Today's Reading

It was almost midnight when Huda gave up waiting for Abdul Amir to come home and crawled into bed. Above her head, the blades of the fan pushed warm air around the bedroom. She lay on her back and cataloged the noise of the night: the buzz of the fluorescent light in the foyer, the gritty wind scraping at the windows, the click-clack of nocturnal insects. She kept her breathing shallow, listening for the dull snap of a lock or the tread of heavy boots on her driveway.

In the distance, a car rumbled. Was Abdul Amir returning from the coffee shop at last? Huda sighed like the creaking fan. These days her husband's black moods were worse than ever. Earlier that evening, when she arrived home from work, he'd been slumped in front of the television, still wearing his baggy pajama pants and singlet.

"I'm hungry," he'd grunted, eyes trained on the TV screen. "What's for dinner?"

Huda slipped out of her kitten-heeled pumps. "I picked up a roast chicken and rice on the way home."

"You're not going to cook lamb stew? You used to cook it every Thursday."

Huda ignored the whine in his voice.

"There's not enough time. Stew can't be rushed or the meat will be tough." She glanced toward the kitchen. "Is Khalid home yet?"

"He's eating dinner at Bakr's house." Abdul Amir stabbed at the buttons on the remote control. "At least my son will get a home-cooked meal."

"Come now, be fair. I didn't have time tonight."

"Tonight. Yesterday. Last week. You are always busy with your work. What sort of wife puts her family second?"

And what sort of husband sits in his pajamas all day?

Abdul Amir kept his eyes on the television. Huda remembered when she would have happily drowned in his sea-green gaze. She remembered when a kind word was never far from his lips, when he whispered little jokes in her ear. Were those days gone forever?

Was that memory, like so many, best forgotten? Huda tried once again to lure her husband from his sour mood.

"I chose a plump chicken. And I will fetch some cucumbers and tomatoes from the garden. You have a magic way with the plants, my dear."

"You should not be working for foreigners." Abdul Amir punched the remote again. "They don't respect our culture. They don't respect family. Otherwise they would realize a woman should be home in time to prepare a proper dinner."

He turned his head and glared at her. She glared back. "Without them we would have no chicken for dinner. No meat at all."

Abdul Amir lurched from the couch and lumbered past her. She followed him down the hall and into the bedroom. He threw a checked shirt over his singlet and scowled at his master's in finance diploma hanging in a frame on the wall. After ten years of sanctions, the economy was almost dead. No one needed an analyst like him to check its pulse. Like Iraq itself, Abdul Amir's pride had taken so many hits, Huda feared it might never recover.

He swapped his pajama pants for trousers and stomped back to the living room.

"These foreigners only want to destroy our country."

"That's not true." Huda pursed her lips in irritation. Of course, she'd thought twice about working at the embassy. Anyone even remotely connected with foreigners, especially Westerners, drew the suspicion of the mukhabarat. A case of the pox was more welcome than that. But what was she supposed to do?

Abdul Amir's company wasn't the only business to close its doors. Huda's previous employer, an agricultural import-export company, had resorted to paying her with sacks of almonds or pistachios from shipments abandoned in their warehouse. Unfortunately, Huda couldn't pay her bills with rancid nuts. Then a cousin who worked as a driver at the German embassy called. He'd heard through the gossipy driver grapevine that the Australians down the road needed a secretary with good English and typing speed of eighty words per minute. When he mentioned the salary, Huda's eyes bulged. She'd swallowed her reservations about working with foreigners. Not only would this cover their debts, the salary was more than her and Abdul Amir's former paychecks combined.

"The staff at the embassy are nice people," she scolded Abdul Amir. "They're ordinary people. Like us."

"Everyone knows, Australia is nothing but America's obedient lapdog."

"You can't judge people by the actions of their—" Huda broke off as the six o'clock anthem blared from the television. The president rode across the screen in an army jeep. Abdul Amir grabbed the remote and flicked to the next channel. From a gilded balcony, the president saluted a battalion of goose-stepping troops. He growled and tossed the remote back onto the couch.

"I fear that people will question your loyalty." His words were barely audible above the television, but like most sensible people, they'd long ago grown accustomed to reading lips, filling in blanks, talking in code.

"I love my country," whispered Huda. "You know that."

"It is not what I know that matters," he muttered. "I'm going to the coffee shop."

"What about dinner?"

He had shrugged, grabbed his car keys, and stormed off, leaving her to seek comfort in a box of nougat, unaware that the mukhabarat were about to descend upon their home.
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