Mahum noticed Rozina staring as Imtiaz bent back his head to bite off the end of a massive piece of pizza. Mahum looked away from him, her eyes falling on the polaroid of the three of them from earlier that day, taken by some gimmick clown that Imtiaz had fallen for, though he was normally too cheap to indulge anything of the sort. She was surprised that people could even solicit cash like that for a photo in Dubai, where everything had always seemed so orderly, so managed. But it had been years—since before she married Imtiaz—that she had been there, and many things had changed. In Pakistan, everyone was used to scoffing at anyone who asked for anything. No matter how things had changed, Mahum could immediately feel the weight of their country and its culture lift off of her, and Imtiaz too.
Imtiaz had fallen asleep right there in the sand just moments after they got to the beach. More than anything, Mahum remembered how he rubbed sand into his eyes in a panic when she shook him awake to say she couldn’t find Rozina.
“What happened? Rozina!” he called out and raced toward the ocean, half-blinded. “Rozina!”
Mahum had chased after him laughing and hung her arms around his neck. “I was just going to say it looks like her eyes are going to fall out. There’s some goriyaan on the beach in bikinis and I think poor Rozi is going to fucking lose it.”
Imtiaz glowered at his wife, still steadying himself out of sleep. “Where is she?”
“You were really worried,” Mahum said, making her voice soft as the sand and pushing in closer to Imtiaz. Here, they could have these open displays of affection that, in Pakistan, they could not have outside the confines of their little apartment in his parents’ house, but Imtiaz took a step forward, letting Mahum drop off him. He scanned the sea line, his body stiff as a soldier’s until he found Rozina’s figure. Her scarf flapped over her head in the breeze. She was looking at something small just beyond her feet, a seashell, or a little crab, squatting low the way she did in the kitchen to peel vegetables into a big steel basin, or on the roof to wash their clothes.
“Get her,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Now, Mahum watched Rozina take a timid bite of pizza. “We should have gotten her something else,” she whispered to Imtiaz in English.
“Why? She might like it,” he said and looked at Rozina. “Don’t be like Mahum Baji and use a fork and knife. This is how pizza is meant to be eaten.” Rozina copied him, laughing a little as she picked up a slice with her hands and took a bite, letting the flavors move across her tongue.
“What do you think, Rozi?” Imtiaz asked from the chair. “You like it?”
“It’s good,” Rozina said, but didn’t seem at all sure.
“It’s actually not,” Mahum said to her husband, chastening him for not reading reviews first, not even looking at the menu before he ordered a pizza with green peppers and onions.
Mahum picked up the remote and found some Bollywood songs on TV and got lost inside of them, commenting on how some starlet had clearly gotten implants, how another had her nose fixed.
Imtiaz rose from the desk and looked at Rozina. The floral and geometric patterns of her kameez were a crumpled mess, and the bottoms of her shalwar were still coated in sand from the beach. He said to Rozina, “Let me show you your room.”
Her bag was a stiff burgundy canvas roller they had bought on the street near some out of the way G-Sector Markaz after they had her passport photo taken. There seemed to be barely anything in it.
“This is how you get in, with this card,” he said. It felt good to explain something to someone, to watch as she listened. “But don’t worry if you lose it. We have an extra.”
He watched her face flicker when he opened the door, handed her the card, and walked in past her, flipping on the lights. Rozina took in the room, its massive bed with a bright white comforter, the shellacked dark wood dresser, the little lamps in each corner.
“You must be exhausted,” he said once they were in the room. Imtiaz meant it even though he was aware of how odd it must have sounded coming from him. He had spent the last six years—since before he and Mahum married—making demands of the girl. Calling out to her down the stairs to press the sky-blue shirt he wanted to wear out for a business meeting, to find and pump the football he had somewhere so he could play with his old school friends, to make him a fried egg or cut him some watermelon. When Mahum moved in after their wedding, she was even worse, eating candy bars and dropping the wrappers on the floor of their bedroom, as if she expected the girl to follow in her trail.
Rozina had started coming into the house with her mother, who had worked for them for as long as Imtiaz could remember—washing their clothes, cooking their meals, sweeping their floors. Rozina was just a little girl then but helped where she could. When her mother died, Rozina took up many of her tasks—though they hired an old man to take over most of the work in the kitchen. His mother said she wasn’t willing to have “experimental” food made by a girl, wanting someone whose roganjosh or karai was rounded out with years of experience, of toil.
“It’s ok?” Imtiaz said, and couldn’t help but smile thinking of how much of an upgrade it was for her.
