Chapter 20: Broken strings

A complete wardrobe crowded with designer clothes presented itself in front of Lana. A wide collection of evening dresses: strapless, sleeveless, long or short sleeved, colorful or bulky, all would’ve sparkled in front of any fashionable woman’s eyes, getting ready to go out on an important event; all but Lana. She looked at the clothes with utmost boredom and desperation, and when she picked out one, she was being driven by necessity rather than admiration.

Mark was in the bathroom, changing. She didn’t knock. With the dress in her hand, she waited by the door until he got out. Then, she stepped into the bathroom and slammed the door behind her. She might have shed a tear or two before taking off her pajamas. Despite it being three days after her fight with Mark, being in the house with him made it seem like they were fighting all over again.

It had all started Tuesday night, when Lana was preparing dinner. Dana had eventually gone to bed, so they had a little time for themselves. Mark was asking Lana for the floss.

“It’s in my nightstand drawer.” She said loudly as she was stirring the milk with the starch in the kitchen. The smell of the food was beginning to spread around, Lana felt it would be an amazing night. Yet, her feeling was somewhat disrupted when Mark came angrily to the kitchen with a medicine strip in his hand.

“What the hell is that?” he asked angrily shaking the shiny strip.

Lana put the spoon down and approached him to take a closer look at the strip. “It’s my birth-control pills.” She replied finally recognizing them.

“You think I don’t know that?” he bawled, “I wanna know what they are doing in your drawer.”

Lana looked at him with calmness, perhaps mingled with a bit of recklessness; she said nothing, though.

“I thought we agreed we were gonna start trying again.”

“So?”

“So what the f …” he paused and took a deep breath, “why are they still in your drawer?” he asked again, but now in a mellower tone.

“I stopped using them three days ago. What? I can’t get pregnant before I throw them out of the house? Is it written down in the pamphlet?”

“I’m not joking, Lana.” He returned back to the loud voice. “You don’t wanna have kids, and you know it.”

“That’s right, and the biggest proof is that poor baby sleeping inside, who, by the way, is definitely going to wake up totally freaking out if you don’t stop screaming anytime soon.” She was beginning to get a bit worked up; the peace that was wrapping her up began to slowly unfold.

“Oh, the poor baby! Sure. Why would you wanna bring any other poor babies to life? Sure.” Lana took a seat at the couch. Sighing, she wiped her face with her hand. “I mean, they were your words: ‘let’s wait a while longer; I’m not ready yet for another baby. We are not ready for another baby. All the fighting and tension and …’” All this he said with a high pitched voice to make it clear that he was sarcastically imitating her.

“What a hell of a way to prove me all wrong! Way to go, Mark. You’re showing me that I had every right to be afraid; that we aren’t ready for another baby.”

“Well, I don’t need to show you; you took the decision all by yourself. You just thought you could go on using the pills and lie to me about it.”

“I’m not using them!”

“Then why are they still in your drawer?”

“Because they’re expensive and brand new. Why would I throw them away when I could still use them later? Huh? Would you like me to throw them away now and then come asking you for money later on?”

“Oh, so it all comes back to money. It all gotta come back to me being so poor and so cheap. That’s the real reason why you don’t wanna have any more kids, ain’t it?”

“What the hell is the matter with you?” cried Lana, standing up, “Are you even listening to yourself? Why do you have to make such a big problem out of nothing?”

“Because you’re lying, Lana!” He screamed it out loud with a burnt, sweaty face and a thunderous voice.

Just then, they heard Dana crying loudly in her nursery. “Oh, I hope you’re happy now.” Said Lana rushing toward her daughter.

When she came back to the living room, with her daughter in her arms, she found it empty. She overheard a sound in their bedroom, so she headed there. Dana was now awake; her eyes were wide open and the pacifier was in her mouth. She held on tightly to her mum’s shirt by her small, white hand. As she had turned a year old the week before, she was now beginning to walk around the house with difficulty. It was almost impossible to carry her for more than one minute without her trying so hard to break free and make her own way around the floor. Anyhow, at that moment, she wanted nothing but to remain in her mother’s arms. The loud cries seemed to have daunted even the little girl.

Walking into the room, Lana heard the sound of the foil around the medicine strip being torn apart in the bathroom. She went inside to see that Mark was flushing the pills in the toilet.

“What the hell are you doing? You think that way you’re gonna force me to have babies? Show me how you’re gonna have another baby. In your dreams perhaps!” she said in a daring tone. The vibration of her vocal chords frightened Dana even more, so she began crying again. Lana kept angrily rocking her on her shoulder, trying to shush her.

“I’m the man of this house. When I say I want a baby, you’re gonna have it whether you like it or not.” Said Mark vigorously flushing the toilet.

“The man of the house, indeed! Look around you and tell me if anything in this house belongs to you. All of this is my father’s money. Hell, even the bed you sleep on! This is mine and my daughter’s house.” Said Lana, putting her screaming daughter on the bed. “And right now, I honestly don’t want you inside it.” She strode to the closet, opened it and began throwing his clothes all over the floor. “C’mon! Collect your trash and get out!” she pulled a bag from under the bed, and began squeezing the tangled up clothes in it. She then zipped the bag closed and threw it in his face. “Go out! I can’t stand you. Go!” she screamed pointing viciously toward the door.

All this while, Mark was speechless. He stood in front of her like a statue. Even though her eyes were red and watery and her voice was shook up, he knew she really meant it. Neither of them paid attention to their screaming kid who was trying to crawl down the bed. After unsuccessfully trying to breathe for a while, Mark grabbed the bag and stormed out of the room. Lana didn’t move an inch before she heard the sound of the apartment door being slammed behind her infuriated husband.

It was now her turn to pick up on the breathing habit. Like her husband, she found the task so difficult to accomplish. Walking towards the bed, she was able to catch her crawling daughter before she hit the ground. Lana held her strongly in her arms and began sobbing loudly.

 

 

 

IF BEING IN the same house was uncomfortable to them; imagine how it would be like for the both of them to be trapped together in the same car. As they took off in Mark’s new Honda Civic, they began feeling the air get thinner. Even though the past three days were bitter without him in the house, Lana felt, for the first time, what a blessing it was to be separated from Mark. All the fearful, sleepless nights she spent alone with her daughter; all the voices she overheard in the kitchen; all the shadows she saw creeping outside her bedroom door and all the nightmares that have been intimidating her for three long nights on end were now something she hungrily craved. For some anonymous reason – maybe not so anonymous after all – she remembered their trip back from London six years ago. She had the same feeling that she had had that day, a feeling of strong repulsion towards him and unbearable agitation around him. Except this time, something was different; she had regrets, for she wasn’t blameless herself.

 

 

 

THEIR TABLE WAS in the quiet area of the restaurant – which was actually a Nile boat. It was rather secluded; with fewer lights and definitely less attention. That helped Lana breathe a bit easier, for it meant that her messed up face, her puffed eyes and her unpleasant mood would be a bit less noticeable. Perhaps that was what worried her most about this outing, she tried her best to avoid it, yet Tonya made it perfectly clear that she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“Mohammad and I wanna celebrate Mark’s new promotion with you. You can’t deprive us of that.” She had told Lana over the phone when inviting her. The promotion she referred to was actually Mark buying a share of ten percent of Mr. Baher’s most recent compound in Ein El-Sokhna. Mark had to use up all the money he had been saving to buy a bigger apartment to pay for this share. As much as they were getting suffocated in the apartment, Mark felt it was time to prioritize. And the share was going to get them the apartment eventually, not the other way round.

Lana had to figure out a way of asking Tonya to pass the invitation over to Mark without telling her of their ugly fight. Ever since the day she got married, Lana’s mother advised her against telling anybody about her domestic instabilities. Lana became so good at this that even her mother no longer knew about her numerous fights with Mark. She also didn’t like telling Tonya, particularly, about their arguments, for when she used to tell her of their slight disagreements before marriage, she could see some bright lust in Tonya’s eyes; one she didn’t understand and definitely didn’t welcome.

After a lot of consideration, Lana decided to text him the news about the invitation. She was relieved when she heard the key turn in the door at 7.p.m that evening; that meant he got the message; it meant he wouldn’t embarrass her by not showing up. He came into the room, and without even saying hi, he headed straight to the closet to pick up an outfit. At that second, she understood how it was going to be between them that night; cold, distant and uncaring. Yet, he took her by surprise by pulling the chair for her as she was taking her seat at the restaurant.

“Thank you.” She said sitting down.

He smiled bowing his head, in a very formal manner.

“I’m sorry we’re a bit late.” Began Lana, addressing Mohammad and Tonya, who were sitting opposite them on the table. Mohammad was dressed in a formal suit, while Tonya had a glamorous electric-blue dress on. Her recently dyed brown, wavy hair was flowing over her bare shoulders and covering up the tan she had just gotten two days before.

“No problem, we know how difficult it is for a couple to leave the house when they have a toddler on their hands.” Replied Mohammad, pouring some water in his empty glass.

“Oh, don’t tell me,” joined Tonya, “we just arrived here, and I’m already worried about Ali. No matter how responsible she is, you just can never trust a nanny enough about being around your baby. Don’t you think so, Lana?”

Lana was about to reply when Mark cut her off by saying, “Lana wouldn’t know, for we don’t have a nanny. In fact, Lana dropped Dana off at her mothers’ this afternoon to have enough time to get ready.”

“Oh.” Said Tonya, already sensing the tension as Lana cast off an annoying look towards her husband. She rubbed her hair uncomfortably, with her head tilting a bit.

“The thing is: Mark believes that a nanny is never a healthy atmosphere for a baby to grow around. She could help you out every now and then, but you can never fully depend on her.” Explained Lana trying to cool things down.

“Extremely true.” Said Tonya, holding up her glass of water, “Just the other day, I went for a nap and left Ali with the nanny. When I returned, I found him playing with some dirty tissues on the floor while the little princessa was too busy watching television.”

The pleasant conversation was interrupted by the waiter’s arrival at the table. He handed over the menus then stood by the table, waiting for them to order. Lana’s stressful way of turning the pages of the menu alarmed Tonya.

“Their Raviolis are very remarkable, by the way.” She said trying to lend her a hand. “I know they’re your favorites.”

“Good, then I’ll take the Raviolis.” Announced Lana closing the menu and passing it over to the waiter.

“What about you, Mark?” asked Mohammad.

Mark stared intently at the menu as he rubbed his chin. “I’ll take the Veal Steak.” He finally said. “Medium, please.”

“And I’ll take the lamb chops with garlic sauce.” Said Tonya.

“And you, sir?” The waiter asked Mohammad.

“The usual. Raviolis.” This he said with a quick glance at Lana.

“Anything to drink, sir?”

Mohammad looked at Mark with a wicked smile, “how about some champagne, since we’re celebrating and all?” he asked.

“I … I don’t drink anymore, Mohammad.” Replied Mark firmly. Lana smiled deep inside.

“And neither does Mohammad.” Said Tonya, gently taking the menu away from her husband’s hand. “We’ll all take coke.” She told the waiter, with a smile. “No champagne.”

The waiter took the orders, the menus and left. For some minutes, they all remained silent. Not a single word was exchanged around the table. Mohammad was the first to begin a trial of making conversation.

“So, Lana, Mark’s telling me you’re trying for another baby.” Lana nervously looked up. He had pulled the wrong string; he could tell, and he pretended to regret it.

“Actually,” Mark stepped into the conversation, as some sort of salvation at first. “We’ve decided to postpone this for a while.”

As much as Lana was pleased with the decision, she wasn’t so pleased with it being Mark’s decision. “That’s right,” she began as she took a tiny bite of her appetizer, “As a matter of fact, I decided I want to get back to work. And another baby would be anything but helpful at this stage.” She revengefully announced.

“Work! That’s rather sudden, don’t you think, darling?” asked Mark with that same fake smile which he had been wearing on his face all night long.

“Not at all. I left my job because I was too busy getting married, getting pregnant, having a baby and changing diapers. All of which are past or on their way to being past. Why wouldn’t it be the time for me to get back on track?”

“Because our marriage isn’t still over. And our baby still needs diapers, and breastfeeding, and attention around the clock. Have you considered what we’re to do with her while we’re both at work?”

“She’ll stay over at my mother’s, or your mother’s. Maya’s Midterm vacation starts next week and she told me she’s totally cool with babysitting for Dana.”

“Finally, the food is here.” Interrupted Tonya waving at the waiter with relief.

He put the plates down, poured the drinks into the glasses and left. Lana hadn’t finished one quarter of her dish when she excused herself and headed to the restroom. She went inside, took a long, thorough look at herself in the mirror. Her lipstick was almost erased. Her eyebrows, which had just been plucked that day, didn’t match. Yet, she didn’t care. Tears began filling up in her eyes, she let them go. Ever since she was a kid, she loved looking at herself in the mirror, watching her eyes go red, tracing the tears as they left her eyelids, worked their way around her nose, flushed her cheeks and finally reached her neck. That scene somehow used to calm her down. It would also help if she sobbed loudly every now and then. She was able to do that for the past three days, but now, right at this moment, it wasn’t one of her options.

After almost five minutes of this, she wiped off her tears, washed her face, and waited a minute or two until her eyes were no longer red. She didn’t have any mascara or eye-shadow on, so she didn’t have to worry about readjusting her make up. She just put a bit of lipstick on, and left the restroom.

As she moved outside, she noticed Mohammad standing over the deck and watching the reflection of the moon in the Nile. Before she could even tell, Lana found herself standing over by his side. He looked at her, then back at the water.

