RR

Red Lights Mean Stop

The disgusting scent of oily hair fills my nostrils.

“Salma, Salma, there’s someone here,” Aisha called out.

“Do they look rich?” I asked, instinctively pulling the neck of my shirt down, baring the shoulder that I’d rubbed dirt onto earlier that day. It was evening, and I’d come back early, having made enough money for the day.

“No, stop, you can’t ask them for money! They’re guests!”

“W-what? Guests?”

In the twelve years I’d spent growing up in this forsaken building, never once did we have guests.

The water man would come, bringing three big bottles of water every week. Ali told me he got paid double to not tell anyone we’re on illegal property. Ammo Hani, the baker from the next street, would come to see Ammo Hashem sometimes. Even the one-legged beggar from Hamra Street came, only to be shooed away by Mama Yasmeen.

“What does this look like to you? A shelter? We’re a family here, we don’t just house anyone, go away,” she’d say through her gapped teeth. Ali promised to take her to the dentist someday, so she could have her teeth look like Haifa Wehbe’s. Mama Yasmeen had laughed then, all her teeth on display.

“I don’t need to look like her, I just wish my voice was enough to get me millions! But I guess it wouldn’t be too bad having my face on all those posters on the walls with my teeth shining, eh?”

But we all knew she wanted, more than anything, to be as beautiful as Haifa. We knew from the hours she spent playing with her unruly hair, rough from all the times she tried to dye it lighter than stubborn jet black, pulling at the wrinkles around her deep set eyes, and smiling in different poses in front of the dirty, scratched broken mirror hanging on top of the bathroom sink. Some days she’d complain about her eyes being too small for her “high cheekbones.” Other days she’d pout her lips and pretend they were bigger. She wanted the dresses, the makeup, the hair, and everything else that came with fame and fortune.

“We have guests?” I asked Aisha again in dis-belief.

“Yes! Come look!” she replied, tugging at my shirt.

Three of the other kids were already back. They sat with their backs against the wall, telling each other the day’s events. It was a good day for all of us. The dented, scratched, tin cookie box where we all collected the day’s money would not lie empty tonight.

Inside, even with barely any light, I saw the figure of a man and a woman, sitting on the two good plastic chairs with Ammo Hashem on the broken stool, deep in conversation.

Curious, I went and sat in the corner, pretending to mind my own business even though I had no business to mind.

I sat there, playing with my hands.

The man turned his head towards me, the fat skin around his neck twisting in rolls like a wrung cloth. In the dim light, his hair glistened, which was surprising, because other than his oily hair and yellow teeth, he was the image of money. His spotless white shirt was tucked into jeans, giving the appearance of a large pillow fastened by a brown belt with a glinting buckle, and on his left hand, he wore a silver watch with a dial as big as his wrist was wide.

The man didn’t look away, so I did.

The woman sitting next to him had a pretty gold necklace. Her hair was in a loose bun at the back of her head, and she had a dimple that appeared at the slightest smile on the one side of her face that I could see from where I was sitting. She smiled often.

The woman then gave a huge grin, which made me wish I was close enough to make sense of the few words that managed to escape towards me.

Just as my curiosity died down, and I stood up to go find Ali, the woman walked up to me and kissed my forehead, followed by the man whose gaze lingered.

Ammo Hashem paused, looked at me, then told me to call Mama Yasmeen.

Hands grasp at my body, awakening the sleeping bruises. Slow strokes at first. Playing. Mocking God.

All nine of us sat huddled together on worn out, stained mattresses in the room we shared. Ali and I being the eldest, sat close together while the rest of the kids lay heads-upon-stomachs in front of us. The smell of stale bread and boiled beans reassured us. Outside it was dark, but inside it was darker. There were no secret passages for the streetlights or the moon to creep in. We tried to talk in hushed voices, but every so often one of the kids giggled, and we’d all break out in laughter, which we reduced to snorts escaping through the fingers we pressed against our lips.

No one wanted to wake Ammo Hashem. He never actually did anything to make us fear him, to be honest. All we ever saw of him was a short, fat man with graying hair and an uneven beard coming around with the old tin cookie box at the end of the day, impatiently demanding the money we never got to call our own.

The youngest and sweetest, only four years old, was Aisha. None of us were really related there, but if anything, Aisha was my soul. I used to sit and wonder sometimes how desperate and evil people must be to abandon such a pretty creature. My dark hair and ordinary small brown eyes must have been an aiding factor when my parents decided they’d be better off without me. I don’t like thinking of the alternative… that perhaps it was so I’d be better off without them and anything they had to offer me. But who would give up dainty curls and almond eyes as magical as Aisha’s? If I had a child that looked like her, I would never, ever sell her to people who run pitiful businesses on city streets.

