8th March 2019 at 3:45 pm #96385
Hello everyone, I am working on a collection of contemporary short stories about second generation Pakistani Muslims living in the UK and the US. The stories are about family relationships — the triumphs and the hardships. This particular story, titled Snapped, is about a third generation young British Asian woman living in NYC at an unspecified time in the future. Can the idealized memories of her dead father save her from an unhappy marriage? I am grateful for any feedback but particularly if the character and overall flow work.
Extract -3,000 words.
How could he leave like that?
Just walk out of the door and pretend to the world that the psycho rage didn’t happen. That he hadn’t erupted. That he hadn’t left her in ashes.
Zara was shaking and she could feel a flood of tears surfacing. Cry baby!
She never used to cry before. Now, that’s all she did. How else was she supposed to respond?
Zara allowed herself to cry– loud, wet, uninhibited, indulgent sobs witnessed by no one. Doused in self-pity. At moments like these, Zara felt as though she was drowning in self-pity. Where was the heroic hand to pull her up and out?
Or did that only happen in fairy tales?
“You’re so lucky! You married a prince, a hero,” Essa’s grandmother and old aunties gushed. Her husband, The Hero. Ha!
She envied her still-single friends, clueless about what life was like on the other side and lamenting their still-single status. Zara found herself miserably stalking their posts and updates. Lucky Girls. They got to go wherever, whenever with whomever, wearing whatever. She used to be one of those Lucky Girls. She had been clueless too.
Zara stopped posting online. It wasn’t worth the trouble it caused. The energy exhausted in explaining that the selfie with the neon pink pouty lips wasn’t intended to be seductive or even sexy but fun and funny. That her top wasn’t that low-cut and that it didn’t reveal too much. That her update, “feeling bummed,” with an annoyed-looking emoji, had nothing to do with Essa or their marriage. Honest!
So many things, lately, weren’t worth the energy….
Zara’s old life and her old self – a self that was so laid-back that her signature gesture was a shoulder shrug– felt faded and unreachable.
But marriage wasn’t all bad, was it? There were highs and lows – as with any marriage. But in moments like these, when Zara felt stuck underneath the lowest of the low, she couldn’t see any peaks; she couldn’t remember them either. Maybe that was it—she was too negative!
No matter how many fights Zara had experienced, she was never ready for the next one.
How could she be? Her idyllic childhood and her parents’ near-perfect marriage couldn’t have prepared her for this.
Her parents must’ve fought though, all couples did.
But their fights were quiet, civil exchanges —her father’s tightly pursed lips, her mother’s one-word responses. Did they wait until the kids were in bed to have a proper go at each other? No, Zara would have woken up had there been any shouting.
There’d been none.
No shouting. No helpless sobbing. No slammed doors. No broken glass. No terrifying screaming. No vicious threats. No words like “STUPID BITCH,” or “FUCKING IDIOT.”
There had been nothing to prepare Zara for this.
Why did she still let his words cut her…over and over again? Why did she still shake and tremble like the aftershock of an earthquake?
Zara scrolled through her phone, hoping for missed calls, messages, posts, anything to lift her up. But there was nothing. She dragged herself up and decided to make a cup of tea.
The only positive thing about becoming a pathetic, weeping mess was that Zara felt better, calmer after a good, long cry.
Zara poured boiling water onto the tea bag nestling in her favourite rainbow-coloured mug. Two careful dashes of milk and the tea was ready. Only one small box of Yorkshire Gold left.
She missed her father so much.
While she waited for the tea to cool down, Zara scanned through the hundreds of photos on her phone. She searched for photos of Daddy – he hated having his picture taken so there were hardly any of him. Mostly, the pictures were of Zara, Zara with Essa, Zara with friends, Zara with Zain…Found it, finally. The father-daughter selfie from that night. Their square-shaped faces like creamy toffees, glistening with delicious, drunken laughter. Or was the photo taken before they’d started drinking?
Zara didn’t smile like that anymore – an unstoppable, electrifying smile that couldn’t be contained, not on a face, not in a crowd. A fuse. Her new mechanical smile did nothing to brighten up her sallow, sunken cheeks. Her dark Eastern eyes refused to partake in the lie. Well at least she was, at the moment, the skinniest she’d ever been.
The tea was now the perfect temperature and Zara began drinking in quick, successive sips.
Daddy had made a surprise trip to Boston (without Mummy). He had phoned Zara from campus. He wasn’t the type to just show up in front of her dorm —he preferred not to see and know certain things.
