They landed in Vermont four weeks later.
“Gosh! It’s so beautiful”, Azhar exclaimed.
“Isn’t it?” Tanya said.
“Really, Taanu, this is like the perfect place to have a lot of romance”.
She laughed. She had never been to Vermont and she couldn’t wait to explore this new place with him.
They deposited their luggage in their hotel room and took off to see Nimra and her other cousins.
Seeing her cousins was always a good time. They were all gregarious and very funny Pakistani American kids who didn’t have a lot of cultural affiliation with Pakistan anymore. They were however mosque-goers and prayer-offerers with significant regularity and so the first thing they bonded over with Azhar was when he asked where the mosque was.
It amazed Tanya, Azhar’s mosque ritual and how strict he was about Salah. He had definitely influenced her to offer more prayers also. He kissed her a lot after any Salah that he saw her offering and slowly that became an incentive. She didn’t believe in doing something to please someone into liking her but she felt like after Allah, Azhar was the reason for her prayers. She prayed with him, for him and like him. His influence was strong and impactful.
Her cousins hadn’t met Azhar since their own wedding and so immediately wanted to know so much about how married life had been so far. She didn’t feel odd eyes on her when Azhar easily told them about the two miscarriages that they had had and even though she normally didn’t confide anything into anyone easily, she knew that answering questions about children honestly was the only way to go. Pakistani people expect children as soon as someone gets married and she found dodging questions and coming up with creative answers very exhausting.
“Psst!” Nimra took her into another room.
“What’s going on?” She asked with surprise when she saw the room decorated like there was going to be a mehndi there soon.
There were yellow and red curtains creating a modest backdrop for a gorgeous love seat that had yellow throws on it. She saw some musical instruments in a corner and a big stereo system on one side.
“Listen! Don’t kill me, okay? But Brian’s family wanted to have a mehndi so even though I planned it all last minute, I want everyone to be a part of it”.
“That’s awesome”, Tanya said, then added, “Azhar and I can go back and change quickly”.
“Don’t worry about that”, her Chachi said hastily, “We have a surprise for you”.
As she said it, Tanya heard her mother and siblings entering the home and greeting everyone.
“Oh gosh!” Tanya clapped her head, “I totally forgot”.
She ran out and hugged her family tight. It felt like old times when they used to have vacations together.
I love I got Azhar but marriage took me away from them all, she thought with a mix of sadness and love looking at her family.
“Here”, Asma pulled out a baby pink outfit, “I got this for you because I didn’t know how you packed. And here are Azhar’s clothes”.
“Mama”, she whispered, gratitude overwhelming her at having so much love around her, “I brought everything . Even packed an extra outfit, you know just in case”.
“Did you like it?”
“I love it”.
“Get ready”, Nimra was in her element. “My fiancé’s family will be here soon and we have to look really sharp”.
She showed Tanya and Azhar to a room and closed the door.
“I love your family”, he remarked, “they’re so light”.
“They are”, she thought, handing him his clothes, “Mama got these for you for the mehndi tonight”.
“Is there an event tonight?” He asked, surprised at the change of plans.
“Yes. Nimra just told me. They wanted to surprise us”.
He smiled and took her in his arms.
“Are you happy?”
“My happiness doesn’t change, Azhar! When I’m with you, I’m always happy”.
He kissed her, then said,
“Go get ready. Let me take a shower first. I stink”.
She got ready while he showered. She didn’t realize how amazing the outfit was until she wore it.
He came out toweling his hair and blew a long whistle,
“Someone looks really nice”, he said, his eyes roving over her body.
“Do I?” She asked nervously, always conscious about going overboard, “Now that I see myself in it, shouldn’t I wear it another day? It’s really nice”.
“Which is why you should wear it”, he said coming closer.
And it was true. That outfit was made for her. It had a baby pink shirt with a lighter pink shalwar and a long slightly darker dupatta. There were white and silver embellishments that ran along the sides of the shirt and the dupatta. The shirt was fitted like a sleeve on her voluptuous body and it was hard to miss how she had gotten so curvaceous again since becoming healthier after her miscarriage.
“Tanya”, he picked her up, something that was his favorite thing to do, “You take my breath away every time I see you. How long is this gonna go on for?”
She blushed a little then said,
“I don’t know how someone who’s as handsome as you can find me so attractive. Honestly I’ve never had anyone give me as many compliments as you do”.
It was partially true. Besides Bilal, whom she couldn’t obviously mention, not many people had complimented her with an open heart besides her parents and siblings. She felt people were always so weirdly defensive with her that true praise never came forth. Bilal wasn’t defensive and neither was Azhar which just proved how they were both cut from the same cloth.
“Well, have you heard of how only people who know a gem can know a gem?”
“Yes”, she giggled, “Flattery really works with getting me into bed”.
“I can get you into bed anytime, that’s not a problem at all. What I love is the look of the rising sun in your cheeks when you blush. Somehow that’s all mine. That’s only for me. Is there something about me that’s all yours?”
“Everything, Azhar, everything”, she said, lowering her head on his face, “everything about you is all mine”.
“I don’t get what the problem with going away for a few days is, Bilal”. She screamed but you could also hear the hint of desperation in her shrill voice.
“I can’t go. We have work to do here. I work. Sometimes six days a week. Why can’t you get it?” He said, losing his temper fast.
“Your dad can watch work. He had been doing it before you got so involved, right? Why do you always have to sacrifice so much?”
“I’m not sacrificing anything. I’m working for us. This is my work, my job. This is my livelihood”.
She came closer,
“Not for many days”, she reasoned gently, “But may be a weekend. Just may be somewhere close. Where we won’t need a visa or have to face other restrictions. Malaysia or even may be just Turkey ?”
“Maha, listen!” He said, feeling tired and exhausted with this sham and everything they did everyday to make it believable, “I can’t let Abu deal with it all on his own. I can’t leave. I have way too much on my plate to engage with frivolous activities”.
“Spending time with your family is frivolous?” She asked, her voice quiet.
“What do you want?” He turned to face her, “I don’t know what it is that you want. We don’t like each other. We have nothing in common. We don’t have any common interests or hobbies…”
“We don’t need that”, she screamed, “We don’t need common anything. We have two kids together, a family we are raising together. We are a couple. Isn’t that common enough? I’m not your girlfriend that you find a common ground with…..”
“That’s it”. He screamed louder, “You’re not my girlfriend. You’re not a woman I like, desire or want. Another woman in your place would’ve gotten it by now. I don’t like you and I don’t think I ever will. You’re just not there for me ever”.
“But how can I be there for you?” Maha said, exasperated at this demand, “How can I be there, Bilal? You don’t talk to me. You don’t share. You don’t spend time with me….”
“Because I don’t want to”, he said, tired of playing like he was happy. He felt marriage become a fatigue of sorts and his wife had become a test. His kids had become a coping mechanism that was not working anymore. “I don’t want to spend time with you, Maha”, He came to her and held her hands, “Remember our wedding night! Do you remember it? I remember it! This room was so cold that we might as well have been dead. There was no heat that traveled between us. We weren’t two newly married people. We were like two badly trained actors poised to act a play out to save our lives. Do you remember that night? Had you ever thought your husband was going to hand you a boxed bracelet and go to sleep? Do you remember it?”
He sat down, his head in his hands, his body shaking, the wind clearly out of his sails.
