Hussain gazes at his watch expectantly. Without looking at his wife, he says, "Go get her ready. He's coming."
Fatima snaps out of her daze. Like a typical, submissive housewife, she scurries away and bursts into her daughter's room without knocking. Her daughter looks up at her with an irritated expression. Quickly, the girl's expression changes to confusion when Fatima speaks up.
"Quickly take a shower and get dressed."
Samia raises her eyebrow questioningly, wondering why her mother seems so excited. Fatima can sense her daughter's puzzlement and she offers a hasty explanation.
"Special guests are coming to our house, so quickly go."
"Oh," Samia says, not sounding particularly pleased. Usually, she prefers to hide in her room when guests arrive. She asks half-heartedly, "Do you wanna shower first or shall I?"
"I've already showered. You go," Fatima says, pushing her daughter towards the bathroom as if she were shooing away an animal. The woman chucks her a towel and slams the bathroom door shut, trapping the confused girl into the small, cold room.
Reluctantly, Samia strips down and she quickly scrubs her body until it turns glowing pink. Through it all, the same question kept prodding her mind. Who's coming to visit? She can recall a time - a long time ago - when her mother was so excited to see her old friend who had traveled from America to England. Years later, her mother is showing the same reaction yet again. Could these 'special guests' be the American family again?
Samia dries herself thoroughly and she pulls away the strands of hair that are sticking onto her skin. Sometimes, because her hair is so long, she will find parts of it clinging to her buttcrack. With a sigh, the girl steps out of the steamy bathroom and she enters her bedroom - only to see her mother anxiously waiting for her.
"Finally! Come here," the mother says, dragging her half-naked daughter towards the dresser and sitting her down in front of the mirror. Make-up and hair products are scattered across the dressing table, but Fatima ignores them and she grabs the hair dryer.
Samia feels the heat scorching through her hair, warming her scalp, and she can smell the stench of burning. She imagines the hair dryer continuing to burn, emitting more fiery warmth, and eventually exploding and sending sparks flying everywhere. Samia shudders. She hates using the hair dryer for the fear of her imagination coming true.
Fortunately, as soon as it happened, her mother stopped and switched the hair dryer off. Times like this, Samia is thankful for having thin hair because it usually dries quicker than her mother's thick, fuzzy hair. Fatima opens the big make-up kit, which consists of various eyeshadow colors and blushes and lip glosses. Like an artist painting away at their canvas, Fatima applies make-up on her daughter's face with fierce concentration.
Through the reflection of the mirror, Samia sees a red kameez spread out on the bed. It is decorated in heavy sequins, which are sparkling intensely from the light. It is the type of dress that will surely scratch Samia's skin, making her itch irritably. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful traditional dress.
"Why am I getting all glammed up?" Samia questions aloud. She looks at her mother suspiciously, but Fatima merely waves her hand dismissively in the air.
"I'll explain later. I've gotta quickly heat the food. You put on the dress," the mother instructs, as she dashes out of the room before her daughter can stop her. For a moment, Samia stares off into the distance, contemplating. Her thoughts race furiously while she can hear the low, humming noise of the microwave coming from downstairs. Then her father coughs and Samia snaps out of her thoughts.
Samia picks up the kameez, which almost drag her bony arms down. It's heavier than she thought. Squeezing herself through the tight v-neck hole, Samia feels her face being scratched, her hair being messed about, and her skin being pricked as if she were hugging a cactus. The girl examines herself in the floor-length mirror. The dress hugs her chest uncomfortably tightly but it does give her a figure.
Not bad, Samia thinks, as she readjusts her hair.
Suddenly, the doorbell rings.
Samia jumps in surprise by her mother's voice. She hadn't noticed Fatima sneaking into the room. The mother is watching her daughter carefully, her brown eyes shining with anticipation.
"Who?" Samia questions.
"Your father and I have found a potential spouse. He's come to meet you," the mother replies nonchalantly, as if she were informing Samia about a dentist's appointment.
Samia's heart momentarily stops in shock. She can hear the wind rushing through her ears, as her mother's words are drilling into her mind. Downstairs, she can hear the guests laughing and her father's low, deep voice murmuring. In that moment, Samia feels an inexpressible rage forming within the pit of her stomach, like a volcano waiting to erupt.
"What?! You guys couldn't even be bothered to tell me that you were husband-searching and now you've thrown me on the spot? How could you do this to me!? You didn't even bother asking me if I were ready for this!"
Samia's words are tumbling out in a heated passion, her voice wobbling with anger and betrayal. Meanwhile, her mother's face reveals that she does not feel any remorse or guilt. Instead, there is a clear warning look plastered across the woman's stern features.
"Be quiet, girl! Keep your voice down! Trust me, you will like him. Now listen to me very carefully -- when you meet them, make sure you serve the guests tea and look modest and use your inside voice. Be extremely polite and blah.. blah.. blah..."
