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Dance from Deep Within

by D. L. Sleiman

Three unlikely friends…learning to dance to the song of the Spirit.

Despite her conservative Muslim heritage, Layla Al-Rai longs for a chance to earn her degree in engineering and perhaps even…dare she dream…to choose her own husband. But young women from her background rarely enjoy such freedoms. When she finally talks her parents into letting her attend college, she is drawn to fellow twenty-something students, Allie and Rain, over a class project.

Allie, the blonde ballerina, faces her own struggles as she deals with an ex-fiancé and a church she had hoped to leave behind. Rain, the bi-racial hippie chick, longs for something to believe in, but her questioning could cost her the love of her life.

When Layla’s childhood sweetheart reenters her world, it seems her dreams might become real. Until everything falls apart. When she meets truth face to face, will she find the courage to accept it even if it requires the ultimate sacrifice?

Chapter 1

Four years’ worth of anticipation gathered in her chest. A pounding she must quiet before stepping through that doorway. It’s just a door. Layla Al-Rai glanced at the handle, and then back to her Old Dominion University schedule to review it yet again. English 101 MWF 10:00 a.m. Batten Arts 205.

Yes, this was the place. She had circled the hallway several times to be punctual but not early. It’s just a door, she told herself more firmly this time. And the people beyond it were just students, like her. She could barely believe she was standing here—that her Middle Eastern mother had relented at long last. But years of patient persistence won her over.

Allah willing, her parents might even let her stay long enough to finish the engineering degree she dreamed of before insisting Layla marry. Surely stranger things had happened. She was only twenty-two years old. She should be enjoying her youth. And maybe she’d finally make friends with some regular Americans. Growing up in the Islamic section of Detroit had made it all too easy to stay immersed in her Muslim bubble.

If only her best friend Fatima were here, the day would be complete. She and Fatima had dreamed of this moment together, imagined choosing classes and buying textbooks. But for her devout Saudi Arabian neighbor, college could never be more than a bittersweet fantasy. For Fatima’s sake, she determined to enjoy the experience all the more and to e-mail her every last detail.

Layla straightened her spine and smoothed her red knit mini-dress over her modest black leggings and long-sleeved shirt. Reaching up, she adjusted her silky veil. The elegant crimson fabric draped about her head, covering her hair and neck but leaving her face exposed for all to see. She took a deep breath and attempted to relax her features into a casual expression. Then she willed her feet to move forward. Time to step into a new experience.

Entering the classroom, the pounding in her chest quickened. But she would not let the dingy walls and faint smell of mold dampen her spirits. Instead she focused upon the windows across the back displaying a bright golden sun, blue sky, and swaying green leaves.

As she gathered her courage and scanned the room for empty seats, she noticed that most of the hyperactive freshmen looked like they had mistaken the class for a keg party. But she spied one blond woman in the corner, her nose buried in a novel, quietly waiting for the lesson to begin. Almost the same image that met Layla every time she entered Fatima’s bedroom. The sight comforted her, and she headed in that direction.

She drew stares as she crossed the room and hid deeper in the folds of her veil. In general, Americans were politically correct enough to be respectful of, although curious about, a Muslim female in their midst. But she’d learned the hard way that a few sick guys harbored twisted fantasies involving veiled women. Her uncle blamed the evil porn sites of the “infidels,” but Layla chose not to use that close-minded term.

As she reached the desk in the back, the novel-wielding student looked up with a warm smile.

Layla smiled back. “Is this seat taken?”

“No, please.” She pointed to the chair, and Layla lowered herself into it.

The blond returned to her book, but when a flying paper airplane came sailing onto her desk, she picked it up and smashed it, shooting a sassy grin to the perpetrators. Layla wished she could be so confident around men.

“Ugh,” she said to Layla. “It’s like going back to high school. Maybe worse. Probably wasn’t such a bright idea to take eight years off before starting college.”

“Me too. Well, only four, but it’s been awhile.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine. I’m Allie.” She tossed the smashed plane to Layla. “Cute outfit.”

If Layla’s old-fashioned auntie had her way this morning, Layla would have left the house camouflaged from head to toe in an ugly gray overcoat. She grinned. With Auntie, she had to pick her battles, but this one had been so worth it. The red mini-dress ensemble was a success!

