Stanford, Tokyo, London

Stanford, California, USA - 12:38PM

I am eating my lunch outside the office, where a bee is incessantly interrupting me as I finish my salad. Maybe it is the Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume I am wearing that's attracting this annoyance. It has been an exceptionally humid two days (for the Bay Area). It reminds me achingly of Lahore. This weather is comforting and disconcerting at the same time. It is comforting because my skin has memory of it. As the moist air touches me, my body remembers feeling a sensation akin to this years ago in more humid and much warmer climate. I almost expect large salty raindrops to fall on me and a wind to give the rain direction and force. The humidity is disconcerting because it seems out of place here in the bay area, and also because it only feels like a half-memory, a half-shadow of what I left behind in Lahore. The day doesn't have the same heavy, overbearing blanket of moisture that made my hair curl and chest tight back in my home city. It doesn't have the same smells, flowers blooming, pakoras frying in recycled oil of questionable origins on street corners, little boys and girls jumping in puddles on the street, smiling gleefully, cars filling up with water on roads, and always the rain, the relentless monsoon rain, which caused rivers to swell and crops to die and villages to flood. It feels wrong here, this humidity, but also like a small, unassuming gift. Like someone up there saying, "Here, have a piece of the past; a diluted, pencil-tracing-as-opposed-to-water-color-type piece, but a gift nonetheless to feed your senses." It's much appreciated.

Tokyo, Japan - 4:38AM

My middle sister, Qurat Noor, sleeps in her tiny studio apartment in the heart of Tokyo. She only just went to sleep. The Fajr (dawn) prayer happens at 2:30AM in Tokyo these days. She either stays awake for the prayer or sets an alarm to wake up at that time. We chat after she prays usually. We tell each other things about our day, which are not really that important or exciting, but we listen anyway because we are sisters. Often, I whine, and she commiserates. A few hours from now, she will wake up and get ready for work. Her husband will have left already. Qurat will lay out her clothes in her usual habit, neatly ironed, and in order. A pair of pants, a long shirt, shoes and socks, scarf and coat. Check, check, check, and check. She will make herself a small breakfast. Maybe she will walk to her balcony and look at the cherry blossom tree. Maybe she will think of me as she sips her chai or of our baby sister as she puts on the scarf they bought together in London a few years ago, without me. She will walk out and catch a train to her office where she gives English language lessons to locals. Will she notice the weather? Will the air that tingled my arms reach her in a few hours? Will she breathe it in and be surprised because it smells like Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume, or will it just mingle with the fresh fragrance of the gorgeous blooms all around her? Will she instinctively reach into her handbag for her phone to find the screen blinking, telling her that there is a new message from one of her sisters in our WhatsApp group chat (titled, very unoriginally and rather aptly, Noor Ladies Only)?

London, UK - 8:38PM

Mahey Noor, "the fairest and youngest of them all," sits dejectedly in a small room in London. Most of her packing is done. Her suitcase lies closed but unzipped in a corner, the top flap resting like a parted lip, surly, angry. Mahey's 3-week vacation was simply not enough for her to absorb London through her skin until the next time she can visit this city that seems to thrum through her body. If she could live in this city, she would probably never miss Lahore. She has visited all the landmarks and tourist attractions. She has gone shopping, had fish and chips while traveling, and watched a Bollywood blockbuster in the theater. She was almost blown away at one of the beaches, the wind whipping her around, taking hold of her hair and her coat, making her buckle down, brace herself. She has gotten to know the London underground better than the roads of Lahore. She has also spent a lot of time just sitting in her room, sometimes writing, sometimes not, mostly just feeling  at peace with the city sprawling around her, realizing that this is where her home should be. She has loved London for years and planned this trip to revive herself, collect her thoughts and energies, detox in a more granular way than of the emotional or physical variety. She looks at her ticket and passport slipped into a red Stanford folder I sent her. Does she register the fact that I, too, touched the same piece of laminated cardboard that she has in her possession, or does she only concentrate on the sad, heavy feeling of the looming goodbye, much like the weather I am experiencing, but more like the one I am remembering, the kind we loved and lived through, all three of us, together?

The summer monsoons were important to us when we were little girls. They stood for buying new notebooks, large hardcover wide-ruled journals we called "registers," A-4 papers, folders and binders, textbooks and brown paper sheets to cover them. They made it possible to have long afternoons to read Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Woods series. They signaled the time for our mother to spend several evenings wrapping our books for the coming school year and slapping a sticker on the front, on which I used to write the owner’s name in my neat cursive hand. "Noorulain Noor, 3-C," "Quratulain Noor, 1-B," "Mahey Noor, Prep-A." They gave us lots of time to play "teacher-teacher," in which we took turns for the role of "Miss Noor," writing on our small chalkboard, marking our pretend assignments with swooping checks or crosses and adding comments in the margins, "Good," "Excellent," "Poor," "Improvement needed." The monsoons also gave us a reason to sneak up to the roof in our sundresses and run in the rain, our mother coming upstairs with towels, wrapping us in them, our hair wet and flying every which way, our fingertips wrinkly, teeth chattering, lips blue. They meant sleeping in every day, all three of us, tiny forms huddled on the same bed, the middle sister appropriately sleeping in the middle - birth order was ever so important back then.

The summer monsoons meant so much more, too, though – mostly that we would be together all day, every day, for the next three months. Twelve weeks that almost felt like a lifetime to us. They seemed endless. Little did we know that by the time the oldest one of us turned 18, we’d be separated, our childhoods nothing more than wavering shadows in our lives.

Murree, Pakistan. 1999.
I come inside after lunch, and a wonderful thing happens. I check my phone and there are messages from both my sisters. Tokyo can’t sleep and London is still packing. I join in and type, “Hi girls!” All of us are in this virtual space together at the same time in different parts of the world. This has not happened in months. It feels almost magical. Usually we respond to each other, our messages separated by hours, sometimes days. “All three Noor sisters present! Hurray!” says Qurat. “Let’s take a picture just as we are right now and send it, OK?” This from Mahey, always wanting to hold memories and immortalize them somehow. We send our selfies: Me at my desk, Qurat standing in front of a full-length mirror, Mahey sitting on her bed. For a few minutes, we are together again, little girls in different time zones, possessing small reminders of each other, my Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume, Qurat’s scarf - the one she bought in London with Mahey, and Mahey’s red Stanford folder. We are somehow encapsulated into a long panoramic shot, spanning continents and oceans. We are three sisters in three countries, yet in one place somehow. Together. Harmonized. Synchronous.