Flight Risk by Nadeem Zaman

Men conversed importantly about business deals and real estate. The women had their mysterious exchanges. Hassan wanted to stand before an open window and be carried off into the night – on a broom, a flying carpet, on moonbeams, anything. Anything that would extract him from his life, erase the last twenty-four months, clean the slate, and land him back on the right side of the law.

In the hall of the wedding reception, Hassan sat at a table near the door sipping scotch from a plastic cup. He’d brought the bottle with him and given it to a server to keep hidden. The reception, like the country, was non-alcoholic. Hassan had agreed to co-host his niece’s wedding with her parents. He wasn’t sure he could make it through the night without a drink.

The bride and groom on the makeshift stage were pictures of humility and restrained joy.

It was nine-thirty – an hour and a half from the time set down in the invitations – when the last guests made their entrance. At ten the hall was mad with noise.

“Why are you sitting around?” Habib bounded up to him like a misfired cannonball. His sherwani was half a size too small, or he’d gained more weight. The latter was likelier. Habib was a lifelong glutton. “Mingle, bhai. Keep the guests entertained.” He waddled away hurriedly content, as another guest called his name and congratulated him.

 

****

“Leave America,” Hassan’s lawyer told him. “It’s not a problem. A couple months. If you’re needed back earlier, I’ll find you.”

Hassan’s lawyer had spoken these words six months after the disaster. The small private investment company Hassan had started with three other colleagues from his first job out of graduate school had gone under. His partners were out on bail awaiting trial or a plea bargain, on charges of embezzlement, fraud, and money laundering, and one of them had a separate allegation of sexual misconduct.

It was, in fact, Carla, the new hire that Hassan’s associate had (allegedly) harassed that had blown the whistle. With an accounting degree from the University of Chicago she was fixed behind a desk with a computer, a telephone, and a headset with the sole duty of managing travel calendars, appointments, and social commitments of the four executives. It left her so much time that she volunteered for more responsibilities.

Shenice, the office manager, was too happy to oblige. An official accounting department was non-existent, and Shenice was overworked. Carla was a Godsend. Before Shenice was done making the suggestion, Carla had jumped at the prospect of doing the work of three people with disconcerting enthusiasm. Later, Carla would say that she would have said something whether the sexual harassment had occurred or not. She was ethically bound, she claimed, even though the work was outside her job description, to report what she had seen once she had seen it. She was sure, she added sanctimoniously, she could be criminally liable if she didn’t.

“You can’t waste time on those ‘What ifs’,” Hassan’s lawyer said when Hassan wondered out loud if they’d be in this shit if someone knew how to control his dick. “You came out the cleanest,” said the lawyer. “Use it. And I’ll put to use your clean nose to keep you out of jail.”

Plausible deniability, his lawyer reminded him, was what Hassan had the others didn’t. Hassan could, his lawyer also pointed out, have had his being not white on his side. But this was post-9/11, post-financial crisis America.

Hassan was never clear about how his lawyer had gotten around the issue of Hassan being a potential flight risk. As he clicked the two ends of the seat belt on board Turkish Airways flight 376, the catch of the mechanism of either end as synchronized as a kiss, he smiled uncaringly for the first time in months.

 

Hassan went by the bride and groom. The groom nodded politely, and the bride kept her eyes beholden to custom, cast down. Hassan couldn’t believe they still adhered to that dead ritual. Especially not a young woman like his niece, whom Hassan had heard cut down the shrewdest comments with the axe of her wit in public, openly and defiantly, not caring what her parents thought or what it did to their precious image in Dhaka society. Hassan was sure his niece had her eyes up just moments before he’d walked up.

At the table directly in front of the stage sat Samar, the bride’s mother, Hassan’s sister-in-law, with a coterie of family members from both sides. Hassan nodded their way. When his eyes met Samar’s, his spine filled with ice. From her, Hassan’s gaze drifted to Habib, on the far side of the room. He was nodding vigorously to something the man he was talking to was telling him.

Only the rudeness of time had dared trespass on Samar’s looks, leaving her once naturally glowing skin scrubbed with a rough brush, and the need for makeup heightened.

She didn’t have to hide what she was, Hassan thought. In fact, all that make-up made it worse. He wasn’t clueless as to how much Bengali women of a certain social standing worshipped fair skin. He was, however, always dumbfounded by the lengths to which they went to make it not fair, but white. Some added the extra touch of light-colored contacts. Samar’s use of makeup seemed still to be at a reasonable pitch.

The ear without the lobe struck him in the heart the same as it did a quarter century earlier.

 

They’d been married a year when Habib finally had the time for a proper honeymoon. He took Samar to America, with the first leg of the trip beginning in Chicago, where Hassan had recently finished his MBA and joined a prominent financial firm in the city. He’d missed the wedding and so was meeting his new sister-in-law for the first time.

Their plan was to stay two weeks, get around to all the tourist fare in the first, and spend time with Hassan for the remainder. Habib was surprised to see how much time his brother really had. He went to work most days at ten in the morning and was home by three-thirty.

They got to spend a lot of time with Hassan. Samar listened carefully when Hassan spoke, asked questions, and accepted his answers without qualms. Even when they were stories about their childhood involving Habib, and Habib had strong recollections of events, it was Hassan’s version that Samar listened to with the fascination of a child.

Hassan found his sister-in-law too eager, like the white liberal Americans he’d meet who were painstakingly and painfully attentive to every single reference to his immigrant life, and want more. They’d screw their eyebrows to emphasize their excruciating curiosity, and wait for some profound elaboration full of insights and anecdotes of surviving third world poverty.

 

Hassan wondered about them. Habib could be a monotonous bore. Even as a child he could drone on about a topic long after his point had been made. When he was younger it was adorable, and blessed for a sign of budding genius. As a teenager it made him a laughingstock among his peers and classmates. At university it earned him perfect grades. Habib was devoid of a sense of humor. After a joke he would need to be told to laugh. Samar laughed at most everything. Sometimes, while watching TV in between talking, she would let out a giggle at a commercial instead of the actual show, like someone had given her rib a sudden poke.

