See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
“I’m going to kill her,” the man in the back seat growled. A moment earlier his phone had beeped, indicating a text message.
Randa ignored him. She could already smell him – he reeked of cigarette smoke and Drakkar, a syrupy yet rancid combination, like a rotting fruit – and didn’t care to expend the energy to turn her head.
Exhausted from a nine hour shift slinging overloaded plates of food to hordes of Japanese and German tourists, she sat in the front seat of the UberPOOL car, staring out the window at the passing nightlife of San Francisco. Taxis and buses jostling for space, restaurants with lines down the block. Cable cars, street cars, tourists with their expensive cameras like baby candy for Tenderloin junkie thieves. Chinese women heading home from SOMA sweatshops, elbowing their way onto packed buses. Local hipsters, bike messengers and pimply faced tech millionaires. They were all jammed into this city on seven hills, mesmerized by the lights and endless cash, or imprisoned by them. Free to go where they would; free to ruin themselves.
She reached into the shopping bag between her knees and fingered the silk scarf she’d purchased. She’d spent half her weekly paycheck on it. A gift for Nawal. SubhanAllah, its exquisite softness was unreal. What she would have given during the last three years to feel something so yielding. She released the scarf and settled back into the seat. Quick stop at the halfway house to shower and change, then on to Nawal’s party. She could do this. After all she’d been through, why should a party make her nervous?
“Bitches lie,” the smoker went on. “That’s all women do, they lie. I’m going to kill the sl*t.”
“Sir,” the driver said, glancing in the rear view mirror. He was a tiny man with a thick moustache and a flat cap. His name was Ali, according to the Uber app. European looking, maybe Kurdish, maybe Arab. “Calm down or I will put you out.”
“Screw you,” Smoker said. “I paid for this ride, I’m not going any-”
Ali swerved to the curb and hit the brakes, screeching to a stop beside Union Square. “Out.”
It was almost Christmastime, and the square was packed. Randa saw people ice skating on the little rink they set up every December. The compressor that cooled the ice was very loud. Tourists were crowded into the Starbucks beside the rink. On every side of the square, monuments to consumerism rose. Macy’s, the Westin St. Francis, Nike, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Bul93gari, Tiffany & Co… Idols of wealth and third world labor. After spending three years owning nothing but a few sets of clothing and a few books, this was all foreign. As if some great beast had eaten every valuable thing in the world and regurgitated it in one place. She wasn’t quite sure if she wanted it all, or was revolted by it all.
““Drive the damn car,” Smoker said.
Randa had had enough. She turned and scanned the back seat. Directly behind her, a teenaged blonde girl in denim looked very uncomfortable – almost frightened but not quite there. Randa focused on the smoker. He was brown skinned and barrel chested, with thinning black hair. Middle Eastern. He looked familiar, actually. His eyes were bloodshot. It was like a set up for a joke: three Arabs and a white girl get into an Uber… Except there was nothing funny about this guy. He was big and looked quite capable of violence.
Randa, on the other hand, was physically unimposing. Short, skinny, long black hair tied in a ponytail, she was a typical Yemeni girl, as light as one of the reeds that grew in the Aden wetlands, where her parents had grown up. That didn’t matter. Anyone could hurt anyone, she knew this. Her eyes were lasers drilling into the smoker. Her jaw was a steel trap. Liquid nitrogen flowed through her veins. If this guy wanted to mix it up, she would tear him to pieces.
The man’s eyes met hers, he opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He exited the car, slamming the door.
The driver smiled at Randa. He looked very relieved. “MashaAllah alayki,” he praised her in Arabic. “I don’t know what you did, but thanks. Maybe you should be a rideshare driver.”
Randa did not reply.
She checked into the halfway house on Turk Street with ten minutes to spare before her work period expired. The staff member on duty was her own case manager, a thin, bald man with a pasty complexion and a scar on his lip.
“I’ll need a recreation block later,” Randa told him. “Starting at seven.”
The man smirked. “Hot date?”
Randa gazed at him impassively, her face as ungiving as a concrete wall.
“I need to know where you’re going,” the case manager said, annoyed.
