The Most Wonderful Time of the Year- Part One
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: When is Nesrine is roped into staying over at her (crazy) best friend’s house for the holidays, she gets more than she expected in the form of prying relatives, covert operations, and a boy who is determined to get under her skin. Utter chaos? You have no idea. A Muslim love story, in more ways than one.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I love Christmas.
Christmas time is such a magical part of the year. People are just nicer, whether it be fear of receiving coal for the holidays or that they saved up their generosity for the month of December. The streets are illuminated with strings of lights. Radio stations play those old-timey jazz carols everyone pretends to hate. Nostalgia comes back in full force when TV channels play Christmas episodes of 1980s sitcoms and cartoons. Even the coffee shops finally bust out their holiday specialties: peppermint mochas, eggnog lattes, and gingerbread hot chocolate. Plus, there’s all the discount shopping on the 26th. It’s wonderful.
You might read that and think, “What’s this girl on? Everyone loves Christmas!” The thing is, I’m Muslim, and we just don’t do Christmas. Never have, never will. We’ve got our own holidays (Eid), thank you very much. If you think cutting down a Christmas tree is intense, try sacrificing a lamb or going more than five hours without food or water. We don’t mess around.
It’s not really that I want to celebrate Christmas, but I just wanted to appreciate the festivities and good cheer. Maybe just lounge around in ratty pajamas, sip on a some somewhat disappointing tea, and catch up on some TV. December 25th was just a day for me, after all. Nothing special or significant.
Until it wasn’t.
“I can’t believe you’re trying to stay home alone!” shrieked my best friend, Muna. She apparently didn’t notice or care that we were in a Barnes and Nobles, and people’s eardrums could be shattered. We met up there so she could buy her latest tacky romance novel, this one featuring some busty maiden being grasped by a long-haired scoundrel. That’s actually an extract from the book.
I rolled my eyes. “Do you want a stalker to hear you? Inside voice, please.” Unfortunately, I let it slip that my parents were going to London for three weeks, and were taking my younger siblings with them. Of course, I had exams to deal with here at home, and it was way out of their budget to pay for six plane tickets. Sometimes being the oldest has its downfalls; I had to back out of the trip. Not that I was too bothered, I was warming up to the idea of having a nice, quiet holiday at home where there was no fights between kids to break up or clean up after.
Obviously, Muna wasn’t in the same camp. “But you can’t! Three weeks, by yourself? Nesrine, have some sense. What if someone broke in and killed you? Or worse, you slipped and fell and you couldn’t get back up?”
“Really? Is that last one worse?”
“You know what I mean.” She exhaled dramatically and paused. “God, when did I become my father? I was actually about to tell you that it’s improper for a girl to be living alone.”
I snorted at the image. Mr. Fahed would say something like that. Twenty years or so in the States and he still couldn’t wrap his head around Sex and the City. I swatted her arm with a book called Love in the Moonlight, “I’ll be fine. I’m a big girl. I can lock a door.”
She slapped the book out of my hand, and the employee next to us looked like she wanted to punch her. “Not funny. Come on, just come stay at my house.” Ah, her true intentions. Muna’s house was going to be the hotspot for winter break. She had an uncle coming in from Lebanon from her mother’s side, and some older cousins and an aunt from her dad’s side in Pakistan. To make matters worse, her older brother was bringing his friend home from university because he had no place else to stay. Without me, Muna was looking at a vacation locked up in her room except when she was forced to help cook and clean, or worse…socialize.
“But if I come over, won’t you have less work to do?” I asked innocently, batting my eyelashes.
“I repeat, you’re not funny. What do I have to say to get you to rescue me from my horrible fate?”
I smirked at her. “Tell me you need me. Tell me that I am the light of your eyes. The only reason you wake up in the morning.” I wasn’t going to make this easy for her. It was essentially her vs. me and my collection of Bollywood movies for the holidays.
“I need you.” Muna’s sudden mischievous grin told me that she was about to make a scene. She pressed a hand to her heart. “I want you. I want all of you.” Oh lord, I knew where she was heading with this.
I cupped my ears and flinched. “Don’t you dare do this. Not here. Not in front of people.” A few patrons were staring curiously at us.
Muna continued, to my dismay. In fact, she had even put on the theatrical voice she had spent the better decade honing. “I want all of you. Forever. Everyday. You and me…everyday.” I swear, the old man in the glasses sitting at the table near us wiped away a tear. Poor guy didn’t know she was just being an ass.
“No. No. I won’t do it. No,” I told her in between laughs and embarrassment at her attempts to croon some old love song at me. “I refuse. You’re on your own. Nope. Nada. Good luck with that. Because no.”
“And you’ll share Muna’s room, habibti,” said Muna’s mother, when I arrived at the Fahed household two days later with a duffel in tow.
