I ran away from home. I ran just to escape Mama’s biting words. When she speaks to me, it is with a sort of brash insensitivity that gives no credence to human emotions. As I shoved crumpled clothes into an oversized camper’s backpack in the middle of the night, the only thing that kept my fingers moving was the thought of her looking me in the eye and telling me, “I told you so.”
She was always predicting my failures. She told me I would drop out of my major. She told me that a woman who chased after a man would always be discarded.
"You know how you schloop the insides of a nice juicy orange and then throw out the rind? That's you." She was like that. She used words like “schloop,” and spent evenings picking through my clothes and sifting through my drawers and shelves, looking for the evidence that would incriminate me. Evidence that would help her to always be right.
And somehow, she always seemed to know. With a ghastly sense of premonition when it came to my failures, she would sit me down on our sitting room loveseat, close enough that I could catch a whiff of her breath, strangely like licorice. She would tousle my hair before she proclaimed her sentences. It was after Hamed formally asked for my hand in marriage that I found myself sitting this close to her again. My head bobbed back from the force of her hands, and she predicted that he would dump me.
We never even had sex, although I wanted to, and expressed this wish to him more than once throughout the swift months of our relationship. The evening after I left home, I waited for him in Ziad’s studio flat and considered taking all of my clothes off. The thought of meeting him at the door with just a t-shirt on excited me and unsettled me at the same time. But my body was not like his. I had no sleek arcs, no toned muscles. Things went lumpy when I undressed.
In Ziad’s small bathroom, I stood under the shower and stole a razor. I felt guilty pleasure in shaving my legs and pussy; this was one of the many things I was never allowed to do at home. I was scrupulous in my clean-up, leaving the water running far longer than was needed to wash away every trace of hair. I scrubbed the taps, and rubbed the razor with shampoo before putting it back.
When Hamed came, I hid behind the door and opened it. In black pants and a beige blouse that hugged, I revealed more of my body to him than I had in months, since my parents had put strict limits on our relationship. I had carefully arranged my short hair, and I wished for a bit of mascara, a toothbrush.
Hamed was a character. He went to class in elephant-patterned pajama pants and an undershirt. He made a necklace of his wisdom teeth after he got them pulled, which he wore proudly and without hesitation on campus although people shot him strange looks. He wandered through Beirut at night searching for an Ethiopian lady who would put his hair into cornrows for less than 20 bucks. These are things I tried not to remember after we broke up.
He was also the only man outside my family since I was nine years old who had seen my hair. The few pre-pubescent boys who had a glimpse when I was thirteen years old hardly counted.
It was January when I waited for him in Ziad's flat, my first night away from home. The last time we did this had been in April. I would sit in his flat, at his kitchen table, watching the workings of his jaw as he ate his pizza. He chewed slowly, lazily, picking the mushrooms out and spearing them on a toothpick, which he offered to me. I could barely swallow. My insides were too much like a churning bread machine. Everything cringed soft and doughy.
I shimmied out of my leather pants in his bedroom and he laughed at how tight they were. “So that’s what you hide under all the clothes. Biker pants.”
Now he wasn’t laughing. His lower lip quivered slightly when he was excited, unhappy, upset. I wanted to press my thumb against it. Stop it, just a little. He didn't want me, and I knew it, but somehow didn’t care. I was leaving Beirut, leaving Lebanon, and this was reason enough for him to spend a night with me.
"Your mom called me," he said.
"I didn't give her your number. I never once told her you got a cell phone-"
He shushed me. "She's going crazy."
"What did you tell her?"
"That I'd look for you. Fatema…"
He wanted to tell my mother that we had broken up. Weeks ago. I had begged him not to tell my parents, to tell anyone. There was a feeling in my chest that was a little stilted and made it difficult to be rational. I was certain that listening to my mother’s words would make my breastbone crack.
"You promised,” I told him. “You don't understand."
