I could feel my shoulders tense, my back straighten and my smile was fake. My neck was aching me from trying to keep a proper posture and it was all tiring. I would be genteel like they said and talk in a low voice but it wasn’t me and I couldn’t become as lady-like as they want me to be. I laughed at a few jokes, drank some tea and then I decided it was time for me to leave. Pretending to be someone you were not was beyond exhausting and I did not like it when they forced me to do things I wasn’t comfortable with. I left the meelas (living room) with all the chattering ladies and went to my room. I could feel my head contract with a painful and pounding ache. I looked at my reflection blinking at me and groaned at the idea of having to remove all the makeup off my face and wash my hair from all the hairspray. I reluctantly dragged myself to the bathroom, took a shower, removed my makeup, wore my PJs and plopped myself in my bed with a book to read.
“Laila!” I could hear my Mum’s heels clicking as she approached my room.
The door burst open and my Mum was huffing like an angry dragon.
“Astaghfur Allah!” She slammed the door. “We have guests! How can you leave? You don’t leave until everyone leaves!”
“Mama,” I started. “I had a very painful headache and I couldn’t stay. It was too painful, besides you know I hate azayim (gatherings)!”
“Not my problem,” she snapped. “If you repeat such a behaviour again, I will show you!”
She left before I could blurt out a come back and I was done. I felt that that was it. My Mum wanted to put myself out there, so everyone would see that she had a daughter eligible to be married. But I didn’t want to get married!
My phone was beeping at 3AM in the morning and it wasn’t even prayer time. I groggily got up and looked at my phone. It was Shahad calling me.
“Yes?” I answered.
“Oh my God!” She squealed. I could feel my eardrum weeping. “DID YOU HEAR?”
“Obviously not, otherwise you wouldn’t be calling me at the break of dawn,” I snarled. “What is it?”
“Nora GOT ENGAGED!” She giggled. I think I have lost my sense of hearing altogether.
“No I did not and I couldn’t care less,” I sighed.
“Gosh you are such a Grinch,” she said. “A Wedding Grinch.”
“One second,” I said. “Nope, I checked with the Department of I Care but I seem to still Not Care.”
“Oh come on Laila!” she begged. “It will be fun!”
“Shahad,” I began. “You do realise she hates both of us. She hates our existence in her life and she thinks my life goal is to marry her stuck up brother who is too busy loving himself that he cannot concentrate on other things but the fact that he is so beautiful and charming.”
“We can skip all the drama and just enjoy ourselves!” she said. “Let us pamper ourselves, go to spa, oh AND DRESS SHOPPING!”
“You are planning to kill me right?” I groaned.
“No,” she chuckled. “I want to have a good time although Nora was engaged 3 months ago and we were just told of it.”
“Great,” I said. “More pretending for me.”
“Oh, don’t be such a Grinch!” Shahad was way too excited for a 3AM call. “Gotta go, sleep well!”
“Thanks,” I replied. “Sweet dreams.”
~One Week Before Nora’s Engagement Party~
Shahad and I we were going to the mall to get our dresses. She insisted we pass by Sephora to get new makeup.
“Keep an eye for a parking spot,” she said.
I glanced around us for a spot and pointed at a place that was a few feet away from the main entrance.
“If you do valet parking it would make our lives easier,” I pointed out.
“I am too lazy to do that,” she said.
“Yet, not too lazy to look for a parking spot for 15 minutes?” I laughed. “You contradict yourself!”
“Never mind!” Shahad smiled. “Let’s go shopping!”
“Starbucks first so I could recharge my tolerance battery,” I demanded.
Halfway through our shopping trip, my feet began to hurt my and my shopping bags were digging into my arms. I wanted to rest, so I sat on a bench and Shahad went to the shop across from me. She would occasionally run to the front of the shop and giggle while showing me a cute top or adorable heels. I took out my phone to check my notifications when I felt someone sit beside me. I ignored the presence of the human sitting beside me and continued to read my emails.
“Well,” he cleared his throat. “Hello to you too my cousin.”
“We don’t say hello,” I gave him a sideways glare. “We say Assalmu Alayikum.”
“Aha,” he grinned. “I didn’t know you were such a preserver of religion and traditions.”
“I do not appreciate your sarcasm because it is insulting,” I hissed. “Either you say something good or just keep your mouth shut.”
“What are you doing here?” He put his arm on the back of the bench and looked at me. His face was brimming with the arrogance that I loathed.
