Published by In Her Place on December 1, 2011

¿Cómo Se Dice Gravy?

by Huda Al-Marashi

A flight attendant with a severe bun and red lipstick slid an omelet, the texture and color of a kitchen sponge, onto my open tray table. I picked at my food with a plastic fork. It was so hard to cry and chew at the same time.

I looked over at my husband Hadi. How could he slice into his bread as if he hadn’t uprooted my entire existence?

“Why don’t you try to eat something? Maybe you’ll feel better,” Hadi said, putting his roll down, his eyes concerned. I hated the softness in his voice, his sincere attempt at kindness.

I nodded, keeping my face fixed on the food in front of me. I sniffled through the first two bites, and then I took a deep breath and ate. The omelet was warm, and it felt good to fill the hollowness within me with food. Without intending to, I finished everything on my tray. Refreshed, I turned to the window and cried again.

It was my first wedding anniversary and instead of jetting off to Europe like my friend, Munna or loading up my car for a road trip to a rustic cabin like Sura, I was moving to Mexico so that Hadi could attend medical school. And on this day when I was supposed to be blissfully happy, I had waved good bye to my mother’s wet face, my sister wiping the tears off her cheeks, and my father standing awkwardly beside them, hands behind his back.

The tissue in my hands had turned to shreds so I reached for the coarse napkin on my breakfast tray and took a breath. Get a grip, a voice from within me said. Mama went through far more, flying all the way from Iraq to the US with a husband she barely knew. She was only eighteen, and she hadn’t finished high school or spent a night without her six siblings lined up on mattresses next to her. You are twenty-one years old. You have a college degree, and you were friends with your husband before you married him. In a few years, this will be over, and you’ll be sorry you didn’t have a nice anniversary. Pull yourself together. Make a good memory for today, and then you can be sad again tomorrow.

#

In the days before we left California, I’d entertained two competing and shamefully stereotypical images of what Mexico was going to be like. Either I was going to wear ponchos and live in a mud shack with a donkey tethered outside, or I was going to wear flowing linen gowns, pin flowers in my hair, and live in a palatial villa with a large balcony overlooking a flowered courtyard.

As we drove from the airport to our hotel, it seemed one aspect of my vision had been correct. Guadalajara was a landscape of contrasts. We drove past brick houses with glassless windows and flat tin roofs; our fair share of modern, tall buildings and an even greater number of charming, colonial ones; and finally once into the suburbs, we drove past tall concrete walls, some of them a block long, their edges trimmed in broken glass bottles. I could only imagine the mysterious mansions they housed. Their very walls seemed to imply that the homes behind them were too precious for the common passerby to view.

In the taxi, I no longer felt the urge to cry. My eyes were now busy searching out my surroundings for clues as to what my life was going to be like. Everything had to be taken in. The surly, overweight taxi driver who’d huffed and puffed while tying our luggage to the top of his rickety, dingy yellow Nissan Sentra station wagon. The vendors ladling colorful juices out of large tubs into clear plastic bags they tied closed with a rubber band around the neck of a straw. The intersections where children begged, men wiped down windshields, clowns juggled. The arch strangely reminiscent of France’s Arc de Triomphe, and the great big roundabouts that spoke a language of honks.

Before I was ready for our moving picture show to end, we arrived at our hotel. From our room, I called home to inform my parents of our arrival, cried again, and then opened up my suitcase to change for dinner. On top was the evening gown and silver, strappy high heel shoes I had packed in hopes of finding a fancy restaurant at which to celebrate our anniversary. I reached for the cotton summer dress and the pair of flat, black sandals underneath instead.

Outside the weather was still warm and inviting even though the sun had begun to set. We walked until we came to an indoor shopping mall, the center of which was filled with children bouncing long, silver missile-shaped balloons. The lack of rules inhibiting children’s play struck me as very Arab. It reminded me of services at the masjid where all the children wandered about oblivious to the speaker behind the microphone, snacking on chips, climbing over the bodies seated on the floor.
The only restaurant options were a Mexican diner and the Kentucky Fried Chicken we had passed on the way in. Hadi asked me if I wanted to leave and keep walking, but it was getting late, and I was afraid we’d get lost, or worse, find nothing and wind up coming back to the same spot. But when he asked me which of the two places I preferred, I panicked. I could not have my first wedding anniversary dinner at either of those places.

I tried to pass the choice back to Hadi. “I don’t know. Where do you want to go?”

“It doesn’t matter to me.”

“You always say it doesn’t matter. Today I need it to matter.”

“That’s not what I meant. It’s just that you care about where we spend special occasions more than I do.”

