Dearly Beloved By Yasir Shah
Your eyes are like sparkling diamonds in the sky. Your smile is also radiant. I dream about it when I sleep. You are the beautiful queen of my world. You are princess of my heart…”
“…Only and only you hold the key to my heart. You can unlock it only. Sometimes I dream about a future together. You and me living together as a husband and a wife. Away from here, far, far away. Just you and me and two children. A boy and a girl. I have never loved someone so much. Even now I am so scared to say the words ….”
“…I have flown on broken wings too long. I can not do it anymore. I will never forget the day I saw you first. I could not get you out of my mind. You are mine and mine only. I love you more than oceans can stretch across this world…..”
And I read.
Each line, each word, each alphabet. Syllables of sooth uttered to rid me of distress. Similes for love, carefully chosen from a Webster’s dictionary off a roommate’s shelf. Handpicked, inscribed, proof-read…just for me! For me! Fatima the beautiful princess with eyes like sparkling diamonds in the sky and a smile so radiant he dreamt about it when he slept! Not for Fatty the Fatty or whatever my classmates liked to call me!
Fatty the potty-colored, gutter faced Fatty!
A rhyming epithet my peers had coined for me in school playgrounds when they laughed and pointed at my dark and flabby skin. Or when the teacher stuttered my name during morning roll-call forcing me to hate my mother even more.
I mean come on! Fatima? Seriously, Fatima? What kind of name is that? Couldn’t my parents think of a better name? How about Angela. Why not Andrea? Short, sweet, easy to understand. All the teachers seemed to love these names. Never had a problem pronouncing them, never fumbled or repeated themselves at least three times to make sure they got it right.
FAyTeeMah? FahTaiMay? Fatemay?
I would roll my eyes, I would hide my face, I would slouch lower in my seat.
Girls who were not named Fatima were prettier too. Long, blonde locks that fell over knitted stars and pink sweaters. Angela! That one had colored eyes! Mine were barely even brown. Why? Because her parents had known better. They had named her Angela, so when she got to the 4th grade she could have golden hair, pink sweaters and pretty green eyes. Fatimas got stuck with brown skin, fat frames and boring eyes. Those girls were named by parents who didn’t hate their daughters. Mine had decided to name me Fatima as if I didn’t already look different enough. Their parents didn’t want their daughters to be the fat girl in the 4th grade with potty-brown skin and a “gutter-face.” Boring un-colored eyes even teachers didn’t smile at.
And my sweaters! They came from Walmart. Why? Because “no no, Fatima, put that pink sweater back on the shelf, we’ll get one from Walmart, sweaters are cheaper there”. Why couldn’t I be Angela for once? Or Annalisa? Even Andrea? Miss Brown always took their names first during attendance. Mine she kept for last while I hoped she would forget to utter it altogether. Every morning, the same routine; Miss. Brown going down the list; crooning the pretty names first like nursery rhymes.
Angelaaaaa! Here. Andreahhhhh! Here Annalisaaaaaa! Here.
Then she got to the weird ones.
Ching-Hui-Lee??? That’s when the class would giggle.
Kenny Who? And they would giggle some more!
By the time she got to the E’s I prayed for the earth to swallow me in. I prayed for fire-drills or giant octopuses. Big, green ones that could jump off the notice board and take Miss Brown away. But my name was always right after Ernesto Vasquez. Always.
“FAyTeeMah? FahTaiMay? Fatemay?”
I would roll my eyes.
And while the entire classes rolled around in laughter, I would reluctantly squeak “Here Miss Brown.”
Then, hide my face.
Fatty the Fatty. Yeah that was me!
Slouching lower in my seat.
Thanks Baba, Thanks Ma!
Up until last year, boys had cooties and girls were dumb. By the 4th grade, that quickly began to change! Now all of a sudden, we had school dances, heart-shaped cupcakes, surprise candigrams and secret admirers. Girls like Angela and Andrea found secret love notes in their book bags. Notes scrawled on pages ripped out slowly and neatly from spiral notebooks. The words…
Will you go to the Spring Bash with me?
…colored in with four different markers. By boys who once hated girls. Who pretended to poke the back of their throats with fingers when girls walked by. Now, they secretly stared at knitted stars and pink sweaters. Then looked away before their friends could notice a stare that lingered longer than the last. Well, at least that’s what they did when Angela, Annalisa or Andrea passed by.
