by Anjum Tanveer
Runestone, Volume 1
Nasreen and I had the same haircut when she was six and I was five. It was an ugly mushroom cut, the kind most Indian parents subject their children to at that age; it didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl, it was practical and kept just enough hair out of your eyes while still preventing your forehead from getting dark in the sun. But my haircut was chic and cute– meticulously trimmed by my father– bangs swept up and secured with my favorite false ruby-topped pins. Nasreen’s hair looked like her eight-year-old sister had taken a scissors to it– in the dark, while blindfolded.
It certainly would not have been far from the truth. My cousin Nasreen was the youngest of seven children and I was the eldest of four, and that was often all the explanation that was needed when anyone watched us play together: one was an over-loved, well-dressed brat accustomed to getting her way, the other, a grubby-looking, perpetually mucous-streaked ragamuffin who fought tooth and nail for her chance to brush Barbie’s hair. But I would always let her. I could never say no to Nasreen, something she herself told me I needed to learn to do, many years later. Besides, I still had a Teresa doll for my own.
But when we did fight, and it happened rarely, it was clear whose side everyone would take. Once we stood over the large floor vent in the middle of the hallway during a family dinner party, watching as the hot air whooshed up our legs, blowing up our pink (mine) and green (Nasreen’s) dresses, fanning them out absurdly. I suppose I had been capitalizing on too much of the hot air, and my dress belled around my waist more fully than hers, because the next thing I knew, she pushed me off the vent and I tumbled backward onto the floor, landing squarely on my bottom. This, I think, was the first time Nasreen realized that whenever I had been wronged in the slightest, I would scream bloody murder, and I think this is largely the reason why she was careful to never upset me even later in life.
As I shrieked and held my bottom, our parents and aunts and uncles rushed towards us, and no explanation was needed. Nasreen was soundly spanked, I was kissed and held, and she spent the rest of the dinner party sitting up on the countertop in the kitchen (too high for her to jump down from, but cleared off sufficiently for her to have nothing to distract herself with), where she could not harm me. I strutted in front of her all evening, making smug faces and taunting her with na-na’s and boo-boo’s.
But Nasreen always forgave me. At least, that was the impression I always had. She never sought revenge after her timeout that day, nor did she reprimand me when years later, I left her on our scary, toothless, old neighbor Mr. Dimopoulos’s porch and jumped into the bushes when we played ding-dong-ditch on Halloween night when we were eleven and twelve. And she never confronted me when I sold her out and told our other cousin Anisa that Nasreen had been talking a little too much to Anisa’s boyfriend, when we were sixteen and seventeen.
Nasreen was everything my parents did not want me to be. Every day she would borrow her brother’s bike and ride the few blocks down from her house to mine, and she would stay for hours and wear tie-dye shirts two sizes too small and cuss loudly and say shocking things about boys, rap music, pop stars, and the existence of aliens until my father would ask her to go back home in the evening.
“She is a terrible influence on you,” he would yell at me whenever I complained about his sending her home. “I won’t tolerate that MTV talk in my house.”
And while it was true that she adored MTV and in fact introduced me to it, Nasreen was just terribly lonely. While she collected blue jay and cardinal feathers, fed the squirrels outside her bedroom window, and made collages out of fashion magazines to decorate her school binders, her six older siblings were always studying and praying and cleaning the house, and generally, growing up to become model Muslim children. Nasreen always existed somewhere in the fringe, too enamored and astonished by life’s minutiae to be bothered with anything bigger.
One summer when we were twelve and thirteen, Nasreen and I would go out to the forest behind the fence in my backyard, dragging a bench we had picked up at my neighbor’s yard sale through layers of leaves, to a small clearing by the creek where she swore she had once seen deer. Though we kept vigil every day, we did not see a single deer that entire summer, as we sat together on the bench, tossing pebbles into the bubbling creek. Instead, we took up a new task, and dutifully plucked flowers from a nearby magnolia tree, tearing off the petals and pressing them between our fingers till juice ran down our hands. We filled several empty Amoxicillin bottles with this ‘perfume’ that summer, and called it ‘Love Elixir’ (‘Love’ was her contribution, ‘Elixir’, mine; I read more than she did). We dug earth till our fingernails were black and buried it in a tree stump and promised to look for it the next year and spray ourselves with it, when it was ‘ready’.
“You’ll just dab it on your wrist, like they do in those old movies, and rub it all over yourself.” She rubbed her wrist behind her ears, down her neck, and dragged it slowly and deliberately across her breasts, then quickly swiped behind her knees. “Tariq won’t be able to resist you.”