“I wouldn’t have insisted on your coming tonight if I had known that you had a problem.”

“It’s ok. I know that.” Said Lana, sadly smiling.

“Don’t worry. You’ll work it out. You always do.” He said with a soothing smile. It made Lana remember how he used to cheer her up when she broke up with Nader. Back then, she believed he was the only person who truly understood her. She forgot all about his reserved manner, his annoyingly jealous nature and his desire to control her. All she remembered was his warm, mellowing smile that night in his car, when they took a drive along the highway. There was no overflow of feelings in her heart towards him, yet ideas started popping up, ideas that should never invade the mind, especially the mind of a happily married woman.

          What would’ve happened if I hadn’t broken up with Mohammad? Did I make a mistake when marrying Mark? Should I have married Mohammad instead? Those were all questions that rang loudly in her mind. Hijacked by a ton of guilt, Lana quickly dismissed those thoughts and returned to her husband’s side. Cold and lonely as it was, it was a lot better than the sinful position she had just been occupying.  

 

 

 

“HEY MUM, it’s me.” Said Lana sullenly and slowly over the phone. She was still in her off-white, full length evening dress; sitting at the dresser right in front of the mirror, taking off her earrings and tying her hair backwards. “We just came back … Yeah, we had a nice time … The food was great … It’s that new Nile cruise in Zamalek … Yes, right next to the club … Sure, perhaps we’ll go together someday … How is Dana? … Good, I expected her to give you a hard time before she finally slept … Listen mum, if she wakes up in the middle of the night, just give her my sweater and tell her ‘mummy loves you’, alright? … No, she usually just needs something with my smell on it to pacify her … Alright then, I’ll come pick her up first thing in the morning … Good night, mum.”

She put the phone down, and resumed toying with her now empty ear. The door of the closet was violently opened. She saw in the mirror Mark’s reflection with a bag in his hand.

“You’re leaving already?” asked Lana.

“Yes.” He answered, dryly as he opened his nightstand drawer.

Lana still looked at his reflection in the mirror, without looking at him. “I first thought you were staying at your mother’s. But I sensed from her way of speaking that she knew nothing about the fight. So I guess you’re staying elsewhere, then?”

He remained silent.

“Where are you staying?” she asked now looking at him; the real him. “If I am still entitled to know.” She added looking back at the mirror, as she sensed he didn’t consider it her right to know. The last sentence was almost muttered to herself.

“At a friend’s house.” He didn’t look at her while speaking. He just took some medicines out of the drawer and into his bag.

“Dana misses you, by the way.” Began Lana, her voice faltering. Mark’s moving hands stopped. He remained quite still. “The other day, she came across your grey T-shirt … you know; the one you wear at home. She held it tightly murmuring: ‘Dada dada.’ She meant daddy, but she’s still not so good with pronouncing words.”

“What do you want, Lana?” asked Mark, looking at her for the first time.

She turned around, stood up, and took a seat beside him on the side of the bed. “I want you to know that I’m sorry.”

He disappointedly smiled, looking on the ground. “You’re not even aware of what you’ve done. I’m getting really tired, Lana. I feel like some kind of worn out animal, running round and round, yet never getting anywhere. Nothing I do is ever enough, on any level. There’s always what your parents have, what Tonya has, what Sara has. I’m never good enough.”

“That’s not true.” Said Lana stretching out her arm behind him. “If I have been giving you that impression, I’m sorry. But I never feel that way inside.”

“Good to know, because I was beginning to doubt if you still loved me.”

“Love you! Mark,” she grabbed his hand, he wasn’t very co-operative, “I wake up every morning hardly believing that I have you by my side.”

“Yet you never tell me. All I hear from you are complaints, demands and comments.” Lana found nothing to say to that. “And you topped it all with Tuesday night’s behavior. Do you even realize what you’ve done?”

“I know I’ve messed up, but …”

“Messed up! You demeaned me with your father’s money, then you literary kicked me out of the house! Do you know how humiliating that was? You broke something so strong within me; I don’t think I’ll ever be able to mend it.”

“Yes, but you were the one who started it.”

“Started what?” he yelled indignantly standing up.

“The fight. You came screaming like a madman for no good reason. For God’s sake, you called me a liar!”

“I didn’t call you a liar.” He said firmly. “I said you were lying.”

“It’s the same.” She said with a sarcastic laugh.

“No, it’s not the same. By saying you were lying, I meant on that particular subject. To call you a liar, on the other hand, would mean that you lie about every other subject, which is something I never said or meant.”

“I wasn’t lying anyways.” Said Lana indignantly.

“Well, maybe not. But put yourself in my position, would you have believed me? I mean, we both know you didn’t want a baby.”

“No I didn’t. Yet I saw how badly you wanted another one, and I thought to myself, ‘why should I deprive him of something he so desperately craves?’ See? You’re not the only one who compromises and sacrifices around here.” A pause. “Ok, I’m high maintenance, I get it. But at least I’m trying to change. The change might not be so big to you, but it’s huge to all the people who knew me back in the day. No one recognizes me anymore, hardly even my parents. All the things you see as extravagances, I was raised to believe were necessities. I’ve spent my whole life around those things enjoying the luxury they provide me with, still I gave it all up just to be with you. If you’re tired of never feeling good enough, then I’m tired of always feeling spoilt and materialistic.”

They both stopped talking for a while. Sitting sideways on the large bed, with their backs facing each other, they could only entertain themselves by staring at the ground. The silence was beginning to get awkward, so Mark broke it off saying:

“Conclusion: we’ve both messed up.”

“So there’s no chance of us getting back together?”

“Do you want us to get back together?”

Do you want us to get back together?”

“I can’t deny that right this moment I feel that my love for you has decreased a teeny tiny bit.” Lana’s face frowned at hearing this. “But there’s still more than enough to make it work.” She couldn’t help but smile now.

“But there are certain things we need to work on, though.”

“Certainly.” Now Mark turned to her. He crawled on the bed until he took her side. “I have thought about what you said back at the restaurant. You know, about getting back to work and all. And – even though I’m still pissed off over the way you announced it – I think it might be time you get back to work; if it would really make you happy.”

“Really?” said Lana grabbing his hand and placing it near her heart.

“Dana could stay at my mother’s and your mother’s alternately. But you gotta be home by 4 p.m maxim. That’s my one condition.”

“Sure.” Nodded Lana assertively. “I already talked to my old boss today morning, and he said there was a spot available for me with fewer working hours. Of course it’s not as good as my previous position, but I’ll manage.”

“I bet you will.” Affirmed Mark in a sweet manner. “And consequently, I think we need to postpone this whole baby thing.” It must have been Lana’s lucky day, for the happy surprises kept coming up one after another. Yet, she couldn’t have seen the next surprise coming. “Not just because of your work, but also because I think there’s something better that needs to be done with the money we were gonna spend on the newborn. Something more important.”

“What is that?” asked Lana optimistically. Could it possibly be the big house she’d been dreaming about? Maybe he was keeping away some money which he hadn’t used in buying the share? Or perhaps it’s a villa in Ein El-Sokhna? Could that be part of the promotion?

“I think it’s time we start paying your father’s heavy debts back.”

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Chapter 19: I dare you to move

The first time Lana’s baby kicked, Mark had just returned from work. It was almost 6 p.m. Usually at that hour, dinner would be prepared and ready on the table. Yet, ever since Lana’s pregnancy, the food department had been a little disturbed. For starters, Lana was never a kitchen lover as a girl, so getting her to cook without any help was a miracle that only Mark could pull off. Yet, when the nausea started hitting off and the belly burns became as frequent as the headaches, Mark was very likely to come home after a long, tiring day at work with an empty stomach and find no decent food to fill up this stomach.

For the first few days they ordered take out. Then, Leila got in the habit of coming over twice a week to cook for them. Some days, Lana would be so sick that she wouldn’t be able to even heat up the already prepared food. This was one of those days.

On the big, comfy bed, Lana lay uncomfortably on her right side. It was a fiery summer day with a blazing heat which the A/C couldn’t quite conquer. She didn’t move a finger when Mark walked into the room even though she was conscious. He took off his striped shirt – soaked up in sweat as it was – put it in the bathroom and threw himself on the bed. He then untied his shoelaces and tossed the shoes on the floor. Adjusting himself in bed, he also lay on his right side with Lana’s back facing him. He slowly moved up and gave her a kiss on the neck, with his hands moving around her waist.

“I missed you.” He said with his eyes closed.

“Me too.” She muttered almost inaudibly. He could tell she needed some rest, and so did he. Therefore, he thought it best for the both of them to stay like that for a while. Just when his eyes were closed long enough for him to catch a tiny nap, the bed suddenly shook so strongly that for an instant, Mark could’ve sworn it was an earthquake.

He quickly opened his eyes to find Lana on her knees on the bed, with her large, uncombed hair flying around and her arms wrapped around her belly.

“It kicked, Mark.” She joyfully screamed. “The baby; it’s kicking, right now.”

Mark stared at her with dropped jaws and eyes wide open. He was clearly oblivious to what he should do, struck by the magnitude of the event. Lana grabbed his hand and placed it on her moving belly. That was when some sense started coming to the whole thing. His once so strong and muscular hand couldn’t help but melt at touching this weird creature. He started laughing hysterically, while Lana picked up the phone beside her to tell her mother of the latest news.

 

 

 

THE FIRST TIME Tonya’s baby kicked, she was breathlessly running on the treadmill in the gym-room at her house. Her breathing was heavy and the sweat went dripping off her face, still she had half an hour to go. The Rihanna song playing in the background pumped her body up with adrenaline and gave her the power to continue. She knew she couldn’t possibly lose weight while nurturing a baby inside of her, but she hoped she wouldn’t gain any more weight, apart from the weight of her baby. It wasn’t for her love of a slim physique, as that was something Tonya never had and never planned on having; however, it was because she didn’t want to look fat on Nadia’s wedding night, which was to take place during the last month of her pregnancy.

As much as Tonya tried to fight this, Marawan, Nadia’s fiancé, was starting his new job in Dubai in the beginning of December, so they had to have the wedding by September maximum to have enough time for the honeymoon and for the pre-immigration procedures. This was a shock to everybody. When Tonya asked her what she would do about her work, for by now Nadia had become one of the most important wedding planners in Cairo, Nadia simply replied:

“They do have weddings in Dubai. I’m sure I’m gonna do even better there.”

Thus, Tonya was faced with the bitter reality of having to choose a maternity evening dress that would make her belly look less swollen than it would definitely be. But that wasn’t enough; Tonya knew that this was to be Nadia’s night – one of the hundreds of nights when Nadia and only Nadia would shine brightly like a star. Still, Tonya wouldn’t be the grocery bag crowding up the ceremony. This was simply the reason why she dedicated a full hour daily to running on the treadmill.

By the beginning of the remaining ten minutes, Tonya felt a strange movement near her belly. She immediately stopped, fearing that she had done something wrong to her baby. That was when she realized that this feeling was more like a tickling than it was pain. With the hand supporting her belly, she could feel the little guy moving around as if he was the one on the treadmill. She satisfactorily smiled to herself and started accurately recording every flicker of sensation she felt at that moment.

Later that night, she stayed impatiently waiting for Mohammad’s return, thinking of all the possible scenarios she could use to tell him of something that could have possibly been the highlight of her entire life. After a full hour of waiting in utmost preparation, the door opened and Mohammad came in. Forgetting all about the speech she had prepared and the scenarios she had painted, the words went rushing out of her mouth, and for a second, she could feel her old, talkative self back. That was the first time they had something to talk about other than Lana and Mark.

 

 

 

IF LITTLE KIDS were most frightened by ghost stories, then aunt Roukaia was Tonya and Nadia’s scariest ghost story of all time. As little girls, they vividly remembered being bizarrely attached to her. They would beg their parents to sleep over at her house, or travel with her to Hurghada during their summer vacation. And she would never mind since she lived all alone in an apartment near Grandma Dodda’s in Manial. Yet, as they grew wiser, and she grew older, they started gradually realizing why their mother was never welcome of this strong bond. Progressively, Roukaia was transformed into their spinster aunt. At some point, they feared that spending time with her might force them to become like her.

As a result, when Nadia turned twenty-seven without yet being married, everybody was worried that she might end up a spinster like her old, unfortunate aunt. Especially when Tonya, who was four years younger, was the first to get married, Ameena became quite hysterical about her elder daughter’s marital status. So the news about Nadia’s wedding was some kind of victory; en event all of them looked forward to and at the same time frightfully dreaded to jinx. Even Dodda, who was probably the one who sympathized with her spinster daughter the most, was deeply grateful that her granddaughter wasn’t doomed to repeat the same scenario.

On the wedding night, and just two weeks before her due date, Tonya remained with her sister in the hotel room where she was dressing up. As the hair dresser was adjusting Nadia’s white, chiffon veil, Tonya stood in front of the mirror to check herself out. Her dress was black, but still she looked fat in it. Her face was swollen and her once so tiny nose was now almost twice its original size. This was not the way she would have wanted to look like at Nadia’s wedding day, she thought to herself. Her only consolation was that Lana, too, was in her third trimester, with a giant stomach and bulging features. However, Lana seemed to be half her (Tonya’s) size, even in that rosy, sleeveless dress she wore.

“Are you ready, sweetheart?” Ameena asked Nadia as she stepped into the room. Tonya quickly turned her face to her mother. She was wearing a purple, studded dress with a taffeta headscarf of a matching color. The dress was cut in a manipulative way which made her plump, short body look both slimmer and longer.

“Yes, how do I look?”

