Fiction by Hafeez Lakhani
In Rawalpindi, Anil lived downstairs. My father had kirana shop—small grocery—Anil’s father, dry fruit in same lane, and whenever I met Dad as he parted red dust of colony on scooter, it seemed he was offering me sweet dried dates from Anil’s father.
While hanging clothes on balcony then, seeing boys play cricket in colony courtyard, I had watched Anil, but not spoken, every day as a girl—and then looked on with more interest, quietly, as I developed into woman, wondering hours later sometimes what Anil was thinking while he stood at edge of boys. His watery black eyes behind golden-rim glasses always looked down, with fingers of one hand raised, tugging at one eyebrow. Later, it was my third year, B. Comm., Anil’s college finished, when those liquid eyes began to fix on me, briefly, in passing—before we each would turn away, embarrassed, but also unable to conceal the smile. It was that year that Anil began to wait for me, in monsoon season, at gates to Karimabad Colony. There I slowed, each of us shielding eyes from sprinkling rain, and he would ask, Amina, how is your Commerce studies? Fine, I would say, looking down, like him, at soft dirt beneath us. But giving him time. Amina, are—are you managing with rains alright? Yes, yes, thank you, Anil. Neither of us daring to mention last letter, or next, which he would slip into my school bag then—letters to which, then, I never replied, but for which I almost ran home through mud to read behind closed latch of washroom.
Dear jaan, he would begin. My life, he called me.
Always he spoke about dream to go to U.S.
The big dream in Rawalpindi, it seemed.
His wish to marry me, after my college was complete.
Of this I would think, smiling at desk, every moment of lecture through third year and fourth. Imagining while preparing for exam those same hands that wrote two and three page letters now touching me, keeping me safe.
But then Anil received visa.
From Tampa Anil’s letters arrived in waxy envelopes dressed in rectangular blue stamps, par avion air mail, long handwritten papers inside, wrinkled soft from taking to job at his chacha’s store. He wrote in those letters about store, mainly: night shift; selling beer and cigarettes to the American people; working deli, at back of Chacha’s store, where he would slice blocks of cheese and cold meats bigger than any hen he ever saw in India. His letters came at least two every month, but after one year passed, and then two, his tone changed. He would describe instead long silences between customers. The sound of car’s tires crunching small rocks outside. The squeaking mice hiding beneath deli case. Every night, he wrote, as he fell alone into sleep, he would think only of me. He imagined me a beautiful mother, he said, the most beautiful. And reading this in Rawalpindi, waiting for him, it made me feel beautiful. He pictured our daughters, he said, with hair full of shine like mine. This was when I began to spend entire days imagining our children, too. Anisa or Amreen would make lovely names for daughters, I wrote, imagining in my hours at home a tiny girl, our creation, looking up from my arms with Anil’s thinking black eyes. Akeel or Altaf, I wrote, would make brave boys, like him. Because I did think him brave for going there, trying to create something from nothing. These letters went on for six years, desperate years in which I wanted nothing more than to begin life with Anil, whether in Rawalpindi, or there, I didn’t care. Early one morning then, long distance phone call came to Anil’s father’s flat. His elder niece came running upstairs, Amina Chachi! Amina Chachi!
Jaan? Anil said in phone when I arrived, breathless. Are you ready?
Life changed quickly then. Fifteen days after call, after my rushed but wishful goodbyes—for all of us, Anil’s soft-spoken elder brother squeezed my shoulders and said—after changing planes in Doha then Amsterdam then Atlanta, in Tampa, in small nikkah ceremony without presence of Anil’s parents or mine—without same aunties and uncles who had seen each of us cross Karimabad Colony from grammar school to college, who had seen us blushing at colony gate in rain and had faith that this was not scandal but spark of something honest—with only presence of Anil’s always smiling chacha and chachi and Chacha’s three small sons who knew all words to fast American songs but who could not understand my Hindi, and ten or fifteen Indian families who seemed excited for occasion to wear sherwanis and sparkling lengas, and to apply mehndi designs to the hands of their children, before these guests who at my pithi touched turmeric to my forehead with wet-eyed wishes but with whom I had never shared a rainy season, finally, just after my twenty-eighth birthday, Anil and I completed marriage.
