The Bad One by Sonny Buttar
The Bad One gives us two sisters, Salma and Asma, from a Pakistani-American family navigating the gulf between two worlds. In the prologue and first chapter, we hear their two voices many years—and, apparently, several tragedies—apart. There’s urgency and propulsion in the space between those two timelines, and I’d eagerly stay up all night reading to learn how this family has come asunder, and why. Full of intrigue, compassion, humor, and acute psychological observation, The Bad One would be promising even without the elegant, almost transparent prose that pulls us through. I’ve heard agents and editors say that they know they want to buy a book when they can picture the whole thing—the cover, the summary on the back, the readers who’ll love it; this was the case for me here, and I eagerly await all of it coming true. —Rebecca Makkai
There is a story our parents told us, only once. When they received their immigration papers from America, they considered leaving one of us behind in Pakistan to live with relatives, believing that one child would be easier to take care of than two. Leaving a child for a time, or forever, with a relative is not unheard of in the culture I come from. Once our father was successful, they would send for the one left behind. Asma asked, “Which one of us were you going to leave?” Ami shifted uncomfortably. Abu said, “The bad one.”
I remember everything about the memory but his face. No amount of wracking my brain can conjure whether he was smiling or serious. We were outside on the patio, a large concrete slab at the back of our house. It was a summer evening. The sun had slipped, leaving us in the shadowy cool embrace of the house. Abu was grilling barbequed chicken legs, holding tongs in one hand and a spatula in the other. The tape cassette player played songs from a recording of Pakistani radio. It couldn’t have been our first summer because there is the picnic table – they were so proud of that old thing which gave splinters if you slid down it in the wrong direction. Ever since we had seen townspeople eating and dancing under the pavilion at the summer fair, dinners outside carried an air of joy. We felt like we were doing something special. Just a recently immigrated family from Pakistan in a small country town in the middle of America having a typical Sunday-night barbeque. There was a sense of pride, like we had gained admittance to a secret club. The Being American Club.
There is an easiness in the memory. It carries none of the hardscrabble anxiety of our first summer when everything seemed awash in fire. Ami called us from swinging to come help set the picnic table. She had probably made rice with chickpeas and a corn salad with mint and cilantro, tangy with chaat. Asma and I sat opposite Ami and Abu. They were in a rare talkative mood. The truth is that no matter what happened later, we were a form of happy in those early years.
This story comes back to me all the time. I cannot corroborate it. There is no one left to ask. It is as though it holds the key to everything that came afterwards. Maybe if I can recall the missing pieces, then I will finally find understanding and a release. And forgiveness. For them. For me. But memories, like dreams, are slippery things. They refuse to let go. The act of remembering, the attempt to capture, corrupts the memory itself and all I’m left with is an image of the picnic table. A blank space for my father’s expression, my mother’s face helplessly staring up at him, and Asma and me trying to figure out which one of us was the bad one.
Sometimes I get a sense, in the split second before the phone rings, of who is calling.
Especially when it’s Mamoo and, a long time ago, when it was Asma. I have no explanation for it, it just happens. Last week, I felt dread climb my legs and stop at my chest, the constriction so tight that for a moment I thought there was something physically wrong.
And then the phone rang. I let it ring and ring.
A few years ago, I found a clipping of an article by the local newspaper about my family’s arrival in our little rural town. It is dated 1977, the year after we immigrated. In the picture, Asma is eight and I am seven. Abu must have been forty-two and Ami twenty-eight. I have no recollection of sitting for the photo. But there we sit in our living room, a sweet family unit looking like we belong. There is no sign of what is to come. My mother with her corona of not-quite-curly hair sits on the couch with us girls, her dupatta loose around her neck. She smiles gingerly, looking like a third child. Asma and I, stick thin, are wearing matching shorts and velour tops of an indeterminate color. We sit so closely that we look like one normal-sized child with two heads. Asma leans forward with a toothy smile for the benefit of the camera, a large gap where a tooth is missing. I am partially obscured, hiding behind Asma’s forwardness. Abu sits on the arm of the sofa looking somber, his hand on Asma’s shoulder, either holding her back or squeezing it. The black-and-white pixelated photo, washed out to a yellowish gray, makes it impossible to tell.
