A cockroach makes a twisted path from one corner of our room to the other and distracts me from my ritual. I start again, rewrapping my hair in a scarf that still smells of my mother, touching my nose to the worn rug. My prayer rug, passed down from generations, always willed to the meekest daughter; the one closest to the heart of the Prophet. I wonder what cockroaches leave to their daughters. A secret map of the cracks between apartments, perhaps.
Because I hear her lovers sigh through the wall, I know she hears me praying. I know she hears the other things that take place here. I never meet her eyes when we cross in the hallway.
Our cockroaches take refuge in her kitchen when we try to kill them. The bomb comes in a package with cartoon insects belly up and dead, which Mustafa buys at 7-Eleven with his cigarettes. The English words march backwards across the box. We release it in the kitchen monthly; I am still wiping the white dust from the corners of the counter when it is time to do it again.
I was not a child bride, as my mother was. I could agree or disagree as I chose. My mother watched me through the days I said I needed to think. And then I said yes. Our mothers made the arrangements and hired the jewelry. Mustafa. I was the fiancé of a man named Mustafa. Perhaps he would beat me, perhaps he would drink, but I did not think so. We knew his family, his sisters were my friends. I would have known him too, but he left the neighborhood a long time ago.
Whatever happened, at least I would not be the one left behind to wipe up after my brother’s meals, to clean the salt-encrusted tissue from beside their beds, to scrub their laundry and fetch their tea. My mother wanted what she had seen of America on TV—the shiny cars, refrigerators big enough to hold an entire sheep—if not for herself than for me.
Four days. I was buffed, polished, tattooed and displayed. My husband and I greeted each other in the old-fashioned way, the formal words unfamiliar to our tongues: they reached further back in the throat than our every-day words, as if their meaning was carried deeper. They were harder to say. We were royal in the photographs: we sat still on a dais, waving to the relatives and neighbors. My tiara was borrowed. I could not breathe.
The dresses I got to keep. My mother folded them carefully, planning my nights before the plane left the ground. Surely they would be necessary in America. Mustafa and I would eat in restaurants with gleaming cutlery and a separate plate for everyone at the table and I would need something to wear. And when he was out, just the thought of the rustling silk at my ankles would make him think longingly of the moment he would come home. We both needed to believe in this story and so we did.
My family is both poor and respectable. This means I kept my virginity. My friends and I argued over the little we knew as we hung out the laundry. Either the act would hurt, or there would be satisfaction. Johara said the weapon is foolish, Jamilla said it is frightful. I once overheard my grandmother say that all men swagger and brag, but the source of their strength is fragile. We agreed on one thing: I was lucky to be marrying someone who had lived in America. Mustafa would know better than the local boys how to woo and win.
There is no God but Allah. There is no God but Allah. If He seems so very far away, perhaps it is because He doesn’t recognize me without my djleaba. I am a long way from home.
I know she can hear me through the wall because when I am finished with my prayers, I see the shadow of her feet in the crack under my door. I hear her breathing and see her arm upraised to knock. I close my eyes and see her lips close around the question. I do not open the door.
Her lovers are all women. I watch her following them up the stairs with her eyes on their spine. She winks at me, as if we share a secret, and I scurry away from them with my arms full of laundry. Her lovers wear red shoes with bows and tall heels. Their stockings are like the ones women wear in old Egyptian movies, a straight line measuring the curve of their legs. Her lovers are very beautiful, with small diamonds shining from their nostrils and glossy hair. They are not like the women on TV, their cheeks are full and their bodies are nourished.
I know they are her lovers because I listen. I place my hands flat on the white wall and press my ear against its dusty surface. My husband is at the cafe with a hundred of his closest friends and compatriots. Mustafa sits at the bar and speaks with Mohammed while nursing a small cup of tea. The waiters know to keep his glass full until his package of cigarettes is empty. It is his reward for smiling while customers complain about their orders. I lay on his side of the bed until he comes home, warming his place and trying out the syllables I have heard through the wall. My dreams do not erase the words.
