Sure, it can be all heart bursting and undeniable and Bollywood dance numbers and meet me at the Empire State Building
. Except when someone else wants to decide who I’m going to sleep with for the rest of my life. Then destiny is a bloodsucker, and not the swoony, sparkly vampire kind.
The night is beautiful, clear and bright with silvery stars. But I’m walking across a noxious parking lot with my parents toward a wedding where a well-meaning auntie will certainly pinch my cheeks like I’m two years old, and a kindly uncle will corner me about my college plans with the inevitable question: premed or prelaw? In other words, it’s time for me to wear a beauty-pageant smile while keeping a very stiff upper lip. It would be helpful if I could grow a thicker skin, too—armor, perhaps—but we’re almost at the door.
My purse vibrates. I dig around for my phone. A text from
Violet: You should be here!
Another buzz, and a picture of Violet appears, decorated in streamers, dancing in the gym. Jeans skinny, lips glossed. Everyone is at MORP without me. It’s bad enough I can’t go to the actual prom, but missing MORP, too, is death by paper cuts. MORP is the informal prom send-up where everyone goes stag and dances their faces off. And there are always new couples emerging from the dark corners of the gym.
I miss all the drama, as usual.
“Maya, what’s wrong?” My mother eyes me with suspicion, as always. I only wish I could muster up the courage to actually warrant any of her distrust.
“Nothing.” I sigh.
“Then why do you look like you’re going to a funeral instead of your friend’s wedding?”
I widen my toothy fake smile. “Better?” Maybe I should give my mom what she wants tonight, the dutiful daughter who is thrilled to wear gold jewelry and high heels and wants to be a doctor. But the high heels alone are so uncomfortable I can only imagine how painful the rest of the act would be.
“I guess a little happiness is too much to ask of my only daughter.”
Dad’s chuckling, head down. At least someone is amused by my mother’s melodrama.
We step through an arc of red carnations and orange-yellow marigolds to a blur of jewel-toned silk saris and sparkly fairy lights strung in lazy zigzags across the walls. The Bollywood-ized suburban wedding hall feels pretty cinematic, yet the thought of the awkward social situations to come makes me turn back and look longingly at the doors.
But there is no escape.
The tinkling of her silver-belled anklets signal the not-to-be-missed approach of Yasmeen, who addresses my mother with the honorific “auntie,” the title accorded all mom-aged Indian women, relation or not. “As-salaam-alaikum
, Sofia Auntie!”
Yasmeen is only two years older than me; in my mom’s eyes, we should be BFFs. Our parents have known each other since their old Hyderabad days, and my mom has been trying to make a friendship happen since Yasmeen’s family moved to the States several years ago. But in real life, we’re a dud of a match. Also, she’s an annoying kiss-ass.
But the girl’s got style. Yasmeen is dressed to snare the attention of a suitable young gentleman. Preferably more than one, because a girl needs options. Her peacock-colored lehanga
that sweeps the floor, her arms full of sparkling bangles, her emerald-and-pearl choker, and the killer kajal
that lines her eyelids make her the perfect candy-colored Bollywood poster girl.
“Asif Uncle! How are you? Mummy will be so excited to see you both. Maya Aziz, look at you. You’re adorable. That shade of pink really suits you. You should wear Indian clothes more often, you know?”
I don’t even try to hide it when I roll my eyes. “You’ve seen me wear Indian clothes a million times.”
“Come on, Ayesha is getting ready in the bridal room.”
My mom winks her blessing at Yasmeen. “Take her, beta
, and show her how to be at least a little Indian.” So much for family solidarity.
Yasmeen wraps my wrist in a death grip and drags me through the lobby to the tune of “Ek Ladki ko Dekha,”
an old Bollywood love song that inspired millions of tears.
Everyone seems happy to be here, except me.
It’s not just that I hate weddings, which I do. But also because it’s Ayesha. I’ve known her most of my life. She’s five years older than me, and in middle school I was in awe of her. The arsenal of lipsticks in her purse and her ability to deploy them perfectly was the kind of social prowess I dreamed of. I never imagined her succumbing to an arranged marriage, especially not right out of college. Even if it was a modified arrangement that involved three months of clandestine dating.
Yasmeen leaves me at the door when she spots her mom summoning her to meet another auntie. And the auntie’s son. Sweet relief.
When I step into the bridal prep room, I stop short.
Ayesha is the living embodiment of an old-school Hollywood halo filter. It’s breathtaking. I take a moment to absorb the sight: my bejeweled friend in her intricate ghagra choli
—a ball skirt and short blouse of cherry-colored silk embroidered with gold threads and encrusted with tiny beads and pearls.
“Ayesha, you’re stunning.”
“Thank you, love.”
I’ve seen Ayesha smile a million times, but I’ve never seen her smile like this, like she invented the concept of joy.
“I-I have a surprise,” I announce, stammering. I remove my camcorder from my bag and hold it up like a trophy. “I’m shooting a movie of your wedding . . .”
Before Ayesha can respond (or protest), the door swings open. Her mother, Shahnaz Auntie, triumphantly arrives with the bridal party in tow. They are ready to take their positions. And only an hour behind schedule, which is basically on time for an Indian wedding.
“See you out there,” I murmur.
