By Zain Saeed
There were a lot of people we would have had to answer to if we’d been found out: our parents, friends, the police, grandparents, cousins, second cousins, third cousins, shopkeepers, maids, restaurant waiters, random aunties, fruit sellers, and mechanics, neither of them necessarily mutually exclusive. And God, of course. Always with a capital “G” never forget, something about lightning getting involved. But apparently he already knew everything so we were, in essence, already fucked. The irony.
We’d been sneaking around and having sex in the car. We were nineteen; the only other option was light crime, and everyone was already doing that anyways. We couldn’t get a hotel room, we weren’t married—we’d have had to include receptionists, bell boys, the Imam of the hotel mosque, and housekeeping in the list. It was unthinkable trying to sneak her into my room at home, or introducing her to my parents.
Here, you pray, hard, and a baby is born. But always in a hospital; logistics and so on.
Marry, then figure out what goes where.
So the car had to do. A white Suzuki Baleno 2003, diesel engine. And you could make the front seats lie absolutely flat.
They still call this mess Karachi. I was born here. There were tall buildings that could have been either white or slightly gray, I couldn’t tell. I’d never seen them other than through the haze that always surrounded the sun and the buildings themselves. They’d probably be unrecognizable without it: foreign, unreal, impossible to come to terms with. There were no shoes allowed in the neighborhood mosque. I stopped going when I turned seventeen. I still pretended to go, and the boy selling coconut water right behind the mosque, he and I, we became best friends.
She was rich. Well, her parents were. Filthily so. She had all the things they sold in the “western” shops. She kept skirts, heels, tank tops and swimsuits in her closet. Her father was too sick to take the family anywhere. Her dream was to wear her things outside her room. I had no dreams. If we’d been born anywhere but here, we would’ve glanced at each other at a mall and moved on to do our thing.
Me and her, we considered ourselves part of a new generation. The rebels. The optimists. The bohemians. But then so did everybody else our age. They didn’t have the sex though. We did.
Us and capital G, it was like we stood face to face about ten yards apart, arms crossed, and squinted at each other.
There were places, dark places where you could park your car, scary places. An abandoned construction site, a parking lot. The city was huge.
Our favorite place was an empty plot of land that served as the grounds for the bazaar on Sundays. Boy, was it silent. We rarely had clouds. There were stars.
One night there were so many stars in the sky she told me she wanted to go to our place and never leave. So I picked her up from her friend’s house (her friend, she was one of us). She came and sat down on the passenger seat, gave me a hug and a slightly hesitant, lightning quick kiss on the cheek—the “Aunty Threshold”—it was the point before which an onlooker might do a double take but consider it a trick of the light and move on.
I drove, my hands on the steering wheel, her hand resting on my leg. She’d take it away in a hurry whenever we stopped at a light. There would be no more touching till we got to the spot; blasphemy generally took care of the adrenaline.
She said she was wearing a bikini underneath her clothes. “I’ve never worn it before, it’s like in your story,” she said. “Like the one you wrote about me.”
Lovely, I said, we can pretend we’re in it.
What a ball of cheese. Nineteen years’ worth of cheese. And I was good looking and everything. Handsome boy, thin, not too tall. Mama was proud. She wanted a nice a girl for me. She was already looking.
This one: She had a name that she shortened to “Rani”—“Queen” in our language—when she referred to herself in the stories we used to send each other, where we did things like lie on the beach or kiss outside Carrefour—things we weren’t supposed to do. Cheese. She had black hair and smelled of Old Spice.
We lived next to the sea.
We’d already turned our backs on capital G as far as the question of music was concerned, even though he’d said things about it that involved, but were not limited to, smiting. But only my music, hands off bitch, I’d said in my head the first time she tried to change the song. She probably said mean things to me too, but never aloud, because we were among the loneliest people in the city.
So the music stayed on while the engines went low (it was never turned off) the headlights extinguished and the windows rolled up. There’d be police cars hanging around, expecting us and the rest of the handful that were at odds with G. You had to turn off a street and drive in the dirt desperately trying to avoid hitting some stray. The only light was the moon, but oh what light! The dirt rose up along the car. I’d get up early the next day to wash the dirt off before Papa got up.
And then we stopped. Nothing but the yellow lights in the apartment buildings on a far-away street was visible. The stars were still fucking huge.
Everything I remember of her face from those nights was what I could light up with the screen of my phone before a passing car on the nearby street made me turn it off and listen maniacally for footsteps. We lived the lives of blind people.
“You didn’t put that cologne on,” she said.
Whispers, little giggles. We could touch, too.
“It’s blue,” she whispered as I was untying it, “my turn.”
“Watch where that’s going.”
“Someone’s excited. Slowly.”
I felt a scratch on her neck. She owned a cat.
“It’s scary how comfortable this is. Hello again.” Her face was warm.
“What did you say? Definitely. Perfect.”
“Hey Mr. Sensitive Ears. Am I doing something wrong? Sigh. Can I change the song?”
“No love, this one’s nice.” I was just wondering if you’d come along. “Car! Watch it! Don’t sit up too much.”
“They’re gone. Come here you. Sigh. I can’t find your other leg. Is the seat all the way back?”
“Keep a look out for lights please, love.” Sigh.
I’d recently taken to smoking in the car to mask other smells. It would incur considerably less disappointment. I lit one up as she shifted back on to the passenger seat. Our clothes were in the back. To make it beautiful to live.
