Continued from ‘Not Her Cup of Tea: Part I’
She was back in the rain- this time with a new purpose. She was still frowning, but her facial muscles were tensed with concentration, versus her previous hopelessness.
She was still Amaan with her tattered sneakers and tired eyes. But at the same time, she was not Amaan. She was not the same girl who was scared of her own emotions, numb with mourning, or too paralyzed to get up and act, change the world with her own hands.
Amaan’s arms were sore. She sifted through the ash once more, turning the dirt over and around. She was looking for something, anything, that she could take with her to hold on to her family. There, her eyes rested upon two soot-covered orbs, both slightly larger than the nail of her thumb. She pried them away from the earthen grit, using her fingertips to wipe the mud off two marbles.
Gazing thoughtfully into the insides of the amber-colored marbles, she noted how they were both depth-full yet somehow reflective. With a clink, she rotated them slowly. Sighing, she conceded within her foggy mind that the marbles were going to be her only souvenir, and perhaps it was best that they were pocket-sized. She slipped them into the warm pockets of her gray, knit sweater, keeping her hand inside so she could feel their cool exteriors as she trudged along the sidewalk.
Amaan ducked into a dreary alleyway with fallen beams and soggy cardboard boxes strewn across the cracked concrete. She carefully stepped over a pile of shattered window glass and into the abandoned shop she had grown accustomed to.
Setting the marbles down, she pulled a wad of US currency out of one of her many pockets. Her hollow-looking eyes swept over the room again. Moldy wallpaper, floorboards scattered randomly, and one hardly intact, cardboard box in which she stored anything she could call her own. Glancing back at the paper in her hands, she counted to ten. She had made a hundred dollars in the last week by cleaning people’s clogged gutters- only because they did not have the time or energy to do it themselves. So she spent her time scooping out moldy leaf-litter out of plastic pipes, all while balancing precociously on a creaky ladder.
No wonder my arms are so sore, Amaan thought. She stretched, stuffing the cash under everything else. She rolled over onto her pile of clothes, thinking she could really use a nice, warm cup of tea to help fall asleep.
She did not react as strongly to the thought as much as she would have- said three weeks ago. But the ropes that knotted in her stomach and the tension that grabbed at her throat were enough to keep her awake for longer than Amaan would have liked.
The night was long. When the stars, hidden behind a thick sheet of city smog, finally began to twinkle out, and the heavens lightened to a deep, royal, blue, she rose in relief, for her morning prayer.
Sometimes, she wondered if Allah had brought these trials upon her, not only as a test, but to bring her Iman up further than it had ever been. She could not recall ever waking up for Fajr on time before the incident. When brilliant magenta hues began to streak across the sky, she smiled, thinking that Allah always has a ray of sunshine waiting after darkness, after a storm.
In hindsight, she did not mind one bit. Every day she felt her regretful sorrows ebbed into life lessons, and her “Why me?”s into reverent gratitude for what she still possessed.
She slipped into the shadows, making her way between the cobblestone-walled alleyways, ducking under hanging shop signs. Hands in her pockets, she walked with her eyes downcast, trying to draw little attention to herself as possible. The air was thick with petrichor, pulling her backwards as she tried moving forward.
Amaan felt a presence behind her and glanced over her shoulder. A middle-age woman, perhaps once very beautiful but gone to seed, was struggling to hold both the hand of her child and several brown, paper, grocery bags. Without a moment’s hesitation, Amaan turned on her heel and walked over to help. “Here,” she breathed through her teeth, taking up two of the packages.
The child’s dark eyes wandered up to Amaan’s furrowed eyebrows. “Hi,” he voiced, his words curious and timid. “Thank you for helping my mommy.” She felt her lips curve into a small smile. “It’s only right that you help someone when they need it,” she said gently, kneeling to his level. “Remember that, okay? Always help your… mommy,” she said, tasting the word.
The mother swept a lock of graying hair behind her ear and grinned. “I’m so sorry, do you mind walking with us back to our apartment? I can’t carry my groceries very far.” It struck Amaan that with so many bags the mother must run a busy household. “Of course,” replied Amaan.
