Like Wild Roses in Summertime

It began with a bull and a red dress. Suraya’s mother gave her the dress for her eleventh birthday. She wore it immediately and ran through fields of sunflowers and red poppies. The wind swept the sunburned grass and there was only golden grass on a black earth with the blue sky spread above. She had taken deep, glorious breaths of almost violent joy, until she heard the animal behind her.

He snorted first, as though warning her, then kicked at the ground and reared, his livid eyes gazing at her red dress. As she ran into the red glow of her oncoming death, she felt a wave of despair. She would die now, be crushed to pieces, and her most glorious moment would now be a bull’s.

Suddenly strong arms seized her off the ground and she was hurled into a nearby pile of hay. She heard the mad bull thunder away like a passing storm.

“Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

Suraya sprang out of the hay and leaped in front of Arian. She glowered at him and he looked at her, his sun gold face incredulous, eyes filled with fear. Arian was some boy that lived down the street; she’d known of him since she and her family had moved to this small town a year ago. His parents were Bengali, too, and sometimes their mothers had tea and talked about the old country when the steaming pots reminded them of monsoons.

“Why’d you go and do that for?” she demanded.

“You’d have been trampled if I hadn’t.”

“I could have outrun it.”

“This is a terrible show of thanks.”

“If I had the pistol my papa gave me, I’d have shot its head clean off.”

“Why do you have a pistol anyway?”

“My papa gave it to me so I could feel less lonely,” she said.

“Haven’t you got any friends?”

She glared at him and balled her fists till her nails made crescents in her palms.

“Me neither,” he said.

“Well, just mind your own business from now on,” she ordered.

As she started to walk off, he caught the floating sash of her dress.

“Don’t wear this anymore,” he said. “You look nice, though.”

She made a face at him and stalked off, but her heart brimmed with joy. Arian, the boy from down the street, thought she looked nice, and he had saved her from the jaws of death quite literally, had thrown her into a pile of hay as golden as his sun-drenched flesh. She went inside and ate some grapes thoughtfully. If a boy saved a girl from a raging bull, did that mean he loved her? What else could it mean, she thought. If a boy told one’s mother about the bull incident, did he not deserve to be shot with a pistol, she thought two hours later while her mother ranted and raved over the hot kitchen stove.

Suraya found Arian outside next to the lemon garden, pushed him to the ground and began to punch him. He sighed as she pummeled him until blood dripped from his nose and then she grew tired and thirsty so she took out her jackknife and cut up some lemons that they sucked while they sat on the grass and looked out at the tops of trees. From the front yard, it was an ordinary neighborhood with sleepy houses, but in the backyard, marigold and crimson fields stretched to an endless sea of trees.

“It’s pretty, isn’t it,” she said.

“Yes. I want to go past the woods somewhere far one day.”

Suraya knew that there was pirate’s blood in his lineage, swarthy black-eyed men who had slit Indian throats generations ago until some far-flung ancestor tired of the sea and anchored his life in a land-locked love. It made Suraya envious. All of her ancestors were home and hearth souls who favored marriage, moral wealth, and a comfortable and prosperous existence.

“That would be something,” she said. “I’d love to have an adventure like that.”

“You had one today, didn’t you? Nearly got yourself killed. That should last you a while.”

She scowled at him and balled her fists, remembering his obstruction of their friendship only moments before. Once she was finished pummeling him, she went inside and knelt on her prayer mat. In the stillness of the evening she cupped her hands to her mouth and whispered to the attentive darkness.

“Please God, forgive me for beating Arian to a pulp. He saved my life, and he is a fine man with good pirate’s blood and I want to have him forever and have our children be half pirate. Please heed my cries. I am sorry that I spill blood to show my affections.”

One evening her mother brushed her hair and teased, “Suraya, who will braid your hair when you get married?” to which Suraya had replied that she’d get her old husband to do it. Fear had filled her mother’s eyes, and the worry that her daughter was being reared in a fairy tale with unrealistic perceptions. “Suri, husbands aren’t–Well, not like the princes in your books. You won’t find a man who’s going to braid your hair, just as long as he loves you, that’s all that matters.”

Somewhere in her young heart, a fear sprung up like a black weed. She had found Arian outside and had marched up to him. “You boy, braid my hair or I’ll give you such a punch.”

His lips twitched and he seized her by the shoulders and then they sat down on the cool grass. Ants crawled between her toes while he tangled his fingers in her hair. When he had made a nest of her hair, she got up and threw her arms around his neck and kissed the side of his face, startling him. “Thank you. You have done something magical for me today. I shall never punch you again.”

They watched the sun set behind the trees and the fireflies rise from the dark earth.

“That’s magic,” she said. “Do you believe in magic?”

“Seems stupid.”

“You’re stupid. This is magic, magic is love, and you love me.”

He denied her claim and she chased him until they grew tired and fell upon the buttermilk weeds. The sky grew dark, the birds vanished, the world was still before the night came alive.

“This whole world is so big and we’re so damn small,” Arian said. “And one day we won’t be in it anymore. That always makes me feel–I don’t know. Makes me remember I’m going to die.”

“Don’t. My mama told me, if you have love, that’s all that matters.”

“You still die, don’t you?”

