A Dangerous and Terrible Thing
ILLUSTRATION BY LAMIAA AMEEN
The hospital room could have, from a distance, been mistaken for a botanical garden. There were dozens of different bouquets - the room was too hot because of it, smelling vaguely of flowers and antiseptic. Adil’s sister had dropped off tulips earlier in the afternoon, with a greeting card bearing a picture of an old man with a cane on it. She had vaguely mentioned a Sylvia Plath poem, saying: “It’s supposed to be, like. Morbidly funny.” Adil had not read the poem, but he couldn’t fault his sister for constructing a narrative around his surgery. She had left the hospital after twenty minutes, claiming that she had to go walk the cat. This, too, Adil understood. How could he expect her to stay, when he had left her, at all of eighteen years old, too young to understand how young she was, to take care of their mother as she died? Being a sibling, he mused, is mostly about hurting each other the same ways our parents hurt us. Being a human being, perhaps, a person in the world, is just about hurting people the way our parents hurt us.
“How’s the pain?” the nurse asked, crisp and clinical. Adil was jolted out of his reverie, and angry with himself for engaging in Freudian self-pity, he replied acerbically: “It feels like my insides have been rearranged.” The nurse didn’t look up from her clipboard. “Scale of one to ten please, sir.” This enraged Adil. “What kind of scale is that? If I say ‘one’, does that mean my pain doesn’t matter? Does my pain have to be big to be worth fucking fixing?” At this, the nurse met Adil’s eyes, her eyebrow raised in condescension. “It’s to adjust the dosage of your medication, sir. It’s not a philosophical issue.” “Everything is a philosophical issue — especially drugs. It’s a six.” The nurse nodded, wrote on her clipboard, adjusted the I.V drip attached to Adil’s arm and turned to leave the room. Before she could, Adil stopped her - “Wait. Is - do you know someone named Sara Bukhari?” She huffed, impatient, and irritated. “Dr. Bukhari works in cardiology.” “I - does she know I’m in here?”
The nurse’s eyebrows did a series of complicated gymnastics at that - disappearing up to her hairline in a trick that Adil thought should be televised. “We don’t make a habit of informing cardiac surgeons about routine appendectomies. Sir.” “Could you tell her? That I’m here?” The nurse had already turned away again, and said over her shoulder: “I’ll pass along the message.” And then, again Adil was left alone, in the hospital room, one appendix short and now burning with embarrassment at having asked for a favor. Adil did not ask for favors. He demanded that tasks be completed, and then they showed up on his desk by 9 am the next morning, or else. But something about the hospital room made him feel vulnerable, like a newborn, naked and confused and crawling toward the light. He could not recognise his own thoughts, here, felt like a stranger in his own mind, wandering through his own consciousness like a small god in a big, big world. Adil had been terrified for the last week - not of the surgery, or the recovery, but of his own emotional response to it. He didn’t know he was capable of feeling this much.
His wife didn’t know how to deal with his excess of feeling, all this extra weight that she didn’t know how to carry. She was in a corridor somewhere in the hospital, searching for coffee, or needlessly irritating a doctor with questions. Or maybe she had gone home, to bring him a toothbrush or another set of pyjamas or the striped slippers he liked. Or maybe she was outside, smoking the pack of cigarettes she tried to hide from him, blowing out smoke with the huffing urgency of a baby dragon trying to prove itself. When Adil had gotten married, his favourite uncle had given him a framed print of the speech that Polonius had given Laertes in Hamlet. There was a line in it that still echoed through his skull on winter nights - strolled through his being with a soft and terrifying authority. “This above all: to thine own self be true.” When Adil read this, he felt strangely empty. Which self, he thought? It seemed significant, somehow, that the most important line in Hamlet, the crux of it, the centre that held and held throughout, was not a monologue but a dialogue. A father to a son, an uncle to a nephew - the solid metamorphosis of love to masculine wisdom, the inability to say ‘I love you’ which forces men to say instead: look here, at what I’ve learnt, it’s yours too. To thine own self be true. Which fucking self? How was he supposed to know where to find this self, where was it hidden, would he recognise it if he stumbled upon it in the dark?
His wife had put the print up in the guest bedroom. She had a self, an unshakable self - would sometimes say things that shocked Adil in their absoluteness: “My aura is pink” or “I’m just not the type of person who watches documentaries” or “I love spider monkeys - they’re my spirit animal.” How do you know, he wanted to ask? Who told you all this about yourself? Is there an instruction manual that everyone in the world has except me? All Adil knew about himself was his history, his geography, the scientific truth of his eczema and the factual evidence of his skill with accounting - which was not the same as selfhood, or shouldn’t be. Selfhood wasn’t an archaeological document - you couldn’t put it together with a handful of facts, the relics of the past, all the ways your parents hurt you. It was something - deeper. Something more. An excess. The parts that spilled over the edges of life, an overflow, a stain. The bit that couldn’t be explained, only felt, only spoken around, an aura, a fucking spirit animal. Adil thought, maybe, his spirit animal was a spreadsheet. It was a depressing thought.
