Tanveer cut herself. She hadn’t meant to. The soapy sponge was tattered and a knife’s serrated edge cut through it as she leaned over the kitchen sink washing dishes after dinner. She didn’t stop to tend the wound, watching instead as bits of steak mixed with droplets of blood on the dirty plates resting at the base of the sink. The cool clear liquid coming from the faucet would soon wash away any instances of red and the soap would not only disinfect the grime found on the plates, but also her wound. So she stood over the sink with her shoulder length black hair tied in a messy bun, scrubbing as hard as she could.
“I know this is difficult. I watched you go through it. Sufiya didn’t,” her husband Robert told her before leaving for the gym, a routine he followed obediently which Tanveer insisted he not miss tonight. She needed time alone.
“Mother, if you can’t accept I can believe what I want and date whom I want, you’re a hypocrite,” her nineteen-year-old daughter, Sufiya, had yelled at dinner. Tanveer shook her head to diminish the words’ sting. It had been the first real exchange of words between them since Sufiya unexpectedly arrived in Lompoc two days earlier. The doorbell had rung Thursday evening and when Tanveer answered it, in front of her stood Sufiya with a backpack on her shoulder and a laundry basket filled with unclean clothes. Tanveer hugged her daughter immediately, but their embrace lacked the usual warmth. Sufiya gave her a lackluster smile and asked if they could catch up later. She was exhausted from the drive and wanted to nap.
Over the next two days, Tanveer continuously tried to engage her daughter in chit-chat. Tanveer asked about her daughter’s classes. Had she picked a major? What about studying abroad? Each time Tanveer started a conversation, Sufiya was busy. She had homework. She was on an important phone call. She needed to visit a high-school friend. Only once did Sufiya answer a question. Religions of India was her favorite course. Tanveer wanted to ask more. It was a curious course to take. Their family had no religion. Sufiya wouldn’t engage. She needed to go for a run.
Not wanting to be an overbearing mother, Tanveer accepted these excuses. Generally, they had a great relationship going shopping, watching movies, and gossiping together. Sufiya could ignore her this weekend. By Sunday morning though, Tanveer realized her daughter hadn’t smiled once since arriving home and was constantly on the phone – of course out of earshot of Tanveer or Robert. Something was wrong and Tanveer needed to fix it. She went to the grocery store and bought beef tri-tip for dinner. Sufiya’s favorite. They would have a proper family dinner before Sufiya returned to school. It would help.
The dishes washed, Tanveer wrapped her wounded finger in a paper towel. She could hear her daughter’s footsteps through the floorboard above her. Sufiya was pacing. Nothing about dinner had been proper.
The family sat around a leaf-shaped table in the dimly lit dining room. As Tanveer chewed on her last barbeque-draped bite of steak, Sufiya clanked a fork against a crystal water glass. Tanveer swallowed and glanced at her. Sufiya’s clenched jaw and somber expression made Tanveer uneasy. She recognized the look. Sufiya gave it once when she brought home a report card with a D+ in English.
“I don’t know how to do this so I’m just going to say it,” Sufiya began. “I came home because I’ve met someone. He’s an exchange student from India and umm . . . we’re talking about getting engaged,” she ended.
Tanveer thought the world might have gone mute. Silence ricocheted off the ivory painted walls in the room. No one spoke, but Tanveer’s arm hairs stood in protest.
Robert swiftly grabbed the back of Tanveer’s chair. Sufiya had barely spoken to either of them all weekend and he wanted her to kept talking now. “Wow, that’s a big step, darling. You’re young. You sure? We haven’t even met him, have we?”
“Um. . . sort of. At least, mom has,” Sufiya said averting Tanveer’s stare. “Last month, when mom drove through L.A., we had lunch and he was there.”
Tanveer’s nostrils flared. Her breathing became rapid. She could not form the sounds needed for speech, but her mind was racing. What? Sufiya . . . Indian . . . engaged . . . THAT boy. Tanveer searched her memory for the boy’s image and found a man in his thirties standing at the buffet line in Naan and Curry. He was wearing a pale blue collared shirt, with two buttons opened up top, untucked and hanging loosely over khaki slacks. She would have called him good looking, had it not been for the speck of daal dripping from his scraggily black beard. Sufiya introduced him as the three of them stood in line filling their plates with food. She had told Tanveer they were classmates.
