Jessica turned from where she was parting the heavily brocaded curtains to peer outside into the darkness. She found a large woman with deep olive skin gesturing toward a crushed velvet cushion on a chair in the dining room. The woman's gold embroidered traditional dress that was wrapped about her made Jessica wish she could be in the comfort of her own apartment right then. She had missed American Idol to come tonight, she thought sadly. It was hard to believe that just a year before she had auditioned to be on the show. But she imagined she would have to give up dancing for good now…
“Sit,” the woman said again, “We will have tea.”
It was then that Jessica remembered the woman from earlier. The woman's accent had slightly distorted the intonations of the brief English outbursts she had used to command the servers who couldn't seem to set up or clear out fast enough for the woman's tastes.
“Useless,” Jessica remembered hearing the woman mutter in a low voice after a server scurried from the room swaying under the weight of the stack of glass plates with half-eaten food on them. Then the woman began chatting in a language that Jessica did not recognize or understand.
“Thank you,” Jessica murmured as made her way to the table. But she didn't feel thankful. She felt suffocated and overwhelmed. The house smelled of scented burning wood and she wondered if it would be rude to open a window.
“Islam means peace,” a burly imām with a large beard had told her two months before, when she still hadn't gotten up the nerve to become Muslim though she knew it was the right thing to do. “When you say the shahādah, all your sins are wiped away. And you feel new.”
But Jessica didn't feel new. She didn't even feel peace. She just felt…lonely, incredibly lonely. How would she tell her parents? They would kill her…
“You enjoy yourself tonight, no?” the woman asked after she and Jessica seated themselves across from each other at the long polished oak wood table. The woman was arranging a silver tea set as she spoke.
“Sorry about my mom,” a girl had leaned down to whisper to Jessica after most of the guests had gone home. Jessica's gaze followed the teenager who was tucking a soiled tablecloth under one arm, but the girl kept moving and didn't wait for a reply.
At the moment, the apology had confused Jessica, but Jessica's now heightened discomfort inspired the vague feeling that she was about to have tea with the girl's mother, whom Jessica assumed owned the large home where the party had been held.
“I'm sorry about staying here so long,” Jessica said, glancing at the window she had been looking out earlier. “It's just that they told me—”
“Nonsense,” the woman said with a wave of her hand as she reached for the teapot and poured hot water into a small china glass, then reached across the table to set it in front of Jessica. “You are not an imposition.”
Jessica quickly tore open a package of artificial sweetener and emptied the powder into her hot water, stirring it vigorously with the small silver tea spoon. She clumsily brought the small cup to her lips in an effort to quiet the laughter she felt erupting at the back of her throat. It was incredibly rude to mock how a person spoke. Maybe it was the stress of the night getting to her, but she should know better, even if she had been Muslim for only three weeks.
But the sound of the woman's accent mixed with the “perfect English” was annoying, a feeling that had, even as a child, often inspired laughter in Jessica. She would have to keep her composure until Damon arrived to take her home. Then they could laugh about it together in the car…
“You are married, no?”
Jessica looked up suddenly from behind the teacup that was still at her lips, her eyes widened. She gulped the liquid and shuddered at the stinging heat in her throat. She coughed to avoid the piercing gaze of the woman with dark eyes and a determined expression that made Jessica squirm in her seat as she set her cup down.
“No, I, uh—” Jessica didn't know how to respond. She was only 19 years old and in the spring term of her second year in undergrad. Marriage had never crossed her mind. The only ring she wore right then was on the middle finger of her right hand, and was a simple sterling silver band she'd bought at Claire's when she was in high school. So she had no idea what made this imposing woman ask the question.
Jessica stole a glance at her watch and groaned inwardly as she realized that it would be at least another forty minutes before her friend would arrive. The women at the masjid had said the party would end around 10:30 or 11:00, and Jessica had imagined she was being overly polite when she'd asked Damon to come at 10:00. She was mortified when she saw the final guests drifting out at 9:00.
“I can't,” Damon's voice had crackled through her cell phone after she slipped to a corner of the living room to phone him and ask if he could come earlier. “I have to take the Bar again tomorrow, Jessie. You know that, and I need the extra time to study.”
“So he is your boyfriend?” the woman's voice rose as her heavy hands daintily placed her small teacup on its saucer. The woman was looking directly at Jessica, blinking repeatedly. The woman's polite expression only thinly veiled the disapproval on her middle-aged face.
Jessica's stomach churned. She dropped her gaze to the cup she now cradled in her hands. She sensed the woman's emphasis on the word “boy” had nothing to do with English being a second language.
“Next thing they'll tell you is you can't talk to me,” Damon had told her, grunting, when she first expressed to him her interest in becoming Muslim.
“You're just being cynical,” she'd said. He had laughed then, a laugh of pity. “You'll see,” he had said quietly, seeming to be talking more to himself than her.
“No, no, no,” Jessica said, shaking her head, a smile now toying at the sides of her mouth as she tried to appear composed before the woman. She felt her cheeks go warm as she realized her reply suggested she was hiding something shameful.
“Then you are just roaming about here and there with a strange man?”
There was an awkward pause, and the sound of a car approaching outside sent Jessica's heart racing in embarrassment and hope. Then the sound faded.
“No, of course not…” Jessica said, realizing she couldn't recall the woman's name. There had been so many to keep up with, and none of them had been in English. Would she have to change her name too? O Lord, her mother would have a fit. “…I've known him since we were kids.”
