Susan Chase-Foster, 1756 Words
In the bathroom, Bilan pulled a lilac tunic over her head and eased it down around the tender lump she’d been carrying in her left breast for as long as she could remember. She stretched the dress past her slim hips and the knees of her jeans. Will I ever get used to wearing clingy, American clothing? Or, she wondered, not wearing a qamar, as her mother called the head covering she wore even after she died. Bilan studied herself in the mirror. She twisted and pinned her dark hair into a coil. She wrapped a periwinkle blue scarf around her head, and tied it into a bow at the back of her neck. During her second week at the diner, Bilan had tried going bareheaded one day, pretending she’d forgotten to put on a scarf that morning. Maybe, like her ESL teacher had written on the board, “Practice makes perfect.” But Bilan felt so exposed, so unprotected without a scarf that she developed a migraine and had to leave work early. How could she survive without a silk security blanket hiding her head from the rest of the world? On the other hand, perhaps like her mother—May she rest in peace—Bilan simply loved the feel and look of a traditionally framed face. Nothing wrong with that. She blew herself a kiss and hurried into the kitchen.
Astur and Aamiina, her twin seventh grade girls, whose names meant “conceal” and “feel safe,” in Bilan’s first language, and who had once whispered to Bilan that they would never cover their heads like they’d heard Grandma had, sat at the table, each with a plateful of malawa, pancakes drizzled with honey. They sipped small cups of tea spiced with cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon, made by Bilan each morning just as her mother had done for her.
“Why are you whispering?” Bilan had asked her children.
“So Ayeeyo won’t hear,” they whispered.
“But she’s in heaven, my darlings.”
Bilan heard the hiss of the school bus brakes.
“Girls, the bus comes! Get going!” Bilan kissed her daughters on the head. She ran to open the front door and wave to the bus driver to let him know the girls were coming. “Your lunch is in the bags? You did brush your teeth?”
“In the backpacks, Mama! We already brushed our teeth!” Astur shouted.
“Before you eat breakfast? Not so good.”
“Mama, we love you. Bye.” And they were gone.
Bilan filled her large mug with spicy tea and sat down at the table with the iPad that Tawfiiq, her brother, had given her. She did thirty minutes of Duolingo before walking to work each morning. After the girls were asleep each night she did thirty minutes or more if she had time and wasn’t too tired. Hers was the free program of translations between Arabic, her second language, and English, her third. At the end of each lesson there was a bit of advertising, but not as much as on television, so Bilan didn’t mind. It was free, and free was good. Plus, along with talking to customers at the diner she was learning slowly, yes, so slowly, but until Tawfiiq finished his residency in Seattle she would need to conserve every penny. Thank goodness she had a job that included tips.
Bilan tried not to be ashamed of her poor English, but she was. Her family, well, what was left of it had lived in the United States for many years now. After Bilan’s two older brothers were killed in the war in Somalia, her father Hassan, her mother Yasmiin, and baby boy Tawfiiq had to live in a series of refugee camps. In the last one Hassan died, but Yasmiin, pregnant with Bilan, and little Tawfiiq survived. Eventually, they were moved to a huge community in Minnesota, Bilan’s birthplace, then to a smaller community in Ohio, and finally to West Seattle. It was there that a series of important events took place. Tawfiiq, a brilliant student, made the decision to become a surgeon so that his family would never have to be displaced again, and Cumar, another Somali refugee, fell in love with beautiful Bilan, and without the benefit of consent impregnated her under the canopy at Fauntleroy Park.
Tawfiiq, who by then was moving along nicely and supporting himself, his sister and his twin nieces with scholarships and grants at the University of Washington Medical School, threatened to kill Cumar, as soon as he completed a surgical residency. But Bilan felt too ravished to press charges within the refugee community, and besides, she adored her babies even before they were born and especially after. Back then, she just wanted to forget their violent conception. And anyway, she told Tawfiiq, as an imprisoned or maybe even executed murderer he’d never be able to practice his skills or save the family from being displaced again. So, the idea was scrapped. As it turned out, Cumar, a non-swimmer, drowned in Puget Sound, just off Alki Beach, when his rented jet ski flipped over and over and over. There was, however, one further displacement when their apartment rent in West Seattle exploded into the economic stratosphere and the family of four would have needed to move further north or become homeless.
