Humza squeezes the bottle of honey until the entire pancake is slathered in it. And then he licks his fingers, enjoying the disgusting look I throw at him. Boys can be so gross.
"What am I supposed to do?" he says. "Ammi won't let me use the real syrup."
"You mean the fake high fructose corn syrup. You should be thanking me we're using organic honey," Ammi says as she slips a pancake from the frying pan and into my plate.
"Oh no," I say, moving back and pushing the plate away. "I don't want to eat it."
"I'll have it." Humza takes it before Ammi can respond.
"You barely ate Iman. Are you feeling okay?" Ammi looks at me concerned and I avoid looking at her. I cannot bring myself to meet her eyes after what I heard her saying yesterday.
"I'm...just a little nauseous." More like really nauseous. I couldn't sleep the whole night, wrapped up in dreams of Tariq and I together with Ammi and Ameera Auntie barging in on us. I was already awake when it was time for the Fajr prayer before dawn, only to find myself too exhausted to walk to the bathroom and do wuduh.
Actually, I can't remember the last time I prayed. Was it right before midterm exams? I found it much easier to pray around then...desperately asking Allah that I would get good grades, straight A's. But that hardly seems to matter anymore.
I get up from the dining table and pick up the dishes to wash in the kitchen.
"You're volunteering to do the dishes?" Ammi asks.
"Don't look so shocked," I reply. "It's not like this is the first time."
"Tue." From the corner of my eye, I can see Ammi cross her arms over her chest, leaning against the kitchen counter. "But, it's usually because you're trying to make up for something you did to upset me."
My cheeks burn. I look up from the cup I'm washing and gaze outside the window. "Not always," I protest. "Maybe I'm just trying to get some good deeds." It sounds so hypocritical coming from my mouth, but I don't know what else to say.
I feel a hand on my right shoulder. "Is everything okay Iman?" I turn my head and look into my mother's eyes. If only she knew how wrong everything was, how far away I was from being okay.
I hesitate in answering her. A part of me wants me to pour everything out. Tell her I'm so desperately in love with Tariq and that I can't stop myself. But I know she wouldn't understand. Instead, she would only have anger, a burning anger for betraying the trust she gave me so lovingly and freely.
I shrug away the feeling and turn towards the dishes again. "I just had a rough day yesterday, Ammi. And I don't feel too great."
"Do you have a fever?" She places the back of her hand over my forehead. "No, you're not warm. But go get some rest." She reaches over to turn off the faucet and gives me a kitchen towel to dry my hands. "And try to get some homework done too. It's gonna be a busy weekend with Mariyam's wedding. Your Abba has been gone since morning to help with the last minute planning."
My heart drops. The guilt is only exacerbated when Ammi says this to me. If only she knew that rest wouldn't cure me of the illness that has come to possess me. If only it was that easy.
I see two text messages from Tariq later that day, but I can't muster the courage to respond. Everytime I think of him, I remember Ammi's words and I feel ashamed. When I see a third message arrive on my phone, I assume it's Tariq again. But instead it shows one from Farah.
Hey Iman. Just wanted to see how you were doing. Miss you. :/
My shoulders droop and I bury my face into my pillow. How does she have the heart to reach out to me after all the nasty things I had said to her?
Hey you. I miss you too. Can we talk?
My fingers hesitate before I press the send button. It should not surprise me. Knowing Farah, it is what she does best. And if anyone can help me out of this mess, it would be her.
There is too much green everywhere and it's bothering me. Mariyam's mehndi ceremony is already underway, and unfortunately for her, she couldn't have the event separated as she had wished. She looks slightly uncomfortable, sitting on the stage with her dupatta pulled forward as much as possible to conceal her hair. It was a good attempt at hijab, but it wasn't covering everything as usual.
She meets my eyes from far away and motions me to sit by her. As I walk over, I take a deep breath. We haven't touched the boy subject since that day at her house. It's what I appreciate most about Mariyam--that she doesn't force it out of me. And although I had contemplated about discussing it, I didn't want to bother with her wedding so soon. At least I would have Farah to talk to the next day.
I sit next to Mariyam. "You look beautiful!" I squeeze her hand as she smiles. "How are you feeling?"
"To be honest, kind of nervous. I've been planning and waiting so long." She sighs and I can see the emotions in her eyes. "And it's almost here. The nikah will be tomorrow already."
"I bet Umair bhai is losing his patience too," I tease.
"Oh what does he have to stress about? He just has to get dressed as a groom and arrive. Not like us brides."
"That's true. But poor guy had to wait a long time and get through our family to finally have permission to marry you. I probably would have given up."
Mariyam laughs and the twinkle in her eyes makes my heart ache for Tariq. Mariyam, who was so pure, always so modest and free of any indecency. I realize both my admiration and envy for her in that moment. She was someone I could never be.
The outfit I'm wearing at Maryiam's nikah seems a little too fancy, now that Farah is at my side. I peer into the mirror, scrutinizing her face as she looks on. Farah has this way of making me feel bad about myself without her even trying to.
