The restaurant was across the Dupont Circle Metro escalators. I must have barfed in their restroom, across the kitchen, at least a hundred times. The toilets were kept clean by a couple of busboys—brothers from Guatemala. One brother would take a brush to the toilet bowls. The other would mop the floors. They both wiped the mirrors down together.
They spoke no Turkish, of course, and very little English. One of the brothers porcupined his hair with gel and the other wore a low ponytail. The hair gel brother would smile at me sometimes, ask if I needed help, if he could carry a tray for me. The other one would roll his eyes and pretend to stick a finger down his throat whenever he saw me across the room.
The restaurant used to be a Panera Bread. The whole place had been gutted in the renovation and was now tiled in dark blue, in yellow. Framed large photographs of the Aegean coast, the statues at Nemrut hung from the walls. We were required to remain on our feet for the duration of our shift. I liked to be next to the hostess stand. I’d fill a tall water glass with Malibu rum and Diet Coke, plunge in a stiff plastic straw, hide the glass in the depths of the stand. If there was a lull, or I had a table of slow eaters, I’d just wait around, sipping my beverage, hoping my eyes still appeared somewhat in focus. I was constantly drunk on the job, but I hid it well.
Hakan, the bartender, was also a big drinker. Sometimes he’d pour us each two fingers of ouzo from a clear bottle marked YENI RAKI, use clawed pincers to drop in a few cubes of ice. The ice would hiss and steam and crack. We’d squat together under the bar, out of sight. “Şerefe, Şerefe,” we’d whisper and clink.
Pasha’s stocked quality wine, too, but wine has always felt pretentious to me. Plus, on an empty stomach, it would give me a headache. I didn’t eat at Pasha’s even though the food was said to be delicious. It certainly smelled delicious. When the manager, Ali Bey, wanted me to sample a new dish, he’d corner me with a skewer and wave kebab meat at me.
“I’m sorry,” I’d say, “I’m vegan,” or “I’m gluten-sensitive,” or “I just cannot tolerate lactose.”
When I was certain no one was looking, I’d scarf down a row of warm, syruped baklava then rush to the ladies’ room to puke it right up. I had a few regulars including Priti who worked at an insurance agency just up the street. She always ordered a bowl of lentil soup and asked for extra pita on the side.
“Aida,” she would say to me, “I would kill to have your figure. I would die for it.”
She was the only friend I had. When she came in for lunch, Monday through Friday—same table every time—she would eat quickly and spend the rest of the hour talking to me. She was such a big talker. She was on this dating app for Indian people and would tell me about her various matches. I said she should give up on the idea of marriage. Holy matrimony, it just wasn’t for everyone.
“Why should I give up?” she replied. “I’m so close to finding my soulmate. I can feel it.”
She was thirty-four years old and had once been heavily involved with a Punjabi man who worked at the Genius Bar, servicing smartphones. On the days she was feeling down on her luck, she would reminisce about the phone servicer and make a sad joke about him being a genius.
“But he liked kids, Priti,” I’d remind her. “He was addicted to kiddie porn.”
There was another regular, Mr. B. He had slicked-back hair, darting, deep-set eyes, and he spoke with an unidentifiable accent—like a diplomat who had lived all over the place. “I shouldn’t keep spoiling you like this,” he’d say, quickly reaching out as I placed the leather check presenter on his table, attempting to grab my hand.
He’d grip the pen at an unusual angle, scribble out a tip of maximum ten percent. It became his nickname: Ten Percent, later Ten, Tenny, then Teeny. Teeny Percent. Teeny Penis.
We all found the humor in it. The hostess would seat Teeny Weenie in my section. But there were times I’d be unable to hold my tongue.
“Here in America,” I snapped, on one occasion, “it’s standard to tip at least fifteen percent.”
“Really?” Teeny Penis replied. “Well, where I come from, we use women like you as maids and prostitutes.” Clumped dry snot poked out from a hairy nostril. The clump trembled with each breath he took.
