Alka stands just ahead of Farid, fumbling with the key. She twists it left, and right, and then left again. The impressive townhouse looms above them, a bit old but not dilapidated, the white paint chipping off a few of the earthy bricks beneath. Alka keeps her eyes down, focused, until the lock finally clicks. “There,” she says, a proud tone of accomplishment sneaking into her voice. She smiles back at Farid. “We’re in.”
The house smells of cedar and air freshener; the sunlight peeking through the windows has bleached some of the old and uneven hardwood floors white. Alka takes in the main floor slowly, as though tasting it, smelling it, absorbing each inch of it with her gaze before taking quickly to the stairs. Each plank bends ever so slightly beneath her sneakers; her hand grazes the bannister in case a hollowed out board suddenly gives way. A window above the front entrance, matching her height on the second floor, offers dusty rays of light. As Alka passes through the brightness, she pauses at two darkened rectangles on the wall opposite the window. They sit at eye level, perfect ghosts of residents past. Alka touches her fingertips to the unbleached shadows, wondering what the frames and photographs might have looked like.
She is startled by the sound of Farid shutting the front door, the stairs creaking as he makes his way up far more slowly than she did. She calls his name, curling her tongue around his consonants. Farid stops near the top of the stairs, leaning against the bannister to survey the three doorways across from him. One for their bedroom, one for Alka’s portraiture, one to grow into. Grow into. Farid says it quietly, warming to the idea. Alka is also saying it to herself but scoffing a little, laughing at how far away that future feels to her. She moves to stand beneath the bedroom doorway, where the door is open inward. Uneven on its hinges, it hangs at an angle and creaks as she pushes it wide. “We’ll have to fix that one,” Alka says as she steps into the room. “We’ll have to start there.”
The master bedroom is empty aside from the torn-down wooden bars of a bed and a dusty brass gramophone in the corner. Alka stands in the center of the room, looking up at the flowering petals of a gothic lamp fixture. The floorboards beneath her are pale like the ones in the entryway. She wonders how much it costs to restain hardwood.
Farid leans against the doorway, watching Alka. The expression on his face—a curious, perplexed look that crinkles his eyes and twists his lips into a smile—mimics the expression he had worn as she had fumbled with the lock. Hands shoved in his pockets, tilting eagerly forward, he looks much younger than his years. Alka meets his gaze and smiles. There is a feeling of weight, suddenly. Not suffocating, but Alka does feel her heart drop into her gut, the way it does when someone tells you they love you for the first time, the way it felt to sign the papers and buy a house together, the way it feels when life is moving you forward and, even though you’re certain of what is to come, it’s never really that easy.
A part of Alka doesn’t want to move towards Farid. Doesn’t want to rush what comes next; wants instead to bathe in this moment, in this light, for them to take their time before the future descends. (It’s never easy to take time.)
She can feel the weight of everything that comes after.
Here’s what comes after:
The bedroom will grow furnished like adults’ rooms are supposed to, all wood and steel and accent pieces. They keep the lamp Farid’s mother had gifted him for his first apartment, not because he likes it but because Alka does. The lamp’s base is an elephant carved into soapstone, a woven loom of criss-crossed lines that shelter the baby elephant nested inside. When Alka had first seen it in Farid’s apartment the morning after she had first stayed the night, she had wondered aloud at the mastery it must have taken the carver to birth such a thing. Farid had laughed and shrugged, said, I feel like everyone has one nowadays. Alka had felt a little childish for wanting something apparently so common but it became her favorite piece, the thing she woke up to every morning.
The two of them will keep the lamp until it crashes to the floor and into a million tiny pieces, after Farid gets the call that his mother is in the hospital and in an effort to run to the door trips over its wire. The shattered soapstone will remain behind him. Alka will be out of town, at a showing in Brooklyn, and Farid will book his tickets from Boston to Karachi without telling her, and she’ll return to a post-it left on the grey-and-white granite countertops.
Alka will wait for him, rocking back and forth in the room they’re meant to grow into, wondering selfishly how they can grow into anything at all if he can get on a plane without thinking to text goodbye, saying nothing until he finally calls and says his mother has passed away. Then she will feel guilty for wondering in the first place, booking her own tickets to meet him half-way across the world.
They will get married the next summer. Alka will wonder how much of his proposal was shaped by his family’s questions when she joined him for the funeral. Farid will know she has these questions but, stubbornly, won’t answer a question that hasn’t been asked. They won’t talk about it, this elephant in the room, this thing that shouldn’t matter but feels like some sort of stain. But theirs will be a beautiful wedding, and Alka will wear red and Farid will wear white, and their families will somehow manage to keep their mouths shut about their children marrying into different religions. And at the end of the night, after their families have left, the two of them will sip champagne and congratulate one another on having pulled it off. The candlelight on the veranda will reflect off the mirrors sewn into Alka’s lengha, and Farid will say, This is everything.
