I was instantly greeted by the god-sent air conditioning and the smell of oil and onions. Narmin’s mother was humming something while some Pakistani broadcaster reported breaking news on TV. I pulled off my sneakers immediately and pushed them by the door. No one wore shoes inside the Ahmad’s house, so I was forced to shuffle over the long flower rug with my old white socks. I wish I had paid attention to them before I left.
“My mom is making lunch so you better eat something. We’ve got your favorites!” Narmin said, as we walked through the sitting room slash travel room, thanks to all the souvenirs and gifts from the countries Mr. Ahmad had been to. There were little tiki men, mosaic tiles, wall tapestries, bonsai plants, blown glass, and beautiful frames of Arabic calligraphy. I don’t know how Narmin walked through this room without stopping to sigh with wonder. The only time I had been abroad was to Canada to visit my father’s cousin and I was nearly eight then.
We walked into the stainless steel kitchen to find Narmin’s mother amidst the chaos of cutting boards, ground meat and boiling water, with her smart pair of glasses, long ponytail and a swipe of lipstick. I guess when you didn’t have a job outside the house, you could dress up even if you were working at home. It was an endearing thing about her.
“Marwa, assalam wa alaikum beta!” She picked up a spoon to taste the cooking stew, closed her eyes and nodded her head.
“Ah, you know what? It tastes perfect now, because you are here!”
Everything she said made me feel so special. I worried that I was blushing.
“Is that the biryani?” I asked, straining to see inside the pot. I knew it was of course. I’d smelled it, eaten it a million times and loved it.
“Finally someone who is excited about it. I can’t stand that heartburn waiting to happen. She’ll be in heaven now,” Narmin said, leaning against the countertop.
“You’re not going to eat with us?” I said as I pulled a chair out.
“I ate a little while ago like some microwave pizza stuff. Not hungry anymore. I need to finish my nails. You eat and then come back to my room.”
And just like that she disappeared. I used to get annoyed by that, but Narmin didn’t beat around the bush if she wanted to do something else instead of waiting. At least I got to enjoy the food and spend some time with her mother. I felt like she didn’t get the same quality time with Narmin as she liked, even though she was home all the time. I was more than willing to fill in.
We ate off of beautiful blue square plates that Narmin’s mother said she found in a vintage shop in Manhattan. She told me about how she loved New York and Philadelphia, the great weather, the sights, how cute Bilal and his wife were and how much she missed having the whole family together and that she wanted to go back in the winter. I tried to keep up with the nodding in between bites of piping hot rice and meat. I didn’t want her to think I was one of those weird people that didn’t know how to eat and converse at the same time.
“Without Bilal, it’s hard to keep Narmin’s attention, you know? She is not as interested in sitting with her family and talking to us anymore,” Aunty Fatima sighed and took a sip of her coffee while she looked toward the family room.
“Before he got married, this house was more alive. We all used to play those board games and brain games from these books I bought. Narmin loved to play over and over again so she could beat Bilal. The two of them of would put on practice debates about any topic my husband would come up with. Sometimes we would all sit on the sofa as they did their homework and I’d bring them snacks when they got very stressed.”
“Now, she likes to just go to her room, listen to music and go on the Internet all day, all night long. I think she thinks we are not cool parents or we are boring,” She made air quotes with her fingers. I wanted to laugh at how adorable that simple gesture was, but I knew she was speaking from her heart.
“You teenage girls love to drive your dear parents crazy. I don’t remember doing that when I was your age. My mother was like my best friend.”
I couldn’t imagine her doing anything remotely like a teenager would, no rebellious, snarky, moodiness. She was too sweet and sensitive. Sometimes she reminded of a dainty beauty pageant contestant.
“But you are always so kind to me and like to sit with me, beta, that’s why I love you,” she said, smiling. “Sometimes I feel that you sit with me more than my husband does.”
