Falling for Grace
The edge of the heavy black suitcase fell on my big toe without any crunching voice to accompany the contact. Unfortunately. It would have made the accident a bit overbearing for the kind of dramatic departure I was about to have. I hissed and shot a look towards my driver named Rehman; whose hands held the detached strap of the bag. His eyes bulged at the sight of my angry toe. It was visible from the slit of the wedges I wore.
The emotion behind those words was lost in his attempts to wrap the strap around the handle of the suitcase efficiently. At some level, I understood his hurriedness was driven by my indignation towards affairs that are delayed. He knew the ill-fated drop of the suitcase on my left foot had made us late. However, at that moment, I was not impressed by his diligence. I wanted to take my driver by the collar and shake him till his teeth chattered and broke off in pieces.
‘You owe me a proper apology with sincere regret in your eyes, you moron. Leave the bag as it is,’ I shouted inwardly grinding my teeth together.
Rehman was oblivious to the wrath that was brewing inside me and continued hauling out the luggage from the trunk of the car. I took deep breaths and looked away; for a moment I realized how ridiculous my rage was. The poor man was not at fault and undoubtedly not the right person to be the victim of my pent-up anger.
“This is it.” Rehman straightened with beads of sweat shining on his forehead. There were only two bags for crying out loud. Twenty kgs each! I almost rolled my eyes.
“Fetch me a trolley.” I said, thrusting my phone & purse inside the aqua-blue handbag that I had with me all along and slung it over my shoulder. Rehman obliged and returned a minute later with a clattering trolley and an excited man clad in a heavily creased, white uniform. I waved my hand to dismiss the porter and gestured Rehman to load my bags on the trolley.
“Are you sure you don’t need the porter, Madam?” Rehman asked as I grasped the cold metallic bar of the trolley and pushed it for a trial-run. The wheels rolled smoothly and noiselessly.
“Yes.” I gave him a curt nod as a gesture of leave-taking, pulled the white crocheted shrug blowing around me in the evening wind and strode ahead. The green lights flashed on the screen above my head. I carefully read the status of my flight. At the sight of the sign of ‘boarding’, I marched to get past the security to find the check-in counter of my airline. My breath was a tumult in my chest. It was only when I got my boarding pass handed that I exhaled deeply. There was exactly an hour to go until my plane left this accursed land. After getting past the immigration counter, I headed to the departure lounge for economy class passengers and looked for the most comfortable spot. I needed two empty adjacent chairs. Such an arrangement would most likely guarantee complete solitude with zero human contact and minimum noise. This ideal place would qualify as a comfortable spot for me. I miraculously found one. My few minutes of bliss were ruined by the arrival of my 16-year-old cousin, Ghaniya.
“Can I ask why you are sitting in a closed café?” She shouted. Yes, she did. I slowly turned my head to eye her. Ghaniya was leaning against the wooden wall of the café that came up to her waist with her hands dangling over it.
“Keep your voice down,” I murmured and folding my arms, I straightened out my aching leg.
“My loud voice is not as peculiar as your hibernation in this abandoned place, Abeer. What are you going to say if someone from the airport authority shows up?” Ghaniya sniggered. “Sorry sir, but I am allergic to human interaction. It causes my already bloated head to overstretch its limit and explode.” Her imitation of my voice was anything but amusing.
I meant to keep my voice soft but unsurprisingly it came out as a grunt. I sighed.
“Why did you leave ahead of us? It didn’t make sense to take three cars to the same destination. You know your Khala Amma was worried when she couldn’t find you. I don’t know why she bothers but she cares,” Ghaniya continued.
I remained silent.
“Are you coming now? We are sitting over there near the bookstore.”
Complete silence. Ghaniya did have enough encounters with me to know that my resolution to remain silent was not to be trifled with. Nevertheless, she went on chattering.
“You know you are failing awfully hard at trying to blend. You look mighty ridiculous sitting all by yourself with a puffy face and a red nose in a place closed for renovations.”