"It's too fancy, isn't it?" I read her mind.
She shakes her head. "It's your cousin's wedding, Iman. Of course it should be fancy."
I turn around to face her. "But the wedding isn't separated."
She tilts her head and gives me a are-you-kidding-me kind of look. "Iman, I think we have a more serious problem to deal with right now than that."
The Shalwar Kameez suddenly feels like it is weighing me down. I had asked Farah to come over to help me get dressed for the wedding, but that was only an excuse for me to talk to her. She hadn't asked about what because she already knew.
Behind closed doors and with Ammi getting ready at Mariyam's house, I was safe in my bedroom to talk to Farah.
"You already know the answer Iman," she states emphatically before I can even speak. "You're trying to convince yourself of another way out of this...a way to please yourself and do what you want without feeling guilty about it."
"Well, there you have it." I sigh. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to do my makeup before having this discussion.
Farah places both her hands on my shoulders and presses gently. "I know you Iman. I know what you were like before this whole boy craze. You just got a little distracted, that's all. But you can put it behind you."
I pull away from her. "It's not that simple. You don't know how I feel about him."
I grab her hand. "What about you Farah? Haven't you ever had a crush on someone? Dream about being with a guy?"
Farah smiles and then looks down towards her lap "Of course I have."
"See, I knew it! Then you know how it feels." I look at her eagerly to tell me more.
"Like you, I never felt content...always guilty. It's all Shaytan, Iman. This isn't what love is supposed to be like. You're not supposed to be obsessed and lovesick."
I shake my head stubbornly. "Allah put those feelings in me. It's not like I went out of my way to like him. It just happened."
"You're right. It's not your fault you have those feelings. But you did have a choice Iman. And by choosing Tariq instead of Allah, the mess you're now in is your fault. I'm sorry to say, but it's the bitter truth."
I bite my lip to prevent the tears from falling. "I don't want to lose him."
"It's all a test, Iman. You can't see past Tariq but you have to. You have to think about your parents, about Allah. They've been there for you your entire life. Tariq just came into your life recently."
"What if...?" My eyes wander to Mariyam's wedding invitation lying on my dresser. Farah follows my gaze.
"You...you want to marry him?" She asks the question that I don't have the courage to say aloud. "Iman, that's a really big decision."
"Isn't that the only way I don't have to choose?" I ask, suddenly feeling like there is light breaking through the clouds.
Farah isn't buying it. "Iman, you're judgement is being clouded by your emotions. You can't make a decision like that. You have no idea what he's really like, his family--"
"But, we can figure all that out. It's not like--"
"And what if he says no?" she interrupts. "Or his family? Or your family?"
I think about Mariyam's battle. She had won, hadn't she?
"Iman, you have your whole life ahead of you. Please, trust me on this one," Farah implores. "You will get married one day, but now is the not the time."
"And what if he ends up marrying someone else?" The idea is like a sharp stab in my heart.
"Which is exactly why you need to end this relationship. You're after someone's future husband Iman. And he is with someone's future wife."
I can't stop the tears from falling now. Life seems too cruel and too unfair.
"Here," she says, taking my phone from the dresser. "The first step is to delete his number."
"No!" I shout, grabbing my cell from her. She looks startled. "Farah, I can't."
"Then the first step is to believe in yourself. To make yourself realize you're a lot stronger than you think you are," she says softly. "Until then, I'm here for you when you need me."
The moment when a woman says yes in the nikah, she is considered to have given consent to her wali or gaurdian to marry. Mariyam's father comes in the bridal suite, asking her permission to marry Umair. She looks down and nods her head confidently. I hear her voice ringing softly but beautifully, a touch of sadness in her tone because she knows that after this day, she will leave her family.
It's supposed to be a very emotional moment and sure enough, even I find myself crying. Some tears are full of joy, others are out of confusion, frustration, and sorrow. We all embrace the bride and one another and I find myself in the arms of my mother. She has tears in her eyes. "There will be a day when you'll be married and gone too," she says sadly.
I try to swallow the barrage of emotions running through me and force a smile on my face. "Don't worry mom. I'm not going to be that easy to get rid of." My voice trembles as the image of Tariq flashes in my head.
Abbu pokes his head in the bridal room. "Now, if you're all done with the crying, we have a wedding to celebrate and a dinner to eat."
"Always wanting to pig out." Ammi gives a scolding look at Abbu.
He opens his mouth to protest, but before he can, we hear a commotion outside.
"$100 and it's done!"
"Seriously? You're that cheap? We're not taking anything less than $500"
It sounds like a twisted auction sale but it's actually the price the groom's family has to pay in order to get his wedding shoes back--the ones that the bride's family stole. I find myself laughing with the others, until I see someone looking at me intently. From the expression on her face, she's not enjoying the occasion like the rest of us. The only thing that brings happiness to Ameera Auntie is seeing someone's conflict, a juicy topic of gossip to indulge in.
And somehow, I have a strange scary feeling she can see right through me with her steely eyes, straight to my heart.
