The past catches up

by Hajera Khaja

Hajera Khaja’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, The Humber Literary Review, Pulp Literature, and elsewhere. She was longlisted for the 2019 Journey Prize. Hajera teaches creative writing online at the Sarah Selecky Writing School. She lives in Mississauga, Ontario, and is working on a short story collection.

In the beginning I had a hard time getting used to the sound of your footsteps. Your heavy boots stamping on the tiles in the hallway. My heart beating inside my chest like a bird ramming against the walls of its cage. That one time you were careless, leaving behind a cakey grey smudge on the edge of the living room carpet, my mother noticed as soon as she returned home. We were under a cold weather alert, the temperature hovering around -30. I told her I had stepped out for some fresh air. But this is like cement, not mud or dirt, my mother said, crouching down to examine the stain. I must have stepped into something, I said. My mother looked up at me, her kohl-rimmed eyes narrowed into slits, meltwater snaking out from under her boots. Your nose is not red, she pointed out. Why do you always think I’m lying, I screamed, and ran to my room, slamming the door so she would know not to come find me, so she would think I was in one of my moods, that maybe my period was on the way. That was the first month I didn’t get my period. But I pretended like I was on it, taking out pads every five hours from under my bed and disappearing into the bathroom. I would unwrap a clean pad and then roll it back up as if it was used and chuck it into the garbage bin. Only the metallic scent of blood was missing, but my mother didn’t notice that. At the end of the week, when I should have made ghusl so I could start praying again, you picked me up three blocks away from my school, our usual spot. You manoeuvred the steering wheel with your left hand, planted your right hand on my thigh. For the first time I noticed how much hair you had on your fingers, dark and scraggly, grazing your knuckles like your moustache grazed your upper lip. You instructed me to keep my head down and went into the Shoppers Drug Mart by yourself. Stepped out a few minutes later with a white paper bag dangling from the tips of your fingers. I stuffed it in my backpack underneath the textbooks and binders that normally stayed in my locker. You asked me what I would do if it was positive. I hadn’t thought of the question before you posed it, but the answer slipped out, as if it was there all along. I will never give you away, I said. Placed my hand on top of yours. I would never destroy you like that. The test was negative. My period eventually returned and then disappeared again, the cycle repeating on whim, charting a course of its own.

You asked me, This feels good doesn’t it? And before I could say anything, you answered for me, Hmm. Your eyes closed, a languid smile on your face. As if you were enjoying a pleasant dream. I know it feels good, you whispered, your breath a gentle wave in my ear. I didn’t know how to say no and by the time you were finished, I didn’t want to say no, your touch turning something tight and anxious into something loose and pleasurable. Every time you came to me, I made ghusl, the way my mother taught me. Cup my hands under the shower-head and dump the pool of water over my head, then my arms and legs. My body was already all wet in the shower, but this was the purifying step, that puddle of water in my palms that enabled me to stand in front of God and resume my prayers. And if my palms were impure, from touching you in all the places you made them reach and wander? I soaped my hands until the webbing between my fingers became dry and cracked. I hated the wetness, that slick moisture that came without warning, without my asking. I wanted dryness, scrubbed myself everywhere you touched with the back of a dish sponge, the green scouring pad. You’re not drinking enough water, my mother said, as she watched me scratch my arms and legs, my skin flaking off like dandruff.

On the day of our one-year anniversary, you picked me up early from school. You drove on the highway with the windows down, my long hair slapping into my face. We shared a slice of chocolate cheesecake at Demetre. The place was empty except for us, the Backstreet Boys droning softly on the speakers, I want it that way. You know I love you right? you asked me. I licked the tines of the fork, swiping cheesecake bits off of each one. You pulled the fork from my mouth. Tell me you love me too, you said, bringing your forehead close to mine, our heads inches apart. My hands cold and jittery. You leaned back into your chair, one arm draped over the back. This thing we have, you and me, you gestured to the space between us, it’s so special, it’s—you searched the ceiling for an explanation, squinting your eyes against the yellow pot lights—it’s dangerous. You pounded the table and I felt the tremor in my elbows. It’s so special, it’s dangerous. Oh Yus, my darling, don’t you see, we’re meant to be together. Tell me you love me. I’d die a thousand deaths if you said you didn’t love me. You watched me, your eyes soft, lips quivering. A voice rustled inside of me, clamouring to speak up. Yes, please, go die. Die a thousand deaths. I leaned in close to you, studied the red lines snaking across the whites of your eyes, imagined that you had been awake all night, yearning to be with me. Of course I love you, I whispered, reaching across the table, folding my hands into yours. I love you more than anything else in this world.

