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Posts Tagged ‘The Watcher’

“The Watcher,” A Story by Yasser Y. El-Sayed

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Short Story on July 30, 2019 at 6:45 am

Yasser El-Sayed

Yasser El-Sayed has recently published fiction in Natural Bridge, The New Orphic Review, The Marlboro Review, Red Truck Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and in 2008. Yasser’s prose focuses upon the intersections of Arab and American experience both in the Middle East and the United States, including the contemporary American South. Has has a forthcoming short story collection with Red Dirt Press, The Alexandria You Are Losing. Yasser is a physician and professor at Stanford University where he specializes in high-risk obstetrics. He lives and writes in Northern California.

 

Highway 280 was Sara’s preferred route to the community college whenever Wissam, like today, was able to drive her. Otherwise, she rode the bus which took a different route through the inner streets of Redwood City. Except with the bus she didn’t get to glide past the panorama of green mountains. An imposing terrain of Northern California foothills separating the peninsula from the ocean. Nor could she soak in the golden haze of morning sunlight flooding those very same foothills, illuminating the sullen density of verdant terrain into something brighter and more welcoming. That’s how she always perceived the morning sunlight against the face of the foothills—a welcome of sorts.

She asked about those foothills the day she first arrived in the Bay Area of San Francisco, peering at the mountains through the car window before they pulled off the highway onto Farm Hill Boulevard.

“What are they called?” She asked Wissam.

Wissam shrugged and said, “they’re not called anything.”

But she knew they had to have a name. What beautiful mountains like these don’t have a name she thought? Even the hills of the Red Sea had a name—the Red Sea Mountains. Unremarkable but still something. Not wanting to argue with Wissam after so many months apart, she said only, “What’s behind them?

“The ocean,” Wissam said.

“The Pacific Ocean,” Sara added.

Wissam laughed, reached for her hand and raised it to his lips. “Yes, the Pacific Ocean.” Then added, “Sara, I have missed you so much.”

They lived in a one bedroom apartment on Roosevelt Avenue, a couple of blocks from downtown Redwood City. A quiet street with an off-white stucco front, Mexican palms on either side of a narrow concrete walkway that led to the entrance of the apartment block. Indoors, the building had a stale, tired smell; a thin sheen of air-freshener thickly infused by a percolating aroma of cooking oil and mildew. Sara had emailed her mother in Alexandria her first impression of their home.

I see rooftops from our bedroom window,” she wrote. “And imagine their gray against the sky is an ocean. Although that makes me miss our small apartment in Alexandria and the view of our sliver of the Corniche.  But Wissam says the ocean is just a short distance away. He will take me there this weekend. Half Moon Bay. It is peaceful here. And lonely. I wish you could all be here with me.

#

She would have preferred the America of Barack Obama. Barack Hussein Obama. She had lingered on that middle name when she had first heard it in Alexandria. Marveled that this man could be the president of this faraway land. Even felt a connection through that name to this vast and mysterious continent. Her perspective on the country changing, softening. Towards the end of that presidency Wissam had received a grant from the Egyptian government to spend a year at a biotechnology company. She had been excited to join him, although less so now that the new occupant had settled into the White House. No sense of connection there. Rather anxiety and trepidation over what she saw on the television. So much so that she had called Wissam from Egypt worried if it was safe for him to be there, and safe for her to join him. Wissam had teased her on the phone, said that the surveillance cameras around the apartment and even the ankle bracelets were really not so bad. Something he had gotten used to.

“But I wear a hijab,” she had persisted.

“Many of those around here too,” he had said, and then added with a chuckle, “This is San Francisco. They’ve turned it into a fashion item.”

So she had come. Tearfully hugged her mother Fayza and sister Lubna farewell in the darkened lobby of their apartment building, drove with her Uncle Malik, her mother’s brother, through the still empty streets of the city, the dawn light gray and filtering, to the Borg El Arab airport an hour outside Alexandria. She had been on a plane twice before. Once to the Hurghada on the Red Sea for a cousin’s wedding, and once to Istanbul as part of a college course on verse and poetry in Ottoman Turkey. But she knew enough to know she disliked air travel. The utter loss of control. The knowledge that the chances of surviving a technical mishap were virtually nil. So Sara had muttered the fatha on each of those lift-offs and landings, and did the same this time as the plane ascended above Alexandria, then as it landed in Frankfurt, and a few hours later again on another plane to San Francisco.

#

Near the end of Sara’s first week, Halloween, and the incessant knocking on her apartment door. She peered through the eyeglass at the ghouls and angels, bloodied corpses and little girls dressed as butterflies. She wondered what kind of place she had come to. Wissam stayed late at work that night, and she had telephoned him trying to keep the anxiety from her voice. She described to him what she was seeing, and he had started to laugh uproariously before settling down and explaining that this was an American tradition. They were just children who lived in the apartment complex. But, yes, best not open the door because they had no candy to offer.

The Sunday after Halloween, Wissam drove them down Highway 280, merging onto Route 92 over the foothills to Half Moon Bay. Sara knew he was watching her out of the corner of his eyes, and that he was amused by the way she pressed her face against the glass pane of her car window, trying to peer into the lush green valleys and steep canyons formed between the mountain range. The landscape huge and pressing, dream-like in its scope and immediacy, a source of fascination and fear for Sara. One ill-considered turn of the steering wheel could send them both hurling into the darkening abyss below. She pulled back with that thought, head tilted up on the headrest, eyes looking straight ahead.

“Dizzy?” Wissam said gently.

“Keep your eyes on the road, please, Wissam,” Sara muttered.

“We’ll be on the other side before you know it,” Wissam replied reassuringly.

And so they were. Descending into green farmlands, broad swathes of pumpkin patches, quaint wineries and small horse ranches, a business with strange clusters of life-size woodcarvings of animals: bears and dinosaurs and elephants. And across the road from that, a cemetery, ragged, dilapidated, abandoned, except for an old woman, hair pinned up in a bun, dressed in a gray raincoat and black boots, and peering down at a tilting tombstone. Past that into what looked more familiar—a gas station, a small supermarket and fish restaurant—then a right turn onto the Cabrillo Highway and the chalky grey sea in full view.

