It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was… that awkward summer before college. For Shabnam Qureshi, the summer seems destined to be boring and lonely –until a cute new love interest comes to town, and her alienated BFF Farah returns to the picture. Now Shabnam has to navigate her way through friend drama, first love, and family dynamics, all before she leaves for college in the fall. Along the way – she might just figure out who she really is, and what she really wants for herself.
That Thing We Call a Heart is hilarious, heartfelt, and so realistic you’ll feel like someone was listening in on your last fight with your bestie. We’ve got a sneek peek of the first four chapters below – so you can start reading now!
“Check out the pig!”
Lincoln Prep’s senior class, minus Farah, did a 180 toward the backyard, where an entire roasted pig sat on top of an ornate silver platter, nestled amid pineapple and cherry tomato skewers. The pig was wearing a lei of silk flowers and aviator sunglasses, a cigar dangling precariously from its lips.
With a whoop, Ryan D’Ambrosio III leaped out of the pool, zigzagging through the crowd. Waving a bamboo torch in one hand, he posed with the pig, smiling broadly as the senior paparazzi whipped out their phones to take a photo of their dripping demigod. As the flashes went off, Natasha St. Clair kicked off her stilettos and ran over to Ryan, climbing onto his back.
Ryan stole the cigar from the pig and handed it to Natasha, who stuck it in her mouth.
“His abs are unreal,” Danny said.
“I bet he has a small dick,” Ian retorted.
“Shut it,” Danny replied. “Don’t kill my Ryan fantasy.”
“You have a Ryan fantasy?” I said. “Don’t you think he’s homophobic?”
“Oh, he is,” Danny agreed, “until our eyes meet in the locker room shower and his towel slips off to reveal his huge—”
As Ian made a gagging sound, Ryan yelled,“Who wants first dibs at the pig?” He dashed through the crowd, holding the torch high like an Olympian, Natasha perched on his shoulders, her tanned thighs squeezing his neck, pumping her fist as together they chanted, “Pig pig pig pig.”
If Farah were here, she would be disgusted, partly because like most Muslims she thought pigs were gross, but mostly because she couldn’t stand Ryan or Natasha. Ryan drove a silver BMW convertible with a bumper sticker that said “Don’t Spread My Wealth, Spread My Work Ethic.” He was the beautiful captain of our nationally ranked lacrosse team, and though his jokes were predictably juvenile, when he held the door open with his winning smile and said, “After you,” you’d have to be either cold-blooded or as principled as Farah not to flutter a little.
“Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama . . .”
“That’s the fifth time this song has played,” Danny complained. “I know this is a luau but come on. Ian, do something.”
“Fine,” Ian said, rolling up his T-shirt sleeves. “Quick, Shabnam, give me a song.”
“‘Sit Down. Stand Up,’” I said. “Radiohead.”
“I was thinking more Beyoncé,” Danny protested, but Ian had already sprinted away.
I scooped out what remained of my watermelon Jell-O shot, sucking it off my finger. Natasha had started squealing: Ryan was threatening to toss her into the pool.
Natasha St. Clair’s luau was an annual event, the party of the season. It was normally the domain of the popular kids, but, this being our final year at Lincoln Prep, Natasha had magnanimously handed out custom-made, pig-shaped paper invites to the entire class. If Farah and I were still best friends, tomorrow we’d have a recap session in which we’d laugh our asses off making fun of Ryan and Natasha and pretty much everything about this party.
The Beach Boys were silenced mid-verse, and replaced by my favorite band. I loved the energy of “Sit Down. Stand Up,” the way the song built, the way it moved, how if you closed your eyes and really listened you could feel it shuddering inside your veins. I wanted to dance but was too self-conscious to do anything more than sway a little.
As the song was about to hit its climax, Natasha pulled the plug.
“Attention!” she cried. “Everyone inside the house, now!”
As we followed the herd, Danny said, “I hope the cops aren’t here.”
“Nah,” Ian said. “And even if they were, her dad just donated twenty thousand dollars to the local police department.”
“How do you know?” Danny asked.
“I heard her bragging about it in photo lab.”
After we’d gathered in the living room, Natasha climbed onto the coffee table, a huge slab of white marble perched atop a ball and triangle. She fluffed out her hula skirt and adjusted her gold-sequined bikini. Like Ryan, her abs were also unreal.
“Now listen up, y’all,” she said. We were in New Jersey, but Natasha’s mother was a former Southern beauty queen; there was a framed photo of her on the wall behind Natasha, a severe blonde wearing a glittering, pointy crown.
“I want all of the girls to line up against the wall,” Natasha continued, “and the boys to line up across from them.”
No one moved.
“Come on, people,” Natasha cried. “You gotta play to stay.”
As the boys and girls began to split into their respective lines, Ian raised his hand.
“Does sexual preference factor at all in line selection?”
“If you have a cock, go there,” Natasha barked, gesturing with her thumb at the guys lining up behind her. “No cock, over there.”
“Well, that’s one way of dividing the world,” Ian muttered.
Natasha held up a Louis Vuitton bag that was even wider than her hula skirt. “Now, I want all the girls to put their cell phones inside here,” she declared. “Come on, ladies, don’t be scared. Y’all might end up having the best night of your life.”
As the non-popular among us exchanged wary glances, the popular girls, who were clustered at the other end of the line, began, one by one, to relinquish their phones to the almighty Natasha.
