The water hit the spoon’s surface and splashed all over her. Her blouse, pants and the floor got wet. Soraya blamed Umm-Kulthum’s beautiful voice for the distraction. She was keen on finishing the dishes while listening to the eight o’clock classical Arabic music radio program before the miss woke up.
The miss had commented before to her that those songs encouraged women to be obsessed about love. And then she rambled and said big words such as; independence, empowerment and the type of words you hear from politicians. Soraya found solace in Umm Kalthum’s songs, what mattered more than love anyway? If it wasn’t for Umm Kalthum’s voice, she wouldn’t have had a song that reminded her of her walks with her mother to the bakery for fresh bread straight out of the oven. They would then fill it with home made chips, shared a bottle of coke, sat on the street benches overlooking the Nile and devoured their feast. This must be her favorite memory of time spent with her mother. Neither would she have had a song that reminded her of the first time Mohsen held her hand when they were strolling in the Azhar park and he confessed his love to her. Those songs kept her company and at times her peace.
This was Soraya’s first job in the city. After her mother became sick, her family moved to the city in hopes of finding better medical treatments, and Soraya had begun to work to help her family out. Soon her mother died. And her father health conditions quickly deteriorated and could no longer go to work regularly. That is what happens to someone when love is gone, Soraya believed. She quickly found herself barely seventeen and the main source of income in the household. She had to drop out of her last year in school to accommodate the new working hours. Back then she made a vow to herself, that once things began to settle she would go back to school. Now it had been two years already and nothing changed.
When she had first arrived at Amal’s house she was wearing one of her favorite mother’s long sleeve dresses; Amal then gave her a long inquisitive look, left her for few minutes without explanation, came in, handed her a couple of old pants and blouses and asked her to wear them instead. She told her that she would not tolerate looking at those ugly dresses. They reminded her of the poor women who worked in the field. She meant the peasants of course. It was not absolutely horrible to work for this bachelorette; at least during day-time she had to clean after one person only.
“Important people visit me. So you should look presentable,” Amal would say every time she gave her clothes.
She was not used to wearing pants it made her feel conscious. Yet she politely accepted them from her and wrapped a jacket around her waist to cover her back. Her body looked slim in those tight clothes. She couldn’t begin to think what her mother would say had she seen her walk like this in the village. Maybe Mohsen would like it, or maybe not, she could not tell. But mother, she wouldn’t.
She sized the mess she had caused, and quickly searched for a piece of cloth to dry the sink and the wet floor.
“What was that?” Amal asked coming out of her room and yawning.
“Nothing,” Soraya replied as she dried the last wet spot on the floor, “Nothing to worry about Miss.” Amal came into the living room that was an extension to the open kitchen. She leaned on the kitchen’s counter for a minute. The next minute she stretched on the ground in awkward poses. She wore pink sweatpants and a white tank top. And her hair curled in rollers.
She looked past Soraya and gestured with her hands, pretending she had a cup she was about to sip from. Soraya’s stomach churned whenever Amal did that, why couldn’t she just ask.
“Right away,” she mumbled.
Soraya rushed to fix her some coffee. She could now finally perfect American coffee. Before Amal showed her how to, she could only make regular Turkish coffee.
Soraya memorized by heart how the scene played out every single day. It was a Friday morning, that meant that the miss woke up late and didn’t have to work. And like every weekend she woke up with what looked like a bad headache, and then asked for her coffee fix while staring at her cellphone. She’d then cover herself with the blanket she kept at the reception’s couch, cuddle her cat, Sonfera, and watch TV till noon.
By that time of the day; Soraya would have already finished cleaning the kitchen, swept the floors of the living room and the reception, and started off with the window cleaning.
During the week the miss worked in one of the prestigious companies. Soraya looked at her while waiting for the coffee to boil. She had the perfect teeth. The perfect skin. Silky hair that was now rolled, golden at the ends and brown at the roots. She looked like a goddess. Probably that’s what money does to people.
“Tell me Soraya, do you love this Mohsen of yours?”
Soraya bit her lower lips. She didn’t remember why she had ever mentioned Mohsen to her.
“When are you getting married then?”
“When God makes a way.”
“God? That must be a hard relationship.” Amal rolled her eyes and ate a piece of chocolate.
“Is he one of those traditional men who don’t allow their wives to work?”
Soraya sighed, “We haven’t talked about that yet.”
“Talked about it? This is not an option! Who will clean for me? You have to arrange for a substitute if that’ll be the case.”
“Miss, not to worry.”
