You know you have a shitty job when your clients would rather slit their own throats with a spoon than return your phone calls.
Which is why today, a crisp early-autumn Friday, I decide it’s time for something a little more drastic. Like a coup. One that’s going to see me bouncing into the office come Monday morning on the wings of victory, having caught the elusive Ms. Mercier off guard. Before anybody else has.
You’ll have to forgive me if I have a tendency to make my life sound more interesting than it is. Accountants will do that. Lawyers get Ally McBeal, L.A. Law, and four different versions of Law & Order. Doctors get Grey’s Anatomy. What do we get? Exactly. We’re one rung above actuaries on the hopelessly-uninteresting-yet-well-paying-professions ladder, and maybe one down from engineers.
Today also happens to be the day of my cousin Ranya’s wedding to self-made import/export mogul Dodi El Hoffi.
Today, in other words, is huge.
I duck out of the office at four, a garment bag with my black tulle Behnaz Sarafpour tea dress draped over my arm, strappy Louboutin slingbacks tucked in a corner of my boxy audit bag, and head straight for the client’s main office on Sherbrooke and Saint-Marc. Unannounced.
“Ms. Mercier, please.” I smile politely at the pretty blonde behind the sleek chrome-accented desk.
“Who, may I ask, is here to see her?”
“Aline Hallaby.” I push back my shoulders and meet her stare. “From Ernsworth and Youngston Chartered Accountants.” I wait for the intimidation effect to take hold.
She’s one of those button-nosed French girls the Boston college boys like to pick up at the Crescent Street bars when they come up here for a weekend of binge drinking. Her voice is dripping with that brand of New York–meets–Paris snooty you only get in Montreal, specifically from the bone-thin patrons of the shops running down Saint-Laurent Street. You know which shops I’m talking about. Too cool for, you know, a name, they carry their teeny tops and flimsy dresses in two sizes: small and smaller.
“Is Madame Mercier expecting you?” From her icicle-dripping tone, you’d think Mercier is actually a code name for Céline Dion, passing incognito through town on her way to her mansion in Sainte-Rose.
Ms. Mercier is just the assistant controller at Fortex Inc., a small paper-products manufacturer that also happens to be an infuriatingly demanding client of ours.
“Yes, of course she is.”
Blondie doesn’t look convinced. She picks up the phone and dials. “I’m sorry, she’s not at her desk at the moment,” she says after a short pause, the receiver lodged between her shoulder and her ear.
“I’ll just sit over here then.” I match her cool stare, professionally tweezed eyebrow for professionally tweezed eyebrow.
I lower myself into one of the deep green leather armchairs facing the gargantuan desk and pull the latest copy of InStyle from my audit bag. And wait.
Everybody hates auditors. It’s common knowledge. We are to the business community what termites are to antique wood furniture. People vaguely appreciate that even the smallest, slimiest, most apparently useless insect is infused with some higher bioecological purpose.
Auditors, not so much.
But, like the lone remora that keeps the aquarium clean by sucking in the muck and waste the rest of the fish leave behind, we auditors do in fact perform an essential service to society, even if the recruitment brochures didn’t quite put it that way.
So why would an educated young woman with an appetite for success and a closet full of fabulous shoes be sitting here taking attitude from a glorified coffee girl in a suit that probably cost half of said coffee girl’s monthly income, instead of doing something that actually matters? To anyone besides the profit-sharing board at Ernsworth and her mother, that is?
Because those Big Four firms really know how to reel you in, that’s why. They’re the ones with the coolest booths at Career Day and always give away the best free stuff, like gym bags and chrome coffee mugs emblazoned with their logos, while everyone else is handing out cheap pens. They totally destroy the retail banks and the marketing firms with their professional, glossy brochures plastered with happy people—lots of women and minorities, of course—pointing to laptop screens and smiling like they’re looking at the latest dirty joke circulating around the office e-mail instead of a graph comparing different depreciation policies like we’re meant to think.