She tipped the crumpled paper in salute. “Thanks. I’m Layla.” Placing the unusual gift on her desk for additional courage, she turned her attention to organizing her notebooks and supplies. She needed this class to go well and give her strength to face the rest of the week.

The instructor entered the classroom and situated himself at the ‘70s style teacher’s desk. The middle-aged professor with his wool suit jacket and wire-rimmed glasses fit the role so perfectly, he could have walked straight out of her television set. He pulled a stack of papers from his briefcase and began a weaving journey about the room.

Layla examined Allie as the teacher handed out syllabi. The young woman’s hair was pulled atop her head in a casual bun with tendrils escaping. Her slim lavender T-shirt flattered her slender, graceful figure and blue-eyed, blond coloring. The creamy tank top worn underneath gave the shirt a more modest cut.

Looking closer, she attempted to decipher the words on Allie’s T-shirt. It was difficult from her angle until Allie shifted. Your beauty should not come from outward appearance…it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. ~ I Peter 3:3-4.

Some sort of scripture? Christian, Layla guessed from the cross-like symbol substituting for the “T” on the logo. The verse resonated with her, and she loved the surrounding drawing of a young woman’s face half concealed by a tumble of modern art swirls in place of her hair. But Layla’s mind struggled to connect the sentiment to the brash girls from the Christian community in Lebanon.

The professor began the morning by introducing himself as Professor Robinson and giving the basic guidelines for the class. Then something in his demeanor altered. “This year I’ve decided to use a central theme for our writing assignments: Unity in Diversity.”

He pushed up his glasses and crossed his arms over his chest. “A favorite poem of mine by Harlem Renaissance author Langston Hughes begins, ‘I too, sing America.’ He goes on to explain that while he is the darker brother sent to the kitchen when company comes, someday things would change. ‘They’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed,’ he says, ‘I, too, am America.’”

The brief quote stirred Layla with hope, but with confusion as well. She too was America—sort of—not quite. Her passport claimed she was a U.S. citizen. But what did that really mean? A part of her longed to feel more connected to this land of her birth.

“This is the power of literature. It allows us to see the beauty in people around us. Gives us glimpses into their minds and their souls. Our readings will come from various societies and focus on multiculturalism. It seems like we have a nice mix of students here.” The professor gestured to the room.

Layla took in the faces staring back at him: mostly Caucasian, but interspersed with Asian, Hispanic, and African-American. Before moving here she’d been assured that, thanks to the local Navy bases, the Hampton Roads area had a better ethnic balance than the rest of Virginia. Although, Layla still appeared to be the only Islamic student in the bunch. Her nervous excitement reared again. What if she couldn’t do it? Couldn’t click with these people? Couldn’t connect?

“But let’s think further than skin deep about what defines our ‘cultures,’” continued the professor. “The surfer and the jock, the artist and the businessman, the Christian and the atheist, the New Yorker and the Alabaman. In a moment I’m going to give you all a chance to mingle. I want you to find two to three students who in some way come from a different culture than your own. Ideally, you will find both similarities and differences. These students will become your diversity group for the semester, so choose wisely.”

This was precisely what Layla desired, a chance to broaden her perspective. She tingled at the thought. But could she really do it? And what might it cost her if she did?

The professor turned on the overhead projector and pointed with his pen to a list of essays, creative writing exercises, and a final research paper. “Take a moment to glance over the assignments and then begin looking for your group members.” He put the cap back on the pen. “Remember, the purpose of this project is to see past people’s exteriors and get a peek at who they are deep within. I’ll be around to help.”

Oh, the class sounded too amazing to be true. Layla bit her lip to hold back a rare squeal and proceeded to skim the syllabus. Each lesson was designed to explore the beliefs of others. Their personalities. Their cultures. Contrasting viewpoints. The research paper tackled the subject of one aspect of your culture you would like to change. Her mind brimmed with ideas already.

As Layla reached the end of the list, the boy in front of her turned around and leered. “I’d sure be happy to get a peek at who you are deep inside, gorgeous.”

