The Knowledge Center
In Kuwait, me and Mark go to work with Mom. Every night at six, she brings us to class so we can watch her teach English to young businessmen. She likes the fact that she’s in charge of the conference room. The Arabs have to keep their eyes on Mom or she’ll kick them out, and Mark thinks that’s funny. I’m the opposite. I don’t like the way they stare at her when she sucks on the end of her pen, or how she flashes bits of her bare shoulder when she turns around—but I don’t complain. The new motto of this family is: We’re here, so get used to it. That is what I’m doing.
The school is in a section of the city called Sharq, where tall billboards advertise diamond watches and fancy leather sandals. From the outside our building is covered in chipped mosaic, but inside it’s as clean as a bleached bone. We find a space in the crowded garage, and pay the floor attendant to make sure nobody parks behind our silver SUV and blocks us in. He takes our money and sits down on a dirty mattress near the stairs. We take the elevator up three floors and walk into the brightly lit entrance of the Knowledge Center School. The air is cool inside, and Mom walks straight past all the men in the lobby up to the front desk to get her parking ticket stamped. Alaa and Fatma come from around the counter and greet her like she’s a star. The noise in the lobby quiets as men turn to watch Mom put her wallet away, and her hair up in a rubber band.
“Who’s ready for English?” she asks.
Mark is grinning and looking around like we’re finally getting the respect that we deserve.
“It’s crazy,” he says to me. “We’re the only guys who are fluent in this whole place. You know English better than all the other teachers, except for Mom. I could get a job here and I’m thirteen. We could run this shit-show.”
I nod my head and say “Yeah,” but I’d rather be home with Dad, helping him drag pictures of armored trucks into PowerPoint and add borders to his slides.
We follow Mom through the glass doors of the cafeteria and right up to the food counter, where we buy snacks from an Indian man in a striped butler outfit. I get banana milk and a honeyed croissant, while Mark and Mom order Nescafe. The Indian man stirs their drinks and asks us to rate our happiness. This is a little game he plays with us every single night.
“How is your day Miss?” he asks Mom.
“Great,” Mom says, smiling. “Eighty-five percent. Ninety now that I’m here with you.”
“Oh Miss,” he says, placing his hand over his heart. “This is very good.”
Mom looks at me and Mark and says, “These guys are doing even better.”
“One hundred,” says Mark. “One hundred now that I’m here with you.”
“I’m okay too,” I say.
“Come on,” says Mom. “Give us a number.”
“Forty,” I say, and walk away to a glass table to eat.
Mom balances her coffee on a silver tray and walks to her office to get ready for class. Mark and I watch students come in for drinks in different kinds of clothes. Most men wear long white dresses with black-checkered headscarves folded behind their shoulders, but a few wear jeans and tight T-shirts. A pair of women covered in head scarves move silently along the back wall and into classrooms I’ve never seen before. I tear chunks off my croissant, and watch as Mark scoots to the edge of his seat when Sayeed walks in wearing shiny mirrored sunglasses like a pilot, even though it’s night. He holds a cell phone to his ear, and keeps his workbook rolled and tucked up under his arm like a football. When he sees Mark he makes a clicking sound with his tongue and walks over to us.
“What’s up Sayeed?” Mark asks, and holds his hand up for a high five.
“Habibi,” Sayeed says, slapping it. “How you doing? You want more drink from the thing? You want juice?”
“Yeah,” Mark says, following him back up to the food counter.
I watch as Mark jokes around with Sayeed. More of Mom’s students walk up and gather around him. They are talking about music. I stick the straw in my banana milk, and suck as hard as I can. I won’t go over to talk to them, because when Mark is with the Arabs I don’t know him anymore. He is dying for some friends—people to mess with besides me, and he will take what he can get. Mark tells Sayeed what brands of clothes people wear back home and what shows he should be watching on TV. Sometimes he makes stuff up, just for entertainment. “Blue socks are the hot thing in Texas,” Mark told Sayeed a few weeks ago. “Royal blue socks.” Word spread and the next day everyone in class lifted their pant legs up.
