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Hafeez Lakhani

Hafeez Lakhani

Hafeez Lakhani, born in Hyderabad, India and raised in suburban South Florida, has work in or forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Exposition Review, Salt Hill, Tikkun and The Southern Review, where his essay “If We Show That We Like They Make More Mainga” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2015, he was recognized with a Notable Essay in Best American Essays and profiled by The Huffington Post as one of “Eight Fantastic New Writers To Look Out For."

Amreen


Chalo, chalo, shuru karo, Amina called from kitchen when I arrived home our second night in Miami. Come come, begin eating. This was Pembroke Pines actually—outside Miami—because here schools receive A grade, I had come to learn. It was after ten and though I had left for Dunkin before sunrise, to learn frying of donuts from morning employee, and then icing and glazing and sprinkling, then coffee making, regular and decaf and these days hazelnut, too, and then register, and few names of always joking Spanish customers, the soft A's in Maria not so different than in our names, and then after close some stocking and mopping, then finally sitting for bookkeeping with former owner, another Indian, passing me shop—though under boot heel of private loan—though I had been gone one week since morning, it felt, I was filled now with energy seeing Amreen reaching for me from carpet, and then from lifting her, at more than one year still all limbs and bones, and tossing her up into air few inches, her silky black hair—Amina's hair, definitely—falling over eyes, and her quiet laughter rippling through room, like reminder to this furniture-less townhouse and to this new life that whatever our money trouble Amreen was real now, after so many years of our trying.

In kitchen, foldout table was set with small feast—Amina had told me on phone we should take this night to celebrate—one steel bowl of mutton saak, another saak of golden cauliflower, circular arrangement of crisp samosas draining onto bed of paper towels. At center of all this was bowl of thin daal with bits of tomato floating. Daal this way is my favorite, Amina knows. Two steel plates were set, too, and at side of one, two steaming chapatti were folded, each shining with ghee.

Everything is hot hot, begin, na, jaan? Amina said, as she turned next chapatti. From side angle her new pregnancy—naturally occurring this time, a gift to us—was beginning to show. Jaan, she called me, as always—her life. It was me, I believe, who called her this first, in my letters fifteen years before, when, despite my shaking nerves, I began to catch her eyes, for half-moments at first, then later for heart-melting long glances, as she passed me in cycle-filled lanes of Rawalpindi.

Right from birth, Amreen took Amina's features—fair skin that reddens when she cries, beautiful long fingers, even Amina's thin earlobes, too thin to pierce, as is our custom for newborn girls. When we received Amreen we had just lost store in Bartow, along lonely Route 60 in central Florida, but even during days of struggle, Amina and I often passed few minutes before sleep briefly not worrying about money but only watching Amreen lie face down on my matted chest. Joking sometimes, even, about thin coat of hair also along her small arms and back. American born, but wearing badge of your family, Amina would tease. We laughed together in those moments, momentarily carefree, and I would not admit my pleasure, that though our daughter so resembled Amina, she had taken some parts from me, too. My favorite: her tendency, like me, to think for long periods, staring into distance with slightly pained expression around her wet black eyes.

In kitchen that second night in Miami—our new beginning—under beautiful smell of fried samosas, Amreen firmly in my arms, I decided something. I moved not, as usual, for table to begin eating while Amina roasted more chapatti, but instead to place my free arm around Amina.

Start, na, she moaned, pulling me by shirt toward table as she brought third chapatti to my plate. We would speak more about her hours at home, mine at Dunkin, once I began eating. From stove, she might watch my first bites, interpreting even from my speed of chewing whether food is to my taste. It so often is. And because I know her mood can rise or fall in how I enjoy pains of her cooking, I spoke next in baby voice, as if Amreen were speaking:

Mummy? I said, placing my hand over her stomach, our bare feet touching on vinyl floor. My second toes are longest, which my late father had joked, rubbing his own belly after engagement feast, meant that Amina would rule our household. Anyway, you are aware, in U.S., ladies control husband. But here I took control. Amina leaning softly into me, I said: Mummy? More than garum garum chapatti what I need is your company.

Dhey! Amina said, pinching my leg behind her. She knew I had asked for this before, but had not persisted. What! she turned. You don't enjoy my garum chapatti?

I didn't answer, but changed to my own voice as I held Amreen firmer, like I wanted her to listen, too. From now on, jaan, I said. We sit together for food, okay?

