She didn’t go to see Azhar for a day as she was majorly jet-lagged and also because a part of her wanted to go after enough time that he had gotten all better and would come running down the corridor, panting, talking as he ran and catch up with her.
Today she was here and was walking briskly towards the elevator. Papa had been admitted here so often in his last days that she had the whole map memorized.
A very tall and extremely good looking woman entered. She wore a crisp white cotton outfit with flats. Even though she wore flats, she was taller than everyone in the elevator.
Nighat had serpentine tendencies and sensing danger was one of them. She looked around and spotted Tanya.
Her world rocked. She felt like she was going to pass out. Her mind did quick calculations and she concluded that Tanya couldn’t be there for Azhar or Bilal. She was just probably here to see someone. Now she just had to figure how to keep her away from her sons while she was in the hospital.
They got out on the ninth floor and walked down. Even though there was a crowd of visitors that got off with them, Nighat didn’t let her eyes lose Tanya. She followed her and soon found her going the familiar route to her son’s room.
But not for nothing was Nighat a survivor. She never faced her enemy unprepared. Many lives with Sabir had taught her to process and then attack. She wasn’t a fool to confront Tanya and be thwarted. She had to play this one wisely.
So she turned on her heel and left for home. If Tanya was here, there was no way that Bilal didn’t know. He knew and likely had given her enough information that she had come to see Azhar.
She sat in her car and asked the driver to take her back home. Her mind was like a disaster scene. Everything seemed broken and it was hard to reach under the rubble to get her thoughts.
She punched her fist in the seat before her in dismay. She had never counted on Tanya coming back. She had disappeared and so Nighat had learned to continue counting on the morality of good people. But she had come back. Was she not a good person? Was she just as bad as her enemy, Nighat Afshan?
Her head was hurting like it did so frequently these days. Her migraines had come back with a vengeance and she felt like she had occasional blurred vision too. Because of lupus she took anti inflammatory medications regularly and they helped with the migraines also but lupus flared with stress and so did every symptom associated with it. She wondered briefly about who diagnosed her and then decided it wasn’t important.
She leaned forward as they were coming close to her place,
“Shabbir! Take me to my father’s house. I need to see him urgently”.
She took her phone out and called Bilal,
“Something important has come up. Can you come to Nanajan’s house?”
Bilal, who hated working his dad’s business with a passion, immediately agreed.
Okay this is better, she told herself, he would know what to do. Only he would know it.
Staring at him didn’t make it better, she decided. Watching him sleep and not respond at all wasn’t therapeutic. It only reminded her of his gorgeous face smiling wisely at her as she would be rounding with her team, trying to make her smile too.
Sometimes life didn’t make sense to her at all. Especially lately it hadn’t. She had looked for a soul mate, found him, then lost him. She had avoided an acquaintance and scored a friend. She had set out to look for love then realized love is fickle.
In moments of solitude she considered the possibility of Azhar being her partner. It wouldn’t be a bad life, she’d reason. He’s a great listener, a great friend and someone who makes me laugh all the time. And with time, may be I can love him too. She’d consider the routes that life could take.
“You really need to listen to this song”, she heard him say as she finally sat in his car because he so insisted.
They were in the parking lot outside Civil Hospital and she had had a long, bad night.
“Azhar! Really, I don’t want to hear music. I just want to go home and sleep”.
He looked at her with hurt eyes,
“Everyday I walk with you to that stupid surgical floor that I don’t even work at, then walk two extra miles back to my goddamn hot office, sweating like a pig and this is how you treat me? Okay don’t listen. Go home!”
She rolled her eyes,
“I won’t be blackmailed. I’m giving you two minutes. Put it on”.
Happily he put the music on, all signs of mock-hurt disappearing.
Billie Myers was singing “Kiss the Rain”.
When the song was over he asked her with raised eyebrows,
“I can tell you didn’t like it”.
She didn’t say anything. It was one of her favorite songs but somehow she felt obscene sharing it with Azhar. She had thought of Bilal so many times while playing that song.
She shrugged her shoulders noncommittally.
“I’m more of a hip-hop person. Rock isn’t my thing”.
“This isn’t rock”, he said, eyes wide with amazement at her lack of music literacy, “It’s Pop”.
“Whatever? Tanya! You’re a smart doctor but aesthetically you need some strong rehab”.
He moaned in his sleep. She leaned over him and took his hand. It was so cold. He had lost a lot of weight.
“Azhar! Can you squeeze my fingers and let me know that you know I’m here?” She said, tears threatening to come forth.
He squeezed her fingers.
Tears spilled onto his face. She wiped them immediately. She left her hand in his. Somehow it was comforting to know that he knew she was there.
“Talk, Azhar! I wanna hear you talk. Tell me all the jokes that you used to. Remember we used to make so much fun of all the people who played basketball? They were so bad. But the way they acted it was like they owned the court. Do you remember all the times you saved me from making mistakes in the EMR?”
She kept talking to him until he was snoring again.
She felt sleep coming on. She texted her mother that she’d be late then put her head down next to him and slept.
Bilal came to see Azhar and found her sleeping next to him. It was bittersweet. But Azhar needed her. She was Azhar’s biggest need if there was one.
Bilal knew the master manipulator that his mother was and so wasn’t surprised that she had summoned everyone urgently as soon as she saw Tanya. He knew that she had agreed in view of Azhar’s unrelenting insanity for Tanya but she didn’t really want it to happen.
“But as far as I remember”, Arsalan said solicitously, “You agreed to their match”.
“But she was saying no. Seriously, Abu, I don’t like her and so when she said no I thought that that’s for the best and she was just going to go her way and my sons could both stay away from her”.
“You know her”, Arsalan asked Bilal, “Is there something about her that should bother Nighat so much? I have spoken with Azhar and he seemed to have only good things to say”.
Bilal felt on the spot. He had to choose his words carefully. His mother had a habit of deriving obscure meanings from straightforward conversations. The more she had tried to be anything but Sabir, the more her mistrust in people was just like him.
“She’s an excellent girl”, he said cautiously, “She is also very, very liked amongst her peers and teachers. Honestly, I don’t think you could find anything wrong with her”.
Arsalan smiled. Spoken like a true disconnected ex-lover! In the game of love he had accepted defeat when he could have won everything. Bilal was his true prodigy. Calculated, cautious, someone who believed in fixing their mistakes.
Jealousy would be expected but Bilal hadn’t shown it, even though it would be natural. Bilal had many faults, he knew, but he was a family man. Just like Arsalan himself.
But that’s also because he had to grow up before his time, Arsalan reminded himself, he has been an adult for longer than Azhar. He has lived and seen horrors that Azhar hasn’t.
“I think you’re fretting for no reason, Nighat”, he finally said, “First of all Azhar is very sick and this girl is here for various reasons. May be she feels she should be involved because she’s a doctor. May be they were very good friends. May be she feels bad about saying no to him…..” He trailed off.
Nighat sighed. He was right. She was worrying for nothing. Azhar was important.
She had said yes to Tanya but had regretted it everyday. She just didn’t like her. First Bilal, then Azhar. What calamity did she have to face at the hands of this girl that life confronted her over and over with her?
“I think I speak for all of us when I say we’d appreciate if Nighat made her special coffee for us”, Arsalan said, smiling at his favorite child.
“Anything for you, Abu”, she smiled too, visibly relaxed and getting up to go to the kitchen .
Bilal and Arsalan sat comfortably in the silence, an occasional mysterious creaking or squeaking from the old house filling it.
“He’s okay”, Bilal shrugged. “You know him. He’s going crazy because I spend a lot of time at the hospital and so work gets neglected occasionally”.
“Hmm. How’s he with your mother?”
Bilal got up. These moments were always uncomfortable to him. He knew his grandfather had to know but he wished he wasn’t his source. He had come to him in a vulnerable moment and now he had become his spy for life.
But Abu doesn’t deserve my loyalty, he thought with anger, Abu deserves nothing.
“Bilal!” Arsalan asked him again, “I asked you something. How’s he with your mother?”
