All’s Fair….. part 10

CHAPTER 91:

Azhar had been discharged home and now she couldn’t see him. They talked over the phone everyday, late at night and until early morning.

Somehow there was so much to talk about. His therapies were everyday and so that conversation took up most of their time. They would talk about politics, music and sometimes sports. Sometimes they’d talk about what his career choices could be once he was all better and walking without support.

“I’m not worried about that as much if I can find something where I just had to sit on a table. But it can’t be medical informatics anymore. That requires walking quite a bit”.

“Well you walked more than you needed to because you were always coming and going between wards. You were trekking up and down to walk with a loser doctor”, she teased him.

“Don’t say anything nasty about my favorite doctor”, he said, mock-angry, “She’s the best thing that ever happened to medicine”.

She laughed softly.

“Tanya!” He asked seriously, “Doesn’t your mother ask you mom questions?”

“Like what?”

“Like do you like someone? When will you get married? Do you smoke? Are you a lesbian?”

She snorted.

“All of them. She asks all of them”.

“So what do you say?”

“I say I like someone. I’ll get married soon. I don’t smoke. And I’m straight”.

“Then what does she say? Does she ever ask who is it that you like?”

“She does”.

“Who is it?”

She laughed.

“I don’t know. I like so many people”.

“I’m serious. Who is it? Is it me?”

One thing is for sure, she thought to herself, he’s definitely not Bilal in how he can’t even have a few ambiguously phrased sentences.

“Azhar! I want to take some time. Is that okay?”

“Depends. If you want to take some time to say no then it’s not okay. It’s not okay to leave me hanging”. She heard the familiar anger in his voice. Like a wave rearing its ugly dark head before it destroyed all the tiny sand castles and just kept getting uglier until it had wreaked everything.

“I don’t like being pressured”, she said stubbornly, refusing to be intimidated by his anger.

He hung up.

What’s this? She thought with anger. He thinks he owns me just because he’s pitiable now. He can’t run the show. And I won’t marry him out of sympathy.

She didn’t call him for many days. When she finally did he didn’t pick up.

Bilal called her,

“What’s going on? Azhar won’t say it but he hasn’t been mentioning you at all and usually he can’t talk about anything else. Did you guys have a fight?”

“Don’t speak for him when he can speak so well for himself. He has a nasty temper and doesn’t listen if it doesn’t suit him. Well, I’m not his to direct”.

“But what happened? Did he say something?”

“He’s always saying something. If it’s not self-pity then it’s self-destructive thoughts. If it’s not that then it’s how he can’t have a job when he gets better. He has so much to do in terms of rehab but somehow his problem is to know whether I’d marry him”.

He was quiet. She realized she had been abrasive.

“Bilal”, she said, tired of it all, “I feel trapped in a bad movie. I want to believe that I will make it out of here with everyone happy but I’m realizing that someone will have to be unhappy ultimately. And it’s probably going to be Azhar. I can’t marry him out of pity or the reasons that you give. He’s not the only good man in the world for me. And I want someone who won’t remind me of my past. Do you get that? If I say yes to him, it’s a dangerous game. I agree that he can’t know, even more now than before. But I can’t live a lie. Your mom knows too. She knows who I am. I sometimes wonder if Azhar knows also but is so blinded by the wish to marry me that he has ignored my history with you as a finer point of it all. So it’s not fair to me or him”.

“Okay”, he said abruptly, “I get it. Don’t worry. I agree with you. He has to learn to deal with your no”.

She sat in bed for hours after, evaluating the chaos that surrounded her. Azhar is a good guy, she thought sadly, but he’s not for me.

A month passed.

She was aimlessly walking from window to window at Park Towers, looking at mannequin after mannequin, wondering if she’d ever wear a red outfit for someone special, when someone called out from behind.

She turned around, her heart racing at the familiar voice, embarrassment immediately taking over at how things had ended between them.

It was Azhar. He came running towards her, or almost running. He had a very prominent limp and it was hard to see him walking so differently than his usual gait which was bouncy and quick.

But despite everything, he was a survivor, she thought proudly. One thing was for sure! Life was dealt with very differently by the likes of Azhar Hussain. He really knew how to turn it around.

She was rooted to the spot and didn’t know what to do. He came up to her, his characteristic out of breath face, his eyes shining, his face splitting into the widest grin she had seen recently and said,

“I know you hate me, Miss Universe, but I won’t act like I don’t know you if I see you looking at wedding dresses”.

She blushed and laughed.

“I’m so happy to see you walking”, she said warmly.

“Yes so happy that you didn’t even come up to me to ease the walking a bit. Just let me catch up to you. You’re cruel, Tanya!”

Something in the tone of his voice got her.

“Is that what you think, Azhar, that I’m cruel?”

“I was joking”, he said, rolling his eyes, “Don’t become a sad maid again”.

She laughed more openly now and surveyed him with squinted eyes,

“Looks like you’re ready to break back into the software engineering and all that”.

“Not sure about the all that”, he said, self-deprecating charm in full force, “But I have a job now”.

“Do you?” She asked incredulously. “I’m really so impressed”.

“You should be”, he said, “And proud. You helped me a lot, Tanya, and it was not fair for me to ask you uncomfortable questions and push you for an answer. Really if I had to have you in any capacity, I’d like to have you as a wife and a friend. But if not that then as a friend would be great also. So please forgive me for being so rude to you”.

“Let’s forget all that”, she said hastily, realizing this was very awkward to talk about and Azhar had a natural gift for having embarrassing conversations without a clue that they were embarrassing, “We have to celebrate. Wanna grab something to eat?”

“Always”, he said easily, smiling at her.

They entered the food court and decided to eat Chinese. Tanya ordered a vegetable Lo Mein and Azhar ordered sesame chicken.

As they were waiting for their food to arrive he asked,

“So what are you doing? Did you apply for training?”

She avoided saying that she missed her training application time because she was busy with him so said casually,

“I’m still debating between internal medicine and family practice”.

“How long is training?”

“Depends,” she said carefully, aware of how his mood could swing, “if I do it here then just about three years and if I do it in the USA and want to do a combined track then can go up to four or five”.

He was contemplative.

“I wish you so much luck”, he said, his warm smile lighting up his gray eyes, “You deserve a lot of success”.

“Thanks, Azhar”, she said, genuinely sorry that this was all they could ever be, “I haven’t had much success in life so I would like to have something work out for me”.

“That’s not true”, he said, pragmatically, “You have a great family, friends, an education that some people would envy you for, you’re very smart and you’re not bad to look at either”.

He was smiling again.

“If I’m all that”, she said, thinking that somehow Azhar always became the one who listened to her woes, “Then why do I keep striking out? I don’t know if I ever told you but my past follows me still. The man I called my own is someone else’s now and I have to watch them together. It’s torture. I’m so young, only 25, but I feel like I’ve been living for seventy years. There’s a burden on my soul that I want to get rid of. But life doesn’t let me. So many people depend on me to be okay that I could never grieve. I could never just sit in my sorrow and mourn the death of an amazing soul relationship. Life took him from me, unceremoniously, when I was actually on the way to making him my own forever. And then the next day people wanted me to move on, find someone else, get busy, get moving, get cracking, get happy and get going”.

