Seven Weddings for Heaven

   

   It was on a Sunday afternoon in midsummer when Bilquees Ohannes announced that the day of her death had arrived. Enthroned on her sickbed, she faced her son, her daughter-in-law, and her two grandchildren, Miriam and Zara.

   “I have only done six,” she said with a sigh that turned her body to paper.

   “Ma, don’t talk this way,” Mr. Ohannes said.

   “I cannot face God yet. It takes seven. Don’t look at me like an idiot. I need to do one more. And I have only one day left to do it.”

   “Ma, you must rest,” Mrs. Ohannes said. “And not worry about these things.”

   Bilquees touched her face. “You were the best thing that ever happened to my son,” she said and turned her eye upon Zara. “Now. You are ripe for the picking. You are the last hope. By the end of the night, you will be engaged, God as my witness.”

   While Zara shuddered, Miriam took her grandmother’s hand, from some overdue burst of affection that nearly moved her to tears for a woman who had hitherto incited little pity or passion. The Ohannes clan had lived off the axiom that Bilquees, with her fierceness and staunch stubbornness and zealous piety would outlive all of them, but here she was, on the very brink of death. And like most pious travelers, she cast her eyes backward down the corridor of her life to study all of her rises and falls, particularly her failings, because the Day of Judgment loomed. Bilquees recalled all the lies she told and the people that her tongue had slaughtered with evil gossip, the women she had shunned so that their beauty would not distract her husband, the handsome men she had drawn to her on rainy afternoons when her husband bored her, and of course the time, after his death, that she had undertaken a sailing expedition with other widows, and there had been a gentleman present, the details of which she never shared; suffice it to say, the ordeal had left her even more feverish to secure a spot in heaven. But Bilquees, ever resourceful since the day she was married at the tender age of thirteen in a village in Bangladesh, had a plan that would secure her a comfortable estate in heaven. It was a long cherished belief that a woman, who sometimes missed a prayer or had a slew of sins to her name, could find another way to acquire heaven through the art of matchmaking.

   Ever since she felt her heart stop twice in the dairy aisle, she had set to arranging marriages, both here in America and across the sea, but, times had changed, and people were falling in love and marrying this or that white man or Hindu fellow by the dozen, so her services were hard-pressed to find success. Nevertheless, Bilquees secured marriages by calling upon friends with the elegant aggression of a mafia lord, and now, as she waited for death, she had just one more to arrange to reach the holy seven. Arrange the marriages of the spouse-less among you, was her battle cry and key to the kingdom.

   “Did you have a good honeymoon, Miriam?” she asked.

   “Yes, we’ve just come from the airport now,” Miriam said.

   “You’re welcome,” Bilquees said. “Zara, go shower and dress. You’re next.”

   “Is there anything we can get for you?” Miriam asked, when her parents had left the room and she and Zara stood by the old woman.
“Compliance,” she said. “That’s all I need. Do not fight the incidents of tonight. Heed my orchestration. Zara, you will be engaged and then, I can die.”
“God,” Zara muttered. “I can’t handle this.”
“My hopes are with you, Zara,” Bilquees said. “I found a good husband for your sister, didn’t I? My sixth success was with you, Miriam. You, Zara, will be my seventh. Go on, start getting ready. Men are first drawn to beauty, God knows, you have that, but we are working on a clock. Tonight will require a great deal more.”
“But, Grandma, what if I don’t necessarily want to be married,” Zara said.
“Every girl wants it,” Bilquees said. “You’ll want it one day if not today but this is the day of my death, and you must respect that. Do you want me to burn in the hellfire?”
Miriam laughed, her cheeks still pink from her trip. “Surely you won’t–”
Her grandmother’s look silenced her. The girls took leave of the room.

   The doors and windows of their yellow house were open, the lake behind the house shimmered and everything smelled like simmering roast, sugar and milk boiling on the stove. Though it was  cool outside, the house was stifling and the girls glowed in perspiration. The air did not travel well in the house that had been built a century ago, by some rich man; it was rumored that when he had gone to war, he didn’t want his wife going around town while he was away, so he locked her up in the house where she died and now haunted it.

   “She’s crazy,” Zara said. “She’s gone and invited some random guy to our house tonight and all because she’s dying, I have to go along with it.”

    “Just go and wash your hair,” Miriam said. “It won’t be so awful.”

   “Easy for you to say,” Zara said. “You liked the guy she picked for you. She had time to choose someone for you, too, God knows what scum of the earth she got for me on her limited time. Miriam, I don’t want to get married like this!”

   Miriam seized her shoulders. “Now, stop it, Zara, just go and wash your hair and get through tonight, all right? If she really is dying, imagine how you’d feel if you didn’t entertain her last wish? She’d haunt you forever, Zara, imagine going the rest of your days haunted by your grandmother. You’d not need a husband, you’d need an exorcist.”

   “Oh, all right,” Zara said. “I’ll just meet him. Doesn’t mean I’m marrying him. I have to make a phone call,” she said and rushed into her room and slammed the door.

   Miriam stood at the top of the stairs and looked at the flowerpot that sat at the foot of it, beside the door. The door opened and her new husband, Isaac Nassar, came inside, carrying a bouquet of flowers. He wore his long, black traveling coat, and beneath it he had on his every day suit, black and fitted with two buttons over a plum dress shirt, black pants. He dressed this way always. Miriam remembered an evening a year ago, just like this one, when she had been introduced to the suitor that Grandma Bilquees had arranged for her to meet, how eager she had been. She remembered that just before she had stepped into the living room to meet him, she caught her reflection in the mirror, the bright light in her eyes, and it was all shining and triumphant, and she had imagined that it was a kingdom that would age and fall, and if she did not find a husband right away, when she was still young with the energy for such things. She remembered how she had thought that it was so kind of her grandmother to find a man for her, to save her from becoming a social recluse, some creature locked in a tower and pitied.

   From the moment she had been introduced to him, she knew that Isaac Nassar bore all the trappings of the gentlemen who had long since gone extinct in favor of the forward, lazy smiling, devil-may-care suitors of the present day. He would not be demanding or vulgar, he would be respectful and goodly, honorable, because his faith taught him to be. He was an untouched prince of piety.

