Painted Hands

A Novel

Jennifer Zobair

Thomas Dunne Books

THEY HAD TALKED about marrying a white man, but Amra never thought they were serious, not even when fed up with the proposal-slinging aunties who showed up at weddings and holiday celebrations with wallet-sized photos of eligible doctors and engineers, their particulars scribbled on the back (5'11", MIT, owns home or Stanford Medical, 33, professional wife okay). It was simply a way to vent. Because sometimes she and her friends needed to say something after the Ramadan parties and family celebrations, where the men always ate first and never helped clean up. It was just a bluff, the threat to marry outside of their culture, or so Amra thought until the Friday after Valentine’s Day, when Rukan rushed into Khao Sarn twenty minutes late—Amra and Zainab had already finished their miang kum and were attacking the fried tofu—and, without taking off her coat, flashed an enormous diamond ring.
Amra didn’t know what to say. All she could think of was the Home Shopping Network and a laboratory. Which, unfortunately, opened the floor for Zainab.
“What the hell is that?”
“Nice, Zainab,” Amra said. “What would her father say if he could hear you?” Rukan’s father did not tolerate women who swore. When they befriended her that first earnest year at Smith, despite Zainab’s prodding, Rukan couldn’t even say “crap” until the second semester.
Zainab nodded, like she was glad Amra had asked. “I think he would say, ‘What is that ring doing on my daughter’s finger and it better not have come from that goddamned kafir.”
“Adam isn’t a kafir,” Rukan said. “He’s an Episcopalian.”
Zainab rolled her eyes.
“It counts,” Rukan insisted. “You know, People of the Book? Christians and Jews. And Sabians.” Rukan frowned. “What even is a Sabian?” Amra shrugged. Zainab shot Rukan a look suggesting it couldn’t possibly matter, at that moment, what a Sabian was.
“Rook, even if it counts,” Zainab said, “it doesn’t help you. In your father’s world, Muslim men can marry Christians and Jews. Not Muslim women.”
“Some scholars say that women can, too.”
“Name one.”
Rukan sighed and turned to Amra. “How bad do you think it will be?”
“With your parents?” Rukan nodded. Amra searched for the right words. “I think they’ll be caught off guard.”
Zainab laughed. “Really, Amra? You think?”
Rukan slumped in her chair. “Well, they’ll just have to deal with it. I’m getting married.”
“To Adam,” Amra said.
“Yes, to Adam. Should I agree to some arranged marriage instead? To some guy who’s only after my father’s money?”
“Of course not.” It was a false dilemma, Amra knew, the idea that those were Rukan’s only choices. “It’s just so … sudden.”
“Please. You go to weddings all the time where the bride and groom have spent all of three hours together.” Rukan took off her coat, finally, and pushed it over the back of her chair. She seemed to notice the food for the first time and spooned some Chinese broccoli onto her plate. “It’s been almost three months,” she said. “That’s practically a lifetime in our community.”
Amra didn’t disagree. But Adam was not from their community. “I’m sorry,” Amra said. “You’re right. Three months is more than enough time to fall in love.” Rukan nodded and took a sip of her water, staring at the wall on the other side of the restaurant.
“So,” Zainab said, “when do we get to meet the kafir?”
*   *   *
Amra didn’t check her voice mail until she was back in her office. Her mother had called twice and sent one text during lunch: Salaam, Beti. Where are you? Please call, ASAP. Amra had discreetly texted back, asking if it was an emergency, while Rukan talked about reception venues and tiered cakes. It is not emergent, her mother replied, but urgent.
She smiled at her mother’s precise response. Growing up with her mother, an English professor at NYU, meant not being allowed to say “snuck” instead of “sneaked” or “ironic” to refer to a coincidence. It did, however, mean scoring a perfect 800 on the verbal SAT.
Amra closed her office door and dialed. Her mother picked up on the first ring, and Amra could picture her in her study, her hair pulled into a loose bun, her black reading glasses perched on the end of her nose, making comments in careful, slanted script on her students’ papers. The entire wall behind her mother’s desk was covered with a sea of books arranged by subject—gender studies, politics, linguistics. On the antique end table near the door, she displayed a signed first-edition copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in the original cinnamon cloth. The wood floor of her mother’s office was covered with a maroon Tabriz rug, on which Amra played as a child while her mother graded papers and prepared her lecture notes. It was where she learned that women’s work mattered, that a mother was also someone who did interesting and important things outside of the home. Amra grew up wanting to be just like her and had tried to forge a similar space in the spare bedroom of her Back Bay condo. Somehow, it fell short.
Beti,” her mother said, “what are you doing the weekend of March tenth?”
Amra didn’t need to check. “Working.”
“I knew you were going to say that. I have a better idea. Why don’t you come home for a couple of days? Let me pamper you. All those long hours. You need a break.”
“I can’t. I have two deals closing that week and Eric is going on vacation.”
“Eric,” her mother scoffed. “The man who cannot bother to learn your name after four years?” It was true. Eric still mispronounced her name, rhyming the first syllable with “Sam” instead of “sum,” giving it an odd, southern twang even though Eric was from Scarsdale. “It’s pronounced Umruh,” she’d tried to explain during those first grueling weeks and then given up.
“If that man can go away for seven days,” her mother continued, “surely my overworked daughter can take one weekend off.” Amra looked at her desk—the neat piles of manila folders, the stacks of merger and acquisition documents, the pink message slips her secretary placed in the tray as Amra had instructed (urgent ones on the left and in descending order of importance)—and wished it worked that way. Amra wasn’t up for partner for two years, and until then she was yoked to Eric’s slightest whim. But Amra knew such explanations would only upset her mother further.
“Maybe I’ll come over the Easter holiday,” she said. “Things should settle down by then.”
“Easter? Amra, I need you here on the tenth.” Her mother’s tone became less conversational and more infused with purpose.
“The Syeds will be in town.”
“Which Syeds?” Amra knew about fifty Syeds.
“Don’t you remember? From our first apartment on Ninety-first Street. Dr. Syed and his family. You used to play with their daughter, Maha.”
Amra remembered. Who could forget Maha with her little notepads, watching the other children, scribbling furtive notes. Once at a wedding, Zainab grabbed Maha’s yellow tablet, stood on a chair, and read its contents. It turned out to be a list of various children’s names and a chronicle of their indiscretions. Maha had cited one boy for staring at a girl, Zainab for swearing, and Amra for “acting like she is better than everyone on the planet.” “You’re recording our sins?” Zainab had asked incredulously. Maha just shrugged and said the angels were doing it anyway. It was at Maha’s house, years later, that Amra got her first period and the ever-prepared Zainab led her to the bathroom for a crash course in tampon wearing. Maha caught sight of the white tube and told her father that the girls were smoking. Because of Maha, Amra had to endure Dr. Syed banging on the bathroom door while Zainab held it shut long enough for her to get her pants up. Amra had been mortified, but Zainab simply deposited the cardboard applicator in Dr. Syed’s hand as they passed him and said, “I think this is what you’re looking for.” The only good part about Maha was her brother Mateen, with his Shahid Kapoor good looks, but he was several years older than the girls and never paid them any attention.
Amra sighed. “I doubt that Maha cares much about seeing me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” her mother said. “She worshipped the ground you and Zainab walked on.”
“She had a funny way of showing it.”
“Yes, well, children can be funny. Shall I make your shuttle reservation or will your secretary take care of it?”

Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Zobair