Crash Course (HOW Story 16)

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Story 16: Crash Course

Aliyah stood in front of Dr. Warren’s desk, glancing uncertainly at the stack of files her supervisor had just handed her. “Did he say when he’ll be returning?”

Dr. Warren raised an eyebrow. “I was about to ask you the same thing.”

Aliyah creased her forehead, caught off guard by her supervisor’s accusatory tone. “Excuse me?”

“Professor Thomas,” Dr. Warren said, a knowing smirk on her face as she met Aliyah’s gaze, “it is obvious that you and Dr. Bivens have strong feelings for each other and that you know each other outside of work. But I commend you both for your professionalism. So I’m asking this because I value Dr. Bivens as a colleague and an old friend.” She narrowed her eyes in an effort to appear concerned. “Will he be returning to us any time soon?”

Aliyah’s face grew hot in offense. “Dr. Warren,” Aliyah said, struggling to keep her voice cordial, “I think there’s been a misunderstanding. Outside of work, I know Dr. Bivens only through my friendship with his wife. And due to the unfortunate events over the past few months, I haven’t seen her in quite some time.”

“But you’ve seen Dr. Bivens, I assume?”

“Yes,” Aliyah said, “at work.”

“So you’re telling me you have absolutely no contact with Dr. Bivens outside the office,” Dr. Warren said with skeptical sarcasm.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Aliyah said, unsure where all of this was coming from. “The last time I saw him was a week ago. At work,” she added for emphasis.

Dr. Warren leaned back in her chair, the shadow of a smirk on her face. “That’s interesting,” she said. “Because from what I understand, you attend the same mosque.”

“We do,” Aliyah said cautiously, her gaze meeting Dr. Warren’s unblinking. “But I’ve never spoken to him at the mosque. Like most Muslims, I go there only for prayer and religious study.”

Dr. Warren huffed. “Well, on the off chance that you do see him,” she said, “please find out how long he plans to stay away.”

“On the off chance that I see him,” Aliyah said, struggling to keep the sarcasm out of her tone, “I’ll ask him to give you a call.” Aliyah forced a tightlipped smile. “How does that sound?”

Dr. Warren’s lips twitched in discomfort, and Aliyah sensed that this wasn’t quite how her supervisor had envisioned the conversation. Aliyah had no idea what Dr. Warren was getting at or why, but Aliyah wasn’t about to play the role of the ditsy new employee trying to impress her superiors. Perhaps Aliyah’s willingness to help other professors run errands and make copies during her lunch break had been construed as evidence of her gullibility.

Yes, this job mattered to Aliyah—a lot. But not more than her integrity. She would rather go homeless or live with her uncle than reduce herself to pandering for approval. She would continue to go over and beyond what was required of her in work-related activities, but she was unwilling to open up her private life to scrutiny.

“Then I think we’ll need to give you a little help with overseeing One Plus One,” Dr. Warren said, as if in rebuke.

“Thank you,” Aliyah said sincerely, conscious that Dr. Warren had imagined that Aliyah would want to run the internship alone. “I appreciate any help I can get.”

“I think it’s best if you were the one helping someone else,” Dr. Warren said, her tone still in rebuke.

Aliyah nodded. “I agree,” she said. “I’m still new here, so if a more experienced professor is able to run the program in Dr. Bivens’s absence, I’m more than willing to assist wherever I can.”

Dr. Warren’s face was pinched in distaste as she leaned forward and opened up a file folder on her desk before removing a pen from a ceramic cup. “Then I think Dr. Stanley should replace you in running the internship.”

It was obvious that Dr. Warren was trying to make Aliyah regretful for being uncooperative, but Aliyah was unable to feel anything but indignant.

What on earth is going on here? Aliyah thought to herself. One second Aliyah was a favored professor, and the next Dr. Warren was acting like she saw Aliyah as some sort of threat. The supervisor couldn’t possibly think that Aliyah could vie for anyone’s position after working at the college for less than a year. That was not even enough time to hope for tenure. And Aliyah didn’t even have a doctorate yet.

***

“It could be several things,” Larry said later that afternoon as Aliyah gripped the steering wheel with one hand and reached under her hijab with the other to push her earpiece in more securely. “But whatever’s going on, it’s not good.”

“Well, I figured that much,” she said, rolling her eyes in agreement as she slowed to a stop in preparation to exit the faculty and staff parking lot. “I’m just really not in the mood for fitnah at work. So if there’s something going on, I wish someone would just come out and say it. I hate all this passive-aggressive stuff. I don’t even want to run Jacob’s internship program. I already have enough on my plate.”

“But they don’t know that,” Larry’s voice said through the earpiece. “As far as they’re concerned, you all want the same things. So it’s probably never crossed their minds that this job doesn’t mean that much to you. For them, it’s probably the sum total of their existence.”

“If you ever work for anyone other than yourself,” Aliyah recited aloud, “put your heart into the job. But don’t put the job in your heart.”

