Karma Khullar’s Mustache
Dadima used to say I’d be as strong as a lion if I drank milk twice a day. She never mentioned I’d get as hairy as one too. There should have been a disclaimer—bold letters and a voice-over with a list of side effects scrolling along the side of my grandma’s face whenever she handed me a cup of hot milk.
Daddy’s back was to me as he pried paratha dough off the rolling pin in a misshapen glob. The orange ties of his Karma Is Served apron clashed with the pale green of his turban. He loved that he’d found an apron with my name on it, but whenever he reminded me for the hundredth time that he was wearing my name, I had the urge to accidentally spill curry down the front of the apron.
Once he had the paratha on the smoking pan, I tipped the milk he’d poured for me into a potted plant next to me.
This entire summer the universe had been against me. The hair on my face just happened to be the most recent tragedy. The worst part was, I didn’t know how to get rid of it.
Luckily for me, my best friend, Sara—a walking, talking guide to fashion and personality quizzes—had returned from vacation. She’d just called to figure out what time I should be at her house that afternoon to compare notes on our class placement lists, which had just arrived in the mail. Thank Babaji we were in the same block.
Daddy flipped the paratha and turned to me. “Just like Dadima’s,” he said, grinning. “Am I right, beta?”
The almost-burned smell of Daddy’s parathas on the roti pan that Dadima’d brought from India stirred a lump behind my heart, which I quickly tried to ignore. Parathas hadn’t been the same since Dadima had died last summer.
I cupped my hand over the mouthpiece of the phone when Daddy turned back to the stove. “I’m serious, Sara. There are exactly seventeen of them.” I
pinched the hairs above my lip, hoping no more had grown. I didn’t want to show up at orientation with a mustache, even if Sara would be there at my side.
“Mmm-hmm.” Sara’s breath rattled through the phone.
I pictured her blowing a loose strand of hair out of her eyes.
This was the second time I’d brought up my mustache to her. She wasn’t paying attention. Again.
Daddy pushed a hot paratha across the counter to me. It wasn’t exactly square-shaped like Dadima’s used to be, but anything tasted better than Mom’s freezer-burned casseroles. He reached across the counter and held out the carton of milk. I slid my hand over the mug and shook my head.
“What about being strong—” Daddy started to say.
“As a lion?” I went to the fridge and grabbed the orange juice.
Overdosing on milk probably hadn’t given me my mustache, but Daddy had stopped buying organic now that he was a stay-at-home dad. I’d overheard Mom tell him that the hormones in non-organic milk weren’t good for girls. So, for the past two weeks I’d been dumping my milk into the nearest potted plant whenever Daddy wasn’t looking.
“What about lions?” Sara asked.
“Nothing,” I said as I poured my juice. Then I lowered my voice, even though Daddy was humming a Bollywood tune and most likely daydreaming he was the star, and not really paying attention to my conversation. “Well . . . don’t you think it’s odd? Maybe a hormonal imbalance or a gene mutation, or maybe I’m turning into—”
“Oh. My. Gosh! Please don’t say what I think you’re about to say.”
My breath stuck in my throat. I needed to swallow, but something was in the way—my heart. “I was going to say ‘a boy.’ ”
Sara hadn’t said “werewolf” as an insult, but now that the idea had been verbalized, it was free to run wild. It existed now. I could imagine the boys at school saying it with smirks on their faces. Friday. At orientation, ruining the school year before I even had a chance to make my own first impression.
“Oh.” Sara let out another sigh, but this one was a softer, I’m sorry kind that sounded more like the Sara from the beginning of summer, who I could tell anything to, and less like the Sara who ignored
me. “Look, we’ll talk about it when you come over later. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay. See ya later.” I tore off a piece of paratha and dabbed it into the stream of melted butter that ran through the middle of the rhombus-shaped bread.
“Watch this, beta,” Daddy said, trying his hand at tossing another paratha into the pan with a flip of his wrist.
He’d definitely watched too many cooking shows recently.
I finished breakfast as quickly as possible. The phone call with Sara left me shaky. She’d only been on vacation for two weeks, but the space between us that had always been pulled together like we were two attracting magnets now felt like it was pushing us apart, as if her pole had flipped. Once I saw her, it’d probably all go back to normal. I mean, she did only come back last night, and it was a long drive from her cousin’s house in South Carolina.
“Thanks, Daddy.” I kissed him on the cheek and rushed upstairs to claim the bathroom before Kiran.
Once I’d locked the door, I leaned close to the mirror to get a good look at my face. I counted
again. Yep. Seventeen. Seventeen hairs on either side of my upper lip.
How many hairs made a mustache? At least twenty? I hoped it was at least twenty. Fifty or a hundred would be perfect. The further away I was from having a real-life mustache, the better. Best of all would be finding a way to get rid of it, especially before school started.
The hairs around my mouth were dark enough that each strand was visible. When I stretched the skin, I could pinpoint each pore that a hair grew out of, the way grass sprouted out of a sandbox.
My Horrible Histories books mentioned that ancient monks rubbed stones on their heads to make themselves bald. After reading that a couple of weeks ago, I started to rub the sides of my mouth in circles with my finger, in the hopes that the motion would work for my face. It wasn’t exactly scientific, but it was the only thing I had, considering Mom didn’t own a single pair of tweezers and she drew in her barely-there-blond eyebrows every morning, and Sara hadn’t been very helpful on the phone. But all that the rubbing had done was make the sides of my mouth red and chapped.
I turned the water on to cover up my ritual. I
knew it was silly, but at least everyone would think I’d brushed my teeth really well.
“Hurry up!” Kiran yelled, banging on the door.
I squirted toothpaste into my mouth and swished some water around. I also ran my toothbrush under the water so it looked like I’d brushed properly.
Kiran stood outside the door when I opened it. His black hair stuck out at random places, and his breath stunk worse than the tennis shoes he’d been mowing in all summer.
“You forgot to shave,” he said, and pinched the hair at the edges of my mouth.
It annoyed me that he knew what I’d been doing, even though I’d left the water running. “Stop it, jerk.” I swatted his hand away.
He was fourteen and probably wanted a mustache, so why was I the one with hair on my face?