 

One morning, about ten days into their visit, still jetlagged and unable to sleep, Habib was sitting in the living room channel-surfing absentmindedly.

“That’s the true great American pastime,” Hassan said, startling him. “Flipping channels and finding nothing.”

Habib set down the remote. He yawned and rubbed his eyes. Three years younger than Hassan he looked at least five years older. He wasn’t yet thirty. Where once the fat colonized mostly his waist, arms, and legs, it had started laying strong claims to his face and neck. His eyes were perpetually drooped. His huge belly sat on his lap like a toddler. He gave off, at the moment, a smell of body odor and airplanes.

“I don’t know how it happened, bhai,” Habib said, as if suddenly waking from a dream.

“How what happened?”

“Don’t pretend with me, bhai. You don’t understand, right? how a woman like that,” he pointed toward the guestroom where Samar was asleep, “went for me?”

“You’re married,” Habib said. “You fell in love. She loves you, you love her.” Hassan rolled off one cliché after another, sounding like Habib on one of his monotony binges.

“If you believe that, okay,” said Habib. “But your face says something else.”

“My face is my face,” said Hassan, taking a sip of coffee. “You’re a good boy, Habib. You always have been. That’s why you found a good woman. And you’re going places in life.”

“But you know, bhai,” Habib stared blankly at the TV, “I don’t make her laugh. That is very bad news. It took you five minutes to make her laugh. She laughs here all the time. But not with me. She used to. Not anymore.”

Hassan checked his watch. He had plenty of time before he had to leave, but pushed hurriedly to his feet as if he was running late.

 

Later, that night, Hassan stopped by their door on the way to his room. Habib was talking. It was his signature monotone, which meant he was deep into some topic. Hassan imagined what Samar was doing. Reading, maybe. Or going through TV channels. As he turned toward his room, he nearly bumped into Samar. She had on a fitted t-shirt with BANGKOK written across the breast and loose-fitting yoga pants.

“I was out on the back balcony,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“Who is he talking to?” Hassan whispered.

“Himself. He does that.” Samar went past him and inside. Habib’s voice amplified for a few seconds when she opened the door, and he kept on going without missing a beat.

 

At the end of two weeks, while having dinner one evening Hassan invited them to stay longer. Samar was nodding vigorously before he was finished. Habib hemmed and hawed about needing to get to their next few destinations, and then back to Bangladesh.

“What sort of honeymoon is it if you need to get somewhere,” Samar laughed. “Sounds like we’re on a business tour.” She refilled her wine glass and topped off Hassan’s. Habib eyed how much of the bottle had gone into Samar alone and pointedly took a sip of water.

“She’s right you know,” said Hassan. “I don’t want to meddle, but it does sound like a pretty boring affair when you put it like that. If you decide to stay, this weekend I’ll take the two of you up to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. It’s not much more than a tourist trap, but it has nice and peaceful corners. I’m sure you’ve seen what you came to see of Chicago.”

 

Hassan put the three of them up at the Tudor House Inn in Lake Geneva for the weekend. He shunned Habib’s offer to split the cost. It was a wedding and honeymoon gift from his older brother, Hassan declaimed with mock majesty. Habib would do as he was told. Samar laughed. Hassan didn’t miss the imperceptible expression of displeasure pass over his brother’s face.

They spent the first day walking around downtown, had lunch at an overpriced tourist spot, and stayed until they were politely told by their tired-looking young server that the restaurant was closing to prepare for dinner. Hassan was impressed by Samar’s tolerance. He could see Habib was not. As if to compensate for his lack of control over his wife, Habib insisted on paying the tab. Again, Hassan wouldn’t hear of it. When Samar went to use the bathroom, he patted Habib’s hand and said, “Stop with the paying, okay?”

 

“If Dhaka had about twelve million less people it would be a nice, clean town like this,” Samar said dreamily as they came out of the restaurant. The sun threw shards of twinkling golden glass on the late afternoon lake. A private jet whirred across the clear sky, its tail of vapor the only blemish against the clear light blue. People went in and out of the line of shops. Children giggled and shrieked.

“It’s going to take a lot more than that,” said Habib. “Look at how clean it is here. Can you imagine anywhere in Dhaka staying this clean for one day, one hour even? Unless you’re in Gulshan or Baridhara?”

“Whose fault is that, I wonder?” said Samar. “It’s people like us. We’re the ones living in Gulshan and Baridhara, keeping all the money and the resources there.”

“We can move to Old Dhaka,” Habib snickered. It came out more defensively than in jest. “Then I’ll give you five minutes before you’re screaming for Gulshan.”

“Listen to your brother, Hassan bhai,” said Samar. “He thinks I’m some spoilt brat.”

Hassan gave a perfunctory chuckle.

Fifty yards or so away was a rental dock. Samar wanted to go for a boat ride.

“Not me,” Habib held up his hands in surrender. “I need steady land under me after all that eating and drinking. And I’m still jetlagged, I think. I’d rather go for a long walk and back to the hotel.”

“Can we go?” she implored Hassan, batting her eyes like a coquettish heroine. When Hassan looked to him, Habib shrugged. Hassan had an idea how Habib expected him to respond, and so he said nothing. “Yes, we can go,” Samar answered herself.

 

A few other boats were scattered around the lake, and once they were out far enough, the water was calm and the only sound was of the gurgle and splash from the paddles.

“You’re very good,” said Samar. She was sitting in profile, facing the sun, her skin a rich, lustrous tan, glowing by its light. Her hair went just past her shoulder and was tucked behind her ears. The ear facing Hassan didn’t have a lobe.

“I used to come here with the last woman I dated, almost every weekend,” Hassan said. “It’s been about six months since the last time.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing happened.”

“You just ended things?”

“She just ended things, exactly because nothing was happening. I wasn’t ready.”