“Money is prettier ya habla, you idiot. When is your brick head going to learn this?” Ali told me. “I mean, if it were about how handsome the child is, don’t you think people would be fighting to keep me?” he added with an overly exaggerated wink, imitating the way the old one-legged beggar at Hamra street used to wink at me. Ever since the day Ali saw him do that, he made us take a different route to our traffic light. But for now, the dark humor was welcome.

Aisha was much too young to wander off alone yet, so she stayed with Mama Yasmeen all day, sitting on her hip, arms around her neck, legs dangling awkwardly. This is a stage that each one of us has been through, clinging to the same filthy black burka now an ugly shade of grey from overuse, eyes becoming sadder every day with steady practice. There was no doubt Aisha’s meek looks would roll down many more windows than even Ali’s.

Finally, Mama Yasmeen laid down the silver metal trays with slightly salted wet beans strewn on them, and handed us each a flat round piece of crisp bread. Ammo Hashem never joined us, but rather, occupied the only other tiny room in that dank abandoned apartment to count the money. It was hard to eat with this bread. It crumbled in our hands before we could form a pocket out of it and scoop a decent amount of beans.

Food is food we had learnt. So we said Bismillah and ate until our bellies rose like dough.

Then came the burping competitions. Ali held the record for the loudest, but I held the record for the longest.

Ali once held a farting competition with the boys, but the smell cost him Ammo Hashem’s fury. He wasn’t allowed to sleep inside that night, which I think was silly because we were the ones who endured the smell, not him. He didn’t mind being outside though, we knew because every so often the thin concrete wall between him and us would allow in the loud PHHRRRRP sounds he was making with his mouth. He kept doing it all night, mocking Ammo Hashem, and making us laugh until we flopped on the floor, trying desperately to pull a little whiff of air into our aching lungs. We were happy because we were children, and we were happy because we were fed.

Searing pain between my stiffened legs. My eyes shut tight like barred windows during a tornado. I stifle the screams.

I was running towards the red light, Ali fast at my heels, giggling. His long, untamed curls bounced freely, at war with his eyes. Every few seconds while running, he lifted his elbow to his forehead in an attempt to empty the battleground, and swiped it sideways along his forearm right up to his balled fist, hanging on tight to the money, now soggy with sweat.
We reached the red light. Mama Yasmeen taught us that the red lights mean stop. And that’s when we began. We always started from the very front. Ali chose the first car. I walked up to the next. Our hands extend to strangers’ windows; perfected for-lorn looks mask our secretly not-so-sad faces. A window rolls down and I see a couple inside – I already know what I will say. “Wallah juaaneh, bas biddi ashtari khubz.” I swear I’m hungry, I just want to buy bread, I say, thinking this isn’t a complete lie.

Three silver half lira coins drop into my cupped hands. Good enough.

“Allah ykhallekon la baad.” May God keep you together.

In a moment, the red light would turn to green, and Ali and I could sprint back into the shade of the trees lining the sidewalk and continue our game of rock-paper-scissors. We played less and laughed more.

I got bored of saying the same prayers to people who act as if they don’t have ears or eyes. Ali could do it perfectly. He forced every single one of those mean windows to roll down. It almost broke my heart to look at him with his face so sad. Almost. Ali would never break my heart. He made my heart feel like the green light, when everything sped up and rushed.

Just as I felt like my bare feet couldn’t take the scalding heat of the street anymore, the green light rescued me and sent us racing back into the cool pool of shade.

“Since we can’t buy slippers with the money we make, one of these days I’m going to stick it all under my feet, walk comfortably all day, then shove my unburnt toe up Ammo Hashem’s nose when he demands the day’s profit. Watch me,” Ali huffed.

I burst into laughter, breathless and amused, praising him for even daring to say such a thing. He smiled back at me, turning those green lights on again.

I gasp for breath, silently begging to turn into the dust that covers the floor I lay on.

“What are you talking about, we need her to make money!” I heard Mama Yasmeen say.

Ammo Hashem had gotten up from his stool, locked eyes with her, and calmly replied, “The money they’re paying for her is far more than what she can make in ten years.”

Silence.

Encouraged by the fact that he had said the right thing to convince her, he went on.

“Besides, Aisha will soon be old enough to take her place. Salma will have a better life with them. They’re sad people. The woman can’t have children and the man will give anything to keep her happy.”

“Well why don’t they just go to the orphanage and adopt? Let them do it properly with all the right paperwork if they want it so bad.”

“Because it’s less of a hassle, and cheaper for them. Try to understand, Yasmeen. This is good for us and better for her. She gets to live in a real home, go to a school even, and we get enough money to get by for months.”

Mama Yasmeen didn’t have to say anything more to let him know she had agreed. Being silent and walking away was enough. Her not arguing back meant she had nothing more to say. I liked to think what held her back at first was the fact that she would miss me. She’d miss how Ali and I would make her laugh, and how I helped her take care of Aisha. I hope she knew she’d miss just having me there. But she had understood that my absence meant nothing compared to the absence of money. When food becomes scarce, I cannot fix the problem, but money can.