“That amazing, huh?”

“Amazing is an understatement. What we had was probably made in the highest of heavens and then sprinkled on us in large, unmeasured amounts. Our love was like the rainbow, many colors, of friendship and attraction and abandon. He was a wonderful lover but most of all, he was a friend who never let me down. I could be myself with him. He could be himself with me. We had no inhibitions with each other. You know how people take ages to kiss? We kissed on our first date when we were alone. Our connection was instant. And it shook us. And still shakes me.”

“What about him?” He asked, marveling at how much she could talk about her ex but was usually so quiet, “Does he also continue to feel this way?”

She contemplated his question. It was a good question and one that she had asked herself.

“He wouldn’t say,” she said, thinking Bilal had probably made peace with it all and it was a way to move on, “But he is married and has a child so I don’t know”.

“I have no wise words”, he said, feeling her pain, “I had never been in love until I saw you. And I didn’t love you immediately. But I noticed you immediately and so I started observing you. And when you said no, I had the accident and spent days in oblivion which was good in a way because the pain I felt when you said no was worse than all the traumatic injuries from the accident combined so I get you”.

“I’m sorry, Azhar”, she said, making room for her food as the waiter brought their order over, “I’m very….”

“Don’t apologize, Tanya”, he said gently but firmly, “Don’t apologize for being truthful. I hate liars. Lying is inexcusable. I don’t lie because it doesn’t benefit anyone. It actually is a temporizing measure. A band-aid of sorts. It doesn’t heal. It just hides. So I’m glad you were honest. And I’m glad you were honest on our last phone call. I’m glad I love you. A woman who has a standard for herself and doesn’t let herself fall from it. That’s my biggest beef with Ami. She lies and manipulates. I can’t identify with her because of that. So I’m glad that I chose you because now I can trust my choice for another woman in the future too.

Now coming to how or why or when you should move on. There’s no manual. There’s no guidebook. There’s no map. So a lot of people might recommend that you should date again when you’re good and ready. I’ll tell you something different. Start seeing people. There are more good people out there. He isn’t the only one. The one for you could be out there. But I don’t believe in the theory that declares that there is that one for us. There are many for us. Some we get, some we don’t. So don’t stop looking. Look for happiness. I had to look for it. Bilal had to look for it too. You might have to also. Not all of us are so lucky to get it spontaneously or greet it at the door or run into it down the street. Some of us have to go to the pits of hell to draw the elixir of life and concoct the potion of happiness. Hashir and Aman got ready-made happiness through Bilal and I. But Bilal and I worked for it and strived for it. And we finally got it. If we could get it, you can too”.

She let his words wash over her. He was very wise and sometimes she wished she could tell him that it was Bilal but that would destroy everything. And she couldn’t lose him. Even though she couldn’t marry him, he was the man who had been by her side during a lot of the misery. Without even knowing it. He had a natural way about him of nurturing, healing and mothering. She felt safe with him but most of all, she felt peaceful with him.

CHAPTER 92:

A strange number was calling her.

Tanya!” Someone said as soon as she picked up, “This is Nighat”.

“Oh hi”, she said, wondering why she was calling her.

“Hi! Do you have some time to speak with me? I can call at a later time too, if that works better”.

“I’m okay now! What’s going on?”

“Nothing. I just wanted to check in and also thank you for being so supportive during Azhar’s recovery”.

“Please don’t mention it. Azhar has been very supportive to me also. But I would’ve been there for my friend even if he hadn’t been. What are friends for?”

“Hmm”, Nighat said, thinking how anyone could not fall for a girl who spoke so sweetly, “But Azhar doesn’t consider you just his friend. Are you aware of that? I’m sure you are”.

Tanya was silent. She felt like she was on trial.

“That’s between Azhar and I”, she said, cautiously.

“Well he once requested me to ask your mom for you so I’m a part of it now”.

“That’s long gone”, Tanya said after a pause, “we have talked about it and we both want different things from life”.

“I think that’s very honorable of you”, Nighat said sanctimoniously, “I didn’t think you’d back off but I’m glad you did the right thing”.

She felt her temper rising but she had decided she won’t take that nasty woman’s bait.

“Is there anything else that you need to speak about?” She asked courteously.

“No”, Nighat said, “All my problems are solved”.

Tanya hung up.

She decided to pray. Sometimes it helped speaking with Allah and asking for direction.

She prayed for a long time. She remained in prostration for many minutes. She felt some peace and a feeling of deliverance.

Ya Allah! She prayed. Forgive me for being so blindly in love that I didn’t think of anything except myself. It was selfish and I hope to have learned a lesson. But sometimes, I wish Bilal could be mine again. Can you help me forget him? Please help me. Please take my heart and turn it.

She cried for hours .

Nighat sat in silence for a long time. How strange, she thought, she didn’t sound emotional or remorseful or sad. How strange!

She went out of her room and saw Azhar working on his laptop. He had taken to sitting in the family room and had even created a workspace for himself. He watched Hamza for most of the time while working and Maha spent most of the day sleeping or chatting over the phone.

As usual, he was watching Hamza who was playing in the vicinity and tossing a ball with Azhar.

“Where’s Maha?” She asked irritably. The conversation with Tanya had left her wired and perturbed. She had thought she’d feel accomplished and satiated. Instead she felt revolted and irked.

“In her room”, Azhar said, typing away on his laptop.

“I don’t get it”, she said with exasperation. “We have a cook now so she doesn’t have to cook. We have a housekeeper so she has never had to clean. She has a nanny so of course why would she watch Hamza? But that doesn’t mean that she can just live cooped up in her room”.

“Give her a break, Ami”, he said, casual as ever, “She spends almost all the time with Hamza. She wakes up twice every night to feed him. She deserves some rest too”. Then,

“Who were you speaking with in there?”

“No one”, Nighat lied with immense ease, “Women are always calling me for you. Always recommending this girl or that girl”.

“Why would a woman want me for any girl? I can’t walk properly. I can’t go to an office to work. I have to work from home because I make six therapy visits and two doctor appointments every week. I still have to push food through a feeding tube to keep my weight up because I can’t eat by mouth enough. Why would a woman want me for her girl? Do you tell them that I’m not okay to marry?”

“Well they’re not asking to marry you right now”, she said, feeling sorry for him, “It’s when you’re ready and done with rehabilitation”.

“But when will that be, Ami? Not tomorrow. Not even next year. I walk with such a bad limp and my leg hurts after walking from here to the bathroom. In the foreseeable future I won’t be ready”.

“Azhar”, she said, the sadness of her favorite child diffusing in her heart, “You are so optimistic. So upbeat and happy. Really I could use some of your spirit. I’m not as strong as you are. When you talk like this I feel defeated.”

He looked at her in amusement, his amazingly gorgeous mother who had not been caring for herself and so had developed some new wrinkles and lines in the last few months,

“You’re the strongest person I know. And Tanya. She’s pretty strong too. I’m in awe of the two of you.”

