My mother and the Syrian lady next door were enemies.
Theirs was a feud that excelled in the tactics of non-verbal intimidation. They practised their stares and their cold shoulders, and how best to turn one’s face away when they each saw the other approaching. We were amused and confused, we did not know what started their rivalry.
It was the food, said my mother, whose tolerance for anything not vegetarian went only so far as to ignore the eggs my father made me. All those smells driving the air out of our second floor corridor, she complained. Cooking meat any time of the day. Beef today, she declared, sniffing the air as we stepped out one evening. Crab, she snorted, one afternoon, when a pungent smell greeted us as we opened the door.
The Syrian lady wasn’t one to be intimidated either. She disturbed the kolam my mother drew outside our apartment every morning, she was worried those rice flour patterns on the floor might be voodoo. She blew out the lamps that my mother placed at the doorstep every evening in November, saying they were a fire hazard.
She was always by herself though, and this didn’t escape my mother’s notice. No husband, no siblings, no parents, no children, we counted on our fingers all the relationships she didn’t have. What was she doing here all alone, my mother couldn’t imagine. We watched her bring up the furniture, carry home carton boxes of mineral water, clean her car. We saw her arguing with the children who threw tennis balls into her balcony, thinking it would be fun to upset her mood for five minutes every so often. We continued to watch as she left for work every morning, cooked for her friends who visited her with clouds of perfume, we could hear their laughter past my bedtime.
I must have missed the thawing that happened, because one day, my mother said to no one in a voice just above a whisper, “I am amazed by her courage.” Later that year, we wished her Eid Mubarak, and she gave us rice with beef on New Year’s day. My mother left it on the small table in the living room, I suspect my father ate a little of it when she wasn’t looking.