I did spit in his food, but not that often. Only if I was feeling moody. I should have done it more, to be honest.
Mostly the restaurant clientele was of a certain caliber: gracious, generous. I would pronounce the names of the dishes the proper way, the Turkish way. If they wanted to know other things—“could I teach them how to say ‘this is super yummy’” or “‘my compliments to the chef’”—I wouldn’t know what to tell them.
Sometimes I’d admit the truth: I was born in Glen Burnie. My parents were from Uzbekistan. I didn’t even speak Turkish. Sometimes I’d deflect with an interesting fact about Muslim culture.
“Many men take multiple wives,” I’d explain. “Don’t listen to what mainstream media brainwashes you with. Islam is a very sex-positive religion,” and “When my fiancé and I get hitched, I’ll be his second wife. I don’t mind. It has advantages. Just think of the threesomes we’ll have!”
Ali Bey must have known what I was up to, but he allowed it, never brought it up. He wasn’t stupid. He noticed the men, in ties, on their lunch break, waiting for a table in my section to open up. The other wait staff didn’t even have regulars, as far as I could tell. There were two single moms who held down the lunch shift, a young man recently arrived from Eritrea. There was also Demokan, the Turkish waiter we all referred to as Steve for some reason. Once, I bent over to pick up a folded glossy magazine that slipped out of his knapsack pocket. Porn. Pubescent Asian girls, all fully waxed.
As for me, I liked to read self-help books about the power of positivity. When I finished a paperback on how to influence people using secret hypnosis techniques, I tried it out on the ponytailed busboy from a distance, and it seemed to work. For a while, he stopped pretending to gag.
If the hostess was running late, I’d man her station, perched on a stool, reading about positivity. Those books taught me about the science of personal achievement, taught me how to reprogram my mind, how to create lightning-quick rapport with everyone I encountered. From them I learned that eye movement gives away what part of the brain is being accessed, learned motivational words to live by. “The great end of life is not knowledge but action!” Thomas Henry Huxley said.
“Why weren’t we exposed to any of this in school,” I thought. Why did we waste so much time memorizing multiplication tables?
That was my life. I read my book and went for jogs by the Potomac and flirted with customers and hoped they couldn’t smell the rum on my breath. I built up such an insane tolerance. I drank so much it felt like my throat might catch fire, like my stomach was reduced to a hot pool of acid. My face would flush, and my tongue would grow fur, and my vision would telescope in and out of focus.
At eleven-thirty a.m., on the nose, Priti would waddle in, eyes puffy, shoulders sloped. She would sit down heavily in her regular chair.
“He won’t return my calls. He leaves me on ‘read’ every single time.”
“Drink your soda,” I’d instruct. “I’ll be right back with another basket of pita.”
My fiancé and I had decided to take a break. He was overwhelmed with his MBA courses. He would be up all night, studying. He had an anxious personality, but not when it came to me. His trust of me was unshakable and complete. I was free to see other people, casually. He wouldn’t stand in the way of a little fun.
I got involved with a guy who was a high school student at Georgetown Prep. He liked to drive his dad’s sports car around: a zippy silver roadster with a soft drop-top—the absolute opposite of my fiancé’s enormous, souped-up Escalade. My boyfriend’s car had fuzzy bunny ears dangling from the mirror. Playboy ears that swung wildly back and forth as my boyfriend jerked the manual transmission around. He was a terrible driver, but I never told him that.
He was handsome with a lanky frame and a dust of freckles across the bridge of his nose but still carried some baby fat around his jaw and his mid-region. “Bros before hoes,” he’d say all the time, and other such things. Gangster aphorisms, I suppose. His family was from suburban North Carolina. Tobacco money.
He should have been studying for the SAT since his performance had been so abysmal his first two tries. Then again, he’d probably just get into Duke on legacy. I could see him taking over the family tobacco company eventually, marrying a Southern Belle. They could get a dog, sail around Lake Norman, post Christmas cards with “For he shall save his people from their sins! –Matthew 1:21”embossed on the back.
