During the predeparture orientation at the crumbling three-star hotel by the sea—with its white portico and its lobbies smelling like a Native Jetty swamp—the exchange student is warned about a number of things. Ex-exchange students—by now so Americanized, you would think they had spent their entire lives in the U.S.—regale him with anecdotes both funny and scary: host fathers casually dropping the bass during dinner-table conversations, and host mothers quietly letting one or two rather pungent ones slip during walks in the park; host fathers letting their hands hover too close to the breasts and buttocks of their host daughters, and host mothers soliciting bare-bodied massages from their host sons.
In Washington, D.C., where he arrives in August along with all the other exchange students from his home country, he has another set of orientations. Exchange students get a monthly stipend of $125 from the State Department. The host families report to the local coordinator, the local coordinator to the regional coordinator, the regional coordinator to the national coordinator, and the national coordinator communicates directly with the State Department—a chain of command through which news of discontent or concern ascends like an elevator. The prime warning here is loud and clear: Be rude to your host family and you’ll be thrown out of their house, put up for adoption by another host family; get caught drinking, doing drugs, shoplifting, impregnating someone, planning to flee or overstay, and you’ll be sent back home.
It is the first time that the exchange student has fully escaped his family’s supervision, and although the temptation to hook up here—to give himself to another exchange student—is immense, and although the hotel rooms allow for such opportunities, he has that warning tucked securely in his mind. His days in D.C. are marked by strict celibacy. After four days in and out of orientations, sightseeing around the big, historic city, he boards a flight to his assigned state for a school year of cultural and academic exchange.
He gets lucky with his placement: Visalia, California, middle-aged host parents. He is aware that many exchange students get sent to remote nooks in Iowa or Kentucky; he is also aware that many exchange students get stuck with elderly couples looking for company after their own kids stop bringing their families around for Christmas with the grandparents.
On his first night, he anxiously eats a single slice of pizza for dinner. He is disappointed by his room initially, small and plain, devoid of character. Despite his disappointment, he lays out on the bed all the gifts he has brought from back home: embroidered Sindhi hand-fans studded with golden beads; a small, hand-painted rickshaw figurine; packets of Laziza kheer and Shan korma masala; kundan bangles for his host mother; a white kurta for his host father.
His host mother is a stay-at-home mom to two kids, a 4-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl, and his host father is a sergeant with the City of Visalia Police Department. They live in an ordinary house on an ordinary street, not unlike the ones he has grown up seeing in American movies. His host mother is all safari shorts and spaghetti-strap tops, baseball caps and mineral sunscreen. Her freckles change color under variations of light. She is about the yard-sales-and-Costco-membership life. She uses phrases like “none’ya business” and “alrighta-Idaho-potato,” and is all about holding hands and saying grace before every meal. His host father is a big guy, a regular guy, unhandsome in a way that suggests he has never been handsome—thin lips, cheeks like a hairy fruit. He is mostly away at work and mows the lawn and rakes the leaves when he is home. He says things like “funk up my trunk” and “drop a deuce.” His host siblings are small: nubby shoulders and jutting knees, ribbons of coagulated snot in their snub noses. The brother is boisterous arms and a screaming mouth, smelling of the sweet rot of Jell-O and Go-Gurts; the sister is a fat, white fermented dough waiting to rise, smelling of soiled diapers, rash cream, and no-tears shampoo.
The exchange student surprises himself by not getting homesick. He doesn’t miss Pakistan, or his family. He is in awe of his hosts, astounded that they’ve allowed a stranger—from a whole other country, no less—such uninhibited access to their house, to their lives, for 10 months. His family back home has barely any patience with external intrusions—relatives, guests, house-helps, even his sisters’ children.
For the exchange student, school is a maze, a confusing colosseum. A boy, his first-day “buddy,” takes him around and shows him his classes, the gym, the cafeteria. A girl in his U.S.-history class offers him a dented Tootsie Roll, to “introduce you to American candy.” The kids in his debate class ask him questions about Pakistan, about terrorism and homemade grenades and Osama bin Laden.
