by Haider Shahbaz
Juicy tomatoes. Crispy lettuce. A succulent chicken breast. Olive oil. Black pepper. Chopped green onions and chopped smelly garlic. Mustard. Rosemary bread, perhaps? Lightly heat the oil. Brown the garlic and the onions as you hear them sizzle. Sprinkle black pepper on one side of the chicken. Sautee the chicken with the pepper side down until a knife cuts it smoothly and exposes the white tender flesh. Smell it. Spread the mustard on slices of rosemary bread. Place the succulent chicken between soft bread with juicy tomatoes and crispy lettuce. Eat.
He imagines tomatoes, chicken, bread. He is hungry. Famished, in fact. Soft, juicy, crispy and succulent: you cannot understand the severity of these adjectives as they orbit his mind. You cannot understand the severity of adjectives. But, let’s stop here. This story is not about food. Not even about poverty or desire. This story is not of love, definitely not bravery. It is not meaningful; it is not meaningless. This story is simply about Muzzamil, who will eat soon. And it is about Dave, who already ate. Still, this story is poor and desirous and brave and loving and meaningful and meaningless in its own peculiar way, like you and I, and our characters and adjectives. And yes, like tomatoes, too.
Dave and Muzzamil live in a hostel, isolated. They are not isolated from humans or from nature or from each other. But they are disconnected, severely disconnected. No cars, no phones, no television, no computers. They have memories and fading habits from connected world – but nothing more.
Dave dropped out from an extremely well regarded university in America that Muzzamil still attends. They had met as students in this university. Dave did not drop out because it was fashionable as it once had been. Dave dropped out because he was sick of it. As he said, sick of the bullshit. Muzzamil thought him courageous. As he said, someone with pathos. But Muzzamil was far too arrogant, so arrogant he didn’t know it himself, to be impressed by anyone. Muzzamil was a scholarship kid; he had consciously stripped ahead of many others to be where he was. He had done this, who knows why? He was arrogant. But now he wanted to throw it away. A sense of tragedy had struck him; he was disgusted at his own success. Dave admired this about Muzzamil.
Both Dave and Muzzamil are far from home, voluntarily, or so they think. Because they are isolated and close friends and far from home, they talk to each other honestly. Honesty not unlike dependence, not unlike a therapist’s couch, a confessional booth or a hallucinogenic trip: self-reflecting honesty, in other words, springing from innumerable layers of neurosis and self-knowledge. Only their dreams are more honest.
They talk at night. They drink tea, and talk:
“I should take the course on the making of monasticism.”
“Can’t you see it right here?” Dave laughed. “It has been eight months since I had sex.”
“Yeah, but you know, really study it.”
Muzzamil thought: Fair enough. And then said,
“I left her, you know – Angie.”
“Well, you were always complaining. Good you left her.”
“Really she left me.”
“Yes, but you made her leave you, no?”
“I don’t know. Did I?”
“Probably did. You can’t handle the world getting too close.”
“But I was so nice to her.”
“Aren’t you charming, darling?”
“I really liked this one man – I really did.”
Dave stared, simply stared. He was confused. What does it mean to like someone? What does it really mean? Does it make you feel happy? Make you feel selfless? Does it make you feel? Does it taste? Smell? Does it ring a bell? How, exactly, do you know when you really like someone? But, then again, Dave did not even remember the softness of a kiss.
“I feel like I have lost the chance to set my life straight, you know. To finally get my act together. I hadn’t felt like this in a long time, and I go and screw it up because, because I don’t even know why.”
Muzzamil smiled: maybe it is, maybe it’s not. He did not know; he smiled.
Once they had smoked pot and Dave had gone to sleep, Muzzamil thought all kinds of thoughts. But mostly he thought of Angie. He thought he never should have left her. It was a horrid mistake. She whispered history lessons in his ears, late at night, because she knew they turned him on. And the way she woke him up in the mornings, demanding piggy back rides to the kitchen. She licked his ear and he sucked her toe. They counted each other’s moles. They could have been perverted and ordinary together – imperfect: like a shelter, an embrace.
