Is it really important?” asked Dalia, Lana’s mum, as Lana grabbed her across the house, “I really have to go. I’m meeting with a few friends; it’s for this fundraising event I told you about.”
“It’s a lot more important than that.” Replied Lana, still dragging her.
The house was now a bit different. It’s true Lana’s college life had ceased to exist, and so has its controlling effect over the house, but soon it was all replaced by Sara’s college activities. In the hall, there were still traces of the birthday party Sara had thrown the previous weekend. Now Sara’s classes, friends, and happenings were gradually filling in the space Lana had vacated. Dalia now heard of Amr, Marawan and Hossam instead of Mohammad, Nader and Mark. Tonya’s news was now replaced with Hagar’s news. Sara just had to find a substitute for everything that ever occupied her sister’s college life. And everyone was happy for her, even Lana enjoyed listening to her sister’s stories and remembering her own. Yet deep down, they all kind of missed Lana’s world. It was as if Lana was the original, and everything that followed could never keep up.
Moreover, Sara always had an aura of vagueness about her; she was never as clear or as defined as Lana had always been; not in her affairs, not in her studying, not in her friendships and not in anything. She never had one best friends, but many close friends who were never that close. Her love life was even more disturbed than her sister’s; they hardly managed to follow up with her long list of boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, future boyfriends and potential boyfriends. Most importantly, she had proven to be wilder than they could have ever imagined anyone capable of being; sometimes, it was more impossible to find out what was on her mind than it was to keep an eye on her every-moment move. Sara was proving to be a challenge the family never believed they would have to put up with.
THEY REACHED Mr. El Masry’s office when, right after her mother walked in, Lana closed the door, asked them both to be seated and told them she had something to announce.
“Mark wants to come and see you pappy, to officially propose to me.” There was a pause. Her father remained perfectly still while her mother moved a bit in her chair.
“Well,” she was the first to presume, “do you want us to say yes?”
“Of course!” exclaimed Lana, “can’t you see this is the greatest thing?”
“I don’t know, Lana,” said her mum, “I really don’t know. I mean, you’re only twenty-two. Why the rush?”
“Because we love each other and we have been planning on getting married for God knows how long. Why would I wait till I’m … I don’t know, maybe twenty-eight, when I know I’ll make the same choice?”
“Because you don’t know that.” Dalia’s temper got a bit heated. Clearly she was infuriated. “Let’s trace back all your boyfriends. Didn’t you feel like marrying each and every one of them at some point in your relationship? Then you broke up. Why do you think the same won’t happen with Mark?”
“I never considered getting married, not until I’ve been with Mark. We’ve been together for three years mum. And we grow fonder as time passes. Doesn’t that say something?”
“Alright,” said her mother rising from her seat and walking around the office, “let’s say you’re in love. Is that enough? Do you really think he’s the right person for you?”
“Why not!” exclaimed Lana again. “He’s very handsome, he’s very well brought up, he’s got a prestigious degree and he’s successful at what he does, that’s beside …”
“What about his socioeconomic background?” interrupted Dalia, “Don’t you think there’s some gap that needs to be filled?”
“What gap?” Lana raised her hands, then she placed them again on her hips, “You’ve already seen his mother, she’s the sweetest person ever.”
“You know it’s not his mother I’m talking about – even though the woman strikes me with some level of commonness. I mean to discuss his financial situation. He lives with his mother and three siblings in a small apartment in the middle of the city!”
“And that makes him poor?”
“No, it …”
“Just for your information, Mark’s salary is very impressive given his age. He’s very good at what he does and he receives bonuses almost every month. He just bought a car from the money he saves from his salary.”
“What make is that car?”
“A Chevy Aveo.”
“I rest my case!” Said Dalia clapping her hands against her thighs enthusiastically. “That’s exactly what I mean. He’s never gonna be able to make you live in the level you’re living in right now, not even any level you’ve lived in throughout your entire life. He’s got his own family to support besides that; he’s like a father to his siblings. The best he can afford is an apartment even smaller than the one he currently lives in. You can forget about being a member of our society, you can also forget about your dream wedding. Even your kids won’t be able to get the kind of education that you got. Can you endure all that, Lana?”
“It won’t be that bad.” Said Lana in a defeated manner as she nervously bit her nails. “And I will endure it. I love him and that’s all that matters. Besides, we have the money, why should we care about whether he has it too?”
“She’s got a point.” Said Lana’s father, finally intervening. “We don’t need the money. We just need someone who would make our precious girl happy. And clearly that boy thrills her.”
“He really does, pappy.” Said Lana affectionately running to her father’s open arms.
