Plain China

Dinner at the Qureshis

by Kimberly Kemler · University of Florida
"Fruit Basket Part II", Jordan Sommer · Winthrop University

            Last week, when Deb asked me to go to dinner with the Qureshis—the Qureshis are students at the University where Deb teaches—when Deb asked me about going to dinner at the Qureshis, we were right in the middle of something. You know, like I had my hand on her leg, and when her hair fell in front of her eyes she didn’t even push it behind her ear like she usually does when she’s serious about something, so I didn’t think anything of it. After, as she was re-clasping her bra and I was still untangling my jeans from the duvet, she said something like does Thursday work for you? and I didn’t even know what she was talking about anymore. I had, in the moment, completely forgotten about Siham and Abu Qureshi. And I never do anything on Thursdays, and Deb knows that, so there was no way Thursday wouldn’t work for me. That’s probably why she planned the dinner on a Thursday. I bet Siham asked something like what’s the best night for you? and Deb smiled, she’s always smiling at people, and she said, Thursday will work just fine.

            Deb and I met in college when we were both in undergrad. I was studying geology at Boston College, she was studying philosophy at Emerson, and the South Boston Library was holding free painting classes in the evenings. Deb and I happened to share a palette.  One day, the woman running the class told us to face our partner and paint whatever came to mind based on the colors she gave us. They were all oranges and browns and reds with a glob of bright teal. I painted the Boston skyline and used the teal for the harbor. I muted it with light beige. I thought it was pretty good, considering what we’d been given to work with. Deb, on the other hand, painted her entire canvas with thick teal and red streaks, the colors crisscrossing one another but never turning brown or being messed up by too many strokes.  When we moved to Michigan together, we hung them side-by-side over our kitchen table.

            “Remember, while we’re there, not to cross your legs, okay?” Deb said. “It’s impolite to show the sole of your shoe.”

            “Aren’t they in your graduate classes with other Americans? You’d think they’d have seen plenty of people’s shoes by now,” I said. Deb had been telling me stuff like that all day, about how I couldn’t use my left hand at the dinner table or try to shake Siham’s hand. I would probably end up doing all of those things anyway. Maybe I wouldn’t try to shake Siham’s hand, but I would definitely do the other two, because sitting with both feet on the floor is uncomfortable, and how the hell do you eat with one hand? Her students wouldn’t even notice, probably, because they’d been in America for a year now, and they were philosophy students for God’s sake, so they knew all about cultural differences anyways.

            Siham answered the door when we got there, and she stuck out her hand when Deb introduced us, so I shook it and I wondered how Deb felt about that. Siham was a petite woman with long brown eyelashes and large brown eyes. She had a strong handshake for a woman who wasn’t supposed to be offered a handshake. Her husband, Abu, had high cheekbones and skinny arms. Their house was decorated in dark purples and reds, and it smelled similar to our house. Probably because Siham had given Deb some nag champa incense over the holidays and Deb insisted on buying more from Amazon every time she ran out. She said it made the house smell more earthly. Siham invited us to sit in the living room with her while Abu finished preparing the food. When we sat, Siham crossed one of her legs over the other. I glanced at Deb, but she didn’t seem to notice.

            “I was reading that article, you know the one, by West and Zimmerman the other day,” Siham was saying, “and I realize now what you said about gender, about how it’s what you do, not what you are—you do it.” Deb was nodding.

            “That’s exactly right,” Deb said, still nodding, “but in discourse, you know, it becomes what she or he is, or what they are, it’s never what you’re doing, you know, it’s a binary—”

            “Right, I love that they call it, how did they call it? Omnirelevant, I think that’s what they said about gender—”

            “It’s a master status, you know,” Deb said. She loved talking about that. She loved that something could really define people without them realizing it. It was as if she was the only one who knew and that someday she could be the one to finally show the world about sexism and feminism and all that. I mean, I understood the issue, and I really felt for her. She wanted to make the world a different place and really make people understand other people. But sometimes I couldn’t see the point of all the research she was doing, all the books she was writing. I mean, Deb was brilliant, wildly brilliant and a good, creative thinker, but she spent all her time researching these differences in the social lives of people. Sometimes I wondered what kind of scientist Deb would’ve been. She might’ve studied how to repair the ozone layer, or stem cell development, or something like that. She might’ve been really good at that.