Next day, I remember, I woke to bright morning on large hotel bed, my ear pressed to soft beating of Anil’s heart. Anil’s fingers played at roots of my hair, and in my half-sleep, enjoying his touch that he had been saving all this time for me, feeling of good fortune washed over me that finally we were together. Beside us on bed sat open box of sweet kaju kathri—ground cashew pressed in sugar and moist ghee—the same mithai Anil fed to me night of our promising ceremony six years before. He placed the sweet again in my mouth before he left India, at engagement, in front of more than hundred members of our two families, and here, his special surprise, he fed it to me again, sweet crumbs of kaju kathri tangled with urges in our wedding bed.
We begin new store in few weeks, Anil said, before I fully opened my eyes. Sun had filled room through curtains we had not bothered to close.
In Bartow, he added.
Our new life, jaan. Together now, he said.
Because bank did not approve us loan, we had to buy store—only shop portion we could afford, not gas—from owners, Gus and Joanne, on note, which meant first seven years we had to compulsory pay every month two thousand dollars to Gus. If we pay even one day late Gus can take back store, Anil would tell me, late at night sometimes while he turned with no sleep. In beginning, store did not earn well and right away Anil had to borrow from Chacha to pay Gus on time, every month on 1st when he came, Gus arriving in big truck, wearing big boots, rough gray beard growing over big chin. But even when Anil was passing envelope of cash to Gus, giving him free tin of chewing tobacco, Gus was speaking to Anil like Anil is deaf and dumb. Always pointing this and that thing we are doing wrong. Pigeon birds on canopy over gas pump. Frost on vent over freeze. You people should have noticed, Gus was saying, spitting something red-color into Pepsi can. Always he would say you people, to which Anil only pulled on one eyebrow over glasses, and stared at linoleum floor.
I worried about Anil’s sleep, about note payments, too, but my stress was different in beginning. Our first morning opening store in still dark, I remember, I felt nervous, not for store in our hands now, including small breakfast diner, but because already, first time in my memory, I was few days late for ladies’ cycle. Late, but afraid to feel hope too soon—to give purpose, one month since marriage, to six years apart. That first morning, I worried not about food items I did not know on diner menu—I would be waitress, Anil explained, part-time cook staying on from days of Gus and Joanne—but instead about my growing hope for child.
Sorry? I said, taking first man’s order, wishing, as more men strolled in, all in charcoal uniform—for limestone quarry, I would soon learn, eight miles up US-60—that I had studied American foods on menu. His voice came from deep inside belly, his English clipped, like all the men, it seemed, and so I could not understand first order, or next, until one man, brow creased with irritation, pushed menu at me, only pointing to items. By this method, I managed.
When every chair of nineteen seating capacity was filled, a round-bellied man with pink face under sports cap entered diner. Bill, this man said, a hello to someone, his voice deep over others. He flicked a nod—George, Bill replied—and then to other men, George saying just names with loud vibrations, until he stood in front of me.
Mmm. Hello darlin, he said, while I removed plate from one seat opening. On his face hung half smile, but in his pale eyes, in parted shape of his mouth, there flashed some hunger that made me afraid. He reached with one hand then and slid two fingers down my arm.
I shook on his touch. In every part of my face then I felt sudden pain of tears. Alone there in diner, I could only remember night canteen in Rawalpindi, where these days college girls go, too, the time I saw one man in western dress touch a senior girl in this way—and how she boldly stepped back and shouted on man so loudly that two uncles pulled vulgar fellow away by ear. But here, this man still looking me over, I found no courage to do anything but place menu, shaking in my hands, onto counter. No fathers, no uncles here; just Anil, three customers waiting for him, Anil’s sloped shoulders tense over gas pump monitor—our service to Gus, who still owned gas.
Hold up there, the man said, as I tried to shift away. My shaking hands did not please him, it felt.
I want two eggs, two pancakes, he said—and two of more things I could not understand. And make that bacon extra crispy.
Sorry sir, I said, collecting my voice. Can you show me in menu?
Menu. I said the word in way I had been saying since first standard English. The way every person in Rawalpindi says, I am certain.
But he coughed then. Ha. Ha-ha. What was that? Men-ooo?
All workers looked up, and I felt strings of panic.
You want me to show you on this men-ooo? His laugh grew deeper, more punishing.
P—please sir. In this. I managed to touch menu in his hands.
