Finally Home: Story 2 in ‘Hearts We Lost’ series

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Sharif had first heard of Yasmin through Hisham, a close friend of one of his instructors who had heard about him and invited him over for dinner nearly two years after Sharif began studying at the Islamic university. Eager to meet a Muslim brother from the region, especially the friend of a favored professor, Sharif accepted the invitation, and the many more that followed.

For months, Sharif spent his free time in the home of his professor’s friend, and at times, in the home of the professor himself. Sharif had liked Hisham from the moment his professor introduced them. Despite their vast age difference and their backgrounds being worlds apart—Sharif an African-American and Hisham a Saudi of both Yemeni and Saudi descent—Sharif and Hisham related to one another as if they had known each other their entire lives. Amazingly, Hisham, like Sharif, had been born in Washington, D.C., where Hisham spent his early childhood, but Hisham had returned to Saudi Arabia just weeks after he began middle school. Hisham would return to the States many years later to complete his PhD at Howard University while his wife and children remained in Saudi Arabia.

Sharif had been completely oblivious when Hisham asked if he wanted to get married. Sharif had laughed good-naturedly and thought momentarily about Hasna but could not bring himself to mention her. His conversations with Hasna had become shorter, and he called her less. She herself did not seem enthusiastic to keep in touch. At that point, Sharif had begun to believe that what he had always feared would happen had indeed come to pass. She found someone else. But he had no proof for this suspicion. It was likely only his crippling insecurity that had led him to this conclusion.

“One day…” he had told Hisham, sighing jokingly. He then said more seriously, though a smile still lingered on his face, “I hope to. Just make du’aa for me, sheikh.”

“I want you to meet my daughter.” There had not been even a hint of humor in Hisham’s eyes or tone as he spoke, but he was smiling as he said these words.

It had taken Sharif some time to register what the brother had said. “Your daughter?”

“Yes.”

Sharif stared at Hisham, an uncomfortable smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. He was unsure if he had understood Hisham correctly. Sharif looked away, unsure how to respond.

A brief silence followed, revealing that Hisham was in fact speaking in earnest, and Sharif’s first reactions were anxiety and insecurity.

Hisham had no idea that Sharif was not the promising, confident young man his professor imagined him to be. Sharif had been merely enjoying the comfort of anonymity. He was relaxed in the foreign land, relieved to be unburdened by image or impressions. Perhaps, his newfound confidence and charisma mirrored who he was at heart, but he doubted it.

Sharif had not intended to mislead anyone. Despite the flattery that he couldn’t hope to contain or deny, Sharif had been raised to be honest, to not wear masks for the public, and certainly not for people who meant well for him, and their children.

Sharif had started to respond, prepared to divulge the truth. But he realized that there were no words for what he needed to convey. How could he find words to confess his imperfections when they were but varied and obscure?

“You don’t have to answer now,” Hisham had said, relieving Sharif of the burden of incriminating himself. “I want you to meet her first. Then we can talk.”

A week later, against Sharif’s inclinations otherwise, Sharif had sat in the living room of Hisham’s home sipping tea when Hisham walked in with a young woman covered in full hijab. The ebony fabric flowed like a single sheet and concealed only partially a shyness that was apparent in her mannerisms, even as he could not see her eyes or hands.

Hisham and Sharif talked for some time before Hisham said something to his daughter, and Sharif saw the black fabric move hesitantly in a nod.

A second later she left the room, and Sharif continued talking to the brother, although his heart hammered in his chest as he feared that the meeting was over. That she hadn’t even bothered to lift her veil indicated that she didn’t like Sharif. She hadn’t even allowed him the showfa that was customary in Arab culture.

The next hour had been strained for Sharif and he wished he hadn’t agreed to come. But even as he thought this, he knew he wouldn’t have refused. That would have been a severe insult in Arab culture, especially when a man’s daughter was involved.

Then Hisham’s mobile phone rang and the brother stood and told Sharif to come with him.

