Essays — October 6, 2014 10:09 — 1 Comment

We Don’t Choose the Days – Ahsan Butt

I grew up in a labyrinth.

The world known to me meandered around in side-streets of nearly identical middle-class homes, different only in their immigrant baroque touches – a driveway guarded by stone lions and lined with shiny white rocks, or a screen-door enclosure occupied by a royal white love-seat smelling of spice. The streets cut and curved and dead-ended, plotting out brown-bricked schools and pale yellow portables and jagged forests and three-piece playgrounds.

Ivy Lea, the street that I lived on from first grade to my first year of university, curled itself into a court. The white-wooded fence at its end left an opening, but it was rarely trespassed.

I grew up on this street. I have memories – through-lines touched and re-touched, tangents that stop before reaching meaning, blunt ones, faded ones, and other fragmented ones that, if threaded, lead somewhere to something worth remembering.


It wasn’t a long street, maybe 30 houses. Almost all the parents were immigrants – Indian mostly, but also Pakistani (us), Greek, Portuguese, Trinidadian, Ukrainian. The kids that I knew were all Canadian-born.

The playing on the street was run by one group. There were four of them that played every day, but two of them – the twins – decided who was called on. I was one of three other kids whose playing status was tenuous. We would be allowed to play for weeks or maybe months at a time until some incident – sometimes spontaneous, sometimes premeditated – would isolate and humiliate one of us back into our homes, unsure when we’d be called on again.

The twins lived next door to me. In my house, we didn’t swear. These two cussed each other out constantly. The first ‘fuck’ I ever heard was spat between them. But they had each other’s back and everyone knew that. When they mocked someone, they both laughed. If you said you wanted to play something other than what they decided, one called you a ‘retard’ and the other screamed ‘cork-y!’ at you in a high-pitched seesaw and beat a limp arm into his chest.

I was a year younger than the twins. I was short and weak. Worst of all, I had a habit of crying in front of them. I cried in front of anyone. Parents whispered that I was sensitive. Maybe I was. But is that something people just are? I think I cried because I was scared of everything – of getting hurt, getting dirty, being cold, getting sick, an asthma attack, getting lost, being kidnapped, car crashes, someone firebombing my house – of dying. I can find a memory for each of these fears, many in fact, but in them the fears already exist fully formed and there’s nowhere to go before these memories. There are only unlit streets.


For twenty years I forgot about a family that changed my sister and me into different people.

The Mahendroo family lived on the other side of the twins. They were an attractive family, sharp-featured and most of all, self-assured. To the more conservative South Asian families on Ivy Lea and the street behind it, they were scandalous. On nights when they threw their massive house parties, a woman who lived a few houses down used to peer into their backyard from her bedroom window trying to decipher the movement of silhouettes across the grass.

The mother of the Mahendroo household, we called her Madiya Auntie, would host most of these parties. She would move from room to room and out to the deck riling up pockets of people and passing out appetizers that were the irresistible kind of too-spicy. Her husband ran a catering business, so he serviced parties during the day and then came home and enjoyed his own.

I knew the family because of Vishu, the youngest of the three Mahendroo children. He was my first friend that wasn’t mean to me and I loved him for it.

He was two years older than me. I never saw him having to deal with the twins. At the time that I was playing in the street (or trying to), I barely saw him around. Then during one of the exiles the twins imposed on me he called me over to his house to play Nintendo. He owned so many games that he kept a print-out of all the titles to keep track of them. I couldn’t believe it. When I would ask him if he had a specific game, he wouldn’t know, but if the title was on the list, he knew he could find its dusty cartridge in one of the crates stacked in his basement.

Vishu enjoyed telling a good lie. He was a trickster with no malice and a cheater with no greed. He was a story-teller who didn’t care about the story so long as you believed in it. He spoke fast and trained on your reactions, sometimes switching tone mid-word if you thought something he said was too ridiculous, or he laughed turning the last thing he said into a joke and signaled that now he would tell the true truth, which was the new thing he was making up.

He modeled his personality on Will Smith’s Fresh Prince. Most TV-raised brown kids did, but Vishu’s impression was good though. He was popular in school the way few brown boys were. Our elementary school was still majority white during the time we passed through it. As soon as ‘being cool’ began to short-circuit perceptions, kids clumped together. Kids who looked like they should become friends usually did. I was scared that my clothes reeked spicy like my house did, so I kept my distance, and watched other kids lean in to each other and whisper secrets that I hoped weren’t about how I smelled. When we were a little older, some of my brown friends used to steal cologne testers from the mall. But even then, I never felt confident that I didn’t smell, and the collective memory of humiliating twisted-mouth ‘eww’s kept me in my place.

