So now here they all were. Here we all are, together again. Like a line from a song, Zara thought. Her palms were not clammy but her mouth was dry. But she was ok. She was ok. She felt the weight of her daughter Sana on her right arm, and, after a moment, decided that she was not uncomfortable with it. And when Leena, who was four, squeezed into the space between her back and the sofa, Zara thought she was ok with that too. She closed her eyes and felt her body thrum with the relief of these realizations. Her children smelled of biscuits dipped in tea, and grass. She took in these scents which she remembered from many weeks ago, and her happiness flew up and stood dangerously on one foot on a cliff edge. It was almost too much to bear. But because she was better now, and had taken her medicine, she returned to feeling mellow.
She wondered at herself, because a few minutes ago, outside the house in Hassan’s car that smelled of car polish, she had told him that she was going to wait right there; she wasn’t going in. It had been a momentary flutter of panic, and she was not going to be hard on herself about it now. About being afraid of seeing her children. She felt kindly toward her cowardly self from thirty minutes ago. And now here were her bare feet on the blue, blue carpet. Mrs. Diwan preferred that people left their shoes at the entrance. Zara’s children looked chubbier, and combed, and shiny. Was it four weeks? Or five? Thinking about that was difficult and she made that thought become as small as a dot, until she couldn’t see it anymore. She chewed on a small piece of loose skin on her thumb and thought about saying something to Mrs. Diwan, who sat straight and smiled stiffly from the other side of the carpet.
“Did you have a nice stay?” Mrs. Diwan spoke.
Zara tried to discreetly pick the piece of thumb skin off her tongue, while nodding vigorously. “Yes, they were very nice there. It was lovely.”
“Lovely,” Mrs. Diwan repeated. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
Was it lovely? Zara wondered. It must have been. She had a residual impression of the Retreat as a place full of women who moved slowly and sat slowly and got up slowly, to the sound of the lapping of water somewhere. Almost like a spa, only with doctors. One of them had told her, on the day she was leaving, “You will be greeted by loved ones.” Though she wasn’t sure if the doctor had really emphasized the word “will.” Zara fixed her teeth onto a new piece of skin from her thumb. Next to her, Hassan and the girls talked about many, many things.
The doors in the other side of the room slid open and a young girl entered. Nazish, Zara remembered. With great caution, Nazish pushed a serving trolley, trying not to jiggle the cups and bowls and spoons as the wheels transitioned from cold floor to soft carpet. A big brown dupatta lay over half of her head and draped over all of her front, the ends falling behind her. Slowly, slowly, the girl and the trolley came closer. Sana and Leena jumped down from the sofa when they saw the plate of cupcakes with yellow frosting. How strange all this is, Zara thought. She saw Hassan fill their plates with whatever they asked for, sandwiches and potato chips and cupcakes. An older habit made her want to tell them they were never going to eat all of that, but she felt shy. One of the girls said something and it made Hassan laugh. He sat on the carpet with them. Crisscross applesauce, she thought. Like in their school. Nazish stood behind the trolley, hands clasped in front. Zara knew the girl was staring at her.
The car ride to Hassan’s mother’s house had been long. Zara had looked out of the window at the old trees under which stood vendors with carts, and when they stopped at a traffic light, she bought a comb from a child who was selling cheap plasticware. His serious face appeared in the side mirror as the car moved forward.
“Have they been going to school?” she asked, and Hassan answered in the affirmative. “Did they ask about me?” and Hassan told her that they had asked about her every day but they were not worried because they knew she would be coming back soon.
And wasn’t she happy going back? He could not help asking her that.
“I’m happy,” she said, still looking out of her window. She worried that she had bought only one comb for her two children.
Later, after Nazish had wheeled away the trolley with its little treats, they brought the girls home with them. “I’m taking them back today,” is what Hassan had said to his mother. They had stood in a triangle and Zara had pressed her feet upon the softness of the carpet. Mrs. Diwan’s mouth was a thin line, her arms crossed over her chest. Zara looked down and marveled at how clean it looked; maybe the girls’ grandmother had been strict about them eating in this room. Mrs. Diwan opened her mouth and then closed it. Then, as if she had settled an argument in her head, she said, “Fine. But Nazish goes with you.” That’s how they drove home, five instead of four.
“We’ll have to tell Nazish,” Zara said to Hassan that night, a familiar anxiety filling her stomach. She wished she had spoken up and told her mother-in-law that she did not need her maid, but she was so deep under the mound of debt of Hassan’s tolerance of Zara, that acquiescing to his mother allowed her to repay him a little.
“She probably already knows,” he said with a sigh, looking at his wife staring at the ceiling, nibbling at her finger. He was tired; he had had to drive all over the city and now finally the pieces of his family were back where they belonged. “Goodnight,” he said, turning his back to her. Zara tried to remember if it was five weeks or six, things looked a little unfamiliar in her house.
But in the morning, she woke up early and happy. The house was quiet, but outside there were crows. Zara stepped onto the grass, dew-covered blades touching her feet through the open spaces in her sandals. In the breeze, Zara breathed in and out and smelled the grass and the warmth of the summer and glanced at the Gulmohar trees that had grown up around the perimeter of the lawn. There was no subtlety in their red-orange blooms and they caused a part of her mind some disquiet: small windows opened into tunnels leading to other similar trees and yellow afternoons from long ago.
This is an excerpt. The full text of Farah Ali’s “Loved Ones” can be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 5.
Farah Ali is from Karachi, Pakistan. Her recent work is found in Kenyon Review Online, Ecotone, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She received a special mention in the 2018 Pushcart anthology for a story published in the J Journal and was the winner of the Colorado Review’s 2016 Nelligan Prize. She can be reached on Twitter @farahali06.