Aw. Don’t worry darlin, he said then, looking around. He raised one palm for others to stop laughing. And with it, look on some faces softened, as if this man is kind father to a broken girl.
Then he was kinder. He slowly pointed on each item of his order. I took few breaths, steadied myself, copied to pad. Last he pointed to bacon.
Oh, I said. And tried then to pronounce this food every man seemed to order.
What? Back-un? he said, too loudly. Kindness gone. Ha. Ha-ha. No, no, darlin. I don’t want no back-un! Again his belly bounced, and workers’ laughs returned.
She said backun!
Hey. Hey Bill. For lunch? How bout a backun double cheeseburger!
It was there in diner then, surrounded by foreign laughter of these men, our first morning of new life, that I felt for first time in my twenty-eight years completely alone. Without Mum, without my father. Without Karimabad Colony circling me, without uncles riding past on scooter, without friends at night canteen. I wanted to run. I wanted to find Anil and press my face into him until I could no longer see, or smell, or listen to this unfamiliar world. I wanted to feel his hands lost in my hair, so to forget for one moment all of these changes.
But Anil was busy, Florida Lotto machine beeping, one sale after another.
Hey, uh, no offence, George said. But where’s big Joanne gone to?
Hello, sir? Anil said to this, turning from register. He pulled pants higher as he approached then, line at front kept waiting. Behind glasses, Anil’s eyes shined with pride. But first he touched my elbow, his face changing for one moment to apology. Asking with eyes if I was okay. Then Anil extended handshake to George. We are new owners, Anil said, his strong cheeks filled with pleasure. Gus and Joanne are no more here.
Slowly George accepted Anil’s hand. New owners? he said. He looked on other men; blank faces stared back. I mean—woulda been nice of Joanne to say something.
Anil tried to keep smile then, trying, I knew, to keep important breakfast business—bread and butter of this store, Gus had told us—but mostly Anil looked uncomfortable. Like he was searching for where to put hands.
Oh, and hello? Anil only announced after one second. For our opening, please know we are having nice cigarette and beer special for you all.
After workers left for quarry first day, and after I bussed tables and mopped diner area, I felt sudden need to use bathroom. But on walk past Anil and down two aisles of grocery, feeling of dread settled on me like an illness. Inside, I could feel that which I did not want to come coming. Sitting on toilet, I did not need to touch tissue to myself to know that hopes for child, this time, would fail. As I removed maxi from purse, my last remaining from home, and afterwards, as I caught glimpse of my puffy face in faded mirror, my heart sank low in my chest. Looking into toilet at stained tissues, no tears came but I felt the breathless feeling, the same I felt those years waiting for Anil, that wishes are so small compared to reality.
Little by little, I adjusted. Late mornings, after store grew quiet, it became my habit from stool at register, with some pleasure, to watch steam of Anil’s tea curl over his accounting ledger. After breakfast close I would make this tea in small pot on griddle, brewing until boil always with milk, too, not only water—the only way we know taste of tea. Anil had ritual while tea cooled: every day, he slipped ruler across new page in ledger and proudly sketched six fresh columns. Then, while sipping tea, he worked through pile of breakfast receipts, invoices, personal checks from quarry workers, all with small calculator, and in those numbers Anil, tugging at one eyebrow, got lost—so much so that later, putting away ledger, I would dust ten or twenty small hairs from page, all pulled from his brow. Baby Aunty ke jaisa hojainga, I joked to him once, watching him pull. You’ll become like Baby Aunty—a woman on second floor of Karimabad Colony whom as children we had each feared, for her stern eyebrows drawn in with pencil after she had plucked them bald in her youth.
Those quiet late mornings on farm road, I, too, would examine pages of numbers, but mine inside weathered date diary, not ledger. Thirty-two days, I counted with difficulty once. Thirty-two days late my cycle had arrived previous month. Twenty-one days late before that. Since store, since Anil sometimes turned with no sleep whole night—from eleven at night to five in morning our only time home together, including for love, when we managed—I had been late too many times. These months, with every miss of starred date in diary, I could not help but take hold of some small hope, a wishful feeling that found its way deeper, close to my heart, as days numbered more—that pregnancy would bring joy to this life we slipped into without thinking—but then eventually, every time, came my cycle, and with it the crushing feeling. Like Anil’s sleep, my body had become unreliable.