Sharif followed Hisham down a hall to a room, where they entered to find a young woman sitting and wearing a powder blue garment and matching khimaar that was pinned carefully about her head and accented the color of her eyes and the smooth brown skin of her face.

There was no conversation aside from their mutual exchange of the Islamic greeting, although her reply was more a hushed whisper than a distinct response in kind.

Although it was not the answer that was in his heart at the time of the showfa—as Sharif had no inclination one way or the other—Sharif had, the following day, told Hisham that he could not marry his daughter. Sharif said that his family had expected him to marry the daughter of a close friend upon his return.

It was the truth, but Sharif could not sleep after his refusal. He had no idea if he’d done the right thing. But he wasn’t sure if it was his concern for Hisham’s hurt feelings and Arab pride that made him doubt himself, or if Sharif himself wished he hadn’t been so hasty in turning down the proposal.

Yasmin wasn’t unattractive, but that wasn’t a sensible reason to marry someone. Of course, seeing the young woman had made Sharif curious about her, and he felt inclined to get to know her better. But of course, that wasn’t possible. No matter how kind Hisham had been since they met, Sharif couldn’t forget that Hisham was Arab. And to ask for more than what Hisham offered in the showfa was not something Sharif could do. It had already been a tremendous sacrifice on Hisham’s part to offer his daughter at all, especially to a foreigner.

Perhaps that was where Sharif’s anxieties lay. It was flattering, no doubt, to be considered worthy of marrying the daughter of someone as respectable as Hisham. But, ever his father’s son, Sharif couldn’t deny that he was offended that it was assumed that he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—refuse such an offer.

Naturally, Sharif’s relationship with Hisham was awkward after that, although the brother was always cordial to him whenever they met, which in itself was rare since Hisham did not work at the university. And their meetings were even rarer after the showfa. Sharif was never invited to dinner again.

Sharif’s heart was heavy as he lay awake reflecting on the weighty tasks before him—his official fulfillment of the imam post next week, and his marriage to Hasna in December.

He tried to picture himself standing before a congregation.

The image was hazy, barely discernable beyond the thick fog that was clouding his perception. There was, too, the familiar knotting in his chest, a knotting that had, of late, become a noose tightening around his heart.

As a child, Sharif had been drawn to small things—toys, the sound of his father’s car turning into the driveway, his mother’s laughter.   What was it about adulthood that complicated the trivial and dulled, almost completely, the greatest pleasures of childhood?   His toys, once the center of his life, were now coated in layers of dust like antiques from a life past, and there was, in his dismal present reality, no cause to anticipate his father’s arrival, or his mother’s laughter.

Perhaps that was what had inspired—or compelled—Sharif to leave. He wanted to make up for what his family had lost during his ungratefulness in youth. He couldn’t take back the past, but he could, at least, atone for what he had done, even if sins past were, by nature, irrevocable.

His father had been a man of dreams, a man of words, and a man of action. Dawud didn’t merely imagine a different reality, a better existence. He talked about it as if it were real—and did something to make it happen. He was not one to look back and lament. He was one to look forward and hope, and believe.

That was it though, Sharif reflected. How had these traits missed him, his father’s first son, his father’s firstborn? Sharif was a dreamer, yes, but no more. He had no words or action, except his half-hearted efforts to follow in the fading footprints his father had left for him. But each time, Sharif fell short. And now he was left with a burden too weighty to bear and too personal to release.

The only choice that had been Sharif’s own was his decision to marry Hasna. But now even that decision felt as if it were slipping from his hands.

Sharif did not want to lose Hasna, but his insecurity was self-destructive. He was pushing her away. He had often asked her what she saw in him, and each time she would laugh and say, “You. That’s what I see in you. And I like what I see.”

Then she’d sigh and say, “You don’t give yourself credit.”

Credit for what?