We kept the lights on the whole night. I put my hand under his chin and eased his face back to mine every time he turned to look at my legs. I kept his face pressed to my breasts, the only part of me that blossomed round and perfect. I let him run his fingers across my inner thighs where the skin was smoothest. I sat straddling his legs and felt him come all over my fingers. He let me do this, but he wouldn't penetrate me. We would regret it, he said. It wasn't safe. But I would take what I could get. I loved that his spit and his sweat stained my skin.
He was gone before dawn.
The next morning I woke to Ziad's voice calling through the door. I stood behind it and asked for a toothbrush. While he popped to the shop, I showered and dressed. I packed my scattered clothes in my bag. I sat on the edge of the bed and waited.
We picked Hamed up from in front of his apartment and drove around Hamra. They talked about what to do with me until I could go to the American embassy and get a passport. Somehow, I wasn't part of the conversation. I was the victim here, wronged by too many parental transgressions, too weak and confused to contribute to a solution. These men had to protect me from my own inconsistencies.
I ended up in a student hotel, and spent the day in hiding. I showered again. I spent a full hour wrapped in a towel, my hair in careful disarray, periodically looking through the peephole. I liked the way my naked thighs rubbed together as I walked up and down the room; my legs were so smooth. I finally dressed. I flicked through the channels on TV. I pulled my laptop out of my bag and played solitaire.
The phone rang. It was Mohammed, Hamed's business partner. He said I could stay at his place.
I was sitting by the banyan tree on campus a week earlier when Mohammed plopped down next to me and told me about how he went back to Dahyeh during the July War to feed his fish. He stood in front of the tank, its heavy cover layered with a fine film of debris, and let the flakes float on the water, then sink. His apartment building was obliterated the next day. "I had a friend who died in front of me," he said. "This, this is nothing." Then he offered to show me his gun.
We went to the lower campus woods. The path was gnarly. I stumbled a little bit over the rocks and roots and he held my arm with his misshapen fingers. His thumbs and forefingers were twisted, shriveled. He told me that he touched a stretch of skinned wire in a plugged-in fan when he was five years old. His father was newly dead, his mother grieving too badly to wrap the wire in duct tape. We reached the trees and sat on rocks. The ground was littered with cigarette butts and used condoms, candy wrappers and tattered tissues. Hamed and I used to come here before we had a place within four walls that we could go to. Mohammed pulled the tiny revolver out. I held it in my hands. So heavy. So small. "Is it loaded?" He took it back and offered me a piece of chocolate.
Mohammed was a student nurse. He was supposed to care.
He put Hamed on the phone. I trusted Hamed. Hamed trusted Mohammed. I said okay.
Mohammed's mother was blue-eyed, stocky. She had a sort of rough blowzy look that she apparently took on after she was widowed. Her first husband was a Hezbollah guerrilla fighter, and when he was killed, she married no-good men who beat her. She gave birth to a daughter, Batool. She got divorces, found a job in a library, and saved up the monthly fee Hezbollah's Martyr Institute bestowed upon her. She showed me the kitchen, peppered with scuffed plastic cups and plates. She showed me Batool's room, where I would sleep.
Batool and I lay facing each other in her queen bed the first night. The power came and went sporadically. I watched the light bulb hanging from the ceiling fizzle on and off. Every time it went off, the traffic outside the window crescendoed. The battery-powered lamp set above the bedroom door sent white light flickering over Batool's face as she talked to her boyfriend on her mother's cell phone. I watched her crack bubbles in her chewing gum between her teeth. I watched her lips quietly form the words for Yes and No in Arabic, and thought about Hamed. She bit her forefinger to keep from laughing as she slid the phone over my ear. Habibti, the boy called her. My darling.
I quickly slipped into routine. Mohammed in the morning, banging on my door to wake me. I came out, my black abaya fluttering around my pajamas. He brandished a frying pan, the browned gobs of halloum cheese sliding gently together. His fingers looked so I awkward that I wondered how they crisply changed sheets, hung IV drips, and snapped lunch trays into place on moving tables. When we sat down to eat, the way he picked up his bread and cheese, pincer-like, would remind me of a praying mantis.