There was a long silence then he heard Maha’s voice. He had never heard her thoughts so disconnected from emotion. She was always impassioned about how bad a husband he was or how tough her life was. She injected melodrama and impressive words into her monologue all the time. But it sounded like the wind had been taken out of her sails too.
“I remember it”, she said, her voice devoid of emotion, “I remember it. Probably much more clearly than you do. Not because you slept or handed me a bracelet that you never even asked why I didn’t wear again after that night. But I remembered because I thought you were punishing me for my honesty and my past. So I remember it, Bilal! Because I blame myself for all this. And in my anxiety to fix it, I have forced you to forgive me indirectly. But I understand! I understand why you can’t be the husband I had wanted to find in you. My only complaint is that you should’ve ended this relationship when I told you about it before we got married. You acted normal and actually appreciated my honesty. So my only complaint is the lie that you lived with me. That’s all”.
She left the room.
He looked up after many minutes.
You think this is the lie that I have lived, Maha? He said in the heart of his hearts because this couldn’t come out ever. This isn’t the lie I have lived. I have lived a lie so horrendous that if I told you or Azhar, this will all dissolve like a dream. The only saving grace of our marriage has been your honesty. That has saved us so far. I just hope that you never find out about the stage that we have set up with the flimsiest of fastenings. Because that could come crashing down and take us all with it.
They were walking along Lake Champlain and reminiscing about their days as newly weds and how so many people were now getting married and they felt old.
Tanya had also been speaking with her cousins and they were all practicing physicians in the USA and well-versed in the residency match that was to happen six months from then.
“But I don’t think I’d be training in the USA”, Tanya told her oldest cousin, “I think I’ll be training in Pakistan”.
“What?” Her cousin who was now training as a cardiologist said with eyes wide with amazement, “You toiled over those USMLEs for what then?”
“Amin! I don’t have to train in the USA in order to take licensing exams for here”, she reasoned, “Many of my friends took the tests but never applied for a US residency”.
Her cousin looked completely nonplussed with this conversation.
As they continued to walk down the lake, Azhar brought up this conversation.
“Taanu! You must have thought of something before you took those God awful exams. They’re kinda tough, right?”
She thought of another life when her father had sowed the seed of learning and pursuing and madly chasing dreams of being a successful physician.
“I had thought of pursuing a US residency someday”, she admitted truthfully, “But how can I train in the USA now? I’d like to make a career in Pakistan. How can you leave your family? My family is going to move here in a few years. As soon as Ali starts college. Sarah is probably going to be married by then too”.
Sarah had just gotten engaged to a second cousin of theirs who lived in Connecticut.
“Really I don’t care about anyone else as much as Bilal”, he said regretfully almost, “I can’t live without him, Taanu! We have never lived apart”.
“I get that”, she said, looking at him lovingly, “That makes both of you very cute”.
He laughed .
“You didn’t say codependent”.
“I don’t think you two are codependent”, she said wisely, “You are there for each other. Sometimes he supports you a lot more than you support him”.
“Thanks for saying that”, he pulled her in for a hug. “I hated it when Abu called him my wife because we were always hanging out together”.
This comment was so funny to her that she laughed for many minutes. When she looked up she saw Azhar looking at her with a hurt expression.
“I’m sorry”, she said, throwing up her hands, “Your dad has some mouth on him. That’s just hilarious”.
“Well, I never found it funny”, he said, continuing to give her the side eye.
“Sorry, really, so…”, she lapsed into laughter again.
Azhar watched her for a few minutes and then picked her up and pretended to throw her in the water.
“I’m warning you, Azhar, don’t do that. This won’t end well for you”, she warned him, unable to control her laughing.
“I don’t care”, he said, finally dunking her, “Really I warned you first”.
The water was cold and she instinctively clung to him. He took her tightly in his arms and said,
“This wasn’t such a bad idea after all”.
“No, it wasn’t”, she said, shivering slightly but more because of how much she craved him and his body.
His hands explored her body intimately like they always did as his mouth took hers. Moments like these were their biggest treasure and they both looked for solitary times when they could just be tasting each other.
He finally took her in his arms and swam with her to a more isolated part of the lake. This lake was one of the more deserted lakes of the Champlain Islands and their room was right on the lake. They had been swimming in this lake everyday and had already looked it up and down.
He hungrily took her clothes off while she unbuttoned his shirt. Their clothes casually floated around them as they made love where only the moon looked down on them in awe and the stars winked as their allies. The waves crashed gently with the two lovers’ motion and when they finally became one it was a moment that they had never experienced before.
Azhar’s hungry mouth was on her neck as Tanya resurfaced from her breathlessness. She felt surreal, being his lover, the man who looked and felt so unachievable, and yet was the most humble human being she had ever met.
“I love you, Azhar”, she moaned, overcome with a wave of emotion.
“I love you too”, he said, beginning to urgently explore her again as he sensed her getting ready to put her clothes back on, “You have no idea how happy I am that our room is right at ten steps from here. I’m freezing”.
As Tanya laughed some more he pulled her deeper into his arms, the waves crashed louder, and a warmth spread in their bodies that came from the love and pain that they had shared with each other.
They were flying back to Pakistan and Tanya had nothing to look forward to. Normally she was elated at the prospect of seeing her own siblings and mother but this time around they were going to be in the USA for six months and she had no idea what she was going to do with just Azhar’s family to keep her company. The only comforting thing was that her mom’s place would be at her disposal and she could may be get some days there with Azhar.
As they entered their familiar family room they heard Nighat’s loud voice,
“If you’re so unhappy then you can leave. Why should Bilal suffer due to your insecurities?”
Azhar walked faster to see what the problem was but Tanya was rooted to the spot. The fear of being exposed became too big to handle sometimes.
She walked after Azhar and found Maha and Nighat facing each other, teeth bared, nostrils flared. Bilal was sitting listlessly on the couch.
“What’s going on?” Azhar asked.
“What’s going on?” Nighat turned on him now, “Why? Do you care? Is the vacation over? You’re very fortunate to have bed and board available here while you trot the globe”.
Azhar looked struck around the head with a bat at this rare rudeness that he faced at the hands of his mother but recovered like he always did like nothing happened.
“Wasn’t globe-trotting. We were attending a wedding”.
Nighat didn’t feel any love for him with how involved he was with Tanya. She regretted turning her down for Bilal. She had become a bigger nuisance as Azhar’s wife.
“Azhar! Be fair!” Maha said, “Do you think Bilal loves me? I don’t mind what Ami has said or not. I want the truth from you guys. All of you. Is it me who’s crazy? Is it just me who can feel the total lack of love that our marriage suffers from? People tell me to be happy but guess they don’t know what happiness is. I mean”, she pointed to Nighat and Sabir, “Look at this couple. No love there! Look at my parents! They’re together because they’re too old to be looking for love anymore. But I deserve better. Don’t you think I deserve better?”
She started crying. Bilal was quiet.
Azhar and Tanya were completely wrong footed. Who thinks they’d be stepping into this when they come back home from a vacation?
Tanya went over and hugged Maha.
“Don’t cry”, she said, feeling like crying herself.
“Tanya!” Maha hiccuped. “I used to wonder why you chose Azhar. You could’ve married someone else. You have had your work cut out with him. Therapies, counseling, appointments. Now I get it. You two love each other and when you love, everything else seems trivial and unimportant”.
“You don’t love me and I don’t love you. And if love is what you want then you can leave me”, Bilal said, sounding defeated and tired.
