By Faiqa Mansab
At eight thirty in the evening, Faheem was informed that the escort he had requested was on her way upstairs. Heâ€™d anticipated that she might be late, as were the people he was supposed to meet for dinner. No one showed up on time in Lahore. It was considered gauche.
He opened the door and his jaw fell open.
His shock reflected in her face.
“What are you doing here? How did you know I was in?”
He trailed off. The obvious was too surreal. It was crazy. Sasha was a middle class housewife with two children. Sasha smiled, and sauntered past him, swaying slightly on her high heels. One didnâ€™t expect to see a friendâ€™s wife or sister turn up as a professional escort, any more than one expected oneâ€™s own.
He stood at the door watching her. She looked over her shoulder and said with a mocking smile, â€œBooze and Slims, Faheem.â€
She still looked good. Most women would have gone to the dogs by now, but not Sasha.
â€œI donâ€™t think thatâ€™s a good idea.â€
She just laughed.
Faheem was confounded. She was the wife of one of his oldest friends but on the other hand he didnâ€™t want her to think he was neutered like her husband.
â€œSasha, whatâ€™s going on? What are you doing here?â€
â€œI think you know exactly what Iâ€™m doing here.â€
â€œWhy?â€ He couldnâ€™t take his eyes off her and his brain seemed to have stopped functioning.
â€œDonâ€™t be a prude, Faheem. Get us some booze and Iâ€™ll tell you all about my dark double life.â€
How could she be so flippant about this? And who could blame him for being uptight about this situation? He took out his secret stash of Black Label, the most easily accessible brand in Lahore. Everyone was familiar with this old tag because letâ€™s face it, they werenâ€™t connoisseurs or anything. They were after forbidden thrills, and drinking got you into the right social circle.
Someone knocked. Imported cigarettes were very expensive and he paid for two boxes so that she wouldnâ€™t think he was cheap.
â€œAw, thanks, Faheem.â€
He sat down with her and looked at his watch. They still had about fifteen minutes to nine, and the dinner was downstairs in one of the restaurants, so he reckoned they had time enough for the tale.
She lit her cigarette, sipped her drink.
â€œI never wanted to marry so young but my parentsâ€¦â€
Faheem wasnâ€™t interested in this part of the story. This was a story theyâ€™d all heard before. It was every womanâ€™s story but no one did what she was doing. No one left a perfectly good life to attach a stigma to their name. He interrupted her.
â€œSasha, why did you leave Luqman?â€
â€œWho says I left him?â€
Faheem choked on his perfectly good whisky. He coughed, his throat burning, his eyes watering. She exhaled a cloud of smoke and curved those red lips in a half smile.
â€œHeâ€™s at home with the kids. He prefers staying with his mother, or the kids, or watching cricket on T.V. I just tell him Iâ€™m out with friends.â€
â€œHeâ€™s a good man, Sasha.â€
â€œI know. Iâ€™m not though. Good, I mean. He canâ€™t understand thatâ€¦and I canâ€™t stand him. I donâ€™t hate him or anything. I just want some excitement in my life.â€
â€œThen go on a holiday.â€
â€œFaheem, sweetie, your Lahori elements are seeping through the cracks. What happened to all that hard earned exposure in the diplomatic enclaves in Isloo and all those banned-but-happening-anyway, New Year parties?
That was going too far. He hadnâ€™t been a Lahori in twenty years. She was trying to rile him. What was it about her that put him, and a lot of other people he knew, on the defensive? So many of their male friends called Luqman henpecked–easily the worst epithet for a man in Pakistan–you could get away with being a murderer but not being henpecked.
And here he was, drinking with, and salivating over his wife in a hotel room. He couldnâ€™t help looking at what sheâ€™d blatantly put on exhibition, now could he? He tried to have another go at it for appearanceâ€™s sake, just to impress upon her, and his somnambulistic conscience that heâ€™d tried.
â€œSasha, exposure to a liberal environment doesnâ€™t mean that we forget our valuesâ€¦â€
â€œYes, Faheem, youâ€™re right. Iâ€™m so sorry. I think Iâ€™m in the wrong room, someone called for an escort. Iâ€™m sure it wasnâ€™t you. Youâ€™re so morally correct.â€
See, thatâ€™s what she did. How could a man answer such a straight hit without damning himself further? He tried not to let his anger show because she was smiling again, her eyes challenging.
â€œSasha, Iâ€™m trying to help you. This is not something youâ€™d want your daughter to do would you?â€
Sasha watched him, over the rim of her glass as she enjoyed the whisky, as if it was an old habit, a comfortable ritual. She quirked her eyebrow, as if to say, thatâ€™s it? Thatâ€™s your coup dâ€™Ã©tat?
