All’s Fair…. part 13

CHAPTER 121:

Azhar! Don’t go”, she said as he woke her up to drop her off at her mom’s place.

“Trust me! This is the first time I don’t want to go to work. I just wanna be here all day long”. He said snuggling closer.

She thought longingly of the three weeks that he had been home for since the wedding and how she felt like staying apart for nine hours would be so hard.

They had talked about it and Azhar had recommended that she stay at her mom’s place for the first few days and he’d pick her back up on the way back. Just to acclimate better. For him it was a huge deal that she’d have to switch her entire lifestyle just because she was married.

“Don’t be sad”, he said, touching her face. “I’ll be back before you know it”.

She was thankful that she didn’t have to spend her days at his place but felt that this wasn’t going to go down well with his mother. Now she fervently wished that she hadn’t quit her job as a teacher at the elementary school. She loved it.

“I’m not sad”, she smiled, her magical smile, “I’m just going to dream about you while you’re at work”.

“That’s a great idea. I should probably give you something to dream about then”, he joked and pretended getting on top of her.

She pushed him away playfully and then pulled him back. It was hard to believe that Azhar had become a need that was never met in its entirety.

“I’ll get late if you don’t let me go”, he said huskily, collecting her in his arms and hiding his face in her hair.

“Don’t go! Take another day off! Then another, then another…..”

She fell quiet as his touch started to get deeper. She wanted to feel these last moments with him. Just breathe in his scent.

She moaned lightly as he kissed her shoulder and began to move towards her neck again. Someone rudely knocked on the door.

She sensed him tensing up for a second but he then relaxed and continued kissing her. Not for nothing was Azhar so dangerously attractive. He really didn’t get affected by the chatter around him. He knew how to give himself to her with complete abandon and recklessness.

They made love again and it was sweeter than the last time. She wondered if he was just naturally so good or had had a girlfriend before.

I’ll ask him someday, she made a mental note of it while melting in his attention.

Ninety minutes later they had showered and she had packed a light bag for the day and informed Asma that she’ll be over in about an hour. It was seven in the morning and Azhar had to be at work by 9. He was checking his laptop and looking for his charger.

She got busy in the kitchen fixing breakfast. Suddenly she felt someone’s presence behind her.

She turned. It was Maha.

“Good morning”, she said pleasantly.

“What are you doing?” Maha asked curtly.

“Making breakfast”.

“Saleem can make it”, she referred to the cook.

“Yes, Saleem could make it too”, she said, smiling still, “Azhar is in a rush so I thought it might be quicker if I did it. And Saleem is sleeping so I thought may be I should do it since I’m already awake”.

Maha was quiet. Tanya could sense the undertone of hostility and hadn’t forgotten her attitude the other night but continued to go about the kitchen, collecting stuff.

“Ami doesn’t like people working in the kitchen”, she was clearly looking for an argument.

“I’ll be sure to clear with her if I can use the kitchen”, she said smoothly, feeling her temper rising.

She picked up the food and laid it on the table.

“Azhar!” She called. “Breakfast’s ready”.

Azhar came out, obviously too wound up with all the work that had accumulated in the last three weeks and absentmindedly said,

“Let’s eat quickly! They’ve piled so much on me. This is why it stinks to always be starting from the bottom. Third job in three months and I’m really getting upset with this”.

Maha sensed her brother-in-law’s famous tantrum coming on and made it back into her room.

He kissed her lightly on the cheek.

“You’re the best looking cook in all of this land”.

She laughed.

“What happened?” Azhar was really telepathic. He couldn’t ignore that she was a little different.

“Nothing”, she smiled. “I’m always waiting with baited breath when someone’s eating my cooking”.

“You doubt yourself a lot when you’re actually nearly perfect”, he said with his mouth full. “Did someone ever tell you that you’re not as good as everyone else for you to always be thinking like this?”

His tone was casual but he had mentioned her insecurity about herself before so she decided to come clean. Also, she wanted to talk about anything but Maha and her rude interaction that morning.

“I don’t know. I think my parents spoiled me. I was always very confident but then I had not exactly the most uplifting friends in life. Finally when I failed at love….. I don’t know! When you strike out more than once, self-esteem doesn’t remain intact”.

“Hmm”, he said, thoughtfully, “Tanya! Do you think that your self-esteem is worse now because you’re married to me?”

She was startled by this and didn’t know what led to this question. She considered herself lucky because he had chosen her. Where did she give the impression that he wasn’t the biggest blessing and strength?

“Why would you say that? Did I say or do something that indicated that?”

“No”, he said complacently, “You didn’t say it or show it. I’m just wondering. It probably doesn’t help if your husband can’t walk properly and isn’t someone you wanted to spend your life with.”

She didn’t know how he reached that conclusion but decided to be as little romantic and as pragmatic as she could be about the answer.

“You are bringing my confidence back. I won’t add a whole speech to it because it would cheapen how I feel about you. But it’s hard for me to work for acceptance. I won’t lie, Azhar, and also because you asked me to come to you if I felt some way about your family. I don’t think they like me and that makes it hard to like myself again”.

She realized she had again started crying.

He was quiet. Then he said abruptly,

“Okay let’s go. It’s 7:30. I have to be at work by 9”.

She felt dismissed. Why did he ask her to come to him if he wasn’t going to be there for her?

They got into the car, a heavy silence between them. He started driving and she noticed that he wasn’t going to her place.

She didn’t say anything. Just wished for him to break the silence.

They reached the beach.

“Have you ever had a steak omelette?”

She looked at him and said crossly,

“No”.

“Do you want to?”

“No”.

“Okay I’ll get one for myself and don’t ask for mine”.

He went outside the car to a roadside vendor and she wanted to cry loudly. Why was he acting so disconnected?

He came back in ten minutes. She had cried a bit in his absence and he could tell she was struggling with staying silent.

“Here”, he handed her a wrapped packet.

She opened it and inside were two samosas.

“Eat”, he said smiling at her, “Eat and talk. You missed the excellent omelette you made at home. I can’t drop you off at your place without feeding you. So eat and talk”.

“I don’t want to talk now”, she said miserably, “and I don’t want your samosa”.

He put his meal aside. Then he bent low and pulled out a can of Pepsi from underneath the car seat.

“Here!”

“Azhar! Listen! You’re a jerk. I put myself out there and you’re patronizing me. I don’t like it.”

“I’m not patronizing you. Why would you say that?”

“Because you’re acting like a maniac by offering me food when I’m crying. Do you know what happened? Maha was nastily questioning my presence in the kitchen. Is she your mom? How many people will I have to contend with in order to have peace? How many? Your father curses like a sailor. He has no control on his language around people. But that’s fine, I guess. He’s not cursing at me. Your mother is always giving me the side eye. What is this madness?”

She was crying loudly now and hated that she lost control like this but also wondered if crying would work like a pressure valve and help her relax.

“You don’t have to protect anyone”, he said, his gray eyes looking at the sea, mirroring the wildness of the waves, “I hate lying. I’ve told you that before. Especially when it’s to protect people who already enjoy a status quo. They can’t run you over. Ami, Maha, Abu or my brothers! None of them can run you over. Don’t placate me by covering for their cruel behavior. Don’t do that to yourself. We have to live with them. When you have to live with people, you should be honest with them about your feelings. I understand why being fake with acquaintances is okay. We don’t have to live with them so their occasional and momentary crassness doesn’t really matter. Do you understand what I’m saying? COME TO ME! Simple as that. Don’t shortchange yourself and think that it’s happening because you’re an introvert and no one can defend you. Bilal and I will back you up. And if he can’t then I’ll do it. You’re my wife and in a way, your happiness at that place is my job to ensure. Do you get that? I don’t like stupidly nice people”.

She nodded.

He bent over and brushed her tears with his fingers.

“Do you still love me after the yelling?”

“You didn’t yell “, she hiccuped lightly, “I am very nice”.

“Yes you are”, he said, tracing her small face with his index finger. Then without warning he pulled her off her seat and brought her on his lap.

“Azhar! You are an animal”, she screamed while laughing.