A look of confusion. Then wonder. Then embarrassment. But I? I received nothing. No candigrams, no confused looks. No embarrassed ones either. Just the loud bark “Look, look, here she comes…here she comes…Fatty the Fatty.”
Loud chortles. Ignorant sniggers.
Just like the Spring Bash there was the Winter Dance, the Autumn Jam and the Summer Slam. I never went to any of those. Only American girls with pretty names were asked to school dances. Boys didn’t ask brown-skinned, potty colored, gutter-face, Fatty the fatty-types to dances. So on those weekends, I stayed at home in my over-cluttered house where our clothes, our sheets and even our skin smelt of curry. Those evenings were spent watching B4u, Indus, ARY and PTV with a father who only dressed in old vests and pajamas and a mother I could not stand. Maybe because she wasn’t fat or maybe because she wasn’t as dark. Maybe even because friends and strangers would call her pretty, fresh, young and innocent. Words that should have been used to describe me. But I was always just round and healthy, to the same friends and the same strangers who then gave my mother tips of how to “clean” my complexion.
I made myself feel better by telling everyone that I didn’t want to go to these silly dances anyway. Boys still had cooties. Girls were dumb like school dances. Baba had told me that I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere where boys danced closely with girls because in Pakistan – a country I had never seen but only dreamt of – boys and girls didn’t do such shameful things. In Pakistan, girls like myself were considered pretty. They didn’t have to compete with American girls like Angela who were born with paper-white skin, yellow hair and green eyes. I guess boys in Pakistan were not as silly as these idiots in my class either. They were good Pakistani boys who did not talk to girls. Good girls who didn’t “clean” their complexions. And Fatima was a name that meant something nice.
Anyway, I spent most of my 4th grade with such ridiculous consoling, till one day I was told that I too was beautiful even without the pink sweaters and the blond hair. By a boy who loved me. Then, it no longer mattered what other white boys thought of me. I had found myself a good, wholesome Pakistani boy in love with me.
And I loved him back.
On a November afternoon Amjad Bhai had told me that my eyes were like sparkling diamonds in the sky and that my smile was radiant. After that, I no longer needed to feel loved. Especially not by those silly boys at school who called me Fatty the Fatty. Those idiots. Amjad Bhai was a man-not a boy- who studied Engineering at a University. He had seen Pakistan up-close, spoke Urdu and now he thought that my eyes were diamonds and my smile was radiant. His face was potty-colored and gutter shaded just like mine. He too ate with his fingers and did not twitch his nose one bit when it was greeted by whiffs of curry in the house. He loved me, I loved him. Out of all the silly fair-haired, blue-eyed Andreas and Angela’s from his university, he had picked me to say Dearly Beloved to. Now, I was going to marry him.
Amjad Bhai first walked into our lives when I was in the third grade. A lanky, greasy engineering student following my Baba home one evening. They had met at an event at the local Pakistani Student Association. Baba would often attend such things for free food. You see, Baba was cool because he worked at Duke University with rats. Yes, rats, real live rats. He wasn’t scared of them either. He wasn’t scared of anything. My mother, well she didn’t care much for his job but then again she was one of those always unhappy types. Hated everything we did. Maybe there was a point to that hate. Working with rats probably didn’t bring home much money. If he didn’t work with rats, maybe we could afford pricey pink sweaters that did not come from dusty clearance racks at Walmart. But you see, Baba didn’t care much for the rats either. I know because he would often grunt and yell when he came home. Only for the first hour though because later he would change into his dirty vest and pajama and wait for Ma to feed him some chawal machlee. The day Baba did not groan as soon as he came home was when a brown, lanky boy stood shyly behind him.
“This boy is a pure genius I tell you” Baba addressed us in his broken English before he switched to Urdu “Here on a full scholarship from a modest house in Pakistan and getting all high marks.”
My curious stares at the boy made him obviously nervous. His head dropped some more, his eyes, even more terrified. Yet at the same time, he seemed relieved to be around the smell of chawal machlee and long conversations about a man - sometimes a woman - called Bhutto.