I started to say, “Let’s just go to the di…,” but then I paused, overcome by traveler’s anxiety and suggested KFC. It took a lot more language to sit in a restaurant than it took to order fast food.

#

We stood back before entering the line, staring at the lit-up menu. The options were limited enough to make the choices decipherable, but that still didn’t solve the problem of what we would order. Up until that moment, Hadi and I had eaten only halal meat. It was an easy thing to do in my California university town where halal grocery stores and restaurants were popping up all over. But there wasn’t going to be any halal food in Mexico. We hadn’t even discussed the issue. Were we going to be vegetarians, or were we going to start eating store-bought meat?

I said, “If we aren’t getting chicken, then that pretty much leaves biscuits and mashed potatoes. And the coleslaw, but you don’t like that.”

“But you can’t get the gravy on the potatoes.”

“Mmm. Mmm. What a dinner,” I said.

“I’m fine with that. Go ahead and order.”

“Me? Why me?”

“You’re the one who speaks Spanish.”

“I do not. I took Spanish in high school. Everybody knows that you don’t actually speak the language you studied in high school.”

“Yes, but you know more than I do.”

“Is that how it’s gonna be here too? Me taking care of everything. Fine. I’ll order.”

I stepped into the maze-like line, fuming. Hadi dragged me all the way down here, and he still couldn’t play the hero. As the line thinned, I rehearsed, puré de papas, bisquets, but how do you say gravy, and how do you say I’d like? Do I just say, quiero, I want…or should I say, puedo tener, can I have…?

Standing in front of the cashier, my heart beat wildly. A language barrier was all it took to make a teenager in a little paper hat intimidating. I’d never actually produced Spanish words for another person’s ears, and this boy was going to think I was so stupid.

“Buenostardes.Enquelepuedoservir?”

I already didn’t understand, but that was okay. All I had to do is tell him what I wanted.

“Quiero,” I said, “puree de papas sin gravy?” I prayed that he knew the word gravy, but his expression was blank.

At once, I grew uncomfortably warm. I took a deep breath, and then tried another approach, “No quiero la salsa.”

“But we don’t put salsa on the potatoes.”

“I know. I don’t want the thing you put on the potatoes.”

“Ahh,” he said as if he now understood. The flames of discomfort that had lit up around my ears cooled down.

I carried our order back to the table where Hadi was sitting and peeled back the lid on the mashed potatoes. There was gravy all over it. I sank into our bench.

“You didn’t tell them we don’t want gravy,” Hadi said, surprised.

“I thought I did.”

“Take it back,” he suggested as if it was the simplest, most obvious solution.

“I can’t.”

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“I just can’t,” I said, feeling tears sting my eyes for the hundredth time that the day. How was I going to manage my life here? We couldn’t even order dinner, and we still had to find a place to live, get around in taxis, buy housewares, maybe furniture. I felt as if someone had switched on the lights in a dark room, and suddenly I could see everything. I could see what it meant for my parents and Hadi’s parents to have moved to the United States, all of our family-friends. Had they really gone through moments like this and survived?

I pushed a plastic spork through its wrapper. “Just scoop it off and eat around it. Please. If you really love me, you’ll just eat it.”

#

On the way back to the hotel, I heard these words in my head: You gave up school to struggle ordering mashed potatoes without gravy.

I’d brought all of my letters of acceptance to graduate school with me because I still had to write to each university begging them to defer my enrollment until God-only-knows when, and also because I loved them, each one a tiny diploma, a small salute to years of hard work.

I was holding Hadi’s hand because it was dark now, and the sidewalks were uneven. Hadi said, “Watch out for that crack.”

I looked down, and in that moment a fat rat scurried in front of us, its long tail sweeping the dusty sidewalk. I screamed and jumped up and down in place as if trying to shake off the rodent’s memory. Then it started to rain. This was not a gentle rain that arrived with a soft, warning drizzle. This felt as if the sky had cracked open and decided to pour its entire contents upon us. Hadi took my hand again, and we started to run, but my feet kept slipping out of my sandals.

Hadi looked back and said, “You had to wear those shoes. You still haven’t learned about the elements.”

There was a levity to his tone and a smile on his lips, and I knew exactly to what he was referring. I had worn these same sandals on our honeymoon. Every time a pebble rolled into them or my toes got covered in dust, he’d say, “That’s why I always wear closed shoes. To protect my feet from the elements.”

He thought he was being cute bringing this up now, that this moment would remind me of happier times and lighten my mood. I didn’t appreciate it. My mood was so heavy it would have taken wheels to make it budge.