She was kneeling at the foot of the bed, her head buried in her arms, her body shaking with the force of her grief.

My mother ran around the house, frazzled and uncertain. All morning we had been helping my brother pack. He was leaving for Western, his first year at university. My father was traveling, as usual, and my mother had to manage everything. My brother went up to her several times, planted his hands on her shoulders. Breathe, breathe, he said. She patted his face. Yes, yes, I’m alright. I just don’t want you to be late. My brother’s boxes were lined up in the hallway and he began loading them into the van my mother had rented. I went to check up on her. The door to her room was slightly ajar, the scent of her jasmine perfume pouring out. She was kneeling at the foot of the bed, her head buried in her arms, her body shaking with the force of her grief. I walked up to her, lightly touched her shoulder. She sprang up as if she had been lit by a torch. Why are you not helping Yasir, she screamed. Her face was wild and unruly, snot dripping from her nose. Don’t just stand there, go! She turned me around and shoved me towards the door. When the van was fully loaded, I went and lay down on the sofa. My mother glared at me. Do you need an invitation? I have cramps, I’m not coming, I said. Fine, I’m calling Aunty Ami, my mother replied, and shut the door behind her. Aunty Ami came over with a hot water bottle. She turned on the kettle and when it began to hiss and shriek, poured the boiling water straight into the bottle. She placed it on my stomach just below my belly button. It had a knitted cover, the image of a sleeping penguin. Aunty Ami grabbed the throw from behind the sofa, draped it over my bent knees, then began massaging my forehead without asking if I had a headache. You mustn’t be angry at your mother, she said. She’s going through a lot of emotions right now. Back and forth her hand moved across my forehead, bunching up and smoothening out the tight skin, her fingers firm against my skull. I drifted off to sleep. When I awoke it was getting dark outside. Aunty Ami was sitting by my feet, a bowl of plantain chips in her lap, watching TV with the sound muted, subtitles on. The hot water bottle was just a cool weight on my stomach now. A heavy wetness from the blood-soaked pad lingered between my legs. My eyes started to sting. I pressed my lids tight, pretending like I was still asleep, like nothing had changed, like Aunty Ami could still swoop in and magically fix everything.

The house smelled cleaner after my brother left. No more scents of armpit sweat and dirty socks drifting out of his room, diffusing into the rest of the house. You pointed this out to me, standing in the living room, hands on your hips, sniffing the air. After my brother moved out, my mother switched to working full-time and was never home before six p.m. My mother was bitter, you said. Resentful. Full of misery at all the men in her life who had abandoned her, my father who worked out of town and only came home on the weekends, and now my brother who could have gone to Waterloo or Laurier and stayed home, but chose to leave. I don’t blame him, you said about my brother. Your mother can be such a witch sometimes. Your hand flew up to your mouth and your eyes grew wide. I can’t believe I said that out loud. A bowl of ketchup chips sat between us. You shook your head, diving into the bowl, the chips rustling, ketchup powder spread all over your fingertips. Forgive me, that was cruel. Even if she loves Yasir more than you, she’s still your mother. You popped a single chip into your mouth. Chewed hesitantly. But that’s why she hates you so much, because she knows you can see through her. It was like this every afternoon. My mother faulted me for sounding petty and overdramatic. And here you were, a magician pulling out a string of knotted silk scarves from your breast pocket, drawing out all my silent truths.

