When it got unbearable I went to the mountains to look for drama. Not a good idea, man. I should’ve known I wasn’t the type, I mean, asthma and all and what with the air being thinner at 2,000 meters in the air.
Heck, I went out of breath every time the bus driver turned. Bloody chutia had fallen asleep when we last stopped in front of a landslide and everyone got off the bus to reduce the weight. He stayed on because he was going to drive over it. But he fell asleep with the engine on, and we stood outside for about an hour in the pitch blackness and possibly three meters each from a thousand foot drop because the Pakistani government did not believe in protective railings around vicious drops, or anywhere else for that matter. We stood there thinking he was probably calculating trajectory and angle of entry over the massive pile of rock and mud but really, the idiot was snoring. When someone finally had enough and went on board and poked him, the bus let out an almighty roar and lurched forward over the pile of rock and on to the other side where it stopped and the driver got out, looking mighty pleased with himself and asking everyone back on board. The chutia had probably planned it all along. I looked once over the edge, imagined spikes and stones and white tigers circling in the valley below, wheezed, and got on the bus to drool again on whichever fucker happened to end up sitting next to me.
It wasn’t a fucker, but a fuckeress, who went by the name of Nadia. She had long, black hair and was wearing a North Face jacket so she wasn’t broke or nothing and I’d seen her smoking a couple of hours ago at the rest stop so she was the farthest thing from being good for me. She also smelled like she’d just sprayed on deodorant. She was, therefore, the perfect cause of asthma. I’d thought all of this up before I’d said hi or actually even sat down, because the difference between expectation and reality was probably the only thing I lived for, that made life kind of interesting and stopped me from going full on emo every time a girl told me to fuck off, which was a lot. I do not ever want to get what I expect to get.
I said hi and she said hi and I said haha but couldn’t finish my sentence because I ran out of breath. Two puffs of my trusty gray Ventolin inhaler (which looked eerily green in the yellow light that glowed inside the bus and made the shiny plastic seats with plastic cushion covers glow blindingly red) I said hi again and she laughed. Perfect.
“Are you asthmatic?
“Haha, I’m Nadia.”
The sound of the Isuzu bus going over potholes made it very hard to hear but the she thought I was being funny, which was absolutely fine by me. But she said her name again over the course of the conversation which is how I remember.
I asked her where she was going, even though there was only one place it could be, because it was a bus hired by a company that took people on the mountain trek of their lives and beyond. She looked at me as if trying to see if I was slightly not totally in control of my senses so I laughed out loud “HA!” and looked outside the window at more darkness.
“Why are you going to the lake?” She asked.
“Oh. Okay. I’m going there to run away.”
This was my kind of girl. I waited for her to laugh but she didn’t so I liked her even more.
“To tell you the truth I’m actually going there to look for drama,” I said when I realized I could trust her because she’d be lost for good as soon as we got to Saif-ul-Muluk, the greatest lake in the history of the whole world as advertised in the company brochure.
“Drama, eh?” She turned slightly in my direction, towards the window. I loved the way she said “eh”.
Three months ago I was going to propose to someone before I got a text that said “I got a rishta, mom says to take it, getting married next year, won’t talk again.” And then silence. So yes, drama. I wanted to feel exactly as I’d felt that day. You have no idea, Nadia, no idea, what it felt like. But I’m not going to tell you this, yet, not till I’m sure you’re actually going to disappear. Because then, and only then, will this count as drama. Yes.
“Yes, drama.” I looked out the window again but it was just the same darkness with maybe a couple of trees in the distance which could just have been rocky things jutting out of a mountain.
She drooled on my shoulder all night.
We got to Naran or was it Kaghan or maybe neither of the two but it was a small town from where we were going to get into jeeps and get to the lake. Then we would camp there and stuff and trek to Aansoo Lake which was apparently called that because it resembled a tear drop and was, hence, extremely dramatic. Perfect.
The sun was rising when we got off the bus and we were treated to topi wearing Pathans who were lugging our luggage from the top of the bus onto jeeps. There was smoke coming out of our mouths. The white and gray houses all around were deserted because it was coming on to winter and everyone had moved south to the cities. Some idiot had brought a trolley bag along and was now being asked to rush to the nearby store and buy a proper backpack or stay in the hotel till the trek got back. He ran like rainbows on fire, because the white and brown and green mountains that surrounded us were worth losing sleep and life over.
Nadia stared at them and said, “I think I made the right decision coming here,” and I looked at her and said, “Yeah,” but for different reasons.
Then all around us there were mountains and shrubs, close and far, grey and brown. The jeep had two seats in the front and three or maybe four in the back. The driver and his son who had grey eyes and brown hair and who could not have been more than three or four were sitting up front. I wanted to ask the kid what he was doing in a jeep that drove on slivers of land that were in no fucking way close to being roads but he seemed so at home I felt like an intruder and kept my mouth shut. Beside me Nadia was looking out at the valley below us as we circled and circled the mountain and went higher and higher as breathing became harder and I reached for the Ventolin again and then breathed like a mad man in hell fire.
