– Nandini Nessa –
"Girls on the Move” is an excerpt from Nandini Nessa's novel, Bright Lines. Part I, Brooklyn, charts the fateful summer in the lives of Anwar Saleem and his wife and daughters, when the tragedy that strikes unravels them. Part II, & Beyond, flashes forward in time and place, switching between the perspectives of his daughters. At its center, the novel explores transient families, sexual identities, the indelible memory of violence, and chasing love and other chimeras.
Girls, everywhere. Anwar stared brazenly at the flock that strode past and straightened his shoulders. He wondered if they noticed him sucking in his paunch, as he pulled down the gate of his shop. He crossed over to the other side of the street, suppressing the urge to follow them. Some blocks later, he passed a mosque where he never ventured, with all the exterior charm of its neighbors: a 99-cent store and a bodega. Just as he left-turned onto Cambridge Place, a maze of dominoes collapsed, each tick syncopated with the blinking eyes of the hustlers who ruled this corner. They nodded at him and he nodded back. Fire hydrant unleashed, hopscotch chalk erased in the wasteful gush. The aroma of grilled burgers brought tears to his eyes—he missed red meat. He gazed up at the corraline tendrils in the sky, which left a gaping hole where the sun had been. It was the first of June.
As he walked up to his three-floor brownstone on the corner of Cambridge Place and Greene Avenue, a magnolia petal landed by his feet. He picked it up gingerly. Years past mingled with the unknowns of tomorrow on these evening walks home. It’s good to be high, he giggled to himself. After the death of his comrade and brother-in-law Rezwan, this had become his natural state. He nibbled the last bit of majoun, a trail mix of dates, walnuts, and hash.
He saw a solitary light in the kitchen. His wife’s beauty salon, the eponymous Hashi’s, was closed for the day. His tenant’s apartment: lights off. He mouthed her name, Ra-mo-na Es-pin-al. She worked the night shift today. No glimpses until morning.
He cleared his throat as if he were to give a speech, but decided to watch the scene in the kitchen window.
His wife, Hashi, cast a fistful of onions into a pot, then several pinches of spice. She dipped a spoon into another pot and had a taste. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and called, “Charu! Charu!” A minute later, their daughter Charu entered, giving Hashi a light hug from behind. Hashi turned to look at her. He wanted to embrace them, right then. It always unnerved him, this life of beauty he owned: Hashi, Charu, his home, Ramona Espinal (his tenant); and of course, his elder daughter Ella, who could not be called beautiful, but was on the inside.
He tiptoed into the house, wanting to surprise them. Anwar paused for a moment, in the darkness. Do not enter, he thought, suppressing the urge to giggle.
From this angle, Hashi’s back was turned. And the scene was nothing like his reverie. Staccato chopping of carrots filled the room ominously. The pot of onions and turmeric hissed in canola oil, dangerously splattering onto the greasy ceiling. Charu sat at the table blankly staring at an array of objects arranged like a daisy on the plaid tablecloth: a pile of nine empty cigarette packets, some rather compromising photos of Charu at the beach, and the prize, in the center: a condom wrapper, empty of its goods.
“Do—you—want—to—die—?” he heard Hashi say. Her tempo synched with the creation of her salad.
Charu protested, “Ma, I told you! I was at the beach—that’s what people wear to the beach! Those are my cigarettes from a long time ago—I quit! The condom was from sex ed—I just wanted to see what it looked like!”
“You—are—not—my—daughter—you—are—nothing—like—me,” Hashi said, her back pumping up and down as she chopped.
“Ma,” Charu implored softly.
“Nothing!” Hashi whisper-shouted.
Anwar decided this was the moment to walk in.
“Er, what is happening, ladies?” he asked. He swiped a carrot from the cutting board. A second later and Hashi would’ve severed a fingertip.
“Your daughter tells lies and your daughter is doing sex and your daughter is doing smoking and your daughter is not mine,” Hashi said, finally turning to look at Anwar. She set down the knife and crossed her arms, as if waiting for Anwar’s response.
