Every Sunday that summer, Sara and Hassan put on their best weekend clothes—bright blouses and capri pants for her, polo shirts and pressed khakis for him—and went to the Ahmeds’ house, in Darien. Mona and Ali Ahmed were originally from Lahore, friends of friends back home. They had the assurance of people who had spent two comfortable decades on the East Coast: a wide circle of acquaintances, membership at a local golf club, a time-share in Naples, Florida. Ali Ahmed was a pediatric gastroenterologist. Mona organized charity events for the Islamic Center in Stamford. Every weekend, they hosted an open house, a back-yard party where Pakistani families dropped by with their kids and ate lunch by the pool.
The Ahmeds’ house was a big white Colonial with green shutters, framed by carefully landscaped shrubs and trees. There was a semicircular driveway and a four-car garage with a guest apartment above it. “This is what I imagined Connecticut would look like,” Sara said the first time they drove up to the house, her eyes opening wider with admiration. Hassan instinctively tried to find fault with the house. He knew that it might be years, a decade even, before they could afford a place like this. But it was grand, Hassan had to admit. Like a house in a movie about a family with a lovable dog.
The Ahmeds’ three sons—seven, nine, and twelve—were always dressed in matching outfits, their hair combed and gelled to one side. The boys were consistently charming and well behaved, salaaming each guest on arrival and shaking hands, then promptly disappearing to play on their own. “Those kids are so impressive,” Sara murmured. “I don’t know how Mona does it.”
The female guests each contributed a dish covered in plastic wrap—fresh shami kebabs, fruit salad, homemade samosas—which they took to the kitchen when they arrived so that they could gossip with Mona. Sara told Hassan that, as the ladies unwrapped the dishes, Mona made each one feel as if she alone were the most important woman at the party. She touched their sleeves. She complimented them on their haircuts. Sara admired Mona—her impeccable taste, how quickly she connected with other women—but she also sensed that the parties were a kind of audition. For what, she told Hassan, she wasn’t sure.
Outside in the yard, the husbands hovered around a large Weber grill, keeping Ali company while he grilled chicken tikkas. Funny, wasn’t it, Hassan had remarked to Sara after their first visit, how in America these men were so proud of their barbecuing skills, a task none of them would have taken on back home. But Hassan looked up to Ali. The easy way he interacted with his guests, his salt-and-pepper hair always in place. Hassan noticed that Ali rarely offered his own opinions, instead encouraging other people to talk about themselves. People said that he was an excellent doctor.
On the fourth Sunday in June, Ali clapped Hassan on the back and passed him the grill tongs. “H-man,” he said, “you think you can take care of this while I go for a swim?”
“Definitely,” Hassan said, smiling. He turned to the grill, squeezing the points of the tongs together in one hand and staring at a platter of raw chicken legs. He wished that he hadn’t been the one tapped for this task. He had never cooked anything more elaborate than a fried egg.
Abid, a heavyset banker in his late forties, sat drinking a beer next to the grill, watching Hassan with interest. “You should see the look on your face, bro. You’d think he just asked you to deliver a baby. You want me to do it for you?”
“No, I got it, thanks,” Hassan said, waving the smoke away from his eyes.
“What did you say you do at RBS, by the way?” Abid asked, pulling his seat closer and offering Hassan a drink from the cooler.
Hassan described the buyout that he and Hina were working on, trying to sound knowledgeable about infrastructure in Indiana. He hoped that Abid would assume he was higher up in the pecking order of his group than he really was. The trouble was that he found it difficult, while explaining his job and drinking a beer, to stay focussed on the chicken. How was he supposed to know when the meat was done?
When lunch was served it was clear that much of the chicken was burned on the outside and raw in the middle. Ali told Hassan not to worry. He placed the most undercooked pieces back on the grill, covering them with the lid, and urged the guests to go ahead and start eating the rest of the meal. Mona looked annoyed.
“Dude, Hassan’s trying to kill us,” Abid joked.
Hassan glared at him. Sara kicked Hassan’s shin under the table. Hassan bit into a drumstick that was clearly too pink near the bone.
