Chapter 21: Inhale
All we had were two days, to spend alone, in lieu of a honeymoon.
I didn't have the heart to ask Hassan why we weren't going anywhere; I knew there had been an elaborate tour of Europe planned for the original one. The reason for our first nikkah being held months before the actual date of the wedding, and also the reason it was easier for me to go off to Spain when I couldn't bear even thinking of our wedding. But that had been before, and the circumstances had changed vastly since.
The morning after the Walima, as we were lazing about in bed and I made a half-hearted attempt to get up, Hassan pulled me back down. 'You can do all your unpacking and organising in a few days, I have to go back to work on Monday, wouldn't you rather spend these two days with me?'
It was no contest really and he knew it, judging from his smug grin.
I wished he could take some more time off, but he would still be all mine the rest of the day after work. Being with him was all I'd ever wanted for three years; I'd been spinning foolish dreams since I'd first met him.
Considering we didn't go anywhere, those two days were perfect and special nevertheless. I don't think either of us wanted to venture outside; we didn't even leave the apartment except to bring back food. Learning about each other was strange and familiar. Happiness felt foreign, and so did the shared laughter. I tried to forget what had taken me a year to forgive. I felt Hassan was trying hard to make this tenuous relationship work too, deliberately keeping his troubles at bay.
The morning that he had to go back to work, I forced myself to wake up when I heard Hassan's alarm go off. I had been clutching his arm, snuggling into his shoulder, and I felt oddly lonely when he gently moved me away and pushed the covers back. He left the room, his clothes were mostly in the guestroom as well, since our room had been renovated recently. I took the opportunity to rush to the bathroom.
When I came back out, he still hadn't returned so I made my way to the kitchen. With the weekend and wedding was behind us, I was determined we were going to start off right. As if eggs that weren't burnt and the parathas that were perfectly round would make a difference.
'Rey, how come you're up so earl-?' Hassan said as he entered the kitchen, when I was almost done.
'This is a nice surprise,' he said, seeing the table set for two, a stack of parathas and steam rising off the spout of the teapot.
I eased the last of the eggs on to the plate and brought it over to the small table as well.
I was never one to express my feelings vocally, so I hoped actions would say what I could not. My mother had always had time to make my father's breakfast in the morning before he left for work, despite having a cook and servants. Most of the time, I didn't understand my parent's relationship, but doing small things for Hassan just because I felt he deserved it I could understand. 'I'm not very good at this, so if it tastes horrible-'
'I won't say a word,' he promised, a laugh in his voice.
I turned around to look at him then. Freshly showered, and dressed in a crisp light blue shirt and black trousers, he looked very professional. I almost wished he'd stay here with me instead. 'Who are you hoping to impress, looking so good so early in the morning?'
He laughed outright then, I saw the dimple flashing for an instant before he leaned in to kiss me briefly and dropped into the chair before I could react. 'Only you,' he avowed.
I ruffled his hair fondly and sat down next to him, as he protested. 'Not the hair, Rey!'
I looked at the breakfast I had so painstakingly set out. The eggs looked suspiciously burnt at the edges, the tea was too sweet and I had never seen my mother's parathas look so irregular.
In dismay, I set my cup down and waited with bated breath for Hassan to say something. When he kept eating and talking without choking or declaring I was trying to poison him, I sipped at the tea again.
'That was great, Rey, but I should be off in five minutes,' he said as he stood up, after finishing almost all of the food to my amazement.
'It wasn't, but thanks for saying so anyway,' I said, with a sigh of relief.
He gave me a look before leaving, as if disapproving of the pessimism.
I heard him moving about, as I stacked the dishes in the sink and left them for later. When I ventured into the lounge, he was coming back from the bedroom with keys and phone in hand.
I saw he'd fixed his hair again, and bit back a smile.
'What's so funny?'
I shook my head, and took the hand he held out and followed him to the hallway.
Struck with the desire to have him nearer, I slipped my arms around him. The reality of past decisions and lies weighed down on me, and somehow closing the scant distance between us helped. 'I'm going to miss you,' I said wistfully. 'What time will you be back?'
Hassan rolled his eyes at the dramatics but he returned my hug. 'Around three, maybe five, depending on the boss's mood. Go back to sleep, I'll see you later.'
I locked the door after he left, and wandered back to the bedroom. The bed was unmade and the bathroom door was left open. Hassan's pyjama bottoms were flung across an armchair. Stifling a yawn, I shut the bathroom door and crawled back into bed. It wasn't as warm and comfy as it had been a mere forty-five minutes earlier. It felt empty without Hassan. The entire apartment felt empty. I hadn't noticed the ticking of the alarm clock before. Now it was the only sound I could hear, the incessant ticking, counting down every second...