He laughed in response and nuzzled her neck for many minutes. She relaxed in his arms. There was so much they could’ve talked about in the last twenty minutes instead of that dreadful Maha, she thought. Whatever Azhar might say, she decided, I won’t bring my battles to him. They accepted me as his wife and they’ll have to accept me as family.

CHAPTER 122:

He texted her before coming so she could be ready. They were going to go out for dinner since he had missed her so much and really didn’t want her to sit at their extremely charged dining table at home where Nighat was sure to be seething at not finding Tanya when she woke up.

Sarah blow dried her hair. She wore a long white shirt with some pretty embroidery and a chooridar. Then she put some light make up on and waited for him.

He was prompt. He never kept her waiting. She loved this thing about him. As soon as it was six, she knew he was going to be there.

She got in the car, feeling his eyes on her and immediately felt shy.

“Listen!” He began urgently, “Before we get going, there’s something important that I have to tell you”.

She knew it. His horrible mother must have called him and given an earful. And now their whole evening was ruined.

“What?” She said, fear of what might’ve happened coursing through her.

He came closer to whisper in her ear and ended up kissing her lips. She laughed in spite of herself.

“Azhar! Tell me! I’m so scared. What happened?”

“Nothing! I was just trying to take you by surprise”.

“So nothing happened?”

“No! Nothing happened. What would happen? What are you so worried about?”

She relaxed.

“You’re a very weird person to do these things”.

He laughed.

“You’re so scared of everything.”

“Except you, I’m not scared of you”.

He put an arm around her as he drove towards a great Portuguese chicken place.

Two hours later they were on their way to his place, Tanya feeling a lot more confident than she felt before dinner. Azhar was right, she thought, food fixes everything.

They entered and found the entire family sitting down for dinner. A silence, so eerie that a pin would’ve dropped with a clang, fell at the table. .

It didn’t faze Azhar. He scanned the table and Bilal wasn’t there. This was a tough situation because he couldn’t confront Maha if Bilal wasn’t there. He didn’t want her to feel attacked.

But, he thought, I don’t have to say or do anything. I’ll just respond if they come out with something.

“Azhar!” Nighat started first of all, “I woke up to make breakfast for you and Tanya and you were gone. Tanya too. Didn’t you have work today?”

“May be wake up earlier tomorrow”, he replied curtly, wondering why she wouldn’t come out and say what she was thinking instead of making a show of concerned parenting, as she had never made breakfast for him in the past, “I have to be at work by nine so can’t wait for food until ten”.

Nighat, with the instinct of a snake, backtracked,

“It’s okay, honey! May be have dinner now with us? Tanya hasn’t had many meals with us”.

“We ate”.

Nighat was quiet. This wasn’t going how she had planned. She was going to establish a hierarchy like she had with Maha.

“Tanya!” Maha chimed in. “Ami had Saleem make biryani for you. Have some, please! He will feel slighted because he really worked hard to make it”.

Tanya stared at her. She was a good ally for her mother-in-law. She wondered if Bilal’s assessment of his wife was much more astute than Azhar’s.

But she didn’t want to create a scene and therefore silently sat down. Azhar watched her for a few seconds, then haughtily went into his room.

As she was helping herself to some biryani, Nighat said,

“Was your mother okay with you spending the whole day at her place? Some mothers might become concerned that their daughter is not liked at her in-laws’ place to spend her time at her parents'”.

She stopped momentarily, then said indifferently,

“Mama doesn’t think about these things too much”.

“Hmm. May be I’m old school but I found it strange that you’d not stay here in Azhar’s absence”.

“Yes. I think you’re old school”, she said plainly.

Nighat’s face went red. Maha quipped,

“I think it’s not about being old school. It’s about etiquette. If parents don’t teach their kids manners and etiquette, especially girls, then of course they’d find people like me and Ami old school.”

She decided that Maha needed to be put in her place.

“I’ve been taught etiquette”, she said, getting up, the biryani in her plate untouched, “And I’ve been taught that the first rule of etiquette is to not mention it. Secondly, you seem to have a lot to say. Might I suggest busying yourself with house chores, motherhood and the like? I could comment on the crassness that you display often but Emily Post wouldn’t agree with it”.

She walked gracefully to her room.

Azhar was already under covers.

“Hey”, she said after she had changed into her pajamas. “Asleep already? Didn’t wait for me?”

“Sleep, Tanya”, he said, not turning over, “I have a long day tomorrow”.

She was momentarily nonplussed but then decided to go for it.

“Azhar!” She said pulling the covers and straddling him. “Look at me”.

He turned and said quietly,

” I don’t appreciate cowards at all”.

“I’m not a coward. But let me do it my way”.

“Is your way the crying, groveling way?”

“No”, she said, taking his face in her hands and kissing his nose, “not at all”.

He looked at her skeptically then said,

“Why’re you on top of me? That’s not how this marriage works”.

She laughed sexily, lowered herself on him and whispered with a lilt,

“You’re way too old school. And I’m here to destroy the status quo”.

“Okay, then”, he said, grinning roguishly, “Let’s destroy it together”.

CHAPTER 123:

Azhar had, in his haughtiness and arrogance, forgotten that his mother was just like him and could totally bypass him and get to Tanya all on her own. Defeat to Nighat was unacceptable especially at the hands of another woman. She had accepted the men in her life as superior beings but she hadn’t ever done well with women. She had the upper hand in most female relationships that she had. She had many friends, all whom she had acquired through circumstance and chance. She had never really fostered relationships and wasn’t a warm person usually. Unless she needed to be.

Sabir had changed her. She was a girl with ideas of grandiosity about her intelligence and beauty but she was overall a grounded person. Her marriage changed her. Abuse transformed her. The birth of one son after the other, one through brutal rape, took away a lot of her softness. The only people she really felt a soft spot for were her father and Azhar.

So she waited. For all good things. In dark moments she wanted to open Tanya and Bilal’s salacious past but Azhar’s depression was a very strong memory. His days of not eating, not smiling were fresh in her mind. She couldn’t risk it. She had her son back. Nothing paralleled that. Tanya was a minor hurdle.

She knew Tanya wasn’t Maha. Maha was a calculating woman who had accepted Nighat’s position in this home without an argument. She had an idea that Tanya would too but she also had a fear. Maha and Tanya had very different positions in their husbands’ lives and their husbands had very different positions in Nighat’s life.

Maha was easy to pull over. She wasn’t loved or generally liked by Bilal. She had seen them together in rare loving moments but they had never had the fire that Tanya and Azhar had displayed so blatantly. That was the difference. Even if Tanya wasn’t a strong opponent, Azhar was a force to reckon. Just by association, Tanya was much stronger than Maha.

Her head was hurting again. She went to the kitchen to get some acetaminophen and saw Tanya standing there, fixing a sandwich . She smiled as Nighat entered.

“What’s going on?” Nighat asked, aware that Azhar was home. They had just come back, Azhar from work and Tanya from her place.

“Nothing much”, she said warmly, “Azhar wanted a snack”.

She scrambled in a drawer for the pills and felt anger rising when she realized that she had run out of them a week ago. Her migraines were nasty and she always got in a worse mood when they came on.

She cursed softly. Tanya turned around,

“What happened?”

“Nothing. We are out of acetaminophen. And my migraine is killing me”.

“Oh! Let me check if I have some”.

Before Nighat could say anything further she had dashed to her room.

Nighat looked all over but didn’t find anything. Maha came to the kitchen for tea and found her opening and closing drawers with exasperation but didn’t ask anything, made her tea and exited.

Nighat went back to her room. She dimmed the lights, lay down in bed and hoped for it to get better.

Tanya found the pills in her backpack. She also found some ibuprofen. She took them, looked for Nighat and realized that she had retreated to her room. She went to her room, stood outside for a full minute debating how to address her.

May be I should just call her Ami, she thought. Maha calls her that too. But that would be fake. We don’t like each other. Why would I call a woman Ami, one of the hugest terms of endearment in all languages and equate her to my mother, when she openly hates me and I don’t have any fuzzies for her either? May be I should call her Nighat. No! What’s wrong with me? That’s like giving her something to complain about. May be I’ll just say “here’s your medicine”. No! That sounds like I’m her servant. What is my problem? I can’t give her two pills? Shame on me!

