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Not One of Ms. Aisha’s Stories

Yemen, 2010.

I stood by the front door of our gated school, keeping half of my arm inside to make sure the metallic door didn’t close. I peeked inside to see if anyone was noticing, and peeked back at Reema every few seconds. She stood by the end of the narrow street that lead to our school’s gate, an old gate that reminded me of the mistake I made every time I stepped outside during school hours. Reema had rolled the sleeves of her shirt and the hem of her long skirt to make it shorter, and untied her braided hair. It turned to brown waves, and I imagined Ahmad surfing between the waves of her hair sometimes. “I won’t be late this time, I promise,” she said. She turned to me with her wide eyes that were for sure darker than her hair and walked, expecting me to follow her.

Reema and Ahmad met once every two weeks. They touched, looked around and whispered things in each other’s ears. He held her arm and played with the hair tie around her wrist. She talked and looked at the hair tie casually. I didn’t know why I obligated myself to help her, but I didn’t mind watching them and I enjoyed the secret we shared together.

             We could see his school from our classroom, it wasn’t gated, but somehow it looked more depressing, maybe because the gate made our school look cozier, but not the best kind of cozy. I had love-hate relationship with the gate, but I didn’t bother myself thinking about it most of the time. Our classroom’s window gave us a good view of their playground, and sometimes we would gather around the window and watch them play soccer. Choose teams that have members with blurry faces and names, cheer for them and fight about who did better during each match. Reema smiled, looked at me and pointed at Ahmad whenever he played. She sat next to me, and sometimes I would catch her staring at the window, especially during Ms. Amal’s math class, and then Ms. Amal would walk slowly with her long yellow ruler and hit Reema on her back.

           I don’t remember how I became friends with Reema, but she was there, and we never decided that we shouldn’t be friends at some point. I never hung out with her outside our school, but we called each other to plan her meetings with Ahmad, or to help her understand Ms. Amal’s class better.

Ms. Aisha’s class always scared Reema, and I could feel a spark of guilt inside my chest whenever she told us one of those stories. One story was about a girl our age that ran away from her house to see her lover and never came back because he kidnapped her. A few days later, her parents found her body some miles away from the school she had run away from. Another story was also about a girl who didn’t obey her mother. She had once asked the girl to lower the sound of the music as she prayed. But the girl kept playing the loud music, so Allah had made her ears vanish the next day when she woke up. When I first heard this story, I slept with my hands over my ears for few days. There was another story also about a girl who never prayed because she always slept during the prayers. If the call to prayer woke her up, she would ignore them and go back to sleep. One day, she slept right through them and never woke up again. I believed the stories sometimes, not because they seemed reasonable, but because of Ms. Aisha’s thin eyebrows, which moved with her as she told the story, and her brown pencil skirt. They made her seem like a credible teller. I once asked Reema after Ms. Aisha’s class if she was ever afraid of Ahmad kidnapping her. She covered her mouth with her hand as she laughed and said she wouldn’t mind. Reema always moved a part of her body when she laughed. She would stamp her feet on the floor, wrap her arm around her stomach, or use her hand to cover her smile. A part of her body had to move with her, and it made me laugh even if I didn’t think the joke was funny.

It was another Ahmad and Reema meeting, so I stood by the gate and watched them kiss. He was taller than her. He had to bend his already bent back more, and she had to stand on the tips of her toes. Sometimes he would wrap one arm around her waist and pull her to reach his height. She said that Ahmad wanted to marry her once they graduated. I told her he had to find job, and she said he already started looking for one. This is why she agreed on kissing him. But Ms. Aisha said boys never marry girls their parents didn’t choose for them. That brown skirt, again, made her credible. Reema would do a slow jog toward me with a satisfied smile on her face when she was done with the meeting. She told me once that Ahmad had a friend, who would like to meet me. But I sweated from her suggestion, and we agreed that holding the door of the gate was enough for me.

“I need to meet with Ahmad again this week,” she said.

“Why?” I said.

“He said he got me a gift,” she said. “He really needs to give it to me before the end of this week.” Her voice sounded sharper, and I didn’t see a point in saying no, so I stood by the gate the next day.