After Anil left to go rest—he would return for night shift beginning at four, then I would return with car after ten-thirty to bring him home for dinner—I often spent lonely stretches of afternoon staring into lemon trees planted opposite US-60. When we began store, these trees were only twigs, few leaves rising to sun. But with time new branches emerged. Small green fruits sprouted from buds. Watching these filling leaves, seeing nature’s cycle quietly at work, I often thought of Mum. You spent seven years in my body, she used to joke, these same afternoons in Rawalpindi. After mitha moda—Anil and my promising ceremony, the feeding of sweets—and then our immediate engagement before Anil left, it was Mum who taught me, over my six years waiting, to perfect my portions of dhana giro and turmeric and cumin to coat over cubes of goat and tomato for saak; or, on ambitious days, teaching me recipes for occasions, too. For mutton biryani, she explained, first find pot big enough to feed twenty or thirty, and then over course of whole day, layer meat and masala and potato and saffron rice—color important, too, in how family will enjoy—before slow cooking all together. As my twenties passed in Rawalpindi, as Anil’s written wishes for making family began to feel sometimes like broken promises—and while colony aunties talked beside lift of time running short to break engagement while I was young enough—it was Mum who occupied my mind. Not with new recipes but with stories of her life as new bride. She had difficulty, she would tell me over afternoon tea, moving into small flat of not only mother-in-law, but four unmarried daughters, my fuimas, who expected housework to fall in bride’s still-soft hands. While missing her mum and dad three hours distant by train, Mum bore this, washing by hand all of the sisters’ clothes, including ladies cloths, alongside seven years of her own irregular bleeding.
After marriage, after love, you do not know what difficulty may come, she’d said. Mother-in-law difficulty, money difficulty, pregnancy difficulty. Anything may come. Even in U.S.
After eleven one night our second year, while I was roasting fresh chapattis for dinner, Anil surprised me. Tenderly, he pressed himself behind me at hot tawa. Humming tune of Hindi song, he slipped arms around me, laid one hand flat over my stomach. This touch of his hand was our gesture, one we both melted into, especially while we fell into sleep—maybe in place of our ever talking about conceiving.
Sundays, Anil whispered. Sundays we’ll hire employee. We’ll go into world, together.
In my surprise I forgot to flip chapatti. I did not understand—with loan due back to Chacha, with note threatening store, with Anil’s poor sleep, we would take time to enjoy? I removed burnt chapatti then, found few breaths to relax, while Anil rocked slowly behind me. The curve of my body fit into his like we were two spoons. Slowly following his mindset of not worrying, and thinking now of Sundays—the excitement of exploring this place—I allowed myself then to feel warmth of Anil’s breath against my ear. I felt safe there, I was certain, just like I had imagined when reading his letters back in B-Comm. Our bodies swaying lightly then, content with only sound of our breathing, I let one hand, still dusted with chapatti flour, reach back and touch him.
Our first Sunday, Anil drove us one hour to Patel Brothers in Orlando, where until then I had been driving once a month alone to buy Indian groceries. I was proud that day then to guide Anil, the address new to him, showing him where to exit I-4, which shopping plaza to enter, in which corner to park. Inside, Anil wheeled small cart while I led us to long Basmati rice, to chana and moong daal, the different types of lentils that he loves. We found atta for chappati dough, fresh goat in corner freezer, and ground spices like we use back home—sharp smelling dhana giro, deep yellow turmeric, fresh cumin seeds. Anil watched, pleased, it seemed, as I chose large bunch of minty coriander, still wet from morning’s washing, and tiny chilis so green my mouth prickled even smelling their skin. Placing vegetables in cart then, guiding Anil down these aisles I knew as well as our own store, I felt thrill like I was small girl again. Thrill to be out in world with Anil. I felt like dancing down those aisles, and I would have soon felt silly, if first, in Anil’s still mouth and thinking black eyes I did not see a pride—looking at me?—that I had not seen since first days we owned store, when Anil said, We are new owners.
It was at display counter then that Anil picked up box of Shan Masala, labeled Kadai Ghosh. And I watched, irritated suddenly, at curious way he turned box over in his hands.
Jaan? he said. Why do we not buy these?