Samar laughed, shaking her head. “Hassan bhai, you’ve become very American. I’ve never met you before now, but that’s not the way Bengalis talk.”

Another boat passed by them. A young, college-age couple sat with their arms around each other letting the boat coast. The paddles lay against the gunwale like bored children staring at the sky and waiting for the ride to end. Far away a woman’s voice called a name, and a dog barked happily.

“Was she in love with you?” Samar asked.

Hassan found the way the question sounded peculiar. He would think she’d wonder about how he felt.

He said, “I know she was.”

“But you were not,” Samar said, as though the thought needed to be completed. “I’m sorry, Hassan bhai.”

“I’m the sorry one. You’re very beautiful. My brother is a lucky man.”

“So, she just broke it off?” Samar asked, as if the prospect was unimaginable, and, also, skillfully deflecting Hassan’s compliment.

“I work a lot,” said Hassan. “I know it doesn’t seem like it. I do. She felt neglected. Taken for granted.”

“She’s a woman. She should know what to expect from a man.” She added, “and what not to.”

“I don’t know. But that was it. I guess I didn’t pay her the attention she deserved.”

“I guess not.” The remark was more to herself, but Hassan felt the sting.

Samar turned her face to him. Until then he hadn’t really looked directly at her. Her eyes were squinting against the sun, but she found an elegant way of balancing appearance and comfort. She was a little too thin and small breasted. Her shirt flapped in the breeze like it sat on nothing but bones. Her neck looked soft enough to squeeze away, like a brick of butter that had sat in room temperature for an hour.

“How did you and Habib meet?”

“At university. We were the same batch. But I was in English, not finance. My friend’s brother is his friend. We went out together sometimes, the four of us, and soon, you know, your brother started paying me lots of attention.”

There was a note in her voice Hassan couldn’t quite describe.

 

Back at the hotel Hassan asked if Samar wanted to have more drinks. She was game, but winced with guilt at not being with her husband.

“I should at least go check on him,” she said.

She knocked on their door and let herself in. Habib was asleep spread-eagled diagonally, breathing in heavy bursts, his leg below the knees extending over the edge of the bed.

Hassan was at the bar drinking a scotch and water. Next to his glass stood a glass of red wine. Samar couldn’t help a smile at the thought that he knew she was coming back.

“I couldn’t wake him up if I blew up the room,” Samar said, sliding onto the stool next to him.

“We’ll drink his share, too,” Hassan chuckled.

Night fell outside and dinnertime guests filled up the dining tables behind them. A jazz trio set up and started playing at a low volume.

“You also look tired.”

“I am,” said Samar, “but I won’t be able to sleep. Not even after drinking for most of the day,” she laughed.

“I have to say, you are quite the expert.”

“Well, Hassan bhai, this isn’t my first time in America or my first daylong drinking binge. I went to Vassar for two years.”

“Just two years?”

“I didn’t like it. I liked Vassar. I didn’t like America.”

“Why?”

“Too much of this,” she swept her arm at the room.

“You don’t have to be part of…this if you don’t want.”

“It’s hard not to get taken by it.”

“And you actually wanted to go back to Dhaka?” Hassan asked with unfeigned surprise.

“Dhaka is home.”

Hassan had had many thoughts about home in the last year. He had applied for a Green Card through his job and, all going well, five years down the line would be taking his oath of citizenship. Then, America would be home. Yet still, the money, the haircut, the SUV, and the Lincoln Park condominium was as far into the club as he would be allowed. He would stick out, he would always stick out, and the first thought Americans would have about him would be where in the world he came from.

Soon the room was loud with dinner conversation, music, and children. Hassan ordered a bottle of Malbec and asked to have it sent up to his room.

 

“What was her name?” Samar asked, standing at the window looking out at the lake, the wine glass cradled between two fingers like a brandy snifter.

“Maricela,” Hassan replied from the bed. The room was dark, with the faint lights from the street two floors below delivering the only illumination.

Samar finished her wine. Her silhouette moved away from the window, and Hassan heard the tap of her glass touching the tabletop.

“Come here,” he said, before the intake of breath she’d taken became parting words.

“What happened?” he asked, as he left a trail of kisses from her collarbone up to her ear.

“I pierced my own ear when I was ten,” Samar whispered in puffs of breath that gave off empty stomach and undigested wine. “Got infected and had to be cut off.”

“Tell me something,” he said, touching her warmth. She emitted a gasp. “What do you fear?”

“Remembering this night.”

 

****

Hassan received postcards from Samar from each of the rest of their destinations. They contained short messages, always one of two kinds, either wishing him well or greeting him from whichever place they were at the time. One postcard was a picture of the two of them at the Grand Canyon. Samar was wearing sunglasses, her face pinched in mid-laugh, trying to keep her windblown hair out of her face. Habib stood next to her with one hand in a pocket hidden by his belly and the other behind his wife.

 

It was two months before Hassan heard from Samar again, after they’d returned to Bangladesh. The letter was long, almost ten pages, and jumped back and forth between rambling and regret. Hassan glanced through the pages till the last paragraph of the very last page.

Samar’s voice took on a confident, more assertive tone.

She wrote that night she was very drunk. She wasn’t in full control of her thoughts or her actions. She was tired. The wedding nonsense (her word) had lasted a month and left her drained. Habib, she went on, had become a different man almost from the day after the wedding. In one year of marriage, six months had passed with him working later and later and their relationship growing less and less intimate. She was vulnerable, she said, and that night was a result of her reaching her limit and breaking…of which Hassan took advantage.

Hassan read the last sentence over and over again. Advantage. That meant he had pushed himself on her against her will. It was an allegation. A serious one.

He spent days and nights consumed in panic. He sat down each night with pen and paper. He discarded sheets after writing one unsatisfactory line after another. Everything he wrote sounded defensive. They were the reactions of a guilty man. Guilty even before he’d been accused, guilty without trial. And if ever Samar did take him to court on charges of rape, just the sort of letter he was about to write in his defense would be his undoing.