“How’s Tanya strong?” She asked, intrigued.

“She had a relationship, I told you. This guy is still a part of her life. And she has to keep it together when she’s around him. That takes a lot of guts and resilience. She’s small in looks but she is very strong. Sometimes I think that it has to be a particularly cruel man to break her heart. She’s the most precious girl in the whole world, Ami. You’ve met her. Didn’t you like her?”

Words got stuck in her throat. She wanted to say something that would tell him that she hated her with a passion but somehow the words that came out were,

“She’s amazing”.

Azhar smiled, kissed Nighat’s cheek probably the first time in his entire life, and went back to working on his laptop.

CHAPTER 93:

She had neglected this place so much that it was growing wild. Since Azhar had been discharged she had been tending to it all the time. It gave her peace and purpose. It also was distraction. And she needed it.

Roses can grow wild easily. She had planted them with Azhar and they had scouted them across many plant stores. Finally they had gotten the black ones and the exotic red ones, both not indigenous varieties.

She was plucking and pruning them since morning. The sun had finally set in a low enough position that she wasn’t sweating as much and there was a cooler breeze blowing.

Her mind kept switching to Azhar’s disposition changing since the accident. True that he was always temperamental around her but he wasn’t temperamental otherwise. He didn’t like her, likely because of her relationship with Bilal but overall he was a very happy person.

He had kissed her just because of one nice thing that she had said about Tanya. He had also cursed and raged at her when she had refused to advocate for him in Tanya’s case.

Could I win him over if I bring her here, she asked herself. Would the sacrifice of her pride and reservation about Tanya worth it ultimately?

If I get my son’s love, she thought, then it’s all worth it.

But it sounds like she has said no, she pondered another boggling aspect. How can we change it to a yes?

May be Bilal would know how to convince her. She thought to herself.

She spent the entire time tending to her plants that morning. Plants gave her pleasure and clarity. When things were dark she had found her escape in them.

“What the hell are these pots doing in the room?” Sabir’s sadistic voice came raging back.

“I thought they’d liven it all up. I don’t like how you’ve painted all this furniture white”.

“Hmph”, he snorted, “You’re here to suck the air out of the room. No plants can bring life in this room”.

She ignored him and continued tending to them.

“Get these out of here”, he yelled and started slamming the pots against the wall, soil and dirt everywhere, the chips of the pots landed on the furniture and her clothes and many shards of her glass pots ended up in her hair.

“Sabir!” She yelled, “Look what you did. They’re all broken and just look at the mess”.

She bent down to pick up the plants to replant them when the familiar kick in the side came. And the cursing. And the swearing.

She continued to pick up the plants and the broken pieces of the pots stubbornly and he kept kicking her.

Six hours later she was taken to the hospital for hemorrhage from her vagina. She didn’t know she was pregnant. She lost the baby.

Past! Some women probably had memories of love and youth and beauty. And some nurture wounds and gashes. She sighed.

I’ve come a long way, she thought with renewed vigor, I need to stop thinking about all this. It doesn’t help.

Azhar is my worry. He needs me. I’ll just have to focus on him.

She saw Bilal bringing Hamza into the garden and the sight of them was enough to push her deeper into her darkness.

Bilal smiled at her, and prompted Hamza to say hi.

“Bilal! Don’t you think it’s not fair for Maha to expect Azhar to watch Hamza all day?”

This was news to him but he knew Maha was a magnificent specimen when it came to procrastination and laziness so remained quiet.

“It’s like she doesn’t care”, Nighat continued, “You know giving birth to a child is very easy but raising one is a totally different deal. I’m sure you realize that”.

He wanted to say something biting and sarcastic but chose silence again.

“It’s terrible”, she declared, “That the whole time Azhar was in the hospital she neglected this house. She doesn’t own it. If I didn’t tell her everyday…..”

“Hold on”, he finally said, “Maha neglected this household?”

“Do you not agree with that?”

He shook his head at his mom’s judgmental tirade and said,

“I think she did a wonderful job of making sure that we were all fed at all times, our clothes were laundered, the home was clean, Hamza didn’t miss his milestones and Azhar was visited by her three to four times a week. If I were to be fair, Ami, she came through. She really did. And she continues to. If Azhar isn’t complaining then I can’t waste my time listening to you complaining about something that doesn’t even exist”.

“I’m not complaining”, she raged, “How dare you speak to me like that? If Maha is so efficient and valuable, then why does she need so much help? I had four kids when I was half her age and was never offered any help”.

“Well”, he said, more gently as he heard his mother’s old life always shadowing her present, “Do you want me to be like him? He didn’t do right by you. You needed help. A lot of it. He didn’t help you or get you help. But we can’t call ourselves good people if we don’t stop the cycle of pain. Maha loves you. In fact,” he laughed pleasantly, “She loves you more than she even loves me “.

Nighat’s eyes were dead with shadows of a dark past. She wanted to ask Bilal what he remembered. She wanted to reminisce the past with someone. Someone who wouldn’t think she was crazy.

“Nighat! What’s this? Your whole body is black and blue. There are finger fractures and toe fractures that you won’t see the doctor for. What’s going on?”

“Ami! Doctors ask many questions”, young Nighat said, looking at how her fingers had been rapidly deforming because of incessant physical torture.

Her mother sighed.

“May be see what makes him angry. There must be something”.

“I don’t know, Ami, it’s really not one thing. He asked me to make chicken. I did. Then he wanted salad. So I made salad. Then he asked for something else. I made that. This is how I spent the whole evening yesterday. And he ate outside and I went to bed hungry, I was so tired”.

“You’re so stupid”, her mother exclaimed, “you cooked so much then why didn’t you eat?”

“I was tired so I decided to dream of food”, she said laughing.

“Silly girl”, her mother said affectionately, “It’s okay. You’re my best girl. You’ll always be okay. Just keep pleasing him. He’ll turn around”.

A month later she conceived Bilal as a result of the worst night in her life.

“Ami”, she heard him calling her and shuddered, suddenly repulsed at his presence.

“What?” She said shortly.

“We need to bring you back to the doctor. Your fingers look like they’re swollen again”.

The doctor’s words came back,

“I looked at your X-rays and I’ve never seen such deformities with lupus. They look like badly healed fractures. Who told you you have lupus?”

No one, she thought to herself, no one told me I have lupus. My mother-in-law had lupus and so my husband thought it was the best cover story for broken bones and frequent bruising.

She looked at him, the only keeper of her secret,

“I’m okay, son”, she said, gently holding a branch in her hands and examining its straight contours against her distorted fingers, “Lupus is a bad illness to have”.

CHAPTER 94:

Feeding tube decisions are not easy. When to put them in is an easy one compared to the vague parameters that physicians have to follow for when to get them out.

Even though Azhar was rehabilitating very well, his cervical injury and having the tube in his throat had affected his swallowing and speaking a good amount. He had to be careful about how much and what texture he could eat and he was now eating almost all textures with great success. The occasional choking spells that he got were better controlled and his voice had come back completely.