He examined his beautiful grandmother’s photo on the table. She was the most beautiful woman after Ami he had ever laid eyes on.
“Does a leopard change its spots?”
“No”, Arsalan said, his voice getting grimmer, “Has something happened recently?”
Bilal laughed. A light, sarcastic laugh. He realized he was turning into Azhar and the morbidity in this family was finally changing him again.
“When you say recently, you probably mean yesterday or the day before or last week or last month. But to me twenty years ago when he beat her with a belt is recent. Its imprint is still wet because I visit it daily. Or when fifteen years ago he threw a cup of scalding tea on her and I was the only one who saw it but was told to not tell the police. That’s recent too. Nanajan! It’s all recent. As long as she stays married to that monster, the snakes in that house will continue to slither across every floor and eat my mother’s flesh everyday. So it will never get old. It will always be fresh and recent”.
Demons, dark and evil, that feed on happiness and carefree abandon, haunted him. Just like they haunted his mother. Azhar had demons too but of a different nature. Hashir and Aman had them too. But his were the worst. His were the darkest.
Arsalan came forward and put his hands on Bilal’s shoulder, the grandson who looked and acted so much like him. He didn’t have Azhar’s arrogance and disregard for rules. He didn’t have Nighat’s self-destruction either. He didn’t have Sabir’s sadism. He was a species of his own. Gentle, compassionate towards his mother who had never really loved him for unclear reasons and her biggest protector. Bilal protected Nighat. If Nighat knew she’d be indebted to him for life but Nighat couldn’t know. This was their deal with Sabir.
“But if Sabir doesn’t keep his end of the bargain”, Arsalan said, his shrewd eyes looking directly into Bilal’s honest ones, “Then I might have to speak with him again”.
“I think he behaves himself more now”, Bilal said, knowing that it wasn’t hard for his grandfather to make his dad pay dearly and he probably already had, “But we have to watch him. He has a bad temper. I’ve seen him at work too. He really has a bad temper”.
“Coffee is here”, Nighat entered, smiling and looking for a good spot to put the tray.
“I’m very proud of you”, Arsalan said to him, “You and only you make me proud”.
Nighat was quiet. She didn’t get why her father favored Bilal so much but she didn’t ask. He favored Azhar too but Bilal was definitely closer.
“Thanks”, Bilal said, grinning, “Even though Ami will disagree”.
She continued to silently make coffee.
“Here”, she gave a cup to Arsalan.
“Thanks, sweetheart”, he took it graciously, then, “how’s Sabir?”
Nighat blushed for a moment before lying,
“He’s great, Abu, he’s great”.
Bilal and Arsalan didn’t look at each other.
“Tanya!” Asma turned around and looked at her beautiful daughter critically, “Where have you been running off to? Who is this friend? How is he?”
She smiled at her mother’s litany of questions, something that Tariq had always found so endearing. Asma lived in a world of her own with her kids and nothing penetrated its serenity and calm.
“Can we eat first?” She said imploringly, “I’m starving”.
Asma narrowed her eyes at her,
“Let’s eat. I think you want to participate in a skinny contest. Why don’t you eat?”
“Why don’t you eat?”
“Do doctors not eat?”
“I have to feed you”.
“I hate samosas but they’re definitely less life-threatening than that awful chat”.
She ate quietly. Asma watched her with a cautious expression. She had learned to be careful around her. The mood swings were not pretty.
“Mama! Can we talk about something?”
“Yes, sure. Is it about you?”
Is it about me? To tell you the truth, nothing is about me anymore. My life isn’t about me and the reason to live this life isn’t about me either. So no, this isn’t about me. But I know that to you and all the people who worked to separate Bilal and I, this will look like a thing about me to you. But I can’t help that.
“I’m all ears”, Asma said warmly.
She cleared her throat,
“There’s someone I met during house job. He had a major car accident last month”.
“Is he admitted to the hospital?”
Asma waited for the big news. That Tanya loved him and now another heartache.
When Tanya didn’t say anything for many minutes, Asma asked bluntly,
“Do you like him?”
“Yes. Very much. As a friend. Nothing much more than that”.
“Tanya, listen”, Asma said, exasperated, “I don’t want to hear this. This is exactly the conversation we had not even two years ago. It’s not in me anymore to have you go through another breakup, another failed relationship. What’s happening with you. You like him as a friend but choosing to spend days and nights there together at his bedside. If he’s just a friend then why do I get the feeling that you’re preparing me for something that I’ll never be prepared for? I can’t do this….”
“He’s Bilal’s brother”.
Asma stopped in her tracks. She initially thought she hadn’t heard her daughter right. But she knew what she had heard and her heart sank.
Tanya nodded, “Azhar”.
“His younger brother? Why are you in touch with Bilal anyway that you’re seeing his brother at the hospital?”
“His older brother. And I’m not in touch with Bilal. Azhar worked with me during my house job”.
“So he’s a doctor?”
“He’s a software engineer”.
“It’s the IT guy”.
Tanya could tell that this would be a circuitous route to tell her mother the story so she decided to come forward with the whole story in one go!
“He proposed to me”.
“I thought Bilal was involved with you”.
“He was. And Azhar too.”
“So you had an affair with his brother too?”, Asma said, staring at her daughter’s calm face, hoping she’d break in a grin any moment and say it was all a joke.
“I didn’t have an affair with his brother. But he proposed still”.
“What type of shameless individual would propose to the girl whom his brother dated…”
“He doesn’t know that”.
“He doesn’t know I dated Bilal”.
Asma’s head was spinning. It was hard enough to talk about Bilal whom she hated with a visceral passion but to hear that the brother was also a womanizer and had actually trapped her kid again was just pure agony.
What’s happening? She thought. Is Tanya confessing something? Where does she get the nerve to date a guy, then get thrown away by him and then date his brother, take advantage of the fact that he doesn’t know who she is and score a proposal?
“Tanya!” She finally said, feeling weak and defeated by circumstances. “I’m not following you. Tell me everything”.
So Tanya told her everything. How they first met, how they became friends, how he was a friend and a brother but had obviously didn’t think the same of her, the near-death accident and now the lifeless existence.
Asma was silent. Tanya had karma coming for her a second time? But she was so innocent and really, a very good human. She was kind, honest and truthful. Then why was that family after her? Bilal ruined her but may be not enough that the powers that be sent Azhar.
Can she survive it a second time? Is she saying that she loves the brother now? How is this even happening?
She had always thought that Tanya had amazing discretion. In fact she thought Tanya was smarter than her. How was it that she had gotten involved with the wrong man a second time?
May be she wanted to phrase it in a better way but the words that came out were,
“Is your aim to embarrass me in front of this family?”
Tanya was quiet. She knew no one would get it and frankly, she didn’t care. She had thought about it and she didn’t want to marry Azhar. But she could also not leave him while he was sick. She had to tell her mother because she had to. Beyond that, she didn’t owe anyone any explanation unless they had a very convincing argument about why she shouldn’t see him.
“Tell me, Tanya”, Asma persisted, “What is it that you intend to achieve? Strip me of every shred of dignity? What is this woman who is their mother going to think? Are you some sort of call girl who entertains her sons in hopes of getting married? Because that’s what you look like. One brother got tired of you, handed you to the other and now we are having the same discussion that we had before. I don’t get it. I feel like this is a test that will just not end until you get married”.
“I won’t get married until Azhar gets better”, she said stubbornly.
“And how long would that be, by the way?” Asma shrieked, unable to control herself. “How long are you going to not work, not have a life, not get married? How long?”
“He’s coming around”, Tanya said, feeling caged.
“Coming around? So he squeezed your fingers yesterday and the day before. Moaned once in twenty four hours. Wiggled a toe……”
“Shut up! Shut the hell up”, she rose from her seat and Asma saw the same insane look in her face that had become her resident look when she had broken up with Bilal.
She advanced to her mother, threateningly, until Asma had to step back but Tanya didn’t stop,
“Don’t tell me what to do”, her nose was touching Asma’s nose, “Do not tell me what to do or how to live. I don’t listen to people who like to make fun of someone’s misery”.
