All’s Fair…. Part 14

CHAPTER 131:

“Congratulations”, Dr. Shirazi smiled, “You’re going to be parents. It looks like Tanya might be about ten weeks pregnant”.

Azhar didn’t say anything. He just beamed. Tanya, however, was interested in something else,

“But I was hoping to apply for my residency this year and it looks like I’ll be giving birth mid cycle”.

“What does residency have to do with the baby?” The doctor asked politely.

She was quiet. She was happy but a part of her felt cheated out of many plans. She kept reminding herself to be thankful and then fell into a little depression at how this was all so unexpected.

“What happened?” Azhar asked. “Don’t overthink it”.

They came back home and she felt so tired that she slept immediately.

She woke up in the morning and saw that Azhar had left. She lay in bed for an hour trying to have enough strength to get up and fix breakfast but then drifted off to sleep.

Her door opened with a bang. It was Maha.

She was now visibly pregnant at about sixteen weeks and milked it for all its worth.

“Why’re you still sleeping?” Tanya noticed that she had recently adopted a rather rude behavior towards her and lost no chance to humiliate her or boss her.

“I wasn’t feeling well”, she said, getting up finally and aiming to stand up on her feet as well as she could.

“YOU’RE not feeling well”? Maha rolled her eyes. “What happened to you?”

She got up and walked past Maha into the family room. Nighat was there.

“Tanya! I don’t like sleeping until late”, she said disapprovingly.

“I’m not feeling well”, she said feebly.

Nighat audibly groaned.

“Well! Saleem is sick again. Get used to it! The doctor has said he has prostate cancer and he’ll be taking many days off. God knows how many problems I have to face with house help. Please fix lunch and then dinner. If you need help, you can ask me”.

Tanya felt her temper rising. Why the hell was she ordering her like this?

“Well I can’t be responsible for both lunch and dinner. If Saleem is going to be unavailable then why am I the only one to get used to it? You”, she turned to Maha, “Should be helping too”.

“I would if I could”, Maha retorted.

“What’s stopping you?” Tanya snapped.

“In case you stepped out of your self-serving bubble for two seconds, I’m pregnant”.

“You’re pregnant”, Tanya said viciously, “You don’t have an illness that you stay in bed all day. There are women who work laboriously while pregnant to feed their families”.

Nighat stepped in,

“Tanya! I don’t like that tone”.

She stared at her incredulously,

“You don’t like MY tone? And her tone is okay? Or even yours? Are all of your tones okay? I’m telling you that I’m not feeling well and you have no compassion. But Maha needs to be catered to. Listen to me!” She walked up to Nighat, “I’m not cooking. There are a million places that you can order from. I’m going to sleep and”, she turned to Maha, “if you ever dare step into my room again, I will fix your stupid ass”.

She turned on her heel and stormed into her room.

Nighat remained cool. She didn’t lose her temper over fools. She knew something was up because she had never seen Tanya lose her temper like this. And she was very smart. She had lived a life of postpartum depression and pregnancy blues. She could quickly put two and two together where a madly in love couple and a hormonal rage were involved. Just thinking about it made her lose her appetite.

Tanya remained in her room for the rest of the day. It was hard for her to live here with her hormones getting her into trouble.

Azhar came earlier than usual. Nighat watched him coming in anxiously, not calling out for Tanya and making a beeline for his room.

She knew. She knew Tanya was pregnant and she knew Azhar won’t tell her. But she had to know. She had to know every last detail about Azhar’s child.

He found her curled up in bed and immediately got worried,

“What happened? Are you okay?”

She felt her temper rising again even though she had worked hard to calm herself down the whole day .

“Am I okay?” She said, her eyes flashing, “No! Since you asked, no I’m not okay. I’ve not eaten anything since this morning. I was asked to cook for all of you by none other than Maha and then your mother joined in. I left them hanging because I’m not a saint to cook and serve you guys like you expect me to”.

“You haven’t eaten?” He said, concern taking him about how it was important that someone watched her nourishment.

“No and I don’t want to”, she huffed and pulled the covers over her.

He pulled them back.

“Don’t be silly”, he said calmly, “let’s go out and eat. What do you want to eat?”

“Nothing”, she said angrily, “Nothing. I’m not hungry. I hate how your mother spoke with me. And I hate how she has given Maha the license to speak insultingly with me. It’s humiliating and belittling. I’ve never taken as much insult as this marriage has brought me. I hate everything”.

He was quiet. A storm was already brewing in him. He gave Maha a lot of benefit of being stupid and emotional but she couldn’t insult Tanya. As for Nighat, he knew how to take care of her.

“If you don’t get up”, he said with indifference to her monologue, “I’ll pick you up and put you in the car and then force feed you. I don’t like women who play games”.

“You think I’m playing games?” She shrieked and jumped out of the bed. “Screw you, Azhar! Screw you! Get lost. I will hurt you. I’m not joking. I will physically hurt you”.

“You will physically hurt me?” He laughed derisively. “Better people than you have tried and didn’t get too far”.

Tears came over her. This whole family is a bunch of frauds and tyrants, she thought bitterly, why did I marry him? He’s just like them.

He picked up his car keys, then came back and picked her up.

“Put me down! I will really gouge your eyes out”.

“Try it”, he said, never afraid.

She stared at him for a long time then gave up,

“Put me down. I’m coming”.

As they got into the car, Azhar saw Bilal’s car coming in.

“Billu! We are going to eat out. If I were you I’d go out too. No food in there”.

Bilal immediately backed his car out saying,

“You don’t have to tell me twice”.

“What do you want to eat?” He asked as they got on the road.

“Nothing”, she said, wanting to cry.

He remained quiet until they reached Student Biryani. There was a buzz of people and as expected, a lot of Dow students were there. She recognized many of her upper years who were now working at Civil and some juniors whom she had been friends with.

“This place is always so happy”, he remarked, “remember happy?” He asked comically.

“No”, she said sullenly, “I don’t”.

“That’s a shame”, he said, “because I’ve never been happier”.

They watched people eating in their cars or sitting in the chairs that were carelessly strewn outside the humble eatery that boasted the best biryani in Karachi or just standing and eating. Many seemed romantic couples and were holding hands or standing close together, a feeble attempt at extinguishing some of the sexual fire that they felt.

I was one of these people many moons ago and then Bilal happened and everything changed, she thought sadly.

Azhar was uncharacteristically quiet. He was usually very boisterous and chatty. Today he couldn’t be bothered to cuddle her, pamper her or humor her. He was quiet like he was waiting for a good opportunity to explode.

But she didn’t care. He could explode for all she cared. She was starving and because she hated confrontation, her run-in with the women of his family that morning had left her without an appetite. She didn’t want to eat even though her stomach growled mutinously every now and then.

He finally got out and got two plates of biryani for them. She saw he was speaking with someone over the phone. He then went in and got more biryani. Obviously he was getting food for people at home.

Her temper rose again. Wow! So there’s a reward for those crummy people for being nasty to his wife! She found it hard to control herself when he came back. She lashed out as soon as he opened the car door.

“Wow! You know sometimes all your high talk about how you’re my protector and my advocate becomes just that! Talk! Fluff”.

He didn’t say anything.

“You get them food and drinks when I told you what they did to me this morning. You’re just every bit as heartless as they are”.

“Tanya! Eat!”

“No! You can eat mine too. I won’t eat. Drop me off at my place. I don’t want to be with you. I hate you”.

He found a place to safely put his biryani. He held her hand.

“Why’re you bothering about sad people so much? You haven’t talked about anything since I’ve come back. I don’t want to talk about them.”

“If you had just listened I wouldn’t have fixated on it so much”.

“I’ve listened. But I don’t want to lash out on Maha. That’s not my place. So I’ll talk to Bilal. Ami is mine to handle. But I don’t want us to talk about them a lot. It sullies everything”.

She cried bitterly. Nighat’s attitude was easier to take because she had given up on that relationship because of how hot and cold it had always been but Maha’s rudeness affected her for many reasons. She was over Bilal but Maha was his wife and she had wanted to forge a little camaraderie with her, even a friendship. But on the contrary, they had become rivals.

He rubbed her knuckles a little, then said,

“I’ll drop you off to your place tomorrow. And then I’ll come back and tell them you’re pregnant. In the evening I’ll come back with all of our stuff for enough days that we won’t have to be back to get anything. How does that sound?”

“I’m sorry”, she said amidst tears, “I’m always making trouble for you. This won’t go down well with them”.

He kissed her face and held it,

“I don’t care about anyone except you. And I’ll talk to Bilal in the morning about Maha. She can’t do that. Are you going to be comfortable at your place? If you don’t want to go there then we can consider some other options too. We can rent and be away from it all. Would you rather do that?”

She thought for sometime and then said,

“I’ll be okay with Mama. If you’re there too”.

His hands moved to her waist,

“Now can I have a smile please?”

She gave him a tearful smile.

“Can I ask you something?” He asked lovingly.

“Yes”, she said, anticipating something romantic and touching.

“What’s the recommendation for sex during pregnancy by the International Society of Sex?”

She snorted loudly.

“Well they say husbands should have sex in other forms with their wives during a pregnancy”.

“Really?” He said excitedly. “I’d love to try new things. I’m kinda bored of the same old”.