“Better not be any drugs there.”
“Muslim party. No drugs, no alcohol, no men. Just women dancing and eating.”
“You only have one rec block left this month.” He nodded toward the door that led to his private office. “Come back here, we’ll have a little fun, I’ll give you five more blocks. You’ll have a good time.” He punctuated this assurance with a wink.
“Eat poison and die.”
The man flinched as if he’d been slapped, then snarled. “Take your block. But if you’re one minute late I will violate your skinny ass faster than you can say, ‘Allah help me.’”
Up in her tiny second floor room with the two-woman bunk bed, changing out of her waitressing uniform, she considered not going. She hadn’t been to a social event since her release. She knew they’d all be talking about her.
While locked up she’d earned a correspondence bachelor’s degree in business administration. She was still trying to figure out what to do with it. Education wise she’d already surpassed 90% of the Yemeni community. But that didn’t matter. To them she was a shame and a wreck, a disgrace to her family.
And she wasn’t sure it was safe. What if her brother Motaz showed up? Did he still have it in for her? She had not seen him since her arrest, when he came to see her in the county jail. They sat across from each other in small cubbies, separated by thick plexiglass into which someone had scratched the words, “LOVE YOU FOREVER.”
Leaning forward to talk through a perforated panel, she explained that she hadn’t known there were drugs in the backpack. Her boyfriend had told her it was a game console he’d sold, and asked her to deliver it on her way to school. She’d been in love with Lucas, and never imagined he would manipulate her that way.
Her brother’s cheeks were purple with rage. “I don’t care about the drugs,” he seethed. “That only proves how stupid you are. You had a boyfriend. An American.” He struck the plexiglass and Randa reeled, nearly falling over in her seat. “If we were back in Yemen,” her brother went on, “I would kill you myself. It would be best for the family if you hang yourself from your bunk.”
The Phone Call
The phone rang. It was her mom, reading her mind. Randa told her she was going to skip the party.
Her mom clucked her tongue. “Nawal is your friend. She’s getting married, she wants you to celebrate with her.”
“She didn’t invite me.”
“She invited me. That means you as well.”
“What if Motaz shows up?”
“Why would he? It is a ladies party. And if he did, so what?”
“You know what. He threatened to kill me.”
“Ah, Randa! Astaghfirullah. That was in the past. All is forgiven. Anyway he never meant it. It was only his anger talking.”
Randa was not sure. Islam taught compassion and mercy, but in her native Yemen, feuds could carry on for generations. People did not forget. She voiced another of her fears: “They’ll all be judging me. The ladies.”
“Eh?” Her mother sounded genuinely perplexed. “Why should they?”
“Because I just spent the last three years-”
“No,” her mother interrupted. “We don’t speak about that. It never happened.”
“I don’t know how to talk to those people.”
“Those people?” Her mother sounded outraged. “They are your people, Randa!”
Randa sighed and shook her head. She could fight off people trying to kill her, and had done so, but she was powerless against her mother. Why was that, still?
Her mom switched to Arabic. “Give your tribe your money and blood, but give outsiders the point of a sword.”
Her mom and her proverbs. And she never used them right. “That doesn’t even fit.”
“It means do not justify yourself. The past is the past.”
“I don’t think it means that.”
“And wear something colorful. No more black like you’re going to a funeral.”
All she had was black. What else? After three years of state-issued denim, she’d sworn she’d never wear any shade of blue again. What, then? Orange was jail jumpsuits. Red, pink, yellow, purple? What was she, a clown? Or white, like a nun, a nurse, or a virgin bride? She would laugh at that if she remembered how.
She donned a long black skirt over black stockings, walking shoes, a long-sleeved blouse and a black sweater, and set out on foot. Her first stop was the Islamic Society masjid on Jones at Market. In the elevator she took a light black abayah from her purse and draped it over herself, covering everything but her face and hands. The masjid was on the third floor, a wide open space in which Randa could forget her problems for a time. She had rediscovered her faith in prison, and sometimes it was the only thing that kept her going.
