All’s Fair….Part 12

CHAPTER 111:

He rolled over and made a grab for her. It felt incredibly fulfilling to have her right next to him.

She opened one eye groggily and said,

“Is it morning already?”

“We slept when it was morning already”, he said gently , scooting over to her.

She sighed as he began to kiss her.

“Azhar! We really have to stop kissing”, she said, not making any effort to withdraw from him .

“I know! It’s not good for us to kiss so much”.

“Or have sex”.

“Or have sex”, he agreed, trying to nibble down her neck and making her laugh.

He looked at her with a strange look,

“Tanya! I distinctly remember requesting you before that you shouldn’t laugh in bed with me. It makes me self-conscious”.

She laughed harder. He watched her laughing, mesmerized by the display of pure beauty in his arms.

“Okay I’ll forgive you”, he said complacently, “because you’re so cute”.

She ran her hands across his bare chest.

“Even though you’re the sexist guy I have ever seen, please wear a shirt from tonight when sleeping so you don’t catch a cold”.

“I’m naked to seduce you”. He deadpanned.

She stroked his hair. Nothing caused Azhar’s handsome face to look otherwise. Even now, at 8 in the morning, when they had barely slept for two hours, he looked like a casually dressed movie star, his hair fashionably disheveled, a light stubble on his perfect skin and his eyes with the dreamiest gray she had ever seen.

“I can’t believe you’re mine”, she said, rarely so emotional.

“Believe it”, he said, as he played with her hair.

“Azhar!” She said lovingly.

“Hmm”.

“How many kids are we going to have?”

“About ten”.

“I’m serious”.

“Okay. Eight”.

“A more realistic number please”.

“How about four?”

“That’s a good number. We are four. You guys are four.”

“But for the next whole year”, he said, savoring his beautiful wife’s virginal beauty, “We are not going to think about kids”.

“Can we think about my residency?”

“Of course”, he said, pulling the straps of her negligee down, “Think about your residency and anything that pertains to your education”.

She felt a rush of love for him. He really was a keeper.

Her hands cupped his face,

“You really know how to get a girl in the mood”.

He laughed throatily and continued making love to her.

They slept later again in each other’s arms. It was fast becoming their favorite place.

Someone knocked on the door at 11 o’clock. Tanya woke up and shook Azhar,

“Can you please get the door?”

“Who is it?” He yelled lazily.

“Breakfast is ready”, Maha announced.

“Thanks, Maha”, he said. “We’re coming”.

Azhar quickly jumped in the shower and when he came out toweling his hair he noticed that Tanya was sleeping again.

“Wake up, sleepy head!” He ruffled her hair, “I promise you I’ll get you back in this room in no time”.

She got up smiling and pulled out a light blue embroidered, very formal shalwar kameez that her mother had instructed to wear for the first day at her in-laws.

After the shower she contemplated blow drying her hair. Then she laughed at herself. Who was she kidding? Medical school doesn’t allow for such luxuries as self-grooming skills and nice dress sense. Medical school prepares only for medicine.

So she put on her blue outfit that caught light in a pleasant way, put the two rings that Azhar had given her on the ring fingers of her two hands, adorned her ears with the jewelry from the night before and after towel drying her hair, she checked her reflection in the mirror. For a minute she was stunned.

She had heard that newly weds have a glow and they emit a radiance that’s rarely found in other people. She had heard that love changed the way we look or sound or smell. She had heard many hormonal theories and believed them but never thought it would happen to her. The woman she saw in the mirror was a creation of Azhar’s love and attention. The beautiful girl that she had transformed into overnight didn’t look like this when she had walked into this room last night. He had changed her. Overnight she had morphed into Azhar’s woman.

Where was he when she needed to kiss him and touch him to believe his presence? It was all surreal and too good to be true. She feared that her eyes were going to open any minute and she’d be jolted back into a reality that she wasn’t prepared for.

She put on some light make up and stepped out. Everyone was at the table, at various stages of breakfast. She saw Azhar smiling at her. And then, just like that, without planning to, her eyes met Bilal’s. The moment came to a halt as his eyes took in her wet hair, her glowing complexion and Azhar’s warm gaze directed at her. He didn’t miss any of it.

He averted his eyes and focused on his breakfast. This was his new normal. This had to be his new normal.

He hadn’t slept the night before. He had made his peace but knew that he’d have to make it over and over. He’d have to make it everyday. He’d have to promise himself peace everyday, then have it come undone every night, then repair it back up during the day, then lament the loss of his life again at night.

Finally life had come full circle. Finally they both had found the place that the powers that be had chosen for them long before they had met each other at a blind date that wasn’t even set up for them.

CHAPTER 112:

She deposited herself in a seat next to Azhar, as far from Bilal as possible.

This was harder than she had thought, she mused.

Do I still love him? She asked her heart.

She knew a part of her was always going to belong to him. He had, after all, introduced her to love and the loss of it.

Nothing was lost on Nighat either. She watched the sparks fly and wondered if she had made a huge mistake by messing with fate and not accepting Tanya for Bilal when she had the chance. Tanya was even more dangerous as Azhar’s wife.

I didn’t escape the talons of Sabir to land into a woman’s, she thought with rising trepidation. She can take everything from me. She has already taken Azhar.

She busied herself with breakfast. Bilal was a lot easier to control and manipulate. Azhar was like wildfire. He spearheaded destruction if things didn’t go his way or if he felt that Bilal was getting the brunt of something. She could tell that his allegiance to Tanya might be the same.

They finished breakfast in a lot of silence. Azhar didn’t care. He had prepared himself for Nighat trying to orchestrate badness around him and Tanya and he really had never cared. He really danced to the beat of his own drum and took willing participants along.

“Ami”, he said, wiping his face after breakfast, “We didn’t get much sleep so I was thinking that either Tanya sleeps now or she goes to her mom’s place to get some rest. May be she could relax at her mom’s place. It’s going to be chaos here in a little bit. It’s the Valima today. We’ll just grab our stuff for tonight and see you at the venue. How does that sound?”

Nighat seethed at this elaborate plan and even though she could tell that Tanya hadn’t been a part of it, given she had a look of complete bewilderment on her face, she didn’t let the opportunity go to humiliate her some,

“I thought we’d catch up with Tanya a bit today”.

“We can catch up tomorrow or the day after or our whole lives. She looks dead on her feet.” He said, not making eye contact with her and draining a glass of water in one go.

“Get ready, tiger”, he patted Tanya’s back and went into the room to get dressed.

“I don’t understand this plan”, Nighat said, directing her disapproval at Tanya, “Did you come up with it?”

