They are all waiting on the damp lawn for the sky to light up, at a park near their home on the Fourth of July. How they got there is a miracle. It is the first Fourth of July Hadia remembers coming even close to celebrating, and this—sitting and blinking at the empty sky—feels like a feat. Just an hour earlier, when the sun slipped away, they began begging Baba to take them to watch the fireworks, and he was reluctant, telling them that people would be out drinking and they could watch just fine on their television screen. But even Amar, too young to fully understand what he was asking for, repeated please, please, please like it was one long word until Baba said fine, let’s go.

Hadia and Huda are holding hands and sitting cross-legged. Indian-style, her friends call it, and she does not know what this means or why it makes her feel a tiny bit strange. Just a tiny bit. They have laid their jackets down like blankets, spread their sleeves out like the points of stars. Baba is beside her. He scans the park, his gaze rests on other families who have brought collapsible chairs and thick, checkered blankets. Families that smell like popcorn and hold red cups that look purple in the dark. Mumma is next to Huda and Amar is next to Mumma, leaning on her with his thumb in his mouth. Then there is a bang and a streak of light hisses up, and when it is far past the tops of trees it explodes with a pop—and it is a firework, the exact kind she has seen frozen in pictures. Huda lets go of her hand and claps and shrieks. One after another they pop. Hisses and booms and all the while it feels like each sound is in her own body. That is how loud it is. Amar holds on to his ears but his eyes are wide with wonder, and not terror. Hadia notices that she can follow the tiny flare of light as it shoots into the sky before it explodes into a firework. She tries to watch with her mouth closed, because she is seven years old and not a baby anymore, but she can’t, she keeps smiling until her cheeks hurt and sometimes she says “oh wow” without meaning to.

Each one is different. Some light the whole sky a bright green, as if it were a haunted time of day. And Hadia is grateful for their yellow sun, its rays a blinding white. Some of them die so soon and others fall softly, become specks that look like bigger stars. These are her favorite—the delicate golden ones that burst and stay, their twinkling tails slowly dissolving. Smoke lingers. Amar hasn’t taken his cupped hands off of his ears but he giggles at the ones that sound like rockets, the ones that fizzle out in coils, and Mumma is holding him in her lap now, her arms wrapped around his body like she is hugging him, her chin resting on his head. It feels like the show has been going on for so long. Like it will go on forever. Each explosion makes her a little afraid: what if the tops of trees catch on fire, or what if the flame, which feels so close, lands on their jackets?

“How will we know when the finale comes?” Huda whispers into her ear. Her voice tickles Hadia’s hair, her neck. At home they convinced Baba to come by telling him about it, how there were a bunch of little fireworks and in the end a big one, a finale—Hadia had offered the word—like in an orchestra.

“You’ll just know,” she says, but she has no idea when it will be, or if she will know the end when she sees it. She looks back at Baba, and even his mouth is open, and she can see his white teeth. His face flashes green. And he looks like he is also thinking that the sky looks beautiful. Also thinking, How can I look up without smiling? Then comes the sound of the rocket ones and Hadia can hear Amar’s laughter and the tiny, twisty explosions, and Baba’s face is red, then blue, then gold, and then dark again, just his teeth still bright.

 

 

THE SUN IS relentless. Layla sits with her back straight against the balcony wall, practicing her posture. Her younger sister, Sara, is beside her. They are not touching one another. It is their rule for sitting on the balcony on a hot day: any contact between the two of them could make the heat unbearable. She is comforted by the sounds of her street. The man who tries to sell pomegranates and mangoes. A boy who shouts at his friend with words forbidden to her. The honking of the cars and the clacking of a hoofed animal that walks by their house and into the bustle.

“You have a secret?” Sara whispers. Speaking softly is the other rule of the balcony, they come here only when they want no one to overhear them.

Layla wants to be the one to tell her. She reaches up to tug at one of the magenta petals of the bougainvillea above Sara’s head. This summer is the first time she has felt close to her sister. Before, Sara was just a little girl with whom she had the unfortunate fate of sharing a cramped bedroom. One she had to make sure wasn’t listening with her ear pressed to their door when Layla’s friends visited. Now she is the sister Layla whispers to late at night before they fall asleep. The one she goes to with her complaints about her strict teacher or if she wakes from her dreams alarmed. Sara is a light sleeper, a patient listener. She wakes as soon as Layla calls her name and is eager to be included, to be regarded by her as a young woman, as a friend.

