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I love i hate i miss my.., p.6

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister, page 6

 

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister
 


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  “That’s not the way it works.”

  “Do you realize that you’re putting your future at risk?”

  I can’t help thinking, You’re the one putting my future at risk, not me.

  “And Mr. Lhermitte?” I ask. She must have spoken to the principal as well.

  “You’ve got to understand, Sohane. Like us, the principal is obliged to follow the law. What’s more, he fears that your attitude might incite others. He’s afraid other girls at school will decide to follow your example. He can’t risk having to deal with this problem on a large scale.”

  A contagious disease. I was right.

  I’m scared now. Terrified. They are going expel me for sure. I still have time to back down, to accept Mrs. Desbeaux’s suggestion that I remove my head scarf. I open my mouth. Suddenly I regret ever having decided to cover my head. I have a grudge against Djelila without knowing exactly why. All it would take is one word to rewind everything. I can continue to divide myself, playing different parts: Sohane, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Chebli; Sohane from the Lilac housing projects; Sohane, senior at Racine High School; Sohane the Muslim; Sohane who wears a head scarf and who removes it.… But why?

  “It’s a matter of respecting others, Sohane,” Mrs. Desbeaux says.

  And what about respecting me?

  No. It’s too late to renounce my beliefs and desires. I cannot deny my true self.

  “What happens now?”

  “You’ll stay in study hall until the end of the day. We’ll call your parents this evening and ask them to come in.”

  “Can I go to the library instead?” I ask.

  “You may.”

  She agrees willingly. She knows that if I stay in study hall I’ll come into contact with lots of students. In the library, there’s less chance of my contaminating anyone.

  I decide to sit in a remote corner of the library. Ms. Fleury has obviously been made aware of the situation. She doesn’t make any comment. She doesn’t even say hello.

  I take out my economics book as well as my notepad. I’ve got an essay due next week. It doesn’t matter that I’ll no longer be here; I have nothing else to do. It will make the time go by faster.

  I give a start when Sofia sits down next to me. I glance at my watch. Twelve o’clock.

  “How’s it going?” she asks.

  I fill her in, telling her what Mrs. Desbeaux said. Sofia doesn’t comment.

  “Everybody is talking about you, of course.”

  I shrug. “It’ll pass.”

  “Maybe, but right now you’re the most popular person at school!”

  I don’t even want to know details. I just think that if everybody is talking about me, then Djelila must know what has happened. She hasn’t come to see me.

  “I have to go,” Sofia says. “Do you want something?”

  My stomach is crying out for food, but I shake my head.

  Sofia leaves. I’m grateful that she didn’t try to make me change my mind.

  “Hey, psst!”

  I turn around. It’s Djelila. She’s hiding behind the shelves and signals me over.

  “What are you doing here?” I ask.

  “I just heard about you.”

  “I guessed that. Why are you hiding?”

  “I was afraid they wouldn’t let me talk to you.”

  I smile. “I’m not under house arrest yet,” I tell her.

  Djelila takes two apples, three pieces of cheese, and four or five slices of bread out of her jacket pockets and deposits them on the table. From where she stands, Ms. Fleury can’t see us. Fortunately.

  “I thought you’d be hungry, so I picked this up in the cafeteria,” Djelila says.

  “Thanks.”

  “You’re not too afraid?”

  “Actually, I am.”

  Djelila hugs me and puts a hand on my scarf. I almost forgot about it.

  “Can you still meet me at four?” she asks.

  “Yes, four o’clock at the Hanky. I’ll be there.”

  Djelila winks. “Good. And I’ll visit you again later on.”

  “OK. But don’t worry about me.”

  “Of course I worry about you, Sohane. You’re my big sister.”

  I, too, was worried—worried about you, Djelila.

  Your friends haven’t left. I can hear them whispering on the landing.

  I have not moved.

  Maybe because I can’t move anymore.

  My mind is swimming with memories that weigh heavily in the pit of my stomach and prevent me from moving. My arms, legs, head—my entire body is as heavy as lead. I could stay here. I could stay here forever.

