It is the hour in between. Still time for sleep, not yet time for prayer. The hour that belongs to me alone. It is late enough that Manwhore has slipped back in through the kitchen window—but not so late that the dragging and cursing out of beds has begun. In the end they all come creeping home. Every beast out chasing thunder, playing wild, comes crawling back to its concrete cage. I can hear them without needing to press my ear up against the walls. A sleeping house does not ring like an empty one.
In the silence, there is the breathing. There is the whisper of sheets around bodies turning. The young ones shiver and the older ones sweat. I hear the dream sobs of Foolboy, Shaitaan’s hardening hard-on, the cash strapped and cellotaped to Mariam’s thighs, crinkling when she kicks. There is the dread of being woken written like a plea on every eyelid. There is also the certainty of being woken. They sleep doubled over, biding time, already flinching against the oncoming blows. Somewhere beyond concrete, the sun is stalking the dark out of its sky.
Meanwhile, I lie awake on the tiled floor, prone, brooding. The lights off. What is a mother? Why splay the heavens at her feet? She conceived me, yes. She carried me the allotted time in her own womb, and yes, I sucked the metal from her blood. Yes, I siphoned the strength from her bones to make my own teeth. But I did not choose the theft. I could not know the debt.
She birthed me in pain. Perhaps—no, certainly—I tore her open where she was softest, down in that raw flesh of the underthing. But after that? Yes, perhaps for a year, I was allowed to nuzzle, like poor mammals do, on the milk of her body. All this before I had two thoughts to rub together, before the soot-fine memories began to sweep and retreat into the furthest nooks of my skull, blackening the shadows. Before even the ghost of a will could be mustered. I did not choose. It’s true that without her, I would be unborn. And yet I did not choose. At night, every night, when the creatures of the night came to dance and torment me, she was not there. I waited and prayed. I harbored in the shudders of my heart some hope that she would finally save me. This time. Well, but this time. Please, dear God. Just once. This time. This time. Only this—
She did not come.
She kept me alive for a few years, doing exactly enough to keep my blood off her hands, but no more. The day she could withdraw without mortal consequence, her motherhood was terminated. Since then, we have been but strangers in the same shelter. We have broken bread side by side, but shared nothing. Wolf cubs nestle in the fleshy folds of their mothers. She did not extend the warmth of her touch toward me. I was alone with my crawling skin, with every chill and every jinn that dragged its screeching toenails up the lines of my nerves. I was alone in the smallness of being small and afraid. It was like this every night. Perhaps if she had held me, even a little, I might today be capable of love.
Why do I always return here? In our larger history, it is unremarkable, just one of so many failures that I have come to expect. It was the first, though. Even in the haze of that young age, I registered with some surprise the unnaturalness of her apathy. The tall shadow that should have accompanied me for at least a decade, the guardian looming at my back, had been snipped at the heels and let loose. I was unprotected, naked in all my frailty under the glare of a cold moon. This was why the jinn returned every night with such impunity. They had seen my shadow floating with the clouds. They knew I was betrayed and motherless. I became convinced that every other creeping thing also knew, and that at any moment, they would descend en masse, tear me limb from limb.
Dear God. Nine moons in her belly, a year at the breast, another two pleading for her finger-feeding, my only fault an open mouth. Is that enough to make me twice a slave? Why is she under you three times? Why heaven at her feet? I am not so bold as to think myself the wiser judge, but in my smallest voice I ask You—You, who have written mercy upon Yourself. You and only You. Why wasn’t I stamped in the dust with my own placenta? Is it not sad and late, after all these years, to bury myself at full height? Indeed, is it not forbidden? I have not blinked in hours, have not slept in a decade, and when I finally lie down and let my thoughts loose, they will land, again, always, on murder. Two lovely brown necks with matching red messes.
My foot twitches, jerking itself free. I am so tired. Some people’s feet twitch and they do not wonder. But even with the curtains drawn, and the room all shade and shadow, I know it is now dawn enough outside to tell a black thread from a white thread. I am a child of the dark, my body attuned to the rolling earth. On cue, the speakers crackle to life. The minaret is directly behind our house, and as I raise myself and limp, stiff-limbed from the cold hard tiles, I hear the breath before the call. It climbs up the sheikh’s throat, stumbling wetly over the gravel of sleep. When the azan begins, his voice is whole and honeyed. Once I had a date, and it tasted that honeyed. Within seconds he will be joined by the skinny tin voice from the corner, and then by five or six more, the husky one always close to tears, the vain one all aflutter.