You insisted that this was what God wanted for us, even as I heard again and again, from the mimbar on jummah, from the halaqas on the weekend, from the lectures at MYNA, that we could only be together if we were married. I came back from camp one summer steeped in guilt. Look at us, Yus, you said, no one knows a thing, no one even suspects anything. It’s a sign. We would never have found a way to be together if God didn’t want this for us. The world is cruel, they will never understand our love. All your platitudes but still I could not be convinced. I can become your second wife, I told you. In secret. No one has to know. But you wouldn’t hear of it, even when I cried, banged my fists on your chest, moved away from you, the stickiness of our sweat creating a suction between our bodies. I refused to see you again until you married me. My mother dropped me off at the library and you picked me up as soon as she drove off. I had looked up all the mosques in the city, even found obscure musallahs in strip malls with broken electric signs, neon tube lights exposed beneath the cracked plates. It was raining. You left me in the car every time you went to check inside, returned with rain water splattered on your shoulders. No Imam. Drive. Stop. Check. No Imam. The husband is the Imam of the family, you said. So you became my Imam and married me in an unlit parking lot. Empty warehouses all around us. No witnesses. The rain came down frantically, batting the windshield. I pulled on the abaya that I had sneaked into my backpack and wrapped the matching hijab around my head, the fabric sliding against my hair. I clicked on the overhead light, the two of us tinged with an orange glow. You raised your hands to the sky that was the foam ceiling of your Honda. This rain is mercy from the Almighty, you said. I could only nod, tears sliding down my cheeks, dripping onto my lap. I don’t remember what else you said, only the sound of rain hammering on the roof, and the feeling of relief.

For a while, I walked without the weight of guilt. I sang Mary J. Blige at school, moving my shoulders like a seesaw. My friends asked what had gotten into me but I only sang louder, belted out Destiny’s Child, arm raised high, fingers splayed out, wrist swinging. I’m a survivor, I’m not gonna give up, I’m not gonna stop, I’m gonna work harder. I purchased a blue eyeliner, hid it in my pencil case, ran straight to the girl’s bathroom when I got to school. I added more colours to my collection and my friends began calling out to me by the colour that snaked across my eyelids. Hey Gold. Hey Green. Hey Pink. My makeup was hard, all streaks and lines, no brushes grazing against my face to soften anything up. I wore belts with rhinestones and hoop earrings that tugged on my ear lobes. I didn’t recognize myself and I liked it. Only a recurring dream nudged me to the fact that nothing had changed at all. You would open the door to my bedroom, the glow of an orange light behind you, as if you were entering from some brightly lit place. I would lift my head, crane my neck to look past you, but you would bring your finger to your lips and close the door, plunging me, us, back into darkness. I woke up in the mornings with puffy eyes, brown circles pooling out from underneath my lashes. My mother would warm a mug of milk for me and drop in half a teaspoon of turmeric powder that instantly bled out into the white foam. No matter how vigorously she stirred, the turmeric never fully dissolved, leaving a grainy texture in my mouth.

I left home after high school. University of Toronto. Only an hour-long bus ride on the Greyhound from Kitchener. My mother quit her job and began traveling with my father, visiting museums, art galleries, eating lunch on shaded patios by herself while he was at work. I came home every weekend to a freshly cooked meal prepared by Aunty Ami, which she would leave on the dining table along with a small Ziploc bag filled with Quality Street chocolates. We had dinner every Friday night. In those four years that I was at UofT, we were together more than we had ever been before. As if we were in a real relationship, no one to question my comings and goings, no one to keep track of my whereabouts but you.

You were out of town one weekend and my friend Lama came home with me. We spread ourselves on the carpet in the living room, painting our nails, watching Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham. Neither of us understood anything but we left the subtitles off.

What do you think about love? I said.

What do you mean? Lama examined my nail polish collection, picked a shade called Chocolate Dreams. She shook the bottle, her whole arm jerking, the metal ball inside ticking madly.

Do you think you’ll fall in love, like Rahul and Anjali? Or do you think it will be more formal?

Fall in love, Lama said. Her chin was resting on one knee, the other leg tucked behind her. She painted her big toenail in quick strokes, nail polish smearing the bulbous skin on the sides.

What if you don’t get to marry him? I unscrewed the brush from my bottle. The alcohol smell burned in my nostrils. I moved the brush in straight parallel lines, my toes slowly turning coral pink.

Why wouldn’t I?

Your parents don’t like him.

Why wouldn’t they?

Just, what if?