I glanced at my phone: 10:02 p.m. There was still enough time to play this stupid game and have Ian drop me home before my 11:00 p.m. curfew. If Farah had deigned to come to the luau, this was when she’d get the hell out. I should have done the same, but instead, I tossed my phone into the Louis Vuitton abyss, hoping the outcome would be “yes, in fact the best night of your life” rather than “abject humiliation in front of the entire senior class.”
Having assumed control of the girls’ phones, Natasha moved on to the boys, instructing each of them to pick a phone from the bag and, without looking, put it in their pocket.
Guessing this was some sort of girl-boy matchup, I went down the line, counting friendly faces. If it was Ian or Danny, I was safe. Paul, too, and Julio. They wouldn’t obey Natasha’s orders if it meant embarrassing me. At least, I didn’t think so.
Once every boy had a phone, Natasha walked up and down between the two lines, a captain instructing us on our mission. “This game is called Ten Minutes. The point is to spend ten minutes together, anywhere—a room, a bathroom, underneath a tree, as long as it’s only the two of you. A closet works, too. Once everyone is paired up, you have one minute to find your hideout. I’ll blow a whistle ten minutes later, though you can stay longer if you want.”
Some guests began to grumble, disappointed that this was nothing more than a technologically advanced version of Seven Minutes in Heaven, but Natasha silenced them with an over-the-head clap. Her pits were insanely smooth, like no hair dared grow there. We attended the same school, but her life was a different country: sailboats, ski trips, country clubs, armpits you could stick right in someone’s face and not be ashamed.
“Get your minds out of the gutter!” Natasha admonished us. “You can spend your ten minutes talking, or singing, or doing body shots, whatever. Feel free to document your time together—#10minutesinheaven. Other than that, there are no rules.”
Except, of course, for the rule that we had to spend ten minutes in close proximity.
Amelia handed Natasha an old-school white cordless phone, with a show of solemnity, like someone was about to get kicked off the island.
“Any volunteers to go first?” Natasha asked.
“Me!” Amelia cried, jumping back into line with cheerleader enthusiasm. Natasha returned the phone, and Amelia dialed her own number. It rang inside the pocket of Oliver, another popular kid, which made me suspect the game was rigged, at least until the next volunteer, a popular girl named Kate, got paired up with Noah, a gamer geek.
When it was my turn, I wished for Danny and Ian, hoping to spend my ten minutes talking about how lame this luau was.
But it wasn’t Danny or Ian who pulled my phone out of his pocket.
It was Ryan D’Ambrosio III.
“Pair up!” Natasha cried with a smirk.
As I stepped forward, I could feel the jealous stares of the other girls and Danny, like darts aimed at my spine. In school, I’d been a disregarded entity until I became friends with Farah, and I’d certainly never been an object of envy. As hormonally exciting as it was to stand within inches of a nearly naked, blue-eyed, perfectly chiseled Ryan, it was also terrifying. I’d inherited not only my father’s round face, curly hair, and bushy eyebrows that demanded frequent threading, but also a bit of his awkwardness. I was fine with people I knew, but socializing with strangers made me nervous, especially if I wanted to make a good impression. A knot would form in the space between my stomach and my heart; I’d sweat a little and and blurt out something ridiculous, or long-winded, or both.
Ryan wasn’t a stranger, exactly, but the only things I’d ever said to him were “Thank you,” the two times he’d held the door open for me, and “Excuse me,” the time I’d bumped into him outside the cafeteria. I doubted he even knew who I was.
“I guess tonight’s the best night of your life,” Ryan informed me as he returned my phone, “because I’ve got a surprise for us.”
Then he winked.
A surprise? For us? I pinched my lips together, determined not to say anything stupid, wondering what I would do if it involved something sexual. Ryan had been breaking hearts since kindergarten, and I’d only kissed two boys in my life—the first because of Spin the Bottle, the second Ian, because he felt sorry for me that I’d only kissed one guy.
I knew I shouldn’t even be nice to Ryan, much less kiss him, but what chance did my moral compass have against curiosity, teenage hormones, a watermelon Jell-O shot, and the hottest boy in school?
Natasha, who was apparently exempt from the game, blew a whistle. “Everyone find a spot!” she ordered.
“Let’s go!” Ryan said.
I followed him up the grand, curving staircase to the end of the hallway. Ryan pushed open a pair of double doors flanked by pillars and entered the master bedroom suite, locking the door after I stepped inside. The centerpiece of the room was a circular bed, over which hung a recent portrait of Natasha’s mother, even blonder than in her beauty queen days. She wore a slightly strained expression, like her pearl choker was cutting off her oxygen. She seemed even more intimidating than her daughter, so I was glad when Ryan headed into the bathroom. It was larger than my room at home, featuring his-and-her sinks, a steam shower, a green marble Jacuzzi, and a dressing area with a gilded mirror.
Ryan leaned over a sink and splashed his face, droplets of water flying as he tossed his head.
“You sat a few desks in front of me in econ class last year,” he said, looking at me in the mirror. “I remember your hair.”
My hand flew to my curls. They were, for better or worse, my most memorable attribute. “They’re my dad’s,” I said. “I mean, I get my hair from my dad. He’s bald now, though. Well, not totally, he’s got a ring, like Mr. Burns, you know, from The Simpsons.”
