I can’t even breathe. Words build inside my head, piling on top of each other, cramming into the corners of my mind until suddenly I can’t hold them in any longer and they spew out in a hot, angry stream that almost burns my lips.
“What the fuck are you thinking?”
Shhh? She’s shushing me? Telling me to be quiet?
“Sahira, are you crazy? Don’t you even care? This is your whole fucking life you’re throwing away.”
Her fingers trace a pattern that I can’t see, scrolling against the bedspread. Like everything in the room, it’s richly coloured and softly luxurious. She watches her fingers like she’s never seen them before, then clasps her hands together, lacing the fingers together before stretching them out, touching the tips of her thumbs to each other. It’s like she’s playing some kind of game, and the outcome will determine what she’s going to do – whether she’ll answer my question, or continue to ignore it. When she finally speaks, her voice is soft.
“My mother doesn’t like that word.”
“That ‘f’ word. She doesn’t like it when girls say that.”
The air drains out of me. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Sahira’s whole life is about to be wrecked, her future trashed, all our plans destroyed, and she’s fussing about a word her mother doesn’t like to hear. I don’t even know if there’s any point in saying anything after that. It’s like she’s talking in her sleep or something. She’s saying words, but they aren’t making any sense. Does she even know what she sounds like? Does she even believe what she’s saying? Or care?
“Earth to Sahira. Come in.”
I wait for her smile, for the response that has always been there. But this time, there’s nothing. “Sahira, are you even listening to me?”
She looks at me. Her eyes are beautiful – large, dark and expressive. Her eyebrows float above them, almost joining in the middle. Her skin is a pale tan colour – in the summer I get browner than she does. Probably because I spend more time in the sun. Like many Indo-Canadian girls, she likes to protect her skin, covering up, sitting in the shade. Maybe that’s why she looks like she should be on the cover of a magazine, and I look like I should be somewhere in the back pages, where they advertise freckle cream, running shoes and stuff to do outdoors.
“Yes,” she says. The word floats out on the smallest of breaths, like it’s escaping from a very deep and dark place. “Yes.” There’s another pause. “I’m listening. But it doesn’t matter. Don’t you see?” Her hands stretch forward in supplication. Her fingers are long and slender, with shapely nails. I look at them, picturing them in the exaggerated poses of Bollywood dances. I glance at my own hands, knotted into fists, with nails chewed down to the nubs, and shove them in my pockets.
“Don’t you see?” she repeats. “There’s nothing I can do about it.” She looks at me, than repeats, almost to herself. “There’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t have a choice.”
I close my eyes for a minute and take a deep breath. I’m trying not to shout, trying to speak rationally, trying to make her see how utterly ridiculous this is. She won’t listen to me, but I’m trying to get her to listen to herself.
“Sahira – you do have a choice. You don’t have to marry someone you’ve never met, just because your father tells you to.”
“But I do,” she says. No infliction. No raised voice. Nothing. Just unquestioning acceptance.
“That’s something that happens in the old country,” I say. I’m still trying to be rational – trying to make a logical point. “This isn’t India. This isn’t the Punjab. This is Canada. And you’re a Canadian.”
“No,” she says, “You’re wrong. I am Canadian, but I’m Punjabi too. And in the Punjab, when your father arranges a marriage, you don’t question it. You simply do it.”
There’s a long pause before she continues. “That’s the way it’s always been.” Another pause. “After all, who knows better than he, what is best for me?”
She raises her eyes and looks at me for a moment, as though she’s somehow clinched the argument, then drops her gaze back to her folded hands. She massages one thumb with the other, her fingers skimming over each other like leaves blowing in the wind. Like some uncontrollable force has taken over.
“But you’ve never even met the guy.” I repeat.
There’s a long pause before she answers. “That’s true, but he’s my father’s cousin. So my father knows him.”
“How can your father know him – when’s the last time your father was in India?”
“He doesn’t know him personally, but he knows the family. This is his cousin,” she repeats, as though that explains everything.
I shake my head.
“I don’t get it. It just doesn’t make sense, Sahira. Do you really believe a seventeen-year old girl can marry a 45-year old man she’s never even met? I don’t understand how you can think it’s a normal thing to do. You don’t know anything about him. You don’t know what he likes, or doesn’t like. What does he eat for breakfast? What kind of music does he like? What’s his idea of something that’s fun to do?”
She continues to play with her fingers. I know she can hear me, but she isn’t paying attention to anything I’ve said. It’s like she’s slipped into another dimension.
“Come on, Sahira – face it. You don’t have anything in common. You don’t have any of the same friends, or interests - I don’t see how you can hope to make a marriage work when there’s absolutely nothing to base it on, except that your father wants you to marry the guy. ”
There’s a long pause before she answers. “My mother didn’t give my father any sons.” The words flow so smoothly, so matter-of-factly it sounds as though someone has poured them into her head and she only has to open her mouth to let them slip out. I can’t accept that she really believes what she’s saying. “Now my father needs someone to help with the business. When I marry his cousin, he can come to this country and help my father.”
