Fiction by Sahar Mustafah
The Thing Itself
by Sahar Mustafah
She watched Hosam Khalil get settled and study her office, blandly decorated except for the small red IKEA couch and cobalt easy chair where she sat with legs crossed. He glanced at her small and tidy desk where two picture frames displayed her fiancé Samuel and her French bulldog Roxanne. They weren’t facing out for clients to see and only one—an audacious elderly woman fighting for custody of her grandchildren—had picked them up to investigate the subject of each photograph.
Hosam Khalil didn’t seem interested in anything particular in the room. His gaze finally rested on Jacqueline. He barely blinked. It wasn’t an uncomfortable stare, but one of anticipation, like he had better places to be than in her office.
Okay, Mr. Ka-leel, Jacqueline said. She expected him to correct her pronunciation. He didn’t. Let’s get started.
In high school, she had known plenty of Arabs—mostly Palestinians from what she remembered. Some of the olive-skinned boys had been charming and class clowns, asking out Jacqueline and the other white girls—but not seriously.
These boys usually clung to the Arab girls decked out with thick, black liquid eyeliner and red Revlon lipstick, and they wore twenty-four carat gold chains with religious inscriptions or their first names carved in English. They were beautiful and exotic (though Jacqueline and her friends would have never admitted it). In the cafeteria and around Sandburg High School, the Arabs flocked together like rams with handsome fleeces.
Jacqueline’s iPad was on an end table beside her. She didn’t record very much on the first visit. It was important to make the client feel at ease, as though they were just having a conversation and not a consultation. This wasn’t always easy.
What brings you here today? She had read his file, of course. He had punched an assistant store manager in the mouth when he tried to return a defective lawn mower. With no prior criminal record, he was mandated to a minimum of three anger management sessions and one hundred and eighty days of community service.
I guess I’m an angry man, Miss, Hosam Khalil replied with dry amusement. His dark eyes flitted to the certificates on the wall behind her then back to her. He had a narrow face with a strong chin. His nose was not wide, but handsomely expansive and it dominated his face. I hit a manager at Lowes.
Why do you think it escalated to that point? she asked. In other words, why did you choose to hit him instead of resolving it through talking? Or perhaps asking to speak with someone else?
I would have pummeled that asshole, Hosam Khalil said. I don’t know why I even shopped there. They discriminate against Muslims, you know.
He said it like moo-slims, not muz-lumz as Jacqueline might pronounce it if she ever did. He tugged the middle of his button-down shirt—a habit she would observe several times during their first interview.
Is that why you hit him? Do you think he was discriminating against you? Jacqueline re-crossed her legs and Hosam Khalil looked down at them as she did this. Her legs were what men considered sexy. Her ankles were slender and she had amply shaped calves—not too muscular or too skinny. She was wearing a black pencil skirt and a matching jacket. She never wore pantyhose in warm weather, and tights only in the wintertime in Chicago.
Maybe. I mean, I just wanted to return the damn lawnmower. He kept saying he needed a receipt even though I had charged the fucking—sorry, Miss. I had charged the thing on my Visa and asked him to pull it up on his stupid computer, Hosam Khalil explained.
Okay. We’re here to talk about how you could handle situations like this more constructively. In other words, reacting without becoming physical, she said. Does that sound reasonable to you?
Hosam Khalil shifted on the couch and stretched his right leg squarely across his other knee. He wore pressed slacks and stylish trouser socks with grey stripes. He was listed as an auto dealer under ‘occupation’ in his file. His shoes looked newly polished.
Anything to cut down on community service hours, he said and smiled, revealing white teeth. A few of his lower ones were slightly crooked and bunched together.
Well, I hope it’s also to make healthier choices in the long run, Jacqueline said.
He nodded and tapped his ankle.
Can I hear a little bit about yourself? Are you married? Jacqueline held her chin in her hand with her elbow perched on the armrest of her chair.
Two girls. Seventeen and twelve.
How about your family history?
What do you want to know?
Are your parents living? Do you have siblings? Stuff like that, she encouraged.
Yes, both of my parents are living. I have two brothers and two sisters. I used to have three sisters. He glanced at his Movado watch.
What do you mean you ‘used to have three sisters’?
I mean one’s no longer around. Slight irritation entered his voice. He sat up straight and looked at her.
Did she pass away? Jacqueline felt a slight twinge of victory. She might have uncovered something. In her nine-year clinical experience, she found that for most adult children a sibling’s death tended to be worse than coping with a deceased parent.
No. Diyanna disappeared. He looked at his watch again as though he were late for another appointment.
