[Image: “Modern Mythology” by Rebecca Rebouché]
A caged parrot, fireflies, two cheating husbands. A marriage that persisted and a marriage that is perishing. I remember my mother sobbing into my eight-year-old shoulder upon learning of my father’s affair. My brother’s chipped front tooth shining at me against the glow of orange streetlights. Taylor’s grey eyes closing just before I stop him from kissing me for the first time. Alizeh sneaking out during kitty parties. Does it matter if God is real or not, so long as I offer salah like He is? Mom’s chided me for years for only remembering Allah when I needed Him.
Faraz is here on his lunchbreak. He came to talk to me while our parents weren’t home. He’s brought the number of an old contact of his from law school, a divorce attorney whom he claimed I could afford. He’s absorbed in his coffee, running his thumb along the white styrofoam rim as I swirl around white lumpy mash ki daal in my plate with roti. I’ve never liked mash ki daal, but my mother insisted this morning I eat more protein. I wonder if my oldest brother is going to chastise me on my latest and biggest failure yet: separated within just two years of marriage, moved back in with our parents at twenty-seven, no concrete long-term goals to speak of. I force myself to swallow some mush to keep down my nausea.
Faraz clears his throat, drains the cup, then clears it again.
“How’s it going, by the way?”
I look up, giving him his answer. Mom would have taken one look at my under-eyes and called me a bhapad bhooth. Faraz slumps back in his seat, shaking his head grimly. “So, you’re sure she’ll give me a good deal?” I say before he can tell me to get more sleep. I’d gotten by fine on my elementary teacher’s salary when Taylor and I were splitting rent, but that was also because I didn’t have lawyer fees to consider.
“Yeah, consultation’s free. She’ll take your case if you don’t qualify for annulment.”
I nod and hold out my hand for the number, but he doesn’t move.
“Have you told Taylor yet?” he says.
I lower my hand. Faraz won’t let this be easy. For the past three months, his texts have been a string of When are you moving back? Has he called you lately? Have you made up yet?
“We aren’t even talking.” I choose not to mention that Taylor sent me a long text message last night that made me cry.
Faraz crunches the cup in his hand before tossing it into the open trashcan. His beard’s grown some grey lately. I haven’t seen him clean-shaven since the night I was bawling in my mother’s arms the night I left my husband three months ago, Faraz standing by the door, slack and silent. “Well, when are you telling him?”
“I don’t know. I guess today if he remembers to drop my stuff off. But Luke’s fifth birthday’s coming up, he’s probably busy helping Sina plan that.”
Faraz scratches the line of his beard with a thumbnail, frown lines creasing his forehead. I wonder why he’s growing it out if it’s itching him. Taylor used to shave every other morning. He knew how red I got anytime the slightest bit of stubble brushed against my skin. He was afraid of irritating my shoulder whenever he rested his cheek against it in the nights.
“You’re not going to the party? Thought his kid liked you.”
Roly-poly Luke, with his father’s smile and stubby fingers that cling to mine even as he’s sitting in my lap. Luke, who eats my sheer khorma faster than he does gummy worms.
“He’ll live. Seeing as his dad’s doing just fine.”
“How would you know that if you haven’t even been talking,” he snorts.
I’m actually dying to ask if he’s seen Taylor at the gym lately. They went together a fair bit. I could do it casually, not give away that I crumble a little every time I reject a call or play a voicemail from him. But I see Faraz’s stony expression, and I don’t want to fail any more of his tests
“Because I know him, okay. He hasn’t shown up here since I left. He’s probably compartmentalizing everything, as always. Even mom says that’s just what men do. Mom says-”
He’s already shaking his head, the annoyance in his brow so palpable, it cuts me.
“Don’t worry about Mom. What if he wasn’t compartmentalizing? Or tried making up?”
Faraz’s eyes are giving me the once-over I still haven’t mastered nonchalance under. He was born to be a lawyer. I can feel my face burning as I look away, and now I’m the one who’s annoyed. My seeking a divorce should have demonstrated independence, something he’s always wanted out of me. The irony of his methods will always be lost on him. I say what I think he wants to hear.
“Why does it matter? I’ve already decided. What difference does it make?”
