Semra has lived in Dubai, UAE, for over 15 years now. A finance graduate, she worked as a market research analyst until about a year ago and is currently pursuing her passion for writing. She loves traveling, reading, meeting new people, music, yoga, cooking and pretty much anything she can do to make the most out of what is ultimately a short life. Her work has been published in The Express Tribune, Pakistan.
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In the Course of a Lighter Day
The line at the security belt was moving at a snail’s pace. Setting the luggage on the belt, Vaisam wiped hot beads of perspiration off his forehead with the palm of his hand. He checked his watch again with impatient curiosity and calculated the time it would take to get to the ticketing counter, past passport control, and finally, blissfully, to the departure gates. Well not really, he thought somewhat perversely; it was a tedious and lengthy process from there on: two security enclosures to be crossed, the escalators to be transcended, and those meandering moving walkways to be endured, which were always blocking the endless passage, all the way to the duty free.
The duty free would be insignificant to his wife though. She considered buying anything other than the dire necessities a hobby for the mindless.
‘Killing time… by spending unneeded money on unwanted things,’ she would declare with dismissive authority and a measure of disgust.
The typical cynical explanation for avoiding anything that came even remotely close to acquiring human pleasure, Vaisam thought with some degree of distress.
She would not stop for coffee or tea either, as she was not fond of anything other than ‘desi-chai,’ grumbling that the corrupt foreigners had violated tea – turning it into chalky milk. Her need to go to the restroom would also be temporarily suspended. Agonizing and pondering over the toilet bowl, infested with the germs of millions of foreign strangers, she would forsake the growing discomfort and ignore the persistent urgency in her bladder in an almost comic heroic determination.
And even if the potential health hazards weren’t dangerous enough, a visit to the restroom was completely out of the question because it would break her ablution. No, she would stodgily walk past the otherwise commonplace distractions for ordinary people and seat herself meticulously at the departure gates.
He could picture her sitting on her seat: a broad-boned figure with strong arms holding a religious book in her lacerated nail-cut hands, droning to herself and stirring slightly in her trance like state; oblivious to the world. Probably ranting away some prayer to ward off the evil eye from a possible travel calamity like a bowel disorder, Vaisam thought with some loathing.
Collecting his wife’s boarding pass after ensuring she was seated next to a female he felt almost giddy with urgency. An awkward hug and a customary wave later, she was gone.
To call their marriage arranged was an understatement. In the typical South-Asian culture, where two people are formally introduced in the possibility of a companionable future together, the approval of the male is inherent and, at times exclusive. In Vaisam’s case though, he had little to do in the determination of his marital fate. His mother, a domineering woman, whose authority had become more pronounced and validated after his father’s untimely death, had declared one formidable morning that she had found him a suitable bride.
‘Just like your father,’ she remarked disappointedly at his initial refusal, flicking some bread crumbs off the plate with her fingers for effect.
He felt perplexed in the wake of her disillusion. This sudden emotional discordance faltered his decision and left him tongue-tied. He lost his conviction to express his views confidently. His mind was dictating that this hesitation, almost cowardly in nature, was absurd but his body and heart refused to acknowledge it. His conscience was aware of this incompatibility between mind and actions and it mocked him into shame.
Six months and several segregated family gatherings later, he found himself married to this person he knew little about and desired to know even less.
Parking his car in the driveway, Vaisam let himself in the house. The silence that greeted him brought serenity and peace within him, contradictory to the forlornness and distress some of his friends said they had experienced in similar situations. He glanced at his watch and noticed that he still had some time before heading to the bar to meet his friends. He switched on the TV and sank into the plushness of the couch, its gathers enveloping him into little blankets of comfort. Free from the disapproving glares of his wife and her habitual sarcasms on the evil of modern TV and its curse of inducing forbidden desires, Vaisam basked in the light of this intellectual freedom. He taunted his wife’s imaginary presence by turning up the volume while Deborah Harry tempted her lover with unequivocal promises of kisses and sexual ecstasy a call away.