'Auscultate this patient's heart,' the professor commanded, gesturing a young man towards the examination area. 'Please allow the students to examine you.'
My clinical batch quickly swarmed around the patient. We were in the OPD and there had been a steady flow of patients all morning.
My friends were nudging each other because this one was rather cute and we didn't often get good-looking patients. The patient hesitated, I thought for a second he had seen us eyeing him. But he only said, confusedly, 'I thought they'd already done so yesterday...'
'That was another batch of students!' The professor chuckled. Then turning to address us, as the patient shrugged and lay down on the examination table, 'This young man is very cooperative, the third year's spent two hours on him yesterday.'
He lifted up his shirt and stethoscopes emerged from overall pockets, bags, or around necks of the few of us diligent ones.
'What does he have?'
'What are we supposed to hear?'
The professor was busy dictating prescriptions to the incompetent House Officer seated at his desk, and replied absent-mindedly to our murmurings, 'He's got a VSD, you should hear a murmur, very conspicuous in this case.'
I ended up being the last one to get a change to examine him. I shifted towards the patients as a class fellow gave way, and adjusted the steth. He was even cuter up close, I tried not to look as giddy as I felt on the inside. Be professional about this, I told myself sternly.
The volume of the surrounding quieted down with the steth in place, and I heard the distinct murmur. I smiled at the patient and thanked him for his time when I realised something was wrong.
He was shaking; fine tremors at first and then harsh movements took over his body.
This wasn't real, I realised. The patient's case was familiar so we had probably come across him in the OPD sometime. Yet I remembered the professor seeing him off with a, 'No, no there's no problem right now, you'll be fine'. Despite his congenital defect, he had been leading an otherwise healthy life.
Why was I remembering this differently?
It was eerily silent around me, I couldn't hear my friends or the staff talking. I yanked the steth down but nothing changed. I tried to hold the patient still, but it was futile.
His chest had changed, less hairy, leaner than it was seconds ago. What an inane thing to notice at a time like this, but it was a sight that had become very familiar these past few days...
I looked up at his face and horror washed over me because it wasn't some cute guy I vaguely remembered anymore. It was Hassan with rapid eye movements beneath closed eyelids, and shaking, still shaking so much...
No, no, this can not happen to you again! Frantic, I grabbed his arms, clamping them to his sides, almost losing my balance because he was flinging me off, in the throes of the/a seizure.
Everything I had ever learned about dealing with emergencies went out the window, my mind was curiously blank. I didn't know how to fix him. I was hugging him, smelling his musky aftershave. I didn't realise I was crying until I saw the tears dripping down onto Hassan's cheek.
'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, oh god, I'm so sorry,' I kept chanting over and over again. Tremors were wracking through his body, as I held him in my arms...
It was a relief to wake up and realise I had been dreaming. I had shed real tears though, because my face was still wet and I still had a lump in my throat. I sat up in bed immediately, as common sense returned. Yet it took all the willpower I had not to reach for the phone and ask Hassan if he was alright.
Don't be stupid Reyna, you're not psychic, I reminded myself.
Besides, dreams were supposed to mean the opposite of what you'd witnessed. How many times I'd heard my grandmother telling us that? She always said if you saw someone dying, it meant they would live a long, healthy life. Besides, Hassan hadn't been dying, and he certainly he didn't have fatal grand mal seizures. And of course my mind had jumped to exaggerated seizures, having witnessed a few emergency cases of epileptic fits in my final year at AKU.
I caved and hit the speed dial.
He sounded surprised to hear from me. Or maybe it was the sheer panic in my voice. 'Rey, hey!'
'You're okay, right?'
'Have you blacked out? I mean, you've been stressed about the wedding before and I know you barely got any sleep last night and I was just thinking- I really need to know you're alright!' I was babbling incoherently, before I couldn't tell him what was going on in my mind and now I couldn't seem to get the words out fast enough.
'What is this? When I left home, you were relatively sane...'
'Please, Hassan,' I implored him. I felt a lump in my throat and my breath was beginning to hitch, because the line on his end was silent.
'Are you still breathing?'
There was a harsh laugh, so I realised he probably was trying to digest the fact that his wife was mad. 'Rey, Rey, listen to me. I think you're still half asleep. I'm at work, and you saw me just this morning, so please try to control the crazy until I get back, okay?'
'Okay,' I said in a small voice.