“Yes so you can try massaging my back, rubbing my feet, feeding me grapes……”

“Not interested”, he put his hands up, “I had a very different plan for sex in other forms when you mentioned that”.

She laughed and kissed him before he could. He squeezed her body lightly and let her rest her head on his shoulders.

Tomorrow, he thought, I’ll drop her off and then take care of all these bullies that keep sharpening their claws under the rule of their chief bully.

CHAPTER 132:

After Fajr, he noticed Azhar again praying for a long time. He waited for him for many minutes.

Sometimes he wondered what Azhar prayed for. He had everything.

He thought about Maha’s tantrum the night before. She had apparently had a fight with Tanya and now she wanted to separate accommodations as soon as possible.

He knew Maha looked for a reason always but was too chicken to ask for it based on how Nighat abused her. He wished she had stood up to Nighat like Tanya had. Maha , unfortunately, had found relief in Nighat’s occasional approval of her.

Azhar finished his prayer, offered Salam and looked at Bilal waiting for him. The sight was so reminiscent of when they were children that he wished for a second that he hadn’t met Tanya and didn’t have to leave him for a few days.

Marriage, love, women! He thought with a little annoyance, they change everything.

He smiled at his younger brother. Bilal smiled back. They hardly ever spent any time together since Azhar’s wedding and it was becoming hard to adjust to a life where Maha was his only companion.

He sometimes wondered what it would’ve been like to be married to Tanya. He could see that Azhar had a great relationship with her. She loved him and waited for him or was laughing with him or talking to him. They watched movies late into the night and most nights played music until the wee hours of the morning.

Why is Maha so dull? He thought with some resentment towards everyone having a good life. She is never interested in going out unless it’s with Ami. She doesn’t want to do anything unless Ami is an active part of it. Is she married to Ami?

“Let’s go”, Azhar said, getting up and putting his shoes on.

On the way back home Azhar suddenly said,

“Can I share a secret with you?”

“Sure”.

“Tanya is pregnant”.

It was a good thing that they were walking side by side and his brother couldn’t see his face because something would’ve betrayed his shock and pain at this news. He hated everything now. He had looked forward to Azhar’s children but not Azhar and Tanya’s. This was different.

Ah, Tanya! When I convinced you all those times to marry my brother I didn’t count on the constant turmoil my heart will go through. What did you say about the heart remodeling after heart attacks? So mine is remodeling also but remodeling once wasn’t enough. It has to do it everyday, every minute, every second.

“Hey”, Azhar shook his shoulder. “What happened?”

“Congratulations”, he said, attempting to be warm and jovial about it. “I’m so happy”.

“You don’t look happy”.

He was his original soulmate and Bilal knew that Azhar didn’t miss anything when it came to Bilal.

“I’m happy, Ajji,”, he said, wanting to share more and deciding he will, “I’m just so preoccupied with everything that really I can’t find any happiness in anything”.

“Hmm”, Azhar said thoughtfully then abruptly said, “Wanna eat an omelette?”

“Yes”, he said immediately perking up at the idea of his brother coming up with a plan. Azhar and Bilal used to be inseparable and so this change was hard.

They got in their car, Bilal driving as usual and then came to Sea View. They went to a roadside stall and got large omelettes with tea and parathas. A traditional morning paratha was both of their favorite breakfast and snack. Even though this paratha is mainly made and popularized by people of Pakhtun descent in Karachi, it has become a Karachi thing. Like everything and everyone else, Karachi has stamped it with its ownership also.

Once they’d eaten a little Bilal felt better. They were watching the waves and small critters that walked the beach in the early morning.

“Congratulations, man”, Bilal said, burping liberally, “I can think straight again”.

Azhar sipped his tea.

“Talk to me. What’s going on?”

Bilal had never felt any allegiance to Maha and openly discussed her shortcomings with Azhar. But he could sense that Azhar liked Maha a lot and therefore had learned to be careful with his words so he said,

“Maha is being hormonal again”.

“Hmm”, Azhar said, “Billu! You won’t mind if I say something about Maha based on my observation? I want you to correct me vehemently if I’m wrong because I love her like a sister and don’t want us to be talking behind her back”.

“Sure”, he said easily.

“Maha picks arguments with Tanya. Does she pick fights and arguments with you also?”

“All the time”, Bilal said easily.

“So what do you tell her? Do you ever tell her that that’s not okay?”

“No”.

“No?”

“No”, he said wearily, “I don’t want to tell her anything. She doesn’t listen and she doesn’t hold my opinion important enough to take my feedback on anything”.

Azhar was quiet. He stared at the sea and seemed to be doing some hard thinking. Then he abruptly said,

“I can’t have Tanya live in that environment. Ami and Maha feed off of each other’s energies. I’m moving Tanya to her mom’s place and I’ll be there also for the most part”, Bilal opened his mouth to object but Azhar silenced him, “I promise you I’ll have one meal with you everyday. I’m not abandoning you, Billu! And it is possible that I’ll sleep at our place some nights. I haven’t ironed out everything”.

“I don’t need you for one meal a day”, Bilal said rebelliously, “I would never think of putting these crazy women above us ever. I left someone I cared the world about to be with my family”.

“Tanya isn’t crazy”, Azhar said seriously, “she feels ganged up on and she’s my wife! I have to protect her especially now that she’s so delicate health wise”.

“She can stay at home. I’ll talk to Maha and tell her to stay out of Tanya’s way. But don’t go. Don’t go for this. We were supposed to always be together. Really Azhar! I have no one. And I’m not being clingy or needy. I’m alone. I want to just kill myself sometimes but I think of Hamza and you and I’m not able to do it. But please don’t go”.

“What do you mean you want to kill yourself?” Azhar asked him sharply.

Bilal was quiet. He knew he had said too much. He didn’t share with anyone his struggles with his past, how Tanya was taken away from him and the effect that her constant presence had on him.

But Azhar was his brother who had been with him through the breakup and the subsequent depression. He knew that Bilal was susceptible and he also suspected that they had a family history of depression. Just by how their grandmother had died he suspected something was genetically linked there.

“What do you mean you want to kill yourself?” He asked again.

“Nothing”, Bilal said cautiously, ” Sometimes I think about her. All that comes back to me. Sometimes. Rarely. Not often. Don’t be worried”.

“Are you hearing voices too?” Azhar asked.

Bilal laughed nervously,

“No. No. I don’t hear voices”.

But Azhar had heard enough to be concerned.

“Billu! Tell me something! Do Maha and you love each other?”

“No”.

Azhar assumed a silence as deep as the sea.

They left for home shortly after.

He woke her up.

“Wake up, sleeping beauty! You have to go to your mom’s place. Packed everything?”

She woke up and for a minute forgot everything when she saw his gorgeous face.

“Why do I have to go there?”

“Because”, he said, lovingly, “this little guy needs someone to love on him and I know Mama will”.

She blushed. He kissed her cheeks. She snuggled closer to him. He started kissing her more earnestly. Tanya laughed.

“Don’t kiss me so much. I don’t want you to say that you did all the kissing this morning and so have nothing left for tonight”.

His face clouded over as she said that.

“Can we talk about something?” He asked, running his hands through her hair.

She nodded, fear gripping her at what he was going to say.

“Bilal and I talked this morning”.

Panic rose inside her.

“I told him about Maha and requested him to talk to her. It’s a thin chance that she’d listen to him. May be you don’t know it or haven’t noticed or are too decent to comment but not a great situation going on over there”.

She started to relax. She felt guilty about it but she had been edgy about Azhar finding out about her and Bilal and this wasn’t a fun feeling.

“So”, he continued, “while we were talking he tells me, nonchalant, like it’s not a big deal, that he wants to kill himself”.

Tanya got up. She freed herself from his arms.

“What are you saying?”

“I’m so worried”, he buried his head in his hands, “You know he had bad depression after his breakup. It was months of depression. He was on more than one medicine at one time. He really came out the other end as a different person. He was a different person. Ami killed his spirit a long time ago by taking his girlfriend away but we saved him. In some form, we saved him”.

She stared at him. She had some idea that Bilal was quieter and very subdued but had chalked it all up to the unique and extremely weird situation that they were all in. Her mind was whirring. Azhar was going on and on about how Bilal was the life of the party and now a mere shadow of his old self. How he was the best guy to ask for company and how he was the one who led Azhar to more friends always.

“You have no idea, Tanya, he was a different person. Carefree, really really good looking, lithe, athletic, super friendly and helpful, never interested in money or business! He was the kind of guy that women dream of…..”

Her mind was racing back to many years ago. Their friends’ blind date. A very attractive guy standing in a corner eyeing her. Then smiled at her when she looked in his direction. He came over uninvited. Sat with her and made small talk. It was instant attraction. It was a first date the next day. It was a passionate kiss and then it was all crashing around her. She lost him. In a dirty fight that his mother played to flex her muscle, Tanya lost a part of her too.

“So basically he has been very precarious, to put it mildly. I can’t leave him, Tanya! Maha should’ve come through. But unfortunately she wasn’t the wife he needed. If she was a better partner, may be things would’ve been different”.

She had been listening. Maha was not only unattractive to listen to, she was unattractive in a way that sometimes good looking women can be. She had zero sense of politeness and decorum. She talked a lot about etiquette but gossiped nonstop. She had a lot to say about anyone who was walking and breathing. Overall her personality wasn’t of a girl you’d wanna be friends with. She never looked happy and had a constant expression of disdain plastered to her face.

