All’s Fair……part 15

CHAPTER 141:

If love isn’t a miracle and my lover isn’t my healer then why am I singing for no reason, eating more than I want to and loving him every second of my life. She thought happily as Azhar slept next to her, his arm draped protectively over her.

They had been here for a week now and Tanya had gained weight steadily. Her cheeks had gotten rosy again and her slightly chubby look that made her always look so youthful was back. Azhar and she had been eating sometimes six times a day and it was all they could do to keep up with all the parades and floats at the Mardi Gras.

He moaned a little and opened one eye to see her mischievously looking at him. She laughed as he tried to go back to sleep and cuddled closer to him, noticing himself getting aroused and trying to inch away from her to catch some more sleep. She persisted as her small body nestled in his arms and she kissed his face until he opened his eyes and said,

“You’re a bad influence. We’ve been having nothing but food and sex. And sometimes sex on an empty stomach.”

“Don’t complain”, she said, loving his morning face with a light stubble and his sleepy eyes, “I’m finally back in my groove”.

He smiled with his eyes closed.

“It feels so good to be back in the groove, Taanu”.

His phone rang. It was Bilal. He picked up immediately. Bilal was FaceTiming.

“Look at you”, Bilal screamed looking at Tanya, “Azhar! Is this the skinny doctor you took with you? Look at this beauty”.

She blushed but decided to banter with him,

“I’ve always been a beauty. Azhar just brought me here”.

Bilal smiled. His serious and loving smile.

“You’ve always been a beauty but you weren’t eating. And I think now you are. Take care of yourself, Tanya”.

“Is she eating!” Azhar exclaimed. “Six or seven times a day, man”.

As Tanya lapsed into laughter Azhar filled in Bilal on what they had done so far and how many places they had been.

He listened mostly, occasionally throwing a cursory glance at Tanya who was busy perusing the room service menu to decide breakfast.

She looked lovely, he stole a few casual glances, and his heart was so happy. She had lost a dangerous amount of weight and he had thought at one time that the tragedy of the miscarriage was going to kill her.

But she’s a survivor, he thought proudly, not for nothing is she the girl who has had me her willing captive all these years. You won’t find a scrappier girl.

Azhar was asking Bilal what he’d like them to get for him.

“Nothing”, Bilal refused strictly. “Nothing whatsoever. Spend money where it counts. If you really wanna get something for me, get loads of pictures of you two. I really love living vicariously through you guys”.

And he meant it. They were two of his most loved people and even though he was sad at the slow disintegration of a marriage that occasionally showed surprisingly good promise, he loved that Azhar and Tanya had each other. They had both come a long way in the search for love and had found it and were now cherishing it. He was happy for their happiness. No other feeling regarding those two was more powerful than that.

“Someone wants to say hi”, Bilal said cheekily and sure enough, Hamza appeared next to him,

“Hi, Azhar!” He was truly a mini-Bilal and called him Azhar. “Where are you? I miss you”.

“I’ll be back”, Azhar said holding the phone as close to himself as possible, “I miss you too”.

“But where are you?” Hamza pouted. “Where’s Tanya?”

It was hard to love Maha’s kids for her. Am I a bad person to hold a grudge against her kids because of her? She thought critically.

“I’m here”, she said, smiling.

“Tanya! Why did you take Azhar with you? We had to play cricket”.

She laughed. She didn’t want to say that she didn’t appreciate the accusatory tone and that it was exactly the kind of whining that his stupid mom did but remained quiet.

Maha was very loved by Azhar. She had given them two kids and was of course just a very important person by that association alone. But Tanya had been a victim to her crassness and rudeness for way too many times to like her or the kids that she had so easily given birth to. Maha could’ve understood her pain. Instead she made light of her loss and just as predicted, Nighat had joined ranks with her.

She hadn’t forgotten their last spat. They hadn’t spoken since then. I don’t miss her, she thought candidly, when I go back I’m looking for whatever work I can get so I don’t have to stay in that house for long hours.

They talked for about an hour and she used that hour to take a shower and dress up for him a little. She saw herself in the mirror and was pleasantly surprised at how much a little sun and rain and a whole lot of Azhar had helped her look pretty again.

She had chosen a long yellow dress with thin straps and a plunging neckline. She had got this outfit from one of the thrift stores in Karachi on an impulse and had wondered where she’d ever wear it but this was the perfect place. The place of love and food. Of jazz and beignets.

She had on the jewelry that he had given her when they had found out about the pregnancy.

“Here you are”, he had said, putting the necklace around her neck, “something to mark the occasion with”.

It was a beautiful necklace with a long string and a ring on the string.

She put on makeup and went into the room to tell him she was ready.

He was still on the phone but as soon as he saw her he hung up saying something about “Tanya needs me”.

“Come here”, he said possessively, “No way am I not kissing you when you look drop dead gorgeous”.

“We are in the USA”, she reminded him laughing while walking to him, “you can kiss me anywhere”.

“I can kiss you anywhere in Pakistan too and I have”, he said, taking her in and holding her with her hips. “I don’t think kissing my wife should be against the law”.

Why is this clock moving, he thought with some irritation, it should stop while Tanya is happy and content and looks breathtakingly beautiful.

“I love you”, she murmured as he kissed her.

“If you love me”, he said, kissing her still, “Then you have to care for yourself, apply for next year’s match and live the life that you always wanted to. You went to medical school to have a career, right? Then what happened?”

She looked in his eyes.

“I feel”, she said, her voice breaking, “That he took a piece of me with him. We will have more kids, I know. But his loss won’t get old”.

“How can it get old?” He said, smoothing her hair, “He was a part of us. Of you and me. Azhar and Tanya”.

There were moments when she felt like she was tasting love for the first time. Like what she had thought love was, it wasn’t. Like Azhar had changed its definition and its narrative. Like Azhar had made her new.

She kissed him before he could go on.

“I love you, I love you, I love you”, she said playfully, “Now I have to see you match me in style so people don’t wonder what a drop-dead gorgeous woman is doing with a sloppy guy”.

CHAPTER 142:

Hamza insisted so they went to a theme park close to their place and decided to leave Haifa with their nanny.

They didn’t speak the whole time in the car.

She looked at him resentfully. Her former lover had a great life. They had spoken over the phone a few times in darker moments of her marriage and he had told her to have more sex, more couples’ time, more alone time.

But I don’t like Bilal, her heart would say. He isn’t the man I wanted and I had thought that he’d become that man but he didn’t.

“Come on”, he took her hand, ” Why do you always look so sad or angry? Hamza is so happy. Doesn’t that make you happy? Our kids? They’re so beautiful. Something should work, right?”

She put her head on his shoulder as they watched Hamza have an amazing time.

“Can we love each other, Bilal? Like just the two of us? I don’t want our marriage to depend on Hamza or Haifa or things. But that’s all there is to make me happy. And I want to have the type of happiness that married women have”.

He was quiet. She wasn’t very expressive so this was a huge deal for her to say this much. It must be so heavy that even someone like Maha couldn’t bear its weight.

