My First Thanksgiving
Copyright © 2006, 2007 by Altimexis.
DISCLAIMER: The following story is a fictional account of a teenage boy who is dealing learning how to live in a new culture as an immigrant. There are references to and descriptions of gay sex in this story, and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental. The author takes full responsibility for all events described and these are not in any way meant to reflect the activities or attitudes of real individuals, establishments or religions. The opinions expressed by the characters in this story do not necessarily reflect those of the author or the hosting websites. The author retains full copyright of this story, and of stories based on these characters.
Please note that this story is the sixth in a series of short stories known collectively as Naptown Tales. The first, Broad Ripple Blues, was originally written for the Gay Authors Summer Anthology. The series of stories can be found on my Gay Authors Page and on the Naptown Tales Page at Awesome Dude. Slightly modified versions of these stories that are suitable for younger teens can also be found on the Altimexis Page at Codey’s World.
Although I’d been in America for several months, the rituals of being an American teenager were still very new to me, and this was the first time I had started a new school year in an American high school. One of the first people I befriended at my new school was a kid named Randy Bernstein. When I first met him, I thought he was a Muslim, like me. He certainly looked Arabic and so I trusted him, and he was more than eager to show me the ropes around the school, and around town. I could not place what it was, but we just seemed to click - until I learned the truth - that he was Jewish. I still cannot believe I nearly let that wreck our friendship, but he seemed to be one hell of a nice guy. He did not bat an eye at me being a Muslim, and once I accepted that he was not trying to trick me and his interest in friendship was genuine, I decided to give our friendship a chance.
After I had been in school for a few weeks, Randy asked me if I would like to go ‘stag’ to the school’s Homecoming dance the following Saturday night. He said it would be a good way to get to know some other kids at school and, since I did not know anyone yet and he did not have a date for the dance, ‘why not go together?’ Had I known the significance of Homecoming, I probably would not have gone to the dance with a boy. I had sworn I would never do anything to make Ammi and I move again. I was determined to remain celibate until I left home, and that was a vow I was going to keep.
The dance started out slowly with most of the kids just sitting around, eating food and talking, but then more and more kids got up to dance. About an hour into the dance, a group of kids got up and headed to the dance floor. The thing I noticed immediately was that there were more guys than girls in the group. My eyes almost did not believe what they were seeing. I could not deny it, however, once the couples paired off. There were four boy-boy couples and one girl-girl couple dancing on the floor! There was no doubt what they were, because they were dancing to a slow song and holding each other tightly.
There was a commotion and one of the couples fell to the floor. I could have sworn I saw one of the other gay couples push them. They got up and started dancing again, but they were soon on their asses again, and that time I was certain it was the same gay couple that had pushed them, but why, I did not know. I decided I must have been mistaken in what I thought I had seen.
Pretty much everyone stopped dancing after that and there was a lot of activity, with teachers and even the principal getting involved. From where I sat, I could not make out what was being said, but I heard a lot of people chanting ‘Let them dance!’ I was surprised that so many kids would stand up for them.
After several minutes of this, a black kid went up to the microphone and talked about how at one time, he would not have been allowed to dance, just because he was black, and that even more recently, he would not have been allowed to dance with a white girl. He said it was high time gay kids be allowed to dance with each other, and the place erupted in a loud cheer.
Suddenly, I felt I could not breathe. I had to get out of there! I got up from our table and ran to the exit, nearly tripping several times on the way.
When I reached Randy’s car, I realized he had the keys and I would have to wait there until the end of the dance. I felt like a fool. I could not go back into the dance though, so I just sat on the hood of the car and stared out into space.
After a few minutes, I felt the car sink down a few inches. I looked to the side to see Randy sitting next to me, also staring off into space.
“You want to tell me about it, Altaf?” Randy asked me. When I did not answer, he asked me, “Are you bothered by gays, Altaf? Is that it?”
When I still did not answer, he said, “If you’re bothered by gays, I can understand that. I know in Pakistan, gays aren’t treated well. I imagine you were raised to hate gay kids, just as you were probably raised to hate Jews like me.”
I turned again to look at Randy, and he turned and looked back at me. “I don’t hate you, Randy,” I said. “I could never hate you. . . . You are my best friend.”
He looked me right in the eyes as he continued to speak. “Altaf, I’ve never told anyone about this except my parents. None of my friends know, and I hadn’t planned to tell them until after I graduate next year.