He rallied and persevered.
â€œWhat are you trying to accomplish here? Not everyone is going to stop at taking you to dinner and bringing you safely home Sasha. Are you willing to risk that?â€
Something stirred uncomfortably in his gut. But Sasha was still in the mood for sharing.
â€œI feel cheated. I feel that my life was stolen from me. Can you even imagine what that feels like?â€
â€œSasha, lifeâ€™s hard for everyone.â€
He said that automatically, without realizing what he was saying because he was too busy exonerating himself. She was the one whoâ€™d shown up at his door, he told himself. And anyway, he was slightly drunk already. He couldnâ€™t be held responsible for what might happen, what was, most likely to happen. And in any case, even if he didnâ€™t, the next man would. So what difference did it make?
His mobile rang and he answered automatically.
â€œHello? Seerat? Yes, sorry I forgot.â€
He pinched the inner corners of his eyes with his thumb and forefinger and sighed.
â€œYes, of course I am. Tell Ami Iâ€™m fine, and not to worry. The plane was for Lahore, so where else would itâ€¦fine, fine. I have a dinner to go to. I willâ€¦yes Iâ€™ll remember. â€œBye.â€
Sasha gave him a knowing smile. He had a sudden inexplicable urge to defend his homely wife.
â€œSeerat is a good wifeâ€¦â€
She laughed, irritating him further.
â€œSheâ€™s a good wife because she nags?â€
â€œLuqman used to complain to me that I never called, like other wives did. He thought it was a sign of my detachment. But it wasnâ€™t, not then. Men think naggingâ€™s a sign of love. Theyâ€™ve been conditioned to think that by their mothers. I mean, why would I call? I always knew where he was.â€
â€œWomen who love their husbands and sons want to know about their safety.â€
â€œFrom what? Itâ€™s not like youâ€™re in Waziristan.â€
Faheen snapped, â€œSeerat isnâ€™t the one sitting alone with a man in a hotel room and getting paid for it.â€
Not that any man would pay for that doubtful honour, he thought to himself and he almost laughed out loud picturing Seerat in Sashaâ€™s place.
â€œTsk, tsk, Jani. Donâ€™t pull a maulvi on me, or if you must, at least have the grace to grow a beard so that sinners like me can avoid you.â€
â€œThis isnâ€™t your first time is it?â€
â€œGod, you men and your obsession with a womanâ€™s first times. No it isnâ€™t sweetie, but I can pretend it is, if it makes you feel better.â€
â€œWhatâ€™ll make me feel better is knowing you were still a respectable woman.â€
Wouldnâ€™t it? Of course, it would. The thought depressed him a little.
â€œSure I am. As respectable as I was when I married Luqman.â€
â€œThat doesnâ€™t make me feel better. It makes me feel worse for Luqman.â€
Sasha let out a heartfelt laugh.
â€œYeah, youâ€™re right. I feel sorry for him too.â€
â€œIâ€™m sure he appreciates it.â€
Something was niggling at him and he didnâ€™t want to examine it just yet. She sighed, drained her glass and concentrated on the smoke she exhaled. When she spoke again, her voice was barely audible.
â€œI feel stagnant at home. Luqman says I have very expensive taste, so I found a way to cater to it. Heâ€™s never asked me where I get the money from. Why do you think that is?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know.â€
â€œI know what youâ€™re thinking.â€
He doubted that. He was thinking of was how to get her out of those barely-there clothes.
â€œDo you want to go to that dinner first?â€
So she did know. Sheâ€™d done this before. Again he felt the urge to justify himself.
â€œSasha, Iâ€™m only a manâ€¦â€
Sasha looked back at him smiling, â€œMy commiserations, Faheem. Letâ€™s get you to that dinner first.â€
She uncurled herself out of the chair with that delicious red mouth curled in a smile.
Sasha was the embodiment of all forbidden thrills.
Faheemâ€™s heart pounded just thinking of her. She made him feel more of a man simply because sheâ€™d chosen to sleep with him. There was also a dark pleasure in knowing that poor Luqman had no idea what was going on. In that one week theyâ€™d spent together, heâ€™d learnt more from her than he had in the last five years. His dress sense had improved, he knew what to order at Thai and Chinese restaurants and heâ€™d tasted the pleasures of coffeehouse breakfasts at noon. Sasha was decadent. He was experiencing a way of life that was completely new to him. Heâ€™d seen other people do it but heâ€™d always thought that life wasnâ€™t for him. He couldnâ€™t possibly buy Hugo Boss, let alone Armani. Now he did, and felt like a new man. He knew he had to give her up soon enough. Her tastes were too expensive. Heâ€™d spent more on her in one week than he would on his wife in a year.