   How wonderful the evening had been, to meet a man who brought her mother flowers, who nodded politely and smiled kindly at the things she said, who leaned his head a little closer, not with impure intentions, but in a genuine attempt to hear her better, who had studied in London at the Harrow School, then went on to Harvard, yes, Harvard, her mother repeated for everyone who had already heard, before he began to study the law. How wonderful was this man of good breeding with an English accent and a father who had held an esteemed position in the Bangladeshi government and was received by her father like a royal friend, this man whose eloquent speech made Miriam think of love letters drenched in floral perfume from the 18th century, whose deep voice made her recall sprawling moors and the faraway howling of wolves, this man with the long traveling coat and something exceedingly elegant about his nose. Miriam had endured one too many James Dean men with long hair and loose jeans, irreverence for poetry and a penchant for unbuttoning their pants in the backseat of their beat up trucks. She had soon tired of men like that, because the clock was ticking and her aunts had begun to beg and plead for a wedding, urging her to find a man that was exciting and rich and to never, under any circumstance, make the same mistakes they had made by marrying men with premature paunches and empty wallets. And so, marriage to Isaac Nassar had been easier to agree to than breathing.

   Isaac approached her, “Should we take these flowers up to your grandmother?”

   “Why? Because she’s dying? It’s doubtful that she really is.”

   Disliking speculation, Isaac remained silent.

   “God! Did you go and get funereal flowers for her? She’s just saying that so Zara will be more willing to meet this suitor coming tonight.”

   “I see,” Isaac said. “Then, what shall I do with the flowers?”

   “Well, what do you think of that? Conniving Zara to meet this suitor? You know, half of me thinks she should just go ahead and meet him. I have a suspicion that–”

   Disliking suspicions more than speculation, Isaac wore that vacant expression that made him look like a man whose soul had departed and fled the dull body it inhabited. The look silenced her because she remembered that she had seen it just two weeks ago, in Paris, on their honeymoon. They had been walking through the Champs-Elysees, the street suffused in amber light from the shops, burnishing the passers-by who sparkled and laughed, their joy set to the tune of distant violins that seemed to come from the star peppered skies. She had been wearing a red dress, and since it was their first night as man and wife, she had been thinking of the moment when they would reach the hotel and he would take it off of her. She had been conscious of his height, his leanness, his arm holding her against him, his long black coat, the solemn expression on his features, the melody of his footsteps, the click of her heels on the wet street, all of the moonlight like bathwater on their faces. And something, the light, his coat, that handsome nose, his contemplative eyes, had seized her, perhaps the violins or the strong chocolate she had drank after dinner, and she had whirled around and taken his face in her hands and pressed her mouth on his. She had felt his heart stop beating and he had grown still. And when she had moved away, she saw that his eyes had that vacant look, as though the soul had fled and was running down the Paris streets screaming for mercy and refuge.
“Thank you,” he had said, with a polite nod, and then he took her arm again, and they had resumed walking. Her heart had hammered inside her and she had wondered whether or not she had been the fool of some terrible scam, or perhaps she was the bride of a man who did not have functioning parts, and she had all but rehearsed all of the consoling things she might say to him when he broke the news and planned the various adoption agencies she might contact, when they had arrived at the hotel.
He took off his coat and then asked if she was hungry or thirsty, to which she shook her head, and then he insisted that she take the bathroom before him, and when she came back, he went in, and when he emerged, in his blue dressing robe he looked at her, and she knew that she looked different, like a siren in a soft gown of moonlight. Then he untied his robe. She let out a sigh, because he wore his matching pajamas beneath the robe, it seemed it would take a million years and a fortified army to ever see him without his clothes. He removed his pants and set them carefully across the chair. She took a deep breath. He removed the robe and she felt her cheeks redden as he removed his nightshirt. Sensing her discomfort, he put on the robe but did not tie it. “Would you do me the honor?” he asked.
“I guess,” she said at last, and then he gently lifted her nightgown and eased his body over hers and soon they lay on the bed and his body moved against hers like a sailboat that bobbed rhythmically on the water, this way and that, up and down, but did not go anywhere. After it was over, they had lain side by side, and she thought that if he thanked her now, she would murder him, but he did not, only kissed her head and wished her a good night. And that had been the only night. Of course, they had had a nice time in Paris, dined in fine restaurants, visited castles where ghosts flitted, taken rowboats across the water, and he listened to everything she said with a devout attention, opened the door for her religiously, but something had deserted the beauty of the wedding and left Miriam feeling deflated ever since her spontaneous kiss had rendered him soulless.

The party began at eight o’clock. Grandma Bilquees said that it would take her a bit longer to come downstairs, as imminent death was upon her, so the Ohannes family and Isaac waited in the drawing room, dusting a chair by the fireplace, or straightening a family portrait taken during last summer’s cruise on the Caribbean, restless motions that preceded a party. Isaac and Mr. Ohannes had exhausted the usual talk, so Isaac stood by the door with the intention of being the official greeter of the new suitor, who judging from Zara’s indifferent manner, would benefit from it. Isaac saw his wife cutting a salad through the kitchen door, and he observed an elegance in the way her hands moved, a ladylike beauty, how she talked like old books and tied her hair with that bow that made him think that a hundred years had not passed from the time where he lived in his mind.

   Isaac recalled the day when he had first come to this house, summoned at the request of one of his persistent aunts, to meet his future wife. He had come here without much hope of a success, but then Miriam Ohannes had floated into the room, eyes sparkling, an old-fashioned green bow in her hair. But he had not been impressed until she had started telling him about the books she liked and he began to realize that she saw beauty in everything, in the stars, in the redness of the strawberries they ate, what else had they eaten that night, ribs, yes, ribs off the grill, on one of the few occasions when Mr. Ohannes’ will had trumped that of his wife and the meat market had had a sale, so no traditional rice and curry. Mrs. Ohannes, without much hope of the night’s success, had gone along with it, and how she had nearly fainted when Isaac entered the house in his gentlemanly bearing, practically smelling like a Harvard degree.

   Isaac had eaten his ribs with a fork and knife, but Miriam had tore her teeth into them and gotten the sauce all over her, and Isaac had been shocked to find that he was wildly thrilled, against his will, by such a primeval display, and just when he thought he had lost all sense of self, she wiped her mouth with a bashful laugh and he had felt that he had found a woman of such exuberant spirit that if she were to love him the rest of his days, he would never experience that imminent death of his lackluster soul. Isaac had been taught order, honor, and duty by his diplomat father, and been reared on the holy book by his mother, until his mother had an affair with a thin-faced man who was a self-proclaimed practitioner of the black arts. And when Isaac’s father exiled the man from Bangladesh’s high society, the warlock would send cursed knots to the Nassar home. Some said that it was the curse of the knot that killed Isaac’s father in the end, others said it was his broken heart bereaved by his wife’s affair. Isaac was always in London or in America, and did not see  the misery firsthand, he only knew that extremity of emotion, in love or in passion or in faith or in devotion would lead to tragedy and the destruction of the human spirit. This notion helped him order his days and remain steadfast to a high code of almost knightly conduct, which kept all of his remorse at bay, and it went well for him, except that he knew that if he spent too long not feeling anything, he would decay.