“Like an angel, darling.” Replied her mother with her hand on her chest.

“The dress is perfect, but it would’ve never looked so beautiful if you weren’t so mesmerizing.” Dodda added. She was in a black, glittery dress with a white headscarf. Even though her outfit was very elegant, it failed at hiding her aging features, her wrinkled face, her bent body and her really slow steps. At first, she thought it was best if she didn’t go to the wedding.

Why would I go? So that people would make fun of me? She had said.

But when Nadia begged and begged and blamed her for attending Tonya’s wedding, no questions asked, and refusing to attend hers, she finally changed her mind.

“Now, come on, everybody’s waiting downstairs.” Ameena said as she held her daughter’s veil.

The Zaffa was made up of men drumming and singing and women belly-dancing in Bikini-like suits filled with beads and colorful strips. This large group preceded the couple into the hall where the wedding would take place. Since the Quatb Kitab, which was basically the religious and legal part of the marriage, had taken place almost a week before that night, all they had left was to celebrate their marriage with all their guests. As the men’s strong palms dropped noisily on the oriental drums, Tonya could feel a contraction. She put her hand on her stomach and decided not to tell anybody. By the time the Zaffa was over and the happy couple was on the dance floor performing their first dance, Tonya sensed another contraction. This time Lana noticed her change of face.

“Tonya, are you alright?” she asked loudly to get her voice across all that noise.

She remained silent, patiently holding her stomach and trying to conceal the pain.

“Tonya.” Repeated Lana, this time softly touching her shoulder.

“I’m having contractions.” Said Tonya, in a low voice.

“What? I can’t hear you. The music is so …”

“I’m having contractions.” Repeated Tonya in a voice loud enough to be heard by Baher and Mark who were both sitting on another table. For a moment Tonya thought everybody had heard her, she could sense several eyes looking at her with pity and fear. But when she looked up, she found out that her words only reached Baher, Mark and Lana’s ears.

“My God,” muttered Mohammad, immediately slipping an arm behind her back and using the other to hold her trembling hand. Before he could make any decisions, he felt some water drops splashing on his L.E 1000 shoes. He looked at the drenched shoes, then at her face.

“Yep,” she nodded with tears in her eyes, “my water just broke.”

“Come on,” said Lana motioning for all of them to follow her. “We gotta get to a hospital a.s.a.p.”

“Wait.” Cried Tonya stopping everybody’s movement. “We can’t tell anybody. We’ll just spoil the wedding if we do so.”

“How about we tell your mother that you’re feeling a bit dizzy from the noise and the spotlight, and that you’re gonna rest in your room upstairs?” Proposed Mark referring to Tonya and Lana. “That way nobody would worry.”

It seemed like an agreeable plan. And thus, it was set for execution. In less than five minutes, the four of them were in the entrance of the hotel waiting for the valet to bring Mark’s car. Mohammad was already on the phone with Tonya’s O.B doctor. He hung up just as Mark sped away.

“He said he’s on his way to the hospital.” He informed them. “He also wanted us to time the contractions.”

“They’re less than three minutes apart.” Said Tonya with difficulty.

“Good. He said you won’t be ready for delivery till they’re a minute apart.”

“Oh,” Tonya rubbed her hand against her stomach, with her body bent so that her head rested on the back of Lana’s front seat, “there’s another one.”

Mohammad kept patting her worriedly. “Let’s see how long it would take the following one to come.”

During the trip, Lana, whose seatbelt remained unfastened, turned around to be able to see them. She did nothing but utter some encouraging words to Tonya. Mark, on the other hand, was totally occupied with trying to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

It wasn’t long before they said their goodbyes to Tonya, and waited for her in front of the O.R. She had spent less than an hour in her room before the doctor pronounced it was time to deliver the baby. When asked if he would like to accompany her, Mohammad remained silent.

“Mohammad,” said Lana, “she needs you in there. It’s bad enough that her mother couldn’t make it.”

“I don’t think I’ll handle it.”

“Mohammad, she’s really weak and helpless. You’ll manage.” She waited for him to take action. Nevertheless, he just stood there like a statue.

“Fine.” She turned around quite crossed, “I’ll go in.”

Going away, Mohammad slowly slid over a chair. Mark took the seat by his side and put his arm around Baher’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry, man. She’s gonna be alright.” He said calmly.

Mohammad looked at him. He tried to delve deep into his face; see if he had the slightest expression of worry or distress. Tonya would always tell him that there remained a part of Mark, small as it might have been, which still loved her and cared about her. He had already done his best in search of this microscopic part on his own wedding day. And there he was, looking for it again. And there he was, admitting his failure, again.

As he looked away, he felt a vibration in his jacket pocket. He picked up his cell phone and glanced at the screen.

“It’s dad.” He sighed, looking at the ceiling with the phone in his hand.

“I’ll take the call.” Offered Mark grabbing the phone.

Just as he was about to answer it, Mohammad advised him against telling Mr. Baher about Tonya’s delivery.

“He’s gonna find out anyway. And then he would blame you for not allowing him to come.” Reasoned Mark. “I’ll tell him not to tell her mother. But I can’t not tell him that his grandson’s about to come to life.”

Mohammad made a careless gesture with his hand and left Mark’s side. He stood by the O.R door regretting not going in. He knew that Lana’s words were right; that deep down, she would’ve wanted him with her. He remembered her trebling hands, her tearful eyes, but her freaked out voice was what he remembered best. He could almost hear it ringing in his ears; deafening him.

For some unknown reason, he didn’t feel like a husband expecting his newborn, but rather as a teenager who had messed up and was now waiting for the punishment of his mistake. Never before had he thought about having this baby for real; raising it, taking care of it, watching it grow and providing for it. For the first time it struck him; he was going to be a dad and he wasn’t yet ready.

Suddenly, flashes of all his fights with his father played in front of his eyes. His mother’s image was still fresh in his mind: dead in the bathtub after a fight with his father; a fight which he overheard from his room even though it was at the other side of the house. He still heard her voice screaming and his father’s voice shouting, he had envisioned the slaps he overheard as they struck his mother’s face. The sound of the glass breaking was louder and stronger than the sound of the thunder coming from his bedroom window. It was a night he spent his entire life trying to get over, yet constantly seeming to relive.

He remembered this one time when he was a little boy, probably four or five years old, when his mother told him of the love saga that took place between her and his father.

If they had loved each other so, yet he wasn’t capable of becoming a good husband and father, how could I ever turn out any better? He wondered.

“Speaking of the devil.” He muttered to himself as he saw his father approaching them. Before he could greet him, the door of the O.R. swung open and out came the doctor followed by Lana.

“Are they ok?” he asked rushing towards them.

“Congratulations.” Said the doctor smilingly as he patted him on the shoulder. “She just delivered you a beautiful, healthy boy.”

His eyes turned to Lana, who was wearing scrubs. The cap covered up her tied hair and her wide smile revealed her large, bunny-like front teeth. “She’s waiting for you inside.” She said with extreme happiness. “And he looks just like you.” She added laughing.

“That’s a blunt lie.” He said smiling back as he moved quickly to Tonya.

An air of fervor overtook him. His eyes moved straight towards the little piece of flesh wrapped in a white sheet in Tonya’s arms. The nurse was helping her hold him.

“Are you the father?” the nurse asked him.

“He is.” Said Tonya slowly, yet joyously. She looked very different from the way she had just looked the last time he saw her. Her make up was now totally wiped off her face; her hair was curling – due to being wetted by sweat – near her hairline. A captivating, vibrant smile was drawn upon her exhausted face. It was a smile he could hardly recall; one of satisfaction, gratitude and clarity.

Some strange feeling was caught creeping to his heart, a feeling towards her which he had never felt before. Perhaps it could have been passion, or maybe acceptance. Ever since she got pregnant, he stopped seeing her as only a partner in his vengeance and began seeing her as an incubator, merely an incubator to his unborn child. But now, she was the mother of his baby, the baby who – as much as he hated to admit it and tended to disbelieve it – resembled him in many ways. And that made all the difference to him.

 

 

 

THE NEXT COUPLE of weeks were probably the best weeks Mohammad had lived. Except for the little incident with the baby’s name, (since Tonya announced in front of his father that she wanted to call the baby Ali after his grandpa – something which Mohammad was definitely opposed to and at the same time powerless to take back) he couldn’t have wished for better times. He didn’t care about the number of times he was awakened in the middle of the night by little Ali’s loud cries. Even though they had a nursery right next to their bedroom which had been prepared especially for him, they both couldn’t let him off their sight for one moment. Therefore, they got him an extra bed in their room and he got into the habit of sleeping in it.

By his second week, his features became a bit clearer. He had his father’s small, hazel eyes and his mother’s rather thin-lipped mouth. His nose was a combination of both of their noses, for they had almost similar button noses. As for his hair, it was way too early to tell, as they both knew that the hair develops to various styles till it sticks to its permanent shape.

From day one, Mohammad began thinking of all the nice things he wanted to get him; all the moonshine dreams he had for him. He began playing music for him with the purpose of developing further his natural-born musical ear. He decided he would teach him playing the guitar as soon as he was able to properly use his hands. He even started choosing all the songs he would teach him to play. In his eyes, his cherished son was all he wanted from life; he was the most beautiful baby in the entire universe, and no other baby, even if it had been Lana’s baby, would be able to take this title away for him. Many days passed without him thinking about Lana, without talking about her and Mark with Tonya, without craving his revenge so fiercely. The fire within him had cooled down, for a while he even thought it was extinguished, all until the day baby Dana was born.

Again he was standing in front of the O.R door, but this time he was accompanied by Tonya instead of Mark. He still couldn’t get the image of Mark crying as he was holding Lana’s hand and leading her to the O.R out of his mind. It was the first time he had ever seen Mark cry. He didn’t cry even at his father’s funeral. This scene triggered some old feelings inside him, some ideas about an unfinished business which still needed to be taken care of. He tried to bury those feelings deep inside.

But they all came afloat when he saw Lana’s little girl. If Ali resembled him, then Dana was a spitting image of her mother. She took after her in her bright, brown eyes, her large nose and defined jaws. Even her hair was of the same color. Tonya said she looked more like Mark. Probably so, for Mark and Lana looked more like they were brother and sister. But no, Dana’s face was small and oval like Lana’s, not square-shaped like Mark’s.

As Tonya tenderly held the baby, Mark stood beside her and kissed his daughter’s tiny hand. This moment brought Mohammad five years backwards, back to the day he was introduced to Mark’s new girlfriend; Tonya. He tried to remember Ali’s warm smile, the one he would put on his face when being tickled. Mohammad always said that this was Ali’s best look ever. Yet, Dana looked more appealing to him.

She should’ve been my daughter. He heard the words loudly bellow in the back of his mind.

“Excuse me. I need to use the restroom.” He said rushing hastily towards the restroom and locking the door behind him. He opened the tap to its full, took a handful of the running water and splashed his face with it. He then looked up. The Dorian Grey reflection stared him back in the face. He hadn’t seen this one in a while; for a moment there he thought it was gone forever. But there it was again, telling him it’s not over.

 

 

Chapter 18: Give me some love

Lana’s first summer as a married woman was the summer of her wedding. And since Mark had already taken nearly three weeks off from work for their honeymoon in Prague, he couldn’t travel again throughout the entire summer. Therefore, whenever Lana felt chocked up by the heat of Cairo, her mother would send her a car with a chauffeur to drive them to their villa in Sidi Abdel Rahman in the NorthCoast, where she would spend at least a week with them. So basically, the following summer was the first summer for Lana to experience the holiday invitations and trips.

The first week was spent at Leila’s chalet in Marina. It was a cozy apartment with four bedrooms overlooking the lagoon; probably the only nice thing they had inherited from Mr. Ahmad Hassanein. Even though Lana had her own room to sleep in with Mark, she didn’t enjoy any form of privacy due to the family’s bizarre way of life. They spent all their times together, from the moment they deserted their beds till the moment they were reunited with those chunky mattresses. They all ate breakfast together, took off to the sea together, returned home together and had to wait their turns to take a shower in the only bathroom available in the chalet. And the most tiring aspect was that of the absence of the maid, which meant that Lana too had to help in cleaning the sand that got in with their shoes. Being already three months pregnant made Leila pardon her of almost all the house chores. Nevertheless, Leila had a way about her, a way that would make her guilt the person in front of her to do whatever pleased her. Mark had inherited this characteristic from his mother, but he seldom used it.

Despite the fits of madness and the times of extreme distress, Lana loved this week as it brought her even closer to Maya. Spending all their time together and sleeping in the same house meant being able to share a game of cards, watch a late movie, prepare some extravagant supper at 3 a.m, and paint the enticing view. Lana wasn’t much of a painter herself, but Maya was the real deal. For hours, Lana would watch her mix the spiciest of colors and lay them gracefully on the large canvas to come up with the most creative images of the existent vista. Mark would usually come by from behind, and photograph the painting before Maya would take it away and declare that it’s for her eyes only. The day they left, Maya gave Lana one of the paintings as a souvenir to remind her of their pleasant week in the NorthCoast. Lana gladly accepted the gift, though she saw no reason why she shall ever forget a week that was likely to repeat itself for years to come.

 

 

 

THE NEXT WEEK, they took off to visit Lana’s parents in Sidi Abdel Rahman. Now, this was a vacation Lana would be looking forward to. If not for being around her parents in one of the most beautiful spots in Egypt, then at least for the luxury of the Villa. With her own bedroom with the bathroom en suite, and the small balcony that overlooked the beautiful blue beach, Lana considered herself in heaven. And she had longed to share this heaven with Mark ever since the day they fell in love.