The people in the picture feel so wholly unconnected to me, they could be characters from a movie. My parents look young and innocent, their faces open to life. The article says we came to America for opportunity and a better life. We did not come to America for opportunity or a better life. We came to America because our uncle Javed, our Mamoo, sponsored us. He said we should come and so we did. It is easy to see my parents going along with the idea, with no plan or understanding of what was on the other side. But the truth is that I never knew them, so how can I say what compelled them to come? Other than the final act, they so rarely showed agency in the big decisions.
Maybe all immigrants are foolhardy. How else does a person sever themselves from their land, their language, their family, and everything they know? I imagine, like most everyone who immigrates to this country, that they thought life would be easier in America.
The phone has started ringing all the time now. In the morning as I step out of the shower, in the evening as I walk in from work. It could be a friend or a telemarketer. But by the nameless pit in my stomach, I know it isn’t.
I miss Asma, sometimes with an absence so fierce it feels like a phantom limb is trying to grow back. She has been gone for almost as long as she was here. I am still living a half-life. Neither here nor there. Neither wholly Pakistani nor wholly American. I have a job. I have a few friends. I have Mamoo and Aunty. I read a lot. I think a lot. I feel myself waiting. I just don’t know for what.
Finally, I answer the phone. “Salma? Beti?”
My breath is knocked out of me as though it is gym class and I have fallen on my back. I sit down heavily. It is my father. I have not spoken to him in almost twenty years and I had believed that I would never hear his voice again. You do not get to call me daughter. I feel dizzy, no longer knowing where or when I am. I smell roasting onions and the sharp earthy smell of crushed coriander. His breathing is labored. Past and present mingle. I swear I hear the heavy-gauge iron lid they brought with them from Pakistan adjusted repeatedly until it finds its fit on the pot it belongs with. I smell rice steaming. He must be almost eighty now. I wonder what he must look like at this age, and immediately feel guilty for the thought. At the top of the list of all the experiences they denied me is the ability to see Asma and each of them grow and change and age.
I am not an angry person; anger never seems to enter the room where I live. But I have seen how it burns bright and cleansing. Asma ran hot and periodically cleared out her dead mental underbrush. Maybe that was how she was always able to keep moving forward. Maybe that explains my stuckness.
“Salma?” he asks again.
“What do you want?” I whisper. I am a child again, afraid of losing love. I am an adult, full of terrible memories. I want to excise all feelings. I want to be a robot. I don’t want to wonder what he might be feeling or where he is or how he’s spent the last eighteen years. I don’t want to know whether he thinks about Asma every single day. He doesn’t deserve empathy or curiosity or decency. I don’t want to know what has become of Ami. Mamoo shields me from knowledge and I happily let him. It is easier, I think, to not want to know too much. I have avoided it thus far. My perseverations are focused almost solely on our childhood.
“Beti, my shame has brought me cancer. It is in my lungs.”
As if to prove it, he coughs in a gruesome way. I hear him take a drink of something. Was his voice always so gravelly and frail? Is it because he’s dying or has he learned remorse? I remember him taking us to get ice cream after our first day of school in America. The way he smelled stale after a shift when he came home and went straight to take a shower. His face when our first furniture was delivered. If I think about it hard enough, maybe now I could remember his face at the picnic table.
I don’t respond. I also don’t put down the phone. I hate myself for not hanging up immediately. I hate myself for helplessly feeling curious. Just listening to him, letting him have a voice, makes me feel like I am betraying Asma yet again.
“It wasn’t your fault. It was all because of me.” His voice cracks.
