By Faiqa Mansab
At eight thirty in the evening, Faheem was informed that the escort he had requested was on her way upstairs. He’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 didn’t expect to see a friend’s wife or sister turn up as a professional escort, any more than one expected one’s own.
He stood at the door watching her. She looked over her shoulder and said with a mocking smile, “Booze and Slims, Faheem.”
She still looked good. Most women would have gone to the dogs by now, but not Sasha.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
She just laughed.
Faheem was confounded. She was the wife of one of his oldest friends but on the other hand he didn’t want her to think he was neutered like her husband.
“Sasha, what’s going on? What are you doing here?”
“I think you know exactly what I’m doing here.”
“Why?” He couldn’t take his eyes off her and his brain seemed to have stopped functioning.
“Don’t be a prude, Faheem. Get us some booze and I’ll tell you all about my dark double life.”
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 let’s face it, they weren’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 wouldn’t think he was cheap.
“Aw, thanks, Faheem.”
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.
“I never wanted to marry so young but my parents…”
Faheem wasn’t interested in this part of the story. This was a story they’d all heard before. It was every woman’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.
“Sasha, why did you leave Luqman?”
“Who says I left him?”
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.
“He’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 I’m out with friends.”
“He’s a good man, Sasha.”
“I know. I’m not though. Good, I mean. He can’t understand that…and I can’t stand him. I don’t hate him or anything. I just want some excitement in my life.”
“Then go on a holiday.”
“Faheem, 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 hadn’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 couldn’t help looking at what she’d blatantly put on exhibition, now could he? He tried to have another go at it for appearance’s sake, just to impress upon her, and his somnambulistic conscience that he’d tried.
“Sasha, exposure to a liberal environment doesn’t mean that we forget our values…”
“Yes, Faheem, you’re right. I’m so sorry. I think I’m in the wrong room, someone called for an escort. I’m sure it wasn’t you. You’re so morally correct.”
See, that’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.
“Sasha, I’m trying to help you. This is not something you’d want your daughter to do would you?”
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, that’s it? That’s your coup d’état?
He rallied and persevered.
“What 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?”
Something stirred uncomfortably in his gut. But Sasha was still in the mood for sharing.
“I feel cheated. I feel that my life was stolen from me. Can you even imagine what that feels like?”
“Sasha, life’s hard for everyone.”
He said that automatically, without realizing what he was saying because he was too busy exonerating himself. She was the one who’d shown up at his door, he told himself. And anyway, he was slightly drunk already. He couldn’t be held responsible for what might happen, what was, most likely to happen. And in any case, even if he didn’t, the next man would. So what difference did it make?
His mobile rang and he answered automatically.
“Hello? Seerat? Yes, sorry I forgot.”
He pinched the inner corners of his eyes with his thumb and forefinger and sighed.
“Yes, of course I am. Tell Ami I’m fine, and not to worry. The plane was for Lahore, so where else would it…fine, fine. I have a dinner to go to. I will…yes I’ll remember. “Bye.”
Sasha gave him a knowing smile. He had a sudden inexplicable urge to defend his homely wife.
“Seerat is a good wife…”
She laughed, irritating him further.
“She’s a good wife because she nags?”
“Luqman used to complain to me that I never called, like other wives did. He thought it was a sign of my detachment. But it wasn’t, not then. Men think nagging’s a sign of love. They’ve been conditioned to think that by their mothers. I mean, why would I call? I always knew where he was.”
“Women who love their husbands and sons want to know about their safety.”
“From what? It’s not like you’re in Waziristan.”
Faheen snapped, “Seerat isn’t the one sitting alone with a man in a hotel room and getting paid for it.”
Not that any man would pay for that doubtful honour, he thought to himself and he almost laughed out loud picturing Seerat in Sasha’s place.
“Tsk, tsk, Jani. Don’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.”
“This isn’t your first time is it?”
“God, you men and your obsession with a woman’s first times. No it isn’t sweetie, but I can pretend it is, if it makes you feel better.”
“What’ll make me feel better is knowing you were still a respectable woman.”
Wouldn’t it? Of course, it would. The thought depressed him a little.
“Sure I am. As respectable as I was when I married Luqman.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me feel worse for Luqman.”
Sasha let out a heartfelt laugh.
“Yeah, you’re right. I feel sorry for him too.”
“I’m sure he appreciates it.”
Something was niggling at him and he didn’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.
“I feel stagnant at home. Luqman says I have very expensive taste, so I found a way to cater to it. He’s never asked me where I get the money from. Why do you think that is?”
“I don’t know.”
“I know what you’re thinking.”
He doubted that. He was thinking of was how to get her out of those barely-there clothes.
“Do you want to go to that dinner first?”
So she did know. She’d done this before. Again he felt the urge to justify himself.
“Sasha, I’m only a man…”
Sasha looked back at him smiling, “My commiserations, Faheem. Let’s get you to that dinner first.”
She uncurled herself out of the chair with that delicious red mouth curled in a smile.
Sasha was the embodiment of all forbidden thrills.
Faheem’s heart pounded just thinking of her. She made him feel more of a man simply because she’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 they’d spent together, he’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 he’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. He’d seen other people do it but he’d always thought that life wasn’t for him. He couldn’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. He’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 didn’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. She’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 he’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.
“Hi, it’s me. Are you at home?”
“He can’t hear you, so you’re safe.”
Faheem felt angry.
“You think I’m afraid of him? Sasha, if I wanted to, I could flatten him with a single punch…you know that.”
“Yes, sweetie I do.” She didn’t sound serious.
“I could. You want me to prove it?”
He wanted to do no such thing. He’d just called to tell her he’d be in town tonight. Why was he trying to establish what he’d already established all week, two weeks ago?
“I’ll be in Lahore for the next two nights. Seerat and the kids will join me on Wednesday. I’ll be at the hotel by nine, I think. I’ll have someone call you with the room number.”
“Won’t you call me yourself?”
Faheem didn’t bother to answer and said goodbye.
Sasha put the phone away. She knew why he wouldn’t call himself. He didn’t want to hide their affair. Was he brave and swashbuckling or just egotistical? Faheem was bold, unlike Luqman. Faheem wasn’t at all what she’d thought he’d be. He was quite intellectual. He didn’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 couldn’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, “Where are you going all dressed up?”
Sasha’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.
“I’m going out with friends. I’ll be late.” She said and picked up her purse.
Luqman came forward with a smile on his face. Oh no, Sasha groaned to herself. This was Luqman’s seductive face. And she really couldn’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. He’d been slim and pleasant looking. He was so obviously in love with her. She’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 he’d been a virgin till their wedding night. And he’d told her that like it was some honour he’d bestowed on her.
The little respect she had left for him, he lost the day he told her about how he’d been overlooked twice for promotion at work.
Now she stopped him with her hand on his chest.
“I’ll be waiting for you.”
Sasha said over her shoulder, “Please don’t. I’ll be late and probably tired. Bye.”
She knew he’d have been asleep anyway but this way, at least she could tell herself that he’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 she’s working on. Faiqa also writes as Zeenat Mahal and two of her novellas have been published with Indireads, an e-publishing venture. She has also published a short story, The Accidental Fiancee, as Zeenat Mahal, with Running out of Ink, in their August issue.