I did not get my driver’s license right away like all the other kids in high school. I failed the test two times: once in our Driver’s Ed class while Mr. Johnson kept yelling at me from the passenger seat, and the second time at the DMV with a middle-aged man in a baseball cap who did not even look up once from his clipboard. Both times I failed for the same reason: I could not parallel park without driving the car onto the curb. We did not need to know how to parallel park in the Section 8 public housing projects where we lived. There were yellow lines painted for each parking space with a number on it that matched the number of your townhouse. I watched my middle-aged Indian mother for years slowly edge her way into the spot painted 31 with our small red Toyota full of weekend groceries, while I cowered in the backseat. When pulling out of the parking space, she pulled out slowly, honking every five seconds, since all the neighborhood kids played soccer in the parking lot during the summer and football in the winter. The potholes were bottomless pits in the middle of the concrete lot and teemed with garbage—turning into small lagoons on rainy days, which my mother painstakingly avoided as she strained her tiny neck and kept her kohl-lined eyes on the rearview mirror, all the while sitting on her blue foam pillow that matched her work smock.
The only time she ever had to parallel park was in front of the main street bank where she deposited her checks from the factory before anyone else got there at seven every Saturday morning, while the four of us were in our pajamas, watching cartoons and eating sugary cereal on metal TV trays. My father always slept late on the weekends, even though he worked in a government office building during the day and not a perfume factory at night, putting bottles into boxes like my mother. When she came back from the bank and bakery on Saturday mornings, my mother hollered at him in blood-curdling Urdu and threw sharp objects at his shiftless body, covered in a tattered cheetah-print blanket on the king-sized bed, often hitting his gourd-like feet rather than his miniscule head. We listened while devouring the Danishes in the kitchen downstairs.
The man who owned all these Section 8 townhouses was generous and kind, according to my parents, and he let them buy their townhouse after five years in America for under twenty-thousand dollars—a far cry from the cinder-block hovel in Hyderabad, India, which we shared with our extended family members. Mr. Bauman was an old Hungarian Jewish man who was an immigrant just like us and owned all five hundred of the townhouses that lined Hamilton Street. Eventually my parents sponsored the citizenship of their sisters and brothers from Hyderabad, and over a decade Sunset Court was filled with my cousins and second cousins and it felt more like a labyrinth of gullies than the suburban ghetto it came to be known as over time.
The elderly white couples slowly moved out into nursing homes in the center of town and the middle-class white families moved across the street to the single family homes, away from the black and brown families living in the townhouses that eventually all became housing projects once we left for college in the 90s. Soon, the tennis courts had torn nets, the playgrounds were covered in gang graffiti and urine, cocaine was sold from a gold 1986 Oldsmobile on the corner, and there was garbage everywhere, especially when the ice cream truck crawled into the parking lots. No one from the village came to fix all the broken things I counted in my head everyday while sitting in the back of the yellow school bus, moving in and out daily from the concrete jungle to the tree-lined streets of suburbia and its ranch houses and racism. The wide-eyed immigrant kids in Sunset Court kept spilling into the streets from anger and boredom, riding around on BMX bikes and getting into trouble, but the suburban streets devoured them and spat them out to their shunted fates in the Reagan era of my childhood. We never went swimming in the new park district pool. We never dated anyone outside of our neighborhood, and we never went to the forest preserve where we were chased out by white teenage boys with baseball bats. There was only one person we knew from the townhouses who could stand up to these boys, and we all depended on him.
Farhan Khan became the head of the Latin Kings and protected us from the small race riots that erupted everywhere, from the bus stops to the cafeteria, bridging ties between the Mexican and Indian kids who all looked the same to their teachers. Everyone said Farhan had more balls and hair on his chest than even the white jocks. He was over six feet tall, dark-skinned and curly-haired, and had that pathani look of a nomadic warrior coming down the mountain in tight blue Jordache jeans and a white denim shirt buttoned halfway. Farhan’s Pakistani father, Lateef saab, who was also tall and formidable, drove a taxi for twelve hours a day and parked the yellow cab in the concrete lot when he dropped in to eat and to take small naps, demanding the whole house remain utterly silent during his slumber.