I’m not following, Jacqueline said. How did she disappear?
She was kidnapped when she was seven years old, he said flatly. He shifted his legs then planted both feet on the floor, folding his hands together in his lap.
I’m sorry, Mr. Ka-leel, she said. This would be more complicated than she originally expected. It might be an issue of closure. How old were you when Diyanna—is that her name—disappeared?
I don’t know—ten or eleven, I guess. It was at a carnival.
Jacqueline did a quick mental calculation. So it happened about thirty years ago. Hosam Khalil’s file indicated he was forty-seven years old.
I guess. He patted a pack of cigarettes protruding from his shirt pocket. Can I step out for a quick smoke?
Jacqueline frowned. You’re required to commit to a one-hour, uninterrupted session. She picked up the iPad, reaffirming her authority. Alright?
Okay, he said. He wasn’t sullen, but uneasiness crept into his face that hadn’t been there before. She noticed his initial confidence—arrogance even—had faded, making his jaw tense. Still, he managed to keep his voice and eye contact steady.
How have you and your family coped with the kidnapping?
What do you mean?
In other words, have you been in therapy? Or, for instance, a support group like FOMLO? ‘Families of missing loved ones’?
What are you talking about? It was a long time ago, Hosam Khalil said, visibly annoyed now. Besides, there’s no way in hell my family would’ve seen a shrink back then. It was the fucking seventies. Pardon my language, Miss. He paused for a moment. My folks are immigrants. He laughed bitterly. Yeah. I can just imagine my father, a hard-ass Ay-rab in therapy. That’s really funny.
Why’s it funny? Jacqueline asked. She imagined his father was a proud and swarthy man, with a menacing hold on his family.
I don’t know. Just is.
She discreetly checked her watch, time weighing heavily in her office. She was only required to assess this client for potential threat and provide anger-management strategies. But, Hosam Khalil needed more than what three sessions could give him.
Why don’t we practice some relaxation exercises and set a few short-term goals for this week, Mr. Ka-leel.
At the end of the session, she shook his hand and Hosam Khalil closed the door behind him.
Jacqueline powered up her iPad, pressing buttons on the DSM-IV-TR application. There was no clear diagnosis of anger except in extreme cases like borderline personality disorder or intermittent explosive disorder. Hosam Khalil had not established a pattern of physical violence. Punching the manager at Lowes had been an isolated incident to date.
She typed several lines of notes on the screen with her index finger then prepared for her next client.
* * *
At night Jacqueline was lying naked next to Samuel, even though they hadn’t made love. Earlier at dinner, she’d given him superficial details about her cases though she knew he was only being polite when he asked. He’d nodded and taken his eyes away from her face only when he was cutting food on his plate.
It had been seven months since she discovered text messages on his mobile phone from a female co-worker in his firm. They weren’t exactly the ‘sexting’ kind, but incriminating enough that Samuel came clean when she calmly confronted him. He insisted it was just an office crush and he hadn’t slept with her.
Jacqueline didn’t believe him, and it was the not believing that she trusted would help them move forward. Sexual infidelities were tangible and could be worked through. Had she been harboring any lingering doubts that Samuel hadn’t slept with that woman, Jacqueline would find it too difficult to live with. Though he couldn’t wholly appreciate it, it was healthier for their relationship this way. She knew Samuel still resented her, but it would soon dissipate. Healing took time. Most relationships deserved ‘do-overs,’ as she called them.
She sat halfway up in the bed, her head against the backboard, caressing Samuel’s arm with her fingertips. His skin was tan and his blonde arm hair felt like feathers. He always fell asleep before she did.
She lightly dozed for a few hours before a nightmare jolted her awake. She couldn’t entirely remember it, except that she was hiking with Samuel at Starved Rock in Utica—a trip they had taken years ago—when a pair of faceless men pounced on Samuel and stabbed him to death. One of them pulled out his knife from Samuel’s chest and it made a gruesome suctioning noise. The assailant turned to Jacqueline, his face still obscured, and she woke up.
Samuel was snoring beside her and a shaft of moonlight fell across a section of the duvet she had kicked away in her sleep. The oval mirror of her vanity dresser was engulfed in darkness—not a sliver of light reflected from it. Everything was undisturbed.
She padded quietly to the bathroom and splashed her face with cool water. She’d had nightmares before involving Samuel or her parents dying in some horrible way, but the sound of the knife had been sickly vivid. She decided it must have been the spicy chicken enchiladas Samuel had fixed for dinner. She rearranged the duvet over her body and closed her eyes.
Samuel never stirred.
