I Saw Her from Across the Room


The first night I came to my new husband’s house, instead of him taking me to his bed, his mother took me to her kitchen and gave me half a pomegranate. I thought she would give the other half to my new husband, but she ate it herself.

“You look Lebanese,” she told me. The tone neither commended nor condemned.

I held the small silver spoon – so much heavier than the aluminum I had used in my father’s house – and sifted it through the seeds in the porcelain bowl. The seeds were the color of blind eyes. They weren’t juicy.

“Eat,” my new mother-in-law commanded me.

I obeyed. The spoon was cold in my mouth and tasted like blood. My tongue counted six arils before my teeth crunched through the cool sweetness into the seeds.

“You must be tired after today.”

I wanted to ask why she didn’t demand my blood from her son, why she looked out the window onto the streets of Amman, hot Amman, as I sat at her wooden table in my wedding dress. Embarrassed, I felt like I was spilling over the edge of the kitchen, my dress the foam of a great wave. But I said nothing, and looked only at the blind eyes gazing up at me.

Car lights sped past her house like the fireflies I knew in my Turkish youth. “Dust, always dust here,” I whispered.

“What was that?” my mother-in-law asked sharply.

I shook my head and lowered my eyes from the window, abashed. I thought the words were in my head. “Nothing,” I murmured.

She sat back in her chair, eyeing me critically. “It’s better if you don’t speak,” she told me, direct as an arrow.

I nodded and crunched the seeds between my teeth.

She looked at me for a moment, and I too felt hot. There were footsteps in the doorway.

“Go and become a wife,” she sighed, and turned away to look out the window.

I dreamt of eyes that night, eyes that watched me while I stitched peach blossoms onto my shirt. A womanly figure, golden and covered in black irises, told me I should sew them onto my headscarf because I would smell them all day and not be bothered by the stink of this new country.

I felt a prick in my finger and looked down. My lap was covered in blood and my hands were sticky and red; when I lifted a finger to my lips, I realized it was the blood of a pomegranate. When I looked again at the iris woman, she was gone.

She was golden and I imagined her encased in a massive, undulating pearl.

I didn’t dislike my husband. He was thoughtful, gentle, and reserved. “You are so quiet,” I told him during our courtship. This had not bothered me then. He had replied with nothing but a smile, and brushed my chin with his dark fingers.

Now that we were married, he brought me gifts to make up for Jordan, his country. Small bouquets of sweet jasmine to bring light into the dark red of our bedroom, decorated pins for my headscarf, small tins of baklava. He would come home, take off his shiny black shoes, and hand me a small package and a murmured apology that the baklava was not as good as what I was used to back in Turkey.

Under his mother’s training, I learned to reward him with only a smile. I kept my words to myself.

In the nights we shared I learned to be happy, or at least content, because then I could be quiet without worrying about the stern words of his mother asking why I didn’t engage her in conversation. There, he would hold me in his arms in silence. Sometimes he would put on a short CD of clarinet music, and he would plant his seed in hopes of a flower blooming in my tummy like the jasmine blossoms in the curtained window.

He would leave in silence in the morning, giving me only a kiss on the forehead and a small smile. After he left, I would pull out my pen and paper, pull back the curtains, and write in the early sunshine until his mother came in and asked me to help her.

My husband and I were like an orange and a pomegranate trying to fit together. I had loved oranges when I was a child – my father always brought a small case with him when he came back from trips to Syria – but our flesh was different. Our flavors were different.

I hated the smell in Amman. Its dirty, dusty air was bruised with cigarette smoke, and I felt like I needed to scrub my lungs with a sharp brush. My husband thought I did not leave the house because I didn’t have any friends, but really I didn’t leave because I wanted to protect my nose with the scent of Arab flowers.

I had grown up outside Antakya in Turkey, which was clean as the belly of a smooth white shell. It was so close to the Syrian border that we learned Arabic and embroidered jasmine flowers onto the hems of our skirts. We were not allowed to read Qabbani, the Syrian poet, in school, but I stole a book of his poetry from a library. I devoured the fruits that budded from the stems of the sweeping characters, the seeds that dotted above them.

