The doors to the convenience store slid open with a sound like plastic wrap being cut. In the night, the staff made frequent trips to the back room and wandered half-asleep through the aisles. Aicha had gathered up boxes of candy, body lotion, shampoos, and conditioners. She sat down on the floor of the seasonal aisle and lined them up, picking up each item and weighing it in her hand. It felt better, on nights like these, to stay under the fluorescent lights and play with the pretty bottles she would never actually buy.
Are you coming home? Sami’s text read.
I’m not going to make it tonight, sorry.
I think she’s calmed down a bit.
I don’t want to risk it — don’t worry. I’m going over to a friend’s house.
Ok. She’s wondering where you went. Should I tell her that?
No, just tell her I’ll be in class tomorrow morning. Thx.
She didn’t like lying, but 11-year-old Samiah was a classic mama’s girl. No matter how many fights she overheard, she still went to Ma for anything and everything. Aicha’s phone buzzed again, Sadie’s number.
“Where are you?”
“I’m at the drugstore. You ever been to this one? It’s called Bartell’s.”
“Must be a WA thing. What happened?”
“The usual. We had a fun chat about school, about my sister, about suitable boys…”
“I’m only asking about tonight, not your whole life story.”
Thankfully, Aicha laughed. “Tonight? I don’t know. I got home and we were already fighting - there wasn’t much I could really do about it. There wasn’t a lot of food in the fridge, the shower wasn’t working. I think she was out for blood.”
“I’m sorry I’m not there.”
“Couldn’t do much if you were. I’ll be alright. I just have to make it to 7am and then I head to summer school.” She started putting the lotion bottles away, “I think this clerk is getting antsy. I’ll call you back.”
Aicha stepped out into the street. The manic energy of the city at night pierced her shell of fatigue. The only people left on the street at this time were grave shift workers and those who couldn’t get a bed for the night. She saw a cop car make a U-turn in the middle of an empty street and wandered down a small alleyway. There was less light here, so when the siren pulsed once it bathed the walls in red. She stopped, heart pounding, and turned to face a tall black man in full uniform.
“What’s in your bag, miss?”
“I don’t have anything.”
“You were just in that drugstore over there. Did you pay?” That antsy clerk.
“I didn’t buy anything.”
“Hand over the bag.”
She made eye contact with him as he unzipped the pack, rifling through her change of clothes and extra hijab, her toiletries and comic books. She could almost see his eyes light up as he pulled out a bag of mini candy bars, discount sticker still visible.
“Get in the car.”
The cop drove her back and made her return it, took her picture, told her not to come to the store again. But he wasn’t finished with her yet.
“I’m going to be nice to you this time. I’m taking you back home.”
The thought of bolting crossed her mind, but instead she scooted over onto the leather seat and fastened her seatbelt.
When Aicha quietly unlocked the door, she could smell that Ma was cooking something on the stove. Instead of going to her room, she lingered to watch as Ma seared the meat, then covered it with water to cook all the way through. The spitting sound complemented the smell - sharp onions, garlic, burning red chili. Ma was methodical in the kitchen. Her hands flew from counter to stove and back with ease. She never needed to measure anything; it simply came into being. Aicha clenched the door frame in her hand and watched from around the corner. The exhaust fan was broken and Ma was already sweating through her night dress. Aicha could see the faint lip of the white scar running down where the loose fabric had slumped to expose her shoulders. It was thick, knotted like rope, and Ma had never answered anyone’s questions about it. Aicha had learned to stop asking, though Sami still did sometimes. Sami still wanted to know where Papa went even though he hadn’t called since her ninth birthday.
Suddenly Ma was shrieking. The pan had slipped from her hand mid-turn. The oil had spilled out over the floor, catching the edge of her skirt and the tops of her feet. Perfectly browned pieces of meat had leapt out and onto the linoleum. Reflexively, Aicha dropped to the floor and began mopping up the spill.
“Where were you?” Ma howled. Aicha didn’t dare look up.
“Here, Sadie – I brought fresh sheets,” Mom said, pushing her way in and stepping over my bag. The sheets were mismatched and faded, but at least they were clean. “Need anything else? Otherwise I’m going out.”
When she left, I closed the door and yanked the sheets onto the mattress. I turned on my phone and saw Baba had texted me - Have you arrived? Yep, I sent back, package delivered. Finally it was my last year of being shipped back and forth between the suburbs of Boston and L.A. Senior year and my 18th birthday were visible on the horizon. Ever since my parents’ divorce, the split had come down to summers with Mom and school years with Baba. I never wanted to come out to California, not even when I was six and they first separated. But Mom must have felt guilty not seeing her little girl the whole year, and maybe Baba was a little overwhelmed at raising a kid all by himself.
