On the first day it rains, we smoke in Arif’s basement. The table between us looks like it should be caving under the weight of the elaborate metal-and-clay hookah atop it. The pitter-patter on the roof gives our breaths a tempo, a metronome measuring out the length of our smoke tendrils. I watch the water snake its way down the windowpane behind him.
“Here,” he says, and he weaves the hose through the smoke. I shift my weight, tucking my legs beneath me on the wool chair, craning to make out his silhouette behind the grey.
The Turkish hookah tastes of citrus and ash.
“We should go to the beach tomorrow,” he says.
We shouldn’t plan for things we know we won’t do, I want to say. “We should drive to Memphis,” I say instead.
“I’ve got one-way tickets to Marrakesh.”
I fill my lungs with flavored nicotine and imagine them turning brown and black inside my body – fleshy and soft and shit-brown. I am not good at fantasizing beautiful things. “Someone in my class says there’s going to be a curfew.”
I watch Arif’s face carefully, knowing full well that he wanted to continue the daydreaming. His expressions are reliable constants, and per usual, not a muscle twitches out of place. I form an o with my lips and blow the smoke away from him, waiting for a response.
He just blinks. “That’s not true.” He has the calmest voice of anyone I know.
“So certain.” I twist the pipe back to him. “How could you know that?”
“How could the person in your class know it?”
I pull my sleeves lower and nestle into the turtleneck of my sweater. “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Leila,” he says, leaning toward me. “It’s all talk. No one is going to do anything.”
The charcoal collapses onto itself, red sparks ablaze, and uncertainty seeps into our silence.
The second day it rains, I wander around Arif’s house when he isn’t home. His mother is cleaning up the kitchen so silently that I would not know her presence if not for the steady hum of the faucet. I pace the perimeter of the living room, feet squishing into the thick maroon carpet. The rain streams down the windows like veins pulsing on skin.
Everything in his house is maroon and olive and beige, a color set I have grown accustomed to in an alarmingly quick manner. I pinch the olive tassels on the ends of the Persian rug between my toes. “I spend too much time here,” I mumble.
His mother peeks into the living room. “What?”
“Nothing,” I sigh, glancing up. “Do you want help with anything?”
Mumtaz is striking for a woman her age, with her flashing green eyes and strong cheekbones. But her sharp angles and sagging tanned skin hint at other histories; she has not lived an easy life. “It’s fine,” she says, briskly but not unkindly. “Sit. Rest.”
As though I have done anything but. This weather has created a restlessness in the pit of my stomach.
Still, pacing the floor is doing absolutely nothing to quell the nerves. I nod and smile tightly at the formal-mannered, small-statured woman. If not for those eyes, Mumtaz could disappear into her headscarf. “Yes, Auntie. Thank you.”
She makes her way out and I force myself to sit on the couch. I flip through news network after news network, mindlessly staring at the text and hearing syllables but not registering any meanings. If only I could relax, my feet would be up on the glass table in front of me. Instead my posture is mannequin-like, upright and forward.
“Magnitude earthquake hit California yesterday, halting…”
“Does not make sense in light of the trade deal we keep refusing with other…”
“Will be required to self-identify if they have not done so already. In a speech earlier today…”
My eyes bore holes in the screen as the words begin to formulate sentences and ideas. “DMVs in cities nationwide will begin screening self-identifiers before determining their placement in Secure Neighborhoods. In the interim, screening in Contained Neighborhoods will continue to help individuals adjust to the…”
Ceramic hits tile and I jump from the couch with a start. Mumtaz is statuesque in the doorway, emerald eyes glued to the screen. Her trembling hands cradle the ghost of the shattered bowl, now lying in shards at her feet.
“Auntie?” I ask, voice squeaking upward.
She cocks her head to the side, jaw hanging as she struggles to find words. “I just didn’t think… Arif always tells me…”
Arif is not good at being right, just good at being hopeful, I consider saying. “It’s going to be okay,” I offer instead, and I suddenly understand why her son says uncomfortably optimistic things. I make my way to her, to kneel at the ceramic which looks like sculpted white petals at her feet. I collect the shards in my hands, brush the broken dust from her skin, and feel lies come forward from my tumultuous gut. “None of this is going to hurt us. None of this is happening.”