The accounting firms also throw the best on-campus recruitment parties ever, never running short of fine wines, creamy cheeses, and hot young business-school grads just like you rattling on about how great life is on the other side. And if you scored an interview with one of them, then you were really in for a treat. Expensive dinners and private boxes at the Bell Center for anything from rock concerts to Canadiens games, depending on the season, courtesy of the partners who squeeze time out of their overbooked schedules to come out and tell you why their firm is the one to work for. And the cocoa dusting on the chocolate soufflé is that even after all this splurging, they still manage to pay the highest starting salaries of all the recruiting companies in any industry.
Unfortunately, the luster of my star status, along with that of every other new hire, faded the very first day I started on the job. That was also the day I heard for the first time the other term industry insiders use to refer to my firm: the Sweatshop.
And they weren’t kidding.
Internal controls testing, minutes checking, invoice testing, cash testing . . . It’s enough to make you go cross-eyed. Ticking and bopping, they call it. None of us juniors can believe we actually need to go to university and then pass one of the hardest exams ever devised by man to work here. The firm just sends us out to companies so we can harass them with a billion annoying questions about their business. All so we can give the investing public a financial bill of health. Yup, they’re clean. Next. Not that our services were particularly helpful to the poor schleps who’d invested in Enron, mind you.
No wonder my clients can’t stand the sight of me.
But hey, if glowing career prospects have earned me a small wedge of freedom undreamed of by all my tradition-conscious cousins—overeducated, meticulously groomed twentysomethings still waiting for a man to come along and validate their sheltered lives—then who am I to argue?
I sigh and flip the cover page of my magazine just as Ms. Mercier herself materializes from behind the receptionist’s desk, clutching a stack of envelopes against her chest.
“Noëlle, these were supposed to be sorted this mor—Oh . . . Miss Hallaby. I didn’t realize you were here.” She throws the secretary a not-so-subtle sideways glare.
Noëlle shrugs. “She insisted on waiting,” she says, and turns to the mound of envelopes in front of her, disgusted that she actually has to, you know, work.
I quickly push the magazine back into my briefcase and stand up, smoothing the creases in my tweed pencil skirt. I’d picked it out on purpose this morning, knowing I was coming here. It’s the most demure-looking thing in my entire wardrobe.
“I left a message letting you know I’d be coming today,” I lie. “For the invoice testing. I was also hoping you’d have those financials Manny has been requesting ready.”
I’m betting my last loonie she’ll claim she never got the message anyway. That, or she’ll try to pull the “new systems implementation” excuse on me.
“As I’m sure you know, Miss Hallaby, we’ve been very busy here these past few weeks. We’re in the middle of a new systems implementation and—”
What did I tell you?
“I appreciate that,” I interrupt as nicely but firmly as possible, “I really do. But this can’t wait.”
Ms. Mercier eyes me contemptuously, as if through a pair of headmistress glasses slowly sliding off the tip of her nose. Except she’s not wearing any glasses.
“I suppose you’re already here. . . .” Her voice trails off, disappearing behind a heavy metal door beside the reception area.
I jog to catch up.
* * *
An hour later, I emerge from the stout glass building, a thick stack of photocopies stuffed into my audit bag, and waddle-jog toward the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, three blocks down the street. It’s all I can manage in my herringbone stilettos and three different bags hanging off various appendages. I check my watch. Five thirty. I’m cutting it close, but I don’t care. Nothing is going to dampen my high spirits. Monday morning I get to tell Manny how I got the financials for him. Me. The ones he’s been after for weeks. Not five-different-degrees-holding Derek, not senior-auditor-in-charge André, not even unbutton-my-shirt-some-more-and-see-where-it-gets-me Véronique. Me. And in the upwardly mobile world of audit, you never know where these kinds of small victories may lead.
I stumble into the hotel at 6:25, fifty-five minutes after the reception was scheduled to start. Most people would consider this late. Maybe even rude.
Not my people. When the Lebanese invite you to something, anything, and tell you to show up at six, they’re not realistically expecting to see you standing at their doorstep any time before seven thirty. Seven if they know you’re one of those annoying “punctual” types. By those standards, my tardiness would hardly register as fashionably late. I’m downright early.
