No More Kissing Talk
Arshia SimkinFiction / Number 99
Later, Mrs. Zardari can’t help but think that she shouldn’t have given the bus driver a cough drop in the first place. She had fished it carefully out of her purse, without opening the purse all the way, for fear that something would drop out, and held the drop in her left hand, between her forefinger and thumb, extending it slightly away from her body, towards him, but not so far out as to seem presumptuous.
She remembers her first cough drop, when a month after arriving in America, she lay, slumped and coughing on the couch, the bitter air having done her in, and her husband placed the package in her hand, telling her to try one. She had examined the little soap-shaped candy, licked it cautiously. Her husband had laughed. “You suck it,” he said, drawing in his cheeks to demonstrate. After the first one, she sucked them religiously, until her cheeks were plasticky and dry, thinking they were medicine. She soon learned that they helped a little with the coughing, but mostly she loved the lemon and honey taste. This treat permitted as a palliative.
Mrs. Zardari does the proper thing and does not make eye contact with the bus driver. She sits in the first seat to his right, in a space marked for the elderly and the handicapped, though she is neither. This is her first time on a bus, at least here in America. She perches on the edge of her seat, clutches the metal railing in front of her, turns her head, bird-like, at every jostle and bump.
He coughs with his mouth closed, the cough shivering along the line of his back. She feels an immediate tug of sympathy for him. She knew he was Pakistani the minute she stepped onto the bus. It was always a shock, seeing the familiar brown skin, the black hair, the sharp features. She suspects he is Punjabi, too. Then he speaks without turning, in Punjabi—“Is that for me?”—and it is confirmed—he is, and recognizes her to be so, too. He stops the bus, lets off a stream of passengers.
He turns toward Mrs. Zardari, stretches his hand out. She is still for a moment, then leans forward and places the drop in his open palm. She is careful not to touch his skin. He jiggles his hand up and down, as if weighing the thing.
“Thank you,” he says, and turns back to the road. She watches him pop the candy into his mouth, shift his weight to tuck the wrapper into his pants pocket.
“Where are you going?” he asks, clicking the drop against his teeth.
“Gravestone Mall,” she recites carefully.
“I’ll let you know when we get there,” he says. “About twenty minutes.”
She nods, grateful. She has been watching every street passing, straining to read the signs.
They are silent for the rest of the trip. She is able to watch him, the side of his face. She admires the blue sheen of his cheek, his eyelashes curling in the light, the flare of his nostril.
She plans another trip for the next day, although there is nothing in particular she needs. Practice, she tells herself. She mustn’t forget the skills she’s learned. The exact change to drop into the box, how to read the paper transfer slip, how to pull the cord, even though the bus driver will tell her when she’s reached her stop. She still doesn’t know his name, it would be improper to ask, to introduce herself. She tried to get a glimpse of his silver name tag as she got off, but it would have required her to turn fully, to stare at him, to search his chest, so she hurried off, almost losing her balance, almost skipping a step on the way out. She stared at the transfer slip, saw that he had punched it for the time that she had gotten off, not the time that she had gotten on. She smiled to herself in the street.
She is on her way to an English class, held in a squat building near the mall. Now that Ameena is five, and has just begun kindergarten, Mrs. Zardari’s afternoons were free, and blank, and long. Without Ameena blaring cartoons in the living room, begging for a snack every few hours, banging on her toy keyboard, it was quiet. Mrs. Zardari turned her attention to the things she thought she would have already accomplished by now: improving her English, going to the grocery store, the fabric store, by herself.
Samyaa had told her about the class, how to take the bus. She had repeated the directions over and over, until Mrs. Zardari had begged her to stop. But Samyaa insisted; she knew how Mrs. Zardari would give up if she got confused or lost, how she’d never try again. As Mrs. Zardari approaches the building, she wishes that Samyaa was with her. But Samyaa is in Chicago for the next three weeks, visiting her sister and her newborn baby. She left her two children with her husband, said, “He’ll get them off to school, one way or another. They’ll miss me when they run out of clean clothes.” Samyaa regards obstacles lightly. She is always making plans—how she’ll learn how to drive, how she’ll sell jewelry in the mall. Mrs. Zardari admires her bravado, but she also fears for her friend. A woman so bold was bound to get hurt, to get cut down to size.