“Hi Zumzum, you’ll never guess where I’m calling from.”
“Your car?” Daddy’s car had been one of his favourite things, a place where he often scarfed two out of three meals, leaving a trail of empty brown McDonald’s bags.
“Nooo. I’m right here, standing in front of some funny-looking statue. Why is it so chilly in April? It was warm back in London.”
“You’re joking! I can’t believe it…you’re in Boston, Daddy? Don’t move, I’m walking over right now. It’ll take me 5—”
“I came all the way to take my favourite daughter…”
“I’m you’re only daughter Daddy.”
“That too. You’re still my favourite daughter and I’m taking you out to dinner. I’ve booked a table at the best steakhouse in the city.”
“Quite possibly the only steakhouse in the city.”
Zara had found her father in front of XX, looking cold as he finished off a cigarette. They hugged tightly and her father commented that he was a big fan of Zara’s new hairstyle (an asymmetrical bob with streaks of dark purple). He hadn’t noticed, or maybe he had noticed, but had chosen not comment about the weight Zara had padded on living off American junk food.
Zara had insisted on giving her father a brisk walking-tour of campus. Her dorm wasn’t a stop on the tour, instead she pointed out Tufts’ many notable libraries (where she had claimed to have spent most of her time). Her father had looked unconvinced or maybe he had just been cold and hungry. Zara ended the tour. She frowned at her jeans; she’d worn the same pair all week.
Her father had offered to take her shopping. Zara tried to contain her giddy excitement, “No, no Daddy. You just got off a long flight. You must be exhausted.”
“No, I’m fine. Slept on the flight, premium economy with extra leg room.” All four of them were long-legged.
“According to Google maps, there’s a mall not far from the restaurant. But you’ll have to be quick.”
“Oh I’ll be really quick Daddy. I promise,” Zara squealed.
In his rented Cadillac Coupe, her father had driven them to Copley Place – a mall that was too high-end for Zara and her fellow student-friends to visit. She and her father had walked past the super-designer stores like Dior and straight to the sales racks at Neiman Marcus, where her father had gotten to work finding “the perfect dress” for Zara. Daddy had a good eye for women’s (but sadly not men’s) fashion—he had chosen all of Mummy’s best dresses, preferring flattering, modern silhouettes to Mummy’s signature feminine, A-line numbers. Daddy had picked out the dress – a Tom Ford fuchsia, knee-length sheath dress—that Zara wore for dinner. It hadn’t taken long – maybe 10 or 15 minutes. That the dress was a bargain at 60 percent off made both father and daughter happy.
“I could use some new shoes to match,” Zara had suggested coyly as they walked to the till to pay.
“Let’s go…I’m hungry.” Zara knew better than to persist and anyway her shoes—ankle biker boots— actually did go with her new dress; they made the look edgy rather than old-lady.
Dinner at the New York-style steakhouse had been a dream, simply unforgettable.
“And how would you like your steak sir?”
“And for the young lady?”
“Rare? Are you sure?” her father asked.
“It’s the only way to eat a steak Daddy. Six weeks in Seville and I learned to eat my steaks blue. It’s like the meat has just been sliced off a cow and thrown on a plate. Divine.”
“I love Andalusia! One of my all-time favourite places.”
“We should go. It’s been over two years since I last visited. Andalusia is so magnificent, it warrants an annual pilgrimage.”
“I’m sure that’s blasphemous Daddy…But yes, definitely. Let’s go.”
“When? Summer is too hot – I can’t take the heat. How about Thanksgiving? When is Thanksgiving?”
“November 27th or 28th, I think. I’m even saying my dates the American way now. Should we check with Mummy and Zain? Zain won’t have Thanksgiving holidays in Germany.”
‘We’ll see’. That was how her dad politely, in the passive-aggressive manner that she had inherited, ended conversations or deflected further probing. ‘We’ll see’ in this context could have meant that her dad preferred to travel to Seville with just Zara or equally it could have meant that he didn’t feel like discussing the particulars just yet.
The waiter brought their steaks along with sides of creamed spinach, Caesar salad, prawns sautéed in some sort of chili-garlic sauce and chips or fries as they called it here.
“Ohhh, the food looks gorgeous,” Zara said as she cut a blood-drenched slice of steak. “Do you think that we over-ordered? I still want dessert of course, I’m looking forward to the chocolate lava cake. You need to order it around thirty minutes in advance because they bake it fresh…It’s such a shame to waste food though.”
“I guess we can always have it packed. I’d be happy with some leftovers. I’ve been eating dry cereal for dinner at the moment.”
