Jamilah was silent during the drive back home. It was midnight by the time the couple left the party. Ismail had sailed through the evening on a steady stream of stories that kept everyone entertained. Jamilah had spent the whole evening in a daze. The tangible evidence of her husband’s mistress had left her in shock.
Ismail was oblivious to his wife’s behavior. She sat with her head against the foggy window. The AC was on full blast and Ismail raced his Mercedes through the empty streets ignoring the blinking traffic lights. His voice rose above the radio as he talked. Jamilah paid no heed to his monologue but the words “Lakshmi Nagar” and “land” caught her attention.
She turned to her husband and asked, “Lakshmi Nagar?”
“Yes, Syed’s father-in-law has a plot that he’s selling. I’m thinking of purchasing it.”
“So you can shack up next to your lady love.“ Jamilah blurted.
Ismail was taken aback but refused to look his wife in the eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“She was at the party, Ismail,” she said, her voice small and heavy with tiredness.
“The girl. Please don’t act dumb.”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” said Ismail, his eyes focused on the road.
“I’m not stupid, Ishu! I saw you two, okay! The other day, outside her house, I saw you! Don’t even try to deny it!”
Ismail was silent. He drove swiftly, his knuckles white from gripping the steering wheel too tightly. Trees, houses and pavement dwellers whizzed past. Ismail was silent, trying to figure out what he could say next to appease his wife without implicating himself.
“She’s so young,” Jamilah said softly.
“You have a daughter! What were you thinking?! For so long I have turned a blind eye to everything, Ismail. But this…” Jamilah shook her head, “this is my limit.”
“She’s different.” Ismail blurted.
“Alisha. It’s different with her, Jamilah. I love her.”
Jamilah walked up the grand staircase that led to her sister’s house. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in an ornate mirror on the opposite wall. Her eyes were red and puffy. Her face was swollen from staying awake all night. After her husband’s confession last night, her mind was in a tizzy. The blatant simplicity with which he said he loved his mistress appalled her. He simply said I love her as if he were confessing this to a friend. Did he expect her to pat his back and send him off on an adventure with his lover? What is the correct response for when your husband says he loves his mistress?
The weight of Ismail’s confession enveloped the air in the car, crawled around Jamilah’s neck and prevented her from speaking. She didn’t know how to reply to his statements so she let it hang there, unacknowledged.
As soon as they reached home, she exited the car and walked quickly to her bedroom. Jamilah ripped the clothes off her body in a hurry. She threw on her nightie, crawled into bed and turned off the lights before Ismail could remove his shoes. As her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness she could see Ismail’s shadow cast in front of her. He was standing at the entrance of the bedroom unsure of his next move. He took a faltering step towards her but backed off. He was never good at diffusing Jamilah’s anger on a good day. Tonight, he decided, he wasn’t even going to try.
The door shut and Jamilah pulled the bed sheet closer around her. She was wide awake. A million different options rifled through her mind. For years she had ignored her marital problems and now they loomed in front of her, demanding to be confronted.
She was going to leave her husband, she decided, impulsively. She couldn’t stay in a neglected relationship anymore. Year after year, woman after woman, she had exhausted her supply of patience. Her work had kept her mind busy for so long. It wasn’t just her assertion of independence, it was her safe place. The minute she entered the doors of Deluxe Avenue she left behind the rest of the world. During her work hours, her mind was at peace. Making deals, talking to buyers and customers, the sounds of a life unburdened by secrets filled her ears and quenched her thirst. She wanted to replicate that feeling of contentment she felt from nine to five every weekday into the rest of her life. Every day she wanted to wake up with her mind at peace and go to bed with her heart full.
Ismail was a blemish, she realized sadly. Marriage was supposed to make one feel fuller, a part of a whole. But she never felt that sense of security from Ismail. His cheating was just one aspect that scarred their marriage. He was a worldly man, rich in wealth and fast cars but as a person, as a partner, he brought nothing into the relationship. They never had anything in common and through the years the “adjustable” gap between them only widen until they occupied different ends of the same chasm.
