Maeda Zia is a graduate student based in Karachi, Pakistan. In her spare time, she likes to binge-watch foreign dramas, hoard books and occasionally worry about her dissertation.
A Moment’s Surrender
The dars is supposed to start in two hours. Nothing is ready. The biryani–mutton, he’s only been dead a year–is still simmering. The white sheets, wet, flap in the breeze. The dars aunty isn’t here. Phone goes straight to a naat. What, did her saintly nostrils pick up the scent of uncooked biryani, the heek of the gosht, and she bailed? Ridiculous. The dars will start in two hours. Aik tau yeh kameez. The collar’s too high; it hems in your throat. You pull at it impatiently; it’s no use. Ittar swirls around your apartment; you inhale it with every breath you take. The scent scratches your throat. You can’t breathe.
Where is Ali? These caterers will listen to a man, they’ll look to him for the cash, eyes straying expectantly to his wallet (empty). They’ll turn to him even though it was you who stood at the funeral, supervising. Just where is Ali? Why must he always disappear? Are he and darsi churail blessed with the same gift of scuttling away when work awaits? Your sandals thump harder and harder as you walk across the apartment. You’ve checked the kitchen. You’ve checked the drawing room–it’s a 2 bedroom flat; where the fuck is he? As you walk by the bathroom connecting Ali’s room and yours, you hear a yelp and a clatter behind the bathroom’s door. Rats? Not today, please, the phuppos will die of glee. You hate this bathroom. Your cousins renovated it when they owned it. You hate the gaudy golden tiles patterning the sinks, striping the walls, the sink. Fuck this rat-infested bathroom.
Your lips are hemmed in anger as you push the door. No rats. Just Ali. Must he be preening on a day like this?
As you take in the sight, you correct yourself: trying to preen, really.
Your brother–blessed, beloved Ali (last in the womb, first in our hearts) is standing in front of the sink. His chin is slathered with shaving cream. He is scrabbling at his face, fingers clawing away the skin. He bites down at his lip as he squints at himself in the mirror. You don’t think. You are at the sink, gripping his chin, skin and cream and all.
“Are you hurt?”
“Choro!” He jerks away.
You pay no heed and tighten your grip. There doesn’t seem to be much damage. A few scratches here and there. You note the razor in the sink, suspended in the cream. A thin line of red gleams and catches on the silver.
“Were you trying to shave?” You can’t believe it. You snatch the razor and hold it up to the light. You haven’t seen one this cheap since you first started shaving your legs. You were embarrassed at the wiry stubble there, you wanted it gone, so you grabbed the first razor you could find. Stubble gave way to scratches and scabs. You didn’t use that razor again. Yet here it is; same brand, different model, still flimsy.
His eyes narrow. “No shit,” he retorts.
You don’t pay him any attention. He can’t be this old, not so fast. Wasn’t it yesterday he was a gangly child, fidgeting, standing beside your father’s’ coffin? What gleamed whiter? The shroud your father was wrapped in or the kurta your brother wore? At your father’s funeral, Ali mourned; you managed.
Seems like you’ll have to manage this too.
You huff. “You suck at this. Let me do it.”
“Like you’re any better,” he says, but he obeys; he hands over the razor; you dip it under the tap and rinse it. Foam and stubble pool at the drain, a heap of ashes. Your brother eyes you warily.
“Dude, chill, I’ve done this bef–” you bite off your sentence. Don’t let your brother know, the phuppos decreed. You’re never to let him know that A Female inhabits this bathroom, with her pads, cotton soaked red, bound up in plastic, disposed of before their stench can ever pervade the bathroom. Instead, you call your wax-vaali on the days he’s not home so he doesn’t see Annie tottering back and forth, huffing at a cup of hot wax balanced in her palms. No bras, no panties to be left on the floor. Not now, not ever. What if he saw?
You hold the blade and look at your brother. Traces of shaving cream remain on his face. Idiot didn’t apply enough cream. Grabbing the tube, you squeeze out more into your palms. Chalo–at least he bought a decent brand. After the heat of the caterer’s daighs, the coolness of the cream is a balm. You pat down the cream with your fingers and pick up the razor.
You remember your father. He shaved every morning before he went to work. He swirled his razor in a bowl of water before taking it to his face. He would apply the cream slowly, methodically. If you focus, you can pinpoint the exact moment when he would pick up his razor and begin.
You grasp Ali’s chin and guide it upwards. In the translucent light, his skin is almost yellow. His Adam’s apple bobs up and down. What would it mean for the blade to glide upon his Adam’s apple? How hard would you have to press it down to make a welt? How much pressure to make those welts become large, gaping holes? Why are you thinking this? You can’t do this. The razor feels heavy, foreign in your hand. Your brother seems to tower above you. You want your father. This is his job, not yours.
