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My mother talks about love in extremes. A Bollywood sort of romance, with a hero and heroine, villainous parents, and a coterie of smart-mouthed siblings. That these love stories, repeated film after film, are strikingly similar to her own is pure coincidence.
“Do you know I ran away to get married?” Amma declared once, to a group of my awestruck cousins in India over a Skype call. “My poor parents nearly had a heart attack!”
With the air for drama that storytellers and convincing liars have perfected, she opened her brown eyes wide, tossed her long black braid behind her, and played with the edge of her cotton sari, increasing the tension in the moment. Seconds later, she segued into the climax that led to her perfect Ever After as a doctor’s wife in the Arabian Gulf.
“First India. Then Saudi Arabia. And now you are in Canada,” one of my father’s sisters said, her smile not quite hiding the envy in her eyes.
Amma smiled in response. Her hand went to the minnu that my father had fastened around her neck on their wedding day—a delicate gold pendant in the shape of a leaf, seven gold beads forming a cross at its center. It was a necklace she never took off—one that told the world that she was married. Loved.
She did not tell my aunts about the hours she spends waiting next to her laptop, signed in to Skype, for the call that my father makes once each afternoon from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The call that he sometimes forgets about completely. She did not tell them about the anger, the fights, the despair—the gray, messy side of her love that gets turned off by the very mention of my father, that still blames me for the distance between them.
* * *
What people back home know about Canada: It’s cold and terrible for highly qualified immigrants, especially doctors like my father. Haven’t you read the stories? Men and women with four degrees each, bagging groceries at the supermarket or working as cashiers at gas stations? Amma always says.
What people back home do not know: Appa never really tried for a job here.
We arrived in Mississauga at the beginning of April as permanent residents. Within two whirlwind months, Appa moved us into a new condo, enrolled me in a new school, registered me for driving lessons, and bought us a new car. By the first week of June, he was gone, flying back to Jeddah five days before he needed to report back for work at the clinic.
“You know your father,” Amma said, when I asked her why he didn’t stay longer. “Busy, busy, busy. But he has promised to sort things out at the clinic within the next two or three months. He will be with us again before we know it.”
Initially, apart from Appa not being here, I didn’t mind the move to Canada so much—especially since my father’s cousin, Bridgita Aunty, who lives an hour away from us, came over to visit a few times in the summer with her family. Also, after months of slogging at school in Jeddah, I was enjoying myself, almost feeling like I was on an extended vacation.
As August rolls to an end, though, I grow restless again, nervous about starting my final year of high school in a different country. Amma becomes tense as well—especially when my father postpones his arrival from late August to the end of September.
I sense it in the careless way she adds spices to her sambhar, the tone of her voice now, in early September, at the time of her usual Skype call with Appa.
“Hi there, Rensil is on the other line. He’ll be right with you.”
The voice is gentle and sweet, the video at my father’s end disabled.
“And who might you be?” My mother’s voice is equally sweet. Deadly.
“Aruna!” my father’s voice booms, seconds before his face appears on the screen. It brings warmth to Amma’s otherwise frosty expression and a smile to her pursed lips.
“Rensil, who was—”
“That was Mrs. Kutty, my new neighbor. Mrs. Kutty, please come here and say hi.”
Another person peeps into the screen. Mrs. Kutty waves, her skin softened with age and wrinkles, her silver hair shimmering in the overhead light. “I’m sorry, dear. I didn’t know how to turn on the video.”
“That’s okay.” Amma’s skin, several shades lighter than mine, turns pink. “I didn’t recognize the voice, so…”
There’s a knowing look on Mrs. Kutty’s face, an understanding familiar to women who have grown used to their men leaving them behind in other countries. For work. For children. For other, unspoken reasons. If Amma sees the look, she doesn’t acknowledge it. She turns into the mother I knew before our move. The impeccable hostess and social butterfly. Dr. Rensil Thomas’s wife. Even though she’s dressed in an old flowered nightgown and no makeup, I can feel the glamour dripping off her.
“I am not meant for weather like this.” Amma launches into her usual complaints after Mrs. Kutty leaves. “I nearly froze to death waiting at the bus stop yesterday morning.”
An exaggeration. It wasn’t that cold and she had her coat on.
“It’s a matter of adjustment, dear.” Appa uses what I think of as his Doctor Voice. Careful, melodic, soothing. “I will come there as well soon enough.”
“You said that when you left.” Eighteen years of marriage have immunized Amma against the Doctor Voice. “I don’t see why it’s taking you so long to move here. Suzy had another driving lesson yesterday—”
I slip into my bedroom and shut the door quietly, cutting her off midsentence. I decide to Skype my best friend, Alisha Babu, in Jeddah, sighing with relief when she answers after a few seconds.