He stands, his eyes raised to the ceiling, his jaw set. His hand is still on the table. He drums his fingers against the wood. “There’s no way in hell you’ve thought this through,” he announces. “I guarantee you that. I say you take a few more days before you do anything rash.”
I knew he didn’t think I could make it without Taylor. He still sees me as some helpless kid who broke her arm trying to ride a bike. I push away my plate.
“I’m going to leave the number on the table,” he continues. “When you’re sure. Give her a call. The number’s not going anywhere. But once you start this shit you can’t take it back.”
Both my elbows are propped on the placemat, forehead sagging against my open palms.
“I’ll call you,” Faraz says. He pauses on his way out of the kitchen, then leans over and presses his nose to my temple, his hand covering the entire right side of my head. It’s something he does a couple of times a year and the only way he’ll show affection. It takes everything in me to keep from dissolving. “Don’t forget to tell Mom I stopped by.” And he’s gone.
Your family’s just as fucked up as mine. The only difference is I’m actually honest with you about it. But you, you’ll do anything to protect them. Even if it costs us whatever we have. It was the last thing my husband told me face-to-face, during the blow-out I knew we wouldn’t be able use sex as a band-aid for.
In a few hours, he’ll be here. In a few hours, I’ll have to make him believe I don’t want to be married to him anymore. I always wanted to believe I’d make fewer mistakes the older I got. I’m unlucky enough to know better now.
“When’s he coming?” asks Alizeh.
We’re skipping stones by the lake I’ve known since I was born. I’d run a few laps, then picked a rock by the banks to sit on as I waited for her to pull up. I’d texted her, and she’d promptly left work. We listen to the birds calling to each other. Fauna scamper up and around the trees as their leaves fall crisply to the ground. The grass soaks in the water, the water soaks into the grass. The mid-August air is cooling. I try to feel soothed by the abundance of life pulsating around me, the green drinking up the blue.
“Probably in between his drives.” It was how we’d met four years ago. I enrolled in Driver’s Ed after moving back to Hayward once I’d graduated college, settling into a job at an elementary school and getting an apartment with Alizeh. The family friend my parents had known since she was born, and the only one they’d approve of me living with. Taylor, who I’d only thought of as my instructor then, had married young and had a baby on the way. I was to learn later that this marriage was on the rocks.
She nods, pursing her lips.
“So… are you telling him today?” she ventures after a few minutes of silence.
I skip my last stone. The constricted mass threatens to relinquish my throat.
“I think he knows where this is headed.” I blink, hard and fast. It’ll scare her if I cry.
Ali twines her arm around my right shoulder and rests her head on my left. “He’s haula for letting you go, Mila-lala.”
The nickname evolved from something she used to do when we were kids and I wouldn’t stop singing. Lalala! Lalala! She’d yell, drowning out whenever I belted out songs like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or Pehla Nasha. Years later, Taylor adopted the epithet, saying it as I sang along to the songs we played in the kitchen while cooking, and it only made me want to sing more. The smile tinges my face before I can check it. I haven’t sung in ages.
“Didn’t you used to encourage me to pursue him?” I’m still smiling. I remember when I’d invite Taylor into our apartment for a soda while he was picking me up for my driving lessons. How she stuck her head around the door and mouthed things like, He’s cute. Exasperated, I’d tap my ring finger with a thumb, giving her a telling look, and she’d shrug, So?
She jerks up in mock affront.
“Come on, I was kidding! How could I know you’d actually do it. Seriously, between the two of us, I’d thought I was the one who’d end up not marrying a Muslim. You were so… shareef. Always a goody-two-shoes from the start.”
Having three older brothers to check me insured that. Being an only child, Ali would get away with things like dating, cutting class and purchasing sleeveless tops or knee-length skirts.
“Not always. Remember when I was at UVA?”
“Ah, well.” She sits back down heavily, her head returning to its former position. “He was a dick. And you were a kid. And if anything I thought that’d make you swear off dating forever.”
I sigh. “Believe me, that was my plan.”
I thought I’d learned my lesson after my first real relationship ended, one that began in when I was a college freshman, right after I’d left my mother’s sphere of influence. It fell apart in our senior year when he decided he couldn’t wait anymore to have sex and did it with a high school flame.