She knew that was a cliche, but it was true. When every door was made of solid steel, double locked and remote controlled – Allah’s door was open. When every road was not only blocked but taken away altogether, because you were sealed in a tiny room – the road to Allah was still there. When there were no windows, and the light bulbs were turned off so that you sat in utter darkness, Allah’s light was still there.
She smiled imperceptibly, remembering the first of Ruby’s rules. Ruby, her cellmate and mentor, had developed a set of rules to survive and thrive in prison. Rule number one: only God can get you out.
Well here, she was, out, and just in time for ‘ishaa. A handful of other women were in attendance and she prayed beside them. As the Imam recited Surat Ar-Rahman, Randa searched her own heart for some sign of spring. A bit of softness, a warm breeze stirring, a melting of the ice. She found little to give her hope. Too soon, she thought. Her great fear was that her past self, the Randa who cried at the recital of the Quran, hung out with friends and gossiped or laughed about boys, or just walked down the street with a bounce in her step, happy to be alive, was gone.
She took another Uber to Nawal’s house, out in the Richmond district, near the ocean. At the party she stood against the wall near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. She drank guava juice from a small glass and ate a mutabaq. At least the food was good. She hadn’t eaten anything so delicious in years.
Her mom had hugged her when she arrived, chastised her for her grim sartorial choices, then wandered off to sit and gossip with her friends.
There were at least forty women present. The younger ones danced to the sounds of A-Wa, with the occasional Ahmed Fathi song thrown in to appease the aunties. Others sat at a table around a henna artist, taking turns getting their hands and arms tattooed. A woman in an orange scarf sat on a sofa crying, while two other women flanked her, comforting her.
Nawal sauntered over and embraced her. She looked radiant in a sequined blue gown, her long black hair flowing freely, her arms hennaed up to the elbows with intricate designs. “Thanks again for the scarf. It’s lovely. You didn’t have to do that.”
“My pleasure.” Randa nodded to the crying woman. “What’s going on there?”
Nawal looked. “Oh. That’s my Tant Ruqayyah. Her husband’s been cheating on her. But she’s finally done with him. She sent him a message today, asking for a divorce. Hey.” Nawal grinned at Randa. “What’s up with the black outfit? You planning a burglary later?”
Randa bristled, pulling back. “What do you mean?”
Nawal faltered. “No. Nothing. Just a joke, Randa. What happened to you? You lost your sense of humor.” Nawal squeezed Randa’s shoulder and turned away to rejoin her friends.
Randa wanted to shrink into a corner of the room and draw the darkness around her like a cloak. Nawal’s comment stung like chili in a cut, all the more for its truth. She knew she wasn’t the fun person she’d once been. She wasn’t someone people wanted to be around. She wasn’t someone people loved.
A commotion from the direction of the entrance made her turn. The door was just around the corner and she couldn’t see what was happening. She heard a man shouting, and a woman protesting. For a second she had the irrational thought that it was her brother, come to murder her as he’d threatened to do three years ago. Then she smelled it. The stench of cigarette smoke and Drakkar. It was the man from the Uber. Suddenly she knew why the man had seemed familiar. She’d seen him with his wife at parties in the past. His name was Momo, she remembered now, and he was Ruqayyah’s husband. She remembered the text message Momo had received in the car, and his saying, “I’ll kill her.”
A woman shrieked from the doorway and the man pushed his way in. He passed by Randa, not noticing her. Her eyes shot to the man’s hands, just as Ruby had taught her. Rule thirty: watch people’s hands, not their faces.
Momo held a long butcher knife tucked low against the back of his leg. No one else in the room seemed to have noticed it. The other women were too busy scrambling to put their scarves on, now that there was a man in the room. Some were retreating quickly, heading for the bedrooms. Some of the younger ones were still dancing, oblivious. Meanwhile, Momo was making a beeline for Ruqayyah.
Ruqayyah had spotted the knife. Her eyes were locked on it as she backed up, her hands held to her mouth in horror, her face pale as the moon.
