The rickshaws leave sour-smelling smoke in their wake. Like baby earthquake tremors they tumble down the cobble of Lahore streets. Out of their windows hang boys wearing cheesecloth button-ups, swallowing as much freedom as they can fit in their sinful mouths. A woman across the street squeezes cantaloupes and places newly yellowing mangoes to her ear as if they can speak ripeness, as if they can tell her they are worth the rupees. A man just ahead of me has a receding hairline but smiles like it is his first time. From his arm hangs half newly wedded girl and half red silk sari with bangles on her skinny canoe-coloured ankles. Under a sign for beef shawarma, an old man bends his lips around a shisha pipe like they were made for addiction and I cannot tell the smoke from the whites of his eyes. The sky is blushing with the idea of sunset and my five-year-old fingers are pressed against my Auntie’s worn palm. It is November. The air is thick because that is what it knows best.
My Auntie speaks to me about a place called Canada. Her mouth moves without letting go of the smile it carries like promise. Her thumb plays with mine, her free hand hitting the heaviness of the air so her glass bracelets make sounds like silver laughter, her eyes turning downwards to mine at the word “snow”.
“Do you know what snow is, Ramna?” I have never heard the word before. I mumble it under my tongue, roll it onto my teeth and let it sit. Then again. Taste its foreignness. Imagine what it could be. She tells me I am going to see it soon. She tells me there is a place where the skies are always bluer and the men know where to keep their eyes and the women wear navy blue pants, navy blue like royalty. She tells me the pants have pockets to keep their things, the things they are allowed to have. At this, her teeth show. She is quiet then. Her eyebrows take the shape of something different. Her voice dies down until it is barely escaping her teeth, until I strain to hear her over the sound of the street venders.
“I am envious of your mother, Ramna. This is not a place for women anymore. Pakistan is not a safe place. They think they own us. You are going to grow up somewhere better. Somewhere you can own yourself.” The light wind of descending night sends her shawl folding around my ears, flirting with my eyes. Under its loose threads, I catch sight of the faded fluorescent light of a store front. From under the door slips music, silky and warm, all flute and whisper. I do not hear Auntie anymore. She is just a swaying cotton shawl beside me, a fleshy and faintly jingling pull towards my heart quickly thumping, smile quickly building. She must have shaken her head in defeat, her oiled and tightly wrung braid swinging back and forth under her wrapped head. She pushes open the door and I let go of her hand.
It is barely three meters wide, this place, but it tastes of home. In the corners sit fans that spin cobwebs, blowing the smell of cooked sugar and almond oil in all the right directions. Breathing is a delicacy here, like an elopement. From the ceiling are strung several light bulbs hanging by their wires. Here, the women wear kohl around their eyes so thick that their pupils are oceans and the men laugh with their hands on their bellies and food in their mouths. The music hums in my ears and my baby places, like against my cheeks and behind my small knees and catching in my hair until I feel like I am made of it, until maybe I will disappear into the sweet-smelling air of this place that sells desserts for cheap and is talked about even in the small villages where they cannot afford it.
The man behind the large glass counter smiles with his dry lips and and grey eyes. He asks me if I will have the same as last week and the week before and I shuffle towards him and crane my neck until his question swallows me whole, nodding the only “yes” I know surely enough to say so. “Thirty rupees, ma’am”, he says. I nod because he called me ma’am, because that is who I am, and I watch Auntie fold crumpled notes into his hand, watch her pull her shawl tighter around her neck and lower her gaze.
From a large metal tin he scoops candied coconut and fruit preserves and honeyed fennel seeds and diced maraschino cherries with his fingers, brown sugar caked under his nails. He rolls them into balls between his outstretched palms, leaves trails of sticky melted things in his finger bends, winks at me as I stand with my mouth open and my hands at my sides like surrender. He places it onto a large betel leaf, shaped like a spade and green like the grass on the other side, which he has laid flat onto the counter. Seamlessly, he folds the sides over enough times for me to forget what he has done, and hands to me this treasure.
My mother’s favorite singer croons from the Sony boom-box by the entrance, interrupted by the chime of the door as it opens and closes and hardly even falls completely shut. I take a bite and the leaf with its center of sweet falls apart in my hands. The red and magenta and the emerald bleeds onto my hands and I pretend I am a murderess, I pretend I am big and powerful and I am allowed to keep things in my pockets. I close my eyes and listen to Rashid Khan tell me I am beautiful, tell me the lotuses learn their softness from my skin.
It is November. The crickets are starting again, just outside. I cannot hear them but I know they are there. I cannot hear them but I know I am here, in love with the sweetness of a place my Auntie wants only to leave. It is November and in a month, I will know too well what snow looks like, and my cheeks will grow to love a new kind of air, a cold and crisp kind of air, but right now there are fennel seeds stuck in my teeth and bits of sugary leaf under my tongue and the air is thick because that is what it knows best.”
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