Short Story Café May
Even at their best, in-laws were the occupational hazard of loving someone else.
The thing is, she shouldn’t have said it.
The bell rings at Café May and a handsome couple walks in, shoulders melting in the warmth of the coffee shop. Meher examines them with the frank curiosity of a stranger—the woman’s balayage, the man’s camel coat—until she hears her phone buzz.
“At the airport,” reads her brother Razi’s WhatsApp.
Meher sips the last of her coffee, long cold, and sets it down next to the other two cups. There’s no denying that Salma shouldn’t have said it. Thankfully, it was only today, right before she and Razi left for their flight back to America, and now Meher wonders if Salma had planned it that way. It hadn’t appeared so in the moment, but her sister-in-law is the kind of person—deliberate, considered—that can make a well-thought-out presentation look like an erratic outburst. Some people are skilled like that.
The couple orders at the counter and starts scouting for seats, and Meher gets up to go. Sometimes, when she is here alone and the tiny shop becomes too full, people ask to share the booth. It’s not that Meher is ungenerous, but they always come over and start the conversation in German, not imagining for a second that she might not speak it—and while she knows, yes, it’s Deutschland, it’s their language and she’s the aberrant in the social contract, it’s still awkward and she usually ends up handing over the entire velvet booth.
It’s a prized spot in the tiny café, right by the window that looks onto the street. There are other nooks and crannies to the shop—a basement where old couples practice Italian, a child-friendly parlor for the wailing ones of the world, which seems unnecessary because in her four months in Hamburg, Meher has witnessed perhaps one impeccably dressed toddler misbehave in public—but she always tries to get the booth by the window. She likes to see the buses roll by, smokers step out for a break before returning to their books, snow-haired ladies walk their dogs.
Meher had looked forward to her brother’s trip to Hamburg ever since she moved here for the NGO job. It’s a hard city for the stranger, and she has yet to make any close friends. She and Razi had decided that the trip wouldn’t be an ambitious jaunt through Europe, the kind in which you choked each day with museums and churches. Salma appeared to have some reservations about that even though she, at six months pregnant, had the most reason to take it easy. But Meher and Razi convinced her that a week of relaxing walks and long meals—“think of it as a staycation, except you’re no longer in Baltimore,” Meher told her—was worth it. They spent the week ordering one cappuccino after another, visiting Winterhude’s farmers market to gape at the price of fish, skipping the bars in respect of Salma’s belly but asking for splashes of amaretto each time they ordered espressos. At 4 p.m. every day, they joined retirees and freelancers congregating across the neighborhood for kaffee und kuchen—Americanos or latte macchiatos served with slivers of marzipan or chocolate cake. Meher knows that for weeks to come, there will be nooks of Winterhude—the modernist coffeehouse down the street, the Portuguese bakery one block over—that will be painful to walk past, their windows and awnings reminding her of Razi and Salma.
Mostly Razi. Razi, who had sighed and leaned back into his chair, stirring in the egregious two spoonfuls of sugar he had held on to since childhood, and wondered, “Isn’t it insane, that they also loved us like this?”
“Well, hopefully they still do,” Meher joked.
“Yes, yes,” he responded, dismissing the aspersions of current love. “But he isn’t even born, and I love him more than life itself. It’s so strange to imagine someone must have felt that way about me.”
“You know what Ammi would say to that,” Meher said, smiling. “That she probably didn’t love us that much.”
“That’s not very nice,” Salma replied, frowning. Salma, who was very nice, and very literal.
“And I’m just the father,” Razi shook his head. “I can’t even imagine what it must be to love someone you made out of your own being.”
He put his hand on Salma’s belly, tucked underneath a ribbed sweater. She grimaced, leaning back in her chair.
“Right now, I’m just trying to love him through the heartburn.”
“You’ll be a great mother,” Meher said, meaning it. Salma would be the kind of mother who could grimace and complain about her children because she was an unimpeachably good parent. Meher could tell them apart in crowded markets and the playground she walked past on her way to work: women who could control their children without raising their voice, women who truly understood that which they had created.
“How much time are you taking off work?” Meher asked.
“Six months, at least. Did you know that exclusive breastfeeding is a thirty-five-hour-a-week job?”
Meher did know, and while she would never say this to Salma, she herself was wholly convinced on organic formula. Not that it mattered—she was unmarried and childless, without any forecasted change in those conditions. Her last relationship had ended when she moved to Hamburg. She had taken the job without telling him.
Salma would be the kind of mother who could grimace and complain about her children because she was an unimpeachably good parent.
“Think about it. Everyone on this street,” she said, pointing out the window, at straight-backed men walking past in slim suits, a scraggly woman with tattoos ambling on the pavement, toddlers on bikes. “Everyone in the world has had someone take care of them that way. Hours upon hours. There was someone like that for each one of us.”
