(Part 1 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
“And that’s all there is to it?” the gravelly voice in Rahila’s earpiece chortled.
“That’s right, Mr. Preston. I’m glad I could help.”
“And I’m glad,” he said earnestly, “that you were there to take my call. I was just about to throw this thing through the window. Thank you for making my day.”
After tapping her earpiece to end the call, Rahila typed a brief comment into the incident report, closed the dialog, and clicked over to her queue window. Where a few minutes earlier there had been details about the next few callers, now there was nothing.
“That’s odd,” she muttered, “what happened to—?”
Her curiosity abruptly turned to fear when a message window popped up, telling her to report to her supervisor’s office.
She stared at it for a few breathless moments before forcing herself to calmly rise and cross the cubicle farm towards her supervisor’s glass-faced office. A few coworkers glanced up as she passed, caught her eye, and quickly returned to their duties.
Following company protocol, she carefully tapped three times on the empty doorframe and waited to be permitted entrance.
The severe woman behind the desk closed her eyes briefly, but did not look up. “Sit down, Rahila.”
There were two reasons for being asked to report to a supervisor’s office during a work-shift, but only one for having your queue cleared. Rahila nervously stared straight ahead while wracking her brain for the reason she was being fired.
“I’m really disappointed in you,” her supervisor said quietly, fingers primly laced behind her keyboard.
Rahila slumped, and remembered how much time she’d just spent with Preston, far more than was allotted if she was ever to meet her call quota. “You’re right,” she said, “and I really don’t have any excuse for taking so long to—.”
“This isn’t about your job performance.” The words were flat, devoid of the irritation Rahila had expected. “It is about your moral character.”
“I have learned that you lied to get this job, that you misrepresented yourself.”
“But everything on my resume, everything on my work history is true.” she pleaded. “I didn’t claim to have done anything that I hadn’t done. All of the facts are correct. I even supplied more references than was required, just to be certain that enough could be contacted to confirm my background.”
“I wasn’t referring to your application. It was something you said during the interview.”
“The interview? But—?”
“Tell me, Rahila, why did you not inform your interviewer that you were single?”
“I wasn’t asked.”
“Perhaps not in those precise words, but you were asked whether you had a satisfactory family relationship. It amounts to the same thing.”
A chill flew up Rahila’s back. She knew she had paled. “I answered the questions that I was asked, ma’am, and I did so truthfully. I have a very satisfactory relationship with my brothers and sisters. I visit them frequently, and spend a great deal of time with my nephews and nieces.”
“But not with your parents?”
“My—? What are you accusing me of?”
“You are not married, are you.” The question in her words was belied by her accusatory tone.
Had the problem been simply a matter of job performance, she might have been able to beg a chance to improve during a probation period. As it was, there was nothing she could do. Framing her evasion as a lie meant she could be terminated for cause, and that meant finding a job in some other call center would be nearly impossible now.
Living hand-to-mouth, as she did, also meant that she couldn’t afford to keep her apartment for more than another month, so she made an all-out effort to land another job. But once you’ve been fired for cause, any hope of getting a glowing background check might as well have been pushed off a cliff. Which is how she ended up outside of a charitable women’s assistance center and homeless sanctuary, carrying what few things she’d decided were essential to survival.
“Well,” she confided to the night, “At least it’s a place to sleep.”
As much as the outside of the center fit comfortably into the downtown mix of modern and traditional architecture, Rahila got a decidedly different feeling once she stepped inside. Instead of the subtly non-secular design ethic that usually permeated public institutions, the building’s interior nearly screamed of the religious iconography held sacred by the organization that had run such centers for over a hundred years, and suggested a morality that, thankfully, was not native to her country. Yet, it was that very foreignness that had drawn her here, because the people who subscribed to the morality espoused by the church that funded the center did not adhere to the strict social stratification to which her own culture had become captive.
When her turn came to be admitted, Rahila was led to a small table in a room midway down the central corridor. The man who had called her name mispronounced it badly, but she didn’t think it wise to correct him. Once he was seated opposite her, he introduced himself as Fred Green, and skimmed through her application questionnaire.
“It says here,” he said at length, “that you have several siblings. I’m curious. Why haven’t any of them opened their homes to you?”