  There was a period when you were about eleven or twelve when you were often sick. Never anything serious, but with a high-enough fever to make Mom keep you home. At night, you coughed and I would get up to hold you in my arms. You nestled against me. I would put my hand on your forehead.

  “I’ll get you a glass of water,” I would say.

  Before bringing it to your lips, I would press it against your cheeks to cool them.

  “Thank you, Sohane,” you managed to say before a new coughing fit started.

  I was scared for you. When you dozed off, I tried to stay awake to check on your breathing, but I ended up falling asleep too.

  In the morning, you were calm. Usually you were asleep when I left for school. I knew that Mom had already used all of her sick days and couldn’t stay home anymore. She had to go to work. She wasn’t absent long, just between eleven and three o’clock, for her job at the hospital. So I would come back home at lunchtime. I devised a system so I could sneak out of school without being spotted. At twelve sharp, I dashed out of class so I’d be the first to reach the cafeteria, but I didn’t eat. On my tray, I put things that would fit easily in my pockets—bread, cheese, fruit—and then I slipped out and ran as quickly as possible away from school. It wasn’t too difficult, because at that time of day the supervisors were busy checking on the cafeteria and schoolyard. I ran all the way home. I was out of breath. You were waiting for me. You knew I wouldn’t let you down. We ate together on your bed and I told you what had happened at school. You laughed and coughed. I put my hand on your forehead, just like Mom would have done, to make sure your temperature hadn’t spiked. I gave you your medicine, and then I ran back to school so I wouldn’t miss my first afternoon class. We never told anyone. It was our secret.

  Now it is only mine. And it is heavy, so heavy to bear.

  After you recovered, Mom took you to the doctor. “She’s a bit on the thin side, this little one,” the doctor had said with a smile. Back at home, you told me what he said because it upset you. You asked me over and over if I thought you were too skinny. What could I say: you had no butt, no breasts, and your arms and legs were like twigs. On top of that, you had grown about four inches in a few months. All I said was “You’re very pretty, Dje, you know that. Everyone says so.” This reassured you for about fifteen minutes before you started up again: “It’s not fair. Why do you have breasts and I don’t?” The doctor recommended athletic activity for you, which is the reason Dad and Mom let you start basketball. Right away you loved it. It was the first time you did something without me.

  Your friends’ hushed conference is still going on outside the door. What can they be talking about? Do they intend to ring the bell again? Why do they insist on this memorial? My cheeks are almost dry now, just a bit sticky. Slowly I stand up. They don’t get it: if there is a memorial, it will mean that you are dead.

  Mrs. Desbeaux was determined to have a discussion with me. She came to the library at ten to four, just as I was packing up.

  “How was your day, Sohane?” she asked.

  I stared at her. Did she expect that a day of isolation had made me change my mind?

  “It was fine, thank you.”

  “Are you planning on wearing your head scarf to school tomorrow?”

  “I don’t know if I’ll come to school at all,” I tell her.

 
Mrs. Desbeaux bites her lower lip. What? Isn’t it better for everybody if I don’t show up? A relief?

  “You can’t skip your classes this way, Sohane.”

  “I might be sick.”

  I didn’t feel like talking to her this morning, and I feel even less like it this afternoon. I can almost hear the clock ticking. Djelila has been waiting for me the past hour at the Green Hanky. I’m in a hurry.

  “Well, in any case, we’ll call your parents this evening. What time do they get home?”

  “My father gets home at seven-thirty, but my mother should already be there. She works part-time.”

  “Very well.”

  Mrs. Desbeaux does not move—she looks as if she’s expecting me to say something more. I close my bag and put on my jacket.

  “Sohane …”

  “Please excuse me,” I say. “I have an appointment at four o’clock and I need to go.”

  I walk across the library without looking back. I run down the stairs and glance at my watch: just after four. I hope Djelila hasn’t left. When I reach the café I’m out of breath. Djelila is there: I can see her, reading, by the window. She waited for me and she’s alone. I was afraid that she might be with her school friends and that they would pepper me with questions. I go in and she looks up, smiles at me, and puts her book down. I sit opposite her, still out of breath.