“Hey, what’s up?” Alisha’s had a haircut since we talked last week, her formerly long black curls cut into a messy chin-length bob and held off her forehead with a thick blue headband. The tightness in my chest unravels on seeing her familiar wide-spaced brown eyes, round face, and broad grin. For a minute, I almost believe that I never left Saudi Arabia, that she’s still only a few buildings away from me on Sitteen Street.
“How was the driving lesson?” Alisha asks before I can reply. “You never answered the text I sent you yesterday!”
A cardinal sin as far as my best friend is concerned, even though there are days when Alisha herself doesn’t reply to my messages, citing excuses such as schoolwork, head-girl duties and general busyness. (Her words, not mine.)
“I’m sorry, I forgot. And the driving lesson was terrible.” I tug the elastic out of my ponytail, feeling it pull out a few long strands of my black hair with it. “As usual.”
“Come on. You said that the last time as well. What was this now—your fourth lesson?”
“Then it probably wasn’t as bad as you think. And it’s not like it was a real test.”
No, it wasn’t. A real test, that is.
In April, shortly after we arrived, Appa and I headed to the nearest DriveTest Centre with our passports and landing papers to begin the process of getting our driver’s licenses. Appa was able to immediately take a road test and obtain a full driver’s license thanks to his Saudi license and international driving experience. However, the rules for me are different. As a new driver with a G1 license, I need to wait a full year before taking my road test and making it to the next level of Ontario’s graduated licensing program: the G2. A G2 license isn’t permanent (I will need to take another road test before it expires), but it will allow me to drive independently on all roads, including highways, with few restrictions.
And this was where my driving instructor Joseph Kuruvilla (a.k.a. The Tyrant) came in. Not only did Joseph convince my parents to enroll me in his driving school, but he also explained how finishing a government-approved driving course with a certified instructor will allow me to attempt the road test after only eight months—in December—instead of waiting for a whole year. The idea seemed great at the time.
Five lessons with Joseph, however, have managed to change my initial enthusiasm into dread. His voice, sharp even when saying hello, echoes through my head now: Don’t steer so hard! Reverse! Reverse! Use the brakes, will you! Why is it taking you so long to catch on to the most basic instructions!
The last comment—made yesterday after I botched my fifth attempt at parallel parking in a row—had stung the most.
“What if I fail the road test, Alisha?” I ask now. “What if I can’t get my license?”
Alisha laughs. “Don’t be silly. You’re not going to fail, Suzy. You never fail at anything!”
When I say nothing in response, the grin on her face fades. “Holy falooda! You’re serious.”
Fish. Fudge. Falooda. On a normal day, Alisha’s swear word replacements make me laugh. Today, the back of my throat burns and I have an awful feeling that I’ll burst into tears.
“Listen, you had a bad lesson, okay?” she says gently. “That could happen to anyone. Worst case scenario, if you do fail your test, you can give it again, right?”
Except, at my house, failure isn’t an option. When I was little, my mother drilled the word excellence into my brain, pinning the letters one by one on an old corkboard in our house in Jeddah. And excellence was what I had delivered year after year, by acing every subject, by ranking first in my classes at Qala Academy, no matter what curveballs the teachers threw at us during exams. My parents haven’t even planned for the possibility of me failing my road test; they’ve taken it for granted that I will get my license in December.
“Once you pass the test, maybe your mother will get over her silly fear of driving as well,” Appa joked once—a comment that made Amma roll her eyes.
I am too embarrassed to tell him about the nerves that hit me whenever I get into the driver’s seat of my instructor’s twenty-five-hundred-pound Toyota. About the clammy sensation that seeps up my back and down my shoulders and arms whenever Joseph shouts at me, making me freeze behind the wheel.
“Can we change the subject?” I ask now, unwilling to answer Alisha’s question.
She shoots me a concerned look and then complies. “Hey. Do you know what happened with Verghese Madam yesterday?”
A funny story about my old physics teacher in Jeddah follows and soon I’m cracking up at Alisha’s exaggerated imitation of Verghese throwing a temper tantrum when she caught two girls talking in class that morning.
“I thought she was going to send them to the headmistress.” Alisha’s hands make accompanying gestures, her nostrils flaring exactly the way Verghese Madam’s did. “But she fumed a bit, said a few more things, and went on with the lesson.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I miss old Verghese.” I don’t mean this literally. Verghese Madam had a tendency to call me “Soo-sun,” a pronunciation that made my name sound like soo-soo, the Hindi word for urine. But I do miss being in class with Alisha and the feeling of holding back a laugh until my stomach aches.