“You need to stay here”, she said soothingly, “Don’t worry about me”.

“I’ll be worried about you and I’ll be with you too”, he said, collecting her back in his arms. “Just leave the finer details to me. I love you so much for being the most darling girl in the world. I can’t thank you enough for understanding. He’s my life, Tanya! I had to do a lot of growing up for him. And I blame myself for some of his lagging behind in life. He became more dependent. But trust me! He wasn’t this dependent in his late teens and twenties. He had grown out of his childhood trauma. He was okay. Better than okay. He was fabulous. He supported me. After my accident, he took over everything. Everything. I can’t tell you how he sat by me many nights and still took care of Abu’s business and this house. He’s a gem. I just wish that if he couldn’t marry his girl then he’d have married another outstanding girl. Someone who could help him get over his past. I wish!”

“I wish that for him too, Azhar”, she said, tears choking her as she thought of her former lover, the most vibrant guy she had ever known, who drove with a finesse that only very skillful drivers have, who played basketball with the best of them and came out on top, who took every bet and laughed easily. She had loved him, in another time, with every fiber of her being. His loss had nearly killed her. And now, the knowledge that her loss had nearly killed him too didn’t give her any peace or satisfaction. It just bore itself like a dagger deep into her heart. And once again, she could see her heart bleeding through her skin .

CHAPTER 133:

Asma was ecstatic at the news. She kissed them both and blessed them a million times. Sarah was taken into the secret also and she stared at her sister in complete awe for deciding to have a baby which according to her was something Herculean.

They had breakfast there and Azhar ate for a second time. He was still euphoric at the news of Tanya’s pregnancy and so carried her bags into her room and put everything in her closet, organized her toiletries in the bathroom and then stocked her bedside table with snacks.

When he was finally done he looked at her and said, “I’m coming to see you in the evening. We will go out to eat. Then I’ll go home”.

“Okay”, she said, looking with longing at him.

He came over. “Don’t be sad”, he said, holding her gorgeous face. “I’ll spend a lot of time with you”.

She touched his face.

“Please take care of Bilal”.

“Thanks”, he said fervently, “It helps immensely that you understand”.

Then without warning he picked her up. She giggled as he kissed her over and over and only let go when she was breathless.

She pulled him back as soon as he let go of her.

“Just five more minutes”, she said huskily.

“I have to be at work in an hour and a half”, he reminded her.

“When will I see you again?”

“Tonight”, he said, caressing her beautiful face. “You’ll see me tonight”.

She finally let him go. He stopped at the door and gave her his sexiest smile.

Then he was gone.

Tanya missed him immediately. It was hard to not continue falling in love with Azhar. He was addictive. She slept soon after.

He entered his place and saw everyone sleeping. He quietly changed into his clothes and left for work.

On his way out he saw Nighat watering the plants. He waved at her and got in his car.

She didn’t wave back. She had been up the whole night and her migraine wasn’t forgiving her today.

Bilal came out. He was buttoning up his shirt as he stepped out.

“Bilal!”

“Hello, Ami”.

“Can I ask you something?”

He looked at her blankly.

“Is Tanya pregnant?” She asked directly.

Not for nothing was he the brother that mirrored Azhar’s loyalty to himself. He loved Azhar with a passion and had sacrificed his heart for him. If Nighat thought that she could intimidate him into parting with something that Azhar had called a secret just that morning, then she was so wrong.

“You think too much about Tanya”, he said, injecting a little of Azhar’s arrogance in his voice, “People your age live for their children, not against them. I’m not sure why your ethic as a parent is always so contrary to what’s popularly believed and practiced”.

Her mouth didn’t know how to close. She had seen this side of his before when he had advocated for Azhar and Tanya but he was generally docile and agreeable.

He got into his car and zoomed it out of the garage.

She swore softly under her breath. Everything was spiraling out of her control.

Azhar came back early in the evening. He felt caged and wanted to unleash his anger on someone. His anger had been his biggest vice and he knew it. He lost control in anger and couldn’t think straight. Except Bilal and now Tanya most people had born emotional scars of his anger and the destruction he caused to furniture and other things.

Finally Bilal and Sabir were home and he decided to talk to Nighat. He also wanted Maha to know indirectly that he knew about her spat with Tanya.

“Are you busy?” He peeked into his parents’ room.

“No”, Nighat said, ready to hear the big news from him .

“I need to tell you something. Come out, please!”

She followed him, Sabir in tow. Maha was in the kitchen ordering Saleem about dinner and Hashir and Aman were there too.

As soon as Nighat had stepped out of her room, he turned to her and said abruptly,

“What happened yesterday morning?”

Maha came out of the kitchen. She had a wary expression and her eyes darted between her mother-in-law and Azhar.

“What have you heard?” Nighat asked calmly.

“What I have heard is so atrocious that I couldn’t believe it so I’m asking you”, he said, wanting to punch a wall.

Nighat shrugged her shoulders.

“I don’t remember anything remarkable happening. Tanya was requested to cook for a day and she lost her temper”.

“I heard exactly that”.

“And that’s atrocious?” She asked coolly.

“She’s not your paid maid to cook for you because Saleem isn’t able to work. You could’ve ordered food. Why did you make her feel like she had no choice and who spoke with her rudely? Her complaint isn’t about that you asked her to cook. She made a very specific complaint about some people in this house insulting her and demeaning her”.

He could see Maha turning paler but kept going,

“I can’t tolerate that. She’s pregnant. It’s still early days for her but she’s going to be spending her pregnancy at her mother’s place”.

There was silence as his words fell on everyone. Unexpectedly the first person who spoke was Sabir,

“Many women get pregnant. What’s so special about her pregnancy that she needs special accommodations and special treatment? Your mother is getting old. Is this why we are marrying you guys that you create your own islands and not support us in our old age?”

Azhar stared at him. That his usually voiceless father had quite a lot to say about his wife was very out of character for Sabir and Azhar didn’t know quite how to react.

“No one is creating an island”, he said reasonably, “But do you think it’s okay that Tanya is spoken to like that? She’s not hired help and hired help doesn’t deserve some of the attitude that we show them. She’s an equal with us. Or do you not think that she’s an equal?”

Sabir was quiet. He had never had an altercation with Azhar and he didn’t know this particular opponent. But his inner misogynist also couldn’t see a love-whipped son and accept it quietly. He continued but much more mildly,

“She’s an equal, son, we are all equals. But she’s not doing anything that your mother or other women haven’t done. She doesn’t have to make it a disease that she’s suffering from. My mother used to say that the more a woman rests during her pregnancy, the more difficult labor is for her. There’s wisdom in what our elders taught us. Don’t you think women would’ve died in childbirth in the olden days if bedrest is what prevented bad outcomes?”

“But women did die in childbirth”, Bilal spoke, “I don’t know where you read that childbirth and pregnancy outcomes were better before than they are now. Women used to die in childbirth routinely. If truth be told, with the amount of prenatal care Ami got, it’s a miracle she had four and lived to tell the tale”.

A heavy silence fell. Bilal was such an overlooked entity in that house that no one knew how to respond.

But sometimes he forgot that his wife had started to see him as an inattentive husband and a failed lover when it came to her. Tanya and Azhar’s relationship had further made her caustic. She had started to resent small things and it had all started from Tanya’s honeymoon. It didn’t help that she was still friends with her ex on Facebook and envied his happy life. All of this had taken a toll on her health also. She had developed a constant heart burn and she felt lonely usually.

Bilal’s commentary didn’t sit well with her. She said loudly,

“I’m touched, Bilal! A man who hasn’t sat with his wife throughout two pregnancies is quick to come to his mother’s defense. This is very touching and might I add, probably very manly too given how weak you are as a man. But if a woman needs care and attention during her pregnancy then why do you not give some to your wife also?”

“I don’t think you want care”, Bilal said dismissively, “I think you ask for care so you can fight about how substandard it was”.

“Oh really?” She said sarcastically, “So you are basically saying that I don’t get your attention because I secretly don’t want it? That it’s my fault?”

“The reason why I don’t like to be with you is your fault”, he said smoothly, “Ami chose you and you’ve found companionship with Ami. You and I don’t have a relationship at all. What are you cribbing about? We’ve never been very close except a few times in our entire marriage”.

“Oh yeah”, she laughed derisively. “We’ve been close a few times. I think everyone here should know that”.

Azhar’s head was spinning. He had thought that Maha would take his feedback that he wasn’t giving her directly and work on her attitude but she had actually turned it all around to humiliate Bilal. He finally said,

“This is a conversation that you and Bilal should have in private. Right now my concern is Tanya. She is staying at her mom’s place and will return after the baby”.

He turned on his heel to leave.

“Ha! How convenient for her to get knocked up! Of course she is going to stay at her mom’s place. Let me tell you, Azhar, this whole family humors you because they feel sorry for you. I never got away with speaking to Ami like Tanya did yesterday. I think she was left alone for the rest of the day because no one wants to make you feel worse about yourself by targeting your poor wife. Then today you rewarded her bad behavior by dropping her off at her mom’s place. But tell me something! I get why people are sympathetic towards you. I mean, look at you! You can’t hold a job. You live in a house that you don’t contribute to at all. You have finally impregnated your wife which is of course such great news that it needed an announcement for all of us. But what is Tanya’s handicap? Was she in an accident too? Or is a designated pathetic wife of a designated pathetic man her handicap? Because besides that she has no reason to be given any preferential treatment.”