They said little as they walked. The child craned his neck to see the stranger helping his mother, eyes bright, gears whirring behind the little pools of spring-water. His chubby fingers laced in her larger hands, swinging rhythmically. Amaan took note of the band-aid on his elbow and the missing laces in his sneakers. There was a smudge of dirt on the tip of his tiny nose, and his eyelashes quivered with each blink.
The woman cleared her throat as she reached for her keys. “I’m Sarah,” she said, adjusting the grocery bag so it rested on her hip. “Please excuse the mess.”
Met by what was so much more than an ordinary mess, Amaan stepped over mismatched shoes and toy cars. She weaved through a narrow hallway, into a sitting room with a threadbare sofa in the corner and several children roaring in mock play. They pounced and leaped at each other, eyes alight with young innocence and wholehearted enjoyment.
Sarah released the six-year-old’s hand, and he waddled into the fray. Amaan grinned and followed the middle-aged woman into the kitchen, sorting cans and vegetables into their proper places. They remained silent with smiles were plastered from ear to ear as they watched the children engage in roughhousing. A minute later, they were sitting on the couch.
Cross legged, Amaan leaned forward to get a better look. “Are they all yours?” she blurted out rudely. They all were almost from different races.
Sarah sighed deeply and shook her head. “They were orphans from a young age- the best age to adopt, in my opinion,” she said, eyes closed. “That way, I can always teach them what it really means to be a family while crossing any boundaries of race and personal opinions. If it’s not obvious, they all love each other very much.” Amaan peered at the woman’s aging face. She had slightly plump, arched eyebrows and graying hair that came to her shoulders. “I can watch them anytime if you like,” Amaan said softly, her heart warming as she gazed at the children. “They’re wonderful.”
Sarah did not open her eyes. “I know,” she said. “And I would love that. I actually have a meeting tomorrow morning that I can’t miss.” Amaan nodded. “I can make it. But I should get going now if I want to get here early.” The foster mother’s eyelids slid back. “Thank you so much. See you tomorrow then”.
After a night of tossing and turning, Amaan carried her box out of the musty shop and entangled it in the thick ivy at the foot of Sarah’s apartment complex, completely invisible to anybody who did not know it was there.
She made her way up the second flight of stairs, sliding her dry-skinned hand over the cool, green railing. She hesitated before ringing the bell and then pressed the bell. There was a clamor of arguing children before the same child from the previous day, who opened the door and tilted his head all the way back in a mischievous grin. “She said you were coming again! I knew it!” he offered up his clammy little hand, and Amaan took it.
“Where’s your mommy?” Amaan asked, wondering if she had any special instructions. The child stared straight down the hallway, not making eye contact. “She said there’s tehlee-phone numbahs on the fridge,” he drawled, leading her over to the adjacent room’s floor. The other children all sat in a circle on the marker-stained carpet, giggling.
Amaan drew the familiar child on to her lap, bringing her chin to rest on his little shoulder. “What’s your name, little guy?” she wondered aloud. “Yusuf,” he replied, wriggling away from her. He pulled her closer to the other kids. She registered several details at once. An eight-year-old girl’s blonde pig tails. A two-year old Haitian boy’s glittering eyes. A Chinese boy’s mischievous grin. There were about seven children in all, most either rocking back and forth or telling someone else a story of castles and giant robots.
Yusuf eventually came back to her lap as she joined the children’s talk and play. Her animated stories and how she talked with her hands captured the emotions of the kids, who watched her- at first reproachfully, but then in awe.
The day went on. She fed them leftover clumpy macaroni and cheese from the fridge, cleaned up accidental spills, and helped them wash their hands after they used the bathroom.
When Sarah came home around seven, Amaan was tucking little Yusuf and the other children into bed. She pinched his nose gently. “Sweet dreams, little monster,” she cooed. He nodded. “Allahumma bi Ismaka amootu wa ahya…” he said, before closing his eyes. Amaan grinned, and turned off the lights before closing the door.
Sarah and Amaan sat for a cup of herbal tea. They talked longer than they had since they met. They discussed everything under the sun, including the children. Amaan felt the marbles grow cold in her pocket when Sarah informed her that Yusuf had lost his mother in a plane crash two years prior. He was a trouble child at first, but grew a little older to be kind and loving. He also, apparently, had always wanted an “awesome older sister”. This, Amaan thought, was definitely her cup of tea.