My Mother Calls Me from Pakistan

Soniah Kamal

 

My mother calls me from Pakistan. “Soniah, meri jaan,” she says, “stock up on disposable gloves, the surgical kind, and face masks.”

Could it be a case of exaggeration?

No. Yes.

Mothers do exaggerate for reasons galore.

 

My mother is an anesthesiologist and doctors always see the worst because they know the worst. These disposable gloves my mother recommends are the kind that doctors wear during surgery, rubbery from the outside, powdery from the inside. They are not those transparent types that come with hair coloring kits so that you don’t stain your skin but they rip so easily. Growing up there was always a box of surgical gloves at home. It was in the cabinet with the first aid kit: band aids, aspirin, a bottle of gentian violet, cotton balls, and white surgical gloves. The box with gloves resembled a particularly pedestrian box of tissues, rectangle with a lone stripe across the top. In my house they were used for all purposes. My mother wore them to peel garlic so her hands would not stink.

 

My mother calls me from Pakistan. “Soniah, meri jaan, stock up on disposable gloves, the surgical kind, and face masks.”

Could it be a case of exaggeration?

No. Yes.

Mothers do exaggerate for reasons.

 

One day I had to entertain my very bored baby brother. I took a pair of surgical white gloves and with a black marker I made faces on the fingers. When the gloves wore my hands, my fingertips carried every emotion in the land, and my brother, he was laughter.

 

My mother calls me from Pakistan. “Soniah, meri jaan, stock up on disposable gloves, the surgical kind, and face masks.”

Could it be a case of exaggeration?

No. Yes.

Mothers do exaggerate.

 

I used the surgical gloves to henna dye my black hair a fierce red, the gold-green henna powder mixed with rich brown chai water, my gloved fingers sinking into the quicksand of cool sludge which peaks between my white hill knuckles; my hair turned into crimson sun and the gloves stained glass sunflower yellow.

 

My mother calls me from Pakistan. “Soniah, meri jaan, stock up on disposable gloves, the surgical kind, and face masks.”

Could it be a case of exaggeration?

No. Yes.

Mothers.

 

I wore a mask when I went into the operating theatre to watch my cousin give birth via c-section. I don’t know why I wanted to do that. I was allowed to do that because my mother asked for special permission. She warned me that it would be gory. It was. The scalpel sliced through skin, flesh, fat; I almost fainted; I am proud to this day that I did not. The baby was blue and crying and he slowly turned pink like boiling shrimp. I disliked wearing the mask. It was suffocating. I asked my mother how she could wear it for hours and she said, ‘You get used to it.’

 

My mother calls me from Pakistan. “Soniah, meri jaan, stock up on disposable gloves, the surgical kind, and face masks.”

Could it be a case of exaggeration?

No. Yes.

 

Another time I needed disposable gloves was when I burned my face while cooking. I had never stepped into a kitchen to cook meals in Pakistan but in America this is my place. I forced open a whistling pressure cooker and aloo gosht flew at me like fists, the gobs of meat and potatoes and spices and oil, holding my face in a heated embrace; it took an hour to call 9 1 1. My spectacles are the reason I’m not blind. I was sent home with surgical gloves and Aquaphor, a thick transparent ointment that was to be a barrier between germs in the air and my food kissed face.

 

My mother calls me from Pakistan. “Soniah, meri jaan, stock up on disposable gloves, the surgical kind, and face masks.”

Could it be a case of exaggeration?

No.

 

My brother comes to visit and he takes out a pair of surgical white gloves and with a black marker he makes faces on the fingers and when he wears the gloves to entertain my children, his fingertips carry every emotion in the land and when my children laugh, I smell love.

 

My mother calls me from Pakistan. “Soniah, meri jaan, stock up on disposable gloves, the surgical kinds, and face masks.”

Could it be a case of exaggeration?