He turned around slowly, but Bilal was quicker than him. He grabbed her arm and led her to her room. His eyes were red and he pushed her in the room, asked her to stay there and came back.

“You”, he pointed at Sabir, “Should not interfere where you’re not needed”.

Then he grabbed Azhar’s arm and pulled him out with him.

“Come with me”, he said gruffly, “I won’t eat here. Let’s eat out”.

Hashir and Aman were standing mortified at the whole scene. Azhar turned to them and called out,

“Come on, guys! Let’s go eat. Let’s leave these miserable people here”.

And with that all four brothers walked out, Bilal leading, got into Bilal’s car and sped towards Silver Spoon on Tariq Road.

CHAPTER 134:

He split time between his family and Tanya. He stayed most nights with her but checked on Bilal in other ways. He made a point of eating lunch with him everyday and made Bilal drive down to his office to have lunch with him. Needless to say, both brothers looked forward to this.

Maha’s insolence that day caused Azhar to avoid her. Bilal sensed it and didn’t blame Azhar for it. He had seen this side of Maha many years ago and knew that she was going to reveal it to everyone eventually. Tanya’s arrival had proved to be oppositional for Maha.

Tanya was now twenty weeks pregnant. She had a healthy pregnancy and was showing a tiny bump. Azhar noticed it before she herself had taken full stock of it.

“Hey, hey”, he said in wonderment while laying in bed with her one night.

He moved his hand in awe over her belly and kissed her tenderly. Then he kissed their baby.

“Taanu! You know what I’m thinking of?”

“What?” She breathed close to him.

“I don’t know why but the memory that comes to mind is when I saw you for the first time. A super cute house officer. Geeky looking. Straightforward. And look at you now”, he kissed her belly again, “Look at you! You’ll be a mother soon”.

“I love you”, she said, trying to get closer.

“I love you too, honey”, somehow he always made her feel like she was created for him.

The miracle of life that they had created kept them intoxicated.

He hadn’t had sex with her since they had found out about the pregnancy. Their doctor had given the okay for it and Tanya wasn’t too worried but he flatly refused.

“I can’t. No way! It’s too risky”.

“What’s risky, Azhar?” She was exasperated at this unscientific reasoning. “The doctor said we are okay. Why’re you so hesitant?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you? You’re not taking it seriously. What if we squish the baby accidentally?”

She couldn’t help laughing for minutes.

“Tanya!” He took her in his arms, “You and our baby are so important. We have to be very careful”.

“But we aren’t being careless by having sex”, she reasoned.

“May be”, he said, kissing her passionately, “May be for our next pregnancy I’ll be more confident”.

She kissed his shoulders.

“It’s hard to not have you, Azhar”, she said, wistfully, “I’m so used to our closeness. It feels like we are not as close anymore”.

“No way”, he said, nuzzling her neck, “We are closer than ever. Sex is just a part of it. You’re in my soul”.

I’m in your soul? She thought joyfully. Thank you, Azhar, thank you for loving me so.

Azhar was ecstatic. He held her in his arms each night and cared for her like she was a baby. He was very diligent, much more than herself, about nutrition, multivitamins, tests and appointments.

Everywhere she looked she saw a baby. She dreamed of babies and had put up baby posters in her room. She woke up at night when she heard a baby laughing in her room. She smelled the peculiar smell that babies have. She had never thought she had strong maternal instincts or inclinations. She had always thought she’d have a baby in her thirties if her husband really wanted one and then put a stop to it. Now she wanted to have many.

More than anything the fact that she was carrying Azhar’s baby became all-consuming. In a good, wonderful way. That Azhar and she were going to have a child of their own, someone who had their genes and could carry them forward. That the man she had loved with a heart that was difficult to heal. Azhar’s name became a litany of her pregnancy.

She sometimes wondered if all women loved the father of their children like she loved Azhar. She watched him when he slept and thought of a baby who had gray eyes and a gentle mouth. He loved her beyond reason but she loved him in a way that she hadn’t thought was possible after the loss of Bilal. He had completed her and picked up all the broken pieces without knowing that he was doing that.

She had to go the next day for her anatomy ultrasound. They had talked late into the night about the gender of their child.

“Of course we have to know”, Azhar said excitedly.

“But why?” Asma reasoned, “It’s your first. Any gender would be welcome”.

“Any gender would always be welcome”, he said, getting annoyed that she’d think he discriminated, “But I want to know so I can think of names”.

“You can think one name for each gender”. Sarah said wisely. Sanam and Ali laughed.

“Of course, Professor”, he said exasperated, “Of course I’ll do that anyway. The doctor said the ultrasound isn’t a hundred percent accurate”.

Late at night he took his beloved wife in his arms,

“Why am I so nervous, Tanya?”

She sighed,

“Azhar!” She chided him lovingly, “You’re way overthinking it. Just pray that the baby is anatomically okay. The sonogram isn’t really a gender reveal”.

He shook his head at her obvious indifference to this most exciting part of it. Then,

“If it’s a boy we’ll call him Noah. If it’s a girl, she’ll be Shanzay”.

She smiled.

“Okay. Do I get a say in this?”

“You can choose the middle name”.

“How can I ever thank you for this honor?” She rolled her eyes.

“You can thank me by making up for all the sex I’m missing out on”.

“You mean we are missing out on”.

“Well I don’t know. You don’t really like it so I don’t know”.

“That’s not true”, she exclaimed immediately getting up in bed, “I love it. Just as much as you”.

“Okay please lie down”, he said, smoothing her down in bed again, “You’re not a politician that you have to announce everything at the top of your lungs”.

She settled back in his arms.

“Azhar”!

“Hmm”.

“Can we start shopping tomorrow?”

“Yup”.

She happily hid her face in his arms and was soon fast asleep.

She woke up with a strange cramp two hours later. She went to the bathroom suspecting she had eaten something that was causing her to cramp. May be it’s Braxton-Hicks contractions, she mused as she walked to the bathroom. She tried to ignore a familiar wet feeling but dread came over her.

There was blood. A lot of it.

“Azhar!”

He came running to her.

“What happened? Are you okay? You’re bleeding, Tanya! Come here”.

He walked her back to the bed and ran to get Asma. While he was gone she saw blood rapidly staining the carpet. She wondered where it was coming from.

Surprisingly she felt detached from it all. She watched her husband and her mother collecting her things and stuffing them in a bag but she remained indifferent. Nothing can break me, she thought vehemently, not even their panic. They’re worried about my baby but he’s fine.

Asma suggested she use some toiletries to absorb the bleeding. She stared at her, trying to understand what she meant. What bleeding? She thought. This idiotic woman had four kids and she doesn’t know that women don’t menstruate during a pregnancy.

But she put a pad on to humor her mom. Then she asked Azhar,

“Where are we going?”

“To the hospital”, he said, bewildered.

“Why?”

“You’re bleeding. We need to go to the hospital”.

“Some women bleed during their pregnancy”, she said reasonably, “What’s all the fuss about?”

He looked at Asma who took her hand.

“Come on! Let’s go!”

“I really don’t get it”, she said, walking next to her mother, “Azhar has been so wired throughout all of this. I had no idea he was so stupid, Mom”.

She walked to the car and sat in the front seat.

He started driving. His mind was blank. He couldn’t think of anything. He looked at Tanya. She looked just as serene as when she had slept. She didn’t look like her whole life was falling apart then why was he crumbling?

They reached the hospital and because her pregnancy was considered advanced at a little over twenty weeks she was taken to the labor and delivery unit directly.

She was quiet. She didn’t make eye contact with anyone and gave history with remarkable composure.

The doctor was asking her,

“How many weeks are you?”

Her mind raced to when Azhar had picked her up in her bedroom and had already locked the door. How he had entered her twice in those four hours that they were together. His scent had lingered around her. She had held on to him and had felt the sky opening up for her. And now he didn’t make love to her anymore because of this sweet baby. Oh Azhar! You’re the dearest man. When we have our baby, I’ll make love to you like we’ve never…….

“She’s about twenty one weeks”, Azhar’s voice came from around her.

She turned to look at the stranger next to her bed. He looked like her husband but why did he look so worried? This couldn’t be her Azhar. Her Azhar was always laughing and making her laugh and….

“Are you having any pain?”

Sigh! Prenatal appointments, she mused. Someone told women they should get them and so now we are all getting them. Even Mama is here. Who made an appointment for the middle of the night?

She saw them laying her flat in bed, putting her legs up in stirrups and running a probe on her belly.

Dr. Shirazi entered. She smiled at Tanya.

“What’s going on, little one? Keeping everyone up?”

“I don’t know why these people are so worried? And why did you want to see me now? My husband has work in the morning”.

The doctor looked at her strangely.

“Your husband and mother brought you here because you’re bleeding. Are you bleeding?”

She smiled. This doctor is so dumb, she thought.

“How can I bleed? I’m pregnant”.

The doctor took her white coat off.

“Let’s look”.

She ran the probe on her and then said,

“I’ll do a transvaginal probe. We’ve done that before, remember? In the early days. It doesn’t hurt”.

