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Mizna, Volume 9, Issue 2
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Small Kindnesses
Hisham wasn’t in bed when the alarm went off at 5:52 a.m. Marie pulled off the covers, went to the window, and saw the tire tracks his car had left in the snow. The house was freezing, especially in their bedroom. She had slept in an old wool sweater and sweatpants but could still feel the cold air creep up her arms and legs. Her head ached, too, a hangover from last night’s fight. She couldn’t remember what had ignited it; maybe she would remember later when her mind was clearer. But what good would this do her, since they would eventually fight again anyway?

She went downstairs and adjusted the thermostat. Where could he be this early in the morning? He couldn’t have gone to Starbucks, since he was fasting, and he wouldn’t have stopped by his sister’s house, since Houda usually slept through suhoor. How warm was it in Mecca or Beirut? she wondered. “Insha’Allah we’ll visit my parents next Eid,” he had promised last winter, but instead they spent the month at home in St. Paul. Seven days later, the Cities were hit with a vicious ice storm, freezing doorknobs, locks, and fuel lines throughout the greater metro region. Then came Yusuf’s accident, and suddenly she couldn’t bear the idea of leaving the state, even if it was so cold. Later that year, he went to Beirut without her.

Each year, Hisham and Marie Hamdani hosted an annual Eid al-Fitr party. This year, Houda volunteered to have it at her house, assuming Marie would not be up to it. “But could you at least ask her to bake a tray of baklawa?” she had asked Hisham. As Hisham strolled through Target’s aisles, Somali and Cambodian teenagers were stocking them with Christmas and Hanukkah decorations. Thanksgiving was over a week away. Hisham was their first customer, there to buy Eid toys for Iman and Nabil, his niece and nephew. He had left the house immediately after fajr, not wanting to be there when Marie woke up. He wanted to forget about their fight last night and start the day off on a positive note. He wasn’t very religious compared to the rest of his family, but during Ramadan he made an extra effort to be kinder and more patient. Before stopping at the store, he took a long drive around Lake Phalen. In the early days of their marriage, he and Marie would drive around for hours. She loved the old mansions on Summit Avenue; he was fascinated by the strange, gray grain elevators that dotted Southeast Minneapolis. But after Yusuf was killed, she didn’t want to go anywhere.

Marie had just finished rolling out the sheets of phyllo dough when the phone rang.

“Salaam ‘alaykum,” Hisham said.

“‘Alaykum as-salaam. You didn’t leave a note. Where have you been?” Her voice was low and barely audible when she was in a bad mood.

“I’m at Target. Do you need anything?”

“Could you get two pounds of unsalted butter?” She would need this to keep the layers of dough from sticking together.

“For the baklawa?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s all you need to do, you know. That’s all I’m asking.” She paused. “I’ll go. Don’t worry.”

“C’mon, habibti. It won’t be that bad,” he pleaded.

“I know. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

Marie did not want to go to Houda’s. She didn’t want to have to go through the formality of shaking hands or kissing cheeks or asking everyone how they and their third cousins and their third cousins’ neighbors were. Houda’s house would be a tsunami of people—men crammed in the family room downstairs, women in the living room and kitchen upstairs, children running all over the place. They would speak Arabic and French with each other, and broken English to her.

There was nothing wrong with his family. They were welcoming, but a little too gregarious for her. Houda was generous, but Marie got tired of listening to her about their latest vacation, or what wonderful piece of jewelry she’d recently added to her collection. At first she enjoyed meeting Hisham’s extended family and friends, but now she couldn’t face them. During her last visit, she had been so overwhelmed by all the noise that she had to lie down in their guest bedroom.

Whenever she met a new relative or family friend, she would be asked how many children she had. She did not know how to answer. None? One? Tell them she had a son, but he had been killed in a hit-and-run accident? She did not want to lie, but if she did tell the truth, she would feel uncomfortable with the sympathy and invocations she would inevitably receive.

The front door opened when Marie was grinding the last of the pistachios. Hisham came into the kitchen, carrying two large plastic bags. “Presents!” he announced, setting the bags on the floor. Marie didn’t look up.

He gave her a peck on the cheek and tossed the butter on the counter. “Want to see what I bought?” “Maybe later,” she answered, adding the ground nuts into a mixing bowl.