Farhan’s younger sister Suman and I were the best of friends. She and I spent endless afternoons looking through fashion magazines, plastering our olive brown faces with cheap chalky makeup and curling our knee-length hair with a hot iron rod. We would lie on her bed and talk about the teachers we hated, the boys we liked, and the movie stars we wanted to marry. We were the same size with curvy hips and big bosoms and often shared and swapped salwar kameez outfits and had small black moles on the same side of our faces. Her mother had bought her a white wooden vanity from a garage sale and we would sit for hours tweezing our eyebrows, lining our lips, and pretending to be the popular girls from school. I was there all the time, and I soon became fascinated by the Brechtian theater that unfolded on many nights in Suman’s house: the stoic father at the dinner table, eating rice and lentils with his hands but without speaking under the amber kitchen lights; a taciturn wife in the kitchen corner waiting for him to leave and start his next shift; a prodigal gangbanger son roaming the streets until maghrib; and a pure Pakistani daughter grooming herself for hours in front of the mirror—all the while with drapes drawn and the incessant sound of the bloated Noor Jahan wailing from the cassette player in the parents’ upstairs bedroom.
In the summer between high school and college, I finally passed the test and got my driver’s license, even though I did not need a car where I was going. My father woke up early on Sunday mornings and took me to the local grocery store parking lot in our little red Toyota. He yelled and screamed at me just like all the other middle-aged, wheeled despots, but he became more tender by the end of the long morning and turned back and apologized before we walked through the front door. I congratulated myself for surviving the hours with him and for bearing with his Hyderabadi tongue lashing, ignoring him while he stared at strangers walking on the sidewalk, and wincing when he pounded on the dashboard with both hands. I tried not to dwell on his anger too much, knowing that the accumulated Sundays would lead to my freedom one day from Sunset Court. I was looking forward to going into the city with Suman and heading to The Art Institute and checking out Monet’s haystacks and gardens on the wooden bench in the early morning. Then to the Artist’s Café on Michigan Avenue for roast beef sandwiches and desultory afternoons of watching the long-haired men flit about on wooden skateboards in their lumberjack shirts, never noticing Suman and me sitting cross legged on the sidewalk sidelines.
But on the Saturday night in late July when I came home from passing my driving test, I drove back home by myself from the DMV, parking in between the lines bracketing the number thirty-one. I saw my mother waiting for me at the screen door, thinking she was going to congratulate me when I walked in. As I came closer, I saw her worried profile and knew something was not quite right. The rose bushes lining the sidewalk leading to the front steps appeared like sentinels at the Mughal court, waiting for a decry from the Indian parent at the parapet.
“Come in now, Aisha,” she begged me. “Something has happened to your father.”
With a slow gait and heavy sigh, I walked in and did not see my younger brother and sister who were always curled up on the white-cushion sofa, watching television in the blue light before going to bed. My father was not home either. There was just a dark silence. “What happened?” I asked.
“Your father is in jail. I told him not to go over there. He started digging into those damn yellow lines.”
“You mean the new lines that Mr. Bauman’s men painted this week. What happened?”
“Yes, he kept insisting that Mr. Lateef was given more space for his taxi and that the lines were much wider in his space and that our space was shrunk. He kept screaming to everyone in the parking lot that you can’t trust a Pakistani and how he was swindled by Bauman’s men and that he was the rightful owner of his townhouse unlike the others. And of course how he came here with nothing but his engineering degree from Osmania University and the highest math scores in Hyderabad.”
“What? But that’s Suman’s dad. Papa knows Suman. He knows Mr. Lateef. He wouldn’t do that to other people…in public…with everyone watching. We’re both Muslims. Yes…we’re Hyderabadi Muslims and they’re Pakistani Muslims. But are both Muslims.”
“Go look, Aisha. The lines do look different for the Lateef’s. Of course, your father went out there with a measuring tape. He can’t fix the damn toilet but his engineering mind kicked in with that parking space.”
“Well he does work for the highway department and carries that metal measuring tape everywhere and hangs it from his pants,” I retorted sarcastically, thinking about the sharp metal sound it made when the tape curled back into its home. “What happened next?”
“He went up to their door and rang the bell. Lateef was just leaving for work. Next thing you know…he was swinging at Lateef. Lots of cursing. That’s what the crowd said to the police when they arrived. That your father started it by going up to their door.”
“Why can’t he just control himself? Lateef saab controls himself. In fact, he never says anything. Papa will never change. He will forever be that man from Melemphet, climbing mango trees barefooted and throwing small stones at passersby. He’s the same man who slapped me in front of my fifth-grade teacher. Now suddenly…he wants to talk about how my day went at school.”
