Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category
By: Dahlia Eissa
It was just a kiss. So she thought. A boy had given her a peck on the cheek. That’s all it was to her. But to her fiancé, Amir, she allowed another man to kiss her. The boy was a student Asma had tutored when she was at university and hadn’t seen in years. She was holding Amir’s hand as they left her law firm’s Christmas party and were walking to his car. The former student saw her (Lucas she thought was his name, but she wasn’t sure and he only said “Hi”), walked over, smiled and greeted her. Then he leaned forward to plant a very just-friends, very matter-of-fact, very just-being-polite and barely-touching-the-side-of-her-face kiss. She thought nothing of it, till she felt Amir’s hand grip hers more tightly than it had before. Surprised, her throat could barely release its grip on the “Hi” she wanted to say to the boy. The boy smiled and, sensing her discomfort, nodded and moved along.
Asma was sure she hadn’t done anything wrong. She didn’t kiss a man, or even a boy. She was sure she hadn’t been inappropriate or offensive, and hadn’t been caught naked having sex with the boy. But the grip holding her tightly made her feel as though she had. She did not slap the boy. Should she have slapped the boy?
Asma and Amir did not speak. He drove her home and she knew if she said goodnight she would be ignored. She got out of his car and heard him drive away before she made it to her front steps. Amir always waited until she went inside. He always called her to chat for a few minutes before going to sleep, and because she much preferred the warmth of her bed to the chill of the early hours, he would always call her in the morning to rouse her from her sleep. But that was before she allowed another man to kiss her.
Asma had grown up with Amir, only streets away from each other and from the Victoria Park Mosque where their parents went every day for maghreb prayer. Religion though didn’t play as much of a role in their lives as did tradition, and believing that they knew each other very well, Asma had never thought about discussin how they were going to navigate the maze that was being Muslim and Pakistani in England. They’d just left a Christmas party where they were surrounded by paralegals about to puke and partners trying to feel up the women paralegals before they puked. Amir didn’t seem to care.
Standing at the door, she took her time finding her keys. When she walked upstairs to her room she was relieved to find her parents and two sisters asleep. After taking off her earrings and her engagement ring, she sat on her bed with her hands on either side of her. Closing her eyes, she pushed her hands as hard as she could into the mattress. That is what Asma would do when she was angry, ever since she was a little girl. She would sit on her bed and push that feeling out of her. Sometimes it worked. She would usually grit her teeth so hard her jaw would start to ache. Her brows would feel as though they were trying to pinch together and she would always taste something acrid in her mouth. As she sat there, all that was happening, but the feeling was going nowhere. And the taste in her mouth got worse.
Trying to push harder, she looked down at her hands and noticed a stain on the sleeve of her salwar kameez. This one was a favorite of hers, made from a ream of fabric an aunt had given her when she was in Pakistan last summer, a raw silk the color of crushed blackberries. Asma had taken it to a master tailor in Karachi to painstakingly embroider with tiny golden dragonflies. When Amir met her at the Christmas party he frowned when he saw her. He’d stopped asking her why when they would go to a party wouldn’t she just dress like everyone else. She remembered thinking he looked nice in his tailored suit. He always looked nice. He always was nice.
The alarm on her bedside table woke Asma the next morning and when she showered and dressed she tried to put out of her mind the night before and figured what had mattered so much then would matter much less in a day or two. To Amir anyway. She would have much to do at work and couldn’t afford the time to think about how it mattered to her. There was a deposition she had to take and a brief for counsel she needed to finish by the afternoon. To avoid distraction throughout the day whenever she felt thoughts of the night before surfacing, she pushed her palms hard into the cushion of her swivel chair. It was working better than the night before and she managed to get through her day without once checking if she’d missed a call on her mobile, or received a text message or email from Amir.
By the time Asma got home a headache had set in. Between the deposition and the brief she’d forgotten to eat lunch. When she walked into the kitchen she found her mother steaming vegetables for masala. Her sisters, Afshaan and Ria, were still at university and sat at the kitchen table with their heads buried in books. Asma kissed her mother on the cheek and was relieved when she put a handful of carrots on a plate and nudged her to sit with her sisters. Asma put the plate between them and quietly eased herself into the nearest chair. She was exhausted and didn’t want them to look up from their books and ask her how was her day, or how was the party the night before.