“In the short time I’ve known you, I’ve come to think of you as a friend . . . a close friend. If we’re going to continue to be friends, I think you need to know everything about me, well, within reason, and I want to make sure our friendship is built on trust. The first thing I need to tell you is I chose to become your friend because I like you as a person, and in you I see someone with whom I’d like to be friends for a very long time. What I’m about to tell you has absolutely nothing to do with why I wanted to become your friend.
“The second thing I need to tell you . . . is that I’m gay.”
Without even realizing that I was coming out, I immediately said, “I am gay, too, Randy. It is the reason my mother and I left Pakistan.” And then I told him my story . . .
I grew up the son of a physician in a small village in the north of Pakistan. Our village was remote, and in an area over which the government had little control. Our people are very religious and I attended an all-boys school in which a fundamentalist approach to Islam and to life was all that was taught.
When I was younger, things were much freer than they are now, however, and I even learnt to play a wooden flute. But then the Taliban came and everything changed. When the American infidels invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban came rushing across the border and the Imam in our village welcomed them with open arms. I did not really understand what was happening and why I could no longer play my flute, but I saw what happened to anyone who did not obey Islamic law, as defined by the Taliban. Punishment was swift and harsh. My parents told me to listen to my teachers and not disobey.
At home, on the other hand, we enjoyed most of the modern conveniences Westerners take for granted.
We had a television of course, and with a satellite dish on top of our house, we were able to watch all of the programs one could imagine. Although my parents forbade me to watch anything remotely involving sex or violence, I managed to watch almost everything I wanted to. Me and my best friend, Fareed, that is.
What we saw there was in stark contrast to what we were taught in school. In school, it was forbidden for boys and girls to have any physical contact, but on TV, boys and girls touched, and kissed, and they did other things, too.
Fareed and I used to imagine what it would be like to live in the West and to be able to touch girls, and more. Of course such things were forbidden - we were taught that the West was evil, and that America, in particular, wanted to destroy all of Islam - that they wanted to launch a new crusade against us. Much of our playtime was spent pretending to be great soldiers, fighting a jihad against the Western infidels, even as we imagined what it would be like to do the things they did.
As we got older, Fareed’s and my interests started to change. Of course we started to get hair ‘down there’ and our voices deepened. Although we still talked about sex, we seemed to have a lot more trouble talking to each other about it and our conversations were marked with prolonged silences.
Finally one day, Fareed asked me, “Altaf, I know we talk about being with girls, but do you think about them when you’re in bed at night?”
“Of course I do,” I replied.
“Do you think of doing things with them, the way we used to talk about them? Do you want to touch them? Do you get hard thinking about them?”
When Fareed asked me, I suddenly realized what he meant. No, I did not get hard thinking about girls. I liked looking at girls alright, but I got hard when thinking about Fareed. I wanted to touch him, to kiss him and to do things with him, too.
But this was blasphemy. The Quran is quite explicit about this. No man may lie down with another man.
Fareed and I had known each other ever since I could remember. I had always loved him as a friend, but I came to realize that perhaps I loved him as something more. To love him in that way, however, would mean turning my back on Allah, which was something I could never do.
Two years passed after that encounter. Two years during which we barely acknowledged each other’s existence. I think he was grateful that I was keeping his secret, but the sadness in his eyes every time we passed made me want to cry. I became increasingly depressed and even contemplated suicide, but in Islam, we view life as sacred - it can only be endowed by the creator himself and only he can take it away. If I committed suicide, it would be the same as if I told Allah that the precious gift of life which he bestowed was not good enough for me. Taking my own life would be the greatest sin of all.
Finally, I could not take it any more. I asked Fareed to meet me after school, at my house. When we got home that fateful day, I told Fareed the truth. In spite of all my prayers to Allah to make me normal, there was still only one I could love. For me, the only one I could be with was Fareed.
We both cried for an eternity, and then our faces came together as if drawn by an invisible force. We kissed each other passionately, just as we had seen boys and girls do on TV. As we kissed, I could feel Fareed’s erection rubbing against my own, and it drove me crazy.
Before I realized what was happening, we had our clothes off and I was gently and lovingly stroking Fareed’s manhood. I took it in my mouth and eagerly swallowed his essence. He did the same to me.
Even afterwards, we continued kissing each other and explored each other’s bodies. This led to more fondling and more desire and before I knew it, I was begging Fareed to do much more, and he did. To a Muslim, this is the ultimate act of humiliation, and this is how my ammi found us when she came home from work.