“You mean the same man who threw punches at your brother last month? The same one who tore my blouse apart when I tried to stop him and then clawed at my neck, leaving marks that my smock cannot hide at work?”
“You promised to call the police that night and you never did. Why do we have to put up with this shit and listen to you two fight like animals? Now someone else from the neighborhood has called the police. Another Muslim man just like my father. Everyone will know. They all understand Urdu. Even the Gujarati families will know and stay away from us.”
“We need to go and get him out of jail tonight before they shut the doors. It’s Saturday,” said my mother angrily. “Hurry and start the car!” She didn’t even ask me if I had passed the driving test.
“Why can’t we just leave him there?” I asked, slowly walking out the front door.
My mother stood still for a moment before answering: “Because he is your father and I don’t make enough money from the factory to feed all four of you and marry you off.”
I checked my pockets to see if the keys were still there. “Are they asleep? Rubina and Faisal?” I asked.
“No, I sent them to Akbar Mama’s house. They’re all watching an Indian movie. They’ll be fine. I’ll get them in the morning after prayers.”
“Did you tell Mama?” I asked—knowing that my mother’s younger brother would always be there for them and take care of them if need be, no matter how bad it got.
Akbar Mama worked at the same factory as my mother and had learned to drive a car much faster than I did, even though he had been in this country for just a few months and had only ridden a motorcycle in Hyderabad. Now he lived with his newly wedded Banjara Hills wife in their own townhouse in Hamilton Court that he bought with his own money which he saved up while living in our basement for a few years. I remember him coming home tired in the morning from the night shift. Right before we got on the school bus, he would always ask me to gently pull off his sweaty, smelly socks from his feet while splayed on the sofa and to throw the dirty socks into the bucket under the bathroom sink for my mother to wash and dry later. Now he had his own washing machine, and his rich Banjara Hills wife would never think of touching his socks, since she had grown up as the nawaabi daughter of the chief of police and had gone to an English-only boarding school with the Raos and Reddys.
“Of course he knows. This is a small baasti and half his friends were standing in the crowd. They saw the whole thing brimming and ran to his house right away to get him to stop the fight before the Americans came. Of course, Akbar was still sleeping and wife Begum was of no help.”
“She’s probably not happy that Faisal and Rubina are there either. They’re both scared of her. She just stands over them, not knowing how to talk to children. I actually feel sorry for her. She doesn’t want to be here. With us. In this housing project. Where you hear gunshots at night.”
“She’s a child herself. Just like your father. Grown adults who are trapped in a child’s body in America where people like us can never be a child at any time.”
This was the first time that I heard my mother talk about my father from a different light—almost sympathetic. It was always a long vicious harangue for them, since the start of their arranged marriage. A list of all the things wrong with my father kept looping through our heads constantly—on the bus and in class when my mind wandered. His officious manner toward all the white workers that came to our townhouse from the plumber to the electrician—“Would you like to screw me with this expensive bill, Sir?” my mother often ridiculed, while mocking his affected British accent. Then there was the copious spending—those dark brown and gray polyester suits for work, all stacked neatly in the closet, covered in plastic. And of course his churlish persona that always wanted to start a fight with anyone and at anytime, unprovoked.
I opened the car door for my mother and made sure she was buckled in before starting the car, tugging the belt gently. My mother believed that she should not be forced into wearing a seat belt and often slung it across her shoulders without clicking in the metal buckle, leaving her fate with God. She reminded me often of the years in Hyderabad with all five of us on my father’s motorcycle, all our groceries for the week intact, and without any seat belts. But the laws were different here in America, and there were police officers everywhere in their small working-class suburb, checking for belted travelers from behind a cove of bushes, ditches along Irving Park Road, and tawdry billboards near the airport. The last thing I wanted was to be stopped by the police on the very first day of getting my driver’s license and on the way to retrieve my immigrant father from the very same police station.
The roads were busy with people making their way home and high school kids getting ready for a night of revelry, poking their spiked blond heads out the window, awash in blue denim jackets and black plastics bands around their wrists. I knew exactly where the police station was—right across from the bank where my mother went every Saturday morning, alongside the railroad track that stopped my elementary school bus for years. We parked the car near the front of the building, so no one from the townhouses could see us, said my mother. The carpeted lobby was dark, and there was no one in line so we just stepped up to the plastic windowpane and spoke into the metal slits:
“Hi. We’re here for Mohammed Reza,” I mumbled, embarrassed that I was even there.
