"Since ever, I guess. My mom was an atheist, so I don't think I ever took it that seriously. I mean, my dad made us go to temple sometimes - Rosh Hashanah and stuff - but even then, my mom would spend the whole way there and back complaining."
"So you don't know what it's like to lose your faith."
I nodded. "It's freeing. So freeing. It's the most freeing thing that's ever happened to me... You asked me how I feel about the lecture? Hearing Edelstein talk about the Quran as just a book, a book like any other, makes me feel like going out to celebrate."
"Sounds like fun," she said, smiling. "If you wait 'til tomorrow, we can celebrate together..."
"Sounds like a plan."
Rachel lingered on the step above me just long enough for the thought to occur. And when it did, I didn't question it. I leaned in and touched my lips to hers.
Her mouth pressed against mine. I felt her hand against the back of my head, the tip of her tongue gently grazing the tip of my own.
All at once, she pulled away. She turned and hopped up the steps, then stopped at the door and shot me a quick look.
"Wish me luck on my exam," she said.
"Good luck," I said.
When she was gone, I lingered, in a daze, barely able to believe my good fortune.
That night, after a day of classes and an evening of Ping-Pong at the Union, I was sitting in bed, trying to study, but thinking only of Rachel... when the phone rang. It was Mother.
"She's gone, behta."
I was quiet. I knew, of course, who she was talking about. A month earlier she and I had gone to Kansas City to visit Mina - not only my mother's lifelong best friend, but the person who'd had, perhaps, the greatest influence on my life - as she lay in a hospital bed, her insides ravaged with cancer.
"Did you hear me, Hayat?" Mother said.
"It's probably better, isn't it, Mom? I mean, she's not in pain anymore."
"But she's gone, Hayat," Mother moaned. "She's gone..."
I listened quietly as she cried. And then I consoled her.
Mother didn't ask me that night how I felt about Mina's passing, which was just as well. I probably wouldn't have told her what I was really feeling. Even the confession I had made to Mina while she lay on what turned out to be her deathbed, even that hadn't been enough to assuage the guilt I'd been carrying since I was twelve. If I was reluctant to share how aggrieved I was with my mother, it was because my grief was not only for Mina, but for myself as well.
Now that she was gone, how could I ever repair the harm I'd done?
The following evening, Rachel and I sat side by side at a pizzeria counter, our dinner before a movie. I didn't tell her about Mina, but somehow, she sensed something was wrong. She asked me if I was all right. I told her I was. She insisted. "You sure, Hayat?" she asked. She was looking at me with a tenderness I couldn't fathom. "Thought you wanted to celebrate," she said with a smile.
"Well... after I left you yesterday, I got some bad news."
"My aunt died. She was like... a second mother to me."
"Oh God. I'm so sorry."
All at once, my throat was searing. I was on the verge of tears.
"Sorry," I said, looking away.
Feeling her hand on my arm, I heard her voice: "You don't have to talk about it..."
I looked back and nodded.
The movie was a comedy. It distracted me. Toward the end, Rachel pushed herself up against my side, and we held hands for a while. Afterwards, she invited me back to her room, where she lit candles and played me a song on the guitar that she'd written. It was something longing and plaintive about lost love. Only three days ago, I couldn't have imagined myself being so lucky. And yet I couldn't push away thoughts of Mina.
When Rachel finished her song, I told her it was wonderful.
This excerpt is used with the permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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