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Half a Day

Jana Abumussallam

 

“Would you like to say a few words?”

I shook my head. What could I say that the pastor had not said already? My father was dead. He was a great man. He owned a grove of olive trees and produced Levantine oil to sell at a marked-up price to the West. I had come back from London, where I was attempting to set up a new market for our oil, for his funeral in Lebanon.

I looked to the freshly dug earth by my feet. His grave was at the center of the family plot. I looked to the left, where I had laid my fiancée, Lila, to rest just a few years prior. I had lost the love of my life and my father, the only family I had ever known, by the age of 27. I had never met my mother, the actress and singer who my father was so taken by at a jazz club one late night that he proposed to her right then and there. She disappeared the day after I was born, leaving my father heartbroken, so she had been dead to me for some time. In my eyes, I was officially an orphan.

The pastor handed me a thick, yellowed envelope, which I slipped into the inner pocket of my jacket. The guests shook my hand, and I thanked them for coming. My father’s business partner, Mister Hassan, gave me a hug, opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it and left with the rest of them. When I was alone, I opened the envelope to find a few pages of a letter written in my father’s delicate cursive. I put the pages back, deciding I would read them at a later date, cleared my throat, looked around one last time, walked to my car and drove to my father’s estate.

I pulled into the long winding driveway, parked, and entered the house. I looked around in the dark foyer, now dimly-lit due to the sunlight entering behind me. I glanced at my shadow on the floor, and in the light shining inside, saw that much of the furniture had already been covered with white cloth. I walked inside, my shoes clicking on the smooth, clean marble floors. I shut the door behind me. I looked to my right and took in the sight of the large formal dining room and seating area. I walked slowly, taking everything in; the plush, velvet chairs, the thick Persian rugs, the wooden bookcases, varnished and stained to a dark mahogany, filled with tales of yore and photo albums from before I was born. The red curtains had been closed, with only a small sliver of light shining in from the great bay window overlooking the citrus trees. I recalled how, in the summer, when the windows were open, the entire room smelled of lemon and orange wafting in from the small grove. I took a deep breath now, and smelled nothing but stale air. I threw open the curtains and closed my eyes, allowing the sunlight to create spots in my vision. I was taken out of my reverie when I heard a slight cough to my right. I snapped my head rapidly to face my intruder.

“I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but I just needed to finish dusting in here before the furniture can be covered.”

My face cracked into a smile as I took in the sight before me. “Selma!” I bellowed. My voice echoed in the rafters of the high ceiling, and I walked towards her, my strides long and fast-paced. I embraced her and then held her at arm’s length. She smelled of cleaning products and dish soap. Her once raven-black hair was now speckled with gray, and was pulled back into a tight chignon at the base of her neck. She smiled at me and cradled my face with her hand, worn and calloused from years of scrubbing. Though the collagen in the rest of her face had given way to age and deep-set wrinkles, her cheeks were still as plump and round as ever, and her eyes twinkled in the mid-afternoon sunlight. “How I’ve missed you. You haven’t aged a day,” I lied.

“Oh, Mister Jabal, you certainly have,” she chuckled. “I was so happy to hear of your return, though the circumstances were unfortunate,” she trailed off. She avoided my gaze, looked down, and began to weep. “Oh, Mister Jabal, this house feels so empty without your father here, I was hoping you would move in and take his place—”

“No,” I said sternly, cutting her off. “I’ve made my decision. I cannot stay here, constantly reliving the memories that are held within these walls. It would be agonizing for me. I’m sure you can understand that.”

“Well, yes, I understand, I just don’t agree.”

I let her go and crossed my arms. “You don’t have to agree.”

She clasped her hands and looked down. I turned and walked slowly back to the window, grasping the embroidered curtain with my hand, feeling the delicate stitching between my fingers.

She looked me up and down, then said in a small voice: “Read the letter, sir,” and walked out of the room.

After walking aimlessly around the estate and taking in the sights and scents I had not experienced in years, I sat by the fire in my father’s old office, greedily filling and refilling my tumbler with scotch each time it emptied. I thought long and hard, then decided to read the letter and put the matter to rest once and for all.

Well, Son. If you’re reading this letter, I am obviously dead.

I rolled my eyes, but continued reading:

I’m sure you have many questions. Who your mother was, why I kept her hidden all these years, why I’m sure several people have already told you to read this letter before you inevitably sell our estate. I am here to tell you, plain and simply-put, that you must keep this house. It is my dying wish to you.

The rest of the letter contained information regarding the oil company and divvying up of assets. I decided that I would wait to sell the house, as it was my father’s dying wish. I turned the letter over and saw that something had been scribbled onto the back, in short, jagged strokes – not at all like the original writing on the front page of the letter. These words seemed frantically and haphazardly thrown onto the page before me.