These memories and thoughts and judgements never left him. He was here – not with Angie, not in places that reminded him of Angie – but here. But he could not escape his mind. He carried it around wherever he went; that is the one thing he had learned about himself: he never left his mind. He knew that for the homeless and the travellers and the unbelievers, there is only their own skin. And no person, no place, no addiction, that can save them from their skin. The skin creeps and tingles. And sometimes, without you ever knowing, it wraps you inside like an airtight jar. It keeps out the words, the seasons, the kisses and the passions, and all that is left are the pools of sadness, rotting inside, waiting to be let loose by your cruel skin.
The night was silent. It did not speak, not to him. The pot had made his thoughts stunted. He stood on the balcony, looking out. He thought of home. He thought of the possibility of love. Once again, he wished and hoped. He cried, as he sang himself to sleep.
After the silent night: a misty morning. You could hear the dogs; you could always hear the dogs here. Also, music from the church. Nobody shuts up the dogs and the churches. They like them. They let them run free: the dogs and the churches. Their hostel, a two-storey yellow building facing a verdant hill, was a ten minute walk from the church. The mist poured over the hill everyday. You could not see the top of the hill when it was misty. It was at the top where there was a shrine. The hostel was run down, not many tourists came to this part of the country. The owner was rather lazy; his main work was dealing meth. He was nice to the two of them and made delicious pizza. He liked cheap local rum, and was always generous with it. He laughed a lot; so did everyone. They were always laughing, slapping each other on the back. They smiled with their eyes, not just their lips. Dave liked that. Muzzamil never noticed; he said he was against such cultural colonisation and precarious stereotyping. He could be carefully academic when he wanted. Their bedroom was small: two beds, facing each other; a television they never used; also, a table, on which they played poker from time to time; a large window above Dave’s bed, it looked out to the hill. Two flights of stairs lead downstairs to the dining room and the kitchen.
Other than the owner, there were two servants: a bitter old man and a young married girl. The bitter old man was hard working. He worked from morning till night and slept in the hostel. He had worked there from when he was a boy. He said strange things and wanted to learn English phrases like ‘I am hungry’ and ‘Christ died for us’. The young married girl was flirtatious, especially with Dave, who could not help politely talking to beautiful girls. She told Dave she liked his Jewish hair, which was almost, but not completely, Jewish. Her husband was fat but well built around the shoulders. He had an apologetic look on his face, the kind that comes on the husbands of flirtatious girls. He was extremely helpful, and sometimes, he smoked pot with us. Their eight-year old daughter was cute. She was always running around the hostel, ordering boys of her age to fetch useless stuff for her she did not need.
In the morning, Dave woke up early and tried to wake Muzzamil up:
“Wake up you useless cunt!”
“Huh? What happened?”
“What happened? The sun rose, darling.”
“Fuck off! I was having a sex dream about Angie.”
“Don’t you ever wonder if staying in bed 23.5 hours a day is healthy or not?”
“What’s your problem? It’s six in the morning, man.”
“I have no problems. You hear that? None. Look outside” He opened the window. “The sun is out, the grass is green, mist is disappearing. You must appreciate, darling, you must appreciate…We must appreciate. If we do not appreciate, we will become inactive…passive. And we must avoid that…at all costs.”
Muzzamil smiled. Dave’s acting hadn’t completely been washed out by a year in isolation.
“Because inactivity leads to boredom and boredom leads, slowly but surely, to insanity.”
“Okay, get up, seriously. We will go for a hike, have some fruit shakes in the market, come back and smoke some pot.”
It was a long hike. When they came back from the hike and smoked pot, Muzzamil asked Dave:
“Do you have work today?”
“Yeah, in an hour. I need to go talk to that bitch.”
“Your boss? I thought you liked her.”
“She is nice and all. I just don’t give a shit about work. After a year working here, I have realized that work is the enemy of everything human. We all want to be lazy.”
“That’s what Faulkner said somewhere. But you know I took this course on the Bhagavad Gita. It talks about how action is the essence of life. What is virtuous is to be able to detach ourselves from the fruits of our labour, but not from labour itself.”
