She sometimes became sad thinking she had started coming to this house so much now whereas her poor mother begged her to come over for a few nights and she couldn’t get permission for it.
Life, she thought, has never been my friend. May be this is why I’m so afraid of getting old and losing control.
She went to her old room. Arsalan was out for the evening and had told her to eat dinner or they could go out after he came.
“I’ll be fine, Abu”, she had said, “Trust me! This is like a vacation. Being away from home and able to do whatever I want to do”.
He had looked at her with some sadness, some pride and then had left.
She liked being alone. Loneliness had never been given to her as a right. She had had to push people away to get some of herself to herself. It wasn’t easy.
Her room was still the same. The same four poster bed, the same book shelf. She had loved politics in another time and had followed Benazir Bhutto’s career closely. She was a huge movie buff and had watched almost all Indian and Pakistani movies that came out in the sixties, seventies and finally early eighties. Then she got married. The music died. The rhythm is gonna get you, like Gloria Estefan said, so the rhythm got her. The rhythm of sadness and an intense loathing for her life.
She caressed the dressing table where she had dressed herself so many times. Where she had put kohl in her eyes, lipstick on her lips and funky seventies winged eyeliner around her eyes. Some Pakistani actresses were true beauties like Shamim Ara, Zeba and Babra Sharif and she had saved their newspaper cut-outs to copy their looks.
Her choice in music changed when Nazia and Zohaib Hassan became sensations that rocked Pakistan and Southeast Asia. She played their music all the time when she came home. There were times when she envied the sibling duo, who could pursue their dreams and be whatever they wanted to be.
Her life wasn’t bad. She had a very loving albeit emotional and immature mother. Her father was a distant figure with regal manners and a lot of charisma. Her mother was his most prized possession.
She opened her closet. Her mother never allowed her to rearrange it or throw out clothes that she wasn’t going to wear. She could see the short, fitted shirts with wide shalwars, transitioning to contrasting outfits with bold colors, then her wardrobe from the eighties when she was giving birth, one after the other, that consisted of loud clothes with extra material for her always swollen belly. And then in a corner were the clothes that her mother made for her but never got to give her after Aman’s birth.
Ami, she called out to the woman who knew her secrets, you made so many things for me. Why didn’t you also make a spine? I would’ve worn it more than anything. I needed it.
She took out an old college album. She went to an all girls’ intermediate college and had many friends. Boisterous, loud, lively girls. She was one of them too. She had always been serious but not so serious that she never had fun. She had talked about boys with her friends too. She had sung songs with them many decades ago too. She had wanted to go onwards to a university like many of them too.
Some pictures were really outrageous. Their result days and birthdays showed happy girls with happy thoughts. They were all dressed in tight clothes with slim dupattas that barely covered their bodies. They all put a little lipstick on when they got to college and rubbed it off when it was time to go home. Youth, she thought, helps us immortalize happiness. Otherwise happy times are so elusive.
She put on a Nazia Hassan cassette on her Panasonic tape recorder. This was a gift from Abu when she had completed high school. Azhar and Bilal had played a lot of music on it too.
She leaned back in her bed and listened to “Pyar Amar Hamesha”. Slowly her eyelids closed. She slept.
“Nighat”, someone was calling her.
“Abu”, she woke up like she hadn’t been sleeping. Years of abuse and sleeplessness had taken away deep sleep from her.
“Did you eat?”
“It’s eleven o’clock”, he said, a little concerned, “You used to be the neediest child. Always wanted food on time. And the healthiest too”, he laughed.
She laughed too.
“Abu”, she said, getting up and throwing her dupatta on, “When you mention our childhood now I feel so strange because back then we didn’t think you noticed us at all”.
He laughed. His loud booming laugh. She laughed too. They came to the dining table.
As she sat down to eat she noticed he was getting ready to eat too.
“Abu!” She said with surprise, “Didn’t you have a meeting with your friends? You said you were going to eat out”.
“Actually”, he said lightheartedly, “I told them that my favorite child is making a rare visit and so I have to eat with her. I ditched their dinner and came early”.
This made her very happy. She happily piled on more food in her plate than she had eaten in years and started serving him too.
“You know, dear”, he said between bites, “You are a lot like your mother”.
“Really? I always thought I was more like you”.
“Uh uh!” He shook his head. “you’re like her. Just like her. She was like you. Caring, loving, selfless, quiet”.
She contemplated these descriptors that her father was likely using as compliments then said,
“As opposed to opinionated, strong and self-aware”.
“You can be caring and opinionated. Loving and strong. Selfless and self-aware”. He said gently.
She was quiet. There were moments when the biggest injustice wasn’t Sabir. It was the denial to Dow. The refusal to a life as a doctor. That stood out as the biggest injustice.
“What are you thinking?” He asked, looking at her prematurely lined face.
“Nothing”, she smiled, “Just thinking about the boys. Must be having fun”.
“Hmm”, he said, sensing that she didn’t want to discuss anything heavy, “Bhurban is a beautiful place. Have you been there?”
Have I been where, Abu? She looked at her plate and asked him quietly. If you mean a nice hill station where my own father owns an apartment and therefore I should’ve been hundreds of times by now then no! I haven’t been there. But if you’re asking whether I’ve been anywhere in the 35 years of my marriage then yes! I’ve been to the lowest of lows. I’ve been to death and back. I’ve lived in hell and came out the devil.
They talked during dinner some more and finally retired to their rooms.
Before going to his room Arsalan turned and said,
“Tomorrow I’ll take you to a party. Do you have something to wear?”
“I didn’t pack any formal wear, Abu!”
“Okay! Wanna pick something out in the morning? Your sisters are coming too”.
He noticed the change in her demeanor when she heard about her siblings coming. He came forward and put a hand on her head. It was such a characteristic fatherly gesture that she didn’t even think of stopping the tears that spilled because of a gentle human touch by someone she loved.
“Don’t push people away”, he said, his eyes mirroring her hazel eyes that were fast filling with tears, “We need people. Not all people but we need some people who are our strength. Keep them close”.
“Ami!!!” He was pleasantly surprised to see her wearing new clothes and sitting in the garden, sipping tea with her father.
“Come here, handsome guy!” Arsalan said like a friend, “Nighat!” He looked at her, “A finer foursome of brothers I have never seen but these top two! Leave me speechless”.
And it was true. Even though all four brothers were outstandingly handsome and really good looking, Azhar and Bilal were in a league of their own and had just as mesmerizing personalities also. It was a deadly combination.
Bilal came running forward, here to pick up his mother as promised. He pecked her lightly on the cheek before hugging his grandfather.
“Ami looks so pretty”, he exclaimed, “Nanajan! Let her stay for more”.
“I’m not kicking her out”, Arsalan said jovially, “She insists that she has a lot of stuff to do”.
“Do you?” He asked her incredulously. “No, you don’t”.
“I’m just going to eat your grandfather’s brains while I’m here”.
“Truth be told, I’m lonely”, Arsalan said, “Nighat took some loneliness away. I would insist more but I have and she has refused”.
“She has nothing to do at home”, Bilal said firmly, “absolutely nothing. Azhar will water the plants and prune them or whatever crap they need”.
She laughed. He stared at his beautiful mother looking twenty years younger in just two days.
“Done! Settled! You’re staying here”. He said.
“Your father won’t be happy”, she said ruefully.
“Don’t worry”, he said, winking at her, “I’ll tell him we got a huge order. That’ll take all the edge off”.
They all laughed but somehow Nighat’s laugh was the loudest.
He stared at her.
Ami, he said wordlessly, I sacrificed so much for you and you’re still not happy. Please be happy!
He knew Sabir won’t be happy but he had to be told. He had to pick up Sabir from his aunt’s place and decided to tell him on the way.
Sabir was grumbling all the way home.
“Don’t know what Azhar’s problem is”, he finally said, noticing that Bilal wasn’t engaging with the complaining and the bitter commentary, “Every two months that boy is running off with that whore to one place or another. You can screw your wife in that room also”.