  “Do you think they’ve already called Mom?” she asks me all of a sudden.

  I catch my breath. “No, but it won’t be long before they do.”

  “You want to have a coffee, or should we go?”

  Djelila is already up. She puts a few bills on the table. All her gestures are so normal. She is at ease. I feel like I’m lagging behind. But I get up too.

  We go out and walk side by side, silently. The closer we get to Hana’s, the more apprehensive I become. It’s like having a boulder growing in the pit of my stomach. The day’s events could justify this feeling, but I know there’s another reason for it.

  “What do you think Hana will say when she sees your head scarf?” Djelila asks.

  I shrug, trying to look unconcerned. “Nothing. What can she say?”

  Djelila doesn’t answer.

  We get to our grandmother’s tower and open the lobby door, which looks exactly like the one in our building. Hana Leïla’s apartment is on the ground floor. Djelila rings the bell. We hear footsteps coming toward the door, as well as music and women’s voices. The door opens.

  “Djelila! Sohane! Salaam alaikum!” Hana greets us. She gathers us in a hug.

  Our grandmother must be more than sixty years old, and she is beautiful. She wears her hair short and colors it, which brings out the copper tone of her skin. She has high cheekbones, dark and shiny eyes. She wears a sweater, jeans, and babouches on her feet. Her apartment always looks festive, probably because of the colorful rugs covering the floor, the silver teapot that occupies place of pride on a shelf, and her collection of dolls made of multicolored felt and wool. When we were little girls, Djelila and I loved these dolls. And we loved hearing Hana Leïla tell us about their stories while we played with them. Her mother back in Algeria made the dolls from scraps of fabric. She drew their eyes, which are mostly faded now, with kohl that she almost tattooed onto the fabric. Their earrings were made from a broken, recycled bracelet. When they danced, the earrings jingled merrily. And how they danced—first in Hana Leïla’s hands and then in ours.

  Our grandmother has company, which adds to the festive atmosphere. The silver teapot sits on the coffee table, along with tea glasses filled with a tawny and mint-perfumed liquid. The huge radio Uncle Ahmed gave her for her last birthday plays exotic music that reminds me of a tale from The Thousand and One Nights. When I was little and visited Hana Leïla in her apartment, I imagined I was entering the palace of a sultan, just like the ones in the stories I read to Djelila.

  Hana Leïla’s friends get up to greet us. They all speak at once and exclaim how lovely and tall we are: “You must be so proud, Leïla.”

  “This little one is your spitting image!” We sit down, smiling from ear to ear. We have the feeling Hana was expecting us.

  She pours a glass of tea for each of us. Djelila sits comfortably on the sofa and brings the gold-rimmed glass to her lips. I’m sitting on the edge of a chair and I, too, sip the sugary liquid.

  “You’ve met Malika and Nadja before,” Hana Leïla says, “but you don’t know Fatiha, my new neighbor. She moved in last November to the apartment right above mine.”

  Fatiha is probably the same age as Hana Leïla. Her face is more etched, more wrinkled. Her eyes are rimmed with kohl and her wrists are covered with clanging bracelets. She smiles and hums along with the music. At her feet, between her legs, sits a darbuka.

  “Fatiha is a musician,” Hana Leïla explains when she notices me glance at the instrument. “We’re in the middle of planning a show.”

  “A show?” I say.

  Djelila looks as surprised as I am.

  “Yes, a show to benefit the community center,” Malika says proudly.

  Malika is the youngest of the four women. She’s very likely in Mom’s generation, even if it feels as if they were born on different planets. Mom would never dress the way Malika does, in a pair of stretch jeans and sneakers. She would never bleach or tease her hair.

  “Fatiha plays the darbuka,” Hana Leïla explains. “Malika and Nadja dance and sing, and I play the castanets.”

  She sounds as excited as a four-year-old about to take part in a school show.

