The Night Before the Snow Day
That November night in the first year of the new millennium promised a snow day. Marwa moved away from her desk and the still-glowing computer, away from IM’d dialogues about math homework and upcoming Intel project deadline meetings. She lay down on her bed and shut her eyes. She enjoyed the contrast between noisy metallic sleet and silent snow gusting against the window. She saw the variations in the colors her synesthesia caused, lovely Crayola Burnt Sienna equations for Brownian motion in her mind as if on a whiteboard that some of her teachers still called blackboards. Marwa was a junior at one of Manhattan’s “specialized” high schools that required a rigorous entry exam.
In her younger brother Joey’s elementary school classroom, the boards were green slate, and his teacher used yellow chalk. The sounds of voices, words written on colored surfaces, the numbers and symbols from her physics class (AN UNTESTABLE IDEA IS NOT EVEN WRONG said the poster at the back of the room), harmonized with the New York sleet and snow and blizzard wind. But Marwa was agitated. The words Her Divine Box kept repeating above and below all the other images and sounds in her head. The words aroused her. Also, she was still furious at her best friend, Judy.
Marwa wondered if she put on her hijab, would her heart stop pounding? She tried to block the images of the handsome model, Denim Prix (“Pree”). He appeared in magazines and on billboards, a Colossus on the sides of tall buildings, and recently even in perfume commercials on TV. Denim Prix lived high up in her building in Battery Park City. Those photos of Prix had invaded from the outside, but now he walked out of a dark cave in her mind. He also lived there. Marwa was sure it was her visual cortex flashing, directly connected to the primordial rat-brain in her hippocampus with a direct neural route to her genitals. Clitoris, she knew the word. It was cut off in African coming-of-age mutilations. Judy and she had watched a re-run of the Seinfeld episode when he couldn’t remember a girl’s name, but he knew it rhymed with a female sex word. Dolores, clitoris.
At lunch when her classmates had talked about Mecca and the Kaaba, Judy had gone poking around Allah’s name…
“…was originally Allat when the obsidian first fell and it was Her shrine,” Judy had pronounced.
Marwa couldn’t speak. Later, when she did, to get back at Judy with the fact about Denim Prix’s propinquity, Judy never missed a beat.
“Pre-what?” she demanded.
Now the words—Her Divine Box—blinded Marwa. It was terrible to say the name for the shoebox her mother had given her for keepsakes. She had been seven years old when she’d started keeping her secrets, but she hadn’t decorated the—It—until she was eleven. The first thing she saved was what she dug up when she was planting bulbs in the fall with her mother in their front yard in Far Rockaway, the place she still dreamed about as home. The family had moved to Manhattan so she and Joey could easily attend special schools. At seven years old, Marwa had happily dug in the dirt with a red-handled trowel, doing an often-praised job of digging holes the right number of inches down for daffodils and tulips. Her mother despaired over non-metric measurement, but Marwa’s exactitude had impressed her. Marwa wanted her mother’s approval.
She rose from the bed and found It where she kept it hidden at the back corner of her closet. Inside It, Marwa found an early magic object. Her trowel had hit a stone. She had taken it to her mother for identification, and her mother’s fascinated frown was more praise.
“This is not natural, I think,” her mother said. “See, the marks on it. As if struck by a knife or another stone.”
“Maybe it’s the Indians! The Rockaways lived here.”
“It’s not flint,” her mother puzzled.
Marwa had taken the small rectangular wedge of stone to school for Show & Tell. All her classmates had held it wonderingly. Marwa shouted when a boy tossed it from one palm to another and wouldn’t give it back, and then the teacher made him stop. Marwa had taken the stone home and knew she had to keep it in a safe place. Her mother had given her this shoebox. She forced the inaudible words: Her Divine Box.
The blizzard kept blasting against the tall apartment building, coming straight down from Canada along the air shaft of the Hudson. But it wasn’t the Arctic winds that cooled Marwa’s heat, it was the small right-angled edges of the magic stone in her hand. It calmed her. Then she picked up the carefully folded cloth that had been her hijab and held it against her heart with her other hand, apologizing to her younger self.
