Tea time

I’m sitting in this weird, lamp-lit tea cafe in a queer town in Western Mass. And I swear I’m trying to mind my own business (no, I’m not) but there’s a window opposite the booth filled with floor pillows that I’m seated in. And in the window I see the cash register behind me, reflected.

And I’m already a little bummed out because the tea I ordered without even looking at the menu – a situation equivalent to entering a bar and demanding a very specific concoction, or so I imagine – doesn’t taste the same as usual. They put fucking honey in this supposedly Indian/Pakistani chai and as I’m taking this in, I hear the chick at the cash register strike up a conversation with two customers, about the fanny pack one of them is wearing.

“Is that old, or is that happening again?”

She was sweet but her concern was so exaggerated.

The fanny-pack lady laughed, quick and silvery (as one does).

“Nah, it’s back.”

The cash register chick was so excited. “Wow… Because I was thinking – did you have to crawl through Ebay for this or did you get it at like, an Urban Outfitters just yesterday.”

The fanny-pack lady shook her head knowingly. “Yeah no, it’s branded.”

Meanwhile, the other customer – the friend of Ms. Fanny-Pack – was just standing there. Hoping to be included, probably. Or maybe she had crippling anxiety like most people in this town and was kinda glad the attention was off of her as she jammed her chip-card inside the machine.

And then I looked down at my book and read the next line –

“A bow tie announces to the world that you can no longer get an erection.”

And I was immediately distracted again.

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Overheard

IN THE DISTANCE

Someone in the accounts department  : “Wouldn’t it be great if we were detectives?”

Everyone in the accounts department: “No..” “No!” “…No?”

 

Push

Eman inherited the farm when she married her husband. She had never dreamed of owning one. In fact, it was the furthest thing from her mind as a young woman. During college she studied British literature, because it came easily to her. She had never lived in England, but their literature was all her school system ever taught her. And eventually she grew to love it. I heard a lot of Oscar Wilde when she spoke and though I never mentioned this to her, I’m sure she would tell me not to think too hard about it.

The farm was an intimidating mess of trees and shrubbery when Omar and Eman first decided to buy the land. It was his dream and she would help him see it through. Her dream of becoming a doctor was tossed aside, because as her Wilde mouth would remind me, literature was a hobby and biochemistry was her calling. She devised a new dream for herself, after their first child was born.

“Omar, let’s do it again.”

She had sounded a little manic when she said it, but Omar saw that she was looking him dead in the eye. He looked down at their daughter’s wisps of hair, slowly growing back after they had shaved her head. Omar thanked God every time his daughter clasped onto his finger, fancying the determination in her eyes to mean she would not pause to consider before crushing him. If Eman did not mind braving pregnancy again, he would say yes again and again.

The farm came slowly and Omar spent many days out in the snow, helping the workers clear the area and cart away the wood. The young couple had promised to help each other through it all, but once Eman started chasing her dream, she was pregnant more often than she was not and Omar refused to let her help. She reminded him what they had agreed on and he retorted that they had not known she would be pregnant. That argument took place in their kitchen at 2AM, while he ate a bowl of chocolate cereal and she struggled to keep her dinner down.

“Habibi, I’m not just doing this out of my love for you. I’m making a sensible suggestion. Once your clinical practice takes off, you’ll need to trust me with a lot of this work. I know my limits.” She didn’t reach across the table to touch his hand nor did her face soften. She was looking at him as if prepared to pledge support to a moron. “You need to trust me, Omar. This won’t work, otherwise.”

 

Eman learned how to chop wood and what kinds of fertilizer to use on their soil. The neighbors often saw her walking up and down the aisles of their local Tractor Supply, expertly avoiding bumping her giant belly into the cart before her. The workers, who had initially spoken to her in brisk tones, began to like having her around. She would make informed comments (the result of nights spent on her laptop, researching), cracked some great jokes and always invited them in for tea and cookies after a hard day’s work. One of them, Ricardo, brought her some seed selections for the kitchen garden she had mentioned wanting to start, just days before. “It’s good seed! I think it’ll grow really well in that patch you lot have in the front.” Eman thanked him loudly and happily, and soon her kitchen garden was sprouting tiny peppers.

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It was in the middle of their sixth summer together, a few months before Eman’s fourth child was due, that they were finally in good shape to bring in their first herd of sheep. The long shelter in the distance was still in the process of being insulated for the winter months, but other than that, Eman was confident their sheep would be happy.  It was also then that Mona, their third child, fell deathly ill.

Omar tried to explain it to me. It was a case of strep tonsillitis and they had been treating it as nothing more than a horrific cold. Omar said he felt his hair turn silver overnight, and Eman shook her head and looked at me, “I had written her off. If this is how God wanted it to be, then so be it. We had tried our best.” Mona was in the hospital for a week before improving miraculously fast. She was back in school by the start of the third week.