“Adil?” a tentative voice asked, the top of a disheveled head of curly hair peeking through his door. “Sara,” Adil replied, his mouth suddenly dry. “Oh my god, Adil,” Sara said, walking in fully, “It’s been forever.” She laughed, and leaned down to clasp his hand in greeting, as though she had forgotten all the ways he had betrayed her. Adil felt a shock go through him when her warm hands pressed into his, a touch so familiar that it became at once strange. She squeezed his hand, before pulling away and adding thoughtfully, “You look like shit.” Adil felt a laugh catch in his throat. “Well, this is what married life does to you, I guess,” he said, wincing at his feeble attempt at humour. Sara just stared at him - her brown eyes tired, but still - still beautiful. She’d always been beautiful. Adil just hadn’t known how to notice these things. “That’s a pretty awful thing to say,” she said. “I know, fuck, I didn’t mean it - I just - I don’t - it’s been a long fucking year Sara,” he replied - and they went quiet, as the truth sat on the floor between them, a dangerous and terrible thing.
Sara was visibly stunned - in all the years that they had known each other, all the evenings spent drinking whiskey in each other’s living rooms, all the nights wasted furiously debating the logistics of the horror movie they were watching, he had never willingly volunteered information on his emotional state. “I heard,” she said softly, “about your mother. I’m so sorry.” Adil wanted to yell at her. If you heard, why didn’t you call, he wanted to scream. But he knew that was unfair. He hadn’t spoken to Sara for the entire duration of his mother’s illness. “I came to the funeral,” Sara added, perching at the edge of his bed. “I know,” Adil replied, “I saw you there.” She nodded, accepting this. “So - how are you feeling?” she asked, “Is the pain bad?” He was appalled for a second by her insensitivity, before realising she was referring to his surgery, not his bereavement. “Yeah - no - not too bad. It’s about a six.” She made a face at that, her nose scrunching up in disdain. “Ugh, I hate that. As if there’s any fucking accuracy to a numerical scale of pain. We need to develop a better language for hurt.”
“I’ll get right on that,” Adil said, dryly. “Maybe sometime after I can pee on my own again, but just before I get to eat food other than bread and yoghurt.” Sara smiled, “I hope they’re giving you the strawberry kind, at least.” Adil felt his insides somehow jostle around even further - “You remembered.” Sara looked away suddenly, picking at her neon pink nail polish - “You kept like, six cartons of it in my fridge at all times. I don’t think I could forget even if I tried.” Adil wanted to ask whether she tried to forget. He wanted to ask if she had scrubbed the fridge clean to get the scent of artificial strawberry out. He wanted to ask if she thought of him every time she passed the dairy aisle of her local corner shop. Instead he said: “It’s a relative scale.” Sara looked up at that - “What?” “Numerical values for pain. It’s a relative scale. It’s not about how big the pain is. It’s about how big it is to you.”
“Yes, Adil - I know. I’m a cardiac surgeon. It’s still inaccurate.” Adil was self-aware enough to be embarrassed at this, and he grinned sheepishly at Sara, but she had sat up in her classic Lecturing pose, and he knew there was no escaping now until she ran out of words, or breath. “You know what I’ve found? Most women under-report their pain with the numerical system. And no one wants to change the language, because it supposedly ‘works.’ No one cares about the people it isn’t working for. I’ll ask a fucking man how much it hurts and he’ll say ‘Ten, pump me full of drugs, fix me immediately.’ I’ll ask a woman, and she’ll say ‘oh it’s about a three, I’m okay,’ - and some nurses ask when the woman’s children are in the hospital room! How are they supposed to be honest in those circumstances? What mother wants to tell their child how much they’re fucking hurting?”
“Mine didn’t,” Adil said. Sara stopped in her tracks - closing her mouth deliberately, and meeting his gaze. The room was so quiet, that he could hear the leaves on the bouquets rustle, he could hear the nervous stutter of his own breath. “She never told me to come back home.” Sara placed her hand on his, and he only realised his fingers were clenched when she peeled them back and lightly wiped at the traces of blood that were collecting on the surface of his palm. “Sometimes you don’t want to have to ask,” she said, her words as unflinching as her hands were gentle. “I think - I think love means not having to ask.” And Adil felt his lungs constrict. He knew she wasn’t just talking about his mother. She was talking about them, about him, about all of it. The way he stopped speaking to her the second he knew she loved him. The way he got engaged a month after her confession, to a girl his aunt introduced him to, a good girl, a family-oriented girl, a pretty girl. A girl who wasn’t Sara.