The classroom is decorated with cutouts of flags from different countries (she searches and doesn’t see Pakistan). In the back, two old Spanish ladies in flower print dresses and blue smocks sit whispering to each other. Mrs. Zardari thinks that they are probably maids. She feels glad she doesn’t have to clean other people’s houses, scrub their toilets, mop up their filth. There is also a dreadlocked man who seems to be sleeping, and next to him, a white man with a mustache. She wonders what the white man is doing here, until he speaks with a heavy accent she can’t understand. The teacher, “call me Rob, no, not ‘rob like a bank,’ ha ha,” has cheeks that are fat, like a baby’s and Mrs. Zardari does not trust that he knows what he is doing, except, when he speaks, it is with a deep, resonant voice that does not seem to belong to him. He asks them to name an occupation, a job. Mrs. Zardari says, “Bus driver,” the words slipping out before she can stop them.
The sigh and rumble of the bus becomes familiar. She marvels at his quick competencies, the way he gently guides the lumbering beast with his palms, his foot. She develops an affection for the shape of the bus; it is an elephant, it squats and kneels to allow visitors on its back.
On days she does not take the bus, she walks on the bike trails by her house. It is about a quarter mile down the street to the trails. One day, she is walking past the strip in the middle, where people grow vegetables, where an Egyptian man in his checkered keffiyeh always calls out to her, “Assalamualaikum, sister.” She is past the Egyptian man, when she hears her name, and sees a figure waving in the distance. It is the bus driver, standing in a mesh square surrounded by greenery. He is wearing a polo shirt that she has never seen him in.
She walks over, reaches for a dangling plant, “Is this a jalapeno?” she asks, before she can stop herself. He grins.
“It is! I’ll show you the rest.”
He tells her she can have her own plot too, she just has to talk to Mr. Samuel Albertson in the community liaison office. It is free for city employees, he says, and thirty-five dollars for newcomers. The office is right by the bus depot. He will get her a plot on Friday, if she wishes, she can pay him back when she likes.
Mrs. Zardari thinks carefully about this. She has some money stashed away. She gets thirty dollars a week for groceries and incidentals from her husband, asks for more around Eid, so she can buy fresh goat, laddu to pass out at the mosque and to Samyaa, new clothes for Ameena, and she saves whatever she doesn’t use, carefully corralling the coins and dollar bills in the cookie tin in the back of the closet, where she keeps her sewing supplies, a place she knows her husband will never look. She has $637.23 by now. She will not touch $500, which she keeps in a felt pouch in the inner lining of a suitcase in the attic. That is her emergency money. Her mother told her, but she didn’t really need to, that she should be collecting money, squirreling it away, just in case. Her husband, so far as she knows, is placid, reliable, but at the end of the day, you never really know about men. Mrs. Zardari knows plenty of women in Pakistan whose husbands have started second families, have discarded their wives for some reason or another.
“I will ask my husband,” she says.
She knows she should say no, hurry home, pretend this conversation never happened. But she wants to be out here, growing her vegetables. She thinks about bringing Ameena out here, teaching her how to dig in the soil, how to pat down a seed into the dirt. Before she leaves, he tells her his name, Tariq Bhatti.
“I asked you yours, but you never asked mine,” he says, with a laugh.
She doesn’t know how to respond, so she gives a little nod.
“I must continue my walk,” she says.
As she walks, she wonders what she is feeling. She is usually cautious. She was a serious little girl, solemn, big-eyed. When her friends at school giggled about a boy, she frowned at them. She thinks there is something almost effeminate about Mr. Bhatti. He is chatty, gossipy, he shrugs flamboyantly, and he laughs a lot. Too much.
She knows she will not tell her husband the true cost of the garden. She will lie and say it is free. If she wants to be able to do this, she can’t give him any reason to say no.