“Half Moon Bay,” said Wissam, smiling up at her.

Sara reached over and burrowed her hand under Wissam’s thigh. They had made love earlier that morning. He had stirred against her when she first awoke—waiting for her. She had been restrained in lovemaking during the early months of their marriage, but had felt restraint dissipate with time. Then had come the bloody miscarriage in the ragged Shatby Hospital labor ward, and for months after that Sara had refused any physical intimacy.

“Now I’m getting excited again,” he said looking over at her, her hand still nestled under his thigh.

But Sara was looking out beyond the Cabrillo Highway, the dark bodies bobbing in the water on surfboards, wondering who these people were and what they were doing?

“It’s called surfing,” Wissam explained. “They stand up on these boards and let the waves carry them along. But the water is cold here year round, not like back home. So they have to wear these black outfits.”

Wissam pulled off the narrow highway at the dusty entrance to the Miramar Beach Inn. He had told her about the restaurant the night before, relaying a story he’d heard from an acquaintance at work.

“It used to be a house of prostitution and where illegal alcohol was stored years ago.”

“Alcohol was illegal here?” Sara asked, perplexed.

“Apparently so. A long time ago.”

“Hmm,” she mused. “Why would we eat there? A house of prostitution.”

“It’s a restaurant now,” he said laughing.

“Still,” she said with a shrug.

The restaurant was a one story squat structure next to a parking lot and across a gravel path from the ocean. When they had parked the Honda Civic and stepped out of the car, Sara stood facing the open water, the sea breeze whipping up against the edges of her hijab. She tucked a loose strand of hair back in place.

“It’s beautiful Wissam,” she said. She was gazing out at the tapered stretch of sand, the crescentic curve of the bay, billows of fog against the surrounding mountains, the water gray and foamy merging with the pewter tinged sky. But for the mountains, it was Alexandria on a stormy November morning with the Corniche curving along the shore.

“Here,” Wissam said, reaching for her arm, turning her to face him, her back to the sea. “Let me take a picture of you. We can text it home.”

They found a window table. Sara ordered petrale sole on a bed of saffron rice and a coca –cola. Wissam selected the house burger, French fries and a beer.

Sara regarded Wissam, her expression a mix of dismay and alarm.

“I’ve fallen in love with American burgers and fries,” he said evasively.

“A beer Wissam?” She hissed in a low voice leaning into the table.

“Just one,” he said.

“Since when?” She whispered angrily.

“I don’t know Sara,” he sat back in his seat, forcing a distance between them. “It’s different here. It’s not all about heaven and hell and haram all day long from every loudspeaker 5 times a day.”

“It’s our faith, Wissam!” She said, this time her voice louder. She pulled back, turned her face to the window and the bustle outside, a scatter of people ambling down the gravel road, or pausing to take in the view.

She knew she had always been more observant. Had always felt in him a careless attitude about religion. His adherence back home only because it was safer than rebelling. He would never have ordered alcohol in public in Alexandria. But of the two of them it was only Sara who kept regular prayer each day, facing Mecca. If she missed a prayer, she would assiduously make it up by day’s end. “Do you think God really keeps that close a count,” he had teased her once.

When the beer arrived he set it aside. “Truce?” he said with a hopeful expression.

She sighed, said nothing, distractedly spread butter on the open half of a bread roll.

“A truce?” Wissam said again, reaching for her hand.

She nodded, “Yes, Wissam. A truce”

They were quiet on the drive home. It was not until they were descending the last stretch of Route 92 that she said, “We will not be here so long Wissam. We are only visitors here. We will be home again soon enough.”

He nodded but kept his gaze straight ahead. “That’s the plan,” he said.

“A year and we will be back,” she said.

“A year or two at the most,” he said gently.

“A year that will pass very quickly,” she persisted.

#

Sara had studied Arabic literature at the University of Alexandria, and had completed the first year of a master’s program, before taking a year of absence to be with Wissam. Her thesis was on the influence of the Egyptian Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, on the structure of stories and novels of subsequent generations of Arab writers. That in defining the Arab novel to the degree Mahfouz did, he both facilitated and hindered the development of Arabic literature. It was a struggle for younger writers to break out from his influence into new forms. She could tell that her thesis, while still nascent, was not what her advisor, a great admirer of Mahfouz, had wanted to hear. Although, to his credit he had not outright dissuaded her, only challenged the premise, pointing to the flourishing of diverse literary themes among Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Iraqi writers.

“Mahfouz put Arabic literature on the world stage,” Professor Khalil had argued. “Without him no one would have heard of it or cared. He opened the door for all of us.”

Sara had planned to spend this year in America developing the arguments around her thesis. She brought with her a suitcase filled with her books. But somehow an inertia had settled on her. An inability to imagine in this foreign place the intricacies of the landscape she was trying to navigate from a distance.

“Perhaps you need to step away from all this a little,” Wissam suggested when she raised her frustration with him. “A different perspective. Something totally new.”

“Such as?” Sara asked doubtfully.

“How about a course in American literature?” Wissam said.

Sara had studied English in high school and college, was fluent enough, could read and write with relative ease. She had read the British authors—the staple of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickens. Even some Thomas Hardy—her favorite being Return of the Native, and the character of Eustacia Vye for whom she had always felt an inexplicable kinship. But of American literature she knew next to nothing. Nonetheless, Wissam’s idea intrigued here.

The winter semester was starting soon, and so Sara looked into courses at a community college, a short bus ride from their apartment. It was a hilltop campus, green and sprawling, overlooking the foothills that she loved.

“They are so expensive, Wissam,” she complained as she scrolled through the online course catalogue.

“I’m not sure how it all works here,” he said peering over her shoulder at the screen. “Can’t you just sit-in and listen?”

