The woman materialized one bitter winter morning under the graffitied awning of the vacant taqueria. The shop had sat boarded up since its last tenant clattered away in a pickup truck ahead of a raging Houston storm. The woman, though slight in aspect, wielded a rugged rake as if it were nothing but a sisal broom. Haroon noticed her as he maneuvered his bicycle to his bus stop across six bustling lanes of Hillcroft Road.
Leaning his bicycle against the bus shelter, Haroon regarded the way the new woman’s powder blue shawl draped on her head, flowed over her shoulder, was tucked just so behind one ear—she had to be Pakistani. She purged the sidewalk of a muddle of plastic bags and organic refuse as if the act marked the place as hers. Haroon had never seen an occupant of this stretch of road pay heed to the street front, all peevishly ensconced in their lodgings and bazaars as if what or who dwelled outside did not matter, as if they themselves could not matter outside their walls. Houston was a city of interiors. Haroon missed his grandparents’ leafy verandah in Lahore, the childhood games he’d played there with cousins and neighbors. He often gave a disengaged new student in his class the benefit of the doubt because he remembered the wilds of American schooling he’d been released into as a gangly thirteen-year-old, ignorant about deodorant and mediocre at English. He’d picked up the English, some fashions as well, but the jokes, two decades later, still gave him trouble.
Perhaps the new woman struggled with English too. Even here, she wore her shawl as if a disapproving brother might appear around the corner any moment and chide her for lapsing in her modesty. She gathered the trash under the chipped tile counter beneath the awning. The late taqueria, converted from a shawarma stand, converted from a juice and tea shack, converted from an immigration, insurance, and tax office, stood in a two-story property that broke up a chain link of carnicerías on one side and halal meat stores on the other. No one expected the termite-gnawed structure to sustain life for long, let alone afford a living. No one knew who owned it, or why the developers of the adjacent strip lots clawed their way around it. Its sign board, painted and repainted, had faded and peeled so the names of its occupants merged indistinguishably. Over that counter Haroon had bought tacos—not halal—many a night after his mother had gone to bed, and before that, when the shop was a shawarma stand, he’d brought home shawarmas—halal—to his mother as a Friday evening treat.
He was on his way to the high school where he taught math. As on every morning, he had ducked under the gate of his apartment complex, careful not to brush flaking paint and rust with his gelled hair, and raised his hand in farewell to his widowed mother. She watched him from their window, a squat obelisk, her white dupatta still swathed around her head from her dawn prayers. She waited for him silently all day, the only non-Spanish speaker in the complex; then unleashed her pent-up Urdu on him when he returned.
The screech of a braking bus startled him. The woman, who’d glanced up at him several times, squinted and adjusted her shawl with an air of finality, as if to dismiss his gaze—a gesture he’d seen his cousins back home make in markets when strange men stared at them.
On the bus ride to school, he thought the woman, given her demeanor, might be in her forties. Over lunch in the teachers’ break room, he recalled the shine on her cheek, striking even from a distance, and imagined her younger, closer to his own age. By the time he unlocked his bicycle in the afternoon, her face had resolved into a fine-featured blur of the starlets on the Hindi film posters in the desi grocer’s windows, and he worried she might be barely twenty. That was the problem with women. Their attitude and their apparent age could not be counted upon to reflect each other.
On his return, as Haroon lifted his bike off the bus rack, he saw the abandoned building aglow with new life. Its tattered awning had been removed. Light from the setting sun danced off the shop’s scrubbed aluminum shutters. The woman’s shawl was aflutter in the window of the second story. Two shadows crossed the blue curtain back and forth. A teenaged girl emerged at the casement. Her eyes wandered down and connected with Haroon’s. He waved, but she shrank back under the curtain. Self-conscious of his awkward interest, he pivoted toward home. But sensing another movement from the window, he glanced up again. The woman now peered out at him from behind the shawl. She held his eyes and didn’t look away as he expected. The surprise put such steam into his legs, he cycled away, breaking up their wordless exchange.
As he tucked his bicycle under the stairs, the comforting smell of toasted flour from the rotis on his mother’s griddle wafted down the stairwell. He stepped in to the sound of the slap of dough between her hands.
“Any news, Ammi?” His usual greeting, offered without pause as he passed the kitchen on his way to freshen up before dinner. He did not run the water as soon as he reached the bathroom, curious for once to hear if she had anything to share.
