Welcome to #ReadWithMC—Marie Claire's virtual book club. It's nice to have you! In June, we're reading Salma El-Wardany's These Impossible Things, a novel about three friends navigating love, family, and faith. Read an excerpt from the novel below, then find out how to participate in our virtual book club. (You really don't have to leave your couch!)
Kees goes home for the weekend and tries to pull the sins out from between her teeth before she gets there. Tries to be the fever dream her parents had imagined when they sat in their village on their wedding night and England was just a story Grandma used to tell between mango stones and pumpkin seeds.
She has her grandmother’s hands. Big and weathered, and no matter how much cream she smooths into her lifelines, her life doesn’t get any softer. The women in this family are made of hard things.
She walks the 45-minute journey home instead of taking the bus because she needs time to find the version of herself that will please her mother the most. The one that will keep the family whole and bright-eyed, free of any shame that could cloud them over. The version of an eldest daughter that will keep the family chin high above their chest.
Her long hair swings with the wind and is freer than she feels. Her brown skin still smells like the almond oil Umee used to rub into it, even though at least two blood moons have passed since she last sat at her mother’s feet and Kees feels harder than she used to. It’s also getting increasingly diﬃcult to find the right version of herself to bring home.
She manages to find the correct one somewhere between the park and the laundromat around the corner from her childhood home. The Kees that got stuck in time, somewhere between the ages of 11 and 16. They were probably the years she was exactly, wholly, and totally everything her parents wanted her to be. Diligent. Studious. Ambitious. Serious.
She is still those things, but other sides of herself have crept in over time. Rebellious. Loving. In love. Sexual. Things that you don’t talk about around the dinner table or even within the four walls of a home that has wrapped itself in silence.
Some people are careless with words. Use them often and recklessly. Throw them around as if they’ll never run out. In this family, words were the last grains of rice at the bottom of the bag. The scraping out of the butter dish. They were just like the pennies her parents carefully and covertly collected every month in the hope that they would eventually turn into a bigger pile of money that could save them all. Kees didn’t know if the words they were saving would ever come out, and how maybe, if they had used them more often, they wouldn’t need saving in the first place.
In this house, things were said diﬀerently. There was a mug of tea that was always waiting for her father. It said, here, I love you. The family meals that were always on the table said, here, we care about you. To ask how you were was to complain that you’d been in the bathroom too long. To say I love you was to shout that you didn’t look both ways when crossing the road. Love came under the guise of anger and rough voices, which didn’t make it less loving, it just held a diﬀerent shape.
Kees turns her key in the lock and steps through the front door just as her father steps out of the sitting room to greet her. His armchair is perfectly positioned to watch both the latest drama coming out of Pakistan on the television, and the gate to their home. He’s watched all his children come up that garden path as they were growing up and knows exactly how long each one takes from street to door.
“Beta, how was the journey?” he asks, as she bows her head for his hand to rest briefly on top. With her books tucked under one arm, she leans in and puts her other arm around her father in an awkward hug. He never likes it. Always breaks away as soon as possible but she does it anyway.
“It was fine, Abaji. The first train was canceled, as usual.” “They need to put someone better in charge of running the country and maybe the trains would be on time.”
“I agree,” she replies, laughing. “I think you should run for prime minister in the next election. I’ll be your campaign manager.”
Her mother walks out of the kitchen and catches the last sentence while catching her daughter in a hug. “Bilquis, stop filling your father’s head with politics. It’s bad enough he goes to the council meetings every month. You’ll be getting him to run oﬀ to Westminster soon and then where will the family be, huh?”
Before Kees can answer she catches her sister’s eye, who is walking down the stairs to greet her, and they both roll their eyes behind their mother’s back.
“In a better position with more money, Umee. That’s where we’ll be if Abaji works in government,” interjects Saba, who pulls Kees to her in a hug.
“Are you ready? She’s about to go oﬀ on one,” whispers Saba, giggling in her ear as she squeezes her.
Before anyone can answer, Kees’s younger brother opens the front door, hitting their father on the back, which earns him a swat around the head from their mother. “Hakim, be careful with your father. Why are you always stomping around like a buﬀalo? You’ll kill him and then he’ll never be prime minister, heh.” She marches oﬀ to the kitchen muttering about politics and how it always ruins the dinner.
Kees laughs at the confused look on her brother’s face.
“Are we talking about Abaji going into politics again?” asks Hakim.
“Of course we are,” replies Saba. “Kees is home, what else would we be talking about?”
“Hey, I didn’t even start this,” laughs Kees, “Abaji brought it up.”
