"You are such a good guy, Paresh!" Zarina said breathlessly, as she scooped more bags of basmati rice, along with an equal number of bags of maida flour into the grocery cart Paresh was pushing. "I mean, to let us have the party for Nafisa at your uncle’s! She continued, "Now we can give her a beautiful party!" Before he could respond she was off again, this time to the fresh fruit aisle. Paresh simply sighed and followed behind slowly.
"What did she expect," he thought to himself, "Nafisa is one of us after all," he sighed deeply as he muttered, she won't be part of us much longer." The group was the ten foreign students from India attending the university there in Michigan. Paresh, having been in the United States the longest and now in graduate studies, had become the unofficial overseer of those students. He didn’t always relish the job, but it did offer him the chance to hear news from his former home and help new arrivals get acclimated to the new environment.
Most of them became used to things quickly, but always seemed ready to return home when their studies concluded. Paresh however, was not one of them. His uncle was a United States citizen and had been one from the time Paresh was young. It was his uncle who suggested to his parents that he come stay with him and attend college. Leaving India, his parents and seven siblings was something he never regretted. He loved his family, but felt his destiny was here. With that mindset, he found it difficult to understand those who came, graduated, and then returned to their country.
Paresh had long ago come to understand that Michigan's environment was not always the most inviting. Trying to fit in with the culture and do well completing your studies could be quite the challenge, but he had been given a great gift from his uncle, a gift that told him he could be successful even in a foreign land. So he endeavored to pass on this gift to others coming to this country as students. This made Nafisa an enigma to him. She had come as a student a few years after him. She was a confident and fiercely independent young woman. She excelled in her studies and needed little or no help from Paresh's support group, but on the other hand, she was a lively person who enjoyed making friends and being around others, she easily became part of the group.
Besides Zarina, who was the girlfriend of his close friend, Farhan, Nafisa was one of the females he most enjoyed being around. They were never romantically involved and now there would never be that possibility. Nafisa was engaged to be married through an arrangement made by her parents taking place following her graduation. The event being planned by Zarina and the other young women of the group was to say their farewell to her. Paresh had known nothing of her engagement and assumed she kept their relationship as friends as her preference.
Zarina was now scurrying towards him with more bundles. Catching him completely lost in his thoughts
"Did you see outside?" She began excitedly.
He shook his head.
"It's snowing and quite hard too. How could you miss it? What have you been doing standing here?"
He looked at her directly.
When she saw his eyes, she softened, "Oh, you're going into one of your moods." She finished placing the items in the cart. "Well," she added we're almost finished. I only have the chicken to get," Zarina turned to head off again and Paresh now followed behind her with the cart. As they passed a window, he glimpsed out at the ongoing snowstorm. He remembered hearing such a storm was predicted, but also remembered it was predicted to start later in the day. He could only shake his head, the weather was always unpredictable.
"Wouldn't it have been easier if we got just some pizza and beer?" He said as he rolled the cart up beside her.
"Oh Paresh," she began, "You sound like Farhan, now. What do you men know of anything! You would celebrate our dear friend with mere American food and not the food of home?"
"Pizza isn't American, it's Italian," he replied wryly.
She stopped sorting through the packages of chicken to glare at him. "In Italy it is Italian, here it is American." She snapped. Taking a deep breath she sighed, then looked steadily at him, "Why am I bothering to engage you in this?" As soon as she finished she put up a hand to Paresh in a halting gesture, "Do not answer, please just stand there and be quiet."
Paresh folded his arms and turned away. She then returned to choose the last of her grocery items.
Taking a brief glimpse into the ever increasing items in the cart, then to the ever increasing amount of snow on the ground outside, he mumbled,
"Zarina, I thought you said you were almost finished."
She said nothing, only placed the chosen items in the cart and pointed to the checkout area. The packing and paying was all done in silence. The only words were muttered curses from Paresh as he pushed the heavy laden shopping cart outside through the snow with the wind railing against the insufficiency of the jacket he wore. Zarina trotted along behind, still silent until they got into the car.
"Is it still your plan to take all this to uncle’s house?" Paresh asked.
"Yes," she answered simply," that has not changed." After a pause, she asked, "Your uncle has no objections, has he?"
"No, the house is ours for the weekend, he answered. "but I am charged to see to everything maintained in order. It will be on my head if I don't."
"Don't worry Paresh," she began gently, "We will not let you down." There was silence for the rest of the trip.