Some years ago, his mother had sent him out to the expanse of tents and huts where Rozina lived after she hadn’t come to work for two days. The people there had circled him, thinking he was an aid worker or a news reporter, all of them stammering and crying out: “A bulldozer came and look, look—the beams of my house are broken, our radio is smashed, all the bags of rice busted, all our plates broken.” The way they said the word “bulldozer,” had stayed with him. Their tongues had rolled over it like it was some monster they were afraid to call back into being.
“Where’s Rozina?” he had asked. They understood immediately that he wasn’t there to help them and dispersed.
A toothless old woman pushed herself forward as the rest scattered. “I’ll show you,” she said. Her skin hung loose over the sinewy strength of her body. She looked at Imtiaz’s shoes and then pulled up the bottoms of her shalwar; they barely dodged puddles as she led them to a back corner of the lot. The mud caked over his loafers by the time the old woman stopped in front of a broken hovel. He was shocked to see Rozina in her own home, to see the state of it. He had thought that she belonged to them, in their home with the brass vases she shined and leather sofas she massaged with oil—not there in that filth. Rozina’s embarrassed smile seemed to show she felt the same way. She rose from behind the pot of daal she had been stirring over an open fire. The children playing just beyond her feet followed her back into the broken frame of the home where a middle-aged man who must have been her father was asleep on a dirty Vodafone tarp. Every time he snored his eyelids slit open to thin crescents.
From then on, whenever she came to their house to work, he could smell the fire on her. The smoke had become her shadow. The scent was there on her even now, just as it had been the nights they had lain together in the guest bedroom, the one just above his parents’ room.
“It’s nice,” Rozina said of the room, letting her bag fall softly beside her feet.
When Mahum knocked and then opened the door the next morning, she found the girl looking haggard, her eyes weighed down by bags, and her cheeks swollen. Rozina’s braid had become a frayed centipede with a million moving legs.
“What’s wrong?” Mahum asked. Rozina’s mouth buckled into a frown, and tears fell from her eyes. When she didn’t answer, Mahum asked another question. “Do you miss your family?”
The girl nodded, shaking out more tears.
“Why don’t you have a shower? Freshen up a bit?” Mahum kissed the air in that patronizing gesture of feigned kindness her mother had always used on her as a child after she had cried herself into a rage over a new doll or a new dress. It had always worked.
Rozina was probably no more than 16, thin and with small, firm breasts that rose off her taught frame with resoluteness. There was the slightest shadow of down between her eyebrows, but nothing like Mahum’s own ferociously thick brows that had to be plucked and trimmed every week to keep their shape.
Rozina looked at her bare feet. “I’ve never slept in a room alone before,” she said.
A sick, curdled laugh rose up from Mahum before she could push it back down. Of course, she must have lived in some hut crammed with half her known blood relations. But, of course, all Mahum could think of was that he had slept with her. Three times, Imtiaz had slept with Rozina.
The thought slithered through Mahum’s veins even though the whole thing had been her idea. The girl was the color of milky tea and had a wide forehead and thin nose, small ears, and small hands. Mahum hadn’t noticed any of this about her—hadn’t noticed her as a person at all until they had begun to search for a surrogate, but even that word didn’t feel right. It was too formal. Too scientific. Now, the girl’s body and her being existed differently for Mahum.
“I know this is hard for you,” Mahum said with as little air as she could, so the words came out stunted, like a candle’s flame when it’s suffocated. “It’s hard for all of us—but we just have to get through it.”
“Should we keep up any hope of you two having children or is it over?” Imtiaz’s mother had asked them one day over dinner, keeping her eyes lowered on the last smear of korma she wiped up with a torn bit of rogani naan. The question had made Mahum drop her fork onto her plate and press the wooden dining chair back so hard it screamed out against the marble floor. She wanted to rush upstairs to the three rooms that were their home, the chipped whitewash and mildewed bricks of their faded glory. The house was in a respectable F-Sector, one of the oldest, and had wide windows and sleek, simple lines. It didn’t have the swooping gold flourishes or the carved mahogany and stained glass of her father’s house in Lahore—“Punjabi Baroque,” she had once overheard her mother-in-law say to someone over the phone, “the preferred style of anyone who wants to prove they too are someone now.” Mahum had known it was true, but it hurt her nonetheless.
“Ammi,” Imtiaz said in that calm, detached way he had with everything. “You know we’re trying everything.”