“No”, she said quietly, wondering why she was getting the heat.

“Then what interest does Azhar have in all this?” She asked her.

Tanya didn’t know what to say. She was feeling challenged and intimidated and wished Azhar hadn’t just barked orders and left.

“When I got married”, Maha chimed in annoyingly, “I went to see my parents after Valima”.

Tanya was immediately irritated by this gang attack. She wanted to smack Maha but controlled herself and said,

“I am okay with not going if that’s what you want”.

“I don’t want anything. God knows nothing’s happening like I would’ve wanted. So I don’t want you to stay and I don’t want you to go. Do what you like”.

She got up and left the table.

“Tanya”, Maha started again but Bilal took over.

“You talk a lot”, he told his wife. “I wouldn’t agree with everything that someone else says just to show my allegiance. It makes you look stupid”.

“Do you think Ami said something wrong?” She asked, her blue eyes flashing.

“I just want you to please not interfere when you have no skin in the game”. He said calmly .

“You like to advocate for everyone except me. Azhar and you are so hard to talk to. I don’t know who raised you guys to be so rude”, she said, slammed her utensils and left.

Tanya was aghast. This wasn’t what she had expected on her first morning at her in-laws. Somehow this was eerily showing itself to be the preview of what awaited her.

Bilal came over to her. She had a little wetness in her eyes. He put his hand on her shoulder,

“We are friends, okay? And you’re Azhar’s wife who is my life. So don’t think you’re alone. Azhar and I will back you up. Don’t become like Maha. She spends way too much time with Ami and is now a mini-Ami with her politics and shenanigans”.

She nodded quietly and then blurted out,

“I’d like to be your friend. I don’t want any awkwardness between us”.

“You got it”, he smiled, his dangerously attractive smile. “Now go get ready”.

CHAPTER 113:

She entered her room, feeling defeated and tired. The glow and vibrance that she had felt an hour ago was long gone. Azhar was stretched out on the bed and she suddenly couldn’t believe that she had been in his arms the night before and that morning. Bilal’s presence had weighed heavily on her too and his spat with Maha wasn’t easy to watch.

Azhar watched her. He anticipated all this. His mother liked to suck the air out of the room and so she had done exactly that. He wondered how she’d react when she found out that they were leaving two days later for their honeymoon.

“Come here”, he extended his arm towards her.

She came over to him willingly, all scruples forgotten .

He looked in her eyes. He knew she looked different this morning and was now wearing the look of someone who was hazed on campus.

“I don’t want my wife to ever think that she has to put up with crap”, he said seriously.

“I’m a strong girl, Azhar”, she smiled. If you knew what I’ve gone through, you’d think of this morning as peanuts.

“I know”, he said, sitting up and holding her in his arms, “Let’s spend the day with your family. I really wanna get to know your siblings”.

“Okay”, she said, then couldn’t keep herself from saying, “They love you”.

“Yeah?”, he said, amusement taking over his gray eyes, “I’ve noticed you tell me a lot about other people loving me. Is this how shy girls say “I love you?”

“May be”, she said, blushing a little.

“This is the biggest day in my life. When my wife said a Morse code I Love You”.

She giggled.

“Get ready”, he reminded her.

She was grateful for Azhar, for this room that was their sanctuary, for the negativity staying out of their haven.

“I was thinking may be you’ll kiss me before we went to my mom’s”, she teased him, “You can’t kiss me there. My mom doesn’t approve of it”.

“Is it?” He said excitedly, “Then I’ll just have to kiss you when she’s there. I get a kick out of doing something that would make me the bad guy”.

As she laughed she realized she was getting closer to him.

“Tanya!” He began to say something but was stopped by her lips.

“Just kiss me, Azhar”, she pleaded, “This morning was too much for me. I just wanna be with you and forget about it all”.

He pulled her in his arms and bundled her in there. Her ornaments clanged pleasantly and she laughed a little at his eagerness to comply with her. She kissed him back as he laid tiny kisses on her mouth and then made it into her mouth.

“This is all that matters”, he said, “Don’t get sad at sad people’s antics. You and I are not sad like them. Bilal and I have planned it all out. We won’t let Ami take you over”.

“Thanks”, she said softly, “I’d like two big burly men to protect me”.

“Yes. Except one of them will expect you to have sex with him in exchange for the protection”.

“Azhar! Do you think of anything else?”

“No! But that’s also because I had never felt as close to you as I did last night.”

She blushed at the mention of it but tried to get over her embarrassment by shading him,

“Wish I could say the same”.

“Don’t lie! I can tell when someone’s having a good time”.

“You know, Azhar, women pretend too and fake a lot in bed to keep their husbands happy”.

He looked completely disconcerted. She could tell he was irked enough to forget about kissing and was coming up with a counter argument.

“Please don’t say that”, he said finally, pretending to cry, “I have been on cloud nine since this morning because I really didn’t expect it to be such a success as it was”.

Tanya laughed. He stared at her, bemused.

“Okay laugh as much as you want. Get off of me. Let me watch some porn and come back more prepared”.

“Hey hey hey!” She said, holding on to him and hysterically laughing, “I was joking. Seriously, I was joking”.

He sat back, collected her in his arms again.

“Don’t joke about it,” he warned, “I could lose my mojo forever”.

“Really?” She said, looking in his eyes, “Don’t lose your mojo. It made me very happy last night”.

He showered her with kisses. They cuddled for an hour at the end of which Tanya reminded him again,

“We have to get moving. Now it’s 1 o’clock and I have to be at the salon by 5”.

An hour later, they were on the way to her place.

Tanya’s siblings as could be expected were ecstatic to see him. Her cousins were also there and overall it was a great place to unwind after the morning that they had had at Nighat’s place.

He laughed and teased Sarah about how he thought she was Tanya’s secretary as she was always doing chores for Tanya. Sarah was a good match for him and didn’t take any offense and fought back.

The need to have a sister heightened in these moments. It had been a sad thought for both him and Bilal that they didn’t have a sister. They watched their friends’ sisters and wondered if having a girl in the family would’ve changed the dynamic a little.

But Sarah and Sanam are like sisters, he thought, as Sanam showed him her artwork and asked him if he could draw too.

Tanya was busy collecting some things from her room when Asma came to check on her.

Tanya turned around and saw her mother standing in the doorway, watching her wistfully.

“Mama”, she hugged her, “How are you?”

“I’m good”, Asma said, stroking her hair and marveling at how pretty she looked.

“Mama! I’m looking for my blush palette but can’t find it. I bet Sarah took it”.

