Portrait of a Female

Updated: Mar 11

Javier sat across from me on the square table, jaw clenched, making a harsh divot in his cheeks that I wanted to run my fingers through. Small black hairs stuck out on tan knuckles that were in the form of a fist, resting on the table. His slate ring glinted under the bright lights above us. The rain pelted against the windows to my right, silver streaks taking the smudges off of the glass. The drops gathered into one and then ran towards the bottom of the pane, disappearing into nothingness before I could follow their tracks.

I could not talk to him, though he heard enough in the car. I wished the rain could wash away the incessant noise of panic in my ears, my heart beating its way into my eardrums. I tried to inch my finger under his ring. Just to feel. Redness contoured the outer edges of his brown eyes, where water was starting to form—from the late night or from me, I didn’t know—until he blinked and took it away. Along with his hand that retreated back to his lap.

“Talk to me—” he said.

The bell to the coffee shop door rang and a large man stepped inside. I stiffened, stunned. His black windbreaker was drenched, the light reflecting in the rain on his broad shoulders. He started to take measured steps towards us, walking around the empty tables, with the barista from behind the counter watching on. His black mustache, soaked and straightened out, touched his upper lip, and his face was set in a careful blankness. Uncle Mustafa. The right hand of God was here, because God didn’t do His own dirty work. My father, who was pretending to be God, was ready to drag his daughter back to heaven. Heaven, where a large house served as his dominion, and any deviations from servitude were met with damnation.

“Alina, who is this?” Javier asked, looking at me. Uncle Mustafa wavered at the edges of our sight, not coming any closer. Drops of water clung to the hem of his jacket and dropped to the floor, one by one into a shallow pool on the ground. I could hear them falling over the pounding in my head.

“Wapas chalo,” uncle Mustafa said in Urdu, softly. Let’s go back, with no other explanation. He didn’t say it like ‘Chalo wapas’, the words only switched but with an entirely new forceful meaning: Let’s go back, an unquestionable demand. Or even ‘Wapas jao’, as in, you go back, now. He met my eyes and looked away, gaze sliding off my cheek and across to the windows. He didn’t look at Javier. Shame clogged my throat. He knew everything—and the sin of Javier and I bothered him. Yes, behind the softness of his request was unwavering disgust. Shame sputtered into embarrassment that flooded me.

Javier’s hand grabbed mine, tucking in the finger still shaped like a hook, trying to loosen his ring. “It’s okay, baby.” I flinched. “Look at me, you’re fine. Look at me. Tell me who this man is and what he’s saying.” He squeezed my hand, peering into my eyes. Poor Javier. I dragged him into this, into me. My parents’ ultimatum hung in my mind like a taunting sharp sword on the wall, waiting to be used against the love of my life. Their words spun in repetition: Leave him, or I don’t fucking care, get out of this house!

The words stuttered out of me. “He’s my uncle. He’s telling me to go back home. My dad sent him.” Javier’s mouth opened in shock, for the briefest moment, until his lips clamped together and he blinked hard.

“Don’t go back. You can stay with me,” he said. I took a shaky breath, knowing it wasn’t a real option. Uncle Mustafa took a tentative step back and waited against the walls, watching the room before us. The barista had started cleaning the counter with a rag, but her eyes flitted up ever so often to watch us. Shame fell into the pit of my stomach, spreading its roots into my limbs until I fought the urge to hug my middle.

“I can’t go with you. It would make everything worse.” Javier grimaced. “I’ll go home and figure something out. I’ll talk to them.” Javier ran a thumb over the dainty bones of my hand, pressed a nail into the skin and drew a line down the edge of my thumb to my wrist. Lost in thought, his breathing was heavy. “Javi, I won’t abandon you. Let me figure this out.”

Suddenly, he grabbed my hand and pulled me up. “Let’s go.” We left uncle Mustafa standing there, watching us.

Through the darkness outside, the leaves of the sugar maple trees rippled and tossed in the air, muddy yellow and orange falling to stick against each other in massive hills against the bend of the sidewalk. Beyond, the streetlights shimmered red and green under the assault. The cold snuck under my clothes but I couldn’t feel it. Javier’s car sat in a parking spot paces away. He pulled the hood of my jacket gently over my head and brushed a knuckle down my cheek. We ran into the car.

Inside, it was cold again, the weather had made its way in while we sat at the coffee shop for hours. “Are you okay?” he asked.

I nodded. Eyes searching, he started the car and drove to the first intersection. The car buffered most of the onslaught, lending a stillness to the black air. I tried to rest against the seat, but the muscles at the lower edge of my back were tense, and a weight graced the tips of my shoulders. Shame and disgust were like hands pushing me gradually into the earth, where I belonged undeserving of life. I had taken a hammer and broken every piece of my life so thoroughly. The figure of my parents, hatred of me marring their faces, clashed with the memory of their happiness with me.

My mother had pulled me from this car when she found Javier and I parked against the road, a few blocks down from the house. She took me home and shuffled me into the living room where my wings were ripped, the descent jarring. Relationships were sinful, and they were characteristic of whorish women. Not to mention the things I had probably done with him. My car keys were taken and my phone was smashed to pieces, threats of disownment from my father drowning out my cries. Later in the night, I called Javier from the landline.

