The day is bright and sunny. I walk into the café, accept the coffee I order, and choose a table by the windows, setting my handbag down on a vacant chair. I would get a sandwich too, since this is my lunch break, but I have lost my appetite forever ago. I blow at my drink to cool it down and take a sip. The warm liquid glides smoothly down my throat. It is refreshing, creamy, and delicious. This is the only time during the course of my day when I can be truly alone and try and forget about everything and everyone and think about nothing. But, it seems like today might not be one of those days. As soon as I sit down, I am robbed of any peace of mind I could hope for. Right next to my handbag, I see that horrid thing has appeared out of nowhere: the knife, blood-stained and covered in my blue silk scarf.
My heart pounds. It wasn’t there a second ago. The muscles in the back of my neck tighten, and I nearly forget how to breathe. Stiffly, I train my gaze outside, onto the busy streets, focusing on anything but that horrible thing. The people hustling. The hawkers shouting. The homeless begging. But I can’t stop thinking about it. Why does this keep happening? Why? I don’t know when this will stop. It follows me, taunts me, haunts me, catching me off guard every single time. And I can’t bring myself to look at it. This is my own personal ghost. I wish it would leave me alone. It always makes me want to cry. That’s what I want to do the most right now: cry. But I have learned to control it. If I ignore it long enough, it will go away. It always does.
It will go away. It will go away. It always does. Please.
Ten agonizing minutes later, only when I am done with my coffee, I dare to look again. Holding my breath, I strain my eyes back to my handbag, and that horrid thing beside it nowhere to be found. My breath rushes out automatically, but I am still tensed. I shouldn’t dwell on this anymore. I can’t let it derail my day. I decide to leave the café and walk back to work. My lunch break is almost up anyway.
The gallery is filled with stunning works of art, dazzling colours splattered across the walls around me. But even at my place of work, happiness or comfort are not my refuges. Like my appetite, it is another thing that I have lost over time: the ability to dream. I find it hard to lose myself in these paintings that would once help me escape to different, more exciting worlds. They seem lifeless and dull now. Through my eyes, at least. Perhaps that is why I haven’t been able to sell a single piece this month. I am afraid I might lose my job over this, and then where would I be? This already feels like rock bottom. There cannot possibly be anything lower than this.
My colleagues, my friends, often ask me why I look so lost, spaced-out, whether everything is all right, if I need to see the doctor and how my absent-mindedness makes me put on the wrong kinds of clothes in the wrong weather. But that’s not absent-mindedness. It’s purposeful. But I can’t tell them that. It doesn’t matter, because all that I ever give them is lies. I cannot unload the truth onto them. It is my secret. It is my fight. A fight that I am losing, but mine alone. I do wish I could tell. There is a chance that it would help right everything that is wrong. But I cannot, because there is also a chance that I would get into deeper trouble. I must suffer this alone. I must take it to my grave.
This is my life now. Full of dread and danger.
Thinking about all this, about the burden that crushes me, makes my eyes prick with water. I rush frantically to the washroom for privacy. Before anyone of my colleagues can see the tears well up in my eyes, I get safely inside. I stare at my reflection in the mirror, and I look scared. I look more scared and more broken than I was the day before. Only, this is not me. This is someone who is giving up, who is drowning and doesn’t have any fight left in her. This is someone who is living with a terrible secret that is slowly killing her. I blink the tears from my eyes as they streak my cheeks on their way down. I don’t want to be this person anymore. I am tired of her. I want to be me again. Maybe I should wet my face a bit; that might wash away this deadened person that I have become and show me who I really am. Who I used to be. I reach for the tap to turn it on, and I gasp, whipping my hand back reflexively. Because lying in the sink is the horrid knife: blood-stained and covered in my blue silk scarf.
It’s back. A scream starts to launch from my mouth, and I have to slap a hand against it to cut it off. Stumbling back into the door, I slide down against it, whimpering. But the sound is just building in my chest, like water ranging against a closed dam. It is excruciating, my throat burning like it’s on fire. Suppressing it is pointless and more painful than the alternative, so I let go, let it all out and scream into my hand. The screaming gives way to shuddering, which gives way to sobs. My entire body shudders from the core in a bout of crying I am not the least ashamed of.
