The division of labor in our household is wildly disproportionate whenever we are trying to get out the door. I get everything and everyone ready. If we’re traveling, I pack. Picnics, I pack. Dinner invitations, I pick out everyone’s clothes and prepare a dish to share. Birthday parties, I buy the gift and wrap it. And, maybe I’ll throw in a load of laundry, take out the trash, and clean the kitchen. My husband, Hadi, has his list, too: He gets himself ready and loads up the car if I haven’t gotten to it first.
We’ve been married for seventeen years, but these moments can still fill my mind with the words always and never. Hadi is always late. He never helps us get ready. I always have to do everything all by myself. I never get to take my time getting ready so I always look like a harried mess.
Most of the time, Hadi knows what I am thinking. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” he’ll say as we’re getting into the car. Sometimes I say, “Yes,” and spew every frustration that comes with doing too much for too many people. Sometimes, I fume wordlessly, a quiet grump in the front seat. But on better days, I remember this truth: The very thing I hate about my spouse in one context is the same thing I love in another.
I became Muslim in my early 20s. During those early years, I would entertain myself on nights when I couldn’t fall asleep by conjuring a story where a mythical creature occupied the rural family cemetery beside my childhood home. This idea actually started with something I dreamt involving an early explorer to America who had lost his way. Somehow, in his travels through out the New World, he slipped through a portal that would later become a traditional grave house over the oldest marked plot.
This creature was a Muslim from some undisclosed foreign land, and he’d fallen through the cracks of time and space while exploring the uncharted territory of early America (where all things were possible, including bending the nature of reality). Occasionally, he would pop into my contemporary world from another dimension.
I’d often find him perched on a high limb of a fragrant and large magnolia tree in the middle of the cemetery. In my story, there were rumors of his existence –like a Bigfoot sometimes spotted by hunters — but he remained an unconfirmed myth. I existed as the only person he trusted.
This imagined character was my attempt to create a narrative that linked my identity as a Muslim to the very different experience of growing up as a Southern Baptist. And as silly as the story felt, it provided one example of how imagination – creative third space — offers the ability to rescript our place in the world.
Alas, my conjuring wasn’t so fantastical. Five hundred years ago, a Muslim’s feet may have touched my ancestral land. His name was Mustafa, and Laila Lalami writes his story in the new novel, The Moor’s Account.
Order Irene’s new collection, the galaxy of origins. Scroll down for audio.
what’s your name the heavy chimes clot the hours in the air and my blood asks, do bones carry future memories in their marrows? waiting for a face that is a mirror, I turn the page of a tome that lists only my name my name my name. tonight each cicada sings its name, the only one it knows, and when I stepped out the door this morning and a chipmunk slammed into my shoe, it couldn’t remember its name for a moment. our eyes met – I blurted sorry, sweetie! its name I did not know an emptiness arching around my tongue as if to know and say it could undo our small collision.
Irène Mathieu is a writer and medical student at Vanderbilt University. Before medical school she studied International Relations at the College of William and Mary and completed a Fulbright Fellowship in the Dominican Republic. Irène’s poetry, prose, and photography have been published or are forthcoming in The Caribbean Writer, the Lindenwood Review, Muzzle Magazine, qarrtsiluni, Extract(s), So to Speak, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Journal of General Internal Medicine, Love Insha’Allah, Los Angeles Review, Callaloo Journal, HEArt Journal, and elsewhere. She has been a Pushcart Prize nominee and a Callaloo fellow. Her poetry chapbook the galaxy of origins was published in 2014 by Dancing Girl Press. You can read her blog and follow her on Twitter.
You were different.
I don’t know if I ever told you that, but there it is. For you, I broke every self-imposed rule I’d ever created. They say the best kind of love is the one you never see coming, the kind that sneaks up on you so slowly that by the time you feel its presence, it has already burrowed deep inside the caverns of your heart that you didn’t even know existed.
You were a surprise, a calamity that happened both slowly and all at once. You were different because you had enough flaws to create a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle in your image, and if I prodded, you would fall apart. Pieces of you would be lost, forever, under coffee tables and between sofa cushions. But I could pick out each one instinctively, as bright to me as each star we counted at night. Yet like the stars themselves, I saw in them beauty and life, and the remnants from which they were built a thousand lifetimes ago. They were scars of your internal universe, expanding and contracting, and I could trace each one softly, so as not to cause you pain.