“What’s going on?” Azhar went up to him. “What’s going on with you? Come with me. You’re not in your senses”.
Bilal turned on him too.
“I’m in my senses. Don’t think you can speak for me. I know we are not happy. If my wife says she doesn’t love me then she can go”.
“I’m not saying something that isn’t true”, Maha screamed. “It’s true and you know it”.
She collapsed on the floor, sobbing, Hamza coming over to console her.
“Don’t cry, Mama”, he said, crying himself.
Tanya sat with her.
“Look how you’re making this poor child distressed also”, she said reasonably, “Come with me”.
She took Maha away. Azhar grabbed Bilal’s hand and pulled him outside.
“Azhar!” Bilal said, weary and angry, “Go sleep or rest or whatever it is that you have to do. I’ll go to my room and take a nap”.
“You’re coming with me”, Azhar insisted.
“No”, Bilal stopped, causing Azhar to stop too, “No! We needed this sorted out. We are both tired. I don’t want to eat another meal and forget all about it. I want to have it become uncomfortable. I want to live in the misery of it. That’s the problem. It’s all very comfortable for me. I lost a girlfriend and as a distraction I got a woman. Now I’m losing a wife and you’re taking me out. Don’t do this. Let me live in my sadness and let me process it. It will be good for me”, he gently took his arm away, “Go sleep! Get some rest. I’ll talk to you later”.
Tanya and Maha were sitting in Tanya’s bed.
“I had no idea, Maha”, she said sadly.
“I don’t believe it, Tanya”, Maha said, looking like she was exhausted, “I don’t believe you or anyone who could see what a horrible marriage I have that you had no idea”.
“I’m leaving, Azhar”, Maha said getting up and picking up Hamza. “Thanks guys! Just knowing I have some friends is heartening”.
She walked past Azhar to exit their room. He took her arm and hugged her. She broke down like she hadn’t so far. She sobbed and it was miserable to watch her.
“You’re my sister.” He said, between tears and sobs, “You’ll always be. Bilal is an ass hole”.
“He is an ass hole, Azhar”, she said, separating herself from him and getting her composure back, ” But one thing about him! He never lies. He never lied to me. He didn’t like me or love me and never pretended like he did. So actually he is a lot more honorable in all this than I’d ever be”.
A pain seared through Tanya’s chest. The lie that Azhar and Maha didn’t suspect . The farce that waited to unveil. The knife that was poised to fall on one of their heads any time. It all could come undone in a split second. Anyone could break anytime and open the floodgates to a tragedy that none of them had prepared for.
They had thought something big would happen after such a huge blowout but Bilal and Maha appeared relatively normal the next day and Maha’s packed suitcases made their way quietly back to her room.
Tanya didn’t quite get it but knew that sometimes dysfunctional marriages could last a long time. Azhar, on the other hand, had been disturbed enough that he started dogging Bilal’s steps to convince him for marriage counseling.
She woke up late one morning and went to the family room to watch some television. Nighat was there and appeared uncharacteristically disheveled and somewhat overwhelmed.
“Are you okay?” Tanya asked, sensing something didn’t make sense.
“Yes”, she said coolly, “Why do you ask?”
I’m so dumb, Tanya thought furiously, I think I’m some she-Azhar that I’ll willingly get involved with others’ problems and convince them to fix themselves.
“You look upset”, she said, less politely.
“There are many reasons for me to be upset”, Nighat said, more coldly, “Didn’t you see the fiasco between Maha and Bilal the other night?”
She didn’t know what to say.
“You ruined both my sons”, Nighat said bitterly, “both of them. How can you live with yourself?”
So many insults had been hurled at her by Nighat silently. She had become more stoic in Tanya’s presence. She sometimes grimaced visibly when Tanya was around. She would constantly say things that meant and sounded two different things but to blame her for Bilal’s life was not only unfair, it was also painful.
“I ruined their lives?” She asked, trying to get it straight.
“Why are you asking me?” Nighat said , drawing herself to her full height, “What does your conscience say?”
Was she talking about her conscience, Tanya couldn’t believe it. Had she ruined Bilal’s life? Bilal was everything when he was hers. If she told her what she meant to him and how she had separated her son’s life from him she would have a hard time reconciling her conscience with her sins.
“My conscience is clear”, Tanya said haughtily and turned to go back in her room.
“I’m sure it is”, Nighat’s scathing voice reached her, “Would your conscience still be clear if Azhar found out that you’re the girl that his dearest brother was so much in love with?”
Tanya paused. She had Nighat pegged as shrewd, conniving and controlling. She had never seen a friend in her except in some fleeting moments when they were alone. Usually when she was with Azhar, Nighat avoided her. She had come to accept her mother-in-law as all those things and had found some salvation in the thought that she couldn’t focus on her plans for a residency if she got involved with petty mundane domestic politics.
But even by Nighat’s standards, this is a new low, she thought. This woman controls everyone around her. She tried to control my life with Bilal and succeeded and now she’s trying to control my marriage. She can’t win a second time.
She turned around,
“And who is going to tell him?”
“Anyone!” Nighat said calmly, “You know a secret between three people is a secret only if two of them are dead”.
“Are you blackmailing me?”
“I’m warning you”.
“Why? What’s the need to warn me?”
“Tanya”, Nighat said settling back in her couch and staring ahead of her with the same look of distress that she had worn when Tanya had entered the family room, “I’m a woman who never regrets her decisions. It’s a blessing and a curse. It makes me do impulsive things. Sometimes those things end up working for people and sometimes against them”.
“And I’m a woman who doesn’t make any decisions without a careful weighing of everything that could go wrong. So I suggest that when it comes to me, change the way you do things. I might make you regret a decision one of these days”.
She went back in her room shaking with suppressed rage and fury. She couldn’t wait for Azhar to come home so she could tell him that his mother had been so nasty for no reason.
She started straightening her hair in the mirror, thinking of the conservation she was going to have with him later. Suddenly her mind became crowded with unfortunate questions with embarrassing answers.
What am I going to tell him about this argument?
That she threatened to spill my secret?
What’s this anxiety that I have developed recently? I wasn’t this insecure before. What’s going on?
She didn’t care to admit to herself that there were many changes around her that were prompting her to count on the good intentions of people a little less than she had so far. Bilal was very stressed with a loveless marriage and even though he wasn’t crazily emotional like Azhar could be, anyone can reach their breaking point. She knew that Nighat wasn’t dependable. She knew that Nighat had compromised on having her as a daughter-in-law because Azhar’s condition was precarious and of course it wasn’t just that. She knew he wasn’t half as marriageable in a society where anyone could cite his feeding tube and limp a huge reason for not able to give him their daughter or sister. Nighat hadn’t made a choice in Tanya’s favor because she wanted to do right by Azhar. She knew Azhar needed Tanya.
But may be, Tanya thought, two miscarriages and a besotted son isn’t what she bargained for. Who knows how long she’ll stay quiet? She is the biggest moving part of this conundrum.
Her head started to hurt. She took some aspirin and went to bed. She woke up to Azhar’s voice.
“Are you okay?” She looked at his worried face. “You never sleep at an untimely hour. Are you feeling okay?”
“Yes”, she smiled, “I’m okay. Don’t worry. I just slept because there was nothing to do”.
He took her in his arms.
“This is so boring”, he pulled his face, “How can we make it exciting?”
