Nafi, Age 21
SINCE THE DAY Nafi decided he hated his father, he’d only ever wanted to be left alone.
He’d fought for solitude by ignoring phone calls and staying out ridiculously late, and when that didn’t work he made sure that his actual presence was unbearable. He slammed doors and ruined furniture, screaming things that would be hurtful because he wanted them to hurt viciously—if only to mirror the ugly feelings roiling inside him.
In the dead hours of the night, when he was drunk enough or high enough to calm down from his raging, Nafi had dreamed about the day he’d finally get to move out.
But as Nafi stood at the doorway of his one-bedroom apartment, he realized what alone really meant. Silence, less suffocating than the one blanketing his household, but a lonelier version that greeted him. It made him lie awake at night staring at the ceiling and counting the cracks. His chest always felt heavy in these moments, as if his limbs were suddenly leaden with what could only be described as melancholy.
The feeling made Nafi’s skin crawl—which was why he avoided his place; he used every excuse to stay out, from offering to grab drinks with his coworkers to even taking on longer hours than he needed to. Sometimes, Nafi simply drove around in his car until his body gave out from exhaustion.
And even after all that, everyone had a place to return to at the end of the night, and Nafi had this.
It wasn’t necessarily a bad place to live: kitchen, bathroom, a bedroom with actual leg space, and a living room big enough for a sofa set. All with a decent enough view of the city lights, in a decent enough neighborhood—Nafi’s salary ensured comfort at the very least.
He scowled as he locked the door. Not that he’d done anything particularly stellar to earn the cash. It was all really thanks to his father for shaking hands with enough of the right people to land his least favorite son a cushy spot in life, whether he wanted it or not.
Nafi dropped his leather messenger bag to the floor. In two steps, he’d kicked off his shoes and grabbed a Corona bottle from his fridge, before slumping onto his couch. He held the bottle to the dim light, studying the way the pale yellow liquid sloshed inside with his movements.
With a groan he squeezed his eyes shut.
Is this really my life?
Nafi blinked one eye open and picked out the unopened camera box beside his TV stand. A well-meaning gift from Jihan, but a wasted one. He took a long drink from his bottle and pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth to savor the bitter taste. He glanced at his wristwatch.
It wasn’t indecently late, but Jihan was most likely asleep. His little brother had the audacity to have a responsible sleep schedule.
Nafi called him anyway.
On the third ring, Jihan picked up with a sleepy, “Assalamualikum, Nafi?”
“How are you already asleep?”
“Bro… it’s 1:46 AM.”
“And you’re a college student.” Nafi pressed his phone against his ear as he undid the top buttons of his dress shirt. “This should be, like, prime time for you.”
“No,” his brother’s voice was muffled, but the annoyance was clear in his tone. “It’s quit bothering Jihan time for you.”
Nafi laughed quietly. “I just wanted to ask if you were going.”
“The thing Abbu’s putting on?” Jihan suddenly sounded more alert. Nafi worked his jaw, not trusting himself to speak for a moment.
“It’s such bullshit. I don’t know why he thinks it’s okay to do this.” Nafi paused, fingers tightening around the neck of his bottle as he thought about it. When the invitation had first come in the mail he had immediately tossed it. But after glaring at his trash can for a good fifteen minutes, he had pulled it back out and read through the card.
The cover photo was a glossy photograph from the first day his mother had come to America: she was smiling broadly at the camera, dressed in a cotton blue selwar kameez, with orange aviator sunglasses slightly skewed atop her wrinkled hijab. She was posing next to her luggage at the airport, looking entirely too happy after a twenty-hour flight. Nafi had felt that old ache while looking at her picture. She looked beautiful.
And then his eyes slid to the words underneath: Memorial Dinner.
“It’s probably not even his idea, stupid woman must’ve talked him into it.”
“Can’t you call her stepmother at least?”
“She’s nothing to me,” Nafi bit out harshly.
Jihan sighed. “I think Idris is going.”
“Of course he is,” Nafi scoffed. “Jackass.”
The line went quiet, long enough for Nafi to chug down his bottle and wonder if Jihan had fallen asleep.
“I just wish I remembered more of her.” Jihan’s voice was soft. “Sometimes she feels so far away that I forget to even make dua for her. I feel like a bad son honestly.”
Nafi gazed around his darkened living room with glassy eyes. His brother had only been eight when their mother had passed away. But even in their shorter time together, Jihan had grown up to live as their mother would have always wanted: calm temperament and kind heart, practicing the faith she’d loved till her very last breath.
All Nafi had amounted to was a shame to her memories.
Jihan yawned across the line. “Are you doing okay Nafi?”
