Walking out of the shower Zeina checked her mobile for the time: 4pm, this meant she had two hours before she needed to be at Dalal’s house for the barbecue. Un-pausing the Desperate Housewives episode that was frozen on her TV she hit the volume on max and sat herself down in front of the mirror, hair dryer in hand. She had thought of a million ways to style her hair over the last 24 hours, the conclusion she had made at this point was that she was going to curl it into light waves before deciding where to go from there. Hair dryer in hand she tossed her head forward and began drying it, running her fingers through it as she did.
Once it was dry enough she grabbed the curler and began arranging it into waves; midway through her last curl her mobile rang, Manaf’s name blinked on and off:
Zeina: Hala Hala…
Manaf: 7abeebti, hala feech, ha tesaba7tay
Zeina: ee I’m doing my hair, 3indi wagt 9a7?
Manaf: ee bu sa3a, ana bamor wa7d min il shabab bawadeeh mukan o then bayeekom fa yemkin etkoneen ihnaak gabli..
Zeina: La ayshay Manoof asti7i..
Manaf: laish mama laish…entay ray7a as Dalal’s friend nesaitay. Ehya ra7 etkoon mawjooda mara7 etkoneen ebroo7ich
Zeina: I guess, bes lat6awel please
Manaf: I won’t 7abeebti don’t worry. Yala akhaleech etkhal9een ana bara bait refeeji
Zeina: okay see you soon 7ayati
After she had hung up she pulled open one of her dresser drawers to rummage through the dozen bottles of nail polish she had lying around; she was searching for the perfect shade of purple that would match the purple Marc Jacob flats she was going to wear. Finding the bottle she shuffled to her bed and plopped down on it beginning to paint her nails, double coating them when she had finished. As she waited for them to dry her mobile beeped with a message, she glanced at the screen and saw Dalal’s name. Dalal had been more than friendly over the past two days, on the first day they’d met she had sent her the address to her house and earlier that morning she had called to make sure Zeina was still coming.
After her nails had dried she flipped open her mobile and checked the text:
Dalal: Lama to9leen man6aqatna degeeli 3ashan adaleech in case you get lost
Zeina felt herself getting a bit more comfortable; she was nervous that it’d be awkward when she arrived and Dalal would be too busy hosting leaving, Zeina alone amongst God knows how many people she didn’t know, but the fact that Dalal was thinking of Zeina up until the last minute comforted her slightly.
Zeina: Enshallah ;* ..
Zeina made a quick call to Sara to ask how she had been the past few days, “esh9ar 3ala Faisal” she asked immediately.
“walla madry 9arla cham yoom mayrid 3alay shakla busy” Zeina replied.
She still hadn’t told Sara what was happening between her and Manaf and decided to wait until she was back in Kuwait to tell her face to face. Zeina wrapped up the conversation when she glanced at the time and found it to be almost six. She hurriedly threw on her white Chloe dress and slid her feet into the flats; when she had finished dressing she went back to the mirror and began working on her makeup. Deciding to leave her hair in its place, falling in wavy layers across her shoulders and back, she began filling up her clutch with what she thought would be the essentials: lipstick, small perfume bottle, and her car keys. When she finished she began texting Manaf:
Zeina: Bamshi now, enta wainik?
Manaf: Weya refeeji, shway wareda il bait. (He replied immediately).
The closer Zeina got to Dalal’s house the more nervous she was; so nervous that once she found her street she slowed almost to a stop and considered heading back home. Before making her way to Dalal’s house she had made a quick stop at one of her favorite bakeries to pick up a cake for the gathering. Trying to ignore the butterflies in her stomach she drove on until she found the house number she was looking for. Dalal’s house was on the corner with a large drive-in garage, Zeina stopped her car at the entrance and began dialing Dalal’s number. She could see inside the house a large garden on the right that curved to the side and disappeared behind the house, lights filled the entire garden allowing Zeina to see several tables laid out. The house itself was bigger than all of the neighboring ones with large arcs that stood at both side of a large brown door with huge gold knobs. Inside the garage three cars were already parked, several more were parked on the left side of the house.
“Aloo, Zeina?” Dalal picked up, Zeina could hear people talking noisily in the background, her butterflies began dancing in her stomach.
“Hala Dalool, tara ana bara..” She said nervously into the phone
“Sef6ay dakhel 7abeebti ana 6al3atlich..” and with that the phone disconnected.