On the weekends, she takes Ameena to the garden plot. She knows Mr. Bhatti will be there on Wednesday afternoons, and she is sure to be there too. Against her protests, he brings her starter plants, transplants from his own garden, until her plot is full too. After two months, they exchange vegetables: glossy tomatoes, deep purple eggplants, knotty, bumpy zucchini, yellow and green squash. He manages to coax the okra out of the ground. She works magic on the cilantro, pulls them out by the fistful. He places two small strawberries in her hand, brushes off the dirt with his thumb. Her mouth fills with a bitterness and sweetness. Ameena has her own corner where she stacks pebbles into buildings, watches the ants climb over her creations. Samyaa is still in Chicago. Her sister has begged her to stay longer to help with the new baby.
There, under the wide open sky, they forget for a moment that they are in America; the landscapes merge, the oak trees thinning and lengthening into palms; the cyclists’ helmets melting into turbans, tins and wares hanging off of their handlebars; the joggers morphing into women with loads of dried cow dung balanced on their heads, their dupattas fluttering in the breeze; the children’s skin browning, as they chase after a worn pink ball in a cloud of dust; the smell of the manure rising from the neatly mown grass, and Mrs. Zardari is stepping past the fat cow patties that line the mud streets of her village. As they talk, her loneliness melts, the talk conjuring the din of what she has left: the clinking of metal plates on the ground; her sister’s bracelets falling forward and backward on her arm; cows lowing in the distance, goats bleating, men shouting their greetings, the rattle and hum of village traffic, the roar of the occasional motorcycle, the carriage wheels hitting the rut in the ground by her house, the kulfi man crying out his nasal testimony into the afternoon heat.
She finds herself still at odd moments standing in the backyard, holding the end of the dripping sheet, the wood clothespin poised in the other hand, lost in imaginary conversations with him. “Why, I saw the most brilliant red bird the other day. Yes, yes, red like this shalwar.”
She does not acknowledge her obsession, does not address it, shakes the sheets over it, bathes it in the steam of cooking chicken and cucumber, in the whine of the vacuum, the bending and whispering of her prayer, that she does intermittently, guiltily, in the dim basement light. She knows she is wading into dangerous water. Yet she continues going on the bus, taking trips she doesn’t need—for a carton of juice, for more boxes of cereal, when she could wait and get these things with her husband on his day off.
To prove something to herself, she vows to stay home today. But the day drags on—time pools around the corners of the house, on the wooden floorboards, under the crack of the door, in her tea cup. The dust motes seem to stand still, the heavy syrup of the day ambering her. The minute hand on the clock stutters forward, then backward. Only a minute has passed.
She hears the buzz of the lawnmower, the drone of airplane engines, the chirping of the birds; afternoon noises. Shut up, birds. Go away, birds. It is Wednesday. She swings the door shut behind her. She just needs to check on her radishes.
There is a sound. A rustling. She slips out of bed, walking on tip-toe, pausing to listen for the sound. She parts the curtains in the living room, sees a fleeting shape in the yard. She follows the shape toward the back of the house, the porch. She takes the key off of the windowsill, unlocks the door, pushes past the screen door. There are deer outside. A whole family. The buck stares at her over its shoulder, turning its powerful neck, sweeping its lashes downward. The doe and the fawn graze on the grass. She is already thinking of how she will describe this to Mr. Bhatti. She feels powerful being out here, alone, in the dim morning light, with the sun only beginning to emerge, while her husband drools into his pillow and Ameena sleeps with her rump in the air, her face smushed into her own pillow. Let them slumber, she will witness the beauties of the world.
She regards her own shape with curiosity. She is thirty-seven, but thinks of herself as much older. She glances down to see the curve of her breasts under her kameez, her nipples tightening in the breeze. She crosses her arms to hide them.
Her mind roams only as far as another encounter with him, then retreats. She pictures the brush of his shoulder against hers, as he helps her pull weeds from her plot, as he hands her the yellow head of the coiled green hose.
It is evening time. She wants to study, but the exercise book is in a drawer under the television, she is comfortable on the couch with her husband, he has put in an Amitabh Bachchan movie in the VCR, the music is reeling in the air, they are snacking on spicy, dried chickpeas. If she takes her book out now, she will get the red grains all over the pages. Besides, her feet ache, and she shifts them in the chair propped in front of her, her heels puckering the plastic covering on the seat.