“God. Aunty and Uncle would have killed you if they ever found out. Remember, right after it happened, how you were going on about how him cheating was all punishment for going behind their backs and dating him in the first place? You really freaked me out, Mila.”
I’d been in a pretty bad state. The realization of how dependent I’d gotten on him, the alienation I’d been forced into after all our friends took his side, and the panic attacks brought on by the shame of my transgressions had left me distraught. I regret putting Ali through those phone calls. I was always the shoulder she cried on after a relationship of hers failed. Always the big sister. Even now, I feel rotten for having lost my ability to be her moral compass again.
“To be honest. That’d been easier to go through.”
Alizeh bites her lip at this. I can see the cogs in her head desperately turning.
“Hey, they delivered some new henna cones at the salon. Want me to go get some? We could take turns putting it on.”
In school, our white friends would rub their noses against our palms after Eid, weddings, or Milad an Nabi, marveling at the sugary fragrance of our burgundy-painted hands. She’s trying so hard. I look at her and force a smile, just so she believes her efforts aren’t wasted.
“Yes, maybe tomorrow. Speaking of, shouldn’t you get back?”
“Radha’ll cover me, it’s mostly threading right now. Does your mom know, by the way?”
“That he’s coming, yes. Faraz’ll probably tell her about the lawyer eventually.”
Ali nods, following my gaze to the rippling surface of the lake.
“Maybe you should tell her yourself, you know? She seems different lately. Like you don’t have to be her parrot anymore.”
That gets a laugh out of me. It’s what our family friends called me growing up, a reference to a folktale about the legendary poet, Hatim Tai. It was my favorite of these tales. I wonder if Ali might be right. My mother has been different with me since I moved in, watching more, speaking less.
“We’ll see. C’mon, let’s go back. You’ll be late.” I rise from the rock.
“Mila,” Ali says. She’s chewing on her lip, looking timid, so unlike the Ali she is. “If no one told you what they thought was best. What would you do?”
“Probably the same thing.”
“But what would you want to do?”
And, unbidden, unabashed, they flood into my mind again and take hold— the memories my senses amassed during my short-lived marriage: the smell of Taylor’s cologne. The feel of his coarse, blistered palm against mine. His light, easy laughter at my jokes back when I was still funny. His eyes, large and careful the first time we made love and he said, Am I hurting you? Grabbing him closer, uninterested in reassuring him any other way, his relief washing over me, our eagerness to consummate after two long years all-encompassing. Emotions swarm me where I stand, Ali’s form blurs. And then, mercifully, release.
“I’d still do what’s right. I want what’s best for everyone.”
I’ve spent long enough being selfish.
The pungent smell of ginger-garlic paste and onions greeted me when I entered, telling me my mother was home.
I’d spent the short ride back with Ali lamenting about how fucked up it was that my family still wielded so much control over me even after they were culturally-bound to let me live my own life after marriage. I’d let her rant. Although she’d had better luck rebelling against Dakhini expectations, she was never immune to them.
“Faraz was here earlier,” I say taking off my shoes by the white wire rack.
“That’s good,” my mother says. “I’ve been telling him to come over, but he’s always so busy. Did you finish the daal this morning?”
“Most of it,” I say, straying away to the living room. I wonder if Faraz left the number there like he said. I’d been afraid to look on my way out. A small, rectangular white card with a red and yellow logo printed on it sits upon the glass table. I’m staring at it, frozen in place when my mother speaks again.
“What happened with Faraz?”
“What?” I’m still looking at the card. It’s not close enough to be legible.
“Did you talk about anything important?”
I tear my eyes away and walk back into the kitchen. I reach for an onion, sit at the table and begin peeling it. She’ll need it for the raita.
“Yeah. I asked him about divorce attorneys and he brought me a number.”
“Really.” Her back is pillar-straight. She keeps stirring.
She covers the pot with a lid and joins me at the table.
“Give me that,” she says, taking the onion and knife from me. She passes me a banana. “Khao.” Eat. Her most oft-repeated command to me lately. “You get thinner every day.” With resignation, I begin peeling it, watching her face as she continues dicing up the onion.
It’s like looking into a mirror that ages me thirty years. I can’t say that upsets me. After all’s said and done, I still love looking like my mom. I suspect she loves it, too. Every time she was pregnant, she went to sleep every night having secretly prayed, “Allah, let it be a bachi.” I granted her wish three sons later.