There were maybe eight pre-mixed spice packets on display. Kheema mutter. Tandoori chicken. Daal fry. All with color photos of appetizing saaks and meats served over rice. Of course I had seen them—you could not miss Shan Masala at Patel Brothers. So many times these months, I had studied ingredients of those boxes, debated in my mind how fresh spices might be, and most important, whether I wanted food I prepare to be spiced by Mr. Shan’s formula or by me.
Anil picked up three Shan packets then, like they were cheap toys for a child, and moved to add them to cart. It was this—his decision, so casually, of the method in which I should be cooking—that turned something in me.
Ye kya! I said, and pulled cart back.
He let go, but I watched as irritation formed over his lips. Seeing it, anger rose inside me. Did he not believe anything wrong in pushing Shan Masala on me? Did he not consider that I know better than even his own mum what balance of salt he likes; or that he eats my food, and only my food, breakfast lunch and dinner, with same animal appetite—his fingers soaked in saak, his hiccupping—as he shows during love?
How much, Anil? I said then. How much change, jaan, am I to bear?
I snatched packets from his hand and pressed them back onto shelf. Kya? I said, pushing past him. My mum didn’t teach me to cook myself?
With time, quarry workers, and as some switched the job, construction workers, too, became familiar. Hey hey, Amina, men would call, even across store if only buying cigarettes. And with time, too, I learned not only proper names of foods, but each man’s name, and his usual order: sausage patty, eggs over easy, and gravy for Bill; or bacon shred into bits and scattered in four eggs, scrambled, for Joe.
They stay longer in store because of you, Anil would tell me at night. They enjoy your company.
Anil had not had such luck, I knew, regarding friendliness. Late one morning once, after I had taken over register, he had gone out to join George, who had scared me first day, but had since learned to keep decent distance, and three or four more men smoking in small circle in front of store, all of them nodding occasionally at shiny bumper and big double wheels of new truck George had bought. Anil, only man without cigarette, stood at edge of this circle, only tugging shyly at one eyebrow, until finally he interjected with one question about truck, and was met, it seemed from disappointment on his face, with type of slow-worded answer—something like Gus calling us you people—that only made him feel more like outsider.
At least we are beginning to save, Anil would say at night. By third year, I knew, we were already close to paying back loan to Chacha from days when we could not meet note payment. Worker who used to buy High Life is buying more expensive Budweiser now, Anil would tell me. Public is buying water bottle even when they can take fountain water for free.
Tangled together, Anil’s hand gently at my stomach, we spoke at night about these store matters—customers, money, diner. But as our fourth year in Bartow came, and then our fifth, still I could not bring myself to speak to Anil about how every afternoon alone at shop, staring at lemon trees, I could not help but think about pain of our isolation. And my pain of not conceiving.
Sundays became our common distraction, it seemed. Something else to focus on. In Ocala, at fruit market once, we found sitafal—custard apple, we learned it is called here—and chicoo—sapodilla—fruits that once marked passing of seasons for us—September, always in our memories when to drink chicoo milkshake at night canteen—but fruits we never found in Publix. At Lakeland Mall in Christmas time, we watched American public go crazy over shopping. There, Anil took me in JC Penny and pushed me to try on long dress, which I agreed looked elegant on American women, but in which I could not bring myself to walk out of changing room. In jeans, pant-shirt, I was comfortable, since college days. In shalwar kurta, since childhood. But other than nightie, I could not imagine wearing open dress. In months where it was not too hot we attended picnics, hour and half away on Clearwater beach with Chacha and Chachi and their three now teenage boys, all already taller than Anil. On these beach days, I would watch the boys especially. Between each other they spoke American slang I could not understand except for f-curses, which even I knew to be vulgar. Sometimes oldest and youngest would beat with closed fists on quiet middle brother—and it was in those moments that, despite my hope for pregnancy, I felt afraid for what American child might mean. But mostly, Chacha’s sons spoke sweetly to me. They called me Amina Bhabi out of respect, asked always about our store. And they were kind, too, to stop teasing after some years about when Anil and I might allow them to be chachas.
It was in sixth year, year I turned thirty-three—neither of us brave enough yet to raise topic of our problem—that nearly every afternoon, it began to rain. It was bad storm season and for three months, maybe, it seemed rain arrived when Anil left store to sleep, then fell like rocks while I sat alone, looking out at wet US-60. One Sunday in this rain, Anil drove us for South Indian lunch to Tampa, where in empty restaurant, its front glass foggy beside us, we ate moist white idlis drowning in spicy sambar. There was unusual silence between us, our growing misery, it felt, rising like steam from our food. And in that silence I began to feel certain that he felt my same pain—for how long we had been trying—because his eyes would not leave his bowl of sambar.