At home, when he has settled into the family well enough to not feel awkward calling his host mother Mom and his host father Dad, his host mother asks him if the bangles his mother has sent for her are expensive and whether she should put them on their family insurance plan. The bangles are cheap, fake gold, purchased from Liaquat Market, he knows, but he pretends to be clueless, says that he will ask his mother when he speaks with her next. He tells his mother that his host family loved all the gifts. Each time he thinks about the bangles, he pictures his mother in the sweltering Karachi heat, bent over a dilapidated kiosk in Liaquat Market—her kamdani chador clinging to her damp back—haggling furiously, excited to buy presents for his new family in America. He avoids the subject with his host mother, but she eventually brings it up herself. “Don’t ask your mother about the bangles,” she says with a pitying smile. “I don’t want her to get embarrassed.”
Embarrassed on his mother’s behalf, he feels a lump in his throat, a sensation that returns during a mild altercation about coffee creamers. He starts drinking coffee—real coffee, made in a coffee machine, with ground beans, and not the stupid instant coffee that he is used to drinking back home—and to soften the edges of the bitterness that jabs the corners of his mouth, he pours in half a cup of creamer. For a few days his host mother lets it slide, allowing him to unabashedly splash his coffee with caramel, hazelnut, toffee, pumpkin spice, and French vanilla. Then, one day: “Coffee creamers are expensive,” she says in a tone that takes him by surprise, a tone laced with anger. “You cannot keep doing that. Use milk, or don’t drink coffee.”
By October, from the pictures other exchange students post on Facebook, he gathers that snow has begun to fall in some parts of America, but the heat doesn’t relent in dry, sandy Visalia. At school, boys continue to wear tank tops, shorts, and flip-flops—yet another cultural shock for him, the school’s lack of a uniform code making him feel like a guest, not a student. What shocks him more are the armpits of these boys: unshaved, thick hair shimmering with sweat, flattened to swirls on their skin. He averts his eyes from the exposed armpits almost as quickly as he does when he sees anyone making out in public, which is something he was warned during the orientations never to stare at. Eventually, out of curiosity if not desire, the armpits of these boys become a bizarre receptacle for his attention.
He notices that there is hair in the armpits of boys who do not even shave yet, boys still in the throes of puberty. Turfs, scant and abundant, black, brown, and golden, muddled with tiny white crumbs of deodorant, like snow caught in foliage if they use the white, powdery kind, or matted flat and wet-looking if they use gel. He notices the intricate web of wrinkles around the edges of their pits when they hold their arms too close to their bodies. He hears the susurration of wind passing through the abyss between a raised arm and a torso. He wants to bury his face under their arms and smell them all.
At home, too, he notices his host father taking a plunge into the swimming pool, arms raised over his head to form an inverted V. The cords of his triceps snap, and the tender skin under the arms dips to form a cavity, ripe with two tracks of hair, dark-black and disorderly. His host siblings are too young to have any body hair at all; they are shiny and smooth like mannequins.
He has a hard time making friends at school. The girl who offered him candy does not speak to him again; his “buddy” does not recognize him in the hallways, does not return his smiles or nods. His only friends are other exchange students from Croatia, Senegal, and Indonesia.
Thankfully, he does not allow the early rifts with his host mother to convince him that his time with his loving American host family will be unpleasant, and in fact, soon enough, in his host mother he finds one of his closest friends in Visalia. She takes him along on every trip to the supermarket (she prefers WinCo over Vons and Shasta Cola over Coke; both choices save her money) and takes him to her loquacious hairdresser, who gives him a Justin Bieber hairdo with blue streaks. With parents, host or otherwise, he cannot be close to both, so he chooses sides, plays favorites. He is devoted to his host mother, and without protest, his host father recedes into the background, emerging every now and then to take him to a lake or to watch a bicycle race.
His host mother, too, he notices, lacks friends—her days are chores-oriented; she keeps the house immaculate and cooks uncomplex but delicious meals. Or if she has friends, she does not invite them over for kiddie parties and brunches, or speak with them for hours on the phone; or if she does any of that, she does it while he is away at school. Sometimes he returns home to find her napping in the middle of the day, errands behind her, nothing else to do.
