Final words of farewell; Yolanda sobbing gracefully; the funeral service comes to an end. Tufail gets up and approaches her. She appears on the verge of fainting. She looks at him, grief yielding to gratitude, a pale smile. He embraces her. A bit of snow melts inside him while he kisses her forehead, then tries to hold her gaze. Is she thinking this man will leave her? The death has only delayed his departure. Or can they mend a broken nest? He is distracted by the commotion caused by others shuffling and shifting as they rise to form a line with the intent to offer comfort, a reminder of friendship. He loosens his hold. Should he stand beside her? Shouldn’t Chelsea be here with her mother? Just as he finishes scanning the hall for her, she reaches out for his hand from behind and gives it a soft squeeze, stepping forward. He blushes, squeezes her hand in return, and experiences a rush of affection for Chelsea.
People hug Yolanda and soothe her with words and silences as they make way for others waiting somberly behind them. It is not a long line, but he is surprised at how many people have actually shown up considering Wayne was a nobody. They are here for her, not him. A funeral, too, is an arena for a popularity contest. Do people still like you if you are living with a Pakistani man? Or a divorced woman? Or a sister of a homeless man? Pensive, attentive, he continues to hold Chelsea with visible affection, acknowledging each attendee with a nod. He steals glances of Rachel and her boyfriend flitting in and out of his line of vision. Rachel seems to have no interest in returning his glance. With the shrinking of line, his heartbeat quickens. Should he greet her when she appears before him? What if she does not acknowledge him? This is going to be quite awkward! He wants to distract himself from the foreboding thought.
He frees his hand from Chelsea’s grip and, guiding her shoulders, pushes her gently to stand between him and her mother, in her rightful place. He notices once again how tall she has grown. Both her parents are not very tall. Maybe she is not David’s child, he snickers inwardly, making sure his face doesn’t betray his thought. She does have David’s eyes, even chin. The next person offers Chelsea her condolences. To his relief, the person doesn’t prey on him. He searches for Big D again and doesn’t find him anywhere. He should go and look for him outside. Big D doesn’t smoke. His inner clock keeps clicking with the arrival of a new person. A strange, melancholic thought appears of how many funerals of people he’s actually related to he has missed. Even his own mother’s. He had no desire to be at his father’s funeral, but his mother’s? His eyes are clouded. Even in his wildest dreams, he’d never imagined that when the moment came, he’d be unable to go and offer his shoulder to the funeral cot on its way to the graveyard. Do I want to die here? the question rattles him, with no blood relative and no childhood friend gracing my funeral? Welcome to the life and death of an involuntary exile!
He blinks, as if stepping out of a dream, on hearing Rachel’s voice. Frozen, he stares dumbly.
“I said, ‘how are you, stranger?’ ” she repeats.
Before he could respond or smile, Yolanda is ready for Rachel and they fall into one another’s embrace. Rachel kisses Yolanda’s both cheeks. These two are weird women, he thinks admiringly, loving and hating each other’s guts, but always making up and being there for each other. It occurs to him to glance back at the urn adorned with Chinese classical art containing poor Wayne’s ashes. Would anyone steal the urn? As Yolanda receives a new person, a tall, skinny African American man their age, who gives her an extra squeeze. Jealousy makes a sudden splash in him. He feels the urge to reclaim his partner. He wants to clear his throat but finds Rachel reaching for a hug to which he yields unconsciously. The touch of her body brings back memories that have embarrassed and angered him for quite some time now. He is not sure if he’s supposed to place his hands on her back or not, trying not to appear stiff. He inhales and holds his breath. He makes eye contact with her new male partner who smiles and nods. Very fair-skinned, but he’s not white. The young man could be from Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Turkey. The prolonged hug has its effect, eliciting a movement in his hands which come to rest on her back. She whispers, “It’s okay!” and separating, winks.
“Thanks,” he says, contemplating gratitude, a weight sliding off his chest.
