As Your Voice Fades – Part II
“Hey... I'm so sorry for being late. I got caught in traffic on my way back from the funeral parlour. Ibrahim's livid that I'm missing it, but he doesn't fault me for bailing.”
I grab a seat by the edge of the cliff, shielding my cigarette from the wind so that my Zippo can work. I take a few drags and start to slouch forward as I gaze at the sunset.
“Truthfully, I feel extremely shitty about it. It's your funeral, y'know? Like holy fucking shit, I know damn well you'd never miss mine for anything in the world. But here I am, smoking a cigarette by the cliffs of Wadi Dawan while Ibrahim, Zainab, Fatima, Dad, Sana, your folks, and God knows whoever else that came are in Broadhollow mourning your loss. It's like you always said: I'm a selfish asshole, and I know that I am.”
I ash out the first bit of my cigarette before letting out a deep sigh.
“Of course, you'd always say those things out of spite. You never meant those things... or at least, I would like to hope that you didn't. Besides, I can't possibly be a selfish asshole. I'm the one who footed the entire bill, after all. I know that the truck driver was the one who killed you, but it was ultimately my fault anyway. I couldn't in good conscience burden my father, your parents, Ibrahim, Zainab, or anyone else with the financial burdens of my own sins.”
My phone vibrates twice before stopping. The sunset is boring me, so I decide to lay back and stare at the clouds drifting above me. Here's to hoping I don't get ash in my eye again.
“There I go being selfish again. Who am I to think that your loss impacted me the greatest? Your parents birthed and raised you, and they're the ones who sobbed the hardest when they lived through every parent's worst nightmare. Ibrahim loved you like his own sister and he's the one who has to break up Zainab and I when we decide to wallow in our own misery with a 12-pack of Corona. Zainab's been trying her best to hold up, but I can still hear her wailing uncontrollably at night while Ibrahim's comforting her in the other room.”
The sound of the wind howling through the air is interrupted by the waves crashing on the rocks hundreds of feet below me. My stomach growls slightly, so I take another drag off my cigarette. No ash in my eye, but the clump got on my sleeve.
“My dad and your folks have been spending a lot of time together. I don't really know what they talk about considering how I haven't spoken to Dad for almost a week. God, I can't even look your parents in the eye. I knew that they never liked me from the beginning, but I would've liked to imagine that in some small way... that maybe, maybe they're proud to have me as a son-in-law. But now? How can I even breathe the same air as them when your blood is on my hands?”
My eyes start to get watery, but I just close them tighter and grind my teeth. I can feel the heat of the cigarette butt burn my finger, so I flick it away.
“You know what I just thought about? Our first date back in 2010 on Sana's 18th birthday. We must've been freshmen at the time, probably “dating” for 2-3 weeks at the time, but never going out further beyond the school campus or maybe 3-4 blocks out by the nearest bus stop. Ibrahim and Zainab went off somewhere and you and I were baked the fuck out of our minds.”
A small grin starts to form on my lips, but the creeping of tears advances ever so slowly.
“I don't know if you remember this, but that was the first time you ever kissed my cheek. I remember so vividly because you were so fucking high and the moment you kissed my cheek, you were like 'Kaiz, oh my God your cheeks are so soft!' and kept pecking away at me. Sana, Adrian, and Malik were all staring and chuckling in adoration. That was the first time I ever felt... wanted, no, desired by another person.”
I let out a small chuckle before taking out my phone to see why it buzzed. Looks like it's Ibrahim saying that the service is over, and now everyone's heading to the wake. He knows I won't come, but he still insists that it would be nice if I showed up.
“You know, I never stopped having dreams about that moment. I still have them to this day. My vision gets slightly blurry, my heart's racing, my face is hurting from smiling so much, my throat hurts from all the weed I smoked and all the giggling I was doing, and I still feel the sensation of your lips touching my cheeks. By the time you finish and snuggle up next to me, the alarm buzzes me awake. It didn't matter if my day was ultimately good or bad, because waking up from that memory was always a fantastic start to my day one way or the other. In fact... I had it this morning. I kissed your pillow in a haze before realising the obvious.”