By the time we got back to our hotel, we were soaked, but still we stopped to look out the window. Jagged bolts of lightning cut through the night. Thunder roared. And through the window opposite us, rain pummeled its way through the clear glass roof above the courtyard, the fronds on the potted plants flattening from the pressure and the tile floor disappearing under water.

“Oh my God. It’s a hurricane,” I said. This was it. The roof of the hotel was going to blow off, and we were going to die tonight.
Hadi said, “It’s just a summer thunderstorm. I’m sure everything will settle down in a bit.”

But the only thing that settled down that night was the storm. As soon as all our first anniversaries deeds were done, gifts, kisses, and bodies exchanged, I started crying again, straight onto Hadi’s bare arm. He tried to comfort me, promising me that things would get better as soon as we found a place and got settled, but I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I was crying over what I’d lost.

I cried for this anniversary that had ended without redemption, the letters I had to write, the mother I missed. I cried for my old life. I was only twenty-one. I should have been meeting someone to marry right now, if not a few years from now. What I wouldn’t have given to go back to that hopeful unknown, to savor the sweet mystery of who I was going to marry, to wonder what my future was going to be like. Already so much had been decided for me. Already I had so little to look forward to.

I wasn’t supposed to have followed a husband anywhere. I belonged to a new generation of Muslim women, and we were going to have educations, careers, and love marriages. This was down-right embarrassing; my professors and classmates expected me to achieve things with my degree. Giving up my education to follow my husband to another country was my mother’s generation, not mine.

#

Nothing about the Gomez family seemed to bother me. Not the fact that they were taking their old 1960s stove and refrigerator with them, not the fact that the bathrooms had not changed since that era, or that the place smelled musty and that it wasn’t walking distance to the university. Because I was tired, and I wanted a place to live. And because I liked the Gomez family’s sweet daughters. They reminded me of my favorite girl cousins, and I hoped that if we rented their apartment, they would be our friends, a second family in Guadalajara, taking care of us, and inviting us to dinner. That’s why when Hadi looked at me with eyes that said, Tell them no, I took a seat on their wooden bench of a couch, nodded my head to everything the wife said, including her offer of a drink, and acted as if I planned to move in the very next day. Because I did. I really did.

The last two weeks had been one long chain of KFC moments. Every time we tried to get into a taxi, order at a restaurant, or go see an apartment, there was always one critical word I did not know and could not find thumbing through my dictionary. High school Spanish had not prepared me to say things like, Where is the water tank? Is it a gas or electric water heater? Are we responsible for filling up the gas tank? Does the apartment have a working telephone line?

When we finally left the Gomez’s place, Hadi looked at me as if my sanity was in question. “What got into you?” he said. “We turned down newer places because we’d have to buy a fridge and now you want us to buy a fridge and a stove.”

He was right, but I feigned insult. Walking back to our hotel, I argued, “I don’t have a problem with it. If you don’t want to live there, you tell the husband.”
Hadi played the language card, but I would not be swayed. “His wife said he speaks English.”

Later that night when Mr. Gomez called our hotel room to confirm our interest, I dashed to the bathroom and jumped in the shower. I didn’t want Hadi to pass me the phone in frustration nor did I want to witness how the conversation went.

Under the water, I tried to wash away disappointing such nice people, the guilt of forcing Hadi to deal with a situation I’d put us in, the frustrations of being a woman in a man’s world. Mexico still operated along gender-lines, and I hated being the one to do all the talking when both males and females still looked to Hadi to have the final word. I imagined the locals pitied me for not having a stronger husband, or then again maybe they pitied Hadi for having such a domineering wife.

I toweled off, feeling more overwhelmed than I had before. These were not the kinds of thoughts that could be washed away by a spray of hot water. These thoughts clung to you as soon as you brought them into consciousness; they nagged and nagged until they drowned you with despair.

I waited until I heard the sound of the phone hanging up before I stepped out of the bathroom.

“He didn’t speak English,” Hadi said from the side of the bed.

“Did he get what you were trying to say?”

“He got it, but it wasn’t easy.”

I felt a pang of remorse that I pushed away with, “Now you know how I feel.”

Hadi didn’t respond, and his silence rendered the smugness of my remark into something uncalled for, something regrettable. I walked the aisle between our room’s double beds and sat next to him. Our thighs touched and our fingers linked and for the first time since we’d arrived, I found that I was quiet too.

3 comments

So many strong, memorable lines. A great addition to this very fine e-anthology.

by Valerie Vogrin on December 8, 2011 at 8:21 pm. Link

You do a wonderful job of conveying your protagonist’s melancholic emotions at betraying herself and her own aspirations, and vividly bring alive her sense of isolation amidst this alien landscape

by Farah on December 19, 2011 at 6:27 pm. Link