It’s 7:30, and it’s all going smoothly.
First-Day Pants and Blouse selected: clean and classic.
White coat: ironed and safe in its dry-cleaning bag.
Loafers: stiff and polished.
Laptop and phone: charged.
Everything just right. Or it was, anyway.
And then, there she is.
Mom. That familiar knock. Only about an hour too late.
I’ve just slicked down my hair again—this July heat triggers the frizz, inevitably—when she starts pounding on my bedroom door.
I look at my smartwatch. Yup, 7:43. If I actually relied on her to wake me up, I’d be so very late.
“Saira, beta! Time to get up,” my mother singsongs just outside my door. “Dadima made paranthe!”
“Mom, I don’t have time.”
“Of course you do. Your dadima made you a special first-day breakfast, and you absolutely will eat it.”
I sigh. I better get moving. I’ve already been up for hours—three to be precise—but I didn’t get dressed yet because I don’t want to wrinkle my clothes. I mean, it’s my first day. I’ve had a lot of first days on my path to becoming a doctor, but this is a pretty damn important one. I want to be ready. I need to be ready.
I walk over to the bed where I’ve laid out my perfect First Day as a Real Doctor Outfit: a mauve button-down shirt and gray slacks—a picture of Harper tucked into the left back pocket as a reminder—along with black loafers and the same plain, small gold hoop earrings I always wear.
But my outfit’s not there. I mean, like, it was there twenty minutes ago when I got into the shower. And now it is GONE.
“It was just so wrong.”
I turn around and my big sister Taara’s standing in the doorway to the too small bathroom we share—or did, before she left for college last year—a smirk on her already-glossed lips as she holds up a shopping bag.
“Taaaaara,” I say, lunging forward, trying to find my clothes, but she blocks my path.
“Nope,” she says, and I sigh as I take the bag.
“Just because you’re a doctor doesn’t mean you want to look like you’re forty,” she says, taking things out of the bag and handing them to me. A soft, satiny black-and-white polka-dotted blouse, black tailored-but-casual capri-length pants, strappy black sandals. And some cute dangly earrings that I’ll totally lose by the end of the day. “The white coat should do the trick.”
I pull on some clothes and follow her back into the bathroom so she can do my makeup. There’s no use fighting it.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in class, like, right now?” I ask her as she lines my eyes with kohl. Taara’s a sophomore at Rutgers. Premed, following in our mom’s footsteps. This year should be pretty intense for her.
She works for a few minutes, frowning the whole time.
“What?” I say.
“We should really do something about those brows.”
“I thought thick brows were in now.”
“Thick brows, yes. Bert brows, no.” She waves a pair of tweezers in the air, and I smack her hand away.
“All right, but I’m warning you now.” She grimaces and gets back to work, quick with the mascara. She hands me lip gloss and I dab some on.
“There.” She grins at me in the mirror, satisfied. “But it’d still be better—”
“No.” I take a quick look. I do look cute. The problem: I also look so very sixteen.
“I told you…,” she says, preempting my complaint.
“I know, I know,” I say. “The white coat should do it.”
Should. But it won’t. I know from experience.
* * *
Breakfast is a spread. Dadima went all out. There are aloo ke paranthe and egg bhurji and samose and of course chai.
And there’s Vish, tucked into the booth right next to my dad, talking about cricket or Bollywood or some other boyfriend-father bonding topic. Here’s a thing you should know about Vish: Technically, to everyone else, he’s my boyfriend, one word, and has been pretty much forever. Like since we were twelve. But to me he’s my boy friend, two very separate words, and decidedly platonic, because he’s probably, definitely, totally gay. He just hasn’t told anyone besides me (and his boyfriend, Luke) yet. He will when he’s ready.
Here’s the other thing you should know about Vish: He’s half-Punjabi, half-Gujarati, and fully vegetarian. Read: hard to feed. Which sort of puts him on Dadima’s shit list. (Granted: It’s quite a long list.)
That’s why she frowns and scowls when he playfully swipes the fresh, hot parantha she’s just carried over from the stove.
“That was for Saira,” she says, hustling me toward the breakfast nook. “Extra chili. You will regret. Saira, sit, eat. Quickly. Otherwise you’re going to be late.”
