The beach looked beautiful this morning. The wind was flapping into Alissa’s face, bringing her to terms with the mangled smell of fish and wet sand. She sat there with her legs crossed, her back leaning against the wall made up of rough stone bricks. She had been staring far into the sea, where three children seemed to be having the time of their lives, while splashing themselves with water. Alissa looked at them with a shudder. She couldn’t dream of going in to the water here; her experience with bluebottles as a child had evidently left a scar.
‘I’ve been waiting here forever, Imaan,’ Alissa complained, looking up at her. She was flicking her palm against the stone bricks that Alissa was seated on, trying to remove the sand before propping herself on it. ‘You were supposed to be here an hour ago.’
‘Sorry, babe,’ Imaan said, trying to keep her hair from flying into her eyes. ‘I had to babysit Danyal, and his parents didn’t show up on time. You know how my aunt is.’ She rolled her eyes.
‘Okay, okay, I get it,’ Alissa said, jokingly raising her arms in surrender. ‘You aren’t answerable to me; anyway, you can treat me like a slave.’
Imaan laughed. She was used to Alissa’s cynical style of speaking. ‘Shut up, you moron,’ she told her, pushing her lightly. Alissa scooted to a side, making space for her friend.
‘Now, fill me in,’ she said, ordered. They did not meet usually in the middle of the week, but Alissa had insisted that the two meet immediately. She must have had something important to say, because this behavior was very unusual for her. Imaan had come without hesitating; she knew her best friend too well to take the change behavior lightly.
The smell of fish mingled with the smell of tea and smoked pulses wafted through the wind and into their nostrils. It was a pleasant evening, a rare treat during the hot, prolonged summers of Karachi. It wasn’t a usual spot for the girls to meet at, but Alissa had insisted on meeting at the beach, and Imaan had obliged. Alissa’s behavior, at most times, was stereotypical. This, however, was quite unlike her and Imaan couldn’t help but wonder if her friend was keeping a secret from her.
She hoped whatever it was did not have anything to do with her boyfriend, Hassam. She didn’t like that man one bit. She felt an odd, eerie sensation whenever he was around. It was the very first time that she had seen Alissa fall so hard for someone. They had their usual crushes in school, but the thought of Alissa getting serious with someone like him was absolutely unpredictable. She had never understood what Alissa saw in him, and had even told her so on more than one occasion, on which Alissa had glared at her so ferociously, that Imaan had bit her lip and fallen quiet. Imaan crossed her fingers and hoped that if it had to be about him then, in the least, let her have broken up with him. She was more than ready to wipe her tears off and help heal her broken heart.
As Imaan sat there, waiting for her friend to break the news to her, her mind wandered over the various possibilities. The two girls had been together since their diaper days. Back when their mothers worked in concert and their fathers played golf together, the two of them had spent every single day with each other. Now that they were older – old, college going girls – they met less often. However, even though their meetings became more and more spaced out, they always met with the same vigor. There was always the same amount of giggling and gossiping, and infinite anecdotes about the time they spent apart. To the world, and even to themselves, they were inseparable: like a single soul in two different bodies.
‘Are you ready to go horse riding?’ Alissa asked Imaan, testing the rocks below with her toe before planting her feet firmly on them and jumping down to the sandy beach below.
‘You’re ignoring me, Alissa,’ Imaan noticed.
‘I’ll tell you, don’t worry,’ Alissa said. ‘I just want to have some fun first.’
Imaan sighed. ‘Okay,’ she said, not entirely sure of herself. ‘Race you to the shore, knucklehead!’
They spent the next one hour riding horses, chasing each other up and down the beach, collecting broken seashells and clearly having a blast. When both of them were too tired to do anything else, they traipsed through the parking lot and collapsed onto the grass in the small park opposite the beach. They both were munching on corns they had purchased from the vendor at the beach. If one could experience heaven on Earth, this was it.
Once both of them fell quiet, Imaan concentrated on her best friend’s face. She was gorgeous. Her big, attractive eyes were the deepest shade of brown. The white checked shirt that she was wearing brought out the best of her features. Her jet black, straight, waist-length hair hung loosely around her face, batting around under the influence of the wind. Even under the most stressful conditions, she had a smile plastered on her face.
But not right now.
Something was clearly troubling her. She never got too serious. Her face was turned downwards into a grimace, her forehead wrinkled, and her expression thoughtful.
‘Is everything okay?’ Imaan asked her, concerned.
‘I’ve something to tell you, Imaan,’ Alissa said.
‘About time,’ Imaan laughed. ‘You called me here to tell me something, but you’ve been putting it off all day. My stomach is bursting with curiosity!’