Mrs. Zardari sees the bus rumbling close. Exactly on time. She steps on, says, “Good morning,” in English now; he knows she is practicing her English.
“Good morning, madam. Excellent weather we are having,” he says.
“Yes, excellent,” she says. She sits in her customary seat with a smile. She notices Mr. Bhatti looks different today. His hair is still wet, and she can see the comb tracks through it. His shirt collar looks crisp and is buttoned to the top; he has affixed a small American flag pin to his shirt pocket. At the CVS stop, a woman with short brown hair, a blue skirt, and low heels gets on, nods at Mr. Bhatti. He greets her. She sits behind him, legs crossed, makes a note on a clipboard. He does not ask Mrs. Zardari where she is going today, doesn’t ask after her eggplants, or her bell peppers, or her onions. Mrs. Zardari watches silently. The woman says something, holding on to the partition behind his head, and leaning toward him, and Mr. Bhatti laughs, loudly. The bus hisses to a stop again. The door is open for a long time. Finally an old woman’s white head enters, bobbing ahead of her body, then an old man with equally snowy hair. The man and woman shuffle toward Mrs. Zardari. She wonders if she should get up, gathers her purse and the plastic grocery bag with her English exercise book. The woman with the clipboard leans around the old people.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” She speaks loudly and slowly. “These seats are reserved for the elderly. Do you mind moving back?” She points toward the back of the bus with her pen. Mrs. Zardari nods to show she understands, squeezes around the old couple who are standing in her way, unmoving.
She finds a seat next to a boy with earbuds, who opens one eye when she sits down. She hears Mr. Bhatti say, “Yes, sorry, she does not read English so well.”
“Yes, of course. But we must follow the rules, mustn’t we?”
“Yes, madam, we must.”
That evening, Mrs. Zardari dumps out Ameena’s backpack. The bottom is dark where something has spilled, and there is a substance caked onto the zipper. Mrs. Zardari wipes at it with a damp paper towel. It might be jam or jelly. Sighing, she looks at the pile on the kitchen table: soggy sheets of paper, broken crayons, a yellow and blue lanyard, markers missing their caps, a handful of thick beads, a plastic laminated sheet illustrating the alphabet. Mrs. Zardari smoothes out the papers the best she can. Ameena is eating a sliced mango, swinging her legs, and singing a song about ducks.
“Ameena, how did this happen?” Mrs. Zardari asks.
Ameena shrugs. “Dunno. Something spilled.” She chases a mango slice around the plate with two fingers.
Mrs. Zardari dislodges a makeshift construction paper book from the debris. It is purple, covered in Ameena’s crooked handwriting. Mrs. Zardari peers at it; there are pink and red hearts all over the cover. “The Kiss Booke,” it says. She opens it. It says: “I want to kiss…Adam, Eliot, Jose, George.” “Jose” is circled with stars and hearts drawn around it. She turns the page. It says, “TOP SEACRET!!!!”
She brings the book to Ameena, puts it close to her face, shakes it at her. “What is this? Kiss? Huh?”
She sees Ameena’s eyes widen in fear. “Nothing, Ammi. It’s just a joke.”
“Joke? Joke? You thinking kissing boys is a joke? This is haram, Ameena, you know that.” Mrs. Zardari grabs Ameena’s arm and gives it a shake. Ameena turns away. “Look at me!”
“It’s just a club, and I’m the secretary because I know all my letters and I have the best handwriting,” she screeches, her voice rhythmic and self-righteous. The sing-song sets Mrs. Zardari’s teeth on edge. Ameena’s hair is frizzy and slipping out of her bobby-pins in clumps. Her gums where she is missing teeth are bared in a howl.
“This is haram. No more kissing talk.” Mrs. Zardari feels the bony arm in her hand. She tightens her grip and shakes Ameena again. Ameena’s head flops dramatically, her eyelids are squeezed shut.