   It was not just any woman that could do the trick. And he had learned from the letters he and Miriam had written to one another, e-mails actually, though neither would ever call them such, that she was his kindred spirit. It was the silver brush on her vanity, the jewels in her ear, the bow unfailingly in her hair, the way she kept a candle in the window, all of these things that held a trace of the old world, and suggested that she removed herself a little bit from the strange wilderness of modernity and yearned for a beauty and simplicity that had faded. He was drawn, moth-like, and knew that he had found his bride. But, then, just before their wedding, he had moved some of her boxes into the house where they would live after the honeymoon, and he had stumbled on one filled with her diaries.

   Isaac greeted Grandma Bilquees, who came downstairs, her head raised like a queen. When she saw Zara, her eyes popped. “No American clothes! The family will be here any minute, you think they will want their son to marry you? A Vegas showgirl? A girl in American clothes? Go change, or my heart will fail right here, go change!”

   Zara went up the stairs in a fury, and Bilquees nodded. “That family is late. We will serve dinner late so that they can suffer hunger pangs. Teach them about tardiness.”

   Mr. Ohannes grinned. “If we starve them, they won’t let their son marry Zara.”

   “They’ll marry us,” Bilquees said. “God as my witness, they will.”

   There was a knock at the door that only Isaac heard. He opened it, and to his surprise, was not faced with the suitor, but with a man with long, brown hair that fell over his blue eyes. He wore a shirt with screaming men on it. “Is Zara home?” he asked.

   “Yes,” Isaac said at last. “But she is upstairs. May I take a message?”

   “What the hell for? You an answering machine? Sorry. Didn’t mean to be rude. She left me a message, saying some really, like, messed up stuff, and I got to talk to her.”

   Isaac Nassar, suspecting that this man had little sense of boundaries, spoke swiftly. “I’m sorry. She is upstairs. It would hardly be fitting for you to go up there.”

   “You think I haven’t been there before? You’re her sister’s husband, right? Guess you know all about what I mean about the Ohannes girls being hard to resist, right?”

   “I would advise you to turn around and leave this place,” Isaac said. “Neither your conversation nor your company is welcome. Do not doubt that I am serious.”
“Jesus,” the man said. “You really are as robotic as she said you were. All right, all right, no need to look at me like that, I’ll go. There are other ways inside the house.”
He turned and walked away, his sneakers sounded like slaps across the face. Isaac shut the door and his mind began to work over what the man had said, but then the doorbell rang and he threw it open, his features sharp with anger that this insolent barbarian had the nerve to ring. But, he stood in front of the suitor’s family, who looked at him and then at the house number with the hope that they had gotten it wrong.
“Oh,” Isaac said at last. “Come in. Please. This way. Thank you.”
The Zayan family walked into the house, confident that they had valuable goods in their possession. Their commodity was in the form of Ameer Zayan, who reminded Isaac of a thief in dinner clothes. Grandma Bilquees and the Ohannes welcomed them into the living room, thanked them for coming, asked them about their long drive, complimented Mrs. Zayan’s sari, though it was out of fashion, but Bilquees made no mention of dinner being served and reveled in the furtive glances the Zayans threw in the direction of the kitchen, from where savory scents of roast and jasmine rice emerged.
“How are you enjoying America?” Mrs. Zayan asked Bilquees. “You haven’t been here in so many years, isn’t that right? Have you been seeing all the sights?”
Bilquees said, “Eh, there isn’t much to see in America, if you want to see old beauties of the world, you have to go to China or Greece—eh, you can go to England, but all they have are museums filled with all the things they stole from everyone else.”
Isaac cleared his throat, but made no remark, and Miriam wished he would do something, anything at all, even lift her grandmother off the ground, carry her out to the lake behind the house, and throw her into the water all in the name of the Union Jack.

   Mr. Ohannes, having exhausted his Caribbean anecdotes, looked like he wanted to watch an action movie, and Mrs. Ohannes, wondering how best to reprimand Zara for taking so long to dress, glanced at the stairs, leaving Miriam to supply Mrs. Zayan with an account of her honeymoon while Isaac endured Mr. Zayan’s incoherent ramblings, brought on by his plummeting sugar levels, and when he began to confess his gastrointestinal difficulties, Miriam flew to Isaac’s side and saved him by listing the seven different types of tea they had, a collection that filled her with pride. As she spoke, she noticed that the suitor looked at her, like an animal that had found cologne and a haberdashery just after leaving the wilderness, and it made her flush when he smiled.

   As the guests began to look gaunt from hunger, the doorbell rang and everyone remembered that Hamza Nassar had not yet arrived, and Miriam went to answer it. Hamza, in her snowy hijab and long traditional dress, was like the picture of peace and doves, carrying a cake she had baked. “Oh, Miriam, my new sister. How was your trip?”

   And as Isaac came to kiss his sister’s cheek, Miriam retold the tale of Paris. But, she noticed that Isaac looked particularly subdued and she wondered if the memory of their honeymoon made him feel nothing at all, and they had not even washed the scent of the plane off them yet! How love lost its brilliance when marriage cut its aortic flow.
When everyone was in the living room and the introductions were made, Zara, at last came downstairs. Ameer rose from his chair and looked at her with a smile, but she barely looked at him. To Mrs. Ohannes’ mortification, Zara barely said hello to the guests, but skipped right to the kitchen to start picking at the dinner. Grandma Bilquees’ features hardened, as she suddenly announced that dinner would be served, and it seemed that the guests were just famished enough to overlook Zara’s social delinquency.
With the fierceness of a military commander, Bilquees seized Zara’s arm and led her to the table in the formal dining room. “You will sit here,” she said, her voice brittle. “Miriam, sit here, too, Isaac, please sit, you too, Hamza. Oh, please, Ameer, come.” When they were seated, Bilquees went back to the other room where the adults were and regaled them with stories of how she had arranged Miriam and Isaac’s marriage just a year ago and how no happier couple on this earth could be found.
They sat like strangers on a train. Zara poked at her roast and did not look at Ameer, who looked as though he had a fly stuck in his throat. Miriam looked at Isaac who heroically took the cue and asked Ameer how he liked being an engineer.
“They’re always engineers,” Zara muttered as she and Miriam went to the kitchen to get drinks for the table. Bilquees brushed past them and straightened Zara’s shawl.
“Yes, he’s an engineer. If I weren’t on the brink of death, I’d have found a doctor, but as it is, I don’t have time to be luxurious. Take what you get and start talking to him.”
Zara looked ready to shriek as Miriam led her back to the table.
“Ameer, do you like to go dancing?” Miriam asked him.
Ameer looked at her with such gratitude that it made her think no woman had ever spoken to him in his life, but that could not be, because he was not bad looking.