The house begins to stir from its slumber. My hour is up. I face Mecca and pray in the dark before the azan is even finished. This is permissible though not recommended. It is recommended that one wait until the end in order to let each word extend to its wholeness, reach in and lick the heart through the ear canals. In my case, waiting that long would mean prayer with hackles up and ears turned rudely out, not in. I pray. By the time the last microphone has switched off and the house has plummeted back into silence—albeit fraught now with the insect-like scuttling of consciousness—I am done.
I stand, turn on the lights and blink. The bald elongated bulbs shine on my orthopedic mattress. A guilty gift from my father. The mattress was expensive, but in the fluorescence looks cheap and dejected, lying on the floor in its thin sheet. The sheet is clean though. Everything in my cave is clean. Sometimes I rest on the mattress. Sometimes I rest on the tiles beside it. The floor space to the left is kept clear for the purpose of prayer and exercise. The space to the right is devoted to volumes. They stack up from the mattress to the walls, six titles across, in some places as high as my waist. Those I require more frequently are more readily accessible. Not because I have arranged them so, but because over time, they themselves have gathered closer to my physical body. Nor is the discrimination qualitative.
There are some furthest by the wall, deepest in the burial, that have supplied a larger portion of my education, and yet do not merit revisiting. These are the easy ones, loose and easy, who give up the goods with little resistance; one need only rub a thumb up their spine and the legs spread. Some books are fire exits. Some are whetstones, their linguistic grain so dense and fine that I can return to them day after day and feel my instruments freshly honed. Then there are those that make me sweat. Stubborn or selfish or proud or mean or simply brilliant beyond all logic. They are not speaking to me. They do not even see me or my amazement. In short, each book has its use. If there is something I can learn, I’ll flirt with any genre. My library is the only furniture I have. It is a room designed for storage, not habitation. There are pipes running horizontally along one wall. There is a boiler in the corner. There are fluorescent bulbs and a door that can be locked from inside and outside. There is one window. The view is discouraging.
I prefer lights out but in this house, prayer is never enough. One has to perform piety through the glow-peep beneath a door at dawn. It is infantilizing. It is absurd to be so suspected. If I can be trusted to let my parents breathe night after night, with their throats so sweetly exposed and every finger of mine itching for all the sweeter kitchen blades, surely, surely I can be expected to wake up for the fajr prayer. But no. There is no reason to this game. I can pretend not to see the hoops, but when they come swinging my way I must jump or be tripped over their relentless iron. The dervish must twirl, and twirl prettily, to give the tourists a shout. The clever whore sighs and moans just right. I turn on the light and blink. It feels good to rest the lids for a moment.
Since giving up sleep all those years ago, I have become intimately acquainted with each of its functions, many of which can be replaced by meditation or target-specific exercises. With proper training, for example, a quarter-blink can adequately refresh the eye for several hours. In the absence of training and/or caution, if the surface of the eyeball becomes insufficiently moisturized, the cornea may become scratched or injured. The air itself is sharp, let alone all the crackling dust. It can take several days to heal, during which the risk of infection is greatly increased. It is generally treated with lubricating drops and a bout of antibiotics. I have neither. It has been a long time since I made that mistake, however.
Outside the room, the scuttling has risen to a ruckus. There are ugly voices bounding off the concrete, doors swinging open, clapping shut, the whine of pipes and then the gurgling as water comes to. There is someone swearing, someone crying. There are prowling footsteps in the hall. Father no longer breaks down my door, but I hear him pause just outside of it. He is there on the other side, contemplating an attack, looking for a reason. From where I stand I can see the glint of metal tongue baring the door from swinging open, the key horizontal in the lock, its twin dangling from the ring like a hanged thing. I hear the flare in his nostrils and the menace in his deep-lunged breathing. Through the wooden door this is only the softest sound—a light shush—but it fizzles through my ear, bone to bone, crackles down my tail links, down, down to spark the juices in my womb. There the hatred is already boiling. Send him in, God, send him in. I am so hot and ready. I dare You, I dare him to—THUD. The open laptop I have not touched tips forward, falls flat beside my bouncing heels. I hear him hear the thud. After a moment, he moves on, padding down the hall to rouse the last two of my brothers. Some dawns, he is wiser than others.
