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A Very Brief Engagement
February 13, 2018

          The civil servant is a fragile, seemingly gentle woman. She writes down both of Helen’s surnames, pressing carefully, forming neat block letters with her pencil:


          “Carey, like tortoiseshell in Spanish,” she says.

          “Yes,” Helen says. “I was glad to get it back, my mother’s maiden name, when I got my Spanish nationality.”

          The woman peers up at Nabil. “You still have just one.”

          “Yes,” he says.

          Nabil is smarter than Helen about paperwork, about bureaucracy. He doesn’t try to be charming.

          “It’s better—two surnames,” says the civil servant.

          “Less sexist,” Helen agrees.

          “No,” says the functionary, firm now. “It provides a more solid juridical foundation.”

          She places their application for a marriage license in a pile on her metal desk, straightens herself, removes her reading glasses and promises, “Your children will have the two surnames. You can arrange them in any order you like.”

November 7, 2019

          At midday it’s still warm enough to swim. They take a long hot shower afterwards. By the evening it’s cool, and swimming seems audacious. Helen heats up soup and toasts day-old bread, which is enough for dinner. They have clementines for dessert, peeling them without speaking. Her hair has dried before she’s combed out her cowlick.

          Nabil has taught her it’s okay not to talk, to just hang on and trust that someone will stay close. When they were first together, she still talked so much, which was how she had always been: pressing, driving, insisting on understanding, revealing. But there is so much neither will ever know about the other. They have lived so much life prior to meeting.

          They met, via an Internet application, in the Mediterranean winter, which isn’t cold at all but mild, almost always pleasant. Back then, those first nights, buoyed by liquor, Helen’s shyness was physical, while Nabil’s was emotional and came from some need to protect his family, his part of the world.

          Now though, sometimes, ever so slowly, Nabil tells Helen things, about home, about actual belief. After dinner, when Nabil has washed the soup bowls and sponged off the table, they watch an interview with an Iranian general. The general speaks perfect English. He is handsome and dignified, stern but obviously kind. On the tiny screen of Helen’s laptop they see that he is sitting in an austere room, on a straight-backed wooden chair.

          Later, privately, Helen searches the general’s name online. She reads about him finding solace on the battlefield, his gentle love for martyrs, how he visits the hometowns of men he has lost, consoles their mothers and then carries on—distinguished, ruthless, unwavering. Then she erases her search history.

December 13, 2019

          Nabil gets the call while he’s walking the dog. A long number, a series of sixes and threes across his mobile screen, and then a voice like a whisper, a hoarse woman. He doesn’t understand her at first, so he stops in the middle of the street, jerking the leash so Inés doesn’t tug.

          It is María José, the civil servant who interviewed them the very first time, more than a year before. She has been on medical leave. Nabil doesn’t understand why, or what was wrong with her, but that is of no importance now. What María José wants to say is that the judge, after reviewing their appeal and rereading their forty-six-question questionnaire, has decided that they can get married. The judge has deemed that Helen and Nabil are truly in love. They can marry on January 20th at 9:10 am.

          “Congratulations,” says María José. “Now you’re officially novios.”

          And so begins Nabil and Helen’s engagement.

December 19, 2019

         Helen is all packed. She leaves tomorrow for the States. Nabil suggests she wear her ruby earrings to the party. It’s supposed to be a surprise, but Gerard must already suspect. Still, everyone huddles together—Nabil’s colleagues from the university, their wives, some children. Kneeling in the dark, Nabil announces, “This is Helen, my fiancée.”

          The word seems silly—Helen is forty and so stoic in many ways—but she beams when Nabil says it. Then she squeezes his hand and screams “¡Sorpresa!”

December 27, 2019

          Helen tells her parents and sister that she and Nabil are getting married, no big deal, just at the Civil Registry.

          “Why?” her mother asks.

          Later, her aunts come over. With more people in the house it’s easier to be happy. They say a toast with rosé wine and laugh, married at twenty-three and then again at forty.

          Helen turns on the radio as she dries the champagne flutes. According to NPR, an American contractor has been killed in Iraq. The last time she got married was February 2003, just a few days before the invasion.

January 1, 2020

          Even though they have lived together for three years, Helen is shy around Nabil. She is careful as she leans against his chest in the taxi, worried that she smells stale, that her breath is sour from the plane.

          Once, when Helen was ill, he helped her vomit and then bathed her. But she never leaves the bathroom door open. She locks the door, turns on the faucet before using the toilet.

          Still shy even though he took care of her after a minor intervention[1] and saw, as he pulled down her trousers, that the nurse had put her in paper bloomers, stained with brownish blood. Nabil turned his gaze toward the window, kept one hand on her elbow as he let Helen slip the bloomers off. Then he tossed them in the bin and pulled back the covers so she could climb into bed.

          Helen is still shy because she was married before and knows what can happen over time.

          It is close to four in the afternoon when they arrive home. Helen has been traveling for over twenty-four hours. Nabil serves her soft eggs over toast, strong black coffee, slices of a perfectly ripe pineapple. He asks if he can join her as she showers and then if she wants to sleep.

