Dad neglected to tell me he was bringing home a new wife.
She was the daughter of a family friend, and once news Dad wanted a new wife had spread from Houston to Karachi, the idea of marriage between the two was quickly introduced. That was three months ago, he said. I pieced together that all those calls, which I’d assumed to be between my uncles and him, had really been between them. He explained that although the two of them had never met, she would be coming to live with us in a week, and in two months they would wed. Dad spelled things out in the way parents do when they think you’re too young to understand. I wondered what he would say if I told him I understood every word, and I understood things he did not. She was no more than a second shot at all the things he’d done wrong.
Dad wrote her name out on a note, with the slanted and disheveled handwriting all doctors somehow adopt. Her name was Madhar. She was nothing like Mom, he said; her name meant sweetness in Urdu. I wanted to remind him he’d known sweetness no more than three months. That sweetness was easier to fake over the phone.
But I’d learned not to respond when Dad said anything about Mom. It was best to block out his words, to block out his spite. Outside the kitchen window, birds fluttered along the branches of our oak tree. Thoughts followed them as they went. Thoughts of how Dad was replacing Mom like a wife was a role that always had to be filled, how it had only taken him a year, how a woman we’d never met would soon be in our home. Dad’s voice trailed in the background. Birds flew in and out.
“What?” I said. My chin perched on my hand. A cardinal flew into view and hung in the air like a suspended figurine, its body shifting back and forth between the two sides of the window. Watching birds was a remnant from my younger days, a thing I did to focus elsewhere when I was upset.
Dad sat beside me. He took his bag of fennel seeds and shuffled some out into the palm of his hand before he chucked them into his mouth. “We can call her now so you can talk.”
My head whipped around. “Talk to her?”
“It will be good for you to meet her before she comes.”
I couldn’t stand the irony. “Why can’t I talk to her when she actually comes?”
“I want you to talk to her now.”
I bit back my tongue. When I looked back for the cardinal, it was gone.
Dad pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and dialed out the number. He spoke to her in the comforting foreignness of Urdu, with a couple of his heavy laughs scattered throughout. He looked happy in ways I hadn’t seen since even before Mom left. It wasn’t that I didn’t want happiness for him. It was the issue of having someone invade our space, of breaking the idea that love was something that, like a rubber band, would snap back once it got far enough.
He turned to me and held the phone out at arm’s length. Madhar’s distant voice said “Hello? Hello?”
Even with the static, her accent came out thick. I imagined her with long hair twisted loosely into a bun, a pudge spilt delicately over her pants, and bangles pooled around her thin wrists. She must be like those Bollywood actresses I’d seen on film, must be beautiful.
I cleared my throat. In broken English, Madhar introduced herself. Probed me with basic questions. Asked how old I was. And I answered each question with responses barely sufficient.
Hi. Aisha. Fourteen. I was sure she knew the answer to everything anyways.
Dad brushed back my hair and kissed my forehead, his stubble prickling at my skin. He watched me as we spoke, smiled as I said words he thought I meant.
True to Dad’s word, Madhar arrived a week later.
It was almost seven p.m. when his car rolled into the driveway. He’d dressed nicely that day, his khakis pressed, a crisp linen shirt tucked into his pants. I sat upstairs in my bedroom, my chin on the edge of my windowsill, my fingers parting the blinds. The slits revealed her henna-covered hands and bright green shalwar kameez that looked out of place in the neighborhood, with its brick houses of similar silhouettes ordered side by side and lawns cut into perfect green squares. I wondered if that’s what Mom had hated too, how tamed life here could become. Dad pulled suitcases from his SUV while Madhar stood with a duffel bag at her feet, staring at the front door of our house.
She was beautiful like I thought, and for some reason that satisfied me.
I reproached myself. Reminded myself that she was a stranger who would never quite belong. But Dad had looked so eager as he walked through the house with the phone pressed to his ear. Though I couldn’t understand a word, his voice boomed through the house. He was nothing like the dad who came home to catalogue divorce documents, where he’d compartmentalize and hide them away in his filing cabinet. I reminded myself of her name and practiced one of the few phrases of Urdu I remembered Dad use in passing with our relatives.