“Nice,” Larry said. “Where’d you hear that?”

“My mom,” Aliyah said reflectively as she eased her car onto the main road. “She didn’t believe in professional slavery.”

Larry chuckled in agreement. “Sounds like we grew up in the same house.”

“I think today was the first time I really understood her advice though,” Aliyah said honestly. “I want to keep my job, but not that much.”

“It was a trap,” Larry said, returning to the topic of Aliyah’s predicament. “Jacob is obviously already in communication with his supervisor about his leave of absence, so it was completely unnecessary for her to ask you about it.”

“I know…” Aliyah thoughtfully. “I just wish I knew what was going on. It almost sounded like she was trying to pin something on me. I just don’t know what.”

“She’s probably just annoyed that Jacob suggested that you head the internship in his absence.”

“But what difference does it make? The internship will be over next month.”

“That’s why I don’t do nine-to-fives,” Larry said. “This stuff never makes sense. There’s always some insecure person on a power trip.”

Aliyah rolled her eyes as she veered onto the ramp leading to the interstate. “Most people work a nine-to-five because they have to, Larry. We don’t consider it a personal preference to work under people with superiority complexes.”

“Didn’t you say you wanted to start your own business?” Larry asked. “Maybe this is your chance.”

“My chance?” Aliyah said, coughing laughter. “I still have to pay my bills.”

“Not if you marry me,” Larry said teasingly.

Aliyah felt dread in the pit of her stomach. As much as she enjoyed talking to Larry, the idea of being his wife, she just couldn’t wrap her mind around. She was still in the dark as to why he had been suddenly MIA during the time the rumors were being spread about her, and thus far, all of his responses to her inquiries had been evasive.

“Larry, please,” Aliyah said, exhaustion in her tone, “let’s not go there.”

“Why not?” Larry said lightheartedly. “I’m good enough to call for advice but not good enough to marry?”

Aliyah contorted her face. “What does getting advice have to do with marriage? I used to ask the imam for advice all the time, but I’d never marry him.”

“Maybe that’s why you’re still single,” Larry said, sarcastic humor in his tone. “You think everyone is beneath you.”

Aliyah’s face was aflame in offense. “What?”

“It’s true,” Larry said, laughter in his voice. “You can’t deny that you could benefit from seeing other people as equal to you instead of beneath you.” He added, “The imam’s a good brother, so why isn’t he good enough for you?”

“I didn’t say he’s not good enough for me,” Aliyah said. “I said I would never marry him.”

“But why not?” Larry said. “He’s obviously a person of good character and has knowledge of the deen.”

“Because we have nothing in common,” Aliyah said, her eyes narrowed on the stretch of interstate in front of her. “He’s like sixty years old. And married,” she added.

“That didn’t stop you from considering Jacob,” Larry said, chuckling. “Except for their age difference, Jacob and the imam are very similar.”

Jacob?”

“Don’t act like it’s never crossed your mind. It’s obvious how you feel about him.”

“Why does everybody keep saying that?” Aliyah said, face contorted in offense. “He asked about me.”

“That doesn’t mean you’re not interested.”

“Larry, please.” Aliyah rolled her eyes.

“Are you begging me to marry you?” Larry joked.

“No I’m not,” Aliyah said, annoyed. “I’m begging you to leave the topic alone.”

“Should I leave you alone too?”

“Yes, I think you should,” she said.

“Then why did you call me?”

“I called for advice, Larry. That’s hardly an invitation for marriage.”

“Just so you know,” Larry said, “men don’t like teases. So if you’re not interested in marrying a brother, don’t call him for advice. If you can’t help him with what he needs, don’t expect him to help you with what you need.”

Aliyah was still fuming when she pulled into a space in the parking strip in front of the halal market. She had ended the call minutes before and was saying the isti’aadhah to calm herself. “A’oodhu billaahi minash-shaytaanirrajeem,” she uttered as she turned off the car. I seek refuge in Allah from Satan the rejected enemy.A’oodhu billaahi minash-shaytaanirrajeem.”

Aliyah removed the key from the ignition then pushed the driver side door open as she was reminded suddenly of something Nikki had said.

Women hate women they can’t find anything wrong with, and men resent women they can’t have for themselves.

“Why is Islamic obligation only important after a man decides who he wants to marry?” Aliyah had vented to Reem weeks ago. “I’ve never heard an imam tell a brother, ‘Fear Allah. The sister wants to marry you, so stop following your nafs and marry the sister.’ But we’re told things like that all the time.”

After locking her car, Aliyah walked to the glass door with a large We’re Open sign in red letters. A bell jingled above her head as she pulled the handle and stepped inside. Instantly, the smell of poultry and packaged food tickled her nostrils, and she momentarily shifted her thoughts from Larry as she made a mental note of what she needed to buy. As she made her way to the meat counter, rows of sugary treats in shimmery cellophane wrapping caught her eye. For a fleeting moment, her healthy resolve was weakened as she contemplated buying a sweet snack.