'I have to get back to work now. Tell you what, Turan's office is a couple of floors below, I'll tell him to let you know in case I do drop dead.' He was still chuckling when he hung up.
'You have to be alright.' I whispered into dead air. 'You have to be.'
It was long past noon. Hassan would be home in a few hours and I could stop worrying when I saw him. In the meantime, I busied myself with unpacking and organising so I wouldn't have to think. I had made a decent headway, the closet was half full and the guest bedroom was beginning to look less like a junk yard, when I heard the door opening.
I dropped the pile of clothes I was holding onto the bed and rushed to meet Hassan. He was walking across the lounge when I ran straight at him.
'Hey-' His greeting was cut off because I had wrapped my arms around his middle, squeezing tightly.
'Not that I'm complaining, but what brought this on?'
I tilted my head back. 'Nothing, I just missed you.'
'I've barely been gone eight hours,' he said, amused.
'We've barely been married three days,' I pointed out. 'But I got used to you being around, and I-I can't seem to function when y-you're not.'
He started a bit at my words, probably hadn't expected such vehemence from me. He didn't say anything, not even to ask why I was stuttering to explain my earlier outburst. Then his arms finally slipped around me, and I leaned into the support.
I moved aside his suit jacket. Ran light fingers up his spine. Counting breaths. Hearing the reassuring beat of his heart. Not content enough to stand merely holding each other, I reached up to tug his head down. Hassan obliged by kissing me back.
As I led him to our bedroom a few minutes later, he had a smug look on his face. 'Breakfast in the morning, and now this... you really do keep on surprising me. I'm beginning to quite like being married...'
I didn't know where my bold actions were coming from. Pulling him by the hand, across the bedroom, shoving the clothes off the bed, standing next to the side table. 'Hassan?'
He was looking at me with a dazed expression. 'Yeah?'
I took a deep breath, dropped his hand and lifted up the hem of my shirt. 'Nothing, just...you're too far away.'
He took two steps forward; I couldn't wait so I took the last step. Because I wanted to, because it was right, because I knew we had something special together that almost hadn't been. But mostly because it was Hassan, I had fallen before I knew how much falling hurt, and all I could offer him was all of me. No more pretending I didn't care, when it hurt so much it ached when I had tried to drive him away.
In a flurry of movement, we toppled on to the bed with Hassan for once not initiating anything.
Later, I lay breathless and watched Hassan drift into a doze. Leaning over him, I rested my forearm across his chest, and then let my head drop down onto my arm because he didn't awake at my change in position.
'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry,' I said over and over again, with every rise and fall of his chest. A part of me wanted him to hear my regret, but a bigger part realised he needed the rest more. He must have been more exhausted than he let on since he normally woke up at the slightest sound.
There was nothing I'd rather do than stay here with him, so I didn't bother moving from the bed for a couple of hours either. Even after my throat became hoarse from saying words he couldn't hear, and I stopped talking altogether and let him sleep.
The curtains had been drawn in the morning and I hadn't switched the lights on because it had been four by the time Hassan had gotten home, so it had still been light outside. Slowly, the shadows lengthened and the room turned dark and dreary.
I finally lifted my head to peer at the alarm clock on Hassan's side table, when I remembered his uncle, Farid chachu, was hosting a dinner in our honour. It was a little after six, so I reluctantly left Hassan to sleep a little while longer and got up.
The culinary experiments would have to wait, until Hassan and I were brave enough to sample the rest of the meagre cooking skills in my repertoire. Instead, I made some simple sandwiches because neither of us had eaten lunch. My mother had inculcated the habit of eating before we went out when my brothers and I were young, so we wouldn't embarrass her by wondering why dinner was late, as it usually was after ten at someone else's house.
After finding Hassan a shalwar kameez to wear, I ironed his clothes and realised he must have had to iron his own for work in the morning and immediately felt guilty. I'd have to remember to tell him to show me what he wanted to wear the night before so he wouldn't have to bother with ironing in the morning. I hung up his clothes on a hanger, and took it to our room. Once it was suspended from the handle of the closet where he could see the clothes incase he woke up before I was ready, I went to grab my new jora.
I was about to start doing my makeup in the bathroom, when I noticed my chin and cheeks were a dull red in the severe lights around the bathroom mirror. The stubble-burn hadn't been this bad yesterday. As much as I liked his dishevelled appearance sometimes, he seriously needed to shave.
Then I thought of Hassan saying smugly, 'It's fine, I can take the pain. I wear my scars proudly' and smiled instead. Oh what the hell, I even liked his damn stubble. Makeup could cover up the worst of the damage it had done anyway.
