Excerpted from the short story first published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 5 (2021). The protagonists in Clorox are determined to show they are people without biases; slowly their facade unravels.
“So, you came with the house, huh?” Amir jokes.
Tamar smiles back at him and continues to rinse the dishes covered in dried red curry paste from the night before.
“Oh Amir, please stop pestering her. Spare her on the first day at least,” Farah gently slaps the back of her husband’s head, “Ignore him. In another life, he was probably a comedian. A failed one.”
Tamar laughs, accentuating the lines on her rich dark skin. Farah smiles back, “Listen, Tamar, it has been a rough move from Pakistan to Bronxville, but I want to make sure you know that we are overwhelmed with gratitude to have you.”
“Miss Farah, please don’t. When Mr Brad sold this house, he told me to stay for the new family. He was always so kind I couldn’t never say no. Been working for them since their kids were little and now they’re grown, married, have their own kids,” Tamar pauses, “Miss Farah, can I ask a question?”
“Worry not, Tamar. We will pay you the same amount as the previous owners… or more if you would like, of course? Wait a minute, let me guess: You must have thought these Third World Pakistanis are stingy?” Farah takes a breath, “In fact, dear, even if you thought that way, I can hardly blame you. But my husband and I are nothing like the rest of them. Quite frankly, we are… what’s the word… more civilisés in comparison—for lack of a better term. We lived abroad most of our lives: Amir and I met at Oxford over ten years ago—the twins were born in Zurich and then the little one in Paris last year. We move a lot—Amir used to run the largest hedge fund in Europe… Oh, and before you ask, I don’t know what that is either,” she giggles as Tamar struggles to keep track of the unfamiliar places Farah lists in her seemingly posh accent that slips back and forth between American and British dialects, “But actually this is our first time really living in America. I must admit that I am a tad bit nervous, though. Not for Bronxville but for living in America generally. I gather that it is the-place-to-be these days, but oh so strange in so many ways. It is just…”
“No, ma’am! You live in the suburbs. That’s why you’re feeling it. With all the white people around, you ask me and, oh Lord, it sure is crazy here,” Tamar interjects wittingly.
“I beg your pardon?” Farah steps back and blinks with shock. A feeling of unease ensues, that she wraps in a tense smile.
“Yes, ma’am! With their golf clubs, fancy wheels and skinny wives, they be looking the same, eating the same, doing the same and wearing the same—salmon shorts.” Tamar laughs, “White people.”
Farah says nothing and walks briskly to her husband on the other side of the kitchen: “Love, no phones at the table. We have talked about this.”
“Yeah, sure, no phones at the table. This is an iPad,” Amir smirks.
“God, men,” she sits down, “Honey, what are you watching?”
Thousands of protestors across the country are marching against police brutality and systemic racism in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month. CNN correspondent…
“Fun times to move to ‘murica! Home of the brave and free protests! I told you…”
“Sir, yes, sir! Land of the free and home of the brave,” Tamar sings, still facing the sink, washing dishes.
Stumped at being interrupted, Amir continues, “Honey, I told you this country’s not much different from France. They love finding a reason to riot too. Bet you’ll get used to it in no time...”
Farah turns her chair around, “So what’s for dinner, Tamar dear? It smells delicious here!”
“Chicken pot pie and lamb brisket in the oven. Not as fancy as your Paris food but good for the soul. I make it for my grandkids on Christmas Eve. Couple o’ more minutes, Miss Farah.”
“Oh, I assure you Tamar, we can hardly wait. The previous owners shared such great things about your cooking.”
“Mummy, Daddy! Look—look what we found!” the twins rush in. Farah immediately snatches Amir’s iPad and closes the news livestream.
“The hell you did that for?” he yells. Farah stares back, eyes wide open.
“Mummy, look, she’s so pretty,” pointing at the blue butterfly in Zara’s mason jar. It lies still with its deep blue wings adorned by tiny white dots shining like little stars. The butterfly tries to climb up the jar, hits the lid, falls and repeats its movements. “Mummy, look, it’s dancing for us.”
“No, love, poor thing is just telling you that it would appreciate some fresh air.” Farah spins around, her white silk dress twirling with her, “Tamar, love, please punch a hole in the lid for the kids. It seems that their new friend here has a situation.”
“Small hole, Tamar. Or the bug’s gonna slip out and fly off. Sneaky little bastards,” Amir laughs.
“Ok now, allez! Everyone on the table,” Farah orders.
Tamar hands back the mason jar to the twins. She then opens the oven and pulls out five ramekins of steaming chicken pot pie and a tray of braised lamb brisket resting on a bed of caramelized onions, lemon, and garlic cloves. She slices the brisket, garnishes it with cilantro and brings it to the dining table. Next, she carries each of the five ramekins: One for Amir, one for each of the twins, one for Farah and one in front of the empty chair—where Tamar herself takes a seat. Farah instantly looks up at Amir to gauge his reaction. He’s digging into his pot pie.
Tautly, she looks back at her plate and takes her first bite, “C’est delicieux, Tamar. Earthy and zesty at the same time. Complex, fragrant, layered, transportive. Parfait.”
“Don’t get anything you said Miss Farah, but guessing you like my food?”
“She’s saying she hates it,” Amir jolts, “I’m joking, she likes everything. It just seems like my wife is suddenly in love with French which, funnily enough, I don’t remember her speaking in France.”
Everyone laughs but Farah, loud enough to awaken Omar in his crib on the first floor.
“Tamar, love, would you please go check in on the baby upstairs? His milk is in the minifridge on the left as you enter the bedroom,” Farah asks.
“Of course, Miss Farah! Oh, and dessert’s in the fridge. Lemon tart with my special homemade crust,” she takes one last bite of her chicken and rushes upstairs.
Amir waits till Tamar leaves the kitchen and looks back to make sure she’s gone, “She’s great, right?”
His wife acts as if she didn’t hear anything, “Oi, you two, quit playing with the butterfly. Eat your food first.” The twins give no attention to their mother. “Listen to me, or you’re one plane away from boarding school in Geneva,” she says, her eyebrows arching against her botoxed forehead.
“And you,” she pierces Amir with her gaze and pulls him into the foyer, “Ok, be honest. What’s your gut saying on this woman?”
“Way better than those maids we had in Paris. But I do miss the hot nanny in Zuric…”
“Stop it for once. Look at me. I’m being serious.”
Ali Shahbaz is a contributor at Forbes, where he writes weekly articles on intersectional issues affecting young people. Originally from Lahore, he has lived in Switzerland and France, and now lives between New York and Washington, DC. He graduated from Georgetown University and has worked on Wall Street and the World Bank. Ali’s work focuses on cosmopolitanism, liminality, ambiguity and the issues that arise from combinations of them. His writings have appeared in The Washington Post, Newsday and The Boston Globe. He tweets @thealishahbaz.
About the featured artist: Clarissa Roetzel is a multidisciplinary artist from Ghana and Germany. Clarissa continuously strives to use her experience and creativity to foster innovative ways of presenting ideas and startling perspectives to enlighten and enhance how we see and participate in our world. She believes in people and the power of stories to raise awareness, inspire, and create content that provides social value. Currently residing in Accra, Ghana, Clarissa’s work has been featured on book covers, TED and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Her work was also featured in our third volume alongside Kamila Shamsie's short story, War Letters.