She laughed at her deliberation over how to address her mother-in-law and knocked lightly.

“Come in”, Nighat’s voice floated to her.

She went in and was shocked to see how dark the room was. Given that the furniture was all white, the darkness created the illusion of a haunted house.

“I found some acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Would you like them?”

Nighat stared at her. She gratefully took the pills and saw that Tanya had also brought water with her.

“Thank you”, she smiled after downing the pills in one gulp.

Tanya stood awkwardly. She knew she should leave but waited to be dismissed.

“Go check on Azhar”, Nighat said, having a rare gentle moment, “Did he eat his sandwich?”

“Yes”, she smiled. She turned to leave.

“Tanya!” Nighat’s cool voice came to her.

“Yes?”

“Everyone calls me Ami. You should call me Ami too. I’d like that”.

She wished it was a warmer moment where her mother-in-law smiled when she said that or didn’t obviously hate her.

“Thank you. Thank you, Ami”.

CHAPTER 124:

Azhar’s feeding tube was now redundant as he had gained his desired weight and was keeping it up without any supplemental food through the tube. He couldn’t wait to get it out. Tanya went with him.

The procedure itself was short and done in a clinic. He stared at his abdomen for minutes after the tube was removed. He felt strange. He hated that thing but wished his limp was this easy to remove too.

Tanya was there when the tube was removed. Somehow the moment was emotional even though the doctor was mechanical in his approach. The tube had been a part of his body for about over a year.

He wanted to smile or laugh or do a little dance but he hadn’t ever bothered with the tube so much. The tube had helped him gain weight and so his bitterness with it was also replaced by his gratitude for it at times. His gait, however, had become a huge issue.

He was told initially that he’d be walking without a limp in six months based on the rapid recovery he had shown. But his limp didn’t go away. He had now lost any hope of it ever going away.

“Congratulations, love”, she said, as soon as the doctor left the room and they were alone, “This is a big day for us”.

He smiled a sad smile.

“I would’ve appreciated it if someone could remove my limp too like that”.

She felt an ache in her heart.

“You’re walking a lot better”, she said, squeezing his hand, “You’ll continue to improve. Progress isn’t always linear”.

“Yeah!”

They got in the car shortly afterwards and Tanya suggested going to the beach for a bit.

“Taanu! Can we go home?” He asked, sounding defeated.

“If you really want to”, she said, wanting to kiss him, “let’s go home”.

They entered and there was a huge banner in the family room, saying,

“CONGRATULATIONS ON GETTING YOUR GUT BACK”.

He roared with laughter. It was such a Bilal thing that the humor wasn’t lost on him. He ran to his brother, limping heavily, and picked him up.

“Azhar! Put me down”, Bilal protested. “Tanya! Ask him to put me down”.

“Tanya has got no say in this”, Azhar laughed. “You’re my Billu and I’ll pick you up and annoy you all the time if I want”.

They were truly soulmates, Bilal and Azhar. They had spent a lifetime being each other’s companions and it was sometimes weird to them that they had somewhat drifted apart after getting married despite all the promises they had made of never doing that.

Bilal had ordered food from a famous biryani place and they all sat down to eat. Biryani was Azhar’s favorite food and soon he was eating more than anyone else, all signs of sadness gone.

They finally got done with dinner and came to their room.

Tanya decided to change into something more comfortable. As she was changing into her pajamas she thought of how happy Bilal and Azhar made each other. She was close with her siblings but the two brothers shared a rare bond. It was scary to think of Azhar ever finding out about her and Bilal. She’d lose him and may be Bilal would lose him also.

She rejected these thoughts. No one would ever bring these things up. Her relationship with Bilal was not only ancient history, it was also something that would cause Azhar a lot of pain. And Bilal would never hurt Azhar. She knew Nighat wouldn’t either. She might not like her but she doted on Azhar almost obsessively.

She came out in her peach-colored pajamas and saw Azhar casually reclined in bed without a shirt. He was reading a magazine.

As she lay in bed next to him, he put the magazine away, rolled closer to her and said,

“I’m sorry. I was not in a good mood at the clinic”.

“It’s okay”, she said, thinking how adorable his mouth was and how he looked ten years younger when he was pouting.

“No. It’s not okay. Tanya! Why do you not fight with me when I’m mean?”

“You’re never mean to me”, she said, startled.

“Never?”

“Never!” She said, examining his PEG tube site. “This is going to look a lot different soon”, then added, “Personally I don’t care about your belly ever going back to how it was. You’re so perfect. A little hole in the belly would be a good humble point for you”.

He laughed.

“I’m perfect?”

“Yes”, she got closer.

“What’s perfect about me?”

“Your eyes”, she kissed his eyes, “your mouth”, she kissed his mouth, “your hair”, she ran her hands through his hair, “everything”.

He noticed she had on a long pendant that nestled deep into her breasts.

“Tanya!”

“Hmm”.

“Are you trying to seduce me with your necklace?”

“Thanks for noticing it”, she smiled seductively. “Can I request for a little attention now?”

He never needed any convincing.

There was a different conversation in Maha and Bilal’s room that night.

“I had no idea I was pregnant”, she was crying.

He was baffled by this. They didn’t have sex a lot and it was hard to believe that a careless moment would cause a pregnancy.

She wailed,

“My life is legit ruined. I work around the house all day long. Then there’s Hamza. You’re no help. And now I’m pregnant again”.

“Okay listen”, he sat next to her, “We don’t have to go through with it if you don’t want to. I don’t want you to feel that you have no options”.

Obviously he had said the wrong thing because Maha rose to her full height.

“What did you say?”

He fumbled over his words,

“Only if you want to. Only if you can’t have a baby now”.

She looked like she was going to fight but then visibly deflated. She stomped around to her side of the bed and went to sleep.

Hamza was crying and he knew he was supposed to pick him up . He finally did and went downstairs looking for someone to unload him on and secretly wishing that Azhar was awake because only he truly enjoyed Hamza at all hours of the day.

He heard commotion from their room and decided to turn around. This night wasn’t going peacefully at all. Now he had lost his sleep too. Like he did each night when he thought of the woman who was his only love in his brother’s arms.

CHAPTER 125:

Maha’s pregnancy put Nighat in a bad mood. She took the first opportunity to take Bilal to task.

He was having a lonely breakfast before heading to work when she sat down and addressed him.

“Is Maha pregnant again?”

He was transiently shocked at her knowing about it but she and Maha were so close that it was hard that this news hadn’t reached her. He had told Azhar and knew that Tanya was likely aware also.

He quietly nodded.

She shook her head in a gesture of disappointment.

“How do you plan to raise another child when Azhar watches your first half the time? Maha doesn’t do anything except bring a pregnancy in the mix every year. We are not animals to not have any control over these things”.

“I was thinking”, he said, putting the fork down and feeling his appetite evaporating, “We can have a nanny for Hamza and the newborn. She’s still very early. We have time to look for someone”.

“That’s not the point, Bilal”, she said, exasperated. “Does she realize that you can’t afford so many kids?”

Her sentence stung him.

“Ami!” He said, a little more harshly than he normally chose to, “Kids are Allah’s blessing. And I can certainly afford two kids. I had never thought that I’d only have one”.

She was momentarily quiet at this rare show of guts but picked up her pace again,

“Affording kids isn’t just about money. They need time and attention also. Hamza is so clingy. Truth be told, I think he came a little too early also.”

He couldn’t take it anymore. Seeing Tanya all the time, knowing she had an almost perfect marriage with Azhar, wondering if she ever missed him and then kinda guessing that she didn’t by how happy she always was, was hard for him. The news of Maha’s pregnancy had been a welcome distraction. He loved kids and even though he had asked Maha to consider her options for the pregnancy, he had only said it because she was distraught and she had to carry the baby after all. But Nighat’s words made him restless. Why did she always try to take things from him? Where was the congratulations? Or “I’m so happy I’ll have a grand baby soon”? Or “Take care of Maha”?

