A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 26)
Mariam busied herself taking a sip of water.
"Anyway, I hope I am not boring you with all this talk of politics."
Later, Mariam was in the kitchen, soaking dishes in soapy water, a tightly wound knot in her belly.
It wasn’t so much what he said, the blatant lies, the contrived empathy, or even the fact that he had not raised a hand to her, Mariam, since he had dug the girl out from under those bricks.
It was the staged delivery. Like a performance. An attempt on his part, both sly and pathetic, to impress. To charm.
And suddenly Mariam knew that her suspicions were right. She understood with a dread that was like a blinding whack to the side of her head that what she was witnessing was nothing less than a courtship.
WHEN SHE’D at last worked up the nerve, Mariam went to his room.
Rasheed lit a cigarette, and said, "Why not?"
Mariam knew right then that she was defeated. She’d half expected, half hoped, that he would deny everything, feign surprise, maybe even outrage, at what she was implying. She might have had the upper hand then. She might have succeeded in shaming him. But it stole her grit, his calm acknowledgment, his matter-of-fact tone.
"Sit down," he said. He was lying on his bed, back to the wall, his thick, long legs splayed on the mattress. "Sit down before you faint and cut your head open."
Mariam felt herself drop onto the folding chair beside his bed.
"Hand me that ashtray, would you?" he said.
Obediently, she did.
Rasheed had to be sixty or more now – though Mariam, and in fact Rasheed himself did not know his exact age. His hair had gone white, but it was as thick and coarse as ever. There was a sag now to his eyelids and the skin of his neck, which was wrinkled and leathery. His cheeks hung a bit more than they used to. In the mornings, he stooped just a tad. But he still had the stout shoulders, the thick torso, the strong hands, the swollen belly that entered the room before any other part of him did.
On the whole, Mariam thought that he had weathered the years considerably better than she.
"We need to legitimize this situation," he said now, balancing the ashtray on his belly. His lips scrunched up in a playful pucker. "People will talk. It looks dishonorable, an unmarried young woman living here. It’s bad for my reputation. And hers. And yours, I might add."
"Eighteen years," Mariam said. "And I never asked you for a thing. Not one thing. I’m asking now."
He inhaled smoke and let it out slowly. "She can’t just stay here, if that’s what you’re suggesting. I can’t go on feeding her and clothing her and giving her a place to sleep. I’m not the Red Cross, Mariam."
"What of it? What? She’s too young, you think? She’s fourteen. Hardly a child. You were fifteen, remember? My mother was fourteen when she had me. Thirteen when she married."
"I . . . I don’t want this," Mariam said, numb with contempt and helplessness.
"It’s not your decision. It’s hers and mine."
"I’m too old."
"She’s too young, you’re too old. This is nonsense."
"I am too old. Too old for you to do this to me," Mariam said, balling up fistfuls of her dress so tightly her hands shook. "For you, after all these years, to make me an ambagh."
"Don’t be so dramatic. It’s a common thing and you know it. I have friends who have two, three, four wives. Your own father had three. Besides, what I’m doing now most men I know would have done long ago. You know it’s true."
"I won’t allow it."
At this, Rasheed smiled sadly.
"There is another option," he said, scratching the sole of one foot with the calloused heel of the other. "She can leave. I won’t stand in her way. But I suspect she won’t get far. No food, no water, not a rupiah in her pockets, bullets and rockets flying everywhere. How many days do you suppose she’ll last before she’s abducted, raped, or tossed into some roadside ditch with her throat slit? Or all three?"
He coughed and adjusted the pillow behind his back.
"The roads out there are unforgiving, Mariam, believe me. Bloodhounds and bandits at every turn. I wouldn’t like her chances, not at all. But let’s say that by some miracle she gets to Peshawar. What then? Do you have any idea what those camps are like?"
He gazed at her from behind a column of smoke.
"People living under scraps of cardboard. TB, dysentery, famine, crime. And that’s before winter. Then it’s frostbite season. Pneumonia. People turning to icicles. Those camps become frozen graveyards.
"Of course," he made a playful, twirling motion with his hand, "she could keep warm in one of those Peshawar brothels. Business is booming there, I hear. A beauty like her ought to bring in a small fortune, don’t you think?"
He set the ashtray on the nightstand and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
"Look," he said, sounding more conciliatory now, as a victor could afford to. "I knew you wouldn’t take this well. I don’t really blame you. But this is for the best. You’ll see. Think of it this way, Mariam. I’m giving you help around the house and her a sanctuary. A home and a husband. These days, times being what they are, a woman needs a husband. Haven’t you noticed all the widows sleeping on the streets? They would kill for this chance. In fact, this is . . . Well, I’d say this is downright charitable of me."
"The way I see it, I deserve a medal."
LATER, in the dark, Mariam told the girl.
For a long time, the girl said nothing.
"He wants an answer by this morning," Mariam said.
"He can have it now," the girl said. "My answer is yes."
The next day, Laila stayed in bed. She was under the blanket in the morning when Rasheed poked his head in and said he was going to the barber. She was still in bed when he came home late in the afternoon, when he showed her his new haircut, his new used suit, blue with cream pinstripes, and the wedding band he’d bought her.
Rasheed sat on the bed beside her, made a great show of slowly undoing the ribbon, of opening the box and plucking out the ring delicately. He let on that he’d traded in Mariam’s old wedding ring for it.
