Almas’s mother, who’d been dead for nearly two years, had never really panicked for the sake of her daughter’s love life. She’d always said that Almas would wake up one day and find herself in love. An eternal optimist, and unusually romantic for an Ethiopian of her generation, she believed completely that love came to everyone eventually, in one way or another. It might deliver a blow to an unsuspecting head, or trip someone who was looking elsewhere while going about life’s more mundane business. It might even creep up to a slumbering innocent and yell “Boo!”, or gallop confidently into one’s open arms, as it did for Lili, Almas’s older sister. But Almas was a special case. According to her mother, love would require nothing of her but to keep going to bed at night and waking up in the morning. “That’s it?” Almas would ask to humor her mother. “That’s it,” her mother would say.
Almas had always been different, a child whose interactions with others were stifled by awkwardness. Her mother seemed unconcerned. Once, after a girlhood incident during which Almas had come out of her shell only long enough to scream so profanely at a teacher that she’d been removed from school for a time, her mother had explained to doubting friends that her daughter was simply reacting to the strains of puberty and that once the blood began properly to flow, all would be well. This silenced the doubters, but the whole incident plucked Almas decisively out of the social networks of her peers and she remained a loner for the rest of her school days. Almas knew her mother silently hoped America would be a kinder place, and this tempered her apprehension at leaving her homeland behind. But once they’d settled into a small apartment in Northwest DC, they’d found an airtight community of Ethiopian immigrants whose expectations of each other differed very little from what they would have been back home. And when Lili had enrolled in community college, she quickly found a word in the American lexicon to describe Almas. She’d used the word once, with genuine hope that it would encourage Almas to look into a psychological mirror, as it were. The word was “intense”, and Lili had pronounced it with a tone of careful affection.
Lili had been married twice and was preparing to marry for a third time. The first husband possessed in equal measure deviousness and devastatingly good looks. After he began openly to have affairs with other women, Lili dangled an affair of her own under his nose and he’d gone quietly away with another woman, to Texas. The second husband was renowned to be a “good person” and was dearly beloved by Almas’s mother. There seemed no reason for the marriage to end. It ended anyway. The third fellow was the one with whom Almas fell in love.
It happened within a few hours of a phone call Lili had placed to Almas one Saturday afternoon. “Almas.” she said with a tone that made Almas respond with a cautious, “Yes?”
“Drop everything. There’s someone here I’m dying for you to meet.” Almas, reluctant to jump on the Lili merry-go-round yet again, immediately declined the invitation. Lili jokingly suggested that a little sister ought to do her big sister’s bidding to which Almas half-jokingly replied that this was America.
“Okay,” Lili sighed. “How about we come to see you soon, then?” She whispered into the air, her mouth away from the phone, and then her voice was clear again. “We’ll call to make an appointment, ok, American girl?”
But Lili hadn’t called to make an appointment, and an hour later, just as Almas was flushing the toilet, there was a firm knock on her front door. She knew without question that it was her sister with the friend in tow. She spun in panicked circles before reaching under her sink for air freshener and opening her bathroom window.
The friend turned out to be the fiancé, and the three of them had tea. Lili had commented on the overwhelming floral aroma, looking eagerly and in vain for a telltale bouquet. Almas flashed stiff and oddly timed smiles at no one in particular and smoothed the tablecloth, brushing crumbs of stale pound cake into her palm and then dropping them onto her saucer. Then Lili and Bereket, the fiancé, left. Bereket had smiled plenty and said very little. He sat with his legs crossed and his head hanging slightly to one side. His Adam’s apple was huge, an anatomical fact which Almas connected illogically but instinctively to his being so thin. His fingers were long and slender, wrapping around the handle of his teacup with assured delicacy. When they were gone, Almas washed the tea things by hand and placed them in the dishwasher to dry.