  “It’s going to be a great party,” Nadja adds as she shakes her henna-reddened hair. “We’ve invited everyone in the towers. They’ll all bring something to eat and drink.”

  “No alcohol, of course,” Fatiha says as she lights a cigarette.

  Hana Leïla waves away the smoke. “Ah, you’re polluting the air!” she complains.

  Fatiha doesn’t answer and takes a puff.

  “What’s the occasion for the party?” asks Djelila.

  “See how young people are nowadays!” Nadja cries. “They need a reason to throw a party!”

  “The party is the occasion,” my grandmother answers with her sunny smile. “But we’re talking about ourselves, which is rude. What news do you girls bring? How is school?”

  “And the boyfriends?” Fatiha inquires with a wink.

  School, boyfriends. Djelila gives me a glance. She’s about to speak when Hana Leïla cuts her short.

  “Since when do you wear the hijab, Sohane?”

  Her expression is serious.

  “Since today.”

  “Today?”

  “Yes.”

  Only the sound of the music fills the apartment now. Djelila sits up.

  “Sohane has the right to wear a head scarf if she wants to,” my sister says. “It doesn’t hurt anyone.”

  Hana Leïla shakes her head. “No, of course not. I’m just surprised,” she says. “You have to be careful—very careful—with religion, as you know, girls.”

  I nod.

  “My granddaughter started wearing the hijab last year,” Nadja says. “She’s older than you are, Sohane, but I don’t understand it. Now she even refuses to shake hands with visitors who come to her home. Her parents have tried to reason with her, but she won’t change her mind!”

  “I don’t get it either,” Fatiha joins in. “I lived in Algeria until I was twenty-five and my mother never wore the veil, and hamdullah. And she wouldn’t want me wearing them either! My mother wanted us to be rid of this custom. She wanted us to be happy, to have fun, not to be hidden behind a veil.”

  “I don’t feel hidden,” I manage to mumble.

  Hana Leïla puts her hand on mine.

  “No, Sohane. You make your own choices, of course. Inshallah. Our past has nothing to do with your present, but be careful, my dear, be careful anyway.”

  I bite my cheek. Djelila looks at her feet.

  Fatiha gets up abruptly. “Come on, what’s all this about
? We’re not going to spend the whole afternoon on this topic. These young girls came here expecting hospitality and warmth, and here we are giving them morality lessons. I’ve had three husbands and twelve children, of which eight are girls, so I feel I know that each one of us has to find her own path, and that it shouldn’t keep us from laughing, singing, and dancing together.”

  “Three husbands and twelve children?” Djelila says in disbelief.

  Hana Leïla laughs. “I have the feeling the number increases every day,” she says as she gets up to turn up the volume on the radio.

  I think again about Uncle Ahmed the other evening and how he worries about his mother. He probably meant the company his mother keeps. I doubt that he likes Fatiha very much.

  Malika and Nadja are on their feet now. They begin to dance, swinging their hips like belly dancers. Fatiha has secured her darbuka under her left arm and beats on it in rhythm with the music from the radio. Hana Leïla takes the castanets that were on a table and begins to play as she too dances. The sparkling smiles of the women warm the apartment. But my uneasiness has not disappeared. Not at all. It would take more than this, but when Nadja takes my hands to make me get up and dance with her, I don’t resist. Fatiha attaches a bell-fringed scarf around my sister’s hips. The music fills my body and my heart. We don’t move nearly as well as our elders, but I don’t care. The pins start to slip off my head scarf, so I remove it and put it on the armrest of the sofa. I am not supposed to wear it here anyway. We are among women.

  Nadja, Malika, Fatiha, and Hana Leïla start to sing. I take my sister’s hands and dance with her. She laughs. Her hair covers her face. I wish the anxiety in the pit of my stomach would vanish with your laughter, Djelila.

  Vanish with your laughter.

  Your friends are heading down the stairs. They’ve given up. I can go lock myself in my bedroom again.

  They gave up more easily than the first time, when they got together about the petition.

 
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