The End of Coney Island Avenue by Roohi Coudhry
I miss him the most at nighåt. I ache because our bed is half-empty and because I don’t know if they’ve given him a bed of his own. I think about his head of black hair on a cold floor. I trace my finger across the dips and rise of his pillow. I let my palm rest there.
I first came to Coney Island Avenue as a bride. I didn’t know anything about Brooklyn at the time. New York was crowded and noisy, I knew, but it would still be part of the gleaming white First World. We lived above a Pakistani restaurant that fried samosas in stale oil, fumes rising up to our apartment. A sign just under our window proclaimed “Income Tax, Overseas Transfer” in Urdu. I hung my head out the window and read the sign upside down, a pattern without words.
Sometimes, when I washed the smell of fried onions from my hair, I wondered if I had ever left Pakistan. A scam was common in Karachi when I was growing up: Agents would take money from people desperate to leave for the riches of the Middle East, produce fake paperwork, and put them on a boat at night. The boat would circle the peninsula for hours in darkness. In the morning, the travelers would find themselves docked back at Karachi harbor, “agents” long gone. Perhaps my husband had played this trick on me.
We were married in a small ceremony at my uncle’s house in Karachi. Ahmad, my husband, had to return to work and didn’t have time for a big wedding. The America-returned all seemed to bring their frantic lives with them, urging us to catch up. My family, giddy with the anticipation of wire transfers home, sprinted alongside Ahmad in joy.
In America, Ahmad showed me into a one-bedroom apartment reached by four flights of stairs. “The flat is small, I know, but I’m saving up and we can move to another place—New Jersey—in two or three years. And there are lots of Pakistanis here. You won’t be lonely for home.” His words ran together; he was anxious. I smiled. I’d never made a man anxious before.
While Ahmad was at work, I spent my afternoons wandering along Coney Island Avenue, gathering up courage for the subway. Across the street was a row of restaurants: Bukhara, Pride of Punjab, Bihari Kebab House. Inside, mustachioed men supervised vats of aloo gosht, channa pulao, chicken korma. Their daughters ladled lumps of food into Styrofoam boxes. A television mounted in the corner blared Urdu news or Hindi films. A verse from the Koran hung over the door.
Ahmad and I had just stumbled past our first anniversary, each still learning the other’s habits and tics, when he was taken. I remember the morning’s banalities: the ring of just-shaved hairs around the bathroom sink, the pieces of caked mud from his boots, swept into a pan. Maybe things would’ve turned out differently if the white men had come to our home for Ahmad. If they’d glimpsed the smallness of our lives.
But they were waiting outside the mosque when Friday prayers ended. Afterward, I couldn’t remember the first bearer of this news; so many came running to tell me, eager and solemn. Some white men had asked for Ahmad by name. I have nothing to hide, he’d told them, I’ll come with you. They led him away in his Friday garb of white kurta shalwar . At first, I worried about what he would wear on his way home. Less than a month had passed since the towers had come down, and eyes had hardened toward our skin, our clothes. The kurta shalwar would make him conspicuous on the subway. When he didn’t return, I found much more to worry about.
On that first evening, Abdullah’s wife, Sara, came over. Abdullah was Ahmad’s best friend in New York and had recommended Ahmad for his job at the taxi company. Sara was less generous, but careful with her social obligations.
She brought some daal, garnished with burnt onions, and a margarine tub full of rice.
She sat for a few minutes at our kitchen counter, a layer of oil congealing over the daal between us. When Abdullah cleared his throat from the next room, she got up to leave.
“Now, don’t be frightened. Munna’s father says everything is legal, for both you and Ahmad. Still, everything is so strange these days. Anyway, Samina is coming to sleep over. I would come, but . . .”
“What?” I was startled out of my reverie.
“I’m sorry, chanda , but I really cannot stay.”
“No, I mean, why is Samina staying over?”