Seventeen minutes after that, I emerge from the white marbled ladies’ room just off the main lobby, makeup refreshed, wavy blond-highlighted hair—prone to the five o’clock frizzles—wound back into an elegant chignon and smoothed down with Ouidad conditioning cream—the only stuff that actually works in my kind of coarse curls. I am the picture of calm, put-together serenity, about to set a well-heeled foot into the mad circus that is a Big Fat Lebanese Wedding.
* * *
A Lebanese wedding is pompous affair, even for something as innately pompous as a wedding. For one thing, the actual reception is just the last installment of a trilogy of celebratory events, beginning with an engagement party that, if the bride-to-be were dressed in white, might be mistaken for the actual wedding itself. It’s usually only after this extravagant affair that the couple can go on proper, unchaperoned dates. The trade-off is that if the interested parties should, at this stage of the process, come to the realization that they’re better off on opposite sides of far-flung continents than together in eternal wedded bliss, they can call the whole thing off with relatively little consequence to their honor or that of their families.
Should they navigate this step successfully, they move on the next round: the actual marriage ceremony itself. This is a much more sober affair, involving a turbaned sheik wearing long layered robes and a deep, serious frown. It’s the part where the tearful father gets to give his daughter away and accept the symbolic silver coin the groom humbly offers in lieu of a dowry for taking the girl away from her family. It’s where contracts are drawn up and licenses are signed.
You’d think that at this point the groom would be free to rip off his bow tie, roll up his sleeves, and fling his virginal bride over his shoulder and into the nearest Motel 6.
You’d be wrong.
There’s still the reception to go through. And it’s traditionally a full two weeks to a month after the ceremony.
* * *
My mother, the only person who could possibly have noticed this, seeing as the half of the six-hundred-plus guests that made it on time are busy perusing the lavish predinner buffet against a backdrop of soft elevator music and glinting crystal chandeliers.
“Honey, you look beautiful.” My dad leans over and pulls me into a warm hug. He smells faintly of ink and chemicals under the new suit and the Paco Rabanne cologne my mother’s made him wear.
It used to depress me, that smell. It reminded me of the dingy basement textile-printing workshop he toiled in until all hours of the night with the handful of people who worked for him, none of them speaking a word of English or French. My father would have made a great professor, I think. The cliché could have been modeled after him: mild-mannered, brilliant, and hopelessly absentminded. It would’ve looked a lot better to my friends, whose dads were VPs of big companies, lawyers, engineers. But first-generation immigrants don’t work as professors, even if they come with the best credentials and highest accolades from the Old Country. They don’t work as VPs or lawyers or engineers either. They leave that to their kids while they themselves become slaves to their tiny convenience stores, newsstands, or fast food franchises. My dad’s lucky, though. He really does love his work. It’s his tiny kingdom, a place where the tan shade of his skin and his gruff accent earn him respect instead of scorn or, worse, pity. He’s even managed to grow it enough that Sara and Sami, my sister and brother, get to see a little more of him now than I did growing up.
“Brian got here a whole hour ago. How could you be so insensitive to the poor boy?” my mother says in Arabic.
She’s talking about my boyfriend, not that she’d ever come out and use that dirty word. To everyone in the Lebanese community he’s my friend with a meaningful nod and a barely perceptible fluttering of the nostrils, a warning to anyone who might think to question my major breach of decency and good Lebanese manners out loud.
“I was at work, Ma. I had to get some really important documents from a client. Crucial, actually. The whole team was counting on me.” There’s that tendency to spice up my bland job description again. You were warned.
My mother’s eyes soften. I said the magic word: work. She loves the idea of my job so much, I wonder sometimes if maybe she should be doing it. With that kind of enthusiasm, she’d go places.
“Where is he?” I ask.
She opens her mouth to tell me, but before she can, we hear commotion coming from the side of the grand staircase.
