An O. Henry Prizewinning Short Story by Youmna Chlala

May 16, 2018  By Youmna Chlala

There was sun and then there was more sun and more sun. You can’t imagine loss when it’s sunny. Everything reflects, the sides of buildings, dirty, dusty windows offer half a version of a sad tired face. You squint and rooms appear tilted, the sky unbearable, and then when—like a turtle, worm, or whatever it is that burrows—you wrap thick heavy blankets around the curtain bar, dust flies everywhere. So you sneeze and secure the blankets with giant paper clips, metallic tape, anything that feels like it will protect you from the brightness for a long time. This is how I felt for the first few days of my twenty-first year. I was still in this camp in the desert, worming my way into acceptance while years—let’s count them . . . something like 365 × 6 + however many days—had gone by. By the end of the week, Mama pulled down the blankets and dragged me to my cousin Marwan’s birthday party. He relished his legal ability to drink, although as I told him many times, legality did not matter here.

Mama spent most of the night in the living room with my aunts while Marwan and his friends entertained them by trying to dance the dabke with a group of terribly synchronized tabla drummers. Already tipsy by the time we got there, Marwan introduced us to his new girlfriend, Nayla. I noticed that everyone else seemed to approach her cautiously or envelop her in an airy swoop that simulated the grandeur of a hug without bodily contact. She didn’t smell bad or look disheveled or unkempt. There were no obvious signs of repulsion. I asked my mom what was going on and she said: She’s a young widow, in the hushed tone of a terrible fate or a shameful secret. I immediately thought of a spider and recoiled. So when Nayla sat next to me on the sticky linoleum kitchen floor and offered me the wobbly part of her spinach quiche, I hesitated. She insisted. I took a small chunk with my hands as if like sisters we had always shared food.

The music was loud in the kitchen, a mix of bootleg DJ Khaled and De La Soul. Nayla and I stayed on the floor, legs extended, bare feet against the cabinet, eating. I picked out the almonds from the rice and gave them to her. She whispered that they were a cheap substitute for pine nuts. We agreed that bread is the best utensil and that olives without pits are disgusting, as if manhandled by a machine. By the end of the night we were friends.

Nayla worked part-time as an engineer. She fixed boilers, heaters, and pipes. She made sure all the internal parts worked: the heart, the liver, the organs of a building. She spoke of codes like a spy. She had a clipboard with stacks of paper that she flipped through and wrote on only in pencil. I never saw her erasing. There were numbers and barely legible words along the margins. Her soundtrack was the scribbling scratch of the pencil. When she was surrounded by the rest of her crew, mostly men who liked to yell into the air rather than speak directly with one another, she seemed feminine, like a feline cartoon character who bats her eyelashes when she wants something. She wore short skirts or belted long shirts along with the white hard hat she carried looped around her gaudy large gold purse. She didn’t wear heels but her shoes seemed demure, dignified, and actually, as I often told her, totally old-lady-like. The leather was never scuffed or dirty.

That summer, I practically lived in her apartment, a tiny place right above her late husband’s family’s house. I’d come over and we’d drink prosecco (pretending we were in Italy) and invent recipes together. We traded food for the bubbly wine with Ahmad, the liquor store manager. We made him fish fattoush; lamb-stuffed eggplant; pistachio, orange, and cardamom cookies; and vegetarian kibbeh with extra pine nuts. Ahmad had a huge family who liked to be fed by anyone other than the aunt in charge of cooking, who vacillated between old-school kushari and a weird version of rice pilaf.

I noticed that everyone else seemed to approach her cautiously or envelop her in an airy swoop that simulated the grandeur of a hug without bodily contact.”

We’d go out dancing until late, and it just seemed easier to sleep over. We shared the crickety pullout bed in the living room, and I’d help her fold its giant metal legs in the morning as our Turkish coffee gurgled on the stove. We ate breakfast together, dipping stale and barely thawed bread into bowls of homemade labne drowning in olive oil. Then we gulped down one more coffee before we each went our own way.

Nayla never talked to me about her husband. I didn’t know how long they were married, if it was arranged, if they had been super in love, or how and why he died. This was a time when so many of us had lost someone close. There was an unspoken rule not to talk about them, as if it would put you at risk. Like you only existed because of their absence. I only knew what he looked like because the first time I came over she pointed to a single photograph hanging on the refrigerator door and said, That’s him. I keep it up here for them, pointing down at the floor that separated her from his parents and siblings. The magnet was weak and each time she opened and closed the door, the photo swayed a little. His cheeks were reddened by the sun or wind. He had on sunglasses so I couldn’t tell much about his eyes, his aura. He wore a collared striped blue and white T-shirt. He seemed preppy, healthy, what youth was supposed to look like.


Marwan, on the other hand, had a face only a mother could love, as my mama often said, teasing her own sister. When I saw him at family gatherings, I tried to get him to reveal something about how he felt about Nayla so that we could dissect his words as we chopped onions and pulled parsley leaves. She seemed to really like him, though I couldn’t understand how he compared to the beautiful man who haunted the kitchen.

I enjoyed my role as a spy until Marwan told me that he liked dating her because he’d never have to commit. Clearly, you can’t marry a widow. I told him that was insane and archaic and backward and stupid. In an instant everything changed. He stood up, got really close to me, and yelled: Why don’t you leave my girlfriend alone! Are you a lesbian or something? And I said, Yeah, so what? Then he told me I was going to hell and a whore and anything he could think of that would make me feel shame, and when I didn’t blink he pushed me hard, both his hands flat against the center of my chest. I didn’t fall or fight back, instead that night I told his sister, who really was a lesbian: Don’t ever tell him the truth. It’s not worth it.

