N O T E
I want you to be with someone who doesn’t disappear when love gets tough.
Subsequent to the accident, I wanted to see what my parents had seen—wanted to try and understand what had gone through their heads. On their first death anniversary I planned a short, covert homecoming. With a heartful of hurt and brimming eyes, I barely made it till we touched down. I rented a car from the airport and parked it right in the middle of the road. Stepping out of the car and circling it, I looked at the road and felt the early autumn winds lapping against the car. I felt a dizzying rush of vertigo, coupled with a terrifying, irrational urge to jump infront of a car. Right then, I felt close to my parents for the first time after their death. If I had stayed a minute longer, I know, I wouldn’t have hesitated to jump.
The marigold flowers and the puja thaal in my hands for the pandits rattled as I attempted to revisit home. I took one glance at our house from the front gate canopied with dust and that was it. I took the first flight to London. What my extended family robbed Raahat and me off is the act of Last Rites. What was more uncharacteristic was the lack of ceremonial rites for my father and the radio silence of their friends. Their deaths left me nervous and paranoid; I would jump at noises and was absolutely petrified of speeding cars and the road.
That year Zaahid honoured my privacy and gave me as much time one needs to get over things like this. Spoiler alert: it takes an eternity. Being alone allowed me to be—and not pretend or be insecure anymore. Solitude is paradise and I wouldn’t swap it for all the money in the world. In time he realized that the days I had so much energy I couldn’t sit still and my eyes would sparkle like they saw joy in everything was on ‘good days’ and between those times, the pain and fear in my charcoal eyes would be unbearable.
“You should contact Ra…” he would begin when my sorrow would be too much to cure, but seeing the anxiety across my face, he would never push it. It had been two weeks since I had attempted to run the fresh blade along the carotid artery that I needed two stitches.
“I could feel it happening,” I had attempted to tell him, when he’d broken every speed limit to get to the hospital. It. An indefinable and overwhelming presence in our lives. It stopped me from going out. It meant I found it hard to make friends and even harder to keep them. It lay beneath the surface of our lives. Always there, always waiting. Zaahid had held me while the nurse tended to the wounds, trying to empathise but finding it impossible to relate to a logic that saw self-harming as the only route into a place of safety.
Imitating a practiced drumroll sound Zaahid speaks now, “Mademoiselle, here’s your ‘pain au chocolat.’” The broken faux French burr makes me grin. He fuels my lust for constant assurance. I like our sweet intimacy. How we keep coming back to each other, no matter how distracted we are. Of course, I muse over him. Have you seen the smile he bares in pictures or the glimmer in his dream catcher eyes?
The plate is scrumptiously decorated with whipped cream and fresh fruits over a satisfyingly large piece of cake. My eyes are alight, “Thank you.” Zaahid flops down on the couch so hard, the fork on the plate jumps out. Barely catching it mid air, he meets my gaze, his eyes bemused and hopeful that I do the elementary math here. Preparing myself, I slowly push the long sleeves of the grey sweatshirt back to my forearms so that they settle there and don’t slip off. I adjust the cords of the hoodie so they are of the same length. “It looks so lovely; I don’t want to eat it.” I whine.
Zaahid ignores me and cuts through the delectable dessert. I lift my face to his in horror. He spikes the fork and lifts it to my mouth. I breathe in surprise and close my eyes briefly. Then being genuinely intrigued I take a careful mouthful. He puts the fork down and reaches up to tuck my hair behind my ear. I go for nonchalance but I’m pretty sure the blush that accompanied the mere touch was a dead giveaway. Steady now, Zaahid! STOP right now before I make a faux pas. My subconscious is alarmed. I shudder, glancing down at my twisting fingers.
In five, give or take, bites the dessert is gone too soon. He reaches again to swipe off the cream from my mouth by his thumb and his touch sends shivers through me. I shake my head nervously then finally say, “Thank you.” Hear: ‘I love you.’ I love you. I know you don’t realise that Zaahid, but I do. You may not see it, but in my eyes you’re everything that I could ever want. You’ve spun in my mind for a little making me wonder, where you are or if you’re in love with someone else or if you think about me in random moments, too. Also, if you’re thousands of breaths and unsent text messages away thinking about me too, you should let me know.
Zaahid clicks his tongue and dismisses me. He scoots to the corner of the sofa, his legs stretched out. “Come ’ere,” he says lifting his arm in invitation over my head and on my shoulders. I slide into our well-worn position, snuggled under his left arm with his chin resting lighting on the top of my head. A single breath later, I’m on the roof and standing in a chaos of Women in Zaahid’s Life. Instantly I’m overwhelmed with sensation, assaulted by memories I never imagined would have lingered. I hope you miss me Zaahid in the most unexpected way. When the song on the radio plays mine, or when you walk into an Indian restaurant and fight your heart to pick my favourite dish or how time again vodka reminds you of my intolerance and I know we’re not supposed to talk but I’m getting ahead of myself, I just hope you miss me, too.