What is going on with you? she reprimanded herself. She must be more stressed than she realized. For years, the idea of eating processed sugar and high fructose corn syrup repulsed her. Yes, she sometimes had cravings for junk food, but usually her emotional eating amounted to consuming a gyro or a burger from a restaurant or making a halal salami sandwich for herself at home. But even when her cravings were at their worst, she never resorted to eating snack cakes or candy bars. Her guilty pleasure was generally white bread, and even that was usually organic.

As-salaamu’alaikum!” At the sound of the cheerful voice, Aliyah turned and found a woman smiling at her, the woman’s hand extended in greeting.

An uncertain smile creased one side of Aliyah’s mouth at the sight of the woman’s kind face and African-style head wrap and baby hair peeking out beneath. “Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam wa-rahmatullaah,” Aliyah said as she shook the woman’s hand, a question still on her face.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said, laughter in her voice. “I’m Salima. I met you in Sister Reem’s Qur’an class.”

An apologetic smile lingered at Aliyah’s lips as she squinted her eyes in an effort to recall Salima.

“It’s okay,” the woman said, chuckling and waving her hand dismissively. “It was about a year ago. You probably don’t remember.”

Oh, Aliyah realized. That was probably why she didn’t recall meeting the sister. They must have met around the time Aliyah and Matt were getting a divorce. Aliyah barely remembered anything from that period except the suffocating anxiety upon realizing her life was about to fall apart. Salima probably met her right before she dropped out the class.

“Well, it’s good to see you again,” Aliyah said cordially.

“You don’t come to the classes anymore,” Salima said.

Aliyah shrugged, an awkward smile on her face. “I started working full time, you know?”

“I was kind of sad when you stopped coming.” Salima smirked. “When I met you, I was like, thank God, there’s at least one person I can relate to in this class.” She shook her head. “Those sisters are fierce.”

Aliyah chuckled in agreement. “Well, at least they’re in the right place.”

Salima nodded reflectively. “That’s true. Everybody can benefit from Qur’an.”

Salima squinted as if remembering something just then. “You were Deanna’s best friend, right?”

Aliyah shook her head, surprised by the instinctive gesture. “Not really,” she said. “But we were friends in college.”

“They were talking about her on WTH the other day,” Salima said, concern etched in her voice. “Is she okay?”

Aliyah’s heart dropped, her thoughts going immediately to Younus and Thawab. O Allah. She hoped the media hadn’t learned of Deanna’s arrest. They would have a field day, and Younus and Thawab would suffer the brunt of it and be scarred for life.

“You’re talking about all that ‘crazy Muslim woman’ stuff from months ago?” Aliyah spoke in as casual a manner as she could muster.

Salima shook her head. “No, this is recent. She has some photo essay called ‘I’m the Hot Wife.’”

Aliyah felt as if she were going to be sick. Though Salima didn’t say it outright, Aliyah could read in Salima’s expression that the photo essay had implied something negative about Aliyah. “I didn’t see it,” Aliyah said, finding her voice just then.

“Oh…” Salima looked embarrassed. “I thought…”

“I don’t watch TV much anymore,” Aliyah said.

Salima nodded in understanding. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

Aliyah shook her head. “No, it’s not your fault. If it’s on TV, it’s public knowledge. So there’s no need to apologize.” She shrugged, a slight smile on her face. “I was going to find out sooner or later, right?”

“Well, we’re all making du’aa for you,” Salima said. “This whole thing is really messed up.”

Aliyah grunted agreement and rolled her eyes.

“But how are you doing?” Salima said, her eyes conveying genuine concern.

“I’m good, alhamdulillah,” Aliyah said, surprised by how convincing she sounded to her own ears. “I’m just trying to focus on my son and my job.”

“That’s good,” Salima said sincerely. “Keeping busy helps.”

“I’m in the car,” a man said, appearing at Salima’s side, a plastic bag of groceries in his hand.

Salima turned and smiled at him. “Okay, boo,” she said. “I’m right behind you insha’Allah.”

As-salaamu’alaikum, sister,” the man said, placing his right hand on his chest as he nodded a greeting to Aliyah.

Wa’alaiku-mus-salaam,” Aliyah said as he turned to go.

“I don’t want to keep your husband waiting,” Aliyah said as the bell jingled and the door closed behind him. “But it was really nice meeting you.”

Salima smirked and placed a hand on her hip playfully. “Well, I’m flattered.”

Aliyah chuckled, a confused expression on her face. “What?”

“That’s not my husband,” Salima said, her head turning as she smiled toward the parking lot. “That’s Jamil, my little brother.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Aliyah said good-naturedly. “I just assumed…”

Salima waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t worry. We get that all the time, especially since we live together. But I’m not his type anyway,” she said jokingly. “He has a weakness for women he thinks he can save.”