Seerat was a simple woman, with simple tastes. The most adventurous she was in bed was to wear some new piece of lingerie that happened to be marked down in sale, and which only accentuated her protruding, flabby stomach. He felt embarrassed for her when she tried. There were times when he almost told her to not bother. Her duties lay now with the children, the house, and his mother. She didnâ€™t have to continue to try to please him in bed. He had no idea how to tell her that though. He really loved Seerat. Sheâ€™d taken up all of his boring duties upon herself and she worshipped him. She really did believe in that old adage of husband as the god on earth.
Sasha would laugh at such a sentiment, he was sure. Even as he felt irritated at this thought, he felt the stirring in his blood. Being with Sasha was like taming fire– not that heâ€™d ever had the opportunity to tame anything, let alone experiment with pyromancy, he sensed that was what it would feel like. He was sure of himself with her.
He called Sasha.
â€œHi, itâ€™s me. Are you at home?â€
â€œHe canâ€™t hear you, so youâ€™re safe.â€
Faheem felt angry.
â€œYou think Iâ€™m afraid of him? Sasha, if I wanted to, I could flatten him with a single punchâ€¦you know that.â€
â€œYes, sweetie I do.â€ She didnâ€™t sound serious.
â€œI could. You want me to prove it?â€
He wanted to do no such thing. Heâ€™d just called to tell her heâ€™d be in town tonight. Why was he trying to establish what heâ€™d already established all week, two weeks ago?
â€œIâ€™ll be in Lahore for the next two nights. Seerat and the kids will join me on Wednesday. Iâ€™ll be at the hotel by nine, I think. Iâ€™ll have someone call you with the room number.â€
â€œWonâ€™t you call me yourself?â€
Faheem didnâ€™t bother to answer and said goodbye.
Sasha put the phone away. She knew why he wouldnâ€™t call himself. He didnâ€™t want to hide their affair. Was he brave and swashbuckling or just egotistical? Faheem was bold, unlike Luqman. Faheem wasnâ€™t at all what sheâ€™d thought heâ€™d be. He was quite intellectual. He didnâ€™t constantly question her tastes and the price of every single thing she touched or wanted. He appreciated her, and what she had to teach him. He was in awe of her, and what a change that was from the suffocating perpetual diminishing by Luqman, whose paranoia, and fear that she was some wild gust of wind he couldnâ€™t control, had driven her insane.
Sasha went to get ready. Just as she was going to leave, Luqman came in, wearing his cheap polyester mixed suit, his ugly shirt with short sleeves. What kind of man wore a short sleeved shirt anywhere, let alone to work? He smiled at her, and said good-naturedly, â€œWhere are you going all dressed up?â€
Sashaâ€™s anger was swift and hot. Why was he so harmless? What the hell was wrong with him? Any other man would have asked where his wife was going at night alone, but not Luqman.
â€œIâ€™m going out with friends. Iâ€™ll be late.â€ She said and picked up her purse.
Luqman came forward with a smile on his face. Oh no, Sasha groaned to herself. This was Luqmanâ€™s seductive face. And she really couldnâ€™t take all that huffing and puffing tonight and his flabby stomach squishing her, and his long hair around his nipples. In the beginning, Sasha had believed that Luqman was ambitious and promising. Heâ€™d been slim and pleasant looking. He was so obviously in love with her. Sheâ€™d allowed herself to think that she was too. For about six months. Because in those six months Luqman proved his inadequacy in every way he could. His love was meager. It was the leftover scraps from the love he had for his mother. Sasha was horrified to find out that heâ€™d been a virgin till their wedding night. And heâ€™d told her that like it was some honour heâ€™d bestowed on her.
The little respect she had left for him, he lost the day he told her about how heâ€™d been overlooked twice for promotion at work.
Now she stopped him with her hand on his chest.
â€œIâ€™ll be waiting for you.â€
Sasha said over her shoulder, â€œPlease donâ€™t. Iâ€™ll be late and probably tired. Bye.â€
She knew heâ€™d have been asleep anyway but this way, at least she could tell herself that heâ€™d wanted to make the effort at least, even if it was after months.
Faiqa Mansab is currently doing her MFA in Creative Writing from Kingston University London. Her short story The Walled City was published by The Missing Slate in June 2013. The Qalander is an excerpt from the novel sheâ€™s working on. Faiqa also writes as Zeenat Mahal and two of herÂ novellas have been published with Indireads, an e-publishing venture. She has also published a short story, The Accidental Fiancee,Â as Zeenat Mahal,Â with Running out of Ink, in their August issue.