“You’ll get sick, sweetheart,” Sara said to him under her breath, passing him a napkin. “Don’t eat that.”
“It’s fine, don’t be silly,” Hassan said, tearing off a piece of raw chicken with his teeth. “Not bad at all.”
Sundays gave Hassan and Sara a sense that Connecticut held possibility, that they were on a trajectory. True, Ali and Mona inhabited entire worlds that Hassan and Sara never entered. The club where Ali played golf with other doctors, for one. The Islamic Center, where Mona did her volunteering, a place that held little interest for either of them. But at the pool parties Hassan and Sara felt a sense of rightness. On Sundays, they felt closest to the people they wanted to be.
There was never a possibility that Hassan and Sara could reciprocate the Ahmeds’ hospitality. The thought of inviting the Ahmeds over to their small, shabby apartment felt ludicrous. And so each Sunday they chatted with Ali and Mona and the other guests for a few moments of real connection, and went home feeling unsatisfied.
Until one Sunday in August, when Sara told a lie.
Hassan could tell that she hadn’t planned to do it. After lunch, Mona asked her about their current living situation, what they would do when they had a baby, if they’d need to move to a bigger place. Sara mentioned that they were living in a two-bedroom apartment near the office, and Hassan saw Mona frown slightly. But, Sara added quickly, they had their eye on a four-bedroom Victorian in Newfield. They had recently put in an offer on the place, she continued, but then the owner had backed out of the sale. His adult daughter thought she might want the house after all.
“That must be so frustrating,” Mona said, fixing her large, kohl-rimmed eyes on Sara with sympathy. “And what do you think about all this, Hassan?”
“Right, yes,” Hassan murmured, faltering. “I mean, yes, it’s annoying.”
“Oh, we’ll find something else,” Sara said, her voice confident, pulling Mona’s attention back to her. “I know just what I want.”
Hassan watched Sara conjure up a house with her elegant, long-fingered hands. She used words that he didn’t know she knew. Cornice. Eave. Gable. He saw Mona looking at Sara, smiling at her more. At the end of the day, Mona handed her a tote bag full of paint chips and fabric swatches left over from her most recent redecoration, pointing to the sage greens and dove grays that she liked best.
On the drive back to their apartment, Sara examined the samples, rubbing the soft fabrics between her thumb and forefinger. She said the names of the paint colors aloud: Misty Morning Dew. Sandy Ridge. Brookside Moss. Hassan chose his words carefully. He didn’t want to upset his wife, but as he spoke he found irritation creeping into his voice. Now, he said, they’d have to talk about their imaginary house hunt every Sunday. Yes, of course he wanted those things, too. But Sara’s lie had made him feel foolish. He was only a few months into his contract. They were a far cry away from a four-bedroom Victorian.
Sara looked out the window, the stack of binders open in her lap.
“Oh, I know all that,” she said.
“Then why?” Hassan asked. “Why did you say those things?”
“Because,” Sara said, her voice becoming small, “I can tell what she thinks of us.”
“What does she think of us?” Hassan asked, surprised to find that he cared.
“She thinks we’re . . . ordinary,” Sara said.
Hassan started to interject: What was wrong, he wanted to argue, with being ordinary? With fitting in? But then he stopped himself. In Karachi, Hassan and Sara had grown up in their grandfathers’ houses. Their families had histories that were understood by their friends, shared by their neighbors. In Connecticut, they were interchangeable. Inconsequential. He was just another analyst. She was just another wife.
Their friendship with the Ahmeds lasted the twelve weeks of summer. Then, on Labor Day, while they were eating lunch, Mona informed Hassan and Sara that she wouldn’t be having the weekly pool party anymore. Now that the school year was starting, she planned to host a multicultural book club instead. Each week, the group would read a book from a different culture and discuss it over lunch.
“There will be two Irish: they are called the Foleys. A Jewish surgeon and his wife. A Korean and some South Indians.”
“Sara and I could be the Pakistanis,” Hassan suggested, smiling.
“Oh, but I’m afraid that’s us,” Mona said, shaking her head with sympathy. “Ali and I are the Pakistanis in the group.”