I crumple the green tissue angrily. I'm in no mood to be at Mariyam's house, helping her and her annoying mother--my Khala--to make favors for Mariyam's Nikah ceremony.
"Less than two weeks left and my daughter will leave me," Khala laments. I roll my eyes, but I'm thankful she hasn't brought up the boy subject yet.
"She's going to be happily married," I can't help but say. It's comforting to know that Mariyam really likes her fiance but I would be terrified if I were in her situation.
"Yes, and one day, it'll be your turn," Mariyam teases.
"Uh, that's not happening anytime soon," I reply quickly. Tariq's face appears in my mind and something flutters in my stomach.
"Well there's nothing wrong with getting married young. It's a good thing in my opinion," Khala says, carefully counting dates and nuts to place in each favor bag.
"I didn't ask for your opinion," I mutter under my breath, avoiding Mariyam's glance.
"Look, beta, you're probably upset." Her tone is sincere, which is surprising, but I have no forgiveness to offer. "I saw what I saw and it is my duty to tell your mother and that is what I did. She thinks it's a confusion, but--"
"Khala, you have no need to worry about me." I don't want her to say anything more so I continue talking, dissolving her doubt with words. "I don't have a boyfriend and I don't plan on having one." I clench my teeth. I cannot stand the sight of her; she infuriates me.
"Ammi, we'll finish the rest now. You should go rest," Mariyam suggests. I breathe a sigh of relief when Khala leaves us both at the dining room table, her face pleased as though she has successfully taught an important lesson to a young child.
"Don't mind her or what your mother said, Iman. They just care about you," Mariyam says when we are alone.
"God, not you too! I'm so sick of hearing this. I'm not a little girl." I slam the scissors on the table and get up from my seat. Something is happening to me and I can't describe what it is. I feel ridiculed, dumb even because everyone feels the need to explain every little thing to me. "I need to go home now," I say more quietly, my head turned away from Mariyam.
"Okay, I'll drop you off but calm down. What's wrong?" Mariyam gets up from where she is sitting and stands in front of me. "Tell me. You know I'm here for you," she says softly, placing her hand on my shoulder.
I roll my eyes, trying to hide my tears. "You wouldn't understand."
I hesitate and then look into her eyes. Mariyam has always been like an older sister to me; in this moment, I envy her for what I am not capable of being. I can't bear to let her think of me as someone unworthy of her respect and love, so I simply say, "Mariyam, why is that there are some things in this life that we just can't do--the very things that can bring joy and happiness? Why are there so many rules?"
There is curiosity in her eyes, but she does not ask me what this is about. I appreciate that she is not prying like most other people are. "Iman, there are some things that look really good to us at first, especially because Shaytan makes it appear so and everyone else seems to find joy in it also. But Allah has created us, He knows us more than we know ourselves...That's why He has made some things permissible and other things not."
I shake my head. I heard this many times before; all I want is to be with Tariq without feeling guilty. All I want is not feel as though it is a sin, to live in a secret that is too exhausting to carry on. "I don't buy it. It doesn't make sense. It almost feels like a prison."
"Is it a boy?" Mariyam asks quietly, studying my face. My skin feels hot and I can't meet her eyes. "You don't have to tell me if you're not comfortable," she adds when I don't say anything.
I want to pour my feelings out to her, but something is holding me back. I know what she will tell me. That I have to give him up, that I can't talk to him anymore, shouldn't even look at him. And I'm not ready to make that sacrifice.
"You already know we don't date. People think we're weird not to, but trust me. You have just to be patient. One day, you'll be engaged like I am and it will the most beautiful moment in your life. What you're feeling now is nothing compared to what it will be like."
I shake my head stubbornly. "I--I just don't see what's wrong with it. I--" The words come out fumbled. "I--I should go home...I want to be alone."
I walk out before she has anything more to say. "Please talk to me if you need to Iman. You know I love you," she still says.
Mariyam's words linger in my head throughout the day, but I force them away just like I have removed Farah's stinging words. I am upset at this world for being incomprehensible. Why has Allah put love in my heart for Tariq when He does not permit it?
I feel restless at home. Even Ammi miraculously has no housework for me to do. Homework is sitting for me but I cannot focus. Fortunately, Anum calls me over to her house to help practice a dance for her cousin's upcoming mehndi. Why do I feel like everyone is getting married, all the time?
