It’s Just a Kiss / short story / Fadi Zaghmout

What happens when child becomes parent? Novelist Fadi Zaghmout's short story explores divorce, social conventions and a dysfunctional mother daughter relationship on the brink of implosion.

Illustration: The Drunk Kiss inspired by Rodin by Omar Al Asadi

By Fadi Zaghmout

Fiction 2 March 2018

We rarely get invited to any of the family occasions anymore since mother filed for divorce and dad left. It’s not my dad’s family I am talking about here. They invite me every weekend to have lunch and usually insist that I stay over. It’s her family who avoids us. Or should I say not us but rather it’s her they keep a distance from.

Poor mother. She doesn’t know how to deal with it. She’s not strong enough to make the decision to cut ties with her parents. At the same time, she can’t get her point across and get them to see how unjustly they treat her. Her relationship with her two sisters changed drastically once they got married. Both of their husbands didn’t fancy mother’s lifestyle. Only a few days after his engagement, having encountered mother in a night club, one of them rushed to see grandpa. He politely, yet confidently, broke the news to him, asserting that mother’s behaviour is unacceptable for a divorced woman. He completely missed the point that it’s possibly not appropriate for a newly engaged man to be clubbing without his fiancé́ either.

Naturally, grandpa agreed with him. He’d always been a conservative man. A strict father, he limited the freedoms of his daughters to that which he believed to be appropriate. And Mother, being his eldest daughter, proved to be his biggest challenge. Their epic fights had been mother’s favourite choice of bedtime stories when I was a child, as well as my aunts favourite subject to discuss when they meet. For Mother, marriage was her ticket out. And since then grandpa backed off.

A few hours after my aunt’s husband – fiancé at that time – left grandpa’s house, he received a phone call. Mother gave him a piece of her mind, ordered him to mind his own business and warned him to never interfere in her life again. Later, when my aunt was pressured to take a stand between the two, she chose him. My other aunt followed suit to please her own husband. And since then, grandma excluded us from family gatherings to avoid any conflicts.

We arrive last to the party. Still considering it her home, Mother opens the door and barges in with me trailing behind her. The women were already busy preparing the table for the festive meal. Grandma appears at the kitchen door with a plate of hummus in her left hand and a plate of tabbouleh in her right. She comes close to mother, kisses her cheek and sarcastically exclaims,

‘So, you’ve come?’

Mother mistakenly took what grandma said as a sign that she wasn’t wanted instead of  her simply being irritated at our late arrival.

‘Of course we came, we’d never miss your special invitation, dear mother!’ she replied with the same sarcastic tone.

She then moves to hug her sisters and greet their husbands then runs off to the cheers of her nieces and nephews. When grandpa shows up, she barely looks at him.

I on the other hand, have to go through the full circle. That means getting hugged and kissed multiple times on both of my cheeks by every single one of them. Each embrace is accompanied with the usual words of admiration,

“Mashallah! You look great. What an Aroos you have grown up to be . . .”

I learnt to take their compliments with a grain of salt, especially when I see them awe at mother’s beauty, which none of them dares to acknowledge. It’s funny how they feel obliged to commend me for something that I don’t possess while they ignore the undeniable beauty of mother. According to grandma, my beauty is better than mother’s because it’s subtle. This is her way to say it’s minimal. That doesn’t bother me. I don’t want to be seen as beautiful as Mother is. I’d prefer to feel more loved.

It’s funny how they feel obliged to commend me for something that I don’t possess while they ignore mother’s undeniable beauty.

I am not an Aroos and I am not sure if I’ll ever be one. Mother is the real Aroos. At forty-two, she is more attractive than ever. Especially on this day with her four inch black Louboutin heels and her knee-length purple skirt that cuts perfectly within a short distance of her toned calves. She tops that with an unbuttoned off-white fitted shirt that shows her ample cleavage and compliments her long dark hair. While I, who just turned twenty, feel, look and act like a child. I stopped growing years ago, leaving me three inches shorter than mother, my posture isn’t as erect as hers, my body lack the ability to store any fat and my breasts never grew to be as round as hers. With my pink flats, blue leggings and loose white shirt, I look more like a common fish while she looks like a mermaid.

Mother decides to step up and answer grandpa when he decides to be funny and ask,

‘So when are we going to celebrate you?’

‘Back off! She’s a child. She should finish college and work for a few years before she even thinks about getting married.’

‘But you had her when you were her age.’

‘That’s why I would never let her repeat her mother’s mistake,’ she said while giving him a sharp look.

