It’s been a while since I came here. I stepped out of my car and the wind seemed to be pushing me back into my seat. Every gust piercing like small needles on my fingers, the only part of my skin exposed. How strange, I thought this was a sensation I would only feel in the cold winters of Europe. Then again, I guess when you wear your heart on your sleeve, every breeze feels extra chilly. I never wanted to come anyways. But Hazeem told me it was for my own good.
He couldn’t come though. He has work and I wish I did too. Why else would anyone take a walk in Botanic Gardens on a Monday afternoon? What am I doing here? I should just leave.
As I was turning back into my seat and bringing my car door to a close, the chirping of birds stopped me. There’s an odd dissonance to the sound in my ears. As though someone was scratching a chalkboard right next to my ears. The chirping felt like a quirky neon blue shawl on a person dressed in mourning clothes. But I guess that’s the weird thing about dissonance.
You never quite expect it, but you’re drawn towards it anyways.
I finally take the keys and trudge out of my saloon. I’m glad I convinced Hazeem not to buy an 8-seater SUV. Our family would never need that. Especially not now. It would’ve been a complete waste of petrol money. And I don’t think I could reverse without tearing up each time as I stared at the empty back seats. Phantom imprints of the child once mine and the grandchildren I could never have.
I don’t let my eyes wander. Every step is just that. Another deliberate muffled padding of my feet on the concrete. Towards a destination I don’t quite know of anymore. Planning is for people who still have hopes that their plans won’t be foiled. I managed to transfix my eyes on the laces of my sneakers but the scent of dew pervades my nostrils, the smell of unmistakable dullness. I let my eyes flicker to the patches of grass bordering the pathway. I’m not sure if it’s possible but, did it lose some of its lustre?
The thing is, I can’t look up. Because if I do, I’ll only see the verandah where he first proposed to my dear daughter.
“Why can’t I know where we’re going?” I said as my hands adjusted the bandana on my eyes once again.
“I told you, I want to surprise you. You only turn 25 once!” Hamza said.
“But what’s so special about my 25th birthday? It’s like a quarter-life crisis and I have work tomorrow!”
“God, Naira, could you just stop whining for a bit?”
My scrunched up eyebrows relax behind this stuffy bandana and I break out into a chuckle.
Anne-Marie’s 2002 is playing on 98.7FM as Hamza, I can only assume, speeds on the expressway. I can’t see anything so I settle by taking in his Yankee Candle car scent that was subtly tainted with the smell of leftover mutton curry from before and listening to his quiet humming.
Hamza has the most softly enchanting voice. I remember when I first heard him singing Coldplay’s Viva La Vida in a hushed voice as we were studying in a tutorial room in university. We had been friends for only a month then but I remember finding his voice charming even while he was completely oblivious to his audience of one. In fact, if anything, the fact that he didn’t notice me made it even more endearing.
It’s rather peculiar how a voice I had just heard over a few times then is the same soothing voice that comforts me as I sob about any of my struggles now. That it is the same voice that my ears would prick up at, immediately looking to match it with the familiar face in a crowded room. That it is the same voice that I can distinctly hear in my head as I read those thoughtful but intelligent messages at 2am.
And it’s the same voice now telling me to shut up as he tries to organize some crazy plan for my birthday.
He knows, though, that as much as I seem to complain, I’m actually really excited. I can’t wait to see what he has in store. It’s never easy to plan a surprise for me because I have the wildest imagination, creating the craziest expectations. I’ve long told myself that I should never expect any surprise to live up to these fantasies, but I’m always just slightly hopeful.
And to be fair, Hamza’s birthday surprise for me last year was pretty impressive considering he had only known me for a year. Granted, we were in a relationship by then and had gotten to know each other quite well. But a Harry-Potter themed birthday with a cake in the shape of a golden snitch? I was just surprised no one ever did that for me for the past 23 years.
As I let these beautiful thoughts lull me into forgetting the car ride, Hamza makes a sharp turn before gradually easing off on the accelerator and finally bringing the car to a halt.
“Can I take off my mask now?”
“NO,” Hamza replied.
“But we’re here!”
“Yeah, well not exactly...”
As he trails off my imagination goes into overdrive. What did he mean? Not exactly? Where else would we have to go?
Before I could even reach inside my mind for a possible answer, I felt the winds tickling my cheeks as he opened my car door.
“You know, if you wanted to blindfold me, you shouldn’t have brought me alone. How are you gonna guide me around?” I asked.
“We’ll play Marco Polo.”
“Ha Ha, very funny. I’m just saying–”
And I felt a gentle grip on my arm as I was trying to get out of the car.
“Hamza! We talked about this!”
“No no, it’s me!” a familiar voice said, almost breaking into laughter.
I squeal. Hamza laughs from what sounds like a distance.