I reach for the laptop and immediately put it back down. It is impossible to think. I begin to do sets of one-legged-squats so as not to waste the heat in my blood. Ten on the right, ten on the left. Pause, stretch, repeat and increase. Fifteen on the right, fifteen on the left. I can hear some drama through the walls. Some emotion. Sharper, shorter. More obscenity. I am at thirteen on the left foot, second set, and the beading sweat just beginning to trickle when the fists come down on the door. There is a thumping.
I pause in my count and wait. More thumping. The lynched key swinging madly. A mother can tell her babe’s cry of pain from the cry of fear, hunger, boredom, indigestion. It is a product of practice, not love. I can tell that the fists beating down my door will not go away. I finish the left foot and turn the key. The door opens with such violence that it rebounds off the rubber stopper and would have slammed shut again if my father’s bulk were not already large in the frame. He barges past me, then in the clearing stops short, eyes rolling over the room, looking for a reason. Finding none, he rounds on me. My quads and hamstrings are still throbbing. My lungs still leaping with distress. I refuse to pant. My face is flat.
“What are you doing?”
He is breathing through his nostrils like an animal. There are the same beads on his purple forehead that there are on mine, but his black eyes are swollen from a sleep I did not get. He is dressed for the mosque, kandora over boxers.
“Shoot-the-ducks,” I say evenly, but he begins to pace the room again, still sweating, lifting various items, putting them down in the wrong places. Casual metal detector, he roams and watches my facial language for panic. I give nothing away. I am cooler the closer he wanders. In the end, he misses the money as I know he will. Only doubt could give me away.
“It’s so hot in here,” he spits, sniffing so I know he is smelling me, smelling the years of confinement, the air thick with my skin flakes and the patient massaging of my lungs. He sniffs as though the whole house didn’t reek of death already, as though it were only my body polluting the fine air. “And where the hell is your brother?”
“I have eight brothers.”
“Don’t get cute with me. Why is he not in bed?”
“I don’t know. Why is he not in bed?”
He begins shaking his shaved head and chewing the inside of his cheek. “It’s you. I know it’s you. You can’t leave anyone alone, can you? You gotta go and twist around their brains. Gotta pull the horns outta their ears and drag them all down with you, right?”
“Are you done?”
“No, I’m not done! When will you be done? What is this shithouse mutiny?”
“I’ve told you what I think. You have no desire to hear me.”
“Told me what? Stop dodging and answer.”
“I’ve told you,” I say, getting flatter. “If he had some structure, he wouldn’t be out this late. None of them would. If they had school or training, some reason to get up in the morning, they’d sleep at night and live wholesome lives. They’d have to. But instead the boys are home all day, rotting their brains on porn and Runescape, and Mariam is just as—”
“Who? Who’s watching that slime?”
“That’s not the point. What I’m trying to say is the boys are getting older and the way things are going, they have no future.” He is not listening. “They’re barely literate. They need stimulation. They need opportunities. They need to be challenging themselves socially and intellectually. They need to be able to get fresh air without sneaking it through the vents—”
“Ya Allah, what did I do to deserve this?” his hands and eyes are thrown up to the ceiling. “Everyone suddenly needs fresh air at four in the morning!” In the time it takes for him to indulge these hysterics, the blood is so high and peppery it burns up the vocal cords in my throat.
He rounds on me again, “You tryna turn my home into a brothel? I didn’t cut the ocean in half to bring my family here, my Muslim family, to a Muslim country, so they can turn into a bunch a whores and faggots. If they had some—WHO DO YOU THINK MADE THIS?” He waves an arm at the ceiling. “This house! These stitches!” he pulls the sleeve roughly off my shoulder, “They haven’t slept a hungry night all their lives! They’ve never wanted anything! They should be begging to rub the knots out of my feet!”