I nodded solemnly, mesmerized. I flinched at her mention of my crush, but she was the boy expert after all. She was the only one out of all of our cousins to actually have a boyfriend, and a ninth grader to boot. It was a great secret, a tantalizing, dirty affair for our little Muslim minds, for at the time, we had been expressly forbidden to even speak to boys about anything other than schoolwork.
“Don’t even go near boys until you’re married,” Fariha, Nasreen’s older sister, sagely told us one day, “You can’t trust boys as far as you can throw them.”
“I bet I could throw a boy pretty far,” Nasreen had whispered to me, and we had cracked up uncontrollably.
Nonetheless, we kept Nasreen’s secret from her elder siblings. We knew she could handle herself with boys. This is what she was good at.
In fact, that was one of the many things she was good at. Every boy wanted Nasreen; she was beautiful, funny, a talented artist, incredible at basketball, could cook with any ingredient you gave her, and was brilliant with makeup. Nasreen was good at anything she tried, but I was good at everything that mattered. When I was in the ninth grade, they moved her out of her tenth grade pre-calculus class into my geometry class, after she had failed several exams in a row.
“Don’t let her cheat off of your homework,” my father would warn, when he learned of my new classmate. I would roll my eyes, but I never offered her any help, and she never asked.
Nasreen simply didn’t care about math, or science, or history like I did; art was where she shined, and this worried her parents and the glittering stars that were her six older brothers and sisters. Two brothers and a sister were in medical school, one brother in dental school, and it looked very much like the other two sisters were headed for dentistry as well. They worried that Nasreen might not catch some of her siblings’ residual glitter for herself– that she would never amount to anything.
It didn’t help when she dyed her hair bright pink at sixteen. Her clothes were already too tight and she had expressed an interest in piercings and tattoos, and all of the uncles and aunties would make comments about her in secret.
“I don’t know how her mother lets her go out like that in public,” my aunt Samia told my mother one day at a family brunch. “Next thing you know, she’ll come home with a belly piercing. People notice these things in our community, how will she ever get married?”
But the pink hair was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Nasreen arrived at a family dinner party later than everyone one evening, a black headscarf pulled tightly around her head.
“What’s up with that?” My cousins Anisa and Sahar asked her, laughing and tugging one end of it gently. She did not wear the hijab, so it was a bit of a surprise to all of us to see her head so carefully wrapped in the cloth. With that, Nasreen whipped it off, and we gasped in amazement. This was the first time anyone had seen her candy pink hair, beautifully and strategically streaked with deep purple. All the children at the dinner party left their plates and milled around her, touching her hair and commenting that it somehow, somehow suited her. Meanwhile, the aunts and uncles tutted in disapproval in the background, and her elder sisters looked white in the face.
Two days later, she sent Anisa, Sahar, and I another picture of her hair, this time back to black. “I fucking hate them,” she wrote.
And Nasreen really, truly did, for several years. She would come to my house and stay for hours as usual, but she would never want to do anything other than sit in my room and text furiously. I had so much to tell her: how I was almost positive that my crush Tariq had chuckled at a joke I told in biology class the other day (“Two blood cells fell in love, but alas, it was all in vein”), how I had finally figured out how to dance to Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” (I am a terrible dancer, even easy dances like this eluded me), and how frustrated I was by my own overbearing father. But Nasreen just did not seem to have the time for me anymore.
When I asked her what was wrong, she would tell me that she would have dreams in which she would be fighting violently with her father, smashing a mirror on the floor and throwing the shards at his face. She would call her mother a menopausal bitch and her siblings uptight pieces of shit, whose only purpose was to make her look bad. I learned to stop asking, continuing on with my homework at my desk, back turned, as she sat on my bed texting her boyfriend of the month. I cannot count how many evenings we spent like that, in the same room, backs turned– one trying to save her grades, the other trying to save her relationships. I realized she just wanted to be away from home.
I was sixteen and Nasreen was seventeen then, and it really did seem that we had nothing in common anymore; she was too embroiled in her own disagreements with her family to want to do anything with me. I remember thinking at the time that they were too focused on how she looked and the pitiful grades she brought home when they should have been more attentive to who and what she was spending her time with.
No matter how alarming and obvious the signs became- her red eyes, the skunk smells coming from her room, the mood swings, the strange, muffled noises coming from her bedroom in the middle of the night, the stains on her sheets– none of her siblings wanted to broach the topic with her. I remember being infuriated by how blind they were to her problems, but I feel now that they genuinely did not know how to talk to her about these things; it was all completely out of their comfort zone. Muslim girls simply did not do drugs or have premarital sex, after all.
But how I wish they had they said something. How I wish I had said something. Nasreen was dating a boy from our high school, boyfriend number five, a year older than her again, with a spiraling drug problem. It had only been weed in the beginning, and then shrooms, and I had not thought much of it at first.