Though it took almost six years of marriage for Amreen to arrive, when Amina gave birth again it was to not only one beautiful wide-eyed girl, Anisha, but, seven minutes later—to both of our surprise—also to one wiggling boy filled with energy, Adnan. Had we had more money in those days for check up we might have known sooner about twins, but either way we felt ourselves lucky.

After new arrivals, to help Amina I began on many days, with great pleasure, to bring Amreen to Dunkin, showing her off, of course, to my regular customers.

Que linda! Milagros, one big-hipped teacher always speaking with hands, sang. Tiene tus ojos! She has your eyes!

Seeing Amreen each day on blanket behind counter, regulars soon began to bring gifts. Stickers of one bear preventing fires, from some Columbian and Ecuadorian firemen. Plastic lion meant to decorate cake, from Maria, who worked at Cuban bakery few doors down. Pharmaceutical pens, and later, one real stethoscope, from thin Haitian doctor with small practice nearby.

I knew each customer's country because they would always ask mine.

Ohh, Dios mio, Milagros, the Algebra teacher, said, when she caught sight of Amreen tangled with stethoscope. Look at this sweetie—she gonna be a doctor, huh?

Oh yes, I said, beaming at this suggestion. Why not. We had, of course, women doctors in Rawalpindi, but none that I had ever known myself. Why not why not why not, I said to myself in that moment.

Am-ree, Um-ree, Um-reeen—they tried, genuinely, to say Amreen's name. And soon Amreen learned regular ladies by face, too. Hasta mañana! she learned to say whenever one was leaving, Amreen running then to front glass to wave until the last. And so it was behind counter where I laid blanket each day, where I set open alphabet books and Highlights magazines which Amina chose carefully from public library, and passed Amreen toys, including one I could not resist despite its high price—a play-surgical set with doll she could operate on. For lunch, two of us ate in office tiffin Amina packed, but every few hours I would ask Amreen if she wanted donut, and without fail she'd pop up, her milky cheeks turning rosy with excitement, before, every time, she chose white-powdered jelly donut. Always. I found it amazing she never tired of it, or of spending days with me, but amazing, too, that I never tired either of daily occurrence when I turned from counter to find powder all over Amreen's hands, and jelly smeared across her laughing face.

Every Friday evening, right from first week in Miami, we made it point to attend khane—what in our community we call our mosque. After six years in Bartow going for prayers only few times, more than hour away in Tampa, I wanted us to be regular here, partly because of guilt—whenever I skipped prayers my mother's thin voice echoed from India, You cannot spare six minutes for your soul?—but more so because when I remember childhood I cannot do so without remembering cricket matches in fading light with thirty boys, maybe, in clay courtyard of khane after prayers. It was this sense of belonging I wanted for my children, even if they were born in U.S.

Khane was near Miami International, in small converted warehouse beside railroad tracks, but inside was renovated nicely, with plenty of steel shoe racks in social hall entrance, and wide-open prayer hall of ivory-paneled walls and soft pink carpet. This was more comfortable—more American, I thought—on our socked feet and prostrating knees than straw mats of Rawalpindi.

Like with days, we created system for khane. Amina, the deep purple and soft pink shalwar kurtas she favored striking against her fair skin, took Anisha and Adnan to ladies' side while Amreen and I stuck together. On carpet of men's side then Amreen learned my actions—when I raised hands in supplication, she followed, eyes shut, like mine. When I bowed in prostration she bent, too. When I sang with ginan being led from front mic, Amreen, not knowing words, would hum along, as if she could not bear to not join me—something like how she'd adopted my thinking habit, tugging gently now, regularly, at her eyebrow, what she'd no doubt witnessed me doing while counting, while eating, while driving us home from Dunkin, such that I missed Pines Boulevard exit due to my dreaming at least once every week. One day, though, when Amreen was four and Adnan a bouncing two, already running off at every chance, I felt she was getting too big to sit on men's side of khane and that Adnan was old enough now to be away from his mother; so I suggested to Amina that we trade. That first Friday, in prayer hall of maybe two hundred attendees, we failed immediately. From moment Adnan lost sight of Amina he began to whimper, and would not respond to my cooing, which would calm him any other place. Then, in middle of dua prayer, single person reciting from mic to quiet hall, Adnan's sobs grew to full wail. Quickly I picked him up and made for social hall—but hearing her brother's pleas, Amreen popped up from ladies side, crying too. Daddy! she screamed, running across carpet, past rows of women in prayer, to grab my leg, before I managed to hobble with two crying children out to social hall.