“You seem to have missed the point.”
“Instead they’re all dogs!”
My voice is rawer than I’d like.
“They don’t have a grateful bone in their—”
“I am here.”
“And it’s you,” he says.
“I am in this room night after night.”
“I know it’s you. You turned them against me.”
“What do you want from me?”
“What—what have I been saying for twenty years?” he splutters and the tendons in his neck bulge and twitch like worms. “Stop poisoning the well! We’re tryna live here!”
“I’m here. I’m rotting right here.”
“Of course you’re here, fool. Where you gonna go?”
The blood is in my mouth so burnt, it is beyond. I am only. I cannot see.
“Wait for me,” my mouth says.
On his way out, he spits on my floor. The door slams. Over its booming, I hear him curse at a passing someone. Something is thrown. Something breaks, its tinkle higher than china, lower than glass. And throughout it all, a few doors down, my mother sleeps a dreamless sleep.
It needn’t be painful. One could use a classic knife—whet the edge, hide the wink, come up from behind, and hisssss… give them a low smile from ear to ear, according to the etiquette of slaughter. Is not the elimination of evil good? Their removal from this earth would be humanitarian in the deepest sense of the word. If only they were worth the blade metal. Worth even the plastic handle. They’d be dyeing their own sheets their own crimson right now. Father bought the most expensive knife set he could find for our kitchen, in the hopes that our house would be a home where cooking happens. It is still not a home where cooking happens, but some nights I can hear the blades calling me from their dark and lonely drawer.
After locking the bedroom door, I pick up the book closest to it. The book is open on its spine. Today it is a translation of Glissant in hardback. Once a week I switch to another, but the book is always left open near the door. Everyone has the logic of thieves, which makes everyone predictable when attempting deceit. Everyone tries to get poetic in private. No one told everyone that the highest craft is casual and buried treasure is not cunning. Safest are the neglected chests, their only keys pure accident. It takes a madman. The only other in the family who seems capable of matching me is Shaitaan. He is not mad though, only evil.
I leaf through the open book, pausing at a pharmacy receipt, candy wrapper, a pamphlet on the immorality of female ankles according to the Hanbali school, and somewhere in the middle the bank notes reveal themselves. I count them again. One mosque-blue, four rose and a yellow—sesame dust and falcon. 905 dirhams. Barely enough for transportation. After hitting the halfway mark only a month ago, I’ve fallen back low. Familial duties. The expense of caring for eight siblings on a broke man’s pocket linings. Covering Manwhore’s ass and Mariam’s tits. Cracking open a little sunbeam on the shriveled sprout in Foolboy’s skull.
It was only last week I caught sight of Mariam and her budding, disgustingly supple breasts. She was wearing a thin white shirt. Foolboy was eating in the same room and one of them was pointing at him like a wonky headlight. He had noticed. He was pointing back under the table. I snatched her out of the air as I passed and dragged her by the elbow into the nearest bathroom. Her breasts accompanied jauntily.
“Where’s your support?”
“I told her!” she instantly began to whine, crossing her arms in front of her chest, “I swear to God I told her! She said tomorrow.”
“I’ve been reminding you for two months now. That’s no excuse.”
“Every time I tell her she says tomorrow, tomorrow. What am I supposed to do?” I reeled in my tongue. What indeed. “Sometimes I wear a swimsuit under but it’s so annoying and the straps show from the top and then Shaitaan keeps being like—” she switched to the dumb gorilla voice that she uses for the boys, “‘You’re going to the beach like that? Who do you think you are? Beyoncé?’”
I began to calculate, how much I had, how much a taxi would cost, if I could get a ride, how many bras she would need. There was no question, however. “You can’t be moving around this house with its leering pig eyes and no support,” I said.
“I know! I told you, I know! I want one but she won’t get me it. What am I supposed to do?” She was getting wet-eyed and blubbery.
“Okay, okay, shut up for a minute.” I do not tolerate eye leakage. It offends and disturbs me. At that moment I wished I had half my mother’s heedlessness. If I could simply reiterate the message that there is a pressing need, pass it on to the higher powers, walk away… But I knew it would never get done like that.
