Disclaimer: This story was previously published in the Online Edition of the Missing Slate Magazine. It can be found at http://themissingslate.com/2016/07/29/stark-white/
Stark white, the wall in front of her, in glaring antithesis to the colors she feels inside of her: the bleeding purple knot of worry deep in her gut, the feverish orange rhythm of her heart, the angry turquoise throb in her head.
She hears the drag of his footsteps on the linoleum long before the door opens. He tries to keep his feelings masked – trapped in a gilded cage of impassivity – but she senses the unease in his tread, like a deer senses danger. The unease not at what her results might say, but the amount of time she would waste weeping and blabbering.
He clears his throat before lowering himself into the chair.
‘I’m afraid I have some bad news,’ he says, blunt as you please. ‘Very bad news, indeed. Metastasis of the liver and brain along with other organs. Very poor response to the surgery you had almost a year ago. I don’t understand why you refused chemotherapy. You are quite possibly well beyond Stage four …’
She stops listening, her mind – her diseased and dying mind – shifting away from the hospital, the cold hard chair and depressing walls, the doctor’s red face, so healthy that she wants to reach out and squeeze it just to see what vitality feels like. She goes nowhere at first. She might have taken a trip into space; she sees planets and stars, the sun shining bright in her eyes. The thoughts clot into a nucleus, then grow like a developing fetus before getting torn apart. She stares, but doesn’t understand. She sees her living room, her husband with his feet on the coffee table, his eyes closed. She wants to reprimand him, but the words won’t form. Her eyes travel to her son’s room, and she sees his clothes scattered everywhere, forming a second carpet. Oh, Munir! She pictures the room after she is gone… would there be a third carpet, then a fourth? Will Munir just keep piling the clothes until his head bumps into the ceiling when he walks into the room? Would the mess remind him of her, of how she always made it spotless at the end of the day no matter how much he toiled to the contrary? For a moment, just one selfish moment, she relishes the messy room.
‘… not asking you to lose hope, but at this point, trying anything might just cause collateral damage to the body. Speed your disease so to say, but there are clinical trials that I’ve heard of –’
She spreads her hands on the cold glass-topped table. ‘How long until I die?’
The doctor sits with his hands clasped on his desk, his cheeks a rosy red, the pudgy thumbs knocking against each other – the picture of health.
‘Two months,’ he says finally. ‘Three if we’re lucky.’
She laughs, not a bleak self-pitying laugh, but a strong harsh one, the laugh of villains. ‘Your luck has nothing to do with it, doctor.’ And then at the same moment, involuntarily, she apologizes. Her husband’s kindness exerting itself in her words yet again.
The doctor is taken aback. He lifts the lid off a glass of water, and drinks deeply, draining the glass. Savoring it, most probably. Reminding her of the small pleasures of life that will be denied to her in a few months.
She leaps off her chair as if scalded. ‘Thank you, doctor.’
‘But,’ the doctor protests. ‘We haven’t even discussed the clinical trials.’
‘Thank you, doctor,’ she repeats. All of a sudden, words seem unnecessary, taxing even.
She drives herself, even though the cramps in her stomach are so bad that she nearly crashes into the trees. How ironic, she thinks, to die while you’re dying. The thought makes her smirk. That’s the best she can do. She doesn’t think she will ever laugh again. She almost regrets not taking her husband up on his offer to accompany her to the doctor’s.
Of everything she could have achieved in life, she would die a housewife. A nonentity. Like a vase on the mantelpiece. One minute there, and gone the next. Cleared away… replaced with one that has a more pleasing pattern. Already she notices the misgiving with which her husband rises out of bed to run cold water over a towel and bring it back to her so that she can hold it over her clammy body, her burning stomach. Her body that didn’t even have the dignity to give her a warning before preparing to shut down. She could have done more. She could have traveled the world. She could have – she could have. That’s all her remaining time would be like. She could have…
She sees women doing laundry on the banks of the Canal she drives past. They’re elbows deep into frothy buckets, their wet shirts clinging to their buxom bosoms, every scrubbing motion jiggling them like a trembling pudding. She slows her car. It’s hard to look anywhere but at those delightful breasts, so full of life, so cheerful. Yes, it was after hers were chopped off that she discovered that breasts brought happiness. She never knew what that happiness was until it got robbed from her. A thin scalpel, her diseased flesh, and two hours later, she was lying in a hospital room with a flat chest and a gaping hole where that happiness used to be.