Anwar glimpsed at Hashi, and then their child, back and forth. Hashi’s hair was pulled back in a severe bun, her cheeks flushed with anger. She was yellow-skinned, slender, eyes sharp as a hawk’s; he still glimpsed traces of that haughty girl, the girl he’d been incensed for back when he knew her as his comrade Rezwan’s little sister. And Charu, skin tanned by these secret beach excursions, womanly curves she’d inherited neither from him nor Hashi. He imagined Charu’s visage as his own mother’s. But he couldn’t remember, for she’d died before he’d known her breast. The sole photograph of her had been eaten by the elements, marring her face. His daughter’s enormous eyes glimmered wetly, but the expression they held was dead cold. It was a look that lately corrupted his daughter’s sweet face. Long gone were the days they rode the subway all the way to Queens for singing lessons.
She is adopted, thought Anwar. No. No she isn’t. “Hashi, I am sure Charu’s explanation is sufficient,” he said.
“No!” Hashi spat.
Guess that’s the wrong answer.
“No dinner. Charu will be alone tonight, and I won’t hear another word.”
“Arré, Hashi, it’s not fair, she is a growing girl, she must eat,” protested Anwar.
“Fine by me!” yelled Charu. “I’ll never eat this shit again!”
“Do what you like, but don’t expect there to be anything out here!” yelled Hashi.
Charu pushed the dining table hard. Photos flew through the air like a dandelion clock. She ran into her father, and let go of a wretched banshee shrill, when he didn’t move out of her way. She forced her way past, and stomped to her bedroom. Bedroom door slammed. A minute later, the sound of objects being thrown against a wall—a stiletto, a dumbbell, anything in her reach—finally, a furious clanging of a Tibetan meditation bell, found on their block, in a box of schnick-schnacks from a German exchange student’s stoop sale.
Fathering a teenage girl, rough stuff, thought Anwar, as he picked up a photo that landed on his foot. In the photo, Charu pursed her lips on a dreadlocked boy’s ear: Malik. He felt a strange pang seeing the picture, jealousy tinged with admiration. He had suspected her younger daughter was dating Malik. The boy was his intern at the apothecary, and seemed to be around at the house often, these past few months. The kids had grown up together in the neighborhood. Both were seniors at Brooklyn Tech. A soft-spoken, handsome black boy, a solid, even sensitive young man, better than what any stern, absent-minded father could ask for; Anwar could stand him and that meant a lot.
Anwar wondered how she knew this feeling of love; it was further proof of their distance. Had the movies taught her?
Hashi bent over and swiped the rest of the photographs off the ground.
“I cleaned her room today and came upon this, said Hashi. “She’s not growing up a good person. Look at this—” She pointed to another photo. Bikini-clad Charu, eating a corn dog at Coney Island, pursed her lips around the thing rather—suggestively.
He missed Ella, his elder, soft-spoken and measured daughter. Ella was a sophomore at Cornell’s Agricultural school—a choice she’d made given her knack for tending their gardens. Ella remained remote, but always within his grasp. She never intruded upon Anwar’s sensibility and listened to him about most matters. Her left eye had a tendency to turn this way and that, and behind her spectacles he wondered what she was looking at. If she was here, thought Anwar, her calm would keep Hashi’s nerves intact; she would find some way to make Charu laugh.
His two children were as different as their fathers had been.
“What on earth is on your face?” Hashi asked, suspiciously. She scratched his forehead with her thumbnail. Paint shavings tickled his nose. He’d forgotten about it.
“What is this? Paint? You walked home looking like some madman?”
“I decided to paint the shop today. Such a beautiful day outside—”
“So you decide on this nursery school color?” Hashi asked. She shook her head. With a damp corner of her apron she tried to wipe the stuff off, but it had firmly crusted over. “Take a seat.” She clumped mashed scoops of rice, lentils, potatoes, and broccoli onto his plate and sat heavily across from him. “It’s summer. Three months of this and I’ll be an old woman.” She chewed loudly on an unripe tomato as if it were an apple.