“You can ask her”, Asma said gently.

“Tanya! Can I say something?” Asma asked haltingly.

“Sure”, she said, peering at her mother’s prematurely lined face.

“I love Azhar”, she said, “I couldn’t have found a better person for you”.

Tears appeared in the sides of her eyes.

“He’s a great guy, Mama, one in a million”, she said, gratefully.

They talked about everything for about an hour. Azhar looked in the room and found them sitting on the bed, chatting away.

“Want me to drop you off to your salon?” He asked.

His phone rang just at that minute. It was Bilal.

“I’m coming to pick you guys up for salon and stuff”, Bilal said.

“No, I’ll take Tanya and then pick her up too”, Azhar said.

“No way! You’re the groom. You don’t do all this. I’ll drop off Tanya then drop you off. Then I’ll pick you guys up”.

“When will you get ready?” Azhar asked.

“I’ll stay with you, Ajji,” he said, fearing his brother was going to drift apart now that he was married, “Can I not stay with you?”

“Of course you can”, Azhar said immediately, “Thanks, Billu, we are ready if you wanna come over now”.

Bilal came fifteen minutes later and even though Asma insisted he didn’t come inside Tanya’s place. He picked them up from the door and soon they were on their way.

“Tanya!” Bilal said, “Why are you wasting so much money on getting dressed at a salon? You look okay even now. Just put on your dress and you’re set”.

“I told her that”, Azhar agreed.

“Well, it’s my one and only wedding hopefully”, she objected, her tiny nose turning up at the brothers’ moronic thinking, “I want to look nice”.

“That’s what we are telling you”, Bilal said, “you already look okay and nice. Honestly, I don’t know why Maha is going to a salon to look nice. She looks better without tons of layered make up”.

“Bilal!” Tanya said, exasperated at his commentary, “Please don’t talk about things that you know nothing of”.

“Oh I know everything about makeup”, he said knowingly, “my money pays for all the crap Maha puts on her face”.

The brothers laughed loudly. Tanya sat seething at this obvious boyness that she found so intolerable.

“Well if Azhar knew what was good for him he wouldn’t agree with you”, she said sharply.

Azhar shut up immediately.

“One night”, Bilal looked at him and whispered, shaking his head with mock disappointment, “One night and she has you wrapped around her finger”.

“You don’t know, man”, Azhar said, obviously joking, “She is scary”.

“I can hear you”, Tanya announced.

They dropped her at the salon and Azhar said,

“Billu! I’m so hungry. Let’s go grab a paratha roll”.

Bilal, thanking Allah that his brother still needed him, happily agreed.

Thirty minutes later they were both sitting at the beach, two paratha rolls each, a bottle with a liter of Pepsi in it that they were splitting between them.

“You know, Billu”, Azhar said, waiting for Bilal to take a long swig from the drink so he could get some, “Ami didn’t take long to come out with Tanya. With Maha she took a few days”.

Bilal was thoughtful. Somehow Azhar had a knack for saying what he merely thought and overlooked as idle musing.

“I know”, he finally said, “She probably comes out faster when she feels threatened”.

“But why would she be threatened of Tanya?” Azhar said, with a world of surprise in his eyes.

Bilal laughed and kept laughing. Azhar finally smacked him in the side.

“Really why? Why would Tanya threaten her?”

“Azhar! Look at Tanya! Have you ever seen her closely? She’s the exact opposite of Ami or even Maha. She’s a simple, straightforward girl with little experience of life outside her bubble of Dow and Civil. She’s so naive and that’s a threat. Ami knows that she wouldn’t automatically accept her as an authority because she probably doesn’t know the system. So she told her this morning who the boss is”.

Azhar stared at the sea, his gray eyes mirroring the beginnings of a small storm that was so common during the hotter months in Karachi.

“No, Billu”, he finally said, his face devoid of emotion but awake beyond doubt. He was a beautiful man with a face that seemed to have been chiseled out of dreams that women weave with lust and hope. He had gained weight steadily since he had gotten Tanya and seemed to have been coming back into his own. He had started to show his spirit again, wild and free, difficult to contain, hard to bottle, “No! Tanya isn’t naive or stupid. She’s a smart girl. She won’t accept Ami as her master. I have a feeling she will give Ami a run for her money. Ami would be wise to steer clear of Tanya. If that girl can survive a heartbreak, medical school, a tough as nails house job and could support me like she did after the accident and now loves me like we were always meant to be together, then Ami would be well-advised to be afraid of Tanya. Very afraid!”

CHAPTER 114:

Even though Valima is always low-key compared to the actual wedding, Nighat and Bilal had gone all out and then some. The venue, the buffet, the guest list and the program were all outstandingly executed and Bilal had a huge role to play in all of it. He had been planning Azhar’s wedding for years and had actually loved orchestrating it all.

Azhar couldn’t care less. He had Tanya, he was flying out the next day with her to Indonesia for two weeks, and he could touch her and talk to her anytime he wanted. It was all he really cared about.

Bilal picked up Tanya from the parlor where she had gone to get ready. She came out as soon as he got there and texted her.

He knew it was a mistake to ever be with her alone. His mind went to places which weren’t conducive to a healthy relationship with her.

She came out and was so entangled in her outfit that she didn’t register Azhar’s absence. She opened the front door of the car and got in, slightly out of breath at carrying an outfit many pounds heavier than her.

She smiled at him and said self-consciously, “Do I look okay?”

She was wearing a pink outfit, a Peshwas, another traditional Pakistani outfit with a tight bodice and a huge skirt that was stitched to the bodice and flared out expansively to give the illusion of a ball gown. Tonight she had very light jewelry on, just a pair of jhumkas that glittered in the light and winked at him.

She wasn’t his to stare at and behold, he suddenly remembered.

To get over himself he said hastily,

“You look nice”.

“Do I?” She said, wringing her hands. “Can I say something? Promise me you won’t tell anyone”.

“What?”

“She cut my hair”.

“Cut your hair? Without asking you?”

“She asked me and showed me pictures of girls with bangs and I agreed”.

“Show me”.

“I asked her to pin it all back up so it doesn’t show. It looked horrendous and now Azhar is going to kill me”.

He wanted to kiss her like he used to.

“I wouldn’t be too worried about Azhar”, he said disconnectedly, restarting the car and expertly maneuvering it through the narrow road, “He doesn’t care about little things”.

She was quiet. He felt he had snubbed her but also knew that he couldn’t tread dangerous territory with her at all. Tanya might think they were friends but they had a very thick and rich past which he was very aware of and she would do well remembering it too.