In the morning streets, I am alone. I keep my head down, my face hidden. The cracks in the pavement fracture and spread out in every direction like a thought. It is the same with the sidewalks in my country. If I do not breathe, if I do not raise my eyes, everything makes sense for the entire journey from our building to the hotel where I work: I belong again.
Before I came here, I thought all Americans were shiny and clean like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. A foreigner is forgiven for thinking such things: a chambermaid in a hotel knows better. They leave a handful of crumpled bills on the pillow, as if ones and fives buy them the right to discard their oozing sheaths on the carpet, to leave hand prints all over the windows and yellow traces of their morning necessities drying on the outside of the toilet. What kind of people are unembarrassed by the remains of what is done in the night?
My hotel has very tall ceilings and gray marble floors. I tie my hair back—it is never glossy, only very black—and practice being invisible. My starched uniform helps: no one notices the maids unless their aprons are dingy or their rooms fail inspection. The people at the front desk know my name but not its proper pronunciation. They say hello and good morning, but it is easier if they don’t. Translation slows me down.
We are given a quota of rooms to clean. I walk the hall in my silent shoes, knock gently on the door and announce myself. Housekeeping. The only English word I pronounce perfectly.
I arrange the towels so no one hangs lower than the rest, I fold the thin tissue by the toilet into a neat arrow. If there are sheaths on the floor, I scoop them up carefully and only throw up into the toilet after I have disposed of them properly. When my rooms are exactly as they should be, I change into my running shoes, my track pants and my hooded jacket. I take the same route home every day. I follow the map of cracks in the pavement and they lead me to my front door.
Every morning is the same. The door to our building closes behind me at 5:37. Mustafa snores softly, wrapped in the linens like a dead man. I walk through the service entrance of the hotel at 5:58. The time-clock stamps my card at 6:15. It stamps it again at 3:00. The numbers order themselves on the thick paper, ants following each other in a straight line.
Not today. Today is full of policemen with words in their questions I do not understand. It is full of blood and disbelief. I cannot stop seeing the room, the number on the door so close that my eyes cross waiting for a reply to my knock. 121. I slide my key into the lock and hear it click open. The handle is cool to my hand, the door gives way easily. I am thinking about nothing already, numb from white porcelain and soiled bed sheets.
Room 121. Part of the group of rooms reserved for an ambassador and his entourage. The head housekeeper has emphasized that our work must be thorough, discreet, and quick. I am sure fainting is indiscreet, but she never said anything about the protocol for walking in on a slaughter.
The police want to know if I saw anything strange, anyone running through the hallways, a knife hidden in a pillowcase, blood in a bathtub. They ask all the housekeepers the same questions. Another officer goes to the basement to dig through the laundry. He hopes for a weapon, a fingerprint but that will tell them nothing we do not already know. The guest is on file, what he ordered from room-service, which of the tiny bottles of alcohol he removed from the mini-bar. Finding him is not the problem, one officer says, his voice frustrated and his fingers curled into his palms. Finding the victim, that is the hard part.
Pink translucent bits of flesh cling to the wall like a melon has been smashed there. The sheets are ruined, there is nothing to be done with the mattress but burn it, the room is far beyond what I could clean in a day. A young officer pulls blood-soaked underwear from behind the bed.
One of the other women picks up my quota. The manager tells me to stay home tomorrow. They call a cab for me when the questions are over and send me home with a twenty dollar bill. I stop the cab long before we are in my neighborhood and walk. Without the sidewalks, I am not sure I know where I live.
She is sitting on the stairs. Her hair is cut close, like a man’s, but her eyes are wide-set and her cheekbones are high. Her shirt is nearly transparent. Her knees are spread wide under her skirt. Hey, she says. She asks my name. Aicha, I tell her. That’s the Prophet’s favorite wife’s name, isn’t it? I am careful with my face when I tell her it is. Well, Aicha. I’m Rayden, your neighbor.
I know she is my neighbor, and she knows I know she is my neighbor so telling me this seems strange. I do not know what the proper response is, so I keep silent. My arms are wrapped around my waist and I am trying not to think of blood.