Events after that were a blur. My ammi took me to the Imam. Rather than try to help me, he pronounced that Fareed and I must die by stoning. This fatwa was Allah’s law, he told us. He instructed my ammi to bring me back to him the next morning. He would take care of everything.
That night, my parents argued as I had never heard them argue before. I could not make out what they said, but it mattered little to me. By tomorrow night, I would be burning in the fires of Hell. Silently I cried to myself. Sleep came late to me, and my dreams were nightmares. At one point I awoke with the sheets drenched with sweat - I had seen Fareed’s face, badly bruised and covered with his blood. His eyes were open, but they were lifeless, staring into the void, but seeing nothing.
In the early morning hours, my ammi came for me. The sun had not even risen, and it was very cold outside. She held a large duffle bag - I did not know why she would need this to drop me off with the Imam, but I did not ask. First we went to Fareed’s house. I assumed we would go to the Imam together, but that was not the case.
“Altaf,” my ammi said, “you and I are going to go on a long journey. I cannot let my only son die . . . I will not allow it. You must say goodbye to Fareed.”
I could not believe it. I did not want to go. I wanted to be with Fareed, and if he was going to die, then I must die, too.
“No, Altaf,” my friend and lover said. “Now, you must carry on for the both of us. You must live, for your sake . . . and for mine.”
“But Fareed, if you die, then there will be no life for me. If you die, there is no point to my living.”
“You are wrong, Altaf. We are young, and you still have your whole life ahead of you. I would join you if I could, but that is not my fate,” Fareed said. “My parents will never accept me and I am at peace with Allah. I do not believe he will turn his back on me because I love you, nor will he turn his back on you because of whom you love.
“Elsewhere, things might have been different, but there is no escape for me,” he continued. “You have a chance. You are going to get to do what we always talked about doing. You must live, Altaf. You must live for the both of us.”
My ammi and I made our way to the train station, just as the sky was beginning to lighten. We boarded the train and left behind everything we knew.
The trip to Lahore was a long one and we did not arrive until it was well after dark. I had only been there a few times in my life and I still could not get used to the tall buildings and the cars speeding down the streets everywhere, even so late at night.
We took a taxi to the airport and waited there until it was nearly morning. My ammi asked me to watch our things while she went to purchase the tickets. Finally the time to board our flight came.
We presented our boarding passes and our passports, and then boarded the giant beast of an airplane. There were so many seats - we were in a middle section with five seats across, and there were still two seats on the other side of each aisle.
The flight to London took many hours - so many, I lost track of time. Because we flew west, it was still daytime when we arrived. We took a taxi from the airport, deep into the heart of Muslim London. My ammi did not know the exact address of the person we would be staying with, and so we spent more than an hour searching for his flat. I could not believe the taxi fare in the end, but my ammi paid the bill in cash.
It was very late by the time we knocked on the door of the apartment where we hoped we would be staying. My ammi told me to keep quiet as the door opened.
“Mr. Sahid?” My ammi asked the man who answered her knock.
“Yes,” he answered.
“You do not know me, but my cousin, Anwar, said I should look you up whenever we’re in London. My son and I will be in London for the next couple of months. I am going to undergo some medical tests and my husband could not leave his own medical practice for such a long time, so my son has come with me.
The man embraced my ammi tightly and kissed her on both cheeks - behavior that would have been scandalous in Pakistan, but that was apparently appropriate in London. “If you are Anwar’s cousin, then you are my friend as well. Of course you and the boy must stay here.”
“No, no, of course we could never ask that of you,” my ammi responded.
“Nonsense! We are all Muslims and we take care of each other, no?”
The man invited us inside into what was a very dimly lit, smoke-filled and tiny flat. The apartment had only two bedrooms, and they had five children! My ammi would have to sleep on the floor in the girls’ bedroom while I slept on the floor in the living room, which I would be sharing with the Sahid’s two boys, who apparently slept on a hide-away bed.
That night as I lay on the floor, I could not imagine what the future would bring for me and my ammi. The following day, we went to the American embassy to apply for a visa to visit my aunt in the United States. Compared to our living conditions in London, which were temporary at that, sharing a house with my maternal aunt would be heavenly. Unfortunately, we were told that it could take months or even years to get a visa and so, dejectedly, we returned to stay with the Sahids.
I do not know where my ammi went during the coming days, and I was enrolled in a local Islamic school that was not dissimilar from the one I’d attended in Pakistan. We were taught strict Islamic law, laced with hatred of the West, which seemed very strange to me since we were living in the West.
One day a boy in class took me aside and showed me a very wide belt he had strapped to his abdomen. “I am practicing,” he said to me.
