Time stood still as they counted each other’s breaths. The stars went into the clouds in honor of their moment. The moon looked stupid, looking on at a sacred moment so brazenly.
Many minutes passed. He didn’t want to talk because talking had broken the spell before. He listened to Tanya’s silence.
This is new, she thought, we couldn’t stop talking before. Today nothing is more fulfilling than sharing this silence with him.
“How are you?”
How am I, his mind went into crazy circles that never led to anywhere but her! I’m great. Married to a woman I don’t love. Fathered a child I didn’t want. Committed to a family that has started to choke me.
“Tanya! We have to talk about Azhar”.
“What about him?”
He couldn’t ignore the coldness that had crept into her voice. She knew. This was a side of hers that drove him absolutely insane. Her intelligence was sexy.
He cleared his throat. She hated platitudes so
“He’s in love with you.”
He heard her sharp breath.
“Wow, Bilal! Both of you brothers found your own personal family slut to love and use. How prestigious this is for me! You have no idea how there’s no better sound than your ex-boyfriend, or how some people would call you the reason I lived and breathed, tell you that he can’t marry you but would like his brother to take a shot…..”
“Listen to me,” he said, anger coursing through him at life and love, “He is a great guy. Don’t punish him for me”.
“How does it feel,” she asked, every word infused with a venom that she had carefully collected from the rotting corpse of their love, “to pimp me out to your brother? Chivalrous? Benevolent? Generous? Or just an everyday thing that brothers do for each other?”
He couldn’t believe it was Tanya speaking. The sweetest girl in the whole world. Pretty, poised, and so dainty. Where had she learned words that bore through the heart and conscience?
“I’m imploring for my brother. He raised me like a parent. He isn’t that much older than me either, but he has raised me. And be fair! Please be fair, Tanya, because Allah will not forgive you if you’re not fair about him. Be fair and tell me if he’s not the best guy you have ever met.”
“Allah won’t forgive me anyway, Bilal! Allah gave me love to protect and preserve. Instead, I wasted it frivolously on you”.
He heard her sobbing. Somehow he couldn’t cry. This wasn’t about him. This was about Azhar.
“I’m a bereft woman. I had so much when I met you, Bilal! Smarts, wit, humor, the zest for life. And now I have regret that’s hollow, a penance that won’t reach anywhere and a lifetime supply of tears”.
She hung up. He didn’t quite register that she had. It was strange to have a conversation of just a few minutes with Tanya. They used to talk the whole night.
He stared at the blank screen. Then he brought it back up to his ear, straining to hear any echoes of her voice that might still be there. But she was gone. Once again, Tanya was gone.
The look on Azhar’s face at breakfast said it all. He hadn’t slept properly and after his argument with Nighat that didn’t end with him destroying furniture and other things, he was feeling caged.
But Hamza took his mind off. He took the day off from work and asked Maha if she needed anything for Hamza since he was home and could take her shopping. Maha, never one to refuse a shopping offer, immediately got ready and they left.
Bilal heaved a sigh of relief. He had to speak with Ami and Azhar was such a loose cannon that it was hard to have him be a part of any conversation that needed a conclusion.
She was in the study cleaning the shelves and asking their housekeeper to wrap some in muslin to prevent the mold.
He knew Ami wasn’t well-educated but she was well-read. She had read more books than all the people in this house combined. The days of his toddlerhood that he usually tried to block out had just that one upside. Ami reading. Ami in her best mood when reading. Ami smiling when reading. Ami eagerly looking for books in books stores, old books vendors and libraries.
Their grandfather’s study was a true library. He had over ten thousand books and he was a big collector. Ami had hundreds of books too but she didn’t have the type of space or money ever to nurture her passion. So she had converted their basement room into a library, with furniture that wasn’t very expensive but very reminiscent of the look that their grandparents had for their library.
“Ami, got a second?” He hung at the door, watching her for a few seconds before going in.
“Always, son! Talk to me”.
“Last night wasn’t good”, he said coming in.
“It wasn’t”, she agreed.
“You baited Azhar”.
“It wasn’t my intention. It’s also not my fault if Azhar is easy to bait”.
“Ami! Can I ask you something? Do you know Tanya by any chance? Just asking because you have very strong opinions about her”.
She hesitated but decided to come clean.
“When you expressed interest in her, I secretly went to see her.”
Someone took his breath away.
“Okay. But you just saw her. That’s not knowing her. Is there something about her that doesn’t sit particularly right with you?”
She hated this line of questioning. Why was he asking her things like she owed him an answer?
“Can you tell me what she has that you and Azhar both are going nuts for?”
“Ami! Azhar has a wild temper. You know it. I know it. A lot of the furniture in this house knows it too. I’m going to be honest. It was hard for me. You took my life from me. My heart doesn’t beat the same. But I have moved on. Azhar…… it’s a miracle last night was quieter than you and I both anticipated….”