Feeling the tension rise, grandma interferes.

‘Leave the girl alone,’ she orders and then changes the topic by asking about my studies.

As we talk, Mother immerses herself into her smart phone. A few moments later, she sends me a message:

‘See? That’s why I told you it would never work out.’

I can see what she means but I don’t understand why she can’t give it a try. She might be able to convince them of her case, spare herself agony and spare me a headache. But no, that’s not how Mother operates. She enjoys indulging herself in dramatic scenarios – playing the victim, being mistreated and the one who has to sacrifice. Besides, she was never as helpless as she projects herself to be. Mother lives her life the way she wants. That’s why I don’t get it. When it comes to this issue, she fails to pull herself together and tell them to back off the same way she does for me.

Mother has been this dramatic since the Saturday before, after she came back from dinner with Omar. She stormed into the house and slammed the door behind her while calling my name out loud. It freaked me out and I was out of bed in a second. When she saw me half asleep in my pyjamas, she said,

‘Oh sorry dear, did I wake you up?’

Without waiting for an answer, she came closer and dropped a small bag in my hand.

‘Look!’ she said as she took off her heels.

‘What’s this?’ I asked, confused.

‘Open it and take a look,’ she said before turning her back so I’d unzip her dress.

I was about to take the little box out of the bag when she lost her patience and snatched it off my hand. She opened it and shoved it in my face.

‘Omar proposed,’ she took a deep breath, then repeated ‘Omar proposed!’

Then, she burst into tears.

‘Omar proposed?’ I echoed, “Oh that’s nice. Why are you crying then?’

‘I don’t know. This is wrong. This is bad,’ she said while snatching some tissues out of the box I handed her.

‘Mom, calm down. Come, let’s sit and talk this out.’

I led her to the sofa.

‘Isn’t this what you wanted?’

‘Yes.’

‘Isn’t this what you have been worried about for so long?’

‘Yes.’

‘Didn’t you whine for months about how Omar doesn’t seem to be serious about your relationship?’

She stared at me.

‘So why are you crying now? You’re supposed to be happy.’

‘I know, but . . .’ she said and started crying all over again.

‘But what? There are no buts… congratulations!’ I said, looking at her eyes and smiling.

‘But I can’t marry him. They won’t accept it.’

We have been arguing for a week whether they would accept it or not and whether it even mattered. I thought that I managed to convince her too at least test the ground at lunch, but I guess her courage failed her. Especially since all that they seemed to be interested in is finding me an Arees.

I don’t mind leaving early either as I am excited for the night probably more than her. I like her friends. I enjoy their weekly gatherings. They are less uptight than family. They make me laugh, especially after they sip few drinks.

I texted throughout lunch,

‘Do it! Do it now! Now! Now! NOW!’

To which she replies,

‘No. Drop it. NO.NO. NO.’

I even tried to bring it up in conversation. Pointing at Mother I said,

‘Hey, look here is an Aroos. Let’s find her an Arees first.”

Everybody looks at me, astonished. Their faces plainly saying – you can’t be serious. Of course you are not serious. Mother glares at me.

We are the first ones to excuse ourselves and leave as Mother has planned for another gathering at home with her friends.

‘Sorry we have to leave early, she has to study,’ she said throwing her car keys towards me, ‘go get the car.’

I don’t mind leaving early either as I am excited for the night probably more than her. I like her friends. I enjoy their weekly gatherings. They are less uptight than family. They make me laugh, especially after they sip few drinks.

It’s a dynamic group of around ten that changes over time except for the core members. Mother, her divorced best friend Ola, and their third partner in crime who at thirty-eight is yet to get married, Ghada.

Mother isn’t herself since leaving grandpa’s house that afternoon. She doesn’t say anything in the car and goes directly to her room once we get home. I give her some space and get myself busy preparing for the night. I take a shower, polish my nails and head to the supermarket to get some mixers and snacks. I don’t know why, but unlike around family, when I am with Mother’s friends, I like to impress them.

I put on a casual ankle length fluffy colourful skirt with a simple red bretelle careful not to overdress for the occasion. I pull my hair up and add my favourite silver flowery earrings. I look in the mirror and feel satisfied.

‘That’s cute,’ I think to myself, ‘the kind of beauty that grandma would describe as subtle.’