Zeina did as she was told and parked next to the third car on the right. Zeina noticed the big brown door slide open slightly and a tiny figure emerged, it was Dalal. She was wearing a flowing black dress with gold flats, her hair this time was pulled back in an elegant bun. Grabbing the cake box Zeina slid out of the car, instantaneously Dalal took the box out of Zeina’s hands and kissed her on both cheeks. Grabbing her clutch before locking the car Zeina began following Dalal inside.
“3asa bes ma the3tay?” Dalal asked her as they began walking towards the entrance.
“La your directions were good” Zeina replied, she was extremely uncomfortable and felt totally out of her element.
“Zain el7imdila, Manaf still ma yah o Sulaiman ba3ad he’s going to come later. Om o ibo Manaf are inside ba3arfich 3alaihom now, o omy o iboy o khawati Deema o Durar, Durar kubrich tara…” Dalal trailed on. Just then a maid came out carrying an empty tray, “Dalal, mama calling..” She told her, Dalal nodded handing her the cake and guiding Zeina with her arm inside. Zeina realized the gathering wasn’t going to be as large as she had expected but this made her even more uncomfortable; the gathering was so close knit that she was bound to stand out!
Inside Zeina led her from one living room to another one; everyone was gathered in the one overlooking the garden: “Mama, baba, 3ami, khalty, this is Zeina Al Flani refeeejti…” Zeina blushed severely lowering her head and mumbling a hello. Just then two more girls entered the room, they looked like copies of Dalal but in different sizes, one of them was extremely tall and thinner and the other one the complete opposite, tiny and extremely petite. Did any of them come in an unpleasant size? Zeina thought to herself.
The two families were sitting against the large glass doors that were opened wide revealing the barbecuing grills and tables set up outside. Dalal pulled Zeina aside and took her towards her sisters, “Deemo, Durar, this is Zeina” she smiled introducing her to them, from their reaction to her Zeina could tell that they knew about her and Manaf which made her slightly uncomfortable. What made her extremely uncomfortable was the fact that Manaf was so close to these three beautiful women, obviously spending large amounts of time at their home.
Dalal excused herself to answer a phone call and Durar pulled Zeina down to sit beside her, “Eshtishribeen?” She asked as one of the maids passed by. Zeina declined a drink for now and began answering Durar’s infinite questions about where she studied, what she studied, and what she did in her free time. She knew what Durar was doing, she was trying to make Zeina feel as comfortable as possible by keeping the conversation going no matter what. As Zeina was telling Durar about what new things she had spotted in the Avenues from her last visit she overheard mens’ voices coming from the front door. She immediately recognized Manaf’s voice as one of them. Seconds later they appeared in the living room, Manaf surveyed it quickly resting his eyes on Zeina who was stuck to Durar’s hip. He smiled at her presence, among his family and closest friends, and turned to say hello to everyone else.
A taller man followed Manaf into the living room, Dalal clinging to his arm; Zeina figured that was Sulaiman. He looked very much like Manaf only much more mature with a thinner build.
“Esh’hal mofaja2a il 7elwa” Sulaiman said looking around at everyone, when he met Zeina’s eye he smiled gently, making her blush even harder, he then looked up at Manaf and winked.
After kissing his aunt’s head Manaf made his way to the couch and sat next to Zeina, leaning in to say hello to Durar. Durar replied with the comfort of a relationship that was lifelong “ana I’m good, you?” She asked not bothering to look at him, as if seeing him around was more than ordinary. “Tamam, ha 3ayal ashofich you met Zayoon” He nudged Zeina’s shoulder with his as he said that. Durar smiled at Zeina’s reddening cheeks and leaned over smacking Manaf on the arm “lata7rijha maskeena, ba3dain mara7 tabee teyeena mara thanya!” She laughed patting Zeina’s shoulder lightly before getting up to answer to her mother who was calling out to her.
“Shaklich eyanin” Manaf immediately whispered when she was out of earshot. Zeina knew there were no more shades of red available for her cheeks and lowered her head.
“Esta7aina?” He sing-songed obviously enjoying teasing her. “Salamtay 3ala omy?” He asked her finally talking normally.
“Ee, you look exactly like her…” Zeina managed to say becoming a little more at ease.
“Ba3teriflich ib shaghla…” he told her, “tara tadry 3anich. Sorry wala bes ma3aref akhish 3anha shay…”
What little ease Zeina was beginning to feel immediately disappeared as looked up at Manaf’s mother who at that very second looked up and met Zeina’s eyes. She smiled slyly and looked away, making Zeina feel like she would burst with humiliation at any second. Deciding to move the gathering outside everyone got up and headed past the glass doors and began making their way to the two large tables pushed together. Dalal who had run upstairs to get something came skipping back looking for Zeina.
