“It smells like an old crypt,” Noor said as the central heating system sluggishly started up for the first time that autumn. Stray leaves whispered in the ducts.

“Smelled a crypt before?” Khaldoun asked his new wife. 

Busy looking for her raincoat in the downstairs closet, she didn’t answer. He marveled at her from the back, the economy of the small shoulders, the glossy ponytail, the blood-red bathrobe ending incongruously in rubber rain boots. Murmuring to herself, she went into the kitchen. The bad weather outside continued its onslaught against the windows.

Noor had been the smartest and prettiest girl in his social circle in Amman. She lived in a stately home. She dressed well – a little unimaginatively, maybe, but that was something he chalked up to modesty.

She got a job at an NGO that allegedly did a small bit of good when she came home to Amman after earning a genteel-sounding degree in the States, and made a cameo appearances at parties. He saw her by his friends’ pools, murmuring into a mobile, or eating her popcorn line at the movie theater, usually flanked by some awful boyfriend. She smiled sideways at Khaldoun and Khaldoun had bided his time. He had lots of time to bide, stubbornly remaining unemployed after getting his own bachelor’s abroad, at a slightly more low-ranking university than the one Noor had gone to.

“Found my raincoat!” She reported from the kitchen. “Going to check the mail now.” He opened his mouth to tell her he would do it, but she was already out the side door.

From the window, he could see Noor in the front yard, hands jammed in her pockets, head raised as if she was smelling the rain. He felt a pang of longing, a worm that twitched in his heart. He didn’t like it when she was outside for too long.

“When you marry someone, you marry so much more than the person in question – you marry their relatives, and all their problems too,” Grandmother had said on the night before the wedding, her mostly blind eyes roaming his face. “You should be careful.”

In the doorway, his older sister grimaced. Grandmother turned her head in his sister’s direction and emitted a disdainful “ehhh.”

“Sorry, teta,” sister said in a voice that suggested she wasn’t sorry at all. They could never get used Grandmother’s way of seeing without seeing and privately agreed that it was creepy.

Of course, his sisters all believed that Grandmother was insane for opposing the marriage when Khaldoun was “basically a loser” and Noor was “an absolute star,” “so totally into helping people,” “such a charmer,” and so on. He almost didn’t mind. He had been lucky to marry her. There was not much going for him aside from his screenplay. He had a hard time working up excitement for other things. He even suspected that she married him because he was so pliable – not yet tied to a specific career the way the other guys in their grade were, ready to follow her anywhere. Well, and there was also the fact that he was a great lay, not that she was supposed to admit it to anyone.

It was shortly the wedding that Noor suggested they move to the States for the time being, reminding him that her uncle had left her his home in North Carolina. She had been accepted into grad school nearby shortly after he had proposed. “I mean, the house is perfect for you. It’s in a subdivision, a little bit bland, but you’ll like it.”

“I’ll like it because it’s bland?” He pinched her side and she laughed.

“You’ll like it because it’s quiet. There are no distractions. You can finish your project.” He didn’t blush anymore when she touched him, but he blushed when she mentioned the screenplay. Her relatives had been too polite to say anything, but he knew that his lack of a proper job had not gone unnoticed. Buffeted by family money or not, he was expected to work, or at least pretend to work, i.e. show up at an office every once in a while, ruffle some papers, try look at least mildly important.

“He’s figuring himself out,” he overheard Noor say on the phone one time, which was how he knew that she was right to suggest they move. It wasn’t that he was opposed to the idea of a job, it was that his project was too exciting. He was going to write the next adventure movie set in Jordan, and it was going to be “so much better than that Transformers shit a while back,” or so he told his wife when he was a little drunk and excited. “Was Transformers an adventure franchise or an action franchise?” she asked.

***********

The morning of the wedding celebration, Grandmother had slipped a box into his hand. “Don’t ever say that your teta doesn’t do anything for you,” she said.

Inside the cardboard box was a small glass vial, tear-shaped, filled with fine, sparkling sand.

“Sand from our lands,” she said proudly. He didn’t ask which ones, not wanting to send her on a lengthy trip down memory lane in which she recalled every pebble she and Grandfather ever owned.

“Is it supposed to bring me closer to my roots?”

She slapped his arm impatiently. “It’s supposed to keep you safe.”

“What?”

“You have to sprinkle it.”

“What?”

“He has enough going on, mama,” Mother stormed in a cloud of hairspray and authority. “Let him go, let him go.”

***********

Everyone agreed that Noor’s major flaw was working too much, being too devoted. Only Grandmother pointed out that it was a bit like saying that someone’s worst attribute was their wonderful personality or their great boobs (Mother rolled her eyes at her choice of words and said nothing).

Noor could sit glassy-eyed in front of a computer screen in her office for hours on the weekend in Amman, while the evenings stood still in the amber of fading sunlight and junk salesmen called out to the sleepy street. She excused herself from weekend trips to Aqaba and left wedding receptions after the first few dances. She submerged herself until people began forgetting her – “Noor? Noor who?”

Khaldoun never admitted it to anyone, but he liked her absences. They felt like fingering a bruise somewhere deep in his chest, painful and sweet at once. He liked the idea of his wife as his mistress – never wholly available, and thus never grating on him. Or was he her mistress considering the fact that he didn’t work? Either way, the thought gave him pleasure.

Until America, that is.