Lama scraped the polish off her skin with the edge of her thumb. It left a reddish hue, as if she had wiped away some blood. That doesn’t make sense to me. It’s not like I would fall in love with a jerk or a moron.

Okay, what if his parents don’t like you?

Are you trying to tell me something? Do you have a boyfriend that I don’t know about? Lama looked up at me, holding the nail polish brush aloft in the air. A thick drop of paint was collecting at the tip, poised to fall on my mother’s beige rug.

Watch your brush, I said, grabbing the nail polish bottle. I caught the drop just as it let go of the brush, slipped straight back into the bottle.

Nice catch, Lama said.

I stretched my feet out in front of me and examined my toes.

You didn’t answer my question, Lama said, shaking the bottle again. Tic tic tic.

I reached over behind me for the remote and raised the volume. Our favourite song, pehla pehla pyar, was about to start.

Lama was so different from me. She wore flare jeans and bell-bottom pants, like it was the ’70s, that was the confidence with which she strode down St. George Street. She had a plain face, freckles on the bridge of her nose that fanned out over her cheeks like butterfly wings. She never wore any makeup. Spoke loudly, the way I had only ever heard men speak. In our last year of undergrad, Lama fell in love. But she was still so sensible.

Would you die for him? I asked her. Would you give up everything you had just to be with him? It was Friday afternoon, the air balmy, buds sprouting on trees. Almost spring.

Why are you always so dramatic, Yusra? What does that even mean?

Would you kill yourself if you couldn’t be with him?

Lama didn’t say anything, her boots making soft stamping sounds against the pavement. She was walking me to the station to catch my bus home.

Like Romeo and Juliet, I said.

Juliet killed herself. Over a boy. At 15.

Because she was in love.

Because she was depressed.

I stopped abruptly, someone bumping into me from behind. I stared at Lama, expecting her to burst out laughing.

Let’s go, you’re going be late, she said, grabbing my arm and pulling me along.

After that, I tried to withdraw from her happiness. But there was no running away from her. Lama caught me when I was having lunch by myself. She sat down across from me without asking if the seat was taken.

You’re avoiding me, she said. Since, you know.

Since what? I stirred my tomato soup, noodle sticks floating up to the surface then drowning again.

Since I told you about me and Ahmed.

You didn’t tell me anything until things got serious.

You saw us at MSA meetings. We just talked a lot. What did you want me to say? We talk a lot.

You didn’t tell me you liked him.

You don’t tell me who you like.

My mind turned into a beehive, frantic, frenzied. What are you talking about? Soup dribbled down the side of my mouth and I dabbed at it, the brown paper napkin feeling rough against my skin.

Lama pointed to my phone. You’re always texting someone. Smiling, frowning. Ever since I’ve known you.

Oh. That. The tightness in my chest loosened.

Try my sandwich, it’s so good. Lama turned her panzerotti around for me to take a bite. I waved it away.

I told you, that’s my uncle. We’re tight. He just looks out for me.

A string of cheese dangled from her mouth and Lama lifted her chin, pulled it up bit by bit. But he’s not your mahram.

I took a sip of my Coke. The liquid went down in a tight lump, squeezing my throat. He’s like a mahram.

Except he’s not. Lama raised her eyebrows and pointed her panzerotti at me before taking a deep bite. Best to keep away from those kind of uncles, if you know what I mean, she said, her mouth full, her words rounded.

I had messaged you about Lama falling in love.

Lama and Ahmed want to get married!

How did it happen?

I had no idea!

So they’re dating now? That’s haram

Not exactly

It’s a slippery slope

One day they’re talking, the next day they’re fucking

My fingers froze over the buttons. It took you only a few seconds before you realized what you had done.

I just mean anything could happen

They should be careful

They want to get married

That’s good. That’s the right way

An ancient anger rustled beneath my rib cage. That voice that I had clamped shut so long ago whispered into the cavity of my chest, Did you come to me the right way? The scratchy grey TV screen, the hoarse and raspy breathing, your head cocked sideways, trying to listen. I wonder what’s happening, you said. I had just come out of the kitchen, holding an orange popsicle, the slimy white wrapper bunched up like underwear at the bottom of the wooden stick.