The first winter with sheep was hard for them as well. Omar would be up early on Sunday mornings to make up for all the weekday mornings he couldn’t be out in his backyard. There was a small collection of ‘outside shoes’ (as their only boy, Saif, called it) by the back-patio door. Two pairs of large boots for the parents when they trudged through the sheep muck, and a multitude of smaller pairs for their children. Everyone was encouraged to join in on the farming activities. The cold weather froze the water in the pipes which led from the house’s main water source to the sheep’s trough, and someone had to fill up bottles of water and cart it across the long stretch of snowy ground to the shelter. It fell on Eman to do this during the weekdays and Omar, on weekends. But every single animal made it through the winter and the family welcomed their third daughter, Nisma, in April.

One of Eman’s favorite anecdotes is rooted somewhere in this time. She recalled that it had been a particularly rough lambing season for them. Marcie the sheep had given birth to two stillborn lambs the previous year and had delivered yet another stillborn lamb. Eman could not figure out what was going wrong. “Maybe she’s just unlucky, Nis.” She said softly to her fresh-smelling baby, as they looked out of the big windows lining her living room, across the pasture. The real challenge arose when Berta gave birth to three lambs and began ignoring the runty one of the trio. Eman ignored it for a few days, but then on one of her trips to check on the hay, she noticed the baby trying to latch to Berta who promptly kicked the weak lamb away. Bristling with anger, Eman marched back to the house and quickly warmed up some milk. Scrambling through her old plastic, she found one of Saif’s old bottles and poured the milk out. Outside, the lamb latched onto the bottle immediately and Eman realized it was starving.

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It was after three more bottles that the lamb finally wandered off, satisfied.

From then on, one of the two elder kids was responsible for feeding Lamby the Lamb (as named by Mona) twice a day. They would heat up the milk and head out to offer the lamb the bottle through the fence, while Eman tended to Nisma or the house.

When she looked back on it, Eman didn’t pepper her story with exclamations of how long it’s been or how old she feels. She insisted that any sane person with the same goals would have done exactly as she had. “I’ve never actually introduced myself to people as having four kids, with more on the way, and a backyard full of sheep. They wouldn’t stop coming over for tea! I need them to come over because they are my friends or my kids’ friends. Not because they want to come over and stare.”

Omar’s latest backyard project is the pool. “The kids will love it, Eman! Nice blue pool in the summer, we’ll get some good old floaties.” He rubbed his hands and looked at Eman gleefully, who rolled her eyes and smiled, “Go for it.”

What now?

“Will you cry when I leave?”

Her bug-eyes scared me, and when she spoke I was reminded of her home, somewhere across the ocean from mine.

I laughed, trying to avoid the subject. “I don’t need to! You’ll know I’m sad.”

She frowned, disapproving. I saw a few integrals and limits scattered over the page she was poring over.

I understood, but what could I give her?

Every year began and ended with a different group of people. But she stayed, from the first moment.

I met her father before I met her.

He was walking around in the local Walmart, not entirely sure of what he was looking for but hoping it would occur to him sooner or later if he just kept roaming. He recognized me from somewhere on-campus, and approached me. I recognized him as well, so the conversation was not uncomfortable, thankfully. We established my country of origin and my emotions about college and whose father he was.

He noticed the fan in my hand. “Beta, where did you get that fan from?”

“In the aisle behind that one.”

He looked back at where I was pointing. “Great! Should probably get that–very useful.”

“Absolutely. I’ll see you around, Uncle! Nice meeting you.”

She laughs about this interaction every time I bring it up. And I bring it up again and again because I get better at telling the story each time. I have gotten better at telling a lot of stories because of her. We move in and out of three whole languages, and make sure our stories can be told with full effect–fire-crackers and all–in all of them.

I think that’s the hardest part.

Who will I tell all my stories to? Who will experience the stories with me?

Who will scream and shout about all the things that matter to me, with me?

I sighed, looking back at the limits on her paper.

She looked up again, and she laughed.

“Tell me, na! You have to cry!”

My eyes widened, “Absolutely not!”

Touching base

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My favorite person in the world called yesterday.

She talked about her cat, her last final before the weather rushed in to terrorize the city and how her sister was getting married.

I asked about her panic attacks, and her mother, and she gave me answers as honest as possible without being too descriptive.

The TV was blaring in the background and I picked up on a few snippets of local news. This provided a nice distraction from the house-keeping questions, and we discussed how Ali Zafar was a creep and should be tossed in jail for feeling up all those women. The women’s movement was picking up, she told me. Apparently over a hundred women—young and old—had ridden bicycles and motorbikes on the major roads in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, their scarfs flapping in the wind as men in cars ogled the procession. I said the feminist conventions I was used to, didn’t let me understand how exactly that was women’s liberation, but nonetheless, I understood exactly how that was women’s liberation and I was proud of it.

Our conversation lasted maybe fifteen minutes and then I had to run and she had to run and as I hung up, I realized I had successfully avoided the question of whether I was coming home in the summer.