He put an arm around her.

“I’m willing to put in the work”, he said, breathing in her nauseating perfume and immediately getting turned off.

“Okay”, she said a little encouraged by his receptiveness. “Tell me what bothers you about me and I won’t do it. It should start with being likable first. Love can come after or not. But we should like each other.”

Sometimes Maha’s candidness and the knack for hitting it on the head in a simple way caught him by surprise. His attraction for Tanya lasted because he liked her more than he loved her. And he sensed that Tanya was liked by Azhar also. A lot. His brother loved her but Tanya had a very different personality from the women they had grown up around and that was attractive to them and so they liked it. Like, he decided, is definitely a deeper thing than love. May be I don’t love Maha because I never really liked her.

“That’s a good place to start but you should go first about what I can change because you started this conversation”.

She suddenly became shy like she sometimes did when she talked about them to him.

“Can you talk to me some more?” She said, almost pleadingly. “You don’t talk to me and that hurts. With my ex…..” she stopped abruptly.

But he wanted to know. Somehow this could become their starting point if they just knew what turned the other on.

“Say it, please”, he took her face in his hands, “Say what you liked about him”.

“We used to talk all the time”, she said haltingly, “All the time”.

He looked beyond her, in a time when he talked with someone too. All the time.

“Okay, what else?” He said playfully, “Don’t complain when I talk to you all the time”.

She laughed.

“You should tell me something too. What’s something I could change?”

“Two things”, he said instantly as if he had been sitting on it for a while, “More talking like you said. And less make up. Much less make up”.

She blushed and he thought he had embarrassed her. Taking a stab at being romantic he said,

“It dulls your beauty, Maha. Do you have any idea how gorgeous you are without makeup?”

She blushed some more and then said,

“More talking and less make up? You got it”.

He smiled and took her hand. Then he touched her head and made it fall on his shoulder.

“I want us to love each other,” he said sincerely, “Like is not enough. Please let’s fall in love”.

CHAPTER 143:

They were sitting outside an old bar and there were many people around them in various stages of intoxication. But they were all happy. Like they were at the biggest place of love and life. A float had just passed them and they had cheered on with everyone else.

He touched her earring. It was shaped like a leaf and purple in color. She smiled.

“I love you so much, Azhar”, she said, sighing at the sight of her beautiful husband.

He laughed. He took a picture of them and immediately sent it to Bilal.

“Do you think it’s heartless if I send our pictures to Bilal?” He asked, as an afterthought. “He asked for them and asks everyday for them so I send them but I feel he doesn’t have a great relationship with Maha”.

Tanya didn’t say anything. Bilal’s love life and married life had no hidden aspects for anyone but Azhar usually mentioned them as well-guarded secrets and it annoyed her that Maha got away with so much. If her sibling, whom she loved so much was disrespected by their spouse as much, she would’ve hated them.

“Why doesn’t she try to have a great relationship with him? You have said it yourself that she could’ve turned it around”.

“No”, he shook his head, “the burden of a relationship can’t be on one person. Bilal has a lot of hand in the happiness or lack of it”.

“But…” she began.

“No, Tanya! Don’t say that because people could say that about us too someday if we weren’t doing okay and how would you explain what happened behind closed doors? I don’t like commenting on spousal relationships. They’re very nuanced and complex. Bilal hasn’t forgotten the girl he loved. Maha cannot change that. It would be cruel and wrong to expect her to change him or make a man fall in love with her”.

She became quiet. Azhar’s allegiance with Maha was dangerously one-sided. Maha had insulted him more than once in public.

He sensed she was miffed.

“Listen! Maha doesn’t have an easy life. Don’t think that. She lashes out, I know. But she wasn’t like this. You don’t know it because you weren’t here. She had mood swings like all girls. May be she had PMS sometimes or may he she didn’t feel like it. But two things changed that poor girl. Bilal’s indifference and Ami’s dominance. She never lived a day like a respectable human being”.

She was immediately intrigued to know that Nighat and Maha hadn’t always been thick as thieves.

“But Ami and Maha are so close”, she said, surprised and curious, “Ami wasn’t nice to her before?”

“Ami isn’t nice to her even now”, he said laughing, “Ami joins her in her meanness against you because you’re Ami’s enemy and Ami sees Maha as her friend in your case because you’re Maha’s enemy too”.

“But I’m not Maha’s enemy”, she said, bewildered, “who said that?”

“Just because you don’t think that doesn’t mean anything”, he said , “Maha has definitely had a personality change since you’ve come into our family. None of us can deny that”.

She felt sorry for Maha for a fleeting moment so blurted out,

“How can I make it better? Anything I can do?”

“I don’t know”, he said quietly, bringing her closer and kissing her forehead, “But just don’t respond to her meanness. I’m not saying it to stifle you. Believe me, that’s not my intention. But Maha cries bitterly when Ami makes the comment that you made about her marriage. I feel like someone cuts my heart when people say that to her to hurt her and I don’t think Allah will forgive us for what we’ve done to her”.

“But Azhar!” She said, feeling like she had kicked a puppy when she had mentioned to Maha that Bilal didn’t like spending time with her, “Sometimes she’s very biting”.

“I know”, he said, holding her and kissing her mouth, “I know. She has a biting tongue. I know. So answer back as well as you can. But not about her marriage. It’s a sore topic for her. She cries like a child, Taanu! Imagine if your husband didn’t love you”.

“God forbid that”, she said, crossing her face the Muslim way, touching both sides of her cheeks several times and then scooted closer to him, “God forbid that. I would die”.

He drew her on his lap.

“Right? Can you feel her pain now?”

She looked at her husband, the man she had found in pain, then had known him through friendship, then bonded through love and wondered what she would feel if Azhar ever didn’t love her.

“I can feel it, Azhar”, she said softly, “But never not love me. How am I going to live?”

He pulled her deeper into his arms before kissing her, another float passing behind them, the crowd cheering them on, Tanya laughing in his neck and Azhar pulling her deeper and still feeling like they were not getting close enough.

CHAPTER 144:

He watched her pacing the room and let her have a moment. She was frequently disturbed and rarely at peace and he knew that her calm exterior was a facade. She was his favorite child, not because of any reason except he felt like he had done a grave injustice by her.

“Abu!” She said, sitting down finally and wringing her hands, “I’m so worried for Azhar”.

He knew her worry wasn’t based in any reality. When it came to Azhar she had a mad obsession. She had strong maternal feelings for him and some of them bordered on madness. He knew that. She loved him because he was her first born. But Arsalan knew that she loved him largely because of how he had been her first friend in a lonely life.

“What are you worried about?” He asked gently.

She didn’t know what it was but she had always thought that Azhar would marry a girl of her choice. When that didn’t happen, nothing seemed right .

“Nighat!” He said in a conciliatory tone, “You saved your son from death. Don’t lose him to your baseless fears. He’s happy. Isn’t that enough?”

“But”, she said, feeling like crying because if he didn’t get it then who would, “She can’t even give him a child. He had become very depressed after the baby died”.