She turned around and started to leave,
“And by the way”, she said as she was leaving, “Get someone else married. I’m not the only project in your life. Get Sarah married. She’s ready, eligible and way more marriageable than I’ll ever be”.
She stopped at the door. It was early morning and someone was already in the room. A tall woman who was sleeping upright in a chair next to him.
Nighat was hard to forget so Tanya remembered seeing her in the elevator and now realized that she must be Bilal’s mother.
Hatred like she hadn’t known before consumed her. She stepped out of the room to catch her breath. It was immense work to get her thoughts straight.
Her entire life looked different today because of this woman. Everything could’ve been different had she said yes. Everything could’ve been different if she had raised a strong man.
Sometimes the fact that she lost Bilal became strong. Sometimes the feeling of rejection and defeat was all that mattered. Sometimes she thought of revenge. Sometimes she plotted a scheme to enter this woman’s life without her will. Sometimes she thought of ways to teach a lesson. Sometimes she wanted to taste blood.
But she can’t beat me anymore, she thought fiercely, this round is mine. This whole round, from here on out, is mine. I’ll see Azhar walking and then I’ll leave but I won’t leave now.
She entered the room. Nighat, with the situational awareness of a linebacker, immediately woke up. She had spent a lifetime of vigilance with her abusive husband and now with Azhar she had learned to be even more vigilant.
She was immediately wide awake when she saw the petite girl at the door. This girl had become the bane of her existence. She had taken one son, then another and now was back for only God knew what.
She weighed her silently. She wasn’t conventionally pretty but there was something about her that was intriguing and may be even attractive. She had an oval intelligent face with unusual eyes.
Nighat thought about how she would’ve looked herself if she was a physician. Would she have looked confident, sure of herself and strong like this girl? Then she laughed to herself triumphantly. Everything that this girl had to go to a medical school for, Nighat was born with.
But this girl will eventually leave, she decided, this pitiful excuse for a wretch will leave as soon as Azhar is better.
She smiled at Tanya.
Tanya, who had been expecting some hostility, was wrong footed by the smile. But then she smiled also. That was the only polite thing to do. She noticed that the woman’s smile didn’t stay for long.
“Hi”, she said nervously.
“Hi”, the woman said, smiling still.
“I’m actually a friend of Azhar’s”, she said, deciding to introduce herself as neutrally as possible.
“Aren’t you Tanya?” She asked sharply.
She was embarrassed. She hadn’t counted on this woman being so blunt and rude.
“Yes. I’m Tanya. Nice to meet you”.
“So you have a better introduction than Azhar’s friend”, the woman remarked with a sarcastic smile.
Tanya was rooted to the spot. She felt humiliated and like this woman reduced her to just Bilal’s ex.
“Well, my other introduction would be Bilal’s ex-girlfriend but I lost that when he acted like a wuss after promising marriage and chickened out when his mother said no. You must be the mother”. She ended coolly and continued to stare at Nighat with her honest, guileless face.
Even though Maha’s occasional clap backs had made her much more resistant to immediate sensitivity over people talking back, Maha was usually somewhat crass and unsophisticated. Tanya wasn’t. She looked intelligent and spoke eloquently. Maha she was not.
How did this girl fall for that oaf Bilal, she wondered. He can’t even walk straight and she apparently was head over heels for him.
“Nice meeting you, Tanya! I hope you don’t harbor any ill feelings towards me. I was merely watching out for my son”.
“Oh absolutely not! My ill feelings have all been towards Bilal. None towards you. You don’t matter.”, she said, dismissively.
Nighat went many shades of purple but decided to fight another day.
Or not, she thought with anger, why should I get into a war of words with this tramp?
“If you’re going to be with him for a bit then I’ll just get something to eat”, Tanya said, turning to the door.
“I suggest you take as long as you want. You won’t be missed”, Nighat retorted, her face red at the insolence of the tiny girl.
“Oh I’ll be missed”, Tanya said, without facing Nighat , back in control, “If your son could talk he’d tell you I’ll be sorely missed”.
She left gracefully.
She sat in the cafeteria, seething. She had to talk to someone. Unfortunately the only person who could truly understand it was Azhar. She could tell that he really saw her for who she was.
She got a samosa and couldn’t eat it.
He was a dear man, trapped in his own body. Could death be better?
He didn’t seem to have had a good life as far as family was concerned. She wondered why Bilal had never talked about family so much. By the looks and sounds of it, he should wear a sign that told girls that they should jump ship.
She looked up. Her heart skipped a beat.
“Hey”, she said softly.
“Sounds like”, he said, not going into any opening preparatory speeches, “Someone has met mother dearest”.
“It wasn’t good”, she said, regretting losing her temper. “She baited me and I took her bait. I said some things that I will deny if they ever came up in court”.
He laughed. The same easy laugh that made her crave for him. Why hadn’t he changed at all? She thought, looking at his attractive face.
“It’s okay”, he said placatingly, “She was probably asking for it. She can be a tough one too so well-played”.
Tanya smiled. Colloquialisms were Bilal’s signature language. He was a man’s man. A true blue boy if there one ever was. Great kisser, a sports fanatic, instantly attracted women with his inherent charm and charisma, knew how to do the smoldering eye look, always knew the right thing to say. By contrast, Azhar was more rugged, less refined, almost careless in how he came across.
Then why does Bilal not have the courage and chivalry that men take so much pride in? She thought with sadness. It could’ve changed everything.
He saw the shadows in her face. She was still lovely as the day. Honest and forthcoming. Upright and strong. Just looking at her was a visual treat.
“I’m worried about Azhar, Tanya,” he said with consternation, “Doctors say he might never walk”.
For some reason she hadn’t thought about Azhar intentionally in terms of his recovery or prognosis. The truth was that there was a chance that he could be in a vegetative state forever.
“Tell me something”, she said, more briskly than she felt, “How fast has he been improving?”
Bilal was thoughtful. He pulled out his phone and showed him the notepad.
Tanya examined it for a few minutes then said,
“So pretty rapidly, right?”
“Yes since he has come off of the ventilator it has been steady”.
“So the reason why he wasn’t making huge progress on the ventilator was because he was sedated”.
“But why would they put him to sleep when all we want to do is wake him up”, he said, exasperation taking over.
“Would you like to be awake, Bilal, when you have a tube down your throat? When you’ve been through numerous surgeries? When the last thing you remember is walking out of your office fine? When you can’t tell where you are and things are beeping around you nonstop? If you were awake when it was all happening, you’d go crazy. His sedation came down for a bit and he pulled the tube out. Thank God he was ready. It could have ended up in something worse too”.
Bilal listened intently. He wasn’t book smart. That had never been his strength. But he was very street smart. And when people took time with him he understood concepts that would otherwise be considered out of his realm of practice.
She looked in his eyes and asked gently,
“You get what I said?”
He nodded. Then,
“You’re so smart”.
She blushed. A compliment from him always felt so good. When they were a couple he would tease her.
But we aren’t a couple anymore, she thought sadly.
Unable to contain herself, she abruptly asked,
“Congratulations! You have a son, right?”
“Yes”, he said, beaming. “Wanna see a video?”
Half-heartedly she leaned forward as he played a video on his phone.
“Rewind! Rewind!” She said excitedly a minute later, all thoughts of infidelity gone as she saw Hamza deftly catch a ball.
“Wow”, she almost screamed, “He’s a quick little thing. Show me that again!”
They laughed at Hamza catching a ball with expert coordination.
“Oh my gosh”, she said, holding her sides as she surfaced for a breath.
Somehow the breakup had become a distant memory seeing Hamza. Her ex even had a baby, that’s how long ago they were in love with each other.
She looked at Bilal. He was pulling up another video.
Before long they were watching another one.
Thirty minutes later they made it to Azhar’s bedside.
“Azhar!” Bilal called out, “Look at you, man! A celebrity is coming to spend time with you everyday and you don’t even open your eyes for her. It’s Jessica Simpson”.