Underneath the table, Tanveer flexed her hands trying to release the tension ringing through her limbs. She hadn’t prepared to enter a boxing match. The image of Sufiya in a white (or would it be a red and gold Indian bridal gown?) made Tanveer feel cold. Sufiya couldn’t be a wife. She couldn’t even do laundry.
Tanveer’s mouth began parting when she caught sight of Robert’s soft hazel eyes; they were so different from her dark almond ones. His gaze pleaded with her to remain calm. Tanveer sighed letting Robert know she would cooperate. His attention then refocused on Sufiya. Tanveer had always been amazed at Robert’s ability to understand explosions, especially his knowledge on how to avoid them. Once, when Tanveer was out of town, Sufiya, fifteen, came home drunk and Robert let her sleep it off. In the morning, he brought her coffee and Advil and sat with her until she was ready to talk. Tanveer would have raged into their daughter’s room, giving her a life sentence. Robert never lost his cool and Sufiya never came home drunk again. This soothing, conciliatory quality had not changed in the twenty years since she married him.
Tanveer grasped her chair’s underside and listened to the questions Robert asked and the answers their daughter gave on how she met the boy that was about to ruin her life.
“How did you meet uh—“
“Yes, how did you meet Shabbir?”
“Remember the Religions of India course I took last fall? He was the teaching assistant.”
“Isn’t dating a TA illegal? Shouldn’t someone have reported him to the Dean?” Tanveer snapped.
“Tanveer, please. Let our daughter talk.”
Tanveer shot him an annoyed look. She liked Robert’s mediator qualities, but sometimes his sensibilities drove her nuts.
Sufiya continued, “I went to see him during office hours for help. You know me Daddy; I hate essays.”
Robert gave a mild smile, nodding in agreement.
“He kept helping me and it just developed into this relationship.”
The more Sufiya explained the more Tanveer wanted to throw things. She thought crashing dishes would be more soothing than her daughter’s gibberish. Sufiya was now talking about how Shabbir and she fell in love over a plate of tandoori chicken, basmati rice, and raita at his favorite restaurant, Naan and Curry. Tanveer released her grip on the chair, took hold of the fork lying on her plate, and clenched it until the sharp edges left harsh red imprints on her palm.
“He took me to a mosque during Eid holiday, said Sufiya. “I liked it.”
“Oh, you did? Now what? You’re going to convert?” Tanveer said sarcastically.
“Actually, I might,” Sufiya said softly.
“What?” Tanveer said.
“Tanveer, please let–”
“–No, you had your turn. What the hell did you just say, Sufiya?”
“I’m thinking about converting,” Sufiya said raising her chin confidently.
Tanveer’s body temperature rose, boiling, with this new information.
“Shabbir will be graduating in a year from his PhD program, and he wants to move back to India,” Sufiya continued.
The air around Tanveer felt fog heavy. Sufiya shut her eyes and Tanveer watched as her daughter’s chest rose and fell with each deep breath. The motion was a confidence-building characteristic Sufiya inherited from her grandfather, a man her daughter knew only from pictures. “I’m moving with Shabbir and converting to Islam,” she said as her eyes opened.
“Like hell you are,” Tanveer said, pushing herself up from her chair. “If you think we’ll let you drop out of college, convert to Islam, and move to India all for some . . . some boy, you’re crazy! You’re American for God’s sake,” Tanveer yelled. “This has got to be the most ridiculous stunt you’ve ever pulled, Sufiya. You know nothing about Islam and you want to marry a Muslim? Well then, better say goodbye to those pork chops you love so much. And you know what else? That pretty little red skirt you have on there, well, no more skirts for you my darling daughter.” Tanveer flopped back into her chair, reached for her wine glass and took a gulp. “One more thing. You won’t be able to have a champagne toast at your wedding,” she added, tilting the crystal wine glass in her daughter’s direction.