Memories of her carrying me around to car windows blurred before my eyes. We used to play a game where she would let me choose which one to walk up to. If in one day every single car I pointed at rolled their window down, she’d buy me a juice box of any flavor I wanted. This did not happen often, but it was often enough to keep me hoping. None of that mattered in that moment as she decided my future with her silence.

I choke back my gags, trying not to let the smell of rotten teeth and thick saliva make me vomit.

The next day, the man and woman came back. The man’s hair still looked oily, but his face was shaven. The woman was wearing a different gold necklace, and had even neater clothes on than last time.

They thanked everyone, then came and hugged me, telling me to call them Mama and Baba from now on. Mama smelled like flowery perfume and powdered makeup. Baba smelled like oily hair and bad breath.

I left with no possessions I could carry. Mainly because I had none of my own, not only because everything changed in the blink of an eye, and a blink of an eye is not enough time to pack your life in bags.

Ali and Aisha are all I held in my heart.

I didn’t look back as we drove off in the shiny silver car.

“I’ll shove my toe up your nose if I ever come to a car window and you’re the one sitting inside, you hear me!”

The other children laughing at Ali’s comment was the last thing I heard before Baba rolled up the windows and turned on the radio. They both began to sing along to Fayrouz, songs Mama Yasmeen sang daily.

I knew the words, but couldn’t bring myself to sing.

A vicious ache deep in my belly. Hot ragged breaths sting my neck.

Three months after moving in with Mama and Baba, I haven’t seen my friends once. Baba keeps promising he’ll take me for a visit soon, but I heard Mama telling him she doesn’t want me to be a part of that life anymore. What does she mean by that? I don’t dwell too long on negative things. There’s too much to do around the house to sit moping all day. I spend my days by Mama’s side, learning and seeing things I never knew I could. Mama is teaching me how to read! She says I’m very behind compared to all the other kids my age, so I should catch up on my own before starting school.

I don’t mind. I love sitting comfortably on the deep purple couches by the window, waiting for the newspaper boy to bring in the day’s paper that Baba reads religiously. Mama sits beside me watching TV, remote in hand. I know how to change the channel now. And which button to press to lower the volume when she drifts into sleep. Her apron-clad chest rises and falls calmly. It makes me laugh to watch her pretty face twitch lightly in her sleep. It reminds me of how Ali’s feet used to twitch at night on days he was particularly tired. I bring the soft, clean white sheet from her room and cover her up to her neck the way I used to cover Aisha.

After covering Mama, I go back to my seat by the window and wait for the paperboy. I try to make sense of what time the hands on the clock indicate, but I’m not so good with telling time yet. So instead, I peer through the window at the sun the way Mama Yasmeen taught me, and decide the boy should be here any time now. I know that if the sun is right above me, it’s halfway through the day. I use that as a reference for figuring out how much time until Baba’s home and the day ends.

I decide to practice my reading properly today. I’m so focused on trying to make sense of the words on the paper that I forget it’s almost time for Baba to come home. The bell rings and I jump up excitedly and run to the door, forgetting to put on my little red slippers, my bare feet pattering on the sleek wooden floor, which is so smooth I don’t like to deprive my feet of its comfort by putting on slippers, even though they are comfortable too. Mama encourages me to wear them, though, explaining that a lady should always be well presented. I wish I could give my slippers to Ali.

I open the door, smiling at Baba as he walks in, who pats me on the head with stubby fingers. His hand lingers on my head a little longer, and then meanders down to my neck in a swift motion all while holding my gaze. I shiver, then close the door as he walks towards his room to put away his suitcase. He then comes out wearing his slippers and disappears around the corridor into the bathroom to freshen up. Routine.

My stomach grumbles as if telling its own time. I walk back to the living room, still rubbing my neck, to wake Mama. I slowly brush a strand of hair off her cheek, and her eyes flutter open sleepily.

“Baba’s home, can we eat now? I’m hungry.”

“Of course, habibti.”

We walk to the kitchen hand in hand, and both start at our different tasks.

I bring the newspaper and place it in front of Baba’s chair on the table. Mama moves around with ease, humming to herself as she pours the gravy from the pot on the stove into a big clear glass bowl. She smiles warmly at me after seeing I’ve helped set the table properly. Three cups, three plates, three spoons, a bottle of water, and a basket full of bread that doesn’t crumble in my hands. I look down at the neat table with pride.

After a few minutes, Baba comes and takes his usual spot at the head of the table, dressed in comfortable pajamas and a plain blue T-shirt the color of the sea just after the sun disappears. The table is small and rectangular with four chairs — two on either side. But Baba likes to pull one out and drag it to the end of the table.