But even though he was eating more, he wasn’t eating well. He had periods of depression when he didn’t eat and even though had been started on antidepressants, the success of them with food wasn’t great. He also had started to show signs of slightly euphoric and manic behavior at times that would become concerning when he wouldn’t sleep for days on end or stay up for most of the night feverishly working on self-assigned projects that were without a reason.

He had had a period of such rapid recovery that any slowing down of the process caused him to have major setbacks in terms of mood. He would either become overly optimistic or would shut himself up for days in his room. Only Bilal had access to him at all times.

For the first time, their roles reversed. Bilal became his caregiver and trouble shooter. He became the listener and the solver. Azhar, who didn’t like to depend, depended shamelessly on Bilal.

They would go for walks and drives, stop at the beach and talk for hours.

It’s almost like, Bilal thought, nothing happened ever and we are back in school. Just two brothers who are best friends.

Occasionally Maha and Hamza came with them too. Azhar seemed to enjoy Maha’s company a lot who could be very feisty and had recently found a new love for interior decoration. She was always talking about doing a face lift for the house and even though the three of them knew that Ami would burn the house down before letting Maha make any alterations to it, it was nice to talk nonstop about Azhar and Maha’s passion for interiors.

But there were dark times too. When he wouldn’t get out of bed for days, snarl at every mention of going out and ate in his room. In one nasty rage he tore down the wall paper from his bathroom walls. The next day he was euphoric again and spent three days working incessantly on the walls and fixed the wallpaper.

Nighat watched him silently. He was alive and she was grateful. But he had lost his second job since coming out from the hospital due to not being able to meet deadlines and absent days. He was spiraling fast and even though some days were good in a row, most days were black as the night.

She wondered what would distract him. Sure Tanya would but she didn’t want to approach Tanya and make her feel like she had a shot with Azhar. She contemplated sending him to Islamabad to her brothers. He had always had friends in his cousins and enjoyed them a lot. When she mentioned it to him, he gave her a scalding look and made her scared of ever bringing it up again.

She tried to talk to Bilal about what could be done for Azhar and he immediately recommended Tanya. So she didn’t talk to him again.

He watched the waves crashing into the shore while he thought of his meaningless life. His second job had sent him a letter terminating him with a handsome severance pay. He could feel the benevolence but appreciated the money. Abu had been forcing him to join their business and he had been stalling but he also hated feeling useless.

“Do you think I should come to work with you and Abu?” He asked Bilal sitting next to him.

“Only if you want to”, Bilal said carelessly.

“The money wouldn’t feel bad”, he laughed bitterly.

“Yes. If you want money then working under Abu’s dictatorship is worth it”, he laughed.

“Bilal!” He asked seriously, “You don’t like Abu, do you?”

“No”, he answered truthfully.

“Is he worse than Ami?” He asked curiously.

Azhar had relied on his judgment and discretion so seldom that this felt unreal but he decided to give an honest answer.

“Azhar! Your experiences with Ami are because of me. Ami has never been unfair to you. To me? Yes she has been and continues to be. But she loves you and may be she loves me too. May be she can’t express it. But Abu! He’s not only worse than Ami but I believe he has created Ami into the person that she is today. It’s like a bad experiment gone wrong. He has lost control of the prototype that he was working on and now his programmed machine is just wreaking havoc without a clue. Ami has learned from him that manipulation and bullying and coldness and blackmail work. So that’s how she works now”.

“Come on, man!” Azhar said, always critical of Ami, “I have seen Abu cower under her gaze. He pees his pants when she’s around”.

Bilal laughed. He always enjoyed Azhar’s not-so-astute observations of his dad and wondered how he could be so judgmental of Ami but completely didn’t get Abu’s narcissism.

“He puts up a good front. He realizes she is stronger than she was before. I’ve seen him at work, man! I’ve seen him asking pregnant women especially to do the heavy work. Things are better since I took over but if we were somewhere else, he would’ve been in jail for harassment. His employees hate him”.

“I know he’s a closeted monster”, Azhar scoffed, “It probably takes a nasty person to be married to Ami. She’s a little dragon herself but Abu can’t be worse. I can’t accept that”.

Bilal looked at his gorgeous brother, tan without trying, haughty without arrogance, straightforward and trusting, whose childhood was spared because he spent a lot of time at their grandparents’ place for the first ten years of his life and because their father didn’t show his monstrous side in Azhar’s presence.

“Ami”, he said finally, “Is a victim in many ways. Abu runs a tight ship. I don’t want to say anything that I don’t know firsthand but if I were to guess, they probably have very different roles in private. He just likes it that people pity him and give him the benefit of the doubt”.

Azhar was quiet. He wanted to ask Bilal how he knew so much but didn’t want to. He had seen Ami torturing him with sticks. Azhar remembered that when he came back from one of his trips from Islamabad he had found Bilal sleeping on the kitchen floor, cold and blue. Ami had kicked him out of the room.

“Do you know why she hates you so much?” He asked Bilal.

“No”, he said, his eyes distant, no memory of any torture to himself as anguishing as the memory of his mother’s tears as she cried after brutal beating.

CHAPTER 95:

Azhar’s rages were well-known but the moods that he got into now were becoming something of a legend. He had thrown his laptop across the room when Ami dared to clean his room and cursed at her. He even yelled at Bilal when he asked him to tone it down and then locked himself up in his room for two days.

He didn’t have a phone with him and had no contact with the outside world. Bilal knocked several times but he didn’t open. He spoke briefly through the door about how he wanted to be left alone and so he was left alone.

Two days later, hunger took over and he came out to eat. Bilal was sitting in the family room and took the opportunity to grab him and beg,

“Please let’s go out and eat”, he said.

They had left his feeding tube in that Bilal knew was costing Azhar a lot of peace. He viewed the tube as a reminder of his sick days and that didn’t do well for his mental health.

Azhar reluctantly agreed. They got in the car and Azhar pulled down the window. One of his favorite activities of all time was enjoying Bilal’s driving.

“Billu! Have you ever wondered how we have so many friends who are now married with kids? I didn’t even realize that slowly we were all becoming adults”.

“Man! Some of them are having too many kids to be called adults. It’s like all they do is screw”.

Azhar laughed.

“How’s screwing? Is it good?”

“Have some fear of God, ass hole! Besides, Maha will kill me for discussing it with you. According to her, it’s sacred”, Bilal imitated her.

Azhar laughed.

“It is sacred. I was joking. I always thought you’d be the first between us to have sex anyway. Now you can give me the tutorial”.

Bilal asked cautiously,

“Don’t blow up but what’s going on with you and Tanya?”

“She texted me yesterday”, Azhar said, “Said a few rote, formal things and that’s it”.

They were quiet for many minutes.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure”, he said easily.

“Do you ever miss the girl you wanted to have for a wife? Or are you over her?”

Do I miss her? He regarded the question. Missing her is so hard when she’s always with me. Her essence doesn’t leave and so I can’t miss her. But if missing her means if I miss her in my arms, laughing without a care in the world, then yes, I miss her. That I can’t get ever again.