It was hot, and the metallic door burned my arm. Reema and Ahmad walked away, and I couldn’t see them anymore. I stood inside next to the door, waiting for Reema to knock. We usually sneaked out during Ms. Shahad’s art class. There were forty of us in her classroom, and she never memorized our names. She thought she did sometimes but always ended calling us the wrong names. Her pregnancy bump got bigger every class period, and I was always afraid she would fall and explode. I got nervous whenever she walked around the classroom and couldn’t wait for her to sit down, rub her belly and stare at the ceiling while we painted. Reema took longer than I expected, or maybe I was too excited to see what Ahmad planned to give her. I could feel a drop of sweat traveling through my back, stopping when it reached the skirt’s tight waist. I opened the door again, no Ahmad and Reema. I saw Ms. Amal walking closer to the door, so I stepped back and walked to the bathroom. My face sweated, too.

Reema’s spot was empty, and the air conditioner hit my back, but I was still sweaty. Ms. Aisha looked at Reema’s desk, but didn’t say anything. I imagined Reema in front of the locked gate downstairs with her fizzy wavy hair, mad at me for leaving her that way. I waited ten minutes, listening to Ms. Aisha’s story about a girl who insisted on wearing skinny jeans even after her mother’s warnings. One day, the girl tried to take them off and she couldn’t because they were glued to her legs, so they had to cut them off. I liked to look at Rana’s face whenever Ms. Aisha finished one of her stories. Her eyes would become wider and her mouth turned to a little circle. It made me giggle, but the spark of guilt stopped me every time. As I tried to act like Reema was present next to me, I asked Ms. Aisha if I could use the restroom. Her eyes looked at me for two seconds. She nodded with a no.

Reema and I never had a clear plan of what we would do if we ever got caught or, more specifically, if she got caught. But we had agreed on some basics that would get us in less trouble: Never show them that we are afraid, deny everything they say, never tell them the truth of what she was doing outside if they didn’t know, and never stare at principal Jehan’s eyes for more than three seconds. I knew, though, if we ever got caught, I would tremble and forget that these rules existed. After Ms. Aisha’s class, I opened the door of the gate again; wishing Reema would suddenly appear behind me and show me whatever Ahmad had given her. I wondered why the school decided to keep the door unlocked in first place. It was probably a test to see which girls would break the rules. Their stories would be told as a warning in Ms. Aisha’s class, so girls like Rana could circle their mouths.

The final bell rang. As I walked to the bus stop, I saw Reema sitting inside principal Jehan’s office on her black leather couch. My whole body felt sweaty again, and I wanted to stop and listen to what was being said. Ms. Amal waved to me with her hand to keep moving and follow the line. At home, I called Reema’s house number twice. Her mother answered the first time and her soft voice scared me even though it sounded regular. She answered with “Reema is sleeping, I will let her know you called.” But she didn’t ever call me back.

The next day, we stood in our classes’ lines, and a young-looking teacher I’d never noticed before came to do a regular check of the rules we have to follow: no nail polish, braided hair, black shoes and white socks. She didn’t seem like she was enjoying her job. She saw two girls with mismatched socks and didn’t tell them anything. She moved between us faster than Ms. Aisha did and smiled at a girl who had nail polish on. I waited for Reema to show up and join us while we sang the national anthem, but she never arrived. I didn’t know what to expect, but I prayed, feeling the guilt that comes when praying only when I needed something. I felt like I used God sometimes, and I didn’t know if that was okay. If I had asked Ms. Aisha, she would probably tell me something like, “God doesn’t accept prayers from selfish people who follow their own needs and desires.” After quick consideration, I was relieved. Because what I was praying for wasn’t actually something I needed. It was Reema’s problem. I was praying for Reema.

The day was slow, and girls asked about Reema’s absence looking at me. I wanted to go to the principal’s office and ask her what exactly happened, but fear made me selfish. I planned not to say anything, or show my involvement unless I was called to Principal Jehan’s office. I froze every time someone knocked on our class’s door or whenever I saw Ms. Jehan walking closer to me. But it never happened. I was never called. Opening the gate for her wasn’t part of the story. Reema was a good friend for leaving me out. I thought maybe God understood my prayers in different way, because of my weak phrasing, and decided to just save me.

