Farah Ali is from Karachi, Pakistan. Her more recent work can be found in Kenyon Review Online, Ecotone, The Southern Review and others. She received a special mention in the 2018 Pushcart Prizes for a story published in the J Journal, and was the winner of the Colorado Review’s 2016 Nelligan Prize.
Last week we left our house in the city, and mama drove four hours to get us to this hotel by the sea. I wasn’t surprised by our leaving; I knew we would eventually have to become one of the boat people, or the people of the water. We change their labels according to their fate—“boat people” if they make it to the other side, “water people” if they don’t. Mama didn’t tell me what sort of sign she was looking for—they had got already baba and his brother a couple of years ago and there were no more men left in our family. We had stopped buying anything for the house, and the drawing room and the third bedroom had stayed shut for months now. In the time that I waited for mama to decide, I carried out my roles unattached to them. I had friends, and I studied, and mama and I cooked and we ate and watched TV and argued, but always poised to move; in the course of one night I could go from being a girl in university and a girl in love, to a homeless oarswoman with an insensate mother.
I think it was the news of the capture of the village mama had grown up in that did it for her, because the next morning she said to me, “Amal, today you are not going to the university. We are leaving.” She stood by our small, plastic dining table, gripping its edge. Her voice was teetering, and it was only seven in the morning. She hadn’t dyed her hair in weeks and now the orange and the grey were beginning to blend. I had learned some months ago to look at her kindly.
I asked, “What shall I say to them?”
“Tell them you cannot go there anymore. Tell them you have to do other things.”
“What other things, mama?”
She opened her mouth then closed it. “Swimming. You have to learn swimming.”
“Yes. Don’t argue. Call them now.”
I never called the university. Others before me had simply stopped showing up and the rest of us had carried on, learning and teaching. I put my clothes and some books into a small bag. I wasn’t sure if I would be allowed to take that onto the boat but I hoped I would. Before mama and I left the house, I thought about calling Mahmood. While mama was in our back garden picking up the tomatoes she did not want to leave behind, I stood in the living room and gazed at his number on my phone. At that moment, he would be teaching a class. He was an electrical engineer. I was his student-assistant. That was the most we had ever been out loud to each other, but after mama saw him stop by our house with a book that I had forgotten she asked me how old he was.
“Thirty-five,” I said.
“He is a teacher,” she said. “They will take him, just like they took your father.”
“He’s very careful…”
In the end, because I was tired of trying to understand how much he would like to know, or if he would like to know anything at all, I sent him a message on his phone. “Not coming in today.” He might think, at first, that I have a headache, and later, as the days would go by, he might think I have abandoned our people. When Arwa had flown to Turkey with her family, Mahmood had called her a traitor.
Today, mama met a woman on the beach. I sat on a long chair under a tree and watched the two of them walk toward each other slowly. They smiled cautiously and gingerly kissed each other’s cheeks, then stood staring at the Mediterranean. They were dressed similarly in brown linen pants and long, button-down shirts. The other woman’s sleeves were rolled up but mama’s were not. Mama had found a friend.
“Her name is Ruba,” mama tells me later during dinner. “Her husband wants to be with the fighters so she decided to be here.”
“Like baba,” I say.
“Your baba did not want to go with them.”
I shrug. I believe different things on different days.
“Anyway,” mama continues. “Aunty Ruba can teach you how to swim. She knows how.”
But I do not want to swim. In water a person is unsupported, with nothing to stop gravity from pulling her down to depths in which she could drown, unheard.
“I would be too far away from you.”
Mama sighs. She closes her eyes, then opens them. “Your worries, they are all in your head, my child.”
I meet Aunty Ruba on the beach. She has on a long blue shirt over full swimming pants. She could be my mother’s sister, the two look so alike.
“Nice weather for a holiday,” she says.
I smile at her, dry-lipped.
“So you are how old? Nineteen, I think your mother said?”
I nod. A swimmer goes by, streaking across the water in pink and yellow. I watch her arms move—backward, up, forward, down, then back again, regular as a paddlewheel. Her legs kick and her head moves from side to side. Unconsciously, I try to copy the way she opens and closes her mouth. I feel a surge of optimism inside me. I want to do well. I want to be lovely in the water.
Aunty Ruba says, “I taught her, you know. Took her only a week to learn. You can learn too, no problem. Your mother says you went to university. You must be smart. Come, child.”
She walks slowly toward the water and I follow, slower still, panic rising up my legs. My thoughts flee to other places, to maps on classroom walls and to the pen in Mahmood’s pocket, and I think, wildly, How come it never leaks? Aunty Ruba starts to tell me how to move my arms and feet and head. I frown in concentration and listen to her words so hard that I worry I might have missed some.
“Now we start,” she says.
We are standing in the sea.
“Go farther out, this is not deep enough,” Aunty Ruba says. She marches on until the sea comes up to her thighs. When she is satisfied with the depth, she holds out an arm. She tells me to grab it and to stretch out my legs behind me.
“I will not let you go,” she says.
So I do as she asks, and let the bottom go out from under my feet. For a second I feel weightless and my stomach drops as if I’m in an elevator, only this dropping is a strange, horizontal sensation. I breathe hard.
“Kick,” Aunty Ruba says.
I kick my feet and my arms strain. I gulp in water.
“Keep your face above the water, child.”
I swallow some more salt water and promptly spit it out. I try to remind myself that there is still sand below me and I only have to swing my legs down to touch it. My heart pounds in my head, making it hurt. Aunty Ruba says something about kicking higher but I am sinking fast. There is water in my ears and in my nose. I cry out, and suddenly Aunty Ruba is helping me back on to my feet. I breathe wetly, messily. I wipe my nose with the back of my hand.