“Yes, beta,” his mother said, her voice as straight as her back, as the hair she pulled into a bun and set with a single long gold pin each morning, “which is why I ask. Are you through with everything or is there still some hope?”
Imtiaz had glowered at his mother before chasing his wife up the stairs. He stroked Mahum’s hair as she lay in bed after that, his hand finding a new route whenever it got stuck in her tangles. Her face was stuffed against a pillow, her sobs came out like whimpers. Imtiaz pressed himself into his wife and tried to get her to look at him, to hear him as he whispered just louder than her whimpering.
“We don’t need a child,” he told her. “We have each other. Weren’t you the one who said people have kids when they get too bored to go on with their lives anymore?”
She swallowed down hard against her own gullet, wiped her eyes, streaking her black kajol across her face like war paint. “Let’s go for a drive.”
And it was there in the Margalla Hills overlooking the crowded constellation of city lights that she first told him her idea.
“You want me to have sex with some random girl?” he asked, aghast. “That’s what you want? Have you gone mad?”
“It would be for us,” she said, and reached a hand to his shoulder. The sobs had hollowed her, and the idea was all that remained; the promise of it, of life, stilled her. “It would be so we can have a family.”
“We can have a family if we just do the fucking reasonable thing and adopt,” Imtiaz said, still choking on his shock, gasping for air enough to get it out.
“But we want to have our own baby, remember?” she had dropped his hand. How many times had they had this conversation? “I don’t want to be pitied as that couple that raised some poor thing pulled from a garbage heap.”
“But how would that even work? Everyone will know it’s the child of someone we hired like a prostitute—the opposite of a prostitute. The goal there usually isn’t to knock the girl up.” He couldn’t help but send his laughter into the steaming night, but Mahum didn’t flinch. She kept her tone even.
“Not if we go away.”
Imtiaz laughed, turned away from her. “You’ve lost your mind. You’ve absolutely fucking lost it Mahum Jaan.”
“No, Imtiaz,” Mahum said, sternly. “I’ve found it. The solution. If you’d just listen to me instead of asking me all your stupid questions, I could explain it to you.”
She told him that they could say they were searching for a new maid, so they could screen girls until they found one they liked. They’d offer enough money that the girl couldn’t refuse, and then more on top of that if any doubts arose. The cost of one round of IVF would probably do it and it would spare Mahum from yet another season of blood samples and insemination, of disappointment and pain.
“You would only need to have sex with her one time—well maybe not exactly once but only once or twice a month until she got pregnant. Then we’d all go to Dubai or America or someplace until the baby came.”
“So, you’re saying we kidnap some poor village girl for nine months?” Imtiaz scoffed. “That’s your plan?”
“We wouldn’t be kidnapping her,” Mahum said, taking on that air of knowing that she used when she had anchored the evening news for some upstart channel that had since folded. “We’d be paying her for her services. Offering her room and board and everything. Really, it would be like a vacation.”
“I mean you’re the one who told me how those people live—the shanties and the bulldozers and all that. We could give a girl a good life for a bit, and maybe she could even make enough to buy her family a little house or have a nice wedding or something.”
Imtiaz shook his head. “I just still can’t believe you want me to have sex with another woman. In what world does that make any sense?”
“I want a baby, Imtiaz,” Mahum said. “We want a baby.”
Imtiaz sighed heavy into the night. He turned the key in the ignition to start the car, and the sound echoed through the mountains.
Before he reversed, Mahum reached out for him, put her hands in his hair and moved them down his neck, his shoulders, his arms. “You’d be doing it for us,” she said, and kissed him hard. “That’s the part you have to remember. It’d be for us.”
Imtiaz thought again of the hut he had seen—the filth and the flies, the stifling heat and choking smoke, the broken beams—and yet the children had laughed as they played and Rozina’s father had seemed to sleep peacefully amidst them. His own family had never been that close.
Imtiaz and his brother had always had separate rooms. Their mother had made them compete against each other for good grades and her good graces in a way that kept them apart. Their father was far removed from his revolutionary youth by the time they were born, and quickly fading into an old joke: the son of an Assistant Secretary of State who denounced corruption until he was bought out into some low-level clerk job with a fat enough salary to keep him quiet. The boys had been determined to make something of themselves in the eyes of their grandfather, who Imtiaz had long felt watched them through his faded silk puppets from Malaysia and warped wood masks from Kenya that followed them around the house. And they had: Idris was now a hedge fund manager in New York and Imtiaz a petroleum engineer.