“For the record, I think you’re pretty cool to hang out with. My mom just treats me like a kid. We don’t really sit and talk about anything interesting. They’re always lectures that end the same exact way. ‘And that’s why you must stay away from boys!’ ” I wagged my fork the same way my mother did with her finger.
Aunty Fatima’s hazel eyes twinkled as she laughed. She clapped her hands together and touched her cheeks.
“Well, you should tell her that you can’t stay away from them forever. One day, you’re going to have to marry one!”
I stuck my tongue out jokingly. Marriage to me was like college entrance exams. I’d have to do it at some point when I’m older and I only wanted to do well so I wouldn’t be branded a failure. I know, very mature.
“But if she can help it, I won’t get married until I’m 30. I have to get a PhD or something so I can be somebody and make her happy. You know, education comes first!” I said, trying to imitate my mother’s voice.
Immediately, I wanted to slap myself because I forgot Narmin’s mother hadn’t even finished college. She took a break after giving birth to Bilal and just never went back. I didn’t want her to think I was insulting her and being a pretentious teenager. My father said sometimes I acted like one around my elders and made them feel bad for using incorrect grammar. Bad grammar was just one of my pet peeves though, nothing personal. I stuffed my mouth with rice and chewed anxiously.
Why was I so oblivious and socially awkward like this? If it wasn’t for me, she’d be sitting here looking beautiful and alone at a table full of delicious food that she worked hard to make, but at least she wouldn’t have someone to make her feel stupid too.
Aunty Fatima sat back in her chair and took off her glasses. She folded one side and tucked it into the collar of her shirt.
“You know, Marwa, this is a very important time for you girls now. High school is very different, very difficult. I thought about what I wanted to tell you, to advise you, as you are going to start your new school in the next week. Narmin will just wave her hand at me, so I will tell you and you can share it with her by yourself.”
She paused and looked at me as if waiting for me to agree, so I nodded.
“I do not wish to disagree with your mother that education is important. Of course, I think so. I am not telling you to forget about doing well in school. I just want you to always remember who you are, what your heart tells you you are capable of. Never let any teacher or class or degree tell you something different. You understand me?” she said.
The news broadcast was over and I could hear a sweet, high-pitched woman’s voice singing a song in Urdu in the background. I looked at Aunty Fatima’s face and studied the little lines and crinkles around her eyes. There wasn’t any anger in them, just a bit of weariness.
“Yes, aunty,” I whispered.
I fought back the urge to get up and leave and instead finished my last bites of chicken and washed it down with the mango juice she had poured for me.
“Can you please remind Narmin to finish her summer assignment? I know she thinks I don’t know about it. I’m sure you have finished yours because you don’t wait until the last minute and make excuses like that girl does” Aunty Fatima said, pursing her lips.
I smirked as I got out of my chair. Compliments did wonders to my mood. I just hoped Narmin wouldn’t ask me to help her do her assignment and avoid the important topic I needed answered, the whole reason I wanted to come over. I’d remind her later when I had to go back home.
Before I went down the hallway to Narmin’s room, I turned back to see her mother still sitting at the table, stirring her coffee with the spoon between her thumb and pinky finger.
“Thanks for the great lunch, Aunty. It was awesome, really,” I said.
Narmin’s mother smiled, without stopping her stirring.
“I’m glad you liked it, beta,” she said.
I wanted to tell her I was sorry things weren’t the same around the house without Bilal. Sorry that her husband didn’t sit with her as much as I did. Sorry Narmin wasn’t into games anymore or spending time with her mother. I was sure that Narmin would like to be closer to her mother and talk, but the issue was that she wouldn’t do a very good job being so touchy-feely, so to speak. I was her best friend and I knew my limits when we had our talks. It was always controlled by Narmin’s mood and attitude and no one else’s.
But I felt like apologizing for things I wasn’t responsible for was kind of pointless and I was kind of in a hurry to go see Narmin. This hijab thing was really getting to me. I’d have to schedule solving a mother-daughter communication problem for another visit. Or to be honest, when I figured out how to fix mine as well.