“But Ammi! You don’t know!” She puts a sticky finger on Mrs. Zardari’s hand.
Mrs. Zardari releases her arm and steps back. She tears at the book with both hands, the staples biting into her fingers. She halves, then quarters the pages. “What don’t I know?” she spits out. “You’re lucky your Abu didn’t see this.” She tosses the book into the trash can, then dumps some onion skins and chicken fat onto it. “Enough. Go. Watch cartoons.”
She stands over the trashcan, trembling, hears Ameena push back her chair, hears Ameena’s shuddering sobs, and the click of the television turning on.
She is working in her plot, picking wilted leaves off the cucumber vines. He brings her a seat, a wooden folding chair. She refuses, at first, automatically, out of habit. Then she remembers she is mad at him anyway, and turns away. But he persists. The chair will go empty if she doesn’t sit there, he tells her. He hands her a square of burfi. From the garden, he tells her, smiling. She holds the milky, chalky square in her hand, fights the smile wobbling across her face.
“She does our yearly inspection. It’ll be a whole year before I have to see her again,” he says. “You have to make them like you,” he says. She doesn’t reply, takes a bite out of the burfi. She sits on the chair. “Wait,” he says. “I’ll get mine.” And he places his chair next to hers.
The next time, she brings a thermos of tea with milk, two tin cups. They sit on the chairs and drink, watch the leaves shimmer in the breeze.
At home, she has taken to going into Ameena’s bedroom, and standing by her window, where Ameena has placed a toy lion and toy zebra on the sill, bought from a field trip to the zoo. Mrs. Zardari makes the lion pounce on the zebra again and again, as she thinks. Then, the zebra on the lion.
Another time, he is sitting near her plot with a styrofoam box. He takes out a foil wrapped package. “It’s not halal,” he says, inclining his head. “But it is spicy, and they use cilantro sauce. A ‘taco’ they call it. Little rotis.”
She shrugs, grabs a foil wrapped package from him. It is hot in her hands. She peels it open with her fingertips. She takes a small bite, feels a flood of saliva in her mouth. He hands her a wedge of lime. “Here, use this.” He tells her stories about his brother, who is obsessed with Italy for some reason. “He only eats noodles,” he tells her. “Every meal. He says he speaks Italian, but I think it’s just gibberish.” They laugh together.
She asks him about his wife, he says he does not have one yet; he is saving up enough money to move out of the one bedroom apartment he shares with the brother. Then he will ask his parents to arrange something. She likes to bring up this future wife, ask him how tall she must be; whether she will speak perfect English; how white her skin will be; whether she will know how to drive; how many children she will bear. It thrills her to say these things out loud, to be in a position to joke about them, as if by talking about the wife, she can touch the edges of something intimate and forbidden.
It is Wednesday.
“To the garden? At this time of night?” her husband asks.
“There’s still an hour of sunlight left. I just want to spray the fungus spray.” She rushes toward the door, before he can say anything else.
It is the desolate time, when the traffic slows, when the crows give out their last melancholy squawks before roosting for the night. The sun is setting rapidly. Mr. Bhatti isn’t at the garden, and she stands, the wind whipping her clothes, snatching the edges of her pink dupatta. She feels her mood sour and turn. She wonders what she is doing out here, wishes she had brought a sweater. But the sweater was in the bedroom, and she couldn’t have retrieved it without destroying the whole momentum of her escape. Besides, it was warm and light when she set out.
Now, hurrying along the bike trail, she pictures the steep uphill, and the left hand turn and can almost see her house, warm with yellow lights, see Ameena sprawled on the floor with her books, her crayons. She inhales and she can almost smell the onions frying in the pan, feel her palms slapping the dough, hear the sounds of her husband listening to the Pakistani news station in the living room. She wants to be on the inside, in the steamy kitchen, looking out into the cooling night.
She quickens her pace. She is still a little mad, though she can’t justify it. It wasn’t like they had a plan, like she had any right to expect him to be there.