   “If it’s with the right woman,” he said.

   “Well, Zara loves to dance,” Miriam said. “On the trip we took last year, she was the only one of us who went and danced with the crowd on the deck at midnight.”
Isaac cleared his throat and looked scandalized to hear such a report. “Well, a marriage cannot be founded on love of dancing alone,” he said.
Miriam looked at him sharply. “Yes, well, without dancing, sometimes a marriage cannot happen at all.” There was a tense silence, one that both Miriam and Isaac were distinctly aware of, one that did not surprise either, but only confirmed a looming fear that had begun in Paris. Ameer held up his hands in surrender.
“Well, don’t worry, I love to dance,” he said. “Or not dance. I’m game.”
“I suppose we will never go dancing,” Miriam said.
“I would oblige you if you wished it,” Isaac said.
“But, you would never wish it.”
“Not particularly, no.”
Miriam gazed at him while he ate his rice with a fork. She felt as though his soul was crawling out of his eyes again. “Would you like to go for a walk?”
“Presently? But, there are guests, Miriam,” Isaac said. She turned away from him.
“I’d like to take a walk,” Ameer said.
“No one asked you,” Zara snapped, rolled her eyes and glanced at the stairs.
Ameer shifted uncomfortably, finding no friendly face around him what with Zara’s cold indifference, Miriam’s stony expression, and Isaac’s impenetrable composure. Only Hamza looked human in the assortment. “That’s cool that you cover,” Ameer said.
“You know, I heard that the actual holy book doesn’t say women have to cover their hair, did you know that?” Miriam said. “You could have knocked me over, I hadn’t any idea. And to think of all the women around the world who do it anyway.”

   Hamza nodded. “Because the prophet bid all of his wives to do it.”

   “Oh yeah,” Ameer grinned. “Dude with a ton of wives. Player knows what’s up.”

   From the humorless faces around him, Ameer seemed to remember he was not among friends and devoted his attention to his roast. “Not that I’d want more than one wife,” he added quickly. “What about you, man, would you want more wives?”

   “One is sufficient, thank you,” Isaac replied. Miriam threw him a look.

   “Well, I think it’s cool that you cover in this day and age,” Ameer said. “Most girls don’t. My mom’s always telling me to marry a girl who covers, but ah, I think I might just scare her off with how wild I am,” he said and Miriam observed that he was only ever completely handsome when he laughed. “It probably takes a lot of courage, too,” he said.

  “She isn’t enlisting,” Zara said. “So what if girls cover and so what if they don’t.”

   “I don’t mean that it’s bad that you don’t,” Ameer said. “Just cool that she–”

   Miriam said, “We don’t have to follow every rule down to the letter. Even the religious of us. Rules! Sometimes that’s all it seems there are. Ever since those two people bit into that apple, all we’ve got are a list of more restrictions on our stifled spirits.”

   “It seems your spirit yearns to give way to anarchy,” Isaac remarked. “Others prefer a more civilized way of living.”

   “Well, you want to know what I think of that?”

   “I believe I was born to hear.”

   “We all die anyway and we will or won’t get into heaven and it’s exhausting to have to try to do everything the right way all the time just because of that. Isn’t that what it always boils down to? That’s why we have to marry each other, isn’t it, I mean, people of our own faith and culture, they say it’s all because it’ll help us get into heaven.”

   “Oh please,” Zara said. “All these restrictions are from people with a God complex. They say it’s for our spiritual well-being, but it’s really just to exert dominion and keep our people from going extinct.”

   Miriam, feeling the utter helplessness of their conversation, as circular as her wedding band, let out a hollow laugh. “Yes, I believe Isaac married me to further progeny of his beautiful nose.”

   Everyone laughed a little bit, but the tension still hung like varicolored veils in an Indian pleasure palace, each of their faces distorted and glowing behind the shades of hot speech.

   Zara said that she had to go upstairs. But before she could move, Bilquees came into the dining room and summoned Miriam, Isaac, and Hamza away to the kitchen, shutting the door on Zara and Ameer with a knowing smile. “You three wait here,” she instructed. “Leave them alone, and then after half an hour, go back in and join. We’re serving his parents coffee. Should give the children plenty of time. An engagement should commence within the hour.” Bilquees vanished and shut the door.

   “Good God,” Isaac said. “She has the tactical mind of an army.”
“Your choice of words is certainly alarming,” Miriam said. “Considering this is how you and I were engaged. Do you feel like you were descended upon by an army?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Oh? But didn’t you mean it?” She turned to Hamza. “What do you think of him, Hamza? I know he’s not really your type, but what about for Zara?”
“My type? What is my type?”
“Well, you keep a picture of the prophet in your room, don’t you?”
Hamza laughed and blushed. “Dear sister, no! His picture offers me strength.”

“Really? I thought it was because you liked to pretend you were one of the prophet’s wives and before you go to bed, you gaze into–”

“Really, Miriam,” Isaac cut in. “Not everyone indulges in these fitful romances.”
“Oh, believe me, Isaac, I know that,” she replied.
“It’s all right, Isaac,” Hamza said. “Miriam is only teasing me. I think that Ameer seems like a very nice man. In fact, he reminds me a little of Elvis.”
“Presley?” Miriam declared.
“That’s absurd,” Isaac said and Hamza reddened. Miriam glared at her husband.
“I think that’s a good observation, Hamza. He does look a little like him, the hair and sweeping forehead, and the heavy jaw. I didn’t see it before till you mentioned it.”
Miriam knew that Hamza kept a collection of Elvis Presley records in her room, beneath the bed, and had been known to swoon at old televised documentaries about the gyrating king of rock. Hamza lived in an apartment downtown pursuing religious studies at the university, with an aching womb for a dozen babies, and dreams of a virtuous husband that she only ever revealed after she had eaten too much ice cream at a slumber party. Her love of Elvis was the one thing that kept Hamza from seeming like a cloistered saint, in Miriam’s opinion, one thing that held her fast as human and hot-blooded, a thing that her brother was rapidly revealing himself to be anything but.