“Practicing for what?” I asked,
“Someday I will be a martyr,” he said. “Someday, I will strap explosives to my stomach, I will board a crowded subway and I will kill many infidels.”
“That is a very noble thing you will do,” I told him largely out of fear. I wanted to throw up. I had heard about suicide bombings, but never come into contact with someone who was in training to become one. We were taught that it was a wonderful thing to be a martyr, but I could not understand how the taking of many lives could ever be a good thing. Allah gave all things life, including the nonbelievers. If he did not want there to be infidels in the world, then why did he make so many of them? When I told my ammi what the boy had shown me, she told me I would not be going back to that school.
The next day, we went to a modern office building, where we met with a man who was a solicitor specializing in immigration. During the course of our interview, he said, “We could get you a visa quickly if you had a reason to seek asylum, but unless you hold secrets of vital use to the United States, about the only way you can get asylum these days is if you’re either a pregnant woman trying to escape a forced abortion, or a gay man trying to escape a fatwa.”
My jaw dropped open as I stood in shock. How could the man have known? When he saw my reaction, and my ammi’s face, he asked my ammi “Are you serious? Is your son really gay?”
“No Muslim would admit having a gay son unless it were true,” my ammi added. I couldn’t believe it. My ammi actually admitted that I was gay. She seemed to accept it. “I would not lie,” my ammi continued. “I found my son in bed with his best friend. The Imam sentenced them both to die. His friend was killed by stoning last month. We barely escaped ourselves. I left my family behind because I will not let them kill my son. We cannot stay here, and if we return to Pakistan, we will both be killed.
“Please,” she said with tears in her eyes, “please procure for my son and for me a visa. We can live with my sister. She will take care of us, but we cannot go back.”
“Normally, it can take months to process a visa request,” the solicitor answered my ammi, “but if you are willing to recount under oath what you just told me, processing the visas could be done in a matter of weeks. They’ll still need to complete a background check, but a legitimate request for asylum can help us to cut through a lot of red tape and get your visas in short order.”
True to his word, we had our visas in only a couple of weeks. We were going to America!
The flight from London to Detroit was even longer than the flight from Lahore to London had been, and we were both very tired by the time we arrived. I was so afraid I would make a mistake - that we would be sent back, but we had no trouble at all. There were many, many people from the Middle East on our flight and the people at Customs did not even seem to bat an eye. I sure was nervous, though. I was certain the Customs agents would notice it.
Finally, we were done, and passed through the exit doors to find my aunt waiting for us with a big smile on her face.
My aunt lived in a large house in a neighborhood just outside of Detroit known as Dearborn Heights. She lived on a street with many, many houses just like hers. I have come to learn that the type of house is called a split level - something I had never seen before. My aunt had five children and there were only four bedrooms, so I had to share a room with one of my cousins, who was fourteen, just one year younger than I was at the time.
I went to the school the next day and took many, many tests. Apparently I did very well on them, because I was placed in grade ten - the same grade I had been in in Pakistan. My ammi, who had trained as a nurse back in Pakistan, decided to take the state proficiency exam, which she easily passed, allowing her to get her license. With a license in nursing and with an American sponsor, it was very easy for my ammi to get a work permit. I learnt that nurses were in short supply in America and my ammi would be able to get a ‘green card’, which would eventually set the stage for citizenship in her own right.
School in America was very different than what I was used to in Pakistan. Although a majority of the kids in this school were Muslim, the school was not a religious school and we did not stop to pray, as I was used to. I also had to adjust to having girls, Jews, and Christians in my classes. I had been raised to believe that Jews were our sworn enemies, so at first I was very uncomfortable with the situation.
Nearly everyone else in the school was Christian and that took even more getting used to than the Jews. What I’d never realized was how different the Jews and the Christians were within their beliefs. I soon learnt that the Jews were divided into devout Orthodox, observant but modern Conservatives, liberal and largely non-observant Reform, and observant but largely agnostic Reconstructionists. The Christians were even more of a mixed bag with the Catholics and dozens of Protestant denominations that I could never hope to keep track of.
I soon understood the Jews and the Christians were just as divided as the Muslims, with our Sunnis, our Shiites our Ahmaddiya, our Sufi and the numerous smaller sects that were often at war with each other. Yet unlike the Muslims, the Jewish and Christian denominations all got along with each other. I was stunned, for example, to learn that a Baptist considered a Methodist to be a fellow Christian. Back in Pakistan, a Sunni would never consider a Shiite to be a true Muslim.