“All by the grace of Allah, son.” Her usual response summarizing the monotony of her day. He turned the tap to full gush.
Returning to the living room, which doubled as his bedroom, he dropped to his bed to tear into the rotis laid out alongside a bowl of thick lentils. From his mother’s bedroom he heard a shuffle different from the sound of her preparations for the sundown prayer.
She emerged shaking out a white cotton sheet. At one intersection of folds, the fabric had stiffened from age and crumbled. She clucked at it. “Never mind.” She brushed away the detritus. “It will do.”
“For what?” He tried to modulate his tone, maintain brevity so as not to express too obvious an interest. His mother could neither abide being ignored nor being upstaged.
“After you’ve eaten—and don’t hurry your meal—go give this to the new woman across the road.”
“But why?” The sheet reminded him of those used to cover the floor at his father’s funeral prayers.
“You men always need a reason.” She groaned as she lowered herself into the only chair in the room. Its wicker frame creaked out a threat to snap another string from its woven seat. “Is nothing I need important?”
“Ammi, please.” Exhaustion settled in the nape of his neck.
“She’s hanging the shawl off her head for a curtain. Who knows where she came from? In what circumstances? A single mother, showing up like that—in a shop, not even a home.” She sighed, her brow pained.
“The second story has living space—”
“Tch tch…” His mother dismissed his rationalizing. “She has a daughter with her. We should do what little we can to protect the honor of a young Pakistani woman.”
She told him of how, when she had ventured out to the grocer’s that morning, she had overheard the construction workers’ mothers gossip about how no one had seen the new woman’s man yet. They guessed the woman was a cleaner sent by the owner who was finally prepared to sell the building. They wondered about why she kept that shawl draped over her head. “If I could speak their tongue, I’d explain to them she’s Muslim.”
Even after two decades in these parts of Houston, she refused to converse with “Mexicans”—her designation for all non-desi brown people—in anything but broken English. Haroon wished she’d strike up a friendship with some of her neighbors, so she wouldn’t be so dependent on his company.
He rose from his meal to rinse his hands. Catching himself in the mirror, he reached for his comb. Back in the living room, he picked up his mother’s gift. “I’ll be back.”
At the shop, uncomfortable with the intimacy of the side door to the rooms above, Haroon knocked on the shutter at the counter. After a second knock, a stream of light flooded from the window above. The shawl had been pulled down.
The woman emerged from the side door, the shawl hastily flung over her head. “It’s you.”
She’d addressed him in the familiar form in Urdu. Her cadence mellifluous, even in such few words, did not have the quarrel of his mother, nor the wile of the grocer’s wife or the Bollywood-inspired flirtatiousness of the grocer’s daughters. Her’s was the voice he imagined of the narrator of the Urdu fairytales he used to read as a child. Where had those books gone now? He couldn’t remember having read anything but English in years.
She had guessed he spoke Urdu as well.
“Yes.” He smiled to acknowledge her friendly tone, surprising himself. Flustered, unable to think what to say next, he gestured at the clean shutters. He wasn’t sure if he meant to compliment her work or ask her about her plans.
“Thank you. My coffee stand would be open tomorrow if I had some beans and milk,” the woman answered both his thoughts. She had understood.
“Ah, a coffee shop.” That was all he could muster. He was speaking to a woman. But he spoke to women all day—his colleagues at the school, so many others he had business with. He remembered his business and handed the woman the white sheet with a brief explanation.
“Please, thank your mother for her kindness.” She was as calm as he had been abrupt.
He had a question. How to ask it in Urdu without sounding too forward, now she’d chosen to use the familiar address between them? He fretted for the first time that he’d lost his finer sense for the language, speaking it for years only with his mother as a son, and, since his father’s passing, as a provider.
“What name can I give my mother?” He’d managed not to say “you” or “your.” He wished she’d volunteered it herself.
“Zeenat.” She laughed. “And what name can I give my daughter when she asks who brought us this gift?”
A joke. He hadn’t volunteered his either. He smiled, found himself shielding behind English. “Haroon. I teach. At Percy High. Math.”
She nodded, then continued in Urdu. “We don’t have much. Some clothes and dishes, a coffee machine for our shop, and…some sugar.”