Layla recoiled. Her anticipation about the assignment fled, and her fingers began to tremble. Barely into her first class, and already her auntie’s worst fears were coming true. She had no idea how to handle such an uncouth male. What had she gotten herself into?

 “Back off, scumbag. Layla’s my partner.”

Layla breathed a sigh of relief as Allie claimed her hand and held it firm in her own.

Allie whispered in her ear, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

Layla’s shaking subsided. Why couldn’t she think of responses like Allie just delivered? But even if she could, would she dare speak so boldly to a man? Probably not. This was foreign territory for sure. More so than she had ever imagined.

The girls pushed their chairs together. Allie beckoned to another twenty-something woman who had arrived mid-lecture and slid into the desk closest to the door.

The young lady mirrored Layla’s relief as she came to join them. She appeared the Bohemian type in her Birkenstock sandals, raggedy pants, and loose tunic shirt with the strap of her patchwork bag cutting diagonally across the outfit. Her café-au-lait skin contrasted attractively with the ivory cotton of her hand-woven top. A tuft of golden-brown corkscrew curls framed her face.

Layla couldn’t contain a welcoming grin. This girl would be fun to get to know. So different than anyone she had met before.

“Hi, I’m Rain,” she said as she pulled up a third desk beside them. She settled in, eagerly leaning forward as Allie and Layla introduced themselves.

Allie peered at Rain. “You don’t have a boyfriend with dreadlocks, do you?”

Layla gasped at Allie’s audacity. Did she intend the comment to be derogatory? Hopefully Rain would not be offended. Layla so wanted this project to go well. Her college dreams flashed before her eyes, in peril already.

“Hey.” Rain wagged her finger at Allie. “I thought we were moving beyond our stereotypes.”

 Allie smiled. “I saw you with him at McDonalds last night. You guys make an adorable couple. I remember because I was surprised that you ordered meat. Now that, I confess, was stereotypical. Hamburgers don’t fit my image of the whole Bohemian vibe.”

Rain laughed, and Layla restrained her sigh of relief.

“We lived on the streets for years,” Rain said. “We worked and ate in a lot of soup kitchens. You don’t get to be picky.”

Streets, soup kitchens? Layla never dreamed of enduring such horrors. Compassion welled in her heart, a pleasant respite from the tension of the morning. “Harum habibti.” The whispered Arabic phrase of sympathy escaped Layla’s mouth before she could stop it. “You poor thing. That’s terrible.”

Rain placed a warm hand on Layla’s. “No. We were just experiencing the plight of the homeless. Raising our social consciousness. Stuff like that. I’m writing a book about it. That’s why I’m here. To study writing. Virginia was the last place we established residency. Couldn’t resist those in-state tuition rates.”

“That’s what drew me back too.” Allie nodded. “I’m here for dance and business. What about you, Layla?”

“Engineering,” she said. “Well, I guess the three of us will have no problem proving our case for a culturally diverse group.” So much so that Layla’s head threatened to explode on the spot. She tried to be open-minded, really she did, but this was almost too much to take in at once.

Rain glanced around the small circle. “So we’ve got our Middle Eastern Muslim. Classic white chick. Let me guess. Anglo-Saxon Protestant?” Her fingers swirled about expressively as she spoke. “Then there’s me. Bi-racial, tree-hugging, social-activist raised by aging flower children. I guess my heritage is a little harder to pin down.”

Allie raised an eyebrow. “Since you seem to have us all figured out, do you mind if I ask about your religion?”

“Hmm, my mother went through her pagan Wicca phase,” Rain said. “It didn’t really stick, though. I’m a spiritual person, but I find religion restrictive. I suppose I would describe my faith as…imaginative.”

“Interesting.” Layla wrote that down, although she had no idea what it meant. She might as well buckle up her seat belt and try to enjoy the assignment. She was in for quite a ride with this group.

~*~

Imaginative religion. Hmm. Allie Carmichael was hesitant to encourage Rain’s New Age belief system, but she didn’t want to blow an opportunity to befriend these women. She liked them already and always enjoyed meeting people with different perspectives. Tapping her hand against the fake wood of the desktop, she said, “Works great for the project. I’m sure we can get a lot of mileage out of that.”