“Don’t know, dude”, she said resignedly, “Residency isn’t until next year but hopefully one of the places will accept me for an internship”.
“That’d be awesome”, he said sincerely, “Really Tanya! I don’t think you’re someone who finds a lot of small little things to do around the house”.
“Are you saying I’m not very domestic?” She asked slyly.
“Don’t get in a tizzy”, he said, tugging at her hair, “it’s okay if you aren’t domestic. I didn’t mean it like a criticism. More like this isn’t your jam”.
“It is so my jam”, she said, coming to her defense immediately. “I can be domestic too”.
He held her closer,
“Did you eat anything?”
She hadn’t eaten anything the whole day.
“Fantastic! Let me freshen up then let’s go out to eat a bun kebab”.
“Chat, Azhar”, she yelled after him.
“Whatever”, he yelled back .
She sank in the pillows.
She resisted changing into something appealing for him but then remembered he had requested that she dress up for him.
She quickly changed into an aqua long skirt paired with an electric blue fitted blouse. She added large hoop earrings and did a red lip.
She was still examining herself before the mirror when he held her from behind,
“How much do you need that chat?” He asked, grinning in the mirror.
“Nothing can come between me and my chat tonight”, she said grinning back at his reflection.
“Tch. Tch. Usually women say these words for something else”.
“Simple women probably say simple things. I say, buy me chat and I’ll see you get loads of spice tonight”.
His grin widened.
“You don’t have to ask me twice”.
Slowly, noticeably, almost as if someone had set a series of events into motion, things changed around her.
Azhar lost his job. This wouldn’t have been such a big deal because really Nighat and Sabir weren’t even asking anyone for any real contribution towards housekeeping and so he would’ve had plenty of time to look for another job. He applied and waited. But this was his fourth job in about a year and his resumé looked deficient in more than one areas. His longest held job was the one he did right after graduation at a bank. They didn’t want him back either.
Bilal wanted to expand his business. He had gotten some lawyers to work on some legalities on how he could set up factories in Lahore and his traveling was insane. He was always tired, didn’t sleep in the same room as his family and was usually either seen going to work or coming back from it.
Which left Sabir in a really crabby mood. He usually unleashed his anger at Azhar, belittling him for lack of a job and glorifying Bilal’s efforts at business. He had grown so accustomed to Bilal handling everything that his absence, even though was for work, inconvenienced him. One night at dinner he brought up his frequent diatribe and said,
“If you aren’t getting a job that is about computers, why don’t you join us in the business? It’s thriving and very successful. Really Bilal has done all the leg work for you”.
Tanya noticed that he drew unfavorable comparisons between Bilal and Azhar a lot.
Azhar took a while before answering,
“I wouldn’t know the first thing about business”.
“Bilal can teach you”, Sabir said, injecting some nastiness in his voice.
Normally Azhar’s patience was phenomenal with Sabir but since he had heard about Nighat’s miscarriage and how she hadn’t been cared for, he had started to see Sabir as a not so innocent party in all this.
“I’ll talk to Bilal”, Azhar said to ward off his father.
Nighat sighed audibly, then said,
“All this, money and children and prosperity, comes from the wife. A woman brings it. Her luck determines it all. My favorite son! No job, no prospects, no kids! I don’t know what Allah is punishing him for!”
Words couldn’t describe Tanya’s anger. She shook with rage and let her mother-in-law say more so she could really expose herself.
“Look at Bilal!” Nighat said, smiling at Maha. Bilal was out of town again. “Look at him making moves. Money, kids, a beautiful wife. He has been rewarded through his wife. This is how good women bring good fortune”.
There was silence around the dinner table. No one said anything. Tanya noticed Maha straightening up. In the days since the big fight with Bilal she had been subdued and had retreated from Tanya’s friendship also. She however still talked the most to Tanya.
Maha cleared her throat. She looked at Tanya and smiled sarcastically,
“Divide and conquer! Ever heard of that, Tanya? Divide and conquer! This is a classic example. You’re all of a sudden the bad wife. The wife who didn’t bring anything through her fate to her husband. And all of a sudden I’m the good wife. A wife who, mere weeks ago, was told by this same person that she could leave if her son didn’t like her. If I brought all of that to Bilal then he should cherish me like his biggest treasure, right? But he doesn’t even consider me one of his shoes or a towel or a travel bag. I have no use for him and he has no use for me. And everyone in this house except Azhar, has told me at one point or the other how useless my existence is and how my husband doesn’t love me. But to shame you I’ve ironically become the better one, the fortunate one and the higher one. I curse all the people, including my parents, who got me in this house”.
She went back to eating. Nighat’s face blotched uncontrollably. She didn’t normally pick a fight with Maha because Maha’s tongue was just as biting as hers. So she directed her venom again at Tanya,
“Turned her against me too?” She said, her hazel eyes boring into Tanya’s black ones. “Happy now?”
“I think”, Azhar said, not looking at anyone, “You can stop talking now, Ami”.
Nighat smirked. It was very typical of him to come to his wife’s defense immediately. He didn’t even trust her to fight a tiny argument. Here she was, sitting with Bambi eyes and trying to look innocent, when in reality she had stolen her precious sons and was now changing other people around her too.
“I won’t stop talking because you want me to, Azhar”, she said coldly, “You’ve lived for too long harassing people around you. You are married to a good-for-nothing wife and you can’t take it if someone has something to say about it”.
“What’s good-for-nothing about Tanya?” He asked, dangerously quiet.
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore”, Nighat said and tried to get up from the table. She had moved two steps away from the table when she heard crashing behind her.
“TALK ABOUT IT”, Azhar slammed his hand on the table multiple times. Dishes jangled noisily and utensils clanged. Food spilled. Azhar had the strength of ten men and he could come unhinged easily these days.
He got up and limped up to her to face her. He looked wild like she had seen him before. He looked like he had lost some weight. There was worry and fatigue in his eyes.
Tanya got up and came after him.
“Azhar, listen to me”, she said urgently.
“Get out of the way”, he pushed her rudely.
“Azhar!” She came forward again.
“Get AWAY!” He screamed more forcefully.
“You’re not thinking straight. If you were you wouldn’t scream at the woman who provides you with a place to sleep and food to eat. Get yourself together”. Nighat said unfeelingly.
“I get myself together?” He said, advancing at her, “Do you think I don’t get it? Do you think I don’t get your sarcasm or lack of support or pervert pleasure at Tanya’s miscarriages? Do you think you’re so smart that you can say these things and get away with them? I know you. Maha isn’t your new favorite. Tanya is the new enemy”.
“No one is my enemy”, Nighat said, her cold and quiet voice an eerie contrast to Azhar’s loudness, “But tell me something because you chose her. What has she brought to you? She’s a physician who is probably so bad at what she went to school for that she had to teach elementary school kids. She’s a woman with only God knows what problems that she can’t even carry a pregnancy to term. Ask her what sins she has committed that she is burdening you with them also? Ask her”.
“Are you saying Tanya is deliberately losing her baby? Are you saying that she’s not a good doctor?”
“All of it”, Nighat said nastily, “I’m saying all of it”, she turned to leave and then turned around,
“Her miscarriages are a punishment but of course that’s another old myth that you and your precious wife would like to bust. So bust!”
Azhar tried to go after her but Tanya held him back,
“Come with me, please”, she said with a mix of anger and urgency. “Please control yourself”.
Back in their room Azhar paced like a caged animal.