“I’m Jessica Simpson, Azhar! I’m speaking in a Pakistani accent so you can understand me”, she said, holding his hand.
He immediately circled his fingers around hers.
“Thanks, Azhar, for thinking I’m Jessica Simpson”.
Bilal kissed his brother’s forehead.
“Azhar! The two most expert doctors are on your case now. Tanya and the real doctor that you have. Together they’ll get you walking in no time”.
“Wait! What do you mean Tanya and the real doctor? I’m a real doctor too”.
“Well”, he said, cowering under her magnificently challenging eyes, “You would be considered an inexperienced doctor, right? Like someone who’d listen to people and stay quiet and learn more…..”
“You can stop talking now”, she said rudely, “You have clearly no idea how far I’ve come”.
He raised his hands and muttered something like “touchy” under his breath.
Tanya ignored him.
“Azhar! Would you like to listen to the news?”
“He’s really not a news person”, Bilal interjected.
Tanya was annoyed.
“I’ll read news to him if that’s what I want to do”.
“But you should do what the patient wants to do”.
“I can’t sing to him”.
“Why can’t you?”
She glared at him and then said,
“Okay let’s play some music”.
As they were searching for a good song, a team of doctors walked in.
“Oh wow! Family is here”, Dr. Ahmed, Azhar’s internist, said pleasantly.
“She’s not family”, Bilal immediately corrected him, with a smile curling his lip.
“But I’m his best friend”. She chimed in.
“Bilal’s?” Dr. Ahmed asked politely.
“No”, both Tanya and Bilal said a little too quickly together and then laughed sheepishly.
“I’m Azhar’s best friend”, she said, gently.
“Well, technically you are his second best friend cuz I’m his best friend”, Bilal said, never one to not square it out.
“Okay we could do this all day”, Dr. Ahmed said, clearly confused. “How’s Azhar?”
He came over to Azhar and called his name a few times. Azhar followed commands minimally. He continued to show hand movement and consistently followed that command but nothing else.
Bilal felt his soul leaving his body. Each time the doctors said there had been no improvement, he felt hopeless.
“Bilal!” Dr. Ahmed said seriously, “we have to find a way to feed him more nutritiously. What we can give through a venous line isn’t enough.”
“But he can’t eat”, Bilal said, slightly alarmed at this new problem that the doctor was bringing up.
“We need to put a feeding tube in his stomach”.
“It’s a small procedure”, Dr. Ahmed said lightly, “We can do it at bedside”.
“But will he have the tube forever?”
The doctor was quiet. Bilal stole a look at Tanya. She was white as a sheet.
“I think we should have a family meeting this weekend and come up with some goals of care. What’s considered appropriate? What might be excessive? Can you all be here this weekend on Saturday? Your parents, you?”
Bilal nodded. What was goals of care? What was it that they needed to have a family meeting for?
The doctors left. He saw Tanya watching Azhar with vacant eyes. Suddenly she looked tired and haggard. He was struck by how young she looked now. Like she was a high schooler. He couldn’t believe that less than two years ago life was so good. She was in his arms almost all the time. He hadn’t forgotten anything. Her mouth, soft and welcoming. Her body, always so ready to surrender. Her blunt opinions on life and love and…….
He heard a sob and saw her crying.
“He’ll be okay”, she felt his hand on her shoulder, “he’ll have to be okay. We, you and I, will get him back on his feet. In a few days. I want you to meet someone tomorrow. Will you come with me?”
She nodded, while trying to gulp her tears.
“Nanajan!” Bilal’s voice echoed in the large house.
“In here”, a man answered.
Tanya felt odd. Why was she here? Why couldn’t she say no to Bilal? He asked her to meet his grandfather and she came. How stupid of her!
They entered a magnificent great room that reeked of taste and money. A tall man was standing, filling his pipe with tobacco.
He turned to look at them and she was relieved to see that he appeared friendly and was smiling.
“Come on, kids” he said easily, his personality totally like Azhar and Bilal.
They entered and Bilal made himself comfortable in one of the large floor cushions. Arsalan turned to look at Tanya and smiled,
“I don’t bite, Tanya! Make yourself comfortable”.
She sat down, unsure of what she would have to say or do. Arsalan smiled again,
“You have been described in so much detail by both my grandsons that I feel I know you personally”.
She didn’t know if he was being sarcastic or merely making a casual comment. She stared at the floor, trying to send Bilal a telepathic message asking why she was here.
Arsalan cleared his throat,
“Azhar is one of my favorite people. I practically raised these two. God knows I love these two boys more than my own two sons. He had so much to live for. So much”.
Tanya nodded. She hated being a part of family meetings that discussed palliative options and end of life care. There was a good chance the doctors wanted to discuss end of life care at the family meeting.
“Can I ask you something?” She jumped out of her reverie and looked at the older man.
“Will he make it? Or rather, answer me this because my wife had a terminal illness so I know some aspects of what this meeting might be about with the doctors on Saturday. What’s his quality of life going to be?”
She took him in for the first time. He was a larger than life man, with a shaven face and large grey eyes. He had a certain charisma even in the way he stood next to the fireplace in a worn out polo shirt and casual slacks. He looked like he had expensive taste and had a Rolex on his hand, something that was hard to miss since it was studded with black onyx. Overall, it wasn’t hard to tell where Azhar and Bilal got their outstandingly good looks from. They were definitely kids of their maternal side and had inherited the dominant genes from their mother.
“I’m not sure. It’s hard to say. You also should know that I graduated just a year ago. I am, as Bilal says, an inexperienced doctor who should listen more”.
Arsalan was contemplative.
“Even though you’re inexperienced, you’re valuable. Very valuable”.
Tanya was perplexed and even intrigued. Arsalan had something mysterious about him and she was sure he made women turn around routinely. He was supremely handsome and had more charm than both Azhar and Bilal combined.
He finally said,
“Can I request you to do something for Azhar?”
“Sure”, she had the clearest gaze he had ever seen.
“Can you come to the family meeting? You and I will both gate crash”.
She smiled. The rebel in her couldn’t resist it but ethics are ethics.
“If I’m not family, then family has to allow me to be there”.
“I allow you”, Bilal said instantly, “Be there as Azhar’s informed and educated advocate. I hate the doctors throwing jargon at us. My uncles won’t come because of Abu. You have to come, Tanya”.
“Okay I’ll come then”, she said easily, shrugging her shoulders.
“Did I say nice to meet you?” Arsalan asked her, with a twinkle in his eye.
“No”, she said, her black eyes with unfathomable depths held his, “But you can say it now”.
He smiled approvingly.
“Nice to meet you”, he extended his hand. “Arsalan Hashmi, your arch nemesis Nighat’s father”.
She shook his hand,
“Tanya Tariq! The kryptonite”.
The great room echoed with laughter.
As they made to leave, Arsalan came to drop them off to the door.
“Is that your car?” He asked Tanya.
“Yeah. It’s a graduation present”.
Somehow the fact that she had insisted on taking her car so she wouldn’t have to sit with Bilal in his became thick in the air.
They were sitting at the family meeting four days later.
Nighat felt trapped. Arsalan was there and she couldn’t openly hate Tanya but her presence irked her. She couldn’t get why Arsalan thought she was the whole deal but she kept quiet. She had argued about this with her father ad nauseam and he had not considered any of her objections worth paying any heed to.
“So I really want us to make conscious decisions about Azhar”, Dr. Ahmed was saying, “We have to think about what’s too much and what’s appropriate, what helps and what’s excessive. We get some comfort from daily blood draws and artificial nutrition but the truth is that they don’t prolong meaningful survival. And he hasn’t shown signs of meaningful recovery”.
Nighat stared at the wall ahead of her. She felt dissociated from the whole experience. She knew they were talking about Azhar but somehow the whole conversation was pointless. Of course he was going to be okay.
“So I think the first order of business would be to consider what should be done if his heart stops due to any reason. Would we resuscitate him? Would we put him back on a ventilator? Or would we keep him comfortable?”