The hijab had made her feel blessed when she had first been allowed to put it on. She thought she was praising Allah. She knew she was pleasing her father. He had looked at her in a different way that day. Now, she thought of Juliet in the essay, who rebelled against her parents. Juliet Capulet never spoke again as a child after her own nurse encouraged her to marry Paris after she had married Romeo and did it with him. She wouldn’t even argue with her nurse anymore or her mother or father—her father who threatened to disown his only child, send her out to the streets where she could only become a whore if she refused to obey him.
Her chaste treasure, Marwa thought, but she knew that was Ophelia from Hamlet. They’d read a book about anorexia in psych class with Ophelia in the title, so she’d read the play on her own. They’d be reading it in AP English. Marwa remembered she had to finish the math homework in case there wouldn’t be a snow day tomorrow after all. She felt hungry.
Leaving her bedroom to go to the kitchen had become risky since Marwa had stopped wearing her hijab. She never knew if her parents or older brother would scold or glare at her. Joey never bothered her about it. Marwa and Joey were in some sort of league together now, which only angered her parents more because “she was such a bad example for her little brother.” Because I stopped being Mu’hajiba, Marwa thought. To wear or not to wear, to be or not to be. She was not thinking of Hamlet, though. She was seeing Denim Prix, leaning patiently against a mental cave opening. The poor small stone in her hand couldn’t keep him away. She put it and the scarf back into her—hot, swollen—all right, Divine Box, and braved the other side of her bedroom door.
* * *
As Marwa had feared, her mother was in the kitchen, putting together tomorrow night’s dinner of wara’ enab. The boiled grape leaves had to be filled with spiced rice mixed with the ground meat she was in the process of draining, cooling, and drying on paper towel. The kitchen smelled divine. Its narrow window was black with night, its screen spattered white with snow. Her mother kept her back turned and used her silent treatment.
Marwa yearned for her mother to take her face in her hands. But her own temper flared so hot and so terrible that Marwa scared herself. It let her understand the moon and werewolves, personality changes like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and all that talk freshman year about Achilles’s rage in the Iliad. Marwa’s anger said, fine, if Ummee doesn’t talk to me for a minute, I won’t talk to her for an hour. Instantly, Marwa saw, rather than calculated, how long it would take before she could say a word to her mother. The colorful equations gave the comfort her mother withheld.
When her mother finally spoke, she recited in Arabic and then, pointedly, translated as if Marwa no longer could understand. “Every son is a blessing; every daughter is a curse.”
Marwa felt like Judy, retorting, “If I ever have a daughter, I will never repeat those words to her.”
“We will see. We will see,” her mother said, cleaning the spotless sink. She still kept her back to Marwa.
“When you treat me like this, you teach me how to treat you,” Marwa said.
Marwa’s mother wheeled around, yelling, “What do you think you are doing? Where do you think this is going? How can you disappoint your father like this? How can you break my heart?”
Marwa refused to cry. They stood so close together, her whisper was a hiss.
“Ummee, how can you break mine?”
Then, near tears, her mother spoke softly, “It is one heart between us, and you are breaking it.” But again, her tone changed, to threat. “Who will pay for you to go to college, then?”
Marwa recoiled. No more whispering. “You would do that?”
“How can you expect your father to pay for your education when you are no longer his daughter?”
“All my work—all your work—you could turn your backs on that?”
“As you have turned your backs on us. On Allah.”
“This is economic blackmail. This is politics. Ummee—”
“You know nothing about the world. I love you, Marwa. Your father loves you. We cannot let you walk naked in this world. ‘We have bestowed raiment / Upon you to cover / Your shame, as well as / To be an adornment to you.’”
“I am not naked. The hijab is only one piece of cloth. ‘But the raiment of righteousness,— / That is the best.’”
“Oh, you are too smart for your own good. You are modern. You are American. You are an individual. And when you turn away from us and turn around, there will be an individual there, standing all alone and naked, and the world will eat you—this is what happens here, the child rejects the parent, it is against Allah.”
Marwa struggled to breathe. “That is paternalism. That is politics, not spirituality. That is not Allah.”
Her mother’s hand flashed like light and struck her. “Blasphemy! What follows—chaos, war, rape—you do not know what men are—” and then her mother did cry.