PS – I have never told you this, but after your mother left me, I was in despair. I contacted anyone who had ever known her, and nobody could tell me where she had gone. She had no family that she knew of, but I knew she grew up in an orphanage for the first 18 years of her life. It took me five years, but I was finally able to find the orphanage and contact the woman in charge. She told me that she had been sent a copy of Noura’s death certificate just a few days before I called. She died in Tunisia. I missed her by a few days, Jabal, and I’ll never forgive myself for it. I was so grateful to the woman for telling me of her whereabouts that I decided to donate continuously to the orphanage. I became so attached to a young girl there, named Sarah, that I decided to begin donating exclusively to her—to become her benefactor, so she would have no burdens. I have enclosed 25,000 pounds for the girl to have in my absence, which you will find in the safe behind the painting above the fireplace. Her address and phone number are written at the bottom of this page. She is 22 now, and works as a flight attendant. She doesn’t make much, but is able to pay rent and survive with the money I give her. I am not requiring you to continue helping her, but I would like you to give her the money I have promised her, which would allow her to live comfortably for nearly two years.

As it was my father’s dying wish, though I felt quite conflicted for some odd reason, I resolved to call the girl and notify her of my father’s passing, and set up a time and date to meet her and give her the money.

A few days later, I called her and notified her of my father’s passing. She seemed quite upset over the phone, and requested to see me immediately. I carried a wallet, stuffed with cash, to her small, decrepit apartment building. The door to her apartment was ajar, and though I knocked lightly, I received no answer. I walked in myself, if only to ensure that everything was alright, when I heard a soft, sultry voice floating out of the kitchen, along with the clanging of several pots and pans.

“I’ll be with you in a second, please come in! The living room is directly across from the door.” I did as she said and looked around the room. A box of traditional sweets sat unopened on the table. Next to them was a vase full of dying jasmine flowers. Their sickly sweet odor filled the room. On the wall, several ABBA posters and old records were hung, along with what appeared to be a graduation photo, taken with several young adults. I noticed an old man sitting at the forefront and was about to get up to inspect it more closely when she walked into the room.

She wore high-heeled leather boots that rose above her knee, nearly meeting the hem of her tight, black skirt. She wore a ribbed, black turtleneck and had her long nails painted a pale pink color. Her lips were full and glossy, her cheekbones high, her eyes dark brown and piled with mile-high lashes. Her black layered tresses flowed down her back, and she looked at me with a somber expression plastered onto her beautiful face. The frown seemed unnatural, and I had a strong urge to reach out and cup her face, to wipe away the single tear forming at the center of her eye.

I cleared my throat. “Good afternoon, Miss—”

“Sarah,” she interjected.

“Yes, sorry. Good afternoon, Sarah. I came to give you this,” I said as I handed her the wallet. She took it from me, sobbed, and covered her mouth with her impeccably manicured hand.

“I am very sorry for your loss, Mister Jabal. Your father was a great man,” she said as she tried—and failed—to hold back tears. She began leafing through the wallet, and her eyes widened as she calculated the sum. She thanked me profusely and offered to make me coffee. I followed her into the kitchen to see yet another box of traditional sweets sitting upon the kitchen table. She looked and looked for the lighter, but couldn’t seem to find it anywhere. I realized I was standing right next to it, as it was hanging from a nail in the wall, and handed it off to her.

“Oh, silly me, how could I forget that I had hung it there?” She flashed a weak smile.

We sat at the kitchen table, drinking our coffee and talking. After only half an hour, I began to realize that this was indeed the woman of my dreams. She was interesting, thoughtful, intelligent—everything I could possibly want in a woman. The way she tossed her hair and revealed her long, tanned neck pulled strings that I didn’t think were still attached to anything within me. After a few more hours and cups of coffee later, I was so entranced by her subtle movements and longed so viciously to have her hair in my hands that I nearly collapsed on the floor while she was mid-sentence, grabbed her hands and begged her to end my agony and marry me as soon as humanly possible.

She looked towards the door, as if she was watching, waiting for someone to come in, then promptly ripped her hands out of mine in disgust, her lip curling into a sneer, like a scar marring her flawless face. “Marry you? I just met you! What kind of woman do you take me for?” she whispered fervently. She promptly ordered me out of the house and quickly closed the door behind me. I heard it lock.

Over the next several days I called her incessantly. She never answered, but that didn’t stop me from leaving messages. I was sitting in a plush armchair nearly two weeks later, staring aimlessly into the fireplace in the living room of my estate, when I heard a knock at the door. I looked at the grandfather clock in the corner, wondering who would come for a visit at 11pm on a Wednesday night. Selma had gone to sleep, so I shuffled across the cold marble floors and looked through the peephole. There she stood, bathed in moonlight, yet expressionless: Sarah. I unlocked and opened the great mahogany door. A smile had bloomed upon her beautiful face. I opened the door wide and stood there, dumbfounded, while I waited for her to speak.

“After some thought, I realized that I would be a fool not to marry you. You have every quality that I could possibly want in a man, and you would truly make a wonderful husband. Would you accept me as your wife?” She spoke quickly and with conviction, without stumbling over her words or seeming flustered. She smiled slyly and batted her lashes so quickly at me that I thought they’d fly off. I felt a warmth fill my body from the inside out, and my happiness radiated off my skin. I grabbed her and crushed her to me, all the while sniffing her hair and kissing her face. She hesitated, then wrapped her arms gingerly around my neck and carefully perched her head upon my shoulder.