It started with the evenings. The electric kettle bubbled over and over again, as he made himself successive cups of tea, each one a little bit more nauseating than the next. The laptop screen glowed a vacuous white. The latest book on screenwriting he was reading suggested that the author must be able to answer a certain set of questions: What are the characters’ individual arcs? What is the catharsis? Why is the author writing this to begin with? But his mind was taken over by other, more immediate questions.

Their home wasn’t old – a product of the last housing boom and a half-hearted attempt at something vaguely mock-Victorian, not impressive enough to even qualify as a McMansion – so why did it creak at night like an overstressed joint? Why did perfectly good light bulbs fade to a sickly marmalade before flickering and going out above his head? Why did he feel as if someone was peeking out from beneath the foliage in the futuristic landscapes his wife’s dead uncle favored?

All this and more he wondered about, as he waited for Noor to come home, cars bound for someone else’s driveways making his heart clench and then slacken with disappointment.

He wasn’t sure why he so worried, why there was this attachment anxiety all of a sudden. She hardly ever stayed late on campus, and “it’s not as if she’s a cop or firefighter” he told his neighbor in the aftermath of a third beer once. ”I mean, she’s not risking her life out there. Maybe her sanity. But that’s what grad school is about.”

“Sometimes you just worry about people, is all,” the neighbor, Jack, said without turning his attention away from the basketball game. “But it figures that sitting around at your place alone would give anyone the creeps.”

“What do you mean by that?” On the TV, the ball thudded against the rim and bounced back. The stadium crowd let out a collective “Aw.”

“Your wife’s dead uncle? Mr. Majali? Don’t tell me you’re not weirded out by his story.”

“Story?”

Jack paused with his beer halfway to his mouth and gave Khaldoun a look. The silence between them was filled by an overly enthusiastic commercial for a local car dealership. “You’re saying you don’t know anything?” Jack finally asked, incredulous, the scar on his forehead made more evident when he furrowed his brow.

“Know what?”

“She needs to tell you herself, man.” Jack reached out and gave his shoulder an awkward squeeze. “But hey, don’t fight over it. And don’t mention I said anything, alright, buddy? It’s kind of an awkward situation, I guess”

Later that night, Khaldoun took Noor out to an expensive chain steakhouse with romantic pretensions. Noor hated the place, but he craved its cheerful blandness, its aura of a place where nothing of consequence could happen.

“I didn’t tell you anything because you have an overactive imagination,” Noor told him when he pressed her on the subject of her uncle and the house.

“Noor-hayati,” he said, not bothering to keep the irony out of his voice, “Jack, a former U.S. Marine, for God’s sake, a guy who’s seen, like, war and stuff, is afraid of our house. I want to know why.”

“Jack’s nice, but he’s a little superstitious. Just like you, and your grandma, and all you creative people who…”

“Jack’s a creative person?”

“Well he has an account on DeviantArt.”

“What’s wrong with the house, Noor?”

She sighed between bites. Watching her ravish her food made him want to kiss her, until he remembered he was supposed to be mad at her. Finally, she wiped her mouth with a napkin and talked as their water glasses sweated and soaked the tablecloth clean through.

“Remember how I said that uncle Mahmoud died of heart failure? It wasn’t true, it was just what my parents said. I didn’t know they were lying, not until I decided to move into the house. Then they told me the actual story. The thing about Uncle Mahmoud was… Well, he was the youngest. He was…” She made a face, snatching at the right word in her head,” … Different. Black sheep of the family. I don’t think my grandparents liked that. They kind of paid him to stay permanently in the States, I think. He got married once, about ten years ago, and my grandparents were really happy, but the marriage didn’t last and then they stopped speaking to each other again. He ended up quitting his job. Then apparently he started leaving the house less and less. Then, one day, he disappeared. The house was locked up from the inside, and there wasn’t any evidence that he had climbed out of the window, at least not immediately, but this was, like, post- 9/11 America and the police were not going to look very hard for an Arab guy. I mean, they floated the idea that he’d joined a jihadi movement, or some bullshit, which would sound like the biggest joke if you knew Mahmoud. Anyway, a week later, his car was found by the beach. Looked as though he had driven out to the coast and drowned himself. They never found a body, but they don’t always find them. He was legally declared dead after a few of his things washed up on the shore.”

“And that’s it?”

“That’s it.”

For a long time, Khaldoun looked at his wife and she looked back at him. For what was surely the millionth time by then, he was struck by how beautiful she was. The house, he remembered, was out there, dark and waiting. But the pale, discreet circle of light cast by the candles on their table was like a magic line that nothing could quite cross, or so he insisted to himself.

***********

In December, Noor flew back to Amman for winter break, and Khaldoun drove south. They had argued about that, but he was determined not to go back. He had things to do, he insisted. Ideas to chase. “Ideas, right,” Noor had rolled her magnificent eyes at that. She left a print-out on the kitchen counter before the taxi came to take her to the airport – job listings from LinkedIn. As if he’d ever use fucking LinkedIn in the first place.

He had a thermos full of coffee, a map, a name and an address in South Carolina. His head was cloudy from last night’s bad dreams, and the brilliant frost on the trees lining the highway made him think of mold on dead things. That morning, he had woken up to find mold all over the fresh vegetables he had brought home the night before, the neat plastic bags weeping with condensation.