“I won’t be told by Azhar how to be in my own place”, she cut him off, “He can take his big, burly ways somewhere else”.
He was quiet. She was getting angry and this was usually what led to unceremonious dismissals.
“I spoke with Tanya last night”, he had to tell someone.
Of course you did, she thought savagely, any excuse to cavort with whores.
“She won’t agree, Ami, and Azhar won’t take it like I did”.
“Bilal, listen!” She said impatiently. “Azhar’s love life isn’t my problem. I didn’t ask him to get involved with this girl who is bringing us down the second time in a row. He met with your Nanajan and he couldn’t talk sense into him either. You want to know why? Because this is insane. Typically when these proposals are brought forward, the boy and the girl like each other and so it’s easier. Here is a unique case. He can’t ask the girl. The girl has no idea. Moreover, the girl is your former lover. What type of insanity is this? Is this why you guys didn’t die in my womb so you’d bring a whore here?”
He noticed she used the word “whore” in Tanya’s reference a lot.
“Ami! A woman calling another woman a whore is unbecoming and crass. You refer to Tanya like that all the time. Would you have liked it if you had a daughter and she was spoken about in these words?”
“Get up, whore! You don’t get up until you get a good kicking”, Sabir’s shoes woke her up like every morning.
She woke up, rubbing her side, and said,
“Don’t hit me. You could’ve said this with words too. Cursing and hitting is becoming your habit. I’m warning you. I will hit back if you don’t stop”.
Some might say she provoked him but all she wanted to do was scare him into listening to her. God knew she had too many bruises to count to provoke him.
But it always provoked him. He went into a wild frenzy and pulled at her hair, repeatedly struck his shoe in her side until she couldn’t breathe. She waited for it to stop but it didn’t. It never stopped after a few minutes. It went on and on for days. There was always that sentinel conversation where she refused to be treated with contempt and disrespect and the abuse went on for days after.
Sabir was sadistic in his hatred for Nighat. He had chosen her as a business deal. Her father was the most prominent businessman of Karachi and this union was supposed to bring life long prosperity with minimal work.
But it didn’t work out like that. His father-in-law, Nighat’s father, loved his daughter but not enough to endow everything on her in the name of tradition. He gave her this house and introduced Sabir to some prominent business friends of his.
This was the amazing dowry that my mother promised me for marrying a woman who wasn’t my choice, he would complain bitterly.
The resentment towards her father translated to verbal abuse and slowly escalated to physical abuse.
He had the foulest mouth she had ever heard. He knew curse words that she hadn’t even ever heard. But his favorite was “whore”. Nighat was a whore. Her mother was a whore. Her sisters were whores too.
She started fighting back and always paid dearly for it. She told her mother and was instructed to try to change him.
How can I make a human out of an animal, she’d spend hours coming up with ways to please him.
Things eventually changed. She wasn’t proud of any of it but she had to protect herself. She was too young to die.
“I’m tired, son”, she said, meaning it, “I haven’t been feeling well. My migraine came back last night and I’ve not been able to think straight. Just tell me when I can go to her place to ask for her hand in marriage”.
She pulled out her carryon from the car. Asma and Sarah had come to drop her off. She didn’t want to cry but she had never been away from them. A part of her was happy too. The conversation with Bilal wasn’t easy on her. She hadn’t slept well and now wanted to catch up on the plane.
“Take care of yourself, okay?” Asma hugged her, “When you come back I want to see my old Tanya”.
She smiled sadly,
“I am the old Tanya. I haven’t changed. Everything else has”.
“Did you call Nyle?” Asma asked, the hopeful romantic.
“No. And I don’t think I should lead him on, Mama! He’s so boring that he could put puppies to sleep”.
“That’s the litmus paper test for boring, I say”, she proclaimed in her loud, husky voice. “That and if he can’t kiss properly”.
Asma looked at her younger daughter with narrowed eyes,
“You should be focusing on the abysmal test marks that you proudly display as a medal instead of defining boring boys”.
“They May be abysmal”, she said, chewing gum, “but they’re mine and so I normally don’t appreciate people being flippant about them”.
Asma and Tanya laughed.
She finally settled in the lounge. She had an hour until the flight.
She watched the Pakistan International Airlines lounge. She had sat here many a time with her parents, waiting for their flight to California, anxious to see her cousins, sad at leaving Karachi where they had their house and friends.
Bilal’s call had made it easier to leave Karachi this time around. She had always counted on him to thwart any advances that Azhar might make. But he was actually supporting him?
She turned on her other phone and saw countless calls from Azhar. Text messages too.
“Where are you?”
“Charge your phone”.
“Gosh you’re so lazy. Does finishing house job mean that you sleep all day?”
“Wake up. Wake up. Wake up”.
“Why did you disappear like that? You didn’t even eat.”
“Tanya! Please pick up. I’m getting worried”.
“Please pick up. I have an important thing to discuss”.
“You’re my only friend. I feel very alone. I would hate it if it was something I said that made you shut me out like that. Please talk to me”.