Tanya looked at Azhar and saw tears rolling down his cheeks.

“Why’re you crying?”

The probe was in her but nothing hurt her more than watching Azhar and Mama crying. She wondered why they were crying.

Dr. Shirazi turned to Azhar.

“She’s still bleeding”.

“What happened?” He asked, a wild look on his handsome face, “Why is she bleeding?”

The doctor looked at him, then Tanya who was stoically looking at the wall in front of her and then at Asma. A bitter wail left Asma’s throat.

Tanya continued to stare at the wall.

CHAPTER 135:

Because pain was their language, they came closer together. Because loss was their specialty, they knew how to be there for each other after the miscarriage. Because their love had taken birth from the cruelty of fate, they weren’t fazed so much that they’d lose themselves. Azhar and Tanya now loved deeper. But they had experienced a loss. A loss that was magnified by the presence of new life in another womb. The juxtaposition of Tanya’s emptiness to Maha’s growing belly was cruel and harsh but she bore it. They both bore it. With fortitude and hope. With tears and sleeplessness. With some grace and a lot of love. But it was not easy.

It was made harsher by how difficult Tanya’s reintroduction into his family was. He didn’t bring her back right away. She insisted on coming back a month later. She didn’t like that she had become a permanent fixture of her mother’s place.

And she wanted to get out of the room where her baby had breathed with her. She collected her things, vowing to never set foot here but then remembered every corner of that room telling a story of love. First Bilal’s! Passionate, whirlwind and intense. And then Azhar’s! Strong, persistent and tenacious. This room had too many memories to be abandoned. She had kept secrets in here from her family.

Sometimes she thought of being married to Bilal instead of Azhar and gearing up to welcome their second baby. A healthy baby. Hamza’s little sister. Hamza could’ve been mine, she thought with resentment towards everything, Nighat Afshan took him from me too.

She would curse herself for these thoughts. How can I think like that, she’d fight with herself, I’m a whore. I shouldn’t envy the happiness that Allah has chosen for Bilal and Maha. I should focus on my own.

But I don’t have anything of my own, she’d think to herself with sadness and overwhelming grief. I have no tiny hands, no tiny feet, no little head to rest on my shoulder. I have nothing.

Her baby bump disappeared slowly. She had to have a dilatation and curettage because she didn’t spontaneously birth the baby. Soon after, her bump disappeared.

“Azhar!” She was laying next to him.

“Hmm”, he said, holding her and staring into space.

“My stomach is completely flat like before. Only you can get how that grieves me! It just sets my soul on fire”.

They cried bitterly together.

Maha’s smugness had reached new levels. The day after Tanya returned she sat with Tanya to have breakfast. Nighat was sitting at a distance, reading the newspaper.

“So”, Maha started, “it feels so weird that we never even got to congratulate you and now this”.

Now this? She thought with anger. The loss of my baby is talked about like this in this pathetic house.

“Actually when Azhar talked so much about your pregnancy being delicate, I suspected something was wrong”, she continued.

Every pregnancy is delicate, you bitch! She seethed. Yours is too. You can lose yours too in a bad moment .

“So what was wrong?” She leaned forward conspiratorially. “What happened? Is something wrong with you? Did they test everything?”

Tanya got up. May be because the miscarriage had sapped all the feistiness. May be she had accepted Maha as the superior being of the two of them as she had a football sized belly compared to Tanya’s flat abdomen. May be the fickleness of her pregnancy had made her question her womanhood. But she couldn’t say anything. She left the table.

Nighat watched her leave. A part of her, having gone through this once without even knowing that she was pregnant, hurt in moments of truth for Tanya. She grieved for her son’s child for a few minutes after she heard the news. Nothing caused her more torture than Azhar’s sadness. He was sad and everyone could see it.

In moments of pure unadulterated narcissism, she felt vindicated. This is what happens to headstrong women who don’t listen to others or consider themselves most important, she’d think .

Tanya gradually limited herself to her room. She would sometimes visit her mom and spend the day with her. Soon the residency match started and many friends updated their Facebook statuses with big future plans. It was Azhar who had mentioned it to her. She herself was drowning in memories of a baby in her womb and hadn’t had any time to think of her residency match coming up.

“Taanu!” He said one night when they were laying in bed, holding each other. “What’s going on with the residency match this year? Are you done with your applications?”

She hadn’t thought about it and it felt strange that she was a doctor and had wanted to train what seemed now to be many moons ago.

“No”, she said in a small voice.

“Why?” He had astonishment in his voice. What happened to his driven, career-crazy wife?

“I don’t want to. I don’t want to do anything. I don’t feel like it”.

“But you always wanted to”, he said, turning her towards him. “You wanted to train and even shoot for a fellowship. What happened?”

You know what happened, she thought sadly, you know we lost him and now nothing will ever feel the same.

“Listen”, he took her face in his hands, “Tomorrow we are sitting down and figuring it all out. Everything. We will figure out the residency stuff and also the baby stuff”.

“What baby stuff?” She said, her heart beating fast .

He pulled her in his arms and looked in her eyes,

“We need to see a therapist for you, Taanu! You’re not doing well. It’s been two months. You’re losing weight because you don’t eat and don’t sleep”.

“I don’t feel hungry or sleepy. How is that my baby’s fault?” She asked irritably.

“It’s not his fault”, he kissed her hair, “But surely you have noticed that you don’t smile or laugh or talk?”

“I can’t help it if I don’t feel like it”, she said, an overwhelming desire to be alone taking her over.

He was quiet. She heard his deep breathing a few minutes later.

She woke up early and went into the garden to water her plants. Bilal was there. He had avoided her like an illness since her miscarriage.

May be he worries that I’ll give him my cursed disease also, she thought bitterly.

He smiled at her. His sad , forlorn smile.

She smiled back. They had promised to become friends then how come they didn’t even talk to each other?

He came over.

“Why’re you up so early?”

“I water my plants every morning so I get up at this time”.

“Daily?” He asked, a little taken aback. “Were you here yesterday at this hour?”

“Yes”, she said confidently.

He hadn’t seen her in days and he spent a good amount of time in the garden everyday.

She went over to her plants and saw some withered leaves and dried branches.

“How did my plants get ruined?” She cried in dismay.

He walked over to her quickly.

“We can fix them…”

“No we can’t, Bilal, we can’t. We can’t fix something that’s dead. They’re dead. Why’re you so stupid?”

He was quiet. Azhar had mentioned that she acted slightly odd sometimes but he had never seen her like this. She looked deranged and angry.

“Okay”, he said, pretending to concede, “let’s go for a walk”.

“No I won’t”, she said stubbornly, “My plants need me”.

“We should get some stuff for them and try to bring them back”.

“How?”

“I don’t know. There’s a garden store close by. They’d know”.

She agreed to walk with him. They started walking towards the mosque.

“I’m tired”, she said after walking ten steps.

“We can sit here”, he pointed to a little front step of a deserted house and they sat.

“I’m sorry about your baby”.

“I know”, she said gently. “I’m sorry I screamed earlier. Sometimes the feeling that nothing is working out gets too much. Have you ever had that feeling?”

Yes, he thought, I’ve had that feeling. And I have that feeling still. Sometimes, for many days, that’s the only feeling that I have.

“Bilal”, she said, sounding like a little child, “Do you think Allah is punishing us for kissing and making out when we weren’t married?”

He stared at a Buick parked across from them. Somehow two people, madly in love with each other appeared inside of it.

“Can I see you today?” He typed.

“Yes”.

“How does lunch sound?”

“Sounds great but I have a feeling I’ll be having dinner with you too”.

“Well the idea is to get you breakfast with me someday”.

“❤️”

“How did this happen?”

“Do you believe in the happy hormones?”

“Didn’t before. Now I do”.

“See? Made you a believer”.

“I’ve started believing in love since seeing you just twenty four hours ago”.

“Really? There isn’t a bigger belief system than love”.

“😂I’ve never heard a doctor talk the mushy talk”.

“You haven’t met many doctors then. We talk mushy all the time”.

They met that afternoon. She wore a white shirt with ankle pants that showed her killer legs. She had the best body that he had ever seen for a girl her size and frame. She was petite at about five feet, two inches. She had unruly black hair and a complexion that wasn’t pink and wasn’t gold. It was gold with a pinkish hue or pink with gold highlights on her cheeks that shone brightly when she was caught in a moment.

But that wasn’t the best thing about her.

She had the most intelligent face he had ever seen and a way with words that was all her own. She was the most darling know-it-all. Someone he willingly lost many arguments to. Her smile was almost magical and transported him to a place where just the two of them lived.

“Bilal!”

“Hmm”.

“Do you know what the best part of our love is?”

“Yeah I know”.

“What is it?”

“You tell me”.

“The best part is”, she said snuggling closer in the backseat of his car, her hands tracing the outline of his face, “That we are both so good looking”.

He laughed.

“That’s a great upside of being with you”, he said, “You are a morale booster”.

“I’m not lying”, she said continuing to trace his face with her hands now and inching closer to kiss him.

“Don’t get too close”, he whispered, “Aren’t you afraid I won’t let you go away ever?”

“No”, she whispered back, “That’s the whole idea”.