The whole thing was absurd. Tanveer knew firsthand what kind of life Sufiya would have marrying that boy. A life filled with rearing children as soon as possible, her Peace Corps dreams forgotten. A life in which disagreements with Imams would reflect poorly on her reputation. Forever Sufiya would worry about shaming her family due to her misunderstandings on how proper Muslim women should behave. She would be miserable. She would suffocate. After all, hadn’t Tanveer?
Tanveer’s eyes narrowed. Sufiya had to be going through some sort of phase, an act of rebellion. Tanveer set down her wine glass, chancing a look in her daughter’s direction. She found a poised young lady with red-rimmed eyes staring back at her.
“Why are you so angry at Islam?” Sufiya asked.
“What are you talking about?” Tanveer said, taken aback. “I’m not angry at Islam. You’re being ridiculous. You know my story, Sufiya,” she said locking eyes with her husband. Robert had witnessed the days of closed drapes, the endless crying, the months of antidepressants, and the hours of therapy Tanveer needed to let go of that pain.
“Yes, I know your story. I grew up hearing your story. I’ve never met my grandparents because of the story,” Sufiya said. “I enrolled in the Religions of India course because of your story.”
Tanveer did not understand.
“You used to tell me a bedtime story about a princess born into a proper family,” she said. “A witch cursed the princess with willfulness and gave her an insatiable appetite for adventure. This put the princess at odds with her family. One day, a kind man built her wings and sprinkled fairy dust on them. The princess then flew away to live happily ever after.” Sufiya finished. “Eventually, I got it. The story was about you. The price the princess paid was to never see her parents again.”
Tanveer remained quiet.
“Mother, how could you think I’d make a decision like this . . . without even . . . without putting a great deal of thought into it?” Sufiya said, brushing the bangs off her forehead and stiffening her back. The gestures made Tanveer remember herself at nineteen. Sufiya could have been her clone with her starless night black hair and golden brown skin, except for those dazzling hazel eyes inherited from Robert. For a second Tanveer was lost in the past, her daughter’s distressed voice bringing her back.
“Mother, are you listening to me?!” Sufiya pounded her fist firmly on the table, rattling her silverware. “You’ve said Islam’s not a bad religion. Just wasn’t for you, but what if it’s for me?” she pleaded.
It was obvious Sufiya was trying to reason with Tanveer, and only her. Robert was sitting quietly beside her with his hands folded in his lap, looking downwards. “Mama, if you could’ve felt what I did at the mosque on Eid. I felt . . . elated. Mingling with everyone there. I kept going back to experience that feeling,” she said with a tenderness catching Tanveer off guard. “After namaz, the women sitting on those beautiful prayers rugs told me about the peacefulness of Islam. They taught me about Ijtihad,” Sufiya said.
Freedom of thought, Tanveer interpreted in her mind.
Sufiya took a deep breath. “The more I learned, the more I fell in love with the religion and it wasn’t because of the boy, Mama.” Her voice turned serious again, “I won’t be sacrificing my life by marrying Shabbir. I will be following my heart,” she said. “Just like the princess.”
Her daughter’s reassurances did not have the desired effect. Feelings of loneliness at having grown up with the mosque washed over Tanveer, intensifying from a level two storm threat to a level four storm threat. Tanveer had longed to be like the blonde haired girls with fair skin who skipped around the playground during elementary school and later had dates for the big dances in high school. Instead, she was the girl who could never sleep over at a friend’s house, never wear tanks tops or shorts on days when the heat reached 100 ° F, and who was glared at when adorning a headscarf in public.
She felt even more like an outcast in the mosque. Scorn filled images of madrassa teachers flashed through her mind. Her accent had been wrong pronouncing Arabic’s guttural sounds while reading the Quran. She wasn’t trying hard enough, said the teachers. But she had tried. She memorized hadiths and recited them. They were never good enough. She remembered how bratty children, the sons and daughters of Imams, made her feel worthless. One pushed her through a sliding glass door, showering pieces of glass everywhere. Of course, it was only an accident. The boy’s father yelled at Tanveer. She shouldn’t have been standing so close to the door. She had never felt enlightened. “You don’t know what you’re getting into, Sufiya.”
