“What do you think?” Sarah’s mother asked, handing her the photograph.
“For your brother.”
Less than one by two inches, it was the standard photograph Egyptians used to take for their national identification cards. It had the old-fashioned serrated edge and the white space at the bottom. They would staple it to the top right-hand corner of a folded card, accompanying all the information any government office, bank or school would need to know about you – your name, date of birth, address, occupation, marital status, religion, identification number, … Most people got a few extra copies to hand around to loved ones. Then the ID cards became electronic and plastic. But people kept taking the pictures, out of habit, to hand around to loved ones.
“Well?” her mother asked.
Sarah looked at the picture of the girl surrounded by the serrated edges. She didn’t want to know her name, but guessed she couldn’t be older than 18 or 19. She was pretty, very Egyptian with dark features and long, thick black hair. Those were things Sarah knew her brother liked, and figured they would be enough.
“What do I think?” she asked her mother. “I think right now I need to go and pick up my graduation gown.”
“What’s wrong with you?” her mother asked. “I’m just asking your opinion.”
“Yes. I know. And I don’t have one.”
“What do you mean you don’t have one?”
“I’m busy, and I don’t have one.”
Sarah went to her room, which she now grudgingly shared with her mother, and closed the door. Her brother was sleeping on the sofa in the living room. Every day since his arrival he’d been sleeping on the sofa, from four am to four pm. So every day her mother would pounce on Sarah if she walked through the living room creaking the old floorboards, or turned on the TV, or didn’t pick up a ringing telephone quickly enough. He’d been here a week and he was still jet-lagged – having flown in from Vancouver. And he was bored. So Sarah had no right to insist he be up during daylight hours if he had nothing to do. “It’s not as if you’re spending time with him, or taking him anywhere,” her mother would tell her.
Sarah got dressed, grabbed her handbag, and without speaking to her mother, left the apartment. She’d been renting the first floor of an old house in Somerville while she was at Harvard doing her Master of Laws. The year had gone by so quickly – eight months really. She had picked an intense program, but as hard as she had had to work, it turned out to be a much shorter stay than she would have liked. Now she was handing in her thesis and getting ready to move to Boston. Over the summer she would study for the Bar exam and then start her job as an associate. She preferred to study. Study was always a reprieve – from work, from family, and from being shown photographs – photographs shown to her for her own benefit, apparently –
“So, what do you think?”
Sarah’s mother and brother arrived a week ago. She figured when they got into town she’d show them the university and Harvard Square, take them to a concert at Boston Common, and maybe picnic by the Charles. She’d spent most of her time at school with her books and her thesis so she hadn’t yet seen or done all the things she’d wanted to do while she was here. But when Mohsin and her mother arrived they weren’t really interested in doing any of these things. Her brother wanted to shop for clothes, Ray Bans and Nike sneakers, eat and drink, work out, and watch MTV. Her mother wanted to go to Filene’s, for hours, repeatedly, and shop for food, repeatedly, because Sarah clearly had not prepared for their arrival, nor was she taking them out to eat, except for the first couple of days after they arrived. After that, her mother took to buying so much food and cooking so much that the small kitchen in Sarah’s apartment and the feeble exhaust over the stove were overwhelmed. There weren’t enough pots and pans, the ones Sarah had were too small, and there were never enough containers to store leftovers.
From four pm to whenever Sarah decided to go to sleep, Mohsin would remind her mother that he was bored, so her mother made Sarah take him to the gym with her every afternoon. Sarah usually went in the mornings, but now she had to wait for him to wake up before she went. Or she could go twice. “It’s up to you,” her mother would tell her. When one day she said she couldn’t go because she hadn’t finished packing, he took the keys to the car she rented for their stay and took himself. Sarah’s anxiety at finding the keys missing and the car not parked where she left it was heightened by the fact that her brother had his license suspended for the third time in four years – for driving in excess of the speed limit while his license was suspended.
The anxiety had begun though when Sarah picked them up from the airport. When her mother got into the back seat and Mohsin sat in the passenger seat, Sarah asked her mother what she was doing. “Let him sit in the front,” her mother said. When Sarah frowned, her mother frowned back. “Why should it bother you? Let him sit in the front.”
Within minutes it started –
“Mom, she can’t drive.”
“Mom, see how she changed lanes?”
“Mom, she’s going to get us into an accident.”
“Mom, she’s driving too close to the car next to her.”
“Mom?” Her brother adjusted the rear-view mirror so he could meet his mother’s gaze.
Sarah refused to hand over the wheel. She exited the turnpike and slowed a little as she merged onto Cambridge Street. Picking up a little speed, she readjusted the rear-view mirror and caught her mother’s eyes as the words came out – “Why don’t you just let him drive?”
