She waited for him outside her college. She could feel the excitement and the mounting anticipation. The sun was hot but she felt strangely cool. Like nothing could change the bliss that broke into her from the stream of eternal and forever love.
Soon his blue Toyota Corolla stopped in front of her. She took him in as she opened the door of the car and got in.
“Hey hey”, he smiled at her while tugging at her hair, “Looks like someone has been waiting for a bit”.
“Even though I was”, she said smiling back at him, “Waiting for you doesn’t feel like waiting”.
He laughed. She took in the smell of the car and his expensive cologne. They sped off to have lunch.
An hour later they both had eaten and were bursting with food and laughter. She insisted on getting the cheque as usual. Somehow this had become a ritual. She always paid for their food. He didn’t mind or insist otherwise. To them, there were no gender roles or formalities or niceties or mundane pleasantries where they were concerned. To them, all they ate, drank and breathed was love.
Were they the happiest people in the world? Yes! Tanya couldn’t believe her luck. Sometimes she wondered what good deeds she had done to find love in the form of Bilal Hussain.
Tanya and Bilal met on a blind date and never looked back. She was a medical student and he was a banker. While they both hadn’t thought this would go anywhere, they had fallen in love on their first date and were inseparable after that.
They had kept themselves a secret. Love makes people superstitious. They had become superstitious too. They sneaked around friends to see one other. They lied to their families when they expressed curiosity at countless hours that they spent on their phones. She missed classes and he missed many days at work. They tried to meet everyday. If not everyday, then every other day.
Their relationship was like any other relationship of passion, abandon and dreams. They didn’t have much in common except a mad attraction for each other. Time flew when they were together. Sometimes it stood still and watched them, deliberating whether they should be given more of the time together that they so craved.
Tanya wanted to confide into someone. The fact that she had the biggest treasure of the world, love, at her fingertips was hard for her to imagine. She pinched herself, blinked hard sometimes and deliberately didn’t sleep so she didn’t wake up to find this all a dream. But he wasn’t a dream. He was the biggest blessing. He made her laugh and made her happy. He completed every prayer that she had ever made. Even though he had a slight rambunctiousness about him, when it came to her he was caring and always available.
It hadn’t taken long for them to kiss and even explore each other a little bit. The memory of her softness combined with the heady scent of her young body kept him awake at night. They couldn’t get enough of each other and if they hadn’t been more in control of themselves, they would’ve already slept with each other.
Things were so good and they knew that they were going to get married after her graduation. They just knew they were the one for each other. The lifelong search of a partner? They had been saved from it. They had found each other in a crowd of men and women of various eligibilities and had become soul mates.
They couldn’t believe how lucky they were. Every power in the universe had worked to bring them together.
“Bilal!” His mom called, “Come over and look at this”.
He crashed on a foam pad next to her and looked over her shoulder.
“Aren’t they?” She said proudly. “For your brother”.
Azhar, his older brother, was his best friend.
“Wow. I’m glad you’re not showing me these for me cuz I wouldn’t have been able to choose one”. He said jokingly.
“Well, if you like someone out of these pictures, we can make it happen”. His mother, who practiced imperial ways of subjecting other women into subservience regularly, said with a wave of her hand.
He looked at her with an amused twinkle in his eye. He would like to see how she bossed the girl he had chosen. Tanya would give this one a run for her money, he thought affectionately, but she’ll like her eventually or she’ll have to.
His mind drifted to his pretty, studious, geeky girlfriend. He had just dropped her off at her place an hour ago. She had spent most of their time together in his arms kissing and stopping him from going any further. It was always so hard to resist temptation with her and therefore he knew her body like his own. He had never seen her naked but felt like he had. He could sense her mood by the way her mouth received his. She had become so predictable to him. Usually he was turned off by predictability. In Tanya’s case it just caused his passion to heighten.
Azhar joined them.
“What’s going on?”
“Your arranged marriage”. He winked at his brother.
“Ami! I told you to look for a girl with a good head on her shoulders. Someone who went to school, has dreams, can talk, can really be a partner. How can I tell all that by looking at a picture?”
“They have all that”, their mother said, looking hurt. “How do you know they don’t?”
Azhar picked up one of the photos.
“What does she do?” He asked.
“Erm….” their mother seemed to be at a loss for words.
“And this one?” He kept rifling through them .
Bilal clapped his back,
“Azhar! This isn’t fair! Such pretty girls and you want a nerd”.
Azhar didn’t look amused.
“I don’t like any of them. Bilal! You should look for a girl for me. I’ll take anyone who you chose for me. You’d know my choice and type in women. I trust you but I don’t trust Ami”.
With that he got up and left. Bilal continued to casually flip the pictures and comment on them with his mom.
“Do you think he likes someone?” Their mother asked.
