***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Uzma Jalaluddin
He wondered if he would see her today.
Khalid Mirza sat at the breakfast bar of his light-filled kitchen, long legs almost reaching the floor. It was seven in the morning, and his eyes were trained on the window, the one with the best view of the townhouse complex across the street.
His patience was rewarded.
A young woman wearing a purple hijab, blue button-down shirt and black pants ran down the steps of the middle townhouse, balancing a red ceramic travel mug and canvas satchel. She stumbled but caught herself, skidding to a stop in front of an aging sedan. She put the mug on the hood of the car and unlocked the door.
Khalid had seen her several times since he had moved into the neighbourhood two months ago, always with her red ceramic mug, always in a hurry. She was a petite woman with a round face and dreamy smile, skin a golden burnished copper that glowed in the sullen March morning.
It is not appropriate to stare at women, no matter how interesting their purple hijabs, Khalid reminded himself.
Yet his eyes returned for a second, wistful look. She was so beautiful.
The sound of Bollywood music blaring from a car speaker made the young woman freeze. She peered around her Toyota Corolla to see a red Mercedes SLK convertible zoom into her driveway. Khalid watched as the young woman dropped to a crouch behind her car. Who was she hiding from? He leaned forward for a better look.
“What are you looking at, Khalid?” asked his mother, Farzana.
“Nothing, Ammi,” Khalid said, and took a bite of the clammy scrambled eggs Farzana had prepared for breakfast. When he looked up again, the young woman and her canvas satchel were inside the Toyota.
Her red travel mug was not.
It flew off the roof of her car as she sped away, smashing into a hundred pieces and narrowly missing the red Mercedes.
Khalid laughed out loud. When he looked up, he caught his mother’s stern gaze.
“It’s such a lovely day outside,” Farzana said, giving her son a hard look. “I can see why your eyes are drawn to the view.”
Khalid flushed at her words. Ammi had been dropping hints lately. She thought it was time for him to marry. He had a steady job, and twenty-six was a good age to settle down. Their family was wealthy and could easily pay for the large wedding his mother wanted.
“I was going to tell you after I’d made a few choices, but it appears you are ready to hear the news. I have begun the search for your wife,” Farzana announced, and her tone brooked no opposition. “Love comes after marriage, not before. These Western ideas of romantic love are utter nonsense. Just look at the American divorce rate.”
Khalid paused mid-bite, but his mother didn’t notice. Her announcement was surprising, but the news was not unexpected or even unwelcome. He resumed eating.
“I will find you the perfect wife—modest, not too educated. If we can’t find someone local, we will search for a girl back home.”
“Back home” for Farzana was Hyderabad, India, though she had lived in Canada for over thirty years. Khalid had been born in a suburb west of Toronto and lived there for most of his life until his father’s death six months ago, when Farzana and Khalid had moved to the east end of the city. Farzana had insisted on the move, and though Khalid had been sorry to leave his friends and the mosque he had frequented with his father, deep down he thought it might do them both some good.
Their new neighbourhood had felt instantly comfortable. From the moment they’d arrived, Khalid felt as if he had finally come home. There were more cars parked three or four deep on extended driveways, more untamed backyards in need of the maintenance that only time, money and access to professional services could provide. Yet the people were kind, friendly even, and Khalid was at ease among the brown and black faces that reflected his own.
Farzana neatly flipped another paratha flatbread onto her son’s plate, though he had not asked for more. “The wedding will be in July. Everyone will want an invitation, but I will limit the guest list to six hundred people. Any more is showing off.”
Humming to herself, she placed a small pot on the stove, adding water, milk, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and tea leaves for chai. Khalid’s eyes lingered on the chipped forest-green mug on the counter. His father’s mug. Ammi had used that mug for his Abba’s chai for years. This was the first time he had seen it out of the cupboard since the move. Maybe his mother was finally beginning to make her way through the cloud of grief that had paralyzed her after Abba’s death.
There was so much of the past they did not talk about. Khalid was relieved she was thinking about the future. Or rather, his future.
The idea of an arranged marriage had never bothered Khalid. A partner carefully chosen for him, just as his parents had been chosen for each other and their parents before them, seemed like a tidy practice. He liked the idea of being part of an unbroken chain that honoured tradition and ensured family peace and stability. He knew that some people, even his own sister, thought the practice of arranged marriage was restrictive, but he found it comforting. Romantic relationships and their accompanying perks were for marriage only.
At the thought of romantic perks, Khalid’s attention drifted to the window once more—but he stopped himself. The girl with the (broken) red mug would never be more than a fantasy. Because while it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single Muslim man must be in want of a wife, there’s an even greater truth: To his Indian mother, his own inclinations were of secondary importance.
