by Sarvat Hasin
Iris often set menus ahead of her visits, requests of what she wanted to eat when she got there. The lists would crop up in Hina’s emails or on her phone, once even scrawled up the back of a postcard from Stockholm. The menus were signals of her arrival. She never called to say she was coming to stay, only showed up three days (give or take) after her lists. On these lists, Iris referred to each food item by the names they’d coined when they lived in Jericho and cooked together all the time. So bread pudding was Post-Whiskey Duvet and cherry pie was American Roadtrip.
Hina never knew what to do with these lists. Iris’s sense of humor was strange and unclear so even ten years into knowing her, she could never tell if it was a joke or if Iris really expected three puddings on a two-night visit. She’d stick the list up on the fridge the morning of her arrival and circle one thing to make, treating it with the same percentage of seriousness as the rest of their conversations.
She knew the whole business with the menus was an extension of how Iris saw her. It made her want to answer the door in an apron and pearl earrings just so Iris could complete the picture in her head, the fifties housewife pulling a roast out of the oven for her husband. Instead she zipped herself into a pair of jeans she’d not worn in six years, snugger on her waist than they’d ever been, swooped her hair off the back of her neck and stepped into the kitchen. Bruce Springsteen was playing on the radio; she bit on her bottom lip and carefully circled the Breakup Dumplings.
* * *
Of all her relationships, Iris was the most rewarding, the least forgiving. Some friendships cut off mercifully quick—two people who realize that their lives have diverged can often easily disassociate from each other, relying only on the occasional text message or Internet updates on their lives—but clearing out the emotional involvement without any sense of loss. Between Iris and her, there was no such easy detangling. They could go months without talking to each other and within minutes they were sunk into years of knotty history, like quicksand.
Hina was nineteen when they met and Iris twenty, both students at the time in different departments—Iris read English, Hina studied arch and anth, but they’d both gone to a journalism seminar and sat together in the front, each frantically taking notes. Hina had never seen anyone with penmanship as loopy and messy as her own. At the end, Iris asked if they could swap.
“Just to make sure I haven’t missed anything.”
Hina looked down at the three sheets Iris had filled both sides but ripped out the pages of her yellow legal pad anyway. She knew then that they’d know each other for a long time.
* * *
It wasn’t that she didn’t have friends before she met Iris. It was only that there was no one else who quite understood her in that way. Her mother used to send her magazine articles about the psychology of love, how to know when you’d met the perfect person. For Hina, there’d never been a boy who fit that description but Iris was close, the only meeting of minds she knew. Once they got to know each other, Oxford began to feel smaller—not quite as busy or broad. The streets between their colleges became familiar. The smell of greasy fry-ups at the end of Iris’s road, the libraries that were closest for both of them to get to, the last pub to close on a Thursday night.
The year after, they moved into a house with six other people. One of those crammed in properties that was probably illegal or should be, living rooms quartered to bedrooms so snug that if you sat up on the bed, you could touch each wall with the tips of your fingers. There was a fireplace in the bathroom and nothing worked. The kitchen was so dirty that they could never bring themselves to do more than make scrambled eggs and coffee, kicking through empty beer bottles and takeout containers to eat breakfast on the slab of cement they called a patio and share a cigarette. Before she met Iris, she was not really in the habit of eating breakfast; a cup of tea and a smoke would do.
“My grandmother calls that a whore’s breakfast,” Iris said, sloshing soy sauce into the eggs, and Hina had been offended enough to accept a plate. “And anyway, if you want to write about food, you’d better eat up. You can’t write a piece on cigarettes and coffee.”
“You could describe the coffee.”
“And I, of course, would read ten pieces you wrote on that cup of instant alone. But who else will want to?” Iris leaned back in her chair, the rickety frame creaking under her weight. “Strictly speaking, food writing isn’t really journalism, is it?”
Hina put her eyebrows up. “Says the travel writer?”
“Proust wrote about food,” she said.
“Don’t tell me you want to be a food writer because of Proust.”