It was Hasna who had been the valedictorian of their senior class, homecoming queen for two years in a row, and runner-up for prom queen when he, her date, had not even been nominated as a possible choice. He was known as quiet, shy, and “cool”—in a literal, insignificant way—but that was it. He didn’t have confidence to be much else. Out of school, he loved football and basketball, and played quite well, but in school, he didn’t even have enough courage to attend tryouts.

It was a psychological barrier, Sharif knew. But how then does one remove such an obstacle?   Knowing was half the battle, he’d heard.   But for him, knowing was merely the laying before him the determination of whether there was a need for battle in the first place.

What if he believed that the obstacle he’d put up really belonged there? He wasn’t fooling anyone, not even himself. He wasn’t varsity material, nor was he the “girls’ pick.” So why pretend? Why entice himself toward an existence that could never be reality, an existence that he did not even want to be reality?

Sharif had, of late, found comfort in only one thing: being himself. Even if that was, by necessity, tempered by his desire to live up to the expectations of his father. But Sharif couldn’t be himself in the limelight, whether on a school’s basketball court or before a congregation of Muslims. It was an excruciatingly difficult task, he imagined, to always subject oneself to the scrutiny of others, and measure oneself with a yardstick that constantly changed in both length and proportion—in a game that always changed rules.

Hasna was his contradiction of self, his one, single leap at perfection, or at least at having perfection in his corner. Having her for himself reassured him that he could have what everyone else coveted, without ever entering their playing field, or sacrificing his sense of self.

Then again, Hasna was not his trophy. She was not his triumph against all odds. She had been his childhood friend. In that companionship alone lay his reasons for winning her affection. He had, at moments, pretended that it had been otherwise, that there was something about him that made him stand out among his peers, and thus earn for himself a place in her heart. But the truth was that his and Hasna’s bond had been born of their parents’ friendship. And it had been cultivated in the long hours he and she spent in his kitchen cooking meals and in the living room listening to their fathers debate politics or reminisce on their youth in the church and their young adulthood in the Nation of Islam.

Oddly, neither Sharif nor Hasna had valued their time spent together while young. They had resented it. It was not a loathing for each other that inspired such contrary emotions. But theirs had been a forced companionship. Under any other circumstance, they would have, perhaps, even enjoyed their joint solitude. But they did not resent each other so much as they merely resented the solitary reason they found themselves staring into the sullen face of each other at least once each week.

Babysitting.

While Nadirah and Mona lounged on the balcony overlooking the backyard of Sharif’s family home, and while Dawud and Karim pored over tattered yearbooks and photo albums on the soft carpet of the living room, Sharif and Hasna were the appointed keepers, not only of the dinner simmering on the stove and the dessert baking in the oven, but of Sharif’s younger siblings, Wali and Asma, and of Hasna’s baby sister Iman.

The task was not so much difficult as it was frustrating. Why were they babysitting their parents’ children? Why were they cooking the meals?

The most challenging part of the task was juggling three things at once: finding a topic of conversation to pass time, preventing the food from overcooking, and, most aggravating, keeping Asma and Iman from falling down the stairs—and Wali from shoving them.

One of Sharif’s most vivid memories of his time with Hasna was when Asma and Iman had fallen asleep and Sharif and Hasna sat lazily in their chairs facing the oven, watching the timer on the stove and waiting for it to sound. The voices of their fathers had drifted into the kitchen, and Sharif overheard his father speak humorously about something one of the ministers of the Nation of Islam had said.

Although he, like Hasna, was only thirteen years old at the time, he understood the humor in the statement, and a small grin crept on the side of his mouth. Then he chuckled. He heard Hasna groan next to him, and he glanced in her direction to find her rolling her eyes. Before he could ask for an explanation, she spoke.

“I wish they would find something original to talk about.”

Sharif creased his forehead. He didn’t know how to form the question that had developed in his mind, so for a moment, he just stared at Hasna.

“I mean,” she said, rolling her eyes again, “it’s not like they did anything significant. They were just a bunch of stupid guys wearing dumb suits and saying stupid things.”

