Funny, it has been so long since I’ve stepped foot into this room, that I often think of the door as locked.
But the door isn’t locked. It never was. And that morning, the knob, so long untouched, turns easily in my hand.
I lead Zahir into the room. It’s been closed up for so long that there’s a layer of dust over everything, including the four-poster white silk canopy bed. But it still smells faintly of her long-discontinued DKNY fragrance, and it’s still easy to see all the writing on the wall.
Lyrics, written in sharpie. Some neat, some scrawled across in a manic rush. Some of the words are pretty, lines about sunshine in alleys and knowing you’re going to be somebody no matter what anybody else be saying. But some of the words, most of the words, are dark. You think you coming for me? Watch me put a fuckin’ end to you. Set you on fire. Leave the body for the EMTs.
Besides me, Zahir stills. I can tell he is trying to reconcile what he’s seeing here with that room in his palace that he also keeps closed but not locked.
“What is this place?” he asks, his voice hushed as if we have walked into a sacred space or…a graveyard.
“My mother’s bedroom,” I answer, taking a good, long look at the room for first time in over a decade. “She shared the master suite with my dad, but she…um…also needed her own space when…but there’s a connecting door…” I point it out before nodding over to a dust-covered kid’s desk in a far corner. “Once I got old enough to write, she let me hang out with her in here.”
My eyes grow distant with the memories of how official big girl I felt at that desk, writing on paper while she did the same on the wall between pulls on her joint. “I wasn’t supposed to come in when she had guests, and usually I didn’t, but that night with Darius Ross…”
Fear pits my stomach as I recall, “I was in my room. And I heard her screaming, begging him stop, and then she started calling for my dad…” A flash of pain ignites in my chest at the memory her normally strong voice calling out, “Charlie…! Charlie…!” His real name. Not Majesty, the one he made up. Only to suddenly cut off.
“I knew I wasn’t supposed to go in there, but I got scared that my dad couldn’t hear her from downstairs because the music was so loud. So, I opened the door. And he had her against a wall. He was choking her, telling her she liked it. But she didn’t like it. They weren’t even having sex. He was hurting her to hurt her. And she already had this cut across her cheek from where he’d hit her with his rings on. I yelled at him to get off her. Then I jumped on his back. He threw me, and I think I must have passed out for a bit, but when I came to, my dad was slapping me, telling me to wake up. He normally didn’t get emotional, but the next Monday, he cancelled Darius’s contract and he ended up at another label. Dad called me his little soldier for, like, weeks after, all the way up until—”
It’s one of those moments when you think you’re ready to jump off a cliff but end up stopping right at the edge. I cut off with a choke, suddenly unable to continue.
Zahir doesn’t say anything, just takes my hand in his. Refusing to interrupt before I’ve finished telling my tale, even when the silence stretches on and on.
Finally, I turn back to the wall and say, “I know you don’t listen to rap, but a lot of these lyrics became lines in a few of the songs my dad produced. She was a pretty good singer, but writing was her real talent. She just had trouble channeling it and staying focused.”
I eye the wall, understanding so much more now than I did then. “She was a lot of fun…I mean, most of the time. Very…I guess you could say giving and free. Not a slut like Darius labeled her. She just did not have the ability to be monogamous, and she wasn’t reserved at all. She once told me her mom had a ‘church addiction—I think she was raised with a lot of restrictions. But Mom never talked much about her past in Minneapolis—she just said she grew up there and never got to meet Prince.”
I chuff at the memory of her derailing the inevitable Prince question before anyone could ask it once they knew where she hailed from. “She lived moment to moment and had a lot of fun. But you know, like a lot of artists she had to deal with periods of darkness. And that’s when things would become fucked up. She didn’t mind sleeping with my dad’s new artists—for her it was fun. But when she was in a dark period, Dad gave her drugs to help her feel up to it. And Darius…well, he was her perfect storm.”
Darius had been right. That night was a long time ago. But right now, I slip back to it as easily as if it were yesterday. Watching the situation unfold from my desk, there but forgotten again as my parents argue about letting Dad send his latest signed artist up to her room.