“How would I know?”
“How would you know?” She laughed softly, “You two are like bandits. You share everything”.
“Well, he hasn’t mentioned anything”, Bilal said wondering if she’d ever be this inquisitive to know about his love life.
“Hmm”, their mother said, deep in thought, “If ever you find out about a girl that Azhar likes, you’ll tell me, right?”
Bilal was quiet. Of course he won’t. If ever he found out about any significant other that Azhar had, he won’t tell her unless Azhar wanted him to. He loved his mother but his loyalty only belonged to the brother who was his strongest pillar of support.
She jumped excitedly in a seat next to him at their favorite pizza place. It was Pakistan-India’s one-day cricket match and the place was teeming with people. This particular place had a huge plasma TV and they had decided many months ago that they’d watch the whole game together.
Bilal, always the consummate sports fan was a little annoyed at her being late, but before he could say anything, she beat him to the punch.
“I missed you so much”, she said breathlessly.
“I missed you too. How was your test?” He felt his anger evaporating. Who could be upset with the most darling girl in the world? Involuntarily their fingers entwined and they drew closer to each other.
“It was okay”, she shrugged her shoulders.
He pulled at her hair, a habit that he didn’t want to let go of. Her hair was black and frizzy in places but really shiny and silky in others. However the most outstanding feature of her hair were the waves. The rebellious locks that never stay put. He watched her usually battling with her hair. She would push it behind her ears and a minute later it’d be circling her face again. Or she’d put it in a headband and slowly, predictably, it would all escape the band. She’d try to smooth it down but it had a life of its own. He could watch her play with her hair his whole life. He had never been enchanted by a girl before but he was spellbound, enchanted and ready for her like he had never been.
“Your finals are coming up”. He reminded her.
“Uh huh”, she said nodding slowly, ” Since we have been dating, each time my finals are around I feel like another year passed by and we didn’t share our relationship with our families. And we have to one day. And I feel that day is coming closer. She’ll love you I know, my Mama, but I’m not sure if I should ask her to meet with you”.
“I’d love to meet your mom”, he said enthusiastically.
“Aren’t you even a teeny bit nervous, Bilal?”
“Nervous?” He looked at her with surprise in his eyes, “That is the first step towards making you mine. I’m not nervous at all”.
She smiled contentedly. She loved him and as far as she was concerned, they had been married since the first time they saw each other.
They spent a long time together, kissing, thinking and talking about the future, loving each other some more before it was time to go, and then staying back for a little more.
The match lasted for five hours. She was on-call at the hospital but called in sick. He called Azhar and lied about a plan with friends. They then cuddled together like a lot of other couples around the spacious lounge and ate while occasionally sneaking their hands all over each other in the seductive purple light that surrounded them.
He hadn’t known a feeling as ethereal as Tanya. She brought out the best in him. He had been in several relationships, none too serious, and had remained relatively unaffected when they had ended. With Tanya, the mere idea of separation made his insides drop. Life hadn’t been fair to him. He knew she was the biggest gift and he worried that he might be tempting fate.
But Tanya didn’t believe any of it. She was a consummate lover and didn’t believe in unrequited love stories. According to her, if it was love, lovers would make it happen. They’d get together and they’d make their story whole.
Her position on love and the attainment of it amazed him. How much privilege has she lived with to not think that misfortune happens? He’d ask himself. How much love has she gotten from the people around her that she hasn’t come across the many failures of love? He’d wonder.
So Tanya became a breath of fresh air in more ways than one. She didn’t believe in stereotypical love roles, cliches and platitudes. She had her own definition of love and togetherness and it was about the physical happening of it. She didn’t think lovers could justify their faithfulness to love if they didn’t fight for it. If we didn’t fight for our love, she proclaimed, then that simply means that we didn’t love. That there was no love.
He laughed at some of it and some of it made him re-examine his own hollow life. Some people thought he had everything. Many brothers, parents, money, almost every material thing that he had ever asked for. But deep inside they all knew something was missing. Every person in his family knew there was something amiss .
Tanya was in her element. She talked at length about how she could pursue her fellowship after their wedding but would like to complete her residency before that. She wanted to have a long engagement period so they could continue being in a relationship with minimal qualifiers. Conventional she was not.
“So you just will have to take care of the kids during my fellowship, feed them, put them to bed, change the diapers! You know, the usual kid stuff”. She barely ever left room for anyone to interject or make a comment.
He listened mostly. And smiled throughout most of it. Life with her was going to be an adventure. With loads of love and fights and make ups and arguments and friendship. Just the thought of a lifelong friend in his life partner warmed his heart.
They parted as the sun was going down. There was a faint strip of dusk on the horizon, the characteristic dust cloud of Karachi rising against it. It was back from office hour in one of the busiest cities of the world.