“Don’t ever stop me when I’m talking”, he finally snapped.
“You weren’t talking,” she said calmly, “You were yelling”.
“That’s how I talk! You get that?” He brought his face closer to hers and breathed in her face.
“Don’t you ever get in my face”, she said, not stepping away, “You’re a mean beast when you fight. I won’t stand for it. She should’ve fixed you when she had the chance. A good beating would’ve done a world of good”.
He stared at her for many minutes. When he spoke he was quiet and like trying to figure her out,
“Do you think beating kids fixes problems? Is that what you think, Tanya?”
“Sometimes you need to”, she said carelessly, “Some kids deserve it”.
“No kid deserves it”, he said, still serious, “But since you brought it up what would be, in your book, an offense by a child that qualifies for a beating?”
“I don’t know”, she said, sitting in front of her dressing table and looking at her reflection while applying a night cream on her smooth face, “Some kids are very pesky and lack manners. Don’t you think parents should discipline them?”
She continued to put the cream on. She thought of how quickly things escalated between Azhar and Nighat. If her kid ever did that, she’d be sure to teach him a lesson. How dare Azhar steamroll everything in his path when he was angry? Only if his mom had paid a little more attention towards discipline and upbringing. But he was just like her. Rude, arrogant and uncontrollable.
She didn’t realize that he hadn’t come back with a rebuttal or an answer. He lay in bed and pretended to be asleep, his mind teeming with questions.
Is that how women feel about their kids, he thought! That they should be hit and spanked? But kids don’t know any better. Does Tanya think I have anger issues because Ami never hit me? But she did. May be not as much as Bilal but she hit me too. Sometimes very badly. She always intended to hurt and make a memory of it. But that didn’t take care of my anger. I just got angrier.
“Hey, what happened?” She came behind him. “Now you’re going to be upset with me?”
“I’m not upset with you”, he said in a small voice, “I just want to sleep. It’s all exhausting. Sorry I’m taking it out on you guys. Just let me sleep. I’ll be okay when I wake up”.
“No”, she forcibly turned him around, “I can’t let you go to sleep when you’re angry with me. Remember we decided we won’t go to bed mad?”
“Yes”, he took her face in his hands, “I’m not mad, Taanu, just want to sleep. Sometimes all this isn’t really good for my head”.
“Come here”, she said lovingly, “you always let me sleep in your arms. Tonight you can sleep in mine”.
He smiled and put his head against her chest, her arms around him.
She knew he wasn’t sleeping. It was a lot. But Azhar needed to control his anger. What set him off so badly? Nighat didn’t like Tanya and Tanya had made silent peace with it. If Azhar wanted to advocate for her, shouldn’t he do it more meaningfully, with his senses intact?
“Tanya!” His voice reached her after about an hour.
“Why’re you not sleeping?” She asked, kissing his head, his face buried in her chest.
“Never punish our children for being children. Especially by hitting them. Don’t choose physical means to discipline them. If they ever get too much, call me and I’ll leave whatever I’m doing to get them and deal with it. But don’t raise your hand on them. Whatever happens. Promise me! Don’t touch them unless it’s with love”.
She felt like a criminal for making him sad and alone in this. She realized that Azhar’s cavalier and side bar references to his childhood weren’t so faded after all in his mind. He always said that Bilal got most of it but he had been enough of a party himself to remember it with so much clarity. She had never thought that an occasional slap or smack could affect children so much.
She turned his face towards him,
“I didn’t mean to upset you. Honestly, I had never thought of it like that. If it means so much to you then you have my word. I won’t ever hit our children or touch them if it’s not for love and affection. You have my word, Azhar! You know, Mama would sometimes hit us when she was helping us with school work. I never thought it was a big deal. I’m sorry! It is a big deal. I know Sarah chose to flunk tests than get hit. I realize it now”.
She noticed his eyes were red. She had rarely seen Azhar broken and it was hard. It reminded her of the night they had first kissed. Somehow he broke when people rejected him or didn’t love him or openly showed dislike for him. That was hard for him.
She showered him with kisses.
“Sleep, now”, she said softly, “Your beautiful eyes need some rest”.
“But how will you live on your own, Billu?”
They were sitting outside a barbecue in PECHS and Bilal had just told Azhar that he was going to be living in Lahore for a year since it was so hard to travel so much and the factory needed so much time.
In a rare episode of the four brothers, Hashir and Aman had tagged along too.
Bilal laughed. Somehow his laugh had changed from loud and carefree to withdrawn and reserved.
“I’ll be fine, Azhar”, he said looking at his older brother affectionately, “You worry too much about a grown man”.
“Just because we are all grown up doesn’t mean we stop caring for each other”, Aman, the most emotional of them after Azhar, spoke up.
Azhar nodded his head vigorously,
“Spoken like a true current generation Hussain”, Azhar said, slapping Aman on the back. “I’ll always worry about you all”.
“Me too”, Hashir joined in, “We can’t lose our bond, guys!”
“Excuse me?” Bilal said incredulously, “What bond are you talking about ? You’re usually nowhere to be found”.
Hashir made a face and then said,
“Doesn’t mean I don’t care about you guys. Ask Aman how I’ve been imitating a girl’s voice to get his girlfriend on the phone if her dad picks up”.
Bilal roared with laughter. It was strange how their baby brothers had grown up so much.
“You guys have to stick together like Bilal and I did”, Azhar said seriously, “I’m telling you man, marriage changes the best of us”.
Bilal was thoughtful.
“Actually it’s for the best, guys”, he said, a hint of defeat in his voice, “Maha and I need some time away from each other and we haven’t been able to get it”.
They didn’t know what to say. Azhar was the first to speak again,
“I think that’s running away. You have to fix it and resolve it. Go for counseling. Get some good solid therapy for marriage. Don’t throw in the towel”.
“I’m not throwing in the towel”, Bilal said, slightly annoyed at the implication that he was taking the easy way out, “Sometimes the cracks are too big. Counseling can’t fill them. It works like bandaid sometimes. It’s not always the answer”.
“But…..”, Azhar began.
“Let me do this, Azhar”, he said, weary at how long the road had been and how tired his feet had gotten but there was still no end in sight, “Let me go away. I want to break away from you all and see how I can survive. I have to do it. I’ve lived depending on you and now it’s not cute anymore when I can’t even face the ugly truth that my marriage is. Maha and I need and deserve love. We’ve talked about it. We need to come back to each other with a need for each other”.
“I don’t know why you need to go to Lahore for that”, Hashir said stubbornly.
“Lahore isn’t a distraction or a quasi-wife. It’s my work. Something that validates me. Something that will make me feel like I achieved something. Maha needs to clear her head too. She feels like my presence doesn’t allow her to do that”.
“I love Maha”, Aman said suddenly, “I know you don’t like her but she’s not that bad. Helped me with my last breakup a lot. And kept it a secret too”.
“What’s going on with you, dog?” Azhar screamed. “Break up? Girlfriend? Do you go to school or just love random girls?”
“He has a slippery heart”, Hashir explained.
“Bilal had a slippery heart”, Azhar countered, “But even he didn’t start in his early teens. Are you having sex too?”
“Azhar!” Aman screamed too now, “Please don’t put my girlfriends’ name and sex in the same sentence. Any of their name and sex, to be clear. Really it’s not cool”.