“So why can’t you help your dad? You’re an intelligent woman. This isn’t the Dark Ages, for god’s sake. Women even have the vote now. Did anyone tell your dad about that? You’re graduating from high school – graduating with honours. Doesn’t that tell him that you’re intelligent enough to help out in his business? You’ve got more education than he had – and he managed to be a success. Why does he think you’re not just as capable?” It’s all I can do to restrain myself from grabbing her shoulders and giving her a good shaking.
There’s the smallest exhalation of breath, as though she’s gone over this many times and has to force herself to repeat it. If she has said it, it’s something she’s only whispered to herself. She’s never told me about not being able to work for her father, or having to import a cousin from the Punjab.
“My father needs him. He’s chosen him to be next in line.”
I try to wrap my mind around that. Next in line for what? Inheriting the family fortune? Inheriting the business? What’s she talking about? I take a deep breath, and try again.
“So what kind of experience does he have? What does he do in India that’s so great?”
“I don’t know.”
I roll my eyes. “Great. No experience, never met him – I’m sure he’s going to fit right in with the family and the business.”
She looks at me and the silence ripens between us, like something that will splatter if I poke at it. Maybe I can offer an alternate plan. Maybe not - but it’s worth a try.
“Okay, then let his cousin immigrate. That’s what people do when they want to come to this country. That’s what your father did.”
She shakes her head. A small, sad movement, like she’s feeling sorry for me because I can’t seem to understand what is so clear to her.
“What about veterinary college?” I continue. “What about that? You’ve dreamed about being a veterinarian for as long as I can remember. Doesn’t that count for anything? Are you just going to throw that away?”
“My father would never let me do that – you know that. That’s why I didn’t tell him about the applications I sent off.”
This is the first I’ve heard about that. For years now, she’s talked about wanting to be a veterinarian. I’ve helped her, as we sweated over the applications and dreamed about how things would be, while we thumbed through the stacks of college and university catalogues in the school library. We went through them, one after another, looking for the perfect school. One that offered credentials that would lead to acceptance in veterinary medicine. One that offered scholarships. One that would let us both escape, because the plan was for us to live together and share an apartment. She’d go to school, I’d write my book. It was going to be a dream come true for both of us. I remembered some of the other things we’d talked about when we were making our plans.
“We can even get a car.” That was one of the things I’d said. It had always been my dream. I’d been driving ever since the day I was legal – Dad insisted on it. He said every girl should know how to drive, and he made sure I took a good driver instruction course, but that was just the beginning. After I finished the course – and passed with flying colours - he spent hours with me in the car, letting me drive, pointing out everything that I overlooked. Encouraging me to be proactive, to watch for other drivers and not to count on them to do what they were supposed to do. And to look out for pedestrians, for people on bikes, for dogs running loose – a whole bunch of stuff. When he finally said I was ready to drive on my own, I felt like I was probably the best qualified driver in the whole country. Getting my own car was the crucial step to fulfilling my dream. I always assumed that we would both drive it, because there were so many places I wanted to go, and it would be easier if we could both drive, but whenever I mentioned it, Sahira gave a thumbs down, or changed the subject, or just ignored my comments.
“Why not?” I’d asked. “We’ll need a car and it only makes sense for both of us to drive it.”
“You can get one if you want, but I won’t drive it. I’d be terrified. Just the idea of it scares me silly. ”
She had to be kidding. I started to laugh: “Come on. There’s nothing to it.”
She shook her head. “Maybe for you, but not for me. Just the idea gives me the shakes.”
That was the first time I’ve heard about that – but no big deal. If she doesn’t want to drive, she doesn’t have to. “Fair enough. I’ll drive, you navigate.”
We talked of many things as I helped her with those scholarship applications, but marriage was never one of them. I remember one of the problems that popped up.
“I have to tell them about my community service and volunteer work and all that – you’ll have to write that for me,” she’d said, laughing. “I can’t write about myself.”
“Sure you can. Don’t be so modest.”
“I’m not being modest. I just can’t talk about myself. It feels like bragging.”
I couldn’t change her mind, so I did write the community service section. I put down all the details about the ‘Stepping Out’ program she started at the Terry Fox library – an after-school program for a group of grade five girls that met every Tuesday afternoon. She’d been doing it for three years and the girls loved it. She let them choose a topic, something they were interested in, then challenged them to read about it in the library, then go exploring to find out more.
