Riz couldn’t understand why his parents were making such a big deal. A co-worker of Riz’s father was coming over for dinner with his family. Taha…Bakri, Riz believed. He hadn’t paid much attention when his parents had told him over a week ago that they would be having guests, but now he wish he did; maybe he had misheard and there were much more people coming, because his mother was in shambles trying to make sure the house looked perfect. Even Riz’s father, who usually helped but with a much calmer demeanor, was panicking as much as his mother.
Riz had come downstairs after getting ready for the guests, who were due in about ten minutes. He found both his parents in the kitchen; his mother was struggling to use their electric lighter on one of the candles on the kitchen island, and Riz’s father was on his knees cleaning the cabinet doors. They were both shouting at each other.
“How does this turn on? Who bought this? Why didn’t we just get a gas lighter like usual?”
“Stop interrupting me! I can’t tell whether this mark is just the pattern on the wood or a stain!”
“Oh, who’s even going to notice a stain there? This is more important! Turn this lighter on!”
“You’re the one who told me to clean this stain!”
“OK and now I’m telling to turn this lighter on!”
“Calm down,” Riz said incredulously. “Here…” He walked over to his mom and slid up a panel on the electric lighter, revealing a button that he pressed that turned it on. He lit the candle and passed the candle back to her. “Aren’t the Bakris going to be here in about 10 minutes? Shouldn’t you get ready, dad?”
“You’re not even ready?” Riz’s mother whipped her head around to his father, looking at him as if it was the first time in years.
“I was cleaning the–"
“Go! Go! Hurry!” Riz’s mother exclaimed, flailing her arms and wringing her wrists in disbelief. She went to the oven and opened it slightly to peer inside. The light in the oven turned on and Riz could see four dishes that his mother was keeping warm.
“Four dishes? For one family?” Riz looked at his mother quizzically. “Are there more people coming? I thought it was just the Bakris. Are they a big family?”
“The Bukharis, dear,” his mother replied. She closed the oven door and began taking off her apron, revealing an outfit Riz hadn’t seen before; it was a dark, deep blue with silver floral patterns and glitters all over it. “And it’s just the parents coming with their child.”
“Is that new?” Riz asked, pointing at her outfit.
“Oh. Yes, do you like it?” Riz’s mother adjusted her scarf and held her arms out to her sides to let him properly see the outfit. It certainly looked expensive – definitely not something he would imagine his mother would wear for a simple dinner party for one family.
“It’s nice but – I don’t understand.” Riz dropped his voice to a whisper and checked towards the stairs to see if his father was there. “Is this about dad? Could Mr. Bukhari help with his work or something?”
“Oh no, dear, no,” his mother said chuckling. “Mr. Bukhari actually only recently joined the company. He works under your dad.”
“Then why all this effort?”
Just then, Riz heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. Evidently, his mother had also heard it because she immediately hollered, “THEY’RE HERE! HURRY!”
Riz and his mother entered the hallway towards the entrance. After some rumbling sounds coming from above, they heard something barreling down the stairs and Riz’s father had appeared, breathless.
“That’s the sweater you chose?” Riz’s mother said, looking at Riz’s father in horror.
“I like it. I’ve barely worn it!” Riz’s father said defensively.
“Where’s the maroon one Hasan gave you when Nafisa got married?”
“It needs to be washed—”
“You wore it once—”
“Yes, and sauce spilled on it—"
The doorbell rang, and the two immediately went silent. Riz’s mother gestured to Riz to open the door. Riz sighed and went to the door and swung it open.
“Assalamu alaikum,” he said. A chubby and balding man, a tall and thin woman, and an obscured person behind the two, stood on the porch. The man and woman wore ear-to-ear smiles on their face.
“Walaikum assalam, my son,” the man said, eagerly shaking Riz’s outstretched hand.
Riz invited the three inside and his parents walked over and greeted their guests, with grins matching the intensity of the ones on the Bukharis. Riz finally properly saw the individual who had been standing in the back. She was a young woman, with long, straight black hair, wearing a golden outfit adorned with red jewels.
“Assalamu alaikum,” Riz said to her, and she quickly muttered it back. Riz noticed she kept looking down. Riz joined her gaze and assumed she was wondering whether she should take off her sandals. “You can keep those on if you want.”
“What? Oh! Um, ok, sure.” The woman quickly ran forward to greet Riz’s mother. Riz remained puzzled and walked towards the group. Mrs. Bukhari turned to him and then back to his mother.
“Oh, Fatima, he is so handsome. I can see he takes after you…”
Riz’s mother smiled and then gestured to the young woman. “Oh, but Zehra is absolutely beautiful as well. I just love your dress, my dear.”
Zehra returned Riz’s mother’s smile but returned to looking down at her feet when Riz’s mother and Mrs. Bukhari turned back to each other.
A dread was beginning to creep up on Riz as he stared at them all. The all-out dinner? The extensive cleaning? All the stress and panicking? The effort put into their clothes? All for a family which contained…one young daughter? Surely the purpose of this dinner isn’t…
“Riz.” Riz jumped and looked at his mother, who looked at him with a smile that did not match the ferocity in her eyes. “Taha Uncle said something to you.”
