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

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


The Velvet Box II

The Velvet Box II

Read the first installment of “The Velvet Box”

It was hard to think of her feet getting any bigger, but they were; So big and pale that they looked like dough. How she hated walking into shoe shops, curling her toes in as she asked for a size 39 instead of 40. She would be a size 39 though, if it weren’t for that bunion. 

40 is the theme of this New Year, it seemed. The year when she would finally come clean about her size 40 feet, when she would have to blow her 40th birthday candle. Or 40 candles. (40 candles would need a bigger cake though. A 2-tier, maybe.) She stared at Siham’s fingernails as they deftly worked on hers. They were bitten so bad that she almost had no fingernails at all. The carpenter’s door is off its hinges, they say. Epsom salt and warm soapy water were supposed to help the bride relax. But Aida’s feet were fraught. There was no way to relax, not while Siham stared at her with this much amazement, kneaded her feet with this much zest. The girl spoke about marriage like she would about a pilgrimage to Mecca, like it was the ultimate sacred fulfillment. 

“2019 will Inshallah be the year when I find a man… Bordeaux or Blush Pink, Doctora Aida?” 

  “I’m not a Doctora.”

“Aren’t you a big lawyer? Then you are a Doctora,” she said, wagging her over-plucked eyebrows. 

He hadn’t called to tell her that the ring had gone missing until now, but that didn’t halt the preparations. The sheikh and guests were after all expected by sunset. On the ground floor, cleaners dangled outside windows wiping the farthest edges of the glass, the florist clacked her high heels across the marble floors as she tried out different floral layouts around the house, and the heavy cooking smells escaped the trembling lids in the crowded kitchen. On the second floor, her mother flip-flopped from bathroom to bedroom in head curlers and a black face mask, while her father sat in his pajamas, rustling with the dailies against the high-pitched voice of the TV presenter on screen. But the worst were the doorbells. Every time they rang, ululations chimed in from every direction; Like a fleet of police vans sounding off their sirens. All Aida wanted really was to escape, but instead, here she was, contending with doughy feet and Siham’s wagging eyebrows.

She wasn’t used to this kind of visibility either. The theme of the past decade had decidedly been, The Dreaded Spinster with a Cupboard Full of Spanx. Years of showing up to family gatherings only to be approached by aunts who would ask her how she was as if someone close to her had died. She had thought Ali’s marriage proposal would rid her of the trauma of that, but no. How would she explain those Spanx to him when he eventually undressed her? The thought of him, her, and the Spanx alone together was terrifying. 

“I think Blush Pink is more bridal ya Doctora.” She didn’t blame Siham for calling her a Doctora. Her parents had taken every certificate of participation and appreciation, every proof of degree and pedigree since she was a four-year old and hung them in elegant gold frames. You’d think they belonged at her office maybe? But no, they were arranged like a shrine around her bed. She needed constant reminding, they thought, to survive. For all their worth though, these degrees did not hold the cure. Sure they advanced her career, but they certainly didn’t fix her personal life. They didn’t stop Ali’s Mum from seeing right through her and estimating her worth at a pavé ring; Through her shoes and right through these Spanx. What was she going to do with that ring? Bury it under a tree? Throw it under a speeding car? Gift it to a stranger? Come clean about it? Whatever it was, there wasn’t much time left. She had to act now or forever hold her peace. But what peace? 

“You know tea bags work very well on tired eyes,” Siham said.

“Yeah.” 

“I mean, tea bags because they warm you. Cucumbers work well too if you prefer.”

The thick freckled wrist of Aida’s Mum then appeared from behind the door: “Aida, Jacques has been trying to reach you. Pick up,” she said peering in, “Everything OK?”

“She’s tired, I think,” said Siham, “I told her I’ll get her teabags, but she doesn’t want.” 

She called Jacques:

“Ayeeda, I call so many times.” 

“Sorry, was in the shower.”

“I come maintenant. Just want to tell you I ave four elpers wiz me. I need ze room to be void when we come.”

“Void?”

Vide, vide. I like to fuck-us.”

“Fuck-us? Oh, it’ll just be me. AWW!” Siham was scrubbing the bunion with a pumice stone. “Are you crazy?” 

“Me?” 

“No Jacques, I’m sorry. Don’t worry, of course we will let you focus.”

Trés bien. See you soon.”

“Let’s leave the bunion for now,” said Siham.

She watched her recoil on her small stool, sorting through her nail tool kit with barely a sound before pulling out the most benign item she could think of, the toe separator. 

“I’m sorry I shouted at you, Siham.”

“We just want you to relax today, ya Doctora… I mean ya aroussa.”

A aroussa without her ring, a ring without its aroussa, her thoughts were like basket balls bouncing off the walls. Could Ali have not realized yet that the ring was gone? What if he had realized and was now filing a police report for theft? And what if the police had rounded up everyone working at the Night Pharoah over this? She couldn’t stand for that. She was a lawyer after all. No, she had enough to worry about. She can’t worry about others, not right now. She craned her neck towards the window and saw a half truck had stopped by their house. As the men off-loaded the patio heaters, ululations returned, sounding off from all directions. 

“I think I need teabags for my eyes, Siham.”

She waited for Siham to leave her room to remove the toe separators. She then grabbed the car key, phone, velvet box, and dashed out, down the corridor.

“Where are you going?” It was her father, “Come here, I need to speak to you.”

He rummaged through the small safe he kept at the bottom of his cupboard while she picked the lint out of his bedcover. The little bag he returned with was elegantly embossed in gold. 

“What’s this, Baba?” 

“Open it.” 

She peeped in and found a velvet box. Her heart sank to the bottom of the little bag. When she did not move, he reached in with his dark veins crawling up his sinewy arms, and placed the velvet box on her lap. 

“What is this?” 

“Open it.” The diamond-encrusted necklace was custom-made, just for her, he said; A scale, for his lawyer daughter, with 1-carat diamonds on each side. She stared at the necklace now lying limp in the palm of her hand, then ran her finger over its surface. The workmanship was flawless. 

“Are you going to try it on?”

The windows were rolled down in the car and the cold air bore down on Aida’s face like a wet cloth. There were no signs of life down North Teseen and up South Teseen Streets, save for the twinkling of remaining Christmas lights and strings of cotton on window fronts. Other than that, the home shutters were firmly closed and the balconies overlooking the high way deserted. Whether their owners were out celebrating last night or had chosen to stay home, recess could be felt everywhere. It was a time to stop cussing and stop praying, to reset the button and hope for something better to come this way. Up and down these streets she went over and over again, in a mind loop: Bury it under a tree, throw it under a speeding car, gift it to a stranger? She had to go for one, now. She parked the car under a big tree and got out, the velvet box clutched in her fist. Pulling her Spanx up, she leaned forward and with freshly manicured fingers, started to dig a hole. As soon as the velvet box was buried, she straightened up and stared at the small mound of soil. No, maybe leaving it for someone to find it would be best. An act of charity. She unearthed it, put it under the tree and walked off, then looked behind. No, she should probably just come clean. No Rest without a reset. Yeah, come clean. She pulled her Spanx back up and sat down on the prickly grass, then dialed Ali’s number. 


Mai Serhan is a Palestinian/Egyptian writer and scholar. She holds a BA in English & Comparative Literature and MA in Arabic Literature. 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. Her writing has appeared in Jadaliyya, Anomaly, Chaleur and elsewhere. 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.

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