He thinks he can show up after almost twenty years and make this announcement and release me? When Mamoo and Aunty and the countless therapists I’ve seen have not managed to help me remove my cloak of shame? I like that cloak and I will not let it go. There are images I will never forget. His face at the trial when he walked into that court. The way his body slumped when they read the verdict. His eyes as I walked by.
“I am at the end. Can I see you?”
Oh, how history repeats itself. Once, Abu returned to Pakistan for his own father’s death and everything changed upon his return. Family patterns, even those we have no awareness of, never die. They are the shape of a jaw, the texture of hair, and the fleeting expression of joy, passed down from one generation to the next.
My life is in two parts. The part that came before, marked with the indelible stamps of immigration. And the part that came after, where I still live.
As much as I think about Asma’s life, my mind continuously flicking over where she is supposed to be, I avoid the three months that connect the before and the after. I do not venture into that grey time. It takes all my power to keep it at bay. There is too much I don’t know, so many parts that I didn’t witness. Now that the past has come for me, perhaps I can no longer avoid it.
Sometimes I play a game called “What Would Asma Tell Me to Do.” Since she is ever-present in my head and I know exactly what she would say in most instances, her instructions are easy to hear. It is a kind of low-level, constant dialogue. Usually, she is affirming and tells me to listen to myself and to do what feels right to me. She reminds me that I am a rule-follower, more dutiful than she was, that I live my life for others and to accept that about myself. Sometimes she points out the absurdity of a situation and we share a laugh. She tells me to get on with my life. That I owe her more than throwing it away, waiting.
Maybe she would say imagine your way out, that’s the only way to get rid of this haunting.
But what should I do about this phone call? Asma remains silent.
I am the bad one after all.
The mosque didn’t look like a mosque at all; it was just a storefront in an outdated strip mall, sandwiched between The Lucky Dragon Chop Suey and Ray’s Donuts. There were no turrets or domes or embellishments of gold. Simply a deep-green sign announcing Ahmmadiya Movement of Islam in nondescript white lettering, underlined with tiny Arabic script.
While alone in her dorm room, Asma had thought that coming to Friday services would be a good way to tell her parents what she had come to say. She had long known that telling her parents news they did not want to hear was best if coupled with a concession. But now that she was here, all she felt was the old familiar whiff of repulsion.
The biannual trips with her family to the mosque, more than an hour away from their home in Rosebud, had been via highway. Today was the first time Asma had driven here alone. The fifteen-minute drive from her dorm at university had been harrowing. Despite the heavy late-September fog, it had been impossible to not see the blighted neighborhoods full of once-stately, two-story brownstones, now boarded up with plywood doors and windows, the sidewalks littered with overgrown grass and trash. A weathered old man, drunk or disoriented, had materialized in the street pushing a shopping cart with his belongings. Asma had hit the brakes so hard they made a horrible screeching sound, scaring herself and the man.
She took her cramped hands off the steering wheel and lowered the volume on the cassette tape in the stereo, Robert Smith’s melancholy voice fading away. The parking lot was largely empty; she was early. Asma took a few deep breaths and exited the car. She passed who she assumed to be Ray standing sentinel in front of the parking spots reserved for his shop, his arms, the size of small tree trunks, crossed in front of his chest as he patrolled for errant prayer-goers. He glared at Asma. Asma stared back at him coolly.
In a normal family, her news would register as a positive, a cause for celebration. But, in their upside-down family, it would mean something different, somehow more and less at the same time, with its own implications and baggage and signals, only some of which Asma understood.
Her sister, Salma, who would inevitably be dragged to masjid, would understand. She was the only other person in the world who understood their family’s strange ways and was the one bright spot for Asma. Somehow, Salma was always able to chart a course through the swirling eddies of their parents’ expectations. Until Asma had started college two months ago, she and Salma had only spent one night apart. They had grown up hearing their mother say that they were actually one person, born fifteen months apart. But that wasn’t quite right. Asma was demanding and restless, always wanting whatever was out of reach. Salma was driven to keep the peace and burdened with the gift of recognizing what everyone needed in a situation to be happy. Salma would do anything for Asma and Asma would always choose Salma. They were perfectly matched.