          After their shower, Nabil is clean; the top of his head smells of shampoo. He is sound asleep. It is three am; but Helen is wide awake.

January 2, 2020

          Nabil’s sister arrives from Toronto in a few days. He hasn’t seen her since 2013, at a wedding in Jordan. She was eighteen at that wedding and now she has finished university. She’s about to start a job in Madison, Wisconsin.

          Helen says it isn’t so bad, Madison, Wisconsin, that it’s not Trump’s America but a university town, liberal, progre as the Spanish say.

          He hasn’t told Mona that he’s getting married. He hasn’t seen her in so long it seems better to tell her in person. He told his parents over the phone. “Finally,” said his father, exasperated with Spain and how long the paperwork takes. His mother said she hoped Helen would wear a white dress. Everyone knows it isn’t like that, so no one is exactly disappointed, just confused. Nabil won’t make trouble for them, but he and Helen won’t give them joy either.

January 3, 2020

          Helen wakes up several times in the early morning but tries to go back to sleep, not wanting to battle jet lag the whole week ahead when she’ll be back to work and Mona is coming, Nabil’s baby sister, the only one of his siblings she has yet to meet.

          Eventually she allows herself to get out of bed. Nabil is already awake. He’s standing at the stove, coffee scoop in his hand. The apartment is cold, still dark. He’s wearing sweatpants and a hoodie. Helen can imagine him twenty years before, eighteen and an athlete, the wide shoulders, the strong thighs, a frame that gives a man confidence, no matter what happens, for the rest of his life. Nabil is also wearing her scarf, a soft, brick-red cashmere blend.

          “Why are you up? Are you alright?” she asks. Nabil unscrews the cafetera, bows his head, avoiding Helen’s eyes.

          “Look. Look at the news.”

U.S. Strike Kills Qassim Suleimani, Commander of Iranian Forces

January 5, 2020

          The streets are blocked off around Helen and Nabil’s flat. Helen said something about it, but Nabil wasn’t paying attention. Since the assassination, there has been a constant buzzing between his ears. Some mornings he sits at the laptop, clicking refresh over and over and over. His students are away, schools are closed, so he has nowhere to be this week. He talks with his brother over WhatsApp about other things: the brother’s children, a conflict over food between his brother’s wife and their mother. Nabil does see the grief in his brother’s eyes but just once, briefly, when he videocalls from the car, waiting for his daughter to leave ballet.

          A woman in an orange vest explains to Nabil that Aerobus is leaving from further up Passeig de Gràcia, that Plaça Catalunya is blocked off for the arrival of the Kings. Catalan families are lined up along the sidewalks; some have ladders that the children use to see out over the crowds. It’s almost dark and, just as Helen told him, the Wise Men arrive at dusk, by boat in blackface, on papier mâché camels. She has explained it all several times, that today is the day before Three Kings, that everything will shut down, that traffic will slow. But Nabil could hardly hear her.

          “Who are you?” he said and pulled her close. “Who are you? How did we end up here?”

          She was chopping onions, washing stalks of chard.

          “I would go with you, but I want you guys to have some time together.”

          And so they will. After seven years Mona and Nabil will have this Aerobus ride to catch up.

January 6, 2020

          Mona looks so much like Nabil and their dad that it hurts Helen. Ever since the minor intervention, she has trouble with how much they all look alike, in subtle ways that manifest when they stop speaking. With each sibling or cousin she notices what could have been—the mouth or brow line in her own child. If she’s not careful, if she stares for too long at someone eating or staring up at the sun, she imagines the whole child: the eyes, the voice, the head of hair, the personality. She thinks of names—Arabic names that even the Spanish could pronounce.

          Mona’s accent is pure North American. There is no sense of an older world, of a whole other language, the way there is in Nabil’s voice.

          When Helen shows Mona the room—her office redone with a single bed she’s made up with her grandmother’s quilt, the reading lamp, an empty chest of drawers—Mona says, “Thank you, Helen. You shouldn’t have troubled.”

          “It’s no trouble,” Helen says.

          Mona turns to close the door.

          She seems so alien in their apartment, a figure Helen has heard about for so long but always imagined as a young girl, a sister starling. Someone else has arrived, a twenty-five year old woman: serious, steady, fully independent.

January 8, 2020

Iran crash: Ukraine Boeing with 176 on board comes down near Tehran

January 9, 2020

          Helen isn’t sure what to say or do. She brings take-out home from work. Nabil puts his hand over hers, thanks her. He and Mona go back to the news, call relatives. Heads wearing headphones in Toronto, Damascus, Cleveland, Stockholm. Helen tries to give them space, walks the dog, cleans the kitchen, opens her own laptop, checks her email. She has only one new message:

Dear Client,

Thank you for trusting in our services for your minor intervention. We hope you are fully recovered and have been able to return to normal daily activities.

Please don't hesitate to contact us in order to discuss proper methods of birth control in the future.

Staff of Clínica Soria
C/ Aragon, 117 principal
Barcelona, Spain

          She closes her computer, fakes a yawn, bids Nabil and Mona good night.