Hamza was his life. He knew Nighat wasn’t particularly affectionate towards him but to say that he was a mistake was outrightly vulgar and unfeeling.

“Ami!” He said without looking at her. “You always take things from me and I always give them to you. You took my life from me a few years ago. I lost my heart. Someone who was the reason I smiled and laughed and ate and talked was ripped from me. You’ve always tried to take Azhar from me. Now you want to take another joy from me. Stop it, please! Have mercy on me. If you want, I’ll gladly step away from you and your family. Really! I’ll take my wife and kids somewhere else. Just say the word”.

He wiped his hands on a kitchen towel lying on the table, picked up his car keys and disappeared.

He stepped out in the garden and saw Tanya watering some plants that she had planted a few days ago. She saw him too and smiled.

You’ve changed, Tanya, you’re finally Azhar’s.

Why are you not happy, Bilal?

Wordlessly they looked at each other. She came forward.

“Congratulations. Azhar told me”.

“Thanks”.

“Why the long face? I can understand if the mother is anxious but fathers are usually not worried at all”.

“Is that a joke?” He asked crossly.

She looked at him with her black eyes. They flashed like they used to when she was angry. She had not shown any emotion towards him in so many years that it was all he could do to not get closer and just claim a part of her again.

“No”, she said quietly, “Well, yes, it was a joke but it wasn’t meant to make you angry”.

“Well don’t joke with me”, he said, continuing his bad temper, “I’m not a clown that people joke at my expense”.

“If you’re upset about something”, she said, coming closer and somehow looking taller than she was, “Then take it up with who got you upset. You’re a mean person. Bye”.

She swiftly went inside.

What did I say, he reasoned with himself and sat in his car.

He thought about her the whole way. Why did it happen? Sometimes the urge to touch her and make her his was overwhelming.

Tanya kept her distance from him. That or she was really so blissfully happy that she didn’t get a chance to worry about him. He tried to get rid of evil thoughts but they followed him.

Tanya didn’t bother about Bilal much. She had really reached a place where Azhar had become the only entity she worried herself with. Her husband had a long way to complete rehabilitation and that involved a good amount of mental rehabilitation also. He was still taking a small dose of an antidepressant that they were titrating him off of. Bilal was the least of her concerns.

She went back in her room. Azhar was sleeping still.

“Wake up”, she kissed his cheek. “Wake up! Don’t you have to be at work?”

“No!” He mumbled. “Today they gave me the day off to have sex with my wife”.

“That’s a great reason to get the day off. But did you tell them that you’d be spending the day sleeping?”

He had woken up now.

“You’re very chirpy so early in the morning. What gives? Usually you bite when I wake you up”.

“No way!” She said, breaking into a spontaneous laugh, “I’m always bright-eyed and bushy tail in the morning”.

He smiled lazily.

“Come here for a bit. It’s not even seven. Why’re you up so early?”

“Wanted to water my plants before I go. Azhar!” She started haltingly.

“Hmm”, he kissed her forehead.

“Can I stay here today? I’m thinking if Maha is pregnant then I should stay here. They need me more here. May be I can help her? May be this is a chance for me to get close to everyone?”

“Okay”, unexpectedly he agreed, “It’s worth a try. If they give you trouble just call your driver and leave”.

She was a little annoyed by this recommendation to flee from any scene like a child but decided to hold her tongue.

He began to kiss her and she felt getting aroused.

“No, Azhar!” She objected as he tried to go beyond kisses.

“Tanya!” He said, propping himself on his left elbow, “I said yes to you staying here today so now I should get a yes to my thing too”.

“When will I make your breakfast?”

“I can have that at work”.

“May be you can have this at work too.” She teased him.

“Well, yes, may be! But I’d rather just get most of my stuff done for the day when I show up at work. Helps me feel prepared”.

“But…”

“Shh”, he sealed her lips with his mouth, “you talk a lot during a thing that normal people enjoy quietly”.

As she surrendered in his arms the memory of her hostile interaction with Bilal faded a little. She couldn’t help him. The bed that he slept in, literally and figuratively, was all made by him.

CHAPTER 126:

Staying at his home in the morning was, more than anything else, boring. She had nothing to do and people slept until late except Nighat who woke up early but stayed clear of everyone.

She usually wandered aimlessly around the house until Hamza woke up and then she occupied herself with him for a few hours before Azhar came.

“Really married life is so boring”, she’d think.

She looked forward to Azhar coming home. She had always thought it was desperate measures when women dressed up for their husbands when it was time for them to come home but found herself doing exactly that.

When it was time for him to come home she changed into a pink outfit with delicate lavender embroidery, wore her Swarovski earrings and sprayed herself with a gentle perfume.

She sat out in the garden and waited for him while looking at all the plants that were so very well-tended by her mother-in-law.

Nighat came out. She noticed Tanya in the garden and a strong urge to kick her out came over. She was very possessive about her garden and besides Azhar, no one was allowed to sow or water or prune anything. Azhar had fought for a patch for Tanya that she had begrudgingly given her but it stung her that her garden, the only thing she shared with her favorite child, now had another contender.

Tanya smiled at her. Truthfully, she was usually scared and intimidated of Nighat. Nighat gave off vibes of hostility and open dislike for her.

Nighat didn’t smile. Feelings of acceptance for Tanya were fleeting at best. At a visceral level, she hated her. She had lied to Azhar about her past. If she had told him that she was Bilal’s girlfriend once, this family would’ve never had to deal with her.

She walked over to Tanya.

“Are you going somewhere? What’s all the makeup for?”

She didn’t know what to say. Humiliation crept on her like it always did in moments of self-consciousness.

“One of Azhar’s friends is hosting a dinner tonight”, she managed.

“Which friend?”

“I didn’t ask”.

Nighat smiled mysteriously.

“Usually wives are very interested in knowing about their husband’s friends. Didn’t you get curious about who you were going to meet? There could be someone there that you might not like to meet”. She laughed at her own cryptic joke.

She looked at her mother-in-law quizzically.

“There was a girl”, Nighat continued, “Nina. She and Azhar met just a few months ago for…. you know”.

She waited silently for news of an affair that Azhar had briefly.

“Sadly, Azhar was still in so many therapies that he didn’t have the time to get to know her better. But beautiful girl! Went to IBA. Very ambitious, put together. Really tall with a show-stopping personality. Just the type of girl that I wanted for him”.

She was quiet. What do people say when they are openly insulted?

“I mean”, Nighat continued in a slightly meaner voice, “She would have made the perfect couple with Azhar”. Then she did a little double take, “I should probably not be talking about girls who pursued him. You probably don’t want to hear about them”.

Oh I love hearing about all these women that he supposedly dated and then settled for a short, unattractive woman. She thought savagely, angry at Nighat for torturing her. But to her mother-in-law she said,

“I think ultimately it’s about who he chose. And he chose me. So I don’t mind hearing about all the women who wanted him. Guess they weren’t his type”.

Just then Azhar’s car came into the driveway. Tanya walked to him.

Nighat stood at her place. She had counted on Tanya being somewhat stupid but she wasn’t stupid. She was actually smarter than she had thought she’d be.

She saw them talking and Azhar turned and did a little wave to his mom,

“Ami! We’ll eat out. Some of my friends are getting together and we just wanted to hang with a few new wives”.

“Sure”, Nighat shrugged her shoulders, “Do what you want”.

“What’s going on?” Azhar asked as soon as they were alone.

“Who’s Nina?” She asked abruptly .

“I don’t know her”.

“Your mom said she was this girl with an outstanding personality and was from IBA. Surely you can’t just forget girls who chase you to get married”.

He laughed.

“She chased me? Is that what Ami told you? Okay wanna know the truth?”

“Yes”, she said, her interest piqued.

“She was so disappointed to see me walking that she walked faster just to show me that we couldn’t be together. She was a total snob. We met at Nanajan’s place”.

She relaxed.

He looked at her curiously,

“Don’t let Ami tell you of all the girls I had. Bilal was the real playboy. I just lived vicariously through him”.

“Bilal was a playboy?”

“Oh yeah!” He said easily, “He wasn’t a hit and run but definitely had a long list of current and ex girlfriends. Until THE girlfriend. I told you about her, right?”