When her mother asked them to set the table, she waited for Afshaan and Ria to take their books to their rooms before she leaned in close to Asma and told her that Amir’s parents were coming over later to discuss what had happened the night before. Not wanting Afshaan and Ria to form an opinion on the matter, her mother told them earlier that she was treating them to a movie after dinner at the Cornerhouse. Unless Asma wanted, her sisters would be none the wiser. But, her mother asked, “What do you want to do?” Surprised again and angry, her throat struggled once more to release its grip. She didn’t look at her mother as she took dinner plates from the china cabinet. “Nothing,” she said.
When her future parents-in-law arrived later that evening, they were as formally dressed as they were the night they came to ask for Asma’s hand in marriage, though this time without the box of halwa, the bouquet of flowers for her mother, and without Amir. Facing them, Asma sat between her parents on the heirloom brocade settee they brought with them when they left Karachi so many years ago. Asma tried
to sit back and relax, not wanting them to think she was feeling anxious or guilty, or even angry. She kept her hands together on her lap, trying to look unmoved, but the wood frame along the back dipped in the middle to a panel of roses carved with such intricacy that the edges of the petals poked her.
Asma could not stop looking at her future father-in-law. He wasn’t looking at her. He was looking at her parents – confident and right – trying to communicate his son’s apprehensions and the seriousness of her conduct the night before. Asma called him Uncle. He’d kissed her on the cheek a thousand times. She remembered when she was 18 years old and had just found out she was accepted to law school. At the mosque when her parents told other parents, Uncle came over and kissed her on the cheek. Auntie kissed her, Amir, whom she was not yet seeing and not even interested in, said congratulations, and a few families gathered for dinner to celebrate.
The restaurant they frequented on Curry Mile was busy that evening, so during dinner when Asma went to the restroom she had to wait in line. One of the women ahead of her had been at the mosque earlier and Asma recognized her and said, “Salaam.” The woman, whose name she couldn’t remember, left her spot at the front of the line to talk to Asma. After “Congratulations” and “Thank you” and “How are your parents?” and “You must have many suitors asking for your hand,” the woman moved a little closer to Asma, took her left hand in hers and lowered her voice:
“You know Asma, you are a grown woman now, going off to university. It is not proper, you know, for a man who is not your father or your brother to kiss you. You are not a daughter to other men, and you must not allow them to take such liberties with you. They have their own daughters to kiss, and their own wives.”
Asma didn’t know how to respond, but wanted the woman to let go of her hand. The woman’s whole face was smiling as though waiting for Asma to lower her gaze, nod her head and say, “Yes. Of course. Thank you for reminding me.” Asma looked at the line in front of her and knew they’d be there a while. Forcing a smile, she gripped the woman’s hand, saying she had forgotten her purse at the table and needed to go back to get it. “Salaam,” Asma said, feeling the woman’s surprise as she turned and walked away.
Asma was furious. Yes, she was a woman, and she was off to university, but no one had the right to tell her she should allow or not allow anything. What was she to do if a man who was friendly with her was to plant a harmless kiss on her cheek? Slap him and make a scene? Speak to him the way she had just been spoken to and make a child of him?
Back at the table Uncle noticed Asma’s change in mood. She told him what had happened. Her father told her not to let it bother her. Uncle however, was livid, so much so that he told his wife if she was ever to come across “that woman!” she was forbidden to talk to her. “How dare she?” “Who does she think she is?” Now, sitting
opposite him, her back tense and straight, Asma remembered the look on his face that night.
Asma looked at her future mother-in-law sitting quietly next to him in her yellow and white salwar kameez. Auntie was coughing, sick with bronchitis from a particularly bad winter, so before going to work some mornings Asma would pop by to help her around the house. She would wash the breakfast dishes and make the beds. Sometimes she would do a load of laundry. Asma figured the stress of this evening would leave Auntie worse for wear by the morning. She looked upset, but not angry, glancing at Asma occasionally, her eyes seeming to plead with her for some reassurance. Amir, after two late-term miscarriages, was their only child. Asma, they always told her family, was the daughter they never had, and this evening she was hearing that they expected from her no more than what they would expect from their own daughter.
