Naeem was 16 and I was 11, but the real difference in 1973 was that I knew his name and he didn’t know mine. Neither of us knew then that our shared life began on a yellow school bus in Islamabad, he in the back, me in the front. His single recollection is that I was the younger sister of a soccer teammate. I have two memories of him. My first is of his wide-open grin while he sits with friends in the last row of bus seats. Curly hair falls in waves around his face and he carries himself with a sixteen-year-old’s swagger that is electrifying to those of us whose feet barely reach the floor. To be grown like that one day! My second is of a photograph. He is on the front page of the school newspaper at a sports banquet where he has won an award. The paper is unnaturally white, the black and white photo too dark. He is dressed in a suit, holding a microphone, smiling shyly at his lucky girlfriend. Buried in a box, the folded newspaper accompanied him to all his cities, and then ours, before it surfaced in Ithaca with a bundle of a girlfriend’s drawings. My memory was accurate, except there’s nothing shy about his smile.
My mother was white and my father was brown, my mother Dutch, my father Pakistani. If she’d had a choice, she would have been brown. She tried, sitting near swimming pools during short summers in Vienna and long ones in Islamabad, but her attempts came to a full stop with basal cell carcinoma, when sunscreen replaced sun as her best friend. My father’s brown was constant, except that when he grew older and gray, in the right light and on the right part of him, his color lightened. I, on the other hand, am in between. I pretended I didn’t know I was brown until we moved from Austria to Pakistan and I saw it all around and made it mine. But the truth is that it took leaving behind Pakistan to claim the country and color as my own.
Color is a fact, a given, for my American-born children. We didn’t wake up one morning and decide our children were ready for the news: You’re brown. Almost as soon as they could talk, they put their little arms next to mine and decided they were darker. They were always right, because when summer came and my color deepened, so did theirs and our skin tones never matched. Next to their father’s, their arms and legs were not a match, but close enough. “That’s okay,” my sons said about my outsider status and patted my arm because they must have thought I needed comforting. Soon enough, they asked, “Where are we from?” I’d say, “You are from where we are from, Pakistan. And also from where you were born, here.” Naeem, my husband, would remember my mother and add, “Also from Holland, where Nani is from.” There is no flag for their combination and, anyway, the white in that equation, the one-fourth of them that is my mother, was ignored even then. “She’s the brownest person we know,” I heard them say once, as if they knew all along that color is a state of mind, not pigment.