The course that had caught Sara’s attention was “An Introduction to American Literature.” The instructor was Elizabeth A. Pederson, and her office hours were listed at the end of the course description.

Sara debated whether to call the college and ask to speak with Professor Pederson or stop by and make the request to sit in on the class in person. She decided on the latter. If office hours were anything like in Alexandria, there would be sure to be at least some gaps, and perhaps she could wait and ask for a moment of the professor’s time.

 

Elizabeth Ann Pederson had not expected any drop-in students given that the winter quarter did not start for a few more days. That of course had not curtailed the usual flow of college business emails. And with her husband, James, gone at a board meeting in Vail the last few days, leaving her alone with their young son Brendan, she was already behind. She had just settled at her desk perusing the diarrheal email stream populating her inbox—a repulsively apropos term concocted by her associate Brett Callahan—when Janet King, the department administrative assistant, knocked and stuck her had past the door.

“Young lady asking for a moment of your time,” said Janet.

“A student? Already?”

Janet stepped into the small office and pulled the door shut behind her. “Hmm. Not clear that she is a student here. Wants to talk to you about the American Lit course.”

Elizabeth sighed, nodded, and swiveled away from her computer screen. Janet ushered in a slender woman in a turquoise raincoat and matching hijab. The woman stood silently by the door as Janet closed it behind her.

“Please,” said Elizabeth pointing to the chair across from her desk. And when the woman had settled into it, added, “how is it I can help you?”

Sara cleared her throat. “Professor Elizabeth. I’m sorry for coming like this,” she said hesitantly. “My name is Sara Fahmy. I read about your course. I would like to take it. To listen.”

“Which course is that?” said Elizabeth. It was not the first time an international student would add the professor before her first name rather than her last. It always struck her as peculiar, and a touch too familiar.

“The course on American writers,” answered Sara.

Elizabeth noticed she had beautiful eyes. Almond shaped, black against the dark mascara of her lashes. She had blush on as well and red lipstick. For her part this morning, Elizabeth was comfortably bare faced, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, dressed hastily in a Friday administrative day outfit—a simple green sweater and blue jeans.

Elizabeth observed Sara for a moment more. So much effort to stay covered and then all that added make-up. Elizabeth had seen this among some other young women around campus—one half-formed impulse clashing with the other, is how it seemed to her. Except this woman was older, late-twenties at least, and there was a reserve and poise about her that appealed to Elizabeth.

“I think there are still one or two seats available. You can check with the registrar,” she said.

Sara eyes dropped to her lap. Before she could say anything, Elizabeth added, “You are a student here, aren’t you?”

Sara shook her head. “No. I am doing a master’s degree in Arabic literature back home. In Egypt. I am here for a year only with Wissam, my husband. We thought I could learn something about American literature while I’m here.”

Elizabeth nodded her head. “It’s an undergraduate course. You realize that. That’s all we have here are undergraduate courses.”

“Not a problem,” said Sara quickly.

“OK then,” said Elizabeth. She was curious about the woman in front of her, intrigued by her circumstances. But she was also eager to end this meeting and turn to the work needing her attention. “You can stop by the registrar and enroll.” She stood up.

Sara rose too. “Professor Elizabeth. May I just sit and listen to the lectures? It is very expensive for us. I will buy the books, read everything, and not say anything in class. Just listen. Please?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I’m sorry Sara. I misunderstood. That’s not how we usually do things here.”

“It is very expensive for us,” Sara repeated.

Elizabeth thought how straight the woman held herself and how uncomfortable this situation must be for her. Those almond shaped eyes were bright and intelligent. Determined. “I will need to check Sara,” Elizabeth said finally. “Leave your email with Janet at the front desk and I will check and get back to you.”

#

It was not that Sara had never heard of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway or John Updike. She had heard the names, even vaguely recognized the titles of their works, but she had never read them, and until now they had remained as foreign to her as this new country she inhabited.  Granted permission by Professor Pederson to sit in on the class, Sara was struck by the recurrent echoes of dislocation, conflict and turbulence. It was not what she had expected in such a powerful and wealthy nation. But then Sara was not sure what she had expected.

“They are lonely people,” she told Wissam one evening after class. “They have so much but they seem to struggle alone more than anyone else. Rootless in a strange way.”

“It is a big country,” Wissam said. He was half-distracted, lounging on their couch, his eye on the television evening news. “And always in motion.”

Except Sara was thinking of a poem Elizabeth Pederson had given her to read one day during office hours. Sara had expressed to her professor the impression she now shared with Wissam. Elizabeth had nodded as if she understood exactly what Sara was referring to. She had rummaged through a stack of literary journals on her desk, and pulled out one. She leafed through the journal, found what she was looking for, placed a stickie on the top of a page and handed the journal to Sara.

“Read this tonight,” Elizabeth said. “We can discuss it during office hours tomorrow.”

The poem Professor Pederson highlighted for her was Edward Hopper: Hotel Room 1969. Opposite the poem was a painting by the artist Edward Hopper. A woman in a short negligee seated on the edge of a bed holding a piece of paper. The painting was rough edged and stark, something hollow, and gutted out about its presentation. No softness in the contours. Bold edges and a center that faded and then reconstituted itself in the figure of the silent woman. The poem was by a man named Larry Levis and for Sara its stanzas resonated with what she had been struggling to express. So struck was Sara by the way the words captured her thoughts, that she began to write an exuberant late night email to Professor Pederson, before changing her mind and instead settling down at her small desk in her bedroom to pour repeatedly over the painting and the poem. She mouthed lines out loud.

. . . . And outside this room I can imagine only Kansas:

Its wheat, and the blackening silos, and, beyond that,

The plains that will stare back at you until

The day your mother, kneeling in fumes

On a hardwood floor, begins to laugh out loud.

When you visit her, you see the same, faint grass

Around the edge of the asylum, and a few moths,

White and flagrant, against the wet brick there,

Where she has gone to live. She never

Recognizes you again.

 

. . . . You think of curves, of the slow, mild arcs

Of harbors in California: Half Moon Bay,

Malibu, names that seem to undress

When you say them, beaches that stay white

Until you get there.