“Yeah”, she couldn’t wait for this conversation to be over.

It was evening in Karachi. The air was fragrant with the aroma of food around Bundoo Khan and the excitement of people enjoying Friday night was contagious.

Ghosts of her past haunted her but Azhar had taken away a lot of the emotional trauma. He made her feel like the only woman who had ever had his attention or love. But, she thought morosely, how stupid would it be for me to think that he never had another girl? I knew Bilal had many before me. Then why does a casual proposal for Azhar sting so much?

“What happened?” He said, stroking her face like he usually did while driving. “You know when husbands come home in the evening, women fight with them or talk to them or love them. Very few women become silent like this”.

Her run-ins with Nighat had started to have a foreboding quality to them. She had realized that Nighat struck to hurt and she usually came out of even a minute-long conversation with her with immense hurt.

Her feelings of inadequacy had a lot to do with how the non-disclosure of her past depended on Nighat and Bilal’s integrity. She felt always on guard, alert and like any minute the other shoe would fall.

This made her very vulnerable. Very insecure. And sometimes extremely anxious and sad.

But right now the overwhelming feeling that there was a girl somewhere that Azhar had met with the intention of being married to her was hard to ignore.

This is why I didn’t want to fall in love a second time, she thought, angry at herself. It messes my brain and scrambles everything. Now I can again not think straight because I love a man.

“What happened, lovey? Come here!” He pulled her over to his side. “What happened?”

“Nothing”, she said, her voice heavy with emotion.

He parked the car in the parking lot of a roadside restaurant and took her face in his hands.

“When I came home you were in the garden with Ami?”

“Yes but she has nothing to do with anything”.

“So there is something?” He said, quickly putting everything together.

“No, Azhar”, why is it necessary to share all my feelings with you all the time just because I’m married to you, she wanted to lash out.

“I know there’s something. What did she tell you? That I had girls throwing themselves on me all the time?”

“Really I don’t want to discuss that”, she started to get out of the car.

“You’re not getting out until you talk and you’re certainly not going to walk around thinking about me things that aren’t true or that someone else has said. How dare anyone say something about me that is not true? I hate this. If she said something I should get the chance to explain myself.”

“There’s nothing to explain”, she said and got out of the car.

The evening breeze helped her breathe. There was an aroma in the air of fresh barbecued food and she inhaled deeply. There was a time, she thought, way before Bilal came into my life when I could enjoy food for food, good company for good company. Bilal changed everything.

Azhar hadn’t come out of the car. He was seething at what Nighat might’ve said. But his anger was more at Tanya. She had totally dismissed him like he didn’t matter. He turned on the car, put down the window on her side and called out,

“I’m going home. If you’re coming then get in. If not, then get a ride from someone”.

She looked at him with cold fury. If he thought she was going to beg him to stay and be at the party then he was so wrong.

She got in wordlessly.

In complete silence, they reached home.

Azhar’s anger was rising rapidly. He wanted to break something. He also wanted to talk to Nighat and fix her for creating trouble.

They entered and the whole family was sitting at dinner. Tanya walked past everyone, not one to cater to anyone’s temper, and went into her room.

He debated talking to Nighat and would’ve if she was by herself. He walked after Tanya.

Nighat smirked to herself. Tanya wasn’t going to last. She was too weak to last. If she was smarter she wouldn’t have picked a fight with Azhar. No one in their right mind ever picked a fight with Azhar.

CHAPTER 127:

They didn’t speak for a week. It got heavy each time they were in their bedroom together and finally Azhar decided to sleep in the guest room.

No one else spoke with her either. She felt strangely alienated. Maha smirked each time Tanya tried to make small conversation with her. Bilal avoided her. Hashir and Aman lived in a world of their own and were usually outside the house. Nighat and Sabir had always kept her at arm’s length anyway.

Tanya couldn’t make any sense of it. She was totally flabbergasted. She didn’t know what had happened and how they got to this point where he had separated his room.

She felt lonely and estranged and then one morning she packed her bags and before anyone got up she called her mom’s driver and left for home.

How crazy is she, he thought, turning in his bed like he did every night. She doesn’t fight. Doesn’t argue. Takes that narcissistic female’s word for everything and doesn’t care that she’s kicking me out of our room.

He finally got up, determined to get a word in with his headstrong wife. She can’t run her own show on my life and expect me to not fact check it for her, he walked towards their room, a thousand arguments swirling in his head.

She wasn’t there. He looked in the garden, the kitchen, he even peeked into one of the back rooms, then went around the house to ask the people who worked for them. No one had seen her.

“Where are you?” He typed.

Her phone beeped. She looked at his text message and decided to ignore him. He had made her a stranger in his home. To think that he was always touting about how it was his job to empower her there and then carry out a whole showdown with her, move out of their room, ignore her and give her the silent treatment. She wasn’t exactly running to answer his text messages or phone calls.

He called after waiting for five minutes. She didn’t pick up.

Fifteen minutes later his car stopped at her place. It was 6 in the morning and she had just slept.

Their housekeeper opened the door for him and he came in angrily, climbing the stairs to her room, furious at how she just left their home.

The door to her bedroom barged open. She woke up, frightened at who it could be. Then she saw him and her eyes narrowed.

“What are you doing here?” She asked coolly.

“Shut the fuck up”, he growled, “How dare you leave our home, come back here in the middle of the night, and not tell me?”

But Azhar and Tanya were in many ways cut from the same cloth and he forgot that sometimes . She was just as headstrong and many pieces of furniture in this house bore signs of her rage and fury too.

“No curse words when you speak with me”, she was even colder when she spoke this time.

“You’re not going to tell me how to speak”, he advanced towards her.

“I think”, she said, meanness taking over, “I will tell you how to speak with me. You’ve lived too long enjoying the brute life”.

In one swift graceful sprint he grabbed her and shook her,

“I hate people assuming something about me that’s not true”.

She knew that fighting him would only lead to more physically rough driving in of his point. She calmly said,

“I didn’t assume anything. I asked you something which I hope you answered truthfully. I wasn’t upset with you. I was just not feeling okay. But like all egotistical ass holes you thought it was about you. It wasn’t”.

“Are you calling me an ass hole? OR EGOTISTICAL?”

“Yes, both”, she said calmly. “Now please let me go and we can talk like two people who have known civilization”.

“I won’t let you go”, he said, holding her even tighter, “I haven’t touched you in a week. I won’t let you go”.

She looked in his eyes and felt her heart giving away.

“I haven’t slept all night”, she said, tired of the fight that seemed stupid now, “I had finally slept after more than a week and you opened this door with the loudest bang it has ever had to endure”.

“I haven’t slept either”, he said, his eyes sporting red streaks of fatigue, sleeplessness and anger, “for weeks now. First because your presence didn’t let me sleep and then your absence kept me awake”.

“Azhar”, a carnal need for him always betrayed her, “Why’re you so angry with me? What happened? Can I not sometimes be quiet without you feeling it’s about you?”

His head came down and he kissed her like he had never before. The entire story of their existence was in how he kissed her, held her and breathed so close to her.

She ran her hands through his hair, pulling him closer, trying to get closer until he put his arms around her and picked her off the floor.

They kissed for many minutes. Many suns went up and down outside. Seasons changed. New life took birth. But they kept kissing.

She finally broke off, gasping for air, then realized that she hadn’t had her fill and lowered her head onto his face again. He took her back in, always willing, always ready.

With Tanya in his arms he walked to her small bed. He put her down, as she stared up at him, her eyes with a thousand promises. He got into bed beside her and played with her hair,

“It was the worst week of my life”, he said, “and I’ve had some pretty bad ones”.

She kissed his chest, melting in the familiarity of his body that was so peaceful to her.

“Mine too”, she murmured.

“Don’t ever be quiet like that”, he said, kissing her hair, “I told you once before but you don’t remember probably. Fighting and arguing solve things”.

“I remember”, she said marveling at his memory, “Anger makes me blind and forgetful”.

He laughed.

“Me too”, he admitted, “but love is bigger than anger so it wins always”.

