Too many cancellations. Please try again later.
No driver was accepting our Uber request, and it had started snowing now.
The sunlight, as little as an infant’s breath, glinted off from the glass-like tips of tiny snowflakes that flurried onto us from the sky like proofs of mercy, bringing with them a lovely, awakening cold.
Awakening, for me. Not for my mother, with her pointed nose turning a bright red. For her, the cold just brought more sneezes. Worry pulsing inside my veins, I looked back at my phone, willing for Uber to accept the request. Come on already, I said to myself internally as I set the address and clicked on ‘request’ again.
“Is it – achu – coming?” My mother sniffed, blinking rapidly. She stood almost bent, wearing a dark grey sweater and a woollen beanie over her hijab. Her hands, numb and reddened, kept flexing and unflexing.
A sharp slice of hurtful guilt cut through my heart. I reached out and grabbed both of her icy hands in my own warm ones, feeling tingly upon the contact. She sighed with relief slowly and flashed a small smile at me, and my heart galloped.
It has been a whole week now, since she welcomed me at the airport after ten lonely, broken years, but I can’t get over the warmth and love that shone from her smile. Papa’s smile was limited to his lips only, but when Mama smiled, the whole world smiled next to her, crinkly and beautiful, full of life and energy.
Now that I have finally met my mother, I don’t know how I have stayed without this one smile all those years.
Buzz. Ping. I jumped, startled, then clicked on my phone screen. A new notification.
Uber, 1s ago: Charles Abreo arriving now in a Toyota Camry (fifteen minutes approx.)
A fat sigh of relief left my lips. Finally. Thank God.
I looked at Mama, who was peeking in my phone (again). “Caught it. Fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, you should…” I looked over her, pursing my lips.. “…just sit.”
I had expected Paris to be exactly like the movies, hustling and bustling with tourists clicking a battery of photos and the natives laughing, all merry and crowded, but that was the pre-Covid Paris. Now, even the bus stop we were at was almost deserted.
Perhaps that was why the two women who sat on the bench closest to us, busy with their phones, were maskless. One of them, the taller one, didn’t even bother to put one on. The other woman had just slid it to her chin, holding a leash that was, weirdly enough, not connected with her dog’s collar.
The fluffy brown dog chewed wetly on the woman’s sneakers. As we approached, it stopped its disgusting activity and settled its beady black eyes on Mama, growling slowly.
Mama stopped in her tracks, still clutching my hand
Frowning, I looked at her. She had paled, thin lips pursed so tightly that they were barely visible. Her eyes were widened, reflecting fear and the dog.
Suddenly, I remembered.
Flashes, and visions, and sounds. Feelings of despair and sadness. The sound of Mama crying at night, hugging her blanket around her. Her denial to get out of her room for days at a time, causing Papa to get angered. Their continuous arguments, and his heartbreaking decision of leaving her. And then, us moving away.
My mother was panphobic, and the sight of the barking dog activated her phobia.
An arrow of worry stabbed me deep, coated with guilt, but it wasn’t the time for it. “I’ll talk to her,” I whispered to my mother, leaving a soft little peck on her cold fingers before unclasping her hand from mine. She stood motionless, breathing in and out shakily.
Putting up a small smile, I approached the woman and cleared my throat. “Excuse me?”
“Hmm,” She grunted, immersed in her phone. A layer of her straight brown hair fell on her face, obscuring it.
Okay. Not even interested.
Keeping my smile, I said, “Would you mind leashing that dog, please?”
Slowly, the woman peeled her eyes from the phone and looked at me from top to bottom. Her gaze stopped at my headscarf and she pursed her lips as if disgusted. “Hmm, maybe I veel” She said in a cold tone with a pronounced French accent.
My eyebrows knitted together. Huh? I cleared my throat again, shifting from foot to foot. “Um, I mean-” I hesitated, looking back at Mama. She was still standing there, but her hands had started shaking slightly now. I looked back at the woman.
She displayed an ugly sneer for me. “Look, keed. Why donnut you go again to your countghy?”
Why don’t I go back to my…
Understanding poured over me like a bucket of cold water, and I clenched my jaws together. If my mother wouldn’t have been shaking there, I would have had a hundred things to spit back. “Miss, please-“
The French woman shook her head, her hair moving with it, “You tell me fighst, vout you hide in thaygh, eh? The gun? The bomb?” She jutted her chin towards my face, at my Hijab.
