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When I first walk into the classroom, there is a general tinkering of cellphones, of tiny machines being rearranged, as the students, like always, hurry to move them from here to there, with just enough time to send that final message. At two seats over, three chairs back, Haya, too, goes through the motions of putting her cellphone away. Yet, once we begin — as I invite them to wonder why William Carlos Williams thinks a red wheelbarrow with white chickens is so important, or why Robert Frost should care about which road anybody takes — Haya is busy glancing down into her open purse where she has carefully placed the cellphone just right. And so, right in the middle of considering how people on the metro can look anything like petals on a branch the way Ezra Pound claims, I stop and stare at Haya — a teacherly glare that says I know what you are doing but notice how I haven’t said anything yet — thinking that will be enough, and sure enough, she will look up, read my eyes and for another three maybe four minutes, aim straight ahead, pondering what Kate Chopin’s character Mrs. Mallard’s weak heart is all about or what’s this Shirley Jackson story of a lottery prize being death, until, finally, the urge overwhelms her and giving me a ‘what’s a girl to do’ blink, she looks down long and hard into her gaping purse.
Eventually, some twenty minutes into the class — and I have just declared Hemingway an okay writer, but “he wrote better when I was younger” — Haya raises her hand and says she is not feeling well. When I ask what’s wrong, she places a hand over her stomach, and I say I see but she says again, “Not feeling well at all, sir.”
“Yes, that will never do.”
Now, with cellphone having moved from purse to hand, where even I can see a green light blinking, she asks, “May I go? Go to get better?”
Not too long ago, someone told me more about Haya, insisting that something was not entirely right with her, that, “sad to say,” she was more than attached to her cellphone, something bigger, more sinister — that’s the word that was used — “sinister.”
That someone — who, now that I think about it, was most certainly a she — went on to say that when Haya showers, she has a special place for her cellphone, you know, a neatly-taped plastic pocket just the other side of the shower door, so, if necessary, all it takes is a quick wipe of misty shower glass and she can see who’s texting, calling, what important red and green lights are blinking. But then, one day last November, when she least expected it, Haya’s cellphone disappeared, and for the longest time she spent the day useless, hopeless. The unfairness of it all was unimaginable. She was lost in what can only be described as a mild panic. But never mind, because in the end, after hours of frantic searching and re-searching, Haya finally located it, caught between invisible mini-pockets in her purse. The homecoming was tearful and to celebrate, that night, the two of them, Haya and her cellphone, went to dinner, she placing it on the table atop a very white napkin where she could watch it closely.
Looking back, I should have asked, “How can you possibly know all of this?” But I didn’t, I just nodded.
But by now, like always, I have lost interest in Haya and look down at my notes. In her classroom world my looking down is as good as a yes, and so she unfolds herself from her desk and walks out. I watch her go and try as I may I want to be angry, but nothing comes of it. Turning to the class, “Where was I?”
And Khalid, being Khalid, reminds me, “Hemingway, sir, an okay writer, but better when you were younger, sir.”
Later, I will see Haya at the diner with friends, laughing and taking selfies, apparently her stomach problem solved, and she missing our discussion as to why Willy Loman never had a chance.