“Nice,” Mark said, laughing. “Those socks are the bomb.”
Sayeed bit an imaginary pin from his fist, popped his hand open, and spat exploding sounds around the room.
When Mark talks, everybody listens.
Mom walks into the cafeteria with her textbooks and her mug of coffee like she owns the place. She swings her ponytail from side to side and lets her scarf slip off her shoulders as she walks across the slick tiled floor. Her classroom is just beyond a second set of glass doors. Mark walks through the crowd of Arab guys and everybody follows him to Mom’s class. I stuff the last of my croissant in my mouth, sweep the crumbs on the floor with my arm, and head over too. The lights above me flicker, and by the time I get to the room Sayeed and Mark are already moving the desks into a large circle. Mom likes things to be casual. This is a conversation class, so she likes to make a chatting ring around the room. I grab a seat up front by her desk, while Mark sits all the way across the room next to a guy named Soud Abdullah. A large group of men gather in the middle, greeting each other with light kisses on the cheek and forehead. They all work for the same company and know each other well. When their boss Kareem enters, he walks to the center of the circle and raises his arms.
“Ey,” he says. The men line up speaking in rapid Arabic to kiss him on the nose. The first day Mark and I sat in disbelief while these guys hugged and brushed noses and cuddled their heads into each other’s shoulders. Mom started laughing and asked what that was all about. Kareem told us, “These my employee, my work, but I love them very much.” Mom looked at me and Mark, and rolled her eyes. Ever since, Mark’s been egging them on but I refuse to join in.
“All right. Time to sit down,” Mom says. “How are you guys doing today?”
“We miss you,” Sayeed says.
“Yes,” Soud says. “We miss you too much.”
Mom plops down in her seat, and leans over motioning for me to close the door.
“Well,” she says. “There’s no need for all that. I’m right here.”
Soud smiles and Sayeed jabs him in the ribs. “Okay. Okay, Miss. Tell us about what you do this weekend.”
“Is that what you want?” Mom asks, sipping her drink. “For me to talk about me?”
This is exactly what Mom wants, and I can tell she’s about to do some complaining. She walks to the dry erase board, and grabs a marker. She writes the word FRUSTRATION in red ink and underlines it three times. She turns around and says, “I talked to my friend Deb the other day, and I was telling her that the magazines here are all blacked out—people’s legs, people’s chests. I think it’s a little over the top. Even for here. People magazine is not scandalous. It’s sold at grocery stores where I come from. Isn’t it?” she asks, looking at me. “Kids can buy it.”
I nod my head.
“Anyway,” Mom says. “Deb is going to send me some non-censored magazines. Maybe I’ll bring them into class and we can all have a look.”
Sayeed puts his arm around Soud and hugs him close. “Please Miss,” they both say.
Mark looks over at them and says, “Hey Sayeed, are you guys in love?”
Mark gets a kick out of these Arab guys using words wrong. He tries to get them to say crazy stuff.
“Yes. I love Soud Abdullah Akbar,” Sayeed says. “I go with him to Saudi this weekend for the show.”
“A show, huh?” Mark says, and taps his finger on his chin like he’s doing some serious thinking. “Let’s call this show a date.”
“Okay, okay,” Sayeed says. “We go for a date.”
I see Mark smile at Mom. She shakes her head and I think she’s about to cut Mark off, but instead she looks at all the guys staring back at her, and crosses her arms.
“Tell us about your date,” Mom says.
“We go to see a person get dead,” Sayeed says, and draws his finger sharp across his throat.
I look over at Mark and he’s looking at Sayeed with his face all scrunched up.
“Huh?” Mom says, glancing sideways at me. “We don’t understand. Try that again.”
“I don’t know the word,” Sayeed says, and tips his head back like maybe it’s written on the ceiling.
Soud stands up and walks over to Mom’s desk. He is tall and handsome. He gave Mom a red lollipop as a gift on the first day of class. She was happy until everyone kept pushing her to take the wrapper off—right then and there. These guys wanted to watch her stick it in her mouth. Mom told Dad, and that’s why me and Mark come with her now.