Samia blocks out her mother's rambling. Her heart is thudding against her chest violently, pulsing through her veins and hammering against her ears. She feels sick.
How? How could they do this to me? She thinks bitterly, If they wanted me out of the way, I could have just left. But here I am, having to deal with this. I mean, this is ridiculous! All my life I've been warned not to talk to strangers and now they expect me to build a life with one? God, I hate this.
This is all too much and too sudden for Samia. Her legs feel weak, like they're going to snap in half, forcing the girl to sit down. Big, fat tears stroll down her cheeks, staining her face with black mascara ink.
Fatima is too busy eavesdropping on the guests' conversation that she initially fails to see how upset her daughter is. Soon, the woman can hear her husband reassuring the guests that Samia will come down to see them. Just then, Fatima checks up on Samia, only to see that her daughter is sobbing her heart out.
"Don't cry! You'll ruin your make up!" The mother hisses, as she wipes her daughter's tears away. Then she softens her tone, "Look, just at least meet him and consider it. We're not forcing you into anything."
Samia has calmed herself down now, although she is still sniffing. She thinks, just play along and reject him in the end. Hopefully it's as simple as that.
Holding her daughter's arm, Fatima drags Samia down the stairs and she takes her towards the long hall. Samia can hear multiple voices chattering noisily in the living-room. She can hear her father laughing - a rare noise coming from him. He must really like these people. The sickening feeling is growing stronger in Samia's stomach and she wants to run away and hide.
Instead, she pushes open the door and the bright chandelier light streams into her eyes. Heads turn and eyes stare at her in fascination. Samia feels like she's on display - as if she's a doll behind a glass frame in a museum. Nervously, she looks at the people ahead of her - these so-called 'special guests' that her parents are fussing over.
They look like an ordinary Pakistani family. The husband and wife resemble her own parents - small and loud. Their son, Ibrahim, appears to be a young business man. He is dressed in a black suit and a spotted-blue tie. His brown eyes are keenly observing Samia, studying her as if she were an organism under a microscope.
Samia already hates him.
Fatima gently pushes her daughter into the center of the room, as the girl had been tucked away into the corner. "This is Samia," the woman introduces.
Samia's father, Hussain nods eagerly. "Make some tea, Samia," he instructs in an authoritative tone.
"How much sugar does everyone want?" Samia forces herself to ask. Her throat is dry and her voice sounds hoarse. She feels like crying all over again.
"One teaspoon, please," Ibrahim's parents reply.
Ibrahim smirks and nods at her. "Half a spoon, thanks," he says, not taking his eyes off her. Perhaps it's her paranoia, but Samia can feel him mentally undressing her with his eyes. She grits her teeth, wanting to spit at his fine, polished shoes - but she's too afraid of angering her father.
The girl disappears into kitchen. The kettle boils and screeches loudly, but it does not drain out the noisy chatter from the next room. She wonders why they're so loud. It sounds as if they're all arguing, which only terrifies her. This is because it reminds her of Fatima and Hussain and the way they scream at each other.
Samia's parents have been together for over twenty years and they don't seem very happy together. They're constantly shouting over any little thing - usually it's due to financial issues. It's gotten so bad that her father cannot even look at his wife anymore. He doesn't even want to touch her. He can't stand it when she talks. These two people - her role models - were in exactly her position years ago when they were arranged to be married. Now look at them. Not a day goes by when they don't scream at the other person to die.
Samia blinks back her tears. She doesn't want to repeat her parents' mistake. She pours the hot, boiling water into everyone's cup and adds the appropriate amount of milk and sugar. However, she has set one cup aside for Ibrahim. With his cup, she deliberately adds salt and spicy curry powder. Mixing it thoroughly, she watches as the mixture blends into the tea. Satisfied, Samia hands everyone their designated cups.
Ibrahim's mother is the first to comment. "This is beautiful tea! Ma'shallah." Everyone else is nodding their heads in agreement.
Samia watches as Ibrahim takes a big sip. Immediately, the young man spits out the disgusting substance while coughing and spluttering everywhere. Samia almost laughs, but she notices her father's unamused face and she automatically composes herself.
Hussain asks firmly, "Is the tea okay?"
Ibrahim looks at Samia uncertainly and he mumbles, "Yeah, it's fine. It's a bit... hot. Can I have some water please?"
"Samia, get it," Hussain instructs sternly.
Taking her time, Samia strolls over to the kitchen and she fills a glass of warm tap water. She hands it back to Ibrahim, who is now red in the face, his tongue burning furiously. Quickly, the young man drinks the water. It's horrible and it barely refreshes his throat. Forcefully, he gulps the water and he sets the barely empty glass down on the coffee table.
"My daughter is one of the greatest cooks I know. She always puts delicious food in my mouth. Whenever I ask for whatever I desire, she never fails to please me. I'm very sure you will be happy with her. Let me show you how great she is. Samia, go make some chicken pakoras," Hussain orders.