Nellie, a.k.a. the former Mrs. Majali, looked exactly as she had sounded on the phone: slightly weathered but friendly, in a velour tracksuit Khaldoun’s mother would have frowned at. She let him inside the ranch house his GPS had guided him to, poured cider into chipped mugs and led him back to the rocking chairs on the front porch, offering a scratchy blanket against the cold. A wind chime rang overhead and a fat cat followed their rocking movements with a vaguely judgmental gaze.

“Cozy place,” Khaldoun ventured.

“I’m lucky, I know.” Nellie said, speaking a bit too fast, as if she was already on the defensive. “Lucky to have met Mahmoud. Like I told you on the phone, he was never an actual Christian husband to me, but he was a good man. I mean, I was just broke. My ex-husband, holy shit, the stunts he pulled when we were divvying up our assets… Anyway, Mahmoud and I just ended up helping each other’s situations.”

“So you had a business arrangement?”

“Business arrangement?” She nudged the cat with her foot. “Lear, get a load of this guy. Of course, his parents sure did throw money at him when they were first told of his marriage. Their precious young son acting straight all of a sudden was cause for some major celebration, let me tell you. Did I benefit? Sure. Some of that money eventually helped me buy this place. But it wasn’t just business. I think of him as a good friend.” She said the last bit stridently, as if she had repeatedly made the argument to other people and was tired of it already.

“Then why did it end?”

“Why do fake marriages ever end?” The woman laughed and didn’t say anything for a while. “We moved on. He moved on. You know, like people do.”

“He moved on to what?”

“I don’t know. Accepting himself? Being more… like himself? Last I heard from him, he was writing a book on parallel worlds. I mean, he was always a bit of a kook. In an adorable way.”

“And in a vulnerable way?”

“Vulnerable?” Nellie narrowed her pretty blue eyes at him, “Hell, if you’re thinking I exploited him or if I have anything to do with him being gone, you are SO barking up the wrong tree. I’ve HAD the cops around here before, asking me questions. But I just know what everyone knows. And I’ve got a rock solid alibi – when he went missing, I was at my sister’s in Arizona. She had just had twins, I was there for weeks. She married some asshole, you know, and…”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you,” he told her. “I just wanted to check one more thing. You mentioned parallel – what? Parallel worlds?”

“Don’t ask me, not an expert. I just know his research made him happy. He was a happy guy, last time we talked. That’s why I thought the suicide stuff was bullshit. The jihadi stuff was bullshit. I told the cops – it was hilarious for me to even contemplate. His friends thought the same thing.”

“Noor told me he had no friends.”

High-pitched laughter from Nellie at this.

“I guess she didn’t know her uncle very well,” Khaldoun offered in the ensuing silence.

“I guess she didn’t know him at all. Gosh, he had a lot of friends. He collected interesting people. There was this one woman, ran an esoteric bookstore… She was his advisor on all things paranormal.”

“Bookstore?”

“I’ll find the number for you. You sure are curious. Writing a screenplay about your wife’s family, you said? Mahmoud would’ve had a laugh about that. He never went to the movies. Say, you want something stronger than cider? You look like you might need to take a load off.”

“I still have to drive back.”

“Just being compassionate to a fellow human being.” Nellie shrugged and smiled. Khaldoun realized that she was flirting with him a little. It gave him an odd sense of satisfaction, even importance, to be flirted with while Noor was away and could not see, could not frown at this other woman, or make some proprietary gesture, a hand on his knee, delineating “mine.”

“Did you really never have sex with him?” He suddenly blurted out, and immediately regretted it, though Nellie just laughed again.

“Well, he was a handsome one,” she smiled, and looked away. “It was unfair, in a way.”

***********

Sometime during the acetic hangover that was New Year’s Day, the mirror in the upstairs bathroom exploded into hundreds of pointed shards, apparently unprompted. Later that week, Khaldoun made his trip to the esoteric bookstore.

It was housed in a dingy shopping center a few blocks away from the college’s main campus, squeezed in between a psychic (“Tarot for two: Discount rates on couples’ readings”) and a beauty supply store with vaguely medieval contraptions – mostly hair straighteners and eyelash curlers – displayed in the windows.

Inside the bookstore, the only sound came from the humming fluorescent lights. There was nothing esoteric about the place, unless one counted a small “New Age” section and a dreamcatcher flopping against a window.

The boy at the cash register was nice though. He revealed that his aunt Susan used to own the place, and would probably have loved to chat about an old customer and friend, but was unfortunately dead. He must have sensed Khaldoun’s desperation, though, because he leaned forward and said, “The lady next door, Ms. Renee, the tarot reader, was a good friend of my aunt’s, you know. Maybe she’s in?”

Ms. Renee was in. A radiant fortyish woman, dressed, strangely enough, in a very smart business suit, not a hint of polyester, the sort of outfit his mother would’ve approved of. He had expected gothwear, or an Anna Karenina-like shawl, and wasn’t sure if he was disappointed. Aside from tarot readings, she offered palm readings. No crystal ball, but the curtains on the windows were lace and there was an Edward Robert Hughes reproduction on the wall.

the princess out of school
The Princess Out of School. Edward Robert Hughes. 1901.

“Let’s drop the screenplay smokescreen,” Ms. Renee said. “That’s not why you’re here.”

“So you can read my mind?”

“You don’t need to be psychic to see a man who’s a little… stressed?”

Khaldoun didn’t argue with that.

Ms. Renee’s stern face turned outright dreamy when she remembered Mahmoud Majali.

