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Zainab Kathrada


Not a Love Story


     His back is turned to her, and he is silent, so she assumes he's asleep. She shivers, and edges closer to him - she's not used to being naked in bed. She snorts: the irony, being naked in bed with a man, and yet still a virgin. She bunches the sheets up around her closer, but he's still the warmest object in the room, so she gives up and huddles in next to him, swinging her leg over his and burying her cold nose in his back.


     He twitches his shoulders, and she wrinkles her nose at him. She is unimpressed by men and their egos. She too feels the sting of an unconsummated wedding night; hates that the unspoken pressure behind it all had stripped whatever romance there could have been. But she was used to shrugging off others' expectations for her. He, it seemed, was not.

     She stares at the wide expanse of his smooth, dusky back. It is an odd thing to be interested by, but she finds it easier to look at him when he is turned away from her, without his eyes full of emotion and conflict and frustration. It is easier to think of him as a mysterious, romantic stranger this way, when his skin is a blank canvas for her to paint with her imagination.

     Idly, she finds herself drawing her finger over his back, swooping with the letters of her name and his, entwined in imaginary ink. He grunts a little and murmurs, "What are you doing?"  She presses her cheek against the back of his neck. "I'm writing our fairy tale," she says dreamily. "Once upon a time, there was a man and a woman..."  

     He chuckles a little, reluctantly, and pulls her hand around so that he can kiss her knuckles. “And they lived happily ever after?" he asks.

     She pretends that she doesn't know that their names don't fit together, just like their bodies don't, and that happily ever afters are only make-believe, and speaks the first of many comforting lies, the beginning of a tale with an unhappy ending.

     "Of course they do," she promises.


     People ask her if it is an ‘arranged marriage,’ glancing from the black chiffon draped delicately around her face to the equally dark beard trimmed carefully around his chin and cheeks; the shades of brown in their entwined hands, clasped awkwardly, like strangers.  

     What they really mean, she knows, is – was she forced to marry him against her will. 


     There was no choice for either of them, she wants to say. There was only that first, startled look between them, and a sense of the inevitable, an inexplicable heartbreak at the thought of not waking up to each other the next morning, and for many mornings afterward.


     Instead, she smiles brightly and says, ‘I suppose you could say that our souls chose each other long before we met.’ She does not tell them that there is no romance in destiny – not unless you are very, very blessed, or very, very cursed.  


     He wants to tell her about himself, all the complicated bits and pieces, the painful things and the small joyful moments of his life, his childhood, his adolescence, his still-young adulthood - but he is ashamed to admit some of it even to himself, the raw things, the pieces he had hidden in hopes of forgetting, the parts he pretended didn't hurt because he was a man, and men didn't feel pain, or sadness, or loss. He is ashamed to admit that maybe the things he was raised seeing and believing weren't always right. 


     He wants to tell her, but he sees the fire in her eyes and he is afraid of being burned by the sheer energy she carries within herself, and he is afraid that maybe, she is stronger than he is, and he knows that he is a man and he cannot be weak. 


     She wants to tell him about herself, all the complicated bits and pieces, the dreams and the nightmares that had followed her through life. The lurking whispers that always told her that she wasn't good enough, couldn't be good enough, would never good enough; the furious drive within her that pushes her to do more, to risk more, to dance madly along the razor blade of art and inspiration and insanity; the dark cloud that threatens to suffocate her when she inhales, that she tries to fight with too-loud laughter and too-quick breaths - but she is ashamed to admit it even to herself, all these raw, painful parts of her that twist within her, and she wants nothing more but to be smiling and sweet and happy and normal.


     She wants to tell him, but she sees the stern calmness in his eyes, and she is afraid that they will turn dark with judgment, and she is afraid that maybe, she isn't as strong as she should be, and he would never want someone so weak. 


     They watch each other - she is bright, too bright, and he cannot see the shadows she throws, darker than midnight - he is quiet, serene, strong, and she cannot see the toll it takes on him to keep his back straight and his eyes calm and his words locked away - and they are entranced by each other, and afraid. 


     The first time they met, he was neatly groomed and she flaunted rainbow socks; and he blushed and murmured hello; and she raised her eyebrows and grinned saucily; and he thought she was quirky and she thought he was charming.


     The first night he touched her, he was gentle and she was shy; and he was tender and she was sad; and he was noble and she was embarrassed; and he touched her softly and she stared at the ceiling, and he thought he wasn't doing it right and she thought she was broken.