Imtiaz figured he could afford another round of IVF, but he didn’t think Mahum had it in her to go through the ordeal again.
After Rozina got in the shower, Mahum had laughed when she told her husband that the girl had been too lonely to sleep in the other room, or maybe afraid of the dark.
“Have her come sleep in here with you,” Imtiaz said. “I’ll take the other room.”
“No,” Mahum protested, extinguishing her smile. “I don’t want to be in here with her. I want to be with you.”
“We’re here because of her, Mahum. Don’t be selfish. She has to be able to sleep.” Imtiaz had expected a fight, but his wife gave in easily.
They had done the “interviews” that Mahum had come up with as part of her plan, but no girl seemed to pass muster with her. Though she didn’t say it outright, Imtiaz knew that being dark-skinned, or wide-nosed, or big-boned was an instant disqualification to her. Though his family was Punjabi, too, Imtiaz shared the fair skin and patrician features of many of the boys he had grown up with, all children of those who had been in the ruling elite before there was a country to rule.
Mahum hadn’t grown up with wealth—she too had slept on a floor with her siblings, her parents in a bed, one AC blaring—until she was a teenager and her father’s fate had turned. The auto parts factory he ran got a contract from the military for some piece of Pakistan’s first nuclear bomb. The family built a sprawling mansion in the exclusive Defense Colony on the edge of the city and from the day they moved into it there seemed to be nothing that Mahum had wanted that she hadn’t gotten—and Imtiaz knew his name was on that list.
Mahum was only a few shades darker than Imtiaz, but he knew she hated her hue more than anything else about herself. She had been so much lighter when they met in college that at first, he thought she was part-Japanese. Her eyes seemed to slant that way, and with the black hair she straightened, it had seemed to make sense.
He learned only later, through tearful half-admissions and bouts of raucous self-pity, that she underwent chemical whitening treatments that had caused her skin to deaden and begin to numb before she finally quit subjecting herself to them. Once she had screeched at him about the absurdity of her inferiority— “No one questions that you’re well-to-do because you’re white as milk, but I look like I was made from dirt and should go back to it with my hoe and shovel!” The outburst came after Mahum claimed to have been ignored by some clerk at one of those uppity cafes that were popping up across the capital. In Lahore, everyone who mattered knew her. In Islamabad, she had to prove herself. So, Mahum amassed a collection of designer bags and wore massive sunglasses like they were her uniform, even in the foggy gray of Islamabad winters, ones that bore the unmistakable insignia of wealth. She was one of the few girls in Islamabad who never wore shalwar kameez so she would never be considered—what? A commoner? It was only for weddings and formal events that she put on traditional attire, and that was always when Imtiaz thought she was most beautiful, but he knew better than to tell her that.
Imtiaz knew there was nothing he could do and nothing he could say when she turned away a whole fleet of girls. Physical features were the most important, but Mahum watched for mannerisms, too. Going over the ledger book she kept of all the candidates one afternoon, he saw that she had noted everything from lazy eyes to stutters. “Do you want a son who’s too slow to form a coherent thought or shakes his leg like he’s got a time bomb inside of him?”
“I just don’t want you to get so worked up over this. There’s a good chance none of these girls will even agree,” he said, but Mahum had rolled her eyes.
“Wave enough money in front of their noses and almost any girl would open her legs,” she had replied. He hated when she spoke like that. The crass hard-edged sound of her words, the Punjabi twang that cut through whenever she was angry or drunk.
He was digging around the sofa cushions for the remote to avoid a full-on confrontation with her when she asked, “What about Rozina?” The girl had just set their evening tea on the table in the upstairs room they used as their lounge. “She’s actually kind of pretty.”
“No, Mahum. No,” Imtiaz had said definitively, pulling up the thick skin that had formed on his cup of chai to let the steam release from the rest of it. “She’s worked here for years. She knows us—knows you. Her mother used to work here. Her mother changed my diapers, for God’s sake.”
He forced his eyes over the news ticker at the bottom of the screen, but Mahum persisted. “Tell me you don’t think she’s pretty.”
“We’re not discussing it. It’s out of the question.”
“But she’s perfect, Imtiaz! I never really looked at her before, but I watched her as she dusted the room today. She’s reasonably tall, has a slim little nose, she carries herself well, she seems intelligent enough—”
“Mahum, I said no.”
But that only seemed to make the girl appeal more to her. Before he even had time to take off his button-down or unclasp his watch, she would be at it—praising Rozina, her body, something she had said. “No,” Imtiaz told her every time. “No.”