Riz turned to Mr. Bukhari, who chuckled and gave him a warm smile. “It’s okay, son. I was just saying – you’re a tall man! I feel so insignificant standing next to you.” Mr. Bukhari roared with laughter, and Riz forced himself to join.
The group moved to the living room where Riz’s father, Mr. Bukhari, and Riz sat while Riz’s mother, Mrs. Bukhari, and Zehra chatted in the kitchen while Riz’s mother began taking the dishes out of the oven and set them on the kitchen island.
Riz felt himself struggling to breathe and tried to remain calm. He was only half-listening to all the conversations happening (which were in Urdu anyway, so Riz was only able to even understand portions of it) while he tried to fully grasp the situation; his parents invited a family with the intention of setting him up with the daughter. His parents did this without telling him. This family came to inspect him, judge him, see if he was a right fit for their daughter. Their daughter was here to see if she could see Riz becoming her husband. Why didn’t his parents tell him?
Because they know I’d refuse. They know I’d come up with an excuse not to be at home tonight. Just as he had done so in the past, when Riz’s parents had asked the Jafaris over nearly four months ago.
Riz never thought this would happen. He often thought about what he would do in this situation – but now that it was actually happening, his mind was going blank. Should he purposely seem rude and awkward? Do his best to sabotage the night so the Bukharis would dislike him?
No. He couldn’t. Not only because Riz didn’t have it in him to be rude to these people who seemed perfectly kind and undeserving of a cruel reception, but also because Mr. Bukhari worked with his father. He couldn’t do anything to strain their relationship.
Riz’s parents completely cornered him. He couldn’t see a way out. His palms began to sweat as the gravity of the situation really began to hit him. How was he going to turn down the Bukharis without making them feel insulted?
Relax….relax, he told himself. He didn’t know whether the Bukharis were even here because they wanted to check Riz and see if he would be a match for their daughter. This could just be an innocent dinner between two families with no ulterior motive. There was no reason to be alarmed yet.
“So, Rizwan, when do you think you’d want to get married?” Mr. Bukhari asked.
Riz’s face flushed as sweat seemed to pour out of him. He opened his mouth to answer, but no intelligible words were coming out. “I…uh…”
“Dinner’s ready!” Riz’s mother announced.
Riz jumped up almost too eagerly; he quickly gestured to Mr. Bukhari to go on ahead first to the kitchen. All six of them eventually filled their plates and Riz started to head towards the closet to get extra folding chairs for Zehra and himself to place at the dining table. His mother, however, stopped him.
“Oh, no, dear, why don’t you and Zehra go down to the basement and eat your dinner there?” she said enthusiastically.
“Ah, a wonderful idea,” Mrs. Bukhari said, turning to Zehra. “Go on with Riz, dear. It’ll be good of the two of you to chat a bit and form an understanding.”
Well, Riz thought, his heart pounding, I guess no one’s going to bother hiding what tonight is really about. He did his best to stifle a sigh and began heading to the basement, walking briskly so no one would notice his shaking legs. He turned back and saw Zehra quietly following him, continuing to look down at her feet. As the two began heading down the stairs, Riz couldn’t help but feel he should end the uncomfortable silence.
“Sorry,” he said, turning to look at her, “it’s going to be really cold down here.”
“Hmm…” was Zehra’s reply.
Riz turned his head back and couldn’t help but smile. Maybe he wouldn’t have to come up with an excuse to give his parents after all. Maybe Zehra would make this an awkward evening all by herself.
The two entered the basement and sat at a small circular table with two chairs next to a kitchenette. The two began eating in silence. Riz did his best to avoid looking at Zehra, but in the brief moments that he did glance in her direction, he noticed she was also clearly avoiding his gaze. She seemed transfixed with her food and, when she finished, the plate itself. She kept her eyes strictly downwards – on her plate, on her hands, or on her lap. While Riz felt relieved at how badly all this was going without any effort on his end, he couldn’t help but wonder why it was going this badly.
After several more minutes of silence, Zehra took her phone out and, it seemed to Riz, began messaging someone. Riz couldn’t help but stare, curious about what Zehra might be saying. Was she insulting Riz? Oh please Sarah come help me, they forced me to sit alone with him and neither of us is talking it’s soooooo awkward…
Zehra finished her message and put her phone down on the table, resuming her activity of staring at her hands. Riz began to fish his own phone out of his pocket when Zehra’s phone buzzed multiple times; Riz instinctively looked and caught a glimpse at Zehra’s phone’s screen. It was her, looking euphoric and standing in front of a tree, with a pair of sunglasses on, embracing someone with short brown hair and wearing a tight green t-shirt who was…wait, is that a guy kissing her cheek?