I relaxed my stiff arms and reached for my bag. I overheard Ghaniya chuckling, but I continued to ignore her. I lifted the yellow ribbon slightly and ducked. Come to think of it, I thought, it was indeed stupid of me to choose this place. What on earth was I thinking? I continued cursing myself as I walked. I was sure it was going to be Ghaniya’s latest joke to amuse our families with. This doubled my regret.
“Here,” she tugged at my sleeve. Apparently, I was headed in the wrong direction.
“I got it,” I snapped at her and took a sharp turn around, spotting the bookstore.
“Here you are.” The voice of Khala Amma reached my ears.
She was sitting at the end of the long line of chairs with her feet placed on the seat in front of her. The last buttons of her abaya, (the ankle-length plain black robe with sequins around the hem and sleeves), were open, allowing a sneak to her flowery, emerald shalwar kameez underneath. Her face was slightly wizened. The jaw was starting to set loose, changing her once angular face. A few strands of her gray hair poked out from the scarf she had wrapped around her head. She happened to be the elder sister of my deceased mother. I was told my mother looked nothing like her with her black eyes, oval face & petite stature.
“Where were you?” Khala Amma asked as I bowed my head so that she could place a kiss on it.
“Nearby,” I muttered. Her chocolaty eyes caught my attention. My own reflection in them was distorted. That was nothing novel. I recognized worry swarming in her brown ocean.
“She fancied having a cup of coffee before leaving,” Ghaniya jumped in without needing any invitation.
“Coffee?” Khala Amma released my forearms as she eyed her annoying daughter. “Abeer never drinks tea, let alone coffee.”
“I know right,” Ghaniya giggled. What was up with her? I wanted to shake her and ask, ‘Why so bubbly?’ Soon enough I painfully recalled she had always been like this.
Taking my shrug off, I sat next to Khala Amma and a strong whiff of rose water reached my nostrils. Unmistakably, she had scrubbed her face with it before leaving the house claiming it kept the skin young and smooth. The evidence said otherwise.
“Why did you leave abruptly?” Khala Amma asked in a low voice for which I was grateful. Ghaniya was still looking at me gleefully. She hadn’t even sat. She was as watchful as the porters at a local railway station who pounce at every passenger passing off as affluent in their eyes.
“I was afraid my baggage exceeded the limit. I had to make sure,” I lied. My fingers weaved through the knots on the balled-up shrug I had in my lap.
Ghaniya, disappointed by the turn our conversation had taken, flung herself to the seat next to which her mother’s feet rested.
“Yes, paid 150 Dirhams.” Another lie.
I wanted to keep my eyes straight ahead but that would mean looking at Ghaniya and I would never in my wildest dream entertain such a sight now. I turned my head sideways. I noticed a small girl with her head bowed. Her long strands of jet-black hair served as a veil around her face as she slid smoothly on the moving walkway. For a fraction of a second, it reminded me of the girl in the Grudge, but the rationale instantly alerted my heart to calm down.
“Tch. Nabeel never does a single job the right way. He had assured me a week ago that none of the bags he weighed were past the limit,” Khala Amma lamented the non-existent weighing disabilities in her son.
“Maybe he forgot to do mine,” I suggested nonchalantly; my gaze transfixed upon the Grudge girl.
“Maybe,” Khala Amma mumbled, lifting her left knee a bit. I felt her gaze scrutinizing my face. A muscle in my temple twitched right on cue, giving away my agitation. A warm scruffy hand engulfed mine.
“It will be all right,” Khala Amma whispered. Her head was turned towards me. A mass of something got stuck in my throat that did not budge despite my repeated attempts at clearing it. Only the mass worsened. I feebly struggled to free my hand out of her grip.
‘It will never be okay. My fiancé called off our wedding just two days before the ceremony and the trip that was supposed to be a part of my honeymoon has become a voyage to my ultimate abode with my guardian.’ I bit my tongue. I tried to swallow my pride. My hurt.
“Abeer?” Khala Amma called me softly.
“Yes?” I had managed to let that single word out! The screen between my mind and tongue had quivered but had regained its strength in no time.
“Beta, Allah knows best. Don’t worry. He didn’t deserve you, sweetheart.”