They met everyday almost for two years and then separated unceremoniously when everything crumbled. Then came back into each other’s lives as strangers. She was happy, he could tell. He wasn’t, he knew. But the sorrow of her child weighed heavy on him also.

“Hey”, he put an arm around her, “Tanya is the strongest girl ever born to a human. She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t break. Right?”

She nodded, staring at her feet and he noticed tears escaping her eyes and falling on the ground.

“I wanna cry”, she said, her tears choking her, “Loudly for everyone to hear. I want everyone to hear how they made this life hard for me. They take things from me and keep taking them. And I’m no match for them but I want to cry. Loudly. So everyone hears. And no one dares ask what happened”.

“Come here”, he brought her closer, “You wanna cry? Cry! No one here will judge you or ask you or question you. Cry as much as you want. And then get done with it. Then move on”.

Even in her grief she couldn’t ignore how the two brothers were so different in their philosophy of life. Azhar lived like there were a thousand years left to live. Bilal lived cautiously like any wrong move could stop life. Azhar didn’t put a timeline on grief. Bilal held his feelings obsessively contained.

But in that moment she cried. She cried loudly until he held her tighter. Until she felt lighter. Until he said,

“You have to move on. You both have to move on. Let’s go home and work on something that we can fix. Grief can’t control your life. You have to water your plants. Let’s go”.

She got up and he realized how light she had become. She needed someone to support him but he watched her get steady.

She looked up,

“Thanks”, she said with tears in her eyes still, shining like a thousand stars, “I needed a hug”.

He pulled her by his side and walked home with her, the only girl who had ever touched him where his soul was. Her presence made life difficult but he was happy that at least they were close enough to sometimes be there for each other.

CHAPTER 136:

Tanya couldn’t apply for residency. She was still very preoccupied and wanted to take a little break. But if she was honest to herself and Azhar, she was timing sex. A baby will erase all bad memories, she would think happily.

One morning, as she and Azhar were still sleeping, Bilal banged on their door urgently and Maha was taken to the hospital with labor pains. She was forty weeks pregnant and had the whole house doting on her.

Can a baby also make someone so sad? She wondered as she held Maha’s baby girl in the evening. Can it also make someone feel empty and like a pit is getting deeper with each passing day?

Bilal’s daughter was a replica of him. They named her Haifa. She instantly became a bigger favorite than Hamza and soon everything started revolving around her.

She was a beautiful baby with her father’s extremely attractive face and her mother’s light blue eyes. Even though her eyes were so much like Maha’s, the fact that she had Bilal’s darker skin color and his dark brown hair was enough to endear her to Azhar who spent a large time of the day with her.

But Tanya couldn’t love her. She cursed herself for hating a baby but she couldn’t love Haifa. Haifa reminded her of another baby who would’ve been breathing in his mother’s belly and would’ve soon landed on earth in about twelve or thirteen weeks.

Azhar obsessed over Haifa just like he had obsessed over Hamza in another time. He put her to sleep and sang lullabies to her. He was an expert diaper changer and baby whisperer and Maha slept for long hours in the evening when he came back from work.

“I just hate this, Azhar”, she said bitterly, “I hate how you dedicate every awake minute to this baby”.

He looked at her with surprise. He knew she had shown very little, if any, love to the baby and understood why. But it isn’t fair that she would expect me to not enjoy my niece, he thought.

He quietly left the room.

He came back much later. She was already in bed and like most days, had missed dinner. She knew she was ovulating but her depression left no energy or desire for sex on most days.

He got into bed and touched her back gently.

“I’m sorry”, she said without turning back, “I was in a crabby mood. Sometimes when there is a lot of happiness around and our heart is dead, it all has a jarring quality to it”.

“Why is your heart dead?” He said, coming closer.

Why’s my heart dead? She thought. That’s a good question. It has been months since my womb was ripped of its first happiness. I should be okay now. It isn’t Azhar’s fault if I’m not a complete woman.

“Can I tell you about something that will make you very happy and make your heart happy too?”

Tears were silently flowing down her cheeks onto the pillow. She had her back to him. She nodded.

“I took two weeks off and finalized everything. I had applied for my visa a month ago and wanted to surprise you. We are going to New Orleans for two weeks. Remember you always wanted to see Mardi Gras?”

Where did I find you, Azhar? She cried silently. You care for me like a mother cares for her child.

“Did that make your heart happy?” He asked again.

She retreated deeper into his arms. New Orleans, Louisiana, Mardi Gras, beignets, French Quarter, Jazz, Mississippi River . She kept repeating all the things that she had done many years ago with her siblings and cousins on a vacation to Louisiana when her father was alive.

She slept for the first time in many months for more than four hours.

CHAPTER 137:

She felt more invigorated next morning than she had in months. She heard Azhar snoring and wanted to wake him up and ask him to cuddle with her. Before she could wake him up, her telepathic husband’s arm was on her.

She pushed him away laughing but he pulled her in. He started kissing her neck while holding her tiny waist. It felt good. To have him pay attention to her was the best feeling in the world. She turned to face him and saw him wide awake and smiling.

“Slept well?” He asked, taking her shirt off.

“Yes”, she said, thinking how long it had been that they had had sex just to feel each other.

She shivered a little and he noticed how thin she had gotten. Her body, which was tiny but very proportionate, was always full and somewhat voluptuous. He noticed that she had almost no curves left and her bones were sticking out in many places.

He stopped and peered at her face. She looked visibly weak and fragile, like a corpse. Her skin stuck to her facial bones and her eyes stood out, dark and dead.

He hugged her. She felt warm and protected. She hadn’t felt that in many days. She had spent the first few months after her miscarriage mourning her child and the next few envying someone else’s. She wanted a distraction. She wanted a thing of her own. Something that would tell her that her life was worth living.

Just because he wanted to see her he took her pants off. She was painfully thin everywhere. Somehow she didn’t look so emaciated when she was clothed. It was disturbing. She was wasting away. Her body shivered some more and he hugged her tighter.

“When are you seeing Dr. Shirazi?” He asked, trying to sound casual.

“I don’t have any appointments with her anymore”.

“Okay”.

“When are we leaving, Azhar?”

“In two days”.

She sighed happily and threw herself in his arms. He held her, afraid her skin might bruise or a bone might break with the force of his body.

Soon she was snoring lightly. He clothed her. She didn’t stir at all. He quietly lay next to her and watched her.

Memories of a time when Tanya had brought him back to life rushed before his eyes.

She said yes to him in a clothing store in a vulnerable moment that he had.

She made love to him with abandon and selflessness.

She carried their baby and when she lost it, a part of her was lost also.

I won’t let her get lost, he thought determinedly, if something happens to her…

He lay next to her until it was time to go to work. Then he quietly got up, changed and went to work.

Nighat was awake when he was leaving. She didn’t get what tragedy had befallen Tanya that she had been acting so erratic. Miscarriages happen, she thought with some irritability. She decided to talk to her.

She went to see her. She was sleeping, covered with a comforter that seemed too big for her. She watched her silently. She was struck by how young she was and how thin she had gotten. She couldn’t bring herself to wake her up and tell her that she should get back in the groove and help with household chores. Tanya looked vulnerable and actually even a little disarming also. She sat next to her and watched her sleep.

Many years ago she had wished for a girl. Someone who could share womanly secrets with her. Someone who understood a woman’s pain. Someone who could soften Sabir and his ways. But Allah hadn’t blessed her.

She sighed! The burden of her sins was huge. How was any blessing to come her way?

Tanya’s eyes fluttered as if she knew someone was there. She woke up and stared at the woman she called Ami sitting beside her. For a moment she was confused as to what she was doing in her room but then her natural smile lit her face,

“Ami!”

Nighat felt a wave of emotion. She didn’t know if it was love or an utmost disgust for the girl but she couldn’t help saying,

“Why’re you losing so much weight?”

“Me?” She seemed surprised. Then she narrowed her eyes, “Have you been talking to Azhar? He is always commenting on how thin I’ve gotten. Can’t I have some peace? Everyone wants to know what’s wrong with me”.

“Let’s go eat”, Nighat said abruptly. “Do you know we have a new cook?”

“No”, she said, amazed at a new person in the house and not knowing about it. “I slept for one night and everything is different”.

There had been times since the miscarriage when Nighat had seen her acting unlike herself. She sometimes smiled mysteriously at something in space and sometimes she became hyper focused on things that didn’t mean anything. Her experience with Tanya was that she was nothing if not level-headed and almost extremely boringly pragmatic. She didn’t look intelligent anymore. She had become impulsive and uninhibited. Her personality had changed.

She noticed that Tanya was again staring into space. She was counting something and when she saw Nighat looking at her she laughed and said,

“I have a calendar in my mind now. I don’t have to look at a calendar anymore. It’s all here”, she pointed to her head.

“What were you looking at the calendar for?” She asked gently.

“Nothing particular”, she said, free-spirited and reckless, “Just calculating the days since, you know, my house job. Because I want to apply for residency and you know, all my plans are like plastic now. They don’t last”.

It was heartbreaking. She had developed a child-like quality and seemed very removed from the intelligent and wise young woman she was until a few days ago. For some reason, Nighat felt closer to her enemy in this moment and hoped that if she shared something Tanya would likely not remember it.

“Do you know I was accepted at Dow too?”

Tanya broke out of her reverie.