He remembered the voice-mail Sara had left him after he posted his engagement photos on Instagram. “You egotistic fucker,” she had said, laughing half-hysterically. “You didn’t need to get fucking engaged just to reject me. Dickhead.” Then - a click. Dial tone. The message would replay automatically in thirty seconds. Her voice would begin again - cracking slightly on the first word, scratchy as though she had been crying before she called. There would be an awkward pause after she said ‘reject me’ - and the ‘Dickhead’ would be choked, more a scream than an actual word. Then, again - click. Dial tone.
Adil’s mother had loved Sara - thought she was clever, and kind, and almost, almost good enough for her son. She had asked about her after the engagement - subtle and sick, coughing between her syllables. “She’s such a good girl,” his mother had said, the skin on her face crumbling like parchment as she strained to keep her voice even. “Are you inviting her to the wedding?” She had known that he wouldn’t - that he couldn’t. Conversations with his mother were always labyrinthine, a challenge at every corner, a pit of fire to cross, a minotaur roaring blindly somewhere in the distance. “She’s busy with her residency,” Adil had replied, accustomed now to the art of dodging gracefully. “Shame,” his mother had said, gesturing to the part-time nurse in the corner to help her up. “I would’ve liked to see her.” It was only in retrospect that Adil realised she wasn’t berating him - she was loving him, the only way she knew how. She didn’t know how to give him advice - he had been handling the household accounts since he was 14, had been dealing with the electrician and the gardener and the man from the bank. He wasn’t just her son, he was also the Man of the House - the delicate scales of authority could not be examined too closely, could not be pressed upon too hard. Instead of advising, then, his mother would suggest. She would go about it gently, deftly, constructing traps with the skill of Daedalus. And she would guide, too, like Ariadne, with a string in each hand, glittering threads of maternal wisdom that he never managed to see until it was too late.
She had told him not to come. Damn it - she had told him - and she had never lied to him before - why hadn’t she asked? He would have gone. He would have dropped everything, would have left his job and his house and his wife, to sit by her bedside and hold her frail hand. But somewhere in the recesses of his mind, somewhere small and guilty and tired, he knew this was a weak defence. He would’ve gone - but he wouldn’t have wanted to. Adil was, at heart, a manager - his ‘love language’ was a to-do list. In the case of terminal illness, there was not much for him to manage. He would’ve had to sit, and wait. His days would have been circular and quiet and still, listening to his mother breathe, knowing each inhale was one closer to her last. Better, wasn’t it, to live like his mother would have wanted, to research the best doctors obsessively, to keep her comfortable, to wait for her to ask?
And here - now - Sara sat in front of him. And like always, she had sliced him open to the core without even trying, surgically precise. He vaguely thought to check for signs of his guts, which must be spilling out onto the floor. “I think love means not having to ask.” Fuck.
“It isn’t that simple,” he told Sara. “Not to you, maybe,” she said, extricating her fingers from his. Adil stared down at his empty hand, frustrated - how was he supposed to just know? To translate languages that had never been spoken? “I’m not a mind-reader, Sara,” he said, harsher than he meant to. “I don’t have all the answers.” Sara threw her hands up in despair. “No one wanted you to have the answers. They just wanted you to be there. And you just wanted to be - anywhere else.” “Well excuse me for having responsibilities.” “You’ve been avoiding actual responsibility your entire life, Adil.” Adil reeled back at that, infuriated. “My entire life is nothing but responsibility. I’m supporting my whole family. I’ve got two fucking mortgages to pay off. I’ve got a wife.” Sara didn’t flinch at the word ‘wife’ - but her stillness took on a stilted quality, as though it was taking great effort. “Bullshit,” she said. “Bullshit,” again, fiercer. “Fuck the mortgage and the money and the fucking twenty year old child-bride. Your responsibility was to yourself. To the people who loved you. Tell me Adil - are you happy with the decisions you’ve made?”
To thine own self be true, he heard again, and again, like a sinner hears a call to prayer, absolution just out of reach. He wasn’t aware that he had been making decisions - just waiting to be asked to make them. Was that the same thing? Was having a self just that - just going through life, trying to make decisions he was happy with? Adil was suddenly dizzy. It was probably the drugs, he told himself, as he left his body and floated above the room, watching Sara get up and walk out the door, watching himself lie there slack-jawed and silent. He followed Sara through the hospital, noticing the way she swiped her hand across her face and the way her shoulders were quivering slightly. He followed her out of the back entrance, as she leaned against the wall outside and slid down in an uncontrolled heap. He watched as she took out her phone and started texting someone furiously - a coworker, or a boyfriend, maybe. And then he could feel the person in his hospital bed calling out to him, asking for this semblance of a spirit to be reunited with its body, but he didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to go back. Sara went inside. He stood there - still - not sure if he was alive, or dead, or somewhere in between. The street lights turned on in the parking lot, one after the other, shining on no one, and nowhere and nothing, nothing at all.
Find Raniya on Instagram: @raniya.hosain