“How old are you, dear?” The oldest of the three women asked, her yellowing teeth bared, reminding me of barracudas in the Australian reefs.
How old am I, I stare at her, hoping against hope that this would be the moment when I’d transform from a dim-witted ball of ditz to a profoundly charismatic leader of the people who is always ready on her feet.
I started to answer her question honestly, or as honestly as any unmarried Pakistani woman can when she is being set up with various men through an arranged process, but I abruptly stopped. I checked myself. I couldn’t say the same age I did last year. Truth be told, the last time a woman sat in my parents’ living room and asked personal questions was two years ago.
I decided to go with 24. It’s a fairly young number. It’s believable. It says that I’m not too old and neither am I too young. Just the perfect age to get married, figure out a way to lose my virginity to a husband or my vibrator, be considered ripe and fertile for any plans for a progeny that this woman and her son might have, all the while also virginally stupid enough for internalized misogyny to do its number on me.
But as I opened my mouth, I quickly shut it back down. 24 is so close to 25 that I can’t formulate an answer with that number. And we all know 25 is the first year of old age. 25 is when my virginal charms are going to start declining and the age bracket for my prospective husband for me will change. Whereas I’m being proposed right now by men in their thirties because they think I’m 24, if I said 25 I won’t be bumped to men in their older thirties. I’ll be proposed by men in their fifties. Knew you’d get the math!
I lightly entertained the idea of saying 23. That’s an honorable and sexual number. It’s certainly more sexual than 24 which would’ve been just as sexual had it not come to lay so close to 25. 25 is ruining it for all of my twenties. It did it once. It’s doing it again.
But if I’m going to say 23, I reasoned with myself, then might as well just round it off to 22. 22 is a good number. It’s the average age of giving birth for most Pakistani women. It’s also a good way from 25. If I get married to her son now, at 22, he and I would have enough time to know each other, sleep with each other, have some domestic arguments, set up home and even announce a bun in the oven before the year is up.
The truth is, I’m not 25. I’m not even 26. Dang it! Im not in my twenties anymore. I’m actually 33. That dreaded number that really isn’t early thirties but I won’t certainly accept it as my mid-thirties. It’s probably late early thirties. No! Late is the most horrendous word in the dictionary. I’ll just assume I’m 22.
I stole a glance at the woman. She had obviously lost interest in me and was now loudly declaring that her son would want someone at least ten years younger than him. I listened intently and realized that if her son was indeed as old as she said he was, then the only way I could be younger than him was if I was 21.
21? I quickly decided to add retinol to my morning skin routine too. They say it reverses age by decades. I don’t know how accurate that is because some heavy lines have formed around my eyes nevertheless. People think they are age lines. But if they knew how much my own age is afraid of the fight I put up against it, they’d know that they are actually lines from battle fatigue.
The woman, along with her cronies, was now examining what my mother had set before her to eat. Inserted into an ongoing nonstop commentary on the food were looks in my direction by each woman.
If you have sat in these chairs you know how intense these looks can be. They try to burn through the layers of foundation and age-defying creams that I have insulated myself with. Occasionally, they see a wrinkle on one of my toes and then game over! Which is why my toes have their own nighttime and morning skincare routines now.
But wait a minute! If she said that her son is 22, but would only consider someone ten years younger than him, wouldn’t that mean that I had to be 12? Well, I can’t do that. No one can. Unless she is really 12. This is all weird Gilead craziness that, even though I have lived for 33 years through, isn’t comprehensible anymore than when I was actually 12 or 22 or even 25.
She turned her attention to me again.
“You didn’t answer my question, dear!” She said, her jowls working on whatever my brother had gotten from the local delicatessen, “How old are you?”
I looked across the room to my tired-looking mother and disheveled sisters. Truth is, they’re both older than me but have, on occasion, found it wiser to report their ages less than mine. The irony is that we are then charged with another chore. We have to remember what we told every person who asked and have to add years to the last time they asked too.
“I’m…..”, I hesitated, then decided to be truthful, “I’m 22”. It’s not exactly truthful but you know what I mean.
She sighed. I knew I should’ve said 21. That way I would’ve been at least a year younger than this specimen of finesse and divine artfulness and might’ve had a fair chance of scoring him. But it was too late. Her mouth curved regretfully and I could hear my heart beating in my chest.
Suddenly her countenance brightened. She leaned over to my mother and whispered conspiratorially,
“Sister! Too old for my son. You know he is only 22. How can I marry him to someone who’s practically his age? That wouldn’t be fair to him. What he’s asking is stupid also but I thought we could make a compromise and get someone who is 18. That’s legal and young”.
My mom nodded, already tired of this self-righteous speech that she has heard so many times before.
“But my sister”, The woman pulled another woman forward who had so far hadn’t even glanced in my direction and had reserved all her senses for the food trolley, “She is looking for her divorced son. He’s about 41. Has a kid who lives with his mother most of the time. He would be very interested in your daughter”.
A few more lines appeared on my mother’s prematurely lined face and a few around my toes. The women sensed the non-occurrence of anything, got up and started leaving.
“Wait, sister!” My mother cried after these women, “Would you consider my older daughter? She’s only 25 so not that big of an age difference”. My sister is actually 35.
The women gasped. My mother blushed for saying something so heretic. One of them shook her head.
“That’s too old”, She said sagely, “Why didn’t you get her wedded when she was 21 or 22 like her sister. You poor thing!” She looked sympathetically at my sister, “You lost your youth. Why are parents so picky that they’d rather keep their daughters home than fix their marriages to worthy men? This is why the apocalypse is a sure thing soon”.
My mom shuffled her feet, embarrassed. Mentally I decided to not be a day older than 18. My sisters whispered and we came to a consensus. From now on, my mother declared, you’ll all be 18.
I know she thinks she has figured out a way out of the problem but in my mind I could see this unraveling one day too. But, until next time I can live with being 18.