‘Haven’t you heard grapes are sour, Khala Amma?’
“Indeed.” I gave a nod out of respect for her elderly status.
“You will see. In few years, you will have a great husband that you fully deserve and three healthy children to brighten your day,” Khala Amma patted my clenched fist in my lap. I successfully restrained the snort that had grown from erupting.
‘Oh, the love you have for me has blinded you. I hate children!’
“I can’t even think of something better.”
My response was robotic, sarcastic even, so I never knew what made Khala Amma nod her head enthusiastically. For a moment it felt like she was mocking me.
“You will see,” she repeated after a two-second pause. That pause held the tumultuous collision between the thunderstorm I had within me and the ocean of serenity oozing from Khala Amma. However, the dark clouds hovering over me devoured the peace she offered, and I began to endure its aftermath. Perhaps Khala Amma had sensed that. She made another failed attempt to squeeze my hand; my fingers were still clenched tightly into a fist. An insurmountable rock.
“We all will.” This I said with utmost truth and determination.
‘Every soul shall witness my damnation, Khala Amma,’ my inner voice added. “It will never be okay. I will always be the girl who got dumped on the eve of her wedding.” I was not exaggerating. Where I came from, people did not forget those kinds of things. They did not let you forget either.
Caught up between raging repressed emotions and the situations that demanded release, it was difficult to decide what turned me into the person that I had become. Maybe it was the fact that I never saw my parents who passed away in a train accident when I was only three. But I did not know my parents. Their pictures were like any other images whenever I came across them. They were strangers to me. So that was not the reason. Maybe it was because I was raised by a woman who, despite her devotion towards me, had six other children of her own. Whenever Nabeel pouted for being denied the last drumstick because it was given to me, I claimed I hated chicken. Or the time Rida was bought her first tricycle with a backseat? I never once asked to share a ride because there always had been an unsaid declaration that it was Ghaniya’s exclusive right to that sort of luxury. I remembered all those instances without letting resentment get the best of me. One time though, it did get the better of me. At the age of nine I was playing with my paternal cousin, Kamran and he slapped me on the cheek in the presence of his mother, my Taaijan, without as much as a flinch on his behalf. He even took my toys away to use them to play with his cousins (somehow, they never truly became mine). And when his sister noticed my tear-stricken face and reported it to her mother, Taaijan stepped forward calmly and held my chin. A second later, she had jerked my face sideways and that had stung more than the slap. So Abeer never was a trouble for anyone. Abeer was a good girl who never complained. Respected her elders. Studied hard. Took care of household chores. Loved everyone. That was the person Amaar had fallen in love with. Apparently. She was too nice to not love.
The night of my Mehandi was dreamlike. I had donned on a yellow frock with green lace on the hem and a choridar pajama. I overheard people saying I looked lovely. Those words brought a tinge of pink to my cheeks which were devoid of any makeup. Those words might have evoked admiring glances from Amaar too. Whatever. I was happy. That night I went to sleep thinking how the years of consistent pretense and drama were almost over. I could be myself without any fear of being judged. I would not be mocked for feeling everything so deeply. That was it. However, Amaar who had walked into the commitment unawares, did not take it too well probably. Abeer was not a good girl. She was vicious and full of spite and hatred. She was not the one he had fallen in love with anymore.
I remembered the day (two months before the wedding) Amaar and I sat together in the verandah on the takhat (a high wooden bench covered with rich, finely embroidered rug) as our families dispersed after having the evening tea together. I told him how grateful I would be to leave my family behind after marriage. Amaar was surprised. He thought I got along well with Khala Amma and co. We did. How could we not? I always was the person they wanted me to be. I was never given the luxury to be reckless and defiant. I went on telling him about my list.
“What list?” He asked with his brows raised.
“Of people who wronged me.” I replied in a matter-of-fact voice. Amaar laughed out loud. I remained unsmiling.
“Oh, you are serious.” His laughter died, and his brows knitted. “Who’s on the list?”
“A couple of people. I can’t wait to get back at them.”