“That was not bad, not bad at all,” Aunty Ruba says. “Now we go again.”
I am more alive than I had expected to feel after my lesson. In my state of invincibility I write to Mahmood. He has sent only one message to me in this whole time, a brief “Hope you feel better soon.” I had minded the impersonal tone of his words, felt small and unwanted, but today I am feeling young again, like I used to in university when I wore my flare-bottom jeans and my long earrings and my intellect. I want to make him angry. “I am by the sea,” I write. “Don’t you wish you were here instead of poking about in those old classrooms? The air from the sea is fresh. No turbulence here.” I send it to him and lie back on my single bed in the hotel room that I am sharing with mama.
Aunty Ruba joins me and mama for dinner that night. The only other people in the dining room are a man and a woman in their twenties, and a family of five. The family talks loudly and the couple murmurs. There are too many waiters; they keep hovering near the diners, unnecessarily removing plates and refilling glasses. They take away our dinner plates and bring small coffee cups and a little silver dallah. Mama and Aunty Ruba light up cigarettes. A waiter dashes forward with an ashtray, places it on our table, and quickly retreats.
“Two years is a long time to have been waiting,” Aunty Ruba says to mama.
“Yes. You’ve been waiting almost three yourself.”
“Yes. But me, it doesn’t matter how long I wait or where I go. I don’t have a child. But you do.” The last three words she says in a lower, more emphatic voice.
The two women inhale and blow out smoke. I wonder what I am doing in this gathering of females.
“Two years. Perhaps he’s dead.”
“Yes. Yes. We must think like that now. How else to account for the missing ones?”
Mama sighs. “It is why I finally decided to leave. I have talked to the man with the boat. But first we need a little vacation. And she needs to learn to swim.”
Now Aunty Ruba smiles at me and chuckles. “She will learn. With practice, her legs will become stronger.”
“I think they’re playing Sleepless in Seattle tonight, after dinner.”
“I hope they serve snacks.”
Under the table cover I check my cell phone for messages but there are none. In a flash of anger I write to him, “I will be leaving soon from here. Going far away to a place where everyone says there is calm. This could be my last message.” But we both know that is a lie.
Aunty Ruba prefers to teach me in midmorning. “It is the nicest part of the day,” she says. I wonder at the endurance of each muscle in her arm, which she continues to hold out for me to grasp greedily. Once, by mistake, I dig my nails into her skin. She only laughs a little and rubs at the tiny crescent-moon grooves in her arm. I cut my nails. She also uses her arms to support me from under while I clumsily move my own arms in the water.
Mama asks me later how Mahmood is doing these days. I tell her that he must be alright.
“Is he still teaching?”
“He is a nice man. Young and clever. Better that he stay. Somebody needs to stay.”
One evening, on our thirteenth day at the hotel, I find Aunty Ruba and mama sitting in the hotel lawn having coffee with a man and a woman. They look like they could be grandparents.
“This is Uncle Shadi and his wife Aunty Asma,” Aunty Ruba says.
Uncle Shadi smiles kindly at me. “And are you enjoying your holiday, young lady?”
“So important for young people to get out into the fresh air,” Aunty Asma says.
I give a small smile and try to think of a reason to leave. “I think I left my phone somewhere. Excuse me please.” Mama’s eyes are on me but I do not look at her.
Mahmood has sent me a note. “You should be in class. Where are you?”
I cradle the phone in my hands and walk around the room. Mama had said people like him need to stay back. But I make up my mind to think that she is wrong. I send him a picture of the hotel stationery as an answer. Very quickly, I add, “Mama says our boat leaves next week.” For the next few days I feel the weight of the decision he might make. I have a dream where I see him and mama eating berries among tall grasses. Then he writes, “I have asked for a break from the university. I will be there soon.” I stare at the word “break” and imagine him putting away his papers, packing a bag. A small one. Nervousness and happiness crowd my stomach.
Uncle Shadi and his wife are leaving today. Their suitcases are in the hotel lobby. They are not going to become the people of the boat or the water; instead, they are returning to their son and his wife who is about to have a baby. After mama, Aunty Ruba, Uncle Shadi and his wife have all had one last cup of coffee—Aunty Ruba and mama don’t smoke in front of them because it makes them cough—they get up and hug each other. Mama and Aunty Ruba cry when they hug Aunty Asma, who pats their heads. They say prayers and hold hands with her all the way to the hotel taxi which is waiting in the courtyard. They repeat phone numbers written on papers taken from the hotel’s front desk. Aunty Asma presses some currency notes into my hands. She turns to mama and says, “Get this one married soon. Find her a companion.” In the chaos of departure Mama nods only half-understandingly and I stutter my thanks as Aunty Asma gets into the taxi. The driver whisks them away and the rest of us stand around like large, empty urns.
“I cannot stand it,” Aunty Ruba says. “I don’t like sadness. We are going swimming.”
Mama puts on her navy-blue swimming shirt and pants. She wears a swimming cap over her curly hair. We walk on the sand and I see a few bright orange curls escape from beneath mama’s cap.
“Your hair looks good,” I tell her.
She smiles. I picture Mahmood driving to me in his car and I grin.
“Yalla, Amal,” Aunty Ruba calls out to me from the sea. She is the first one in. “Show your mother what you can do.”
I enter the water. Its warmth doesn’t surprise me anymore. When the water is up to my waist I jump forward and move my arms and kick my feet. Aunty Ruba is in front of me, her back to the horizon.
“Come, Amal, keep going,” she shouts happily. “Look how your daughter can swim! Now she is ready.”