Joyland

Canada |

Waiting for Adnan

by Hajera Khaja

edited by Kathryn Mockler

It is 8:00 and Adnan has not yet arrived. Maryam is sitting cross-legged on the sofa. Her mother is at the dining table fingering the edge of the heavy plastic tablecloth.

“Are you sure he said 7:00?” Maryam’s mother asks, tense lines cutting across her forehead.

Maryam tucks a finger inside her hijab and wiggles it around. The safety pin has already left a small curvy imprint in the soft flesh above her throat. 

“Maybe he said Sunday?”

“He’ll be here soon,” Maryam says. Her eyes wander to the rug on the floor. She had vacuumed it earlier that afternoon, trying to pick up all the white bits of heel dust sprinkled about like dandruff. She catches a small speck, about the size of a cumin seed, half-hidden under the sofa. “Your feet are too dry,” she tells her mother, bending down to pick up the fleck of dead skin. “You shed while you walk.”

Her mother sighs. “I’ll go clean up till he comes,” she says.

Brown splotches of dried curry are splattered near the foot of the stove and chopped up bits of mint and cilantro are pressed into the hazy grey tiles. There is a lingering scent of burnt oil in the air, even though Maryam had walked around with a can of air freshener after her mother had finished cooking, sending bursts of citrus-scented aerosol particles throughout the house.

In the kitchen, her mother gets down on all fours, dragging the green bits together with a wet sponge. 

Maryam jaywalked across the road, half-running, half-teetering on the pointed heel of her boots. She had asked Adnan to meet her at 6:00 at the Second Cup across from Seneca College where she worked as an instructor in the ESL Program. It was more than twenty minutes past the hour when she yanked open the entrance door. “I am so so sorry,” she said, the words rushing out as she unfurled a scarf from around her neck and plopped herself into a chair.

Adnan pushed a coffee cup towards her. “I bought you a latte, but it’s probably cold by now.”

Maryam took a sip. It tasted watery and bitter but was still warm. She apologized again, explaining that she was held up by some students who had questions about an assignment due the next day. It was clear to her that they hadn’t started, but she felt bad to brush them away.

“I hate people like that, acting all entitled,” Adnan said.

Maryam shrugged her shoulders. “Listen,” she said, “I told my Dad about you and he’s agreed to meet you.” She pushed her lips back in a fake grin and stuck up both thumbs.

Adnan started playing with his empty cup, rotating it with one hand and strumming on it with the other. “So soon?” he said, looking at her momentarily. “It’s only been a month.”

“I want to be sure they approve before things get too serious.” 

Adnan stopped playing with his cup.

“If, I mean,” Maryam added, “if they get serious.”

“Why not cross that bridge when we get there?”

A gurgle of hunger escaped from Maryam’s stomach. Her feet felt cramped and sweaty inside her boots. They were a half-size too small but at 70% off, she couldn’t resist the purchase. “I can’t move forward without a green light,” she said.

Adnan raised an eyebrow.

“They haven’t met you yet. They’re still at a yellow light.”

Later that night, when Maryam was already in bed, her phone twitched and lit up. It was a message from Adnan: ‘I’ll be happy to meet your fam. Sorry if I was a jerk earlier. Had a rough day.’

Maryam forwarded the message to her sister, Aisha. ‘Analysis?’ she added.

‘Dude must be really into you,’ Aisha wrote back, then sent a smiling face emoji with two hearts in place of the eyes.

At 8:22, Maryam hears a car turn into their driveway. ‘Finally here,’ she taps into her phone.

Aisha replies, ‘So no car accident + coma? Would’ve at least made for a romantic story to tell your kids.’

Maryam sends her an eye-rolling emoji.

Adnan smells like rubbing alcohol. He hands Maryam’s mother an unwrapped bouquet of yellow daffodils and presents Maryam with a Godiva gift bag. Maryam’s father comes down the stairs wearing a beige sports coat over a black turtleneck. Maryam and her mother exchange looks. Her father hates sports coats and only wears them on special occasions. He glances at the watch on his wrist before taking Adnan’s outstretched hand.