* * *
How was your week? Jacqueline asked Hosam Khalil. She waved him into her office with her Starbuck’s coffee.
At the second session, he was dressed more casually; his dark-wash jeans made him appear diminutive than before. His pale blue short-sleeved shirt was snug across his chest and biceps. Jacqueline conceded Hosam Khalil was an attractive man.
Fine, he said. He leaned back against the couch and lightly drummed his half-empty water bottle on his thighs.
Did the meditation exercises work?
Sure, he said evasively.
Jacqueline tapped on her iPad and retrieved the goals they had set. Did you journal over the week?
Shit! I forgot to bring the notebook, Miss, he said.
Journal, Jacqueline corrected him. That’s okay. She gave him her professional smile, her lips tightly sealed. She was disappointed he’d forgotten it, but wouldn’t allow it to derail the session. Please remember to bring your journal next time.
Jacqueline set aside her iPad and leaned forward on her knees. I’d like to address something with you, Mr. Ka-leel.
Please call me Hosam. When he said his name, the h sound sprung from deep within his throat, like someone who was hoarse from screaming yet still perfectly clear.
Alright. Hoe-sam, she said. Her enunciation was weak and dull, but he seemed to appreciate her multiple efforts to get it right. Based on our first meeting, I want to raise a possible source for your anger and frustration. In other words, I think I know what may have caused you to lash out at Lowes.
Hosam Khalil did not seem particularly interested, vaguely listening. He glanced at his watch—a Michael Kors that day—then tugged the front of his shirt.
When he said nothing, Jacqueline continued. Have you heard of ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’?
You mean what soldiers get after serving?
Yes, well, it’s not just soldiers who develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Or PTSD. It can manifest in anyone who’s suffered severe psychological or physical shock.
Hosam Khalil listened more closely and clamped his hands into a fist. Why do you think I have that?
Jacqueline straightened up. I think it might be a possibility worth exploring as far as the disappearance of your sister is concerned.
Okay, Miss. Whatever you say, Hosam Khalil said, skepticism lacing his words.
Jacqueline was accustomed to the half-scoffing, half-intrigued smile of clients prepared to battle her the whole way. Hosam Khalil was not smiling, but his eyes suddenly narrowed.
Let’s begin with you sharing what you remember about that day, she instructed him. You can stop whenever it’s too difficult, okay?
Hosam Khalil rubbed the back of his head and looked up at the ceiling, as though deciding whether or not he should divulge any information to Jacqueline. After a few more seconds of silence, he returned his gaze on her. Okay, he said and cleared his throat.
You said it happened at a carnival? Tell me what you remember about that day.
He took a sip of his water and looked at the certificates on her wall. That carnival came every summer to the Chicago Park District on 55th and Garfield. It was about five or six blocks from our house so we could walk to it, no problem. Back then, kids walked everywhere or we rode our bikes. He gripped his wrist and held it up. My mother gave us money to buy those wristbands so we could ride all day. I remember Reema—my older sister—bought a funnel cake with the change and we took turns passing the plate between us.
Jacqueline saw the memory filling out in Hosam Khalil’s dark eyes and heard his childhood returning to his voice.
Diyanna loved that one ride. Shit. What was it called? ‘The Scrambler’? Yeah—the Scrambler. You know which ride I’m talking about, right? He looked expectantly at Jacqueline.
Sure, she said. Jacqueline was personally averse to fast spinning rides. When she was six years old, her parents took her to St. Luke’s Fall Fest and promised her she would love the Tilt-A-Whirl. Sandwiched between them on the seat, she began to whimper and complain, fiercely gripping the insubstantial hand rail, which reached almost to her neck, and she tried hard not to look at the old-fashioned clown faces painted on the back of each cylinder-shaped car. The ride started and the car slid back and forth on its track, gathering centrifugal force. Within seconds, it spun uncontrollably. The revolving platform was like tectonic plates shifting and she was terrified the car would jump off its track and she would be flung over the other cars. By the time the ride ended, Jacqueline was shrieking.
Well, we went on the Scrambler a hundred times with Diyanna. She couldn’t get enough of it. Hosam Khalil smiled at Jacqueline and she nodded for him to continue.
By that summer, I’d grown a few inches. I could finally go on the scary rides with Reema. The whole way we walked to the carnival all we could talk about was riding the Zipper. It was a crazy-ass ride. You were sort of half-standing in this cage thing and it spun upside down about ten stories in the air.
Hosam Khalil formed an imaginary car with his slightly cupped hand and dipped it back and forth. Even when you weren’t flipping upside down, it swung back and forth like crazy. You were guaranteed to see at least one person puking when they got off—if they hadn’t already puked in the air. He uncapped his water bottle and drank what was left.