Much as America touted freedom of religion, however, it was more or less a Christian country - at least here in the Midwest, it was. Church was a very big deal and most of the kids I met who weren’t Muslim were in one church group or another. It was bad enough being from a foreign land, but being a Muslim, I felt even more isolated. I was an outsider, and I would always be an outsider.
Another thing that surprised me was that nearly everyone came from somewhere else at some point in their ancestry, and in spite of the tendency to segregate themselves, kids generally accepted each other rather well. Blacks freely mingled with whites and I even saw a black kid kissing a white girl in the hall. It gave me a level of comfort that Americans placed a lot of value on people as individuals, and in time I myself came to realize that no one should be labeled with titles based on what others thought about their parents. I came to value the diversity I found in America. That level of comfort was never found in Pakistan.
In August, we celebrated my sixteenth birthday. My aunt threw a big pool party for me, and I invited all the friends I had made in school. She hired a DJ and we danced to rock music well into the night. I danced with several girls, but my eyes kept wandering to the boys. How I wished I could dance with a boy!
In Pakistan, there was nothing special about sixteen, but in America, sixteen is a very special number. All through the school year, I watched as my friends turned sixteen and got their driver’s license. Now it was my turn to get one.
Because I had been driving in Pakistan since I was thirteen, I already knew how to drive, but I did not know how to drive in America. In Pakistan, you needed to be eighteen to get a license, but officials could always be bribed and no one paid any attention to whether or not a driver actually had one. As we lived in a rural area, most children drove to help their parents on their farms as soon as they could reach the pedals.
Although we did not own a farm, many of my friends from school were driving on their parents’ farms, and they often let me drive when I was with them. I learnt by trial and error. My part of Pakistan may not have had the superhighways common in America, but no American driver is one-tenth as crazy as the most civilized Pakistani driver.
I did not bother with driving lessons in America, but I did get my learner’s permit and practiced on the road with my ammi, who had bought a car with the money she made as a nurse. Compared to Pakistan, driving in America was easy, and drivers were so polite.
Everything fell apart two weeks before the start of the new school year. It started out innocently enough - I was home in my room, when my cousin, Ishmael, with whom I shared the room, came in. He was home from football practice and apparently had plans to go out afterwards. He started to strip right in front of me, and even though I had seen him naked all the time, for some reason I had never really paid attention to his masculinity.
As I watched him take off his clothes, baring more and more flesh, I started to become hard. I could not help it. I do not know what had gotten into me, staring unmercifully at him like that, but he suddenly jerked his head up and looked into my eyes, noticing that I had been watching. My shorts were very obviously tented and at that point, I knew there would be no way to deny what I had been doing. A tear ran down my face, and then another and another.
Ishmael did not say anything - he just finished dressing and left. What had I done? It was not until later that evening that I found out just how serious my actions were. My ammi came to me and told me we would be leaving Detroit. My aunt no longer wanted us staying with her, and I would even have to move out of Ishmael’s room and sleep on the couch until we found a place to move to.
The next week was agonizing. I knew my ammi was disappointed in me, as I had fucked up our lives yet again. Still, she did not say anything and for that, I was grateful. It did not take her long to find a job in a city that was still close enough that we could visit my aunt, but far enough away that, hopefully, my troubles would not follow. The need for a nurse was urgent and we moved the next day.
We packed up all our worldly possessions, completely filling the car and the trunk, yet ending up renting a trailer to carry the rest. The drive itself took only five hours, but then we needed to find a place to stay. We spent the night in a cheap motel, right off the highway, and spent the next day looking for an apartment. There were many places within a few miles of St. Vincent’s Hospital, where my ammi would be working, but most were either too expensive, or they did not have anything available. Finally, we found a place we liked a lot - it was older than most of the others, but we could get a whole townhouse for what the newer places were charging for a small two bedroom flat.
We moved in the very next day, buying a couple of air mattresses at the nearby Wal-Mart to sleep on. Real furniture would have to come later. I realized that I would probably have to get a job after school to help out, too.
With my school transcripts from Dearborn Heights in hand, my ammi enrolled me in the local high school with ease. I was set to begin school the following Monday.
“. . . And that’s how I came to be here with you tonight,” I said as I concluded my lengthy story.
Randy got down off the hood of the car and stood in front of me. He reached forward and grabbed me into a tight embrace. We were both crying by the time we separated.
“Do you feel up to going back into the dance?” Randy asked me.
“Yes, I do,” I replied, “but I am not ready to dance with a guy in front of everyone else.”