See, I want to know that there’s nothing wrong with my heart and there’s nothing wrong with the way I love. You see, I just want to make sure that I was not crazy for believing him or dumb for trusting him. I never wanted to lose him even if I acted like that, even if I became distant, deleted his name from texts, and forced myself to not reach out to him but I was only protecting myself because I didn’t understand what happened, I couldn’t decide whether he was good or bad, a player or a nice guy. I just wanted to know that what we had was real.
So, I needed explanations; a few words telling me what went wrong, what happened. I need to know how to be better at this, how to be closer to finding the one. I don’t need love messages or cheesy dates with him just an honest conversation, a mature conversation to listen to his side before my imaginative self sticks with my own. I want to hear his answers, for perhaps, I can respect him again. I need to put more focus on wondering if he was ever honest or just another liar who fooled me.
“You don’t have to head to the studio?” I’m curious, that’s all, but even I can hear the judgement that lies beneath the surface of my words. Even as I ask, I’m not sure what answer I’m expecting. Yes, I have to record the album and sift through songs. Or: yes, can’t wait to be with Penelope.
He twists around so we’re facing each other. When he speaks, its gentle, and he keeps his eyes trained on mine. “No, I planned to babysit today.” I stifle a snort of laughter that erupts from nowhere. He pauses, making sure I’m listening. “Plus, Harry’s pretty persistent in inviting people over.” The sarcasm isn’t new.
Zaahid looks over his shoulder and pushes aside the curtain to see why Florence and Oliver are still bantering about so loud that we can hear it from across the street. He lets out a low sigh. Hurt settles in his bones and colonises his body. How many times had I tried to take my life and that didn’t went on record? Too many to count. Sometimes it might be months between attempts; on other occasions I’d try several times in a day. It would be these attempts that would prompt him to leave me at the Spencer’s at Swettenham.
He would keep coaxing me to go home with him but some days leaving me with Annie were easier. Knowing I’m in the best possible place I could be. That I’d be safe; looked after. He would always complain ‘how could a farm smelling, castle like bedrooms be better than his cozy, comfortable London house?’ Annie still believes Zaahid would send me over for rejuvenation by sugar. She still counts my attempts on two fingers.
“How’s your hand?” He asks, as the afternoon sun loses its intensity. We are playing Happy Families, hiding how we really feel.
“Much better. It might not leave scars.” I cross my fingers comically, even when there’s nothing to be happy about. Gradually, as we talked about our mental health often, Zaahid would tell me—and I back him up on this—that most times I needed him to be calm. To be there. Not judging, not panicking. And so he would come rushing from the swarm of texts I would leave, each more urgent than the next, and hold me, and if I didn’t need to go to the hospital—as, more often than not, I didn’t—he would bathe my arms and gently wrap gauze on my cuts and reassure me he wasn’t going anywhere. And only when I would be in bed—the lines on my forehead smoothed out by sleep—would he put his head in his hands and weep. He doesn’t know that I know about the last part.
“Didn’t you have a schedule today?” I stare at Zaahid, who is eyeing me suspiciously.
“Gia got it cancelled.” I rub my face. Focus. The stay at Zaahid’s place is supposed to distract me and not send me down a memory lane I wished I’d never travelled. “I’m free as a bird for Darcy’s party.” When did Devastated started looking good on me, I don’t know but what I figured was I was dying a little every day. I guess it happens to everyone. It happens to me, and I know it happens to you too. It’s okay. So, I started wearing doing everything I ever wanted because, what if the part of me that’s living today dies tomorrow? For as far as I know, broken crayons still colour.
“Which reminds me of, Logan called.” I smile at the memory. “He doesn’t have a date for tonight.” I mock his tone. Zaahid is silent for a minute, absorbing my actions.
“Tell him you aren’t available,” he puts his hand on my knee. We both fall silent, neither looking for an argument. We don’t need the Logan Argument. Not now. Maybe tonight can be another step enforcing our relationship in front of him and shun his doubts.
Presently, we’re holding hands and I am resting my head on his shoulder. I pull his hand into my lap and hold it with both of mine. I run my fingertips over his knuckles. He is absentmindedly making circles on my shoulder with his thumb of the hand that is casually resting on my shoulders. We sit like that—in a sweet bubble—completing forgetting what we are and what we have done to ourselves.
