What Could Have Been
Continued (page 2 of 3)
Of the hijab, I can say it was hot. And it was hard to put on. I was always wrapping it wrong, and the women were always laughing at me. It was not so difficult and yet there I was, gasping for air as the billowy folds of the thing caught in my armpit, my hair, and so on. But there were always women fussing over me by then. Sisters, aunts, telling me to slow down, they would do it for me. Stop moving, turn this way, lift your arm. This was in Arabic, which I had begun to understand, and it was also in eye language and body language and all the other ways human beings communicate when we do not speak the same verbal language.
We all, and I mean my guy, his mother and stepbrother, brother, and aunts and uncles, began to talk about getting married. Us. My beloved and me. Getting married. In the traditional sense. Which, I came to understand, had to do with being painted in henna, and daylong festivities of singing and ritualized sword fighting, and me being hidden away and then presented to the celebratory cries of the women in the family who claimed me as their own, as the woman whom they approved to marry the best and brightest of their brood. And he was that, really. He was, and still is, I am sure, brilliant in every way. Modern. Smart. Full of both humility and pride of place, of background, of personal circumstance.
I came to understand that I was to go through these rituals and then it was expected that we would have a traditional American wedding, too. Though I had no idea what that was, I nodded when we all sat around the small house where my beloved was born, a house that had no running water and just a small outdoor area for cooking. I thought of the way my parents married, before a justice of the peace. I would carry white lilies. He would buy a suit. My parents would welcome him into our family and then we would begin to do what married couples do. We would begin to have children. We would begin to build our own house, brick by brick, next to his mother’s house. Only we would have running water and a toilet, because I was from the West and everyone knew I could not live without that.
But then I got sick, very, very sick. I had caught malaria one night as I lay sleeping on the rooftop outside of the mosquito netting. I had to be hospitalized and as I lay there surrounded by anti-American doctors and nurses who cursed American intervention in Islamic affairs, I feared for my life. I would ask for a clean needle, and a nurse would jab me with one that had already been used. AIDS patients were in every room, coughing and staring at me.
In that hospital I realized something. Namely, that I could not be sick in such a place. There were borders I could not cross. And once I acknowledged that, I saw the poverty all around, and the way I would be treated as a Western woman whenever I was out of doors and uncovered, and I began to feel the unlikelihood of the entire endeavor. Where would I take my children if they were sick? How would I explain myself, my choices, to my children? I became afraid. I guess you could say, as we do here, I got cold feet.