Hassan refused to go to the dinner party at one of his Indian neighbor’s houses that night. Ammi and Abu had been angry for the whole morning about Fatima, before deciding during the afternoon to pretend that absolutely nothing had happened. They had already left half an hour ago to go to the party like nothing was wrong, but Hassan could see in Ammi’s stiff smiles and Abu’s frequent scowls that they were still most definitely very mad.
He sat by himself on the couch that suddenly seemed too big, a bowl of desi ramen in his hands. Suddenly he heard the doorbell ring, and he scrambled to his feet, grabbing a jacket out of the closet as he hurried to answer the door (it was probably the pizza he’d ordered). Instead, he was met by two giggling desi girls. Anaiya and Curly-haired Indian Girl (oh wait, Tasnim) stood awkwardly on his porch, stifling laughter. Hassan groaned at the sight of them, rolling his eyes. He immediately shut the door in their faces, but even through the closed door he could still hear their loud voices.
“Why was he wearing a girl puffer jacket?” That was Anaiya.
“That’s so irrelevant,” Tasnim retorted. “He probably just grabbed the wrong one.”
Hassan moaned, squeezing his eyes shut as he realized that he was wearing Fatima’s coat. Burying his face in his hands, he took a deep breath and quickly switched it out for his own jacket before opening the door again.
“Why are you guys even at my house?” he snapped.
Tasnim smirked at him. “Well… Anaiya wanted to give you something,” she said conspiratorially.
Her eyes sparkled when she smiled, Hassan noticed suddenly.
Wait a minute…
Shuddering at the thought, he quickly shut it down. “O-kay?”
Looking a little embarrassed, Anaiya brought her hands forward from behind her back to reveal an elaborate gift basket, overflowing with snacks and trinkets that Fatima would call “aesthetically pleasing.”
“For me?” Hassan stared at her uncomfortably. Wasn’t she supposed to be Shayan’s girlfriend? “Won’t Shayan be mad if he finds out?”
Tasnim rolled her eyes at him as Anaiya sighed exasperatedly. “Not for you, stupid,” Anaiya responded. “For Shayan.”
“Oh.” Groaning inwardly at the awkwardness of the situation, Hassan asked, “So what do you want me to do?”
“Give it to Shayan. Duh,” Tasnim said, giggling. Hassan wasn’t sure if she was laughing at him or with him, so he laughed too, all of a sudden self-conscious.
“Okay, well, here,” Anaiya said, handing him the basket, which was surprisingly heavy. Hassan peered into it and wondered if Shayan would notice if he ate a few of the nicer candies.
Tasnim glared at him, but she was smiling. “Don’t you dare eat any,” she warned.
Hassan shrugged. “Uh, well, bye, I guess.”
Anaiya and Tasnim exchanged a glance before bursting into laughter. Hassan’s gaze shot back and forth between them, not really sure what he should do. Finally he saw the pizza van pull into his driveway, and he sighed with relief.
“My dinner’s here,” he said, gesturing at the pizza and beginning to close the door on them pointedly.
Anaiya elbowed Tasnim, smirking. “What, you’re not going to invite us in? So rude.”
Hassan stared at her, aghast. Did she seriously have the nerve to ask him to invite her in? He glared at her. “No, I’m not. Don’t you guys have anything better to do?”
Tasnim blushed suddenly, looking away, but Anaiya just scowled at him. “Actually, we should go back to the party, Tasnim.” To Hassan, she added, “We snuck out from the party at your neighbor’s house.”
Unable to keep himself from doing so, Hassan snorted. “Well, you should go then.”
He gave the pizza van another deliberate glance, and Anaiya sighed, tugging on Tasnim’s sleeve. “Okay, okay, we’re leaving. Don’t forget to give the basket to Shayan!”
Hassan nodded. As they left his driveway, Tasnim turned around and gave him a final wave, and Hassan shot her a careless grin before closing the door.
A few minutes later, he was settled back on the couch, pizza in his hands and the TV playing that movie about Tasnim and Anand (yes, he hated that movie, but somehow it was the only thing on that was even borderline watchable). It was what would’ve been a typical weekend evening, except something—rather, someone—was missing. Hassan felt his big sister’s absence even more conspicuously than before as he pulled the throw blanket around himself, all of a sudden feeling cold as he shoveled pizza into his mouth. To distract himself, he directed his focus towards the movie, watching as Anand professed his undying love for Tasnim. Hassan rolled his eyes, his thoughts abruptly shifting to Anaiya’s cousin, also named Tasnim. He snorted, wondering if she was maybe named after the girl in the movie. They did look a little bit alike, now that he thought about it. The same thick curly hair, big eyes, milk-chocolate skin.