What I loved most about Miami khane though was vacuuming. Early on, I volunteered for this duty after prayers, then held it closely for years, becoming known as Vacuum Uncle amongst youngsters, finding meditation in it—the quiet drone of motor blurring social hall conversations, my neat vacuum lines erasing one-by-one sock prints dotted over carpet. I loved the isolation, growing lost in my thoughts, but never minded, too, when children ran in, Amreen hugging my leg like it was tree trunk, Anisha and Adnan—Adnan's little glasses bouncing on his face, Anisha's wobbly run more like skip—tumbling into somersaults in empty prayer hall. I never stopped this commotion, never cared if it was disrespectful, but rather relished that, like so many things those first years of children—damp smell of earth when it rained; melody of a woman's voice singing ginan at khane—their dizzy tumbles over carpet reminded me only of childhood in Rawalpindi.

Even nights no children ran in, though, Amreen still found me. Around two of us, hall would sit quiet, room thoughtful with whir of Hoover, which I would guide slowly by handle, and Amreen, walking below me, would proudly push by zipper of its puffed out bag.

Va! Aap be volunteer hai? aunties would ask. Wow, you're a volunteer, too?

But she would not answer. In this way she was something like an alone child. Even at birthdays for other children from khane, yes, sometimes Amreen would join American games—colorful frills on piñata something she liked especially—but more often she would stand only watching, her little fingers pulling at eyebrow while thousand thoughts seemed to be crossing her face.

One day when Amreen was five, the twins three, Amina and I took children to local carnival, where, with desire to win prize for them, I played one ring toss game five times before tattooed gamekeeper took pity on me and gave plastic flute as prize.

You all must share this, I told children—but within one day it was clear Amreen would not let it go, would not even sleep without instrument.

Anil, please, Amina pleaded, days Amreen did not come to Dunkin, only so she could play flute. Anil, hide the damn thing.

Amreen played flute at home, in Corolla on way to khane, on drive to Dunkin, even in office at Dunkin, though she understood she could not play in customer area. I saw this restraint a sign of maturity, maturity helped along by jelly donuts. It was true also that her flute sometimes—but by no means always—sounded like screeching brakes of 18-wheel truck. But watching her play, even when it was bad, I saw something—a pinched look around her eyes, even at five, like she wanted desperately to create music.

Jaan, I responded to Amina's pleas. She has not had any instruction yet.

Lessons, like preschool, were luxury we could not afford.

Besides, I went on. Other than someone singing ginan at khane, or our singing to Hindi songs, do we know anyone, our entire lives, who has made music? Just think if she improves—

Amazingly, she did. Though my days at Dunkin passed slowly without Amreen—Ohh, where's your daughter? Spanish ladies asked—I began to come home to Amreen bursting, Daddy! Listen—

One day she froze me this way. While I removed shoes, music began to run happily from her flute, flowing from her breaths and fingers with real melody, mostly fast, before falling into drama, tense lows, before resolving finally in high peaks of relief.

W—where—did she learn? I called to Amina, after snatching Amreen up, tickling her dimple chin until she squealed.

Cartoons, Amina sighed from stove, her nightie stained from cooking. It could not have been easy these days with three children at home. But smirk crossed Amina's lips then, delicate angles of her face reflecting hints of pride. Flintstones, Tiny Tunes, Duck Tales—she listens to cartoon songs and every day comes closer to matching.

At school, teacher reported, Amreen was quiet, often standing and only watching other children rather than playing with them. But for weekly visits to music class, led by Ms. Zaylis, woman with big red hair who always wore high-heeled boots, Amreen ran always to stand first in line, her reservations all but disappeared. Early on, it happened that Ms. Zaylis assigned Amreen child's trumpet to play, and though most children preferred to sample every instrument if given chance, Amreen found her way back to trumpet week after week, and then, year after year. It was afterschool music lab, then, taught by Ms. Zaylis, which Amreen, who adored the red-haired teacher, most looked forward to twice each week.

Music lab? I laughed to Amina in private, because I was in awe. In grammar school we shared between five boys one textbook—studies coming only from dictation after dictation!

They were funny to me, these contrasts like music lab, benefits of here versus there simply falling from sky.