“Even though he did become sad with the miscarriage”, he said soothingly, “He supported her. He came out so strong”.

She wanted to scream at how she hated Tanya. How Tanya’s fate in striking out with one son and making out with the better son ate at her. How she was someone that Nighat would’ve been like if people had just let her decide one thing in her life.

Arsalan came forward and stroked her hair gently,

“You’re a very strong woman yourself. I’m very proud of you. You’re being petty and this is difficult to see”.

The one thing she couldn’t do was disappoint her father. She forcibly smiled and said,

“You’re right, Abu! There’s nothing to be worried about”.

“Can Abu ask for some coffee?” He asked with love and affection.

She smiled at her father. She used to be afraid of him and then who knows what happened but he took her under his wing. Who knows what happened!

CHAPTER 145:

“I don’t wanna go”, she wailed, clinging to him.

“I know!” He made a face, “If I didn’t want to be with my family so much I would’ve asked you to get a residency here and we could have lived here and raised our family here”.

She clung to him even more.

“It feels like something will happen when we get back. Like something bad. This feels like a cocoon”.

He tipped her face,

“You have a bad habit of saying unsavory things. Don’t tempt Allah’s wrath by being ungrateful”.

“I’m not being ungrateful”, she said, kneeling on the bed, “I just don’t want to go back”.

He pulled her back and kissed her lips.

“We have to get you busy when we get back”.

“Can I work at the school where I was working before until residency match next year?” She asked hopefully.

“Why do you talk like you’re asking for permission?”

“I wasn’t asking for permission”, she said, reasoning with him, “I should consult with you, right? Like you should consult with me?”

He smiled.

“Tanya! Do you know what was so attractive about you that I wanted to be your partner for life?”

“What?”

“Your independence and being your own person. Don’t give it up”.

“Okay, Grandpa”, she laughed, “I’ll work at the school where I was working before”.

“That’s better”, he pulled her to himself, “now let’s not talk anymore”.

Two days later they were back in Karachi. Bilal came to pick them up.

He saw them coming out of the airport, Tanya running to him, Azhar grinning behind her.

“I’m so happy to see you”, she said excitedly and quickly said, “I’m giving you your present now even though you asked us not to get anything but we had to get something for our favorite person”.

Azhar had caught up with them by now and watched as Tanya showed him a picture of the three of them framed in a Mardi Gras themed frame.

He started laughing.

“When is this from?”

“Remember when I met you guys at the beach”, she reminded him.

“When Tanya rose from the waves like Halle Berry”, Azhar added.

“Oh! Yeah! Our very own Bond Girl”, Bilal joked, thinking how beautiful she looked.

“We took this one that day, remember? I used to be so fat”, she said ruefully.

“Not fat”, Bilal corrected her, “Healthy and you’re getting back to this look now”.

She smiled happily. She leaned forward as Azhar was looking for a trolley for their bags,

“I’m sorry about the thing I said to Maha. Really I’m not a malicious person and that was malicious”, she said apologetically.

I know you, he thought looking in her deep black eyes, you’re not malicious at all but our family damages the best of them.

“It’s okay”, he said, smiling and appraising her looking so healthy again, “You ate and took care of yourself so all’s forgiven”.

“I ate so much”, she said loudly, “Really Azhar ate so much and made me eat and before I knew it, I had developed the habit of eating like a glutton”.

He laughed as Azhar came forward.

“Don’t lie”, he said, “You ate and drank like there was no tomorrow”.

They laughed and talked all the way home.

Even though they were jet lagged, Azhar ran to Bilal’s room to grab Hamza and Haifa. Hamza was over the moon to see him. Tanya felt strange looking at Haifa. She was two months but could easily pass off as a six month baby.

What makes some of them so healthy, she thought, and some die even before they’re born?

“Hello”, Maha said politely.

She looked at Maha and may be Maha saw in her eyes what she was thinking. She pulled Tanya in for a hug.

“I’m sorry, Tanya”, she said, sounding sincere and honest, “I’m very sorry. I want to be a friend”.

Her eyes were wet. Just a hello from Maha would’ve been progress too but this was unexpected. She realized that she had hugged many people but hugging Maha was different. It was like Maha got it. Like she really got it. The millennial pressure of being a mother and a wife and a professional and being upright and strong and unwavering. She felt Maha got it.

“I need a friend”, Tanya said, her breath getting caught in her emotions. “And I’m sorry, Maha! I made a very insensitive comment. It wasn’t my place and it wasn’t the truth”.

“Forget about it”, Maha looked in her eyes, “let’s start fresh”.

She smiled at her new friend. Azhar hugged them both and pulled Bilal in too.

“Guys!” He said, becoming emotional, “This is the best present. THE BEST”.

They retired to their room as they had terrible jet lag. Maha told them that Nighat was visiting with one of her sisters.

“Azhar! I’m so happy. Maha and I made up. Allah listened to my prayers. I had prayed that she forgives me”. She said excitedly when alone with him.

“Come here”, he beckoned her to come into his arms, “You’re the sweetest girl, you know that?”

She cuddled with him as he stroked her hair gently and soon she was asleep.

They woke up six hours later. It was almost time for dinner and Azhar proposed that they eat out. Nighat wasn’t back yet and Sabir was also not going to be home in the evening. Maha, who looked for reasons to eat out, readily came on board.

They went to Damascus and ordered almost the whole menu. Hamza and Haifa had come with them and it was strangely lovely how the kids seemed such an essential part of the family now even though Haifa only came a few months ago.

Bilal and Maha were definitely closer. They had a different dynamic and weren’t snapping at each other. They also weren’t quiet with each other which was their norm. They were warmer and happier.

Seeing Bilal happy was a happy moment for her. She had wanted them both to be happy. She had wanted him to get someone like she had gotten Azhar. There was no triumph in watching discord in Bilal’s life.

Eating had become such a habit that she ate more than anyone. Maha joked about Tanya finally gaining weight and Azhar immediately blessed her. He was so superstitious that any mention of her weight sent him in a tizzy.

They came home late at night, and saw Nighat Afshan in the family room, leafing through a magazine.

“Hi, Ami”, Azhar said and then immediately followed up with, “Wait! I’ll be right back” and ran as fast as he could towards his room.

Tanya stood there awkwardly and finally said,

“Hi”.

Nighat looked at her. She looked well and healthy. The trip had transformed her back to the vital and vibrant girl that she was. She was wearing a black outfit with pink embroidery with large silver earrings and her arms had red and green bangles. She looked strikingly like the Tanya who had come into this house about a year ago.

“Hello, child”, she said indifferently.

Azhar returned with a big bag and called Maha excitedly,

“Come on! Get your presents, people”.

As everyone clamored around him, Hamza claiming his toys first of all, Nighat peered into the bag with interest.

“And what did my son get me?”

Azhar laughed.

“Your son wanted to get a glass figurine for you of Marie Antoinette because, Ami, you’re one of the most headstrong women I know”, she smiled proudly, “But apparently”, he paused and looked at Tanya, “This one didn’t think that you’d like anything better than this”.

