It was another early sunset on a rainy day in Seattle. Andrew was walking with a paper bag of groceries back to his studio apartment in downtown. He had gotten government permission to stay in this apartment as part of the Upbeat program, focusing on bettering drug-affected neighborhoods in King County. It was an artist supplement program, and Andrew was a published haiku poet and teacher of haiku in public education and sometimes colleges. He had to attend an audition for artistic achievements to be able to get the subsidy. Though it was miracle to him to live in downtown for $800 a month, it did have its downsides, with junkies visiting his weekly exhibitions of his haiku and accompanying minimalist art made by his neighbor, Patrick.
Like a true Seattleite, he had no umbrella today—just a polyester jacket to wade off the rain. He was gripping his paper grocery bag with a regret that he tried to be so environmentally friendly, as his groceries seemed to be slipping away from him, slowly being soaked. Nearing the King County courthouse, he saw a young woman in the distance, shivering. She was sitting on the courtyard grass, despondently staring down, wearing a hoodie. There was cardboard sign on her left that read, “Anything will help.”
Thoughts began to run through Andrew’s mind. Where is she going to sleep? Isn’t she going to get hypothermia? Is she sick, because she is not even holding up her sign, or is she just depressed? But as he came a few feet from her, his thoughts calmed down and he simply had a feeling of wanting to help her in some way.
He waited for a response from her, but she did not raise her head.
“Is everything alright with you?”
Andrew tried to raise his voice above the clamor of the rain and the sound of cars rushing past.
Her head budged slightly up and her eyes met his.
“You need some food? We can get some pizza.”
Andrew tried to be as personable as he could without sounding desperate or scared.
She pushed her hood back, revealing short, straight, brown hair.
There were a few moments of silence with their eyes peering into each other.
In a ruffled voice, the girl said, “I guess we can get some pizza.”
Andrew knew a place a few blocks away.
“Alright, let’s go to Pagliacci Pizza down 4th street.”
Without exchanging words, the two walked, the night reflected in all the puddles they could see.
When they entered the bright, colorful walls of Pagliacci Pizza, lined with film posters and the smell of cheese and baked bread, the girl’s hands clenched.
“What kind of pizza do you like?”
“Chicken,” the girl said with a tinge of guilt in her eyes.
Andrew gestured towards the counter. “Three slices of chicken parmesan pizza please.”
At a table, after eating the pizza reluctantly in front of him and in such a foreign place, she looked into Andrew’s eyes intently.
“My name is Fatima.”
“That’s a nice name.”
Andrew didn’t know what to say after that, afraid to sound awkward, or worse.
They started to walk back to the courthouse, and Fatima decided to speak a bit more.
“I lost my parents in a car crash. I didn’t think it would happen, with my father being a taxi driver and Seattle being such a safe city… but a drunk guy went through a red light.”
She put on her hood again.
“I am really sorry…,” he didn’t know what else to say.
As they approached the courthouse, Fatima sat down at her place.
“I have a sleeping bag over there.” She pointed towards a grouping of bushes. “I go to the homeless shelter sometimes to sleep, but today it is full. But at least I get meals there.”
Andrew had an idea, but he wasn’t sure in it, and not confident she would be comfortable with it either. He had been thinking of it since he saw her eating pizza with subdued enjoyment.
But after moments of awkward silence, he got it out. “Fatima, I don’t know what you think of this, but… would you like, um, to stay at my apartment?”
Her face seemed to go in a type of shock, then confusion, then guilt, then something inexplicable.
Trying to read her expressions, he did his best to reassure her, “Though I have a studio apartment, I will give you space. You can leave and come any time you like. I just, I just want some place for you to stay.”
A smirk began to spread on her face as she looked down at the grass.
The elevator up to his studio apartment hummed and mechanical noises sounded below from steel wires. Fatima leaned against the opposite side of the elevator where Andrew was standing, looking straight forward, as if she wanted to leap from the elevator as soon as it opened due to the awkwardness of the moment.
No sleeping bag. Just a plastic bag of her possessions: toothbrush, comb, three pairs of clothes, and a wallet.
8th floor. Andrew tried to walk normally down the hall, acting as if it was normal for a homeless girl he only met today to come and stay at his apartment.
Coast is clear, Andrew thought.
Nervously he found the right key on his key chain inside his backpack. But he steadily pushed the key into the keyhole and turned it.
A couch, a single-size bed, an almost empty kitchen except a table, a tall but narrow bookshelf stacked with books, a box of clothes under his bed, a bathroom. Framed Japanese paintings with haiku in English scrawled on them. A boombox with a laptop beside it on a small desk.
Water dripped from both of them. To cut the quiet and to disrupt the slightly ominous sound of dripping, Andrew spoke up.
“Well, I guess you would want to take a shower….”
Fatima glanced over at him with an approving nod.
