Before starting my senior year of college, I came home to Pakistan for the summer. But this time, everything felt different. Very, very different.
For starters, I was returning home after my very first experience of a broken heart. But on another note, senior year is just intimidating and overwhelming for anyone. A moment when you may have to stop for a second and maybe, just maybe…think about growing up. Graduation, jobs, grad school, GREs, resumes, rent…all topics that I was now forced to think about yet I pushed them as far back in my mind as I could; burying them only under indifference and denial. But in a way I had grown up and come a long way from the girl who first stepped foot on a liberal arts campus with an excited twinkle in her eye because I was finally on my own. Landed in a world called “abroad” where I could now ‘live life on my own terms.’ When my heart was perfectly fresh without as much as a scratch on it. Life or at least the next four years were paid for. But now that the four years were coming to a quick end, I found myself standing at the same spot on my cozy little campus. A completely different person. One with wisdom, age, experience. A big crack in the middle of my heart. Lesson after lesson, learned the hard way.
The friends who had become my world and my family, were all gone. They were busy trying their best to grow up too. Jenny had lost her scholarship due to terrible grades and had no choice but to move back to Compton. The pain of not achieving the dream she had come so close to as an immigrant from Sudan. Julie? Though she had managed to graduate, she unfortunately discovered what we were all about to realize as soon as we would leave this picture perfect campus….that no matter how hard we worked through papers and all-nighters for this college degree, it turns out that it doesn’t automatically result in a flood of job opportunities and open doors. A Bachelors degree in a bad economy meant as much as a soda can tossed out of a vending machine. So Julie found herself living back at home in Staten Island (a home she had promised never to return to) working at a Victoria’s Secret in her local Mall. As for me, I had no plans that summer either so I went home to Pakistan to worry some more, then mask myself in denial and maybe figure out what I was to do with my life when I would walk out in a black gown and a rolled up diploma that I could trade in for a Yard Sale flyer.
So there I was. Back home in Isloo for the summer. Doing nothing but sleeping late, lunching with Peanut, watching VCD movies that stalled and choked at climax scenes and getting high on local hashish. A few months had passed since my dramatic breakup with Mustafa at the New Jersey train station and although some days were harder than others; I was making progress. Sooner or later, I knew….there were open boxes I had to unpack out of my life…unanswered questions I had to search resolutions to. I just wasn’t prepared to come face-to-face with them so soon.
The first time it happened was just a few days after I had landed in Islamabad. After a spontaneous shopping trip, I returned home and nonchalantly asked Jajee Baba if there were any phone messages for me.
‘Jee woh Sakina bibi ka phone aya tha aap kay lye’
‘Sakina bibi?’ I was shocked. What did she want?
The cousin I had always dismissed. The one who treated me like an idolized goddess while I barely cared about her existence. The one who claimed to envy me. But the one I now found myself envying. She held the one thing I never could. Mustafa’s heart as his first true love!
I nodded at the message and returned to my room with no plans of calling Sakina back. How could I? Was it jealousy for having Mustafa? Was it animosity for being defeated? Or was it guilt for loving a man she was once engaged to? Was it simply the fact that I never really had a relationship with her so why start now? I didn’t know. I probably still don’t.
The second time was a day later while I was having dinner with my parents. Once again, Jajee Baba barged in to inform me that Sakina bibi was on the phone. Tell her I’m busy and I will call her later. I rudely replied.
‘Kyoun bhai? You should talk to her. She is in Pindi these days. You know Shabana is pregnant.’
‘Mama, I will call her later….you know I was never friends with any of these cousins…have you forgotten how much Shabana used to bully me as a child?’
‘Yes but that was Shabana….not Sakina…why take it out on the sister…. she has always been so fond of you….’
‘Mama….its more complicated than that.’
And if only Mama knew, what I actually meant by that statement.
On the third day, she called again. I was heading out to have lunch with Peanut who was also home for the summer and just as jaded and confused about what the future held for him. I was in a rush so I told Jajee Baba to let her know that I would call her later. Without meaning it!
‘What do you think she wants?’ I asked Peanut that afternoon as we lay on his bed in The Flat. Just like our A-level days. Sade’s ‘By Your Side’ playing in the background. My head in his lap.