But Mahum would not be deterred. She pulled Rozina away from her chores one day and pushed a box of chocolates in gold wrappers at her. Rozina cautiously unwrapped one and dropped it into her mouth, looking at Mahum as she let the sweetness dissolve across her tongue. Mahum explained it all to her that Saturday afternoon, and then explained it again a week later after she didn’t respond. She detailed for Rozina what 20 lakh rupees could buy, and then raised it, without telling Imtiaz, to 25 lakh on top of her usual salary. The next day, Rozina came into their bedroom with a thatched broom in her hand. She squatted down to sweep and tears dropped from her eyes to the space between her feet. She said she would do it.
“You’re doing the right thing,” Mahum consoled her from the bed, which she had yet to get out of even though it was nearing noon. “Rozi to kamaani hai, na?” We all have to earn a living, right? But Rozina had kept on crying, sweeping up her own tears along with the day’s deposit of dust and debris. “You know us, we’re not bad people. You have no idea how badly we want to have a child—and now, only because of you, we can.”
The girl had stopped, sucked back her sobs, but Mahum had known she had to go on, to ensure the girl wouldn’t back out. “You’re earning yourself a spot in heaven,” she whispered, looking right into the flecks of honey in Rozina’s eyes and hoping her child would inherit them. No one in the house prayed—there was never time for the maids to, even if they wanted, since the maliks of the house never made the time. And yet, the sense of God and His Grace, His Power ran through everyone in that country consecrated in His Name. “We’ll pray for you our whole lives. You’re our miracle, Rozina. Allah Mian gave you to us as our miracle.”
“Rozi,” Mahum said, dropping the magazine from her hand. “Make me a mango shake, will you?”
The girl pressed her lips together and collected up her girth soundlessly.
Imtiaz stared down his wife once Rozi reached the desk that had become their makeshift kitchen. “Are you serious?”
“She’s about to burst and you want her to make you a mango shake?”
“We are paying her, aren’t we?”
“Yes, but she’s also carrying our child.”
“Our child?” Mahum breathed the words back to him slowly.
“Yes, Mahum, yours and mine. How many times do we have to go through this?”
The hotel room had become cluttered with all the things they had left behind and suddenly realized they couldn’t live without. It took no more than three weeks for them to tire of take-out burgers and fried chicken. They even found the korma and roganjosh from the nearby Indian places too heavy for their taste. “I need to have a decent plate of daal chawwal or I’ll die,” Mahum had groaned. “Just have her make it once.” She had insisted that they buy a stove range, bottles of turmeric and chili powder, garam masala, and salt. Then the inventory expanded to dried coriander and cumin seeds; then came cardamom pods and whole cloves.
It was too tempting, the thought of aloo gosht or karahi chicken. Imtiaz, too, gave into it, bringing back enough vegetables and meat for the dinner after his day at the office since nothing more would fit in the little mini fridge in their room. “We’re stinking up the whole hotel! Do you think we’ll get in trouble?” Mahum had said, giddy at the thrill of it.
“You could at least help her,” Imtiaz had said. “Maybe even learn to make some food yourself.”
“I’ll learn from my mother,” Mahum said and returned to her magazine. “I want to make our child the same food Ammi made for me.”
Imtiaz was too tired of her excuses to respond. He kept the countdown going in his head. Only two more months and they could go back to their normal lives. He was grateful that he could slip away—days spent in the office or at field sites flung across the desert, nights with a bed and television all to himself. The company Imtiaz worked for had agreed to transfer him to their Dubai office when he said his wife was expecting and there were going to be complications. He had lowered his voice to confide in his boss about how hard it had been, a process that should have been as natural and easy as any in the world. The company set him up for a nine-month contract. That his uncle had a senior post in the Ministry of Energy didn’t hurt his case.
When Rozina came back with the mango shake, Mahum lifted the glass off the saucer, but didn’t bring it to her lips. Her craving had moved on to something sour. She wanted to suck on a lemon or peel up a dollop of tamarind chutney from the jar like she had done when she was a girl. Mahum wasn’t the one who was pregnant, but her body seemed to think she was, one craving unfolding into the next.
“I’m going out,” Mahum said and put the milkshake down on a nightstand cluttered with eye creams and nail polishes and books on babies that she had barely thumbed through.
“Mahum, seriously?” Imtiaz hissed in English. “What did I say that’s so wrong? Only that we should go a little easier on her now that she’s in her last month. I mean, come on, is that too much to ask?”
