She opened her bleary eyes, when the cat, all seven pounds of squirming flesh, climbed onto her belly. Squinting into the sunlight streaming in from the open window, she discovered that she was now the weary possessor of a pounding headache, and at some point, had managed to lose both a tooth and a spouse.
She was on the sofa. The cat’s spot.
The loss of the tooth was a big problem. Very careless of her. Zirconium, it had been, Naeem had told her, and it had given her the confidence to smile again. Until then she’d had rabbit teeth. Horrible, just horrible, and no one with such teeth should smile. It was wonderful of Naeem to get her proper teeth. And very ungrateful of her to have lost it. She put on the slippers because the floor was full of glass pieces. Beer bottles. Sickening smell. Vomit.
She sucked in the air, her eyes were bulging, her head was throbbing, trembles through her chest, her body. She watched it as if it was happening to someone else. The cat, maybe. Yes, she was the cat. And she would find that tooth before it was too late.
She stomped through the littered glass. The whole place was a mess. Parties were terrible. Nobody cleaned up. She wasn’t one to complain. Except for the smell. The smell of vomit. She took the broom. Chips on the floor, Cigarette butts, even a brassiere. She lifted it with her two fingers like she didn’t want any of that lacy frilliness on her, like she was at the site of a biohazard, and was soon to get infected.
Maybe she should wear gloves. Yes, she should. No point getting hurt.
The wine glasses on the table sat on the table as if they’d been set and ready. They never broke, the glasses that is. They stood like a beacon in wreckages. She picked up the one with the lipstick on it. Mona’s lipstick. She could hear Mona’s tinkling laugh, in the room. It hung in the air, and sometimes she just stopped everything to listen to it. While she was serving everyone, Biriyani, or whatever. Yesterday was Biriyani and a lot of samosas. Samosas were hard work. It made her arms ache. But Naeem insisted. He’d say he gets by only because his colleagues were gluttons, and would go anywhere for a free meal. Like his house. Even if they were disgusted by him.
Her diary lay overturned on the table. With a little lock on it. She laughed at it. Because what’s the point of a lock if others have the key. She turned to the first page. “Last time in Samara” she read loudly. And the cat purred. The cat always liked her poetry.
Last time in Samara,
Goodbyes, Hellos, Farewells,
People Come, People Go,
Me the word train, that never pulls through.
She scratched her head here, unsatisfied as always when she read it. She wasn’t big on rhymes. She wasn’t as much a fan of them as the cat was. It just tumbled out of her. These lines. Like vomit. And she wrote them down. Sometimes not even not aware she’d written them.
She turned the page. This one was about Naeem.
Layla, Naeem, and Beer
Rock, Paper, and Scissor
This had a ring to it. The next one was simply weird.
I am a cockroach,
Naeem is a dung beetle.
My children are caterpillars, made of spit and treacle.
This part had got her some awkward laughs. Not from the cat, no, the cat didn’t do awkward laughs. Yesterday, at the party. When Naeem decided to read out her stuff. “Oh, ya. My wife thinks she’s a poet. Should read some of her stuff. Could be fun.”
Well, it was Mona’s fault, really. “Come join us, dear.” Mona was always trying to include her. Naeem tried to tell Mona that this was useless. “Layla is shy, Mona. You are wasting your time”. Of course, Naeem didn’t want Layla to be anywhere around his colleagues. It would be better if she didn’t exist around them at all. But then, that would be weird. They knew he had a wife. The party food didn’t just materialize out of thin air. And someone had to serve. Besides, his colleagues liked to thank the chef for the lovely food. Added the personal touch to everything.
Also, Mona’s skin was flawless, with pearl eyes that she never covered, her eyelids were huge and batty. So when Mona said anything, men listened. No one told her to shut up, and no one gave her a whack on her back or a thump on her face. And most importantly, Mona was the boss’s wife.
So this was Naeem trying to play along. He grabbed the diary, from the table, where she’d forgotten it. He read with a glass of whiskey in one hand, and the book in the other. Layla worried that he’d get whiskey on the papers more than anything. She hated the smell of whiskey. The sickening vomit smell of whiskey on her precious words.