That’s why I remember the walk home on this one particular day. I met Vishu at our usual spot where the school pavement ended and the mushy gravel of the fifth grade portables (smaller, trailer classrooms) began. We started marching our way between the two columns of portables towards the sloppy soccer field that we cut across to get home. We passed several portables and Vishu still hadn’t said anything. He was looking down and I was looking up at him from his side. My view became golden brown as three white girls split us and took Vishu to the side against a portable. They leaned into him conspiratorially, Vishu said his first words of the walk, and then they were gone just as urgently.

This was the first time I ever saw a brown boy get asked out by a white girl, and it was something I wouldn’t see again for several years.

Vishu also hung out with a tough kid, Raman, who was his backyard neighbor. At one time, Raman and Vishu used to play on the street with the twins, but Raman was too strong-headed and mouthy to take any abuse from them. When Raman stalked off for good, Vishu went with him.

I remember the three of us spending hours in our backyards playing a game I invented called three-way-soccer and in our houses playing through Vishu’s catalog of video games. The twins and the others must have been around during this period, playing in the street and calling out ‘LONER!’ when I walked between houses, but I don’t remember them there.


Everyone had an opinion on Vishu’s sister, Bittu, as if a perspective on life was incomplete if it didn’t somehow address her. She was twelve years older than me and six years older than my sister, who she befriended. I didn’t know it at the time, but my sister was struggling deeply with herself. Bittu showed her what confidence looked like.

One on one, Bittu could claim high-status over anyone. Her conversation was challenging and her eye-contact unflinching and measuring. She was intelligent and surprising and she would smirk at you as if she knew what you were thinking and thought it was amusingly small. She knew how to dominate a space. Even as a third grader I noticed how movies and conversations paused for her. She drew focus and she seemed to enjoy it.

All this was a problem for some because she was also a woman. “She’s attention-seeking.” “She’s conceited.” They tried to simplify her using faulty psychology syllogisms (that they made up). And all this was pointless anyway, because when you were in a room with her, she was still Bittu and you were still just you. No one could deny this, and so even in the eyes of her detractors, she earned the complexity entitled to men. She did what she wanted to do and no one understood what she wanted. If she had pain or insecurities, she hid them well.

Like her mother, she threw boisterous house parties that sprawled out onto her backyard deck and rattled the block. Mothers feared her, daughters wanted to be her, and men tried to flirt with their projections.


Vickram, always Vick or Vicky, was the middle child of the family, two years younger than Bittu. Both Vishu and Bittu openly admired him. He was a natural leader, loyal and principled, but also gentle and generous.

My sister attended the same high school as Vicky. During her first week in ninth grade, Vicky, who was a senior, spread it around that she was his cousin – a false rumor that ensured nobody messed with her. He found excuses to associate with her. He would break conversation with his huddle of friends just to call to her from across the loitered hall.

Vicky tried with me. I remember waiting for Vishu at their house one day. Vicky saw me sitting quietly in the living room and brought me a mound of cookies including a black and white frosted one. I said, “no, thank you” because my mother had once said it was impolite to accept food at someone else’s house (she meant it was impolite to ask). He offered again softly. I declined again. He put the cookies away and came back with the keys to his jeep. He told me he had some errands to run at the mall and I should come. I had seen him take other kids. They would hop in his cool red jeep and stop by the arcade for a couple games and do the errands and then come home with some candy. I sat still. I hadn’t prepared for being alone with anyone other than Vishu, and even though Vicky was nice I didn’t know him and he didn’t how I was, how I was scared all the time, and if I left with him my parents wouldn’t know where I was. I wanted to explain how scary this was so he would understand but it was too embarrassing. I managed a “no” and began to tear up. He looked at me for a few moments. He didn’t say anything. Then he did what no one does to a kid – a crying kid, no less – he showed me respect. He gently backed off and told me it was no problem. He waited until Vishu arrived and I had stopped crying. Then he left to do his errands.


Somewhere in fifth grade, the Mahendroos moved off of Ivy Lea. My sister was popular, acting like an extrovert, by then. I was still having trouble with the twins, but I had lost my fear of being ridiculed whenever I was visible. I was figuring out that I was funny. Like Vishu, I cribbed off the Fresh Prince show. My Carlton dance was phenomenal. I always did well in school, but now I could be enough of a clown to avoid being called a nerd.