Dropping off Tanya to her place or back to her college was never easy. It was like someone dragged him on nails. He experienced a physical reaction when distanced from her. When he was with her there was so much peace and serenity around him. When she said bye, unbeknownst to her he’d stay back and watch her go inside her home or college.
What if he didn’t get her? He’d think and then would relax thinking that the strongest girl in the world was with her. There was nothing to be afraid of. When it came to Tanya, there were no scruples. There were just promises of togetherness and indulgence.
He entered home with his car keys swinging around his middle finger. Azhar was sitting on the table, trying to argue with their dad about a business thing.
He looked at his brother lovingly. He couldn’t wait for him to meet Tanya. He had decided that Azhar would be the first person to meet her.
Azhar and Bilal were only two years apart. Their mom obviously favored Azhar a lot more than Bilal but Bilal was okay with that. Azhar was so deserving of all the love and care that this had never been a source of contention. He was passionate about everything. Bilal had never known him to go after something and leave it midway. He had a mad energy for a career, education, dreams and plans. He was driven and was a great influence for Bilal also. Their mother wasn’t very educated and neither was their father but even if he had been, his work wouldn’t have let him be very available. He had a huge business and a lot of expansion of it. Azhar had been Bilal’s lifelong teacher and mentor. He had fixed lunches for Bilal, helped him through girl troubles and had also helped with their other two brothers. Azhar was his proverbial rock and then some.
Azhar went into engineering even though their father had wanted him to go to business school. Bilal was easier to manipulate and so went to business school, left after two years and got a job as an accountant in a bank. Sometimes he wondered if he didn’t complete his degree because he was afraid of never being as good as Azhar so he never competed but then shook these thoughts away. Azhar was not ahead of him or behind him. He was always with him.
“What’s going on, gentlemen?” He said as he sat next to his dad and wondered why dad was always convincing Azhar to join his business. Didn’t he know he won’t accomplish that with Azhar?
“Dad’s trying to tell me that my job is worthless”, Azhar said rolling his eyes.
“He has a point. But you have a point too. You like being a waged worker. You do you, man!”
“Exactly!” Azhar looked at their dad triumphantly.
Dad looked like he was going to say something then thought better of it and instead said,
“Bilal! Did you think about helping me one day of the week? This is all for you guys and you have no interest in this work.”
“I’ll help you”, Bilal said easily. “And I won’t even charge you for it”, he added mischievously.
“I’ll still pay you”, his dad said with a tone matching his, “I can’t have you live off of me and your mom anymore”.
“We don’t live off of you”, Azhar said with a laugh, “We’ve been working all our lives”.
“You don’t know what work is”, their dad said, “do you know when I started the business? I traveled…..”
“No, Dad, stop!” They echoed in unison, “No hustle stories”.
Their dad looked at them with mock-hurt and they both burst out laughing.
He lay in bed until late at night, thinking about Tanya.
She was an almost ordinary-looking girl really with dark eyes and hair. She had a casually pretty face that stood out in a crowd purely because of its look of unmatched intelligence. And she was truly intelligent. She was one of the top five students of her class and had already started preparing for a foreign licensing exam. She was much more ambitious than he’d ever be and was also an extremely passionate girlfriend to have. All his past flings and relationships paled when he compared them to this one. With Tanya it was all pure, honest and fresh. No old moves with her.
She was the one, he smiled to himself. She was definitely the one. He couldn’t wait for Azhar to meet her. He hadn’t told him about her and knew that Azhar would love her. She was mesmerizing. And they looked good together.
He looked at his phone and saw her message shining there. They were telepathic.
“No”, he typed back.
“Then what are you doing at this hour?”
“Are you trying to say that you’re loving me too?”
“Something like that”.
“If you were with me”, he typed back, “only emojis won’t work”.
“If I was with you”, she typed back, always ahead of him, “I’d keep you awake all night and make it worth your while”.
He smiled at that. What would it be like to have her in this bed? Her light body creasing the sheets. Her small hands trying to find him. Her subtly sexual gestures not getting lost on him ever.
“I’m gonna go sleep. Am I seeing you tomorrow?” She asked.
“I love you, Tanya”, he typed instead.
“I love you too, Bilal! I can’t ever imagine a life without you. Are you going to see my mom soon?”
“Yes! Anytime you want!”
“Okay ! I’ll tell her after all these tests. Then you can meet her and we can hopefully move forward with all the formalities before I see you naked”.
He burst out laughing. He immediately called her. It was so hard to stay away from her. She didn’t pick up. Instead she sent another emoji.
“You’re a tease, Tanya!”
“So I’ve been told”.
“Who told you? You said you have never had any relationships”.
“I don’t always tell the truth”.
He felt his heart slowing down. The thought of her with someone else sucked the soul out of him if it ever came to him.
