Fiction · 04/07/2021

Fasting & Feasting

Somebody gets in touch on her work email, sends photos. “I know what you’ve done. I’m sure your husband would love to see these.” Her leatherette chair folds its wings about her, light from the man-size windows lays her bare. Jamie waits for her to read out some numbers. She stares at the phone in her lap.

Photos of her at the beach with a man.

Zeenat remembers that day, zipped up to the neck in black rubber, squinting through salt and sun, smiling. Sitting on his knee in a small wooden boat, hanging off his neck. Sliding her palms over her own body, curves surging against the thick, slick suit. Earlier she had found videos on his phone, women being cut, fucked, strangled. Saved in a folder called birthday photos.

She had not brought them up. Instead, she went with him on the boat to snorkel off the coast. He enjoyed it, she was a poor swimmer, panicky and unmoored in the water, the sky and sea a hot blue casque about her.

They had been dating for two years. He was rough sometimes but she took it as passion, especially in the early days; she felt she overcame him, she liked it. His hand on the back of her neck, her face in the mattress, his fingers left purple bruises on her thighs when he ate her out, she liked the flick of his soft hair on the small of her back, if he could make her come it wasn’t all bad.

His name was Zahir, full-of-it, know-it-all.

Her friend, giggling over Zeenat’s phone, had swiped right on his perfect teeth, and Zahir on Zeenat’s sari from their college dance. The blouse with its uneven hem shortened at Sana’s house, blurred smooth and whole in the photo, as did the arm-holes frayed where she’d taken off the sleeves.

He took her out to coffee, she was impressed that he drove his own car. His teeth were actually very small, and rounded at the edges, little white pills. They talked about everything, about their parents, their dreams. She told him about the generation of school and college that lay between her parents and onion wrapped in roti in the fields, he described minutely the pink flesh of the guavas that grew on his grandfather’s land. “Isn’t it crazy,” he said, shaking his head of shining hair. “How we’ve ended up on a date. The internet. Modern life.”

She gave up everything to him, her sour brackishness of body and temper, her slick muscles. He would sneak her into his bedroom, past the drawing room where the pedestal fan and his Nani’s deafness covered their tracks, past his brother’s room, who winked at him. She was in town for an internship. Her parents, angry that she had decided to work in a different city, called briefly each morning, the TV and her younger brother crying in the background. She hid for days in his humid room, deep in the smell of McDonald’s and sex and satin kambals, not emerging once, not even onto the balcony in case someone saw.

Wanting him was a lean longing, a longing so bare and sad, so little so lean so poor in imagination, unable to imagine itself fulfilled, even when each sinew in her body had been tightened and then snapped.

He let her meet his mother once: “My friend Zeenat.” A pale, sarcastically smiling woman, lawn suit with pink flowers, gold jewelry, blow-dried hair.

From inside the dark, semen-smelling room she heard them discuss her. “Her teeth are a disaster, aren’t they.”

She left him but only just, not for the many good reasons, but because he wouldn’t marry her. “Our families just don’t fit,” he said. “Don’t take it personally. You know where I went to school right?”

She looks at all the photos, she looks happy, dim, brined in salt water. He’s the only person who has these and he’s married now. Why would he send them out of the blue?

“Maybe it’s his wife,” she messages Sana. “Maybe she found them on his laptop. Maybe she’s jealous.” She’s seen the wife on Facebook, young, studying to be a dentist, as pink and smug as a peach.

“Honestly,” she tells her friend, feeling a fracture come upon her. “What I would not give — take — to be eaten out again.”

“What?” Sana says.

His hands cradling her buttocks, his face at the feast, the threat once more of his childish teeth. “I know, I know.”

Her husband doesn’t know that she’s had other lovers. He confessed to his own on their wedding night, guilt-ridden, burrowing at her through gilt-edged throws. Her body, loyal accomplice, presented a gift of red slime, the lack of foreplay helped. He’s not like her friends’ husbands, doesn’t like that she smokes — she buys perfume and rubber gloves, does it anyway — can’t know that she drank once upon a time, in the dark in the college football field a few weekends, growing more loud and more crude and more happy with each can.