The best part about him was that he was not a kid. He was an older boy, a teenager who looked like me too! I neither knew nor cared that his hairstyle was outdated, his jeans faded and too tight, his shoes fake and his shirt mismatched. But instead, we did what most minorities did when we found each other in a land where we were all potty-colored, gutter-faced Fatty the Fatties. We welcomed each other, rejoiced and then shared our food, our lives, our favors and whatever else we could barter.
“What a wonderful boy!” Baba would always say “Not like the other spoilt Pakistani brats at the university. Those good-for-nothing big-city scoundrels whose parents pay their entire bank accounts for these brats yet all they do is party and drink with Amreekans.”
Apparently Amjad Bhai felt the same because he began to spend all his weekends at our over-cluttered house. After a while, I didn’t even know if anyone had much to say to each other. Baba resumed watching South Asian channels on the satellite while Amjad Bhai sat in the corner nodding to his inaudible grumbles, his hands clasped shyly in his lap. Ma continued to prepare smelly food for the family. Since neither of my parents excited me much, I was now the only one happy to see Amjad Bhai. After all, he was my only friend. Kids in school only bullied me and the ones down the street didn’t care for me. At home my parents hardly ever said a word. To replace my boredom, I spent my time, showing Amjad Bhai pictures of New Kids on the Block and laughing at his broken English. It’s pronounced “villain, vegetables and very!” I would mock him and “willain, wegetables and wery” he would sheepishly repeat. He never got offended at the way I laughed at his thick accent. As far as I knew, he was a friend, maybe even a brother. Till the day he told me that only and only I held the key to his heart. That’s when he became more than a friend. More than a brother. He became a man in love with me. And I loved back.
He had written it all in that beautiful love letter.
The first love letter I had ever received in my life. And then just like that, the world began to look different. My reflection too looked different now. I would sit for hours in front of the mirror and brush my hair. One night, when Ma wasn’t looking I even smeared her bright red Revlon on my lips. It was moments like these when I would imagine myself as Mrs. Amjad Bhai. How pretty I would look as his bride. The whole school would be invited too. All of them. Angela, Andrea, and Annalisa. They would ooh and aah at my dress and then my make up. They would appreciate my heritage and my culture. They would even hide their envy because guess what? All they had were stupid boys asking them to dances. I was the one who was getting married. And to a college boy too, one who could drive and make money.
I had found the letter in my book bag one afternoon when I sat down to finish my homework. There, crumpled into a ball next to scraps of ripped alphabetical order and algebra equations were the words Dearly Beloved on pink stationery. It even had his scent. I have to admit, I had no idea that Amjad Bhai felt that way about me. Flattered, once I found out but before that, he was simply a friend of my fathers. Another person who looked like me. A brother, a friend. The more I thought about it the more I realized that the signs were all there. His interest in me had sparked almost a year before he hid the love letter in my Barbie book-bag but just a few weeks after I had greeted him at our front step. I had not even guessed when his visits to our house became more frequent. All those times when he had seemed so interested in my scrap books and my room, he was probably just looking for an excuse to get me alone and confess his love for me. What about when Amjad Bhai would turn beet-red and look down when Baba would joke with him and say “Young man, you are almost about to graduate with an Msc in Engineering. You should find yourself a nice Pakistani girl to marry now. None of these loose types running around campus. Nice, traditional girls who don’t talk back to men.” Now I can only imagine how awkward it must have been for him with me right there in the room giggling. Anyway, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found him standing outside my school one day.
“What are you doing here Amjad Bhai?” I innocently asked.
“Nothing, I just thought it would be better for me to walk you home from now on. Make sure you get home safely.”
It was a nice thing to do, but back then, I thought he was just being brotherly. Trying to find a way to repay my father for his hospitality and thank my mother for all the nasty machlee chawal she fed him. But the those looks on Angela, Andrea and Annalisa’s faces were the best part. The way they watched me walk away, with a boy so much taller than us. How they turned green with envy when he leaned over and took the bag off my shoulders with the words “Here, you must be tired, let me carry that for you” And if that wasn’t romantic enough “Do you want a Slushie from 7-11 on the way home Fatima?”
He would say it just right: Fatima!