When half an hour had passed, Miriam leaned her ear against the door.
“I don’t hear a thing,” she said. “Suppose she’s killed him.”
Hamza gasped and Isaac looked intrigued. “Killed him? With what?”
“I suppose you wish I had killed you off, too, when I had the chance.”
“I never said that, I’m sure.”
“Well, I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t have,” Miriam muttered and Hamza widened her eyes in astonishment. But before she could comment on her sister-in-law’s cryptic words, Miriam pushed open the door and they all saw Ameer sitting alone in the dining room. “Where is Zara?” Miriam asked.
He looked up at her with that same grateful look, as though he had thought the world had ended in an apocalyptic bomb and he had stumbled upon a fellow survivor.
“She went upstairs,” he said.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Miriam said. “Stay here, I’ll go and get her.”
Miriam snuck past the living room where the adults were talking about potential wedding dates and reception halls, and she flew up the stairs, down the dim hall, to Zara’s closed door. Wondering why Zara had penned herself up, she pushed open the door, then nearly fainted in horror. There, on the bed was Zara entangled in the arms of a man with long brown hair and loose jeans that were in danger of being flung off entirely. Miriam stared at them for a moment, the way both of them were wrapped in one another, like the curling legs of an insect as it seizes its prey, but lovelier, arms and legs intertwined, breathless, panting bodies, clothes slipping off but still on, to Miriam’s relief. She saw an open window beside Zara’s desk, and imagined that this man had climbed in like a highwayman, and there was Zara swept up in some forbidden romance. For a moment, Miriam’s horror gave way to sheer envy, a jealousy that she felt in the pit of her stomach making her sick. And then, she remembered where she was and the people downstairs and she cried, “Zara, what are you doing!”
The pair sprang apart and Zara looked relieved that it was only Miriam standing there, and she rose while Miriam stared at both of them. “Well?”
Zara looked at her sister and did not know how to tell her that she had loved this man since she was a freshman in high school standing by the bus stop and Nick Bryce was a junior and his friends were snickering about tee-peeing some trees of a hapless neighbor, and he had shaken his head and said no, we won’t cross that line, boys, and his friends had grown solemn, and Zara had been struck by his nobility and that rare flicker of a higher moral sense, and it did not matter to her that his whole future hinged on the success of his garage band, because no one else had made her feel that way.
“Come out in the hall right now, Zara, or else I’ll scream fit to wake the dead.”
Zara went out in the hall and pulled the door shut behind her. “Stop it.”
“Zara! What in God’s name are you doing? Is that Nick Bryce? You’ve been having a secret love affair? You’re going to be slaughtered when Mom finds out. Grandma will perish. Nick Bryce will require a funeral when Papa learns. Oh, Zara.”
“You don’t understand, so stop judging me. You don’t know anything. You’re married to a man everyone approves of and he makes you happy. It’s not my fault that the man I feel those things for isn’t approved of. I just don’t care. I love him.”
“God, Zara! What do I do with Ameer, then? He’s downstairs waiting to be your husband, and you’re up here in the arms of some man off the street. What do I do?”
“Just take care of it. I swear if you don’t, I’ll run away with Nick tonight.”
“That hooligan means so much that you’d forsake your entire family–”
“Don’t even start! You with your perfect marriage and FDA approved husband.”
“Oh, stop it, Zara, stop it!” Miriam cried.
“Tell Ameer the truth, I don’t care, just send him away. I want to be with Nick.”
“There’s no future with Nick.”
“I’m not interested in futures. I just want to be with Nick tonight. Do this for me.”
Zara turned and went back in her room, shutting the door with a finality that made Miriam lean against the wall and hold her head in her hands. It was all so sinful and wrong but she could not get the image of the two of them on the bed thrashing about like dolphins at sunset out of her mind, and the envy heated her blood.
“Miriam?” Isaac asked, coming up beside her. “Are you all right?”
She looked up at him and felt a surge of resentment. “What do you care?”
There he was, her gentleman of a husband, her infernal well-mannered and dispassionate mate. This was not what she had dreamed about.
“Miriam, what is it?”
“Zara is in there now with a man whose pants barely fit him. We can’t tell anyone about it. They’re probably taking off all their clothes now.”
She watched in pleasure as Isaac fought to wear a disinterested expression. “Is it that fellow with a ghastly shirt? I’m partly to blame. Are you all right? What shall I do?”
Miriam recalled the moment when Zara had left her companion before going out into the hall. Nick Bryce’s eyes had followed her as she left, and they had been filled with yearning and passion and love. It was not only that Isaac’s eyes had been soulless in the Champs de Elysees, but that he had not looked at her that way at all.
“You know, I saw them,” Miriam said. “Together, just now. On the bed.”
“I’m sorry,” Isaac said.
Miriam’s eyes turned to slits. “My old room is down the hall. Right there.”

“Oh?”
“Yes. Would you like to go and see it?”
“Is there something in it you would like me to see?”
“What sort of man are you?” she cried. “Are you a man at all?”
She saw a flush of red under his skin. “What do you mean by that?”
“Are you that sort of man, Isaac? The sort that prefers, well–”
“Prefers what, Miriam?”
“The company of men. You know, one of those men.”
Such a change came over his face that Miriam felt afraid. “How can you say that? Just because I choose to reign in my emotions and passions–”
“If only! You don’t have any to begin with. At least not for women.”
“My God, Miriam,” Isaac said.
“Oh never mind, I don’t mean it, Isaac, I’m sorry, all right,” she said. “But. I almost wish you were. It would make this bearable,” Miriam said and left him in the hall. When she went downstairs, she saw that Hamza, having been left alone with the suitor, had been forced to sit with the adults, leaving Ameer Zayan alone again.

   Miriam smiled. “Zara is a little busy at the moment. Helping a friend with something. Would you like some dessert? We can get some early.”