I suddenly felt very, very sick. I couldn’t do this right now. Forcing myself to behave, I said, “Nothing. There’s nothing in my Hijab.”
“Owh really?” She spat. “I donnut theenk so.”
My eyes fluttered. “Miss. You need to leash that dog, okay?”
Her face transformed, a fight burning in her slate-gray eyes. “Orgh vout?”
I couldn’t even understand her thick, guttural accent now. I looked back at my mother. She was shaking violently now, her lips mouthing something without sound. Rida. Was she saying Rida? Was she calling me?
A flash of anger ignited inside me. “Miss. Leash it right now.”
The woman’s cheeks burned red, and she spattered a series of nonsense and French curse words, getting on her feet. She wasn’t much taller than me, but the fury of her determined face made my heart skip several beats.
I kept my ground. “I’m waiting. Leash it.”
She narrowed her eyes and pointed a slender, manicured finger at me. “Deed you thgheaten me, you feelthy, dirghty theeng!”
Threaten? When did I threaten her?! My nails dug into my palms. “Look, ma’am. I did not do any of the sort. I just, politely, asked you to leash the dog. My mother back there-” I jerked a thumb at Mama. “-is scared of dogs. And she just needs to sit, that’s all.”
Buzz. Ping. Meet at the pickup point, 5 min away, a glance told me.
“Your mothegh is scaghed?” She asked incredulously. “You Moslems agh not scaghed! You Moslems just scagh otheghs!”
I gritted my teeth. Couldn’t she see my mother shaking like that? How could she do this right now? “Are you not going to leash it?”
“I veel not eef you donnut show me vout yourgh hideeng!”
“You know what? Keep hoping.” I snapped at her. “I’ll do it myself.” With a quick move, I reached for the leash that she gripped in her hands but before I could, she pushed me back with a hard smack. My feet tripped and I landed on the ground painfully.
“Oof!” I sucked at my teeth, embarrassment lapping inside me. A few of the passersby had stopped to point. My cheeks burning, I tried to get up. I’ll just have to get Mama out of here.
“Donnut mouve!” The woman shrieked hysterically. Her eyes were wide like a madwoman’s, lips pulled behind in a sneer, but there was a hint of hilarity in her eyes. She was enjoying this, I thought, she found it funny. She kept her eyes on me, using a hand to dig inside her coat pocket and unveiled a pointed, sharp kitchen knife out of her coat.
Jerking it at my head, she said, “Take eet off. Show mee what yough hideeng.”
Fear struck me. “Are you crazy?!” I yelled and looked around. The small group of people who had paused to enjoy the scene looked back at me apologetically. “Ya’ll! Why don’t you stop her? She’s crazy!”
A few of them looked down, but no one moved.
Seemingly satisfied with the reaction, the woman jerked her knife violently. “Deedn’t you ‘ear?! Take eet off! Now!”
Tears of embarrassment and hurt prickled in my eyes. I gulped, blinking hard. “I can’t,” My voice came out a tiny whisper. “I’ll just… go. Ok? I’ll go. No need to leash.” I slid my hand in my pocket, fetching out my phone. Before I could dial the police, the hysterical woman shrieked at me.
“Vout argh you doeeng!” She dived to grab my phone.
Gasping, I held it tight and rolled, landing a poorly-formed fist on her hard jaw, but as soon as it connected, she gave a high-pitched yell and moved her armed hand towards me.
At first, there was no pain. Only horror.
My eyes widened and my stomach churned as I watched, in slow-motion, the metallic tip tear apart my manteau and slide into my side. A rush of crimson, glittering blood spewed out, darkening my shirt.
And then came the pain.
Hot, burning pain, sizzling through my side. My vision blurred with a flurry of tears as I screamed and screamed, my throat going raw. I felt icy cold, then burning hot, then icy cold again. I wanted to puke, but I couldn’t even breathe. I gasped, inhaling, but nothing came. Nothing but more pain.
Through the half-blackened, teary vision, I saw my mother snap out of her phobic condition. She looked terrified, rushing towards me. She was yelling something repeatedly, but I couldn’t hear. I couldn’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
Among the pain, I felt a buzz in my hand, along with a ping.
Uber: I have arrived.
Author’s Note: This semi-fiction is dedicated to the two headscarved women who were stabbed by an Islamophobic woman near Eiffel Tower, Paris, on October 18, 2020.
Photo | revac films & photography via Pexels