January 10, 2020

          Helen is working late at the hospital, so Mona and Nabil are on their own until dinner. Mona is quiet like her brother. Of all of the siblings, they are the quietest and the closest. Observers, also enforcers.

          Nabil is worried that his sister doesn’t like Helen or that she feels unsettled, displaced by her. It’s not something he can put his finger on; there is no clear dispute between the two of them. It’s just that suddenly his sister is a woman and other women don’t tend to like Helen, who is pretty and gracious and smiles easily and proudly with her glossy American teeth.

          Mona and Nabil call their mother, crushing their heads together, waving hello to everyone, in the same frame.

          “Happy?” their mother asks.

          “Happy,” they promise.

          “What does that even mean?” Mona asks once they’ve hung up.

          She is starting to annoy Nabil a bit—her flippant tone, the way she looks at them, her disdain for the dog. He suggests a walk, but Mona says, “You go with Inés if you want. I’ll just stay here and chill.”

          Yet somehow he’s heartbroken and doesn’t go. They sit together and look at the Internet until it gets dark—plane crash, funeral procession, plane crash—then they do take Inés down to try to tire her out before dinner.

          It’s Mona’s birthday. Helen has reserved a restaurant by the beach. They drink white wine and eat grilled hake, roasted artichoke, and eggplant fried with honey. There are gas heaters and blankets to keep them warm outside, but it’s mild. Mona wears a knitted dress that’s the color of the sea. She unfurls her silk scarf, revealing a startlingly slender neck.

          “Where were you when you turned twenty-five?” Mona asks Helen.

          Helen places her wine glass down and turns to Nabil. They don’t talk about the past. That is some unspoken pact.

          “Where was I? I was here. All I wanted was to have a crowded life—dinners full of people, shouting over politics.”

          “Is that what you got?” Mona asks.

          “I got other things.”

          Nabil changes the subject, sensing that Helen is drunk and Mona is on the attack. He tells a story about his younger brothers, an anecdote to make them all laugh. Helen does; Mona scowls. They are private, Mona and Nabil. He doesn’t know why he’s shared any of it.

January 14, 2020

          When Nabil first talked about the resistance, he talked so much about love, about how it was about love. He loves his siblings very much, his mother, his family. Helen knows he also loves her and Inés. She has sensed that, felt it fully, from the very beginning.

          When Helen got pregnant, she was so sure that he would be happy, that he would love the baby. How could he not when his world view was based on things she didn’t want to agree with but also felt strangely attracted to? Masculine in the most traditional sense. A sense of purpose based on bloodlines and fierce loyalty.

          But, when she showed him the test, he turned, his face from another place, a past she had never imagined.

          “You,” he had said, “are just like all the women in my life.”

          Visions of them shot through Helen: women much younger than she was and more beautiful. One an inspiring actress from Egypt, an American lawyer, the Nordic painter she’d seen once on her bike, greeting Nabil with a “¡Ciao!”

          “Just like my mother, like my sisters!”

          That part Helen did not understand, that it was about family and not about lovers. Anyhow, that is past, two months past.

          This morning Mona and Helen have breakfast on the terrace. Mona is careful, eating her fruit with a knife and fork and watching Helen with her steady, defiant gaze.

          “You don’t get annoyed with my brother?” she asks finally.

          Nabil is at work. Classes have resumed. “How he just keeps watching the news, I mean. It doesn’t matter where they are. They are always watching the news.”

          “It’s been a hard week,” Helen says. “He isn’t always like this.”

January 18, 2020

          Nabil and Helen both accompany Mona to the airport. On Monday they will walk to the Civil Registry to get married. Mona will be back in Canada, packing, preparing her move to Madison.

          Nabil always likes to go inside at the airport, to squeeze out all the possible time together. Both Helen and Mona wish he could understand that it’s worse to drag it out. But Nabil is resolute.

          Mona has checked her bags and Nabil has tried, twice, to get everyone to sit and have a coffee, a croissant, orange juice. The women remain standing, repeating that they are not hungry. Finally, he flees to the restroom. Helen and Mona hover near the security checkpoint.

          “Now that you’re marrying,” Mona asks, “will you get children?”

          Helen is elated that someone has considered this plausible.

          “No,” she says. “I don’t think we will.”

          They are quiet until Mona sees her brother approaching. She turns to Helen and asks, “Why? What are you afraid of?”

          Helen almost opens her small mouth to let out a muffled sound, to tell Mona that she got pregnant the first time, on the first ambiguous try, on the first fucking slip. She might also mention, in that voice that would come, animal-like, from the back of her throat, that her fiancé has been crushed by the death of an Iranian general but not by her minor intervention.

          Helen’s mouth remains closed. Mona shifts from one foot to the other. Nabil is fast approaching; the world is rushing in.



[1] See Morrison H. “On Certain Uses of Twilight” in European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 91, Issue 3, November 2018.

Madeline Beach Carey is the author of the story collection Les filles dels altres. Her work has appeared in SouthwordEl Món d’AhirRIC JournalechoverseThe Sultan’s SealFull StopThe Momentist, and elsewhere.