They reached the venue. She was wired with anxiety at what had happened to her hair and how she felt a little inadequate at a brand new haircut that didn’t even look good when she saw Azhar running towards her with his limp even more pronounced. There were very few guests still and the venue looked strangely deserted.

“You look so so so beautiful”, he came up to her, picked her up and kissed her full on her mouth.

She blushed and also wished to be alone with him.

“Thanks. But can you please put me down?”

“No. You’re practically weightless. It’s like I’m on Earth and you’re on the moon”.

She laughed.

“Is that supposed to be romantic?” She asked.

“It’s not supposed to be anything except I love you, I love you and I love you”.

“Azhar!” A disapproving voice broke the spell, “Please behave yourself. There are people here including your parents who don’t appreciate this public display”.

“Ami!” Azhar said while Tanya implored to be put down, “You guys are snobs and I’m a simple guy who loves his wife”.

“I can see that”, Nighat said, wanting to punch them both, “But please I want you to behave yourself and save some things for private moments”.

“Don’t worry about that”, Azhar said with the most wolfish grin that he could assume, “We save a lot of things for private moments”.

Tanya snorted loud enough for Nighat to hear. Azhar was so uninhibited and unafraid that being with him was like constantly being high.

Soon they had guests coming in and complimenting her. Nighat basked in the attention and praise that she was getting for organizing such an elaborate event. She dismissed the thicker compliments and acted humble.

Sabir didn’t do well with any spending of money and so sulked for the most part. She ignored him and even though he tried to engage in pleasantries with the guests, he had always been very self-conscious and so ended up sitting by himself for the rest of the evening.

Maha had been Nighat’s right hand with the choice of outfits and jewelry. She had initially been very enthusiastic with the wedding prep and her idolizing of Azhar had also gone down several notches since his accident. She secretly wanted to know what it was that Tanya lacked that she agreed to marry Azhar, a guy who couldn’t even walk properly. But now she was starting to see why their relationship worked. They were so in sync with each other.

Bilal remained distant. He was getting flashbacks of his past and that always led to major depressive symptoms in him. He thought he had become strong but nothing could prepare him for this. She wasn’t his. She was actually Azhar’s. How did life work in the most evil way?

CHAPTER 115:

After Valima, Asma came forward and asked Tanya if they were planning to come home with them.

Azhar overheard them and agreed.

Nighat’s face changed many colors at this.

Maha whispered something catty in Bilal’s ears.

Bilal listened to his mother’s rant all the way home about how Azhar insulted her by not even consulting with her regarding such an important issue.

But he was amazed to see Azhar and Tanya at the door a mere two hours later.

Bilal opened the door. His face lit up.

“You guys are back?”

“Yes”, Azhar said, “we came to pick up our suitcases that we totally forgot about. And”, he added as an afterthought, “I wanted to tell Ami and Abu about us leaving tomorrow”.

“What?” Bilal’s eyes popped, “You haven’t told her? Azhar! Do you not like your neck attached to your body?”

“Relax, Billu”, he said with his characteristic smile, “She doesn’t pick fights with me”.

Yes but she will make someone else a target of her pettiness, he thought with a familiar scared feeling.

Azhar and Tanya entered. Maha and Nighat were loudly commenting on how their event was so much better than the wedding day and how Tanya’s sister could lose some weight.

Tanya heard Maha saying,

“She looks ten years older than Tanya. How do parents let unmarried girls get so fat and unpresentable?”

Any other time he would’ve interjected and raised hell but it seemed trivial and meaningless to engage in anything. He was there to pick up their bags and that was all he had to do.

Nighat looked up as they entered.

“What’s going on? You’re not staying at her place?”

“No”, he said, registering that his mother didn’t even want to use Tanya’s name when referring to her. “We are here to pick up our bags for our trip tomorrow”.

Nighat’s flawless face was blotchy and unrecognizable. But she was a woman of immense self-control and could see a losing battle. She had to turn this around and she couldn’t do it by losing her temper.

“I didn’t know you were planning to take a trip”.

He didn’t say anything and just went to his room to get their two carry ons. Tanya made to follow him when she heard Maha’s whining voice,

“Bilal! How come we never went for a honeymoon?”

She came into her room. She felt like this place had an undertone of negative energy all the time. People were constantly at each other’s throat and they really survived based on who could play it better.

“All your stuff is in this bag?” Azhar asked.

“Azhar”, she began.

“Do you need to throw something else in or I can lock it?”

“Azhar! Can I say something?”

“Sure, sweetie! We can talk on the way to your mom’s place”.

She came close to him and put her hand on his arm gently,

“Can we talk nicely? Sitting? Listening?”

He smiled at her persistence.

“Okay! Can we talk standing and listening?” He asked innocently.

“Okay! That’s fine too, I guess. Azhar! I don’t think we should go without telling your mom our plan. You know where, how many days, when we will be back etc. Just like have a conversation please with her “.

“It’s not necessary. She won’t get it and my life can’t revolve around her approval”.

She rubbed her hands together, trying to salvage it.

“Get ready, Tanya!” He said curtly.

“Azhar!” She tried to reason one more time.

“Tanya”, he said more forcefully than he ever had. She was scared for a second when she saw his eyes probing hers but immediately bounced back.

“Don’t you ever talk down to me, Azhar!”

“I’m asking you to pack up and get out of here”.

“I won’t go”. She said and sat on the bed.

He looked at her flabbergasted and gobsmacked .

“What? Are you crazy?” He almost screamed.

“I’m not going”, she said stubbornly.

“I’ll pack you in one of these”, he threatened her.

“You have to go out and tell your mother what we are planning. You should’ve before tonight. You don’t care but you have to care about the fact that I look complicit when I join forces with you in going against her”.

“So I should go out and beg her to let us go?”

“Not beg her”, she said, coming over to him and trying to smile at him, “Just tell her. Respectfully. Don’t you think your temper is rather quick?”

“My temper is quick?” He said incredulously. “What about yours? You were ready to abandon the whole trip just now”.

“Well, I got pissed because you yelled at me”, she said calmly.

“I’m going to quickly tell her everything otherwise we could spend the whole night here”.

He left and she heard him a minute later relaying their itinerary to his mom.

There was complete silence outside after his announcement. He came back in.

“Let’s go”.

They left.

On the drive back they were both quiet. Tanya wanted to know why his mom was angry and he was thinking about how he had almost lost his temper on Tanya.

“Taanu!”

She was looking out the window staring into nothingness but was immediately brought to her senses. What did he say?

“Listen!” He said, taking her hand, “I won’t yell at you ever again. I promise”.