“Yes but it doesn’t feel as bad.”

He looked at her. “All right, then, fine, I’ll love you, but I’m not going to marry you or nothing.”

God as my witness, yes you will, she thought, and smiled to see the loneliness flee his eyes.

Her love for him was easy to bear when she was young, but by the time she was sixteen, it became more difficult, cumbersome even. Her desire turned into an ache that made her stop sometimes and wonder what unholy spirit had possessed her body and turned her into a simpering, tragic aberration, one who scratched his name into the bottom of her underwear drawer, collected pieces of him, built a space for him inside her, sat him on a throne, made him king.

He had bought a rusty, blue truck that looked like the kind couples took to Make-Out Point while some Dion and the Belmonts song whined from the radio.

“Want to go in the woods? Or drive around until the gas runs out again.”

“Can’t,” he said. “School dance is tonight.”

She stared at him for a long time. She wished she had brought her pistol.

“You–You’re going to the dance?”

“Yeah. Would have asked you, but I know how you feel about them.”

You don’t know anything about how I feel, she thought bitterly, you’re a cruel, miserable stump of a man and I can’t bear to look at you.

“Your parents are letting you go?”

“Who cares, if I want to go to the dance, I’ll go to the dance.”

He looked at her, concerned.“Hey, Suri, did you want to go? You should come.”

“Who else is going?”

“You know Tamara?”

“Oh? Like a date?”

“No. Just going together. I don’t know. It’ll probably be lame.”

“Well. That’s that, then.”

Suraya sat in the living room for a long time. She had gone from being a huntress to a pathetic Cinderella in a matter of hours. She didn’t want to go to the dance, and besides, her mother would never let her. Her parents had come from a world where men and women didn’t go to dances and frolic until after they were married. From the sweltering, steaming Bangladesh they had come to America and built a life for their daughter here, an American life; but they had brought, too, the social laws, rituals, and holy books of the old world. To go to the dance would be to forsake the old world.

Moreover, she knew she couldn’t go because she was a girl and Arian wasn’t. Men were allowed to be a little wild in their youth no matter what country they came from. Her mother grew up never having dated anyone, playing by the goldfish pond and brushing her long mermaid hair. Meanwhile her father had been climbing trees, having idle romances, riding motorbikes, and enjoying the company of his pet monkey. Arian was doing the very same thing, enjoying his monkey named Tamara.

Suraya pictured Tamara pilfering her husband-to-be in a room hung with crepe paper, being friendly the way girls whose parents were from here were allowed to be. Suraya wasn’t supposed to go to dances, she was supposed to grow up and get married and then she could go to as many dances as she wanted with her husband. It seemed that if she broke a rule, she would not receive the holy prize at the end of the game, because she was from an old country and the rules for her were always different. But, then she dreamed of a Cinderella moment when she would appear at the dance, suddenly beautiful and Arian would heave Tamara out of his way and rush to her. Thoroughly tempted by her fantasy, she wore one of her mother’s dresses from the eighties and snuck out of the house. She walked to the school. Went into the auditorium. Waited for the music to stop, the world to spin, the magic to begin.
But there was Arian and Tamara dancing underneath all the majesty of an aluminum disco ball. Tamara’s dress was red like the blood of Suraya’s murdered dreams. She did not think about it, only raised her pistol and pointed. Tamara saw her death and screamed, her cries ricocheting off the other guests until the dance dissembled into chaotic disarray. Suraya did not see Arian because a teacher took her away. They called her mother because they did not care that there were no bullets in the gun.

Inside she was always wearing a cloak of stars and catching butterflies. Great things are inside of me even when the things I do are dark, she wanted to assure her mother, but that night she could only sit in her bed and weep like the girl who lost her golden ball and waited for the frog prince. She held the pistol her father had given her when they had moved to this town. Her mother had been eager to move to where there would be people from her homeland, more uprooted souls like herself, friends at last who knew how to turn goat into a fragrant dish and ate the eyes of fish; but her father thought people everywhere were much the same and a pistol in a new land lent a lonesome heart courage.

There was a knock at her window and Arian climbed through bringing in the scent of spring and wild roses. She wiped the tears from her face and pointed the pistol at him. “What do you want?”

“You should have just come to the dance with me,” he said.

“Yeah? And look as stupid as you did tonight?”

“I wasn’t the one packing heat in the school gym.”

Her eyes burned as she pressed the pistol against his chest. She felt his heartbeat.

“Why didn’t you just tell me not to go?” he asked.

“I don’t tell people what to do. Now get out of my house.”

And then he glanced down at the pistol and she saw an unusual look in his eye, something bright and overlooked, something she had seen before in a dream, one of those dreams that only happened during a rainstorm when she thought God had released his wrath and was ending the world and her last thoughts were of the unfulfilled. He took her hand and shook it. He nudged her. They laughed.

They were in love thereafter, but no one paid much attention because nothing was any different, until high school started coming to an end and Suraya’s mother realized she wasn’t a little girl anymore.

“You’re spending a lot of time with him.”

“No more than usual.”

