As she sat in her marital bed thinking of the future with anticipation and fear, she wondered if her makeup still looked like it did when it was freshly done some twelve hours ago. She looked at her perfectly manicured hands and then her henna-stained feet. The words of many women who had come to bless her during the wedding echoed in the room around her,
“May you always stay married. May he always be with you”.
“You’re so lucky to have been married to him. So many women wanted him for their daughters.”
“I wish you the best of everything that a marriage can bring. Happiness, love, children, prosperity, togetherness”.
“So young, so nubile, so lovely. May you always look like you look tonight”.
She was floored with compliments. And they weren’t lying. Her husband’s mother had chosen her after reportedly seeing fifty girls.
Fifty girls? She didn’t know fifty girls combined between school, college and grad school. Where did her mother-in-law find fifty girls as potential daughters in-law?
And she hadn’t just chosen her on the first visit. She had kept them waiting for a year. Her mother had given up hope and started considering other proposals as potential good matches. Then her mother-in-law had come back and given them the news that they thought she was good enough to be a part of their family.
So here she was, waiting for the stranger who was her husband for the past six hours, who had sat beside her indifferently, hadn’t commented on how she looked at all, had barely looked at her, and had been busy on his phone for most of the time.
She heard him coming in. She readjusted her position. She was sitting in an awkward and core-testing pose but knew this was the best way to sit with her outfit carefully gathered around her, draped down her silhouette. She had practiced it for weeks before tonight. Everything had to be just perfect tonight.
She had her outfit especially made. It had stones and embellishments that glittered like the stars when they caught the light. It was a red outfit, the traditional Pakistani bride color, with more cloth than she could carry on her light frame. But she had insisted on having a complex outfit that draped and wrapped around her in a sultry way. She had wanted to look demure and sexy. She didn’t want to be obvious but still attractive. She had been working out since the day they had asked for her hand. Her body was her labor of sheer grit and hard work.
She looked around the room. She had spent months looking for the furniture that she’d be spending many sleepless nights on, in the arms of her husband. It looked ordinary now. She frowned at the nightstand . She thought it looked more mahogany. Now it looked brown.
“May be it’s the light in this room”, she debated.
The room was dreary and low-lit. It had an almost eerie quality to it. She was told that it had always belonged to her husband. The walls had been repainted recently but why did he choose this odd white color? Couldn’t he may be paint them a different color?
She heard footsteps and then heard the door creak open.
She felt herself shrinking more.
But why was he hanging at the door? She looked up slowly and saw him squinting at his phone again. Then his fingers set to typing frantically again.
She felt like a fool. All the first night stories and reports of passion that she had been collecting since their engagement started to look questionable. Was it possible that people embellished their lackluster first night stories under peer pressure and the competition of pretend perfection?
“Of course guys don’t just fall in love with their wives when they first see them. It was stupid of me to believe them all”. She reasoned with herself.
But a part of her had been uneasy since he had become her fiancé. He had never tried to make contact. When her mother had mentioned to his parents that the two should talk and may be even occasionally see each other, his mother had attributed his aloofness to shyness. Her mom had come back with a new respect for him.
“He’s very reserved and orthodox”, her mother had said reverently.
But now she was his wife. Why wasn’t he talking to her now?
He finally put the phone away. She heaved a sigh of relief. He came forward and handed her a box. Inside was a diamond bracelet.
“Shouldn’t he be putting it on me?” She wondered.
She heard him say,
“My mom got this for you.”
Her body started freezing over. Why was there a frigidity in his voice?
“Thank you”, she muttered.
“Thank you? You ruined my life and you get a bracelet for it”, she heard him complain with snark in his voice .
“I ruined your life?” She inquired with astonishment.
“Don’t pretend like you don’t know. What type of girl gets snubbed by her fiancé like I have snubbed you and not get that he’s not interested? Didn’t you ever stop to think why I wasn’t making contact with you? You’re a smart girl. You went to college. You’re so good looking. Why would a man have you and not try to be closer to you? Didn’t you ever think?”
She wanted to say she did think about it but she had been conditioned to think that girls don’t think and if they do, they keep their thoughts to themselves. But why did he have to go along with that program? He could’ve said something.
“I have loved her for eight years now. I would readily die for her. But I can’t marry her because my mom wouldn’t let that happen”.
He sat down next to her with his head in his hands. She felt frosted in time. What was going on?