I went to wake up Hassan up when my makeup was done. It was half seven, and I didn't want us to be late on our first dinner as a married couple.
As I moved across the room after flipping the light switch, I heard Hassan say, clearly awake, 'So I'm trying to figure out if you're wearing anything under that...'
I realised he was looking at my legs which were bare until mid calf, I had put the dress on first so makeup wouldn't get smudged onto it later, and still had to dress in the churidaar pajama that went with it.
'Sorry to disappoint you, but I have underwear on,' I laughed, perching beside him as he sat up in bed.
'Damnit, I knew these dinners wouldn't be any fun.'
'You can't know that, we haven't even left yet. And did you really expect nudity at a dinner with all your family present? C'mon get up,' I said, trying to drag him up and failing miserably.
He rubbed a hand over his face. 'Urgh, no, bad mental picture. Naked you and my family should not be in a sentence together.'
'Agreed, now are you getting up or not?'
He was looking at me intently, and didn't answer my question. 'Reyna, about before, what was going on with you?'
'Uh, you mean, the part where I practically jumped you?' I said, suddenly shy.
'No, god no, I had no problem whatsoever what that part!' he said with a goofy smile. As soon as I started smiling in return though, he became serious again, 'I meant, when you were freaking out.'
Here it comes, the words I had planned all the time he'd been asleep, words that desperately needed to be said.
'I just...I wanted to say thank you,' I said stolidly.
'For what?' he asked, guardedly.
I reached for his hand. 'For being understanding and patient and ...I guess for being you. And not telling me to go to hell when I finally got my act together. I wasn't sure about a lot of things before and I know I'm not the easiest person to want to commit to. I'm glad you did anyway, whatever your reasons were before. I don't think saying sorry means anything if I don't show you how much I regret what I did. But for what it's worth...I am sorry I doubted you, and I'm sorry I'm not very good at this, being a wife, but I'll try, Hassan. I promise you I'll try with everything I've got, because I do appreciate you even though I'm crap at telling you that. Or telling you anything at all, but I won't be like that anymore, this awful version of me that you've seen this past year.'
He was playing with my fingers, not looking at me and he didn't say anything for the longest time. Finally he drew in a long breath, and looked up. Gazing into my eyes, he said, 'It wasn't you.'
'I know, I didn't think you'd know, not enough to notice the difference, we spent so little time together before that.'
'We spent enough time for me to know at least that. You were more... , caring before our nikah, even before and after the engagement, and then you were treating me like I was scum you couldn't stand. I thought we became friends, before any of this started, at Shay's wedding. You were nicer then...'
Before I became bitter and cynical as a defence mechanism for the hurt?
I don't think he knew what I had found out after our nikah. I had never had the courage to tell him that I knew. Then again, I shouldn't have had to tell him, when it had been something he had done.
It's all in the past now, it doesn't matter because he cares about me, that's why he waited all this time even when I tried to break things off.
'You're right, and I'm going to keep those promises, just you watch, I'm determined to make you happy.'
'Any more determined and I won't have the energy to go to any dinner or work anymore,' he grinned, alluding to my behaviour earlier. 'I'm an easy man to please Rey, but we're going to have to postpone that until later, Farid Chachu's a stickler for punctuality.'
Nodding, I brushed a kiss on his cheek and as he tried to pull me down, immediately realised I had transferred most of my lip gloss to his face. 'Sorry,' I said quickly, wiping it off.
Hassans shrugged my hand away, swept the covers off to one side and nudged me out of the way. 'Will you stop with the meaningless apologies?'
I didn't know what to say to that, not understanding whether that meant he wasn't accepting said apology. I just nodded and moved aside. He glanced at me, his whole demeanour uncomfortable all of a sudden. I was probably over-reacting but it seemed he couldn't quite look me in the eye.
It was nothing, he must have trouble processing my clumsy confessions, that's all. I walked over to the dressing table to find matching jewellery as Hassan took his clothes off the hangar and disappeared into the bathroom.
Hassan was dressed and ready by the time I put on the churidaar pajama and found matching heels. He emerged from the bathroom clean-shaven, and it was silly but I was sad to see the stubble go.
The rest of the night, he was back to his usual self. He laughed and talked with the rest of the family at the dinner. He was a perfectly attentive husband and I was sure I had imagined the earlier mood swing.
In the coming weeks, I learnt Hassan had plenty of moments where he didn't want to talk, when he practically ignored me, and after many attempts to help, the best thing for me to do was let him have some space.