“Zayoon wainich?” She asked looking around before spotting Zeina, “yala benroo7 bara, ashwa 3abali khalooch ibroo7ich” she laughed when she noticed Manaf next to her.
By the time Dalal, Manaf, and Zeina followed everyone outside they were all seated. Dalal immediately took her place next to a seat Sulaiman had saved for her, Manaf picked up two chairs and placed them next to each other between Sulaiman and Deema. He pointed at one of them and Zeina took a seat.
“7ayallah min yana” Dalal’s dad spoke up looking at Zeina, she blushed again and replied with the appropriate response.
“3ayal ma gelteelna Zeina, shino tadriseen?” Manaf’s mother asked smiling tenderly from Zeina to Manaf and back again at Zeina. Clearing her throat Zeina began answering his mother’s questions, first about what she studied, then how old she was, and finally about where she planned to work when she finally graduated. Zeina answered all of them politely, glancing at Manaf every once in a while; he was beaming at her, not taking his eyes off for a second. From the corner of her eye she noticed Sulaiman nudge Dalal with his elbow and nod his head at the two of them. Zeina realized just how much everyone was staring at her and Manaf even as they tried their hardest to pretend they weren’t.
A while later the men gathered around the grill arguing over who knew how to barbecue the best, reminiscing over older gatherings when each of them had burnt something. Zeina found herself sitting with Dalal, Durar, and Manaf’s mother talking. They politely included her in their conversation, at times making sure that the majority of it revolved around her.
When it was time to eat Manaf sat himself once again next to Zeina picking out pieces of meat for her that were tender enough for her to cut. When she had trouble cutting off a piece of fat she leaned in helpfully with his fork and knife and did it for her. She would have felt self conscious if it hadn’t been for Dalal who had made Sulaiman cut up all her meat for her. Both mothers doted over Zeina, filling up her plate every time it came near to empty.
The weather was perfect, warm and not humid at all. When they had finished dinner dessert was spread out at the table and everyone got up to serve themselves whatever they wanted. Sulaiman and Dalal went inside to watch something on TV and Deema had disappeared. The parents were deep in conversation about something Zeina wasn’t paying attention to.
“Tabeen etdisheen dakhel?” Manaf asked her after she had refused dessert. All the food they kept serving her had stuffed her and there was no room for more.
“3ala ra7tik..” she replied looking back at the parents who weren’t paying them any attention. He led the way inside and she spotted Durar sitting talking on the phone in one corner, Dalal and Sulaiman were sitting in front of the TV watching some Arabic program, Dalal busy texting on her phone and Sulaiman trying to annoy her by pulling the phone out of her hand. Manaf kept walking and Zeina followed him into the second living room which was empty. He flipped on the TV in there and began scanning the channels as he patted the couch next to him.
“3adi..?” Zeina asked, referring to the fact that they were sitting alone together.
“Ee 3adi, mu imsakreen 3ala nafsna ib ghorfa” he told her not moving his eyes from the TV; Zeina sat down next to him.
“9ij Zeina tara shaklich eyanin” Manaf repeated this time looking at her and giving her a grin. Zeina’s heart melted; he was wearing a white dishdasha and had pulled up the sleeves, his arm muscles bulging from under them.
She couldn’t help noticing how close he was to her; the heat emanating from his body crawled up her skin sending silent shivers up her spine. All she had to do was move half an inch and they’d be touching. When he looked over at her, his face was so close to hers that she caught her breath. With his intense gaze, which Zeina was nowhere near getting used to, Manaf forgot about the TV and began flickering his eyes instead across her face taking in feature by feature. He was concentrating so deeply that Zeina, not moving her eyes from his, was afraid he might lean in and try to kiss her.
“Zayoon..” he whispered, finally resting his eyes on hers.
“Hala..” She gasped back, her body rigid
“Matadreen eshkither entay ga3da et3athbeeni…” He whispered, his voice turning husky. Zeina tried to swallow as she looked away, his gaze won over hers, and she had to look away with defeat. Not saying another word Manaf looked back at the screen and began flipping through the channels again. They sat in silence for a few minutes before the ringing from Zeina’s mobile made her jump.
“Bsmila 3alaich” Manaf said putting his hand gently on her arm, Zeina let out a laugh at her reaction.
“Khara3ni..” she laughed fumbling through her clutch for her phone.
“Meno?” Manaf asked the second she glanced at the screen
“Madry raqam ma a3arfa.. Mo mohim” she told him silencing it and throwing it back inside. Manaf smiled at her raising his hand and making circles with his finger against her arm; Zeina shivered slightly as goose bumps covered the places he had just touched.