As far as Vaisam could recall his life was a blurring mix of control (his mother’s) and retaliation (on his part). This retaliation, however, was discreet and, to a large extent, trivial. Vaisam was mute when it came to declaring his nonconformance to his mother’s school of thought and too immobilized to refuse to follow her code of conduct.
His father had passed away when he was only ten and his memories of him were scarce and scattered: a dark looming figure suddenly appearing in the hazy corridor, his outline rimmed by the sunlight behind, carrying a bag of orange sweets; a silhouette in white with a dark mass of hair lying sideways on a divan, his right arm across his eyes and forehead, his left barely holding a newspaper, the toes of one leg lightly brushing the floor; dressed and patiently waiting, his perfume sprinkling the air marking an occasion, and then eventually defeated, retreating up the stairs in his mother’s aloof aversion.
Then one day, this unattended persona disappeared as if dissolving into the vapors of the particles of the very perfume he wore, which still seemed to linger in the house. Vaisam felt as if his father went up the stairs and never came back.
His mother had been devastated by her husband’s sudden death. She had rocked in anguish, sobbing uncontrollably, the tears flowing down her face with her hands clasped on her chest, symbolic of her mourning. Relatives and friends would gather around her anxiously, each competing with the other to offer a more profound explanation of his untimely demise, peppered by small reminders of his good deeds and noble character to justify his rather short life by fulfillment of a greater purpose. At that time, Vaisam had felt unease over these attempts by the relatives to pacify his mother’s grief. He had doubted the sincerity of her mother’s tears. He felt ashamed at her antics. Like he had felt the day a kind candy store guy had endearingly given him a free bonbon while his fingers wrapped nervously around the two stolen ones in his pocket.
His mother isolated herself in her room, refusing to eat and drink. Insistence of well-wishers was met with despair. Then, one day, a friend of Vaisam’s father came to settle his will. Vaisam had stood by the door opening into the lounge, where this dark fleshy man sat rigidly and authoritatively, his hefty fingers drumming the table with measured impatience. The man was wearing a gold ring, the top of which was carved in an animal-like face. A thick gold chain submerged in the layers of flesh around his sweaty neck.
Vaisam had never seen a man wearing gold and felt repelled and scared by his forbearing presence. The man looked at Vaisam with an expression of both pity and disinclination. Apparently his father had not been a possessor of large amounts of savings or any valuable investments. His assets were few and ordinary. As everyone stood around trying to comprehend this information, he saw his mother’s door opening a crack, gesturing him to come.
‘What is that man saying?’ she asked, her hands on his shoulders, her face wiped of its wariness and now alert, a flicker of anxious doubt in her eyes, her mouth closed in a tight line. She held on to his shoulders so tightly it hurt.
After that, she avoided him for months.
Vaisam got up to fetch himself a glass of water. Night had fallen and the soft orange glow of the table lamp gently illuminated the objects within its reach, its halo offset against the embrace of darkness around it. The flashing images of the TV cast chopping, flickering slashes of electrical light on the objects nearby, claiming their domain. Vaisam switched off the TV and the serene semi-darkness conquered the room; enveloped in it, he felt safe and protected.
Protection made him think of Saka. That is the feeling he most related to his unlikely partner in crime; hired by his mother sometime after his father’s death as domestic help, although Vaisam had an inkling it was also to provide him with the company she felt she could not provide. She would spend her days frowning into her meals or humming into the telephone receiver. She would nod her head back and forth and put down the phone only to lie back on her bed and stare at the TV listlessly or flip through magazines. In the evenings, they would visit her relatives, where women and men sat in separate rooms, the men voraciously arguing politics over tea, their hands stopping midway in exaggerated motions, while the women leaning forward in confidential secrecy, murmuring trails of gossip, dispersing as a Chinese whisper.
Those days had a lingering sadness to them as Vaisam felt out of place in his surroundings. It was as if he was at a party where he knew no one, standing in a corner with a drink in his hand and an awkward smile on his face, feeling large and helpless.