The short answer that he wasn’t. Not in the slightest.
“Go back to sleep JiJi.”
“Night.” He cut the line and tossed his phone across the room. It hit the base of the TV stand with a too loud thud but he didn’t care enough to check it. Nafi shot up from his sofa suddenly feeling feverish. He bolted to the bathroom, barely managing to thrust the toilet seat up before emptying the contents of his stomach.
Nafi felt drained by the time he entered his bedroom, hair damp from showering and fingers unable to stop shaking. He pulled open his top drawer in search of a clean shirt. He needed to do laundry. Nafi pulled out the middle drawer and then the bottom one. Screw it, he’d take the day off tomorrow. And if his hardass boss had something to say about it, Nafi didn’t care. Screw the job, screw the pay, fucking screw it all.
His fingers ghosted over a velvety material that made his restless thoughts suddenly still. Slowly, almost reverently, he pulled out the thick cloth. It was heavily embroidered with purpled and gold thread. At the center was a rendering of what seemed look like a simple black box to the average observer, adorned with a strip of gold around its sides.
But Nafi had visited it in person, had felt the awe in his heart as his mother excitedly pointed it out to him. Nafi look, there’s the Ka’ba! Her voice had been brimming with joy. That’s the House of Allah, it’s it incredible?
Nafi’s father had gifted this to him when he’d first moved out, and Nafi had assumed it was to mock him: the prayer mat his mother had brought back from their first Hajj together as a family, to the son who’s stopped praying altogether.
His fingers bunched around the thick fabric, holding on tightly as a wave of sudden and overwhelming grief crashed into him. He crumpled to his knees between heaving sobs. He’d thought he’s learned to live with this constant, pulsing ache. With enough drinks and smiles and carelessness, he could forget the anger, ignore the sadness.
Except in these moments. These hateful, pitiful moments, when reality abruptly gripped him and reminded him that he was really just alone—and hunched over on the floor with tear slicked cheeks and ragged breaths—he almost preferred it that way.
Nafi, Age 11
HE WAS ONLY five feet apart from his mother, but Nafi had never felt farther away as he held her listless hand in his own.
The doctors never bothered to share anything with him since he was just some eleven-year old kid, but he’s gleaned enough of the details from their conversations to know that things were bad. But then again, cancer always was.
His mother put on a good show whenever he came to visit, easily grinning at him and joking with her exasperated nurses. She complained about how bland hospital food was, and promised she would take all her boys out for spicy tandoori chicken the minute she got out of her gown.
When she was asleep though, Nafi could see the effects of her illness that she tried to hide; her rich tan skin had taken on a wane pallor, with dark circles underscoring her eyes and sunken cheeks highlighting how much weight she’d lost over the past few months. Her body was so still when she slept, enough to worry Nafi, but then she’d break out into violent coughs and he’s be scared enough to call the nurses.
Nafi gently traced the green veins along her wrist as he held her hand gently, as if it was fragile enough to shatter if he gripped too hard.
This must’ve been why Idris had told him not to tell her.
Three nights ago, Nafi had woken up from a fitful sleep to get milk from the kitchen. His mother liked to call it Golden Milk, by adding a spoonful of turmeric and steaming the drink for him every night. Even if it was cold, he had wanted to have some to settle his nerves.
Nafi never made it past the hallway.
Just as he was stepping out, he heard voices from the stairs. He had recognized the deep tenor that belonged to his father, but the second voice had made him pause.
He’d peeked his head to the edge of the doorway and saw his father leading someone to his parents’ bedroom. The lights flicked on as they entered and Nafi caught a glimpse of the woman’s face before the door shut behind them. He knew this woman who was in his house, now in the master bedroom.
Yasmina, his father’s assistant from work. She’d come to their Eid party last year and helped his mother cook. His father had been holding Yasmina in a way that Nafi had only seen him hold his mother.
Nafi’s blood ran cold as he crept down the stairs to Idris’s room. The lights were on before Idris was working on a big science project for school.
“Idris.” He slipped inside to see his brother at his desk with a pile of books and papers around him. Idris didn’t even look over as he continued tapping away at his keyboard.
“Idris,” Nafi’s voice grew thick with unexplainable tears, “I just saw Abbu and Yasmina in the hallway.”
“So what,” Idris muttered, as he turned around and moved past Nafi to retrieve a book near his bed.
Nafi found himself fumbling with his words. “I think… I think they were kissing.”
His older brother’s eyes suddenly snapped to his, assessing him silently.