Hamed came to visit me every night. We would sit with the door closed in Mohammed's room until the small hours of the morning. Hamed's shoes sat in the corner of the room, his socks spilling out of them like tongues. I would look at this more than I would look up at his face, even while he kissed my cheek. I wanted the feel of his stubbly face rubbing against mine to stay there, but I didn't want the image of it. Mohammed threw pillows at us until Hamed stopped kissing me.
I spent my days waiting for him, restless. I wanted to go to the embassy, but no one would take me. I wanted to leave Mohammed's apartment. No one would let me. They said that Hezbollah was watching the building. They said that I would never get past the caretaker downstairs. Because I generally lacked gumption and because I knew it was practically useless, I never tried.
My mother called me on Mohammed's mother's phone. I said nothing, but listened to her cry, to her promises to treat me better. To love me more.
Women from Hezbollah came to talk to me. They sat stiffly in Mohammed’s living room. I watched them fidget in the moments of silence between tea and talk. They looked like they were wearing black sheets, like inverse ghosts. I felt self-conscious in my pink nightshirt and I tried to explain to them that there were problems in my house that I didn't want to go back to.
"I have a right to my own life."
"If there is a problem, we can work it out," they said. "We can get counseling for you and your mother. You can make compromises. We can help."
"I don't want to go home."
When the brown guy and the white guy, so dubbed for the color of their beards, came, I sat on the floor of Mohammed's room, cross-legged in satin pajamas and my black abaya. The brown guy held an open Qur'an in his hands. Mohammed said that he could tell things about people; he could look at them and know about their lives, their joys, their fears, their hopes.
"I get vibes from you. I sense that there has been tension and trouble in your life. Not here. Somewhere else."
"I used to live in Saudi Arabia."
"When I was thirteen I took my scarf off and came out of the girls' locker room without it on. Some of the boys in my class saw me. My dad was angry."
The white guy asked me more questions. He wanted to know why I didn't want to live with my parents anymore. I told them about how my father beat me. I told them about abuse. They said, so what? This was normal, for fathers to be this way. Then they told me that my father had flown in from the States, that he was on his way here now. I felt the strength ebb from my arms.
I was sitting like this on Mohammed's mattress when my father and my uncle came into the room. I watched my father walk in, shoulders squared. He held his hand out to me. My fingers clenched each other in my lap. I turned to Mohammed. "Are you going to let him take me?"
My mother looks like a Buddha statue when she sits cross-legged on the couch. This is how she looked when I walked into the sitting room, only she wasn't wrought from solid gold. Her hair was frayed, her palms worn, and the hollows under her eyes did not look like they were part of flesh-and-bone. They were more like dark wooden spoons, ready to hold her tears.
My mother was a woman who cleaned compulsively, and cooked carefully, in large quantities. She was the kind of woman who would stand for hours at the sink, shifting her weight from leg to leg, meticulously shaving every brown spot off of a mound of green beans before she cooked it into stew. Her belly would become soaked with water, her eyes would squint when the power cut. But she was gentle and exact with every object that fell under her hands. She would flick her wrist beautifully as she turned over mounds of bulgur and tomatoes in a pot. But with her children, she was violent and moody. I did not blame her. I did not want her, but I did not blame her. No woman who is beaten while pregnant should ever be blamed for being an angry person.
I hugged her. I said I was sorry. I lugged my bag into my room, and left it by the door. I didn't want to unpack. Still in my pajamas, I shrugged out of my abaya, pulled my scarf off, and crawled into my sister's bed. In her sleep, her limbs were stiff, made of wax. I carefully uncurled her arms and wrapped them around my waist. I imagined she was a Diana statue, and I was a harp she played. In her sleep, her hair chafed against the worry lines on her forehead. I pushed my forehead up to hers, looked to see if there were hollows under her eyes as well.
