Habibi

By Rebecca Kiswani

Melissa’s age never stops her from getting what she wants. She started smoking when  she was eleven. A year later she went to parties with her brother, confiscated keys from drunk people and drove them home in exchange for ten dollars. Now, being seventeen isn’t going to keep her from this divorce. Nothing ever keeps her from anything. That’s Ahmed’s problem with her.

“Take me to my parents.”

“Get your stuff.”

Cracking dry lizards flee the sidewalk when she pushes through the screen door. The trunk is full and the leather burns the back of her legs when she sits, but she doesn’t care. Two hours pass and neither of them speak. The air just off the hood of the car is blurry, and his weird music is on the tape player, and she’s afraid to fall asleep but she does it anyway.

She wakes to the slam of the driver’s-side door. The battery. They’ve been jump-starting it for a while and now it’s done.

“Hey, see if they got cigarettes in there?”

“No.”

She waits in the car while he’s in the auto store. She stares at nothing, lulled by the stale emptiness that fills her stomach and her chest and the bottom of her throat. She used to think she was Lucy and he was Ricky, and their life would be a sweet sitcom of cultural convergence.

But Ricky never asked Lucy to read the Koran and wear a headscarf when his parents were around. And Lucy never threw a Koran and a headscarf into the front yard and set them on fire. Ricky and Lucy probably didn’t get married in a funeral home either. Why had she done that? She  hadn’t wanted to do that. They had been in such a hurry. The funeral home preacher was the first person they could find who said he’d marry them, and they didn’t want to wait even one day. She was sixteen and wearing a purple floral-print dress.

Ahmed was charming, though—a better boyfriend than a husband. He worked at the chicken farm with her brother, and he used to come by the house and ask for her. Even twenty years later, he’ll say she was a dream back then. There was something about the way she walked from the front porch to the car that warranted staring every time. Her presence was like an assault on his ability to blink. She resisted him for a while, but eventually she gave in to his generous charm.

Marriages just shouldn’t happen in funeral homes, though. It was dead from the start. Only a few months later, her walk was no longer interesting to him, and his charm was pushed aside in lieu of a more controlling air, a temper that she could not quell. She wasn’t allowed to go to school. She wasn’t allowed to sit in the living room with the men. She wasn’t allowed to leave the house without calling him first. She was too stubborn and rebellious for that kind of life.

After a few minutes, the mechanic is done working under the hood and Ahmed plops back behind the wheel in his usual manner: shoulders hunched, eyes red and bloodshot, tan fingers fiddling with the radio. They wait; nothing changes.

“What’r we waitin’ for?”

“I have to still pay—waiting for de man.”

After twenty minutes of frozen silence, he turns the key and they screech back onto the road; the store owner runs after them now.

“What the hell’r you doin’?”

“This man wants to take all dey. I’m not goin’ to wait around like dis.”

It’s not long before cops are chasing them. But Ahmed doesn’t give up. He always finds a way out of everything. That’s Melissa’s problem with him.

The brown beat-up Cadillac goes faster than she thought it could as they bolt to the interstate ramp, and his pedal is to the floor and her hands are on the dashboard and he takes a right turn, then left, sixty miles an hour down the ramp and then seventy and then eighty and then ninety once they are barreling down the highway. Sirens cry and blue lights wave for their attention, but they can’t hear or see anything except the growl of the engine and the four lanes of stopped traffic up ahead. Three cop cars are behind them now, and he lunges to the right for the emergency lane while he pushes harder on the gas. By now she is screaming, “Stop the car you goddamn fuckin’ idiot, stop the fuckin’ car!” but his hands are at ten and two and they aren’t moving. There is always a way out, he thinks.

He learned that from the bottom of an old well back in Jordan. Some of his earliest memories are of damp blackness—head tilted upward, a tunnel expanding into a hazy ball of unobtainable light. Being stuck at the bottom of a well was just as cold and dark and lonesome as it sounds; except in this instance, the bottom of the well was better than what was at the top. Black September in 1970 was not a good time to be four years old and roaming the streets of Amman. To his mother, the bottom of the well was the safest alternative to street riots, bombings, political nonsense.

They pulled him out three days later. And though he was too young to explain it, his heart got up and went to America right then. He’d leave Jordan or die trying. When he was a teenager, his family didn’t believe him. His father said, “If you can get the visa, I’ll buy the plane ticket. Everyone’s mad at you here anyway.” When asked how he got the documents, Ahmed would always reply, laughing, “You know dat one country-American song saying, ‘I got friends in low places?’ Well das me, buddy.”

Ten years after being pulled out of that well, he found his way out of the country. Apparently one of his school friends was the son of a pretty important ambassador or something. He woke at three in the morning, walked to the embassy, walked to the airport and never went back to Jordan again.

Now, as he pushes his way through the emergency lane, the cars are the tunnel and there is a hazy round ball of light up ahead, he just knows it—there has to be a way out. All anyone else can hear is the relentless sirens and the command from the officer’s megaphone: “Stop the car immediately, stop the car immediately.” After some time, God only knows how long, he gives up and throws his foot to the brake.

“Driver: move slowly from the car with your hands in the air. Passenger: remain where you are and keep your hands on the dashboard.”

Melissa sees the exchange through the side-view mirror and, despite the weight of her breath, hears the clicking of the handcuffs. Her window is down and they approach her now.

“Ma’am…”

“HE HAS A GUN IN THE BACK SEAT AND WEED IN HIS POCKET AND I TOLD HIM NOT TO DO IT.” She pants.

Hours later she calls her dad from the officer’s desk.

“Will you come’n git me?”

“I’ll be there by the mornin’.”

Her dad never approved of the marriage, but her mother let her do it anyway and he didn’t stop her. That’s pretty much how Melissa’s whole life went. When she got in street fights with her brother’s friends, when she quit school after the first day of eighth grade, when she put her two-year-old nephew in the front basket of her bicycle and pedaled down a five-lane highway to see Ronald McDonald. Nothing ever stopped her.

In the waiting room of the police station, she can’t sleep. Can’t think. Over and over in her head she plays one memory and she doesn’t know why. She’s peddling on her bike, as fast as she can. Wind sliding in and out of her black hair. Someone might be chasing her—she can’t remember. All of a sudden she’s coming up too close to her dad’s rusty flatbed. She makes a quick turn but her thigh gets caught on the bumper.

Before she hits the ground she’s already covered in blood. She sees a chunk of skin missing when she looks at her leg, so she hobbles over to her dad. He looks at her, grabs a towel and some duct tape, and starts to clean her off. When the blood slows down he pushes the wound back together and slaps a piece of the gray tape across it. Up she gets, back on her bike, back in the wind. She still has a scar there now, which she’s tracing with her finger when the guard says:

“Miss, your pa is here.”

They walk to the car.

“I’m not gonna say a word,” he says.

“Good. Don’t.”

From there, they ease onto the highway and continue north to the Carolinas. Melissa leans her head back and closes her eyes. She exhales and soon she’s asleep.

But she doesn’t know that I am there too: resting sneakily in the pit of her stomach, watching, listening, pulling the two of them together, waiting to show myself. Plotting ways to change everything.

 

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