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Mizna, Volume 9, Issue 2
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Green Figs and Cherries
“Have you slept well?” an acrid voice shrills, tearing the intricate nets and webs unfolding around me. Eyes closed, I try to cling to the visions in my dream. I see myself dancing barefoot on a veined marble floor, revolving rhythmically among swinging hips. Strong arms seize me by the shoulders, lift me gently, and slip a pillow behind my back. “Here, I’m going to take care of you,” the nurse says. “It won’t take long. Be patient; it may sting a little because of the antiseptic.”

An uncomfortable sensation shakes me as she slides a white cuvettebeneath me, cold enamel touching my skin like an unwanted lover. “Bend your knees. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt. There, I’ll leave the disinfectant bottle in the bathroom. Don’t forget to mix its content with warm water every time you wash. Now, I want you to take a few steps around the room. Hang on to me. That’s good.” In the semi-darkness, my half-open eyes shift from the woman’s angular face to the unfamiliar furniture and rug of the recovery room. I feel awkward, weak, helpless.

“I’ll be back soon with your lunch,” she says as she slowly opens the wooden persiennes that creak feebly, resisting a little. Broken rainbows tremble, grow wider and wider, merge in a full sheet of golden light over my bed, revealing the geometric red and blue-gray designs of the Oriental rug. My family recommended Dr. Nasra’s clinic—one of the best, according to my cousins who occupied that very same room upon giving birth. I remember visiting them with my mother. It was always such a happy occasion, an opportunity to meet other relatives. Everybody agreed that a private clinic provided much more warmth than a hospital’s barrenness. The care was good and the food excellent. It was supposed to feel like home.

The nurse nests me on double pillows, shows me how to use the remote control to reach a comfortable position. I hate electric or mechanical devices. I remember the hotel Claridge in Paris, our honeymoon, Selim setting the vibrating mattress on full speed. It made me think of roller coasters, and all those rides I hated because of the intense pull. Always afraid of heights, I would be overcome by a powerful elation. I’d feel like throwing myself down, taking leave of my estranged body. I think I experienced something similar, though mixed with pleasure, when I first met Selim. It seems so long ago. It was at Leila’s birthday party. I couldn’t stay away from him. I wore my yellow sundress, the same color as fluffy mimosas blooming in the avenues. Everyone said it suited my dark tan. Nada told me it put gold in my eyes. Restless, I smoked cigarette after cigarette waiting for Selim to ask me for another dance. When he came up to me, I heard myself say, as though reciting someone else’s line, “Let me finish this one.” We were the last to leave that night.

In the car, he said, “Let’s get married. I’ll take care of everything. We could be in Paris next week for our honeymoon. We’ll walk in the Bois de Boulogne before it gets too cold and stay at the Claridge. It’s on the Champs-Élysées, a few steps from that popular pub where most our of friends meet. Many are getting ready to go back to the Cité Universitaire for the fall semester.”

We decided to skip the formalities, all the tedious invitations and ceremonies. Our parents would never forgive us, of course, but we figured we’d make better use of that money. We were so excited about seeing the latest plays and shows! I had never been to Paris. I could only think of his eyes . . . It seemed too good to be true.

My aunts used to say, “Marriage is like a wrapped gift. No matter how well you think you know the man you’re going to marry, you’ll only know him the day you’re married.” So, I thought, what difference would it make if we waited? Days, weeks, months wouldn’t change the way we felt about each other. It was the real thing. We both knew it.

As I watch the spring sun flood the room furnished to look like home with its dark, old furniture, I recall my visits, as a child, to my grandmother’s relatives. Old maids and widows, whose homes remained unchanged through generations. Old-fashioned macramé protecting sofas’ arms and headrests. Even the dust seemed untouched by time. That stillness preserved their youth, allowed their collapsing bodies to go on living among the shapes, smells, and ways of the time when they and everyone around them were young. We used to visit them on holidays, especially during long summer evenings. I remember the dim light. Maybe they were saving electricity or feared the sun’s rays would disclose dust and wrinkles. Smiling old ladies serving mulberry or rose-petal syrup and small ma‘moul pastries on silver trays covered with handmade lace. With shaky hands, they passed their offerings, over and over again, insisting we sample their homemade treats.