Music lab. This is good, I said to Amina, wishfully. Half-jokingly. Discipline of music is good training for medicine, na?

Ms. Zaylis, knowing lessons were impossible for us, took time to teach Amreen basic reading of music. Later, she quietly allowed Amreen to bring trumpet home, at first only twice a week after music lab, insisting to Amina when she came to walk Amreen home that she needed instrument back before school next day—but eventually allowing Amreen to take trumpet home every weekend, too.

And what could we offer Ms. Zaylis in return? What else? To Amreen's embarrassment, but on my insistence, twice a week Amina would, after meeting school bus for twins, who had no interest in music lab—Anisha preferring serials like Full House; Adnan preferring American sports with neighbor children—Amina would carry to school one large box of assorted donuts for Ms. Zaylis. Our small gift of appreciation.

Soon came surprise product of Ms. Zaylis' work. From third row of Amreen's fifth grade music concert, Amina and I, Adnan and Anisha between us, listened with mouths fallen open when, after five or ten children at one time piped or stringed or drummed together, like squeaky medley of almost-music, Amreen, on cue from Ms. Zaylis, began slowly to play trumpet all alone. Her thin cheeks quickly turned rosy, like when she cries. The brass of trumpet shined from stage lights, below her eyes pressed shut. And there in silence of cafeteria, the saddest notes I had ever heard fell upon my ears. For two full minutes, Amreen's music pierced my feelings, stirring memories long ago pushed back and buried. Inside low notes of her song I remembered my father, a thin man with sagging stomach and deep thinking eyes, like mine, people said—how I never saw him again after I left Rawalpindi. I remembered the night inside Bombay airport terminal, night I bowed to him for blessings, as goodbye. How he touched my shoulder with prayers then—May you find great abundance there, Anil—before he pulled me to his chest, his stomach pressed between us, and whispered: Maf kar. Forgive me, Anil, that I have not created more for you here. Throughout Amreen's solo, I imagined my father as he looked that day, in white shirt and white payjama, thin hair neatly parted, but somehow here in Florida with us, here in his cracked sandals walking through Dunkin, admiring our sturdy commercial chairs, our steel vats in back to fry twenty donuts at once. I imagined him raising his hand before A/C vents in our house, or standing at steps of community pool and preparing to enter, the hair on his sagging chest gray and content, matted in same thickness as mine. But mostly I imagined my father seeing children, Amreen creating this beautiful song with instrument he would not recognize, her concentration as if she is lost deep in prayer.

The problems, in my eyes, began when Amreen was 11. Sixth grade, her body had begun its changes, starting first with soft, naturally occurring—perfectly normal, I assured her—hair at her upper lip. Badge of our family. By 11, Amreen's had begun to darken, as did fuzz along backs of her arms—hair which I had not thought about, really, since she was newborn.

Jaan? Amina turned to me in bed one night. Her hand rested gently at my ribs. You know Amu will begin to have ladies cycle soon.

It was no surprise. At 11, Amreen was almost as tall as Amina.

Is it okay, jaanu, Amina continued, if next time I did my waxing, I took care of Amu's upper lip?

What could I say then while Amina's fingers massaged my side?

But that Sunday, after Amina placed can of wax to heat inside pot of boiling water, and Amreen ran into living room and pressed her developing body to me, saying, thank you daddy thank you daddy thank you, I began to worry. Trying to watch news, but listening instead to pulling of strips like band-aids, I thought of Amreen's already increasing time in bathroom, brushing her hair to this side one day, that side another, cutting with scissors by herself long bangs into front which framed her sharp cheeks—and I imagined what would come next. Makeup? Tight fitting clothes like American High girls wear into Dunkin, tops that hug shape of breasts then stop, showing miles of skin below? Belly buttons pierced with purple gemstones?

Daddy! Amreen came running then, her clean upper lip glowing. For one moment, in this suddenly-adult looking face, sharper in jaw but at same time more delicate around eyes, I saw Amina looking at me—frail, beautiful Amina of college days, standing by gate to Karimabad Colony.

Daddy—can I do my arms, too?

Amu, I sighed. Held my breath for one moment. I stood from sofa then, squeezed her knobby shoulders. Amu, you are eleven, darling. You will have these things to worry about whole life. Why rush?

It seemed life drained from her then. She looked away, her wet black eyes—my eyes, my father's eyes—shining wetter. I was not loud man at home, but Amreen looked afraid then, closed to me suddenly, and as her eyes fell to gray carpet I saw her dimple chin begin to shake with first sign of tears.