His host mother is the coolest person he has ever met. The two of them talk over dinner, post-dinner, while putting the kids to bed, late into the evening. They end the day with a sweet “Goodnight,” picking up the conversation the next day exactly where they left off. They buttress each conversation about the present with anecdotes about the past, filling each other in on the parts of their lives the other has missed: siblings’ weddings, vacations, deaths in the family. They fall into a daily routine. He tells her each and every thing that happens each and every day at school; so what if one day she says—when he tells her about the boy who, during the first numismatics-club meeting, seeing the blue streaks in his hair and the skinny jeans hugging his skinny legs, walked up to him and volunteered the fact that he is gay—“Ugh, stay away from him.”
In December, the central heating is turned on too high and he lies in bed naked, a thin throw blanket draped over half of his body. After an entire day of wearing a jacket, a feral, fermented scent rests in his armpits. He rubs his nose on the papery edge of one and sniffs. He imagines that the smell emanating from his armpit belongs to a white boy. He thinks about their bare, milky limbs coruscated with golden hair and ears pierced with diamond studs, their perilously sagging jeans and exposed boxer briefs. He thinks about standing close to them and inhaling their tangy white-boy breath and the antiseptic fumes of cheap aerosol sprays masking their sweet boy smells. The hardness between his legs makes its presence felt. He touches himself.
He thinks about how the white boys carry triumphant gains in their arms and shoulders, the bulks of their chests, flaunting their physicality. How some of them wear tank tops and even in profile you can see the geometry of their hard abs, the plush palimpsest of hair on their navels. He thinks about the nebulous glow of their skin, about how the faintest trace of hair on their Adam’s apple catches the light in the sun, how a lone bead of sweat dangles for dear life from the bristles on their chins. They always smell so clean that he imagines God softened their flesh with laundry detergent.
Then he thinks of fathers back home, pressing razors into their sons’ palms after Friday prayer, after the sermon in the mosque, the shrill voice of the maulvi echoing in his ears. Cleanliness is half the faith. He hears the hushed tones of fathers whispering to their sons, instructing them to cut—to a size smaller than a grain of rice—the hair in their armpits and above their members; to follow the Sunnah, the lifestyle of the Prophet. He imagines all of these scenarios in his head because his own father has never had such a conversation with him, never pressed a sharp razor into his soft palm. These are scraps of information he has picked up from boys around him, in school and in his family.
He folds his arms behind his head to look at the skin of his armpits, razed to the texture of sandpaper, each pore agitated and red. Soaped and scraped, soaped and scraped, ardently scratched with a razor every week, the sharpness tingling long afterward. And before he was big enough to hold a razor, he remembers how his mother used to strip his armpits clean with homemade wax. How she stood him in front of the mirror to show him how the wax had to be heated on a steel plate that had been blackened over the stove, and then a stick, usually from a leftover ice pop, had to be dipped into the hot, gluey wax, which was then immediately smeared in an even sheet over the hair. His mother taught him to wait and blow gently on the wax, let it harden and shrink and tug on the skin, and then to pull, always in a single direction, and always quickly. Sometimes the pain made his eyes water and sometimes little ellipses of blood formed on the broken skin. And sometimes, even worse, especially when he started waxing his own pits, he tugged too hard, or too slowly, or in the wrong direction, causing a violent breaking of a hair or two—causing within a week the problematic hairs to grow inward when they returned, causing boils to emerge in his pits, boils that grew and grew until they waged war against the tensile strength of his skin, and the skin eventually gave way, causing the boils to burst open, oozing pus before becoming small again, disappearing over time, leaving behind shriveled dark spots and congealed skin. Days later, hair would appear in his armpits again, tiny and prickly, like the heads of toothpicks in a jar.