Allie took in the two girls before her. The fashionable veiled woman with her bright red lipstick. The hippie chick with fresh, clean skin shining in the sun. What a study in contrasts.

Rain folded herself cross-legged on her chair in an earthy manner. “So where do we start?”

Layla scribbled more notes into her well-organized binder. “According to the syllabus, we need to choose a neutral territory outside of school to meet and continue our discussion.” Although she spoke perfect English with no discernable accent, a certain stiffness to her cadence caused Allie to suspect it wasn’t her first language.

“So I guess a bar is out of the question.” As Rain made the teasing suggestion, Layla’s eyes popped wide open.

“For both of us.” Allie wouldn’t mind so much. She had visited plenty of pubs while touring Europe with her Christian dance company. But she had picked up a few tidbits about Muslims during her travels as well, and she didn’t want Layla to feel uncomfortable.

Layla glanced from her to Rain and back again with dark, haunting, black-rimmed eyes over a slim nose and full mouth. Allie had noticed a number of trendy young Muslim women around campus. Although they displayed only the skin of their hands and faces, they managed to look even more stylish in their layered clothing and matching veils than the normal American girls.

“Don’t you drink?” Layla squinted at Allie as though seeing her for the first time. “I thought most Christians did. That’s the main way you can spot a Christian in Lebanon. Beer and bikinis.” Layla sucked in a breath and bit her lip, as if she had said too much.

Pretty funny. Although Allie suspected her parents wouldn’t find the assessment amusing. They would probably offer a lecture on sound doctrine and denominational differences. But Allie was nothing like them. She attempted a joke to lighten the moment. “Don’t you know the three Christian commandments: thou shalt not drink, thou shalt not smoke, thou shalt not cuss?”

But somehow her attempt at humor fell flat. Allie twisted her face in an ironic expression. True Christianity was so much more. She still could hardly believe she had come home to subject herself to such a legalistic mindset all over again.

“Seriously? Christians are that strict?” Layla pressed a hand to her mouth. “I didn’t realize. Things are very different in Lebanon.”

Allie didn’t know what to say. She wanted to believe she was free of all that religiosity. She had felt free enough for the last eight years on the mission field. But since she had returned to Virginia, her family’s belief system slowly wrapped itself around her like some sort of boa constrictor. She hated viewing herself through their eyes. Hearing their voices in her head. Now here they were again, threatening her conversation with these refreshing young women. Oh, how she wished she could afford college without her parents’ help.

“No, those aren’t the Christian commandments,” Rain snickered. “She’s being facetious. None of those are found in the Bible as far as I know, but they’re all some Christians seem to worry about.”

Allie couldn’t help but wonder about Rain’s previous experience with Christians. People like her parents, perhaps? “She’s right. They aren’t in the Bible. Not exactly, anyway. It’s complicated.”

“Or maybe just stupid.” Rain pinned Allie with her gaze. Her belligerent tone spoke volumes.

“Maybe it is.” Allie continued to meet the stare emanating from Rain’s catlike golden-green eyes, hoping Rain could somehow see clear into her soul and understand that Allie carried wounds from that sort of judgmental thinking too. She suspected her own mother still questioned her commitment to Christ. Over what? A pair of cut-off jean shorts? Some alternative music? A belly piercing that chafed against her leotards and had grown shut long ago? Did her years spent sharing the gospel count for nothing?

Rain shook off the challenge. “So how about a coffee shop?”

“Coffee, yes.” Layla sighed, brushing the fire-engine red fringe from her face. “I’m so sick of my auntie’s syrupy Lebanese version. But can we make it after sunset? Ramadan lasts another week, and I could really use some good American coffee.”

As the professor called the class to order, Allie shot Rain a questioning glance. What did Ramadan have to do with sunset? Rain shrugged, clearly having no clue either. Allie had much to learn about these surprising young women. She couldn’t wait to start the project. Maybe this homecoming wouldn’t be the disaster she dreaded after all.

Chapter 2

Rain Butler-Briggs managed to squelch her distressing concerns for the moment. She sat across the dinner table from her boyfriend, James Allen. In companionable silence, they ate the lovely meal of field green salad dressed with lemon and olive oil alongside Spanish beans and rice. Since they’d gotten this small studio apartment several weeks ago, Rain had taken to preparing home-cooked dinners. Such a novelty after years on the road.