“You can add milk you know?”
“I know. I’ve never liked cereal with milk – it gets soggy. Anyway, back to our holiday. I have to warn you Daddy – six weeks in Seville and the only bit of Spanish that I remember is ‘sin jamon.’”
“How about ‘una cerveza por favor?’ It’s the only bit of Spanish you ever really need.”
Zara had had more than just one beer during her gap year, spent frolicking around Europe and Australasia, but she wasn’t ready to confess to that.
The waiter brought a bottle of aged Chianti and apologized for the delay. Was her father trying to trick her? That wasn’t like him. Zara had been drinking, not excessively, but still drinking (a glass or two, a few times a week). Her parents never had alcohol in the home. Zara’s proper introduction hadn’t been until her late-teens. But she couldn’t drink in front of her father, that would be weird, it would feel wrong.
The waiter poured two generous glasses of red wine and left the bottle on the table.
“Daddy…we don’t drink?” Technically, her words weren’t a lie.
“I do,” he said and then savoured a slow sip.
“Since when? Does Mummy know?”
Her father released a wry smile and explained that he started drinking in his twenties and yes, her mother did know. Her only condition had been no alcohol in the home and that her father not drink in front of the children. Sometimes, he would smuggle bottles into the games room, which her mum referred to as the ‘man-cave’.
“Wow! All these years, I can’t believe that I never knew. Does Zain know? It all makes perfect sense now, looking back…Well in any case, I’m having some wine too…mmm…delicious, goes perfectly with a bloody steak…I mean steak that’s bloody. Oh God, I’m becoming American!”
“It happens to the best of us. There’s something else Zara, while we are on the topic of disclosure. This will also come as a bit of a shock to you, perhaps an even bigger shock, but…[sigh]…I don’t believe in God.”
“Neither do I, Daddy.”
“You don’t? Since when?”
It had been her father’s, not Zara’s, turn to be shocked. Her father’s “disclosure” hadn’t fazed her; it had been obvious enough growing up. The outward Muslimness and coatings of Muslim customs with the biannual Eid prayers at the masjid, the decadent Iftar parties, the commitment to various Islamic and Pakistani charities and the wide but loose circle of Muslim family-friends (‘Aunties and Uncles’ as Zara and Zain would call them) had all been insufficient to mask the depth and veracity of her father’s cynicism. Zara never saw her father pray. Even at family gatherings, when the men would congregate in the formal room to pray, her father would quietly, but respectfully, opt out or rather step out…for ‘fresh air.’ When they were little, her father would excuse his non-fasting in Ramadan to ‘medicine.’ ‘Medicine’ and ‘fresh air’ were polite euphemisms for smoking.
Her father explained, between slow sips of wine, that he had grown up believing, truly believing, but that he had lost faith at uni (not uncoincidentally the same time as his formal introduction to drink). He had suffered a long bout of depression triggered by the early and unexpected death of his own father. [Were all the men in their family destined for sudden death by heart attack?] Had her father’s loss of faith been the immature, angry lashings of a grieving son? Was he just mad at Allah? At the universe? And yet, nothing about her father’s quiet, gentlemanly demeanour exuded anger. No, there was no anger directed at himself, at others, at any god, real or unreal.
For Zara, her father, kafir or not, would remain the exemplary Muslim gentleman. Kind, generous, humble, respectful. Consistently respectful to others, particularly his elders and yes of course to women, especially his wife. Essa, with his daily prayers and parrot-like regurgitation of conveniently selective Quranic verses, would never meet this ideal. This much she knew now.
There had been no Fall from Grace for Zara. No discernible point in time, where she lost faith. Quite possibly, she never had faith to begin with, never truly believed. She quietly went along with the inoffensive and underwhelming Muslim customs that her parents guiltily sprinkled on their otherwise liberal upbringing. Unlike her brother, she didn’t have a need to reject everything, to question, to search for other truths, only to return to embrace a fully-bodied, free-from-cultural-pollution Islam.
Zara was lazy. Lazy in her disbelief, lazy in her non-searching, lazy in her lack of conviction for her own disbelief and too lazy to care about any of it. “Lazy cow” Essa would call her, mostly when she’d be scrolling away on her phone, her “fat ass” glued to the sofa.
Perhaps, Essa had a point when he chided that Zara’s parents had done a terrible job teaching Islam to Zara and her brother, that she had been raised by Kafirs, who knew more about fancy artwork than deen. Her father, Peace Be Upon Him, had been a kafir after all, but her mother fasted and prayed (at least some times). But her mother’s Oneness with God had been too esoteric for Zara’s taste.