The Hatim Tai story that gave me my nickname was about a wicked magician, impossible to kill because he’d placed his life into a parrot, which he kept fiercely guarded in bejeweled cage. Upon Hatim freeing the parrot and twisting its neck, the magician promptly crumpled to the ground, dead. This was what everyone said I was to my mother: her lifeblood, the thing she’d waited so long to pour all her hopes and expectations into, the person it’d have killed her to live without. Some blessing I turned out to be.
“Did Faraz say when to call the lawyer?” she asks.
“No, but I probably will tomorrow. He said she’s at the San Francisco office today.”
“How was he acting?”
“Like he couldn’t trust me with making a decision. He still thinks I’m hauli.” I take a bite out of the banana. I chew a few times, and my tongue starts smearing the mealy flesh against the roof of my mouth.
She scoffs. “It’s not that, Mila. He just worries. You know how much he loves you.”
Loves. Faiz and Mourad’s love came easy. Being loved by Faraz meant climbing a never-ending stairway to gain his approval. I remember when he tried teaching me to ride a bike. After numerous failed attempts, he’d marched me outside one night and demanded that I learn to do things for myself, or he wouldn’t be my brother anymore. I rode until I fell and broke my arm that night. For the longest time, he was all I ever wanted to be.
“You’re calling the lawyer, then?” my mother asks me.
She opts to release a long, theatrical sigh.
“Well. You know best.” Her eyebrows are raised, in the same way I’m sure mine were when Faraz told me to think things over. The folktale wasn’t the only reason they called me her parrot. The first was that I’d mimic every action of hers that I could, right down to the way she’d gnash her teeth together behind pursed lips whenever she was immersed in work like now. When I was younger, I’d ask her what she’d dreamed of as a girl. She was always flippant in her response, assuring me it didn’t matter, that her life now was more important. I wonder if this life was anything like the one she’d imagined for herself. East to West. Hyderabad to Hayward.
In many ways, I’m a reflection of more than just her face. Both of us have experienced the brink of divorce. Both of us have had an unfaithful partner. The only thing different in her case is that both situations were with the same person. And that the only infidelity Taylor had engaged in had been against Sina.
I think of how I’d placed my hand on his chest, barring him from kissing me during our last lesson, only to kiss him myself well after he’d backed off. Shame consumed me the second our lips parted; I resolved to keep him at bay until his divorce was finalized, but the damage was done. I’d seen what disloyalty had done to my mother, and now, whether or not she’d ever know it, I was the reason it’d happened to another woman.
“I always thought Taylor was handsome, isn’t he? And so deewana for you.”
I want to squeeze the banana’s pulp out. Now. Now she wants to praise him? When she’d pointedly speak in only Urdu at the table during agonizing monthly dinners he had to sit through.
“When I spoke to Faraz the other day,” she goes on, “He was talking about how hard he used to push you when you were young. He sounded guilty.”
I have difficulty believing what I’m hearing. “Guilty? Faraz?”
“Yes. I think he feels like he made some mistakes.”
I scan her eyes, honey-brown with short, thick lashes, and detect no deception. Faraz was the only one of us to have inherited her eyes. Life was so much simpler back when their voices in my head used to say the same things.
It was Faraz, the first to find out about Taylor and me, who’d ordered me to come clean to my family about marrying him. I remember how my mother was wailing in his arms that day. How his arms looked more like restraints around her as he glared at me, unblinking, making sure I didn’t waver. Don’t worry about Mom. Finish what you started. No half-assing.
“Well. Everyone makes mistakes,” I say. I get up to throw away the banana peel.
It was my mother whose voice ensnared me. I left home, but she didn’t leave my head. All the misgivings she’d pelted at me swallowed me whole, those foreboding pronouncements landing like deathblows: It doesn’t please Allah what you’ve done. If he can leave her, he can leave you. You’d be a stepmother before ever being a mother. Poor as a pauper, no college degree, not even Muslim, what values would you pass on to your children!
I think of how my father had all the qualities Taylor didn’t. Yet my mother still discovered a letter in his jacket when I was helping her with laundry one day. It smelled of flowery perfume. I remember her arms wrapped about my body and her breath clouding the side of my face, hearing the shrill words Mila, your father is a dog! A dog!
