I call home every day. I call when I wake up. I call before I sleep, if I sleep. Sometimes I call right after I’ve already called. Lame phone calls — “Are you okay?” I ask, “Are you okay?” They ask — because the phones might be tapped. And I learn that it is I, sitting far away, who is needy for consolation. It makes me feel guilty. I am not like my mother, who is waking up to an empty other side of the bed. Or like my brother, who returns to Pakistan for the summer from college in DC, decides it is his task to make my mother laugh, though he finds it impossible to laugh himself. Or like my sister, who accompanies my mother on visits to the detention centre/jail where my father is growing thinner and thinner and quieter and quieter (how much quieter can my quiet father get?) and covering the bruise on his cheek with his palm, only to betray the one on the back of his hand.
Days turn into weeks turn into months. I wonder if is it easier to have seen a bruise and know its shape than imagine sometimes a mere ochre dot, sometimes a plum blot, over and over and over again.
I learn that I’d rather be the one to call. A Marlboro Red already lit in case of bad news. When they call, I scramble to find my pack. A ringing phone portends dread and only dread, although my husband reminds me that good news travels over the phone line too.
One afternoon, I return home to a blinking red eye on the answering machine.
“Call me back please.”
It’s the entirety of the message my Uncle from England leaves. He’s never called me before. Not on a birthday, a graduation, an anniversary, not even when the pressure cooker went off in my face. My father is dead. What else? Eight long months in jail cell have come to an end in his end. My father had done nothing, nothing, but nothing means nothing in Pakistan where law and order and accountability and justice are more often than not Orwellian terms. An impossibly hard whoosh of air punches me in the solar plexus. I taste terror on my tongue, stale, metallic, poison. I black out.
When I come too, it’s a false alarm. Uncle just wanted to know how I’m holding up. My father is okay. In fact, soon eight long months in a jail cell will come to an end. It’ll be confirmed that my father was never party to any fraud or hanky-panky, and he’ll be back home, forever a quieter and increasingly godly man, back home and back in front of the TV in his armchair, the one no one sat in while he was gone.
When I talk to my father, his voice seems unsure of how to speak; his soft voice is taking baby steps. He says, “As long as your children are safe, unscathed….”
And I look out at window, at the cloudy August sky, and think, like a traitor, I live in America, thank god.
I am a default immigrant. I entered college in the United States, already eager to return home and begin real life, only to meet the man I was going to marry here. I remember walking across a campus quad one evening complaining to a friend that I’m going to miss home so much. She nods sympathetically. She can’t quite grasp “overseas,” for she’d never left Maryland’s shores. Stars nest in the night sky like sparkling eggs which will hatch with a bright dazzle.
“Well,” I say bravely, “at least it’s safe here. No threat of civil war or coups or sectarian strife or interfaith shoot-outs, bombs, the sky falling on top of us in a dazzling spectacle of death.”
It’s been about a year since my father came home. A blinking answering machine is slowly reverting to being just that, phone calls to home have reverted to just once a week, and my parent’s voices are a little stronger, a little less bewildered and lost.
I’ve been busy. We’ve moved to Colorado: new place, new people, new shopping, new writing ambitions and a new born baby. So, when the phone rings early Tuesday morning and my husband says hello, I merely pull the pillow over my head. It’s probably one of those sales calls that always manage to come at the wrong time, but no, he’s not hanging up, and his voice is getting louder. I hear him say my brother’s name even as he tells my mom not to worry.
“We’ll try calling him,” he says, “then we’ll call you back.”
I sit up. What has my fun-loving brother done now — run off with a girl of his choice? For all my bravado, though, I’m not brave anymore. A siege of days, weeks, months spent on the phone in a tag line of ‘are you okay-are you okay’ has left a mark.
I hoist my infant up and get out of bed to find my husband in front of the TV. He’s flipping from BBC, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, CBS and back to CNN again. I yawn. A shawl of early morning sunshine sprawls in from the bay windows and drapes itself over our electric blue micro-suede loveseat.
“Apparently,” my husband looks at our baby, “there are planes falling out of the sky.”
And that’s how Pakistan informs us of what’s happening in America on 9/11. The role reversal is unnerving because this is America and phone calls should not be flooding in to ask if we’re all right, but America is, it seems, part of the of the world after all.
We finally get through to my brother’s college in Washington D.C. He can see, he says, a smoky cloud over the Pentagon. We get through to a cousin. She’s in New York. Safe, though the smell of smoke, the woolen black of it in the air and on faces, almost contradicts her assurance. I call the same friend I’d walked across the campus quad with five years ago. She lives in Pennsylvania now and not far from Shanksville, where the only plane that did not reach its destination made the most difference.
“Are you okay?” I say
“Are you okay?” She says.
We’re as okay as anyone can be while thinking about people in planes and people in towers and people in places where they can get in trouble for the misdeeds of others and people who will talk nonstop about this day and others who will try to forget it by going mum. A safety net has fallen and we’re all tangled up.
“Take care,” she says.
“Take care,” I say.
Soniah Kamal‘s debut novel An Isolated Incident was a finalist for the Townsend Award for Fiction, the KLF French Fiction Prize, and is an Amazon Rising Star pick. Her essays, short stories, poetry and literary work have been published in The Guardian, Buzzfeed, Catapult, Huffington Post, Lit Hub, The Normal School, The Missing Slate, The Atlanta Review, and more.