The Toyota lurched down the street, wheezing and anemic. Ayesha reached for her travel mug, but her hand closed on empty air. In the rear-view mirror she spotted the red shards on the asphalt. Blast.
She had been in such a hurry to get away from Hafsa. Now she would have to face her first day as a substitute high school teacher without the comforting armour of chai.
No matter, it was worth it. The moment she had spotted the red Mercedes convertible pulling onto the street, Ayesha had known why her cousin was visiting so early in the morning, and she didn’t want to hear it.
Besides, there was one rule repeatedly drilled into her at teachers’ college: A teacher can never, under any circumstances, be late.
Ayesha had graduated from teachers’ college last June. It had taken nearly seven months of papering local schools with her resumé to secure a substitute teaching position. Now her stomach flipped over as she parked in the staff lot of Brookridge High School, a squat, two-storey brown brick building constructed in the 1970s, ugly and functional.
The building was similar in layout and atmosphere to her old high school. It had the same well-tended shabbiness of a public building, the same blue-tinted fluorescent lighting, and waxed and speckled linoleum floors. The same mostly white staff dressed in business-formal slacks and skirts, the same mostly brown and black students slouching in jeans, track pants and too-short dresses. Ayesha tugged self-consciously at her carefully chosen teacher clothes: blue button-down shirt and serviceable black pants. Her hands nervously smoothed the top of her purple hijab.
Part of both worlds, yet part of neither, she thought.
Such existential thoughts were really not helping to settle the butterflies in her stomach.
She entered the large, open foyer, its concrete walls painted a dull green and smelling faintly of industrial cleaning solvent. The familiar scent calmed her, and she smiled slightly at a female student in black leggings and a blue hoodie, carrying an overloaded backpack. The girl gave her a dubious look before shifting her bag and walking purposely down the hall, reminding Ayesha to hurry. A teacher must never be late.
The secretary, Mary, was waiting for her in the main office with forms to sign. The principal, Mr. Evorem, was absent today, Mary explained. “He’ll want to meet you tomorrow to welcome you properly.”
A white man in his early thirties with a short black beard walked into the office just as she was finishing the paperwork, and Mary asked him to take Ayesha to her class. He peered over her shoulder at her schedule.
“Grade ten science?” His eyes were wide. “You’re covering for Rudy?”
“Who’s Rudy?” Ayesha asked as they walked toward the stairs.
“He’s the last teacher those little shits scared off. I think he chose early retirement over that class.”
Ayesha looked at him, waiting for the punchline. There wasn’t one. “Nobody told me that.”
“I hope you’re light on your feet. The bastards like to throw things.”
Forty minutes later, Ayesha crouched on the toilet in the staff bathroom, bookended by feelings of self-pity and guilt. Instead of teaching, she was hiding from her class. Even worse, she was writing a poem in her purple spiral notebook.
I can’t do this.
This thing that I should do.
I can do this.
This thing I don’t want to do.
I want to be away, weaving words of truth.
Not here, trapped between desk and freedom and family.</ex>
She should be teaching, not writing. She had vowed to leave this part of her behind when she’d left for work that morning. Instead, she hadn’t been able to resist placing the purple spiral notebook in her bag, like a child’s security blanket. She gripped her pen tightly and tried not to stare at her cell phone.
“Come on, Clara,” she said out loud. Then she held her breath, hoping no one had heard. But of course they hadn’t. This was the staff bathroom, and it was the middle of the school day. The other teachers were teaching, not hiding and writing poetry.
She squinted at the page, re-reading her words. Correction: writing bad poetry.
Her phone beeped: a text message from her best friend, Clara.
What do you mean you can’t do this? You just got there.
Ayesha texted back.
My class hates me. They were throwing things at each other, and they didn’t listen to a word I said. Can you call the school and tell them there’s an emergency at home?
Her phone rang.
“You picked the wrong profession.” Clara’s voice was low.
“I’ll come back to teach tomorrow, when I’m ready,” Ayesha said.
“Babe, you are never going to be ready to teach. You know what you’re ready for? Writing poems. Exploring the world. Falling in love. Remember?” Ayesha pictured Clara in front of her—blue eyes wide with concern, fingers fiddling with strawberry blond hair. “I bet you’re writing a poem about this right now. Aren’t you?” Her friend’s voice was accusing and impatient. They had had variations of this same conversation so many times, Ayesha couldn’t blame Clara for being sick of it. She was sick of it herself.
Her eyes flicked to the notebook, and she shut it firmly. No more. “Poetry is for paupers. I’m not Hafsa. I don’t have a rich father to pay my bills, and I promised Sulaiman Mamu I would pay him back for tuition.”