He finally raised his head,
“I will marry her. That’s for sure. I promised her that she will always be the one. You can’t be the one. You can’t take her place. My mom wanted you so my mom can have you as her daughter-in-law. Pretty, educated, from a reputable family with money. This was her checklist. Not mine. For me, no one matters more than the woman I already have. I have had her for eight years. You can live here. I’m not asking you to leave. I know it’s not your fault. But I can’t be your husband like you can’t be my wife. We can have a marriage but can we be life partners? Probably not. Surely not, actually. This house is big enough for both of us. Everyone knows about my girlfriend so they won’t even ask you about the nitty gritty of our relationship. Let’s sleep now. My head is swimming with stress”.
With that he grabbed a pillow from the bed, threw it on the couch and turned his back to him.
She gingerly got up, her legs buzzing with the return of sensation. As she was removing her makeup in the beautiful bathroom she heard the words echo around her,
“May you always stay married. May he always be with you”.
She shuddered at the thought of a life with him.
She stayed awake the whole night. She watched him snore, wake up and answer his phone when it buzzed, then go back to sleep. Morning came quicker than she had counted on.
Her mother-in-law brought breakfast for her.
As she was buttering her toast she heard her mother-in-law’s conspiratorial voice,
“Dear! Do you wish for me to change the sheets?”
She laughed internally. How naive did people think she was?
“No!” She said without the requisite shyness or the expected coy behavior.
She watched her mother-in-law assume silence.
“Dear, a wife can turn her husband. Women have that affect on men. You can practice a lot of control. You don’t know your own power. May be if you tried to get closer, I know it will be against his will initially, but look at you! How long can he resist you?”
She looked at the stupid hopeful face of the older woman. She was stupid but was she also immoral? Was she asking her to coerce her husband into a marital and sexual relationship?
She searched her soul for how she would’ve been treated if she had told her husband that she was in love with someone else on their wedding night? What would he have done? Would he have tried to make it work? Would he have stuck it out? Would he have been counseled the same way?
“No”, her soul said. “This special sermon is just for you. It has been devised and perfected through time and many women before you. It has a relevance to women but none to men. It doesn’t advocate for women as it advocates for men. Get out now or this will suck you in deeper and deeper. You entered this house as his wife. Don’t accept anything less”.
She heard herself saying,
“I can’t live here anymore. Your son told me last night that he’s in love with another woman whom he will marry ultimately. And you’ve known about it all along. I’d like to go back to my home”.
The older woman looked like she lost her footing for a second but came back with more force,
“And who will believe you? Do you know how vulnerable you are? Do you know that no one will believe that you’re a virgin still?”
She laughed derisively at her mother-in-law’s weak blackmail of her vulnerability.
“Do you really think my problem still is what people will believe? I’m headed towards a divorce after being his bride for less than a day. Do you think I even care what people will assume about my virginity? Do you know that every minute that I spend as his legal wife is an insult to my agency of my life? I can’t do this without demeaning myself in my own eyes. I have to go”.
She grabbed her purse but her mother-in-law took it from her hands.
“You will leave without anything. You didn’t come here with your consent as we all know. How can you leave when you want? Do you not understand that you will be sent back?”
She momentarily stopped. She had counted on her family’s support only. She had never thought that they’d ask her to return here.
But she couldn’t dwell on anything remotely negative. All that she had to look forward to were Abba and Ami. She left.
On her way out she saw him on his phone, leaning against the garage wall, speaking in hushed tones. She went up to him, took the phone from his hands, and spoke clearly,
“This is his wife speaking. Don’t worry, I won’t come between you and him. For the record, he didn’t touch me last night because he owes his virginity to you, if he still has it. But if I could advise you, please think twice before making him your legal partner. Him and his mother are immoral animals”.
She turned on her heel and sped out.
She entered her home, registering the familiar chaos that had lingered at this place for the last month. Her cousins were still waking up and were in various stages of breakfast, getting dressed and still getting out of bed. Ami saw her and her face fell.
“Sana! What happened?”
She didn’t know what happened. She blacked out.
When she woke up many hours later she saw herself at the hospital and a man leaning over her.
“She’s fine”, he said importantly. “Just some dehydration. She can go home”.
She saw Ami and Abba’s grief-stricken faces and avoided their gaze.
As the doctor went to get her discharge paperwork, she heard Abba say,
“We spoke with him and your mother-in-law this morning. I’m sorry, sweetheart. Parents make mistakes too”.
Oh the pain! The pain that Abba’s words created. Nothing so far had created this pain. It was like a hot white knife that was burned in the venom of patriarchy just went through her heart. The last thing she wanted was to hurt her parents.