Bilal kept staring ahead. This was just the surface of Sabir’s disrespectful musings on women.
“And then this whole thing with your mother staying with your grandfather for the weekend. Which perverted father keeps his daughter around like his wife? The whole family is messed up. He was a womanizer, your grandfather! Got a wife who was decades younger than that son of a bitch”.
He decided to give Sabir something to really chew on,
“I went to get Ami”, he said evenly, “She was having a very relaxing time. I suggested she stay for a few more days”.
He didn’t see Sabir’s face but knew the blanching went on for many minutes.
“What the hell?” He screamed, “Who gave you the right to suggest that she stay at that goddamn house? Who gave you the authority to do that? She needed to come back tonight. I’ll go get her if she doesn’t appear at my place by tonight”.
He kept driving silently. He knew his dad was all talk when it came to his sons. But just to say something that his dad’s bad mouthing had made easier to say he said,
“You won’t go to get her. I’ll go get her when she’s ready to come back. And Abu!” He glanced in the direction of the man he forcibly called his father, “I notice Ami has more bruises these days than she has had recently. May be it’s her lupus acting up, may be she isn’t careful when ironing clothes or making tea for you. But whatever it is, I have told her that Khalil will iron your clothes and make your tea. She is getting old. We need to offload her.”
“So”, Sabir snarled, “Basically you will tell me and my wife how to be a couple?”
“You can be a couple by caring for her, loving her and respecting her. I’m telling you that if I see one more bruise on Ami I will create those bruises on someone else. People shouldn’t provoke me. I’m Azhar’s brother and I can be just as volatile as he is”.
Sabir gulped. Bilal had started to scare him more than Azhar recently. He could see that Bilal was very protective of his mother. He could also see that he needed Bilal for a successful business. He had great business acumen and had really changed the face of their work in less than three years. Bilal wasn’t dispensable. And so he had to be careful about Nighat also.
Nighat and Arsalan were talking after Bilal left.
“Sabir won’t like it”, she said bemusedly, “He’s very particular about things. This won’t go over well, Abu”.
Arsalan watched her squirming at the thought of her husband’s temper acting up even now as they were speaking.
“What are you so scared about?” He asked gently, “Can’t you stay with me for a few days? Parents need their kids when they’re old. It keeps us alive”.
She smiled softly.
“I don’t know if I’m alive enough to give anyone life. I feel dead”.
“Don’t say that”, he felt like she had stabbed him, “Have you heard the expression that a parent is only as happy as their least happy child?”
“A mother”, she corrected him, “A mother, Abu, is only as happy as her least happy child. May be this is why Ami left us so early. She was just as happy as her least happy child”.
He got up and went to a rose bed. There were many color roses in this garden. Horticulture is such a domestic thing in Pakistan that people are more surprised when someone doesn’t have at least some form of plants in their homes.
“Who was her least happy child, Nighat?” He asked, examining a ruby red rose, one of the indigenous Pakistani varieties.
She stared ahead of her. She knew her mother had a lot of trouble with living her life when she heard of the forced labor that Sabir brought on her child. She didn’t like Sabir, even less than how much Nighat liked him. She had actively avoided him during the last few months of her life and had become extremely religious. She had lost her appetite and sleep and then one morning was found dead in bed.
“I don’t know”, she said dismissively, “How would I know?”
He nodded as if in agreement.
“You know”, he said, “she didn’t like Sabir for you”.
“Didn’t she?” She asked mildly, “Why?”
“Many reasons. One that he was much shorter than you”.
She laughed. He laughed too.
“Any other reasons?” She asked.
“Yes”, he said, losing some of the laughter, “a few others too. She suspected he wasn’t kind to you. Didn’t love you. Is that true?”
Love, Abu? She thought to herself. Love is a far cry where food and water are withheld as forms of punishment. Love doesn’t matter when you’re wondering how to save yourself from dying. Love doesn’t matter. I didn’t need love. I needed respect. A little dignity. A little acknowledgement as a human.
“I don’t know, Abu”, she shrugged her shoulders, “I’m not sure if Sabir loves me or not. He’s not very expressive”.
“Hmm”, he said, then added, “I’m very proud of how I facilitated my children and how I took care of their futures. Except one child. One child I made a grave mistake with. I made the most critical error of judgment in your case, Nighat, and that changed your life”.
She froze. She didn’t want to discuss Sabir with him. That wouldn’t be good. She didn’t trust herself when it came to this discussion. She could unleash a monster that she had raised on resentment and hatred. She couldn’t discuss Sabir with him. That couldn’t happen.
“Abu”, she said gently, going up to him and holding his hand, “Don’t say that, please! You did the best you could. You thought you were getting me the best partner that you could. Don’t blame yourself for Sabir. It’s not your fault”.
He looked at her with pain in his eyes,
“No, you misunderstand, my child! You misunderstand the error and the sin that I regret everyday. I don’t regret marrying you to Sabir. That can happen to anyone. I don’t blame myself for it. I knew him to be a good man. I had researched him a lot before giving my dearest child to him. No, Nighat, even you don’t know what my biggest regret is. My biggest regret is stopping you from going to medical school. Nothing equals that. No happiness in life makes that pain go away. No sorrow in life is as big as the remorse for that decision. I haven’t been able to forgive myself for usurping your right to think and plan for yourself. You deserved to go to medical school. You deserved it. And I took it from you”.
Pain that she got in lonely moments when she thought of how her life could’ve been different seared her heart with its sharp edge. She couldn’t breathe and gasped a few times but then realized that she was sobbing. Quiet sobs that had shook her in quiet moments wracked her body. He held her silently as he cried also.
She finally surfaced after many minutes and looked up at him.
“Sorry, Abu”, she said, smiling through her tears, “I still cry like a baby and looks like you do too”.
He smiled too and kissed her forehead.
“I cry like a baby because I’m an old man. I can’t fix a lot of my mistakes anymore. My mistakes have festered and become giant forms of retribution”.
She put her head against her father’s chest. She had never been close to him and had revered him as her father and provider but they didn’t have a close relationship before her mother died. She got him through her mother’s death. Thinking of her made her cry more.
“Abu!” She hiccuped, “Do you miss Ami?”
He thought of his quiet wife who was so vivacious when alone with him, beautiful and funny, mother to his many kids, who had carried Nighat’s secret to the grave. He wished he hadn’t made his women protectors of his honor.
“Everyday”, he said, his tears falling in her hair, “Every minute”.
Life resumed. She was having such a great time teaching her kids that she didn’t even realize that it had been six months that she had been teaching them for. It had been two months since her first anniversary. And about six weeks since her last period.
She hadn’t been keeping track of her period because she was on birth control. She had decided to come off of it when she was more ready for a baby.
Thinking that she’ll get her period one of these days she forgot all about it. The next time she remembered this little conversation with herself was two weeks later when she woke up in the morning throwing up violently.
Fear gripped her insides. It was the same nausea, the same projectile vomiting, the same queasiness that lasted for hours after her stomach was completely empty. Azhar was fixing breakfast and she was supposed to be getting ready. He came running in.
“What happened?” He said urgently, “what happened?”
She shook her head and said weakly,
“I wanna lie down”.
He picked her up like he had a few months ago and placed her on the bed.
“You’re not going to work today”, he was amazing at taking charge. “We have to think about next steps. I’m taking you to Dr. Shirazi today.”
Tears escaped her tired eyes. In another world she had thought that they’d be ecstatic when she’d throw up. They’d hug and kiss and anticipate a lot of happiness. They’d make plans for adding more furniture to this room. One miscarriage! She thought miserably, and we’ve lost our vitality. He looks concerned and agitated. I feel hopeless and empty.
“Tanya”, he bent over her, “what happened? Why’re you crying?”