He looks at the mutilated pores in his armpits and wonders, This is what they come out of, the hairs? The pores are, he thinks, tiny portals—the birthplace of hair. And what is inside? he wonders. Long spools of hair coiled and resting under the warm skin? Coils of hair unwinding themselves every week and squeezing out of the sievelike membrane of skin? He imagines covering the pores up with tape or glue, or better still with cement, so he never has to shave again. And then it hits him, the jubilant realization that here, in this place, he really doesn’t have to.
Half of his time in America has passed, and yet each time he visits a grocery store with his host mother, he experiences afresh the joy of seeing all things familiar and unfamiliar. Every time he purchases Aquafresh toothpaste, St. Ives body wash, and Clinique moisturizers, he feels like he has moved up in life. Yes, these products are available back home too, but in large, shiny marts frequented by the rich, where each time he goes, just to lurk, he is trailed by store clerks, their suspicion barely masked by their eagerness to offer advice and answer questions. Everything tastes different here, though. Pineapples are hard and dry; mangoes are sweet ghosts of themselves, sold in a box or a can, dipped in cancerous syrups. Milk is not delivered by a fat man on a scooter every morning at the break of dawn but pulled down in cool bottles from pristine shelves. It does not smell of the warm, febrile belly of the cow. It smells of nothing and tastes like chalk.
On nights when his host father is away at work, he and his host mother—after putting the kids to bed and cleaning up the mess of swimming-pool noodles and dismembered limbs of toys—watch TV late into the night. Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model—they love these shows. There was a time in his life, around when the Bollywood film Fashion came out, when he grew obsessed with the idea of becoming a dress designer. His family found him one day—tangled in fabric that he had taken from his sisters’ creaky closet, face made up like a Barbie’s—and the successive name-calling, shaming, and blackmailing eventually subdued his interests; but as he sits down to watch these shows with his host mother, a rekindling occurs in his heart. He finds himself unable to speak, the words slipping further and further away from him after his host mother says—as he comments one night on how talented the men on the show are, how beautiful the dresses they design on such short notice, using such scant materials—“If they can be called men at all.”
Undoubtedly his host mother knows what he is, they both know, but he is scared to say it. He does not have words yet to argue about or explain how he feels to his host mother—the shape of his hurt remains unknown to him—so he argues with her about milder things: petty arguments about his chores and about spending more time on Facebook than with the family. When he tells his host mother it’s sunny outside and he wants to tan—and she says that he already has really dark skin and doesn’t need to—he says she is being racist. When she yells and flings things in the air, he locks himself in the bathroom and pretends to cry. The State Department issues him its first disciplinary warning.
For his 16th birthday in March, his host family takes him to Vegas, a city he has expressed a desire to see ever since he arrived. They don’t do much there other than walk up and down the strip, in and out of hotels, but it is the best birthday of his life. During the last ride from the strip to the hotel, he gets into the cab and murmurs—under his breath so the driver doesn’t hear, in a voice full of mock amusement—“So now, where are you from?” Thinking that he is making fun of his host father for being nice and conversing with the cab drivers (when he’s simply remarking on the fact that in the two days in Vegas, every single cab driver has been a non-American, from Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Bosnia, or Ukraine, speaking accented English, just as he does), his host mother scolds him in front of everyone, lecturing him on the American values of politeness and kindness.
A few months have passed since he last shaved his armpits. The hair has exposed its unseen potential, growing longer and longer every month. Though he should be sickened, he is delighted to find, post-shower, the solvent smell of fresh sweat beneath his arms, his pits mildly sticky like a Post-it pressed and plucked too many times. In his more daring moments, he steps outside the house wearing tank tops recently purchased from Target. He finds excuses to expose his armpits, to show the world his new, benign development. He scratches the back of his neck to rid himself of a nonexistent itch; he reaches for the top shelf in the library to grab a book that he replaces seconds later. He is fascinated by how the barest puff of air provokes the hair in his pits into motion, flickering like a hundred candlewicks. How devoid of shame this ostentatious display of virility, how lacking in grace. How beautiful.