Sarah ignored her and Mohsin laughed and shook his head. “Look at her. She doesn’t even think she has to answer you.”
Mohsin berated Sarah for the keys to the car for several days thereafter, with her mother’s voice always in the background – “Why don’t you just give him the keys?” “He’s sitting around with nothing to do.” “He’s not going to do anything to the car.” “I’ll pay for the gas.” “Why do you have to be so difficult?” “Why do you always have to say no to him?” When her brother helped himself to the keys, Sarah left early for the gym the next day, returned the car and took the subway home.
Opening her mail as she walked into the apartment, she saw that her cable bill had a little over $80 in charges for pay-per-view “Adult Entertainment,” accrued between the hours of one am and four am, in less than a week. Furious, she showed the bill to her mother, who frowned a little as the words “Adult Entertainment” came into focus. When they did, she asked Sarah, “Why did you go to the gym without him? And where’s the car?”
Sarah’s eyes widened as she looked at her mother and again showed her the cable bill.
“I’ll pay for it,” said her mother.
“What do you mean you’ll pay for it?”
“I’ll pay for it.” Her mother’s voice rose. “You don’t have to get upset about the money. It won’t cost you anything.”
“So you’ll fund your son’s consumption of pornography? And at the same time you’re trying to get him married to someone young and pretty and virginal?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Are you kidding?”
“What’s wrong with you? He’s your brother and he’s here for a short time. If anything was to happen to me or your father, he’s all you’ve got. God keep you for each other. Anyway, watching it is not the same as doing it.”
“I’m screwed if he’s all I’ve got. You should worry more about him if anything was to happen to you or dad. And you think he’s not doing it?”
Her mother looked horrified, but Sarah didn’t care. She wanted her mother to be horrified. She wanted her to snatch the bill from her hands, storm into the living room and thump and pinch her brother’s arms and shoulders till he was forced to open his eyes to the words “Adult Entertainment.”
“We’re here for two weeks. Two weeks. You can’t tolerate us for two weeks?”
Sarah didn’t think she could. She hadn’t seen her family for eight months and, though they didn’t get along all that well, she thought that, well, … she hadn’t seen them for eight months! And for God’s sake, she thought as well, well, … she was getting a degree from Harvard!
Mohsin’s loud obstructed breathing interrupted her thoughts. Not only did his body sprawled on the sofa in a tiny living room appropriate the entire space, his snoring made most of the apartment unbearable. Sarah wished for the increased chances of a heart attack or stroke to kick in right then and there. It wouldn’t spoil her graduation. Not at all. She’d pack up her mother and ship her off with her brother’s body, and then go alone. She’d end up enjoying her time the way she imagined she would, before they had arrived.
“Sure I can tolerate you,” Sarah said as she smiled. “It’s the least I can do. It must be tough for him to attend my graduation. And it’s probably tough for you too on some level. I’m sure you worry about him – how difficult it must be for a person who didn’t even graduate from high-school.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing,” said Sarah.
Her brother was sleeping so heavily that Sarah thought it would be easy to pull the pillow from under his head and try to smother him with it. Mohsin was twice her size though, and accustomed to using this to his advantage. Once struggling for his life he wouldn’t hesitate to compromise hers. He’d struck her before. Putting away his laundry once she found a pistol hidden in the top drawer of his dresser. He walked into his room at the same time and when she raised her voice in astonishment he grabbed the pistol from her hand and brought the butt of it down on her head just over her right brow. When she went screaming to her parents, her father took the pistol and her brother down to the local police station. He told the police that Mohsin was in the business of buying wrecked cars from salvage auctions and repaired them, and that they found the pistol in a glove compartment. The police thanked them.
Sarah thought about the picture of the girl surrounded by the serrated edges. She would have no clue and no one would dare to tell her. A consumption of pornography is probably expected, as is sleeping around, but only with white women and only until he’s married. If it happens after that, well … she would have to think about her reputation if she was to get divorced. She would be forced to return to her father’s home, and gossip would be to the effect that she wasn’t taking care of her husband. And then she would have to think, what other man would want to raise another man’s children? What woman would want to be married to Mohsin? Sarah wondered whether the girl knew her photograph was being passed around.
When Sarah’s mother wasn’t shopping or cooking or doing laundry, or arguing with Sarah, she was on the phone talking to Sarah’s father. He couldn’t take time off work for her graduation and sent instructions for her mother to take her shopping for a gold bracelet or earrings, or whatever she wanted. But whenever her mother spoke to her father on the phone, she went into Sarah’s room and closed the door. Sarah couldn’t eavesdrop if she wanted to. All she could hear was deliberately hushed, and once she was certain her mother had taken a phone call in the bathroom.