“I am shopping with Shahad,” I said refusing to look at his face anymore.
“Oh poor Shahad,” he said. “She is so nice and you are so..vicious.”
“Thank you,” I said getting up. “That is such a beautiful compliment.”
“You are most welcome,” he laughed.
I was so angry I would have probably generated smoke from my ears and head. I stomped all the way to the shop and went to look for Shahad.
“We leave,” I said. “Now.”
“What’s wrong?” Shahad said and looked over my shoulder. “Isn’t that Ahmed waving at us?”
“Who CARES?!” I screamed.
“Oh,” she said. “He is coming over.”
“Do you want to buy anything?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
I grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the other entrance of the shop. We hurriedly walked towards the main entrance to the car. I kept telling her to walk and not look back. I did not want to talk to him whatsoever.
~Three Days Before Nora’s Engagement Party~
I keep wondering who made it such a thing that we have to visit the girl who was engaged and help her through preparations? I did not mean physical preparation but mental. Like we all have to be there for her because well we had to. We were her family and we had to support her no matter what.
Nora wasn’t happy when she saw me and Shahad. She kept complaining about how fat she looked which was a complete lie because if you put two Nora’s together that would make a Laila. I wasn’t fat, she was the one who was too skinny. I was considered “normal” in my standards if it wasn’t in society’s yet my I Care department lacks Cares for what society thought of my weight. Then she started complaining about how some people were envious of her and her engagement—all the while staring at me—and how she felt immensely nervous. She wore her dress and scrutinised every detail of it: how it made her look paler than she is, how it was too puffy, how the fabric didn’t flow with her when she moved and how it was just uncomfortable being in it. I rolled my eyes at every comment but I tried being nice because my Mum was there and Shahad too who did not like to see me fighting at all.
We broke away from them and went to the living room. I massaged my head for it was filled with Nora’s high pitched voice still complaining about everyone and everything. Shahad and I sat in front of the muted TV and watched the silly cartoon that was playing on MBC 3. We were both quiet because we didn’t have anything to say and if I opened my mouth I won’t stop complaining about Nora complaining.
“Halla!” Fay joined us. “What are you guys doing?”
“Yes,” Arwa sat beside Fay. “What are you guys doing?”
“Blankly staring at a muted TV,” I said. “What about you?”
“Getting juicy news from the women!” Arwa said.
“Did you hear?” Fay murmured. “Afra from high school is married and has two kids! Last year, Ramia got married and this year Nora and Sarah are engaged!”
“Did you get engaged, Laila?” Arwa narrowed her eyes.
I could feel my soul groan and slump all the way to my feet in defeat. Shahad gazed at my face but I kept it expressionless.
“I mean everyone said that you will be the first one to get married,” Fay said.
“Yeah,” Arwa added. “Yet, we haven’t heard any news from you.”
“Why do you care so much?” I said. “Hm? Why? Why is it such a universal concern if Laila gets married? Why is it everyone’s business that I get married? I will marry when I will marry and no one has to do anything with it okay?!”
I was agitated and I had to leave the place before I just burst into a whirlwind of pent up emotions. I walked out of the house to the playground and slumped onto a swing. These words have been haunting me ever since I started going to university, it was like my whole life depended on this word! Shahad did not follow me to the playground and Mum did not notice I disappeared from Nora’s room which was a miracle. My phone buzzed with notifications and I ignored it. My head was heavy with murky thoughts and I was probably past the highest level of frustration for this topic of “marriage”.
I saw Ahmed’s black G55 come into the house in high speed and squeal to a stop in the garage. I was praying that he wouldn’t notice that I was in the playground but since when didn’t Ahmed not notice me anywhere? He lived to see me suffer.
“Do you miss your childhood, Lolo?” he asked as he pocketed his keys and phone.
“Just as much as the days where I don’t get to see you,” I said.
“Oh don’t be mean!” He sat on the swing beside mine.
“Do you even fit into that swing?” I asked.
“Do you?” He smirked.
For the first time I looked at him, really looked at him. He wasn’t handsome and I mean by that that if it were his eyes alone he’d look plain but all his features together made him handsome. That lopsided grin of his that was constantly drawn on his face, his deep brown eyes crinkling when he smiles. perfectly groomed beard and I hated his nose. It was abnormally small, well it wasn’t abnormal for a human’s face, it was just small, sharp and perfect. It made me want to smash his nose into his face because he teased me a lot.
“Your glare is burning my face,” he chuckled.