“Well, if you are both in agreement, then I don’t see why I shall bother.” Said Dalia picking up her purse and moving out of the office furiously, “I have better things to tend to.”
When the door was closed beside her, Lana turned to her father and asked:
“Shall I tell him to come, pappy? Say, this Thursday at eight?”
He lovingly nodded.
“Yes!” she said violently embracing him.
Mohammad moved impatiently around his room with one hand over his tilted head and the other constantly wiping away the sweat from his face.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“She just called to invite me to their engagement party. She’s obviously over the moon.” Replied Tonya, who was seated on his bed. She was wearing an off-white cardigan that took away half of her feminism. Her face was that of a grumpy, old man, already tired of life.
“Damn it!” Mohammad banged his fist against the wall. It made a cracking sound. “We’re screwed.” He then concluded as he looked her in the face.
“Not necessarily.” Began Tonya, becoming very eager, “see, we can do the same dance. We’ll say we’re getting married too; that’s the only choice we have.”
“Are you out of your mind? We’ve been pretending to be together for the last three years! Three years in which we’ve been trying to draw them apart and all we’ve managed to do was to marry them off!”
“Yeah, but you know it’s never gonna last. You can’t really think they will get married. That’s just …”
“Just what? And what if they do get married? You really think us getting married too is the answer? C’mon Tonya, I’ve been trying my best to behave around this guy. Every time I see him, all I wanna do is punch him in the face; yet, I keep it together. And if that’s not enough, I gotta work around him all day long.”
Mohammad remembered the day he was dining with his father, some time after he had finished college. They were eating in silence till his father asked him about Mark.
“Isn’t he your best friend?” he asked as he took in a bite of bread.
Mohammad had to take a breath. “Sort of.” After so long a period of masquerades, it still felt difficult to lie.
“What’s he doing now?”
“I don’t know, probably looking for a job.”
Mr. Baher paused a second or two to take a sip of his juice. “That boy’s a real fighter. He’s been in his father’s shoes ever since the day he died.” Mohammad could somehow feel this as a blame shoved at his face. Or maybe a reminder of all the blessings he – Mohammad – enjoyed. “Give me his number. I’m sure I can use him at my business.” Mohammad almost choked at his soup at hearing this. He’d been doing nothing for the past month; nothing except waiting for his father to ask him to join the business. And now that he’s thinking about bringing people in, he invites Mark before his own son! Does Mohammad really need more reasons to envy the guy? Isn’t it enough that he had stolen his girlfriend? Does he also have to take away his father and his company? “Of course, you can escort him, too.” Mr. Baher added after a while, obviously to Mohammad’s relief. “It’s about time you start gaining your money by the sweat of your own brow, don’t you think?”
The company was a small business Mr. Baher had started in the late eighties. It was a real estate company; he constructed new buildings in many places around Cairo. Surprisingly, the strike of the 1992 earthquake came to his advantage, since it meant more contracts for him, more homes to build. Later, he started working in the new cities that were being made from scratch in the desert. That was what really got them up through the elevator instead of using the stairs. It was the true source behind the money that had them move from Dokki and relocate in the Maryouteya mansion. Soon, Mr. Baher owned his little compound in the 6th of October city. Perhaps that was the reason why he had practically forced Mohammad to study architecture instead of music; he knew he was leaving him a heavy heritage, and he wanted to make sure he would know what to do with it.
Nevertheless, when Mark showed up, Mr. Baher seemed impressed. Not only was he very eager and diligent, but he was also very talented. In less than a month, he was already coming up with ideas that would change the course of the company forever. He was the one who first thought about investing in summer lands. With a new, shorter, smoother and more flexible road opening for Ein El-Sokhna, a small resort past the Suez on the Red Sea, Mark suggested they buy a piece of land there and start building their own compound. This meant a new era for ‘Baher Holding’, and Mark was all to thank for it. Somehow, Mr. Baher saw in Mark the son he had been long trying to bring up.
Mohammad was oblivious to why he had remembered all of this now. He would have shared it with Tonya – for he now shared with her everything that had to do with either Mark or Lana; that was part of their agreement – but he could see that something else was occupying her mind.