 

“I have been to Half Moon Bay,” Sara said to Elizabeth as soon as she had stepped into her office the next day. “And the poem. It is so beautiful. It resonates with everything I have felt since coming here. How did you know?”

Elizabeth laughed. “It is a famous painting and a famous poem. I knew you would like it.”

The relationship between the two women had become increasingly warm over the course of the last few weeks. Sara had availed herself of open slots in Elizabeth’s office hours, and as the class composition were mostly undergraduates obliged to take the course on their way to some other career plan, there was always time available. For Elizabeth, she had missed this kind of organic interest in literature amongst the community college students. Here in Sara was someone deeply engaged in the field and pursuing an advanced degree. She found herself looking forward to Sara’s visits. They would at times choose to meet at a small outdoor café on the campus grounds, and over a cup of coffee Sara would describe her university experience in Alexandria.

“There are hundreds of students in each class. Students standing in the doorway, lined up against the back wall. The whole lecture hall overflowing. And this just the students who bother to attend the lectures. Professors barely engage. Everyone just going through the motions. Getting through the day.” Sara paused. “Awful. It is better in graduate school. A little better anyway. But nothing like this,” she added, waving an open hand at the campus.

Beyond them stood the foothills. The sun brilliant in the afternoon sky. The air warm even in January. Elizabeth peered around her. “I lived many years in New York City, Sara. I know crowded classrooms well. What you see here is also not the norm.”

“My husband. Wissam. He loves it here,” said Sara.

“And you?” asked Elizabeth. “Do you love it here?”

Sara shrugged. “I am growing used to it,” she said. “The beauty of the place is unquestioned. But I miss Egypt. My family. Our culture.”

“And your husband?”

Sara shrugged. “It is different for Wissam here,” she said.

“In what way?”

Sara paused a moment then said, “I have known Wissam since we were children. We grew up in the same neighborhood. We fell in love as teenagers. Secretly. He is Christian. Coptic Christian. He converted to Islam for me. He had to convert to marry me. He was ostracized by his family for it. It has not been easy for him. He abided by everything that was expected of him. For me. But I imagine he felt constrained. So it is different for him here.”

Elizabeth nodded. She tried to imagine Sara’s situation, and in her mind contrasted it to her own life.

“My husband, James. He is Jewish. My family is Episcopalian. In fact, my father is a minister back in New York. Upstate. James is from Chicago. His father is a cantor in their temple. Neither side were excited by our relationship.”

“What do you practice at home?” Sara asked.

Elizabeth laughed. “My dear we are not religious at all. Maybe our experience contributed to that. But growing up in religious families, ending up with each other the way we did, religion is not a part of our lives.”

Sara sighed. “Wissam would like that, I think,” she said. “He would want us like that. Like you and your husband. Except I hold him back.” She looked up defiantly at Elizabeth. “I cannot imagine a life without God at its center.”

Elizabeth took in her words and smiled gently back at Sara. “There is nothing wrong with that Sara,” she said. “Nothing at all.”

#

The following week after Elizabeth and Sara had finished their coffee, Sara said, “Wissam is getting off work early today. He will be picking me up shortly. Can you stay for a little?” She paused for a moment noticing Elizabeth glance at her watch, then added. “I would love for you to meet Wissam.”

Elizabeth had an appointment back home, interviewing a new au pair for Brendan. The last young woman from Krakow had completed her 6 months approved stay in the United States and was returning to Poland. This new candidate was referred to her from a friend. She was a U.S. resident and Elizabeth hoped to avoid the rigmarole of immigration and visas.

“Just a few minutes,” she said hesitantly. “I have to get going. We are interviewing nannies for Brendan.”

Elizabeth saw Wissam approach before Sara did. She noticed a man striding towards them from the other side of the small esplanade where they sat at their table. She guessed it was him by the way his eyes were fixed on Sara. He was medium height, slender, dressed in pale blue Levi’s, neatly pressed, a crisp white shirt, a black beard, carefully trimmed against his olive skin.

“Hello,” he said as he came up to them. He put a hand on Sara’s shoulder, kept it there. “I’m Wissam.” He extended his free hand to Elizabeth.

He had a warm smile, and a comfortable way with himself. His easy-going nature in ready contrast to Sara’s more serious demeanor.

Elizabeth reached over and shook his hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you Wissam,” she said pleasantly.

“And I about you, Professor,” he replied. He looked down at Sara who was watching both of them with pleasure and interest. “You have gotten my wife fascinated by American literature. I think she is giving up on her thesis entirely!”

“Oh, I doubt that,” said Elizabeth with a laugh. “I have so enjoyed having Sara in class. It has been a pleasure.” She stood up, smoothed a few wrinkles on her skirt front, adjusted the purse strap over her shoulder. “Unfortunately, I have to leave for an appointment, but it has been wonderful meeting you Wissam.”

“And meeting you,” replied Wissam.

Sara stood quickly and hugged Elizabeth, then she and Wissam settled back down at the table. They watched Elizabeth stride across the esplanade, her figure trim and supple, hair falling loosely at her shoulders, her purse swinging by her side as she moved.

“You like her don’t you?” Sara said.

Wissam chuckled. “Now why would you think that?”

“She is beautiful, intelligent, successful.”

“And you my Sara are all those things and more.”

He was smiling at her, a kindness in his gaze that she loved. Although, she couldn’t help this nagging sense of defeat. It seemed to come to her from nowhere, percolating inside her. Perhaps it was something about Elizabeth’s stride. Its air of confidence. An assertiveness about it that she felt she lacked, especially here, especially now, and in this country. Or maybe it was the mention of Elizabeth’s son.

Wissam was still studying her. A hint of concern in his gray eyes.

“Sara? Are you alright?”

“Yes,” she said with a small laugh. “Of course.”

“What is it, Sara?” Wissam said.

“She has a young child. A boy. It just made me think. He could have been with us now.”