How strange, yet entirely fitting, that she would have nothing but sugar. He wanted to ask her more, hear her speak more. But he had no more messages from his mother.
“You should open your coffee shop in the morning anyway.” He turned away before she could ask what he meant because he wasn’t sure yet of anything except that his head rushed.
In the morning, hearing him clanging about the kitchen, his mother called out from her bedroom. “What are you doing? I just finished my prayers. I was going to make your breakfast.” She stationed herself in the kitchen doorway. “Why the hurry today?”
“I’m leaving now.” He brushed past her, a mug of milk and a sandwich bag of ground coffee in hand, ignoring her cries of Allah, what has gotten into this boy today?
His heart raced from having been so abrupt with his mother. His supplies balanced in one hand, he grasped his bicycle under his free arm. At the edge of Hillcroft he paused as delivery trucks and speeding commuters honked past each other. He looked over at the coffee shop, expecting the shutters to roll open any moment. There was no way he could cross his daily divide with this new burden.
His eyes roved his side of the road for options. The grocer, lazy pig of a man, never unlocked his doors before eleven. Haroon convinced himself that if he left his bicycle resting against the grocer’s door, passersby might assume it belonged to the grocer.
Across, the street, the upstairs window was now shaded by his mother’s white sheet, as if she had already blessed the dwelling in her own manner. It had been done out of kindness, out of concern. And yet, and yet. No gift was ever truly free. It was as if she had raced ahead of him, changed the course before he was even upon it.
In front of the shop, as he considered how to announce his presence, the shutter clattered open. Zeenat and her girl stood looking at him.
The girl smiled from behind her mother. She resembled her, but had the gaunt wiriness of youth who had begun to shed their adolescence. He hesitated to smile back because he’d seen the kids at school grin that way when they thought they knew more than the person they hid behind. The girl shrugged and receded to the back of the shop to pick up a book.
He set the milk and coffee down.
Zeenat picked them up. “Will you have some coffee?”
“Yes. Yes, thank you. I didn’t have time for coffee at home this morning.”
He glanced back to check on his bicycle. It had slipped to the sidewalk, forcing people to walk around it onto the street.
At a nod from her mother, the girl ran upstairs. She returned shortly with as many clean mugs as she could cradle.
Zeenat twisted open her jar of sugar, nestled inside which sat several crushed cardamom pods. As she started the coffee, Haroon told her about his school in the city. He complained about some tiresome students who did everything but the work he assigned them—all things he had planned to tell her as he tossed in bed the night before. In Urdu, he’d promised himself. If he did not talk about himself, he would have to ask her why she had come here, alone, barehanded. He did not want to know who she had been, because his mother was right, there was nothing good Zeenat could possibly say. If he kept telling her about himself, she’d keep asking more in that voice of hers.
When Zeenat turned to attend to the coffee, he checked on his bike. The girl caught him looking that way and came forward to peek as well.
Zeenat poured some of her brew into a tall mug, sprinkled on some sugar, swirled in milk and handed it to him.
He inhaled the subtle scent of cardamom that lingered in the steam. “Won’t you join me?”
Zeenat splashed some coffee into a mug, handed it to the girl, and poured a bit for herself. The girl stole away with her coffee, as if afraid it might be taken back.
Zeenat set her own coffee down on the counter, untouched. “Hina’s father died last year.”
The girl didn’t bother to look up from her book. She recrossed her legs nonchalantly as if that statement, the story to follow was stale to her. Haroon set his mug down too. How to keep sipping during such a revelation?
Zeenat glanced once at her daughter and then continued, “His family says I’m cursed since he turned sickly from the day I arrived as his bride in this country. They had expected my youth would guarantee them an heir.” The girl kept her eyes averted. “Now they won’t keep a cursed woman in their home.”
How was it that she could bring herself to tell him all this? How did she know he would not shun her like others from the community might, others had? She was taking a chance. He nodded. “And your family?”
“They’re still back in our village. My mother won’t accept the shame of a daughter turned out of her marital home. They’d sent me here when I was as old as this one. How can they take me back now with a girl as old as the one they’d given away?”
Hina looked up. “And so, you have no home.” She spoke in that way teenagers have, of telling ungracious cutting truths.
Zeenat closed her eyes as if drawing on her reserves of patience. “A home is where you make it.” She did not turn around but raised her voice for the benefit of her daughter.