We could sell store, Anil said then.
And suddenly my ears opened. Anil’s eyes did not meet mine, but only fixed on steel bowl.
Chacha is paid back, he said. Note payments are going fine. And we are saving, too.
Images flashed in my mind of life without store, and by instinct, I thought of life before—of family. My Mum Dad, alone there; and Anil’s parents now showing signs of age—diabetes in his father growing worse every year.
Business is slowing, actually, Anil said. You can see some days we do not fill all seats at breakfast.
I thought of Anil’s soft-spoken elder brother and his small wife—my bhabi now—with her warm smile, still living in Rawalpindi. Fulfilling duty to care for his parents. I pictured their two pony-tailed daughters whom I had watched grow from toddlers to school age, whom in my six years after engagement Bhabi taught to call me Chachi, in advance of my marriage to their Anil Chacha. They had a third girl now, too, whom we had only seen in photos sent by post.
We’ve grown business from when we bought it, Anil said. And we have good accounting. From those numbers we could sell for profit. With money buy house, maybe. Or bigger store, close to Tampa—
In wet glass of restaurant then, I pictured, with heavy sadness, this empty house Anil spoke of. My images of India washed away over asphalt.
A house to fill with what? I said, through choke of tears now. With our two bodies alone?
Anil finally looked up. Behind his glasses there was surprise. But after a moment, sympathy too. My tears began to run, dripping from my cheeks onto idlis growing cold on my plate. Anil reached for my hand but I pulled it away.
I would go back, I said, through my tears. If it were my choice, if it would not crush you and your hope for earning and your dream for improvement for this family you’ve wished for but that my body won’t give, if it was at all possible, I would go back to Rawalpindi. I sobbed openly now—these words six years in hiding. Together, Anil. Together we could watch our parents grow old. In colony we could see schoolmates with their children. Together we could ride scooter to night canteen and eat pani puri with our hands and drink chicoo milkshake. In Rawalpindi we could dream in Hindi. Watch films at theater instead of shaking video copies from Orlando.
I wept into my masala filled hands then, while rain continued to slap at parking lot. I felt burning inside my eyes, but welcomed the pain. Pain for an absence. In my weakness I wanted to reach for Anil, but felt afraid.
He came, though. Lifted me from my seat. Ran backs of his fingers down my hair.
For what, Anil? I said, pressing into him. Because we love this work?
But there in his arms, as my breathing slowed, I remembered Rawalpindi again. The day before I left, my bhabi, pregnant with her third, took my hand in colony and held it near her heart. These years, Amina, that you were waiting, she told me. Her free hand rested on her swollen stomach. I knew U.S. was in your naseeb, she said. My destiny. It is not written for all of us—we have tried and not received lottery so many times—but it was in your naseeb all along, Amina.
The next week, Anil took me to doctor, a friend of Chacha in Tampa. Anil had gone earlier that week, too, during my afternoon shift. It was first doctor either of us had seen in my six years here.
Doctor Surani was thin in shoulders but still had Indian man’s belly, and so he felt familiar, more like uncle than doctor. We sat across from him in small, cluttered office, a degree from Ramachandran University in Ahmadabad mounted behind him. I am G.P., he said, sitting back in chair. So I cannot treat your—situation—my dear. But I have run a test on Anil’s sperm—which has returned normal—and so, once I learn few things, I would be happy to explain options with specialists.
Thirty-three, I said, when he asked my age.
A sad smile fell over his face. You are still young, dear.
Six years, I answered next. How long we’d been trying.
Once a week. At least, Anil answered the next.
There are treatments, doctor said to me, his eyes pinched in sympathy.
Next to me Anil pulled at eyebrow.
The most common has roughly 80% efficacy—if you qualify. But—and he looked at desk—it is expensive.
He explained: doctors take my egg and Anil’s sperm and fertilize in lab and then insert into my uterus.
Listening to him, somehow I pictured chickens laying eggs in labs. All of it twisted in my mind, unnatural. It felt as if they were declaring as fact that my body had failed at its natural right.