That night, love found Almas while she was sleeping, exactly as her mother had always predicted it would. Bereket was walking beside her with his hands behind his back. Suddenly, he reached towards her with one hand, looking intently at her neck. He allowed his long fingers to stroke the side of her neck, just where it met her shoulder. There was a tiny mole there and he stroked it, once or twice, maybe three times. The fact that this happened in her dream did nothing to lessen the impact of that sensation – the cool flow of his fingers on her neck. She remembered it when she woke up and then on the bus on the way to her job where she worked in the billing office of a medical practice downtown. She felt a tightening in her groin muscles when she thought of it at lunch. And on the bus on the way home, she tilted her head to one side, reached under her scarf and allowed her cold fingers to stroke that stretch of her neck, that spot just above her collarbone. The sensuousness of it alarmed her and she lowered her hand onto her lap, straightening her neck and looking out the window at the moving masses on 14th St., N.W.
She didn’t hear from her sister that week, though that wasn’t necessarily unusual. Occasionally, on a Friday evening, Almas would get off the bus one stop early and buy a bottle of cheap red wine at the liquor store run by a friend’s uncle. She would take the wine to Lili’s place where they would eat spaghetti with a rotating series of friends who came and went through Lili’s life according to the person she was dating or married to at the time. Sometimes, because hers was an open-door policy, hostile friends from two competing eras of Lili’s life would find themselves in her tiny apartment, unable to ignore each other and yet unable to relinquish the right to be there. On those nights, Almas would eat and drink quickly, leaving without a fuss. But Lili hadn’t called to invite Almas over for dinner that Friday, and Almas, thinking of Bereket, thought of doing what everyone else did by just showing up. But she spent that Friday night alone in her apartment, and fell asleep to Charlie Rose.
By Saturday, Almas had thought of the dream so often that when the phone rang that morning and the caller introduced himself as Bereket, her hand flew protectively to her neck. He was calling to see if Lili was there. Almas told him that she hadn’t seen her sister in a week. Bereket was silent for a while.
“You weren’t together last night?” he asked, his voice hesitant and apologetic.
“No. Well…” Almas knew she had a duty to her sister, but she couldn’t decide what that required of her just then. “No,” she said.
“I see. Well, then. Good bye.”
“Good bye.” Neither of them hung up.
“Well, it would be good to see you more often, you know. After all, we’re practically family now.” Bereket’s voice had become louder, as if announcing his intention to make small talk.
“Yes, thank you.” Almas searched for something to say. “I’m forty, you know.” She stood suddenly. This observation had come into being of its own accord.
“I – yes. Forty.”
“Ah! Your birthday? Your birthday is today? Congratulations!”
“Thank you.” It was already too late to straighten things out. She had indeed turned forty, but that milestone had come and gone half a year earlier and had barely been celebrated (at her request) even then. “It’s not a big deal, really.”
“What do you mean? Of course it is! That Lili didn’t say a word about this, not one word!” Bereket paused. “Well, we have to celebrate, there’s no question. We have to really get the gang together and celebrate.” He’d hesitated before saying “the gang” as if he knew she had no gang and he was just a guest in one of Lili’s gangs. Almas sat down.
“Please, no,” she began.
“I’m not into that kind of thing. And no need to remind Lili, even.”
“Come on, now. Forty? That’s a big one!” he whistled. “Ze beeg four-oh!” Bereket had switched momentarily to thickly accented English.
“I don’t like celebrating my birthdays.”
“Isn’t that what everyone says?”
“Even so. I don’t like it.”
“Come on, come on. I’ll try Lili on her cell again.”
“We’ll get the gang–”
“No!” Almas was standing again. “No. Don’t worry about me. I don’t feel like celebrating my…birthday.” She attempted to redirect things. “Go find your fiancé,” she said, hearing the abruptness in her tone and hating it.
“Well, okay. Sorry.” Almas heard the irritation in his voice. “She’s not my fiancé, anyway,” he continued. “We’re married now. Don’t you two ever talk about anything important?”
“You’re married?” Almas ignored his last question and leaned forward, her knees pressing into her chest.