I blow Ayesha a kiss and walk backward, filming the preprocessional scramble. I take a tracking shot into the wedding hall, aglow with thousands of candles, red-and-orange bouquets bursting from the center of tables. I follow the gold organza that drapes the ceiling and trails the flower-strewn aisle leading to the mandap
—the traditional wedding canopy under which the vows will take place.
My mother sees me. Too late for me to hide, even with my camera in hand. She beckons me over to her table, not with a subtle head tilt or single finger hook, but with a full arm wave, drawing the entire room’s attention. She’s chatting with another middle-aged, sari-clad woman. And a boy—I’m guessing her teenage son.
But my aunt Hina is also at our table. Salvation.
It’s hard to believe she is my mother’s sister. Hina is ten years younger than Mom, has short hair, a zillion funky pairs of eyeglasses, is this amazing graphic designer and cool in ways I can only aspire to. The weird thing is, you’d think my mom wouldn’t get along with Hina, but they have this unbreakable bond.
My mom is still waving madly at me. I steel myself, lower my camera, and walk over.
, everyone,” I say and bend to kiss Hina on the cheek.
“Maya, this is Salma Auntie.” My mom takes me by the elbow to draw me nearer, then raises her voice. “And this is her son, Kareem.”
Did I mention that subtlety is not my mother’s strong suit?
I glance over at my dad, deeply involved in a conversation with Kareem’s dad—no doubt about the economy, lawn-mowing equipment, or the trend of teeth whitening at the dental practice he runs with my mom.
“Maya, Kareem is a sophomore at Princeton,” my mother says, “studying engineering.” I can practically see the cartoon light bulb over her head as she speaks.
“How’s it going?” Kareem asks. He scans the room, disinterested. Not that I can totally blame him; no doubt he gets my mother’s message loud and clear. He sports a goatee that I assume is meant to make his boyish face look older or tougher. It does neither. On the other hand, it succeeds at drawing my attention to his rather gorgeously full lips. He has a nice mouth in spite of whatever might come out of it.
My defenses are up. “It’s going fine.” I cross my arms. “Did you fly in for the wedding?”
“My mom asked me to come. I took a long weekend.” Kareem’s wandering eyes finally meet my own. His are brown, like mine, like most Indians’, but so dark that the pupil almost completely fades into the iris. They’re liquid and beckoning. And his lips. There is no denying that Violet would label them delish.
“Kareem, Maya will attend University of Chicago next year.”
This from his mother, whom I’ve never met. But I understand her attempt to draw out the conversation.
“I got in, but I haven’t decided yet,” I correct.
Inside, I’m squirming. Nobody here but Hina knows my secret. I’ve applied to NYU and been accepted. NYU is my dream school. I’m not going to the University of Chicago if I can help it. The mere fact that I’ve pulled off this feat—under the radar, in spite of the ever-present gaze of my parents—represents a tiny victory, one that fills me with both hope and guilt. My stomach churns every time I get close to telling them. Especially my mother.
But I have to tell them. And soon. This secret has an expiration date. How, though? How can I tell my mother that I don’t want to go to a great school—one that’s an easy commute from home, but also from endless family obligations and her constant hovering?
“Decide? What’s to decide?” my mom demands, as if reading my thoughts. “You’ve gotten into one of the best schools in the country. It’s decided.”
Sitar music fills the lapse in conversation.
“Maya, I saved you a chair next to me,” Hina offers.
“Thanks,” I whisper. I sit and squeeze her hand under the table.
“No problem.” She leans close, lowering her voice. “Cute guy, by the way—”
“Shh.” Now I’m full-on blushing, afraid Kareem, or worse, his mother, will overhear.
The sitar music fades into a remix of a forever classic, “Chaiyya Chaiyya.”
It booms from the speakers. I raise my camera. One thing I’ve learned: people love a camera, and when I’m filming, they see it
, not me, so whenever I need to, I can quietly disappear behind my trusty shield.
Ten guys, the groom’s friends and family, led by a man playing the dhol
, an Indian drum, begin to dance their way to the mandap
. The music slows while the groom walks down the aisle with his parents. Rose and jasmine garlands encircle the groom’s neck.
Ayesha’s cousins and friends follow in an array of colorful saris. Each one cups a glass lotus-shaped votive—their faces radiant above the candlelight. I zoom in to catch the dramatic effect. Finally, Ayesha and her parents appear at the door. The music slows, and a bright Urdu love song takes over from the sonorous dhol
. The guests rise. As Ayesha enters the room, a wave of aaahs
and camera flashes precede her down the aisle. She floats toward her groom. Shahnaz Auntie, the bride’s mother, looks grim, probably worried about her daughter’s reaction to the wedding night.
Note to Shahnaz Auntie: Ayesha is not going to be shocked.
The cleric begins with a prayer in Urdu, translating everything into English for the many non-Urdu speakers. I catch my parents looking at each other affectionately. I can’t turn away fast enough.
The vows are simple, the same kind of pledges I’ve heard at weddings of every faith. Except at the end, there is no kiss. I close in for the money shot anyway, hoping for a moment of rebellion from Ayesha and Saleem. But no. No public kissing allowed. Full stop. The no kissing is anticlimactic, but some taboos cross oceans, packed tightly into the corners of immigrant baggage, tucked away with packets of masala and memories of home.
Copyright © 2018 by Samira Ahmed. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.