She supposed that made up for turning herself into a domestic servant. Her mother always insisted her father prepare half the meals, but truth be told, Rain enjoyed cooking, and she enjoyed serving James in this simple way. After all, he would be earning most of the money for the next few years while she focused on her writing. They were morphing into a cliché couple.

 James munched his salad and offered Rain an appreciative grin. Warm tingles flooded her. Even after nine years together, he remained the handsomest man she had ever seen. He came from a mixed ethnic heritage as she did, his black and Native American. The resulting brown skin, deep eyes, and dark hair could have been Mexican, Islander, or any combination of races.

Today his dreadlocks hid under a three-toned knit hat, revealing a face any artist would love: strong lines, sharp cheekbones, angled jaw, straight nose, soft berry-colored lips, the scruff of goatee. His deep chocolate eyes looked straight into her soul, melting her.

He remained the one constant in her life during her years spent as a roving gypsy. She would gladly marry him. A part of her longed for structure and stability, but people in their circles rarely did such orthodox things. Her hippie parents would not be pleased. That sort of convention was linked to the world of “the man.” The “capitalist establishment.” Rain snickered to herself.

“What’s going on in that pretty little head of yours?” James’s low, smooth voice caressed her ears.

“Just how nice it is to make dinner for my oh-so-handsome boyfriend.”

“You’re a great cook. Who knew?” He reached across the table and lifted her hand to his lips. James might not give much thought to convention and manners, but he played the gentleman out of his own sense of kindness, consideration, and natural charm.

Rain took note of her many blessings and smiled her gratitude to the universe. Their migrant farm work that summer had paid better than expected, supplying ample grocery funds.

“Do you think we’re getting to be too ‘normal’?” James laughed.

“No, it’s a nice change. Maybe we can settle down and have a couple of rug rats.” She wiggled her eyebrows at him, hoping against all odds that he might warm to the idea in this relaxed atmosphere.

“Not funny.” James clenched his jaw.

The salad turned to paper in Rain’s mouth. James refused to bring any innocent souls into this harsh, cruel world. What demons from his past reared their ugly heads at the very mention of children? Sometimes she felt so close to him. Other times she wondered if she knew the man at all.

She changed the subject. “Sorry. Bad joke. But I am enjoying settling down. Actually, I was thinking about organizing some kind of cleaning schedule.” She looked around the room. They had cleared off their secondhand table and lit a ginger-scented candle, but her grandma would no doubt declare the surrounding room a pigsty.

“Not likely, babe.” James curled his lip and shot her a look.

“Well, if we don’t, I’m going to end up doing all the work myself.” Now that they had a place of their own, she wanted it to look nice, homey. She had gone for so long without. Was that too much to ask?

“Sounds fine by me,” James said in his too-cool tone of voice. “Clean if you want to clean. You know I don’t do schedules.”

It wouldn’t hurt him to pay a little more attention to his school schedule. James wouldn’t want to hear it from her, though. They never judged each other. They weren’t into that. But Rain couldn’t help thinking a little tough love might come in handy if she wanted to get him safely through pre-med and on to his physician’s assistant degree. With that he could work as a doctor in most third world countries, and they could start a new adventure and a second book.

Rain tried a different route. “That doesn’t sound very enlightened of you, letting the woman do all the housework.”

“Now don’t go and turn this into some feminist platform. I just think the person who feels like cleaning should do the cleaning. If I want a clean house, I’ll pitch in. But right now, I really don’t care.”

Those words were the final straw. Tears filled Rain’s eyes. “Do you care about me?”

~*~

She had no idea. The beautiful woman sitting across from James had no clue his whole world revolved around her. He reached over and took her hand in his, rubbing his thumb across her silken skin. Rain was his sun and his moon. His life meant nothing until she entered it. But he’d never admit that. He might scare her away. He couldn’t bear to lose her. Nor could he bear the pain in her eyes caused by his thoughtless comment.

If only she knew. If only she understood why rules freaked him out. Worse yet, children. How could he ever explain? Rain came from a loving family.