“If you want lunch, it’s on the counter. I have to leave right now.” Mom had opened the door just a little bit and wedged her head in next to the frame.
“For an interview. Maybe for work. What’s your plan for the day?”
“Don’t have one yet.”
“Better find some way to be useful, otherwise you’ll get into trouble. And don’t talk to the neighbors – I remember the last time.”
“I stayed out with the girl down the hall a little too long and you called the cops.”
“Don’t talk back to me; just listen to what I say, ok?” She wore a self-satisfied as she bustled around the apartment.
I followed her out into the living room, which was partitioned by tile and carpet - one half for the kitchen, the other for a little TV sitting area. Lunch meant unbuttered toast and hard boiled eggs, apparently.
“Oh, one thing you can do is get started on cleaning up the apartment. Work from where we left off!” Mom shouted over her shoulder, locking the door before I could say anything back.
I called Baba on his work phone.
“Am I a maid?” I said right after his hello.
“No, but you still have to do chores. What happened to that program you wanted to do?”
“Didn’t get in.” Never applied was more accurate. “Ma isn’t even here, so I don’t know why I have to be. How am I supposed to get out of the house if I can’t talk to anyone? I don’t know how you two got together.”
“We were both young, I suppose.”
“Yeah, but I bet she still didn’t like anything too different – and you were still as brown as anyone who lives in this building.”
“And I had a promising business career. Your mother wants different things now.”
“You know she started talking about straightening my hair when she picked me up yesterday?”
“Think of it this way: you’re not little anymore and your mom wanted a last opportunity to see what kind of grown person you’ve turned into. She’ll probably take you out to dinner a few times, say some things she wants to say, then you can go off and do what you want.”
“There you go with the optimism. She wants me to clean her apartment.”
“Well, clean the parts that she can see. Don’t take it too seriously. Next year you’re leaving both of us, isn’t it?”
“Right.” I tapped my fingers on the couch arm and bit into a piece of floppy toast. With one hand, I pulled a cardboard box near to me that was filled with miscellaneous papers. “What day is my flight again?”
“August 25th, a week and a half before school starts.”
“Ok,” I sighed, “I’ll see you then.”
Aicha threw her phone down against the bed in frustration - it had been four full days since her mother had put her under house arrest. The phone sprang up and hit the floor hard, breaking into unevenly sized pieces.
“Shit!” she shouted, then covered her mouth. The knock on the door came almost instantly.
“What was that language?” The door had no lock and suddenly Ma was in the room with her, wearing a satin cap and white eye cream. “You haven’t done anything since I left. This place should be spotless.”
“I was napping.”
“Why are you sleeping so early? Are you ill? Did you finish your homework?”
“Good, fine.” Ma came over to her, willfully ignoring the pile of phone parts laid out by her feet, “We need to talk about your graduation and what you are going to do afterwards.”
“Ma, I’m not even sure I’ll be able to finish on time.”
“Don’t say anything to me about that – that is why you are at this summer program in the first place. If you had concentrated more last year, then I wouldn’t have to tell you any of these things.”
Aicha wanted to snap back that last year most of her homework had to be finished on the bus the next morning because she had come home to so many fights, but she held her tongue.
“Once you graduate, you will find a job. I need rent money if you are to keep living here.”
“Ma, I need help with something,” Sami said, coming to the doorway.
“I am leaving the minute you ask me for money,” Aicha growled.
“What was that?” She could see the tendons in her mother’s neck tighten.
“Ma, there’s something in my room.” Sami tugged on her mother’s sleeping dress and looked Aicha hard in the eye.
“One moment. Aicha, go put this in the drawer.”
Ma folded a stack of bills into her palm and squeezed it.
“I’m going to be late tomorrow. My friends are in a play I want to go see. It’s at the community center.” Before she had even finished, Ma hooted with laughter.
“A year ago, maybe, but you are so behind now. Catch up and then you can talk to me about friends.”
Aicha still held the stack of bills. She stopped in front of the tall chest of drawers in the hallway, feeling the hunger pangs and the sting of her mother’s laughter still hot on her face. She made to unlock the top drawer and even got so far as to open it up before slipping the bills into her own night dress and walking away.