He felt a wretched sensation in the pit of his stomach. He wanted to slap Samar. He wanted to hold her tight, fuck her again and hear her in his ear telling him how good he felt. He wasn’t that drunk. He remembered. She’d said it. He didn’t have to ask.

He was also getting too carried away. His mind had been too far-gone too long in legal – to use a word Samar had used – nonsense.

 

Then there was another letter from Samar. It was much shorter, about a page and a half. Her handwriting was less harried in this one, as was her tone. Hassan read each word like he was trying to decipher an ancient language. Codes could be embedded in them. But the letter was mostly apologies. It was her vulnerability that she felt he’d manhandled – she wrote the word in all capital letters. Everything else was the cause of both their actions, equally. And by not mentioning her husband once, Samar had written him out of the story.

 

Hassan waved over the server he’d put in charge of his bottle. The server returned with a refill, no ice. Hassan felt the burn of the liquid down his throat and the warmth spreading like wings in his stomach.

A boy of about ten or eleven stopped in front of him, dressed in an executive looking suit and tie combination, a stunted version of the grownup men around him. Hassan gave the boy a tight smile and looked past him at Samar. The boy turned his head following Hassan’s eyes, returned to Hassan again, and sauntered away. The children were bored. The adults were bored. The groom and bride looked bored. Habib was in another part of the hall now, nodding like a supplicant to someone else’s schooling. Samar, Hassan saw, was staring at Habib, too, in what Hassan could identify as unspeakable embarrassment.

There was also something else. Samar’s stare didn’t have the dead resentment with which Hassan had seen countless spouses eye each other. It happened, as it was now with Samar, when the other spouse was unaware of being watched. Samar was paying her husband attention. In return she wanted nothing. She had once told Hassan that Habib had given her the one thing that made him stand out: he’d paid attention. And Samar had spent the rest of her life giving it back to him.

 

The last of the guests left a little after one in the morning. They were the family members that had sat at Samar’s table. Left with Samar were the bride and groom. They were having a conversation that appeared to be happening without words. Hassan didn’t see Habib anywhere. He was good and drunk and craved air.

He waited a few minutes to see if he was needed for anything, and headed for the elevators.

“Wait,” he heard Samar just as he pressed the button. She came out into the hallway, waited for the door to close by itself behind her as if it was a person she was waiting to be out of earshot, and said, “are you leaving?”

“Just to get some air,” Hassan replied. “Where’s Habib?”

“Sometimes you two are so alike. Sometimes so not.”

She’d gained weight, which on her looked healthy. She’d filled out where she was lacking as a young woman, and it gave her the robust vitality of confidence. Hassan couldn’t keep his eyes off the ear.

“Is there anything you need?” Hassan asked, shuffling his feet.

“I’m not in fear. Not anymore. I haven’t been. For many years.” She broke each sentence up.

“Yes, that’s good,” said Hassan. “That’s very good.”

“What do you fear, Hassan bhai?”

“The older I get? Everything. Mostly, though, death.”

“Even more than prison?”

Hassan had had one conversation with Habib about his situation back in the States. Without getting into details, he’d given his brother a snapshot. In it Hassan had made himself the hapless victim, portraying his partners as calculating villains whose true nature he’d learned too late.

“I try not to think about things too far-fetched,” he said. The elevator had arrived once and gone back down.

“You didn’t think it far-fetched back then,” said Samar. “Your brother’s wife. Newlywed wife.”

“No. I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I guess because it got so close. I thought it was mine. Please. That was so long ago, Samar. You said it was both our fault.”

“Yes. Twenty-five years. I guess that is long.”

Samar made a perfect semi-circle standing in place, pushed open the door, and went back inside.

 

The air outside was brisk. A perfect December night in Dhaka. Hassan walked across the street to the park, took a left as soon as he was past the entrance, and continued walking.

He did a couple of fast laps. His heart was pounding and sweat tickled his scalp, making its way down his hairline and forehead. His panjabi was loose and spacious enough to allow good airflow. As soon as he slowed down he felt chilly. The sweat began drying immediately. The damp panjabi clung to his skin like a cold compress. He stopped for a cigarette.

He lit a second cigarette and followed his thoughts to the first seeds of a plan to return to America.

He heard a moan and loud sniffling, and then the person was crying. Hassan approached the figure, about ten feet away, in the farthest corner of the park. If Hassan hadn’t stopped where he had he’d never know there was a person there. He hadn’t heard anything during his laps.

“Habib?” Hassan paused. “What are you doing?”

“Bhai, why did you come here?” Habib wiped his face frantically.

“For a walk. But what are you doing here?”

“I’ve made a big blunder, bhai.”

“What are you talking about? How?”

“That bastard son of a bastard I just gave my daughter to.”

“I was surprised when you told me he was that criminal’s son,” said Hassan.

“Criminal, right,” Habib sighed. “Welcome home, bhai. You’ve been gone far too long. What does that make me?” He sniffled loudly. “My daughter chose him. Fell in love. This is a small city. He’s…not a bad boy.” He was losing control again.

“Habib, go back inside. They’re looking for you. It doesn’t look good.”

A choking sound issued out of Habib.

“So, why did you?” Hassan asked.

“Why did I what?” Habib fought waves of tears.

“Agree?”

“I have to survive here,” Habib sputtered. “You don’t live here, you don’t know. If I didn’t agree it would get out that I held some sort of judgment over the boy’s father, his family. You don’t live here anymore.”

“Don’t tell me about survival. I have a good idea how it is here. Don’t think it’s any different in most other places. You had to go tell your wife, didn’t you? I confided in you as my brother.”

Hassan couldn’t see his brother’s face but he could tell Habib was looking directly at him.

“I tell my wife everything,” he said. Hassan found his sincerity comical, and dangerous. “And she tells me everything. She has from the beginning.”

“Everything?”

“Yes.”

“That’s a good thing. Maybe. You’re a lucky man.”

“Am I, bhai?”

“Isn’t that what marriage is supposed to be? Honesty?”