“Look! Here she comes!” someone shouts above the low rumble of tinkling glasses and muted murmurs. A hush settles over the giant mass of dark suits and gold lamé outfits, buckling under the current of tingling excitement running through the foyer. All eyes in the room turn to the four turbaned drummers at the top of the grand staircase, standing at attention in their traditional white pantaloons and cropped vests as though before a military commander.
An eardrum-shattering ululation pierces the heavy silence, courtesy of the mother of the bride, my aunt Maryam. The first band member, the one with the bright red sash and gleaming black mustache, gives the signal. A quick, snappy shake of his tambourine.
The crowd explodes. So does the music.
The wedding reception has officially begun.
Tum ta ta tum tum, ta ta tum.
They cheer, they clap, they wail. Some of the braver women even try to mimic my aunt’s expert ululation and end up sounding like land mammals in the last throes of agony. But it doesn’t matter. We’re all getting swept away in the living, breathing spectacle in front of us. In the ensuing hoopla, I lose sight of my parents, and still have no idea where Brian is. I start inching my way toward the staircase, craning my neck to get a better view. I wedge one foot between two dark trouser pants but stumble back when I feel the crushing weight of a very large person on my back.
“Insha’allah, you will be next!”
Auntie Selma—not so much my actual aunt by blood or marriage, but by virtue of being a friend of my mother’s—is definitely a wailer. Overcome with emotion, she’d lunged for the nearest unwitting girl of marriageable age, who happened to be me, and is leaning the whole of her corpulent frame on my shoulder, alternating between sobbing hysterically and blowing her nose in a crumpled up old Kleenex.
Next. Me. signs point to bleak, bleats my mental Magic 8 Ball. Especially since I come from a somewhat-lapsed-yet-fairly-traditional Muslim family and Brian is still holding out hope that we’ll get to live together like most sensible North Americans do before we hop the late train to Marriage Land.
“Soon, Auntie, insha’allah,” God willing. The standard Arabic reply to anything from “Are we going to the zoo tomorrow?” to “He’s a lovely boy, and you’re not getting any younger.”
I smile and kiss her cheeks, twice on the right side and once on the left, in typical Middle Eastern fashion, and ease out of her grasp to push, prod, and squeeze myself toward a better view of the staircase.
The procession—led by the band of percussionists; a svelte belly dancer weaving through the throng like a nimble cat, her nipples threatening to pop out of her shimmering bra at any second; and a suave-looking male vocalist with a voice like melted chocolate on a cold Canadian winter night—has made it halfway down the winding marble steps.
Next up are the little girls in white dresses and pink rosebuds in their long dark hair, clutching lit candles taller than they are, followed closely by the bridal party.
Finally, amid the clamor and the pomp, engulfed in an entourage of shrieking bridesmaids in skimpy dresses and Jordan’s GDP in jewelry, a cloud of ivory tulle, silk, and organza floats daintily down the stairs.
Somewhere under all that fabric is my cousin Ranya.
My breath catches in the back of my chest. I gasp and take one step back, and slam my elbow right under someone’s ribs.
“Oow . . . you’re stronger than you look, shrimpy.”
I half twist my body around and, sure enough, Sophie, the one friend who’d stuck it out with me through playground politics and teenage acne attacks, is standing behind me, tall and lanky in an ill-fitting Tracy Reese frock her mom made her wear. She still manages to look better than every underfed, overplucked, blond-highlighted, and flatironed-within-an-inch-of-her-life single girl on the prowl for a rich Arab husband in the room. And it’s a big room.
“You made it!” I lean over and hug her, taking care not to wrinkle her outfit. “I was beginning to wonder.”
“Rush-hour traffic. What’s up with the Friday-afternoon wedding-reception thing?”
“Groom’s family. It was their idea. Ranya couldn’t convince Dodi’s mom that a curse wouldn’t befall the next seven generations of the El Hoffi clan if they scheduled the ceremony on a Saturday or Sunday like normal people. She insisted they have the wedding on Holy Friday. Even if they had to start a full two hours later than scheduled.”
Sophie just shakes her head before her features scrunch up with excitement. “Are you psyched for Cancún, or what?” She squeezes the life out of my arms.
