There was a man in the ballroom of the Sheraton wearing a skirt.
Mr. Salameh watched the man approach the buffet. He still couldn’t believe he was at a wedding—his son’s wedding—where you had to stand in line and fetch your own food. So many insults, so many things wrong with this wedding. A daughter-in-law who couldn’t pronounce her new husband’s name. A wedding that cost a year’s salary. A fight with his wife. A DJ who played American music that sounded like a video game. A celebration less than forty days after they’d buried his mother. The mass for her soul hadn’t even been said, and here was her only grandson, dancing a strange dance with his skinny wife, flapping their arms like terrified birds.
And now, this man.
A man with a red beard and bare legs, at his son’s wedding, eating pork on a stick istaghfurallah.
“Meghan’s family is proud of their culture, just like we are,” Raed had argued. “You have to respect that.”
But they had a culture too. He’d asked Raed for Arabic music, and that’s when his future daughter-in-law revealed her dark side. “My aunt is a harpist and she’s playing a special song,” she insisted, her blue eyes staring boldly at Mr. Salameh, momentarily breaking her sweet act. Mr. Salameh wasn’t stupid. He’d been in America for thirty years. He knew the elusiveness of delicate white women, how they drew Arab boys to them like planets to a fiery star, how they turned their young men into blushing, stammering fools. He saw how Meghan, with her pink nails, her slim wrists, her tiny waist, transformed Raed, his football-playing, lawyer son, his only son—the child he’d poured all his energy and love into, the child he’d prayed—well, no matter all that now because like a witch, she changed him from a proud racehorse into a mule that lowers itself to the ground for its back to be loaded. And while she was controlling him with her glossy smiles, she’d say, “Culture isn’t everything. Ray and I are both Leos,” like it was such a big fucking deal. One-twelfth of the world are Leos, Mr. Salameh wanted to shout at her every time she said it.
All around him, people talked lightly, and laughed. My mother is dead, he wanted to shout. Stop clinking your glasses. But they continued talking about the tall, dark, handsome groom and the bride who looked like a model. The man in the skirt was back in the buffet line, piling his plate with so much chicken, steak, and pork—so much meat, these Americans, and then they wonder why they’re always so tired. Mr. Salameh thought Raed should count him as four guests, not one.
Mrs. Salameh approached, looking angelic, even though he knew she was still upset. His beautiful wife, in a sky-blue satin dress. You’ll be overdressed, he’d warned her. They’ll all be wearing jeans probably. She didn’t care. He’s my only son, she’d said. And I’m going to look like the mother of the groom, she’d declared.
“Are you going to eat?” his wife asked, slipping her hand into his as he strolled to the bar and ordered another drink. It felt nice to speak to someone in Arabic.
“Are you still angry?” he asked her.
“You need to eat,” she replied, wearing her patient smile. She indulged him a lot and he was grateful to her.
“This whole thing…everything is so rushed.”
“They had to marry before Lent,” his wife said calmly. “You know that. It was bad timing about your mother.”
“She’s only been dead three weeks,” he said, shaking his head. “And by the way….There is a man here wearing a dress.”
“Allah yerhamha,” she said. “I miss your mother too.”
“They should have waited. It’s not even been forty days.”
“If they waited, it would be Lent. No weddings during Lent.” That was the voice she used when she was annoyed with him, and it was his signal to stop. Sometimes he wanted her to drop the serene veil she always wore. For her to be as angry as he was.
“The living,” he continued, “used to pause for the dead. Out of respect.”
“Let me put you a plate. You should eat something. How many drinks have you had?”
“I’m not eating.” Something caught his attention. “Look…there he is. Do you see him?”
She ignored his question. “People are watching. You’re the father of the groom.”
“Do you see what that man is doing?”
She finally turned and looked. “I saw him. He’s very nice. His wife is the aunt. The harpist. We haven’t met her yet.”
“Why do we have to have their music but not our music?” Mr. Salameh asked.
“Everyone can tell that you’re not happy.”
“I’m not happy. You can see the bride’s tits right down the front of her damn dress. I’m scared to stand next to her in case something falls out—”
“Khalas.” Her voice was firm, so he snapped his mouth shut. She put her arm through his. “I’m going to fix you a plate. And then we’re going to chat with Raed and maybe take some pictures. And then we’re going to smile and shake hands with everyone. We will mingle. You will look happy.”
“There’s nobody here whose hand I want to shake.”
“Your nephew Marcus came. We should say hello to him. I’m glad he did, even though you wouldn’t let me invite his sister.”
“Her own father doesn’t talk to her. Why would I invite her?”
Mrs. Salameh muttered Allah give me patience, dropped his arm, and headed towards the buffet line. As he watched her walk away, he noticed Meghan’s father approaching. Raed’s father-in-law. It was too late to escape, so he drained his glass as the man trudged towards him. His hair was white and stuck out at all angles on his head, and his glasses slipped down his bulbous nose. He looked like a white Husni from the Ghawar movies—a man nobody could take seriously, no matter how dressed up he got.