“Still,” Suraya’s mother said. She had spoken with her sister on the phone who heard from a neighbor who casually reported that she had seen Suraya and Arian together eating lemons by the woods and were they carrying on a romantic affair? Suraya’s mother had known it yet had never looked at it, but from that day forward she saw him differently, and it was suddenly apparent he wasn’t only the boy that protected her daughter from mad bulls, he was the man that loved her. And her daughter loved him, too, because Arian was exactly the man a dreamer like her daughter would choose. It worried her, for many reasons, it worried her. There hadn’t been this kind of love in the old country.

“What does he plan to study?”

“I don’t know. He might not go to college.”

“Dear God. What’ll he do then?”

“We don’t talk about it. Summer’s just started, who cares about the rest of it.”

“You’re going to college. He isn’t even thinking about it. Is he going to get a job at least?”

“A job? Like in some office? I can’t picture him doing anything like that.”

“Right now, I can’t picture him doing anything.”

Suraya knew her mother had aristocratic blood, and she and her sisters had married prestigious men: an air force pilot, a government official, a doctor, a businessman, and an engineer who had settled in America. But that was for the old world. That didn’t matter in this world. It didn’t matter if he was a sultan or if he worked at Starbucks, he would be royal in her eyes. Still, she could not help but wonder.

That summer was like roses, that summer was the part they never showed in the fairy tales, the moment after the prince transformed from whatever beast he had been turned into and the princess recognized him and he kissed her, on the lips in the soft blue bower of wild pink roses; they kissed on the grass beneath the moon, in the backseat of his rusty truck beneath the canopy of stars and woods, behind trees, fragrant and dark as cinnamon, beneath skies as hot and blazing as the strange warmth he ignited inside her, when he touched her, when they kissed, hungrily sometimes, vigorously, wildly, slowly, slowly, the magic began to fade, the spell began to break, the fairy tale came to a miserable end; the tales did not show anything more after the kiss so as to spare the world a broken heart.

High school was over, the year was swiftly disappearing and Arian’s father was urging him to join the family business, but Arian had the rebellious resentfulness of a man that knew his life did not belong to himself. It was the way of the old world that the children’s lives belonged to their parents, and Suraya knew that Arian could either be an engineer, a doctor, or a computer something or other because those were the avenues open to men who were the sons of the well-to-do.

“My father,” he said. “Is like the old man in that movie who wants a damn puppet for a son. He told me to start working at his business. You know they manage some chemical plant’s financial affairs? And one of the workers lost his will to live and drank from one of the vats and now he’s a mutant so my father writes the contracts that say they don’t have to pay him. Because he isn’t human. I don’t want to do something so asinine. I’d rather be the mutant.”

“Be a teacher like I’m going to be.”

“Yeah. My dad would rather see me murdered. You, Suri, you can be anything.”

“Yeah, because my grandmothers stayed in the kitchen, and my mom has one foot out, and where I go is up to me. It’s freedom in oppression. Hey, you know my mom told me I have ancestors from Portugal, explorers of a ship, probably pirates who bought land in Bangladesh and settled.”

“That was their first mistake. So you have mixed blood somewhere inside you? Maybe that’s why you’re freer than me.”

Arian joined a gang at school, a band of guys with blue hair and razor blades in their pockets, who played heavy rap metal in their stolen trucks, scowled pugnaciously and took their pants off in front of the elderly. Arian went with them some nights to beat people up from the other high school.

“Why do you hang out with them?”

“Why not.”

“Is it because your dad hates them? You’re not even like them.”

“Why, because they’re white? So what.”

“No, because they’re stupid. Who do you guys beat up?”

“Some Mexican kids they don’t like.”

“What? You’re closer to being a Mexican kid than you are to being like them. Why do you?”

“It’s nothing personal. I just need some chaos. The road is looking pretty straight from here.”

“Don’t hang out with them anymore. Those guys are all going to hell.”

“Why? Because they’re Christians and that’s what your overzealous uncle told you?”

“No, they’re going to hell because they’re idiots. You’re not like them.”

He didn’t listen, so Suraya kept a vigil by her window, and one night when she saw the army of skeletal hoodlums lit up and pale in the moonlight, making their way across the street to his house, she flew down the stairs, marched outside, and stood in front of them.

“Turn around and go home,” she said.

The head of the pack was named Frank and he stared at her like she was a bug.

“Hey, go back inside, little girl. Where’s Arian at? He your boy or something?”

“I’ll just say it once more,” she said. “And then I’ll light you all on fire. Turn around and never come back. You can’t have him.”

Frank and the guys laughed, whistled, barked, cursed, growled. “Aren’t you that crazy chick who brought a gun to the school dance? Where’s your gun, now?”

He seized her and she gouged his eyes with her fingers, shoved her knee into his stomach, and wrenched a clump of his dark hair. He threw her to the street. “You freak. You’re lucky. I don’t beat up no chicks,” he said. “But, you tell Arian we’re waiting for him. You hear me? You tell him.”

They walked away and their laughter died as they turned the street corner. Suraya felt as though she had saved her kingdom but had lost her limbs to do it. She sat on the street while her scratches bled and her bones ached. Arian came outside. “Hey, Suri, your favorite movie’s on tonight. Scarlett’s about to proposition herself to Rhett in the jail cell, come over and watch. Hey, you okay?”

He knelt beside her and she told him what happened. “So, don’t hang out with them anymore. You’re better than them, you don’t have to get lost like this. It’s not how we’ve been raised.”

