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Beef Meat

by Lisa Lopez Snyder

     Irma spots her in-laws as she and Nabil stand behind the security gate in the Baltimore airport, her hand clasping his. “How long are they staying?” The words float out of her mouth before she can stop them, and she prays they become lost in the cacophony of airport loudspeaker announcements.

    “Nebbie! Nebbie!”  Mrs. Shamala’s unexpected outburst causes a few of the other arriving passengers near her to twitch. She is a large woman, who with Mr. Shamala by her side, his breath coming in large gasps, rushes in toddler steps toward the couple. As her peach-colored caftan jacket billows closer, Mrs. Shamala reaches forward, gently pulling her son to her chest, her jeweled rings and bracelets disappearing into the dark nest of his hair. “Oh, Nebbi, Nebbi!”
Irma waits while Mr. and Mrs. Shamala complete a flurry of hugs and kisses, a grasping of hands and a pinching of cheeks. The Arabic words flow among the three, a rolling sound, guttural and lyrical. Suddenly, their world is Damascus.

     Nabil puts one arm around his mother and brings her face-to-face with Irma. And before Irma can reorient her mind, she feels the warm embrace of her father-in-law, who leans down to give her a kiss. A mustard smell envelops her as his rough beard scratches her face, his voice like an eager puppy. “Babies? You have babies?” Mr. Shamala asks.

     “Abu, please,” Mrs. Shamala says gently. She takes Irma’s hands in hers. “Urr-magh,” she lets out slowly, and smiles. “Eh?” She envelops Irma in her large arms and kisses her on the cheek. When she steps away, Irma sees her mother-in-law’s wide smile and for a brief second she remembers Halloween just last week, the toothy grin of jack-o-lanterns on the steps of the row houses on her street.

     Only she and Nabil don’t live in a row house, they’re in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment, saving money for The House. Which means within just a day, the members of the household find themselves having to negotiate the shower, the television and the telephone, all of which, since the Shamalas’ arrival, seem to be in perpetual motion—or always on. Irma finds herself turning off lights in unused spaces, and in one fell swoop unplugs a hairdryer, a lit makeup mirror, a hot set of hair rollers and an iron, all abandoned as the Shamalas sit on the couch and share family photos in the living room, the TV blaring.

     Mr. Shamala quickly masters the remote, flipping channels while he glances at the photo album in Nabil’s lap, while Mrs. Shamala, fresh out of the shower in a terry bathrobe, points to various shots. They are reminiscing about the wedding day. The American wedding on the banks of the Chesapeake. Of course, there is still the proper ceremony to be done in Syria with family and friends. “You have to see Damascus at night,” Nabil told Irma when they first started dating. “Especially,” he said, “the minarets.”

      “One day,” he promised. Irma was touched by his enthusiasm then, and still is, even now, even though she is not a Syrian woman. A Syrian wife.

     Irma slinks down the hallway and into the bathroom. She closes the door, kicks the wet towels on the floor to the side and opens the small bathroom closet. And while the quiet gives her comfort, the Clearblue Easy test box stares back at her, its bright pink-shaded bar proclaiming “plus-minus results” as nonchalantly as a grocery item might boast “no pulp” or “extra calcium.” She had forgotten all about it in the scurry of the last minute news of the Shamalas’ visit--Nabil hurriedly switched places for his on-call duty at the hospital, Irma took off vacation days--and then she misplaced her calendar, and so lost track of her cycle, and then--

     She pulls out a test stick and closes the box, shoving it behind several soap bars. She hangs up her robe and squats over the toilet, placing the strip between her legs and lets a warm stream run over the end. Funny, she thinks, how it all comes down to this—a blue plus or minus sign--and how one mathematical symbol can change lives, their lives, and just when they’ve started to save for a house, and Nabil is finishing his residency and she…she doesn’t know why she’s doing this, and whether it even matters, but maybe, just maybe she hopes, this one will take.