Bilal listened like it was all about someone else. It couldn’t be about Azhar. His Azhar. The brother who was full of life, zeal and love. If Azhar’s heart stopped then everyone’s will stop.
“For now I suggest a feeding tube. And a search for a good rehabilitation center. And a “do not resuscitate” order so we let nature take its course when it’s time”.
“No”, Tanya spoke up, “You have to resuscitate him. He hasn’t even had enough time since his accident to make any prognostic statements about him. You have to save him”.
Dr. Ahmed dismissed her silently and focused on Sabir, Nighat, Bilal and Arsalan.
But not for nothing was Tanya a survivor. It was hard to dismiss her.
“Look at me when I’m speaking to you”, she said, her nerves already at breaking point and further stretched with the doctor’s disrespectful attitude, “I don’t like it when people look away. You can’t make that decision for him”.
Everyone looked at her, tense and wary. Nighat stared at her blankly.
“I didn’t make that decision”, Dr. Ahmed said, “I’m merely suggesting….”
“I think we should let them think about it”, she said forcefully, getting up and motioning to him to leave also.
As Dr. Ahmed stepped out of the room she closed the door behind him and came back to them.
“I don’t think we should give up”, she said, exasperated at all the information.
“We are not giving up”, Nighat said coldly. “Please stop acting like only you care about my son. If truth be told I didn’t want you here”.
“Azhar would’ve wanted me here”, she said stubbornly.
“Well, first Bilal and then Azhar drank your potion. Don’t expect me to be under its influence also”.
Sabir looked blankly at Nighat for this comment but since it didn’t concern him he didn’t get into the meaning of it. Tanya’s face flushed. Arsalan cleared his throat,
“I want Tanya here and so does Bilal. And Azhar loved us a lot more than he liked you, Nighat! You’d be well-advised to remember that”.
“She doesn’t hold a light to me”, Nighat said, standing up to her full height, “My son is my problem. She can leave. I’m sure any doctor would like to sit next to my handsome son.”
“I won’t go”, Tanya said smoothly, “I won’t go until he’s better and then I’ll go. I promise you I’ll go then”.
Bilal felt a pang. She could’ve been his wife. The mother of a child with him. Azhar would’ve been home. They would’ve been a happy family. His inaction changed everything.
“I want Tanya here”, he said finally, “and Azhar would’ve too”.
“All I know”, Sabir said, “is that I don’t have mounds of gold. This hospital costs a lot. We are going to be under debt if we don’t come up with a fiscally stronger plan. Bilal knows about our financial status. It’s great but we have two college going kids. We have servants that need to get paid and a house that needs upkeep”.
“Sabir!” Arsalan said calmly, “Surely this isn’t a time to bring it up but what about the property you asked as a present for when Azhar was born? It was one of the best pieces of land I ever owned and even though I don’t get why I should have gifted you something for a child that Nighat brought into this world, my dear wife asked me to and I could never refuse her. Sell it!”
Sabir gulped before answering.
“Actually I sold it many years ago”, he finally said.
“Hmm”, Arsalan said, thinking hard, “Then what about the many designer watches that you’ve gotten as presents for one thing or another?”
“I don’t know”, Sabir stammered, “My mother probably gave them all to my sisters when they were getting married. I don’t have them anymore”.
This was really Bilal’s favorite form of entertainment. Watching his father being bullied by his grandfather. Sabir was a closeted monster and a coward. He really was a tyrannical dictator and believed in avenging Nighat for imagined injustices.
Nighat kept quiet. Why were they discussing this in Tanya’s presence? She thought angrily.
But it was Bilal who spoke up,
“Maha and I have already come up with some solutions. Ami too. Abu! Please don’t mention money again. If we have to live in a box for Azhar, we will live in a box”.
“Son! These are expressions. Have you ever lived in a box? You guys don’t even eat the same thing for breakfast two days in a row. What are you talking about?”
“We will skip breakfast if we have to. You make it sound like we are so desperate. Don’t forget that I run your business and your business returns a thousand percent profit”.
Sabir was dumbfounded. He hadn’t counted on Bilal to lay it out so plainly in front of Arsalan.
“A thousand percent sounds like a promising business profit?” Arsalan said, amusement in his face.
“It’s a great business. We get about a hundred orders everyday. We have six factories and we are scouting space for a seventh. Abu never invested in his business but since I’ve been on board, we have gone from two to now almost seven factories. He has no business acumen. But even with his limited vision, he has always had great cash flow”.
“So if you’ve made me a millionaire from a pauper”, Sabir said, trapped in his lie, “Why don’t you come to work as much? You’re neglecting everything.”
“I’m always at work. I don’t need to physically be there. I’m always speaking with the factory managers. You live at work because you hate your family. I can’t do that”.
Sabir went red. He looked at Nighat angrily who was looking at her feet.
“Didn’t raise a single worthy son”, he muttered under his breath .
Tanya felt uncomfortable. This was a private moment and she shouldn’t have sat through it. But watching Bilal be assertive was definitely not something to miss.
Sometimes she started dreaming of a life with him again. Of love, marriage and kids. A career with him by her side. A simple life of food, love and laughter. That’s all.
By the time the meeting ended no one was speaking to the other and Azhar was considered to be relatively early in his illness days and therefore appropriate for rehabilitation at the hospital for another two weeks. They also agreed to do a feeding tube.
“I don’t feel well”, she heard Nighat say to Arsalan. “Bilal! Can you stay with Azhar tonight?”
“Of course, Ami! Go home! Get some rest”, Bilal said casually. Then suddenly he turned around and said, “Why don’t you go with Nanajan? You can stay at his place tonight”.
“She’ll come with me”, Sabir said belligerently, “I’m exhausted with all of this heavy talk. She’ll come with me and we can rest at our own home”.
“I think she’ll be more comfortable at Nanajan’s”, Bilal said, looking Sabir squarely in the eye.
“I think let Nighat come with me for tonight”, Arsalan said pleasantly, “Sometimes even grown ups need their parents”, he smiled at her.
Sabir huffed. He couldn’t do anything as he hardly ever picked a fight with Bilal or Arsalan.
Soon Arsalan and Nighat left too.
“Do you want me to drop you off?” Bilal asked Tanya.
“I have my car”, she said nonchalantly, feeling suddenly unarmed, being alone with him.
“Will I see you tomorrow?” He asked, hopefully .
“Yes”, she smiled politely, “I’ll come everyday for as long as Azhar isn’t okay”.
As she got closer to her car she kept thinking she was forgetting something. Then when she got to the car she realized she had forgotten her bag upstairs. It had her car keys in it too.
She ran back and took the elevator to the fifth floor where they had the meeting and went up to the room. She turned the handle. It was locked.
Fear and anxiety came over her. Not only was her bag in there with her car keys, now she realized that her cell phone was also in the bag.
How can I be so stupid? She thought with mounting trepidation.
She thought of going downstairs and looking for a pay phone. She rejected the idea immediately. How would she pay for the call?
She calmed herself finally. I’ll just get a cab home, she thought bravely.
It was nine o’clock at night. She walked down to the big atrium of the hospital and felt a few drops of water on her. Soon there was a drizzle.
God please don’t let it rain, she prayed silently, shivering at the thought.
It broke out in a torrent within ten seconds.
She ran for cover but there was no cover. The hospital compound was devoid of trees or sheds. She tried to stand in one place thinking it would protect her but soon she was drenched and trembling like a leaf.
Bilal was hungry. The meeting had lasted four hours and he had missed lunch to be here and couldn’t miss dinner now. The cafeteria was closed. He decided to get something from the McDonald’s across the street.
As he was walking towards the parking garage he thought about Tanya. She had become very quiet after the initial spat with his mother. He felt bad for her. She didn’t deserve all this mess.
He was angry at Sabir’s crassness. To completely disregard the presence of a guest when discussing unashamedly of money matters was so characteristically his father that he had a visceral dislike for him.
Lost in thought he looked up and thought he saw Tanya standing under a single breadth siding shed, soaking in the rain.