I start gushing in excitement once I realize that my best friend, Zara, is standing in front of me. My hands pat her arms before I pull her in for a hug and continue bombarding her with questions. I guessed that she was under strict orders by Hamza because she refused to give any hints and simply pulled me along, laughing at my incessant chattering.
I held the pink shawl in my hands. Cascading to the floor, I stared into it, as if hoping I’d see her face appear, beautifully wrapped in it.
My fingers squeezed the material and I squeezed my eyes shut. But it was too late, a teardrop had already escaped and surely stained the shawl. This pink shawl that I’ve yet to find strength to wash. In fact, if an X-ray existed for such things, I’m sure you could see traces of the many teardrops already splattered across the shawl. But water evaporates. I just won’t let my memories of you do the same.
I could never forget that day. It was the promise of the future I had never imagined before and couldn’t imagine without after. And yet that’s where it must stay, in the depths of my imagination.
My heart was drumming in my chest but not an inch of jitters reached my face.
“Is that children?” Naira asked. “Why are there children? Are we at a park?”
Every question made me smile just a millimeter wider and, forget my heart skipping a beat, my legs felt like breaking out into a skip. I can’t believe it was about to happen.
Every now and then I turned around, traipsing in the same direction but my body facing her and her adorable smile. I’m so glad Zara and Caroline were texting her before this as she asked them for advice on what to wear. They obviously knew everything so they convinced her to dress up just a little more than she normally would.
Right now, she was stumbling forward in a printed, pastel pink and cream dress. The abstract, geometric shapes were faded just enough so that you’d almost miss them if you didn’t look closely. The dress fell slightly below her ankles, lightly brushing the concrete as she stumbled along. And I could never forget that pink hijab, just a shade darker than her dress. She wore it in her usual style but it still made her face gleam.
But it wasn’t the shawl itself that was beautiful, it was how, when she donned it, she always looked both beautiful and confident. Modest and brave. Sophisticated and jovial.
“You can’t seriously tell me we’re not here yet? Wherever here is supposed to be.”
“Naira, stop spoiling the fun!”
The girls started giggling and I shook my head, the smile still glued onto my face. I turned to face where we were headed and there it was. The white lattice verandah standing gloriously in front of me in the evening glow.
It took everything in me not to sprint towards both our parents standing there, beaming away as they saw us. Excited whispering was met with immediate hushing once they realized we were within earshot. Aunty Hafsa’s kind eyes twinkled at me while Mum reached out to hug Dad’s arms.
Zara positioned Naira exactly where I’d told her to, just slightly in front of me but facing away from me. Then she slowly untied the bandana around Naira’s eyes.
Immediately Naira’s eyes widened, before her eyebrows scrunched up again. Surely wondering what an odd place to celebrate her birthday, what with the lack of balloons and streamers. I know this is much less than her last birthday with only fairy lights draped around the circumference, taped to each panel.
She walked forward slightly, to salam her parents’ as well as my mom before slowly turning back to find me.
“Really Hamza, I can’t believe you were building up so much suspense for this–”
I was standing in front of her with the ring box open in my hands.
Here goes, I really hope she says yes.
“We’ll have to do the jenazah prayers immediately after Zuhur. We’re going to Ba’alwie,” said Uncle Hazeem.
“But who’s going to lead the prayers?” someone asked.
Uncle Hazeem looked directly at me. I rubbed my eyes quickly before I nodded.
“Okay, then we’re leaving straight for Pusaraman right?”
The voices slowly faded into the background as I stared at the copy of Isabel Allende’s Paula tucked into the bookshelf in Naira’s study. The book she worked on for her Final Year Project in university. I remembered how she would constantly rattle on in her literary analysis about yet another passage that she found. I wish I could even vaguely remember what exactly she was saying. Something about magical realism...
I looked up, right into Aunty Hafsa’s eyes. I never noticed this before, but they shared the same large doe eyes. The same doe eyes that I knew would twinkle about Allende.
“I was saying how you can have the book if you want,” Aunty Hafsa repeated.
“Thank you for agreeing to lead the prayers. I know it would make just as much sense for Uncle to do so. And he would. But I don’t know if he could. And I told him I wanted you to do it too.”
My eyes, which had fixed themselves on the floral patterns of the carpet, instantly flitted up to look at her mother again.
“Oh, something tells me she would’ve wanted you to. And I know this is not how you would’ve imagined leading a prayer with her in a mosque but...”
I gave a tight-lipped smile.
“Thank you. You made her so happy. You’ve done what every mother could only dream a man could do for her daughter.”
“Aunty, I loved her. I love her...”
She said that she just remembered this and took out a silver ring from her pocket.
“I know it doesn’t make sense to give this to you now. In fact, it doesn’t make sense to give this to you at all. But I want you to have this,” she said, passing me the ring.
“You will always be Naira’s first love. And now, her last.”