It was a no-brainer. Tawfiiq would sleep on the floor in a studio apartment stuffed with five other surgical residents until he was board-certified. Bilan and the twins would head to one of the more northern counties where rents were rumored to be cheaper. That turned out to be somewhat true, cheaper than Seattle, but still expensive. Luckily, Bilan found her job as a waitress at the Excelsior almost immediately, and a man there called Ted had a furnished cabin on his property and a heart so compassionate that he offered it to Bilan for half the price Tawfiiq was able to pay. The cabin was only a short walk to the diner and a school bus stopped just outside the front door to drive her girls to the middle school they’d be attending. And best of all, if she could save enough money perhaps Bilan would be able to afford the operation she might need to remove the lump in her breast.
* * *
As always during the previous three weeks, it was somewhere between mizzle and rain the morning Alice Smyth slipped, yet again, into the diner. She was one of those vague, fog-like people moving in and out of a space without anyone looking up or over, like a breeze blowing through the gauzy curtains of an artless, unoccupied, ecru-painted motel room along a road without a name or number … except for the massive army-green sweater surrounding her otherwise unremarkable presentation like a well-worn tent. Alice headed toward her booth at the back of the diner only to have to put on the breaks a heartbeat before crashing into the table. About then she noticed what appeared to be four corpulant lumberjacks taking up every inch of the two red vinyl seats, and the table piled with plates of flapjacks, hash brown potatoes, scrambled eggs and mountains of sausage.
“Well, good morning to you, too, madam,” the one in her exact spot growled. The other three guffawed as Alice backed away from the booth. She spun around. What was going on here? All the booths were filled with diners, and there was only one stool available next to Ted, the man who’d noticed her before. But that seat belonged to the tiny dark haired woman, what was her name? Why was her seat empty? And then Alice saw Ted waving her over and patting the stool beside him. Alice had two choices: stay or go. But she needed to stay in case you-know-who walked in, according information gathered from Amy. And he surely would. And if he did, Alice was ready to do what needed to be done. She had the papers, the photos, the postcards, the letters, and the genetic test results. She headed to the stool and without looking directly at Ted, eased herself up. Her heart was racing.
“Yep, this is probably confusing, eh?” Ted said. “Jerome is promoting a tofu scramble this morning and all the vegans in town have dropped by. Not the guys in your booth though. They’re true carnivores.”
Alice nodded. Bilan glided over to take her order. “You’re a little cup of soup and black tea today?”
Alice looked sideways at Bilan without turning her head. “I’m more than a little cup of soup and black tea, but yes, I would like those. My name is Alice.”
“And I am Bilan. I will go get those things now, Alice.” Bilan headed toward Jerome’s window.
Ted took a sip of his coffee and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin. He bent down so he could look into Alice’s eyes. “Hey, lady, you have gold flecks in your eyes and I really like gold. But who are you and what the heck are you doing in this place?”
Alice took a few deep breaths. This is what she hated. Risking conversation was her torment, and yet there was no other way to get what she needed and she needed it now. This was an emergency situation. She willed herself to look up at Ted. And then, thundering from the Reverand Mother Hildegard who still resided in Alice’s head she heard, Stand up straight, young woman! Look at me! Now say it! Say it! Say it!
Alice stood up straight as a cedar. She took a a few more deep breaths, and looking right into the eyes of every diner in the Excelsior she screamed loud enough for each of them and all critters on the outside to hear, “My name is Alice Smyth and I am looking for my family!” Alice kept on screaming those words until Meghan, who had been working from home because her grandmother did not feel al all like climbing out of bed that morning, pedaled up on her bike. Upon hearing the word “Smyth” wailed like the howl of a dying animal, she took Alice by the hand and pulled her into the storage room where the two of them sat on crates of canned black beans and had a conversation unlike any either had ever had before.
Meanwhile, Ted, who had noticed a shocking similarity between Meghan and Alice, especially in their eyes, headed over to Phyllis’s house, for they also had something to talk about.