O! the shirt crammed with peach flowers…

When I married my husband, I married him thinking that Jordan would be like Syria. I had never been to Syria, but I always thought I would like it.

I did not like Jordan.

“This is your country?” I had said, stepping from the airport. The heat was like that of a waterless sauna. I looked up and expected to see the brown-streaked sky cracked like desert ground from dryness.

He looked at me. “Do you dislike it?”

I looked around at the white block buildings. They were not unlike those in my city, but they were so… dusty. Filthy, as though sin had been smeared on them in the night.

“Shall I breathe through a mask?” I asked.

The spite in my voice made his eyes sad. For the first time, I lowered mine and took his hand. I was sorry. Sorry for him, that he had to live in this place, and for me, since now I had to live here too.

I wanted to ask my husband why he asked me to stop writing. In Turkey I had written for an art newspaper. Indeed, that’s how he learned who I was. But now that we were married, he said off-handedly a few weeks after our wedding, he wanted me to stop writing and become a mother.

“I can be a mother and a writer,” I told him.

He looked at me with his black eyes. “‘The wife is responsible for taking care of her husband’s home, and she will be accountable for those given in her charge’,” he quoted.

I balled my fist protectively around my pen. He only shook his black-curled head and, stroking his beard, closed the door of our dark bedroom.

She was golden and I imagined her encased in a massive undulating pearl. Then I imagined myself with her, imagined losing myself in the hills of my homeland.

I helped my mother-in-law with the small flowers in her garden. That was one of my wifely duties, one of the few I enjoyed when she took me from my secret writing. She grew irises and weak white roses, the kind that struggled through the soil and opened their buds hesitantly at the sun. When I watered the flowers, I imagined their stamen looking at me, their petals forming moving lips.

Salaamu aleikum,” I told one feeble bud as water dripped from the corners of its petals into the thirsty soil. I wondered what it would say if it had words.

My mother-in-law’s sharp voice cut through my musings and stopped them short, a cork shoved into the end of a clarinet. “Are youtalkingto theflowers?” she asked.

I looked at her flinty black eyes and looked down, shaking my head.

“You should be talking to me. Tell me about your monthly. Is it due soon? When will you know if you are pregnant?”

I was glad that the flowers only looked at me with beady eyes and spoke like the wind, because I could just listen and they would not be angry that I could not understand.

“This is your home now. Are you sad here?” my husband asked me one night. I lay with my forehead nestled in the crook of his neck, resisting the urge to smooth the soft hairs on his chest.

I thought about the stacks of paper in my locked cabinet.

The next day, he came with a small slip of paper. “Here,” he murmured.

I took the paper and looked at it. I was still having difficulty renewing my grasp of the Arabic alphabet, but made out the wordhamam. Bath.

I looked up at him, at soft pupils tempered in black irises.

“It’s for you, to go to a Turkish bath,” he told me. “Maybe…”

I studied the foreign letters, and nodded, glad his words were as few as petals on a withered flower. I felt like my voice had disappeared. Was I supposed to be happy that all I could get from my home here was bad baklava and a bath?

“You shouldn’t let her go to the bath,” his mother said over dinner. It was as though I were not there. “She might like it too much and run away back to her country.”

“This is her country now,” my husband murmured over his soup. His hand covered mine under his mother’s disapproving eye.

She tisked. “She should stay here. I need her tomorrow to help me sort the cabinets.”

You can do it yourself, I thought at her. I picked out the eyes from the white pomegranate and crunched them between my molars.

“She is my wife,” he replied. “I say she can have a day off.”

“But I don’t think—”

“No,” he interrupted. I looked up at him. He didn’t look at me, but his eyes trained hesitantly on his mother’s wrinkled face. “No,” he repeated. “I am the man here.” Then he looked back at his plate and put more food in his mouth.

“I want you to be happy,” he told me later that night as he planted his jasmine seed in the dark red light of our bedroom.