They took the groceries into the house together and put them away. His uncle Saheed wasn't there, having departed Friday morning. After finishing, Paresh locked up and prepared to take Zarina back to her dorm.
"You won't stay with us in the dorms tonight, Paresh?"
"No, I'm going back to the house." He answered.
She sighed, sitting quiet as he pulled into a parking space in front of her building. "Paresh," she began, "please forgive me for speaking to you like I did today. As kind as you have been… it was without excuse."
He looked over at her, with a slight smile he answered, "You've been worse to me than that."
She smirked, then gently hunched him and they both laughed softly. "This is not easy, her leaving in this way" Zarina began, "Nafisa has been my good friend. How could she keep this thing from us?"
Paresh only shrugged as he looked off into the bleak skies overhead. When he turned to look at her, she was staring strangely at him.
"Paresh, you are not hurt by this?
"Why should I be hurt? I'm not the one marrying her." Parish shrugged again.
Zarina looked at him stunned. It was obvious his attempt at humor didn't go over well. She turned from him abruptly and got out of the car. "We will be there in the morning, Farhan will bring us so we can prepare the food. Zarina turned and walked away.
"Oh, she's mad at me again," he muttered as he watched her unlock the entrance door and go in.
Returning to his uncle’s house, he tried to make sense of his feelings about Nafisa. He was hurt she was leaving. There had been others who graduated and in his opinion made the stupid decision to return to their home. She was just one more who was making a bad decision. "Or is she?" He asked himself as he pulled into the driveway of the house.
A thought hit him that completely unsettled him; this bad decision he was accusing Nafisa of probably making was not her decision at all. He knew with certainty, it was probably the decision of her parents, as all Indian girls were bound by the desires of their parents. He became overwhelmed by sadness and a crippling remorse for not pursuing his beautiful friend for love and marriage to him.
When the group arrived at the house in the morning, they were let in by a completely unsettled and disheveled Paresh who merely opened the door, before turning and walking away.
"Paresh, are you alright, my brother?" Farhan asked. There was no answer, only the slamming and locking of the bedroom door at the end of the hall.
Farhan was headed after him, but Zarina halted him.
"Leave him, " she said simply.
"What? Leave him, did you see how he looked?" Farhan's concern exuded through his face.
By now the other members of the group had filed in. The four women and four men stood around them puzzled and asking what was going on.
Zarina quickly silenced them and began organizing the women for the task ahead, while she directed the men to begin the decorating. All were dismissed, but Farhan wasn't moving without an explanation.
"I should have known something was wrong when he didn't answer my call this morning. You wouldn't tell me anything, but I will find out now." Once again, Farhan tried to head down the hall to where Paresh was, and once again, he was halted.
"No, please let him be!"
"He is hurting, he has been hurting I'm sure."
"He's never said anything, never acting like he cared for her. Paresh is not the type," she said simply.
"Well, will he be able to go get her when everything is ready?" Farhan asked.
"We shall see,'' she answered. " Let's not disturb him until we need to.
Farhan only shrugged and went to help the other men with the decorating.
There were brief moments of levity as the preparations went on, but all of them paused from time to time to listen for signs of movement from the back bedroom. When Farhan noticed it was time to go fetch the main guest of the party he headed to the bedroom.
Paresh suddenly emerged dressed and ready to go to bring Nafisa over. His clothing and demeanor is completely unlike him. Farhan tries to go with him, out of concern, but Paresh refuses his offer and leaves quickly.
He drove along, the snow crunching under his wheels as he drove slightly faster than he should in the weather. Paresh felt numb but not from the cold, he felt completely incapable of playing his part as planned. This plan was for him to arrive to take her to a small restaurant where supposedly Zarina and Nafisa would be for a quiet meal. This was all to distract her from the much larger gathering actually waiting for her.
When Paresh reached the dorm building, he got out to ring the door's buzzer to let her know he was waiting. Nafisa, to his surprise, was already at the door and opened it to let him in. One look at her face told him much. Her sorrowful expression mirrored his own. He struggled then to change his expression as he helped her on with her coat.
"Well," he began, "are you ready for this party you're not supposed to know about?"
She stared back at him blankly, “I’m as ready as I will ever be.” she answered softly. She offered him her hand, he took it and together they walked out to the car. Paresh was taken aback by her demeanor. Usually much more lively, she had shocked him by not saying anything about him ruining the surprise the group had planned.
