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Vol. 2, No. 5, 2003

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by Nabeela Sheikh


Nabeela SheikhNabeela Sheikh is a visiting Instructor at Michigan State University. She has taught English at the University of Windsor where she wrote a screenplay entitled Meantime. True Romance, part of a longer work of fiction called Rishta Stories, was originally printed in Jouvert, a multi-disciplinary journal of postcolonial studies.

* * * * * * * * * *

My past, my own personal history, feels monotonous to me; at best, it is uneventful. A succession of stolen moments for private epiphanies, real and imagined. Lying in bed, on top of the comforter, reading stories or just thinking them. Sitting on the top step of the third floor of our house to read a novel in peace. White-hot sunrays on baby blue canvas warming me through the opposing large window. Beige shag carpeting. Glorious daydreams of reading piles of books in cozy, sun warmed corners.

With the only available option being to accept that my past is boring, I often allow my mind to wander, examining memories for some sign of violent act or incident, something for which the apparent blankness of my personal history is merely a put-on, a brave front to withstand a persistent background of pain and torment. But nothing. I know I was not a boring child; in fact, I was often the life-force of my friends. I was the saviour transforming pedantic drivel into a moment of authentic deep thought, awkward pauses into gales of laughter. I often thought of how unjust it was that I could enrich and entertain my friends, but that I had no such counterpart to enliven my own life. It seems, I am forced to conclude again and again, that for much of my life I was simply bored.

One memory is watching a film during grade school. Sitting in horizontal lines, cross-legged, on the cool gymnasium floor. It was called Cipher in the Snow. I remember wondering, is this supposed to mean that this boy, this little friendless thing with galoshes and a dirty, fake fur-lined winter jacket, was empty inside, a big nothing, a zero? And, if so, why were they showing it to children? Did the children understand it? Were we supposed to?

I don’t know why it comes to mind now. Maybe because I feel I’m the one that’s truly based in reality. At least I know the difference. These men, these boys I meet at my parents’ home, they are the ones that suffer from a too porous division between reality and fantasy. Between a human being marked by a lived experience and The Big Empty. The problem is that I have no idea what went into forming their ways of looking at the world, no idea of the experiences that shaped their understanding, their expectation. I have no way of knowing what they want. And there are just so many different kinds of Pakistani girls. The stupid girl; the brainy, hard-working brute; the all-natural no makeup girl; the happy airhead girl (they’ll end up ruling the world, God love ’em, that’s all I know for sure); the pretty girl; the girl that will make you roti. The problem is that at different times I am all of those girls, and that is precisely what makes me a cliché.

The problem is you have to swallow your pride. Only it doesn’t taste like pride.

There will be no stories here. Stories are lies.

And then what happens?

Fine, this is what really happens, but look for entertainment elsewhere. It is the situation, the styrofoam negative impression of your life that keeps you in place. There is nothing to do to get out of this situation, no trap door, in fact, no door at all. No way to dissolve the form. How are you to opt out gracefully in spirit when in body you are not allowed?

So I learned to deaden all affect. The first meeting, over dinner, became a succession of private jokes told to myself. I cleanly wiped and put back in the box all components of bodily and verbal suggestion, all wrinkling of the area around the eye, degree of lowered eyelid, that normally consists in expression so as to be Miss Construed as a girl who is for it (suggestion of desperation), or as a girl who is happy (suggestion of low standards). (Because, after all, she’s barely conversed with him. And nobody in their right mind would know if they wanted to marry someone they’d just met! Nobody in their wrong mind, either.)

Also in the box: all tiny, presumptuous hints that could possibly be considered flirtatious or leading. Things like "I’d want to stay home part-time to raise our kids well I mean, my kids, of course. . . ." Silly grin. Or, "Here" (girl passing dinner plate to boy). Silly grin.

Stop tugging at my sleeve. This is not a story!

But how does it end?

Sigh. I’d ask you what you’re hoping for, but sometimes I find the word ‘hope’ to be quite embarrassing. As in ‘You should know better than that.’ Almost like running into a friend while buying a lottery ticket.

But I can tell you that what I want, right here, right now, is to walk on the carpet without taking my shoes off. What I want is to just shut up like a happy clam and refuse to partake in the tell-me-a-little-about-yourself. I want all the time to be what people mean when they describe themselves as being momentarily dumbstruck. I want to epitomize disinterested vacuousness. I want to dodge the points of their fact-finding questions in filmic bullet-time. I want to be invisible. No. Something other. I’ve invested too much time in this construction to have to kill this self off. When I start thinking this way, I can’t help but follow it with ‘What a waste!’ (Such a charming girl.)