“Oh, they’re all friendly enough, and they don’t mind a visit now and then, but they’re also under tremendous pressure to conform. Having me in their homes would open them to all sorts of accusations about their moral judgment, and that could cost them their jobs. They have their children to consider, and would prefer not to take such risks. As a result, I’m pretty much on my own.”
“I don’t understand. Why would their judgment be questioned?”
She stared at him as if he were a backward child. “Because I am a single woman.”
Green drew a blank. “So?”
“If I may ask, sir, have you been in my country for very long?”
“Not really. I was assigned to this station shortly after I volunteered.”
“I see. Well, it is still highly unusual for a mature woman such as myself to be unmarried in my country.”
Green smiled contentedly. “But then, that’s why we’re here. Our mission is to provide safe sanctuary to any woman who needs it, regardless of her marital situation.”
“And I am grateful for that. My former employer was not so open-minded.”
“Speaking of which,” Green said, raising a forefinger, “our objective in offering sanctuary to destitute women is to help them find work. Being productive in God’s eyes in very important to us.”
“It is not God’s eyes that I am concerned about, Mr. Green,” she said with enforced calm. “It was not God who fired me, after all.”
Green subtly winced. His brow furrowed briefly, and then he shifted the subject. “We… can also offer assistance in reconnecting shattered families. You didn’t mention your parents earlier. How do they feel about you?”
“My parents? I don’t see how this is relevant to my having a place to sleep tonight.”
“We believe that it is. When you walked though our door, it was as if God had led you to seek us out. Our mission is to help you, but in order to do that we need to understand your situation. Your life, indeed your soul, is sacred to us.”
Rahila pressed back against her chair. “Sacred,” she said.
“Indeed, yes! We believe that all life is sacred. That’s why we’re so very concerned when a pregnant woman is put in danger, why we go out of our way to be certain that she is well cared for. Her baby is a precious gift from God, and it is our duty to protect it.”
“Yes,” she said, casting about for a way to ease the tension, “I have read many good things about your work here. That was why I came.”
“Now then,” he said, “about your accommodations. We do what we can to create a sense of community among our guests, so we like to place women with children on one wing so that the children can play together. You’ve noted that you have no children with you. Are they being cared for by relatives?”
“I have no children, sir. I have never been married.”
Green considered that briefly, but said nothing. He wrote a few more notations on her paperwork, rose, and invited her to take a brief tour of the facility. While they walked, he pointed out several members of the staff, and explained the center’s rules. When they were finished, he showed her the room she’d be using, told her a bit about her immediate neighbors, and left her to settle in.
Relieved that she at least had a place to stay for the moment, Rahila showered, and changed into clean clothes. Feeling calmer, she walked to the activity area where three of the women residents were chatting while a group of children played together. A uniformed member of the staff, one of the attendants, stood near the far wall. One of the three women looked up and smiled. “Come,” she said, “sit.”
“Thank you,” Rahila said amiably as she reached a vacant chair. “Which of them is yours?”
“Sanjit is the one in red. Is your child with you?”
She smiled politely. “I’m afraid I have no children. I am alone here.”
“No children? But certainly you’re old enough to have had one. Is there a medical reason, perhaps?”
Rahila shook her head. “No. I suppose I could have had children if my life had been different. But I haven’t.”
“Perhaps you still can. You’re healthy, and you certainly look young enough.”
“Thank you. I’m forty-two, actually. My mother looked younger than her years as well. As to having children, though, I guess my karma has flowed along other channels. Still, there are compensations. I do get to enjoy my nephews and nieces when I visit with siblings.”
The women glanced nervously at one another. The one to Rahila’s right self-consciously tugged at her sleeves to cover the bruises on her wrists. “And where is your husband?” she asked. “Is he the reason that you are here?”
“I’m here,” Rahila said, ignoring the first question, “because I lost my job and could no longer afford the rent.”
“I understand. It often takes two salaries to make ends meet these days.”
The attendant, who had been watching the children earlier, took a few steps closer, and appeared to now be listening to the women’s conversation.
“It does for my brother and his wife,” Rahila admitted. “But there is only one income in my household.”
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said, leaning forward slightly, “has your husband taken ill?”
Trapped in the conversational cage, Rahila sighed in resignation. “No. I’m not married.”
“Excuse me, ma’am,” the attendant said, much closer now. “Did you just say that you were forty-two?”
She eyed him suspiciously. “Why do you ask?”