From the window above the couch, a stream of sunlight is falling over us. The air is filled with the thick weight of his perfume. I lift my eyes to Zaahid’s. The sun fell on the right half of his face. I can see the fuzzy little hair of his beard and the faint line where the beard ends. I’m serious again and sad, and I don’t know why. I rest the back of my neck against the sofa. The sun looks like the spotlights of the Ultimate Sing Off Finale, a cool breeze from the window licks my face and creeps under my clothes and the wooden floor of Zaahid’s house expands and dissolves into the carpeted floor of the hallway I had walked to when I had called my grandmother.
Taybah’s arms, back then, held warmth. After a delay of forty five minutes for the Finale result to be announced, Dorothy, the shows director and the CEO of ITV, had hesitantly tried to take me back on stage for the results to be announced. Of course, the world didn’t end for anybody just because I lost mine. Subsequent to “dolling” me up for the stage I had stood under the red lights beside Cherry Foxes. Jonathan had continued to blabber on with the audience, lighting up the mood that had settled over the set, while I had drifted off to an unknown world. The news was life changing. I had felt a roller coaster of emotions. I could hear their giggle, though, I still do. I could feel my mother’s grin. I could see my father’s private smile, but when I had looked around, I would just see foreign faces.
There was regret, guilt and the extreme feeling of loss that could never ever be replaced. On that very moment, on stage, I had wanted to escape away from the city and run straight into my mother’s arms, or call my father and tell him that I admired his passion for work while I had the chance or run up to my brother’s college, crash into his training class, jump on him and declare to his entire batch of cadets that I loved him.
But that night on Ultimate Sing Off, I suddenly felt nude. I was exposed, raw and hurting. Emotional and lost would have been an understatement to define my scenario. My sense of security was lost. I was vulnerable. I could feel myself losing the image I had tried to portray—the strong girl that had a perfect family and lived life to the fullest—I could feel the paint chipping off my skin. God, I always knew, no one could ever love a mess in a dress, a disaster in denim, a sorrow in a skirt, and I was too much, too bad. I had felt the blood covered smile fading away. Ultimate Sing Off didn’t matter then, obviously, with who would have I celebrated the win—if I was even going to win.
I had bowed my head low then, my vision becoming blurry. Be strong. My subconscious had whispered in my ear, holding me by my shoulders. Everybody is waiting for you to break down; everybody is watching to see the fall out. PROVE THEM WRONG! My subconscious had wrapped her arm around my waist and had held me tightly. In the dazzling lights on stage, the only question I was stuck with was, ‘what do we do now?’ My subconscious had peppered me with questions. Where to now? What if you don’t win? How much of college refunded fee is left? How much does a plane ticket cost? Wait—who will you return to? You can stay in the college dorm—no, you left college and with it the dormitory. Do they extend visas? You can get a job and live here illegally maybe? Wait—who will give you a job?
“So Judges what—” Jonathan had begun.
“I’m so sorry but—” Zaahid had sat in his chair, holding up a raised hand, with a strained voice he spoke. Pausing and making sure he was being listened, he carried on, “there are a few things that I’d like to mention,” he had scratched his chin with his instasey finger, erring a bit but still speaking, “before the final decision is made,” he had looked over to his left—at the judges and his band mates.
“The five of us have been in the very same situation and we know what it feels like and what’s going on in the girls’ mind,” he had smiled fondly at his mates and then pointed with an open palm to Cherry Foxes and me. “But still the show is about authenticity and honesty and I think it needs to be mentioned that foul play had been used here tonight.” He had continued while running a hand through his hair.
“The tense atmosphere—the-everything-is-fair-in-love-and-war aura—that was on stage could be felt by us too,” Zaahid had explained, slowly biting his lower lip and moving his hand in a horizontal circle, tracing the stage with his fingers, “and what Maira did is applaudable. Her sense of presence has paid off.” There was a silence and then he agreed, “They were such high chances for her to black out or mess up lyrics or blatantly give up but—but she didn’t, which is commendable.” Zaahid had remarked. “She carried on with such elegance; I HAVE taken notes from her tonight.”
“Without any voice in that monitor,” he had looked at Stephan, “just plain drum beats and a broken microphone. Go figure.” Then he had twisted his chair to look at the set audience and directly to the camera which was live streaming, “I know we’ve been working in the band for two years now and are about to go for another world tour and trust me when I tell you that I still have stage fears,” he had said putting a hand on his chest, shaking his head as the times might have replayed in his mind. The set had erupted into a loud roar of hoots. “I can’t sing to a huge audience without a monitor. Harry has puked numerous times with just the sight of the crowd. So you can well imagine how difficult it would have been for her—Maira—to continue singing without a monitor,” he had said, motioning to Harry and then looking up at me.