The marriage didn’t make Jamilah happier. She definitely wasn’t in love with her husband. There were instances where she found him agreeable but she was never in love with him. Upon realizing that Ismail was the baggage she carried that weighed her life down, she was willing to let her husband go.
Despite her heart accepting this bitter truth, Jamilah was still anxious. She wasn’t taught to have these feelings. Nothing in her life had prepared her for this moment. But the urge to remove her husband from her life flowed through her body and tugged at her heart.
Jamilah’s mind was working quickly trying to predict what the next ten, fifteen years of her life would look like as a divorcee. She naively thought she could handle being a pariah. The return to her paternal home with a child in tow would be hard to navigate but at least she’d have help at home while she worked. Of course, Jamilah and her daughter would have to fend for themselves what with her brother’s children monopolizing the house. And maybe in a few years, she would get married again, she thought. Jamilah finally gave herself the permission to plan her new life. A shiver of excitement passed through her as she thought about the handsome buyer who visited her shop. Ajmal was so charming, she thought. He made her feel at ease. He seemed like the kind of man she was meant to be with.
In all her life Jamilah had never fantasized about a man. As a young girl, she knew that all her crushes and unrequited loves would be pointless as she’d marry whomever her parents chose for her. The initial few months of her marriage to Ismail he was loving and he showered her with gifts and affection. But as the henna stains faded from her hands, so did his attention.
Now finally she had met a man who had the potential to give her what she wanted. But she wouldn’t give herself the freedom of falling for him yet, not while she was still tied to Ismail.
Jamilah knocked at her sister’s door. If there was anyone she could talk to, it was her sister. Afreen was older than Jamilah. Married to a handsome doctor, Afreen was a simple, sensible girl who did not possess Jamilah’s passions.
“Hi Jams,” her sister said opening the door, “come in, no.”
Jamilah walked in wondering how she was going to acknowledge her husband’s infidelity to her sister. While the sisters shared everything, the subject of Ismail’s affairs was never discussed. Afreen didn’t want to cause her youngest sister any worry by bringing up what she’d heard amongst her social circles. And Jamilah was too embarrassed to give truth to the rumors she had heard. As each brick of her perfectly constructed life was falling down, this was another wall that was going to be demolished.
“So…”, Jamilah started twirling the edge of her dupatta between her fingers, “I have to tell you something.”
“What is it, Jamilah? Don’t scare me.”, Afreen said having never seen her sister this nervous.
“It’s Ismail. I think I’m going to divorce him,” said Jamilah, the words rolling out of her mouth rapidly, worried that if she didn’t say it now, she might never.
“What are you talking about, Jams? Don’t be crazy.”
“I’m divorcing him, Afreen. I cant stay with him anymore. There have just been too many secrets. Afreen, he loves her!
“Alisha. The girl he is cheating on me with. She isn’t the first you know! I just can’t take it anymore.”
Afreen sat down on the sofa. “I knew he was up to something, Jamilah. I mean, so many people told me about it. But I just didn’t know if you were aware and if you weren’t, then how was I going to tell you this? I’m so sorry, Jams.”
“I knew too, Affu. I knew. I always knew. But I could never accept it! And now it’s gone so far that I cannot ignore it anymore. I cannot keep acting like everything is fine when it isn’t. I have to leave him. I don’t want to feel like this anymore. I am tired and I am just done.” Jamilah sat with her hands covering her face.
Like her patience, she had exhausted her reserve of tears too. She lifted her head up to her sister, hoping for validation.
After a few minutes of silence, Afreen spoke up.
“You know you can’t, right? As much as I think you should, you know you can’t?”
“But I can’t stay with him anymore, Afreen.”
“Jamilah, how do you think you’re going to leave him? And have you told Amma?”