She remained silent about the other two items—exploring the world, falling in love—the first being as impossible as the second. She had no money, and falling in love would be difficult when she had never even held someone’s hand before. “Hafsa is getting married this summer,” Ayesha said instead. “She came over this morning to tell me, but I already knew. Nani and Samira Aunty have been talking about her rishtas for weeks.”
Clara, an only child, loved hearing about Ayesha’s large extended family. She was particularly intrigued by the traditional rishta proposal process, which Ayesha had explained in hilarious detail. Prospective partners were introduced to each other after being carefully vetted by parents and family. Ayesha had received a few rishta proposals herself, years ago, though they had never led to a wedding. She hadn’t really connected with any of the potential suitors, and they must have felt likewise because she’d never heard from them after the initial meetings.
“Hafsa can’t get married! She’s a baby!” Clara exclaimed.
Ayesha started laughing. “She’s got the entire wedding planned already. All she needs is the groom.”
“Your cousin is crazy. You’re the one who should be getting married. Or me. Rob still flinches whenever I mention weddings, after ten years together.”
Ayesha was starting to regret this topic of conversation. “If Hafsa wants to get married, I’m happy for her,” she said. She imagined twenty-year-old Hafsa reclining on an ornate chaise as she surveyed a parade of handsome, wealthy men. She pictured her cousin languidly pointing to one man at random, and just like that the marriage would be arranged.
So easy, so simple, to find the one person who would cherish and protect your heart forever. Everything came easy for Hafsa.
Clara pressed her point. “When do you get to be happy? When was the last time you went on a date, or finished and performed a poem?” Clara thought Ayesha was afraid of love because of what had happened to her father and afraid to dream because of her family’s expectations.
Ayesha disagreed. “My family is counting on me to set a good example for Hafsa. I’m the eldest kid in the family. I want to set the bar high for everyone else. I can’t let Mom, Sulaiman Mamu or Nana down, not after everything they’ve done for me. All that other stuff can wait.”
Clara sighed. “Why don’t you come to Bella’s tonight?”
A long time ago, a different Ayesha had performed poetry at Bella’s lounge. Another reminder of the road not taken. She smothered a laugh that sounded like a sob.
“Ash, you got this,” Clara said, her voice softening. “Do all that teacher stuff. Send the troublemakers to the office. Make a seating chart. Stop hiding in the bathroom.”
There was a discreet knock on the stall door, and Ayesha ended the call with Clara.
“Miss Shamsi?” a voice said, sounding awkward. “Your class said you might be in here.”
They’re not my class, Ayesha thought. They need a circus trainer, not a teacher. She flushed, wiped sweaty palms on her pants and tucked the purple notebook back inside her bag. Mary stood outside, a look of pity on her face.
“There was an emergency, but I’m better now,” Ayesha said with dignity. “When does the class end?”
“You still have another forty minutes, honey.” Mary patted her on the shoulder. “I’ll send an assistant to help with your first class. She’ll keep an eye on them when your back is turned. Oh, and I forgot to give this to you earlier.”
Mary handed Ayesha an ID badge with STAFF written in bold letters at the top.
Ayesha stared at the official-looking badge. This was why she had attended teachers’ college, why she had worked so hard at her in-school placements. Her mother and grandparents had left behind so much when they immigrated to Canada. She wanted their sacrifice to mean something.
There was no turning back, not now.
Her thoughts drifted to the purple notebook in her bag. Maybe if she worked on the poem tonight, she could perform it at Bella’s sometime . . .
But no. All of that lay behind her. It was time to focus on the road in front.
“Everyone starts out right here. You’ll get the hang of it,” Mary said.
Mary meant to be kind, but Ayesha knew that not everyone started from the same place. Some people were always a little ahead. Or in her case, constantly playing catch-up.
The rest of the day was not as dramatic as the morning, yet Ayesha felt deflated when she drove home after school. Teaching was not what she’d expected and nothing like her training, where she’d had the comforting guidance of a mentor teacher. The entire experience had been nerve-racking, and she had felt perpetually caught in the bored tractor-beam stares of twenty-eight teenagers.
All she wanted now was to go home, drink a cup of very strong chai and reconsider her life choices.
She turned onto her street and spied a red Mercedes parked in the driveway.
Hafsa was back, and this time there was no escape.
Khalid kept his head down as he walked through the narrow back hallway of Livetech Solutions, his employer for the past five years. He was dressed in his usual work attire—full-sleeved white robe that skimmed his ankles, black dress pants, white skullcap jammed over dark brown hair that curled over his ears. His beard was long and luxuriously thick, contrasting sharply with his pale olive complexion.