Alissa did not seem to share Imaan’s enthusiasm. She fiddled around with her fingers, and, for the first time that day, Imaan noticed something sparkle on Alissa’s left hand.
Surely not, no. She thought, her insides quivering. No, please God, no.
‘And all those fairytales are full of it, one more stupid love song I’ll be sick, now I’m at a payphone,’
The sweet, soothing voice of Maroon 5 boomed out of Alissa’s earphones. She had been listening to this song over and over again for the past week. It was just so addictive. Sitting here, by the pool waiting for Hassam, this song seemed to spell out her life. After days and days of begging, Hassam had finally agreed to meet her at the pool. She had decided that if he didn’t agree to meet her this time, she would threaten to break off their engagement. That ought to bring him back to his senses. She wanted to spend all of her free time with him, but apparently, he didn’t think so. He kept telling her that he was too busy with work. If she didn’t know better, she would have almost thought he was avoiding her, purposely. It made her furious to think he expected her to make all the compromises.
She had met Hassam at a seminar held on writing techniques. She, and a fellow classmate, Maheen Farooq, had been assigned to sit together. Maheen had backed out at the last minute, explaining that she had a bad migraine and listening to those workshop leaders would definitely make it worse. Instead of sitting down next to Maheen’s empty seat, she had seated herself next to a young, tired looking man. He was wearing a red and black checked shirt, with denim Levi Strauss jeans. His hair was gelled into a Mohawk, and the look on his face spelt boredom.
After about twenty minutes of the four-hour seminar, Alissa had engaged herself into chatting with the boy sitting next to her. He had introduced himself as Hassam, and told her that he was there just to earn some extra credit hours. He was least interested in learning what the speaker had to say, and kept making snide remarks about people’s dressing and accents. For most people, this would be a huge turn off. As for Alissa, she found herself more and more intrigued with his personality. By the end of the four-hour session, they had exchanged numbers and were talking like they were the best of friends.
Three weeks later, Hassam had asked her out. Not wanting to damage her friendship with him, and at the same time wanting to get to know him better, Alissa had said yes. It was, according to her, probably the best decision she had ever made.
Alissa sighed, looking around. She had been sitting there for over an hour now. There was still no sign of Hassam. She shifted slightly, to make herself more comfortable. She put a hat on her face to shield herself from the sun, and she felt herself feeling drowsy.
Instead of falling asleep, her mind dwelled deeper and deeper into her memories, coming to a stop two months back, when Hassam had proposed to her. To most, it would have seemed like the most unromantic proposal ever to have occurred. It would have made all the Disney princesses turn in their graves. To Alissa, however, it was the best day of her life. She had been sitting at Subway, munching heartily on her six-inch Chicken Teriyaki, and working insanely to meet a deadline for the magazine she worked for. Hassam, as usual, hung around with her, doing his own work. He worked at ABQ and Co., a local software manufacturing company, and Alissa thought he was very smart. She was very proud of him, and to an extent, felt intimidated by his success.
However, that very day, he had seemed distracted throughout, and she had thought that maybe he had had a bad day at work. After all, Hassam worked way too hard. His boss was taking advantage of his intelligence and kindness. Alissa thought that he was too innocent, and he hadn’t learnt how to say no to the world. He seemed to be ready to oblige everyone, including her, all the time. He had spoilt her rotten, and she hoped that he kept that up, or else she would hit her head very hard when she fell back on earth.
He had randomly put his Redbull down, and asked her to marry him. Alissa was taken aback, of course. After all, how many girls expected a marriage proposal to come their way, randomly, in a sandwich shop? She came to her senses quickly enough, however. There was lots and lots of screaming, most of it done by her. Then she had said yes. Yes, of course, she would love to marry him. She was happy, but she couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down her face. She was the luckiest girl in the whole, wide world.
Alissa felt a pang of nostalgia. Things were so different now. One would have never imagined things could change in such a short span of time.
It was as if she was not important to him anymore. Ever since he had proposed to her, he seemed to take her for granted, like she was his personal possession. Like she had come with a price tag attached to her forehead.
Earlier, she would have loved being treated like his possession. Now, it was getting a little irksome. Alissa wanted to sort things out with her fiancé, before they got worse.
She tugged at her jet black hair, stretched, and laid back on the blue and green striped chair. She had been sitting here in her dark green shirt – Hassam’s favorite –for ages, now; she was getting irritated. When they had first started going out, Hassam would make sure that he was there at least ten minutes before she arrived anywhere. Now, however, he was nearly always late. Alissa didn’t like to complain, but this was really getting to her now.