The applications arrive for the next year’s crop of exchange students and are sent to the current host families, neatly plastic-coated. His host family goes through all the forms, asking his opinion on each applicant. His host parents decide not to host next year. They want to take a break, they say. He feels two things simultaneously: A part of him is happy that for a while, he will be their only exchange-child experience, and a part of him feels he has let them down so much that they will never want to host again.
Several months later, when he is back in Karachi, he will learn that in the end they did decide to host another exchange student, from Senegal, and a year later he will learn that they decided to adopt him, to keep him forever. They will announce it on Facebook, our new son, and set up a GoFundMe to pay for his college education. They will make him a permanent member of their family, just as he had imagined they would—but didn’t—make him.
As spring arrives, his host parents go out together—to an annual police officers’ dinner—which is something they do not do often. His host mother’s sister, the one who lives in Fresno, comes over to babysit the kids, along with her hot jock of a husband and their son. When his host parents leave, she invites her half brother and his girlfriend over too. He sits talking to these people, telling them, yes, he is from Pakistan; no, that’s not in Saudi Arabia; yes, he is a Muslim; and no, he doesn’t speak Islam. The girlfriend is especially impressed by the exchange student’s school newspaper, which has recently published a heavily plagiarized feature he has written. Eventually, boredom stalks the gathering. Smiles are exchanged. A bottle of wine is produced. Passed around and gulped down. Another bottle. It is not his first time drinking alcohol—he has been stealing vodka and rum from the pantry throughout the year, mixing it with orange and cranberry juice—but he says that it is. This fascinates the group, and they fill his glass again and again. His host siblings sleep in their room peacefully, soundlessly, but when his host parents return home to a party of half-passed-out babysitters, their yelling wakes them up.
Later, when his host father’s younger brother is getting married, his host parents let him drink under their supervision. They don’t seem to notice that he gets drunk out of his mind. In the privacy of the bathroom, where he runs to throw up, he thinks to himself, Now I am drunk and should act like a drunk person. Drawing on images of drunk people—mostly from Indian movies and TV shows, because he has never seen a drunk person in his life in Pakistan—he begins to sway and stagger and slur his speech, much for his own amusement, but more for the drunken girls in short, shiny, sequined dresses, who call him cute and take selfies with him on their iPhones. When he is no longer able to walk or even stand, his host father carries him to his room and puts him to bed. For years he will replay this memory in his head again and again, trying to conjure the exact image of his host father lovingly planting a kiss on his forehead and covering him up with crisp white sheets and whispering, “Goodnight, son.” He will remember, too, how minutes later, he purposely rolled off the bed, just to be held again and be put back in by his host father.
“Grounded and phone is taken away”: He uploads a status on Facebook several weeks later, using the small laptop his host parents have loaned him for schoolwork. As he had hoped, his host mother comes out of her room, into the living room, where he is sleeping—his own room is occupied by his host father’s parents, who are visiting. “Give me the laptop,” she whisper-yells. “Now.” His phone has already been confiscated, all his messages on it, conversations with the boys he has pursued at school—to no avail—and the phone has no lock. He shuts the laptop and hands it to her.
She will, of course, read all his chats—with the boy in his Spanish class, with the one who is a peer tutor, and with the one he met at a debate tournament. Later, she will confront him not about the risqué messages to these boys, but about the fact that he lied to one of them, told him that during his visit to Las Vegas, his host family had taken him to a Dev concert, and also to the VMAs, where he had seen Taylor Swift perform live, all of which showed that he was ungrateful and did not fully appreciate what his host family had actually done for him.
After a few days, his host father takes him out for coffee, tells the exchange student that they love him very much, but if he continues to disrespect his wife, they will have no choice but to ask him to leave their home.
It’s May—one month to go. The thought of leaving crushes him. Despite the fights with his host mother, there is no place else he would rather be. He feels bad about not missing his family, his real family back home, his sisters, his father, his mother—especially his mother—who has torn her clothes to dress him, has flung pieces of meat from her plate onto his. His mother whom he loves but has never spoken with the way he speaks with his host mother: endlessly, ’til he runs out of breath. Sometimes in the middle of the night he wakes up from nightmares—he dreams that he is already back home, in Pakistan. His body breaks out in a cold sweat and his armpits, now so full of hair, are clammy.