“So you miss her”, Azhar concluded. “Was she very good looking?”

“Why’re you asking now?” Bilal laughed. “You didn’t before”.

“I’m not asking now to know if she was good. Or why you loved her. Or what made the two of you think that you should spend a lifetime together. You mentioned Tanya and I felt that I can understand you more now since I’ve met Tanya. That’s all. Anyone you choose would be awesome. Do you remember Sheena?”

“Oh please”, Bilal said with mock repulsion, “She was scary”.

“And needy”, Azhar laughed, “Azhar! Please ask Bilal if we are forever”, he imitated Sheena’s high-pitched voice.

Bilal snorted.

“I don’t get”, he said after laughing for many minutes, “How she and Naveed ended up together!”.

“You broke her heart, man”, Azhar said, laughing hysterically, “She was nuts about you”.

“Oh my God”, Bilal laughed more trying to catch his breath, “Do you remember all the friends she tried to hook up with you because I brought you to all the dates and she wanted to be alone with me and so brought a date with her every single time?”

“I remember”, Azhar said, rolling on the beach, “One of the friends offered me weed”.

This was news to Bilal who immediately sat up and stared at Azhar.

“No way! Really?”

“Really, man! I took a drag and it was nauseating. Never again!”

“Man, man!” Bilal said, excitedly trying to get something off of his chest also, “Sheena gave me weed too. Like she’d force it on me. Oh boy! Do you think those girls were dealers?”

“Nah”, Azhar said with a wave of his hand, his thick black hair all over, “They were just stupid girls who made friends with everyone”.

“Well they were stupid, that’s for sure”, Bilal agreed. “Remember when they wouldn’t sit in my car because I could kiss them forcibly. There were four of them and this was their excuse to stay back at Damascus at two in the morning”.

“They probably knew how virile you are”, Azhar said, winking at him.

“No”, Bilal said, “they were waiting for someone. May be the guy who supplied weed”.

Azhar laughed. Bilal’s imagination ran wild often and it was always good to hear him relay his more than a dozen flings from the past.

“Does Maha know of all the ladies?” He finally asked.

“If Maha ever found out, she’ll personally hunt them down and put money on their heads”.

Azhar snorted. “No! Maha is very sweet. Don’t say that”.

“You don’t know her, man”, Bilal said with a shudder, “And she spends a lot of time with our head dictator AKA Ami. Trust me, she’s going to have a ceremony to swear allegiance to Ami one of these days”.

“She does spend a lot of time with Ami”, Azhar observed, “do you think Ami likes her because secretly Ami wished she had a daughter?”

“May be”, Bilal said noncommittally.

They sat on the beach for hours, talking, remarking on the quality of beach beauties which, according to Azhar, had certainly taken a dive and no girl was as pretty as millennial girls.

As they talked they saw a familiar shape rising against the horizon.

It was a slim woman with hair that was wild like the ocean behind her. She looked like she had taken a dip in her shalwar kameez and now had her body shivering slightly while her clothes breathed again.

The brothers were spell bound like they were both entranced by a sorceress. It was Tanya!

CHAPTER 96:

She came running to the beach and picked up a towel to dry herself off. She was barefoot and casually flicking her hair in an attempt to dry it. Water was all over and some drops landed on Azhar and woke him up,

“Tanya!”

She turned and stared at the two brothers in amazement. She finally started walking towards them, a glimmer of a smile on her face, her shadow falling behind her.

“What are you guys doing here?” She asked happily when she got closer.

“We should be asking you that. What are you doing like a movie star drenching yourself in water and rising like a mermaid? Aren’t you afraid we will have dirty thoughts?” Azhar’s flippancy had really no bounds.

She smiled sheepishly as her eyes met Bilal’s.

This beach had so many secrets of their past. Every rock had hidden their salacious moments in hopes of revealing them one day when they got together eventually. But it was sad that their secrets remained secrets. Hidden and buried.

“Well”, she said wisely, “I can’t control your dirty thoughts anyway so why stop living my life?”

“That’s my girl”, Azhar said excitedly, grabbing her arm and pulling her over, “Come sit with us and then eat with us too”.

“Where will I go like this to eat?”

“We can have a beach picnic”, he said immediately.

“Where’s the food?” She asked, amused at his readiness with ideas.

“We will get it”, he said pompously.

“From where ?” She asked curiously.

“From where she asks!” He looked at Bilal with a pained expression. “Can you enlighten this dumb doctor what our exclusive expertise is, Bilal?”

Bilal didn’t say anything. He was always caught off guard with her presence and since they had broken up, she had started to have the same effect on him that she had almost four years ago at a blind date for two of their friends.

She was the prettiest girl in the room, somewhat aloof and studious looking. She looked out of place, a deer in headlights. They were about eight or nine friends and she was best friends with the girl who was being set up with his friend.

She was awfully quiet but before the night ended they had bonded over her real and his fake interest in music.

They exchanged phone numbers and the same night they spoke for five hours on the phone, breaking for Fajr and then resuming their conversation until it was time for her to go to school. They met later that day and knew they were meant to be together.

How did we have that connection, she thought looking at him, why doesn’t anyone else affect me the same way?

She tried to see other men and ignite an interest for them but the heart wants what the heart wants and her heart wanted Bilal.

“Our expertise is food”, Bilal said, distractedly.

“Therefore “, Azhar said finishing his sentence, “We will get it”.

“I’ll get it”, Bilal said getting up, unable to take his eyes off her and watching her blush repeatedly under his gaze, “There’s a fabulous cheese burger joint not far from here”.

He hastily got up and left after brushing his pants a few times.

“How’ve you been, Azhar?” She asked, thinking how the whole world looked useless without Bilal.

“I’ve been okay but I’ve been better. Makes sense?”

“Perfectly”.

They sat in silence.

“Tell me what you do all day besides listening to music.”

“Actually”, she hesitated, “I’m teaching”.

“Oh really? Medical students?”

“No. Elementary school kids”.

“Huh?”

She laughed at the expression on his face.

“My mom wants me to get married to a man of her choice so I bargained for this. She lets me teach for a year and I marry whoever she finds for me”.

“You’re letting off your mom easy”, he joked. “Make her regret bargaining with you”.

“Spoken like a true businessman’s son and brother”.

Silence.

“Can you see yourself getting married through an arranged process?” He asked.

“Why not?” She smiled. “The rest of Pakistan can therefore I can too”.

“Hmm”.

“So what’s an arranged marriage?” He asked again. “A guy proposes directly to the girl’s mother and she decides, right?”

She knew the direction this was going in and hated that if Bilal hadn’t been there a few minutes ago, she might have bantered with Azhar without feeling guilty.

He shadows everything, she thought miserably.

“Something like that”, she answered briefly.

“So if a guy approached your mom, would you object to who that guy is if your mom says yes?”

“Azhar! Please. Our friendship always takes a bad turn when this happens”.