My phone rang. I glimpsed the crook of her right arm. “Mama,” the phone said. Hello? Yes? Her arm was loitering on my left leg. Yes? Oh really? I’m near Sea View, Mama, other side of the city. It’s okay. Of course. I’ll stay there for a while. How many people? Ah. So sad. Yes. Of course.
Someone had blown up and taken sixteen people along. There were ambulances and everything.
So I turned the interior light on, and saw her for the first time. No one was looking for us.
She took the chewing gum out of her mouth and threw it outside. It was a fluid motion, almost rehearsed. There was a birthmark on her right side next to her belly button that, come to think of it, was strangely shaped, almost rectangular. Damn.
“Don’t close your eyes,” she said. Her voice shook.
“Your shoulders are a different shade than the rest of you.” Sigh.
“What’s that scar?”
“I tripped and hit my shin against the edge of a stair when I was ten or eleven, there was so much blood. What are you doing?”
I didn’t notice when she changed the song.
“Rubbing the lipstick off the back of your neck, stupid.”
“This is different.”
“Outside the big mosque on Tariq Road, left a crater and everything, G’s probably busy there, want to try something new? Slowly, now.” Sigh. Worn out faces.
“Haha! The look on your face!”
She kept on doing this thing where she pushed her hair back immediately before she closed her eyes. Sigh.
“Your ears are huge, by the way. Manly, but huge.”
Her back arched almost at a right angle with the seat. Sigh. I shifted back onto the driver’s seat. “We can get out, you know.”
“I can wear my bikini outside!”
“Let me put my shorts on.”
There were distant sounds of ambulances rushing to and fro. Everyone had their TVs on, probably. We sat on the hood of the car and smoked.
“This might be the best night ever. You know, I’ve never seen the same stars you see.” Cheese. Car horns. People rushing home.
“You know, salt water might itch in these things,” she said while examining herself in the dark. Outside the air-conditioned car it was sweltering. I took out a bottle of water and threw its contents on her.
“Let’s take a walk.”
Then there were footsteps we weren’t afraid of; ours.
“Give me your hand.”
The music in the car was still on, but it was too low to hear.
“Do you want to try swinging our arms, like this?” She was almost giddy.
“Where are we going?” I scratched my side. “Wait, let me turn the engine off.”
Absolute silence. We walked in circles around the car, slowly drifting further and further away. “What are you humming?”
“Your hands get sweaty that fast?”
“Watch out there’s something hanging about, next to the bushes, with shiny eyes. I can see the blue now.”
“Creepy. I wonder if more died. Did you take the keys out of the car? We’ve never kissed standing up.”
“There’s so many shops that sell T-shirts on Tariq Road. Have you seen the one with the pink cat outside?” She probably had no clue what I was talking about.
“You slouch when you walk,” she said.
It was eleven thirty-seven at night.
“Is this the third one this month?”
We were at the edge of the lot. My arms were sticky.
“Damn it, I forgot to put sunscreen on, look!” She laughed. Then I laughed.
“Okay now I feel kind of weird,” she said, slowing her pace down.
“I know. This is strange.”
“Is everyone still awake in that apartment building?”
The circumference of our circle began to grow smaller as quickly as it had gotten bigger. Mama used to tell me to keep my feet pointed straight when walking.
“Oh look one light went off.” We had quickened our pace. “I wish we had music.”
I broke our circle and turned on the engine and joined her again.
“Better,” she sighed. We slowed down a bit.
“What do we do?”
“There are so many things sticking to my feet you wouldn’t believe,” she said, “you didn’t have to run away like that you know, but good idea with the engine.”
Outside of the car we had to hold on to each other.
“Let’s get back in. Come here. Move your arm a bit.” There was relief in her voice.
“The seat creaks a lot more than it used to.”
They’re going to be around the place for another few hours, picking up some ripped up pieces of clothing and leaving the rest.
“That is good. Sigh. Do you want to turn the light off, though?”
“But nobody’s here.” I turned off the light in any case.
“This is so much better. Your music please, yours, I won’t ask about changing it promise. G’s probably still busy, he can’t see us anyways.” Sigh.
I took a potion, baby. I couldn’t find the scratch on her neck again.
“Let’s not turn the light back on, okay? Close your eyes. We were only outside for six minutes, how much do you sweat?”
“Is that…? No, it’s just an ambulance somewhere.”
Did I say the city was huge? She shifted back to the passenger seat.
“You good?” I asked as I lit up a cigarette.
She got a text from her friend saying her mother had called. Proper response protocol was followed. Had the moon shifted slightly? We did not touch each other. The radio mentioned something about twenty-three people. I revved the engine just enough to keep creeping forwards.
“What’re you doing tomorrow? Write me something more, please, I want us on mountains.” Cheese. Her t-shirt was on, so were her jeans.
“I wrote something about you yesterday love, but I’ve forgotten all about it.”
And now I can tell you about the spots on the moon. Cheese. The string of Chinese restaurants near Korangi Road was bursting with people.
We ignored every red light. I had to drop her off at her parents’.
“I smell like you. They’ll notice.”
“Just run to your room.”
I stopped three houses away. The threshold was respected to the fullest. She got out of the car. “Don’t forget to write. I love you.”
“I love you.”
I drove home alone. I passed three ambulances, a pizza delivery motorcycle, a wedding in full swing, a deserted petrol pump. The final body count was thirty-seven.
I don’t know where she is, but I still keep the lights turned off.
Zain was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, and is currently studying linguistics in Freiburg, Germany. He has no idea why. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in FLAPPERHOUSE, The Freiburg Review, Third Point Press, Cease, Cows, Eunoia Review, Apocrypha and Abstractions and others. He tweets at @linguistictrain.