Her father was self-employed and had inspired her brother to set up a business of his own. But while her father, after years of working as an engineer, set up a business outfitting hospitals and offices with HVAC units, Mohsin set up a business hot rodding. He first started working on cars in their family’s backyard, but when neighbors complained of the noise and debris, her parents took out a second mortgage on their house and bought him a workshop in one of Vancouver’s industrial areas more than an hour from their home. Whenever his license was suspended, their mother would drive him to and from his workshop.
The day before Sarah’s graduation a voicemail was left on her answering machine for her mother from a social worker at Massachusetts General Hospital. When Sarah asked her mother what it was about, her mother started to prepare dinner and told her to wait until her brother got up to take a shower. Sarah was annoyed. “What, you don’t want to stress him out with whatever’s going on with you?” Her mother looked at her and didn’t answer. Sarah hated cooking and didn’t want to help her mother. She told her she’d eat leftovers before they had to be thrown out, then went to her room.
When Sarah heard her brother turn on the shower in the bathroom, she went into the kitchen, sat at the table and asked her mother again what was going on. Her mother didn’t turn around from the pots and pans she was manning at the stove, and told her that they had to go to the hospital the day after her graduation.
“Because. Because your brother needs some help.”
“He’s getting an implant. He’s been taking drugs and he needs an implant to stop him from taking drugs.”
Her mother still had her back to her.
“You heard me.”
“He’s been shooting heroin?” Sarah could barely contain herself.
“Keep your voice down!”
“What? He doesn’t know he’s been shooting heroin?”
“Don’t be stupid. And don’t be nasty. He’s trying to stay off drugs and away from people who sell him drugs. And he wasn’t shooting it! He was smoking it. Yes!” she said turning to Sarah, “You can smoke it!’
Her mouth gaping, Sarah wasn’t sure whether her words were coming out the way she wanted.
“How long has this been going on?”
“We don’t know. We found out after you left and put him in rehab. He got the implant then and stayed away from his friends who sell him drugs. But now it’s wearing off and his friends are back and they’re going to ruin everything.” Sarah knew her brother’s friends.
“So, he’s staying?”
“Yes. But not in the hospital. He’ll have the implant and then doctors will see him regularly and he’ll go to counseling. Here his friends won’t make it difficult for him.”
“You can’t be nice to him can you? He’s struggling. He’s not as strong as you and you make him feel it. You treat him like he’s stupid and you’re better.”
“I don’t treat him like anything. I treat him like he shouldn’t be my problem, and what do you do? You make him my problem. He gets to relax in the shower while I get to hear about his heroin addiction and his failed rehab. And why Boston? Have the neighbor’s complained about this too?”
Her mother’s voice cracked. “You are so cruel. Your father and I are falling apart. Your father has to run Mohsin’s business for him and we’ve had to hire more people to do your father’s work. It’s devastating us. Your father would give his right arm if Mohsin would stop taking drugs.”
Sarah was quiet, thinking about her father walking around with no right arm, till she thought to ask, “Why Boston?”
“Because he needs to be away from his friends.”
“All this way?”
“He needs his family. He needs support. He needs to feel loved by us and to know that we are here for him. Your father has hired extra help and I can stay here as long as it takes.”
Sarah didn’t speak. She remembered having to do his laundry, she remembered having to take a clean towel to the bathroom every time she wanted to take a shower because he would always use hers and leave it on his bedroom floor, she remembered having to loan him money when their parents had over-extended themselves. She remembered that once in high school her mother even tried to get her to do his homework for him. He kept insisting he couldn’t complete an assignment on time and the subject was so easy for Sarah, so why couldn’t she just do it? “Why can’t you?” her mother had asked.
Then it occurred to Sarah to ask about the girl in the photograph.
“How on earth could you think of getting him married?”
“Why not? He needs a purpose in life. He needs someone who loves him and will look after him.”
“Isn’t that what you do?”
“You know what I’m talking about!”
Yes, Sarah knew. Now Sarah wanted to know the name of the girl in the photograph. She wanted to know her name and address, her father’s name, her mother’s name, her telephone number, …
Sarah’s chest felt heavy, and she wished she hadn’t returned the rental car. Two weeks, her mother had said. Two weeks and everything was supposed to go back to normal. Sarah felt as though she couldn’t breathe. When she heard her brother come out of the bathroom, she ran in and locked the door. He hadn’t opened the window so the steam had her gasping for breath. Pulling back the latch she pushed the pane of glass so hard it fell from the frame and shattered around her. Tears streaming down her face and blood trickling down her wrist, she remembered a manslaughter case she’d studied in criminal law. A husband had been beating his wife. The woman ran from him and managed to lock herself in the bathroom. When the husband started to hack away at the door with an axe, she smashed the glass in the window and jumped out. The woman fell five stories to her death. Sarah was on the ground floor. She wouldn’t be able to plummet to her death. If she tried, she thought, she’d be too afraid of the pain of more broken glass slicing into her, even if she could even make it through the small opening of the window.