“You will give me this thing?” Soud asks, tugging at the scarf draped around Mom’s bare shoulders. “I’ll show you what we watch.”
Mom cocks her head to the side as Soud slowly pulls the scarf away from her neck. It slips off, and her shoulders are shiny with lotion, for everyone to see. The guys shoot looks at each other and laugh into their wrists, but Mom doesn’t even care—she is watching Soud.
He ties the scarf around his own neck, knots it tightly, and lifts the long tail of it high in the air. He sways back and forth on his tip-toes and lets his tongue fall loose from his mouth.
“You don’t mean what I think you mean,” Mom says.
“A hanging?” Mark shouts. “You saw a hanging?”
“Okay, a hanging,” Soud says, and points at Mark like this is a game. “This, but more bad.”
“What’s worse than a hanging?” I ask.
Soud looks at me, grabs his hair, and tugs. He cups his hands around the air in front of his face like he’s holding an invisible ball. Then he jerks forward and tosses the air away.
“The head come off the body!” Sayeed shouts.
My stomach goes sick. Mom puts her hand over her eyes like now she’s got a headache, but Mark just touches his neck and stares back at all the guys.
They shout and clap for Soud’s acting skills. He does a little bow and takes his seat.
“You saw that?” Mom asks. “An execution? Give me back my scarf.”
“It’s okay,” Sayeed says, tossing her scarf to me. “These men are very bad, so to see them with no head is very nice.”
“Holy crap,” Mark says. “You watched a guy get his head chopped?”
“That’s crazy,” I say, holding the scarf out to Mom.
“Not crazy,” Soud says. “Very popular.”
“And what do you think while you watch a person being killed right in front of your eyes?” Mom asks.
Sayeed looks confused and turns to Soud. They both shrug their shoulders and laugh.
“We think goodbye,” Sayeed says, doing a sweeping exaggerated wave. “We tell this bad man bye-bye.”
I look over at Mark. His mouth drops open like a dark cave.
“Sick,” he says, and all the guys turn to look at him and smile.
“You will come next time, Mark?” Kareem asks.
“Absolutely not!” Mom says, standing up.
Mark looks relieved and I wonder what he thinks of his new friends now.
“No, no, no,” they say. “It’s normal for us.”
“Okay,” Mom says sharply. “Enough with the gruesome talk. Let’s get back to the board. Let’s get back to our lesson.”
She draws a red box on the board, and stands next to it.
“Next to,” she says. “Repeat after me. I am next to the box.”
“I am next to the box,” everybody says.
“No,” says Mom. “I am, so you guys say you. You are next to the box.”
“Huh?” Mark says, “That doesn’t make sense.”
Now everybody is confused, and talking, and Mom is over it.
I watch her sit back down at her desk. She stretches her arms and arches her back, and I can tell she’s going to start blabbing to waste time.
“Back in Illinois there’s a park we like to walk through as a family. That’s the kind of thing we do for fun—right guys?” she asks, looking at Mark and me.
“It’s got these great oak trees, and when autumn comes all the leaves turn. They go from vivid green to bright red and orange. It happens almost overnight. One day you’re walking under a canopy of green, and then the next day—bam! Orange, red, yellow. There’s even a sort of purple that happens on some of those trees. It’s a deep wine-purple—blood-red. You guys would like that. Leaves the color of blood? Yeah?” Mom looks out at everyone, and I can tell she’s pissed nobody cares about seasons.
“Then, again—bam!” she yells, slamming her fist onto her desk.
Everybody jumps, including me.
“All the leaves drop off just like that, straight to the ground. Suddenly you’re wading knee deep through piles of them. People rake them up into huge mounds. Kids jump all around in them. Everybody’s falling backwards into tons of leaves.”
Sayeed points to the clock and says, “Miss.”
“Are you guys even listening to anything I’m saying?” Mom asks.