I look at the bedside table’s oval tapestry, surprised to find the phone still there. I had hurtled it onto the floor hours ago when the nurse refused to call the doctor. She sounded like a dummy reciting a lesson: “We have to wait; we’re not supposed to call him until the dilation is sufficient.” And to my mother: “Please, try to reason with your daughter—doctor’s orders. There’s nothing he can do at this point.” And my pain, no one seemed to care about it. Mother held my hand to comfort me. “These breathing exercises don’t work!” I begged, “I’ve changed my mind. I want a painless delivery. Call the doctor. Tell him to give me an epidural. It wasn’t supposed to last so long.” I grabbed my mother’s chubby arm and dug my nails into her soft flesh.

Selim’s mother would have liked this fashionable clinic. She was a nouveau riche, after all. “You could have married much later,” she often told him. “A man of any age can marry an eighteen-year-old girl, a pretty one, too—with a dowry. Look at yourself, so good looking, you’ll still break women’s hearts in your late forties.” I was so much in love I could not see how insulting her comments were. I felt Selim deserved a better bride. I brought no cash into his family. My father’s business was unpredictable. A self-made businessman, he made enough money to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, but not enough to offer a dowry—still an important issue in most families. I worried about losing Selim, because of his good looks, his perfect figure, his charisma. He told me how ecstatic his sisters were every time he wore a new shirt or sweater. “Wow! Shouldn’t Selim always wear blue-green shades? It brings out so many facets in his eyes!” His eyes, so deep and striking I could never get enough of them! I always felt inferior, seeking ways to compensate with care and special attentions. But nothing was ever good enough for him, or for his mother. Then, I began to wonder, “Why did he blindly accept his mother’s points of view?” When I understood that he could have kept to himself her constant, hurtful criticisms, it was too late: my waist was getting larger.

And where is my baby now? This room will remain as it is. No visits, chocolates, flowers. No opening of the baby’s layette. Friends and relatives won’t ask to see the baby. Nobody will say, “He looks exactly like his dad,” or “He has his mother’s eyes.” There won’t be fights over whose smile he has. No one will see my satin nightgown encrusted with Calais lace.

Where is Mother? Is she angry with me? Did I hurt her arm last night? Outside the window, I hear vendors praising green figs and cherries. I imagine them pushing carts over the hilly streets, wiping their moist necks and foreheads. “Bikfaya’s peaches. Sample my delicious peaches!” Bikfaya’s peaches’ white perfumed flesh under pink and white velvety skin, I used to peel them for Selim. I’d never be good enough for him. Could I ever please him? He kept saying, “Ask my mother how to do kebbé. Ask my sister Amy. She’s a terrific cordon-bleu.”

We had only been married a couple of months, and I wished I could forget it all like a bad dream. I’d wake up and return an unwrapped gift. With Selim gone for the weekend, I decided to spend some time with my parents. I found my mother struggling with different skeins of yarn. She’d move closer to the window, examining closely samples she stretched between her fingers. “I can’t distinguish the shades anymore, even in broad daylight,” she complained. So I helped her disentangle the threads of the pastel balls dangling over the back of the divan. Unraveling, they rolled in all directions over the bright-colored Tabriz rugs. We sipped our Turkish coffee quietly. We liked to drink it boiling hot—almost a ritual. I always turned the cup upside down to interpret the running coffee grounds’ configurations. She scolded me: “Still a child! You already know your luck.”

I told her about my sleepless nights, the endless reproaches. I tried to explain the tightness in my chest, my need to go away. She worried. “Things will get better. You must be patient . . . You’re about to become a mother! Don’t you know children strengthen ties between man and wife?”

“I can’t take it anymore. I’ve tried. It’s useless,” I said. She shook her head angrily. “You know how divorced women are looked upon? Is this what you want for your child? Have you forgotten you’ll have to give him up to his father at age nine? How will you feel then?” I imagined my child having to suddenly adjust to his father’s family, maybe to a stepmother.