Samia gets individual plates - the important plates that her mother usually saves for guests. These China plates are rarely ever used, as they hardly have special guests over. Samia makes the batter. Usually she will prepare it as a whole but, this time, Samia separates the batter. At first, she makes the chicken pakoras beautifully and she sets these down. However, with the remaining batter, she adds in extra Wassabi chili and sugar and a touch of ketchup. Then she fries it and serves it on Ibrahim's plate. One by one, the girl hands everyone their specific plate. Ibrahim looks at his plate, the food sizzling and steamy, and he accepts it nervously.
Samia sits down, across from him, and she's eating her own well-made pakoras.
Ibrahim's parents are thoroughly enjoying their food. "This is really impressive! Your father wasn't lying. This is absolutely delicious, Samia," they praise her.
Hussain has a proud smile across his face. Samia bites her lip nervously. It's quite rare that her father seems pleased with her. Usually, he ignores her and approaches her coldly. The girl's heart punches her chest and she feels her palms getting sweaty, as she watches Ibrahim's reaction carefully.
The young man takes a bite and he's coughing and spluttering all over again. His eyes are tearing up and they're turning red, while he's hissing through his teeth. Ignoring everyone's concerned questions, Ibrahim rushes to the kitchen to fetch cold water. It calms his burning tongue down. Only slightly. The hot power of curry is still stinging him. His teary eyes land on the kitchen counter, where he notices that the sugar and chili are wide open.
"Just as I thought," he mutters, as his suspicions were confirmed. He takes yet another huge sip of cold water before he returns. The atmosphere is tensed and rapid questions are still being fired at him, but Ibrahim ignores them. Instead, he takes a pakora off his mother's plate and he tastes it, while looking directly into Samia's eyes. The girl is looking back at him with anxious eyes, feeling like a child that has been caught red-handed.
"How come mine tastes different?" Ibrahim asks her bluntly.
Hussain frowns. "What do you mean?" He questions, looking bewildered. Reaching for Ibrahim's plate, the father tastes the tampered pakora and he immediately spits it back out. Clenching his jaw, Hussain looks at his daughter with furious eyes.
"Have you lost your mind!? What have you done?" Hussain demands viciously, as he balls up his fists.
With her heart thumping furiously, like a bird beating its wings in a cage, Samia clenches her own fists. She's tugging at her sequined-dress, seeming scared and vulnerable. She can't even look at her father. Bowing her head low, the girl stays quiet - knowing that she will cry as soon as she talks.
"Why did you do this? Take everything away!" Hussain snaps at her.
Ibrahim's parents quickly speak up. "Sorry for any inconveniences but I think we're gonna go now." They get up, eyeing their watches, grabbing their coats and bags and seeming ready to leave.
"No! Please sit. It was just a mistake. We still have a lot to discuss," Hussain persists.
Ibrahim snorts. "Just a mistake? She messed up the tea and the water too. I think it's obvious what's going on here. So there's no point for this," he says coldly.
With that said, they walk to the front door. While Fatima opens the door for them, she is profusely apologizing on her daughter's behalf. Then the door slams shut. The car engine revs up and they speed off, leaving behind them a trail of morbid gas.
The house is unusually cold and silent. Samia feels stunned. She can't believe this actually happened. Her worst nightmare is coming true. An arranged marriage. Why won't her parents let her choose her spouse at her own time? Why are they so eager to remove her so quickly? These are the questions that are taunting her mind now and they will continue to torment her into the night.
Suddenly, the house is alive again.
"Why the hell didn't you watch over her?!" Hussain yells at his wife, his spit flying everywhere.
Fatima glares at him. "Why are you shouting at me? It's not like this is her first time doing this! You know she can make food perfectly, so we both know she did this deliberately!"
Hussain averts his furious eyes onto his daughter. "What's your problem? Do you have any idea what you've just done?"
Samia gulps down the lump in her throat. This is it. The moment she speaks up.
"I don't care... Why... why do you think I did it? I don't want this. You didn't even tell me what was going to happen today and you expect me to put on the perfect wife act?"
Her voice is low and strangely calm compared to her parents' powerful shouts. Still, she's shaking so much, like a leaf on a windy day. She's looking down at her fidgeting fingers, refusing to look at either of them. Her heart feels like it's going to burst out of her chest and land on the floor, exploding like a bomb.
"Shut up! You chased away a perfectly good man who could've given you a wonderful life!" Fatima yells.
"How do you know that? You're blindly trusting a stranger when you convinced me my whole life not to trust one," Samia retorts bitterly.
"You would have gotten to known him better, but I don't see that happening anytime soon now," Fatima snaps back, glowering at her daughter.
Hussain shakes his head. "Well, let me warn you since you wanted a warning. There will be a next time and you won't do this again. Do you hear me?" He demands, lifting his finger up, as if it were a weapon.
Samia stays quiet, frozen as a statue, while her eyes are still looking down.
Bring it on, she thinks.