Today's Reading

Forty minutes later, Ayesha crouched on the toilet in the staff bathroom, bookended by feelings of self-pity and guilt. Instead of teaching, she was hiding from her class. Even worse, she was writing a poem in her purple spiral notebook.

I can't do this.
This thing that I should do.
I can do this.
This thing I don't want to do.
I want to be away, weaving words of truth.
Not here, trapped between desk and freedom and family.

She should be teaching, not writing. She had vowed to leave this part of her behind when she'd left for work that morning. Instead, she hadn't been able to resist placing the purple spiral notebook in her bag, like a child's security blanket. She gripped her pen tightly and tried not to stare at her cell phone.

"Come on, Clara," she said out loud. Then she held her breath, hoping no one had heard. But of course they hadn't. This was the staff bathroom, and it was the middle of the school day. The other teachers were teaching, not hiding and writing poetry.

She squinted at the page, rereading her words. Correction: writing bad poetry.

Her phone beeped: a text message from her best friend, Clara.

What do you mean you can't do this? You just got there.

Ayesha texted back.

My class hates me. They were throwing things at each other, and they didn't listen to a word I said. Can you call the school and tell them there's an emergency at home?

Her phone rang.

"You picked the wrong profession." Clara's voice was low.

"I'll come back to teach tomorrow, when I'm ready," Ayesha said.

"Babe, you are never going to be ready to teach. You know what you're ready for? Writing poems. Exploring the world. Falling in love. Remember?" Ayesha pictured Clara in front of her—blue eyes wide with concern, fingers fiddling with strawberry blond hair. "I bet you're writing a poem about this right now. Aren't you?" Her friend's voice was accusing and impatient. They had had variations of this same conversation so many times, Ayesha couldn't blame Clara for being sick of it. She was sick of it herself.

Her eyes flicked to the notebook, and she shut it firmly. No more. "Poetry is for paupers. I'm not Hafsa. I don't have a rich father to pay my bills, and I promised Sulaiman Mamu I would pay him back for tuition."

She remained silent about the other two items—exploring the world, falling in love—the first as impossible as the second. She had no money, and falling in love would be difficult when she had never even held someone's hand before. "Hafsa is getting married this summer," Ayesha said instead. "She came over this morning to tell me, but I already knew. Nani and Samira Aunty have been talking about her rishtas for weeks."

Clara, an only child, loved hearing about Ayesha's large extended family. She was particularly intrigued by the traditional rishta proposal process, which Ayesha had explained in hilarious detail.

Prospective partners were introduced to each other after being carefully vetted by parents and family. Ayesha had received a few rishta proposals herself, years ago, though they had never led to a wedding. She hadn't really connected with any of the potential suitors, and they must have felt likewise because she'd never heard from them after the initial meetings.

"Hafsa can't get married! She's a baby!" Clara exclaimed.

Ayesha started laughing. "She's got the entire wedding planned already. All she needs is the groom."

"Your cousin is crazy. You're the one who should be getting married. Or me. Rob still flinches whenever I mention weddings, after ten years together."

Ayesha was starting to regret this topic of conversation. "If Hafsa wants to get married, I'm happy for her," she said. She imagined twenty-year-old Hafsa reclining on an ornate chaise as she surveyed a parade of handsome, wealthy men. She pictured her cousin languidly pointing to one man at random, and just like that, the marriage would be arranged.

So easy, so simple, to find the one person who would cherish and protect your heart forever. Everything came easy for Hafsa.

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