“There are some towels in the top shelf of the closet in the bathroom. Use anything you want in the bathroom….” And with a shaky voice, “use anything you want in this apartment,” complemented by an awkward smile.
Fatima smirked the way she did in the park, and walked into the bathroom, bag and all.
As he heard the bathroom door lock, thoughts rushed into Andrew’s mind. Is this a smart thing to do? I mean, she could steal stuff while I am going to work tomorrow. She seems nice, but you never know…. He physically tried to shake his thoughts away by turning his head back and forth.
He considered changing clothes, but he didn’t think of himself as that wet. Besides, the washing machine was in the bathroom. Instead, he placed his groceries in their proper places in his fridge and pantry.
After about 30 minutes, Fatima came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her hair and a towel around her body. Her almond-shaped eyes showed a glint of happiness, though her expression was bland.
She’s beautiful, he thought, but tried to dispel this thought, as he wanted to extinguish any sign of his spontaneous attraction.
“I think it would be best for you to sleep on the bed, since, well, you are a girl and you need a bed more than me after what you have been through. But, of course, I will change the sheets first.”
Her cheeks grew slightly red. “That is very nice of you,” and she smiled the first smile he had seen from her.
The 10 minutes or so before they went to sleep, no words were exchanged. Fatima changed into a pair of clothes in the bathroom and settled into her fresh set of sheets and blanket while the rain continued to patter on the roof. Andrew slipped on his pajamas in the bathroom after dragging the box of his clothes under the bed to underneath the couch. While brushing his teeth, the fact of Fatima being there formed more in his mind. I have a stranger staying at my house. A girl. I should feel a bit more weird about it… but maybe the satisfaction in helping someone is masking my unease.
By the time he came out from the bathroom, Fatima was asleep in a pair of jeans and a corduroy jacket, her mouth open. He watched her for a few seconds out of curiosity of who this person was and what was her complete story. But he felt like a criminal staring at her, even though he knew he had no ill feelings. Regardless, he turned around to face the other wall.
7:30am. Andrew’s beeping alarm went off. Normally, he would turn it off a few times on the repeating-snooze function, but today he got up alert, knowing he had a guest. Fatima was not in bed. He sat upright to look around the apartment. She was sitting at the kitchen table with two plates: one covered with scrambled eggs and one covered in scrambled eggs with a side of bacon.
“You didn’t have much in your fridge, but I found some eggs and bacon. The one with the bacon is yours….”
Andrew got up immediately from the couch and sat down at the other chair at his tiny kitchen table, feeling embarrassed that she was just sitting there while he slept and had made breakfast, probably while he was snoring.
“Thanks! Um… why don’t you eat bacon? Trying to be healthy?” he said, while he put the first piece of egg in his mouth.
“Oh… right, that makes sense,” he said as he gave a reassuring smile.
“I did my morning prayers at dawn, and… flipped through some of your books on your bookshelf. You seem to like poetry,” Fatima smiling.
“Oh yea, for sure. I am a poetry teacher.”
Andrew stopped himself from saying more, as he was still thinking about her doing prayers so early and being a Muslim. He loved Islamic culture, reading tons of books on Sufism from his father’s library when in his early teens.
They ate the rest of their breakfast in silence, with Andrew making occasional “mmm” sounds to show he liked the food.
As Andrew was about to leave for work at a high school as a guest speaker for a creative writing class, he wanted to speak to Fatima. He had been pondering what to say to her while eating his breakfast.
“So, Fatima, there is any extra key under the welcome mat if you want to go out and do stuff and come back. Um… also here is $150 for buying any food, and maybe you want some new clothes. Unfortunately, I don’t have….”
“Why are you doing this for me?” Fatima interrupted.
Andrew did his best to say the right words to not make himself look weird.
“I just think it is the right thing to do… I never like seeing homeless people out there in the cold and rain, but yesterday… I felt compelled to help.”
Fatima wanted to ask him was it because she was girl that he helped her, but she stopped herself, as she thought it was rude.
“I see. Well, I am really thankful for everything.” She provided the warmest smile she could manage, beyond her natural feeling of gratitude.
Keeping eye contact, Andrew said, “You’re welcome” in a barely audible way and left the apartment, locking the door out of habit.
Over the following days, Fatima shared more about her story. Her family were immigrants from Afghanistan, when in 1978 there was a coup, and her family fled the oppression of a pro-Soviet government. Though her family were poor at first living in Seattle, her father worked eventually as a manager in a clothing store, Old Navy, and provided enough money for livelihood, while her mother worked in a friend’s daycare for savings. Fatima had a brother, but he was arrested in Afghanistan for opposing the government and later executed.
Education was the primary focus of Fatima, and her grades were good enough in high school to graduate with top honors.
Her favorite color was yellow, as it reminded her of the long expanses of wheat in her homeland. She liked to listen to Indie rock like Fleet Foxes, but also liked traditional Islamic music as well, like dhikr. Her favorite food was fried chicken and rice with chicken broth over it. Simple, but tasty, especially with added butter.