“I worry Soraya. I worry a lot. I have so much on my plate and an unclean house is the last thing I need,” She said as she waved Sonfera away.
So many thoughts passed through Soraya’s mind, but nothing that she could say out loud.
“Tell me, is he good looking? Are you attracted to him?”
Soraya blushed for she was not accustomed to think in that way, let alone discuss such a private affair in an open manner.
“I’d like to think he is handsome.”
“Poor girl, your face is red!” Amal laughed. “Anyways, I’m travelling tonight for two weeks. I ‘ll leave you the keys; make sure you come at the end of the second week, right before I arrive, to dust off the house.”
At around four’ o’clock Soraya was done cleaning the house, and headed home.
On her way back she stopped by Marefa public school to pick up her brothers; Omar, Ahmed, Wafik, and Hussein. She was older than the eldest, Omar, by nine years. She glimpsed Hussein first, the youngest, running towards her. She hugged him, then held his hand and waited for the rest of the boys. And then they walked back together to their house, a small flat on top of the roof overlooking the busy streets of Shubra. When they arrived home she could see from the window that her father didn’t change his position since she left him in the morning. She could hardly recognize him these days with his frail figure and large dark circles under his eyes. When her mother was alive, he used to be different but the years seemed to have smoothed his rough edges and soothed her grudges. There he was slouched on the couch, surrounded by half empty cups of tea, watching an Egyptian soap opera episode.
“Hello father, how was your day?”
“Good Soso, this was once Egypt. I wanted to be part of those times,” he said referring to the soap opera he watched over ten times this past year, featuring Abd el Halim’s life.
“Its seems like it was a good era. Are you hungry?”
“Of course it was. Yes, and make something for the kids.”
She let out a long sigh and went to prepare dinner. The kitchenette was made up of a small fridge, one that the miss got rid of last year as she was refurbishing her kitchen and wanted a new one that would blend in with the new design, a vintage stove, and a sink. She fetched the peas she had shelled out the night before. And made a meal of rice and peas in red sauce and served the men. Finally, after a long day she went to her room. The only private room in the house, everything else they shared.
Other than Mondays she worked all week long, and on Mondays she helped her brothers in their school work. Back when she was at school, she spent her free time with one of her girlfriends or engulfed in a book of her choice. She could hardly grasp that the next day she had the whole day to herself.
She woke up as usual at five o’clock in the morning. She did not set up the alarm the night before. Her mother once explained to her, that our bodies have their own way of adapting to habits. It was one of those silly little things that people come to know alone, that her mother talked about the most. Her dad liked to tease her mother that if she had finished her education she would have had better things to talk about. But somehow those were the things she missed the most things like; “Don’t shower before you go to bed or you’ll catch a cold.” and “Eat some real food.”. Where would she have been if it weren’t for her? She missed her.
She kept trying to fall back to sleep but she couldn’t. She thought of the things she could do today for a change. She could prepare breakfast for her fiancé in the warehouse and spend time with him. Her stomach cramped. Perhaps she should rest for a while at home, but she wouldn’t really be alone. Her father would be there.
She decided that she would walk the boys to school first. So she left the bed and opened her cupboard, several beautiful dresses hanged next to each other. Today was a good day to wear one. But instead she grabbed one of the three outfits she had made out of the items Amal gave her. And headed to the bathroom. And mechanically undressed, took a shower and wore her uniform.
“Good morning boys, wake up! You are going to be late to school.”
Shortly after she dropped them, she took the microbus to downtown. She did not think too much about it, her feet seemed to take the lead. She arrived at building number nineteen like every morning at eight o’clock. Only this morning, she was not supposed to be there.
The apartment was one of the high ceilinged ones. Amal had explained to Soraya that unlike the new areas of Cairo, downtown buildings were built during the British occupation, and their architecture mimicked the European style. The apartment belonged to her grandfather, and now that her family lived in Dubai, it was hers.
She tried the keys to the apartment. It was as clean as she left it the day before. She was hesitant at first. But she entered anyway. A rush of excitement travelled all through her body. The house was empty. And she was alone.
She didn’t know what to do with herself so she moved to the kitchen and boiled water for coffee. She then went inside Amal’s room; and at the inviting sight of the king-size bed she threw her full weight onto it. She stayed silent for a while. A few minutes later, she went into the bathroom attached to the master bedroom. And undressed. Then she moved to the tub, and opened the tap. She started preparing a bubble bath the same way she did for the miss. Only she could not choose from the range of the liquid soap available. So she poured a bit of each flavor. It smelled like a garden of flowers she thought. Then she immersed in the water. It could have been an hour or more before she came out, she could not tell.