“Mom didn’t like him…he gave her a bad feeling…” I told Zahir.
My eyes go to a messy sentence near the bottom of the wall. Sour throw up in my stomach. That was the last thing she wrote there and though my dad pretended not to notice the final line, I understood with utter clarity what it was all about.
“But my dad just gave her something and told her it would be fine. It wasn’t fine. Darius hurt her. No broken bones but…it took her weeks to recover. She never came out of that dark period and a month later, I walked in and found her dead on the floor with the marker in her hand. I don’t think she was trying to kill herself. She was too good of a writer to have done something like that without leaving a long note. I think she just wanted the pain to stop and she overdosed. Either way, that’s why I hate Darius Ross’s fucking guts. And that’s the story I couldn’t tell you when you asked me about it back in Jahwar.”
Zahir is silent and then, “Are you sure you do not want me to end him, habibti? My guards took him home yesterday. It would be an easy thing to find him and finish what I started yesterday.”
Unexpected laughter bubbles in my chest at his question. I turn to him, cupping his face, and running a thumb over his dark beard. “No, Z, this isn’t about revenge. Or hate. I know how lonely growing up with…” I drop my hand from his face to indicate the wall, “…all of this can feel. And that’s why I wanted to show you this room. To let you know you weren’t alone. Your mom had her wall…and so did mine.”
Zahir nods and appears to understand my reasoning, but then gives a fierce shake of his head as if he can’t force himself to accept it. “I wish you would let me kill this man,” he admits quietly. “If only because he is something I can easily put an end to. There is no way to avenge my own mother’s death, and in many ways that makes me that much keener to avenge the death of yours.”
I think I get what he’s trying to say. But I decide to take a cue from his book. Not interrupting and waiting for the real finish before I offer him any words.
I’m rewarded for my restraint when he continues. “My mother was the only daughter of a very powerful business man both in Jahwar and also in his home country of India. The marriage was arranged, but my father once told me that when he saw her, he knew she would be his, even if she did not share his Arab blood. She, much like your own mother, could be charming and fun. But her dark periods…”
He pauses, and I can see from the look in his eyes that he, like me, would be haunted forever by what he saw. “By the time I was three, it had become obvious that she would only get worse, not better. My father did what any ruler in his position would do. He locked her away, far from the public eye, and took a second wife. Asir’s mother, a perfect princess from the royal Ardu Alzuhuwr family with no Indian blood. But he visited my mother every day when he was not away on business, and when she wasn’t too far gone into one of her ‘spells,’ he often took me along. My mother made a very big deal, as you would say, of my visits and she became very clever within her restraints. We flew kites with fans, and when I was a very little boy, she would turn her room into an obstacle course for my bike. Sometimes we would surf together, even though we only had a couch to use as our ocean—I still have very good balance to this day. And of course, we often listened to her records.”
With a bittersweet pang, I return to the memory of what I saw in his mother’s room. The kites…the planks…the surfboard…the little bike—they’d all been bought for her son’s enjoyment.
And as if echoing my thoughts, Zahir says, “She suffered greatly from her mental illness but I loved her very much. And while I was living abroad, I came up with a plan. I knew my father could never abide the public embarrassment of having his first wife committed to an institution. But when he died, and his throne became mine, I vowed to free her from that room and seek professional help for her. I would do whatever it took to bring her back into the light, and that was how I managed the guilt of living my life while she withered away in that prison.”
Zahir’s breath hitches. “But as it turns out, she also had a plan for when my father died. And it did not involve staying alive much longer than he. Some of the writing you saw on her wall was the last story she wrote. About the wife of a Hindu king who loved her husband deeply and chose to throw herself on his funeral pyre rather than live without him. Although her Indiand family has been Muslim for many generations, my mother poured herself into this particular story. And when she finished it, she opened a window and jumped out.”
Now his story is done. I take his hand and let out a long breath before saying, “So…your mom was a writer, too?”
A reluctant smile flits across his lips. “Some poetry, but mostly short stories, only a few of which made any sense.”