“Don’t ever even joke about it. Please! If I ever so much as imagined you with someone else, I don’t know how hard it would be for me to not burn everything down”.
“I’m joking, Bilal”, she typed while rolling her eyes, “Don’t be so dramatic. We are made for each other”.
“Made for each other?” He typed excitedly.
“Can’t believe I said the cheesiest thing that I never believed in but there you are! You’ve changed me ❤️”.
“You don’t want to admit it but you love the change”, He said, knowing she’d object to it.
“Who said I don’t want to admit it? There isn’t another honest admission in my life besides you “, he could see her becoming defensive. Just like he had predicted.
“See? Now you’re becoming defensive”.
“No way! I don’t do defensive. Even for basketball I played on the offense”.
“Basketball?” He found the perfect opportunity to pick on her height, “Must be a real sad basketball team to have midgets on it”.
“Suffice to say that only the sexiest made it to that team”.
“That I can believe. You’re sexier than most doctors I’ve met”.
“How about most women?”
“I don’t know about that. I had a girlfriend with the best body I’ve ever seen”. He waited for her to start subliminally berating him. They were both insanely possessive of each other.
“Then why did you dump her?”
“Because she wasn’t made for me, like you said. You’re made for me, like you said”.
“And you’re a jerk, like I said”.
“A lot of people have said that”, he was laughing and typing.
“No. I don’t believe that. You are very naive, Bilal. I think you are not street smart at all”.
“And you are?”
“I think I am”.
“Oh is that why you can’t even get your own ice cream?”
“I don’t get my own ice cream cuz I have a boyfriend who gets it for me. I milk my relationship for all it’s worth”.
“It’s worth a lot more. You could milk it for a lot more 😉 ”
She rolled in her bed laughing. Talking to him always carried the inherent risk of running into sexual innuendos.
They said goodbye soon and she put her head on the pillow. A beatific smile played on her lips. He was the man who touched her physically with his voice. He was all hers. Every inch of him was hers. All six feet of him. His deep brown eyes, wavy dark hair, slightly overweight body was all hers. Even if she had looked for him across universes, she wouldn’t have found him. And now that she had, she wasn’t going to ever let him go.
“Who’s Tanya?” Azhar’s voice caused his head to jerk up.
Bilal looked at his brother quizzically. How did he know? He hadn’t told anyone about her.
“She’s a friend”, he said noncommittally, caught off guard and not really knowing what to say.
Azhar didn’t ask anymore. Bilal had always had so many friends that it was hard to keep track of everyone of them.
Bilal contemplated telling him. Azhar was his brother and really kinda like his soulmate. He laughed inside. Tanya would kill him for even thinking that. Soulmate was a serious word to her and she had already declared her claim to that word. She had also shown jealousy towards his relationship with Azhar.
Azhar was cool. Azhar was his brother but a species of his own. Bilal idolized him and worshipped him. He had nothing that Azhar had so effortlessly made an amazing personality out of. He sometimes wondered how they were so different and yet brothers. Where’s our genetic link, he’d think.
Even in physicality they were stark contrasts while being similar due to their extremely similar mannerisms. Azhar was taller and leaner. He was much lighter-skinned compared to Bilal and where Bilal had a rugged Pakistani look, Azhar had gray eyes with a strong jaw and dark hair. He was every inch the big brother that Allah had made him. Nothing about him was questionable. He was perfect.
Who would be his bride? Bilal thought to himself as he looked at his handsome brother. Someone really gorgeous and with an amazingly successful career for sure. He probably already has someone. He just doesn’t tell us.
“Stop daydreaming”, Azhar ruffled his hair affectionately. “She was desperately looking for you while you were sleeping last night”.
“Huh?” Bilal looked at him blankly. Tanya was looking for him and Azhar knew?
“Yes! She was calling your cell phone and when you didn’t wake up she called the home phone. I told her you were sleeping. Before I could even finish my sentence, she hung up”.
Bilal smiled. Tanya’s impatience and passionate urgency were the fuel for their fire.
Azhar watched his brother smile. Bilal was his life. He sometimes wondered if how he felt for Bilal was how some people felt for their kids. Protective and proud.
For he was proud of his brother. He had never seen a more selfless, loving and unconditionally dedicated person than his younger brother. Bilal was the antithesis of everything their mother had raised them with. Their mother had lived a life of self-centered indulgence and propriety. She liked to create a status quo and live in it. She had a huge regard for her own baseless principles, her extremely biased opinions of others and her constant race of being prettier and richer. She had lived a life of hitherto unchallenged hierarchy in their family and their father had been scared of ever offending her by being himself. And it would all have been okay if she hadn’t been a narcissist of astronomical proportions. Her thick obsession for herself got in the way of everything.