Haroon wondered about the girl’s accusatory tone. He thought it unfair toward Zeenat. Perhaps Hina had imbibed her grandparents’ rhetoric. Children were sponges. How alone Zeenat must feel. “What will you do?”
“My parents’ neighbor’s uncle has owned this building for a long time.” She described how Mr. Zakir had moved back in his old age because his family in Houston claimed they couldn’t afford his healthcare. He was angry with them and refused to sell his only property or bequeath it to them. Somehow, her father convinced Mr. Zakir she could take care of it, though her mother was opposed to the shame of her living here by herself.
“But your husband’s family won’t have you, and your mother won’t have you, so where does she imagine you could live?”
“Such questions are irrelevant for mothers, where moral matters are concerned.”
He couldn’t argue with the truth of that.
“So, here, I’ll earn something and send my girl back to high school. She’s missed so much already.”
Haroon felt grateful for Zeenat’s trust, a heady urge to convince her she could rely on him. Not in the way his mother did, as was her right and his duty. But in the way two people who owed each other nothing might.
“Hina,” he ventured, “Would you like me to bring you some books to catch up?”
The girl looked up at him, and then behind him. She grinned once more. “Wasn’t that your bike?”
He twisted to see what she meant by the past tense. A teen in sagging pants was wheeling away on his bike.
“Oy!” He raced to cross the road despite the traffic. The boy whipped his head back to look and lost his baseball cap. Haroon picked it up. He was about to throw it at the receding bike when he saw himself falling to the level of the thief. He tossed the cap into the scrub by the edge of the road and trudged back to the shop.
Hina had come up to the front to watch the proceedings. “Sucks,” she said, expressionless.
He shrugged, accepting her commiseration.
Zeenat smacked her daughter’s shoulder. “What language at a time like this!”
Hina spun around, grabbed her book and left.
Haroon wished he could defend the girl on this technicality, even though he’d felt little sympathy from her earlier, perhaps even derision. But he didn’t know how to explain “sucks” in its entirety in Urdu.
“It’s alright,” he managed.
“How will you get to work now?” Zeenat looked around the shop as if she might have something lying around that could be of use; as if she was used to hunting for possibilities even in a void.
Absurd. And he had been foolish. He raked his fingers through his hair for a while, then looked up across the road and considered his own street. “I have to go.”
As he stepped away, he paused and turned back.
This woman was causing him go against his own survival instincts. First he’d abandoned his bike, and now he was returning to say the goodbye he should have a moment ago. Stopping to take leave never got him anything except instructions from his mother and requests for inconvenient favors from acquaintances. He had learned not to explain himself. “I’ll ask the guys in the complex for a ride into town on one of their pickups. Probably get a new bike. But if I do, I’ll have to get something for my mother too.”
That evening, the unfamiliar sight of a cab pulling up to the apartments brought the small children out to ogle. As Haroon hauled a recliner up to the apartment, he ignored his mother’s repeated refrains of What was the need?
Moments later, his mother, glowing in the bliss of her new chair, did not object to his also having spent a few dollars on books for the new girl. In fact, she sent one of the boys from downstairs to fetch Hina to come get them. Something in the air loosened her tongue; she attempted broken Spanish to instruct the boy.
Zeenat came with her daughter, so Haroon’s mother offered her tea and fed Hina a ghee-laden paratha. “The child needs some meat on her bones.” Zeenat was subjected to a piqued glance.
When Zeenat wished Hina had a tutor, Haroon’s mother asked what good her son was if he couldn’t do this small favor for them. Haroon hesitated, worried about dealing with the girl’s contrary attitude, but his mother glared at him. He relented, having learned by now the futility of challenging his mother’s judgments of him founded on her own imagination of his intentions.
So, it came to be that he visited the coffee shop several times a week without his mother demanding any explanations from Allah. Instead, she sent along hot chicken curry for Hina, and once, at the Eid festival, even handed him a silk for the girl from her own storage chest. Zeenat made acquaintance with the grocer’s wife and through the woman’s community connections acquired some spare furniture, including a worktable for the coffee shop, at the end of which Haroon tutored Hina in math.
