N O T E
We accept the love we think we deserve.
“What matters most is how well you walk through fire,” Zaahid had blindly pulled out his favourite Charles Bukowski from his small library and quoted proudly the day he recited with me that therapists couldn’t help either of us. Tears push their way from beneath my eyelids and clung to my lashes. I’m trying to wash the years off my hands but Zaahid has me marooned in his eyes and I still sometimes—only all the time—falter over his laughter between my sheets.
He has wrecked so many things for me beginning from brunet hair, quiet art galleries hushed mimicking over ‘modern art,’ the shade of brown that I involuntarily equate to his eyes, doodles, unhealthy snack meals he would experitize in cooking and I, in gobbling it all up. I can write a book about us and call it, ‘Falling in Love at a Distance.’ I could pack the pages with metaphors about having tectonic plates for a ribcage, how my heart rests on a fault line, and how it’s no one’s fault but mine.
Zaahid is doing the dishes and the voices from Florence and Oliver’s place is getting louder. I creep on him from the sofa. He hurriedly wipes his hands on the tea towel on his shoulder and walks to check over exactly what is going on. Instinctively, I jump up and arrange the quilt and cushions on the sofa, being equal parts interested and having a lackadaisical attitude.
“It doesn’t look good!” Florence is fluttering her hands in desperation. I know it’s her because that mermaid hair is unmissable.
“They are rarely home. Let them enjoy the day!” Oliver is breathing heavily, almost like he ran a mile. I hear shuffling and resistance of bodies and then a pause.
“But I need this as badly as I need to pee!” A boy jumps on our driveway loudly, the sound faintly echoing in the house. “Oh wait, I think I already did that…” A snicker leaves him and another boy giggles. I catch Zaahid’s eye, two steps away from the door, and he is smiling. I crunch up my nose, “Ick.”
“On their front lawn!” Florence snaps. Pages shuffle and the pen jangles and rolls. Someone is running. I think it is Oliver but a boy erupts into laughter too as if being tickled and lifted in the air.
“Sorry” Another boy answers, pausing, “but I need—open up!” A pair of hands beat the door.
“Open up!” A second later, a second pair of hands joins in, disregarding the doorbell just above their heads.
I barely catch the snippets from the window when Zaahid opens the door. “Maira! Zaahid! We really love you. We’re your biggest fans!” Excitement rolls off their tongues, Florence and Oliver continuously apologising over their grandchildren’s babble as the kids run wild. The first one runs to me and the other jumps onto Zaahid. He has sheets of a month old photoshoot portraits at Cohen: The Label. Funny thing was Riya got me that collaboration after the tour was announced and Gia jumped at the opportunity to venture out in luxury fashion.
Zaahid is louder than the kids, asking who’ll scream for ice cream and the old couple wouldn’t stop apologizing for the intrusion. I faintly hear them mentioning a school get away they are packing for—a grandparents and grandchildren thing they have participated in. I can see Florence judging the house, peering over the line of photos in the living room and wondering why I never got to place my parents on the shelf. Who’d tell her about the time when Zaahid got around one of their pictures, I would hold it in both hands; stare at the images as though I could bring it to life.
I look somewhere to the right of Florence’s head, but I don’t see the old wooden floor which is more cinnamon where the varnish holds and paler in the regions that have had more wear. I don’t notice the eyes of the wood which are as dark as the grooves between the planks, but the headlines of the newspapers that take shape from the darkened parts of the floor as if it were written from spilled ink, after the word of my Ultimate Sing Off win was out.
“Undeserving Indian descendant becomes the first girl to win a UK reality show.” –The Times
“Maira Ahluwalia, playing the sympathy card, won Ultimate Sing Off.”—The Guardian.
“Zaahid Noori is cheating on Cherry Foxes blonde beauty with a new brunette in town?”—Daily Telegraph.
“Ultimate Sing Off again proves to be swayed by emotion and crowns a helpless foreigner.” –The Independent.
“Interview with Stephan Collins: Learning how to hack Ultimate Sing Off with the Right Tactics.”—Daily Mail.
My win was appalled upon. It felt like having a dinner plate sized full meal and not burping. I’m not saying it wasn’t promising or refreshing or the new bloom for a clean start but as the news floated around, the win sat like a cold cup of tea waiting to be drained. The After Effects of Winning were simply, outrageous. I had received all forms of modern hate I could, online, offline and even privately. My loss was laughed upon, twisted into vague and absurd stories the young—hardly ever used—brains of the “fans” could create. People they had no idea about were dragged into the ugliness whose eye was I—Maira Ahluwalia, The Famous Orphan. Undue advantage and credit for my achievements were being given to those who had no role in my entire journey—Zaahid.