Had he said Taanu?

“Only Papa called me Taanu”, she said, her voice getting a little muffled.

“You miss him, right?” He asked, tipping her chin up and sparing a glance at her while driving.

She nodded and for some reason tears flowed. She didn’t expect to face such animosity at the hands of her mother-in-law, then Azhar yelled at her and she fought with him too and now he was calling her Taanu and she missed her father so much.

“Don’t cry”, he said, trying to focus on the road while holding her hand, “okay I won’t call you Taanu again, okay? Please don’t cry”.

They reached her place while she was still crying and he was just baffled at why she was crying or how to make it better.

“I did everything that you said”, he said desperately, “I told Ami, nicely. I didn’t fight with you about it. I listened to you. Tell me what it is that you want me to do and I’ll do it”.

“Can you call me Taanu again?” She said, between hiccups.

“Yes”, he said while scooping her up in his arms and placing her in his lap, while reclining his seat for more room, “Taanu, Taanu, Taanu……”

“Azhar!” She kissed him before he did, “I love you”.

He paused. She was herself a little taken aback at her forwardness. She had thought she’d say it another time when they would’ve been married for long enough to actually mean it but somehow she realized that she loved him. She realized that qualifying her love for Azhar with friend, companion, spouse was stupid. She loved him like a woman loves a man and that was it.

“What did you say?” He asked, his gray eyes lightening up, a sign that he was startled by this sudden confession.

She was quiet. May be he’d think that she said it to defuse his anger or the ugliness of this situation that was taking over their euphoria just forty eight hours into their marriage. She remained silent. Azhar shook her a little,

“Don’t stop, Tanya, please! Don’t stop now. Say it! Just one more time”.

She smiled and blushed. Then she thanked that the street and their car were so dark.

“You said that you love me, right? I heard it. Don’t go back on it now”.

She laughed at the desperation in his voice.

“So what if I said it?” She asked rebelliously. “Can’t I say it to my husband?”

“Of course you can”, he gave her a little body squeeze, “in fact I think you should say it all the time to stay gorgeous “.

She laughed.

“Tonight”, he said, holding her closer than she had ever thought possible, “I’ll make you say it over and over without me having to beg you”.

She laughed as she snuggled closer.

“I love you, I love you, I love you, and I can’t ever imagine being away from you, Azhar, so never ever go away from me”.

He hugged her tighter,

“You have no idea how much I love you and need you. So you don’t ever go away from me”.

CHAPTER 116:

May be I should just ask to be sent here after I die if heaven is what I’m gonna get, she thought happily as she looked out the window and listened to Azhar snore lightly next to her.

This was their first morning here and the beauty of Bali was breathtaking. It was an island with a small population and endless resorts. They had booked a cheap one but even the cheap ones were so picturesque and spectacular that it was the same thing.

She stretched and thought about ordering food from room service but then decided to surprise him by putting a small breakfast together.

“Tanya!” He yelled from the bed. Somehow not finding her instantly upon stretching his arm when he woke up just portended something abnormal.

She came, still in her pajamas and instructed him,

“Wash your face, brush your teeth and then let’s eat”.

“Come back to bed first”.

“No way! I’ve really slaved in the kitchen on the first day of our honeymoon and I deserve some credit for that”.

“I’ll give you credit but come here first”.

“No, Azhar! May be you get your way always with others but not with me”.

“I can pull you here with my eyes, you know?”

She rolled her eyes and turned to leave.

“If I don’t see you at the table in ten minutes, I’m eating all of it, then going to bed, and you’ll just have to entertain yourself”.

He got up mumbling about how this could be such a beautiful morning of love and then smiled at the prospect of her making breakfast for him.

He remembered the night when she had brought tiramisu and had left in a rush, obviously triggered by something.

“Wow, Tanya!” He grabbed her by the waist before she could make a run for it and pulled her on to his lap, “You made all this?”

“Let me go. I need to get the coffee”, she squirmed.

“Okay, go”! He let her go immediately.

She looked at him with narrowed eyes,

“Why’re you letting me go so quickly? Tired of me already?”

“You wanna go, so go”, he said plainly.

“No! I won’t go”, she pouted. “I won’t go just because you want me to get out of the way”.

“Okay!” He said evenly, “Then don’t go”.

He could see her coming up with a counter argument but saw that she was getting ready to cry. Her lips were curling at the corners and her breathing was heavier.

“Hey hey hey”, he said, completely unraveled by this, “what happened? I was joking. Why are you crying?”

“If you don’t want me here then I can go back”, she said, tears pouring down thick and heavy.

“Huh?” He wasn’t ready for this on the first day of their time away from it all, “When did I say that?”

“Azhar! I’m not a baby”, she continued to cry, “Now let me go. I’ll pack and I’m leaving”.

“No! I won’t let you go”, he tightened his grip around her. “I was joking when I said you can go if you want”.

“You don’t have to make crass jokes with me. Can you not reserve them for your stupid friends? Plus, I’m going”.

“Tanya!” He said, tired of this tantrum, “Do you really wanna go?”

“I wanna be with you. Like you’ve been with me the last two days. But I can see that I’m already an old wife and you’re bored. Do you know how much it hurts when your husband makes you feel boring and undesirable?”

Boring and undesirable? He stared at her.

“Listen!” He said, wiping her tears and thinking how breathtakingly beautiful she was without any makeup or jewelry, in her pajamas, sitting curled up in his arms and struggling every few seconds to break free, “There’s no other place I’d rather be. I was asking you to come to bed twenty minutes ago and you said no. Did I cry?”

“You didn’t cry”, she said between hiccups and a runny nose, “Because you know I’m crazy about you”.

“So you don’t know how crazy I am about you?” He asked, frustrated at this strange interpretation.

“No”, she shook her head, “Have you ever told me?”

“Yeah”, he said, racking his brain for what went wrong that she was crying and accusing him of being inattentive, “Every move I make screams of how crazy I am about you”.

“Like which one?”

“Like when I watch you when you sleep”.

“You do?”

“Yeah. All the time.”

“Okay”, she softened a little, “what else?”

“And how I put the covers on you at least four times every night to keep you warm”.

“I do throw them off. Mama used to put them back on several times every night”, she was now relaxing in his arms.

“And how I feel”, he said, his hands stroking her back, “That I could die if my Taanu ever got upset with me”.

She laughed as she buried her head in his neck.

“Do you believe me now?” He asked, kissing her arm.

“Yes”, she said softly.

“Can we eat now?”

“Yes. And don’t make fun of my cooking, Azhar!”