The call to prayer comes over the loud speakers, and I can tell Mom is annoyed. She looks up at the ceiling, closes her eyes, and sighs.
All the guys stand up and walk out of the room.
“Okay,” Mom calls after them. “I guess we’ll take a break.”
I stay in my chair and put my head down, but Mark shakes my shoulder.
“Come on,” he says. “Let’s go get chocolate. I want a Bounty.”
Mom pulls a wad of dinars out of her purse and stuffs them into the neck of Mark’s shirt.
“Thank you so much Miss,” he mimics with a bow. “I bring you Bounty bar too, Miss.”
Mom laughs and stands up to erase the red box from the board.
“I think they were just kidding about the beheading,” she says. “Just trying to shock us—keep me distracted from my lesson.”
“Yeah,” Mark says. “Probably.”
I’m not so sure, but I nod my head anyway. I follow Mark down the hallway, but when we get to the glass doors I stop.
“What?” he says, stopping too. “Come on.”
“Soud and Sayeed on a date?” I say. “That was mean.”
“So what?” Mark says. “I was just joking around. Those guys don’t even understand half of what we’re saying, so it’s not mean. Plus they watch people die—for fun. That’s mean!”
“Mom is a bad teacher,” I say.
Mark points his finger in my face and says, “Listen. You need to relax. If Mom wants to talk about nothing with these guys for a couple of hours a night, so what?”
“I don’t get it,” I say. “Why do we come here?”
“To get out of the house.” Mark says. “To meet friends.”
“I’m your friend,” I say.
“No you’re not,” he says. “You’re my brother.”
Mark pushes through the glass doors and raises his hands in the air like Kareem when he sees all the guys standing around ordering drinks at the food counter. They never really go and pray.
“Ey!” he yells, and everyone lifts their juice boxes up into the air. I walk over too, and give Sayeed a little punch in the arm.
“Hey,” I say. “What’s up?”
“Oh,” Sayeed says, “The little brother speaks.”
“You have a girlfriend, little brother?” Soud asks, as he puts his arm around my shoulder. “You kiss girls?”
I shake my head and look over at Mark for help.
“I have a girlfriend,” Mark says. “Her name’s Becky.”
“Who is Becky?” Soud asks, and everybody turns to look at Mark.
“She used to sit in front of me in homeroom, and she chewed her straw like this,” Mark says, gnawing on his finger. “She did it all sexual.”
“Then what?” Soud asks.
“And then we moved here,” Mark says, and shrugs his shoulders.
“She’s not his girlfriend,” I say.
“Shut up,” Mark says.
He punches me hard in the shoulder and acts like he’s gonna get me in the stomach next if I keep talking.
“Whoa,” Soud says, laughing and jumping back like Mark’s fists are fire.
“You know what,” Mark says, looking back at all the guys. “Jonah’s never even touched a girl.”
“You beat up your brother at home?” Kareem asks, placing his hand on top of Mark’s head and giving it a rough pat. “Or he beat you?”
Mark looks at me and then back at Kareem. “I beat him,” he says.
“Why you beat him?” Kareem asks. “Why you beat your small brother?”
Mark puts his arm around my neck, like we’re buddies, but then he starts squeezing hard. I try to twist away, but he squeezes me even tighter.
“He hurt you?” Soud asks me, while I gasp for breath.
I twist free and stumble back a few paces, while everybody watches.
“Escape,” Sayeed says, laughing. “The little one escapes.”
“Do you hate your brother for this thing he do?” Kareem asks.
“Yes,” I say, and I feel like I might start to cry.
“Yeah right,” says Mark, laughing. He runs across the cafeteria and jumps up and slaps the top of the doorframe.
“You want to be just like me,” he yells.
“No I don’t,” I say, but nobody is listening anymore. Everyone has already turned to watch Mark do another basketball move.
I go back and sit in Mom’s office. I get on the internet and look up stuff about snakes and African animals. I think about calling Dad but decide not to. I try to open up my email, but Mark is already logged in. I scroll through his inbox and look for proof about Becky. There’s only one message, and it’s from months ago. The email is starred and I open it up.