If it were up to me, I would not get up from the floor, but stay here till the end of time. But I know I mustn’t. It will arouse suspicion. Many minutes pass before I am able to do it, but even then I have not stopped shaking. My cheeks are too damp, my eyes too raw-looking. I don’t think I can keep myself from screaming again if that thing in the sink is not gone after all this time, but when I check, I see that it has. It’s gone, but it will return. That I know for sure. I fix my face in the mirror, straighten my clothes, and get myself out of the washroom as quick as I can.
I don’t know how I survive the rest of the day, but against all odds I do. When I clock out in the evening, I take a taxi. My heart-rate climbs higher and higher the closer the get home.
At the front door, I gingerly turn the key in the lock of the front door, not making a sound. And when I step in, I see only darkness. Good. My husband is not home yet. But where that should make me feel better, give me sigh of relief that I will have some time to myself, it doesn’t. It only gives a new lease to my panic. He won’t be happy if I squander this extra time that I have. I shouldn’t waste even a second of it. I have to get the dinner ready and lay out the table. My hands quake as I go about everything, but I push through it, knowing that if I don’t I will regret it.
And I don’t want to regret it. I don’t. I really don’t.
When the clock strikes seven, the front door unlocks right on the hour. My husband walks in. No, he stumbles in. I don’t need to be near him to smell it. Even from across the room I can. Whisky. No less than three doubles. The first thing he does, as is his wont, is head to the fridge to pull out a beer. My scalp prickles with fear when he enters the kitchen. I cannot be around him when he’s in this state, so I softly welcome him home, then duck my head and shuffle out of the kitchen, heading for the bedroom.
When I get there I sit at the dresser and pretend that I have something to do here. In the mirror, I study how my lips have started to wobble. I won’t cry, I can’t, yet my body is anticipating it. I can’t seem to put a stop to it, no matter how much I try to steel my nerves. I also notice how my neck doesn’t seem as red as it was this morning. I crane my head to get a clear view of the bruises that streak my skin under my chin and ears. More flesh coloured now. They are healing, slowly. Usually, my scarf would cover the damage, but I am home now and there is no need for that. The scars on my arms are taking longer to heal and they keep me up almost every night, smarting with an electric pain. Cigarette burns are worse, I suppose, as opposed to brutal rough hands. I must wear long sleeves during the day, even when it is sweltering outside. I sweat profusely, but what other choice do I have?
I make a silent prayer to every God, any God, that is willing to listen to me. I don’t want new scars. I don’t want new marks that I have to cover up when I go out. What I want tonight is to be spared.
Just one night. One. Tonight. Please.
I don’t know what makes me do it, but perhaps subconsciously, I reach for the top drawer of the dresser and pull it open just an inch. Through the opening, I can see some of the blue fabric lying inside, and wrapped inside it is that horrid thing. Long ago, I thought stashing it here, close at hand, would make me feel safe, plant a seed of strength and courage that would grow and blossom, see fruition, one day. But who am I kidding? I will never be a hero. There have been many opportunities when I could have used it, but I have never dared pick it up in defence. It makes sense, because courage isn’t what I have now. Once, long ago, I used to, but not anymore. All that I know now is fear.
Crippling, shattering, paralyzing fear.
Suddenly, the door bursts open, and I jump to my feet, turning to see my husband leaning against the doorway, unable to support himself upright. He burps. He hollers something across the room, but it is unintelligible to me, his speech sluggish and slurred. When I don’t respond, he grunts and staggers into the room, lurching with every footstep. He repeats himself and this time I hear it clearly. He says he wants to make love tonight. I swallow, hard. He looms over me, and a chill runs down my spine, into my very toes. His breath is sour; I flinch from it. He takes one last swig from the beer bottle and then tosses it over his shoulder. I hear it, but do not see it, shatter on the floor, into many tiny pieces. I will have to clean that up later.