Sanem and I took turns crossing the street to each other’s townhomes for afternoon tea, at least once a week, for seven years. In our nearly identical kitchens, we put out similar spreads, a smaller tea pot steamed above a larger tea pot, honey-colored tea served in little glass cups, warm bread, an assortment of cheeses and jams, and cookies for our kids. Sanem was from Turkey, my family was from Iraq, and our tea rituals mirrored one another. While our children played in the upstairs bedrooms, Sanem and I talked about our faith, our families and their impending visits. We discussed decisions we were trying to make, from furniture pieces and home improvements to clothing purchases and afterschool activities for our kids. We got through illnesses, births, and deaths in both our families. Some evenings we simply helped each other cook dinner, but our visits together always left us feel better about our days. On those afternoons, when our husbands came home from work, we weren’t bottles of pent-up emotion, ready to pop. We’d already poured some of our thoughts and frustrations onto each other.
Last year my family and I moved out of state for my husband’s work. Sanem helped me decide what furniture, clothes, and kitchenware to give away, what to bring. She brought us dinner after a long day of packing and breakfast the following morning. She was there when our moving van left, but she couldn’t bear to watch my minivan pull away.
In our new life in a new place, the afternoons stretched in front of me, a wasteland of lonely. I’d pick up my children from school, make them a snack, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was waiting someone to arrive, waiting for the company of a friend. The waiting made me itchy with restlessness, but there was no time to share these feelings with my husband when he came home from work. These were our family’s busiest hours, dinner, homework help, and bedtime. At the end of the night, my husband did his best to sympathize, but he could not offer me the same comforts, time spent over a warm cup of tea, the validation that comes with hearing another person say, ‘It’s the same for me, too.’
“What are you watching?
This question from my father, as innocent as it seems, makes me lovingly cringe.
“It’s a show Dad.”
“Is it a movie?” he’ll say, sitting next to me on the sofa and squinting at the TV. More internal cringing.
“No Dad, it’s a show.”
“What’s it called?”
Here’s where things get tricky, because A) some of the more nerdy shows I watch have weird names and B) my dad, as a rule, will always mishear the title. I can mumble or enunciate, it doesn’t matter. I call this Dad’s Third Law of Hilarious Misinterpretation.
“Doctor What?” he’ll ask quizzically.
“Firebug? Fire kya?”
There is a lot of affectionate eye-rolling and gritted teeth and repeating myself until he gets it right. Once the title is established, he’ll try watching for a few minutes. He asks questions, tries to follow along. But inevitably, after a max of 8 minutes (sometimes 10 if there are commercials), he’ll shake his head and say “this is weird. You watch weird shows,” before retreating behind his newspaper. I call this Dad’s Second Law of Attention Span.
God bless him, he does try.
Two and a half years ago, I left my financially comfortable global marriage for an expired passport and economic uncertainty. It was the saddest and bravest decision I’ve ever made. The US economy teetered in the worst recession since the Great Depression. There was no alimony, and I had not worked in twelve years.
The fear of “what ifs” loomed in monstrous proportions. I had no soft spots to land and no deep-pocketed family members to help me start over. Leaving meant leaping into a terrifying yet potentially poetic abyss.
Marriage had furled me tight. I couldn’t celebrate my complexities, and I longed for a different rapport with my spirituality. I felt like a fat and undesirable failure, and how I experienced my identity within the relationship wasn’t what I wanted to be out in the world.
When you find that you can’t locate yourself in a significant part of your known world, you have a spiritual obligation to make a new map. I jumped wide and fierce into the unseen with no compass.
I started an anonymous, now defunct blog. I had one published book and an anthology essay out in the world, but this secret writing felt unusually invigorating. My hands shook with unspoken truths so badly that I had find release. The words dribbled from my fingers as their own life forms. The writing was raunchy, irreverent, and always deeply personal.
I wrote about everything and everyone, although identities were kept secret. I admitted how I felt undesirable and then documented with questionable discretion the men who proved otherwise. But in those debilitating moments of post-divorce trauma, when nothing seemed to exist except fear and self-loathing, writing offered sanity and empowerment.
Sometimes, the best survival kit is one that includes only hope, prayer, and writing.