He ran towards her. To think that his Tanya was in trouble was enough for him to run and get her. He stopped in front of her, now soaking himself.
Her eyes glittered like beetles in the dark.
“Why’re you standing here?” He yelled over the thunder. “Why didn’t you go home?”
“I forgot my bag in that office and by the time I went back it was locked”, she said desperately.
“Uh oh! Let’s go! I’ll drop you off”.
“No! I’ll go. I’ll take a cab”.
“Take a cab? Like this? Are you crazy?”
“Why can’t I take a cab?” She said stubbornly and started walking outside the hospital.
He followed her in the dark, nothing but water around them.
“Are you crazy? You live an hour away from here. You’re soaking wet. I can’t let you go like this”.
She sped up. He sprinted after her and took her arm. She swung around.
“Go away, Bilal! I’ll get a cab.” He noticed she was crying.
“No! Are you kidding me? I’m not letting you get in a cab like this. Trust me! I won’t”.
Trust you? The wind howled around her. I did trust you. And now I can’t trust my own shadow.
She turned around and continued to walk briskly.
“Don’t get raped just to prove a point”, he yelled angrily after her.
If I had to prove a point, Bilal, I would have killed you and then poisoned myself. That’s how I would’ve proved a point.
He caught up with her.
“Good girl! Let me drop….”
Before he could finish his sentence she had slapped him across his face, full force.
“If I had to prove a point”, she said, her face dangerously close to his, her voice drowning the sound of thunder and lightning, her breath rising in circles between them, “I would’ve married Azhar. If I had to prove a point”.
“Then why don’t you?” He said, fury thundering in his face, “Why don’t you marry him and torture me?”
“May be I will”, she yelled.
“May be you should” he yelled back.
“In fact, I wish I had met him instead of you. At least he’d have spoken for me. He’d have loved me. He’d have wanted to have me. Really. I wouldn’t have been a leisurely sport for him….”
“You think you were a leisurely sport?” He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her, “You were a leisurely sport? You were my heart and my soul and the reason why I lived. You and Azhar were the only two people I called family. And you think that? Tell me, Tanya, because it’s important. When we were together, did I not love you enough? Did you ever have reason to doubt me? Did you ever think why a man would part with his soul? It killed me.”
“Oh yeah”, she laughed derisively as she stepped back from him, “It killed you so badly that you got married within the year and even have a kid now. That’s how dead you are. Look at me”, she took his hands and raised them to her face, “touch me. I’m cold like a corpse. You took everything. Everything”.
He stared at her. Tears streaming down his face, the rain washing them faster than they could make any mark , watching life unravel each day and take a shape that he didn’t like.
She was crying now. Without reserve. Without any reserve. She didn’t care the spectacle they made fighting in the rain, under the black sky, the clouds roaring, their clothes so wet that they couldn’t stand anymore with them without feeling weighed down.
He came over to her.
“I can’t do this, Bilal”, she sobbed hysterically, “I love Azhar. He’s a brother and a friend. But I can’t forget you. I’ve tried. I’m always trying. There’s not a minute that goes by when I don’t try but I keep reliving what we had. And it was so good. I won’t ever get it back with anyone”.
He took her in his arms. She shivered uncontrollably. He said gently,
“You’ll get sick. We need to get you home. We can talk about this later. You can hit me more. But right now, I’m afraid you’ll get sick”.
She nodded. He held her hand and brought her to his car.
They drove in silence to her home. She got out silently and went up to the gate. He watched her go.
Tanya, he called out silently, I’ll always love you. No one can be you. We had a great thing but it’s not anymore. I hope you find peace. I have. My mother has been shortchanged so often in her life that I couldn’t do to her what Azhar can very easily. Call me a better son than a lover but that’s all I did. I chose Ami but very few people have chosen her and so I always choose her if I can.
Before she could even wake up properly in the morning she was woken up by the incessant ringing of her cell phone.
“Hello”, she said groggily.
“Tanya!” Bilal screamed excitedly, “Azhar opened his eyes and said my name. Just now. Hang up! Hang up! I’m calling Ami”.
She immediately hung up and jumped out of bed, all thoughts of her miserable night forgotten.
She jumped in the shower and when she came out, toweling her hair, she saw her mother sitting on her bed with a disapproving look.
“Tanya!” Asma said, continuing to look dismayed, “What’s going on? May I ask?”
“Of course you can”, she said coolly. They hadn’t spoken properly since their last conversation about Azhar and Bilal.
“Did Bilal come to drop you last night?”
Asma was quiet. Youth, she thought resignedly, sometimes it doesn’t learn even through catastrophes.
“Tanya, do you think I’m your enemy?”
Tanya looked at her mother with a smile.
“I don’t think you’re my enemy but you are very dramatic”.
“Do you remember what happened when Bilal broke up with you?”
“Mama, listen! Azhar opened his eyes just now and so I have to go see him. He helped me a lot in getting over Bilal. Things have changed. He wanted to marry me when he was someone who could have a wife and a life. Now he can have nothing. What are you fighting with him for? He has nothing. If I spend some time with him, how does that affect me?”
“It affects you because you’re wasting your time like this. You could’ve been married today. You completed your house job two months ago. You have been stalling. Girls, even someone like you, don’t have a huge window of being desired. You know what I mean?”
“Yes I do! And I promise I’ll think about it. But right now I have to go see Azhar”.
She arrived at the hospital and didn’t wait for the elevator. She ran up to the ninth floor and by the time she reached the room, she was panting.
As she had thought, Nighat Afshan was in there.
But someone else was in there too. A younger and very tall woman, with chestnut hair and a very light complexion. She turned around at the sound of Tanya entering and Tanya noticed that she had very light eyes. Almost blue.
“Hi”, Tanya said, nervous at not finding Bilal there.
“Hello”, Nighat said imperially.
“Bilal said Azhar opened his eyes and said his name”, she asked trying to make a reason for her presence.
“See for yourself”, Nighat said, more generously than she had ever spoken to her and Tanya stepped forward.
He grinned feebly.
“You’re smiling?” She screamed. “Azhar! Do you remember me?”
He nodded and tears flowed down the sides of his eyes. Nighat sobbed audibly.
Tanya turned around, feeling a kinship with her.
“Congratulations!” She said, meaning it. “I’m so happy for all of us”.
Nighat smiled. The first genuine smile that she had ever smiled in days. Her golden boy was going to be better.
They stood there smiling at each other and Azhar.
Nighat abruptly said,
“Have you met Maha?”
“No”, Tanya said, still smiling. “Nice to meet you. I’m Tanya, Azhar’s friend”.
The girl was awkward and somewhat abrupt.
“I’m Maha”, she said with a slight twang.
“Maha is Bilal’s wife”, Nighat supplied.
Her hand was still in Maha’s. She was still smiling. A cold started at the tips of her fingers and started creeping up to her core. She felt the smile on her face was going to become plastered there forever. She stared at the woman who owned the only man Tanya had ever wanted to call her own. I should hate her, Tanya thought, because I am just so full of love for Bilal still.
She probably never prayed for him, she argued with the powers, then why did she get him? She didn’t need him like I did. She didn’t depend on him for her heart beating, her breath coming and her sanity. Would she have missed him if she didn’t get him? No! Then what is this sick game in which I lost everything to a woman who didn’t even try?
“Where’s Bilal?” She finally asked.
“He’s in the cafeteria”, Maha said oblivious to the tension in the room, “He went to get some breakfast”.
Tanya made a fast exit. She had to get out to get herself together. Also she had missed breakfast and needed to eat.
“Wants to marry Azhar”, Nighat whispered conspiratorially to Maha.
“Really?” Maha said, in awe of her brother-in-law as the better man compared to Bilal always, “She is too short. And isn’t too good looking”.
Nighat shrugged her shoulders,
“I’m sure many women dream of being Azhar’s wife”.
Maha snorted. She liked being close to Nighat. This was a vantage point that she couldn’t let go of .
