N O T E
Loving you was like going to war; I never came back the same.
The morning I now wake up to is as promising as the tides. Judging by the way the soft light enters the room I can tell it is still pretty early. There is no harsh white light struggling to get past the blinds on the window. I can hear the song of the birds on the window pane and I bring my hand in a semi-intoxicated trance onto my alarm clock. I haven’t been drinking, though chance would be a fine thing, but at this time of the day my nerve receptors don’t fire too well; so I pretty much am in the same state as I would be after chugging half a bottle of whiskey. My stomach grumbles but I can’t stand the idea of making breakfast either and I would regret it by the time the sun is up.
I shift in my bed and stretch my arms only to find an empty spot beside me.
I remember last night the conversation I had with him, when he mentioned that he won’t be able to make it to dinner as he was busy at the studio, but what I don’t remember is that since when did studios started transforming into real human beings with extra abilities of holding actual conversations and adding giggles like the annoying background music in Chinatown restaurants downtown?
Somewhere I always knew that he did not want me. I have spent the entire last year convincing myself that he did. My scalp prickles at the idea that maybe, just maybe, he might like me. I did not love myself earlier so I allowed myself the daydream that at least he did. I hug myself with quiet glee, rocking from side to side, entertaining the possibility. You still believe this? My subconscious asks me, her eyebrows figuratively raised. I slap her down.
Physical attraction never did the trick for me. Those pathetically aesthetic bodies lacked the basic instinct I grew on—genuine connection. I need to be able to talk to my significant other before I passionately tear away the clothes. I need to be assured that they will stay despite the infinite darkness I hold so close to me.
Zaahid is a listener. For as long as I can remember, he is my go-to person, because he listens, he understands and doesn’t judge. He wasn’t presumptuous until four years ago and I could vent to him and labeling me would be the last thing on his mind. He always said that there were two sides to every story; but the recent turn of events make me ponder, did I really know him?
Was our friendship so volatile that it caught fire with just a flicker of flame?
I get up from the bed as the soft bristles of the white carpet below tingle my bare feet and I brush away my thoughts. I grab the sweatshirt hanging on the chair and dress. The other me, which exists after nine AM thought to put it all right here on the chair so that crack-of-dawn me can cope. I was never a morning person or an early riser but today to fit into my schedule I had to wake up at such an odd hour.
Are you okay? My conscience catechizes me suddenly.
I momentarily stop in my tracks as I sink in the question.
Are you okay? I again hear the voice within me.
Are you okay? Simple words—seldom asked. Despite our icy exteriors and shiny smiles we all can do with a little help at times. We don’t always know what people are going through and this little magical question is their ray of sunshine by which they can unburden themselves and sound off to someone. Supporting each other in this cruel, unforgiving world isn’t some kind of mumbo jumbo or even crazier crystal ball gazing but the sign of the times. We hide our sensitivity by showcasing enormous amounts of strength; we hide our mistreated moments by treating people with kindness; we give the best advices but actually are the ones who need it the most. Indeed the three hardest phrases in English are: I love you, I am sorry and I need help, strictly in that order.
So, today it was my conscience asking me. Was I really okay with him being gone? Was I okay with how my life had shaped up?
I walk out of the room in pursuit of answers and pass the photo frame hanging in the living room and at once I feel a sense of déjà vu. Suddenly I find myself teleported to that sunny March of 2013. I taste the bitter flavours of the reminiscences of the past; a past from where my story of loss, family, friendship, love and betrayal actually began. Time has a wonderful way of showing us what really matters, and for me that day was important—the day of my Ultimate Sing Off audition on a fine, sunny morning of March, 2013.
I had felt the current run through me, and my already rapid heartbeat had accelerated. I had not been interested in giving an Ultimate Sing Off audition, at first, but there I was standing in front of the judges and the celebrity guests after I had been brutally dragged down from my bed by Venus and Craig.
When someone literally snatches my comforter from me and drags me down from my bed, that person directly falls under my list ′kill at first chance’, even today, not kidding. But with Venus, back then, I didn’t know if I could have afforded to lose a friend like her.