“I’m not glaring,” I growled.
“You glare all the time,” he got up. “Try smiling for once.”
I blinked the shock away and watched him retreat into the house. I also noticed three heads peeking from behind the curtains. Fay and Arwa had their mouths open and Shahad was giggling and winking at me.
~Nora’s Engagement Party~
It was a hectic day, finishing the makeup, then the hair and then getting dress. Making sure we didn’t forget the accessories and jewelries, stock our clutch bags with makeup to touch up through the night and not to forget the flower bouquets. Shahad was with me in my room when we were getting ready.
“So,” she said. “What was that?”
“What was what?” I applied my foundation.
“That,” she said.
“Stop hitting around the bush,” I glanced at her. “Just say it.”
“You were with Ahmed that day,” she said while applying her mascara. “What were you doing? Fay and Arwa might’ve spread wildfire by now!”
“First of all, I don’t care because they will be telling complete lies,” I said. “Second, he came to tease me as usual. Throw some insults and leave.”
“Laila,” Shahad went serious all of a sudden. “I noticed something. He is only that open with you. When he came into the house he was all formal and rigid. Fay and Arwa as usual were swooning but he wouldn’t even give any of us a second glance.”
“I wish he respected me that way,” I huffed.
“It’s not respect,” Shahad smacked my shoulder. “He LIKES you!”
“Don’t you dare start plotting things Shahad!” I was aghast. “He DOESN’T!”
“He is so relaxed with you and he likes teasing you!” Shahad went on with her I-Am-Plotting-Something smile.
“Just shush!” I screamed. “Let’s finish and leave!”
-Few hours later-
“Do I look fat?” Shahad inspected herself in the mirror of the hallway.
“You look gorgeous,” I smiled.
She did really look gorgeous, long, black luscious hair in loose waves, big and dewy eyes rimmed with thick lashes and her makeup was Adele inspired. She wore a strapless black dress and sparkly black heels. On the contrary, I had my hair in a tight ponytail, my makeup was subtle and I wore a sky blue dress. It wasn’t strapless because me and strapless dresses didn’t get along well. I wore white heels.
“Let’s go,” Shahad grabbed my hand and we walked together into the meelas.
As soon as the door was open we were hit by a wave of women chatting noises. I grimaced and Shahad reminded me to smile or else people would notice I was a Wedding Grinch. I plastered on my face a smile and greeted all the women in the meelas. Then we headed to Nora’s room to check on her.
We got to her room and we could her a whispered conversation.
“It’s Fay and Arwa,” Shahad pressed her ear to the door. “Oh my God!” She hissed. “They are telling her about that time you were with Ahmed in the playground.”
“NEVER!” Nora suddenly screamed. “SHE WILL NEVER MARRY AHMED! SHE IS A VILE AND INSUFFERABLE CREATURE AND I WILL NEVER LET MY BROTHER MARRY HER! SHE IS FAT AND UGLY!”
I stood there drinking in her words. I turned to the rack in the hallway that held our veils and abayaas and wore mine. I saw Shahad mimic my actions and tell me that I should ignore her words. It was too late, I could feel a lump in my throat forming and angry tears streaming down my face. I didn’t know why I was crying, I was supposed not to care about what she said. I could feel the sobs trying to leave my mouth but I bit it refusing to be heard. I ran all the way to the entrance of the house then I remembered there were guests coming and turned to the kitchen to escape from the back door. I sat at the doorstep of the kitchen and cried. She said I was fat and ugly and how silly I was to let that get to me. So what if she thought I was fat and ugly? She was skinny and ugly too! I could hear my phone ringing and I refused to pick it up. My makeup was ruined and my mood was ruined and the whole night was ruined. I got up slowly and walked to the playground. It was dark there and no one would see me. I sat on the swing and soft sobs escaped my lips. I wiped the tears away smearing mascara all over my face.
My head jerked up at his voice. It was Ahmed and he was heading to his car when he heard me. I withheld my breath and stayed quiet.
“I said who’s there?” He screamed angrily.
I closed my teary eyes and prayed strongly. I prayed that he would let it go and just leave. I prayed that at this moment he wouldn’t take out his phone to switch on his flash and trudge towards the playground. I prayed that he would just leave and let me be for once.
“Laila?” He said.
I opened my eyes and he was standing right in front my me.
“What’s wrong?” he said his voice full of concern. “What happened? Aren’t you supposed to be inside?! Why are you crying?”