Sighing, I dropped my bag on the corner with the deflated air mattress. I gotta say, Muna had a way with persuasion. Mostly bribery. She gave up on sweet talking me and just offered to let me sleep on her plush king sized bed and to pay for my HBO subscription if I agreed to stay over break. “Thanks, Khala Zainab.” I beamed at her, she was like a second mother to me. And I don’t say that lightly. Her favorite joke when we were all younger was to take Muna and me somewhere and gush about how beautiful her twin daughters were, even though Muna had an olive complexion with sleek black hair, and I was brown-skinned with a mane of thick, curly dark hair. She would also scold me if she caught me acting a fool with Muna (which is often, unfortunately), and my own mom would do the same.
“No, thank you, Nesrine. I don’t know how Muna and I could have handled all of the work. You’ve got to treat guests like kings, you know,” she explained, and I noticed how weary her normally sparkling brown eyes were. Her hijab was loose around her neck, seeing as it was just the two of us. A few gray hairs streaked her dark mane, but other than that, she looked no different than from her wedding photos.
Mentally, I tried to figure out the house set up: Zainab and her husband Nadir in their room, Muna’s Uncle Ahmed in one guest room, her aunt Dalal in the other, and her brother, brother’s friend, and two cousins would take the basement. Talk about a full house. I couldn’t help but plop down on Muna’s bed in anticipation of my exhaustion.
Zainab chuckled. “I’ll let you rest. You’ll need your strength. We’ll start cooking dinner in an hour.”
“Oh God why,” I mumbled into a pillow once she was out of the room. I could’ve been at home, starting on Game of Thrones. Why did I agree to this? Flipping over on my side, I caught a glimpse of my answer on the nightstand.
A framed photograph taken seven years ago, when Muna and I were twelve. That was the year we became friends, soulmates. You see, the one thing we had in common was that we didn’t fit in. I know that sounds like the premise of a Disney Channel movie, but hear me out. She was the half-Lebanese, half-Pakistani drama queen with no filter. I was the half-Tunisian, half-Somali math geek who was so quiet sometimes teachers marked me absent in class. We met in gym class, where she demanded to be excused from running the mile due to fasting for Ramadan. The gym teacher was skeptical, but once I squeaked out my agreement with Muna, we were free to spend that class on the bench and safely away from physical activity. Quickly, we realized that our mutual mixed heritages sometimes made it difficult to befriend people in one sole culture, and that others just didn’t get what it was like. To fumble around with two languages. To try to fit in equally with two cultures that sometimes closed the door on you. And to fail at that. But we got it, we both felt like outsiders. And since then, we’ve been inseparable.
(Plus, we both were really in love with Orlando Bloom then. Who wasn’t, though?)
“Look who’s avoiding work already.” A familiar male voice broke my fond trip down memory lane. Yusuf, Muna’s older brother by two years, stood in the door frame.
I peeked up from my pillow and . “You know how I do,” I shrugged, getting up to greet him. Now, I know it’s pretty scandalous for any unmarried Muslim girl to hug an unmarried Muslim boy, but this was Yusuf. He was practically a brother to me. The boy who tried to teach me how to skateboard, who would pay Muna and me to do his school projects, and who would threaten any boy who even looked at me or his sister the wrong way.
I hadn’t seen Yusuf since the summer, but he looked the same: still long limbed, with short dark hair and the same wide honey brown eyes as his sister. After a quick embrace and the requisite “how are you?” spiel, he got straight to business. “How much is Muna paying you to come here when you’ve got a house to yourself?” he asked with his standard good-natured grin.
“Not enough,” I complained. “Next time, I’ll hold out for tickets to Disney World. How’s college treating you?” Though Muna and I attended university in-state, we were commuter students and sort of lived vicariously through her brother.
Yusuf was in his final year at Berkeley, much to everyone’s continued shock, and was on track to become a lawyer. “Like it caught me in bed with its wife,” he groaned. “My internship is killing me. Why didn’t I just become a professional space chef like I wanted to when I was seven?”
“Because that’s not a real job.”
“Harsh.” He considered this for a moment. “But true. At least not yet.”
“How’s Ikram?” I suppressed an impish smile at my question. Like any good-looking and ambitious Muslim guy, Yusuf’s heart was taken. From what Muna told me, things were getting pretty serious between he and his California amour.
If I didn’t know any better, I could’ve sworn he blushed. “She’s fine. She wishes she could meet the family, but uh, things should be more…official first.” The only time Yusuf stammered is when he spoke about his lady-friend.
“Well get on it then!” I raised my eyebrows suggestively. “So you can get on it.”
Yusuf choked back a laugh and chucked a throw pillow at me. “Go to hell, Nes.” His blush deepened.
“Nesrine! Yusuf!” Muna’s footsteps were loud against the wood floor. She peered inside the room and immediately went in on her brother. “Ugh, I can’t believe you! Your friend is downstairs making small talk with Mama and Baba. Why aren’t you defending him?”
