Raazia says: “Having lived in 4 countries in the past five years, I like to write about places and people you might not normally meet. I like how I keep coming back to the belief that as humans there is more to unite us than to divide us. I’ve written children’s stories for Dawn’s Young World (Pakistan), articles for various international publications, and my short story Blue Book won honorary mention in a national literary contest in Oman. These days I can be found running my digital marketing agency Bronze Digitals, working on my debut novel, and continuing to let my lack of a permanent address inspire me.”
by Raazia Sajid
Most girls alone in the big city live with a friend or two. I’ve thought about it, but then I think about the rising waters in me if someone borrowed my red manteaux and it’s not there for my visits to Dr. Q. Or how much work it would be to fill the silence. And I tell myself, I like being on my own. I like coming home to find the same things in exactly the same places, right down to the last crumb.
I have a fifteen minute window between coming home from work and my session with Dr. Q. I have to be at his office in an hour, but it takes 37 minutes to get to his office, which gives me just 8 minutes to be early and breathe before I go in.
I look in the mirror and tell myself, “I am beautiful.” I think this self-pep-talk thing might be working.
I dab on enough makeup to look less tired but not so much it looks like I’m wearing makeup. Like all smart women know, the best makeup look is the no makeup look, and it actually takes some skill to master. “That’s something I’m good at,” I tell Donya in the mirror.
I get dressed. Wearing the scarf right adds a whole other dimension for worry, but you don’t walk into a government clinic without a head scarf (or a long coat). I wear my favorite red manteaux last. It’s dark enough to make me feel like I can disappear, but colored enough for it to be a brave thing to wear. I’ve had it since forever, and it is starting to feel frayed around the edges.
What are you going to do when it’s too shabby to wear? Deena comes tearing through the confident thoughts I have planted in my head.
Dr. Q was the one that named the voice in my head. “Deena” sounded close enough to “Donya,” and it means “judge,” which seemed fitting.
I try to push her aside. I’ll find another one, I tell her.
You won’t find the same thing and you know it. You’ll have to wear something else. Or you’ll continue wearing it well until it’s shabby without realizing it, but no one will say it to your face…
Stop, I tell her. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.
But I feel my heart rising and the back of my neck breaking out in sweat. In the mirror, the little girl’s scared eyes look back at me, and the thought has punched me in the gut before I can stop it.
He’ll know you dressed up for him. And what’s with the makeup? You know it’s a sign of low self-esteem.
I go back to my dresser, take off my scarf. My hands are starting to shake as I soak a cotton ball in makeup remover and lighten my lipstick until it’s no longer visible. Then I turn the cotton around and run it over my face, removing any traces of makeup.
There, I tell her. Are you happy now? All-natural. Except I’m sweating a little, the icky wetness trickling down my back. I glance at the clock. It’s 6:15. No time for a second shower. And I have to wear my scarf all over again.
Because you have to wear it hurriedly, you’ll wear it badly, and you’ll look ridiculous. You already make us look bad enough with all the things you tell us about him.
Man, is Deena in vicious form tonight.
I’m okay. I’m fine. I look great. I am beautiful, I repeat over my racing heart. Deena’s still talking, and I hear snippets but I think I’m managing to quash her. I smile as I think of all the ridiculous things he tells me to say to her: stop putting a cap over my head. Go play in front of your own front door. Take the trash out, Deena.
And just like that, she fades into the background.
Dr. Q first asked me about my family in our third session.
“What was growing up like?”
During saffron season in Aban (late October to mid-November), Baba would take me to his family’s village in Khorasan province. I loved not knowing which morning I’d wake up to him gently shaking me. “Donyaam,” he’d whisper. My donya. My world.
I didn’t say this out loud though. It felt too private; too mine. A rare gem in a box of stones. Instead, I told him the district I grew up in.
“That’s a nice place,” he remarked. “I’ve been to the local mosque a couple times. Very ornate.”
“My mother held a lot of events there,” I said.
“Were you close?”
Farsi has some interesting expressions. I’m reminded of hay, the sound you make when your heart is full but you’re not saying anything.
“No,” I eventually said.
“Did you want to be?”
When I was 13, a girl in my class asked me why I didn’t wear a bra. I knew women started wearing bras at some point, I just didn’t know when. I was excited about it, too. I later realized it was something mothers took their daughters shopping for. I eventually went to the lingerie store myself, of course, but until today my bras have never quite fit right.
“I don’t know,” I told him truthfully.
“When did you leave home?”
“Three years ago.”
“So you were… 16. Was that your idea? Leaving?”
“Yes,” I told the metal grill on the window. There’s an itch growing under my skin, like I’d like to get out of it.
He gestured broadly to the room and smiled. “Then this would be the place, wouldn’t it?”