Habib reached slowly into a pocket and delicately brought out a handkerchief. It had a silver sheen, which caught the floodlights of the park, making a small flash. He dabbed his face, blew his nose, folded the handkerchief, and as carefully as he had extracted it, slid it back into the pocket.

“There are things a man doesn’t wish to know,” he said.

“Like what?”

“Like…things that will never let him sleep at night again.”

“I have a good idea about that,” said Hassan, with the tightness in his head shifting to his heart.

“You have some idea, bhai,” Habib said, giving his eyes a final few swipes. “And there are ones you’ll never have. You’re right. I should go back.”

Hassan felt a tremor pass through him. He’d walked too fast. He hadn’t been on a treadmill or on the racquetball court since the troubles started. His diet had gone to hell. His drinking was, by most standards, at alcoholic levels. As Habib went past him he seemed to be gliding, the extra weight that had been his lifelong companion, handed off to Hassan – a reminder that they shared the same blood and DNA.

“One thing about that boy,” Habib stopped and half-turned. “He makes my daughter laugh. A lot. Real laugh. She sounds just like her mother, too. I’d forgotten how Samar sounded when she laughed.”

Hassan watched his brother walk unhurriedly, reach the entrance of the club, where the guard snapped him a salute and opened the door.

He wanted to walk a few more laps, jumpstart his lazy heart, take in more of the time of year he’d loved for the first quarter century of life. If he didn’t return to America within two weeks, his lawyer would panic. He would insist Hassan get on the next flight out. Was he out of his mind? his lawyer would demand, and then his lawyer would say he knew it was too good to be true to have the one client out of the lot that had a shot at getting off the hook.

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Nadeem Zaman was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and grew up there and in Chicago. His fiction has been widely published worldwide and he is the author of the novel In the Time of the Others (Picador 2018).

Her Silent Man by Nadeem Zaman

Such a quiet boy could not be good. Zulekha saw him the first morning he was on duty, waiting for the girl that was to be his charge. She asked his name, and he ignored her. A snide remark about his being deaf and dumb didn’t make a difference. He went on cleaning the dashboard and only left her steaming even more. That first time Zulekha thought, there it was! Her mother’s warning in motion, that anyone that refused eye contact when speaking or spoken to was hiding something. They were not to be trusted. But even before trust came into play what should come to mind was to run, away, as far from them as possible. As she, Zulekha’s mother, hadn’t done; and Zulekha was not going to do.

On her tea and paan breaks, when the paranoid old widow she worked for allowed them, Zulekha maximized her time. She checked in with Rabiul, the older of the three night guards. He was the only one that didn’t fondle her with his eyes, and who, Zulekha was certain, preferred the plump rumps of young boys anyway. The new driver, however, had left everyone of the same mind as her with his deathly silence.

“He sits in the drivers’ room hour after hour not even once clearing his throat,” Rabiul told her. “The little girl, Miss Ruksana, she talks to him all the time. Nothing. He just says salaam to her once in the morning, once in the afternoon.”

“What is he hiding, Uncle?” Zulekha said.

“Probably from the likes of you, you sneaky husband hunter,” Rabiul teased. “Miss Ruksana calls him Dulal bhai. So, there, his name is Dulal.”

Zulekha rolled the name around inside her mouth. She let it spin and tumble in her head. The line of drivers and other male employees of the building that she had at her disposal at any time had the other maids of the building spitting curses at God for the injustice. They would titter with glee if they knew Zulekha had had the decency to choose the least desirable one of the lot. They’d think her a certifiable idiot. A waste of God-given beauty.

Unpopularity Zulekha couldn’t care less about. She was used to it. Being born in a slum with her looks life had already condemned her to an existence given more to antipathy than acceptance. Even the mistresses she’d worked for over the years eventually let their mental pustules of insecurity break open and run toward her to relieve her of her duties before their husbands left them for her.  Zulekha was not only young, well proportioned of body with that extra heft in her hips that no Bengali man would deride or reject, she was also fair-skinned – that Everest of complexion every woman in Bangladesh wanted to climb and achieve; and she was a virgin. Had she been born into a “good” household, one of the renowned Dhaka families with money and social standing, her parents’ doors would be knocked down day and night with proposals of marriage. She wouldn’t even need to be a virgin. Her looks and family name would be enough to start feuds for her hand.

At six-thirty in the morning, while the widow was still asleep, Zulekha went downstairs for tea. It was a ruse to watch Dulal prepare the car and wait for his little mistress. The amount of attention he paid that car was enough to make Zulekha dizzy with sweet turmoil. That brand new car didn’t need those lovely, long-fingered hands caressing it. She didn’t either, not as easily as the car, just there for the taking. And before any touching, she would absolutely have to know what lay underneath that silence.

“Girl, keep those eyes of yours in more control,” said Buri Bua, the widow’s long-time caretaker. Zulekha enjoyed listening to her morsels of wisdom from another era more for entertainment than practical application. “You think no one sees them roving and roaming. Others have eyes, too.”

And what about the hundred men every few feet whose eyes roved and roamed on her? They were accountable to no one. No old father figure would ever tell them to control their eyes.

Zulekha spent hours during her day, well into the night, wondering what Dulal said to himself in his own head. Among the storylines she imagined was the one where Dulal was married. The one Zulekha crushed with all her will when it cropped up. She told herself that he was too young to be married, that since he never said anything it could mean he had nothing major about his life to share. A wife and family would inevitably be the first thing a man talked about. If he didn’t mention them, Zulekha decided, they did not exist. Since he never talked at all, a world of possibility existed for her to help him make one.

One morning at the beginning of the December winter season, the widow finally announced her annual trip to her daughter’s place in Chittagong. Zulekha used to count the seconds leading to this moment that released her for two weeks to be with her family. This year she had different plans. She was not going home. Buri Amma, too, would be gone to be with her relatives in her village. Zulekha would be alone, with time and freedom to devote to the new driver.