‘Closure.’ He replied as he inhaled a long puff of his joint.
‘So you think she knows?’ I got up to face him.
He replied with nods as he held his breath for a stronger high and then exhaled slowly.
I returned my head to his lap, because at that point it was the safest and most comfortable place I could crawl into. My childhood best friend and his invaluable wisdom I had so often relied on.
“Just give her a call” He continued “She is your cousin so sooner or later, the two of you are bound to come face to face… why not get the awkwardness over with in a controlled setting where you call the shots.’
‘For fuck-sake, I slept with her fiancé Peanut!’
‘Former fiancé.’ He corrected me.
‘Yeah but it’s the same thing.’
‘No its not. And you didn’t just sleep with him. You fell in love with him.’
‘Oh and that’s supposed to make it any better?’
‘Yes. Because it wasn’t just a one-night stand on an intoxicated night of abandon. It was a relationship with a man you fell madly in love with. He just also happened to be linked to your past and your family. You are not the villain here Padash. You can prevent a lot of things but you cant prevent falling in love.’
He was right and I knew it. Today or tomorrow, I would have to face reality. Avoiding it was just a cowardly escape. I stared ahead at a Spice Girls poster on his wall, still intact from our A-level days when he was a scrawny, effeminate goth kid from the UK but still full of so much wisdom and insight.
When Peanut handed me the joint for comfort, I took a long deep puff. Blurring reality for a few seconds, was always a good start.
‘Padash.’ He continued as he ran his fingers through my hair ‘I have known you for years. You are a strong and brave woman who doesn’t put up with bullshit. It’s what I have always admired in you. For whatever reason, this man has weakened you and I will always hate him for that. But you have to remember, he’s history now. I want to see the old, strong Padash again. Who wouldn’t be terrified of meeting her cousin Sakina.’
I nodded and handed Peanut his joint back and somewhere along the way, I fell asleep in his lap for a good 40 minutes.
Peanut had his own decisions to make. The following year he would be graduating from St. Martins where he had pursued his dreams of art and painting male nudes. That same summer, he had also interned for a fashion designer to make up some credits for school. The designer may have been impressed by Peanut’s artistic eye but was more enthralled by his six-pack abs, bulging biceps and godly pecs. I don’t really know if they slept together or not but at the end of the internship, the designer asked Peanut to model for him. It was an unexpected proposition but Peanut readily agreed. For a boy who had been the asexual, sissy in high school - bullied by males and revered by females - this was an affirming opportunity! Without requesting his father’s permission, he immediately decided to head to Karachi for the photo shoot.
On my way back to college at the end of that summer, I picked up a magazine from the airport waiting lounge. As I skimmed through the pages, I was awestruck with how sexy and confident my childhood best friend looked. He stared right at me through the pages; his chest glistening with fake sweat and, his blemishes airbrushed. His eyes piercing through the glossy pages with manly bravado as a skinny damsel with perfect skin and perfect hair dangled from his muscles. Her own bony arms wrapped around with convincing lust. It was an incredibly glamorous photo shoot and I have kept that magazine with me to this day. It was an attestation to the fact, of how far the two of us have come over the years.
But many weeks before I was ever at that airport waiting lounge heading back to college, I still had my meeting with Sakina to take care of.
When I got home from that very insightful afternoon in Peanut’s Flat, Jajee Baba informed me that Sakina had called…yet again! You had to give it to the girl, she didn’t give up easily. So I guess, there was only one thing left to do. Hold my breath and take the plunge.
‘Yaar Padash I’m so bored, thank you so much for calling.’ Sakina was not only cordial but more than excited to hear from me. ‘I came here after my exams because Shabana baji is pregnant but there is nothing to do here. I am so bored. I got so excited when I heard you were in town from America!’
‘Haan….so…lets meet up…do you wanna come over or….’
‘How about we go to lunch somewhere. Some place cool in Islamabad. I want to get away from Pindi!’
‘Sure…we can do that too…maybe…’
‘Zabardast. Tomorrow afternoon then?’
Tomorrow was a little earlier than I anticipated but what choice – or plans - did I have? Peanut would already be on a plane for a glamorous week in the fashion metropolis of Karachi, prepping for his first photo shoot as a male model. Me? I would be going to lunch with the woman who was the reason I could never be with the man who had broken my heart…and she was also the reason I should never have been in love with him in the first place.
