Hassan woke up at noon the next morning, exhausted. They had to go to another party that day (why did desis like partying so much?), but really he just wanted to order pizza and watch cricket. He clicked on his iCell, grinning at the spam of texts from Shayan about how suddenly Anaiya seemed to have started showing an interest in him. Hassan smirked. Oh, if only Shayan knew the truth.
That night, they arrived two hours late to the party as usual, and Hassan and Fatima headed upstairs to find Shayan and Anaiya sitting together, both looking awkward but happy. A rush of satisfaction filled him as he saw the fruits of his labor, and he watched the two of them from the other side of the room. Hassan hadn’t seen Anaiya much at school, considering she was usually with that mob of Asian girls, but now, watching her and Shayan together, he felt a tinge of… wait, was that jealousy?
Of course, he wasn’t jealous of his cousin. Shayan and Anaiya were matching, down to their names. No, it was just that even nerdy, lame Shayan had a girlfriend. He was Hassan, the cool desi. The one that every other Indian boy wished they were. And yet Shayan had a girlfriend but he didn’t? This made no sense at all. Frowning, he sat down heavily on the bed, suddenly a little bit mad at Shayan for no reason. Shayan hesitantly took Anaiya’s hand in his, blushing, and she pulled him over to sit on the fuzzy rug with her. Hassan resisted a roll of his eyes. He ought to feel proud, considering that he and Fatima were the ones who’d gotten them together in the first place, but instead he looked away from them and pretended to be interested in the makeup tutorial that Fatima was watching.
Hassan ran through a mental list of the popular girls as Shayan and Anaiya chatted in the background. Annabelle, Elizabeth, Tiffany, Arushi… He grinned. He was the only popular Indian boy, and Arushi was the only popular Indian girl. This had to be meant to be.
“Guys,” he called out. “What do you think of Arushi?”
Fatima scowled at him from her position lying on the bed. “One week in and already looking for a girlfriend? Forget about it.”
Fatima kicked him and he stopped talking.
Anaiya was watching him skeptically. “You like her?” Shayan looked equally incredulous.
“Why not?” asked Hassan, shrugging.
Anaiya shot him a look. “She’s a two-faced liar.”
Hassan snorted. “She seemed nice to me.”
“Appearances are deceiving,” Shayan retorted.
Hassan glared at him. Was Shayan just trying to stop him from getting a girlfriend? Maybe his cousin was enjoying having something that Hassan didn’t. Well, Hassan would show him! Right then and there, he made it his goal to get Arushi to like him, no matter what.
Suddenly he heard Ammi shouting for them to come downstairs to eat cake, so they all made their way to the dining room, Fatima, Anaiya, and Shayan politely greeting the horde of aunties that swarmed them while Hassan eyed them with barely masked disgust and did not greet them. After all, what could he say? Subtlety wasn’t really his strong suit, and he was sure no one wanted a repeat of the Alisha Auntie incident.
But then something awful happened. One of the aunties turned around, her belly oozing from her thin shirt, and she caught sight of Hassan hiding against the wall.
“Ah, beta, come here!” Her voice was high-pitched and sharp, like nails on a chalkboard. Hassan groaned audibly and forced politeness.
The middle-aged women all clustered around him, making him feel rather claustrophobic as they made comments about his height, grades, and skin tone (Why did they have to be so obsessed with fair skin? And why couldn’t they stop deciding which desi girl would be perfect for him to marry?). He felt like he was on an inspection table, all his faults laid out for them to pick at. Hassan bit his lip to keep from screaming for help—or, better yet, calling 911. Hello, Officer, sir, I’m being harassed by aunties. Yes, they may or may not stalk me. Yes, they are being racially insensitive by making crude comments about my skin color. Thank you. Have a nice day.
But then the topic shifted from Hassan to Fatima.
“Hassan, beta, is it true that Fatima had straight A+’s for all of junior year?”
“See, I always tell my Anish he needs to be more like Fatima!”
“Of course her grades are wonderful, she’s going to Harvard, yes, Hassan?”
Harvard. Harvard. Harvard. Harvard. The word was closing in around Hassan from all sides now. Harvard. Harvard. Fatima. Harvard. Good girl. Aachi larki. Harvard. Harvard.
