Winter 2020 - Borderless

Aliza Ali Khan

Listen

 

Years ago, our mother ferried our belongings to a blank living room where she laid me, gently, catnapping on a cotton coverlet. Close by, my sister was studying the topography of the yellowing walls, fingernail lightly touring cracks and crinkles in the stucco, a bumpy world map without the rotund shapes demarcating there and now here: Sunrise Heights. Cut like a Payless ShoeSource box, Sunrise Heights was a two-story apartment building south of Hollywood. Same evening we moved in, our Blood Aunty Skyped from Pakistan. She asked: aur, seen any badawala stars? My eyes ping-ponged, from the tablet’s screen to the window, where, nightly, a milky skin settled across the sky.

You act like they’re kept in some aquarium, our mother said.

Over the screen:

Mama softly clucking.
My bowl-cut, choppy surfacing like the Great White in Jaws.
Blood Aunty, fragmenting. Cheeks, a stuck kaleidoscope.
Hello, hello? Hello?

Once Quran Uncle taught us that Heaven has seven layers, reminding me of our mother’s fruit trifle, stars and galaxies substituting the yellowcake bottom. Back then, already, I stopped asking many questions, suckling only on yes’s and no’s. And though I never caught on to the ways of savoring chicken bones (my fussy American tongue greeted marrow like a fat thumb in a Chinese fingertrap), I was skilled at savoring my thoughts, leaving the who’s, what’s, when’s, where’s, and why’s bitten clean.

Who: Mama. To figure out what, we clipped the Lipton teabags she marooned so tenderly over cornflower saucers, and interpreted their soggy leaves. Or, we compared our findings: my sister knew exactly when she stopped calling our father Husband and, instead, called him Listen (Listen, do you want chawal or paratha? Listen, your fists frighten the children. Listen, yes, they love you!), and I knew where she kept a sticky-note catalogue of likely whereabouts after he evanesced on a Thursday like salt on a tongue. She wept, only for a week, savoring the taste of the oceans severing her way home. Shortly afterward, we arrive to Sunrise Heights where Mama frequently annunciates why: for you, she says, a steady lullaby.

The American Dream is so worn, it’s nearly empty. It’s an IOU on the crinkly corner of the Dairy Queen receipts you keep creased in your glovebox, shamed by your hunger.

 

 


Aliza Ali Khan is a Pakistani-American writer. Her work has appeared in The Pinch, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and was recently selected as Black Warrior Review’s Flash Contest winner.




 

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

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  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.