At the movies with my friends, I bravely yet casually drop a remark about how much I like a closed book. Opened ones, sitting on desks, couches, lawn chairs in the yard, reek of slovenliness to me. After all, as I reassure my single friends, "It’s not mathematics, you know." Addition, then subtraction, graph the family history, derive, derive…. After all, one plus one equals two, then three. Beginning, middle, end.

No, this is not mathematics. So keep your pants on.

At dinner. This time, I find myself playing a smile on my face. "Hobbies?" Can I put into words what hearing this means to me? Without sounding redundant? Hobbies? This is not a joke, either. This man, this boy, has no sense of irony, or reason to attempt one. He means what he asks. Hobbies. Okay, got a pencil? Grinding my teeth. Primal screaming. Pulling out my hair. Oh yes, and hanging out with my friends, but can I say that without sounding like an idiot? Or does even mentioning that I have friends make me sound too happy-airhead-girl? (‘Friends’ being so beside the point in the age of specialization. However, when followed by ‘in high places,’ or simply upgraded to ‘colleagues’. . .)

Sigh. I swear to God, if only nunneries were kosher in Islam. I would certainly get me to one. But no, we all have to get out and join the real world. Get all messed up in it.

Hobbies? I tell jokes. Here’s one. What does an unmarried woman with Pakistani parents become? At best (i.e. making more money than she will ever need), an affront. That people eventually stop talking about when her monetary status buys back respectability. At worst (i.e. in every other case), an elision. That people don’t talk about at all.

Here’s another one. A girl is born. ‘This one’s different, this one’s smarter than the others. And pretty, too. She’ll marry well.’ This is what is called black comedy. Higher hopes make for darker falls. Simply more tragic than the rest.

Oh no, you silly goose. She will blend right in. We will blend her in. (Using the $350 KitchenAid mixer gathering dust in her trousseau. Imperial Grey. For Avid Home Chefs, but maybe one day. Planetary Mixing Action.) Because there are so many girls. So many girls.

Does she ever get to use it?

That’s hardly the issue at hand!

Why isn’t it the issue at hand?

Because . . . because–well, just never mind, alright?

So she has no right not to hope. She has all the necessary implements. She has friends whose mothers didn’t bother a decade ago to start buying things to gather dust in trousseaus. She has friends who don’t even know that she went out and bought an expensive set of china (the Old Country Roses set in her trousseau is, after all these years, out of style). That she told the saleslady it was a wedding present to herself. (No, no date yet.) That she is thinking, ‘maybe if I start to act domestically, to own domesticity, something might finally happen to me.’ Because maybe owning one’s body is already passé.

But what’s going to happen?

This is what happened.

There’s a story on your mother’s side that often gets repeated. It’s about a cousin of hers who was walking in the cobblestone street when this handsome young boy saw her and, at once, fell deeply in love. (They married and he built her a palace, or did I need to mention how it ended?) The point is, either you are a Pakistani princess, or just a girl. You can’t be both at the same time. What I mean is, sometimes you wish things were different, like you didn’t have to rely on looks, or money, or the appearance of either. Sometimes you wonder whether the boy in your mother’s story was actually handsome, like they say, or if it is just the presence in the story of any boy, by definition, that demands the ‘handsome’ handle. Or if he built her the palace as a gift, or as an even exchange. Or even if he built the palace just to show everyone else that he had built it for his ‘wife.’ And you do recognize that they made it Romantic that a boy fell so hard just for a face. You recognize that they forgot to mention whether she even liked him or not. They forgot to mention whether she was for it, or not. You had always thought she was; maybe that’s where the stencils don’t match up. If so, it’s completely your own fault; no one ever stated that she had fallen in love, too; no one ever told you to assume it, to believe that that single detail made the story complete. You did it yourself.

Your mother’s side.

Sometimes you feel like you’d like to stop them in their tracks and tell a story of your own. But that wouldn’t go over very well. Besides, you wouldn’t know what happens at the end; you’re the kind of movie-goer who never anticipates the surprise ending.

I sit in a chair in front of the mirror as my mother applies eye shadow. I never, ever wear eye shadow in real life. The doorbell rings, daring us to look another gift horse in the mouth. My mother, nerves jamming, inadvertently pulls my hair. Something snaps. "You shouldn’t fawn over her." I pause before correcting myself. "I mean, me. Okay?"

"Do you cook?" asks the father. "Do you clean?" asks the mother. But very innocuously, very offhandedly. Revealing first that their own daughter can’t cook and hates cleaning. To get my guard down. They want to know whether I can keep a good home because that is what will keep their son happy. People I’ve met in the last five to seven years don’t attempt stuff like that. They think it, of course, but they know it’s not politically correct to ask. But, after all, these parents just want to be sure their boy will be fed. Home is where the Lazy-Boy is.