A hand shoots out and grabs me roughly by the neck. I gasp, looking up into my husband’s soulless eyes. They are bloodshot and dancing with manic energy. Didn’t you hear me? he hisses. He wants to make love right now. I keep my arms limp at my side–if I even so much as twitched them, I will die. I know it. I squirm, start to tell him that perhaps we should eat dinner first, my voice strangled in his grasp. Before I even finish speaking, his face darkens. He swings his free hand across my face. I failed to see it coming, and my face is so desensitized I can hardly feel the pain, but it knocked the breath out of me and I struggle to drag it back in. There will also no doubt be a fresh mark on my face in the morning. But this is worse because make-up won’t cover it. I will have to call in sick. Maybe for a few days. Did I say I want to eat? he snaps. He wraps both hands around my neck now, squeezing my throat. I can’t open my mouth, but I can still shake my head in response, though barely. A tight pressure builds in my head, and I start to feel dizzy, though I’m not moving at all. My eye-sight wanes.
I know I should give him what he wants without another word. That is the logical part of me speaking. Before he can wrench me by the hand, mark me black and blue and drag me there by my hair, I should undress and lie on the bed and let him take me. Like always. There will be less plain, I will be obedient and he will be satisfied. I know this, but all that I do is nothing. Like always. Why? Why can’t I say no and defy this man? Why am I being so irrational?
In my peripheral vision, as everything grows dim, I catch a glimpse of the mirror, and I hate the person I am looking at. My husband was not this man before we married. I loved him once. He was kind, loving, considerate, but that does not concern me now, because I do not hate him. The person I hate is this woman; this woman who allows herself to be used and abused time and time again with no intention of improving her situation. It is this woman who deserves my hate. This sad, pathetic woman who is being strangled to within an inch of her life because she is so scared of the possibility that something might happen if she lifted a finger. I do not even pity her. How can I? You can only pity the helpless. And the thing is, this is not new. This man has done this before. And he will keep doing it night after night, over and over again, mistaking this woman’s silence for submission in a vicious cycle as she waits for something to change, until she can wait no more and runs out of time. Which is why she must decide to stop submitting, and rise. And she does. More than anything, she wants to rise.
And that’s when I realize it: doesn’t my reluctance to say yes already qualify as an act of defiance?
Of course. Of course it does.
My vision nearly going dark, I reach behind me and go by feeling. I slip my hand into the open drawer. I feel the smoothness of the silk under my fingertips, and beneath that, my secret weapon. Gritting my teeth, I close my fingers around the handle and lift it out.
I don’t think about it. I just do it. For the first time in my life, I retaliate.
I thrust the knife blindly, without looking, without aiming, without caring. My husband screams in my face, a tortured scream; his eyes pop out of their sockets. The blade has sliced deep down the length of his forearm, cleaving the flesh with a sound I can almost hear, a sound that almost sounds gratifying. He grimaces as the shock twists his features and his fingers spring open, releasing me. Spluttering, I massage my stinging neck; his fingernails had dug deep. He reels back, clutches his arm to staunch the bleeding, stunned. It is written across his face: pure disbelief; he can’t wrap his addled mind around it. I am sure the same expression is written across my face as well. For a small fraction of a second I am too frightened by my own doing, though I don’t regret it, so afraid that I have just made things worse for myself that my fingers spring open nervously. The knife falls and hits the floor with a metallic clang.
I expect him to fight back, to make me pay for what I just did, but he doesn’t. Instead, slowly, shakily, dazedly, he teeters to the corner of the room. His arm is wet and his fingers slick red, blood dripping freely over the floor. He trips over his own feet and collapses backward, writhing and bursting into tears. I watch him whimper and moan like a wounded animal. I stare at him, amazed, unable to look away. I cannot describe him properly now, because I have never seen him like this, so small and weak and frail. Pathetic. When he looks up at me, I meet his teary eyes, holding his gaze, and for the first time in ten years, I see them filled with something I am all too familiar with.
Crippling, shattering, paralyzing fear.
As I stand numb and dizzy, yet somehow in control, the dynamics between us realign.
I feel a smile inch across my face. My eyes drift to the piece of glinting metal on the floor between us. Finally, that thing has become what it always wanted to be: blood-stained and covered in my blue silk scarf.
© Amaan Khan, May 24, 2018.