“Give it a rest,” groans Hakim while mouthing a swear word over their father’s head.
Itasham knows his son too well and automatically turns to clip him over his head. “Don’t swear, Hakim.”
Kees laughs and pulls her brother into a hug. “When did my little brother get so tall? Stop growing up so fast.”
Hakim groans again and pulls himself quickly out of her embrace, but not before squeezing her hand and grinning in a way that says he’s glad she’s home. It’s been six months since she’s been back, which isn’t that long, but it’s too long, given that she only lives an hour away, and the familiar guilt begins to take its place in her stomach.
Saba reaches over and gives him a third clip around the head, just because their father is standing in the middle of them all and it’s one of the few opportunities she has to do it without getting a harder punch back from her younger brother; Saba is one to always take an opportunity when she sees it. In typical fashion, Hakim shouts for their mother, which earns him another hit from all three of them, who tell him to stop being a mummy’s boy. A further yelp from Hakim sends their mother charging into the corridor to deploy orders, reminding them that at this rate no one will eat if they don’t make themselves useful.
The prospect of not getting fed within the next half an hour is a sobering one and they all rush to help. Hakim gets each person’s drink preference out of the garage without having to ask what anyone wants. Saba pulls plates from cupboards. Her father begins to clear a space on the floor and Kees smiles. In the moments between her father’s aspirations, her mother’s scolding, and the teasing of siblings, Kees wonders how a person is expected to choose between family and love. As if the two things were mutually exclusive. As if they weren’t born of each other and part of the same breath. She begins to think about Harry but before she has time to feel heavy, her father is at her arm, guiding her into the kitchen and asking her opinion on the latest speech from the Labor Party conference and what’s the insider gossip.
“Abaji, you know I just joined online. I don’t have direct access to the MPs and I definitely don’t have time to attend the actual conferences.”
As usual, her mother insists that Kees makes the roti when she’s home and although she never says it, she’s glad. She washes her hands, rolls up her sleeves, and begins rolling out the dough between her palms. She’s been doing this since she was ten, when she begged to be allowed to make the roti for the family, standing up on a stool as her mother taught her how to roll the perfect circle, slap it between her hands, and then put it on the flat pan to cook before throwing it on the open flame to puﬀ up. This is a dance she’s been doing all her life.
In these light balls of dough is a heavy tradition of women who have come before her. Each young girl craning her neck around her mother’s quick movements and flashing gold bangles as they learned how to make the family bread. Her mother once stood just like this with her mother and her mother before her, and in the passing down of something so simple, Kees has always found great comfort. She likes to think that somehow, even in the smallest of everyday tasks, she is connected to tribes of women who have all kneaded dough and silently folded love into their families.
It’s also the time reserved for Kees and her mother to chat about the day. Saba has never been interested in making roti and Hakim was never asked, and so the half hour before dinner is their time.
She makes the roti now without thought. It has long since become muscle memory, each turn of the bread stamped into her ligaments so that even when she forgets, even when she’s tired, the bread is still made perfectly round.
Her mother takes her chin in her hand and turns it to face her. “Beta, you look tired and skinny. Why aren’t you eating?”
Kees laughs at her mother’s sternness and wonders why anyone in this family can’t just say, “I’m worried about you.”
“I’m eating so much, Umee. All I do is study, which means lots of revision breaks, which means snacks.”
“Snacks, eh? I’ll make some proper food this weekend for you to take back.”
Her mother makes this statement as if she had planned to let her daughter go back to university without a bag full of curries ready to be frozen.
“Okay, Umee, that would be nice.” There is no point in telling her mother not to go to the eﬀort, because she’ll always go to the eﬀort. Plus, she’d be stupid to try to refuse her mother’s cooking. It’s better than the beans on toast she’s been eating recently.
They all eat together, food laid out on a cloth on the floor, and talk about the things that mean something but also nothing. Who’s getting married and what happened at the mosque. As usual, as soon as the meal is over, Kees’s mother packs curry into old margarine tubs, wraps roti in tinfoil, and sends Hakim with the food parcel to the next-door neighbor, Mrs. Carson.
The house is quiet as Kees sits on the bed in her childhood room, staring fondly at the Bollywood posters on the wall. They’re the dreams of a diﬀerent life when she and Saba used to practice the dance routines from the films and reenact scenes in the garden.
She makes sure the door is closed before calling Harry. He picks up on the second ring.
“Hey, baby,” he says, a weariness in his tone. She’s back home and that’s often the same thing as going back in time. The rules of your adult life, the days and nights spent away from your mother’s hip, suddenly fade and you’re somehow reattached to her, as if you never left. Sometimes that’s a comforting thought but mostly it’s suﬀocating and sad. Like time will never move on for you.