Sometimes that was hard to do, for he had become the focal point my life revolved around.
We rarely spent an evening at home, there was a steady stream of invites to dinners and parties held by various family and friends almost every day. The few times there wasn't, we ended up going out alone. I enjoyed those dates most of all because, except for one forgettable occasion, we hadn't done this before.
Going to new places (for me anyway, Hassan seemed to know every restaurant and club in the city) and talking while we ate. Learning new things about each other and recognising the old little details I had noticed about him two years before were still there. Realising I liked hearing about his day even if he kept insisting that it was the usual dull routine at work. Becoming comfortable in his presence, after the initial awkwardness wore off. Discovering he gave the best hugs, and being on the receiving end of one of his bear hugs could cure any bad day. Finding out that whenever he was tired or sleep-deprived, his eyes literally lost their sparkle. Most of all though, it was the knowledge that he was my other, better half. Something I hadn't fully appreciated until we got married. A couple of years ago, I had been foolish enough to believe in silly romantic notions about marriage. Now I knew romance took effort and sacrifice, marriage was complex and we both had days we felt out of our depth.
Breakfast was the only meal I cooked since we were never home the rest of the day. According to Hassan, my cooking had improved vastly but I think he was probably lying about that. Naila khala came three times a week to do the washing and cleaning, and didn't leave much for me to do.
The first day she came around, I drew Hassan to another room while Naila khala vacuumed the living room to question him.
'What's the problem? She's been doing the housework ever since I moved here.'
'I just thought, since we're married, that I would do the housework. What will your mother think? That I can't even cook and clean for you?'
'My mother doesn't think anything of the sort. And I always assumed you'd be busy working too, so why mess up a perfectly good schedule?'
And that had been the last he'd discuss on that particular subject. I couldn't make him understand that I was bored during the daytime while he was at work. I had organised the entire apartment, colour coded both our wardrobes, and there were only so many TV shows I could watch before my brain cells rotted away.
Hassan sometimes dropped subtle hints in the conversation, I was under the impression he wanted me to go get a job, though he never actually said so. I couldn't tell him about the morbid dreams, all concerning him, that continued to plague me. Even though I couldn't stop myself from finding him if he wasn't in the room, or calling if he wasn't home, to reassure myself it hadn't been real.
Because I knew what they meant now. I had put my career before Hassan once, even if I had convinced myself I had good reason to, and I was not going to make the same mistake again. Every time a dream patient morphed into him, or he went to work with barely any sleep the night before, I worried until I could see him again.
I hadn't realised the extent of my neurosis or that I was freaking Hassan out until he had a go at me, four weeks after our wedding.
He stormed into the living room, as I was daydreaming on the couch, wondering how best to bring up an idea I'd been toying with recently to Hassan. I had been so involved in my thoughts, I hadn't heard him come in until a black laptop bag fell onto the couch beside me and he stood in my line of sight.
'Hi, you're back early!' I said, startled but happy. I got up to greet him properly, as I usually did, but he pushed my arms away.
'No, stay away from me, before I forget why I'm angry with you.'
'You're mad at me?' I said, wondering I had done wrong. I thought we had been doing great these past few weeks, and despite mostly being forced to spend time with family and friends, we had been functioning rather well as a couple.
'Yeah, I am.' He crossed his arms. He still had his keys in one hand and the jangling noise was distracting. 'This has got to stop, you know I was in a meeting with my boss today, when you called.'
'Oh, I'm sor-'
'Don't say you're sorry!' Then contrary to his prior words, he moved forward and grabbed me by the arms. 'I get it, wives are supposed to nag. But you don't do that. No, you have to drive me insane by calling at inappropriate times, and I'd understand if you wanted to say you missed me or whatever, but it's not just that, is it? You sound so terrified, I'm not going anywhere, just because I'm not with you at the time! It's pissing me off, what is going with you?'
'I-' Clearly it was a rhetorical question because Hassan didn't let me answer before he went on. The keys were digging into my elbow, but I didn't interrupt him.
'You've become...clingy.' He said the last word with a shudder, as if it repulsed him. 'You're fine when I'm around and then you fall to pieces the second I turn my back. It's crazy, you're crazy, and I'm not letting you do this anymore. I've had enough, Rey. It's not normal, it's unhealthy and you should know, you're the doctor!'
'If you'll just let me explain-' I tried to speak, but he gave me a little shake and continued in the same vein.
