Date with anonymous.
An unexpected conversation at an unexpected time.
Itna bikay k ab to hum be-daam hogaye.
Koochay hamaray eh’d ke neelaam hogaye.
Fidgeting with my scarf for the upteenth time, I look around the space.
This is my new favorite restaurant in this town, but I don’t want to run into someone I know.
Which is stupid, because nobody really knows me in this city. I am that desi chick who keeps to herself and volunteers no new information. For the first time in my life, I’ve tried to keep myself pretty much a mystery.
Under the wraps.
Peeking, but not coming out. Seeking, but not letting in.
Which is new. But, baby steps.
This happening uptown cafe is in Chicago. I would have loved the energy and vibe of this place a while ago, but these days, I feel like I am lost on an alien planet.
I moved here six months ago, running from, I don’t know, myself maybe? What I have done so far is mostly hide in my dorm, not socializing and politely declining all invitations that have been coming my way, friendly or otherwise.
So this is definitely a big step that I have taken. Coming out on a ... Well, I won’t call this a date. It’s a meeting.
Actually, we are strangers.
So, what is it? What am I doing? I don’t have a name for this.
Us sheher ke log bhi kitnay ajeeb thay,
badnaamion ke dar se be-naam hogaye.
Flashback to now.
I am sitting at a table in the far corner of the restaurant. Near the fireplace, so it’s relatively warm. I don’t have the view which this place is famous for. The waiter insisted I take a different seat, but I wanted this place only. Away from prying eyes.
I realize my breath is coming out hoarse. I open my purse, and pop in two Rigix. I have been carrying this addiction for years now. I think this will be the end of me. But I am too far along to stop now.
Like all my other addictions.
I run my fingers through my hair, and despite my better judgement, end up checking my reflection on my phone screen. I look... well, I look as I expect myself to look. I dressed casually this evening, in my comfy old jeans that I bought from Khaadi four years ago, a snuggly sweater with a horse knitted on the front, and a woolen scarf. All in shades of grey and brown. I lost my colors, just like I lost my chatter. The only fancy bling I have is my shiny gold watch. It used to belong to my mother, and I have started wearing it as a talisman for strength. My face is bare of makeup, my eyebrows are unshapen. My signature dark lipstick is missing. I stopped combing my hair two weeks ago. I have been chipping off my nails, thanks to my anxiety attacks. This is definitely not how one should look on a date.
Well, that pretty much sums up how excited I am about this.
He will be here soon.
I don’t know what I am expecting. This is perhaps the craziest thing I have ever done in my life.
No, second craziest. Something else already has the top spot, and I think there won’t be no topping that one for a long time. It was a brand of crazy that made me leave everything and come here.
In the cold.
I hate the cold.
Ab yaad karnay ki bhi himmat nahin baaqi,
kin kin kahanion ke kia anjaam hogaye.
‘Hey, is this seat taken?’
I break free of my reverie.
‘Umm, are you Z?’ I ask. (Must be, he is the only desi in miles)
‘Yeah. You must be S.’
I chuckle unnecessarily.
He smiles awkwardly.
Oh God, what am I doing, what am I saying? This was a mistake. I should probably get up..
But then again, what the f* do I care? I don’t intend to see this person ever again.
‘So, how is it going?’ he asks.
I’ll probably just be polite and make some conversation before I leave, but this is one question I have never had an answer to.
‘Great, I guess. You?’
He isn’t bearded, that is the first thing I notice. Gaah, Dealbreaker. I like bearded guys. Also, he’s dressed too casually. Why didn’t he make an effort to see me? I have a special thing for guys who are well dressed, with crisp collars, cufflinks and shiny leather shoes. This guy... he is in a tee, gel in his hair and is wearing a wristband with something dangling on. I mean, really? How old are you, 17? But then again, I am not here to like this guy, right? Why am I even thinking about that? This is just an unnecessary addition to my otherwise mundane routine. Okay, I’ll just look at my phone and invent a meeting I forgot about…
‘You look nice.’
‘By the way, interesting choice of restaurant.’
I wasn’t expecting that.
‘I would have thought you would have chosen a more halaal place.’
Oh. Oh no. Maybe I should have. I am discomfited.
‘We won’t be ordering pork.’
‘Well, of course.’
‘I like this place. It always has good music on, and the food is good.’
I hear myself justifying.
‘Ahaan. But it’s also too hidden. And warm. Doesn’t feel like winters. I can’t see the snow.’
I have no answer to that.