She shook her head again. He hugged her. His hugs were always so calming but today she felt fear taking over her body. She started shivering. He held her tighter.
“What’s happening to you?” He said even more urgently, “what’s going on?”
“I’m scared”, she said like a child, “I’m very scared. I feel so scared of everything”.
“I know, honey”, he took her face in his hands, “I know”.
She took the day off and just lay in bed waiting for Dr. Shirazi to give them an appointment.
“We have to go at noon, Taanu”, he said.
She nodded. He sat next to her and meaninglessly began massaging her temples.
“Azhar!” She called.
“Hmm”, he smiled at her, looking in her eyes, “Does Azhar’s love need something?”
“No”, she said weakly and put her head in his lap. “I just want to stay in this room with you. I don’t want to go to any doctors”.
“We will make a great plan for your pregnancy this time”, he said as if he hadn’t done everything the last time she was pregnant, “Like an awesome plan. Minimize every risk that you could be exposed to.”
What if it still doesn’t happen? She thought morosely.
Dr. Shirazi smiled at her.
“Congratulations! You’re pregnant. You’re about eight weeks”.
I could tell you that! She thought to herself.
“You have to be very careful, Tanya”, she said in a friendly manner.
So you think I was careless before? I guarded my child like oysters guard the most precious pearls. But hate got him. People hated him and he couldn’t take it.
“I think you should see a high risk obstetrician. You had a late miscarriage last time and I don’t want that to happen again”.
“You’re scaring us. Is Tanya high-risk?”
“Every first pregnancy is considered high risk”, the doctor said, “but this is her second pregnancy. The first had progressed enough that we expected a favorable outcome. And it didn’t happen. I think it would be best if you saw someone who specializes in high risk cases”.
They left, slightly more worried than they were before going in.
Azhar drove quietly but pulled her in with his free arm when he heard her sobbing.
She noticed that he was taking her to her mom’s place. She thanked him silently. Tonight she wanted some time with her new baby and didn’t want to answer any questions.
He dropped her off and talked to Asma about it. She ascended the stairs to her room. He came after her.
“Do you want me to stay?” He asked gently.
She shook her head.
“Can you talk?” He asked, smiling at her.
“I don’t want to”, she said in a small voice.
“Get into bed. I want to put you to sleep before leaving you”.
She got into bed. He got in beside her. She immediately gravitated towards his arms and he folded her in.
Tears were the only thing that had come so far with this news. She had not had a moment of peace since morning and each time she wanted to think about something else, that eventful night and blood was all she saw.
He looked down at her.
“I’m not happy, Azhar”, she said, knowing that he could tell.
“I’m happy”, he said plainly, “I’m worried but I’m happy. Makes sense?”
He pulled her in closer.
“Can I have a better smile? Something that I might wanna kiss?”
She smiled a little more, purely to humor him.
“Nope! That’s not the one I asked for. Do you have something in a more dazzling variety with a sexy undertone to go with it?”
“I can look in the back for something similar”, she joked.
“No! I think this will do”, he said and kissed her.
Kissing Azhar never got old. His mouth was always urgent like it was their first kiss. It was always inviting like she was the most important person. It was always warm like it would be doing nothing else than kiss her.
They kissed for many minutes. His hands went up and down her back many times. She finally got even closer and said,
“Does this mean you’re going to institute your no-sex policy again?”
He smiled against her lips,
“I don’t know why you want sex so much. To me this kiss is perfect to experience every bit of you”.
“That’s because I’m a good kisser”, she said mischievously.
“And I’m not?”
“I don’t know, Azhar”, she said, teasing him before making it up to him, “You haven’t had any new moves lately”.
“I’ve got loads of new moves, missy! Don’t worry about that. And please a little PG conversation. My kid is listening in”.
She laughed and took his mouth again.
“Congratulations, lover”, she murmured. “I’ll give you a child, even if it kills me”.
“I don’t want a child”, he said seriously, ” I want you. You’re the person I want everyday of my life. Don’t talk like stupid married people. You and I make this marriage. A child is important but not more than you”.
“Is that how much you love me”? She asked.
“You have no idea how much I love you.”
He left her late at night and went back home. He noticed that Nighat was awake and Maha was battling with Haifa over sleep. They were both in the family room. At a little distance was Bilal who was the only person who looked up when he entered and could tell something was up. He signaled to him to come out.
“What’s going on?” Bilal asked, following him out on the patio.
“Tanya’s pregnant”, Azhar had a bad habit of not preparing for big news.
He listened silently, then said,
“Congratulations! This is great news”.
“Yes it is”, Azhar said, scratching his head, “But we met with the obstetrician today and she is considered high-risk. They fear that she might not be able to carry a pregnancy without help”.
Bilal was quiet. Tanya was his life and the reason why he lived. Many years ago she was that and somehow she had remained that despite his own marriage, kids and the many seasons that had changed since then. He envied Azhar and Tanya’s marriage because it was nearly perfect but he also had become very protective of her since her miscarriage and her subsequent mourning and grieving. She had recovered with a lot of difficulty and he understood why Azhar was worried.
“Trust Allah, Azhar”, he said, feeling scared and sensitive for his brother and the dearest girl in the world, “We will pray. A lot. This is all we will pray for. Tanya will be fine. We will ask Allah to give her health.”
Bilal was his true soulmate, he realized. Even Tanya couldn’t understand his worry like Bilal could. Bilal could rise above things like “I wish you have a child”. Bilal understood his love for Tanya and had caught on to what was bothering him.
He was strong. Stronger than all of them but in moments of weakness he had come to Bilal more than once recently. Somehow their roles had shifted a little. Bilal had become older, more mature, indifferent to mundane inconsequential things. He wanted to talk to Bilal without people wondering what they were talking about.
As if sensing his need for him, Bilal said,
“Wanna grab a bun kebab? There’s a great place that just opened at Tariq Road”.
Azhar nodded gratefully. Bilal ran in, collected his car keys, got two hoodies, both his own and tossed one at Azhar. They got in the car and left.
An hour and two cheeseburgers each later, they both felt much better watching the crowd around them and commenting lazily on how they were probably getting old if they had seen the entire shopping district change face around them.
“Tanya is very freaked out”, Azhar said suddenly, “Truth is, I am too”.
I am too, Bilal thought to himself.
“When will you see the high risk doctor?”
“I hope it’s all good”.
“Tell me something!” Azhar turned to him suddenly, “Do you love Maha more now that she’s the mother of your kids? I feel like Tanya feels that we need kids to feel more complete and more in love but I already feel all that”.
He stared at Azhar. Azhar had a knack for prodding uncomfortable truthfulness from him.
He wondered if he loved Maha. He didn’t love her. They were married and in the land of arranged marriages, it was something of an achievement. They had two kids and that defined the long and short of it. Maha didn’t love him either. Watching another couple passionately kissing had taken the wind out of their sails the other night in Bhurban and they had landed back where they had started.
He cleared his throat and decided to be honest so his brother could hold on to something.
“Azhar! There’s no comparison. In your relationship, there’s enough fire and camaraderie that you guys will be fine without kids too, I think. We need kids. Maha and I need kids in order to tolerate each other, have common goals and love each other like a family. You have a great foundation. Don’t measure it with kids or lack of them”.
“That’s what I told her”, Azhar said, heavily as if hating to admit it, “But she wants a child, Bilal! You can’t just tell someone that they should change their asks from life. It’s cruel”.
“I know”, he said, nodding slightly, “But it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the good stuff. I lost sight of it when I gave up my girl. I lost sight of what I had with her and became hyper focused on other things like family, Ami and togetherness”.
They were quiet for a long time. Then Azhar said to lighten the mood,
“I never thought you’d get so involved. I mean, look at the whole slew of girls you had before her. You dated beauties , man! I used to watch you having such an amazing time and I was always working so hard at NED trying to make a life for myself so I won’t have to depend on Abu but the accident took so much away. I had thought I’d date all the adorable girls and have your type of life. Wouldn’t it have been nice? Two astoundingly good looking brothers on the prowl! We would’ve made history, man!”