“You’re single,” he pressed, “and you’re forty-two?”
Rahila gritted her teeth. She’d encountered discrimination over this before, but that was from her countrymen. “Yes,” she said, rising to face him.
“Well, then,” he said with a self-satisfied grin, “I guess I’ll have to report this to the director.”
Two of the women spoke at once. “Report what?”
“Yes,” Rahila said, hardening her stance, “report what?”
“That you should not have been admitted in the first place,” he said haughtily.
“And why might that be?”
“Because you’re over-age. We only accept single women under forty, women who are still of childbearing age. Beyond that, a woman would have to be married, and the victim of abuse.”
“Is that so. Funny, but I don’t recall reading anything about such restrictions on your website. Did you just make that up?”
“Certainly not,” he said, outrage flushing his cheeks. “Our mission in your country is purely humanitarian. We do not discriminate!”
“Maybe not on the basis of social standing or dietary restrictions,” she said, her eyes narrowing, “but what you just said smacks of discrimination based on age and marital status. Or is it just me that you want to get rid of?”
“Just you? Why, in heaven’s name, would I want to do that? Look. We came to your country with one goal in mind: to save the souls of women in distress. This center, and others like it across your country, is the physical manifestation of our commitment to that mission. I will not have you, or anyone else, accuse this organization or the church that runs it of insincerity. We’re doing serious work here.”
“Are you.” Rahila’s voice was flat, unemotional, controlled.
A few people, attracted by the commotion, stepped in from the hallway and drifted closer.
“It’s God’s work,” the attendant said in a harsh staccato.
Sanjit, frightened by the man’s voice, dropped the ball he was holding and ran to his mother.
“And that,” Rahila said sharply, “is precisely the problem. You’re not here to help me, or these women, or anyone else in my country. You’re here to help yourself. You set these shelters up to attract the disempowered so you can fill their heads with your self-righteous morality, oblivious to the simple fact that my people have their own beliefs, their own culture, and as I know all too well, their own problems.”
“Now see here!” he thundered.
Several more people entered the room, including Green.
“Your bullying tactics can only demand obedience,” she shot back, just as forcefully, “they do not produce allies, and they certainly do not save souls.”
Green pushed through the gathering crowd.
“I wasn’t trying to—.”
Rahila cut him off. “What you thought you were doing is irrelevant. It is what you did that I take issue with. I may have lost my job and my home, but have not lost my dignity. But apparently, dignity is something your sanctimonious religious principles do not recognize in people of other faiths. I have read the history of your religion, and it does not speak well of your God. I was willing to put that aside because of the good works that have been done in its name here, but now that I have experienced the attitude of its adherents at close range, I can no longer do so. I came here in need, in the hope that your order could be of help, but now I understand the price that is asked, I will not attempt to challenge your decision. Good day, sir!”
Green rushed after her as she left the room in raucous commotion. “What just happened in there,” he asked as they approached the residence wing.
She stopped, and turned to face him. “Your associate asserted that I should not have been allowed in because of my age and marital status. You made no mention of that, nor did the rules posted on your website. Did he speak the truth? Do you have unwritten rules?”
He nodded glumly. “We do. I did not mention it during our interview because you can easily be taken for a younger woman, and I wanted to help you. I did not think it would be a problem.”
“Okay. I thank you for the effort, but the existence of those rules, and the attitude that they represent, denigrate whatever honor your work here may have gained you. But I cannot stay. I would rather take my chances with people who are openly hostile, than with those who hide their abominable attitude behind a righteous façade. Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to collect my things and be done with this place.”
“I see,” he said quietly. “I would like to say one more thing before you go, though.”
“And that is?”
“Thank you. I have tried to help others in the past by ignoring the rules, and even bending them at times, but I always felt that there was value to what we were doing here.”
“Well, now I’m no longer so sure. It has been my personal, secret spiritual perspective that when there was a lesson I needed desperately to learn, someone would appear to show me the way. So, in a way, I’m glad of what just happened, because I think you are that person. But I’ll have to meditate on it, to know for sure. My wish for you is that you be well, and that you find the sanctuary that was meant for you, wherever it is, and whoever may welcome you.”
Rahila smiled weakly. “Thank you.”
Curious about what happens to Rahila next? Read the next story in this series: “One Final Indignity“.
Copyright 2012 by P. Orin Zack