Rasha Mourtada’s story placed first in University of Toronto Magazine’s Alumni Short Story and Poetry Contest
Laila Ibrahim rose early, her feet hitting the cool marble floor before the sun’s first rays filled the sky. The imam had just made the call to prayer, his voice settling over the quiet city, like a crisp sheet falling over an empty bed.
She wasn’t surprised to find that her husband wasn’t sleeping at her side. Amir would be stretched out on the couch in the living room. She walked quickly past him, not needing to look his way to see him lying there in his stained pajamas, his glasses askew across his face.
“Wake up, Amir!” she called. She heard him grunt.
Laila went into the kitchen to begin preparing that afternoon’s lunch.
“Ya Amir!” she shouted. Amir shifted on the couch.
“What did you do with last night’s meat?” She was standing above him, her hands on her hips, an orange apron around her waist. “I can’t find it. Did you hide it somewhere to feed to those wretched cats?” Laila sighed. How many times had she told Amir only to give scraps to the strays? There were people – children – without enough to eat, and there was Amir, kneeling on the filthy sidewalk, pressing dust into his good pants, feeding leg of lamb to the cats.
Amir finally spoke, his voice gruff with sleep. “I can’t believe how petty you are. Do you seriously think I have nothing better to do than steal meat from your kitchen?”
Laila left the room without replying. When she found the leg of lamb in the very back of the fridge, she didn’t tell Amir.
She had first noticed him in the bazaar, where he worked in his father’s dress shop. Her mother would drag her into the store every Eid. The month of fasting was behind them and the holiday about to begin. Each year they’d walk through the narrow and winding Damascus streets to the dress shop, a mother with her only daughter following closely at her side.
“Everything is pink this year?” her mother asked. Her tone made it clear she was not impressed. The storekeeper, Bashar Ibrahim, spread one dress open after another on the counter before her. Laila was 14 that year and liked pink, but she didn’t say anything.
“But, madame, pink is the fashion,” Bashar said. “It is what all the young girls are wearing these days.” He smiled at Laila.
“Fine. Pink it is then. The one in the window.”
“Amir! Get down here,” shouted Bashar. His son came into the room, a lock of black hair falling into his eyes.
“Yes, Baba?” he asked.
“Get the lady the dress in the window in pink. The size, madame?”
Her mother made a big show of getting her to stand up in the middle of the store and turn around in front of the angled mirrors. “I don’t know, Bashar. You tell me what you think. I swear, this one is getting bigger each day but can I get her to lay off the bread? Never. No man will marry you, I keep telling her, if you turn into a fatty!”
Bashar laughed and Laila noticed Amir looking at her. He quickly looked away when their gazes locked. Laila, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment, wished he had not.
Amir was still passed out on the couch, even though it was well after 10 a.m. She wondered how many pills he’d taken the night before. There’d be no point in asking, because he’d only make some snide remark and deny it and then they’d fight. She had lunch to prepare; there was no time for fighting.
Still in her nightgown, a piece of cloth holding her hair back, Laila went back to her chopping.
Amir Ibrahim knew that no matter what he did with his life, the one thing he would not do would be sell dresses. He’d seen the way customers talked to his father, never looking him in the eye, like he was some kind of servant.
That’s why the summer he graduated from high school he told his father that he would not be helping at the dress shop any more.
Bashar Ibrahim was quiet at first. He paused to look at his son, then he looked straight ahead.
Finally he spoke. “You are my only son. The dress shop will be yours one day.”
“I’m not interested in the dress shop, Baba,” Amir said. He was trying to be gentle; he didn’t want to make his father angry. Ever since Amir’s mother had died seven years before, he’d done everything he could not to upset his father. Even today, grief filled his father’s eyes.
Bashar didn’t speak to his son for 16 days. He wasn’t a man who got what he wanted by force. His tactic
was guilt and he knew his silence would hurt Amir more than anything else he could have done.
But when Amir’s decision held firm, Bashar decided to accept it. What choice did he have?
One evening, after a 12-hour day at the shop, he called Amir into the kitchen.
“Tomorrow, you’ll go help Khaled at the pharmacy.”
“What?” Amir asked.
“It’ll be good for you to interact with men in the community. Don’t argue,” his father said, even though Amir hadn’t objected. “Tomorrow, you go.”
So Amir had begun work the very next day. At first he stocked shelves and counted out change. But then one day, when Khaled’s assistant was away, Amir helped dispense pills.
“You know, you’re pretty good at this,” Khaled said to him at the end of the day. Khaled had been their neighbour for 18 years. Amir had loved going to his house, where Khaled’s wife always had something in the kitchen that she’d offer Amir. Milk pudding laced with rosewater, sesame cookies or even just hot tea.
The next day, when Amir arrived at work, Khaled handed him a white jacket, just like the one he wore behind the pharmacy counter every day. Amir held it in his hands. There was a hole near the elbow and a coffee stain on the front, but to him, the boxy white jacket couldn’t have been more perfect.
“Merhaba! Welcome!” announced Laila, Amir behind her, when she answered the front door. It was Amir’s cousin. She’d been ignoring her husband all day as she cooked – but, still, she noticed he wasn’t steady on his feet and his eyes were glassy.
Laila had left her husband seven times over the pills during their 15 years of marriage. But each time Amir promised her he was finished with the pills and she returned. So much time had passed, so many years of making excuses for him, of spending nights alone while he lay practically unconscious in the next room, that Laila really didn’t know what she could do now, today, that would change anything.
“What’s happened to you, Sayid!” said Amir. “I see you once a year and each time, you’re twice the size!”
Laila cringed at her husband’s insensitivity. But when she looked at Sayid, she could see he was right. The man was fat.