On the third day, I do not leave my apartment. Now I am not anxious. Now I am mourning.
I live in the same neighborhood as Arif and his mother, but families and single individuals are split by regulation in Containment. Families have to be screened as a whole unit, since split deportations cause too much fuss on the administrative side. Arif’s house is at the end of the neighborhood, one cookie-cutter suburban house just like every other in the quiet subdivision. The four-floor apartment building for single individuals, where I stay, is just a two-minute walk to the other cul de sac.
I have been in this unit for eight months now, but it does not look like a home in the way that Arif’s house does. No rugs liven up the linoleum floor. The cabinets are bare but for two white dishes, two white bowls, and two white mugs that run double duty by holding two knives, two forks, and two spoons. The cheapest bedding covers the cot-like bed, placed where anyone else might keep a couch. If there were a Good Housekeeping magazine issue searching for the epitome of cheap and efficient living, this apartment would be the cover. The only redeeming accessory is a large white hamsa outlined on a mint posterboard background, stuck to the wall above the bed with two askew thumbtacks.
I spend the morning boiling hot water and forgetting to make tea until the water is cold again. The process is more cathartic than it is a nuisance, so I set no timers and sort through the boxes still lining the far wall of the studio. I have unpacked and repacked these boxes countless times. To unpack one final time would be to admit that my stay in this Contained Neighborhood might last forever.
One box is summerwear, and as such is currently useless. Another holds graphing notebooks from my sophomore year of university, before I had to redirect my studies from nuclear physics courses. I get stuck at the third, full of personal effects. There are my father’s broken tortoise-shell glasses, my parents’ gold wedding rings. My grandmother’s quotidian headscarf is folded neatly at the bottom. More than ten well-worn envelopes are lined up, fat with the news my parents wrote to share with me at university. The oldest ones describe their empty-nesting and eventual decision to return to Gujarat for so long as I attended college. The final letter is a rationale for me to join them after graduation – a day which never came, infinitely delayed by my placement into Containment eight months ago. I run my fingers over the fading edges of the envelopes, pulling out each one and weighing it in my hands. I do not read them anymore.
By the time Arif visits in the afternoon, the box has been repacked and taped shut. Out of sight, out of mind. I have begun to waste my time more vainly, lying on my bed with cucumbers on my eyes and clay mask caked onto my face, the television muted.
“You’re doing well,” he says plainly when I open the door. He steps into my house, dripping puddles onto the carpet.
I bite into a cucumber slice. “I’m improvising.”
He smirks before moving past me. Arif has a way of occupying space as though it is his, from his stride to his sheer size: No shelf goes unreached, no doorway unducked. He glides through my apartment as though he lives here, placing his wet jacket and backpack over a chair in a beeline toward the fridge. I watch a puddle form on the linoleum.
“Have you gotten your mail?” he asks through a mouthful of his mother’s leftover couscous.
I shake my head. “Why?”
He closes the Tupperware with a pop before he speaks. “Ma is getting re-screened next week. We found out today.” When I say nothing, he continues more slowly, “I think anyone who has lived abroad might be deported by default. I… I don’t know of anyone who’s second generation that’s getting rescreened.”
I walk away from him to slump onto my bed, shamed by my simultaneous dread and relief. I can see the fear in Arif’s eyes for his mother, his concern that she’ll be sent back to Turkey in the middle of chaos. But I’m also relieved: I was born here; even if I were to face deportation, there is nowhere for me to be deported to. I have never once been to the places my parents call home. “I thought you said everything was –”
“I’m as lost as you are,” he interrupts. “I am trying, Leila, but I’m just as lost as you.”
He sits beside me, and I resist the urge to scoot away. “You do not get to say that everything will be fine,” I say quietly, “and then suddenly decide to play confused.”
I can feel him watching me, but I do not offer him any semblance of forgiveness. As we wait, the text at the bottom of the television screen announces, Curfew for Muslim neighborhoods.
On the fourth day, the gutters decide they can digest no more. They gurgle up water they were supposed to have swallowed, and I wade my way through two inches of rain to get to the checkpoint. It is marked by arrow signs nailed into the picket fences at the far edges of the neighborhood, like a twisted Tom Sawyer scene. Just beyond these is a far more notorious gate, the one that matters. She is twenty feet of double-lined barbed wire, thin and spiked, and perpetually humming with electricity. From my apartment window, eyes squinted just so, her perimeter can be blissfully difficult to make out against the skyline.
