"I want a divorce."

Surprising, considering that Zarook isn't even married or ever was. Beyond the ones which last a couple of days each summer break, Zarook doesn't even do romance. Samar considers his type the kind that lean on friendships out of obligation. Boredom, she assumes. The only reason he hangs out with her and her brother must be another way to pass his time.

After all, she's only twenty and the boys already a year ahead so they're all bent one way or the other, flaws and all. So if Zarook wants to jump ship on Uncle's funeral, it's fine and dandy until monotony keels them over.

"I want a divorce."

"From whom?"

"Dunno. College, the old man, today. Anything. Think I'll go driving out for a few days."

"Where to?"

Zarook shrugs and leans forward to stare at the dull bronze sugar crystals at the bottom of his tea-cup. Sri Lankans had this way with too much sugar and milk in their tea, especially on funeral days. The burial's done with, prayers been said, tears cried and now everyone old enough to know when their time's coming chooses to settle down, nursing a cup of hot syrupy tea over protruding bellies. Moors, Malays, all Muslims seem to turn practical over death. Over wet steam rising over numbingly mundane conversations, they take stock of their days.

For occasion's sake, Samar's wearing a scarf over her head today. It's hardly a big deal. All the women gathered in the kitchen have their hair covered; some making an exception for the funeral, others barely noticing the difference from the usual garb they pull over their heads. No one's ever forced Samar to wear her hijab on a daily basis like the others but she already feels left out from the commune of silk shaylas and loose abayas huddled together in the corners.

"Come with me."

"Where to?" she answers far too readily than she can pretend. Luckily for her, Zarook doesn't seem to notice how she stutters on an adequate adjunct to her question as he slides open the window to the balcony and motions for her to join him.

It's another Gulf day. Hot enough for skin cancer warnings and cheap audio porn blaring from some teenager's stereo on the sidewalk. The music sounds awkwardly defiant, a sheen of bravado coating the timidity of how loud and garish pimp juice sounds ten decibels higher than average. Moments like these on any other searing hot balcony in town have Samar longing for Kotte's winding footpaths twisting along the last few forests of Ceylon's glory days. In short, she remembers the dream she grew up in.

Perhaps Zarook remembers too, since he's now staring up at the wan blue sky with rainclouds thundering from the depths of his eyes, so dark they're almost black.

"I want something more from life, Samar. I want to be more than some other person's son following his footsteps like we're supposed to. You know I used to talk about becoming a pilot?"

"You didn't have the grades."

"Or vasta." It literally means 'connections' locally or as Zarook's wry grin and shuffling fingers fumbling their way towards hers try to convey, how willing Lady Luck is to take on your venture. "You'd said you wanted to be a doctor."

"Mum's wishes."

"Are you going to?"

She almost tells him her A Level results are out in two days from today but settles for a brief flicker of her hand in his to satisfy the lapping flame in her belly. When she pulls it away, it just about hurts as much as pulling out a torn page from a beloved book. One sheet in many of a wonderful adventure through rain-storms and sand-showers in a second home; just one that goes missing and the journey is incomplete.

Zarook gets the message.

They turn round, their backs facing the empty road below them, and they watch and snigger at folk too old or young or simple to know what they cherish in this time they have. Then she feels something soft and round crumbling in her palm, looks down and sees the chocolate-chip cookie he's smuggled in from the kitchen in his house. He knows she likes them sweeter than the spicy ginger snaps Lankans only serve with hot afternoon tea on a hot day in a desert.

Samar hides behind her mouth and takes a bite, noticing how the talk shifts to boys, girls and those eligible enough for the picking. Fatima's too little, Mariam's doomed to remain a spinster, Razeena's far too wild to settle down and Samar…

Stepping back into the air-conditioned room, she feels a rush of power following the whispers dying between yellowing caffeine-stained teeth. It's how she realizes she's the Chosen One; anointed by good looks, a pretty figure, a level head and just the right amount of virtue a man doesn't know he's in need of. Bapa looks around with a frown and implies in his native dialect that no daughter of his would be married off until she'd had her fair share of the world and its offerings.

Zarook's father rises with a grimace; a signal his family knows to mean that they had matters to attend to soon. They leave with quiet salaams in their wake but not without Zarook catching her eye over her brother's head and winking a secret between them.


"See ya, cousin…"

The word frays at the end as they each piece together the scraps of warning signs.

For the rest of the evening, Samar lets the hens cluck and chicks thrill over housework and homework. The air is still warm outside and feels like a wall of sunshine pouring down on her back against the sliding windows. The heat in her stomach stills her racing heart with thoughts of rain throughout the holidays quenching their thirst for the time they had now.

Better a companion on the other side of your cage, than the liberty to drift apart in freedom.