her father tightly holding her hand as they accompanied her mother to the operating room flickered in front of her eyes, and she quickly suppressed it as it came. “Since when have I ever run away from a man? We will deal with each other just as adults do: with dignity and respect.”
As if on cue, the doorbell rang. Her father went to get the door while Fatima went to her room to put on her hijab. She was in the middle of choosing from a wide array of scarves when the sound of the door creaking open froze her body rigid.
She cringed upon hearing his name.
The door closed behind him and was followed by a series of muted footsteps which echoed down the hall. Fatima veered her attention back to her scarves and settled for a cream colored scarf. At first she was pleased to see how well the color complimented her sandy skin tone, but was then disgusted at how it clashed with her baggy tee. The cartoonish cat that consumed the fabric space slowly morphed to imitate Samir’s face.
I like your aesthetic, said the cat. Looks great...if you’re trying to look like a five-year-old.
“Screw you,” she whispered before ransacking the closet. It would take a solid half-hour until Fatima found something she liked.
In the living room, Mr. Said had Samir sit at the table while they waited for the kettle to come to a boil. They engaged in small talk to pass the time. Mr. Said would ask Samir about school while Samir would ask him about work. But as it usually was with men, they could not avoid the main purpose of the visit and went straight to the point.
“You said you wanted to speak with me sir?”
“Yes. I heard through your grandparents that you were pursuing dentistry and were looking for an internship.”
Flattered that Mr. Said had taken notice of his pursuits, Samir broke into a grin and confirmed his inquiry. “That’s true.”
“Well I wanted to let you know that the clinic I work at is accepting interns. I would be more than happy to recommend you to my boss.”
Samir’s first instinct was to thank Mr. Said for his generosity, but Samir knew a thing or two about favors. Unless the person who helped you loved you in some way, there would always be debt to pay. He looked down at his folded hands on the table before glancing up to meet Mr. Said’s gaze. In an instant, his age and regret became visible. He seemed small and compressed like he had been carrying a heavy load upon his shoulders and finally collapsed from the weight.
“Sir, with all due respect, what is the real reason you called me here?”
“What do you think of my daughter?” Mr. Said asked earnestly and leaned in to narrow the gap between them.
Samir became conscious of the move and willed himself to do the same. He took a moment to collect his words and chose them carefully. “Fatima is very intelligent. I’m sure she will make an excellent prosecutor and make you proud.”
Mr. Said scoffed, causing Samir’s heart to palpitate. “Is that all?”
A high-pitched squeal sounded from the kitchen. Mr. Said rose to his feet and went to take the kettle off the stove. He poured the boiling water into the ghuri and took several trips to deliver the ghuri and tea glasses from the kitchen to the table. When he sat back down again, he furrowed his gray brows at Samir, expecting an answer.
Samir shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“Does she scare you?”
“No.” The response flew right out of his mouth.
“Not even a little?”
Samir kept his lips shut and withdrew in solitude as Mr. Said reached for the ghuri. Liquid amber poured from the spout and emitted clouds of fragrant steam into the air. The smell relaxed them both.
Mr. Said set down the ghuri on the table and let the glasses cool. “Fatima can be very intimidating. I’m sorry if she caused you any pain.”
“You don’t need to apologize––”
“I do. Honesty is virtue, but it has its limits. My daughter has a tendency to take things too far. She has yet to realize how much pain her honesty inflicts. She has wounded you.”
This time it was Samir that laughed. “If you wound someone with truth, does it make it less wrong? Is it not a blessing in disguise?”
“A blessing for the ignorant. A detriment for those seeking salvation. When you’re trying to change and you focus on your mistakes, you’ll find that you stay the same.”
Mr. Said pushed a glass towards Samir and ushered him to drink, which he did. The warmth slid down Samir’s throat and melted away the worries in his mind. He drank more.
“I don’t know what my daughter said to you, but don’t dwell on it.”
“Please don’t worry about me, Mr. Said. I’m fine. The tea tastes great though.”
Mr. Said brought the glass to his lips to hide his evident smirk. “Fatima helped me brew this tea.”
A bolt of realization struck Samir in the head, causing him to set down his glass with such a rough force that some chai splattered against the tablecloth. “You didn’t invite me here for an internship or to apologize. You want me to pursue her.”
Mr. Said reached over to take Samir’s glass and poured him some more chai. “Was that not obvious from the beginning? I’m old, Samir. My wife will be leaving this world soon, and I don’t want Fatima to throw away her life to take care of me. That’s all she’s ever done. I want her to have a life of her own, fall in love, and do whatever kids do nowadays. I think you are the one who can make that happen.”
“And that’s very touching and all, but Fatima doesn’t like me. She’s made it perfectly clear.”
“I don’t hear a ‘no’.” Mr. Said cackled to himself. “OOH––”
Out of nowhere, a loud squelch erupted from his belly, causing Mr. Said to double over in pain. “So,” he wheezed. He began breaking out into a cold sweat and looked up at Samir. “This is what is going to happen. Alright? I just so happened to drug my chai with laxatives and will be spending the next hour shitting my guts in the toilet. But you––”
He pointed at Samir whose startled expression indicated that he had no inkling of Mr. Said’s design. “––you will take advantage of the next hour and WIN my daughter over. I want you to give it everything you got! Let her know that you’re serious. Hold her hand and look into her eyes. Women like that.”
Samir stammered to protest, “S–Sir, I really don’t think that’s a good idea.”
A wet splatter sounded from Mr. Said’s pants, ending their conversation. The deal was done. Mr. Said waddled himself to the nearest bathroom, leaving Samir to sit at the table in confusion.