“I just feel like going out is all, Imtiaz. You go to the office, but I’m cooped up here all day.”
“You two could go places together, you know.”
In the early days, they had. Mahum had even enjoyed it—taking Rozina to the mall and dusting her with blush and eyeshadow, picking out long stretchy maternity dresses for her and laughing as she came out of the fitting room. “Why Rozi, you look so very modern!” But as the girl’s belly grew, she couldn’t bring herself to talk with her like that. It was like Rozina had eaten up all her magnanimity and now Mahum felt like she was starving—starving for any kind of importance or purpose. “It’ll all be over soon,” she told herself, but worried that it wouldn’t be—when would it be? Imtiaz and Mahum had sat by the pool to talk a couple weeks before about what to do with Rozina after the baby came, and Mahum had been shocked by the question. Her tears came quick and hot—of course she had to go away, she couldn’t be in their house after that, with the two of them and the baby.
“So where do you propose she goes?”
“Who cares? Anywhere! She can go anywhere! She can get herself a little apartment in Pindi and be gone.”
“Do you have any idea how much apartments cost?”
“I’ll have my father buy her one, Imtiaz. I don’t care.”
“This is the real problem here, Mahum. Money is the only solution to you.”
They no longer tried to hush their fights in front of the girl, no longer worried what she would think about them speaking a language she didn’t understand. Of course, she had to know all the fights were about her anyway.
“You don’t live in the real world. Maybe because your family has always had money you don’t know what it means to people.”
“You know we were never rich,” he said.
“You were rich enough to know you weren’t poor,” Mahum had said. The words came back to her as she pulled on her sneakers, slung her purse over her shoulder. How could she explain her lack to him?
Her father had worked for what they had—had built up everything from nothing. The only day he was home was Saturday and he spent it sweating over ledgers in the summer and taking his calls in a sunny spot on the roof to get away from all the screaming kids in the winter. At an Urdu medium school in a cloistered alley, she was made fun of for her secondhand shoes and second-rate bags. It was a teacher who had pointed out to her, in second grade, that her beloved Minnie Mouse pencil box actually said “Ninnie Mouse,” making the whole class burst into taunts of “Ninnie! Ninnie! Ninnie!” What did Imtiaz know of how those words could cut into a child? That she had caught up with his best-of-the-best education at the same elite colonial-era school his father had gone to despite their decline is what mattered. She had caught up to his immense head start by sheer force of will and landed herself a spot at LUMS—that mattered—but that her father could pay tuition is what ensured she actually went there. That she didn’t take a city bus but could have a driver waiting for her in an air-conditioned Land Cruiser is what made the students think what she had to say was worth hearing. But he still didn’t get it. More than status, than ability, than anything else, it was money that mattered.
Mahum had gone to her father to pay the difference between what she told Imtiaz the IVF cost and what it actually cost. She had wanted to get the treatments in Dubai from the start, but Imtiaz had refused. Maybe with a decent doctor and not one used to the second-rate standards of Pakistan, they wouldn’t be in this situation.
Mahum slipped into a cab and watched her reflection pass through the city. Dubai was even worse than Islamabad, she thought. There was nothing in it that was real. Nothing that belonged there except the sand, and even that got swept off the roads every night. All the men in perfect white keffiyehs felt like they were interchangeable, as were the women in their black abayas, though she could look at their shoes or bracelets to find their place in the social order.
“We’ll be able to leave soon” Mahum told herself and tried to smile into her reflection. She had worked for a year as an anchor at a television channel she had made her father invest in. Mahum remembered the nightly make-up and hair, the rack of pastel tunics that had made her feel like the model she had always longed to be, even if watching the playbacks made her painfully aware of all that kept her back—the wide base of her nose, the tawny skin that took on a gray pallor beneath the fawning foundation, her shoulders that rounded forward in stupid surrender no matter how much she focused on sitting upright. Now, her cheeks had filled out so even the sharp jawline that had been her best trait was lost. At least she would look the part of a new mother when she returned home with all her extra weight.
“I have to get my eyebrows done,” Mahum thought, the blinding light of day revealing all the errant hairs that had come in between them. Rozina didn’t do any of that—pluck her eyebrows or dye her hair. As the baby grew inside her, she only seemed to get prettier. A sort of glow took over her face. In phone calls to her mother, Mahum took on all that she saw in the girl. “Yes, my feet are swelling now, uff. They ache. But I have to say my boobs are looking great and my skin has never been so bright!”