She felt the corners of her eyes getting moist. Abba cried. Ami seemed more in control.
“Well,” Ami said, “We have to talk about it. There is so much to unpack”.
Like what, she wanted to say but felt too weak.
Instead Abba spoke up,
Ami looked nonplussed.
“Well”, she blustered, “What are we going to do? Just be quiet?”
“I have nothing to say to them. I’ll get an attorney and make sure she gets a divorce as soon as possible”.
“Are you crazy?” Ami screamed. “Get divorced for another woman? Get divorced for a woman he has an affair with? Who is she? She’s a nobody. Sana is the wife”.
Ah Ami! She still said that word with the reverence and indulgence that she had reserved for it. She wanted to tell Ami that her wife status was much lower than another woman’s girlfriend status. In a man’s world, words are just words. What ultimately is important is who is held more important by the man. These designations have no real value attached to them unless a man chose to assign them a value.
“Do you not get it?” Abba turned around angrily. “They made her a pawn in their sick society game. She went there with hopes of being a wife but who are we fooling? He already had a wife. May be not legally married to him but there’s a woman whom he considers more important than his wife. Wake up!”
Ami didn’t argue with Abba which was strange because she always liked to prove Abba wrong.
The doctor gave her discharge instructions and they came back home.
Over the next few days she heard Abba talking to lawyers and discussing everything. The way Abba advocated for her rejuvenated her. She felt less alone and less cheated.
After one grueling session during which the lawyer asked her many questions about her time at her in-laws, she felt broken and shattered.
She left the meeting and cried bitterly by herself. Abba came after her.
“I don’t like to answer complex questions, Abba. I didn’t spend even a day there then why are there so many questions? What is this case that they are preparing? There is no case. I don’t want to be with him.”
Abba was patient. He let her cry. Then he said,
“I agree that they’ve asked all the questions that were pertinent. I don’t see why you should have any more meetings with them”.
She was grateful and embarrassed. Why did Abba always have to come to her rescue?
As Abba turned to leave the room, she called after him,
Abba looked at her. “Yes, dear, what happened?”
She hesitated. She had never discussed anything remotely like some of the things that she had had to in his presence. She felt vulnerable and liberated and strong and weak at the same time. She didn’t know what to make of her feelings. She felt like Abba and she had a new relationship.
“Abba”, she began carefully trying to phrase her words the best she could. She realized that every way she worded what she was going to say was cheap and stupid. She decided to say it with real words.
“We didn’t have sex. I’m a virgin. I don’t know what the significance of it is but I just wanted to tell you of everything. He didn’t feel attracted to me”.
She realized she was crying. She saw that Abba was crying too.
He came forward.
“You didn’t have to tell me that but I’m glad you did. Exactly why children won’t discuss these things with their parents is beyond me but I guess it’s because of the society we have created for our children where they don’t feel safe with anyone. No one has to know why you want or need a divorce. It’s between you and him. No one can deny you a divorce. You have the right to divorce in your marriage license. Your husband can’t deny it. People asked me to delete that clause but I wanted my daughter to have it. And I discussed it with your husband before you got married. He was fine with it. This was probably the only decent thing he did”.
Large tears, the size of crushed hopes, were falling down her cheeks.
She felt weak in her knees. She hugged Abba. Abba hugged her back.
“Virginity is a biological thing. It’s not a religious or ideological phenomenon. It’s how many people make a woman feel second tier if she doesn’t have it. It’s a social construct. We are born with it and we lose it just as easily. There is no high or low point in having it or losing it. Don’t let this virginity talk sway you ever in how you conduct yourself. Your virginity or lack there of isn’t a sign of your morality or piety”.
“Thank you, Abba. I needed to hear this. I’m so sorry I’m back with you and Ami and now a bigger liability than I ever was. You are all being very kind to me which I know can be hard”.
Abba looked her in the eyes,
“Sana! A man betrayed you. As much as it hurts to see my child hurting, it hurts also that one of my kind hurt my child. A young child with hopes and dreams of a future. I protected you from bad people all your unmarried life. I hadn’t thought that I’d bring a bad person in your life and make him the guardian of your life. So I have to make it right for you because you’re my child. But I also have to make it right for other men who aren’t bad and get some collective hate because of how some of us behave. I have to do this so my daughter can trust another man and have a healthy relationship. So she knows that it’s not all bleak, we are not all bad and she can always come to her Abba. I’m happy beyond measure that when all looked dark, you found the light back to your parents”.