I played with the ring around my finger without realizing. I was mentally preparing myself to list the names and the stories behind them when I felt his hand take mine in a gentle grip. He straightened my bent fingers.
“Or,” he began. “You could just forgive them.”
I tilted my head slightly to eye him. Forgive? He had not even listened to what I had on my mind. He jumped the gun. If my eyes seemed accusatory, they were rightly so. Before I knew it, I was crying silently.
“Hey, I didn’t intend to make you cry.” He leaned forward and lowered his tone a little. The rest of the evening was lost in his attempt to soothe me. That was one of many instances where Amaar, in his own words in the letter he wrote to me two months later, ‘caught a glimpse of the real me’.
Just two days before our wedding, Amaar had called me to the roof of his house which was adjacent to mine. I did what I never had done before. I sneaked from my house to get to his, crumbling my pride underneath my eager unguarded feet on the way. His face looked perturbed. He walked to and fro with his hands folded behind. He felt like a stranger then. He let me know how different I was from what I had appeared to be, how he was not ready for the ‘unpleasant’ revelation and how unfair it would be for both of us if we got married. The only response I could give him was a request for him to disclose the breakup to the family. Turning my back to him, I retraced my eager steps with no hesitation whatsoever. The sting of a decade-old slap was far more painful than his rejection.
The announcement for our flight over the speaker startled me. Ghaniya, Khala Amma and I walked to the line to board the plane. I wanted to strangle the man who checked my handbag. His tie was ridiculous; who wears a black tie over a white shirt? And his hair. It was more reason to maim him. Sleek black hair, with each strand combed towards one direction and the sideburns so accurately tailored. Boring. Who does that?
“Ma’am? You can go ahead.”
Oh my god! Even his voice was excruciatingly painful to my ears. I gave him a sweet smile and did as asked.
The plane hostess was beaming at me long before I reached her. I wanted to ask her why. I did not remember buying her a lottery ticket that she won. She graciously took my boarding pass and with a slight wave of her slender arm motioned me to my seat.
“Have a great flight, Ma’am,” Her teeth were sparkling white. The crimson lipstick brought out their brilliance.
‘Have a nice time frying in the infernal pits of Hades.’ I shot back, having a mind to haul the annoying, little cap she had over her head secured in place with a lot of bobby pins. I hoped she went bald after that. A push from the back propelled me forward. Who else could it be but Ghaniya? She even sidestepped me to get to the seat near the window. A string of profanities flowed from my lips, low enough not to be heard by anyone but me. I took the aisle seat. Khala Amma settled in the row behind us. The moment I buckled myself in, I was slapped senseless with the realization of the thoughts I was having. What was wrong with me? Since when did I start having such aggressive, violent urges? I clasped my hands together as cold swept me from head to foot.
“What’s up?” Ghaniya asked as she rampaged through the seat carrier filled with safety instructions, travel magazines & a list of in-flight movies in front of her. Her hand emerged with a flyer clutched tight. She looked at it disapprovingly.
“I am scared,” I whispered.
“Who knew you would still be scared of flying after all this time?” She started chewing a wad of gum noisily. “I have no shame in admitting that I am, but you should get over it. You are a grown-up.”
I turned my head toward her. She was playing with the end of her ponytail as her mouth worked like a five-year-old. Her restless eyes roamed here and there, scanning the other passengers as they slowly and gradually filled our section of the plane.
“What?” She finally looked at me with her mouth hanging open. The sight was revolting but not distracting.
“I wish I were sixteen again,” I spoke. Her mouth closed slowly and for the first time since my engagement broke up, I saw her looking at me, really looking at me. Her penetrating gaze had noticed the raw emotion I was experiencing. Ashamed at my confession in front of an unruly teenager, I busied myself with checking my phone for messages. Wishful thinking still reigned over my juvenile mind. Ten minutes later, as the aircraft began gathering speed on the runway for take-off; I felt Ghaniya’s hand sliding over the armrest to hold mine.
“A scaredy cat I am, you know,” she said in a strangled voice. I nodded, not minding her hand over mine the least. Our hands never broke apart for an hour and a half until the wheels touched UAE soil, the land of United Arab Emirates. I did not mind that.