“Azhar”, she said, suddenly bashful as his hands started to explore her, “Check first if the door is locked”.

“I locked it when I came in”, he winked impishly, “I knew I’d be fighting and arguing in here naked with you so I locked it”.

CHAPTER 128:

Nighat tried to hide her shock as she saw them exchanging passionately heated looks over dinner that night. She had come back with him home in the evening and by the looks of it, he was going to be sleeping in her bed from then on.

She had never imagined that Azhar would be a lost cause but of course ! Men can’t be trusted around women and Tanya was a bad drug. She had had that effect on two of her sons now.

It was hard to give up Azhar. Come to think of it, she had never had him as her own ever but now he had grown distant in a way that she hadn’t experienced before and it was hurtful. Also, Sabir had been showing his old ways recently again and just last night, he had thrown an ashtray in her direction just because she had mentioned a dinner with her father that weekend.

Maha had become insufferable again. Whether her pregnancies traumatized her or not, they certainly traumatized others. And this time around she was twice the mean that she was with Hamza’s pregnancy.

She raged and yelled at the smallest things. Usually Tanya was the receiver of her snide comments and insults since she never served back. Nighat knew that Azhar was silently watching and giving her the benefit of being Bilal’s wife. Everyone knew Maha was very special to him and her pregnancies meant much more to Azhar than they ever did to even Bilal.

One thing that she gave Tanya a lot of credit for was staying in everyday instead of running off to her mother’s place each morning and helping with house chores. Of course she didn’t say this to her face but she acknowledged how Tanya’s way of living was an exact opposite of Maha. Maha lived with entitlement. Tanya lived with humility.

They were sitting on the dinner table and waiting for food to be served. Tanya was making salad in the kitchen and Azhar was due to arrive any minute. Soon they heard his car coming in and his steps followed a few seconds later.

“Tanya!” His characteristic “I’m home” announcement was her name.

“In the kitchen”, she yelled back.

He looked inside and saw her making salad and grinned,

“Never seen a sexier cook”.

“Help me, engineer, if you wanna eat. Saleem is sick so I made dinner”.

He walked in gallantly and immediately started examining the mutton curry that she had made.

“Smells delicious. What can I do?”

“Erm…”, she looked around, “can you whip up some yogurt for raita?”

“Excuse me”, he said, throwing his hands up, “I take umbrage that you would ask an expert chef like myself to make raita”.

Bilal entered,

“What are you two fools doing in here?”

Tanya glared at him,

“Make raita if you wanna eat”.

“I don’t eat raita. Can I make the salad?”

“I’m already done with it”.

He looked at the bowl,

“It doesn’t look done. Where are the onions?”

“I don’t like onions”, she said.

“So we have to eat what you like?” He asked, smiling slightly as he baited her.

“Bilal!” She said forcefully but quietly enough so only he could hear, “Do you want to get started on the raita or should I call Maha?”

This always worked with Bilal who immediately started looking for yogurt in the fridge.

“Children! We can’t fight in here”, Azhar said, sensing unrest in the kitchen.

“I’m not fighting.” Bilal immediately defended himself, “Tanya really has a bad temper when she’s cooking like she’s doing everyone a favor”.

“Well, she is doing us a favor”, Azhar said reasonably.

“Yes! I am, Bilal, but if you don’t want my favor then eat something else”.

“I want to eat what you’ve made”, Bilal protested, “and Azhar wants me to eat it too. Right, Ajji?”

“I’d love for my brother to eat”, Azhar said, then added, “if you won’t eat then I won’t eat either. Now the cook can decide if she’d like the beneficiaries to reduce in number”.

“Thanks for calling me your benefactor”. She retorted.

The brothers laughed as Azhar checked on the vegetable rice that was steaming slowly on the stove.

“What’s going on here?” A voice as soft as a snake hissing stopped them all in their tracks.

May be because she had spent a lifetime in abuse! May be because her confidence was only paper-thin in reality! May be because just someone going to medical school was enough to make her relive injustice everyday but Nighat found it hard to like Tanya. She also didn’t like any situation where Tanya and Bilal were speaking to each other.

“We are helping Tanya with dinner”, Azhar said casually.

“I see that”, she remarked, “I sometimes wonder why girls need so much help with household chores these days. Shouldn’t they come naturally to a woman?”

“Well, one might argue that they should come naturally to a man too”, Azhar shrugged.

“Well it’s not a man’s job to work around the house. I know there are ideas of egalitarian marriages that run in some of us but a woman and a man have very unique roles in a marriage”. She said, looking him squarely in the eye.

Azhar laughed. He always started his rage with his high-pitched, uncharacteristically sardonic laugh.

“And YOU are the authority on marriage? You? Who rejected a girl in this house because she loved your son? You talk about marriage and unique roles and a man’s role? When you emasculate Abu and Bilal everyday of their lives? Keep your lifeless sermon to yourself”.

Tanya, Bilal and Nighat were stunned in their places. Everyday of their lives they lived in fear and sometimes could see how close to pulling the curtain on this lie Azhar was.

The atmosphere which was one of friendship, banter and camaraderie just a minute ago had changed.

“I don’t know what you mean by that”, Nighat said, attempting a hand at sounding hurt, “But I’m sure your grandmothers from both sides won’t agree with you. Even though you’ve never respected me as your mother or a woman, you liked them and I can tell you that I embody their principles”.

“That”, he turned to face her again and pointing a finger at her, “That is why I don’t agree with you. You EMBODY things that people have told you. You don’t think before you EMBODY all that crazy talk. You read Karl Marx and then chose to listen to women who spent their lives in subservience. I sometimes wonder, Ami, who ruined your life like this? You’re outstandingly gorgeous, insanely smart, fluently superfluous and yet! You parade patriarchy like you earned it through hard work”.

He realized she was smiling at his description of her. She looked at Bilal and said,

“Don’t you think that’s the nicest thing Azhar has ever said about me?”

“Hands down”! Bilal didn’t miss a beat.

They all laughed together.

Nighat came forward, looked at the curry simmering on the stove, looked at Tanya and said,

“It smells delicious. Thanks for making dinner for us”.

She walked out and settled herself on the dining place waiting to be served.

Tanya and Bilal looked at Azhar,

“I’m telling you, man”, Bilal said, shaking his gorgeous head of dark hair, “You could do no wrong in her eyes. You openly diss her and she embraces you more like a son than me who is always sucking up to her”.

“No kidding”, Tanya said, in awe of her fearlessly opinionated husband.

They laughed again.

CHAPTER 129:

She woke up with severe nausea. She tried to get her bearings but a huge wave of sickness took her breath away. She ran into the bathroom and threw up violently.

Azhar came after her,

“What happened?” He said holding her as she retched again.

She couldn’t speak. She never got sick and this was embarrassing and painful.

She started sweating profusely. She knew it was the fish the night before. She never did great with seafood.

Finally the heaves subsided. She picked up her head from the sink and said weakly,

“Can I have some water?”

He ran and got her some. She drank all of it and asked for more.

“What’s going on?” He asked as he came back with more. “Why’re you throwing up? Did you eat something that you shouldn’t have?”

“I think the fish”, she said weakly.

“Don’t walk, silly”, he scolded her as she made to move to her bed and picked her up.

She laughed at Azhar acting like throwing up was such a big deal.

Once she was in bed he fussed over her for a few minutes, checking her temperature and making sure she was covered.

“What happened, Taanu?” He lay down next to her, concerned at this sudden illness.

“Nothing”, she soothed him, “Everyone can get sick once in a while. Don’t be so worried”.

He took her in his arms and kissed her forehead.

“Do you believe in the evil eye?”

Tanya snorted. Azhar stared at her with a bemused expression and then said in a hurt voice,

“You can laugh but I can even tell you whose eye got you”.

“Sure Grandma”, she said laughing still, “Whose was it?”

“I’m not sharing my theories on the possible culprit if you don’t take it seriously”.

“No one gave me the evil eye”, she rolled to him feeling a lot better and thinking that this side of him that was superstitious and theorizing was so endearing, “My husband says so many prayers for our safety. I can’t get the evil eye”.