What was Hassan even thinking? Realizing where his mind had drifted, he quickly blinked and shuddered. Milk-chocolate skin? That sounded like something from the cheesiest of desi movies. Besides, Tasnim disgusted him, didn’t she? She had the temerity to insult his favorite Yeezys, so clearly she had horrid taste in shoes. There was no way he would ever like anyone with bad shoe taste.
Ugh, who ever said he liked her? Because Hassan most definitely did not.
He leaned back against the couch, trying to focus on the movie, but now that he’d entertained the thought, he couldn’t stop thinking about Tasnim. She wasn’t anything like Arushi, he decided. Arushi was popular, Tasnim wasn’t. But the thing was, he didn’t think she wanted to be—that was where she really was different from Arushi. Everything about Arushi was rehearsed, from her laugh to the way she spoke. Tasnim didn’t care what he thought about her, or what anyone thought about her, for that matter. And… maybe he kind of liked that. Maybe he was tired of watching other people pretend around him. Maybe he himself was tired of pretending all the time to be someone he wasn’t.
He snorted quietly to himself. If everyone knew that he played Clash Royale and watched cricket in his free time, it would be most definite social suicide. The pretending would have to stay. What would Jason and Owen say if they knew that he really was a gamer at heart? What would Shayan say if Hassan just threw away his cool façade? What would Tasnim say?
He made himself a bowl of popcorn and settled back on the couch, wrapped up in his throw blanket. Quickly switching the channel to some boring desi cooking show, Hassan closed his eyes, not liking where his train of thought had wandered.
Later that night, Hassan began the process of looking through Shayan’s basket. Yes, it felt a little bit like snooping, but Hassan assured himself that it was simply making sure the basket was completely Shayan-friendly and wouldn’t harm him in any way. After all, for all he knew, maybe Anaiya was a psycho killer who’d put something poisonous in Shayan’s chocolate. As Shayan’s cousin, it was Hassan’s civil responsibility to vet the whole basket. Right?
He went after the cards first. Careful not to let their parents see, Anaiya had hidden the notes and messages deep inside the basket, but Hassan found them anyway. “Feel better,” the first one said. “Hope I’ll be able to see you again soon!”
Ugh. Boring. Hassan continued to search for more incriminating notes. Where were the I love you’s and the I miss you’s? He sighed, wondering to himself if Tasnim had helped assemble the basket. She’d probably been laughing the whole time, Hassan thought. Tasnim seemed like the type to laugh a lot. Surprisingly though, her laughing and giggling didn’t really bother Hassan. Whereas he’d hated Arushi’s laugh, which sounded so fake, he didn’t mind Tasnim’s. He shivered, wondering why he couldn’t get her out of his head. He’d never quite felt this way before, not for Arushi, not for the cute girl who’d lived a few houses away from him back before he moved to Cincinnati. What was wrong with him? She was annoying, wasn’t she? All she ever did was insult him. So why did he suddenly want her approval? Why did he care what she thought of him?
With shaking hands he pulled out his iCell, hating the way he couldn’t stop thinking about Tasnim. After a moment of hesitation, he opened Shayan’s name in his messages.
Shayan replied within seconds, for once. Probably because he had nothing better to do than sit in his hospital bed and play games on his iCell.
What is it?
Hassan took a deep breath.
I think I like someone
Shayan’s reply was immediate.
Hassan bit his lip, suddenly not sure if he should go through with this. At last, he typed out her name, and hit SEND.
He could practically hear Shayan gasping.
Wait, seriously? You aren’t joking, right?
Hassan snorted. He wished he was joking. There was no way she would like him back, ever, he realized glumly. The first words she’d ever said to him (or, rather, about him) were that his shoes were ugly.
Shayan paused for a long time before sending his response.
Can I tell Anaiya?
She might be able to help
Hassan groaned, already regretting his decision to consult Shayan. On one hand, maybe Anaiya could help. But more likely was that Anaiya would mock him mercilessly, and then tell Tasnim all sorts of rude things about him. Hassan threw his head backwards, leaning against the back of the sofa. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
No u can’t
Honestly plz don’t
He shut off his iCell, staring despondently at the empty pizza box and halfway-disassembled gift basket. What was wrong with him? Why Tasnim, of all girls?
When Hassan woke up the next morning, he caught sight of his backpack, strewn in a corner (and half-covered by a throw blanket). Remembering his algebra packet, which just happened to be due on Monday, he groaned loudly and buried his face in his pillow. Ugh, he hated math. Forcing himself to climb out from under the covers, he crawled over to his backpack and dumped the contents out onto the ground. The math packet stared at him smugly on top of the pile, and Hassan threw it onto his desk, scowling.