It was a year later when I found myself standing in front of an easel with a paint brush stuck between my two multi-colored fingers. The portrait was okay. I needed to improve it. I had taken a liking to painting when I tried it for the first time in primary school. That kind of artistic expression had amazed me. However, as an adult, my perception of art changed; its essence was reformatted for me. I always thought art is what amazed anyone. Yet colors ceased to amaze me. What now amazed me was the way people got through life gracefully; succumbed to trials when deemed necessary; graciously accepted help when given, and celebrated joy whole-heartedly. All of that had eluded me. What had been natural had become unnatural in the course of life. The simplest things bore a weighted burden upon my poor capacities.
The day when Amaar broke off our engagement had not turned out to be totally disastrous after all. It did make me have a wholesome session of dry heaves and puking, but nobody knew about that. That very night while everyone had engaged in close, huddled meetings of threes or twos and thrown suspicious, confused peeks towards me every now and then, I sat comfortably in my room with a notepad and a pen. The pages held a list of people that I had made whom I could count on. As I put a jagged line through names, the list dwindled; it was getting ridiculously short. I went through every crossed off name one by one. My parents, nonexistent siblings, friends, adopted family and now Amaar, my romantic partner. With the last name scratched out, I felt strangely at peace. I owed nobody anything anymore. I had been liberated. So, when a fatigued Khala Amma had come in to cuddle me after being pestered by every living relative, I soothed her instead and she could not have been prouder of me. I am sure she thought, what an exceptionally selfless human I was! Little did she know, that the kind of solace I really needed was now beyond human capability to offer. A blank sketchpad sheet accompanied by a Sharpie colored pen or a fine point art brush were now my solace. These objects never demanded anything more than pure raw expressions from me and that was all I ever needed. Abeer did not need to be a good person anymore. Abeer was accepted the way she was. And she and I were finally at home.
A hand slapped my shoulder, announcing the arrival of a friend, Hadia. And I was brought out of my reverie.
“Oh my God, Abeer. This is so freaking good. I never knew you were that brilliant at painting.” Her gasp was too close to my ear. I took a noticeable step back.
“Really?” I was unnerved.
“Are you kidding me? I am blown away, you idiot.” She slapped the back of my head. She was big at slapping things. I was not a thing. Someone needed to teach her the difference.
“Wow,” she breathed, boring her eyes on the angel with its mammoth, feathery wings down; the snowy hand held upwards with a forefinger pointing towards the sky, stood out on the murky background. I joined her in her scrutiny.
“Is the angel leaving for the heaven or landing on earth?” She asked a few seconds later. That question was a good one.
“I am still deciding,” I responded and blinked twice to bring myself out of the dreamlike state. Hadia retraced her steps to inspect the other of my paintings in the half-studio, half-bedroom we were in. I shot her back a wary look.
“What happened to the stories you were writing?” She asked. Her voice drifted to me from some distant place.
“What would happen to them?” I muttered.
“Send them for publication. What are you waiting for?”
Substance, I thought. “I don’t think now is the time,” I retorted, peeling off the dried paint from my hands. It was time to lead my friend out of the studio to the kitchen.
“Come on. I will fix you a sandwich.” I held her shoulder and shepherded her to the door. As we walked, she talked. Nonstop. Her anecdotes of the trips to Malaysia were of least interest to me yet I pretended to harbor a great desire for her to ramble on.
“That is heaven on earth, Abeer. I am telling you. You should go,” Hadia plopped on one of the three chairs around a white table in the kitchen as I pulled out frozen Kebabs from the refrigerator.
“I will. Got a lot planned for myself.” The sizzle of the heated oil when it contacted the iced pieces of meat elicited a warm feeling within me.
“Good.” She had started munching on a banana. “Where are Khala Amma and Ghaniya?” Every one of my friends called her Khala Amma.
“Off to get monthly groceries.” I flipped the kebab to expose a golden-brown side.