Tanya finally found him. He was sitting in the cafeteria drinking coffee. His face lit up when he saw her.
“Did you see him?” He asked excitedly.
“Yes”, Tanya said. Then she said abruptly, “I met your wife too. She was in there also”.
“Hmm”. He didn’t say anything else.
Would it be stupid for me to expect him to sympathize with me about what happened to me and continues to happen? She thought with self-pity.
“Tanya!” She looked up. She didn’t realize but her eyes were wet and may be he could tell that seeing Maha wasn’t how she wanted to start her morning .
“There are no words. Nothing can tell you what happened to me after it all happened. I couldn’t sleep last night. I’m sure you couldn’t t either. I wanted to have some closure and some last words. Life never gave us that. And now it looks like we are getting shortchanged again. It feels too dishonest to revisit the past with Azhar in the mix. Not Maha,” he paused for a second, “I don’t think Maha and I owe each other anything. But Azhar doesn’t know our past and we have to keep it that way”.
She let his words wash over. He was never a serious, pondering person so this was all new. He was a fun boyfriend and a very passionate lover. He had two speeds; Fun and loving. He didn’t talk about the density of life or the depth of it. He largely lived in the moment and took everyone on a journey of love and laughter.
But may be we should’ve talked about the unpleasant stuff too, she mused, we should’ve. We should’ve been more prepared for life. We should’ve anticipated hurdles. Huge hurdles. We should’ve strategized. We should’ve persisted.
“I can’t forget”, she said, defeated by it all, “I can’t imagine a life with someone else. I had everything mapped out with you. Marriage, kids, a dual provider household. I want you. I can’t get over you. May be”, she choked a little, “if I had found someone like you did, I would’ve moved on also”.
“It wouldn’t be fair to say I moved on. I attempted to move on. Maha was supposed to be that distraction. But nothing can distract from you, Tanya! You were the reason for my existence. But”, he heaved a deep sigh, “Actually you have found someone who is more yours than Maha ever will be mine. I have talked to Azhar a lot about you and you guys had a great friendship. Trust me! What you had with him is what I will never have with Maha. So you can think that moving on is finding a significant other but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just an exercise in moving on everyday. And then you leave it to another day and go to bed”.
“I’m sorry, Bilal!” She said, genuinely sorry, “I didn’t know you guys weren’t happy together”.
“We are happy”, he said gently, “But with Maha my definition of happiness is Hamza. We have Hamza and so a common purpose. That helps us. But is she the woman who makes me laugh and live and breathe and grow everyday? No. But there’s only one woman who could do all that anyway. And I can’t have her so I don’t think about that because it will just make me see her everywhere again and people will think I’m crazy”.
They lapsed into silence for many minutes.
“But it’s unfair for people to expect me to marry Azhar just because he wants to. I should have a say in it, right?”
“Absolutely”, he said honestly, “But I think I recommend Azhar for two selfish reasons. I want him to get what he wants but I also want you to end up with someone I trust. May be you can’t get it because you’re going to see him as my brother. But that’s my whole basis of this argument. I would not be worried at all about you if my own brother, particularly Azhar who really is a part of me, had you. He’ll care for you like your mom probably would, Tanya! He cares for people like that”.
“I know”, she said softly, remembering Azhar’s gorgeous face concerned at what happened that she was always so sad, asking her awkward questions, being there and then pulling her in for a hug when she least expected it but needed it more than she ever had.
“Let’s go see Azhar”, he suggested gently.
They entered his room. Nighat and Maha had left apparently.
Azhar was awake and immediately looked in their direction and smiled,
“Azhar! Look Jessica Simpson is here”.
“I’m so honored, Azhar, that that’s your nickname for me but can’t I be Natalie Portman or Rachel Mc Adams?”
Azhar shook his head.
“My favorite people”, he said with a voice that was raspy and hoarse, “are always Jessica Simpson. It’s a compliment if you see how gorgeous she is”.
Azhar made dramatic improvement after the feeding tube. He gained strength faster and within a week was able to be transferred to a bedside chair.
Tanya visited him every day. They talked about everything. He didn’t talk much but she did. They reminisced of the days at Civil Hospital and talked about how the EMR could be better and more efficient.
They truly became a family, the three of them. They laughed and joked together. They shared secrets together and Azhar and Bilal told her of their grandparents who had played a big role in their upbringing.
Tanya told them about her father and her close relationship with him. She answered their silly medical questions and they’d laugh until their bellies hurt at Bilal’s mispronunciations.
Tanya made it her job to take Azhar for a stroll in his wheelchair everyday. They would walk the length of the corridor and then come back. As they were in the hallway one day, Tanya pushing his wheelchair, Azhar said,
“Let’s just sit here and watch people”.
She obliged. He had grown very quiet since the accident and even though was still very funny and incredibly upbeat for someone who had just avoided death narrowly, he had periods of sullenness.
“Do you know I could hear everything sometimes when I was supposedly unconscious? Is that possible?”
“I don’t know”, she said, truthfully, “I’ve never been on a ventilator, supposedly unconscious”.
He retreated into his head. Many minutes passed.
He finally looked at her, smiled and said,
“I made a fool of myself on our last phone call. I’m sorry”.
“No”, she said, meaning it, “I should’ve heard you out . Everyone wants to be heard”.
“I should’ve waited until after the accident to propose to a girl”, he laughed self-deprecatingly, “See if I’d even be able to walk or talk”.
“Don’t say that”, she said sternly, “You’re enough just as you are. You’re very strong……”.
“No platitudes, please”, he said wearily, “Don’t patronize me. When people speak to me like I’m fine and this is how fine looks like I want to punch them”.
“Do you want to punch me?”
He looked at her with what looked like amusement in his eyes,
“May be. Before I kiss you”.
“So you punch before you kiss?”.
“Sometimes in that order”.
“And other times?”
Stop it, she told herself. You don’t need to lead him on. Stay friends, stay friends, stay friends.
He touched her face with his hand and traced his finger down to her chin.
“How old are you?”
“You’re a baby”.
“Do you know how old I am?”
“Who told you?”
“Yes, of course, Bilal “.
They sat silently.
“You know, even if I never have kids or a partner or a real family, Bilal has always been all that to me. He’s my life. He’s like my child. I’ve had to protect him from our parents a lot”.
“He told me”.
“Did he? But he doesn’t know how much I had to watch out for him. I knew Ami hated him for some reason so I wouldn’t even let him eat the food that she cooked. I feared it was poisoned”.
“Why would she poison him?”
“Beats me. I thought may be he wasn’t our biological brother but he is. Then I thought may be he knew of Ami’s dirty secrets but that’s not it either. She just hates him. May be because he looks a little like Abu”.
“I don’t think he looks like your Abu at all”, she said, immediately thinking how good looking all four brothers were and how they all looked so much like their mom and grandfather.
“He’ll be happy to hear that”, he said warmly.
“When you called me”, she hesitated, “was there also something else you wanted to say?”
“Like what?” He asked knowingly.
“Like anything”, she said, wishing to hear something more profound than how he liked her for her looks or her smarts or how they were so good friends that they’d make great partners. It would be nice to hear that it was more than that, she thought sadly.
“I don’t know how people say things that mean a million dollars. Or how they weave dreams with their words. Or how they can be so expressive that they can just look in their person’s eyes and let them know what they mean. I wouldn’t have called you if you weren’t leaving. I would’ve sent Ami. Like how a girl would like to be proposed. Or how I think girls like to be proposed. I learned a lot from Bilal’s misfortunes. I used to wonder why she didn’t elope with him. I mean who cares really, right? Things always settle down eventually. The dust settles eventually. So I thought they should’ve just honored love but later when I talked to him I realized that his girlfriend might’ve wanted what was her due. She might’ve wanted some formality to it. May be a little societal normalcy. A little nod to tradition. You know…….. otherwise I would’ve said that anything that you’re talking about after I saw you the first time. And may be I would’ve convinced you with my tenacity. But I chickened”.
She looked out the window as the world around her slept and thought of the Hussain brothers.