“Please just listen to me once. I promise I won’t bother you again if you don’t want me to”.
The only friend in her loneliness. Her grief was better processed because of him. He had become an extension of Bilal. He had become a way to remain connected to the man she once proudly called her own. She owed him one call. Just one.
He immediately picked up.
She didn’t know what to say.
“Tanya! Where have you been? I’m so worried. Is it something I said? I can’t imagine you just fell off the grid without even knowing it”.
“I’m going to see my cousins in California”.
“For how long?”
“I don’t know yet. I need to step away from it all”.
“Will you have a phone there?”
“Then how will we stay in touch?”
She was quiet.
“Because I will miss you”, he said, his voice choking.
“Don’t say anything, Tanya! I can’t hear any rationalization of why you have to go or how we don’t know each other enough. None of that. I promise you. I’ll always be honest and you’ll start loving me too. I know I’m probably not worth anything that you had with someone else but I’ll try to give you everything. Everything. You just have to ask. Love, laughter, music, concerts, everything. You can’t say we don’t have something special. We like hanging out together . Can’t you consider hanging out with me forever?”
She sat there, her heart crying, her mind a clogged drain of rotting memories of her and Bilal, love scared to ever touch her again.
Azhar waited for an answer. He didn’t expect a yes but may be just a reassurance that she’d stay in touch with him and won’t forget him.
He was driving back home from work and was grateful for the traffic for the first time. The constant weaving in and out of the traffic helped him keep his focus. If it hadn’t been for the flood of cars around him, he’d have broken down.
“Azhar!” She finally said in a strange voice, “I’m leaving now. Don’t wait for me. Don’t count on me. You and I were friends and pretty good ones too. So I’m sad that this happened. But since this has happened we can’t be friends anymore either”.
He knew she was joking and was going to follow up with something that’ll calm his heart again so he listened. He knew she had hung up but his mind wouldn’t accept it. He strained to hear her voice but all he heard was silence.
Suddenly everything was blurred. His tears took over his vision and exactly where they had planned to have dinner a week ago and he had watched her walk towards him in her blue flowing dress, his car swerved dangerously right and ran into a giant truck that was off-loading bricks.
Screams erupted around him. There was mayhem. The truck was massive and had it not been loaded with tons of bricks it wouldn’t have taken the impact so well. But because the truck didn’t budge, his car smashed into it and continued to drive in with more momentum until the engine died out, the front of his car folded on itself like it was made of paper and his head fell forward on the steering wheel.
Before he lapsed into oblivion, he had a vision of Bilal handing him Hamza, Azhar holding him tight and pulling Bilal in for an embrace.
And then everything went black.
She walked aimlessly down Santa Monica Boulevard.
If she had to pick a few favorite places in the world the Santa Monica Pier and Boulevard would definitely make it to that list.
She had spent many evenings strolling down here with Papa. They talked about medicine, different retiring and oncoming teachers at Dow and life in general. They would sometimes stand at the corner, eating mozzarella sticks and watching the sun go down. How many times does one lose a best friend?
She watched with a little flicker of happiness the skate boarders who dominated the streets. They were a guaranteed sight. Six or seven Black and Hispanic boys, their bodies athletic without any effort, their control of the board phenomenal, their finesse at this seemingly mundane sport astoundingly intimidating. They weaved effortlessly between the cars that led up to the pier and kept up a steady stream of conversation at the same time.
She never forgot to check the art on the boards. Skate boarding is such an American thing that many American kids make a small living by painting and customizing the boards. It’s all breathtaking. Santa Monica is just as idyllic as it should be to contrast with one of the busiest cities that it lies close to. Los Angeles. The original city of dreams.
The pier rose in front of her as she came down the street, which is set at an incline. It’s a majestic pier with food as its biggest highlight after water. There is a lot of American street food that temptingly stands at every few steps. French Fries with the best innovations, pizzas with improvisations so rich that they look more Mexican than Italian, burritos, churros, cheese burgers, hot dogs. The choices are endless. And the eating too. Everyone can be found eating and having a grand old time.
Then why don’t I feel good? She asked herself. What’s missing?
She imagined being here with Bilal, getting on the land mark Ferris wheel, screaming and getting the adrenaline rush, then cooling off in the Santa Monica beach and walking to Venice beach, hand in hand, eating fries and sharing a drink.
So many dreams that broke without warning. So what if I broke someone’s too?
She checked her phone. She had always insisted on using her Pakistan number here. She turned on roaming facilities and didn’t miss catching up with anyone. But that was in a past that wasn’t even hers anymore.
She watched with interest as a couple tried to trick their baby into eating vegetables by wrapping them in a cheese stick. The ingenuity itself was amazing. The woman flattened the stick with her hands, laid a piece of broccoli there and fed it to the baby. The chubby baby gobbled it up in no time.
Sigh! If Bilal had married her, Hamza would’ve been theirs.
