Is there anything that screams summer quite like a road trip story? We don’t think so (shout out to the OG PAPER TOWNS—we definitely wanted to venture around finding small towns after that one). And we’re so excited to return to the summer ‘trip in MARIAM SHARMA HITS THE ROAD!
MARIAM SHARMA is full of witty banter, ridiculous circumstances, and friendships that will remind you of your BFFs, because they’re more like family than friends. We fell in love with these characters and their journey from New Jersey to New Orleans, and even though it’s very grounded and deals with some current issues, it had us laughing out loud as often as it had us tearing up. This book is all about discovering who you are and being true to yourself!
MARIAM SHARMA HITS THE ROAD goes on sale next week, but we cannot wait (!!!) so scroll on down to devour the first few chapters right now!
“Your brother has just the right amount of chest hair,” Umar observed. “Nice spread on top, thick line down the middle.”
My brother, Shoaib, was half-naked and lunging across the living room, heavy weights in each hand. A mere year ago, Shoaib had been an annoying, scrawny, pimply fifteen-year-old. Now he was sixteen and even more annoying, but also chiseled, broad-shouldered, smooth-complexioned, and, apparently, perfectly hirsute.
“When he’s watching TV and thinks no one’s looking he digs at his nose with his middle finger and flicks it behind the couch,” I said.
“Mmmm,” Umar said.
“Did you even hear me?”
My phone began to vibrate.
“It’s Ghaz,” I said, answering it on speaker. “Ghaz! Are you back home from NYU yet? And did Umar tell you he got off the waitlist at Cornell? Hurry up and join us so I don’t have to drink to him alone.”
“Listen,” Ghaz said. “Something major happened.”
“What?” Umar asked, his gaze still fixed on Shoaib. “CVS sold out of Jolen? Your favorite fro-yo place ran out of cake batter?”
“No, no. You guys, this is serious.”
This got Umar’s attention. For Ghaz not to joke back, something really had to be wrong.
“What happened?” he said.
She took an audible breath. “So remember when Brooklyn Attire came to campus and I tried out to be in one of their ads?”
“Yeah, and you got picked,” Umar recalled. “They wanted you to wear a thong but in a rare moment of caution you insisted on boy shorts. Did you end up in their catalog?”
“No,” she said.
Ah. That explained her distress.
“I’m sorry,” I consoled her. “They obviously have no taste.”
“But maybe it’s better,” Umar offered. “Someone in the community might have seen the catalog—I mean, what would you have done if your parents found out?”
“I didn’t say they didn’t use me,” she said, bristling.
“Then what?” I asked.
“I’m not in the catalog. I’m on a billboard. In Times Square.”
“Are you serious?” I said.
“Why would I joke about something like this?”
“Are they allowed to put your photo on a billboard like that?” Umar asked.
“The contract basically says they have the right to use my image however and wherever they want,” she said.
“Really? And you were okay with signing a contract like that?” I said.
“I didn’t read it very carefully before I signed,” she admitted.
This was typical Ghaz, plunging in headfirst without first checking the depth of the water.
“Is it big?” Umar asked.
“It’s a billboard!” Ghaz cried.
“Can’t you ask them to take it down?” he said.
“I tried. No dice. They even told me I should be proud, because plenty of women would kill to be on a billboard in Times Square. My parents are going to flip when they find out. They’re on their way to pick me up as we speak.”
Ghaz’s parents were conservative, and she and her mother already had a fraught and contentious relationship. There was no doubt they would react badly. Very badly.
“Maybe they won’t find out,” Umar suggested. “I mean, how many people go to Times Square? Besides tourists.”
“Whatever happens, Ghaz, we’re here for you,” I assured her. “We love you and it’s all going to be okay.”
“Hold on. I think I’m going to throw up.” A few retching sounds later: “Nope, not happening. Argh, my mom’s calling me. I gotta go.”
Umar and I frowned at each other across the table. Though Umar’s response to almost everything was to turn it into a joke, even he was at a loss.
The prayer app on his phone went off, a sonorous male voice singing out the call to prayer.
Allahu akbar Allahu akbar . . .
