Imm Yusef insisted that I have my dress made by one of her old friends, whose family was responsible for introducing Imm Yusef’s family to Abu Yusef’s when they finally found a permanent settlement in a village right outside Nablus. Imm Yusef gave me a more detailed history of her meeting her future husband and of this seamstress, but she kept referring to people and situations I had never heard of, so it didn’t make much sense. I just knew I needed to go to this woman to make the dress.
I had no problem with the decision before she gave me an extensive history of the dressmaker. As for the dress, I didn’t have my heart set on anything or any ideas about what I might want other than something that made me look slim and attractive.
But I knew I didn’t want Amtu there, though this was the only aspect of my wedding she seemed to care about.
On the way there, I could only think about the old days when I used to have to go clothes shopping with Amtu. Once I got a job of my own at the end of high school, I started buying my clothes myself; all she’d ever buy for me were bargain-store clothes, and she always claimed that they never fit right because I was too fat or too tall for women’s clothes, even at ten or eleven years old.
I braced myself for the experience during the fitting, comforting myself with the fact that this would be the last time I would ever do this. Just as I expected, once the old woman took my waist measurement of thirty-one inches, Amtu suggested in her sweetest tone—one I only ever heard in front of people outside of the family—that I should lose some inches before my wedding.
Imm Yusef was sitting next to Amtu, saying something to the seamstress in Arabic. She interrupted herself to say, “That is not so very big.” I appreciated her defending me, but I wasn’t sure if it was because Imm Yusef liked me or because she hated Amtu a lot more than me. The seamstress also chimed in, claiming a real man wanted a woman with a bit of meat on her bones so she could handle his “manliness.” Imm Yusef and Amtu stood with their arms crossed, each refusing to look at the other in a sort of reverse staring contest, but the seamstress threw her head back and showed her dentures as she laughed at her own comment.
On the way out, Imm Yusef invited Amtu and me to Yusef’s apartment to give me a chance to see it before the wedding. “It is so very small, but he will move out soon for when there are children,” she said. “You can invite your husband, yes? Abu Yusef maybe come a little late. He watch the store until after dinnertime.”
Amtu smiled and agreed to come, but she doubted Amu could be there on a Saturday evening. We gave hugs and kisses as we left, but before Amtu and I got to the car, she leaned in close to my ear, nearly spitting on me. “I will not go there,” she said. “Imagine what such a place looks like.”
“I’ll go by myself.” I didn’t like the idea of being alone with Yusef and his mother, but it was a lot better that I only had to worry about my behavior instead of mine and Amtu’s.
Because only Hanan and I were going to Yusef’s apartment, he came to the house to pick us up to make sure we wouldn’t get lost on the way, though it was just a few blocks from the university I had been going to for four years.
“Why would Mama be mad that I’m going with you?” Hanan asked while I was putting on makeup in the bathroom.
“You know how your mother is.” I pressed my lips together and looked at the brown-pink on my lips, deciding if it was right, if it made me look put together but still conservative enough for Imm Yusef’s taste. She’d probably prefer some red or even purplish lipstick, from what I saw of her taste in makeup at the engagement ceremony.
The doorbell rang while I was brushing my hair. Hanan went to get the door, and I closed the one to the bathroom, considered locking it. I didn’t know why I felt the butterflies in my belly all of a sudden, but I continued brushing my hair. I heard his voice, then Hanan’s, though I couldn’t tell what they were saying. I sat down and tied my hair in a messy bun. It’s not like today is the wedding. We’re just going to his apartment for dinner.
I composed myself and met them both by the door. Hanan said she had to go to the garage to set the security alarm before we left, leaving Yusef and me alone. “So there’s no one else in the house? What about your other cousin?”
I shook my head. “He’s never here.”
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a dark velvet jewelry box. With all the money he and his parents were spending on our wedding, I wondered how he could afford to buy jewelry. I smiled and opened the box to find a gold necklace with a heart-shaped locket. “Thank you so much.” I hugged him and kissed his cheek.
He held me close and kissed my hair, let his nose linger for a few seconds, tickling my scalp. He pulled away to put the necklace on. “Mama told me that’d be a good choice. You could put one of our wedding pictures in there.”
“Your mother picked it out?”
He rested his hands on my shoulders. “Yeah, I needed a woman’s opinion.” Yusef had three sisters, yet he always went to his mother to get a “woman’s opinion.” I didn’t mean to, but I asked him why he never wanted his sisters’ opinions.
“I used to, but they’re all so busy now that they’re married—taking care of their kids and all.” His face fell into something that was not quite a frown but not the bright smile he had on before. “You like it?”
“Yes, I just wondered.”
He gave me a soft kiss on the lips. “I know Mama’s intense about the wedding and everything, but she’ll calm down. She’s usually not like this.” He parted his lips and leaned in for another kiss.
I heard Hanan’s footsteps approaching in no time, but I couldn’t pull myself away until she opened the door from the garage to the kitchen, making enough noise for Yusef to hear because the door always stuck. When she came into the living room, I noticed that all my gloss was on his lips with a smear on his two front teeth. I wiped it off with my palm, and Hanan averted her eyes like I was undressing him. “I need to get my purse,” I said.