“Maybe. I mean I am helping build schools here. I know it’s supposed to be good and I should feel good about it but I just don’t give a shit. I really don’t care about these schools.”
“And my ankle, have you looked at my ankle? It’s all swollen. It’s been like this since I came here and I haven’t been able to see a doctor. I don’t know what it is. Even my shoulders are becoming lop-sided now. Do you think it is permanent? What if it is permanent?”
“Calm down, man. It’s probably nothing. But what about productive work? I think Hemingway said something like that. You know, that real joy comes from overcoming obstacles and achieving something with your work.”
“That’s bullshit. I am just worried about my ankle.”
“It will be fine. Calm down. Once you get back, you will see a doctor.”
Dave was away all afternoon. Hours take many minutes to pass and minutes take many seconds. You hear, distinctly, the tick of each second, when you stare at a bare white ceiling all afternoon. This is what Muzzamil was doing when Dave came back. Muzzamil looked pale.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“This is fucking torture, man. It’s only just the afternoon. This day will never end. I can’t stop thinking about Angie; I can’t stop analysing every single memory, everything she said, she did – everything she didn’t. This day will never end. I will never get away.”
“It’s okay. Here, get up. We will take a walk.”
“How was work?”
“Bullshit. And my ankle is still swollen.”
They said things, and more things – things that seemed to mean something. In the end, they were always unfulfilled. They should not have been disappointed. As if they expected to be satisfied after a talk, as if talks could do that, as if men could ever be satisfied.
Dave was afraid of physical degeneration – of death. As he sensed childhood fading away, he got terrified of old age. He was afraid of the time when he will no longer be able to climb mountains and run around building schools and get his dick up to fuck girls. Sometimes, he would lie on his bed and pretend he was dead. And lying there, ticking memories, convinced of his own death, he would try to learn to forgive himself. Grudgingly, painfully. Very painfully, he would repeat: forgive yourself.
Being the eldest kids in their family, they were both said to have grown up precociously. Yet, curiously, they both felt they grew up in cycles: they felt they never really grew up at all while growing up all the time. I could tell you their age, or you could guess. But nobody grows up in years made of three hundred and sixty five days. Nobody ages in seconds and minutes and hours and weeks. We don’t even know how long a minute is, when it starts, when it ends and what it does to us. Not until a long time later, and even then, sometimes.
They had no boulevards and no squares and no avenues. They had no social networks. They had boredom. They were bored, so utterly bored they got to know themselves, and had nothing left to communicate but honesty. I could tell you the place they were in, or you could guess. But they were nowhere other than their own heads, trapped like time in a clock, ticking over memories.
One night, they drank beer and talked.
“When I was backpacking across Europe, I met a Belgian lumberjack obsessed with work and masculinity.” Dave assumed a stocky posture and a Flemish accent, standing straight, holding a cigarette in his mouth and waving his beer in Muzzamil’s face. “This is trapiste beer. The finest we have. I cut trees. I cut them everyday. If I don’t cut trees, I cannot sleep. No sleep. My father was a butcher and so was his father. Now what would my father say if I do not cut trees and do not eat meat and do not drink trapiste? Eh? He will tell me I’m not a man.”
Muzzamil laughed. “What a nut.”
“He would scream the word ‘man’ each time. Great guy. He gave me cigarettes the whole night. And told me stories of his father. All the time, I thought of my father, his bad humour and his regrets at my dropping out.”
“You have the exact same sense of humour as your father.”
“I know. So do you.”
“Damn it. Here I was, becoming my own man.”
They smiled: they knew: all cells come from the same cell: the sperm of their fathers.
“Yeah, but I like your father’s sense of humour.”
“Thanks. So your father was sad when you dropped out?”
“Yeah. He really wanted me to complete college. Even though he did confess that he had given up on me a long time back. I was a total sociopath when I was a kid. I would bite other kids in the playground. He thought I was going to end up in a mental asylum.”
“Fair enough. You might just do.”
“I prefer monasteries. They are respectable.”
“Did your father ever beat you?”
“No, never. Yours?”
“Only twice. But my mother used to beat me all the time.”