It was hard to admit but somehow he had inherited his mother’s personality in all its glory and that had somehow caused Bilal to always be pushed behind. He didn’t know how to change it but he felt that he himself was just as headstrong, just as opinionated and just as forceful as she was. And so he felt protective of Bilal. He knew people took advantage of his brother and he routinely got hurt by girlfriends and friends alike. Azhar had intervened many a time to have Bilal’s back. He couldn’t let his little brother face the world that he was so little prepared for.
So that is how Azhar raised Bilal. As his shadow but in a different color. As his brother who doubled as his son. As his heart that walked outside his body.
Tanya contemplated telling her mom. She normally didn’t like to bother her mom with her problems but this was important. She asked herself if it would be better that she brought Bilal over one day and they talked to her mom together. She immediately rejected this idea. Her mom deserved to hear it from her. She owed her mother that.
Tanya’s mom was a young widow and had spent her entire life taking care of her kids. Her father was a physician too and had left enough for them to be comfortable after his death. Her mom had never worked outside the house but Tanya had never seen a more hardworking woman. Sometimes she wished her mom got married again. Since being in a relationship herself she had started to understand that it could get lonely without a partner.
Tanya’s mom was a woman with a good education. She had not experienced a lot herself due to Tanya’s father always taking care of her and therefore was compassionate to a fault. She also had an extremely emotional side with limited critical thinking. She came from a rich family but had been very happy with her marriage to a self-made physician. They had an intensely romantic marriage and they had created a family with four kids with love and sheer hard work. For as long as Tanya’s father lived, she wasn’t close to her mother. She was very close to her father who had become her confidante and her best friend.
After her father’s young death, Tanya had become her mom’s biggest emotional support. They had come closer and were now like sisters. Her mom was a good-natured, happy-go-lucky woman and before long they remembered their father with love and fondness instead of pain and grief.
So it was important that her mom found out from her. She looked for an opportunity and soon, the opportunity presented itself. Her mom mentioned to her one evening that a particular family wanted their son to meet with Tanya and may be have them consider a potential match.
Tanya was at a loss for words. She had thought that she would have a lot of forewarning before anything like this happened. She’d have many days to make it a very convincing monologue during which she’d describe Bilal’s many attributes to her mom, build him up as the best guy she knew and then slowly arrange for a meeting. But before all that could happen, she lost her footing. In her nervousness she blurted out,
“Mama! I should have a say in it too, shouldn’t I?”
Asma looked at her very opinionated daughter who was nevertheless very obedient and always scared to displease her parents and said lovingly,
“Of course! And you should feel no compulsion to say yes. If you don’t like him, just say no”.
She realized that her mom didn’t get it.
“No, that’s not what I meant”, she slipped down from the bed they were sitting on and started pacing the room. Her mother looked on perplexed.
“Mom! There’s a guy”, she ripped off the bandaid. “His name is Bilal”.
“Okay”, Asma said slowly, even though she could feel her temper rising. This wasn’t something that she should’ve found out like this. How long was her daughter going to continue hiding it?
“He’s a great guy, Mom. He loves me and I love him. He’s just so awesome. You’ll love him too”.
“I’m not sure,,” Asma said coldly, “that men who have closeted relationships are generally liked by the parents of the girls they’re involved with”.
“I know it looks bad, Mom, but what was I supposed to do? I’m just getting to know him and….”
Asma cut her short,
“How long have you known him for?”
“Two years? For two years you’ve been having an affair and……”
She winced at the word “affair”. Somehow it all had become dirty and salacious.
“Not an affair”, she interjected, “there’s a difference. He wants to marry me”.
“Wow! How noble of him! How truly benevolent to marry you after romancing you for two years! Tell me, Tanya, why did he not propose two years ago? How long have you two known that you’d like to get married to each other?”
So many questions! Tanya’s head was spinning. Why did love not do it for her mom? Why did she want so much extra stuff that didn’t even matter? Why wasn’t she happy that her child was happy? Why had the when and the how become important? This was supposed to be about a man she had chosen. Someone her mother knew nothing about. And she had already painted him as a man who was flirting with her like a whore on the side. The way this conversation had shaped up disgusted her. She had never anticipated this reaction.
But….. she held herself back. She should’ve. In a world where arranged marriages were a sign of a woman’s morality and a man’s good character she should’ve anticipated this. In a family where girls routinely got married to men that they had chosen in restaurants and clubs and educational institutions but had been too afraid to tell their real love story, she should have anticipated it.
She calmed herself and answered evenly,
“We’ve known for ever. I don’t want to use platitudes to explain anything. If you don’t believe in love at first sight then you don’t believe in it and I can’t make you see my point”.