“I gotta pray namaz,” Umar said. “Can I use your room?”
“How can you pray at a time like this?” I asked.
“Ummm . . . times like this are when you need to pray the most,” he replied. “BRB.”
After he left, I scanned the wine rack, selecting what was hopefully one of my mother’s less expensive bottles of red. As I poured myself a glass, Shoaib walked into the dining room.
“Whassup?” he said, removing one earbud from his ear.
“What?” I replied. “Am I not worthy of both your ears?”
He made a face but took out the other one. “Why are you drinking wine at, like, three in the afternoon?”
“None of your business, Sho,” I said. Shoaib went by Sho because non-desi people couldn’t say his name, which was pronounced kind of like “Shoe-abe,” correctly.
“Umar is ITCWHDO, isn’t he?” he asked, sitting where Umar had been but taking up twice as much space.
“English, please,” I said. Among Shoaib’s annoying habits was his fondness for inventing acronyms.
“In the Closet with His Dick Out.”
I hadn’t told Shoaib Umar was gay; I worried his response would require me to actually start hating him. Plus, Umar wasn’t out, so it wasn’t my place to tell.
“He’s not,” I said.
“Then why was he staring at me like he was about to jizz his shorts?”
I had no good answer to this besides the truth. “He rarely wears shorts,” I dodged.
“I have good gaydar. I knew this guy in school was gay before he even came out, and he’s a jock, not your typical gay dude.”
“There’s no such thing as a typical gay dude.”
He snorted, wiping down his sweaty pits with a dinner napkin embroidered by our deceased grandmother and tossing it back onto the table.
“Most of the gay guys in my school are all the same, theater geeks who travel in a pack and hit on the straight guys and tease us if we act uncomfortable, like we exist for their entertainment. But if we say anything back, then it’s like, we’re homophobic.”
“I can’t talk about this with you,” I admonished, “because each word coming out of your mouth makes me want to stuff your face in the mountain of boogers you leave behind the couch. Which, by the way, you really need to vacuum.”
“Anyway, isn’t he religious?” Shoaib continued. “I mean, his phone is singing Allahu akbar. Can you be Muslim and gay, isn’t that, like . . . what’s the word . . .”
“Dissonant?” I offered.
It was true that Umar’s life embodied dissonance. He tried to pray at least once a day, if not more, he didn’t drink alcohol or eat pork, he believed in Allah and the Prophet and that the Quran was the holy book, and he had always been attracted to guys. His humor sensibility ranged from corny and juvenile to shameless and lewd. He’d blow 150 bucks on a cashmere scarf and then drive ten minutes out of his way to save three cents a gallon on gas.
“Hey,” Umar said, appearing in the doorway. I tensed, wondering how much of our conversation he’d heard.
“Whassup, Omes,” Shoaib replied, raising his hand for a fist bump, to which Umar complied.
“Would you mind leaving us alone?” I asked Shoaib. “We have something important to discuss.”
“What? Is HBBC up to no good?”
“The bank?” Umar asked.
“Ignore him,” I insisted. HBBC was Shoaib’s obnoxious acronym for Ghaz. Hot but Batshit Crazy. She was the former, but certainly not the latter, at least not in the way he meant it. “Can you get lost, please?”
He shrugged. “I have to take a shower anyway. Hot date. Some of us have a life.”
We waited until he’d gone upstairs before speaking.
“Well, I just said du’a for Ghaz, that everything will turn out okay,” Umar said.
In many ways, Ghaz was the strongest of the three of us, and the most stubborn. But some of her strength was rooted in denial, which also made her more vulnerable. We all had our unique versions of dissonance.
“How much trouble do you think Ghaz will be in over this billboard?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “How soon can we get to Times Square?”
We took New Jersey Transit to Penn Station and the 1 train up to Times Square, resurfacing at Forty-Second Street and Seventh Avenue. Instead of asking Ghazala where the billboard was, Umar suggested we try to find it ourselves; if we couldn’t find it, then maybe no one else would. We began by walking up Seventh Avenue to Fiftieth Street, and, seeing no sign of Ghaz, headed back down Broadway.