He pulled out a carefully packaged box from another bag, that was expertly sealed and looked heavy.

“If Tanya got it for me”, she said softly, “Then let her give it to me too”.

“Come on!” Azhar commanded her lovingly, “Give your mother-in-law what you got for her”.

Tanya came forward, smiling shyly, and opened the box.

Nighat had never seen anything so beautiful.

“It’s a Japanese Maple Bonsai”, she said, looking at Nighat for approval, “I know you’re a collector so you can appreciate this. Bonsais are a weakness of mine. We had to get special permission to bring this. I wanted to get them for my place but they need so much care and love! I didn’t think I’d give them that. But I know you’ll nurture them like you nurture your plants. I’ve never seen anyone mothering their plants like you do. I know they’ll be very loved with you”.

She didn’t know why but her eyes got wet as she said it. May be the quest for love and acceptance from Nighat was taking its toll on her. May be seeing life, new life in this home, reminded her of a life she had lost. May be watching Nighat’s eyes become misty made her cry. She didn’t know what happened but tears rolled down her cheeks as she saw Nighat taking the plant in her hands like a mother holds her newborn. She sobbed and Nighat looked up,

“Tanya!” She said, her voice heavy with tears or emotion or just fatigue at the end of the day, “Very few people have cared for me this much to know what I like or what I want. So thank you! Thank you!”

CHAPTER 146:

Tanya got a job at the school where she had once taught. It was strenuous and heavy work but she didn’t mind. Kids were such a weakness of hers that spending time with them never felt heavy. She loved teaching them and even took a few for private tuitions.

Nighat was intrigued by this. She had never thought that anyone who went to medical school would take any joy in teaching elementary school kids. She was mesmerized by how Tanya taught her students complex concepts in simple language. She had a set of siblings who came to her for an hour of coaching every day and she loved them like her own.

“Do you like kids a lot?” Nighat asked her one day.

“I like teaching them. That’s what I want to do ultimately. Teach medical residents and students”.

“So you like teaching?”

“Yes”.

Sabir, on the other hand, found her extremely annoying and constantly complained about Tanya.

“At least that Maha gave her husband two kids. What has she done? Hmph! A medical degree is enough to make people accomplished these days. All of them are whores. They go to these places where men work and score men under the guise of education”.

Nighat silently agreed with most of what he said. Tanya was useless, this was her thought too, and now she was working so she had no time to give to house chores either.

But that wasn’t the alarming thing at all to Nighat. Maha and Bilal’s growing closeness made her uncomfortable. That was hard to watch.

Bilal came and darted towards his room. Azhar had promised to watch the kids so he could take Maha shopping. He figured that since she liked shopping so much they could bond over that and may be he could take her somewhere nice for dinner afterwards. They had never been very close so this was a little daunting but also slightly exciting.

“Hi, Ami”, he said and continued to walk towards his room.

“You look like you’re in a hurry”, she said disapprovingly, “What’s the rush?”

He groaned. He had to get Maha and avoid this whole circus that he knew his mother drew so much mirth from.

“I’m taking Maha shopping”, he said, feeling on the spot.

“You’re taking Maha shopping? You are?” She laughed condescendingly, “That girl can shop the best of them out. You won’t last beyond the first hour”.

Something in her tone got him.

“I’m sure she can shop because apparently that’s all she has ever found any happiness in. Nothing else in this house has made her happy. I need to fix that. She’s my wife and her happiness should come from me also”.

He walked on to his room.

She watched him walking away and sighed. Another whipped son! All men are the same. Show them a woman and they slip!

Maha was ready. For some reason she looked very subdued and self-conscious.

“Hey”, he said coming closer and inhaling a much less offensive perfume, “Look at you! Don’t you look pretty!”

“I don’t know”, she laughed nervously, “Tanya helped me. I told her about your feedback and she pulled this outfit out from the closet and insisted I wear it with these bangles. Do you like them? I told her I’m more of an earring girl but she didn’t listen”.

Tanya’s love didn’t leave him ever. It felt disingenuous to lead Maha on with a promise of love and togetherness. He had had a lot of trouble moving forward with his life and people might think that he had but Tanya was a fixture in his life that was hard to remove.

But Maha looked pretty. Undeniably, subtly pretty. Like she had never looked before. He wasn’t into women who dress loudly and flamboyantly and so Tanya helping Maha was perfect for him because he could see now what his mother saw in Maha. She was really pretty when not wearing tons of unnecessary makeup and jewelry.

He took her in his arms.

“You have no idea how pretty you are without all that crap”, he said huskily, then joked, “now I don’t want to go out. I just wanna stay in here”.

She smiled.

“We can do that too”.

He kissed her. For some reason it had the newness of a first kiss. She smelled good and fresh. She didn’t have the permanent scowl that she wore and he was struck suddenly by how young she actually was. She shouldn’t have had two kids under two, he realized. I should’ve been more careful.

“I’m thinking”, he said, touching her hair and letting it fall around her shoulders, “We should mark our first date with a special thing. Would you like to buy something that you’ve been wanting to?”

She hesitated and then said,

“My sister has a locket with her husband’s name on it. Can I get something like that too? I wanted to but didn’t know if you’d like that. I know you don’t like gaudy things”.

“I’d love that”, he exclaimed, “I’d love for everyone to know that Maha is mine”.

She laughed throatily.

“I’m yours, Bilal”, she said drawing closer to him, “And you’re mine. I can’t lose my man a second time. I’ll die if that happened”.

He pulled her closer.

I can’t lose my woman either a second time, he thought fiercely, this time has to be mine.

CHAPTER 147:

“Azhar!” She called out after him as she noticed him running out for work.

“Not now, Ami”, he said hurriedly, stuffing toast in his mouth, “I have to drop off Tanya and then be at work. I don’t have a lot of time”.

“I don’t get what this madness is”, she said, irritated at this weird new morning routine, “No one wants to stay home. What’s this way to live life?”

“I don’t know”, he said, his mouth full, “I don’t know what way of life you like but I like it this way. I can’t sit at home and do nothing”.

“I’m not talking about you”, she snapped, “Why is Tanya working? Do you two need money so desperately that a doctor has to teach school kids?”

“It’s not about the money”, he rolled his eyes, “She finds a lot of meaning in teaching”.

Before Nighat could say further, Tanya stepped out of her room.

However bad his mood ever got at Nighat, Tanya was always a breath of fresh air. She had on a simple light green shalwar kameez with green glass bangles, zero makeup and looked like a high schooler herself. She came to the table and buttered a toast after greeting Nighat.

“Azhar! I’m getting late”. She said, “You have to wake up early tomorrow”.

“He was here before you”, Nighat said coldly.

“Because I iron his clothes while he showers and then I get dressed and ready”, Tanya was not a morning person so any untoward conversation in the morning never went over well with her.

“I’m glad to hear that Azhar expects his wife to perform some wifely chores”. Nighat said nastily.