     The first time they did it, he was patient and she was frustrated; and he kissed her and she bit him; and he touched her cheek and she looked into his eyes; and then she blinked, because it was done and it didn't hurt the way she thought it would, but it still hurt in an entirely different way, and she didn’t know why when it felt so good. 


     The first time turned into many times, and his patience turned to weariness, and her frustration turned to bitterness; and though she was the one who kissed him now, urgently, he was the one who turned away; she was no longer quirky and he was no longer charming, and they stared at each other as though they were strangers, and they weren't sure what to do with each other when all they had was each other.



     Language... she cannot understand how powerful it is, what a barrier it is between them, that though they speak to each other using the same words, the way her tongue rolls over them, crisp and clear, is still foreign to him; that the passion and history of every word, every phrase, is hidden to him, frustrating him with their emptiness, and that his own tongue feels clumsy with consonants that don't belong to him.


     He longs to speak to her in his own voice, with the sounds and the symbols and the song of every syllable, strong and powerful; he wishes that when he brushed his mouth against her ear and whispered sweet nothings, she would know that they meant much more than nothing, that each endearment holds an ancient civilization's wealth and knowledge of love and desire and passion.


     Instead, she giggles, not understanding, then reads him a love poem that makes her eyes shine and her mouth soften, and he can only shrug and smile helplessly and seethe in frustration, hating that it all means nothing to him.


     She leans over to him, and when her lips brush his, he realizes how very lonely it is to share a kiss with a mouth that will never understand his own



     Must you laugh so loudly? he asks mildly, raising his eyes to her reproachfully, and she hides her mouth behind her hands and winks at him instead. He sighs, smiles a little, and turns back to his books.


     Must you argue so much? he asks wearily, rubbing his forehead with the heel of his hand, and she bites her tongue and looks guilty, though she's itching to answer him back pertly. He sighs, shakes his head, and goes back to work, his brow furrowed.


     Must you be so dramatic? he asks irritably, frowning at the way she moves her hands excitedly, drawing pictures in the air, trying to tell him a story. She hesitates, lowers her hands, and stares at them awkwardly, then presses them against her thighs, trying to still their movements. He sighs, closes his eyes wearily for a moment, and then is quickly absorbed in his own world.


     He looks up later, and sees her sitting at the window, staring outside at the hustle and bustle and chaos of the world he prefers to hide behind thick curtains, her hands clasped tightly, her lips pressed together, her eyes glassy.


     You're awfully quiet today, he comments, and she glances at him hopefully, her lips parting to tell him something -

     I like it, he says.


     She closes her mouth and turns back to the window and lets him enjoy the silence.



     She finds herself falling in love with him reluctantly, sullenly, against her will.


     It is the way he absently cradles one of her feet in his lap, rubbing it thoughtfully, kneading it in all the right places where pregnancy made it all hurt; the way his eyes were large and round and reverent as his large, inelegant hands moved over rounded hips and swollen ankles and tender breasts and aching knees; the way he convinces her without words that she is beautiful; the way he holds her hair back without asking when she snarls at him rudely before throwing up at his feet, the way he manages to make her hate the thing growing inside her a little less.


     She still doesn’t like him, but she loves him, and she resents him for it.



     She goes through pictures of the two of them, rare snapshots of even rarer moments, caught and frozen like fossils on paper: her, kissing his cheek outrageously while he blushes; him, laughing and half-embarrassed as she catches him slipping his fingers beneath her bra –        Her, resting her head on his shoulder; him, looking serious in his formal wear while she makes a silly face at the camera in spite of her glamorous dress –   

     Her, pressing her cheek against his in a moment of quiet; him, grinning awkwardly in the hat she picked out for him. 


     Their smiles and their laughter and the sweetness between them look so delicate and fragile that she is afraid to exhale in case the pictures and the memories alike disintegrate into dust and fade into the desert outside her window.


     We are so impossibly young, she thinks. What are we doing to ourselves?



     The war they wage with themselves, and with each other, is silent: 


     His pride, his struggle to embody masculinity but unsure of what it really meant; his longing for his own language and culture, feeling displaced and foreign within his own home; his determination to force a happily ever after to exist where there wasn't much happiness to begin with – 


     Her terror of mediocrity, her struggle with the walls that enclosed her in a space that felt increasingly smaller, smothering, left alone with the mocking voices that hissed in her ear, taunting her ambitions of greatness; her refusal to be someone she wasn't, when she didn't really know who she even was; her resentment of being trapped in a story she didn't particularly like, with someone whom she loved without joy – 


     At night, they fall into bed, exhausted, and cling to each other with all the desperation of refugees seeking sanctuary from the ravaged battlefields of their hearts and minds. 



