Lantern Review: A Journal of Asian American Poetry

Tarfia Faizullah

At Zahra's Salon for Ladies

Tilt back your upraised face,
its twin arched widths of thick,

black brow. Close your eyes:
see, without seeing, the two long

sweeps of white thread unwound
from a spool through the unadorned

fingers of this woman you address
with respect as Auntie, though you

don't share with her any blood.
She pulls the strands taut, twists

them sharply into a braid she'll
press across each eyebrow, each

unwanted hair scythed sharply
away. Listen as she speaks to others

in this language unknown
but familiar: Urdu, rising soft, like

these damp whorls of hairspray
that fill the air briefly, then disappear

like those West Texas summers
your parents spent poolside, nights

your body was a shadow quickening
water, its new flesh unaware of its own

indecency. Nights ghazals sieved
through scuffed speakers, & in Urdu,

Ghulam Ali sang, chupke, chupke,
raat, deen—quietly, quietly, night & day—

as water darkens between your legs
scissoring back & forth. Already you had

begun to learn longing's strange
and famished lessons—assu bahana yaad

hai, Ghulam Ali sings, I remember
shedding tears—as Auntie Neelam tests

the wax, dips a wooden stick
into viscous amber liquid she will layer

thick on each arm, those slender
cylinders of skin and bone once heavy

with flesh. Even now, you want
more than you can bear: some space

to have as your own: not this
chair, taken over by some other body

bent backwards, not your apartment,
filled with papers, books thumbed through

on nights the stars remain unseen
through clouded sky. Once, your mother

knelt between your legs, trimmed
the hair there grown too quickly, warned

you, Never let anyone touch you
here. You were terrified no one would

those mornings spent veiled
in the mosque, gazing through the curtain

separating you and the other girls
from the men. Auntie Neelam layers

squares of cotton over the hot wax,
& you anchor your body so as not

to pull away—you close your eyes,
ready to flinch. Summers you pulled

away from any kind of touching.
Summers you ignored your parents, refused

to eat, obsessively read the Bible
instead of the Qur'an. Summers you repeated

to yourself, This is my body, do
this in remembrance of me—and the hiding

of your face with the veil, I remember,
Ghulam Ali sings. You extend one smooth arm

to Auntie Neelam, uncurl your palm,
let her press your fingertips down to hold it

flat. She squeezes out henna, fills
your hands with every imaginable shape

of intricate vine, fragile blossom.
You imagine her in Pakistan, cooking for

her husband, her long, dark hair
twisted away into a headscarf, a Qur'an

dark with dust on a high shelf
beside pictures of her younger self. What

right do you have to place her
there? You have given her a cheaply made

headscarf, a flimsier husband,
clichés for a life owned & lived. In return,

she has given your body, stripped
of its darkness, perfumed with sandalwood,

rosewater, its own sense of body.
This face that she has given such clarity

will, this evening, twist into a shy
smile at the man you & your parents

have promised it to. Before the veil
is draped over both your head & his, before

the gold bangles are struggled onto
your wrists, before the mirror is presented

& you glimpse yourself for the first time
as a married woman, you won't be thinking

of how Auntie Neelam offered you
a small mishti to ensure a lifetime of sweetness.

You won't be thinking about how,
with your tongue cradling its sugared milkiness,

you passed a wall of clematis vine,
noticed that each separate leaf was a hand fluttering

in low breeze. You won't recall, then,
the night you first learned to touch your own

body & offer it itself: darkness
a rough, soft palm shuddering backwards, forward—

you won't yet know that you will
never stop walking alone beneath a summer sky

twisting with such blue light.