Ryan was nodding slowly, probably assessing the stability of my mental state. The back of my neck was slick with sweat. Why couldn’t I keep my mouth shut?
“You’re friends with the Muslim chick,” he said.
“Not anymore.” I immediately hated myself for saying this. Except it was sort of true.
“Hair makes a woman,” he proclaimed.
If that was the case, then what did my hair make me?
Ryan whirled around. “Let’s pop this baby!”
I stepped back in alarm as he ran across the bathroom and jumped into the Jacuzzi. A moment later, he proudly held up a bottle of champagne. “Dom,” he said. “Nats gave me a heads-up about the game so I stole a bottle of the good stuff from her parents’ bar and stashed it in the hot tub.”
“Wow,” I said, because he clearly expected praise.
Ryan leaned back, stretching his sculpted arms along the tub’s scalloped edge. “You coming in or what?”
There was no water in the tub so I figured I could enter fully clothed. With a deep breath, I abandoned my post at the doorway and joined him. Ryan braced the bottle between his thighs and uncorked it, letting out a gleeful hoot as it popped.
“After you,” he said.
If Farah were here, she’d say something like, “No, assholes first,” and throw the champagne in his face.
But I’d never had champagne, I’d never sat in a Jacuzzi, I’d never been alone with a boy this hot.
Plus, he was actually being pretty nice. He’d even remembered me.
I took a swig.
Champagne was good.
“What are you?” Ryan asked. “Sri Lankan?”
“No,” I said, impressed that he’d referenced one of the lesser known countries from the subcontinent.
“I dated a Sri Lankan girl for a while. She had this incredible hair, jet-black and down to her butt. It smelled like coconuts.”
I wondered if this was offensive but after my second swig decided it was more a statement of fact. I returned the bottle but he set it aside and began inching forward. It wasn’t until his face was right in front of mine that I realized he was going to kiss me.
Ryan D’Ambrosio III thought I was good enough to kiss.
He tasted like beer and Vaseline, and kissing him wasn’t as great as I’d hoped. I couldn’t appreciate his beauty when my eyes were closed but it was too weird to keep them open. When he put his tongue inside me, I felt like it was taking up too much of my mouth. When I pushed back with my own tongue, it was more in self-defense than passion. My conscience chastised me, emboldened.
What the hell, it said. Do you not remember what he did?
Wait, I insisted. This kiss could get better.
The whistle blew, announcing the end of ten minutes. Ryan pulled away, chugged the champagne.
“Later,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and stepping out of the tub. “You know what—you should have this,” he said, presenting me with the nearly empty bottle, like a consolation prize.
I stayed in the Jacuzzi for a few minutes, bruised by his sudden exit. For both of us, these ten minutes had been a curious departure from the norm, except that when the whistle blew I’d wanted to kiss some more, and he’d wanted to return to the norm, and his real friends, and the women he should really be kissing.
I’d forsaken my principles for a hot tub and champagne.
If Farah found out, she’d kill me. But who cared what she thought?
That was when it occurred to me that I might have kissed Ryan to spite her, because I was upset she’d ended our friendship, and because I missed her so much.
What was wrong with me?
I was actually relieved that the kiss with Ryan sucked. Because if it had been hot, and I’d been into it, I would have felt even more guilty, and confused.
“What are you wearing?” my mother whispered as I walked into the kitchen in my pajamas. “Your great-uncle is here! Didn’t you see the shalwar kameez I left on your chair? Please go change. And comb your hair. And put on a bra! And go sit at the table and talk to him because you know your father isn’t.”
I didn’t bother arguing; my mother always freaked out when we had guests because she wanted badly for them to have a lovely time in spite of her uninterested daughter and disinterested husband.
The bathroom contained evidence of my mysterious great-uncle’s early morning arrival; the toilet seat was up, and there was a gray pube-like hair in the sink. I decided if my great-uncle didn’t have to put the toilet seat down, I didn’t have to wear a shalwar kameez, and returned downstairs in jeans and a T-shirt.
My great-uncle was sitting opposite my father at the dining table. His wiry gray bush of a beard covered half his face, extending several inches beyond his jaw at a forward angle. He had a dent in the center of his forehead, a mark of piety caused by spending so much time in prostration during prayer. He was wearing a starched, spotless white shalwar kameez, a black vest, and sandals with polished leather straps. Wrap a turban around his head and he could easily have passed for a very meticulously dressed member of the Pakistani Taliban.
“As’salaam alaikum,” I greeted him, uncertain of what to call him. He was technically my dad’s father’s cousin, and in Urdu practically every relative has their own honorific.
“Wa’alaikum salaam.” My great-uncle held up the fancy china teapot my mother reserved for guests. “Will you take some chai?”
“Okay,” I said, sitting down next to my father. My great-uncle smiled at me as he passed me my tea, as though he wasn’t secretly judging me for exposing three quarters of my arms.
My father was hidden behind the New York Times, making disapproving grunts as he read. He was antisocial and often socially awkward; he wasn’t one for pleasantries, though he did have the occasional, uncanny ability to say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time. There were, however, certain things he liked to wax on about, namely politics and Urdu poetry. He could talk math, too, which to him was its own kind of poetry, but thankfully didn’t bother with us because we wouldn’t understand. No doubt it was my mother who insisted his uncle stay over, as my father didn’t extend invitations. He wouldn’t even talk to his own sister if my mother didn’t stick the phone to his ear once a month. And he didn’t talk to me much, which was fine, because I had no interest in politics or Urdu poetry.