“I was always glad when he poked his pretty head in here. He was a great, wonderful, beautiful man.” She sighed. “Oh, he used to read me excerpts from his book. It was set in an old, fading kingdom, so beautiful, such vivid descriptions, that you could picture yourself there, walking along the overgrown gardens, watching the sand blow into the arched doorways, running your hands along the stars carved into the shutters on the windows. He was sad sometimes. I think he missed his country. But he had a new country to go to every time he got behind his computer. The way he told it to me, that the kingdom was abandoned by most of its inhabitants, except for this one brave prince who was boldly staring down the shadows that had fallen across his land. The prince was gorgeous, of course.”

Ms. Renee chuckled warmly.

“It was so real that you had to wonder if it was, in fact, real.”

“I’m sorry,” Khaldoun said. “I don’t follow. It was so real that it was real?”

“Precisely. And you will follow. Eventually. Down a crooked path.” He hadn’t noticed how his hand had ended up in her hand. She ran a long, glimmering nail down his lifeline.

“You don’t think Mahmoud, uh, killed himself?”

“I think he might be dead to this world. But not to others.” Khaldoun wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say in return, so he just stared.

“Don’t worry about him,” Miss Renee said. “Worry about yourself. Susan who used to be next door? She had this brilliant blog. Too bad no one’s paying the upkeep on it anymore. She wrote a lot of interesting posts. I remember that she once posited a theory that the danger of accessing a parallel universe had everything to do with what you could trail back on your shoe.”

“OK. Great. Well. Thank you.” He stood up, surprised to notice that twilight had descended beyond the lace curtains. “How much do I owe you?”

Ms. Renee raised an elegant eyebrow and kept it raised until Khaldoun had understood.

***********

“Khaldi,” Noor whispered. “Do you love me?”

He was listening go the thumps and bumps in the attic above. There had been too many of them lately. They were not letting him write. Noor had insisted that they were made by squirrels, and scrunched up her nose when he pointed out that there had been no droppings.

“Do you love me?” She asked again.

Outside, a sharp wind was dragging in spring, gust by gust. Stars were staring at him through the window, looking through him. There was a series of thumps from above, rapid like laughter. He wished himself to be back in an evening in Amman, standing on a balcony on the outskirts of town, looking toward the lights of Palestine and Israel. He had paused next to her as if by accident that night. The air had smelled like cypress and whatever expensive shampoo she used. He was in the middle of paying her some compliment when a donkey brayed on the hillside, interrupting him. How they laughed. He hadn’t expected that it would always be easy with her – but surely it wasn’t supposed to be always this hard? She was the best girl he could have married. Everyone said he was lucky. Why didn’t she want to understand him?

“Do you love me?”

He rolled over and found her mouth with his, almost on autopilot. The thumping continued upstairs and they answered it with the thumping of the headboard for a while. Afterward, he went into the bathroom and stared at the place where the mirror used to be. He thought he could see something, a shape moving in the wall under the cover of darkness. He stood still and willed it to pass, and it did. He was keenly aware of still having a condom on and the fact that his hand was shaking too much to take it off. What was it that Ms. Renee had said? “Staring down the shadows that had fallen across his land.”

Noor came into the bathroom behind him, flipped on the light and gave a little shriek. A squirrel had scrambled up on the frame left over from the mirror and was eying them hatefully. Khaldoun stomped at it and it disappeared through the window he had distinctly remembered closing a few hours before.

Noor was triumphant. “NOW will you stop telling me that there is something in the house?”

“No.”

Noor groaned and went back to bed. A little while later he joined her again. He could tell by the way she was lying down, something about the tight curve of her back, that an argument was in the works. He decided to stave it off by falling asleep quickly.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you anymore,” she said before he could quite drift off. “I gave you the freedom to do whatever you want, and you don’t DO anything with it. Except insisting we live in a haunted house. Which is ridiculous, Khaldi, it’s completely ridiculous. And EMBARRASSING.”

“You know, you never told me he was gay.”

“What?”

“Your uncle Mahmoud, he was gay. You never said anything about that.”

“He was NOT gay, Khaldoun.” The vehemence with which she said this surprised him.

“Hey, it’s not as if I’m accusing him of being a serial killer. I’m just saying. The man was…”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” She screeched and threw a pillow.

“Whoa. Noor. Chill.” He hadn’t meant to upset her, but there was something thrilling about seeing her lose her temper like this. She was like a porcelain doll that had suddenly come to life. And it was equally thrilling to feel morally superior to her. He was not a homophobe. He would never call an uncle of his “disgusting” for being into dudes. There was no one close to him back home who had been gay, now that he thought about it, but it was easy for him to assume in that moment that he would be the tolerant one.

“I’m not going to chill if you’re going to gossip about my family,” she snapped, and got out of bed, throwing the blanket off with fury. “I’m totally sleeping in the guest bedroom tonight.”

He knew he was supposed to stop her, but he felt too triumphant in that moment, the idea of his perfect wife not acting perfect anymore filled him with an enormous, ever-expanding sense pleasure. Until he remembered that he was afraid to be away from her in this house, that is.

***********

A week later they had a fight big enough to send Noor outside with an overnight bag, although he wasn’t sure what it was about – whether it had to do with something specific, whether it had bled over from a fight they had the previous day. From the master bedroom, he heard her slam the door of her tasteful sedan, one of many wedding presents from her parents.

