Under the bright atrium light of the food court between our buildings, I told Fati about the kiss. In Arabic. This was no time to make my cousin practice English.
She said nothing at first, just tented her veil away from her face and slipped a kebab beneath it. A blonde expat stared from three tables away. They expect to see women like Fati, in head-to-toe billowing black, to be out haggling at souqs or hurrying into mosques—not taking a late lunch break at the headquarters of the world’s largest oil company. I wear Yves Saint Laurent and coordinate: headscarf to lipstick, pantsuit to pumps. People think I’m the one with all the opinions, but that shows how little they pay attention. Even with only her eyes visible, my cousin can speak volumes with one raised brow.
Which may be why I’ve kept this thing with Mark—whatever it is—quiet until now.
“This is the American? The tall one with the Mickey Mouse neckties?” she asks.
“Donald Duck. And his daughter picked them out. From the hospital.”
She’d heard countless stories about my co-workers, though usually I kept it light: Hassan’s pink prayer beads, Abdullah’s eczema. A few weeks ago, I started getting careful not to give Mark too much airtime. I didn’t want to jinx it—the playful texts, then the phone calls at night. Innocent stuff, really. Nothing that would attract attention from the muttawa. Not that Fati would ever call the religious police on me.
“The one who came over on Bachelor status? Wife and child back in Houston?”
“His daughter died, Fati.” I punched at the ice in my Diet Coke, ears burning. “That’s why he was gone for most of the summer. I know I told you all this.”
She glanced over at the blonde, thoughtful. “But his wife’s still there. So…why come back? Because of you?”
I blinked. Put my fork down. I didn’t need my cousin to call me a whore. I got my degree in California; half my country already thinks that.
“She filed for divorce, Fati. There was nothing left between them. He just—”
I stopped. Because what could my cousin know about love, or the loss of it? She clerked downstairs in accounting, alone, at a job my father scrambled to get her.
A week after I left for college, my aunt called our house in tears. Fati, who’d enrolled herself in the women’s college down on the Corniche, had gone to only a handful of classes then quit and would no longer leave the house. “No point,” she told them in typical Fati logic. I called her— same thing. She wouldn’t elaborate. Sometimes I fantasize my cousin has a secret Internet life, some nightly chat room connection with a star-crossed lover from far away. Otherwise, there is no Allah.
“Forget it, Fa.” I sighed, clearing my tray. “It was only a kiss. Barely a kiss.”
But I ducked my head and smiled, remembering how he’d tilted my face up, those big hands cupping my ears. My own heartbeat roaring beneath his palms. How his thumbs had traced the seam of my headscarf, loosening a memory: my friend Julie’s wedding, San Diego, senior year. At the altar, her groom’s thumb grazing the edge of her simple white veil.
“Nada. Please. Listen to me, habibi.”
Since when did Fati call me “dear one?” Since never. I shouldered my bag, moved to stand. She put a hand on my arm.
“This faranji wants only distraction. You think he won’t get over his grief, wake up, and realize you two will never work? What future could this have, Nada? Did you think of that?”
I jerked my arm free and stood up, chin high, so the tears wouldn’t spill.
“I think of my future all the time, Fatimah. Don’t you?”
We’d all assumed, growing up, that Ahmed or Farid or Abdulrahman—one of my brothers, anyway—would marry Fati. My uncle, who’d advanced above his own family the day he married into ours, was desperate for it. His disappointment reverberated through our family long after my brothers’ weddings.
Soon after I came back from California, I overhead my father chuckling to my mother about an odd call he’d received at work. Twenty minutes of polite conversation, and then my uncle had inquired—casually, of course—if any of my brothers was considering taking a second wife.
The anger that’d blazed up in me! The shame, on my cousin’s behalf. But later, after it dwindled? A guilty flicker of relief.
We were born in the same month, Fati and me. This spring, we’ll turn twenty-five. Between us, we are too old and too educated. We will never marry a Saudi, either of us. I’d known this for a while. Was it possible she didn’t?
“It’s different in the West, you know.” I said. “There, people fall in love and marry whoever they want.” I looked at her. “At any age, Fati.”
Her eyes hardened. “And this foreigner…he’ll marry you?”
“Stranger things have happened,” I said in English, chin lifted. I would not look away.
“Stranger things?” Fati echoed, her accent harsh. “Let me tell you about ‘stranger’ things, Nada bint Mohammed Al-Jishi. A ‘stranger’ thing is that bleached hair”—she stabbed a finger at the blonde—“in my country, when everyone else has the decency to cover up!” The blonde scrambled to her feet, tray clattering, and fled. “Your ‘stranger’ things are on every grocery aisle. We import beef for the Australians, Marmite for the Brits— reminders everywhere. ‘Stranger’ things are the red roses and stuffed bears you and I bought every February as kids. Banned now, did you know that? Because Valentine’s Day is a ‘stranger’ thing, Nada. Not ours. Never ours. No matter what you tell yourself. You think you know this man, over what… a kiss?” Her voice cracked on the word. “Your heart is lying to you, habibi. Never forget: he is a stranger.”
She sat back slowly, trembling. Her dark eyes glittered. I stared at her, this person in my cousin’s skin. I couldn’t look away.
“Stranger Things” first appeared in 805Lit+Art (Volume 4, Issue 2), April 2018.
805Lit+Art magazine also chose “Stranger Things” as one of their three annual fiction nominations for the Pushcart Prize. Many thanks for the honour!
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