“He’s a true Hussain”, Bilal said it this time, hugging Aman with one arm and patting his back and laughing uncontrollably at the look on Azhar’s face, “He has many and each just as dear to him as the other. You took after me, Aman. So proud of you. These two losers never dated and so won’t know what we stand for. We are polyamorous”.
As the three youngest howled with laughter at the prude that Azhar was, he came to his senses,
“Hashir!” Azhar said sternly, “Drop any unbecoming information now or forever hold your silence”.
“I have one”, Hashir said shyly, “But just her. She’s so special”,
“And he has already given her a ring”. Aman supplied.
“What?” Bilal and Azhar shouted at the same time. Bilal dissolved into laughter again.
“Yup”, Hashir said proudly, “and now my secret is safe with all of us”.
As Azhar continued to look at his brothers in horror and tried to digest this information, Bilal said,
“To think that the least loving man’s sons are so romantic and loving is a miracle. I’m so proud of us. All of us! We loved and time will tell how many martyrs of love will create out of us besides me, but we loved, guys! Be proud of that. Be very proud of that. To have someone to love and to have them love you back is a privilege, a luxury. We all deserve it”.
He saw Azhar’s brow furrowed and leaned forward and shook his shoulder with love and tenderness,
“Let them live! Sometimes it’s very short-lived. Sometimes the longest thing is misery. Let them make memories. Don’t tell anyone about this conversation.”
If anyone had thought that Bilal’s move to Lahore would be any better for anyone, they had been wrong.
Maha lost her temper on minor things.
Nighat had isolated herself to her room.
The kids looked scared and usually spent time with their nanny.
Tanya was also restricted to her room or the garden where she had again sown a few plants and they were thriving.
Azhar hadn’t been able to find a job. He spent a tremendous amount of time on the prayer mat and Tanya felt heartbroken over him constantly striking out.
They didn’t go out nearly as much as before but they also didn’t have any money. They had never been frugal and so their savings were running out fast.
Tanya applied at many places for a job. Hospitals, schools, advertising agencies, even publication houses. She couldn’t find any place that would readily hire her or not ask for tons of experience. She didn’t have any experience.
She watched her friends posting about their preparation for the United States residency match and because there was so much gloom surrounding her, it all pushed her further in a dark place.
Somehow the love that they had counted on so much didn’t come forward to save them like it always did. May be unemployment is a bigger deal than accidents and miscarriages and misogyny, she wondered when she felt the distance between her and Azhar widen.
She said Fajr prayers and after salam found him sitting in their bed staring ahead. He smiled when he noticed her looking at her.
“Can you fix me some breakfast?” He asked gently. “I’ll go see if Abu has something I could do at his work”.
Her eyes brimmed with tears. He wasn’t a business-oriented man and information technology was his passion and pride. He had a lot of interest in medical informatics and it was a shame that the accident took so much from him. His whole career was destroyed because of that accident.
“What happened?” He said, concerned. “I know you must be tired. Don’t worry. Get in to bed. I’ll make it for the both of us”.
She shook her head and held his hand.
“Don’t go to work for your father”, she said, tears flowing freely now, “Don’t do something you never wanted to do”.
“Why’re you crying? Abu isn’t a smuggler or a drug dealer. It’s a respectable business and something I’m so proud of him and Bilal for. Praise be to Allah, I’m better than so many people who don’t have any prospects”.
She continued to cry silently, cursing their combined fate.
He went out and fixed breakfast. They went out to the dining room to eat. Presently Nighat made an appearance.
“What’s going on?” She asked imperially.
Azhar hadn’t spoken to her since the day they had the big fight. Nighat didn’t seem too keen to break the ice either. She was fuming constantly at how Tanya had brought the worst for her son.
“We were having breakfast”, Azhar said evenly, then added, “I was thinking of going to the factory and asking Abu if I can do something for him”.
Nighat’s mood lightened up. She didn’t like the constant look of worry on Azhar’s face and wanted him to really consider Sabir’s business as an interim option. She said brightly,
“That’s an excellent idea, son”.
“Is it, Ami?” Azhar said, always readily forgetting prior bad blood over gentle moments, “I’m just wondering if I’ll become too comfortable and not look for a job ever”.
She came to him and rubbed his shoulder.
“You can continue to look for a job while making a living. Your dad is getting old. He needs his son”.
Then she turned to Tanya,
“Don’t you think it’s a good idea?”
She was momentarily blindsided by this sudden show of civility.
“Actually”, she said slowly, “I didn’t think it was a great idea because Azhar doesn’t really want to do it”.
“It’s called adult life, my child”, Nighat sighed, “I know what you mean but sometimes we make less desirable choices”.
Tanya was very surprised at this sudden gentle and highly pragmatic side of her mother-in-law but she had seen this side before. Nighat had moments of humane attitude and legitimate concern. She wasn’t an animal. Sabir, on the other hand, was someone Tanya hadn’t been able to figure out yet.
As they were talking Sabir came out of the room, ready to leave for work. He usually left very early and came back very late. He spent a lot of time with his siblings also and was usually missing from home.
“Abu!” Azhar said, choosing his words carefully because Sabir could be a loose cannon too, “I’d like to work with you. Can I? You mentioned the other day that I could come work with you and Bilal.”
Sabir was quiet for a long time. It became embarrassing but Nighat could tell the workings of the cogwheels in his brain. He was a very shrewd businessman and had promised a lot of his business to his nephews and nieces. He had, at one point, wanted both Azhar and Bilal to join his business because he assumed he needed them both but when Bilal singlehandedly made his business soar with his acumen, he didn’t want Azhar and tolerated Bilal only for how he supported the business. He didn’t want any more stakeholders than he already had.
He finally said,
“We don’t have anything open right now”.
Azhar couldn’t look his father in the eye. It was so embarrassing to beg his own father for a job and get turned down.
Nighat said politely,
“Maybe he can go over and find something to do. You were looking for someone for the computer system”.
“That position is filled”, Sabir said shortly.
“When did you fill it?” Tanya asked.
Sabir turned to face her. Tanya and Sabir had never talked to each other directly much. She avoided it and it was very easy in this family to avoid someone and accomplish that , particularly Sabir. He didn’t care about anyone and was usually very isolated. He had occasional borderline friendly conversations with his oldest sons but they were few and far between and rapidly declining in frequency.
He didn’t like Tanya like he didn’t like Maha. He disliked educated women on impulse and had an opinion of Tanya that was of a woman with little character if she was involved with Azhar before she got married to him. He didn’t know about her and Bilal.
“Why’re you asking that?” He asked, his eyes narrowed.
“Because if you filled it recently then don’t you know that Azhar has been looking for a job for months?” Tanya said angrily, ignoring Azhar’s hand on her arm or his subtle shaking of his head to stop her from picking a fight for him.
“I don’t like women speaking with me like that”, Sabir hissed.
“I’m not saying anything disrespectful or insulting”, she said evenly, getting up from her chair and facing him.
A vein was throbbing in Sabir’s temple. He had a mad rage come on that had been suppressed for years due to Arsalan and Bilal’s fear. He still occasionally unleashed his inner monster on Nighat but he was a habitual displacer of his animosity on other people and so an occasional slap to Nighat didn’t relieve the tension that would build up from not having access to a punching bag.
“Azhar!” He roared. “How dare your wife speak to me like this!”
Azhar was mesmerized at Tanya’s strength and courage. He would’ve asked that question eventually and was still stringing words together while trying to overcome his embarrassment when she had put it forth simply and somewhat boldly.