I still remember the time when we first met. It had been my first day in Newcastle after I moved there from India. I was in a mess of a situation after I, Miss Butterfingered, had spilled coffee over myself while tripping over the footpath and throwing my luggage all over the road—to say I hadn’t lived up to the name of my house, Miss Maira Ahluwalia from the House Of Clumsyville, would be an understatement of the year. A dead phone due to drooling too much over Paul Wesley was the cherry on my cake and I did receive brownie points for leaving my tourist map at the EU Immigration Portal window. So as to summarise it I was working here with just the name of the hotel I had to go to and, I was lost.
Standing in the midst of some street I had managed to walk up to and practically jamming the traffic, I felt a certain fear tingle me. No one would help me because I looked like a beggar with just too much baggage. Suddenly, I felt a hand wrap around my arm and pull me away from the road, as a motorbike sped past the place I once stood upon. If I had stood on the road for even a second longer, I would have definitely landed in a hospital rather than in a hotel.
I turned around to thank the stranger. She was a girl, almost my age, with fiery orange coloured curly hair that ended just below her ears. Her grey eyes were laced with worry as her forehead creased, bringing her eyebrow ring and nose ring into my cynosure. She wore black, ripped leather pants and an off-white blouse. “What do you think you were doing huh?” Her hoarse and husky voice had roughly questioned me.
I had stated that I was lost, seeing the fact that I had barely stepped onto foreign boundaries. She had yelled at me, pointed out my carelessness to not mind my way, appalled by my lack of common sense, and I remember bracing a bandwagon series of cuss words for her. I had apologized, for what exactly I still am not quite sure.
She had been so overbearing. She looked frustrated, angry even. Apart from a silly girl standing in the middle of the road, jamming the traffic who she thought needed rescuing, what had I done? And it turned out I did need “rescuing” from my soiled clothes stained from coffee.
Oh Maira...are you ever going to live this down? My subconscious is figuratively tutting and glaring at me over her half-moon specs as I adore the picture hanging on the wall.
I had explained to her my position, and she said, “Oh!” and the look on her face read that she was taken aback. She had tried to coax me, offered me a helping hand to find my semblance or my lost equilibrium for that matter. I had refused them each time. All of her rephrased core sentences—“look love, I’m sorry, I can help you out. Cool?”—were met by my, “No, thank you, I’ll find my own way.”
I didn’t want to sound rude or adamant, but I could see no reason as to why she was being so nice with me, after all I was just a brunette haired, plain looking foreigner. She had taunted me, “Why are you scared of me?” I remember giving her the look—back off—while my insides were clenching together and all I wanted to do was distance myself from her, so I remained quiet.
She had been so determined to help me, and that is why after three hours, I had found myself sitting at Cantino Ridge’s table opposite her sipping hot mugs of expensive vanilla coffee after dropping off my things at her place and cleaning myself. We were so spent after tirelessly and hopelessly wandering the city to find my hotel—turns out looking for a place which has many namesakes is a moot effort.
“I’m Venus,” she had introduced herself after wiping out the foam moustache from her mouth.
I had felt the awkwardness between us unfolding despite our nonsense chitter chatter for the last three hours, because I was hardly saying a word. To be honest, I didn’t know what was supposed to be said. Her looks and appearance had sent my brain in a “high alert” mode since the time we met and I couldn’t help but fancy the thought that soon she’ll be lunging at me and slicing my throat. But Venus, she was a talker. She stumbled from one topic to another, stopping momentarily in between to catch her breath.
She talked about her university friends and the new people she met in her post graduate admission process. That peaked my attention and then we realized that we the students of the same university—Newcastle Institute of Technology and whilst she was an Advanced Architectural Design student I was an Advanced Civil and Structural Engineering student. Her eyes shone at that and the smile she gave me next was contagious. From across the table, in between talks, she held my hand, unconsciously. The way she spoke with such light in her eyes, and her constant need to hold my hand—as if to make sure I was still there and not just be a factious fragment of her imagination, held me in my seat and one mug of coffee turned into three with a side of sherry triffle.