They went on all sorts of adventures. One of them, I wished I could have joined in: a geology hunt along the river bank to find different kinds of stones, then matching them with pictures in their text books, or library books, identifying each stone and trying to figure out how it got there and how far it might have travelled. They looked at the way water affected the stones, pointing out erosion patterns in the rocks and in the surrounding areas. One water adventure flowed into another. They learned about Port Coquitlam’s water system – where the water came from, how it was treated and purified, and how it got into everyone’s home. They toured the dykes, checking the heights of the river against the official flow gauges. That led to mapping expeditions, mapping each of the blocks they lived in, adding in the library, the school, the shopping centre, creating maps of their own neighbourhoods – the list went on and on.
Sahira laughed when she read it. “That’s very nice – you make it sound very interesting – but it’s not really important. I mean, that isn’t the kind of stuff they care about. It was just a bunch of girls having fun and doing stuff together.”
“You’re wrong, Sahira. That’s exactly what selection committees gobble up.”
She turned serious then. “That would be nice if it were true, but I think they need something more important than that. Just working with girls isn’t much. ”
I should have seen the warning signs then, but I didn’t. I missed it entirely – just working with girls made it sound like something that wasn’t very worth-while. And there were other signs I missed out on as well. She’d always known her father wouldn’t pay for her to go to university, but I thought that I’d managed to convince her that if she won a scholarship, she wouldn’t have to ask her father for money, so he’d have no reason to keep her at home. That was the big issue. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me. It all seemed so simple then.
Now, watching her as she calmly accepts her father’s edict, I realize it was nothing but a game she was playing. She wasn’t really trying to fool me, as much as convince herself of something that she knew would never happen. In some other universe, she would like to become a veterinarian – just as, when I’m in wishful thinking mode, I would like to become a ballerina. But it isn’t something that’s going to happen in this lifetime. Not for me and, it seems, not for her either. She can’t say ‘no’ to her father and my stocky legs would never fit under a tutu. Plus it would take two of those gorgeous guys in white tights to hoist me up in the air. So – two dreams land in the trash.
We’ve shared so many dreams over the years, but not being together had never entered my mind. Letting go was too painful. Somehow, I tell myself, I have to convince her that there is another way out. That there is a viable option. Something her father would have to agree to. And something that she would have to believe in, enough to fight for.
“But if you got accepted…” She cuts me off with a quick wave of her hand.
“It was just a dream – and some dreams simply don’t come true.”
She reaches behind her and takes something from under her pillow. “This came yesterday,” she says, handing me a large, brown kraft-paper envelope. “Go ahead. Look at it.”
I ease open the flap and reach inside. There’s a booklet, and a sheaf of papers. I glance at the top page and do a double take.
“Oh my god! You did it! You got the scholarship.”
Sahira nods. A faint smile touches her lips before it disappears.
“Yes. It’s quite a good one. $25,000 each year, for four years.” She pauses. “It would have been wonderful.”
“Would have been? You aren’t going to go?” I hear the words, but my mind can’t take in what she’s saying. “That’s enough to pay your whole tuition and living expenses. That’s your degree! The whole thing! Now you don’t have to ask your father for a penny. He can’t say no to this.“
She shakes her head. “You still don’t understand. My father doesn’t believe girls should do things like that. He would never permit me to become a veterinarian. Even with the scholarship. As far as he’s concerned, my job is to be a wife to whomever he picks, and to give him grandchildren.”
“Sahira – listen to what you’re saying. You can’t believe that. You’re more than just a – a baby machine.”
She doesn’t respond.
I hand the envelope back to her.
“I better go.”
She continues to sit, silently, on the edge of the bed. Finally her hand reaches out and she touches the envelope. She puts it beside her and uses her finger to trace invisible words on it. After a minute, she picks it up again and hands it back to me.
“Here. Please take it. I don’t want my father to see it. You can throw it away for me.”
I pick up the envelope and walk out, shaking my head. This is crazy. On the way out, I see her mother, standing in the kitchen, as always, busy cooking something or other. I used to love coming into Sahira’s kitchen. Her mom let us sample stuff, and sometimes she let us help her. I didn’t know half of the stuff that she used in cooking – just that the spices smelled wonderful and made everything come alive. It was a big change from what we ate at home. Most of dad’s live-ins seemed to think take-out covered the basic food groups. And that I should be grateful if they made me a jam sandwich for my school lunch – a sandwich that was always soggy by noon. I quickly learned it was better to make my own lunch, and after a while, I even started to try making dinner. That’s when Dad joined in. He’d barbecue the meat while I did the veggies or the salad or whatever. It wasn’t fancy, but it was better than the steady diet of pizza or buckets of stuff from the Colonel.
Sahira’s mom looks up, smiles, and I smile back at her. I guess she didn’t hear me say ‘fuck’ or she wouldn’t be smiling. Or maybe she did, and just doesn’t care, as long as it isn’t her daughter who’s using the word.