By Bobuq Sayed
Edited by Omar Sakr
When silence settles over the house once again, Farya quietly opens the door to the boys’ room and watches them sleep through the crack. The covers have been kicked to the perimeter of the bed, carving angels out of the sheets. Farya stalks into the room and lifts the doona back up to cover their bodies. She stops and sits with the peace they are enjoying now. They hate it when she observes them, whether they’re asleep or awake, the same way she used to hate her own older sister watching her play in her imaginative worlds as a child. She would rush to her bedroom door and slam it shut as soon as she caught wind of being watched, throwing her toys to the ground and ending her fictions for the day in a huff. Her lips draw tight in a purse. How quickly life sneaks up on you like that, she thinks. Closing the door to their room, she walks down the hall, picking up the boys’ debris as she goes. As usual, Arjan’s hot rods are sprawled across the floor. It looks like the cars have crashed, flipped and fallen away from the plastic motorways. Arben’s Happy Meal animals are more consolidated towards the end of the hall, facing each other in a circle, as though holding a conference. When she reaches the kitchen, she begins the process of packing away dinner. The nuts must be covered in cling wrap, the rice must be scraped from the bottom of the pot and the salad will barely be edible tomorrow.
She wants to believe that Amir will be home soon, that he will be hungry and apologetic when he returns, but she knows better. He could be at his brother’s house playing tabla with the men, he could have gone out with his coworkers and forgotten to tell her, his phone could be dead. But experience convinces her otherwise. Not knowing is easier to digest. Of course, the less respectable possibilities will return to haunt her later in the night, after she has washed up and changed into her night gown, when sleep evades her. These are the nights when the ambiguity makes it manageable. She is far more lonely on the rare occasion that she and Amir are both awake in bed together at the same time, when the children are asleep and none of her efforts to cajole his lust summon anything but resentment. “Farya,” he warns, furrowing his brow towards her wandering hands. “Enough.” He rolls over and she stays motionless for a while, paralysed by the silence. When Amir finally begins to snore, Farya flips herself and gets comfortable, while the conversation they don’t have hangs tensely between them like the foiled punchline of a joke.
My buzzer goes off. The sound interrupts a grotesque dream where I’m running through endless grids of dark and windy trees. It takes a moment of lurching dread before I realise the sound isn’t part of that paranoid landscape. I reach over to the floor beside the bed and fumble for my glasses. My phone tells me it’s 5:15am, right about when the last clubs in Melbourne disperse. I walk over to the intercom and, without pausing to inspect the screen, accept the visitor into the building and unclasp the door’s lock. The nice part about this new apartment being so small is that I can get from bedroom to door and then crumple back onto the mattress again before my eyes adjust to the light. Besides the asymmetrical blue evil eye hanging from a nail above the front door, the walls are uniformly white and largely unadorned. The kitchen and living room are conjoined, separated only by the dull-green linoleum floors beneath the sink, oven and fridge that surround the entrance hall. I am half-asleep when I hear Amir creak into the apartment, kicking his shoes off and dropping his car keys on the bench. The fridge door opens, humming, fluorescent. I hear the snap of a plastic tupperware lid, probably the leftover kofta chalau from the other night. Though I can’t see him do any of this from the bedroom, there is something safe about its familiarity, how welcome someone else can feel in your home.
The weight of his body sinking onto the bed wakes me a second time.
Besides the white jocks, all his clothes are strewn across the floor. He stretches his knees around my legs at the foot of the mattress and slowly crawls atop my body on all fours. It is clear that he has been drinking, and his movements are more lumbering than graceful. I feign sleep, amused by his attempts to arouse me. I can feel his dick hanging down loosely in his underwear, newly unencumbered by shorts, tracing the length of me from the bottom up and getting harder as he rises to greet my face. There is no need for clothes between us, especially in the heat of these late Summer nights. “Janum,” he says, teasingly. I can feel the grown out stubble from his beard tickling me as he kisses the soft of my neck.
“Janum,” he says again, now closer to my ear. He presses his pelvis down hard on my body and holds me taut against the bed for a moment. The groan he makes from the back of his throat rumbles, and I meet its urgency with a gasp. I roll over to unfurl my legs around him. He sinks onto me and I raise my head to meet his lips. For a moment, between the grind of thrusts, we lock eyes, and start panting as the pace of our sex escalates. I am driven to aching moans. We do not exchange many more words. Soon, the fervour of his need will recede, the reality beyond this room will set in and he will disappear once again.