The clouds continue to drift aimlessly above me. They're far too streaky and light for me to distinguish any real hues, but the fading sunset gives them such a wonderful auburn hue... at least, I think that's auburn.
“I remember our second date too. We had a half day due to parent teacher conferences, so we bided our time until we were dismissed. We took the long slow walk up to Wendy's, and we stopped by the nearby playground. Some college kids were playing raquetball in the handball court, so we just sat down near the water fountain on a bench. That was the first time I ever tried doing that cheesy romcom thing where I rested my head on your lap. You were so fucking done with me that you leaned forward and kissed my forehead anyway. If I close my eyes when it's totally silent, I can almost hear you saying 'Kaiz, you're too fucking corny sometimes.”
I feel a faint itching under my lower back, but I'm too fucking lazy to adjust myself. I suffer through the faint itching as I try to remember what I was thinking about.
“High school had its ups and downs, but I'm so grateful I got to spend it with you. I honestly never would've imagined that I would've had a girlfriend from sophomore year-onward. Truthfully, I always thought that it would've ended sooner or later. You tried so hard to hide it, but you wanted to go to Baruch so badly and yet you surprised me by staying with me in Riverside. Truthfully? I was willing to let you go at the time if you wanted to go to Baruch that badly.”
I notice that my right hand's been fidgeting a bit so I get up ever so slightly to light up another cigarette before lying back down.
“At the time, I thought that we were at a happy but ultimately solemn crossroads where we might never see each other again. I always hoped that you'd come with me to Riverside instead of going to Baruch; I even went to the masjid and did some duas a few times during senior year when I was feeling particularly shitty. Maybe that's why I was kind of emotionally unavailable that year.”
I take a drag off the cigarette, but I cough harshly because I didn't inhale right. After a minute or so passes, I take another drag and it's much smoother this time around.
“I mean, I could've brought it up to Ibrahim, or Dad, or Sana, or well... anyone. But you know how I am – I don't like burdening others with my woes. Call it introversion, call it an adolescence formed by emotionally unavailable and/or absentee parents, or whatever else you want. That's how I've always been. I know shit worked out in the end, but holy fuck – I spent months mentally preparing myself for a goodbye that ultimately didn't happen... at least, not the way I thought it would. But enough depressing shit, that time still had a ton of fantastic memories.”
Fuck! A small wisp of smoke hits my eye when I'm trying to take a drag. I'm tearing up while trying to cope with the sting.
“I remember the day after Dad's 1 year of sobriety, we went to this very park and I proposed to you in front of God, our friends, and our families as witnesses. I told you it was a barbecue to celebrate Dad's 1 year of sobriety, but we all know now that it wasn't the plan. Looking back though? There's always this deep underpinning of... regret in the manner that I proposed to you. Like holy fucking shit, it was like something out of a goddamn Bollywood movie but like... god DAMN did I put you on the spot. I can't tell you how many times I woke up in the middle of the night sweating when I had that inner monologue pop up again that tells me you only said “yes” to marrying me because I put you on the spot in the worst possible way.”
I let out a deep sigh. My mouth is dry, but I try to work up a decent amount of saliva in my mouth before continuing.
“I remember our first few months in the apartment that you, me, Ib, and Zainab lived in when we went to Riverside together. Co-habiting really put a huge strain on our relationship because now, we were dealing with each other in ways we never really experienced outside of brief instances. I was an irreverent slob and you were a wound-up hardass about keeping the living spaces clean. Ibrahim and Zainab always had to goad me into helping them with the household chores before you came back because they didn't wanna deal with you bitching at me for spending all day getting high and playing Dark Souls II over cleaning up the messes I made.”
When the wind wafts past my face, I feel a weird crusty sensation near my eyes. I scratch it, and it's the residue left behind from my earlier tears.