“Right. You really miss the taunts about how a single lost mark in a board exam makes you a total failure at life. Besides, forget about that.” Alisha’s mouth spreads in a wide, evil grin. “You’re in Canada now.”
I roll my eyes. “Not this again!”
“I’m serious! Suze, you’re so lucky. You can do whatever you want there. You can go to art school. What options do we have here in Jeddah or even India once we graduate? My parents are already talking about enrolling me in an engineering college in Trivandrum and having me talk to suitable Jacobite boys from Kerala. The types who’ll judge everything from my ‘slim figure’ to my ‘shiny black hair.’”
She rolls her eyes, while I laugh at the reference to the horrible matrimonial website Alisha’s parents want her to create a profile on the year she turns eighteen.
“You, on the other hand, can play the field,” Alisha says. “See greener pastures. Boys, Suzy! All those boys!”
“Um, hello? Have you forgotten how my parents want me to marry someone from our community as well? And art school? Seriously, Alisha?”
“First off, you’ve never even talked to your parents about art school. Who knows? They might actually say yes! And who’s talking about marriage? It’s just dating!”
But it’s never just dating—not with my family, at least. While Amma and Appa are less conservative than Alisha’s parents, I highly doubt they’ll give me free rein when it comes to matters of the heart. Whenever the topic of boys comes up, they always talk about it in matrimonial terms—key phrases including good Malayali Christian boy and degree in medicine or engineering, with bonus points for North American or European citizenship. Alisha seems to have forgotten this or maybe she no longer cares.
“It’s my first day of school tomorrow. I’ll be lucky if I can find my way around, let alone find myself a boyfriend,” I tell her.
“Then get yourself a boyfriend who can show you around!”
Alisha’s obsession about me getting a boyfriend isn’t a surprise. Neither of us has been out on a date before. That we lived in Saudi Arabia (where dating was forbidden by the law) was secondary; our parents wouldn’t have allowed it. Also, we were too shy to approach anyone back then, in spite of having crushes on them.
“This way, I can live vicariously through you.” Alisha has a look on her face that’s so dreamy, it’s comical. My fingers itch to sketch her as she is now: starry-eyed, with hearts popping all over her head.
Through my earphones, I hear a thump from the other side of my bedroom door. I take one earpiece off and hear Amma’s voice rising in argument with Appa—a sound that I’ve grown more and more familiar with over the past month. I pop the earpiece back on.
“Boyfriends are overrated,” I say.
I don’t want to end up like my mother, with an Ever After that consists of perpetual fights and disagreements, mostly about her only child. Amma likes to pretend it never happened, but I haven’t forgotten what she said to my father during our first week here: If it wasn’t for Suzy’s education, we wouldn’t have to even be here.
“Says the girl who’s never—oh, crap, I’ve got to get back to work.”
From Alisha’s end, I hear a mosque’s sonorous call for prayer. It officially marks the beginning of her evening study session and the end of our chat. She grimaces. “I have to go. Want to chat later? Same time tomorrow?”
“I’ll be at school.” I’ve memorized the timings—8:20 a.m. to 2:40 p.m. instead of 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. the way it was in Qala Academy. Even if I take the bus, I’ll still only be home by 10:00 p.m. Jeddah time—which will be too late for Alisha on a school night. “How about the morning, my time? Like around 2:00 p.m. in Jeddah?”
“I have biology tutoring then.” Alisha frowns. “Never mind. Text me. I really have to go now or my mom will blast me off into outer space. Bye!”
Instead of going back to the living room, where my mom is still arguing with my dad, I head to the window and push aside the curtain to let in more light. The fabric is navy—a shade that perfectly matches the bedspread and pillows Amma picked out for this room. There are days when I’m tempted to change things around with splashes of orange paint, followed by teal, purple, and gold. I imagine doing a replica of Basquiat’s skull or Dalí’s melting clock or a creation of my own. I squint, picturing my latest sketch: a caricature of a man’s open mouth forming the entrance of a subterranean tunnel, the insides teeming with butterfly fish, sea urchins, and sharks. For effect, I could add multihued coral creeping up the sides of his teeth and mouth.
I snort, imagining Amma’s outraged Aiyyo!, followed by her punishing me for spoiling the furniture, the way she did when I had, at age five, decided to redecorate the stark white walls of our Jeddah living room with a bright green marker.