“And they call this a liberal newspaper,” my father said to himself, scooping up some cumin-fried potatoes with his fingers.
My great-uncle looked at me. I could tell he was confused by my father’s behavior. He obviously didn’t know him well.
When my father wasn’t at the university, or locked in his study, he spent 50 percent of his waking hours lost in thought, and 50 percent talking back to the news. Sometimes he would talk at us. Once in a while, he’d join in on a conversation between my mother and me, usually with non sequiturs.
“Dad’s a mathematician. They’re kinda weird,” I explained to my great-uncle, in case he didn’t know.
“Shabnam!” my mother admonished, entering the room with a plate of eggs.
“What?” I said. “It’s true.” I’d gone to one of my father’s department parties a few years ago. Aside from an effusive Trinidadian woman and a man with a long braid who knew some cool card tricks, they were an awkward bunch. Half the people didn’t look at you when they talked, a few of them barely talked, a few barely spoke English, and one guy literally looked like he’d escaped from an insane asylum. Turned out he was the chair of the department. They all seemed very comfortable together, though, communicating in a math language that was beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals.
Behind the paper, my father belched.
“More omelet?” my mother asked my great-uncle, heaping some onto his plate without waiting for a response.
My great-uncle took a small bite of the omelet and started to cough.
My mother wrinkled her forehead. “Too many green chilies?” she asked. “Let me go make another.”
“No, please, sit down. You’ve already worked so hard. Relax, eat,” he insisted, but he clearly didn’t know my mother well either.
I helped myself to some omelet, hoping food would ease my hangover—after Ryan left me, I’d finished his Dom backwash. My great-uncle picked up the tasbih—the Muslim rosary—lying next to his plate. My mother had one but his was nicer, the stone beads a deep orange in color, the tassel made of delicate silver chains, each chain ending in a tiny orange bead ornamented with finely wrought silver.
He began to pray, his lips forming silent words as the beads moved through his fingers.
My mother returned, removing my great-uncle’s plate and replacing it with a less spicy omelet.
“Thank you,” my great-uncle said. At least he was polite. “But if you don’t mind, I’ll only have chai and biscuits now, and eat after my morning walk.”
“Would you like more biscuits? We have Marie biscuits.”
“No, I’ll walk now,” he said.
“Of course,” my mother said. “We have a lovely park down the hill, but it’s about a twenty-minute walk, and then you have to walk back uphill.”
“That’s all right,” he said. “I’d probably get lost.”
“Shabnam could take you.”
I glared at my mother. There was no way I was going to take a morning stroll through our neighborhood with a guy who was a turban away from scary mullah.
“That’s all right,” my great-uncle said. “I’ll walk down the street and come back.”
Phew. After he left, my mother said, “Shabnam, I want you to take Chotay Dada to the mall.”
Chotay Dada translated into “little grandfather.” So that was what I was supposed to call him. Both of my grandfathers died before I could remember them, but he was a poor substitute. Grandfathers were supposed to be cuddly, good-humored, gift-bearing—not look like they might deliver a sermon that ended with “Death to America.”
“Take him to the Apple store at Fifty Oaks,” my mother continued. Fifty Oaks was the most upscale mall in our area. “He wants to buy an iPad for his granddaughter in Cleveland.”
“Why can’t he go when he’s in Cleveland?”
“Because he wants to buy it here. Don’t argue with me. His flight is tonight, so you have to be back by five at the latest.”
“Why can’t Dad take him?” I demanded. “It’s his uncle.”
My mother rarely became angry. Instead, she turned pale and wide-eyed, a damsel in distress. If you continued to argue, the rims of her sweet, fragile brown eyes would dampen with tears, and the sight of her, looking like a lovely wounded gazelle, would compel you to cease and desist.
“Fine,” I muttered.
My mother smiled, ruffling my hair. “Thank you, beta. Now come help me wash the dishes.”
I followed my mother through the living room, where she drew back the drapes to check on our guest. Chotay Dada was walking down the sidewalk, the prayer beads dangling from his hand.
“Look at him,” she said. “Over eighty years old but in better health than your father.”
“I hope none of our neighbors see him and call the FBI.”
“Be nice to him, Shabu. He’s had a difficult year. His wife died, and his son told me he’s been thinking a lot about what happened to him during Partition.”
“Really?” I said. We’d just read about the Partition of India into India and Pakistan in history class. “What happened to him during Partition?”
“I don’t know. It’s not the sort of thing you ask. It’s too unpleasant a subject.”
My mother didn’t talk about unpleasant subjects.
“Can you change into a more modest T-shirt before going to the mall?” she asked.
“Can he change into normal clothes before going to the mall?” I replied.
“You shouldn’t be ashamed of who you are,” my mother said.
Except Chotay Dada and I had nothing in common. Last night, while I’d been left in a Jacuzzi clutching a bottle of Dom, he’d probably been prostrate on a prayer rug clutching his tasbih.
Annoyed by my mother’s request for me to wear modest clothing, I’d put on a turtleneck, which was a dumb idea because it was ninety degrees out and the mall parking lot was full. By the time Chotay Dada and I reached the entrance, sweat was streaming down my face, forming little eddies in my sideburns. Chotay Dada, of course, was unchanged, the prayer beads still in his right hand.