“Even so, I wouldn't trade the ugliness of cohabiting away for anything else. Why? Because it brought us even closer together. To this day, the most comforting feeling to me is when I'm half-asleep in bed and you come back home from another gruelling overnight shift at ShopRite. I'd hear you grumble under your breath about work, I hear you take off your work clothes, and then you just immediately crawl into bed but not before holding onto me for dear life as you try to drift off into what little sleep you could muster before class starts in the morning. Or maybe it would be reversed – I'd come back from another awful shift at that sweatbox warehouse out in Islandia at like 6 in the morning on Saturdays, which is right around the time that you'd be awake brewing coffee and cooking breakfast. It would be so easy to just drop by a fucking Burger King on the way home, grab a Whopper for breakfast with a shitty $1 coffee, and then go to bed with searing ankle pain and a sick stomach. Even so, I put up with the hunger pangs on the drive home because I knew you'd always wake up that little bit earlier to make sure I was fed a fresh, hot meal. You even had the hot compresses ready for my feet from time to time.”
The sun finally starts to edge past the horizon as night sets in. I should be going home now if I don't want to get a ticket for loitering and trespassing by a park ranger. I don't care enough right now to leave.
“You know, I remember our first summer in Riverside. You took on a job as a food runner at Applebee's at the time since you got sick of working at ShopRite. I was fucking baked as shit that day, and I wanted to talk to you. I forget how many times I actually called you that day, but I think Zainab told me that it was somewhere in the mid-to-high 30s. I remember how pissed you were at me that day because you kicked me in the junk when you got home from work. Still, you were laughing about it like 2-3 months later and now you'd recount that story fondly to anyone when we're drunk together and affectionate. I know you've come to rationalise it as simply me being high and suffering from separation anxiety, but like... dude, I'm so fucking sorry for that. I don't think I ever properly apologised to you for it sober.”
I decide to sit back up and finish off the last 2 or 3 bogies in my pack before calling it a night.
“I also remember when your Bapuji died shortly after we graduated from Riverside. That was our first funeral together, and I'll never forget just how distraught you were. It's funny – everyone told me that Bapuji would be livid with an oaf like me dating his beloved granddaughter, but he wound up loving the hell out of me when we first met back in junior year. Like holy shit – you remember how he used to pull me away from you when we were at your place in high school every now and then? He'd always talk to me about how much you meant to him and how it's my job to look after you if God forbid, the worst ever happens to either him or your father. Or alternatively, he'd sit down and tell me stories of his childhood back in Faridkot before the partition; you'd find us eventually, but you'd sit down and look at him with those big, beautiful eyes as you listened intently to every word of his story. He'd also follow that up with some teasing about when we'd give him great-grandchildren to play around with. I guess all 3 of us are never gonna sea that pipe dream potentially become a reality, now...”
I sit in silence as I try to finish bogie 1 of 3. I'm about ¼th of the way through.
“Laila, I know that there's no possible chance of you listening to these words I've been saying for the last... however long it's been. I don't fucking know anymore. I know that this is all stuff I could've said at your eulogy. Hell, who knows what kind of poignant things the others have said at your wake that I missed out on? Certainly not I, and damn sure not you either. At the same time though, I just... I just didn't want to deal with the bullshit that comes with funerals man. I just wanna have you buried and get this out of the way. Like do you have any fucking idea how many texts I get from dudes I haven't spoken to in years saying “I'm always here?” How many missed calls I get from relatives overseas? My own fucking mother in Islamabad even shot me the once in a thousand blue moon text on WhatsApp! Why the fuck does it take the death of my goddamn wife under such horrifying circumstances for you fucks to become the slightest bit available?! Why couldn't you have kept in contact any which way you could? Hell, I would've been down for memes via text or the occasional Eid/Ramadan/Muharam/Christmas/New Year message. It's not hard, right?”
½ way done with my cigarette now, and I notice that my lip's trembling. Fuck man, I can already feel myself doing the thing I tried so hard to avoid doing.