“It must be nice to live with family,” Aliyah said reflectively.

Salima drew her eyebrows together, a playful grin on her face. “Now that’s the first time anyone has said that to me,” she remarked. “Usually people say, ‘Oh mashaAllah, you must be really patient.’”

“Why?” Aliyah said, a confused grin on her face. “I wish I could live with one of my brothers. I miss them.”

“Then you obviously have a good relationship with them, mashaAllah,” Salima said. “For most of us grown folks, our relationship with family is polite at best.”

Aliyah nodded, a sad smile on her face as she wished she could describe her relationship with family as polite. She hadn’t seen her two brothers and two sisters, or her parents, in more than ten years.

“But let me get out of here before Jamil starts complaining.” Salima pulled her purse in front of her and opened it before rummaging inside. “Come join us some time,” she said as she handed Aliyah a business card. “Some friends and I get together every Friday night. You should join us.”

“Muslim Marriage Monologues,” Aliyah read aloud. “That sounds interesting.”

“It is,” Salima said. “It’s like an open-mic poetry session and support group for Muslims in relationship crises.”

“Oh my God,” Aliyah joked. “Am I that obvious?”

Salima laughed. “It’s nothing like that,” she said. “It’s for anyone. Married, single, divorced, or…” A shadow of sadness passed over her face as she maintained her smile. “…widowed, like me.”

The pleasant expression fell from Aliyah’s face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“How could you?” Salima said, waving her hand. “I’m not saying it for sympathy. I just want you to know this isn’t some snobbish married-women-only club.”

Aliyah rolled her eyes knowingly. “That happens to you too?”

“All the time,” Salima said. “But I get it. When you’re young and insecure, you think the biggest threat to your marriage is out there somewhere.” She shrugged. “I used to think the same until one night I went to sleep as a married woman with three children and woke up as a single mother of one.”

SubhaanAllah,” Aliyah said, shaking her head in sadness. “May Allah reunite you in Jannah.”

“Ameen,” Salima said, her eyes growing distant momentarily.

“Will we see you Friday insha’Allah?” Salima said as she closed her purse.

“I usually have my son then, so…” Aliyah said apologetically.

“How old is he?”

“Five.”

“Bring him,” Salima said. “My son is the same age. Maybe they can hang out.”

“Then I’ll definitely think about it,” Aliyah said sincerely. “It sounds nice.”

“My number’s on the card,” Salima said. “Give me a missed call, and I’ll save your number.”

“Okay,” Aliyah said, nodding. “I will insha’Allah.”

***

Deanna dreamt that she was choking on her mother’s heart. As Deanna gagged, groping for life, her mother was reaching out for help, her right hand over the left side of her chest, her left hand waving frantically as she fought to stay alive. Deanna desperately tried to catch a single breath amidst the choking as a voice inside her screamed, “It wasn’t me, Mommy! It was Janice.”

Deanna woke with a terrible ache in her neck from having fallen asleep sitting up against the wall of the holding cell, her head against the sanded bricks. Still recovering from the delirium of sleep, Deanna brought a hand to her throat and exhaled in relief that she was breathing normally. But she winced as words fell upon her like a crescendo of guillotine blades. She pinched her eyes shut as if that would block the cryptic sonnets from racing like frenzied whispers inside her head. Once upon a time, in another life, she would have considered this lyrical invasion a writer’s inspiration. But she had no laptop or pen and paper, and she had no desire to write. In fact, she had no desire for anything at all.

Yet the words were stubbornly unrelenting…

 

He hit her

Because

Her face came too close

To his

Hand.

Janice.

Or maybe

His hand came too close

To her

Face.

Janice.

But it wasn’t a strike of anger

Or rage.

It was a desperate groping

For refuge

From

His pain.

Janice.

His pain stared at him every day

Glaring

But he called it determination

Strength

And wit.

Janice.

And others called it

His calling

To guide the wicked

And the blind.

Deanna Janice.

But that pain.

Oh that pain.

He didn’t ask to be a father.

She didn’t ask to be a wife.

It was just a burst of desire

A burning fire

To do

What’s right.

Janice.

A life kicked inside of her.

And she too kicked

Herself.

He wasn’t the man

She dreamed of

When she

Sang

To herself.

But you should be grateful,

Janice Michaels

Because they chose

Life.

So she sang

At the altar.

And the little girl

Danced and kicked

To the song

Even though every note

Seemed

Wrong

But it was a lullaby

A sweet chorus

Those adult lies

So she danced and kicked

Oblivious

Beneath her mother’s heart

But even then

Like now

She thought she heard

Her mother

Cry

Why?