His fights with his host mother become more frequent, more virulent. He has figured out ways to hurt her, and he finds it thrilling to watch her face dissolve in a mix of anger and sadness. Calling her “Host Mom” does the trick. Telling her that he is not interested in going to family events and wants to focus on community service—so he can get that certificate from the White House, signed by Obama—works too. So does eating a snack as soon as he gets home from school, and then, at the dinner table, telling her he is no longer hungry for the meal she has spent a lot of time preparing. Some days he does not understand why he pushes her buttons. His host mother sings Lady Gaga with him. She puts together his costumes for the spring-fling week at school. She passes down Aveeno skin-care products for his cystic acne. She trusts him to take care of the kids while she does quick errands. She tells him that as a teenager she was very rebellious and belligerent—getting suspended from school, bringing back bad boys, calling her mother a bitch, etc. Some days the exchange student wonders if he has been karmically brought into her life, to give her a taste of her own medicine. Despite the ceaseless chatter, he never feels truly seen or accepted by her. Isn’t half-formed love what he’s received all his life?
On the night of his graduation, as a surprise for him, his host mother cooks chicken korma using the spices he has brought from home. His local coordinator and a few other exchange students, and his host mother’s sister and her hot jock of a husband and their son and his host father’s brother and his newlywed wife and their unborn child, are invited. When he comes home from the graduation ceremony, he is greeted by the smell of garam masala and for a second, he thinks his mother has come all the way from Karachi to cook dinner for him. Before he sits down to eat, his host mother grabs him by the arm, drags him to his room, to the dresser in the corner, on the shiny surface of which he had left, while rushing to get ready for the graduation ceremony, the clippings of his fingernails. Their ragged edges streaked with black dirt stare at him. “Do not do this ever again,” she says, her eyes aglimmer with fury. “I almost threw up.” Then, she leads him back out and smiles at the guests. He feels ashamed, his hunger replaced by sadness. Later at night, crying in his bed, he thinks that he did not even ask her what she was doing in his room, and then he remembers that it isn’t his room at all.
One week before he is to officially return home, he is asked to leave. The reason for the argument with his host mother is irrelevant, as it always is. They are hurtling along Church Street at high speed to the Hair Mania for what will be his final haircut in America; tumbleweeds hurl themselves in their way with a suicidal ambition. The steering wheel is slapped; words like fuck and goddammit fly from his host mother’s mouth. He—sensing that he has set in motion something that cannot be reversed—clutches his breath. The warm June sun shines in his eyes.
His local coordinator comes to pick him up from the salon, not his host mother, and he knows what this means. On the ride home, his neck and back itch, chopped hair clinging to the damp skin. His host mother is waiting for him at the door, the cordless phone in her hand, host father on the line. After a preamble about his disappointment and hurt, the father says, “I will have to ask you to leave our house,” and though he has expected this, he allows himself to be shocked by the dictate. He falls to the ground, cries.
“I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry,” he says now to whoever will listen to him: his host mother, who averts her eyes; his local coordinator, who shrugs; the elder of the two host siblings, who watches with wide-eyed horror, and the younger girl, who puts her foot in her mouth. “Pack whatever you can,” his local coordinator says. She will send for the rest later.
At his local coordinator’s parents’ house, he will occupy an empty room until his future is decided by the national coordinator. He sleeps in a foreign bed all over again. Outside the window, an unfamiliar street, with identical cream- and beige-colored houses; the moon is full, and full of scars.
In the morning, post-shower, post-breakfast, his local coordinator calls. She speaks in a low, mournful voice. “Yeah, dude, sorry, we are putting you on a flight back home tomorrow.” There is a silence, because he doesn’t know what to say, what to do with his voice. Then there is laughter, a thigh being slapped. “I am kidding, dude, relax. You’ll go home after a week, with everyone else. As planned.” Relief spreads; his eyes fill with tears. A knot loosens somewhere inside of him. “Your dad will come to pick you up tomorrow afternoon.” The muscle of his heart unfurls. But then: “No, they are not taking you back in.” A pause. “For, like, a last family meeting. To talk.”