He stood up and started to walk away.

“Where are you going?”

“To meet up with the guys.”

Suraya felt something inside her shatter, but then rage swept over her body and she went upstairs and began making a doll and colored Arian’s hair on its cloth head and pondered how to do dark magic like her uncle sometimes did when he was upset with his in-laws. She wanted to destroy him, to make him feel nothing but pain, and was calculating her jail time after setting his truck on fire, when he came into her room. His eye was black and his face was a stained glass mosaic of crimson cuts. Suraya stared at him. He shrugged. “The other guys look worse. Promise.”

She tucked him into her bed, put the blankets on him, and washed his cuts with a cloth with the somberness of a nurse in the Civil War. She felt affection and victory, but just before she saw his eyes close, she glimpsed the pallor of defeat. She began to weep because she felt shaken and he looked broken, and he drew her into his arms and kissed the top of her head but still a part of him felt far away.

It was as though he did not know what she knew, that they were lucky, to have one another, that they had the privilege to forsake the rest of the world that would not understand them, that they had found love even when it appeared love was not supposed to grow. There had not been love like this for her parents, not at first, not when they were wed, but only after, one that grew afterwards.

But Suraya would not have to marry a strange man, she could marry her best friend, because he was, miraculously, someone who her parents would approve of. She had always been instinctively drawn to him, and only as she aged, did she realize that it was because he freed her from her fears of marrying a man who would force her to change. She had seen her father’s silent tempers, his old world bred expectations that forced her mother to arrange her life around his will and whims, good man as he was, he was not always easy to live with. She saw her mother reign in her sharp tongue sometimes even when she thought he deserved it, she saw her change little pieces of herself so that they would better fit.

“My cousin told me that the pool of people we can select from has mostly scum in it.”

“Why does there have to be a pool of selection at all?” he said.

“We only get to choose from the ethnic food aisle. But we are lucky. To have each other.”

He looked the way her uncle had when he was put inside the machine for a scan to check his cancer and the doctor had told him he was lucky they had been able to get him in early but he had not looked like he felt lucky at all as the walls closed in around him and he knew he was dying.

But they were lucky, they had been brought together by magic, a magic bull maybe, or God. Suraya knew her mother liked Arian, too, thought he was kind and good and smart, still her mother worried about his aimlessness. But she knew her daughter loved him and knew there was good in him, so she called him to dine with them, and made sure that no dinner went in vain.

It was Eid night, the moon was a perfect crescent when Arian came to dine. Eid night brought the old world into the home like a stodgy relative; all of them wore punjabis and salwar kamezes, they prayed together before they ate, the food was fancier, the meat had been blessed, the night air felt holy, and Suraya and Arian felt blasphemous when their gaze on one another lingered too long. Tradition blazed in the house hotter than the candles, and the pair burned and squirmed in its glare.

“So, Arian, do you think you’ll take some classes this semester? Your father’s such a successful businessman. You would probably be very good at that,” Suraya’s mother said.

He thanked her and said he would keep it in mind. Her mother cut the meat slowly.

“You know, since you two are getting so serious, we thought it would be good if we considered making it official. You know, maybe announcing a public engagement. People have been talking–It’s not part of our culture to be the kind of–friends you two are.”

The code of the old world did not allow for any of its devoted members to acknowledge that dating existed or happened, like a silent disease that was swallowing up the reckless youth, with no cure yet except the hope that pretending that it was not real would make it vanish.

“Well, Arian’s family doesn’t care.”

“Of course they do. His mother and I were talking about places to have an engagement party.”

Suraya’s father nodded once. “If they want to get engaged, good. Let’s eat.”

Suraya’s mother appeared relieved. Societal gossip, pregnancies out of wed-lock, disgrace, and heartache fears could be put to rest. What’s more, aimless men, when wed, were pressured by the greatest forces of commitment and devotion to become ambitious. He was lost now, but he’d find his way this way. Men more wayward than he certainly had.

“We can announce an engagement this summer. And then you can enroll into a university. Your father has a position waiting for you after you graduate. Then, four years from now, you two will get married. But we should go ahead and do the engagement now. It will make all of this appropriate.”

Suraya’s eyes shone. Arian tugged at his shirt collar, grew distant and left early. And then he came to her later that night. The summer was ending, air was balmy and the virginal stars were bright.

“I just came to say goodbye.”

“Where are you going? You packed a bag? Is that underwear in there? Where are you going that you need underwear, Arian, are you never coming back?”

“I’m just going for a while. Do you want to come with me?”

“Is this because you don’t want to marry me? Well so what if my mom said that. And so what if we did get engaged? Would that be so bad?”

He stared at her. “You wanted that all along, didn’t you?”

“No, but so what if I did? What would be so wrong with it? You say you love me and all, but you won’t marry me? Then what am I to you anyway.”

“I’m going to go now, all right, just kiss me before I go. I’ll miss you.”

“Why won’t you marry me?” she screamed into the darkness. She was surprised by her own desires, old world desires, no, the desire of a woman in love, the universal desire of lovers.

“Will you just stop it? I don’t want this. I don’t need your mother telling me to announce a damn engagement, I don’t need her to tell me to get a job–”

“She’s just trying to fix you.”