I hung up and sat still on my bed for a while staring into thin air. I had no idea what to expect from this amicable ‘lunch’!
The next afternoon, as my driver trekked out to pick “the other woman” up from Rawalpindi, I showered and got dressed in my room. Wait? Maybe I was the other woman in this picture? Geez it was all getting so confusing by then. Why couldn’t I have a normal life? A normal boy meets girl story? I know what you’re thinking readers…this girl meets way too many boys that is why…but even the best of us sluts fall in love sometimes.
At one point, as I frantically fixed my hair and make-up in the mirror, the irony struck me once again. Was I really fretting so much about getting ready for Sakina? Sakina? When did this happen? When did Sakina become my competition? When did I start comparing myself to her? Why did it matter if I looked presentable and even pretty for her. I was almost about to give up when the intercom in my room buzzed and Jajee Baba excitedly disclosed that Sakina bibi was here and waiting for me downstairs.
I took one last look at myself. Attired in a fitted denim kurta with my hair parted in the middle, I looked perfectly conservative. For a second, I even deliberated grabbing a dopatta to go along with this traditional ensemble but then I just grabbed my purse and headed downstairs.
I was already expecting Sakina to look as seraphic and calm as ever. I may be referred to as “sexy”, “hot” and “pretty” quite often but there was no denying…that adjectives that were saved for girls like Sakina were “beautiful” and “gorgeous.” Beauty and innocence personified. An Aunty’s wet dream. The kind of women Urdu novels spent three pages in detail when they introduced their heroine.
But that day, I was shocked at what stood before me. She looked nothing like the innocent, “shareef” and boring cousin I had always dismissed. The girl with long hair tied up in a bun. Who only always wore kurtas and sat quietly in corners of drawing rooms. An “achee bachee” who others would view as a potential “achee bahoo”. But that day, she stood before me in a tight black T-shirt and even tighter jeans. Her hair was permed, cut short, highlighted in a faded shade of red and hanging loosely to one side of her shoulder. Make-up was caked on her face. I could not help but notice how much she had changed while I was busy sleeping with her fiancé…or former fiancé…or whatever.
‘Wah yaar looking very nice…” She got up and hugged me.
I reciprocated the compliment. Even with this cadaverous attempt to be ‘different’ her beauty was still untarnished.
‘Aur sunao? How is college? How is America?” She sat down running her fingers nervously through her hair.
“Do you wanna have a cup of tea before….”
“Naheen lets just go to lunch…I am starving. Plus you cant really have a sutta here.”
I assumed she was hinting at my sordid reputation in the family as the girl who smoked. She was talking about herself.
The first few minutes after we settled on our table and placed our orders were as uncomfortable as expected. Nervously we looked around, arms folded across the table as we searched for how and where to begin. I had decided on taking Peanut’s advice of not volunteering any information but if asked, I was not going to lie either. With my chin up, I stared ahead. Bring it on!
‘I know you wont mind if I smoke?’ she pulled out a pack of cigarettes from her purse.
I was a little shocked. ‘I..uh…sure….I actually didn’t know you smoked.’
‘But I always knew you did.’
I was already reaching for my own pack of Marlboros ‘Well….that’s hardly news to anyone….stories of my sinful and aberrant ways are repeated quite often in the family gossip circuit from what I hear. What is it they called me? Patakhee Padash….”
‘I think it is great…actually I envy you for that. It is what I always admired about you ever since I was a kid…I secretly wished to be just like you.’ She flicked her cigarette like an amateur.
‘Please don’t tell me that’s why you started smoking!’
She shook her head ‘Not really but it was an effort to be like you….or maybe to be someone like you…’
Do not show reaction…do now show reaction…do now show reaction…
‘What did he have to do with it?’ I did not show reaction.
“I was young and stupid and thought it was what he wanted. That maybe it would impress him.”
I wondered if that was a polite segue into the real reason we were to have lunch today. Mustafa!
I let her ask her next question ‘Do you see him at all in America?’
‘Mustafa?’ I knew exactly who she meant…I just wasn’t going to divulge information that easily.
She nodded, ‘Yes.’