Once upon a time, there was a cockroach, named Layla. Yes, cockroaches have names sometimes. When they haven’t forgotten what they were before that. Yes, they tend to forget after a while. Then they just become cockroaches.
His colleagues, especially the Boss Man, looked at her a bit weird after that. As if maybe she was a cockroach, swaddled like that in a black purdah and veil. And maybe, she shouldn’t be serving the food.
But Mona found it very interesting. “She could be the next Kafka, I tell you,” Mona said, flipping the pages. Naeem chuckled with Boss Man, but then stopped as if half-worried that Mona hadn’t meant sarcasm. That his stupid wife was maybe talented, and the CEO’s wife had found out.
“What is this?” said Mona, looking at her. “Is it a story? Do you write stories?”
The heat waves were returning now, she drank some of the water. She ran to the basin, turning on the water, she splashed some on her face. She looked up at the mirror. There was a purple bruise. A giant bruise on her face.
At the party, there will be many puppets. All puppets are loud, boorish, and wear ties, in reverence to the puppet master. One mustn’t worry about sniggering puppets. Most times, puppets snigger at you, because they want to please the puppet master. The best way to manage puppets is to call them home, and dunk them in your food and pour down some alcohol. If this doesn’t work, sleep with the puppet master’s wife.
After Mona read this entry, there was a strange silence in the room. Naeem grabbed the diary from Mona’s painted fingernails and threw the book at her. “Get out, Layla, get the fuck out,” gritted Naeem, under his breath. But Layla couldn’t move. Because the Boss Man had stood up. And now had a broken bottle in his hands. It looked like he was coming to hit her. He was of course, drunk. As drunk as Naeem. And everyone was trying to talk at the same time. “She’s just a crazy simpleton,” Naeem screamed. But Boss Man just walked to her, waving the bottle, grabbing the diary from her. He read now, loudly, his voice booming.
Mona’s breasts are like snowballs. White whore that she is. Sleeping with her doesn’t count.
Everyone left after that. Mona, Boss Man. Everyone. Or maybe it was later. She can’t remember. Stormed out. Yes, she liked the word. Stormed. She imagined Mona like that, storming, hair in the wind, like she was as much a storm as in the storm. Golden Hair flying everywhere.
The mirror showed her teeth now and the gaping hole. It was like when she was at Samara. When she smiled, the hole smiled back at her, like a child’s. At Samara, when Naeem had come to see her for the first time, she had her eyes down as her mother had told her, her hair tied and covered. Then Naeem brought her home. Almost a week later. Then she saw the cat, which came up to her, and ran its neck over her legs, sniffing her. That was when she smiled. A big gaping smile. And Sameer flinched. “What in horror’s name is that?” He screamed at her, pointing to her teeth. He sent her away to the dentist, of course. Like she was a toy that needed fixing. A nice Zirconium tooth. He made her smile again after that. Everyday. And he stared at her teeth and said. “Nobody with such teeth should waste their life with frivolous things, Layla….like writing.” She didn’t see the connection. But he knew the teeth made him happy. Like he’d fixed her, and was proud of it,
She knew where the tooth was. She picked the cat and walked into her bedroom.
Naeem lay exactly where she’d left him. Where else could he go? The vomit trickled from the corner of his mouth. She pinched her nose. The smell was sickening. She looked in the corner of the room. Where she’d fallen. Yes. It was there, the tooth. She bent to pick it up. And sighed with relief. Unbroken. Well, the dentist had told her that it wouldn’t break. At worst, it would come off, and that too only under intense pressure. A slap, a kick, or a shove? Well, it was surprising it stayed there for that long.
She walked over to Naeem. She stared at him, lying there, in so much peace. Maybe, he didn’t have to be a dung beetle anymore. Maybe she didn’t have to be the cockroach. Maybe they were all just puppets.
She left the teeth on the bed stand beside him and went to make a call.