“Please, Tanya! I’m just asking a simple question. Is that something that might happen?”.

“I won’t answer”.

“Why?”

“Because you said yourself that I shouldn’t lead you on”.

“It’s okay. I’m okay with being led on and then dumped”.

“Oh boy!”

They laughed together. Soon Bilal was back.

For two hours they were transported to the time during Azhar’s hospital stay when they hung out together all the time and cracked jokes, picked on each other and truly looked forward to their friendship.

“Gentlemen! I gotta go. As a young and eligible Pakistani girl, I have spent way too much time with two men of suspect character”.

“Speak for yourself”, Bilal said, his mouth full, “Only women are bad in Pakistan. Men are pious and virtuous and holy and……”

“Sexy”, Azhar supplied.

“And sexy”, Bilal agreed.

“And horny”, Azhar continued.

“That too”, Bilal nodded.

“And the best”, Azhar didn’t stop.

“Absolutely the very best”, Bilal echoed.

“Gosh! You guys are quite the double act. Don’t you two get tired of each other?” She said, a little irritated at how amazing their sibling connection was.

“Listen!” Azhar said matter-of-factly, “I taught him how to eat and live and breathe and chase girls and put a condom on right……”

“Okay I’m out”, she said, laughing and covering her ears and running back to her car, “when Azhar starts talking smack, the show is over”.

CHAPTER 97:

Azhar’s mood definitely took an upswing after their chance meeting with Tanya. He started spending time with Hamza again and also was actively looking for a job.

Bilal noticed his change. Azhar had filled him in on his conversation with Tanya on their way back from home and he felt a lot of hope in Azhar. It was heart warming to see him singing loudly, teasing Maha, playing cricket with Hashir and Aman even though he preferred to just be the batsman.

He also noticed Tanya haunting his own thoughts more again. She is a bad one, he thought angrily, always springing up in odd places and making us crazy.

He knew Nighat would be the first to notice Azhar’s upbeat mood and sure enough, she stopped him one morning on the way to work and casually said,

“Azhar has definitely improved a lot. He is eating more, walking more, spending time with you more. What gives?”

“You’re very astute”, he said, hoping she’ll catch the sarcasm.

“I am, son, just an occupational hazard of being a parent. Vigilance is always needed. I was wondering if you and Azhar would come to a little party at Nanajan’s place tomorrow. Just you two.” She ended abruptly and left.

Wondering why Nanajan was giving a party he left.

He texted Arsalan on the way to work,

“Hey! Heard there’s a party tomorrow?”

“Yup! Wear your best-man suit. A girl is coming tomorrow for Azhar”.

“What do you mean?”

“Nighat is having Azhar meet Nina here tomorrow”.

“Does Azhar know?”

“No and he can’t”.

“He’ll blow his lid but that would be good for you two meddlers. Why do you guys want to force him into something?”

“Ask your mom. I have met Nina. She’s great”.

“Better than Tanya?”

“No”.

He smiled at how straightforward his grandfather was.

They reached Arsalan’s magnificent place precisely at 6 o’clock.

Nighat, looking quite regal herself in a bottle green chiffon outfit with real pearls around her neck immediately rushed into the kitchen to make sure everything was ready.

Azhar hadn’t dressed very carefully. Bilal could tell that Azhar’s typical carelessness regarding dressing had crossed over to shabbiness and he deliberately didn’t shave for days. He wondered if Azhar was becoming depressed again because of almost no movement forward with Tanya.

He knew Azhar had developed a self-consciousness about his limp. That and the fact that his feeding tube was still in, though rarely used, was enough to make him sulk and brood at odd times. Today was that odd time that Azhar Hussain chose to be grumpy.

Arsalan could always sense his two favorite grand kids’ mood. He walked over to them and could tell that Azhar had watched him walking with ease and grace and that weighed heavily on him.

“What’s up, guys?” He slapped Bilal’s back. “You two are the two best looking men this family ever produced”.

“We know”, Bilal said, thinking how good looking Arsalan himself was.

“Nanajan!” He said, mock serious, “I know you think you’re very young but this color”, he pointed to his navy blue shirt, “is for a slightly younger crowd”.

Azhar didn’t engage. His face had the same brooding look that he had worn for the most time at the hospital unless Tanya was around. That was the only time he was really happy.

The guests came shortly afterwards. Bilal noticed a girl, quite pretty with straight long hair and an intelligent face walking in with them. She came over to Arsalan and he greeted her deferentially as she joked with him about how they lived on the other side of town.

“Azhar! Bilal! Come over”, Nighat called. Bilal started and then noticed that Azhar was rooted to the spot. He grabbed his arm and made to move but Azhar was like a rock. He refused to move.

Everyone was looking at them. The girl was looking at Azhar with brazen interest and almost sizing him up. Azhar didn’t make eye contact with anyone.

They walked to the living room and Azhar stayed in the garden. He sat down. Sometimes life was so hard for him that death seemed easier. He didn’t want to walk in front of them. He had a very prominent limp and he had become strangely self-conscious about his weight loss. He sat in a lawn chair and waited for this stupid party to end. He had seen the girl and knew what Ami wanted. Always trying to pair everyone up, he thought angrily, she should just get Hashir married now to get over her obsession.

Nina came out in the garden and smiled at him. She looked just a tiny bit like Tanya. Except Tanya was shorter. Much shorter. And lovely. Much much lovelier.

He watched her as Nina came forward to him. She put her hand out,

“Hi, I’m Nina”.

He stared at her hand. Tanya never introduced herself to me, he thought with amusement, I’ll ask her to do this exercise with me.

“You’re Azhar, I know”, she smiled politely at his rudeness.

Then why’re you asking, he seethed, are you so stupid that you don’t get that I’m not interested?

“Can I sit here?” She asked.

He shrugged his shoulders and looked straight ahead, willing himself to speak with her.

He finally felt bad.

“I’m sorry! My head is hurting”.

“Don’t apologize!” She said softly, “I don’t like to impose myself on people but they want us to talk”.

“Yeah sure”.

Somehow they started talking and even though he was thinking about Tanya often, he enjoyed talking to another smart woman. She had huge aspirations to revolutionize online marketing and even though most of her ideas were overzealous, he was hugely impressed.

“Come on, guys”, Arsalan called. “Time to eat”.

They got up and started walking. Nina looked at him strangely for a brief fleeting second, then smiled and walked inside.

Her fleeting look said it all. He could see the repulsion, the surprise, the anger at her time being wasted. He flushed but kept walking.

She walked more briskly than needed and finally sat in a chair on the humongous dining table that was as far from him as could be.

He couldn’t eat. Humiliation and misery took him over. Even before Nighat and Bilal had finished eating he texted Bilal that he wanted to leave.

Bilal looked up at him surprised. He could tell something was up. He excused himself,

“Ami! Can I speak with you?”

“Sure”, she said, bewildered.

As soon as they were out of the room he said,

“Ami, let’s go. Azhar isn’t feeling well”.

“Why? What happened?”

“I don’t know but I feel a storm coming on. He hasn’t been well and this is too much for him.”

