The classroom bustled with life, as the students rushed to grab their lunchboxes and run down to recess. Wissam, on the other hand, didn’t budge. His eyes remained fixed on the graded homework his teacher had just returned. Any second now, she was going to acknowledge and approach him. That’s when he’d convince her he deserved a higher grade on his assignment. Little did he know that Miss Sarah had already noticed him lurking in the classroom, but she was adamant that he speak up if he had anything to say. An eternity, in disguise of a few moments, passed. His eyebrows twitched with irritation, and he finally gathered the courage to march into battle. He smoothed his messy black hair in place and unbent his sleeves before pushing the chair back with exaggerated force. He held his head high and consciously furrowed his brows, like a lion staring down a rabbit.
“Miss Sarah, you made a mistake,” he blurted out before he could change his mind. As expected, his teacher raised her eyebrows in surprise at his choice of words. He had a faint memory of his father saying those same words to the manager at a restaurant about a faulty order their family got. Back then, the manager scurried away, and Wissam was in awe at the authority displayed. Right there, he had decided to be as assertive as his dad. That way, he would get what he wanted – no deserved.
His teacher’s voice came out in a sharp tone, “Wissam, we don’t talk to others this way. What’s this about?” Ignoring the first part of her response, because what would she know, he replied haughtily, “I think my paragraph should get at least an 8 out of 10. You asked us to write about what sovereign means for Independence Day, and I did. I just have a different opinion. Don’t you always tell us to express ourselves?” He had made sure to practice pronouncing the word, “sovereign” under his breath before coming up; he wasn’t going to look like a clown today.
Miss Sarah sighed, put on her glasses and motioned for him to bring the paper forward. Feeling a slight shaking in his legs, he whirled around and retrieved the paper in question to the judge at the table. Seconds passed, and Wissam was trying his best not to fiddle with his fingers. His mom had warned him about looking like a wuss in front of others, so he kept his fists clenched sideways. Finally, Miss Sarah faced him and proclaimed, “I’m sorry Wissam, but sovereignty is not related to you deciding what you’ll have for lunch at school. It’s a little more complicated than that. You’re getting there. I’ll tell you what: rewrite it for tomorrow, and I’ll consider giving you a better grade.” He huffed and shot back before he could even process, “Why don’t I write a paragraph about how you’re not good at ‘sovereigning’?” He stuttered through the made-up-word but soon shrunk back at her glare. Needless to say, he found himself in trouble with his parents. He had a whole tantrum ready while he was waiting for them to finish their meeting with the school’s vice-principal.
‘In nine years, I’ll be my own boss, and no one can tell me what to do.’ That’s what nine-year-old Wissam thought to himself when the door opened revealing his less-than-happy parents.
9 years later
A young man was sprawled on the living room couch nonchalantly browsing the media on his phone when a text message from a contact named Jad popped up: “Ready?” Was Wissam ready? Of course, he was. He had been waiting for this moment for a long time now, but it wasn’t received well by his kin. His parents weren’t speaking to him.
He could still remember his father cussing him out at the kitchen table with his mom in tears. Veins decorated his father’s head like his mom’s red porcelain teacups. To his left, she had drawn her hands to her face and refused to listen.
“I’m old enough. I got a job last month, and I’m ready to move out. Jad and I have done the math. What’s the big deal?” That seemed to make things worse because his dad stood up so abruptly he knocked the chair over. Wissam’s younger sister jumped from her place but remained an idle spectator throughout the ordeal.
“Old enough?! What’s wrong with your family’s house? You have everything here. Jad talked you into this. I always knew he was no good,” his father accused. Wissam had had enough. They won’t listen no matter how many times he explained, and he had made up his mind. With that decided, he left the table and possibly his family altogether. This was for the best.
He repeated that sentence while grabbing his things to meet Jad downstairs. He gave himself one final check in the mirror. Puberty had been kind to him, for he grew to over 185 cm tall. On the way, he passed his sister’s room and noticed her peeking through the doorway. When their eyes met, she looked away and pretended to continue reading a comic book. He silently thanked his sister for letting him off quietly and trudged to the door. There was no escaping it; his parents were in the dining room adjacent to the exit. Dragging his luggage, he paused when he came in their line of sight and declared with his steadiest voice, “I’m going now.” His father made no room to acknowledge his statement and continued smoking his cigarette. His mom looked pleadingly between him and her husband. Before she could have the chance to complicate things further, Wissam made his way out. Only after he closed the door behind him did he notice he was shaking. Not wanting to test his friend’s patience, he carried himself as well as he could and took the elevator to the underground parking. Wissam was ready to start a new life, and if that meant walking away from his home, then so be it…
He made his way over to the BMW parked in the corner. He did his best to keep his pacing steady so as not to give away any nervousness he felt. Plastering a confident smile on his face, Wissam slid in the car smoothly only to find Jad looking grim. His shoulders were hunched, and his black hair cast a dark shadow on his eyes. When his gloomy friend finally opened his mouth, Wissam wished a million times over that he could unhear the last minute.