“I’m definitely not ready, either,” he said, “Not that I don’t think you’re attractive enough or anything, but I’m just not ready to come out, either.”
I stopped and turned towards Randy. “If I were to dance with a guy in there, it would definitely be you,” I said as I felt myself blushing furiously, “but after all that has happened, I am definitely not ready for anyone else to know.”
Randy looked back at me and before I could stop it - not that I would have wanted to - he planted a quick kiss on my lips. He continued to look at me as I looked back at him, and then I leaned forward and kissed him a bit more slowly and passionately, but still not with any tongue.
As our lips parted, Randy said, “If we don’t wanna get caught making out in the parking lot, we’d better go back inside.”
He grabbed my hand and led me back to the building, letting go just as we approached the door. Although we did not dance with each other that night, we were never more than a few feet away. It was literally the best night in my entire life.
Thus started our relationship. Randy and I went out frequently after that, going out on at least one ‘date’ every weekend. We were careful to appear to be just a couple of guys out having a good time when we were in public, but in the privacy of Randy’s home - well, we did not go much beyond making out, but boy did we learn how to make out!
For the first time since I had left Pakistan, I felt as if I could love someone else besides Fareed, and I came to accept that I was living my life as Allah had intended it. After all, Fareed had said it best when we said goodbye. He said that Allah would never turn his back on us, just because of who we loved.
And then Halloween came. Nothing, in my life in Pakistan, could have prepared me for the American version of Halloween - a celebration we did not have back there. I do not know how he talked me into it, but Randy actually got me to dress up as Sinbad for a Halloween party at school - a party hosted by the Gay Straight Alliance. Never in a million years did I think I would go to a gay party, but I agreed for two reasons - there would be straight kids there and I would be heavily disguised, so no one would recognize me.
With all the makeup I was wearing and the costume I had on, even I did not recognize myself when I looked into the mirror. Randy was dressed up as my princess - he did not exactly look like a woman, but no one would recognize him, dressed as he was. We had a great time, and I got to dance with Randy a lot that night. For the first time in my life, I felt normal.
It was not until the next morning that I learnt about what happened to Will Smith and Jamie Wilson after they left the party, and how Will’s father had held the whole Wilson family hostage in an attempt to get his son to go to a church camp where they supposedly made gay kids straight. Later on, I asked Randy about how these church camps worked. He explained how they tortured kids to make them hate themselves for being gay. To me, that sounded even worse than being stoned to death.
A couple of weeks after Halloween, Randy asked me what my ammi and I would be doing for Thanksgiving. I did not even know what Thanksgiving was, let alone what we would be doing for it. He explained how it was an American holiday in which families get together to give thanks for all they have by stuffing themselves with food until they practically throw up. Food is always a good thing, but the getting together with family did not exactly appeal to me. My family was back in Pakistan, where I would be stoned to death if I returned, and in Dearborn Heights, where it was made clear I was not welcome.
Randy asked me if my ammi and I would like to attend an authentic Thanksgiving dinner with his family. I was thrilled at the idea until I thought about how I might explain my relationship with Randy to Ammi. It was not like she did not know I was gay, but after all that had happened in Pakistan and Detroit, I was afraid she would freak out if she knew I had a boyfriend.
A boyfriend . . . for the first time, my mind began to grasp the concept. I had a boyfriend. Randy and I had been going out together exclusively for two months and our make-out sessions were getting more and more intimate. I had already promised Randy a night he would never forget for his seventeenth birthday, which was coming up in December.
But what was I going to tell my ammi? “Just tell her I’m your friend . . . your best friend,” Randy suggested.
“Yeah, I guess that will work,” I replied, but I sure was nervous about my ammi finding out. “Do your parents know about you . . . about us?” I asked.
“Yeah, they know you’re my boyfriend. Actually, with all the time we’re spending together, it’s been kind of obvious to them . . . and to my brother and sister . . . but honestly, don’t worry about your mom. I’m sure she hasn’t a clue, and no one in my family is going to tell her, so don’t worry,” he said.
Finally, the day arrived. My ammi and I brought a nice bottle of wine, and at the liquor store salesman’s suggestion, a bottle of sparkling cider - something the children could drink that would also be appropriate to the season. As Muslims, we did not drink alcohol, but my aunt once told us that in America, it is very traditional to bring a gift of a bottle of wine when invited to someone’s home for dinner.
