Fiction By Matt Luedke
“Quiet, quiet!” Yas said, her bangles jingling as she waved her right hand between the seats. “Do we want East 94 or do we want West 94? Which one? Which one!”
“East, east!” Josh pointed.
“Thanks.” Yas looked over her shoulder to change lanes. “OK, what were—”
“I was saying,” Leila leaned forward and set an elbow against each seat, ferociously chewing her gum, “that Eid is basically Muslim Christmas.”
Yas laughed, eyes wide. “Oh my god, if you call it that, Chaachi will kick us all out of the house and throw paratha after us!” She made a forward snapping motion with her wrist, jingling her bangles again.
“What was that?” Josh smirked.
“It’s like a frisbee.” Yas repeated the gesture. “A gyroscopic flatbread to the back of the head.”
“So, do you give presents to each other?” Mary asked from the backseat, her curly red hair brushing her shoulders.
Leila shook her head. “Just money. All the parents and aunts and uncles give all the kids like 20 dollars in straight-up cash.”
“20 dollars?” Yas cocked her head to the side. “That must be California coasty inflation. Dearborn Standard Eidi over here is just a cool five dollars, an ‘Eid Mubarak, beta,’ and a pat on the head.”
“Five from each person?” Josh asked. “So what does that come out to? How many people are going to be there?”
“Right. OK.” Yas’s eyes widened again, and she glanced back to make sure the others were paying attention. “So the way to remember my family is that they’re the Fantastic Four, like the superhero team. My dad is Mr. Fantastic because he’s always got his arms stretched out to check his laptop for email or chat messages. It’s like he’s not 100 percent present in one place.”
“Which, first of all, how is his name ‘Mr. Fantastic?’” Mary interrupted. “‘Fantastic’ is just a generic adjective! Why not ‘Mr. Stretch’ or—”
“Then my mom,” Yas cut back in, “is the Invisible Woman. She’s so quiet, you won’t notice she’s there and then….BAM! She’s behind you offering a plate of pakora when you least expect it.”
“Pakora is which one?” Mary asked.
“Hey, Leila!” Yas teased. “You’ve got to train your White Girlfriend! I took Josh to the lunch buffet at Taste of India on the second date and quizzed him.”
“Aggressively,” Josh nodded.
Leila laughed and turned to Mary. “It’s basically just fried…matter. Whatever it was before it was fried is lost forever, and now it’s just awesome.”
“Like Wolverine at Weapon X,” said Yas, checking her side mirror. “He loses his memory and his old self, but he gets the adamantium skeleton.”
Leila shook her head. “Except that means nothing to me.”
Josh leaned over and kissed Yas under her ear.
“It’s great! To be! A Mich-i-gan Wol-ver-ine!” chanted Mary, clapping along by herself. She stopped when Leila rolled her eyes. “Come on,” she nudged, “where’s your school spirit?”
“OK, so that’s two of the Fantastic Four,” said Josh.
“Right. So there’s Chaacha, who is the Thing. He’s just a big, quiet, grumpy guy most of the time. And then the Human Torch is easy: that’s my Chaachi Alia. You think you’re having a normal conversation, but then she suddenly bursts herself into flames and throws huge fireballs at everything and it is Big Drama!”
“Big Drama?” Mary asked. “Are we going to see some of that?”
“I really hope not! Inshallah,” said Yas. “As long as they don’t learn that me and Josh are dating.”
Josh looked at Yas. “Wait. What are you telling them then?”
The car went quiet. Mary flipped open her Razr and stared at it, as if there was suddenly something to read.
“They…just don’t know.” Yas looked straight ahead at the road. They drove along a line of red maples, leaves glowing in the November afternoon sun. “They just know I’m bringing some friends home. Is all.”
Josh looked blankly ahead as they passed the airport. A flight took off above them, engines thundering.
“Aren’t they going to be suspicious?” Leila asked. “To my parents, all boys who are friends are boyfriends.” She winked at Mary and locked her fingers into hers. “Little do they know.”
Yas snapped her fingers. “That’s it!” She turned to Josh. “You’re a boyfriend, just not my boyfriend.” She wagged her finger between Leila and Mary in the backseat. “One of theirs.”
They all looked at Yas wide-eyed.
“Brilliant!” said Mary.
“This feels…staggeringly uncomfortable,” said Josh.
