The trunk of Mama’s car is dark, darker than everything, like the only blind spot under the sun. Around it is noise. A school bus clogging the capillary of streets starts a honk hysteria. Three quick whips on a donkey’s back and a crazed clop-clop. Angry men come out of cars to start a word war. A boy in a tuk tuk tsk-tsks then snakes through. A siren rattles the jam on the three-lane ahead. The trunk though, the trunk is dead-quiet. I imagine if I come closer, it would suck me in whole. Mama turns on the ignition and it jigs and jitters. Salma chucks her school bag in.
Come on, she says.
I shake my head.
Leila, listen, we’re together, she says and strokes my cheek with the back of her hand. The smell of strawberry hand cream is fresh on her skin. We’ll watch a Netflix movie or something, what do you say? I have my laptop.
Will you tell her? I ask
She won’t- OK, I’ll try.
I peer into the junkyard that is our trunk. Shoes a few years small. Coloring books in black and white. Plastic water bottles melted and remolded into new shapes. It’s a hot day and I’m- I’m burning. The fumes from the exhaust pipe lick my shin like flames. I jolt, trip over my school bag and fall. Mama’s honk is a yell that tells me to get the hell in the car. Salma extends a hand to get me up.
Your lips, I say.
Her skirt is wrinkled, there’s a dried food stain on her white shirt, but her lips are pink and glossy. She presses them together like rose petals, avoids my gaze, and chucks my school bag in the trunk.
Salma is in the passenger seat next to Mama. We hit the three-lane and I stare at things. The girl in the school bus, the one whose chin is perched on the window ledge and those sticking their tongues out at me in the back. The woman in a shower cap and dye in her hair on that second floor balcony. I stare until my eyes dry up, because if I blink, it might all vanish.
Mama, Salma starts, can I ask you something?
You can’t skip your chemistry lesson if that’s what you’re asking.
I wasn’t gonna say that. I just—can’t we stay with you this weekend?
No honey, sorry. There’s something I need to do.
We’ve been through this a hundred times. Weekends with him, weekdays with me.
Salma, it’s the only time he gets to spend with you.
Salma, stop, just stop.
Mama shifts gears and something goes wrong. A violent crackle in the gearbox, the clatter of broken metal, failing machinery. My ears split. The steering wheel spins out of her control thrusting the car forward towards a microbus. She brakes, and my ear rams on the back of her headrest. I told you to strap! She screams at me with her whole face, with her small shoulders. The vein running down her neck bulges green like a rocket balloon. I didn’t do anything, I say, my voice a whimper, my hand a flat five on my ear. Mama turns off the ignition. We are now the traffic, the jam. Cars honk like screaming geese, but Mama won’t move. She covers her face with both hands. She’s crying.
The moment stretches before she speaks. She tells us we have to go to Baba’s, that there is something she’s been meaning to tell us, that she might not have long to live, that they suspect uterine cancer. The microbus driver gets out of his vehicle and bangs on Mama’s window. He’s yelling through two missing front teeth. Salma unbuckles and tries to reach for my hand. I think of myself as motherless and tuck all ten fingers under my thighs.
No one speaks the rest of the way. Salma gets off near Gezira Club for her chemistry lesson. I watch her disappear into the building. Then Mama drops me at the entrance to the club, two doors down. I am sorry I shouted, she tells me, I don’t want you to worry. Everything will be okay inshallah. She holds my face and dabs it with salty kisses. When she drives off, she takes the sidewalk with her.
In the playground I spot familiar faces from school. I drag my bag through the gravel and away, all the way to the monkey bars behind the big old tree. I swing in silence, my fingers curled around the bars, feeling the stretch rip through my side. When I fall, I hear a voice say, You’re too big for the monkey bars. I get up, dust my knees. I’m twelve, I tell the girl. She lands steady on both feet. Too big, she says. I want to tell her Mama has uterine cancer, that I’m feeling a bit lost, but she’s younger and might not know what uterine means, and all I know is- Mama, I say. Mama? The girl laughs, and it takes me a second to realize what I just said, that she is laughing at me. Her mouth wide open, I can see the green bubble gum spread thick across her molars. I decide to go get lost somewhere else.
I linger by the patchy brown football field, look at the basketball court through green barbed wire, stare at the slush machine in the canteen. It’s the dim before dark and everywhere is movement, noise, laughter. My head swims. The swimming pool area closes at sunset. I wait for the big clock to strike six, watch other children exit through the swimming pool gates, jostling, joking, some still in their swim caps or with towels around their necks. Darkness falls and the gates close. I sneak in, settle in a nook under a lamp post and unpack my school bag. I borrowed Tell Me Why: Answers to Over 400 Questions Children Ask from the school library today. On the contents page, I look for “The Body” section and then for uterine, cancer. I don’t find what I’m looking for, so I settle for Why do we walk in circles when we’re lost? Because the body is asymmetrical, it reads. Our heart is on the left side and our liver is on the right. I expected a better answer than this, like because the world is a planet that has lost its orbit, but no. I close the book and stare at the moths swirling around the lamp post light. Soon they will burn, mistaking it for the moon. Time passes, staining the sky darker shades of dark. I lie flat on the ground with my bag as a pillow, the lamp post casts a long shadow over my legs making them look like stilts, a moth dances too close to the light, burns its wings and sinks into my shadow. In this moment, I breathe, sweat thoughts, lick tears. Mama-motherless-baba-alone-Salma, together.