After dinner is served, I make an excuse to use the bathroom. Behind the green door of the bathroom stall, I pull out my cell phone from my purse. With my thumb in mid-air, just an inch away from the "delete contact" button, I think back to the moment when I first noticed Tariq at the grocery store. I had never thought of him that way then. Just a Muslim guy in my class, someone I didn't even know or care about.
Pressing the button would erase all the messages, all those conversations I hold so dearly. But I wonder how long it will take me to erase them from my memory. I'm not sure how long I cry in that bathroom stall, amidst women and girls drifting in and out of the bathroom, expressing concern about how they look, taking pictures, gossiping about old friends and foes.
You're a lot stronger than you think you are.
With Farah's voice in my head, I muster the courage to step out of the stall. Without looking in the mirror, I wet a napkin to gently wipe my eye make-up for the second time that day. As hard as it was to delete his number and messages, it would take even more strength to confront him about it.
As I walk out of the bathroom and into the hallway leading to the banquet room, I somehow feel exposed. Carrying a secret is too heavy and a part of me is relieved that this secret will be buried away really soon. I try not to look at some of the couples hanging out in the hallway, heads close together, perhaps whispering words of love. I don't recognize them. There must be another party in one of the other banquet halls--my family isn't that liberal.
Suddenly, I feel a hand on my shoulder. It's not unusual for me to run into someone I know at a big wedding like this. I often welcome it. But today, I'm just not in the mood.
I turn around, expecting to see an old friend. But to both my astonishment and dread, I find myself face to face with a familiar pair of warm twinkling eyes.
"Tariq," I stammer, almost tripping as I take a step back. "What are you doing here?"
This can't be happening. I had just taken the difficult step to delete him from my life only for him to reappear in a matter of minutes.
"I can ask you the same question," he says, giving me that all-too-familiar smile I had come to be so fond of. He crosses his arms over his chest and I take in his tall muscular frame. He has a crisp navy dress shirt on, his dark hair neatly combed and gelled unlike his usual messy pile of hair. "But, I already know why. It's your cousin's wedding, which is not an excuse to ignore my messages."
He takes a step towards me. "Lucky for me, I happen to be at the party next door."
I can't comprehend what he's saying. The fact that he's in front of me, looking so good, his cologne filling my nose, only steps away--it's too much for me to handle. I look around, my heart pounding as I suddenly realize we aren't within the safe brick walls of the school building or in his car. We're at a Muslim wedding with my entire family, including Ameera Auntie and my parents...anyone could see us.
"I--I can't talk here." I say quickly and am about to turn away when I feel him grab my wrist. I pull away from him, both out of anger and fear. "What the hell are you doing?" I hiss.
The smile on his face is gone and I can see the hurt in his face. "I'm sorry," he says and takes a step back. "I just wanted to talk."
My heart yearns for him. "Oh, Tariq." I bite my lip, trying not to cry again. "Come here." I motion him to a more secluded area where we will be temporarily safe from anyone's view.
"Look, Tariq." This is the last place I expected to reveal my intention to Tariq about separating from him. But it would have to be done. "I--I can't do this anymore."
"Do what?" His eyebrows furrow together in confusion.
I can't look at him when I say it. "You're such a great person Tariq. I don't want anything more than to be with you."
"Okay, you're being too poetic for me again. What's gotten into you, Iman?"
I shake my head. He doesn't understand the hint. "I can't live this lie. I don't want to be constantly feeling guilty about being with you."
"Seriously? This is what it's about?" He takes a step closer.
"Stop," I command him, placing my hand to push him away. "You need to understand."
"I can't understand. I don't know why you're always so scared."
"What's so difficult to understand Tariq?" I demand. "You're Muslim, for God's sake, not some random guy who doesn't understand our religion or culture." How can he be so oblivious?
"I know your family is a lot more conservative than mine." He glances away and then continues. "...but, I'm not going to...you know, hurt you. I have a lot of respect for you."
It takes me several seconds to realize what he is saying. His words melt me and make it even harder for me to push him away.
"Oh, Tariq." I shake my head. "That's not what I meant."
He takes my hand again and this time I don't let go. The warmth of his skin spreads all across me. "Then stop worrying so much."
I open my mouth to protest but it's so much easier to close my eyes and do as he says. When I open them again, he's much closer...dangerously close. I can't breath because I feel suffocated. I can see his eyelashes, the coarse hair on his chin. Our hands become entwined. My heart races and I forget everything. I forget where I am, only that I'm with him.
Maybe I should consider it a blessing that I hear the voices before I see them. Because hearing them gives me those three precious seconds to break away from his embrace. But it's not enough time to run away.
Tariq's hands are still touching mine just as I turn around to face them. I already know who it is, but I still have this strange sense of hope, a leap of faith that perhaps I'm mistaken.
I have enough shame to not look into my father's eyes. But my eyes lock onto my mother's like a magnet.
I shake my head before the words come out. "Ammi," I say in desperation. "Ammi, it's not what you think."
But already I can see the color being drained away from her face, the beautiful softness in her face morphing into a look of shock for a brief moment and then, into a harsh coldness.
It is too late.