The next day, they walked by the water, near the Indonesian and Iranian embassies. Autumn was making its crisp path into the city each day. The trees lining the Alster were a hot red, the sidewalks all dew and tangerine. Each morning, as they left the apartment building, her old neighbor Mrs. Stach seemed to have made something with cinnamon, turning the hallway fragrant. In her first month here, Meher had taken over a plate of biryani. Mrs. Stach had looked startled, saying hesitant greetings from the doorway. Behind her, Meher could see well-tended houseplants, floating bookshelves, chunky wooden furniture. Since then, a plate of cookies covered in foil always awaited Meher on Sundays, the day Mrs. Stach’s children came to visit.
“Can you believe she’s lived here for thirty years?” Meher told Razi and Salma.
“I don’t blame her,” Salma said. “This is a beautiful neighborhood. So much more charming than where my parents live.”
Meher had visited Salma’s family in Virginia. Their house was comfortable and logical, and the closest neighbor was a two-minute car ride away.
“I love your parents’ house,” Razi said. “It’s so clean and functional. Also, what are you talking about, Meher? Ammi and Abbu haven’t changed homes in two decades.”
“Yes, but Mrs. Stach actually cares about her house in the first place.”
They both laughed. Their parents’ lack of care for the house they rented had been a joke for many years, or ever since they realized that their family wasn’t actually poorer than all their friends’ but only less tasteful.
“Oh come on, your parents’ home is fine,” Salma said. “It has character.”
“You’re kind,” Meher told her. She had stayed at Razi and Salma’s Baltimore apartment in the spring. Salma mopped the floors each night and her cooking pots were arranged by size on the hanging rack. The bookshelf was color coded, which told Meher, among other things, that neither of them read. In the guest bedroom, there sat a bath towel, a hand towel, and a bar of soap. Meher tried to imagine how wasteful her mother would find it—a separate soap bar for a weeklong guest.
“Well, it’s not the most comfortable house,” Salma acceded. “But it works for them, right?”
“Barely,” Razi said. “They promise they will move to a new house soon.”
“Razi, do you remember the first time we heard they were going to move out soon?”
“The day after we started living there, nineteen years ago.”
“Exactly,” Meher nodded. “That place keeps getting worse and worse. This time I went, a ceiling fan came crashing down. Good thing no one was in the room.”
They sat down on a bench by the river. Swans clustered under a stone bridge nearby.
“Oh, yes, you were just home. How was that?”
“She went to Pakistan six months ago, Razi,” Salma pointed out almost apologetically. “You’ve talked so many times since.”
Meher rolled her eyes in solidarity with Salma—one has to gang up with the in-law—but she knew that Razi was making a critical distinction. There was the experience of being home, and there was the memory of being home.
“It was great, yaar. Leaving is always so hard though. Feels like you’re doing something wrong, every time.”
“Yep,” Razi said. “A gift that keeps on giving.”
“Really? I’m always ready to leave my parents’ home,” Salma countered. “It’s great seeing them, but then I’m like, I need my bed back.”
Looking back, Meher thinks it was about that time that Salma started showing a peculiar frustration toward them or, more specifically, toward her.
“I didn’t say I wasn’t happy to leave,” Meher told her. “I’m just saying it’s hard.”
“I told you, right?” Razi began. “About the time I was dropping them off at the airport?”
He had, but Meher shook her head, because she wanted to hear it again.
“I was dropping them off at Dulles, after they visited last year. And we got there and the check-in obviously hadn’t started, because you know how they are. Three hours before the flight.”
“So, we get there, and they had to wait, but I was parked on the curb and had to leave. And I was driving away, and I remember thinking, This, right here, is the stupidest thing I ever do .”
Meher looked out at the water, sullen under the gray sky. A child pulled a toy truck in the distance, its wheels thumping over asphalt.
“What is?” Salma asked, after a moment.
“Every time I leave them, without knowing when I’ll see them next.”
“But they were the ones leaving.”
“Yes, but they still had an hour to kill. I could have been with them another hour.”
“After the three weeks they were with us?”
Meher laughed. “You’re a generous daughter-in-law, Salma. Three weeks would be a nightmare for most people.”
That was perhaps the worst thing about in-laws; they were aspirant language learners in a drawing room full of native speakers. To keep them included in a conversation, one had to necessarily turn the dial down, utter banalities like the one she had just said. Even at their best, and Meher truly believed Salma was among the best, in-laws were the occupational hazard of loving someone else.
They went to Peter Pane, a burger chain speckled throughout the city that Meher had imprinted onto in her first few lonely days in Hamburg. She had gone to college in America before moving here, and Peter Pane’s burgers and enormous serving sizes comforted her. They sat next to a family of four, two young boys patiently waiting for food with books in hand while the parents spoke to each other in low tones. Meher had only ever lived in places where people drew attention to themselves every time they spoke in public, and it shocked her sometimes, to be in restaurants full of conversing people and hear only a gentle murmur.