As we walked along Broadway, I became increasingly hopeful. We’d seen ads for LG watches, Broadway musicals, the Mormon church, and Coach sunglasses, video billboards for Dunkin’ Donuts and a Samsung phone, but no Ghazala in sight. Maybe she was inconspicuous, tucked away on a side street, visible only if you stood directly across from her. Maybe they’d heeded her complaint and decided to take the billboard down.
We reached Forty-Sixth Street, at the small pedestrian square dividing Seventh Avenue from Broadway. At one end of the square was the TKTS booth, over which they’d built a series of red steps for people to lounge upon.
“If we go all the way to the top of those steps, we’ll get a good view,” Umar said.
As we crossed the square, Umar stopped so suddenly that a huffing man in a purple pinstriped suit rammed into him. His scuffed gray briefcase fell open, a stack of handwritten papers torn from a composition notebook spilling out.
“Goddamn tourists!” the man snapped. I bent down and helped him collect his papers. When I glanced up, I saw Umar hadn’t moved. He was craning his neck, mouth ajar, the ends of his scarf wound, boxer-like, around his hands.
He’d found her.
Ghaz was perched above a souvenir shop, ten feet long and on her knees, Photoshopped to be even skinnier than she already was. She was wearing hot-pink boy-short underwear and a low-cut black tank top, one strap slipping off her shoulder. The thin fabric of her tank top revealed a silhouette of nipple. Her right hand cupped the back of her neck, her left hand cinched her waist, and her thumb was tucked into her underwear’s waistband like she might be enticed to pull it down. Mussed tendrils framed her long, lovely face; one of them rested artfully across her collarbone. She’d been ethnically accessorized, a floral, diagonal henna pattern decorating the backs of her hands, gold bangles circling one wrist, a small bindi on her forehead. Her chin was angled down slightly, her lips seductively parted. Her deep brown eyes gazed straight ahead, sultry and inviting while maintaining a youthful innocence. She encapsulated the quintessential Brooklyn Attire girl; the young, beautiful virgin yearning to be ravished, this one with a touch of the exotic.
She looked amazing, and very sexualized.
It was quite the end to her freshman year.
A Japanese tourist, noticing our rapt expressions, paused to snap a photo of the billboard.
“Her parents are going to flip the F out,” Umar breathed. “Oh, man. When she said she was going to audition, I should have told her not to do it.”
“You know Ghaz. Once she’s made up her mind, that’s it,” I reminded him. “What we have to do now is help her deal with the fallout.”
Umar freed his hands from his black-and-white giraffe print scarf, the ends falling in an X over his chest. He was almost as vain about his scarves as he was about his hair, and wore them nearly every day, even in the thick heat of summer.
“This makes me nervous,” he confessed.
I hooked my finger around a belt loop in his jeans, pulling him close. “It’s Ghaz. We’re there for her. She’ll get through this. She always does.”
I said this to reassure him, but I wasn’t quite sure I believed it myself.
There was no hiding a billboard in Times Square. All it took was one member of the community to see it, and boom, Pakistani WikiLeaks. Umar relayed the community gossip to me. Such a respectable family, father attends every Friday prayer at the masjid, how ashamed they must be. Their eldest daughter always seemed rebellious; it was their fault for allowing her to go to school in New York. Parents should keep their daughters close because once a girl’s reputation is ruined it can never be restored. Look at her, naked like a prostitute and wearing a bindi on her forehead like a Hindu, who will marry her now? No matter how piously Ghaz’s brother and sister behaved, Umar said, her family would always be marked as the one whose eldest daughter posed on a billboard in her underwear. The community had a long memory, and it especially savored scandal.
The last we’d heard from Ghaz was a text that she’d reached home. Since then, silence. No response to our calls, texts, emails. I contacted one of her cousins and two of her college friends. No one else had heard anything, either.
“We have to go to her house,” I told Umar. “Tomorrow, after you get out of school.”
“I can’t,” he said.
“What if it gets back to my parents that I went to her house? How am I going to explain why I ended up at the front door of the community’s most besharam, badnaam girl? My parents don’t even know that we’re friends.”