Fine! I said, not pulling her to me, not offering comfort, but pushing her back to kitchen. Do arms—but nothing else! We don't want to be like girls at Dunkin, showing belly button to all of Miami.

By 12, Amreen hit full stride of puberty—whatever had sprouted long trumpet fingers now extended arms and legs, too, such that in seventh grade alone she grew to not only taller than Amina but one inch taller than me. How nutrition here is different I do not know—I only know from those days on, all I heard at khane, at Dunkin, even from neighbors whose parking spaces bordered ours was: Dios mio, what beautiful figure. What height! What a blossoming beauty! She should dance Bollywood, one mother who wore tight blouses to khane, rather than shalwar kurta, stopped me to say. Imagine her gestures with those arms! And those fingers.

Before her emergence of womanhood, Amreen had simply stood after khane with her sister at one side of social hall, looking far away in her thinking way. Of course she no longer vacuumed with me. But now, Selina, a talkative 12-year-old whose lips shined always with gloss, began to invite Amreen into her circle, and then for group sleepovers. Then soon, one boy-girl dance party. Amina and I had never attended such gatherings in Rawalpindi—at any age; not at someone's flat nor in public—but we sent Amreen without hesitation, because these were children whose birthday parties she had attended for years, after all. It was not long after that first party, then, that Amreen began to stand after khane at center of social hall in her group of six or seven, these young girls under watchful eyes of everyone from small children to seated elders. There is nothing wrong with friends, of course, but it worried me that Selina stood out, wearing, as she approached teenage years, eye makeup too now to khane, and rather than shalwar kurta, dresses that ended well above knee. This in itself, too, was not problem, except that Selina stood always with hips shifted far to one side, like woman experienced in attracting eyes of men, not like girl of only twelve years.

But I was lucky—Amreen and Anisha loved to go Indian suit shopping. Even at Bimal's Boutique in Sunrise, though, world was forcing Amreen to face sexuality too soon. In front window to parking lot, mannequins wore revealing new designs from India, these lenga tops cut like bikinis, low on cleavage, high on abdomen, such that Bollywood stars—of whom Bimal of course had posters everywhere, Rani and Karina and Rekha all showing big busts over smooth stomachs—these days looked more like American strip dancers than girls from Rawalpindi. Maybe it was from Bimal's Boutique, then, where Amreen's fear of me, or of my reactions, had come. One day as I saw her touching jeweled fabric of one of those bikini lengas, out of some fatherly instinct I said, Dhey! and she seemed then to jump with guilt, before quickly moving to more modest shalwars.

Thankfully Amreen was too busy with jazz band—lead trumpet in only 7th grade—to ever bring up dancing for people, but then something worse arose.

Daddy! she came home one Sunday from mall with her sister and Amina. I was sitting in living room watching coverage of dot com boom—the America Online now worth more than hundred billion dollars. They sounded made-up to me, these numbers, but hearing them, I felt optimistic—children would amount to more here, I was certain, than my Dunkin.

With two hands then, Amreen passed me brochure like color photo, filled with many small photos, actually, faces of teenage girls and one or two boys shining up at me. Many of these girls had thin figure and flowing hair like Amreen.

This modeling agent? Amreen said. At the mall? He came up to me, stopped me by the fountain, and asked, Excuse me, but have you ever modeled?

Behind Amreen, Amina looked away in bashful smirk—as if she approved of this. As if this were some compliment to us.

So he said—all I have to do is come to his studio for a photo shoot. She beamed to Anisha, still all loose clothing and boyish sneakers in those days, and when Anisha beamed back it worried me. After the photo shoot, which he'll do for free since he's so confident I'll sell, we just have to pay a little money, just at first, to make some proofs—like the one you're holding—but with pictures of just me.

I was shaking by this point. So confident she'll sell?

Enough, jaanu, I said, trying to keep calm despite noise in my mind.