I saw her in the humid darkness of the Turkish bath, the golden woman. She lay on a marble slab and hot water dripped down the contours of her body like rivers. I saw her and saw that the water was the same on my body; I imagined us entwining and becoming a deluge.

I saw her from across the room and I needed to speak with her. Her body lay like the land I had known as a girl, moving with mountains and golden light. I imagined cypress trees growing between her breasts, blue-winged crows nesting in the lines of her stomach and migrating in winter to her belly button. Her eyes were almond-shaped and closed. The blue and yellow lights revolving through the humid mist made me confused, and I wasn’t sure anymore whether it was a woman or Antakya I was seeing. I closed my eyes and held my forehead as a short round woman scrubbed me down with a sharp brush. When I opened them again my homeland was gone.

“My mother tells me you are restless,” my husband told me one night, about nine months after our wedding.

I started at the sound of his voice. I held his chest close to me though it was very warm in our bedroom.

His beard tickled my forehead. A long moment passed and he asked, “She says maybe you should see more of the city than this house. Do you miss Turkey? Do you miss your family?”

I studied his dark olive skin. I imagined trees with blue-silver leaves growing between the soft hairs on his chest, then shook my head. “My family is gone. I don’t need to miss them.” I paused, then whispered, more to myself than to him, “Maybe it is better they are dead. My brother was so ill.” I turned back to him and sighed. “You led me from that emptiness, and so I am here with you.”

He hesitated, then stroked my long, thick, black hair. He had once described it, in a rare moment of eloquence, as soft like the petals of the black irises in his mother’s garden. “This is your home now.”

I saw the golden woman again when I had lost all hope that I would ever find my homeland. I had ventured from the house to a flower shop to press marigolds and fleur de lis against my nose; I wanted to pretend it was the massive garden I had weeded in Turkey instead of a humid greenhouse.

She stood in a corner tending peach roses, her golden skin softly lit by the flowers she nurtured. At first I thought there was a double-sided axe in her hand, but as it penetrated the soil I realized it was only a trowel wielded gently as a shell. Her hair, smooth and black as onyx, was pulled back in a knot under her skull. I imagined her placing blossoms in her mouth and swallowing them whole so they would sprout, healthy, from her belly.

She must have felt my eyes on her, hard as the thorns that fell away in her hands from the rose stems. Her eyes met mine from across the length of the greenhouse.

Abruptly she stood before me, her full eyes level with my lips.

“I’ve seen you before,” she said.

My notes were full of round squiggles that pushed themselves into words. My sentences disentangled themselves from mounds of paragraphs, and my papers, kept locked away in my desk, burst their way out like sheep through a pen. I was no shepherdess to guide them, so they clambered their ways onto my walls. In an attempt to coddle them into behaving, I took a pen and ordered them, pinned them in place. A poem with three lines hung above the now-dying jasmine blossoms:

We walked on the sharp edge of the skyline;
White were the birds that perched nearby.
Frail was the love that kept us entwined.

My husband looked alarmed when he came back that night and found me poring over my words.

He took off his shiny black shoes and came over to me, hunched by my side. I didn’t look up, only scratched out the wordlove.

He tried to put his arm around my shoulders, and his beard was smooth against my cheek. He softly put his fingers over mine, but I would not yield my pen.

“You can’t stop me,” I told him, speaking into the paper. “I cannot stop this.”

He looked at me, and stepped back.

She was from Malaysia. That was the first personal thing she ever told me, over tea flavored with Malaysian mint. Her flat was small and colored with Buddhist yellows and reds. She explained to me thechakrawhich ruled her life, the colored square flags that acted like small windows and let flavored light into her compact body. They hung, attached with transparent tape, over the doorway.

I watched them, and they became my anchor in the small peach-scented world I had with her. They shone when olive and gold swirled together and swooped through layers of fruit, skin, and thorns.

She was golden and I imagined her encased in a massive undulating pearl. Then I imagined myself with her, imagined losing myself in the hills of my homeland. She spilled spoonfuls of mint tea into my red mouth.

Was this Paradise or Hell?