“I want to put as much distance between us as possible. I have to get this divorce to survive.”
“Jamilah.. divorce, it’s such a huge step. There will be a tidal wave of repercussions, Jamilah. Do you think you can handle it?
“And even if you could, do you think it would be worth it? You have a daughter. Can you imagine what it’s going to be like for her?”
“I haven’t thought that far. I’m sure I will figure it out when the time comes.”
“Have you told Amma? You know that if you leave him you would have to live at home?”
Jamilah began to question her confidence in the decision that she had taken so wholeheartedly. She would have to return to her paternal home as a divorced woman. Her mother would beg and plead her every day to return to her husband’s home. The insult and embarrassment of having a tainted daughter at home would ruin her mother’s social life. Jamilah’s brother Mansoor would become her guardian. After living as a wife with a whole house at her disposal, returning back to her childhood home would mean the loss of certain privileges.
“I could live alone. I could take up a separate house somewhere.”
“Don’t be silly, Jamilah! You can’t do that. How can you live alone?”
“So what am I supposed to do? Go back to my marriage like nothing ever happened? I’ve tried to ignore the problems for so long, believe me. It doesn’t work! He is just going to keep doing what he does and now with this new girl, I don’t know what he intends to do! I CANNOT LIVE THIS WAY!”, Jamilah said her voice trembling as tears ran down her face.
Afreen had never seen her sister so shaken up. She was scared and worried about her sister’s condition. As children, they had grown up hearing stories of unfaithful men. Nothing was ever brought to light since the casualties huddled in corners of kitchens and wept while other women patted their backs and spoke to them words of courage. Divorce was uncommon in Mallikottai. This strata of society possessed so much wealth and power that women were scared to consider the possibility of divorce. They were worried for their children and for themselves being ostracized. A divorced woman, especially one that returned to her paternal home was shown no support even from her own parents.
Jamilah sat on her sister’s sofa, her fingers trembling, her eyes bloodshot trying to figure out a way out of the maze where she wouldn’t lose everything. She looked at her sister pleadingly for guidance. But both women knew that even a gentle tug at their fates would unravel a storm so vicious that no one could contain it.
Ismail sat inside his car, his fingers drumming impatiently on the steering wheel. He had been waiting at the meetup spot for half an hour. The black tinted Mercedes was inconspicuously parked in a deserted alley. This was the spot Ismail and Alisha had chosen for their secret meetings. Equidistant from both their homes and deserted enough that no one they knew would pass through.
Every Wednesday for the past two months Alisha would leave her home under the pretext of visiting her friend, Saroja. The driver would drop Alisha off at the end of the street. She and Ismail would then spend a blissful two hours whispering sweet nothings to each other. But today, Alisha was late.
Ismail was growing restless. Just as he was thinking about messaging her, a shadow tapped on the tinted window of the car.
“Get in, Alisha”, he said opening the door to the back seat. A rustle and a click of the door later, the smell of jasmine invaded the car
“Sorry I’m late, Ismail. But my father took forever to leave home.” Alisha said.
Ismail sat next to her and studied her face. Oh, how he loved her perfect face. Her lips, perfect and pink. Her bright eyes glimmered with a shyness that captivated him.
Alisha loosened the dupatta around her head. A wisp of soft, black hair escaped from a fastened clip. The way she brought her slender hands to tuck the rogue lock behind her ears, electrified Ismail. The gentle clinking of her bangles and the smell of her perfume threw his heart in chaos. Every action of hers sent a ripple through his heart.
He was captivated by the vision in front of him. As he memorized her every movement, his consciousness reminded him of his wife. Jamilah. Ordinary, every day Jamilah with her simple face and tamed hair. She never captivated him the way Alisha did. The way he felt around her, it had to be love, he thought. And although he knew he wasn’t doing right by his wife, he pushed the thought aside.