With Saka things changed. He led Vaisam out of his self-imposed barricade with nothing but a quick smile and an assuring nod. Saka tantalized his senses and teased his mind by pushing boundaries. In his camaraderie, Vaisam blossomed into a new person. He opened Vaisam’s mind to believing and imagining, his heart to experiencing and submission. They had their daily rendezvous under the mango tree, mischievously exchanging ideas: Saka dictating and Vaisam acquiescing.
‘Aray choot this is the way you hold it,’ the tan quick-footed Saka would say, holding the cigarette between his orange pan-stained fingers. He would stand cockily, eyes narrowed at the tip of the cigarette as it burned slowly; inhaling the nicotine deeply and exhaling smoky rings from his constricted mouth and thin lines through his nostrils.
The forbidden exploration of these temptations of youth was a welcome change in the otherwise restricted life of Vaisam. His mother had strictly controlled his activities outside the mundane routine of school and tuition up until then. Now he was able to free himself of his inhibitions with Saka’s help. With Saka he felt he was the Vaisam he wanted to be: spontaneous, animated and expressive.
Vaisam sat on the couch, his bare feet aimlessly stretched on the coffee table, an empty glass of water in one hand. He was still marveling at the accuracy of dismissed memory, trapped in its melancholic gloom, absently clicking the table lamp on and off. The room lit and hid itself with each flick of the switch. The unpredictability of life and relationships, Vaisam thought dejectedly.
Saka would usually work during the day and be sent off to home come evening. One day, when Vaisam returned home late in the evening after his football practice, he found his mother not at home and Saka there instead. Rushing through an early dinner they resumed their daily adventures, which had by now assumed a more diabolical nature in their minds.
That night, for the first time, they stepped outside the boundaries of the house. Saka led the way oblivious to Vaisam’s nervous plodding. Very soon they were in the small colony where Saka lived. They dodged through open sewers stinking of rotten food, shit and garbage, across stone and pebble walkways and screaming naked children, their mothers holding up their garments to their knees, a bucket in one hand yelling obscenities. Vaisam passed a man sitting on his haunches, staring into a spot on the urine-stained wall; his eyes watery and empty, his mouth slightly ajar. Vaisam had never witnessed such crude vulgarity and in spite of the oppressiveness of poverty and hunger all around him, he felt intrigued and exhilarated. Suddenly Saka turned around and told him to wait there. He disappeared into the narrow lane and Vaisam stood waiting, finding himself in a dark circle lit by a lantern from a hut a few meters away. A heavy man lay on a charpoy in the hut, his belly moving up and down like a snake in its path, his face hidden by his flesh. All of a sudden Vaisam felt vulnerable and scared. He looked around in helplessness. When Saka appeared, he led him through another alley to a hut, where on the side there was a slight opening. When Vaisam peered in he saw a young girl of about eighteen with dark brown hair, tanned supple skin glistening with sweat that highlighted her curvaceous body through the white flimsy material covering it. She lifted her shirt and Vaisam’s heart stopped beating. He felt confused and clammy. Shaking and shivering, he ran. Ran out through the dirty, decrepit colony, through the sickness of it all, stopping only when he reached the light of the main road. Saka came after him and slapped him jokingly on the back.
‘Real pussy you are,’ he mocked Vaisam.
Vaisam ignored him. Understanding that he was perturbed, Saka turned quiet and they walked back home in silence, at one point Saka even put his arm around Vaisam’s shoulders to pacify him.
A few feet away from the house they saw a car parked outside; its headlights were dimmed and the summer dew glossing its windows made it difficult to see through them. They walked around it from a distance with curiosity, straining to see who was inside. As Vaisam crossed the car, he froze in his tracks. It was the same man, the beefy lawyer who had read his father’s will. The lawyer’s fleshy lips were caressing a woman’s neck. Behind the foggy windows of the car, Vaisam’s mother sat with her back against the seat, eyes closed; the lawyer’s fingers stroking her lips now.
Next to him, Saka chuckled.
‘Two free shows in one day,’ he said. But Vaisam’s body had stiffened and his eyes were stinging.
The next day Vaisam told his mother that Saka had stolen his books. He never found out when Saka left. He relapsed to his old self so instinctively it was as if Saka or that day had never happened.