I phoned five times after I left her waiting at the gate. Her mother stopped answering my calls. Her younger brother picked up once, and it went like this: Me asking him if Reema was there, heavy breaths from him with no answer, me asking if he was still hearing me, more heavy breaths, the sound of Reema’s mother asking him who is on the phone, and then nothing.

When I entered the classroom the next morning, I didn’t find Reema’s desk next to mine. Everyone stared at me as if they knew what had I did to her. That I’d left her waiting. That she had knocked, expecting me to open. But that someone else had instead. And, whoever that was had turned her to Jehan’s office.

When Ms. Aisha’s class started, she stood, leaning on the table in front of her body. She did that move when she wanted to get our attention and say something wise.

“God doesn’t forgive girls who sneak behind their trusted ones back and sin,” she said. “Remember, no one wants to marry a girl who sins before marriage.”

Reema’s story was about to be told, and the mysterious disappearance would be solved to those who didn’t know. Girls listened as Ms. Aisha spoke about how a good man saw them hiding and committing a sin and returned Reema to the school and informed her parents. Ms. Ashia’s lips moved faster as she spoke, and she moved her hands with the rhythm of her words. Her voice got sharper when she said words like “sin,” “girls” and “God.” This is was the most exciting story she ever told, and maybe even the only true one.

I stopped calling Reema and stopped expecting her return, but I remembered her at least once a day, which I think was enough for a friendship that consisted of phone calls and me opening and closing the gate for her. Sometimes her memory made my steps heavy and my breath slow, but I tried to remind myself that it was that good man’s fault — never mine. One time, Mama asked me about her. I told her she left school, and she wasn’t surprised. It was okay for girls our age to stop attending for marriage, or for other reasons like Reema’s. I wondered about Ahmad and if he tried to find another way to contact her. But without me that couldn’t be possible, so probably he just kept this whole thing a secret and remembered her during the day sometimes. I’m sure he remembered her more than I did because their relationship consisted of more things than our friendship did.

We graduated from the gated school. Reema and Rana were the only two missing girls from our class’ graduation. The girls said that Rana got married to a rich doctor. He proposed to her before finals week. One of the girls attended her wedding and said that her hands looked so small when she held her groom’s hand. Her dress was a beautiful white with flowers that popped out, her curly hair was straightened, and her lipstick was a dark red that you could see before she got closer to you. I imagined Rana with her thin and tall body, wide eyes that listened to stories walking down the aisle next to a groom with a lab coat. I told Mama, and she told me she couldn’t wait for me to get married, too. She said Rana was a good girl, and she deserved nothing less than a doctor.

I heard stories about Reema’s ending, as well. There were a lot of them, and I didn’t know which one to believe: The first one was Reema got married to the first man who proposed to her. Her parents were very excited and afraid that he would find out about her old lover, so the marriage arrangements went very fast. The next story was that Ahmad came to Reema’s house and proposed to her, but her parents didn’t know that he was the lover she kissed as I watched the gate and watched them. Her parents approved, but she and Ahmad had to hide this big secret their whole life. I thought the next story was the most exciting one: A different man proposed to Reema, and her parents approved, but she was determined not to marry him because Ahmad still lived in her heart. One week before her wedding day, she ran away with Ahmad to somewhere that was far away. Her parents looked for her, but their search wasn’t successful. This story sounded a lot like Reema, and I replayed it in my head every few months whenever I remembered her. I actually replayed all of them, but that story had a lot more things to imagine and daydream about. I hated the last story. It made me bite my nails, shortened my breath and made my tears almost fall whenever I replayed its events. After Reema got caught, and her parents came to pick her up from Principal Jehan’s leather couch, she tried to run away again as she walked to the car, but her father caught her, tortured her, and she might be dead.

Batool Alzubi is completing her M.A. in English with an emphasis on creative writing at Missouri State University. Previously, her story “Illegally Alive” was published by Bacopa Review.

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