My mother’s life is a lexicon. She surrounds herself with words the way a terminally ill patient’s bed is surrounded with flowers, or tubes, or silence. I was nine when I noticed her accent, when I understood why people asked her where she was from as soon as she opened her mouth. Her reluctance to say park, participate. Words like propaganda and perpendicular a challenge, more than a tongue twister for her. A test of her linguistic progress, of how American she has become. I was ten when I connected the dots, noticed how she decorated her carefully enunciated sentences with the elaborate words she looked up, wrote on a piece of paper and stuck on the refrigerator door with a magnet. Words changing daily, weekly. Increasing in complexity. Varying in length. Once memorized, exercised, verbalized, stretched beyond their simple roots and original use, they came off the fridge door, were stapled in a notebook. Treasured.
“To be thirty-nine is to be cleaved in two, hovering, hanging between incongruent decades, like a dangling modifier,” she said on the phone to someone once. No p’s there. Left leg crossed over right, the hem of her red silk robe shimmering under the morning sun on our back porch. I was sitting in front of her, eyes fixed on the design decorating the demitasse of Turkish coffee she held in her hand, the saucer balancing dangerously on her left knee. The smell of cardamom a poultice massaging my nose as it did every Sunday morning.
“This inevitable incremental aging, it drains the soul before it shuts off the body,” she continued. Who talks like that, I thought, trying to understand what she was saying. She had laughed the day before, when we sang her Happy Birthday in two languages. She had closed her eyes for a long time, concentrating on her wish. I remember looking at her, waiting for her to blow the candles, my mouth watering for the double chocolate cake. She opened her eyes and met mine. I smiled. I thought I made her happy. I thought she wished for me to be as beautiful as she was. I thought she loved me.
I was eleven when she said au revoir to me at the airport, the first time we ever parted. A word chosen carefully, deliberately. Goodbye would have been questionable. Would have hurt more. Why not see you soon? But au revoir was laced with mystery. I hadn’t fathomed its guillotine-like sharp finality until later when I understood that my mother wasn’t coming back home. That my home would never be hers again.
My mother’s kiss on my forehead that day, a mirage.
I cried for so long afterwards. Within the span of forty days, I was uprooted, replanted, left parched, not standing, not entirely leaning, expected to survive. She did that to me.
I remember little of that summer in Dubai. The silhouette of a man meeting us at the arrivals terminal on July 25th. The sweltering heat. A penthouse in the Marina. And then the flight attendant’s manicured hand holding mine at the departure gate on September 4th. Her reassuring smile tinted with rouge and pity.
The man was my uncle. The reason why my mother had mustered enough courage to leave in the first place. She had glimpsed hope of a different kind with him and jumped at it. He had money and the promise of more. He had struck gold in the form of real estate development in Dubai. “What do you know about real estate?” he asked. “Nothing,” she replied. She knew words, wrapped them around her body like black silk abayas, trailed them behind her like music on a dulcimer. She had no plan.
“Words sell real estate,” he said, confident.
She sent me back to the US. The heaviness of her absence was palpable. It chained me to my bed, my room. I wanted her more than anything else. My father said it was a whim, a midlife crisis. Said she would come back. He tried to soothe my pain with double helpings of macaroni and cheese. Of ice cream. He got me a puppy in December. A six-week old golden retriever. My mother was allergic to fur.
She wasn’t coming back.
We discovered Skype early in January. My mother’s grainy face strangely close, inhumanely distanced. No way to look each other in the eye on Skype. It had been four months since her au revoir at the Dubai airport. I was still lost, sure of nothing. Forgetting much. She said I was the one who wanted to go back to my dad. She said I cried, was miserable. “Don’t you remember the tantrums you threw? You broke my heart.”
Her voice sharp. Getting louder. She never raised her voice before. In another Skype call she claimed that she realized she was being selfish when she wanted me with her in Dubai, accepted that it wasn’t fair to take me away from my friends. My school. Everything and everyone I knew.
We fell quiet.
She was writing. She submitted a collection of short stories to a few publishers. She was waiting to hear from them.
The real estate business was going strong, she said, trying to sound enthusiastic. My father said she sent a lot of money to me.
In April, during our third Skype call, she suggested meeting in Rome that summer. She said living in Dubai had opened so many possibilities. She was in the center of things. Six hours away from Europe, from Africa, from the Far East.
Fourteen hours away from me.
Her collection of short stories was going to be published that fall.
“Let’s celebrate,” she suggested. “In Rome.”
She booked the flight, the hotel room.
“You’re growing up so fast,” she said, ordering me a whole buffalina pizza, tiramisu, gelato, as we sat outside in a small cucina tucked away behind the Spanish Steps. Cafe dopio for her. She wanted my mouth busy eating. Didn’t want to answer questions.
I ate. She hid behind Italian words, savory new addictions.
“We’ll go to the Colosseum tomorrow, a domani.” As though tomorrow was the foreign word and in need of clarification. Then, turning to the old waiter, “un altro café, per favore.”
I spent three weeks in Italy with her. From Rome to Florence, San Giamignano, Sienna, down to Napoli, to the Amalfi Coast. I couldn’t wait to board the plane back to the States.
Late August, she asked him for a divorce. He gave it to her. It was smooth, or maybe it wasn’t, but like everything between them, I was shielded from it. I knew the ends but not the process.
“I should have never married a writer,” my father said, putting a large slice of kunafa on a plate and passing it to me. “However, had I not married a certain wannabe writer, I wouldn’t have had you.”
He kissed my forehead. His lips lingered there, where my mother’s have slightly brushed my skin the month before. I was afraid he was going to cry.