Was that why Faraz had supported me marrying Taylor, despite knowing it went against my mother’s wishes? He’d dragged me outside to ride my bike at around the same time she’d found that letter. Fifteen years old, chipped tooth flashing against his sun-browned skin in the streetlights as he besought me to get on the stupid bike.
I’m still standing by the trashcan when my mother speaks. “Bahut buri baath hai, Mila.”
I blink. “What is?”
She’s back at the stove, lifting the lid off the pot of pasinde. Then she looks back at me just as steam puffs up from within and engulfs her face momentarily.
“This is, Millu. A bad, unfortunate thing.” She sighs, pressing her lips together. The steam dissipates, and I’m taken aback, not sure if the moisture in her eyes is its remnants, or tears. “It doesn’t please Allah.”
I watch as my husband pulls into the driveway in his father’s ivory station wagon. He climbs out the door, stowing away the keys in his pocket.
“Hey,” he says, taking care not to meet my eyes. I’m speechless. He looks a wreck. His hair’s shaggy and appears to need washing. His almost-black beard, a few shades darker than his hair, is full and matted. And I can’t tell for sure, since he’s always been on the lean side, but he seems a bit lankier.
I wonder what his beard feels like now. Is it scratchy, or long enough to be smooth? I clench my fists a few times before speaking to make sure I don’t ask to touch it.
“Hi. Thanks for coming.”
“Sure.” He walks around, pops open the trunk and promptly begins unloading boxes.
What had my mother said earlier, about Taylor being handsome? At least I can always trust her judgement on that. Since I turned twenty-one, she began rejecting photos of young men left and right, sent to her by their mothers or aunts, all hopefuls for my hand. At first it was because I was too young, then she claimed it was because the boys weren’t “anything khaas”. Not good enough for her only daughter. I suspect she just wasn’t ready to part with me fully, something I’m still not sure brings me pain or joy. I wonder if she was ever the tiniest bit proud that Taylor and I made an attractive couple. When I first met Sina, tall and skinny with stringy brown hair, a face full of freckles and a slightly lazy eye, I remember liking that she was plain. It assured me Tay wasn’t superficial. When he told me how he felt about me, I could believe he liked me for me. He wanted who he thought I was.
My hand wants to reach for something; I slide it into my pocket and it touches the card— I’d picked it up on the way to answer the door.
“Do you need me to bring them in?” he asks, pausing to straighten up. His eyes meet mine, the sun flits into his grey irises and I remember fireflies glowing near his face the night he proposed two years ago, tinting them gold. He’d said he’d do whatever it took to be with me— observe Ramadan, make occasional trips to India, consent to my raising our kids Muslim, wear a kurta-pajama every Eid. We’d been so full of light, hope. We thought it would be enough.
“No,” I say. “We’ll take care of it. Dad and the guys’ll be over soon. We might have a family dinner.”
“Ah. Okay, then.” He goes back to unloading the boxes, more jerkily now. Things like my rose-gold lampshade, my furry white bedroom slippers and a polka-dotted umbrella jut out from beyond their edges. He must have opened every drawer, cleaned out every closet and checked under every table to gather all those up. Had it been hard? Did he cry?
“How are you, by the way?”
He looks up again, his hand resting against the door. Something glints on it, and my insides jolt when I realize it’s his ring.
“I’ve been better,” he says. “What about you?”
“Same.” I’m still looking at his ring. I remember staring at it amid our entwined fingers in the nights, long after his soft snores began filling the room. A modest, silver band, Islam forbidding men from wearing gold. His ring when he’d been married to Sina had been gold. I remember how it would settle into our two-hour long driving lessons like a physical, intrusive presence, invoking the boundaries I struggled to respect as friendship budded between us.
Did Taylor ever resent me for not giving him gold, like she had? Did it make him feel second-best, like I did? It made sense, in my head. Second wife, second place. Gold for Sina, silver for Mila. So many restrictions our marriage placed on him, so many things he’d had to agree to just so we could be together. It hadn’t been nearly as complicated with her. There was no God nor family she was bound to do right by. My finger flicks the edge of the card.