When she herds me into the building and follows me up the stairs, I wonder if she is looking at my spine and winking at someone with a laundry basket. We climb the three stories to our respective flats in silence. I reach for my keys and she stops me with a pale hand. No, she says. You look like shit. I look at her blankly. Sorry, she says. You look terrible, like you are sick. I’m not sick, I reply. Well, you aren’t right either. Come have coffee with me. Your husband won’t be home for a long time yet. She is correct.
I am ushered into an apartment exactly like my own. The same heavy door, the same gleaming hardwood floors. Except where we have a large television, she has a bookshelf. Where we have a salvaged table, she has guitars and hard black cases. The windows are covered in sheer red fabric and candles are everywhere. Instead of a sofa, there are velvet cushions strewn about the room. Her bedroom door is open. Inside, there is a low platform with a mattress and more cushions. The walls are papered in strident black and white photographs and drawings. On one wall, the wall that meets our bedroom, blank pages are taped. Charcoal sticks litter the floor underneath. I step closer to the bedroom.
She tells me to look around while she heats water, and so I do. I recognize some of the faces on the wall, women that have preceded her up the stairs with their red shoes and sensual spines. She seems to have a preference for drawing them from behind: the shape of them reminds me of her guitars. Even rendered in charcoal, their teeth are all white and straight. They do not wear clothes.
Her breathing tells me she is watching me before she opens her mouth to ask me how I like my coffee. Sweet, I tell her, and she returns to the kitchen. Over her shoulder, she asks if she can draw me. This is not possible. I do not remove my clothes where my husband can see me, I could not do it for a stranger, a woman who loves women. I hurry to think of a proper response, one that will not be rude. Or if I could just photograph you, she adds. Nothing serious. I cannot, I tell her. My husband would not like it. She smiles at me over her own steaming mug of coffee. Your husband does not have to know everything, she says, and changes the subject.
She chatters and I struggle to follow her conversation. For no reason at all, I think about asking her to explain what I don’t understand. But there is so much to ask. Why do so many women come through her life? Why do the police need a body to prove that the guest should be taken away in chains? Her words flow around me like a warm summer breeze but I am not listening, I am seeing the underthings pinched between the officer’s fingers, still dripping.
She says my name. Aicha, Aicha. Are you feeling alright? Do you need a drink? I shudder and look at her again. Drinking is forbidden. Many things are forbidden, she says. But we are human, are we not? She carries on and I turn my questions over. What is the word that slides through our common wall, what does it mean, fucking?
I think about asking her while she asks me about Morocco. I practice speaking the word out loud by remembering what it sounded like through the wall. I feel the question in my chest, rising to the surface and then dropping back, rising and dropping again. I am running out of time: the evening meal will need at least an hour to prepare and it is getting late.
It is only when I am standing by her door, one hand on the knob that it comes rushing out: What is fucking? I know I have said it wrong before my tongue has settled back into my lower jaw, but it is out now. There is no pulling it back. She is leaning against the wall. She inhales, then lets the air out of her lungs slowly. She licks her lips, looks away and then looks back at me. Fucking, she says. She pulls her shoulders up toward her ears and stands straight. Her hands drop to her sides.
Fucking is what you are doing when your husband hurts you. She steps closer to me, then closer still. My heart is suddenly loud in my ears, it stutters like a broken call to prayer. When she exhales, I feel the warmth of her breath on my neck. I look down at her mouth and she pushes up on her toes, taking my lower lip into her teeth.
I step back and she follows until I am pressed against the bookshelf. Her breasts are pushed against mine and there is a hunger developing in my pelvis. My brain searches out ways to feed it and discards them all as immoral, forbidden by Allah and simply impossible. But my mouth follows hers; where her tongue questions, mine answers.
Her hands caress my waist and mine explore the hollow of her spine. It is only the electricity of her skin against mine that wakes me. Her hand is circling the edge of my shirt, her fingers dancing under it to the skin at my waist, the curve of my ribs. I break the kiss and rush towards the door, stuttering thanks for the coffee in two languages. The lock clicks into place behind me.
