Sara C. Thomason

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 youYou 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.

I nod.

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.

 

Subject: STOP!

Dear Mark,

Please stop email­ing me.  It’s get­ting annoy­ing.  Seriously!

Yours Truly,

Becky

 

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.