***

As-salaamu’alaikum, Reem,” Aliyah spoke into the small mouthpiece connected to the wire of her mobile earphones. “I was thinking about our conversation the other day, and I just wanted to apologize for saying you were privileged.” Aliyah drew in a deep breath, hoping Reem hadn’t let the call go to voicemail after seeing Aliyah’s name on the display. “I’ve been frustrated about a lot of things lately, and I shouldn’t have taken in out on you. Jazaakillaahukhairan for taking time to teach me Qur’an. That’s the best gift any friend can give, and I shouldn’t have expected any more from you. I’m sorry. I hope you can forgive me.”

Aliyah squeezed the button on the wire, disconnecting the call, and she sat for a moment as her car idled in the driveway of the home that she used to share with Matt. She wondered if now was a bad time to drop by and say salaams to Ibrahim.

“No,” Aliyah had said in reply to Nikki’s question as to whether she had wanted to marry Matt. “And I never loved him.” It was true that Aliyah hadn’t wanted to marry Matt, but it wasn’t entirely true that she had never loved him. You couldn’t be married to someone for ten years and not develop at least some mutual affection. Maybe she and Matt had never “fallen in love,” but there were parts of Matt that she had grown to love.

Aliyah turned off the car and drew in a deep breath before getting out and walking to the front door. She hoped Matt wasn’t there. But even if he was, she had to get home soon anyway because she had halal meat in the trunk that needed refrigeration.

Aliyah hesitated only momentarily before lifting a forefinger and pushing the doorbell to the tri-level brick house that she used to call home. For the past year, Nikki had been the one to come to Aliyah’s apartment to drop off Ibrahim, so this was the first time that Aliyah had returned to her home since the divorce. It felt odd standing on the opposite side of the door. It was like she had been relegated to outcast in her own life.

The door opened so quickly that Aliyah’s shoulders jerked in surprise. Matt’s expression was one of confusion, but only briefly. Matt was dressed in a business suit, and Aliyah knew immediately that he had been expecting the airport taxi. For a fleeting moment, she felt the urgency to make sure he had packed everything necessary for his trip.

As-salaamu’alaikum,” Aliyah said quickly, averting her gaze in embarrassment. “Nikki told me I could drop by to see Ibrahim… I didn’t know you were home.”

Wa’alaiku mus salaam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh,” Matt said, surprising Aliyah with the genuine smile that spread on his lips. “Come in.” He took a step back and opened the door wide. “Ibrahim is right here.”

“Mommy!” Ibrahim called out as Aliyah stepped into the foyer.

Aliyah laughed and kneeled as Ibrahim wrapped his arms around her neck. After a few seconds, she started to release him, but he locked his arms more tightly. “Now’s not a good time for me to carry you,” she whispered.

“Mmmm,” Ibrahim murmured in protest, nestling his head closer.

Aliyah felt torn between wanting to comfort her son and worrying that Matt was watching. When they were married, Matt had often expressed concern that Aliyah was spoiling their son.

“It’s okay,” she heard Matt’s voice above her head. “You can hold him if you want. He misses you. It’ll be good for him.”

Aliyah didn’t know whether to feel relieved or mortified. But she decided that Ibrahim’s needs took precedence over the awkwardness of the moment. As she stood, Ibrahim wrapped his legs around her.

“Actually…” Matt said as if something was on his mind. He glanced behind him cautiously. “I wanted to—” The chime of Matt’s cell phone interrupted him mid-sentence, and Aliyah immediately knew it was the courtesy alert message informing Matt that his taxi was outside. Matt reached into a pant pocket and pulled out his mobile, his gaze on the screen. He frowned. “I have to go,” he said, apology in his tone. “But,” he said, lowering his voice, “we need to talk whenever you get a free moment.”

Aliyah drew her eyebrows together, one hand on the back of Ibrahim’s head. “Is everything okay?”

“Yes, yes,” Matt said, his voice still low as he adjusted the strap of his laptop bag over his shoulder then pulled out the handle to his carry-on luggage. “It’s about Ibrahim.”

“Will Mommy live with us again?” Ibrahim said, his voice rising in hopefulness as he spoke into Aliyah’s neck.

“No, buddy,” Matt said apologetically then leaned forward and brushed Ibrahim’s forehead with a kiss. “But maybe Mommy can come over more if you want.”

“Yes,” Ibrahim said in excitement, his head still leaning on his mother.

“Can I give you a call some time?” Matt whispered as he started out the door.

“Sure,” Aliyah said, probably too quickly. But it was all she could do to conceal her shock that Matt was asking to speak to her at all. She was under the impression that he and Nikki felt it was an Islamic requirement that Aliyah and Matt never communicate directly.

“You leaving now?” Aliyah heard a tired voice call from upstairs. She imagined that Nikki must have seen the airport taxi from the bedroom window.

“Yes,” Matt called out. “The car’s outside.”

“Have a good trip,” Nikki said.

Aliyah was unable to temper the offense she felt right then. Matt divorced her for this woman? What kind of wife doesn’t come downstairs to see her husband off before a trip? Pregnant or not, this was inexcusable.

