Chapter Twenty Four
I watched Zak’s car disappear down the driveway with no small amount of relief. I needed to think and I couldn’t do that while he was with me, confusing me.
For the umpteenth time, I wished for a mentor, for someone to confide in who could tell me what to do. It was ironic – all my life I’d been chafing at the bit, wanting to be the one to call the shots but now that I was, all I wanted in the world was some guidance.
Instead, I received a headache in the form of a sharp-eyed, overly-critical mother in law. Shamima was still upset with me over last night and she’d taken a special delight in examining me over the heavily-laden breakfast table and helpfully pointing out every flaw she could find in such a honeyed voice it nearly gave me a cavity.
“Are you planning to go out in that?” she demanded, gesturing toward my admittedly casual jeans and tank top, scandalized.
“No, Shamima, of course not. Why would you think that?”
Her brow wrinkled in confusion. “Didn’t you say that you were going to meet your mother today?”
My mouth dropped open. I’d completely forgotten that my mother was flying into the US today and that we’d arranged to meet for lunch. “It completely slipped my mind.” I smiled at Shamima widely – I could afford to be nice seeing as she’d helped me, inadvertent though that help may have been. “Thank you for reminding me.”
I didn’t even care that she shouldn’t have known about my plans – I’d only told Zak. No, I was too happy that I’d been reminded of them. My mother could be difficult and she’d hurt me deeply. But she’d been married for nearly thirty years and she and my father were still clearly in love with one another. She’d have some advice for me, I was sure.
I rushed up to Zak’s bedroom and hurried through getting dressed before grabbing the keys to the car he’d gifted me and calling a loud goodbye to anyone who remained in the house.
I’d driven so little in the month that I’d been in this new country that I got lost twice despite using a GPS and arrived sweaty and late to the restaurant, having to stop to catch my breath before I could give the host my name for the reservation.
My mother was already there and seeing her familiar face made me ache inside. It didn’t matter in that moment that she’d been cold to me before I’d left or that we’d spoken a scant three times in the month that had passed. She was there and she was familiar and just seeing her made the tension that had been knotting my shoulders and back begin to drain from my cells.
“Mommy will make it better,” a voice whispered from deep within the recesses of my mind. “Mommy will make it all better, don’t you worry.”
In that moment, I truly believed that she would.
“Azraa,” Mom stood to greet me and wrapped her arms tightly around my shoulders. “Oh, sweetheart, I’ve missed you!”
“Missed you too,” I admitted as we took our seats.
Mom looked pleasantly surprised. “You’re a better daughter than me,” she said playfully. “I was so wrapped up in your Dad it took me much longer than a month to come back up from breath and remember the rest of the world still existed.” She sighed nostalgically. “Those first few months… there’s nothing like it. Treasure this time,” she advised me. “Before things get worse.”
My face must have changed when she said that because Mom frowned immediately. “What? Is something wrong?”
I shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. Things are so different and Zak…”
Mom held up a dainty hand. “I’m going to stop you right there, dear. I warned you before that things would be different when you got to know Zak better and actually started to live with him. That’s normal.”
“I know,” I agreed. “But…”
“Azraa, don’t interrupt,” Mom scolded. “I also told you that under no circumstances should you complain to other people about your spouse. It destroys the trust between you and it puts everyone in an uncomfortable position.” Her tone had taken on the lecturing quality she’d perfected after over a decade of playing mentor to young med students and it immediately got my back up.
“I’m not doing that!” I snapped. “I wouldn’t do that.”
Mom looked at me like I was a wayward toddler. “Azraa, you were just about to tell me something about Zak. I heard you.”
“I just wanted some advice!” I said defensively, crossing my arms in front of me like a shield. “I wasn’t going to start complaining.”
“That’s new,” Mom retorted. “When have you ever wanted my advice? Even when it came to planning your wedding, you did it all on your own.”
My mouth dropped open. “It was my wedding,” I pointed out, incensed.
Mom looked around uneasily at the other diners. “Azraa, lower your voice,” she said sharply. “Don’t make a scene.”
I shut my eyes and took a deep breath.t “I just wanted some advice, is all. I don’t know if there’s something wrong or not. Zak and I… You said you and Dad were wrapped up in one another the whole time. Zak and I… we aren’t.” And I didn’t even know if I wanted us to be. The thought of having him near me alternately made my skin crawl and my knees weak.
“Is that all?” Mom asked, sounding relieved. “Oh, Azraa, every couple is different. Just because you and Zak like your space doesn’t mean there’s a problem! It’s fine, sweetheart.”
Emboldened by this comfort, I confided eagerly in my mother about the real problem. “He’s difficult to live with.” I fiddled with my napkin. “He… gets angry. Last night,” I swallowed hard, trying to get the words out. “He grabbed me and threw me.”
Mom’s eyes had widened in shock. She immediately lifted a hand to my face and began to to check my head for bumps. “How far? Did you land on the floor or the wall?”
I shook my head. “No, onto the bed,” I explained.
“What?” Mom let go of me immediately. “Azraa, for God’s sake! I thought he’d abused you!” She sat back in her seat, looking pale.
Hadn’t he? “He scared me,” I said uncertainly. “And he shouts at me – it’s really… He’s…” I took a sip of my water, trying to moisten my dry mouth.
Mom made an impatient sound. “Azraa, is he harming you? Do you have cuts, bruises?”
I shook my head slowly. “No, but-”
Mom held up a hand. “I know. He’s yelling at you.” The dismissive way she said it made me feel small.
I nodded mutely.
“This is our fault. We spoilt you when you were a child.” Mom leaned forward and took my face in her hands. “Azraa, I know this will be hard for you to understand. You’ve never had to compromise for anyone or want for anything. I don’t think we’ve ever even yelled at you, actually,” she added as an aside.
“Being treated that way is not normal. And clearly, it’s been bad for you if you can’t tell the difference between an argument and abuse. Now, listen to me carefully; Zak is not abusive. Okay? Do you understand?”
I nodded numbly. “Okay. I understand. But…”
“No buts. And please, don’t ruin this,” Mom added. “Zak is a wonderful boy. You’re not going to get any better. Don’t make the mistake of expecting him to treat you like spun glass.”
She was about to say more, I could see it. But her cell phone began to ring and, glancing at it, she gave me look I was all too familiar with. “Go back to the hospital,” I said softly. “It’s okay.”
Mom rewarded me with a smile. “You are growing up,” she said proudly. “Now just make sure you don’t spoil things by accident.”
The warning stuck with me all the way back, repeating in my ears over the sound of my growling stomach – I hadn’t eaten a bite at lunch. Good thing too. I felt so ill, I was sure any food I’d managed to swallow would have ended up on the floor.
I parked in the garage and switched off the car, my limbs growing heavy at the thought of entering the house.
Was this really normal?