“Come on,” Yas said to him. “It’s fine. Just pick which one of my friends you want to date instead of me. For the day.”
“Pick me! Pick me!” Mary waved her hand in the air and fluttered her eyelashes. “I’ve never dated a boy before. Maybe you can reach me things from the top shelf? Do you have a big letter jacket that you can lend me when it gets a little cold?”
“Ya Allah, this one.” Leila rolled her eyes. “It should really be me, though. Because when Yas gets to see what her family thinks of another brown girl dating Josh, it’ll be more similar to how they’d react if it was her, right?”
“Fine.” Mary crossed her arms with a pout.
“So this is the plan for today, but then what?” said Josh. “We just wait until the day we feel like we can just sit down with your parents and say, ‘What we’ve been telling you is not true, and actually, this completely different thing is true about us. Psych!’”
Leila and Mary looked at each other and nodded. “Yep.” Mary shrugged. “I mean, that’s basically how coming out went for me, in a nutshell.”
“So we have a plan?” said Yas, looking at Josh.
He looked out the window at the cold, bright sky. “We have a plan,” he sighed, as they prepared to exit the highway.
Hickory leaves, watercolored yellow and orange, crunched under their feet as they stepped out of Yas’s gray Taurus. The satisfying thud of the car doors announced their arrival, and only a split-second passed before a tall middle-aged Pakistani woman in red shalwar kameez appeared outside the front door, like she’d been there all along.
“Eid Mubarak, Yasmeen!” she said, embracing Yas so tightly that she lost grip of her roller bag and it started drifting down the driveway in its moment of escape.
“Eid Mubarak, Ammi!” said Yas, and she led everyone inside with smiles and introductions all around.
The smell of fried onions from the kitchen welcomed them into the house, and Yas’s father was next. He extended his arm to shake everyone’s hand.
“Oh, you are the MSA friend from Fremont!” His eyes widened when he met Leila. “I have not been there myself, but I have heard so many wonderful things from my brother there. His son, my nephew, he is very good with the computers, very good. He has a very advanced degree with them.”
Somehow he was also present with Mary and Josh. “I have cousins named Maryam and Yusha, just like your names,” he said. “I was just chatting with them on the MSN.” He pointed at Yas. “You’ve met them. When we were in Pakistan for Nadeema’s wedding.”
Yas looked surprised and slowly shrugged. “I mean, I was like ten? I don’t remember.”
“Ah, well.” Her father shook his head and smiled. “Welcome, everyone. We’ll eat soon, and I will join in just one moment. I just have some…” His voice trailed off as he shuffled around a desk toward an open laptop.
Yas led them to the dining room, where her uncle greeted them from his seat with a tight nod and a gravelly “Eid Mubarak.” Her aunt flew out of her chair to greet them, with hugs for Leila and Mary as engulfing as the one for Yas.
“And this is my sister, Sana,” said Yas. A teenager wearing small, white headphones gave a quick wave in the general direction of Yas’s friends and then studied the little screen of her iPod.
“Please, sit everyone.” Yas’s mother materialized from the kitchen, holding bowls of lentils and rice. The smells of coriander and turmeric snapped up everyone’s attention, and it didn’t take long before they had all found a place to sit and had started passing dishes around the table.
After she’d filled her plate, Sana popped out her headphones and asked, “So Josh, how did you and Leila meet?”
Josh swallowed quickly, glanced at Yas, and made eye contact with Leila. “Umm, well it was…on…campus.” He and Leila nodded at each other slowly. He looked at Sana, who was waiting expectantly for more of the story, and bit his lip.
He took a deep breath and then started in with more energy. “It was at the bookstore. I found my biology textbook, but I saw this girl take the last used copy just seconds before I got there. They had new copies, but it’s a whole racket how they’re way more expensive than the used ones.”
“It’s not right how they do that!” said Chaachi Alia, shaking her head and mashing a piece of naan into the saag on her plate. “Not right!”
“But I just grabbed one of the new copies because I had to,” Josh said, “and I went to the non-textbook section of the bookstore for a while. And there, I ran into the same girl again, except this time I noticed she’d left the used textbook on the floor where she’d been looking through the shelves.”
Yas’s face went red, but a warm smile edged out from her lips as she watched Josh. Sana paused a samosa on the way to her mouth and monitored her sister. Her eyes flickered between Yas and Josh for a moment, and then she finished taking her bite.
