Controversial

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A Trial of Patience

Samir had not a single idea as to what caused him to inflict such cruelty on Fatima. He had only intended to warn her against acting rashly and prevent her from doing something she would regret. But after replaying the scenario in his head again and again, he realized the wrongness on his end. Instead of protecting her, he had humiliated her, subjugated her by revealing her wrongs in front of a crowd. He had put her on display for all to see. But most despicably of all? He had made her cry.

Again.

Each time he replayed the incident in his head, he became more aware of the distress evident in Fatima’s tears and the helpless look she gave him. She seemed torn, distraught by an invisible looming force no one could see. Samir couldn’t help but recall what she said.

...you do not understand what it’s like to be neck deep in debt, to owe someone your life.

What exactly did she mean? It was very hard for Samir to imagine Fatima in debt. Not only did Fatima hold a particular disdain for gambling, but she was too stubborn to ask for help. What kind of debt would someone like Fatima have? Although he hadn’t a clue as to the conundrum Fatima faced, he would argue that he did know a thing or two about debt. After all, weren’t the greatest debts derived from no other than the very person who brought us into this world?

It was from that truth that Samir knew just exactly whom to turn to for advice. He spent the rest of his afternoon cooking and checking in on Tremondre. For the past few days, Tremondre tossed and turned in a fit of fever. His daily routine included shivering in Samir’s bed and waking up every few hours to take some medication. He had lost almost all desire to eat, which meant Samir had to cook foods that were easier to consume. Tremondre took a particular liking to Bosnian polenta (mostly because it was soft and kept him warm) and became more compliant when Samir would cool his body down with folded wet towels.

Although they didn’t speak much, there was a mutual understanding on both sides that their friendship had changed. Tremondre’s disease and Samir’s nursing had strengthened their devotion to each other. It was an unsaid loyalty that bound them together, the same kind that bound brothers in war or blood to blood. Because Samir was fated to be an only child, Tremondre was the closest thing he had to an actual brother, and he felt responsible for him and his well-being as an older sibling should.

At evening, when Ms. Mustafic returned home, she and Samir sat down at the dinner table and inquired about Tremondre’s health.

“Still feverish?”

Samir brought another spoonful of polenta into his mouth and swallowed. They had been eating polenta for three days. Ms. Mustafic hated the idea of leftovers and Samir had yet to learn how to portion-size his meals, so it was all they ate.

“Yeah. It’s getting better though. Today it dropped to 99 degrees.”

“What a nasty cold,” Ms. Mustafic said, shaking her head. “I still can’t believe he’s been living in that truck for two years. Doesn’t he have a family?”

“Of course he does. Everyone has a family. But not everyone has a family they want to return to.”

Samir looked up from his bowl of polenta and met his mother’s unwavering gaze. Ms. Mustafic always wore a reserved yet thoughtful expression even when she was at rest. Those who didn’t know her well would think she wasn’t an emotional woman. At work, other nurses admired her for her stoic disposition and her readiness to act. She never brought any drama from home with her to the hospital, but she was also kind and was ready to lend a listening ear to those who needed it. Who needed it more than the sick and dying?

“Why do you say that like I haven’t an idea as to how painful family can be?”

Samir registered the pinched look in his mother’s expression and made a hasty apology.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it to come out like that.”

“I know you didn’t.” Ms. Mustafic reached over to caress her son’s face. Even though she did this often, sometimes playfully, other times with tenderness, she was still amazed as to how much he had grown. Despite twenty years of having him in her life, she still remembered the day when he came out from her womb. His small head fit perfectly in the palm of her hand.

“Before you came along, my relationship with Deda and Baka wasn’t really good.”

“I know.”

Samir poked his polenta with a spoon, arranging the caramelized onions to form a square. He hoped that playing with his food would suppress the memories but it didn’t. A fragment stabbed his mind, and he heard the sickening clap that echoed when Deda’s flat hand collided against his mother’s face. Samir was four years old when he saw his grandfather hit his mother for the first time. He had been caught wearing his mother’s heels, and his grandparents blamed his mother for his inappropriate behavior.

“I mean, it wasn’t good even after you were born but it’s getting better. Family is very complicated, Samir.”

“I know.”

“I...I understand that I wasn’t exactly a perfect mother.”