‘Well I have…in this past year….but honestly I haven’t seen him in months…and probably wont in the near future…or again.’ I dropped my first hint.
‘You guys were close family friends na…’
‘His parents were close friends of Mama Baba, yes. He also happened to be a friend of Bhai Jan’s. But that was not the reason why we started meeting this past year.’
‘Well then you must have heard that our engagement broke…a while ago.’
She took a deep breath full of hurt before looking away as if she was forcing back tears. The silence was aggravating and I decided to ask my questions now. Ones only she could answer.
‘Why did it end…if you don’t mind me asking?’
‘I broke it off.’
‘It wasn’t going anywhere…but he didn’t try to resist either. He probably wanted it to end just as much.’
‘Didn’t you love him?’
‘I did…I thought I did…’
‘Did he love you?’
She shrugged. ‘If he did I wouldn’t have ended it.’
‘I think he did.’ I added.
‘He sure didn’t act like it!’
‘You were his first love Sakina.’
‘How can you be so sure?’ My statement immediately caught her attention ‘Did he say anything.’
I shook my head ‘Some things don’t have to be said for them to be true.’
‘You don’t know what he was like. He may be different as a friend…or whatever…but he was a terrible person to be in love with. It wasn’t what l had expected love to feel like. It was like I could never be good enough for him. I could never be what he wanted me to be. I was tired of it Padash. Tired of running after him. Tired of doing everything he wanted me to do. Tired of changing myself completely to make him happy… yet each time I would be left just as confused as before…’
As Sakina went on about the failure of her relationship with Mustafa and the way he broke her heart; I found my hardened shield slowly melt away. I had misjudged this moment. Sure, she may have wanted to meet me to put her suspicions about me to rest but this innocent little female had no tricks up her sleeve. She was just another soul left heartbroken by Mustafa. Just like myself. As she ranted on and on with hurt about the way she felt with him…the way he treated her….the way she was always confused and the way she kept apologizing for herself I felt like I was listening to myself. It was all the same questions I had asked myself the past year. It was exactly how I felt. Exactly how he had made me feel.
‘…He always made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. Look at me…I changed myself completely….I started dressing differently….wearing tighter clothes for him….western stuff because I thought that’s what he would like…. I started smoking…. Padash….you know I almost decided to lose my virginity to him? Yes I cant believe I am telling you this…even Shabana baji doesn’t know but he used to think I was such a prude that I was even willing to cross that bridge. I didn’t though. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway…’
The poor girl just wanted to share her side of the story. She was not there to discourage me…dissuade me…or threaten me…she was simply there for….for….closure! And as she spoke I realized that I could no longer blame myself for the failure of my relationship with Mustafa either. I could have become exactly like Sakina….but it wouldn’t have mattered. It was not me…it was not Sakina…it was him. Mustafa truly did not know what he wanted. Because Sakina and I were as opposite as we could be…yet he made us both feel like we needed to be like the other. I mean if we just stepped back and looked at each other, we would have chuckled at this new reality. We had both attempted to dress like each other that day because that is what we thought he wanted. How pathetic!
‘….He always used to complain how I was too innocent and boring. He always liked girls that were adventurous…risky…wild…the type that excited him. Girls that liked to party…would take risks…girls like….like….you…’
I smiled at her last words. ‘Trust me….that’s not what he wanted either….’
‘But that’s what he always said what he wanted…it is what I tried to become for him…it is…..’
I leaned over and grabbed Sakina’s hand and looked her straight in the eye ‘Sakina…listen to me…that would not have helped…trust me, I would know….’
Her eyes widened but only with mild shock. Maybe she was stunned at my partial confession or maybe she was just surprised that I finally shared it. But only for a few seconds she curled her lips into a shocked O and then pulled back in her seat.
‘So…where do we go from here?’ I continued.
‘I have to move on. I really do.’ She further confessed.
‘Yes we do.’
‘But it is hard….it is so hard getting over someone.’
I knew just how hard it was. I was in the process of doing exactly that…for exactly the same person. Hard did not even begin to describe it.
‘Would you be open to reaching out to him? Give him another chance?’
She shook her head. ‘It is not worth it…I cannot live my life with him…I will always be miserable…I cannot spend my life trying to make someone happy and never be able to succeed. I just do not know how to move on.’
