Authors: Aisha Saeed
Tags: #Young Adult Fiction, #People & Places, #Middle East, #Family, #Marriage & Divorce, #Social Themes, #Dating & Sex, #Juvenile Fiction, #Social Issues
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Copyright © 2015 by Aisha Saeed.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To every Naila everywhere
aila, I wish you didn’t have to miss the game,” Carla tells me.
“Game?” I check the road, on the lookout for my mom, before turning to her. She rolls her eyes, her blond hair up in its cheerleader ponytail. Our lives may have changed a lot since we met in first grade, but that eye roll with the annoyed pout, that hasn’t changed at all.
“Game?” She looks at Eric. “Do you believe her? It’s only the last game of Saif’s high school career.” She turns to me. “Naila, are you really going to miss this one too?”
“You know I can’t go.”
“It’s his last game, Naila.”
I glance back at Saif. He’s wearing his blue soccer jersey and chatting with a friend a safe distance away by the green mosaic mural next to our high school’s entrance. I take in his lean frame, his olive skin, and the brown hair that brushes against his eyes. He catches my eye just then; his dimple deepens with his smile. He takes a step toward us, and then stops, remembering why he can’t approach.
“See?” Carla exhales. “He knows he can’t even stand here with us because your parents might freak out.”
“My mom might freak out if she sees Eric standing here too,” I remind her, jabbing a finger toward the road.
“I still don’t get it,” she continues. “He’s the sweetest boyfriend ever. Any parent should be thankful their daughter met a guy like him. What’s their deal?”
I’ve explained it all to her too many times. I’m starting to think she just doesn’t want to hear it. “It’s complicated,” I finally say.
“Well, you know what’s not complicated?” she counters. “That he’s the most understanding guy I’ve ever met. Seriously, Eric”—she touches his arm—“would we be celebrating our three-month anniversary next week if I never so much as stepped past this curb with you?”
Eric clears his throat. “Um, good question, but”—he glances back—“I think Saif’s calling me, so, uh, I’ll leave you both to discuss that.” He kisses Carla and jogs over to Saif.
I think, relaxing a little now that I am alone with Carla
“I want to go tonight, Carla,” I tell her. “You know I do, but my parents—”
“Oh, come on!” Carla shakes her head. “They can’t keep you locked up forever. Just sneak out the window. Just this once! You’re not twelve years old. Besides, your parents zonk out by nine o’clock anyways. I can pick you up. At least you’ll catch the last half. It would mean so much to him.”
“I wish I could, but I can’t. We’ll be in college this time next year. I can’t risk getting caught now.”
I don’t mention the tension that’s built between my parents ever since I got my acceptance letter last week or the hushed arguments about whether or not I will go away to college at all.
“Hey,” Saif calls out to Carla, “Eric and I are leaving without you if you don’t hurry up!”
“Fine.” Carla rolls her eyes at me again. “You can’t say I didn’t try.”
She walks over to join Saif and Eric. Before they all head to the student parking lot, Saif turns to look at me.
I mouth to him. I press my palm to my lips and blow him a silent kiss. He grins—and then they disappear behind the curve.
Only now does my jaw unclench, my shoulders relax. And only now do I let myself acknowledge that familiar mixture of relief and guilt that has been my companion this past year.
Has it already been a year? I think back. Yes. It’s been one year since Saif told me he cared about me as more than just his friend. It’s been one year since I told him I felt the same way and kissed him in the side courtyard with the tangled palm trees next to the library, deciding it was time to let my heart, and not fear, dictate what I would do. And—my stomach tightens—it’s been one year since I began deceiving my parents without ever once opening my mouth.
I hear a honk. My mother’s minivan pulls up to the curb.
“Sorry, beta, I had to stop and get gas,” she says when I get inside. Her hair, more black than gray, is tied up in a loose bun; a large red scarf circles her neck despite today’s exceptionally hot Florida sun. “I didn’t realize I was this late, though.” She scans the empty school entrance. “You should have stayed inside until you saw my car—you never know who is out there.”
“Carla was here,” I tell her quickly. “She only just left.”
“She’s a good girl.” My mother smiles. “I’m glad you’re both still friends.”
“Well,” I begin, “she was telling me about a soccer game tonight. She really wants me to go and support the team too. The school year’s almost over, and all our friends are going to be there, and, well, we’ll be roommates in a few months anyways, so I was wondering—”
“No.” My mother shoots me a surprised look. “You know that.”
“But, Ami—” I begin.
“It’s not you I’m worried about. It’s all the boys that would be there. Besides, Auntie Lubna is having a party tonight. Did you forget already?”
“Is Imran going?” I bite my lip, knowing the answer.
“He has to study,” she responds.
“Why can Imran skip these parties but I never can?”
“What’s gotten into you today?” My mother glances at me. “If you don’t go, people will wonder. You know how they talk. Besides, your brother gets bored. He doesn’t have anyone his own age at these things. I already ironed your salwar kamiz. We’ll leave as soon as your abu can shut down the dry cleaning business for the day.”