I don’t remember my parents wearing their rings; I don’t think I’ve ever even seen them. It wasn’t customary. Meanwhile I’d had no qualms about showcasing to the world that I was spoken for. Some of my students would crowd around me and ask, Miss Mila, is that a wedding ring? Are you married now? I’m glad school’s out for the summer. I don’t feel up to dealing with them noticing it’s not on my finger anymore.
“Yeah,” Taylor’s saying. His Adam’s apple trembles, and he clears his throat. “Look at it this way, though. You’ve so much more time now. You could go back to school, get that biology Master’s. And, well…” he trails off, mumbling, and I barely catch, “…will be other guys.”
The prospect of catching the eye of some new, faceless stranger is far from appealing.
“Same for you,” I say, though this doesn’t lessen my distaste. “You’re still young.”
He lets out a derisive sound.
“Yeah, right. I doubt “twice-divorced dad” looks great on dating resumes.”
He’s testing the waters with that word, trying to gauge my reaction, to see if he’s correct in suggesting that the matter’s gone this far. But in spite of myself, a smile tugs at the corner of my lips.
“You might qualify for a support group at this stage. Think they give out memberships?”
His eyes crinkle as he laughs.
“I know, right? Premium discounts.”
We laugh again, and I wonder what happened to being miserable. He pauses, and eyes me properly for the first time. His face is tinged with pink now, his chest lightly heaving. His eyes open wider.
“No, but seriously,” he says. “I couldn’t care less about dating. If this is it for us-” he stops again, looking around at the boxes surrounding him, his eyes dimming. “It is for me, too.” He turns back and unloads another box.
If he really felt that way, how did we get here? We’d fight over things that didn’t even matter. And over things that did. I was ravaged by the voices in my head, he was ravaged by the ones in his— his parents, shoving, slapping, kicking each other before his eyes.
And no matter how much I told myself I didn’t think like her, my mother’s prophecies of doom found a way to seep through me, into my marriage. Every time I saw Taylor laugh as Luke bounced up and down on his stomach, an invisible hand squeezed hold of my heart, dragging it downwards and plunging it into the bottommost depths of my gut. I’d force myself to smile as I watched, but felt like a phony. I didn’t want to confront the possibility that my mother was right. That I hadn’t aimed high enough when I married Tay.
I gave up on opening up about my family when always, always, it was met with That’s abusive, or That’s fucked, or They need to recognize you’re not a little girl anymore, they can’t keep pushing you around. I craved these words yet hated that I did. My upbringing dictated that I was a traitor for letting an outsider insult my blood, my kin. Later, laying in bed and watching the second hand ticking away on the wall-clock, I’d tell myself I hadn’t actually thought the word “outsider”. Not at all.
“You need therapy,” I’d say whenever we were engulfed in a crossfire.
He’d round on me with “Oh, would you quit with that. Don’t put this all on me.”
“I’m not, I’m saying I’d go with you too. Maybe if you went over to Sina’s a little less, you’d have the time-”
“You’re something else, you know that? I go for my kid. Don’t make me choose.”
I’d wanted to scream, Don’t you understand. I choose between you and my family all the time. I did it when I married you. I’m doing it right now!
We were fracturing, and he tried placating me the only way he knew how without aggression— by making love. I’d acquiesce, only too eager for reconciliation, inexperienced with and far too appreciative of the control I was given, this power to reject or to embrace as I pleased, using it to evade our demons instead of learning how to engage them. Trying to convince myself as we lay together, my cheek against his chest, that this was real. This was right. This was what couples did.
It only went so far. The morning renewed all our strife. I was unable to communicate, unable to plead, unable to waver before my husband’s entreaties when all that resonated in my mind was that if I let this happen, if I caved, if I loved and if I forgave, that meant I’d grown dependent on him. If I let this happen, I won’t be your brother anymore. I had to break the cycle.
It’s over. There’s nothing there anymore, Tay. There’s nothing there. My last words to him before I left. The hurt and defeat in his eyes revealing how convincing I was. When all the while, caged and beating against the bars of my chest, the voice that screeched at me to be released but would forever be drowned out by all the others, That’s a lie, listen to me, I’m here! I’m right here!
“Last three,” Taylor informs me, and I’m suddenly enveloped by dread and longing. The cardboard splits upon hitting the ground, spilling its contents.
