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This story won second place in the first inaugural Short Fiction Competition.

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Dipu dies in the backseat of a Toyota Camry five houses down the street from his family home. Inside, his mother Aamina sleeps, intermittently shaken awake by worries snaking their way out of her subconscious. His father Abdul snores in congested spurts. His wife Farida checks her phone every 30 seconds, a string of her unanswered texts glaring back at her:

– Where are you?

– I can’t believe you’re out late again.

– Afroza is refusing to go to bed because she wants you to read her a story.

– You think this is what it means to be a father?

– Or a husband? Have a wife and kid and never see them?

– Look, all we want is for you to be home a little bit more. That’s all.

– It’s 2:30am.

– This is so fucking selfish, Dipu, so fucking selfish.

In their eight years of marriage, Dipu’s presence has fluctuated like Michigan’s seasons. Brief periods of calm, comfort, and consistency shifting into extreme and unpredictable patterns, leaving Farida feeling as though she were without shelter.

It always starts with a few late nights “at work,” a temporary gig setting tiles or painting houses, DoorDashing, launching a start-up that never materializes. No pharmacy, hookah lounge, or drop shipping warehouse; no additional income from day trading and TikTok channels. After the initial fervor fizzles, these ventures are never mentioned again, and with each attempt, their joint account looks thinner, light enough for her to worry about paying bills on time. When she asks him about it, he says, “I got this. The money’s coming.” When she asks to see the paperwork, the business plan, anything, he says, “I’m not trying to pay taxes on all that. Better to not have a paper trail. Trust me.”

Eventually even these pretenses fall, and he avoids her questions. Changes the subject, walks away, stays out of the home for all but the three or four hours he spends sleeping on their bed.

She wonders if he’s addicted to something – gambling, drugs, another woman. She checks his pockets for receipts; smells his clothes for someone else’s fragrance; tries to figure out his phone’s passcode while he sleeps. Finds nothing incriminating, wonders if she’s going crazy. She might be. She’s not sleeping well. A hundred different possibilities chase her through nightmares, crowd out her waking thoughts and shorten her fuse. She makes avoidable mistakes: forgets to add salt to the curry, adds salt to already salted dishes, misses the deadline for Afroza’s after school program, has to reschedule doctor’s appointments. Her jaw aches, and when she finally manages to get to a dentist, he tells her she’s grinding her teeth at night.

Farida spends much of her waking hours contemplating escape, tragic accidents – a deadly car crash; an unexpected and rapid illness; a white supremacist with an automatic weapon – all of which absolve her of decisions that would upend her life and make her the subject of gossip. She imagines these scenarios and her life afterward in excruciating detail, spending little time on the death itself. The how, a mere catalyst to her freedom, is less important than what comes after.

In one fantasy, she is sitting next to a prone, lifeless Dipu. He’s on a ventilator, and she’s saying an emotional, one-sided goodbye. Afterward, she receives condolences from family and friends, sits mute through their comments about the tragedy of dying young. She finds a job, comforts her daughter, and gets a place of her own. It’s a tiny one bedroom apartment, but it has a balcony where she plants flowers and sits in silence enjoying her morning coffee.

In another fantasy, police officers show up at her front door, the way they do in the movies, and tell her there’s been an accident and her husband did not make it. She falls under the weight of the news, crumbles to the floor. And just like in the movies, there’s a cue card that reads a year or two later, and she meets another man, someone who romances her. She spends years getting to know this man, learning his patterns, being certain before ever making a commitment.

In yet another, she watches the breaking news on TV: a grocery store shooting. It’s their store and Dipu might be there, finally picking up the vegetables she’d requested days ago. When the officers find him, he’s still holding the strawberries their daughter loves so much, the red from the strawberries blending with a pool of his blood. She imagines being on the news, pleading with politicians to do something about gun control, to fuck their thoughts and prayers. Maybe launching a career in politics organizing other mothers.

With each imagining, she adds more and more sensory details until she’s there, floating above each scene. She longs to be the unimpeachable widow whose husband dies tragically young, who has paid the price for freedom and can finally live the life she wants.

She is never brave enough to imagine a route less tragic: one where she leaves Dipu and faces the shame and disapproval of her family, the gossip of her community.

***

In the morning, Farida’s mother-in-law, Aamina, fills the house with her worries, questions and barbs aimed at no one in particular but still managing to blame Farida for not keeping Dipu at home, satisfied. “Where could he be out all night like this? He never used to do these things, not my son. If he was going to be late, he always called me, reassured me. I suppose he doesn’t have to do that now. Why should he keep his mother informed about anything when he has a wife?”