But, Daddy—

We—we don't want to do such things—

Daddy, it's not that much money—please—

It's not money, Amu! I shot glare at Amina, because it was foolish that this idea had not been stopped sooner. We—we are not raising you, Amu—to stand in front of camera and just be looked at. It was then that I could not help but remember—and could not shake from my mind once I did—one night my first year in U.S., back in '75, working at store of my chacha—my father's younger brother—in Tampa, when during one late shift, with guilt, I slipped open plastic of one adult magazine. On first page where I opened, one nude girl with golden skin stared out at me—sixteen or seventeen, she appeared—kneeling on hands and knees, her small nipples swollen and pink. Her mouth had fallen slightly open. My eyes shifted then to other side of page, where one horse, one real horse, was entering her from behind. I shut magazine then, pressed it immediately into garbage. Paid Chacha's register from my own pocket. Feeling of shame choked at me; I could not bear to see more, but only to think: In U.S. there is no force with such things. So how much money made this young girl agree to this act by choice?

Um, Daddy, can we talk about this? Amreen said in living room. TV announcer went on, about cell phone companies growing to new records, too.

You have mind, Amu, I said. You have talent with trumpet. You have dreams of becoming doctor.

This I had begun to push again lately, when after only small prod from me, Amreen entered school science fair, producing experiment testing effectiveness of various antibiotics, and not only won Best In Show but Second Place in all Broward County, and also received two beautiful plaques from local groups—1999 Most Outstanding Medical Experiment by Physician's Alliance Broward. Aside from encouragement, my contribution was only to display board; to accommodate her many graphs, I built larger one than ready-made foam boards, happily spending in this case on plywood and hinges and baby blue paint, to signify healing, Amreen and I agreed.

I don't want to be a doctor, Daddy! Amreen said now—maybe only to hurt me. After I had mounted glass shelf over line of shoes to display trophies. Then, with her little sister watching all this, Amreen ran upstairs to bedroom three children shared and slammed door so hard one of her plaques on wall turned crooked.

It should not have been surprise then when Amreen was 13 that one boy began to call house.

Yeah? he mumbled into phone. Amreen there?

As if it was too much effort to speak clearly, Amina—who did not seem to mind modeling but who, when it came to this boy, disapproved fiercely—complained to me at night. I don't want any lafra, Anil. No scandal. No shame.

Amreen would take calls in children's room, checking by clicking line over and over, that Amina, her worry boiling, was not listening downstairs. Then Amreen would hide there, not completing homework—though in fairness, her grades remained perfect—not practicing trumpet, only speaking to this boy for one hour, two even, laughter drifting through closed door all the way downstairs sometimes. This always when I was not home.

Who is this boy calling you? I asked Amreen at dinner table one night. It was same foldout table we had brought from Bartow years back, now covered by blue checker cloth Amina had allowed girls to choose from Publix.

Amreen only looked into her rice swimming in daal. Bits of tomato dotted the mixture, like she loves, too.

I realized then I did not want her to think she had done something wrong.

Jaanu? I touched her hand. Her arms, thin like legs of flamingo, were smooth of any hair these days. Her loose home t-shirt, Silver Knights Jazz written across her now womanly chest, flowed past her elbows. Jaanu, I said. It's okay if you have friend—

His name is Zubair, Anisha bubbled from end of table. Anisha worshipped Amreen a little, I was aware, for her long frame to Anisha's round, for her perfect grades to Anisha's B and C marks. Zubair from khane—he's 16!

Sixteen? Amina coughed.

But I remained calm—he was from khane at least. We did not know expectations, normal boy and girl relations, amongst whites and Jews and now growing Cubans and others at Amreen's school—or for that matter even among Miami Gardens teenagers at Dunkin, young caramel-skin girls from American High sometimes walking in pregnant. But we had some idea of modesty in families from khane.

So after prayers, retrieving vacuum, I began to take new notice of Amreen and her friends, as all of khane seemed to now. To their circle they'd added sixteen-year-old Zubair, a dark boy tallest of maybe anyone in khane, with beard shaped in thin line down to jaw then around his sharp chin. His hair was in tough style of those days, shaved to skin on bottom then faded to darker buzz at top. His eyes appeared always half-closed, even among friends, and I thought maybe that habit had come from rougher North Miami, where I soon learned his parents, owners of dollar store, had moved Zubair away from one year back. Father probably worked late on Fridays, because I began to notice Zubair driving mother to khane, pulling onto gravel outside in one old Honda Accord, lowered somehow to barely ride above asphalt. At back was large muffler you could hear from far away, vibration rising as he neared you. Out of this gray car Zubair would rise dressed decently for khane, in button shirt and slacks, though all very loose.