Bilal laughed. Azhar was really a trip. This was a side of his that he didn’t show to people but he had a very light and comical side. He had grown up with so much responsibility for Bilal that his lighter personality got buried.
“I was already on the prowl”, he said, winking at Azhar, “And you weren’t in hiding either. What happened to that girl Nina that you were getting set up with?”
This reminded Azhar of something.
“Do you know Ami made it into a salacious, elaborate affair and told Tanya about her?”
“What?” Bilal couldn’t control laughing.
“Yes!” Azhar screamed excitedly, still reeling from how Nighat had made him sleep away from Tanya, “And Tanya left home and went to her mother’s place”.
“What? When did this happen? Where was I?”
“You were around. Where would you be?”
“So why do I not know about it?” He demanded.
“I don’t know. We always said we were going to stay close and now we can’t even take a vacation together without thinking of a million things to organize first”.
It was a grim prospect and something they had vowed to never let happen. Somehow marriage had really done what they feared it could.
“I’ll be around more”, Bilal said, looking at the sadness in Azhar’s face. He was clearly looking for some support during a second attempt at a pregnancy and a chance for a child. “Azhar!” He punched him.
“No, I know”, Azhar said, meaning it, “Really I know. It’s the occupational hazard of being a spouse. Our own families take a backseat which they shouldn’t”.
Bilal nodded his head aggressively, then started his car and said casually,
“Let’s go have lassi”.
Azhar laughed. They used to spend the whole night on the street before they got married. They’d check out this eatery or that, car shows, Expo Center shows, and even clothing sales in the famous Karachi Pearl Continental.
May be, Azhar thought, marriage and a woman gives you so much that you forget everything. But Bilal isn’t someone I can just discard because I’m married now. He needs me. He will always need me. And I need him. I will always need him too.
They met with the high-risk OB and that visit was much more reassuring. She smiled at Tanya,
“Doctors start analyzing situations a lot when they happen to us. But I want you to not spoil the happiness of a new pregnancy with the sadness of the last, makes sense?”
“So are you saying she is going to be okay?”
Dr. Raza smiled,
“I’m saying there is no cause for concern at the moment. I can’t predict the outcome of any pregnancy a hundred percent”.
Tanya found a little ray of hope and a smile that was fast becoming rare.
“Isn’t this awesome news?” Azhar asked her as they were getting out of the clinic.
“Yes!” She said, happily. “Can we kiss?”
“What happened to Pakistanis don’t kiss in public?”
“You said that’s a stupid rule”.
“Even though it’s stupid”, he said, taking her in his arms, “I don’t want people to see me kissing and learn my moves”.
She laughed against her mouth.
“I love you, Azhar”, she murmured, “I’ve been keeping you worried too, right?”
“I was never worried”, he said stoutly, “I trust us and our Allah”.
She looked at him intently, separated her mouth from his and said in a strange voice,
“What if this doesn’t end like we hope for it to? Like we want it to?”
“You’re mine, Tanya”, he said seriously, “That’s all I know. There’s nothing in this world that can change that. I don’t know how to say it but really everything else pales when I put it against your health and life. Nothing compares. I don’t own anything, not even the hope of a child, as I own you and being yours. Please don’t think about this pregnancy too much”.
“She wants me to quit work”, she said morosely.
“Whatever you want”, he said.
“Why can’t we be carefree and happy, Azhar? Since we’ve met it’s one thing or the other”. She said as she held on tight to him.
Why do Azhar and I keep getting connected through loss and uncertainty? She wondered. Why does our love come from losing and recovering and being unsure? Can pain be a bond too? Is it healthy to put Azhar through it over and over and while the bond gets deeper, our pain gets sharper too?
As if reading her mind, he said,
“We found each other in the worst of circumstances. Some people find their soulmates in happiness and romantic dates and expensive cars and blingy rings. It doesn’t take away from their love. Our story is different. We keep loving each other through pain and loss and getting back up. That doesn’t take away from our story either. It’s still a love story. It’s our own. It’s what helped us find love, keep it and live it everyday. Isn’t that the best part? A child would be great to have but getting you was the high point and hopefully someday, you’ll see getting me as the high point too of this love story”.
You’re the high point, Azhar! She put her head against his chest as tears rolled down her cheeks. You’re the highest point I’ve ever been at so naturally that makes me very afraid of the steepest fall that can happen also.
He tightened his arms around her.
“Wanna eat something?” He asked gently.
She realized she was hungry. She had been so worried that mundane things like sleep and food weren’t occurring to her .
They went to a famous barbecue place and she felt her appetite coming back despite the early morning nausea.
Food really fixes worries, she thought two hours later, as he was driving back to Asma’s place.
They finally broke the news to her mother. Asma saw the pain in Tanya’s eyes alternating with hope and felt a sadness.
“I was thinking”, Azhar said, embarrassed that his own place wasn’t a safe place for Tanya, “That she could stay here for her pregnancy. Really I don’t trust anyone except you”.
Asma nodded. She knew full well what horrors Tanya faced at the hands of her narcissistic mother-in-law, an ex-lover under the same roof and an overall extremely dysfunctional family.
“Of course she’ll stay here”, she took Tanya in her arms, “I don’t trust anyone with her either. We have to make this one stick”.
Something in her voice and that sentence made Tanya wince with irritation. Did people think she let something happen for the last one to not carry to term?
“Wanna have lunch?” Asma asked lovingly, tucking a lock of her beautiful daughter’s unruly hair behind her ear.
“We ate”, Azhar said quickly, “I was thinking I’ll quickly put Tanya to bed and then go tell my folks”.
“I can put her to bed”, Asma said possessively.
“Azhar can do it”, Tanya said, immediately alarmed at Azhar leaving her.
He took her upstairs and as soon as they were in her room he said,
“Is there a room downstairs?”
“Let’s move you there tomorrow”.
“Don’t you think you should ask Mama?”
Azhar waved a hand carelessly as if to dismiss this fine point of this being Asma’s home.
In moments of rare interactions between Azhar and Asma, Tanya had noticed that he didn’t particularly warm up to Asma or talk about her at all when they were alone. It didn’t bother her but did intrigue her as to why he felt that way. Asma, on the other hand, revered him almost and was always extremely in awe of him. She had gone so far as to say that she would like someone just like him for Sarah and Sanam also.
They got into bed. The familiar peace started coming over her. She played with the buttons of his shirt before unbuttoning him.
“No, perv”, he said laughing, pushing her away.
“Please, Azhar”, she pleaded. “Do you know high progesterone levels during pregnancy make women horny?”
“No I don’t know that and I’ll pretend to not have heard that”.
She started kissing him and felt he was getting aroused.
“Tanya!” He said seriously, “I’ll get out of bed if you don’t stop”.
This was a large enough threat for her to stop coming on to him. She didn’t give up though.
“May be sex during pregnancy is good for the baby”, she suggested.
“What do you mean?”
“May be it helps the baby see how in love their parents are”.
“Baby knows their parents are in love”, he said proudly, “Their dad loves their mom more than a thousand hearts could love her”.
“You know”, she said, examining his eyes and how they lightened when he was happy, “You rarely ever say something romantic”.
“What are you talking about?” He pulled her in closer, “I’m always saying romantic crap to get you in bed with me”.
“Nope”, she said, playing with his hair, “It is so hard to get to the ever-so-unfazeable Azhar Hussain”.
“Pregnancy is making you come up with your own vocabulary”.
“It sure is”, she said, running her hands across his stomach and noticing that his tube port had almost become level with the rest of it.
We’ve come so far, she thought, and now this? How many obstacles before this marathon is over?
“Taanu!” She heard him calling her name.
“You have to take care of yourself. Please don’t think about things that you and I have no control over. I’ll sleep with you every night”.