A well-visited memory is like a castle whose gates are fortified with fabric. The moat is shallow, the draw bridge opens without fanfare, and the grand hallways are oiled by the passage of time. When Farya finally turns the house’s lights off for the night and slips into bed, the darkness cloaks her in a sense of possibility. Her eyes discern only the faint edges of nearby surfaces, and she is suddenly a woman of anywhere, free again to paint the night with the script of her fantasy. The betrayal and abandonment that sticks to the walls of the house fall away without light. Somehow, alone in the bedroom, the warmth of her own body underneath her fingers is enough to awaken her desire. Closing her eyes and leaning into her fantasy, jealous thoughts of Amir relent. Soon, her mind returns to Hamid.
The first time she remembers him she was fourteen. She had wandered into the outskirts of her parent’s property in Ghourian, a rural district outside of Herat filled with pastures and hills that back onto the Heray river, which travels from the mountains of Central Afghanistan to Tedzhen. Locals didn’t need fences to understand the boundaries of mine and yours. In the Summer, the trees became ripe with fruit and made perfect hiding spots for the village children to disappear into for hours at a time. Friends found each other after helping their families with the day’s work and played until dinner, if they were lucky. She first spied him by the edge of a creek at the foot of some rocks, where a smaller stream was cascading into a pool of jade green water. Breaking free of the tree line, she bursts right into the stillness of his rest. He kneels down in a squat, cupping water into his mouth with both hands. When he sees her, the rest of the water spills out of his hand and he gets up. They stay there, observing each other from a distance. He is thinner and shorter than Farya, who is already well within her pubescence, and his cheek bones slope high over his face. Tired of watching, Farya hops over the rocks at the foot of the pool. She climbs over them and into the hills, judging from experience which rocks are sturdy enough to hold her weight.
Behind her, she can hear Hamid following and calling out for her to stop, clumsily sending rocks down the hill as he climbs. Her feet are nimble and quick, and she quickly gains distance on him. Soon, his laughter fades out of earshot and she hides behind a large rock face jutting out from a knoll. She is panting and the anticipation sends adrenalin coursing through her veins. When he finally catches up to her hiding spot, she jumps out from behind the rock and wrestles him to the ground. They jostle their weight back and forth and roll over the small patch of grass between rock forms. Somewhere in the cheerful cries of joy, Farya pins Hamid beneath her and taunts him playfully. They catch each other’s eyes and the competitive air shifts. Farya feels something grow beneath her open legs and lowers her body down onto it. Whatever it is feels good rubbing against her. With one hand, she reaches into his tombon and grips the firmness of his cock. The weight of it surprises her, but she holds on tight, unclear on how to reciprocate the stimulation she feels from its touch. With her other hand, she grabs the back of his head and presses his face into her chest, grinding it onto her breasts.
Excitement erupts across their young bodies. Something about this is wrong, but they are far away enough from home for it not to matter. Farya moans from the perch of her marriage bed and caves into her wetness, pulling her underwear down and sliding her fingers over her clitoris. She returns to this memory often. It is a complex form of lust because, as much as she fantasises for Hamid, the desire is also tied up in another longing, one involving pre-war Afghanistan and the innocence of that time in her life. Little did she know that, while a mischievous girl was coming of age, warlords were already scheming in the mountains nearby, and the Soviets were planning their invasion. Just another Bollywood storyline, she thinks half-heartedly, interrupting her own moaning to laugh. Except, this time, the privates aren’t covered and the endings are real.
As the sun begins to rise, the heat of the day creeps in through the curtains and the bedroom starts to bake. I lay awake, listening to Amir’s loud snores. His nostrils flare with each exhale and I feel his lungs expand and deflate under my face. A layer of moisture has developed between my ear and his chest overnight. For the first time in months, we lay together in bed for hours after sex, tangled up in brown limbs and drenched in each other’s sweat. The furry black hairs covering our bodies stick together in the heat like dark dandelions when we touch. This morning, the fan is turned to its highest setting. It whirls above us, slicing the warmth from our bodies and sending shreds of recycled air careening back into the room. If it is already this hot, the day will likely be scorching. I trace the crest of Amir’s bicep lightly with my finger, shepherding moisture back and forth with each rub. My eye socket is nestled snugly onto his collar bone and his fingers are interlaced behind his head, suggesting a relaxation that his eyes always betray. Always, it is his eyes where I find him hidden, in his eyes that he is longing most, even at the point of orgasm, for something else. Something I cannot give him.