She vaguely mentioned a get-together dinner they had planned at her place as to get to know everyone before classes started from the next day. She invited me to that and to spend the night—an offer that was too good to decline.*Now, looking at the picture on the wall of two teens, one with fiery orange hair and another a brunette, laughing wildly, arms hanging from each other’s neck, wearing matching “Yǒuyì” Chinese symbol engraved on a pale blue and baby pink circle pendants necklaces hanging from black chains and shirts saying, “I am hers and she is mine,” I can’t help but smile. We used to talk daily, and then we rarely talked. Now, we don’t talk at all, but our Facebook post still has the caption, “best friends forever”.
I peel off my eyes from the picture and sift through the entire line of pictures he had decorated the black wall with. I notice a small framed picture sitting between his family photos on the wall, and I move closer to take a peek. Suddenly, I am back there again: under a harsh spotlight and standing on the Ultimate Sing Off stage in front of the judges, just about to give my audition.
The stage fright came all over me. It’s tried to grasp the major part of me. I was drowning in fear and anxiety. Trembling would have been an understatement to define my position. My legs were shaking violently after I had been pushed onto the stage.
"Go! You can do it.”
"Go! You can do it.”
Venus’ voice had reverberated in my mind, back then, as I stood there on stage under the yellow spotlight. My heart was thumping erratically, ready to fall out any second, and then I heard a voice. “Hi! What’s your name?”
I had stuttered to introduce myself; my nerves were tingling like being tickled with a small feather. I had said that I would sing, A Thousand Years by Christina Perri, but I didn’t dare look up at judges—afraid of their intimidating stares and knowing far too well that whatever was left of my courage would turn to dust.
I had taken in a deep breath to calm my nerves. All the muscles clenched deep in my belly. I had a serious case of butterflies. They were flourishing in my stomach. Then, when I looked up, I saw a middle aged man sitting in front of me; the microphone was near his mouth. So he was the one talking to me? Yes, if you paid more attention to him than the boys present on his side. My subconscious had reared her ugly, snide head. I had ignored her.
It was Stephan Collins, mostly recognized as a judge on the British TV talent competition series Pop Factor, Ultimate Sing Off, Britain’s Hidden Flair, and the American TV talent competition shows American Pop Star, Ultimate Sing Off, and America’s Hidden Flair. He owned the television production, Eight Foot Management and music publishing house Collins Telefilm and Music Productions.
Now, when I think back to it, I remember how hard I had tried to stay still, ignoring my natural inclination to cover my face, as I had flushed. Stephan was always known for making blunt and controversial comments, including insults and wisecracks about contestants and their abilities and that provided little to no help to ease my anxious state. I had shaken my head, tried to take in the high gentry I was supposed to impress.
I had observed the Judges Table for a moment too long; my eyes strayed to the Symphony Thrills boy-band boys sitting at the table. I had bitten the insides of my cheeks back then too. A “you can now begin,” made me stand up straighter as I remembered myself. My subconscious had stared at me in awe. I didn’t understand that reaction.
It was Caitlin Follows who gave me the cue to start. She was known for her over-the-top fashions, quirky stage props and catchy songs like ”Careful With That Heart“. After having three record deals fall apart, she had signed with Capitol in 2007. Later that same year, she had released her first single, “Total Eclipse.” Still, her career did not fully take off until the release of her next single, ”Careful With That Heart“. I recall how I felt a sea of anxiety deep down. My jaw had clenched. My hands had moistened; blood had rushed in my ears and my pulse sky rocketed.
My university friends were on the first ones to cheer and hoot for me in a crowd that was dead silent. I had flushed at their waywardness but my subconscious was doing her happy dance in her red hula skirt at the thought of being the cynosure of their appreciation.