“My own fucking mother had the audacity to message me for the first time in umpteen years, specifically to tell me that she's sorry that her daughter-in-law that she never fucking had the decency to meet once is dead. Before this, do you have any idea when the last time I heard from her was? It was literally during my sophomore year of high school, a few days before the school year began. That fucking bitch has been absent for half my goddamn life, and yet she somehow knew that I was married and that she knew you died? Yeah, I'm sure Dad told her or something but you get the idea. Yes, I absolutely need maternal affection right now but Sabaa-auntie and your own mother have been more maternal to me than she's been in that same stretch of time. Like... fuck man, stop opening cans of worms when I'm already trying to grieve without self-destructing too hard.”
It's too late, I start sobbing while 3/4th of my cigarette is gone. I don't even think I can finish this one properly.
“If what they say about the dead looking over us is true, well then... I guess you know by now that I did blow for the first time. The day after I finished the police report, Sammy from Riverside hits me up. He and I smoke a Dutch that he rolled up once I make it over to his place, and then he starts telling me about his ex-girlfriend who committed suicide last year. We both got high and trauma bonded a lot that day. He calls over his boys Jason and George to come play some Zombies together, but he neglected to mention that Jason bought a few grams of coke and that he CashApp'd him the money for it before I showed up at the house. I was shocked when I saw the powdery mirror, but I just... sat there, and watched as they were cutting up lines.”
I try to find a paper towel in my pocket, but all I have is a faded Walmart receipt. I blow my nose on it as best I can and throw it behind me.
“I'm not gonna lie – every synapse in my brain was telling me that I shouldn't say 'yes' when Sammy offered me a straw, but I agreed anyway and stayed up until 10 in the morning doing blow with them. That was the first, and to date, only time I ever did it. Forget alcohol being a social lubricant, cocaine takes that shit to a whole other level. 2 lines in, and I was in tears while George was playing Zombies and Jason and Sammy are listening to me blubbering. Like, I can't even remember what I say other than the fact that it was probably either insanely insightful revelations that I never would've had sober or absolute word salad that could only possibly make sense to men under the influence of alcohol, cocaine, and marijuana while playing Call of Duty together. As seemingly fun as that night was, I never joined them again and I've purposely been avoiding them because I can see myself degenerating way too quickly if I keep up that type of lifestyle. If you're watching over me, that means Bapuji's also watching over me and I know damn well he'll beat me with his cane in the afterlife for that night. At least, that's the rationale I tell myself to avoid becoming a functional cokehead.”
I light up my second cigarette and let out a deep sigh. It's almost completely pitch black, with the sole exception being the glow of the crescent moon and the faint starlight I could make out along the horizon of the Long Island Sound.
“Laila, I honestly have no idea how to orient myself in this world without you. You were the wind beneath my wings in almost every sense of the phrase. I poured my heart, my soul, just... everything I had into you. I know we had our moments where we were emotionally distant, if not outright toxic toward one another, but I still saw something so beautiful in the love that we shared. It was like this small acorn we planted and nurtured bit by bit until it sprouted, grew taller, developed branches, started growing and shedding foliage, etc. It was this living, breathing organism that we were both responsible for nurturing. Like a child, we'd fuck up and hurt it unintentionally or do something to make it sick. But we'd realise where we went wrong and we'd continue to nurture that tree back to full health so that it can continue growing. It was a fool's dream upon retrospect to think this, but I started to think that maybe... maybe we could've been like Jonah and Edna who lived next door to Dad before they both died of old age and their kids sold the house. They were lovebirds from their junior high days until their dying breaths, and I always sought out that type of romance.”
I hock out a dense loogie and take another drag or two off the second cigarette.