“You’re whining about having to work with him? I had to live with her for the last three years! I had to sleepover at her house, invite her to sleepover at mine, even share my summers with her. I had to learn how to begin faking a smile just as soon as my eyes opened. I had to laugh at her stupid jokes during my sullenest moments. I had to listen to her when she described how nicely he treated her, how much he loved her and I had to find a convincing tone in my voice to tell her how perfect they are for each other. You think I’ve been happy for the past three years?” her voice was breaking down. She was clearly in tears. “You think I want to keep on pretending to be something that I’m not? You think I enjoy being around her? Leading this double life? I’m dying out here.” Her voice was now faltering; it was like she was running out of it. “Can’t you see how desperate I am? When this is my only option, can’t you see how far behind I’ve come?” she covered her face with her hand and quietly broke into tears.
Mohammad ceased walking. He moved towards the bed and sat right beside her. Stretching his arm to pat her shoulder, he gently said:
“Then we don’t have to do it, Tonya. Trust me, it’s for the best. Do you realize the consequences this could have? You’ll end up with a failed engagement staring you in the face. That’s if you don’t even become a divorcee. Do you really think it’s worth it? We have to let it go, Tonya.”
“No, no.” She suddenly rose, shaking her head and signaling with her index finger; becoming more violent than ever. “We can’t let go. Can you let go? Can you just forgive them? Can you attend their wedding and wish them the best life? Do you really have it in you?” Mohammad felt her words as stones being thrown at his face. “That’s if they do invite you to their wedding. The only reason they’re still friends with us is because they believe we’re over what they’ve done to us. They think we’re happy together and that helps ease their conscience. The moment we split they’re gonna start feeling uneasy. Everything we do, every step we take will be regarded as a sign of envy and revenge. They wouldn’t want us in their lives anymore ‘cause we’d be constantly reminding them of their injustice. Now tell me, Mohammad, can you take that? Can you be thrown out of her life without an excuse to see her? Can you quietly accept to be informed of her latest news from total strangers? Can you hear that she’s in trouble yet be helpless whatsoever, because you have no right to be by her side?” Mohammad’s eyes were fixed upon the ground. They were slowly raised to her face and she could see all the rage and despair concealed within them. “Can you really let go, Mohammad?”
Mark slowly opened the door of the apartment. He then held it for Lana as she walked inside. She moved her eyes around to take a satisfactory look for herself and a sufficient report for her mother. The walls weren’t painted yet and the floor had no tiles. The reception was not very big, but she would consider it big enough was there a living room. An American kitchen was in the corner of the reception; its size was adequate, for Lana could see there was room for a kitchen island. The kitchen bar wasn’t yet installed, but its place was already marked on the floor. Mark tried so difficultly to study the confusing looks on Lana’s face, desperately searching for approval. After a time that seemed like eternity, his heart brightened by a delicate smile that was drawn upon her face.
“Shall we continue?” he asked motioning to the small corridor. She nodded. They then walked for no more than three steps in this rather narrow corridor until he opened the first door they met on their right. It was the bathroom’s door. Again, it was bare; void of any tiles or toilets or bathtubs. And again, its size was not disappointing.
Afterwards came a bedroom. Its door was right beside the bathroom’s. Showing her satisfaction towards it, Mark got the courage to take her to the next room, whose door was opposite to the other doors. This was by far the largest room in the entire apartment, for it had both a bathroom and a closet en suite; it was the master bedroom, Lana could tell. Lana had a strange feeling when she was in that room. Although it was as empty as the rest of the place, she could still see the large, comfortable bed placed in the middle, surrounded by two small nightstands. The sheets were pink, for that was her favorite color. And Mark was lying on that bed, asking her to come and join him. She blinked then saw him still standing right next to her, obviously very pleased with her facial expressions.
“I wanna see more.” She said as she inhaled all the positive vibes in the place.
“More what?” Mark was a bit confused.
“More of the apartment. I love it!” She exclaimed vibrantly
“There isn’t more. You’ve just seen it all.”
The positive vibes seemed to shrink; only a little bit. “That’s all? There’s no living room?”
“There’s the reception. Why would we need a living room?”
“The reception is for guests, but the living room is for us. How can we sit very relaxed in the living room when we know that some guests might surprise us and that the place won’t be tidy enough to properly welcome them?”
“Guests seldom come without appointments” was his simple reply.
“I don’t know, Mark. Did you buy it already? I mean, if you haven’t, we could look for something else maybe in …”
“I already bought it.” said Mark firmly interrupting her. “And trust me, I have looked around; this is the best I can afford.” The apartment was in Mr. Baher’s compound in 6th of October. Even though those apartments were the most expensive, Mark was provided with an alluring discount, given his respectable position in the company. However, this really was the best he could afford, for he didn’t have a lot of money, and Mr. Baher wasn’t that generous.
