Nowal Nasir is a freelance writer and undergraduate student majoring in English at the Harvard Extension School. Born in Pakistan, raised in Hong Kong, educated in the USA.
I walk into Starbucks at 7 am, starving after a nineteen-hour flight from Mirpur to Boston. As I pass through the golden doors that magically open as I step close, I am surprised by the casual ambience of the coffee shop. Men with unshaven beards, dressed in tshirts and pyjamas with flip flops stand in a queue. A few women are wearing makeup, heels and freshly ironed dresses. They glance from the counter to their watch, from their watch to their phone, shifting on their toes, eager to grab a coffee and rush to the urgent tasks that await them. There are numerous people in workout clothes, sweaty but energetic, eager to embrace the day. I struggle to grasp their lack of concern for dressing up sharply before leaving the house. Then I line up behind a man who seems to have forgotten how to shave a decade ago. He taps his foot on the wooden floor and hums along the rhythm of the music blaring through his headphones. He is wearing grey trousers and seems to have rolled right out of bed into Starbucks. I wonder if he realize he’s outside. People are watching, I have an urge to tell him. He smiles; I nervously grin and lower my gaze as if someone just caught me shoplifting. Don’t stare, I remind myself. A few steps ahead of him is a teenage girl with curly black hair that rest just above her shoulders. She is wearing a red tank top and her arms are covered in tattoos. I struggle to make out the tattoo. My eyes are fixed on her arms. Don’t stare, don’t stare, I remind myself before looking away.
In Mirpur I dined out with my family on the first Sunday of every month. Hours before the dinner my three sisters and I picked out and fought over shalwar kameez, matching earrings, bracelets, and shoes. We helped each other apply the perfect eyeliner, swapped clothes depending on who wore what the previous month. Always selecting from our four fancy, bright coloured shalwar kameez: red, purple, yellow and pink, with borders of silver and golden sitara embroidery. Even the memory of standing in the McDonald’s queue wearing high heeled, golden pumps with purple shalwar kameez seems ridiculous now as I look at the people around me at Starbucks.
I remind myself to focus. This will be my first order in nineteen years. Nervously, I look over at the counter but no one seems to be looking at a menu. Then like a sudden painful electric jolt it hits me: there is no menu on the table. No piece of paper to save me from speaking. Nothing to point at. People walk over and order as if they knew the list of Starbucks beverages at birth. I look up and notice tiny words scrawled on a blackboard revealing the contents of the menu. There are names of beverages with prices followed by calorie count like a complex set of algebra problems. I long for the homemade ladoo and nihari seized by customs at the airport. Ma had spent a week preparing food that is now resting in a trash can at Boston Logan Airport. I long to rush back to the airport and demand my food back.
Anxiously, I count the number of people ahead of me. Five. Time is running out. Decide what to eat, decide. Peaking through the gaps as people ahead block my view I stare through the glass at the food items on display. I look over searching for vegetarian options: Croissant, Blueberry Scone, Spinach Feta and Cage Free Egg White, nothing that I have tried or heard of before. Croissant. That seems fine, but how do I pronounce it? Different versions run through my head, cross-ant, no, too simple for a word like that. Crozz-ant, maybe the s sounds like z like one of those tricky English words that only people who are fluent in the language understand. I look over at cakes, blueberry cheesecake, after nearly twenty-four hours of starving. No. Spinach feta, what is feta? More importantly, how do I say it? Feet-a or just Fet-a, but that’s a long name. I’ll say spinach, then stutter. No, I must go for an easy option. I am on the second spot now. Time is really running out. Maybe I’ll point through the glass. Yes. I’ll be one of “those” people. Just then I notice the headphone man will get to the counter nearest to the glass first, I just know it from how quickly the girl with the tattoo is placing her order in a single breath, no pause, no second thoughts; she could probably utter her usual Starbucks order in her sleep.
I feel the urge to lie down on the floor like a four year old and sob till Baba comes to rescue me. I remember all those Sunday dinners when Baba would take us to restaurants with marble floors so clean we could see our reflection. Most months we alternated between McDonald’s, KFC and Chatkhara. Baba ordered for all of us; every time he’d ask us “What do you want?” and we’d tell him to get us whatever he’d have. It never occurred to us that we could read the menu ourselves, choose what we like and order. Baba never tried anything different; he ordered Big Mac at McDonald’s, Zinger at KFC and Channa Bathora at Chatkhara. Sometimes Ma would complain for ordering the same thing each time, he would frown and we stopped complaining out of fear of ruining the night. Standing here, I yearn for the security of home, for never feeling the pressure to speak or decide.
I gaze around searching now for a safe order. I look over at the drinks in a picture placed on the counter, summer promotion, Caramel Frappuccino. I look at the picture, and decide there’s no way I’m saying frappuccino. I’ll mess up. I decide to google the pronunciation. Frantically I search through my handbag, water bottle, empty orange juice bottle, tissue, sanitary pad, notebooks, pens, but no sign of my phone. As usual, just at the most important moment my phone has found the least accessible corner in the bag. It always happens, as if your handbag decides to engage in a momentary power struggle. I look up and the brunette at the counter is waving while repeating in a practised rhythm of polite urgency, “Can I have who’s up next.” Great. Now I’m also the idiot who holds up the coffee line. I tread forward nervously.
“Hi! What can I get you?” she says
I raise my index finger without uttering a word and point to the card on the counter.
“Caramel Frappucino. What size?”
I remain silent like my vocal cords tangled and choked without my knowledge. She leans to her right and points at three different sizes of plastic cups. Tall, Grande, and Venti, I read and finally utter the only word I know how to pronounce.
Briskly she grabs a plastic cup and a black marker. Then she leans half over the counter with her ear out.
“Can I have your name?”
“Haya,” I say in a voice so low even I can’t hear it.
She leans forward again. “Sorry?”
“Haya!” I say out loud in frustration. The guy placing an order on the next counter giggles.
“Thank you. That’ll be three seventy-five.”
Horror stricken, I gaze at her. $375. I glance quickly at the card for the price and realise it’s $3.75. I hand over a five dollar bill and receive two tiny coins back.
“Here’s your change,” she says.
I calculate the price in rupees, four hundred! Images of hot jalebi, samosas and chai flood my mind. My mouth waters at the memory of freshly fried samosas and I’m brought back with another wave of the barista’s hand,
“Please wait on that side.” She points to her right and I wobble over, not once daring to look back.
Waiting for the drink I remember the time I wanted to order a mango lassi at Chatkhara. I had waited for Baba to finish ordering, then the waitress had asked, “Any drinks?” and without a glance at us, he had said “Just water.” I returned the menu without saying a word and waited another month for mango lassi. Standing here I feel a sense of accomplishment. I look around as if waiting for the world to applaud but people go on with their lives without once glancing my way. I make a mental note to learn pronunciation for all Starbucks beverages.
“Caramel Frappucino for Haya,” says a voice.
Eagerly I step forward to hold my cold drink. It has fluffy white mountain peaks on top and brown sticky swirls like miniature muddy streams. I snap a picture on my phone to send to my sisters later. Then imagining and anticipating their surprise and questions regarding my first order, I insert a straw between the sticky streams of caramel.