She opened her eyes, and cried out to see me there. "Don't touch me. Stay away." Her hands were cold. Her fingers were like ivory bones, like pastel crayons. "How could you do something like that?"
The laundry room was tiny. Seven by seven feet squared, it was nearly filled with a washer and dryer, with a shower fixture on one wall and a small ceramic hole-in-the-floor toilet in one corner. The light switches for this room were outside, in the kitchen. It locked only from the outside.
In January, in this cement cell, I was colder than I had ever been since my childhood Michigan winters. I was wearing a house robe over two pairs of pants and two sweaters when my father first locked me in there. My stockings were woolen and pulled up to my knees.
It was pitch dark, so it didn't matter that they took my glasses from me. I pulled my mother's thick leather apron from the hook behind the door and folded it into a square to serve as a pillow. Crouched, in the dark, I sifted through the piles of dirty clothes from the bin the corner, sizing up each piece by touch alone, until I found a sweater heavy and large enough to cover me. I rummaged until I found another.
Clear floor space was limited. I patched the cold floor with items of clothing, measuring its length with my hands. If I wedged my feet in between the toilet and the dryer, I could lie flat on the floor, my head pushed up against the door at the other end.
I huddled, with apron and dirty clothes, in the cold. I moved my head and limbs carefully. I found if I tilted my chin into my chest, and held my left arm against my stomach, the bruising eased. I closed my eyes, let my fingers run over my eyelashes. I remembered Hamed kissing them. This I held onto. He would be proud that I had withstood interrogation. He would be proud that I refused to talk about him, to explain his involvement or say a word about our night in Ziad's studio flat.
I imagined my mother, my father, my brother, and my sister, all asleep in their beds.
I could not get warm. Pushing the sweaters off me, I stood up and felt my way around the washer to the dryer. I pushed the dial and felt it rumble to life beneath me. I stood hugging it, and felt the warmth it gave seep into my bones.
Too tired to stand for long, I lay back down, with my knees bent and my legs pushed against the dryer. The warmth coursed through my two pairs of pants and knee-high stockings, up my legs, and filled my torso with a rich mellow orange-marmalade sort of feeling. I tried not to choke.
My parents and I were at the police station to close the missing person case. At home, they had debated taking me.
"We have to. It's the law."
"But what if she tells them something?"
My father spat in my direction. "She hasn’t said a word since she came home. She won't say anything."
I felt a bubble of hope.
My father rocked on the balls of his feet as he explained to the officers. "She was upset with her mother. They had a fight. She only went to sleep at her friend's house for a few nights and she called the next day." He knitted his eyebrows together. His fingers played up and down the zipper of his coat, like he was learning fingering on a flute.
"What is her friend's name?" One officer whose teeth clenched on one side of his mouth was filling out a report.
"Maryam Mansour,” my mother supplied.
The officer nodded. "Is this true?"
I said nothing.
They took me into a back room, away from my parents, and asked me what happened. The words spilled from me like thread off a spool. I told them my parents were liars. I told them I ran away from them. I asked to use the telephone. I called Hamed.
"Fatema! Are you okay?"
"No. I'm in the police station."
"They locked me in the laundry room. For days. They beat me and interrogated me. Help me, Hamed."
"Which police station is this? Did you tell the police?"
"I told them. They told me to go home and be good."
I told him. One of the officers took the cell phone from me and spoke to Hamed in Arabic. "Go to her house and tell her parents you want to marry her. Marry her, that's all you can do. Marry her."
Hamed was Iranian. He wouldn't understand the Arabic. It wouldn't matter even if he did.
They let us leave.
Next we drove to a gynecologist's office in Beirut's southern suburbs. I stared out of the window. I could almost feel my circadian rhythms adjusting; the first daylight I had seen in days. It filtered through the dust, like a cloud to my near-sighted eyes, blossoming like steam on a bathroom mirror. It warmed me a little.