“Hi!” said Alisha, nudging Ismail’s shoulder. Ismail was putty in her hands. He gave her a sheepish smile as his eyes drank in the exquisiteness of the woman beside him.
“Hi, Alisha. I’ve been waiting to see you all day.”
“Same here! I just could not get out of the house in time!”
“So,” Ismail said taking her hands in his.
“So…”, Alisha said, her soft breath tickling his ear “Did you bring it?”
“You know I don’t go back on my promise!” Ismail said as he handed her a white box. Alisha grinned and quickly opened the box. Underneath the white paper covering was a simple, oblong-shaped pastry, generously doused in powdered sugar.
“You are the best!!” Alisha squealed, giving Ismail’s arm a tight squeeze. She carefully removed the white paper around the pastry. She licked the flecks of sugar from her fingers and took a bite of the pastry. The custard oozed from the pastry and the powdered sugar cloud left flecks on her face and clothes, Alisha was elegant in her sticky dessert consumption. There was nothing more charming to Ismail than the speck of custard that was left over on the edge of her mouth.
Once the pastry was demolished, Alisha lay back on her seat, satisfied, various types of sugar coursing through her veins.
“Thanks for bringing this custard dream, Ismail. Atha never lets me go to this bakery. It’s in the street with all those mechanic shops, no, so he doesn’t let me. But you are my hero”, she said playfully hitting him on his shoulder. “You always bring this every time we meet!”
“I know how much you love it,” said Ismail.
“Alisha, I have something to tell you.” Ismail took her hand in his. Alisha’s hands were soft and unworked. There were no creases or rough patches. Just a smooth expanse of fair skin dutifully moisturized every night with Nivea cream. Each fingernail was long and perfectly rounded, painted with the most delicate shade of pink. A cluster of diamond rings sparkled on her fingers. Her hands felt light and soft in Ismail’s rough hands.
“What is it?” asked Alisha.
“Alisha…I love you.”
“Aww, so sweet you are. Thanks”, said Alisha.
Ismail didn’t look away. “Alisha, I really love you”, he repeated.
“A lot”, he added hoping that this would make his case.
“Okay, why do you keep saying that?” asked Alisha with a smile on her face that did not reach her eyes.
“Alisha, I love you so much that I want to marry you.”
“What?! You are crazy, Ismail!” Alisha shouted.
“Just listen to me. I spoke to my wife about us. She is angry but I’m sure she will get on board. It’s going to be hard, convincing everyone but I know that our love for each other–“
“Okay, STOP IT!” Alisha yelled. “Are you mad? Did I ever say I want to marry you?”
“In case you didn’t realize, you are ALREADY MARRIED, Ismail. I don’t want to be anybody’s second wife, okay. And did you really think we were serious? I cannot believe this!” Alisha said, her hands flailing in rage. “You really thought I wanted to marry you?!”
“Ismail”, she said looking straight at him. “I am getting married in six months. My parents introduced me to a boy yesterday. He’s a businessman from Chennai and I will be moving there. This thing between us” she motioned, “its over. It was never meant to last. It was never real. This was just time pass. I thought it was the same for you. But clearly, I was wrong.”
Ismail was stunned. He did not expect his declaration of love to carry no weight. His grand gesture fell flat and meaningless. He had misread all of Alisha’s signals and had let her invade his heart.
“I thought you loved me, Alisha.”
“Well, I never said that did I?” she asked, rolling her eyes.
“I thought you understood what we were doing. Anyway, I think I’d better leave, Ismail. You’ve become serious and this friendship isn’t fun anymore. And I’m glad that was my last custard dream. I should start losing weight for my wedding, so looks like everything’s worked out fine. I’m just going to go, okay.”
“I’ll drop you home,” Ismail said.
“No, it’s better this way. Bye,” she said squeezing his arm. “Thanks for all the custard dreams.”
Alisha quickly got out of the car and banged the door shut leaving behind her a lingering smell of jasmine and a broken heart.