Anyway, Diyanna was only seven—too short to ride. So we told her to wait for us at the exit gate. We promised to wave at her when we were in the air. He replaced the cap on his bottle and clutched it with both hands. It was only five o’clock. The sun did not set until almost nine in the summertime. It was still fucking daylight.
Bitterness crept into his voice and it was Hosam Khalil, Jacqueline’s grown-up client, talking again. He leaned forward. There were plenty of people standing near Diyanna, waiting for their friends or family to get off the ride. She was waiting, just like everybody else.
He stopped for a moment and examined his hands. You know, Hosam Khalil said. Diyanna did this funny thing with her hand. She’d bite the bottom. Here—he pointed to the place where his palm connected to his wrist—and she’d just sort of chew it when she was nervous or uncomfortable. It drove my mother crazy. I remember her just nodding and chewing the bottom of her hand when we told her to wait for us.
Hosam Khalil shook his head. I tried to remember who was in that crowd, but it was no use. Two or three witnesses gave a description of some white guy, maybe in his forties. He was talking to her for a few minutes, pretending to be with her. They said Diyanna took his hand and they walked away. He cleared his throat. They never found the fucking guy. Or her.
Would you like to take a break for a few minutes, Hoe-sam? Jacqueline’s coffee had turned cold and she set it down beside her.
He looked at his watch and the certificates behind her desk. Anywhere but at Jacqueline. No, I’m fine. Let’s just finish this.
Okay. Good, Jacqueline said. Can you talk about how your family coped during the aftermath? In other words, how did everyone deal with her disappearance?
What do you think? Everyone went crazy. His eyes were moist and his voice was parched. He was tugging at the front of his shirt. My father blamed my mother.
Why would he do that?
Hosam Khalil shrugged. She always told us to be home before sunset—before the streetlights turned on. She wanted us home before my dad walked through the door.
He stood up and dropped his empty water bottle into a trash bin. He looked around for a moment and Jacqueline pointed to the water cooler in a corner of her office. It emitted a loud gurgling sound as he dispensed water into a small paper cup. He gulped it down then refilled the cup before sitting again.
After the cops left, he beat the shit out of my mother. She couldn’t open one of her eyes for a whole week. All she could eat was Campbell’s soup and soggy cornflakes because her jaw ached so much. I remember thinking how funny she looked when she cried because tears were running out of only one good eye—like a leaky faucet, or something.
Was your father arrested for beating your mother?
No way. I told you before, Miss. Back then, cops always asked if you wanted to press charges, but they never pushed it. I’d seen neighbors—the moms of white and Puerto Rican kids I played with on the block—with shiners and busted lips. Cops would show up and the husband would smooth it over. Hosam Khalil shook his head again. Shit. I even witnessed a cop accepting a fucking beer from this one kid’s dad after he’d almost broken his mother’s arm.
He ran his fingers through his wavy hair, graying at the temples. Anyway, they probably figured my dad was just another ‘Ay-rab’ keeping his harem in check, or something. He chuckled and it was hollow and mirthless.
How did you and your sister handle what was going on? Jacqueline asked.
We were with my uncle. My father’s brother. His family lived in Milwaukee and we stayed with them for the rest of the summer. Until school started, Hosam Khalil said. My dad drove out every Sunday, but my mother never came. I guess she couldn’t bear to look at us that first month Diyanna was gone. In her mind, she couldn’t see she had two kids who were healthy. Alive. I guess we were a reminder that Diyanna was gone.
Did you have any contact at all with your mother when you were away?
Yeah. She’d call us everyday. She’d remind us to be polite and pick up after ourselves.
Did you talk about Diyanna at all?
Not with my mom. Reema and me did when we were alone. Reema couldn’t sleep for a whole year. I know she blamed herself. We’d go over what happened that day, replaying every single moment from when we led her to that spot by the exit and told her to stay put, to being up in the Zipper and still seeing her from up top, right before the cage started swinging. He looked across Jacqueline’s office as though he were back in that cage, searching for his sister.
Reema couldn’t remember if she waved back at us, but I did. She waved at us. Then the cage turned upside down and all I could see were, like, shards of things. Nothing was solid or whole anymore because we were going so fast. Hosam Khalil’s voice dropped. He was still audible, but Jacqueline leaned towards him. We could never mention her name in front of my mom or dad. They acted like she was never born.
And how did you deal with her absence?