Madhar smiled at my dad and placed a hand onto his shoulder, tilting her head down in a nod and mouthing inaudible words. They entered together, her trailing his path as he pulled the weight of her luggage behind him, her hair rippling out in the soft summer breeze.
I let the blinds go and ran to my bed, quickly tucking myself into my covers and sprawling out like I’d been there the whole time.
Dad came up to my door, exposing the hallway light onto my room and me.
“She’s here, Aisha,” he said. “Come say hello.”
I groaned and rolled around in my bed.
“Aisha,” he said, his voice hardened, “you need to come down. Sleep later.”
Only two weeks ago it had been him and me living in the house. We’d found ways to fill the house, to fill Mom’s absence in the house for each other. A part of me was curious to see what Madhar was like, to see why he thought this woman deserved to enter our space. I wanted to see if she was as worthy of Dad as she appeared.
Her figure grew larger as I walked down the stairs. Her hair fell in waves of black, looked delicate to the touch. I recited my greeting, “Salaam alaikum,” ran through it back and forth. Dad would be grateful to know I was trying.
“Hello Aisha,” she said, coming close to me. She placed her hands over mine and held them there. “I’m Madhar.”
Up close, her red lipstick settled into cracks and flakes of skin. I wanted to run upstairs and tell Dad I couldn’t do it. But Mom had been the one to leave Dad, not the other way around.
“How was the plane ride?” I asked.
“It was tiring. Your dad told me he prepared a meal and you helped,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, tapping my toes together. He’d ordered nihari and haleem from our favorite restaurant, sifted through our cabinets and pulled out plates he’d hardly touched before—ones Mom had left behind. She did that with a lot of things, found it too much a nuisance to pack them up. I envisioned her new home filled with brand-new plates, silverware, furniture, rugs, all the things she had picked out alone.
“I have not eaten all day. Plane food is not very good,” Madhar said.
I nodded, already tired from the frivolity of our conversation. I realized I didn’t want to get to know her at all. “We should eat now then,” I said and grabbed the handle of one of her suitcases.
Dad moved the rest of Madhar’s bags to the end of the entryway, near the edge of the marble staircase that wound up and around as it split the house. She gathered the handles of her duffel bag embroidered with triangles and lines in dull browns and black, its fabric protruding in sharp edges around all it held.
The three of us settled around the glass kitchen table. Madhar picked up the large metal spoon and dipped it into the Styrofoam cup, scooping a spoonful of nihari and plopping it upon the white ceramic plate. The nihari pooled outwards, settled over it. She took the naan between four fingertips, swirled it through the pool of meat and grease and matchsticks of ginger. Her hands were adorned with stacks of gold rings and henna that snaked from her fingers up her arm. As she moved her wrist in delicate circles, the bangles slid down and around, clashing against one another. Dad watched as he tore his naan into chunks and piled them up.
She peered at him as she took her bite, then a flicker of distaste. Madhar placed the broken naan back onto her plate, folded a napkin around the ends of her fingers, and wiped them of the grease.
“You don’t like it?” Dad asked, suddenly so attuned to this person we barely knew. He slid the plate of chopped cilantro and limes away from me, toward her.
“It is different.”
“There are much better places we can find.”
I flinched and looked to Dad. “But—” He turned to me and softly shook his head.
“I will cook mine,” she said.
My father put his hand into Madhar’s. Her fingers tiptoed across his palm for a moment, lingered. She curled her hands around his hand and closed upon it. As I drenched my naan in the nihari, Dad’s gaze never turned toward mine.
Dad came into my bedroom after dinner, once the dishes were cleaned and put away.
I stared at the ceiling for a moment and then turned. My comforter spun around me, like those cocoons Mom and Dad folded around me when I was younger. Their lips pressed at opposite ends of my forehead as they said goodnight. I think they had been happy then; we had all been. How quickly things changed, I was learning, that in a moment your life could become something unrecognizable. How much I wanted things to stay frozen in time, in the time before. I’d never understood before that life could get worse instead of inevitably better, that life wasn’t a line pulling you straight from the now to a better place.