“Come now, Ayesha. We’re as good as family in this foreign country, aren’t we? We would never leave Ahmad’s young wife all alone here.” Sara waved her hand as if to indicate a vast expanse.
“That’s kind, but I don’t need anyone. Please tell Samina.”
After a few more protests, Sara pursed her lips and left. I couldn’t gather my thoughts together to ponder her disapproval. Besides, what did it matter? No sleep would come for me that night.
I kept watch for two heart-beating days: eyes to the door, ear to the telephone. I paced the linoleum hall, twisted a corner of my dupatta around one finger, not stopping until the cloth tore off. My hair stuck out in panicked wisps as I sat, then stood, lay on my back, then crouched in a corner. I didn’t know what to do, where to go.
On the third day, I went to the mosque during evening prayers. But the imam, the Pakistan Association leader, the taxicab company manager—all of them were in a rush to be rid of me. As if I was contagious. As if Ahmad was already guilty of an unspoken crime.
Early the following morning, I took the subway into Manhattan, grateful I had already done this a few times. I wandered the dawngray streets, bits of paper whipping around my feet. I wandered until I found the office where
Ahmad had taken me for my green-card interview.
A line of red-eyed people already straggled from its entrance.
I strained my neck to look up at the concrete- and-glass building. What would happen if I walked in with my questions? What if they took me, too? What if they told me he was imprisoned? Or worse, still.
I trudged away, my dupatta wrapped over my head to keep my ears warm. After I noticed several heavy glances—some pitying, others suspicious—I pulled the scarf back down, chided myself for not being more careful. At the subway entrance, a man handed me a piece of paper. Unseeing, I pushed the slip into my cardigan pocket.
The train was empty. Everyone had crowded out at this stop, and up the stairs, in suits and pumps. I chose my seat next to the window, though there was nothing to see except pipes and graffiti running along the tunnels. Soon the train snaked out of darkness and onto the bridge. I’d first seen the train rise above ground with Ahmad, and he had pointed out the peaks of lower Manhattan for me. The twin towers, the Woolworth Building—a layered cake—the courthouse with its dancing figurine, the Seaport pier, and far away, the Statue of Liberty— as if a floating dream. He’d made me sit at the window so I could see, one arm around me as he gestured at the sights. His beard tickled my cheek, a faint sandalwood scent escaping his collar. Everyone could see us in that moment, and I was embarrassed. But pleased, too.
Now the skyline was broken against the clouds. I huddled in my corner as the train lurched into Brooklyn, my head tap-tapping against the window. Neighborhoods stumbled over each other, women leaning from windows shifting clothes and colors. Two Hasidic boys, twins in their white shirts, caps, and curled hair, stood on a brick rooftop, waved as the train passed by.
Sara came over that afternoon, accompanied by two other women.
“Now, Ayesha. We know how difficult this time must be. But you need to have some sense.”
“Yes, Sara baji is right,” the first assistant added.
“You cannot live alone like this. People will talk. You know how people can be.”
“People talk,” the other drone echoed.
“I’m sorry, Sara baji,” I kept my voice as measured as I could, four nights worth of sleepless fear buzzing around my head. “I don’t know what you mean.” At least I’d make her speak her accusation out loud.
“Uff! Ayesha, don’t you understand how… delicate it is for a young woman in your situation?
Husband away, alone day and night. If one of the girls just stays over, there will be no question about—this apartment.”
“Seems you’re the only one asking questions, Sara baji.”
Ahmad had been gone a week when I began to call. Until then, I’d been afraid a misplaced phone call might land him in trouble. But I couldn’t sit around any longer. I called the police station first, followed by Immigration. Then the Social Security office, the Welfare department, the mayor’s office, and, with much trepidation, the FBI. I rifled through the yellow pages, frantic for inspiration. Hours of classical music brought me no closer to information. No one had records of Ahmad’s detention; I must be mistaken, they said. Everyone spoke to me carefully and loudly, enunciating each syllable, as if I were slow, or perhaps insane.