“I don’t”, he said, gulping piping hot tea and burning his throat, “She insists. I expect her to love me. That’s all”.

“Well, that’s the bare minimum”, Nighat said haughtily.

“Yup”, he said easily, “I don’t feel entitled above the bare minimum with anyone. Let’s go, Superman!”

He prodded Tanya in the direction of the door as he saw her scowl getting deeper.

But she was totally ticked off and didn’t want to talk to him in the car at all.

“Come on!” He said, touching her face, “What happened? Smile for me! If you don’t smile, I’ll have a bad day at work”.

“She’s not a good person”, she said angrily, “I hate it, Azhar. I can’t live with her”.

He was quiet. He didn’t want to discuss the possibility of separate accommodations permanently ever. He had once wanted to be with her during her pregnancy at her mother’s place but even then he had divided a lot of time with his brothers.

Silently he dropped her off at her work and took off.

Tanya couldn’t be bothered by his bad mood or what she herself had said.

It’s my right as his wife, she thought ferociously, he acts like I’m used to her abuse like he is. I won’t get used to it ever.

They both had a bad day at work. They normally texted each other multiple times during breaks or between classes but none of them did that day. When he came to pick her up in the evening, Tanya was determined to not talk to him but the sight of him had the same effect on her that, in her opinion, undermined all her efforts at making a point.

She quietly sat in the car and could see that he wasn’t going home. They stopped at Copper Kettle and Azhar looked like he was going to get out.

“You’re not coming?” He asked casually.

She didn’t say anything. She was ready to cry and wanted to punch him .

He tugged at her hair.

“Tanya!”

“No”!

“Okay!”

He reclined his seat and sat watching people.

“I’ll win this contest with you, you know?” He said after sitting quietly for five minutes.

“There’s no contest”, she said nastily, “You and I are two different people. I would never let my mother speak to you like that”.

“So do you want me to fight with her?”

“How much?” She screamed, “How much fighting can we do? How much? You tell me, Azhar, because you proposed to me! You begged me to get married to you. How much can I take? I don’t want to be with your family anymore. I hate that place. There’s a constant darkness there. Even the way your father talks and insults me all the time. Underhanded insults. I’ll gouge his eyes out one of these days”.

He noticed that she had become extremely emotional recently anytime she felt that Sabir had made a comment about her. And he agreed. Nighat was subtle but Sabir was openly mean and demeaning. It was a new side to him and one that he had never thought would make an appearance in front of him.

“Listen to me….” he began.

“No!” She screamed even more loudly, “No! I won’t listen to you. I’ve listened to you enough. I should’ve never listened to you. Azhar! I fell in love with you so I married you but you pursued me shamelessly. I’m not one of those women who come into their men’s lives without their consent. You were crazy about me. Now you need to fix this problem”.

“I’m still crazy about you…..”, he tried to reason through.

“Be crazy about me when I’m not naked. When I’m talking. When I’m telling you about a problem. Sex is not everything. I can live without it but I can’t live without respect”.

“Are you kidding me?” He screamed louder than her, “You’re kidding me, right? You’re kidding me when you say I love you only during sex”.

“That’s what it feels like”, she said bitterly, “I didn’t want to be a trophy wife but that’s exactly what I’ve become. I won’t forget their attitudes after my miscarriage and I can see how it’s all going back to that now”.

He was quiet. He wanted to ram the car in the ongoing traffic. His anger made him see red normally but the implication that he was dishonest with her was too much for him.

He turned on the car and drove back home.

“Drop me off at my mom’s”, she said as they stopped in the garage.

“You can call your mom and go yourself. In fact”, he turned around, “Stay there for as long as it takes to get your head straight. We both can live without sex for a few days so we will be fine away from each other”.

She called Asma and asked if she could send the driver over.

“Sorry, honey”, Asma said, “He went early today. I can come pick you up”.

“No, Mama”, she said, defeated and lonely, “I’ll come by another day”.

She hung up and with heavy steps went to her room.

He was in the bathroom. She collapsed on the bed and miraculously, sleep overcame her.

“Wake up, Angry Angelina!” He was waking her up.

She opened an eye and saw him sitting at her side. She immediately turned over.

“Taanu!” He grabbed her around the waist. “Really! Punish me anyway you want but don’t skip dinner”.

“I’m not punishing you. I’m punishing myself or is that not allowed either?”

“Punishing yourself would come under punishing me”, he said while kissing her hair, “Please eat”.

“No!”

“You’re a feisty one”, he said, running his hand through his hair, “You leave me no choice”.

He picked her up and put her back down immediately, scared at her eyes flashing.

“Azhar!” She said, trying to be patient and reasonable, “Please learn one thing. I’m actually surprised it’s coming up now when it’s our anniversary in a few days and you should’ve learned it in the past one year yourself but I’ll say it so there’s no confusion! Don’t ever act goofy when I’m angry. I hate that. It minimizes my feelings and it makes you look like a complete ass hole who thinks that he can make an adult woman laugh and be merry with theatrical, stupid moves. It really turns me off. Do not do it. Do you get it?”

He stared at her, unable to articulate any words but then finally said,

“Yes!”

She closed her eyes.

“But can I say something seriously?” He asked. “I promise I won’t be funny or goofy”.

“What?”

“Please eat”.

“I won’t die if I don’t eat one time”.

“I’m dying, Taanu”, he said, getting into bed with her and holding her face, “Really I’m dying. Why won’t you eat? What happened that you’re so angry? Please don’t be upset with me for what Ami said.”

She realized he was right. She was venting on him when actually she should have told her mother-in-law that she was crossing a boundary by speaking on her marriage.

“Who’s outside?”

“No one”, he said, “everyone’s in bed. It’s 2 AM”.

Begrudgingly she got up from bed and went into the bathroom to wash and change.

When she came out, Azhar had warmed up the food and had brought it in on a tray.

She started eating quietly. He was eating too.

“Why’re you eating again?” She demanded. “You don’t have to keep me company. I’m not a baby. I can have a solitary meal”.

“I didn’t eat”, he said easily, “I had no appetite. I can’t eat or sleep or laugh or joke after a fight with you that we haven’t made up for”.

She smiled a little.

“That would make you a very dependent person on me”.

“Emotionally? Yes! Sexually? No!”

She laughed.

“Don’t sit on my comment from this morning and try to score”, she warned him jokingly. “I was angry”.

“I know”, he said, eating heartily, “but it was hurtful. Because if the person you love doesn’t know how much you love them then everything looks like it’s in vain”.

“I know you love me”, she said softly, “I just said it to hurt you”.

They were quiet during the rest of the meal. He picked up the plates and she heard him washing the dishes.

She lay down again. Azhar came back and soon she heard him snoring.

They never stayed so disconnected in bed. They always cuddled or watched a movie or listened to music. They talked or teased each other and they made love almost every night.

She felt strange and lost her sleep. Her behavior had been borderline uncouth, she realized that. She had taken her anger out on him and he had borne it with good humor but he had also not touched her since she had asked him to put her down.