Sharif frowned. “You don’t think your history is significant?”

She glared at him, and at that moment Sharif noticed how attractive she was. His heart began to pound, but he held her gaze, disappointment in his eyes although his defensiveness had been tempered by his sudden awareness of her beauty.

Hasna wrinkled her nose. “It’s not my history. It’s theirs.”

“Come on, Hasna.” He was suddenly conscious of his lanky, muscle-less form that was poorly hidden beneath his flimsy black Michael Jackson T-shirt and faded blue jeans that were wearing at the right knee. He smiled to offset what he was about to say. He wanted her to know he wasn’t upset with her, although this calculated self-awareness was new to him, and distracting in the discomfort it was causing. “They fought for our rights to be respected as human beings.”

She sucked her teeth. “Fighting for people because they have the same skin color? That’s stupid.” She exhaled audibly, as if bored all of a sudden, her gaze falling on the stove again.

“Anyway,” she said, “it’s not even Islamic.”

He felt himself growing agitated, and he momentarily forgot he was trying to impress her. “You think it’s un-Islamic to stand up for the rights of your people?”

She met his gaze with her eyes narrowed, and Sharif felt as if she were stabbing him with her grimace. Hasna’s nose flared, and he wondered what he had said to make her so upset.

Whose people?”

The question was a dare, as if his last comment had been an affront.

Your people.” He felt the defensiveness swelling in his chest. Who did she think she was talking to him as if he were a child?

“Those,” Hasna said with her lip upturned and her head nodded toward the living room where their fathers’ voices rose in laughter, “are not my people.”

Sharif grew silent, and his disapproval must have shown on his face. He drew his eyebrows together. “What?”

My mother,” Hasna said as if she held a status several grades higher than Sharif and his siblings, “is not from this country.”

Distracted by her claim, Sharif was unable to properly address the outrage he had felt at her insinuation. He started to say something in retort but was reminded of Hasna’s mother Mona, his mother’s good friend.

Hasna was right. Mona was not American. She was Pakistani.

Sharif was so accustomed to Mona’s presence and her natural completion to the familial atmosphere that he often forgot that she had a background wholly different from him and his parents, and even from her own husband and children. Mona’s pale olive skin and hazel eyes were a sharp contrast to the brown skin and ebony eyes of Sharif’s family.

“Most of the time, people just think I’m Asian anyway,” Hasna added, and Sharif sensed this was a point of pride for her. Hasna’s last comment had been unsettling, but he didn’t understand this feeling.

“People can hardly believe Iman is my sister.” Hasna paused, glancing momentarily in the direction of the stairs that led to the room where her sister and Asma were sleeping. “She’s Black. Not me.”

There was an awkward silence as Sharif registered the implications of her last statement. “But isn’t she partly Pakistani too?”

Hasna shrugged. “Technically, yes. But not to us.”

For a moment, Sharif could only stare, this time seeing Hasna as more bizarre than beautiful. He had no idea what she had meant by “us.

“My mother can only bring me when she visits her family. They won’t let her bring Iman.”

There was a strained silence between them.

“Why not?”

Hasna wrinkled her forehead and studied Sharif as if seeing him for the first time. Apparently, he should have already known the answer to his question. “Do you think they want everybody to know who our father is?”

It was a rhetorical question. But Sharif was confounded. Sister Mona’s family didn’t know Brother Karim? Why would it matter if they did?

Sharif had heard these sentiments expressed concerning interracial relations among Americans, but he had never heard of them amongst people of color themselves, and certainly not amongst Muslims.

She shrugged. “Anyway, it’s better this way. For now, they just think our father’s American.”

Sharif creased his forehead. “He is.”

At that, Hasna looked at him with a smirk growing on her face, too humored to correct his misunderstanding.

“Um…” she said, a grin still playing at one side of her mouth, “not really.”

It took several minutes of tormented confusion for Sharif to understand. When he finally did grasp Hasna’s meaning, he was deeply wounded. He felt more acutely his imperfections, imperfections that now went far beyond his attire.