“Oh my God, it’s all I can think about.” It’s true. This vacation will be the first weeklong stretch of my entire existence where my parents won’t be following up on my exact whereabouts every fifteen minutes (an exaggeration, but only slightly). I realize that at twenty-two I may seem marginally pathetic, but that’s just how it is. It also explains why fantasizing about this trip has overtaken surfing Shopbop.com for the latest in funky clubwear as my number-one means-of-procrastination-when-I-should-be-doing-controls-testing activity.
“Have you talked to Ranya yet?” Sophie nods toward the staircase, snapping out of her rum-soaked reverie and back to the Arab-fest at hand. “How’s she feeling? Floating on air? Or does she just want to skip all this and go straight to the Bahamas?”
“What, are you kidding me? She’s petrified.”
I gape at her incredulously. “What do you think?”
She stops, her features paused midexpression as though she were giving the question some serious thought.
“Not the wedding night?” Sophie looks genuinely perplexed.
“Of course the wedding night!” I smack my hand against my lips as soon as the words escape them. I don’t think anyone heard me. They’re still too busy clapping and snapping their fingers to the music. The more obnoxious of the male guests are swinging white kerchiefs over their heads and gyrating their hips awkwardly every time the belly dancer shimmies up to them.
“She can’t possibly still be a virgin.”
“Sophe, have you met my cousin?” I study her for a full ten seconds, denoting just how nuts I think she sounds. “Of course she is.”
“But she’s been engaged for a year . . . and isn’t she, like, thirty?”
“Thirty-one, actually, and up until five this afternoon, still living at home.”
Sophie may be my best friend of twelve and a half years, but she’s also fifth-generation Lebanese-Canadian, and Episcopalian, so she doesn’t get it. One of her uncles married an Italian woman, and a cousin got pregnant by her Haitian boyfriend, kept the baby, and moved to New York to become a catwalk makeup artist. That kind of thing just wouldn’t go down in Muslim families, even the more liberal ones like mine.
Except if you’re me, and you’ve been stubbornly seeing your ajnabi boyfriend for so long that you’ve effectively forced your parents to face facts and pray that you’ll at least get married soon, before you really embarrass them.
* * *
“I can’t take this anymore, Ali.” Sophie slips one foot out of a silver sandal and rubs it against the back of her leg.
“I know. I’d kill for the Macarena at this point.”
The waiters weave in between us, relaying back and forth between the ballroom and the kitchen, scooping up gutted remains of custard-filled pastry tulips, the final installment of a seven-course meal that lasted well over two hours. And now, unhampered by a feast fit for a gourmet chefs’ trade conference, the guests are in full-blown party mode. Like the seven waifish girls in too-short cocktail dresses, swinging their pelvises in a baladi swirl on the parquet dance floor in front of me.
“What is it with Lebanese women and too much makeup?” Sophie tucks her foot back into her shoe and leans forward, squinting to get a better look at the most enthusiastic of the butt-shakers, a woman five inches deep in Revlon Skinlights and navy blue eye shadow.
“You don’t remember her?” I nod discreetly at the streaked blonde in a crêpe de chine strapless dress, which is gaping dangerously around her flat chest. “That’s Maya, Auntie Suzie’s daughter. She’s the one who almost choked on a piece of baklava at Halla’s wedding last summer when you said you wished you could take a year off from college so you could help build houses for the poor in Africa.”
“Oh, right. Her.” Sophie crosses her arms over her flat abs. “Did she just come back from vacation?”
“That would be a generous dose of Fake Bake.”
Maya flings one hip in our direction, flipping her hair dramatically, and glowers at us as though she senses our presence. We both immediately clam up and grin, baring as many teeth as our outstretched lips would allow us. I contemplate telling Maya she looks anorexic in that dress, but decide against it since she’d most likely take it as a compliment.
Maya doesn’t smile back. She just swings her other hip in the opposite direction, where a cluster of admiring males are swaying unsteadily on their feet, looking like they can’t decide what to do with themselves.
“She’s been up there for five songs in a row,” Sophie whispers when Maya’s swirls and shimmies have sent her across to the other side of the dance floor.