Mother looks stunning when she comes out of her room despite her gloomy mood. In her casual jeans and sleeveless black top she looks even more attractive than she did that morning. As a matter of fact, everybody looks good that night, but none of them are happy. I don’t know what is wrong with the energy. I thought their presence would liven up mother’s mood, but it turns out to be the other way around. Ola is pissed-off because she had to work on a Friday morning. Ghada is hungry the minute she arrives and throws a fit when the pizza delivery takes forever to arrive. Sarah and Maher, a couple friend of Mother’s, keep arguing about what his mother said over lunch.

I keep myself busy by playing host and preparing drinks. When Omar arrives later with a new friend, I think that they might be able to save the night but that doesn’t happen either. Things becomes even more tense because Mother doesn’t give Omar the attention he is seeking. Alcohol fails to help either. Instead of lightening their mood, it fuels their distress. The new guy probably hates Omar for bringing him. He’s quiet in a corner watching the drama unfolds. I don’t want him to have a bad impression, so I move closer and attempt to engage him in conversation.

As the night comes to an end, Mother leads Omar to her room. She closes the door behind them and tells him that she made a decision. When they come out, her eyes are swollen and Omar looks shocked. They pretend that nothing happened and continue their casual conversations with the others. Later, Mother gets wasted. She’s barely awake when Ghada convinces her to go to bed. We bring her some water and walk her to her room.

I am pretty much wasted myself. I head to the balcony where Omar is smoking alone in the dark. I stand close to his chair and whisper,

‘What a bad night.’

He doesn’t answer. I look at him and notice that he wipes tear from his cheek.

I already know the answer but I lower my voice and ask,

‘What’s wrong?’

‘She is my life. I can’t live without her,’ he said in a drunken voice.

I don’t know what to say. I wait for him to say more.

‘Do you know what it means? My life? Your mother is my life,’ he cries.

I move my hand and gently pat his shoulder. He lays his head on my stomach. I let him get it all out while caressing the back of his head. After he calms down, I ask him if he wants to go inside. He nods and I help him to stand up. We are both unstable, so we hold onto each other to avoid tipping over. Before we start to walk, he pulls me closer to him in a strong embrace. He thanks me and kisses my forehead. He pulls my head to his chest and moves his hands through my hair. He thanks me again then whispers,

‘You are so nice.’

He kisses my forehead again then whispers,

‘You are beautiful.’

He looks at me and kisses my cheek. One kiss, then a second and a third before pulling me into a passionate kiss.

I don’t know how long it took me to push him away. All I know is that I experienced the worst feeling of my life. I run away to my room feeling mentally and physically dizzy. I just want to sleep, to push it away, to kill it.

‘I didn’t kiss my mother’s lover,’ I repeat to myself despite the fact that I actually did.

It’s as if someone is there, shoving the image of Omar kissing me in front of my eyes the moment I open them.

The next morning mother wakes up with a hangover. I have my own version of a hangover too. When I finally left my room around noon, she is already sitting on the sofa smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. I can barely say good morning. I run off to the toilet and back to my room. Two hours later I hear her calling out for me but I pretend not to hear. She calls louder then comes into my room and ask me whether I’d like to go out for lunch or not. I say no, but my no usually means nothing to her. She says that she needs some fresh air and orders me to dress while she takes a shower. I want to shout and tell her to leave me alone but I can’t. I end up saying that I, too, need a shower before we leave.

With our pale faces and sunglasses, we look like zombies as we leave the house. She drives this time and I don’t care where she is taking us.

‘What would you like to eat?’ she asked.

‘Anything,’ I said though what I mean is, ‘Nothing’.

Other than that, we stay silent till we reach the restaurant.

Mother doesn’t spare anytime before starting her whining. Right after we get seated, she lights a cigarette, inhales and says calmly without even looking at me,

‘I broke up with Omar yesterday.’

At that moment I felt a deep pain in my heart. I’m not ready to hear her talk about Omar. I am not sure I can tolerate it.

‘But I think that I made a wrong decision,’ she continues, ‘I thought about it this morning. It’s clear now. They don’t care about me so why should I care about what they think?’

I’m speechless. Isn’t this what I have been telling you? I want to scream at her. Now it’s clear to you? Now? Why now?! I want to beg her to stop. I want to tell her how crazy this all sounds. However, all I can do is cry.

‘What’s wrong, dear?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Don’t tell me nothing, there must be something.’

‘I will be right back,’ I escape to the toilet to avoid a complete collapse in front of her. There I weep like I never did before.

I put my sunglasses on and come back. I apologize and blame my period. She looks with suspicion, and says,

‘You know how much I love you, right?’

I nod while trying hard not to cry again.

‘I am only doing this because I know that you are OK with it. If you don’t want me to marry him, then I won’t.’

I remain silent.