Her mother welcomed them in with a careful smile; one that doesn’t reflect neither hatred nor hypocrisy. Her father, on the other hand seemed much more relaxed. On one hand, he was actually fond of Mark. On the other hand, Sidi Abdel Rahman was a place were he could drink more and be blamed less. Sara remained her old self; never too intimate, but close enough to leave an impression, though she appeared rather distant on that specific trip.

Yet, that wasn’t all, for Mr. Masry usually invited his only sister to spend the summer vacation with them, especially now that Tonya’s family stopped coming over; Tonya now invited them to Mohammad’s villa in Sidi Kreir. Tante Shaheera, Lana’s aunt, was the sweetest person, truly. She had been widowed at thirty-five, and the rest of her life she dedicated to raising her only child, Tareq. Tareq, who was now twenty-two, constantly proved to be much of a challenge. He was never smart in school, barely made it through college after a miracle of praying and hoping for the best, and took at least four semesters to pass each academic year that by now, when he was supposed to have graduated, he was still in his third year of college. Many times he dropped out unaccountably, then he would return to take his exams, where he seldom managed to get through. The last time, he took some time off to join a rehab which Lana’s father had paid for; this was only three months prior to that trip. Even though Dalia hated him, or more accurately: feared him, the girls never held a grudge against their disturbed cousin. Perhaps they never got along quite well, but they never fought either, and that evened things up. Besides, inviting him to the villa was something nobody dared talk over with Mr. Sayeed, so they all learnt to acquiesce in silence.

 

 

 

“WHICH ONE OF them do you think I should wear?” asked Lana holding two different sets of Bikinis in her hands; one was brown with two sunflowers at the upper piece, and the other was pink with yellow linings along the edges. She was already unpacking in their bedroom, while Mark lay on the bed with the cell phone in his hand.

“What? You still wanna wear a bikini?” he asked as he looked disgustedly at the two sets of swimsuits. “I thought we already had that conversation back in Marina.”

“I thought your objection was because Omar was around and you didn’t think it appropriate for me to wear a bikini around him. Here, I’m only with my parents.”

“And Tareq.” Added Mark.

“He doesn’t swim with us. We’re not like you, Mark. Our trips to the sea aren’t synchronized. We go there when we feel like it, and we never go in groups.”

“I don’t care. I just don’t want you in a bikini.”

“You don’t get to decide. It’s my body; I shall wear what I see fit.”

“And you’re my wife. I shall have a say in what you wear.” Mark said, crossed. “Plus, a bikini would show off your already plump stomach. It won’t even look good on you with a growing baby inside.”

“C’mon, Mark. That’s how we do it here. They’re all gonna make fun of me if I go down there in a one-piece. And I paid an awful lot of money for this one,” she said indicating the brown bikini, “I would really love to see myself in it.” Mark remained silent. “Besides, you let me wear bikinis on our honeymoon.”

“That’s because it was our HONEYMOON, and it was just the two of us. Sorry Lana, but the parts of your body that a bikini exposes are so private that I believe they’re for my eyes only. Even religiously, I’ve got all the right to give you some dress code to follow.” With that he left the room.

For a moment, Lana decided she was going to wear it anyway. But after a second of reconsideration, she came to the conclusion that it was only going to cause a new fight, and she couldn’t think of anything uglier than fighting around her parents. Moreover, she wanted to be the one with the advantage, the one whom he owed. And most importantly, even though it was still relatively small – in comparison with Tonya’s large bump – Lana’s stomach was truly beginning to look inappropriate in a bikini. The baby was already starting to show. To the eyes of a stranger, she didn’t exactly look pregnant yet; she still looked like she had recently gained some weight on her one very flat stomach. Perhaps they would have made fun of her had she showed up with a bare stomach. Still, she decided to give Mark a hard time about it.

In her one-piece swimsuit, with a light chiffon summer-dress on, Lana departed her bedroom with the most unpleasant frown drawn upon her face. She knew it was time for her parents’ nap, so the frown was solely meant for Mark. As she walked down the hall, passing by the large veranda that led to the greenery, Lana overheard some voices. At first, she reckoned it was Mark and Sara. Moving closer in an attempt to surprise them, Lana noticed that the male voice was somehow softer and lower than her husband’s. When she was close enough to see the tip of his head and catch a glimpse of his curly, brown hair, Lana finally recognized him as Tareq. But the girl was Sara; she wasn’t mistaken about that one. She couldn’t exactly hear what they were saying, yet they seemed to be getting along quite well. Just when there was one step separating her from hearing them clearly, it occurred to Lana that she was not an eavesdropper, and that they deserved the privacy that she never had in the Marina chalet. That was when she took a different turn and headed for the beach.

 

 

 

SOMETHING HAD CHANGED. Lana guessed it had something to do with the show Dalia was constantly trying to play on whenever Mark was around. But Lana saw it as extremely preposterous. For some anonymous reason, only that summer, Dalia announced that dinner would be served at nine, and that this was the only time for eating. The twenty-four-seven open buffet that Lana had long been used to, where everybody could eat whenever and wherever they pleased, was no longer an option. From now on, they would all gather around the dining table at nine p.m to eat their dinner. Whether by making fun of Leila, Dalia had come to imitate her, Lana didn’t know. But what she did know was that Dalia was being absolutely ridiculous.

As they all sat around the large, rounded table, it was noticed that one person was missing.

“Where’s Sara?” Tante Shaheera asked.

“Taking a nap. She’s not feeling very well.” Was Dalia’s simple reply.

Those were about the only words exchanged around that table. It felt like no one could stand the rest, like all were suffocating with the absurdity of the new rule; not being even able to taste their food properly. Lana could tell that Dalia had an idea about her fight with Mark, yet she didn’t have a mind for gloating; it seemed she had her own arguments to think about. For a very short while, Lana felt that she missed Marina, with all its chaos and insanity.

Right after dinner, all got straight to bed. Jumping into her pajamas and slipping under her bed sheets, Lana immediately fell asleep. Vexation always got her drowsy, figuring she had nothing to look forward to. She had a few dreams about Maya’s paintings, Leila’s criticism and Mai looking behind her book to sneak a peek at her sister’s work of art.

“Lana?” Maya was calling her to see the painting. She was being gently rocked; a hand was patting her on the shoulder. “Lana?” Maya’s hands were at her paining, and the voice sounded too harsh to be hers. As she slowly opened her eyes, Lana realized that it was Mark who was calling on her. The room was dark; with only the lamp’s dim light on, she could barely see him.

“What?” she asked as she lazily opened her eyes.

“Get dressed.” He held her brown bikini in his hand.

“Is it morning already?” she was bulkily rubbing her eyes.

“No, it’s still night. C’mon.”

“Why on earth would I wanna wear a swimsuit at night?” she closed her eyes again.

“Don’t you wanna swim in your precious bikini? C’mon, now; get up. It’s your only chance; we’d be all alone at the beach.”

“Are you out of your mind?” Lana finally began to take him seriously. She got up in bed, resting upon her elbows.

“Ain’t no better time to go for a dive than in the middle of the night.”

“That’s only for mad people.”

“And you’re not mad? Sorry, if I’ve mistaken you for a wild tigress. Perhaps I just married the wrong kind of woman.” This he said while moving away from bed. Lana reached out to the switch, turned on the lights. It was only then that she could see him already in his swimsuit. It didn’t need any more resolving. Mark was trying to do a nice, romantic thing in his own kind of way; and Lana had learnt to appreciate all his little efforts.

In no time they were sneaking out of the dark villa, Mark  shirtless, in his swimsuit and Lana  with a transparent dress that allowed her bikini to shine through. Both were barefoot.

The beach was only a walking distance ahead of them, and the moment their feet got buried under the smooth, white sand, they began to run to the beach. Just when they were wetted with the splashes of the waves, Lana took off her dress and Mark drew her into the water.

“No, wait!” she cried in a whisper, still worried that someone might see them. “I know the perfect place for a calm swim.”

She led the way to a part of the shore about ten meters ahead of them. When they finally made it there, Mark could see through the faint flashlight hanging over the giant sunshade made of thick straws that Lana’s selected beach was one that fell between two large piles of rocks. The rocks decreased the blows of the strong waves, acted like the soothing shore around a bay.

Lana recklessly threw her dress into the sand and began pulling him into the water. But just as the water reached her bellybutton, she went rushing back to him.

“Oh, it’s cold.” She uttered with clenching teeth and a trembling body.

“It’s not.” He drew her closer with a quiet giggle. “You’re just scared. See, the water’s delicious. I can see your body through it.” It was true, for in this strategic place, there were hardly any waves to cloud the water. He placed his hand on her bare belly, gently rubbing it. “Is it moving yet?” He was referring to the baby. Lana silently shook her head. “Look over here,” his hand came across an old cut down her breast, “that’s the scar from your accident.”

“You only noticed it now?”

“I kinda lost track of its size and shape.” He tried to check it out through the weak lighting. “I’m surprised you didn’t have it removed by a plastic surgery.”

“I could if it’s bothering you.”

“Would I be bothered by a souvenir from the day you fell in love with me?”

“Who told you that was the day I fell in love with you?” Lana asked with a smile. “I was too busy struggling with death that I didn’t have any time to fall in love.”

Mark paused for a minute. “It must’ve been the day we kissed, then.” He added after some thought.

“Which kiss?” Asked Lana cunningly. “The one in London or the one in New York?”

Even though it was meant to be a joke, Mark never took it lightly.

“That’s not when I fell in love with you, though. I guess it all started the moment Tonya introduced us. You reminded me of someone; an old boyfriend who was a champion at swimming. See,” she ran her hands across his wet shoulders, “he had broad shoulders just like yours.”

“Great, so the first time you noticed me it was only because I reminded you of an old boyfriend.” Lana laughed loudly enough for her voice to echo through the sea.

“My jealous little Mark.” She said happily.

“I ain’t jealous. Just curious.” She continued laughing. “Forget about that.” He said in a desperate attempt to change the subject. “Tell me, how did you find this amazing spot?”

“Why, I swim here almost every summer. It’s only natural that I know the beach as the back of my hand.” She blocked her nose with her fingers and took a quick dive in the sea, coming out soaked up in salty drops of water and slightly shaking her hair. “God, I love this place.”

Mark cupped her head in his hands, gently stroking her hair. If he adored her hair when it was warm and fluffy, he liked it ten times better when wet. “You just love any place that’s far away from Cairo.”

“Except for the Zamalek duplex … and Grandma Dodda’s Manial house.”

“What about our house?”

“Eh-eh, not so much.” She said lightly.

“You know I should take that as an insult?”

“It’s not personal. It’s just that Cairo’s become so crammed up with cars, chocked up on smoke and dirt that it feels like a struggle to survive there. I just like to take some time off, somewhere with clean fresh air and brightly shining sun. Like here, and in El-Gouna.”

“What about Ein El-Sokhna?” asked Mark with a different tone; a tone which smelt of surprise.

“Why?” Lana, who was relaxing in the delicate water, suddenly turned upright, trying to make up anything of his mysterious facial expression. “What’s in El-Sokhna?”

“Nothing.” He replied casually. Bells started ringing in Lana’s mind; she soon remembered the Sokhna compound he had been working on lately.

“Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “It’s gotta do with your work, hasn’t it? Don’t tell me we’re moving there!” She said hopefully.

“Not exactly.” Mark was still trying to play it cool. “But there is this little plan.”

“What?” Lana’s thriving curiosity was eating her up.

“I might, and I mean might, be able to buy a place over there some time soon.” He finally came clean.

“No way!” she gave out a shrill cry, covering her wide open mouth with both hands.

“Don’t get too excited yet. It’s still a ‘might’; nothing for sure. Besides, it’s only a little studio, no bigger than sixty meters large.”

“How did you pull it off?” she asked in disbelief.

“Uncle Ali’s business’s kinda’ asleep for the time being. You know, the financial crisis’s got everybody’s money tucked carefully in their pockets. Most people are afraid of buying, especially real estate. There’s a theory that the prices are gonna drastically decrease in the next few years, and nobody wants to take a shot. So I,” he referred to himself with extreme pride, “proposed we be the first to lower the prices a bit. And raise the bar with the extra services instead of the incredible costs. I also thought it wise to offer certain appealing discounts that would act as some sort of incentive for people to buy and spread the word about their new properties. There’s when I realized that I could actually make use of my own proposal.”

“You conniving genius.” Commented Lana, impressed with her husband’s marketing skills.

“What? I didn’t plan it on purpose. It just worked itself up. Besides, Uncle Ali was the one who offered me the discount.”

“So what’s missing? Why is it a ‘might’?”

“I still haven’t signed the papers yet. I’m still sorting out the money. I’m short for the girls’ college tuition.” He still believed it part of his duty to pay for his sisters’ tuitions. It wasn’t a very large sum, but there were times when he desperately needed it. “It’s nothing, really. I have some money coming up very soon. You know that money Omar’s been investing for me? It’s about time I start using it. But I would still prefer that we don’t tell anybody. Not a single soul. Even Mohammad doesn’t know yet; Uncle Ali still hasn’t told him.”

“God,” Lana kicked the water with her small, white foot, “if this happens, I’d be the happiest person on earth.” She looked at him with dancing eyes, gently allowing him to wrap his fingers around her waist, carrying her up and down the water slowly. “We could go there almost every weekend. You wouldn’t have to take any time off, since the trip there takes less than two hours.”

“I can even work over there.”

“Really? Oh, just promise me you’re gonna do your best to let this thing happen, so we could have our own getaway all year long.”

