Published on September 27th, 2016 | by Lisa Lim10
MY EGYPTIAN FORTUNE COOKIE: Comics by Lisa Lim
My first memory of my sister, Angie, was in my mother’s small hands. She looked like a raisin, but caterwauled like a cat in heat. She was crying because my mother cut her fingernails too short.
I tried to look for similarities between us. She was half Chinese, half Egyptian. Half our mother and half my stepfather, Mohammed, but it was hard to tell because her face was all squashed from crying. I remember feeling sad that I was no longer my mother’s only daughter, but I also felt sad that my little sister’s fingers were bleeding.
Shortly after Angie was born, her father took her to visit Egypt. My stepfather told my mother that it was only a family visit, but days turned into weeks. And soon, weeks turned into a month. My mother begged for my sister’s return. But my stepfather said, “No, she is better off in Egypt with Mama Haddiya.”
Mama Haddiya was Mohammed’s mother. She took care of Angie for her first five years in Cairo, Egypt. My sister remembers how soft and doughy her grandmother was and how easily she would get lost inside Mama Haddiya’s big belly folds. How her grandmother would eventually find her from the jingling of her baby gold bangles.
Occasionally, my mother would receive photos of my sister. She always looked like an Egyptian cherub princess. Dressed in red velvet and lace. Her neck choked in gold necklaces and her wrists and ankles in gold bangles. Her eyes lined with the blackest kohl meant to protect her from evil demons and desert sand. The photos made my mother miss my sister even more feverishly.
It all started the day my mother met Mohammed on a bus going from Upper East Side to Chinatown. My mother was swept away by his large cooking knives. Mohammed was a chef and believed a good chef always carried his knives with him. She was sad from having just divorced my father and separating from me and my brother. She saw us on weekends, but still, she was mostly alone. My mother was hungry for love and an escape from loneliness. Mohammed was hungry for love, and a Green Card.
Shortly after, Mohammed and my mother married at City Hall. At the altar, she wore a cotton wedding dress that stretched far enough to fit the girl growing inside her. She was six months pregnant with my sister, Angie. In her hands was a bouquet of bodega red roses with the sharpest thorns. In Mohammed’s hands was a suitcase full of sharpened knives. I remember it was raining something awful that day like the sky was bleeding.
I never understood my mother’s attraction to my stepfather. His hands always smelled of lamb, lard, and garlic. Like every piece of meat and spice he touched was lodged inside his fingernails.
His Drakkar Noir cologne drenched the apartment air and all the furniture. It was so strong, it made everything he cooked taste like Drakkar Noir. Drakkar Noir lamb. Drakkar Noir chicken. Drakkar tenderloin. I had to take many baths to get rid of the smell.
He was strange. I remember how his curly hairs would mottle the bathtub floor. “Yuck,” I’d scream. My mother told me he couldn’t help it. “He has to shave his legs to fit into his pants.” Plus, he had to wash all the lipstick stains off his neck, she would whisper underneath her breath.
You see, my stepfather had many mistresses he called his “sweet habibis” which means “sweethearts” in Arabic. And my mother made friends with each one of them—Sophia, Anne, Merriam, Sharon, and Lena. Yes, it was strange, but it was the only way my mother could cope with his infidelity.
There was one mistress my mother called Saint Lena who swelled with compassion for my mother. She told Mohammed that if he didn’t give my mother back her daughter, they were over.
Mohammed loved his mistress, but loved money even more. The next day he demanded an enormous amount of money in return for their daughter in Egypt. My mother desperate said, “Yes,” but that it would take some time.
You could say extortion was the straw that broke the camel’s back. So, my mother packed her bags, unable to sleep underneath the same roof with a man who slept with other women any longer. A man whose mistress forced him to give Angie back to her mother. A man who wanted money in return for their own daughter. How could she?
But truly, how could he?
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This is an excerpt from a longer comic titled “My Egyptian Fortune Cookie,” which was originally published in the Nashville Review. It is a story about my mother and my sister who is half-Chinese and half-Egyptian, half my mother and half my stepfather. It is a tale about love, loneliness, extortion, jealousy, and how two sisters come to find a common bond despite growing up in different worlds.
PS: LISA LIM is one of the MUTHAs appearing at LitCrawl on October 1st in NYC – see you there!