“Just like that?” She and Lili were good sisters to each other, technically speaking. Almas accepted Lili just as she was; unquestioningly and completely. There was, between them, no deep emotional attachment. But there was something more primordial between them, and perhaps more important. There was protection – financial protection, protection from solitude – protection. And it was something they offered each other without flinching because they would hardly have recognized their actions as being protective at all. But then came moments like these, when Almas would wonder how to protect herself from the reality of being Lili’s sister. As she sat doubled over, phone held against her ear, she realized that she felt most vulnerable and exposed whenever some man was calling after Lili. And it almost troubled her to breathe when the voice enquiring after Lili this time was a man whose touch she literally dreamed about. It all nestled so tenderly, so easily in Lili’s soft hands. Just like that.
“That’s how she wanted it. We drank a bit last night. Well, I did, and I can’t even remember falling asleep. It’s a little embarrassing.” Almas didn’t dispute this. Bereket went on; “So anyway, I thought maybe we might celebrate this morning with a cappuccino.”
“But you woke up and…”
“She wasn’t here.”
“Maybe she went out to get the cappuccino?”
“All night? How long could it possibly take?” Almas said nothing. “Anyway, sorry to have bothered you. Happy birthday.” Almas pressed her eyes shut and said, “Thank you.” She hung up, conscious that until this conversation, no occasion in her life had moved her to tell a blatant lie about herself, even one as petty as this. This realization, above everything else, was what intrigued her. She’d lied to please him, which, to her way of thinking, presented as good a definition of love as any.
When her doorbell rang without warning an hour later, she was ready. She’d set her hair with hot rollers, her heart beating with the rush of activity she wasn’t used to. She’d dusted quickly, with a sock she’d found stuffed in a shoe by the door. She put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher next to the clean ones. And she’d sprayed some perfume on herself – spraying behind her ears in millisecond bursts, and then on her wrists for longer, too long. Rive Gauche, her mother’s scent. She was just looking around the apartment for stray signs of negligence when the doorbell rang, a sound she had no reason to expect but for which she was utterly prepared.
Bereket stood without fidgeting on her threshold, hands hidden in the pockets of an enormous leather jacket. He had a Redskins stocking cap on, pulled down to his eyebrows. Almas had hastily smoothed her hair before opening the door but now pulled it behind her ears, then fluffed it out again. She was primping right in front of him; she dropped her hands to her sides.
“Get in,” she told him. He offered an amused smile, raising his eyebrows and stepping carefully over the threshold and into her apartment.
“Greetings to you, too,” he said, using one foot to remove his shoe from the other.
“Oh.” Almas pulled her hair behind her ears again. “Greetings. Hello.”
“Place looks nice,” Bereket said, looking around. “Looks clean.”
“Well, I’m just one person…so no problem keeping the place tidy.” Bereket looked at her, a mock frown on his face.
“Your sister lived alone until I showed up. You know what her place is like on a good day, right?”
“My sister has never lived alone.” Bereket dropped his head back onto his shoulders, his Adam’s apple incredibly prominent as he considered this statement.
“You’ve spoken the truth there.” He chuckled eventually. “Ghosts seem to live with her when no one else does.”
“Ghosts?” Almas looked around her apartment and swept her arm in an arc across the room. “This place is a cemetery.” She had never felt that way about her apartment until these words came out.
“No. This place just looks…” Bereket took his hat off and walked to a bookshelf that held no books. “…lonely.” He looked at Almas and put his hand out towards her, smiling. “No, not lonely. It looks like a lovely single lady lives here.”
Almas shrugged. “It’s ok. Let me take your coat.” She hung the coat up in a slender coat closet by the front door. The coat carried the sharp smell of a freshly smoked cigarette and she wondered how so slight a frame as his could support the weight of all that leather. They sat down; he on her loveseat and she on an armchair. Her skirt was pleated wool, formal and grey. She knew he might well wonder why she was wearing pantyhose on a Saturday. “Tea? Coffee?” She laughed nervously. “I gather you never got your cappuccino.” Bereket sat back and crossed his legs, waving his hand in the air as if he was swatting a fly away from his face. He crossed his hands on top of his head and stared at her ceiling fan. Through the open windows, the 14th St. traffic seemed second by second to intrude more insistently.
