With every sigh emanated, the tension only grew more palpable. He hadn’t imagined waiting this long; not for love — or the promise of hot tea. and back home his boys would just say he was pussy, that he couldn’t call it because — you guessed it — he was pussy. Uncle sitting on the opposite side of the room wasn’t about to be read like Aunty, all eager eyes and hovering hands. His father sat crossed legged beside him, taking his time with the canteen.
When she entered the room, it was nothing short of nonchalant. She came like the wind, a simmering figure, shades of bronzed skin within pleasant, wafting scent. She didn’t meet his gaze, met her parents with a warm intimacy and took a seat in between. Silence ensued. This house wasn’t the same to her anymore, a cove of secrets forbidden for her ears, haven of displacement. A boy from America, highly educated and short fused. A girl from Pakistan, spending her summer days listening to her father’s old show-tunes on vinyl, drowning out the noise.
“Let’s leave them,” Aunty says. The adults stand slowly and make their way into the blistering day, one with much left to be desired. Hand in hand. Maybe one day that could be them.
They can hear the azaan ring in through the windows. She rises and reaches for the janamaz, just left of his seat, lips inches from neck. He doesn’t say a word, watches her unfold it, wrap her dupatta over and around her pretty scalp, submit to a deity he’d been critical of his whole life. She kneels, eyes closed, greets each angel on each side. Suddenly it’s all over and she steps to the kitchen, out of sight, comes back with a pitcher of tea she only pours for herself.
“What did you pray for?”
She blinks, stares at him. Gentle eyes, unassuming eyes.
“That’s kind of personal, don’t you think?”
He stands and begins to pace the room, spinning a globe which rests on the mahogany table. Transfixed by cartographic measures, his back is turned to her now, index finger seeking out their location.
“My mother told me you’re an artist.”
“We’re all artists in our family,” she says, “some more than others.”
“My mother made us play sports. It started with my brother. She drove us to summer camps, to soccer practices. So I guess we’re all athletes.”
She doesn’t say anything, imagines her suitor running along grassy fields, attired in knee high socks and cleats fit for European living.
“But,” he continues, not picking up on her pauses, “none of that matters here. It’s too damn hot for anything. And the fucking power keeps going out where I’m staying.”
He turns to her now, as if searching for an explanation; if these gentle eyes could silently prod he might have willed them for such a purpose.
“Want to go on the roof?”
The chowkidar lets them in, insisting they keep quiet. He watches with mild amusement as he communicates with her in their mother tongue, all syllables and sounds he can’t begin to decipher. There’s no mistaking it from this view: this city has the power to capture him whole. There’s no running here or any socializing. Harami Amreekan, they mutter in the street, able to point him out like a lamb roaming in wolves’ land. He’s not helping their cause. White sneakers, washed blue denim, a f*cking lanyard.
Sweat forms on his brow as he fishes a cigarette out of his pocket, half filled with hash.
“Do you think that’s cool?” she says.
“I don’t think it’s cool,” he says flatly, only after exhaling a thin stream of smoke. “They get me through my day. Just like your art.”
“And your job,” she says. “Financial Analyst. PWC. Do you smoke there too?”
“Only on my lunch break. And usually with a cup o’ joe.”
“If anything, you should stop soon. I don’t date smokers.”
“Who said anything about dating? My mother — ”
“I don’t care what your mother says,” she cuts him off, making eye contact. “I just want you to know that I don’t date smokers.”
They’re both quiet and in this instance, something miraculous happens. Like television, the omnipresent guardian of millennials, they begin to take each other in. Broad shoulders. Full lips. Calves that you only have from biking mountains in California. Legs so long such embroidery fails to make sense.
“Your parents never spoke Urdu at home?”
He’s quiet for second or two and, naturally, she fears the worst. He simply shrugs, ashes his cigarette on the dusty floor and turns, ready to leave. Then it happens. The words that enraptured her heart and wouldn’t let go, that sent a spirit into a spiral, everlasting and without much doubt she would see him the next day.
“If cities could be girlfriends, Karachi’s the one who never wanted to be with me. She rejected me, called me somebody else’s… she donned her veil and looked the other way, gave me a cold f*cking shoulder.”
If there was ever a syllable to heartbeat correlation, it never proved more genuine than this instance. He makes his way downstairs, her in tow, gathering his belongings. He casts one last cursory glance around the room — drab curtains, ghazals coming from her nana’s room, a pile of chappals — and takes a step out of the front door, immediately drawing stares as his foot touches Earth. He joins his father and without much ado, takes a seat in the rickshaw, looking as out of place as one can. She watches from afar now, knowing in her heart of hearts a miracle happened in her home today. An American boy, a Pakistani girl. An anxious mother, an optimistic father. A subtle rouse, an even subtler sanction, yelps of joy, phone calls being made, dates being marked, saris being tailored, flights being booked, an ordained premonition.
* * *
Mustafa Abubaker is a 21-year-old writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. Twitter: @brownboyflyhigh.