“Dinner is very good,” said Anwar, licking the smorgasbord from his fingers, but he remembered the enticing smell of grilled burgers on his walk home. “Let’s have some beef, next time?”
“It’s a miracle I have energy to cook at all. I’m on my feet all day at the salon,” she snapped, slumping back in her chair. “It is summertime which means weddings until death does me part.”
“I was simply suggesting a bit of protein,” said Anwar.
“You can grill a steak—so if you want it, you cook it. Better yet, host your own Fourth of July party!” Hashi took another hard bite of tomato, squirting the table with juice. Anwar wiped the slimy seeds with his finger and licked it off.
“Disgusting, Anwar,” said Hashi, grimacing. “Aman Bhai called earlier. He asked if he could stay with us for a week or so. I guess the divorce is final?”
“I can’t understand why he doesn’t stay at a hotel or something, not like he doesn’t have the money, with three corporate chains and all,” muttered Anwar.
“Or he should try to work things out with Nidi.” Abruptly, she arose and seemed to be clearing the table. But then Anwar realized she was fixing a plate for Charu.
“Point is, he should find another place to stay,” said Anwar.
“He’s your brother. He may have money but you have me, Charu, Ella. He needs your support. Your love.”
“My love,” repeated Anwar. Bah! His brother did not need his love. Aman was indecently self-sufficient for a family member. His wife Nidi had surely fled after years of neglect. And as much as Anwar believed in support and love and other filial bonds, he and his brother did not share them. Was there room enough for another lunatic in their house?
“I need to do some work in my studio.”
“You are always fiddling around in the studio-tudio,” said Hashi, sounding a bit wistful.
“Remember to bring me some shampoos.”
“Yes, dear,” said Anwar. He stood up, and took a moment to admire the kitchen door. It was masked as a photorealist rendering of a shelf stocked with fruits, cereals, and spices; often tricking unassuming guests into asking for a snack. It had taken him nearly nine years to complete. All the loveliness in life, it seemed, resided in the most mundane of things.
“She gets her wild ideas from you, you know,” said Hashi, as he nearly shut the door.
“We all flounder before we flourish,” Anwar said.
“You enable the worst in people,” said Hashi.
“I still live with you, don’t I?”
Anwar left Hashi in the kitchen. He recalled the days before Charu and Ella became women—their first bleeding had changed everything—on walks to P.S. 20, they were tiny girls trundling the street in their snowsuits, looking like miniature cosmonauts. Anwar was the wittiest character they knew, and he captivated them with obscurities—the seeds in one apple produced eight different trees; potato fruit was poisonous, New Delhi had the oldest alluvial soils in the world, cicada larvae took seventeen years to mature. He was their magician, their scientist, their Baba, and they adored him without much effort on his part. Nowadays, he was trapped in ineptitude. His discomfort heightened with everyday accidentals; Charu walking naked from the bathroom to her bedroom; Ella sobbing while planting rosemary in the herb garden.
He had no idea what he should do. He touched his painted forehead. Only a raw scrubbing and hot water would get it off. He worried for a second—maybe the stuff was so impenetrable he’d need a toxic paint thinner to get it off? No, I will leave it be, he thought, smiling sleepily.
Anwar made his way upstairs to their bedroom, climbing the stairwell between the first and second floor, heavy on his feet. The floorboards creaked, harmonizing with his knees. The gorgeous façade masked century-old tarnish. Crisscrossed parquet floors creaked under his step. He kicked off his Batas in the vestibule. In the complete darkness he heard a cold chopping sound, and then, a moment later, a defiant sniffle. Anwar tiptoed toward the kitchen; he ran his tongue over his teeth for remnants of majoun. Gold leaf wallpaper, beloved of the old Brooklyn bourgeois, gleamed in the dimness, curling at the edges. He sneezed three times; layers of dust pervaded no matter how much they cleaned. The ceiling fan in the living room whirred useless.
Once in a while, he’d catch a home remodeling show on television and it left him feeling motivated to spruce up their humble digs. Each weekend a new set of renovations required Anwar’s attention. If someone turned the master bedroom light on, the kitchen light flickered. The upstairs toilet couldn’t be flushed at the same time the downstairs shower, and vice versa.