Vaisam woke up with a start. He realized he had fallen asleep. Dreaming had never been so faithful, he scoffed himself. He had fallen asleep on the couch, lamp switch in hand. He hadn’t slept so carelessly in months. Lately, whenever he had woken up, his body had felt knotted and his mind, tangled. He would wake up with some thought buzzing in his head and sleep would merely feel like a suspension of that thought. But today he felt lighter.
A glance at his cell phone indicated that he had twelve missed calls: the greater number from his mother. He expected her telephone calls to always ask less about his well-being and inform more about her version of family gossip. Otherwise, she would begin her indirect and manipulative efforts at making him feel guilty for not calling her often enough or not thinking about her enough along with subtle reminders of her growing age and rowing inability to take care of herself. She would subtly endorse the significance of motherhood with a fancy story of some great deed performed by an obedient son. How it is the hallmark of all accomplishments in life and will certainly reward him with great prosperity in this world and even greater ease in judgment in the hereafter. She had, over the past few years, turned to religion with a zealous passion. This newfound importance of religion in her life, which had previously only been occasional and negotiable, could be explained better by idle time than by divine enlightenment. But, as with other things, it had also come with impositions.
Vaisam reached the bar later than he had planned. His friends were already there and well into their second round of drinks. Drinking was a release for Vaisam: it made him feel lighter and made him think more clearly and coherently. It made him let go of his inhibitions. As a result, Vaisam could smile more impulsively; engage in conversations in a fluid and confident fashion, and regard people with less wariness and hostility. Part of his subconscious also felt that he had been wronged and he had not entirely come to terms with it or rather he avoided to; drinking was not only a rebellious backlash to all the things prohibited but also redemption for his suffering.
An English Premier League football match was on the TV monitors, which adorned the four corners of this small, cozy neighborhood bar. Various men and women, some lone and stray, their eyes shining with the hope and possibility of some adventure tonight, evaluated their surroundings for potential copulating mates. Couples engaged in romantic dramatics, anxious to please one another, to catch that missed word by tilting their heads towards each other. Everyone was clapping to their teams’ support and discussing the tactics of each team. The bar erupted in roars whenever a goal was in sight, but the volume of cheers descended to a low tutting of disappointment at an opportunity missed. Vaisam felt a reeling sensation of happy nervousness in the pit of his stomach. It pulsated to the music in the background and the cheering of the audience. His mind trailed along the waves of sound traveling to his wife as he imagined her sitting here between all these strange people in her traditional solemn attire, amidst the suggestive tight jeans and short skimpy skirts, booze and loud boisterous laughter, the cheering and the slight thumping to music. He imagined her shocked face trying to administer all the evil in the bar through the uptight, judgmental binoculars of her religiosity. He giggled inwardly at her wide-eyed comical image.
He wondered why he belittled her and decided it was not her religious attitude exactly that made him form this ill perception, He considered himself a god-fearing person too, albeit with his own views about religion. But something about his wife, rather everything about her, made him feel repulsed. Was it her? Or was this attitude a product of his personal failings? He quickly suppressed that accusatory thought.
Vaisam made his way to the center of the bar and sat on a bar stool, motioning to the bartender for a drink. He rested his elbows on the moist counter; his right cheek cupped in his right palm, his left arm lying on his lap aimlessly, and surrendered himself to the unraveling intoxication of the vodka running through his veins. He was on his fourth drink by now or was it his third? He didn’t know and he didn’t care to remember those numbers. The alcohol had numbed his senses. The very effects he desired. The match receded into the background, the music felt distant and impersonal, the surrounding chatter felt remote; he had descended into his own personal haunt characterized by a suspension of thoughts. This was mere bliss.