Idris motioned for Nafi to stay quiet and quietly inched out the door. Adolescence had already started to shape his brother so that his limbs leaner and longer, and he carried himself with a kind of authority from it. Or maybe that was just the way Idris liked to be. But his older brother was basically an adult to Nafi and he trusted that Idris would know what to do.
When Idris came back after a few minutes he had an odd look on his face.
He’d seen it then; Nafi hadn’t imagined what he’s seen.
“Idris?” Nafi whispered.
“We can’t tell Ammu.”
Idris suddenly grabbed Nafi’s shoulders and shoved him to the wall in a death grip. Whenever they wrestled, his older brother relished using his three years on Nafi to pin him down for the win. But the way Idris held him in that moment was far from playful—his grip was steely with a kind of urgency that was terrifying.
“Never tell Ammu,” Idris repeated.
Nafi tried to swallow but his mouth was dry. “Are you sure Idris, what if—“
“She will die if you tell her.” His brother’s face was grave. “She will die.”
Ammu pulled her hand out of his grip, drawing him from his thoughts. She rubbed her face as she woke up and gave Nafi a bleary smile.
“Nafi,” she murmured.
His mother yawned and turned her body to face him from her bed, both hands cushioned under his face as she looked at him. “Is everything okay, baba?”
“Yes.” The lie was sour on his tongue as his mother reached out to caress his face. “Everything is fine Ammu.”
Nafi, Age 21
THE MEMORIAL DINNER was to be held in the same venue his father had held his second wedding. Thankfully, his father had enough tact to not hold it in the same damn banquet hall, but the place was still gaudy enough for Nafi to wish he’d taken a shot before driving up.
Nafi titled his head back and glared at the wind chime hanging at the doorway. His head had brushed against the bronze tubes when he’d first walked in but his annoyance had only grown at the sight of the engraving: gone but never forgotten.
Cheesy phrases seemed to be the theme of the event. There was a “Reflection Wall” to his left, and a “Memory Booth” near the back. At the front was the same photograph of his mother, blown up and stamped with horrible cursive font: Celebrating the Life and Love of Asiyah Chowhury Siddiqui.
Nafi walked past the milling guests, none of whom he had any interest in talking to. He was half certain that at least a third of the invitees were people from his father’s office who’d probably never even met his mother. Nafi stopped at a table that had been laid out with an array of family pictures, old photos that were scratched and faded at the edges. Some bore faint crayon marks from Jihan’s humble artistry at age four.
Nafi carefully picked up a smaller picture frame that captured a scene mid-pose: he was about six in the photo and Idris was attempting to carry wailing baby Jihan while Nafi flashed the camera thumbs up. His father was rushing over to help, and there in the background, his mother was double over in laughter.
Such an intimate family moment, and here it was being spread out for the world to see.
“Nafi, over here!”
He glanced over to where Jihan was waving. Silently, Nafi slipped the photo into his bag and walked over to the save Jihan was gesturing to. There was a name card on his plate printed with his full name: Nafees Abdul Siddiqui. The seat to his right had a name card printed with Idris Luqman Siddiqui. This must’ve been the family table then. Joy.
He looked up and felt his jaw clench out of habit at the sight of his father. Out of his brothers, Nafi looked the most like Haytham Siddiqui, sharing his towering height and pointed facial features, his this father’s hair had whitened over the past few years and the wrinkles in his forehead had deepened—likely from his perpetual frowning.
Their stares leveled for a moment, brown eyes striking against brown, before Nafi lowered his head. “Assalamualaikum.”
“Wa laikum assalam.” His father embraced him and pulled back slightly to study him, hands resting on Nafi’s arms. “Thank you for coming, son.”
Nafi’s eyes landed on the centerpiece at the table, another albeit smaller photo of his mother, this time printed with Forever in Our Hearts.
The rest of the dinner carried on in much of the way Nafi had expected. Idris and Yasmina joined their table and Nafi was careful to keep his interactions civil, allowing his older brother to dominate the table with bland conversation about the mundane details of his work life and all the fancy perks of his new promotion. His father nodded proudly along while Nafi tried to be discreet about his grim satisfaction at the sight of Idris’s receding hairline.
Jihan kept looking over at him to make sure he was doing okay and Nafi would roll his eyes because he didn’t need a baby sitter to have a meal with his family—painful as it could be.
“How has work been?” Yasmina asked from across the table.
Nafi paused for a moment, his eyes lingering on the hand she placed on his father’s arm.
“Does he even have work after quitting?” Idris chuckled. Nafi had decided to quit his day job a few months back to do videography full time. The decision had naturally incited a lot of protest from his father, but family dramas aside, Nafi had stuck with it—even moved out of that depressing prison of an apartment.
He offered a thin smile. “It’s going good.”