“I might be getting married,” Layla says. She twists the orni around her finger until it is tight.

Sara asks her when and there is hurt in her voice, and Layla wonders if it is because she hasn’t told her until today, or if it is because it means she will be leaving soon. Later that night, the proposal would be coming with his uncle to speak with Mumma and Baba and to meet her.

“Mumma tells me it is a great proposal. That I have no reason to refuse it.”

Sara leans her head on Layla’s shoulder. Layla does not remind her of the balcony rule.

“Where does he live?” Sara asks.

“America.”

“That’s far.”

“There are farther places.”

“What does he do?”

“I’m not sure. Mumma says he has a good job. And that he works very hard—he’s been an orphan for years. He moved there by himself, got a job, a place to live.” She does not know why she sounds like she is trying to convince her sister.

“You said yes?”

The wind rises. It moves through the branches of the bougainvillea and all the leaves quiver like clapping hands, their rustle a round of applause. It is one of Layla’s favorite sounds in the whole world.

“Not yet.”

“But you will?”

The orni wrapped around her finger will not twist any tighter. She does not know what she will say. She has never had to make a decision so big before, so life-changing.

“Because there is no reason to say no?” Sara’s voice sounds like she is a child again.

“Mumma thinks he is a good fit.”

Mumma had been eager to share the proposal with her when it came. She told Layla he was from a good family, that his parents had been respectable people before their passing, and he was one of the lucky ones who had gone to America. But to move so far from her family? I want you to have a good life, her mother had said to her, an enriched one, a pious destiny. Layla felt a strong intuition that if she listened to her mother, if she trusted her, if she aimed to please her, it would be all right. The little fears she felt now would be resolved somehow. After all, her parents would not find someone for her who would be unkind, or someone who was lacking in values. God would be pleased with her if she pleased her parents, and she would be rewarded.

“You could be like those women in the movies, the ones who say, ‘But, Babu-ji, I can’t marry him! I love someone else! The one who is forbidden.’ ”

“Don’t be silly.”

“What about Raj?” Sara whispers, still smiling.

Layla tells her to shush. The joke is not funny anymore. But something about the mention of his name excites her, and as soon as it does she feels a soft sadness. Raj sells ice cream outside of her school. He always nods when she walks by. Layla has not noticed him doing this with anyone else. She orders a scoop every few days—even when she does not want one. And once in a while, he will shake his head when she offers up her coins, and she will walk home with her gift. They have begun to joke about him. Raj and her future with him, the flavors of ice cream they would serve at their wedding, the successful business he will start all over Hyderabad.

“What’s his name?” Sara asks after a long time.

Layla opens her mouth to answer but realizes she has forgotten it.

 

 

THAT NIGHT LAYLA repeats his name in her mind: Rafiq. Will she go with him to America? What will the roads look like there, and the people in their houses? She cannot sleep. She tries to recall his visit, how he wore a light brown button-up shirt that did not suit his complexion. All evening she studied her own hands in her lap, the one knuckle redder than the rest, the unevenness of her fingernails. Mumma had advised her before he came: do not dare look up unless directly spoken to. But even then, Mumma said, do not look at him. She had stolen one glance just long enough to note the color of his shirt.

She calls Sara’s name in the dark and Sara mumbles a reply, rubs her eyelids, stretches a bit, and when she speaks again her voice is thick from sleep.

“Do you remember anything about him?” Layla asks.

“About who?”

“You know who,” she says, suddenly aware that she is too shy to speak his name.

“He was wearing an ugly shirt,” Sara says.

Layla laughs. Sara begins listing what she remembers: he smiled at Baba’s jokes but did not laugh, he did not eat the sweets Ma had made but did finish almost all of the almonds in the bowl of mixed nuts, he coughed into a folded cloth, he never started a conversation, just added to them, and he looked at Layla from time to time.

“Do you like him?” Sara asks.

Layla shrugs and in the dark Sara does not see it.

“This is how it is for everyone in the beginning,” Sara says.

Layla nods and still Sara does not see it.

Sara continues, “Maybe he will know to close the curtains as soon as it is nighttime. And to wake as soon as the first alarm rings. Or he’ll be able to tell when you want to be alone and when you act like you want to be alone but you actually want him to speak to you.”

“You mean like you.”

Layla asks if there was anything else she noticed.

“How you knew the whole time which voice was his.”

 

A Place for Us: A Novel