August 20, 2021
By: Dr. Abeer El Gamal
Fareeda heard the click of the elevator door open as she sat at her desk, staring at the monitor, eyes intent, fingers hesitant to hit the keyboard. The sound was followed by heavy footsteps in the corridor leading to her apartment. She jerked up and went over to have a peek. Maybe it is Adham, she thought. Male steps thudded in her direction. The closer they got to her door, the less hope she had they were her husband’s. His steps would definitely bear more rage if he ever decided to put an end to her punishment.
She had been harboring the thought that it was just a period she had to put up with. A temporary thing, she whispered to herself. Adham would not leave at such a critical time when she was a couple of months away from her viva, her thesis defense; he could not be that cruel. She clung to the idea. She did not want to lose hope completely. Her left eye, red-rimmed with last night’s sleeplessness, remained glued to the door lens until a huge man with grocery bags in both hands moved past the door and continued to the other side of the corridor. As the steps faded away, she turned and leaned her back against the door. Her dreams shrank as her body slid down until she was on the floor. To hell with the viva and the PhD and the literary career! All she worried about was how to get to Kroger’s or Piggly Wiggly without a car. There was no supermarket on campus, and even if there were, how would she carry the twins and walk any distance to buy anything. The stroller was in the car with Adham. Maybe he had what was left of the stipend too! What if one of the twins got a fever or diarrhea? Who would take them to the hospital? She had never spoken to any of her neighbors. She had listened to Adham and did not mix with “strangers,” Americans or international students who came with their families to study at USC (University of Southern California) like her. He had left his family and career in Cairo to come with her and the least she could do was be a good wife and obey him. He was all the company she needed; good wives did not need anyone but their husbands.
Fareeda and Adham had come to the states a week after they had married and since then she had been busy as a bee: attending classes, getting pregnant, studying, cooking and cleaning, meeting her kind old supervisor, making sure the konafa and basbousa that Adham loved had just the right amount of syrup ˗ and writing when he went out to get the groceries. Of all the things she loved, writing annoyed him most. She had to be a good wife. She must be a good wife before anything else. She could not afford to be bored or tired or both. She was on a mission assigned to her by her university ˗ getting her PhD ˗ and another assigned by Adham ˗ having an American baby which would guarantee their escape from Egypt if things got nastier than they could take. Thank God, after nine months of marriage she had given birth to two! Yara and Hassan, and ensuring their safety and well-being became her principal mission. Her lovely twins attracted the attention of everyone wherever she took them; they opened doors that Adham wanted shut and got her in trouble. Neighbors and colleagues congratulated her and volunteered to help, some offering free babysitting, others wanting to type her dissertation. She could not accept. She ran to classes, hurried back home in the breaks to feed and change the babies, stuffed vine leaves because Adham loved mahshy and typed her dissertation with one finger and one eye fixed on the letters. Back in Egypt you could have such silly tasks done for cheap! Even better, your supervising committee would accept handwritten documents! It would be unprofessional and impolite to hand Professor Ross handwritten chapters.
What would have happened if Adham had let her accept people’s help? She loved leaning on others; her father had been her support ever since she lost her mother when she was twelve. She thought she could lean on Adham whenever she needed but she was mistaken. She had tried to convince him that their life would be richer and more fun if they had friends. But Adham was adamant. “He has always been obstinate,” his mother used to brag when they were engaged. In America a couple of weeks after their marriage, he had demonstrated this trait, and closed the conversation with the seal of talak (divorce). “If you speak to anyone behind my back you will be talek,” he said and slammed the door behind him to smoke a cigarette outside. He hated the smoke detectors which would send all the residents of the building downstairs if he dared smoke in the apartment.
Huddled behind the door with her eyes shut, Fareeda did not worry that her neighbors and colleagues thought she was snobbish, or maybe an extremist Muslim who wore the hijab and ignored everyone but her old professor and a few female colleagues in her class. She was not worried she had to miss classes or go hungry. Only the babies mattered. She was alone, abandoned by her husband in a campus building in the middle of nowhere, in a country where she had no one. A sudden dizziness overcame her as she sat on the cold floor in the darkness, hugging her knees. A bundle of misery or a woman of steel and silk, as Mrs. Ross called her all the time? She missed her daily conversation with Aunt Om Emad, the koshary bowl, decorated with hard-boiled egg halves around it like a yellow and white necklace, which she gave her every time Fareeda visited. She missed Dada Magda who ran to bring her milk tea the moment she entered her office at the university, and am Ibrahim who insisted on parking her car backwards and saving her the shady spot under the big tree. She missed the sunlight on her father’s balcony and the cactus pots on the floor that outlived her mother. She missed her mother’s dresser and the smell of the perfumes and makeup she had kept clean and orderly since her death. Darkness and gloom crept inside her as she sat on the floor behind the door, counting the things she missed. And Adham, the only man she had ever loved. Darkness soothed her. She needed all the layers of darkness she could get, she thought. She wished she was shrouded and buried in a tomb like her mother. With layers of soil heaped upon her, she would be safe. No one would need her or count on her anymore. She would be free of hope, trouble, ambition, chores, doubts, love and need. But she would surely miss the babies. Would she still worry about their feeding time, their unchanged diapers and their shot appointments? She might also miss her books, the novel she had started before she got married and never had the time or energy to complete. She would miss her father and Professor Ross and his sweet wife. And Adham.