“We will have children, Sara. I promise you. We will have an apartment full of them.”

It had been a year since the miscarriage. But the thought of the loss still stabbed at her core like something raw and new. The bleeding and the pain. The rush in the back of Uncle Malik’s car to the county hospital, the closest facility to them. The dingy corner of the labor ward they had put her in as she pushed out a fully formed baby boy, but too early. Too early. The nurse roughly wiping away at the blood streaks on her legs and at the clots in between. They had given him a name before his burial. Marwan.

“Come on Sara,” Wissam said and reached for her hand, raised it to his lips.

Sara looked awkwardly around her at the milling students on the esplanade. The trickle of traffic in and out of the coffee shop. How did she appear, she wondered, in her conservative dress, sitting in a public space, her hand at a man’s lips, even if it was her husband? How would they know it was her husband? Wissam would not do this back home, she thought as she gently pulled her hand away.

He had seen her fleeting gaze, recognized it for what it was. “Sara,” he said. “We are not in Egypt anymore.”

In the evening Sara emailed her mother—it is a vast country and beautiful in too many ways to recount. I am taking literature courses and have become friendly with my professor. She is bright, lovely, and attractive. She is married and has a little boy named Brendan. And she is a respected professor. She is in so many ways everything I want to be and but am not, or at least not yet. Wissam has met her and I can tell he likes her too. I do not really know what she thinks of Wissam or even of me. I am not sure why that matters so much to me. Maybe it is because I know so few people and it is easy to get lonely here. I miss the way we used to sit together on the balcony that overlooked our small street and watch the people and traffic below, and sip your wonderful mint tea, mama. I miss the light of late afternoon, haze filled and warm. Our call to prayer. I miss the smell of afternoon cooking from Amr Bey’s little falafel shop, the first thing I smell when I walk out of our building and onto the street. Most of all, I miss all of you so much.

#

“I’m curious about something,” Elizabeth said later that week as they were walking together out of the class. It had become Sara’s habit to busy herself at the end of class, rifling through her handbag or flipping through a text, until the students had left and Elizabeth was departing.

“Yes?”

“Would you want to stay here, if you could?”

“Here?” asked Sara. “You mean America?”

“That’s right. The United States generally. Even California.”

Sara was quiet for a few moments. “No Professor Pederson,” she replied finally. “No. I don’t think so. I would miss home too much.”

They passed a group of students idling in the hallway. Young and chatty, their voices raised in laughter.

“Honestly,” Elizabeth said, “I just don’t get it.”

Sara noticed for the first time a tone of exasperation in Elizabeth.

“You are educated and smart and yet I can’t believe you would have close to the freedoms, much less the opportunities, back home as you would here. For a woman, I mean,” said Elizabeth, her voice trailing off.

“It’s not Saudi Arabia,” said Sara. She tried to keep the defensiveness she was feeling out of her voice.

“Yes. Not Saudi Arabia. And maybe I am speaking out of line. God knows this country has so much still to do to level the playing field for women. But it’s just that few places in the world still treat women with such universal disdain and disrespect as so many countries in the Middle East.”

Sara was silent. The words, expressed so directly, jolted her. Although had she been asked in a different circumstance, in a more sympathetic and gentle manner, she would have engaged with the discussion.

“And I just don’t understand why the women of these countries don’t rise up,” continued Elizabeth. “Demand their rights. Insist on them. To be treated as equal to men. Instead generation after generation of creativity and intellect and energy squashed and dissipated under a suffocating patriarchy.”

“It is my country,” Sara said finally. “There are many problems. We have done many things with the limited freedoms legally bestowed on us. But look how much protection you have here. So much legal protections and yet you too struggle, no?

Elizabeth sighed and said, “I am sorry. I really am. I was just reading about a young woman stoned to death in Syria, imprisoned for driving in Saudi Arabia, vilified for dancing in Egypt, and it angered me. Where else in the world do these things happen to women. But yes, as I said, we have much work to do right here at home. Please forgive me Sara. I can only imagine how arrogant I just sounded.”

Sara breathed a sigh of relief and laughed. “Your concern is well placed,” she said in a conciliatory tone. “We have fallen behind in Egypt and everywhere in the Middle East when it comes to women’s rights. Some of this is internal to our societies, others imposed or sustained by outside forces and influences not easily in our control. But no matter the cause, we will never reach our full potential until women are free to reach theirs.”

Elizabeth nodded. “I couldn’t agree more,” she said. “True here and true everywhere. You will go back to Egypt and lead that struggle, I am sure.”

Sara smiled, “I will teach like you teach!” she said emphatically.

Elizabeth laughed aloud. “No,” she said. “You will teach much better and at a higher level than I ever could. At a real university.”

Sara shrugged. “I would be happy teaching no matter where. But we need the money and yes a university salary is better.”

They had reached the academic offices, and Elizabeth stopped and said, “so is money an issue now? Would extra money help?”

Sara nodded, the thought coming to her mind that perhaps her professor could see a role for her as a teaching assistant. “Money could always help,” she said.

“OK, then,” Elizabeth replied. “I’m still interviewing for Brendan’s nanny. But in the meanwhile James and I need to attend an event in San Francisco this Saturday. It’s not something we can miss. It’s James’ company event. Would you mind watching Brendan for just this time? I would pay you well.”

Sara raised her hand in protest. “I would be happy to of course! But you don’t have to pay me.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Of course I do and I will,” she said. “So Saturday, then?”

“Saturday,” said Sara.

“How about you come a little before 6 pm. That way I can introduce you to James and spend some time with you and Brendan before we head out. I will email you the address.”

“Certainly,” said Sara. She was eager to relay the news to Wissam. Excited to be allowed this access to her professor’s personal life.