I was certain everyone was going to stare at him, so once we entered the mall I walked a few feet ahead, refusing to focus on anyone or anything, determined to get to Apple and then get the hell out.
Except Chotay Dada quickened his pace and caught up with me. If I walked ahead of him now it would be supremely rude, so instead I shifted a few steps sideways. That was when I saw Natasha and Amelia striding toward us, dressed in tight tank tops and denim miniskirts, Natasha sipping on a giant smoothie, swinging a diamond peace sign key chain around her finger.
Panicked by the possibility of the two of them seeing me with Chotay Dada, I ducked into the closest store.
The store happened to be a Victoria’s Secret. On one hand, this was awesome because I doubted Chotay Dada would follow me inside; on the other, I’d run into a lingerie store in front of my religious great-uncle. I glanced over my shoulder. He’d moved to a bench across from the store, the beads moving through his fingers, waiting for me to return. As they walked past him, Natasha and Amelia nudged each other, Natasha whispering something that made Amelia snicker. I wanted to stay long enough to make sure they were gone, but I couldn’t peruse a selection of lingerie while Chotay Dada was watching, so I headed to a display of perfumes and sniffed a few with feigned interest.
“Do you like that one?”
On the other side of the perfume display was a cute guy with sharp cheekbones and an even sharper jaw, the angular intensity of his face balanced by the soft warmth of his hazel eyes, the kind you had to stare at to figure out what color they were exactly. He had a pale scar running in a jagged diagonal across the back of his right hand. It was a little jarring when you first noticed it, but also strangely beautiful.
“Huh?” I said, pulling at my turtleneck and wishing that for once I could meet someone cute and not be sweaty and nervous.
“That perfume,” he explained, gesturing at the heart-shaped bottle in my hand. “I have this gift card and thought I’d buy something for my aunt. Do you like it?”
“I don’t really like perfume,” I said.
“Then why are you smelling all of them?”
I had no good answer to this, so instead I blurted, “You have a very interesting scar.”
He was taken aback for a second, then started to laugh, and I remembered Chotay Dada was outside, observing this encounter, probably thinking that I’d arranged this “secret” rendezvous because I was a boy-crazy Westernized wild child.
I turned and rushed out of the store, not daring to look back, figuring the boy was probably still laughing at me. Chotay Dada rose from the bench and followed, this time staying behind me. When we arrived at the Apple store, he walked up to a hipster store clerk who had a geometrical tattoo across his collarbone and a beard groomed to a defined point and said, in perfect English, “I would like to purchase an iPad.”
As Chotay Dada discovered the wonders of iPads, I watched the corridor to see if the guy from Victoria’s Secret might walk by. But the guy never appeared, and Chotay Dada completed his purchase. As we returned to the car he again remained a few feet behind. He’d obviously figured out I was ashamed, and though I did feel guilty, it wasn’t enough to make me walk alongside him.
I played Radiohead as I drove home, the music accompanied by Chotay Dada’s murmur as he moved through his prayer beads. He had the same nose as my father, big and studded with blackheads.
The song “Karma Police” started to play, the opening piano rife with an angst that became increasingly urgent, a perfect song for a day like today. I turned it up cautiously, concerned Chotay Dada might find the music disturbing, but he didn’t react, only kept on praying. As the drums kicked in and Thom Yorke began to sing, I finally figured out what Chotay Dada was murmuring. La illaha il Allah. There is no God but God.
La illaha il Allah
Arrest this man he talks in maths
La illaha il Allah
When I pulled into the driveway, Chotay Dada said, “Thank you,” with a sincerity that weighed heavily upon my already guilty conscience.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“Coming?” he asked.
“After this song,” I said in Urdu.
He walked toward the house, white Apple bag in one hand, prayer beads in the other, and then it was the best part, when the piano and guitar and drums came together and Thom Yorke’s voice became so impassioned, so electric, that it reverberated inside and all around me, making me want to dance and weep at the same time, the part when Farah and I would toss our heads and drum our palms against the dash and sing about losing ourselves.
Though if either of us was lost, it was me. I wasn’t proud of not sticking up for Farah, or kissing Ryan, or even walking a few feet in front of Chotay Dada, but I figured I’d leave my past behind and reinvent myself when I got to UPenn, into someone more fearless and confident and cool, who would make new friends with sweat-free ease.
I had a simple plan. Get through the summer. Get to Penn. Begin anew. Don’t look back.
Mr. Blake taught AP World History and was my favorite teacher at Lincoln Prep. He was probably in his forties but dressed like a hipster, in skinny pants and formfitting blazers and Converse with rainbow laces. He’d been teaching for ten years but never acted jaded or bored, and he always managed to hold our attention, even first period Monday morning.
That Monday he began in his usual starting position, on the edge of his desk, ankles crossed, feet swinging.
“I know it’s our last day of class and we’re behind,” he said, “but we barely touched on the Partition of India, which was one of the bloodiest events in the twentieth century. Not only that, but, as you learned from your reading, it was the largest mass migration in history.”
He paused, then repeated “The largest mass migration in history” in his deep, radio-announcer voice that lent everything he said, even hello, a sense of gravitas. “This migration was an incredible upheaval for all those involved, and resulted in massacres and other tragedies. So, before we move on, I thought I’d ask if anyone in class knows any stories about Partition?”