Before I could hit the first note my neuroticism had hit me again. An ill feeling tighteness had dipped its sticky fingers into my stomach and I felt the weight of an anchor choking me dragging down the words I had practiced over and over again in the mirror of my dorms bathroom, yet all I could stress over was shielding my knees from clasping under the heaviness of my shaky body.
Shaking my head and endeavouring to quell my nerves, I sang the opening lines of A Thousand Years. I flushed crimson and stared down at my hand that didn’t hold the microphone, level with the base of my belly, and I desperately wanted to disappear into the ground, but I knew Venus and Craig—standing on the sides of the stage for me—wouldn’t want that. As I sang, I realised the actual reason for denying the audition.
My life had been a list of bullet points of things done and achieved and things left yet to do. In my precisely calculated and thought of life there had never been space for risks or rejection or possible failure even. The ‘what if’ we so commonly hear of didn’ exist for me because I never treaded in waters that would lead to it. I just didn’t. That is how I had been brought up—as a project.
Feigning confidence I tried to change that. “I. Will. Fight” I had mentally declared, my voice slightly too high, betraying my wish to sound as natural, disinterested, and calm as I could with my hormones wreaking havoc through my body. You wish! My subconscious had choked on her tea and sneered at me.
Faking confidence seemed to be one difficult square to circle. I made eye contact with the judges, only to find smiles lining their lips. I pursed my lips. Do I look like a joke, eh? I had questioned myself, while my subconscious doubled over in laughter at me. I flushed.
As the song progressed I watched Stephan, trying to interpret his expressions. I hoped that I was doing well, but my pessimistic mind nagging the back of my mind had continued to show me a doomed end. What are you even, now? Just a university scholar and maybe one or two Inter College band competitions winner. My subconscious had scowled at me, she was screaming at me like a harpy. I ignored her, but deep down I knew she had a point. I shook my head to concentrate on the task at hand.
Line after line, I was gaining confidence, I was getting comfortable with the atmosphere, the aura of the stage and there was something in me maybe a flickering fire to prove myself that needed a little bit more air to burn like a crackling fire because then, I found myself doing everything I could to stand out from the others. There was a burning desire within me that needed to show or prove to the judges, that I had that ‘extra’ oomph within me.
I was halfway through the song, shaking my head, dropping my hands and feigning a frown to fit the mood of the song. I had walked on the platform connecting the stage to the judges table. Standing at the edge of the platform, I had continued to perform. My expressions were sad and forlorn, like the music. The audience gazed up at me, satisfied smiles on their faces, while I was sure there was nothing but gratitude and awe on mine. I headed back to the stage soon after. My eyes were bright with ecstatic triumph.
With the final words I was on the edge of the song and in the centre of the stage. The yellow light was focused on me once again and I felt a drop of sweat ticking down the back of my neck. It was definitely hot out there.
“So? Stephan did you like it?” The host, Jonathan Keltz, had asked when I had finally wrapped up my performance. My discomfiture was visible as I had been agitated. Please say yes, I remember begging internally as my fingers clasped the ends of my flannel shirt. My breath hitched.
The review I had received back then was a subtle mix of the core meaning: you’re in. They ranged from, “you’ll do for the time being,” to “your voice is soothing and calm,” to “a lot could have been done to make the performance better, but you’ll do for now.” I had thanked them. My subconscious was on cloud nine and she was doing her victory dance and showing off her perfect cartwheels to the high gentry of cloud nine. I was pretty sure that was the only place I could do cartwheels. I couldn’t control the smile which was slowly escaping my mouth.
The best review I received at that point of time was Harry’s. Jonathan had asked, “Symphony Thrills?” and Harry was the first to jump onto an answer. He had talked about how my performance was engaging and how I was bonding with the audience. All in all, he loved it and was really happy about the performance. He grinned widely at the end of his monologue. His dimples are worth drooling over. My subconscious had pointed out; I had nodded, blushing again. I shook my head to brush off the thought as any sane person wouldn’t want to be involved in that sort of a thing, surely.
At that time the words, “you’ll do for now,” had stung me. They left an imprint on me. Then, they had a choice—I could have been eliminated if I was not good—now, the music I make, the songs I write, the videos I help direct—I am irreplaceable.