Solve for x, the first problem said. Factor the equation. He rolled his eyes and quickly typed into his iCell “how to factor.” Feeling completely relieved that his parents had forgotten about taking away his iCell in the midst of all the commotion, Hassan opened up his calculator and began to work.
Shayan would be proud, Hassan thought to himself as, about two hours later (and after four snack/breakfast breaks and three trips to the bathroom), he finally finished the packet. Glancing gratefully at Google, which was still open on his iCell, he slid the packet back into his backpack, smirking.
Hassan quickly changed and gelled his hair before running downstairs to get more food. Ammi and Abu sat at the breakfast table, both looking tired and grumpy, so Hassan turned around and headed back to his room. It wasn’t worth it, he decided. He’d just have to eat some of the junky snacks that he’d hidden in his closet. Speaking of snacks… he greedily considered taking some of Shayan’s chocolates as he studied the basket sitting next to his dresser. He snatched a Hershey’s bar out of the basket and sank down heavily onto his unmade bed, leaning on his pillows. It was raining outside, the droplets smacking against his windows (Hassan had always found that sound oddly soothing). Fatima hated the rain, he thought suddenly. She always complained that it made everything wet. On an impulse, he picked up his iCell to try and find the weather where Fatima was, but then he remembered that he didn’t even know the city she was living in, let alone her address. Biting his lip, he put his iCell down again, suddenly feeling lonely. He opened his messaging app and clicked on Shayan’s name, but he had nothing to say. All of a sudden, a text popped up on his screen.
Hassan raised his eyebrows and sent a reply to his cousin.
Shayan responded quickly, the three dots dancing on the screen to show that he was typing.
It’s Tasnim’s number. ;)
Hassan stared at his phone, unsure if he should be laughing hysterically or dying of embarrassment.
Did u get it from Anaiya?
He could practically picture Shayan’s smirking face.
Of course I did.
But don’t worry; I didn’t tell her it was for you.
Hassan groaned, but he was smiling (and why did Shayan use a semicolon in a text?). But the problem was, what would he even say to Tasnim? He had no good reason to text her (or even have her number, for that matter). Slamming his iCell down on the bed beside him, he struggled to concoct a valid excuse to text her.
Just then, Ammi shrieked for Hassan to come downstairs. Rolling his eyes, he stumbled into the kitchen.
“Your abu and I are going over to your Ganesh Uncle’s house for lunch. Will you be okay on your own?”
Hassan sighed. Last night, they hadn’t had much of a problem ditching him at home alone, so why were they asking now if he would be fine? Scowling inwardly at the inconsistency, he nodded and brusquely muttered a “yes.”
Abu gave him a warning look but Hassan ignored it. Finally, after his parents had driven away, Hassan slumped onto the couch. All of a sudden feeling stuffy in the house, he slipped out the door, grabbing his jacket, and opened up the garage, where he stood watching the rain patter onto the ground.
He watched as a thin silhouette of a curly-haired girl emerged from a nearby house (Ganesh Uncle and his wife lived there) and stood outside on the driveway, battered by the rain. Hassan squinted at her, unsure if his eyes were playing tricks on him. What were the chances that she’d show up near his house two days in a row? Yes, it was true that there were a lot of Indian people who lived in his neighborhood and had parties nearly every weekend, but the probability was just too low that it’d be her standing on Ganesh Uncle’s driveway. Wasn’t it? Besides, why didn’t she have a jacket?
And then she turned around. Hassan wasn’t sure if those were tears or raindrops that he saw streaked on her face, but he couldn’t help himself anymore. Pulling up his hood, he ran across the street, his vision blurred by both rain and euphoria. Opportunities like this one didn’t come around every day, he decided. It was like a scene straight out of one of Fatima’s Bollywood movies—the guy would come up to the lonely girl standing in the rain, and he would give her his jacket. Nodding to himself with satisfaction, he walked up beside her, unzipping his coat and carefully draping it around her shoulders.
Bad idea. The water immediately began dripping down his shirt, in his eyes, smearing his hair. Tasnim turned around suddenly, noticing that he was there, and she gave him a tentative smile as she tugged his jacket tighter around herself. “Thanks.”
He forced a smile in return, even though the water was really, really cold and he could feel himself starting to shiver. How had she survived so long outside without a coat? “Why are you out here?” he asked.
She blinked. Hassan couldn’t help but notice the raindrops caught in her long eyelashes, like frozen diamonds. Fatima would’ve said that her lashes were too long to be real, he thought to himself. One of his sister’s favorite hobbies was judging other people’s eyelashes and deciding whether or not they were fake. Realizing where his thoughts had drifted, Hassan shook his head and listened to her reply.
“It’s a long story,” she said.
He raised his eyebrows. “Do I look like I have anything better to do?”
She laughed, before looking at him questioningly. “Your house is literally across the street and we’re standing out here getting pneumonia instead of going in.”