“Do you think they’ll get back together?” she asks.
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She’s already asked him this question numerous times over the last few weeks and knows there is no good in asking it again but still can’t help it and here, back in the family home surrounded by her family, it feels even more urgent.
He knows that this question isn’t really about Malak and Jacob. It’s about him and Kees and whether they’ll make it. She’s asking if he’ll accept her enough and if she’ll compromise enough and if, against all the odds, they can love each other.
He gives her the only answer he can and says he doesn’t know. Because he doesn’t. And in moments like these, there isn’t much else to say.
She can hear Saba running up the stairs and so she quickly ends the call, throwing her phone across the bed like a thief caught stealing.
Her sister runs into the room and jumps on the bed next to Kees.
“So, can I tell you something?”
“I’ve got a feeling you’re going to anyway,” Kees replies, grumpily. “And why are you sitting on top of me? You have no concept of personal space.”
“I’m in love,” blurts out Saba, ignoring her older sister’s reprimands.
Kees stares at her, mouth swinging slightly open, and replies stupidly, “How can you be in love?”
Saba rolls her eyes.“Well, you see, we’re not all heartless, cold, and devoid of emotion like you.”
Kees bites her tongue and wonders, not for the first time, if she’s kept her boyfriend hidden too well. Created such a false persona of disinterest and disdain for love in the hope that no one in the family would ever ask her, and now she’s taken it too far. She never had the romantic outpourings or the urgent hunger for love that has followed her sister around her entire life, but she thinks cold and heartless is a stretch too far.
Now isn’t the time to prove her baby sister wrong, however, and so she settles for playfully hitting her. “But what do you mean ‘in love’? Do you even have a boyfriend? You’re nineteen. You’re too young.”
This last comment earns her a withering look from Saba, who loftily explains, “Kees, I’ve been in and out of love my whole life. This is not new.”
Kees snorts sarcastically at the idea but, thinking about it, she thinks Saba is probably right. It started when Saba declared her undying love for Shahrukh Khan when she was ten and, ever since then, there has always been someone—the latest Bollywood star, the boy from Quran class, their cousin from Pakistan, one of the neighbor’s sons ...Saba fell in and out of love quicker than the seasons changed and she enjoyed every minute of it. If there was ever anyone ready to be in love, it probably was her.
Attempting to be a rational and supportive sister, Kees picks up her mug of tea, sips on it quietly, and becomes determined to say the right thing.
“Okay, so how did you meet?”
“The matchmaker introduced us. I told Mum and Dad I wanted to marry a few months ago and I’ve been meeting people ever since.”
Kees’s attempt at being supportive flees as quickly as it came and she chokes on the tea, screeching, “The matchmaker?”
Hakim sticks his head around the door. “Guess you’ve told her, then.” He grins at Saba.
Kees curses the thin walls of their tiny house, oﬀers a prayer up to God for having given her the good sense to move out to university, and tells Hakim to get lost.
“Are you crazy? You can meet someone naturally without all that. You’re beautiful and young and have loads of time. It’s not like you don’t have options.”
“Yes, but I want to meet someone from the right family.” “What the hell is the ‘right’ family, Saba?”
“Someone who’s Muslim and Pakistani and good and kind and who our parents approve of. I’m ready, Kees. I’m not like you. I don’t care about politics or being a lawyer.”
“Who said you had to be a lawyer, Saba? You can have any career you want.”
“I’m not really interested in a career. I want to have babies and kiss their fat little feet and feed up the people I love.”
“You can’t even make roti and you’ve never learned to cook.
What are you going to feed them?”
Her sister looks hurt. Kees reaches for her hand to squeeze an apology but Saba snatches it away.
“It doesn’t matter. Umee says there’s enough time to learn and she’ll teach me. By the time babies come I’ll know all the dishes.”
“And what about before you have children?” Kees replies angrily. “When it’s just you and him and you don’t have a career. You’re going to just sit at home and wait for him while learning to cook dhal?”
“Of course not. I’ll finish university.” “And then what?”
Saba blushes. “I’ll probably be pregnant by then.”
Their mother’s shout for Kees to come downstairs interrupts her before she can say anything else.
Walking into the sitting room, Kees turns to her father and says, “This is why you wanted me to come home this weekend, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Beta,” he replies. “The rishta is coming tomorrow and we want the family to meet everyone. But we also wanted to check if you’re okay with Saba getting married before you.”
Her mother snorts in disdain and Kees thinks this is where she got it from.