This one time, my boyfriend brought his prom date to Pasha’s. He introduced me as his sister’s friend. “And my girlfriend will have the Greek salad with grilled chicken, house vinaigrette on the side,” he said to me.
“Doesn’t your girlfriend speak English?” I was going to ask, but it’s a good thing I didn’t because she turned out to be an ESL exchange student from the Republic of Latvia. The girlfriend was pretty in a Third Reich kind of way—hair so blonde under the light, it appeared white.
“So how do you really know my boyfriend?” she asked as I refilled her water glass. He was standing on the pavement just outside, taking a phone call.
I was twenty-six years old at the time, engaged to be married to a man a decade my senior. I earned enough at Pasha’s to pay the rent, to buy the occasional handful of party drugs. My parents were dead. They left me almost nothing.
I recorded voice notes from time to time and sent them to my fiancé. I told him about my day at Pasha’s, about the latest sad update on Priti’s dating life, told him about my cute boyfriend on the side. I could talk to my fiancé about anything. My fiancé was getting his MBA to help run his businesses back in the Nejd Province. His father was the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. The family was massive, each man with multiple wives and endless children. My fiancé had, in the past, told me when such-and-such a cousin was marrying such-and-such other cousin, but it was always in one ear, out the other. I’d learn eventually. The names, the connections. What was the rush? We would have our whole lives together ahead of us.
My adorable little boy toy kept me entertained in the meantime. He liked to swing by the apartment for drinks. We’d watch old karate movies in bed. Occasionally, if he let me pick the film, I’d choose something arty, foreign. He couldn’t understand the appeal of such movies, but he put up with it for me. He drew the line at French dramas, though.
“They talk too much,” he’d say. “Who wants to read all those subtitles?”
“You big dummy,” I’d tease and reach over to poke him gently in the ribs. We would tussle, on top of the bed, still wearing our clothes. I enjoyed it. I guess it reminded me of simpler times—necking in the backseat of my first boyfriend’s rusty Toyota Camry. “So, what’s new with you?” I’d say to him when we were finished.
“Dad’s in China this week. I overslept today and missed all my morning classes.” He was incredibly lazy, my boyfriend, but he was very chatty, and we were capable of talking like that, about nothing, for hours on end.
He held the South inside his clean, young mouth , and I know people can turn their noses up at accents like his, but I loved it. I loved his folksy tendencies, loved the way he sounded—twangy, like a John Wayne movie. I’d roll off the bed, pad to the bathroom, pee with the door wide open so I could hear him. “My grandma keeps forgetting who I am,” he was saying. “I tell her, ‘Yo Grams! It’s me! How can you not remember your favorite grandson?’”
Also, “I don’t believe people should be given handouts. It’s like, ever heard of the American Dream?”
If we wanted a change of scenery, we’d walk down to the Waterfront, get ice cream cones. I got a rush out of paying for us. I would insist on it. We were a fine match. We took care of each other in different ways. He had a jealous streak; that was true. When I left a sexy voice note for my fiancé, he would cross his arms and pout like an infant.
“I don’t understand why you’re acting like this,” I said to my boyfriend. “You’re seeing someone else, too.”
“Break up with him,” he said. “Break up with him, and I’ll end it with Viktorija. Let’s just have each other. Me and you.”
Most of the positivity books I checked out either from West End, or the DC Public Library Express near Farragut Square. The librarians behind the desk seemed to know so much, to have read everything worth reading. They would gift me complimentary slogan-buttons that advertised the pleasures of reading. They would stick a free paper bookmark into whatever I was checking out. I would open up to that page and read it first, as if those particular words held special, specific meaning for me, were meant to serve the purpose of an oracle.
After some dinner shifts at Pasha’s, I’d slip on my coat and find Hakan had tucked a half-empty bottle of YENI RAKI inside the inner pocket. He was a giver, Hakan. I would curl up on the couch in my apartment in my soft flannel pajamas, taking swigs from the bottle until I passed out.