“Thanks,” Matt called out. He looked as if he were about to say something else but decided against it. Aliyah figured that he was debating on whether or not to tell Nikki that she was there.

As-salaamu’alaikum,” Matt said to Aliyah, his voice low as he walked out the door.

Wa’alaiku mus salaam,” Aliyah said, her anger subsiding as she watched him go. She sensed that life was not easy for him, and at that moment she found herself feeling compassion for him.

“Is that you, Aliyah?” Nikki called out after the airport taxi had driven away.

Of course Nikki had seen her car when she looked out the window. “Yes,” Aliyah called back.

“I’m not feeling well,” Nikki said, “so just… Well, you know your way around.”

Aliyah closed the front door and wondered if she should bring the meat inside and put it in Nikki’s refrigerator.

Can I give you a call some time?

At the reminder of Matt’s question, Aliyah’s curiosity was piqued, so she decided she would stay only a few more minutes and give Matt a call herself when she got in the car.

***

“You don’t have to apologize,” Reem said when she called Aliyah back as Aliyah drove to Salima’s gathering Friday evening. “I was offended,” Reem admitted, “but you didn’t say anything wrong. I am privileged. I have options that you don’t have, and I shouldn’t trivialize that.”

“I could have chosen a better word,” Aliyah said regretfully, conscious that Ibrahim was in the backseat. “I was angry, and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

“No,” Reem said. “You had every right to say what you did. I don’t believe in micromanaging people’s pain. I went through that with my family when I was in high school, and I vowed to never do it to anyone else. So if you feel I’ve done something wrong, then say it. No matter how upset I get, we’ll get through it insha’Allah.”

Aliyah was quiet as she recalled Reem alluding to a rebellious stage she had gone through when she was a teenager. “A lot of things happened to me when I was a child,” Reem had said. “And I think it just got too much for me to keep holding inside.”

“Why do you believe it’s okay to choose who your children will marry?” Aliyah said after careful thought. If she and Reem were going to have an honest friendship, Aliyah needed to believe that Reem saw her as a full human being who was no less than an Arab.

Aliyah heard Reem exhale as if in exhaustion. “I don’t think it’s something you can understand, Aliyah,” Reem said apologetically, her words reminding Aliyah of their conversation on the tennis court. “I know Americans have this idealistic view of Islam, but it’s not necessarily what Allah asks of us. We can marry for culture and lineage if we want to.”

“But you weren’t talking about for yourself,” Aliyah pointed out. “You were saying that about your daughter, and she’s only four years old. How do you know what she’ll want fifteen years from now?”

“We don’t always know what’s best for us,” Reem said. “Allahu’alam,” she said, acknowledging that ultimately God knew best. “But I don’t see how Hana would have any idea what she needs when she’s nineteen, or even twenty-five. That’s why she has parents. There’s a reason Allah requires a wali for marriage.”

“And Muhammad?” Aliyah asked, referring to Reem’s son, Hana’s twin brother.

“And Muhammad too,” Reem said. “But of course he has more rights to disagree with us.”

The word us stung, making Aliyah feel as if Reem’s entire family and circle of Arab friends were united against her and other Americans. “What about the hadith telling fathers to accept the proposal of a man whose character and religion pleases them?” Aliyah said.

“It’s not as simple as that,” Reem said. “It’s like what you said about marrying Matt. You needed someone you were compatible with. And Hana and Muhammad will need the same thing.”

But I was talking about the need to make the decision for myself, Aliyah responded in her mind. And you’re talking about making that decision for your children. Aliyah decided against speaking her thoughts aloud. She already knew that Reem would have a logical explanation implying that Aliyah didn’t have the capacity to understand her point of view. But to Aliyah’s ears, it sounded as if Reem were justifying cultural discrimination under the guise of “I know what’s best for my children.” Aliyah couldn’t comprehend how Reem’s position was any different from the Arabs in pre-Islamic times.

“Sayed told me about Deanna,” Reem said, her voice subdued. “Laa hawla wa laa quwwata illaa billaah.” Sadness was in her tone as she acknowledged that nothing happens except by the permission of God. “I pray there’s some misunderstanding. I don’t think she would harm her mother intentionally.”

“Intentional” is relative, Aliyah thought to herself. She didn’t believe Deanna would set out to physically harm anyone, especially her own mother, but Aliyah could see Deanna lashing out in anger. However, it was difficult for Aliyah to fathom an argument with someone’s parents escalating to the level of physical violence. The thought was inconceivable. “All we can do is make du’aa,” she said reflectively.

“Will she be out on bail until the trial?” Reem said. “Sayed said they just have to pay ten thousand dollars.”

Just? Aliyah repeated in her mind. That’s a lot of money. “I don’t know,” Aliyah said, her thoughts immediately going to Larry, whom she’d been avoiding for the past four days. She wondered if it would be wrong to ask him for an update. Asking about Deanna couldn’t be the same as asking for advice, could it?

