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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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…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.