He’s left wondering if she means all is forgiven and forgotten. As Rachel and her friend amble off to the coffee table, he senses Chelsea’s discreet scrutiny, though feeling no need to stare her down. Smart kids these days. His eyes wander across the hall. He wants to walk away leaving Chelsea to assist her mother when he is startled by a woman’s voice. He turns to see a strong-boned dark-skinned woman, a few inches taller than Yolanda, offering condolences. He must have been too preoccupied with the specter of coming face to face with Rachel, though they have crossed paths a few times. The tone of the woman’s voice, not the accent, reminds him of Fatun whom he hasn’t seen since that fateful day. She has not returned his phone calls, nor has she shown up at his work window. Although he toyed with the idea of going to the shop where she works, he decided against it. One more layer of melancholy settles over his heart. He couldn’t in good conscience chase after another woman while Yolanda makes sense of the loss of her brother. He guesses that the woman is from the same region that Fatun’s family emigrated from. Do they know each other? No, they have different features. The thought sends a shiver down his spine. He’s making a racist cliché, like all Pakistanis or Indians in the Bay Area knowing each other. He’s amused as the shiver dissipates. He doesn’t reach for Chelsea’s hand again. Suddenly Yolanda is free of the onslaught of mourners.
David appears from nowhere and joins them, saying the obvious that Yolanda must be exhausted. “I’m hungry. Let’s go and eat,” he adds, after taking a peek at the small urn sitting forlornly at the white-clothed table.
“Yes, let’s eat. We have a long drive afterward,” reminds Yolanda.
Tufail cradles the ceramic piece. Yolanda directs the staff at the mortuary to dispose of the flowers. All the expenses have been paid off in advance and there’s no casket with a dead body. The family and a few friends walk out — Rachel, her boyfriend, and the North African woman, plus two colleagues from the university. There are several restaurants within walking distance. Yolanda and Tufail don’t have a reliable car. David does, and it’ll be his car that Yolanda will be borrowing, taking Chelsea along unless she finds the whole ritual a bit macabre. They decide quickly when Yolanda reveals that Wayne liked Thai food and there’s a good one just two blocks from here. Everyone seems to agree as they file out of the hall to an overcast San Francisco early afternoon, like a dead general’s army to honor his service to the country. He shares the thought with the rest of the crowd. It lightens everyone and a few giggles erupt. Yolanda doesn’t seem upset or hurt, keeping her face stolid, but then as they cross and turn right, she indirectly commends Tufail for his humor.
“He was a real warrior!”
“I agree,” says one of her colleagues with long hair and a French beard. Why this particular colleague is even here! Tufail weighs the absurdity. How much does he know? Has Yolanda talked to him at length about Wayne? Are they close? Intimate?
Yolanda reaches for his hand, derailing his suspicious train of thoughts. It feels like another person’s hand. A few minutes later, feeling perspiration, he wants to pull away. It’s only when they reach the restaurant that he seizes a legitimate excuse and opens the door for all. It’s busy inside and they have arrived without a reservation. The waiters put three small tables together as the group waits. Tufail finds himself separated from Yolanda, sitting across from him, sandwiched between the young woman and Rachel’s boyfriend. He is flanked by the two academics. David and Chelsea are on the left far end and Rachel on the right far end, close to the French-bearded academic and her friend. Should he reach out for someone’s shin? Be romantic? Should he rekindle it with Rachel?
Everybody seems very hungry, focused on studying the menu. The bearded academic tries to strike up a conversation about the menu with Tufail. He wants to take a peek at Rachel but is nervous, wary of her unpredictability. She cannot be trusted. The academic on his left side accidentally allows her knee to touch his and says sorry, laughing.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, keeping his eyes on the menu. David is clearly ogling the academic, unconcerned by Chelsea’s presence. Tufail hopes she’d notice her father’s leering eyes. He orders a beer. Yolanda is driving anyway. Silence descends on the group and everybody feels its oppressiveness, trying to make eye contact, imploring the other to start a conversation. Finally, Chelsea breaks the silence by asking, “Mom, how are you doing?”
She nods, her eyes brimming with affection.