When I first befriended Ghaz and Umar, I was astonished at the number of secrets they kept from their parents, and they were equally astonished that I had such an open relationship with my mother. When I told her I’d tried pot senior year of high school, she said not to make a habit of it. When I’d started dating my high school boyfriend, she made me promise that I’d go on the pill before having sex—both conversations neither of them could even imagine having with their parents.
“Come with me, please,” I pleaded.
“All right,” he agreed. “But I’m staying in the car.”
That evening, as my mother sipped her nightly half glass of red wine, I showed her an article that a friend from Swarthmore, where I was a rising sophomore, had forwarded me. It was from a hipster desi arts and culture online magazine called The SubContinental. The headline read “Brooklyn Attire Ad Features South Asian Female Model: Progress or Commodification?” The author wrote that though she was glad to see Brooklyn Attire use a diverse model, its ad campaign of sexualizing young women was a form of misogynistic objectification and the use of mehndi and the bindi amounted to Orientalism in the service of selling hot pants. A photo of the billboard was attached.
“Oh,” my mother said. “The ad is quite provocative. Ghaz looks beautiful, but, yes, I can understand the argument that she’s being objectified. How are her parents handling it? How is she doing?”
“I don’t know. She’s not picking up her phone. Umar and I are going to go to her house tomorrow. And she didn’t know it would be on a billboard,” I added. “But she signed the contract without reading it.”
“Well, that was foolish. Tell her next time she receives a modeling contract, she should let me read it first,” my mother said. “I hope she’s okay. Girls have been sent back to Pakistan for less.”
“She’s eighteen. They can’t force her to board a plane against her will.” I had a surreal image of Ghaz, mouth gagged, hands and feet bound, in the hull of a ship bound for Karachi. But her parents would never go to such extremes. Were there even ships that went from New York to Karachi?
“You want a little wine?” my mother asked. “You look like you need it.”
I nodded. I could have used a hug, too, but that wasn’t her style. The stereotype of the desi mother was someone who was both loving and overbearing, who enjoyed feeding people and was adept at using guilt as a means of control. Unlike Ghaz’s and Umar’s mothers, mine was raised here. She’d never made dal or even baked a cookie in her life and didn’t plan to. She could come off as cold and aloof, and had impressive control over her emotions. She’d gone prematurely gray, and instead of dyeing her hair black like most women would have done, she let it be. Her hair was now a striking silver, her eyes steel gray. When my friends first met her, they were often intimidated, and occasionally fascinated.
My mother sipped her wine, eyeing me over the etched rim of her glass.
“And you, Mariam?” she said. “Have you made your peace with how you treated Doug?”
Doug was my amazing college boyfriend whom I’d ghosted on this spring. “I still feel terrible about it.”
“Everyone makes mistakes. Only fools don’t learn from them. And you’re not a fool.”
She waved me away. “Now get lost. I need some alone time, and then I have work to do.”
Ghaz lived in a development of cookie-cutter redbrick colonials with small, grassy lawns. Unlike the other houses, every curtain in the front of Ghaz’s house was tightly drawn. It felt ominous.
“There’s no car in the driveway,” I noted.
“Could be in the garage,” Umar said.
“You don’t think they would hurt her, do you?”
“There goes her modeling career.”
“I know.” We’d been parked for five minutes, but Umar was still gripping the steering wheel. He was wearing his lucky scarf, soft white cotton printed with tiny navy butterflies.
“All right,” I said. “Here goes.”
Umar closed his eyes and began to recite a prayer. As I walked up to the house, I observed the curtains, wondering if someone was peeking from behind, noting my hesitant approach. I rang the doorbell. No one answered. None of the curtains moved.
I glanced back at the car. Umar had sunk down in his seat, but I knew he was watching.
I rang the bell again.
This time, Ghaz’s mother opened the door halfway. I’d only met Uzma Auntie once. Though she’d been civil, there was a definite sharpness to her, an air of discontent. But the woman at the door seemed overwhelmed by exhaustion, pale-faced, sunken-cheeked, dark circles framing her red, weary eyes. I was actually relieved by her appearance, because the weaker she was, the less likely it was she’d beaten Ghaz.