“She didn’t say anything wrong, Abu”, he said, coming forward. “She is wondering what we all are wondering here. You know I have been looking for work. Didn’t you think about me? It was about computers”.
“I don’t owe you anything”, Sabir said, spitting his words.
Azhar stared at him. There were moments when Bilal’s observations about Sabir rang true. He had started to see a side of Sabir that was just not unsavory, it also appeared malicious at times.
“You don’t owe me anything,” Azhar agreed, “But I hoped to be considered for this position if it ever came up and I was jobless. You insisted just a week ago that I join you in your business and now you passed me up for a position that was right up my alley”.
“Right up your alley?” Sabir snarled. “Work isn’t up your alley, my son. A woman’s love is more up your alley. Her beguiling ways are what you should learn about. Her needs and shameless desires are what I suggest you familiarize yourself with. Because that’s all you are good for now. You have a wife who has blinded you with herself. Shame on you! At least Bilal didn’t disappoint by being his wife’s hopeless lover. He knows how to keep her in place”.
Sabir was an overlooked entity of this house and Tanya suspected that he liked the quiet life so to hear his atrocious reflections on their marriage was shocking. She looked at Nighat who had her eyes lowered.
“You let your husband speak to us like that?” She said loudly.
“I don’t appreciate your tone, Tanya”, Nighat said softly. Tanya knew she was just as poisonous as her wretched husband.
“Don’t worry about my tone”, Tanya said abruptly, “What do you have to say about this? Weren’t you just suggesting that this would be an excellent interim plan?”
“It is and I’d love for Sabir to consider Azhar for any position”, she said. Then she turned to Sabir and said in a voice that was not recognizable as Nighat’s at all. It had complacency, an urgency to not be misunderstood and a slight groveling that was hardly any characteristic of her usual measured and solid voice. The timber of her voice changed. The usual coolness that was unique to her speech changed to a hesitancy. “Please! Please consider Azhar for it”.
Sabir looked at her with contempt. How the tables turned! She had become very strong under Bilal’s reign. Bilal knew and even though he had never confronted Sabir, there had been various instances where Bilal had impressed on Sabir that he should not violate his mother. But there was no Bilal anymore, was there? He smirked visibly and said,
“What happened, Nighat? Why, I’ve not heard that voice in years!”
“I’m imploring you”, Nighat said, tears filling her eyes at begging her abominable husband for some consideration for his own son, “He’s very distraught. Please let him come to work for you”.
“I don’t want it”, before Sabir could say anything Azhar interjected, “I don’t want it”, he felt like he was waking up from a bad dream. “I don’t want it. Thanks, Abu! But I don’t want it. This isn’t good for me. I’m starting to lose my head a little again and I feel like I’m susceptible to mood problems and these interactions certainly don’t help. I have a wife now who depends on me. I have brothers who need me. I can’t get into this and bring more problems on everyone with deterioration of my mental health. But thank you for standing up for me, Ami! I’ll always remember it. Really, thank you! But I don’t want you to ever beg anyone for me. It hurt me when you asked him like that. It hurt a lot. My mother won’t ever beg anyone. Absolutely never for me. And my wife won’t beg anyone for me either. No! I didn’t like how you had to be like that, Ami. I don’t like your controlling self but I didn’t like your defeated self either. My mother won’t lower herself before anyone for me. And Abu! Thank you for being honest. It opened my eyes. Really, it did”.
He turned and left.
“I don’t know, Amin, it all sounds so exciting but how can I apply for the match?”
“Azhar doesn’t have a job. Why’re you guys not considering this? He could get a job here too”.
“It’s a sensitive subject”, she said carefully, “I married him knowing that this is where we’d be living. I can’t make alternate plans without consulting with him or considering how he’d think about them”.
“No one is asking you to make plans without him”, Amin said solicitously, “But it seems a small time to spend in a training that would benefit you so much”.
Tanya didn’t know what to say. Being a physician and shooting for training and to go on to a fellowship had been dreams which were now flimsy at best.
“I’ll talk to him”, she said, finally deciding that talking about it wasn’t a totally bad idea.
She went looking for Azhar. He was coming back from the mosque.
“Hey”, he smiled.
“Hey, sweetie!” She said, taking his hand and squeezing it gently. “Wanna go for a walk?”
“Let’s go”, he turned on his heel, his hand in hers and left.
“Why’re got so quiet?” He asked, looking at her. “You know the deal, right? Whoever recommends walking does the talking also”.
“Actually”, she said smiling, “I’m just trying to find the right words”.
“You don’t ever have to find the right words with me”, he said, pulling her in by his side, “You can just say “listen, asshole, what’s up?”
She doubled over laughing. Azhar was an all-seasons guy. Unemployment, miscarriages, life-altering accidents, his favorite sibling living away from him, nothing fazed him for too long. He found means for survival. He had started to give online tuitions to kids who needed help with math, gave tuitions personally and had even signed up for an IELTS certification so he could train people. He spoke and wrote English like native speaks and it was just inspirational how he went for things. He had started to bring in some income and for now they were both very happy with it. Recently he had even brought up separating from his parents. Tanya knew that Bilal’s current residence in Lahore was the catalyst for a lot of his reasoning behind why they should live separately from his parents. He was living here for Bilal only. They FaceTimed every night and Tanya was amazed at how the two brothers sometimes didn’t talk at all but just watched TV together. They FaceTimed anytime a match was on and recently Bilal had been training again for tennis and his growing interest in the sport had caused Azhar to be very enthusiastic also.
Nothing could change the way he felt about Bilal. They texted each other immediately upon finding a new eatery or if they saw an actress somewhere. Tanya didn’t find them codependent but it did cross her mind if the reason why everyone feared Azhar’s depression would get worse knowing Tanya and Bilal’s past was more because of his association and love for Bilal.
She could see Bilal changing but she could also see Maha changing. She had joined the gym and spent a large amount of money on childcare. Bilal had got her a new car and even though she had a driver for the first six months it was too much for her to depend on anyone and she had taken the test herself and now stayed out for most of the day.
She confided in Tanya every once in a while about Hamid and how they were becoming something of an item. She met with him almost every day and Tanya was sure that this was all going to end in a bad blow up and an apocalyptic end.
“What happened?” He punched her lightly. “What were we going to talk about?”
“Actually Amin called today and you know he tries to always sell his spiel. Today he mentioned it again and I kinda promised him that I’ll talk to you”.
“What do you want to do?”
“Hmm. I want to give it a shot”.
“Then do it!”
She thought she had heard him wrong. She waited for him to say something more but then said herself when he didn’t say anything else,
“So did you say I can do it?” She asked, unsure of what he meant.
“First of all”, Azhar said, his mouth curving in a smile that he tried to hide, “I don’t like the way some adults ask for permission. Did you ask me this morning if you should go to the bathroom?”
Tanya narrowed her eyes,
“I’m asking you because I can’t go away from you without you. You’ll come with me”.
“So just tell me and I’ll come with you”.
She realized he was in one of his funny schtick moods and so said abruptly,
“I’m telling you to come with me but can you leave Bilal?”
He was thoughtful.
“Bilal isn’t living with us for a full year”, he said, “I don’t think that marriage is going to last. Have you noticed Maha has made many friends? She has become more social. Has been going to the gym. Is generally in a good mood. She should’ve been the opposite, right? If a couple is thriving when they’re apart then there were problems. I’ll be glad when it’s over”.