Perhaps, Zara was still in Darkness, awaiting the light-bulb revelation. ‘Born Again’ as they called it here. And yet she couldn’t envision herself believing in a handsome, white, blue-eyed god. It was far easier to continue not believing or not caring enough to believe or not believe.
“I suppose that we should be grateful that we have your Mum and Zain to pray for our souls,” her father had said.
“Now, if you were a true Atheist Daddy, you wouldn’t believe that there was any reason to pray nor anyone to pray to.”
Her father had widened his eyes in jest, two elevated saucers on a square table. ‘Owl eyes,’ Zara’s friends would call it, when Zara would unknowingly widen her eyes, generally in a mock-innocent expression.
The father-daughter dinner (or the meat and wine marathon as Zara had dubbed it) at the posh dimly-lit steakhouse had been over five years ago. Zara could still visualize it perfectly – their corner table with its firm leather seats, the masculine but intimate décor. Zara had felt so pretty in her new shimmery sheath dress. Her father’s hair had been longish and ungroomed, overdue for a trip to the local barber’s. Daddy had characteristically stained his white striped shirt with peppercorn sauce and then grinned like a schoolboy. She could hear the buzz of other diners – their voices coalesced in an indiscernible, comforting hum. As she remembered her father, through the saltiness of her tears, she could almost taste the steak that night.
They ate and drank for hours and hours. Zara had done most of the talking, while her dad listened. He had always been a good listener. He would make it a point to insert a comment or question, perhaps to show Zara that he was paying attention. They had talked about college, the subjects that she was taking, her absolute relief that American history and government were behind her. Her dad, who had never formally studied either subject, had been a big fan of both. “You only need to do two things to understand American history and government: read ‘Penguin History of the USA’ and watch Hamilton the musical. Is that still playing? It’s been on forever.” And then finally he asked, ever so casually, “So are you seeing anyone?”
Zara had hesitated, considered the possible responses, and then said “No…not at the moment.”
“Is your heart okay Zumzum?”
“Yes Daddy. Of course. Why?
“Good. Well… a break-up, particularly the first one, can be devastating. Zain struggled to eat or sleep for months after his.”
“Well I’m not Zain!”
“No, no you’re not. You’ve always been the strong one. ‘Tough as nails’ that’s what Mummy calls you.”
“I don’t know about that.”
12th March 2019 at 4:55 pm #98373
Would you consider posting up the second half? I think it’s easier to give feedback with short stories if you can see the whole shape of them.
At the moment it feels as if you’ve got a story of two very separate halves. The second section with the father is quite long but seems to have no connection to the first part. That’s the main reason I’d like to read the second half to be able to see the connection. Also there doesn’t seem to be any drama in the second half – it feels like back story – but that may change with the whole story.
A couple of things to think about – in conversation it’s a good idea to try and add in some actions around the speech, that can add layers of subtlety and also stop the speech feeling like a back and forth ping-pong.
I’d also consider dropping the ‘her’ when she’s thinking about her dad. We’re in Zara’s POV, so you don’t need to refer to him as ‘her dad’, just Dad . In fact, as she calls him Daddy, it might be better to be consistent and call him that in the narrative. That will remove some of the distance between the reader and the character.
You could also similarly avoid using her name so much. As we’re in her POV it has to be her thinking these things. Dropping her name in adds distance that using ‘she’ or ‘her’ can avoid.
There’s a nice relationship between father and daughter. I like the way he calls her Zumzum.
If you put up the second half I can make some more detailed comments on the whole.
13th March 2019 at 1:30 pm #98558
Hi Katie, Thanks so much for reading the extract and for your helpful comments. I really appreciate it. You’re right about using “she” more instead of “Zara since we’re already in her POV. Ironically, in the original and earlier drafts, I had use “she” more but often replaced with her name in later edits — to create variation. I agree about using “Daddy” throughout for consistency.
The bit about the dad is a flashback — a memory of happier times. I was mindful to not exceed the suggested maximum (3,000 words) but sure I’ll post the second half. The story will make more sense.
Does anyone know whether posting in this writers’ forum constitutes “publication” for purposes of a magazine submission? Many magazines view posting on FaceBook as “prior publication.”
19th March 2019 at 5:03 pm #105189
The website’s password protected rather than open to anyone to read so you may be OK, but if you’re worried you could always ask the thread to be taken down once you’re finished with the feedback.
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