“If bravery is ever awarded—I would award her. Maira, darling, you are the strongest person I have seen in my lifetime of twenty three years. You are incredible and you are appreciated,” Zaahid had looked me straight in the eye and said that on national T.V. He had given me a wide, appreciative smile which I couldn’t return.
Megan had thanked Zaahid for the piece of information he had shared and had requested the audience to be given five minutes to make the final decision with the judges and for the counting of the public votes to arrive. Eventually, after a bit of teasing and a torturous wait of fifteen minutes later, the results were just a second away. The band and the judges were present on stage, babbling and chatting and laughing and all I could do was stand and stare into nothingness. Then, out of the blue, the room had blackened and a sharp flash of a yellow light had lit the room while confetti fell over me, with firecrackers lighting up the night sky outside the set. Congratulatory hugs snowballed at me then. My inner conflicts were far bigger than the win.
I had lost power of speech. I had lost power of thought. A thousand questions raced around my head and I wondered if perhaps I’d gone mad. Managing a polite and short ‘thank you,’ I had run off from stage. Frantically clutching Stephan’s phone I had dialed my mother’s phone. The call did not even go through. Trying the only number I remembered of Raahat’s I whispered ‘please’ so softly hoping it’d break the spell that had been cast on us. Tears had built in my lower lashes and fell. His number hadn’t existed. “Please,” Louder, this time, but still hesitant. I did not know what was happening, but I did not want to question it more than I already had.
Hiding in a cupboard, holding the sharp edge of the trophy so close to my wrist, I could feel it happening again. Pressure had built in my chest and it seemed impossible my ribs could contain the thumping coming from my heart. I had smashed the phone against the door, because I couldn’t breathe and had needed to free my hand; feel my face, to feel that I was real because this couldn’t be happening. It could not be happening. Within minutes, following the rattle of the phone, around midnight, Harry had opened the cupboard door whilst on a Maira Search Mission. The movement had released an involuntary gasp from within me, as though I was emerging from water.
He had pulled me out of the cupboard and had held my wrists while I had covered my snot filled face. The trophy fell from the cupboard and shattered. Logan had patted my back, cooing to me that it will heal with time, like all things presumably do. “Please—” I had dragged out each word as if using them for the first time. “Say you’re lying.” Taybah had straightened and took a breath. Pulling me towards herself, she held me by my arms. I saw that her tears had stopped but there was such pain in her eyes as though she had been mourning too. Life moved like sand beneath my feet and I had no idea what was real and what was not any more.
I had been seized by paranoia. My head had spun with a light-headedness that made me sway, and Taybah had stepped forward, one hand outstretched in concern. “Move in with me? Let’s go home.” I had taken a step back, confusion making me frightened, and she took her hand away, hurt in her eyes. I had started to cry noisily and she only held me in her arms. In a low and calm voice she had weighed out the possibilities for me, mentioning the pros and cons of the move and the only other option I had: the streets or her house.
In a befuddled state, I had agreed to move in her with her; my judgment was cloudy and I clearly had a chance to stay with my university friends but in that moment I felt hypnotised and hers was the only option that felt viable, and till date, I regret it. I wish I had declined her offer.
Yousuf had driven us to Birmingham that same night. His eyes were more on me throughout the drive than on the road. Taybah had warmly kept my hands in hers. Zaahid had sat silently in the front. Yousuf’s wrist watch had whirred in prelude to the hour. The chimes rang out as we had approached their house. I met his sisters then. A grim look on their faces as if they knew everything. I found my voice, hardly, “Hi.” There had been so many questions I wanted to voice but I had croaked out a greeting.
Wafaa had shown me the attic room. It was spotless and ready to inhabit. “I’m so sorry. I can’t even imagine your state of mind…” Daria had said, helping me out of my dress and then had handed me the fresh set of pyjamas in the bath when I didn’t respond. When the hot water had almost burned my skin, my face crumpled like paper and tears and water became indistinguishable on my face.
It took me weeks to stop asking anyone before making tea and months before I could sit relaxed back on the sofa and not on the edge like a visitor. The house never felt like mine, neither at Birmingham nor in London; I should have guessed, it never was.
A dry, sad smile that doesn’t reach my eyes escapes from my mouth and breaks my train of thoughts. I run my thumb across my bottom lip, resting against the King-of-Hearts. I close my eyes and picture Taybah’s lies and tear them up inside my head. She had promised me that I’d be so happy with her family that I’ll eventually forget mine, yet all I do in my free time is remember mine. She had promised that my days of weeping had bygone, hitherto I cry whenever I’m around her. She had promised me that she cared for me, nonetheless that December night said otherwise. She had promised that tying me up with Zaahid will make him and me happy; thus far we are anything but happy.