“Okh…” he whispered to himself staring at the goose bumps then running his fingers delicately over them.
“Manaaf…” Zeina found her voice, pulling her arm away from under his hand and putting it in her lap.
“Sorry 3omri…” He said moving a little back on the couch making the space between them bigger. Zeina gave him a small smile. Minutes later Dalal, Sulaiman, Durar and Deema joined them, carrying plates of cake and mousse.
“Ma taboon shay?” Sulaiman asked gazing at their plate-less hands.
“La Zeina matabi o ana mara7 akel etha Zeina mara7 takel” Manaf pretended to be genuinely upset with Zeina not eating. Deema and Durar laughed.
Zeina glanced at her mobile checking the time, it was 10:15… time had flown by when they had gathered in the living room. Sulaiman turned out to be hilarious; him and Dalal told Zeina stories about their childhood including, to Zeina’s delight, several embarrassing stories about Manaf in his day’s way back when. She was genuinely enjoying herself and almost didn’t want to go back home.
“Manaf lazim amshi tara…” Zeina whispered to him. He glanced at his wrist watch then looked at her pleadingly.
“Yala 3ad bes shwaya..” He complained.
“Wala magdar mabi omy et3a9eb 3alay…” She told him. He nodded then got up with her.
“Dalal, it’s getting late ana lazim amshi…” Zeina smiled politely. Dalal unwrapped herself from Sulaiman’s arms and got up. After several attempts at trying to get Zeina to stay had failed she led her to the garden to say goodbye to the parents. She thanked Dalal’s parents and told Manaf’s parents how much of a pleasure it was to meet them. Manaf’s mom got up and kissed Zeina goodbye hugging her and whispering “khanshoofich 3ad” before pulling away. As they headed back to the first living room she saw Manaf still standing, “ana bawa9elha el sayara” he told Dalal.
“Okay..” she told him “7ayach allah any time ha Zayoon” Dalal said hugging her lightly.
“Allah y7ayeech mashkoora wayed tara I had a great time..” Zeina replied, “o kel 3am wenta eb khair Sulaiman” she said turning to him. He raised a hand in acknowledgment as he tried to swallow a large chunk of cake he had stolen from Dalal’s plate. Deema and Durar said their polite goodbyes and Zeina and Manaf headed outside. The front of the house was silent and Zeina couldn’t spot a single person there.
“Estanstay? 9ij Zayoon…” Manaf asked as he opened her door and she leaned against her seat. The door was now shielding them from view, and Manaf took an extra step forward covering what little space was left between them.
“Ee wala I did..” Zeina whispered back her voice croaking. Manaf was once again so close that she could practically feel his body against hers. She realized now as she stood inches away from him that if she raised her head her lips would barely graze his chin. He raised his right hand and grazed his fingers across hers, then slowly up her hand and glided them up to her elbow, he let his fingers rest there for a second staring at her, she noticed he had sucked in some air and was not exhaling.
He was holding his breath.
His fingers began moving again this time up her arm and began playing with the tips of her hair, finding their way slowly up to her cheeks. He put a strand of hair behind her ear and touched his fingertips to her warm cheek. She glanced up finally meeting his eye, he was staring down at her motionless, his eyes once again taking in all her features, glancing from her eyes to her nose, then down to her cheeks where his fingers lay and finally to her lips. She sucked in whatever air she could as she felt his body lean in towards hers, his hand brushing past her cheek and cupping her chin, pulling her head slowly towards his.
As the gap between their lips began to decrease Zeina’s heart began to race, his lips were finally less than centimeters in front of hers and Zeina closed her eyes bracing herself. She felt his warm breath against her cheeks and lips but instead of feeling his lips on top of hers she felt his breath moving slowly up towards her nose and then warming her eyes before finally she felt his lips on her forehead. Slowly but firmly he let them rest there for a few seconds before pulling back.
Just then her phone beeped with a message, Zeina broke their locked gaze as she fiddled with her clutch trying to get it open; she was flustered and could barely feel her fingers. Manaf’s hand brushed back across her arm and then rested on her lower back he looked down at her as she took out the phone and smiled feebly.
“Lazim amshi..” she told him opening the message without seeing who it was from.
“Okay 7abeebti” he told her stepping back. Zeina smiled, getting into her seat. She glanced down at the phone in her hand and skimmed the message. It wasn’t long but the three words jumped out of the screen stealing Zeina’s breath. The world began to spin and the color drained from her face.
She re-read the message making sure she had gotten it right:
3atham allah ajrich ..