There was a tense silence. Then Asma said with a finality that challenged Tanya but scared her too,
“I’d like to meet him. With his family. No man is coming to this place without his family to ask for your hand. He can get married to you but don’t think that if you chose a man unconventionally then I’ll wed you off unconventionally too. There is a way to do things. Having an illicit affair behind your parents’ back and then dropping a bomb on them when they actually are mentioning another man is shocking. So don’t think that this conversation is done. We have to have many conversations about the man you’ve chosen. This conversation won’t end just because he brings his parents here either. Marriage has got many variables. Just because you like him and he loves you…… it’s not enough. It’s really not enough. You can’t see it now but you’ll see it someday”.
“Thank you. You’ll love him, Mama”.
“What does he do?”
“He’s an accountant.”
“Where did he go to school?”
“So he has an MBA?”
“For heavens sake, Tanya! What did he go to IBA for? Did he work at the cafeteria there?”
“Mama! He quit midway. He just didn’t find it stimulating”.
“What wasn’t stimulating?”
Tanya knew this torture was par for the course but she wasn’t one to give up so easily. She had always been a tenacious girl with strong principles. She wasn’t going to let her mom or anyone get to her about Bilal’s education or the subtle referral that he wasn’t the guy she should have chosen.
“Mama! I don’t like people eluding to things like you have been. I would like you to be straightforward with me. Regardless of how or what you ask me today, I’ve made my decision. As an adult. And it won’t change. I’m informing you before his mom called you because you’re like my best friend. I couldn’t hold it from you any longer. Ask me as many questions as you like but whether you agree or disagree, it won’t change anything on my end. I’ve known him for two years and he has always been honest with me”.
“You aren’t doing me a favor by informing me beforehand. You’re not informing me beforehand, by the way. You’re informing me two years after you’ve been knee deep. And I can’t ask a few questions?”
“You can”, Tanya said, stubborn like the wind, “but what I’m trying to say is that he’ll be part of this family one day. Let’s keep it civil. Don’t push my buttons and I won’t push yours”.
Asma looked in amazement. Teenage was rough for her and Tanya’s relationship. They had butted heads often and had it not been for Tariq, they would’ve had a constant war at home. None of her other kids had such huge differences with her. She thought that now teenage was over, teenage was over. But today she saw a glimpse of her daughter’s former self again, rebellious and unwavering.
“And what do you suggest I tell people?” Asma asked, brows raised, knowing she’ll lose this one with her oldest but determined to not give up without a fight.
“No” Tanya scoffed, “I said no platitudes and no useless stuff. I don’t care”.
“While you might not care”, Asma said, flaring up immediately at the disregard of the society that she revered so much, “I will be asked who he is and what he does”.
“So tell them”, Tanya said, “that it’s none of their damn business. Or if you feel like it, tell them he’s a great guy who makes your child very happy”.
“Tanya! My head’s spinning. You have no idea how people will point fingers and ask me why I’m marrying you off to a college drop out”.
“Not my concern, Mama. People who will choose to be happy because I found what sometimes people don’t have ever will be happy. I can’t help the ones who’ll choose misery”.
“Can I ask what his name is?”
Asma pondered this untoward situation that she had never imagined with her daughter. Tanya had rarely ever shown interest in anything besides studies. In fact, she had always been so busy that she hadn’t even been to parties or events a lot. She ate, breathed and lived nerdy things like writing, reading and being a big sister.
“Okay”, she sighed, sensing that this won’t go anywhere until she met with the guy’s family. “I’ll just warn you that people think very poorly of girls who sneak behind their parents and see boys in their leisure”.
Tanya knew this was a win. She remained composed and somber but her heart started crazy spins. He could bring his parents. He could bring his parents. He could bring his parents. In a way, their wedding had started.
“What? Really?” He screamed.
They were at the beach and delirious at how easy it had been to convince Tanya’s mom.
“Yes, really”, she said swinging by his neck.
He looked at her black eyes with the blue background. He didn’t know how she had those eyes but they took him a prisoner each time he looked in them. Her full mouth that looked fuller after he kissed it. Her neck that always invited him to it. And now she was going to be his forever. He could touch her, talk to her, love her, laugh with her, eat with her, sleep with her all he wanted.
“Your mom won’t object, will she?” She asked, suddenly fearful.
“No”, he burst out laughing, “My mom isn’t as dramatic as yours. My mom is a straight shooter. She’s just going to come over, ask for your hand and just like that”, he flicked two fingers, “you’ll be mine”.
“Just like that?” She asked wistfully.
“Just like that”. He said confidently.
They ate at the beach, she got the check as usual, he ate more and she paid some more, then they walked along the beach for many more minutes savoring the sunset and making plans for the future.
“I really wanna have ten kids”. He said suddenly.
“Ten? No way! Two”.
“Okay! Then I wanna have enough sex that would make ten kids”.