#

Elizabeth Pederson lived in Los Altos Hills. A lush landscape of pastures and rolling hills and widely spaced estates with high walls and elaborate wrought iron gates and manicured lawns. Sara had never been to this community before, and as Wissam drove her there, she was awestruck by the opulence. That people lived in these surroundings seemed surreal to her. She had seen the mansions dotting the foothills, and had wondered about them. But to be in the midst of it all, traversing the green and gold terrains, was a completely different experience. She was captivated by the glimpses of cobble stone driveways, imposing balconies and Mediterranean style terraces that commanded striking vistas of the foothills.

“I can’t believe Professor Pederson lives here,” murmured Sara.

Wissam kept his eyes on the curving road, but stole a look at Sara. “Well, someone has to,” he said with a smile. Then added, “maybe one day we can too.”

“I don’t think we belong here, Wissam,” Sara said softly.

“And why not, Sara. I can see you on one of those terraces in the morning looking out at everything, coffee cup in hand!” He chuckled and squeezed Sara’s knee.

Sara said nothing. The car slowed as it turned a bend, and descended into a tree lined cul de sac at the far end of which stood two stately homes, separated by exquisitely manicured lawns, an array of queen of palms, fronds shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight.

“We have arrived,” said Wissam with a chuckle. “Maybe not quite a mansion, but still who would have thought a professor was paid so well!”

“I think it’s her husband,” replied Sara, eyeing the two cars in the driveway—a golden Lexus sedan she had seen Elizabeth drive out of the college parking lot, and a shiny black Porsche SUV. “He is a successful businessman. Travels a lot.”

Wissam parked in front of a bulky bronze standing mailbox. “Do you want me to come in with you?

Sara shook her head, briefly clasped Wissam’s hand, and then climbed out of the car. “No, that’s alright. Just pick me up around 10:30. I’ll text you if anything changes.”

Wissam nodded, watched as Sara made her way to the front door, her body slim in tan slacks, a pink sweater, the tail of her hijab dipping between her shoulder blades. He watched as she knocked on the door, saw the door open, a glimpse of Professor Pederson and the shadowy interior of the house, huge and airy, then he drove off.

The house was magnificent, high ceilings, crown molding and lacquered mahogany floors, an expansive staircase, white and spiraled, curved elegantly from the large foyer to the second floor. In the center of the foyer hung a massive crystal chandelier, at its base a sculpted ceiling medallion. Late afternoon sunlight danced off the chandelier candle tubes and prisms.

Elizabeth Pederson greeted Sara with a warm embrace before shutting the door behind her.

“I hope you found the place easily enough?” she asked.

“Oh yes,” replied Sara. “Wissam had no trouble at all.” Then added, “I will text him to pick me up later.”

Elizabeth was dressed in a strapless black evening gown, which left her shoulders and upper chest bare. Her hair arranged in a bun, a thick strand of blond hair loose against one side of her face. The gown flowed down to her ankles, her feet ensconced in black high heels. Sara thought how beautiful Elizabeth looked. Although she also felt a certain discomfort with the attire, the degree of public exposure it heralded, the ease in which Elizabeth displayed herself in this way.

A man appeared on the staircase, dressed in a black, double-vested tuxedo. He was around Wissam’s height, but stockier, bigger in the chest. His face was rounder than Wissam’s too. As he approached, Sara noticed pockmarks on his face, partially covered by a trim brown beard. His hair was cut very short, so that Sara could see the white of his scalp beneath the glistening fibers. He held Sara’s gaze with his own as they shook hands.

“My husband, James,” Elizabeth said. “James this is Sara, the student I have been telling you all about.”

“It’s wonderful to meet you Sara,” James said, relinquishing her hand, his eyes steady on hers. “Elizabeth speaks so fondly of you. In all her years at the college, I have never heard her speak with such enthusiasm about any of her students. You have made quite the impression on my wife.”

“It is Professor Pederson who has made such an impression on me!” Sara replied enthusiastically, hardly able to contain her pleasure at this validation. “I am so fortunate to have met her.”

Next to Elizabeth in her high heels, James was noticeably shorter. He slipped an arm low around his wife’s waist, pulling her close and she leaned towards him for a kiss.

“Well, I happen to feel the same way about myself,” he laughed.

A moment of silence passed between them as they stood in the foyer, then James said, “have you met Brendan, yet?”

“No, not yet,” said Elizabeth, adjusting an earring. “We need to do that now.”

Sara followed Elizabeth past the foyer and down a hallway towards the back of the house. The walls on either side of the hallway were lined with family portraits, and Sara caught a quick glimpse of them as she hurried after Elizabeth. A blur of faces, too brief for recognition. Brendan, 6 years old, was sitting on the floor of a playroom in his pajamas pushing a miniature train along a wooden train track. He had his mother’s blond hair and fair skin, his father’s dark eyes.

“Brendan,” Elizabeth called out to the boy. “Honey this is Sara. She’s going to be your babysitter tonight while Mommy and Daddy go out for a little bit.”

Brendan looked at up Sara, his dark eyes uncertain, his little boy gaze resting on her hijab. He looked down at this hands and the toy train he was holding.

Sara fidgeted with her hijab, a forefinger tucking in an imagined loose strand of hair under the scarf.

“Brendan,” Elizabeth said again, her tone laced with a thin edge of sharpness. “Please be polite, stand up and say hello.”

“Hello,” said Brendan, eyeing Sara again.

“Hello Brendan,” said Sara and stepped towards the boy, a hand extended.

Brendan fidgeted with the toy train, switched it to his left hand, and extended his right to Sara for a handshake, still squatting on the floor. “What is that on your head,” he said.

“Young man,” Elizabeth said, and this time there was no missing the irritation in her voice, “I want you to stand up, apologize and say hello properly!”

At that, Brendan stood up. “Hi,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK,” said Sara, reaching out to ruffle the boy’s hair, but he darted under her arm and ran out the room.

“Dad,” Brendan said, his feet pattering down the hall.

“I’m so sorry for his behavior Sara,” said Elizabeth. “He is usually a very well-behaved boy. I think the loss of our last nanny affected him more than we realized.”

“I can imagine,” said Sara. “I promise you Brendan and I will be best of friends by the time you return.”