“Are you kidding me? Bilal and I don’t make fun of anyone who cooks for us. No one ever did when we were growing up and so we appreciate this gesture more than anything”.

She suddenly felt like Bilal’s name was a bad omen. But sometimes she was intrigued by what her former lover’s life was like now.

“Do you think Bilal would be in trouble for helping us get to the airport?”

“He’s always in trouble”, Azhar said grimly. “When he didn’t get the girl he wanted I was very upset. But then he got Maha and really Maha could’ve turned it all around. Just between you and me, she has just become Ami 2.0.”

She felt strangely vindicated. She knew it was wrong to feel this animosity for Bilal or Maha but he had deceived her and left her to dry. She had spent a good part of her life loving him, imagining him as her life partner and then giving him up and getting over him. Azhar changed the whole bitterness but she had to change a lot of it too and it was hard work.

“What happened?” He snapped his fingers at her. “You don’t like Maha either like Bilal?”

“Do you like her?” She asked him.

“I like her. The only thing that I’d change about her is how impressionable she is. Bilal thinks she’s conniving and opportunistic hence her allegiance with Ami but I think she’s a girl with limited experiences and some hard wired societal dogmatic conditioning”.

She had never heard him speak beyond jokes, computers and other common interests and so was immediately intrigued by feministic language.

“What is societal dogmatic conditioning?” She asked nonchalantly.

“You know! Have a kid and make your husband even more yours. Worship in-laws even if they abuse you. Fortitude will lead to salvation from societal slavery. You know! Patriarchal crap that’s fed to women.”

It was hard to not love Azhar more. So much more. She jumped out of her chair on impulse and straddled him.

He laughed an easy laugh and evaluated her lovingly.

“What happened, weirdo? Feeling me a lot today?”

“Yes”, she said, huskily, as she began to unbutton his shirt, “I’m feeling you in a way that I haven’t felt before. Can I have a piece of you before we go out?”

“Can I have a piece of toast before we go out?”

“I promise I’ll warm it all up for you later”, she whispered, trying to peel his shirt off.

“That eager?” He said, his gray eyes lightening up at the miracle of love and lust that his seemingly nerdy and serious wife was. “You know I can’t say no to pretty physician girls. They’re a particular weakness of mine”.

CHAPTER 117:

Bilal knew that for as long as his beloved brother was on vacation, the whole house would be subjected to doom and gloom by his mother. She had noisily complained of Azhar running off without telling anyone and bitterly told anyone who’d listen that instead of helping him get back up on his feet financially, Tanya was causing him to get advance salaries.

He watched her. Nighat had never been a loud person but her entire persona seemed to have come undone over Azhar and Tanya’s union. It had taken a toll on her immensely and she wasn’t really herself. She barked orders all day long to people and stayed awake for most of the night. He could see that she had lost herself in the plants again, which was always a sure sign of her depressive spells.

On top of this, Sabir’s treatment of her was slipping in sophistication with each passing day and it proved Bilal’s old theory. Sabir attacked Nighat when Azhar wasn’t around. He knew Azhar was his ally from a young age and he didn’t want to lose him.

But Azhar wasn’t really his ally, Bilal laughed to himself, he just tolerated Sabir better. He disagreed with Nighat so much that Sabir was a much better parent by a default mechanism.

Sabir’s biggest problems started and ended with money. And women. He loved money and hated women.

He hated women so much that he had caused Nighat to hate women too. Internalized misogyny isn’t a myth, he’d shake his head at his father, he really made my mother hate her own gender.

He saw her watering her plants after Fajr as he entered after saying his prayers at the mosque. She was engrossed in her plants and as usual talking to them in a cooing, soothing voice.

“Ami!”

She looked at him and smiled. Somehow her smile, which was always cold and chilling, would take a different form when she was with plants.

He was again struck with how beautiful she was. I hope Abu leaves her, he thought with sadness and anger for what his mother had been put through, and someone she knew many years ago came to marry her and love her.

It was a testament to his moral difference from his brother that he didn’t judge people in their weakest moments. He couldn’t hold a grudge against Nighat for most things. He remembered it all like it happened that morning.

“Let it go! Let it go, whore! You can’t do anything”. His father screamed .

Nighat, in her eagerness to get the ironing of his clothes right, kept at it. Soon he had seized her hand and twisted all her fingers. She shrieked and tried to break free but he wouldn’t let go. The sound of bones crunching over and over echoed in the garden almost thirty years since then.

“You got new plants?” He came over smiling.

“Not new”, she said softly, “Tanya gave me these from her home. I wanted to put them in our room because they are indoor plants but you know how your dad is allergic to plants”.

If she had been a meek and submissive woman overall may be it wouldn’t have hurt so much. She was a tyrant who had actually spent so much time with Sabir that she had learned selective abuse and had gotten so much counsel from her own father that she saw everyone as an enemy.

“Abu is a complete act”, he said, unfeelingly and settled in the grass next to her.

“He is he, you know”, she said conversationally.

“Hmm”, he contended himself with agreeing with her again.

“You must be missing your mosque buddy, right?” She said smiling at him.

“Yeah”, then something came over him and he said, “Ami! Is Azhar going to drift away from me now because he’s married?”

She was quiet. As a child Bilal was very needy and clingy. And she knew she was to blame for a lot of it. She insisted that he slept in her room the nights she feared particular violence from Sabir. He usually didn’t subject her to much when one of the kids was around. He was the most afraid of Azhar, May be because of his anger, but he also didn’t hit her particularly roughly when Bilal was around. However as soon as he caught on her strategy, he took to ruthlessly beating her up in front of Bilal. She got the message. He wanted her to keep him out in order to avoid his violence on her.

“You’re a grown man now”, she said, more gently than she had ever spoken to him, “Why do you care about Azhar so much?”

He knew Ami was going to say something to make him feel like he imposed himself on Azhar or tried to ride Azhar’s coattails. Because there was no one else that he shared the secret with, he decided to share it with her,

“If I had gotten Tanya May be I wouldn’t have continued depending on Azhar so much. But I got Maha and Ami! She’s not a companion always. Sometimes she is. But most of the time she’s just too occupied with herself”.

She felt tingling in her hands, something that happened when she was anxious.

“You have to make Maha your own”, she finally said, reverting to her cold and distant self, “It’s okay that you depend on Azhar so much and he knows about it but if people heard about the codependent relationship that you two have! I don’t know how two grown men can’t make a life away from each other”.

He decided to leave. It was like she could read his mind when he heard her say,

“And Bilal! She’s your sister-in-law now. Remember that! If I hear anything which goes against the decorum of that relation I promise you that I will send her back to where she came from”.