What would her father do if he knew how lonely, helpless and worthless she felt? Would he still tell her to look at the bright side? Would he insist she could always light a candle in the darkness but never force darkness into light? She felt a sudden twinge of guilt; she was betraying her father; he wanted her to be strong and happy and successful. “There must be something to feel grateful for in any situation,” he would say whenever her enthusiasm wavered. She was in America, working on her PhD. She was married to the man she loved and she had wonderful twins. Gratitude sneaked into her as she hunched in the darkness, leaning on the door of the apartment that never felt like home. She was grateful for the couple of hours she could be on her own, weak and miserable, before one of the twins cried and woke the other. She could enjoy the luxury of remaining in her place on the floor, behind the door of 1311 Cliff Apartments, in the darkness with nothing to do but cover her eyes and pretend time had frozen for her.
She pressed her fingers hard on her eyes to evoke something pleasant, to ward off the misery and pain. She remembered how her father had invented the formula when her mother died: “All you need is to close your eyes and press them gently inside your brain. There…let’s do it together. Do you see your mother and feel her warmth? Can you smell her body and feel her soft hands on your cheeks?” Even the aroma of the cakes she baked jogged in colorful ribbons from the kitchen to Fareeda’s nose. “Everything is there inside you, you just have to delve in and grab it. Your mother was a happy woman, and she is happier now, that ethereal joy that we cannot feel until we join her in heaven. Only she needs to see us happy and we can grant her that wish.”
It worked back then. It should work now, she thought. She pushed herself back into her mind with all the strength left in her. There she was in the safest place on earth with her father in their sunny living room, playing chess. A black and white Ismail Yaseen movie played and they were laughing. Even better, she was at her desk in the same room, writing while her father read the newspaper. She was writing the short story that won her the first prize of an international student contest, the one that drew the attention of Professor Ross to what he called her “stunning talent,” the one that made Adham feel jealous and neglected even though it was written before they ever met, the one about her father, the one she titled “The Most Secure Place in the World.” Writing made her feel whole, healed, worry-free. Her father’s company accentuated the sense of security and self-worth. She wished she could freeze time at that moment of pure distilled happiness and fulfillment. But her mind refused to conform; it jumped to the moment that crashed her life down like a row of dominoes. She pressed her hands harder into her eyes to will herself back, but she had already left the most secure place in the world. She was back in her present reality, hunching on the floor in a place that never felt like home.
What if Adham had never seen her diaries? What if he had not read how lonely she felt? The mere thought of him coming across her diary was enough to upset her stomach. It brought back to her mind the stain in the kitchen sink and suddenly everything came alive: the smell, the sensation and the orangey color of the flames eating her days. She did everything to remove that stain. That sooty, stubborn stain haunted her. It bothered her more than the ink stain on Adham’s pants that triggered the first “good wife’” sermon only four days after their marriage. She used every detergent: Clorox, steel wool, both thick and thin. Nothing worked. She never knew stainless steel could get stained! At some point after he left she was afraid the stain was there inside her mind, confronting her whenever she came into the kitchen. The smell of burning of the plastic pink cover of the diary still invaded her nose, and the hissing of the burning paper, fading away, line by line, word by word made her feel her whole being was deteriorating, day by day. In the middle of a lecture she would stop hearing the professor. She could only hear Adham panting heavily behind her. Gusts of his hot breath burned her skin and she would have to reach her hands under her silk scarf to feel if it was really hot. It was not. Adham was not behind her, he was in the apartment with the twins while she was in class, studying for her damned PhD.