I didn’t want to reply to him because I could feel a new wave of chocking sobs rise up my throat. I just shook my head and gestured for him to leave.
“I wont leave until you tell me what’s wrong,” he said.
I cursed my silly eyes for allowing more tears to slide down my face.
“Who made you cry?” He was angry. No not angry, he was enraged.
“No one,” I sniffed.
“Laila,” he said. “I am running out of patience now, either you tell me or I find out who did this and make them pay for it!”
What was I supposed to tell him? That it was his sister? That she said I could never marry him? That I was fat and ugly? I cant do that, not to him, not in a million years.
“I was upset with how my makeup and hair looked,” I said. “And I just broke down.”
“I know you are lying,” He said. “I will find out one way or another. No one makes you cry and gets away with it.”
“Oh really?” I shouted. “You made me cry every night! Since we were kids! You insulted me everyday and you teased me and you upset me but when it is someone else you get all worked up because OH NO no one could make me cry but YOU!”
He breathed in sharply and took a few steps back. “Me? I made you cry? B-but I thought you knew I was joking and I thought it was okay with you.”
“You just presumed,” I sobbed. “You never asked.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. His expression twisted with pain. “I can’t comfort you, not in the way I would like to Laila. I am sorry if I was hurting you all these years. I am sorry I was a jerk…but you…I mean you…—”
“I am what?” I snapped.
“You have a special place in my heart,” he blurted out recklessly. “I have liked you for a long time and and…this is stupid Laila…I want to…well I want you to be…I want to marry you.”
I froze in my place for a minute and then I laughed. “Marry me? Are you proposing Ahmed or is this one of your games? Marry me he said!”
He looked more than hurt, he looked wounded. “I am telling the truth Laila but I wasn’t planning it to be this way.”
“Really now?” I snickered.
“Don’t be silly,” he hissed. “I love you.”
I was aghast at his confession. I was speechless. He loved me? Did he just say that he loved me? That he loved me and wanted to marry me?
“I’m sorry,” I shook my head and walked past him.
As I retreated I could feel my heart squeeze in pain and joy at the same time.
I told Shahad everything the next day when she came over because I was grounded for leaving the party.
“I TOLD YOU!” She screamed and tackled me. “I TOLD YOU HE LIKES YOU!”
“Stop Shahad!” I pushed her away. “I can’t breathe!”
Mum knocked on the door which was not her habit and peeked into the room. She was smiling and that was weird too.
“Can I come in?” Mum asked.
“Yes you can.” I replied.
“Your aunt called me just a few minutes ago,” her smile widened. She glowed with utter happiness. “Aaaaand…”
“And what?” I asked.
“She wants you for her son!” She squealed. “She called telling me that last night Ahmed came to her and told her that he wanted to marry and he had someone in his mind and it was you!!”
“Oh…MY…GOD!” Shahad attacked tackle me for the second time.
“So what do you think?” Mum said.
Last night when I came back to home I realised something. I wasn’t upset because Nora called me fat and ugly, I was upset because she said I could never marry Ahmed. The prospect of it made me feel sad and miserable and it opened my eyes to the truth, that all this time I liked him and I craved his attention. That I loved it when he teased me even though it angered me but I loved it. He probably understood me more than I understood myself.
“Well,” my Mum pressed on. “What do you think?”
“Yes,” I smiled shyly. “Tell her that I said yes.”
Mum was crying rivers of tears as I signed the marriage contract. I never wanted to tie the knot, I never thought I would ever but her I am sitting beside a grinning Ahmed singing into a new life and a new journey. Nora was absolutely against the marriage but she couldn’t do anything to stop it, Ahmed made sure of it. Shahad was with my Mum crying and taking bazillion pictures. It felt weird really and I was still a Wedding Grinch. Ahmed kept telling me it would be wonderful and I told me that he wasn’t the one who would wear the dress and walk down the aisle.
“Why are you upset?” he said. “You wont look like a whale, I promise.”
“Do I look like one?” I glared at him.
“Tiny whale,” he smirked. “A cute tiny whale.”
“Are you trying to get me angry?”
“Oh why?” he grinned. “You are my cute tiny whale.”
“I will cut the contract if you keep calling me that,” I threatened.
“I will still love you,” he said softly and kissed my cheek.
“You wont get away with the whale insult,” I hissed. “You just wait!”
“Smile,” he whispered and looked at the camera with a huge grin. I rolled my eyes and ruined the picture which made my Mum turn into her usual dragon self and scold me.