The next day, Nayla and I were supposed to make a flourless chocolate cake for Ahmad’s daughter’s birthday. We were promised a bottle of champagne in return. I kept trying to find the right time to tell her what had happened with Marwan. We stood in the kitchen grating dark and heavy bars of chocolate. Facing each other across the wood counter, we each had a cheese grater set up like a monument in the center of the plate. We leaned with all our might into them to shred the cocoa.

I was restless and set everything down and began to fumble with the record player on the side table. There were no records in sight. The lid was always closed. I opened it and found a layer of dust.

Why don’t you ever use this thing? I asked, and Nayla just stared at me silently. I suddenly remembered the small graveyard next to the east fence and the line of vinyl records shoved into the ground next to a headstone as if they were guards. And without thinking, maybe as a way to fill my mouth with words of forgiveness or to be a distraction or maybe just to undo this unintended opening, I began to talk about my sister.

I never told you that I have an older sister, I said, entering a strange world where I uttered what I thought. My life up until that moment had been suspended, like when it’s really hot outside and muggy and you know it’s going to rain, that all of this humidity will break and burst water from the clouds, but you wait and you wait under the graying sky and it doesn’t happen. Until it does, much later, at night when you no longer mind because you’re safe at home.

Nayla didn’t respond and looked down at the chocolate shreds. I opened the refrigerator and grabbed the fig cookies (that she kept cold so that they crunched when she bit into them) and continued to talk.

We don’t know where she is. She ran away before they brought us here. My mother rarely mentions her name, only on her saint’s day or birthday. We have a ritual where we sing happy birthday to each other. Mama even bakes a cake and we blow out a single candle together, and Mama mumbles something about how she hopes that she is out there somewhere enjoying herself and blowing out candles.

Nayla never talked to me about her husband. I didn’t know how long they were married, if it was arranged, if they had been super in love, or how and why he died. This was a time when so many of us had lost someone close.”

The more I talked, the more I moved around the kitchen like a grazing hungry animal. I stuffed three cookies in my mouth. I went to the stove and stuck my fingers in the melted butter, dipping them into the oozing pale yellow liquid.

She is alive, I said, and licked my fingers greedily. 

Have you heard from anyone who might know anything about her? She pulled the butter away and poured it into a bowl.

No, but I know it, I said, following her and putting my slimy fingers in the crystal brown sugar.

She pushed my hand away swiftly and I went in again and she grabbed it and held it. Yes, I understand, she said with a firm grip.

We have a bunch of her clothes here with us because we thought we might as well bring them, I continued.

Where do you have room to keep them?

In the suitcases lodged between the closet and the ceiling. Mama takes them down every few months and changes the lavender bags and cedarwood, checks for moths, and then seals them and slides them away.

Do you ever go through them? she asked, and picked up the chocolate and grater that I had left behind. She moved slowly so as not to scrape her fingers against the metal. I could see the small muscles in the backs of her arms working.

When we were growing up, I used to always steal her clothes.

Now they smell stale and terrible.

Well, yeah, it’s obviously the cedarwood, she replied.

She poured the blend of almonds, forming a landmass inside the glass beaker, and said: He drowned, in the pool. Can you imagine making it here and then something stupid like that happens?

I stared at her and she kept her gaze down. It was silent. There was only one window and it was never open because it was too hot. We were sealed in.

I’ve always hated these pools. Too much chlorine! I said.

Nayla looked up quickly, and I smiled and walked over to her and she hugged me, hard and close, for what felt like a long, long time.

Let’s go now, she whispered.

Where? I pulled back. Swimming.

Are you serious? Yes. Let’s go.

Mama thinks that Nayla has a straightforward tone about everything because she’s an engineer. I think it’s because she’s sad. Mama says there’s nothing straightforward about sadness, it’s full of ebbs and flows and that I’m a ridiculous romantic even about sadness.

We dropped everything: sugar, almond, butter, chocolate, pans, cups, measuring spoons, eggs, and left it all for the ants, as Mama would say. We ran in the midday humidity all the way from her apartment on the south side to the reservoir in the north. We charmed the guard with a box of Turkish delights (which we both hated), and he opened the mesh metal gate, giving us only twenty minutes before his supervisor showed up. We held hands, closed our eyes, and jumped in—right into the cold, unsalted water without even taking off our sweaty clothes. We emerged smiling and triumphant. Nayla said she hoped that our grimy bodies wouldn’t taint the water that we were going to have to drink. I floated on my back and watched the still bright sky, wondering if Nayla could see into bodies the way she could see into buildings.


This story originally appeared in Prairie Schooner. See the rest of the 2018 O. Henry Prize stories here.

Youmna Chlala
Youmna Chlala
Youmna Chlala is an artist and a writer whose work investigates the relationship between fate and architecture through drawing, video, sculpture, prose and performance. Her book of poetry The Paper Camera is forthcoming by Litmus Press. She is the Founding Editor of Eleven Eleven {1111} Journal of Literature and Art and recipient of a Joseph Henry Jackson Award. She is an Associate Professor in the Humanities & Media Studies Department at the Pratt Institute, on the core faculty of the MFA in Writing program, a founding member of Poetics Lab and co-coordinator of the Architecture Writing program.

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