“You? You went to Dow?”

“I didn’t go. I wasn’t allowed to”.

“Wasn’t allowed to? Why? It’s a wonderful place”.

“My father said girls shouldn’t go to medical schools or engineering schools”.

“Wow”, she seemed to have gained some of her original feministic persona, “but that’s wrong . Your brothers went”.

“Because they were men”, she said with a sigh, “I wasn’t”.

“Nanajan doesn’t look like someone who’d do that”.

“Well, he did”, Nighat said bitterly.

“I’m sorry, Ami! If ever you decide to go, I’ll back you up.”

In spite of herself Nighat laughed.

“Silly girl! I can’t go now. I’ll die before I complete school”.

Tanya laughed too.

“If I were alive when this happened, I would’ve smuggled you out and helped you go. And told Nanajan that he can’t have his way”.

Nighat laughed harder. She could see why Tanya was the yin to Azhar’s yang. They were excellently matched.

“Ami! You’re so lovely when you laugh. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen you laugh”.

Nighat couldn’t stop. She helped Tanya out of her bed, introduced her to the new cook Khalil and asked him to serve her breakfast.

Tanya ate. Allah had listened. She had asked for something to call her own. She had a meaningful conversation, something she knew Maha had never had with Ami , and it was all her own.

CHAPTER 138:

Azhar came early and was pleasantly surprised to see Tanya in a light orange outfit with matching earrings. She was sitting in the family room, reading a book.

“How’re you, koala bear?” He said, taking the book from her and kissing her full on the lips, never caring that people could see.

“Reading”, she said, reaching for her book and giving up when she saw he wasn’t going to give it back.

“These clothes are so pretty”, he remarked.

“Aren’t they?” She said softly. “Azhar!”

“Hmm”. He played with her hair.

“I’m sorry I’ve been so grumpy lately. Something good happened today and I’m feeling a lot better now. I promise I won’t miss meals, sleep or sex”.

He laughed loudly.

“Sex can wait”, he said, holding her hands, “But promise me you’ll eat and sleep with me?”

“Always”, she smiled.

“What good thing happened, by the way?” He suddenly remembered.

“Ami shared a secret with me.”

He furrowed his brow,

“No way!”

“Yup”.

“And that’s important why? Why is her secret important to you?”

Oh Azhar! She thought wistfully. You won’t get it. How a woman wants to be accepted by everyone. We live in so much doubt that our entire life becomes a campaign for universal popularity. You’re a man and liked until you prove to be a bad person. I’m a woman and I’m not liked until I prove to be a good person.

“It’s very important to me because when someone shares their secret with us, they’re trusting us”.

He didn’t want to burst her bubble so didn’t say anything. But he had become wary. Ami’s friendship was always with an ulterior motive.

Dinner was tense and heavy. Azhar felt that any time he was happy for even the tiniest thing his family got into a bad mood and ruined it. He knew Maha had baby blues after her last pregnancy and could see that she was struggling again. Bilal spent a lot of time at home and Azhar pitched in for childcare almost as much as Bilal. But Maha had bad mood swings and he knew that she couldn’t help it.

At dinner she started yelling at the new chef,

“You know we don’t like so much salt and seasoning. What’s wrong with you? I showed you how everything is made”.

“I think it’s okay”, Nighat said, characteristically quiet and mild until she was ticked off, “Khalil! May be focus a little more on leaving it to simmer from tomorrow”.

Maha turned to her, eyes blazing.

“The seasoning is okay?”

“I think it’s okay”, Nighat said, her resting sarcasm starting to show, “Seasoning should be less than the actual food. Some people think of it as the main ingredient. Oh well,” she laughed derisively, “Not everyone is a chef so I don’t expect all of us to understand the finer points of cooking”.

Maha looked like someone had slapped her. She normally didn’t do well when opposed anymore and her patience was particularly thin these days. The docile, scared and submissive Maha was a thing of ages past and now she looked like a poorly drawn caricature of Nighat. Critical, sarcastic and vain.

Azhar, sensing that this could go further south, blurted,

“We are going to New Orleans next week”.

Tanya was always amazed at her husband’s courage when it came to his unpredictable family but she was more awed today. No one in their right mind would’ve chosen that moment to discuss their vacation plans.

He realized that it was ill-timed. He smiled sheepishly and said,

“We got our stuff sorted out yesterday. It was a surprise for Tanya. I told her last night. ”

No one was making eye contact with the other. Bilal was quiet, waiting for the eruption to occur. In his opinion, both Nighat and Maha were loose cannons and crass at how they handled their perception of their authority being challenged.

“Thanks for informing us”, Nighat said coldly, “Tanya and I had a long conversation this morning but this didn’t come up”.

Tanya sat up straighter. She realized that she hadn’t even registered it all much until this moment. The fog was lifting and she was realizing that it was all the same as it was before the fog set in.

“When you and I were talking”, Nighat addressed her, “Why did you not mention it? We talked for quite some time”.

“I didn’t remember”, she said truthfully.

“It’s certainly not something that anyone could forget”, Nighat said smoothly.

“Why’re you asking Tanya? I’m telling you that she didn’t know until last night and even if she did, it’s not necessary that we bring you in on all of our plans”, Azhar said, challenging his mother with his own arrogance and rudeness.

Nighat got up from the table.

“Khalil! Please bring my dinner in my room”. She walked towards her room, Azhar and Tanya dumbfounded at what had happened. She turned at the door of her room, looked Tanya square in the eye and hissed,

“Before you lose sleep and appetite and life over why your child was taken from you, think of it as karma for taking my child from me”.

She was gone.

Tanya looked at Azhar, aghast.

So that was the entire clinical life of my mother-in-law’s closeness with me, she thought bitterly.

“Why’re you going to the USA? Anything special? Is one of your cousins getting married?” Maha asked, making sure that no one missed the hint of resentment and hatred for them in her venomous voice.

“It’s a vacation”, Azhar said, tense at what was to come.

Maha looked at them with mock-surprise and then broke out in a loud laugh meant to show her mordacity.

“For a woman who spends her entire day in bed, isn’t vacation kinda like the whole theme of her life? The way I see it, Tanya has been on vacation since I’ve met her”.

Before Azhar or Bilal could intervene, a glimmer of Tanya’s old self made an appearance.

“Why does it bother you?” She asked coldly.

Maha was a formidable opponent as she had proved time and again. She never backed down from a good fight and made sure she drove her point home about her unhappiness with Bilal during those fights.

“It bothers me as a woman who has spent two years out of the almost four that she has been married either being pregnant or recovering from a pregnancy. If anyone on this table deserves a vacation, it has to be me. Don’t you think?” She looked innocently at Tanya, willing her to respond.

“Bilal should…..”, Azhar started, as always defusing a potential mud-slinging towards Bilal at the hands of his wife.

Tanya looked at him. She had a steely glint in her eyes and even though he was definitely the more untamed partner of their marriage, there were moments when she scared him. He hadn’t forgotten how people showed the utmost deference and something bordering on reverence when they worked together at Civil Hospital. He fell quiet.

“That’s an interesting question”, Tanya began, “And one that begs another question. Do you think you don’t get a vacation because it’s hard for Bilal to spend time with you alone on a vacation?”

“Tanya!” Before Maha could retaliate Azhar had taken her hand and pulled her in an attempt to distance her from what looked like a bad argument. Tanya had definitely used fighting words and Maha was gearing up to combat her. Her face was red and she had stood up to her full height with her nostrils flared.

“Tanya!” They heard another voice. Someone who didn’t speak much. Someone who wasn’t even heard that much. Someone who didn’t count or matter but who had seen it all firsthand silently on many occasions. Someone who had felt the brunt of his wife’s temper in the privacy of their room almost every night for most of their marriage.

She turned to look at him. His brown eyes were calm as always but his mouth was thin. He looked angry and when he saw her, his eyes showed no signs of any love that they had shared in another world.

“I will speak with Maha so this can be more peaceful in the future but never disrespect my wife. Don’t do that! Don’t comment on our marriage like that. Azhar will tell you how unbecoming that is. There are enough bad-tempered people in this house”.

He got up, walked up the stairs to his room, Maha standing to argue with Tanya but gobsmacked at her husband speaking for her, Azhar bewildered at how things had deteriorated so quickly and Tanya slightly thankful for her former lover to have finally found his voice.

CHAPTER 139:

“Is your heart happy?” He asked her as she sat in her seat watching kids running all over in the airport lounge. They still had about ninety minutes until boarding.

“So happy”, she smiled. “So happy to be here with you. So happy to be yours and so happy to have you”.

“Don’t talk like this. I’ll have to kiss you”.

“You never think about anything before kissing me”.

He kissed her. A long, soulful kiss.

“When we get to New Orleans, we have to make up for all the lost time”, she said huskily.

“You won’t hear me objecting to that”, he said, grinning shamelessly.

“Oh Azhar! Why are we not in our bedroom right now?” She said wistfully, looking at his handsome face that had looked careworn and sad for the past many months.

“Don’t worry”, he winked, “We are traveling first class. There’s a lot of legroom there”.

She burst out laughing. Spending time with Azhar was refreshing. They had really fallen into a rut of sorrow and rising out of it felt amazingly good.

“You’ve been there”, he said, holding her hand and kissing it, “What’s there to do? How’s the food?”