Randa moved. Dropping her plate and glass, she walked rapidly toward the food table, slipping off her sweater as she did so. Rule thirty two: anything can be a weapon. Without breaking stride she snatched up the pepper shaker and pocketed it, then grabbed two unopened soda cans. She wrapped the cans with her sweater and twisted it, gripping it by the sleeves.
Momo had almost reached Ruqayyah. He brought the knife up, aiming it at her heart. Ruqayyah stepped back and stumbled into a chair leg. It probably saved her life.
Randa was only a few feet behind Momo now. He still had not seen her. Rule thirty five: hit first and hit hard. She gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung, turning her hips, putting everything she had into it. All her frustration, fury and shame, her loneliness and self doubt. The soda cans in the sweater connected with the side of Momo’s head. There was a loud thudding sound, and Momo dropped as if a djinn had snatched his heart out of his chest. His hand opened and the knife clattered to the ground beside him. Some of the women screamed, and someone finally turned off the music.
Still clutching the sweater in one hand, Randa reached down and took Ruqayyah’s hand, helping the older woman to her feet, and helping her adjust her scarf, which had slid forward over her eyes. The auntie was stunned speechless.
Momo groaned. Randa turned to see him reach for the knife, find it, and begin to climb back to his feet. Damn. Hard-headed bastard. Reaching into her pocket, she calmly unscrewed the pepper shaker and flung the contents into Momo’s eyes. He hollered in pain and dropped the knife once more, and this time Randa kicked it away so that it skittered under the table. Once again she gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung. The cans smashed Momo square in the face. He fell backwards with a cry, blood spurting from his nose. He rolled about on the floor, clutching his face, all the fight gone out of him.
Someone seized Randa’s arm and she turned to see her mother. The woman was literally quaking with rage. “Get out of here,” she hissed. “You crazy person. Why did I think you changed? You are a majnoonah.”
Nawal was there too, her face set in stone. “You should leave,” she said. “I won’t tell the police what you did, but you should go.”
Randa didn’t argue. What did it matter? These women had their minds made up about her, as did her mother. Fine. She turned to leave. Again someone gripped her arm, but this time it was Tant Ruqayyah. The auntie pulled Randa into an embrace, then kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “You saved my life, habibti. May Allah give you life. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”
Nawal frowned. “What are you saying, Tant? Randa, what does she mean?”
Randa looked at her former friend. “He came here to kill her. He had a knife.” She gestured with her chin to the table. “It’s under there.”
“To kill her?” her mother said. “What nonsense is this?”
Randa smoothed Ruqayyah’s orange scarf. “Don’t worry, Tant. You’ll be fine.” She turned away, replacing the pepper shaker and dented soda cans on the table on her way out. One of the cans had punctured and was spraying soda in a fine stream. She put her sweater on and found it wet.
At the doorway, a woman was rising from where Momo had pushed her over on his way in. Thank God he hadn’t stabbed her.
Her mother called out to her, but she let herself out. The night breeze instantly penetrated her wet sweater and raised goosebumps on her skin. Her hands were shaking badly, so she thrust them into her pockets, violating one of Ruby’s rules. In fact her entire body shook. She told herself it was just the cold.
Nawal emerged from the house and called to her, then hurried to catch up. Her friend was flustered, her cheeks red. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking Randa’s hand. “I misunderstood. You… You are a hero.”
Randa looked away. In the distance she could see the Golden Gate Bridge glowing red in the night, and the dark hills of Marin County silhouetted against the sky. Bridges took you from one reality to another then back again, but what if you never wanted to go back? What if you wanted to put the past behind you forever? Was there such a thing as a one way bridge?
They said she was a villain, then a hero. Which label applied? Ex-con? Disgrace? Waitress? Yemeni, American, daughter, friend?
She returned her gaze to Nawal’s face. “No,” she said. “I’m not.”
She turned away. A light drizzle began to fall, chilling her, but somehow she’d stopped shivering. She was miles from the halfway house, but there was plenty of time left on her rec block. She would walk. The city stretched out before her like a jeweled wedding veil, the wet sidewalks shining beneath the street lamps. Appreciate the moment. Another of Ruby’s rules.
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See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.
Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters, Zaid Karim Private Investigator, and Uber Tales – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.