He slammed his hands over his ears but nothing could stop the tidal wave of shrill auntie voices. Harvard. Harvard. HARVARD.
“Fatima’s not going to Harvard!” he screamed at last, unable to hold it in. All of a sudden, the room went silent, except for the sounds of a few oblivious uncles chattering in the kitchen. All eyes swiveled towards Hassan, who, during his stupor, had somehow managed to climb onto a chair. Ammi and Abu stared at him, expressions of disbelief and horror plastered on their faces. Samia Khala and Kanooz Uncle were frozen in their seats, each holding a cup of chai. Shayan and Anaiya were both standing at the entranceway to the dining room, gaping at him. Hassan thought that in any other circumstance, he would’ve found this comical. And then he suddenly registered what he’d just said.
Heart racing, he stared at the family portraits on the opposite wall, studying their terse smiles and uncomfortable Indian clothes. He’d dug his own grave now… oh, Fatima was going to kill him. Yep, it was a deep, deep, grave. He might’ve just ruined his family’s reputation. He took a deep breath, his pulse just about ready to explode. The grave had already been dug, he decided. He might as well jump into it.
“She told me she canceled her application,” he said, trying to keep the stammer out of his voice as he avoided looking over at Fatima. “She’s… she’s going to the University of Iowa.”
A horrified murmur began running through the crowd. Hassan winced at the sounds of the aunties and uncles calling him and Fatima spoiled and ungrateful and misguided. He finally risked a glance over at his sister, but she wasn’t standing next to the stairs anymore. Suddenly, he saw her jump onto the chair beside him.
Fatima put an arm around Hassan’s shoulders, a determined look on her face. “He’s right,” she called out. “Abu, Ammi, I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to explain. But I’m going to UI to major in Creative Writing. Not Harvard.” She took a deep, steadying breath. “Please don’t blame my brother, or my parents. It was my choice.” She forced a smile before jumping off the chair and walking away, straight through the sea of horrified uncles and aunties. No one stopped her.
Hassan awkwardly slid off the chair as the aunties and uncles immediately resumed their gossiping, but only about them this time. He followed Fatima, ignoring the dull ache that was beginning to throb at his temples.
Hassan tried to look away from Fatima after she pushed him out the door onto the porch, but she held onto his shoulders so he had to face her.
He wanted to apologize, but somehow he couldn’t find any words. “Api…”
She shook her head (wait, was Fatima smiling?). “Stop. I know you’re going to say sorry, but lying is a sin.” She smirked at him.
“I…” Hassan scuffed the concrete with his toes. “Api, I didn’t mean to. The aunties were attacking me and…” His voice drifted off.
Fatima laughed. “I had to tell Ammi and Abu sometime anyway. And then they would tell their version to the whole desi community. So I guess it’s better this way anyhow. I wouldn’t have found a better way to tell them.”
Hassan stared at her in shock. “You’re… not mad?”
She grinned. “No. But you have to knock when you come in my room from now on.”
Hassan scowled. “Whatever.” Inwardly, though, he let out a sigh of relief.
Just at that moment, Shayan and Anaiya came running outside.
“We were looking for you everywhere!” called Shayan, hurrying over towards them.
Hassan elbowed his cousin, who, for once, wasn’t blushing. “How’s it going?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
Shayan beamed, practically radiating happiness. “She likes cricket too! And her favorite player is Safraz Ahmed. She says he’s so much better than Shahid Afridi.” He smirked at Hassan.
Hassan rolled his eyes (Shahid Afridi was obviously the superior player). “Idiots.” But he was smiling as he said it.
Anaiya stepped up beside Shayan. “I think it’s a fact that Shayan and I have better grades than you. So we’re not the idiots here,” she added, shooting him a smug look.
Hassan glared at her. Fatima laughed at the exchange, and then she sighed. “I guess we should go in and check the damage.”
“Yeah… Sobi Khala and Taimoor Uncle are probably freaking out,” agreed Shayan.
Hassan and Fatima shared a look.
“Uh, we’ll pass,” Hassan said slowly, glancing longingly at the car.
Anaiya shook her head at Fatima. “We should go back in. They’ll understand.”
Hassan grabbed her arm and pushed her forward. Shayan pulled the door open, and Anaiya led the way in. Immediately the aunties began to jabber their questions, and Hassan took a deep breath before beginning to defend his sister.