He was quiet. “Fix me. What’s the matter with me, Suraya?”

“Nothing,” she said. “I don’t know. What’s wrong with getting a job? We have to grow up–”

“I’m not marrying you, Suraya. Ok? There, I said it. I don’t want this life. I don’t want you. It’s over. I love you. Bye.”

“You’re a damn pirate is what you are with wild, bad blood. My God, I loved you. I hope you crash your truck and break your neck. I hope wild dogs eat your worthless heart. I hope you never find your way back home. Please don’t leave, don’t go, please don’t, please, stay.”

His eyes were soulless and empty. He kissed her and walked away and did not stop even though she screamed after him.

*

The years flew away like butterfly wings. Suraya finished college and came back home; almost immediately the wedding season began and the hunt for a husband commenced. Her best friend now was Tamara who was white and free to date a dozen men without ever having to marry any of them, or even consider whether they were marriage material if she did not want to, and so through her, Suraya lived vicariously and had casual, passionate romances with Richards and Jacks all the while knowing she could never have anything like it, really. She couldn’t tell her mother that she’d rather date the young man who looked like Jesus in her Shakespeare class rather than go through the method of marriage that loomed before her. But part of her did not want Jesus for herself, either, no matter how tempting. To hold out was to wait for something better. Every tenet of the old world was built on self repression, self-denial, the life of a near ascetic in matters of love. Before marriage, there wasn’t any love except the good kind between mother and father and children and parent and brother and sister and God and servant. Good love happened after marriage, but before, before, it would be ravaged and killed by the cultural doctrines. Suraya had nearly given in to it, had loved a man with all her heart, had thought she had found a loophole, had seen their whole lives together, but it had only been an idea, a vision sitting like an unwatered seed in her brain. Love was not the remedy, it was the antithesis to stability, the bringing of chaos and the destruction of the world her parents had brought with them to the new one like a blazing torch, a world whose light would grow feebler with each successive generation after her, unless she kept it alive. Now she knew better, now she knew to follow the straight road, because those who did were those who won some holy Grail after marriage. And for that, she had to suffer through the method.

The bio-data method was what it was called, where the parents of young men and women compiled a resume for their child and sent it off to potentially eligible candidates.

Her mother read them off like items off a grocery list.

“There’s a guy from Florida, he’s a dentist, he’s 5’9 and likes outdoor activities. His complexion is medium dark. Here’s another one, he’s from Virginia, he’s 5’11, wow, that’s tall, he’s a computer engineer still in school, looks like a nerd. Might be good for you, what do you think?”

Suraya’s cousin looked through their photos and nodded or shook her head.

“Are you interested in any of these men?” her cousin asked her. “Hey, what ever happened to that one guy? Do you still talk to him?”

“No,” Suraya said.

“He was your neighbor, right? Arian?” She knew the whole story, Suraya knew, but it was custom to pretend one didn’t in the sly hopes of getting more. “Why’d he leave?”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “He’s gone. But doesn’t mean I’m going to email faceless freaks.”

Her mother slammed the spoon into the soup pot. “Suraya, are you going to email the nerd?”

“No, Mom, I am not.”

“Suraya, email the nerd, you might like him, give him a chance at least.”

“No, and stop sending out my information to people, it’s like you are fishing for serial killers.”

She dehumanized all of them because they did not seem like real people, they amused and oppressed her, drained and dismayed her, made her feel like she had given up. Her mother was afraid, not because she was in a rush to marry her daughter off but because she saw heartache in her eyes and did not know what else but a good husband would make it disappear.

“Is he the reason that you–” her cousin began.
“No, I don’t care about him. Fine. I’ll email the nerd.”

The nerd was named Rafi. He was an investment banker. He bought pants for 47 cents and didn’t like to travel for fear of foreign illnesses. Suraya wanted to die at first, like women did in books where they wanted to be free from stifling societies. Rafi’s emails were boring but something about him began to glitter, all that he could offer, all that he could give. He was stable, not too difficult on the eyes, and had the beaten down look of a man who would not make her change much. Besides, he was nearing thirty, so he lacked that carnivorous persistence of previous candidates, which made him oddly refreshing. He was everything she had hoped to avoid and everything she had known was inevitable.

“He likes Victorian architecture. I’ve never heard of any man liking that. He’d like to live in a house with towers. Isn’t that interesting? He likes classic films, too and has a fedora. He’s perfect on paper. I’m sick to death of people being perfect on paper and doing nothing for me.”

“Was that other guy good on paper? Your neighbor Arian.”

“No, he was horrible. He didn’t even have a job or go to college. He would have been a terrible choice, actually. All he had to offer was love and what’s that going to get me. It’s good he left, because I wouldn’t have ended up marrying him, anyway.”

But at night when she succumbed to dreams, she only thought of him. He was Richard the Lionheart whose body was interred in Anjou, but whose heart had been cut out and buried in Rouen. He had left his culture and took his heart away. It was just as well, their society was a hostile ground for breeding love. He wasn’t going to come back.