 

I often carry disposable gloves when I travel, an old habit installed by my mother when I was an international student who could get stuck in airports with dirty toilets. In April, I go to Dallas for an Unmarriageable event and from there head to a writer’s conference in San Antonio and from there take a bus to Austin for another Unmarriageable event and, on the bus, I put the gloves to use. I was supposed to have headed to Houston but I’d been away from home for too long. I wish I hadn’t canceled the event in Houston: I would have visited one more Texas city had I known this might be the end of events for who on earth knows for how long. I board the plane back to Atlanta. At the conference I’d purchased a copy of Sharp: The Women Who Made Art of Having an Opinion. I open to the preface. The flight attendant with complimentary drinks cart asks if I’d like a beverage of my choice and after she hands me my tomato juice in a plastic cup with a paper napkin around it she attends across the aisle and asks the aisle seat if he would like a beverage of his choice. He wants alcohol and, yes, he has a credit card, and it is done, and may he have three packets of salted pretzels. Next to him are two people on the packed flight who are wearing heavy duty black rubber masks, sitting together, middle seat and window, watching in-flight entertainment. They refuse the offer of a beverage.

 

My mother calls me from Pakistan. “Soniah, meri jaan, also stock up on spray disinfectants and wipes. Have your face masks come? Tuck the mask under your spectacles, tightly, tightly, then they won’t fog up. Your spectacles will prevent the virus from entering through your eyes. Yes, it can enter through eyes. No, it can’t enter through ears because ear skin is thick. Make sure to cover mouth and nose. Just keep a distance and nothing will enter from anywhere.”

Could it be a case…

 

Not a day goes by when I don’t wish someone—even strangers—on social media my deepest condolences on their loss and a prayer for the deceased to rest in peace. I wish I’d gone to Houston. I wish I’d met up with my friends when hugs were hello and hugs were goodbye. I wish I’d attended the Jewish Muslim Sisterhood Coffee morning after all. I could have made it back in time for my bookstore reading—why didn’t I go? I would have greeted all my sisters with kisses on cheeks and been greeted likewise in turn and we would have leaned close into each other, our laughter connecting our lips. I wish I’d attended the voter registration training at Samad Mediterranean Grill. Why did I let a migraine stop me? Why did I take it for guaranteed that there would be a next one and that I’d just go then? I wish I’d belly danced at Café Istanbul one last time. I wish I’d taken my kids to dance with me. I wish I’d spent that last Saturday browsing at the bookstore. I wish I’d spent Sunday at the bookstore too. I wish I’d gathered my kids and their friends and taken them to the park. We would have taken Sultan-Golden to the dog park too where, the loner that he is like me, he sits and basks in a wealth of strangers. I wish I’d gone more to write at cafés and ordered too many coffees and too much cake. I wish I’d gone yet again to the grocery store and wandered wide eyed and open mouthed through the aisles like children at zoos. The last film I saw in the cinema was Knives Out. Would I have chosen differently had I known? Would I have watched Thappad instead? Would I have watched both back to back and thrown in a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, a seventh, an eighth? When would I have left the building? I wish to enter crowded elevators and shake hands with all. I wish I’d eaten at Chaba Thai one last time but I’d thought there was next Tuesday, and next Tuesday, and next Tuesday, and all the Tuesdays to come. How many hugs and bookstores and films and activism and eating out would it take to say ‘now I can do without’? Then I had told my mother that she was exaggerating and there would be no need for surgical gloves and masks let alone a shortage. She may as well have been telling me to stock up on toilet paper, that there would be a run on toilet paper, that the news channels around the world would show America on TV fighting, shouting, hitting, pushing each other out of the way over toilet rolls.

 

I still wear lipstick even under my mask and manicured fingers grace my gloves.

 

My mother calls me from Pakistan and this time when she reminds me to stock up on everything, I do. I ask her to take care and stay safe. I tell her I miss her. I miss her. I do not exaggerate.

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Soniah Kamal is an award winning novelist, essayist and public speaker. Soniah’s work has appeared in critically acclaimed anthologies and publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, TEDX stage, The Georgia Review, The Bitter Southerner, Catapult, The Normal School and more. Soniah’s novel, Unmarriageable: Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan is a Financial Times Readers’ Best Book of 2019, a People’s Magazine Pick, a Library Reads Pick, an NPR Code Switch Summer Read Pick, a 2019 Book All Georgians Should Read, a 2020 Georgia Author of the Year for Literary Fiction nominee and more. Her novel An Isolated Incident was shortlisted for the Townsend Prize for Fiction and the KLF French Fiction Prize. www.soniahkamal.com. She’s on Twitter and Instagram @soniahkamal.