“Are you ever going to go back to Pakistan?” Her question was shot in a hesitant voice. I lathered the insides of the soft bun with mayo garlic sauce and took my sweet time to respond.
“Of course.” I said lightly. “What kind of a question is that?”
“Oh, I just thought…,” her voice trailed away.
“Thought what? Pakistan is my motherland, Hadia. Nothing will ever draw me away from her,” I smiled. “Here,” I swooped down to place the plate in front of her. “Bon appetite.”
Five minutes lapsed in silence. I scrubbed the worktop clean and set everything back in its place.
“Your stories, what kind of endings are you planning for them? Happy or tragic?”
Goodness, she knew exactly what to ask to leave me speechless for a moment. I took a seat in front of her. A one-word answer would never suffice her. I did not think it would satisfy me either, considering the complex dilemma that question held. The stories I read growing up involved all sorts of magical characters trapped in some situation or another but almost always those stories ended up as ‘and they lived happily ever after’. Life was what happened after that ending. That is why I thought those stories were useless. The stories would have made more sense if they embodied real life better. Something like once upon a time, there lived a man with a big heart and a brain half its size, and he lived happily after. Now that kind of story made sense. But the problem was writing those. In my mind, there were characters without stories. There were stories without end. My thoughts remained disconnected; my feelings unknown and my actions automated on past learning and instruction. Therefore, it was harder than one could know to compose a story, let alone the one that captured the gist of real life. Wasn’t that (life!) the reason behind my incoherence after all? With nothing else at hand, I was dangerously close to doing what I criticized.
“No one is so full of bullshit than an artist.” It slipped from my mouth. I folded my arms against the plastic surface of the table.
“What?” She started laughing. “It is the first time I am hearing a writer insult herself.”
“It is because I am the only writer you know.” I grinned.
“Fair point.” She returned the grin with equal zeal. “But what makes you say that?” She pushed her empty plate away and wiped the traces of sauce from her mouth with a napkin. I looked down and began tracing the lines grooved in the table.
“I don’t know,” my voice trailed off. I pinched the bridge of my nose before proceeding further. “Things I write in my stories are not so in reality. It’s like I conceive pathways to a mirage.”
“But why would you do that? Why would you lie?” Hadia inquired. I blinked. The answer had always appeared to be obvious to me even though I had never said it out loud before.
“Because Hadia, no one wants to see Hell.” She stared at me. My eyes stared back. “The world is so full of aching hurt that the mere mention of unshed tears or broken hearts or shattered souls sends people scampering away. No one wants to hear the sob story. People want to be enthralled by a happy one to forget the anguish of their own. No one wants to listen to more woes with enough of sorrows on their platter to cope with already.”
Hadia continued staring at me. I understood that. It was rare for her to hear me talking in full-fledged sentences that meant something.
“Besides,” I cracked a smile with an obvious intent to break the ice. “The moment I saw a tragic ending, I realized how much of a sucker I am for the happy ones.”
“But what about you, Abeer? Tell me the truth. Are you still suffering?” Her voice leaked desperation. It made me a tad optimistic. That last question led to more expression than I would have given myself liberty for. However, it was one thing to express freely and genuinely and another to look one in the eye when you did so. I looked down once again.
“Suffering is to me what fire is to a moth. Yes, such fatal obsession might kill me. But that is what keeps me alive too,” I sneaked a glance to gauge her reaction. Her eyes had started to water. “Call me crazy,” I continued, “But I like it. I love it actually. And I never want things to change.”
Hadia stood up mopping the tears that had spilled. She had always been too emotional. Perhaps that was why I kept her around. We complemented each other.
“I am doing it for myself.” I pushed.
“You are crazy, Abeer. You are.” She turned her back on me. I took the chance to forcefully rub my eyes too. Darn it! She made me cry too.
“You know what?” She faced me again. Gone were the tears and a manic excitement had replaced them in her eyes. “Amaar has married. People are saying he was in love with her all this time. He is about to have a child too.”
Each of her word cemented me into a stone sculpture.
“There.” She smiled with a wicked glint in her eyes. “Now you have something.”