Adnan drops down on one knee to undo his shoe laces and remarks how busy the DVP is, even on weekends. “But thank God for Indian Standard Time,” he says peering up, a wide grin smeared over his face. 

Maryam’s father squinted his eyes against the glare of the computer screen. “Is accomplishment spelled with one ‘c’ or two?” 

“Two,” Maryam said.

“I knew that,” he muttered, his finger coming down hard on the keyboard. He rolled his chair back and looked up. “My spell check isn’t working for some reason.” 

“Can you please be nice to Adnan when he comes?” Maryam said. 

Her father rolled his tongue around inside his mouth.

“I’m serious, you need to stop getting all fundo on everyone.”

“Fundo to you is commitment to me.”

“And there are other ways to show you’re committed.”

Her father rolled his chair back into the desk. “Commitment. Two ‘m’s or two ‘t’s?” he asked, searching the screen.

“Two ‘m’s.” Maryam tugged on a droopy yellow leaf curling down from the shoot of a bamboo plant.

“That leaf’s got life in it still. It would have come off otherwise.” 

Maryam yanked it hard and the plant fell sideways, wet stones spilling onto the desk. “Or you can just snap the life out of it,” she said, picking the plant back up.

Her father covered the puddle of water with a newspaper. “Did you know you can use newspapers to dry wet shoes?”

Maryam stood up. “So you don’t trust my judgement at all? 

“What’s his name again?”

Maryam raised her eyes to the ceiling. “Adnan Syed.”

Her father smirked. “Like the guy from Serial?” 

“Except that he hasn’t been accused of murdering anyone, which is good enough for me.”

“Then your standards are too low.”

“And yours are too high. We have to meet in the middle or we’ll be doing this till I’m 60!” 

“I’ll be dead by then. Most likely.” Her father did the tongue-rolling thing again. 

“Dad.” Maryam placed both hands on the desk. “Please. Give him a fair chance.”

“Ask him to come after Eid. I don’t want him ruining your Eid if I don’t like him.”

When Maryam sent Aisha a thumbs down emoji as a summary of the conversation in her father’s office, Aisha wrote back, ‘Dad will be Dad. But you could always elope,’ with a winking smiley face. 

Maryam jabbed into her phone, ‘Thanks for the help drama queen!’ 

*

Maryam’s father suggests praying Isha before dinner.

“But it’s getting late, no?” her mother says. Her father looks at Adnan who is about to sit down.

“I don’t mind,” Adnan says.

Maryam lays out the prayer mats on the ground. Her father places a hand on Adnan’s back and nudges him forward to lead. 

When they finish, Maryam’s father turns around and Adnan copies the motion. 

“How much Quran do you have memorized?” her father asks.

Adnan glances at Maryam. “Not much,” he says. “An okay amount.” 

“How much is not much?”

“Just the usual, whatever I learnt growing up. Most of the thirtieth para.” 

“You read well. You should learn more. And you pray five times, of course?”

“Yes. Of course.” 

“You wake up for fajr every day?”

“Mostly, yes.”

“Meaning?”

Maryam clenches her jaw. 

“Sorry?” 

“What does mostly mean?”

“I sleep through my alarm sometimes.” 

“How often?” 

“Dad—” Maryam says quietly. Her mother places a hand on Maryam’s knee.

“Maybe once a week. Sometimes more. But usually less.”

Maryam’s father continues to question Adnan. Her eyes dart back and forth between them, as if they’re stuck in a game of hot potato.

When Maryam is sure at least half an hour has passed since they have finished prayer, she touches her mother’s elbow lightly.

“I’m going to get dinner ready,” her mother says, getting up. “You men please wrap up your discussion.”

In the kitchen, Maryam flaps her arms, trying to air out her sticky armpits. She raises an arm above her head and sniffs. 