Normally, the gulf between us reappears and cleaves us apart right after he cums. It is a certain kind of cruelty that, like clockwork, the moment of greatest proximity, where we pour our lungs into each other, is followed quickly by a resentment so searing that he can’t bear to look me in the eye. As soon as his breathing levels, he will rise and shower immediately, as though the ejaculate bares the heavy burden of his shame. Perhaps there is less to be ashamed of in the Summer, when everything is dripping wet. I smirk at the thought. Without sex beckoning, the entwinement of our bodies holds a more intimate form of sexuality, one far more illicit in its taboo.
My arm is wrapped around his hairy chest, like a rib bone banished from his rib cage, pulling the girth of his torso closer to mine. I am aware of the desperation of this gesture, aware that it does nothing to change our situation but, at the very least, I want to prolong this tenderness. For a brief moment, I feel rage coursing through me. Rage that I’ve paid such a heavy price for my sexuality, fled war and persecution with people who now dispute ever having a son and dare not utter my name in community, while Amir still has a wife and family to return home to. I look outside my apartment window at the intersection leading into Dandenong city and struggle to swallow. My muscles tense up for a second, seething, but it is too hot to hold rage in for very long. The sex is done, the bridges are burned, and, for now, Amir is still here beside me in bed. Count your blessings, Wahid, you were one of the lucky ones.
I lift my head and look up at Amir for a moment. He is preoccupied with the fan’s cyclical motion, which sends miniature ripples of wind running over the beads of sweat on his forehead and through his curly black hair. Slowly, I sink back into his chest and resume the work of imagining a life together, mapping out the steps involved in divorce and custody. I could help him pursue the legalities of separation and he could move in with me and we could start again, I think. If only it were that easy. Eleven thousand kilometres away from Herat and the social codes upholding reputation immobilize the Afghan community of this tiny diaspora. Back home, at least the Afghans were more straightforward with their position. You could discretely fuck whoever you wanted and never needed to come out as anything to anyone. There was nothing to come out into. In Australia, with so many faggots around and on TV, we can forget, if only for a moment, that openness doesn’t belong to us. When I walk down Thomas street now, past the carpet shops and the halal butchers, the metal shutters from the stores snap shut behind me and I hear my name, Wahid, chasing my heels down the street. My throat is parched all of a sudden. This may very well be the best it’s going to get for us.
The next morning, the boys’ spring onto Farya’s bed. They jump under the covers and toss them to the side with quick sweeps of their legs. It is finally the Saturday they have been anticipating all week and they are reverberating energy. Farya stirs but remains half-asleep. Quickly, the contact between the boys devolves into a scuffle.
“Madar, Arjan pulled my hair, even though you told him not to touch it.”
“Arjan, you promised you wouldn’t pull on your brother’s hair,” she says, then scolds them both. She looks down at herself and realises her nightgown has risen up to her hips overnight.
“But Mum, the boys at school say long hair is gay, anyway.” The boys resume their trademark wrestle, toppling anything that comes in the way of their warpath and falling from the bed to the floor.
“Don’t ever say that word in this house, or I’ll call Mrs. Singh and tell her to forget about driving you to Pranjeep’s birthday.” The sharpness of her voice is startling, and it impacts the entire room. The boys clamber off each other and up from the floor, smart enough not to push back. She doesn’t have the heart to pull such a stunt and, regardless, the day off will be a welcome relief. The boys don’t know this, though, which means she is doing something right. They sulk quietly out of the room almost as quickly as they arrived.
This is not the first time Amir has disappeared, and it hasn’t even been a full day. During the worst of their fights, he will drop off all communication platforms for days. As soon as he logs in once, and becomes a visible green dot on Messenger, the end of the episode begins, and the coaxing starts from all fronts. Together, Farya and Amir’s sisters will launch a combined front to search and return the doting but misplaced husband to his devoted family. It is these collaborative search parties that have brought Farya closer to her sisters-in-law, united in their resistance to Amir’s independence.
As the sounds of the boys resuming their squabbling picks up again from downstairs, Farya tries to think back to the exact point where Amir’s absence became a staple to the family’s diet. When did the boys stop asking where their father disappeared for days at a time? His absences used to contain themselves to weekends, but in the last year they’ve started stretching out into the working week. His bosses will catch on quickly, assume a bad drug habit and send him right back to MAX Employment.