            For dinner, Abu made lamb with mint and thyme. Za’atar, he taught me. That meant mint and thyme. It was kind of like mirapoix, but it wasn’t French, and it had a more unique flavor. Abu, I could tell, wanted to build solidarity. Deb had taught me that word. It’s what people did when they wanted to create a bond with someone that wasn’t necessarily going to build into a friendship. It makes your acquaintances a little bit closer, she’d told me. So, when Abu asked me what I was doing in Michigan, I thought that’s what we were doing—building solidarity. I told him about the lake, about hydrogeology, about the confined aquifer beneath the lake and what was really going on with the water table and all about what that meant in layman’s terms. 

“Basically,” I was saying, “it’s all about how you look at it.” I was telling him about the Coriolis effect when Siham and Deb went to make coffee in the Qureshis’ kitchen. Abu hadn’t said much to show he understood, but I thought maybe he was just quiet. To me, he and Siham both seemed quiet, but I figured it was something about the cultural difference. They weren’t talkative people.

When Deb and Siham came into the sitting room, they were carrying two cups of coffee each. They were both laughing.

            “Exactly, exactly right, it’s belletristic at best,” Deb was saying.

            “What’s belletristic?” asked Abu. I hadn’t exactly finished explaining the perspective of Lake Michigan and the inertial circles on the lake’s surface, but I didn’t mind.

            “Oh, we were just saying how Maria wanting to learn French is so belletristic—it’s just a fantasy, you know,” Deb said, “she doesn’t have any desire to speak to anyone in French, just to know the language, you know, she thinks it’s so romantic, but it’s so fetishized—”

            “She’ll never be conversational at that rate,” Abu was nodding now.
            “It’s just funny,” Siham said, “that all these progressive and intelligent women still have a romanticized view of something as instrumental as an entire language.”

            “Maybe she just really wants to learn French,” I said, looking at Abu.

            “Yes,” Deb said, “but what we’re saying is that the reason she wants to learn French stems from such a belletristic motivation—”

            “Or maybe, maybe she just really does want to learn French,” I said. Deb was always doing that, assigning meaning to why someone wanted to do something. She didn’t think anybody ever did anything on a whim.

            “That’s what she thinks—she thinks oh, I want to learn French, I think I’ll learn French—” Siham said.

            “—but we’re saying, you know, she probably only wants to learn French because of some idea of beauty, or of romance, and not because she’ll ever use—” Abu started to say, but he was cut off when I bumped the small, gold saucer and caused the cup of coffee to fall to the floor—right onto the Qureshis’ plush carpet.

            “I’m sorry,” I said, kneeling with a napkin to try to coax the sinking stain back out of the carpet. I stayed there like that, dabbing the carpet, trying not to look at Deb. Deb hated accidents. She always thought there was meaning behind those, too.

            “Here, let me,” Siham said. She was carrying a tiny bowl of water and a lemon. I watched as she poured half the bowl over the carpet, then squeezed the lemon over it, and scrubbed it with a dishtowel. The coffee immediately soaked into the towel.

            “That’s amazing,” I said, looking at Siham.
            “Thank you,” she said. She wouldn’t look me directly in the eyes. “It’s an old trick I learned when I first married Abu. He used to be so clumsy.” Abu was smiling, but he wasn’t looking me in the eyes either.

            When we got home that night, Deb walked straight into the kitchen. She didn’t even take off her shoes, which she normally does right inside the door. She started doing that when we had dinner with one of her students from China and his family. They taught her how, in their culture, removing your shoes reminds you that you are going from a public place to a private one. She liked that our house could be her private place. When she asked me to remove my shoes at the door, I did. At least for a while. But I was always forgetting—like if I really had to go to the bathroom or something or I was really hungry, and I didn’t have time to untie my shoes and take them off. She never got mad about it, she just sort of mumbled about how our house was supposed to be separate from the rest of the world.