Given that Arabic songs tend to run about twenty minutes each, that’s saying something.
“And she’s probably going to stay there until Yasser notices her.”
“Yasser’s here?” Unaccustomed to three-inch stilettos, Sophie snaps back and loses her footing, almost wiping out in front of all 637—I’d know, my mother helped organize the reception—of Ranya and Dodi’s guests. If she’d gotten her way, Sophie would’ve probably shown up in a Gap turtleneck à la Sharon Stone and a tasteful skirt, with maybe a swipe of sheer Body Shop lip gloss across her lips. Better yet, she wouldn’t have shown up at all.
“I have to get out of here.”
I can feel the cogs in her brain turning. She’s eyeing the white linen tablecloth draped over the nearest empty table like it might hold the key to her salvation.
“Your mother will strangle you, Sophe, and me for letting you get away.”
“She must have set this up. I know she did.”
“Sophie, you’re hilarious. Every single woman under thirty-five in this room is trying to land the last good-looking, Mercedes-driving, engineering grad out there that their mothers would approve of, and you’re ready to spend the rest of the night huddled under the table to get away from him.”
“He thinks that having money precludes him from the need to have a personality.”
“It’s a shame—he really is cute.”
“And a horrible kisser.”
“What? You kissed? When? You didn’t even tell me!”
Even as far back as high school, Sophie’s had the infuriating tendency of attributing the same level of importance to gossiping that most of us would to shopping for dental floss. She only told me Yasser had asked her out three weeks after the fact, and only because he was the reason she couldn’t join me for sushi. A month later, when I met her on campus for a quick coffee, I asked her if she was planning to bring Yasser to the wedding as her date. She said she’d already dumped him two weeks before.
“He slobbered all over me.”
“Yeah. You’d think a guy with that much opportunity would have the technique down by now.”
“Look at the guy. Why would he need technique? His mother worships him like a half God and probably has to beat the matchmakers off with a stick to keep them away from her precious son. Look . . . Maya’s aunt is over at his table right now, talking to his mom.”
“She can have him.” Sophie wobbles on her heels and beelines for the exit before I can stop her.
How two girls, one with such a deep aversion for anything pretentious and the other with a weakness for haute couture and kir royales could be so close, I’ll never understand. Thank God for Yasmin, the third pillar in our social triumvirate, and the only other person I know who thinks of Diane von Furstenberg dresses and Pucci print scarves as valid investments.
The music switches from an upbeat Arabic tune to the first chords of “I Will Survive.” I decide it’s probably a good time to head back to my table, where I presume Brian’s been waiting since Sophie and I had left him for the dance floor. He’s not exactly what you’d call a dancing enthusiast. I gave up begging him to join me at the clubs a month into our relationship.
Sure enough, he’s exactly where I left him, slumped in a velvet-upholstered chair, and left to nurse a glass of orange juice by himself.
Not a screwdriver. Plain orange juice.
Of the dozens of decisions involved in planning a party of this scale, this one had to be the dumbest. In keeping with strict Islamic tradition, the groom, a clean-shaven pretty boy in a fabulous Armani tux and white silk tie, had flatly refused to indulge his not-so-holier-than-thou guests and those of us who may have sought refuge from the shrill music and the need to spend an evening with a roomful of virtual strangers in a tumbler of brandy or a glass of champagne.
I hate him.
But he’s marrying Ranya, so for her sake, I’ve kept my mouth shut for the entire length of their year-long engagement. That’s probably why my recent conversations with her have had all the emotional depth of a nutritional label on the back of a bag of Doritos.
Ranya and Dodi, short for Mohammad, weren’t engaged a full month when he took to lecturing me about the importance of keeping “our traditions” alive while conspicuously glaring at my Catholic boyfriend out of the corner of his eye.
Whatever. I may never understand what the girl sees in him other than a penthouse in Westmount and an expedient way out of possible spinsterhood, but then again neither will I ever comprehend why she bothered with a university education if the Grand Plan was to get married and raise babies all along.