She hovers above me as the line shuffles onward. One of the younger guards beckons me forward, and I nearly toss him my identifying cards to keep them dry. Birth certificate, driver’s license, university affiliation card, religious self-identification. These four two-by-threes are all that allow me to leave.
“What have you got today?” the guard asks, as he always asks, scanning each card onto his portable tablet.
“Complex variables, advanced logic,” I list out. I try to keep still, but the discomfort of my drenched jeans has me shifting weight from one foot to another.
“Just another easy day,” the guard says, glancing into my backpack. Midwestern chatter has not lost its value even under these circumstances. “All right. You’re all set.”
I squeeze the cards back into my wallet, swinging my bag over my shoulder as the fence slides open for me. “Be back by six,” the guard calls, and I glance back. “Curfew begins tonight. Neighborhood closes at eighteen hundred.”
I nod, polite smile fading, lips curling into a grimace. “Thanks.”
The lectures go by in a blur. When the last class ends, I look down at the alphas and betas and omegas on graph paper and understand nothing. Productive. The notebooks get tossed into my bag and I jog out of class with a dull ringing in my ears, as though my body has grown physically sick to match my emotions. Anxiously I slip on my hood as I leave campus, heart beating fast with the knowledge that the sun will set soon. Blurred students near me make my skin tingle with their glances. They watch me, with my undeniable brownness, and they know just as well as I do that I do not have time.
The only stop I make is at a street bodega run by an elderly white couple. I come here for the solitude, groceries simply an added benefit. The owners are both deaf, and the woman smiles softly at me as I grab my usual cheapened leftovers – baguette that has been sitting out and staling all day, bruised fruit that won’t sell. I cradle them all in my arms, unwanted goods, to the counter. As I count out my cash, the woman raises one frail hand.
“Not today,” she says.
I gape as a flush heats my neck. Her weathered fingers are on my damaged groceries, bagging them carefully like precious china, and my eyes can’t help but well with tears. This is her apology for the circumstances that make me race to beat curfew, for any role she might have played in my Containment.
I make it back with twenty minutes to spare – and thankfully, because the queue extends farther out than I have ever seen on the entry side. I step into place behind a long-haired woman in sharp black business attire.
“This is ridiculous,” she mutters to me after a long stretch of silence. “What the hell does a curfew even do for them besides making our lives harder to live?”
Her nails are filed and polished, her haircut impeccable beneath an umbrella. When we finally meet the guard, she reaches into her bag for her cards and fans them out as though in a round of poker. Her self-identification is silver-lined, and I recognize her suddenly as the young Sikh banker who moved here with her children two months ago when Containment expanded. I follow suit and fan my own cards out, my green-lined self-identification marking our most insignificant difference.
The guard looks at me, at my cards, at the face of his watch. “It’s exactly eighteen hundred. You’re a lucky – Hey!” The cards drop onto the ground, covered in muddy rain. I hesitate. In a second, he is gone, and I look back behind me at where he is headed.
A man is late to the queue, running up to make it in time. He should know better than to run, I think, and in that moment, I grow starkly aware of my normalization of the neighborhood’s unwritten rules.
“Take these, keep walking,” says the businesswoman, thrusting my dirty cards at me. “Don’t get involved with that.”
The line collapses into a crowd pushing past me. I reach a hand to the cards, pocket them aimlessly; my eyes are glued to the scene. The guard has his baton out and lengthened, with others joining quickly from other entries of the queue. I crane my neck and rise on tip-toes to keep a visual. They’re yelling, and the man is saying nothing, just ducking his head down.
“Look up!” a guard’s voice carries across the pouring rain. “Get your cards out.”
“Get your hands out of your jacket!” barks another.
“Where’s your identification?”
“Get down on the ground.”
The woman tugs at my arm, her nails digging into my skin. “They’re angry, they’ll be angry with you, keep walking,” she hisses.
“I don’t understand what –”
“It’s the first curfew… They have to prove it matters,” she says, and I stumble backward.
I squint at the man, on his knees in the flooding street. I dig my heels into the mud. “Arif. Arif?”
He looks up. The baton swings down at him, and the Sikh woman pulls me through the gate.