If this was how it would be once they got married, maybe they shouldn’t be getting married at all. She wondered whether Imaan had been right about him all along, but dismissed that idea as soon as it came.
She let out a loud sigh, her mind wandering to the conversation she had had with her best friend earlier the same day. It had been horrible.
‘I’m getting married, Imaan,’ Alissa had said, noticing Imaan’s eyes on the tiny, beautifully cut, diamond ring on her third finger. The manner in which she had said that had been very simple, but there was no mistaking, looking at the twinkle in her eyes, that she had already skipped off to cloud nine. She had expected Imaan to explode with excitement; instead she saw the smile being wiped off her face. She wasn’t sure what to say, but Imaan had managed to save her the trouble.
‘You’re getting married to Hassam, you say,’ she had said, her teeth clenched. ‘You’re getting married to him, even after I told you to get rid of him as soon as possible?’ She looked at Alissa incredulously, like she had lost her mind.
‘Imaan, I love him,’ she said. ‘And he loves me. We make each other happy. Why can’t you see that?’
‘Because, Alissa, I see what you can’t see,’ Imaan said, trying inexplicably to explain her feelings to best friend. She knew she had no solid reason to oppose her marriage to Hassam. On a whim, however, she knew that it was a bad, bad idea. If there was one thing Imaan had learnt over the years, it was to stick to her guts. Right now, her guts were screaming ‘Run!’ She would give away her life to explain her instincts to Alissa, but she knew it was probably too late for that.
‘What did your parents say, Alissa?’ Imaan asked, hoping she could get them on her side. ‘Have you told them yet?’
‘They agreed,’ Alissa said, a slight smile spreading across her face. She was much too excited about this whole thing, already.
‘Have they even met Hassam?’ Imaan asked. ‘What about his parents?’
‘Imaan, Hassam’s parents are dead,’ she said, flatly. ‘He has no relatives in Pakistan. Yes, my parents have met him, and they adored him. Why wouldn’t they, anyway?’
Imaan was flabbergasted. She felt helpless, unable to transfer her hesitance into Alissa. She knew she was fighting a long lost battle. There was just one way left now, and that was blackmail. Surely, Alissa would consider their friendship over Hassam.
‘But Imaan,’ Alissa pleaded, ‘You have got to listen to me!’
Imaan had already gotten up, and was now making her way across the park to the street where her Toyota was parked.
‘No!’ she screamed. ‘You’ve said enough, Alissa!’
‘But, can’t you try to understand?’
‘Please, for my sake?’
‘No, no, no!’
Alissa stood back and watched her car pull away. She had thought Imaan would understand how she felt about Hassam, and wouldn’t judge her feelings. She had never tried to impose her own views over Imaan’s before. Why couldn’t, just for once, she do the same?
She had felt helpless standing there, not knowing what to do next. In her confusion, she had absently dialed Hassam’s number, and hummed as she was made to listen to his caller tune. She was jerked from her trail of thoughts only when Hassam received her call on the other end.
‘Hello, Hassam here, what’s up?’ Hassam spoke, in his usual casual manner.
‘Trouble,’ she’d replied, morosely, ‘Imaan won’t talk to me.’
‘Why not? Hassam sounded genuinely concerned.
‘I told her about us,’ Alissa said. ‘I know her so well; I should have known she would react like this. I thought that maybe, just maybe, she would be more excited for me rather than think about her grudge against you.’ Alissa hung her head. ‘I’ll talk to you later, Hassam, I’ve to get home. My mother is taking me out for shopping. Will we meet somewhere, today?’
‘I’ll see,’ he had said, vaguely and Alissa had felt her blood boil. Why could he not sound excited to meet her for a change.
‘Bye,’ she had said, simply, before snapping her phone shut.
Her thoughts returned to Imaan and she collapsed into a heap onto the grass below. She needed time to think. Imaan and she had been together for way too long, they couldn’t possibly drift apart now; especially now that she was about to get married.
That one word was the root of all her problems. Imaan had never really liked Hassam before, either. She had always assumed it was a stupid fling, and that Alissa would eventually get over it. The thing was, even though Alissa loved Imaan to bits, she was head over heels in love with her fiancé too. It was stupid, however, to expect Imaan to support them through something as humongous as that. Alissa should have known better than to break the news to her like that. She felt stupid, stupid to believe that Imaan would forget everything and celebrate with her, stupid that Imaan wouldn’t get upset when she found out that Alissa had paid no heed to her warnings. She was stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Even saying that a dozen times, didn’t make her feel any better.