Mark paused for a while; no promises uttered. “But it is just a studio.”

“I don’t care.” She declared thoughtlessly.

“Really?” he obviously doubted her words, but not crossly, though. “You won’t tell me ‘this is too small, I want a villa like Baher’s.’ Or ‘we need to have a bamboo set just like my father’s’ or ‘we can’t survive there without’ … I don’t know, ‘a Busch fridge’?”

Lana gave out an embarrassed smile. “You make it sound like I’m an annoying whiner.”

“Sometimes you are.”

“I won’t say anything of that kind.” That was meant as a promise. After another short dive, she said: “C’mon, aren’t we gonna swim for a while?”

 

 

 

THEY SNEAKED BACK as noiselessly as they had gone out; Lana putting on again her dress which, due to her wet skin, stuck onto her body to make it even more transparent than it already was. For a moment, they thought it was a blessing they were barefoot, for it would definitely produce less sound. Then they remembered how sandy their feet were, and it meant that they were going leave a trail on that white, clean marble floor. Just as they opened the front door slowly, they noticed some lights on.

“We probably forgot to turn them off on our way out.” Guessed Lana, dubiously. Still, they decided to creep in slowly. Just when their backs were facing the hall and they were on their way up the stairs, they heard a sound behind them;

“Sara, is that you?” asked Mr. Sayeed in a rather relieved tone. Lana slowly turned around, her father was coming out of the veranda, followed by her mother and aunt.

“Pappy?” she muttered.

“Damn it, I thought you were Sara. Your mother went to check on her before going to bed, realized she had gone out. Her cell’s out of service and she didn’t even say she was going out or where to.” The words poured down his mouth so quickly that he didn’t even take a breath in between. Lana knew that it meant he was extremely anxious; talking like that. “Did she by any chance happen to tell you where she was going?” he finally asked.

“Sorry, pappy. No.” She looked down. It was humiliating enough for her parents to catch her sneaking into the house like a teenager who had messed up, but being in those garments, that was ignominious. Right at that moment, she could have strangled Mark. But then again, he was in the same mess.

Even though her father didn’t really seem to care, her mother eyed her with a shaming look. She then decided to shift her anger to a more appropriate corner. “For God’s sake, it’s almost 1 a.m. We gotta do something.”

“Call her friends, ask them …”

“I already called all of her friends; the ones here aren’t that much anyway. You know everybody’s still in Cairo.”

Lana looked around, trying to be of any help. “Where’s Tareq?” she eventually noticed his absence.

“Probably out.” Replied Tante Shaheera in an unsure voice.

“Where?” Mr. Sayeed asked.

“I don’t know.” She admitted, shrugging her shoulders helplessly. “He usually doesn’t tell me.”

“I thought the problem was with Sara’s disappearance.” Said Dalia loudly, voicing her displeasure.

“Maybe they went out together.” Clarified Lana.

“Why? They never get along. I can’t recall a time when they were doing anything together.” Said Dalia, doing her best to trivialize Lana’s thoughts.

“I can.” Said Lana. She shortly mentioned seeing them earlier chatting in noticeable harmony.

“My God,” wailed Dalia, “he must’ve gotten her on drugs.”

“What?” Lana was in disbelief. It was clearly an insult to her aunt.

“That’s the only thing that boy’s capable of doing. And now that he could actually be around my daughter, what else could possibly occupy them?”

“Mum, he just got out of rehab!”

“Yeah, c’mon Dalia. Stop your venomous words.” said Mr. Sayeed bitterly. Then he rolled his eyes towards his sister’s fragile existence. Instead of being grateful for being stood up for, she seemed worried.

“What is it, Shaheera?” asked Mr. Sayeed, noticing her change of face.

She remained silent for a moment. “I hate to admit it, but I think Dalia may be right. He just took two hundred pounds from me yesterday. When he asked for more this morning I said ‘no’. Then a few hours ago, I noticed that some of my money’s missing. He’d always get like that when he’s on crack.” Her voice was breaking down, yet she remained quite still. “I know my son very well. It sounds like something he would do.”

Struck by the shocking discoveries, Mr. Sayeed slowly took a seat on the off-white bamboo couch behind him.

“Just to give him the shadow of a doubt, I’ll look for the drugs in his room.” Resumed Shaheera, hesitantly. “If we find it there, then it’s for sure.”

As she made her way to the bedroom, Mr. Sayeed stopped her saying. “Forget it, Shaheera. He’s not stupid enough to leave it right in front of us.”

“Stupid, no. But reckless enough not to even care about hiding it.” Said Shaheera with a broken smile.

In less than a minute, she returned with a nylon sack full of dope.

“I told you this boy’s dangerous but you just had to …” blurted out Dalia.

“Dalia!” shouted Mr. Sayeed, shutting her up entirely.

“Well, someone do something; get me my daughter back.”

“We don’t even know they’re together.” Said Mr. Sayeed, annoyed. “It’s just a wild guess.”

“Are we gonna wait till this wild guess is proven correct?”

“Perhaps,” began Mark, after clearing his throat, speaking for the first time since the unexpected entrance, “Mohammad should know. I’m gonna give him a call, see if he has anything valuable.”

“Is he still on drugs?” asked Lana in a whisper just as he was making his way to his cell phone.

“Not exactly, but some of his friends are.” He vanished for a while, probably making the call, meanwhile Lana took a seat beside her mother.

“Where were you?” Dalia asked the question that had been long dawning on her.

“At the beach.” A silent nod. Lana could feel the tension. Still, she decided to play dumb.

Mark returned only a moment later.

“Any news?” asked Dalia impatiently, speaking to him kindly, maybe for the first time.

“He tells me Omar would know best. I’ll call him right away.” He was gone again.

This time, Dalia leant over Lana’s shoulder saying, “Omar knows best? Perfect! You married the brother of a drug dealer.”

“He doesn’t do drugs, mum! He’s just got a lot of connections.” Protested Lana, loudly. “Besides, I’m the one with the junkie sister. If anything, I should be ashamed of myself.”

“Could the two of you please shut up?” interrupted Mr. Sayeed. They complied.

This time Mark stayed in a little bit more. Nevertheless, he returned with more efficient news.

“Omar tells me if they’re on a trip for the dope, he has a pretty good idea of where to find them. Luckily, he’s here in the resort. He’s picking me up in ten minutes.”

“I’m coming with you.” Announced Lana, immediately standing up.

“Hell, no. This ain’t the place for you. Not when you’re pregnant in particular.” He put his hands on her shoulders as he spoke to her sincerely. “You just stay here and we’ll all be back as soon as possible.”

“He’s right sweetie.” Said Mr. Sayeed. “We won’t be long.”

“What? You’re going?” asked Dalia, astonished.

“I really don’t think it’s a good idea, uncle.” Intervened Mark, politely. “You’d better stay with the ladies. We can’t leave them all alone at such an hour.”

Mr. Sayeed reasoned and figured that it was true. Then Mark excused himself to go get dressed, with Lana right behind him. When they both left, Dalia started again.

“Don’t you think this excursion of theirs is rather inappropriate? I mean, what were they doing at the sea at such a time? And they came back wet, too. Why, it’s there all day long. Can’t they just take a dive when the sun is shining? Did you notice the way they sneaked in? I’m sure they were doing something wrong.”

“He’s her husband, Dalia. What could they possibly be doing wrong?”

“I don’t know; a number of things. Making out …”

“Even that they’re allowed to do. In case you haven’t noticed, she’s already pregnant.”

“Well, then why creep in?”

“Hasn’t it occurred to you that maybe they didn’t wanna annoy us? Wake us up?” Dalia looked at him with contempt. “And don’t you think we have other things to worry about? For instance, our missing daughter?”

With those words, they heard footsteps down the stairs. Soon, Mark appeared in his denims and white t-shirt, with Lana in his arms. Just as they had made their way downstairs, Mark’s cell phone began ringing.

“It’s Omar. He’s here.” He turned to Lana and kissed her. “I gotta go.”

“Be careful.” She yelled back at him as he reached for the door.

“I will. And please, take a bath and wear something thick. We don’t want you catching a cold.”

As he closed the door behind him, Lana excused herself to go upstairs, leaving her parents and aunt behind. Dalia was still enraged, but she finally decided to be silent about it, while Shaheera, who had so far remained as still as the chair she was seated on, suddenly burst into tears.

“Hey, hey, hey.” Said Sayeed, moving gently towards her. Even Dalia felt her need for compassion, to which she replied with a soft pat on the back.

“I’m just so tired.” She began, with sobs interrupting her words. “I can’t take this anymore. I’ve tried everything with him. He just doesn’t respect me enough to obey me.” She turned to face her brother, “he’s really good on the inside, Sayeed. I know it’s hard to believe, but you don’t see the way he takes perfect care of me when I’m sick. It’s just,” she broke down. “… I think he needs a father figure. Someone to fear enough to obey.” She paused for a moment, trying to resolve something in her mind. “If you could just … treat him like he was your own son. Punish him, scold him, beat him, even; do anything you see fit to mend his crooked behavior, ‘cause I’m all out of ideas, here.”

“Of course, Shaheera.” Asserted Dalia, pleased. “I’ve been telling Sayeed to intervene for a long time now, but he felt it wasn’t his place. He didn’t wanna hurt you.”

“I’m not asking, Sayeed. I’m begging. If he were your son, what would you have done to him? You were a wild boy once, you know how he thinks. Just … get me my sweet son back, please.”

 

 
OMAR’S SECOND-HAND FABIA was small, but fast enough to get them flying through the Matrouh road. Mark rode in the front seat, while a third guy, whom Mark couldn’t recognize, was in the back seat.

“Mark, I’d like to introduce you to Kareem who’s about to be our guide on this unusual trip.” Said Omar as he carelessly held the steering wheel with one hand, and adjusted the temperature of the A/C with the other.

“Kareem, if you’re getting my little brother on crack, I’m not sure it would be very nice to meet you.” Said Mark half jokingly.

“Don’t worry.” Kareem replied with a short laugh. “He’s already there; doesn’t need me for anything.”

Mark gave Omar an angry look.

“Relax, I only use it on vacation, and not that much anyway. Just like to know how far they’ve come with the new stuff every now and then.” It didn’t ease Mark’s mind off, but at least it got him to drop that poker face. “Whatever. Kareem over here’s familiar with the guy we’re after.”

“We’re after a guy?” asked Mark, confused.

“From what Omar has told me,” began Kareem, “your sister-in-law’s suspected to be at a drug dealer’s. Now usually, in the NorthCoast, we get our drugs from the nomads on the highway. You know those Bedouins you spot by the side of the road as you’re driving by? Most of them are in fact drug dealers. Today in particular, there’s this guy, Mass`oud, who’s selling new stuff for very fair prices. Almost every junky I know has paid him a visit in the morning. The problem is, after sunset, it gets really dangerous. When darkness prevails, the chance of muggers intervening gets higher. Usually, people won’t go to such places unless they’re really desperate.”

“And where’s this guy we’re looking for, exactly?” asked Mark, uncertain.

“We’re expecting him probably ten kilometers ahead of us. If we don’t find him there, we’ll keep going forward till we get suspicious enough to pull over.”

“And how would we know it’s him? Would you be able to identify him from inside the car?”

“Now that’s the trick. Not just because Omar’s driving on 150 km/h – seriously, Omar; slow down – but also because there are a hell lot of nomads on the road. Some are drug dealers; others are muggers, while there just a few people simply selling their fruits. So we’re gonna need to be very careful with choosing when to get out of the car.”

Mark remained silent for a while, overwhelmed by the bizarre world he had never realized had existed before that night. “But we don’t even know that Sara’s over there. Aren’t we taking a very long shot?”

“Actually, we are. But the thing is: there’s this off-chance that some mugger’s got her. In that case, he could take anything she possesses.” A pause. “Maybe even rape her.”
Mark’s face lit up with fear. “See, that’s what makes this ‘unusual’ trip worth the shot, even if there’s only a one percent chance they’ve got her.”

They remained silent for the next 10 kilometers. Afterwards, Omar was obliged to slow down to 80 km/h so that they’d be able to carefully look for the face they were after. In between the fig trees that covered the desert, they would spot a thin, lifeless Bedouin every now and then. They would almost pull over, trying to take a closer look at him, when Kareem would announce that it’s not the guy they’re looking for. After a while of that, Mark began to suspect Sara had gone to a different guy, possibly one of the numerous they’ve come across. By the kilometer 15, he was beginning to get really hopeless, when all of a sudden; the flashlights fell upon two humans squatting on the side of the road. It didn’t take Mark a long time to recognize Sara as one of them.

“Pull over,” he yelled passionately at Omar, “right away!”

In less than ten seconds, the three of them were running like maniacs out of the car. The moment Sara recognized him, she threw herself in Mark’s arms and began sobbing viciously.

“Oh my God, Mark. Thank God you’re here.” Her face was stained with dirt, her beautiful, straight hair was a mess and her expensive sleeveless top and mini skirt were torn to pieces. A black, loose male’s shirt – which didn’t fit her quite right – was the only decent thing covering her up. Behind her, came Tareq, in a white undershirt and with a face as dirty as Sara’s, yet his was decorated with a few fresh scars. “How did you find us?” she asked looking up at Mark’s face. She was almost as short as her sister; she had to stand on tiptoes to be able to face him.

“Long story. Are you ok?”

“They took away our money, our phones, the jewellery, even the car, and …” she broke down into tears, Tareq stroked her hair from behind, “… they were gonna rape me.”

“What? Did they …?” The words died out at the tip of his mouth.