It will feel like it actually is.
There will be lighter arguments in this bedroom, too. They will spend hours arguing over the best way to go about fixing the place. Farid will ruin three pairs of pants on his hands and knees, trying to do it himself. One summer morning, he will rip the cuff of one pant leg on an errant nail and joke about how next time it’ll be his skin; the next time, it will be his skin, the nail piercing through his shoe. They will rush to the hospital hoping that his tetanus record is on file because they haven’t found medical records in any of the unpacked boxes. After that, Farid will finally admit his inadequacy at woodwork and they’ll contract it out, living in the room with Alka’s paintings; a mattress on the floor, no sheets in the heat of summer, and a tarp as their door. Farid will remember childhood summers spent in Pakistan with his grandmother, pink netting keeping out the mosquitos.
Another conversation they have yet to have: The material for the countertops downstairs. Alka will hesitate at this one, more so than she balked at signing the house papers. It won’t make sense, especially not to Farid, but Alka will not want to discuss how much time and money they plan on investing in these renovations because she doesn’t want to think about leaving it, about whatever the next chapter is supposed to be. Farid likes the idea of a chapter that begins where this one ends; he likes thinking of the continuity of their life, the things that end and begin with Alka by his side. Something gnaws in Alka’s gut at that thought. One day, Farid will say, It’s just a conversation about countertops, and Alka will say, It’s a conversation about time, which seems larger and more enigmatic. She will also think to herself, It’s a conversation about our fundamental differences, but she won’t say that aloud to him just yet. She will save that bit, those words that bite, for a conversation further down the road about whether or not they should move to St. Louis, where he’ll be offered a teaching position. She will say it in a burst of anger before sleeping fitfully in the room with the art and the easels, where he will knock on the door and wait for her to say something. She won’t. And in the morning, Alka will open the door to find Farid sleeping outside and start to cry, and he’ll wake with a start to the sound of her sobbing, his back aching from the strange position and the way plaster sits against bone. He’ll pull her down so that her head is cradled in his lap, his fingers in her hair.
Farid, who has always had a faith larger than himself, will feel certain enough in them to promise they won’t leave Boston until she is ready. He will say, and not emptily, that he can put off St. Louis or moving for another year, that he can wait for the next thing. But Alka does not have faith in a predetermined path, and who can plan for when a professorship is finally offered to someone who deserves it as much as Farid does? In an effort to say the right thing for once, she will twist her words and suggest Farid goes alone, that he should seize his dream in a city she knows she will despise for its distance from the coastline. Farid will look at her, pained in a way that stings to the bone, and a month later, he will leave to get settled in the Midwest. Alka will stay behind, pretending the river she sees from the back window is the Mississippi.
Eventually she will relent, joining him barely two weeks after he makes the move. She’ll sit on the stoop of his campus lodgings, tearing into herself for the damage she thinks she has caused. For years, she will think he doesn’t look at her the same way he did before; while it’s true at first, Farid knows this is how they are meant to happen.
And, then, the room to grow into. They won’t touch that grenade for a long time, knowing neither of them is ready to be a parent. When they move back to the townhouse after a position opens up in Boston, Farid sees the excitement on Alka’s face that she is trying so hard to contain. They will think they are ready for this next step, too, and it will suddenly be too late. They’ll realize they weren’t just lucky all those years. Farid will look into adoption and Alka will wonder if maybe they weren’t meant to be a family. Some of these years will be bitter, confusing. Alka’s paintings will grow darker, a lot of blacks and purples where there used to be beiges, and Farid will take on more classes at the university. They will grow apart, for a while. And then one evening, Farid will put something old on the gramophone, the one that had been in the house when they first walked in, and whisper in Alka’s ear, You would have been the greatest mother.
In all that comes next—and Alka does not know it yet as she stands in that empty bedroom, not wanting to move to him—there will always be that visceral fear that she feels even now: They are always leaving each other. More rightly, she will always be digging in her heels, resisting some part of him. It will be her burden—their burden—to bear until decades later, until she finally believes they work because, for years, they just have. Only then will they leave this city for another.
In the now, Alka sizes Farid up, this boyish man standing excitedly in the doorway, the weight of all that is to come hanging thickly in the air. She wonders if he can feel it, too. He smiles as he looks around the room, says, “Our work’s cut out for us,” and Alka nods quietly, taking in the musty scent of the place, watching the remarkably certain way the rays of sunlight pierce through the ratted drapes to claim their space on unpainted walls.
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