The Big D

In January she left her fiance. The only person this shocked was her mother, who wrung her hands.

“Who will have you now?” her mother said.

Who, indeed. But she knew, it was right. They should never have been engaged.

Winter tightened its grip on the hard earth. Leila stood one day in a green triangle of a park and cried until her vision blurred over. She looked up through the tops of the trees and saw the yellow magic of light from a window. She hung onto that image with a stubborn hope. She felt her soul lifting and smiled through her tears. I’m part of a gentle miracle, she thought. Life would go on – the same way it went on for those people that had lost their entire families in a plane crash or had their home and memories and everything they had ever owned swept away in a flood. This, the breakdown of a romantic relationship, was in the grander scheme of things, against the backdrop of wars, famine and disease, a minor tragedy. She would find someone else. Or they would find her. When the time was right, it would happen. She began to take walks in the afternoon at work, fingers frozen to icicles in the deep pockets of her coat. She developed a healthy cough. She joined a yoga class in the evenings, and the cough went away.

One day she was shaving the pale skin of her winter legs in the bathtub when she had a thought. It was a small thought, a very tiny thought, that she could shoo out of her mind like brushing lint off an old sweater. The next day while taking a train to visit a friend in another city she stood near the tracks, hearing the thundering of the rails, feeling the vibrations beneath her boots and thought how easy it would be to fall into the path of the hurtling train. She felt suddenly that the walls of the booth she was waiting in would close in on her. She loosened the scarf about her neck and ran. She called her friend, apologised, told a lie that she had suddenly become unwell.

At home that evening she made a cup of tea and tried to read a book, but the words seemed to blur together. What in the world could they mean, these black scratchings on paper. She thought again of the train tracks, the razor and tried to tease it all apart until it was powerless and revealed for what it really was, meek and fleeting. But at home, the thought did not go away. Instead she felt the tug of something she knew well, something she had not dared to ever say out loud to anyone in relation to herself, something that she and her fiance had sometimes obliquely called the big D. Even worse, on closer inspection, under rapid and unforgiving cross-examination, the thought held up.

She didn’t want to call her ex-fiance, even though she knew that if she did, he would comfort her. Would he even pick up? He was hurt and proud. She knew how easy he found it to cut people out of his life, the way he had cut out an ex girlfriend who had left him while they were on a cycling trip in Cambodia. Hearing that story, Leila’s sympathies had lay with the ex girlfriend. It must have taken courage to leave while they were in the middle of nowhere, staying at a fishing village six hours drive from the nearest town. But the ex girlfriend had taken her cycle at dawn and rode off, with a promise from a local who said he would pick her up in his van a few hours down the road. That had taken the kind of spine that Leila was not sure she had.

So she called her mother. Leila did not cry, only asked her normal questions, feeling as though her own voice now sounded strange, as though it was coming from deep inside a well. Her mother did not notice, only pattered on until she had reached the end of the thread of conversation, hanging up the phone because she was going to eat dinner now. Leila had prepared no dinner, so she went to bed without any.

For a few months she stretched herself thinner and thinner over the weeks, eating less, needing little, barely skimming the surface of life. Everything was a chore, the days blurring together. If she tried to remember what she had done yesterday, the day before, a week ago, it made her head ache. She spent entire weekends under the duvet, too tired to do anything. On Monday mornings she rose again, showered, dressed, marched off smartly to work.

Finally one cold and early spring afternoon her mood took a dip into a subterranean land, deeper even than the bottomless depths of the ocean, a place where no living thing wanted to go. To be down there was a kind of death itself. She found she didn’t want to go back up anymore and this filled her with a new, fresh resolve. Strength returned to her useless limbs. One day in the middle of her month-long planning period, her fiance (ex-fiance, she reminded herself) rang and asked if she would meet him. Leila was fearful, but said yes. They met at a small coffee shop near his office, where they sat on torn sofas with their coffee cups resting on overturned crates.

“You’ve lost weight,” he said, concerned.

“Have I?” she said. “I hadn’t noticed. I’ve been doing yoga.”

He rubbed his chin. “That’s good. Staying busy?”

“Oh yes,” Leila said. She smiled.

“Look, I know this is weird, and I know I said I didn’t want to see you again, but I needed to see someone in this city who might understand.” He swallowed, hard. She saw his adam’s apple, the hollow in his throat where she might have put her face before. It was odd to look at now, both familiar and also totally alien to her.

“Ammi’s not well. She’s having heart trouble. She may have to have a bypass. The doctors…they said she’s already had a heart attack.”