“Here, taste this,” her mother says, pulling out a wooden spoon from a pot filled with golden brown curry. She drags a finger against the bottom of the spoon and wipes it on the tip of Maryam’s tongue. 

“Spicy,” Maryam says. “Too spicy.” 

“Good. It’s for Adnan, not you.”

Maryam bites her lower lip.

Her mother pats her face. “If Allah wants, he will be your husband and no one can stop that. If not, then He has someone better written for you.”

Maryam looks around the kitchen. “What can I take?” 

“I’ll manage. Go wash your face. You look tense,” her mother says, lifting the pot and tilting it towards a large serving bowl, a film of steam fogging up her glasses as the hot curry gushes out.

Maryam’s mother asks Adnan to tell them about his family. She places a bowl of curry in front of him and motions to Maryam to pass the naans.

Adnan says his parents live in Dubai, his father is an architect and his mother is an interior designer. They visit him for two weeks every summer and spend the winter holidays in Miami where his brother lives with his family.

“Do you like Dubai?” Maryam’s mother asks.

Adnan says there isn’t much to do apart from shopping and eating at overpriced restaurants with only brown servers. “The life there is so—,” he pauses and stares at the ceiling, “bourgeois. And the state of the foreign workers is horrifying. I don’t care to go back.”

Maryam sniffs and wipes the edges of her nostrils with a folded tissue.

“Is the food too spicy for you?” Adnan asks, one side of his mouth stretched into a half-smile.

“The people who live there allow for the injustice,” Maryam’s father says to his plate.

Adnan scrunches his forehead. He is quiet for a moment, and then says, “What do you mean?”

“Everyone plays a part. No one is free from blame.”

Maryam looks at Adnan pleadingly. His eyes are squinted, his mouth set into a tight line. 

“You’re right,” Adnan says. “We live on stolen land so that also makes us responsible for the suicide crisis that’s happening in Attawapiskat right now.”

Maryam’s father bites into a samosa, bits of flaky crust falling into his plate. He stares at the painting on the wall in front of him, above where Maryam and her mother are sitting. It is an abstract painting, a splatter of greens and blues, resembling dense foliage. Aisha had chosen it on a family trip to Ikea more than ten years ago.

“You’re passionate about social justice issues,” Maryam’s father says to the painting.

Adnan sits taller and turns to face him. “Yes, yes I am.” 

“I don’t believe in them.”

“You don’t believe in justice?”

“Not in the way you young people go about it. If you were downtown today, it would have taken you a while to get out of the city with the DVP all clogged up. Black Lives Matter was doing a sit-in on Dundas again. What I don’t understand is how they think they can achieve anything by disrupting traffic and just shouting for justice.” 

Adnan reaches for a glass of water and drowns it all in one go.

“Have some biryani, Adnan,” Maryam’s mother says. “You’ve hardly eaten.” 

Maryam’s father stands up, his chair screeching as it drags on the hardwood floor. “I have some work to get to. Please excuse me.” He turns to face Adnan, bowing his head slightly. “Nice meeting you. Please give our salaams to your parents.”

“Dad,” Maryam says, “stay till dessert.” 

Her father looks at her, his eyes droopy and his cheeks sagging, as if the muscles holding them in place have suddenly gone lax. “No dessert for me tonight, thank you,” he says quietly.

*

For their first meetup, Maryam suggested coffee after work, but Adnan insisted on lunch. They settled on Paramount, a Middle-Eastern restaurant a short walk away from Mount Sinai Hospital where Adnan worked in the IT department. Maryam wore her favourite boots—a pair of calf-length, caramel-brown Jimmy Choos—over navy blue skinny jeans and a knee-length dusky rose swing dress that fluttered about as she walked. Her beige and white paisley print hijab matched the colour of her boots.

By the time Maryam got to the restaurant, Adnan was already there waiting for her. He stood up to greet her, his face breaking out into a wide smile, teeth white as plaster, framed by a thin goatee. His hair was long and wavy, curling around his ears like inverted commas.