She notices the sour look on her husband’s face when his gaze lands on her chest. And to think she had had breasts to envy. He flashes her a confident grin, but she senses his distaste, and in bed, his revulsion. So much that they’ve been celibate ever since. At least she has. She’s certain that he’s been smothering his face into other warm, inviting breasts, a brief respite from the stony figure of his wife, her stoic, vulture-like face that seems to only grow thinner by the day. She doesn’t resent him that.
The water laps up the white foam from the buckets as the women thrash the clothes on the bank, their worries, frustration and anger all balled up into the fists that come crashing down on the poor, unsuspecting fabric.
The water is murky brown, teeming with Styrofoam and islands of inky blackness that might be excrement. One of the women opens the front two buttons of her kameez and climbs into the water, clothes and all. Her kameez billows up as if she’s floating in a multi-colored lifeboat.
This is what life is in its raw form: freedom, a hope, a dream. She stops the car, and reaches out her hand to feel the first droplets of the winter rain on her fingertips. Her skin thrums with the cold. It must be frigid in the water.
That settles it. Before she can let her wayward mind take her someplace else, she jumps out of her car, and runs toward the Canal. Her stomach twists in pain, her limbs buckle, but she presses on. There is a blast of the misty, polluted air on her face, and she stretches her arms, spreads her wings. She is airborne, like a jet, a bird!
And then clarity. Stinging, icy clarity.
Her husband’s face presses up close to hers; she sees the lines of worry, the permanent expression of dread that seems etched on his face. She wants the frenzied, panting version of him, his face twisted into wordless ecstasy. She wants to make love.
His concern infuriates her.
The strength returns to her. She pushes against his chest, hard. ‘Get away from me.’
He stumbles back, surprised, but not shocked. This isn’t the first time she’s behaved like this. ‘It’s her brain,’ he whispers to the baffled nurse. ‘The disease has progressed to her brain, making it difficult for her to control her emotions. It’s not her fault.’
The nurse nods, mollified.
‘Bitch,’ she hisses at the nurse.
‘I can see what you mean,’ the nurse replies. The buttons of her shirt strain across her chest; she notices the safety pins at the back where she has deliberately tightened her shirt.
The nurse wants to make her feel insecure about herself. She thrusts out her flat chest with pride. She hated the feel of the round, unnatural silicone pads they wanted to sew inside her. ‘Give you a more womanly feel,’ a doctor had suggested impishly.
As if fake breasts could ever make up for what she’d lost. What she lost everyday as the disease ate at her. Vanity is the farthest thing from her mind, and yet here she is ogling at the nurse’s chest, grinding her teeth at her husband for the mere fact that he is standing next to that epitome of femininity, while she, wasted and masculine, lies panting on the stretcher-like hospital bed. As if she were already dead.
The smell of garlic and chicken from the kitchen. The maid is hard at work to prepare her a welcome-back meal. ‘Was I gone that long?’ she wonders.
‘Seven days,’ her husband says. ‘Do you know how hard it is to treat an infection for someone in your condition. What possessed you to take a swim at four degrees?’
‘I’ll be out of your hair soon,’ she replies back, seeing and not caring how his sad old face crumples. He’d want to snuggle into someone soft now, someone who’d help him reassert his masculinity, a perfect fleshy creature to remind him what is to be a man.
Curious: wounding him makes her hungry. She calls to her maid to hurry with the food.
Her mind is still clogged from the drugs they’ve given her, like a blocked drain but she marches upstairs. Her son, her beautiful son, the love of her life, the only one to ever understand her.
She stops dead in front of his room. It is pristine, clean, more tidy than she’s ever seen it. Tears in her eyes, those old traitors. First to flee a sinking ship.
‘I’ve asked him to make a habit of cleaning his own room from now on,’ her husband remarks proudly.
‘Do you want a medal?’
That wipes the smile off his face.
Inside her head, she is screaming, throwing the room into disrepair again, flinging the books across the room, scattering the laundered and folded clothes over the floor. Cleaning was all she was capable of, and now that’s gone too. He’s learned to clean after himself; she might as well be dead.