I don’t look at the two paintings hanging on the wall next to the window—the only two I’ve done that have met with Amma’s approval in all these years. A detailed depiction of a Kathakali dancer’s green face done in oils sometime last year, and above that, a watercolor of the sun setting over the Red Sea, King Fahd’s Fountain white against the sky.
Nice! Look how they brighten up your room, she had declared when we were decorating the place in May, in that casual tone grown-ups use to describe hobbies they think have no potential to turn into careers.
I grip the curtain, my knuckles turning pink and yellow. Alisha does not know about the times I’ve screwed up the courage to ask about attending art school and failed. How, every time the topic of my career comes up, Amma and Appa get into an argument about what I’ll be—a doctor (Appa) or an engineer (Amma).
I lean out the window and breathe in the cool September air. Unlike our neighborhood in Jeddah, where buildings were clustered more closely, interspersed by a mosque every couple of blocks, the nearest building over here is half a mile away, separated by an iron fence and a neatly trimmed lawn, the last of the summer flowers wilting now that fall is slowly setting in, the grass so green I wonder if it’s even real.
Trees are slowly turning color—hints of russet and gold interspersing pointed evergreens. I revel in the difference for a few moments, in the absence of the brine and humidity that makes up Jeddah air.
The sound of bells under my window distracts me, a series of clings accompanying a pair of girls who weave across the street, dodging cars, pedaling in the direction of a park a few blocks away.
Are you happy there, Suzy? Appa often asks when we talk on Skype. Do you like the new condo?
Yes, Appa, I always tell him. I love it here.
He does not want another answer. He does not want to know that sometimes, when I Skype him, I try to time it so that I can overhear the muezzin calling for prayer from the mosque next to our apartment in Jeddah. He does not want to know how every night, after Amma falls asleep, I scroll through Qala Academy’s secret student group on Facebook and read the messages there, feeling a pang go through me whenever my friends plan a trip to the beach or joke about a new teacher.
A red car screeches up the driveway, a rap song blasting from its speakers, startling an old lady walking her poodle on the sidewalk. I watch it zoom up the ramp and then smoothly, flawlessly reverse park into one of the numbered slots to the side of our building. This person probably had no trouble during their driving lessons, I think resentfully.
Moments later, a group of boys stumble out, the rough sound of their laughter rising in the air. I instinctively cringe. Boys. Another element that my parents expect me to adapt to after growing up with no brothers, after next to no male interaction in an all-girls school for most of my life.
I have a year to do it before university starts, they keep reminding me. A whole year to take advantage of the free high school education every immigration agency and lawyer touts in the Gulf. A year I will spend with strangers instead of my best friend and the girls I grew up with. At Qala Academy, I would have been arts editor for the school yearbook this year. The headmistress had promised me free rein to do what I wanted, including comics. But that was before the Class XI finals. Before Appa came home, declaring that our application for permanent residence had been approved.
When I look at the parking lot again the boys from the red car have disappeared. I am about to turn and reluctantly go back to the living room, to Amma, when I catch sight of a figure standing near the building entrance, right under my window.
The boy, probably seventeen or eighteen years old, is looking right at me, his eyes wide and curious, his spiked hair shimmering in the fading afternoon light. A desi boy, I think initially—though I can’t be sure without speaking to him—his skin the same shade of brown as mine. When my gaze meets his, his chest rises and falls quickly the way a runner’s might after a couple of laps around the park.
I feel my cheeks grow warm. Under normal circumstances, I would step back or simply close the curtain, embarrassed to be the center of a boy’s attention. But something feels different today—maybe because of Alisha and her constant prodding. It’s ridiculous, I tell myself. Silly to be nervous over boys just because I haven’t interacted with them before.
So I do the unthinkable. I draw up my courage and look back at the spiky-haired guy who stands on the pavement three floors below.
It’s easier, perhaps, because he isn’t looking right into my eyes when I decide to look back, his gaze resting on my hair which is lying loose over one shoulder. Easier because when he does look at me, I decide that he isn’t handsome in the traditional sense. His head is disproportionately large compared to his small, lean body, his nose flat and somewhat off center. But there are parts of his face that I like as well: the strong, square jaw, eyes that shimmer with warmth in the fading light, even from this distance. He takes out a hand from the pocket of his shorts, grins at me, and waves.
What I want to do is smile and wave back. It’s what my brain urges me to do. But then Amma calls for me and I remember why this is a bad idea, why dating and boys and marriage have been bad ideas all along. I retreat into the shadows again, waiting for a long moment until I hear the door below open and shut.
Text copyright © 2019 by Tanaz Bhathena