When I came to, I’d shuffle to the bathroom, gargle with Listerine, splash my face with freezing cold water and sit at my desk. For an hour or two, I’d read my self-help paperback and convince myself I was turning over a brand new leaf. I would crack open a composition book and begin to write. “Today is the first day of the rest of my life,” I’d say. “From this moment on, I promise I’ll try my hardest to keep to the righteous path.”
The librarians came to know me by name. They would set aside books they thought I might enjoy. I felt important when they did that. I felt worthy. I’d check out whatever they recommended. I’d stuff the books into a tote bag, purchased from the Georgetown campus bookstore—a place I had, on occasion, gone to out of a curiosity to see how the other half were living.
I never left my apartment without a book. If I had a nosey Uber driver, I had no qualms about digging into the tote bag, pulling out whatever a librarian had given me, burying my nose in it. .
Around Christmas each year, Pasha’s would roll out a selection of specials—special cocktails, special kebab platters, elaborate pastries made of candied nuts and thin sheets of filo dough. Ali Bey would make a contest out of it, index our holiday bonuses to how many special items we could sell each shift. Steve, the Asian porno enthusiast who lived in a rental Northeast property with his elderly parents, was my greatest competition. He wasn’t married. I’d put him in his forties.
Steve’s mother was a diabetic and, as for Steve, eczema prevented him from wearing short sleeves in the summer. Year-round, it was white button-downs, done all the way to the top. He would tug at his collar and had developed a kind of tic about his cuffs, fiddling with the seam, curling his fingers into fists, tucking them into his sleeves, uncurling again and again.
He was incredibly good at his job. He had a natural way of upselling customers. He was much more competent than I was, and this would probably have been the case even if I wasn’t a drunk. He was given all the big parties—tables of ten and up—because of his skill. He was never overwhelmed. A mind like a Venus flytrap. He never needed to write anyone’s order down, never needed to be reminded who had the veggie option, who needed extra dressing. He’d tell the diners about his home village on the Black Sea coast in his charming little accent, and everyone would just eat it up. When we were on a break and Steve would describe to me his grandfather, an Ordu fisherman, I’d picture an old man in a wool beanie, a cabin by the lake, thick, gray clouds overhead, and Steve, in a wooden boat, rowing across the water with a naked Asian teen bride.
I’ll admit to being a mediocre waitress. I had to write everything down, and even then I’d mix up the dishes, enter incorrect orders into the system. All that rum dulled my mind, numbed the senses. At each prep meeting before the dinner shift, Ali Bey described the specials in detail, passed samples around before pinching a crisp hundred-dollar bill between his fingertips, telling us that whoever moved the most orders would take the money home.
I approached each table with a broad smile, played up the specials, told the diners that they were a way to “transcend the regular kebab experience.” And then I punched their orders into the machine, stress-ate a plate of warm baklava, and puked it up immediately in the toilet. I sold a grand total of one special item that first night. Steve sold seventeen. My tables were full of babies and morons, born with zero taste buds, no doubt. I felt the competition was rigged against me somehow.
“We have a winner!” Ali Bey beamed at Steve at closing. Steve trotted over like a show pony to claim his prize. He slipped the bill in his apron pocket, then made his hands into fists, disappearing them into the sleeves of his shirt. He winked at me. Every single night, it was the same thing.
Priti’s parents lived in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and some weekends, Priti would drive up to see them, or to hang out with her younger brother, a resident at Einstein College of Medicine in Manhattan. After lunch one day, she asked if I’d like to join her. We would take her car and stay at her brother’s apartment. “He’s on call Friday and Saturday,” she said. “We’ll have the place to ourselves.”
That afternoon, she pulled up to the curb in front of my building and tapped on the car horn lightly a few times. When I climbed in, I almost didn’t recognize her—no makeup, wearing not her usual dress pants and blouse but a bright tracksuit of a Royal Tenenbaum aesthetic. She cupped her breasts, hoisted, and jiggled them before releasing, letting them drop. “No bra,” she explained. “The girls need to be free when I’m driving.”
