Room 134

Here’s what my sister and I don’t like to admit: my father can be quite charming when he wants to be.

Zeena Mubarak
Oct 18, 2019 · 11 min read
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Image: Three Wise Monkeys

He’s in Room 134, all the way at the end of the hall. That’s good because it gives me time to say a prayer to the beat of the hospital beeps: Don’t die, don’t die, don’t die.

His name is written in baby blue on a whiteboard outside the room. When I was younger, no mere door could contain my father. He filled our entire house with his ox shoulders and walrus jowls. His footsteps upstairs rattled the pot lids around the kitchen and his booming laugh rattled around my brain no matter how loud I blasted my music.

Though he was bigger than Mama, Sarah, and I combined, he was lighter on his feet. We were forever blinking, finding he’d disappeared and reappeared again in record time. When he was away on work and the walls no longer trembled with his presence, we would sit around after dinner staring at each other, incredibly bored and profoundly relieved.

“Sarah?” he asks as I enter.

My mother says, “No, dear, Sarah’s busy at school, remember? It’s Yasmin, she’s just been able to get time off.”

“Oh.”

His new frailty has made his face smaller, but not any less round. It throws all the proportions out of whack. I lean down to kiss him hello. “Your mustache to face ratio has gotten obscene, Baba.”

My mother jumps in. “You want to give him high blood pressure on top of everything?”

Baba says, “At this point, would it matter if she did?”

“Don’t give up on God’s grace.”

He snorts. “If grace kept everyone alive, the world would be a whole hell of a lot more crowded.”

I laugh, and it sounds wrong in the clinical air of Room 134. I can almost see the hospital bed turning its nose up in disgust at me.

“Don’t laugh at your mother,” he says.

I sit down on the edge of his bed and pick at the raised, white scar on the back of my left hand. “Oh, Baba, I just can’t help it. You’re too witty.”

“Don’t mock me, either. What’s the matter with you? We never have these issues with your sister. Sarah always — ”

My mother cuts him off. “Why don’t you go get something to eat from the cafeteria? I can tell you don’t eat. You just keep getting thinner and thinner.”

I say, “And you keep getting fatter. Changes all around. The world is a wondrous place.”

“You’re getting quite impossible, you know that?”

“Well you know what they say: ‘He who resembles his father…’”

My father’s hospital room is small, but at least it’s private. The symphony of whirring, whizzing, and beeping is orchestrated by a revolving cast of nurses. They follow the same pattern, touching the machines in a planned ritual, stopping to give my mother a sympathetic grimace and ask my father how he is doing.

There are not enough seats for all my father’s visitors, so I end up perched on a variety of different surfaces. When the patient is dying, they hardly bother to scold you. The window looks out on the parking lot. I watch the cars zoom in and make up stories for the different people who come in — how many of them will ever come out?

My father holds court from his shrunken position on the hospital bed. At visiting hours, friends and relatives rush in and crowd around him. He takes pains to entertain them. He swears up and down that one of the nurses has a crush on him: “Honest to God, she winked at me!” He brings out his greatest hits: the motel he’d broken into when he’d found no place to stay on his first night in New York, the time he and his brother accidentally stopped a train, the time he forgot me in a rest area on a family road trip.

They lean in close and suck in every word, his brightness destroying the fog of sickness. The women come in with eyebrows already knit with worry, ready to weep at the slightest provocation; the men edge in reluctantly, scared they’ll be asked to show some emotion. But they all leave saying confidently, “He’ll be up and about soon” or “He’s taking it well” or “Now, that’s a man.”

Here’s what my sister and I don’t like to admit: my father can be quite charming when he wants to be. Sarah figured it out at age eight when she leaned in and confided in me: “I think he’s a werewolf, ’cause he only gets bad when it’s dark outside.”

I, age ten and already bitter, scoffed and said, “I can’t believe you still believe in that baby stuff.” But the thing is, I know now what I was too stubborn to admit then — she had the measure of him. Because the sun lit him up and made him our God.

We used to run after him, begging him for stories. He’d invent wild yarns starring the beautiful and brave princesses, Sarah and Yasmin, and their improbable superiority over all mankind. He threw us into the air long after we were too big to be thrown, but he always caught us. At the zoo, he told us he could read animals’ minds. He gave them all different voices and we talked with them by the hour. In the sunlight, he came alive and he brought the world to life with him.