When we entered Randy’s house, I could not believe the wonderful aromas inside. American cooking is very different from Pakistani cooking, and both are very different from the Middle Eastern food we ate in Dearborn Heights. Pakistani food is very similar to North Indian food - which is not surprising, considering that India and Pakistan used to be one country.
What I smelled when we walked in through the door to the Bernstein house, however, was entirely new to me. I was used to eating hamburgers, pizza and all the usual American teen foods at school, and eating spicy curry, rice, lintel and lamb dishes at home, fried in oil and seasoned to perfection. Turkey with chestnut stuffing, cranberry sauce, candied yams, mashed potatoes, green been casserole, pumpkin pie and apple pie were all things that I had seldom if ever had, and never had together. Add to that, blintzes, lox, smoked whitefish, noodle kugel and a host of traditional Eastern European Jewish foods and we had more than a feast - we had a royal banquet.
The Bernsteins had a very nice house - it was a lot like what my ammi and I left behind in Pakistan, and a lot nicer than our townhouse. Of course I had seen it many times, but this was the first time my ammi was seeing it.
There was a large foyer with a curved stairway that led to the second floor and a balcony overlooking the foyer. Off to one side was a small study that doubled as a guest bedroom. To the other side was a small drawing room - what the Americans called a living room, which made no sense to me since they seldom if ever spent any time in it. Behind the drawing room was a large formal dining room, serviced by a huge and very modern kitchen. Behind the kitchen and directly off the foyer, was a very large family room, which was the main room of the house.
We were ushered back to the family room, rather than the drawing room, as would have been the case if we were in Pakistan. As I was learning, Americans are much more casual than most of the world, and to entertain in one’s living room would be considered an insult, as if the guests were not good enough to be treated as family. Very strange!
Joining us in the family room were Randy’s ten-year-old brother, Daniel, his fourteen-year-old sister, Susan, two grandmothers, a grandfather, a great-grandmother, one of his aunts, her husband and their three children, another of his aunts, who was apparently single, Randy’s parents and, of course, Randy. The introductions went quickly and I doubted I could ever keep them all straight.
In a custom that I think is universal, Randy’s parents served an appetizer and drinks prior to seating us for dinner. As tempting as the gourmet cheeses were, I resisted the temptation to satisfy my hunger with the appetizer.
After nearly falling asleep listening to the idle chatter of the adults, we were all ushered into the dining room, where an extra-long table had been set up. The table seemed to be covered with a fine linen tablecloth and each place was set with fine china. Arrayed on the table were two large turkeys, along with all the side dishes one could imagine.
As if on cue, Mr. Bernstein and his father both got up at the same time and each one proceeded to carve up a turkey. As they cut away, peeling off slice after slice of juicy meat, the elder Bernstein kept chiding Randy’s father about his lack of skill in carving a turkey.
The junior Bernstein was not amused and proceeded to remind his father about how well known he was at the Medical Center as one of the best cardiothoracic surgeons in the region.
“Just because you can perform open heart surgery doesn’t mean you know a damn thing about how to carve a turkey,” the elder Bernstein said, and everyone laughed. I later learnt from Randy that his father and grandfather argued every year about who was better at carving a turkey.
“So Altaf,” Randy’s paternal grandmother asked, “I understand you’re a Muslim.”
“Well of course he’s a Muslim,” Randy’s grandfather said. “What else would he be with a name like Altaf?”
“I just wanted to know,” she replied. “I think it’s great that Randy has a Muslim friend,” she continued. “The world would be a better place if we could all get along, instead of kids going into crowded markets and blowing up themselves and everyone around them.”
“Grandma, please,” Randy said. “Most Muslims aren’t like that.”
“Well that’s just what I said,” she answered back. “I’m sure Altaf would never do something like that to anyone, would you, dear.”
Suddenly, I felt cornered. I was in the house of a Jewish family and even though I knew Randy loved me, I could tell that his grandmother hated me because of who I was. I wanted to flee. I wanted to get the Hell out of there. Instead, I overreacted.
“I would only do something like that to defend my homeland if we were under attack,” I replied. I immediately knew I’d said the wrong thing. Honestly, I thought suicide bombings were an abomination against Allah, but what I said sounded like I was defending them.
“You mean you would kill innocent children, as well as yourself?” Randy’s grandmother asked in horror.
Trying to back-peddle, I replied, “No, but if my people were attacked the way the Palestinians have been attacked by the Jews, I would of course defend myself by whatever means necessary.”
Talk about digging myself in deeper. Not only had I taken the side of the Palestinians in the debate, but I had made the common mistake among Muslims of equating Jews and Israelis.