“No, no. Tareq arrived in time, thank God.” Mark sighed with relief.

“It’s ok.” He said as she buried her face in his chest to nurse her tears again. “You’re safe now, it’s alright. We just have to get you home as soon as possible. Your parents are scared to death back there.”

 

 

 

THEY CAME IN slowly; Mark first, followed by Sara, and then Tareq at the tail. Sara flew immediately to her mother’s arms, with Lana trying to calm her down, while Tareq was surprised to find his uncle approaching him in a very vindictive way. Shaheera’s heart was pounding with fear, she didn’t know neither what had happened nor what was about to befall them.

“Would you mind explaining to me what the hell happened with you two?” Sayeed bellowed at Tareq.

“Uncle, we were …” his voice was almost inaudible, and his words came slowly.

“Speak up, God damn it!” No words. “Are you or are you not back on drugs?”

“Yes, sir.” Tareq bowed down submissively.

“Did you or didn’t you take my daughter to a drug dealer?”

No words again.

“What kind of a question is that Sayeed?” asked Dalia infuriated as she rocked her daughter on her chest. “Are you gonna waste your time stating the facts?”

“Dalia, could you please stay out of this?” Sara’s head moved up her mother’s breast; she looked up for the first time, yet she didn’t speak. In the middle, Lana stood like an idiot, knowing nothing and looking deep into her husband’s worried face trying to get her answers. “Now, listen to me,” Sayeed turned again to his nephew. “We’re all tired of your childish games. You’re a grown man, for God’s sake. Mark’s only a few years older than you and look at him; he’s got a house, a wife and a baby on the way! The way I see it, nothing’s gonna fix you up except for the army.” It fell on Tareq’s ears like lightening falling on a broken tree. He was exempted from the army, being an only child with no brothers. People go to extreme levels to secure an exemption. Could he be so stupid as to throw away his own and join the army? “That’s right. I’m getting you out of college and putting you in the army. And since you don’t have a college certificate, you’ll spend at least three years over there. That should toughen up the brat you’ve become.”

“You can’t do that!” Tareq screamed at his face. “Who do you think you are? You’re not my father! Where were you all those years? You suddenly remembered now that you have a nephew? Just because I have crossed paths with your daughter?”

“Pappy,” Sara called in a weak voice.

“I only stayed away because I thought your mother still had it under control. But after what I’ve seen tonight, there’s no way I’m letting you hurt my sister so. If I don’t do something, you’re gonna end up killing her with your selfish acts. Tell me why I should keep on paying your L.E. 30,000 college tuitions just because you couldn’t get yourself into a state-owned college? And if that’s not enough, you have to keep failing every year, too.” Lana couldn’t remember a time when her father had been more maddened; he was even steamier than the time he found out Nader had broken up with her. “That’s it young man; you’re going to join the army and that’s final.”

“Pappy, just listen to me.” Tried Sara again. This time she was more successful, for he looked her way for the first time. “What happened today’s not Tareq’s fault, I swear. It’s more like … my fault.”

“How come?”

She slowly and hesitantly stood up. “I was out of drugs.” That was the first shock. Even though it was pretty obvious, they all just hoped Sara had gone to the drug dealer just for the experience, not for the dope. “We should’ve gone in the morning, but you were all so anxious expecting Lana and Mark’s arrival. Tareq said we would draw your attention if we leave unaccountably. So, Tareq asked me to be patient; said he would figure something out. Yet, I just couldn’t wait. I sneaked out when you were having dinner. I’ve gone with him to this guy last week; it didn’t seem so bad. I disregarded his warnings of how different it’s like to go at night, especially for a girl.” She paused, trying to grasp the whole situation in. “I was wrong. The man took all the money and said he was gonna go fetch the stuff, he asked me to wait. All of a sudden, another stranger approached me, he started attacking me and … and …” she melted into tears again, this time only Lana sympathized with her. “He began tearing apart my clothes. That was when I realized it was all a set up, they’d conspired against me. I tried to run but couldn’t. Hadn’t Tareq realized what I had done, hadn’t he followed me, I could’ve possibly even died out there. They had a violent fight, out of which the guy came with our cells, our wallets, my diamond earrings and the car keys. We were stranded there. None of the passing cars would take us. That’s why we couldn’t come home.”

“How long have you been on drugs?” Mr. Sayeed asked calmly, looking down on the floor as he spoke, seeing her dim reflection on the white, shiny marble.

“A couple of months.” She finally dared look him in the eye; a moment that didn’t last very long, as it was cut by the vicious slap that befell her already swollen face.

“You and I are leaving for Cairo tomorrow.” He announced with a fearful tone as he pointed at her. “You’re going to a rehab.”

“What? No, I’m not an addict! I can still kick it off on my own.”

“Sure, that’s why you took that THOUGHTLESS,” he screamed the last word out loud, “trip all on your own; because you’re not an addict. You weren’t dying for a fix.”

“Sayeed,” said Dalia, “she deserves to be punished, but not like that. That way you’re punishing us all. What shall people say when they find out our daughter’s at rehab?”

“Silence!” he exclaimed. “We’re leaving first thing in the morning and that’s final. And you,” he now turned around to face Tareq, “are coming with us. Just ‘cause you probably saved my daughter tonight, I’ll only leave it to an ultimatum. But I swear to God, Tareq, if I hear you came just close to a smoke ever again, or if you fail just as little as one subject from now on, I’ll send you to the army. You know I mean it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And don’t ever dream that your mother’s gonna cover up for you the way she used to do in the past. This is all over now.”

“Yes, sir.”

He took one final glance at his wreck of a daughter, then he left for his room.

“I’m very disappointed in you Sara.” Said Dalia looking at her disgustedly.

“Mum, please, I can’t go to rehab.” She knelt down at her mother’s feet, almost kissed her hand.

“I’m gonna do everything I can to make him change his mind, but don’t ever think I’m doing it for you.” She heartlessly disentangled her hand from her daughter’s and followed her husband upstairs.

This left Sara crying loudly on the floor. Tareq reluctantly approached her, with Lana right behind him.

“Are you ok?” she was the first to speak.

Sara shook her head.

“Did he – the mugger –do something to you? I’d understand if you were too scared to say it in front of mum and dad.” Whispered Lana.

“No, he just kissed me; that was all.”

“Then let’s go to your room. You need to get some sleep, and don’t think about anything that’s happened today. Alright?” she slowly nodded, as Lana and Tareq helped her up. They slowly led her to her room.

Later, Lana went downstairs to find Mark; he wasn’t there. She had to climb those tiring steps for the second time simultaneously, doubting if it’s any good for her pregnancy. She opened the door of her room to find him in front of the opened closet, picking up something to wear.

“What are you doing?” she asked with her hand around her stomach, as she closed the door behind her.

“Looking for my pajamas. The salt’s eating up my skin, I feel on fire already.”

“Oh, I totally forgot that you hadn’t taken a shower, yet.” Said Lana approaching him till her arms where wrapped around his neck. “I’m sorry we gave you this headache. If it makes you feel any better, I think mum looked lovingly at you, probably for the first time.”

“Oh, you mean when she spotted us sneaking into the house? Or when I was calling Omar?” Lana smiled, embarrassed. “Yes, I heard what she told you about my drug-dealer-brother. And it’s ok, I know she doesn’t love me and I’ve come to accept it. At least uncle Sayeed does.”

“Well, your mother doesn’t love me either, so we’re even.”

“No, my mother doesn’t treat you the way she does because she doesn’t love you. She treats my sisters in the same way; she’s just a piece of work.”

“A very rare piece.” Lana commented, rather to herself. “But trust me, my mother doesn’t hate you. She treats me in the same way too, and Tante Shaheera, and everybody.”

“Alright, alright. I’ll try to buy that. Now give me a towel. I need to take a freaking bath.” He said giving her a slight spank.

“There.” She handed him the towel, with an extra kiss on the cheek.

“And don’t fall asleep; the Fajr prayer is less than half an hour away.”

“You know who taught me to pray the Fajr at dawn regularly?” she asked as she took a seat on bed, while he had already gone into the bathroom and opened the water.

“Who?”

“Mohammad.”

“Baher?” he came out of the bathroom, shirtless and with wet hands. She nodded laughingly. “Hell, if I had a pound every time I’d seen Baher drunk at dawn, I would’ve been able to buy that house from your father.” She giggled loudly, then rolled up in bed after he had closed the bathroom door behind him.

Expectedly, by the time he was out, she was already snoring. He had always loved the way she’d fall asleep so quickly like a child. She was still in her denims; he had to pull those off of her.

“Lana,” he called as he unbuttoned her shirt and rolled the pajama top through her head, “c’mon, wake up; it’s dawn.”

She tiredly moaned.

“Don’t you wanna pray? C’mon.” she didn’t open her eyes until he had her fully changed in her pajamas.

“What?”

He slipped an arm under her neck. “It’s time for the Fajr prayer. C’mon,” he gently dragged her to the sink in the bathroom, “let’s go wash for ablution.”

It wasn’t until she got out of the bathroom and wore her Isdal, which was like a long galabiya with a headscarf attached to it, that she became fully conscious. After praying, they both jumped on the bed, starving for as much sleep as they could get.

“Lana.” Uttered Mark, just when she began to believe he was asleep.

“Yeah?”

“Is your father really gonna put Sara in rehab?”

“If it’d been me, I would’ve told you ‘absolutely’. But Sara’s got her own special way of making him change his mind.” Answered Lana with closed eyes. “Bet we’re gonna wake up tomorrow morning to find them happily having breakfast together as if nothing’s happened; especially that mum’s on her side.”

When they woke up the following morning to have that exact scene meeting their eyes, Lana slowly stood on tiptoes and whispered in Mark’s ear:

“What did I tell you?”

 

 

 

Chapter 17: Out of my mind

If Lana’s life changed dramatically after marriage, Tonya’s life couldn’t have been anymore like  it had been back when she was still Miss Tonya Al-Shareef. She still went jogging first thing in the morning, had her breakfast while watching TV, practiced dancing for almost and hour, put something together in the kitchen as a small contribution to dinner (at her parent’s house, her mum usually prepared dinner, while now at her new house, the cook would prepare dinner), went shopping every couple of days and listened to some heartwarming music before going to bed.

Perhaps the one thing that had changed was her place of residence; now she was living in Baher’s house with his father. Despite Baher’s strong refusal towards this, Mr. Ali made it perfectly clear that he wasn’t going to give him a house of his own. The way he saw it: the house was huge and he was alone, and Mohammad was going to take it sooner or later after his father’s death, so why live somewhere else? Tonya didn’t disapprove; better yet, she saw this as a crucial part of her plan. This would be one of the things that shall make Lana wish she hadn’t married Mark. Tonya could tell how much Lana hated seeing her (Tonya) better than herself, richer than herself. If anything, that was probably the reason why Mohammad eventually gave in.

His father gave them the largest room in the house, more like a suite. Spacious and elegant as it was, it still had the air of a teenager’s room, for Mohammad moved his guitar, amplifier and record collection in. And that wasn’t the only stuff Tonya had to get used to being around, since Mohammad announced that Sugar would be sleeping with them! Neither being cats’ best friend nor worst enemy, it didn’t take her long to get adjusted to the fur flying in the air, the smell of her litter in their bathroom or her endless meows in the middle of the night. After a while, Tonya began to get used to her, and maybe even enjoy her company.

As for her relation with her husband, it wasn’t as successful as that with the cat. The only difference in their relationship now from their relationship before marriage was sleeping in the same room. And even in that aspect things weren’t so great, since they slept in separate beds. They spent their entire honeymoon celibate; all they did during those two weeks in the Far East was plot their revenge. Mohammad sometimes thought about making a move, yet he was always afraid of being rejected, especially that he saw no encouragement from Tonya’s side.

It wasn’t until they visited Lana and Mark’s home for the first time. Had there been one thing both of them saw as bright as the sun that night, it was Lana and Mark’s clingy habit. Lana nearly sat on Mark’s lap at one instant. And she wouldn’t take one step without giving him a kiss on the cheek first; it was like a confirmation of her every movement.

That night, Mohammad found Tonya dressed in a rather revealing nightgown instead of her regular pajamas. He was even more surprised to find her taking a seat right next to him on his fold-out couch.

“I was thinking,” she began less steadily than she had probably wanted to be, “that maybe since we’re already married, it’s time we start acting like a married couple. I mean, why should they have all the fun while we have all the misery? It’s the least of our rights.”

And that’s how it happened. Nevertheless, neither of them could feel any passion throughout the whole thing; not just the lovemaking part but their entire marriage. It was like they were performing roles in a silly play. At times, Mohammad would feel like he was just a puppet whose strings were in Tonya’s hands; she got to move him around whichever way she pleased, made him do all sorts of things that she thought had to be done. As much as he hated that, there were those times when he fantasized about Lana while Tonya was in his arms, that was when he would have wanted her to get hold of her strings, control him, strangle him, even , if she should, just to stop him from his obsessive delusions.

It was one of those times when Tonya popped up a staggering question:

“If there was one thing you could do differently about your relationship with Lana, what would that be?” she said as she looked at the ceiling. She was lying right next to him in bed, covered up with the blanket and with her hands resting on her chest.

“I would’ve called to check on her when she was in New York.” Replied Mohammad after a moment of consideration.

“What, you didn’t call back then?” asked Tonya turning to him, shocked.

“I checked on her, through Mark, and you.” He said slowly looking downwards.

“Still, you had to call her. Let her know that you cared.”