He wondered why the house terrified him when Noor wasn’t around. What was it about his wife? Was she stronger? Was she blessed in such a way that made the shadows shrink from her? Or was it just that she didn’t believe in the things he believed in? Was that her ultimate power?

He hated the way she screwed up her mouth when he asked her to stay, or come home earlier, or drop an evening class because it ran late. He hated how neither rapidly curdling milk nor a fuzzy movement at the foot of the stairs could ever crack her exterior. He hated and hated. Then he buried his face in the pillow and slept.

He woke up with a puddle of drool cooling his cheek and a faint greenish light shining into his eyes. It took him a moment to register that it wasn’t the alarm clock glowing. Amid the clutter on top of the dresser, the bottle of sand from his grandparents’ lands emitted a dull, emerald glimmer. It’s supposed to keep you safe. Was he meant to sprinkle it on the doorstep, like salt? It felt too late to find out.

He jerked upward. The air in the house had gone cold. Somewhere down the hall, one of Noor’s souvenir music boxes was plinking unsteadily as it wound down. Noor wasn’t coming back. She wasn’t coming back at all, and the thing in the house knew it.

The upstairs corridor was long. Through the thin walls, he could hear the movement start at its far end, in the room where they kept their treadmill, Mahmoud’s old office. The clattering sound there made him realize that their diplomas had been ripped off the walls and tossed onto the carpet. The office door squealed open on unoiled hinges. Bursts of breaking glass – the little perfume bottles from the guest bedroom falling onto the tiles. Scratching along the walls, digging into the new coat of paint. Ripping sounds from the guest bedroom, just one door down.

Khaldoun was watching the door. He was thinking that khamasin season had already started in Jordan. Like a bad-mannered child, the wind was snatching at the veils of the women on the bus stops. People working at outdoor cafes shook sand out of their laptop’s keyboards. Girls were leaning across tables and discussing the upcoming summer wedding season. Why the fuck had he ever come back to America?

The door to the bedroom opened.

The thing on his threshold was skinny. It looked needy. Even fragile. This was what made its long, bloody claws and lengthier, bloodier teeth really stand out. It had the appearance of a thing that would kill you and apologize to your flesh as it ate you. And it seemed to Khaldoun in that moment that the thing, as nakedly, horribly physical as it appeared, was made of abstractions, of bile and disgust, the brown dust left in the wake of the desiccated bugs, the cold, sickly sweat of someone else’s bad dreams. It wailed a lonely wail, like a sound from the woods at night, the sort of thing you’d try your best to ignore on a dark highway, and yet here it was, inside.

He was dimly aware of scuffling sounds in other parts of the house. There was swearing in the master bathroom. Then the sound of running somewhere beyond the walls. He heard more bottles breaking in the guest bathroom. The thing considered him with eyeless sockets. “Why are you here?” He had to will himself to produce words instead of screaming. “You’re so not where you’re supposed to be. You’re from somewhere else, I know. I can help you, I can…”

The thing howled and spat globs of blood and partially digested squirrel onto the bed for emphasis.

 …A theory that the danger of accessing a parallel universe had everything to do with what you could trail back on your shoe.

As the claws reached for him, he gave up on talking and started to scream back. “Mahmoud! You brought it! Take it back with you! Take it back!”

Before its not-quite-face not-quite-snout closed over him, Khaldoun saw movement in the doorway. Then he closed his eyes and put a hand over his face. He heard sounds that sounded like something was dying and wondered if that something was him.

By the time he managed to open his eyes, the thing was hissing and twitching on the floor, while a man stood over it, wiping a long, shiny sword. The man had not been featured in any of Noor’s numerous family photographs on Facebook, but Khaldoun could have recognized him from anywhere. He had dramatic Majali eyes, eyelashes so long he could probably flutter away on them if he tried hard enough, and also there was that familiar tiny bump on a long, thin, aristocratic nose.

“Asif,” Mahmoud said, as casually as if he had stepped on Khaldoun’s foot. He was dressed in something that couldn’t quite be defined with the word “clothing.” “Rainment” was, perhaps, appropriate. Khaldoun wondered if either one of them, or both, was dead. He didn’t feel dead, and Mahmoud didn’t look dead – he looked magnificent, actually. The only dead thing was the thing on the floor. “I should have never left the monster behind in this house, but I had been in a hurry. I was needed on the other side.”

He frowned at his sword. Spat on it. Rubbed the blade some more. “I would have gotten here sooner, but someone took out the mirror in this bathroom.”

“I think it was this, um, guy, or whatever…” Not knowing the name of what he was seeing, Khaldoun pointed to the molasses of blood-slicked fur and teeth on the floor.

“I know should have never trapped it here,” Mahmoud shook his head. “It’s one of those things that know about you if you know about it, if you know what I mean.”

Khaldoun didn’t, but nodded anyway. It was only polite.

“I only wanted to study it, but I was called away. As I mentioned, I was needed. Oh, how wonderful. You have one of these?” He pointed to the dimmed vial of sand and, before Mahmoud could say anything, uncorked it and tipped it over onto the steaming molasses on the floor as well as onto the mess on the bed.

The remains of monster and squirrel began to dissolve. “Now its physical body is destroyed permanently,” Mahmoud said triumphantly and sheathed his sword and walked out. Khaldoun trotted after him, careful to avoid what was now just stains on the carpet.

In the guest bathroom, the mirror rippled. Mahmoud grunted as he climbed onto the modern ceramic sink Noor was so proud of.