What I noticed most, though, was that Zubair looked on Amreen from his considerable height not with look of hormones but with keen interest, half-closed eyes opening only for her, thinking smile sometimes forming above pencil beard. Once, I even saw him pulling at eyebrow, habit he could only have learned from Amreen. As if what she was saying, this girl three years younger to him, was sprouting in his mind strange new thoughts, interesting feelings. This, at least, was my wishful father's perspective.

Dad? Can I go to the movies, um, Saturday night? Can you drop me off at the mall? Can I sleep over Selina's house? For two nights?

These were, unfortunately, the only conversations I was having with Amreen when high school began. Not, Father of mine, can you help me with my display board? Or, Daddy, can I have one more jelly donut?

Amu, I said to her one night at table, trying to speak about something besides her going out. You know one aunty at khane was saying, they have it these programs, six-year medical programs, where top students can apply straight from high school to college-come-medical-school. You complete in six years, not eight—

Uggghhh, Amreen only said, and excused herself to finish homework.

Amreen did maintain the grades, I have to admit—always perfect A's, even in advanced classes, sometimes studying until three or four in morning, Amina staying up and making chai for her, offering almonds or dates or spicy chevdra mix for snack. Consoling her, too, on those late nights when Amreen gave in to tears while struggling through difficult maths problems. Amreen kept up excellence in trumpet, too, placing in competitions around whole of Florida, including 2nd place, 2001 Florida Brass Competition. One day, though, when Adnan, his head at twelve faded now, too, in same tough style as Zubair, while dribbling basketball in house broke Amreen's largest trophy—trumpet replica standing on wooden platform—into pieces, Amreen did not appear to mind. It seemed I was only one who did.

Watching me scotch tape fragments back together, Amreen only wrinkled her mouth. Daddy? You do know these competitions are the antithesis of art, right?

I did not understand, of course. But still I felt proud, mounting wobbling trophy back onto shelf, that Amreen was able to feel things about art that were beyond my English. And later I would wonder, while dropping her to movies, or mall, or Grand Prix Race-o-Rama—Zubair always there, jeans pockets hanging at backs of knees, under big t-shirt with basketball player emblem—I would wonder if she said such things about art to Zubair, and if Zubair was bright enough to find her interesting.

Because of her excellence in school I did not feel it right to refuse Amreen's social requests, but I had to sometimes say no—too much is too bad, jaanu, I would say—so these nights of refusal she would not speak to me, knowing maybe that even her short silence would make me feel like tyrant for days, causing me, lost in my thoughts, to miss exit driving to store, finding myself in traffic of Palmetto before I could even make sense that I was lost.

Once, I tried same silence on her. Calling from road on new cell phone to say I was on way, I got Amreen on line instead of Amina. Tell mum I'll be home in ten minutes, I said, then quickly hung up.

And what did Amreen do? She called back immediately, and in her rare Hindi, angry, but with voice breaking with feeling, she scolded me: Esa esa hang up karthe? I love you bi nehi bolthe? You hang up on me just like this? You don't even say I love you?

Sorry jaanu, I could only say. I'm sorry.

On those refused nights, though, any unhappiness in Amreen would disappear when she sat down at living room computer, typing into the America Online, to Zubair I imagined. As she tapped away, her lips would part, wishfully. Waiting only for next message. As if whatever that boy was writing in small window made Amreen as happy as browsing shops with him at Miami Lakes Main Street.

Ey, I joked once. Makhi mu me jaingi! A fly will enter your mouth!

She looked up then, up from Zubair's message, and for brief moment her milky face filled for me with exact rosy blush as when I would offer her jelly donut as little girl.

It was one night when Amreen was in 10th grade then that she slipped. It was January, which for us hardly meant more than cool breeze, extra scent of trees in air, darkness falling before six mostly. That afternoon Amreen had called Amina from school phone—only I had cell phone at that time—that she had jazz band practice until seven, after which she would take ride home with friend. That night I happened to leave Dunkin early, and when I called Amina to say I was on way, and learned of Amreen's late practice, I grew excited for chance to listen to her play. These days it was rare for me—her competitions always taking place after school, during rush hour at Dunkin. But I loved to listen to her trumpet, had even bought camcorder year before and taught Amina to use, to film Amreen at competitions for all of us to watch afterwards, to save forever, even. Though the sound never carried very well, still I relished witnessing her musical maturity, as her teacher called it—had we ever heard of such things in Rawalpindi?—how her emotion with trumpet seemed to have reached adulthood. Watching these recordings of Amreen, her pinched eyes and pained expressions, absorbing even through shaking camcorder her trilling notes of sadness, I often felt taken away to distant feelings—memories of my lonely first years here, for instance, writing to Amina every night from gas station—feelings I did not have power to touch so easily.