“My mother says you spend little time in the house with her now,” my husband told me one night. “She is concerned…”

I looked at the skin of his chest, olive like mine, and didn’t answer him, only thought about swirling gold.

There was a long moment of silence. “We have been married only two years,” he said softly. His voice was heavy with onyx sadness. “Is there a man who…?”

I rolled off his chest and faced away from him, looking at the yellowed paper with my scratchy black writing. It seemed so bright against the pomegranate red of the walls.

“No,” I told him.

We were like two halves of a nectarine. Sweet and complementary. Between us was a hard pit that we filled with sweetness, and it dissolved away in the light of pearls caught in a blanketed sea.

“Why did you come here?” she asked me once. She was teaching me to make a dessert from Malaysia. Her hand was over mine as we beat the dough together with a hard wooden spoon.

“I’ll tell you that only if you tell me about yourself,” I told her.

Her smile was full of small white teeth, bright as the stones I had collected in Antakya. “Ask me anything,” she told me.

Her golden hand was warm against my olive skin, and I tasted sweetness.

I wanted to ask her whether Malaysia was lush, wet, full and sensual like the pictures I had seen in a travel book, whether all the food was sweet as this dough, whether juice had dripped from her chin as she drank crushed peaches from an empty turtle shell. Instead I asked, “Why are you a gardener?”

“I like flowers—isn’t it cute, being one in the desert?” She tightened her grip on the spoon, my hand. “Why did you come here?”

“I married a man who lives here.”

“Why would you do that?”

“I thought I would be happy in Jordan. I thought it would be like Syria.”

She laughed in a non-mocking way. “A naïve thought,” she said, and looked away. “Do you love him?”

I took my hand away from the spoon, and she went on beating the dough, more efficiently now. Her cheeks were flecked with flour. “Why are you here?” I asked.

Her black-pearl eyes didn’t meet mine. “I needed a change of scenery.”

“So you came toJordan?”

She looked at me this time and the spoon became still. “I got to meet you,” she said. The blackness of her eyes seeped into the lines around them. “Isn’t that enough?”

How strange it was, to feel that I had found home when none of the crevices or the forests of her homeland had known mine – but I felt they were the same. It was enough to fill emptiness, to fill darkness and helplessness with the pearly light and fruity sweetness.

And yet, it was also not enough.

I found out I was pregnant by my husband when my mother-in-law waved a white plastic rectangle in front of my face, saying I hadn’t bled in two months and that all I had to do was pee on it.

The second blue line stank with my pregnant urine.

My husband picked me up and swung me around, which I imagined other women would have found endearing. He kissed me full on the mouth and said, “We’ll name him after my father.” His mother nodded approval.

Later I lay in my massive bed and held the stolen dog-eared copy of Qabbani poems to my chest. I found paper-thin jasmine petals caught in the binding and wondered if I had placed them there when I was a girl with a family.

O! the shirt crammed with peach flowers…

I put my hand on my stomach and tried to imagine a flower blooming, but could only feel spikiness, like thistles. When my husband came in with a big magenta tin of baklava, I turned my face into the pillow.

I wanted nothing more than to go away, back to my homeland, but it must have known of my betrayal, my womb’s betrayal of me. I went to her flat. There was no answer to my knock, so I let myself in.

It was empty. The orange bed was stripped white and the flowers were gone from the window. In the kitchen there were no sweets, no tea, no mint.

I whirled to look up in the doorway, and the anchoringchakrahad been torn away. Tape hung lifelessly from the corners, and I abruptly felt that my life was as colorless as this blank tape.

I remembered her hands touching jasmine blossoms, and realised they would die without her hands to tend them.

Heat scored the inside of my belly as I fell and called out to my homeland, to the rivers and mountains I would never see again, to the entwining gold and olive that cut through thorns and fruit peels, to the black pearls with every color heaving in their depths that would never seep into me again.

She was golden and I imagined her encased in a massive undulating pearl. Then I imagined throwing the light, hard pit of a nectarine at it, the glimmering shards splintering into darkness, and they would pierce the petals of every flower, and my words and my eyes.