“No actually,” Hina said, “it was Dickens. All the pies and sandwiches.”
Iris stubbed her cigarette at the bottom of her cup, stirring the ashes in with the dregs. “I hate Dickens,” she said.
“Of course you do.”
* * *
Then with their first jobs, they’d moved to London, into a tiny miracle of an apartment in Balham over a chip shop. The space was small but theirs, a bay window curving one corner of the living room where they hung paper lanterns—and Iris, who was a temp in a lawyer’s office, said she wanted their apartment to look as far away from reality as possible. Neither of them had taken to the city particularly well, not yet won over by its dirty charm. There was never any time to write, and the days seemed to start before they even begun.
“The simple truth is,” she said, lighting a tall red candle that smelled of cinnamon, “I want to be as far away from here as possible. So let’s make this apartment the ultimate escape.”
Hina was lying on the couch with her knees tucked up, a magazine flapped over her lap.
“We could do that. Or we could leave.”
“Where would we go?”
“I don’t know. We could go to Mexico.”
That night she made what they called Escapist Tacos, plotting itineraries as they cooked, trying to figure out how long on their current salaries they would need to save to get away: It would take eight months, give or take, if they were thrifty in the meantime, if they stopped eating out and never bought new clothes. They mapped their passages in the kitchen, dreaming up new names for each dish. That was the summer she made Pakistani food for the first time, plotting through her mother’s recipe book at Iris’s request: pakoras and daal chawal, everything she remembered from home.
“Maybe I should name the food,” Iris said, chopping onions for the guacamole. “Escapist Tacos isn’t that inspired, is it?”
“Those are too big.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, looking down at the chopping board, knife balanced on her hip. “They’re supposed to be chunky.”
“They are massive. They’re practically shallots.”
Iris narrowed her eyes and lifted the knife in a mock-menacing gesture. “I will cut you.”
“Do it. You’ll chop me in such large pieces that it should be easy enough to put me back together.”
“You’ve burnt the fish,” she said, and Hina looked down at the frying pan where the strips of battered cod were so singed they had duck tacos instead, shoving the contents of their leftover shredded Chinese roast into the tortillas and complimenting themselves on their originality. Washed down with Sex with Strangers margaritas, a bottle of Sol each. It wasn’t so bad—only in the morning, they both felt sick, staying in bed till eleven with tea and slices of toast with butter smudged to the corners, watching horror films till they could think again.
* * *
In the end they never got to Mexico or Tokyo or Iceland. Six months after the Escapist Tacos, Hina met Hasan. He was a lawyer Iris knew from work. It was never meant to get so serious. He was only another man like so many she knew. But when they went to the movies together, he let her get the kind of popcorn she liked, half-sweet and half-salty, which Iris always said was an abomination. He told jokes about the weather, folded down sections of the newspaper to read later, and ran on Sunday mornings, a thing she could never wrap her head around. Somehow they were engaged before the year was out. Iris came to their wedding dressed in black; it was on the 31st of October, which she thought was the best joke. The slow dissolving of their plans, Mexico stirring out of the new makeup of their lives went undiscussed. When Hina moved out of their flat, she and Iris cooked one last meal together. They made Breakup Dumplings with prawns and chives, little soft spheres of comfort, something they used to make for beaus they were trying to dump, a final kindness.
Between them, there had been no such formal acknowledgment of the end. “Nothing will change,” Hina said, though of course they would no longer sleep in the same house and Iris would no longer leave a cup of coffee outside her door in the morning. Someone else would learn all the things about her that for now only Iris knew: how she sometimes wore tights under her jeans in the winters when she ran out of clean socks, how she hated the sound of the washing machine so she could only stand to be in the same room as it if she were playing The Beatles at full volume.
Instead they poured soy sauce into little dishes that her father sent them as a housewarming present and toasted to their new lives.