She clung to him more.
“Are you leaving now?” She asked, suddenly afraid she’d have no one to talk to and take her mind off of the fears if he left.
“No! Not now. But I’ll go in the evening, will tell everyone. Bilal already knows. I’ll get my things and come back”.
She tried to quickly sleep for as long as he was there but the more she tried to sleep, the more sleep ran away from her.
Presently, she heard him snore. Peace washed over her. She had never thought that someone’s sleep would put her to sleep. Placing her lips against his chest, she was sleeping herself within five minutes.
He entered home in the evening. Bilal had already texted with him and knew that Tanya was okay for now. He came running to Azhar and hugged him.
Azhar hugged him tighter. Somehow Bilal always took the edge off. His blood connection with Bilal was soothing and comforting.
“I’m so happy”, Bilal said, while hugging him. “Take good care of her, Azhar! She’s very important”.
“She is”, Azhar said, his voice getting muffled at another watchful vigil that waited for him now.
Nighat came out. Azhar decided to tell her now.
“Ami! Tanya is pregnant”.
She didn’t say anything immediately. Then she smiled, came forward and hugged him, remembering his pain over his lost baby,
“Congratulations!” She said with what looked like a tear in her eye.
“Thanks, Ami”, hugging Nighat was surreal. She had rarely hugged them and when he was recovering from the accident, Bilal and later Tanya were the only people who offered any physical touch.
He held on to her, savoring it, his eyes getting wet at the prospect of his mother probably appreciating the sadness of this news so harshly contrasted with its elation.
“What happened, Azhar?” She said, finally freeing her from his arms and peering at his face with a shadow of pain and worry in her own, “Is everything okay? How’s Tanya? Where is she?”
Tears came more freely at his ice queen of a mother showing emotion for a person he loved so much. She got worried when she saw him crying.
“What happened? Is Tanya okay? Is the baby okay?”
“They’re okay”, he hiccuped a little, “I’m just worried”.
“Are you worried about what happened before?” She asked.
Before he spoke, Bilal spoke up,
“I’m more worried about how it affected Tanya. She’s very fragile. She looks like she has it all figured out but she really lost herself. Take care of her, Azhar”.
Nighat looked at Bilal. She wondered how deeply he had loved Tanya. She wondered if he still loved her. She wondered if the count of her sins was more now. She wondered if he’d forgive her ever.
Azhar nodded and then let Nighat go,
“Sorry, Ami”, he laughed, “You asked so nicely, I couldn’t control myself. Sometimes the people who look strong should never cry or appear emotional because then weak people like me collapse”.
“You’re not weak”, she said, surprised that she looked strong to her strongest son, “And neither is Tanya. Just because something happened before, doesn’t mean it will happen again. I had a miscarriage also”.
This was news to the brothers. They stared at her.
“Really, Ami?” Bilal asked, in awe of his strong mother who never told them such an important information about their family.
“Yes”, she said, “After Bilal. Before Hashir”.
“So what happened then? Did you have to be on bedrest too when Hashir was due?” Bilal asked curiously, sure that his mother had never had a day’s worth of relief from his father’s mundane services.
“No, silly!” She laughed, “I was up the next day. The baby was early so nature took care of everything. When I was expecting Hashir we were so busy with two kids already that who could afford extra precautions? “.
Bilal was dumbfounded at this cavalier recounting of a life lost. He couldn’t imagine how many horrors his mother had lived. How is she still alive? He wondered.
Azhar was looking at her, a strange look in his eyes like he was seeing her for the first time. He was appraising the woman who had birthed him and in a way raised him. Something that Arsalan had said echoed around him,
“She did the best, given the circumstances”.
So she didn’t get any rest or treatment or hospital stay when this happened? He thought. And Hashir’s pregnancy was not taken care of? Why didn’t Abu see to it?
“I’ll ask Khalil to set the table”.
Nighat said and turned to leave. Someone stopped her from behind and turned her.
“Ami”, her fiercest son said with the heat of a thousand suns, “I’ve told you this before and I’m telling you again. If someone gives you a hard time, let me know! I’ll see how they make my mother miserable”.
She wanted to break down and cry. She wanted to say that Arsalan had told her that Bilal had been reporting Sabir to him and that was the real reason why Sabir had stopped. She wanted to say that Bilal had been her savior and had been keeping Sabir away from her. She wanted to say that Bilal had it all covered with tact to ensure her safety. But she couldn’t. She stared at him with empty eyes, wondering where all the men were when she needed them and then gently said,
“I didn’t have to let anyone know, Azhar, but blood is blood. One of my blood saved me. I’m okay now”.
He pulled her in possessively and hugged her like he had only ever hugged Tanya and Bilal. Over his shoulder she saw Bilal. His eyes were red and she wanted to hug him too but didn’t want to give anything away. She stared at him, the only son who knew the horrors. She wished she had left Sabir without worrying about the taboo that divorce is or who would raise her sons as his own. She wished she had trusted herself so a child didn’t have to come to her rescue. She had many regrets but being Sabir’s punching bag had been the biggest.
Tanya had a healthy pregnancy. She quit her job at school and stayed home most of the time. If possible, Azhar had grown even more obsessive over her.
He spent every night with her and they went out to eat several times a week with Bilal and sometimes, even Maha and the kids came along.
Despite their emotional conversation, Nighat didn’t reach out to congratulate Tanya. In her mind Tanya was a high maintenance girl who was always demanding for special treatment during her pregnancy.
Tanya could feel that the spark she had felt many months ago between Bilal and Maha had gone out again. It hurt her but she could see how their kids more than made up for the vacuum that lack of love had left.
“What’s going on with you two?” She couldn’t help asking as they were walking along SeaView one night after dinner, Tanya’s pregnant belly now visibly prominent at about 24 weeks. This pregnancy was certainly progressing much better than the last and they were getting their anatomy scan the next day. Maha and Azhar had decided to run to the corn vendor for Hamza.
“What do you mean?” He asked, irritably.
“Don’t take that tone with me”, she warned him. “I’m not saying something that I have cooked”.
“Stay away from my marriage”, he said angrily, “If Azhar can’t talk to me then you certainly can’t”.
Something in his voice stung her. He had promised to remain a friend and this was how he responded to a query that she had made with only concern and love?
“I’m sorry”, she said haughtily, “Just wanted to offer some friendship”.
He was quiet. Then said more gently,
“Maha and I are okay. Don’t worry yourself about anything but yourself. Are you eating and sleeping well?”
She didn’t say anything. He could tell she was angry but didn’t know why he needed to discuss his marriage in a moment that he had gotten alone with her in so many years.
“Tanya! I’m sorry. Sometimes I don’t want to think about who my wife is or what I’m doing with her or whether I love her or not. Please! One way to be my friend is to not discuss my marriage with me because it’s painful. All of it! It’s very painful. For her too”.
“I know”, she said in a small voice, “It looks painful. And you didn’t have to sign up for pain. I mean,” she sighed, “You had so many girlfriends. Could’ve married anyone”.
“It’s okay”, he said, smiling at her memory, “It’s really okay. She gave me Hamza and Haifa. They’re worth the pain”.
“Do you pray for me?”
“All the time”.
“Can you pray that the baby makes it even if I don’t? That if one of us has to die in order for the other to live then I should die?”
“Listen to me!” He turned her around forcefully and looked in her rapidly filling eyes, “Listen to me because you don’t get it! Azhar loves you more than anything. I know him much better than you ever will and if you die, he will die too. Stop being stupid! What’s this craze that you have about a child? Is that how you measure your worth? What happened, Tanya? What happened to the girl I lost my heart and life to? What happened to the girl Azhar fell in love with? What happened? Tell me, because I wanna know. You empower women. Now you’re talking crap like silly people. A child isn’t what makes you, you. You make Tanya. Don’t take Tanya away from us. We are all rooting for you. I’d love Azhar’s child but I’d love to see you and Azhar have the best love story ever. That’s the biggest win. Not a child. Azhar and Tanya are the biggest win. You get that?”