At this moment in time, I run my hand along the smooth brown frame of the Ultimate Sing Off picture that hung among the other pictures on the living room wall of his house in London. Oh this hurts. I take a deep, steadying breath. Why hasn’t he removed these pictures of me? Perhaps he’s preparing the house for when his mum arrives. That makes more sense…or maybe it makes no sense at all. Oh, this is so fucked-up, and suddenly I’m bone-crushingly tired. I can’t sleep but I can definitely help myself to a cup of coffee—the first cup of the day. I turn around from the wall to head towards the kitchen.
“Ow,” I wince in pain and jump on one foot while holding the other in my hand as I land with a thud on the wooden floor of the living room. I had hit my toe with the leg of the side table. In my befuddled state, I try to reach across the switch board at the base of the wall. Failing by almost an arm’s length, I give up and rub my face. What time is it? Where is Zaahid?
My mind was filled with questions but all I could mull over was: if I hadn’t auditioned, probably I wouldn’t be here in this huge house in London. I wouldn’t have experienced the joy of meeting new people and working for an audience.
Jingling of keys in the background gains my attention and I look over my shoulder to find the man enter the house.
I wasn’t surprised to find Zaahid enter the house at five in the morning. I was used to his tactics and the lies he would build up to cover up. He’s dressed in his customary white cotton shirt, black ripped jeans and the black leather jacket hung from his shoulders. His hair is tousled as ever. I sigh. I sit for few seconds on the floor, scrunching my nose as I held my toe, gazing at him, admiring the view.
He glances, nervously I think, towards both the bedrooms and the hallway, and stills when he sees me. Blinking a couple of times, he then smiles a slow, lazy, sexy smile that renders me speechless and all molten inside.
He walks gracefully over to meet me and that’s when he observes my state.
“What are you doing down there?” He interrogates, a crease forms on his forehead.
“Oh. Nothing...just hit my toe.”
“Are you alright?” He cross-questions coming closer towards me and the mixed colognes on his jacket fill my nose—a mixture of his cologne and a woman’s.
“Yeah...yeah I’m good.” I aver while standing up.
“Where have you been?” I ask him as he moves towards the kitchen and I follow suit.
“At the studio…it’s been a long day.”
So studios give a pink lipstick marks on the neck of your shirt, on the knee patches of your jeans and the skin of your neck? And studios reek of Coco Chanel colognes? I’m sorry but I didn’t know that, I fume. I think my subconscious has fainted.
“Oh...you must be tired?” I play along with his lie.
“Yeah...kind of...charting out a solo career is difficult,” he says with his back turned to me as he moves to the window beside which the calendar laid.
He flips the page to today. 30th October, 2019.
“It definitely is.”
“Look who’s talking…the one who is selling out platinum albums?” He turns towards me, smiles ironically and states sardonically.
“You are making coffee?” he says pointing to the coffee jar in my hand, I might have picked up unconsciously from the kitchen countertop.
“Hmm,” I nod.
“One for me too I’ll be in the bedroom,” he says as he walks off.
“Sure,” I mumble to no one in particular and turn towards the stove.
I couldn’t decide which was worse: the lies he told or how badly I wanted to believe them.
When I thought of new beginnings I focused on Ultimate Sing Off, after all it was one BIG step that could have made me or ruined me.
When I thought of new chapters in my life, I wanted to pay attention to the musical path I had braved to prod upon. I knew, I was out there to chart out my career, my life, to clear the illusions I lived in and the messes thus created, to find a sense of belonging.
But somewhere along the line, I had forgotten, fresh starts implied endings as well.
I had forgotten, where there is bliss, there would be colossal sorrow as well.
There’s nothing in the world that can trouble you as much as your own thoughts.
Oh, by the way, Maira means “the moon”.
“You say I’m crazy, cause you don’t think I know what you’ve done.But when you call me baby, I know I’m not the only one.” Song: I’m not the only one by Sam Smith
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