“Put on your swimsuit,” I said. “We’re going.”
I hate the mall. The malls in Dubai are inevitable due to a seemingly minor urban feature: pedestrian mobility. The city was not designed for humans but for vehicles. Although the roads are thoughtful, smooth, connected, cared for, the sidewalks are decorative, impractical. Eight months out of the year, eight hours of the day, the heat will punish a body for walking. Nothing is close enough to be worth this punishment. The city spreads out in two directions, distance pulling sites apart at leisure. Seen from above, the plan is a bed of parallel lines: the sea shore spooned by Jumeirah Road, which is spooned in turn by Al Wasl, Sheikh Zayed, Al Khail, the desert… Because the foot is a tire, speed measured in horsepower, the concept of proximity is compromised. To say something is “near” implies a shorter car ride than something that is “far,” but this “nearness” may easily take an hour on foot. Add to this perspectival distortion the inefficiency of the transit system, and what you have is a mobility frustration, but also—predictability, stagnation, a culture without spontaneity. The streets are effectively unpeopled; the chance encounter eliminated. Socializing is limited to pre-designated, air-conditioned spaces. Meetings must be pre-arranged because transportation requires forethought. The decision to stay home in Dubai guarantees a privacy the rest of the world can only dream of. A female may scream in her room for years without being heard by the birds on the windowsill, let alone the neighbors.
There are exceptions, of course. Densely populated working-class areas, such as Deira, Satwa, and Bur Dubai, have spurred a more organic urban sprawl. In these areas, apartment buildings are more common than villas, and bodies can be ten to a room. Fewer vehicles per capita means that the foot overrules the tire. Businesses cram together, distance being a luxury modest means cannot afford. The people take buses or walk to buy their bread, shirts, razors, phone credit. The people get tangled in each other’s armpit hair. They knife each other. They fall in love. They lounge on the grassy islands between the roads and take photos of each other with their shitty phones. Compounds, or what is referred to in the West as “gated communities,” present another urban exception. In these enclaves, where neighbors might share common amenities and knock on each other’s doors to borrow flour, there may survive a degree of community. In general, however, the combination of extreme wealth and extreme weather segregates Dubai into exteriors and interiors, weakening social friction and therefore weakening social bonds, fostering solipsism, myopia, determinism, boredom.
Although I avoid going to the mall at all costs, I do recognize the necessity of these structures as solutions to the problem of proximity and public space in the Arabian Gulf. Though artificial and hyper-consumerist, the mall does at least represent site-clusters. In Dubai the malls include high-end restaurants, cinemas, skating rinks, ski slopes, arcades, rollercoasters, aquariums, rock-climbing walls, pharmacies, hypermarkets, cafés, banks, gyms, optometrists, tailors, dry-cleaners, hair salons, charity booths, tents for clothing donation, art centers, theatres, trivia competitions, raffle draws, acrobatic performances, along with, of course, the usual array of stores offering the latest fashion. There are even jogging clubs that meet on weekday mornings to run laps in the air-conditioning. Grouping miscellaneous shops, services, and entertainment possibilities may have emerged out of capitalistic impulses, but it is also responsive to the needs of the city. People need the rolling asphalt gathered at their feet. The mall gathers the asphalt at their feet. I bought Mariam four bras, and myself a pair of jeans, then came home and read Marx to cleanse myself.
I try not to practice the idleness of this city. My time in solitary has not been squandered. Not an hour has gone unaccounted for, and even my meditations are prescheduled. I have exhausted this library, consumed at least 400 pages a day since my internment began at the age of twelve. The Internet has been my dearest mentor and only friend, my jungle gym, my telescope and observatory. I have turned over so many roaming insects, orchestrated the dust motes with my breath. From my window, I have counted and recounted the stars. I could continue to do so all my life, but the time has come for walking. This cramped shelter is more destructive than the elements. There are muscles that want stretching. The hind legs, dear God. The shoulder blades. I’ll be gone before the summer swoon. Before the sea becomes warmed past human blood and the sour plums are ready for salt-sprinkling, I’ll be gone.