I chuff again, my small laugh soft and ironic. “We have soooo much in common.”
Zahir laughs, too, and we look for a while longer at my mom’s wall.
“Those two days when I left you after you asked me to stay the night? It was not meant as a punishment. I received, well, I suppose you could call it an offer from Buck Calhoun Jr., the Texas steel magnate who refused to do business with me when I met with him at Holt and Sylvie’s wedding. He, like your sister, believed my reasons for marrying you were based purely on sex. He proposed a trade. He’d sign a deal to finish my mall project and complete the increasingly necessary renovations on our oil lines, if I would fly you to Texas for one night with him and his wife.”
“Jolene,” I supply, remembering the Texan and our strange conversation at the airport. “She’s a big fan.”
Zahir’s eyebrows raise in wry bemusement. “Yes, as I discovered. However…” The amusement fades from his expression. “I declined the offer. Everything is riding on me proving myself during this first year as king. Finishing the Kingdom Mall and updating the oil lines would convince my people that I’m a worthy successor to my father. But I did not accept his offer. I could not even consider sharing you with another, woman or man. Even for a night. So you see, though I can only have you for six months, I am incapable of doing to you what your father did to your mother and the twins’ mother. You must understand I did not stay away because of what you asked me, I stayed away to see if I could do it at all. Forty-eight hours is as far as I got, and in truth, I would have found an excuse to bring you with me to Asia. It was just a matter of spinning it to myself.”
He looks stricken, and I shake my head because, “Do you think I want to be with someone who would pass me around like that? I’m still not clear what happened in Jahwar, but I do have enough basic psychology skills to realize something in me responds to something in you.”
Zahir shakes his head. “Even when I tried to get a hold of myself, I could not be like Asir for you—”
I cut him off. “Asir? He’s what I thought I would like when I was young and wanted everything to be the opposite of how I grew up. But you—you make me feel safe and protected. You take away the out of control feeling I’ve been carrying around all my life. And for reasons that may only belong to me, I like that you keep me only for you. That you cover me up and don’t want other men to touch me. It’s fucked up—and I would never recommend a relationship like that for most women or the twins, but for us…”
I peep up at him while making myself vulnerable to a man for the very first time. “It works. We get each other, and I may not know what a healthy relationship looks like, but when I said no the first time we met, I was saying no to doing that with Asir, not with you. He didn’t have my consent, but you…you do.”
He looks down at me, his eyes so full of emotion, it makes him look like a completely different person, and then he lets out a long, shuddering breath. “My father raised me to be the king of a desert land, and I lived in fear of nothing for a very long time. But this scares me, habibti. This marriage…how quickly it has become an obsession. Especially when I know my extended family and my kingdom will not allow me to have you for more than the allotted six months and remain king...”
I nod in understanding, recalling Asir’s visit and his explanation to me of the thin ice that kept him from returning my feelings, even though he’d like to remain friends.
“I get it,” I say quietly. “Your people would never accept me.”
He shakes his head sadly. “Unfortunately, American teenagers are not the only ones with a narrow world view. In truth, I have thought long and hard about keeping you beyond the six months as a consort. But after what Darius Ross told me about your past, I realized I could never ask you to share me with another, even if only for political reasons.”
I nod my head in agreement, secretly glad he took that option off the table. Because I could maybe tolerate it at first. But after a while, I know being in an even partially open relationship, like my parents were, would eat away at me. “So, we’re married for now,” I summarize, looking away. “And only for now.”
He touches my cheek, turning me to face him so I can see the tender look in his eyes as he says, “Now is all we have, but now is where we are. I wish to enjoy it. As long as I have with you, I would like to be with you. Not as an agreement on paper, but as a true husband and wife, at least until our time must come to an end. Tell me, habibti, would you like that, too?”
I look up at him, my eyes shining with my answer. This is crazy, and it comes with an expiration date, but Zahir is right. Now is all we have…now is where we are…
“Yeah…” I whisper. “Yeah, I’d like that, too.”