"She doesn’t care. Believe me. She won’t even notice."
Laila pulled away to the far end of the bed. She could hear Mariam downstairs, the hissing of her iron.
"She never wore it anyway," Rasheed said.
"I don’t want it," Laila said, weakly. "Not like this. You have to take it back."
"Take it back?" An impatient look flashed across his face and was gone. He smiled. "I had to add some cash too – quite a lot, in fact. This is a better ring, twenty-two-karat gold. Feel how heavy? Go on, feel it. No?" He closed the box. "How about flowers? That would be nice. You like flowers? Do you have a favorite? Daisies? Tulips? Lilacs? No flowers? Good! I don’t see the point myself. I just thought . . . Now, I know a tailor here in Deh-Mazang. I was thinking we could take you there tomorrow, get you fitted for a proper dress."
Laila shook her head.
Rasheed raised his eyebrows.
"I’d just as soon – " Laila began.
He put a hand on her neck. Laila couldn’t help wincing and recoiling. His touch felt like wearing a prickly old wet wool sweater with no undershirt.
"I’d just as soon we get it done."
Rasheed’s mouth opened, then spread in a yellow, toothy grin. "Eager," he said.
BEFORE ABDUL SHARIF’S VISIT, Laila had decided to leave for Pakistan. Even after Abdul Sharif came bearing his news, Laila thought now, she might have left. Gone somewhere far from here. Detached herself from this city where every street corner was a trap, where every alley hid a ghost that sprang at her like a jack-in-the-box. She might have taken the risk.
But, suddenly, leaving was no longer an option.
Not with this daily retching.
This new fullness in her breasts.
And the awareness, somehow, amid all of this turmoil, that she had missed a cycle.
Laila pictured herself in a refugee camp, a stark field with thousands of sheets of plastic strung to makeshift poles flapping in the cold, stinging wind. Beneath one of these makeshift tents, she saw her baby, Tariq’s baby, its temples wasted, its jaws slack, its skin mottled, bluish gray. She pictured its tiny body washed by strangers, wrapped in a tawny shroud, lowered into a hole dug in a patch of windswept land under the disappointed gaze of vultures.
How could she run now?
Laila took grim inventory of the people in her life.
Ahmad and Noor, dead. Hasina, gone. Giti, dead. Mammy, dead. Babi, dead. Now Tariq . . .
But, miraculously, something of her former life remained, her last link to the person that she had been before she had become so utterly alone. A part of Tariq still alive inside her, sprouting tiny arms, growing translucent hands. How could she jeopardize the only thing she had left of him, of her old life?
She made her decision quickly. Six weeks had passed since her time with Tariq. Any longer and Rasheed would grow suspicious.
She knew that what she was doing was dishonorable. Dishonorable, disingenuous, and shameful. And spectacularly unfair to Mariam. But even though the baby inside her was no bigger than a mulberry, Laila already saw the sacrifices a mother had to make. Virtue was only the first.
She put a hand on her belly. Closed her eyes.
LAILA WOULD REMEMBER the muted ceremony in bits and fragments. The cream-colored stripes of Rasheed’s suit. The sharp smell of his hair spray. The small shaving nick just above his Adam’s apple. The rough pads of his tobacco-stained fingers when he slid the ring on her. The pen. Its not working. The search for a new pen. The contract. The signing, his sure-handed, hers quavering. The prayers. Noticing, in the mirror, that Rasheed had trimmed his eyebrows.
And, somewhere in the room, Mariam watching. The air choking with her disapproval.
Laila could not bring herself to meet the older woman’s gaze.
LYING BENEATH HIS cold sheets that night, she watched him pull the curtains shut. She was shaking even before his fingers worked her shirt buttons, tugged at the drawstring of her trousers. He was agitated. His fingers fumbled endlessly with his own shirt, with undoing his belt.
Laila had a full view of his sagging breasts, his protruding belly button, the small blue vein in the center of it, the tufts of thick white hair on his chest, his shoulders, and upper arms. She felt his eyes crawling all over her.
"God help me, I think I love you," he said.
Through chattering teeth, she asked him to turn out the lights.
Later, when she was sure that he was asleep, Laila quietly reached beneath the mattress for the knife she had hidden there earlier. With it, she punctured the pad of her index finger. Then she lifted the blanket and let her finger bleed on the sheets where they had lain together.
In the daytime, the girl was no more than a creaking bedspring, a patter of footsteps overhead. She was water splashing in the bathroom, or a teaspoon clinking against glass in the bedroom upstairs. Occasionally, there were sightings: a blur of billowing dress in the periphery of Mariam’s vision, scurrying up the steps, arms folded across the chest, sandals slapping the heels.
But it was inevitable that they would run into each other. Mariam passed the girl on the stairs, in the narrow hallway, in the kitchen, or by the door as she was coming in from the yard. When they met like this, an awkward tension rushed into the space between them. The girl gathered her skirt and breathed out a word or two of apology, and, as she hurried past, Mariam would chance a sidelong glance and catch a blush. Sometimes she could smell Rasheed on her. She could smell his sweat on the girl’s skin, his tobacco, his appetite. Sex, mercifully, was a closed chapter in her own life. It had been for some time, and now even the thought of those laborious sessions of lying beneath Rasheed made Mariam queasy in the gut.