She had never seen his wife but imagined a very beautiful woman. Someone who lived and modeled impeccable taste and style. Who was effortlessly graceful. And probably so amazing in bed that he didn’t remember his old girlfriend at all.
He had been so distant when they talked a few days ago. He didn’t have two words to say for them. Bilal and Tanya. Azhar had dominated the conversation.
But Azhar isn’t my problem, she shook her head, walking towards the park that sprawled in front of the beach, many benches there already occupied. She found one and sat with her sad-looking burrito that now looked not appetizing at all.
Azhar isn’t my problem. He has to learn how to take a no. After all, his own brother taught me how to give it.
The beeping of the machines was maddening. She was scared to look at the monitors he was hooked to or the intravenous lines that threaded into his delicate skin. The smell of the hospital mixed with the fear of death paralyzed her.
She had not prayed in years but wanted to now. She had a huge debt to pay to life. She had to pray. She had forgotten how to.
She watched as people stood and left for Zuhr and then Asr. Then they came back and assumed the same vigilant position next to their loved ones’ beds.
She didn’t look at him directly. There was so much wrong with how they had dressed her golden boy that she was angry at his nurses. How dare they use a commonplace gown for him so he’s not distinguishable from everyone around him? He’s the most beautiful boy, she thought proudly, I’ll have to get something else for him to wear.
“You should go eat something”, Bilal gently touched her shoulder, “Abu brought food”.
Silently she got up. She took two steps and stumbled. Stars danced in front of her eyes. Bilal got her just in time. But he didn’t let go. He drew her in and hugged her.
She cried. Like she had once when she was in a hospital herself, fighting for her life, everyone thinking she was unconscious but she could hear everything.
And I made it, she thought with hope and strength, and my son will make it too.
But in that moment she clung to her second-born, the heart of her heart, the man whom she had beheaded many a time but was still standing here whole and functional.
Because my sons don’t fall, her vanity came back, my sons bounce back like their mother.
He took her out and handed her to Sabir who took her to the cafeteria so she could eat.
He sat next to Azhar, the brother who had sat next to him during so many illnesses, who proudly boasted never having a fever or a cough or a sore throat. Then how did he get affected?
It had been five days since the accident and he hadn’t woken up. He had to have four brain surgeries so far and now there was a drain left in to prevent further accumulation of blood.
Initially the doctors predicted that he’d wake up soon after the surgery but as time passed, hope got thinner.
Life spirals out of control when we aren’t looking. We used to make sure life didn’t get uglier. Then we became complacent and now life is always asking for an adjustment, a change, a sacrifice, he mused.
She sat down in the cafeteria, took the food from her husband and prepared to eat. Somehow the cafeteria smelled of the hospital too and it always made her averse to eating. But she had to eat. She couldn’t get sick. She had to be strong.
Sabir, encouraged by her defeated demeanor, ventured to say,
“Your father didn’t come to see Azhar after that first day and neither did your brothers. How could we call them concerned family? Shame on them!”
She had stopped being affected by his commentary on her family a long time ago in attempts of preserving her mind and body.
She silently ate.
“They could’ve come just once again yesterday when it was his big surgery. They didn’t. And didn’t even call”.
“They called”, she said calmly.
“Of course they called you”, he said, instantly defensive at playing second fiddle to his wife, “They avoid me like I’m going to ask them for money”.
They avoid you because they can tell you’re ugly inside, she thought.
“Bags of scum! All of them! Pathetic! I don’t know what I did to get you as my wife and them as my in-laws. Really, bloody pathetic! Scoundrels! Bastards! Your mother slept with a thousand pigs to create all of you….”
It went on. This was his true private side. Cursing, abusing. He had calmed down considerably in his old age but he couldn’t change who he was. Insecure, abusive and judgmental.
She finished lunch calmly, then got up and left.
He watched her leave and decided that she wasn’t staying at the hospital that night. She was coming home. It had been a while since he had shown her who the boss was. He never did well with her answering back and now he didn’t do well with her silence and indifference.
He picked up the remaining food, tossed it in a trash can and followed her into the intensive care unit. The nurse tried to say that only one person was allowed at a time but he glared at her and motioned for Bilal to come out.
Nighat had resumed her vigil over Azhar. She hadn’t spoken much in many days and even though she was generally quiet, this was still unusual.
He walked after his father into the corridor.
“Bilal!” Sabir Hussain started urgently, “I’ve been having chest pains for two nights. I think it’s all the stress.”
He immediately got worried.
“Did you see your doctor? I’ll take you”.
“No, no”, he waved his hand, “he doesn’t need to see me. I did speak with him over the phone and he said I should just take some nitroglycerin when it happens. You know there are parts of my coronaries that can’t be fixed”.
“I’m worried, Abu! I’d like it more if he saw you in person”.
“It’s okay, son,” he said, full fatherly charm on, “It would be helpful if you could stay with Azhar tonight and your mother could sleep with me. That would make me feel better. I worry for her too. In fact my worry is more for her. Azhar is slowly improving. But she’ll get sick”.