“Bilal”, she said mock-angry, “Don’t you think there’s more to marriage than sex?”
“No” he said impishly.
“Well, for your enlightenment, there is”.
“Like fights and squabbles and stuff”.
“Uh huh! We won’t have those. I’ll have so much sex with you that you won’t feel like getting up to do anything else. Least of all argue with a word warrior like me”.
“You’re a word warrior?” She raised her eyebrows.
“Okay. Then pronounce “systemic lupus erythematosus”.
“Tanya! You’re extremely vain and a classic case of arrogant doctor. You made up a word just to defeat me by cheating. Why are doctors like that?”
“We are not like that”, she said, genuinely affronted, “We are the kindest people. This is a real word. Surely a word warrior would know”.
“Then why haven’t I ever heard of that?”
“Because it’s commonly called SLE or lupus”, she said, feeling victorious in their little game, “but systemic lupus erythematosus is its proper name”.
“Okay. I knew lupus by the way. My mom has it.”.
“Oh does she?”
“Yes. It’s well-controlled though. May be you know the medicine for it”, he strained his memory, “Starts with plank”.
“Not plank”, she jumped at the chance to prove him an idiot when it came to medicine, “Plaquenil”,
“Yeah, yeah, same difference. I just call it Ami’s medicine. Even the pharmacist knows what I’m asking for when I say that”.
“But that’s wrong”.
“No. That’s a system. I have my short cut system”.
“Well, I’m not so sure I wanna marry a guy who’s into short cuts so much. What if you create a short cut to sex? I can’t live my life waiting for the short cut to work with me”.
“Don’t worry about that”, he said, drawing her closer, the sun setting low in the background, a pinkish hue to her cheeks, her eyes wide and full of wonderment at the miracle of love that they had created together. She shivered a little, anticipating his touch, while folding her body deeper into his arms. He saw a few people looking at them with interest and wanted to yell at them about how much he loved her, how she had his heart wrapped around her little finger. They quickly looked away at the brazen look in the two lovers’ faces of unapologetic love and hunger. As they retreated into the shadows whence they had come, he lowered his head and nibbled at her right cheek,
“Love has no short cuts, Princess. Love demands explicit detail and an unraveling of a story that never finishes. Love wants a celebration of a lifetime. Love asks for abandon so complete that there is nothing left to give up. Love is endless. It’s magical in its bounty. But you don’t have to take my word for it. When I’ll make love to you, you’ll see how one night won’t be enough to complete it. So we will continue working on completing love each night and will realize that the more we try to know all about it, the more love expands and opens secret passages. Through those passages and hallways, you and I will travel every night and unlock more doors and soon, there will be even more secrets. That’s the power of love. The more you try to solve it, get it, know it……. the more it mystifies you, engulfs you and puzzles you. This is how love lures us to itself all our lives. This is why we can never fall out of love. It sucks us in deep and doesn’t let us ever wade through it to the shore. That’s how powerful it is.”
She held on to him. Bilal made her trust their future. For a second, she hadn’t trusted it when her mom had been disagreeable but Bilal made her trust it each time he took her in his arms.
“Bilal!” His mom said disapprovingly as he entered the family room, his family sitting around the dining table having dinner, “I’ve told you many times to pick up your cell phone when I call. Where have you been? Azhar called. I called. Your dad too. Is something wrong with your phone?”
He groaned inwardly. This was his mother’s standard greeting for everyone except Azhar. Only Azhar escaped her criticism always. He was the golden son that she had wanted. Good looking, defiant as she was, a strong willful man. She had never been particularly kind towards Bilal or her other sons either, Hashir and Aman, both of whom were really young. Hashir was in his teens and Aman was about 12. In his entire 28 years, Bilal had hardly ever seen her as controlling of anyone as she was of him. Even their father wasn’t controlled as much by her. All the other men knew how to disappoint her so she never counted on them anyway. With Bilal, her bossy ways were overwhelmingly suffocating and he still delivered and catered to her every whim.
“We should put you on a leash and never let you out”, Azhar said dryly.
“I didn’t mean that”, their mother mellowed down immediately, sensing Azhar coming to Bilal’s defense. She looked hurt at being misunderstood yet again by her golden boy.
” I never know what you mean”, Azhar said dismissively, in his most patronizing voice. “Bilal! Come on, eat with me. I’ve been waiting for you. I know you must have eaten but you’ll have to eat one more time with me”.
He gratefully sat with his brother. He wanted to tell him so badly about Tanya.
“After dinner” he told himself.
They ate amidst laughter and banter. Ami always loved it when Azhar graced the dining table. She was in awe of him. Revered him almost. Sometimes Bilal wondered how Ami could be so partial to Azhar. Moms usually aren’t. But then he told himself that Azhar was on a pedestal for everyone. Even for Bilal.