“So I grabbed the book off the floor,” Josh continued, “and went around to the next aisle after her. I got her attention and gave her the book, but when she saw that I’d only been able to find a new copy of the same book for myself, she snatched it from my hands and tossed it onto a random shelf. She told me not to waste my money and that she’d share her used copy fifty-fifty with me. We’d sit next to each other in class, we’d do the homework together, and we’d borrow the book from each other all the time. So I left the new textbook where it was on the wrong shelf, and I took her up on the offer. And I’m glad I did.”
Leila nodded and smiled a large, straightforward smile. “Yep,” she said.
“What section was it?” asked Sana, taking a tight sip of mango juice. “Of the bookstore. Where you bumped into her again?” Then she cocked her head to the side and smiled blankly at Yas as she waited for her answer from Josh.
Josh laughed. “Graphic novels,” he shrugged. But when he saw Leila’s smile tighten, his eyes widened, and he froze. He tossed a quick glance toward Yas, who also remained fixed with a frown.
For a moment, the only sound in the room was the chomp of Chaacha’s grunting chew.
“Sana, how’s high school?” blurted Mary, so suddenly that Chaacha quaked in surprise.
Sana held her blank smile at Yas a moment longer, as Yas avoided her eye contact, then deigned to answer. “It’s going well,” she said. “Though I wish Yas was able to drive over on more Fridays with her…car…to see me.”
Yas narrowed her eyes at Sana. “I might be able to find time to drive back a Friday a month.”
Sana calmly met Yas’s stare and dabbed her cheek with a napkin. “How about every Friday?”
Sana turned to Leila. “So what’s your favorite graphic novel, Leila?”
Leila squirmed in her seat. “Umm, I don’t…” She quickly looked at Yas and Josh, who were wrinkling their foreheads, and then up at the ceiling and narrowed her eyes. “Umm. I mean, there’s so many, you know? So many…I think it’s…The Watchers?”
“Watchmen,” Yas whispered softly into her napkin. “‘Who watches the—’” She sighed. “OK,” she said across the table to Sana, “I’ll come by with the car every Friday.”
“OK, cool!” Sana’s eyes flashed a quick smile around the table, before she returned her interest to her food and reinserted her headphones.
Yas looked at her friends, raised her eyebrows, and sighed.
“Yasmeen, Sana, can you help Chaachi and me with the kheer?” her mother asked suddenly.
Desperate for an escape, Yas nodded and joined her mother and aunt in the kitchen. Sana shrugged and dragged her feet behind them.
In the kitchen, Yas’s mother took a large bowl of pudding from the refrigerator and set it on the counter. The familiar scent of cardamom brought a smile to Yas’s face. The smells of college—the musty rooms at Betsy Barbour Hall, the clinical cut-grass smell of the Diag, the disgusting starchy floor at Rick’s—had shocked her system more than she’d realized until that moment.
“Yasmeen,” Chaachi said as she grabbed a large spoon, “I am worried about your friendship with this Leila.”
Yas’s smile disappeared, and her pulse ignited. Every time, Chaachi managed to ambush her like this. Yas turned away to hide the tremble in her hand as she reached into the cupboard for a stack of small bowls. Her mother inconspicuously searched for the bag of pistachios in the pantry, and Sana counted the correct number of spoons from the silverware drawer over and over.
“Maybe it is the California way,” Chaachi said with tight lips as she scooped and flung the pudding into the bowls Yas placed near her, “but to have one of these boyfriends without marriage is haram.” She thrust the spoon toward Yas. “You know that. And what else? Will he convert to Islam and will they have a nikah? What about their children, will they be Muslim?”
“Chaachi. Please.” Yas said, arranging the bowls onto the tray. “I really have no idea about the religion of my po—my friends’ potential future kids, who don’t even almost exist yet! Can we just not talk about that right now?”
“These are very important things to think about, Yasmeen,” Chaachi persisted as Yas’s mother placed the mortar and pestle and the bag of pistachios in front of Yas. “And what else? She reads the novels that are so graphic, they are in a different section of the store! Shaytan is very patient and very crafty and knows how one thing leads to another.”
“Chaachi, that’s not—”
“Yasmeen,” her mother said solidly, catching both Chaachi and Yas by surprise. “I will host her in our house because she is your friend—but I do not want you to be like her.” She started to leave the room. “If I hear you have a boyfriend at college, we are bringing you back home.”