That’s the R-rated channel.

Where they show sex? Do you know what it sounds like?

I shook my head.

Come, sit. You patted the seat next to you.

I’m not allowed to eat on the couch, I said, my mouth dry, the popsicle melting. Orange liquid dripping down on the tiles.

You smiled. I won’t tell. I’ll always keep your secrets.

Where was my mother that whole time? The eyeliners from MAC, the studded Coach belts, the gold earrings, how easy it was for her to believe that my friends were both rich and generous. Why could she not see through your lies? That Eid at the farmhouse, the whole family together. You spent the morning in the barn slaughtering sheep for the sacrifice. It was dark inside, dank and musty, the smell of animal waste. Bismillah Allahu Akbar. You slit the sheep’s neck in a swift back and forth movement. A spray of bright red blood staining your rubber boots. Your triceps twitching in the darkness. My father and Uncle Khalid held the sheep down until it stopped convulsing. There were blood splatters on your t-shirt, crusty dried-up blood caking the hairs on your arm. You showed me how to skin the sheep, slash the thin translucent membrane separating the thick furry skin from the meat, pull to separate. Later, we ate lamb chops around the dining table in the kitchen, twelve chairs crammed into a space for six, elbows colliding into one another. I was sitting next to my mother, across from you. Everyone laughing, picking on each other. My mother started coughing, as if choking on her food. I thumped her back. She looked up, her eyes watery, glared at you. What did you just do? she said. The room fell silent. Sorry, sorry, forgive me please. You pressed your hands over your heart, a pleading smile creeping across your face. I kept looking at my mother, my hand still on her back. I wouldn’t dare look at you. I was lucky, so lucky, that Aunty Ami was sitting on the other side of her. Of course I was reaching for my darling Amira, you said, looking at her with puppy dog eyes. We’re not too old for footsies yet. Aunty Ami rolled her eyes, a shy sweet smile plastered on her face. Ever the romantic he is, she said to the room. Everyone sighing, laughter trickling out again. You were scared, so scared, you said to me afterwards. If Amira wasn’t sitting next to her, your mother would have skinned me alive. I thought of the sheep hanging in the barn, skinned and gutted, left there overnight for the meat to harden. It was too fresh, too warm and sticky to be cut up right away, you had said. It would get stuck in the machine, clog it up until the blades stopped spinning. And I wondered, for a brief moment, what if Aunty Ami was not sitting next to my mother. Or if my mother had asked you, Amira is on my right but you kicked my left foot, where Yusra is. If that evening the truth could have clogged up and jammed the blades on which our lives were spinning. There’s nothing to be afraid of, I said, cupping your face in my hands. You had some new white hairs in your mustache, matching the whites that had started appearing on my head, creeping across my temples like tentacles, encasing me in an age far beyond my own.

In the beginning I was only 13. Before the visits to my apartment in Kingston, before the rendezvous at my dorm in Toronto, before the car rides after school, before any of that, I was only 13. I have to remind myself of this when the past catches up to me, chokes my present until my throat is bars of purple and blue and my eyes see black. Before I was 23, I was 17, 15, 13, all my memories of you lying dormant, waiting for a seismic shift, a volcanic burst spewing fire and ash, everything coming undone.

One morning after you left my apartment in Kingston, I found a sticky note on my desk with a lopsided heart drawn on it, the ends not quite meeting. You had coloured it in, a red heart on blue paper. Our love set in a bleak landscape. The night before, we fought about your toothbrush. You never brought it with you when you came to spend the night. Always purchased a brand new one from the Shoppers off the highway, one exit before mine. Discarded it in the garbage bin in the bathroom before leaving. I would retrieve that brand new once-used toothbrush, rinse it under the tap, squirting soap on the bristles and rubbing it in until it smelled of coconut or papaya or eucalyptus, whatever the scent of soap I happened to be using at the time. I had a shoebox full of your used toothbrushes. It was the only thing of yours that I had held onto. That morning, I left your toothbrush at the bottom of the garbage bin, let it eventually get buried under a heap of crumpled tissues.