I didn’t realize it back then, but it was his way of getting close to me. Shower me with affection. His own way. During those romantic walks together, I would talk about everyone in my school, boys that had cooties and girls that were dumb. Even Miss Brown and how she messed up my name during morning roll-call and how stupid school dances were. He probably listened to me in and fell deeper in love. Till one day, he finally found the courage to declare that love for me with a slipped love-letter. A cursive “Dearly Beloved” scrawled affectionately on the left side of the paper.
Ma was always there to greet us at the door. She would take my coat and book bag up to my room. How childish that must have seemed to him! Still treated like a little kid in my house but I hoped that Amjad Bhai would look past that.
“Ma can Amjad Bhai stay for lunch pleeeeeeeeeeeease?”
“Ok Fina Fatima,”
Some of the few words ever exchanged between my mother and I.
Amajad Bhai. I. You and I were in love.
I have to admit that after I found his love-letter, I wouldn’t let my mother take my book-bag and my coat anymore. She would kill me if she found out that her daughter was having an affair with a college boy. She seemed like those type of mothers. Always unhappy. Always angry. My father would do the same if not worse. He didn’t want his daughter turning out “loose” like the rich Pakistani girls at University he would scowl at. Their boobs pushing forward for Farungis to see in their tight black tops. Jeans that hugged their flesh tightly except above the crack of their ass.
So I fought with my mother. Told her that she didn’t need to take my bag and my coat to my room anymore. I was no longer a little baby, I could do it myself. I also wanted an expensive haircut. For once, I wanted to a buy a pink sweater that wasn’t from Walmart. I wanted to be able to listen to songs in my room. I wanted blond hair and blue eyes. I wanted to stay in love.
I got my haircut, I got a pink sweater. I even got to listen to songs in my room. With my haircut I even got what every girl in my class wanted; bangs. The kind I could press down on my forehead when walking out of school. Dusting the lint off my pink sweater, humming songs I had heard in my room the night before. Even Angela, Andrea and Annalisa began to say hello to me. I was rarely ever called Fatty the Fatty now. I was Fatima, the brown-skinned girl with bangs who walked home with a brown-skinned college boy every afternoon. Fatima, with pink sweaters and who got love letters with big words. Not stupid candigrams from boys who could hardly spell. A girl in love with an MSc engineering student and soon to be married. Not to some silly fat kid in shorts and t-shirts who could only take a girl to a dance chaperoned by parents and teachers. I was to be married to someone who flew on broken wings for too long and I was going to have two kids, a boy and a girl.
I wondered what Ma and Baba would say when Amjad Bhai and I would stand in front of them and tell them that we were ready to get married. What could they say anyway? Ma had married Baba when she was sixteen. The only memory of their wedding; a faded Polaroid of Baba sitting on a charpoy with a handkerchief on his mouth. My mother barely sixteen, sitting next to him with her head almost touching her lap. She had once told me how she had married Baba. The youngest of four daughters, one afternoon she was busy playing marbles in the verandah of her home when Baba’s parents arrived at their door step to propose for her eldest sister. Ma had opened the door for them and after one long look at my fifteen-year-old mother, Baba’s parents ended up asking for her hand in marriage instead. They even said that they would wait for a year till Ma turned sixteen. True to their promise, exactly one year later Ma was married off to Baba and a few months later she arrived in North Carolina with 2 suitcases, one carry-on (a broken zipper never fixed) and a Vanity full of cheap makeup. When I was born, people said I looked more like my father and not my mother. I guess that meant I should have been born a boy and not a girl. Whatever. I didn’t care. I now had Amjad Bhai.
Months passed after I received my first love-letter from Amjad Bhai and the flirting became heavier. I knew he was waiting patiently for me to make the next move but I didn’t know what to write. I wrote several versions of a love-letter but flushed them all down the toilet before morning because my words sounded so dumb when I read them out loud to myself. Finally I decided on coloring in a large pink heart with the words “Yes” scribbled inside. I placed that note in my science textbook because it was the thickest.