How—how much? Anil said.
Seven thousand a treatment, I believe. Doctor cleared his throat. Most patients require, I think, five to seven treatments. Not covered by insurance, he added, in a murmur.
Anil’s arm looked in salute pulling at eyebrow. Doctor looked on with sympathy, at Anil now. Probably he knew we had no insurance anyway.
Mum, I said then. Mum did not conceive until seven years after marriage.
But no hope appeared on doctor’s face.
I can prescribe fertility drugs, if you like, he said. You’re still young—you might try that for a year, then see where you stand?
I don’t know if it was drugs or my own renewed commitment but in months after seeing Dr. Surani I became hungry for Anil. Not only in how often we loved—but in our intensity of love. I felt myself feeling desperate for him to grab me, to suck and bite me with same urgency he had when I first arrived. But these months after doctor visit coincided with Anil’s stress—gas prices rising to highest level we had seen. Diner filling then with only ten, fifteen seats maximum each day. Then layoff at construction site, half of shop customers suddenly without work. One day soon after, Gus came shouting, making scene in store, in front of customers, about decline in gas gallons—the first time Anil had seen decline in any month, either at our store or at Chacha’s. I swear, Gus threatened, in front of seven or eight quarry men who did not request Gus to speak with dignity, but only watched. You people miss one fuckin payment, and I swear I’ll grab this store back—
One Sunday soon after, at Patel Brothers, I observed Anil from small distance, the stress unhealthy, I felt, almost permanent on his face these days. Down aisle, I watched him stop in front of sweet mithai display and reluctantly touch one box with special ribbon at corners, special rose-colored film over top.
Ye kya? Kaju kathri? he asked shop owner. Is it kaju kathri?
Hearing kaju kathri, I remembered, as Anil must have, how he fed me these same moist squares in our wedding bed. Our union to celebrate, our future children shining ahead of us. But at Patel Brothers, Anil did not look back toward me; he only returned kaju kathri to shelf. When I passed, I saw box cost twenty dollars, and I understood this was why. I decided to act, though. I found ghee and churma and ghord then, slipped them below other items in grocery cart. From these ingredients I knew to make another sweet Anil loves, one I could make for him at home.
The next night, after I picked Anil up from close, entering apartment, I told him to close eyes. Don’t move. Over his still face I could see he needed to rest, not only from day, but from our life here. Still he obeyed, waiting there by line of shoes wearing look of tired amusement. It was then I touched one round ladoo to his lips. The sweet I had made. Surprised, he took small bite, but the way Anil moaned then, crumbs of churma stuck like sand over his lips, I felt for that moment he had forgotten all worry. He did not open eyes. He only accepted second bite, his smiling mouth now full of ladoo, like brown sugar. Then Anil found my lips and pressed me against wall like he had not kissed me in how long. With urgency then—what I felt we’d been lacking—he pulled me by my thankful fingers to bedroom.
Before long diner became worst. Only six or seven men wandering in each morning, every head tilted down to linoleum. Still Anil did not say to me anything about note difficulty. Instead, one sticky Florida afternoon of type I had come to know well, Anil drove me to clinic in Tampa to which Dr. Surani had referred us.
We entered small exam room together, with clear vase of fake flowers on one counter, and rectangular table in center with aluminum arms pointing from one end. From doorway, nurse asked me to take off clothes, put on green gown folded on exam table. Anil squeezed my hand then, knowing I would not like changing in this place. Still unsure about this, still I did it. Anil tied gown at back for me.
Rest your feet in those stirrups, doctor said when he entered, reading file. He was tall, muscular, but his face glowed a strange orange, like American suntan. When he finally looked up his eyes fixed on me, searching, smiling slightly, so long it made me uneasy. Right here, he said, touching each of his hands to cup at end of aluminum arms.
I looked to Anil—this was too much. I had never seen male doctor for woman’s health. Had never separated my legs over such a table.
Anil kissed side of my head then. It’s okay, jaan, he whispered.
I closed my eyes. Lifted my legs. Laid on my back. Moments later, in that position, I felt touch of cold steel.
Nehi! I cried, and squeezed my knees together.
Doctor cleared his throat. Whenever you’re ready, he said. But I was not ready. I wanted to go from that white-walled place. I wanted to keep trying with Anil. The ladoo night did not work, but it felt right—to feel close, attached to one another, and forget everything else. Forget store. Forget note. Forget accounting ledger. Maybe that way we would succeed.