“Ah, shit.” He kneels to pick them up; I move forward to help. As we’re both on the ground, gathering everything together, our fingers brush against each other one or two times. I pretend it’s nothing and that I don’t notice, but it’s all I can do not to grab his hand.
“Tay,” I say.
I’m staring at him, but I don’t see him. His text message from last night flashes in my mind: I know I haven’t been fair to you. I want to understand. I want to be better. Better for you and better than my parents. I’ll talk to your family. I’ll go to therapy if it’ll help. Please tell me we can save this, because I don’t know if I can go through with tomorrow. For a long time, I’d worked so hard on being certain of my worth, on ensuring that I didn’t repeat the mistakes of my first relationship. I focused so much on what was fair to me, on settling on nothing unless I absolutely had to, but did I ever think solely of what was fair to Taylor?
My eyes have started dampening, and I know I can’t mask this from him. Something in his face softens. He reaches out and cups my shoulder, giving it the slightest of squeezes. I remember how it used to feel like honey flowed from his fingertips into my body, and this time is no different. His thumb strokes the area where my collarbone peeks through. I lower my eyes, and he misunderstands, thinks it’s because I’m uncomfortable. He drops his hand from me.
I bite into my lip, smote by something that feels like rejection, and I realize this is it. It doesn’t matter what he’s willing to do to get me back. Because he shouldn’t have to. He’s better off free from expectations he’ll never meet. I’ve corrupted enough between us, and this is my punishment: to let him go and direct my loyalty to my flesh and blood in repentance for going against my mother’s wishes to begin with. I cut my palm on the edge of the lawyer’s card as I squeeze it. I have to tell him now, before my resolve crumples.
The door’s opened, and my mother walks out, mopping her face with a sleeve. Taylor and I scramble to our feet.
“Mila, dinner’s ready,” she says. “Are you coming inside?”
Her eyes sweep over me, Taylor, the boxes. I turn away from her. I’ve made it through the day without crying and I don’t want to fail now.
“Yeah, Mom. Can you give us a few minutes first? We’re in the middle of something.”
I can sense her surveying me as she considers this. A few seconds pass. Then she raises her voice.
“Why not just talk inside? It’s much more practical.”
I blink. “What?” I say. But she’s already turned her gaze to my husband.
“Taylor, I haven’t seen you in months. Why take so long to visit? You’re not divorced yet, you know.” Her voice is chiding, but approachable. Mild.
“Um.” Taylor’s eyes dart towards me, but I’m just as nonplussed as he is. “I’m sorry. I’ll, uh. Try not to let it happen again.”
I’m making no attempts to hide my bewilderment, but she isn’t even looking at me.
“Why don’t you two come in and set the table. Everyone will be here soon. You like pasinde, don’t you, Taylor?”
“Yeah.” He’s staring at her, she’s smiling at him, and suddenly blood rushes to my face, my extremities filling with warmth and giddiness. I can’t explain what I’m witnessing, nor what it’s doing to me. But whatever this is, there’s no way I’ll rebuff it.
“Well, come inside then, both of you.”
Taylor takes a step forward, then hesitates. Feet still pointing towards the house, he glances sideways at me. He’s on tenterhooks, uncertain, shy. His eagerness is laid bare. I realize his eyes are searching me for consent, for permission. Permission to let him in. When my mother disappears inside, propping the door open with a broom, it’s suddenly so clear: the only obstacle Taylor sees between my house and himself is me. Something inside me swells; my ribcage feels too small for my heart. The boxes are still sprawled around us, and for the first time, I wonder if perhaps, it’s okay for me not to know yet where they’ll end up. Maybe I’ll find the answer in his voice, one that’s never made its way into my head past all the others. And my hand is crumpling up the card in my pocket as the voice in my chest soars up, unfettered for the first time.
“Go ahead,” I say. I turn away and follow my mother into the house. It probably doesn’t hide my smile from him, but when I hear Taylor’s footsteps closing in behind me, I don’t even care. “There’s room for you.”
Areej Quraishi holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. Her fiction explores familial relationships, memory, cultural identity, and their effects on the psyche. She has been awarded UW’s Grace Milliman Pollock Scholarship, and Honorable Mentions from Glimmer Train Press and New Millennium Writings + Sunshots. She resides in Seattle.