When we got there it was cloudy and cold and our driver stood next to us and smelled the air and said that the night would be the clearest they’d had in ages. I said, “Oh really?” and Nadia said. “Mhmm,” and we both put on our backpacks and began walking in single file towards a trail we were told went down to the valley and the lake.
“What do you think it will look like?” She asked as she walked ahead of me. Her backpack was black and a dark bottle green. She could’ve been talking to herself or someone ahead of her but I still replied.
“Like a lake surrounded by mountains,” I said as the guy walking behind me went, “Kya?” and I shook my head and turned around and told him I was speaking to the person walking in front of me.
When we turned round a bend in the path we came face to face with the lake and went, “Aah.” The only question in my mind then was what the fuck did I come here for, basically, not because it wasn’t breathtaking but because at that point I’d actually forgotten everything I’d ever thought about. It was grey and there were mountains all around our camping spot which was right next to the lake and already housed one rectangular building with a triangular roof and a couple of windows which could have been a prop in a horror movie, but which we were told served as a storage room in the winter. The lake was still and so still that it had upside down white mountains inside of it that I really wanted to climb.
“You were right,” said Nadia, and we didn’t speak another word and just stared and stared till we got to the spot where our guide yelled “STOP!” and put our bags down and helped set up our respective male and female tents with our randomly chosen male and female tent mates respectively. We would trek the next day because now it was getting dark and probably close to rain.
That night it was still cloudy and I went to sleep in the three-man tent hugging the flab of the man next to me because it was bloody cold and even he said, “Why the fuck didn’t they tell us to bring more clothing? It’s not still spring here bhainchod!” and asked me to hug him more tightly.
I slept for a couple of hours and woke up shivering and checked the time on my phone. It was four a.m., so I said what the heck and climbed over legs and arms and unzipped the tent and crept outside.
If I’d been looking for death and not drama I would’ve walked on into the lake with a smile on my face. I’d even have happily left my inhaler behind. The sky was clear and the moon was out and bright and yellow and the stars—the fucking stars—were in the lake and up in the sky, and the mountains were glowing blue and I forgot everything once again and went and sat by the remnants of the fire someone had made hours ago. Then I shivered till I didn’t.
I sat staring at the lake and getting confused as to what was up and what was down and then trying to stand on my head and forgetting that I was doing so and then falling to the ground again with a major rush of blood to the head and some dizziness. Everyone was still sleeping and I thought of waking Nadia up but she might have changed her mind about running away if she saw this so I didn’t and I didn’t tell her about it later either. I also had no idea what tent she was in.
The next morning the campsite was full of people in colorful jackets and day packs full of water and canned fruit and Tuc biscuits, and we all walked around the lake to get to the other one that looked like a teardrop which was over some mountains in front of us. There was snow on the ground and where there wasn’t snow there was brown rock or an ice cold stream and sludge. We walked through a corridor with mountains pretending to be walls.
“Why do you want to run?” I asked her.
“I don’t want to get married.”
I told her I understood perfectly.
“Why? Are they getting you married off too?” she said.
“What? No. I have no one.”
“Not really. Her getting married off was sadder,” I told her because I was now sure.
“Who was she?”
“We had lots of phone conversations and fought a lot.”
She said she understood perfectly.
“Is that why you’re here?”
“I want something that won’t go away with an inhaler.” I wanted desperately to tell her about the stars last night but I did not. I couldn’t do that to her. She seemed stronger than I was. She could probably do it.
So we walked on. I stepped in a stream and wet my boots. We got to the base of Malika Parbat and made Maggi Noodles and chai in a black metal pot that two of the local children were carrying. The water was already bubbling by the time we got to the spot; these kids moved over rock and snow like gazelles on walkalators and had gotten there a half hour before us. We ate the noodles with plastic forks out of steel mugs and then rinsed the mugs with boiling water and had chai in them. The chai had leaves in it.
We ate and it began to snow, falling slush from the sky, really. We were told there were three more hours to the lake, but the weather was getting bad, we should turn back. I said, “What?” and Nadia said, “What?” and I said, “No way, bro, I paid to get to Aansoo Lake, I’m going.” Then she said something in the same vain. Besides, it was only slush, and I could drink all of it up if I opened my mouth at the sky, just a little. Everyone else stayed back. The two of us went forward.
The slush kept falling but the weather didn’t get worse.
“You know you’re going to have to go back home soon? We’re almost there,” I said as we ascended, following a trail that was slippery with ice.
“Yes, I know.”
“Cool.” I just wanted to make sure she knew she had little time.
The ground crunched all the way there.
The lake was, yes, more or less, in the shape of a tear, but there was snow all around and the water looked like it wanted to freeze, so it wasn’t really dramatic and only slightly beautiful.
“So,” Nadia said.
“So,” I said.
We tried to talk, really, but we were there for different purposes, and I’d already failed in mine.
When I returned to the camp and the guide asked me if I knew where Nadia was I went “Who?” and made a confused face and walked on.
Zain Saeed grew up in Pakistan and is currently studying linguistics in Freiburg, Germany. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, The Freiburg Review, Bird’s Thumb, FLAPPERHOUSE, Gravel, Cease, Cows, Third Point Press, Bahamut Journal and others.