Tufail turns to his right and asks the woman what subject she teaches, overhearing Rachel as she asks a similar question to the other academic, and soon everyone is talking. David’s telling Yolanda he forgot to put gas in the car. Rachel’s friend tells Yolanda he lost a brother a year ago as well, back in Houston, drowned in the ocean near Galveston, trying to save a child. Never found his body. Tufail’s ears are cocked. There are deaths, tragic episodes in every family. Rachel’s friend’s name is Mazen, born to a Palestinian mother and a WASP father, a third-generation Texan. They’d met in Beirut.
“Oh, at the American University?” asks the academic with the beard.
Probably a CIA operative tasked with destabilizing the region and a child of refugees as a result of Israel’s ethnic cleansing in 1948, mulls Tufail. How two people end up together in a relationship often reveals a deep cynic in him. He makes the mistake of glancing in Rachel’s direction who’s staring at him with an accusing expression that seems to say: Yes, I am dating a Palestinian. Yes, Yolanda and I are committed to our activism regarding Palestine. How dare you question our cause! Yes, I am a Jew and I can fuck whoever I want. He smiles and she smiles in turn just as the dishes start arriving. Convinced he’ll leave Yolanda one day, he lowers his eyes to an empty plate. His thoughts shift to Rachel: You stupid white bitch! Fake liberals! You can’t even convince your comrade in arms, Yolanda, to stop buying the Sabra Hummus, because that adopted daughter of mine won’t eat anything else. Go, paddle your own canoe!
The dishes they ordered covered the table. Reluctant by nature, he observes, absentmindedly, all the others filling their plates with food while he waits. A wave of pity for Yolanda rises in him, and he fakes a smile as he watches her passing a bowl of yellow chicken curry to David. Why has the young woman been staring at him every now and then? Tufail feels thrown off. Is she going to ask him if he knows Fatun? Instead, he hears himself saying hello to her.
She says something to him, but he doesn’t quite hear her. Is her tone a bit condescending? No, it was rather graceful. It’s time to consider therapy seriously. Tufail realizes that his hearing has deteriorated over the years. He can recognize voices but if people are talking below a certain pitch he often can’t make out their words. Thanks to years of listening to loud music and tuning out. He wants to restart a conversation with the academic sitting to his left, but it seems that the dislike is mutual. To hell with her, he decides and starts to take his food seriously. The beer helps.
He wonders how he would have acted if Chelsea hadn’t left Yolanda for a better high school. Would that have forced him to be more engaged, responsible, a fatherly person? A parent cannot be selfish. Children always come first. Unless something is cracked inside a person permanently. The image of his own father pops up but he quickly dismisses it. The food inside his mouth loses taste.
He looks out the window and imagines Fatun walking by with another man, arms locked. He wonders what he’d do if Fatun happened to walk past the window, unaccompanied. Would he stop eating and rush out? What he feels is not jealousy but suffocation. Mazen’s uber masculinity is beginning to bother him.
He looks to Yolanda who’s having a secretive conversation with Chelsea without regard for the woman stuck between the two of them. The thought of a long drive with Yolanda and Chelsea is crushing him. Who’s going to hold the urn? A dead man’s ashes traveling along in the car. He sips. The lingering taste of food makes him feel like he’s chewed on Wayne’s flesh. His skin will crack from a disease. His eye will pop, his eyelashes drop off floating down to his plate. What if he turns suddenly and throttles one of the academics?
“Tufail, are you feeling well?” Yolanda’s caring voice jolts him, alerting him to his crazy rambling thoughts. He glances at her, smirks, shrugs his shoulders, reaches for his beer. Oh god, where is the urn? Panic grips him. He wants to ask but it would be too improper. Did Wayne escape? The old rascal! When he opened the door for Yolanda, he didn’t have the urn in his hand. The memory, thankfully, comes back to him that Chelsea took the pot from him. He remembers her face at the time, more reverential than sad. Such a good kid except for a few spoiled habits, which are quite normal for her age. Especially among American kids.
Thai food never disappoints. Empty plates are being taken away. He catches Yolanda’s eye. She nods finally. He winks. It’s time to leave for the short road trip ahead.