She was confident that he would not get a holiday when his little mistress was on vacation from school because her parents maintained a busy social calendar. Zulekha felt sorry for the girl. She had no friends that Zulekha had seen, and on the slightest of excuses was packed into the car and sent off to the home of some relative or other. Building gossip about the activities of her parents made her hot with guilt and shame, and she kept her ears clear of them.

Rabiul was dozing in the tiny guard’s quarter one evening, shivering lightly. Zulekha brought him an old blanket from the widow’s enormous stash stowed away in the storage room next to the roof. She also bought him a cup of tea and a couple of buns from across the street.

“Daughter, I have no new information for you,” he chuckled. “You can bribe me all you want.” He draped the blanket tightly around his shoulders. “God bless you, child.”

Zulekha drank her tea.

“I’m just a foolish girl, kaka,” she said.

“Better than being a foolish old man,” said Rabiul. “At least I have a bright side to look ahead to. Death. You have only life for many more years.” He touched her head and muttered a prayer. “So, go find what you need to find. Those years won’t be kind, I’ll tell you. They’ll be selfish and demanding.”

The elevator doors opened and Dulal’s little mistress’ parents walked out. Rabiul jumped to his feet. The blanket slid off his shoulders. Zulekha went behind a parked car. As Rabiul opened the gate, the car that was devoted to the little girl’s use rolled out of its parking spot. Dulal stepped out of the driver’s seat held the door open for the girl’s parents. Zulekha had had no inkling he’d been there, the whole time, sitting in the darkness of the car.

“Hassan is a crook, and a lecher,” the wife was saying. “At least Habib has had the decency to be a good husband and father in public.” She disappeared into the back seat. The husband took a moment before entering. He looked around, as if seeking a friendly face, and found Zulekha’s peering out from behind the car she was using as a shield. He shook his head and got in. Dulal shut the door, climbed back into the driver’s seat, and put the car in gear. In her mind Zulekha dashed in front of the car, blocking its path, forcing Dulal to shout at her to move.

Zulekha stood outside their apartment with her finger poised to press the bell. She touched her ear to the door. There were no sounds, but she could tell the apartment was not empty. She knew the cook, another old soul like the night guard, and had brought Eid offerings from the widow in the past, so it wouldn’t be unusual to pay a visit. She rang.

The door opened. The young mistress, covered in a beautiful shawl a few sizes too big for her, stood looking older than her age.

“Apu, you know me, no?” said Zulekha. “From upstairs?”

The girl, keeping her eyes steady on Zulekha, rummaged through her memory banks.

“Is baburchi kaka here?” Zulekha asked.

The girl shook her head.

“He went out,” she said.

 “That is a gorgeous shawl,” said Zulekha. “Where did you get it? From your mother?”

“No,” said the girl. “What do you want?”

Zulekha was potentially asking for trouble if the girl reported her to her parents.

“I want a shawl just like that,” she said. “I’ve seen you in it before, and I wanted to ask where you got it.”

The girl’s face twisted in confusion.

“It was a gift, and you couldn’t have seen it because I’ve never worn it outside the apartment.”

“Is it from a boy?” Zulekha asked playfully.

“What if it is?” the girl said.

“My goodness, apu, you’re a feisty one.”

This made the girl smile. She touched the shawl proudly, almost flauntingly.

“He’s the quietest boy in the world,” she said. “Do you know how I can get him to say more.”

Zulekha said, “I know someone like that, too. But, apu, you are too young to have a boyfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend. He’s just a boy. A grown man. But I call him a boy. They’re all boys.”

“Well, my pretty little apu, when you see him again tell him he should say more. Otherwise us poor girls will never know their minds. Will you keep a request of mine?”

The girl waited, once again, absentmindedly this time, giving the shawl a tender caress.

“Don’t tell your mother and father I was here,” said Zulekha. “I wanted to tell you hello. I always see you. And now we have a secret in common, too, no?”

“I don’t have secrets from my parents,” said the girl.

“Do they know where that shawl came from?”

The girl bit her lower lip.

“Then you do have one secret,” said Zulekha. “One more won’t hurt. It will be between friends, me and you.”

The girl stared long and hard at Zulekha.

“Is that your real skin color?” she asked.

“Yes, apu.”

“You’re the fairest girl I’ve ever seen. My mother talks about having skin like yours, as does every one of her friends, and everyone else. I find makeup disgusting.”

“You’re a very pretty girl,” said Zulekha.

“I’m me. Okay, go now. I have to finish homework.”

Zulekha stood a few moments longer after the door was shut, listening to the silence inside.

It was a weekday, and in the morning Dulal didn’t bring out the car for the girl. The girl’s father had left for work in his car. The mother got picked up by a friend around lunchtime, and the girl went with her. Zulekha followed their cook up to the apartment when he returned from the market.

“What do you want?” the cook asked.

“You need some help?” Zulekha offered.

“You work for another home. Now, what do you want?”

Zulekha said she hadn’t seen the new driver and the girl hadn’t gone to school that morning. She tried sounding nonchalant.

“They want to send the little one to a different school,” the cook told her. “The Umrican one, I think. In Baridhara.”

 “Maybe she will be happier…” she said, trying for disinterest.

“Too much money on too many drivers,” the cook said. “New school will send a bus and drop her off in one. Shahib is in bad place with money.”

 “What about the new one?” she asked, as cautiously as possible.

“Last day was yesterday,” said the cook. He added, “He was a good boy. Didn’t talk, didn’t mix with others, didn’t have bad habits, just did his work.”

 “Where will he go?” she wondered aloud.

The cook poured her tea. “Drivers find work in minutes around here. He’ll be fine. Drink it. It has ginger. Your throat sounds a little raw.” He sat on a stool with half a dozen potatoes and a basket between his feet. “What is it, child? What has your eye swimming with sadness?” The smirk on his face smoothed its wrinkles in a way that seemed to Zulekha a snapshot of the man as a young boy. A mischievous boy whose heart had just broken at the sight of the longing in the eyes of the girl he liked for someone else.