He settled himself onto the edge of my bed. “Thank you for being nice.”
“I didn’t have much of a choice,” I said into my blanket.
He patted around for the top of my head, carved it out from the covers, and kissed his smooth skin against my forehead.
“I’m off tomorrow. You and me, we’ll go to the store,” he said, rubbing my head once more with his thumb. At the sound of him sliding the door into its place, I peeked out and shifted my body around the lump his body had left. Maybe my voice had been drowned out.
The faint crackle of the stove whispered from downstairs. Dad was preparing his morning cup of tea—a steeped packet of Lipton topped off with a generous pour of evaporated milk. He’d purse his lips if it were any less. At least it would just be us two for the day, Madhar tucked back into the corners of my mind.
Since Dad and I didn’t go shopping often, when we did it felt like an occasion. I dressed myself in a beaded green blouse, jeans, and a pink headband. I eventually decided I’d get a pair of earrings that shimmered in the light. Mom and I used to go in her closet and pull out her box of golden earrings when Dad was away. She’d take a pair and hold them to my ears, saying they’d be perfect for me once her ears grew tired and saggy. I’d squeal and tell her I didn’t want that, or that her ears weren’t that saggy.
I went down to the kitchen where Madhar was dressed in a deep-blue sari. She put a cup in front of Dad. She took the seat beside him and placed her hand atop his, speaking to him in Urdu. Dad’s accent flared back up. The words sounded as natural on their tongues as when waves brushed against one another. I wondered what they talked about, if they talked about me or if their words were words of affection for one another.
I tugged the ends of my top, attempting to pull out the wrinkles, even though they weren’t paying attention to me, and went straight to the fruit bowl. Propped against it were bags of spices I knew Madhar had unpacked from her suitcase, spreading herself throughout our house.
“Aisha,” Dad said, “good morning.”
“Morning,” I nodded toward them.
“We’re going to the store, so you’ll be home alone for a bit.”
Dad moved his hand above Madhar’s, rubbed it with the outside of his thumb.
“You promised we’d go shopping today.”
“She doesn’t have anything, Aisha. We’ll go later this week.” He crossed the room to kiss my cheek, then grabbed his keys. Madhar sauntered behind him, her body swaying as if she were reigning queen of this place. She was in every crevice of the house, invading it like a parasite that kept on feeding. She knew what she was doing, with her smiles and light touch of the hand.
When they were almost out, Madhar stopped. “I forget,” she said, and she circled back to Dad’s room as he continued to the car. She returned with a metal canister in hand. “Dad said you like barfi.”
Her jewelry hit the metal as she forced open the lid, revealing squares of green and white held between slightly oiled parchment sheets. The pieces of barfi were moist, indented with finely chopped pistachios.
“I don’t want it,” I said.
Her lips pressed together, and she shook her head. “This is the best barfi. My baba made it,” she said, pushing the box closer to me.
“My dad’s waiting for you,” I said, moving my gaze to the wall behind her.
Madhar inhaled deeply through her nose. She placed the canister onto the entryway table, lid slightly ajar. I wanted to tell her I hated her. For taking my dad, for pretending to be so kind, for thinking I could be bought with desserts. As she left, I wondered what she would say if I told her all these things. I imagined how she’d apologize for being so blind.
The door shut loudly. The hum of the engine came. The house was all mine again. I ran to the canister and shoveled a piece down my throat, the soft barfi breaking against my lips and the pistachio grazing my throat. It tasted as good as she claimed, and I hated her for that too.
Upon first glance, Dad’s room looked unchanged. Like it hadn’t yet adjusted to the presence of someone new. The bed was carefully made. Pillows plumped, duvet spread, and a throw folded at the end. Tucked in the corner was Madhar’s duffel bag sitting upon her suitcases. The bag didn’t hold important things. Mostly it consisted of trinkets. Books titled in Urdu and bags of fennel seeds. Bottles filled with various ointments and metal canisters. A makeup bag with all her tubes of lipsticks; the many colors she painted on her lips.
