“Naila, I wish you didn’t have to miss the game.” Carla tells me.
“Game?” I check the road, on the lookout for my mom, before turning to her. She rolls her eyes, her blonde hair up in its cheerleader ponytail. Our lives may have changed a lot since we met in first grade, but that eye roll and the annoyed pout, that hasn’t changed at all.
“Game?” She looks at Eric. “Do you believe her? It’s only the last game of Saif’s high school career.” She turns to me. “Naila, are you really going to miss this one too?”
“You know I can’t go.”
“It’s his last game, Naila.”
I glance back at Saif. He’s wearing his blue soccer jersey and chatting with a friend a safe distance away by the green mosaic mural next to our high school’s school entrance. I take in his lean frame, his olive skin, and the brown hair that brushes against his eyes. He catches my eye just then; his dimple deepens with his smile. He takes a step towards us, and then stops, remembering why he can’t approach.
“See?” Carla exhales. “He knows he can’t even stand here with us because your parents might freak out.”
“My mom might freak out if she sees Eric standing here too,” I remind her, jabbing a finger towards the road.
“I still don’t get it,” she continues. “He’s the sweetest boyfriend ever. Any parent should be thankful their daughter met a guy like him. What’s their deal?”
I’ve explained it all to her too many times. I’m starting to think she just doesn’t want to hear it. “It’s complicated,” I finally say.
“Well you know what’s not complicated?” she counters. “That he’s the most understanding guy I’ve ever met. Seriously, Eric,” she touches his arm, “would we be celebrating our three month anniversary next week if I never so much as stepped past this curb with you?”
Eric clears his throat, “Um, good question, but,” he glances back, “I think Saif’s calling me so uh, I’ll leave you both to discuss that.” He kisses Carla and jogs over to Saif.
Good, I think, relaxing a little now that I am alone with Carla.
“I want to go tonight, Carla,” I tell her, “you know I do, but my parents—”
“Oh, come on!” Carla shakes her head. “They can’t keep you locked up forever. Just sneak out the window. Just this once! You’re not twelve-years-old. Besides, your parents zonk out by 9 o’clock anyways. I can pick you up. At least you’ll catch the last half. It would mean so much to him.”
“I wish I could but I can’t. We’ll be in college this time next year, I can’t risk getting caught now.”
I don’t mention the tension between my parents ever since I got my acceptance letter last week and the hushed arguments about whether or not I will go away to college at all.
“Hey,” Saif calls out to Carla, “Eric and I are leaving without you if you don’t hurry up!”
“Fine,” Carla rolls her eyes at me. “You can’t say I didn’t try.”
She walks over to join Saif and Eric. Before they all head to the student parking lot, Saif turns to look at me. Love you, I mouth to him. I press my palm to my lips and blow him a silent kiss. He grins— and then, they disappear behind the curve.
Only now does my jaw unclench, my shoulders relax. And only now do I let myself acknowledge that familiar mixture of relief and guilt that has been my companion this past year.
Has it already been a year? I think back. Yes. It’s been one year since Saif told me he cared about me as more than just his friend. It’s been one year since I told him I felt the same way and kissed him in the side-courtyard with the tangled palm trees next to the library, deciding it was time to let my heart, and not fear, dictate what I would do. And, my stomach tightens; it’s been one year since I began deceiving my parents without ever once opening my mouth.
I hear a honk. My mother’s minivan pulls up to the curb.
“Sorry, beta, I had to stop and get gas,” she says when I get inside. Her hair, more black than gray, is tied up in a loose bun, a large red scarf circles her neck despite today’s unusually hot Florida sun. “I didn’t realize I was this late though,” she scans the empty school entrance. “You should have stayed inside until you saw my car, you never know who is out there.”
“Carla was here,” I tell her quickly. “She only just left.”
“She’s a good girl.” My mother smiles. “I’m glad you’re both still friends.”
“Well,” I begin, “she was telling me about a soccer game tonight. She really wants me to go and support the team too. The school year’s almost over and all our friends are going to be there, and, well, we’ll be roommates in a few months anyways, so I was wondering¾“
“No,” my mother shoots me a surprised look. “You know that.”
“But Ami,” I begin.
“It’s not you I’m worried about. It’s all the boys that would be there. Besides, Auntie Lubna is having a party tonight, did you forget already?”
“Is Imran going?” I bite my lip, knowing the answer.
“He has to study,” she responds.
“Why can Imran skip these parties but I never can?”
“What’s gotten into you today?” my mother glances at me. “If you don’t go people will wonder, you know how they talk. Besides, your brother gets bored. He doesn’t have anyone his own age at these things. I already ironed your salwar kamiz. We’ll leave as soon as your Abu can shut down the dry cleaning business for the day.”
I lean back into the seat. I’ve gone to more of my parent’s dinner parties than I can count. Gatherings of my parent’s friends, all Pakistani immigrants like themselves who meet almost every week at one another’s homes to talk in the language they grew up in and listen to the music of their childhood.
I used to even eye Saif from afar at these dinner parties, until his sister Jehan got married to someone that shocked the entire community. His name was Justin. They didn’t know much about him, except that he was definitely not Pakistani.
“We all saw it coming,” my mother had said in a horrified voice on the phone to her sister. “They never had any control over their kids what else do you expect?”
I think my mother and her friends might have forgiven them this marriage had Saif’s parents seemed remorseful about Jehan marrying outside the South Asian community. But Saif’s parents didn’t seem ashamed at all.
No one invites them anymore.
I watch the trees that line the road fly by as we drive past. It’s almost summertime. Not that anyone can tell. Elsewhere there are seasons. Leaves bloom green and then turn gold and crimson as they fall to the earth, change coming to everything in its path.
In my world the leaves stay green, the same Florida heat beating down on us, day after day, year after year. Unchanging.
But not for long. Soon things will change. Soon they will have to. I’ve spent my entire life banking on this very truth.
Copyright © 2015 by Aisha Saeed. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.