Moving on was a mix of revenge, a bit of submission, and the dying wails of a few slaughtered dreams. But it would get better once she sold her soul to a greater cause. The new world her parents had made for her wasn’t any different than the old. She’d marry because that was how they were freed from being girls. If she wanted to be freed from her girlish pains, then she needed to marry. If she wanted to fix her heart and be happy, she had to move on.

Rafi was exactly what the old world prescribed. Her mother looked relieved and slowly, Suraya began to feel her broken heart mend, as though she drank a dark elixir, one mixed with submission and revenge. There were times when she lost her courage and wanted to fly away from all the things the old world demanded. To be normal. To be happy.

“I’ve never been in love or anything,” Rafi said. “I sent my bio-data to a few people, but never heard back. Met a girl face to face once. Never heard back. I like how compatible me and you are.”

He had never had a dream come true and he was doing everything right and everything he was supposed to do. He wouldn’t walk out on his family or his culture or any woman that loved him. He didn’t do anything to her heart, either, make it move, make it dance, make it flicker with even a twitch of life. It was a God forsaken travesty that the good man was the boring man, Suraya knew, but she did not have to be someone who let that matter, and soon the night of her engagement party arrived.

She sat in the living room of her house on one of the formal dining chairs that had been placed next to Rafi’s, a table of sweets on the table, surrounded by brass cups of mehndi, and red and pink flowers. Rafi wore his suit and half dollar priced pants. Just when she believed that her dreams had been as worthless as his pants, she was engaged and had a ponderous, nondescript ring on her hand.

After the engagement ceremony, Suraya sat in her room. And suddenly, as though time had not passed, Arian came in through her window, bringing in the scent of wild roses, came into the room as though years had not slipped like futile prayers from fervent lips, as though a man’s body did not fill his shirt, as though the hair on his chin was familiar and he had never broken her heart.

“So, I hear you’re getting married. It’s good to see you.”

Suraya looked at him a long time. She recalled his soulless eyes the night he left her.

“You never wanted any of this, did you? You saw a way out of a world you never wanted. It’s fine. I’ve thought of it. And it makes sense. You never loved me either, I should have shot you when I had the chance, you damn coward, I don’t know how I ever loved you when you never loved–”

His mouth fell on hers like a soldier dying on a battlefield, remorseful and triumphant, ashamed and homesick. He looked empty and animal eaten, hollowed out and hungry to look at her again, willing to be conquered as he climbed the steps and ripped his heart from his chest in one swift sacrificial sweep, with a battle cry. He had lived with women and not married them, had worked in coffee shops to the horror of his father who had been raised with servants that did that kind of work for him, he had stopped praying and had eaten smoked pork and drank wine aged by monks, and it had led him back here, after all of it, he had arrived again to the place from where he had left.

“I missed eating rice,” he said. “The way your mom made it. I went to Bangladesh. Saw my grandparents’ burial plots, my blood was everywhere, my body was under that ground, but I still wasn’t there. I was here all along. This is where I was. I shouldn’t have left you.”

“But you did.”

“Don’t punish me for it. I was wrong. I was suffocated and trapped. I felt like my life didn’t belong to me anymore, Suraya. It belonged to my parents, to you, to society, religion, culture, every damn thing but me. So I walked away. But, I never should have left you. Now, you’re getting married. Do you love him? Is this going to make you happy? Is this some kind of glorious revolt?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, yes, it is, it is. I want to hurt you, to destroy you, to make you feel terrible, low down as dirt remorseful until you go to the grave a pathetic, sniveling, dissatisfied and unfulfilled man rotting in your dreams’ decay.”

He clasped his hand around her neck. “This is a mean thing to say,” he said but he looked victorious, hopeful as one whose neck had been nicked with an axe but had not died, so she spoke again. “I picked him because he gives me what you wouldn’t. I’m going to have everything. You’ll see. Don’t look at me like that, I hate you, I wanted something simple. To be good and get the reward. You messed it up, now you want to mess it up again.”

She seized him and shoved him to the ground and they lay on the floor, her mouth touched the side of his face and his eyes were soft and glowing. She pushed her mouth to his and he lifted her dress and they made love in her room while the night burned hot and blue by the summertime moon.

“I was wrong, I see that now,” he said. “You’re a part of me. No matter where I went, you were with me. I went to the old country and lived on the fringe of a village and ate these, I’m not sure what they were, but I thought of you because we used pistols to shoot them dead. And there were trees, God you should have seen them, trees that had white buds on them that looked like doves during the day, real doves, white and fat, but then at night when the moon came out, the flowers blossomed and perfumed the world. I thought of you because it was like magic. But, magic without love. Is not magic. I left because I didn’t want to lose myself, but I left the better part of myself when I went. I won’t do that again. I’ll marry you if that’s what you want. I want to Suri, I want to be with you.”
Suraya’s whole body trembled.

“I want you,” she said. “To leave.”

They looked at one another. She saw remorse in his dark eyes.

“Suri–”

“Arian. I’m sorry. I don’t forgive you.”

He nodded after a long time. “Just tell me you’re happy, then.”

“I will be once you leave.”

He left without a word and she imagined falling to the floor, writhing like the wing of a moth, then dying, turning to ashes and floating away, and only then would the iron bonds break, bees would drone and drink hemlock while birds soared across a century of blue.

