Her best friend Jasmine had once, when they were twelve, told her that she was ‘white passing’. It wasn’t something she’d easily forget. Because of what she believed then, she’d taken it as a compliment. But she wasn’t so sure now — of what it meant. Wasn’t so sure of who she was, anymore.
The whiskey bottle needed to be placed inside the reusable fabric grocery bag that was always kept on the back seat of their shared family car. It needed to be placed into the reusable bag and she needed to remember to carefully discard the receipt — tear it until the store’s recognizable logo became unrecognizable, until the receipt became so many tiny pieces of so much black ink on white paper, and then throw it into the trash in the upstairs bathroom that she was responsible for cleaning every week, whose trash she alone took out. If anyone asked, as she made her way up to her room with the reusable fabric grocery bag that was always kept in the car, she’d say she’d just bought some snacks for herself and herself alone.
Snacks she wanted to make sure no one got to before she could have at them. It was an excuse that always worked, that was always followed with the command to make sure to place the reusable fabric grocery bag back into the car afterwards. It worked because of how often she’d complained as a kid that all the snacks were eaten by her brother and sister before she could get to them, because of how often her mother had in exasperation told her to just keep the stuff in her room if she didn’t want anyone else to get at it.
She felt her phone vibrate in the back pocket of her jeans as she took the grocery bag with its clandestine whiskey bottle out of the car. Hope flared up in her heart. But she knew better. She tried to extinguish hope with practicality, with the reality that was always so bland. It was probably just a notification from some app that’d connected to the house’s WiFi. It was probably just a text from Jasmine. It was probably nothing to do with him. But hope was resilient, and try as she might, she couldn’t snuff it out — it remained beneath all the probable and bland reality like the cloying scent of hurriedly decaying flowers that lingers as a ghost in a funeral parlour after everyone and the dead have gone.
The hope would remain ablaze until she checked her phone, which she decided not to do until she’d got to her room. Until she’d got her whiskey safely to her room. Until after she’d had some of the whiskey. To soften the blow, to lessen the pain of the crash — of hope falling to the ground from its colourful place in the clouds.
Nobody was about as she got into the house from the garage. She heard the whooping and applause of the TV in the basement, in front of which she could be certain her mother and father sat silently. So she had safe passage to her room.
‘Where are you from?’
She knew he would ask her that. Even before he walked up to her, even before she watched him watching her. When she first laid eyes on him across the room, the beer in his hand, talking with that guy Sammy. Sammy, the friend of Jasmine, whose birthday party this was, whom she didn’t know, whose apartment downtown Jasmine had to almost drag her to because ‘Come on, it’d be a fun way to celebrate the end of midterms!’ She knew that he, six feet tall with his curly blond hair and blue eyes, would ask her that. Because they always did.
‘Just down the street,’ she’d said with a laugh in her eyes. Because she knew what he meant, the kind of answer he’d wanted.
In her room, safe, she lit a Bath & Body Works candle — Leaves — to mask the sour alcoholic reek that she was about to unleash.
When she was younger, a child, and she’d watch mesmerized the beautiful actors and actresses drinking in a movie, a TV show, she’d wonder that alcohol must be so delicious. Because of the relish with which they would sling back a shot, drain a bottle. Their voices would get wet, as though a massive thirst had been quenched. Their eyes would gleam and begin to glow and they would get so happy.
She was fooled completely, taken in by the magic. And was thoroughly disappointed by the reality of it all when she was sixteen and her sister let her have a sip of her own clandestine stash in her room. In the dim, dreamy yellow glow of her sister’s bedside table lamp, the rhythmic roll of the hushed alternative rock like lazy waves swelling out of her iPod dock. She didn’t find the whiskey to be delicious. It stung her throat and made her eyes water. It felt like what she imagined it would be like to be punched in the face. She wondered why people drank the stuff, until she found out for herself.
And so she needed coke. To wash the whiskey’s taste from her mouth. Or, at least, eclipse it — burn the inside of her mouth in another way.
She tiptoed down the stairs that always creaked, no matter how careful she was, to the kitchen, where she paused. The relentless clangor of the TV remained relentless, nothing creaked. She went to the fridge, eased its door open, took out a can of diet coke and went back upstairs. The stairs still creaked, but it could just be the house moaning in the early-November winds.
The thing was, she wasn’t supposed to drink. It wasn’t a matter of being allowed, of permission. She was twenty and she could buy her own liquor, however much she wanted. It was a matter of ought.
You didn’t drink in this household. This Muslim household.
You were to ignore father’s drinking, because of his sadness. You were to ignore and not try to understand the sadness, because he didn’t want you knowing about any of it, because he wasn’t supposed to have any of it. Because he was the unassailable head of the household. And you were to pretend like it didn’t scare you when he came home drunk and tried to pretend he wasn’t.
Silence was easy enough as these were things, his drinking and sadness, that took place out loud — his booming steps tripping through the house, on their way to the TV, the acrid smell he left behind, the sobs never successfully muffled — at nighttime. Impressions a good night’s sleep would flagellate out of your system. But the fear wasn’t easy and, like veins carved by tributaries in stone, it never went away, no matter how hard you tried to forget, it was always a skip of a heartbeat, a door’s slam away. You just didn’t speak of it. And you most certainly didn’t drink in this household.
It was only when she got back into her room whose air was leaden with the loud perfume of Leaves, that she noticed the difference — in the air of the house. The air outside her room, beyond her closed door, still smelled of food. The curry prepared a few hours ago for dinner. And in her room was the heavy candle scent. If she was anyone but herself, she wouldn’t smell anything but Leaves. But she was herself, and beneath the ingratiating stink of the candle lay languorously the curry scent. It wasn’t going away any time soon.