He waited. He figured Fatima was probably hiding in her room, trying to avoid him. The thought discouraged Samir and when the chai turned cold, he stood up in his seat and was about to head for the door, until Fatima’s head peeped out from the hall.
Samir froze as the rest of her emerged from hiding. A satin green skirt trailed her ankles and a white blouse tied itself at her waist. Her eyes, coffee brown, seemed milky in contrast to her cream hijab. If Samir didn’t know better, he would have equated her essence to sand dunes. Ethereal but harsh. Hot yet cold. Each encounter with her was doomed to border on the edge of two extremes, and he was not looking forward to finding out which side of her prevailed today.
“How long have you been standing there?” Samir asked. An accusational tone crept into his voice, and he secretly cursed himself for not holding back.
“Long enough to know that you were about to leave while my father shits his guts out.” She shrugged. “His words. Not mine.”
“Save your breath. If you wanna leave, then leave. Or if you want to continue standing here choking on your own tongue like you’re doing right now, then that’s fine too.”
When Samir refused to budge, Fatima’s patience waned. It manifested in the increasing volume of her voice. She was growing desperate, eager for her problem to disappear. “What are you waiting for? The door’s right there.”
Samir stood steadfast against Fatima’s taunts as the power in her voice began to dim. “Are you stupid or something? Why won’t you leave? GET. OUT!”
He had hoped that she would calm down when she ran out of words, but her depleted supply only made her resort to violence. She tried shoving him towards the door, pushing him with all her might, but he caught her wrists and turned her attack on her. Samir pinned her wrists against the door, locking them above her head.
She was trapped.
She thought about screaming, but he pressed her wrists harder against the wall, causing her to whine in pain.
“I need you to stop fighting and listen to me.”
Samir’s voice was no longer soft with civility or kindness. A request became a demand.
“Look at me.”
When she refused to comply, he knocked her wrists against the door. She lifted her head, revealing a tear-streaked face broken by a new sense of humility. Samir had to fight the instinct to pity her. Pity did not heal. It only sunk the subject into a deeper hole where they remained.
“You need to stop this. It’s childish.”
Fatima was overcome by a bitter laughter. She laughed in Samir’s face, laughing so hard that she exerted herself. Had it not been for Samir holding her up, she would have collapsed from exhaustion.
“Childish? I’m mortified. My father turned me into a charity case, and you expect me to be an adult about it?” Fatima’s voice deepened to mock her father. “Oh Samir! Please love my daughter because she’s wretched and unpleasant. You’re her only hope for happiness. Well screw him AND you! I would rather die than for anyone to love me out of pity.”
The burning hatred Fatima felt ignited a similar fire within Samir, setting every deviant desire in his body aflame.
“Well I don’t know about that,” Samir sneered with an equal biting malice. “It’s kind of hard to pity someone who has done nothing but condemn me since the day we met. In your eyes, I’m nothing but some dirty fiend. I disgust you. My very existence offends you. I would be a fool to love someone like you!”
Quaking, Fatima caught his steel-cut gaze and whispered a gravelly voice.
“Let me go.”
It only tightened his grip.
“No. Your father gave me a whole hour.”
“I’ll scream,” Fatima warned.
“Go ahead,” Samir taunted and pressed against her so that her thigh came between his groin. “And then I’ll give you a real reason to scream.”
Fatima’s heart raced within her ribcage and her breath cut short. Her chest tightened. The room constricted upon her. She felt like she was getting crushed.
“This is what you think of me, isn’t it? This is who you think I am?”
Fatima shut her eyes. She began gasping like a fish as tears streamed down her face. Her knees broke from underneath her, and she collapsed, her weight breaking Samir’s grip. She sat slumped on the floor. Her hands blindly searched for something to clutch onto for support and settled for Samir’s ankle. She gasped for air.
Fatima was having an anxiety attack.
Remorse turned Samir’s blood into ice, and he immediately crouched down to her level. “Fatima?” Samir said with a renewed gentleness to his voice. “Hey. Look at me. Breathe.” He tried to model his breathing by inhaling deeply, holding his breath for five seconds before releasing. “Breathe like me.” He repeated the process once more.
There was a vacant look in Fatima’s eyes as she continued gasping for air. With every rattle of her lungs, Samir winced.
It’s your fault, the ugly voice inside his head hissed. You hurt everybody.
“Come on, Fatima.” Samir said, giving it his all to remain calm. “Breathe. You can do this.” He sucked in enough air until his lungs could hold no more and released. “Look at me.” He tilted her chin up and seized her gaze. “Look at my stupid face and breathe.”
Fatima held her breath for three seconds before her trembling body forced the air out.
“Just a little longer. Hold it a little longer and you’ll never have to see me again, okay?”
This time it was Samir who was on the verge of tears.
“One more time?”
Fatima held her breath for five seconds and released.
“Good. One more time…”
The progress was slow, but at long last Fatima came down from her high. The attack left both of them drained as they sat against the door. No longer able to hold her head up, she rested against Samir’s shoulder. The act startled him. Samir felt like he didn’t deserve to touch her after what he did, so he planned to apologize and leave.
As if reading his mind, Fatima begged him to stay.
The plea tranquilized Samir, rendering his body useless. He could sit there for hours and lose all sense of time. It had been a while since Samir last felt so defeated.
“Don’t go. I’m sorry.”
Fatima was three seconds away from breaking down into tears when Samir took her hand. His thumb traced the splotches of purple on her wrists, each a product of his anger.
“I’m sorry, too.”
He interlocked his fingers with hers, and they sat there until they noticed Mr. Said lurking down the hall. And when they saw his face, he may as well have been staring into the pit of Hell.