She nodded and then smiled through her tears,
“Are you feeling bad about snapping at me before?”
“A little”, he said, amused at how much she looked like the Tanya he had held in his arms countless times before giving her over to the tragedy of love, “But I want you to think happy thoughts. Can you do that?”
“Yes”, she smiled.
“How’re you feeling about the scan?”
“Great”, she said, then added, “I think it’s a boy”.
“I think women can tell. Maha was spot on for both.”
She smiled and continued walking with him quietly.
Sometimes, she thought, silence is a luxury. There’s usually so much noise around me that I can’t figure myself out. But this is nice. Walking on the beach, with someone who has become a rare friend but was my vehement lover, is nice. He has changed though. He used to be vivacious, loud and funny. Now he’s cautious, wary and scared. Love changed him badly.
“Guys”, they heard Azhar from behind them. “Got the corn. Let’s go sit in the car”.
Maha and Bilal both hugged her when Azhar and she dropped them off.
“May Allah bring all good news tomorrow”, Maha said.
She got back in the car and they drove off to Asma’s place.
She couldn’t sleep the whole night. The trauma of the past year was alive and fresh. She kept going to the bathroom and evaluating herself. She didn’t wake Azhar up but the fourth time that she came to lay in bed he woke up,
“What happened, lovey?” He asked, immediately concerned.
She began to cry.
He didn’t say anything. Just held her.
“I’m worried. So so worried”. She said as he tucked her in.
Wordlessly he took her in his arms and kissed her hair.
“Azhar! Don’t let me sleep outside your arms. It’s your fault I haven’t been able to sleep”.
“You were here and then you decided to go to the bathroom nonstop. Be calm and trust Allah”.
“I trust Him”, she said quietly, “I don’t trust my body”.
He tipped her chin.
“Have I told you how hard it is for me to stay away from you these days? I’m craving you more than I ever have. May be I have a little extra progesterone too”. He joked.
“Really?” Her face broke in a smile as she laughed at his analogy.
“Yeah”, he said huskily, “It’s torture to have the most beautiful woman and not be able to engage in a little hanky panky with her”.
“I want you to have sex with me”, she said seriously. “You keep turning me down”.
“I’m not turning you down”, he said lovingly, stroking her gorgeous face. “I’m just being cautious “.
She snuggled closer to him.
“Would you feel better if the scan looked better? Can we have sex then?”
“May be”, he contemplated the possibility. “May be”.
Soon they were both sleeping.
The morning of their scan was almost idyllic. She woke up many hours before the scan and felt good. She had breakfast. Azhar was going to take her. He had to be at work for three hours so they had taken an appointment for the afternoon.
He came exactly when he had said he would.
She got in the car smiling, wearing a new outfit, yellow with some brighter yellow flowers.
“How’s Mommy?” He asked, pleased to see how healthy she looked and afraid to have anything happen to upset this perfect picture of love and beauty.
“Great”, she said before leaning over and pecking him on the cheek. “I love you”.
“I love you too”, he said before holding her waist and kissing her full on her mouth.
Tanya was immediately transported to the ultrasound room when they arrived at the clinic and the technician came after them.
“We can get some nice pictures. The baby looks like it’s sleeping”, she said pleasantly as soon as the probe hit her belly.
She ran her probe a few times then said,
“Actually Dr. Raza is here. I’ll quickly get her. Sometimes she’s better at getting all the details”.
Azhar squeezed her hand and beamed. She looked at his hopeful face and heard the crashing of waves around her. The building that they were in seemed to be shaking slightly and she wondered if the earth was actually shaking with the enormity of her loss. She looked at him again. The look of peace and serenity in his face reassured her that they’ll be okay ultimately. But for now, she thought with a despair that could make rocks cry, I’ll be asked to give up my baby again.
Dr. Raza came in. She had been seeing Tanya every four weeks and they had become friends. She had been practicing for about twenty years and had great reputation around town. Many of Tanya’s own friends had been to Dr. Raza and bore testament to her excellent clinical skills in the form of happy, healthy babies.
“Let’s take a look”, she said after exchanging pleasantries.
The cold ultrasound probe was back on her belly and she could tell that the doctor was not moving her hands as swiftly as she normally would’ve. She looked at Azhar and wondered if he could tell too what the doctor was obviously having some difficulty saying.
“Tanya!” Dr. Raza said in a cold voice, “I can’t find the heartbeat”.
Tanya closed her eyes. Another day she’ll console Azhar. Another day she’ll complain to Allah. Another day she’ll ask for a baby again. But right in that moment she wanted to lose herself in an abyss of dreams and pitch black darkness.
“How’s my wife doing?” She felt Azhar holding her from behind. She pretended to be asleep.
“Tanya!” He called softly. She didn’t open her eyes.
She heard him sigh. She heard the door to the room close and then slowly opened her eyes.
It had been two months.
It seemed like yesterday. But sometimes it felt like she had had that baby her entire life and then lost him just when she could hold him.
There were days when she was good. She ate and slept and even talked a little. But coming back to her old life without her child was hard. People had either sympathized or had avoided her.
She didn’t interact with anyone either. Her barely a year old marriage was stale now and her romance with Azhar seemed disingenuous to her. She didn’t like him anymore. She considered him a phony person who didn’t get upset with her for not being able to carry a baby or for being temperamental. She considered this his instinctive urge to always walk the moral high ground. She resented him for keeping it so together when her world was fast dissolving around her.
They had grown distant, he couldn’t deny that. She looked at him with strange eyes and didn’t want him to touch her ever. They hadn’t even had a kiss travel between them. He found it unfair. Why did she shut people out when she was going through something? He had seen her have a pattern of it and it ached at a visceral level.
They slept in the same bed and didn’t talk, cuddle or even look at each other. Maha had been forcing her to eat and he was glad to see that Tanya didn’t push Maha away as much as she did everyone else.
“Maha!” She asked one morning as Maha brought breakfast out of the kitchen, “Is labor painful?”
Maha was quiet. She had been part of many uncomfortable conversations in a several-year long marriage with her husband and living with a tough mother-in-law but Tanya’s questions about pregnancy always wrong footed her. She silently sat and said evenly,
“Would you like to have more kids?”
“I don’t know”, she laughed, “The two that I have are a handful so I can’t imagine any more”.
“You’re so lucky, Maha”, Tanya said wistfully, “You have no idea how my barren existence weighs on me and my marriage”.
Maha was quiet. She thought of her marriage. She thought how she had been jealous of Tanya and Azhar being so in love and them not having kids had seemed an unimportant point.
“Tanya!” She said gently, “Can I share something with you? I’m just saying it so you don’t carry a false idea of something. I feel it would be treacherous of me to make you think that my life is perfect.”
Tanya looked at her with surprise.
“But your life is perfect”, she exclaimed, “Two healthy kids. Two beautiful kids. They talk and see the world with you. It’s perfect, Maha”.
“May be it is”, Maha said with some deliberation, “but sometimes I want to trade everything for a little love from Bilal and for Bilal”.
Tanya was quiet. Would she have considered trading everything for Azhar? May be!
Azhar came early. She was sleeping.
He peeked at her and was going to leave the room when she sensed his presence and called out,
He turned around slowly,
“I thought you were sleeping”.
“I was”, she said simply, “But I can always sense you. I never miss your scent”.
He came forward and took her in his arms and kissed her passionately. Tanya returned his kiss and held on to him.
Why did I push him away, she wondered, he is where all the peace is.
“Wanna go out?” He asked gently, “Wanna walk by the beach?”
She noticed he was pulling clothes from the closet for her then came back briskly and handed them to her.
“Get ready in five. We will walk by the beach and stay out as long as we want”.
She got up and looked at the outfit he had put together for her. It was a pink shalwar kameez that she used to wear a lot before she was pregnant and then had grown out of it.