Tanya was quiet. What did this long-winded speech mean when they were discussing her residency? It never went beyond his family.
“So”, he continued, “I don’t think anything is stopping us from making our plans. You want to train in the USA? Give it a try”.
“I won’t get it”, she laughed, “but would be a fun thing to do”.
“Will it cost money?”
She laughed again,
“Of course but don’t worry about the money. I can take care of that”.
“Approximately how much?”
“I’d say close to ten grand”.
They walked for a long time talking about miscellaneous topics and many people. When they finally came back it was night time and Maha was parking her car in the garage.
“Hey, Maha”, Azhar waved.
“Azhar! Let’s go out to eat”, Maha pouted, “We never get to spend time together. I’m picking up the kids and then we will go”.
She entered, got the kids and yelled to Hashir and Aman to hurry up.
“Did you get a chance to speak with Bilal?” Azhar asked.
“We will call time right now”, she said cheekily and FaceTimed him.
He came on presently and grinned at everyone.
“Where’s the gang going?”
“We are eating out”, Maha proudly announced, “and you can cry alone about it”.
He laughed. Like he used to laugh. His eyes quietly found Tanya sitting in the back looking out the window.
“Is Madam Tanya also going to be eating with the peasants?”
“Yes”, Azhar chimed in, “Her Highness is also here”.
“Hi Bilal”, Tanya said, smiling.
“This is a good looking family”, Bilal said, winking at Azhar before picking on Maha.
“Even Maha looks pretty today”.
She blushed before retorting,
“I think you’re missing the excellent company you left behind. We are having so much fun and we miss you”.
“I miss you too, guys”, he said, looking at both his kids in Azhar’s arms. “I miss my children a lot”.
“It’s okay,” Maha said gently, “You’re there for work. You need to be there. We are okay. Kids see you all the time.”
He smiled a sad smile and asked Azhar,
“Azhar! Can you kiss them for me?”
What happens if we divorce? He thought. I lost Tanya. Now Maha is hanging by a thread. My kids will likely grow up in a divorced family. When did everything go sideways?
They chatted all the way to the nearest McDonald’s and then they hung up.
I’ll miss him, she thought with a little pang. I’ll miss Bilal. Some moments were good and some even great. But they were few and far between. Besides these two children, what did he give me that has meaning? The most meaningful thing he might give is likely a divorce in the current circumstances.
“But why does she need to train in the USA?” Sabir screamed at dinner. Between managing his business without in-person presence of Bilal and the inability to effectively take it out on anyone had caused him to have a particularly bad mood these days.
Tanya had applied and had five interviews. She had lined them all up together so she’d just have to go once. They were all over the place initially but she turned down several that were in states where information technology didn’t have a lot of business because she didn’t want Azhar to compromise on his career for three years. He could work while she trained. She had already applied for his immigration to the USA and if paperwork came through before mid next year, he would be a permanent resident and work there.
“It was always her dream”, Azhar said, trying to understand how it affected Sabir, “She has always wanted to do it”.
Sabir laughed sarcastically,
“So should’ve stayed with her mother to pursue her dreams. Why did she get married?”
“Getting married doesn’t mean that we abandon our sense of self, Abu! Who told you that? Sometimes you say things that are so out of character for you”.
It was hard to see how Azhar held his dad on a pedestal. Tanya watched him reason with an open misogynist like he was going to make some sense out of this whole conversation.
“Well I’m going for an interview”, she said calmly, angry that others were speaking for her, “There’s a good chance that I won’t even match”.
Sabir shook his head and looked at Nighat for a long time. She had her head bent over her plate and didn’t make any eye contact with anyone whatsoever .
“If your married life with my son is any indication of what’s going to happen then you will likely match and move. And he’ll move with you. Away from his family and brothers. Away from a country where he grew up. And be miserable like all those immigrant Pakistanis in America. You have only brought bad luck to him like your mother-in-law only brought bad luck to me”.
He pushed his chair angrily and left.
Azhar was listening with his mouth open. He didn’t expect Sabir to ever say anything unsavory to Nighat. He had an idea of Sabir not liking Tanya much but he had never shown open animosity to Nighat. He went after him as soon as he regained his senses,
“What did you say about Ami?”
Sabir turned, his familiar anger surging, hating the son whom Nighat had ultimately turned in her favor also.
“You heard me”, he said curtly.
“Never speak about her like that again. I’m not Bilal to listen to your casual, loose talk on others. Control yourself when you speak about my mother and my wife and Maha and Haifa. No woman can be disrespected in my presence”.
Sabir laughed. Somehow his laugh sounded very similar to Azhar. He had heard it come out of himself so many times.
“Look who is threatening me! A man who lusted so badly after an ordinary-looking woman that ran his car in a truck. Now defending his mother when he’s out of work, crippled and good for nothing. Get out!”
His words stung him momentarily but Azhar never let the debt of any conversation haunt him later,
“Yes! You would be well-advised to look at who is threatening you. I normally go ahead with my threats. You think that just because you are always playing nice and dumb I don’t know you. You say enough to show yourself”.
He turned and left.
Nighat was standing behind him. She had heard everything.
She followed him back .
“What’s this madness, Azhar? You have just gotten the tuitions and online work and you’re leaving again?”
“Ami! My online work will continue and the tuitions will be on hold for a month. I’ve already spoken with my kids”.
She turned to Tanya in exasperation.
“It’s just for a month that you need to go for the interviews. Why can’t you go alone?”
“I wanted to go alone”, Tanya said soothingly, “Azhar wouldn’t agree”.
“She can’t go alone”, Azhar said, desperately trying to make some sense of this reaction by his parents, “Her interviews are in three states. She has to travel. She has never done it before.”
“But I can totally navigate it all on my own, Azhar”, Tanya said, trying to make a point with him again, “Really you should listen to your mother. She’s right”.
Azhar looked at her with hurt and anger in his eyes. He shrugged his shoulders finally.
“Okay, then”, he said, defeated, “If you don’t need me then you can go”.
“It’s not that I don’t need you”, she said, tired of this whole argument, “I just find this a lot of commotion for a residency that might ultimately not even happen.”
“I get it, Tanya!” He said, his head spinning with the amount of resistance there always was, “Trust me! I get it”.
She was leaving the next day and had noticed that Azhar was becoming moody and distant again. He snapped at minor things and didn’t want to have anything to do with her in bed. They had barely kissed for a week and considering he had been home usually these days, they had only spent an hour or two together, mostly while listening to music or watching a movie.
“Are you going to sulk tonight too?” She asked when she noticed him sleeping with his back to her.
“I’m not sulking”, he said, a little anger in his voice, “For some reason everyone thinks that I have a bad temper”.
“Hmm”, she said, pretending to think, “I wonder what would give them that impression!”
She felt he smiled.
“Quickly, Tanya! I have to drive you to the airport tomorrow so we have to sleep at some point”.
She kissed his neck. He didn’t move. She nuzzled him and said,
“Do you think you can look at me and talk?”
He turned and looked at her. She was wearing a red crop top with red underwear that Nimra had given her as an anniversary present.
“This is a cheap trick, “, he said, his eyes scanning her body, “Just shows your negotiation skills are zero if you have to use such vulgar tactics”.
“Well my verbal negotiation skills are almost zero, you’re right”, she said, taking her top off, “But my body speaks a thousand languages. Wanna start talking now?”
His grin made it all worth it.