“Mama, you had a traumatic experience. Doesn’t mean I will.” She sighed. “You know one shade of Islam. When I went to the mosque, there were many different people there and many different languages, from Urdu, to Arabic, to Malaysian. The women were all dressed differently, too. Some had full abbaya and others only a headscarf. The religion can be practiced in many different ways – not just the strict form you grew up in, Sufiya said. “Did you know Shabbir converted? He was born Hindu, but converted at fourteen,” she continued. “Mama, you may think this is a mistake, but I’m allowed to make this choice.”
Tanveer’s eyes were locked on her daughter’s. She could hear Robert breathing beside her. Her daughter’s voice had been steady, yet Tanveer couldn’t accept them. “How can I let you make a choice that’ll ruin your life?”
Sufiya left the table and slammed her bedroom door, but not before shouting her mother was a hypocrite. “Mother, your reaction proves we have no real relationship.”
At the sound of those words, Tanveer felt a sorrowful pang, but she hadn’t allowed the feeling to show. She remained seated in her chair with arms crossed in front of her like a guardsman with no emotion.
Recalling the dinner fiasco drained Tanveer’s energy. She turned off the kitchen lights and walked to the family room. Over the years, this room had collected an assortment of picture frames: oval, silver, rectangular and wooden. On the coffee table in front of the couch was a picture of Tanveer and Robert taken on their wedding day in Kauai. They had eloped. Beside it was another frame with pictures of Sufiya on the day she was born. Hanging over the fireplace was the last addition, a portrait of her family taken a month before Sufiya left for college two years ago. Taken in a fruit orchard, Sufiya’s arms draped adoringly around her mother’s shoulders; the two were looking at each other, laughing.
Tanveer settled on the couch. She grabbed the thin wool blanket lying beneath her and flung it over her legs before grabbing the remote and turning on the television. Some teen drama was on. She recognized the characters. Sufiya loved the show. The two of them used to watch it together in years past. They’d sit together, a blanket covering their legs, and a bowl of popcorn mixed with M&Ms on their laps. That moment seemed so long ago. Before Sufiya left for college. Before Sufiya yelled, “We have no relationship.” Tanveer never expected to hear those words spoken by her child. Words, she herself had used twenty years earlier after a car ride with her father. It was a memory that still haunted her. Robert had helped to soften the memory’s impact, and she had learned to distance herself from it, but it was never forgotten.
A quick trip to the Indian grocery store, back then, that was all it was supposed to be. Tanveer had taken a few days off work and driven to San Jacinto. Her parents were complaining again that she never visited them, though it had only been a month since her last visit. In her lap sat a pink box filled with orange-colored jalebis, a deep-fried, sweet resembling a pretzel. The sweet was Tanveer’s favorite and her father, without asking, bought a box filled with them. Yet, the gesture’s sweetness could not prevent them from getting into an argument Tanveer knew too well as her father drove them back to her parent’s home.
“I’m not going to follow some archaic old ritual where the parents pick out who I marry!” Tanveer yelled.
“Beti, this is how it is done in our culture,” her father said in an even tone from behind the steering wheel, his glance directed at the red stop sign twenty feet in front of them. Tanveer watched as the waves of wrinkles across his forehead expanded. His hairline had receded quite a bit since she had gone away to college. White had overtaken the last few remaining strands on his head.
“It is not like we are telling you to get married tomorrow. Just talk to the boy and see if you like him. Then you decide if to continue baht with him. She knew he was trying to reason with her. There was no harm talking to Muslim boys via mail or phone. If it worked out that would be great, if it didn’t, her parents would look for a new boy for their daughter to marry. Tanveer might have bought into her father’s logic had it been the first time he presented it to her. But she had talked to Indian Muslim boys and had even gone on one date to appease her parents. Their argument felt too much like a never-ending merry-go-round.
“I’m not even religious. Any guy I would consider marrying would have to be agnostic, too.” There. She had said it, the word that made her father’s face cringe and the color drain away. She noticed his hands tightening around the steering wheel.
“You’re confused. It’s just a phase,” he said.
“Yeah, a phase I’ve been going through for the last twenty-three years,” she mumbled. Tanveer flopped her head against the passenger seat’s headrest and gazed out the window. The sun’s warmth felt good. Outside, the world passed by in a multi-colored haze. The tops of the giant palm trees and valley oaks seemed to wave to her as the wind pushed them first toward her and then away. They were not yet in rush hour and the only other form of transportation on the road was a bicycle ridden by a young child. The cute little girl in pigtails was peddling as hard as she could, giggling the entire time. Tanveer found herself wishing they could trade spots.