“Oh yeah. All the fucking time. And now I can’t help falling in love with controlling bitches.”
“No you cannot.”
“I had a dream the other day. I saw my mother and we were supposed to be together, like romantically involved or something. There was no sex, but this feeling or realization that we were together. Kind of freaked me out.”
“That’s bullshit. You don’t want to have sex with your mother?”
“I don’t know.”
“You just always have the wrong dream. Didn’t you have a dream where Hemingway was about to butt fuck you?”
“Yep. It’s not like you’ve never had a fantasy about Marlon Brando.”
“He was a sexy, sexy man. What an absolute legend.”
“Fair enough. Cheers!”
“Cheers. You remember the famous scene with him and Pacino in the garden? You remember Brando keeps looking around. Apparently, he couldn’t remember his lines. The film people pasted the dialogue on the tree trunks around so he could keep looking at them…What a legend.”
“You know, I do think sometimes, what it means to be a man.”
“You would. You are one of those people who can be around women without wanting to fuck them.”
“Yeah, maybe. I just need something to think about, man.”
“You always need something to worry about.”
“Fair enough. And what about your ankle?”
“It’s fucking swollen! What do you expect?”
“Still, maybe we need all this worry.”
“Fuck it! We must not let the worries get us. Laugh and be merry, me darling. You want me to act out something from Much ado about nothing? I must say I do a rather excellent Dogberry.”
“You do, actually. Let’s go.” Muzzamil smiled the smallest smile full of mystery. “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?”
They laughed. They thought it funny.
Within the confines of our minds, we can do and say anything. And we are always scared of other minds, other existences, imaginations as free and powerful as us. It is not the action, not the body, but the intention that scares us. Not the whore’s cunt but the fantasies of a wife are scary. Only honesty can save us from this fear. There is no such thing as trust, only honesty.
As Dave did his ankle exercise in the morning, he saw Muzzamil sitting idle.
“Are you fucking stoned again? It’s noon.”
“I have already eaten and masturbated. There’s nothing else to do. What’s wrong with smoking? Can’t you let me suffer in silence?”
“You and your salubrious habits, huh? Did you finish the books?”
“Yep. I have now read Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov. I am finally a literate man.”
“What did you think?”
“Tolstoy is an incomparable wise old man and Levin is probably my favourite character in literature. BUT, Dostoyevsky is a fucking prophet. And a badass. You can’t read him without crying. Still, Alyosha’s faith and Dostoyevsky’s idolizing of him troubles me. How can one man have such faith?”
“I see Alyosha’s faith as part of all of us. I see the three brothers not as separate entities but simply as sides of human nature we all hold.”
“Do you have faith?”
“Do I believe in the existence of God?”
“I mean do you have faith, Dave? God doesn’t trouble me – faith does. Do you believe?”
“If I did, I wouldn’t be able to explain it to you, would I?”
“I guess not.”
“Why are you so obsessed with faith?”
“Because I thought I had it, but now I don’t.”
“If faith exists, then so does transcendence, and if transcendence exists, then so does salvation. I want salvation. I can’t give up on it; I have tried. I want it bad. I want encompassing everlasting happiness. I want to forgive and accept this world.”
“And that is why you were once an anarchist? To create the Kingdom of God on earth? For salvation?”
“Maybe. And I was religious once, I fell in love once, I had the best sex of my life once. But there was nothing holy, Dave, no transcendence in any of that. All I felt was human: not powerful or powerless, not happy or sad, just human. Just my flesh and thoughts.”
“But aren’t the flesh and thoughts most difficult to accept?”
“The world I can deal with. At least, sometimes. The Kingdom of God on earth I don’t care about. But I can’t do anything about myself, my own thoughts; they haunt me all the time. I have so many regrets.”
“So what is supposed to save us from all this? Love? God?”
“I don’t know. I gave up on happiness.”
“Yeah, but I want to give life another shot. I want to go back to the world. I can’t be a monk. Not happiness, but life, with all its beauty and fright, with all its vast meaninglessness. I want to give it another shot. But I should give up on happiness. I must learn.”
“Yes, never.” Dave nodded, pondered. “Never happiness again.”