I woke to forgetfulness the next morning, my first glimpse of the ceiling blissful. But the bed flooded with emptiness in a flash; I remembered and lay still, the cold of Ahmad’s absence soaking me through. Through this wretchedness crept a guilty feeling: I had to call home. No one there knew. The strangeness of this fact startled me into action, into patting down my wild hair and throwing on clothes.
In this country, a man could be lost and no one would know enough to grieve, not even his own mother. Such were the distances from palm to shoulder here. In bewilderment at my own abetting of these ways, I rushed to call my family, without thinking about what to say until I’d already dialed the number.
I stared at my phone card, which allowed an hour’s call to Pakistan for five dollars. The minutes had never felt like enough, with everyone in the Karachi house snatching the phone from one another in mid-sentence. Now they’d have questions, and I had no answers. My attempts at finding Ahmad were childish and inadequate. I had done nothing of consequence, as if I was waiting for someone capable to take the task from me.
I asked for my father. He spoke carefully, as if I were someone wielding a weapon, driven to the edge of violence. Perhaps to satisfy this expectation, I screamed my frustration at him, completely unjust. Each one of his suggestions seemed beyond stupid. I had tried all these things, and, as for the rest, they could never work here, in this most foreign of foreign countries.
My mother took over from him, scolding me for exaggerating. But she couldn’t hide the fear in her voice. Eventually, her sensible words gave way to crying, which was worse, because now I had to comfort her. I made her promise to call Ahmad’s parents and hung up, the slam of the receiver echoing through the empty apartment.
Over the next two weeks, I read and reread the fraying Urdu pulp novels I had brought from Pakistan. I stayed inside, avoiding the disapproving stares that seemed to linger on me just as Sara had predicted. When I did leave, I averted my gaze from the rent mailbox in the lobby. November first was fast approaching. I’d visited the bank when the monthly housekeeping cash ran out. At the ATM, my heart lurched in disbelief. The checking account barely had enough for another month’s rent. Ahmad had always been careful with money, and he was saving up to leave Coney Island Avenue. But we had never talked about details.
I turned the apartment upside down, searching for information on other accounts, a stash under the mattress. Eventually, I found a deposit book from another bank and thought
I was safe from worry. But at the bank, they told me the savings account was in Ahmad’s name. They could not give me the money unless I had proof of his permission. I tried every shameful thing I could think of to persuade them: I threatened, wailed, pleaded.
They apologized without being sorry and sent me on my way.
Our parents called every day. My mother begged me to come home; they’d find the airfare somehow. What would Ahmad say, she reasoned, when he came back to find his wife had lived alone all this time? She skirted around her meaning, never saying the words “fidelity” or “reputation.” My heart froze against her unspoken words. What would Ahmad say if he returned and thought I’d forgotten him as soon as hardship struck? I would not run home, tail between my legs, so easily.
I set about marshaling my resources. I used the last of the cash to pay one month’s rent and bring home a bag of groceries. I bought the cheapest food items that would stretch the furthest—flour, lentils, and one luxury: a handful of pointed green chilies. In my neatest handwriting, I listed everything I could do for money. Sewing. Typing. Bookkeeping. Babysitting. I read over my brief list, heart pounding. No machine, no typewriter, no experience.
And now that I’d refused Sara, queen bee, I’d cut myself off from the neighborhood.
Surely, no one on Coney Island Avenue would help me now.
Shivering, I stopped for a moment to pull on my cardigan. I pushed my hands into its pockets to keep warm and was mystified to find a half-page of bright pink paper. It was an ad for the “Eye-deal Eyebrow Threading Salon.” A frieze of dramatically lashed eyes and arched eyebrows lined the edges. The ad described “the antique art of threading.” At the very bottom, in tiny text: “Now Hiring.” And an address in downtown Manhattan.
Years might well have passed since the day I took the flyer near the immigration building.
The day I thought of rescuing Ahmad: a ridiculous, optimistic time. I called the salon and asked if they still needed someone who could thread.
