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Excerpt

“Tomboy”

Mira Sethi

April 20, 2021 
The following is an excerpt of a short story that appears in Mira Sethi's debut collection, Are You Enjoying?, about the desire to be loved and what happens when this longing gets pushed to its very limits. Sethi is an actor and writer, who grew up in Lahore. She worked as a books editor at The Wall Street Journal and has written op-ed pieces for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian. Sethi regularly appears in mainstream Pakistani drama series on television.

He was the only boy I knew who didn’t want to drive his own car. Muttering under his breath, he’d reverse it in a halting zigzag from the driveway, and as soon as we were on the road I’d slip into the driver’s seat. We were sixteen when I bashed up the SUV his father bought him, my stoned face frozen in an uncomprehending smile as Zarrar Ejaz looked on in horror. He took the blame.

All those hours we spent playing Street Fighter II. I think of them now as a childish rehearsal for what our lives would become. Zarrar was always Chun-Li, a vixen in a puffy blue dress, forever flipping her legs in combat. I was Blanka, the wild green man from the jungle, likely to win but not without taking major hits.

After my father left us—I was sixteen, my sisters ten and eight—Mama began to lean on Zarrar’s parents in a style they seemed to welcome. The rich like looking after the less rich so long as they look rich enough to blend in to their parties. Which Mama did, of course, offering herself up for every kind of service, from handmaid to boon companion to sounding board. Our mothers had been “best of friends” for three decades. Their whole cohort had carried over from school.

“Look at these two,” Aunty Maleeha, the most lethal of the friends, used to say when Zarrar and I got in line to cut the cake at his overblown birthday parties. “The odd couple. You two should marry each other!”

“Say InshaAllah!” I bared my teeth.

Zarrar would scold me for fighting with Mama. “If I wax your mustache with my own hands you won’t feel a thing,” he pleaded. His curling fat hands reminded me of the mesh washing sponge in our kitchen but I didn’t tell him this.

One day, before Zarrar could intervene, Mama bullied me into dyeing my upper lip blond with Jolen bleach. When I burned myself by wrecking the proportions of powder and bleach, Mama said it was because I showed no interest in “such things.”

She was mother enough to splatter egg white over my mouth.

She struggled on her librarian’s salary at the private school where my sisters and I were enrolled on a discounted fee. Papa had moved to Doha, where—we heard—he worked as an overseer on a large royal estate. Aunty Maleeha said, “Overseer means driver, manager, what?” Papa had been general manager at a nice hotel in Karachi; after the hotel shuttered he moved to Qatar, but he didn’t take us with him. We learnt the bitter truth in bits and dribbles. There was a Malaysian involved, a woman he’d met at a shopping mall. “He didn’t even think of his daughters,” Mama said, casually smearing us with her grief while giving my anger the ignition it had always wanted.

A few weeks after Papa left Pakistan, our landlord stood in his vest and shalwar at the base of the stairs below our Sea View apartment, a toothpick dangling from his pink mouth, and demanded advance rent. Mama’s face sank into silence. “Some financial problems,” I said, sliding down the stairs, though we had no financials and a ton of problems. Later that week Zarrar’s father, Uncle Pervez, transferred money into Mama’s account and told her it was what brothers did for their sisters.

Zarrar and my teenage years drifted in a haze of smoking hash in his bathroom, 7:00 a.m. breakfasts of alloo channa, late-night parties where I stayed sober so Zarrar could get drunk and I could drive him home.

Uncle Pervez worried about his son. Why doesn’t Zarrar take an interest in sports? I would get asked. Why doesn’t he have any male friends? What is this obsession with sketching Madonna? I assured Uncle Pervez that Zarrar was too smart for the girls he went to school with, that he would join his father’s textile business when the time was right. I could blather like that with Uncle P. because we had a “good rapport,” like the proverbial king and vizier, or some other faux-fraternal bond. It never occurred to me that he might be looking out for his own interests all the while grooming me to share his burden.

I tried to hide it, but the two years Zarrar was away in New York I was restless, empty. I had gotten used to being in his house, “hanging” with Aunty and Uncle like they were my own parents, driving Zarrar’s SUV like it was my chariot, devouring the imported Boursin cheese from their fridge, tossing chunks of it into my mouth without toast, licking the silver foil clean. With Zarrar away, I began to drift. I smoked up during the day, was stoned at night in any case. I drove all over Karachi, inhaling it deep into my skull, sometimes driving far along Sea View, past the Village restaurant to a sandy nook overlooking the sea. Between the parking lot and the entry to the beach the view from my dilapidated sandstone wall was nice, and I smoked one, sometimes two joints, until I couldn’t feel my dangling legs. Not talking about why Papa abandoned her (“Why are you asking me?” she would snap on occasion) was Mama’s way of protecting us, but her anger bubbled over at the tiniest things—like when I threw out an empty bottle of hand soap without refilling it with water.

My friends at the Institute of Business Administration were easygoing, they were actually hilarious, we racked up a lot of jokes. They let me slip into their male world, a willing accomplice to every indiscretion, the cliquish slurs we had created for one another (choot, cuntylaal)—not like some of the girls, who were quick to express their delicate disgust. Still, I missed Zarrar and the way he defended my monochrome kurtas to Mama, the way he sat on my back when I asked for a massage. I wanted to hear about his magical life in New York—the clubs, the casinos, the bouncers, the booze. On the phone Zarrar said he missed me more than my stupid suspicious mind could comprehend, but when I asked him to tell me the details of his life, he said, “I’ll tell you when I’m home.”