Ms. Mustafic was on the verge of tears when Samir took her into his arms. She broke. Shaking and sobbing into his shoulder, Samir stroked her back, feeling her long hair tangle itself between his fingers. It was times like this when Samir had to allow himself to feel. He no longer had to step around eggshells or be wary of what he said. In a way, Samir was grateful for tears. Because when someone cried, there was no longer a need for false promises or pretty words. When people cried, it called for honesty.

And by nature, Samir was honest. He was honest in how he felt and what he believed. His honesty, in its rawest form, was brutal or crude. But he was honest nonetheless. And in his state of honesty and vulnerability, he admitted to his mother.

“You shouldn’t have to apologize. You tried your hardest because being a mother is hard. Being human is hard. Like...everyone else expects us to be so damn perfect all the time but it’s so far from the truth. People mess up. Some more than others.”

Samir paused. How strange and foreign did it feel to be in this position. Once, it had been him crying in his mother’s arms. He had cried over trivial things: some kid had pushed him in class, a friend stopped being a friend, or he failed a test in school. Now, it was him holding his mother. And this time she was crying over something tremendous, something he would never fully understand as a man and her son. His mother endured great suffering, and even he was unsure how to approach it.

But he tried.

“It was unfair of Deda and Baka to expect you to be perfect. You came here in 1992 at nine years old. While other children played, you were busy learning english and translating government forms. You came to a new country with different customs and norms, and they still expected you to be the perfect Bosniak they wanted. And I know you well, Mama. I know you tried for them and for Allah. And I can’t pretend to understand the horrors of what you had seen or what Deda and Baka had seen, or understand what it was like to constantly be in and out of two different worlds, but I know you. I know you because you are my mama, because you are so smart, and so good. And because I know you so well, I know that you want, more than anything right now, to argue against me and say that I am wrong. Because it’s in your nature to be humble and lower yourself.”

Samir could not hold back his tears.

“If only I could give you my eyes so you can see what I see…”

Samir ran out of strength. He was at a loss for words and his face was unbearably red with heat because there were some things that he couldn’t bear to admit: like all the times he would stay up late to wait for his mom to come home from night classes, or how he worried if she had packed enough food when she was working overtime, or how badly he wanted to jump in to protect her when Deda got mad. As honest as Samir was, he couldn’t allow himself to admit these things should he risk breaking himself.

But Ms. Mustafic understood. She withdrew from her son to look at him with her wet eyes, her lashes sagging under the weight of her tears. All of a sudden, she had changed composition. Once she had been firm as steel but now she was fragile like thin glass.

A small flicker of light shined through her eyes as she remembered a verse. “And We have made some of you (people) as trials for others - will you have patience? And ever is your Lord, Seeing.”

“Quran 25:20.” Samir couldn’t help but crack into a smile. “How fitting.”

“And why is that?” Her wet eyes twinkled.

“Because we all seem to make each other crazy.”

“Think harder.”

Samir rolled his eyes which earned him a hard glare from his mother. He thought more seriously.

“I think it means...it’s supposed to be hard to live with people. Allah intended it to be that way because we are all set up to be trials for others. There’s always a lesson to be learned.” He turned to his mother. “What did I teach you?”

Ms. Mustafic had just dabbed her tears with a sleeve and laughed. “Patience for sure. Sometimes it felt like all we ever did was scream at each other. Every time you caused your Deda and Baka trouble, they always blamed it on me as if I had corrupted you from birth.”

This time it was Samir that laughed. “Didn’t I fill up the tub and throw your hair straightener in?”

“While it was plugged in,” Ms. Mustafic added. “Don’t think I forgot about how you hid trash all around the house because I refused to buy you legos.”

“Of course,” Samir said proudly.

“And the bathroom incident…”

Samir winced. “You’re never letting go of that one, are you?”

“I was the one that had to drive you and that girl to the clinic for an STD screening!” Ms. Mustafic let out an exasperated sigh. “You should have seen the looks the front-desk receptionist gave me when I told them you both were thirteen.”

“Oh, I remember. She was like––” Samir mimicked the sweeping glance and the wide-eyes the receptionist made.

Ms. Mustafic howled with laughter and Samir joined in as well. When their dinner had turned cold, both mother and son cried and laughed with heated passion, causing much confusion and curiosity to Tremondre who was resting across the hall. Their heightened emotions eventually turned tepid and they sat, savoring the new quiet.