It only drizzles on the fifth day.
The neighborhood is brimming with tension, the sensation palpable through the eerie silence. I open the windows in the morning, stuffy and suffocating in my own skin, and the only sounds are the whistling of the wind.
I curl up in the windowseat of Arif’s bedroom, body feeling so heavy that I think I could leave a permanent imprint on the cushions. The weight of the past twelve hours is a pulsing pressure in my temples. Hot mug tightly between my palms, I alternate between watching the rain and watching him until I hurt from – shame? anger? I have not touched Arif since the moment he fell asleep.
He is strewn across the bed, bruised and broken, and streaked with blues and blacks and greens. A dishtowel on the side table is stained red from the lashes on his back I painstakingly cleaned. I want him to open his eyes, just to know that they’re still there under the swelling.
I had waited on the other side of the fence until it was pitch black, until the guards finally told me to leave. And then I waited some more as the rain hid the moon and the businesswoman, Selina, came outside to stay with me. Her hair was in a bun, her makeup cleaned off. “Lean in,” she had said, and I had sunk into her torso so she could fit the silhouette my mother had left behind.
When they finally dragged the fading Arif inside the gates, she tossed one of his arms over her shoulders and motioned for me to do the same. “Address,” she directed. I must have said it as I also tried to gauge the state of his crumpling body because soon we were at his house and Mumtaz was at the door and I couldn’t even find the words to say. She kept reaching out to touch her son – his face, his arms, his chest – but couldn’t bring herself to touch his blood. I apologized to her in English, in Urdu, in Gujarati. Selina handed me the dishtowel and Mumtaz watched mutely as we dragged Arif from the doorway to his bedroom.
Now, Selina knocks at his bedroom door, still dressed in the joggers and sweater she had worn last night. “Has he woken up at all?” she asks.
I shake my head. “Like a rock. How are your kids?”
“They’re fine, they’re studying.” She purses her lips. “I don’t know if you want to talk about it, and I wouldn’t want to if I were you, but I’ll give you this. Two years ago, my father went through something similar. They saw his turban, and they thought whatever they wanted to think, and they ripped it off him, uncovered him, and beat him. And we should have known then that it was all real, for not just Muslims but Sikhs too. He was scared for so long after.”
She clasps her hands at her stomach. “The best thing you can do is wait, and realize the shame you feel is selfish. You are not the reason he is there right now.”
I begin to nod but she leaves the room, closing the door behind her. I burn my lips on the still-steaming mug.
The bed shifts, and a croak follows. “You’re feeling guilty?”
I jump off the windowseat, spilling tea all over the floor. “You’re awake.”
“Just eavesdropping.” Arif opens one eye clearly, the other too bruised to tell. Lifting his arms, his face breaks into a grimace as he hoists his weight upward. I ditch the mug and help place a pillow behind his neck. He groans. “I messed up.”
“They messed up,” I correct. “This isn’t on you. But… Where were you? Why were you so late?”
“Didn’t even have a reason,” he says, wincing as I brush against the roadburn on his palms, trying to offer a comforting hand. “I just wanted to leave for a day. I didn’t even think about getting back in time.”
We’re caged here, like cows awaiting slaughter, I start to say. Awaiting movement into a Secure Neighborhood that traps us forever.
“Let’s go, then,” I say instead, and lean into our favorite set of comforting lies. “I’ve got a car loaded, let’s go anywhere you’d like. New Orleans?”
“I want to go the beach,” he says.
“I want to go to a beach that doesn’t have a fence,” he says. “Without guards. Where I don’t need a fucking card to say I belong here because” – a coughing fit, a wince, a groan; I squeeze his hand and motion for him to take it easy – “we don’t belong here in the first place.”
I imagine us at a beach, where we don’t have to worry about anything but the way the sun feels on our skin, where melanin and tradition are not worthy of investigation. The sand beneath our toes would soak up any lingering paranoia. We would breathe deeply, and fully, and hike from one beach to another just to know we could travel distances.
But I carry a green-lined card, and so does he. “We’d hate the beach,” I finally say, and I leave him in his bed.
On the sixth day, neighbors make their way to Mumtaz’s basement to pray. The army has officially placed boots on the ground in five Muslim countries. News channels warn of retaliation by Muslims that are in Contained Neighborhoods – “Curfews were instituted as a preventive measure to face this very fear” – but we just find ourselves surrounded by sadness and loneliness and desperate desires to pray for something better.