And he’s religious. She’s religious too but not like him. She prays, fasts, believes utterly in God, often feels herself helpless and adoring in front of Him, chit-chats with Him everyday, bargains, pleads, and flirts with Him. He does all that but also believes that God believes a woman is one-half of a man, must always do as husbands say, must be chaste.

The next day the photos have been sent to her husband. He comes to her, his phone clenched away from his face.

“I don’t know why or who it is,” she says. “Somebody wants to hurt me.”

“Zahir hai,” he says. He keeps looking at the photos while she talks, at her wet hair, her thighs clamped on either side of the hairy waist. She tries to explain, not knowing what to say. She has never seen him angry, yet fears the breach and brim of his rage.

He is, was, a boxer. He goes to the gym every day after his night shift at the warehouse directing books into boxes and boxes onto pallets, comes to bed at 5 a.m. sharp with a chlorine smell or vibrating from an hour lifting weights. His arms bulge out of the polo shirts he likes to wear, tucked into chinos with a brown belt, his ass is round, his head shaved, his face looks even more expressionless than usual.

They are trying to get her pregnant. For two years she has insisted on sex twice a month, waiting naked under the quilt while he washes his feet in the sink, as he walks in wet slippers to the bed, kicks her stray socks into a corner of the room, dries between each of his toes. Her doctor wants to get tests done, but she doesn’t think there’s anything wrong, only that he won’t have sex with her, even though he has said he wants the baby. Sex is her right as a wife, she’s told him, even God says so, she wonders sometimes if he is only pretending to come.

Now he cuts her off. “You’re my wife,” he says. He has decided. “This doesn’t matter. I agreed to stick by you and I will.” He deletes the email and blocks the sender.

“Stop it,” he says, raising his palm against her explanations.

He’s nice, she remembers, he makes an effort to join her for breakfast despite his nighttime job, stumbles each morning into the kitchen just as she’s shaking the oil off the eggs, listens to her obsess over ovulation, is prepared to let her fork over her savings for IVF (“If that’s what you want,” he says), ignores her Baba’s weekly can of beer during their Sunday evening video chats (though she serves gin to his gym buddies each fortnight), wipes down the tub with vinegar every day after her bath.

She realizes she was hoping all along that he would say this was the end, the last straw. Instead he looks blank, benign, dried out with duty and resolve.

She tries to think of a third way. It takes her a few days.

One day of walking all over the neighborhood, looking at life on other people’s porches, soggy towels, rotting hockey sticks, planters full of dried-out twigs.

One day at the beach, watching the wind ruffle the yellow curls of children shrieking in the water, and their mums drinking champagne out of plastic flutes in obscure, sand-riddled celebrations.

One day on the roof, looking at the sky while the neighbors’ cats tumble about her feet, and pigeons move through important meetings chest-forward, and the hot water for thirty flats clicks and clacks through pipes all around her.

“Help me, God,” she says over and over. “I know you’re on my side.”

She calls each one of her friends in turn, Sana, the straight talker, M, wholesome as bread, J, juicy and complex as a pomegranate, T, up for anything.

Finally, she tells him she wants to leave, then leaves the room, doesn’t perform grief, sits breathing shallowly at the edge of their bed.

“But I’m going to stay till my passport comes,” she remembers to go back and tell him.

“You’re my wife,” he repeats.

“Only till January, inshAllah,” she says. Feels joy expanding each organ.

And that’s how Zeenat ends up in her own flat in Winchester. Flits sideways somehow, evades the fork entirely. A slipstream of magic. Where she waters her plants till their cells explode, then tends her own pots filled with dried twigs, and soaks in the bathtub ringed with her own grime, and eats spoonfuls of cream cheese topped with pickled jalapeños, and keeps her swelling belly warm and soothed with lavender oil, and still gets photos of herself — but who knows and who cares, she thinks, I’m glad you tried to fuck with me.

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Anum Asi is a writer from Karachi. She has an MFA in Fiction from Cornell University, where she teaches Creative Writing and was an Assistant Editor at EPOCH magazine. Previously, she was a Fulbright Scholar studying Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review, Cherry Tree, The Aleph Review and elsewhere.