Hadia, my dear friend, was the cruelest yet kindest person on the face of the earth, ever. Her hysterical nods signaled truthful, unconstrained conveyance of my mixed sentiments.
“Give my salam (greetings) to Khala Amma.” And with that she had left.
I did not remember how long I sat there. My mind revisited the lost conversations I once had during the period of whirlwind romance, the promises that now turned out to be nothing but hollow words, the sweets gestures that were an act put up for the world to accept our version of love and those gifts that now I saw and reserved as the artifacts of the most beautiful monster I ever encountered.
Slow steps took me to the balcony of a small three-room apartment on the fifth floor. The wide, black road stretched underneath. Not a soul was in sight. Every now and then a car would speed by. That was all. I sat in one of the two chairs staring into the blue, clear sky. I brought my legs up and wrapped my arms around the knees as my chin rested on top. A few of the strands came loose from the hair bun perched delicately atop my head and fell loosely over my eyes. I let those renegades roam aimlessly. I should have been in pain. I was. I would be. It had not simply evolved into an emotional hurricane yet. When it would, I would bleed on the canvas and let the uncontrollable torrent draw patterns seamlessly.
Many of my stories lacked real substance for a long time. In this difficult moment, my prayers had been answered. It was time to fill the crevices with my true feelings. The recent conversation with Hadia offered me a start at redemption. To bring closure to the process, I retrieved the letter Amaar wrote me a week after our breakup. I had it tucked safely within the pages of my diary in the second drawer of my desk in the bedroom. It was not hard to find. Upon retrieval, I went back to the balcony. It had been some time since I last read it. I was scared to unfold that piece of paper. In that letter, Amaar had penned his journey of loving me to fearing me to finally leaving me. I remember the first time I read his letter, I bawled and hit myself with the book I was reading. The second time I perused it, I had a faint smile on my lips. The third time I had laughed rather manically. God knows what the fourth attempt might have brought on but back then I refrained for another go-round. Numbed by the roaring thunder of solitude crackling from the walls of the apartment I was now in, I glanced furtively in the oval mirror surrounded by metal wall planters and straightened out the paper to find out.
Time did fly. It was a year later when I found myself behind a podium in front of a chattering crowd. My appearance was yet to be registered by the audience in the crowded hall. Once it did, silence engulfed the auditorium. I was at an annual story-writing contest for emerging writers arranged by the establishment literati. My short story won first place in fiction. While it was not really part of the award, one of the judges requested that I read the story to the audience. I hoped it was not obvious, but I was grateful that the podium shielded my shivering legs. With a huge gulp of breath, I started reading in a loud and clear voice. I could sense restlessness erupting within the crowd as I neared the ending. I took a deep paused breath to add a dramatic touch as I turned to the last page. I announced the happy union of two souls; wrenched apart by fate but united by love who saw the successful delivery of their premature child in the labor room. The silence was deafening. I folded the papers nervously in half. As if on cue, the entire auditorium burst into applause. My shoulders eased.
An image of Hadia as she interrogated me in my studio in front of my portrait of the angel flashed before my eyes. It was two weeks ago.
“So? Did you decide? Is the angel landing on the earth or departing for heaven?” She had asked me.
Everyone was clapping. Some even stood up. They looked happy and there was something else too I had yet to put my finger on.
“Yes,” I had replied thoughtfully. The finished portrait was throwing off hypnotic vibes past the clear glass.
It was hope. I could see hope on many of the faces as they applauded me. It was at that moment, I perceived and felt deeply each sentiment I spoke and shared. My words had bloomed and burst like buds in the early days of spring.
“Falling from grace?” Hadia had inquired.
“No,” I said instantly. “Falling for grace.”
The wild clapping continued. I gave a slight bow of my head to acknowledge what appeared to be compliments. I could not make out what people said. They had transitioned into shapeless colors and indiscernible noises. I was beginning to taste the sandwich I had for breakfast in my mouth, so I figured it was best to leave. One last wave signaled my departure from the stage. I descended the steps. The claps could still be heard. With my back to the audience, I finally smiled. After all, who does not love a happy ending?