Please stop emailing me. It’s getting annoying. Seriously!
Mark walks into Mom’s office and gives me a mean look.
“Mom wants you to come back,” he says. “She’s waiting for you to start.”
“Becky’s not your girlfriend,” I say.
Mark’s face turns red. He stomps over and pushes me out of the chair and onto the floor.
“Hey!” I yell, but Mark doesn’t even look at me.
He sits down and clicks his email closed. Then he lunges for me again, but I kick him away with the heel of my shoe.
“Yours Truly means something,” Mark says, grabbing my pant leg. “She wrote me that.”
Mom bursts through the door and we both look up.
“What are you two doing crawling around on the floor?” she asks. “Let’s go. I told the guys they could leave early.”
“Fine,” Mark says, giving me one last kick.
He gets up and brushes off his pants. I roll my eyes and follow Mark out the door.
When we get home Dad’s in the kitchen, and our whole apartment smells like yeasty bread. He stirs a giant metal pot on the stove and checks the stop watch around his neck.
“Hey there,” Dad says, when we walk in. “You’re home a little early. I wasn’t expecting you.”
Mom drops her purse on a chair and sighs.
“So don’t get mad,” Dad says. “But I’m making beer.”
“That’s illegal” Mom says. “Like go-to-jail-illegal.”
Mark kicks his shoes off in the hallway and heads into the living room, but I hang around to listen.
“I know. This is a dry country, it’s haram, blah, blah,” Dad says, smiling. “But wouldn’t you like a drink? I got this stuff shipped here in vitamin boxes.”
“Sun-Volt,” Mom says, reading the labels scattered around the kitchen.
“Is this a good surprise?” Dad asks, glancing down at his timer. “How was school?”
“My class is driving me crazy,” Mom says. “These guys are nuts. They might even be deranged.”
“I’m sure you’re doing great,” Dad says. “Right Jonah?”
I nod, and walk out of the kitchen.
“I can’t believe you’re making alcohol in a pot,” Mom says.
“If I go to jail will you come save me, Jonah?” Dad calls to me, but I’m already in the living room, and I don’t answer.
Mark is sitting on the couch watching Arabic TV. I lie on the floor and tuck my hands behind my head, and read the subtitles. It’s a show about a camel herder who lives in the desert and fights crime by the sword. Just when I’m getting into it, I hear Mark step onto the squeaky cushions of the leather couch behind me. I look up at him standing with his legs wide apart and wobbling. He looks down at me and squints his eyes mean. I prop myself up on the floor and stare back at him.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“I’m going to beat you,” he says.
“What?” I ask. “Why?”
Mark steps off the couch and towers over me with his arms crossed. I think he might kick me, but he doesn’t. Instead he crouches down low until we’re face to face. Then he sits down next to me and says, “What do you want? Are you looking for a partner? Are you looking for a buddy? A brother-friend type deal?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Okay.”
Mark puts his arm around me and holds me close, and I can tell right away that this is not a real hug. It gets harder and harder until I feel like I’m getting squeezed to death.
“You’re hurting me,” I whisper, but he doesn’t stop. The next thing I know, I’m in the sleeper-hold and Mark is twisting my head. Then he stands up with me, and drags me across the floor. I can’t breathe and I’m not sure where we’re going. I’m choking so hard I can’t even yell for him to stop. I blink my eyes and now we’re standing in front of the full length window that overlooks the street. It’s night, and the lights are on, so we can see ourselves perfectly. I watch myself, limp and twisted in Mark’s grasp, and I feel like I’m in a painting. Mark holds me up in front of the window in a head-lock, pressing my forehead to the glass.
“Say good-bye to yourself,” he says, letting me drop to the floor. “Tell yourself good-bye.”
Sara C. Thomason holds an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She was awarded second prize in the 2012 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest. Her work has previously appeared in Witness Magazine, Atticus Review, and Tin House online. She is currently hard at work on a novel.