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Zoya Ahmed

A Stitch in Time

      All but nineteen years of age, my mom began sewing her own clothes using her dad’s ancient tailoring machine. At twenty-one, when she got married and moved away, the third of five sisters, she diligently carried the machine along with her; I imagine it swaddled within her delicate arms like a little baby, her petite frame and narrow hips swinging from side to side as she scuttled up the stairs to her new home. I bring this up because when I think of my mom, this is one of the first images that pops to my mind. Not the silhouettes of long tiresome fights that ensued between her and Dad, or the weary, woeful days spent fussing over me as I grew into a rogue teenager. Not even the countless times she’d whip up seemingly endless glasses of chilled strawberry smoothies for my friends when I had them over. Sure, she was a sum of all her roles, and duties, but it would be truly tragic to say that she wasn’t her most authentic self behind the machine.

        The machine was a rustic burgundy thing. It had a metallic body, glossy but peeling with age. My mom’s feet moved in a synchronous rhythm while she used it. The ricket racket, ricket racket sounds filled the living room of our house while I was growing up. The machine consumed each of her senses. One hand carefully folding, flattening, and placing the square of a cloth below the needle, the other resting on the wheel that would be spun as her feet rocked—slow at first, and then picking up momentum. Her eyes remained glued behind her rectangular glasses; she would cut an invisible piece of string with a satisfying snap, nestling it between her teeth before she fit it into the needle. So meticulous. So put-together. Her dexterity was startling. She ran circles around the rest of us when it came to handiwork—my dad and brother entrenched in the fields of business and IT, and I, who couldn’t fold a sheet in equal halves to save my life!

      That’s how I saw her. That’s how I would describe her if I ever wrote something about her. If her story were ever to be turned into a film, or if I were to describe her to my future children. That’s how I would describe her to someone who’d never seen her before, the way you describe a person to a stranger, showing them the best parts, the glittering bits.

        I was thirteen when I found out she was having an affair. Fourteen, when I confronted her about it, and she promised me she would stop speaking with the man. The “other man,” who also happened to be one of my dad’s closest friends. Later, I would find out that my mom and the other man began speaking as friends, confiding in each other about their spouses, the gaps in their marriages, and the wreckage of their homes. I sometimes listened to their conversations, tiptoeing to the other side of the door, and carefully placing my left ear over the cool peach-colored surface.  Sometimes, all I heard was my own heart pounding furtively in my chest, other times I caught words out of context like a murder of crows picking the remains of a roadkill. Careful. Frightful. Alert. Rushed.

          Sometimes my heart beat so loudly, I swear it beat within my eardrums. The moment I heard footsteps, I would retreat. Sometimes she wept to him, and I drank from the sorrow in her voice, feeling empathetic, sad, and wishing she would confide in me instead. Sometimes I heard her complaining about my dad, calling him out for the little things, the big things, and things like how he didn’t like any of the cookies she selected and always asked for something she couldn’t find at the supermarket. Those conversations irked me. They made me feel like we were living inside a glass house, and the other man was standing on the outside, looking in, watching our every move, even when we brushed our hair, or cleaned spinach from our teeth with toothpicks, or scratched our scalps in deep thought, or as water spilled from the sides of our mouths as we guzzled it inattentively. It made me uncomfortable. Sometimes I heard them fight too—and that was the biggest joke of all.

         When she was twenty-one, she got married and moved out of her childhood home. When I was twenty-one, I was in a somewhat serious relationship with a Christian boy. I was bold enough to tell my mom about it, even go to the extent of suggesting that I was preparing her in case we got married. As a conservative Muslim family, the idea of marrying outside our religion was perhaps the most sinful and atrocious thing one could imagine doing. It was the perfect way to break your parents’ heart. I didn’t even know if I really wanted to marry this guy. What I wanted was to broaden my mom’s mind. I couldn’t understand how she, she of all people, could show such narrow-mindedness when it came to love. In my head, I thought, Does she really think marrying in your religion is the gateway to a successful marriage? More importantly, Doesn’t she realize her own marriage is an example that it isn’t? That there is no guarantee? Marriage is about two people—it either works or it doesn’t. “I could just as easily marry a Muslim man and end up unhappy,” I would say to her, rather pointedly. But in these situations, my mom pretended that she didn’t understand my insinuations. And I never pushed, because deep inside I felt like a fraud. I had no idea what love was, how could I preach it?

         My mom made me question the idea of love more than I did during the unscrupulous string of relationships I had in school and then in college. Or perhaps that string of complex relationships was a product of this confusion surrounding the topic of love.

           What is love? The big question. Sometimes it felt like to care was to love. That simple. That easy. My heart was filled with love for a friend, a cousin, a sibling, a stranger. It felt pure. It made sense. So, what was romantic love? The same feelings with the aspect of physical intimacy? But that didn’t feel right, because I had experienced love followed by a painful heartbreak without being physically intimate.

          Was love honesty, then? Was love balance? Was love acceptance? Was love unconditional? Was love hating passionately, forgiving indisputably, fighting fervently? Was love just being on the same team? Was love just showing up?

        Could you love someone at first sight? In one meeting? Could you love someone only out of habit, bred from the familiarity of spending every day together for more than a decade? Could you love again and again and again? How much could you hurt someone in love before you began hurting them as you fell out of love? Most importantly, if love is absolute and unconditional, how do you fall out of love, and if you do, were you ever in love in the first place? How can love be bad? If love can’t be bad, how can you go crazy in love? How can you lose yourself in love? How can you be desperate, unkind, unruly, unhinged?

           Did my mom love my dad? Did she love the other man?

          I knew she loved me unconditionally, so why did she lie to me? I continue to try to unravel the shades of love, learning a little bit from each friendship I nurture, the ones that last the years, and even the ones that come and go spectacularly, marking me with their transience. I take pieces of people, people that come my way, people that I observe from afar, people that rewrite my ideas, make me question my predispositions, and challenge my beliefs. And as I do this, I allow love to grow around me and within me. Sometimes my past creates a guard over me like a cement wall, making me cynical, resistant. Other times my lessons guide me, fiercely protecting me before I give my most vulnerable, treasured parts to an alley.

        My mom, a seamstress, stitches clothes like it’s second nature. She loves stitching—the way it engulfs her senses. She loves her dad, her icon. She loves and admires her sisters, all four of them. She takes care of me and my brother. Loves us. Her love is not one-size-fits-all. No love is.

          I grew up feeling a myriad of emotions towards her, trying to understand her, trying to understand love. Our own love has had its ups and downs, its flaws, uncertainties. But through it all, it has remained unwavering. I still don’t know what love is, but I know I love my mom.

Zoya Ahmed is currently pursuing a master’s in creative writing at Central Michigan University. Her fiction writing attempts to capture the complexities of intimate human relationships through genre-bending short tales. Her stories are meant to feel like a tickle in the toe that you simply cannot itch.

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