But when her parents died in the car crash, she had graduated only a year ago from high school and was scheduled to attend the University of Washington on a partial scholarship. She spent all the money she had on the funerals for her family. Even the money awarded to her as one year pay from Old Navy for her father’s passing was only enough to pay the funeral costs and pay rent for two months, including living expenses.
She tried to live with one of her high school friends, Mindy, but her parents were overly Christian and did not think it would be possible living with a Muslim in their house. Mindy told Fatima with tears in her eyes, “My parents don’t want to have Muslim prayers in their house and Muslim food.” They gave her a few hundred dollars in consolation.
There was one more trusted contact, her mother’s friend Vera. But the daycare had fallen under hard times in the past two years when a child was caught being in the middle of the street, and the daycare was reported to the police by a neighbor. Vera had a ready heart for Fatima, but had barely enough money to feed her three children and to pay rent.
After two months of trying to find a job and finding only insurmountable competition instead, she stopped paying the rent and was soon given a notice by the owner to leave the house in one week.
In that week, she tried to gather what she needed to survive as a homeless person. She contacted all the shelters she could, got all the supplies she could muster around her house, and read up on being homeless in books from the local library.
After three years of being homeless, sleeping off and on in shelters, she slept in a bed in a downtown apartment complex for artists.
It was a Saturday, and both Fatima and Andrew woke up late, though Fatima had gone back to sleep after her morning prayer. A cloudy day, leaves stuck to the window overlooking the piers in the distance.
But Andrew had some plans today: go on a haiku walk around Greenlake, and meet with his twin brother to play badminton at night. He didn’t know what Fatima’s plans were, but he thought she probably didn’t want to keep looking for jobs online like she had done for the past four days.
As Fatima dragged herself into the shower, Andrew had an idea strike his mind: he could prepare breakfast for her today. She had been making breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the past few days. On the first day of doing this, he felt guilty about it, as she was not his servant or anything of the kind. But, he accepted that she was simply showing her gratitude.
As Andrew was in mid-session of whipping up some waffle mix, Fatima came out of the shower drying her hair, wearing the new, yellow dress she bought with his money two days back.
“Oh, you are making me breakfast! I didn’t know you could cook.” She gave out playful laugh.
“Well, I can, if you didn’t cook all the time,” Andrew said with a smirk.
Fatima took in the smell of the waffle mix as it was being poured into the waffle maker. “Doesn’t smell so bad,” she teased.
“Hey, I’ll have you know that I used to make waffles each Saturday for my mother when I lived with her.”
Fatima tilted her head to the side, looking into his eyes, “Aw, that’s so cute.”
As he pressed down the waffle maker on the batter, he tried to stave off feelings of attraction for her. It was hard with her sweet, teasing voice, her smell of lavender body wash permeating around her, her almond eyes, and yellow dress.
“So, this is our first weekend together. What do you want to do?”
He didn’t consider doing anything with her for the weekend yet, but he felt ashamed to say that he hadn’t thought of anything. He made something up.
“Oh, I thought we could walk around Greenlake, maybe get some coffee, and a… maybe buy you a bit more clothes.”
She chuckled. “You’re so sweet.”
Over the last few days, he had noticed hints that she liked him more than friends or a stranger, but he wasn’t for sure. But he felt the way she was laughing and complimenting him was travelling over the line of simply being a friend.
As they settled down to eating waffles, topped with butter and maple syrup, and hot chocolates on the side, Fatima broke the silence, “Andrew, I wanted to tell you something.”
“Mhmm,” Andrew replied, trying not to appear nervous.
“You know, in Muslim culture, a single girl and a single guy are not supposed to be living together… I would be more comfortable if, if we were dating… I didn’t want to tell you right away, as I didn’t really know you and saw your asking me to stay at your apartment as a blessing from God.”
Andrew didn’t know what emotions were stirring in him. He felt attracted to her, but on the other hand, he thought he knew what was best for the situation. After a few moments of tossing through thoughts and emotions, he pushed himself past his inner confusion.
“Fatima, I understand your sentiments… but in the past few days, I have talked to my mother about you, and she said that it would be good…”
“Would be good for me to leave?” Fatima interrupted, emotion straining her voice.
“No, no, Fatima,” he waved his arms to show his sincerity, though his voice stayed somber. Fatima seemed to settle down a bit.
“My mother and I discussed about you being adopted in our family.”
Fatima laid her eyes in her hands, and began to sob.
“I, I thought it would be best, so you can have a family again, and…”
Her sobbing became louder. He tried to console her, putting his hand on her shoulder.
“Besides, in a romantic relationship, you never know how long we can stay together. If you’re my sister, our relationship will be for life.”
“You’re sister?” she asked, looking into his eyes.
“You’re sister,” she repeated in a solemn tone. She looked down at the floor and gave Andrew a hug, getting butter and maple syrup all over her dress.
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