* * *
She made those dumplings this morning, rolling the wrappers out and dicing the shrimp to fry. There was a certain stillness in the kitchen, a flash of anxious brightness as there always was when Iris visited. She knew the dumplings would not impress her. Iris, who had spent the past month taking wintry trains through the north of Japan, writing an assignment on Hokkaido. There was nothing in Hina’s kitchen that she could match, though she still made sure that they’d stocked up on nice coffee, that there were fresh-cut flowers by the windowsill.
More importantly, she prepared herself for the stories Iris would tell—the ease with which her conversation could shift between reminisces about their youth, the wild things they’d done, to accounts of her walking the Inca trail or eating oysters off the coast of Sicily, detailing the slip and grit of them, how the sea tasted different everywhere you went. It stirred an itch in Hina that she’d long since buried.
“You should come with me next time,” Iris would always say, nudging her with socked feet, and Hina would smile and play along like it was possible, like she could step out on her job, her husband, and her life. Iris who had built her life on “never giving a fig” did not understand. She would understand even less now.
* * *
There were drunken noodles to go with the dumplings, and a fish curry. She read the papers while the fish was marinating and was glad her husband was out of town. He and Iris no longer got on as well as they used to. The menus in particular were a sticking point; he hated how she arrived with no proper notice, how she peppered the visits with inside jokes that he could be a part of. “She thinks she’s original,” he said, “but really it’s just rude.” It was easier with just one of them.
She unbuttoned the top of her jeans, the waistband pressing into her. There would be marks tracked into her flesh later. She would not last the evening in them. Iris seemed to get thinner and longer every year, and Hina barely fit into any of her clothes. At least this time she didn’t have to be ashamed of it. She changed into a white tunic and thought of ways she could break the news to Iris without turning it into an announcement or making a fuss. It would be best to wait till the morning, to bring up over breakfast. Breakfasts had been some of the best parts of their friendship.
In their last week of university, they’d both finished their exams on the same day and been at parties every hour that weekend. On Sunday morning they were the only people in the house to wake up early. It was seven and the living space was cluttered with the debris of the night before, so they’d gone out for breakfast to the only place that was open: the Old Bank hotel, sunlight glowing through the windows, their hair still greasy with gin. Over pancakes, they talked about all the lives they wanted to live. The countries that would fill them, the lovers in each port. Always the promise never to settle for anything ordinary, anything less than what they deserved. In that moment Hina had perfect faith in this, buoyed up by the double strength of their enthusiasm.
But she knew the news would not hold till the morning. Iris would arrive at six as she usually did. She always got the five-twenty train from the airport, and would arrive weary but flushed, pinked cheeks and a bag in each hand. She’d unpack a little in the hallway and come through with a bottle of champagne in her fist. When Hina said she couldn’t have a drink, she would know why immediately. There would be no point in trying to say she was being healthy or that champagne gave her headache. Lying to Iris was harder than walking a tightrope, all their years of knowing each other balanced out on the high wire. She felt nervous, even more than when she told her husband. It was likely that after tonight Iris would begin to disappear, a thing that had probably been inevitable for some time. And maybe when they stopped speaking, some part of Hina would even be relieved—but a world without Iris would need rethinking.
For pudding, she made siwayan. A variation on her grandmother’s recipe. Stirring the golden-brown strands of vermicelli in a cauldron that spit witchy with oil. When she poured it into the pale ceramic dish, she found herself thinking of a name. It was around five-thirty, the kitchen shot through with the last light of the day. It was not a game she’d indulged in for a long time. Iris really was better with them, cleverer and sharper.
She could call it The Last Dessert.
Iris would be here any minute.
BIO: Sarvat Hasin was born in London and grew up in Karachi. Her debut novel, This Wide Night, was published by Penguin India. She is also fiction editor of The Stockholm Review.
Artwork: “Two Faces” by Nayeon (Clara) Hong, who is a seventeen-year-old and a rising junior at Rabun Gap Nacoochee School in Georgia. She likes listening to music while painting or drawing. In the future, she hopes to work in an area where she can combine the arts and mathematics.