Something is finally happening in my life. And I don’t mean like baba noticing the drawings and sketches I’ve been leaving around the house for him to see. No, baba is much too busy to pay attention to something that is unimportant to him – like my sketches. Or me. All he cares about are his business deals. Or mama noticing them. No, mama only notices me when she needs me to do house chores, or my absence when I don’t do them. Sometimes I feel like screaming at her that I am only fourteen years old and this is 1986 and child slavery is no longer in fashion. Anyway, I mean something really important – something big, something huge – is happening this summer to me. Orwa finally noticed me! I mean, he really saw me, for the first time in my whole life on this earth. He looked straight at me when I was in the kitchen helping grandma with the grape leaves. He just sat there, in the corner of the kitchen, smoking his cigarette, a cup of Arabic kahwa in front of him. When I looked up, he just kept his eyes on me. Looked at me differently, as if I was new. Usually, he ignores all of us cousins who are younger than him. Usually he acts as if we didn’t exist. Just stares through us, walks by us. Before leaving tonight, he did something he’d never done before. He brought his cup to the sink, and when he walked by me, he brushed against my back. I am sure he did that on purpose. I felt my little heart flipping backwards, kicking my ribcage, and the breath out of me.
‘You want me to drop you off at your painting class on my way?’ he was sitting in his usual spot in the corner of grandma’s kitchen. ‘I always walk. It’s not that far anyway.’ I didn’t dare to correct him that it’s a drawing class, and I didn’t dare look up at him. ‘It’s no trouble to me.’ He finishes his coffee and again takes it to the sink. This time he doesn’t brush against me, but stands beside me as I wash the cup. I know he’s watching me wash the cup. It slips from my soapy hands, but I catch it before it can hit the bottom of the sink and break. I notice I’m holding my breath, so I release. When I breathe in, it’s a mix of his sweat, cigarette, and some men’s cologne. ‘Okay,’ I say and run upstairs to our house to get my notebook.
We drive in silence through the village. My heart beats fast, oh so very fast. Something inside my stomach is tickling. ‘You have time, right? Before the class starts, I mean.’ His voice is scratchy. His eyes on the road. I look at my watch. ‘Um,’ I nod. I can’t say anything more because I know it will be something stupid, so I keep quiet. He makes a sharp turn left, and we are suddenly on a dirt road that goes around on the outside of the village. I want him to stop the car and talk to me. Ask me about myself, my dreams, what I want to be when I grow up, why I am taking the drawing lessons or about the books I borrow from the school library. Maybe if we talk he will agree that I sketch him sometime. But he just drives, faster now. His right hand, big, dark, strong, with short, curly hairs on each finger, dirty fingernails, is suddenly on my bare knee, just for half a second – before it moves to shift the gear. My brain is a mess – was it by accident? On purpose? Oh the place he touched. I’m on fire again. I quickly turn to face the window so he doesn’t see that I can barely breathe. He drives faster now, blowing dust all around us. Then, it’s suddenly over and we’re on the main road again. He stops at a gas station. ‘Do you want something from the kiosk?’ He asks. There’s no love in his voice, only boredom. I shake my head no and wait for him while he fills gas and gets a pack of cigarettes. ‘I can always take you, if you want. And pick you up. No trouble for me.’ Why doesn’t he look at me when he speaks? I’m in heaven. Yes, yes, yes. Every week, a drive with Orwa. We can talk, just the two of us. Without the other cousins. ‘Maybe next time we leave early and I let you drive on the dirt road, huh? What do you say?’ He’s in love with me. I gulp down before answering. ‘Yes,’ I don’t trust myself to say anything more. I look at him when he stops the jeep. He is now smiling. ‘Pick you up at six.’ It’s more of a statement than a question. I run to the class, almost stumbling. I’m in love.
Orwa, the coolest cousin. Orwa, who, dropped out of high-school last year to work with his older brothers in construction. Orwa, that dark, rough, olive-skin. Those arms made strong from work. The face, so manly now that he started shaving. Those eyes, which I thought didn’t see me, now watching me like a hawk. Wanting me, me! Of all the girls in the village, I am the lucky one!
The following week, he stops the jeep as soon as we hit the dirt road. He steps out, lights a cigarette, and walks around to my side. He opens my door and with his free hand reaches and touches my shoulder. ‘I said I’d let you drive. Come on.’ His runs his rough fingers from my shoulder all the way to my wrist. I can feel his calluses, and I inhale his smell. As I’m getting out of the jeep, my legs like jellyfish, I stumble. But Orwa is there, one hand swiftly balancing me from the back, the other hand stopping for two seconds on my left breast, a light but electrifying squeeze, a quick sideways glance at me – testing? accident? am I imagining things? – before he quickly moves it to my shoulder and helps me stand up straight. ‘You alright, Yasmeen?’ It’s the first time he says my name and I – I want to faint. I somehow manage to smile but it turns out all wrong. ‘I think you’re too excited to drive today. Maybe next week we can try again.’ He helps me hop back up into the jeep. The rest of the way he drives really slow, his hand travelling confidently between my thigh and the gear, each time staying for more seconds, until it just stays there, and I feel the roughness of his palms up and down my thigh. Oh how I want this ride to last forever.
Every Thursday night, I count the places he touched me. There are more and more of them. And then I count the places he has yet to touch me, and I imagine him touching them. I try to sketch his hands, his face, out of memory. Thursday is the day of the week I live for. All other days have become unimportant.
He takes the now familiar sharp turn left and drives fast. His hand now on my knee, almost as it naturally belongs there. Just before reaching the main road, he makes another turn, also to the left, and we’re suddenly on another dirt road. I never noticed it before now. It’s narrower, and there are wild cacti on both sides – a sign of the original border of the village. He slows down, until the truck comes to a standstill. He lifts the hand break and I wait for him to ask me to switch seats. But he doesn’t. I look around. All I can see are the wild cacti surrounding us.
‘You can skip class one time, eh?’ He has turned his body towards me, and is smiling at me, but his smile is no longer something I long for. It is an ugly sneer of a savage. And then, suddenly, in one moment, everything is illuminated and I understand it all. I shrink back towards the door, and feel the door handle stabbing my ribcage. ‘I think … one time … yes.’ I don’t recognize my voice.
We drive home in silence. Only now I notice it is already dark. I keep my hands on my knees so they don’t shake. But my legs are trembling, and my whole body is trembling. He stops the truck on the street, doesn’t kill the engine, doesn’t park in the driveway. ‘I have to meet someone,’ he says, his voice flat. As I open the truck door, he quickly puts his hand on my shoulder. I feel his dirty, ugly fingernails digging into my skin violently. ‘Hey,’ his voice is now stronger, rougher. ‘You wanted this, remember?’ I nod. When he lets go, I tumble out of the truck and run. I run inside, past my two little brothers, past my mama, past grandma, upstairs, into my room and I just want to die.
Late at night, when everybody is asleep, I come downstairs to the kitchen to make myself some tea. A lone figure is sitting at the kitchen table, hunched over a cup of tea. We don’t say a word to each other. Grandma watches me with her beadlike eyes. We sit in silence for a while. She gets up, comes around the table, puts her ancient hands on my shoulders. ‘I know,’ she whispers. ‘And I know you can’t tell me. But you have choices. We always have choices in life. Just make sure you make the one that is right for you.’
The following Thursday I announce to everyone that I am no longer interested in drawing classes and quit.
(c) khulud khamis | 2017
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