“Alina, I think you should just come with me. I don’t think it’s safe for you to go back there. We’ll figure out what to do together. Mack just moved out and—”

“I can’t. It’ll make it worse. I don’t want to do anything else that will provoke them. They sent my uncle after me. If I go with you now, I don’t know if I’ll be allowed back into my house. I don’t even know how they’re going to react when I go home.”

“You don’t need them, baby. You don’t need people like that.” His neck turned to me and the road, over and over. “Fuck them, Alina, fuck them. They’re sick, trying to control your—hey, no, don’t cry, I’m sorry—”

I shuddered, tears rushing down my face in a warm curtain. He was wrong, I did need them. I didn’t know anything without them. “I f-feel disgusting.” I folded in half, the seatbelt digging into my ribs and waist, creating a rough pressure that ground into the pain. “They hate me. They showed me they don’t love me. My parents. My parents! All because of a relationship. So sinful of me to be with someone.” A violent sob left my lips. “I’m bad. They said I’m bad.”

His face was stricken. His mouth trembled like mine. In the back of my mind, I regretted leaving the coffee shop. “Alina, don’t listen to them, tell me you’re not really doing that. You’re not disgusting. You’re not sinful. There’s nothing wrong with us, okay? It’s in their head and they can’t help it. Fuck, just come with me so I can make sure you’re alright.” He grabbed my leg and squeezed, then pulled me up by the shoulder to sit upright.

I took in deep breaths, feeling a little ridiculous in front of him. “I can’t go with you, I can’t. I’m sorry.” The car accelerated onto the highway. “I’ll be okay. I’ll call you when I get inside. I promise I’m fine. I just need to think.” Javier looked away, a muscle ticking in his jaw under the low light. He had to understand I couldn’t go with him. I used the sleeve of my sweater to wipe my face. Crusted black eyeliner and mascara came off on it, the remnants of the day a mess on the wool. We stayed silent for the rest of the drive.

Without asking, Javier parked in a side street away from my house, in a different spot that my mother had caught us in. He kissed my salty mouth, holding me into him. Tomorrow, when he’d see me, he’d bring me a new phone to replace my broken one.

Inside, all of the lights were out when I entered through the front door. It was silent. At the end of the spiral staircase, all of the doors were closed in the hallway and I couldn’t see anyone. My shoes fell to the mat with a wet sound that uncomfortably broke the air.

The light to the foyer turned on. My father walked in through the kitchen, his face a blank mask. His eyes bored into me. Suddenly, it felt foolish stepping back into my own home. My father’s misbehaving, righteous daughter had fled into the night and he had to send somebody to retrieve her. Family image was everything to him. His “lesson” had also fallen to indifference, so much so that his daughter had escaped with one of the objects of his rage.

I saw the question before he said it. “Who were you with?”

I swallowed. Self-preservation told me to lie. It would be so easy to name a friend, a girl. I’d lied so many times before, every time when I’d come home a little too late, and my mother would be waiting up near the front door. My father’s six foot frame and stocky build covered everything that I could see. I thought about lying. I did.

“I was with Javier.” Rage fractured his face: his eyes flared, the side of his mouth pulled back over teeth. I had never seen that expression in my entire life on him. Had never seen something so transformative. He paced forward until he was too close. Step back, something whispered. My mind flashed to a time in my childhood that I couldn’t place properly—I could only see the flight of an arm before hitting the ground in a senseless heap. I remembered the days after, spent internalizing a message that can only be given by the hand. After that, I hadn’t done anything else to incite fury. Until now.

“Why did you see him when I told you that you couldn’t?” he asked. “Attiyah!” he called to my mother. She ran into the foyer from the kitchen, eyes blazing with worry. Spotting me, her face hardened. “She went with him somewhere,” he told her.

Shaking, I said, “Because I’m not a child that you can push around! I’m twenty-one years old, and I don’t know what you’re doing, dad.” I was on the verge of tears again, “I don’t know why you’re treating me like this. I feel like a criminal.”

My mother took a step forward. “Because you are. Your entire life I told you over and over that relationships are not allowed in Islam. We told you to end your relationship with him. Why did you go with him? What is wrong with you?”

Her words were like a knife in my chest. “You’re treating me like I’m not a human! I’m a person! This is extreme, please. I think differently than you, I have different values, but I’m not sorry for that.” I felt wild, frantic. I walked to my mother, trying to reach out to her, but she stepped away and turned her back to me. I moved away from her, near the steps of the staircase. “Mom, please. I love him, and all of us can stop this and work something out. You are breaking my heart.”

My father went rigid. “Are you sick in the brain?” he yelled, “When are you going to end the relationship? For the love of God, get this through your head! You’re a Muslim girl as long as you live in this house, if not, then get out!”