Zehra let out the tiniest of squeals and hurriedly flipped the phone so that the screen was facing downwards on the table. Riz looked at Zehra and, for the first time all night, saw she was looking back at him. Riz cleared his throat and took his phone out of his pocket and pretended to be busy with it. After a few moments, he glanced up and saw Zehra was still staring at him, her eyes wide.
“Uh…everything good?” Riz said, glancing quickly between her and his phone, hoping he sounded casual.
“Yes, of course,” Zehra responded, who also sounded as if she was doing her best to sound casual, though her eyes remained widened and fixated on Riz. “I…I just…did you…?” Her eyes darted to her phone and then back at him.
“Did I…?” Riz decided it was best to play oblivious.
“He’s…just a friend,” Zehra said breathlessly. “That’s it.”
Riz just nodded quickly and turned back to his phone. He could tell Zehra was still staring at him.
“No,” she suddenly said defiantly. Riz looked up and saw her eyes had suddenly turned from wide and scared to determined and fierce. “No,” she said again. “That’s not just my friend. That’s my boyfriend.” As she said it, she continued to have a fiery look in her eyes, but after Riz remained quiet, she resumed a frightened look.
Riz was doing his best not to seem too pleased. Bless this girl; just a half-hour ago, he was sitting on his couch next to Mr. Bukhari sweating and terrified, going through excuses he could provide his parents for why he doesn’t like Zehra. And now here she was, in a matter of minutes, giving him a goldmine of reasons.
“Please…please don’t say anything,” Zehra pleaded. She looked genuinely distressed. “I…my parents don’t know. My boyfriend – he’s white. I’m so sorry for this. I didn’t want to even come! My parents just…just…please. My parents would kill me if they found out.”
Riz felt a pang of sympathy. All this time Zehra had her own reason for hoping this evening would turn out horribly between herself and Riz. And unlike Riz, it seemed she had decided to go down the “be-as-awkward-as-possible-so-he’ll-be-weirded-out” route.
“It’s okay,” Riz said smiling. “I didn’t even know the purpose of this dinner was to set us up. I would have made some excuse not to be at home if I knew.”
Zehra’s expression turned into confusion. “Wait…what? You didn’t even know what our parents were up to?”
Riz shook his head. “They’ve tried doing this before, but I’ve always turned it down. Guess they decided the only way to make it happen is by not telling me beforehand.” He let out a sigh of relief and then a small laugh.
Zehra smiled in return. She looked just as pleased as he felt. “Wait, so do you have a girlfriend too or something?”
Riz’s smile vanished and the awkwardness he felt before came back. He stammered, “No...it’s just…no, it’s not…” when Zehra held her hand up and shook her head.
“It’s fine. You don’t need to tell me. Just…please don’t tell anyone about this.” She glanced again at her phone.
Riz grinned. “You should probably change your wallpaper. I’m surprised your parents haven’t seen already.”
Zehra laughed loudly. “I actually just changed it yesterday. It’s just…he has the same wallpaper, and I hate that he might feel like he’s just a dirty secret of mine, you know?”
“So…what do we do now?” Zehra asked. “Our dads work together and my parents clearly like you and your parents…how do we break the news without making it awkward between them?”
“We’ll just tell them we couldn’t find common ground,” Riz said with a shrug. “Y’know…couldn’t come to any sort of understanding with each other. Something like that, I guess.”
Zehra sighed. “I hope that’ll satisfy them. I know my parents were really excited for this. They were prepping me for weeks. Look at what I’m wearing.” She looked down at her golden, beautifully embroidered outfit. “They bought me this specifically to impress you and your family today.”
“Well, it’s a nice outfit,” Riz said with a chuckle. “I’m sorry it had to be wasted on me.”
“It’s okay. I just...hope they aren’t too upset. And yours, too.” Zehra sighed again. “It sucks that we have to live like this, eh? In secret. As if we’re doing something wrong by not meeting their exact expectations.”
Riz began to reply when his mom’s voice bellowed from upstairs. “Come join us and get dessert, kids!”
Riz and Zehra looked at each other again and, smiling encouragingly at one another, headed upstairs. The parents teased the two (“Oh, look who we have here!” “Had a nice long chat, kids?” “Oh, aren’t they cute together?”) and the group sat together in the living room as they ate Riz’s mom’s custard. Riz and Zehra stayed quiet as their parents joked and told stories and howled with laughter together.
After another hour or so, when Zehra and her family began getting ready to leave and the two groups headed to the front door, Riz’s father encouraged Riz and Zehra to exchange numbers. The two did so, avoiding eye contact as they entered their numbers in the other’s phone. Finally, after several more jokes and stories, the two families said khuda hafiz and the Bukharis left.
As Riz’s parents headed back to the kitchen, laughing as they recounted one of the Mr. Bukhari’s stories, Riz felt his phone vibrate. Taking it out, he saw he received a message from Zehra.
“Thanks for the ‘horrible’ night 😉 Good luck with your parents tonight! Lol and good luck with whatever YOUR secret is 😊,” the message read.
Riz smiled. “Thanks Zehra, you too 😊”
And then, taking a deep breath, Riz joined his parents in the kitchen.