Asma was the first grandchild on both sides of her family and since her paternal grandparents had only sons, her grandmother bedecked her in the gold jewelry she had saved for the birth of a daughter and hand-made her salwars from the reams of fabric she had accumulated over the years. Until her family moved to England, Asma grew up in three homes and was merciless with the servants in all of them. When the Islamic bank her father worked for coaxed him to transfer to their London office with the offer of an MBA, they packed their wares into containers that set sail months before they left Karachi. When they arrived in England and everything was delivered to their new home, most of the furniture had been damaged and the beautiful salwars her grandmother had made for Asma and her mother were riddled by moths and silverfish. The heirloom settee was one of the few things to arrive without any damage at all.
Sitting in the middle of the settee that evening, she wondered whether the petals had ever bothered her before. Her mind stopped wondering when she heard her father’s voice. Her parents, sitting either side of her, were in a bind. They were defending her, but her silence kept their defenses from shifting their focus to Amir. So, on her behalf, apologies were made for feelings that were hurt, that were – eventually – tentatively – accepted. When it came time for Uncle and Auntie to leave, Asma told them she had a meeting early the next morning and would pop by to help Auntie in the afternoon instead. They nodded as she kept her arms firmly by her sides. There were no kisses that night.
Later that evening when she was helping her mother put away the dishes, Asma caught sight of a photograph her father had taken of her when she was five years old. It was framed in sterling silver and sat with two other framed photographs behind glass panes in the middle of the china cabinet. Very soon after they left Pakistan her mother bought her father his first camera – an Olympus 35mm ECR – and for a while it seemed that every Saturday morning Asma and her father would walk into Jessops to pick up a roll of film he’d left for developing. He took
photographs of Asma in front of just about everything – Big Ben, all the palaces, along the Thames, in front of Harrods. Her younger sisters had not yet been born. She remembered the look on his face every time he would lift the flap of the envelope and pull out the photos he had taken.
The alarm woke Asma again the next morning and she dragged herself out of bed and into the shower. The pain of her headache the night before had disappeared but the pressure was still there. She had a cup of tea and a cumin biscuit before walking out the door as her mother chided her for never bothering with breakfast. She told her to at least remember to eat lunch. Her day at work was as busy as the day before, but she found herself less able to avoid distraction. There was no missed call, or text message or email from Amir.
Every evening after maghreb prayers Amir would pick up his parents from the mosque and take them to the halal market to buy groceries for supper, so later that day when Asma went to Amir’s house she used her set of keys to let herself in. Breakfast had been cleared away so Asma went upstairs to get the laundry from the hamper in the bathroom. She began to separate Amir’s dress shirts for the dry cleaners, his mother’s silks for hand washing, when she realized it was too late in the day to wash anything. Auntie insisted on hanging everything to dry, even in the winter, and the sun was already beginning to set. Asma put the laundry back in the hamper and made her way to the bedrooms down the hall.
When she came to Uncle and Auntie’s room she stopped just inside the door and looked around. Everything was opal white – the wall-to-wall carpet, the doors of the built-in closet, the bedside tables and even the metal frame of the mirror leaning against the wall right next to her – except the enormous black-rimmed flat-screen TV/DVD player that sat atop the dresser not far from the window.
Asma started to make the bed. Auntie had hand-stitched the embroidery on the sheets – a delicate string of paisley that ran along the edges – and had offered to make Asma a set as a wedding gift. Asma ran her fingers along the embroidery and wondered how long it would take her to stitch another. As she tucked in the flat sheet she found the DVD she always finds between the mattress and the box spring on the side where Uncle slept. Holding it in her hands she sat on the bed and thought about the look on his face the night before. Outside the window she could see the sun had almost set. She looked at her watch, then walked over and turned on the television. Amir and his parents would be home within minutes. The DVD would run for 35. Walking into Amir’s room she took her set of keys from her pocket and left them on his bedside table.