Story-When Stress Comes for You

After Marwa’s death, Isra’s dreams alternated between dull and horrific. Not in that they were violent all the time—though sometimes they were—but horrific in that they seemed deliberate, written and directed by some sinister part of herself that knew exactly how to cause her pain. 

Soon after the New Year, Isra’ had a dream that left her heartbroken, that left her sure that things would never be okay again, that she would never be okay again. 

She still remembers it. She wrote it down in a letter years later as proof to herself, were she to need it, that her deepest secrets—both good and bad—could show up at the strangest times, bringing her joy for having overcome, or pain for having lost. She wrote:

Christmas in Damascus. My favorite time of year. Sara and Maryam were there—the girls from the art class who first introduced me to the lights in Bab Touma, and to the sound of Laylet Eid. 

Remember the year it snowed around Christmas Eve? I was 15, I think. There had been a fast storm, expected to dump snow only in the mountains. It took the city by surprise. Though it left just five centimeters behind in downtown, it opened up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to see a Christmas with snow, to see what was an unlikely fantasy in our climate.

I begged Mama to let me go out with those girls that night, to see the whitewashed world of Bab Touma’s decorations. Mama had no way of saying no, as she knew a snowfall this early would likely not happen again for decades. Looking back, it feels now like a carefully planned painting, surreal and beyond the realm of reason. Beyond the realm of what I would even ask for now. 

I had to wear two jackets. I pulled my hood tight over my hijab, grateful for the added layer of warmth that Maryam and Sara would surely long for as they walked on the icy streets. I stepped out into the street with glee, grabbing Sara’s hand as she helped me down the steps into the street. I almost slipped.

That night, lights were strung up in the entire area of Baba Touma, a maze of shining icicles in a crisscross above. We stared upwards for minutes on end, our mouths open to catch little snowflakes that, after the storm, were just releasing their grip from damp rooftops to come and join the festivities at street level. 

We drank sahlab together, and sat on a bench in the park as Baba Noel walked around holding crying babies and exuberant toddlers of all sizes and faiths. It was bliss. It was magic. It was love.

Isra’ woke from that dream in tears. She opened her eyes heavily as her tears sat wet in place, coating her eyelashes. She curled on her side, wanting to fall back to sleep and remember more. She had not felt such calm while being awake in over a year, and she desperately tried to will herself back to sleep, to the dream aborted.

It was the first peaceful dream she’d had since Marwa died. 

Unable to fall back asleep, unable to find the hidden door to that world of childhood bliss in an unbroken Damascus, she willed herself out of bed. 

Everything in her closet seemed sad and dull. She picked out an unmatched sweater and jeans. 

She brushed her hair listlessly, less brushing and more letting her hand fall limply from the crown of her head to her sides. She picked up her eyeliner and mascara, knowing that her mother would see her sadness even faster if she did not hide it behind even just a little bit of makeup. 

The mirror was cold after a long winter night and an extinguished sobha. She peered closer to put on her makeup, avoiding eye contact with herself. 

As she started on her second eye, Isra’ accidentally caught a glimpse of her direct gaze. 

Where is she? Where is Isra’? Where are you? she thought, sadly and angrily. 

Her hand trembled as she tried to put on the eyeliner. Her shaky hand smudged the eyeliner across her cheek. 

She dropped the pen and clasped her two hands around her mouth, gasping for air and beginning to sob. 

In that moment, Isra’ knew her heart was overwhelmed. It was behind a barrier she could not climb. Her mind was terrorized. 

Where is the light? she thought. 

She ran towards the door and turned the light in her bedroom on. And off. And on again. Off … and on … hoping she could snap herself out of whatever this was, this feeling that dragged her to a place where she felt so scared, where she didn’t know either herself or anyone around her. 

Isra’ composed herself as voices of past torments ran freely across her mind. 

You’re too tall. There it was again. 

Her classroom.

Yellow walls. 

The smell of smoke. 

The sound of birds outside her window. 

She’s dead.

Isra’ tilted her head back, sinking deeper and deeper into these thoughts. She strained her neck to stop herself from what felt like sinking into quicksand, into a pit from which she couldn’t return. 

You will never feel happy again. Isra’ tried to ignore it. She struggled on, every mark of applied eyeliner a force of will.

You will die here. She had not sunk to this place before, to this thought. This was new. This was too much. She capped the eyeliner. She stood up. She went downstairs to help with breakfast.