After her lessons, Hina preferred to take her assignments upstairs and Haroon and Zeenat waited in the coffee shop for her to return with her completed exercises. The two talked mostly of their childhood, both interrupted by a removal to this country.
The grandmother of the boy who had been dispatched to fetch Hina began to visit with Haroon’s mother. They found that hand signals interjected with Spanglish and Urdu were adequate language for camaraderie between neighbors. Sometimes, Haroon came home to the sound of laughter that rang of conspiracy between his mother and her visitor. There was an anticipation in the air the women tamped down when they became aware of his presence, readjusting in their seats as he walked by.
One evening, after the visitor had scurried off just before he returned from the washroom, Haroon asked what had caused them to become such good friends all of a sudden.
“Hope.” His mother flashed a smile of mutual understanding at him.
Never had a word from her sparked such a twinge of joy in his heart. “Ammi, we need to talk.” He sat down to his meal, finding himself hungrier than usual.
“What is there to say, son?” She poured more milk into his glass. “Of course, I approve. I’ve been waiting for this day for years, and just when I had lost hope in this forsaken land, Allah delivered a daughter to me of his own accord. Now all I need to be at peace is some money for the wedding preparations.”
“But shouldn’t someone at least talk to her?” He was taken aback at his mother’s assumption of acquiescence on Zeenat’s part.
“Women understand, my son.” She chuckled. “Never mind, never mind. I’ll set your heart at ease and go over tomorrow to talk over what is already understood.”
“But Ammi, there are things that should be discussed, things you cannot say for me.” He pushed his plate aside. “I’ll talk to her myself tomorrow.”
“What could you possibly need to talk to her about that we women cannot resolve?” His mother sat upright, petulant again in a way she had not been since the new chair.
Where could he begin? If they ever had a lengthy discussion, it was rarely on any matter other than subsistence.
“Our home situation, for one.” He got up. “We’d need room for four.”
“My dear boy!” His mother eyed his unfinished meal. “What need would Zeenat have to move in with us when she has her shop to run? You and your wife can have my room.”
He set down his glass of milk with care, afraid it might spill along with hasty words that would not serve his purpose. She should not be made to feel opposed. He was all she had. She knew that.
“You don’t trust your mother, I see.” She picked up the Quran that sat on her side table. Her eyebrows took on the pious aspect she reserved for special moments of supplication in prayer. “As God is my witness, I’ll treat your wife well, and she will not need another mother.”
He strode to the window and scanned the street. Cars rushed past, their headlights mocking him as if he were doomed to stand still forever. He could not bring himself to turn around, look at his mother’s face. He could think of no other way to tell her. “I want to marry Zeenat, not the girl.”
He heard his mother struggle out of her chair and limp off to her room.
His resolve broke. He followed her and halted in her doorway. She lay on her bed with her face to the wall, a scarf tight around her head—the way she lay whenever her head pounded with a pain caused by the only child born of her womb.
“You would bring a cursed woman into this house,” she moaned at the wall.
He steeled himself for more lines from her favorite Urdu soap operas. “She’s only a widow. Like you.”
“Which is why she should know better and take pity on me. She did away with her first husband. And now she would enter my home and take away my only blessing. Woe be to the day I let her over the threshold of my house…”
He determined to cancel their satellite TV subscription on the pretext of expense. “She has never, Ammi, never intimated to me any desire of marriage.”
His mother sat up. “Don’t make it worse, son! Allah protect my ears from such abomination. Do you mean to tell me she consorts with you without considering marriage? Abuela warned me about her. I see now why they allow their own sons and husbands only one coffee a day at her shop, no matter how special they say it is.”
“You don’t understand.” He was struggling. “I would never marry that poor child. Don’t you see? She’s too young.”
“Too young for what?” His mother donned a confused expression. “Abuela says she might even have introduced to us her own granddaughter, who is the same age as Hina, if you didn’t have the problem of not being Mexican.”
“They’re Nicaraguan! And why do you call her abuela? She’s not your grandmother!”
“So? She calls me ammi. Am I her mother?”
“You’ve all lost your minds!” He turned away from her door, sickened, afraid of encountering “Abuela” if he stepped outside.
“I’m not saying anything needs to happen right away, son.” She followed him out. “Can’t I wait a bit more, when I’ve waited so long already?” Her voice turned conciliatory. “In any case, we may have to save for a year or two, to have enough for the wedding.”