After a long drive, they arrive at the American River which emerges from Folsom Lake, in close proximity to the notorious Folsom Prison. Isn’t there a song, a folk song, or a rock song, which talks about the Folsom Prison near Sacramento? The three walk over to the edge of the narrow river, which actually begins in the Eldorado National Forest and fills up Folsom Lake and then trickles out again to reach the Bay near Antioch. They stand in silence. He can’t read Yolanda’s thoughts. He wishes he could take Yolanda and Chelsea to Pakistan where they’d be treated like royalty, but, he sighs, that’s not gonna happen.
Sure, he knew Wayne, but his death has not touched him deeply. Wayne was just an extension of a person he’s in a relationship with. There was no emotional attachment. Or is he lying? Can he try one more time to revive his feelings?
Yolanda declares that she wants to be left alone for the time being, to commune, she says, with the silent flow of water surrounded by the trees and rocks, protective and serene. Chelsea approaches Tufail, hugs him in cohesion with Yolanda’s inexplicable grief. A paternal love surges in him as he tightens his arms around her. If something happens to her, yes, he’ll feel the pain. He might even kill for her. She is his child. He struggles to erase doubt about his relationship with this beautiful gift from Nature, a joyous substitute for all the losses he has suffered when he left Pakistan. He is a little surprised when he realizes how he’s allowed himself to be led by her, away from Yolanda and water, more into the woods before she begins to speak.
She says she’s moving back with them. The reasons are complicated. Did he know? No, he says, taken by surprise. Hmmm, I am surprised, she says. He defends her mother. Yolanda has had too much on her mind you know. Well, I need your support, more than Dad is willing to lend. I think he is in shock and denial. How so? I don’t get it, he says.
They are on the denser side of the marsh where they can’t see Yolanda anymore. What if she fell into the water? he worries, unnecessarily. Yolanda will holler for help. Calm down!
“Dad is moving to Thailand. To teach English. His woman friend is going with him,” she updates him.
“They are married,” he corrects her.
“It’s the same to me. I don’t see things through a heterosexual lens,” she says.
He is flabbergasted. Thank God, she’s not my child, he thinks, his face reddening with shame.
“Okay, go on, Chelsea!” he implores, impatient to get the whole story out.
“Promise you won’t judge me?” she asks, stopping their pensive walk as she turns to face him. She seems to have grown taller in the last few minutes.
She smiles mischievously. “You promise?”
He is irritated at the child hiding behind a facade of nascent adulthood. “I won’t judge you,” he blurts, eager to release a poisonous gust of air from his lungs.
“I am not straight. I’m attracted to women.”
Chelsea’s face goes out of focus, a pinkish blur, breaking into a collage of fractals, the core of all things tangible. Blinking, he refocuses on the girl staring into his eyes, demanding a commitment.
“I see!” he says, repressing a sigh, experiencing ambivalence.
“What do you see?”
“I see,” Tufail laughs, “you’re not a child anymore, smarty pants!”
“Dad has not taken the news very well. Mom, I can’t tell. I will need your help!”
“Of course. You can count on me,” he says, unsure if he believes that.
“Thank you!” Bizarrely, she reaches for his hand and pecks him on his cheek.
“Should we get back to Mom?” he suggests
“We’ll have to. At least I have no choice,” she says.
They begin to walk back and see Yolanda from the distance looking restless and worried. Spotting them, she pretends to stare at the slow trot of the river.
“Your mother is a beautiful woman,” Tufail says.
“Will you leave her one day?”
He is stunned. He experiences a painful throb in his temples.
“Does it bother you, considering the culture you come from, that I never address you as Dad?”
“No, I understand.”
“I tried.” She walks steadily, caressing the heaviness of his silence.
Yolanda turns before they can reach her and heads back to the car with Tufail and Chelsea in tow. Her demeanor is cold. He wonders if she is telling him that she’s ready to live her life alone if he were to leave her. She won’t beg, he knows.
Photo by Alex Ivashenko on Unsplash