Out of the corner of his eye, seated about two or three places away, he caught a hint of a black silhouette with blondish hair looking his way. Or was she looking at the TV monitors above? Vaisam was not sure. He allowed himself to look fully in her direction. Yes, indeed, she was acknowledging him with a slow smile on those bright, red-stained lips. He took up the cue to appraise her and noticed she was young, in her mid-twenties maybe. She was tall and lanky, her height emphasized by the short black dress, which revealed toned, tanned legs. The lankiness seemed to suit her well though. It brought certain glamour to her lean face accented by short blunt bangs barely concealing lazy, green, heavily lidded eyes. She was no great beauty, he concluded, but her languid body language had a wild attractiveness to it. She stood with an idle ignorance; one coral painted nail hand on the table and the other holding a drink. She made her way towards him now with lazy strokes like a panther on the prowl.
‘What are you having?’ she inquired, her voice liquid smooth and casually interested. He saw green eyes steadily grazing him, the black pupils expanding and contracting, dropping a hint of her level of inebriation.
‘Just vodka – on the rrocks,’ said Vaisam with an unexpected stammer, which annoyed him. The elegance and self-assuredness of this mysterious woman unnerved him. Her straight forwardness was aggressive and he could not counter it with wit or presence of mind. All of a sudden, he wished she would not speak to him any further.
‘Ah, so you are a vodka guy,’ she teased him, poking his side playfully.
He only managed to grin in reply.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked, taking a sip from her bright green beverage.
‘Vaisam,’ he parroted.
‘And yours?’ he mustered himself to inquire.
‘Sherry – Spanish, like the wine,’ she said. ‘Though I’m from Georgia.’
This contradiction must have struck her as wistfully humorous because she let out a short, raspy laugh.
She trailed her index finger on the wet surface of her glass drawing short zigzag lines from the tip of her long pointed nails.
‘Vaisam and what is it that you do?’ she asked, pronouncing his name Vah-saam. It was throaty and he liked it that way.
She looked around distractedly while he told her he worked in finance. She looked everywhere yet nowhere in particular. He felt agitated at her sudden non-committal attitude, angered by this display of hypocrisy.
‘I like your dress,’ he said, more in self-defense to this ignorance than as a bait of flattery.
That seemed to perk her up. He smirked to himself at the irony of her predictability.
‘Oh thanks, Vah-sam,’ she drawled, and laid her hand on his, resting it on his lap. Her nails teased his inner thigh and it sent a mild tingling sensation.
She drew her face close to him and he caught a whiff of alcohol and tobacco on her breath. Her big slanting green eyes appeared larger and heavier and he could see her makeup cracking around her eyes and mouth, giving way to dark sunken eye bags and patches of chapped dry skin underneath.
‘You are not so bad yourself,’ she said huskily. ‘Vah-saaaam,’ she teased him, drawing out the aaaa, whispering it in his ears, blowing the words through her lips. He trembled.
The complexities of desire burned inside him as she lured him with an unspoken promise of sweet greed. Obscene temptations and imaginary fragments of lurid fantasies gnawed at his mind. He felt an impatient stubborn sensation in his body that was both pleasingly arousing yet made him feel disconcerted and irritated. He had to rid himself of this erotic itch.
She had her hand on his shoulder and seemed to be mumbling something in her now drunken state. Her words formed disjointed sentences, half-filled and changing course unexpectedly. Vaisam tried to recall her name but couldn’t. The dizziness in his head and the noise around him was suddenly deafening. The bar felt confined and claustrophobic. He was sweating.
Impulsively, he wrapped his arms around her waist, pulled her off the bar stool and made his way out the bar.
‘Zassssu you whore fucking robbing me of those last few dollars I had and now the flat – I’ll tell Roger to fix her good,’ she swore pointing her finger to the wall, eyes shining with empty disgust. Then just as suddenly, she collapsed on Vaisam’s shoulder.
It took Vaisam a while to get to the car while carrying the woman. By the time he got home she was snoring.
Parking his car in the driveway Vaisam robotically got out and made his way to the other side. He felt his actions were precise, his course direct, his attention undivided. Grabbing her right arm and putting it over his shoulders, he placed his left arm around her waist and yanked her out of the car. A black shoe slipped and fell on the carpeted floor of the car. Her colored toes, naked and visible, stumbled over the foot of the car seat, skinned along the stones and gravel in the driveway, struck the marble of the front steps and bruised as Vaisam carried her to the house.