Elizabeth laughed and said, “yes. I imagine you will be. Let me show you Brendan’s bedroom upstairs. He can watch a half hour of a children’s show on TV in the family room before bedtime, which is 7 pm sharp.”

Elizabeth led Sara to the bedroom upstairs, then back down the stairs to a spacious kitchen, larger than Sara had ever seen, with a massive black granite counter at its center, stainless steel appliances, everything spotless. The kitchen opened up into a spacious family room where, on a loveseat, Brendan sat on James’s lap leafing through a picture book. Bookshelves lined the room, and a large couch and armchairs were arranged in a semicircle facing a fireplace and above that a widescreen TV.

“Sara, there’s water in the fridge for Brendan if he gets thirsty, and snacks and beverages in the fridge for you, so please help yourself,” said Elizabeth.

“That’s very generous of you, Professor Pederson,” Sara replied. “I will be fine.”

“James,” Elizabeth called to her husband. “We should be heading out.”

James lifted Brendan off his lap and settled the boy back into the loveseat. He turned on the TV with a remote and flipped through some channels until he found the children’s show he was looking for.

“Thirty minutes only Brendan, then bedtime,” Elizabeth said to the boy, leaning down to plant a kiss on his forehead. “Mommy and Daddy will be back in a couple of hours. You behave and listen to what Auntie Sara tells you. I don’t want any bad reports when I get back.”

Sara followed Elizabeth and James to the foyer.

“You have my cell Sara if you need anything at all,” said Elizabeth before stepping out the front door. “I’ll also text you to check in.”

“Please enjoy yourself,” Sara said. “Brendan and I will be just fine.”

Sara watched from the door as Elizabeth and James walked down a gently curving gravel path and climbed into the Porsche. She stayed there until they had pulled onto the street. Elizabeth waved to her one last time before the car sped off and Sara waved back.

Inside Sara could hear the TV playing down the hall. But despite those sounds, she felt a surging emptiness about the house press down her, and so she hurried to the family room to check on Brendan. The boy was still curled up on the loveseat watching TV.

Sara sat down on the edge of the couch. Brendan kept his eyes glued to the TV screen. Three puppets danced across a makeshift stage, and gathered around a miniature bicycle. Their shaggy exteriors gyrated to a musical jingle.

“Hi Brendan,” Sara said. “Are you enjoying the show?”

“Yes,” Brendan said not shifting his gaze.

“Can you tell me a little about the show?” Sara said, doing her best to engage with the little boy.

“Uhmm,” Brendan started, “it’s about who gets to ride the bike to school.”

“Oh,” said Sara. “So who do you think should get to?’

Brendan shrugged and said nothing. A purple haired puppet got on the bike, and the other two puppets, orange and green furry creatures, chased him wildly across the stage. Brendan laughed. Sara laughed too, pressing for a connection, but the boy’s attention stayed on the screen. After a few minutes, Sara stood up and wandered around the family room perusing the bookshelves, which were lined with atlases and encyclopedias, books on World War I and II, the Vietnam War, The Iraq War. There were also self-help books and inspirational books, books on how to be more productive and more efficient. The few novels that Sara saw were from authors she did not recognize—James Michener’s Hawaii. Louis L’Amour’s Showdown at Yellow Butte. Stephen King’s The Shining.

“I want to go to bed,” Brendan said suddenly, flicking off the TV set and climbing out of the loveseat. He stood there in his pajamas, looking uncertain and lonely.

Sara’s heart suddenly ached for the little boy.  “Of course,” she said and held out her hand.

To her surprise and pleasure, Brendan took her hand and she walked him up the stairs to his bedroom.

“Brendan,” Sara said when she had tucked him under the covers, turned off the ceiling light, the bedroom suffused in a soft glow from the bedside lamp. “Would you like me to read you a story?”

Brendan shook his head, but now he held Sara’s gaze, in his eyes something more trusting and peaceful. Inexplicably Sara felt a rush of happiness.

“OK, then,” Sara said. “I’ll be downstairs if you need anything.”

Brendan turned on his side and wordlessly nodded his head against the pillow.

Sara walked out the room, gently closed the bedroom door behind her, but not all the way. She stepped downstairs, passed the photographs in the hallway again, but now took her time looking over them. Elizabeth and James at their wedding, the bride beautiful in white. In the backdrop a lush, green vista. In the foreground the backs of seated guests. Another with Elizabeth holding a newborn Brendan. There were others too, without Brendan. A younger Elizabeth in a pale blue bikini with James and another man, her arms around their shoulders, the sea behind them. A photo at the same location, but this time with Elizabeth scooped up in the arms of the man who was not James, and James looking on laughing. Who was this man, Sara thought? And what could it mean for Elizabeth to let herself be held in this way, the man’s hands pressed into her bare thighs below her bikini bottom? Sara concluded it would have to be Elizabeth’s brother. She must have a brother. Nothing else would make sense.

Done with perusing the pictures on the wall, Sara found herself at the far end of the hall, past the kitchen and family room, outside of a small but cozy office, cluttered with books and papers. She stepped inside with some trepidation as if afraid she was being watched. Books in small piles on the floor and spilling out of the bookshelves. Here is what she had expected to see in the family room. Books on literary criticism, and theory, books on poetry, short story collections and novels, and she knew this was Elizabeth’s office. This was the Elizabeth she had connected with, the one she had been so immediately and intensely drawn towards. There was a stack of papers on the desk, essays from another of Elizabeth’s classes. She would be like this one day, Sara thought. Her own classes, her own students. Maybe even a home office. Although not a home like this. But she and Wissam would be happy in their small apartment off Abou Eir Street in downtown Alexandria.

The thought of Alexandria reminded Sara of the sunset prayer, Salat el Maghrib, and she considered for a moment deferring the three rakat here, and combining them with the night prayer when she got home. But the house was quiet and Brendan asleep, and so she made her way to the family room and an open space in front of the television set. Facing Mecca she began the prayer, head lowered, hands clasped in front of her, murmuring the words to the fatha before genuflecting, standing straight again, then kneeling on the carpet, her forehead lowered to the ground. The words of the prayer murmured between the motions. It was towards the end, still deep in prayer, that Sara sensed a motion, something fleeting out of the corner of her eye, a glimpse of Brendan at the far end of the kitchen. But when she looked in that direction, there was no one.