CHAPTER 118:

Bali was beautiful but not more than Azhar. He was fun and very loving. She could see how he was the older brother that Bilal loved so much.

He taught her many things. He also told her many secrets. Of their family. Their life with friends. His close relationship with Bilal. How he loved kids so much. That he valued women who could speak for themselves but that it was a privilege to have that position and people shouldn’t abuse it.

Surprisingly, Bilal hadn’t ever mentioned Azhar as such a huge force in his life. She realized that she and Bilal hadn’t talked about the important stuff ever.

He watched her jump in the pool in her modest bathing suit. He marveled at her finesse at the only athletic thing that she could do, swimming. He watched as her tiny body bobbed in and out of water. For some reason it reminded him of the afternoon when he had sat on the beach with Bilal and Tanya had appeared out of the water like a mermaid.

Allah had rewarded him. He couldn’t deny that. His spine had been acting up but Tanya had recommended a simple maneuver and his back pain was hugely better. He had some reservations about swimming with his feeding tube but Tanya didn’t consider feeding tubes and spinal surgeries and unusual gaits any reason to not live life.

He wondered sometimes how amazing her ex must be. She wasn’t an ordinary girl so he couldn’t have been an ordinary guy either. He was sure it was someone at Dow. He racked his brain and tried to figure it out but couldn’t.

He lazily squinted at her under the warm sun as she got out of the pool and made it to him. She had the body of a goddess. He marveled at how proportionate it was and how it spun a web of desire around him each time she was in his arms.

“What are you staring at?” She laughed as she threw a wet towel at him.

He reached out and pulled her towards him. She willingly came.

“Do you know how gorgeous you are?” He asked.

“No. Tell me”, she said.

“I can’t tell you here”, he laughed.

“You can”, she said, inching closer to him.

“Okay”, he traced her face with his fingers, “You take my breath away when you laugh”.

“And?”

“And I kinda lost my mind this morning when you decided to not put your hair up”.

“And?”

“It’s hard to imagine that you’re the same Tanya who didn’t talk much let alone laugh or eat”.

Something in his voice made her ask,

“It’s a good thing, right?”

“It’s a wonderful thing”, he said, playing with her wet hair. “Laughing and enjoying life should be a priority”.

She felt closer to him. They had come together in painful moments but had somehow taken away each other’s pain.

She put her head on his shoulder, and folded her body in his arms,

“Do you know what I thank Allah for when I pray?”

“What?” He asked, touching her neck with his lips.

“That I didn’t lose you. That I didn’t do something stupid to lose you”.

“You can’t lose me”, he said, gazing in her black eyes, “you can’t ever lose me”.

“Promise me, Azhar, that you won’t ever go away from me. That if you’re angry you’ll let me explain and will take my explanation and just be mine always”.

“I promise you”, he said, his gray eyes darkening like they always did when he was thinking, “that I won’t go away until I’ve spoken with you. But let me say something otherwise I’ll feel like I didn’t honor my one principle! Don’t lie to me. If you ever impulsively lie, come and tell me. That’s better. That I can forgive. But don’t let me catch you in a lie. That won’t end well for anyone. A lie that you can own before the moment of reckoning is fine and I can deal with it. A lie that you perpetuate and hope that won’t ever get caught is the one I hate. So please don’t make me choose between my principle and you. I don’t want to make that choice”.

She stared at her hands, her heart racing again like it did sometimes when her happiness seemed fragile and vulnerable.

He took her hands in his, kissed her passionately and then bundled her into himself as they both drifted off to sleep under the sun.

CHAPTER 119:

As with all good things, their honeymoon came to an end.

She was packing her clothes and felt an overwhelming desire to ask Azhar to stay for a few more days then stopped herself from making outrageous demands.

He came out of the shower, toweling his hair and whistling. Their eyes met and that was all they needed to end up in each other’s arms.

“I’m dying to see Hamza”, he murmured in her ear, “But I won’t lie that this is my favorite place to be”.

She laughed at how he chose his words so carefully.

“Do you think I’ve gained weight?” He asked.

“May be”, she said, realizing that this wasn’t the time to weigh him. He usually got into a temper if he hadn’t gained.

But there was definitely something different about him. He had more strength, he was walking taller and he had most certainly gained at least ten pounds.

She ran her hands over his shoulders.

“Do you want to weigh yourself? We can go to the front desk and get a weighing machine”.

“No”, he said, suddenly scared of his bubble bursting, “I don’t know why I can’t gain, Taanu”.

She could see a little sadness creeping into his face.

“Come here”, she took him over to their bedside table, swiped through her phone and pulled up their wedding photo.

“Look at this”, she said while he stood before the mirror, “Compare yourself”.

He appraised his reflection and the picture critically and then said with a sheepish grin,

“Okay you proved it”.

“What’s wrong, Azhar? Why do you go to a dark place that isn’t good for you? Stay here! With me! Isn’t being with me better than getting into your head and becoming sad?”

“I can’t forget it”, he said, collapsing on the bed, “I can’t forget it. When it happened I didn’t think about myself. Just that I had probably killed someone”.

“But you didn’t”, she said softly. “You didn’t”.

“But I could’ve. Can I share something with you?”

“Yes”.

“Sometimes when we are having sex, I want to just never stop experiencing an orgasm because that’s the only time I’m not thinking of the accident”.

“And you’re thinking of it all other times?”

“Yes, pretty much”, he said miserably.

“Come here”, she said, sitting next to him and putting her arms around him. “You’re alive, Azhar, that’s all I thank Allah for. You’re alive and I found my soulmate. Do you have any idea how a plant feels when someone waters it?”

“No”.

“Plants can’t talk, right? So when someone waters them it’s like a need that someone helped them meet. So the plant becomes grateful to that person. I was like that plant. I wanted companionship, love, camaraderie, sex, togetherness but I couldn’t say it. I felt I didn’t deserve it. But you gave it to me without me asking for it and so can you imagine how much I thank you everyday?”

“You saved me”, he raised his head from her breasts, “what are you talking about? Taanu! You saved me. You helped me in therapy and life. You accepted me in that stupid clothing store. You saved me and my spirit. You loved me so much that I forgot the accident for many days. But sometimes it comes back”.

“I know”, she said, staring in his eyes. “How can I make you forget it? Loads of sex?”

He laughed. His simple, open and honest laugh.

“Yes, that would help”, he agreed as he picked her up and put her on the bed next to him, “Loads of sex is always a good idea”.

“Take me, Azhar”, she whispered quietly as he teased her with his mouth brushing against her lips.