Aamina frequently rewrites history. It is Farida who can’t keep Dipu happy; Farida who disagrees too loudly and talks back too much; Farida who manipulates Dipu into disobeying his parents. Each time Aamina implicates her and paints her as the corrupting influence, Farida chokes on the words that crowd behind her teeth. She doesn’t say, “Your son bragged about staying out till four or five in the morning before he ever met me, said things like, ‘it’s their problem’ when I asked him what you thought,” or, “If I were so good at manipulating him, then why would he be out all night instead of at home with me?”

If she could really talk to Aamina, Farida would say, “I’m in the dark as much as you are, ma,” but the time for such vulnerability between them has long passed.

Farida has no one to process her suspicions with, that she worries about their dwindling funds, that Dipu occasionally comes home with bloodshot eyes, slothlike in response, that he’s lost weight. She doesn’t know what to make of the cough syrup bottles she saw in his car a couple of times. When she asked about it, Dipu claimed to have caught a bad cough DoorDashing in the winter. She remembers him coughing. She knows that the body is fragile, that lack of sleep can weaken the immune system. For a brief moment, she feels tenderness for him, encourages him to stop working so much, sleep, they’ll figure out the rest together.

During other attempts at addressing things directly, Dipu got angry, dismissive. “Why are you on me about this? I am working my ass off trying to provide for this family. You think it’s easy supporting four people? I don’t do shit besides go to work, sleep, and work again.”

“It doesn’t all have to fall on you. I can get a job.”

“Amma and Abba need you in the house. I don’t want to get back to those arguments. Just let me take care of this.”

“Are you really taking care of it? Or are you just getting high? Or gambling?”

“Are you fucking serious right now? I might smoke a joint every now and again to relax, but I’m not a fucking addict and I don’t fucking gamble.”

“I don’t care that you smoke weed. I care that you aren’t here, that our accounts don’t have enough money to pay this month’s bills.”

“How many times do I have to tell you that I got this?”

“I’m saying you don’t!”

“You know what? I don’t have time for this.”

Their arguments always ended with him storming off, leaving her with an emboldened Aamina who for days afterward filled the house with her admonitions while Dipu gave Farida the silent treatment.

What’s the point of Farida saying anything in such a no-win situation? So what if the truth gnaws at her insides, and each day she gets one step closer to unraveling entirely?

***

In the beginning, she had tried to turn to friends and family after blowouts with Dipu. Her friends commiserated with her, tsking, talking about how all men are irresponsible and careless, though they never shared the details of their own relationships with men. Their husbands, boyfriends, brothers never seemed to do anything worth talking about. The one-sided vulnerability left Farida feeling like she was sacrificing herself at the altar of the gossip mills, so she stopped sharing, and eventually, stopped talking to them altogether.

Her family was no better – they told her to adjust, that it’ll get better once they have a child together. They reminded her that this was her doing, her choice to fall in love and marry this man, as if they hadn’t given her an ultimatum. Besides, Dipu was still young and young men tended to be a little reckless. She just needed to be patient. No one seemed to understand that her patience had rusted, that maybe the cost of being patient was too high.

Now, Farida swallows her anger and places a roti and tea in front of her mother-in-law, and a fried egg and roti in front of her daughter, Afroza, who is keenly observing her mother and grandmother. In an attempt to distract her, Farida hands Afroza her iPad. She hates breaking the screen time rules she’s been struggling to enforce; resents that she’s cornered into making such a decision at all.

Aamina stares distastefully at the roti, and then pushes the plate away, pulls the cup of tea towards her.

Stay hungry, Farida thinks. She is annoyed at the stab of hurt she feels; Aamina’s behavior is nothing new, so why should it still hurt? Farida has never made perfect rotis: her dough was too wet, too crumbly; her circles misshapen, all jagged edges; the thickness inconsistent. The thin ones burned quickly, filling the kitchen with the smell of burnt flour; the thick ones never puffed up the way they should and remained undercooked.

In the early years of their marriage, Farida asked Dipu to stand up to his mother, to intervene when she criticized Farida. Instad, Dipu pacified her: “Just ignore her. She’s old and she has nothing better to do.”

***

When Farida met Dipu during her freshman year at Wayne State University, she was eager to meet Bangladeshi boys who were as interested in their studies as she was in hers. Dipu’s enrollment status at Wayne made him novel after four years of high school boys who pulled straight C’s and never applied to colleges or those who did, only to fall prey to for-profit institutions eager for their next victim.

Dipu was handsome, with glowing tawny skin, a dimpled chin, and a contagious smile. He made her laugh, spent hours in the library with her, passing notes on neon stickies and occasionally leaning his calf against hers, the toe of his boot gently tapping the side of hers.

