…it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name?
— Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare
When you are born you don’t pick
These things are provided, and perhaps taken away, through no virtue of your own.
When you die, you realize that you chose everything.
Part 1 — I’ll Hide It Behind Something
Unbeknownst to Khalilia and Omar, on the third anniversary of Khalid’s death, someone must have finally convinced a hopeless Mustapha, for he awoke one morning with the sole intention of meeting Yakub, his best friend, for one last glass of cardamom tea, after which he would take his own life.
He awoke as he had any other day. He lay curled up in his bed, a mattress coming undone on the floor, listening for the sounds of movement outside his framed doorless entry, where a thin, ragged sheet — masquerading as a door — hung motionless. Although the length of time that he remained in bed varied, it was always only the sound of Omar that stirred him.
As the sun radiated on his back, he imagined how different his life could have been. How different he could have been. It seemed arbitrary to be born in Gaza. He could just as easily have been born in Israel. He could have been his Canadian cousin. Or an Azorean gazelle.
Mustapha was leaving the house that he shared with his sister in-law Khalilia and nephew Omar. Mustapha was already at the door, reaching to pull it open when Khalilia came running. “It’s Canada,” she said.
Omar waddled behind her, holding a wooden block, gesturing to his ear, while imploring Mustapha to answer the phone. Mustapha stood motionless, somehow debating the merits of answering an international call from his cousin, an oddity not lost on Khalilia. “It’s Canada,” she repeated.
After Mustapha hung up, Khalilia looked forlorn. Her face drooped, accentuating her dark brown, gazelle-like eyes, and long, black eyelashes.
“The money transfer is being held,” he confirmed.
“Da Da,” said Omar, who never knew his father. He reached up with the block, urging Mustapha to answer his domestic call. Omar placed the block to his own nose and said “Allo.”
“You are a mischievous little one, aren’t you? Aren’t you?” said Mustapha, lifting Omar higher, tickling his belly with his nose with the repetition of each question. Omar’s laughter, like fingertips, ran across an invisible mesh inside Mustapha’s chest, the reverberations disturbing his heart and lungs. His nephew was an exact replica of his father.
“I will take you to the zoo,” Mustapha said, passing him back to his mother’s arms. Khalilia smiled, which comforted Mustapha.
“We will see the gazelle,” he said, pausing, wiping his forehead with his wrist. “You’ll have your antelope. Inshallah, there will be work today.”
Khalilia’s free arm reached out, settling half on the back of his neck and half on his shoulder. Mustapha felt the tiny hairs on the back of his neck extend. He reached back, seemingly catching an increasingly familiar moment, where his fingers slipped within hers, which were warm and slender.
“Stay Fa,” she said. “Of all days, stay today.”
“It’s not the first time there’s been a problem,” he said, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.
“It’s not the money…it’s...you know I’ve never blamed you.”
“And what of Yakub? I gave a friend my word.”
“And what of this friend?” Khalilia questioned, tilting her head sideways. “Yakub will understand.”
Mustapha fell silent. He cupped his palms over his face and nose. His breath escaped underneath, warming his throat.
“There’s work to be done today.”
“Find it tomorrow.”
“Some things are inescapable,” he said dispassionately, unable to look at her. His fingers washed down his face as if he had just finished a prayer.
“Fa, what is so inescapable?’ Khalilia probed. “Every day is a blessing from Allah. Forget today.” He felt Khalilia slip her hand up the base of his neck, her willowy fingers washing ashore his nape, as if his curls were seaweed stirring from the waves, floating atop her fingers. Glistening. Free.
“It’s so very hot,” he said.
They remained, frozen, as if at a crossroads, almost arm-in-arm, brother and sister in-law, until Mustapha let go, and walked towards the door. He braced his left hand on the door frame, slightly lifting and then pulling the warped door open with his right hand. Seeing Khalilia’s reflection in Khalid’s picture frame, his lips neared her reflected forehead, his reflected face superimposed over Khalid’s photo. He turned back towards Khalilia and Omar, wanting to acknowledge an inescapable truth. But from his mouth, he exuded only what little breath he had left, in what sounded like a sigh. He felt beads of sweat pooling on the precipice of his lips, as if they were readying to jump.