“Salaam Aleikum, sister,” said a Black man walking towards her.
“Salaam, brother,” Asma said. If it had been a Pakistani man, he would have avoided meeting her eyes and possibly have mumbled a minimal greeting. But, this man, his wide smile revealing jumbled and crooked teeth, was full of good cheer. Despite her anxiety, Asma couldn’t help but feel a little lighter.
Originally two storefronts, the mosque had maintained two distinct entrances, the easier to segregate the sexes. The founding members, two Black families who had left the Nation of Islam over ten years ago because that type of Islam felt too political, rented out the original space. Eventually, as their congregants grew and a handful of Pakistani families arrived, they had rented and connected the adjacent storefront.
He walked into the men’s entrance, leaving Asma outside to stare at the two side-by-side doors, marked “Men” and “Women.” Not for the first time, Asma was struck by the echoes of “White” and “Colored.” How could she be the only one here who noticed that?
The women’s side was the same as it ever was; the musty smell of an old building mixed with the smell of spices, no internal walls, a few framed pictures of Haj, and flat, white sheets spread out over the ground. The few women present, their children running around, greeted Asma warmly. She was known to everyone. She wanted to think it was because of her height, but knew it wasn’t. The Black congregants treated the Pakistani congregants differently. As though being born into the religion made them more Moslem or more devout or something. Asma existed to prove otherwise.
She asked a middle-aged woman buzzing about if she could do anything to help; she needed to keep her hands busy. Otherwise, she might falter and leave, her desire to see Salma grounding her only so much. She went to the back of the room and took out folding metal chairs from the closet and started setting them up in a few clusters around the room. Old women, heavy women, and pregnant women were excused the prostrations required by namaz and permitted to sit. Asma wondered who set up the chairs for the old and fat men on the men’s side. The women, that’s probably why they came early. She smiled wryly.
There was nothing left to do. She sat on the ledge looking out the front window and waited.
Her parents’ station wagon with the dented driver’s door pulled into the parking spot in front of Ray’s Donuts. Asma felt her ire rise. Why could her parents not comply with the most basic rules? Asma looked for Ray and quickly put on her shoes and stepped outside; she would need to help smooth things over. Why didn’t they just read the signs? Her father drove taxis for a living, he read signs all the time. As much as it infuriated Asma that her parent’s ignorance made all events, inexplicably, about themselves, she would not let some American yell at them. For as long as she had memories, it had been her and Salma’s role to protect them.
Her father swung his legs out of the driver’s seat and took a minute to hoist himself out of his car. Asma knew it was because he was stabilizing himself by slowly putting weight on his right hip which pained him. She hated that she knew his silent habits and weaknesses. At home, when he got out of the car, he would immediately stretch his arms over his head and lean over to get a cross-body stretch. But here, where others could see him, she recognized that he was holding back, self-conscious and afraid of looking foolish. She understood his small vanity. They seemed to have aged in the short time she’d been away. Either that, or she simply had new eyes.
Ray came outside and strode to Abu’s side of the car and extended his hand.
They shook hands and Ray clapped Abu’s shoulder. Her father said something she couldn’t understand. They laughed and Ray waved his hand at the car. Asma wondered how they knew each other. Her father was not known to be a good judge of character. What moral failing did this man possess that had escaped her father’s notice or he had chosen to ignore in the name of male kinship? Asma shuddered and walked down the sidewalk to greet her family.
She did not expect effusive warmth or affection – certainly that wasn’t her parents’ way – but she wasn’t prepared for their faces to register shock.
“What did you do?” her father asked, looking at her head.
