Behind White Walls

Khadija kicks off her sandals and props her tired feet on Sitto’s wooden chair. Her face has aged since this morning. Zamalek has left creases in her forehead and hungry brown eyes have beat her cheeks hollow. My cousin unwraps her long blue skirt and lets her legs breathe. Thick palm trees laced with beads of sweat. She points at her knees and laughs. They are two shades lighter than her face. She cannot remember the last time they saw the street. The last time the only thing following the shake in her hips was sunlight. Or the last time Cairo’s open air asked her to dance and mid-July love was not a secret. Khadija rubs Morrocan oil in circles around her ankles. My Auntie’s old kettle whistles in the kitchen. Before I know it, it is nighttime in the window. Mosquitos and satellites glitter in the dusted sky. I have already forgotten about Khadija’s knees. They have gone again beneath her nightgown, with nothing but a small plate of roasted nuts and a chipped ceramic ashtray to remind me of their color.

*

Summers feel like something out of a film when Baba comes home. During the schoolyear, Cairo feels like a refrigerated cantaloupe I have no appetite for, chopped up in large pieces my lips never seem to fit around. But then May melts into June and Baba is back from America, with fresh stories and flavors of gum I never even knew existed. Last year he took Latifa and I out for ice cream, air, and apologies. Said he was sorry for phoning us twice throughout the entire schoolyear. That he was sorry we had to live here with Khaltu Naglaa instead of with him in New Jersey. And again, sorry that Mami is gone. Latifa is too young to understand. She thinks death is a simple trip to God’s garden, and that our mother will soon return with a bouquet of wild red roses. No one tells her that cancer rips rosebushes out from the root. That it brings you to your knees in prayer just so it can take your entire life away the minute you close your eyes. Before you can wash the dishes you promised you’d take care of, and long before you can say goodbye.

 

The doorbell rang three times on a warm Wednesday afternoon. It was five past four and Latifa was watching her favorite cartoon whilst refusing to finish her French homework.

“I’ll get it,” I offered. Speaking to myself makes me feel like one of those dramatic women from the black and white films Khadija’s always watching.

“Ah, my sweet girl. How fast you grow months at a time!”

Baba squeezed my shoulders tight, planted a kiss on my ear, and moved out of the door frame. “There is someone I’d like you to meet. Can you say hello, Jamila? This is your big sister!”

From behind my father I saw a small figure peer out, still clutching onto the back of his faded jeans. She was around the same height as Latifa, only much skinnier and with big hazel eyes. Baba stepped into the apartment and left the girl with me by the door, mumbling something about letting us have girl time.

“My sister Latifa is inside. If you want, you can watch cartoons with her. But I’m busy right now.”

My voice sounded foreign and firm. I liked the way it left my body; you could almost feel the full stops after every phrase. There in the doorway Jamila stood still, thin arms by her side and no expression on her face. I decided to leave it at that.

Over dinner the five of us ate koshari and Baba rambled on about American television. “You see the strangest things,” he said with a mouthful of peppered rice. “There’s a hotline now, sorta like a number you can dial, if you’re feeling lonely and need to talk about your feelings. Hah!”

Under the table, I took a black ink pen out of my pocket and wrote slowly and subtly on the inside of my arm: l o n e l y h o t l i n e. No one brought Mami up. No one asked about the girl, or who her mother was. We simply ate koshari and laughed at Baba’s stories. I didn’t find any of it funny, but Khadija told me to laugh whenever a man made jokes. Especially, she’d said, when they’re older and have feloos. I didn’t like thinking of Baba as any other older man with money, but with Jamila sat on his right, picking at Khaltu Naglaa’s food like a queen that’s been served muck, I hated him. I didn’t care that he stopped coming here. It was us who needed to leave. Latifa and I. This was not family, and certainly not home.

Baba left that Wednesday evening and said he’d try to see us once more before his flight back to New Jersey in a couple of weeks. I did not have to ask if he would be taking us out for ice cream. By this point, saying goodbye to someone I was sure I wouldn’t see again was like combing through Latifa’s hair: ritual and painstaking, but ultimately leaving me grateful. Closure isn’t always handed to you on a silver platter. So when it is, I accept.

Weeks passed and Khaltu Naglaa’s kettle kept whistling with every dawn. I did not pray five times a day like she said I should, but I listened to the kettle and thought about my body. Just two months ago, I was a whole bra size smaller. I had to squeeze into it every morning before school until my back began to ache. That’s when I went into Khadija’s room and took a pretty blue one, with a ribbon in the middle, from the drawer under her bed. When the kettle whistled and Khaltu Naglaa got up to fix her tea, I would peer down my shirt and admire my baby blue ribbon bra. I am growing and changing, even when no one is watching. Especially when no one is watching. Somewhere inside me, this felt like prayer.

 

“Ohhhh, I wanna dance with somebody! I wanna feel the heat with some-boday!”