Leila felt funny. She watched his lips, the shapes it made around his words. At one time the very sight of those lips would have filled her with desire. Now they were just another body part.

“I’m sorry,” she said dully. In that same dull way, she noticed that he was crying.

“Leila,” he was saying to her now. “Please will you come and sit next to me.”

So she did, and he slipped his arm around her waist and she put her head on his shoulder in an embrace so old she felt she was touching her own self. She heard the steady dhun dhun of her still-beating heart. He moved his fingers in the spaces between hers, a nervous habit of his. They sat like this until the coffee grew cold, until the cafe began to empty. Still they sat, and no one, not even the baristas who now began to place the stools on the tables so they could sweep and mop, asked them to move.

Noon

At noon ate first solid food in two days. Slept. Woke to moonlight streaming through window blinds I’d been too tired to close. Walked to closet to get dressed. Found her last dress crumpled on the floor of closet. Froze. Finally moved. Picked it up. Should’ve thrown it out. But didn’t. Sat with dress in my clenched fist. Fought urge to sniff it. Took pain pills again at 8 AM. Went out for breakfast. Saw pretty waitress. Felt my guts wrenching. Hated the waitress, her smile, her happiness. Hated her. Could have murdered her there and then. Sipped black coffee. Felt the feeling returning to my arms and legs. Ate sausage. Never eat sausage. Don’t like sausage. But ate sausage.

Went home. Felt good. Thought of hitting the gym, but ended up hitting mirror instead. Fucked up my knuckles real good. Tore them up. Panicked. Found towel. Wrapped it around my hand. Applied pressure. Lifted the towel gently. Saw blood. Felt ill. Poured cologne over hand. Considered going to hospital. Considered cleaning up glass. Didn’t. Just sat. Chewed two more pain pills up. Sat until shadows grew longer on the floors. Swore I’d sit until she came back.

Writing

I haven’t written anything original in months. Even now, starting this, my mind only comes up with empty expressions, tired old sentences that feel like they have very little to do with my idea of myself as a writer. Lately, I have been thinking, I’m not a writer, because I don’t write, and maybe there is nothing wrong with that. It’s easier to tell myself that writing is not for me than it is to sit down and actually write something.

Before, when I used to enjoy spending time by myself, scenes and sentences used to come to me, I didn’t have to chase after them. All the empty time I had, walking, eating, going to class, lying in my bedroom, was filled with a rich inner world. I never felt like I was alone. Time passed like a filament of silk through the eye of a needle, slowly, and then all at once.

The last year of my life has been about a creative deadening. I hadn’t even noticed it until just this month, how my mind struggles with any kind of empty time. If I can’t sleep at night my hand itches for my phone, where I can listen to the empty clanging of others, all sorts of information pouring in, without much of my own input. I used to pride myself on not watching television until I realised that even though I don’t have a TV subscription, I am plugged in to images and voices that create background noise and don’t leave any space for thought.

Today I read an old story I had started in 2015. Back then that story felt like the center of my world, it kept me afloat at a time that felt uncertain and dangerous. For two months I wrote every day, no matter how tired I was, I wrote, even if it was to deliriously scribble a paragraph in bed just before falling into a dreamless sleep. But somewhere along the way that story became boring and directionless. Now when I read it, I see it was always directionless. It was always too confined, too much of my own self-conscious attempt at writing about Pakistan. It was always too much of myself, without enough of the fun of fiction in it, of inventions of new worlds and people. When I was younger I used to write to escape into fiction. Now fiction does not come because the world of adulthood is far more difficult to escape. It holds me here with half a dozen worries, so the work of imagining becomes ten times harder. And as of now, I’m not really fighting back.

Be like water

Be like water, they said. The river is always calm at its glassy surface. It never betrays how deep its currents whirl. They forget, that rivers don’t just feed, they also swallow. When a river swells, cannot hold itself in its banks any longer, it becomes a mindless thing. It takes livestock, homes, babies still in their cradles. All those hurricanes, tropical storms, which they name after hapless women have taught them nothing. They ask you to be water, to fill a vessel, to flow, to have no shape of your own. To be soft. But softness can erase too, just ask the grain of sand that was once a rock on a mountain side.

Nine years ago, we were on a bridge

You were 19

I was 17

Nearly 18

How implausible

those ages seem now

We were stuck in a python of traffic

Snaking from the bridge to Defence

We didn’t know

But Benazir had just been shot

We were happy

And my father called me

To tell me

Not to leave campus

He was still alive then

We were alive too

Everything around us

was new

full of new

impossible

life