He had lived many lives in his parents’ room when he was a child. Even though it was way in the past, this whole show of concern reeked of falsehood and phoniness.
He did some quick thinking,
“I’m worried for Ami too. But I can sleep with you. Hamza cries so much that I’m always looking for a place to sleep. I’ll sleep with you. Don’t worry. Let Ami stay here. We both know she’s just going to make us bring her back at night. She won’t rest away from him”.
“But I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“Oh it’s nothing” he waved his hand, “in fact let me bring you home now. Then I have to be at work. Let me say goodbye to him”.
He rushed back in before Sabir could change his mind. He quickly planted a kiss on Azhar’s forehead, told him hastily,
“Azhar! Don’t forget to pray before you sleep”.
And then said to his mother, sitting lifelessly by the bed,
“Abu says he has been having chest pains so he wanted to have you home with him so you could sleep with him. It’s probably stress. I offered I’ll sleep with him. I know you wouldn’t like leaving Azhar. Just informing you. It’s his old angina. Nothing to worry about. He spoke with his doctor too”.
He didn’t make eye contact. They both knew why.
Azhar had shown signs of consciousness and of course Nighat and Bilal couldn’t sit still. They spent their entire day at the hospital. They had started to sleep at home during the night because Azhar sometimes sensed that they were there and then he wouldn’t sleep. Doctors suggested that they should not be with him at night.
Maha had proved to be a godsend. Love was a long way from their marriage but they had definitely developed a camaraderie that was friendly and close. She also had taken on most chores of the house and was valued by Nighat a lot in terms of decisions regarding house staff and budget.
Initially Azhar just made feeble movements for many days and some despair set in again. Why wasn’t he progressing? Bilal cried for hours after Salah.
One night Nighat decided to stay with him. He hadn’t moved at all the whole day and even though his scans were improving, clinically he wasn’t making great strides. She couldn’t leave him. He was too weak, teetering on the verge of death.
Death! She thought with mounting trepidation. What if he dies? What will I do? He was supposed to have kids and a family. Why didn’t death come for me when I so wanted it? It escaped me again and again. Why did it? Am I not even worthy of dying?
Her life had been so scary to relive that she hardly ever visited her past. In the darkest moments, however, those days became emblems of strength. They caused her to reflect and have faith in going down so she could rise back up.
Abuse! A word that she had associated with poor women with aggressive, big, tall, burly, physically intimidating partners. She thought it wasn’t a prevalence in rich families because it likely came from frustration at having too little of everything. How wrong! Abuse isn’t affected by any variable except one! The abuser!
She was young when she got married. Only 18. She had been wedded off in a hurry because according to her father she had shown disobedience by going behind his back and submitting papers to a medical school. It wasn’t a punishment, he said, more like protecting her from herself.
She didn’t get it then and she didn’t get it to this day. Was she a danger to herself? Then Sabir should’ve been her savior. But he had killed her spirit.
Her wedding night was quiet because her husband sulked for hours at being shortchanged with regards to dowry and gifts. He said many scathing things before he slept on the couch. She spent the night in her wedding dress hoping for him to wake up and say something that her friends had told her so much about. She hated that night. Soon, that night became her favorite.
Besides his many faults, Sabir was a consummate over-thinker and over analyzer. He tried to read between the lines all the time. Even when there was nothing to suggest anything. He derived morbid meanings from innocuous conversations and so it all started.
If she asked to go to her parents’ home, he thought she was going to see a lover. If she asked to go shopping, he thought she was going to see a lover. If she wanted to sleep early, he thought she wanted to dream of a lover. If she told him she didn’t feel well, he thought she was yearning after a lover. He believed it with a conviction that caused him to hate her.
So he hit her. A month after their wedding, the cursing started, followed by beating. Initially the blows were less severe and merely to discipline her. Soon, she had had enough and tried to protect herself physically. Soon it became vicious and he attacked to hurt. Soon she realized that talking back never worked out for her.
He also brutally raped her. Anytime he wanted. Sexual moments were few and far between but they were always forced and painful.
Azhar came as a refreshing change as in Sabir was happy to learn he was going to be a father and actually even sent her to her parents’ place for a full year so she could be looked after.
I know it’s not his fault, she thought sadly, but I can’t love Bilal. I can even love Hashir but not Bilal.
She couldn’t love him even though she had tried. Only God knew how hard she had tried. It was hard to love any of them besides Azhar due to their kinship with Sabir but Hashir and Aman had still made a place in her heart on account of being much younger than their brothers.
Bilal had had it bad, she knew, but she couldn’t help it.
Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t love him. It wasn’t his fault but she couldn’t. He was a memory of the most brutal night with her husband. He signified the night when she was repeatedly raped just because her sister hadn’t greeted her husband properly. That night she conceived Bilal. She lived that night each time she saw him. She hated Sabir but she hated Bilal more for immortalizing that night.