“Tea, please,” he eventually said.
Almas brought the kettle from the stove to the sink and poured the previous week’s spiced water out. She washed it with soap, something she rarely did, then filled it with the bottled water Lili insisted she keep on hand. She’d learned long ago not to wonder where her sister was when she went missing. But today, Lili’s absence seemed gift-wrapped for her – bringing, as it did, Bereket to this little place. He was sitting on the loveseat, imagining that it was her birthday, perhaps thinking of some way to commemorate it.
“I’m just peeling the ginger!” she shouted over her shoulder as a distraction, realizing immediately that she could just as easily have whispered and he would have heard her with ease.
“Okay,” Bereket responded. He continued, “That sounds nice, ginger.”
“And now, I’m just crushing the cardamom pods a little bit.”
“Aha.” Bereket emphasized the final syllable, which made him sound, to Almas, genuinely curious. She took a small handful of the brown pods to him, their tough shells crushed slightly, each revealing one tiny crack that would allow the flavor to escape from the little black seeds and seep into the water. She crouched at his knee and spread the pods in her palm with a forefinger. She bent her head and sniffed loudly, transported to her mother’s kitchen where glass tea cups were perpetually filled a quarter of the way up with sugar waiting with crystalline stillness to be dissolved. She opened her eyes and raised her hand to Bereket’s face. While he didn’t exactly recoil, he did lean away distinctly, a puzzled expression on his face. She stood, embarrassed, realizing that she’d been resting an arm on his knee. She closed her fingers tightly around the pods and smoothed her skirt with her free hand.
“Just thought I’d show you what African cardamom looks like,” she said with a high-pitched laugh that sounded hysterical, even to her. She returned to the kitchen and dropped the pods in the simmering water. “You know, you can get Indian stuff here no problem, but it’s green and hardly has half, maybe even a quarter of the flavor.” Bereket didn’t respond. She turned to look at him and he was looking back at her, a smile playing on his lips that he seemed unsure how to form. He nodded.
“I see,” he said agreeably. “African cardamom is the best there is.”
“Well, I don’t know about the best.” Almas said, turning back to the sink to wash her hands. “Suppose you go to an Indian person and suggest he use African cardamom in his curry, he might say Get that rubbish away from me! And how could you argue with him?” Again the hysterical laugh pushed its way towards Bereket. Almas closed her eyes and made fists at her sides, squeezing her fingernails into the heels of her hands until she felt real pain, sharp and grounding. Bereket had been silent for some seconds but was in the middle of agreeing when Almas interrupted him. “I just happen to think it’s superior. For my needs.” She looked at Bereket whose mouth was still open, its words aborted and forgotten.
“To each his own,” he replied. Almas nodded enthusiastically and smiled. Turning back to her kettle, she added a few whole cloves and a pinch of black pepper in place of cinnamon, something her mother would never have countenanced. The water was now boiling, and she was aware that the timing was all off. The spices would not have had enough time to infuse, the ginger would have brewed for far longer than the others and the imbalance would be obvious. Nevertheless, she placed two teabags in a plain white teapot and poured the hot water into it, saving the spices with a sieve and putting them back into the steaming kettle to be used again later during the week. She placed the teapot on her dining table and returned to her armchair. Bereket was sitting on the edge of the loveseat, smiling formally.
“I’m just waiting for the tea to brew,” she told him. He nodded and she sat for a moment more. “I think it’s ready now,” she said, springing to her feet and moving to the table. As she poured the tea in two teacups, Bereket cleared his throat.
“You’re running around so much. Why don’t you sit down?” he asked, his voice gentle and attentive. Almas’s shoulders stiffened but the stream of hot amber colored tea flowed unbroken into his teacup. She brought his tea to him, stirring the sugar as she placed it on the coffee table in front of him. “Thank you,” he said without taking his eyes off her face. She nodded and went to fetch her teacup, sitting down next to him on the loveseat with her legs crossed. She glanced at the armchair she’d been sitting in and breathed quietly but rapidly. Lili had disappeared again. And there was no law stating that Almas had to sit in that armchair. She could sit on the loveseat if she wanted to. “Very good tea.” Bereket said. “Wonderful, that African stuff.” Almas could see him smiling at her through her peripheral vision. “Who do you resemble?” Bereket asked. “Your mother or Lili?”