At her brother’s place, we found a joint on the coffee table and smoked it. It was truly horrible. Incredibly strong. Very likely laced with something.
Priti kept a trash bag of her belongings here and she undid the tie, dug out a lip kit, eye shadow palette, stick-on bindis, and two pairs of chandelier earrings. There was a black tube top, stained with deodorant streaks, a white bustier, genie pants, and a bubble mini-skirt. None of it made any sense to me in the moment—like an impossible puzzle bag I had to solve.
Priti thrust the tube top at me, her expression fixed, determined. I didn’t want to wear it, but I knew her enough to understand she would insist, take a refusal of the clothing as a refusal of her, conflating the two, souring the mood of the night. There was a club downtown, and that’s where she wanted to go, but I already sensed I would stick out.
I was right. The music was pounding, Bollywood. The lights felt psychedelic. The club was populated primarily by brown men wearing office shirts transparent with sweat, their wiry chest hair curling, sprouting out from underneath their stiffened collars. As soon as we walked in, I wanted to leave.
But Priti had no intention of leaving, might even have believed this was a place someone like her could score a husband. One of the thin shirt chest hair sprouters began feeling her up on the dancefloor. I stood by the bar, watching them salivate all over each other for what felt like several hours until Priti pressed the keys to her brother’s apartment into my hand with an apology and slipped into the backseat of a yellow cab headed uptown.
I hung around inside the Bollywood bar a while longer, yanking up that ridiculous tube top every few minutes, averting my gaze to avoid the greedy eyes of all the men. Tired, my buzz waning, I stepped onto the cold pavement and waited for my Uber. Back in the apartment, I showered with Priti’s premium bath products, called my fiancé, left him a sexy message, and fell asleep, all before last call.
Even when we went out together in DC, it was like this—Priti, eyes glazed, limbs loose, sucking face with an IT professional from Bangalore. Me, sitting alone at the bar, texting my fiancé, filtering a flattering selfie or two, sending them through the wires to him. I pictured him in the library, hunched over his textbooks. I imagined how happy he would be, seeing me on the screen. I’d flick through my assortment of selfies—airbrushed beyond recognition. It was like looking at another person. “I’m so silly,” I thought. This was no different than lying to myself, to others. But then I thought, “So what? Everyone else does it, too. Every single girl out there.”
Every single girl. Every girl who is single. But I wasn’t single. I had true love, the comfort and security of a rare and wonderful man. Sometimes I would get carried away, thinking of my handsome fiancé. I’d press record on my phone and recite a poem for him. Hafiz. Rumi. The greats. I sang the lullaby my mother would sing to me, her slender fingers stroking my hair, just singing, singing. I enjoyed reminding my fiancé how very much I loved him.
But he was so busy all the time! Did I think it was easy, earning a master’s degree in business administration? What could someone like me know about something like that? I barely graduated from high school. He would study, and I would wait and not bother him, although there were times I just couldn’t help myself.
On my parents’ death anniversary in particular, I would sob into the recording and hit send, only to regret it immediately. I don’t know what he made of my incoherent blubbering. He never mentioned it. In fact, he did nothing to soothe, said not a word to make me feel better.
No, that’s not true. It was different with us in the beginning. There was tenderness. There was concern. There was the time I returned to my apartment after a shift, bone-tired, to find him by the front door with a bouquet of red roses and a bag of take-out pad Thai. We made love three times that night. Afterward, he drew me a bath, filled it with bubbles, soaped my sore legs. He let me sleep on his chest until the morning.
For my birthday, he flew me out to Universal Studios, Orlando—my very first time on an airplane. We drank sparkling apple cider in our seats and ate cookies that tasted like molasses. He held my hand tight as the plane roared and shook over the tarmac.
