The Phantom Tune Of A Piano - Areej Akhtar
In my last moments, I hear a sound, and now don’t ask me how I know these are my last moments, there are some things that you just know with a crippling conviction, just like you know that the Sun will set in the West, just like you know Fall will succeed Summer, and just like I have always known that even in the most ridiculously insane and maddening version of reality, Yawar will cling to my existence like moonlight does to moon, I know that these are, indeed, my final moments. So, now that there is no question about it, as I was saying, in my last moments, I hear a sound. It’s a faint music, muffled by years of neglect, reduced to a hushed melody between eras of decisive, unconditional, zealous love and callous, unimaginable but justified indifference.
And yet, I can’t help but feel like I heard it only yesterday, and the day before yesterday…and the day before…and the day before…. and in an abyssal infinity. I can’t help but feel it resonating within me, making my insides spiral into some semblance of a waltz. Oh! This music, this symphony of love and betrayal, I know it so well, as if it had been orchestrated by me. And yet, the music, it seems distant. Elusive. Like an abstract fragment of a long-gone but never forgotten reality, like…like…the phantom tune of a piano. And that is the only tune Yawar and I may ever hum to. Dance to. Live to, and finally, die to.
He looks very much like his mother, although, I think his cheekbones are slightly higher than Nila’s were. I think, I can’t say for sure, since I remember Nila’s face as you would an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, with pieces missing here and there. I can see her eyes, yes, piercing blue, with a solemnity ill-fitted for her age. I also remember she had a scar right below her eyebrow, the faintest gash, courtesy of the time when she was 7 years old and had tried to skip four stairs while descending the staircase and fallen face-first on the ground. Whether it was the right eyebrow or the left one, I forget. How the face of a woman I had spent 12 years of my life with eludes my memory, is beyond me. But I would never say this to Yawar, for he will offer an explanation that I would ache to accept, to agree with, but my ego would rob me off of that liberty. As it always has. He would have smiled a hollow smile, laden with the misery and disappointment of a lifetime of suffering, and said, “Abba, we only forget what we never intend to remember in the first place.” And I would know he’s right. But I would never admit that to him. I would never let him have the satisfaction. You see, there comes a time when your ego starts exerting a dangerous amount of control over your conscience, and that control gradually seeps into the decisions you make. For me, that time came long ago, and when it did, I didn’t put much of a fight, and willingly relinquished the control of my life to my ego.
That was a grave mistake. It wasn’t the first one I made, nor was it going to be the last one but in fact it was one of the many that I had made in my 52-year long life, and yet, it is one I regret very much. For a minute there, I was tempted to say that it is the one I regret the most, but it occurred to me, after having made many of grievous mistakes in life, none more or less destructive than the other, I was no more at liberty to ascribe superlatives to my mistakes. ‘Christ, what’s with you millennial parents? Why don’t you guys listen to your kids?, Yawar’s voice reorients me into my surroundings of cracked wallboards, reeking of the persistent stench of disinfectant, and harrowed by the noise of patients complaining about the inattentiveness of the medical staff, the sheer audacity of the doctors to charge copious sums of money for doing what is their “responsibility” as doctors, the beds in the ward not being comfortable enough for the distant uncle of one of the patients to stretch his legs over, the samosas in the cafeteria not having the potato filling proportional to their price, or if nothing else, the hot, sticky Pakistani summers that drive people to launch into a tirade of complaints.
“Haan, what were you saying?”
Yawar gestures towards a pair of men, one of them older, sporting a bandage across his temple, the other in his early or perhaps, mid twenties, immersed in what looks like a heated argument. They look like father and son. “That young boy over there,” Yawar begins in a tone fairly exasperated for someone as patient as him, “has been trying to explain to his father, for the past ten minutes, why he needs to spend the night here, as per the instructions of the doctor, but blast my head off if the old man has listened to a word his son was saying. He said, he feels fine, and the doctors just want him to spend a night so they can get some notes out of his wallet. What part of listening to your child is so hard anyway?” He shakes his head, and mutters incoherently, probably swears, he’s been swearing a lot since he returned from the States. But deep down, I know this is not about the old man, or his son, or the hospital bills, or about millennial parents, it’s about me. Like a veil made from the thinnest of fabrics barely concealing a face, Yawar’s question was also pathetically obscured. What he really wanted to know was, “What part of listening to me is so hard for you anyway?” What part, indeed, I wonder. Is there any part of me that doesn’t want to listen to him, that doesn’t want to beg for his forgiveness, that doesn’t want to let him know how terribly sorry I am and that doesn’t acknowledge the hurt I’ve caused him in all these years? No. Every part of me aches to hold him, to tell him how I despise myself for doing what I did to him, to his mother, and to our family, and suddenly, I feel a strong, uncontrollable urge to do so, it courses through my body, rises in my gut, levitates indecisively at the back of my throat for a long minute until it is finally propelled forth, fiercely, like a tethered lion finally unleashed. I stretch my hand out towards him, towards my son, ‘Yawar’, I say almost inaudibly. He pries his eyes away from the stubborn father and his son, still engrossed in animated argument, and looks at me questioningly. Did I mention his eyes are like Nila’s?
“What is it,Abba?”
“Water”, I croak. “Need water”. And just like that, the urge retraces its path through my body, back to its dormant abode. In my mind, I imagine a hooded figure, my Ego, chastising this newfound Urge, clawing it deep into the recess of mind, commanding it to never resurface again, and I see my Urge, finally retreating after putting up a terrible excuse of a fight. As Yawar returns with the water, I gulp it down, drowning in it the last vestiges of my Urge, and with it, a chance to make things right. A chance to redeem. A chance, an unlikely chance, at Yawar, at us.