She had done this exercise often and it had become a ritual of sorts. Each time she had a moment with one of them, she would compare the two and find stark differences and remarkable similarities between the two.
Azhar loved her. She loved Bilal. What colossal mess was this!
His wife! She thought about Maha. I wouldn’t have pegged her to be his wife that day. She is so different from me. She was so clumsy and remained so awkward. How did they get married?
She thought of a time when everything was hers. She just had to touch it. And then everything became elusive. Love, time, peace.
She looked at the clock. It was 4 in the morning. She had to be with Azhar for his first physical therapy appointment. His right leg was so badly crushed in the accident that it hurt constantly.
She said some prayers and settled into bed. I’ll deal with the big decisions if I need to. Azhar is a great guy but he’s not for me and I’m certainly not for him. She felt peaceful after her little conversation with herself.
He stared at the darkness. This room had become a symbol of defeat, reclaim and defeat again. He met with doctors who couldn’t heal him, therapists who couldn’t help him and family who kept promising false things. His resolve had taken a beating and his spirit was marred.
Why did Tanya ask if there was more that I wanted to say, he asked himself. I should’ve told her. Again missed the boat. I should’ve said I wanted to promise love and life. That I don’t know how to be a lover who would make her yearn like she does for her ex but that I could be someone who’d make her laugh through it.
But it’s best that we didn’t say anything further. I can’t promise anyone anything anymore.
She arrived bright and early as promised. She had stopped telling Asma anything. This was peaceful for her.
He was sitting up in bed and the speech therapist was making him swallow some soft food. He did wonderfully well.
“Thanks”, he said while obviously hating the food.
Therapists are patient people. Rehabilitation therapists are very patient. They are supportive and it really takes a truly special person to become a good therapist who dedicate their time to their patients. Azhar had a great team. But he had had significant injury and so it was hard for him to even see a lot of upside to therapy because progress was so slow.
He saw Tanya come in and his smile lit up the room. For some reason he had minimal reservations with her.
“Do you know my friend is a doctor, Aliya?” He asked the therapist.
“Of course I do”, the friendly therapist said. “And I have to say your memory has been getting better too. You remembered my name”.
His memory had been terrible since the accident.
“I remember good people”, he said. Aliya laughed.
“Good people remember good people”, she said warmly.
After he was done with breakfast Aliya left. Tanya moved closer.
“Today’s your big day”, she said cheerfully.
His usual dark mood was back, she could see. He had developed a defeatist attitude that was probably the worst thing to live with him. She hated the constant self-pity and he seemed to wallow in it a lot. Tanya’s patience, which was thin at best, wore out with him.
Doctors are not patient people anyway, she’d justify her short fuse.
But it wasn’t that. She was a patient and very calm person until Bilal happened. Until the breakup happened. And then she started snapping and losing it over minor things.
“Why are we doing all this?” He asked, like a child. “Isn’t it enough that I’m talking and eating?”
“No”, she said, trying to be gentle and soft but fearing her anger coming forth at this ingratitude for being there for him. “We have to get you to your best potential. You can walk. We have to make you walk”.
He continued to watch the birds sitting on the window sill and didn’t say anything.
Sometimes she got tired of this. What was she doing here? She could’ve had a job, could’ve been in training, could’ve really been utilizing her time to help someone. But no! Like everything else, her career had also been destroyed by the two brothers.
She adopted an indifferent look and sat in a corner, and leafed through a magazine.
Nighat entered. She saw Tanya and immediately wanted to turn around and leave. What the hell was the girl doing there so early?
Azhar saw her before she could decide to leave though and the sight of him melted her heart.
“Ami”, he said warmly, causing Tanya to jump up, “Tanya is here too”.
“Yes I saw”, Nighat said coming forward and ignoring Tanya, “Did you sleep well last night?”
“Perfectly well”, he smiled. “You know the physical therapist wants to walk me today”.
“That’s what I’m here for”, she said pleasantly.
“What if I can’t do it, Ami? I haven’t walked in months and I feel my legs have forgotten how to”, he said, his voice choking.
Why did this happen, she thought bitterly, to him? Why didn’t I have an accident and die?
“Well, let’s ask Tanya”, she said, uncharacteristically jovially, “Tanya! Can Azhar walk?”
“Why not?” Tanya said, coming forward, “He can absolutely walk. All the fractures show good healing and there’s just that little habit of walking that we have to reintroduce”.
His face broke in a grin.
“Guess I’ll just have to listen to two bossy women”.
“Guess you’ll have to”, Nighat said, combing his hair.
Soon the physical therapist was there and they went to the gym, Tanya in accompaniment, Nighat pushing his wheelchair.
Physical therapy is grueling because it requires so much strength. Azhar hadn’t walked in weeks and with the pain in his leg, this was torture.
The agony in his face when he had to put pressure on his right foot wasn’t missed by anyone. Tanya saw Nighat crying and felt her own heart getting heavy.
He was the guy who walked her to her surgical ward everyday, then went back to medical unit where he worked then came all over to pick her up for lunch then went back two miles walking to where he worked. He was always calling her from a distance and catching up with her, panting, laughing, talking, while he ran up to her. Vitality was his middle name.
Azhar, her heart said silently, just walk again. Please walk again. Not for anyone but for yourself. Just for yourself. Don’t give up. Just do it.
He sat back down immediately. He hadn’t counted on it being so painful. He was sweating with the effort it had cost him and his gown was drenched. He also had wobbled dangerously on the right leg and so it was hard.
“I can’t do it”, he said, collapsing in the chair and out of breath, “My leg hurts like a bitch. I can’t. May be tomorrow. But not today”.
“But it’s going to hurt”, Tanya said, afraid he was going to give up everyday because the pain was inevitable, ” until you get going”.
“May be”, he said, snarling, “I should crush your leg and have you stand on it. Then let’s see how you can get going”.
“I didn’t crush your leg, Azhar”, she said, angrily, “So don’t take it out on me. And by the way, I just had an idea. Hang on!”
She ran outside and up to the nursing station outside his room.
“Hello!”, she said, ever the polite doctor, “could you please give Azhar some of his pain medication? If you have an intravenous option that might be best. He’s in the gym and giving up because the pain is so bad. I thought we could get some medicine for expected pain? Would that be possible?”.
It was the charge nurse at the nursing station. She was brisk and business-like in her mannerism.
“You’re an astute little thing, aren’t you?” She said, evaluating Tanya with her eyes and filling up a syringe with intravenous pain medication, “lead the way. I forgot where the gym is”.
Tanya led her back to the gym, where Azhar was sitting grumpily, sulking over his supposed failure.
“Mr. Hussain!” The charge nurse said, more gently than she had ever even spoken to her own kids, “Here’s some pain medicine. Your little friend here requested that because she wants you to really ace this session”.
She gave the shot as she spoke.
“Brilliant”, the therapist said happily, “Let’s try again Azhar before it wears off”.
Five minutes later he was back on his right leg and his pain was about eight notches down miraculously.
He struggled tremendously but the pain was no more and he could focus on the walking and relearning the motor plan of it.
He was on his fifth lap when he was grabbed by the waist by someone as they put their entire weight on him. Azhar lost his balance for a split second but gained it back with remarkable agility and laughed.
“Do you know who that is, Azhar?” Nighat asked, laughing herself.
“I know, Ami! He’s the biggest gift you ever gave me. The most good looking bastard in the whole world”.
They all laughed.
He looked at her. She looked timid during the rest of the session after he snapped at her but had worked just as hard as him. He beckoned for her to come forward. As Tanya came forward he reached out and pulled her in and hugged her.
“Bilal! This little friend of ours is why I’m walking. She got the nurse to give me the good stuff”.
“She’s one in a million, Azhar, I already know that”.
“Isn’t she?” Azhar looked at her fondly.
Watching the three of them in an embrace was surreal for her. This was what was supposed to never happen but it was. Nighat knew that the sooner she prepared herself for the inevitable, the better. Tanya was very likely going to end up in one of her son’s arms permanently for sure.