Arabic music bubbled out of the overhead speakers, the singer’s voice thick and mournful. Adnan commented on the vibrancy of the music.

“I’m more of a Coldplay, Mumford & Sons kind of person,” Maryam said. 

“Coffee shop music?”

“Yes, that’s it, exactly.” Maryam tilted her head. “I never thought of it as a genre but it works.”

They talked nonstop for over two hours. Maryam learnt that Adnan grew up in Dubai, but his parents wanted him and his brother to settle elsewhere, preferably America. “But they had a very colonized attitude about things, I realize now,” Adnan said, waving a small triangle of pita bread in the air. “Not through any fault of their own, of course, it was just ingrained in them. Even our vacations were restricted to Europe and North America.” He’s been thinking he might like to live in Malaysia for a bit. “It’s one of the most advanced Muslim nations.”

Maryam said she loved the idea of traveling. “My father decided to start his PhD when I was in Middle School. We hardly went on vacations after that.”

Adnan’s hands were buried in his lamb shank, greasy with fat as he pulled chunks of meat off the bone and piled them on top of a hill of saffron-stained rice. He admitted he took up interests like fads. A few years ago, he ran a full marathon with no prior running experience and only three months of training. Then there was the time he volunteered for more than 20 hours each week, helping his city councillor get re-elected. His latest obsession was reading obscure works of African literature.

Maryam said she used to read a lot in high school, but the habit fell away when she started university.

“Maybe I can suggest a few titles and we can discuss them sometime,” Adnan said. He had long dark lashes that cast a slight shadow under his eyes when he blinked.

Maryam wrote down the titles on the back of a scrunched up Aldo receipt—The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola; Maru, by Bessie Head; Maps, by Nuruddin Farah. On the fourth title, her pen ran out of ink, and she couldn’t make out the words when she looked at the receipt at home, only a scratchy imprint of where the letters had been pressed into the paper. 

The next day, a $50 Amazon gift card arrived in her email. ‘To reintroduce you to the delights of reading’ read the message accompanying the card. Maryam bit the inside edges of her lips, trying not to smile into the phone. She was invigilating an exam for a colleague who had called in sick. ‘To reintroduce you to the delights of reading,’ she read again and sent a screenshot of the email to Aisha. She scanned the small room, her eyes landing on a man with red-framed glasses, furtively glancing at his neighbour’s desk.

‘Didn’t he pay for lunch too?’ Aisha wrote back.

‘So?’

‘Feels a bit much.’

‘Remember that hadith about how all our souls were alive before we were born, and how when you meet someone you knew in that other life, you feel an instant connection to them?’

‘I know where you’re going with this, but’

‘It didn’t feel like I was meeting him for the first time. It was like I was just being reintroduced to him.’

‘Beware of the first impression! It can wear off. You shld know that.’

Maryam looked up from her phone. The man who was cheating had his back pressed against his chair and was scribbling hurriedly without looking down, his eyes locked on his neighbour’s papers. ‘I think he might be a keeper,’ she wrote back.

*

Adnan gets up to leave saying he has some work to finish up and a busy day tomorrow as well. Maryam and her mother wait on the porch as Adnan backs out of the driveway. He rolls down the window to wave goodbye before driving away. Someone in the neighbourhood is burning firewood and Maryam’s stomach rises and falls as she breathes in the singed air. Her mother wraps her arms around Maryam’s waist. “Let’s go inside, it’s chilly,” she says.

Upstairs, the hallway is dark except for an orange slab of light spilling out from underneath her father’s office. Maryam lifts her hand to knock but her knuckles touch the door without making a sound. She waits, but doesn’t hear anything from inside, no keyboard clatter, no creaking chair, only the sounds of her mother’s movements in the kitchen downstairs, pots clanging, the tap running full stream.

On her desk, a white light is blinking from Maryam’s phone. There’s a missed video call from Aisha, and before that, a long list of message notifications from her:

‘Where’s my realtime news feed?’

‘You’re killing me! Has the grilling commenced???’