“Salaam, Auntie,” I said, trying to sound casual, unconcerned. “I’m Mariam, Ghazala’s friend. Is she home?”
Uzma Auntie shook her head. “She’s not here.”
“Oh. Where did she go?”
“She’s visiting relatives.”
“Okay. She’s not answering her phone.”
Uzma Auntie frowned. “Why do you want to see her?”
“Uh . . . because she’s my friend.”
“Your friend,” she repeated slowly. “Your full name is Mariam Sharma, hai na?”
“My father was—” I bit my lip. “My father is Hindu.”
“Did you give her the bindi?”
I was confused for a moment, and then realized she was talking about the bindi Ghaz wore in the ad.
“No. I don’t even own a bindi.”
This was true, but it felt like the wrong answer, like I was playing into her prejudice against Hindus.
“Did you know she was going to do this?” she demanded. “If you’re her friend, why didn’t you stop her?”
“I didn’t know about it,” I answered. And I hadn’t known about the billboard, though she had told me about winning the audition. It may have been a half lie, but to someone accustomed to telling the truth, it tasted bitter on my tongue.
“Of course she wouldn’t tell anyone, so no one could tell her no,” Uzma Auntie said, switching to Urdu. “She’s been stubborn since the beginning, and now she’s destroyed her reputation. She’s a stupid girl. Better for her, and you, if you stay away.”
“Good-bye.” Uzma Auntie shut the door in my face.
She may have been exhausted, but she’d still managed to commandeer the conversation.
“What happened?” Umar exclaimed when I returned.
“She said Ghaz is away visiting relatives—total lie, I think. She was upset that I hadn’t prevented Ghaz from ruining her reputation. She didn’t give me a chance to stick up for Ghaz, and now she might have the impression that I also think what Ghaz did was wrong. Man. People think my mother’s intimidating, but Ghaz’s mother . . . she’s intimidating and unkind.”
“Do you think it’s wrong?” he asked.
“What Ghaz did? Unwise, maybe, given her circumstance, but not wrong. Why—do you?”
He didn’t respond.
“Umar? Come on, you don’t, do you?”
“No . . . I mean, I think she should live her life the way she wants, but why would she try out for a Brooklyn Attire ad campaign? It’s not like she wants a modeling career, she was only doing it for kicks, and she knew it could devastate her family. But then, who am I to judge? One day, I’m going to devastate mine.”
Umar rested his head against the steering wheel with one of his trademark deep sighs, his shoulders rising and collapsing with his breath. I reached over and toyed with his mass of ebony hair, so thick that when you ran your hand through it your fingers disappeared. It was the longest I’d seen it, past his ears, curling cutely at the tips.
“So what do we do now?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I suppose we wait, and hope her father isn’t beating her. My guess is that her mother is only lashing her with her tongue.”
“Her father is shorter than her,” Umar pointed out. “Though I guess that doesn’t matter, if you have a baseball bat.”
“Umar! Why do you have to go there?”
“Because she could possibly be there,” he replied.
“Should we call the police?” I said.
He sat up, an indent on his cheek from the leather steering wheel. “I don’t think her dad would beat her, but . . . what do you think?”
“I think if we don’t hear from her by Friday, we go back to her house. If her mother doesn’t let us see her then, we go to the police,” I said.
“Okay,” Umar agreed.
“I am a firm believer in nonviolence,” I told him, “but if comes to it, we’re bringing our own damn baseball bat.”
Umar got a call from Ghaz at three thirty a.m. that night. She had managed to convince her somewhat sympathetic younger brother to sneak her his phone for five minutes. She assured Umar that she was okay, but her parents had taken away her phone and laptop and literally locked her in her room, and were trying to convince her to complete her college education in Pakistan and not return to the US until she was married. They knew they couldn’t force her or keep her locked up, but they were so angry and freaked out they couldn’t think straight. She didn’t want to call the police because there’d already been enough drama. She said she’d been biding her time, planning her escape, and she’d finally figured out how. All she needed was for us to come get her.