She rushed through the last few seconds of prayer and jumped to her feet. “Brendan?” she said to no response. “Brendan, is that you?”

The hall and foyer were empty. She looked up at the staircase half-expecting Brendan to be peering down at her, but he was not there. As she climbed up the staircase, she wondered if she had imagined things. Brendan would be in bed where she left him. She made her way across the upstairs hall to his bedroom, and gently pushed open the door. The bedside light was still on, the room bathed in its soft light, but the covers had been pulled back and the bed empty. Sara suppressed a wave of panic as she stepped out of the boy’s bedroom.

“Brendan,” she called trying to keep the worry out of her voice. “Brendan, where are you?”

She hurried down the stairs again calling Brendan’s name. No response. She rushed back into the family room, the kitchen, and adjacent to the kitchen, an airy dining room and living room. She strode down the halls calling for Brendan as she peered back into Elizabeth’s study, Brendan’s play room, and into the room next to it –an exercise room with a treadmill and stationary bicycle and a hanging TV monitor. And the room next to that, a tidy guest bedroom and bath, and finally at the end of the hall what she surmised was James’ study, a large oak desk, its surface wiped clean except for the darkened screen of a desktop computer and keypad. Next to the desk a thick revolving leather chair with deep cushions. Along the opposite wall, and running its length, a wood file cabinet and on it a framed photograph of Elizabeth in a hospital gown, a sheen of sweat on her forehead, an exhausted smile, the skin on her upper chest exposed to Brendan who was pink and naked and curled up against her.

Something about the Spartan feel to the room, the picture of Elizabeth and her just delivered son, brought the image of Marwan’s body, lifeless and bloody, flooding into her mind and tipped Sara into a panic.

“Brendan!” she called and she was shouting now as she lurched back up the staircase, her heels clattering on the steps, hands grasping the railing, propelling herself upwards. “Brendan! Please! Where are you?”

Brendan’s bedroom was as empty as it was before. This time Sara got on her knees, looked under the bed. No Brendan. She rushed down the hall, peered into a bathroom, and then to the master bedroom at the far end of the hall, with its king size bed, majestic windows looking out onto the darkened Northern California hillsides, an expansive bathroom with a shower stall, Jacuzzi, a marble counter with a few scattered toiletries below a massive framed mirror. It was there that she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, her face flushed and stricken, her hijab awry, loose strands of hair falling out from under the hijab, a thin line of perspiration beading along her upper lip.

More rooms down the other end of the hall, but she did not venture there. Rushing back down the stairs to the family room, she reached for her purse on the couch and digging into it pulled out her cellphone. She located Elizabeth’s cell number in her contact list, agonized for a moment over whether she should call now or keep looking. Imagined what Elizabeth would think of her. Without quite intending to, her finger tapped the screen and the call went through. Sara groaned and instinctively ended the call. Elizabeth called back immediately.

“Hi Sara,” said Elizabeth. “Is everything OK?”

Sara could hear laughter and the chatter of voices in the background. She imagined Elizabeth in her strapless evening gown, and behind her other finely dressed men and women in a chandelier-illuminated ballroom. A scene from a movie she thought. A horrible scene from a movie. “I can’t find Brendan,” she blurted.

“What?” said Elizabeth, the swelling anxiety in her tone was unmistakable and only added to Sara’s distress.

“I’ve looked everywhere,” said Sara no longer trying to control the alarm in her own voice. “Nearly everywhere. I can’t find him.”

“OK,” said Elizabeth. “We will be right there. Keep looking OK? Just keep looking?” There was a crack in Elizabeth’s voice, a choked off sound and Sara heard her say to someone, perhaps to James, “she can’t find Brendan,” before she hung up.

Sara’s next thought was to call Wissam. But again she hesitated. She should be able to handle this situation on her own. This had nothing to do with Wissam, and there was no reason to drag him into it. Except she ached for his support and to hear his voice. Sara took a deep breath and made the call.

“I was praying,” she sobbed, her voice failing her. “I think he saw me praying. Maybe it frightened him.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said Wissam. “I’m coming over.”

“No please don’t,” said Sara. “They’re coming back now. It’s best that I’m here by myself.”

Alone, Sara stumbled through the house pleading to Brendan and taking Elizabeth’s repeated calls.

“We’ve called the police,” Elizabeth said to her over the phone. “Just keep looking please!”

She kept looking, frantically traversing the same ground over and over, running up and down the beautiful spiral staircase, pausing only when she heard the grind of car wheels on the driveway. Sara ran out the front door and down the long driveway as James pulled the car to a stop and Elizabeth clambered out and rushed towards her.

“Have you found him?” Elizabeth cried.

“No. I’ve looked everywhere,” Sara said, wiping away tears. “I put him to bed and then I went downstairs and I was praying and I thought I saw him out of the corner of my eyes and when I finished my prayer, it was just a minute, even less, he was gone.”

Elizabeth stopped in her tracks and glared at Sara. “Praying?” She said. “You saw my son but you were busy praying?”

“It was less than a minute. Even less. I wasn’t even sure.”

“I did not pay you to pray,” Elizabeth shouted as she and James rushed past her into the house. And then again, “I didn’t pay you to pray. I paid you to take care of my son!”

Sara followed behind hearing them call for Brendan. She had just stepped into the foyer when she saw the boy emerge seemingly from nowhere and throw himself into his mother’s arms.

Sara gasped felt the room spin around her, heard Elizabeth say to her son, “it’s OK. She didn’t mean to frighten you. It’s OK.”

Sara tried to lower herself slowly to the floor, saw James reach out to steady her, heard Wissam shout her name, and everywhere the sounds of police sirens and flashing blue lights.

 

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