When I arrive at Anum's doorstep, there is Hindi music mixed with English lyrics blaring in her stereo. I wonder if the neighbors are disturbed as I ring her doorbell.
A guy opens the door and I'm taken aback. There is no way I am mistaken where Anum lives, although I can't say the same for her inviting guys over. That had to mean one thing--her parents were not home.
"You're Anum's friend?" the guy asks, giving a cheesy smile while leaning against the door. He is looking at me carefully, passing his eyes over me and I wonder what he is thinking. Despite the hijab wrapped loosely around my head, I feel somewhat exposed. It was a good thing Ammi didn't see me when I stepped out of the house.
"Um, is Anum there?" I ask gingerly, feeling awkward.
"Yo, Anum. Your cute friend is here." He flashes me a smile while my cheek burns. Cute? Did he just have the nerve to call me cute? I can't tell whether I feel ashamed or slightly delighted by the comment. Anyway, it doesn't seem like anyone has heard him over the music. "This way," he says and I'm grateful that he walks ahead of me instead of besides me.
I walk to a spacious room towards the back of Anum's house, where Anum's parents have kept exercising equipment, a flat screen TV, and a stereo system. There are about eight or nine other people and I feel kind of alone. All along, I had assumed it would have been just Anum and me. But I was wrong to think that someone as popular as Anum would rely on me alone.
I look for Anum over the noise; no one has still acknowledged my presence and each second seems to drag. When I spot her, I see that she has her hair tied up high in a ponytail and out of the way. She's wearing a T-shirt, hugging attractively to her skin. Her mouth is open in sync with the lyrics and her eyes laughing. But it's the way the boy next to her has his hands on her arm, touching her bare skin that freezes me in place. They are moving together effortlessly in tune with the music, their eyes not leaving each other.
I step back, the tears building up. I don't want to cry, all I want is to rewind these several minutes so the knowledge of betrayal is not there. It does not upset me that Anum has invited boys over, or that she is dancing with them. What upsets me, tears me apart, is who she is dancing with.
I turn to leave, but of course, that is exactly when Anum calls me. I swallow my hurt, wipe away the tears and turn around, forcing a small smile on my face.
She grabs my hand, unaware of my emotions. "Finally, you took forever. C'mon."
"No," I say, pulling my hand away and she looks confused. "I...I'm actually not feeling that well." It takes all the effort that I can muster to not look at him, especially when he is so close.
"Is something wrong?" Anum asks. I look into her eyes, both anger and sympathy rising simultaneously within me for her. How could she be so oblivious to my feelings, my pain? How blind could one be to know what is and isn't wrong?
"Of course not," I lie, my voice trembling.
And then he is standing next to me. My body is confused, torn between wanting to stay and run.
"Hey Iman," Tariq says. His voice, as usual, has a pleasant ring to it. Why did I ever let myself become attune to it? "We could use your help."
"Help?" I ask, looking at Anum instead of him. I try not to think that he, too, is unaware. I had always imagined that love transcends everything, that the person you love is able to notice immediately your pain, the ability to recognize that you are hurt and need mending. That one is able to let go of everything else for you, to never turn around and share it with somebody else.
"Yeah, for the mehndi dance. We're still in the process of choreographing it." Anum waves her hands while she speaks. In that instant, I realize how distant we are. We aren't the girls anymore who used to braid each other's hair, read Qur'an together, chase after each other and lick the sweet taste of kulfi while the sunshine poured over us.
I clear my throat, a bit more confident now. "Anum, I need to go." The tone of my voice makes her still. Despite the chatter around us, something passes between us and I know she understands. She looks away uncomfortably as Tariq speaks.
"But you just got here."
I turn my eyes to the floor. Does it matter to you that I'm even here? the question remains unspoken.
"You guys can do without me," I simply say, meaning every word of it. She doesn't try to stop me and Tariq hesitantly walks behind me as I turn to leave, waiting perhaps for me to say something.
"You look pale. Are you feeling okay?" he asks, his hand touching my arm. I jerk away at the touch, remembering how he had touched Anum only minutes earlier.
"I'm fine," I manage to say, avoiding his gaze. "I want to be alone," I say for the second time that day. And then I leave, unleashing the tears once again.