The first time I saw Alia she looked like a fertility goddess trapped in a dingy urban apartment, her belly softly bumping with her second child. She had shoulder-length wavy brown hair, vivid and sparkling brown eyes, a pixie smile and a mother’s tiredness. Her husband was home from work to check that I was what I said I was: a mid-thirties housewife, toddler in tow, who wanted to tutor her in English and maybe share some friendship.
Over the next few months we met for an hour every week, talked about cooking and child-rearing and friends we’d had and lost as we moved. Her previous English teacher had moved to Alaska for a job and she half-joked that she must be an unrewarding student. Every time I saw her she was in comfortable lounging clothes, short cotton shorts and matching tank top, a brief knit house dress that would’ve been freezing out in the Utah winter but was perfect for the very warm three rooms she shared with her husband and son.
She was worried about the coming birth, she admitted when pressed, though she felt foolish feeling that way when here in America the medical care was better than her country. Here in America she didn’t have her mother to be with her, though her husband would be allowed, even encouraged to share her hospital room. I had my mother with me for my first birth and my husband and two sisters and dear Chrysanthemum for my last. I had spent months preparing for that last one, reading and planning my way around that modern medical care as much as possible, and hoping. I couldn’t explain much of that in our easy words and sentences. I told her I understood and that Insha’Allah, everything would go well, but that I understood her fear, every mother worries.
I looked around her living room, spotting the towel-wrapped pot that held her culturing yogurt, the half-assembled secondhand aquarium in the corner that Omar had gotten for his birthday, next to the raggedy artificial Christmas tree he’d begged for. Omar was usually at preschool when we talked, except for the times he was sick or on vacation or exhausted from a late party of friends the night before.
He was typically indulged and caressed. He pushed Molly away from a toy one visit and called her stupid repeatedly. I tried to gather and distract her, not wanting to embarrass Alia. She was always trying to give me things, pineapple and blueberries and samples of lotion or candles, surplus from the charity she received gratefully and matter-of-factly. I tried to decline, but she insisted that they didn’t like blueberries, so I took a couple of pints home. They were delicious.
Each week we chatted, and then I carefully enunciated the naturalization test flashcards while she painstakingly copied them in English and a transliteration and then Arabic. Some words and concepts I could explain; others I turned to google translate, hoping that “branch” of government wouldn’t be rendered as a branch on a tree.
We got through the first third of the hundred questions. I got stupidly teary-eyed as I recited the ideals of our democracy, our freedom of speech and press and religion and assembly and to petition the government. That question was on the week before I wore pants to church and I thought, how could I not, when I believed in the freedom of speech and religion and the right to gather and petition those in authority.
I didn’t even try to explain the Pants movement to Alia (it’s hard to understand myself why it should need to be a thing), but I did ask her if there was a mosque close enough for her. There is, an Ethiopian one, she said, though she usually stays home when her husband goes. The Muslim God is happy for the woman to pray at home. Okay to go to the mosque, okay to pray at home, no problem if she is busy with the house and the children. The man must pray at the mosque, but the woman can pray at home.
One week I called from California, to tell her that I couldn’t come in two days because I was out of town with my husband. The next week we were back from Tom’s interviews and I told her, as I sat on her couch, that I was moving in two weeks and that next Wednesday would be my last time. She was sad, of course, but not as sad as I was. The coordinator had a college girl in mind for Alia’s next tutor and I could leave without guilt.
The last time I saw her was bittersweet and unreal in that way that last times always are. She showed me some photographs and gave me a shot of her wedding day, making me promise to never show it to any man, not even my husband, because she was uncovered in her lavish wedding gown. It was nearly time for me to go and that day she had to pick up Omar from school because her husband was working farther away than usual. She didn’t like to drive much, but it was okay just down to the school and back.
I asked for a picture of the two of us together, holding my phone up in front of our faces. She hurried to the closet and pulled out a loose tunic jacket and wide headband and scarf. As I watched she covered her arms, her hair, her neck. Her eyes were covered too, without the lashes ever touching, and I took another picture, though now for the first time she looked nothing like the woman I had met, and known and talked with for months.
That Alia was gone, and after I kissed her on each cheek, so was I.