When finances get tight, his sisters step in without asking, overestimating how much the family needs to survive. They come to the house in the afternoon for tea, timing their arrival in the liminal space between meals so that no food can be offered. They greet the boys, update Farya on the gossip of the global Afghan community and, right as they leave, at a point Farya has yet to properly catch, one of them will slip an envelope with cash under an object by the door, as though paying her to keep quiet. Though she’d never say so out loud, it is clear that Amir’s relationship with his sisters has always been strained. They treat him like he is a time-bomb waiting to explode and Farya has been tasked with the unfortunate duty of managing the fallout.
All of a sudden, the buzzing from beside the bed resumes. It is late afternoon now, and the frequency of the calls has been steadily increasing all day. Amir rises occasionally to check it, and returns to bed each time. The rectangular patch of light appears beneath the folds of his upturned pair of khaki shorts and we both brace ourselves, hoping for the short interruption of a text. The vibrations continue. He wrenches his body out from underneath mine and my arm peels off in the wake of his movement. Amir holds the vibrating phone in his hand, contemplating the call.
Undoubtedly, it is Farya again, begging him to come home, pleading for the husband she was promised, the educated and diligent family man who grasped her waist tightly at the grand hall in Narre Warren four years ago and posed with her for wedding photographs. In one swift movement, he answers and starts speaking in a hush, reassuring his wife that he is safe, as though they haven’t had this conversation countless times before. Hearing the concern in her voice is enough; it is always then that, with a sigh, he caves.
Farya will not ask questions about where he has been all night and all day. She will not enquire about the stench of liquor clinging to the starchy collared shirt he is gingerly buttoning up now, phone held loosely between ear and shoulder. She will not inform the children that he was spotted at a nightclub on Peel street last night by an Afghan taxi driver, one of many who patrol greater Melbourne and feed information back into the community. She will not ask Amir about the text messages she knows his sisters sent, dismantling his resolve in the way that only family can. She will, however, prepare the meal he criticises least, sabzi chalau. As soon as the call ends, she will take the spinach and the meat out of the freezer and defrost them under warm water in the sink. In an hour, she will start chopping the meat and boiling the spinach, and it will be ready for him at home when he returns.
Finally, at dusk, when his car etches into the driveway, her spine will jerk up and she will call out to the boys to come greet their father. Arjan and Arben will rush to the door and greet Amir affectionately, as if he has been away on a work trip. They will tug on his shirt excitedly, shooting news from Pranjeep’s party up at him. He will scoop them both into his arms, spinning them upside down and over his shoulders with ease. She has raised the kind of sons who will suspect misconduct using their own minds one day, and they will come to resent Amir for making their mother the other woman in his life.
Tomorrow, when the kids are at school and Amir is out and she finally has the house to herself again, she will sink onto a dining room chair facing out onto the pebble garden outside.
She will dial the familiar number of her older sister and break down over sobs that she inhales in the same breath as they emerge. She will plead for advice about how to tether her husband to the family they created together, and the instructions she receives will not work. Her sister will mutter her name repeatedly, but she will not hear it, because she is tired of listening to her name spoken at her by others, and even more tired of not being heard when she says it to others herself.
All of this runs through my mind as I watch Amir collect the last of his belongings from the floor. I’ve created an entire fiction to stand in for everything I don’t know about Amir’s home life. I hate her for having him, for not letting go. The truth is, neither of us can claim him completely. I scan Amir’s face, and I can almost see the strain in the heavy bags underneath his eyes. The evil eye stands guard above the doorframe, privy to every struggle, every bit of our sordid business.
“Amir, you don’t have to go so soon,” I say, as he reaches for his keys on the bench. Usually, I surrender to the inevitability. He looks as startled as I feel.
“Janum, you know it’s not that easy.”
“My mother is sick, worse than usual. She might not have long to live. I think I need to go back to Sydney and help look after her.”
Amir is quiet for a moment, processing the information. Then he looks up, catches my pleading gaze and nods his head. “Let me know when you return.”
He turns around, opens the door, and walks out into the evening, letting a wave of heat into the apartment, before the door slams shut. In truth, I haven’t spoken to my mother in many years. The last time I visited her, she spent the whole time scurrying around the house, cleaning the surfaces until they gleamed. I avoided asking uncomfortable questions and she did the same, both of us vowing to preserve ourselves with distance. I guess if she really was approaching death, it’s possible I might find out through whatever slivers of community I’m still connected to. Four years and eleven thousand kilometres later, this is what I have to show for myself: a barren apartment and the ghosts of a family I have chased but never known.