I feel like I’m a house elf – Ma wants me to clean the whole apartment.
Hey, are you doing ok? How’s class going?
I haven’t heard from you in a while. Let me know how you’re doing, alright?
Aicha hadn’t responded to me since the night she got picked up by the cops and it made me worry. Ever since last year when we switched from online to text, she hadn’t gone more than a day without messaging me. I scrolled back through our messages then put my phone down on the coffee table and picked up another box. Most of them had a bunch of old utility bills and crumpled receipts inside but towards the bottom I would start seeing little wallet-sized photos of me and my friends in grade school. Some were class pictures, with blue and green backgrounds that made our faces stand out. I remembered having to pose and being told to smile, no matter if my “nice” clothes were itchy or the lighting hurt my eyes. Even in the middle school ones - the most angsty stage - my teeth shone out like a set of falsies. I thought about putting together an old fashioned scrapbook or using them to practice drawing a bunch of cartoon versions of myself - that had to be a better way to pass the time than watching re-runs all day.
At the bottom of the pile of living room boxes, I saw an old beat up briefcase. It looked like something Baba would own. I unsnapped the latches and pushed the lid open. Bound with white string, there were piles and piles of envelopes. Unlike the ones from the utility company, these were all different sizes and had handwritten addresses on the back. I pulled one of the bundles open and spread them out on the table. In the middle was a series of postcards from Baba to mom and back postmarked with dates throughout the mid-80s. I flipped them over and saw the generic skylines of places like San Francisco and New York, with thick borders and funny script. Others were less familiar small town scenes. Some were clearly from Baba when he went back home to Pakistan over those years. My favorite were the ones of just animals – pelicans and parakeets, baby owls in nests with their eyes closed so they looked like they were smiling. I knew mom had a thing for birds, but it was all so goofy. Just think, my parents had never acted like this in the whole time I had been alive. I took out my phone and started taking pictures so I could send them to Baba later.
The doorbell rang and I jumped up from the couch, pressing the bundle back together as if they were classified documents. Did mom forget her key?
“You sent me the address last summer, remember? I took a Greyhound bus.”
Sadie was looking at her like she was a mythical creature. Aicha thought Sadie looked thicker than in her pictures, rounder in the hips and with darker brown skin. She had bright red highlights which contrasted the brunette base.
“Holy crap. And you didn’t think to warn me you were coming?”
“I broke my phone.” Aicha chose not to tell her that the idea had formed during their last texts. She told Sadie the abbreviated version about the cooking oil and Ma’s wrath, leaving out the parts she thought were too shocking.
“It’s happened before. I just have to handle it.”
“It shouldn’t have happened at all. I’m so, so sorry.”
This was the part that she hated. When Sadie didn’t know what else to say, she was sorry. Endlessly sorry. They stood silent at the doorway for a moment.
“Ok, I’m really not allowed to have anyone stay over. My mom is really strict about it.” But counter to her words, Sadie was already hefting Aicha’s duffel off of her shoulder. They went into a small room, tossed all of her things in the closet, and sat down on the bed. Sadie turned on the overhead light.
“My mom is coming back late tonight, so you’re lucky. Do you snore? Because you’re going to have to not when she gets here.”
It would have been funny if Aicha’s heart was not pounding so hard. She looked around. “Not a palace after all.”
Sadie let out a strained laugh, “It’s good to see you. In the flesh, I mean.”
“Thanks. You too. And I know it’s weird, me showing up here, but my 18th birthday is in a few weeks. You won’t have to deal with me after that.”
Aicha was startled when Sadie jumped up and wrapped her arms around her.
“I’m really glad you’re here.”
“Those letters are so old! Where did you even find them?” Baba had received the pictures and called me for our nightly check in.
“Mom must have kept them when she moved out of your house. There was a whole briefcase full.”
“Well, don’t take them with you unless your mother says it’s ok, but I would like to see the set. For nostalgia’s sake.”
“Ok, I’ll ask her about it. She got the job, by the way. She came in last night yelling that she’ll be the next star with one of those cake decorator reality shows.”
Baba chuckled. “Congratulate her for me.”
I hung up the phone and looked over at Aicha, who was methodically reading each of the postcards and placing them in a stack on the opposite side of my bed.
“So your dad basically raised you?”
“Basically, yeah. He’s good. He’s funny. He would have totally let you stay, maybe even put you to work.”
Aicha tugged her tight black curls through a headband.
“And do you know how they met? Your parents, I mean,” she asked.