During dinner he heard Ami making plans to visit their aunt that night and staying over until the next day. He had to act fast.
“Ami, Abu! Can I quickly chat with you after dinner? Something important”.
“Sure, son”, Ami said indulgently.
His heart lightened. She was in a good mood.
As their cook started cleaning up the table, Ami motioned for him to see her in her room. Abu had already retired in front of Netflix and he could sense that Ami wanted to get it over with.
He grabbed Azhar’s arm as he made it towards his room.
“Come with me, please!”
Azhar looked surprised but then smiled broadly. They were so close that they hadn’t ever had to use many words. Bilal was like a piece of his heart, a sliver of his soul. He hurt when Bilal hurt and he had spent many sleepless nights when Bilal sometimes got sick with repeated throat infections. He had raised him like his own. He didn’t need to hear it to know it. He could sense his brother reveling in a different type of fortune for a few days. He had wanted to ask a few times but then had hesitated. Prying into other people’s business had been such a favorite pastime of their mother that it had made him hate asking his own brothers about their personal lives. He consciously and subconsciously avoided any familial traits that Ami might’ve passed onto him. He didn’t always love his mom and on a pure human level, even hated her sometimes. She had never been a doting mother. She had never been fair to Bilal. For a long time, Bilal was the youngest. Azhar had been neglected but Bilal even more so. He couldn’t forgive his mother for how she had never been in Bilal’s corner. She had never fought any fights for them. She knew Bilal was timid and reserved growing up. The joyful, funny and witty guy that Bilal was now was largely because of his relationship with Azhar. Azhar had to take him under his wing. Bilal would’ve been lost otherwise.
So he knew what Bilal had to say and it felt good that Bilal had taken this in his hands. As he was looking at his dark skinned, good humored brother with coarse attractive features, he suddenly became possessive of him. Bilal had a knack for attracting the wrong kind of women and friends. He’d have to make sure this woman deserved his brother. He’d have to make sure she was one of a kind because only an exceptionally special woman would do for his brother who shone brighter than a thousand stars.
Ami’s room was like her. Cold, frigid, formal, regal, imperial. Warm and cozy wasn’t her style in decor or life. She was truly the daughter of a cutthroat businessman and the wife of a subservient husband. This room suited her. A chill permeated the room through unknown crevices.
Her room was all white with dark accents. Some black, some a darker shade of grey. Azhar sometimes wondered who designed this furniture. Some morbid craftsman somewhere built something so devastatingly deathly that no amount of life in the room could liven it up.
This furniture was her wedding furniture and she was very proud of it holding up for so long and still looking in good repair. It was a Victorian-era inspired room with an eclectic quality to it that seemed contrived and disingenuous. There were high board designs on the bed and dressing table. Intricate carvings, that looked stupid to him, adorned everything. The wood was originally mahogany but since it had been painted white, it looked cheap. The dressing table had vines carved out of wood on the side, weaving up and down the length of the table, looking like some sinister form of a creeper plant. The plants had serpent eyes, just like his mother.
This room, Azhar thought, has taken on my mother’s vibe and spirit. This room has become just as evil as her.
She sat in a corner in her recliner. This recliner was much newer than her wedding but she had insisted on it being every inch the way her furniture was. And thanks to another dumb carpenter , she had gotten her wish. And so another piece of wretched furniture now sat in her despicable room.
Nighat Afshan sat imperially in her recliner. Their dad sat ensconced in the many bed pillows. He made a very unimpressive picture before their majestically striking mother.
She was a woman of unmatched beauty and intelligence, married off to a man shorter than her. The difference in their physical heights had translated to a bigger difference in their relationship to each other. He always remained beneath her.
Azhar sometimes wondered if his mother could’ve been given kindness in lieu of beauty. That would’ve been useful. She had used her looks to do nothing. She had been offered work in television and movies but had declined without a second thought. People noticed her wherever she went. When they were young boys, their friends asked them openly if their mom was as good looking without makeup as she was with it. Many had a crush on her. She was proposed by many men in her day and had then finally been married to their father. Azhar didn’t get it but he didn’t get the whole arranged marriage thing anyway so didn’t think too much about his parents’ match.
So there she sat. All five feet ten inches of her. With her heavy-lidded hazel eyes she looked at the two brothers as they entered the room. Her lips were never open. Always tightly sealed like she was afraid to even let the air out. She had a head of still gorgeous thick hair with strands of gray. Somehow the gray in her hair made her even more beautiful. She was every bit the ice queen. The woman with the iron hand. The decision-maker. The bearer of all male children. The flagship of this family. She was the matriarch if one was ever born.
And he often hated her. Azhar hated her with a passion when he was triggered. And his brother loved her. In fact, Bilal worshipped her.