The heat of the kitchen warmed his face and he found himself staring at the timer again, this time less conscious of its descending numerals than of his descending value, in Hasna’s eyes and his own.

At that moment, he had wondered at Iman, whom his mother often doted on. Nadirah would squeeze the child’s cheeks, cooing, “Aw, you little cinnamon cake. So cute, so cute.” Sharif had thought little of his mother’s constant praises of the child.   All children were cute, weren’t they? But now he wondered if the attention was a charity of sorts, to make up for what Iman would be denied later in life, in her own family—because of her father’s skin color, and hers. A tone that they shared with Sharif.

For a moment, Sharif doubted that Hasna was telling the truth. He couldn’t imagine Sister Mona speaking like this.

“Did your mother tell you that?” It was open skepticism, the only thing he could think to use in Brother Karim’s defense, and his own.

She laughed and rolled her eyes, shaking her head a moment later at Sharif’s naïveté. “Of course not.”

He started to ask who had then, but something told him to hold his tongue. He had a lingering feeling that he had happened upon something so private, something so unflattering in its authenticity, that not even Hasna herself, let alone Sharif, should be privy to it.

Presently, Sharif watched with distant emotion as the fading headlights of a passing car created a distorted spotlight that moved and stretched across the ceiling of his dark room, stealing its presence through the sheer curtains that hung on the window opposite his bed.

What would he say to Hasna tomorrow? To Brother Karim? They had invited him to lunch and planned to discuss the upcoming wedding over the meal.

At the thought, Sharif felt suffocated. Could he really go through with the marriage?

Did he even want to?

The last question disturbed him.

Often he had doubted that he was worthy of someone like Hasna, and he wondered if he even had the ability to make her happy. Before he had even left the States, there was little he could offer his fiancée. Even though he had obtained his undergraduate degree, he had no idea what he would, or could, do with it. At the time, Hasna had completed her degree in political science from American University, and her heart was set on becoming a lawyer.

After receiving his acceptance letter to study in Riyadh, Sharif had, in childlike innocence, asked Hasna if they could marry before he left, and if she would accompany him overseas.

“I can’t live in a country like that.” Her face was contorted as she shook her head, having not even given his inquiry a moment’s consideration.

His heart was crushed. He had been restless with sleeplessness for three full nights before he had mustered enough courage to even present the idea to her. He had imagined the trip would not be so overwhelming if he could have his wife with him. But even if she wouldn’t be able to accompany him, he had figured, at least she would be thrilled to finally be married and “really together,” something for which she had said she was growing hopelessly impatient.

“If you want to go there,” she spoke as if the mere mention of the Kingdom’s name was loathsome, “you’ll just have to wait for me. There’s nothing for me there.”

In the weeks he spent preparing for the trip, Sharif had grown pensive. Her last words would not leave his mind, or heart.

There’s nothing for me there.

Not even me?

***

“The Golden Age of Islam?” Sharif remembered the professor saying as the man furrowed his brows and studied the student briefly.

The three of them had been sitting in a small restaurant in Madinah months after Sharif had arrived in Riyadh. It had been his first trip to the Blessed City, where they had traveled after performing ‘Umrah.

Sharif was accompanied by Dr. Mashal, a professor of English at a private university in Riyadh who was also a friend of one of the professors at the Islamic university, and Earl, a burly, freckled red-head first-year student at the Islamic university who was originally from Kentucky, where he had accepted Islam when he was fifteen.

Earl had made a comment challenging what he saw as a “Saudi version of Islam.” It was a friendly debate, but Sharif could tell that Earl, like Sharif himself, was skeptical of what he saw as a longing for the past when Muslims should be looking toward modernization.

Sharif had remained quiet although Earl’s sentiments had mirrored his own at the time, but the comment made Sharif wonder about Earl’s motivations for studying in the Kingdom. Sharif himself had agreed to study in Riyadh only because it would give him the necessary Arabic language and Islamic history background needed for his imam position. Even his mother had been apprehensive because she feared that Sharif would be influenced by the very version of Islam that his classmate was challenging.

