"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


The Velvet Box

The Velvet Box

The fork and knife sat parallel to each other on the plate with the tines pointing upwards. She had ordered medium-rare steak and got served a well-done. It had the finish of beef jerky with blobs of fat settling comfortably on the better of it. She sat back in her chair and kicked off her heels, rubbing the bunion on her right foot with her left one.

“Aida?” he said.

“Yes!” 

“You didn’t say anything.”

“I do, Ali. I do,” she replied bobbing her head. 

“Are you going to try it on?”

“Sorry?” she said pulling her earlobe forward with her index finger.

“Would you like to try it on?” He said speaking over the music. 

“Should I?” 

“Well, you’ve asked to see it tonight. Here it is.” 

She unbuttoned her blazer and leaned forward plucking the sparkler out of the velvet box. 

“Pavé?” she said.

“What?”

“Pavé. It’s the setting of small diamonds together with.. Never mind.. It’s….”

“What?”

“Nice.”

“Put it on.”

“No, tomorrow,” she said.

“Just see if it looks good on you.”

She slipped the ring on and ran her fingers over the surface. She noticed that the prongs were sticking out.

“Thank you, Ali,” she said taking it off and placing it back in the velvet box.

Ali made the conscious choice to be relieved. Maybe “thank you” was the wisest thing to say at this point. They were going to sign the marriage contract tomorrow and there was really no more room for another argument. They’ve been at it ever since their engagement last spring, but that was expected. The engagement is the toughest stage, their friends warned. It can drive couples to breaking point. 

Ali’s mind leapt over memories like it would over landmines: That time when her mother started a fracas over the “qahwa baladi” under the apartment, that other time when his father insisted the wedding takes place at the hotel where he works to get the 50% discount, or his mother who had taken great offence to Aida demanding to see the ring before tomorrow; The dowry, the furniture, the buffet, the florist, the honeymoon. It seemed like whenever someone put his or her foot down a bomb went off.

“Thank you” was good enough, and Ali decided to take it at face value and move on. He looked at the ring sparkling in its box against this magnificent backdrop. What a night! The fireworks were bursting and surging in the sky signaling a new beginning, the River Nile was lapping its waters against colorful feluccas blasting sha’abi music, the Russian belly dancer was dropping her hips and rolling her belly as she moved seductively amongst the tables, and then Aida: His beautiful, sophisticated, smart, and independent bride, Aida.   

“Are you going to finish your steak?”

“I’m not hungry,” she said.

“How come?”

“The bunion on my foot is just killing me. It’s been a long day.”

Aida had been in her two-piece suit and high heels since the morning. Even though her boss was aware that tomorrow was her Katb Kitab, she still had to stay to draft and review the contract for that merger they’d been working on since last spring. She had no time to go all the way back home before dinner, so she decided to stay Downtown until they met. All she wanted really was to curl up in bed, but instead, there she was attending to more unsettling business. 

She stared at her steak with a beef jerky finish and imagined its journey to her plate: It clearly wasn’t loved in the way it ought to be. It seemed like the kind of cut a butcher would give a customer whom he knew wouldn’t tip well. Like it was frozen for too long then defrosted in a microwave. An erratic chef must’ve handled it, flipping it on the fires one time too many, then slapping it on a plate before giving it a chance to rest. This was the problem with all set menus on themed occasions. They were rushed products of panic. She looked up at Ali. His plate was wiped clean. He had taken charge of reservations and orders tonight. Clearly he had no problem with the food; which brought to mind a saying she once heard: “When the average person buys a diamond, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Same with steak.” 

Ali was still beaming at her. She smiled back, cut another piece and reluctantly put it in her mouth. She didn’t expect him to know much about steaks. He’d probably be as happy with a good piece of steak as he would with a Big Mac. Nothing wrong with that. If anything, it makes him easy to please, which is why she latched on to him so fast. 

The Russian dancer spun and spun, signaling the end of her number. Aida watched as the sparkly silver tussles on her bra and skirt swirled out and around. The tambourines and tablas rattled and banged in a dizzying crescendo, before it all came to a complete stop. The dancer then flipped her long black hair and bowed out, blowing kisses as she shimmied her way out of the dining area. Then the host of the night appeared with a microphone in hand.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “Happy New Year once again. Cairo looks beautiful under the fireworks, no? Umm el Donya! From all of us here at Night Pharaoh, we wish you a bright and colorful year ahead. We hope you’re enjoying your dinner and Jawhara’s phenomenal belly dancing. And now, the dance floor is open … to you.”

A DJ with an Afro appeared and started fiddling with the knobs and buttons on his sound equipment, but that didn’t do much to adjust the sound coming out of the speakers. Then the music played to the boom of a loud bass:  

“If I should stay, I would only be in your way. So I’ll go, but I know. I’ll think of you every step of the way.”

Ali slipped the velvet box into his blazer pocket and extended an arm across the table. 

“Shall we?” he said. 

“My bunion.”

“Oh come on,” he said pulling her up, “Just this one dance.”

“Wait, Ali! My shoes.”

The dance floor was completely fogged by a smoke machine. As they disappeared into the haze, Aida couldn’t help but wonder, what year this is. Here she was on a Nile cruise slow dancing to a song she used to play back as a teen to the beat of her unworldly heart. He put his hands on her hips and she put hers on his shoulders. Nothing had changed. Slow dancing was still as inherently awkward as ever. There was simply no right conversational distance no matter how close you were to the person. 

Not that she wanted to start that conversation. The truth is, the last few months were so draining that she no longer had it in her to fight. But her friends had warned her: The engagement is the toughest stage. It can drive couples to breaking point. Maybe this was just a phase, a rite of passage. But what rights would she earn for not speaking up? 

She laced her fingers around his neck and buried her head in his shoulder. It couldn’t have been Ali. It must be his mother who chose this ring for her. Why would she choose such a cheap ring though? She should’ve put her foot down when he said ‘leave it to me.’ But every time someone put his or her foot down in the last few months, a bomb went off. There was simply no room for more argument.

She let Ali bring her closer to him. It was all she could do to relax. Funny how the very object of one’s distress can sometimes be the only source of comfort. This is what they call Stockholm Syndrome, or was it just the very nature of the contract she’s entering into? The irony of the situation did not escape her. She, a lawyer who is used to fighting for what she wants suddenly forfeiting what she wants. 

That ring though! It needs to disappear. She should’ve foreseen the trap when he said, ‘leave it to me. But she was too busy with work, and frankly also avoiding another landmine. One that could, if she were to be completely honest destroy all hopes of her ever getting married. Her feet were throbbing with pain. It’s too late now. They were signing the marriage contract tomorrow. The guests had already received their invitations, the food was being prepared, the florist was putting her final touches. It’s too late. Except if, she acts now.

She unlaced her fingers from around his neck and dropped her arms to his waist. He wrapped his arms around her waist and hung on tight. Even though the fog had veiled his face, she could tell that he was still beaming at her. She smiled back, her lip twitching, then moved her hand towards his blazer pocket. It must disappear. And just as the track came to an end, she gently slipped her hand into his pocket and plucked out the velvet box.


Mai Serhan is a Palestinian/Egyptian writer and scholar. She earned her BA in English & Comparative Literature and MA in Arabic Studies. Her MA thesis won Best Thesis in the Field of Gender Studies for the Year 2018 by The American University in Cairo. She has also won The Madalyn Lamont Literary Award for best work of fiction. Mai is currently working on her first collection of short stories, as well as being a Teaching Assistant in the department of Arab & Islamic Civilizations at The American University in Cairo.

Cake and Wine

Cake and Wine

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