“No you can’t”, he said, hugging her closer, “You should care for yourself. You’re very precious to me. Everyone should care for you. The whole world should care for my Tanya”.

She settled closer to him as another wave of nausea hit her. She didn’t think she was going to throw up this time. Just snuggling with him helped her feel better.

He stroked her hair tenderly. She finally drifted back to sleep.

He contemplated telling Nighat about Tanya being sick or calling Asma and dropping Tanya off at her place for the day. Then he called his boss and called out.

Her eyes opened and she was momentarily amazed at Azhar’s scent lingering around her even though he wasn’t there. Then she noticed her head resting on his shoulder and Azhar lightly snoring with his head above her own and his arms holding her protectively.

Sometimes loving Azhar didn’t seem enough. She felt like there should’ve been another feeling, something next level that could be given to a person like him. Love became trivial and almost frivolous when she thought of the most dominant feeling in regards to their relationship.

She kept breathing in his scent and felt her nausea doing better with his closeness.

He woke up and looked down at her.

“When did you wake up, little one?” He asked sleepily.

“Just now. You didn’t have to take the day off for me. I’m okay”.

He pulled her closer.

“No one, not even my wife, tells me how to care for my wife”.

She kissed his neck.

“Well, in that case, your wife is really really thankful”.

“You’re my life, Tanya! Don’t use these superficial words to thank me. You can pay me in the form of sexual favors”.

She laughed and hugged him closer.

“Those are not favors”, she purred.

“They’re not?”

“No! They’re more like sustenance. I can’t function without them”.

They made slow and lazy love. Somehow sex fixes everything, she thought happily, now I feel great.

They went out after changing out of their night clothes and quite predictably, Maha was having an epic tantrum.

“I don’t get where everyone is. Why isn’t anyone here in the kitchen to fix lunch? It’s noon and no one cares”.

Normally she slept until after noon but it looked like Hamza had woken her up today.

Their house help was scurrying in all directions and Nighat was nowhere in sight.

“What happened?” Azhar asked, coming forward and frowning at the commotion.

“What are you doing here?” She snapped. “You didn’t go to work?”

“What’s going on?” He asked patiently. “Tanya isn’t feeling well so I took the day off”.

The words had barely left his lips when she turned, thundered towards Nighat’s room and banged on her door.

“Tanya is sick and her husband takes the day off. I’m pregnant, carrying that imbecile’s child, throwing up, cramping all the time and he’s nowhere to be found. He has to build your stupid business and care for this family. Why is everyone else just here to enjoy the fruit of his labor?”

The door opened and Nighat appeared out of her pitch black room. The effect that she gave in an all white outfit with a black background was scary.

She stood there, towering over Maha who was quite tall herself.

“Why did you feel the need”, she asked with a venomous voice that could send chills through a dead body , “to bang on my door? It is no one’s fault if your husband doesn’t like you and prefers spending time away from you”.

“He doesn’t like spending time away from me”, Maha was a formidable opponent, “He can’t get a minute to be with me or his son. He is always busy. When he’s not working at that goddamn factory, he’s busy humoring his crippled brother and his jobless wife. No one works in this house except Bilal. And I. We are the only two who work and feed all of you. He earns. I cook”.

Nighat smiled. A cold, patronizing smile.

“First of all, let’s just establish that you are not equal to Bilal. Work wise, I meant. He works tirelessly to build and nurture a business that is his father’s pride and joy. And he has done a fantastic job with it. Secondly, Azhar, even though crippled as you say, has a much more productive life than yours. He earns for himself and his wife. And contributes to this household exactly the same as your husband. None of you pays the bills or has put any money towards this house that all of you proudly call your own. Your father-in-law does all of that.

Now let’s come to your woes about how you cook. You don’t cook now. Not anymore. You cooked a long time ago. And then we hired a cook when Azhar got into that accident.

And as far as Hamza is concerned, we all know your involvement with that particular project of yours. Half the day he spends with Tanya. Then Aman takes over when he comes back from school. And the evening is split between Azhar and Bilal.

And since you mentioned that goddamn business! Your make up that you buy so much of and does nothing to make you look better, the jewelry that you have so much of but does nothing to add value to you and the clothes that you buy almost every week but do nothing to make you look presentable, are all paid for with that goddamn business. If I were you I’d make myself useful in exchange for the many favors that you enjoy just by being a wife that my son never desired. If I were you I’d try to look within and try to see why my husband didn’t want me. But you focus on other people more”, she looked meaningfully at Tanya.

She made to go inside her room, then turned around and addressed Maha with what seemed like an attempt at making a casual point but everyone could tell that she dragged her victims as far as she could,

“You called Bilal an imbecile and Azhar crippled. I don’t appreciate that. Don’t attack my kids. I won’t tolerate that. I will never tolerate that. I’m warning you. If your tongue slips again I’ll make sure that you end up back where you came from”.

She glided back into her room.

Tanya looked on with her mouth slightly open. She had never seen anyone as masterfully in control of their anger. She had never seen someone unleash their wrath with such careful measurement. It was awe-inspiring.

Azhar went forward to Maha,

“You didn’t deserve that”, he said lovingly, “You didn’t deserve that at all. Are you hungry?”

Maha nodded with huge tears in her eyes.

“Let’s go!” He hugged her. He hated Nighat with a passion for intimidating her and insulting her in front of everyone. She hadn’t said anything that deserved the insults that Nighat had hurled at her.

“We will eat outside. I’m home today. When we come back all you have to do is rest. I’m watching Tanya. I can watch Hamza also. No one has to worry about him”.

He picked up Hamza,

“Come on, buddy”, he said kissing his chubby cheeks, Hamza’s gray eyes a very close match with his own, “Let’s go out and eat. This house has so much meanness. Let’s get your mommy to eat something. She’s hungry and your baby sister is hungry too”.

Maha laughed softly and hugged Azhar. Then she cried bitterly.

“Don’t cry”, he said hugging her and feeling a pang for not being able to do more, “You don’t have to cry. Bilal loves you. Very much. No one tells you that he doesn’t love you. Let’s leave Ami’s mean ways here and eat something. Anything you want”.

Maha hiccuped audibly. She felt humiliated. Tanya’s presence added insult to the injury. She loved Azhar but she couldn’t love Tanya. Tanya had changed the dynamic in this house. She had affected everything with her presence. She also had the type of marriage that Maha never had and it hurt. She wanted Bilal to be just a little more involved and loving but he had grown more distant as their marriage had gotten older. All of it hurt. Sometimes jealousy isn’t overwhelming, she thought as Azhar hugged her and she felt like he was the only one who cared about her, sometimes it’s a slow and smoldering destruction of self.

CHAPTER 130:

The nausea came back the next day. And then the next. She had nausea each morning she woke up but hadn’t thrown up since the first morning.

She missed her period. She realized in horror that she hadn’t had her period in about six weeks. She went back and tried to remember when the last time was that she had had a period and couldn’t remember.

Then she remembered. She was supposed to have her period right around the time she had the fight with Azhar and they had sex at her mom’s place. She remembered she had packed her tampons for potentially having her period there but then had returned here the same day and had forgotten all about it.

She panicked. Could she be pregnant? But it was not possible. They were being so careful.

Are you being careful? A tiny voice asked. You don’t care about being careful when he’s with you.

I know, I know! She wanted to bang her head against the wall. I should’ve been careful. I should’ve used help if I needed it.

She cried a few empty tears at a pregnancy that she didn’t want. She had just gotten married. Why couldn’t she have a period of just the two of them? She felt resentful of the baby.

She had a pit in her stomach the whole day and felt tired as the day was coming to a close and it was time for Azhar to come home.

She decided to shower and change her clothes to feel a little better. She wore a fuchsia outfit with a lighter pink dupatta and decided to lie down until he came home.

He entered and saw her sleeping. He walked over to her. Her hair was wet and she wore the most gorgeous outfit. It wasn’t surprising that someone loved her as madly as he thought they did. She was perfect.

She stirred and opened her eyes. He was taking his clothes off and rummaging in the closet for a shirt. She watched him, her heart getting heavy at how her life was going to change now.