“If we have to be locked into the Islam of the past,” Sharif’s father had said once, “what are we striving for in the present? To live in the past?” His father had laughed, shaking his head. “Then what about the Golden Age of Islam in history? Was that not the height of Islamic progress? And why can’t we have that again, in our own time?”

“Is that your proof of how Islam may evolve and improve?” Dr. Mashal took a sip of coffee from the small white glass cup that bore no handles, as was the traditional way to drink Saudi coffee, his eyes resting on Earl.

“It’s one of them,” Earl said after a thoughtful pause.

The professor lowered the small cup and nodded as if reflecting on the youth’s response. There was a brief silence as he took another sip of coffee before setting it next to a plate of dates. When he spoke, his voice was reserved and gentle but held authority and wisdom that mirrored his age.

“When we speak of the earliest Muslims as being the best generation, son,” he said, his thick, graying eyebrows gathering momentarily, “we too speak of a Golden Age of Islam.”

The sound of the restaurant door opening as a customer left filled the quiet of his pause.

“But we speak of the gold in their hearts,” Dr. Mashal said. “Not in their lifestyle, worldly accomplishments, or geographical borders.”

He took another sip of coffee before he spoke again.

“This is the Islam we wish to emulate. Whatever evolution or improvement we can make upon other than that is fine, and even commendable.”

He paused again before adding, “But you can never improve upon their spirituality or understanding of the Islamic faith itself. This is what makes them superior to us of later generations. Our greatest hope lies in coming close to mirroring those hearts. But we will never mirror them in truth, at least not as a generation.

“No Golden Age in history can contend with the gold that lay in their breasts, son. And don’t let anyone, no matter how knowledgeable or studied, tell you any differently.

“If they do,” he added, “they do not understand Islam.”

Sharif lay awake pondering this conversation of years ago. He felt himself begin to drift to sleep as his exhaustion after the long trip began to take its toll. His last thoughts before his eyelids grew heavy were of his mother warning him to stay true to himself, and of having, perhaps, lost Hasna in being unable to heed his mother’s advice.

***

Hasna sat staring distantly through the windshield as the night’s darkness closed around her, making her solitude more acute. Her car was parked in front of the dimly lit coffee house, its frosted windows hiding from view whoever had stopped in although Hasna could make out the faint silhouettes of customers who sat near the glass.

“I’m gonna make you love me,” the Supremes wailed soulfully from the car’s speakers. “Oh yes I will. Yes I will…” the singer insisted with a confidence that was a sharp contrast to the anxiety that was tightening in Hasna’s chest.

Before today, Hasna had told herself that the distance she was feeling from Sharif was due to their physical separation, not due to any change of feelings on his part, or hers. Granted, his occasional e-mails and half-hearted phone conversations had disintegrated into two-line messages and two-minute calls once a month, but whenever Hasna complained, Sharif had said that he had a lot on him at the university. And because Hasna did not want to believe any differently, she had accepted his excuse and resigned herself to patience until they could be together when he returned.

Hasna never liked the idea of his leaving in the first place. But her father, and the rest of the community it seemed, had been delighted at the opportunity. She understood their excitement, and their rationale even. But that didn’t mean she shared their sentiments. To her, it wasn’t necessary for Sharif to go abroad to “qualify” as an imam. Yes, he was young, and it was true that the growing Muslim community in the area was becoming increasingly competitive and multiethnic. Now, very few masjids were headed by imams who were not fluent in Arabic or had not completed at least some official Islamic studies overseas. So it made sense that the former imam would suggest that Sharif acquire the Arabic language and an Islamic studies degree.

It was selfish of her, Hasna knew, to want anything different for Sharif. But she was angry with Imam Rashad for arranging the trip. From the beginning, she had had a gut feeling that something would go wrong. But because she didn’t entirely understand this intuition, she had remained silent. It was all she could do to keep from complaining. She and Sharif had waited long enough. Why would the community impose another six years on them, and from so far away?