“Do you remember when we watched Saathiya together for the first time, and how much I was crying when Rani Mukherji woke up from her coma as Vivek Oberoi grabbed her in a tearful embrace at the end of the movie? Well, I was crying so much because... that movie was like an entire fucking rollercoaster for me. It was so fucking easy for me to envision the two of us as Rani and Vivek as we went through this story bit by bit. The only difference is... you're not in a coma, you died. I cried during the movie because I couldn't bear the thought of you being in a coma, or even dead for that matter. I know it's meaningless to say this now, but fuck it: if you ended up in a permanent coma instead, I would've stayed by your side for the rest of my natural lifespan. I would make time to visit you every day after work, I would tell you stories of how my day went, I'd sob uncontrollably at the thought of never being able to hear your voice again, but I'd still take comfort in the fact that you'd still be alive and that deep down... maybe my words could've reached you. With you being dead in reality, it's just... a gaping void. It does not stare back, it does not echo, it does not expand. It just... exists whether I want it to be there or not.”
My second cigarette is about a 1/3rd gone now.
“On the drive here, I was listening to the entirety of Tera Chehra by Adnan Sami. I know you never really enjoyed his music because your mom overplayed it when you were younger, but holy fucking shit... that entire album just manages to perfectly encapsulate the sheer... intensity of what it is that I feel for you. Like... I know you thought it was corny as hell when I used to sing “tu ijazat de agar, tujhse thoda pyaar mein karlu, jaane jaan” in your ear on Valentine's Day, but I know damn well you were giggling and blushing like a schoolgirl as I kept going. Like... fuck man, how could I ever even think about doing that with another woman? So many of my associations with love, intimacy, comfort, and validation, they all involve you so deeply. I don't think I can ever even love another woman the way I loved you. You were my gulab jamun; giving another woman a pet name after some Desi sweet just feels too disingenuous to me... even if I used a sweet you hated like ladoo, rasmalai, or jalebi.”
I sigh and gulp before I utter the next thing.
“You know, I honestly did think of killing myself the first night that I was without you. I ultimately decided against it, because I don't wanna put everyone else through the same grief on my own account. I could've easily done it too; your muscle relaxant for your lower back is still in the medicine cabinet. I also know where Ibrahim keeps the key to the bar in the living room. I'm just saying, I could have joined you wherever you are so that we would never be apart. I suppose that's a morbid, creepy, and obsessive way of phrasing things, but fuck... I've been rambling for so long now. I'm sure you get the gist of whatever it is I'm trying to get across. I don't fucking know. You're up there with God, right? You think he can tell you what I'm trying to get across?”
I decide against relighting my cigarette and struggle to stand up. I dust myself off of all the dirt, grass, bugs, and other such things. I turn on my phone flashlight and begin the trek over to my truck.
“Of course, what would killing myself even accomplish? It'll just bring more grief to the people we both love and if we do meet again, you'd beat the shit out of me for being so callous and reckless. Whether I want to admit it or not, life's gonna keep on going whether I want it to or not. I viscerally hate the fact that your casket is the second one that I've ever had to carry in my life, but that doesn't change how I still have more to shoulder later on in life. In theory, I should just grit my teeth and keep trudging forward. But like... fuck man, it's so fucking hard right now and I honestly just want to give up. If I didn't have the potential threat of you and by extension Bapuji beating the shit out of me in an afterlife that may or may not exist, I would've just jumped off the cliffside hours ago.”
I can faintly see the moon's reflection on my windshield from a few hundred feet away. I pull out the remote start in my pocket and press the button. A few seconds later, the headlights on my truck are on and I can hear the engine rumbling.
“I have bereavement leave until the end of the month, so I have time to spend with everyone in the coming weeks. I'll probably make good on calling a few people who reached out to me, and maybe I'll text my mom back. I'm not okay. I don't think I will be for a really long time. I'll still exist, but I know I'm going to come out of this ordeal more dysfunctional than I was before. Maybe someday in a future that's not too far off the horizon, I'll get the help I need one way or the other. But for now, I'm probably gonna be doing a lot of falling, getting up, stumbling again, getting up, tripping again, you get the idea. I just... I just wish that it was me that was dead instead of you. My life never had value to begin with until you showed up. But I digress. Time for me to go home now. I'd kiss ya goodbye, but well... what do I kiss?”
I chuckle briefly before waving goodbye to the moon from the warmth and comfort of my truck. The drive back home will be tedious, but it's better than being totally alone.