He walked the fine line of stretching between the cool, safe, albeit uneven concrete floors of an impenetrable house, to the shoes that rested upon the steps just outside the door, unsteadily stretching as one would on rocks to cross a stream, the door still ajar. Omar’s block fell to the ground, settling crooked on the floor. “God willing, everything will be okay,” he said. “You will see.”
It was then that he noticed a lotus tucked behind her right ear, its pink petals cupping the yellow-tipped stamens. He closed his eyes and gripped his watch, feeling neither the quartz nor the unsteady beat of his heart, but rather those fingers still washing ashore. “I always found you attractive,” he said to himself, as if saying it out loud would assuage his guilt. “But you married my brother once.”
* * *
Mustapha recalled his only trip to Canada, a short visit to his cousin’s tiny apartment. His brother was still alive back then. For those two days, he assimilated easily into Canadian culture by eating a few Timbits and watching hockey.
What a strange game, Mustapha thought. In one instance there’s an elegance, the players moving in unison, gliding on the glass-like ice; and in the next, such violence.
He watched all the players who, but a moment before, had raced around the ice, circling with such fervour as if it was the glass above the boards — and the glass alone — that was saving them from being hurtled off the ice from the centrifugal force. Now they were fighting.
“You no like?” his cousin Tariq asked, never quite looking at Mustapha, his eyes glued to the modest, second-hand, faux wood cabinet television. Mustapha watched from his cousin’s couch in Canada, the tiny apartment filling with the excitement of the game. Tariq also watched with his daughter Sophia, or, as her best friend, a Punjabi, called her Saunph (an acquired taste, sweet and bold but with some bite that could put people off). This was quite fitting for the diminutive Saunph, who had a mischievous smile, and reckless abandon for her own wellbeing. Although she maintained her girlish status, she played with the boys who insisted on teasing her. “How are you, little girl?” they teased.
“I’m not a little girl,” she would respond defiantly, her pony tails wagging in solidarity.
Mustapha admired Saunph greatly. He watched the two of them, father and daughter, intently, the weight of their feet lifting the small panels of wood slightly with their excitement. When the buzzer went between periods, Tariq asked, “When drop you off?” as Saunph raced to her bedroom, and jumped on her second-hand bed’s protesting springs. She returned wearing her pillows on her feet, mimicking the goalies on television. She stood in the doorway as if the door frame were the net.
“After the game. It’s a very early flight,” Mustapha said.
Tariq listened quietly; it seemed his earlier excitement was now subdued. He tilted his head to one side, examining Mustapha. Saunph had perched within the door frame, prompting Tariq to reach under the sofa and pull a hockey stick out so that they could start to play their game.
“So young,” Tariq said. “It’s a lot for a young man.”
Saunph, like the game that they played during every intermission, shook her arms from side to side, her imaginary stick tapping each ball-smudged door frame, each post.
As Tariq’s broken English described the play, the shots, the saves, Mustapha imagined Saunph, a girl, a Palestinian, playing on television. Perhaps Khalid — at least he was married — would one day have a child, and would also play like this when he had recuperated, Mustapha reflected.
Mustapha brushed the overflowing bank envelopes to the corner of the coffee table, a collection for Khalid’s medical bills. Making room for a piece of paper, he scribbled, sketched, as he had once as a promising child, the same child who left school and helped to run the family business when he was thirteen, when his father passed away. At that time, there was only their mother, Mustapha, and his brother Khalid, the elder by one full conception. Shortly thereafter, their mother became ill, leaving the responsibilities of managing the home and attached business to the young teenage brothers. When Khalid married Khalilia, Mustapha remained with his mother, allowing Khalid and Khalilia to make their own home.
After a save, the ball got away. They stopped their game and watched it, drawn by its irregular roll. As if it were magnetized, the ball pulled towards Mustapha who sat on the worn, green tweed couch. The ball clicked with each rotation on the uneven floor, all of them staring at it as if it were, even though they were a world away, something else entirely. Insidiously, it rolled and released a snapping sound, as if a mechanism engaged undetonated, against his frayed, callused heel. “We can get the money there some other way,” Tariq said. “Do you want to stay?”
* * *