Despite the bitter aftertaste, Zaahid is still my favourite flavour of love. I don’t know much about life. I just know I am born with a wealth of sensitivity and my softness is my resilience. I measure things like mayhem and love in almosts and halves. I forget how young I am and how many days there are left to hurt, to heal, to live, and to die. And when I see Zaahid I cry oceans to sleep wondering what I ever did to receive such heartache.
The last rays of the late afternoon sun falls slanting through the window on our tired faces. I drop my chin on my knees and stare at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner. It’s like a void—a dark void—a never ending dark void that consumes everything, so I’m left feeling nothing. Empty. I look at the steaming hot cup of tea Zaahid is holding out, and swipe my tongue across my bottom lip and taste every word I wish I had once said.
“Here, hold it,” Zaahid repeats, now smelling of expensive coffee and bad decisions. Why do I stay? In this moment he is clinging onto me as though if he let go in the slightest I would slip out of his fingers and never return. I comply.
The silence of the room makes my blood as cold as the autumnal air outside. Oliver has called out Zaahid. Zaahid, from sitting on the sofa, lifts his mug to acknowledge the old man, from across the street. Our window faces theirs and I catch a glimpse of Florence’s mermaid hair and coral nails. My head snaps in an instant from gazing out of window with unfocused eyes to the rectangle of black form of Zaahid as he murmurs something bizarre.
I get this a lot—almost every time I’m sitting on a comfortable, huge, with-one-of-those-contrast-coloured-shiny couches facing an array of cameras, each positioned to capture each and every movement I make, each placed in remote locations to capture my signs of ‘living’ with a harsh yellow-white spotlight splashed on my face and [add-a-big-media-company-name] clothed people holding microphones and white sheets around you—in each interview I’m giving, this particular question: ‘what is your biggest fear or what scares you most?’
And I know they expect an answer like heights, or spiders, or nail files, but how do I convey that when I was thirteen I chanced upon a flyer of Better Life Therapy and learnt that most people grow out of relationships and fall out of love for the same reasons they fell in it. I don’t understand how they manage to go from rushing home early for a few extra kisses to finding excuses to stay the night out or cut a kiss short because their lips don’t feel familiar anymore. I don’t understand how they just one day stop, without any warning. How do I believe in something that can end as abruptly as it begins?
I learnt that relationships fail when we try to project our flaws as the other person’s problems. That their sweetheart’s once charming obstinacy has now progressed toward becoming refusal to bargain and their same point of view stubbornness and bad habits is now just money wasted. Their hassle at work is now just another mismanaged and reckless attitude. Nothing disheartens and startles me like the prospect that I can turn out to be appalling to somebody who once thought every one of the stars were in my eyes.
Right now, I feel like I’m in a rollercoaster that has no end. I’m stuck in a loop and another and another and another…this is our story of not meaning to fall in love and to getting hurt. He wasn’t supposed to smile. His eyes weren’t supposed to tango with my heartbeats for more than one night. I blow on the cup, wrapping my fingers around its periphery. I take a tentative sip and exhale.
The sun is setting with orange flakes and purple streaks; I watch it gently float away from where it once stood. I feel like crying and breaking down and ripping apart at the seams and I want to scream until my throat is raw, but then Zaahid asks me, “Are you okay?”
“Of course,” I smile, bringing the cup to my lips. I open my eyes and keep the cup on the table. This is absurd. Ridiculous. My parents, my love and relationship is dead, and I can no more get them back than I can spread wings and fly.
“Such a hopeless liar,” he mutters under his breath, laughing scathingly and shaking his head while looking out of the window. And yes, my life and I hadn’t changed and never would. It is—always will be—a beautiful, haunting, agonising place. At once uplifting and destroying.
He reaches over to get a hold of pack of cigarettes from the side table, beside the couch. Using a lighter, he lights up the cigarette and takes in a slow, long drag and eventually puffs out the smoke. I inhale the smoke passively, chasing the head rush it promises. I can’t bear my own thoughts. I am so hard to deal with. It’s true.
I am still worthy of loving myself even if no one else wants to.
“I could cry to you, fight with you, beg you to stay but I won’t try to change your mind. I can’t make you love me if you don’t but I’ve held you so so tight it’s gonna take a lotta love to let you go.” Song: Lotta Love by Jack and Jack.
Please drop me a comment or a vote if you think this deserves it and give me a chance to improve. All the love as always, Mahak xx