The next day his host father runs late but eventually comes to pick him up. While he is not exactly hostile, he is not cordial either. His host father asks if he is hungry, if he has eaten. The exchange student explains his lack of hunger. “Anxiety,” the host father concedes, and buys him a sandwich anyway.
At the dining table in their house once again. His host parents on one side, their backs to the kitchen, and he on the other, his back to the window that looks out onto the backyard and the pool. His host parents’ English is calm and impeccable, their words like birds returning at night. He feels the language sharp in his mouth; his tongue chafes against his teeth. He gathers his shattered voice, shard by ragged shard. He begins with a dramatic prelude—the memory of which will flush his cheeks and make him cringe for years to come, though later he will not remember if this was rehearsed or spontaneous. “Home is where the heart is,” he says, voice quivering, snot halfway between his nose and lips. It is a phrase he has picked up from a Christmas ornament. He tells them they are—this is—his home.
He apologizes, accepts his mistakes, makes no excuses. A laptop screen is flipped open, turned in his direction. His eyes take a moment to adjust to the brightness. A Word document, a couple of thousand words long. A diary of his arguments with his host mother, trifling skirmishes, cataloged by date and time. The fog in his head clears, things come into focus. Words such as annoyed and too long glisten on the page. It feels like a betrayal that his host mother has kept a diary all along.
A copy of the document has been emailed to his local coordinator and to the national coordinator, who upon reading his host mother’s notes will, the exchange student later learns from his local coordinator, question whether it was a loving household for him anyway. “Feeding off of each other’s negativity,” someone will suggest. The document is also emailed to the exchange student’s family back in Karachi, but he will log in to his father’s account to delete the message before his father can read it.
When his host family says that they forgive him, that in the future the doors of their house will be open to him, he feels irritated. These wrapped gifts of kindness, packaged in a supremely American brand of congeniality.
Back at the house of his local coordinator’s parents, he is surprised when, for the first time during his nearly year-long stay in America, the electricity goes out. He is used to load-shedding, which happens almost every day in Karachi, but he has allowed himself the luxury of getting used to the constant presence of artificial light and air around him. The whir of the refrigerator disappears, and the restless shadow of the ceiling fan attains a state of uncanny calm. Soon the recycled air in the house begins to shift, an osmosis from cool to warm to unbearably hot. His hairy armpits are damp; a wet film of sweat has formed where his left foot rests on his right. He mistakes the churning in his stomach for hunger. He goes to the kitchen and retrieves the leftover sandwich from the fridge. He feels queasy—sick, not hungry—and tosses it in the bin. He wants to throw up, so he goes to the bathroom, leans over the toilet, and heaves. Nothing. He remains hunched over the bowl, his mouth dry and tears in his eyes. How much he has lied to others, to himself, he thinks, everything a deception, a facade. When his parents come to pick him up at the airport a week from now—reunited with the well-disciplined boy they know from back home—their eyes will swell, faces pasty with pride.
He should shower, he thinks, and takes his shirt off and then his shorts and hangs them up. He looks at his face in the mirror. Rheumy, jaundiced eyes; ruddy, terra-cotta complexion. Sunlight makes the patina of sebum on his skin gleam. The boy he sees is not the one who arrived here 10 months ago. He has a small belly now, lean muscles on his arms from all the swimming, and pimples scattered all over his forehead. Face saturated with fat, cheeks the size of apricots. He has lost fluency in the language of his body; only now is he noticing.
He picks up the razor. For a split second the blade catches light from the sun streaming in through the window, a small spot in its center, from which brightness explodes. But the hair in his armpits is too long and unruly now. He imagines it will get caught in the blade, tangle, and become stubborn knots. He puts the razor back down. He raises both his arms and places them on his head. He turns his head left and then right, sniffs—that new scent of his body: animal and ethereal and smarmy. When did he become this person, and how?
This story appears in the December 2021 print edition.