“Well, maybe we could stay in the Zamalek house.” Lana was referring to the house where she had spent her childhood. The two-hundred-meter duplex in Zamalek was her source of colorful childhood memories. Being in the middle of Cairo, overlooking the Nile and with a small garden attached to it, the house had everything that would make it seem like their little paradise. Her room there was a Barbie room, with pink furniture and puzzle-like floors. And their lives were notably festive, highlighted by shopping sprees and night walks along the Nile. Even though it was five times as large as the Zamalek Duplex, the whole family never loved their house in Qautameya as much as they loved it. Yet, it seemed like a rational step they had to take. “We could take some money from pappy and …”
“Absolutely not! Your dad is already paying for the entire furnishing of the house, and is still going to pay for the wedding; we can’t possibly ask him for more.”
“Well, it’s not like he would mind.”
“I would mind.”
Lana stopped for a breathing moment, then she said; “What about your mother? I thought you said she was gonna help us with all she had.”
“She did help us.”
“That’s all she had?” asked Lana with a rather sarcastic laugh.
“All she had for me, yes.”
“What do you mean for you?”
“I mean she still has my siblings to help. She can’t just give me everything and forget about them. She still has another son to buy him an apartment and two other daughters to marry off. I should be the one giving them all, for all I know.” He muttered the last sentence to himself.
Lana was about to object, but she changed her mind at the last minute. After all, she didn’t think it was very nice to turn him against his family, especially that she really liked them so far.
“Well,” she was still trying to voice her disapproval, but more politely now, “I honestly don’t see where my piano can fit when this is to be both our reception and living room.”
“Your piano?” Mark echoed smiling to himself. “You never mentioned anything about having to have your own piano. Don’t you think it’s a little extravagant?”
“My God, Mark, you of all people should know how important the piano is for me. It’s the one thing that’s helped me get over dancing. This is the only thing I can still do whenever I feel an overflow of emotions within me. You were with me the day I was told I could no longer dance, how can you be so inconsiderate?” This she said straight from the heart, as now Mark was aware of when she’d exaggerate her reactions to manipulate him and when she’d be truly speaking her mind.
“I’m sorry.” He said devotedly approaching her. “You’re absolutely right, and I do know how important the piano is for you. But the thing is, I really, really can’t afford to buy you a piano right now. Maybe a while after we get married. No, I promise you I’ll start saving up from now, and in a year maximum you’ll have it.”
She had wanted to stop him for a while now, but she had enjoyed watching him speak so fervently. So she waited until he was done to say: “Don’t worry about that, pappy is already getting me a piano.”
“He is!” Mark seemed a bit offended.
“Yes, it’s his wedding gift to us.”
“I bet it is.” Said Mark smilingly nodding to himself. If that was her father’s wedding gift, then what could possibly be expected of his mother for a gift? A swimming pool?
“Hey, but that’s not the issue now. The problem is where it would fit.” Lana added, looking around her.
Mark moved to one of the corners. “What about here? Right by the window? That way you’ll see the landscape as you play it. It should be quite inspiring. And we can also add a spotlight up here, in case you want to play when it’s dark. Maybe even we’d buy one of those musical charts and hang it over there; it would give the place a nice touch.”
Lana hastily rushed towards him and threw herself in his arms. It always surprised her how he could be so sweet just if he wanted to. He always had a hold on her; this she had to give to him.
“I love you!” she said rubbing her head against his chest.
The room was dark. Even though it was midday, and the sun was shining through the open window, Tonya could barely see. She felt the walls closing in upon her, the air sneaking out of the place and the sweat aggressively dripping off her face. She struggled for a breath and almost collapsed inside her closet, hadn’t her sister held her at the last minute.
“Are you ok?” asked Nadia, as she supported her to her bed.
“I don’t know what to wear.” Replied Tonya, sitting on the bed and speaking as she stared at the ground.
Nadia moved back to the closet. She searched for a while, flipping dresses and going through skirts. Finally, she got out a brown, evening dress. It was very simple; its height reaching right below the knee and with a wide, brown ribbon around the waist.
“That should make you look beautiful.” She said handing it over to Tonya. She just cast over a careless look, then returned to her devotion to staring at the ground.
Sitting right beside her, Nadia took her in her arms and started toying with her hair.