“How can we…”

“Ami!” He almost screamed. “Get him out of here”.

She hurried in, made a lame excuse and pretended to request Azhar to leave.

Azhar didn’t make any show of anything though. He pushed his chair back rudely, dragging it all the way to the wall, rose up to his full height in one fluid graceful motion and limped out without saying goodbye.

They got in the car. Azhar sat with Bilal in the front.

“What happened?” Nighat said, feeling robbed of a perfect girl for Azhar and wondering if they’d ever be interested again.

“Nothing”, Azhar snarled.

Bilal kept driving.

“Nothing? Then why aren’t we at the dinner table with them right now?”

“Why did you ask them to come over?” He asked nastily again.

“I wanted you to see Nina”.

“Why? Am I a lab specimen?”

“Don’t be silly. To marry you”.

“Ami!” He screamed, “Don’t parade me in front of people when I can’t even parade that well. She saw me walking and she rejected me. I could tell. She had so much pity for me”.

“So what do you want to do?” Nighat screamed, scared at her own loss of control, “Stay alone your whole life? Wallow in this puddle of misery that you’ve created?”

“I’ve created it? Do you think I ran into that truck? Do you think I like this? Ami! Look at me! I’ve lost sixty pounds and I can’t gain even though I’m still tube-fed for calories. I look like a corpse. I can’t walk properly, let alone run. I’ve lost two inches of my height because of the surgeries on my spine. You don’t pity me? How can you not? She had pity written all over her. Why did you do this, Ami? You hated Bilal and tortured him his whole life and now you hate me too?” He screamed so loudly that momentarily the sound of the traffic around them was drowned.

He cried bitterly. Nighat grabbed his left shoulder from the back. He looked at her, shocked by the sheer force of her grip,

“I can never hate you. You hate me. You have nothing nice ever to say about me. If it costs me my life to get you the life that you want, I’ll give up my life. And Bilal will too. We will die for you. And I will die if you continue being so hopeless. I’ll die, Azhar”.

“Then die,” he said, putting his head on the headrest and watching the traffic outside with his gray eyes glittering like fireflies, “Just die now, Ami, because I’m going to kill myself”.

“Azhar”, she sobbed, “Ya Allah! Please give my child health”.

“Allah hates us, Ami!” He said bitterly. “Allah hates us for our sins”.

She sobbed silently.

They got home.

Bilal wanted to go in his room with him but Azhar stopped him.

“Go to sleep”, he said wearily, “you have work tomorrow”.

He knew this was Azhar’s way of dismissing him.

Azhar entered his room. This room was haunted with his demons and the last thing he wanted to do was sit here and count the misfortunes that life had unleashed on him.

He texted,

“Can I see you and cry a little?”

“Anytime”.

“When?”

“Where?”

“My place”.

“I’ll be there”.

Twenty minutes later Tanya picked him up from his driveway. They sped off to the beach.

CHAPTER 98:

Azhar didn’t want to get out of the car so they sat and listened to the waves.

She had seen this side of him. Dejected, forlorn, morose and deadly. His eyes sparkled dangerously and his mouth was a thin line.

After sitting silently for fifteen minutes she asked timidly,

“What happened, Azhar? Did you have a fight with your mom?”

He didn’t say anything. Just shook his head.

She became silent again. It was eight o’clock and the Karachi traffic was still at its peak, blaring around them.

“Tanya!”

“Hmm”.

“Do you sometimes miss the old Azhar?”

“The old Azhar? Who’s that?”

“You know the Azhar who could walk properly without a limp. Who ate normally. Who was so good looking. Who was so funny”.

She looked at her best friend’s gaunt face, a shadow of his former self.

“I have him so why would I miss him?” She said gently.

He was quiet. He knew he could cry but somehow crying with Tanya wasn’t a scary thought.

“Azhar”, she tipped his chin to face her and saw that his eyes were red.

“Don’t cry”, she said, her voice choking, “Don’t EVER cry. You’ll have to listen to a truth today. Don’t call it a platitude because it’s not. You’re worth a hundred men. A hundred men. Do you hear me?” Her voice cracked.

Azhar’s tears came freely. His head fell on her chest and she heard his sobs.

Crying with her is so different, he thought, it doesn’t feel weak or cowardly. It’s like I’m with my best friend who won’t judge.

She put her arms around him.

“What happened? Did someone say something?”.

“Another time”, he said, lifting his head from her chest. “Not today”.

He saw her face up close. They hadn’t ever been this close. Sometimes her body brushed against him during therapy sessions at the hospital but the pain that consumed him then usually didn’t let anything else register. But today he saw her black eyes with the bluest background, her small nose, a few scattered light freckles and her soft mouth.

Before he knew it his lips had found hers. Tanya resisted for a second but then surrendered. He drew her closer, still so much stronger than her. She came forward more willingly than he had expected. Her mouth was soft against his urgency. Slowly she freed her mouth but didn’t pull back. Her hands went underneath his shirt. His body was on fire again and all he wanted was to take her mouth again and forget about everything else.

Her hands slid up his shirt and found his feeding tube. She caressed it for a few seconds, looking into his eyes which was a big thing because usually eye contact was so difficult for her.

“Never let anyone make you feel less than, okay?” She said, her lips brushing against his.

“I don’t worry about this”, he meant his feeding tube. “But people can see when I walk and it’s not like I used to walk before”.

“You’re alive and that’s all that matters”, her breath fogged his vision, “I don’t know what I would’ve done if life took you from me”.

He reached over and pulled her into his lap. She laughed softly, buried her head in his shoulder and kissed his neck.

He left his arms around her. Tanya was finally in his arms. Now he could change everything.

CHAPTER 99:

“Bilal! Bilal!” He ran as fast as he could to his brother’s room two hours later calling his name out loudly.

Bilal came out immediately. He saw Azhar beaming and was relieved.

“We kissed”, Azhar whispered, unable to contain himself. “Tanya and I kissed. Many times. Many, many times. Gosh! Can you tell how happy I am!”

He stared at Azhar, wondering what he should feel. Happy that his brother who was suicidal a few hours ago was euphoric now? Or sad at the loss of love and the ongoing loss of it everyday?

“That’s great, man”, he said, while giving him a high-five, “That’s just awesome. Did she say yes?”

“I didn’t ask. But I don’t want to ask just now. This is a good thing. I don’t want to spoil it”.

Yes don’t spoil it, he said silently, don’t spoil it, Azhar, because it really is a delicate thing.

“Okay”, Azhar said running his hand through his hair remembering hers in it a few hours ago, “I’ll just go stay awake for the rest of the night”.

He flashed the goofiest of grins and walked to his room, his limp mysteriously so much less.

I’ll stay awake too, Bilal thought, looking at his brother’s retreating back, it’s not easy to stay awake and knowing that the person you love is finally moving on.

But she should move on, his mind said, she can’t stay stuck on you forever.

Yes, his conscience answered, she should and it wasn’t healthy for her to not have anyone.

But, the heart whispered, sometimes I wish that all these other people disappeared just to make room for me and her and our love.