She put it on. It was looser on her. Somehow each miscarriage brought postpartum depression, weight loss and tons of heartache with it.
He saw her getting ready and noticed she had gotten very thin again.
“Hmm”. She looked up from doing the snaps on the back of her shirt and smiled.
“You eat , right? I mean you never eat dinner but Maha tells me that you eat breakfast and lunch so I don’t bother you. But do you eat?”
She came forward and held his face. He has grown old because of my problems, she thought. He carried them when I wasn’t even married to him. Is that fair to him?
“I eat”, she said gently, “But my grief eats me faster than I can replace myself”.
Azhar stared at her with his gray eyes. She had become withdrawn and irritable like she had before. But this time she looked defeated and tired too. He didn’t realize it but he had been avoiding her too.
She needs me, he thought sadly, but she shuts me out and I can’t deal with the rejection sometimes.
He held her tiny waist.
” I had thought that our biggest strength was love and the victory of love. Didn’t know you wanted a testimony in the form of a child so much too”.
“You’re the testimony to my love”, she said, eager to explain her reclusiveness. “But Azhar! Sometimes I want a family with you and we’ve tried twice and now I can’t bring myself to even think about it”.
He pulled her closer. She was standing in front of him while he was sitting in bed but she was so much shorter than him that his face easily reached her shoulders.
“We will have children”, he said, inhaling her scent and imagining some normalcy again, “Don’t give up hope”.
“Hope”, she said, “isn’t something that is organic or develops of its own volition. Hope comes from circumstances. And my life doesn’t allow me to have hope”.
“No”, he said, “hope comes from within. It’s powerful in its resolve to change the way we see something. Hope isn’t meant to change fate. It doesn’t work to replace tragedy. It doesn’t bring good luck. It doesn’t promise good luck either. Hope is finding ourselves in bad times and holding on to it and taking pride in rising above the despair. That’s hope. There were many times when I thought I won’t get you. But I didn’t lose hope. Even when I wasn’t trying. I didn’t lose hope”.
She put her arms around him and sat in his lap. She wanted to cry and mourn a grief that was too big for any formal goodbyes.
“Cry”, he said, his voice drenched in tears itself, “I wanna cry too and may be crying with you would be easier. I want to think of the two kids we made together but didn’t get to hold. I want to cry too, Tanya! But sometimes crying seems too trivial. I want to nurture this pain as some form of survivor’s guilt. As some form of revenge on myself to still be walking while my two babies are not anymore”.
They cried. They had never grieved together and somehow it was therapeutic. Their relationship had so many pain bonds that they seemed to understand each other’s grief without any explicit detailing of it. He kissed her many times. Finally she looked up,
“I feel a lot better now”, she said, smiling and feeling an overwhelming desire to be with him.
“Me too”, he said, smiling back.
Her head came down on his and she kissed him. Like they used to. Her mouth moved incessantly over his until her fingers started unbuttoning his shirt and his hands moved around her waist and gently held her around her shoulders.
“We can go out later”, she said, looking in his gray eyes, “Right now I just want to be in this bed with you. You, me and our babies!”
She decided to wait and apply to residency in two months. She loved teaching kids but could see how a full time job didn’t let her make solid career plans and decided to really go for a residency this year.
She thought of her United States Medical Licensing Exams (USMLE) and wondered if she’d ever get to train in the USA. That was the ultimate dream. They had planned to all move to the USA for her residency and make a life there when her dad was alive.
Ah, she thought, the best laid plans!
She found a friend in Maha. Maha opened up about her marriage and Tanya learned uncomfortable truths about her marriage that she much later realized were actually secrets too.
Maha’s former boyfriend was a high powered attorney in Karachi , poised to be on an important panel of judges in a few years. He was an affluent man with a lot of power and aplomb. Tanya had seen his Facebook and he had the type of charismatic personality that men of a certain age have. He was many years older than Maha and had two kids from his first wife. He had been married twice and had been divorced both times too.
Tanya didn’t get why Maha would stay in touch with him and what was going on with him. He was much older, had a lifestyle that surely didn’t seem to allow much cavorting as he was usually very busy and touted himself to be the attorney for famous politicians. She didn’t get how this was going on under Bilal’s nose and he was okay with it.
But, she sighed, in a way I’m cheating on Azhar also by not sharing my past with him. I’m actually now cheating on Maha also who has become a friend.
“Do you still love him?” She asked Maha one morning as they were walking with Hamza and Haifa, both kids in their strollers and Maha was talking about Hamid nonstop, her former lover.
“Yes”, she admitted without a beat, “I will always love him. He is the best. He had a court case yesterday and the night before we chatted until four in the morning”.
“Doesn’t Bilal mind?” She asked, knowing full well that Bilal had likely knowingly made peace with the situation.
“Ha!” Maha spat, “If he was a man he’d mind. He’s not a man. He’s just not a man”.
He used to be a man, Tanya thought with some sadness for Bilal and some anger at Maha, but his mother took his spirit from him and now he’s barely alive.
Nighat however didn’t come around. She normally didn’t talk to Tanya and if she did, it was in clipped tones with a clear purpose. She didn’t like her but what she hated about her was her fertility journey. She couldn’t see Azhar sad and surmised that Azhar’s sadness was due to not being able to have a child. She couldn’t understand that his sadness always came from Tanya’s sadness.
He entered home and was obviously rushing to get something.
“Azhar!” She called.
“Ami! Hi! I’m in a hurry. Tanya and I have to catch a movie and I’m already late”.
She watched him run to his bedroom as best as he could and presently Tanya appeared behind him.
Grief suited Tanya, she thought with a pang of jealousy, grief suited her very well. She was wearing a red outfit with gold embellishments that were subtle and subdued and she looked as virginal and daisy-fresh as the day she walked into that home. She was again wearing her trademark jhumkas and had loads of glass bangles in both arms.
Tanya had withdrawn from Nighat even more than before. The occasional greeting that they used to exchange had been reduced to a deafening silence. And everyone could feel it. Nighat was glad that no one expected her to be nice to Tanya. She couldn’t be. She had fleeting moments of concern for her after the first miscarriage but two in a row? She couldn’t reconcile her liking with this already unloved daughter-in-law of hers.
“Okay, bye, Ami”, Azhar said and they left.
Nighat seethed at how Tanya maintained silence even around Azhar and never even considered making a show of politeness. She knew she’d get her one of these days. She was a shrewd woman who believed that all good things come to those who wait.
“I don’t wanna go to the movies now”, Azhar said jokingly as he was backing the car out of the garage.
She blushed a little.
“Taanu! Always dress up for me, please”, he pleaded, “You used to dress up for me all the time”.
She wanted to say something truthful and honest but realized that it was morbid also so said,
“If that’s what makes you happy then count on it”.
He pulled her in with the arm that he wasn’t using to steer. She put her head on his shoulder and within seconds she was sleeping.
He contemplated going to the theatre. He realized it had been a while since they had been by themselves and so he parked across from Sea View and left the engine whirring so she wouldn’t get up.
She got up after about an hour. She rubbed her eyes and stared blankly around her.
“Where are we?” She asked groggily.
“By the beach”, he said, scrolling on Facebook.
“What about the movies?”
“We can catch that stupid movie another day. Let’s catch up with each other tonight”.
“Okay”, she said warmly, “What do you wanna catch up about?”
“Nothing, except how gorgeous you are”.
“Well that took all of two seconds. What are we going to catch up about now?”
He pretended to be thinking hard,
“Now we can catch up about how amazingly and outstandingly gorgeous I am, and how I’m the better-looking partner and how this whole marriage is ten times more good looking because of me”.
She laughed and punched him.
“Wake up, Azhar Hussain”, she announced loudly, “Earth wants you to report to it”.
“Seriously! Am I not good looking?” He asked her.