“I don’t know that story very well. They’re really different now. I guess when my dad first came over here from Pakistan he was a grad student, and my mom was an undergrad in one of his classes. What about your parents?”
“I don’t know their story, but Ma says that they got married because they wanted to, not because they had to. Sometimes she says that was the root of the problem – she didn’t judge his character well. My dad was gone when we were little.”
“Your mom must be extra busy with the two of you then.”
“Yeah, she works as a nurse so she’s got a lot going on.”
“When did she start… you know.” I tried not to fix my gaze on the yellowing bruise on her neck.
Aicha squeezed a pillow and thought about her answer.
“Probably when I became a teenager. She really loves babies, you know? But babies don’t have very many opinions.”
“Sounds like you were never a babysitter.” Aicha fired the pillow in my direction and we both giggled, but that stopped abruptly when I heard the sound of the front door coming open. I jumped out of bed and unplugged the fairy lights that were strung up in the room. I could hear mom stumbling down the hallway just outside. Her bag hit the floor and then there was the sound of running water in the sink. I could even hear the faint sound of her brushing her teeth – this apartment had no room for secrets.
“Time for bed,” I whispered, impulsively kissing her on the cheek. I felt my cheeks redden and was glad that she couldn’t see me in the dark.
Aicha’s body heat kept me awake that night. We slept back to back and she wrapped herself like a mummy in the sheet. I could tell she tried to scoot as close as possible to the wall, but her arms and legs would loosen when she fell deeper asleep and would uncurl from the sheet onto my side of the bed. I thought about her mother and Sami, probably in a panic now that they had realized she’d really run away. Without her phone, she was completely untethered.
I felt something hard on her back as she pressed against me; in the dim light from the fairy lights, I could see the outline of raised skin. A lump like a scar stuck out, a knotted ribbon stretching from her left shoulder down past the line of her tank top. I began tracing it with my finger gently, to see how far it went down. It seemed like it had no end point, just puckered and grew faint in some spots. Aicha wriggled her shoulders in her sleep; suddenly my hand was pressed against her and my knuckle had knocked hard against her shoulder blade.
“You woke up.”
“Sorry,” Aicha groaned.
“No, don’t be sorry.”
The warmth of her body made me sweat a little. I noticed then how close our bodies had come.
“Thanks for letting me stay here,” she said, still half-asleep as she rolled over onto her stomach. Her hair fell over the places I had touched.
“It’s nice to have you here,” I whispered, as she began to softly snore. I moved the blanket between us and tried to force myself back to sleep.
The next few nights, Aicha lay awake long after Sadie had passed out. She didn’t mention that she had felt Sadie’s hand on her birthmark that first night or about the warm tickling sensation that had risen inside of her. It confused her, this whole thing confused her. She thought about the bus ride and how it felt like time had stopped while on the long journey down the coast.
There was only one other time she had made a long car trip like that and she hadn’t thought about it in years. She was little and Sami was still a baby – one minute, they had been napping in their shared room and when she next woke up, she was alone. It was dark all around her and yet she could feel her body lurching forward. After a moment, she could recognize the windshield wipers squeaking over the front of Papa’s car. They were on a long highway that seemed to stretch on into the darkness forever.
Aicha didn’t remember if she asked any questions. She did remember feeling weird that Ma and Sami weren’t there with her; now, she knew better. By choice, her father was a man she seldom thought of. He was the one who put the scar on Ma’s shoulder and he was the one who, when served divorce papers, had stuck her in the passenger seat of his junky old car and tried to disappear. She never did find out whether it was the police or his own conscience that made him bring her back, but some more powerful force had boomeranged her back into her mother’s arms.
Was Ma thinking of that now? She wondered. She wondered also whether Ma, even in her panic, wasn’t the tiniest bit relieved that she no longer had to keep her problem daughter in line.
The overhead light snapped on and Aicha shielded her eyes with one arm.
“Sorry, I have to go to the bathroom,” Sadie whispered as she eased the door open and wandered into the hallway. When she returned, she asked, “Do you want to go down to the beach tomorrow? It’s a long ride but if we go right when we wake up, it shouldn’t be too bad.”
“Like real summer vacation.”
“Yep, just two wayward youth trying to live out their summer fantasies.” Sadie lowered herself back down onto the bed.
“You’re embarrassing,” Aicha replied. The tingling feeling had returned.