     A series of hard knocks on the bathroom door interrupt her thoughts. “I’m not finished! Not finished!” Mrs. Shamala calls out.

     Irma’s hand fumbles and before she can grab it, the test stick flips into the wastepaper basket.

 

     The next morning Mrs. Shamala snaps on thick, bright gold-colored earrings and adjusts them in the foyer mirror. “To the Macy’s!” she calls out to the men, who are watching a basketball game in the living room. She ties a black silk scarf around her head with delicate movements of her fingers. It’s a simple, elegant move that reminds Irma of an old Rita Heyward or maybe Kathryn Hepburn film.

     “It’s windy outside, dear,” Mrs. Shamala says. “No scarf?”
     “Don’t worry about us,” Nabil yells from the living room. He and Mr. Shamala have graduated from the Turkish coffee to scotch whiskey. The cheers of a sports crowd roar in the background.

     “Going? Going?” Mr. Shamala says, and shuffles quickly to the foyer.
     “Abu.” Mrs. Shamala calmly brushes him off with a flutter of words, among which are “The Macy’s.”
     “Baba!” Nabil calls for his father, and Mrs. Shamala and Irma usher themselves out the door.

 

     It’s as if her mother-in-law knows her way around the department store, and for this Irma is somewhat thankful, as she watches the older woman navigate the aisles. They are in accessories, where Mrs. Shamala moves efficiently, plucking packages from their angular cubbyholes, pantyhose of all sizes and types—sheer, control top, knee-highs, thigh-highs—and tosses them into the shopping cart. Then gloves, gloves of every color and fabric. Then slippers--cotton, open toed, closed toed. “These for the women,” Mrs. Shamala says, holding them up with great cheer. The women of the Shamala family, Irma knows–the aunts, the cousins, the daughters and the nieces. Irma remembers Nabil’s sisters, Ada and Dana, their flawless skin and dark brown hair, their floral scarves over tailored suits at the wedding. Just thinking about it makes her suddenly tired. She finds a chair near an aisle and sits. And before she can even look up, her mother-in-law, with the sweep of a conductor’s arm, pulls a pack of gum from her purse and tosses it to Irma.

     “Here,” Mrs. Shamala says, “to keep busy,” and she saunters, humming, down the aisle.

     “You have to come for dinner tonight.” Irma stands just inside Dan Finley’s apartment across the hall, tapping her fingers on the doorway jam. She has just finished putting away Mrs. Shamala’s purchases, the bags and boxes now stacked in random fashion in the corner of the guest room, where she and Nabil are staying and where he insisted they keep them.

     “In-law troubles?” Dan asks. Irma knows pathology residents stick together, and Dan owes Nabil a favor, which, by virtue of marriage, Irma calculates, includes her. He is bent over the back gears of his bike, making adjustments with various small instruments near the coffee table. His brown hair, tousled, irritates Irma for a second, a signal, she somehow interprets, that he is without familial restraints.

     “No, no. They’re fine,” says Irma, having left the kitchen in haste as Nabil was preparing a family favorite—“seasoned tongue.”

     “So why should I come?” Dan glances at the TV, where basketball players scramble on the screen. A player in blue scores a jump shot. “Damn!” he says, waving a pair of pliers in angst.
     “I need someone to speak English to!” Irma says, hoping it doesn’t sound like a pout.
     “But don’t they speak English?” Dan’s eyes remain glued to the television.
     “Some, but it’s not like they talk to me as much when Nabil is in the room,” she says. “It’s been six months since they’ve seen him…er, us.”
     “I’m a picky eater.”
     “Yeah, right.”
     He twists and looks at her. “Are they bugging you guys about having kids?”
     Irma grabs the remote and turns it off. She crosses her arms.
     Dan puts his hands up. “Okay, okay!”

 

     By the time Dan enters the apartment, the garlic, cinnamon, and onion have seasoned the air. Mrs. Shamala fills the water glasses and Irma pours the wine. Mr. Shamala studies the Scrabble pieces on the coffee table and places them gently on the pale, colored squares.