“Neither.” Her response was quick and unemotional.
“No. Anyway, I don’t remember him. He died when I was quite young.” She glanced at him. “The revolution.”
“Hmmm…well, you certainly don’t look much like your sister. She’s got much more meat on her, for one thing.”
“She’s always been that way. Huge appetite.” They were silent for a while, the movements of their cups to and from their saucers forming invisible lines between them. Almas put her cup and saucer on the table and folded her hands in her lap. She took a breath she intended to be deep and calming, but which her nerves abbreviated and turned into something like a hiccup. “You don’t seem all that concerned about her being gone, if I may say so.” She said this looking down into her lap, consciously ignoring how baseless this observation was. Why else would he be here? And then there was the undeniable hypocrisy of her comment – all the Rive Gauche pressing against her apartment’s walls, the pantyhose and puffy hair, the empty armchair she’d vacated to sit next to him. Bereket put his cup and saucer down also.
“Well, you know her better than anyone else, I suppose. It’s why I came here almost immediately.” Almas looked at his face and noticed, for the first time, that one of his eyes focused perfectly on her while the other stared intently at a spot just to the left of her face. She tilted her head and looked from eye to eye, then shifted her eyes downwards to his hands and to his graceful fingers. She squeezed her thighs together as the fingers transformed themselves into sexual organs beneath her gaze – exposed beyond all decency. “Don’t you know her quite well?” She felt annoyed at the question.
“Yes and no. Quite well, and not quite well at all.” She was going to try to explain that they’d been raised by their mother and that as sisters who came of age in the claustrophobic environment inevitable when three females live together in a one bedroom apartment, it would naturally follow that they would develop ways of seeming very close while guarding their essences jealously from each other. But she couldn’t find a way to say this without sounding obtuse and unattractively complex. “It’s unattractively complex,” she said.
“Well, if I could just say one thing, you are quite a person. No, you’re not like Lili at all, are you?”
“I hope not.”Almas thought of her sister’s soft hands and loud laugh.
“I love her, but I’ve got no desire to be like her. Our needs are very different.”
“Oh? And what do you need?”
Almas looked at Bereket, ears pulsing with the thudding of her heartbeat. She formed fists with her hands at her knees, and then relaxed her hands, only to bundle the hem of her skirt into freshly made fists.
“You’re ok, I hope?” Bereket said, a note of concern in his voice. “Here,” he said, handing her a tissue from his trouser pocket.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not going to cry.” Almas stared at her knees. Bereket held the tissue in his hand and looked at her, his eyes sweeping over her face and shoulders and falling to her hands and the fabric of the skirt bunched up in her fists.