Mama has tried to make the little room into a home. Outside the bathroom is a cupboard where she stores her stuff. Behind her clothes is her stash of cookies and Nutella. She hides them because she and my aunt, my father’s older sister who comes promptly at the beginning of every day’s visiting hours, are in a competition to see who can be more ascetic in her grief. I don’t tell Mama that I’ve found her stash, but I eat one or two to keep her on her toes.

Above the TV, she’s placed a couple of tchotchkes from the house: an elephant holding a paintbrush in its trunk and a monkey in some sort of ceremonial robes, both rescued from thrift shops along my father’s trucking route. At first, I was angry with her for bringing the monkey, but of course, she can’t or won’t remember that I’d once thrown that monkey at my father during one of our fights. I missed and it crashed into the wall behind him. Its ear is still broken. I touch the jagged edge. On my father’s bedside table is a family portrait, taken at my high school graduation. One time, I catch him reaching out to touch Sarah’s face. I go out into the hallway and call her.

“Hey,” she says. There is pop music in the background.

I roll my eyes. It would be so like Sarah to have turned on the music just as she answered the phone. “Asalamu Alaikum.”

“How are you?” she says. “It’s been too long.”

“I’m home,” I say. “I’m at the hospital.”

I listen to music on her end for five full seconds.

“Oh,” she says, at last. “Did you have a good trip?”

No, Sarah, I did not have a good trip. Every time my phone lit up, I’d expected it to be Mama telling me I was too late. I’d driven ten hours and taken no breaks. But if I mention any of that, she’ll begin a lecture about self-care and once she’s delivered her sermon, she’ll tell me she’s sooo sorry but she actually has to go and she’ll call me back soon, okay? And I’ll never get to say what I’d called to say.

“Baba’s dying for real. You know that, right?”

“Don’t say ‘Baba,’” she says. I can just see her scrunching up her nose. She has an upturned bunny nose that she’s always been proud of. “I hate when grown women say stuff like Mommy, Daddy, Mama, Baba. If women don’t stop infantilizing themselves — ”

“Our father, then. Our father is dying. And he misses you.” We used to wait by the window on days when he was supposed to come home. The second his truck turned onto our street, we’d fly out the door and down the driveway.

“I wish I could. We have exams, though, starting next week.”

“I’m sure if you explain, you can get, like, extensions. Or just come for one weekend. One day.”

I trace the scar on my left hand. I remember Sarah picking the glass out of the cut when it was new, wiping off the blood, smearing it with ointment, kissing it. I remember Baba hovering in the doorway of our room, looking tentative in a way that didn’t match his bulk.

“It was an accident,” he said and Sarah said, “Yes, of course, it was,” in a bright tone, but she wasn’t facing him and I could see her scrunched-up nose and I had not cried, not once, the entire evening, but Sarah’s tears could have filled buckets. I was so grateful to her then, for crying for me, and perhaps if we could just cry together now…

“Please, Sarah,” I say. “Just come home. Just one day. Our mother needs you.”

“Mina. I’m sorry.”

I hang up on her. She calls me back. I turn off my phone and step back into the room. Glaring at me from the shelf above the television is the monkey. It should not be in this room and while my mother is fussily handing my father items from his lunch tray, I kidnap it and take it to the hospital roof.

There’s someone there: a man, about my age, up here for a cigarette. He’s the blondest boy I’ve ever seen. His eyebrows are so white I can see myself reflected in them. His beard is a sinister shadow on his chin. He’s a Draco-Malfoy-looking son of a gun is what I’m trying to say.

He notices me looking. “Do you want a cigarette?”

“I don’t smoke.”

He starts to turn away, stops, looks me up and down, and slides closer. “So what are you doing up here?”

I run one finger on the edge of the monkey’s broken ear — teasing myself with the tantalizing sensation of almost bleeding. I walk him along the railing and look down at the long, long drop to the sidewalk. “My monkey’s contemplating suicide,” I say.

He slides even closer. “What’s wrong, little buddy?” he asks the monkey, reaching out one hand to pet him.

I jerk the monkey away. “One step closer and he’ll jump.”

The boy laughs. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Oh, he’s just decided that if bad things won’t happen to the right people, then they might as well happen to good people because at least they’ll be happening at all.”

He says, “That doesn’t make any sense at all. That would just increase the total amount of injustice in the world — means the bad guys are even farther ahead.”

“Bravo, my friend, you’ve found the flaw in his logic.”

“Then, won’t he come off the edge, now?”

“Oh no, he couldn’t possibly.”

“Well, why not?”

