The water laps up the white foam from the buckets as the women thrash the clothes on the bank, their worries, frustration and anger all balled up into the fists that come crashing down on the poor, unsuspecting fabric.
The water is murky brown, teeming with Styrofoam and islands of inky blackness that might be excrement. One of the women opens the front two buttons of her kameez and climbs into the water, clothes and all. Her kameez billows up as if she’s floating in a multi-colored lifeboat.
This is what life is in its raw form: freedom, a hope, a dream. She stops the car, and reaches out her hand to feel the first droplets of the winter rain on her fingertips. Her skin thrums with the cold. It must be frigid in the water.
That settles it. Before she can let her wayward mind take her someplace else, she jumps out of her car, and runs toward the Canal. Her stomach twists in pain, her limbs buckle, but she presses on. There is a blast of the misty, polluted air on her face, and she stretches her arms, spreads her wings. She is airborne, like a jet, a bird!
And then clarity. Stinging, icy clarity.
Her husband’s face presses up close to hers; she sees the lines of worry, the permanent expression of dread that seems etched on his face. She wants the frenzied, panting version of him, his face twisted into wordless ecstasy. She wants to make love.
His concern infuriates her.
The strength returns to her. She pushes against his chest, hard. ‘Get away from me.’
He stumbles back, surprised, but not shocked. This isn’t the first time she’s behaved like this. ‘It’s her brain,’ he whispers to the baffled nurse. ‘The disease has progressed to her brain, making it difficult for her to control her emotions. It’s not her fault.’
The nurse nods, mollified.
‘Bitch,’ she hisses at the nurse.
‘I can see what you mean,’ the nurse replies. The buttons of her shirt strain across her chest; she notices the safety pins at the back where she has deliberately tightened her shirt.
The nurse wants to make her feel insecure about herself. She thrusts out her flat chest with pride. She hated the feel of the round, unnatural silicone pads they wanted to sew inside her. ‘Give you a more womanly feel,’ a doctor had suggested impishly.
As if fake breasts could ever make up for what she’d lost. What she lost everyday as the disease ate at her. Vanity is the farthest thing from her mind, and yet here she is ogling at the nurse’s chest, grinding her teeth at her husband for the mere fact that he is standing next to that epitome of femininity, while she, wasted and masculine, lies panting on the stretcher-like hospital bed. As if she were already dead.
And then clarity. Stinging, icy clarity.
The smell of garlic and chicken from the kitchen. The maid is hard at work to prepare her a welcome-back meal. ‘Was I gone that long?’ she wonders.
‘Seven days,’ her husband says. ‘Do you know how hard it is to treat an infection for someone in your condition. What possessed you to take a swim at four degrees?’
‘I’ll be out of your hair soon,’ she replies back, seeing and not caring how his sad old face crumples. He’d want to snuggle into someone soft now, someone who’d help him reassert his masculinity, a perfect fleshy creature to remind him what is to be a man.
Curious: wounding him makes her hungry. She calls to her maid to hurry with the food.
Her mind is still clogged from the drugs they’ve given her, like a blocked drain but she marches upstairs. Her son, her beautiful son, the love of her life, the only one to ever understand her.
She stops dead in front of his room. It is pristine, clean, more tidy than she’s ever seen it. Tears in her eyes, those old traitors. First to flee a sinking ship.
‘I’ve asked him to make a habit of cleaning his own room from now on,’ her husband remarks proudly.
‘Do you want a medal?’
That wipes the smile off his face.
Inside her head, she is screaming, throwing the room into disrepair again, flinging the books across the room, scattering the laundered and folded clothes over the floor. Cleaning was all she was capable of, and now that’s gone too. He’s learned to clean after himself; she might as well be dead.
Her son had watched her sheepish entrance into the house nine months ago, the way she clutched a hand to her sewn chest, and she’d seen confusion cloud his ten-year-old mind, the tilt of his head, the question in his eyes. And then, there was rationalization; the remarkable blessing only children are bestowed with. He’d have swallowed whole any story she told him about her changed appearance, but she never said anything. And he never asked. She might have lost weight, for all he knew.
Where was he, her darling boy? There is a delicious irony to life, giving her a child at forty and then robbing her of the pleasure of his company so soon. The ten years feel like a tenuous connection, as short as a brief waving of hands at each other. He’ll forget his mother. All he’ll remember would be a gasping woman on a respirator, too sick to hold his hand, and listen to his stories. Too sick to read him stories. He would find his mother in his father, or in his father’s next wife. For she is sure that her husband would marry again. In fact, she encourages him. He deserves to have someone warm his bed again. He is a good man. Too good for her, which makes her furious.
‘Where is he?’ she rasps, the tears she is fighting back constricting her throat.
Her husband puts his hand on her shoulder, and gives it a light squeeze. She wishes he would reach around her back for her stomach (he used to reach for her chest before), and bend her forward, and take her right then and there. She presses herself to his crotch.
‘Samarra,’ he begins. ‘It’s too soon. You need rest.’
She doesn’t let him see her humiliation.
Outside, the air is crisp and clear. The morning fog has evaporated enough to allow her to see the small lawn that their property holds. She spies the gardener with his lawn mower, his gaze traveling over her body in slow-motion, pausing for a moment at her chest, before proceeding downwards. How he loved to watch her in her night gown, while she sipped tea on the terrace, watching the birds light the sky. She would take pleasure in his lurid gaze, in his open-mouthed wonder at the kindness nature had shown her body.
The perfect woman.
She wonders what he’d say if she were to unbutton her kameez now, and bare her naked torso to him. There would be nothing to see except the thin red scars marking her chest. A misfit. An abomination.