(This short story is a continuation from my short story “Los charales” published in Diálogo: an Interdisciplinary Studies Journal. 22.2 (2019): pp. 125-29.)
I woke up with the memory of Zara again. Her ghost still roams through the apartment like flashes of pleasure in brevity, since she left to Amman five months ago. It is always the same recurring memory: her passing by the door ajar of our bedroom, followed by the noise in the kitchen. The strong smell of dark coffee, the pings from the pan while she made eggs, and the clings from the cutlery making contact with the dishes. I would come into the kitchen and was soon greeted with “I didn’t want to disturb your beauty sleep.” On the kitchen table she would often have scrambled eggs, hummus, cut up tomatoes with mint leaves, pita bread, and some frijoles and salsa brava from the day before. She would sit and drink her coffee while she read some article for her dissertation. I would pull it down and ask her to be present, which she would always agree with a smile. Now, only the frijoles and the salsa are orphaned from her accompaniment.
It’s been three months since I’ve had any communication with her. She hasn’t responded to my incessant emails, messages through WhatsApp, and she has since deleted her social media accounts. Unfortunately, I don’t know any of her family members to see if she is even alive at this stage of the virus. Meanwhile, the pandemic hit us hard in New Haven, CT, and Zara left soon after the first few cases to renew her visa. We did have communication soon after she left, and she promised she would be back as soon as she could. But we often had to talk in secret, or I found myself rotating my identity to another friend, because her family would often ask with whom she was talking to. She told me several times she had to erase her text messages for fear of her mother’s sneaky check-ins. Her family did not know she was queer, and much less that we were in a relationship for the past year and a half. To her family, whom I had never met, I was simply her roommate from Mexico and a fellow graduate student in the program. But, “a mother always knows,” as my own mother told me when I came out to her three years ago.
I contacted Richard several times, her academic advisor, but he also was hoping I would give him news of Zara. She had defended her proposal and was ABD (“All But Dissertation”) by the end of the Fall semester. We celebrated by taking a road trip to a cabin in Weston, ME, close to the Canadian border, with hopes of seeing the northern lights in the winter. Life continues unreproached by her absence, except for my constant obsession. Moon phase after moon phase, new and full, careen through time only revealing cycles of redundancy in her absence. I wonder if Zara looks up at the same moon and stars, wishing for her return to me. Late lunches now are spent staring out the window, paying attention to the same birds that routinely stop and sit on the window sill. I go hungry these days, more so for the tactile delicacies of her fine fingers, the pita bread with labneh and za’atar. The pita bread is now in the freezer, next to the frozen tortillas my aunt in Chicago would ship from time to time. I threw away the large tub of labneh that was rotting after a month of Zara’s absence. I still taste the Maqluba she made for my birthday, and the Knafeh for dessert that reminded me of the cheesy part of the Capirotada my mom would make.
Yesterday, between the mint tea and nightly rituals, I got a phone call from Noor, Zara’s cousin in Madrid. I had never met Noor, so we started our conversation with an awkward exchange. When she first started mentioning that she was calling on behalf of Zara, I cut her off with elation knowing she was alive, then mixed with “why hasn’t she contacted me?” Noor explained first that Zara was safe and in good health in Amman, although they lost an uncle to the virus. However, her mother found out about our relationship, who called it illegitimate and refused to allow her to contact me. Zara often told me about her mother, who was more prone to imposing traditional gender roles than her father. Her father, like mine, would entertain and encourage her to be independently herself at all times. Zara’s relationship with her mother would always entail friction, but deep down, I knew she wanted her mother’s approval at all times. Noor told me that Zara had asked her to get in contact with me to alleviate my worries, because she “knows me so well,” but that she won’t be coming back any time soon and that I should just “move on.”
Noor added, “she did want me to tell you that you will forever be her alqamar, and she will search for you if the universe allows, ‘in sha’ allh.” The familiarity of ‘in sha’ allh, which transferred into the Spanish language as ojalá (hopefully or god willing), did not bring any comfort. I didn’t want to leave it up to the universe, I wanted answers after months of absence. “Her moon? So, I won’t see or talk to her ever again? Is she quitting her PhD?” – I asked. Noor added that she was calling with a calling card so her minutes were about to expire, and said “sorry I couldn’t offer more help” before the call cut off. And just like that, my tethered link to Zara had been severed.
I cried over my bed as flashes of her kept appearing like cinematic flashbacks: her smile slightly appearing on the first hour of the morning as half the pillow swallowed her face; her hands and black hair flinging during arguments; her toes wiggling next to mine while we watched TV on the couch; and my head on her lap and her hands running through my hair.
I fell asleep in my own tears. The next day I had to call my mother. I wanted solace and I knew she was the only one that could understand when she herself lost her husband, my father, after the car accident. My mother cried with me and felt my pain, after all, we were always connected beyond the cut of the umbilical cord. “Remember what I told you, we are only memories in this life. It is important to choose what memories you keep of her” – she said.
I don’t know which frames of the reel I should focus on, they now all feel like scenes from a dream. But I still hear the transmutations of language, all the Arabic words I learned from Zara as an expression of her love. I made some mint tea, grabbed the cup with my two hands and whispered into its open ear: habibti, bahlam feeki, wahashtini – my love, you’re in my dreams, I miss you.