He didn’t need asking twice.

CHAPTER 120:

Bilal came to pick them up. He felt like a fool being around Tanya all the time but had had some time to cool off in the two weeks that they were honeymooning and felt more in control of his feelings.

Also, the three of them were like friends when they were together. Azhar buffered the awkwardness that crept between them when they were by themselves.

They looked like they were in love. Tan, smiling and bantering. He thought of the time when he had her. He had aged visibly since losing her. Azhar had gained his health back with her. Love changes. For the better. Distance changes too. For the worse.

Azhar spotted him and decided to run to him with his leg not really cooperating. He had not been to therapy in two weeks and this always set him back.

Tanya laughed at the brothers’ eagerness as Bilal ran towards him and picked him up. Being away from Azhar was hard. Are we codependent and is this a morbid relationship? He thought as his brother ruffled his hair and kissed his cheek. But if I didn’t have Azhar, I wouldn’t have had no one.

Tanya came over.

“I apologize for my husband trying to smother you with his kisses”, she joked.

Her joke stung him. Her husband? He felt anger rising at his brother being claimed by her so shamelessly and curtly said,

“Your husband has been my brother for over thirty years and I will kiss him and he will kiss me if we want”.

She was miffed. She could tell when his mood was off. After all he had been her soulmate once.

His tart reply was lost on Azhar who couldn’t think about anything except,

“I have to see Hamza now”, he kept repeating.

They reached home and there was a flurry of movement as people scrambled to welcome them. They entered the family room where Sabir was heatedly arguing with someone over the phone.

“I don’t care what the charges are but I won’t pay them”.

He listened to the other person’s argument and said even more nastily,

“Are you kidding me? You’re kidding me, right? How is it three hundred thousand rupees?”

Before the other person could finish it he lapsed into a fit of fury. Curse words flew everywhere and Tanya was momentarily stunned.

“You’re a pig to ask me for so much money. I would’ve never spent so much money. It was my stupid wife and her even stupider sons. Ha!”

He hung up. He was suddenly startled at Azhar and Tanya standing there.

“What happened?” Azhar asked, concerned. “Is someone asking for money?”

“Everyone asks for money”, he snarled, “You think that all this happens without money but it all comes from money”.

Tanya had a strong urge to say that they shouldn’t have spent more than they could afford on the wedding but chose to go to her room.

“You don’t greet?” Sabir barked at her.

She stopped in her tracks.

“Hi”, she said quietly.

Sabir looked like he was going to lash out some more but thought better of it and stomped off to his room.

“What circus do we always keep going on this house?” Azhar said wearily. “He’s always crying about money. Are we not doing well?”

“Business is booming”, Bilal said nonchalantly as he brought Hamza out from the room and handed him to Azhar.

Hamza was almost a year and a more beautiful baby he hadn’t seen. He played with his nephew every opportunity he got and was constantly telling him how he’d have more kids to play with soon. Tanya found it adorable. His love for kids was palpable and a testimony to the fact that he had raised his brothers as his sons.

“But Bilal and you are only two years apart. How come you helped him with his growing up so much?” She had asked him on their honeymoon.

He had looked thoughtful and then said,

“I don’t know. May be because it was kinda like a silent cry for help from Bilal that I heard. May be Allah made me so much more advanced for my age that I took on. May be I loved him as the only friend because my cousins lived in Islamabad and we were always changing schools due to one reason or another so we never made many friends. Or may be”, he paused, staring in a distance, the memories of his mother always being unfair to Bilal haunting him still, “I didn’t want him to feel alone so I stuck with him all the time”.

Back in her marital bedroom she relaxed unexpectedly a lot. She had never thought that this room represented a tiny island where she lived with her husband but right then that was exactly what it represented.

Azhar entered soon after carrying Hamza with him. She smiled to get over her bad mood at Sabir and tried to get Hamza from him to distract herself.

Sometimes it was hard to believe that she felt rare feelings of love for Hamza. She had thought she’d hate him but he was a gorgeous baby who responded with a lot of love when shown even the tiniest bit of love.

Azhar didn’t give him to her. He was obsessed with Hamza and spent almost as much time with him as he could when he wasn’t with her or sleeping.

She gave up after trying a few times, teasing him that he was going to forget Hamza when they’ll have their own kids and started to unpack.

“Tanya! Don’t tell anyone but he really looks a little bit like Abu too”.

She snorted at the way he mentioned this as a secret.

“Why not tell anyone? Is looking like Abu a bad thing?”

“No”, he immediately backtracked, “I mean you know Abu is a little”, he made a meh gesture with his hand, “And Hamza is so so so beautiful. But he has a certain resemblance with Abu also”.

She tried to stop herself but the question slipped out anyway,

“How come he got married to your mom? I mean, he’s successful but physically they’re not compatible. Your mom is”, she struggled with using a nice descriptor for his mother but then decided to be fair, “classically beautiful”.

“Yes but Ami still made out like a bandit. Abu is a gem compared to her. Patient, reserved, minds his own business. The only thing is his obsession with money but besides that he’s a good guy”.

She didn’t want to disagree with him but somehow it was so hard to like a man who spoke with women like he had spoken to her that she couldn’t stop herself,

“Well he can’t be that good if he scared me with his demand to be greeted”.

“Oh he can be an asshole too”, he said dismissively like it was normal for people to be ass holes. “He can be a gigantic jerk. Don’t think he’s a saint. But he’s a much better person compared to Ami and has always been a great provider”.

“But a father has to be more than just a provider. It’s insulting if we thought of our fathers as just providers”.

He smiled ruefully,

“You lived in a different world. Where parents love their kids. Bilal and I lived in another. Things got better by the time Hashir and Aman came. But when you are trying to stay away from physical abuse that included your mother holding food and money, you take everything gratefully. You know how people think we are very rich. We are rich. But it’s money in the bank that Abu broke out for my wedding. For Bilal’s wedding, he made him pay for it all. But he never hit us, at least not as much as Ami. He never attacked us physically like Ami did.”

“But she never hit you, right?”

“Nope. At least not much. Like a few times may be. But Bilal! He had it rough”.

“Did you guys ever ask her why she doesn’t like Bilal?”

“Yeah”, he said indifferently, “Loads of times. She says she loves us all the same”.

“But it doesn’t sound like it”, she said, wondering if it was right to resent Bilal like she did after knowing about his life.

“It doesn’t sound like that, right? But try reasoning with her and she’ll gaslight the whole narrative to make it her own. Try it! You’ll find out the narcissist that my mother is”.

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