“You don’t seem very happy about this.” She began in a soothing voice. “When I see you like that, I can hardly believe that you’re the same person who has been fighting with mum and dad to approve of this marriage.” It was true; Ameena hated the idea of having Mohammad as her son-in-law. She could tolerate being around people who come from a higher class, but Mohammad wasn’t in that category. From what she’d heard about his family, the way they became so rich all of a sudden, it seemed to her that they were noveau riche people. And Ameena couldn’t possibly accept having this kind of people patronize her. It was a bit peculiar to her how her daughter switched suddenly from loving Mark to begging to marry Mohammad. If it had been for her, Ameena always preferred Mark, despite the pain he’d caused her daughter before they broke up. Yet Tonya insisted, and Mr. Mahmoud saw no obvious reason to refuse a suitor any sane girl would kill to get married to. Through it all, Nadia was barely present during the negotiation; she heard scraps of opinions in between the weddings she was planning as part of her business. “What’s with you Tonya?”
Tonya didn’t speak; all she did was allow her tears to roll down her face. Nadia didn’t persist. After all, she knew that her sister wouldn’t just pour out all her secrets to her. They weren’t that close. Ever since Tonya was a little girl, she saw Nadia as her greatest rival: she was the funny sister, the pretty sister, the cool sister, the polite sister and the nice sister. And even in school, she became the attractive one and the popular one while Tonya would always remain in her shadow. All Nadia’s male friends were the heroes of Tonya’s fantasies, yet they never even noticed her for Nadia always seemed to keep them occupied. That was why Tonya would always turn to Lana, for she was the one person who made her feel safe; the one person who made her feel special and unique. She would always focus on her best qualities, give her hair the sexiest hairdo and tell her of all the boys who seemed to be dying to speak with her. But now that she had stolen Tonya’s boyfriend, the one she considered the love of her life, Tonya began to question her sisterly boundaries. She looked around her and she could only see her sister still by her side, holding her hand and trying to help her out. She looked in her calm, commanding face and cried:
“Oh Nadia, I’m just so broken up inside.”
IN THE MEANTIME, Mohammad was looking for something to wear himself. He never liked wearing suits; he believed they made him look way too formal. Nevertheless, such an event demanded a suit; otherwise, Tonya’s mother’s doubts about the sincerity of his marriage proposal would be assured. After a lot of trouble and consideration, he chose his new black suit. It was an Armani that his father had bought him in his last birthday. Even though he wasn’t very fond of it, he believed it would be very appropriate given the circumstances. Next, it was time to pick a tie. This decision was even more difficult than the previous one, since his tie collection was overwhelming. He remembered how Mark used to borrow his ties all the time. Once, he borrowed his violet tie when taking Tonya to the college welcome party. He looked at this tie now, grabbed it, then threw on the floor. He would never wear it; it would definitely extinguish painful memories to Tonya. Hadn’t he remembered every sing piece of cloth Lana ever wore in front of him? Didn’t he remember that white sweater she was wearing on her birthday, the day when he got her the teddy bear? How would he feel if he saw that sweater on someone else? He asked himself as he squashed that tie with his foot.
He then grabbed another tie, without even caring enough to check its color, and put it on.
Finally, completely dressed up from head to toe, he moved to the mirror to check himself up. It was a long stare at his reflection this in which he was so absorbedly engaged. He carefully studied every single feature of his face, with grand calamity and firmness. His reflection looked like that of a dignified man, a man with inner peace and an untroubled soul. He searched within himself, remembering all the hardships, all the pains and all the tears. He saw himself smilingly embracing Mark and congratulating him on his engagement, while deep inside he was waiting for the first chance to backstab him. He felt the rash spreading through his body, just like it always did every time he had to hold Tonya’s hand, pretending that it was the highlight of his long day. He thought about what he was about to do; walking into Tonya’s house, fooling her parents and taking their daughter to a house and marriage full of nothing but lies, envy and revenge. Tricking his own father, making him participate in this malignant act. Was this where he had seen himself five years ago? Could he ever believe that his love for Lana would take him to such extremes? Could he even call this strange monster that was eating him up inside “love”? He asked himself as he stared at that dimmed reflection. He remembered Dorian Gray, and how he’d look at his portrait every now and then to see how much his face had changed; how many wrinkles had crawled onto it, how many hateful expressions had taken over it and how many signs of evil have inhabited it. Then he remembered how Dorian Gray would step away from the portrait with his handsome face and how nobody would ever see his true face; nobody but him. Mohammad finally admitted it; he was Dorian Gray, and the mirror was his honest portrait.
“Are you ready, cowboy?” Asked Mr. Baher, suddenly stepping into Mohammad’s room.
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
They walked to the entrance of the house, where the chauffeur was waiting for them in Mr. Baher’s Benz.
“I can’t tell you how exited I am to see this girl that’s got you so head over heels in love.” Said Mr. Baher, stepping into the car.
“Not as exited at I am.” Said Mohammad, vehemently slamming the car door.