But just as soon as the idea came to her, she disregarded it. “If you can’t help him with what he needs, don’t expect him to help you with what you need.” Offense stabbed Aliyah at the reminder. Though Larry had texted and called to apologize for what he’d said, she refused to speak to him. It had taken some time for Aliyah to pinpoint why Larry always managed to get under her skin no matter how much she enjoyed his company. But after spending the last few days nursing her hurt over his words, she realized that Larry carried himself with a sense of entitlement.

Larry was intelligent, attractive, and wealthy, but none of these things inclined Aliyah to consider marrying him. But he was so accustomed to being sought after that it must have baffled him that Aliyah was not flattered by his company. “Most women I date practically throw themselves at me,” he’d said to Aliyah once. “I like it when women play hard to get.”

But Aliyah wasn’t playing. She really wasn’t interested in Larry, or any man for that matter.

As Aliyah slowed the car in front of the house that her navigation system had directed her to, she glanced back at Ibrahim and saw that his eyes were slowly closing though he was trying to stay awake.

“I think it’s getting a bit too much for Nikki,” Matt had said when Aliyah called him four days ago when he was on his way to the airport. “And I’m worried that she won’t be able to manage the baby and Ibrahim after the pregnancy.”

Aliyah sighed in exhaustion as she put the car in park. Naturally, she agreed to take care of Ibrahim full time once Nikki’s baby arrived. After all, she had always wanted to spend more time with her son. But Aliyah was unsure how she felt about this sudden change of plans. She had a full-time job now, so she wouldn’t be able to pick up Ibrahim from school each day. And if he stayed at school until she got off work, what would he do for three whole hours after school? Should she enroll him in an extracurricular activity? But he was only five years old and would be in kindergarten. Was it right to keep someone that young stuck in school from morning to evening each day? And then there was the question of financial support. Currently, she didn’t receive any because, technically speaking, Matt had full custody while she had only visitation rights. But the arrangement was not legally binding. It had been mutually agreed upon after the divorce. At the time, Aliyah hadn’t known if she’d have a place of her own, let alone a place for her son.

Aliyah’s phone chimed and vibrated in her handbag as she walked to the front door of the home. Still holding Ibrahim’s hand, she withdrew the phone and looked at the screen.

That’s how it is, huh? Larry had texted. Now that Jacob’s divorced, you don’t have any use for me? smh

Hand trembling slightly, Aliyah locked the screen and dropped the phone back in her purse. Jacob’s divorced?

Distracted by the news, Aliyah lifted the knocker and tapped it against the small metal frame on the door. She glanced down at Ibrahim and flashed a quick close-lipped smile before she stared straight ahead, thoughts distant.

“Who are you?” a tenor female voice said moments after the door opened. Aliyah found herself standing opposite an imposing woman with closely cropped hair who folded her arms authoritatively, waiting for an explanation.

“I’m…um…” Aliyah found it difficult to gather her thoughts.

“You straight, female by birth, and Muslim?” the woman asked as she narrowed her eyes at Aliyah.

Aliyah drew her eyebrows together, worried she’d knocked on the wrong door. She squeezed Ibrahim’s hand tighter and pulled him closer. “Is this the poetry night club for married people?” she said, realizing immediately that she had completely botched the description.

“No, it’s not.”

The woman started to close the door when Aliyah heard someone call out, “Wait, Carly, I think that’s the sister I invited.”

The door opened again, and Salima peeked around the woman, and Aliyah’s shoulders dropped in relief. “As-salaamu’alaikum, Aliyah!” Salima said, stepping around the woman to hug Aliyah. “I’m glad you made it.”

“So you know her, I guess?” the imposing woman said, an arched eyebrow rising doubtfully.

“Yes, I do,” Salima said, playful defensiveness in her voice. “Now chill with all the security detail.”

“Is she str—”

Carly,” Salima interjected, her voice more serious. “I invited her. She’s cool.”

“I hope you’re right,” the woman said, huffing in annoyance as she walked away.

“Excuse her,” Salima said apologetically as she ushered Aliyah inside and closed the door. “Carletta is just being extra careful. We’ve had some bad experiences in the past.”

“Bad experiences?” Aliyah’s voice rose in concern as she glanced at her son. “What do you mean?”

Salima’s gaze went to Ibrahim, and a wide smile spread on her face. “Is this your son?”

“Yes.” Aliyah smiled, a bit taken aback by the sudden shift in subject. “His name is Ibrahim.”

“Ibrahim!” Salima exclaimed in the exaggerated excitement that adults often reserved for conversations with children. Salima clasped her hands together gleefully. “Ibrahim, I’m Sister Salima. And I have a son named Haroon. He’s five and named after a prophet, just like you.”

Ibrahim smiled, glancing up at Aliyah uncertainly. “Okay.”

“Would you like to play with him? He has some really nice cars and action figures.”