“Amazing”, she smiled.

“We will go everyday to that beignet place”, he said seriously, “We just have to eat as many as we can. And the macaroons. All colors. Taanu! Where else can we go from there? Can we like make a detour at some point and go somewhere else too? A month is long enough to explore a little more”.

They had extended their vacation to a month with the caveat that Azhar would have to work everyday for four hours at night to catch up on a new project he had started. He had gladly agreed with his manager on this.

The days after their epic disagreement at the dinner table had led to the decision to extend their vacation and spend some more time away from their miserable family. The suggestion however had come from Bilal. He had knocked on their door the next day,

“Come in”, Azhar said lazily.

He entered and his eyes immediately met Tanya’s.

“I came to apologize about last night”, he said without any preamble.

“It’s okay”, she said, tired of fighting with life and people, “Sit”.

He sat and immediately launched into how he had spoken with Maha also and that Maha had realized also that some of it was her mistake.

“If she doesn’t like you, Tanya, then she doesn’t like you but I told her to not disrespect you.” He looked at her with sincere eyes, “Really I told her that but what you said……. don’t say that again. No one wants to hear they’re failing at their marriage. It hurt me too. I’m sorry I’m saying it so bluntly but really, you hurt me too”.

Azhar and Tanya had talked the night before and Azhar had already given her an earful about how she had lost her temper and ended up insulting and hurting Maha deeper than Maha had. She realized she had overstepped a line.

“I’m sorry”, she said, meaning it and scooting over to him, “I’ll apologize to Maha too if that would make it better”.

“No”, Bilal said immediately, “Don’t think I don’t know what and who she is. She’s a bully and I’ve seen her in action before. Just don’t lose yourself with pettiness. You’re better than that”.

She stared at her hands and felt tears welling in the corners of her eyes.

“Why’s she crying again?” He asked Azhar, tired of Tanya’s tears.

Azhar came over. He put an arm around her shoulders.

“We know you’re not like that. It was unexpected and shocking. So this is why we are speaking with you. Don’t think this is a combined attack on you. Bilal and I are with you.”

“Yes”, Bilal agreed, “it’s important you get that. She’s my wife, Tanya, and as God as my witness, my life is hell. These spats make it tougher for me and now we have two kids in the mix. It makes it all the worse. She takes it out on the kids. “.

She nodded her head. Bilal and Maha’s story made her extremely sorry for them.

“We are leaving anyway in three days. Hopefully this would have all smothered down by the time we are back”, Azhar said.

“Stay longer, guys!” Bilal said earnestly, “Why just two weeks? The travel is almost a day each side. Stay longer”.

“Well”, Azhar was thoughtful, “I can get more days but I hate leaving you guys alone”.

Bilal knew that he was Azhar’s only worry. But it seemed selfish that Azhar had to spend his entire life monitoring Bilal.

I’ll have to pull myself up from my bootstraps, he thought determinedly.

“No, I’ll take care of everything”, he said like the brisk businessman he had become. “I’ll make sure everyone stays in line”.

When Azhar continued to look worried he said lightly,

“Go, Ajji! Pave the way for us. If you go for a month, maybe we can go for two days someday in the distant future”.

They laughed.

“Come with us”, Tanya said, suddenly thinking that this could be a great trip to bond, “We can wait for the paper work and all. Right, Azhar?”

“Yes! Yes! Best idea!” Azhar said, his eyes shining.

Bilal laughed.

“Another time. When Maha is not so hormonal”.

No one had spoken to them since the argument and the silence suffocated Tanya when Azhar was at work. She wandered aimlessly around the house, looking for something to do or someone to chat with.

Nighat was particularly vindictive. She made sure that Tanya had no access to anything in the kitchen and so Tanya had to ask the cook for anything that she wanted to eat. If she wanted to eat eggs, she couldn’t make them herself. The cook did and only if he had the time.

She also had lost her plants during her depression and her heart ached but she wasn’t rushing to plant new ones.

Someday, she thought, when Azhar and I have our own home I can plant my plants again.

Maha assumed a silence towards her also for which she was thankful. She didn’t want to make enemies with Maha and realized that a friendship wasn’t possible.

The plane left at its precise time.

Eighteen hours later they landed in New Orleans, Louisiana.

CHAPTER 140:

She was transported to a time when she was carefree and happy. When she hadn’t met Bilal. When she was here for Thanksgiving and had her father with her. The dearest man she had known and loved besides Azhar and Bilal.

But this trip was all about Azhar, she decided. This is the rekindling of all we had and all we promised to make together.

They deposited their luggage in the bedroom and were too wired to sit in.

“Let’s walk to the French Quarter”. She said excitedly.

He was the best partner to explore the world with and readily agreed.

They walked to Cafe Du Monde and chatted loudly the whole way. The sound of jazz, mixed with a light sprinkle that had decided to bless them, Azhar’s hand in hers was just everything that she wanted.

He pulled her closer as they walked, Tanya slowed by his halting gait,

“For the next month all we have to do is eat, sleep and love”. He announced.

“Sounds great. And listen to music”.

“And watch movies”.

“And dance”.

A shadow crossed his face,

“I had never thought a woman would want to dance with me”.

They were walking through a narrow street in a crowded neighborhood. Mardi Gras parades had started here and there and costumes were in full glory. People dressed as fairytale characters, super heroes, Halloween characters and just caricatures of famous people walked all around them. The festivity had no room for any gloom.

She wanted to say something soothing, that wouldn’t sound like a platitude or an attempt to lighten it up but instead she stopped him when they reached in front of Jackson Square and said, hanging on to his waist,

“Let’s dance”.

He looked at her with surprise in his eyes but it was so hard to ignore the dancing couples around them that he caught some of the excitement too. He grabbed her by the waist and in one graceful flourish dipped her.

“Azhar!” She resurfaced laughing as he picked her up. He was one of the tallest people around them. She looked at his face and was reminded of all the sleepless nights they had spent in each other’s arms before they were stripped of the purest joy they had known.

The world stopped. It always did when she was with him and they decided to retreat into their bubble. It stopped the day he coughed horribly after eating chat, while listening to his favorite song, while he stared at her from across a clothing store, when he had first made her his own. The world always stopped as a sign of respect for the biggest story of love that they were making.

“Some people are meant for each other”, he said, quietly above all the noise and still perfectly audible, “Do you believe that? Do you believe that our souls were meant for each other?”

She nodded silently, her eyes getting wet in memory of all the time she had lost in grieving for their baby.

“The first time I saw you”, he said, an expression of longing and amusement in his face, “I can’t describe it but it was like you took my soul home with you at the end of the day”.

Her head came down as she kissed him, for everyone to see them, people cheering and Azhar laughing, while she kissed him like he had taught her to kiss, when finally the sun went down a little lower, the waves in the Mississippi River got louder and the smell of fresh beignets rose in the air.

Love is a different world altogether, she thought happily the next morning, laying in bed next to him while he absentmindedly stroked her back. I just don’t feel the need for anything else when I’m with him.

“Azhar!” She said, pouting.

“Hmm”.

She got up to face him.

“I slept but I feel like I didn’t”, she said begrudgingly.

“We are on vacation”, he finally gave her his full attention, “sleep some more”.

“I don’t want to”, she said like a child, “then I’ll miss all the time sleeping”.

He laughed and took her in his arms.

“Then don’t sleep”, he said gently, “let’s go out or stay in and watch a movie”.

“I’d like to watch a movie”, she said wistfully.

They picked out Pretty Woman finally. According to Azhar it was a classic and should be watched anytime the choice was tough.

Her head was on his chest and she was watching it silently. Suddenly she realized that this silence was killing everything. Their love, togetherness and now their vacation.

She remembered their honeymoon in Bali, not too long ago when they were both feisty and spirited, fought and made up, loved and lusted.

What happened to us? We have changed. She thought sorrowfully.

I can change it, she felt her familiar determination raising its stubborn head. I can’t be quiet and philosophical all the time. Life happens. I can’t let it take our joys from us.

Her hand snaked into his shirt. It made small circles until she felt she had his attention.

“Tanya”, he began but her lips quieted him.

“No”, her lips brushed against his, “We won’t have a sad life. We won’t cry or be sad all the time. I don’t want to live like this, Azhar! Our love has become melancholy. We craved lonely moments to devour each other. Now we look for them to sleep and rest. Are we dead?”

He looked at her with an amused expression, trying to think straight as she continued getting closer,

“I don’t know about you but I’m alive. You just have to get closer to feel it”, he laughed raucously at his own raunchy joke.

She got closer until she could feel him. It felt good to seduce him and make him helpless about her. His arms circled her.

“I want that old body back”, he said huskily, “I want my Tanya back! I want everything like it was. You drive me nuts. Which idiot said sex gets lovers out of each other’s system? My system needs you more”.

“Mine too”, she said quietly, looking him in the eye, “you have no idea how much”.

“Is your system needing me now?” He asked laying her next to him as he spoke.

“It is,” she said not taking her eyes off of his gorgeous face, “Can we forget everything and make wild, animal love like we used to?”

For the first time in weeks she saw a glimmer of her husband’s old self as he winked at her like the bad boy he wasn’t,

“Wild animal love? Actually that’s a specialty of mine”.

They didn’t leave their room for the rest of the day.

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