The food is good. We say Bismallah and eat until our bellies rise like dough.

Baba then retires to the bedroom for a nap, while Mama and I kill time playing board games together. The house is as silent as ever.

At times I wonder why Mama and Baba don’t talk much. Perhaps adopting a child did not bridge the gap they thought it would. Or perhaps it’s simply because Mama likes getting by with as few words as possible. Her smiles and kind gestures suffice.

In the evenings, Baba likes to spend time with me. On most days, we sit together in the garden eating fruit. We don’t speak to each other much, but he always cuts me the biggest piece of melon.

Today, just when I was picking up the bowl of fruit from the countertop, I heard him call my name from the corridor in his deep gravelly voice.

“Salma, Mama wants the ladder from the basement. Come help me.” I’m excited I get to finally see the only part of the house I haven’t yet seen. I figured a locked store room doesn't need much visiting, nor cleaning.

I follow his loud footsteps down the corridor in silence; and turn towards the dark brown door. Baba flicks on a small lightbulb, and we carefully climb down the thin planks of wood that make the stairs. He closes the door behind us and looks around at the dimly lit contents of the basement.

Paint cans line the walls, along with an old table, a few pairs of shoes, six large planks of wood, and boxes of all of Mama’s kitchen utensils. I follow his gaze, but spot no ladder.

I walk towards a box with a picture of Mama’s blender and peer inside at the bundled up bubble wrap. After popping half of the bubbles on the small square of bubble wrap, I notice that Baba has stopped bustling around.

I turn around to face the silence, but suddenly bump into him.

I jump back a little, laughing at how he managed to frighten me. He doesn’t laugh back. Instead he reaches out, grabbing my shoulders and pulling me into him.

The cold concrete floor stabs at my back violently as I’m pushed against it harder and faster, limp as a ragdoll.

I see red lights.

Red like blood. In the sun, Ali’s sweat gleamed beautifully, forc-ing the light to illuminate his golden face.

I keep my eyes shut for a moment, as if trying to keep out the sunlight dancing off his face. But there is no Ali and there is no sun for me anymore.

°°°

I can tell when it’s almost over. His body tenses and coils like a snake about to strike. He gets up heaving and sweating — a great hideous thing.

 

When I have the room to breathe, I use every last breath in me to scream, while he uses every last bit of his little remaining energy to cover my mouth with his stinking hands. I shout myself hoarse, thrashing like a fish out of water. My tears mix with the dirt from the floor, coloring my face grey, sticking to the wet streaks lining my cheeks. No words are uttered except that of him hissing through clenched yellow teeth at me to stop screaming. He offers no explanation or consolation and all I’m capable of doing with my mouth now is breathe.

We wrestle on the floor for what feels like hours.

Finally I get to the door, prepared to run towards the kitchen where Mama would be, but run straight into her instead.

“Salma! What happened?! You look a mess, did you fa-”

Baba’s shirtless body appears in the doorway. I act like the people in the cars at red lights. No ears and no eyes.

 

This time, red meant go.

I sprint to the main door, and out onto the porch, the sudden cold under my soles reminding me that I’m bare-footed.

I don’t care.

I run out onto the street where the gravel feels like home. Tiny stones dig into my skin as if trying to crawl back into their caves.

I run and I run, in any and every direction. Realizing for the very first time that I don’t know how far or in what direction I am from Ali. Baba never did take me for a visit. The first two weeks of moving here were the hardest. I cried every single night, wetting my pristine pink pillowcase. In the mornings, I’d turn it over and pull the sheets on top, trying to hide any trace of my misery. After all, why should someone be miserable when they’ve been handed a better life? Mama and Baba would think I’m ungrateful. But Ammo Hashem was wrong. This wasn’t better for me. I’d rather beg on the streets for the rest of my life than to ever step foot in a home again.

I keep running, never really losing my breath. My head spins, my feet bleed, but I do not stop. The cars whoosh past me, honking angrily.

Up ahead I see a red light. The cars begin to slow down. Red lights mean stop. I limp up to the first car, placing my palms on the window to gain balance. I look up at the driver. She’s fumbling with something in her hands. The window rolls down and she shoves her money in my palm, screeching away as fast as she can when the green light comes on.

I look down at my full hand, surprised at how easy it was. Two liras never felt heavier. Suddenly I realize I hadn’t made my sad face. I didn’t need to anymore.

Contributor
Muzna Mughal

Muzna Mughal, a senior nutrition student at AUB, set foot in Lebanon only two years ago. Having lived in a number countries so far, yet never experiencing life in her home country; Pakistan, she considers herself to be a true third-culture kid. Ever-fascinated by how much of a difference a short plane ride can make, and ever-tormented by the temporariness of things, she resolves to writing and painting to keep her world intact.

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