Her son had watched her sheepish entrance into the house nine months ago, the way she clutched a hand to her sewn chest, and she’d seen confusion cloud his ten-year-old mind, the tilt of his head, the question in his eyes. And then, there was rationalization; the remarkable blessing only children are bestowed with. He’d have swallowed whole any story she told him about her changed appearance, but she never said anything. And he never asked. She might have lost weight, for all he knew.
Where was he, her darling boy? There is a delicious irony to life, giving her a child at forty and then robbing her of the pleasure of his company so soon. The ten years feel like a tenuous connection, as short as a brief waving of hands at each other. He’ll forget his mother. All he’ll remember would be a gasping woman on a respirator, too sick to hold his hand, and listen to his stories. Too sick to read him stories. He would find his mother in his father, or in his father’s next wife. For she is sure that her husband would marry again. In fact, she encourages him. He deserves to have someone warm his bed again. He is a good man. Too good for her, which makes her furious.
‘Where is he?’ she rasps, the tears she is fighting back constricting her throat.
Her husband puts his hand on her shoulder, and gives it a light squeeze. She wishes he would reach around her back for her stomach (he used to reach for her chest before), and bend her forward, and take her right then and there. She presses herself to his crotch.
‘Samarra,’ he begins. ‘It’s too soon. You need rest.’
She doesn’t let him see her humiliation.
Outside, the air is crisp and clear. The morning fog has evaporated enough to allow her to see the small lawn that their property holds. She spies the gardener with his lawn mower, his gaze traveling over her body in slow-motion, pausing for a moment at her chest, before proceeding downwards. How he loved to watch her in her night gown, while she sipped tea on the terrace, watching the birds light the sky. She would take pleasure in his lurid gaze, in his open-mouthed wonder at the kindness nature had shown her body.
The perfect woman.
She wonders what he’d say if she were to unbutton her kameez now, and bare her naked torso to him. There would be nothing to see except the thin red scars marking her chest. A misfit. An abomination.
‘You do know that I love you, right?’ Her husband is sitting on the edge of her side of the bed, his expansive hand warming up the empty place next to him. ‘I just thought you should know.’
She turns to him. Relents. ‘I know.’ It’s no more than a whisper, but it carries itself to her husband’s ears.
Lust follows, then intoxication, frustration, and finally dissatisfaction.
They simply don’t have it in them anymore.
She lies in bed until her husband’s side grows cold, and before she has a chance to rise, he is back, slithering between the covers.
‘Have a good day?’ he whispers, unaware that she has lain here all day, thinking of nothing, not even death. Drawing a black space.
‘Terrific,’ she murmurs. ‘Where’s Munir?’
‘He came in to see you, but you were resting and he didn’t want to disturb you. He understands more than you think.’
Great. Another day and she still hasn’t met her son. His hand in hers is cold, or maybe hers is burning.
‘About the treatment,’ her husband begins.
‘At least listen to what the doctor has to say.’
The now familiar sense of detachment takes over. She releases his hand, and rolls over in bed. ‘Leave me alone.’ She’s still too weak to get out of bed, but she masks her inability to stand by pretending to be asleep. He leaves her after a while.
Green meadows, undulating hills, thick coniferous forests, the ferns crackling under her bare feet. The starchy scent of boiling potatoes somewhere, piercing the clean air. She’s in heaven. She’s died and gone to heaven. She lowers herself to the ground, on all fours, and rummages through the thick undergrowth. She’s looking for a window, not just any window, the fabled window that people will have access to so they can see their loved ones struggle on with life. Her breath comes out in pants as she searches; her hands come away with dirt and grass, but there’s no window, no hidden portal into the world she has left behind. Are people even supposed to gasp for air in heaven? Doesn’t everyone get a clean chit of health when they’re in processing?
Her eyes snap open, staring deep into the troubled hazel irises of her son. He’s holding something – an oxygen mask – to her mouth, and she’s panting, gasping for air.
Two months… Three if you’re lucky.