“We set the day and time of escape,” Umar said, lowering his voice though no one else was home. “Next Thursday night, two a.m.”
“That’s, like, a week away!” I said. “Why so long from now?”
“Because I have a plan. It’s kind of crazy, but I think it’ll work.”
These were not typical Umar words. Of the three of us, he was the most risk averse, the most intimate with inertia, perfectly content to spend an entire weekend in his bedroom, eating ice cream, jerking off to gay porn, watching reruns of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The fact that he’d come up with not only a plan, but a crazy one, was a testament to how much he loved Ghaz.
“Do tell,” I said.
“Well, my high school graduation is this weekend, and two days later my parents are leaving for three weeks on one of their medical missions to Pakistan and Bangladesh.”
Among his many accomplishments, Umar’s renowned reconstructive plastic surgeon father had also founded a medical charity. Every few years they’d visit Pakistan and Bangladesh with a team of doctors. His father would perform reconstructive surgery on women who’d had acid thrown in their faces by husbands or relatives or men they’d refused to marry, and his ophthalmologist mother removed poor people’s cataracts. Whenever Umar spoke to us of his father, it was with admiration, sadness, and longing. He wanted desperately for his father to be proud of him, but his father was unapologetically homophobic. When gay marriage was legalized, he’d called it an abomination of nature.
“So by next Thursday you’ll be parent free,” I said. “What then?”
“We rescue Ghaz and go on a road trip,” Umar said.
“I’m going to tell my parents I’m driving to New Orleans to attend the annual IANA convention,” he explained.
“The Islamic Association of North America convention. It’s the biggest Muslim convention in North America.”
“And they’re doing it in New Orleans?”
“This year, yes.”
“Who will you tell them you’re driving with?”
“They won’t object to you driving alone?”
He shrugged. “I’ll tell them it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. They have no reason to suspect anything.”
“Wow. I’m impressed,” I commended him. “A road trip, blatant subterfuge—this isn’t the Umar I know.”
“Tell me about it,” Umar said, and for a moment I thought he might cry. The only time I’d witnessed him shed actual tears was when we watched Lion and the son reunited with his mother after a lifetime apart. “It was her voice, Mars. She sounded scared. . . I’d never heard her that way. And when she said, ‘Umar, please, you have to get me the hell out of here,’ she didn’t just mean down the block.”
“Are you sure you’re okay with this? Your parents will flip if they find out.”
Umar shrugged. “They won’t. Find out, I mean. If we’re careful.”
“All right. I’ll call my internship and ask if I can start later.”
“You mean your internship at Screw the Children?”
“Funny. It’s Save the Children. And my internship isn’t there, it’s at Safeways.”
“The grocery store?”
“That’s Safeway! Safeways is an anti–child trafficking group. And I was going to waitress at Olive Garden again. Hopefully they’ll let me start later, too.”
“Keep the change!” Umar declared.
The Olive Garden I worked at was popular with desi families, many of whom were demanding customers and bad tippers. Last summer, an Indian family got seated in my section, stayed for nearly two hours, spilled a drink, sent back a dish, requested a full basket of breadsticks after they’d finished eating and then asked me right away to pack it. At the end, the father paid the check and said, very gallantly, “Keep the change!” He’d given me a one-hundred-dollar bill. The check was for ninety-seven dollars. Since I’d told Umar the story, it had become a catchphrase of his.
“Ooh,” Umar said, opening the top drawer of my dresser. “These jeans are new. I’m trying them on.”
“You really need to stop stealing my jeans. I have, like, two pairs left.”
“You really need to stop buying jeans that perfectly mold to the contours of my buttocks,” he countered.
It was a relief to hear Umar joking again. And in a week, Ghaz would be safe, and we’d be laughing together as the open road stretched ahead, leading us toward infinite possibilities.
I even had an idea as to what one of those possibilities could be: my father had a brother who lived in Virginia. I’d never even corresponded with him, but now that we were heading south, it seemed to be a sign, a green light from fate.
“Hey, do you think we could drive through Virginia?” I asked.