There’s such rotting in this family. Such rotting, powder blue and caustic like forgotten tangerines. The potential is there. Mariam taught herself Japanese in six months just by watching anime. She is twelve. Manwhore, twenty-three, wins weightlifting competitions, breakdancing competitions, the occasional MMA fight, despite no professional training. Shaitaan is only sixteen, more creative than all of us put together, and the most beautiful. He does not have to pump iron the way Manwhore does to get attention. His face causes uproar everywhere he goes. Strangers declare their boundless love for him or push their crumpled phone numbers into his hand when he walks by. Baraa, the oldest, could rub money off a lamppost. He has a brain for business, and has been working with Father since he was sixteen. Even Foolboy… Well, perhaps not Foolboy.
He came to me in my cave. I didn’t know he knew the way. He came to me in my cave and asked for learning. He wanted to read. I was stupefied.
After years sending urgent reports up the bureaucratic wires, saying, this child is developing abnormally, these are the formative years, the damage will be irreversible, this child needs schooling, please consider the following institutions, please take action, and then, this adolescent is dangerously behind peers, I am reporting a deterioration in interpersonal behavior, he continues to show signs of mild retardation, I suspect these are environmental, please consider the following centers, and then, this adolescent requires immediate attention, there may still be hope, please take action, he is cognitively immature, he is socially dysfunctional, these institutions are still potential options, please take action… After years crying decline into the dead end of a mouthpiece, the invalid himself spoke up.
“Just remind me what sound the letters make,” he said. “I used to know one time, only I forgot.” It was the first gesture at self-improvement I had ever seen from him. I never thought it would happen. There is some glitter in his skull after all. One need only shine a light behind his low grey lids to see that it is not so bleak.
“I’ll teach you,” I said, mentally pulling out his files, reexamining the evidence, recalculating. He could be anyone. I could make him anyone. “But why now?” I asked.
He began swinging one of his legs at the hip as though it were a golf club while I devised the rough draft of a six-month curriculum in my head. I would need supplies: notebooks and pens, some books for early readers, exercises, short stories and such. Nothing too patronizing. ESL books would be better than children’s, but maybe the Bahraini wife has something lying around.
“I decided to be a pilot,” he announced, still swinging his leg, “But Yazan’s sister said there’s a book you have to read before they give you your plane.”
Amazing. He had enough light in there for a shriveled tendril to poke its head out of the ground. A dream, by God.
“Just remind me what sound the letters make.”
I’d give him an assessment test, then class every morning, 9-12. It’ll all depend on how hard he is willing to work, whether or not I can keep the fluffy clouds in his eye. It’ll depend on how long I’m here too.
“You’ll make a fine pilot,” I said.
Foolboy is fifteen.
Something is beeping. I am bleeding. I have been two weeks overdue, but now the blood I could not spit has found another way out. I can feel the rustling damp through my pants. The smells of iron and fish rot. In the hall, the beeping is incessant. The bathroom grosser than usual, everything moist, snot on the tap, hair in the sink, someone’s jeans and underwear slumped like depression in a corner. I enter armed with disinfectant and scrub everything, even the walls, before I let my skin to the air. When I walk back past Manwhore’s room, the door is open wide and his monitor on the floor, cracked, still beeping.
It is commonly known that a fetus can hear the music its mother hears in the womb. It is less commonly known that a fetus can taste the food its mother eats in the womb. I heard from Baraa that she hated me long before I was born. He was old enough to remember, young enough to think he could taunt me with her lovelessness. He said that for nine months my mother craved nutmeg, cotton root, juniper, and that any time she opened her mouth to eat, I clawed the walls. He said anyone who got close to her belly could hear my scratchings from the inside, a sound like trapped cicadas or a lice comb through dry hair. Fetuses have fingernails, it’s true, but nutmeg and cotton root are also purgatives.
He said I was born with one tooth. That I was sickly but mean. That I took my mother’s milk in a shade of rose and cried for days upon days without rest. He said Mother used to raise the wooden bars on my crib and close the door and leave the flat. When she came home I was always purple-faced and hoarse, but rarely ever sleeping. The day I broke my radius bone, climbing the bars and falling on the free side, she began to close the bedroom door instead. I am told she was capable of listening to me wail through the wood for hours. When she’d finally turn the handle, I’d be curled like a cat, whimpering at the door crack.