In the morning, I found my way to the shop through winding downtown alleys. The door was unmarked, but a threading demonstration video playing in the window caught my eye. I edged into the tiny studio, cramped already with three women. I watched as a woman bent over the customer with a length of thread taut between fingers, one end in her teeth, pulling eyebrow hair, her own eyes widening and thinning with the rhythm of her work. When she was done, the customer, a white girl with a ponytail, dabbed her watering eyes with a tissue. The employee rang her up while another woman sat flipping through a magazine, tapping her bare foot to music playing on a boom box. Taal se taal mila, she sang along in an undertone.
When the white girl had left, she turned to me, putting aside her magazine. Tasneem, who’d just finished threading, was from Lahore and beamed when she learned I was Pakistani. Farida, the older woman, was the owner and sat on a small bench, back straight against the wall, appraising me down her nose. She was Indian and spoke Gujarati-tinged Hindi, snapping questions at me about my threading experience.
I lied. I told her I had threaded for a small salon in Karachi. This was true only if you counted the bedroom I had shared with my sisters, where I’d shaped their brows weekly. I worried that Tasneem would ask more questions about this fictitious salon. But she was quiet during the interview, deferring to her boss.
Then came the inevitable question I’d dreaded.
“Are you married?”
I had prepared an answer. I’d resolved to tell them that I was married to Ahmad, a taxi driver, and stop there. But when the moment came, my tongue grew tired of its easy lies, and my eyes filled. Horrified, I saw myself, as if from a distance, crying at my first-ever job interview, into one of the tissues meant for depilated customers. Farida stood over me, half-sympathetic, half-suspicious, and Tasneem flipped the hanging red and blue sign around, from “Open” to “Closed.”
They listened to my story, rapt. Tasneem leaned against the back of her threading chair, arms crossed, exclamations of “Y’Allah ” escaping her at intervals. Farida sat, knees drawn up to her chin and eyes wide. They feared this fate for their own men, I knew, muttering prayers to ward off misfortune. Now I was here, proving their fears, and I wondered if they would turn me away for that alone. I wouldn’t have blamed them.
Instead, Farida hired me without the threading test I later learned was a prerequisite. She patted my arm before she reopened the store, and that was all, but it was more than I could ever have expected from strangers.
As I began settling into a routine, commuting between the salon and home, Coney Island Avenue was changing around me. Everyone scurried, subdued, between their errands and home; the streets were often deserted. Other men had been taken. Some had contacted their families. Some, like Ahmad, were lost without word. Stores and restaurants, shuttered for the night, never opened again. Rumors abounded: people from the neighborhood camped around the Canadian border, desperate for refuge.
Clothes in closets, meals uneaten, left on tables, vegetables rotting in refrigerators, families fleeing overnight.
Tasneem came in one day with a flyer about an organization helping people with the disappearances. I made my way to the address, just a few blocks from home, and pushed open a glass door. I found myself in an overheated room crowded with desks and filing cabinets.
Five or six people, all of them young, brownskinned, and dressed in jeans, bustled around with sheaves of paper. Awkward in my shalwar kameez, I lingered near the door. Before long, a middle-aged man rushed toward me, and I recognized him with surprise. It was Johnny sahib, a friend of Ahmad’s, popular with everyone around the neighborhood.
“I’m so glad you found us, bhabi. We just opened last week, you know. I was planning to invite you in.” He ushered me to a desk. “Nadia here will help you.”
Nadia turned out to be a law student assigned to my “case,” earnest in her halting Urdu. She sat across from me and ticked off boxes on a form. Did I need shelter, money, food stamps? Just information, I told her. She took down my story and put the folder away in a tall filing cabinet.
I continued my daily back and forth by rote. Soon, I began to help Farida’s sister with her catering business evenings and Sundays, and the rent came together somehow. I floated through each day, as if on a short journey to some other place.
