I often wonder if Azari would’ve been okay if I’d kept my secret to myself. Maybe she would’ve gone home to her parents, settled for a husband she’d learn to love. When I first saw Azari strutting across campus in her platform heels, low cut blouse, and miniskirt that revealed the curve of her ass when she walked, I thought: Slut! I quickly reprimanded myself (hypocrite!) and rearranged my thoughts. That girl is pouring her body into society’s mold with no benefit to herself. It was only after I got to know her that I understood the opposite was true.
The last time I saw Azari she was loitering on a corner downtown, all bones and scabs and tremors. My guilt consumed me and made it impossible to look her in the eye, so I hurried past before she saw me. To be fair, I had reached out at least a dozen times in the past year, but finally had to admit the Azari I’d known had vanished.
In our undergrad and graduate years, Azari and I were closer than sisters. We stayed up late into the nights talking, legs intertwined, her cardamom breath warming my nose. Jenna was six by the time we finished grad school. She thought of Azari as her aunt or maybe her other mom and often slept between us. Our conversations were like interior monologues from a single person.
Me: “Your hot feet on my cold feet. Mmmm, the best.”
Azari: “Speaking of hot, I wonder if I should call him?”
Me: “He’s too dumb for you.”
Azari: “Maybe not dumb, maybe just stoned.”
Me: “ In a couple years you’re gonna be Dr. Bukhari. Dr. Bukhari and the dumb stoner. Sorry, it’s not a match.”
Azari: “I’m so excited to start my program. I do miss my parents and my sisters, though. I wish I had the money to go back to Karachi for a visit. A few more years, then I can go home for good.”
Me: “I don’t want you to leave me.”
Azari: “You know I’ll miss you like crazy, but with a PhD in education I can go back with more freedom to make choices about my own life. I can open a school, open doors for so many girls.”
The next day I waited on the steps outside the financial aid office for Azari. A discarded university brochure fluttered in the breeze. I picked it up and studied the photo of the university chancellor, a silver-haired man in an expensive suit. He stared directly at the viewer with steely blue eyes and the expression of a winner. I fanned myself with it.
When Azari came out of the office, she was despondent. “I was only granted a study visa. It doesn’t allow me to work. How am I supposed to pay my tuition and my rent?”
” Get a job under the table. Plenty of undocumented people do it,” I said.
“Any job I can get without a work visa won’t be enough to cover tuition, housing, food.,” Azari said.
“Why don’t you ask your parents? “
“They already spent what they’d saved for me on undergrad and graduate school. Anyway, at this point, they’d rather I come home and get married like my sisters. Their husbands are all good men, but my sisters have no more freedom to make choices about their own lives, their own bodies, than the family dog,” said Azari.
“You think that’s so different here in America, or anywhere else for that matter?”
Heat radiated off the pavement as Azari and I walked to the bus stop. Azari strode with her chin up, shoulders back, hips rolling in wide figure eights. I knew she felt sexy walking that way with freedom in her movement she’d only harnessed as an undergraduate freshman, new to America.
We walked in silence the rest of the block, before I sighed and said, “Look, I’ve never told this to anyone.” We locked eyes and I could see Azari understood this was not a monologue conversation. “I knew when I had Jenna I didn’t want her growing up where I did. Some nights going to bed hungry. Having to crash on somebody’s couch because we couldn’t pay rent. I wanted to give her a life with more dignity. It was just the two of us, so it was up to me.” I took a moment to work up my courage. “The only way was to go to college. But to do that I had to pay $1800 dollars a month for childcare, $1500 a month for rent, and don’t even get me started on health insurance and emergency room visits every time Jenna got an asthma attack. That’s not even including my tuition, food, and everything else.”
“What, did you work as a hitman?” she asked me.
“I worked as a masseuse.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Azari said.
“Not the kind you’re thinking of. For men.”
Azari stopped walking and raised her eyebrows, unable to meet my gaze. “Oh.”
“It obviously wasn’t my dream job, but it was safer than working as an escort and it paid really well. And I can tell you, they weren’t asking for Social Security numbers.”
Azari nodded and continued down the street, gauging the sidewalk ahead of us. Since she didn’t say anything, I continued, “I guess I figured, we’re all, I mean, women, are objectified anyway, why not monetize the inevitable and use that money to empower myself and my daughter?” I tried to read her, but for once she was a closed book.
“Listen, I don’t judge you for doing it. You got a degree and kept Jenna housed and fed and the rest. It’s just not for me. No offense, but it flies in the face of every reason I’m here,” Azari said.
We walked the last blocks to the bus stop in silence.
A week later we lay in bed on our sides nose to nose in the dark.
“”The whole week I’ve called like every job I could find on Linkedin, Monster, Ziprecruiter,” said Azari.
” No luck?”
” They’re all minimum wage jobs. I think they expect me to procure a fake social security card, but where?”
“What if you get caught with a fake Social Security number?”
Azari rubbed her temple with her finger tips. I felt the same dull ache pushing against my temples and behind my eyes.
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I’ve run the numbers a thousand times. Even if I worked all of my free time, it wouldn’t be enough.” Azari went quiet for a while, before continuing, ” I was looking at my parents’ wedding photo today. You know, they were younger than I am now when they had me. They seemed so sure of themselves, like they had all the answers between them.”
I curled my toes around hers and squeezed. ” If I could marry you for a green card I would. ” I felt her smile even in the dark.
The next night, I lay on my side facing Azari while she lay on her back, staring at the ceiling.
“I called my parents today,” she said.
“My baby sister’s getting married.”
“Is that a good thing?” I asked.
“It means all my father’s savings and income will go toward the wedding for the foreseeable future.”
“I see. Do you know the groom?”
“He’s old. And rich. It would destroy me, like I’d have to change who I am, to make that bargain myself. But she’ll never have to worry about money.”
“That’s no small thing.”
The pools of her eyes glistened with the full moon’s brassy light which shone through the window, then ran in silent streams down her cheeks. I curled my arms and legs around her. It felt like such a small thing.
She never told me her plans, but the next day, I came home and found her room empty, the weekly Guardian opened on her bed to the last help wanted page. She got home after I had already put Jenna to sleep. I guess I wound up falling asleep myself, but I woke up when she climbed into bed.
“Azari?” She didn’t answer. “Are you ok?”
“You’ll never guess who came in today,” she finally said.
“Who?” But I could already guess. The university chancellor had been a regular when I worked there. He always brought the same outfit no matter the girl. I pictured Azari fastening the metal clasps between her breasts as they spilled over the vinyl bralette, buckling the spiked leather dog collar around her neck, trying to empty her head of thoughts.
Gretchen Gossett’s short fiction story, “The Poet,” will be published in the winter edition of the online publication, Wordgathering. She’s taken writing courses at Gotham Writers, including Intro to Fiction, Plot, Character, and Publication. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA.