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When Layla walked into The Spice Mill Restaurant after yet another disastrous relationship, she expected hugs and kisses, maybe a murmur of sympathy, or even a cheerful Welcome home.
Instead, she got a plate of samosas and a pitcher of water for table twelve.
"There are fresh poppadums in the kitchen," her mother said. "Don't forget to offer them to all the guests." Not even a glimmer of emotion showed on her mother's gently lined face. Layla could have been any one of the half-dozen servers who worked at her parents' restaurant instead of the prodigal daughter who had returned to San Francisco, albeit with a broken heart.
She should have known better than to show up during opening hours expecting to pour out her heart. The middle child in a strict, academic, reserved family, her mother wasn't given to outward displays of affection. But after the emotional devastation of walking in on her social media star boyfriend, Jonas Jameson, as he snorted the last of her savings off of two naked models, Layla had hoped for something more than being put to work.
It was her childhood all over again.
"Yes, Mom." She dutifully carried the plate and pitcher to the table and chatted briefly with the guests about the restaurant's unique decor. Decorated in exotic tones of saffron, gold, ruby, and cinnamon with accent walls representing the natural movement of wind and fire, and a cascading waterfall layered with beautiful landscaped artificial rocks and tiny plastic animals, the restaurant was the embodiment of her late brother's dream to re-create "India" in the heart of San Francisco.
The familiar scents-cinnamon, pungent turmeric, and smoky cumin-brought back memories of evenings spent stirring dal, chopping onions, and rolling roti in the bustling kitchen of her parents' first restaurant in Sunnyvale under the watchful army of chefs who followed the recipes developed by her parents. What had seemed fun as a child, and an imposition as a teenager, now filled her with a warm sense of nostalgia, although she would have liked just one moment of her mother's time.
On her way to the kitchen for the poppadums, she spotted her nieces coloring in a booth and went over to greet them. Her parents looked after them in the evenings when their mom, Rhea, was busy at work.
"Layla Auntie!" Five-year-old Anika and six-year-old Zaina, their long dark hair in pigtails, ran to give her a hug.
"Did you bring us anything from New York?" Zaina asked.
Layla dropped to her knees and put her arms around her nieces. "I might have brought a few presents with me, but I left them at the house. I didn't think I'd see you here."
"Can we go with you and get them?" They planted sticky kisses on her cheeks, making her laugh.
"I'll bring them tomorrow. What have you been eating?"
"Jalebis." Anika held up a bright orange, pretzel-shaped sweet similar to a funnel cake.
"Yesterday we helped Dadi make chocolate peda," Zaina informed her, using the Urdu term for "paternal grandmother."
"And the day before that we made burfi, and before that we made-"
"Peanut brittle." Anika grinned.
Layla bit back a laugh. Her mother had a sweet tooth, so it wasn't surprising that she'd made treats with her granddaughters in the kitchen.
Zaina's smile faded. "She said peanut brittle was Pappa's favorite."
Layla's heart squeezed in her chest. Her brother, Dev, had died in a car accident five years ago and the pain of losing him had never faded. He'd been seven years older, and the symbol of the family's social and economic strength; expectations had weighed heavy on Dev's shoulders and he didn't disappoint. With a degree in engineering, a successful arranged marriage, and a real estate portfolio that he managed with a group of friends, he was every Indian parent's dream.
Layla . . . not so much.
"It's my favorite, too," she said. "I hope you left some for me."
"You can have Anika's," Zaina offered. "I'll get it for you."
"No! You can't take mine!" Anika chased Zaina into the kitchen, shouting over the Slumdog Millionaire DJ mix playing in the background.
"They remind me of you and Dev." Her mother joined her beside the booth and lifted a lock of Layla's hair, studying the bright streaks. "What is this blue?"
Of course her mother was surprised. She had given up trying to turn her daughter into a femme fatale years ago. Layla had never been interested in trendy hairstyles, and the only time she painted her nails or wore makeup was when her friends dragged her out. Dressing up was reserved for work or evenings out. Jeans, ponytails, and sneakers were more her style.
"This is courtesy of Jonas's special hair dye. His stylist left it behind for touch-ups. Blue hair is his signature look. Apparently, it shows up well on screen. I didn't want it to go to waste after we broke up, so I used it all on my hair. I had the true Jonas look."
Unlike most of her friends, who dated behind their parents' backs, Layla had always been honest about her desire to find true love. She'd introduced her boyfriends to her parents and told them about her breakups and relationship woes. Of course, there were limits to what she could share. Her parents didn't know she'd been living with Jonas, and they most certainly would never find out that she'd lost her job, her apartment, and her pride after the "Blue Fury" YouTube video of her tossing Jonas's stuff over their balcony in a fit of rage had gone viral.
"You are so much like your father-passionate and impulsive." Her mother smiled. "When we got our first bad review, he tore up the magazine, cooked it in a pot of dal, and delivered it to the reviewer in person. I had to stop him from flying to New York when you called to tell us you and Jonas split up. After he heard the pain in your voice, he wanted to go there and teach that boy a lesson."
If the sanitized, parent-friendly version of her breakup had distressed her father, she couldn't imagine how he would react if she told him the full story. "I'm glad you stopped him. Jonas is a big social media star. People would start asking questions if he posted videos with his face covered in bruises."
"Social media star." Her mother waved a dismissive hand. "What job is that? Talking shows on the Internet? How could he support a family?"
Aside from her family's disdain for careers in the arts, it was a good question. Jonas hadn't even been able to support himself. When the bill collectors came calling, he'd moved into the prewar walk-up Layla shared with three college students in the East Village and lived off their generosity as he pursued fame and fortune as a social media lifestyle influencer.
"That boy was no good," her mother said firmly. "He wasn't brought up right. You're better off without him."
It was the closest to sympathy Layla was going to get. Sometimes it was easier to discuss painful issues with her mother because Layla had to keep her emotions in check. "I always seem to pick the bad ones. I think I must have some kind of dud dude radar." Emotion welled up in her throat, and she turned away. Her mother gave the lectures. Her father handled the tears.
"That's why in our tradition marriage is not about love." Her mother never passed up an opportunity to extol the benefits of an arranged marriage, especially when Layla had suffered yet another heartbreak. "It's about devotion to another person; caring, duty, and sacrifice. An arranged marriage is based on permanence. It is a contract between two like-minded people who share the same values and desire for companionship and family. There is no heartache, no betrayal, no boys pretending they care, or using you and throwing you away, no promises unkept-"
Her mother's face softened. "If you're lucky, like your dad and me, love shows up along the way."
"Where is Dad?" Layla wasn't interested in hearing about marriage, arranged or otherwise, when it was clear she didn't have what it took to sustain a relationship. No wonder guys always thought of her as a pal. She was everybody's wingwoman and nobody's prize.
She looked around for her father. He was her rock, her shoulder to cry on when everything went wrong. Usually he was at the front door greeting guests or winding his way through the linen-covered tables and plush saffron-colored chairs, chatting with customers about the artwork and statues displayed in the mirrored alcoves along the walls, talking up the menu, or sharing stories with foodies about his latest culinary finds. He was a born entertainer, and there was nothing she loved more than watching him work a room.
"Your father has been locked in his office every free minute since you called about that boy. He doesn't eat; he hardly sleeps . . . I don't know if it's work or something else. He never rests." Layla's mother fisted her red apron, her trademark sign of anxiety. Pari Auntie had given the apron to her to celebrate the opening of the Spice Mill Restaurant, and she still wore it every day although the embroidered elephants around the bottom were now all faded and frayed.
"That's not unusual." Layla's father never rested. From the moment his feet hit the floor in the morning, he embraced the day with an enthusiasm and joyful energy Layla simply couldn't muster before nine a.m. and two cups of coffee. Her father accomplished more in a day than most people did in a week. He lived large and loud and was unashamed to let his emotions spill over, whether it was happiness or grief or even sympathy for his only daughter's many heartbreaks.
"He'll be so happy that you are home to visit." Her mother gave her a hug, the warm gesture equally as unexpected as their brief talk. Usually she was full on when the restaurant was open, focused and intense. "We both are."
Layla swallowed past the lump in her throat. It was moments like these, the love in two sticky kisses from her nieces and a few powerful words from her mom, that assured her she was making the right decision to move home. She had hit rock bottom in New York. If there was any chance of getting her life back on track, it would be with the support of her family.
"Beta!" Her father's loud voice boomed through the restaurant, turning the heads of the customers.
"Dad!" She turned and flung herself into his arms, heedless of the spectacle. Except for his traditional views about women (he didn't have the same academic or professional expectations of her as he'd had for Dev), her father was the best man she knew-reliable, solid, dependable, kind, and funny. An engineer before he immigrated to America, he was practical enough to handle most electrical or mechanical issues at the restaurant, and smart enough to know how to run a business, talk politics, and spark a conversation with anyone. His love was limitless. His kindness boundless. When he hired a member of staff, he never let them go.
All the emotion Layla had been holding in since witnessing Jonas's betrayal came pouring out in her father's arms as he murmured all the things he wanted to do to Jonas if he ever met him.
"I just bought a set of Kamikoto Senshi knives. They go through meat like butter. The bastard hippie wouldn't even know he'd been stabbed until he was dead. Or even better, I'd invite him for a meal and seat him at table seventeen near the back entrance where no one could see him. I'd serve him a mushroom masala made with death cap mushrooms. He would suffer first. Nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. Then liver failure and death."
Laughter bubbled up in her chest. No one could cheer her up like her father. "Mom has made you watch too many crime shows. How about just shaking your fist or saying a few angry words?"
He pressed a kiss to her forehead. "If I have to defend your honor, I want to do it in a way that will be talked about for years, something worthy of the criminal version of a Michelin star. Do you think there is such a thing?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Nasir." Layla's mother sighed. "There will be no murdering of itinerant Internet celebrities when we have a restaurant to run. Things are hard enough with the downturn in the market. I can't do this on my own."
Frowning, Layla pulled away from her father. "Is that why the restaurant is almost empty? Is everything okay?"
Her father's gaze flicked to her mother and then back to Layla. "Everything is fine, beta."
Layla's heart squeezed at the term of endearment. She would always be his sweetheart, even when she was fifty years old.
"Not that fine." Her mother gestured to the brigade of aunties filing through the door, some wearing saris, a few in business attire, and others in salwar kameez, their brightly colored tunics and long pants elegantly embroidered. Uncles and cousins took up the rear. "It seems you bumped into Lakshmi Auntie's nephew at Newark Airport and told him you'd broken up with your boyfriend."
Within moments, Layla was enveloped in warm arms, soft bosoms, and the thick scent of jasmine perfume. News spread faster than wildfire in the auntie underground or, in this case, faster than a Boeing 767.
"Look who is home!"
While Layla was being smothered with hugs and kisses, her father ushered everyone to the bar and quickly relocated the nearest customers before roping off the area with a private party sign. The only thing her family loved better than a homecoming was a wedding.
"Who was that boy? No respect in his bones. No shame in his body. Who does he think he is?" Pari Auntie squeezed Layla so hard she couldn't breathe.
"Let her go, Pari. She's turning blue." Charu Auntie edged her big sister out of the way and gave Layla a hug. Her mother's socially awkward younger sister had a Ph.D. in neuroscience and always tried to contribute to conversations by dispensing unsolicited psychological advice.
"How did you come here? Where are you staying? Are you going back to school? Do you have a job?" Deepa Auntie, her mother's cousin and a failed interior designer, tossed the end of her dupatta over her shoulder, the long, sheer, hot pink scarf embellished with small crystal beads inadvertently slapping her father's youngest sister, Lakshmi, on the cheek.
"Something bad is going to happen," superstitious Lakshmi Auntie moaned. "I can feel it in my face."