“Here,” he said, stroking her knuckles with the tissue. “You take it.” She loosened the fingers of one hand and took the tissue, but kept it at her knee. “Look at you, Almas,” Bereket said. “Relax, sister,” he continued tenderly. “Your body – your entire body – it’s so tense.” He leaned back, as if to get a better view of her. “Like you’ve been chiseled out of some sort of… tension. Like there was a big block of tension somewhere and God came along and chiseled you out of it.” Almas didn’t respond. “I’ve got a good sense about people. I watched you the other day, at the table, and I’m watching you now. It’s like you’ve been molded from–”
“I look ugly then.” Almas announced, standing. “That’s absolutely fine, I’m absolutely fine with that! Doesn’t bother me. Sorry if it bothers you, but it doesn’t bother me one bit. My body…” She stopped herself. She was suddenly remembering how her voice had sounded when she’d screamed at that teacher all those years ago. The words she’d used were long forgotten, but the rage and the delirium of her outburst were distinctly remembered. She had been ignored so thoroughly at school that even her absences went without notice. Then one day, she’d fallen asleep at her desk. And even before she’d registered the giggles of her classmates or opened her eyes – even before she was fully awake – she knew she was finally the center of attention. And when she felt the hot slickness of the wooden seat beneath her thighs and the warm moistness in her socks, she understood why. She’d wet herself. The teacher had looked at her for the first time, it seemed, at that moment. And as he approached her to help her to her feet, a voice – her voice – met him on his way, stopped him instantly, and crashed around the room in a shrill torrent of hysterical indignation, like a bat awakened from a deep and hidden sleep. It had not been the last time she’d heard her voice fill a room and hold it captive. And it had not been the last time she herself had been held captive by a fury she never had opportunity to stifle once it began its unpredictable and explosive mission. She’d been “working on it”, as Lili would sometimes put it, for her entire life. But she’d taken enough Prozac to know its limits, and she knew why she spent her evenings alone with Charlie Rose. But none of that mattered where Bereket was concerned. He had come to her, and she would not dishonor him by stopping him before he reached her. She looked at one eye, then the other. “Do you see me?” Bereket looked confused for a moment, but then nodded. “So then never mind my body. All bodies lie, don’t they?” Bereket unfolded his fingers and patted the loveseat, inviting her to sit back down, which she did. “I’m very, very happy,” she muttered.
“The first thing I want to say is – did I say ‘ugly’? I did not. You’re certainly not ugly. As to whether or not you’re happy…” He raised his cup to her in salute. “Good for you.” He leaned forward and put his cup down, pushing it away from him. He began to roll his hands together as if washing them. “Can I tell you something?”
“We’re not married, Lili and I. We had a fight last night – a bad one, our first. I assumed she would go to the person closest to her and I thought that might be you.” He smiled at Almas. “It’s a little strange, right? Me running after her because of a fight? I don’t know why I told you we were married.”
“Maybe you just wanted to hear how it sounded to say the words. Maybe you really wish you were married.” Almas waited, convincing herself that nothing hinged on his response.
“Maybe. I’m not sure. She seems a little complicated. God knows where she is now, and if I have to go through a lifetime of wondering things like that, then I just don’t know…” he sat back, his lean frame melting into the loveseat like a throw blanket.
Almas didn’t observe out loud how unlikely it would be that he would last a lifetime with Lili. Lili wasn’t a lifetime sort of person. But whatever it was that allowed him to imagine things turning out differently was what Almas despised in most humans as arrogance, but admired in him as hope. She’d never had reason to examine the strength of her own connection to Lili, and found it unsettling to realize that he expected it somehow to rise above whatever happened to everyone else Lili had ever loved. And normally it might, but not today. On this day, Almas sat with a man who seemed to know her so intimately that he’d reached into her dreams to touch her. And now here he was, in the flesh. And here she was, in the flesh. Lili, of all people, would understand.
“Can I tell you something, now?” Almas asked him.
“Sure, why not?”
“It’s not my birthday.”
“No?” Almas shook her head. “Well,” he said with an unconcerned tone, slapping his knees lightly with his palms. “There’s no problem there.”
“I want to thank you for wanting to celebrate it with me.”
“Your non-birthday?” He smiled. “You’re thanking me for wanting to celebrate your non-birthday with you?” She allowed herself to smile at him. “You’re welcome, Almas.” He sat forward, joining her at the edge of the loveseat. She leaned forward slightly to pick up her teacup and in that moment she saw with a rush of vertigo his hand begin to rise towards her shoulder, and then her neck. She froze, teacup suspended halfway between the coffee table and her mouth. In the moment it took for her to blink, she’d decided that everything would begin now, finally. She wouldn’t ask any questions of him and wouldn’t resent him for being here. She would forgive herself and later would extend the same opportunity to her sister. And she would graciously rise to the occasion and let her womanhood claim her. She would cease to inhabit the mere shell of a woman’s body, but would allow it to be infused with the extremes of life. The touch of those fingers would bring lust, jealousy, sexiness, knowledge. She would square her shoulders and brace herself for catastrophic heartbreaks, hold her arms out and soar on the currents of celestial joy. Today, she would discover her true spirit and it would penetrate her body like a hand fills a glove and gives it real shape. Here, in this place, this very day – there would be touching; kind touching, gentle touching, stroking and holding, nuzzling and caressing. There would be love, and she would fasten it to her, wrap herself in it and hold it tight. Why not? Why not her?