“I think they need us at the front for more photos, Wah-leed.”
“Ok. Ok. I go get my wife.”
“Just the fathers now, I think.” He clapped Mr. Salameh on the back and pulled him toward the head table, where Raed and Meghan stood. “Enjoying yourself?”
“It’s ok that we had alcohol, right?”
“Yes, of course.” He held up his own glass. “I tell you before we are Christians, not Muslims.” As if to make a point, he beckoned to a waiter, handed over his empty glass, and took a fresh one off the tray.
“Gotta always ask, you know. This way the culture doesn’t become a problem.” He was only half-listening to Mr. Salameh anyway, waving at other guests. Before they reached the front of the room, the man stopped and waved his hand around. “Like some of your guests here, they’re wearing head scarves. That’s not gonna be something Raed surprises my Meghan with, right? In a few years?”
“We are not Muslims.” Mr. Salameh’s head started to hurt. “These are our friends.”
“But our guests—they are not forced to wear.” He nodded towards Mrs. Hamdi, who stood to the side with her husband. “That lady right there, she is pediatrician. She run the whole clinic at Bayview. Their daughter, she is soccer player. She play for big Maryland team.”
“She wears that thing while she plays?”
“Some things are ok. Some things…I gotta ask.” Meghan’s father shrugged. “This country is changing. Not all the new people coming in are like you, you know.”
Mr. Salameh thought about his mother, who was so kind and sweet and would have still looked at this man and muttered, “Kalb ibn kalb.” He glanced up at his son Raed, who stood tall besides his elf-wife and wondered, how could he do this to me?
They took the damn picture. The mothers came too. There were more pictures. He drank another glass but saw his wife’s glare and declined another one. More and more people joined the picture: Raed and Meghan’s coworkers, cousins, friends. He wondered who would see this picture in ten years, twenty years. Maybe his grandchildren? In forty years, his great-grandchildren? He wanted them to see him smiling, but not too broadly. He was going to lose his son. He’d already lost him. And if his grandchildren grew up feeling lost in the world, unattached to anything, he wanted them to know that, even before their birth, he had anticipated this, and he had been sad.
“I wish Sitti Fayrouz were here,” Raed told him somberly, as they posed for a father-son picture.
“Is that your grandmother?” his tiny wife asked.
Raed nodded sadly, and everyone made a sympathetic sound, like a rush of emotion, even though they had been dancing something called a curly shuffle a few minutes before.
He wished his son hadn’t said that.
Because now, he was sinking into his memory of those final days in the hospice when she was gasping for breath. He’d sat many long hours in that room with her, just the two of them sheltering from the rest of the world. Over the beeping of her machines, she’d mumbled to him, when she’d thought he was his dead brother, and talked to him so lovingly in her delirium. “I missed you, Michel. Where have you been?” And in his own desperation to comfort her, he’d lied. He’d pretended to be Michel, who could make everyone smile just by walking into a room and who should have been the one to live anyway.
And that’s why, now, Mr. Salameh couldn’t stop himself from replying to his son, “You should have respected her memory, then.”
“Stop, Baba.” Raed said firmly.
“You’re disrespecting her memory. And I don’t even know why I came for this.”
“Waleed.” That was his wife.
“I’m telling you all,” he shouted in Arabic, “that I don’t even know why I am here. There is nothing for me at this wedding.”
Several people tried to calm him. Then he heard, “Uncle Waleed.” That was his nephew, Marcus, who barely talked to them anymore. “Let’s take this somewhere else.”
“Why are you always bossing people around?” he asked Marcus, who gave him a dry look like he wanted to pick him up and throw him. He could too, the beast, he was taller than Raed and even wider and more muscular.
“This isn’t the time.”
“I guess we should be glad you’re even here,” Mr. Salameh shouted.
“I’ll give you one warning.”
“Or what? One warning? For what?”
Raed whispered something hurriedly to his fairy wife, who walked away with her father, clutching his arm as if she couldn’t stand on her own skinny legs.
“Are you drunk?” Raed asked him.
“Yes,” replied Mr. Salameh. “I am as drunk as Peter at the Last Supper.” He yelled towards Raed’s father-in-law. “Peter, you hear? Not Mohammad! Peter!”
Marcus rolled his eyes.
“You’re mad at us because we don’t talk to your sister? Isn’t that it?”
Marcus became very quiet.
“Nobody talks to her.” Mr. Salameh had him now. What could he say? “Why would we? She’s not welcome here. She’s shacking up with her boyfriend…” he shouted, getting close to his nephew.
The punch hit him in the stomach. Later, his wife would say Marcus had spared him his face. All he knew in the moment was that he was suddenly lying on the floor of the ballroom. When he registered the gasps and felt the pain shoot through his abdomen, he understood: Marcus had knocked him flat on his ass.
Within minutes, there was a stampede of people to the front of the hall. Some lifted him, others squawked nervously like chickens. “What happened?” “Why did the big guy hit the groom’s father?” “Should we call the police?”