‘Are you OK with it dear?’

‘With what?’

‘Me marrying Omar?’

That’s probably the toughest question I’ve ever had to answer. One that I know exactly how I should answer but fail to do it right. With a straight face I hear myself saying,

“Yes, I am OK with it mother.’

A few days later, I make another bad decision. My moment of clarity comes when Omar calls me to apologize about what happened and pleads with me not to tell Mother. It’s a small mistake he says, one that we both regret and promise to never let happen again. I know that I have neither the courage to tell her nor the intention of hurting her but I also know that I don’t have the power to stand still and watch their wedding preparations and his consequent moving into the house.

My way out came earlier in the day when grandma calls and says,

‘I have an Arees for you.’

I laughed when I first heard her saying it, knowing that mother would never agree to let me get married at this age, but then the moment I hung up with Omar, I knew that this is a battle I have to win. I call grandma back and ask her to arrange for him to meet me at the university, behind Mother’s back.

When I cover my face, she grabs my hair and keeps hitting me until she loses energy. She then drags me to my room and locks the door.

I start to date him secretly. I want to get to know him better in order to be able to convince Mother that I am madly in love and can’t live without him. I make sure to leave a good impression on him during the very few dates we have, and after I secure his love, I can carry out my plan.

Two months later I make my move. I make it apparent to Mother that I am in love with someone but never come clear with the details. She tries to question me on several occasions but I manage to avoid giving her any specific answers. I claim that he’s a colleague at school and that I’ll introduce her to him soon.

I break the news to her while she’s watching an Egyptian drama and tell her that Ahmad proposed. At first she looks at me and laughs.

‘Don’t be silly,’ she says and then returns to watching her show.

‘Mother, I really want to marry him.’

‘You are both kids. He ought to finish school and start earning money first.’

‘Ahmad is thirty.’

She covers her face with her palm and pauses for a moment to let what I have told her sink in. I can see her eyes growing wider in anger.

‘What did you say?’ she screams, ‘are you crazy? You’ve been dating a man ten years older than you behind my back?’

I nod.

‘Crazy! Dumb! Stupid! Since when do you hide things from me? Since when?’

’Sorry, I had to do this.’

‘This is over. You are not seeing him again,’ she pauses again, looking at me with both disbelief and anger.

‘Give me your phone.’

I don’t move.

She snatches my bag and takes my phone out. She drops it in my hand and orders me.

‘Call him.’

I don’t.

‘Call him now.’

In probably one of the most stupid moves that I ever made in my life, I find myself telling her,

‘I am pregnant.’

Mother stares at me for what seems like an eternity, then unleashes unbridled anger. She throws the phone at me a painful hit to my stomach and continues to slaps me over and over again.

‘Crazy! Pregnant! Crazy!’

When I cover my face, she grabs my hair and keeps hitting me until she loses energy. She then drags me to my room and locks the door.

I feel pain but don’t cry. I keep staring at the wall all night long trying to comprehend what happened. Despite its madness, there is a part of me that feels relieved. I think that I have been longing for it. I have been living with an unbearable amount of guilt since that night. I wanted her to beat me because I deserve it. I kissed her lover for fucks sake. But it isn’t only guilt that I feel. I think. I hate her too. I blame her for what happened. I blame her for turning me into a copy of her. Maybe I was a whore that night, but I don’t feel bad for her either. I think that she deserves it, too.

I cry when she opens the door of my room next morning. She comes straight to my bed and hugs me. She apologizes for being a horrible mother but I can’t help myself. I say sorry too.

‘No you are not a horrible mother,’ is all I can say.

She drags me to a medical clinic and forces me to do a pregnancy test. Of course, It turns out negative. She takes me back home without saying anything as thought nothing happened. We spent the rest of the afternoon in peace.

Since that day I feel like a thin sheet of glass grew between us. We became very cautious in dealing with each other as though anything we do might end up hurting the other. To my delight, she stopped whining about anything, but to my horror, I witnessed her cutting off her relationship with Omar. She did it in silence, slowly but smoothly without engaging me in any details. I didn’t interfere either as I didn’t want to cause any more damage. I did the same and cut my relationship with Ahmad without engaging her in the details.

I never dated again since that day and neither did she. Sometimes I look back at what I did and I wish that I didn’t go mad. It probably was just a kiss. I shouldn’t have let it kill what we had.

Fadi Zaghmout is a gender activist, blogger and author. The Bride of Amman, his first novel, was a controversial best seller in the Middle East. His latest novel Heaven on Earth is out now.

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