When it happened for the first time, I convinced myself it would also be the last time. And somehow, I managed to convince Nila of that too. It was nothing more than a fit of anger, a fit I was convinced would never occur again. So what if Nila’s right cheek was swollen until the next day? So what if Yawar had heard the slap from inside his room, even if he hadn’t seen it? So what if Nila slept in the guest bed for a month? I was convinced it wouldn’t happen again. Once, Yawar made me listen to a track of one of his favorite artists, Amy Winehouse. I don’t remember much from the song, but the lyric, “I cheated myself, like I knew I would.” And so, despite having promised to myself that I won’t do it again, I cheated myself, like I knew I would.
What is it about hitting a woman that gradually acquires a sense of normalcy in a man’s head? What is it about hitting a woman that strips a man entirely of his shame, his conscience and then, his ability to regret it? What is it about hitting a woman that, according to a man, doesn’t warrant an apology or an admission of guilt?
“It’s not about the woman. Never about her. It’s about the man”, Yawar’s voice, stripped bare of all emotion, startles me. And for the first time in years, fear takes over me. “Did I…I didn’t….”
“Yea. You said it out loud.” Yawar says plainly, his eyes boring into mine, and suddenly, making no attempt to conceal the contempt he harbored for me, the disgust he felt at having me as his father, as if he could, he would willingly take one of the syringes stacked in the pharmacy downstairs, and draw out my blood from his body, draw out the liquid that obliged him to be here, beside my death bed, draw out the liquid that forced him to accept as father a man who wasn’t worthy of that honor, and sever the only tie that bound him to me.
“No, don’t do it. I loved you, hell I worshipped the ground on which you walked! I thought this is what brutes do, what men with sickening notions of masculinity do, what men who believe they have some divine right of mastery over their wives do, this was not something YOU would do, this was not something MY ABBAwould do!” He sobs uncontrollably, his voice choked with years of anger it was evident he had assiduously tried to stifle.
“I loved you, Abba. I loved you more than Amma.I made a God out of you, like all children make of their parents. I thought, no, my father, of all people, would never lay a finger on my mother. My father was not capable of inflicting this kind of pain on his wife. But when I heard it, Abba, when I heard you slap her for the first time, it snapped something inside of me, and all the times I heard it again while she was alive, the part of me that was broken dwindled into a gaping void. You betrayed Amma, you betrayed your promise that you would never do it again, and you betrayed me. You betrayed my love, my trust, my ruthless conviction that my father was not that ‘type’ of man. And it hurt every fragment of my being.” He is cries now, like a child, the latent hurt of all these years finally manifesting.
“My helplessness in the face of my mother’s pain, my inability to reconcile the image of you I had constructed in my mind to who you actually were, are, and the awareness that my mother couldn’t walk away from that marriage, if that’s what you call it, only so I did not have to grow up without the love of a father, all of it, do you have any idea what it put me through?. But what did she know? I wanted to live without the loveof such a father. And even when she was diagnosed with cancer, even when we knew she was not going to live,” he wipes his nose with his sleeve, “even then, you didn’t have the decency to apologize to her, to beg for her forgiveness, just like you don’t have the decency to do it right now. I know Amma forgave you, even though you didn’t ask for it, but I won’t, even if you ask for it. My mother spent twelve years being degraded by you, twelve years being humiliated by the man who was supposed to love her, cherish her and protect her. All these years of hurt won’t evaporate with an apology. She loved you, Abba, she loved you with everything in her. When I spoke to her on the evening of her death, she asked me to take care of you, to spend time with you so you didn’t feel lonely, and to tell you that she forgives you. And, I loved you Abba, worshipped you. But like every god, you turned out to be nothing more than a romantic delusion.”
He looks out the window, no, gazes out the window, a piercing gaze, as if he gazed hard enough, he could find all the years lost to endless suffering. He starts talking again. I can’t hear him. His eyes are still awash from tears, but he’s melting into nothingness, so are my surroundings, the cracked wallboards, , reeking of the persistent stench of disinfectant, and harrowed by the noise of patients complaining about the inattentiveness of the medical staff, the sheer audacity of the doctors to charge copious sums of money for doing what is their “responsibility” as doctors, the beds in the ward not being comfortable enough for the distant uncle of one of the patients to stretch his legs over, the samosas in the cafeteria not having the potato filling proportional to their price, or if nothing else, the hot, sticky Pakistani summers that drove people to launch into a tirade of complaints. In my final moments, I hear a sound. It’s a faint music, muffled by years of neglect, reduced to a hushed melody between eras of decisive, unconditional, zealous love and callous, unimaginable but justified indifference. And yet, I can’t help but feel like I heard it only yesterday, and the day before yesterday…and the day before…and the day before…. and in an abyssal infinity. I can’t help but feel it resonating within me, making my insides spiral into some semblance of a waltz.
Yes, all is melting into nothingness, into a void, like the one Yawar said he dwindled into when I struck Nila on her face the first time because Ali, that bastard at work had taken a day off again and I was angry and I didn’t know what I was doing. And when I did it the next time, then again, and again, and again. I see her now. Her piercing blue eyes taking me in. But she’s covered in bruises. Strange. I don’t think I ever hit her hard enough to leave a bruise. I only ever lightly beat her.
written by Areej Akhtar