   He followed her into the kitchen where they were alone. Miriam took out the dish of rice pudding her mother had made and spooned some for him in a bowl.
“I suppose it hasn’t been the best night, for you, has it?”
“Not really,” Ameer replied. “But, it’s fine. I didn’t expect much.”
“No?”
“Not at all. My parents said that they wanted me to come meet a nice girl, so I just came so they’d give me some peace. I’m not really into all this, myself.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Miriam sighed. “No broken hearts tonight.”
Ameer walked toward her. “Well, to be honest, I wasn’t interested in your sister.”
“Well, she wasn’t giving you the time of day, so I’m not surprised.”
Ameer laughed, a low, practiced laugh of a charmer. “There’s that, but also, I was a little distracted tonight by someone else.”
Miriam could smell pungent cologne and aftershave like pine trees but it was not unpleasant. And when she lifted her eyes and looked up at him, she was astounded to see the way he looked at her. Oh, here it is, she thought, the lusty-eyed, swashbuckling rogue who means to make an advance, but here it is, too, the thing I’ve been missing all this while, that feeling of blood rushing to my head, because Isaac’s blood does not rush when he looks at me, his blood has never rushed at all, and so mine is fated to sit still beside his, like two still rivers cutting through a black, silent forest.
“You’re beautiful,” Ameer Zayan said. “I just thought you should know.”
It was a cheap, maudlin line, to enjoy it was to wear faux silk during the Depression. But this was the way a man was supposed to look at a woman. Ameer Zayan would make her feel all the things that the boys she had known before had almost made her feel, when she had not gone all the way, as the girls in school would say, but near enough for the sake of feeling something at all. It had become a great hunger to feel a sensation, one that had only grown more unbearable after she had witnessed Zara with Nick Bryce in her bedroom, and here was Ameer Zayan, looking just like Elvis Presley. Zara’s doing it. Everybody’s doing it. Why should I be any different, just because my husband is a freak.
But, then with a stab of loyalty, she recalled a moment in Paris when they floated on a glassy river just before dawn and swans collected near white glowing reeds.
“Did you hear the story of Lohengrin?” Isaac had asked.
“The prince who came in a swan shaped boat?”
“Yes. To marry the princess, under condition that she’d never ask him his name.”
Miriam had leaned against Isaac’s shoulder. “But she did. How could she resist?”
“Indeed. She did. And then he had to go away. And never came back.”
It was what she had always wanted. She had wanted a partner to feel less lonely, security and stability, to satisfy a vague maternal instinct, insistently sought a mate to carry her lineage forth, but there was more, there was so much more, and it floated close to her in the scent of her sister’s suitor’s cologne. She could remember the days before she had hungered for stability, when she had only wanted a highwayman to crawl through her window with all the wild-eyed passion of Prince Hamlet, to seize her from her bed and whisper reckless things, things to disturb the universe, the long-haired boys in high school, the lazy-smiling fellows and all the ways they had charmed her blood.

   But, they were not supposed to desire these things, she and Zara, they were not supposed to wear short dresses or let boys see their legs or shoulders before marriage, so she had given it all up in her youth, for the most part, she had forsaken it and known that the days of wild boyfriends with brooding hearts and blasphemous mouths were over, and she had hinged all her hopes that the passion would come after marriage. But, had she given it all up to satisfy her practicality, had she given it all up so that her mother would have a son-in-law she could be proud of, so that her grandmother could die in peace?

   The rowboat had been so close to the water’s surface. “Well, why did he leave her?” she had asked. Isaac had taken off his coat and wrapped it around her.
“He only asked her for one thing, that she accept him, but she could not.”
“She wanted to know his name. Why couldn’t he have just told her that?”
“He gave all he could give,” Isaac said. “I wish she had understood that. Can you imagine how it must have pained him to float away from her?”
“Well, I still think he should have stayed,” she had said. “Would you stay?”
“Always,” Isaac replied and they watched the sun turn the water to golden fire.
Ameer Zayan moved closer to her and she felt his shirtsleeve brush her arm.
“You want to go for a walk? Just you and me?”
“You and me? Not in this world,” she laughed, then paused. “Not in this world, but, do you think there are more worlds than this happening all at once?” He smelled like hot sugar and rummy cooked raisins. “Maybe in another world, you and me—Maybe, I’m the me from another place and I got stuck here and that’s why nothing pleases me.”

   “Maybe I could.” He slipped his arm around her waist and she felt a peculiar thrill at his touch and then she cringed. “I have a husband,” she said.