Asma froze. How could she have forgotten that they didn’t know she’d cut her hair? She fingered the tips of her hair and laughed nervously. “Oh yeah.” This was not how she had wanted to start the conversation.
Asma had cut her long hair soon after she arrived at college and, in the following weeks, had gotten used to it. The thick straight hair which had moved like water was now replaced with tousled hair gelled into a carefully careless disarray. She resembled a member of a boy band. At first, glimpses of herself in a passing mirror had caught Asma by surprise and delighted her. But, by now, it felt natural, ever-closer to the version of herself she was striving to become.
Salma moved in quickly and hugged Asma. “Jesus. Did you grow?”
Asma avoided her parents’ eyes. She could feel them inventorying her face, her head, her jeans and T-shirt, as though checking for other dangers.
“You came,” her mother said.
“I told you I would, remember?” Asma was glad to have something else to discuss besides her hair.
“Yes, but you say a lot of things and then don’t do them. What are you wearing?” her mother asked while rummaging through her handbag. “I brought a dupatta for you.”
“I came from school,” Asma mumbled. She shrugged herself into her jean jacket so her arms would technically be covered and, like a magician, pulled out a dupatta from the inside pocket. “I have one, Ami. I brought one.” She shook it loose with one hand and then and set it loosely on her spiky hair.
“I told you to take a salwar kameez to college with you.”
Her father stood at the car and stared at Asma without blinking. The rest of the family unit stepped closer together and shuffled out of the way of people walking into the mosque. Asma could sense her father holding his tongue. He wasn’t a yeller. He had other ways of making them feel small.
“Listen. I want to tell you something,” Asma said. The call for prayer came from inside the mosque.
“Later,” her father said and hurried to the men’s entrance.
There was a part of Asma that wished she’d missed her parents, but the truth was she hadn’t. The sun pierced the gloom and the ancient feelings of guilt, sadness, and emptiness filled her, as though she was meant for another life or other parents.
The men’s and women’s areas of the mosque were joined by two things. A one-way speaker system, so that whatever was broadcast from the men’s side could be heard by the women on their side, and an industrial-sized kitchen so the women could cook for the men. By the time Asma, Salma, and their mother had taken off their shoes, the men were making themselves known. Their sounds – deep voices speaking over each other, clothes rustling, throats clearing – were a soundtrack announcing their presence on the women’s side of the wall, reminding them that their needs always had primacy.
Asma went through the motions of namaz. She was surprised at how the prayers, ritualized for each turn and prostration, appeared on the tip of her tongue without any effort. She remembered saying namaz as a young child, how she and Salma would pull out the special prayer mat, really just an old sheet, after dinner and spread it at an angle on the living room floor. The four of them stood so close to each other, arms folded against their chests, that they could feel each other’s midsections with their elbows. For a long time, Asma had loved the way it used to feel in those moments of quiet darkness, the whole family huddled together like penguins on the icy tundra. Her father’s anxiety drained from him and her mother seemed sure about at least this one thing. It had felt safe and cocooned. But now the recitation brought her no comfort or peace.
After prayers, Asma saw her father standing outside the women’s side of the window. He was not one to dawdle, especially with a storm coming. If her family was leaving, so was she.
Besides, she needed to tell them what she had come to say.
She took a deep breath. “Abu, I have to talk to you. Ami, you too.”
Close by her side, Salma breathed, “Not here, Asma.”
Her parents kept walking, her father tall and thin and her mother short and round, the space they took up in the world and the space between them always a constant.
“Did your Mamoo take you?” He turned to face her. “It was so beautiful.”
Asma was taken aback. She couldn’t remember the last time he had paid her a compliment. It must have been when she was a child. “I…I wanted to let you know that I, um, got a pretty substantial part in the school’s production of Pippin.” It sounded scripted because it was.
For a minute, it seemed like no one understood her. Her father looked past her mother into Ray’s Donut Shop. Salma looked at a spot on the ground. Her mother watched her father’s face waiting for a sign.