James could never expose this innocent girl to the evil ghosts that haunted his soul. What he could do was change the world. Make it a better place. Stop the hurt, starting right now with the hurt in her eyes. “Come on, babe. Don’t take it that way. I’ll tell you what. I’ll try to help out, but no schedules. Fair enough?”

“Yeah, that’s fair.” Rain stared down at her plate and pushed her beans and rice around for a few moments.

Why did she worry about this stuff? After all these years, aspects of his woman remained a mystery. “What’s bothering you now?”

“Do you ever wonder if there’s more?” Although Rain took another bite of her food, she looked as if she could barely swallow it down.

He enjoyed a good existentialist discussion, but not with Rain in this mood. “More than beans and rice? Sure, all the time, but I keep coming up short.”

“I’m serious, James. What if there’s more to life than this ooey gooey, go-with-the-flow existence of ours? What if there’s some actual greater purpose? What if there is a God? A real living God, not some sort of universal something or another?”

James quoted one of his favorite Taoist sentiments. “‘Try the highest degree, travelling in the realm where there is no sign. Exercise fully what you have received from nature, without any subjective viewpoint. In one word: be absolutely vacuous.’”

“Well, you’ve certainly got the vacuous part down,” she mumbled.

James chuckled. Rain was some smart chica. One of the many qualities he admired in her. “I think that multi-cultural assignment is getting to your head. The point isn’t to change you. It’s to show you a different perspective. Don’t lose who you are.” He reached for her hand again. “Who we are.” He gave it a reassuring squeeze.

An adorable rosy blush flooded her cheeks. The soft, hazy look of a woman in love fell over her like a trance. “Well, when you put it that way.”

Then unexpectedly, she quirked her lips and turned away. What had gotten into her today?

~*~

After dinner Rain scooped up the dishes and headed to the sink. She dropped them into the tepid water with a splash. To her relief, James followed and pulled out a flowered towel to help dry. She handed the plates and cups to him one by one.

As they finished up, he bent over and gave her a feather light kiss on the lips. “What now? Once I start that night watchman gig, you won’t have me around in the evenings so much.”

“How about ice cream? I’m starved.” She snatched up the dish towel and wiped her hands.

James leaned against the counter. “We just finished dinner. Is this what domestication does to you, woman? I’ve never seen you eat so much in your life.”

Rain’s heart sped. James could be observant at the most inconvenient times. She moved to brush off the dining table, scooping crumbs into her hand and avoiding eye contact as she gathered her wits. “Come on. A walk to the store would be nice. It’s beautiful out.”

“Okay, cuteness. Whatever you want.”

Surely with all the commotion of the move he hadn’t noticed anything. She shouldn’t be so paranoid. Rain tossed the crumbs in the trash, crossed to her man, and snuggled into his roughhewn side, breathing deep the scent of sandalwood. “Mm, you’re so good to me.”

They headed outdoors with James’s arm draped around Rain’s shoulders. Booming rap music rumbled through an open car window, followed by loud, angry shouts, but that didn’t bother her.

Due to her bi-racial heritage, Rain received warm, Southern hospitality from the adorable grandmas of Norfolk, even if their children were busy working, and their grandchildren were…well, let’s face it…a little scary. With strong and handsome James by her side, she felt safe enough.

They passed a man from their building. He lifted his chin and uttered a low-toned, “’Sup.”

James raised a fist in the air. “Stay true, man.”

Rain hated that stupid saying. Stay true to what? She shook her head and pressed deeper into his side.

They continued their journey through the decrepit old houses. Norfolk held interwoven pockets of rich and poor districts, originating from the time right after slavery when the white oppressors wanted to keep their servants nearby in separate ghettos. James knew all about these things and schooled Rain well.

Once at the store, James headed straight toward the freezer section. But as they passed through the aisles, Rain’s gaze fell upon the tell-tale rack.

And there it hung.

Her eyes glued to it.

The early pregnancy test.

Mocking. Accusing.

Surely it was nothing. No point in worrying yet.

She tensed as she passed by the blaring package, careful to drag her eyes away from its mesmerizing pull before James noticed. How long could she put it off?

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