FICTION January 10, 2014

How Can I Be of Use to You?

She read the piece I had prepared for her and took questions. I drank wine and wandered out into the dewy night to an unlocked studio space. I sat at the cleared desk and drank. I hadn’t thought much of myself as a writer—I had planned to get a Ph.D., like my mother had always expected me to, to write a dissertation on Egyptian women writers like Latifa al-Zayyat, like Mansoura. A soft rain began drizzling again, and then I heard a thundering applause, which meant the event was over.

I began to walk back to the lodge when I saw the driver reading a magazine in the car. I wanted to go over to him, to ask him to drive me to the ferry; wanted to cross the now black-indigo of the Puget Sound; wanted to go to my garage apartment, pack all my things, and hitchhike back to California, back to my family, back to their familiar oppression, their unspoken support.

Instead I stepped into the lodge and watched the feather-eared women praise Mansoura for the rest of the evening as I brought her glasses of wine and carried her coat.

We spent the night in separate rooms in the lodge, and in the morning, she woke me and asked me to walk around the property with her. I rose and threw on a pair of jeans and kept my t-shirt on. I didn’t bother with a bra. When I came out of the lodge, she was sitting in a golf cart, smiling mischievously.

“Can you drive one of these?” she said.

“Would I be allowed to?” I said. “That is the real question.”

“What are they going to do? Arrest us?” she asked in Arabic. “It would not be my first time in jail. If I wasn’t afraid of Sadat, then I am not afraid of some rich ladies. Come on, I’m too old and tired to walk but I want to see this whole place. Drive.”

I got in and drove the golf cart over the gravel and along the marked path. Nettle bushes and foxgloves lined the path, as if warning us, but I kept driving. It felt lovely, driving an open golf cart bra-less, free, Mansoura silent by my side. At a clearing, we saw a meadow, and she told me to stop.

We sat on a wooden bench by the meadow and listened to the birds. After some time, Mansoura said, “This pond reminds me of one in Germany I used to swim in. I spent a summer there, in Leipzig, when I was a young woman, you know.” I hadn’t known. “One day, I discovered a secret pond, small, like this one.” I took out the notebook so I could write down what she was saying, take dictation, but she held her hand over mine and stopped me. “I would walk there every morning and undress completely, naked like the day my mother bore me, and swim the length of the pond four or five times. One morning, I noticed, while I was in the water, a male groundskeeper clearing leaves and pruning shrubbery. I didn’t know what to do. Should I just emerge from the pond, nude and proud, and pretend I hadn’t seen the Do Not Swim sign? Should I wait for him to leave? Or should I ask him to help me, to bring me my towel and my clothes? That last option seemed far too intimate, and for the second option, I was too impatient.”

“What did you do?” I said, genuinely curious, even though I rarely ever interrupted Mansoura.

“I went with the first option. Climbed out of the pond completely naked, toweled myself dry, and left. The next morning, he was there again, at work. And again, I undressed and went back in the pond. I did this every morning that entire summer. We had an unspoken agreement, this stranger and I. I swam nude, and he never spoke to me. I miss that pond. I miss that man.”

Mansoura stared straight ahead now at the murky meadow. She’d needed that man by the pond, just as she needed me then, by that meadow. At the end of each day, I was an audience to her need for an audience. I was her silent groundskeeper in the dark. Mansoura gripped the edge of the wooden bench and then asked me to help her stand. The women would soon be waiting for us at the lodge for brunch.

We returned to Seattle a few hours later, having taken the ferry back in silence. The sun shone in small patches: a gift. After the car dropped us off in front of her house, she asked me if I wanted to come in and begin work for the day. I told her I had just gotten my period and would need to go home, and she nodded. “Don’t be long,” she said, and I rode my bicycle in the direction of my garage apartment, the clean air whipping at my jacket.

That was the last time I saw Mansoura in real life. Years later, I saw her on Al-Jazeera, giving an interview about the Egyptian revolution. She looked exactly the same as when I had left her: white hair in braids, a plaid shirt on. As she spoke, the interviewer called her “the grandmother of the revolution.” I nodded; that was the one thing Mansoura would be content to be the grandmother of. The interviewer walked with Mansoura around Tahrir Square, and I saw that she was leaning on someone’s arm, someone just outside the camera’s view.

This summer, I go back to Whidbey Island for six weeks to write. I will stay in the wooden lodge; I will be an Emerging Arab Woman Writer. When, on the application, I was required to fill out the name of a reference, it did not give me pause. There, on the grey, wide line, I had not hesitated. I knew whose name to use.

Randa Jarrar is the author of the novel, A Map of Home, which won a Hopwood Award, an Arab-American Book Award, and was named one of the best books of 2008 by the Barnes and Noble Review. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Salon, Guernica, Utne, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She teaches in the MFA program at Fresno State, and is the fiction editor for The Normal School.