“But for sure, you helped me grow up very fast. You are both a penance and gift from above.”

“And Dad?” It still felt strange to mention him despite never having met the man once. He was a ghost––invisible yet still there.

“He taught me sin and pain but also love. I like to believe that I really did love him. He just didn’t have enough patience or love to stay.”

“And Deda and Baka?”

“They taught me grace. As much as we try our best to guide our children onto the right path, they still stray. That’s why when I had you, I wanted to give you the choice. I didn’t want to push my beliefs onto you. And you still managed to follow that path. For that, I’m very proud.”

Ms. Mustafic rose to collect the bowls and brought them to the kitchen. With the faucet on and the suds bubbling in the sink, she began to wash the dishes. Her back was turned but Samir stayed behind. He still wanted to say more but had no idea what to say.

“You’re no longer a child but you’re still young. You will meet many people that will test you in different ways. So the question remains: will you have patience?”

Samir thought back to Fatima and the hurtful words he said. It was a temporary lapse in judgement but an error, still. He had lost his patience.

Ms. Mustafic took his silence for an answer and said, “I became friends with Anna Syed shortly after 9/11. I saw her after as I was getting out of a taxi. She was drinking coffee outside of a coffee shop and people were giving her all kinds of nasty looks. A man came up to her and spat on her face and you know what she did? She wiped the spit off with her napkin and continued drinking her coffee like nothing ever happened. But I knew better. People were shocked by how calm she was, but I saw through it. Her hands were practically shaking when she brought the coffee cup to her lips.”

Ms. Mustafic washed the last pot in the sink, scrubbing it with the rough side of her sponge. Her face gnarled as she vigorously scrubbed the hard pieces of polenta sticking inside the pot. “Some people act tough because they’re scared. They think that if other people can’t see their fear, they would give up and leave them alone. Fatima’s a lot like her mother. She seems intimidating but she’s...not.”

Ms. Mustafic resorted to scraping the bits with her thumb instead. “She’s a very hard person to love. I guess in that aspect, she’s a lot like you. I know you like her, Samir. Give her some time. And before you’ll know it, you’ll both get married in the masjid, move out, and leave me all alone…”

Blushing, Samir said, “Mama, you’re overthinking again.”

“Can you ask Fatima to wait a few years before giving me grandchildren? I want to at least have a few years to myself before I chase down any babies with poopy diapers.”

Samir fought a rising smile as the thought of his mother gagging while changing a load of poopy diapers entertained his mind. But immediately following that thought, he saw Fatima rubbing her small protruding belly and smiling at him. Her skin glowed radiantly, flushed with extra blood flowing to her cheeks. Samir suddenly felt weak. His heart began to flutter anxiously against his chest like a caged bird, and he felt sick from both joy and shame from the guilty pleasure the thought gave him.

“I think...I’m going to finish my assignments.”

Samir promptly left the kitchen and spent the rest of his night finishing all his due assignments on Canvas and planning out his month according to what needed to be done. He did all of this while occasionally watching some Netflix shows on the side. All of this was to clear his head from the intrusive although pleasant thoughts that would bombard his mind.

He managed to distract himself until midnight when his phone alerted him of a new email sent to him by Star Dental Clinic.

Mr. Mustafic,

In addition to Omir Syed’s personal recommendation and reading your application, we are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted to intern at Star Dental Clinic. Please let us know what times you are available to work. Weekday and weekend work hours are listed below. If you have any questions, contact us at...

Samir finished reading the email and contemplated what the new opportunity meant for him. If he accepted the offer, then it would mean he was indebted to Mr. Syed. Samir tried to imagine himself working with Mr. Syed side by side. He personally liked Mr. Syed despite the awkward situation they had been placed into with each other last time, but it was a conflict of interests. Mr. Syed wanted Samir to marry his daughter. If he didn’t decide on his intentions now and accepted the opportunity, it would be wrong. But if he procrastinated and waited too long, he risked jeopardizing his career. He had applied to other clinics before none of them had replied.

Until now.

Samir put his phone away and headed straight for the shower to complete his nightly routine, doing wudu and praying before he slept. And in the morning, as if Allah had spoken into his ears as he dreamed, he prayed again before going out to buy a bouquet of roses and set off to visit the Syeds.

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