“Hajj Abdallah called. He said that he had to give away the apartment to some people he knows at the last minute. He’ll give us back our money, but that’s the best he can do.”
“Some people he knows?! What the hell does that mean?” Wissam was inconsolable. He hadn’t left behind the comfort of his house to have it crash and burn from day one.
“People he knows! You know,” hissed Jad, “it’s those thugs whom he hangs around with. It has to be. Look, we still have our money. Let’s lay low at your place for a while and look for somewhere else to go.”
“My place?”, laughed Wissam, “do you know what my family will think? What will my dad do to me if I come back? No way in hell. I told you to tell that damn Hajj to give you some paper to guarantee our deal. Look at us now.”
“Calm down…my family won’t like me coming back either. We can stay at a hotel until we figure this out,” said Jad soothingly.
“Fuck hotels, and fuck those thugs. I’ll talk to that Hajj myself. Drive.”
“Whatever you say…” replied Jad with a final, defeated voice.
The ride there was plagued with silence. Jad kept sneaking furtive glances at his scowling friend. He found it strange that Wissam had agreed to move out with him in the first place. Everyone on the block referred to his family as respectable figures in the community, yet here Wissam was, getting ready to battle with an old man over an average-sized apartment on the outskirts of the city. Jad couldn’t fathom what problems had to go on inside that household to drive an 18-year-old this far.
A few traffic lights later, the young men were looking for a place to park. Wissam had already unbuckled his seat belt in anticipation of leaving the car to reclaim what he was promised. The Hajj’s house was on the first floor, and the promised apartment took up one-fourth the third floor.
“Wissam let’s stay calm. This is a bad place and time to get anyone angry. All we want is our money.”
“Just leave the talking to me.”
Squaring his shoulders, the soldier readied the meanest look he could give the Hajj. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, he tapped into his memories of every fight he saw his dad in. His dad was the ultimate confrontational type. For his 45th birthday, Wissam and his sister had gotten him a shirt with a bull on it and the caption “Charge on.” Later that evening, Wissam snuck into his parents’ bedroom to try the shirt out. He stood in front of the mirror with the oversized shirt on and flexed his muscles, imagining the bad guys he’d scare off when he grew a little.
‘Raise your voice. Keep your back straight. Come close enough to show that you’re willing to fight but don’t throw the first punch.’ He repeated this mantra until he felt confident enough to go for it. Regaining his senses, he noticed Jad nervously drumming with his fingers to the beat of the elevator music. It was clear that Wissam was on his own in this one. A beep was his cue; the show was about to start soon.
Entering the dimly lit office, a strong odor of cigarettes attacked his nose, but he refused to scrunch up his face in any way. Sitting behind the messy table of papers and scattered stamps was the infamous Hajj. Wearing a newsboy hat, the old man tilted his head upwards in slight recognition of the two intruders.
“Your money is in the envelope to the right,” was the only thing the cowardly landlord would grace them with.
“Thanks. We’d also like the apartment we picked.” There it was. Wissam had done what he had set out to do. Embracing the warm feeling in his chest, he maintained eye contact with the landlord. With that said, he earned himself the reaction he was looking for. “I never promised ya anything, you pair of washed-up kids. Go hide from your parents somewhere else.”
“You’d rather give your space to trash rather than a pair of washed-up kids?” fired back Wissam.
The old man cocked his head, knocked on the thin wall to his right and spit out with a grin, “you hear that, Saleh? Boy wonder here thinks our crew upstairs are trash.” Wissam began to have a sinking feeling in his chest. Unlike his father, he wasn’t well-built or experienced in any form of fighting, except maybe some wrestling from a WWE game he owned in middle school. Nonetheless, he didn’t back down; Jad, on the other hand, unconsciously took a few steps backwards towards the door. He didn’t want this to escalate and was about to intervene when Saleh made his appearance. Sporting an unapologetic long thin beard, a bald head that was as polished as his muscles, Saleh was a force to-be-reckoned with. If Jad had any doubts, they were cast aside now when he spoke up, “look, we just want a place to stay since we both moved out.” Wissam shot him a silencing look and turned to face their new opponent.
“We want that apartment.”
The last coherent thing Wissam could do was review his virtual guidelines for fighting from his father’s experiences. Now that he thought about it, his dad’s fights had always been with blue-collar workers in his engineering company. They had never been outlaws in a private area.
He would have a lot of time to think about what happened later in the hospital with his family surrounding his bed. Every once in a while, his body would twitch in different places, as he reacted to abrupt noises to the floor he was on. They had placed Jad in a different room. The last thing he remembered from the fight was blood spattered on the walls.
Wissam had his nose and cheekbones broken. He wheezed through the short breathes he took. The loud thumps from his heart reminded him of the kicks he received to his chest. His dad was making a few phone calls. According to his mom, he would find those responsible and punish them, as if he had no idea where they lived. No one dared address the elephant in the room: how this happened to begin with.
Plucking up the courage to finally hear the truth, he muttered to his mom, “where’s Jad?” His mom cast her eyes away, fiddled with her shirt and was silent for a few seconds. Wissam had noticed that it had a dark brown stain on it but chose not to comment.