“We are facing a new wave of corrupted – that’s what they’re called, in case you’re wondering – where I have come from, but they shouldn’t bother you here.” He clapped Khaldoun on the shoulder. “I’ll make sure all passages are shut. I won’t be traveling back any time soon and you won’t have any trouble. This should be the end of this story, inshallah.”

“It’s all good, man,” Khaldoun’s voice was casual, as if Mahmoud had let a rat into the house or a snake. Khaldoun privately wondered if he might be in shock. “Um, hat are these things exactly?”

“In the kingdom, they say they come from unrealized desires,” Mahmoud said, and offered no more on the matter.

“Oh.”

“How’s everything?” Mahmoud asked distractedly as he passed his hands over the mirror. “You know, out there.” He pointed at the hallway.

Khaldoun thought about how things were going “out there.”

“Everyone thinks you’re dead,” he finally ventured.

“They would, wouldn’t they?” Mahmoud smiled.

“Suicide.”

 “I didn’t want people looking for me,” Mahmoud’s smile grew wider at this. “Wondering about me. It would have been cruel.”

“You don’t, you know, feel bad for your family?” Khaldoun ventured.

“I feel extremely bad for them – that is precisely why I left.” Mahmoud’s smile did not falter. He was remembering something now. “You should really see the beaches in the kingdom. Where I live now. The stars fall over the water every night. The water itself is like glass. They used to be desolate, these places, but now residents are starting to come back. Now that we have this corruption business mostly under control. You could visit, you know. It could be an adventure.”

“I’d love to,” Khaldoun said after a pause that felt particularly long. “But what if I never wanted to go back? That might upset some people. Maybe not my wife. But definitely some other people. It’s not that I… I don’t really have anything exciting going on right now. I’d love to go. To travel. But I’m thinking that I’ve got this, um, screenplay, so maybe I should figure things out here first, you know? That sounded cheesy, I…” He trailed off helplessly. There was no way of talking about the present situation without it seeming like a total idiot. He had no proper vocabulary for it.

“Oh well.” Mahmoud reached out and clapped Khaldoun on the shoulder again. “Once again, I’m sorry about the trouble. I’d pay for the carpet, but I lost my wallet long ago, as you can imagine.”

“Is there a message you would like me to pass on?”

“To whom?”

“To… to…” Khaldoun wanted to say “your family” or “your niece,” but suddenly realized how foolish their entire conversation was as he looked up at the man standing in the sink with a sword, frost in his beard and a distance in his eyes, as if the person inside was staring at him from across a chasm too great for either one of them to even comprehend. Mahmoud smiled again, a sincere, toothy grin, and shrugged his broad shoulders, and then he went away into the mirror at a slow, deliberate pace of someone enjoying his evening walk.

Before the mirror smoothed over, Khaldoun saw white domes with stars trembling in rapture between them, a long twilit road, an overgrown garden nodding with many curly branches in the wind, and a lone figure waiting at its green edge, arms outstretched.

When it was light enough outside, Khaldoun drove to the strip mall. Ms. Renee’s office was not supposed to be open for business, but there was already a light on inside. He knocked on the door. She opened, mug of steaming coffee in her hand. He kissed her before she could ask him what he was really doing there. “You know, unlike women on TV, I’m not actually into younger men,” she told him when she broke away, but he was gentle and persuasive.

It wasn’t going to be a big thing, he thought to himself later, as she sat in his lap on the couch and he idly ran his fingers up and down her back, making her shiver with pleasure. It wasn’t going to be a big thing, but it was an adventure.

***********

The divorce of Noor Majali and Khaldoun Nasser was met with dismay and excitement in Amman. At lunch, the society madams speculated if Noor’s insistence to go to grad school quickly, coupled with Khaldoun’s impulsive decision to write – ya salaam – a Hollywood screenplay, had precipitated “the disaster,” or if there was “more to the story,” the last bit always said in a dramatic stage whisper.

Brought up at parties, the divorce stilled conversation before eliciting a few of the usual jokes on the banality of young love. “Love?” others sneered. “Did you know the guy trashed Noor’s house after she walked out on him? That’s not love, that’s being mental.” A girl whom nobody seemed to know meanwhile complained loudly about a “very expensive jug” she had given the formerly happy couple.

Grandmother could hear the family talking about it now, her window open onto the garden, the cool breath of the night on her face. These conversations, the constant rundown of the pros and cons, the embarrassment of the divorce vs. the idea that Khaldoun could have stuck by someone who clearly “wasn’t a good fit,” always bored her. The important thing was – Khaldoun had survived. He even had a regular office job in Amman now, even if his heart wasn’t quite into it and he complained a lot about being distracted from his new screenplay. Grandmother told him that a little discipline introduced into his life would only improve his writing. A little discipline improved most things.

She turned her unseeing eyes to her old vanity mirror her foolish relatives claimed she had no use for and shook a gnarled finger at it. “Don’t mess with Khaldoun again,” she said. “He is a good boy. I’ll be watching. You always think no one’s ever watching you, but you’re wrong. I’ll call Mahmoud again if needed – and you won’t like that very much, would you?”

She waited for an answer only she could hear, and then sighed the long, satisfied sigh of someone gearing up for a well-deserved rest – but not just yet. With this mirror, she would watch over her grandson for a little while longer, and he could never say that his teta didn’t do anything for him.