I pull up the chair next to Brian and lower myself onto it, smoothing the full skirt of my dress under me so as not to crease it. Brian looks bored, but breaks into a smile when he sees me. I smile back. It really was sweet of him to be here with me, knowing he’d be surrounded by so many curious glances and raised eyebrows.
“Your brother told me some guys just came back from the liquor store around the corner. They’re standing outside the hall, spiking people’s drinks. I brought you some.” Brian slides a crystal flute topped up with bright red liquid across the table. Under the tablecloth, his hand grazes my silk-draped knee.
“Hey, watch it!” I pull my leg away furtively. “My whole family’s here.”
“Sorry.” He turns sheepishly away from me and looks around.
Okay, so maybe I overreacted. Still, Brian ought to know better than to touch me in front of a roomful of people who feel as warm and fuzzy toward premarital sex as Dr. Laura does about gay pride parades.
“Nice place.” He makes attempt number two at civility.
He’s right. It is a nice place. More than nice, actually. With a vaulted ceiling as high as that of the Notre-Dame Basilica where Céline wed René the first time around, verandas and enclaves jutting out from behind thick brocade drapes, and soaring silk panels around the sculpted ballroom, it’s almost regal.
It’s the kind of venue befitting a modern-day aristocrat, which is exactly what my cousin looks like in a Reem Acra made-to-measure gown that she flew to New York City sixteen times to get fitted for. With her fiancé picking up the tab, it didn’t matter. She’d even let me tag along a few times.
“So this is the kind of place you’d like to get married in, huh?” He doesn’t say this with the dreamy wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-that-were-us-up-there kind of look, but more of an I-hope-you-don’t-think-this-is-what-I’m-spending way.
The band picks this precise moment to launch into a popular dabke number, the Middle Eastern take on the circle dance.
“I love it when you get all romantic.” I push my chair back, about to get up to join the circle.
“Aline, what is it? What did I say?” I hate it when he uses my full name. Only my mother does that anymore.
Speaking of whom, I catch her eagle-eye stare from Auntie Selma and Uncle George’s table. That woman doesn’t miss a beat.
She gives me The Look. The one that says stop being nasty to the poor boy before he gets really fed up with you and dumps you once and for all and then where will you be?
Not terribly marriageable, that’s where. At least not among those who view a three-year-strong attachment to an ajnabi, with no sign of a big sparkling rock anywhere, as a serious affront to good manners. Lebanese society can eerily resemble a BBC period piece in situations like these.
Still, watching the hurt expression on Brian’s face, I feel guilt start to nibble at the outer corners of my brain and I plop back onto my seat.
I love Brian, I really do. He’s sweet, and sensitive, and he never loses patience with me despite my monumental mood swings. And my mood’s been swinging a mile a minute ever since the other juniors around the office started getting their UFE results.
Oh my God. I’m going to puke. I clutch my stomach, feeling it contract into a hard, painful knot. I’m suddenly aware of the ventilation buzzing around the room, and I realize that the armholes of my dress are soaked through with sticky sweat.
UFE. It sounds like a cross between a wide-eyed alien obsessed with phoning home and fifties-style flying saucers straight out of an Ed Wood horror flick. The ominous abbreviation stands for Uniform Final Examination, and it’s every bit as scary as it sounds. It’s to accountants what the bar exam is to lawyers. In other words, its results can send you soaring up the corporate ladder to the world of stock options and golden parachutes, or sink you into the dungeons of anonymous bookkeeping. Like being an accounts clerk for a corner grocery store or the neighborhood dentist.
“Honey, are you okay?” Brian’s fair brows are knitted in alarm.
“Um, I just—”
An enthusiastic screech cuts me off.
“Come here, my little duckling. You look wonderful.” Auntie Selma has waddled over to the table elbow in elbow with my mother, who looks down at my bright red punch glass with tight lips. How did she know some of these were spiked?