Khadija’s music flooded out of the bathroom with steam and the smell of vanilla the minute she opened the door. She came out in a towel, dripping water from her long black hair all over the ceramic floor. I loved watching her use a comb. It was like a fine-toothed instrument, pulling music out of her head and tucking it behind her ears. She sighed dramatically and sat next to me by the piano. The piano was always a special place for us, Khadija and I. Before she started working and talking on the phone for hours on the weekend, Khadija would sit me down by the piano and teach me everything she knew. She always said that a woman of art was the most seductive of them all. I don’t know that I cared much for seduction, but if it gave me that fire in Khadija’s eyes and the fresh swing in her hips, I would sit by the piano for days. I wanted to vanish into thin air like the last note in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, to fill a room with as much life as an Umm Kalthoum number, then fly away with the finale. Everywhere in music I would hear instruments entering and exiting, unbound by sporadic breaks in time. All I could think about whenever Khadija used to play was how I longed to do the same.

“I do wanna feel the heat with somebody. But not with just anybody. With someone like Abdel Halim! He’d sing to me all day and make the all the girls in Zamalek green with envy.”

A helpless romantic, most would call her. But not me. Khadija makes sense to me. And I think romantics are far from helpless.

*

Using the leftover croutons from yesterday’s dinner, I slid the balcony screen open and scattered bits of bread along the black railing. Birds near Khaltu Naglaa’s apartment are bold and loud. They see my arm extend with bread between my fingertips and immediately fly over, chirping excitedly as though inviting their family and neighbors to this unexpected feast. They eat, chatter, and take sips of the sky. Circling around the surrounding acacia trees and gracefully landing back on the railing for more food. I watched in awe and imagined my life as a winged creature. Flying to. Flying from. All I know on this ground is rooms and broken clocks; I live my life in these rooms of time. Hours spent waiting for Baba to call, for Khaltu Naglaa’s kettle to go off in the morning, for the birds and breadcrumbs after dinner. And sometimes, time tastes like precious minutes in the evening, wherein the bathroom is a secret palace for me and my pink. I once read in Khadija’s diary that a boy named Said took her pink and ran away, but I don’t understand where he could have gone with it.

“Khadija,” I found myself saying, entering back into the living room where Khadija sat watching her favorite French cinema channel. Khaltu Naglaa was reading to Latifa in the bedroom.

There is a boy who smells of your Said, I wanted to say.

There is a boy who walks behind me in the halls as though he wants something from me.

There is a boy who stares at my chest in the classroom as though it will come crumbling from between my legs and onto his desk.

I wanted to say all of this to her, and ask her why I wanted all of this to happen. But the truth was that I would have preferred that it just did, so that I could write about it in my diary and have Latifa stumble upon it one day, too. We do not speak of these things.

“Come sit, I’ve watched this film a dozen times anyway” Khadija said, grabbing the television remote and making space for me on the couch. The spot was warm where she was sitting.

“I had a dream a couple nights ago… and it reminded me of a book called Dra—”

Dragonflies in the Heat? I was waiting for you to ask me about that. Don’t think I didn’t catch you reading it with your little lantern on low the minute Khaltu Naglaa goes in for her bath in the evenings. You realize this is a banned book, right?”

Khadija said this was a subtle smile. The same fire in her eyes that danced when she used to play piano was back again.

“Yes,” I responded. I could feel sweat starting to collect beneath my armpits. My palms got sticky and I lost all sense of what to do with my legs.

“Well, go on. How was your dream similar to Dragonflies?”

“The heat… it was there. I felt it but not the way she did with the man on the roof. I felt it on my own, somewhere by a waterfall. I don’t remember much, but I woke up and wanted to do certain things and I can’t explain why.”

I realized I hadn’t taken a breath since I’d started speaking.

“There’s no need to explain, what you felt was natural. And you should expect more of those dreams if you plan on reading more books like Dragonflies,” Khadija said this with a laugh.

“Your body is undergoing major changes. And I’ve seen the poems you write to God, you’re a woman. Not a girl. There is a major difference.”

I took in her words like pebbles dropped delicately in an undisturbed sea.

I am a woman, not a girl. Was everyone waiting for me to realize this? Would Khaltu Naglaa treat me different once I’d acknowledged this difference? Something in my stomach sank.

As though in response to this realization, Khadija added, “This difference is for you to feel, even when others don’t. Especially because others won’t. The minute you accept that, the easier it’ll be to stop waiting.”

*

I don’t think I understood fully everything she said to me that night in the living room, with the old French film on mute, but I remembered every word because I’d later scribbled it into my diary. I thought about waiting for my body to look how it felt inside, but then realized I already wait for far more.

I wait for the day Latifa and I can see America for ourselves, outside of Baba’s stories. For the day I no longer have everything behind these white walls memorized and the day I can pull these Persian carpet patterns out of my skin. But more than anything, I wait for my favorite line from Dragonflies in the Heat to come true. I wait for this body to become my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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