     “Baba, time to eat!” Nabil calls out. He lifts a large platter on which sits his prized dish, set in a bed of rice with fresh parsley. He places it on the dining room table in the middle of small plates of taboule, eggplant, yogurt dip and kibbeh.

     Mr. Shamala’s brow draws together as if he forgot something and he stands, and makes an unsteady walk to the dining room.

     “My boys cook when they come here to the United States,” Mrs. Shamala tells Dan, who has pulled out a chair for her. “But now married, maybe Irma cooks?”  As she eases herself into the chair Mrs. Shamala glances at Irma, who shrugs as politely as she can.

     “Actually, I think it’s great when a guy cooks,” Dan says. “My mother never taught me. I guess that means I’ll just have to rely on the talents of a woman.” Nabil gives him a gentle nudge.
“I can’t complain,” Irma says. “Nabil certainly is the better cook.”

     “Babies?” Mr. Shamala pulls out a chair for Irma, who is watching Dan study the dish, its smooth edges sliced into delicate portions. She remembers the first time she tried tongue, but she didn’t know until Nabil told her and all their non-Syrian guests afterward. It was a little trick he liked to play.

     “So, what do we have here?” Dan asks.
     “Beef,” Nabil says.
     “I know, but what kind of beef?”
     “Beef meat,” Nabil says. He keeps his head down and from the corner of her eye Irma can see the smirk spread across his face.
     Dan cocks his head and hands his plate to Nabil to serve him. “Huh, it looks so lean.”
     “I think you’ll like it,” Nabil says as he places a slice on the plate.
     “This ain’t horse, eh?” Dan says under his breath. He sits next to Irma. She whispers back. “No, and rest assured, it’s not cat.”
     “Ha!” Dan punches Irma on the shoulder.
     “Don’t hit! Don’t hit!” Mr. Shamala suddenly yells out, but before he can say anything else, he starts to cough, a wracking sound that thrusts him toward the table’s edge, and before he can steady himself or anyone can reach him, he falls to the floor.
    “Oh my God,” Irma says.
     “Baba!” Nabil rushes over to his father and Mrs. Shamala drops her napkin.
     “Abu, Abu!”
     Nabil takes his cell phone out of his pocket with one hand, the other under his father’s neck. He speaks rapidly into the phone.
     “Did he take his medication?” Irma asks.
     “Get a wet washcloth!” Nabil yells.

     Irma runs to the bathroom and hands shaking, opens the closet door and pulls out a cloth. She runs water over it and squeezes it lightly. In her haste, she drops it, but when she bends down to retrieve it, she stops. There, tucked among dirty tissues in the wastepaper basket is the Clearblue Easy monitor stick, its slender form sticking up. She grabs it and holds it up to the light and as she makes out the plus sign, feels her bottom lip fall, her mouth open.

     She tosses it on the floor and runs back to the dining room.
     “He’s okay, he’s okay,” Nabil says, when she returns. “The ambulance is coming.”
     “Here, Baba,” Irma says. She kneels down and puts the washcloth on Mr. Shamala’s forehead.      Mrs. Shamala speaks to him quietly, her words falling in soft cadences.

     Dan goes to unlock the apartment door.
     “You’re okay, Baba,” Irma says.
     “Thank you,” Nabil whispers to her, his eyes moist.
      Mr. Shamala’s eyelids flutter. He mumbles something she doesn’t understand.
     “He’s saying thank you,” Nabil says, touching Irma’s arm.
     Mr. Shamala’s eyes open wide and they search Irma’s face as though trying to make out her features in the dark. Irma touches his cheek. She sees a river of lights as they shine on the minarets at night.

                 “Yes, Baba,” she says, smoothing wisps of his brown grey hair to the side. “Babies. Babies maybe.”

 

Return to Issue 34