“Azhar! You’re okay. I mean you’re not supremely gorgeous like I am but when you clean up, you definitely look loads better”.
He grabbed her around her waist,
“Listen, girlie!” He said while kissing her fervently all over her face, “Don’t compare people like me to you. You’re a super human. And I’m just a cyborg who came to earth to claim you for my planet”.
“Why do you need me for your planet?” She asked, kissing him back.
“My planet needs smart, sexy, beautiful women. We are all men”.
“Oh really?” She said, eyes wide at Azhar’s imagination being so superficial. She found it very endearing. “So how did such a planet come into being, may I ask? Are men giving birth to men?”
“Yes”, he said proudly, “we do all of that. You just need to make me happy three times a day”.
“Three times a day?” She asked, cocking her head to the side and appraising him in jest, “I distinctly remember you being out of breath for three days after half a time a day recently”.
“I can perform better than that”, he said earnestly, “I need a chance to prove myself. Your Highness is always so tired that I never get to express myself completely”.
She laughed. The first loud laugh in many days.
“Azhar”, she took his face in her hands, “You’re very cute”.
Night had started falling around them and people were crowding around the beach. For a weekend night it wasn’t so busy. There were high beam lights on some of the cars and they bathed the area in a glow that was all Karachi. They watched the smog rise and then settle in heavy pink clouds over their favorite city.
They kissed. There were people peeking into their car, curious to see what a man and a woman were doing kissing in the middle of the crowd and some laughed while some rudely knocked on their car window to stop or cheer them on. Nothing fazed them. Nothing could tear them apart. Kissing each other was an aphrodisiac for them.
In many days since the miscarriage she felt the need for him.
“Azhar!” She said huskily.
“Don’t talk”, he said urgently, “We talk and lose the magic. Don’t talk”.
“I wanted to say”, she said, somewhat amused at his superstitious inclinations, “Did you want to get down and walk to a part of the beach where so many people can’t see us?”
His mouth immediately broke off and he nodded vigorously.
“That’d be perfect”, he breathed.
They got down and she took his hand. They walked to a far off part of the beach, secluded from the general public and really sometimes scary looking in how close the waves got to the shore.
She laughed as he grabbed her as soon as thay were away from population.
“Stop it, Tanya”, he tried to stop her from laughing.
“Azhar! Can we not talk?”
“Talk?” He screamed almost, “Is that why I walked so much?”
“Talk and make out”, she said.
“You talk. I’ll make out”.
His head fell on Tanya’s neck and he made her laugh like he always did. He laughed too until they both started giving themselves up to the moment.
“You wear too many clothes”, he whispered while struggling with the clasps on her shirt.
What is this, he wondered. She has me hooked. It’s just this body I crave and only this woman I want. Nothing else. Nobody else. I lust for her just as much as I love her.
“Azhar!” She pushed him away laughing, “we can’t get naked here”.
“Sure we can”, he said, laughing, pulling her back.
She came back to him willingly. There was an animal magnetism in him that didn’t dull with however many times she had had sex with him. The rawness of his need for her combined with how careful he still always was, was extremely attractive. She never had to ask him to be gentle or tender. He was always all of that and still their intimacy hadn’t lost any heat or passion.
His mouth travelled down to her shoulder and found a spot around her collar bone that always set her on fire.
“Tanya!” He said, trying to remain coherent while catching his irregular breathing, “Why are we spending time being sad and lonely? There’s so much to do”.
She drew him closer, pressing her breasts against his mouth and trying to think straight before losing all control,
“There’s so much to do really. I don’t want to think of anything except you and sex and fun for the next whole year”.
“Me, sex and fun you want?” He asked, laughing and hungrily pulling her bra straps down, “They’re all the same thing actually”.
She laughed too and sank with him on the cool beach sand.
Residency applications started and she didn’t make it. She wondered why and realized that she had had no experience since completing her house job and whatever time she had left she had invested in taking step 3 for the USMLE shortly before she got married.
But tiny things like rejection from residency didn’t bother Tanya. She started gearing up for next year and actively looked for an internship or externship that she could do for her resumé.
“Hey, Nimra”, she excitedly took her favorite cousin’s call from California.
“Girl!!!!” Nimra screamed, just as loud as ever, “I’m engaged and getting married soon”.
“Are you?” She yelled.
“Yup! And you’re my matron of honor”, Nimra announced.
“Please don’t call me matron”, Tanya rolled her eyes, “Makes me feel a hundred years old. And congratulations. I’m so happy”.
“Are you? He’s white”.
Tanya laughed and collapsed on her bed. She didn’t expect any of her cousins to conform with norms and Nimra was definitely an odd one who never did anything expected of her on principle.
“Can you come over?” Nimra asked wistfully.
“I have to talk to Azhar”, she said cautiously.
“Your people are coming”, Nimra said.
“Oh really?” Tanya brightened up. “Well if Mama and everyone are coming then may be I can just tag along”.
“Yeah”, Nimra said, already planning her wedding details like an obsessive bride, “Azhar has to at least try to be here. He won’t get a pass”.
“I’m sure he’d love to be there”, Tanya said warmly, “But with his accident and so many therapies, he hasn’t been able to consistently hold a job and so tries to not be away from work so much”.
“Don’t give me those excuses, Tanya”, Nimra fired up at once, “You guys are always traveling and taking cute pictures. No way can he not be here”.
“Okay I’ll definitely try to convince him”, she conceded.
They talked for three hours. When Tanya hung up she felt lighter and a little strange. Was it just a little over a year ago that she had been a house officer with a career, a future and a heartbreak to deal with? She had a family besides Azhar and lovely cousins and she traveled frequently to the USA and sometimes even Europe? How did everything change to a great marriage, terrible in-laws, two miscarriages, financial troubles, a slowly starting chase of a career and the constant battle of wits with her in-laws for acceptance?
It was depressing really. Feminists can probably get it. When you tell everyone to be their own person and then become a victim of the system, it hurts beyond measure.
Azhar came in the evening and she told him. He was very excited.
“How long do we have to be there?” He asked.
“We? Are you coming Azhar?” She asked happily.
“Of course. We had to take a trip anyway because it’s been a while since we got away”.
“But Azhar”, she said haltingly, “Shouldn’t we save? We might need the money”.
“We’ll save”, he took her in his arms, “Rainbows and dreams and kisses and long nights of talking and planning outrageous plans. We will save all of them so when we ever need something to fall back on, we have plenty of the real stuff. Stuff that matters. Do you know how to save them?”
“I know how to save them”, she smiled and put her head against his chest.
Nimra wasn’t getting married in California. Her boyfriend’s family was Vermont and they were getting married on a tiny island there. When Tanya spoke with her mother it sounded like Nimra’s parents were very happy with her choice of a partner and her wedding destination also since Vermont was much cheaper than California.
Tanya immediately texted Nimra,
“Azhar and I are both coming”.
“You’ve got the greatest guy. Do you know that?” Nimra texted back.
Tanya looked at the words and watched the love of her life changing into his night clothes a few feet from her.
She quickly typed,
“He’s just the best thing that ever happened to me. Love ya”.
She walked over to him.
“Hmm”! He said lovingly.
“Do you want me to wear the lingerie you got me for our anniversary?”
He turned around slowly and wolf-whistled.
“No”, he picked her up, “There’s no point in painstakingly putting something on that will be coming off soon after”.
“You’re starting to become shameless”, she laughed, “I would never let anyone speak to me like that”.
“I’m totally shameless but that’s also because I don’t do anything by halves”, he said carrying her to bed.
“I know that”, she kissed his face as he put her down in bed, “You like to go all the way with most things”.
“All things”, he said, leaning over her and taking her mouth, ” I like to go all the way with all things. When I love I go all the way. When I fight I go all the way. And when I leave something, I leave it all the way”.
Her heart momentarily stopped before she relaxed again in his arms. He’ll never find out, she told herself, if it hasn’t come up so far then we are all on the same page about it.