She can see the end of the bike trail, but the sun seems to be racing her to it. She wraps her dupatta more tightly around her body, shakes a stone loose from her flip-flop. A boy in a black coat is walking toward her. As he approaches, she clutches her purse. This is the wrong thing to do; it attracts his eye like a magnet. He lurches forward, his arm extended, manages to grasp a strap. She shrinks back. He gives a tug, and her own arm whips out. Without thinking, she swings her palm toward his cheek. It makes powerful, direct contact. The boy releases the purse, looks at her in hurt surprise. He has a brown face, the wispy beginnings of a mustache. He stands blinking at her. Suddenly, she is very afraid. She can’t think what she should do next. She thinks about running, but knows she won’t get very far; he’ll be faster. Her fingers tingle from where they’ve struck him. In the silence that stretches between them, she hears pounding footsteps. Both she and the boy turn to see a white basketball tank top moving toward them. The figure wearing the tank top is too dark to make out clearly in the dim light.
“Hey, everything all right?” the figure shouts, raising an arm.
The spell broken, the boy turns and dashes across the street, an angry car horn blaring after him. Mrs. Zardari walks quickly in the same direction, away from the boy and the man who called out, and makes a sharp left up the street towards home.
She stands outside her door, trying to quiet her breathing. But her heart refuses to slow. Finally, she knocks. Ameena throws open the door. “Ammi, Ammi, you’re home! I’m sooo hungry.”
She wraps her arms around Mrs. Zardari’s waist, lets herself be dragged in.
“Shut the door. Stop that.” Mrs. Zardari says, peeling her arms off. “You didn’t ask who is it.” She reaches over Ameena to secure the chain lock. She peers through the peephole, but sees only the familiar cone of light coming from the street lamp, the cars parked neatly before their lawns.
“Ammi has a headache. Tell your father to get pizza. I’m going to rest.” She walks into the bedroom and closes the door. She returns her purse to the top shelf of the closet, and collapses into bed, drawing the comforter toward her. She curses herself for having brought the purse with her in the first place. She was going to stop by the gas station on the corner, pick up a half-gallon of milk to make gajar kheer with. She had felt proud that she could get the milk herself, that she didn’t have to rely on her husband to sigh and pull his kameez over his undershirt, to ask where his car keys where. She tries to sleep, hears her daughter and her husband talking in the living room.
“With extra olives?”
“Okay. Don’t tell your mom.”
“We have soda at home.”
Mrs. Zardari cannot sleep. She keeps replaying the scene, the boy lurching toward her, the tug on the strap, the fear before the man in the tank top shouted. Her heart pounds every time she thinks about it. She feels ferocious when she thinks about it, bares her teeth without realizing it, wishes she had slapped him harder, had broken his nose, had gouged out his eyes. It leaves her panting and angry and fearful, so she tries not to think about it, but her mind returns to gnaw on it endlessly. Of course, she can’t tell her husband, can’t bear to hear him say that he told her it wasn’t safe for a woman to go out alone, that she should be home anyway, that they have a perfectly good backyard where she can grow her vegetables.
“The garden is closed,” she tells Ameena that weekend, when she asks to go. She has been home all week; every time she thinks about going out, her stomach lurches.
She does not return to the garden again, imagines the vegetables withering away, the leaves piling up. Her husband asks once or twice, when they can expect the big harvest, but mercifully he does not pursue this line of questioning. She says the worms got everywhere, ruined everything anyway. Neither of them say anything about her English classes.
She tells him he must be up early on Sunday, to take her grocery shopping, and she needs a new pattern for Ameena’s Eid dress.
“I don’t want to use the bus anymore. I—I’ve heard it can be dangerous. Thugs and robbers. It isn’t safe for a woman alone,” she says.
“Fine, fine. Good, good,” he says, his eyes on the television screen.
Arshia Simkin was born in Pakistan and spent the first six years of her life there. She grew up in Arlington, Virginia and currently lives in Gibsonville, North Carolina with her husband. A former lawyer, she is a graduate of the North Carolina State University MFA program in creative writing and the co-founder of the Redbud Writing Project, a creative writing organization that teaches workshops in the Triangle. In her spare time, she enjoys playing badminton and water coloring.Hemp Planting at Farm by Greenforce Staffing