“Did you talk to your mother about it? Did she give permission?” her father asked.
Asma didn’t know if he was talking about her hair or the play. It didn’t matter, the answer to both was the same. She remained silent.
“Your hair was one of the few things about you that made you look like a girl. But now. Look at you. You look like a boy.”
For the first time, Asma sensed there was something in her father’s response beyond anger or derision. It was as though he was experiencing a type of loss. Had he been proud of her long hair? Because it meant there was still some part of her that cared about traditions and conformed? Because he was still expecting her to be something that she would never be?
“Why do you care? It’s my body. Besides, it’ll grow back.”
“You can’t do anything you like,” he spat out. “We are not like these Americans, showing their bodies, shaming their family.” His breath came hard through his nose.
“The way you go on, Abu, it’s as though you hate this country.” She felt Salma’s hand on her back as though it were a long way away.
“This has nothing to do with this country. I love America. We bring you so you have…have chance. So I have opportunity.” When he was angry, he was left without language, unable to fully access English, Urdu, or Punjabi – any one of his.
“Are you kidding me? It has everything to do with America. This is what me taking advantage of opportunities looks like. Do you think I would have gotten a full ride to a top college in Pakistan? Would I even have been allowed to go to college in Pakistan? Do you have any idea how competitive it was? Do you even care?”
“Keep your voice down,” her mother said.
“Then listen to me! For once, just understand. This has nothing to do with you. I act because I love it, not because I’m trying to shame you.”
He shooed her away. “Not that stupid thing again.” Dots danced in front of Asma’s eyes. She was so tired of being disregarded, as though only her parents’ feelings mattered.
Over the top of his car door, her father said to her mother, “It’s Javed and his wife. All their interfering.” He jabbed his finger in Asma’s direction. “She thinks she has the right to do whatever she wants.”
“You’re going to blame Mamoo for why I am the way I am?”
“Abu, that’s not right,” Salma said quietly behind her. Mamoo was off limits.
“Baitay, what your father’s trying to say is that this just isn’t proper. It was one thing to be doing these childish things when you were in high school. But you’re a young woman, now. People might talk.” There was no real anger or admonishment in her confrontation. It was as though she was following a script everyone already knew and in which everyone had a part.
“Who are these people that I’m supposed to be living my life for? Who are these people that care so much about what I’m doing?” Asma pointed behind her to the mosque. “Other Pakistanis like you? People who’ve lived their lives, chosen to come to this country, and now want to control us?”
“Well. You’re at an age….” Her mother’s voice faltered.
Asma walked up to her father, eyes narrowed, “You’ve made nothing of yourself in this country. You drive taxis. I’m doing something. That’s why you came, so we could become something.”
People always said that Asma looked exactly like her father, but she’d never thought so. Here, facing each other, almost the same height, aquiline nose to aquiline nose, she felt like she was looking at her own familiar shock of pale skin and unblinking almond eyes in the mirror. It was impossible to not recognize the same expression.
“You want to stand on stage and let men look at you? Show your body and act like a hooker? This is why we come to this country?”
“Are you aware that my scholarship doesn’t cover room and board? Do you know who pays that? Mamoo and Aunty. You didn’t even know that, did you? Because you have no idea how to do anything in this country. It’s left up to us, to figure out how everything works and then protect you from it.”
Her father got into his car seat. “All I’ve ever asked you to do is be good girls. And I get this disrespect.” His face was blank, the tiny pulse in his temple the only visible sign of his internal state.
Asma turned away and said, “I don’t need your permission.”
SONNY BUTTAR earned her Master of Fine Arts from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers in July 2023. She is currently working on completing her first novel. In her regular life, she is the Chief Legal & Administrative Officer of a publicly traded company and manages to find consistent time for writing by waking up in the middle of the night. Find her on Instagram @sonny_buttar.
Featured image by Andrew Seaman, courtesy of Unsplash.