I was allowed my glasses back in her office, but I was too embarrassed to take my pants off. The doctor was impatient. She tapped her pen against her thigh. I looked at her, and hated her. I hated the crisply folded glasses tucked into her coat pocket. I hated her snaggletooth and the way one side of her collar was bent backwards like an origami crane. I loved that I could see all this to hate it. My mother left the room. I undressed and let her poke around. I got dressed. She told my mother that I was a virgin.
On the way home, my mother sat in the back seat with me and held my hand. She hummed a little as she stroked it. She was happy. I was a statue. A butter statue, glooping and falling apart all over the leather seats. I didn't move, but melted. When we got home, I ran to my room. Quickly, I pulled on three pairs of sweatpants over each other. I wore a blouse, two sweaters, and a hoodie. My hands shook as I pulled on long woolen socks.
Weeks later, I sat cross-legged in the sitting room, a bowl stacked with polished zucchinis in my lap. I heard the front door click shut behind my mother and my grandmother. I carefully began digging the seedy yellow insides out of one of the little zucchinis.
My grandmother had moved in for the spring, ending my abode in the laundry room. I spent most of my days in my room. My brother let me play with his Gameboy. I played a game that mostly involved killing blobby enemies with giant keys. I spoke seldom, slept a lot, and thought about the laundry room. They had let me have the lights on when I ate. I ate fast, and spent the rest of those precious minutes with my face pushed up against the rusted metal frame that held the washer up. The flecks of rust against the white paint made little forms. There was a ram’s head, a spider, a car, a mosquito. I traced them with my fingers. I waited until the lights were out again and ran through them all in my mind. Long afterwards, I could still see them when I closed my eyes, sharp against the bumpy white paint.
I thought about this a lot in those long hours in my bed. They tried to talk to me. My father, sometimes tender, sometimes rough. Always holding my dead hand. This was for my grandmother’s benefit. It would be different when we were alone.
We were alone now. My father stood in the doorway. I continued to scoop yellow seeds out of the zucchini.
He pulled the bowl out of my hand. I felt the already-stale bits of zucchini brush and stick to my fingers. He put the bowl on the coffee table, and pushed the table to the far end of the room, creating an open rectangle of marble floor between the couches. He sat next to me on the couch.
"You have to tell me what's wrong with you. You have to tell me why you did this."
I picked at one of my buttons. I was wearing a pink woolen sweater. The buttons looked slicked, like they had just been dunked in water.
"Is it because Hamed dumped you?"
Hamed had gone to the States. He had called my father and told him that he had nothing to do with me, and wanted nothing to do with me, and to never contact him again.
It was two weeks ago when my father told me this, and I had gone into the kitchen and squeezed oranges for juice. My heart was breaking, and I juiced oranges. I let my wrist grind back and forth. At the time, it was the only part of me that moved.
I was tired. "Because I didn't want to come home and tell you guys it was over. I didn't want you guys to tell me, 'I told you so.'"
My father watched as I ran my fingers over the brown zig-zags on the couch cushion. To his mind, this was an impossibility. No one was this weak. His daughter should not be this weak.
"I don't believe you."
Later, I swept armfuls of zucchini back into the bowl. They were green effusions, patches of wavering color that I stacked back into place. It was good to feel them, hard and solid in my hands, and good that I could not see the dust on their carefully polished skins. I picked my glasses up, and pushed them onto my face. I set the bowl on the coffee table and wiped my nose with the back of my hand. My father watched me. He grabbed my arm and pulled me forward until I was sitting on the floor, my back against the couch. I watched his fingers darting like spiders over my woolen sweater, picking out bits of dust and paper and glitter and zucchini seeds and whatever else had been on the floor as he swept me across it like a rag doll. He handed me my hair tie and smoothed my cheek.
When I heard my mother’s key in the door, I went back to my room, back to my bed where I could stagnate under the covers. I thought about how I would never wear this pink sweater again.