I lean back into the seat. I’ve gone to more of my parents’ dinner parties than I can count. Gatherings of their friends, all Pakistani immigrants like themselves, who meet almost every week at one another’s homes to talk in the language they grew up with and listen to the music of their childhood.
I used to even eye Saif from afar at these dinner parties, until his sister Jehan got married to someone who shocked the entire community. His name was Justin. They didn’t know much about him, except that he was definitely not Pakistani.
We all saw it coming,
my mother had said in a horrified voice on the phone to her sister.
They never had any control over their kids. What else do you expect?
I think my mother and her friends might have forgiven them this marriage had Saif’s parents seemed remorseful about Jehan marrying outside the South Asian community. But they didn’t seem ashamed at all.
No one invites them anymore.
I watch the trees along the road fly by as we drive past. It’s almost summertime. Not that anyone can tell. Elsewhere there are seasons. Leaves bloom green and then turn gold and crimson as they fall to the earth, change coming to everything in its path.
In my world, the leaves stay green, the same Florida heat beating down on us, day after day, year after year. Unchanging.
But not for long. Soon things will change. Soon they will have to. I’ve spent my entire life banking on this very truth.
hen we get home from dinner, I sit on the edge of the carpeted stairs and strain to hear my parents discuss me in the family room below.
“She could commute if she took classes two days a week,” my mother says.
“Mehnaz, the university is two hours away.”
“But she’s too young! I can’t help but worry.”
“She’s a smart girl. We have to trust we raised her right.”
“What if she went to the community college here for the first two years? There’s no harm in that. Maybe in the meantime, we’ll find a good proposal for her and she can get married. Don’t look at me like that. It’s true. Many girls get married and continue their education. Which, by the way”—my mother pauses—“Shaista called today.”
I grip the wooden bars of the railing. Not this. Not again.
“Mehnaz, we’ve already settled this.” My father’s voice lowers.
“Why don’t you listen to me? Shaista said it is a very good proposal. He’s doing his residency. Proposals like this don’t come around every day. Naila would be taken care of for life. We should at least meet them.”
“Do you know how difficult it is to get into the six-year medical program? Imran struggles with basic algebra, but Naila? She’s brilliant. She’s worked too hard to get there. She can wait and get married later.”
I exhale. My father wanted to be a doctor once. I know he would never let my own dream go unfulfilled.
“Fine,” my mother says. “You’re probably right. I guess it’s a mother’s job to worry.”
The sofa shifts below, and then, footsteps. I leap to my feet and dash to my room. Grabbing the closest textbook to me, I fling myself on my bed.
My mother steps inside and sits down on the wicker chair by my bed. She’s still wearing her blue salwar kamiz from the dinner party we went to—a long tunic with loose trousers and a scarf draped loosely around her shoulders. She normally wears her hair wrapped up in a bun, but looking at her now, the way it flows long and wavy past her shoulders, I see why people say I look just like her.
She glances around my bedroom and then closes her eyes for a moment. The pink textured wallpaper my father pasted up when I was born still looks new, as does the whitewashed furniture, despite a few scruffs and scratches from years ago. When she finally opens her eyes and looks at me, her eyes are wet.
“I can’t begin to tell you how much I’m going to miss you.”
“Ami.” I sit up and move closer to her. “I’m not going far away.”
“But, Naila”—she leans closer to me—“don’t forget everything we’ve talked about. You’re a beautiful girl, and there will be many who will like you.”
“Not this again,” I mumble. I try pulling away, but her hands grip my wrists.
“Don’t look at me like that. It’s true,” my mother tells me. “Remember, just because you will be away at college doesn’t mean the promises you’ve made no longer apply. You can choose many things,” she continues. “You can choose what you want to be when you grow up, the types of shoes you want to buy, how long you want your hair to be. But your husband, that’s different. We choose your husband for you. You understand that, right?”
I’ve heard this more times than I can count. The first time we had this conversation was seven years ago, when I was ten. “What if I find him first?” I asked then.
“That’s not how it’s done,” she had said. “Just because we live in a different place doesn’t change how things should be.”
“But didn’t you
to talk to Abu? Didn’t you feel afraid?”
“My parents knew it was a good match, and they were right. You’ve seen others, your third cousin Roohi, who chose not to listen. Look at her now, divorced with young children. Her parents can’t even leave their home without hanging their heads in shame. Who wants to marry her now? A life of loneliness is an awful punishment for one bad decision. We don’t want that for you. Trust us. Promise you won’t disappoint us.”
I watch my mother now. She twists her shawl with her fingers. I hate keeping secrets from her. But how can I explain that I see the world a little differently and my way of looking at the world isn’t bad, not if it means their daughter has found someone she loves, someone who makes her completely and unbelievably happy?
I want to tell her all of this. But I know I can’t. At least not yet.
“Ami.” I look at her, giving her the reassurance she came for. “Trust me, I won’t disappoint you.”