“Brian, welcome. It’s very nice to see you here. Should I start shopping for a new evening gown soon?” Though Auntie Selma says this last bit in Arabic, the pronounced wink in Brian’s direction has turned him as red as the roses on the ushers’ lapels. She leans over to him and offers up her cheek. One kiss . . . two . . . Whoops, he forgot that pesky third one. He flusters, not sure whether to go in for the third after she’d left her face hanging awkwardly in the air a couple of seconds too long. He opts for slumping back into his chair and studying his lap intently.
I want to pat him on the leg as a show of solidarity, but can’t risk something so intimate in this setting. Instead we sit side by side, as mute as the stone gargoyles perched on the ledges of the cathedral across the street, fidgeting uncomfortably.
I really shouldn’t complain. I brought this on myself. I’d asked Brian to attend the wedding as my date, which, where I come from, is tantamount to an engagement announcement in Rochelle’s society column in the Gazette. Except we’re not engaged.
My mother opens her mouth first. “No one’s thinking of these things yet, Selma. Aline hasn’t heard about her exam results. And they’re still very young, you know.” She tut-tuts her friend and tries to lead her to another table where respects are yet to be paid and gossip is yet to be mined.
“Of course she’ll pass, Muna. Don’t be silly. Better start thinking ahead. You know the waiting list for this hall was eighteen months long. . . .”
Auntie Selma’s voice fades under the last chords of the dabke, and Ranya’s yelps as both her plush velvet Louis XVI armchair and that of her new husband are lifted into the air by four men each and paraded around the dance floor.
Ranya is absolutely petrified.
Only after the poor girl has exhausted all her shrieks and nearly fallen off the chair a half dozen times do her assailants set her down.
“Ali . . .” Brian nuzzles his nose against my ear, tickling me. I smile tenderly at him. I should push him away before anyone, especially from the groom’s side, sees us, but I can’t help it. This kind of sweetness would wear down even the sourest mood.
“What is it?” I let my leg graze his under the tablecloth.
“Let’s go outside for a bit.”
“Because we haven’t been alone together for one second all day.” He presses closer.
“It’s my cousin’s wedding—they’re going to wheel out the cake any second now.” I pull away.
“She hasn’t even tossed the bouquet yet. Come on, just for a few minutes.”
I open my Stila Berry–tinted lips in protest, but I’m all out of arguments. The idea of fooling around anywhere within a five-mile radius of any member of my family is making me nauseated. But really, an innocent little stroll around the hotel grounds isn’t going to hurt anybody. I need to get over myself.
“Fine. Let’s go. But you’d better not try anything.”
I follow him through the giant French doors of the ballroom and out to the lobby.
It’s much quieter here. From the middle of the elegant Versailles–meets–Martha Stewart décor of the foyer, I can still see the whole inside of the hall. No one seems to notice Brian and me standing behind the massive mahogany table in the middle of the room, crowned by the biggest floral arrangement I’ve ever seen.
“What do you want to see first, upstairs or the Royal Tea Room? If you want to go outside, then I’m going to need my coat. . . .”
The music coming from the cavernous hall screeches to an abrupt halt. The DJ’s voice booms across the entire first floor of the hotel, ordering the single women in the room to come out to the dance floor.
“Ali . . .”
“Brian, she’s going to toss the bouquet!”
“Ali, there’s something I need to ask you.”
Ha! There’s Auntie Colette dragging a beet-red Sophie to the floor, where a horde of giggling girls, none that needed to be asked twice, is standing at attention. They look like they might really believe that in catching the bouquet they might also catch the eye of a prospective husband.
Hopeless, I tell you.
“What is it, sweetie?”
One . . . two . . . Oh God, look at Sophie. I swear she’d rather be roasting on a spit than be up there right now.
At the DJ’s scream, twenty-five squealing girls lurch into the air.
“Ali, will you marry me?”
At the precise moment Maya’s feet bounce against the ground, clutching the small bunch of white orchids and calla lilies high over her head like a victorious Olympian bringing home the gold, the zipper at the back of her bodice comes undone. The whole upper half of her dress flops over, leaving her little brown breasts jiggling and exposed before the entire room.
And I burst into tears.
Copyright © 2007 by Nadine Dajani. All rights reserved.