Note: The banner image for this post is an untitled work by the great Minnie Evans (graphite, oil, waxed crayon and collage on canvas board). Found here. Photo originally taken by Cheri Eisenberg.

Thanks to Khaled Talhouni for his help with this story, long ago.

As usual, your tips/donations keep this blog going: No guilt-trip, just good times

22 thoughts on “The American House

  1. “acetic hangover” — acetic as in acetic acid (ketones?) Or do you mean “ascetic” as in refraining from self-indulgence? Either choice has possibilities and I’m trying to figure out which one works best.

  2. “Acetic hangover” would actually work because dilute acetic acid, as in vinegar, is used to descale glass vessels (like coffee pots). I initially got acetic acid mixed up with ketones because acetone, a ketone, is used to descale laboratory test tubes, beakers, etc. “Ascetic hangover,” of course, has its own meaning of renouncing self-indulgence, which is what I suspect you mean here.

  3. “In the kingdom, they say they come from unrealized desires” — Is the carnivorous monster a repression? Or just frustration? Interesting that Khaldoun left the house with the mirror through which Mahmoud and his monstrous ‘specimen’ could enter into Khaldoun’s world. Apparently Khaldoun doesn’t know that his own ‘blind’ grandmother has a similar mirror. “This should be the end of THIS story, inshallah.” But the beginning of more stories? Audience will stay tuned.

  4. Is the Mahmoud who enters through the mirror (or through the mysteriously opened window) Khaldoun’s creative alter ego? Is Mahmoud’s/Khaldoun’s house a stand-in for Mahmoud’s/Khaldoun’s consciousness/imagination? “… the danger of accessing a parallel universe had everything to do with what you could trail back on your shoe,” “I … should never have TRAPPED it here,” “one of those things that know about you if you know about it,” “Now its PHYSICAL body is destroyed PERMANENTLY” — Is Khaldoun afraid, in crossing through the reflective mirror, his thus-newly-acquired self-knowledge will physically change his relationships “out there” with Noor and others? If the monster’s physical body is destroyed permanently so as not to change Khaldoun’s worldly relationships, is that what repression is about? Is that what Khaldoun is envisioning here, i.e., using his creative alter ego to repress the monster that could devour him?

    Also, is Noor also in some sense another of Khaldoun’s alter egos? Noor, the calm, unruffled one, completely loses it when Khaldoun suggests that Mahmoud was gay, and eventually Noor leaves Khaldoun. Did Khaldoun originally pursue and marry Noor to reassure himself about his own sexuality? It’s interesting that, inside Mahmoud’s house, Khaldoun doesn’t feel safe in Noor’s absence.

    This is a very confusing story. It take a long time to read.

  5. So Khaldoun envisions physically ‘destroying’ his repressions by sublimating them through creative work? It’s interesting that, without Noor, Khaldoun seems to want to avoid being left alone in Mahmoud’s house with its mirror and monsters that follow him back into the world. Also, did the ‘blind’ grandmother summon Mahmoud to rescue Khaldoun, and is it the ‘blind’ grandmother who keeps an eye on the monster to prevent the monster from devouring Khaldoun? Is the ‘blind’ grandmother like one of the Greek Muses? Interesting that she is the one who instructs Khaldoun that discipline will improve his writing. Was Noor a false Muse?

    Also interesting that Jack, the ex-Marine who has an account on DeviantArt, is afraid to be left alone in Mahmoud’s house.

  6. Also interesting that the opening sentence is Noor’s comment that “It smells like an old crypt,” and Khaldoun responds, “Smelled a crypt before?” “Crypt,” etymologically, means a ‘hidden place.’ Does this exchange allude to Mahmoud’s sexuality that his family were trying to keep hidden in The American House? Or does the exchange allude to what Noor might think Khaldoun is keeping hidden? If the latter, did Noor move to America so quickly after the wedding so as to keep Khaldoun ‘hidden’ from her family? But if so, why did Noor marry Khaldoun in the first place? It doesn’t make sense. Khaldoun couldn’t have been the only “great lay” that Noor had encountered. Why did Noor marry Khaldoun?

  7. One final comment: This story also hints at the untold story of Noor. Interesting that the ‘blind’ grandmother opposed Khaldoun’s marriage to Noor. “When you marry someone, … you marry their relatives, and all their problems, too.” Surely the grandmother did not oppose Khaldoun’s marriage solely because of Mahmoud. Does Noor have her own personal “crypt” where she keeps things hidden that the grandmother knows about? Readers need to know more about Noor and why she married Khaldoun.

  8. niceros: Sometimes it is the things that are not said… left up to the imagination of the reader… that gives a story its nuances and what makes a story individual to each of us. In my opinion (and it is just an opinion) a writer can tell too much, to the point where the story loses its sense of mystery and becomes more like a documentary. When I read a good story I am always left wanting to know more. That is what made it a good story.

    Just my opinion. I mean no offense, I just wanted to explore another way of looking at things.

  9. I had to read this story in two sittings, because it’s very long, but then I had to re-read it again as soon as I finished it. It’s probably one of the weirder things you’ve written so far, Nat, but it casts a spell. I see some interesting influences.

    Niceros, I also gotta point out that John is right. This is a work of art, not a collection of plot points. The mysteries in it are there for you to interpret.

    My personal interpretation is that the main reason why Noor married Khaldoun is stated plainly, early on. He doesn’t have a career yet, so he’s pliable. She leads, he follows. Of course there is never one particular reason why couples fall in love and marry, but this is pretty much given as her one obvious incentive and it makes a lot of sense with the context of the story.

