It would have been childish to move from where I was sitting. But I felt uncomfortable sitting facing Anwar. He smiled at me and this took me aback. He kept looking at me. I felt that my blouse was too tight and my face too hot. I must have exhaled because he said, 'It's hot, isn't it? And you're used to air conditioners.' There was a teasing in his voice.
I laughed. When I spoke, my voice sounded strange to my ears, as if it were not me. 'But I prefer the heat to the cold.'
'Why?' He threw the butt of his cigarette on the ground and, with his feet, covered it with sand. His movements were gentle.
'It's more natural, isn't it?' There were two tables between us and I wondered which one of us would make the first move, which one of us would get up and move over to the other table.
'It depends,' he said. 'Someone in Russia might regard the cold as natural.'
'We're not Russians.'
He laughed in a nice way and fell silent. His silence disappointed me and I thought of different ways to revive the conversation again. I scrambled different sentences in my head, fast, 'I heard you have a brother studying in Moscow', 'The air conditioner in my car broke down', 'You know, Dr Basheer wouldn't let me in'. I discarded them all as foolish and unbecoming. The silence grew until I could hear my heart above the sound of the birds. I got up and left the cafeteria without a glance towards him or a goodbye. It was nearly ten o'clock and time for Macroeconomics. The lecturer passed the attendance sheet. I wrote my name, then changed pens, made my handwriting more upright and wrote Omar's name.
I walked out of the Macro lecture room to find him waiting for me.
'Give me the car keys.'
'Here. Don't forget we have History at twelve. Show your face, please.'
He frowned and hurried off. I worried about him. It was there, nagging at me. When I was young my mother said, 'Look after Omar, you're the girl, you're the quiet, sensible one. Look after Omar.' And year in, year out, I covered for Omar. I sensed his weakness and looked out for Omar.
From Minaret by Leila Aboulela. Copyright Leila Aboulela 2004. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Press.
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