He deposited her on his bed. She lay there on her stomach with her back to him, her torso on the bed and her legs dangling partly. Her dress was hunched up, exposing the smooth fleshiness of her upper thighs. All of a sudden, Vaisam realized he did not know what to do with her. Her unconsciousness made him impatient and angry. He was tired and beat, his arms aching because of dragging her weight around. And now she was comfortably sleeping. What the hell was he supposed to do now? Tuck her in?
Vaisam got a cold glass of water, turned her over and threw the cold liquid on her face. Her eyes twitched and her face contorted in irritation. He slapped more water on her and this time she spat and spluttered awake, coughing and blowing through her nose, sitting upright now. Little black streams of mascara ran down her alcohol seduced white ashen face. Recovering, she looked around in confusion.
The woman saw him, and then her dress spotted with water stains, her bare feet and the bruise on her toe. Her hair was now damp and clinging in thin lines to her wet face.
‘What the… who the fuck are you? What am I doing here?’ she shouted in confusion and anger. She got up staggeringly as if to make her way to the door.
‘Sit down,’ he said hoarsely, and pushed her back on the bed, but it was a push that lacked authority. He felt confused. She sensed his irritation.
‘Sit down? You are going to order me around, you worthless sleaze bag? What are you going to do huh-huh?’ she had gotten up again and was pushing his chest with her index finger. He backed away, his eyes vacant, his mind numb.
She let out a cruel laugh.
‘Pussy,’ she spat. Her eyes blazing and her lips curled in an ugly sneer.
He saw a man’s jeering face in front of him.
Vaisam saw himself, the coward, dodging through naked children and open sewers on a fateful afternoon, the rotten stench of poverty rushing through his nostrils to his mind, numbing his senses. He paid no heed to all this as he escaped. But then, right then, the hypocrisy of adulthood punched him in the face. Too much too soon.
But wasn’t it always like that?
You cannot stand up to anyone, the voice inside him mocked.
He noticed his clenched fists, the knuckles had turned white and the bluish veins were threatening to pop out. His teeth clenched in his mouth. He could feel his heart beating violently against his chest and his brain screaming against this palpitation. Rage suffocated him, demanding release.
He looked around, but she was gone.
‘Bitch,’ he spat as he ran out of the room.
Vaisam saw her near the front door trying to escape. She turned around and saw him thudding down the stairs. His face was enveloped in the shadows of the night, the hallway and house were dark, their forms accented by the light of the moon peering its way through the glass windows in the lounge.
‘Where the hell are the keys?’ she ordered with disgust.
He struck her hard on the face. Relief flooded through his body and mind like a powerful wave rushing to the shore wiping away the dirt in its process. Dots of pink rapidly formed on her cheek filling in the gaps to form a dark red slash. She yelped in pain, fear in her eyes, and her hand on her face. He smiled at this subservience.
“What the hell do you think you are doing you son of a…” she cried.
He slapped her again. And again. Left and right across her bruised cheeks making them turn from red to a dark gothic violet. He didn’t know when he started beating her but soon she was on the floor, cowering, with her hands on top of her head in attempt to shield herself from his hammering blows. He leered at her cowardice. She scrambled away on all fours, pushing herself further with all her might. He grabbed her by her hair, yanking her back, tearing a handful in the process.
She let out an agonizing, painful scream. He stared at her for a split-second and at the strands of hair in his clenched fist. She seized at his temporary lapse and kicked him in the groin with all her might. He cried in pain; the ferocity of the kick disarmed him to the wall, grabbing his genitals, his mouth twisted and contorted.
She ran to the door forgetting that it was locked. He reached for her and grabbed her from her hair. One hand still clutching his groin, he beat her head against the cold marble floor with the other, blow after blow; his mind vacant except for the persistent pain. Somewhere deep inside his head, the resentment started to loosen, just as her body also slacked under his grip, its resistance fading slowly. And then it dropped, almost voluntarily, to the floor like a bag of rocks drowning in the sea.
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