I never believed these stories. Even the driest heart moves to help the helpless. Street dogs howl outside orphanage gates. The beggar-women of Cairo carry other people’s babies on their back to increase the sympathy of strangers; and though the strangers know they are being tricked, they give and give more. I didn’t believe Baraa until I found the photo of little me, in a purple cast from palm to arm pit, stuck in a microwave manual. It was the only one I ever found, possibly the only one ever taken, before we moved to this desert. Then I got old enough to watch Mother with my younger siblings, and I knew. Once, while immersed in one of her TV dramas, she did not notice her six-year-old pounding into her five-year-old on the couch beside her. She did not hear the distress cries until tufts of Foolboy’s hair began to fly and some blood got on her housedress. I’ll never forget how she paused the show, before frowning at her dress, before tending to her children.
Perhaps the mother can also taste what the fetus tastes in its little bag. Amniotic fluid is mostly urine.
Tap. Stone on glass. Tap. Tap.
I am in an extreme backbend and do not turn my head. It has to be Manwhore. Five seconds to go, four, three, two—tap—one. I shift into a more comfortable bridge then brace myself and kick up. My legs swing over my head into a straight-legged handstand, but not far enough. There is a hover—tap—and a falling back the way they came. I kick again, harder, thrusting from the hips and this time my legs sail up and around, over my body in a swooping arc till they hit the ground in front of my face. I straighten, slide open the window.
“Hafsa! Alhamdulillah, open up!”
For a second I do not recognize him. Then I see what I see and let the laughter roll. It comes tumbling out of the gloom, a beach ball of color, all bounce and giddy downhill.
“What’s up, Romeo?”
“Listen—open up for me. The kitchen window is locked!” He is bare-chested, brown-chested, something striped and dusty wrapped around his waist like a…
“Is that…?” I pretend not to know.
“Hurry! I need in before he gets back,” he whisper-shouts, dancing from one foot to the other. One barefoot to the other. Even in the dark, I see the sweat shining his shoulders.
“What is that though?” I say sweetly.
I itch my nose with the tip of my fingernail. I smile. I look at the sky.
“Bitch stole my clothes, ok? Now, let me in, this is serious!”
I am so patient.
I smile wider. He keeps looking behind him, still hopping from foot to foot as though the ground were hot.
I cup a hand around one ear and turn my head, all the better to hear what he will say.
“It’s a lungi, ok? From a construction site, ok? I wasn’t comin’ ass naked!” I laugh again and it is twice as bright, delicious with the build-up. “Are you happy, you sick fuck? Emo. Emo freak. Open the goddamn window.”
Eventually I do, but I make sure to stroll downstairs so he will have to sprint up them. In the kitchen it is quiet. I pocket a few pears from the unhappy fruit bowl then reach into the back cupboard for walnuts. I love the braininess, the fluffy insides, of walnuts. Manwhore watches me eat a couple before tapping indignantly at the glass, “Hello.” I trip the lock with my finger. He climbs into the sink and I shut the window behind the thankless triangle of his back. It is a swimmer’s back though he does not swim. I can see all the military lifts he’s been doing in his own cave two doors down.
“More lat, less trap.”
He shoots me a black eye over one shoulder, and leaves. The rest of the males are still at the mosque. I don’t want to be here when they get back. By the sink, Father’s box of fancy water is waiting with its wing flaps pointing stiffly up. It is new, full. It is imported from Japan for a couple of rosy bills a box. Twelve royal glass bottles, clean as virgins. He alone drinks nothing else. I descend en plié. My back wooden to the wooden door, my neck high and long. I unscrew each bottle in my elegance. Then redden my middle finger and dip it in the first. There is a smell of iron and fish rot. It plumes in dreamy smoke-swirls that grow, unfurl, spread to a fade. I redden the same finger then dip it in the second. Ink to brush and the curling lines like so many could-be letters. I do this with every bottle till each one has tasted me. Then screw the caps back on, tight enough to seal their lips. I ascend en plié. Twelve royal glass bottles, tight as virgins. Ha.