The monkey and I both look down at the sidewalk below. “Wouldn’t it feel like freedom to fly down there? And look at the ground just sitting there, all hard and cold with no care in the world. Don’t you think it deserves to have something smash into it? Don’t you think it might finally start giving a shit when there are actual monkey bits splattered all over it? Wouldn’t it say, ‘Forgive me, little monkey, I didn’t know’? Wouldn’t that be nice?”

He says, “It would be a shame for such a pretty monkey to meet such an ugly end.”

I turn to look at him. “Yes, of course, you’re right.”

The boy blows out a thin stream of smoke, and I cough. The monkey dances a little on the rail. He rises on his tippy toes and then — woosh — he jumps over the edge.

“Tell me honestly,” my aunt says. “Why won’t your sister come?” We are sitting in the garden, pouring cups of milk tea from a thermos I’d brought from home. A few feet away, two nurses are gossiping about their patients.

“It’s my parents’ fault. For naming her Sarah.”

My aunt rolls her eyes. “So?”

“Well, no one outside the family calls her Sarah, like actually saying Sah-rah. It’s all Sayra, you know, how the white people say it.”

“And?”

“And,” I say, “it’s got her believing she’s actually white.”

She pours herself another cup of tea. “I know you like to kid, Mina, but I’m actually asking. Should I send your uncle to go get her?”

“I’m actually answering, though.” I pick up the sugar bowl from the ground by our bench and add two spoons to her cup. “She thinks she’s white, so she thinks if someone, you know, maybe yells at you a couple of times or hits you once or twice, that means you don’t have to come say goodbye.”

My aunt takes the spoon from me to stir. My heartbeat pulses in my throat, and I swallow it down with a gulp of tea. Will she tell me that her baby brother would never hit anyone? Would she rush up to my mother and scold her for raising a child so ungrateful she’d criticize her own dying father? Would my mother cry?

My aunt says, “When I was younger, I used to get very bad grades. And every time I came home with my test results, my father would take off his belt and beat me black and blue.”

I draw a star in the dirt with my foot.

“So then one day, I got a perfect score, and I ran all the way home from school, I was so excited to show him. And you know what he did?”

The pause lasts too long. It is apparently necessary for me to say, “What?”

“He took off his belt and beat me.”

“What?” This time with feeling.

“So I wouldn’t get a big head.”

We look at each other for two seconds, and then my aunt starts to chortle. I laugh, too, at first a high-pitched, nervous giggle then something more full and genuine.

Mama has gone home for a change of clothes and there are no other visitors. Baba is asleep, which is how I like him best. I’m ostensibly reading a book, but really I’m watching his chest make every labored rise and every relieved fall. Will he live for the next fifty breaths? I count them down.

At number 32, his eyes flutter open. “Sarah?” he asks in a needy voice.

I’ve taken to accusing him of senility every time he mistakes me for my sister. I open my mouth to do it again. Instead, I say, “Yes, Baba.”

“You came.” He lets out a sob that’s more like a sneeze, forgotten before it begins.

I want to say: oh don’t go getting sentimental on me now.

“Of course, I came.”

“I know you’re busy at, at school and with your things.”

“I always have time for you.”

“You were always so good at school. I’m so proud of you. You know that, right?”

“I know.”

“Sarora,” he says. “My angel. God protect you.” He takes my hand, and I worry that this will snap him back into reality, and he will see that his angel is still out of reach.

“I’m sorry.” His voice shakes as he says it and I don’t know if it’s emotion or sickness. He clears his throat. “I’m sorry I won’t be there to see you graduate.”

It’s my turn to take a quivering breath. “It’s okay,” I say. “You’ll watch it all from a better seat.”

He opens his mouth, closes it, doesn’t say anything. He squeezes my hand (Sarah’s hand?) and we sit quietly for a moment. His eyes close again, and he sighs.

I go back to counting down breaths.

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Image: Zeena smiles at the camera. She is wearing a white hijab and patterned orange shirt.

Zeena is a Sudanese American living and writing in Germany. She graduated with a degree in Near Eastern Studies and has a special interest in folklore and storytelling from that part of the world.

The Drinking Gourd

The Drinking Gourd provides nuanced depictions of the Black…

Zeena Mubarak

Written by

The Drinking Gourd

The Drinking Gourd provides nuanced depictions of the Black Muslim Diaspora through various forms of media, including but not limited to: visual art, poems, non-fiction, and fiction.

Zeena Mubarak

Written by

The Drinking Gourd

The Drinking Gourd provides nuanced depictions of the Black Muslim Diaspora through various forms of media, including but not limited to: visual art, poems, non-fiction, and fiction.

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