“I love you,” Hasna had said to him the last time they talked weeks before he returned to the States. It was how she normally ended their conversations.

“You too” was his customary response. But it had always been like that, even when they were college freshmen, at the beginning of their relationship.

But this time, there had been a long pause, as if he were unsure whether to say anything at all. The silence was so complete that Hasna had momentarily thought the line was disconnected.

“You too,” he said finally, and Hasna heard him clear his throat a moment before he made some excuse to get off the phone.

It hadn’t always been like that.

The two words stayed in Hasna’s mind, forming a painful place for themselves there. She let the words repeat themselves and she studied them each time, as if in them lay some clue as to where Sharif’s heart now lay, or perhaps where it had lain all along.

Was it possible that his hesitation in uttering the three words that had come so naturally to her was due to doubt of his feelings and not to the shyness that Hasna had always attributed to him?

His natural reserve had been the ever-present excuse that Hasna offered herself for his lack of affection and open interest in her.

The sudden humming vibration of a car’s engine halting next to her vehicle distracted Hasna from her thoughts. She exhaled in relief. Her best friend had finally arrived.

Hasna had hated to disturb her friend, especially so late at night, but this was not something she could discuss on the phone, at least not in her house. She had wanted more than anything to move into her own apartment, but her parents convinced her to remain at home until the wedding.

“It’s better,” her mother had said, as if that explained everything. But Hasna wanted her own space—needed her own space, especially now that she was getting married.

The law firm she worked for didn’t offer her an enormous salary, but the annual forty thousand dollars she earned was only slightly less than what her father brought home from the college he worked for.

Having her own apartment tonight would have helped tremendously. She needed the confines of her own space to sort out her feelings and seek advice from the only person she felt she could trust with the fragility of her heart. With her own apartment, her friend would not have had to meet her at a coffee shop, and they both would have the privacy they needed to help her navigate this new problem.

Or perhaps it wasn’t privacy that made Hasna insist on meeting at the late night shop that doubled as a bar for light drinkers. The request was likely equally due to shame. It would be utterly humiliating to have her parents or, worse, Iman overhear what Hasna feared would reveal the crumbling of a relationship that had been set in motion before Hasna or Sharif understood any complexities of the heart. Iman was only fourteen and was unlikely to comprehend the significance of the information even if she happened upon it, but Hasna was not willing to take the risk. Her little sister was turning into an annoying “Daddy’s girl” and Hasna didn’t want to give the child any tattle-tale details to help her draw closer to their father.

“Hey stranger!” Hasna heard the muffled voice through the driver’s side window where her friend had suddenly appeared after tapping on the glass.

Betraying her true feelings, Hasna grinned and turned off the ignition, halting the music abruptly. Still beaming, she opened the door and climbed out the car. Immediately, she was pulled into a friendly embrace.

In the warmth of Vernon’s arms, Hasna felt her throat close. The kind gesture was a stinging reminder that Sharif had denied her even this. For a full minute she laid her head against her friend’s broad chest and let herself imagine that it was Sharif holding her.

“Oh, Tweetie,” Hasna heard Vernon’s deep voice above her head. “It’ll be all right.”

She loved when he called her Tweetie. It was a nickname he had given her while they were in law school together. He had said that her yellow skin and hazel eyes made him think of the cartoon character Tweetie Bird. Initially, the name had been a joke between them, but it soon became a term of endearment that stuck.

“Let’s go inside.”

Hasna started to respond but hesitated. She was saddened when Vernon loosened his embrace to lead her to the restaurant. Until that moment, she didn’t realize how much she needed the physical comfort of a friend.

Vernon closed Hasna’s car door that had been still hanging open, and he took the keys from her before pressing the button to lock the car. He put an arm around her and pulled her close to him and guided her to the entrance.

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