FICTION January 10, 2014

How Can I Be of Use to You?

“Yeah, okay,” I said, and gave him a five-dollar bill. I wanted to explain why his dance was offensive, but Mansoura was already shouting for me to bring her the coffee. We drank in silence, and then she asked me to walk her to the bathroom. I held her arm, and we crossed the expanse of the black-and-white tiled coffee shop. Outside the restrooms, each door bore the standard gender symbol denoting male (♂) and female (♀). She stood in front of them and said, “When I come out, I will need you to write something. Please get the notebook,” and disappeared into the women’s room.

When she finally emerged, she stood in between the two wooden doors and shouted, “See how the female symbol is docile, upright? It stands there, arms akimbo, as if asking, How can I be of use to you? How can I comfort you, help you, give of myself to further you? Meanwhile, the male symbol is virile, a penis pointing outward, always exploring, moving forward, the arrow saying, I am busy, I am important, I am on my way to conquering something, someone, somewhere.”

I scribbled down what she said as fast as I could. I was inspired by Mansoura’s ability to remain an activist and find signs of oppression in everyday life. She took the notebook from me when I was done, put on her glasses, read over it, tucked the notebook under her arm, and nodded. “Good,” she said. “Let us go back to the house. I must give dictation now. I am feeling very inspired.”

We walked slowly back through the rain to her house. For dictation, Mansoura felt it was very important for her muse that she sit in a position higher, physically, than my own—although she would never call her inspiration, or her higher intellect, a muse, finding this to be too patriarchal an idea because it devalues a woman’s intellect and in its place situates a younger feminine entity in flowing robes, giving this image all the credit. Also, she did not want to see me while she gave dictation. She didn’t want me, as she put it, “presenting my psyche,” which she would then have to exert an effort to nullify.

When she was done talking, she asked me to input everything she had said from my notes into the computer so that she could read it the following day. I did as she asked, and she watched me and finished her double espresso. When I was done, I saved what I had typed, turned to her, and waited.

She asked me what time it was. It was just after three.

“Good,” she said. “Then we have time. Do you have the earrings I asked you to buy?”

Mansoura had been invited, by a prestigious women’s-only writers’ residency out in Puget Sound, to do a reading and book signing that very evening. In preparation, my job was to 1) print out the text of her talk, which I had translated from Arabic and edited for clarity and 2) buy a dozen pairs of identical earrings, which she was planning to gift to the board members who had invited her, and to the Emerging Arab Women Writers—that was their official title—who were in residence and would be at the event. I had completely forgotten about the earrings.

“Oh, God,” I said, and then lied, “I left them in my apartment.”

“We must leave at four-thirty,” she said from the next room, “to board the five o’clock ferry. So I do not know what you are even doing in my peripheral vision at this moment.”

I scrambled out of the house and went back into the street. Mansoura hadn’t given me any money for the earrings or any instructions as to what they should look like. The rain came down in heavier sheets now, and I briefly thought of going back to get the umbrella, but I didn’t want to anger Mansoura. Three blocks down, I hopped onto the light rail. I sat in the dry, plastic seat and looked at the grey city outside. I didn’t want to work for Mansoura anymore, but my agreement had been to stay with her three more months. I wondered what I could say to get out of staying until May. That my mother had died? That my father had killed her?

I got off at the stop four blocks from the market. I walked through the wafting smell of fish and coffee to the first jewelry stall and found pairs and pairs of feathered earrings hanging on a large metal rack. I told the white, dreadlocked woman behind the stall that I wanted twelve of these earrings, each wrapped individually. She rang me up and gave me the total, which sounded like a make-believe combination of numbers, and I decided to use the credit card my parents had given me “for extenuating circumstances.” I hadn’t used it yet, saving it for an emergency-room visit, or maybe a visit to a Planned Parenthood in case I were to get laid so often in Seattle that I would need a Plan B pill. I began to cry now, thinking of the naïveté of my pre-Mansoura self.

I took the light rail back to Mansoura’s house, the earrings in a bag in my lap. Years from now, I would take a train from Alexandria, my mother’s hometown in Egypt, to Cairo, and think about this afternoon and wonder why I didn’t look a little longer at the earrings in that market for even more ludicrous pairs—for small fake pearls, say, that could have resembled clitorises glinting in the many ears of Mansoura’s worshippers.

Mansoura was waiting for me when I returned. She was wearing the same exact uniform she’d always worn, but her hair was braided into two pleats at the sides of her broad face. This made her resemble an elderly baby.

A car, sent by the women’s residency, showed up minutes later, and we were on our way to the ferry. I sat in the front seat with the driver. Mansoura liked to sit in the back by herself; a few weeks ago I had thought it was because she liked to have space to think and write, but now I knew it was because she didn’t want to seem like anyone’s grandmother, the way she had seemed at the café earlier.

On the ferry, the driver told us we didn’t have to stay in the car. Mansoura asked me to help her climb the steps upstairs. She wanted to look at the water. I let her hold onto my arm and helped her onto the outside deck. The ferry heaved out, and Mansoura faced away from the hot-dog stands and condominiums. I watched as small, white wisps of her hair came loose from her braids and haloed her face. In that brief moment, I wished that I had never met Mansoura in real life.

We soon saw the island approaching, little green hills and tiny houses. When the ferry docked, I helped Mansoura back into the car, and she rolled down the window and breathed in the island smells: pines and hills and damp. Tall trees surrounded us. We passed a patch of black and brown alpacas, and, a few miles later, the wooden sign to the residency peered out on the left, and the driver pulled in and parked near a big, metal shed. I got out of the car and carried Mansoura’s things—her notebook, a file folder holding the printout of her talk, and the bagful of earrings—over the grey gravel and into the office to let the women there know that she had arrived.

Mansoura liked for people to greet her at the car. She said that when she went back to visit her family’s property in the south of Egypt, the people working the land would come greet her at the car. When she drove to her beach apartment in Agami, the street kids would come greet her at the car. When her taxi arrived at the Cairo airport, the not-so-secret police would come greet her at the car. It was how she liked things.

The women streamed out of the office and to the car, where they all made a fuss over her, and I stood back and watched. A few minutes later, the residency director told me I could look around the property, so I did. There were several small, detached studio spaces for the women to write, make art, or compose music, and a single, large wooden lodge where the women slept, showered, and ate dinner together.

Before the reading, the Emerging Arab Women Writers came out from their studio spaces and rushed to join the residency’s board members in greeting Mansoura. She embraced them and signaled for me to give her the bag. She brought out the small boxes and distributed them to all the women who were forming a semi-oval around her, like a human halo. Each opened her gift and screamed and put on the earrings. Now Mansoura resembled a mother bird surrounded by her dozen feathered chicks. I was glad my ears were naked.