“Happy Birthday Mahjouba. I hope someone gets you the new phone I saw you looking at last week.”
“Another year already. It seems like only yesterday I watched your mom dropping you off for high school. It’s been such a pleasure watching you grow up.”
“You should be more careful about closing your windows at night. You never know when someone might climb up from the balcony below. Happy birthday, stay safe.”
They might sound creepy to you, but you have to understand that I’ve been getting these cards every year for as long as I can remember. My mom made a big fuss about them for a while, but we never got the slightest clue where they were coming from and nothing bad ever came from it. Over the years it just became a fact of life; I even looked forward to the mysterious messages.
We all had our theories, of course. Mom thought it was some socially handicapped secret admirer with a lifelong obsession. My half-sister Amina couldn’t stand the idea of anyone being in love with me. She insisted it was a psychopath who was just biding his time to strike. I even caught her slipping her own menacing anonymous letter into the pile one year just to scare me.
Personally, I always thought (or at least hoped) they were coming from dad. He left my mother while she was still pregnant with me. Mom thinks that’s proof that he doesn’t care and wouldn’t bother. I think it’s proof that he knows I exist. The fact that Amina never gets a card seems to support the idea.
This never caused a problem until I was in my twenties and living on my own. I’d started dating a guy named Ranja who was almost charming to a fault. He wouldn’t say that I looked beautiful. He’d tell me that the rain came from angels weeping over losing me from heaven. Or that the puddles loved me so much that they’d hold onto my reflection even after I’d left. A little over the top maybe, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling myself all mixed up with his words.
Ranja and I had been together for almost eight months before we celebrated my first birthday together. That’s the first time I saw the other side of him. I guess I never realized how closely linked passion and jealousy are before he opened my mysterious card. His brows knotted together while he read, his pressed lips began to tremble, and all the color drained from his face.
“It’s no big deal, really,” I told him. “What’s it say?”
Ranja didn’t answer. He threw the card down on the table and walked to the other side of the room, breathing heavily. I picked it up and read:
“He’s going to hurt you, Mahjouba. You wouldn’t be the first either. Get out, or this may be the last card you ever receive.”
When I looked up Ranja was standing on the opposite side of his living room, just glaring at me. “Well?” he asked. “Explain yourself.”
“Me? What did I do?”
The space between us closed more rapidly than I was comfortable with. I took a step back, but that only brought him closer — trapping me against a wall.
“What’s his name? How long have you been seeing him?” he asked.
What followed was the worst argument we’ve ever had. He refused to believe me when I told him it might be my father, and I got a glimpse of the person the message warned me about. I told him he could check with my family, but he seemed to think they would lie to protect me. We managed to avoid talking about it for a few days until one morning when Ranja triumphantly slammed a piece of paper on the table.
“He’s dead. Twelve years he’s been dead.”
I don’t know how Ranja did it, but I was staring at my father’s death certificate. Have you ever felt a lifetime of hope shatter in a few seconds? It’s like being conscious of your own death. Your body keeps moving and you can feel it go, but there’s no one inside anymore.
“Stop pretending you care just to get out of trouble. I know you never met him.”
And then the argument started again, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I couldn’t explain who was sending the letters. I could barely even talk, and he took my silence as an admission of guilt. He didn’t understand that I wasn’t hurt because I lost my father. You can’t lose something you’ve never had. I was hurt because I lost every possible future with my father in it. I lost him dancing with me at my wedding, and carrying my future kids on his back. I lost him telling me that he never stopped thinking of me, or loving me, even if it was only from afar.
And all I gained in return were threats, insults, and the unsettling realization that a stranger really had been following me my whole life long. Now Ranja was laying it on the line — I could either trust him, or the letter writer. He demanded to know why I would throw away the life I was building for some creep I’d never met. How could I possibly take care of myself without him? How could I find another man as good as him, when even my own father didn’t want me?
If my life was a movie, then things would have gotten better after that. I would have stood up for myself and learned to live on my own terms. But I was scared, and I was alone, and I thought that someone who said the angels wept for me would never dare blasphemy the object of their love.
I thought I deserved it when he started to lock me in my own room. What else could he do, if he didn’t trust me?
I thought I could be strong when he hit me or pulled my hair. At least he didn’t leave. My mother would have been lucky to have found a man like Ranja.
And for the next year, I hated myself for spending my whole life waiting for a fairy tale that would never come true.
Until my birthday came again, and I finally found the will to leave. It wasn’t what the card said that convinced me — just a benign, generic well-wishing straight off the shelf. It was where the card came from, because this was the first time there had ever been a return address.
In the cool and safety of the dark, I stole out of Ranja’s house with only what I could fit in a suitcase. It was hard going dragging my things, but I knew that if my life was going to start over, then it was going to start with the only person I’ve ever trusted — the one sending the letters. And when I found myself entering the cemetery, I knew I had found what I was looking for.
My father’s headstone, which read: “Are you there, Mahjouba? I will always be with you.”