'Actually I think that's why you're going stir crazy, because you've exiled yourself from being a doctor. I don't know what brought that on. But I'm telling you, you need to get back to being one. Get a goddamn job. We could use the money, but more importantly, you need to be busy doing something.'
Through all this, he hadn't raised his voice, somehow speaking softly and still managing to express his anger. I would rather he yelled, but I realised that Hassan had reached the extent of losing his composure. The more unnerved and annoyed he was, the lower the tone of his voice became. 'I love being with you, is that so wrong?'
'No, but if you don't have a life of your own, you'll end up resenting me. You're happy now, and you don't see it but this will drive us apart eventually. I'm beginning to think you're doing this, focusing all your attention on me, because of some twisted reason that I don't want you to focus on anything else. Or are you making up for last year?'
'Maybe, I don't know, I just know I'd rather be with you.'
'Well, I'm glad you're putting me first for a change. But I never wanted you to choose. When did I ever ask you to choose? I want my Reyna back, with the independent streak. If you were different last year, then this isn't you either. I appreciate that you're trying, but what happened to the Reyna I met two years ago? That's was probably the most honest you've ever been, you weren't afraid to speak your mind, and you were so passionate about being a doctor. It's such a big part of you Rey, why give it up?'
You didn't like me back then either. I was always doing something wrong, either I cared too much or didn't care at all.
'Will you go look for a job? Or apply for a post-grad programme?'
'I'd have to do a House Job first, because I didn't finish the clinical programme,' I said automatically.
'Okay, so that's what you'll do then. And the frantic calls will stop, right?'
'Right...' I understood the one thing he wasn't saying. 'I trust you, it's not that. I know it's silly but I'm just scared something will happen to you.'
The anger visibly left his face. As if he'd just realised he was grasping my arms tightly, he loosened his hold, then dropped his hands to the side altogether and asked with a somewhat guilty expression, 'Did I hurt you?'
Rubbing my arms where he'd held them, I said, 'No, I'm fine.'
He didn't mention the trust issue further, thought I expected him to. Or why I was scared. In fact, later that night at another insufferable dinner, he went out of his way to make me believe the problem was solved and that he wasn't mad at me anymore.
The rest of the night, after returning from the dinner, we had been like strangers who shouldn't have been left alone in an apartment. The presence of other people had been a buffer. We barely spoke, except for some tongue-tied attempts on my part.
When Hassan remained in the living room, long after I crawled into bed, I found myself unable to sleep. He finally entered the darkened room an hour later, I heard him moving about, changing into pajamas and getting into bed. Only as usual, I had switched sides because I could never figure out which side of the bed I preferred. He must have forgotten though, so I quickly shifted to the other side. He sighed, and turned his back to me. Someone had to make the first move towards reconciliation, so I inched closer to him until I was snuggling into his back. Ever so slowly, Hassan moved and my cheek was pillowed by his shoulder instead. When I glanced up at his face, in the glow of moonlight, his eyes were clenched shut. I understood he didn't want me to speak, sometimes talking wasn't necessary, but he wasn't going to push me away either. That was enough for now.
I did as he asked, and didn't contact him from the time he left for work the next day until he got back. I didn't rush out to meet him either, when I heard him moving about in the living room as I sorted clothes in the bedroom.
I felt his arms encircling me. 'What, don't I get a welcome today?'
I leaned back, but didn't face him. 'I didn't think you wanted one. Or does that not count as clingy?' I asked, unsurely.
'I felt bad all day today about that. And the rest of it, I shouldn't have-' Hassan said quietly.
I turned around, glad to see he was looking at me again. 'No, you were right. And you should be able to tell me anything.'
He averted his eyes, to my dismay. Not to be deterred, I continued, 'I think we can compromise. No more crazy calls, but only if you text when you get there. So I know you're okay. Not just because of your accident, but you know how bad the situation is nowadays, the gun firing and the bombings... for my peace of mind, please?'
With a small smile, he said, 'I can do that.'
'Also, I listened to what you said, about working. I checked online, AKU House Jobs started a couple of weeks ago but since they reserve seats for students, I might be able to get in. If not, I can always try other hospitals, but I might not get paid there.'
A full-fledged smile now, dispelling the gloom. 'Alright, that's good.'
Just like that, we were talking again.
'Hey Hassan, look what your sister gave me,' I said gleefully, holding up the leather bound albums as he opened the car door.
'What is it?' he asked, peering in the dark. We were standing in his parent's driveway, about to leave.
'Your childhood pictures!'