But then classes were back in session. My fiancé buckled down. I took on more double shifts. I met my boyfriend. Weeks turned into months, turned into a year. I lost the Christmas special competition at Pasha’s. I was in bed with my boyfriend when news of his acceptance to Duke—early admission—lit up his phone. Summer ended. My boyfriend moved to Durham. Hakan, the bartender, was fired for stealing booze. And then my fiancé called me just as I stepped out of the shower. “It’s been a while. I’m graduating,” he said. “Let’s get together. Roku. Next to the bookshop. A week from Tuesday.” He paused. “We can catch up.”
That day I floated over to the shops in Georgetown, spent hours roaming around, purchasing eventually a sleek silk dress that came to the knee. At night, I went for a run—five complete turns around the Watergate building. The next morning, I went to the small grocery shop on the corner, bought a case of premium kombucha, swiped my Visa as the lady behind the counter eyed me with suspicion. Her pink face was humorless, swollen as if inflated with a bicycle pump, and her eyebrows were stumpy, tragically overplucked.
“I’m doing a health cleanse,” I explained to her for some reason.
I rode the Metro to the big mall in Virginia and paid cash for a pretty lingerie set, trimmed with delicate lace. I watched an elaborate makeup tutorial on the internet and replicated the look at home. I snipped my split ends, buffed and polished my rounded fingernails. I did an hour of pilates stretches on the floor of my apartment. I threw open all the windows as far as they would go and let the spring air in. The birdsong.
I went to the FedEx office. I copied the best pages of my positivity books and took a bright yellow highlighter to my favorite bits. “I’m so happy for you,” I said to Priti when she told me she would have an arranged marriage. The man would emigrate here from the Indian province of Gujarat. “I wish you a lifetime of happiness.”
I deep cleaned my apartment, flipped the mattress, fluffed the pillows, placed a potted rosemary plant on the sill of my kitchenette. I rooted through my closets, weeding out everything that wouldn’t serve me in my new life, my sun-kissed life, my charmed life as his second wife. I dragged the trash bags containing artifacts belonging to the old me, hoisting them high, dumping them one after the other into the metal donation box.
I did a teeth-whitening strip, listened to Arabic music, practiced swaying my hips in front of the mirror. “Ahlan, habibi!” I winked at my reflection. “Ahlan wa Sahlan!” “I can do this,” I thought. I’m already doing it. Me. It’s me that he has chosen, his woman to love.
Tuesday arrived. I took an Uber straight to the place—a Japanese restaurant, lit dimly with a small pond filled with koi. My fiancé was running late, so I sat on the high barstool and ordered a rum and Coke. Full calorie. Why not? A celebration.
I tracked the movement of the waitstaff weaving around the maze of tables, eyes like hawks. The bartender gave me a free cocktail, mistakenly prepared. “It really shouldn’t go to waste,” he said. I was hungry. I could feel the alcohol light a quick, hot path straight to my empty stomach. I eyed the finger bowl of nuts on the corner but knew better than to touch them. Instead, I picked at my nail polish before checking my phone.
He was unforgivably late now. I downed the last of my free cocktail—a Mai Thai so sweet it made me wince. I asked for a glass of water and checked the time on my phone yet again. A guy pulled out the barstool directly next to mine and sat on the edge of it. When I glanced at him, he smiled. He told me he was visiting from Long Island even though I didn’t ask.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he said.
“No,” I answered. I stood up abruptly and turned to see my fiancé entering the restaurant.
He was talking on the phone, so I just followed him and the waitress to a two-top in the depths of the restaurant. The furthest corner. The darkest spot. He sat down first.
“Sorry I’m so late,” he said after he hung up the phone. I said nothing to him. When the waitress handed me the menu, I thanked her. For a while, it was quiet and the two of us read our menus. Eventually he looked up and explained he’d been held up when his daughter’s pediatrician appointment ran over, told me how she had bucked and resisted the nurse’s needle, how his heart broke to see his baby like that, helpless, hurt, how she only had one more set of shots to go before her immunization records would be considered complete. How it had been forever since he’d been to this restaurant, and was it him, or did it look different? Had I ever been here before? Wasn’t there a wall, right there? Had it been knocked out?
