Late that Fall, Aref began insisting that we run every morning, right after we dropped the children off at school. He had recently began working second shift, and didn’t go into the hospital until 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon, before Atash and Noor got off the schoolbus.
I felt like our little routine was being evaluated, like the residents that reported to him at the hospital. I always envisioned them with imaginary tails between their legs as he spoke to them. His voice could be sharp.
Usually, I began by waking the children, speaking softly and turning on their lamps. They knew this was their cue to rub their eyes, head downstairs, and begin the attempt to eat the bowls of Cheerios and rice milk that were waiting for them at the kitchen table. While they were eating (or rather, holding their spoons in mid-air while still dreaming), I would make their little twin beds, and lay out their school uniforms.
It had always gone smoothly enough; their whining was kept to a minimum, though we didn’t try to be hushed and quiet. Aref was already in the hospital parking garage by that time, steering his silver BMW sedan into his assigned parking space.
That first morning home he observed me. Arms crossed, an amused smile dancing on his feminine lips. His still coal black hair stuck up a little in the back and a white feather from his pillow was peeking out from the crown of his head. He hadn’t slept off his Sunday-self yet, the hard edge that grew over him like kudzu during the workweek wasn’t near yet.
I was dressed already. Not dressed up, just a pair of jeans and a long grey cardigan over a t shirt. I didn’t have a headscarf on yet.
‘Houri. Why don’t you have the children make their own beds? They’re old enough, Noor is in the third grade already.’
I smoothed out Atash’s little blue polo shirt, pausing and running my hand slowly over the little crest patch. He had just started Kindergarten, and his wide brown eyes pleaded with me every morning to let him stay home. Home meant cookies and cartoons. School meant lots of noisy children and lines and loud bells. In spite of his fear, he seemed to like his teacher; she was young and soft spoken.
‘It’s just faster this way, Aref. They get a little bit of food in them before I drop them off. Gives me a chance to make sure they have everything they need.’
Aref shook his head a little and started pacing. A speech was coming. I wanted to get down to the children, to talk with them a bit before I had to start nudging them to brush their teeth and get dressed and zip their backpacks. I needed coffee.
‘They should start making the beds by themselves, and also I want you and I to start running on the greenbelt after they’re dropped off. It isn’t so hot this early, and we both can stand to lose a little bit of weight.’
He looked at my hips then, which admittedly had grown fuller and rounder over summer. The children and I had eaten lots of lunches downtown while Aref worked during the day. I always ordered dessert.
Already I felt the road that his mornings off were sending me down. My quiet, yellow sunlight moments were disappearing, and were being replaced by Aref’s heavily structured, well-balanced efficiency plans. No more novel-reading in an hour long bubble bath. I would now have company as I cleaned, while I sat at the computer, and as I stepped outside to check the mail. I sighed and bit my lower lip as Aref outlined his plans for our four hours together before I left to pick up Noor and Atash and he left for his shift.
‘Oh, Houri, don’t frown so much…it will be nice! Haven’t you been lonely in the house alone?’
‘No. I am not lonely.’
Aref’s smooth face fell, his lower lip pushed into a pout, a look that our daughter Noor had perfected at the age of two.
‘We’ll start running. It will be fun to have some time alone, like before the children were born.’
Aref looked at me, his eyes crinkling up at the corners. I was still amazed at the length and thickness and the inky black of his eyelashes. I turned away from him and pulled a pair of Atash’s small white socks from his dresser drawer. I could hear Noor laughing gleefully from the kitchen table, then a rustling, which was followed by an annoyed ‘HEY!‘ from Atash. I needed to get downstairs. We were running late now.
‘All right, Aref. We’ll start running.’