‘Does he look handsome?’ 

‘Gah why are you doing this to me!!!’

‘Bedtime for the kids so I’m pausing on the harassment. But I expect full deets tmrw!’

Maryam dismisses the notifications and leaves the phone on her desk, next to the books that had arrived from Amazon a few weeks ago, their covers glossy and spines still uncracked. She buries herself in the pile of Indian suits on her bed which she had emptied that morning from a bin at the bottom of her closet. The smell of moth balls makes her throat squeeze and her eyes water.

*

After Aisha got married, their father made Maryam promise she wouldn’t think about marriage until she found a job and had a steady career path laid out in front of her. Maryam agreed without hesitating. She was in her first year of undergrad and stayed late at the library every night so she could study without being interrupted by the tense discussions happening at home between Aisha and their father. They were both stubborn, but Aisha was also feverishly in love. She even got Imran’s parents to call their father repeatedly, begging him to agree. When Aisha got pregnant in her final semester, she confirmed their father’s worst fears—she managed to graduate, but had no drive or energy to look for a job. “If anything happens now,” he said, “Aisha won’t have anything to fall back on.”

By the time Maryam was ready to start thinking about marriage, she found her father had hardened over the years, stiffening up to every guy she introduced to him. He found her sitting on the porch one afternoon after he had rejected an old friend of hers from university. Aamir was technically a hafidh, earning the distinction when he was 14, but he didn’t like to call himself that anymore. They had lost touch after university and he had emailed Maryam out of the blue asking her if she was taken, and if not, if they could chat and see if there was any potential between them. “Boys are too unstable these days,” her father said, placing a hand on Maryam’s head as he walked past her. “When the right guy comes along, you’ll thank me.” Since then Maryam kept oscillating between two fears—that the right guy would never come along, or that when he did, her father would not recognize him.

*

Monday morning, Maryam’s car refuses to start, wheezing and coughing and then shutting off abruptly. Her father comes out of the house in his pajamas and a flannel robe, belt wrapped tightly around his waist. 

“Leave the keys with me,” he says, as Maryam emerges from the car. “I’ll get my mechanic to take a look at it.”

Maryam works her fingers into the chocolate leather gloves he got her for Eid.

“Do you need a ride to the subway? I just need a few minutes to change.” A gust of wind slams into him and he digs his chin deeper into his robe.

“No thanks,” she mutters. 

“Don’t forget your scarf. It’s supposed to snow today.” 

Maryam pulls out a scarf from her bag and tosses it around her neck. She says salaam, walking past her father without looking at him.

“Walaikum assalaam,” he calls out cheerfully.

Bits of snow begin to swirl and float through the air, coming down like confetti from the sky. Maryam walks fast, the platform heel of her boots clapping against the pavement. She feels a hollow burn in her stomach from drinking coffee first thing in the morning and remembers the way Adnan smiled at her when he realized her mother had made the food too spicy for her. She fiddles with the phone in her pocket, rotating it over and over.

On the bus that will take her to the subway, Maryam squeezes into the window seat of the last row. She yanks off her gloves, pulls out her phone, and starts writing a message— ‘Salaam Adnan. Sorry things didn’t go well on Sat. If you’re still interested, I’d like to chat. Let me know pls.’ Her thumb hovers over the green letters for a moment, and then she whispers Bismillah and hits ‘Send.’ Outside the snow has picked up, accumulating like a thin carpet on the sidewalks. It reminds Maryam of the stubble on her father’s cheeks this morning. His hair is still mostly grey, but his beard has a distinct whiteness to it already, making him look older than he really is.

When her phone vibrates, Maryam feels her stomach churn. Adnan writes back, ‘Salaam Maryam, thx for your msg. I’d like that too. 6pm at Second Cup?’ 

As if on autopilot, Maryam replies, ‘Perfect. See you then.’ She releases a long breath and lets the phone fall into her lap. She closes her eyes to block the image, but hovering before her is her father in his slippers and pajamas, bracing himself against the cold wind.