“And you look different, too,” he said. “Did you put on some weight?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think so. Why? Does it look bad?”
The waitress returned with a small plate of appetizers—a roll and a pile of seaweed. I eyed her, flared my nostrils, and rolled my eyes. That waitress probably weighed more than I did. Ten pounds, maybe even fifteen pounds more.
I quickly ate half the roll before heading to the bathroom and throwing it up. It came out nice and easy. I washed my hands and scowled at my figure in the mirror over the sink.
I returned to the table and waited for him to stop texting. He typed so quickly, his big thumbs flitting, agile, across the glass. He was smiling broadly at the screen. I just sat there like an idiot. Our soups, steaming, had been delivered to the table. I wondered how many calories were in miso.
“That was Wafa,” he said when he put the phone down on the table. “My wife.”
“How are things with her?”
“Good. Really good. She’s started a business online. I don’t know if you’re aware of her handcrafted terrariums.”
“No,” I said. “I wasn’t aware. You never told me.”
“Well. Now you know.”
“Yes,” I said. “Now I do.”
Our waitress returned with our entrees. I thought about ordering another drink, but my fiancé was having hot green tea. I listened as he told me that after graduation, he would be starting a business, too—right here in DC.
“With my father’s funding of course,” he said. “Of course,” I said back.
The waitress refilled my water glass. My fiancé waited for her to leave before he inhaled deeply, squared me with a look, straight and firm, and told me I had to leave him alone.
At least a minute passed in silence until I nodded. “Okay,” I said slowly. “I’ll still record voice notes for you though.”
“No. No voice notes. No nothing.”
“Well, what about your graduation? When will I get to meet your baby?”
“Aida,” he said.
“And I’ve been reading on the internet about Saudi Arabia about how…”
“Aida. Aida.” He leaned his elbows on the table. He exuded a smell of heat, of fresh cologne. Really, he smelled divine. “We went on two dates, four years ago,” he said. “Four years. I’m married now, Aida. I am a happily married man.”
“But what about Orlando?” I asked. “Our trip? My birthday? The bubble bath?”
He told me he had never been to Orlando in his entire life. “Look,” he sighed, “what’s it going to take for you to leave us alone? It stung, but I thought about it.
“The truck,” I said finally. “Your truck. Give it to me.” He agreed. I watched him finish his plate. I let him pay the bill.
He dropped me home that night. The car ride to my apartment was completely silent. Inside the apartment, I took a long shower. I just stood there and stood there and stood.
At Pasha’s, I showed up to all my shifts on time. I finished the case of kombucha. Nine days after that dinner at Roku, I gave my final notice to Ali Bey, went back to my apartment, and cooked a pot of chicken noodle soup the way my mother used to. After I cleared the kitchen and washed the dishes, I sat on my bed and took out my phone.
“Dearest Auntie Gulgine,” I typed. “Thank you for telling me I could always reach out and would have a home with you forever. Unforeseen circumstances of a personal nature have made it impossible for me to remain in Washington, D.C. If it’s alright with you and Uncle George, I’d like to come and stay for a while. I can help out at the cafe. I can help out with the kids. I will do everything that I can.”
The truck was even bigger than I remember—all steel, three rows of seating, a V8 engine. I drove to the lot of a dealership on Route One.
“What can you give me for it?” I said. “I don’t need this FBI vehicle. When will I ever need to transport nine people at a time? I’m single.”
I sold the Escalade, purchased a used XT4, and put the remaining cash into my bank account. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but it wasn’t this. Bounty. Possibility. I named the car Angel. She carried me, all one thousand and ninety-eight miles, to the heart of Saint Paul, Minnesota.
It took me two days to pack and two days to complete the drive. After my parents died, I had sold almost everything. The things I kept I now placed on the front seat right next to me, belting them up: their small, pot-bellied ancient television set; a framed picture from their wedding ceremony, held inside a government office in central Tashkent.