I looked at him. You know that feeling you get when you tilt your chair too far back, that split second of uncertainty just before you fall? I feel like that a lot.
“She found my stash.”
I had to give him credit for not reacting. He didn’t say anything, just waited for me to fill the silence. It’s an old psychologist’s trick, but it works.
“She can’t really afford to have a druggie daughter, what with her social standing. I came home high and she had company over…not her proudest maternal moment. I made it easier on all of us by leaving.” This was the first time I had said it out loud. I fought the urge to open the window and sit on the ledge, my legs dangling.
“Where did you go?”
“I stayed with my friend Ayda in the patoq—hangout—in Tiba Valley. Ayda looked out for me; I think I reminded her of her little sister. It’s funny, finding that in a patoq. You don’t belong here, she would say, gesturing to the hundreds of makeshift tents. I used to be offended by it, until one day I just wasn’t. I didn’t belong. The day I paid my first rent with the money from my job repairing computers I felt like a whole new person. My mother would have flipped to see the place… but it was my own, you know?”
“I know,” he said, and I chose to believe him. “What is it like, living alone?”
“The silence can be a bit loud sometimes, but it also feels freeing.”
“Have you been in contact since? With your mother, or your father?”
I shook my head no.
“Are you still using?”
I met his eye. “I’m not,” I said, “not for 11 months now.” And despite the light bulb burning a hole in my retina, my voice was unmistakably threaded with pride.
After the fourth doorbell, I start to worry. Even if Dr. Q is running late, someone is usually here to answer the door. The lady who makes the tea, or the secretary, or the janitor. I take out my phone, check our messages from this morning where I confirmed with him that we were meeting today, 3 Shahrivar.
If I’ve gotten the date or time wrong, I should get away from here so that no one will see me.
Stupid girl. Can’t even get the simple things right.
I check the date. Today is 3 Shahrivar. It’s 7:14 pm, 14 minutes past the time we were supposed to meet.
He’s just late, I tell her. He’s on his way. He’s usually a few minutes late, but he always comes and apologizes. And we tell him it’s okay, and we talk to him for forty five minutes, and everything becomes okay.
But after thirty two minutes Deena will no longer be placated. He’s forgotten about you. That’s all you meant to him, that he can’t even remember a simple appointment he made with you.
My heart speeds up. I wipe my palms on my jeans, then worry about looking nervous so I try to stop. He’s on his way, I tell Deena, but it comes out like a plea. Maybe something urgent came up and he’s going to call, any minute now, and apologize.
You’re an idiot. He forgot about you. And then, you’re worth nothing to anyone.
I want to tell her that these are just thoughts; that they don’t exist outside of my mind. But the thought is lost somewhere in my prison. I see people looking at the girl who’s been stood up, standing outside in the freezing cold.
With trembling fingers I can no longer feel, I find Dr. Q in my phone and press call. Just a phone call. I can do this.
He picks up on the second ring, but when he says Hello, all my convictions disappear. Suddenly, I’m sure I was the one mistaken, that among the two people in this conversation about to happen, somehow he’s the one in the right.
Before he picked up the phone, I was going to ask him, Where are you? Are you running late? Did we not have an appointment today? But my tongue seems to be frozen. He’s still there – Hello? Are you there, Donya? – but the more time passes, the harder it gets to speak and eventually I hang up.
Deena is pissed. You freaking coward. He stood you up, and you let him walk all over you. You do this every time. When are you going to start standing up for yourself? When will you stop being such a people pleaser?
Stop, I’m begging her. Stop please pleasestop please.
My chest is shrinking, and the tingling in my feet is spreading. I’ve been standing still for almost an hour now but I’m panting like I’ve just run a four minute mile. Breathe, I tell myself. Just breathe. But there seems to be no air, and my knees give way as I sink down onto the stile. Immediately, I’m terrified of the people that will start gathering around me any minute. But I’m also equally concerned no one will pay attention to my lifeless corpse.
My extremeties are completely numb, and I’m a prisoner in my own body. Someone is offering me water, and I desperately want it down my throat, but I don’t know how to use my hands or lips anymore. Even though this has happened enough times for my mind to know that I’m not dying, and that this will (almost certainly) pass, my body does not seem to be connected to my mind.
The first time this happened, I was sure I was going to be paralyzed. I remember how after it was over, when my feet could finally be of use, they led me to Ayda’s tent in her patoq. Ayda was not the hugging type, but she had held her fingers to the side of my face, and I had realized how much I had missed human contact since getting my own apartment. “I know someone who can help,” she had said, before taking me to Dr. Q.