Days passed and I never could muster up the courage to hand him the letter. I worried that he would think that I had lost interest. So I flirted even more and he responded right back. When I pressed down my bangs, he would compliment me on my haircut. When I ran my hands across the soft wool of my sweaters, he would notice the printed diamonds and the knitted hearts. So with shy, rehearsed smiles I would place my sweaty elfin hands into his coarser palms even when we didn’t have to cross the street. Every step we took towards my house, I thought of the right words to utter. “I love you too Amjad Bhai”. “I’m ready to marry you Amjad Bhai”, “Your eyes look like diamonds in the sky too Amjad Bhai” but before I could say anything, we would arrive home and there would be my mother standing at the door waiting for me like a hawk. That would ruin everything till the next day. When I would walk out of school and find him in the same spot. How his dark face that would light up the minute his eyes would fall on me. He would run over and hug me. Then we would walk home hand in hand. I wondered if he would ever put another love-letter in my bag. Was he still waiting for my reply? How does this work?
I took the bus to the mall all by myself on a Saturday when I went to buy a graduation gift for my dearly beloved Amjad Bhai. I walked around Macys, JC Pennys, Toys R Us, Target even went to CVS. I searched for non-pink sweaters for boys, baggier jeans than what he wore. I pulled out books, leather wallets, belts and even buckles. But each time, I read the price tag, I would count my fingers and then place the items back. In the end, I ended up at the dollar store. Girls in my class bought gifts for boys from a store called Everything. That store was always full of high school kids who hoped to get to second-base at the movies. But heart shaped gifts which guaranteed tongue-kisses on a date came with a price. A price that was always more than the four dollars in my pocket. I had already spent a dollar on the bus fare so the gift from the dollar store was my only option. But what I found was a great find I must admit. A romantic heart shaped pad with pink papers and the words “Dearly Beloved” embossed on each page. I imagined his smile when I would place it in his hands. When I would congratulate him on his graduation and tell him to write more love-letters for me. When I would tell him that I loved him. That I was ready to marry him.
I locked myself in my room when I got home that night. Quietly I wrapped the gift with old Calendar paper. Ma always recycled wrapping paper from the gifts we received. If I were to steal one, she would notice immediately. But my wrapping paper was still better. It wasn’t those carefully peeled off – not allowed to tear off because Ma wanted to use them again -papers. I drew hearts on my gift with my pink markers. Even sprayed some of Ma’s perfume on it.
But… that day of graduation I had another fight with Baba and Ma. They didn’t want me to wear a sari. Ma said that little girls didn’t wear saris. I wanted to punch her and yell at her. Even call her the B word and the F word. Wanted to scream things like what do you know you got married at sixteen and you’re going to tell me that I’m too young. But of course, Baba sided with her. He too didn’t want me growing up. So in the end, I had to wear a stupid button-down with dress pants that my Ma had picked up at Target on Black Friday. Oh my God, I was in such a sour mood that day. And it was such an important day for Amjad Bhai. We sat and watched him walk across the stage with his diploma in his hand. He looked so handsome. No longer just a dark boy with greasy hair and a funny accent. He was different now; smarter, more mature. Later when we walked up to him, I could tell he was searching for me in the crowd and when he saw me his eyes lit up. He ran up to me and hugged me. Picked me up and twirled me around. It was all so romantic. My parents smiled back, clueless. I wanted to plant a kiss on his lips so bad. His friends stood behind and watched with smiles. I wondered how many of them knew that I was his going to be his wife. I wondered if they liked me too. I wondered if I would have to cook for them someday like Ma had to cook for Baba’s friends. His friends wanted to take him out for lunch to a Pakistani restaurant but I insisted that he come home with us. He looked down at me, gave me a smile that he would often give me when we walked home from school. The smile that confirmed his love for me. “Whatever you want Fatima!” he said.
Baba fawned over him throughout lunch. It angered me and annoyed me. Ma offered him one dish after the other. Stinking up the house with chawal machlee.
“So do you have a job yet?” Baba asked him.
“I have a few interviews,” Amjad Bhai answered confidently.
“Take my advice; demand as high a salary as you want. Don’t be shy. You have an Msc in engineering from Duke.”
“Yes sir…” he replied.
“So, what about marriage plans? You can afford a family now. Have your parents found a girl for you back home yet?”
Amjad Bhai blushed once again. He looked at me nervously and then looked away. I smiled. He was still so shy.