His room looked uninviting and Maha’s presence didn’t help.

He sat on the edge of the bed and wondered how many times this was going to happen all over again.

“Hey”, Maha said, waking up and scooting over to him. “What happened?”

“Nothing”, he said a little annoyed at not being able to have any private moments.

She kissed him lightly on his cheek and said,

“Come on! Sleep now! You have a bad habit of staying up at night”.

“It’s not a habit”, he said patiently, secretly wanting to tell her off for persisting, “It’s a disease”.

“Hmm”, she pondered his answer and appeared to have woken up completely now. She looked hard at him and then said,

“Would having sex help? Sometimes it helps with sleep”.

Sometimes people like Maha are a breath of fresh air, he thought affectionately looking at his young and simple wife, they just live a straightforward life and have simplistic answers to everything.

“Yes sex might help”, he said, smiling, amused at her reasoning, “If you’re in the mood”,

“I’m awake”, she said, matter-of-factly, “might as well”.

He laughed as she came over to kiss him. Tanya, he thought before giving himself up to his wife, you deserve someone better. Someone whose wife doesn’t have to use sexual suggestions in order to get in bed with him. Look at Maha, I ruined her life too.

“Can I ask you something, Maha?” He asked as she unbuttoned his shirt.

“Later”, she said huskily, marveling at how good looking her husband was.

He flipped her over and got on top of her, laughing as she pushed him away,

“Listen”, he said urgently, “It’s important”.

“What is it?” She said, hating that something more important than her was dominating this moment.

“You loved someone, right? You told me. Do you miss him?”

“Gosh! You really know how to get a girl in the mood”, she said rolling her eyes.

“I’ll get this girl in the mood”, he laughed at her impatience and a rare sexual urge, “But answer my question first”.

“I used to”, she admitted honestly, “But since Hamza I love my family”.

Suddenly the energy between them changed. How did she know the right thing to say? He stared at her in awe, wondering if a part of him was even thankful for having Maha if he couldn’t get Tanya. She started out as a distraction and now resembled a friend at times.

“I love my family too”, he nuzzled her neck, nibbling down her throat and letting her run her hands in his hair. “I really love my family, Maha!”

CHAPTER 100:

“Can I see you again?” He typed.

“We just met four hours ago”, she typed back.

“I wanna see you again”.

“I have to go to Park Towers to return an outfit in an hour. Wanna meet up there?”

“I love you, Tanya”.

“I’ll see you in an hour”.

They hadn’t kissed after that first kiss but had discussed the possibility of a future together. He noticed that she didn’t say that she loved him too and he knew that may be she didn’t love him like he loved her but knowing that he was closer to her than before was enough. One of these days, he’d think, I’ll propose and won’t take a no.

He had gained weight rapidly, much to the delight of his obsessing mother and brother. Only Bilal knew how he had changed so dramatically. Nighat could only guess.

He had also been working harder at therapy sessions. Tanya was coming to most of them now. She felt a distant kinship with him that didn’t have to do anything with their pre-existing friendship. His sobs had reminded her of her pain and how loss devastates.

Do I love him, she’d ask herself in honest moments, when she just had gotten up from the prayer mat, watching the sun go up. May be I don’t love him like he loves me but I love Azhar, like he’s my family.

She reached Park Towers and texted him asking if he was there. Then told him that he could find her in FNKAsia.

He watched her from the door of the store, picking up and rejecting outfits. She was wearing an all-white shalwar kameez and looked virginal. For some reason she had started to dress more carefully and had taken to adorning her hair or accessorizing her outfits. He watched as her dangling earrings caught the light and winked at him.

He leaned against the wall, watching her, imagining a life with her. How cool would it be to wake up next to her, eat with her everyday, fight with her over the TV remote! How amazing would it be to parent kids with her! He smiled as she went through aisles of carefully sorted outfits and looked disapprovingly at some louder outfits, her tiny nose turning.

She suddenly saw him from across the store. The world stopped and she stared at him, her silence as usual so much wordier than the conversations they had. She watched him watching her and then blushed, averted her eyes, took her phone out and texted,

“If you’re done watching me struggle with millennial dress choices, would you mind coming forward and helping out?”

His phone beeped and a slow grin spread on his face. He looked at her and she raised her eyebrows and pointed at a spot in space next to her, indicating that it was for him.

He walked forward, painfully aware that his gait wasn’t the light, bouncy gait of lovers where every step has the spring of vitality in it. Somehow this thought became overwhelming as he approached the perfect girl in the whole world. He wanted to turn back and leave. He wanted to get lost in oblivion again.

Something in his face must have shown because as soon as he got to her, she held his hand. Physical affection wasn’t Tanya’s strongest suit and she rarely engaged in it but today she did. She held his hand in her warm hand and rubbed his knuckles trying to infuse some life in him. He smiled but his smile didn’t make her smile. She got serious, with a face that mirrored his pain.

“Azhar!” She said coming closer to him until their bodies touched. He looked around and saw the store buzzing with people, some too busy to notice but some definitely eyeing the odd pair with interest.

“Sometimes it’s a lot, Tanya”, his familiar despondency threatened to take over, “What are we doing and why? I don’t deserve you”.

She continued to hold his hand. He noticed her earrings were the traditional jhumka, a type of metallic jewelry that looks a lot like a chandelier and can be heavy or light. Hers were of a lighter variety and complimented her oval face immensely.

He touched one of them,

“Do you like jewelry”? He asked.

“I do now”, she said simply.

“Would you like to pick out your engagement ring yourself?”

“I’m happy with whatever you choose”.

He wobbled on his bad leg, the rush of emotions was so strong. But Tanya was there. He held on to her shoulder as he steadied himself. Many feelings washed over him. Love, friendship, distance, longing, yearning, obsession and finally the compulsion to hold her.

“I had thought” he said huskily, lowering his face to hers, “When I would propose to a girl I’d pick her up and kiss her until she said yes over and over. I’d slip the ring on her, never taking my eyes off of her. We’d name that minute and that hour as ours. Just one little snapshot of our love and commitment. But nothing is happening how I always pictured it. Here we are, in this store that is a mark of consumerism and expensive things, and I’m proposing without any polite openings. Life took everything from me, Tanya, even small moments. It’s like a revenge for unknown crimes. Tears and wails aren’t enough to tell the powers that be how shortchanged I feel on every happiness”.

She listened patiently. Then said,

“We can do this another time. When you’re ready. We don’t have to name this moment anything. We don’t have to remember today. We can edit this out. We will edit everything out that we don’t like. It’s our life. We can do that, you know?”

Gratitude at having found her overwhelmed him. He pulled her in for a hug.

“I’ll do it very nicely, Tanya! Very nicely! The way you deserve it. But I’ll also do it how your mom deserves it. I’ll show her that her child is going to the man who wants her more than anything in this world”.

How did he know, she thought, her eyes getting wet. How did he know that? I never even said it.

“She’d like it, Azhar”, she said, her voice thick with tears, “She’d like it very much”.

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