She had spent the entire night worried sick and had asked the doctors multiple times to check on him. His breathing was shallow and he kept fighting the breathing tube that went down his throat. He had also thrashed a few times and was sedated by the nurses immediately.
She found his monitor beeping loudly and ran to get someone. There were doctors in the ICU who constantly monitored patients but she didn’t see anyone and so ran down the hallway. She finally came running back and saw a team of doctors surrounding Azhar and before her very eyes, panic rose in the air.
People were shouting out instructions and many people were setting up a smaller machine next to him that she hadn’t seen so far.
She knew she couldn’t take it and would’ve gladly died when she was held by someone from the back. It was Bilal.
“Bilal…….Bilal…….”It was hard to string words together. She couldn’t believe he had materialized next to her when she needed him. She hadn’t even called him.
“What happened, Ami? What happened?” He said, his voice rising, his chest heaving, the pain causing his breathing to stop every few seconds.
Before she could say anything one of the ICU doctors came forward,
“Mrs. Hussain! You’ve got a strong one here. He self-extubated”.
She looked at him blankly.
He read her expression and said,
“Bilal! Your brother pulled out the breathing tube himself and is doing great on pressure support which is the next step. He’s a strong kid. He’ll be fine. His parameters look excellent and he’s tolerating the face mask very well”.
“But isn’t it dangerous to do that?” Bilal asked, again in awe of the brother who embodied strength like no one he knew.
“It’s dangerous and we have to sometimes reintubate also but he seems to have been ready. Sometimes we wait for neurologic function to come back before we take people off of ventilators but in his case, it’s all backwards”.
He turned to Nighat and said,
“If I were you, I’d not be worried. Removing the tube requires strength and the use of the arm, hand and the core. He is coming around. I notice you don’t go home a lot but this might be a good time to take a little nap”.
She didn’t hear much. Except Azhar was going to be okay.
She looked at Bilal, crying openly, without any shame and she felt a closeness to him.
Before she said anything, he took her in his arms and hugged her.
She hugged him back and he held her tighter.
“You know, Ami, you’ve never hugged me”, he said while hugging her.
“That can’t be true”, she said, not letting go either, knowing it was true.
“Nope! You used to hug everyone and leave me out. Azhar stopped hugging you because of that”.
She pulled herself away and looked at the son who knew her more than anyone, even though he was as different from her as night is from day. He was a beautiful boy and looked a lot like Azhar actually. He had a face that used to have a permanent scowl on it that was then replaced with a permanent mirth when he became Azhar’s prodigy. He had deep brown eyes that looked a lot like his grandfather’s sometimes. It was so easy to love him but it was also natural to hate him.
But he was Azhar’s life and the reason why Azhar had chosen sides when it came to him and her. So he was important. May be someday she could love him too!
“Let’s go see our Tarzan”, he said lightly.
The crowd had thinned around Azhar. He had a face mask on and without the dreadful breathing tube he looked like their Azhar again.
Bilal, who had always been shy with physical touch except with Tanya, bent low and kissed his right cheek and whispered,
“Welcome back, Ajji!”
“You’ve really become so boring since becoming a full-on doctor”, her pretty cousin, Namra, dropped next to her on the bed and complained.
Tanya smiled. She knew she had become boring. Bilal took everything with him.
But she felt bad for Namra. They were the same age and they used to have a lot of fun together. She looked forward to her visits and if she hadn’t had multiple episodes of life-threatening gastroenteritis, she would’ve come more often to Pakistan too.
Out of guilt she blurted,
“Okay. Why don’t we spend the entire day tomorrow along Hollywood Walk of Fame, eat street food and go hit some clubs?”
She could tell that this plan would go over very well with her spunky cousin.
Namra’s eyes lit up immediately and she hugged her.
“Thanks Tany! That’s an awesome day. You’re so smart. Really overall you’re so smart. You should never get married and have sex. Sex reduces brain power”.
“How do you know?” Tanya asked curiously, bracing herself for an untimely confession.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Namra smiled mischievously.
Tanya burst out laughing.
“No way have you had sex. Have you?”
“I haven’t had it all the way but know enough to warn you that it dilutes it”.
Tanya laughed again. Somehow the thought of sex had become repulsive and boring. She used to look forward to it. Now she dreaded it.
They went to Hollywood Boulevard the next day and again, examined all the stars. They visited Madame Tussaud’s, ate delicious Mediterranean food from Halal Guys and bought some trinkets from street vendors.
They watched various costumed people and reminisced about their visit to New Orleans a few years ago and missing Mardi Gras by just a few days.
She was reminded of the Bake Sale and Azhar hugging her. She felt a pang. Mixed with a little guilt. She missed Bilal but she missed Azhar more.
Another friend that she lost due to Bilal Hussain. He couldn’t ever redeem himself in her eyes.
Nyle had been texting with her with fair regularity and she had finally given him a clear enough answer.