Anil held me then as doctor slowly pressed steel instrument inside me. I could not breathe. Then another, sharper object entered. To scrape the cells, doctor seemed to be saying, while in blur of pain I felt for half moment that Anil was not holding me, but pinning me there.
You’re both good candidates, a big-breasted woman in business suit told us across one desk afterwards. She was not doctor. I was still shaking. Unable to meet even Anil’s eyes. The chance for fertilization will exceed 80% after six trials, she explained. Six trials would cost forty-two thousand dollars, she said, like other doctor, murmuring as if in embarrassment. But with approval from Credit, we do offer payment plans, she said, her voice turning to cheerful.
Like note, Anil said to himself.
That night I found no sleep. In our bed I turned to Anil, pressed my fingers inside soft hairs of his chest.
He mumbled something in sleep. He had been restless these nights with store doing badly, but now, since he decided—no discussion, he told me, on drive back from Tampa—that we were doing procedure, he was sleeping like dead. If I did not wake him, I knew, he would not remember next day what I wanted to tell him.
Jaan? I begged, shaking him.
Tell me, he said, turning finally. In dark I could not see if he opened eyes, but as if by instinct, he touched hand gently to my stomach.
Jaan, I—I don’t know, I said. I don’t know if procedure is right decision. Maybe—maybe making family is not in my naseeb.
At this Anil’s whole body shook. Jaan! he said, pushing onto one elbow. Dammit. Yes. It is in our naseeb. I promise you that.
My hand had slipped from his chest, and his from my stomach. In cold pause then, between sounds of my trying in dark, desperately, to push back tears, maybe Anil began to understand how alone I felt. How though I could not label with words, I felt—found the courage to believe—that what was wrong was not in my body but in this life we had thrown ourselves into.
Jaan, Anil said. Softer now. Jaan, it was in our naseeb to get visa, right? And store? To get note from Gus? Even if we lose shop, it was in our naseeb to earn savings, no? To use savings for this?
But it was you, I pleaded. You applied for visa. For you I waited six years. You agreed to pay Gus every month. I tried to breathe, tried again to hold back tears. How much, Anil? I said. How much do you want to go on changing our naseeb?
Hmph. Anil slapped bed with full force then. It would be foolish, Amina, if we did not take this chance.
Then I am fool! I said. And I turned away from him.
My tears arrived then in chokes and panicked hiccups. I pressed my face into pillow, tried to hide sounds of my weakness. Every second Anil and I remained at this distance I felt sharp pain in my stomach. How many minutes passed this way I don’t know, but after some time, my face aching from tears, I felt Anil’s touch at my side. I allowed it, desperate for his understanding. I allowed him to lay one arm below my head, to wrap other arm over my stomach. In this position, his heart beating against my back, he whispered: Trust in me, Amina. I promise, nothing we have done is worth if we do not keep pushing. Nothing.
And so lying there, not knowing yet that procedure, after five rounds of steel instruments reaching into me, would succeed; not knowing yet that in forty weeks I would give birth to our new jaan, Amreen; long before my dream-like hours staring into her tiny wrinkled face—not my face, but rounder, Mum’s face—or my hours following her wandering eyes—Anil’s eyes, definitely—and my wondering, with her being raised here, how much, or how little, she would wind up like me; those thoughts yet to distract me while Anil went back to work for Chacha for some time, before diner and store and even failed note to Gus became only fond memories of beginning; there in our bed where we had loved so many times, in this first apartment of our new life together, I allowed myself to feel warmth of Anil’s body pressed against mine, and I sank further into him, my tears falling quietly in dark.
Hafeez Lakhani was born in Hyderabad, India and raised in suburban South Florida. His work has been featured in Crazyhorse, Exposition Review, Salt Hill, Tikkun, The Cortland Review, and The Southern Review, and has garnered fellowships from PEN Center USA and The Center for Fiction. He was twice recognized with a Notable Essay in Best American Essays and twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2015 he was profiled by the Huffington Post as one of “Eight Fantastic New Writers To Look Out For”. In former lives an NGO field worker in India and a commodities trader on Wall Street, he is completing a novel now about a family confronted by a life-threatening liver disease in the matriarch.