There were times when my father’s absence was as heavy as a marble sitting on my chest. I can vividly recall when he used to take me to bed. Our bedtime routine was unlike any other; he recited poetry to me. The name of the poet’s beloved would usually be substituted by mine. Since my name was my dad’s ex-fiancé’s, my mother detested it and it looked like she unconsciously associated me with this resentment. Your name is the most beautiful, my dad used to say every time he recites a poem with my name on it.
Do you know my darling, Ola?
she is the most important thing written in love books
it was a great mix
Between Marigold and marble.
Violet was between her eyes
Sleep and sleepless
It was one of the most famous Nizar Qabanni’s poems, Balqis. “What was the name of his beloved?” I asked with eagerness to hear the name.
“Balqis. She was from Iraq. The Queen of Sheba. Her name means Queen and she was.” my dad would explain.
“Tell me more, please.”
“I will tomorrow if you sleep now.”
I would do so, waiting for bedtime to come to hear more poetry and more stories and above all, his kiss on my forehead and his tight warm hug. His smell was a mix of shisha tobacco, books, and his strong body’s aroma. After everyone was in bed, I waited for him in the dark by his office’s locked door to kiss him goodnight. Most days he would work late. I would stand there for hours, never bored or tired of waiting. All I wanted was for him to kiss my forehead and hug me tight before I sleep. Finally, when he opens the door he would trip over me with surprise.
Are you still up? He would say playfully while picking me up. His height was one of the many reasons why I liked it when he did that. Your mother will kill you if she knew you’re not in bed. I would smile and hug him tight as he walks towards my bedroom. He places me in bed and talks to me about a new world, new places, and new stories, but the same piece of poem. I memorized the verses, felt so happy my name is in a poem; felt happier that he kissed my forehead goodnight.
One day he put me in bed in a hurry. My mother was waiting for him in bed and she had a magenta lipstick on, which made her face look prettier. She wore a strong perfume too and I couldn’t tell why would someone dress up to bed? He kissed my forehead and hurled outside the bedroom after turning the lights off. I tried to sleep but I couldn’t. Ali, my brother, who was eight, two years older than I was, was asleep already, so a bedtime story from him was not an option now. After a short while, I got up and went to my parent’s bedroom and tried to open the door but it was locked. I started knocking, so my dad opened the door knelt down and kissed me. He walked me to bed. He left; I still couldn’t sleep so I went on knocking again. This scenario was repeated three times in a row till one time the door opened and there was my mother at the door, shooting me with a sharp look. My skin felt like melting from terror. She closed the bedroom door behind her with a sly smile and beat me so hard before tucking me in bed while cursing me and telling me off for my ill behavior. As much as her beating hurt, it did less than the fact that my dad let her maltreat me. Once she slammed my bedroom door behind her, I started sobbing. It was the first time to cry myself to sleep.
When Ali and I fought, I tended to sleep it off and wake up forgetting everything and forgiving him for not playing with me the way I liked. But this next morning, I woke up heartbroken, remembering how my dad stood me up. My mother usually left early for the hospital and he was our caretaker. I thanked God she was gone already, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at him while having breakfast.
“Which cartoons are you going to play us today?” Ali asked with excitement.
Most days I would join in his excitement and would try to choose something that I liked, as Ali liked Alice in Wonderland, and I didn’t. He always chose it to provoke me. I was toying with the food without eating, thinking of how my mother looks like the evil step-mother in Cinderella.
“Ola chooses today. What do you think darling?” my dad asked me in an affectionate tone of voice while patting my back and running his hand through my hair.
“I’m mad at you.” I asserted with a glowering tone.
He smiled and I knew he smiled because he knew exactly what I meant.
“It’s not my fault darling. What should have I done?”
“You should’ve opened the door yourself.” I shot the words out of my mouth like an arrow, dropped the fork and left to my room.
I shut my eyes that were filled with tears running down my cheeks now. I sat on the bed and listened, waiting for his steps to approach. I could definitely tell their footsteps from one another, and in particular, I knew my dad’s. He finally came over with his hands behind his back.
“Guess what do I have here behind my back?” He teased me.
I peeked at him with the corner of my eyes, trying so hard to hold back my tears. My throat hurt. I couldn’t tell from the many words and feelings I have stuck in there or because I’m forcing myself not to cry.
“It’s a crayons box,” he said after a short pause.
I looked up at his face in silence, wishing I could jump off the bed and hug him so tight, but I sat there. “It has three different shades of green,” he added.
“You hid the coloring book above the fridge. I’m short, not as tall as you’re.” I said with a grin. He came closer, sat down next to me, and settled me up on his knees facing him. He embraced me and I started sobbing. He kissed my head while stroking my hair until I finished, and only this made me feel a bit better.
“Let’s color these trees now? There’s a cactus too,” he remarked while wiping away my tears.
“Would you please color with us today?” I asked, “I’m afraid the thorny cactus might hurt me.” I noted.
He kissed my forehead, put me down and stood up. “I’ve my masters to work on darling, but we can later, and nothing can hurt you as long as I’m here,” he said while stroking my hair. The rest of the day passed with its usual chores. And at night, I waited. I always waited, whether by the office’s locked door in the dark or by his bedroom’s door with the fear that my mother might open it herself and beat me. My longing for him kissing my forehead goodnight was stronger than my fear, so I didn’t mind the risk of waiting.