He began to wonder if it was because he was the one chosen to bring her or was she angry because he had given away the true plans for the evening. He couldn’t tell. She was so sullen and still it was unnerving to him. Then he remembered his own mournful thoughts that kept him awake during the night, how he had felt such sorrow for her and the choice made that wasn’t hers.
As Paresh gazed at her while he drove, his initial pity turned to anger as he silently thought; why should I care? So he started in on her with all the bitterness he could muster. “Well this man you’re marrying, he must be really special, so special you could tell no one, is that it?”
She never stirred, only looked straight ahead.
“Yes, that’s it,” Paresh continued, “He must be one of those rich ministers in the government. So rich that the wedding will be lavish but you’re poor friends won’t be invited. We’ll have to get a view of it when it’s shown on the society news, am I right?” They pulled into the driveway of the house as he finished his last words.
Before Nafisa exited the car, she turned to him and said, “How insightful you are Paresh? You are exactly correct. This is one of the things I have always loved about you.” She got out and walked to the front door where she was swept in by her loving friends.
Until this moment, Paresh had been one of them. For a time he put his head against the steering wheel and quietly sobbed.
Finally overcoming Zarina’s will to leave their friend to himself, Farhan came to his friend. Paresh saw him coming and got out, hoping to get past him and say nothing. Farhan caught him and held him by the shoulders. They said nothing to each other, but Paresh was sure he understood.
Farhan only said, “Come my brother, let’s eat and have a drink together.”
Despite the unusual beginning of the celebration, it rose to high spirits as the festivities continued.
The women danced and sang, the men drank and grew loud. Paresh found he was feeling better with a full stomach and a few drinks. His friend had secured him a fairly quiet corner of the room, where he and Farhan could sit in silence.
When Farhan moved to be by Zarina, his peace remained undisturbed. The others left him blissfully alone. Paresh now watched the brightest star in the room, Nafisa. She hadn’t stopped smiling or laughing since she entered. He found it impossible to be angry with her now. His insults hadn’t changed her, she was beautiful and brilliant and so worthy of all joy. Maybe after a few more drinks he would work up the nerve to tell her these things, maybe he could tell her how much he truly loved her.
The sounds and activity grew still around him. Voices were nothing more than quiet whispers now. Paresh wanted to open his eyes but couldn’t until he heard a soft female voice talking.
“No, don’t worry, I can finish the clean up from here. Besides, I want to keep some of the decorations. Paresh will see me home. Alright then..goodnight and thank you all so much.”
He heard his name and recognized the voice speaking and bolted up straight. Nafisa was suddenly right in front of him, “What are you doing here?”
“Cleaning up after the party I wasn’t supposed to know about.”she answered smoothly.
He stared at her in total disbelief, saying nothing.
“There’s just a few things left in the kitchen to do,” Nafisa added as she turned and began to walk away. “I’ll make you some coffee.”
Paresh rose and stumbled after her. Sitting at the kitchen counter, he watched her as she filled the coffee pot and turned it on. She then moved on to wipe down a countertop and pull down two coffee cups from an open cupboard. "It will be ready soon," she said as she sat at the counter opposite him.
“You never answered my question,” he said softly.
“Yes I did,” Nafisa began, “I told you I was here to clean up after the party, it was most wonderful, so I was doing it to show my gratitude to my friends.”
Paresh looked down.” friends” he muttered.
“And I am most grateful to you Paresh, you have given me more than any other.”
“What are you talking about!” he grumbled, glaring at her.
Nafisa merely smiled sweetly at him before turning to pour the coffee into the waiting mugs. “Why sometimes is it so hard for men to understand?” she sighed sipping her coffee as she watched him.
Paresh began to pour spoon after spoon of sugar into his coffee. "I’ll tell you what I understand." He
began to stir the coffee so vigorously, he almost tipped his mug over. Righting it quickly he continued. "You are going away to marry some man, you don’t know.”
"And this is my fault?" She asked innocently.
He sighed. "I know it's not your fault.
"But the fault is yours," she said quickly.
"How?" Paresh frowned.
"Why would I go marry any stranger even if it was expected by my parents, when there is one near me who I love and I think loves me."
"You’re talking about me?
"It’s true I do love you,'' he said softly, "I have always loved you. I just never believed you wanted…
"Well, now you know what to do," she added
He smiled wide, "Will you be my wife, Nafisa.
"Yes, Paresh, I will be your wife.”