“I saw his parents down the hall getting coffee. I tried asking them how he was, but they were unapproachable. His mother actually threw the coffee on my shirt. Security almost kicked them out, but I said it was just an accident,” she explained in a worn-out voice, “after that, I asked the nurse at the front desk. I’m good friends with her sister. Jad’s having surgery in both his eyes. I’m surprised the police aren’t involved.”
Wissam gulped. That’s right. It was coming back to him. The shriek that came from Jad’s mouth when a punch made contact with his face was indescribable. When Wissam had turned to see what had caused such an anguished scream, he realized that his friend had a bloodied eye. That’s when he lost any hope in winning the fight. The thugs just kept coming in, one after the other.
Grimacing from the memory, he resigned himself to waiting. They were unable to recover the money or the apartment. In fact, if Jad didn’t recover, Wissam didn’t know what he’d do with himself.
After 2 weeks in the hospital, he was released home and given strict bed-rest instructions. Jad was not so lucky. He had lost 100% of his sight in his left eye and partial sight in his right. Not to mention the psychological trauma he was facing; he had a lot to recover from.
His family had never brought up the topic after that. Maybe they felt he had been punished enough. Regardless, he was grateful for their merciful act.
Months later, Jad still wouldn’t return his calls.
9 years later
Church bells rang in the courtyard, and the bustling of cars could be heard all the way to the end of the village. Loved ones came from all over the country to wish the bride all the best in her marriage. She looked entrancing with her beautiful white dress hugging her curves. Her hair was done in soft curls going all the way down to her back, and her makeup was light enough to bring out her dark green eyes. Congratulations were thrown around throughout the ceremony. The groom was a promising doctor in the region. People said they were a match made in heaven. A huge banner above read, “Reem and Fouad.”
Reem felt a swirl of emotions building up in her chest. She was flattered by all the attention thrown her way today. She would be lying if she said she didn’t feel nervous, but she knew everyone here meant well, perhaps except for one attendee. She didn’t understand why he chose to come, but she wouldn’t pay him any heed. As if reading her thoughts, Fouad squeezed her hand in concern and questioningly raised his eyebrows. She shook her head reassuringly and gave him the biggest smile she could muster. Her groom wore a navy Turkish suit that made him look like a renowned sultan. He was a head taller than her with short black hair and honey brown eyes. She remembered meeting him for the first time in his clinic. Reem’s mother wasn’t feeling well, and as fate would have it, the two were brought together through small talk in each appointment. Thankfully, her mother learned to cope with the kidney stones. Even more, Fouad had unknowingly saved her from brooding over a failed attempt at a previous relationship.
On cue, clutter was heard in the background. The pair-to-be turned their heads to witness a man swaying back and forth holding a bottle of whiskey in his hand. His suit had already been stained with alcohol, and his untied shoes would soon send him toppling face-first into the ground.
Before Fouad had the chance to ask her, Reem found herself furiously marching to the wasted man in question.
“Wissam,” she barked, “stop this. You’re ruining everything.”
Regaining his composure, Wissam gave her a loopy smile and said, “Your day? This was supposed to be our day. You fucking bitch. You didn’t fight for us. All you even care about is which holy book Fouad pretends to give a shit about.”
Reem all at once felt her fuses snap. People had already begun to gather and whisper about the fiasco. She screamed in a pitch she couldn’t fathom she could reach, “GET THE HELL OUT!” That was all her husband needed to charge and drag Wissam by the collar outside the garden. Once that was done, Fouad dusted off his fingers and smoothed the sleeves of his suit before abruptly turning to do some damage control on his part.
Laying in a heap of pain was Wissam: Wissam who thought religious differences couldn’t stop him from getting the girl of his dreams, Wissam who had thought he could have things his way if he asked for it, Wissam who couldn’t even get an 8 out of 10 on an assignment. He giggled to himself, as he thought about Miss Sarah. What ever had happened to that know-it-all teacher? He picked himself up and ordered an Uber home. The driver kept sending him wary glances from the front mirror, warning him not to puke on his leather seats. Wissam couldn’t promise, but he held himself together.
His home wasn’t far from the wedding, thankfully. He stumbled up the stairs and tried the same key three different times before it finally unlocked the front door. His parents were out for lunch, and his sister was going through that close-the-door phase. He made his way to his room and lay in bed. After making sure he wasn’t going to throw up, he rummaged through his old school files. His mother had begged him to throw those away, but he refused. Sometime after that, they both forgot, and the files remained in his closet for years.
Feeling impressed with himself for finding the right file, Wissam scrolled through the pages till he found the right one. He didn’t bother rereading his answer. He made himself comfortable in his bed, turned the paper to the blank white side and wrote:
“Sovereignty isn’t real. Maybe it’s real, but it’s not. What’s the point of being your own boss if everyone else is their own boss too? I think I should be the boss. The world would be a better place if I were. If that doesn’t work out, maybe we can all take turns. A calendar might help. I wonder if Hitler felt-”
He dropped the pen and gave way to the fatigue settling in his bones.