He was a large man, tall and broad, and the corridor was narrow. He looked up to see his co-worker Clara standing in the middle of the hallway, whispering into her cell phone. Khalid did not wish to disturb what appeared to be an intense conversation; he also did not wish to brush past her in the hallway. He had been raised to believe that non-related men and women should never get too close—socially, emotionally, and especially physically.
“When an unmarried man and woman are alone together, a third person is present: Satan,” Ammi often told him. Khalid found this reminder helpful, especially when paired with cold showers. There wasn’t much more that a twenty-six-year-old virgin-by-choice could do, really.
He didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but Clara had raised her voice. “When do you get to be happy?” she said sharply into her phone.
Khalid blinked at the question, which so neatly mirrored his own thoughts.
His cell phone dinged with a new email, and he opened it, grateful for the distraction. His heart sank when he read the subject line and recognized the sender: his sister, Zareena. He hadn’t told her about their move. He hadn’t been sure how she would react to the sale of their childhood home. It looked like some other busybody had thoughtfully informed her instead. He began to read.
Re: the last to know?
I can’t believe I had to hear the news from my father-in-law. You sold the house and moved? I loved that house. It was so easy to sneak out of my bedroom. But I guess it was too hard after Abba died.
Guess what? I got bored and started volunteering my time for a Cause. You would be so proud of me. I’m teaching English to a class of little girls at the local school. My students are super sweet. Their parents can barely afford to send them to class. Half the time they show up with no lunches, but their clothes are so tidy, their hair in neat braids, and they want to learn so badly. Not like when I was in school! They always bring me a flower or a fruit they stole from someone’s garden. I sneak them rice and dal sometimes.
P.S. Maple donuts and Tim Hortons hot chocolate.
P.P.S. Thanks for the gift. Can you use Western Union next time plz? It’s closer and you know how I hate to walk.
Zareena’s emails and texts arrived every few days and reported on her daily life. Sometimes she complained about the dullness of her days, or which of her dozens of in-laws were irritating her. Sometimes she asked him about work, or if he had talked to a girl yet . . . or even made eye contact with one.
The one thing she never asked about was their mother. The second thing she never discussed was her husband.
The postscript was always something Zareena missed about Canada. Her words brought the taste of maple dip donuts and too-sweet hot chocolate to his lips. Their father, Faheem, used to treat them on the way back from Sunday morning Islamic school when they were kids. Before Zareena went away.
After she left, whenever Khalid mentioned her name, his father would freeze and Ammi would become upset. Soon her name became an unspoken word in their home.
Clara’s call had ended, and he noticed her examining him as he read his email. They knew each other, but had never spoken. He wondered if she was uncomfortable with the way he dressed. Some people found his robes and skullcap difficult to reconcile with an office environment. But Khalid had long ago decided to be honest about who he was: an observant Muslim man who walked with faith both outwardly and inwardly, just as some of his Muslim sisters did by wearing the hijab.
Still, sometimes it made people nervous. Though Clara did not seem wary. She appeared almost . . . appraising.
Which made him nervous.
Khalid motioned in front of him. “After you,” he said politely.
Clara didn’t move. “My friend is having a crisis. Her first day at a new job.”
“That can be difficult,” Khalid said, looking directly at her.
Now she looked curious. About him? Women were never curious about him.
“It’s sort of my first day too,” Clara said, leaning close. “I was promoted to regional manager of Human Resources.”
“Congratulations.” Khalid inclined his head in acknowledgement. “I know you will fulfill your duties with integrity.”
“My boyfriend, Rob, is happy about the pay raise,” Clara said with a smile. “I’m reporting to Sheila Watts. Do you know her?”
Khalid shook his head. Sheila had replaced his old director a few weeks ago, but he had yet to meet his first female boss.
The door behind Clara opened and a petite woman with black hair and blue eyes stepped out. She was shorter than Clara, dressed in a sleeveless top and tight black pencil skirt. Above her right breast was pinned a large crystal brooch in the shape of a spider, its winking red eyes matching her lipstick.
Clara stepped forward with a friendly smile.
“Sheila, I wanted to introduce myself—I’m Clara Taylor. John promoted me just before he left the company.”
Sheila looked at the outstretched hand and beaming face before her. A faint expression of distaste lurked at her lips and she briefly shook Clara’s hand, using only the very tips of her fingers.
Khalid knew what was coming next, and he felt powerless to stop it. Usually when he was introduced to female clients and co-workers, he had time to prepare beforehand with a carefully worded email about his no-touch rule.