During breaks in driving, after I’d pumped the gas and Squeegeed the windows clear, I took out my phone and re-read my Auntie Gulgine’s messages to me and found reassurance in them. I was doing the right thing. A few times—force of habit, phone in hand—I found myself on the verge of recording a voice note, but I never did. I would neither see nor hear from him ever again.
I paused at a rest-stop in Illinois and walked into the Dunkin Donuts. It’d been years since I’d been in one. The floors were laminate, the display cases overlit. There were parents, their childrens’ fingers sticky, legs swinging underneath the table back and forth—happy little pendulums. A man in a turban sat and stirred his styrofoam cup, pinkie finger lifted, adorned with a silver gemstone ring.
“Beautiful,” I thought. Everyone here is just so beautiful. The line progressed quickly. There was a natural rhythm they seemed to understand. Eyes on the display case clutching their cards: swipe, press, sign, step off to the side, onto the next. A ballet.
“What’s your best-selling item?” I asked the woman behind the counter when it was my turn. “A popular donut.”
“Vanilla sprinkles, I’d have to say.” I nodded.
“Just the one for you?” she said. She pointed at the menu board behind her, told me they were running a special offer. “A free regular coffee, medium, or iced Coffee Coolatta, small, with every donut purchase.”
It felt like I had achieved a thing of considerable importance. When a table next to the Sikh man became available, I took it. I snapped up the lid tab of the cup, pressing it back until it clicked. Delicious steam escaped in a hot spiral. From the lined paper bag, I carefully extracted the donut, mindful of the sprinkles. I flattened the bag, placing the treat on top. It was almost too pristine to ruin with a bite, but I did bite. I did, and it was perfect. I couldn’t recall the last time I felt so satisfied.
I prepared myself for the impulse to rush to the toilets, to lean over the bowl and undo what I had done. But the impulse never came. I ate slowly. The coffee warmed my blood.
The last time I’d seen Auntie Gulgine, it had been outside the mosque the day of the double funeral. My eyes were nearly swollen shut, my cover, silk, kept slipping off my hair. I did my best not to cry in front of everyone. Auntie pressed me into her chest, rocked me back and forth, said not a word. Uncle George stood behind her, holding the twins, one in each arm cradled like little footballs wrapped in pink.
The bearded imam chanted in Arabic, and I swayed, eyes on the patterned carpet in front of me, hands clasped in my lap. All of our throats bursting with prayer and not a hint of mercy. It hurt so much. Just sitting there hurt me. I didn’t understand a word of it. I didn’t understand why this was happening to me, why it had happened to them. I couldn’t see a path forward. I didn’t want to imagine a future without them in it.
One of the girls began to fuss, and Auntie Gulgine rose carefully, took her to the back, bounced her up and down. “Shh, shh, shh,”she soothed. “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.”My throat tightened. I lifted my head to stem the tears. The windows were big. A crow, the black bead of an eye, perched on a branch outside, watching me.
When I arrived in Minnesota and found the house, they were all in the garden, waiting. I slowed the car. I saw Auntie Gulgine on her knees, bellying out the dark soil and planting seeds. She sat up, squinted, and smiled. I pulled into the driveway, parked the car, and smoothed down my hair with a flattened palm.
When I climbed out of the car, she came to me—a beautiful spider web of joy spreading across her face. I steeled my chest. We stood there in a mutually reinforcing loop of grins. When she embraced me, kissed me, it was as if we had done this a million times before.
The girls, shy, poked their heads out from behind Uncle George’s legs. I walked towards them. I knelt down, shin against gravel, so I could see them, eye to eye. The girls began to giggle. I laughed, too. The sun was shining high that morning. The day was so very bright.
Hilal Isler writes and teaches in the Twin Cities.
Lisa Golightly Braden holds a B.A. in Studio Art from the University of the District of Columbia, and has studied at the Corcoran School of Art. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and non-profit art spaces in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.