“No bolice. No bolice,” he heard his wife imploring someone. “Everything eez ok.”
“We’re ok, everybody,” Raed said. “Not a fight. Just an accident. My father tripped.”
The muttering changed as people who had not really seen the punch began to absorb and repeat the new story.
And that was it. Marcus, who was heading out the door, was no longer the aggressor. The story morphed quickly: he, Mr. Salameh, was a drunk fool who’d embarrassed himself at his only son’s wedding.
“I’m leaving,” he announced, standing up. “This is not right. This hasn’t been right from the beginning.” He walked out slowly; his hand pressed to his side. It hurt to breathe.
Raed didn’t follow him out.
When he turned back to look, he saw Raed at the front, looking angry and disappointed, his arm around his wife to comfort her.
His wife and a few others did follow him. He told them, after a few minutes, that he was fine. They wandered off, including Mrs. Salameh, who said, “I’m going to check on Raed.” Alone, he trudged through the Sheraton’s carpeted hallways until he found himself in an empty lounge room. He stood under a large chandelier, assembled from thousands of glass beads, each one reflecting the light to look bigger and more important than it really was. The chandelier cascaded down into a cone shape, like a big light ready to beam him up to heaven. Maybe that wasn’t where he’d end up, he thought, looking around at the ornate room, lined with tall vases of flowers, plush carpeting, rich sofas and chairs. He slumped onto one couch and stared up at that conical chandelier, which seemed to be pointed down, cocked, and aimed right at his heart.
It was a few seconds later when he heard the music. A soft, rippling sound, like a qanoun. He shook his head, but it was still there. He looked around the lounge, he was alone, but he realized it was coming from a side room. He stood up and lurched unsteadily toward what looked like a break room for employees. Inside, a group of servers, wearing black vests and pants with white shirts, stood listening reverently to a woman sitting behind a large harp, hugging it as if it were a child.
He didn’t know the song she was playing and humming, but it soothed him. And then she looked up, stared into his eyes, and he gasped loudly.
“You,” he said, holding out his hand.
“Hello,” she said quietly, tilting her head to the side just as she used to do before. “What a coincidence.”
“My God. I thought I will never see you again.”
“I do see patients’ families sometimes. It’s always nice to reconnect.” She spoke softly, stood up and held out her hands.
He gripped them and remembered how warm they’d felt, rubbing his back, holding the prayer beads on his rosary for him when he’d collapsed into sobs. They were not smooth hands, even though her face looked young. Her hands were worn, like supple leather that has been broken. They’d held his mother’s hands during an injection, they’d lifted his mother by the arms, held a stethoscope to her lungs, to her back. They’d dipped a sponge into a shallow bucket to clean his mother’s legs and feet, and they’d run a comb through his mother’s long, uncut, white hair. And in the end, they’d pulled the sheet gently over his mother’s contorted face.
“The groom is my son.”
“Ah. The bride is my husband’s cousin. I promised her I’d play for her. It’s an old family song.”
“Your husband…he’s out there?”
“Yes. Did you meet him? He has a long beard.”
“Yes. I see him. He is wearing a skirt?”
She laughed softly. “I always remember our conversations so fondly.” She was indulging him, he could tell, the way his wife did. “It’s called a kilt. I’m sure you’ve seen one before. Our family plaid is the design he’s wearing.”
It’s still a skirt, he thought, but this time, he kept it in his own mind. There suddenly didn’t seem to be any pleasure, any benefit to shocking someone, to packing his thoughts into a bullet and firing it into his listener. He felt, so strongly right then, that he would rather hurt himself, than insult this woman.
“Thank you for what you did. For my mother.”
“It was a difficult few weeks. And I’m glad I had a chance to know her. She was lovely.”
He squeezed her hand again, his throat thick, but his mind clear.
“Will you come and listen to me play?”
“Everyone in there.” He shrugged. “Nobody happy with me.”
“Oh, I can’t believe that.”
“I’d love for you to hear the song, though.” She patted his shoulder. “Won’t you come and listen?”
He did, sitting just inside the door at a vacant table. He watched and listened as she fluttered her hands over the strings, pulling out a lovely, echoing sound, along with her pretty voice. He’d walked in on her once singing to his mother, he remembered—the Ave Maria. He watched as people in Meghan’s family stood and listened reverently to her. Mrs. Salameh’s head was craned, looking around the room for him. I’m back here, he wanted to tell her. I’m ok. I’m listening.
Susan Muaddi Darraj won the American Book Award and the AWP Grace Paley Prize for her short story collection, A Curious Land: Stories from Home. Her writing has been recognized with a Ford Fellowship from USA Artists and an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council. In January 2020, Capstone Books launched her debut children’s chapter book series, Farah Rocks, for which she won the Arab American Book Award. Susan grew up in South Philadelphia and now lives in Baltimore, where she teaches fiction writing at The Johns Hopkins University.