When my fingers finally feel like fingers again a few minutes – or possibly a few hours – later, the first thing I do is put my phone on Silent. I should take a cab, not least because I really need to pee—but I start walking. Maybe I do it because I am afraid I will unravel if I have to talk to one more person today; scatter like the saffron flowers grandma upends from their bags before we tear them apart to extract their stamens. Maybe I do it because I believe Deena when she tells me cowards deserve to be punished.
Back in the safe darkness of my apartment, I slip under the covers and take my phone out to see Dr. Q’s missed calls. It feels like a sliver of light in a dark tunnel, a smile rising in my chest, a big fat I told you so to Deena. He cares. He called.
And that gives me the strength to do what I do next – to not chicken out. “We were supposed to meet at 7,” I say when he picks up the phone. “And no one would answer the door.”
“Donya, I am so incredibly sorry. My grandmother has been in a coma for a week now and today things got bad… I hate to make excuses, but time got away from me. I should have called…”
“Don’t worry about it. It could happen to anyone,” I tell him, and I have to marvel at how grown up and gracious I sound.
“Can we meet tomorrow instead? Are you free at 6?”
“That sounds fine,” I hear myself say. “Thank you.”
After I hang up, I search for a contact I haven’t searched for in a long time. I type a message. “8 pm, Tiba Valley. 0.2 g Ice.” And I fall into a dreamless sleep.
By the time I reach Dr. Q’s office early the next day armed with my red manteaux, I don’t feel much of anything. It’s a change from my usual jumble of nerves.
He calls me in. “I am really, really sorry about yesterday Donya. It will never happen again.”
No it won’t, Deena says. Because you’re never coming back here again. Say your goodbyes, because this is your last session.
I realize too late he is watching me. “Deena talking too loud?” he smiles.
“No,” I lie to him; my first lie.
His face is unreadable. He goes and sits down behind his desk, takes out his mobile phone. I thought therapists weren’t supposed to text or whatever during sessions.
I can’t sit still. I get up and walk over to the window. We’re at the edge of the city, all dusty roads and slapdash houses. Inadvertently, my hand reaches in my pocket to make sure last night’s buy is still there.
“What have you got in your pocket?” Dr. Q asks.
Shit, didn’t think he was watching. Why couldn’t you have left it at home, you idiot?
“Nothing,” I say, but if I can feel my face heating up, he can probably see it.
He’s doing the silence thing again. I’m not going to take the bait.
“Is it meth? I thought you said you weren’t using,” he says finally. And it is the disappointment in his voice that triggers the system crash.
“I’m not… yet,” I mutter.
“What do you mean, yet?”
I ignore his question. “You don’t get to be mad at me.”
“I’m not mad.”
“No, you’re disappointed, which is worse.” I don’t know where this is coming from, or what this feeling is, but it’s like the release switch has flipped. “You’re the one that left me waiting out in the cold for forty minutes and didn’t bother to call. You forgot about me.”
Deena stands in the background open-mouthed, but it’s hard to stop. And maybe I don’t want to.
“I counted on you. You were all I had, and you knew that. You listened, and you made me feel like you were there for me. You left me by myself with her while you worked nights, and travelled, and I never saw you.
“There were always people in the house. Did you know it made me feel like my nerve endings were on the outside? Like my heart would claw its way out of my throat? I would have told you, if you had asked, that I needed a quiet place, anywhere I could turn off the damned lights and just be…”
I’m breathing hard now. Deena is, oddly, delighted. My palms are clammy, and I know he’s not who I’m talking to anymore. But I don’t stop. I don’t run.
“And then when she found the meth and I said I was going to leave, you didn’t stop me. You left me, long before I left. You don’t get to be disappointed.”
I sink down into the familiar black sofa. Dr. Q looks at me, and I don’t look away. He passes me the tissue box. I never blow my nose in front of people, but right now, it doesn’t seem to matter.
“I’m sorry, Donya,” Dr. Q says after a while. “And I’m so proud of everything you’ve become.”
I smile weakly. I’m exhausted, but also amazingly like a helium balloon floating in the sky. All I want to do is go home and get under the covers. But there’s something I need to flush down the toilet first.
I search for “Baba” and press call. I allow it to ring twice before I frantically hit cancel. My phone is slipping in my hands, that’s how sweaty they are. My heart is thumping so hard I wonder how I’m going to get any words out if he does actually pick up.
Then I panic and call again, because what if he sees my missed call?
He picks up. My heart rate is through the roof.
“Baba,” my voice sounds weak and watery to me, but I forge ahead. “How are you?”
I’m expecting panic over my location. Where the hell are you? Anger over what I did to them. Do you have any idea what you have put us through? But Dr. Q was right as usual. Time has a funny way about it. Suddenly, things you thought were important no longer seem to matter at all. Which is the only explanation for how he responds.
“Donyaam,” he says, and suddenly I am five again.
Copyright 2021 by Raazia Sajid