Marwa heard a new voice speak out of her mouth. “So, you think religion is the gang that protects me from gang rape? If I can stay inside the folds of hijab or chador and all the misogynist laws and hateful sayings, then I can exist—as a sheep in the fold, protected by the very wolves who keep me penned! And you left your family behind, didn’t you, Ummee? Did you think I would not imitate you? That is why you’re so angry with me, because I am doing exactly what you did, for the same reasons you can’t admit, and you feel guilty that I will be hurt because of you. But I won’t, Ummee, or I won’t be any more hurt than you were, leaving the people you love in Egypt.”
“I came to this godforsaken country because I loved your father and he loved me. There was no work for him in Egypt because his family was poor, and he was the oldest of nine. You know this. I am ashamed to have broken my parents’ hearts, but we are one heart in Allah. I do not understand you.”
“I think you do,” Marwa said. “I think you want me to argue with you. I think you want me to win. I’m just not good enough at it. Yet. In seventh grade, when I was voted to play the judge in the class trial, you said I couldn’t, that good Muslim girls couldn’t be a judge. What was I supposed to tell my class and the teacher, that we lacked a gene for judicial thinking that other girls had? That’s the same hateful, superstitious logic that justified Hypatia of Alexandria being skinned alive by the Christian Bishop because she was a genius mathematician. Don’t think doesn’t mean can’t think. If you and Baba won’t send me to college, I’ll go on my own. I’ll get a scholarship. I know how to work hard. You made me strong.”
“All strength comes from Allah.”
“Allah is a merciful judge. I got an A+ for that class trial. So, Allah gives me strength. If I have it, it must come from Allah.”
“This country is poison. It will kill you. It is materialism and individuality and filthy music.”
“Living in this country is not just about the money you and Baba make and can send to Alexandria. It’s why you moved so I could go to Stuy, from the garden in Far Rockaway where we planted the daffodils together and counted the worms. It’s Sharif at Brooklyn Poly and everything for Joey, basketball and baseball and ice hockey and Internet access to the public library—no, no, because in Egypt, Ummee, yes, they have public school and university, but Baba brought you here for hope, Ummee; it’s hope. That’s the last, best thing shut inside Pandora’s Divine Box. People should make their own laws that evolve, not blindly obey laws that oppress them because they call history God—”
“You are so in love with this country, where I can be no more than an adjunct at Columbia—I am not Professor because I am not a man!”
“They have women professors at Columbia. You don’t have an MA or a PhD.”
“I was Professor in Brooklyn at community college!”
“No. You were an adjunct there, just the students called you Professor. Columbia would treat a man without advanced degrees in Arabic the same way.”
“Because he is—”
“No, Ummee, not because he is Muslim.”
Her gentle voice stopped her mother’s tears. Though she covered her ears with her palms, tightly shut her eyes, and shook her head back and forth, the worst of the storm had passed.
Marwa reached out and placed her hands on her mother’s face as she had wished to be embraced herself. Marwa’s mother’s eyes opened. Neither of them said another word that night. Marwa let her mother go and returned to her room. She finished her math homework.
The next morning, the apartment was strangely quiet. Marwa’s clock radio had been turned off while she slept. After the blizzard, it was, indeed, a snow day. Only her father went to work at the bank nearby. Her mother had kept Joey busy and quiet so that Marwa and Sharif could sleep. When Marwa went into the kitchen for something hot to drink, she found that her mother had prepared her favorite, cocoa from Zabar’s. It was warm in the double boiler on the stove, and her mother had left out the cocoa container so Marwa could see the peace offering. Now the window’s netted snow prismed the sun into minute rainbows. It was cold outside. Sudden gusts shook the glass, but in Hamlet’s interim, it was calm.
A native New Yorker now in RI, L. Shapley Bassen was the first-place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest for “Portrait of a Giant Squid.” She is a poetry/fiction reviewer for The Rumpus, etc., also Fiction Editor at https://www.craftliterary.com/, prizewinning, produced, published playwright: http://www.samuelfrench.com/author/1158/lois-shapley-bassen, 3x indie-published author novel/story collections, and 2019, #4, WHAT SUITS A NUDIST, poetry collected works at https://www.claresongbirdspub.com/featured-authors/l-shapley-bassen/