Sarah filled the bathtub with cold water and took off her clothes. The cuts to her hand were small and band-aids stopped the bleeding. She would try to go to the medical center in the morning before her graduation to make sure no glass had made it into her hand. She told herself to remember to call a car service to pick them up in the morning. Her mother and brother hated taking the subway. Then she heard her brother yelling and banging on the door.
“What?’ she yelled.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Then why didn’t you answer me?”
“I didn’t hear you.”
“What was the noise?”
“The window broke. It’s fine.”
She closed her eyes and sank into the water thinking she had one more thing to do before she moved out of the apartment, unless she just wanted the landlord to deduct the window repair from her security deposit. He could just deduct it for all she cared.
Sarah thought about calling Ayesha, but what would she tell her? Her brother’s a drug addict and her mother’s making her life hell? She had traveled far away so she no longer had to have conversations about her family, but they had caught up with her and were now threatening to stay. Sarah thought about Ayesha and her mother and father, who had flown in from Johannesburg for Ayesha’s graduation. They seemed so nice, and not wanting to burden Ayesha during her last weeks of school and moving house, they got themselves a room at a hotel in Harvard Square. They took her to dinner, helped her pack, and kept themselves busy when she had things to take care of. Ayesha also had a brother, but he was a doctor and couldn’t take time off from his residency to travel right now. From what Ayesha told her, she liked her brother, who had sent her a gold locket for her graduation. Something he’d picked out himself.
When Sarah got out of the bath and back into her room she crawled into bed and took a sleeping pill from the bottle she kept in her bedside table. She could barely make out her mother’s words when she heard her ask her why she wasn’t having dinner with them. Sarah couldn’t remember what she mumbled before she fell asleep.
The next morning Sarah couldn’t get a car service and she couldn’t get dressed properly. A shooting pain ran from the webbing of her right thumb to the middle of her palm. She called the medical center but no doctors were available. The receptionist told her to go to the emergency room, unless she wanted to see a doctor the following day. Sarah didn’t want to ask her mother for help, who was angry with her because they would have to take the subway to Cambridge. So rather than wear the silk blouse and linen trousers she’d bought for the day, she slipped on a dress and did what she could with her gown. Once they were in Harvard Yard Sarah walked ahead of her mother and brother to her section without telling them where to go or where they would meet after the ceremony. She was hoping they would get lost in the crowd, give up on finding her and make their way home.
Her mother and brother found her afterwards, making her way to the law school for the handing out of diplomas. She was with Ayesha and other friends and was forced to introduce them. Ayesha found the table where her parents were seated and invited Sarah and her family to join. The whole time they sat at the table Sarah could not bring herself to smile. She felt as though her jaw was being pulled down by little balloon weights.
“What’s wrong with you?” her mother hissed, the words forced out of her pressed lips. “You’re getting a degree from Harvard and you look as though you have nothing to live for. You should thank God you have what you have. Do you know how many people want what you have? Do you know what people would give to have half of what you have?”
Sarah wanted to tell her mother whoever wanted it could have it. She decided though, since Ayesha would be leaving for New York the next day, to talk to her friend. They’d gotten along so well and she would miss her. Sure they would visit each other, but they both knew their starting salaries were what they were for a reason.
Later that evening Sarah went to Ayesha’s apartment. Ayesha’s parents were meeting relatives in Brookline for dinner and left her to finish packing. Taping up the last of the boxes, Ayesha asked Sarah if she could see herself living in another country.
“Well, I’ve already left Canada, with no intention of going back, but I guess it depends on which country.”
“What about South Africa?”
Sarah looked at her friend.
“What do you mean? Why would I go there?”
“Because I’d love you to. Because my parents think you’re wonderful and because I’ve told my brother all about you.”
Ayesha took a picture from her wallet and showed it to Sarah. He was handsome, probably 28 or 29 years old, very Indian with deep-set eyes and nice hair. Egyptian men didn’t have nice hair.
“He’s seen pictures of you. He thinks you’re beautiful, and you both have so much in common. You even have the same books on your bookshelves and you listen to the same music. He’s a lot of fun and loves to laugh, and you don’t have to worry at all about him being a chauvinist. My mum made sure of that.”
Sarah tried to take the picture from Ayesha, but her right hand flinched.
“Sarah let me take off the band-aids and have a look at it.”
Sarah picked up the picture with her left hand and took another look.
“You know, if it turns out that you don’t want to move to South Africa, my brother said he’d consider moving to the States.”
Sarah ran her finger along the straight edge of the two-by-three-inch wallet size photograph.
“No,” she said. “He doesn’t have to. I’ll move.”