“Beti, religion gives you a sense of structure and purpose in life. Besides, you don’t have to marry someone who is religious—”
“But they have to be from a Muslim Indian family,” she finished for him. “It just doesn’t make sense. I could marry someone who isn’t religious at all, but I can’t marry a white guy that might be a devout Muslim?”
Not that she wanted to marry anyone who was devout Muslim. The truth was Tanveer’s head cleared the day she admitted to her parents she no longer prayed namaz. Tanveer shut her eyes and took a deep breath. Her father would repeat himself and say, “This is the way in our family,” but deep down, she thought he agreed it was hypocritical, even if he could never admit it. He did not want to upset Tanveer’s mother.
Tanveer had never enjoyed her mother’s company. She knew she should, but oftentimes she thought if the woman hadn’t given birth to her, they wouldn’t have sought each other’s company. Tanveer’s mother was simple-minded. A visiting Imam once preached that Muslims should not eat food cooked by Hindu hands. Tanveer’s father laughed. He had grown up with Hindu servants in his household. They made the best biryani rice, he claimed, cooking the goat meat to perfection and mixing it with spices that made his mouth salivate at smell. Tanveer’s mother had also grown up with Hindu servants, but after the Imam came and went, Tanveer noticed her mother would grin pleasantly then refuse food if handed to her by a woman with a bindi on her forehead. Tanveer’s mother only saw black and white. She disliked these qualities. Yet, this was her mother and Tanveer’s father was married to her. Their daughter marrying an outsider would not be acceptable.
The requirements their culture had for marriage felt too much like pedigree dog breeding. As long as the other held the same DNA, they could procreate together in blissful union. The same went for purebred children. Sometimes, she thought her father would be okay if she told him about Robert, a French, English, Irish, fourth-generation American boy with eyes the color of a wintered meadow coming back to life. They had been in a relationship for the past two years. She thought her Indian father might have been okay with her marrying a European mutt if it weren’t for his concern that family members would shun Tanveer for her actions. Robert’s father had embraced Tanveer the very first time she met him and his mother had called to congratulate Tanveer on hearing news of the proposal. Tanveer’s relatives would do no such thing.
Tanveer continued looking at her father’s profile as he pulled the car up the driveway, inching it slowly into the garage. He was leaning forward, peeking out the front windshield trying to make sure he didn’t hit the empty cardboard boxes stacked against the front wall. The extra care he took in moving her car reminded her he took care of sick children all day long. Her father had left his family and his country many years ago. She did not know what drove him to practice medicine in the United States. Maybe a sense of adventure. The decision had led to Tanveer calling the U.S. home and India a foreign country she visited on a tourist’s visa. In the garage, after satisfying himself with the car’s placement, Tanveer’s father turned off the car’s ignition and twisted around to face her. “Tanveer jaan, you may be an American, but you cannot lose your heritage. You will understand when you are older,” he said.
She stared into her father’s face and felt an ache. She loved him very much. When she was a little girl afraid of the dark, he placed flashlights around her room; all within reach from her bed so she could shine light on the monsters and scare them away. He even left a walkie-talkie on her nightstand in case she needed to call him for backup in the middle of the night. Then when she turned sixteen, he bought her the silver Honda Civic they were presently sitting in, forgoing his expensive trip to Mecca to perform the Hajj pilgrimage.
Tanveer had believed letting him drive her car to the grocery store would relax their conversation. She had imagined them discussing how smooth the car drove. How quiet the engine was. How sensitive the brakes were in comparison to her father’s first car in this country, a walnut brown-colored Saab with manual drive. She had hoped it would veer the conversation away from talk of “what is done in our culture.” She had been wrong.
Tanveer temporarily muted her father’s voice and noticed a slight stain across the pocket of his t-shirt. Spilt chai, she assumed from its brownish nature. He drank three cups every day, his one guilty pleasure. She glanced up and found her father’s gaze fixated on her. She couldn’t do this anymore. She had to tell her father about her intentions to marry Robert, then sit there and listen as he begged her not to do so. Tanveer reached over the center counsel and took her father’s hand, “Papa, I don’t agree with you.”