He groaned, and attempted to distract me all the way home. As soon as we were back in our apartment, I made a beeline for the couch. Hassan got water from the kitchen and then hovered nearby as I commented on every photo. He finally switched the TV on, after the hundredth time I remarked how cute he had been or bugged him to tell me who the various people were and proceeded to turn the volume up and ignore my commentary after that.
I slammed the last album closed, and walked over to perch on his armchair.
'Bas?' he said, absent-mindedly.
'Haan...' I slid off the side of the armchair, and tried to wedge myself into the little space he had left, inadvertently laughing when I ended up mostly on his lap.
For the next few minutes, we watched Top Gear. During an advertisement, I said lightly, 'You were always so adorable, you still are...'
'I'm a man, I am not adorable!' he scoffed.
I pulled his cheek, cooing, 'Yesss, you are.'
He began tickling my waist, and in between giggling, I managed to cry out, 'Stop! I just want our kids to look like you! I was such an ugly duckling at that age.'
His fingers paused. 'Kids?'
'Yeah, why do you sound so surprised?' I said, curious at his incredulous expression. 'I've been thinking, we need to get a baby-'
'Right, if you'll just get off me, I'll run to the supermarket and grab one, I heard there's a sale-'
'You know what I meant.' I smacked his arm. 'I'm serious, don't you think we should have a baby?'
'Not anytime soon, no. We just turned this destructive relationship into something functional, and you suddenly think we should bring a child into this? What do we need one for, all they do is sleep and poop anyway, shouldn't we want one? Wait, I know where this is coming from...have the aunties been harassing you about babies? I remember how awful they were with Maria bhabhi...'
'Well, they haven't been that bad,' I tried to gloss over the aunties' harassing. They were mostly related to him anyway, and I didn't want to be petty so early in our marriage. From neighbours to relatives, lately everyone had been wondering if we were expecting happy news in approximately eight months time.
He gave me a disbelieving look. 'Yeah, right. And tell me, why on earth would you want to spend nine months out of your year-long house job pregnant?'
Faced with that irrefutable argument, I didn't bother wasting my breath on this topic any longer. I still hadn't gone to the AKU hospital to formally check if I could start working there, as Hassan kept reminding me.
Hours later though, just before I fell asleep, I muttered, 'Just so you know, next time someone asks why we're not pregnant, I'm telling them you're impotent.'
Hassan laughed softly, and slid an arm around my shoulders . 'No, you won't. Unless you want me to prove otherwise...'
Hassan had been oddly quiet all evening.
As soon as he came back from work, he'd announced we should go to his favourite Chinese restaurant for an early dinner. It was a Saturday, hence the traffic was crazy. Since I was starving by that point, I made him stop at the Silver Dragon, his second favourite place, which was nearer instead. He barely replied to any of my attempts at conversation, and we left early. I doubt either of us enjoyed the food. I wanted to know what was going on with him but decided it was best to wait until we got home.
However once we were back, he only gave me time enough to take my heels off before taking my hand and leading me towards the couch. He sat down as well and stared at the blank TV beside me, composing himself.
'What's wrong?' I asked, unable to stand seeing like this anymore, at the same time that he blurted out, 'I have to tell you something.'
He broke off, so I prodded, 'Go on, then.'
'I don't really know how to say this in any way that will make it any less wrong.'
I frowned, wondering where he was going with such a beginning. He glanced up to gauge my reaction, and seemed to pale right before my eyes. 'Hassan, what are you talking abou-'
'Let me finish, Rey. This is hard enough as it is. I probably should have told you a long time ago, but I didn't want to give you a reason to back off again. It's too late now for that, but the guilt is driving me insane.'
He paused, took a deep breath and spoke in a rush, 'When you thought we were going to get a divorce and break off the nikah, and you were here in Karachi, but we weren't together. Or so you thought. And this was after the accident...uh, there were other girls...I, um, I don't really know how to explain myself.'
'I don't understand. I've met most of your friends, I know some of them are girls, so what if you lot met up while we weren't together?'
He let my hand go. 'No, not them, they're practically one of the guys! What I'm trying to say is... I was so mad at you and I was tired of being patient, I didn't want to commit to you when you thought we were over, that we were better off that way. So I was seeing other people.'
I had a sense of foreboding the conversation would veer off into a direction I was sensitive about. There was no need for confirmation that some habits were hard to change, because I was relying on the fact that he had changed. He was clearly waiting for some kind of response, so I tried to give him one last way out, hoping he would laugh it off as he usually did when things got serious. 'Seeing, as in...?'