“Leh! Of course she’s okay with it. She has her head in charities and politics all the time. She even has a book in her hand now. She doesn’t even think of these things.”
Kees thinks bitterly that now is not the time to prove her mother wrong by telling her she thinks about whether she’ll be able to marry the man she loves most of the time.
“Beta?” asks her father. “It would be good to know what you think. We’ve always trusted your opinion.”
Some evenings demand you walk through them. You can’t get on a bus or in a car because then you’ll miss it. Miss the exact moment the changing summer sky turns from blue to pink to black.
Kees walks home from the station even though her bags are heavy and even though she’s weighed down by the margarine tubs of curries her mother has neatly packed up ready for her freezer. She shifts the bag again and keeps walking, chin slightly tilted up as if ready to receive a blessing.
Her sister is getting married and life is changing. She wants to make it stop. To stop the sky from turning, the summer from ending, and her sister from leaving the small, cramped home they all grew up in, to live in a far bigger house with a new family and new ways of doing things. She’s young, she should like change, but she never has.
She twists the key in the lock and pushes open the door, already knowing that Harry will be inside. He has his own flat but he also has a key to her small studio and prefers to spend the nights here where there are no noisy flatmates to bump into in the kitchen in the morning. When she first moved into her own space, she told him that they couldn’t spend every night together. It would weigh on her too heavily but it’s funny how quickly you can reconcile your conscience when you’re in love. Now she never says anything. She’d prefer to have him here than not and tonight she’s glad he is.
He’s lying on the sofa watching a documentary and as she walks into the room, he swings himself up, grabs her bags, and takes her in his arms.
He quickly scans her face and says, “You’re sad. What’s wrong?”
“I’m not going to make a very good lawyer if my face is that easy to read,” she replies.
“Well, it’s just me and I don’t plan ever to be on your opposing counsel,” he says.
“Saba is getting married,” she says, leaning her forehead on his chest.
He doesn’t say anything and she’s glad. He just picks her up, takes her to the sofa, and begins to undress her gently. Each piece of clothing he peels oﬀ he replaces with kisses until she is naked and on top of him and the evening is blowing through the open windows and the city is alive beneath them and weddings and in-laws don’t matter anymore because dusk is always the best time to believe in magic.
Later, as their mingled sweat plasters them to each other and their breathing has slowed, Kees feels a hot tear slide down her face and although she doesn’t feel like crying, she knows there are too many emotions on the inside and whether she likes it or not they will come out of her any way they can. You can’t stuﬀ so much sadness into a body and think it can be contained. Like water running to the sea, it will always find its level.
“Everything always happens for a reason, doesn’t it?” she asks Harry, her words muﬄed against his chest.
“Yes, it does,” he murmurs into her hair.
“So, there has to be a reason God brought us together.” “Well, maybe we’re just made for each other,” replies Harry. “Well, if we’re made for each other, making me Muslim and you Catholic is what, exactly? His idea of a joke?” she asks bitterly.
“Hey, hey, come here,” says Harry, swinging himself up and taking Kees with him.
He places her legs on each side of him so she’s wrapped around his body. Lifting her chin and pushing the hair back from her face, he looks into her eyes and she knows they’re full of anger, because it’s easier than worry.
“You and I were made for one another,” he says. “We believe in the same God, Bilquis. We’re not praying to diﬀerent people; he hears us both. We just choose to worship him in diﬀerent ways. And it’s not easy, but if the hardest thing for us is that you’re going to the mosque while I’m going to church, then I reckon we’re pretty damn lucky. Because that’s nothing. Yes, your parents and family and the entire community won’t like it, and there’s plenty of people on my side who will hate it too. The Catholics don’t exactly have a reputation for tolerance. But you’ll come to church with me on Sunday and I’ll come to the mosque with you on Friday and, eventually, all the bullshit and the arguments against us will just fall away. And in fifty years, some young kids from two diﬀerent worlds are going to be sitting just like this, madly in love and wondering how on earth they’ll ever tell their parents, and one of them will say, ‘Yeah, but look at Bilquis and Harry, they did it and no one even cares now and look how happy they are.’ The drama always quiets down eventually and when it does, I’m still going to be here with you.”
As he finishes talking, she feels the salt sliding down her face and instead of saying anything back she kisses him hard on the mouth. At this point, what good are words? And she doesn’t know what to say anyway. She doesn’t even know if her tears are for him, for herself, or for her family. What Kees does know is that somewhere along the way, no matter what decision she makes, somebody’s heart is going to crack.
Excerpted from THESE IMPOSSIBLE THINGS by Salma El-Wardany. Copyright © 2022 by Salma El-Wardany. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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