“Beti,” he sighed.
“I’ve met someone,” she said.
Tanveer’s father removed his hands from underneath hers and sat staring forward, looking through the windshield at the neatly stacked boxes in front of him. His hands were rolled into fists and his chest rose and fell with each deep breath he took.
And I would go to the ends of the earth
Cause, darling, to me that’s what you’re worth
If you need, you need me to be with you
I will follow where you lead
Tanveer was jostled back into the present by the sudden increase in sound. The remote had fallen underneath her and she had hit the volume button. She went to grab the remote and her injured finger rubbed against something sharp stuck in between the couch cushions; her wound from washing dishes re-opened and a tiny spot of red smeared the couch. Tanveer stuck the finger in her mouth. The taste of copper overwhelmed her and she quickly removed her finger. Tears slid down her cheeks.
Aside from the occasional letter notifying the other party that they were still alive and kicking, she hadn’t really spoken to her father in over twenty years. Their last encounter included hours of yelling and tears and at the end of that night, they walked away from each other adamantly refusing to reconcile. She shut her eyes tightly as their last words that night came back to her.
“I can’t believe you don’t want to see your own daughter happy,” she said coldly.
His reply just as frosty, “Beti, how can I watch you make a mistake?”
She got off the couch and walked towards the kitchen. Neither of them had tried to fix it, she thought. Neither of them had ever called. Five years ago, her father informed her via e-mail that he had successfully undergone surgery to remove a polyp from his voice box. The manner in which he wrote about the abnormal, but benign, growth of tissue, suggested to Tanveer her father had been in no immediate danger. She replied, “I’m glad you’re well,” and then deleted the e-mail. She thought about sending a get-well card, choosing a card with a teddy bear on the front, but changed her mind on the way to the cash register, leaving it on the candy-filled shelves in the chec- out aisle.
She wanted Robert home. The recollection of that encounter with her father left her exposed, and she wasn’t comfortable with these raw emotions. It made her feel unbalanced and her knees buckled. She leaned against the kitchen’s door frame to steady herself and caught sight of a painting filled with Asiatic lilies. The painting hung proudly in a golden frame on the wall above the sink. Her daughter painted the watercolor in the 8th grade. Tanveer studied the bouquet and then diverted her glance to the left where a telephone sat on a granite counter. She picked it up and dialed a number, but when she heard a click and then the heavily accented “Hello” she panicked. The man’s voice on the other end sounded too foreign, too crumpled. Not smooth and velvety like the voice she remembered her father possessing twenty years earlier. Her index finger was ready to hit the end call button, when an image of Sufiya at dinner raced through Tanveer’s mind, urging her to speak. The eighty-year old voice said “Hello” again, this time a little louder.
Tanveer gulped down the saliva collecting at the back of her throat. Grasping the phone even tighter, she opened her mouth and finally said, “Salam alakum, Papa, it’s me.” The line had already gone dead.
Tanveer placed the phone back on the counter and went upstairs. She stood outside her daughter’s room ready to knock when she heard her daughter’s voice. “My mom’s stuck, Shabbir. She doesn’t get it.” Tanveer turned around and went back down the stairs to the kitchen. She stared at the phone, wanting to reach for it. Instead, she kneeled over, cried silently, allowing her teardrops to collect on the floor beneath her.
Her body began to numb when a pair of warm arms wrapped themselves around her. Robert had come home. He had on a black t-shirt, gym shorts, and tennis shoes. He swooped her off the floor and carried her upstairs. Tanveer nestled her face against his neck, feeling the growth of his day-old beard. He smelled salty and sweaty.
Gently, Robert placed her on their tissue-soft bed and pulled the comforter up around her. She looked up into his hazel eyes, the same as their daughter’s, and drew in her breath. Robert bent down to kiss her forehead and whispered, “Tomorrow.” He was the eternal optimist, which sometimes annoyed her. Not this night. She needed it. She wiped away the tears smearing her makeup and weakly smiled up at him. “Yes,” she agreed. “Tomorrow.”