He has a smile playing on his lips. What is he thinking? I’m so annoyed. I’ll just tell him straight that I am out. Instead, I am surprised to hear myself phrase a different question.
‘So, what do you do?’
‘Well, nothing in particular. Just a little of this and a little of that.’
‘What is that supposed to mean?’
‘I mean, I do what I feel like doing.’
‘But you must have a job, a hobby, or an interest perhaps?’
‘No I don’t.’
‘How do you pay your bills then?’
Darn. That was too personal of a question, especially for a first meeting.
‘Haha. Lets just say I scrap through life.’
More annoyance. Is that how guys are like these days?
‘I see. You know I appreciate conversations with people who are honest with me.’
I don’t know why am I being so intense. And hormonal. But then again, no f*s given. I’ll say what I want to say. Maybe take out all my frustration on random guy.
‘Aray, I am being honest. I really just do what I feel like doing. Like today, I felt like having coffee instead of chai. Then, there was the choice of making my usual dinner of toast and marmalade, or having this rendezvous with you. I chose the latter.’
‘So is that what I mean to you? A choice like coffee or chai?’
That was mean. I’m hurt, I realize. But why??
‘No, you’re taking this the wrong way. I was just being honest. Like you asked me to.’
‘Seems more like arrogance, less like honesty.’
‘But then maybe I am arrogant in all honesty.’
‘Well, then maybe I don’t want honest after all.’
‘Then what is it that you want?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know what I am doing these days. Or what do I want’
Wait, what? What am I saying? Why am I falling in that all too familiar trap again, saying the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong places? I just need to tell this guy to shut the f* up, and f* off.
‘Was this meeting with me a result of your indecisive streak too?’ He asks.
‘Well, probably. I guess. I may not even remember it, or think about it again. It depends.’
‘On how this goes.’
Interruption. The waiter comes to take the order.
‘Hi. What will you be having tonight?’
Some peace and solitude, please. I’m sinking into my unfamiliar anti-social web again.
‘What’s the best thing that you have on your menu?’ He asks.
‘I’ll recommend the special. Grilled prawns with teriyaki mushrooms, and seasoned caviar. Plus, I can offer some vodka on the rocks.’
‘I’ll have that. Grilled prawns are my favorite. But yeah, drop the vodka for some other day.’ He says.
‘Sure. I’ll bring that out soon.’
Gaah. He likes seafood.
‘So, you were telling me how you’re going to remember our date.’
Date. I cringe.
‘No, I said, I might not remember it at all.’
‘But you said might. Which means you may remember it after all.
This guy is seriously annoying. And we are talking about useless shit. I should get rid of him already. I reach for my purse to leave, but instead, much to my own annoyance, I hear myself acting different than what I am thinking.
‘Okay, I may.’
‘What time of the day would you remember it?’
Did I hear this correctly?
‘Umm, did you just ask me what time would I remember it? Seriously?’
‘Yeah. It’s a genuine question. I honestly wanna know.’
The honesty card again. I regret saying that now.
Plus, this guy sounds really stupid.
‘Riiight. I dunno, at night perhaps. I am too busy through the day to remember anything.’
‘Yaani if you think about it at night and smile, then this was a success. Otherwise you’ll blame it all on bad timing and bad decisions.’
‘Yeah, probably. Although, I usually don’t think about anything at night.’
‘Then what do you do?’
‘I .. umm I just lie down, and I am gone.’
‘Wow, you’re lucky then.’
‘Why, what do you do at night, before sleeping?’
‘You probably don’t want to find out.’
Wrong question. I never did have any control on my tongue. But I’m intrigued.
‘Why? Is it NSFW?’
He chuckles. ‘Nahi, quite the contrary actually. Also we are not at work.’
‘So, what do you do?’
‘I talk to myself. In a different language.’
‘That’s the weirdest thing I heard all day. And trust me, my mind tells me a lot of weird stuff.’
He chuckles. ‘I’d like to hear that stuff someday.’
I play along. ‘Yes, in a different language probably.’
‘Haha! That would be so cool! Do you know any other languages? Apart from the obvious - English, Urdu and Sarcasm?’
‘Yes. I know sign language. Not fully, but I am learning it.’
‘Wow, say something in signs to me!’
He’s excited, I sense. I should be annoyed by this attention, but for the third time in this meeting, I witness myself falling prey to my reactions against my intended actions.
I gesture ‘I am from Karachi’ in signs.
‘This means ‘I am from Karachi.’
‘Awesome! I am from Peshawar. I was born and raised there. But I have lived in Karachi too.’