Chaachi licked the remains of pudding off the spoon and tossed it in the dishwasher. She followed Yas’s mother back to the dining room, leaving ashes in her wake.
Sana stayed and didn’t move for a moment. Then she approached with quiet steps and put the stack of spoons on the tray with a soft clink. “I don’t actually need the car every single Friday, you know,” she said. “And he seems like he really likes you.” She pointed at the pistachios ready to be crushed and sprinkled on top of the pudding. “Hulk smash!” she said with a smile and left the kitchen.
A brief smile escaped from Yas, and she wiped the tear from her eye. She used to say that to make Sana laugh whenever she’d had this job as a kid.
She picked up the pestle, ground the pistachios so finely that they turned into a yellow-green flour, and then kept grinding at them.
Yas carried the tray into the dining room and set it on the table without a word. Mary dug in with amazement while Josh watched Yas silently sit down.
“Yas, I forgot my phone in your car,” Josh said. “Can you help me find it?”
Yas nodded and took him out to the driveway. The pink sunset glowed through the hickory trees in the front yard and onto the car. A few new leaves had already sprinkled the hood since they’d arrived.
“You OK?” Josh asked. “You seem really deflated. I haven’t seen you like this before.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I don’t know. Maybe we can talk about it later.” She opened the car, unlocked the doors, and pointed to the passenger seat. “Is it there?”
“What?” he said, leaning into the car. “Oh. No, I didn’t actually lose my phone. It’s in my pocket. I just wanted an excuse to talk to you alone to make sure you’re OK.”
Yas’s face lit up. “Wait. You lied?” she said, pouncing onto the driver’s seat. “I’m so proud of you! I didn’t know you had it in you!” She started to reach toward his hand, then caught herself, realizing that anyone could be watching from a window.
Josh smiled for a moment but then frowned and looked under the seat. “I guess I can do a little lie for a moment,” he said, “but I’m scared if I can actually keep a big one up for a really long time.”
“Hey, hey,” Yas dipped her head below the driver’s seat to make eye contact with him. Her dark brown hair fell away from her face. “We’ll figure it out. We’re just like any other two people who have to defy their situation to be together, like Ro—”
“Yasmeen!” Her father’s voice suddenly called out from the garage door.
She bumped her head on the bottom of the steering wheel in surprise. “Oww! What, Baba?”
“Did you find your friend’s phone? Did you look in all of the side pockets?”
“Almost found it,” assured Josh with a smile.
“OK,” said Yas’s father with a wave as he went back into the house. “That’s good. Make sure to check all of the side pockets.” The door closed behind him.
Yas was smirking at Josh when he turned back inside the car. “What?” he said.
“‘Almost found it?’ Are you kidding me? How do you almost find something?” She checked the folds in the backseat. “You really are a terrible liar.”
Josh laughed and opened the glove compartment.
“Anyway,” Yas said, “like I was saying: right now, we’re just two people kept apart by the world. Like Rogue and Gambit. They want to be together, but they can’t touch because then she might accidentally suck away his powers or hurt him. You know, because of her involuntary absorption powers. It’s why she wears gloves all the time.”
She faced Josh and pressed her temple against the back of the driver’s headrest. “I like that you’re a terrible liar. It means that you haven’t had to become a good one, like I have. And I don’t like to think that being with me might, I don’t know, accidentally suck away that part of you, and then you’ll have to lie all the time too.” She dangled her hand low behind the cupholder, where it couldn’t be seen from the house. “But we’ll figure something out, right? It won’t be forever.”
Josh leaned against the front of the passenger seat headrest and held her hand weakly. “I hope so. And I hope that it won’t be forever because we tell them, not because…you decide it’s not worth it.”
Yas squeezed his hand but couldn’t find any words to add.
He nodded slowly, eyes down. He pulled his phone from his pocket. “Found it,” he said, and released her hand where it dangled.
Yas sighed, locked the car, and walked back to the house, keeping a non-suspicious distance from Josh. The sunset stretched their shadows away from the house, where somewhere they finally blended into each other.
“By the way,” Josh said when they reached the door. “I think you promised Mary you’d show us your yearbook photos while we’re here.” He held the screen door open for her and whispered when she was close. “I bet you were the sexiest mathlete.”