            I figured Deb went into the kitchen to make herself a drink. I knew she was mad about me spilling the coffee. We had only stayed about ten more minutes at the Qureshis before she asked if we could be excused. Deb always had exactly one drink when she was mad. I don’t think it was about the drink per say, but more about the action of making a drink. Unlocking the liquor cabinet—Deb had insisted we buy a locking liquor cabinet, even though we don’t have any kids—and pulling out the lone bottle of gin gave Deb something to do while she waited for me to apologize.

            When I entered the kitchen, I expected to see Deb leaning on the counter or sitting with her legs crossed at the table, sipping the drink she’d been making while I was upstairs trying to figure out how to apologize without apologizing for something that was an accident. But she wasn’t in either of those places, and she wasn’t sipping anything. Deb was just standing there, right in the middle of the kitchen, staring at the two paintings from Boston that hung side-by-side above the table.

            “When you knelt to clean the stain, both of the soles of your shoes were showing,” Deb said. “I told you so many times.”

“Deb, I’m sorry,” I said, “I was only thinking about the stain—I didn’t want to ruin their carpet.” Deb didn’t look like she was thinking about the soles of my shoes or how it made the Qureshis feel. She looked like she was thinking about the Boston Harbor or whatever she’d painted into those teal and red streaks. “Besides,” I began, “Siham—”

            “Siham and Abu are graceful people,” Deb interrupted. “They understand that their culture is different. . . but both soles? It was like a slap in the face.”

            “I’m sorry,” I said. Deb was quiet for a minute. I walked over to where she was standing and pushed her hair behind her ear. She wouldn’t look me in the eyes. She was staring past me, at the wall, at the paintings above the table, so I wrapped my arms around her.

            “They don’t really look right there,” Deb said after a while. “Or maybe they just don’t look right together. They’re two completely different styles, you know.”

            “That’s what we like about them, remember?” I said. Deb had brought this up before, when I got my job on Lake Michigan and she had just finished her master’s program. Back then, we were both living in my apartment in east Boston, and the paintings were hung above my couch. When I told her I was moving, and that I thought she should join me, she was lying in my lap, staring at the paintings. She said she wasn’t sure her painting would make sense outside of Boston. Deb was a lot more cryptic back then. I convinced her to move, though, when I found the website for the philosophy program at the University of Michigan.

            “I don’t know,” Deb said. She wasn’t even looking at both paintings any more. Her eyes were fixed on one. I knew, because I had stood just where she was standing and I had stared at those teal and red streaks for hours trying to figure out what made her paint them that way. I wonder if she was thinking about the apartment in Boston, and what would’ve happened if I hadn’t convinced her to get her Ph.D.

Sometimes, I wonder if Deb felt guilty about the years she spent in school while I worked at the Lake.  I always told her not to, because I wanted her there with me and it didn’t make sense for her to be there if she wasn’t doing something. So that’s just what she was doing, she was at the University, and I was mapping the Lake. That’s just what we were doing, but we were doing it together. But sometimes Deb would say we were growing apart. That she had made friends at the University, and that she was learning about herself, and her social and cultural identity, and that was why she always wanted me to read the articles she was studying. She said the articles changed the way she thought about herself, and she wanted me to read them, too, just to see if I felt the same way.

“I’ll call Siham in the morning and apologize,” Deb said, sitting in one of the kitchen chairs. She wasn’t staring at the paintings anymore.

“Okay,” I said. “Here,” I untied one, then both of her shoes, then both of mine. I put them on the rack next to our front door. Deb smiled a little bit, then pushed her hair behind her ear.

 

About the Author

Kimberly Kemler · University of Florida

Kimberly Kemler's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie, Salamander, and CutBank, among others. She currently lives in one of Tokyo's 23 wards, where she works for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government as an ALT. When not writing, she splits her time between grassroots ESL teaching and her 10-speed bicycle, both of which she loves very much.
About the Artist

Jordan Sommer · Winthrop University

Jordan Sommer is a senior undergraduate student at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, working toward her B.F.A. in General Studio with a concentration in printmaking and sculpture. Jordan's work is habitually process and material driven and often derives from her inner dialogue. "Fruit Basket Part II" first appeared in Miscellany.