Every couple of days, I stopped in at the law office. Johnny sahib and Nadia sat down with me each time and listed the new leads they had pursued, the people they had called, the legal applications they had filed. They urged me to remain as optimistic as they were. But I could see their spirits falter. Weeks passed without news, and whenever I returned, the office was filled with more desperate women and wailing babies than the week before.
They won’t let you stand up here,” Tasneem said one frosty morning before Farida got in, as we sat sipping milky Brooke Bond tea made in the electric kettle. She kept a stash of the Pakistani tea bags in the salon. Steam rose out of my chipped cup as if straight from home, warming my hands like nothing else could.
“Who won’t let you stand up?”
“These people. This country. Won’t let you stand for a minute. Suck the blood out of you. Leave you for dead.” Tasneem’s words were clipped, telegraphic. I looked at her more closely, taking in the dark circles under her eyes and realizing how little I knew about her life.
I decided to agree. “Yes, it is a strange place.”
She went on as if she had not heard, staring at the people hurrying through drizzle outside.
“They won’t let go until you’ve fallen over, keep working you harder. To see how much you can take. And the neighbors, always hungry to eat another man’s fallen bread. Look at your husband. How many people did he drive in his taxi? Night after night? And what use? Who knows where he is now?”
She snapped her head back toward me, as if only now aware of my presence. “I’m sorry, Ayesha baji !” She bowed her head. “Sorry.”
But before I could swallow the jagged point in my throat and tell her it was all right, a customer walked in. And the day’s work began.
Memorial Day, at the end of May, before the September when everything changed before the October when Ahmad was taken away. It was opening day at the beach, Ahmad said. This was puzzling to me: Karachi’s beaches were open all year. Though, in this half-time frozen city, who would go and touch their toes to the icy shore in the winter?
But on that day in May, the first warmth of the season had begun sifting through the middles of each day. We were headed to the great beach at Coney Island. I had never seen the place, and I imagined a solemn affair for opening day, with ribbons to cut, songs and bands, balloons and speeches. But by then, after six months of perplexing discoveries, I had also learned not to let Brooklyn surprise me.
We stepped off the sputtering, gasping train at the end of Coney Island Avenue, the last stop. Sunlight poured in through squares of translucent windows. Mosaic mermaids and tentacled creatures swam along the station walls, not out of place among people dressed in fuchsia spandex and lime cotton. Children carried spades and buckets and plastic floating animals. A man with dark brown hair curling from his arms wore an enormous T-shirt in American flag colors, stars spangled across his back. A group of giggling middle-aged women glittered in the sunlight, their toenails resplendently red, their sandals bronze.
We walked a long way with the rest of the crowd, herded by swarms of police, before I saw the ocean. I had not seen it in half a year, not since we had circled above the blue on the flight to America. The water shimmered far away, across a stretch of so many bodies, people under umbrellas and lying face down on towels, chasing each other through the sand, picking through fried foods, ketchup dotting their chins from hot dogs. And skin, so much freckled, naked, dimpled, birthmarked skin. Too much skin to walk through to get to the sea.
Ahmad took me inside the arcade to get out of the dizzying sun, and I smothered a laugh as he threw ring after ring at moving targets, bullied by the fast-talking man into playing over and over. Finally, he won me a small teddy bear, and I made him stop. We sat on one of the benches along the boardwalk, watching everyone, sipping ice-cold Coke out of a giant glass that we passed back and forth between us.
Ahmad made up silly stories about the people who walked by, what they did before they came here and after they left—their inside-out lives.
We stayed a long time, not leaving until the best of the light was gone, and the sky was a heavy gray. Reluctantly, we strolled to the train station, not caring to rush when it began to rain. Others ran past us with their jackets and umbrellas and newspapers. We let the rain dribble down our clothes and cool our sunned skin. We let the day end that way.
Roohi Choudhry holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and now teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Callaloo, Open City, CURA<em>, and is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review. She is currently working on a novel set in Durban, South Africa.