Some parents no doubt welcomed the departure of the family with the kids of questionable influence, but they must have missed the agitation. Who wants to gossip about families that inspire and scare no one?


It had been maybe a year or two since their move. My mother worked as a teller at a CIBC branch in the mall. Vicky had come in and my mother served him. When she remembered the story a month or so after it had happened, she said he was respectful, as he always was, but he seemed tired. He had quit university because his father was ill and needed help running the catering business. Vicky began driving the catering truck, making deliveries. She remembered him being tired, but it’s hard to know if that’s true because she never mentioned it until a month after it had happened.


It was April Fools’ Day. This is certain because it was Bittu’s birthday. I was at school. That night was the NCAA basketball championship game. It was the first year I had followed March Madness. My sister came home from school before I did. Mom wasn’t home. My sister called Dhan Auntie, my mom’s friend who lived around the corner. Dhan Auntie told her what had happened and where my mom was. My sister thought it was an April Fools’ joke. I came home. My sister was gone or going, I can’t remember, either she or Dhan Auntie told me what had happened. In either case, the house was empty almost the moment I got home. I usually went outside to play basketball at 4:30 in the afternoon. I stayed in that day. I knew the TV schedule for the next four hours by heart and which of my shows was in each half-hour slot. After that, the NCAA finals game would be on. No one had left food for me. I didn’t go into the kitchen the entire evening. I just sat and watched. It got dark outside and I never got up to turn on the lights. The house, except for the living room with the TV, was as dark as outside. The game started and ended. Kentucky, the team I wanted to win for reasons that are arbitrary now, won. I watched the post-game celebration. The speeches. The trophy presentation. Then the highlights on repeat.

My family came home around 2am. The lights turned on and I came to the door. They were shocked that I was still up, but even more so that they had completely forgotten about me. Their eyes were raw, tired. My mom told me I had school the next day, kissed me, and went up the stairs. My sister and I stood in the foyer as the house went to sleep. She told me the story.

This is what I remember, as best as I remember it. It’s a bit lost, but at the very least, it conveys the salient fact that a beautiful boy, in his early twenties, was dead.


It was Bittu’s birthday. Her cake was in the fridge. It was morning. Bittu told Vicky not to leave the house. He had to do some deliveries, he had to go, he said. She begged him not to go, she had a feeling. They argued. He left the house and Bittu followed him outside. They’ll cut the cake when he gets back, he said. He kissed his mom before leaving. Then he got into the catering truck and joined the traffic of a burgeoning middle-class town, with its population of immigrants and not-yet-exiting whites well on its way up to half a million, and its labyrinth of future and present roads, gas stations, strip malls, fast-food chains, grocery stores that sell cake, and its restaurants and banquet halls that host the parties for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and all the other days we try to make more meaningful than others, oblivious that this selection happens without us getting to choose. Vicky drove down a two-way street and somewhere along it an 18-wheel truck struck him head-on.

His mother rocked from inconsolable crying to smiling denial. Vicky was going to walk through the door, she said, and when he did, they would cut the cake. Over the course of the morning, Madiya Auntie and Bittu had hung up pictures of Vicky all throughout the main floor and home videos of him were playing as the central attraction. Vishu never came downstairs. Bittu played hostess numbly. Madiya Auntie, lit with a flickering light, watched the videos and made comments about her beautiful boy and how he was coming home soon so they could cut Bittu’s cake, which would remain in the fridge for 9 months. It was a denial my mom tried to break, and eventually did later that day, but the pieces hid. Apparently — and I say “apparently” with knowledge at best second-hand — months after the accident, she would still yell from downstairs for Vicky to throw his clothes down for laundry.


I didn’t go to the funeral. My family never suggested I go and I was probably scared. I don’t remember. I wish I had gone though. I wish I had seen auntie and uncle, Vishu, Bittu, and Vicky one last time. I could have been there for their grief and, moreover, I should have. Ivy Lea went on without them. I forgot them for too long. Memory is a labyrinth.


Ahsan Butt is a Canadian of Pakistani heritage. He's a regular contributor to The Monarch Review and an improv actor with impeccable timing.

One Comment

  1. Ryan says:

    It’s incredible how this excellent piece of writing can make you reflect on your own childhood and tragedies witnessed. As always, great work, Ahsan!

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