     I love you, he said earnestly, cradling her face, gazing into her eyes, murmuring into her mouth.  So why won't you become the person I want you to be?



     She took a giant eraser and very carefully rubbed out all the lines and smudges that defined her, until there was nothing left but an aesthetically pleasing blank canvas.



     He knows that she is not happy, that the smile she greets him with is robotic, that the sparkle in her eye has dulled and turned into a manic desperation. 


     He knows that she chafes at his quiet, implacable requests, that she feels lost and resentful, that she endures his affections with the resignation of a prisoner.


     He knows that when she reaches out to him at night, silently, her hands pulling at him, repositioning him as she wants, grazing her teeth against his skin, digging her nails into his back, marking him in the most violent way she can, it is not out of love, but furious desire and the need to prove to herself that she can still feel pleasure, that she still has some kind of power over herself, over him, over her own life.


     He knows that he loves her in a way that she does not, and will not, and maybe is not even capable of, loving him in return.  

     He knows that he would do anything to make her happy, except for the things she asks for which are too outrageous, too inappropriate, too unfortunate. He wishes that she would understand, and stop asking. 


     He doesn't know why her eyes accuse him of hurting her, when he has never raised his voice or his hand.


     He doesn't know why she just doesn't force herself to be happy, or at least content.



     The baby will make it better, he promises her. The baby will make us love each other again.

     When the baby is born, she feels like she has miscarried all the love she could have ever had.


     When the baby dies in her arms, cold and damp, she smiles dreamily and thinks maybe he is right.  

     Maybe now, have given birth to death, she will be much better after all. 



     I miss you, she said, tracing the arch of an eyebrow, the faint cleft of a chin.

     I miss the sparkle in your eye, the quirk of your smile, the rawness of your lip from when you chewed it while you worked.

     I miss your stupid jokes and the furrow in your brow when you were concentrating on something and the snort-giggle when you thought of something rude.

     I miss you.


     Her reflection stared blankly, and said nothing.




     What would make you love me more? he pleaded. 

     I would love you more, she said honestly, if you were a different person entirely.



     At night, she lies in his arms and fantasizes - what it would be like if he took another woman into his life, to watch him fall in love, the relief of his affections being shifted to someone else. 

     In the darkness, she allows herself to think the unthinkable - to savour the unexpected stab of jealousy, the twisted curiosity over whom he would enjoy most in bed, the smug satisfaction of knowing that she was his first, that no matter where he went or whom he loved more, he would always see her in his mind's eye, that she was imprinted on his skin and his soul and he would never, ever get away from her. 

     She tastes each emotion carefully, savours them slowly, probes at them like a bruise, pressing harder to see how much it would hurt, testing how quickly tears spring to her eyes, how long it takes before she finds herself turning in bed and touches him possessively, twining her legs around him, not caring that he is still half-asleep when she moves over him, goaded by her own imaginary taunts.


     Eventually, when the jealousy fades from an ache and a sting to a mere prickle, she gets bored and disappointed. 

     The next night, she fantasizes about him dying. She is mildly surprised to find that she likes this idea much more. The idea of freedom, it seems, is even more arousing than mental masochism.



     He never told her that she was his sole rebellion, his only act of defiance, his one moment of selfishness.


     Her voice is louder than yours, his mother had commented dourly.

     Her spirit is too wild, his father had snapped angrily.


     He didn't tell them that her voice and her laugh and her refusal to back down were exactly what enchanted him; the way she walked with a swagger instead of swaying hips, completely foreign to his idea of femininity and yet bewilderingly arousing; the way her eyes swept over him shamelessly, amused by him and charmed, the way her lips curved upwards without shyness.


     She was so different from the type of woman he had thought he would marry, and for once, he threw caution to the wind and instead leaned towards her, a hurricane masquerading as a woman, determined to fill just this one, insatiable desire.


     He never told her that he regretted it.



     She wonders if he notices her casual cruelties, the way she curls her lip in annoyance, the way she raises her eyebrow in disdain, the way she rolls her eyes in irritation, and never bothers to hide any of it.


     She knows that he's trying, that he struggles to be the type of person she wishes he was, though he fails, over and over again until they both retreat from each other, miserable with each other, until he comes back silently, pleading for another chance, and another, and another, and she can do nothing but shrug and let him hold her and touch her and caress her, an anxious apology, while she turns her face away from him and looks bored.


     She knows that it is not his fault, but she cannot forgive him for loving her, or for making her love him - even if it was only briefly - when she was not given a choice in who to love.




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