“You’re telling me!” said Sayid to Amir. “The doctor says that one of these days I’m going to reach around to wipe my ass, and my heart’s going to stop. Lose 100 pounds or you will have a heart attack, he says to me, like it’s the easiest thing in the world.”
Amir ushered his guest into the formal sitting room.
“My dear Laila, have you got a couple of cushions? A big man like me could use a little bit of support,” said Sayid, chuckling.
“Of course!” she said cheerfully, as if all of her guests asked for a little something soft to place beneath them when they visited. She left the room and came back with two pillows. He placed them on top of each other on the settee and then lowered himself on to them.
Laila left the room to put lunch on the table. When she’d laid it all out, she called to them: “What? You’re going to let me eat all of this food myself? You better come in here if you want your share!”
Sayid entered the room and took in the table. He’d always loved Laila’s kibbeh (“Tell me, ya Laila, how do you know to make the kibbeh just the way I like it? Not too oily, not too dry. Just right”). He sat himself in front of the dish, another pillow beneath him.
“Ya Laila, ya Laila, you can’t imagine how I’ve looked forward to this,” he said to her, leaning in and taking a deep breath.
When Laila and Amir had first married, Laila taught English at the American School. Amir spent his days counting pills behind the pharmacist’s counter. Their life was modest. But she looked forward to the end of each day, to spending the evening with her husband.
She’d been devastated at first when she couldn’t have children. They tried for eight years. Every month, when she emerged from the bathroom crying, the stream of red vivid in her mind, Amir held her and told her that they didn’t need children to be happy Their blessing in life was to have each other, and for him, that
was enough. But, Laila realized, for her it wasn’t.
Eventually Amir began to look away when he noticed her tears. He’d stare straight ahead at the TV and she’d cry silently beside him. After a while, he turned to her less and less in bed, and soon they stopped trying for a baby altogether.
One day, after they’d been married for 10 years, she began to notice bottles of pills in Amir’s briefcase. I’m just delivering those to a customer tomorrow morning, he’d tell her, or I must have put them in there by accident. She didn’t question him. But soon he was heading to bed as soon as he set foot in the apartment, barely grazing her forehead with his lips as he greeted her. The first time she noticed his glassy eyes and clammy skin, she thought he was sick. She leaned in to kiss his forehead to see if he felt warm and he pushed her away, so hard that she nearly lost her balance and fell to the ground.
Later, when he thought she was busy watering the plants, she saw him lean into his briefcase and then swallow a few pills. The glassy eyes, clammy skin, incoherent speech, hot temper. It all made sense. He’d been taking pills – painkillers, she’d later discover – for months.
She cried, begged, threatened. He’d cry with her sometimes. But a day or two later, he’d take more.
Amir couldn’t remember how he’d come to this place, sitting across from a fat man and a shrill woman. His head hurt and he needed to lie down. But the woman kept looking at him angrily. So angrily. He couldn’t give her what she wanted. That’s why she stared at him like this, full of accusation. But he couldn’t think about that. He had to eat the food in front of him.
The fat man was looking at the woman. His woman.
Amir thought he might throw up. He left the table, went into the bathroom and leaned over the toilet. He remembered now that he’d taken three pills earlier in the day, just to help him get through his cousin’s visit.
After what felt like a long time, he splashed water on his face and returned to the table.
When Sayid had left, Laila brought Amir his last cup of tea of the evening. He’d barely spoken a word to her all day.
When she looked at him, sitting there in his raggedy pajamas, a man with nothing to look forward to, any anger she felt subsided and she was overwhelmed with pity.
“Are you going to come to bed, habibi?” she asked.
“You think I’m going to come to bed with you? After what you did in my house today?”
Laila stared at him. This wasn’t the first time he’d turned on her after his pills had worn off.
“Of course, she’s pretending like she doesn’t know what I’m talking about.”
“What are you talking about, Amir?” The moment had passed; the rage had returned.
“I’m talking about Sayid.”
“Sayid? What about Sayid?”
“I saw the way he talked to you. Ya Laila, ya Laila,” he said, his voice high-pitched.
She looked at him in disbelief. “What are you saying?”
“Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about,” he raised his voice.
“Listen, Amir, we both know you’re not in your right mind. Let’s not discuss this now,” she said quietly.
“We’ll discuss it when I say we’ll discuss it! I can’t believe that man, coming into my house, eating my food and talking that way to my wife. Does he think I’m blind? I’m deaf? You think I didn’t see the way you smiled at him, the way you laughed at his jokes.”
“Sayid is your cousin. Sayid puts cushions under his ass he’s so fat. You think I want to have an affair with Sayid?”
“After 15 years, this is how you treat your husband? Whore.” He spat the words at her.
Laila Ibrahim stared at her husband for a moment, then rose to her feet and left the room.
When Amir woke the next day and discovered his wife had left, he looked around for something to eat. He was starving. All he could find was some meat in the fridge; he ate it standing over the sink, cold, saving a piece for the cats downstairs.
At first he couldn’t remember what he’d done to make her so angry, and then pieces of their conversation last night came back to him. Sayid. Affair. Whore. Had he really said those things to Laila?
She’d be back, he knew. But something about her departure this time felt different. No clean towels in the bathroom, no food stacked in plastic containers in the fridge. He wondered if he should go after her.
But as Amir sat in the quiet apartment alone, a bottle of pills in his hand, he realized he didn’t want to follow Laila. He swallowed a few pills, turned on the TV and fell asleep.
Rasha Mourtada (BA 1998 New College) has a degree in English from the University of Toronto and a degree in journalism from Ryerson University. She lives in Toronto and works as a web editor at the Globe and Mail. She cannot make kibbeh, but wishes she could.