Arif’s face, though, twists with frustration every time he hears the doorbell. “I don’t even know what we should be doing,” he says angrily when it rings for the eighth time. “But we shouldn’t just be kneeling and praying. You should be going to your classes, my mother should not be worrying about me…”
“You need to stop moving.” I pinch the edge of the long bandage on his back and count down in my head before ripping it off. The colors on his back ripple like waves when he shudders. “All of this will be over soon.”
“You sound like me.”
I tape the clean bandage onto his skin as gingerly as possible. “I’ve been here for eight months, I don’t plan on being here a year.”
The bell rings again, followed by knocks. “Go,” Arif sighs. “I’ll hold down the fort.”
I kiss his temple and squeeze his shoulders, apologizing when I realize there’s no part of his body that isn’t in pain. “I’ll be back.”
Arif’s room is conveniently close to the front door, and I swing it open with the expectation of recognizing the guest on the other side. And while the face of the man at the door is not one I know, his police-like uniform is all too familiar. Instinctively I pat down my pockets for my identification cards, and of course they are not there. I’m wearing pajamas; there are no pockets.
“Mumtaz Güven,” he says. Classic. He butchers every syllable of her name.
“I’ll get her,” I say, heart pounding in my ears. I close the door gently and race away from the door and toward the basement. Mumtaz is conducting a beautiful recitation, her voice carrying up the stairs as I pound my feet down them. “Auntie!” I whisper-yell. “A guard is here. For you.”
She halts mid-sentence and twenty pairs of eyes dart away from their books to freeze on me. Seconds later, she is opening the door as I hide, curious, behind it.
“I have this for M. Güven,” the guard grumbles. Something paper-like rustles. “Follow the instructions inside.” Footsteps begin and fade away.
Mumtaz closes the door slowly, reading the text on a large yellow envelope. “Leila,” she says without emotion, “have everyone leave after this chapter. I do not think I can return to prayer.”
My prying eyes are focused on the envelope. “Auntie, what is that?”
She attempts to smile at me in a comforting way, but her lips don’t curl up enough and her eyes are too distant. “I don’t think I’ll be here long,” she says. She places the envelope onto a small table beside the door and walks mechanically away, in the direction of her room. I immediately grab the envelope, careless enough to slit open the skin on my index finger. I suck on it as it blushes red, turning over the envelope with my free hand to reveal what Mumtaz had cleverly hidden. Open immediately. Instructions for deportation inside, the envelope reads. The taste of iron settles into my mouth.
On the seventh day, the rain stops.
Thick and heavy clouds hang low over the streets, outlined by a sun that cannot seem to find its footing. I wake up early in the cold apartment and stare outside mindlessly before finally lacing up my tennis shoes and shrugging on a windbreaker. I make laps around the subdivision, temporarily healed by the steady rhythm of soft shoes on gravel.
I pass by each house twice, three times, four. The neighborhood is like any other, except that it is rectangular and gridded. The top of the fence can be seen in any given direction, just above the roofs of the single-story homes. Today, I keep my eyes on the wiring of the fence. Chin up, eyes to the sky, I force myself to make a fifth lap.
At my apartment, I shower until the already cold water can get no colder. I set a kettle to boil, toss two slightly stale pieces of bread into the toaster. Thin blanket wrapped around my shoulders, I tilt open the windows to taste the fresh post-rain air.
Only in the late afternoon do I find out that Arif and Mumtaz are gone. I am on my way to Selina’s – “This odd hermitude of yours is unhealthy and has to end,” she has prescribed – when I see their front door ajar. Immediately detouring, I jog up their driveway and knock twice. The door just creaks open even further.
My feet sink into the maroon carpet. Everything is as it was yesterday. I make my way through the hallways, glancing inside every room just in case Arif is engrossed in some reading in the study, or in the coat closet, or in the kitchen pantry. But he is not hunched over anywhere.
The open yellow envelope sits defiantly on the breakfast table.
He could have taken his mother to screening and forgotten to lock the door. He could have been taken to screening himself. He could be attempting to get a doctor to check him out. He could be back in an hour. I come up with options like mantras, but my stomach twists with instinctive knowing. No matter where they have gone, they are going to stay that way. It won’t be the first time this has happened in the neighborhood and it won’t be the last.