*

Because brides were expected to be somber, no one worried on her wedding day. She was married at last, she had the boon, got the prize. She had a cousin in Bangladesh who was desperate to marry, who had been ranting and raving at her parents for not procuring a groom, until they sought the aid of the prime minister who asked her why she wanted one so badly. The prime minister’s own husband had died, some speculated manslaughter, and she wanted the girl to see the futility of a husband when it came to ruling kingdoms for oneself, but the girl insisted that she needed one, because marriage was the boon and after that came the prize. Suraya understood the fever, and relished in the relief once it was all over with, but then there was the reality. The downfall from the constructed cliffs upon which their society sat. Happiness came in moderation, and the prize had been divvied up this way to last a lifetime. She and Rafi moved to a town made of trees and she liked it because it reminded her of home.

“You’ll come back again,” her mother had held her a long time the night before she left. “This is the worst part. But, it will be better. And when you come back here again, you will be someone new.”

The new person she became spent its time reading the burial rites to her old self with elegiac sermons and elaborate body burning rituals.

“What are all these?” Rafi asked.

“My diaries. From childhood.”

“Who is Arian?”

“What?”

“It says ‘I hereby swear before God to pledge my heart and soul to Arian.’ Who is Arian?”

The man I’d kill you and roast your body and feed to the wolves for if it would make him stand where you stand now. “Oh, some guy from a movie I liked,” she said. Rafi tossed it in the junk pile.

This new person had a special relationship with the butcher, went to parties with other people in the Bengali community, sat with the other wives while their husbands talked about overthrown governments across the sea, and the ladies prophesied the return of silk saris and traded curry recipes.

The first year, Rafi had the look of an explorer who had stumbled on an uncharted island and made a home among the natives. The second year, he looked like he was happy to still be alive. The third, he had lines on his face and did not smile unless in the company of relatives or the plumber.

“I am so happy you picked me. Of all people, you picked me,” he had written on a card on their first anniversary. She had replied, “Sometimes I think you were the only thing there was for me to pick.” And he had felt warm and glorious, but now, when he remembered it, he felt cold.

Tamara came to visit one winter with her balding husband and baby.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” she lied. “Suraya, do you want to go with me and some people from college to Europe this spring? Jerry, damn it, hold the baby’s head up, will you?”

Jerry glared. “Hey, you’re in Europe far as I’m concerned. So let me do this my way.”

“Then do it right, God. We’ve been getting counseling,” she said. “Jerry can be–”

“Hey, remember, whatever you say will be discussed in our next session.”

“I remember, Jerry. My memory isn’t the problem in this relationship.”

“Hey, I never forget I love you, do I?”

Tamara smiled. “See? Would kick him to the curb but he says things like that. Where’s Rafi?”

“Work. So this trip. Tell me more.”

That night, Suraya and Rafi ate pizza with pineapples while the news played on mute and the rain and tree branches slapped the windows.

“Tamara visited today. She mentioned a trip to Europe. Asked me if I want to go.”

“Oh really? How’d you get out of that one?”

“I told her I’d think about it.”

“Good one.”

Suraya wondered if he was happy, but more, if he was unhappy, or if he was a man who was so uncomplicated that perhaps he never felt unhappiness, but lived in a sublime contentment that was undisturbed by the unformed relationships that stood stagnant around him.

“It’d be nice to go to Europe. And to see other parts of the world.”

“Yeah. Maybe we can plan a trip or something next year. My parents are coming tomorrow at around noon. You need me to pick up any meat or you have enough to make dinner?”

Rafi’s parents only ate meat that had been blessed by the holy imam at the time of slaughter.

“We could just take them out to eat.”

Rafi stuffed the pizza box into the trash.

“They’re coming to our house. We’re not going to take them out to eat. Mom’s going to ask us when we plan to start a family, again, so we should probably figure out what we’re going to say.”

They had used to laugh about that, in the early days, because it was absurd to think about it as newlyweds, but now, it caused an uncomfortable silence.

“Just tell her we’re not ready yet.”

“Well, she’ll ask us why.”

“Well, who cares?” Suraya demanded.

Rafi closed his eyes for a moment and counted to three.

“Ok, look. Maybe we tell her we’re thinking about it, ok? That we’re considering it.”

“How about no, because then next time she comes she’ll expect me to pop out your child–”

“Well what would be so wrong with that?” he demanded. “I’m getting the promotion at the firm. Schools aren’t hiring right now, so you have all the time in the world.”

Suraya looked at him a long time. Whenever Rafi touched her, her heart coiled and recoiled like a snake that wished to bite off his hand so that there would be one less piece of him to look at.

“I have enough meat for dinner tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll make rice and goat.”

Rafi’s parents dropped cold kisses on her head the next day and did not mince words.

“So, what’s the progress with our grandchildren?” his mother asked.

“Well, Mom, we have good news.”

His mother began to cry and his father patted his back, but Rafi shook his head and laughed.

“No, no, not that good. Yet. The news is, we’re going to start trying.”

“Oh,” his mother said and threw a look at Suraya. “Well. That’s better than nothing.”

His parents were a traditional pair and demanded that they sleep in the master bedroom, sending Rafi to the small bed in the guestroom and Suraya to blankets on the floor.

“They want us to have babies so badly but don’t see how this is counterproductive,” she said.