He’d told her that he’d text her when he was outside her house. But she didn’t give him her address exactly. She told him to stop two doors down, so no one in the house would see him behind the wheel. She didn’t tell him why, though, and he couldn’t know anyway. Her family lived in a townhouse on a street of townhouses, and, if he asked, she’d make up some excuse as to why she left from the back door instead of the front, and walked up to his car from around the street, past the unbothered facades of the tall houses.
She’d told her mother that she was going to a friend’s birthday party. ‘Will you eat?’ her mother asked, in Urdu. It was Saturday and she could hear the TV on in the basement, her father sat silently in front of it. And her mother was preparing dinner — biryani, whose telltale fragrant medley of scents loved more than anything else to cleave onto hair and clothes and not leave until the next wash or laundering.
The scent told her, before she could even ask her mother, that she was making biryani, and so she wore a hoodie over her blouse before she left her room. And she told her mother that they’d have dinner at a restaurant. Her mother didn’t say anything. So she slipped quickly out through the back door.
It wasn’t any use, though.
‘You smell like Indian food,’ he said as she climbed into the passenger seat of his car. If she was in a joking mood she’d say that it was actually Pakistani. If she was younger she’d be horrified so much so that she’d cancel the evening. But she was neither. She just flung the hoodie soaked through with that smell of fried onions and warm spices onto the back seat of his car, rolled the window down so that the notes of her white gardenia perfume would float over to him, and asked him about his work.
She knew nothing much about him — this was only the second time they’d physically met, having settled on the date and time and place over text, having texted only casually over the course of the week since Jasmine’s friend Sammy’s birthday party.
‘What exactly do you do?’ And he said something that she forgot as soon as he’d got done saying it.
He didn’t ask why she came from behind the houses.
If she was younger she’d be horrified.
When she was younger she was horrified by her food’s smells. Lunchtime made her stomach hurt. From the anxiety, the apprehension. What if the others smelled her food? No matter that she could smell theirs — their food was normal, she thought. Normal because it was the kind of food the people in movies and on TV ate. No matter that whatever her mother had packed would be something she liked to eat. What if they smelled her food? She didn’t want to explain what it was she was eating. She didn’t want to say the words, the names of the food to her classmates who wouldn't understand them, to whose ears they would sound foreign. What if they laughed at her?
So one day she asked her mother to pack her some kind of a sandwich for lunch. Her mother was confused. She offered up the excuse that sandwiches weren’t as messy to eat as rice and curry. Her mother asked her what she wanted in the sandwich. She was six years old. She hadn’t eaten many sandwiches. She told her mother to put butter between two slices of white bread. Her mother was confused. But her mother eventually obliged.
One day at school she opened her lunchbox that smelled of nothing, that wasn’t warm with a hot meal, to find two unevenly-stacked slices of bread. There was nothing in between them to hold them together. She ate the dry bread, pretending for her apparently indifferent classmates that she was eating a whole sandwich and enjoying it. At home, she asked her mother — politely, respectfully — if she had been very tired that morning. Her mother said that she hadn’t. And so she told her mother that she’d forgotten to put anything in her sandwich. It was just bread. Her mother said plainly that they’d run out of butter.
‘Oh,’ she’d said. She didn’t complain. She didn’t make a fuss. She was just grateful that her food hadn’t smelled of anything at lunchtime.
Her best friend Jasmine had told her that she was white passing. But lying next to him, his white body blushing pink and red, exhausted, she knew that she couldn’t be. She saw the yellow and olive in her skin, and she saw the pink in his. His body bathed in the orange light of the setting autumn sun that made his face look alien, disappeared his blond eyebrows and eyelashes. She’d never been with someone like him. Someone white — normal because he looked like everyone in all the movies and on all the TV.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked. Again.
‘My parents are from Pakistan.’
‘That’s a weird way to put it,’ he said.
‘I was born here.’
‘Your family isn’t Muslim?’
‘My parents are,’ she said. She didn’t know if she could explain it to him. She didn’t know if she should, tell him about how she had slowly but persistently elided her background from herself, neglected the religion over the course of her adolescence. How she was losing the language, its words pulled at by a Western accent whenever she spoke to her parents. She didn’t know exactly why she did it, why she didn’t try to hold on as her mother did. Why she tried to shrug it all off. It just wasn’t something the people in all her favourite movies had, and she so wanted to be like those people — beautifully blond and confident and powerful and far away from where she was.
No, it was too soon to tell him that. She didn’t want to ruin the moment.
‘You know,’ he said, rolling to his side and placing his arm across her chest. ‘When I first saw you I thought you were Indian. I guess I was kinda right.’
‘They’re two very different countries,’ she said. And she got up and started to get dressed. ‘Will you take me home now?’
He didn’t mention dinner as he drove her home through the purple haze of the windy evening and she didn’t ask. She always had her mother’s biryani. If anyone at home asked, the food at the restaurant wasn’t any good.
But back in her room, she began to worry. Had she been too rude to him? She began to worry that he would never speak to her again.
She’d had about a third of the bottle and felt ready enough to check her phone. She picked it up, held her thumb over the home button that would light it up, stared at her face that seemed bleary reflected back to her from the black screen. Then she laughed at herself. How stupid this all was, she thought. She touched the button and the lock screen lit up and there was the notification of a text from him.
Hey sorry if i offended u the other day, didn’t mean to!
She smiled at herself and poured another drink into the paper cup that she would discard carefully. In the trash in the bathroom that she alone was responsible for cleaning every week. Hopeful again, she found it too much of a bummer to think right now about how she wasn’t sure of who she was, anymore.
ALISHA MUGHAL's work has appeared most recently in Queen Mob's Teahouse and The Fem. She has a BA in Philosophy from the University of Toronto and currently resides in Canada. She was born in Pakistan.