'Really, Rey, you're going to pretend stupid? Do I have to spell it out for you?' I wasn't mocking him, but the anger on his face told me he clearly believed otherwise. 'I was dating other girls, damnit!'
Startled at the fury he was barely keeping at bay, I drew back against the arm of the couch.
'The dating, it went on for some time, and it wasn't even one girl so I could blame my lapse of judgement on suddenly feeling something special, because it never meant anything serious.' He paused, then said in a rush, 'And before, I-I did some things I'm not proud of. It wasn't right, and it wasn't fair to you, I know that now.'
'Oh.' I was trying to comprehend what he meant by 'before', was he finally going to confess about Amber?
Hassan was looking at me expectantly, waiting for the inevitable eruption of anger. 'That's all you have to say? I tell you I didn't care I was still married to you and you're-'
'We were over. Does it even count then? It wouldn't be fair to expect anything from you if there was no 'us' at the time,' I interrupted him, striving to be sensible.
'Yes, there was. Once the nikkah happened, I was never going let it end in divorce. In my mind, I never meant for our separation to go on longer than a year. I thought you needed some time and...damnit, why aren't you angry?'
I reached for his hand again. 'I'm trying to be reasonable-'
'I don't want reasonable, I want you to either get mad or forgive me.' He ran a hand through his hair, pulling it out of my grasp. 'I can't believe I took you to the same place that I went on a date with somebody else today, and sometimes I can't even face you, when you're being so goddamn happy!'
'I don't believe you owed me anything then. I'm pretty sure I told you to go find someone to make you happy.'
'Rey, I was cheating on you!'
Put so bluntly, almost broke my self control. I realised why he was feeling guilty, even if technically the time he was talking about didn't count as cheating. 'Don't say that,' my voice was a furious whisper. 'I trust you.'
'What, my choice of words makes you mad, but the rest doesn't?'
'Stop it!' Why did he have to ruin everything? I know I couldn't blame him for this, it would be hypocritical to expect him to be faithful when I had been convinced we were over. There were some things he did deserve to be blamed for though, things I had barely managed to put behind me. Disconcerted, because he had touched a raw nerve, and wrecked havoc on my control. With the shock my newfound contentment had received, I got up suddenly and felt dizzy for a few seconds.
Hassan was still gaping at me as I left the lounge. Barely a minute later, I heard his footsteps follow me into the kitchen. I felt, rather than saw, the fridge door being yanked out of my hand and swung shut.
'Hey, what are you doing?' I had been contemplating getting some juice. Why had he followed me here? I needed time to compose myself, assemble my thoughts. I couldn't think with him around.
'What are you doing?'
'I-I was thirsty.' I turned to leave the kitchen as well. I couldn't trust myself to speak. Any second now, my voice would break and betray my emotion.
'Reyna!' Hassan had a grip on my left elbow.
I didn't try to shake him off. 'Give me your keys.'
'The car keys. I want them.'
Hassan raised his eyebrows.
'Please?' I whispered. Ironically, I think he was mad that I wasn't mad.
He released my elbow, drew the keys out of his jeans pocket, but held them out of my reach.
'Of course, why should I expect you to stay and talk? You're going to run away again, obviously, it's what you're good at,' he said snidely.
I snatched the keys out of his hand, as he lowered it.
'I can't be here right now.' It was all I was willing to say. I needed some space.
'What the hell does that mean? Where are you going?'
I walked the length of the hallway and stopped after unlocking the front door.
I couldn't hold my curiosity in check any longer, ever since he had so vehemently declared he'd been cheating and the insinuation that 'some stuff' had happened. 'Just tell me one thing, did you sleep with any of them?'
'What? No! I never let it get that far.'
Don't ask, don't ask, don't ask. I really didn't want to know, but I couldn't stop myself from blurting out, 'But...?'
His cheeks flushed, and he averted his gaze. 'I don't think you want to know the, er, details.'
I nodded. 'I'm not running away, I will be coming back.'
'But where are you going?' he asked, somewhat desperately.
Realising I was barefoot, I spied two pairs of my shoes lying on the shoe rack and slipped my feet into the black flats. 'I don't know, Hassan. I just don't know.'
For Jabz, and a strange yet hilarious conversation that led to this story.
For the anon who nudged me on Tumblr, sorry for the wait!
This chapter wasn't originally this short, but I ended up splitting the chapter into two parts. I really should have put this up months ago, I've had it written for ages, instead of trying to finish the rest of it. Anyway, do let me know what you think. And a big thank you for all the reviews and favourites!
(I think FP has messed up this formatting in this and the previous chapters, the page breaks have all disappeared)