“It’s like the stars are speaking to you,” she told me of her mushroom trips on a rare day when she felt like sharing with me. “Good for when you’re stressed out about your dad, I can get you some if you like.”
And suddenly it was heroin. While she swore to me she never used it herself, but her boyfriend was going through the worst stages of heroin addiction and she wept to me about how different he had become. Nasreen told me how she loved him through all of it, even when he would vomit on her dress and then lie there, shivering in her arms when they were together at night and he was having a withdrawal episode, and how she endured his irrational anger, even when he called her a cunt and a whore.
I could not bear it. I could not stand to see her this way, and I had no idea what to do. But I ended up not having much to do, because as almost as suddenly as he had entered Nasreen’s life, he left, leaving her for a Korean teen model for JC Penney.
“She’s so much skinnier than me,” she wept to me the night she found out.
Nasreen plunged into depression, and dealing with this was almost worse than everything else. Her behavior before had been misguided, at its worst. Now she seemed intent on deliberately destroying herself. She smoked more than ever before; she quit basketball because her lungs could no longer handle running back and forth on the court. She was expelled from our private Islamic high school for her grades and quickly gained a reputation for being ‘easy’ and a ‘slut’ at the public high school she subsequently attended a few blocks away. And finally, after three speeding tickets and one near-fatal car accident, my aunt decided she simply could not handle Nasreen anymore. She booked her a one-way ticket to India to live with our grandparents.
We were seventeen and eighteen by then. The night before she left, she came over, and I expected nothing different. I prepped myself, ready to watch her sob, scream, and cuss about how unfair everything and everyone in her life was. But she said nothing. She had made me penne rosa (she called it penne lava, “because it wasn’t quite rosa,” she explained), and brought black tarp, watercolor paints, and paper. Nasreen swept my homework off my desk (despite my protests), covered it in tarp, and lit candles.
“We’re gonna paint,” she said. So paint we did.
As the outlines of a large tree began to materialize on her sheet, while a sad, black circle grew more oblong on my own, she began to tell me everything she realized she had not been able to these past few years.
“You need new bras. Ones with better underwire,” she said as she added leaves. “You don’t want triangle boobs, you want round ones. Throw out all of those cotton ones you still have.”
“Okay,” I said, and I drew large red lips at the bottom of the oval.
“Don’t get a lover,” she said sternly. I cringed at the awkwardness of the word. “They don’t do anything but mess you up. Not even Tariq, if he asks.”
Several black paint drops splattered onto my page. My cheeks flushed as I remembered the note Tariq had left in my locker just the other day. Nasreen smiled as she watched me, and I realized that she had been paying attention to me even when I thought she wasn’t.
“He’ll tell you that you have pretty eyes, because you really do. But don’t listen to him. And please, for fuck’s sake start wearing some eyeliner.”
“I’ll try,” I told her, and she gave me a hard look, and then grinned.
“Listen to more Gwen Stefani,” Nasreen continued, as she outlined small pink flowers between the black branches of her tree. “Gwen is life, Gwen is going to disappear, and then she’s going to make a comeback.”
I groaned at this and dipped my brush in pink, and she nudged my arm playfully.
“That was the next thing I had to say: learn to say no. To me, to your dad, to anyone that stops you from doing what you want to do.” She held the paper away from her face and wrinkled her nose, then smiled back at me. “But it looks like you’re already figuring that one out yourself.”
There was rough sketch of a magnolia tree on her paper. I looked down at my own work and realized I had given my oblong face pink hair.
Nasreen left for India the next day. I gave her my painting and she gave me hers at the airport. We kept in touch aggressively during the first year she was gone; I listened about how she’d learned to ride horseback, how she’d made friends with the sweet old maid who worked for our grandparents, how she’d been working at a local organic farm and gotten tan and muscular and strong. But I never told her about how difficult it was to move out of my parents’ home for college, or about getting my first job and surprisingly, doing quite well at it, or even about the many, many mistakes I ended up making with Tariq. And she never asked. I suppose neither of us wanted to complicate her life any further at that point.
Nasreen has been gone for three years. Her family has been talking about bringing her home soon. She is twenty-two and I am twenty-one now. We have not spoken in a while, but I think about her every day, the sister I hated, I judged, I loved, I looked up to, and never understood how much I needed. There is still so much I need her to teach me, so many things I need her advice on. Perhaps when she gets back, I will take her to our bench in the forest behind my backyard, and we will dig up our perfume and see if it is finally ‘ready’. And I will tell her everything that she has missed.
Loyola University of Chicago
Anjum Tanveer is a student at the Loyola University of Chicago. She is interested in portrayals of Muslims in contemporary American literature, and hopes to someday add her own perspective to this vein of writing. Anjum studies anthropology and is minoring in creative writing.