“I don’t like your tone,” Rafi said.

“You never like my tone.”

“That’s right.”

Suraya sat on the edge of his bed and looked at his face. She wanted to break the wall between them, the tension that hung like frost on mountains, she wanted to plunge through the frigid resentment and darkness and find him again, but all at once, she realized, there was nothing there to find, there had never been anything there at all. She went back to her blankets on the floor.

A scream woke them in the night. Suraya thought Rafi’s father had finally had enough of Rafi’s mother, but she saw her standing by an open drawer, her mouth agape.

“There’s a gun in here,” she said. “A gun. Whose gun is this?”

Suraya stepped forward and lifted her pistol from where it was hidden beneath chenille shawls and broken pearl strings. She felt joy to see it again, the warmth of her childhood ignited inside her and she did not feel alone. She saw her reflection in the brass tone of the gun. Who had she become, this spiritless girl with no gumption who hid her gun under the pearls in the boudoir of her husband’s home. Who was she now, this wife who slept in the arms of a man while dreaming of another, who walked like a phantom in the night inhaling until her lungs ached searching for a whiff of wild roses.

“This is yours?” Rafi’s mother said. “Get rid of it. You can’t have it with a baby coming.”

“There’s no baby coming. I’m going to Europe.”

“What do you mean you’re going to Europe?” his mother looked at her with all the condemnation of a woman who had spent her life subservient to a man and bent upon reigning over her daughter-in-law, especially one who was deficient.

“I mean I’m going and I’m going alone and you’re not going to stop me.”

“Why are you pointing that gun at us? You need to think about the things you’re saying.”

“I served you meat that wasn’t blessed for dinner so now you’re probably going to hell. You need to think about what you’re going to do about that. I’m going to Europe.”

She thought she heard Rafi thank God.

She left the next week and met her friends in Paris, but when she tired of the fanfare of the bright streets, she drifted to the rock shore beaches of Ireland, the vineyards in Italy where tomatoes hung like unpicked hearts on withered vines, saw the sailboats that cradled the coast of Algiers, the mosque in Damascus and the tomb of Saladin that rested outside, the crumbling cities and cow peppered farms, spending every dime of the money she inherited from her wedding mahr until it was all nearly gone and she had enjoyed the fruits of her marriage at last, all alone and fulfilled.

She had everything she had ever wanted except one thing and she found him in the Charles de Gaulle airport while she waited for a plane to take her home. She found him the way she always did, all of a sudden and unsurprising, like magic that only existed when he was near. It was dark outside and grey, fog nuzzled the windows and the lights above flickered from a storm. Silhouettes in black coats rushed past her and she saw him up ahead in an airport cafe. He started to sit down when he saw her and then he stood very still. She didn’t move and neither did he, only watched from afar while the travelers marched like caravans past them.

Then he waved, a half smile on his face. She walked to him and they sat at the table and stole looks at one another, collecting the artifacts of lost years, the missing lashes on her eyes, the travelers’ stubble on his chin, the wedding bands on their fingers, his same smile, her same nose wrinkling when she smiled. They warmed their hands on hot cups of cocoa.

“Did you stop–I mean, do you still–”

“No, I didn’t stop, yes I still. I always will.”

They were silent a moment. The clock ticked patiently and the cafe cleared as a gate number was called. Suraya did not know which number was his and panicked, for she had him for only a moment, like a temple holds a worshipper only until the prayer has been recited, has fallen from the devout lips, and then he would leave her with his blessings and never know that she only wanted him.

“I travel a lot,” he said. “Going to Bangladesh now, actually. Built a school there a few years ago. I go back to check on it. What are you doing in London? Is your–”

“No,” she said. “He’s only the man I married, Arian,” she said. “You’re the man I love.”

“That rationale does little to warm a man’s heart,” he smiled.

She reached across the table and clasped his hands, crushing his fingers.

“I shouldn’t have let you go, I shouldn’t have thrown you away just because you forsook our culture and yourself, because I’ve forsaken myself, too. When I didn’t forgive you, when I got married because it was what that old world told me to do, because I wanted everything and I wanted to hurt you, too. I should have forgiven you. I didn’t see it before.”

They held hands and looked out at the black night from which planes rose like fireflies, like newborn dreams taking flight.


Previous postLately, A Problem of Relationships Next postHoli 2012

5 comments

  1. Pranavi says:

    Mar 28, 2012

    Reply

    Sabrina,

    Great job on this wonderful story. I really could tune everything out while reading this and just pretend that it was another short story from Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies.” Can’t wait to read more from you!

    PJ

  2. Shrinidhi says:

    Mar 28, 2012

    Reply

    Loved it! Very powerful story!

  3. Suchi says:

    Apr 1, 2012

    Reply

    wow, this is incredibly well written and developed. Really really stomach turning/heart wrenching all the ups and downs captured.

    • Marv says:

      Feb 9, 2017

      Reply

      I love it when we realize the old do as I say not as I do routine. Like “no you can't have a cookie that grandma sent home with you before dir18n&#e22n; and then they catch me with one in my mouth. Bad mom, very bad!

  4. Samir says:

    Apr 5, 2012

    Reply

    Wow.

What do you think?

Name required

Website

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>