Her mother had wanted photos, her sister had insisted on video calls, but she had rejected them both as sweetly as she could, saying that Imtiaz had gotten an international mobile phone plan that couldn’t handle much more than calls. “You know what a cheap ass he can be!” Her father deposited money into her account each month—who would believe she couldn’t buy a better phone plan? What, their hotel didn’t have decent WiFi? But Mahum persisted with her stupid lies. What else could she do?
Mahum pulled a pair of sunglasses from her bag. The baby was less than a month away now. They had drawn up a list of names and narrowed them down to a few. She still wanted Qassim after the Prophet’s son, a name that would be a show of gratitude. “When did you get so religious?” Imtiaz had asked her. “And anyway, didn’t he die as a child? Why would you want to name him that?” He wanted the baby to be called Asad or Ehsan, something light and airy, something free.
“Ehsan,” Mahum breathed into the window of the taxi. She would tell Imtiaz that they should go with that name after all. “Alhumdulillah,” she said, and closed her eyes. She had never felt the pull of faith but had been saying this phrase—All Thanks Be to God—whenever she thought of the baby. How grateful she was that it was a boy. A girl was something to be given away, her mother had always told her. The whole ordeal would have begun anew if it was a girl. At least this way they could be done with it. Two would be better, of course, but Imtiaz wouldn’t have it, she knew. Not after all this. Maybe they could adopt the second. Show they were that generous type.
Now that the baby had a name, he felt real to her, more real than even feeling his kicks or hearing his hiccups.
“You can stop here,” Mahum told the driver when he pulled up to the mall. Where else was there to go? The whole country was like a manifestation of a magazine, with stores lined with glass displays for Gucci perfumes or Prada bags that seemed to have been lifted from glossy ads.
She walked into a baby store and filled her hands: plush cotton blankets, a hooded baby towel embroidered with little ducks, and a soft glass-eyed teddy bear. She picked up a onesie that said “Mommy’s Little Angel” and brought it to the register along with everything else.
She would go easier on Rozi from now on, Mahum thought. She owed her so much.
Mahum opened the door to the hotel room and flicked on the lights. In the sudden fluorescence she saw Imtiaz push back from Rozina, who was laying back on the bed. Mahum dropped the bag. It fell with a swish of plastic.
Mahum thought of a warning her mother had given her when she canceled Mahum’s tutoring session one afternoon because there was no one there to supervise it. “He’s my tutor,” Mahum had said. “Why does someone need to be there to watch me like baby?”
“It’s about watching him,” her mother had said, scoffing at her daughter’s naivety. “You can only trust a man so long as you can keep your eyes on him.”
“What’s going on, Imtiaz?” she shrieked now.
She waited, letting the silence tighten its grip around him.
Mahum’s head was swirling too much to figure out what to do next. How could she respond to that strange calm in his voice when all she wanted to do was cry and kick? “Ehsan,” she breathed and closed her eyes, tried to imagine the baby, his small fingers, his tiny nose. “Ehsan.” The name calmed her. It would be just one more month until he arrived. One month until they would leave. One month until Rozina was out of their lives forever.
Her suspicion shifted from him to her. Was that little bitch trying to entrap him? Did Rozi think that she could replace her, become his wife? Was she stupid enough to have fallen in love with him?
“Rozina! What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Mahum screamed.
But Rozina only moaned. A sound louder than any she had ever heard from the girl. Mahum looked at her and found her face covered in tears, twisted and lost.
“Rozi?” she said and rushed to her, feeling a sudden swell of emotions for the girl. “Rozi, are you ok?”
Rozina clenched her eyes and her mouth shut. Pushed her hands down and pulled up her shalwaar. Tears fell from behind the lattice of her eyelashes.
Mahum’s eyes flared and she turned towards Imtiaz. “What did you do to her?”
“She said her back hurt and I was trying to help her feel more comfortable.”
Mahum pulled her hand back and slapped Imtiaz across the face with all the force she had inside of her. “Get out,” she hissed. “And don’t come back to this room.”
The baby arrived a week early. Ehsan had the fair complexion of his father and the thin little nose of his mother. Mahum had hoped for both and had gotten what she wanted.
Rozina brought the baby to her breast, but when he wouldn’t drink, she looked up at Mahum with her honey-colored eyes. Whatever sweetness had shined in them before seemed to be gone. Mahum took Ehsan and fed him with a bottle. She held him close and imagined that he had just emerged from within her, but she still felt her emptiness grow, even as she took in his soft smell and let his fingers curl around hers. The baby’s skin was red, scaled up in bits of white that made him look like a wound.