“Seedhay ho.” Your hand curls over Ali’s shoulder. ”You’ll need to sit down. You’re too tall.”
He nods. He shuffles out of the bathroom. You stare down at the sink. Your father kept an engraved bowl on the left. Where did it go? Was it passed on to an uncle or simply discarded? You can’t remember.
A noise makes you look up. Your brother appears in the doorway, dragging a chair (oh God, it’s one of the dars chairs, he didn’t even take off the white cover) to the sink. As he stands in front of the sink, you position yourself in front of him. Your hands encircle his shoulder and you push him down into the chair.
Now that he sits down, you tower over him. You are suddenly aware of the closeness between you two, the air seems to constrict. If he leans even an inch forward, his face would be right in your chest. You cannot let that happen. You propel his chin upward, ignoring his protests. His throat is bared to you.
Lights catches off the razor as you begin. You are careful. You bring it down in smooth, wide strokes.
“Why don’t you have a shaving brush like the one Abbu had?” You ask. That brush had an ornate, wooden handle. When Abbu would step out of the bathroom to take his shirt, and you, hovering in the doorway, would step inside, your feet light on the cool tiles. You would hold his brush, the bristles damp and limp, and graze it against your own skin. When Abbu returned, you would be back in the doorway. He never saw.
“What? What brush?”
“Y’know, the shaving brush, the kind you use to spread the cream.”
He shrugs. “Don’t know, never used–”
“Don’t move! God, did nobody teach you how to shave?”
His silence is answer enough. Necessity forced you to turn to friends. Absence forced him to turn to the mirror, a blade in hand.
If Abbu had been alive, would he have been the one to teach him? Buy him a razor? Guide his hands as he shaved for the first time? No, that’s not like Abbu. He would have stood at the side and issued instructions. Like the time he taught you to drive. Calmly, methodically. He didn’t bat an eye when you nearly rammed the car into the gate. Too bad he didn’t teach you how to shave. You choke back a laugh and focus on the razor.
The razor glides across Ali’s cheeks; you don’t know why he’s shaving, there’s just stubble. You have to step closer, you’re shaving too wide. You don’t think; you step in between his legs. Fuck. Too close. You can’t go back now. Keep at it. You dab a towel at his cheeks, the foam dissolves, leaving skin behind.
The new rawness of his skin reminds you of him as a baby. Ammi passed away soon after the birth. It was always you and him and Abbu. Cradling his head in the crook of your elbow. You learnt how to nurture before you learnt how to love.
His skin–waxy yellow, clean shaven–looks just like your father’s when you saw him last. Wrapped in white, peaceful. Doesn’t he look like he’s sleeping, you were asked over and over by hysterical relatives. No, he didn’t. You crept into your parents’ bed every Sunday morning till you were too old. Till Ali. You would lie next to your father, watch his chest rise and fall. His warmth. The corpse before you, was cold. But you didn’t say any of that. You had simply nodded. Bile rises in your throat, lines your mouth. One slash and he’ll be next to Abbu, leaving you too.
You focus on Ali’s face until the bile recedes. There’s still a little bristle under his chin.
Your brother speaks. “Do you think he would have been happy? Would he have let this happen?”
You pause. The razor hovers beneath his chin. What does he want–no, need–to hear?
“No, he wouldn’t. We wouldn’t have had to leave home.”
You’re nearly done. One last glide and his skin is smooth.
Will you ever shave a man again like this?
You step back, assessing your handiwork. You need to make sure you did the job right. You rub a knuckle across his face, revelling in the smoothness. You expect your hand to be batted away but he lets you. You both know you will never touch him again like this.
You pause at the worst of the cuts. If you look past the cuts and the slightly crooked nose (10 years old, fell off his bike, broke his nose), he looks exactly like your father did in that old sepia portrait you found in his cupboard. Why can’t he be your father? Need grips you. Your mouth is dry as you lean in and brush your lips gently against the cut. You taste blood; coppery but nothing like the cotton in your father’s nostrils. Your brother doesn’t react. His chest rises and falls. You have only backed away when he rises up from the chair, sending it clattering back.
Ali shoulders you aside. “I’ll go dress, thanks.”
You’re left in the bathroom. You turn on the tap. The wiry hair in the basin swivels down the drain. The chair needs to be put back in its place. You’ll have to clean up this mess before the dars begins. Your father is still dead. You have to handle everything. Ali’s blood lingers upon your lips. You let it be. The scent of the foam and ittar mingle and that’s all there is.
Maeda Zia can be contacted at email@example.com.