I had no choice, except to go back to Selim and make the best of the situation. I’d give a stable, if not a happy, home to my child. I spent the last months of my pregnancy avoiding everybody. I read and reread maternity books. I was living in a separate world in which Selim and his family were perpetually intruding.

My breasts hurt so much. The doctor gave me pills to stop the milk flow, to take every five or six hours. “Your breasts will swell and be tender for a couple of days,” he said. The nurse applied pads to absorb the dripping. I remember watching my sister nursing—the baby’s mouth cupping her turgescent nipple, letting no drops escape. Sometimes his tiny hand strongly gripped her finger, perhaps seeking her strength while sucking.

“Here’s your lunch. Eat while it’s hot. Vegetable soup and chicken.” I dare not ask what my baby is eating. The nurses must follow strict instructions. Anyway, I know newborn babies aren’t fed during the first hours.

“Don’t worry—the baby will be fine,” my mother said. “I ruined my figure nursing the four of you for eleven months. Now, women only nurse a couple of months. This isn’t nursing; one may as well start bottle-feeding the baby. Besides, take your cousin Tina for example; she had no milk and look at her two handsome and healthy boys.”

We decided I wouldn’t see the baby. I’d have to be strong. If I were leaving, I should detach myself from the very beginning and let my husband worry about his child. My father kept repeating as though to convince himself, “You’ll see, it’s better this way. A mother is always a mother. When the child grows up he will get closer to you. You’ll see.”

The sun is completely gone now, leaving behind a fading light. I adjust the bed to a horizontal position and close my eyes. How could I agree not to feed my baby? Not ever see him, hold him?

What if I lost my visiting rights later on? I just can’t imagine him in my mother-in-law’s arms.

I remember my last month of pregnancy at my parents’ home, the daily discussions, my determination to begin a new life.

“I’m not going back. It’s over.”

“You know you’ll be paying a great price for your freedom,” my mother said.

“I can’t go back.”

“Then you shouldn’t even see the baby. It will be better in the long run. You’ll see. Time heals everything. His widowed grandmother will raise him since Selim moved in with her. And even if he remarried, she’s bound to live with him because he is the oldest.” “Absolutely,” my father added. “You will be saving yourself and the child so much pain and trouble. If you’d raised him for nine years, believe me, not too many men would be interested in you. Do you want to live alone the rest of your life?”

Marry. I’ll never marry again. All I want is my baby, now. I ring the bell insistently until the nurse comes in running.

“Anything wrong? It’s not time for your pills yet.”

“I don’t need these pills anymore. I want to nurse my baby.”

“But, the doctor . . .”

At this moment, my mother enters the room.

“Have you seen the baby, Mother? Is it a boy or a girl?”

“A beautiful little boy,” she says, wiping her tears.

“I want to see him. Bring him to me,” I demand. “Bring him to me!”

The two women look at each other and leave the room. I know I’m doing the right thing. No one will care for my baby boy like me, his mother. I’ll call him Samir and he will have the best life until he is old enough to understand. He will always remember me. I recline against the pillows, heart beating. Why is it taking so long? Finally, he is in my arms, so tiny, so perfect. I hold him tight, lamenting he has lost the comfort of my womb. “Can I nurse him, now?” Silently, the nurse’s eyes interrogate my mother, who says firmly: “You can go. I’ll take care of everything.” Helping me unfasten my bra, she kisses me while the baby’s tiny mouth moves frenetically from right to left, trying to secure the swollen nipple. Is it too large for him? He cries, helpless . . . I press him against my breast until he starts sucking with unsuspected strength. The room is almost dark. Seated by the edge of the bed, Mother places her hand on my legs, nodding her head rhythmically, smiling and crying silently. No one will ever separate me from Samir. I had chosen Selim, maybe hastily, but I know we can work it out. I will return to him. Everything will be fine. I know it. My baby sleeps now, mouth open, as I listen to his warm, regular breath.
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