‘How does one move on?’ I wanted to know for myself too.
‘Things have gotten very stressful at home….I have gotten a few more proposals and I keep declining them all. The first few years I was still young and Ami Abu knew that I needed time to heal. But now they are telling me I need to get over it and get married. And I know they are right…I just cannot bring myself to do it all over again….that is one of the main reasons I came here to Shabana’s to get away from it all. But even she is saying the same thing. I know they are right…I just have to stop being such a child about it.’
‘You are not being a kid Saks…there is nothing wrong with feeling the way you do. Take as much time as you want and do what is right for you. If it means giving Mustafa another chance…then I say…go for it…I really do feel that he loved you… he probably still does.’
‘No Padash. Mustafa is the kind of man who will only love something when he doesn’t have it….the minute he gets it….he decides it is not what he wanted….’
Truer words have rarely been spoken. I even found myself wondering if that meant he longed for me the same way now that I had left his life. But if I was to learn anything from my cousin Sakina, it was to let go and move on. She was making an effort. I had to do the same too.
‘What would help you in getting over him?’ I asked.
Though teary eyed, she smiled looked up and smirked ‘Well to start with, I have to stop listening to our song.’
‘I know it sounds stupid…but today when I was getting ready…I promised myself that after our meeting today I will never listen to that CD again. Ever. It is just a song that reminds me of him. It was what I used to listen when we were engaged.’
I stared right at her. I should have agreed to meet her weeks ago.
‘You think I am stupid, don’t you.’ She smirked.
‘Not at all….in fact…I think it’s the best idea ever!’
She smiled and looked up right when our lunch arrived. ‘Thank you….seriously….this helps.’
I smiled and raised my glass in the air ‘Agreed!’
The rest of the lunch was great. It was almost as if we connected on a bond that we both shared yet did not blatantly discuss. After lunch, I accompanied her to Pindi. It was almost uncanny but on the way there, the song ‘Hands Clean’ by Alanis came on. Well, maybe it wasn’t entirely coincidental. Just like her, I would listen to the song at least once a day. That and Nusrat Fateh Ali’s Night Song CD.
‘Have you ever heard this song?’ I smiled at her.
She shook her head, ‘No…what is it?’
‘It’s a song by Alanis Morissette. The lyrics are beautiful. You should listen to each word. It helped me during a very rough time ….a time very similar to yours.’
As she listened to the words, she harped on about how much she loved it. We played it again. And then again.
‘Tell you what’ I suggested ‘From today on….whenever you feel the urge to listen to the song which reminds you of him….listen to this song instead. It is only fair to replace a CD with a fresh new one with no baggage.’
Sakina laughed ‘Are you giving it to me?’
‘On one condition’ she added ‘Before you head back home…you will take that other CD with you. I cant trust myself if I still have it around.’
‘It’s a trade!’ I winked.
I dropped her home. She invited me in for tea and although I didn’t accept the offer for tea I did go inside to take her CD. Shabana was there to greet me. She was swollen like a pregnant football and although she tried so hard I still couldn’t help but be a bitch to her. She wasn’t surprised. By now she was used to it.
On the way home as I sat in the backseat looking out the window, I gave the driver the CD Sakina had given me to load on to our car stereo system. A beautiful song by Nazia Hassan began to waft through the car. A song called ‘Dil ke lagee.’ It was soothing and her voice was like a refreshing balm. With my head resting back, I hummed along to the beautiful words.
‘Dil ki lagee…
Kuch aur bhi…
Dil ko deewana karay…’
A few minutes later when my phone beeped with a text message I looked down to discover it was from a more important man in my life. Peanut!
‘How did it go?’ It read.
‘LOL…not bad!’ I texted back.
‘Whew, what was it about?’
‘For both of us.’
‘Meree iltijaa hay…
Khuda say dua hay….
Yeh dil juda na karayyyyyy…’
A year later, I was sitting in my dorm room on a Sunday morning with my mother on the phone. And among the news and gossip that she shared about the family, she went on to matter-of-factly insert that Sakina had gotten engaged to a nice young man with a good job and a good house in Doha. ‘Waisay…I always liked her more than her sister. Very nice girl…she deserves to be happy.’
‘I agree.’ I smiled into the phone ‘She does.’