I uncapped each and inspected the blunted reds and pinks that had rounded out under all the use. One stood pointy and full, its figure curving upwards.
I leaned my face into the vanity mirror and pressed the deep red across my lips. I coated my lips with what was hers, used the edges of my index finger to wipe away bits that crossed over the lines of my mouth. The mirror reflected an Aisha I’d never seen before. I wasn’t just Aisha. I was Aisha a person to respect and listen to. Mom would twirl my hair around her slim fingers and say, “Isn’t that too much makeup?”
I climbed the stairs up to my room, my new lipstick in my palm. I lay in bed and held it up to the light, studying the way the red tones shifted while I turned it. Just two weeks before, Dad and I had been inseparable. He’d bring dinner and a movie for us. We’d spread out on the couch, the lights of the TV filling the living room, fending off the silence that came with night. A tear slipped out, and I quickly brushed it away with the back of my hand. The air outside was ripe with birdsong, their tiny bodies dotting the power line stretched across the sky.
Half an hour later my thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Dad’s car coming into the driveway. I rubbed my lips with the back of my hand, diluting the red across my mouth till my lips were raw and bare, then went downstairs.
Madhar came through the front door with her hands cupped at the base of a bulging paper bag. The bag’s weight swayed her body with every step she took. She readjusted the bag, momentarily placing it at the middle of her thigh. She leaned slightly forward and nudged the door shut with the back of her foot.
“Where’s my dad?” I asked. At the sound of my voice, she looked up.
“He needs gas for tomorrow,” she said, her hands grasping at the bottom of the bag. “Can you help, Aisha?”
I didn’t want to help her. I wanted to go back into my room and shut the door, sealing out any memory of her and reliving the life we’d had before.
“Please?” she asked, her words straining with the weight.
I met her at the bottom, where she swayed toward me. Her face came close to mine as she bent down, as she passed the bag off to me. I watched her eyes move down toward my lips.
I knew she knew. I could see her eyes take note of the unnatural tint to my mouth. She released the bag, its weight pushing down on my hands. I pivoted toward the kitchen, the groceries shifting in my arms. Her steps trailed me as I went.
I placed the bag onto the countertop.
“The red looks good on you. That’s one of my favorites,” she said. She reached into the bag and pulled out a bag of onions and one of ginger, the bags intertwined at the top, rotating around each other as she pulled them out.
“This is an old lipstick,” I said, “From my mom.”
“You need to put it on right if you wear expensive lipstick like mine,” she said and pushed the bag to the side. “Do you have it with you?”
I touched the tube of lipstick in my pocket, flipped it in between my fingers.
“Come,” she said and held her hand out, palm upright. Her gaze made the silence between us feel louder.
I placed it into her hand. Madhar uncapped the lipstick, its point still sharp. “Can I?” she asked and pointed the lipstick toward me.
She nodded her head. “Every girl needs to know how to wear lipstick.”
“My mom doesn’t like me wearing lipstick,” I admitted.
“Come,” she said.
I leaned my elbows onto the granite counter so she could reach my face. She used her fingers and lightly closed the part at my mouth, then drew across my lips, filling in gaps as she went.
“Why did she leave?” she asked. My mouth fell open and she closed it tenderly with her fingers.
“She wasn’t happy here,” I said, the words spilling from my mouth before I could stop.
“Sometimes to leave is what you need,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t miss them.”
“She didn’t have to leave.”
Madhar paused for a moment, the lipstick pressed tightly against my lip.
“Sometimes in life you must do the things people do not want,” she said as she dabbed the lipstick again. “To listen only to their voice, we would change, we would not be ourselves. What a sad thing to lose a life to satisfy someone who is not yourself.”
She tapped the end against my lip one last time.
In this moment I realized the depth of Madhar’s eyes. A blurred horizon you couldn’t see the end of. She withdrew from my face and handed me the tube.
“Now go look,” she said.