“Well, if it had been me, I wouldn’t have wanted her to call me. I wouldn’t have wanted to talk to her when I was so weak and down. I thought … I thought at such moments, people just prefer to be alone, at least ’till they’re strong enough to face the world again.”

“She didn’t want to be alone.” Remarked Tonya sarcastically. “And she found a hell of a company, too. God, Baher.” She still called him Baher when she was excited. She was trying to get used to calling him Mohammad, since it was absolutely ridiculous for a wife to call her husband by his family name. “You should’ve traveled to her. If you had done so, nothing would’ve been the way it is right now.”

“Well, I didn’t and that’s that.” Said Mohammad a bit worked up.

“What about you?” he asked after taking a moment to calm down. “What would you have done differently with Mark?”

“You know what?” she looked at him as she spoke so expressively, “Nothing; I would’ve done absolutely nothing differently. The way I see it, I didn’t mess up anything. I mean, I saw him, I liked him, I started showing him that I liked him and he started showing me that he liked me back, and before you know it: we were an item. Things were going so smoothly, just like a sweet dream. All until they went to London. I don’t know what the hell happened over there, but he came back totally different. He was cold and distant, and then he broke up with me.” Her words really got into Mohammad’s head, for he seemed so thoughtful. “Did it change things between you?” Asked Tonya, noticing the change in him. “The London trip, I mean.”

“As a matter of fact it did, but to the better. She left angry and bitter and returned tender and sweet.” They both thought about the mystery for a while, then Baher said:

“Forget about that. Can’t we get them out of our heads for just one second?”

“I wish we could.” rejoined Tonya, moving out of bed. “but as fate would have it, I’m meeting with her in half an hour.” She headed to the closet.

“Where to?” asked Mohammad, stretching his arms in the empty bed.

“The usual; shopping and then maybe dinner.” Bellowed Tonya with a distant voice coming from the closet.

“By the way,” she added coming out of the closet, fully dressed, “there’s something I wanted to tell you.”

“What?”

“It’s late.”

“What is it?”

“My period.”

Mohammad looked at her with raised eyebrows.

“Ok, I had a test and it came back positive.”

“Oh.”

“So I was thinking, with the hectically insane lives we’re leading, the last thing we need right now is a poor baby who would pay for our and their mistakes.” She looked at him in search of confirmation. “Don’t you think so?”

“I guess.” He replied hesitantly.

“So you’re with me on the abortion thingy?”

“I think it should be for the best.”

“Good,” she said picking up her purse. “I’ll tell you when I set a date, then.” And with that, she left.

 

 

 

IN LESS THAN three hours, she was back. Mohammad was trying some guitar riffs when she violently opened the door. From her red, angry face and her bright, burning eyes, Mohammad could tell something went wrong. And he didn’t need to ask, for she would tell him anyways.

“Change of plans.” She indignantly announced.

“What?” He asked laying the guitar down.

“We’re keeping the baby.”

“What? Why the hell would we do …”

“Lana’s pregnant.”

 

Chapter 16: Annie

Lana looked gravely at the guy who was squinting in front of her fridge. She was standing at his back, so if there was one thing she could clearly see, it was that penny-sized hole near his pants’ back pocket. The hole kept widening and shrinking as he moved the fridge vigorously; now plugging it in and then plugging it out.

“How many times did you say the electricity cut off yesterday?” he asked turning his neck slightly around to make it clear that he was addressing her.

“At least five times simultaneously.” Replied Lana, with her small, white hand covering her nose to prevent the smell of sweat (coming from the two dark spots under his armpits) from going into her nose. “It would go off, and in less than a second it would go on again. And then it would go off.”

He gave a nod and turned his neck back to face the fridge. Lana eyed him with interest mingled with a little bit of disgust. His fat physique, bald head and squealing voice weren’t all that made her deplore him. Neither was it his constant desire and endless trials to make it seem like he understood everything that had to do with her fridge. It was the fact that she had to spend her morning around him instead of being in the club or maybe out shopping. It had only been three months since she got married. And it was still difficult for her to get adjusted to her new life.

Nowadays, she couldn’t make one single decision without thinking of all the possible consequences it might have upon her marriage and husband. She had to call her mother-in-law every morning and check on her. That’s besides visiting her at least once every week. At first, those visits were more like a burden on Lana, especially when Leila, her mother-in-law, would start her talk about Mark and all the things he loved and the things he preferred. Even though Leila was probably only reminiscing about her cherished son’s childhood, Lana always took her words as some kind of lecture on how she should treat Mark. Nevertheless, Lana was beginning to get used to Leila’s annoying habits. Besides, she was now becoming great friends with Mark’s youngest sister, Maya. Particularly that they seemed to have the same interests, for Maya was very fond of dancing and she was now a freshman in college, faculty of Arts, CairoUniversity. Whenever those two were together, they just cliqued.

Mai, who was only two years younger than Lana, was the one everybody expected Lana to befriend. However, she struck Lana as some kind of a loner. She would spend most of her time either reading or studying. Now that she was in her third year in college, studying computer science, Lana realized she had to study a lot. But she also realized there was a part of her that focused on studying as an excuse to stay away from people.

As for Omar, he was the strangest of all of Leila’s kids. A devoted playboy, he probably dated all the girls in his class and even two classes up. Despite his bumpy voyage in college, once he got to work he seemed to change completely. He worked in the stocks, besides a full-time job in the bank. Yet, he always managed to find time for the ladies. Generally, Lana liked him; thought his reckless way of life was somewhat appealing, but he never struck her as a dependable man. She always believed that Mark was ten times better as a husband. But she still enjoyed the part of her duties that involved having him as her companion at least once a week.

Be that as it may, all the marriage duties which came with the territory were nothing compared with what she was doing currently;  taking care of all the house-related problems all on her own. Never in her life had Lana escorted a technician before; she didn’t even know how to behave around those people. Not even her mother, or father, had to take care of such dirty businesses back at her parents’ house. Things just seemed to get miraculously fixed back there, or perhaps it was the servants who took care of those kinds of chores. But now, she didn’t even have a full-time maid, and Mark made it perfectly clear that he couldn’t possibly take a day off just to hear the technician’s diagnosis, when Lana, who was entirely free, could do it instead.

“I’m sorry ma’am.” Said the technician after a full hour of complete inspection and failed trials. “It seems dead to me.”

“What?” cried Lana, taking her hands out of her back pocket, for this is where they had remained for most of that hour. “C’mon, this is a Busch. It can’t just die. For God’s sake, it’s brand new. Can’t we do anything to fix it?”

“Of course you can fix it.” he answered very confidently. “But it would cost you something in the neighborhood of seven, maybe eight thousand pounds. See,” he said trying to explain the problem with making shapes of his hands and fingers, “the turbulence in the electricity blew off the system. So fixing it would be almost like getting a brand new fridge, especially that you know how expensive its spare parts are. I’m so sorry, this isn’t usually the case, but you were very unfortunate with this fridge. I can see for myself that it’s as good as new.”

“What about the guarantee?”

“You do have the policy, but it’s not stamped.”

“So?”

“So it’s almost useless. It should’ve been stamped by the retailer who sold it to you. Or if you still have the receipt,” Lana disappointedly shook her head. Her father would throw those away as soon as he got out of the shop. He couldn’t have kept it.

“And if we fix it, it would be brand new?” asked Lana.

“Certainly! Shall I take it with me to get it fixed?”

Lana excused herself for a moment and went to the bedroom. She called Mark and told him about what had taken place.

“Shall I tell him to take it?” she enquired rather rhetorically.

“I don’t know, Lana. We could buy another new fridge for less than this amount of money.”

“Yeah, but this is a Busch. I mean, we bought it for twelve thousand pounds, it would only be fair to pay seven thousand to get it fixed.” Reasoned Lana.

“Well, let’s just think about that for a while, shall we? Give me a day or two and tell the guy we’ll get back to him later. Alright?”

So Lana passed the message to the technician and then she escorted him out of the house. Next, she called her mother to tell her about all that has happened – for Lana was in the habit of vividly describing to her mother every tiny event of her life – and asked for her opinion on the subject.

“What were you thinking, Lana?” said Dalia over the phone, “you can’t possibly get it fixed with the genuine spare parts for a fairer price. Tell your husband we’ll pay for it if he doesn’t have the cash right now. You can’t throw away a brand new Busch just because fixing it was a bit pricy!”

WHEN MARK CAME home that night, Lana was in the bedroom reading. In fact, she wasn’t exactly reading as much as she was going through some old magazines. As she heard the key move inside the door, she quickly rushed outside with the magazine in her hand. But just as she was about to walk in to the living room and welcome her husband home, she heard him speak with another man. Being in her nightshirt, she paced back into the bedroom and waited till she heard the apartment’s door close.

Coming out on tiptoes, with the rolled up magazine still in her hand, Lana moved cautiously until she was able to tell that the stranger was gone. Before she got the chance to ask Mark who this guy was, she saw a huge cardboard-box in the kitchen. She understood that the stranger was the one who carried the box into the house.

“What is that?” she asked kissing Mark on the cheek.

“It’s our new fridge.” He replied smilingly wrapping his arms around her waist and drawing her closer to him. Then he looked at her face in wait of the joyous expression he expected to find.

“You bought a new fridge?” she said moving away from him and roaming around the cardboard box, trying to read what was written on it.

“I figured we …”

Universal!” exclaimed Lana finally coming across the fridge’s brand.

“What’s wrong with it?” asked Mark, sensing the attitude.

“It’s Egyptian-made; that’s what’s wrong with it! We’ve been around a German fridge all this time, and now we suddenly have to get used to dealing with an Egyptian product with all its faultiness and malfunctions?”

“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, our great, all German fridge is dead; after only less than three months of usage.”

“Exactly, so how long do you think this is gonna last? And by the way, the fridge isn’t dead. It just needs to get fixed.”

“For eight thousand pounds!”

“Pappy’s gonna pay for it. I mean, till you can pay him back.”

Mark impatiently looked at the ceiling as he wiped his face with both his hands. He would’ve snapped at her had he spoken at that particular instant, so he remained silent till he was able to keep his cool. “Lana, we can’t just turn to your parents every time we face a problem.”

“Consider it a wedding gift.”

“Another wedding gift? C’mon, Lana, I think your father’s proved his generosity already. And as much as I am grateful for this generosity, I’m gonna have to pass this one.” He paused a while to breathe. “Now, we already got ourselves a new fridge. And if we sell the old one, we’ll manage.”

He then moved to the fridge and began taking it out of its box. The sound of the cardboard in friction with the nylon surrounding the fridge failed at making Lana look at the new device. She just stood in the living room, with a distant look toward the window. Mark noticed.

“Check this out,” he began, trying to break the ice, “It’s 25-feet wide. That’s 7-feet wider than the old one.” Lana cast off a careless glance towards the neglected object. “And it also comes with a water dispenser. Didn’t you want one of those?” he asked looking at her. She saw in his eyes that he was begging for acceptance, and she complied. Slowly moving into the kitchen, she touched the aluminum exterior of the fridge. “Come here; let me show you how to use it.” he said smiling.

MARK WAS IN the habit of reading in bed before going to sleep. Every night, he would spend almost an hour reading anything before putting the lights out. It helped clear his mind and prepare him for a sound sleep. So usually, after the lights go out, Mark would be in no time snoring.

Nevertheless, that night, Lana didn’t hear the snoring begin after darkness prevailed. Instead, she felt Mark’s hand on her shoulder. She was sleeping with her back facing him, yet she was able to tell his every-second movement. His hand kept running around her body till it reached her waist. That’s when she felt him getting closer, with his hand stroking her chest. She had been trying to keep silent all night long, but this final move sort of triggered all her canned acrimony. She burst into loud tears.

“What’s the matter?” asked Mark startled as he sat in bed and turned the lights on. “Is everything ok?”

“Please Mark,” she began with a choked-under-tears voice, “if you love me, please just return that fridge and let pappy fix our old one, please.”

“I … I don’t understand. Haven’t we settled that already?”

“You don’t get it. I can’t just have people come into the house and see this. My mum alone is gonna go mad. And Tonya, oh my God! Tonya’s coming by tomorrow! If she sees it she’s gonna start pitying me in her all-so-considerate manner. It’s just eight thousand pounds Mark, please.”

“I don’t have them! Alright?” cried Mark, finally snapping. “All I had was the money with which I got the fridge tonight. I was gonna buy myself some new clothes but I thought, ‘hey, this fridge thing’s really bugging her, so I gotta prioritize.’”

“And I’m telling you, you don’t have to pay anything. You just let pappy …”

“I’m not letting anyone pay ANYTHING.” Screamed Mark so loudly that Lana fearfully trembled. “Pity! Now people are gonna pity you? For God’s sake, Lana, this is a four-thousand-pound fridge; it’s no junk.”

For a few minutes, Lana remained right next to him in bed, all shivering and crying. This time he didn’t apologize; didn’t pat her on the shoulder; didn’t even ask her to sleep. He just rolled around in bed with his back turned towards her. Gaining enough strength to walk on her feet, Lana quietly moved to the kitchen. She stood there in the middle, staring at the new fridge.

“Stupid, stupid fridge.” She cried kicking it.