“When can we go back?” Rozina begged to know of Mahum. Now that she had done the thing they had brought her along to do, the girl grew restless and listless by turns. She went into the kitchen and ran the blender empty. Dropped spoons onto the floor and sat down next to them and cried. It was like the baby had plugged up whatever pain she had inside and now it had plopped out of her along with her placenta.
“Soon,” Mahum would promise in a whisper. “Hurry up and get better and we’ll go back and never talk again about what happened here.”
But Rozina never responded to that. Only picked up the spoons and dropped them again. Lifted a plate and let it fall to the carpet because, even then, she could not allow herself to break anything. Rozina had never so much as raised her voice around her employers—never. Her mother had taught her to hold all her emotions in, to bury any feelings she had about the people she served. “They aren’t like us,” her mother had told her. “They have everything, but they have nothing.” Would she have gotten involved in all of this if her mother was still alive? No, she thought. She would never have let Rozi do what she had done, not for all the money in the world.
One night, Mahum woke to the sounds of crying but found Ehsan asleep. “What did I do?” she heard Rozina cry from a towel she had unfolded onto the floor, made into a prayer rug beneath her. “What did I do? Ya’Allah forgive me for what I did. It was only to feed my family.”
Mahum had gone to the girl in the dark, put a hand on her shoulder. “Allah loves to forgive, Rozi.” She talked to her now like she was a child. “Of course, He’ll forgive you.”
Rozina’s eyes seemed to glow in the dark room. “But will he forgive you, Baji? Will he forgive Imtiaz Bhai?” She still called them brother and sister as she always did. Mahum couldn’t help but think then that they had made a sick little family in this world.
A few days later, they started the process of clearing out. Mahum put the blender and the stove top out in the hall with a bag full of the spices and the spatulas as if she expected some grateful soul to come claim all they no longer needed. She gathered up the maternity dresses she had bought for Rozina, and all the nail polishes and eye creams she had gotten for herself and threw them in the bin they used for dirty diapers.
Mahum was setting into a drawer stuffed with Imtiaz’s clothes as Rozina ran a bath for the baby. She shook a pair of trousers that were still dusted with sand from the beach and a photo fell out of the pocket. It was the polaroid the clown had taken of them on that first day, only now it had been folded to show Imtiaz and Rozina together, Mahum’s image cut out by a fold. She could see the girl through the open door. Rozina’s braid was the same frayed centipede it had been during the one night she spent alone in the other room. Mahum had a flash of recognition as she remembered how disheveled Rozina looked then. Had Imtiaz gone to her room that night? Had he only made Rozina switch to her room because he was afraid of what he would do to her? What he couldn’t stop doing once he had started? How had she been so stupid as to think this baby could belong to her?
“I’ll take over from here,” Mahum told Rozina. Ehsan still had the little nub of an umbilical cord in his belly button. She pushed the door shut behind her, locked it.
“I forgot to take in his towel,” Rozina said and knocked on the door. “Baji, don’t you want his towel?”
There was no reply. The sound of the water pouring out of the tap must have kept her from hearing. She knocked harder. She heard Ehsan wail in response. The water seemed to gush only louder. How much water did she need to bathe a baby? He was still such a tiny thing that a few handfuls were enough.
“Mahum Baji, can you hear me?” Rozi felt her stomach lurch as if trying to pull the baby back in, needing to protect him. She shouted and slapped on the door with open palms. “Baji, open up now or I’m going to have to get Imtiaz Bhai.” Ehsan cried louder—and there was another sound too. Was Mahum crying?
Rozina didn’t want to see him, to call him, to need him—but what else could she do? She barely waited for a response before she darted to the other room and came back with him.
“Mahum, Jaan, Love, My Love, please, open the door,” Imtiaz pleaded in the most plaintive of tones, but shouting to get them through to her on the other side, the sound of the water filling his ears, seeming to fill the whole room, to drown them. “You saved us,” he said. “Because of your plan we have the baby. We have him. We have the baby we wanted. Our baby.”
Imtiaz shoved his shoulder against the door, threw the whole of his being against it. “Mahum, what are you doing in there? Open the door.” he shouted. His voice changed to a pleading cry, a begging thing that seemed to be alive, separate from him. “The baby didn’t do anything wrong, Mahum. Don’t blame him for my sins. We can get past this Mahum. We have everything we wanted. We have a family now. We’re a family now.”