Umar pulled my jeans over his hairy, skinny legs, reaching his hand inside to smooth out his boxers underneath. “Sure. What’s in Virginia? Someone gay and cute?”
“Ha. I’ll tell you later. Need to figure some things out first.”
He walked over to the mirror, fluffed his hair, lifted his shirt, sucked in his stomach, and shifted from side to side, assessing the fit.
“Seriously, why do my jeans always look better on you than me?” I said.
Umar tossed one end of his scarf over his shoulder. “Can I help it if Allah made me sexy?”
The last time I’d talked to my mother about my father, she was driving me to see a shrink. One day my junior year of high school, my boyfriend, Sasha, a black-clad overachiever who name-dropped Foucault and Beckett as I acted suitably impressed—though when I’d tried to read Madness and Civilization I’d immediately fallen asleep—unceremoniously dumped me.
“We get along well enough,” he informed me, “but I need to be with someone who challenges me, who acts as a flint for my intellect. I want my girlfriend to be more dynamic, a defibrillator for my mind.”
After nodding in agreement, I hid in the locker room and cried.
My way of processing the painful inanity that is life was to lie down, close my eyes, and breathe deeply until I began to disengage with my surroundings. After a while, I’d experience the sensation of sinking, like I was entering a peaceful, subterranean womb where I could safely allow my thoughts to meander, expand, and intensify and, on a good day, crystallize into some semblance of clarity. The day Sasha broke up with me, I lay on the couch and thought about the devastation humans were causing to the oceans; how islands of plastic trash bigger than Texas were choking the oceans; if it was weird that Sasha had never wanted me to take my bra off; why I’d baked peanut butter cookies, not once, but thrice, for this guy who’d treated me like a doormat. I didn’t hear my mother come home, and she let me be, but when she returned two hours later and I was still in corpse pose, she insisted I go see a shrink.
On the drive there, I said, “Can I ask you something?”
“No need to preface a question with a question,” my mother replied. “Unnecessary delay.”
“Did my father ever do what I do? You know, lie still to think? Do you think I got it from him?”
Her expression was unreadable, but her accidental turning on of the windshield wipers gave away her surprise. “Not that I remember.”
“Well, you would remember that, wouldn’t you?”
“I believe I would.”
I had no memory of my father; he’d left when I was two and my mother was pregnant with Shoaib, but I’d always been curious, unlike Shoaib, who hated him for abandoning us, or my mother, who preferred to act like he never existed. Maybe it was because I resembled him, the same round face with a slight point to the chin, thin nose, straight across eyebrows, deep-set eyes.
My mother changed the subject, and I met with the shrink. He concluded that since my behavior was not affecting my ability to perform at school or my relationships with friends and family, I did not merit a diagnosis. I was, he said, a sensitive person who needed to occasionally disengage with the world to understand it.
After ghosting on Doug this spring, I wanted more than ever to understand my father, because I was now guilty of bailing on someone like he’d done to us. I’d become haunted by questions of what he was like, which other of his unsavory traits I may have inherited that had yet to surface.
Now, after a lifetime of wondering, this road trip presented an opportunity to seek out answers.
On the night we left to rescue Ghaz, Umar waited outside in his Prius as my mother and I said good-bye. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d lied to my mother, but I hadn’t told her about my potential plan to meet my uncle in Virginia. I figured I’d tell her after the fact, if I actually went through with it.
I gingerly pressed my cheek to hers, our version of an embrace. I loved her nighttime scent, almond oil and rose water.
“Don’t forget that we can recycle number six plastics now,” I reminded her.
“I wouldn’t dare,” she said. “Drive carefully.”
“Try to have some fresh fruits and veggies every day. Encourage Umar to do so as well. I know he likes his junk food.”
“Ghazala might be going through a lot of different emotions. Sometimes it’s hard to know when to listen, and when to offer advice.”
“We’ll do our best.”
“Text me every day.”
My mother took a step back and smiled. “Have a rollicking good time.”
When I opened the trunk of Umar’s Prius, I had to push his Louis Vuitton suitcase to the side to make room for my small duffel bag that said No One is Illegal, a freebie from one of my mother’s legal conferences.