Then, she sat on the kitchen bar and started going through everything placed there. She came across the magazine she was reading when Mark came home. It was the issue where her wedding pictures were published. She viciously grabbed it and began flipping its pages till she reached her wedding.  A very happy couple with fire in their eyes and love printed all over their faces stared back at her. She tried to look for all the love she had felt on that day; she found it all there. Yet the dreams weren’t really fulfilled. The life she had imagined to live with Mark was so different from the life she was currently leading. Unlike what she had anticipated, she didn’t have a job. And as much as she hated to admit it, money matters were causing a bit of an issue between them. And there were also the people’s expectations, especially Tonya and Sara’s; every time she got around those two, they would start talking about how beautiful her life ought to be now that she had married the love of her life, congratulating her on being able to come across material differences so largely. It all burnt her up inside; that she constantly failed at making her dreams come true. First, it had been the dancing, but screwing this up wasn’t her fault. She had adopted her marriage as her new dream; that was where she planned on shining and reaching the stars. However, there were times when she felt it was so challenging to move forward. And that night topped all her hard moments.

Then she remembered her mother’s words; how she had predicted that Lana wouldn’t be able to live happily with Mark due to his financial situation. She hated to be that materialistic. Even if it was a fact, she still wouldn’t admit it.

Her eyes rested once and for all on that detested fridge, and for the first time, she saw it in a different light. She saw Mark, walking out of work so exhausted and in desperate need of rest, yet making his way to the shop to buy the fridge. She saw his not-so-rich wardrobe, with many old, out-fashioned clothes and she saw how much that wardrobe must have needed refreshing. And most importantly, she saw him foreseeing the look on her face when seeing the new fridge – a look of relief, happiness and satisfaction, and how that look would’ve been worth all his trouble. And lastly, she saw her own reaction; ruthless and ungrateful as it was and saw how strongly she had hurt him.

With the tears still in her eyes, Lana ran to the bedroom. She found him lying there in bed, just like she had left him, but she could tell that he wasn’t yet asleep. Kneeling down on the floor at his bedside, she slowly grabbed his hand, all masculine and full of veins, and kissed it.

“I’m sorry.” She whispered truly remorsefully.

Even though it was dark, she could see his eyes open. They looked so bright; perhaps it was the tears that made them shine so. “I can never fully describe to you how much I hate myself right now.” She said pushing his straight hair backwards. “But I only hope you would have a heart big enough to forgive me.” Her hand was now on his cheek, which was so hot (probably with rage). His hand caught hers off guard and drew it to his lips. He engraved a tender kiss upon it. Lana sighed in relief. He then pulled her into bed and took her into his arms.

 

Chapter 15: Shine On

 

There were days when Lana woke up, opened her eyes and slowly got out of bed to make coffee, and then she thought about her life and what’s to be done with it. That’s because Lana couldn’t think, remember, calculate or approximate without those little atoms of caffeine going through her body and filling up her stomach.

However, this was not one of those days. This was one of the days when Lana’s pupils would widen the moment her eyes would open up; when it would take her less than a second to see things clearly, to realize what exactly has been done with her life. Then, she would jump out of bed, from intolerable excitement. And when she’d drink her coffee, it would be basically to cool herself down with a hot, soothing drink. And what could give her that feeling better than her own wedding day?

“Tonya!” she screamed running across the kitchen the second she heard the bell ring. It was indeed Tonya, in her denims and with a dress on her arm. Lana had to wait till the maid who had opened the door took the dress from Tonya so that she’d leap into her arms.

“Oh, thank God. Tonya, you’re here.”

“What’s the matter?” asked Tonya gently pulling her away to see her face.

“Sara’s still asleep and mum says I won’t have enough time to get ready. She’s already calling people and telling them that the wedding’s at five o’clock instead of three.”

“Hey, just relax, alright?” she took a deep breath, and so did Lana. “Now, is the dress ready?” Lana nodded. “Is the veil ready?” Lana nodded. “Have you shaved?” Lana nodded. “Have you confirmed with the hair dresser?” Lana nodded. “The make up artist?” Lana nodded. “Ok, that’s one, two …” she was counting on her fingers, “Five. No, they’re six. What are we missing? What … Your shoes! Oh my God. How could I forget? Of course it’s your shoes. Are they ready?” For the last time, this time probably more chilled than before, Lana nodded. “Ok, then. Let’s get down to business.

“We still gotta wake your lazy sister, though.” Added Tonya as they were climbing the stairs.

THE ENTIRE DAY was spent in preparations; the hairdresser and the make up artist tended to Lana, Sara, Tonya and Dalia. So, it wasn’t a short while before they had the time to get dressed. Between every couple of brushes on her cheeks or blows in her hair, Lana would peep out of her bedroom window to look at the garden being completely set up. The wedding was to take place in the garden. And even though Lana was the one who proposed the idea, now the thought of it was scaring her to death.

“What if it rains?” she asked as Tonya was zipping her dress. Dalia was dressing Sara up in her room, so the two of them were alone.

“Lana, it’s June. It’s never gonna rain.” Said Tonya as she tied the white ribbon around Lana’s waist.

“You’re right.” Lana was silent for a while. “God, it’s June.” She resumed again, obviously very worked up. “How could I be so stupid as to have an open air wedding in June? It’s too freaking hot.”

“Lana, relax, will you?” Cried Tonya with her hands around Lana’s waist.

Lana acquiesced. She decided to shut up for a while and moved instead to the jewellery department. She reached out for the jewellery box on her hairdresser and slowly opened it. It had two sets of jewellery; one was a butterfly-shaped diamond pendant with matching earrings and the other was a pearl necklace also with matching earrings and bracelet.

“You’ve managed to make me change my mind about my wedding, Lana.” Said Tonya as she was fixing her hair. “Up till this morning I wanted to have it done in the open air. I thought maybe Mohammad’s house would be a good choice. You know, his garden is almost as big as yours, so it could host a nice wedding. But after your pack of worries and insecurities, I’m thinking maybe a hotel won’t be so bad. Anyway, I haven’t officially discussed it with Mohammad yet. He still refuses to tell me what he prefers.”

Lana gave her an attentive smile. She was going to make a proposal, but she decided that maybe it wasn’t her place to do it. So she just returned to her jewellery.

“Which one do you think I should wear?”

“The butterflies.” Replied Tonya, rather spontaneously. “There’s nothing Mark loves better than butterflies.” She didn’t think about the words until they were already spoken. And when they were out, she realized that she had messed up, big time. Yet, she couldn’t take it back. And why should she feel impelled to take it back? Even if it made Lana’s face color, it was a fact; nothing could possibly change it. Therefore, she decided to finish off what she had already started. “I used to date him back in the day, and I can’t help but remember how fond he was of butterflies.” She slowly added.

After a short pause of awkward, uncomfortable silence, Lana said:

“Butterflies it is, then.”

Tonya helped her to put them on. Next, she readjusted Lana’s veil and tiara. Finally, she gently held Lana’s face between her hands and made her face the mirror.

“Now you’re perfect.” Lana politely smiled. “Ok, then. I’ll go downstairs and see how things are going, whether or not the groom arrived and maybe figure out how much longer you have to wait here. Alright?” Tonya kept smiling back at her even when she turned away and moved to the door.

“Hey, Tonya,” Called Lana, still seated by the hairdresser, stopping her, “I think you should stick to the hotel. For your wedding, I mean.”

“Oh really? You think that would be better?” asked Tonya, a bit pleased with Lana’s interest in her affairs.

I happened to date Mohammad. And if I remember correctly, he wasn’t a big fan of surprises. And clearly, an open-air wedding; full of surprises.”

MARK WAS STANDING in the hall when Tonya went downstairs. She couldn’t take her eyes off his fluffy, fair hair when she first set eyes upon him that day. Then she moved her eyes to his black tuxedo, and his bow tie. His face was red and his eyes shyly looked back with a nervous glance. She couldn’t remember him looking more appealing than he looked at that moment. Then she remembered: it was his wedding day, and she wasn’t the one in the white dress. And that struck her so coarsely, even more harshly than the sight of Mohammad standing right next to Mark with his hand on Mark’s shoulder. Its blow was so hard on her that she wasn’t even able to face the excruciating truth: that her fiancé was standing right in front of her eyes and yet she couldn’t see one single attractive feature in him. While she saw every feature of his best friend, his groom-to-be best friend, as breathtaking. She was about to scream, what is she doing to herself? But her thoughts were interrupted by Lana’s father, whom she noticed by her shoulder.

“Is our Barbie ready, yet? ‘Cause the maa’zoun is here and we should probably get started.”

“She’s ready.” Said Tonya looking down at her entangled hands. “I’ll go get her.”

In a few minutes, all the noise in the hall came to an end, and the violins started playing very tunefully. All eyes were turned upon the stairs; down descended the princess of the entire ceremony. In her sleeveless, white dress, tightening up at the chest and loosening down the waist, with a wide, white ribbon separating both parts, Lana couldn’t look more majestic. However, in Mark’s eyes; she looked simply angelic. The sight of her in that way made him remember the time he first saw her dance. He could see that pretty, diffident smile on her face, that same smile he would only see when she danced. After she stopped dancing, he thought that smile would disappear from his life. He knew it was a smile which expressed her utmost pleasure, and it pained him to think that he couldn’t whatsoever manage to draw it upon her face. But now the smile was back, and his heart leaped out of his chest when he watched it widen across her face, making her look all innocent and childish.

She was carefully seated next to her father, who was sitting on the maa’zoun’s right and who, in turn, had Mark sitting on his left. First, the maa’zoun got out some papers which had been prepared earlier by Lana and Mark; papers that legalized their marriage and recorded their marriage conditions. All they had to do now was sign them. And being signed, the maa’zoun stretched out his hand and Mr. El Masry put his hand upon it and then Mark put his hand on Mr. El Masry’s. Then the three hands were covered with a handkerchief. Doing that, the marriage ceremony began, with both Mark and Mr. El Masry, on behalf of Lana, repeating the wedding vows after the maa’zoun. When it was over, women gave out the joyous sound known in Arabic as a zaghrouta, and Dalia came over with the wedding ring. Mark slowly took Lana’s hand and pushed the ring through her finger. It was a beautiful, solitaire ring; even though the rock wasn’t that big, it looked so enchanting. Then they helped each other switch their wedding rings from the right hand to the left one.

Being finished, they greeted the maa’zoun and moved, followed by their parents, siblings and guests, out to the garden. That was when the fire works started going off, the glitter started flowing around and the slow music started playing. It was a moment to love and cherish forever. A moment that made both of them, as he looked into her brown, glimmering eyes and she looked into his green, cheery eyes, forget all about the tension they’ve been living in ever since their engagement. They forgot about his mother’s disapproval of the wedding program – wanting a real oriental Zaffa with the drums and the bagpipes, and of her mother’s disapproval on their place of residence – feeling that the apartment was too small for her daughter to live in. They forgot about the fights they’ve had, the hardships they’ve lived through and the obstacles they’ve faced. If there was one thing they both kept coming back to, it surely was their little kiss at sunrise. It was the only time they ever kissed – excluding of course that kiss in London – and they both couldn’t believe that they could taste this feeling again and not have to feel guilty about it. Life seemed so bright in their eyes, and for a while they seemed to be living in one of those love songs they used to patronize.

The time for cutting the cake came up, and their rectangular-shaped, four-level wedding cake made their mouths water as they cut it together with the same wish: that they should live in happiness and never part. At that time it seemed so ridiculous for them to wish for such a thing, for they couldn’t possible see any reason why they shouldn’t live happily ever after.

They were called, afterwards, to the dance floor for their first dance. The music started playing and their bodies moved closer. When she rested her face against Mark’s chest, feeling his strong muscles contract with nervousness, his breathing get louder and louder, Lana could hardly believe that she was in his arms. They were almost levitating; it felt as if they were dancing on a cloud up in the sky and everything else around them disappeared; all the things they had to give up to be married, all the sacrifices they had to make, all the hearts they had to break; everything, except for the beating of their own, excited hearts.

BEING SO ABSORBED, Lana couldn’t notice Tonya’s sudden disappearance. Nadia, who was watching the happy couple with a pinch of bitterness, noticed her sister’s escape. She glanced at Mohammad to see if Tonya was with him, and that made him realize that Tonya was missing. Nadia’s mind became less troubled when she watched Mohammad exiting the crowd and taking off to look for her sister.

He almost skirted around the entire house until he found her hiding by the shade of some abandoned tree by the back door. She was facing the wall and her arm was covering her face. He could tell that she was crying.

“Tonya, are you alright?” he asked dubiously touching her back. He twitched when the tip of his fingers got in contact with her bare back. Her strapless dress exposed it all.

She slowly turned around and faced him, and contrary to what he’d expected of her, he saw her eyes red with tears. “I can’t stand it Mohammad. Something inside me kept telling me that this day would never come. Despite all, I somehow thought I would never have to go through it. But now it’s happening, and I just don’t know how the hell I’m supposed to overcome it.” she spoke in-between sobs.

“But we have a plan.”

“To hell with our plan!” she screamed as she stamped her foot. “God, I’m just … I’m choking, Mohammad.” She threw herself in his arms. And he was extremely receptive. He kept patting her shoulder and going through her hair, thinking about their own wedding night. He knew they would never be as happy as Lana and Mark were at that moment, that they would never be so sincere about their first dance. Yet him marrying Tonya somehow seemed inevitable. She was the only girl he’d been with for the past three years, and he knew almost everything about her. Since marrying someone he loved was no longer an option for him, Tonya was the best wife he could currently think of. And he knew she felt the same way about him.

Nevertheless, despite his agony due to seeing Lana in Mark’s arms instead of his, he couldn’t help but ache when he saw Tonya crying so hard over Mark. If there was one thing he knew for sure at that particular instant, it was that he hated Mark, and that he couldn’t wait to take his revenge.

Chapter 14: Tears and Rain

Rain

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.

 

 

Tears

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?”

 

Rain

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.

 

 

Tears

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.