She turned towards him and gently stroked his back.

When he didn’t wake up she sat up and pulled him towards her. He didn’t budge.

“I’m sorry, Azhar”, she said lovingly, “It wasn’t fair to you. Can I sleep in your arms like every night? I won’t be able to sleep if you don’t cuddle me”.

Smiling he turned over, opened his arms and let her settle in. Then he gently kissed her forehead,

“Sex”, he said, “Is a way to get closer in a way that only I can get close to you. It doesn’t define anything about us but it’s our thing. Azhar and Tanya’s. It’s a fun thing, a gesture of love and a symbol of how much we desire each other’s bodies and hearts. A team building exercise, if you will. It is deep, very deep. So if you feel that my best expression of love comes through sex, don’t discount it. I wouldn’t have sex with the most beautiful woman in the world if she threw herself at me. Because Tanya is the only one I want to give myself to. Makes sense?”

She kissed his chest. Then his shoulders and finally kissed his face, ending on his mouth.

“Can we build our team stronger again tonight?” She asked innocently.

“Sure”, he said lazily.

“Okay”, she said with a gleam in her dark eyes, “What’s step one?”

He laughed before pulling her in closer.

CHAPTER 148:

“Where are you, Azhar?” She cried in the phone. “I’m all by myself here. Everyone has left”.

“I’m coming, honey”, he said, his usual easy manner coming through the phone, “Has everyone left?”

“The only reason why they haven’t locked the building is because I’m here”, she said, panicking.

His car stopped in front of her school just then.

She walked to it and heaved a sigh of relief as soon as she got in,

“I was so sca….. what’s that? What’s my suitcase doing in here?”

“Get in, chubby”, he said grandly, “We are coming up with our first anniversary and I want to spend it somewhere romantic and make a milestone out of it”.

She stared at him,

“Azhar!” She screamed and punched him, “We can’t be just having fun all the time. Shouldn’t we be adulting just a little bit? Like save money, plan a family, settle down?”

“Listen to this one, Allah Mian”, he talked to Allah looking at the sky, “She is actually objecting to having fun. When will you put the fun bone in her?”

She took his face and kissed him full on his mouth.

“Where are we going?” She asked excitedly.

“Nothing very fancy”, he said appraising her and deciding that they could get some more clothes for her when they got there, “Just Bhurban. I planned it all last week otherwise we could’ve gone a little further”.

“It’s perfect, Azhar!” She swung by his neck, “Are we leaving now?”

“Yup!” He said, “I told Ami yesterday so she doesn’t wish bad karma on us”, Tanya laughed, “and Maha got your bag together this morning. It had to be top secret”.

She gently touched his face.

“Thanks Azhar”, then said as an afterthought, “I’m so glad you told Ami yourself. I feel guilty when you don’t tell her because I feel that she feels that I urge you to go against her”.

“Tanya!” He said, his mood changing immediately, “You worry about Ami a lot. Imagine how narcissistic she has to be if she feels that us having fun is equivalent to going against her. Don’t feed into this melancholic life that she wants us to live”.

“I know”, she said, “but she’s your mom”.

“She is,” he agreed, “and she thinks I don’t care about her which I really don’t want to address. She has that belief because I don’t suck up to her like everyone else. But really our relationship has improved because of you”.

“Really?” She said smiling broadly.

He nodded.

She texted Maha to thank for packing her bag. Maha called her immediately.

“Congratulations for the first”, she said excitedly.

“I wish you guys could come too”, Tanya said wistfully.

She and Maha had gotten very close since her return from Louisiana.

“We might”, Bilal chimed in from the sidelines.

“If you guys come along then I’ll treat you to dinner every night”, Azhar said magnanimously.

“Okay”, Bilal switched to FaceTime and said, “Don’t tell anyone but we will come for the last two days that you guys are there and fly back with you. Just those two days because we will leave the kids with Maha’s mom and Abu can’t function without me”.

“Really?” Tanya and Azhar screamed.

He looked at Tanya and it reminded him of a time when he had planned a beautiful honeymoon somewhere in Europe with her. How things change! But Maha is my wife now, he reminded himself. She is the one I’m taking with me to mend our marriage.

Traveling with Azhar was always so good. She usually slept the whole way with her head on his shoulders and he normally stayed awake reading. She never felt frightened or nervous when he was with her. Every problem seemed so insignificant and surmountable that nothing fazed her. He was a huge calming force. Everyone said it. She wasn’t the only one who felt that.

Bhurban was like heaven on earth. It was a small and extremely beautiful hill station and this was the beginning of winter that Karachi folks crave so much. She was shivering slightly when they got out of Islamabad airport and got in their rented car.

“When we get there, just go over your stuff and let me know if you need to get some warm things. It’s really cold”.

She put her head against his shoulder, night falling rapidly, a chill in the air that didn’t bother her. She had been in freezing temperatures before and loved snow, sleet and rain.

They got to Bhurban after a few hours’ drive. She had slept a little on the way there. As they got outside the hotel she shivered uncontrollably and Azhar held her tightly.

“This is why you should eat and have some body fat”, he scolded her lovingly.

“I don’t want to eat”, she said looking at his face that looked tired, “If my husband is going to hold me each time I shiver due to lack of body fat”.

He got their suitcases down and even though she protested that she could carry one of them he brought them into the lobby, parked the car and picked up some brochures for local activities from the front desk.

This gave her a head start of about twenty minutes in her room. It was their anniversary the next day and now she fervently wanted to do something for him. She had already got a present for him which of course was in Karachi and she didn’t have a lot of money on her either. She knew Maha wouldn’t have packed any of her lingerie because it was usually in a drawer that was locked so she dejectedly opened her bag and looked for something nice to wear on the night before their first anniversary. As soon as she opened the suitcase she noticed a small Agent Provocateur bag that now she remembered she had seen Azhar carrying in New Orleans at some point. She was amazed momentarily at how she had forgotten all about it and opened it.

Out fell a black night gown with pearls in the front and back, a plunging neckline and an open back. It had a thigh-high slit on one side and thin straps that ran along the shoulders. It felt like the finest silk there was and slipped through her fingers. Before he could come in she dashed into her bathroom and donned it. She quickly went out, pulled her make up bag and put some light make up on, wore light jewelry and decided to spray herself with some nice perfume. She heard the door opening and praying to God that it wasn’t the bell boy or room service she stepped out of the bathroom.

One thing about Azhar, he never held back praise. He took one look at her, drew out a long whistle and walked to her. She shivered slightly again when he took her in his arms,

“Why’re you shivering now? Want me to turn up the heating?”

She shook her head and blushed a little.

“Was this for me?” She asked.

“Yeah!” He said, not able to take his eyes off of her. “This was made for you. It fits perfectly”.

His eyes scanned her body and settled at her throat where she was wearing the ring on the string that he had given her for her pregnancy.

“You like this a lot, huh?”

She nodded.

“Wanna see your present?”

“So this isn’t my present?” She asked with surprise, pointing at the lingerie.

