Judo, the sign says.
From my seat on the bus I peered with interest into the space within. Nothing to suggest it was any good for all that the coach looked vaguely Asian. Truth be told, I wish I had the kind of features that would automatically qualify me to teach some skill. Easier than what I do now. When I met anyone I could proudly announce, “I teach dance.” Or something.
Facing me on the bus sat two women who seemed to be from the Gulf. I imagined the fragrance of cardamom drifting from their clothes, wanted to let them know that I was able to talk to them in Arabic, but they paid me no attention. It’s true that when anyone asks me what I’m doing here I get flustered, but given time I can make it all seem most appealing: I scatter flour on the work surface; I shape the dough before sliding it into the oven.
Back at home things were as dull as always; would have been, that is, were it not for the young man in the building over the street, always standing dapper at his window wearing his striped woollen shawl. The girl who lives with us wandered into the kitchen where I sat, and I wanted to do something, concoct some pleasant diversion, because I was sure that the night before I’d insulted her paintings. Her boyfriend, the owner of the place, had asked me if I’d wanted to fill the empty wall in my bedroom with shelving, or with her canvases, and immediately, without even pausing to think, I had replied, “Shelves.” Now, I wasn’t at fault—the pictures are horrendous—but the girl heard what I said. One of those embarrassing moments it’s hard to talk your way out of. Well, smoother types might be able to produce some hasty cover-up, but it takes me a whole day of thinking hard before I find the appropriate response.
It was my chance to start a cosy chat. “Have you changed your hair colour?” I asked. She patted her head and shook it. Despite the palpable discomfort, I went on: “Looks shiny!” She said nothing in response and I went back to looking out of the window. If I wasn’t to go mad, I felt, if the situation wasn’t to take control of me to an exhausting degree, I needed to write a letter to that young man.
I took a lined sheet of yellow paper and a pen. Dear young man standing at the window, I wrote. I paused for a moment, then added: in a beautiful shawl. Settling into a position fit for serious correspondence, I went on: I think I know why you never leave your room and go out to meet other people. When I was little and living in Moscow while my father was working there, my family used to send me round to the neighbors to play with their kid, a boy my age. They were the only other Arab family in the neighborhood. But every time his mother opened the door to me he’d run off and hide in the closet, and so I would go home and play by myself. I later found out that he had behavioral problems and his parents’ attempts to make him to play with me only made him more nervous. So don’t be upset and hide if I come into your room. I’ll take good care of you.
Before bed I went online to read my tarot. First card off the deck was The Hanged Man. The phone rang. It was mother. She told me that it wouldn’t be long before she’d have the visa arranged and be able to join me. I was alone in an empty house at that moment, and it made me nervous. “I think I should take up a sport,” I said to her and she said that it was a good idea. I said, “I’m thinking of judo,” then fell silent, waiting to see what she would say, to know if I would have to pretend it was just a joke.
Five a.m. is a tiresome time. No light yet in the sky. When we passed by the judo place I gave it another look. It was closed.
I scattered flour across the work surface, trying to make it fun. At our bakery we have an exceptionally lively and active work culture and so we require all prospective employees to have a minimum of five years experience and be able to … Before applying I’d read through the job advertisement. I didn’t completely understand what “an exceptionally lively and active work culture” meant and during the interview, the question “Why do you want to work here?” had left me unsure how to answer. On the wall over the head of the man conducting the interview was a vividly colored photograph of one their fresh baked products, and looking up at it I talked about how wonderful it would be to join a warm family in a place where I would learn so much … and so here I am.
It was exhausting, sending off CVs and answering advertisements for rented rooms. A young woman, 25, looking for an opportunity … Always trying to put off the question “Where are you from?” till the end. If I were to reveal my nationality, I felt, the employer or landlord might assume I was depressed or that I had a brutal husband, and I was equally annoyed when that woman wrote to me to say, I have every sympathy for the situation in your country, but I want to rent the room out to someone older.
Work isn’t always fun, but there’s always the chance of happy surprises. A few days ago here I ran into an old friend, from back home. I used to worry about her so much back in the day; she was so fragile and pale. When I bumped into her outside the bakery she was carrying a newborn girl on her arm. I made no reference to my old fears, but it made me happy to see her looking fiercer. Not to mention her little girl. I made sure to hold the mother’s gaze and didn’t moan in pain. When they’d left I rubbed my arm where the girl had bitten it and sighed with relief because I no longer had to worry about them.
No customers around so I took the opportunity to wipe down the baby bite mark with the hem of my apron, and then, something occurring to me, I took out my file from the apron’s pouch to write another letter to the black-haired boy: When I’m at work I ask myself if you’re still standing by your window. The time has come for me to come and look after you, I think. You’ll have nothing to worry about. No need for you to feel jealous about those friends of mine who have seen so much in their lives … unlike you, perhaps. Something which might cause you to feel ashamed if you thought I would compare you to them. This won’t be an issue because I won’t talk to any of them.
On the way back home I felt unsettled; a man on the metro was staring fixedly at me. I didn’t look at him in case he took it as encouragement. After I left the station, as I walked the rest of the way home, I had the clear impression that he was following me. I didn’t turn round—I didn’t want to bring things to a head—and the dark street was empty. I could almost hear him breathing, the rattle of keys in his pocket. Why hadn’t I signed up for judo? I could be crushing the rat’s face into a wall. Suddenly, round a bend in the road, a group of young men and woman appeared, talking loudly and seemingly a little drunk. I rushed to catch up, using the excuse that I’d lost my way in order to walk with them for a way. They asked me where I stayed and where I came from. Originally. I answered them, frowning, because my anger was steadily mounting; why was it that I spent all my time alone?
And when we reached the building where he lived I excused myself because it couldn’t be put off any longer. From this day forward there would be no need for him to bear his loneliness alone; either I would get him to accompany me through the streets and alleys or he would have to put up with me sitting at home and staring eternally out at the world through the window.
I counted the floors till I reached the one where his apartment should be. I knocked: tentatively at first, then more persistently. An old woman opened the door, pale and short in brown velveteen pyjamas and thick spectacles. I asked after the young man who lived there. I needed to see him about an important matter, I said. She answered me in a language I didn’t understand, waving her hands in the air. I didn’t know exactly what was wrong with him, I told her, but there was no need to worry, and she started shouting and tried to prevent me coming inside. I told her that this condition of his was no reason for him to stay shut up in his room, and that I was there on behalf of the authorities, licensed to remove children from their families’ care if mistreatment could be proved. I pushed her aside and went in, heading for his bedroom, but before I could swing the door open I felt a stunning pain at the back of my head. I stroked the spot then looked down at my hand and calmly turned to face the terrified old woman …
Please forgive me, but I was simply furious. Your mother trying to murder me with a silly little flowerpot? It’s not right. If I hadn’t dealt with the situation, I wouldn’t then have been free to make a dash for your bedroom and see it from the inside for the first time.
On a hook facing the window they’ve hung your beautiful woollen shawl. You aren’t there but, as I told you, I know just what needs to be done. I know you’re hiding in the closet, frightened perhaps by what’s just transpired outside. And I’m running towards you. Like never before.