She enjoyed the warmth of the water and the smell of vanilla and peach that surrounded her. After the bath she felt a little bit more comfortable. This feels right she thought. She then chose one of the fur pink pajamas-she’d always wondered how they must feel on one’s skin. To be covered by something so soft. Then she lounged on the sofa and watched the television for hours while snacking on nuts.
She sort of forgot the day’s hour, who she was or where she had been. Only that she wanted to stay like this for a good while.
A door slammed.
She jerked from her seat.
She stood fixed in her place, with a startled look in her eyes. And before she could think, a man appeared. Tall, he occupied so much space. He was too big, and she was too small. He had dark brown hair and thick eyebrows. And hazel eyes that gazed at her.
She could not make her mouth move. She attempted to say something, but something similar to a squeak came out. It occurred to her that he too looked like he was out of words.
“Hey..I’m Mourad, Amal’s brother,” He said in a plain calm voice.
Something about his voice, calmed her down, more calming then vanilla and peach.
Still she did not know what to say. How would she explain why she was there? In his sister’s pajamas?
He interrupted the silence “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to scare you. Amal said she was travelling and I could use the house during my visit.” “Sorry, I talk too fast! You must be Amal’s friend?” his voice cracked. Was that nervousness she heard in his voice? She suddenly realized he had no idea who she was. She breathed.
Soraya nodded, “Yes, but I was just about to leave.”
“No please you don’t have to.”
“No really, I was spending the night over and was going to leave anyway.”
“I hope I didn’t intrude, care for some coffee before you leave?”
She mechanically followed him to the kitchen.
The idea of being in a closed space with a man alone, was perhaps a normal idea in Amal’s world, and probably in her brother’s world too. But for Soraya it was the most foreign. She thought of the other night with Mohsen though. She tried to refocus on the enormity of her immediate situation instead. But the memory of Mohsen and the staircase came to her mind.
She reached for the coffee jar.
“Let me take care of that,” he said as he took the coffee jar from her. “What is your name?”
“Nesma.” She came up with that rather quickly, she thought.
It had been a long day for both of them. They had had a fight about postponing their wedding, because Mohsen was not financially ready for all the preparations. And it was late so he walked her home.
“Milk?” Amal’s brother asked with a charming smile.
“Yes, please,” She said shyly.
They had arrived and Soraya turned to tell him goodbye. But he insisted to walk her upstairs. She did not object.
“Sugar?” the brother’s voice interrupted her thoughts.
But her mind wondered again to that night. As she took the stairs she felt Mohsen’s breath at the back of her ears. He was close. And he came closer from behind and tenderly pulled her towards him by her waist. Her heart pace quickened. She lost her breath, and gulped back the tears. She wanted to let go and give in. She wanted to feel the heaviness of his body against hers. Allow herself to feel defeated, penetrated. And for once embrace her femininity without fighting back.
“Would you like sugar?” he repeated, “Are you okay?”
“No, I mean yes. I mean no about the sugar and yes I am okay.”
“I am a firm believer, that the best coffee is Turkish coffee,” He said with a smile.
“Me too,” she replied spontaneously.
And she had loved him for a long time hadn’t she. But despite herself her legs tightened next to each other. And as if possessed by a foreign force, she pushed him away. And started to weep.
“Are you always so brief in your replies or did I scare you?” he asked.
He was gorgeous just like his sister. Irresistible, she thought.
“No, not at all. I am just shy at first.”
He laughed, and swiped his dark hair backwards.
“Do you live nearby?” he asked so gently.
“Half an hour away,” she replied. She moved her long hair from one side to the other.
“I can give you a ride.”
“I prefer to walk.”
“Me too, it always helps me calm down especially after an exhausting day. Helps me breathe some fresh air, and sort out my messy thoughts. Plus, it’s a good exercise nowadays in a city like Cairo, we don’t get to walk that often,” He said, “I am rambling. Sorry.”
She laughed, “No you are okay, you speak your mind.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Yes. I enjoy walking too; I sometimes get myself lost on purpose to discover new places.”
“You are adventurous, I see.” He poured the coffee in a cup and handed it to her and said, “I do that in reading, I try to get lost in the books I read, and imagine what it would feel like to live in a different world-the story world.”
“One can only imagine such things,” she said.
“Would you like to go for a walk Nesma?” he asked.
“Yes. That would be lovely,” she answered.