They turned away from one another and she squeezed her eyes shut. As she fell asleep, she pictured the shape of her birthmark as a great leafless tree shaded in by stretch marks, the way Sami had described it just weeks before. If she focused, Aicha could hear the faint echo of her voice.
When I walked into the bathroom the next morning, there was already a pool of blood staining my underwear. I opened up all of the cabinets, but there were no tampons or pads in sight. I wadded up some toilet paper and sheepishly wiggled out into the living room.
“I’ve got to go to the drug store. I’ll be right back.”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“No, it’s fine. I’ll be back in a few minutes then we can head out. Get ready while I’m gone.”
I threw on a jacket and left Aicha buttering some toast at the counter. I had started feeling like she was a part of the household.
I fished in my jacket pocket and realized I had only brought the cash that was sitting on the table. Not even the keys? I thought. But it was too late to turn around. The nearest convenience store was still a good walk away without a car and my every step felt gross and wet. I made it down the long stretch of sidewalk and into the air-conditioned store, throwing my box of tampons on the counter with force. The clerk looked bored as he handed me my change and nodded in the direction of the restroom. When I left the store, I plunged my hand into my pocket expecting my phone but I had left that behind too and it set me on edge.
When I got to the apartment, I saw it. Mom’s car was in our parking spot. I ran up the stairs and into our hallway, praying.
“Where the hell did you come from? I’m calling the cops!” I could already hear mom yelling. I ran towards our door.
“Mom! Mom, stop! This is my friend!”
“You don’t have friends. Not like this one - stealing our food and wearing that rag on her head. That’s for damn sure.”
I looked over at Aicha. Her eyes were dry but her face was flushed. I could see her already edging towards the door.
“Don’t call the cops - she must have been looking for me. I’m sorry if she scared you.”
“She didn’t scare me, she broke into our apartment! I can’t afford this kind of shit!”
“I’ll go,” Aicha said.
“No, we’ll go. God, Mom you need to chill.”
My mother slammed the door behind us. I tugged Aicha down the back stairs and into the parking lot, walking briskly towards the bus stop.
“We were sloppy or something, she shouldn’t have been here during the day.”
“I shouldn’t have come here in the first place. I thought…”
“I don’t have feelings like that for you. I’m sorry.” I flinched as the words tumbled out of me.
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re gay and I’m not.”
“You have feelings for me that I don’t have for you, ok? It’s fine, but it’s not something I really want to talk about.”
“What are you saying?”
“That’s the reason you thought it was ok to come down here, right? Why else would you feel like some random stranger on the internet was going to house you once you ran away?”
My hand was still on her arm, but she wrenched away from me.
“Fuck you,” she growled. Before I knew it, she was sprinting down the street with her hand in the air. In the near distance, I could see a bus slowing to a stop. Aicha climbed on. I half-expected her to sit near the back window and glare at me. But the bus just pulled away from the curb and picked up speed. I watched for a moment, uncomprehending, then turned back to where I came from.
I thought of Aicha every day that summer and all the way back to Boston. When I had finally returned to the apartment, my bedroom door was ajar. Mom had already thrown all the things she could identify as Aicha’s into a garbage bag. I barricaded myself in my room while she knocked and yelled and finally slammed the front door shut behind her. I imagined how I wish things had gone - that it had been like a movie ending where I caught Aicha just as she was getting away or where she’d come back the moment after I’d arrived, claiming she’d forgotten something important. But it didn’t happen like that. I didn’t hear from her again.
“You survived,” Baba said, amused with himself.
I stood on the steps of his grey townhouse while he wheeled my second bag from the back of the car. I hoped mom had kept her promise not to tell him what happened. I went up the steps into the kitchen and found a thick padded envelope sitting on the counter that was addressed to me. I shook out the contents and was surprised to see that it was every one of the old postcards Baba had sent mom back in the day. I had assumed that they were just thrown out with all of the other loose things when mom went on her rampage. Seeing them now made me feel as if I had seen a ghost. I sifted through them, looking for a message, but there was nothing added or taken away.
“Are these the ones?” I jumped. Baba had come up behind me.
“Yeah, I forgot to pack them but I had a friend send them.”
“You should tell me about her,” he said, rubbing my back as he noticed I’d started to cry.
Jordan Alam is a writer based out of south Seattle. Her short stories and articles have appeared in The Atlantic, CultureStrike Magazine, The Rumpus, and AAWW’s The Margins. She is also the founder of the Asian American social justice publication, Project As[I]Am (www.project-as-i-am.com). Find more information about her work at jordanalam.com.