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Shaheen Pasha
I am a freelance journalist, assistant teaching professor at Penn State University and the co-founder of the Prison Journalism Project. My work can be found at Narratively, Dallas Morning News, Quartz, The Daily Beast and USA Today, among other publications.

Following the North Star

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Shaheen Pasha | Longreads | April 2020 | 18 minutes (4,587 words)

I received the call at work from Tariq’s brother. I knew him briefly, had seen him as a kid, but aside from a few conversations here and there, we were virtual strangers. I couldn’t really even picture his face as his voice came across the line, hesitant, slightly unsure, a little defiant. It’s hard to imagine I had such a powerful connection to one man, and yet his brother, the person closest to him, was more of a name than a person.

“Tariq has been arrested,” his brother said to me, before his voice choked up into sobs, all his bravado vanished. I sat down in my chair with its slightly wobbly back, and dropped the handbag I had just hung on my shoulder, ready to catch my bus home from Jersey City.

“What did they arrest him for?” I said, my voice oddly calm even though it felt like my throat was closing. Drugs, maybe? He didn’t do hard drugs, that I knew. But maybe he had been caught up in the overly zealous drug war at the turn of the new millennium, when marijuana was considered the gateway to all evils.

Or maybe it was a fight at a club. That would make sense. Tariq thrived on a good fight, weaving in and out like a boxer, assessing his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. It was something we argued about incessantly when we were together. One of many things.

But I knew before he even said it. Somehow, I knew. I had seen it in a dream, a sick twisted nightmare I’d had as a teenager in my dorm room all those years ago. Tariq had woken up and put his arm around me as I whimpered in my sleep. “Hey, you okay?” he said, still half asleep. I nodded and buried my head against his chest. “Just a bad dream,” I said. “I don’t really remember.” He was asleep, anyway, before the last words left my mouth.

I did remember. Good God, I’ve never forgotten it. A courtroom. A jury of mostly white men and women staring at me. A faceless man, some kind of a lawyer, standing in front of me. Me in a box, trying not to look at Tariq as I testified on his behalf. “Please don’t give him the death penalty,” I said to the stone-faced jurors in my dream. “I can’t imagine a world that he’s not in.”

It was a vision that came to pass a handful of years later, in 2005, down to the slightly sweaty wood paneling under my fingers as I gripped the edge of the witness box to keep them from shaking. But I didn’t know it at the time of the dream. Maybe I wouldn’t have told him then even if I had known. It was the first time and, as it turned out, the last time we had ever spent the whole night together. Good Pakistani Muslim girls didn’t spend the night with a boy, after all. I felt daring, rebellious and completely happy. I didn’t want to taint it with the imagery of a ruined life. I wanted our perfect night to remain just that.

So I just watched him sleep. He looked younger than his 19 years when he slept. All the hardness that would sometimes creep across his face was gone in his sleep. He even smiled a little, untroubled by nightmares.

I should have told him.

I should have told him.

“Double homicide.” His brother’s voice snapped me back to the present. His voice suddenly collapsed within itself, shaky breaths substituting words, creating a language of grief that could only be understood by the two of us.

In books, I’ve always read that the world stops when a person delivers horrible news. Time stands still. You can feel the air. Everything goes on hold. That’s not the reality, of course. My co-worker shouted a goodbye to me from across her cubicle as she packed up her computer. Phones rang, people laughed. Life went on.

Except it never really did for me again. Not in the same way. That call changed everything. It initiated me into a painful fraternity of those impacted by the trauma of mass incarceration. And 17 years later, the pain lives on and nothing has gone back to the way it was before. What would have happened if I hadn’t stopped to pick up the phone? I was already walking away from my desk, pulling out crackers from my coat pocket to curb the new nausea of my first pregnancy.

I wonder if life would have taken its natural course. Tariq and I had broken up two years earlier, when I was 22. It was sad and heart-wrenching at the time, but not unexpected given how young we were. Our relationship would have been a memory of first love to be cherished and stored away. A tale to tell my Pakistani-American grandkids in my old age when it was long past scandalous.

I was now married to a Pakistani-Canadian man who had swept me off my feet in a matter of months. It was a suitable relationship with a suitable young man who ticked off the boxes of propriety in my Pakistani immigrant community: Muslim, educated, handsome. And, to top it off, we were in love. It was a new relationship filled with promise.

I was pregnant with our first child. She was a little speck of a human being inside me. I’d been consumed with delight since I had seen those two blue lines just two weeks earlier.

Career, marriage, baby.

Done, done, done.

Normal. Mundane. The life I had been planning since I was a little girl.

This phone call was not part of the plan.

The first shrill ring. Let it go to voicemail, I said to myself walking away. I’ll tackle whatever it is when I come back to work tomorrow.

A second ring, slightly more demanding in tone, if that’s possible. I hesitated. What if it’s my husband or my mom? Nonsense, they’d call you on your cell phone. You’ll miss the bus.

Third ring. What if something is wrong? Sigh. I walked back to my desk and picked up the receiver.

As it turned out, something was terribly wrong.

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