This was one of Mr. Blake’s favorite teaching methods, personalizing history. When we studied the Holocaust, he asked the Jewish kids to share family stories. But there were only two people in class who might have personal narratives about Partition, me and JJ, whose real name is Vijay. His freshman nickname had been “Va-jay-jay!,” which was shortened to JJ after he proved his manhood by scoring a series of goals in some important soccer game.
Mr. Blake tried JJ first. “Mr. Karimple?”
JJ looked up with a startled “Yeah?”
“Would you mind me asking if anyone in your family was affected by Partition?”
He shrugged. “I don’t think so. My family’s from Kerala, that’s like in the south, and as far as I know we didn’t have to go anywhere during Partition.”
“Oh, I see,” Mr. Blake said, a little disappointed, though one hope remained. “Ms. Qureshi, what about you? Did Partition affect your family?”
“Yes,” I said, which won me the attention of the entire class.
“Go on,” Mr. Blake encouraged, leaning forward and steepling his fingers underneath his chin.
“Uh . . .” I didn’t talk much in class, and I didn’t know any family stories. People didn’t talk about Partition, or if they did, it was usually in general terms. Though my mother had said something happened to Chotay Dada, I didn’t know what. But I really didn’t want to disappoint Mr. Blake, whose comments at the end of my papers were always thoughtful and encouraging, who’d written college recommendation letters for me.
“Something pretty terrible did happen to my great-uncle,” I said.
“Would you mind telling us?” Mr. Blake asked gently. “You don’t have to, of course.”
Given that half the class was already nodding at me empathetically, in anticipation of the tragedy to come, I felt even more of an obligation to deliver. I recalled what I’d read about Partition in my textbook, and the few things I’d heard mentioned. Train massacres, women jumping into wells rather than be raped.
Once I started, I couldn’t stop.
“I call my great-uncle Chotay Dada,” I said. “When Partition happened, his parents left to go from India to Pakistan, but Chotay Dada stayed a little longer, because . . . because he was in love with this girl. She was Hindu, and he was Muslim, so they had to keep their love secret, because her family wouldn’t approve, but he couldn’t leave India without saying goodbye to her and telling her he’d always love her, no matter what.”
Next to me, one of Ian’s rings flashed as he clasped his hand to his chest. It was a Bollywood version of Partition, but it was working.
Emboldened, I continued. “But when Chotay Dada got to the girl’s house, her father threatened to kill him if he took one more step. Before Chotay Dada could even say anything in his defense, the girl’s brothers came out of the house and started chasing him with knives, and Chotay Dada barely escaped with his life.
“He realized there was no way he could say goodbye to the girl, so he got on the next train to Pakistan. As it was about to leave the station, a Hindu mob attacked the train. They started to kill everyone—men, women, children . . .”
Someone gasped. Ian looked stricken.
For the first time in my life, I had control of the room.
“A few men from the mob went through Chotay Dada’s car, slaughtering people. Chotay Dada ducked down, and somehow they missed him. But Chotay Dada knew it wasn’t over yet, so he smeared himself with someone else’s blood and lay down in between two dead bodies. The mob went back through the train, searching for any survivors. He knew if he moved even an inch they’d kill him, so as they went past he lay as still as he could, and prayed he’d see his love again. . . .” I paused, both impressed and taken aback by my penchant for melodrama.
The class was leaning toward me now, like my words were magnetic.
“The mob finally got off the train, and the train finally left for Pakistan, but it was hours before Chotay Dada dared to move. When he walked through the train, all he saw were corpses. He was the only one left alive.”
“Wow,” Ian said.
Mr. Blake, who’d been listening with a bowed head, put on his wire-rimmed glasses and resumed control. “Thank you for sharing, Ms. Qureshi,” he said. “Let us all learn from the story Ms. Qureshi so generously shared with us.”
As the class’s attention shifted to the front of the room, I realized I was exhausted.
“One million people died during Partition—Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs—and each one of them has a story,” Mr. Blake continued. “Imagine your family’s lived in a town for generations, and then one day you’re told, sorry, you’re no longer welcome here. We talk about the birth, death, and division of nations, but we so often forget the human toll behind political maneuvers. We still forget them. It’s stories like these that remind us that every action has a consequence, and that it’s most often those without a say who suffer the most.”
We moved on in history class, but my story refused to die. Up until then, the topics of the day had been who did what during Natasha’s game and whose boobs were in a photo uploaded to #10minutesinheaven. It was my last day of class at Lincoln Prep, but instead of feeling suddenly nostalgic for a high school I’d complained about since I’d enrolled, I spent it hoping Ryan wouldn’t tell people about our crappy kiss. Thankfully, the topic of Ryan and me didn’t start trending. Unfortunately, my Partition story did.
Right before lunch, a freshman I’d never seen before stopped me and said, “Hey, man, sorry about your uncle getting gassed.”
“No one got gassed during Partition,” I told him. “You’re thinking of a different genocide.”
When Sarah Martin asked me outside the cafeteria if it was true my grandmother gave birth to my father in a train full of dead people, I decided to skip lunch. Our newly remodeled library had a nook on the second floor, a quiet corner all the way at the end of the stacks that was flooded with sunlight in mid-afternoon. Farah and I used to hang out there sometimes, leaning against the floor-to-ceiling windows and talking and reading and illegally snacking, basking in the warmth of the sun and each other’s company.