What’s wrong with me? She scolded herself. Women love this. They want to get pregnant and give birth to the children of their lovers. I’m being rewarded without asking for it. What’s wrong with me?

He turned around and saw her watching him.

“What happened?” He said coming over. “Normally I find my wife anxiously waiting for me. Are you feeling okay?”

“Yes”, she smiled but tears welled in the corners of her eyes.

He was instantly alarmed.

“What happened? Who said….”

“Azhar! I think I might be pregnant”.

His face broke into a huge smile.

“Really?”

“Are you happy? You said we shouldn’t think about it for a year”.

“Yes I said it but really who can wait for a year? I can’t. I want our own baby. Someone I never have to give to someone at night so they can feed them and put them to bed. I want my own”.

She relaxed at this seemingly stupid but profoundly endearing outlook.

“Why am I not happy?” She said miserably.

“You will be. You’re carrying it so of course you have more things to think about than just a baby coming here in nine months. But you’ll catch the excitement in time too. You and Maha are both going to be pregnant together! This was like our biggest dream. Bilal and I wanted kids very close in age and these two will be practically the same age. Where’s your pregnancy test?”

She realized this was mighty idiotic of her to announce her pregnancy without confirming it.

“I didn’t check it”.

He looked like someone had hit him over the head with a bat.

“So you don’t know for sure?”

“No”.

“Okay”, his face fell comically and she couldn’t help laughing.

“We can get one now but my dates and symptoms are adding up”.

“We have to get that test. For two reasons. One it will confirm it and second I always wanted to see the two lines on my wife or girlfriend’s pregnancy test”.

“Girlfriend’s?”

“Well I didn’t really care about marriage and all so really thought I’d be in a domestic partnership with someone”.

“You’re a weird one”, she looked at him critically, “Then why did you force me to get married? I’d have loved to be just a girlfriend”.

“Oh you would’ve never been just a girlfriend”, he said, taking her face and kissing her full on the mouth, “you would’ve been THE girlfriend. The woman who all ex and future girlfriends would’ve been compared against”.

“So there would’ve been future girlfriends? And exes?”

“Of course. That’s the whole point. However you would’ve had full autonomy to remain committed to me”.

“Thanks but I wouldn’t want that autonomy. I would’ve wanted to have many ex and future boyfriends also”.

“No no no”, he shook his head patronizingly, “You’re a one man’s woman. You wouldn’t have been happy with many men”.

“I would’ve dated just one man at any given point in time. That would be a one man’s woman”.

“You’re not getting the whole patriarchal infrastructure that helps me be a superior being to you. Let me explain it to you….”

“Azhar! Pregnancy sticks”, she yelled.

“Of course pregnancy sticks!” He jerked her towards himself, “was just trying to distract you”.

She snuggled closer and breathed in his scent. She immediately felt calmer and her head cleared up a bit.

I’d love to have Azhar’s baby, she thought as she felt an overwhelming rush of emotions for the man who had erased every bad memory.

“Come on”, he said, picking up his car keys, “come with me. You’ll feel better”.

She relaxed immediately upon sitting in the car. This is so good, she thought, just me and Azhar. May be a car seat in the back wouldn’t be too bad either.

He got down at the pharmacy then came back and asked her to come in with him.

“There are so many”, he said with a totally confused look, “which is the good one? The best one? Get the one that’s the most accurate”.

They checked the aisle where pregnancy kits were.

“Mother….”, he cursed softly, “Look at these bastards. They’re saying 99 percent accurate so if it doesn’t give the right results no one can drag them into court”.

“No one drags pregnancy kit makers into court for faulty results, honey”, she responded patiently.

“Well I would”, he said pompously, “It’s a thing of principle. They ought to know that people are depending on these results”.

With her stomach sinking at what awaited her she grabbed one that looked like was bought the most and went up to the counter.

“Is this a good one?” Azhar couldn’t help himself. “Does this give an accurate result? Because we aren’t sure how long it has been since my wife might be pregnant”.

She squeezed his hand, willing him to shut up.

The man at the register looked like he fielded these questions on the daily as he said wryly,

“It’s the best. But there is a one percent chance of it not detecting a pregnancy”.

“Aha”, Azhar said wisely and like putting together a big metaphysical conundrum, “So she could still be pregnant even if the test is negative”.

The man shrugged his shoulders, obviously not knowing what to say.

Tanya just wanted to disappear.

“Taanu! Make sure you do it as soon as we get home”, he started as soon as they got in the car.

“Azhar”, she almost screamed, “stop it. You’re making me nervous”.

“I’m nervous, man”, he said, visibly sweating, “what are you talking about? You have it so you know all the symptoms. My entire belief system revolves around this stupid stick which isn’t even a hundred percent accurate. If I was carrying the baby I would’ve peed right at the counter and checked the results. I don’t know how you’re so calm”.

She didn’t say anything. Azhar’s enthusiasm for babies was well-known and contagious. His constant ramblings since she had talked about it were starting to spark a little excitement in her too.

They rushed into their room before anyone could stop them.

“Oh”, Tanya said after looking at the box, “It says morning urine”.

“Huh?” He said not making sense of it.

“Look”, she showed him, “it says morning urine. May be because the test would be more sensitive when there’s more hormone. May be the hormone is highest in the morning”.

“What’s this may be that you keep saying?” He said, exasperated at her lack of knowledge on this medical and womanly thing. “You’re a doctor. Don’t you know how it works? How stupid do you have to be to go to medical school and forget the most important class?”

“I’m not stupid”, she screamed as loudly as him, “I’ll check it now and get it over with”.

“Don’t say get it over with”, he retaliated, “is that your attitude about this? We are being blessed by Allah even though Allah knows how many sins you and I must have committed and this is how you say thanks?”

“Allah goes by intention”, she said calmly, “now let me do this”.

She peed in the privacy of the bathroom and tried her best to ignore Azhar’s incessant inquiries about “what happened”, “what came out” and “how’s it going”?

She finally opened the door.

“I’ll pass out”, he said faintly, “I’ll pass out. I can’t take it”.

Smiling, she held up the kit.

“Oh God! Oh God! Two lines, two good lines. See even a bad, faint one would’ve been okay too but we got two good lines. That’s really, don’t kill me for speaking highly of myself, a sign of high quality sperm, if I may say so myself. Really, Tanya! We have been so careful. Well may be not as careful as we should’ve been but am I a man or what!” He whooped in the air and circled their bed, trying to burn off some of his euphoria.

“Azhar”, she said quietly, “Would you like to kiss me?”

He stopped in his tracks. She looked at him for many minutes and he was struck by how young she was and how this was a huge change that her body will have to go through. He came over and picked her up in his arms,

“Do you have any idea how happy I am?” He asked huskily.

“I can hazard a guess”, she replied smartly.

He kissed her. Gently. His kisses always signified his possession of her but today he was even more assertive. His mouth didn’t leave hers for a long time and Tanya wished they could just live in this room forever with their baby.

He finally put her down in their bed.

“You have to take care of yourself, okay?”

She nodded.

“We don’t have to tell anyone right now, not even your mom. I want us to go to the doctor’s this week and get some tests and evaluations done. Then we can make a plan about the best place for you to spend your pregnancy”.

Something in his voice made her ask,

“Can’t I be here?”

He kissed her mouth again,

“We’ll see”.

She hugged him tighter. He pulled her in his arms and stroked her back lightly.

“I want people to care for you”, he said softly, “I can move with you into your mom’s place for the time that you’re pregnant. We will come back afterwards”.

She removed her head from his neck and asked innocently,

“Won’t your folks be angry?”

He waved his hand,

“Angry isn’t something that my folks get based on a principle or a trigger. They’re always angry. And I don’t like making my life decisions based on what others feel”.

She loved him. The only man after her father who had protected her and thought about her. Who knew how to take the brunt of it while shielding her. How did she end up with him? Why didn’t she meet him before she met Bilal? Her slate would’ve been so much cleaner then.

“I love you, Azhar”, she nuzzled his neck.

“I love you too, Tanya, and don’t worry about anything. No one can mess with my woman or my child”.

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