   “But he doesn’t look at you. When did you begin to expect so little? When did your dreams become so small?”
Miriam recoiled, as though a peasant had spoken her to, this man who presumed to know her, but he was not so wrong, for he had seen her fire burning out. Hadn’t she sometimes looked through her old diaries with the furtiveness of a gravedigger unearthing dead bodies of old lovers? Hadn’t she let him put his arm around her?
The kitchen door opened and Bilquees stood there. How quickly her joyous features of a triumphant monarch changed into one of shock. She whirled around and shut the door. Miriam heard her speaking with forced enthusiasm that must have startled all those who knew her, something about prayer time, while she tended to the dessert in the kitchen. Then, Bilquees came back into the kitchen, along with Mrs. Ohannes, who stared at the scene before them as if they had stumbled on corpses.
“What is going on?” Mrs. Ohannes asked. “Where is Zara? Where is Isaac?”
Behind them Isaac stood in the kitchen doorway. Then he turned and walked away. Miriam’s eyes grew wild, and from that look, her mother let out a sigh of despair.
Bilquees spoke, “Ameer, get out of this kitchen, please. Everything is just fine, just fine,” Bilquees said. “I just want to speak to my granddaughter.” Her smile was a strange slash on her face. Miriam trembled as she thought of Isaac vanishing into the night.
“Oh, just get out of here, Ameer,” Miriam said. “You’re nothing but a nuisance.”
Ameer muttered something about the Ohannes sisters from hell, and then went out to the dining room, and Miriam was faced with the monstrous expression on her grandmother’s face. “What is this, Miriam? What is this?”
“Oh, Ma, we don’t know what’s going on,” Mrs. Ohannes, who had always trusted her eldest daughter with her whole heart, said. “Miriam, was he being inappropriate with you? I told your father he looked like a snake when he walked in.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Bilquees said. “We saw it plain as day, plain as the day of doom when the world is ending and everyone is dying. Miriam, you have taken your sister’s suitor right from under her! Oh, forget what you’ve done to her, what have you done to me? Where will I procure a groom for the seventh marriage to ensure my entrance into heaven? Did you think of me at all? Perhaps, I can call one of my old friends, she has a mad husband, but they do have a son. Madness might be hereditary but what choice do we have now? Miriam, you have sentenced your sister to a madman—Oh, God.”
Bilquees’ lip froze in horror and she clutched her heart. Miriam and her mother thought death had come, but Bilquees spoke, “Isaac saw this spectacle. He’s not the sort of man to endure this shame. Oh God. If your marriage falls apart, then will I still be accredited for arranging it? I’ll be down to five! To think. All my hard work. I choose a man from Harvard for you. A man with an excellent family background. My sixth marriage, fallen to the devil in a night. My seventh at its heels. I can’t find another husband for you, Miriam, not once you’ve been cast away like Isaac is bound to do.”
“Ma! Isaac would never do that,” Mrs. Ohannes said. “We will straighten all of this out. Ameer Zayan is a sick and disturbed young man. Isaac should speak to him.”
“Everyone just stop it,” Miriam said. “This has gotten out of hand. I’ll speak to Isaac, no one needs to speak to Ameer Zayan, just send him home, out with him, out!”
“Yes,” Bilquees said, a gleam in her eye. “Yes, you speak to Isaac, tell him whatever you have to tell him, make him see reason, don’t let him leave. If I die before your marriage falls apart, then surely my hand in it will still be accepted.”
“Ma!”
“Oh, well, I also want my granddaughter’s happiness. That is all this has ever been about,” Bilquees shrugged. “Go talk to him, Miriam darling, and then let’s get Zara down here and engaged to this imbecile before the clock strikes eleven. All is not lost.”
Miriam heard footsteps above her head. “Who’s gone upstairs?”
“Everyone,” Mrs. Ohannes said. “Your papa’s giving them a tour.”
Miriam’s hands flew to her mouth, but before she could be questioned, a scream tore through the house. Mrs. Ohannes paled as Bilquees seized the back of a chair.
“By God, how much can an old woman be expected to bear?” Bilquees said.
The women looked at the kitchen door, afraid to open it.
“What’s happened, Miriam?” Mrs. Ohannes whispered.
“Oh, Mom,” Miriam said. “I think maybe they found Zara.”
“She’s dead?” Bilquees asked.
“God no,” Miriam said. “But, knowing you, you’ll prefer she was in a moment.”
The kitchen door flew open and Mr. Ohannes came in, his features stiff and stony. “Zara is upstairs,” he said. “With a boy in her bed.”
“Is it Ameer Zayan?” Bilquees pleaded.
“No. Some white boy,” Mr. Ohannes relayed, then walked to the window and looked outside. Bilquees fell into the chair and held her head in her hands. Mrs. Ohannes stood there blinking like a cat on a midnight road.
“Did they see?” Bilquees said at last. “Did the Zayans see?”
“They have eyes, so yes,” Mr. Ohannes said.
“All right. Zara will come in here. You will handle her. I will go salvage the guests. I won’t let them leave, no, I’ll say they must eat dessert. The fat one, the father, he will stay for dessert, it had better be a damn good dessert if it’s going to save us.”
But Mrs. Ohannes had removed herself from the immediate concerns of her mother-in-law. The news her husband had relayed had turned her to stone. Miriam watched her mother with anxiety but found she could not move, partly because she was afraid of seeing Isaac’s coat gone from the rack, and also because she was curious to see what would happen to Zara, as though it was a preview of the consequences of the life she might have lived had she not married a gentleman. Zara came into the kitchen with her head held high but her eyes fastened to the floor. Mrs. Ohannes did not look at her.
“Sometimes, I don’t know why we ever came here at all,” she said. “I mean, we came to this country for a better education for our children, a better life. I left my homeland, my parents, to come here, and for this? So our children can turn into these corrupt, sinful, God forsaken beings. My mother told me my children would be in danger of turning from the right path, because this world is different. She told me I’d have to work that much harder. Haven’t I, Zara? Haven’t I? What have I not done for you?”
Zara’s lip trembled. “I love him.”
Miriam closed her eyes. Mrs. Ohannes who had been speaking as though encased in stone, now sprang to life as she seized her daughter. “Love him? That boy? Is that the same boy you used to talk to in high school? Is this still going on? Miriam? Is it?”
Miriam looked out the window to see what her father found so interesting.
“I can’t believe this. How can you love someone who you know will make you lose your family? Do you think I will stay around and watch this? No. This is a pure shame.”
“Mom, just calm down,” Miriam said.
“No! Don’t talk. God knows what your husband thinks of you now. Why are my daughters like this? What did I do to be cursed like this?”
“Mom, it’s not about you. I care about him, that’s all. We weren’t talking about getting married until you brought some random man for me and I realized I don’t want a life like that. It’s fine for Miriam, she’s happy with that kind of marriage.”
“You think everything is perfect for me?” Miriam demanded. “My husband might have left me for all we know. He might have gone and hanged himself.”
“Miriam, please,” Mrs. Ohannes snapped. “Someone needs to get that boy out. Miriam, go tell him—Oh, I guess I shouldn’t send you, God knows what would happen.”
“Mom!” Miriam cried, as her father went to take care of Zara’s guest. “You don’t know what it’s like to be married to Isaac, all right? None of you do. He doesn’t look at me the way—He just doesn’t seem to feel anything at all.”
“Feel anything? What is all this? What sort of world do you girls live in? This isn’t a book, this is real life. You can’t have everything–”
“Yeah, so we get nothing,” Zara said. “I can’t be with the man I love and Miriam is stuck with a robot and it’s all your fault because of all your rules and forcing us to marry acceptable men and making it so hard. Yeah, sure, you came to this country, you sacrificed everything, but why do we have to pay the price?”
Mrs. Ohannes looked so livid that Miriam stepped in front of her. “We know you do so much for us,” she said quickly. “We are grateful. We are always grateful. We just sometimes think it’s hard to live by these rules. Sometimes we want something more.”
“Have it, but it won’t be that boy in Zara’s bed,” Mrs. Ohannes said and touched Miriam’s face. “I only want you to be happy. But, there are rules. It is the way your lives must be lived if you want our blessing. You girls don’t understand sacrifice. Do you think the prophet hesitated when God told him to put his son on that rock to slaughter?”
“I hope he hesitated a little bit,” Miriam said.
“He didn’t. Because he knew there was a greater reason for things and he had the wisdom to know that we can’t always see it. You don’t understand now, but it matters.”
“I’m not going to put Nick on a rock and slaughter him no matter what you say,” Zara said. “And I don’t care about your blessing,” she yelled and ran out the back door.
Bilquees came into the kitchen. “They’re eating the dessert. The mother wants to leave, the coward, but the fat father insists they finish dessert. But it’s all because    Hamza is talking to Ameer Zayan in the dining room that we’re saved. God bless Hamza. Where is Zara? I saw the boy. He came downstairs and was taken outside. That’s who she’s with? I thought our girls picked white boys because they are so good looking. Why’d she pick one with frog eyes and prison pallor? Anyhow, doesn’t matter, the Zayans are here still.”
Miriam went outside and found Zara sitting at the old pepper garden near the gate. Stretched out before them were the sparse woods where deer could be spotted, and an old trail led to a spindly dock that cut through a darkly gleaming lake.
“What a miserable night,” Miriam said, sitting beside her.
“I didn’t know being married to Isaac was hard. I thought you really liked him.”
“I do. It’s hard to explain. It’s not the same with us as it is with you and Nick.”
“You have a future. What do I have? Heartache and that bad face Mom makes.”
“You’d marry him? Would he understand you? What would you do on Eid day? What would you teach your children? Does he eat spicy foods? People would talk in Bangla about him and he’d not even be able to defend himself.”
“Ok, stop, I don’t care about all these things. Those are your concerns.”
“Now I have new concerns,” Miriam said, lying on the cool grass and looking up at the stars. “I almost made a mistake. But I couldn’t, of course, I could never do  anything like that. You are the fighter, Zara, the one who rolls around with boys in her bed, I could never do anything but envy you. I am the type who will remain resigned to her plight and complain and dream of what could be. If Isaac doesn’t leave me, one day his lack of passion will drive me mad. I’ll become some shell of the woman I used to be.”
“Does he not love you or something?”
“Who knows,” Miriam sighed. “I think he does. But, it’s not about love now. It’s me trying to grow up and failing. I used to be so passionate. I thought I could have it all. The family approved husband and all the fiery passion, too. I just thought it’d all be so different. I spent all that time wishing for this and now that I have it, it’s nothing like I thought it’d be. I think I might break my own heart just to feel something.”
“So he’s not the type to put his hands all over you, so what?” Zara said.
“Easy for you to say. You seize the moment, you don’t care anything about the future or what you must sacrifice to have one.”
“I care. Sometimes. At least you have a husband. Why’re you complaining?”