Still, I curl up on their couch and wait.
When it is dark and nothing has changed, I collect things as though the process will help me collect myself. The Turkish hookah, a gift to Arif from his father, stands lonely in his basement. I wrap it up in an olive-colored shawl and hug it close to my body. Everything here must go or be reclaimed by the next family to move in. My arms cradle countless maroon and beige household items.
Selina arrives at my apartment with children in tow, watching hawkishly as I place the hookah on my one table. “This happens,” she says.
“He didn’t say anything to you?”
“I didn’t see a note.”
Her children giggle, chasing one another, feet pattering on the linoleum. I watch their chubby bodies circle the kitchen and can’t help but envy them for their naiveté. How can they not know what they will be judged to be, what cards their mother carries for them? When the little boy’s hair is long enough for a full turban, it will not even matter what his relationship is with his faith. He will be placed in a prison like this one simply for his difference, for others’ ignorance.
He will never be allowed to carry a kirpan. Whether or not he wants to, he won’t get to make the choice.
“One day we’ll go back,” says Selina. I look at her with a start, and her features soften. “We’ll go to my parents’ home in Lahore, or we’ll go to Brussels. My husband’s family would take us.”
She fiddles with the silver kara at her wrist. “When he was sick, he told me to leave. I couldn’t afford it, then, with the medical bills. We’ll still make it work,” she says, more reassuring herself than offering me anything.
The boy fiddles with the clunky television, pressing buttons at will. The screen switches from news network to static to volume management to static to news network. She scoops him up, whirrs him around like an airplane. His sister watches with fascination.
I turn the volume up.
“Four Neighborhoods erupted in violent protests, totaling twelve casualties in all. No guards were…”
“Abandonment of London by the European Union. Germany continues to take in refugees…”
“Moving into a world of increased security. We’re pleased with how quickly we have organized the next step in this process of making America safe from threats within our own borders. We begin movement next week into…”
The doorbell buzzes, and I mute the television as I make the ten steps it takes to cross the room. I unlatch it quickly, the most optimistic bone in my body begging the bellringer to be Arif.
“Leila Bohra?” says the guard, and I stare at the familiar lines of this man’s face. He is supposed to be guarding the gate, chatting about university coursework, reminding me of curfew. It takes me a moment to register his commanding tone.
“Yes,” I finally say.
“This had to be delivered in person,” he says, and I can feel the blood in my body leaving my limbs as they turn cold with anxiety. My body feels like it is collapsing into itself.
A hand takes the envelope from him; the other closes the door. I stare at the envelope in my hands, its weight heavier than I’d anticipated. My breaths are ragged, and I look at Selina, eyes pleading for help. “Sit,” she commands. I drop onto the couch, and the panic sets in as I swallow air but nothing gets to my lungs.
“What will they do to me?” My voice is just air. Trembling fingers try to rip open the envelope but in return I reopen the slices on my skin from Mumtaz’s envelope. Selina takes it from me, cool and calm and collected as ever, and she is the perfect image of a stock broker under pressure. She slides one nail under the flap, rips it open.
I rock back and forth.
“You’re not being deported,” says Selina, and I don’t know if I should be relieved. I don’t know if any option is a good one. “They’re starting movement into Secure Neighborhoods. But you have time. You have a month.”
I open my mouth. Now I want to be deported.
“Breathe,” she says. I clamp my lips together and focus. She moves to sit next to me, taking one of my hands into her own as she continues to read. “It’s out in Utah. You have time.”
I think of salt sand beaches, lined with concrete instead of barbed wire fencing. I think of being buried alive in a salt desert, suffocating under the burning weight of it. I lean into Selina, and her children lean into me, and more tears than my body should be able to carry offer rain enough for the day. She runs her fingers through my hair like she does with her daughter.
“Nothing’s going to happen,” I whisper. “It’s all talk. No one is going to do anything.”
I stay in Selina’s lap until my breaths are even again, until my eyes cannot stay open any longer and her pulse matches my own. In the black of closed eyelids, I see smoke and blood and red sparks and rain.
ASHA THANKI is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri. Her work has previously appeared in The Nation. She can be found tweeting under @iamashafierce_.