“You were in BBC Wildlife last month, right? Masha’Allah bro.” Jihan piped up.
“You saw that?” Pleasant surprise spread through Nafi.
His father gave a noncommittal grunt. “You were doing so well at the first job.”
Nafi’s smile was razor sharp. “I’m doing better now.”
Before his father could respond, Yasmina patted his arm. “Haytham, it’s time.”
They stood to go to the podium to kick off the next event in their circus show. Nafi speared his chicken and chewed quickly. Already, there had been heartfelt speeches from strangers who’d apparently been very close with his mother, and a soliloquy from Yasmina about the love she had for the sister-wife who she’d lost too soon. Nafi wasn’t sure how much more he could take.
“They say that a picture can speak a thousand words,” Yasmina spoke into the mic like it was sage wisdom. “So let us reminisce where words are not enough.”
The screen behind the podium lit up with a photo slideshow, and Nafi made a disgusted noise at the back of his throat. Jihan looked over with a grim expression as photos began to play on the screen to the tune of some indie song from maybe five years ago.
Nafi’s childhood had been good. They were some of the only memories from the past that reminded him of tender joy and genuine happiness. To have these memories broadcasted for everyone in the banquet hall to see was too much. He set down his fork and knife, ready to leave, rude as it may be, until he saw the next photo on screen and froze.
“What the fuck?”
He stood without thinking. The room and the rest of the guests faded away as she stared at the photograph on the screen. And the next one after that. And the next one. Images of his mother, in between chemotherapy sessions, in her hospital bed, taking medications.
“Nafi,” his father’s voice was stern.
“How dare you.” He might’ve been yelling, or maybe his words were a whisper. All he felt was white-hot rage. “How fucking dare you share photos of Ammu in the hospital. How disrespectful, how fucking disrespectful.” Nafi shrugged off a hand from his arm—maybe it was Jihan’s—and slammed the laptop at the podium close.
The screen went blue and the music shut off, allowing Nafi to finally hear the murmuring around him. Everyone was staring, but Nafi would rather be the spectacle than let his mother and her last battle be treated as one.
This dinner had been a shitshow from the start. Nafi headed to the exit.
He’d made it to the parking lot by the time his father managed to catch up to him. Haytham’s blazer was off, the crooked position of his time almost comical, but his glare was vastly unamused. “What the hell was that?”
Nafi snorted as he unlocked his car. “My same exact question honestly.”
“How could you be so disrespectful—“
“Tell me,” Nafi faced his father fully. “Was this event supposed to what, absolve you of all the shit you put Ammu through? Or the shit that you thought would be okay to do after? I’m curious.”
His father stopped mid sentence. For the first time, he seemed to have some kind of remorse. He looked at Nafi, “Don’t act high and mighty like you’ve never regretted something Nafi.”
Nafi shook his head.
“No, but I never pretended to be a good person.” He tossed his father a long look before sliding into the driver’s seat. “It’s worse when you don’t realize you aren’t, Abbu.”
THE DRINK PUDDLED at the base of his sink. Nafi watched the last of the yellow liquid drizzle out till the last drop was sliding to the lip of the empty bottle. He rinsed it and placed it with the others to the side.
It may have been wasteful, but Nafi couldn’t stomach the sight of the alcohol in his fridge after coming home from the dinner. It had been strangely peaceful to empty them and set them aside for recycling—a double win for his conscious really.
Nafi wiped down the counter and went to the bathroom to wash his hands. He glanced at his ragged reflection in the mirror: tousled black hair and tired eyes, his sleeves had been pushed to his elbow and he realized just then that he’d misaligned the buttons when dressing up in the morning. Typical, honestly. The lukewarm water flowed along his hands.
Hesitantly, from the recesses of his mind and pure muscle memory, he brought his right hand to the water and washed it three times, and then his left. He could almost hear his mother’s patient voice beside him as he reflected back on learning the ritual ablution before prayer.
Yes Nafi, and now your nose three times, and then your face. You need to be precise with wudhu because you need to be perfectly clean for prayer. Allah will reward those who do it right, baba.
Nafi finished by wiping either foot up to the ankle.
He entered his bedroom and pulled out the prayer mat from his closet. It hadn’t yet found a place in his new home, but Nafi found comfort in keeping it close by. Carefully, he aligned the mat in the direction of the Ka’ba and sat down at the center of the mat with both feet tucked unfit him.
Nafi didn’t know what to say. It’d been so long. He hadn’t been lying to his father when he said that he wasn’t a good person. Far from it really.
His eyes burned as he stared at the rendering of the Ka’ba.
Allah, am I even allowed to miss her?