I was grateful to those who had sympathised me but in a world of the internet that was only a handful up against a stadium sized of those who didn’t. The moment which I had earned from years of hard work, dedication and ardor was in a minute scaled down from being classic, worthy and deserving to a charity case. Being on social media could fade my smile faster than a cheap black t-shirt. These were what I called Triggers. Zaahid would try so hard to keep me off. I had descalated from USO Success Story to a Meme on Facebook, the new ‘roast’ toy of Instagram and Tumblr couldn’t handle the heat for I had apparently broken down the website. All overnight. In one single night.
The kids have sat me down and want me to sign the portrait. The paper has a faint smell of Addict, by Chanel. Vanilla and Jasmine. My mother’s perfume. So faint I think I’m imagining it. Because, as I sit here, eyes closed, I realize that I can’t smell it at all. I’m just being ridiculous. Yes, I have had a bad start of the day, that’s all. The camera shutters. I pay attention to how Zaahid is clicking selfies and signing hands and legs. Hearing laughter around me quells the churning feeling in my stomach, as though a thousand butterflies were caught in a net. I am here but not quite.
The phone in my shorts pocket vibrates. I pull out to see Logan’s texts and remember that I never called him back. I wait for several beats, forming any plausible excuse he’d buy. Zaahid nods thoughtfully at what Florence is saying and rubs a forefinger across his lips, his thumb beneath his chin. His listening face. After a having a hurried glass of water the couple excuses themselves to go over a checklist for the last time despite Zaahid’s insistence and my proposal of putting the kettle on. Logan’s persistent and doesn’t stop. He sends a picture and I finally take note of it.
The kids are huddled around Zaahid; he has brought out the leftover cake. In ten seconds, only the crumbs litter the floor. They find the house fascinating—they have so many questions about the souvenir magnets on the kitchen or the tour pictures in the hall. Where is that? Will you take me with you one day? Dad is taking us to see sakura season in Japan too! Can we be your VIP guests? I want to meet Shawn Mendes too! You know Luis Fonsi too? Wow you’re really famous. The blonde one asks about if he can play the piano he’s seen in the room. His brother peeks through the curtains at Zaahid’s graffiti wall and just like that they are enthralled. One of them has found a football, “my coach says I have amazing footwork!” Zaahid suggests having a game outside. They jump at the idea.
“Zaahid! Mama says he’ll play for the team one day,” the other roots for his brother. They run along and get their goal net. “But I’ll beat his arse for sure.”
“Language!” Zaahid’s stern like it’s his own kids. The thought leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, but I dismiss it and try to keep my mind as numb and as blank as possible.
I stand at the gate of our garden, the boys throwing around the ball. When I was their age, there were only two kinds of people I knew. One kind planned everything in their life (what they would be, what they will major in, which college they’d plan to go, when they will get a job and how they’ll switch jobs, who they’ll marry, where they would settle) and the other kind experienced life as it happened, without any planning or knowing the solution every step on the way. This kind took risks and was not afraid to fail. Then there was me, falling mostly in the first category but secretly worshiping the second category people, wanting to be more like them.
Having a squabble with Luck, things never worked out the way I planned but I still had to have one. Charting out a path kept me moving forward. The not unknowing was terrifying. I had to be in control of the situation always and when it would slip, in those critical moments—I needed it the most. The After USO time period was one of those situations; everything felt like it was falling apart. It felt like I was being blown away by a big storm and I lost my direction. For a long time I felt like I had lost. Too scared, too bruised to get up. I was standing on the edge of the world.
Everything was at stake, everything was uncertain and I was shit scared. I knew then, I couldn’t give up. I could not give up my one chance to do something I really wanted to do. So that time, I fought back up. Life messed with me and I messed up with it three times more. The only thing I had in mind was: I will not lose and settle down for less. That is not happening this time. Who knew it would turn me to a savage?
“Watch it!” Zaahid shouts, the ball missing me by millimeters but destroying the flowers. I recognize that I’ve walked along the breadth of the garden to the rose bed. Zaahid has made me jump and a thorn manages to pierce the bandage and prick my hand. The petals collapse to the soil. The ball bounces back from the wall and rolls to a stop under his foot. Roses. They are a horrid token of love and its loss. Another thing Better Life Therapy ingrained in me and eventually guaranteed by my father was: sometimes relationships fall apart even though they love each other very much, too much.