“Since when do you have a Louis Vuitton suitcase?” I said.
“Don’t knock it, it’s vintage,” he replied. “And are you seriously bringing that backpack? It’s a road trip, not a library excursion.”
I’d had this backpack since freshman year of high school. It was a gift from my mother, monogrammed with my initials. Though I didn’t consider myself a material person, I did have a few objects I was attached to. One was my canary yellow backpack, the other two were tucked into a pocket inside.
“I don’t leave home without it.” I looked at him. For his Ghazala-jailbreak outfit, he’d chosen formfitting black pants, a black V-neck T-shirt, and a green kaffiyeh scarf.
“You look like a member of Hamas,” I told him.
“Like you, I believe in nonviolence,” he declared, gesturing toward an object in the back of the trunk.
“Is that a baseball bat?”
“Softball. My sister used to play.”
“Don’t you think having a bat in our trunk will make us more likely to engage in violence?” I said. “Studies show that the minute you start keeping a gun in your house, your chance of experiencing gun violence within the home increases by thirty percent.”
Umar shrugged. “We could leave it at your house.”
“No, it’s fine.” I pointed to the navy water vessel next to the bat. “Is that a lota?”
In the interest of cleanliness and hygiene, Muslims, and most desis, like to use a lota to rinse their private parts after going to the bathroom. “You’re bringing your own lota on the road trip?”
“Why not? There’s enough space in the trunk. I don’t want to walk around with a dirty stank ass if I don’t have to.”
“Well, between the softball bat and the lota, I guess we’re pretty much ready for anything,” I said.
Umar squeezed my arm. “Then what are we waiting for?”
We parked a few doors down from Ghaz’s house. Aside from a dog barking plaintively in the distance, all was quiet in suburbia. Fortuitously, the streetlight closest to Ghaz’s house had gone out, cloaking the sidewalk in relative darkness. As we crept along, Umar let out a cry.
“Umar!” I hissed.
“I think I stepped in shit,” he groaned, lifting his shoe.
“Shhh. We’ll deal with it later.”
I checked the time: 1:59 a.m. We bent down low and tiptoed along the side of her house, my heart jackhammering my rib cage. The last time it had pounded like this was when Doug and I were on opposite ends of the whispering bench at Swat and he whispered, “Would it be okay if I kissed you?” The second it took him to cross the bench was the longest of my life.
Umar and I simultaneously sighed with relief when we saw Ghaz’s bedroom light was on. I glanced at my phone: 2:04 a.m.
We waited for Ghaz to appear.
“Where is she?” Umar said.
“I really hope she’s not operating on desi standard time,” I said.
“And how is she planning to get down? Jump?”
“Too risky,” I said. Except what if the time she’d spent imprisoned had addled her brain, made her so desperate to escape she would forgo common sense? I glanced around for anything that could break her fall. There were a few chairs on the deck to our right, but that might make it worse.
“Look!” Umar exclaimed.
I’d never been so happy to see Ghaz, standing in the bedroom window, greeting us with a wave and a thumbs-up. The window opened slowly, and she dangled a duffel bag outside. As it fell, Umar rushed forward to catch it, swearing as he stumbled backward, clutching the bag to his chest.
“Shhh!” I chastised him, bracing for lights in the house to turn on, for Ghaz’s parents to come running into the backyard. Ghaz’s mother looked like she’d stopped sleeping long ago.
But the rest of the house remained dark, and I kneeled next to Umar.
“I think I pulled my groin,” he moaned.
“You didn’t need to catch it,” I said. “It’s not like she packed her fine crystal.”
“Where’d she go?” Umar said.
A moment later, Ghaz reappeared at the window holding a braided rope, which she lowered down until the end dangled several feet above the ground. Dressed in cutoff jean shorts and a tank top, she climbed out the window and, knees bent, the rope between her legs, began shimmying down like she’d spent her childhood retrieving coconuts. We held our arms out, in case, but a minute later, both her feet were on the ground.
“Let’s go!” she said, and we ran like hell.
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