“No”, Azhar laughed, “No, this is not your present, silly! This outfit is my present”.

As she laughed with him he dug in his pocket and pulled out a bracelet,

“Here”, he put it on her arm, “Like it?”

She felt unreal. Life had taken so much from her and given back everything with dividends that sometimes Azhar wasn’t real, her marriage wasn’t real and her love for him wasn’t real to her. She felt it was a fog of a fantasy that could lift any minute. She stared at the bracelet, thinking how much it must’ve cost him, how much he must have spent on designer lingerie to make this night special and how much this whole trip must’ve cost him. There was a lie at the foot of it all, and every second her heart feared the spilling of that lie into her life and burning everything.

“I love it, Azhar”, she said, her vision clouding over, “I got something for you too but it’s in Karachi. So you’ll have to wait for your present”.

“No”, he said, his eyes boring into hers, “I can’t wait for mine. I’m not so patient. You know it. Waiting and anticipating aren’t my thing. Material things aren’t my thing either. Twelve months ago, tonight, I got you in my arms to never let you go. So much has happened that I can’t imagine it was only just a year ago that we started this life together. I’ve realized that life can be very unpredictable and I’ll have to take every moment as it comes and make it mine. So I can’t wait for your present. I can’t wait for a better time and a better mood. I can’t wait for everything to align itself before I claim life and everything it has to offer”.

She kissed him. Her hands ruffled his hair and he finally picked her up and put her on the bed. He got in beside her and stroked her hair gently,

“Smile and be happy”, he said, “Cherish the good times and like you said it yourself once, edit out the bad”.

“When did I say that?” She asked, surprised.

“When I proposed to you in that clothing store and I thought it wasn’t a great place for a spontaneous proposal. Remember you said we can edit that proposal out and I could propose in a better way?”

She remembered suddenly,

“Yeah! I remember”.

“Truth is, we got engaged that day, amidst all those strangers when I asked if you’d like to pick your ring out and you said you’d be happy with whatever I chose. I didn’t even propose properly and you said yes. I want that Tanya back who claimed life as it came. Who bounced back after a bad breakup. Who knew how to make people uncomfortable if they weren’t doing right by her. I want her back”.

“I’m the same person”, she said, getting closer, “But I was very stupid before. I don’t want to make many mistakes now”.

His mouth kissed her throat where the ring was, gleaming in the dimly lit room.

“You were spontaneous and honest. You were forthright and truthful. You never lied about your feelings. Don’t lie about your feelings. That’s like being dishonest to ourselves. Then everything becomes tainted by that”.

She realized she had changed in the last year. In some ways for the better and in some, for the worse.

“Azhar!”

“Hmm”, he drew closer.

“Do you still love me like you did when we got married?”

“I love you more now”.

“Really? I’m not old and boring to you?”

“Well”, he cocked his head to one side, “Old? No! Boring? A little!”

“I don’t wanna be boring”, she shuddered. “How can I change that?”

“That’s a conundrum”, he said, mock-serious, “why don’t you start with bringing some interesting moves to bed?”

“Azhar!” She shrieked as she punched him playfully. “You pervert! I’m the sexiest girl who’d ever get in bed with you. Mark my words!”

“That’s for sure”, he said, tackling her down and kissing her, “That’s for damn sure”.

CHAPTER 149:

Bilal knew it. Sabir timed his attacks when Azhar wasn’t around. When Azhar was in New Orleans he had seen a bruise on Nighat’s arm that she had blown off as a burn during ironing clothes. And last night he had heard his father screaming at Nighat for ten minutes over the room not getting warm enough.

The fact that he had watched a lot of physical and verbal violence firsthand had made him averse to Sabir but had also made him very protective of Nighat. He had always watched out for Nighat. He was the one who had tipped his grandfather about Sabir. He remembered he was ten and had finally decided to talk to someone. Azhar was out of the question because his mother had warned him not to.

Arsalan had heard everything and then said,

“If he hits her again or uses foul language, will you tell me instantly?”

He had nodded. And so he had become his Nanajan’s most trusted spy.

He didn’t want to go to Bhurban if that meant Nighat getting brutally beat up by Sabir who had had to keep his anger bottled up for decades now.

Well not exactly bottled up, he thought wryly, he makes up for it with his employees.

They had a huge business of plastic containers and the work was mainly carried out by machines so they had many women employees. Sabir was a monster to them too. He particularly made pregnant women work the harder jobs and didn’t pay any maternity benefits. He also didn’t take any advice from Bilal on hiring and firing people and it was only after Bilal contested him for a partnership that he gave up some of the decision-making to him.

Azhar hates Ami, he would think in more honest and clear moments, why can’t he see the absolutely bad guy that Abu is?

“Ami” he said one morning after breakfast, “Maha and I are in Bhurban this weekend. Why don’t you do something for yourself also?”

Somehow, she thought, Bilal and I have become secret keepers of a dark reality that we’ve shared. If we were closer may be it wouldn’t be so heavy. May be it didn’t make my soul so heavy to live with if I could share with someone.

“I’ll be okay, Bilal”, she said, a rare moment of love and affection for him, “You worry about me too much. You should enjoy your time away without worrying about me. I’m a big girl”.

She smiled and continued eating.

“I know you’re a big girl”, he said, looking serious, “I’m not asking you. I’ll drop you off at Nanajan’s place Thursday night and pick you back up Tuesday night when I’m coming back from work”.

“Your father won’t like it”, she said gently.

“To hell with him!” He said carelessly, wiped his hands on a kitchen table and yelled, “Khalil! I’m going to give you an award for making the best omelette in the world, man!”

Khalil came out, beaming.

“Maha Baji told me how you like it”, he said shyly.

Maha was standing behind Khalil in the kitchen.

He laughed.

“Yes”, he said, looking at his wife past the chef and not breaking eye contact, “Make sure you consult with her on all things about me. She knows how I like everything”.

Maha smiled proudly. They had sex for the first time last night after Haifa’s birth and she could tell that he had made an effort to be a little more of the husband that she had been looking for in him.

CHAPTER 150:

Bhurban was wonderful. They couldn’t hike much because of Azhar’s leg but they walked and even did some scooter trails. It was so scenic and picturesque that just sitting on a hill, resting her head on Azhar’s shoulder, talking about work and her students made for the perfect vacation.

To say that Azhar was born to be a man who gave himself fully would be an understatement. He was attentive and very knowledgeable. He knew about software engineering a lot but he knew about the world a lot too. He had had to help his brothers so much in their education that he still remembered elementary school curriculum very well and could speak at length about education reforms. He had a deep affinity with Islam from a purely intellectual standpoint and had read loads of books by scholars about Islamic jurisdiction and decision making. His knowledge on spirituality was unparalleled and he had amazing insights into gender equality and equity.