But these were the minor details.
Narrow and tall and painted indigo, he always pictured himself a diver navigating the deepest recesses of ocean, reaching land as he climbed up. He’d built his home in the late 80s along with a band of honorable men, the now legendary construction company, Brownstoner Brothers. They were the first renovators in Bedford Stuyvesant, years before it was sliced into neighborhoods with fancy names, ending in Hills or Heights, always suggesting ascension. He’d met the head contractor, a bespectacled Bangladeshi named Omar, his first weeks in the city. Anwar had grown tired of suburban somnolence on Long Island, where he worked in a pharmacy, and lived with Hashi and the girls in Aman and Nidi’s basement. Each day assaulted his pride, and when he’d saved enough money, he left at once for Brooklyn and drove a black gypsy taxi, never again to shell pills in a pharmacy. Omar was one of his first passengers. He asked Anwar to drop him off at an abandoned property on a tree-lined block, which stood empty and gutted, but the sturdy skeletal beams were intact. City’ll give ya this crackhouse for a dollah, Omar told him. There’d been a DEA raid on the brownstone, making it available in one of the first housing sweepstakes in the city. It was the first time he’d signed up for anything since the war effort (it took everything to avoid those Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes in those days!) Anwar won the decrepit house for one dollar, as there were no other bidders interested in such arduous renovations in a notorious neighborhood. Of course, there were drawbacks. The inside of the home lay rotten with water damage and vermin droppings and a general ill aura, in need of a thorough scraping. As beautiful and settled as the houses and generations of families surrounding them appeared, their new neighborhood was renowned as a war zone, impoverished and violent and isolated, something Anwar had never imagined existing in America.
It suited him perfectly.
Anwar orchestrated the renovation of the squatter house using his inheritance of lithic Buddhist statues and gold coins from the Pala period. Seeing no use for his father’s artifacts, Anwar sold them to Sotheby’s for a tidy sum of money. (His father, an archaeologist trained in the UK, probably died a second time for his son’s insolence.)
Anwar hired Omar and his men at Brownstoner Brothers. Many of them were undocumented young men living underground, surviving on part-time construction and painting work. From a young age, Anwar had a knack as a handyman and amateur botanist and took great pride in the unfolding of his home. Hashi begrudgingly cooked the rice, lentils, meat, and vegetable of the day for the workers. Years later, her succulent meals were lauded by the men who transformed the drug den into a bright labyrinth of rooms.
Now, Anwar paused for a moment in front of Charu’s door. He heard muffled whispering, a girlish laugh. Three clangs of a bell and a flat drone saturated the hallway. Reverberation of sound filled Anwar with an unnamed dread, stirring a primordial fear of the nothingness that threatened to knock a man from his throne—stop, you are being paranoid—he shook his head at the same feeling, which persisted after all these years. There lingered the invisible dust of some old horror, for who knew what happened before their time here; he imagined the desolation of addiction and the brutal muscling of power, women stuffed with bags of rock, beaten in murderous rages.
Another giggle from Charu’s room. And then, there was peace, he thought, making his way to his bedroom.
All of the ceilings at 111 Cambridge Place had the same beautiful white floral molding. However, in the master bedroom, imperceptible to the unaware eye, a door handle was embedded in one of the leaves in the pattern. Once opened, the door revealed a fold-up ladder, which led upstairs to the third floor. Anwar called this an attic, though it was not a proper attic, but he had always dreamed of living in a house with an attic.
To reach the door handle, Anwar stood on his tiptoes on the edge of the bed and pulled down the ladder. He hoisted himself into the room and sat for moment to stabilize the trembling in his knees. Hashi never came upstairs, preferring the make-Anwar-do-it system. She would holler, I need shampoo! Then Anwar would send the products down in a bucket attached to rope.