At Amreen's school I parked by jazz band room, same parking lot where I had picked her up dozens of times. But I found jazz room empty, vacant easels all turned at different angles. I checked down hall then, concert band space, but that room also sat empty. I began to worry now, rushed to band director's office, but this heavy door was locked, too. Small panic growing, I finally saw one yellow-haired girl, wheeling what looked to me violin case bigger than she was. Do you know Amreen? I asked, running. From jazz band? Is Amreen here somewhere?

I'm in jazz band, the girl said. But who are you looking for? Her pale eyes fell to my Dunkin nametag, ANIL written under icon of steaming coffee—and this girl seemed then to avert her gaze, to appear embarrassed. Did I somehow make her uncomfortable?

Amreen, I repeated, saying it as I always do, the same way Amreen said her name, I thought. The Am— like America. Amreen, I said again, shyly now.

Ohh, you mean Am-reen.

As in, I am going to kill her.

Amreen took off way back. Like, around four?

Four?

Four-fifteen? the girl said, worry brightening her acne now that she may have said too much.

Not knowing where else to search, I idled in direction of home. Seeing one lone streetlight burnt out above empty Taft Street, I began to feel that I, too, was standing alone in dark. Slowly, it settled on me that Amreen had lied. I felt painful doubt then that she was with Zubair.

I searched for what to do—call Selina, Amreen's sleepover friend? But Selina attended different school, the two hardly saw each other during weekdays. Call Zubair's parents? I could track down number. But it was already six-thirty—Amreen had told Amina she'd be home by seven. Maybe I should wait.

Entering neighborhood then, driving at crawl, I did not want to go inside house. Did not want to inform Amina of Amreen's lie, did not want to make obvious this dishonesty to Anisha and Adnan. God knows, they didn't copy Amreen's grades but they would copy this. So I circled neighborhood in dark, passing our townhouse with small brown fence, small plot of grass no bigger than bathtub, then next row of wall-to-wall houses, these nicer with single-car garages. Turning then, my headlights trailed over empty parking lot of community pool, and it was there that I saw one car, one very low car—what looked like Zubair's Honda—parked in last space, lights off. Even in half second of light I knew it was his—lowered so that you could not see tops of wheels. Big muffler almost scraping ground. There were lowered cars in Pembroke Pines, too, but few of them late model Accord like Zubair's.

I turned off headlights, parked on other side of lot. There were no streetlights, no pool lights at this hour. In night's chill I could smell fresh-cut grass, chlorine in air. In that chill I walked toward Honda. My palms felt slick, my step unsure. When I reached it I could not see inside but felt, the way one feels someone walking behind him, some movement inside. I put my face to glass then. Flipped cell phone open to create small glow. And what did I see? Zubair in driver's seat, leaning back, eyes closed. Then the unmistakable back of Amreen's head in his lap, her silky hair draped to every side. At first I did not understand—I was not raised in this country—but when Zubair first, then Amreen, shook at light in window, when Amreen turned to see my own mouth fallen open now, that was when I saw Zubair's jeans pulled down, unzipped, and what Amreen's mouth had been fixed on.

I lost my breath. Anger did not occur to me. I only felt shortage of air, rush of emotion, what only Amreen could pull from me—shouting hasta mañana as small girl pressed against glass at Dunkin; helping me push vacuum by bag through empty prayer hall; and, of course, playing trumpet, no performance more stirring than her solo in 5th grade, the moment I realized she could express with music feelings I would never articulate. Breathless, I stumbled from car. In my mind, in darkness, I could only hear trailing notes of her trumpet, not realizing as I imagined them that in future, whenever I listened to her play, I would remember, with clarity, sound of Honda door opening. Amreen's cries piercing night as she ran to me. Pressed her face into my sleeve, against my unstable footing. And between painful sobs, cried, I'm sorry, Daddy. I'm so, so sorry.

Poetry

Michael Montlack

Michael Montlack
Geographic Monogamy

Poetry

Kenneth Sherman

Kenneth Sherman
Western

Poetry

Sebastian Agudelo

Sebastian Agudelo
Folk