As the women talked, he subtly edged away from their conversation, taking tiny steps down the hall. But it was no use; Clara’s friendliness foiled his escape.
“Sheila, this is our e-commerce project manager, Khalid Mirza,” she said, and both women turned to him.
A hard glance from Sheila took in Khalid’s white robe and skullcap. Her eyes lingered on his long beard.
Her gaze was the opposite of appraising, Khalid thought. She looked annoyed.
Then everything went from bad to worse. Sheila leaned forward and stuck out her hand for him to shake.
They stared at each other.
“I’m sorry, I don’t shake hands with women. It’s against my religion,” he blurted.
Sheila left her hand outstretched for another moment, cold eyes locked on his face. Then she slowly pulled back and raised an eyebrow. “I should have assumed as much from your clothing. Tell me, Khalid: Where are you from?”
“Toronto,” Khalid answered. His face flamed beneath his thick beard; he didn’t know where to look.
“No,” Sheila laughed lightly. “I mean where are you from originally?”
“Toronto,” Khalid responded again, and this time his voice was resigned.
Clara shifted, looking tense and uncomfortable. “I’m originally from Newfoundland,” she said brightly.
“I lived in the Middle East for a while,” Sheila said to Khalid, her voice low and pleasant. “Saudi Arabia. I found it so interesting that the women wore black while the men wore white. There’s something symbolic about that, isn’t there? Half the population in shadow while the rest live in light. You must be so grateful to live in a country that welcomes everybody.” Sheila’s laughter sounded high and artificial. “Of course, when I was in Saudi Arabia, I wasn’t afforded the same courtesy.”
Khalid’s eyes were lowered to the ground, his head bowed. “I apologize, Ms. Watts. I meant no disrespect,” he said finally. “Please forgive me.” He turned around and walked back the way he had come, hands trembling.
He took the long way around the floor and caught the service elevator down to his small office in the basement. It was sparsely furnished with two grey metal desks squeezed together, a black bookcase wedged behind the door and a sagging blue couch against the back wall. Rumour had it this office used to be a maintenance closet, but he was grateful for the privacy, especially when he prayed in the afternoon.
It was nine thirty in the morning, earlier than usual for Amir to already be at his desk. Though judging by the rumpled suit, his co-worker had spent last night at the office. Again.
“Assalamu Alaikum, Amir. I thought we talked about this.” Khalid hid his shaking hands by folding his arms.
“My date wasn’t exactly interested in a sleepover, if you know what I mean. Bitches, am I right?” Amir reached for a water bottle on his desk, opened it and began chugging rapidly.
Khalid winced at his description. “I can’t keep covering for you.”
Amir was hired the previous year as part of Livetech’s “Welcome Wagon” program for immigrants. Technically, Khalid was his manager. Most days he felt like a babysitter.
“Last time, I swear. This would never happen if you came out with me and stopped me from committing my many sins. I promise I’ll introduce you to some pretty girls.”
Khalid was tempted to confess Ammi’s plans to find him a wife, but instead he stuck to his usual line. “Out of respect for my future wife, I don’t believe in sleeping around before marriage.” OR “I’m saving myself for my future wife. I don’t believe in sleeping around before marriage.”
Amir only laughed. “Classic Khalid. I tell my friends about you all the time. They don’t believe half my stories. All the other Muslim guys I know scrub up for Friday prayers just like you, but they know how to have fun.”
Khalid ignored him and settled down to check emails; the most recent was from Sheila, sent only moments ago.
Khalid, I’m glad we met today. I’d like to begin our working relationship with a performance review. I look forward to a frank discussion of your strengths and many areas of improvement. The meeting is scheduled for Monday at 3 p.m. I trust this appointment will not interfere with any religious obligations.
Amir, noticing Khalid’s concerned expression, got up to read over his shoulder. He whistled. “What did you do?”
Khalid shrugged. “I declined to shake her hand.”
“K-Man, you need to edit. Figure out what works for you, throw out what doesn’t. It’s not like we’re still riding around on camels, right?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
Amir punched Khalid lightly on his arm. “You’re too old to be this naive. Watch your back, brother.”
Khalid kept silent. He knew how Amir saw him—as an anachronistic throwback, a walking target for ridicule.
Sometimes he wished he were different. But even if Khalid “edited” everything about himself—his clothes, his beard, his words—it wouldn’t erase the loneliness he felt every day. The loneliness he had felt ever since his sister left home twelve years ago.
His white robes and beard were a comfortable security blanket, his way of communicating without saying a word. Even though he knew there were other, easier ways to be, Khalid had chosen the one that felt the most authentic to him, and he had no plans to waver.
Besides, the robes provided great air circulation.
And everything happened by the will of Allah.