Yusuf stood up and frowned. “Oh God, is Baba trying to give him life advice?”
She shook her head gravely. “Worse. Mama’s trying to find out if he’s single.”
With that, he set off so fast downstairs that I could feel a strong breeze. I turned to Muna. “So, when do the others show up?”
“Tomorrow morning,” she answered quickly with a wave of the hand. Glancing briefly over her shoulder, she closed the door. “I gotta make sure nobody’s around.”
“Around for what?” I asked, puzzled.
Muna pushed me aside on her bed and scooted close to me. “Because,” she started with a dreamy sigh, “Yusuf’s friend? He is gorgeous.”
Oh no. Not that. Anything but that. Muna was notorious for her horrendous taste in men. For her, the stranger, the better. Blame it on her tenure in the school’s drama department. Knowing her, this guy was probably a pseudo-intellectual with a patchy beard and eyepatch.
“He doesn’t have an eyepatch, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she added. Shit. I forgot she could read me like a book. “He’s standard handsome. Tall, too.”
“Wow,” I said, sitting up a little straighter, “with that description, I could paint a picture of his likeness.”
She elbowed me hard in the side. “Seriously, go see for yourself!”
“Aren’t we supposed to be cooking dinner?” Distraction was the only solution. No offense to Yusuf’s friend, but I just wasn’t interested. I was at a point in my life where my primary concern was securing something delicious for my next meal. Boys were a low priority.
“Change of plans. We’re just getting pizza. Apparently Mama is saving the big guns for tomorrow, when all the guests arrive,” she explained, fiddling with one of my curls. “Just at least go downstairs and look at him. You won’t regret it.”
“And what should I do? Snap a picture of him and run off giggling?”
“Isn’t that what you did when we had that cute foreign exchange student come to our school sophomore year?”
“That’s a low blow.”
“Sorry, honey,” she whistled as she literally kicked me off her bed. “But I’m doing this for your own good.”
“So what are you studying at Berkeley?”
“How many siblings do you have?”
“Is it hard to stay religious so far from home?”
“Do you think you’ll be able to support yourself in that field?”
Basically any guest between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five was forced to endure the drive-by style questioning of Zainab and Nadir Fahed. Seeing as I was always over here, their questions for me were much more specific: “did you turn in that essay?”, “how was your midterm?”, “did your mother like the baklava?”
As I listened at the foot of the staircase, I felt a pang of sympathy for Yusuf’s friend. They were not being particularly easy on him, but from what I could make out, he seemed to be answering every question fine without the help of Yusuf’s interjections. Inhaling and saying a quick prayer, I stepped off the stairs and walked into the living room.
Of course, everyone was sitting on the nice leather couches, with a platter of tea, cookies, and gold-rimmed cups on a tray on the table. Even more expected, everyone turned to look up at me. Though I wasn’t that painfully shy twelve-year old anymore and three out of the four people there were practically family, I still inwardly cringed at the attention.
“Nesrine! So kind of you to wake up from your nap, Sleeping Beauty,” joked Nadir. Like his wife, time was very good to him. His hair was nearly all gray, but it retained the fullness of its youth.
“I thought I would grace you all with my presence.” I swept my arms out in front of me, as if to say ‘ta-da.’ A brisk laugh suddenly echoed in the room, and when I faced the culprit, I was absolutely gobsmacked,
Allah help me, Muna was right.
Yusuf’s friend was gorgeous, I couldn’t deny that. Even though he was seated, the way his long legs sprawled out in front of him made it obvious he was on the taller side. He had dark wavy hair that was clearly rumpled due to his flight, but he made it look intentional and, well, good. His face was angular; deep set brown eyes framed by thick brows with eyelashes to match.Before I could properly register it, those eyes were fixed on mine. I had to look to away, for his sake and mine.
Luckily, nobody else seemed to notice my obvious staring. Yusuf and his friend both stood up, out of respect. “Nesrine, this is my good buddy Adrian.” Adrian? That is such a pretty-boy name. Muna would love it.
“Salaam,” Adrian said courteously, shaking my hand.
To this day, I’m not quite sure how I managed to say, “Wa salaam” and shake his hand back. I’m still surprised I didn’t pass out, or worse, propose.
“I take it you’re the Nesrine that saved the day by coming to help out Mrs. Fahed?” he queried, raising an eyebrow at me. Even my name sounded wonderful coming from him.
Honestly, I feel as if I deserved a trophy for this answer: “The one and only.” How I pulled that miracle off, I’ll never know.
Before either of us could say anything more, the doorbell abruptly rang. “Alhamdulilah, the bizza’s here!” cried out Nadir, and we all stifled a giggle. We’ve come to accept his unorthodox love of pizza and adamant mispronunciation of it. Secretly, I was grateful for the distraction. I was going to have to collect my thoughts and my cool. Things were getting interesting.