It takes her a full five minutes to get her breath back, and when she’s certain she can speak, she removes the mask, and takes her son’s round anxious face in her hands. Something claws at her deep inside. Grief, she realizes. Grief that she won’t live to see this face grow. ‘My baby,’ she whispers. ‘ I’ve missed you so much.’
He blinks once. Perhaps there’s a sensor that tells him that all’s well for the moment because he pounces on her, burying his face in her neck. She inhales the smell of him: baby shampoo and talcum powder. ‘You smell so good, I could eat you up,’ she murmurs in his hair.
They stay like this, glued to each other, for a long time. Munir whispers something, but she doesn’t catch it. ‘What is it, baby?’
He lifts his head from her neck, and gazes into her eyes. ‘Why aren’t you soft anymore, Mama? You used to be so soft.’
‘Oh.’ She’s speechless.
Tears fill Munir’s eyes. ‘Are you dying?’
He understands more than you think.
‘I’m sick, Munir. Very sick.’
‘But you can get better, right? You will get better. Right, Mama?’
‘Right, beta,’ she says, unable to look into his imploring eyes anymore. ‘Go and play. Mama needs to rest.’
But Munir is latched on to her now. ‘Why don’t you take the medicine that will make you feel better?’
He presses on when she doesn’t answer. ‘Are you afraid that you’ll lose your hair? Because, Mama, if that scares you, I promise I’ll get my head shaved too. I promise.’
‘Oh, Munir.’ She envelopes him in her arms. ‘Everything will be better,’ she says. ‘I promise.’
‘You will take the medicine. Promise me you will.’
‘I – ’ she can’t. ‘I’ll try.’
‘Okay, Munir, I will.’ She says the words in a hurry so that she wouldn’t burst into tears. There is no medicine. She should have undergone chemotherapy, but she had just lost her breasts; she didn’t want to lose her hair too.
There is a limit to the amount of time a child of ten can lay stationary. Munir begins to fidget.
‘What is it now?’ she asks him.
‘Nothing.’ He sighs, a long, suffering sigh. Children his age shouldn’t be sighing like that. What is wrong with him?
‘Tell me.’ Her voice is stern now.
Munir sits up in bed, and crosses his arms across his chest. So much like his father. He has taken nothing from her except her height. His stately features all come from his father. ‘It’s Faiz’s birthday today, and he’s thrown a big party.’
‘Faiz, the neighbor’s kid?’
Munir nods. ‘They’re giving free ice cream and pizza and – ’ his eyes go round – ‘fries.’
She raises herself by her elbows, and leans against the headboard of the bed. She feels feverish, despondent. It’s an effort of will to concentrate. ‘So what’s the sadness for?’
‘Daddy won’t take me. He says he’s too tired. And Nasreen says she’s busy with dinner and dishes. She doesn’t have time to even step out of the kitchen.’ He hangs his head. ‘I’ll just read a book, but I don’t want to.’
She looks at her son’s downturned face, and then at her legs, trembling and weak. Her hands hang loose against her body, devoid of strength. But she is still alive. For two more months or three, she doesn’t know, but as long as she draws breath, she’d be damned before she allows her son to shed a single tear for something she could have done, but didn’t do out of weakness.
She pulls herself out of bed. Her head spins, her body shudders with pain like a hundred lashes have been thrashed upon her. She forces her weak legs forward, pushing her bare feet into slippers. No, she’ll wear proper shoes. No sign of weakness in front of Munir.
The effort costs her. She’s panting by the time she’s ready – wearing a brand new shalwar kameez suit with bright red lipstick and flat golden shoes – but one look at Munir’s astonished face, and then that broad disbelieving smile, and she feels the strength trickle back in her. ‘Let’s go,’ she says.
Awais Khan was born in Lahore, Pakistan. ‘In the Company of Strangers’ is his first novel published by the Book Guild and Simon & Schuster. He is a graduate of The University of Western Ontario and Durham University. He studied Creative Writing at Faber Academy. His work has appeared in The Aleph Review, The Missing Slate, MODE, Daily Times and The News International. He has appeared for Interviews on Voice of America, Samaa TV, City42, Maverix Media and PTV Home. He is represented by Annette Crossland (A for Authors Agency Ltd, London).
In his free time, he likes to read all types of fiction, especially historical fiction and psychological thrillers. He is hard at work on his forthcoming novels.