My entire body trembled. I took a step back onto the staircase and grabbed the banister. “Look at how you’re talking to me! Your daughter!” My throat closed around me, shame like a heavy weight. It warped my insides and said that this was all my fault. “I have my own life—I’m a person! You’re treating me like dirt, what would God think about that—”

My mother’s cry rang through my ears as my back hit the stairs. The white ceiling came into frame, going in and out of focus. I gasped, lungs sputtering for air as I choked on nothing, my body shocked by the force of its collision with the hard steps. Loud thuds vibrated through the stairs. I couldn’t get my head up. Then, there was the passing of feet covered in slippers that went all the way up the stairs.

Thin fingers gripped my arms in flashes of green silk. My mother’s voice drowned out the blaring in my head. “Are you okay? Oh God! Alina, talk to me…”

I twisted my leg to the side, my knee hitting the stairs as I pivoted my body. With a hand against another step, I heaved myself up. My back had absorbed most of the blow. It ached with the fire of a thousand suns, my spine screeching in pain as I stood to my full height. My mother was saying something. Slowly, I started to move up the stairs, leaving her at the bottom.

One of the landline receivers was in the upper hallway, close to my bedroom. I sat on my knees in front of the small wooden table in the hallway and dialed Javier’s number, who was waiting for a phone call. The whispering disguised the hoarseness of my voice, the odd numbness of it. I told him that I was alright and that I’d see him tomorrow. He didn’t ask if anything was wrong.

Across the hall, the door to my brother’s childhood room—which was usually kept shut—was cracked open. The blue curtains danced over the heat coming from the floor vents, and I walked over. I sat there for a while, letting the warmth pink the soles of my feet and the shivers to travel over my back, pretending that I was healing it. My brother Saeed was long gone, living a life far away, and I was glad he wasn’t here.

In my own bedroom, everything went fast. I peeled my clothes off and replaced them, all the while avoiding really looking at the room.

Somebody knocked on the door and then opened it, startling me. “Let me look at your back,” my mother said. In her hands was aspirin cream and cookies.

“No. Get out.”

She looked at the floor and hesitated. “What is more important? Him? Or Allah?”

She left without saying anything else.




The house was silent in the morning when I crept down the stairs. My parents usually woke up at noon on the weekends. I stood in front of the tall silver mirror tilted against the wall in the family room, and lifted my shirt up my back. I didn’t dare to stare for more than a few seconds, but it was enough to catch purple marks blooming from the center of my back like a twisted watercolour painting, feathering out into yellow splotches. It hurt to sit.

The cold air coming from the opened window hit the steam rising from my coffee, sending it in different directions. The quickly made piece of toast sat beside it, uneaten. I stared at the carefully decorated family room, with its gray-toned carpet and shining glass table. My favourite place in the house took on a dollhouse-like quality. The entire house did. It felt unreal, factitious. Religion, so intertwined with all of our lives, felt like a farce. In the span of one night my family had undone everything I thought I knew about them, as if unwrapping thread around a spool, taking one memory after the other and ripping it. I felt untethered to anything and anyone.

The window I sat near had a close view of the stop sign and curved road that lead to our house. I clutched my car keys, which had taken no effort to find. The opened door of my brothers room was too strange to dismiss. I found them in his old side table, hidden in the back under a bunch of random papers.

Javier’s car pulled up and parked a few houses away. I watched him as he came down the sidewalk, and when he met my eyes across the lawn, I motioned towards the front door. This house was like a endless crypt; what went on in one side of it couldn’t be heard from the other. I wasn’t too concerned my parents would wake up.

Javier’s eyes were bloodshot and his mouth was set in a grim frown. “What the fuck happened?” he said, reaching out a hand. I stepped back and shook my head. The damp winds from outside hit my face, highlighting the little cracks I could feel in my expression, and the raw cheeks that warm water weren’t able to soothe.

“I don’t know. I don’t know.” My eyebrows scrunched together, “My dad pushed me. I fell on the stairs. I—” My breath shuddered out. Javier’s chest, warm and firm beneath his T-shirt, rose up and down too fast. I stepped into him, laying my palms around his back and my head on his chest. The sound of his breathing got harder, matching my racing heart. His arms wouldn’t gather around me. “Don’t do anything now that could hurt us both.”

“Move out of the way, Alina.”

“No, it’s okay. I’m going to go with you, Javi.” I sighed. “I realized that I have to.”

I knew leaving with him would sever something between my parents and I forever, but the misery I felt covered every part of my mind, louder than anything I’d ever felt before. Peace didn’t exist in those bruises, neither did my tolerance of them. I couldn’t be the daughter they wanted, nor could I change for them, and I couldn’t be there while they dealt with it. There were no real options for me to take. Javier stood at the end of a long, carpeted path to a semblance of freedom.

I brought the duffle bag I’d packed earlier in the day, heavy from clothes and textbooks. Javier put it over his shoulder. He stood outside waiting for me while I peered into the house. The phone he got me turned out to be one of his sister’s old ones from high school, meant to be temporary until the stores opened and I could get a new one. It was mostly nonfunctional, but a small comfort. My thumb ran over the miniature keyboard, noting the tiny bumps of the keys under my skin. My other hand gripped the door handle, a foot already outside on the porch. The door of my parents’ bedroom loomed above the staircase, shut like the doors to heaven were.

I whispered, “Allah hafiz.”

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