After dinner when the table was cleared, Amjad Bhai excused himself. It was time for him to go and I still hadn’t given him the gift. Before he walked out, he hugged me tight. A hug that meant the world to me; holding me close longer than he had ever held me. As if he wanted to whisper something in my ear. Then, with his head down he walked out. I wanted to chase after him, I wanted to hug him some more. I wanted to tell him that I loved him. I could not help but hate myself because it had been more than a year since he had confessed his love for me and I still hadn’t said “I love you back”. Now, I no longer cared about the world. I no longer cared about my parents and if they would ground me. I ran up the stairs, grabbed the heart shaped gift and ran after him. At home, Baba was glued to the TV in his dirty vest and pajama picking his teeth. Ma was washing the dishes in the kitchen. I ran down the street in the dark, panting heavily. I finally saw him slowly walking down the hill.
“Amjad Bhai!” I ran towards him.
He spun around, a little shocked to see me. Maybe even pleased at my courage.
“What are you doing here Fatima?” he whispered.
“I got you this for your graduation,” I pulled out the gift “I’ve been meaning to give it to you all day but there were just so many people around and I wanted to make sure….”
“Oh thank you sweetheart.” Sweetheart! He had called me sweetheart! And then he bent down to embrace me.
Another nice long embrace. Longer than the last.
“I love you Amjad Bhai…” I finally whispered the words.
He held me tighter once I had finally uttered the words. Words that he had longed to hear for over a year. “Oh Fatima, I love you too. I love you so much…” The warmth of his tears of joy trickling down his cheek onto the back of my neck.
Everything felt right today. Locked in his embrace, I didn’t care if anyone saw us. We were two brown-skinned people in love. And we were going to stay together for ever and ever.
I leaned back and immediately pressed my lips against his. I had seen girls and boys do it in the movies all the time. Angela and Ernie had even gotten caught doing it in the back of the cafeteria once. It was how I had always imagined. Slightly strange. Especially when he pushed me away and yelled “What the hell are you doing Fatima?”
I couldn’t reply.
“What is wrong with you? Are you ok? What the hell? Oh my God, Oh my God….” He ranted.
I wanted to say it was because I loved him back. Wanted to tell him that it was what two people in love did. But I couldn’t utter a word. He continued to rant.
“F**k, f**k f**k…” he repeated the F word “Why in the world would you? How old are you Fatima? Oh my God. This shouldn’t have happened. This is wrong; this is SO, SO wrong. This is fucked up.” He said the F word again.
And just like that he turned around and ran away. Dashed down the hill as fast as he could. As if I repulsed him. Me: potty-colored, gutter-faced, Fatty the Fatty. I stood there. Still. Watched him run till his back became a tiny dot disappearing into the distance. The heart shaped gift, lying dejectedly on the ground before me.
I didn’t run. I walked back to the house with my lead down. I was confused. Embarrassed. When I walked inside, nothing had changed. Baba was still watching TV in his dirty vest and pajama but he had stopped picking his teeth. Ma was still in the kitchen but she had stopped washing the dishes. I walked back up to my room and got into bed. I cried myself to sleep that day. I cried only once again after that. I think it’s because I was embarrassed.
Ma and Amjad Bhai ran away together two weeks later. I found out when I came home from school. The words Fatty the Fatty were pinned on the back of my book bag. The kids in school had laughed because they thought I didn’t know. But I did. Just didn’t care enough to take it off.
I found out because Baba was yelling and swearing when I got home. F words and B words and some words I still had yet to learn. He threw around the furniture. He even kicked the television and smashed vases. In his hand was the same pink piece of paper that I had once received in my book bag. When he saw me he yelled some more. Told me what a whore my mother was. Told me he should have known what a disgraced family he was marrying into when his parents had first sent a proposal for a fifteen year old tramp. He told me that they weren’t going to get away with this. That he knew all the cops in Durham and that he would seek her out from every corner in this disgraceful Amreeka. Once he found her, he would break both her legs and then Amjad Bhai’s legs.
I left him alone and walked away. Went back up to my room for the rest of the day.
Later that night I could hear Baba sobbing loudly downstairs. I imagined him sitting on the floor with his head in his hands. In his dirty vest and pajama. I could hear him bawl and howl for Ma to come back. He cried and said that he needed her, that he missed her. Then some more F words. Some more B words.
I rolled over and cried myself to sleep that second time. I think it was embarrassment still.