I don’t know. For me, her not being there in our house was like that feeling you get when you lose something. You know, you forget about it for a while. On certain days, there were these triggers. Like the smell of watermelon gum or drinking from a garden hose. But it became a memory of losing that thing, not the thing itself. You know what I mean?
Yes, I do, Jacqueline said. She thought of Samuel.
He had not touched her—not really—for months. She missed the lingering kisses on her back after throwing off her bathrobe and falling on top of the duvet next to Samuel. He wore briefs and an undershirt, surfing the web on his laptop. He’d set it on the nightstand and turn to her as she lay on her stomach, her face turned upwards and grinning at him. He kissed her buttocks and traced her vertebrae with his moist tongue, leaving goose pimples in its wake. His breath was hot and sweet on her earlobes and he’d whisper, I love you, Jackie-O.
Lately, terms of endearment were automatically tacked on to greetings and goodbyes, and blandly punctuated the end of their daily phone conversations from work. And, they still went to Game Night with other couples, and she continued to cheer him on when he was pitching at his West Loop League games. Yet, something had shifted in Samuel’s affection for her.
Her girlfriends kept nagging her to set a date (she did not tell them about the texts) and she’d smile and say Soon. We’re working on a budget. There was never any suspicion on their part and no communication of reality from her.
Her engagement ring was stunning: a one-and-half carat diamond, round-cut and set in platinum gold, with tiny diamonds in the band. It was exactly what she had wanted. She had been so impressed by Samuel’s choice; most of her girlfriends chaperoned their men when they shopped for a ring, or provided them with clippings from magazines. Samuel had known precisely what she would love and his selection was like a bottle of perfume that mingled perfectly with Jacqueline’s natural and pure scent.
Hosam Khalil was looking at her. Okay. Good, she said, breathing deeply through her nostrils. Thank you for sharing those details. Her tone was gracious as if Hosam Khalil had just taken something without asking her permission and she was trying to politely maintain composure.
It was a long time ago, he said dully.
Jacqueline’s armpits and neck were clammy and her stomach turned sour. She picked up her iPad, trying hard to concentrate. Yes, it was a long time ago. However, there’s something called ‘complicated grief’ or ‘traumatic grief,’ which is sometimes linked to symptoms of PTSD. She touched her screen and opened a document.
Based on what I heard today, I think it would be good to have tools for coping with delayed grief. In other words, you need to grieve in a way that you were sort of denied as a child. Does that sound reasonable to you? She tapped her iPad and scrolled down the screen with a trembling finger.
I wish I had been born first.
She looked up, startled, at Hosam Khalil. How would that have changed the circumstances?
I don’t know, he said. It probably wouldn’t have. I mean, what if I was. Would anything have changed? He crushed his empty paper cup and threw it in the garbage.
Jacqueline didn’t know how to answer his question.
* * *
When she got home, she sat in the middle of her distressed leather couch, waiting for Samuel. She was still in her shoes and blazer. Through the large bay window she watched orange and pink hues gathering at the horizon. This view had sold her on the townhouse. She’d believed they could share a view like this and be able to put anything in perspective. Everything would always turn out fine.
Samuel called to her as he came through the back door of the attached garage, but she did not answer. He sank beside her on the sofa and she sobbed uncontrollably, clinging to him until the room was almost dark, the sunset fading in mellow brushstrokes. His neck smelled spicy and clean; his curly hair was still damp from a shower he’d taken after the gym.
She did not have to say anything. After a long time holding each other, Samuel packed up a few of his suits and underwear and left.
Jacqueline heaved herself off the couch and filled the bathtub. She pulled off her shoes and stripped down, leaving her clothes in a heap on their bedroom floor. Lavender and steam wafted from the tub as Jacqueline stepped in, fixing her hair into a loose bun.
She thought of Hosam Khalil and the kidnapping, closing her eyes as the tension slowly loosened in her neck. She dipped her head back, soaking her ears and her soft nape of hair.
She thought about Samuel and being alone.
As the bathwater turned lukewarm and the suds finally parted, she could see her naked thighs and belly, and the water was clear again.
Sahar Mustafah is a Palestinian American writer, editor, and teacher from Chicago. Her short stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Story, The Bellevue Literary Review, Sukoon, Great Lakes Review, Ploughshares, Word Riot, Chicago Literati, and elsewhere. She was selected as a member of Voices of Protest, an artistic collaboration of the Guild Literary Complex, and recently journeyed to Norway for the International Festival of Literature and Freedom of Speech. She is a proud co-founder and fiction editor of Bird’s Thumb, a journal devoted to publishing new and emerging voices. You can visit her at www.saharmustafah.com.