Yas’s bedroom was exactly how she’d last seen it two months ago: the empty bed; the blank wall space where the framed first edition of Jessica Jones: Alias, now in her dorm, had once hung; high school T-shirts left hanging out of overstuffed drawers forever.
She kneeled to dig out some yearbooks from their horizontal stack at the bottom of her bookshelf. A small group of papers folded into a stapled booklet clung onto the other books and fell next to her knee on the carpet. She picked it up, the memory of its creation flickering to her.
Colored pencil panels stretched across the pages, with blank spaces and scrunched words betraying the lack of a layout plan. Her eight-year-old drawing skills, making ample use of single-color backgrounds and human figures always either facing each other directly or at ninety-degree angles, rendered a retelling of the origin story of the Fantastic Four. Her first homemade comic book.
She indulged the first page, where four lightning bolts traced from a Gatorade label surrounded an airplane-looking spaceship housing four stick figures. “Our heroes are zapped by colonial rays!” read her caption, written in blue pencil.
She laughed at the replacement of “cosmic” with a word that must have been in her mind from the “Colonial Day” they held each year at her elementary school. She’d wanted to dress up as the village printer, but her friends had encouraged her to instead be an Indian princess. “You’re basically one already,” one had said. “Only this is feather, not dot.”
Her grandfather would probably have had the most to say about being mistaken for an Indian, she thought. She looked on her shelf at the framed piece of Urdu calligraphy he’d given her as a baby, just before he died. The flowing script whispered out from the yellowed mulberry paper, and she felt a curious mental tug, similar to what Jean Grey must have felt when she experienced other’s memories. Yas watched in awe as the calligraphy somehow escaped from its paper, danced down to the booklet in her hands, and breathed new illustrations onto its pages.
On one page, Yas saw a close-up of a child’s hand losing grip of his mother’s in a panicked crowd. The child, her grandfather, cried and searched through the mass but was lost on the wrong side of the Partition. After weeks, his family presumed he’d died, like so many others. Somehow, perhaps with the likelihood of escaping an exploding Krypton, a friendly Hindu family gave him food and helped him reach his family in Pakistan after all.
Orange and purple hues blended across the next page, where Yas’s father, a young man, sat watching the sunset over the Ravi River. He’d heard his own father’s story of separation many times. So when he had to tear himself away to wintry Michigan, he spent his days and nights stretching across time zones and visa stamps to always keep his hand’s hold on the scattered members of the family.
Yas flipped the page, and her attention went straight to the frustrated “STAMP!” of Yas’s mother’s foot on the floor of her family’s home. Her parents were ending her tanpura lessons and making her board a dizzying series of planes from Pakistan to America to join her new fiancé, who she’d only met on the phone. Once there, a man on the bus in Detroit saw her hijab, and a speech bubble appeared above him: “Go back to Iran!” Her hands trembled as she silently got off the bus at the next stop, and she walked the remaining five miles by herself, hoping no one else would see her. From that day on, she found it easiest to navigate her new world and make a home for her two daughters by staying as invisible as possible.
“CLANG!” proclaimed the Ford assembly line on the next page. Yas’s uncle had joined her father in America, with six years of school and no job history. He spent all his healthy years working a set-in-stone overtime schedule of seven days a week. His back and face hardened to combat the hours installing large-displacement engines to earn for the family what had been unearnable in their home country.
After another page flip, Yas’s aunt’s eyes glowed when her older brothers visited from school in England, sport coats hanging over their arms and London slang bouncing between them. But when their mother cooked their old favorite curry, her brothers made fun of the thick turmeric once she left the room. As Yas’s aunt left the room crying, they threw the word “stuck” after her, as if their transformation was inevitable for her as well. A panel depicted waves of heat from the fireplace that night, where she sat and decided that unless she was willing to protect the flame inside herself, the callous, relentless westerly winds might snuff it out.
The last page of Yas’s comic book was the same as it had been when she’d drawn it all those years ago. “At first it seemed like they turned into monsters,” her story ended in all-capital letters crowding the edges of the page, “but actually they became a superfamily and they could save the world!”
Yas sighed, wondering about her own origin story. She curled the comic book into her jean jacket pocket, stood from the carpet, and carried her yearbooks from the room.
A static shock jumped between her fingertips and the doorknob as she left. Not exactly Storm’s lightning power, she thought, as she descended the stairs to join everyone. But it was a start.