“That’s so charming,” Salma said, pointing a subtle fork toward the two boys. “I need to raise well-mannered children like that.”
“But notice how when the parents talk to them, they speak with such respect,” Razi said. “Meher, did you know that there is no benefit whatsoever to physically disciplining children?”
Meher frowned. “I mean . . . I have seen kids who could have used stronger hands.”
“It’s actually scientifically proven that better behavior has little to do with childhood disciplining,” Salma pointed out.
“Well,” Meher began defensively, because it seemed like this was something Razi and Salma saw eye to eye on, and she wondered what all he had told her. “We turned out fine.”
Razi shook his head, his face alive with the thrill of debate. She could tell he had been raring for this, for her to contradict him, for a chance to convince her.
“See, that’s what’s messed up. First of all, we don’t know if we turned out fine.”
Meher raised her eyebrows. She did think, in the larger scheme of it all, that they were normal, well-functioning people—the kind that called their families and had matching plates, butter in the fridge, and a deep, abiding respect for social order.
“And secondly, it’s a fallacious argument. Just because we turned out fine doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”
“So you’re telling me if your kid throws a tantrum in the middle of a party . . .”
“There are other ways of dealing with that,” Salma interrupted.
Her tone was cold. Meher backed down.
“You’re right, you’re right,” she said lightly, reaching for a joke. “I’m just saying, it can help build character.”
“Salma was never hit in her life,” Razi pointed out.
Precisely , Meher wanted to say. Salma was the kind of person—beveled edges, as harmoniously composed as a Monet—that made Meher see the value of a fractious upbringing.
“Razi, do you remember that time Abbu threatened to make us sleep on the bathroom floor?” she asked, and Razi leaned back and closed his eyes.
“God, don’t remind me.”
“It was the middle of December. You were seven and I was five.”
Razi’s eyes were still shut, but she could see a sly smile break out.
“It was so cold, man,” he said. “I was scared to death he would leave us there.”
“And remember what you asked him?”
“Can we at least get our blankets?”
They both roared with laughter. The family next to them turned to stare.
“But that wasn’t as bad as the time we played dress-up,” Razi said, grinning.
“What was that?” Salma asked. “I don’t know about this one.”
“So,” Razi began, and Meher could tell he had brought that one up so he could relive it, for Salma’s benefit and his own. “I think I was nine at the time. It was a Friday afternoon, and Abbu was still at work, which is the only reason we did this, because God knows we would never have done it if he were home.”
“I think it was Saturday. He was gone to the market.”
“No, we would have never done it if he was at the market. It wouldn’t have been enough time.”
“Don’t you remember, he would take forever at the market. He loves holding up every tomato and checking for bruises before—”
“I get it. What happened?” Salma asked.
Had she looked nervous then?
“Well, I maintain that it was a Friday, and Abbu wasn’t around, and Ammi was downstairs in the kitchen. Meher and I decided we wanted to cross-dress. She put on a button-down shirt of mine and shorts. I drew a mustache above her lips with Ammi’s eyeliner.”
“Honestly, I looked like a great boy.”
“And then it was my turn. We really went to town.”
“Remember that sari?” Meher asked, the colors of Ammi’s sari so fresh in her mind it could have been yesterday. Yellow and maroon, with specks of gold—the colors of autumn.
“Meher made me put on a whole goddamn sari, petticoat and all,” Razi told Salma. “And there was rouge and lipstick.”
“And the kajal, remember?”
“And you tied my hair up, so it looked like a tiny palm tree.”
“And then?” Salma asked impatiently.
“So we’re getting ready to go downstairs and show Ammi, and suddenly Abbu comes and knocks at the door, and then of course opens it without waiting.”
“Abbu was very firm about never having our doors locked.”
“Because he said we shouldn’t be doing anything that required closed doors,” Razi said. “So, he opens the door and takes one look at us and his eyes go red and wide. Then he was yelling, saying, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’”
It was strange how the remembrance of terrible things could be pleasurable.
“The sad thing is,” Meher said, even though this, to her, was the funniest bit, “I got away easy, because little girls dressed like boys still look like girls. Little boys though . . .”
She looked at Razi and cackled.
“Man,” Razi said. “My ear hurt for days after.”
“He tore the cloth off of me and scrubbed my face with soap himself. And the entire time, he just kept saying, ‘What do you think you’re doing? What do you think you’re doing?’ Ammi was mad at me for months after. Her sari was ruined.”
They both laughed again at Ammi and her sari and Abbu and his words. Meher recalled sitting in her room that day while Razi cried downstairs, the sound of skin hitting skin. It was strange how the remembrance of terrible things could be pleasurable. Salma was quiet.