“The Israelis are only fighting back!” Randy’s grandmother said in anger.
“Grandma, please!” Randy practically shouted. “There’s enough blame to go around on both sides of the issue. Don’t get me wrong . . . I will defend to death the right of Israel to live within secure borders, but building settlements in occupied lands is just plain wrong. Retaliating for the killing of one soldier by leveling an entire neighborhood, even if done in such a way so as to avoid the loss of life, is incomprehensible.”
It was the first time I’d heard Randy talk about the Palestinian conflict, and I was amazed. I had been avoiding the subject because of the potential problems it could cause in our relationship, yet here he was openly criticizing Israel. I was proud of him!
Unfortunately, Randy’s grandmother did not share his viewpoint. “How can you say that?”
“Please, just shut up!” Randy’s other maternal grandmother. “We’re here to give thanks for what we have . . . not to fight each other over something we cannot control. In the interest of peace, both in the Middle East and in this household, can’t we put our differences aside for just one day and celebrate our similarities instead?” I instantly knew that I liked this woman!
That feeling was short-lived however, as she turned to me and, in an obvious attempt to change the subject, asked me, “So Altaf, do you have a girlfriend, yet?” Talk about a loaded question!
“Neither of us have girlfriends, Grandma,” Randy answered. The matter might have dropped, had it not been for the sudden giggling of Randy’s brother. When he couldn’t seem to control his laughter, their grandmother asked, “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, Grandma,” Daniel answered as he continued to giggle uncontrollably.
“You wouldn’t be laughing like that if it were nothing.”
“It’s because Randy’s gay,” his sister answered, shocking the grandparents to the core and leaving me stunned. How could his sister have done that? I nearly burst into tears as visions of having to move yet again flooded my mind.
“Susan!” Randy’s father shouted.
“But he is, Daddy. Why is this family so hung up on things like that? It’s not as if the rest of us didn’t know.”
“My mother didn’t know!” I found myself shouting back.
“Altaf, of course I knew,” my ammi answered.
“I knew. I’ve known since you came home from that dance with a smile on your face. Don’t you think I know what it looks like to be in love? Ever since we left Pakistan, I’ve accepted that Allah intended for you to walk a different path.”
“My grandson is not a fegeleh!” Randy’s grandfather shouted.
“What’s a fegeleh?” one of the cousins asked.
“It’s a Yiddish word for faggot,” another cousin answered.
“Stop it, please!” Randy’s great-grandmother shouted. “Three years ago, I realized Randy was not interested in girls. He reminds me so much of his Uncle Randall, after whom he was named, God rest his soul.”
Turning to look right at Randy, she continued, “Randy, I know you’re too young to have known him, and knowing this family, no one’s probably ever told you, but your Uncle Randall died of AIDS. He was a good man, that one. We would have never known he was gay, had he not been infected, but that didn’t make him any less of a mensch.
“Ever since then, this family’s been ignoring it, sweeping it under the rug as if it never happened. Well let me tell you, he was a kind man, and generous to a fault. Being gay didn’t make him any less of a man.
“Randy’s gay. So what? He’s still the same wonderful boy he’s always been. And besides, his boyfriend’s a cutie.”
I must have turned three shades of red when she said that.
“So, do you think the Colts will pull off another Superbowl win?” Randy’s grandfather asked, effectively changing the subject and starting an animated conversation among the men and boys at the table, much to the chagrin of the women, and me.
The rest of the afternoon went by without another incident and, once I relaxed, I had a wonderful time enjoying a great American tradition. Randy and I were able to be ourselves, and it felt great! The food was delicious too!
It was nice having half the week off, but truthfully, I was happy to get back to school. Knowing that Ammi was comfortable with me being gay and having a boyfriend was a big relief, and I finally felt comfortable in that we would not be moving again.
It was on Tuesday, the week after Thanksgiving, that Randy and I found ourselves walking in the hallway at school behind David Reynolds and Jeremy Kimball, who were holding hands as they walked. They were just freshmen, yet there they were, out and proud. If they could be comfortable being out, why couldn’t we?
I turned to look at Randy, and we smiled at each other, after realizing that we were thinking the same thing. Randy reached out with his hand, and I grabbed it firmly in mine.
The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of David of Hope in editing this story, with special thanks to Fun Tails and BeaStKid for their advice and editing with respect to Islamic and Pakistani aspects of the story. The author also thanks Gay Authors, Awesome Dude and Codey’s World for hosting My First Thanksgiving and the companion story, The Un-Christmas.