When Mustafa comes to bed, I turn to him. He sees an invitation in the gesture and I do not correct him. It is the weight of his body that confirms it: there is no way to tell him of the blood without telling him everything, the red curtains, the dark bed, the women on the wall. My wayward desire. He brushes away the tears that dampen his neck and murmurs words for a child. What is it, white one? Nothing. I bite my lip, anticipating, until the taste of blood is bright in my mouth, but he is slow and waits until he feels me relax into the mattress.
It is nothing at all.
I hear her walking the floor when I wake myself screaming. When we pass in the hall, she looks at me with hollow eyes. She doesn’t ask why I scream, which is worse than having the question spoken and solid. I can see her mulling every story she’s ever heard of a Muslim marriage, trying to decide if I need saving. She sees me in the laundry room and backs away from the door. Weeks pass. The doctor who gives me pills to keep me from becoming pregnant gives me something to keep the nightmares quiet.
And then there are only my prayers left for her to hear. Nothing else changes. Her lovers climb the stairs and I match their faces to the pictures hanging in her room. I leave the laundry unfolded on the bed and press my ear to the wall, listening to her murmurs ebb to silence and then flow again with laughter and gasps and small cries. I pace the length of the apartment, willing them to silence, or to speak louder. Anything but this. I turn the television on, then off again and return to the laundry. The sound of her and her lover is nothing to me. Instead of envisioning their tangled bodies, I think of tangled sheets. The blood-spattered ones in the basement of the hotel, still waiting for the police to identify their victim.
We do not speak. She comes and goes with the beautiful girls and I imagine her bedroom walls growing thick with charcoal sketches. It is nearly a year later before I feel her standing in front of my door again, her arm raised to knock.
Mustafa is at the cafe recruiting people to help us move and I am expecting no one. I open the door before she can turn away. Her hair is shaggy and dips across her eyelids. She’s tired of looking like a girl, she explains, but not before she’s looked into the apartment and seen the boxes piled everywhere. She hears me cutting my husband’s hair all the time, she figures I can take the razor to her head as well. I offer her a chair at the table while I get the clippers from the box in the bathroom.
When I return, she has removed her shirt. Her back is turned to me; she is not wearing a bra. I busy myself with plugging the razor in and playing with the guards, selecting the longest, finally standing behind her with clippers in one hand and the other hand holding the cord. My hands shake.
There is no way to do this without touching her, but I am afraid of the curve of her head, the warmth of her neck, the silken feel of her hair running through my fingers. I remind myself that I am a married woman, that there is nothing she has to offer that I want: I’ve heard how often and how easily she gives herself away. I start reciting verses of the Quran in my head and drop the cord. With my fingers at the base of her neck, I run my hand upwards to make the hairs stand away from the razor and lower it to her scalp.
I take my time, sometimes resting a hand on her bare shoulder, teasing her ear with the back of my fingers, testing the small hairs at the back of her neck to see which will make her shudder. I run the razor over her scalp repeatedly, searching out spots I may have missed. She looks like she belongs in a prison camp when I am done with her. She looks dangerous.
She has not put on her shirt when she stands. Dark blue jeans hang from her hipbones. With one hand skimming the small hairs left on her scalp and the other hooked into her waistband, she looks at me with eyes that ask too much, eyes that are already disappointed.
There is a fine trail of dark hair leading from her belly-button into her pants. Her breasts are like any other breasts you’d see at the hamam at home: full, but not enough to put you at the top of the matchmaker’s potential bride list. It is too chilly in the apartment to be without a shirt, but she does not flinch, she does not make a move to leave, she just watches my eyes as they travel the length of her.
We both know that once she puts on her shirt and leaves the apartment, we will begin the process of making light of this, gradually dismissing each other inch by inch into a story barely worth mentioning. Anecdotes for apartment-life horror stories and no more: Laughingly, she will refer to me as the terrorist’s wife. I will scare my sisters with the immorality of American women.
But that is not the real version of the story, not right now. The real story is in the look that takes minutes to break. The way she does not turn when she shakes her shirt once and wiggles into it like a butterfly shrinking itself back into a cocoon. How this is everything I wish to know of desire. The drag of her skin against my cheek when she touches my face, or the way I deny my eyes the sight of her bare feet walking away.