Taara and I squish into the booth and dig into the crispy potato-stuffed bread my grandmother has laid out, dipping it into cool yogurt and spicy mango achar.
“Are you nervous, Guddi?” Vish asks, taking a sip of chai. Guddi is his old nickname for me. It means doll.
I shake my head, my mouth already full of food.
“She’s got this,” Taara says. “She’s only been preparing, like, her whole life.”
“Where’s Mom?” I wonder aloud. But I already know, because she’s decidedly not in this room.
“In the shower,” Taara mumbles.
“But she’s fast,” Papa says, and they all laugh.
I don’t. Because this is no joking matter.
“I mean, if she’s running behind, I can drop you off,” Vish says, and I can feel the little dents on my forehead collapsing into those familiar creases. “Like, we can leave right now.”
Dadi starts clearing away plates, and pours me another cup of chai. “Relax. It’s not even eight yet. You have time.” She plonks a grease-stained brown paper bag onto the table. “Treats. For your big day.”
I sigh. It’s inevitable. I’m going to be late. On my first day. Because of Mom. As usual. All my life, my mom has made us late. She’s known as the local pediatrician in our neighborhood—and has been for nearly thirty years—and so every time she steps out of the house she has to look perfect. And as junior representatives of her, so do Taara and I. For Taara—all long, lean, and flawless, like Katrina Kaif—that’s pretty easy. For me? Not so much.
Mom walks into the kitchen, her shoulder-length bob freshly set, her burgundy blouse a perfect match to her burgundy pants (and burgundy lipstick), her black patent loafers newly polished. You’d think it was her first day.
But it’s mine. And we’re late.
“Ready?” she asks. Like I’m the one who’s been holding things up. Dadi, prepared as always, hands her a muffin and her to-go chai. And a full twenty minutes behind schedule, we’re finally headed out the door.
We should be okay. Barring any other incidents.
But as soon as we step outside, we’re surrounded. By thirty members of the extended Sehgal-Kapoor-Dhillon clan, along with a few stray cousins thrice removed for good measure. The whole paltan, as my dad would say. Except for my friend Lizzie, who’ll be sleeping till noon.
Vish’s mom stands front and center, of course, a puja thali prepared with the glow of a lit diya and a small bowl of vermilion.
“Pele pait puja, abh asli puja,” Vish says, laughing, and I shoot him the glare of death.
“Oh, Saira, we all just wanted to come to show our support and offer our blessings,” his mom—forever known as Sweetie Auntie to me—says, waving the tray around near my face in a precarious circle. She dips her ring finger into the vermilion and pokes a little tikka of red onto my forehead as they all lean in close to peer at me. My dad glares in annoyance. He thinks Vish’s parents are too religious. But that’s probably because we’re hardly religious at all. Too many doctors in the family.
“We should get going—” I start, but the expression on Mom’s face stops me cold. I rub my cheek. “What?”
“You can’t go to the hospital with your eyebrows looking like that,” she says, her voice stern and worried.
“I mentioned it this morning, but Saira said we didn’t have time,” Taara says in her told-you-so voice.
“We still don’t have time.”
“Of course we have time,” Sonia Mamiji says, stepping forward with authority. It’s barely eight a.m., but she’s all dolled up, her face made, her hair curled. “I even have my kit in the car.”
And that’s how I end up in the passenger seat of Mom’s car, the seat reclined, as Mamiji uses her quick-heating wax strips and professional tweezers to coax and refine those suckers into shape as an audience of twenty—most of the men wisely bailed when the brow talk began—watches with smug satisfaction.
“You really should get them done every two to three weeks,” Mamiji says as I yelp with pain. “Otherwise they’re out of control.”
“Yeh tho main hamesha isko kethi hoon,” Mom says. “But she never listens to her mother.”
“Or her sister,” Taara adds with a grin as I fire death rays from my eyes, framed by newly impeccable brows.
When we finally start the car, it’s already 8:45. Thank gods the hospital has that rule that mandates doctors live in a fifteen-minute radius. Because we are SO. VERY. LATE.
Copyright © 2019 by CAKE Literary, LLC.