You’re twenty-eight years old, Ayesha. At your age, I had two children!”
Ayesha Shetty watched in silence as her mother made the declaration while pouring boiling water from the kettle into the stainless steel filter. The bitter chicory scent of Malabar coffee flooded the tiny kitchen. Amma’s eyes, exactly as dark and dramatically large as Ayesha’s own, glittered purposefully across the steam rising from the brew. “It’s time to settle down, Ayesha.”
It had been years since Ayesha had seen that look on her mother’s face. A glimmer of excitement sneaking past an avalanche of expectation.
From dawn to dusk, Ayesha worked with her mother at the family restaurant. She lived with her, ate three meals a day with her, thought of little else but keeping the restaurant profitable and her mother happy.
Apparently, she still wasn’t doing enough.
“Great! Two children and one settling down coming right up.” Ayesha retrieved the pencil she’d tucked behind her ear and scribbled the words across her handy notepad. Before the day’s end, it would fill up with things Ayesha had to get done. Inventory, prep, catering orders, vendor invoices, staffing changes, broken equipment, one thing and then the next and then the next. “Would you like to add a gender preference for the children? Oh, and would you like fries with that?”
Amma poured milk into a white Corning Ware cup she’d used for as long as Ayesha had been alive and popped it into the microwave as though Ayesha hadn’t spoken.
Silent disapproval. Her mother’s new love language.
Well, not so new anymore. It had been seven years since they’d had an all-out fight. Before that, arguments had been their primary mode of communication. Honest, no-holds-barred, mother-daughter butting of heads. Amma and she had disagreed on almost everything, their arguments as full bodied as the hugs that interspersed the fights.
You’re both exactly alike, her father had loved to say. My warrior women.
He’d been half-right. Amma was a warrior. Ayesha had been trying to be like her for seven years.
“Kinni,” Amma said, the term of endearment spoken with a deliberateness that emphasized Ayesha’s rudeness. “You know I can’t eat fries. Unless of course you want me to go into diabetic coma so you don’t have to deal with me anymore.”
Wow. It had been years since Amma had fallen back on her favorite parenting device. Death threats.
You will go out of the house in that skirt over my dead body.
Are you trying to kill me with your grades?
Why don’t you just stab me with a knife instead of going out with that boy?
The rhetorical power of death had lost its charm after they’d lost Ajay. Seven years to put away a tragedy that had destroyed their family and rocked their community. What was it about grief that lodged itself so deep inside you it couldn’t be reached? Like a thorn that skin and muscle had grown around. Protection and wound rolled into one.
Amma stared expectantly at her. What response did she expect? Indignation over her diabetes comment? Outrage over her demand that Ayesha suddenly pop out babies? Hadn’t she noticed that they didn’t fight anymore?
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude,” Ayesha said finally, remorse grinding the words down to a mumble.
Something like disappointment flickered in her mother’s eyes. “That’s not an answer to my question.”
Amma hadn’t asked a question; she’d passed a decree. One Ayesha had no time to get into. She had to get through the Friday lunch rush, fulfill eleven catering orders, and then get to her best friend’s prewedding cocktail party.
The fact that Bela was getting married had obviously sent Amma into a daughter’s-impending-spinsterhood panic.
“How would that work exactly? Where—when?—am I going to find this person to settle down with?” Even if he knocked on her door fully prepared to start helping with Amma’s baby-making agenda, where would Ayesha find the time? “The restaurant takes sixteen hours of my day. On a light day. Every day.”
Amma cooked; Ayesha managed everything else. It had taken them five years of nonstop work to become profitable again.
When she’d started working at the restaurant, Ayesha hadn’t known the front of house from the back of house, let alone knowing anything about managing the line or the pass. Growing up, she’d stayed as far away from the family business as she could. Mangalore Stew had represented tradition and parental expectations, the things Ayesha had sworn not to be tethered by. The very things that had excited Ajay. She’d relied completely on her older brother to be the one responsible for their mother’s happiness, her dreams, their family’s financial security. Ayesha had believed that her rebellion gave her a free pass.
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