He rubbed his eyes and sighed. How long was she planning to stay angry with him? He knew she felt uncomfortable around his family and was jealous of Houda. Her family was so different than his; hers was Scandinavian, polite, and reserved. Straight out of A Prairie Home Companion, he thought, but with the unflattering ability to hold grudges for decades. He didn’t understand how she refused to talk to her parents after they were married. Yes, her parents were somewhat racist, but he still encouraged her to visit them, though he never went with her.

“I’m not exactly in the mood for celebrating.” He wasn’t either, but he wanted to put on a good face. Why was she allowed to wallow so much? Hadn’t he been the one who had been the first to see Yusuf after the accident? Hadn’t he been the one to wash his small, bruised body and wrap him in his ivory shroud before he was lowered into the ground?

Don’t you think I know that? Don’t you think I miss him, too?”

His accent became more pronounced when he became angry. She used to love hearing his soft, lilting voice with a slight French accent, but now it annoyed her. Once in a while, she would look at him and was surprised how handsome he still was. But living with him and fighting with him for so many years had almost made this irrelevant.

“I’m going for a walk,” he called later from the foyer. He would not be sucked into another fight. Maybe he would give the necklace to Houda instead.

“Be—

The door slammed shut before she could say, “careful.” Marie always assumed that she would be the one who left him. He told her he still loved her, but for how long would this last? Starting over would be easy for him: he was handsome and earned a decent living. It would not be so easy for her.

The night before Yusuf died, the boy had watched the snow flurries whirling outside his bedroom window. He blew on the window pane, his breath forming clouds on the glass, then drew funny monster faces with his little finger. Tomorrow morning his mom would give him oatmeal and hot chocolate for breakfast. Then he would go outside and build caves with secret tunnels for his toy soldiers. Before his dad tucked him into bed, they placed the green plastic soldiers in single file along the sill, where they would stand at attention until Sergeant Yusuf gave his orders. Here his soldiers would remain, untouched on the windowsill, eight months later. Marie checked on the baklawa. The top layers were beginning to crisp up and turn light brown. She would make the syrup in a couple of minutes, after she went upstairs to see what Hisham had bought his niece and nephew. Usually, he would buy the gifts and she would wrap them.

She took the bags out of the closet and dumped their contents onto the bed: a Star Wars Lego set, two video games, and a (too-small) sweater for Nabil. Iman would get an Easy-Bake oven, two Barbie dolls, and a velvet dress (again, too small). Next to the dress was a card and jewelry box from Muhsin Jewelers. She didn’t remember Iman having pierced ears.

Marie picked up the card. “For My Loving Wife,” it read on the outside. They did not usually exchange Eid gifts. She would read the card later, after seeing the contents of the jewelry box. He had never bought jewelry for her before, either. Maybe Houda suggested it to him? After all, she was always buying jewelry for herself. She opened the box. Inside was a postage stamp–sized Ayat al-Kursi pendant attached to a gold chain. She could barely make out the small Arabic letters inscribed against the periwinkle background. She lay down on the bed and sobbed. Hisham had tried to teach her this ayat, but she could not master it. When Marie listened to his recitation, the words flowed out of his mouth so eloquently. But when she repeated them, their loftiness was deflated, having the effect of a wrong note played during a beautiful symphony. He was a good teacher, and he was patient with her. She eventually gave up, despite his persistence, turning her attention instead to the shorter surahs.

Downstairs in the oven, the layers of buttered phyllo dough and nuts were slowly turning into charred, triangular bricks. Then she remembered: the oven was still set at 425° instead of 350°. When the pan cooled, she dumped the remains into the garbage. She should’ve looked at the presents when Hisham had first offered, then maybe the baklawa wouldn’t have burned. Marie peered out the kitchen window. The sky was getting dark and Venus was visible. If she was lucky, she’d be able to catch a glimpse of the thin new moon, marking the end of Ramadan and the beginning of Eid. And if the Eid was not going to be until the following day, she would go shopping tomorrow morning for his present. She hoped he would return soon.

Tomorrow, or the next day, she would go with him to Houda’s. She would fix her hair, wear her new necklace, and smile, for a change. Bringing a tray of store-bought baklawa would not be the end of the world. Although she wasn’t Arab, she was a member of their family, and they seemed to love her more than her family did. She rummaged through the cupboards. Hisham had bought loads of groceries at the beginning of the month and the shelves were still full. At the back of the middle shelf was a container of Tunisian dates his mother had sent them. They were his favorite. She placed a handful on a china plate and set them on the kitchen table, along with two glasses of cold water. She would wait for him before breaking her fast. It was the least she could do.
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