“Hmph.” The woman poured more water into Jessica's cup and the woman's eyes concentrated on this task briefly before looking at Jessica again. “He is Muslim, then, of course?”
It was an accusation, not a question. But Jessica decided that the woman had a right to disapprove, even if she didn't have a right to pry. Jessica was still learning all the rules in Islam, and though she really wanted to learn, she was scared she'd learn one more thing she'd have to give up. Hadn't it been enough to give up professional dancing? O God! That had been her life. Would she have to give up Damon too?
Jessica's heart dropped at the thought, and she averted her gaze. “No, he's um….”
The sudden shrilling of a phone made Jessica start. She immediately looked toward her own purse, but when the phone rang again, Jessica realized it was coming from across the room.
The woman stood quickly and walked noisily toward the source of the sound.
“Ah, so he has now arrived,” the woman said seconds later in her accented too-perfect English. “Jessica and I have been waiting anxiously for him to come.” A pause. “Oh, nonsense. We are happy to meet him.”
Jessica furrowed her brow. How had Damon gotten the house number? She reached for her purse and pulled the strap over her shoulder, relieved despite her confusion. She doubted she could last another minute here…
The woman's wide smile revealed slightly yellowing teeth as she approached Jessica after hanging up the phone. “Sit, sit, sit,” the woman said flapping her hands like a child. “My son is here now. You will meet him. He is a doctor, you see. Very, very busy. So, so busy. You see, he is doing his residency at Johns Hopkins. You know Johns Hopkins, no? The best, the best.”
“But—“ Jessica's eyes grew large. “I, why…your son? But…”
“Nonsense,” the woman cut her off. “You will meet him. You will talk. And then—” The woman caught herself, as if realizing just then that her words may offend Jessica in some way. The woman exhaled loudly instead, a smile returning to her face a moment later. “—Well, then, after that, we shall see. We shall see.”
Jessica stood with her mouth gaping open.
“Sit, darling, sit. And oh,” the woman said, quickly turning to Jessica as if remembering something just then. “You can remove that, that…” The woman pointed to Jessica's head. “…cloth. At moments like these, there's no need for all these restrictions. You are American, so you understand, no?”
Instinctively, Jessica's hand went protectively to the soft blue khimaar she had worn all evening. She didn't wear the cloth to school or in public, but still…
“I ain't feeling it,” Damon had said as she checked herself in the sun visor mirror after wrapping it around her before he dropped her off. “But it suits you, I suppose.”
“Oh, hijab!” a young woman had squealed in excitement when Jessica had come through the door. “Quick, quick! Get a camera. Ooooh, māshā'Allāh, and it brings out her eyes doesn't it? Congratulations, Jessica! You're a better Muslim than we are!”
“How did it go?” Damon asked as Jessica climbed clumsily into the car and threw her head back in exhaustion, the blue khimaar now crumpled and tucked into a pocket of her jacket. But of course Damon wouldn't notice the difference. He'd probably forgotten she'd had it on in the first place.
With her head still leaning on the back of her seat, she turned to him and noticed the exhaustion in his eyes. He was barely awake enough to drive. She sighed knowing it was useless to respond honestly, but she felt tears stinging her eyes.
“Let us talk frankly, Jessica,” the woman had said when her not-so-excited son had come into the room still wearing his doctor's coat. He had looked at Jessica sideways, apologizing in that glance. Sorry about my mom, he seemed to say, as his sister had earlier. But he kept his lips locked into a thin line, his exhaustion as palpable as Damon's was right then.
“You are not in a relationship with this Black man you are roaming about with, no? He is only a driver, no?” She then turned to her son, eagerness and apology in her tone.
Jessica had been too shocked to speak…
“See, Abdullah, it is only a rumor, a vicious rumor. You know how ladies are, tongues wagging, no sense, no sense. It is nothing, nothing at all. He is an 'abeed, nothing more, like our driver back home. Uff! No sensible woman would marry a useless servant. These Americans are more up to date than we are, son.”
The woman had then turned to Jessica. “Let us talk frankly, dear. You are like my daughter, Wallah. You Americans are hospitable to the Blacks here, are you not? Muslims at heart, you are, wallah! So kind, so kind. And we are too in our countries. But he cannot be your friend, dear. Impossible. Too many people will judge us…”
Us. That's the word that had made Jessica's parted lips snap shut for the rest of the evening…
“So it went well?” Damon asked reaching for the paper cup of coffee from the cup holder between them. He took a sip, set the cup back in its place, then brought his free hand to his mouth to stifle a yawn. The silence of the night was comforting, and only the sounds of passing cars whizzing by could be heard.
“Yes, it went well,” Jessica said dryly. She looked out the window beside her into the darkness. The passing trees and familiar scenery made a lump develop in her throat. She missed her parents right then. She wanted to fly home just to give them a hug, crying in their arms. I'm so sorry, Mom and Dad. So sorry. You won't lose me again. I don't know if I could ever be Christian again, but I learned one thing tonight. Just one thing, and by God! I love you for it. You are not hypocrites. You are not hypocrites…
“That's good, that's good…” Damon muttered. A few seconds passed before he sighed and turned to her briefly.
“Jessie, I'm sorry about not supporting you and all. It's just that…”
Jessica drew in a deep breath and exhaled, her chin quivering as her thoughts finished his sentence. I already know, Damon. I already know. …It's just that you knew better than me.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of the If I Should Speak trilogy and the novels Realities of Submission and Hearts We Lost. To learn more about the author, visit themuslimauthor.com or join her Facebook page.