He nodded vigorously. “Uh, yeah, that’s fine. Take your time, Isra. Mama’s still cooking.”
Hanan opened and then closed her mouth without saying anything. She went into the kitchen for no reason.
I got my things quickly, and we were on our way out. The silence was too much for me to handle, so I thanked Yusef for coming out of his way to pick us up. “No problem. It’s a relief. Mama gets pretty crazy when we’re expecting company. She’s gotta clean every crevice in the house, make sure everything looks new and the food’s perfect.”
“My mama’s like that, too,” Hanan said. Except Amtu Samia hardly did any of the work herself. She only criticized.
Yusef opened the backseat door for her. “Yeah, it’s an Arab woman thing.”
“Of course. Everyone will judge you if it’s not perfect.” I folded my arms and felt my stomach turn.
“Women are always hard on each other.” He placed a hand on my lower back and opened the car door.
Yusef’s apartment smelled like meat stew and cumin. The apartment’s appearance was no surprise to me: bright white walls, brown carpet, tiny kitchen, and a narrow hallway. Inexpensive one-bedroom apartments had not changed much in the last fifteen years. I had lived in two with Mom that could be mistaken for this one, but ours rarely had such a strong food smell. When Mom was healthy, she worked all day as a clerical assistant, sometimes Saturdays, so she never made anything too complicated. Most of it came out of a box, spaghetti with premade sauce, macaroni and cheese, tuna sandwiches. Yusef’s bedroom reminded me of the rooms I slept in with Mom; we shared a bed until Mom got too sick and we moved into Baba’s apartment with its dingy walls and more cockroaches than I’d ever seen in my life.
I sat down on Yusef’s lumpy full-size bed and tried to keep the tears from coming to my eyes, knowing that he would interpret them as those of a spoiled rich girl, one who could not stand the thought of the demotion in status by having to live in such a small, plain place. That was how little he knew about me, and our wedding was only a month away. “I’m so tired,” I offered as an explanation, which was not a complete lie. Memories were always draining.
He put his hand on my shoulder. “Why?”
I stared ahead at the wall. Imm Yusef came to the door. “What are you childrens doing in here?” She was already mad that the only chaperone we had for our car ride over here was a teenage girl; she had expected Amtu to come at least.
“Nothing. Just looking, Mama.”
She told us the food was almost done, and Hanan was out there waiting. I wanted to lie down on the bed and sleep, but I got up and left the bedroom under Imm Yusef’s suspicious eyes.
Abu Yusef arrived for dinner, and Imm Yusef kept on insisting that everyone eat more all the way through dessert. Abu Yusef didn’t have dessert; he couldn’t wait to sit on the couch and smoke. He must have smoked at least four cigarettes while we ate, and Imm Yusef kept on complaining to him in Arabic. She even got up once and put one of his cigarettes out, and their argument intensified for a few minutes. He lit another as soon as she walked away. “Welcome to my childhood,” Yusef whispered to me and put his hand on mine.
“He smokes right in the house?” That was the only thing that surprised me. I’d been spending hours every week at his parents’ house. I had seen plenty of these disagreements before.
“Take more dessert, ya Hanan,” Imm Yusef said, already spooning another square of it on her plate. “Abu Yusef has no manners, smoking right in the house with guests! ;’Ayb, ’ayb.” She clicked her tongue and went about making more tea.
I was sleepy by the time we got home, so I changed into my pajamas and took off my makeup, and lying down made every muscle in my body gradually relax itself. These days were so exhausting for me; I had finals and papers coming up, work, visiting Imm Yusef so I could watch her plan the wedding, and family visits with Yusef. On top of that, Yusef asked me as soon as Hanan got out of the car if we could meet alone. “Without my crazy parents,” he said, grinning. And my insane relatives, too, he probably wanted to add. I felt the temptation to say yes, but I only gave him a maybe. At this point, it seemed like another obligation that I had to fulfill.
And anyway, I had no time to squeeze in meeting him without looking suspicious to Amtu. Normally she didn’t care about what I did as long as I cooked and cleaned, now that Hanan didn’t need to be watched all the time, but ever since my engagement, she kept her eye on me to make sure I didn’t mess anything up. She kept track of my work schedule to make sure I wasn’t staying out later than I should be, and when I went to see Imm Yusef, she always called their house to make sure that was where I was going and that I came back in a reasonable amount of time.
I had tomorrow to think of these things, though.
I was just about to doze when Hanan quietly called my name.
“Are you really going to, like, go through with it and everything?”
“Umm . . . of course. I mean, it’s only a month away. It seems a little late to break it off.” I sighed. “Why?”
“Oh, you know, are you really going to live in that apartment? His dad smokes in there, and it’s so small.”
I turned over on my other side so I could see her. She had her knees to her chest. “Well, it is only a one-bedroom. Those are usually small.”
“I was just wondering.”
I turned back over on my other side, keeping my back to Hanan. I suppose I had some time every other morning to see Yusef. Nothing could get Amtu out of bed early unless it had something to do with Amu.
This is an excerpt from the novel Amreekiya, available for purchase here.