Mama’s friends suggested a few times that she remarry— the times are changing, they said—but Mama said she couldn’t think of a thing more vulgar while she had three young, unmarried daughters sitting at home. I remember balking at that. Me? Get married?

Mama remained librarian at the school, but her evenings grew foggy with Lexotanil and the deafening yak of our TV. There were weeks where the TV just brayed at her (“Divorce??” “Marriage?” “Get out!”) as Mama lay conked on the sofa.

“You need a man in the house,” said Aunty Maleeha. “I have Asha,” Mama said, conceding the void left by Papa to . . . me. I did the groceries, made sure the gas and electricity bills were paid on time, made sure my sisters kept their scholarships going. I even washed our landlord’s car once a week while I hosed off our own Suzuki Swift, the engine of which kept stalling, but no one was ready to have a conversation about retiring the one “reliable” thing in our lives.

It made our landlord feel good that we knew our place.

In my second year at IBA Uncle Pervez offered me a job in human resources at his textile mill. He stood in his living room in his Bally slip-on mules, a hand in the pocket of his silk pajamas as two air conditioners as big as dolphins hummed above him.

He said independence was key. That I was an independent sort anyway. At sixty thousand rupees the salary was beyond my wildest expectation. I thanked him and he patted the side of my shoulder as if encouraging me to cheer up. I told him fifty thousand rupees would go into Mama’s account and he said it was my money and I should do with it what I liked. “Now isn’t that a wonderful thing?” He smiled, spreading his minty hands.

Mama said she was proud of me.

The same week Uncle Pervez called me into his office and told me he wanted me to give a tour of Karachi to a crew of documentary filmmakers from out of town. I was to show them the “hidden gems,” the “local culture,” the “underground scene.” Too bad he left out “seedy underbelly,” because two nights later Lucy Prest and I made out, drunk, at his house, in his son’s bathroom under a poster of the Spice Girls.

The first time I saw Lucy she was standing by the bar in a plain white T-shirt tucked into a black knee-length farmer skirt. She was wearing brown ballet flats and a silver nose ring. No makeup. If you look closely, most women have restless eyes. Lucy’s eyes were deadly, radiant, still. They were also blue. What can I say.

Lucy had managed to charm Zarrar’s mother, a soft-spoken woman with ironclad boundaries. She had an arm around the hostess; she planted a kiss on the hostess’s cheek, and Zarrar’s mother shook with laughter like a dog shakes after a bath.

I drank as much as I wanted—no one to chaperone or drive home. Lucy and I snuck into Zarrar’s bathroom and she let me touch her everywhere, moving my hand along her torso, along her thigh. Her legs were smooth, as if rubbed with light.

Lucy had come to Pakistan to make a documentary on the lives of workers who dismantled ships at the world’s third largest shipbreaking yard.

When she wasn’t filming I drove her around Karachi, taking her one night to my nook overlooking the sea. She hopped onto the sandstone wall and shared a joint with me though I could tell she didn’t smoke. A masseur walked by shaking his oily glass bottles. I raised my hand to say salaam and he grinned so broadly I knew his life was falling apart. Lucy and I sat in the dark drinking beer from a brown paper bag. The field of air between her shoulder and my shoulder was electric and I looked at Lucy to see if she felt it but her arctic eyes were bloodshot.

She loved the dhaaga kababs at Waheed’s. “Too much hygiene kills flavor, doesn’t it?” she said as bits of kabab slithered from her mouth onto the plate. I thought she was adorable. For trying to impress me.

But a curiosity, an eagerness, an investigative thirst prowled within her. And few things irritate me more than people who ask too many questions too quickly. Before she left for England she grilled me on the phone about my “identity.” I told her Pakistan was not Sweden. She said it would make me feel better to be honest about who I was.

“With all due respect, you don’t know much about this place—or my family or my issues,” I said on the phone.

“I know a little bit about—you?” she said in a British lilt that smuggled in opinions as dainty hesitations.

“That I look good in a leather jacket? And now you have a whole theory about me?”

“It upsets me to see you like this.”

“You like seeing me half naked. I understand. Life is tough.” She laughed. “I miss you.”

“I miss you too.”

“Do you think we’re in love?” she asked.

“Hmmm . . .”

“Never mind,” she said quickly.

“I’m just thinking . . .”

“If you have to think about it—the answer is no.”
“I’m thinking about how beautiful your belly is, babe,” I said, reprising a game Zarrar and I used to play, pressing it like a panic button.

“Will you visit me in Bristol?”

“I will,” wondering how in the fucking world.

“You should ride a motorbike in Karachi. You’d look so hot? And change the whole culture around women riding bikes.”

“Your opinion matters so much to me,” I said, certain she’d miss the tone.

“Who were you talking to?” Mama asked the next morning as soon as I walked out of my room. I hadn’t taken a piss all night.

It was typical of Mama to blurt without warning. It was her way of catching us off guard.

“Talking when?” I said, annoyed.

“On the phone. Last night. I miss you too,” she cooed. Then with a spurt of righteousness: “babe.”

“Were you standing outside my room listening to my conversation?”

“Exactly—yes.”

“Zarrar,” I said. “I was talking to Zarrar.” I don’t know what went through my mind but I knew it was the right answer to give.

“Oh, Zar-rar.” She pressed down on the air with a clenched fist like someone who had lost a chance.

She had spotted one.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Are You Enjoying? by Mira Sethi. Copyright © 2021 by Mira Sethi. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.




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