After they got married, Lama and Ahmed moved to Philadelphia. I visited them once, sent you a picture of the sculpture at LOVE Park. I did not include a message or add a caption, just the letters stacked up, the L with a slanted O, V-E at the bottom. You didn’t want me to go to Philly. You never liked her, Lama with her plain-talking attitude, her sensible love. I saw the way she and Ahmed looked at each other, his face blooming whenever he walked into a room and spotted her, her mouth firmly pressed, trying to keep her lips from smiling back. You never responded to the picture. I took it as a sign, finally told Lama the truth about you. The uncle who was that kind of an uncle. The uncle whose love was so pure and deep, for a time I couldn’t imagine my life without it. Would even die for it.

You had promised you were coming. I had an exam that weekend and couldn’t come home. You were going to come to me. We would have dinner, watch a movie, and then when it was late enough, sneak back into my room. I kept waiting. You finally texted at 2:15 in the morning. Forgive me, my darling, I fell asleep. We will see each other next weekend, I promise. I threw my phone across the room. It hit the side of my desk before falling, skittered across the room and disappeared under the curtains. The room suddenly felt too small, too hot, the radiator hissing at me, the smell of weed and piss floating up through the open window. I pulled on a sweatshirt and ran down the stairwell, heaved myself past the wooden doors and tumbled out into the cold winter air. I ran up St. George Street, my fingers numb and tingly. Stopped at the entrance of the subway station, bent over and clutched my knees, trying to catch my breath. Inside, the booth was empty, a sign in the window to use the Bedford entrance for anyone who didn’t have tokens. I pulled up my hoodie. Jumped over the turnstiles. Ran down the stairs. The platform was deserted except for two men on the far end. I wanted to walk up to them. Make them attack me. Have them climb on top of me and pin me down. Jab a knife into my side again and again until I lay lifeless in a pool of my own blood, my grey sweatshirt stained black. The ground vibrated, faint rumblings of the train moving through the tunnel. I inched forward, stood on the yellow edge of the platform with the raised bumps. Lifted one foot off the ground, let it hover over the yawning cavity of the train tracks. A mouse scuttled across the darkness, the aluminum glint of the tracks sharp like a knife. The rumbling grew louder, light from the approaching train brightening up the mouth of the tunnel with an orange glow. I lowered my foot, the train growing louder, the rush of air moments before it barrels into the station. I stepped down and a force like a pane of hard glass appeared beneath my foot. I pushed again, the glass pushing back with equal and opposite force, my leg trembling. Hey, get back, a voice boomed out across the platform. I obeyed instinctively, tripped backwards, just as the train eased into the station. The doors chimed open and then close. The train gone, the air quiet and still again. The men also gone.

I returned to UofT the other day for a job interview. Stayed in a hotel, ate an orange for dinner. Fell asleep with the scent of citrus on my fingertips. The next morning, I woke up early, the sky turning from black to purple, the colour of a day-old bruise. I walked to Tim Horton’s for breakfast, the one on Bedford Street, just south of the entrance to the subway station. I took a corner seat near the back where I had a clear view of the intersection. It was only seven a.m. but already people were walking briskly, hands stuffed into pockets, lunch bags dangling from the crooks of their elbows, necks wrapped in scarves. Heads low. Hoodies up. The cars left billows of smoke trailing behind them. I felt warm but left my jacket on. I unwrapped my breakfast, an English muffin with egg and cheese. The egg was rubbery, the bread stiff. The melted cheese stuck to the roof of my mouth. The coffee was too hot but I took a sip anyway, walked around campus the rest of the day with the taste buds on the tip of my tongue feeling rough and bruised. I stopped by my dorm, recalled what it felt like to be tethered to you. The campus wasn’t opening until the week after. Everyone was home for the holidays still. Everything eerie and quiet. I blew into the cold air, my breath a milky white cloud of dust, dispersing like a fog lifting, a bird taking flight, disappearing into the vast expanse of the sky. I kept walking. No sound of any footsteps except mine.


Hajera Khaja’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, The Humber Literary Review, Pulp Literature, and elsewhere. She was longlisted for the 2019 Journey Prize. Hajera teaches creative writing online at the Sarah Selecky Writing School. She lives in Mississauga, Ontario, and is working on a short story collection.