Haven. He inhaled the wisps of baked blueberry in the air. Stainless steel fridge preserved fresh fruit extracts, yogurts, soy and oatmeal scrubs for Anwar’s Apothecary goods, which he concocted on the kitchen range. Wicker furniture scored from weekend stoop sales. Leather bound journals and old NY Posts created a city of paper towers on the floor.
He unbuttoned his daytime shirt and pants and changed into his night gear, a plaid lungi and a plaid shirt.
Time for a toke, Anwar thought. On the floor was a border of nineteen empty pint-sized Mason jars, courtesy of none other than Rashaud Persaud. He grew a potent crop out in an abandoned house in the Rockaways. Anwar had never been there. He squat down gently and unscrewed the lid. Pungent leafy aroma floated into his nostrils. He plucked a dark green bud laced in purple hues and packed a nugget in a wooden pipe and lit it gently with a match. A luxurious drag let the evening’s quarrel subside.
“Unnh,” he heard, as he inhaled. Did I make this sound? Anwar thought. He inhaled and then exhaled again. What was this sound? He kept the space vermin-free. He heard drumming, then another long, melodious sigh.
“Hashi?” he asked.
Hashi had not come upstairs. The drumming sound beckoned him to investigate the wall he shared with their tenant, Ramona Espinal. A thin wall and a locked door separated them. Only Anwar had the key. He rolled toward her wall, round and round, until he hit it with a thud. Drumming ceased. He took another toke. Laughter. He chuckled along. Was Ramona Espinal with a lover? He pictured her lover a sweaty, stubbly mariachi, riding the spur of his boots down her tight, voluptuous hips. I must have seen this on TV, he thought. Ramona was a thirty-three-old Mexican nurse who worked the graveyard shift at Brooklyn Hospital. He checked his watch. It was a quarter to midnight. She shouldn’t be home at this hour. Drumming commenced. A man laughed. It is the headboard, Anwar realized. He closed his eyes and saw white cotton under panties and generous breasts. American sweet nothings flooded his brain—yeah baby, gimme some sugar, yeah, that’s right—
“Anwar!” he heard Hashi shout from below.
“Yes, darling!” he shouted back. As soon as he said it, he clasped his hand over his mouth. Abruptly, the drumming stopped.
“Bedtime, na?” called Hashi. “And the shampoo!”
Anwar kept his eyes closed.
Slowly, he rolled away from the wall and opened his eyes. His old friend. Rezwan’s severed head floated sadly round Anwar. They blinked several times. Ghastly, ghostly, bits of spinal cord and purple-black windpipe trailed from his neck. Machete scar sliced open cheek into mouth, yellow half-moon smile. Has disillusionment bound him to earth? I am sorry for abandoning you. Not for a second were those thieves looking to steal Laila’s gold. Old traitors, loyal to the Pakis, even after the war had been won, these are your killers.
As if hearing his thoughts, Rezwan’s head nodded yes. Anwar nodded back. He had loved Rezwan, his brother-in-law and comrade, more than any man before or since. Years after the war, Rezwan had been decapitated and Laila so ridden with bullets that only her immense height revealed her identity. They had planned to move to Laila’s family home in the country, away from the decaying third world city Dhaka became. But they were killed mere days before moving day. Ella was spared, for having slept over her grandparents’ flat that evening. Upon hearing the news, Anwar and Hashi arranged for Ella to come to New York, to live as their daughter.
“We die,” whispered Anwar, “But there are times when scripture relieves a sense of flailing. Memory is fragmentary. I believe in nothing.”
But he moved his lips in recitation Arabic into Bangla into Arabic again, along with Rezwan, scraps of Surah Al-Noor, The Light.
See how Al—h created the Seven Heavens and Earth
Made the Earth, a niche
Made the moon, a lamp
Made the sun, a glass, a brilliant star
Lit from a blessed tree neither of the east nor west
Its oil nearly luminous though no fire touched it
Light upon light
Speak to us in parables, knower of All—
“I must be with your sister now,” whispered Anwar. Rezwan slyly stuck his tongue and disappeared into an air vent. Anwar wanted to hold the closest thing to his dead friend, his daughter, Ella. But she had not yet come home.