“I’ve been wanting to do this since I got here, Almas.” Bereket said carefully. “I hope it’s ok?” Almas put her cup on the table and moved her chin up and down; a nod. His hand moved closer and her eyelids fell, encasing her in the darkness of waiting. Those fingers would soon be an inch from her neck, then a centimeter, then no more than a hair’s breadth.
The touch never came. Instead, his fingers began to grapple with something in her hair at the back of her head. There was a roller there that she’d neglected to remove and he was trying gently to loosen it for her. And suddenly she was moving without thinking, running in her tiny apartment – something she’d never have believed possible. She was inside the bathroom and slamming the door shut. She was pulling the roller free with a force that yanked out strands of wavy, graying hair. She was hurling the roller in the trash and gripping the sides of the sink, shoulders hunched. No clear thoughts materialized; there were no epiphanies. There was only gleaming porcelain and cold tile, a solitary toothbrush and an almost full bottle of Rive Gauche. There was the beating of her heart and the traffic on the street outside. She was telling herself that none of it mattered. “None of it matters.” she was saying. And she was picking up the bottle of her mother’s scent, preparing to smash it against the mirror just to see how effectively glass shattered glass. She was holding the bottle in her hand and bringing it to her face, to her lips and then her nose. She was inhaling her mother’s scent and thinking of flesh and of blood. She was thinking of her sister and how the bottle had been a gift from her, in memory of their mother. And it was all too late, or too early, or too much, or too little. It would never fit, it would never nestle easily in her hand. And if it ever landed in her hand in the first place, she would probably hold on to it so tightly that it would squeeze through her fingers and pour right back out. Her mother knew that, everyone knew that. She knew that. She would just keep going to sleep and waking up the next morning, but she would pay no more attention to dreams than she would a single snowflake in a snowstorm.
When she returned to the living room, Bereket had his shoes and jacket on. His Redskins hat was pulled down to his brows again. He was talking quietly into the phone, as one would to a sleepy baby. He shut the phone and put it in his pocket.
“Lili’s home,” he said, his voice light and satisfied.
“Good.” Almas clapped loudly, painfully. “She’s a good one, that girl.”
“Good?” Bereket laughed. “I don’t even know where she was, but you know what? I don’t care.” He patted Almas jovially on the shoulder; “Hey, to each his own, right?” He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and said, just before the door closed, almost as an afterthought, that Lili insisted Almas join them that evening for pasta. It would be a private thing, just the three of them, no gang. Almas shut the door behind Bereket and imagined him walking into Lili’s apartment and Lili shutting the door behind the two of them.
Almas looked at the empty teacups and at the place where he’d sat. For all anyone would know if they walked in at that moment, she could have placed two cups there for the heck of it, just for the heck of it; so quickly did any trace of a warm human having sat there, holding that cup, disappear. It was the apartment, she told herself; it was simply incapable of holding on to any sign of life. Lonely, he’d called it. No, he’d corrected himself. As if a lovely single lady lived here.
At the kitchen sink she placed the tea things gently down and began to wash them. She then brought the still warm kettle to the sink where she poured all the freshly brewed spiced water down the drain. The ginger cubes, plump and richly golden fell with dull thuds onto the metal of the sink. She forced them down the drain with the black cloves and cardamom pods. Then she opened the drawer where she kept her spices, retrieved her imported bag of cardamom and spent a peaceful time dropping the pods one by one into the disposal; uncracked and whole.
Marta Naigzy Woodward considers herself an American child of East Africa, and a member of the African diaspora at large. Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to parents of Eritrean descent, and raised in Kenya – she now lives in the cultural melting pot of Silver Spring, Maryland where all three of her “parent” countries are well-represented. She is a wife, mother, teacher, and – during the precious in-between hours – a writer.