The faint twinge of guilt she felt whenever she remembered Adham taking care of the babies got stronger, piecing through her heart like a helix of metal splinters. She relived that day, when he found her diaries and rushed to the kitchen where she had just finished the dishes. She relived it over and over – that day when she turned to look at him and leaned her back to the sink and stretched her arms behind her, holding the sink for support. Her muscles ached with the move, the veins on her wrist pulsated loudly with the flood of humiliations he heaped on her. That day his voice had a thick, gravelly quality she had never heard before. He said she was hiding things from him, keeping her life to herself and not sharing it with him. His rage tied her tongue; it was one of the rare times that she was at a loss for words. She could not tell him she never meant to hide the diary; it was there by her books all the time. She wanted to tell him she had wished he had read it and discussed it with her, hoping he would understood how she felt about everything, without having to tell him face to face and be ridiculed for every word and emotion. Up to that day she had never given up on their relationship. She was patient and confident things would improve, gradually. She waited for him, wholeheartedly and enthusiastically, to return to her and bring her back to her real self. But he never did, not even after they had the twins. She learned not to keep a diary again.
Why did he not leave then, why now when she was a couple of months away from her viva, in a country where she had no one to lean on? She wished she could un-graduate with honors, un-write the story, un-win the prize, un-get the scholarship to the States. She wished she had never left the safest place in the world.
C’mon Fareeda, be strong, the babies are counting on you, your father is waiting for you, your students and colleagues. Don’t fail them. You are strong. Mrs. Ross called you “steel woman.” She marveled at the young scholar from Egypt who had young twins and could still do research, attend lectures and win writing competitions. She said you did it without help, with grace. She said she liked your silk scarves and your colorful modern hijab and labeled you “silk lady.” A woman of steel and silk does not collapse behind a door and cry out of pain and misery. C’mon, get up, run to the phone, dial Professor Ross’s number and reschedule an appointment to discuss the last chapter. But she could not move, every muscle, nerve and tendon in her body ached with the attempt. The marching ants that attacked her the day Adham burned her diary re-emerged, spreading over her head, marching down the back of her neck, and multiplying as they moved victoriously down her shoulders, stopping right under her bra line. At the sound of the phone ringing, the army of ants changed strategy. War was all about tactics and deception. Every ant stood in place, rigid like a stone until they received the order: ready, aim, fire. Millions of stings, fierce malignant bites covered her skin surface, from her skull down her back. She wished the pain would not stop. She wished it would move down her legs, and prevent her from reaching the phone. What if it was Adham calling? He would assume she had gone out without permission. On all fours, she stretched her back upwards like a cat in the sun, and struggled to get up.
“Hi, steel lady, how are you?”
The irony of the phrase! Fareeda thought. A steel woman collapsing on the floor, waiting for an always furious husband who had decided to abandon her and their babies for no particular reason but an avaricious look in the eyes of a neighbor that she did not even notice!
“Mrs. Ross, I’m fine, alhamdo le Allah. How about you and Prof. Ross. I was just thinking I should call you.”
“Ah ha, you’re ready as ever! I wanted you to come over with your family and meet Ross at home, not in the department. I miss your twins and thought I could steal some time with them while you work with my husband!”
“Mrs. Ross, that is so kind of you. But I am so sorry, the twins are sick and I didn’t have time to finish the chapter. I was going to call Professor Ross to apologize.”
“Oh that is sad. What’s wrong with them?”
“Ah… fever, and diarrhea, I think it has to do with teething. They are cranky and they want me around all the time.”
“My poor babies. What about your husband, is he being helpful?”
“Of course, it’s just he can’t handle them alone when they are not well.”
“Ah, I see. I can help him. I don’t have much to do and I would be glad to come to your apartment when you have to attend classes or write.”
“Mrs. Ross, this is too much really.”
“I’m serious. Ross would not mind dropping me at your apartment before going to the university and picking me up on his way back. You know how enthusiastic about your work he is.”
“I hate to disappoint him… it looks like I might not be able to finish according to plan.”
“Don’t worry, dear. We will help you through everything. Just take care of the precious babies and everything will be fine.”
Fareeda hung up and collapsed at her desk. She stared at the pile of printed papers that needed editing and touched the red marker on top of them. She stared at the desktop. The darkness of the monitor irritated her puffy eyes. She hit a key on the keyboard. The document she had opened a couple of days before Adham left was still there, mocking her, reminding her she was a failure.
C’mon, it’s the final chapter, she whispered to herself. Com,on, Fareeda.
She started typing. It was as if her father, the twins, her fellow students and Mrs. Ross had extended their hands inside her and pulled out all the ideas she needed to finish her chapter. It soothed her to lean on them.
Dr. Abeer Elgamal is associate professor of English Literature and Head of the department of foreign Languages, Faculty of Education, Mansoura University. She has studied and taught for over twenty-five years in various universities in Egypt, USA and the gulf and she takes great pride in her academic career and her role as an educator. She considers herself lucky since her career allows her to follow her passion for creative writing, reading and translating literature. She is a published author and translator. She believes her family is the main source of her inspiration and is immensely grateful for the love and support it offers.
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