  10. I also saw the grandmother opposing the marriage not because Mahmoud is gay, but because the grandparents are intolerant and basically shut out anyone who is “different.” Khaldoun as an aspiring screenwriter/man without an office job would likely be shut out eventually. This story kinda hints at strict expectations for success. At the same time, Khaldoun isn’t made out to be some poor, suffering artist, instead he has a lot of ambitions but comes off as lazy and undisciplined. This is something I like, because the conflict between Noor and Khaldoun is never black and white.

  11. Lal and John Piantanida:

    Both your comments are noted. Maybe I’m trying to extract too much ‘meaning’ from a short story or even inventing ‘meaning’ which the author might not have intended.

    Lal: To me, “The American Story” does read like a collection of plot points. You mention that, to you, Noor’s choice of Khaldoun as partner — and I can’t escape the suspicion that she chose him, not the other way around — “makes a lot of sense with the context of the story.” But I don’t know what the context of Noor’s choice is. That’s why Noor’s choice of Khaldoun seems inexplicable. Noor strikes me as an almost stereotypical Strong Woman, and in my limited experience, stereotypically Strong Women don’t choose “pliable” men as partners. Noor is at least upper-middle class and was educated in the U.S. at a prestigious school; in the U.S., at least, such women do not typically “marry down,” and from the story, it looks like Noor is indeed “marrying down” when she marries Khaldoun. After their marriage, Noor tells someone that Khaldoun is “figuring himself out,” as though Khaldoun were her teenage son rather than her husband. Noor seems to consider Khaldoun an inferior and, before she leaves for class, she presents him with a printout of LinkedIn job listings for him to look up, i.e, orders for the day. In short, Khaldoun seems the unlikeliest candidate for marriage to someone like Noor — so why did she marry him?

    To me, Khaldoun seems like a stereotypical mama’s boy in that his chief influences (in the story) seem to be his mother, his grandmother, his older sisters, and then Noor. Where are Khaldoun’s father and brothers, if any? He never mentions any men who influenced him. Except for Khaldoun’s semi-hallucinatory experience with Mahmoud and the monster, and his exchanges with Jack and the sales clerk, all Khaldoun’s interactions are with women, who either try to control him or give him unique information about Mahmoud.

    Moreover, Khaldoun’s mother and sisters seem to be competing with Khaldoun’s ‘blind’ grandmother for control over Khaldoun’s future — Khaldoun’s mother says to his grandmother, “He has enough going on, mama, … let him go, let him go.” What does Khaldoun have “going on” that his mother knows about? Why are his mother and his sisters so eager to pass him like a football to Noor?

    I’ll leave it here. Lal and John, I acknowledge your comments, but I can’t help reading this story as the first chapter of a novel. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Perhaps Natalia can provide some clues as to what’s going on with Khaldoun and Noor.

  12. *shrug* I’m not a big expert on this type of fiction, but it seems to me that you are taking a very complex, beautiful tale and demanding to know how it was made, as opposed to asking yourself how it made you feel (which is usually the starting point to at least partially figuring out how a story is made). I’m not criticizing it, it just seems like you don’t get much fun or enjoyment out of literature. And you are trying to make it fit into a set of very narrow categories with which you define the world, and it’s also no fun.

    Also, you raised one point that I’ve gotta disagree with. Noor didn’t “marry down,” where do you get the from? The story repeatedly states that Khaldoun and Noor are part of the same social circle, and there are references to Khaldoun’s family money and family lands. It’s so obvious that class-wise, the characters are on the same footing. But Noor has her life figured out, or thinks she has it figured out. That’s the main difference between them, which is not weird.

    I think it’s a self-contained story that’s beautiful, but also unusual (and I’m not sure why it’s tagged “horror,” especially because I don’t think it’s meant to scare you/fill you with dread), but it demands you open your mind and trust the author, too.

  13. This story has beautiful imagery, but I am wondering about the deliberate inaccuracies (misconceptions?) in it.

    Noor and Khaldoun are Muslim names, but these two are clearly shown to have dated before marriage, and even possibly had sex? I’m not saying they would have been stoned by their families, but it seems inaccurate.

    Khaldoun-the husband has no job, but Noor-the wife is in grad school. Once again, I’m sure there are examples of this in the Muslim world, but how many? On in a million?

    Noor is shown not wearing hijab outside, Khaldoun drinks beer and has hangovers, Noor feels free to leave the house in the car and unaccompanied by her husband after a fight, so on. I’m not saying that there are no exceptions to these pretty basic rules, but it would have to be a pretty special family, and all I get from the story is that they are an ordinary family.

  14. Guys, two things:

    This is definitely not the first chapter to anything, and I think Lal’s comments about some of the points raised here are right on the money.

    Also, there are people out there who live secular lifestyles. They come from all backgrounds. The idea that no Muslims live secular lifestyles is ridiculous.

  15. I wasn’t going to say anything, Natalia, but since you have brought it up: How many “secular Muslims” have you actually met?

  16. Thanks for your swift reply. And his family just let him date you? Sounds like a likely story, lol.

  17. Just to add, as an Englishman who lived in Jordan for six years, every scenario in the above story rings absolutely true… young people, particularly in the upper echelons of society, date, sleep around, drink,, take drugs, etc.

    First-hand experience beats second-hand prejudice every time….

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