"I don’t know how to answer that!" I answer. Light lilting laugh follows. "I don’t make it a practice to do either!" I’m no one’s wife, I want to add. You can count on that.

Above all, I am an expert at being nice. I know he knows this as they depart. Although I’m slightly relieved, I am also sorry. I know it’s better for me, for my sake, that is, to string him along than to tell him without words that this won’t work (plus, how would I know that?). It’s better to string them along because viability in the marriage market depends upon buyer interest. I know this. I counsel my friends to "Keep interest high!" But I can’t do it myself. It doesn’t feel good.

"Maybe they’ll come back," my mother says, encouragingly. Hopefully. I can’t stand the words. They tell me he’s someone who is shopping for a bargain. They tell me I’m someone whose finer qualities need a second look to be fully appreciated. But her tone is casual, friendly, and I let down my guard.

"It’s okay, it’s fine. I just think, is it really better to be spending all this time and energy trying to find someone I like? Can’t I just do my own thing, live my life, and see what happens? How is it better trying to force the issue? There’s nothing that can be done to make things happen quicker if I don’t like the guy in the picture."

"Are you crazy?" This brings me out of my reverie and now she is looking at me, face contorting, yelling without words.

"I’m confused," I whine. I know how this sounds. I wish someone were here to take over. After a moment, I turn to look at her, tears streaming down my face (begs compassion). There is a sudden intake of air as I involuntarily start. She has fire-breathing portals for eyes, and a sneer tugging the various darts of her skin, as if someone were pulling threads from behind her face. Anyone who’s ever worn a dupatta even once knows you’re not supposed to pull at loose threads like that; otherwise, the diaphanous material clots up like a spider web filled with cocooned flies, and the scarf becomes unwearable. A Hungry-Man’s spider web. A meal fit for a king.

I respectfully, and warily, retract.

Later that evening, I see her lying on the couch, with a white dupatta wrapped around her head. My mother gets headaches. Which is understandable. Besides having an unmarried daughter who’s breaching 30, she’s domestic farmhouse Martha Stewart one moment, and high-powered business Martha Stewart the next. I barely manage my weekly laundry.

Please, God, help me to be successful at what I do. Please help me to appear successful to others. Please help me not get old. Please help me not look old. Please make me happy. Please help me find a good husband. And please let me know it when it happens. Thank you for keeping the channels open.

I’m sitting here in goddamn New York City, and I’m thinking, I’m the most bored out of my skull as I ever have been. What’s worse is that I have to keep up this bubbly attitude like I’ve come to the freaking party place of the universe, while it’s been gravely tense and horribly behavior-modified from the beginning, and all I’ve really got to see is somebody’s impeccable but less than character-driven decor. And my head is splitting as it is. I wish I could find a dupatta now to bind around my head.

At dinner. Sometimes in these situations, you’re sure you look shell-shocked, this spastic smile on your face that is perfectly contoured to suggest that no feeling resides here, no feeling either this way or that, for or not. Skimming the currents of other peoples’ conversation, you might laugh by pulling down the corners of your mouth and puffing audibly while bobbing your head. Any more than that would make you look exuberantly for this situation, this possibility. Then the man, the boys’ side, would think they have the upper hand, and no matter who you are, you are, in an instant, relegated simply to ‘Pakistani girl.’ And there are so many, many girls!

And now I think–Yes! He just glanced at me with disgust! And I’m an attractive girl . . . I am shocked, but sort of amused. Where’s the professionalism? It is apparent that we are each under duress. Which makes me think. I am bound to be here because I’m 29 and a girl. He is older, made his money, and assumedly not slow-witted. Why is he here? I realize, slowly realizing, he’s been forced to show up tonight, he has no power in the situation either, he’s whipped–by his mother! I smile, and quickly focus my attention at a vacant corner, so nobody can possibly mistake it for a flirtatious gesture. Or a signal that I am for it. He’s just a girl, too!

Girls, I can handle–insecure, prone to depression, punch-drunk on the Romance and waiting for someone to save them–I can bat them around like balls of yarn.

At work recently, I proposed a new cover for a book of fiction that is coming out. My idea was to use only black and white, rather than the neon pinks and greens that have been shocking the shelves of late. "Too confusing," I explained to the group. "Too many colours serve to dazzle and disorient the average customer, who will simply keep walking." The Project Head did not agree. He held my mock-up at arm’s length. "You’re not married to it, I presume?" "What?" I said, imagining vaguely that he was making some kind of remark about my personal life (i.e. Pakistani + girl = Arranged Marriage). "Oh! No, no, no." I spit out. "I’m not married to anything!" He shoots a glance at me over his glasses. That was a little too exuberant.

Tell me another one!

Will you let me finish, please?

I thought you were done.

Just let me finish.

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