I hadn’t been here in a while, and when I arrived I found Farah already there, drawing in her notebook. Her drawings were amazing, though she was never happy with them. She’d recently become more experimental with her headscarf; today she’d wrapped it like a turban, except the turban was lopsided. I wondered if I should tell her, or if she intended it that way. With Farah you never knew.
“Jelly Belly?” she asked, gesturing at the bag of jelly beans tucked between her thighs. Candy was Farah’s comfort food, which meant her parents were probably at it again. They fought a lot, usually about money.
If we were still close, I would have asked her if her parents had fought, would have told her about Chotay Dada’s visit and the guy from Victoria’s Secret, described his green/bronze/brown eyes and his scar. Given our current circumstances, I figured I should probably leave her alone, except I still missed her like crazy, and it had already been such a long day. So I sat down next to her, picked up the bag, and searched for my favorite flavors, banana and very cherry.
“So, our last day of class ever,” I said.
She ignored my attempt at conversation and kept drawing intently. A train, a face in each window, some bleeding, some screaming, some wild.
“You heard my story!” I exclaimed.
“I think even Principal Stone has heard it by now. How come you never told me this tragic tale?” she said, adding a sinister curl to one passenger’s mustache.
“You never asked.”
She tapped her teeth with the edge of her pen. “It’s not true, is it?”
I shook my head.
“That’s a pretty fucked-up thing to lie about.”
“I know, but Mr. Blake asked for Partition stories, and he’s been so supportive. I probably got into Penn because of the rec he wrote me. I didn’t want to disappoint him.”
“Yeah,” Farah conceded. She closed her notebook. Its entire cover was filled with drawings—a dragon playing guitar, scrolling vines and arabesques. “I heard you had to spend ten minutes with Ryan.”
Farah pulled up her sleeve, started outlining her veins in purple ink. “So what did you do?”
I knew if I told her the “hair makes a woman” comment, she’d go berserk, so I opted for a lesser evil. “He told me he dated a Sri Lankan girl whose hair smelled like coconuts.”
“You’re kidding.” She tucked a stray strand back underneath her headscarf and looked at me with her intense, kohl-rimmed eyes, done up like Amy Winehouse’s. Farah made her own kohl, with castor oil and ghee.
“Did he try to hook up with you?” she asked.
Lying to my history class—not so difficult. Lying to Farah—really f’ing hard.
“No,” I said.
“Really, because I heard you gave him a blow job.”
“What?” I shrieked, horrified. “Sick! Who told you that?”
“I made it up.”
“Why? To test me?”
“What, you don’t trust me?” I replied, indignant.
“Relax, I believe you. What else did you talk about? I don’t suppose you told him he’s an unkind, overprivileged bully and bigot?”
“I didn’t tell him off,” I admitted. “But having to spend ten minutes with him left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Farah furrowed her brow, incredulous. “Did you think it wouldn’t? You know what a jerk he is. Or do you?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then why did you laugh that day?”
“Why did you have to sit on that stupid couch?” I countered.
“Maybe I was tired of having to sit in the back of the bus,” she said.
“So now you’re the Muslim Rosa Parks? Why does everything have to be political with you? Just because you wear hijab doesn’t mean you have to stop being fun.”
She sighed. “I don’t want to talk about this right now.”
Farah could be so self-righteous sometimes, thinking she was better than everyone else. “I’m late for something,” I told her.
“I guess you better go then,” she said, her voice stiff.
I gritted my teeth and went hunting for someplace I could be alone.
The main drag of my hometown of Clover Creek was called High Street, several blocks of cute boutiques and restaurants, an Irish pub, a fancy barber, an organic ice cream parlor. This quaint commercial district bordered Clover Creek’s town park, which featured more than fifty acres of grassy fields, leafy woods, babbling brooks, tennis courts, playgrounds, an arched stone bridge, a band shell, and a rose garden. It was the kind of town where crime consisted of bored teenagers knocking down mailboxes, and the residents were generally overeducated and socially conscious, the kind of people who put wheatgrass in their smoothies, campaigned vigorously to keep Walmart out, drove hybrid SUVs, made their kids play soccer and learn Chinese.
The Clover Creek farmers’ market took place Wednesdays and Sundays in the park’s eastern parking lot, rows of tables displaying the rich and varied hues of earth’s bounty: crisp green heads of lettuce and bloodred beets, jars of golden honey and pink strawberry preserves, goat’s milk soaps and homemade hummus. My mother had sent me here to buy blackberries for my father. He’d never eaten one before he came to America but it was love at first bite. Personally, I found both the strawberry and blueberry to be superior, but there was no accounting for taste. I stopped to sample chia seed pita chips and all four flavors of hummus, and listened to the proprietor Sophie, who, guessing her audience, told me how the hummus had been made from sustainable, fair trade olive oil from small villages in Palestine. I bought the lemony garlic, seven dollars for a small tub, figuring when my mother complained I’d tell her I’d done it to help the Muslims.
I was on my way to Crowler’s Berry Stand, picking at a chia seed stuck between my teeth, when I saw the guy from Victoria’s Secret. He was at the berry stand, holding a straw bag, its handle decorated with ribbons and seashell strings. A moment later, an elderly woman wearing a hip outfit of black capri leather pants and an embroidered white kaftan-style shirt appeared next to him. One of the fruit stand employees, a bearded man in faded denim overalls, left his post to greet them.