Also, that love ends. I can see it in kids across the street, hitting each other wildly, fighting. Tearing the signed portraits and breaking bracelets. Crying, one is trying to deflate a football and the other just wants to pull out the hair of other. For them, forever ends today. I have people around me who swear on forever young and eternal love but eternity shatters today along with two hearts across the street from me. Love hurts, boy, it really, really hurts.
“Are you good?” Zaahid walks to me. My eyes lift up to his. With cautious, careful eyes he is looking down at me. His hazel gaze is full of promise. My reverie is broken. The silence that ensues instigates that an explanation is required.
“No one is in hospital yet, so, so far so good.” I cock my head to the side, fighting the small knot of emotion that catches in my throat.
“Zaahid, can you please hurry darling? We need to leave in fifteen minutes,” Florence shouts.
“Right.” Zaahid rubs his hand on his nape, aimlessly looking around, giving no ear to the old woman. “Did you have the painkiller or should I grab you one? You really should have some tea too…” He is rambling but his gaze holds mine. He is utterly, utterly sincere. I blink at him as my heart expands.
“I did! I’m good, thank you,” hurridedly I straighten the sweatshirt, avoiding eye contact and trying to take back the tears in my lashes. I move past him, “Oliver needs you to load the luggage.” It shocks me how composed I sound.
“You need me more,” he whispers, holding my arm and the door of the garden.
“No, I don’t!” I speak mildly, but with an undertone that reminds us this conversation’s already had at least once. “In fact,” I walk to the hall, “I should come along. It’d be nice.” My hand is on the doorknob.
“Maira—” He’s quicker than me and bangs the door shut.
“Zaahid—” My phone buzzes. Pulling out the device I stand tall at the door. Zaahid’s hands are on my arms and we both glance at the screen.
It’s a snap sent by Gia, and I’m thinking, and Zaahid is staring at me and there’s something about the look in his eyes…This has nothing to do with him. I picture her walking out of the church in her flowy white gown; the champagne at the reception; think of Jeremy’s flirtatious smile at every bridesmaid; think of her bawling at sleepovers. The ring that has weighed her down. My chest is too tight. Each breath is smaller than the last. My eyes are locked on Zaahid’s, and although the phone is in my hands, I can’t see it. I cannot see Zaahid scrolling through our photos. The couple goals from a year ago, to poised family pictures at Christmas, to excessively Thomas filled throwbacks every month, to solo vacations on stranded islands two months ago to only selfie or foodporn pictures now. I can’t speak. I can’t read what the pictures have been shouting for months now. And I realize that Zaahid knew. Zaahid knows about the strain in Gia’s marriage. Zaahid knows Jeremy is cheating.
“Zaahid!” Florence shouts. We hear footsteps in the driveway. “Darling, the speed at which Oliver is loading will makes us miss the vacation!”
Zaahid opens the door before she has chance of knocking and leaves me to have a minute to myself. I cannot say whose fault this is. Jeremy’s lies or Gia’s faith to hide it all until it gets better. And how do I qualify to have a say in her marriage. In any marriage. This is what love makes us do. It makes us lie. It makes us save the other person even if the fib can destroy us. I know it does because Gia and I are no different.
Love also makes us petty. We do nasty, cheap tricks to win it, lose it, and prove it and even to end it. “She deserved to be an orphan.” Penelope’s words ring in my ears till today and hurt just as bad. After my debut single released, Love Let Me Behind, Jonathan came over for the after party and delicately recalled Cherry Foxes’ conversation he had overheard after the results of USO. I knew his intentions were to tell me how tall and strong I stood after the Horrible Finale Night but he forgot to sugarcoat the words and to not reveal her confessions of fiddling with my wires and flowers and cards.
I’ve never held these words against Penelope but neither have I ever forgiven her for choosing me to spit this poison on only for the sole reason: her ‘beau’ stood up for me. No one, absolutely no one, deserves such kind of heinous words. Be it done out of love or not. It didn’t really matter to her who I was, where I was from, and what I had done. I somehow deserved all of the hate.
Truly, humanity is lost in a world revolving around money.
“It’s so good to finally see you down here, darling!” Florence comments whilst opening her arms wide for me. I realize I have walked in behind Zaahid. “Where’d you hole up all this time?” My eyes don’t leave her bob layered mermaid hair. Now on closer inspection, I can see the greys at the roots.
I shrug, putting a stray strand of my own hair into the make-shift bun. “Hi! You know work’s crazy as always.” I lean in for the hug. From the corner of my eyes, I see Zaahid lifting the bags into the cars boot. Oliver—a big, bulky man, dressed in slacks and Sherpa—is standing behind him talking about the destination, its weather. He looks over at me at raises his hand. “Looking sharp Oliver!” I smile. He pats his pot belly twice.