“I’m not sad,” said Zulekha.

The cook’s rheumy laugh gurgled in his throat.

“He was a very likable boy,” he said. Coils of potato skin formed and twirled with finesse onto the basket, like beauty rejected. “A young girl liking him isn’t out of this world. Even our little mistress. Heartbroken, poor little thing. She cried all day yesterday. She doesn’t like anyone, not even her parents, but that boy, her face lit like a hundred light bulbs just at the thought of seeing him every day.” He dropped the peeled potatoes in the basket on top of their skin and set water to boil. “He even gave her that shawl. Shahib and mamshahib are so clueless about their child that anyone could hand her anything and they wouldn’t know.”

Zulekha found it so warming that the shawl was a gift from Dulal that she nearly blurted her feelings for him. And the little girl, cleverer than Zulekha could ever guess!

“So…where did he go?” she asked.

“How should I know,” said the cook, as though he’d been accused of something. He sunk the potatoes in the boiling water.

“No, I mean, where does he live?”

The cook fixed a stare on her for a few seconds too long. Zulekha set down her cup and made to leave.

“Hatirjheel,” said the cook. He sounded begrudging as a reluctant father at relenting on his daughter’s stubborn wish.

****

A young unmarried woman seeking out a young unmarried man in his place of residence would stoke gossip. Zulekha was bound by this taboo, and it was exactly the sort of nonsense she was tired of. Nothing could be done about anything. Everything worth doing was seen by society as moral turpitude or, God forbid, a sin. Haram, as the mullahs and their acolytes and their venomous coterie of apprentices liked to brand what didn’t adhere to their hypocritical view of the world – a world that they decried for its wrongs and called on to emulate them if it wanted eternal paradise in the afterlife. It was this life that Zulekha desired to live fully. And if she was going to spend it with someone then she was going to be the one to seek that someone out.

Over the next several days she chatted with the other drivers, to their delight that she was finally giving them the time of day, and found that many of them also lived in Hatirjheel. One of them mentioned having Dulal as a neighbor.

“Dulal?” Zulekha said, pretending to not know.

“Worked here for a short while. Drove around the little miss in C-2.”

“Oh. Where is he now?”

“Where he works I don’t know. But he lives in my building. He’s right next door to me. I think he’s a fruitcake, you know what I mean,” He grinned. “Do you want to see where I live?”

Any other time Zulekha would shut him down. She’d seen him hound the other maids of the building, and on the street. He was fat and had breath as foul as a gutter. He had a wife and children in his village, and Zulekha had overheard him speaking in the vilest terms about them to anyone willing to listen.

“Sometime, yes,” she said. “When?”

He had not expected her to say yes so easily, or at all. His eyes enlarged and he was momentarily speechless. The other drivers were watching from the drivers’ room behind the guard’s quarter. Whether she liked it or not the gossip would spark. Nothing in life came without a price.

“Day after tomorrow,” said the driver, almost frothy with excitement. “You can go with me when I’m done with duty.”

“No. Tomorrow,” Zulekha countered. “On one condition.”

The driver’s excitement paused.

“You give me the address and I will meet you there,” said Zulekha.

The next evening she stood outside the driver’s door. He’d given her his name. She couldn’t recall it. She was paying him less than half a mind when he was rattling through a thousand details about his life. His aspirations held little interest for Zulekha, more so because she knew he was baring all the details as a preface to even more mundane details. Zulekha gave her memory another knock and pull. It was Al-Amin.

She knocked.

Al-Amin was dressed in a starched white kurta and white pyjama, his hair slicked with coconut oil that Zulekha could smell from three feet away. He asked her to come in but she stood outside absentmindedly because she was wondering if Dulal was behind the door to her left or to her right.

“Girl, are you still asleep?” Al-Amin laughed. “Come inside and have a cup of tea.” He moved in closer. “Don’t worry about anything. You’re not the first young girl to visit a man here. No one cares. No one looks.” His breath choked Zulekha.

“Which one is the other driver’s home?” she asked.

“Other driver?” Al-Amin’s face contorted. “What other driver?”

“You know, the one that used to work for the little girl,” said Zulekha.

“Oh, that one. Why do you care about him? Don’t tell me. I’ve heard enough about that dumb lout.”

Suspicion clouded Al-Amin’s expression.

“Is that why you’re really here? To see that tongue-less halfwit? He’s a pansy, didn’t I tell you?”

“No…” Zulekha started.

“No what?” Al-Amin fumed, spewing blasts of hot fetid breath.

“I was just wondering…” said Zulekha.

“Talk to me, you bitch! I’ll smack the silence out of you in two minutes!”

“Why would I come to see him when I’m here with you?” said Zulekha. Men of unpredictable temperament like that got away with everything, always blaming their temper flares on the women after beating them.

 Al-Amin eyed her suspiciously.

“You’re not lying to me, are you?” he said.

“No,” Zulekha replied.

“Then say so,” said Al-Amin. “Inside, come.”

 “It’s such a nice day, let’s go for a walk by the water.”

Al-Amin frowned. He grew impatient. His fingers closed into a fist and opened repeatedly.

“Walk? I don’t like walking,” he said. “Don’t fool around with me, girl. I can see right through. You led me on and now you’re here outside my door, and you want me to believe you want to go for a walk by the water?”

“Brother – ”

“Don’t brother me! I’m not your brother!”

“Then I will go.”

He was trying to be intimidating, but all he was was a doddering drunk dissatisfied with his life, with only himself to blame for it. Zulekha even had the flicker of a desire to help him. But he was a rabid hound. Nothing she could do would make him react other than with defensive rage.

“Try and go, see what happens,” said Al-Amin. “I’ve had enough of sluts like you. All the same, every last one of you.” There was scant wind behind his words.

 “Go inside and get some sleep,” she told him. “You’re unwell.”

Al-Amin laughed.

Zulekha didn’t want to leave without knowing, maybe seeing, Dulal one more time. One more time was enough to let him know her feelings, even if he kept silent as a statue, or, if he did speak, he said something to break her heart.

