Something came upon me today. After I’d had my usual breakfast, watched my usual TV, cleaned up and did the dishes as usual, I felt a great restlessness come upon me. It was as if I’d been replicating the same groundhog day over and over and over for ever. If I remained in this cycle, I would disappear, dissolve, and cease to be.
I tried to persuade another person “Let’s do something different,” and I failed. In a great sulk, I stuffed my bag (my usual laptop and my usual lunch of a banana), and got in my car and started driving. Where was I going? I wasn’t sure. I just knew that I was trapped in a cage, and I didn’t know how to get out. I drove south, then east, then toward the library – no, not the library, I always go to the library – then to Trader Joe’s – no, I will not go grocery shopping; I will not make myself useful, I will not be sensible. I am sick of being sensible. I feel like a pressure cooker. I have been good, and restrained, and moderately pious for so long. I am like a shriveled turnip.
I don’t even know who I am and what I like. I just know what I don’t do. I know what I refrain from. I know who I’m not. I’m so used to telling myself no, I don’t even know what I want anymore. My heart has stopped telling me.
I ended up on Devon Avenue. Parked, paid, and walked up the street. The wind was bitingly cold. In my sulk, I hadn’t brought a scarf or thick gloves. I popped into all the expensive-ish clothing stores that I never visit when I’m with my husband and my daughter. They have no interest in the clothes. They are always impatient to leave. Why do I do everything with them? I will buy something outrageously expensive, I tell myself. Then I check the prices and restrain myself. Again. Off I go.
I stop at a desi restaurant and order lamb chops. I never get lamb chops. They are delicious and tender and I eat them all, alone, watching people hop on and off the bus outside. There’s a woman talking on the phone near me, in English, with a slight accent. I used to have an accent. I think. I used to be out of place. When did that stop happening? When did I start stumbling over Urdu? My friends who are immigrants don’t do that. Maybe because I married an American and not a Pakistani.
Years ago, when I was visiting Pakistan from the UK, and was scheduled to fly out the next day, my mother told me my father had been crying during the night: meri kuri bahr li hogayi eh (my daughter has become a foreigner, an exile, an outsider). I now understand, and I see why crying, grieving is the thing to do.
I eat my lamb chops and pakoras while I read the local Urdu paper. I watch the people outsider. An older Pakistani woman gets off the bus, in her thin shalwar kameez and a coat and plastic shoes that are out of place here and wrong for the weather. Maybe she’s not “older.” Maybe she’s my age, aged by work and struggle. She’s pushing one of those personal grocery carts. I could be her, I think, married in my teens, and by now thinking of my grandchildren, worrying about the relatives I must sponsor to the US. I could be thinking everyday thoughts, how to get through the day, where to get the cheapest tomatoes and how to wheedle some money out of my husband.
Instead I sit here, indulging in an existential sulk.
I feel incomplete, eating the lamb chops. My kid loves lamb chops. I text my husband to say I’m in Devon. He says they are heading over to join me now. I think I’m happy about this. I’m not sure.
The shopkeeper makes friendly conversation with me. They don’t usually, when my husband is with me. Or maybe it’s just him. He jokingly calls me Shabana Azmi. When I’m done eating, he calls out to me by name, asking how the chops were. I tell him they were excellent, and head out.
Then I head over to another desi fast food restaurant and order some biryani to go. Here the clientele aren’t speaking English. Clusters of working men speaking Urdu and other South Asian languages I don’t recognize. I order and wait. Guys look at me with harmless curiosity. I don’t fit, they think. I sit, and I think I fit just fine. In fact, I can already feel myself aging.
Some years from now, maybe I will sit here a lot oftener. Some young woman will look at me and feel grateful that she is not me. I will sit here like the old men sitting at a corner table, talking – not about Trump or Rauner or global warming or dinosaur fossils, but something else, something not those things.
As I sit longer, alone, I feel a whisper of wind that takes me, little by little, back to a previous life. Me, sitting in an Islamabad restaurant, eating with other niqabis. Haggling with a shopkeeper. Nagging the hostel maids to cook better food. I really am having an existential moment. I am a stranger to myself. When I think of my life in English with my White husband and my half-White child, I feel like it’s a life in a lab, like The Truman Show, unreal, made-up. The stage props will melt away suddenly, and I’ll be revealed as that woman in her plastic shoes, planning a bhindi dinner, worried about how my kameez looks and what my mother-in-law thinks of me. I feel like I almost don’t want my husband and daughter to show up right now, so that real me can come back. Which real me?
Maybe I will sit here, oftener, waiting for my shell to crack and fall off, so all my Urdu grammar and my head-bobble will come back to me. I will sit here and talk to the restaurant owner – except he keeps trying to chat me up in English, because he can tell what I am – what I am now. I want to say, no, I want to shed that persona right now. I want to return to my home self, but I don’t have the option. When I see my daughter’s face, red and raw with cold, appear in the door, I have to drop anchor quickly. I can’t go back. It’s not an option. Now I can’t speak Urdu anymore. This world of English comes slamming down upon my head. I am a princess in a gilded cage again.