Our encounter at Victoria’s Secret had been up close, so now I took in the entirety of him: high-top green Converse, jeans rolled up past his ankles, a red plaid shirt with sleeves pushed up to his elbows, thick, tousled light brown surfer hair that swept across his forehead. I was too far away to see his eyes.
I wanted very much to see his eyes.
And it happened, like a scene in a rom-com. He turned his head and noticed me standing forty feet away. He immediately waved, and then said something to his elderly companion, who looked at me, too.
I had three choices: run away like a coward, stay still like a fool, or walk toward them like a normal person. My heart pounding, I took one step and then another, painfully conscious of how they were both watching me, wishing I’d put serum in my hair and concealer on my face.
The guy from Victoria’s Secret bounded forward, closing the distance between us in a moment’s leap.
“It’s you,” he declared. He seemed so happy to see me that I immediately smiled back, keeping my lips closed, in case there were still seeds in my teeth.
In the sun, his eyes were flecked with gold.
“I’m Jamie,” he said.
As we shook hands, I could feel his scar beneath my fingers, smooth, slightly raised.
“What brings you here?” he asked. “I don’t suppose it was me.”
Did that count as flirting?
I swallowed, reminded myself to think before speaking. “I came to buy some blackberries for my dad. He loves blackberries.”
“Blackberries? Let’s see what Farmer C has got.”
I followed him to the blackberry section. After surveying the fruit, he selected a pint from the center.
“Come,” he said. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
We walked over to the elderly woman, who had resumed her conversation with the man in overalls.
“Aunt Marianne,” Jamie said.
She held her hand up, signaling for him to wait. She was wearing a badass turquoise and silver ring that spanned two fingers. After saying something I couldn’t hear that made the farmer burst out laughing, she gave him a clap on the shoulder and turned around.
There was no confusion about the color of Aunt Marianne’s eyes—an intense, cerulean blue. She had soft cheeks and wrinkles that extended, whisker-like, from the corners of her lips and eyes. Her hair was a shock of white, coiled at the top of her head in a bun held together by a red ballpoint pen.
“Aunt Marianne, this is the interesting scar girl,” Jamie said. “Her name is Shabnam. We randomly ran into each other. What a coincidence, huh?”
Interesting scar girl. He’d obviously told her about our awkward encounter.
“Ah. Coincidence, indeed.” Aunt Marianne’s voice was husky, and strong. She stuck her hands in her back pockets. “Nice to meet you,” she said, though her tone indicated otherwise.
“Hello,” I replied.
“Shabnam’s here to buy blackberries for her father,” Jamie informed her.
“Don’t bother,” Aunt Marianne said.
“Sorry?” I said, trying not to be intimidated by her brusqueness. Maybe she was only nice to farmers.
She took the pint of blackberries from Jamie and held them to my face. “Look. Smell.”
I looked, and I smelled. “I can’t really smell much.”
“Because it’s too early,” she explained. “They’re not dark enough, and they don’t have the soul of summer yet. You know, blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. “It’s okay, my dad won’t be able to tell,” I said.
Aunt Marianne made a hmmfff noise, which I assumed was in judgment of my father.
“Aunt Marianne’s a fruit Nazi,” Jamie said.
“I’m discriminating,” she corrected him.
Jamie laughed and kissed her on the cheek, which caused her lips to turn up, a little.
“Jamie,” she said, “we gotta move.”
“One sec,” he said. “It’s not every day I get to buy blackberries for a beautiful girl.”
I swear I almost looked around to see who he was talking about.
But it was me he was calling beautiful.
“Hey,” Jamie said to her, “didn’t your pie girl just cancel on you? Shabnam, do you happen to be looking for a summer job?”
I’d graduated last week and the rest of the summer remained uncertain. I’d been considering getting a job at the mall, but I did not want to work for this woman, who was currently frowning at me.
“Aunt Marianne owns Andromeda’s Pie Shack, the pie stand in the park?” Jamie continued.
“I know it.” I’d never had pie from there, but I’d heard people rave about it.
“As pie girl,” Jaime continued, “all you have to do is open up the shack Monday through Friday at four p.m., and you’re done when the pies sell out for the day. But you have to get there at three thirty; that’s when I deliver the pies. And the shack’s only open for a month, so it’s not a huge time commitment.”
If Jamie delivered the pies that meant if I took this job I’d see him almost every day. For a whole month.
“She’d be perfect, don’t you think?” Jamie remarked to his aunt. “Please?”
Aunt Marianne’s frown deepened, her nostrils flaring as she exhaled sharply, so I was surprised when I heard her say, “You haven’t told her how much it pays.”
“Twenty-five dollars a day, even if the pies sell out in half an hour, which they sometimes do,” Jamie said. “That cool?”
“Yeah . . . if that’s cool with everyone else,” I said.
“All right!” Jamie exclaimed, giving me a high five, which of course I almost missed. “Why don’t you meet me at the shack at three thirty p.m., the first Monday in July. You know where it is?”
“Yes,” I said. “First Monday in July. I’ll be there.”
I said goodbye to them, Jamie’s excited grin a marked contrast to Aunt Marianne’s grim expression.
When I reached home, I realized I had no blackberries, because Jamie hadn’t bought them, and neither had I. But what did it matter, when in the very near future I would have a summer job, and Jamie all to myself, almost every day.
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