“How is this funny?” she asked after a while.
Meher tried to come up with a response, but the question seemed in the realm of rhetoric, because Salma repeated herself, “How is this funny? This isn’t funny.”
It rained on their last day, typical Hamburg drizzle that lasted all afternoon and misted Meher’s glasses. They were meant to visit Travemünde on the Baltic Sea, a beach with rows of wicker chairs hooded against the wind, near a port that welcomed ferries from Denmark and Russia. Instead, they spent the day doing much of what they had been doing all week—blowing air over cappuccinos at Café May.
“Honestly can’t think of a better way to spend our last day here,” said Razi, carving out a spoonful of the chocolate cake he and Salma were sharing. Meher had always envied him those long, skinny fingers—their mother’s, unlike the stocky ones Meher and Abbu had. “Just drinking coffee and talking.”
“That’s literally all we’ve done here,” Salma complained. She was wearing a green turtleneck, and her hair shone in the way of the third trimester. “Don’t you two tire of talking?”
“No, because we’re interesting people,” Razi said, teasingly.
Maybe that’s what did it, the insinuation that Salma wasn’t.
“I can’t wait to visit after the baby comes,” Meher smiled. “Do you feel ready to be a mother?”
Salma took a sip of her tea.“Well, we ordered the crib before leaving. The nursery’s almost done; we just have to hang up some frames.”
Meher had meant emotionally ready. “He’s a lucky child,” she said. “He’ll grow up to be the best of us.”
“I can’t wait,” Razi added. “I told you, right? When I asked Abbu what the happiest time of his life was?”
“Aww,” Salma smiled.
“No,” Razi shook his head at her. “He said it was the first time he went to Karachi with friends. They all stayed in a hotel off of Tariq Road and caught stomach bugs eating falooda at Seaview.”
“Did you expect him to say something else?” Meher asked, wondering if her heart might burst from tenderness for this brother of hers.
“I mean, not really,” he said, shrugging. “But it was right around the time I told him we were pregnant. And it didn’t strike him to say, even as a courtesy, that he was also happy when we came.”
“Well, you know they don’t do courtesies,” Meher said.
Razi smirked, and she wondered at the strangeness of it all. Here was the only person in the world who would know them the way she did.
“And come on, Razi, don’t you remember how Ammi cries each time we are packing up? And she’s already so excited for the baby . . .”
“Okay, this is literally intolerable.”
Salma’s voice was shrill. They both turned to her. Color was creeping up her cheeks.
“What?” Razi asked.
“All you want to do is sit around and deconstruct everything your parents ever did.”
You don’t? Meher wanted to ask.
“And then you revel in how dysfunctional it all is,” Salma continued, disgust etched over her face. “If it’s so bad, why talk about it? It’s like some weird masochistic thrill.”
Meher opened her mouth, but Salma held her hand up.
“Cut it out, Meher. It doesn’t work the way you think it does. You have children, you take care of children. That’s it. That’s life.”
Razi was quiet, in a way that suggested he had heard this before. Perhaps just the previous night, after he and Salma had retired to Meher’s bedroom, while she slept on the air mattress. Maybe Salma had been brooding over this the entire week, waiting for the right moment to snap at them. Meher didn’t know how marriages worked—she had only ever seen her parents’, and she still wasn’t sure how that one did—but she knew Salma was crossing a line. One could spend a lifetime badmouthing the in-laws, but not to their faces.
“That’s not very nice,” Razi said, slight warning beneath his words.
“You know what’s not nice? Being on our last vacation before becoming parents and hearing you two ramble on about childhood trauma.”
“There’s no trauma,” Meher said hurriedly.
“Then stop talking about it,” Salma snapped.
“You’re right, let’s talk about something else,” Meher said, because she remembered what Ammi had said when Razi got married, which was that if she wanted to stay close to her brother, there was only one way to do it, and that was to compromise and compromise and compromise. “Brother’s wife,” Ammi had said, “no one ever wins with the brother’s wife.”
Still, Salma shouldn’t have said it. It turned their last day in Hamburg sour, in a way that couldn’t really be rescued. They had awkwardly walked around for a bit, and then Salma had said she wanted to return to the apartment and pack. She and Razi had slept early, the door to the bedroom firmly shut.
They have just left, after a final Sunday breakfast at Café May, catching the airport bus that leaves from across the street. Their cups are sitting at the table, milk foam still settling at the bottom of Razi’s, the other stained fuchsia from Salma’s lips. Meher leaves the shop, waving goodbye to the barista who knows her order. She must return home and face the desolation of his absence. Then she’ll put away the air mattress, watch some TV, get ready for work tomorrow. On her walk back to her apartment, she tries to step on every crunchy leaf that she can. Passing Mrs. Stach’s window, she looks in. The children will be coming soon.