In moments of feeling overwhelmed by his awesomeness she did compare him to Bilal and asked herself how they were so different and yet so similar. But she knew what set them apart. Azhar looked serious but was actually a much lighter personality. Bilal looked light but carried the burden of inferiority, rejection and responsibility. Azhar didn’t take responsibility for anyone besides Tanya, his parents and brothers. Bilal had many friends and he was always very involved with happenings in his friends’ lives too in addition to his family.

“Azhar! Why did Bilal not go to a professional institution like you?” She asked one day, “Hashir is studying medicine privately and Aman is gearing up for CBM. Why did Bilal not pursue advanced studies? It’s not like you guys aren’t into education”.

He was thoughtful.

“Do you think he is lacking something because he didn’t go to a professional institution?” He asked.

“No”, she shrugged, “I think he’s awesome as he is”.

“Thanks for saying it. Because he’s awesome. But just because you asked, he got accepted at IBA and was halfway through his BBA but he just didn’t have a lot of love for education and so quit one day. Just like that. Ami agreed because she thought he’s good for nothing anyway. Abu has always been so selfish about needing unpaid work at his factories. They both were ecstatic but he didn’t want to work with Abu and so he got that bank job. He gave that up also after his breakup”.

“Didn’t you ask him to continue his education?”

“I did”, he said remorsefully, “but not much. He convinced me too that education wasn’t for him and he was truly miserable at IBA. He missed classes, didn’t feel like going. I don’t think I ever told you but he suffered from bad anxiety when he was a child”.

She listened silently. To know so little about a man who was the reason she lived and breathed for two years was surreal to her. She had accepted him as he had come to her. Truth was, she had never wanted to know the nitty gritty of his life beyond love and ultimately marriage. That was all she thought about when it came to Bilal. Their love was an all-consuming, over-arching entity with a heady quality to it. They were young too when they had met. She was 21 and he was 27 and they really had the type of young, whirlwind love that would make anyone forget the finer points.

“Why’re you asking today?” He asked suddenly, smiling at her curiosity. “Does it affect your opinion of him?”

“No”, she said, looking away from him, “Not at all. I don’t make opinions based on what someone has, or where they went to school or how much money they have”.

“Good girl!” He said, pulling her in a hug and tightening the comforter that they had brought with them around them, “This is why you’re one in a million. What do you think of Maha and Bilal coming ? Are you okay with that?”

“I’m more than okay”, she said smiling warmly, “They needed a break and I’m glad they’re getting it”.

He kissed her. The sun was setting and the sun usually set all of a sudden in Murree and surrounding area. It got dark all of a sudden and it reminded her of some winters that she had spent in Catskills, New York with her cousins.

“Azhar!” She said huskily, “People are staring”.

“So?” He stopped momentarily, “One thing that we have to do for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is to accept that Azhar and Tanya will kiss anytime they want to”.

She laughed.

“Some psychologists might say that referring to ourselves in the third person is a form of delusion of grandiosity and a narcissistic personality”.

His face changed and he looked genuinely scared,

“Don’t say that, man”, he said gulping visibly, “Ami always says that I’m so much like her and I’m always scared if the part I got was the narcissism”.

She laughed and kept laughing for many minutes.

Then she said,

“You’re not a narcissist. A little full of yourself but not a narcissist”.

“I can’t help being full of myself because I’m so good. Cooking, networking, web designing, sex, loving! I mean you name it”.

She rolled her eyes.

Bilal and Maha came over the weekend. It was their first trip as a family of four young people with similar lifestyles and it was just the best bonding experience.

Tanya and Maha took long walks together that were difficult to do with Azhar. They were also difficult to do with Bilal because he wasn’t a walker in his own words.

Bilal and Maha were definitely closer, Tanya and Azhar noticed. It was cute to see them hugging with a little less reserve and Tanya was endeared to see him doing some things with Maha that she remembered he did with her. He was genuinely more into Maha and it was lovely to see.

They had breakfast both days together and went their way. Bilal insisted that they stay together during the day also but Azhar didn’t agree. He knew that Bilal won’t get another opportunity like this for another two or three years and told him to spend it with Maha.

They were coming back from a hike and Maha had insisted to get dinner on the way. He had texted Azhar that they’d be late. It was Sunday night and they were getting out the next day. Azhar had proposed that they go to a bonfire that was usually done at the resort at night.

They were walking towards the bonfire and realized that it was through bushes and hedges that had overgrown. As they picked their way through them they heard commotion in a cluster of particularly large bushes ahead of them and suddenly out fell Tanya from one of the bushes, laughing hysterically, the top many buttons of her shirt undone, Azhar coming out right after her, grabbing her and kissing her as Maha and Bilal stood transfixed, watching them.

While kissing her he slowly buttoned her up. His hands worked their way around her waist, then wandered around her neck and finally he pulled her closer.

Bilal came to first. He firmly took Maha’s hand and walked forward, Azhar and Tanya not noticing them at all.

They sat around the bonfire quietly, all of a sudden their feeble efforts to get what couples have in a marriage looking like stupidity to them. Their slow steps towards a better relationship looked meaningless and weak. They also looked contrived.

Azhar and Tanya entered the clearing, catching their breath, blushing with laughter in their eyes.

Bilal looked ahead at the fire, stoic, lost in thought. If only he had been braver he could’ve been in the bushes with her tonight.

It was a great night except Bilal and Maha couldn’t break out of their thoughts. Azhar and Tanya sang with the local singer who was singing popular songs. Maha looked at them and wondered how they were so happy in a marriage that was short on money, had already suffered a pregnancy loss, had a limping husband and a doctor wife who didn’t seem to have any prospects for a professional career. What gives?

They finally came to their rooms. Bilal felt a certain unrest and didn’t want to speak with Maha or indulge in any loving gestures with her. They had been doing good and somehow, one look at Azhar and Tanya being a madly in love couple had made it all fall apart at the seams.

Maha touched his hand,

“Are you okay?”

“Yes! Why?” He asked gruffly.

“You’re very quiet.”

“Just tired”.

She ran her hands along his arm a few times. Then said,

“Are you thinking of how in love Azhar and Tanya are?”

“No! Why would I think about that?”

“Oh! I have been thinking about it”, she smiled, “And thought it’s consuming you also”.

“Is it consuming you?” He looked at her with surprise, “That’s a big thing to say”.

She looked at him with large blue eyes,

“It hurts that we have everything and they don’t and yet they have the one thing that we can’t get with all we have”.

He stared ahead at the wall.

“Bilal! This is very expensive. I can’t have it.”

“Why not? I saved for two months to get this for you”.

She opened the box again and swiftly closed it.

“I’ve never had a watch as expensive as this. What am I going to tell Mama? No! I can’t have it. I was actually hoping for something else when you said that it’s something that I want more than anything”.

“What? What is it? Tell me”.

She shyly said,

“Can you kiss me like you’ve never kissed me before? That would be the most wonderful birthday present for me”.

Maha, he said silently, they have everything they want. We have everything we went looking for. I wanted my parents’ approval and you wanted a home and a husband. We have what we set out to get. I can tell you that Tanya never looked for just a husband. She wanted a soulmate and so when she started looking for one, she found two.

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