When he didn’t respond, she snapped, “Don’t underestimate me the way your father used to.”
How could she equate him to the man who had smothered her to his last day? The man he swore he would never be to a woman, and especially not his mother. She must know this after all these years. He was tempted to pick her up by the shoulders and shake her. The shock of that impetus propelled him out of the apartment.
“Haroon!” His mother called after him. She sounded distraught, in true anxiety for herself. “What will Abuela say?”
He could think of only one person he’d ever felt the urgent desire to converse with. He traversed his street, found himself at the closed shutters of the shop, went around to the side door, banged on it with his fist.
When Zeenat found him at her doorstep, she saw his state and led him upstairs. She must know how inviting him into her living quarters appeared. But she didn’t hesitate, so he didn’t either.
The stairwell was uncomfortably dark and damp. Haroon was glad to emerge into a lamplit living room at the top. Shutting the door that led to the bedroom, Zeenat offered him a seat on a small plaid couch. Save for a round rug the chair rested on, the room was vast in its emptiness. He wondered if she knew the chair was called a loveseat. He could not take it because of the irony of it. And if he did, then where would she sit? It wouldn’t be appropriate for them to sit so close together given all the proper distance the rest of the room afforded, despite its barrenness. Whatever his mother imagined about Zeenat, they had never gone past conversation. The more he wanted her, the more he wanted to wait for her. She was an enigma he hadn’t wanted to resolve for two moments of present pleasure. She was to him the misplaced past he wanted for his future.
When he would not take the seat, she sat down first. With a wave toward the other side, she invited him to join her. He sat instead on the rug by her knees and could barely muster the strength not to take her hands uninvited.
Of all the things he wished to tell her in those moments, he found he had waited too long and dared only to begin with his mother’s stated wish.
Zeenat listened, her face still, a flash in her eye. “And will you not tell me, what you wish?”
If only he could describe to her all that he dreamt, then pull a switch like a rail operator, split his track from his mother’s, carry Zeenat away from the shadow of the accusations she had come here to transcend, to never look back. If only. “I told Ammi Hina is like a daughter to me.”
Zeenat searched his face, waiting for more.
His ears burned. He had shifted the burden of their mutual admission, their next turn, to her. Of course, she gleaned this was not the entirety of his argument with his mother, the entirety of his confession to her. They remained silent for so long, Zeenat got up.
He had expected he’d leave if he could say no more, but he found himself unable to stand her leaving. He moved to the chair and reached for her hand to guide her back to the seat. To his relief, she let him. Her hand stayed in his.
Letting out a deep breath, he braced himself. “I told Ammi it is you I want to marry.”
She gave him a wry smile. Slid her hand free.
“Have I said something wrong?”
“You once asked me my name so you could tell your mother.”
When Haroon returned home, he followed the steps past his apartment door as if in a trance, broke out on to the bare flat roof of the building and fell asleep under the open sky. When the sun rose so high the cement beneath him was warm, he awoke. He tumbled downstairs past his apartment. On the ground floor, his bicycle waited for him as on every morning. If he stepped out, his mother might be looking out her window, her white prayer dupatta tucked around her head. She had never spent a night alone.
He tiptoed back up and cracked the door to the apartment. She wasn’t at the window. Perhaps she’d taken to her chair to pray on her rosary for his safe return. Most likely, she’d taken to bed, her scarf knotted around her aching head.
He stepped in to the clicking of her gas lighter at the stove.
“I cooked your favorite sooji halwa after my fajr prayers.” She did not turn to check on his state. “Go wash up. I even made poori dough—they’ll be all fried up by the time you’re back.”
Halwa poori—each crispy bite a nutty-sweet creaminess enveloped in rich flaky pastry—the meal of communal celebrations. He slammed the apartment door behind him and ran past his bicycle, under the gate, down the street and to the edge of Hillcroft. It was so late, even the grocer had begun to rustle inside his shop.
The grocer poked his head out of his side door, a garbage bag in hand. Seeing Haroon, he snorted. “Why are you not at school today, teacher?” Without waiting for an answer, he flung the bag into a trashcan and slammed his door shut. Haroon took in the closed shutters of the coffee shop. Upstairs, the dark window gaped. A ripped plastic bag fluttered over the counter of the shop and caught on the bar of the missing awning.