As they were strolling down Vine Street, Namra suddenly said,
“Is it your phone? Someone’s ringing”.
She pulled out her phone and saw a strange number from Pakistan. Praying that everything was okay with her family she said,
“Tanya! It’s me! Bilal!”
She was standing next to Nicholas Cage’s star. She remembered Bilal recommending City of Angels and then taking her to a drive-in theatre to watch it. They made out the whole time. They couldn’t watch the movie.
“Excuse me? Why’re you calling me?”
“It’s about Azhar! He had an accident”.
“Yes and he had a huge subdural bleed that has finally stopped. He came off the ventilator yesterday so I’m calling you”.
With her heart beating , her limbs going weak, her mind numbing fast, she asked,
“Is he better now? Where is he?”
“He’s still in the ICU but much better”.
“Tanya! Please listen to him. He’s a very very good guy. Don’t give an answer. When he’s better, then may be you can reconsider it all and give him a chance?”
She drew a deep breath.
“I’m glad he’s doing well. I really am. I wish him health and I hope he makes a quick recovery. But as far as Azhar and I are concerned, it’s far-fetched, wrong and stupid. Do you think he would persist if you told him I’m the woman who was dating you?”
“No!” The urgency in his voice was palpable, “He can’t know that. Ever”.
“So you want me to lie?” Somehow she spoke more calmly than she felt. She was shaking with a primitive wrath that seemed to raise its head often when Bilal was a part of the conversation. “For how long? A year? Ten years? My whole life?”
“You can’t tell him that ever. So yeah, your whole life”. He said carelessly, angry at her and everyone else for not thinking about Azhar.
“How convenient for you to suggest that”, she said, every word loaded with sarcasm, “You know Bilal, I didn’t know you when I was with you but this distance from you has taught me a lot about you. You’ve probably lied so much that now you lie out of habit. You lied to me that you’ll marry me. Then you lied that your mother wanted time to think. So of course you lie because that has always worked out for you. But I’m not your resident liar to keep your brother happy. Sorry he had an accident. Sorry I ever knew you. Happy we are not together anymore”.
Azhar had days when he made rapid progress and then many days with a lull. The constant wavering of hope exhausted him. Bilal wondered how doctors kept their sanity with so much disease around.
As strong as Azhar was, the accident had had a bad impact on him. He had multiple brain bleeds, broken ribs, vertebral features and a splenic laceration. He came to the hospital hemorrhaging from his spleen and so his spleen had to be removed.
But nothing had been so severely injured as his right leg. He had crashed into the front and had tried to brake and as a result his right leg had borne severe impact. His long bones had all broken and had to be repaired even before he was conscious and his ankle was left to heal on its own. They couldn’t fix the small bones of the ankle. It wouldn’t have had a better outcome than letting the bones unite on their own.
His consciousness was also elusive. Somedays he was so alert that he’d squeeze the doctor’s fingers and even try to follow some more complex commands. Some days he just lay there listless.
He hadn’t regained complete consciousness though and as time passed, Bilal felt hope leaving him.
He wondered what sins Azhar had committed that he was getting punished like that. For himself he rationalized it by thinking that he had broken Tanya’s heart and so this was his lot in life for that. But Azhar was innocent and not deserving of this.
He spent a lot of time at the hospital. Azhar was moved to the general floor and he continued to do well. Well, as well as their new definition of that word had become. He wasn’t dead and that was well enough.
Bilal sat next to him after Asr, contemplating whether to stay here for the night or go home. Hamza was growing so fast and he missed a lot of time with him.
He wasn’t so much into his role as a father initially. But time and Hamza changed a lot. And Maha too! She changed a lot too by being understanding and cooperative.
Ami had warmed considerably towards him. She still spent an inordinately large amount of time at the hospital but was calmer and slept a little better too.
He watched Azhar breathing, suddenly ashamed of how he sometimes thought that he wasn’t recovering fast enough. He was with them and that was all that mattered. By this time next year, we will be partying like we used to. I’m never going to miss a single chance to hang out with him.
Azhar groaned. He had periods of frequent vocalizations that doctors said were a good sign. And then there were weeks of silence. Utter and complete silence. Silence that deafened him.
He thought about his conversation with Tanya. He sometimes wondered if distance was also making him see her the way she really was. May be she was never as warm and loving as he had thought. May be this was her real self. Why wouldn’t she put a dying man above her colossal tragedy?
He became bitter towards her. Life had disappointed so often that Tanya had started to look too good to be true. Of course this was her real inside, he’d hate her some more each time he thought about her.
Suddenly Azhar grasped his hand that was next to him. Bilal looked up . Azhar did make purposeful movements sometimes but it was always an elated moment when he did.
Before he could say anything else, he saw tears flowing from the side of Azhar’s eyes.
“This is very painful, Azhar! I can’t see you like this. But if you’re going to be strong, I’ll fight all this with you. We will go to Boat Basin and the new Nando’s on Teen Talwar. We have to. Together. Soon.”