“And I’ve seen enough tramps like you!” Al-Amin suddenly shouted. “Whores, manipulative bitches! All! You show one face to the world and carry around another!” He lunged at her. Zulekha made a quick move. Al-Amin stumbled past her and crashed against the railing. He caught the end of her dupatta and pulled her back. People saw what was happening, but paid it no mind. Zulekha saw faces taking note and then continuing with their business.

“You came here to see me and see me you will,” Al-Amin growled into Zulekha’s face. He shoved her toward his door by her neck. Zulekha braced herself against the doorframe, but his strength was impossible. He pushed her shoulders, jammed his elbow into her spine, and shoved his foot into her lower back.

She heard a choking gasp, and the weight of his vehemence lifted off her. She was free. Before she turned around she caught a glimpse of the inside of Al-Amin’s room. A dingy light bulb hung from a wire, barely illuminating a cramped space littered with old boxes of food, greasy clothes, and tattered posters of semi-nude white women on the scabby walls. Flies buzzed about. The whole place smelled like it was rotting from deep within.

Al-Amin was against the railing, gasping and sputtering. Between him and Zulekha stood Dulal, with his back to her, at the ready to take the other driver again if he charged.

“You dumb son of a cunt,” Al-Amin stammered. “You tried to strangle me. For that? That putty whore?”

Zulekha moved out of the doorway, and away from the two men. Al-Amin was bigger than Dulal. Next to him Dulal was laughably built, with extreme knock-kneed legs, spindly arms, and smooth glowing skin that would be the envy of any woman. He didn’t even have proper facial hair growth. Curly coils sprouted up and down the sides of his face and bloomed on his chin.

Dulal’s stood aside, opening the route to Al-Amin’s room. It was an option and a silent command in one. Al-Amin glared at Zulekha. A small crowd had gathered. He made no eye contact with them. He brushed past Dulal also without looking up at him. The disappointed crowd dispersed in seconds.

Dulal headed toward his room.

“Can I come in?” Zulekha tried to get between him and the door. “Please. One minute.”

Dulal moved her out of the way, gently. He led her to the stairs. At the top of the stairs he stopped. It was as far as he was going to escort her.

“Normal people talk, even once in a while, no matter how quiet they are. Otherwise they’re hiding something,” she said. She added when she saw that Dulal’s silence was bent upon being resilient as a fortress, “My mother told me.”

Zulekha thought she saw his chin twitch a few times, on the verge of saying something, and she too stayed where she was.

 “Just once,” she said. “Anything.”

She spied the beginning of a smile. Maybe it was her imagination, and if it was, she was fine with it, because imagination existed to make reality bearable.

This boy – this man – could not be bad. Her mother didn’t know everything. In recent years Zulekha had had growing doubts about the woman’s entire system of belief. They were little more than a collection of recriminations and regrets. She had no friends. No one in the village liked her. People went out of their way to avoid her. Zulekha had grown up influenced by the notion that every man and woman within spitting distance of her mother had it out for her, that her mother was forever the victim of others’ scorn. The truth was people had better things to do than connive against a woman whose war was with herself.

Zulekha’s mother, like Zulekha, was once a head-turning beauty that no one believed was full-blooded Bengali. With skin as fair as Zulekha’s – many would argue fairer – and eyes the grey of a cloudy dawn, she had to be of mixed breed. Rumors floated when she was a child that her mother, Zulekha’s grandmother, had seduced the Brit in whose house she worked as a maid, in the absence of the man’s wife.

Truth was, neither Zulekha’s grandmother or her mother knew the secrets or the answers or the final word on any one matter; they made them up, and when they could no longer bear their own fabrications they grew hostile. The hostility got passed down from one generation to the next. It now weighed down on Zulekha, and she knew she had to crack it open to expose its empty innards and throw it to the winds. If Dulal was bad, he was bad. That was how he was created. Just as Zulekha was created with the blood mixture of her foremothers.

Zulekha had been staring at Dulal so long that he waved a hand in front of her face to break her out of her reverie. She was thinking, and she had also been staring at the mark on his forehead of regular prayer. She didn’t pray. She never would. That much had to be clear, if she and Dulal were ever going to amount to something. Prayer was a good thing, but it didn’t automatically make people good.

“Okay then,” she said. “I will go now.”

Dulal touched her shoulder as she turned.

“It’s very nice to walk over there,” he spoke. His voice was rich as a milky-sweet cup of fresh-brewed tea. Early morning wood-smoke lingered beneath the words. His Bengali was not the crude Bengali of the Dhaka streets. There was finesse in it, even better than the movies, because it was real. No one was telling him to speak that way.

It wasn’t a direct invitation or a question. His hand remained on her shoulder. Zulekha felt eyes on her, on them. They could be imaginary, they could be real. It didn’t take long for people in this city to go from minding their affairs to investing in the business of others with more opinions and conviction than they ever gave their own. Swarms of them were out there to pounce hungrily on the spectacle of someone else’s troubles.

 “You should talk more with that voice of yours,” she said. “Also, you have a very good eye for a man. The young mistress, she loves your gift. I would, too.”

Dulal gently pushed her on, down the stairs. Zulekha saw familiar faces. Three other maids from her building, bosom-friends with imaginations as nefarious as their wagging tongues. They saw her, too. And they saw Dulal, starting with his hand on her shoulder.

If people were going to talk, they were going to talk. Given the opportunity they would malign God.

Zulekha took Dulal’s hand in hers and walked into the crowd.

Nadeem Zaman was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and grew up there and in Chicago. His work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, WinningWriters.com, Open Road Review, The Milo Review, The East Bay Review, The Coppefield Review, China Grove, Eastlit, 94 Creations, Dhaka Tribune, and Salon.com. His novel ‘In the Time of the Others’ will be published by Picador/Pan Macmillan in July 2018, and his short story collection ‘Days and Nights in the City’ by Bengal Lights Books in November 2018.