Florence and Oliver have been Zaahid’s neighbours for as far as I can remember. They had been romantically walking under the umbrella on the streets when I had first arrived at Zaahid’s house. They had been there to witness our laughter and idiosyncratic behaviour and often called from across the street to ‘tone it down.’ They had their kids over and were making snowman with the grandkids on the day Zaahid had driven me off for the last time to the hotel. They had been still there on the three visits on the “anniversary” days and they are still here.
Florence looks up at me, now, from over her cat-eyed framed glasses, with scrutinizing eyes that hid behind a curtain of hopeful ones. “I’ve been down here for months Florence! Atleast for the entire UK part of the tour.” My voice is a notch higher than I expected it to be. “Plus, did you miss me watering the plants yesterday morning or the jog I went to this morning?” I scrunch up my nose, making a thoughtful looking face.
“You must have missed out! I try to spend as much time as I can with Zaahid before I again leave for tour, you know?” I don’t let her speak and this is what MY love is making me do. My love is making me give everyone fake smiles and mostly lies.
“I must have,” Florence adjusts her purse straps, “but really we don’t see you much around here. All is well, right?” Like an itch she can’t leave alone, she continues to press.
“Of course, Florence! We are so happy.” Zaahid looks over his shoulder and remarks. I feel light headed with the lack of air in my lungs and the pain in my chest. “When she and I are home together we just kind of want to stay in and keeping doing our thing…” Zaahid lifts the bag, winks at me, “right, mon amour?” I blush in a response.
“Aw you’re so cute together,” Florence cocks her head and drags her ‘aw’ more than necessary. Another victim easily fooled. “Oh, and burn cakes in the morning?”
“Yes!” Everyone laughs except for me. Zaahid motions me to come to him and avoid any more scrutiny. He glances at me as he and I lift a bag together and dump it in the boot of the car. His eyes have a salacious glint, gleaming for again being able to act coy, and a ghost of a grin shadowing his face.
The boys come running from their lawns, “Did someone say cake?” Their faces are smeared with soil.
“Oh god, what have you been eating!” Florence holds them by their hands like they are most delicate beings in her world.
“This is for you,” One of them escapes Florence’s grip and walks upto me, handing a lily he’s uprooted.
“Oh wow!” Oliver puts a hand to his face. Florence can’t seem to take her eyes of the soil on their faces and Zaahid rocks on his heel, smiling and shaking his head.
“Thank you, love,” I kneel to his level and hug him.
“Say what, why don’t you both come over for dinner sometime? Maybe when we’ll come back?” Oliver suggests.
“Ah, that’s a lovely idea! Maira is finally here too, and it’ll be great!” Florence claps her hands together, a bit too excited at the thought of it.
“I have ALWAYS been here, Florence.” I emphasise.
“Of course,” she grins, her red stained lips widen.
“Oh I like that! Maybe then probably you will teach my love how to bake those blueberry muffins you send us on every Christmas?” Zaahid interjects. ZAAHID you’re overdoing it! I hitch in a breath.
“What? She still hasn’t learned how to cook? It’s been what…four or five years?” Florence laughs. Bugger off…she is counting my relationship years? She literally has all the time on her hands. I force myself to not roll my eyes at her.
“About to be four in two weeks or something…” Zaahid scratches his beard with his index finger, grinning lightly. Fuck you…like you can bake nice muffins! I almost yell at him. HE DOES BAKES NICE MUFFINS! My inner goddess wakes up from her long sleep and she is raging. Jeez…he has a fan following.
“Come on Flo, let’s get going. You’ll never stop teasing her,” Oliver finally pulls her away.
“Have a safe trip,” I chirp in immediately, eager to get away from her. The boys cling on my legs and my heart jumps to my mouth.
“Drive safely old man, and text me once you reach?” Zaahid hugs him for the last time and then glances back at me, “Meine Liebe, this is what we will be doing in a few years.” I fake a smile.
“Shall we?” he holds out his hand for me, allowing me to snug into his side as we wave off the couple, grinning like madly-in-love couples we see in movies and read about in books. He smiles a sphinx like smile, kissing my hair as we wave off to Florence and Oliver.
He takes out his phone and posts a snap on his socials and I can’t wrap my head around how easily life changes. How quickly he can go for being sincere to straight up pretentious. How quickly we can go from being in love to being strangers. How quickly happiness disintegrates.
You don’t know distance until you’ve shared your bed with somebody who’s falling out of love with you.
“I hate you I love you I hate that I want you, you want her you need her and I’ll never be her.” Song: I hate you I love you by Gnash ft. Olivia O’Brien.
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