Ibrahim broke into a grin, and he looked at Aliyah. “Okay,” he said tentatively, waiting for his mother’s approval.

“That sounds good,” Aliyah said, nodding politely.

“Carly,” Salima called out, glancing behind her, “can you take Aliyah’s boy upstairs to where Haroon and the other children are?”

Aliyah felt a tinge of discomfort at the thought of the rude woman accompanying her son up the stairs. “As-salaamu’alaikum,” Carletta said in forced cordiality after she returned to the foyer. She offered a tightlipped smile to Aliyah and an extended hand to Ibrahim. “Welcome to my humble home.”

Salima laughed and shook her head as Ibrahim took Carletta’s hand as they headed toward the stairs. “Sorry about Carly,” Salima said. “She’s not exactly a people person.”

“I see,” Aliyah said, her eyes following Ibrahim as he ascended the stairs alongside Carletta, excitement in his eyes.

“She hosted the monologues in her home about a year ago, and she said she wasn’t going to do it again,” Salima said as Aliyah slipped off her shoes, immediately realizing that she hadn’t told Ibrahim to remove his.

“Why?” Aliyah said as she followed Salima down a hall.

“Because she went through something similar to what happened to you.”

Aliyah creased her forehead. “What do you mean?”

“Name-calling, slander.” Salima shook her head. “It was ridiculous.”

“But why?”

Salima shrugged. “Who knows? We’re still trying to figure that out.”

“But what happened?”

“She hosted an open-mic with the topic ‘Relationship Woes Among Judgmental Muslims,’ and she made it an open invitation to all the sisters in the community,” Salima said. “She wanted to start an open dialogue about how Muslims can be more understanding of diverse family make-ups. Like single-parent homes, blended families with stepbrothers and stepsisters being raised together, half-brothers and sisters living together after a parent divorces and remarries, things like that.” Salima frowned and shook her head. “But it didn’t turn out too well.”

Aliyah grunted in understanding. “I could have told her that. This community only accepts homes that look like Leave It To Beaver and The Cosby Show. One mother and one father for all the children,” she said. “And one marriage per person, preferably thirty years and counting.”

“Well…” Salima said tentatively, turning to face Aliyah before entering the main room. “It was more than that. Some LGBTQ Muslims caught wind of it and came to the event.”

Aliyah’s eyes widened as she brought a hand to her mouth.

Salima shook her head. “Of course, it was a disaster. They used the open-mic session for all these lesbian Muslim poems and how so-called traditional Muslims are extremist and homophobic because they consider same-sex relations a sin.”

SubhaanAllah,” Aliyah said. “I never heard about this.”

“That’s good to know,” Salima said, a half smile on her face. “Because, I swear, it felt like the whole world was against us at the time. Even some of our friends got online and said we shouldn’t exclude them in our sessions, otherwise we’re hypocrites since our group is about relationship problems.”

Aliyah rolled her eyes. “Some Muslims never cease to twist the message of Islamic sisterhood and brotherhood for their own purposes.”

“Plus-minus Islam,” Salima said in agreement.

Aliyah met Salima’s gaze in confusion, a half smile lingering on her face. “Plus-minus Islam?”

“It’s when Muslims add or take away things in Islam to suit their own purposes.”

Aliyah nodded, understanding.

“The people who were slandering us believe in adding things to the religion,” Salima said, “and the people who were slandering you believe in taking away things in the religion.”

Aliyah huffed, an amused expression on her face. “Plus-minus Islam, huh?”

“Add LGBTQ practices,” Salima said, “and take away polygamy.”

“Because we live in different times,” Aliyah said, mocking the commonly held argument to defend these changes. “And new times require new rules.”

“Exactly,” Salima said, smirking and shaking her head. “But we’re not trying to go to Hellfire up in here. We’re just a group of sisters trying to help each other strive for Paradise. And we don’t put a footnote where Allah puts a period.”

Aliyah smiled, nodding. “MashaAllah,” she said. “I like that. We don’t put a footnote where Allah puts a period.”

“Good,” Salima said, a grin spreading on her face. “Because that’s the title of the poem I wrote for tonight.”

Salima turned and walked into the main room, gesturing for Aliyah to follow. “Come on,” Salima said. “Let me introduce you to everyone.”

***

Deanna played the scene over and over in her mind. But the details remained jumbled and foggy. In her mind’s eye, she saw her mother coming close to her, palm raised, threatening an attack. “No,” Deanna’s heart cried in frenzied anguish. “I will not let her hit me again!” Deanna lifted a hand to stop her mother and furiously gripped her mother’s arm. That was when Deanna felt her own feet slip beneath her.

For a moment, Deanna thought she would fall. But she propelled herself forward and steadied her disoriented stance…

Then found that she was at the top of the stairs holding onto the bannister. Alone.

Next: Story 17 of 22 (released daily as countdown to WORLDWIDE ONLINE PREMIERE of short movie).

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…inshaaAllah