He mentally slapped himself. Of course. He was such an idiot. “Sorry,” he replied, flustered. “Okay, um, let’s go.”
He led her in through the garage, and she handed him his coat back hesitantly. They sat down on the couch; Hassan fiddled with a tassel on a pillow awkwardly, suddenly unsure of what to do.
“So, uh, do you want something to eat? Or drink? We have almonds,” he blurted, gesturing at the plate of badaam on the coffee table. “And chai.”
She smirked at him and took an almond, looking like she was suppressing a laugh at his discomfort. Hassan mentally slapped himself again.
He studied her reaction, suddenly irrationally desperate for her approval (yes, even for the taste of the sugar-coated almonds). Her eyes were red-rimmed, he realized, taken aback. She had to have been crying, but somehow that didn’t make it even more awkward for Hassan. Fatima cried so often that he wasn’t even uncomfortable anymore. Instead, he cleared his throat.
“So, what happened?”
She glanced up from where she was reaching for another badaam. “You’re so nosy,” she replied.
Hassan bit his lip. Was he being too intrusive? Maybe he should just back off, but normally after girls cried they wanted to rant about it (he ought to thank Fatima, he thought. She’d given him lots of experience). He quickly ran through a course of action in his head, searching for something to say. “There has to be a good reason for why you were just letting yourself get drenched,” he said at last, tilting his head. Her curls were still intact, he noticed suddenly. Wet, but still… curly. She probably used some sort of teil, he decided. She seemed like the type of girl to use teil illegally imported from Pakistan.
Tasnim rolled her eyes at him, but Hassan didn’t say anything, just waiting for the rant that he knew was inevitable. Sure enough, he was right. “My mom and dad were talking to Ganesh Uncle,” she began, her voice already beginning to quiver. “Literally their only goal in life for me is for me to go to Harvard Med School and be a doctor like them.” Her words turned bitter. “But they never ask what I want! It’s like, I just have to go along with whatever they say and I don’t even get to choose what will happen in my own life! It’s so stupid.”
Startled by her outburst, Hassan nodded with what he hoped looked like understanding. Yeah, he got why she was mad, but it wasn’t like Tasnim was the only kid whose parents had ever tried to control them (just look at Fatima, Hassan thought despondently).
Then Tasnim continued. “I just… I don’t want to be a doctor.” She lowered her gaze. “I want to be an actress. I know, it sounds really pathetic. But it’s what I want to do. Not what they want me to do.” With this admission, tears began sliding down her cheeks. Inwardly, Hassan smirked, pleased with his prediction that she would spill everything and then cry. Outwardly, he made a sympathetic noise and widened his eyes.
“I told Ammi that, when I was really little. She said I’m not pretty enough to be an actress,” Tasnim sniffled. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and Hassan could tell that she was trying not to cry. Despite his earlier dismissal of her anger, this time his stomach wrenched and his hands curled into fists before he quickly unclenched them.
He took a deep breath. “Idon’tthinkso,” he murmured.
“What?” She stared at him owlishly through tear-glazed eyes.
“I don’t think so,” Hassan repeated awkwardly. “That you’re not pretty enough, I mean.” Burning with embarrassment, he struggled to smooth the situation over. “What I’m saying is, you could definitely be an actress…” His voice trailed off.
She gave him a tiny smile. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. I’ve never told anyone. Not even Anaiya.” She traced a circle on the carpet with her toe, tears welling up again in her big brown eyes. Hassan felt his heart twist and melt.
If this was a Bollywood movie, he thought, he would give her a hug right now. And then she would cry into his shoulder, and all would be good and happy and perfect. However, he knew from experience that life usually didn’t go like a movie.
But sometimes it did… He thought about just a few minutes prior, when he’d draped his jacket around Tasnim’s shoulders and she’d smiled at him in the rain—a classic movie scene. So he gathered his courage, bit his lip, and hesitantly gave her a hug.
She flinched at his touch, surprised. Hassan immediately released his arms, face burning with humiliation. He never should’ve done that. Oh no, now she probably thought he was a creep. Why did he ever think it would be a good idea? But then she leaned her head on his shoulder, still sobbing, and he felt a smile grow on his face until it practically stretched from ear to ear. All his earlier thoughts were wrong, he decided. This was exactly like a Bollywood movie—one that (unlike the Tasnim and Anand one) he wouldn’t mind watching over and over and over again.
Tasnim left around ten minutes later, scared that Hassan’s parents would come home and find their son hugging a girl who wasn’t related to him (scandalous), giving him her phone number (he didn’t want to admit that he already had it). Hassan walked around the house in a daze for the rest of the day, bubbling over with excitement that he barely contained. Was this what elation felt like?