Azhar’s tears flowed freely. He didn’t open his eyes but he looked calmer after many minutes.
He then slept and soon was snoring.
Bilal watched him. His gorgeously handsome brother. Strong, slightly arrogant and vain about his looks. Compassionate to a fault otherwise. Honest to the core. Stubborn like life.
He started feeling sleepy himself and so decided to take a walk. He got on the elevator on the ninth floor and hit “G”. As the elevator rushed down he had the insane urge to call Tanya. Just tell her that Azhar was more awake than they had thought. That he was going to get his brother back after all.
As he was pulling up his phone, looking for her number even though he knew it by heart, the elevator opened.
Something was strange in the air as he scanned his phone for her number. He felt it. Like the beginning of spring. Azhar had shown signs of being in this world. This was the happiest day of the last many weeks.
He looked up after dialing her number and froze.
Her hair was all over the place like it always was. Her eyes pierced through the darkness into his eyes and he couldn’t look away. She smiled a little which was strange because he didn’t think she’d ever smile for him again.
Tanya stood there, her phone ringing in her bag as the man who called her stood in front of her, their telepathic connection just as strong as ever.
He walked out of the elevator in a daze. She looked tired and thinner than the last time he had seen her. But she wasn’t a beauty that was dulled by mundane things like the time of the day or the hour of the night. She always looked intriguingly gorgeous.
“Hey”, she was definitely smiling.
“Hey”, he said, still not believing that she was there.
“I didn’t know you were here. I came to see Azhar. One of my friends works here and so it was easy to know the details”, she explained, “Sorry! I know I probably broke ten laws but couldn’t contain myself.
“That’s totally fine”, he said, distracted by her candidness, “Azhar will appreciate it”.
“But since you’re here”, she said in a high-pitched voice, “let’s forget the past. Let’s be the friends we were and let’s see if we can help Azhar together”, she said, the most honest girl he had known.
Sometimes loss isn’t an occurrence. Sometimes it’s a feeling, a burden, a mental anguish that can’t be soothed with platitudes and explanations. Sometimes it doesn’t have a definition or a description. It’s just an empty feeling in the pit of the stomach that just wouldn’t go away. He thought how losing her should go down in history. May be someone should write a whole book on how they had met and how they were pulled apart. Someone who knew how to weave silk with their words. Someone who used tears for ink. Someone who used flesh for paper.
But she was here and for Azhar! She was an honorable girl to do this for Bilal . The man who broke her heart. How many ex girlfriends would do that? Put their life on hold and run to save their ex boyfriend’s brother?
“Let’s go see him” she reminded him gently.
They got in the elevator quietly. She didn’t speak much except ask about Azhar’s condition and how he himself was holding up. Then it was silence again.
They got in his room. He had a private room and lately Maha had taken to decorating it with personal touches. There were pictures of the family, flowers, large balloons that wished him health, his posters of Kim Kardashian, Jessica Simpson, Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez. It wasn’t hard to tell Azhar’s type. It was strange that he chose Tanya.
To say that she was shocked to see him was an understatement. She froze at the door for many minutes. Somehow Azhar represented the calm after the storm and so this was hard. To see him defeated was hard.
She silently gulped her tears until she couldn’t anymore. She came closer to him, his body lifeless except for the gentle rise and fall of his chest and touched his forehead.
For some reason, there was an overwhelming desire to be alone with him. Just watch him. Let this moment sink in. This was the biggest moment of truth. Somehow he was more tangible than Bilal.
Tears came without any constraint. She sobbed harder than she wanted to, her tiny body rocking and shaking convulsively.
She heard sobs behind her and Bilal was crying too. She ran to him and threw herself in his arms. They cried together, almost like siblings, Azhar’s elusive fate not lost on either of them.
They separated many minutes later. He begrudgingly let her go. She wanted to cling on for a few more seconds.
“I didn’t know it was this bad”, she said, “I’m sorry! I was so rude on the phone. Both times”.
He didn’t know what to say. Their long hug had thrown him off his feet.
He sat down. Tanya sat next to him, dried her tears and said,
“Tell me everything”.
So he told her everything. Azhar’s insistence and anger, Ami’s predictable refusal, Bilal’s disagreement with Ami and Azhar’s accident.
She listened quietly. There were times when he thought that she had a flicker of hate in her eyes when Ami was mentioned but she didn’t say anything.
Tanya heard and processed. Bilal was a weak man and really, her love for him transcended his moral qualities. Everyone has them. But he wasn’t really weak now and had fought a pretty impressive battle for his brother.
Azhar, from Bilal’s description, sounded exactly how she had known him. Temperamental, straightforward and logical.
But their mother is a huge problem, she thought savagely, in fact she’s the problem that other problems stem from. She needs a break from her toxicity. She needs a woman, since she doesn’t do so well with men,tell her that what’s fair is fair.