He made kunafa often afterwards—a rich, thick layer of shredded filo dough baked on ricotta and mozzarella cheese, sprinkled with crushed pistachios and smothered with syrupy boiled water and sugar. I had two slices after dinner. Three if I was especially sad.
By October 2008, the real estate market teetered in Dubai.
My uncle lost big and ran for his life, avoiding jail. My mother moved on with her life. Writing. Still in Dubai. Still not coming back.
There were no more vacations to Italy.
My dad remarried when I was fifteen. An older woman, Jenny. She treated me well, loved me even. She was the one I called when I got in trouble. She went to extreme lengths to cover up for me. Once, when I was sixteen, she bailed me out after I held a party at a neighbor’s house when the owners were out of town. I had their house key to feed the cat, water the plants, bring in the mail. I was drunk, humiliated, facing a number of charges for unlawful entry, damaging property, underage drinking, but Jenny picked me up from the police station, paid my bail, hired me a lawyer, defused my father’s anger. I got away with twenty hours of community service at Habitat for Humanity.
At the dinner table, Jenny and my father pass each other vitamins, iron pills, calcium, magnesium, the way teenagers pass love notes in class. They sit in the living room afterwards, sipping on thick black tea with sage. She gave up pork for him. He takes her to church every Sunday. Sometimes he goes in with her. Reminds her of her hair appointments.
She, a staunch republican. He, a democrat, because what else can you be when you’re a second generation immigrant of Middle Eastern heritage? You inherit your family’s features, spices, their adopted political party, the insistence to choosing a wife from back home.
Which was what my father did.
My mother’s book didn’t sell well. She went to book fairs, was invited to read, but the book still didn’t sell. I watched her on YouTube, reading dramatically. A performance. She wrote in Arabic. Discussed her book in English. Punctuated her sentences with smiles, condescending, not understanding why the book wasn’t selling.
“It’s a metaphor. The entire book is a metaphor,” she told a reporter. “The lovers are words. The endless interbretations and unfathomable bossibilities of words.”
The reporter looked at the camera.
“She writes about exile as though it was a longing of some sort, deftly switching between languages until they become ours. English woven with Arabic sounds, each story a tapestry underlining the present chaos of loss, adding a new dimension to the black hole of nothingness.”
Her critics’ words. Not mine. I don’t know if they were praising or crucifying her.
Of her regrets in life, she said, “Getting married. I should have never done that to a man.”
There wasn’t a second edition. She was already busy finalizing a book of poems.
“I should have never married a poet,” my father would say once her first poetry book was pronounced a resounding success. “Poets live on cloud nine. Disconnected from reality.” Then, piling my plate up with grilled kebob and lamb kofta, he added, “However, had I not married a certain poet, I wouldn’t have had you.”
I graduated from college in May. My mother was there as well as Jenny and my father. Jenny on her walker. He, greying, balding, tall.
It was awkward, seeing the three of them together at first. I wanted my mother to leave. I was sorry I ever asked her to come. Her beautiful smile, high heels, perfect hair, celebratory mood. She seemed ageless. They talked as if nothing had happened. As if they were old friends meeting after a long separation at the graduation of a common friend’s daughter. Not theirs.
She had brought with her a couple of her books. Thin chapbooks. Autographed. Unimpressive. One for me. One for Jenny.
Neither one of us read Arabic.
They probably talked about what happened in 2007 at some point, when I wasn’t around, thinking they were protecting me, where in fact they were condemning my sense of understanding. Maybe they never discussed the past. I might never know why my mother left in the first place, why she couldn’t write when she was married to my dad, raising me with him, and why she was publishing one book of poetry every year now, or an occasional collection of short stories, receiving more success every time. I might never know why they both seem happier now. But I no longer blame myself.
What I remember from the first ten years of my life is a beautiful mother, a quiet house, candles, her red silk gown, her wedding photos. Her waist, her smile, looking up at a ceiling-high wedding cake, my father’s hand on hers, both clutching a long sword, cutting the cake. What seemed like a perfect couple, a perfect house, a perfect life. Gone.
In Jenny’s house, where my father lives now, her dead husband’s photos line the walls. His name was John. He was in the marines. Her children are my mother’s age. My father’s. Grandchildren galore. I know every detail of the house. I take photos and save them. This is what happiness looks like. Sitting in the living room after dinner, sipping sweet tea, stroking a cat, or an aging dog, silently watching the news or laughing on cue at a sitcom.
Loaf, my dog, is sick. He has hernia, rheumatism in the hips. He’s incontinent. He’s eleven now. My age when my mother left.
‘Loaf is old,’ Jenny says. ‘He is my age now.’
I love Jenny so much. I don’t want to do the math.
I drove my mother to the airport the day after my graduation. She wasn’t heading back to Dubai this time, but to Beirut for an evening of poetry reading. We were early so I asked her if she wanted to stop somewhere for a bite.
“Are there vegan restaurants of our way?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I can check.” I held my phone. Looked at her. “Are you vegan now?”
“Yes, been blant-based… I’ve been vegan for a month now.”
I laughed. After putting language above all else, the simple p in plant still slipped her up eleven years later. I forgot to ask Siri for the closest vegan restaurant. Laughed all the way to the airport.
“I’m glad you found my veganism funny,” she said when we reached the departures terminal.
“I, on the other hand,” I said, “have just decided to become ketogenic.”
“What is that?” She asked.
“Look it up, mother. Look it up.”
Hajer Almosleh is a writer, poet, and traveler. Mother of four grown up fierce women in their 20’s. Outspoken feminist, divorced and amicable, generous, supportive of the arts, bare back and arms, brown skin on white, smelling of nature and trees.
Hajer, who says the word love every other minute.
Hajer, broken by the death of her mother, by the body of all broken women, taken by violence, like our histories.