Two kids appear in silhouette, up the stairs and towards the other end of the Olympic pool by the two diving boards, holding hands. They’re older, sixteen or so. Any moment now they might kiss, so I hold my breath. My phone rings, breaking the silence. It’s Baba. I put the phone on vibrate and ignore the call. The boy takes off his jacket and wraps it around the girl’s shoulders. She gets up and walks over to the pool’s edge. He follows and stands behind her, wraps his arms around her waist, whispers something in her ear. She laughs, turns her face up to his, their lips touch, a light graze, her chest heaves. He turns her around to face him, hooks his fingers through the loops on her skirt and pulls her towards him. They kiss, soft then harder, hands moving up and down bodies. When they finally break away from each other, he lifts her chin up to meet his gaze, the beams of pool light shine on the girl’s face. It’s Salma. I look at my watch. She should still be at her chemistry lesson. I should stuff the books back in my bag and just, oh God, vanish.
Along the promenade leading to the pool area, Baba is standing like a watch tower. Beneath his far-off gaze, everything seems to collide: girls on rollerblades skid by, a boy cries by a fallen ice cream cone, a waiter almost trips with a tray of lemonades. I squat behind a crowd of kids and watch him scan his surroundings. When he turns, it is to stare straight through the swimming pool gates. He takes long, deliberate strides towards them. I run back to the playground.
Baba has the A/C on full blast and the car cabin is freezing. He drives in silence with me in the backseat. We are on our way to pick up Salma from her chemistry lesson. She is there, waiting by the building entrance where we dropped her off. I press my forehead against the cold window and drift away, to a time when I am motherless and Salma’s run off with that boyfriend guy. The only thing I see in my reflection is one iris like a black oil well. The rest of my face is smudged with lights, the red and yellow from the cars outside. I breathe warm air on the glass and with one finger draw a circle inside a circle inside a circle. I am asymmetrical, my heart thumps alone to my left. At the traffic light, the flower guy walks up to our car with threads of Arabian jasmine. He leans inside and hangs two strands on the rearview mirror. The light turns green. LE 10 for the flowers, Basha, the man says to Baba. He ignores him and drives off, the flower guy clinging to his window frame. For a second, I think we drove off with his arm. I strap.
We arrive at Baba’s apartment building, climb up to the third floor. The speckled concrete steps on our way up is where I choose to fix my gaze, because if I look up, I will see Salma, and Baba yanking her up, her arm about to rip like a tender quail leg. You're hurting me, she says, please stop, and I want to un-hear. She turns to me looking for the answer, but I’m lost, I’m so lost.
He drags her into the living room, the door to the apartment wide open. I freeze right there. I hate you, she says, then a slap. Salma’s cries are interrupted by gasps for air. She says something about Mama that hits a nerve with him, but I don’t get it, her shrieks are getting in the way. I hear a lash. I hear a lash. And I’m not sure how many they are or if it’s just that one resonating in my ear. I slide to where my butt meets the ground and stare down. Between my legs, the doormat reads, Welcome.
Salma locks herself in the bathroom for the night. I lock myself in the bedroom. At around 9pm, Baba knocks on my door. I open. Are you hungry, he asks. His voice is nasal, his eyes puffy. He’s leaning over the door handle like a crutch. He’s been crying. No, I say. He leaves, returns some minutes later. I cover my whole body with the blanket and pretend to be asleep. He places a tray on the floor by the door. I peep through. There are two plates with cheese sandwiches and two cups of water. I coil back in, suck my thumb long and hard, bite it even harder. When I run my tongue around it, I feel the dents left by my teeth. Mama calls and there is a smile in her voice. She tells me the doctor has given her the all clear.
Aren’t you happy? she asks.
I’m sorry for what I’ve put you through today, sweetheart. It’s just that- I was scared.
Where is your sister?
I hang up, walk around in circles, bang my head against the wall, just a gentle thud so Baba can’t hear, thud, thud, thud, until my forehead goes numb. I remember how I cracked my head once when I was seven, hopping down the marble stairs of where we used to live when we were still we. When they stitched me up, I did not cry, and the doctor held my face up to a big light and told me I was brave. I pick up the tray, open the bedroom door and pray the floorboards don’t creak. They do and I pause, eyes shut. When nothing stirs around me, I take two long strides towards the bathroom. I lay the tray there then reach up to the door’s window, open my hand up in a flat five. Salma shuffles, then the silhouette of her hand appears and holds mine behind the glass. We hold it there, we hold it, two hands, two hearts in symmetry. When she finally drops her arm, it is to look at me through the keyhole. Our eyes lock, like two black oil wells absorbing the dark.
Mai Serhan is a writer and translator. Her writing has appeared in Anomaly, Oyster River Pages, Swamp, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Writers & Readers, and Oxford Magazine. She is a winner of the Lunch Ticket Twitter Poetry Contest and a recipient of the Emerging Writer Award from Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, California. Mai is currently pursuing her graduate studies in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.