   “I know it’s such a trivial, petty thing. Why do I need to have that passionate finale at the end of my symphony? Life isn’t written that way. Oh, but, Zara, when Ameer Zayan was standing beside me, I knew he would take me up in his arms and do all kinds of unmentionable indelicate things.”

   “Why didn’t you let him?”
“He isn’t Isaac,” Miriam said. “And Isaac, well, that’s not who he is.”

   “There’s a way we can change that, at least for tonight.”

 

   In half and hour, Miriam kicked off her shoes and began walking on the dock that cut through the lake. She saw Zara hide behind the bushes and then she started walking. At the end of the pier, she held the hollow reed and spun it through her fingers, waiting for her sister’s whistle. Timing is everything, Zara had warned. At long last, she heard the whistle, and then leapt off the pier into the black water. Once there, she screamed and thrashed. She heard the cry of alarm from the shore and then she took a deep breath and sank beneath the water, placing the reed in her mouth, she kept it at the surface and drew in air. This is what the crazy women do at the end of novels, she thought, except they mean to stay below and drown, when their lives are dry of passion and they cannot experience the fulfillment of their starving hearts. Beneath the water, she bobbed.

   She felt him nearing her, so she tossed the reed to the side and shut her eyes just as arms wrapped around her. She fell limp against him and breathed through her nose. In moments, she was out of the water and lain gently on the shore. And then, like a wish granted, his lips were warm as they pried her mouth open, she had to fight her top lip from enveloping his, because she was dead after all, and when the warmth of his breath fill her, she recalled every beautiful word he had spoken with the mouth that sought to blow life into her body. Her eyes fluttered open and she met his eyes.

   “Miriam, are you all right? Zara said you went for a walk. At this hour? Are you mad? You could have drowned. Why are you looking at me that way?”

   “You came for me,” she said. “And you kissed me.”

   “I beg your pardon?” Isaac demanded. “Of course I came. Miriam, did you jump in on purpose? So that I would save you? My God, what’s the matter with you?”

   Miriam leapt up and Isaac rose with her, astounded and bewildered.

   “Yes, I did it on purpose to see if you cared.”

   “That is utterly psychotic, Miriam.”

   “But you’ve driven me mad. You don’t seem to feel anything at all.”

   Water dripped from his hair and he reminded her of someone who had come from another planet, so wild and out of sorts did he appear. He looked out at the lake and then Miriam seized him, drew his mouth to hers, and grasped him like a shark tearing the skin off a mollusk, ran her foot up the side of his crisp pants and curled against him, and then something, something seemed to start in him, for he caught her around the waist, and she felt his soul rise from within him and overwhelm her, a hot, searing sensation, made up of a burning mouth and roving hands, but all at once, he released her.

   “This is the sort of thing that killed my parents.”

   “Then they weren’t doing it right.”

   “For God’s sake. Not this. This extremity of spirit. This unraveling. Miriam, I cannot be that idiot in the kitchen.”

   “Isaac, that didn’t mean any–” Her face flushed.
“I cannot be like the men in your diaries.”
Miriam blinked. “My diaries?”
“Yes. I confess, with great shame that is tempered only by your own psychotic display tonight, that I read your diaries. And there were some telling passages.”
Miriam gaped at him. “You read my diaries?”
He looked pained. “Yes. I am a beast. But, I am not that man and I never was. Your imagination is an astronaut, as are your passions, but I cannot be that man, I–”
Isaac Nassar was astonished when Miriam threw her arms around him. “Oh, Isaac, you read my diaries? You beautiful, glorious man, you really do care.”
He brushed the wet hair from her face. “Of course I care. I just am not as reckless with my passions, Miriam. I never was and I fear I never will be. It is not who I am.”
In the darkness, the black water carried the ghosts of the stars and Miriam marched her dreams on a rock, strapped them down and watched them get slaughtered by greater realities, for small dreams, pure dreams were creatures of sacrifice. Sometimes it seemed like she and Zara and all the people like them, the first children of the new world, reared by the ones who left the old world, were the generation of sacrifice, expected to fulfill an ancient code of conduct, of love, of life, but they did not know why and they were not allowed to ask, because that was the secret contract of true love. Sometimes the dream worked in harmony with the wishes of that old world, but often times when they did not, they had to be forfeited. They wailed when they died but they left with the hope that whatever reality they had yielded to would be worth it. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Shall we go home?”
He took her arm, and as they walked through the gate past the pepper garden, they saw Zara parting ways with Nick Bryce, who hung his head so he did not have to see the tears in her eyes. Miriam took her hand and the three of them walked into the house.
Mrs. Ohannes washed the dinner dishes, while Mr. Ohannes threw cups into the trash. Grandma Bilquees came into the kitchen, cast a sour look towards Zara, then beamed at Isaac, and clasped her hands to her heart.
“Well,” she said. “I’m going to bed now. Probably will be dead by morning.”
“I’m sorry,” Zara said finally, but could not speak another word.
“For what, dear?” Bilquees said.
“For sentencing you to hell,” Miriam said. “We’re so very sorry.”
Bilquees laughed. “I have always been too good for hell,” she said and kissed each of them, especially Isaac, who paled from the enthusiasm of it. Then she went upstairs.

   In the morning, when Bilquees’ body was found, peaceful as a sleeping beauty in her bed, a bouquet of roses came with a card from the Zayans, thanking her for finding such a lovely bride for their son in the form of Hamza Nassar. God bless Hamza, the family thought, as they imagined Bilquees settling, satisfied, into her heavenly throne.


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