Her parents learned of their extracurricular activities – halal as they were – six months into their relationship and threatened to pull her out of college. In response, Dipu proposed, and, cornered, she chose to pacify her family. It wouldn’t be bad, she told herself. As brief as their association had been, Dipu had been consistent and kind, the immediate attraction between them unfolding into something deeper and similar to love. It had to be enough.

They married the summer after her first year of college and, after, she moved in with his parents. Aamina was kindness and generosity personified that first summer, but when Farida returned to school in the fall, Aamina began complaining about Farida’s absence. Farida wasn’t there to serve lunch to her in-laws. Aamina was embarrassed when visitors dropped by the house and Farida was gone. How shameful to have a bou who didn’t serve tea and biscuits, sit with guests. Aamina didn’t like having to make excuses to her friends. She felt humiliated.

Dipu urged Farida to maintain peace and drop to part-time. So, she caved, and without Aamina’s constant criticisms, things between Dipu and Farida became pleasant again, at least for a little while.

Dipu transformed into a devoted father when Afroza was born. That entire first year, he was there, holding Afroza, staring at her for hours, entertaining her when she got old enough to sit up and crawl, allowing Farida to study. Farida thought, Maybe everyone was right, maybe men do settle down eventually.

Dipu’s transformation was short-lived. Just when she started to trust things, he changed. He wanted to have another child, but Farida wanted to graduate. She told him she’d gotten an IUD inserted, and he grew distant again, stayed out more. The little time they were together, they argued, or he ignored her in favor of Afroza, focusing all his attention on their daughter. Farida barely managed her coursework, even with one class a semester.

All told, it took her seven years to graduate, and now, she’s a stay-at-home mom caring for three adults and a child. The compromises grow more bitter with each passing year.

***

The phone rings, bringing Farida back into the kitchen. Aamina pauses her thinly veiled indictments to answer. Farida half-listens as she pours her coffee and prepares to escape into her room.

“Who is this? What are you saying?” Aamina demands, putting the call on speaker.

“Chachi, I’m a friend of your son’s. Dipu is in his car, parked a few houses down. You may want to go find him.” Farida doesn’t recognize the male voice, but the odd request crystallizes as fear inside her. She stiffens. Her fingers go numb and she has to make a conscious effort to place the coffee mug down gently.

“What is this nonsense? Who is this?”

“Chachi, please. Check on him, or maybe have bhabi do it.”

Farida rushes to the front door, grabs her coat and shoves her bare feet into snow boots. Suddenly, Aamina is next to her. “What did that boy mean about Dipu? Are you going out there?”

“Ammu, what’s going on?” Afroza asks. She’s standing a few feet away, her grip tight on her iPad, eyebrows meeting in the center of her forehead.

“Eat your breakfast and watch your show. Ammu will be right back. Go,” she orders in her strictest mom voice. She turns to Aamina and says as calmly as she can, “I’ll check, ma. You stay here, too.”

Panic blooms as she rushes out the door. All her idle, vengeful daydreams rise to the surface and she finds herself praying, “Please Allah, no, please, no, no, no.”

She searches for the Camry, slows down when she spots it. No one is in the driver’s seat and from a distance, the car appears empty. Reluctantly, she walks up to it. Her pace is slow, her breath held. Then she sees him: folded in half, head resting on the backseat, gray all over.

Later, Farida will piece together how Dipu died. A drug overdose, a negligent friend who left him unconscious in the backseat of his own car on a cold winter’s night. She’ll wonder why he wasn’t taken to the emergency room. Did Dipu tell him not to? Were they so afraid of being found out as addicts that they couldn’t seek out help? How could anyone think that it was okay to leave someone in a car when nightly temperatures dropped down to single digits, worse with wind chill?

Later, she’ll deal with the fallout. Aamina lying about how Dipu died to save face, even as the truth makes its way through the community and whispers stalk them; Farida going along with it because exposing the truth would only paint a target on her, make it impossible for her to find an escape. She’ll choose to be the good widow, the one who gets a job to provide for her aging in-laws and young daughter, who sacrifices everything and remains loyal to a husband who died tragically young. Or maybe she’ll leave with her daughter, find a new life somewhere far from prying eyes, get that tiny apartment with the balcony.

Now, though, she digs into her coat pocket for the spare keys. When she finds them, she fumbles, and the key fob slips through her fingers. She bends to pick it up and, in the periphery, spots a figure fast approaching. She turns to see Aamina.

“Ma, ma, no, don’t come any closer,” she shouts, standing and spreading her arms wide to form a barrier. Aamina rushes forward, shoving away Farida’s arm and knocking Farida off balance. Farida falls onto the icy pavement, her bare palms sliding without purchase, left arm twisting painfully.

Then the wailing begins.

*

Read the other stories: The Holy Ones & When Our Parents Expire