“Just wait here,” said the old-spoon of a woman who looked ready to lock the doors and go home. We could hear her square heels clicking down the linoleum floor. My mother stood behind me with her hands around our checkbook and her purse snug tightly under her arms, looking down at the carpet so no one from the factory could recognize her if they walked in right then.
“Okay. Here is his paperwork. Are you ready to pay the fine to get him out tonight?”
“Yes. We have a check. Do you know what happens next?”
“You gotta show up in court and tell the judge what happened. Just make the check out to the village for five hundred dollars.”
“I don’t think my father touched anyone. I think it was just swearing.” I could not imagine my short, wiry father ever hurting Mr. Lateef, who stood several feet over all the Indian men I knew in my life, even Akbar Mama, my uncle.
The old woman looked into the manila folder. “Well, it says that your father, Mohammed Reza, assaulted Mr. Lateef Khan with his shoes. He threw his shoes at Mr. Lateef’s head. The police officer saw this happen when he came up to the house.” Shit, I thought. Of course he threw his leather shoes at Lateef saab. He had thrown shoes at them throughout their lives, always trying to hit them in that diagonal space between their necks and the back of their heads. Never to draw blood or knock them down. Just to do what his father had done to him in Melephet, where he was one of eighteen children on a mango farm. “I’m not the judge, young lady. You’ll need to take your father to court and see what the judge says. I suggest you get a lawyer. The date and time is listed right here on this paper.” She slid the paper under the hole.
My mother pushed me aside, saw the number at the bottom, and wrote out the check on the tiny ledge in front of the window. We quickly handed the check back through the hole and waited for my father to come out. There was no one in the lobby. The streetlights came on in the parking lot and glowed through the all-glass doors. We sat down in the orange chairs and watched over our car through the lobby doors. The old woman finally came back and held the hallway door open for my father, whom I could not recognize in this light, even though I had seen him that morning at the breakfast table. His face was slightly bruised, purple and swollen, his patch of hair a mess, clothes disheveled. My father held his head down the whole time and did not look up. My mother gazed at him intently and then walked over to grab his arm and motion him to the door like a prisoner exchange in a movie with female wardens. My mother looked both sympathetic and angry at the same time, rage and raheem, knowing that she should not chide him now in Urdu in front of the old white woman. She had to be on her best behavior for now. My mother would most likely wait until tomorrow morning to remind him of his follies, demand that he never go near Lateef’s townhouse again and I never visit Suman, and surmise that all of Hyderabad by now must have heard how Reza saab the engineer was sent to an American jail. I drove us back home slowly in the Toyota, looking up at the rearview mirror often, watching my father cry with his eyes closed in the silent darkness of the back seat, while the streetlights flickered on Hamilton Street.
Pathani—Afghani man; rugged men who live in the Himalayan mountains; descendants of Genghis Khan
Saab-means “Mister” in English
Shalwar Kameez—a traditional outfit worn by women in South Asia
Noor Jahan—a popular female singer from Pakistan
Raos and Reddys—upper caste clans in Southern India
Nawaabi—means upper class
Raheem—Arabic for merciful
Samina Hadi-Tabassum is an associate professor at Erikson Institute in Chicago where she teaches courses in child development. Her first book of poems, Muslim Melancholia (2017), was published by Red Mountain Press. She has published poems in Eastlit, Soul-Lit, Journal of Postcolonial Literature, Papercuts, The Waggle, Indian Review, Classical Poets, Mosaic, Main Street Rag, Connecticut River Review, Pilgrimage Literary Journal, riksha, Clockhouse, The Canopy Review, and Souvenir. Her poems were performed on stage in 2017 as a part of the Emotive Fruition + Kundiman: Driving Without a License event focusing on Asian American poetry. In 2018, she was named a semi-finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks Young Poetry Award in Chicago. Hadi-Tabassum also published a short story titled “Maqbool” in New Orleans Review, set to be a chapter in a 2020 Penguin anthology focusing on Muslim writers worldwide. The featured images in this piece were created by her children, Salma and Yusef Hadi-St. John.