I don’t know what else to say. This is getting too long and too personal. I didn’t want that to happen.
Interruption. Thank God. Food is served.
‘Enjoy your meal.’ says the waiter.
For a while we are busy.
‘So, why did you decide to learn sign language? Is there a personal reason?’ He continues the conversation, like it never stopped.
There was no f*ing reason. Even if there was one, why would I tell a complete stranger?
‘No. I have been fascinated with it for a long time. I saw it on TV as a child.’
‘Something must have triggered it though.’
‘I said I saw it on TV.’
‘We see a lot of stuff on TV. Don’t go about learning everything.’
This guy clearly doesn’t have any boundaries.
With a start, I realize, I used to be the same.
I am paying a hefty price for it now, though.
Go baat thi zara si, par lamhon ki sa’at main,
Kuch khaas log kaise kitnay aam hogaye.
‘You ask a lot of questions.’
‘I find it fascinating to probe into people’s thoughts. Tell me na, why did you learn it?’
‘My father had a stroke when he was 24. Apart from affecting him physically, it impaired his speech; he couldn’t speak even the most regular sentences too coherently. Growing up, we saw our mother understand what he was saying even though he didn’t use a lot of words. Me and my sister learned that too. We can understand and communicate with our father without too many words. I guess that might be one of the reasons.’
I realize I had never acknowledged this before.
Stop. Sharing. Personal. Information.
‘I am sorry to hear that. How is he doing now?’
‘Alhamdolillah, he is well, and he is unstoppable, as always. Thanks.’
‘Must have been difficult though, for your parents. Coping with such a challenge so young and early in their marriage.’
‘They weren’t married then. My parents married way into their thirties. It was an arranged marriage. They didn’t know each other before tying the knot.’
‘They sound amazing. Making such difficult choices and leading a different life.’
‘Every life is difficult, and no choice is easy. They were not like me, they were much stronger. My father never let his disability shadow his actions. My mother never let his disability influence her decisions.’
I haven’t talked this much for months. I don’t want to accept it, but it feels like a refreshing change. Something is unwinding in my chest.
‘And what about you?’
‘What, what about me?’
‘You said you are not like your parents. What are you like?’
Huh? What am I like?
‘I... I don’t know.’
‘I’d like to find out.’
I am trying to find that out too.
‘Why did you decide to meet me?’
Stop asking all the hard questions.
‘Umm. I don’t know. I guess I needed some company.’
‘And are you enjoying it?’
‘Do I need to answer that question?’
‘Well we can leave it for another day.’
He’s chatty. Chatty people can be annoying. I’m annoyed but I’m also not annoyed? It’s weird.
‘So have you seen much of this city?’
He breaks me out of my thought train again.
‘No. I don’t like to go out in the cold.’
‘Then why did you move here?’
‘No particular reason. I just felt like it.’
I can’t tell him who I am running from. And why.
‘Interesting. On the contrary, I love the cold. It’s dreary, yes. But it’s also beautiful. It’s soothing. The chill in the air, the emptiness, the silence. I love cold, long, dark winter nights. Gives me more room to enjoy my own company.’
‘And talk to yourself in French, or German?’
‘Haha. je suis ravi de vous rencontrer’
I gesture ‘It was nice meeting you too’ in signs.
‘Hey! I didn’t know you understood French too! That brings the count to five!’
‘There’s a lot you don’t know about me.’
He smiles. ‘I’d like to find that out too.’
The plate of prawns is empty.
‘You know what, I came here with a very different perspective. And now I see a completely different picture.’ he says.
‘That makes two of us.’ I answer.
‘I’m glad to have met you. We should do this again.’
‘Say something I’m giving up on you?’
‘Already?’ I say with a smile.
‘It’s a song.’
‘Right. I know.’
‘Are we reaching an anti-climax of sorts?’
‘I guess we are.’
‘So. we’ll meet again. This time, at a place I choose.’
I say nothing. My speech is lost, just like my mind is blank. But I am surprised that it isn’t bothering me.
‘Somewhere more open, and cold. Bring a jacket.’
‘I never said I am coming.’
‘But you didn’t say you’re not either.’
‘So it’s a date?’
In spite of myself, I smile.
‘It’s a date.’
Jhaanka tha ek baar unki nigaahon main,
Bas phir nashay se aari mere jaam hogaye.
The waiter approaches.
‘Ma’am, here is your check.’
‘Oh, thanks. Here you go. And keep the change.’
‘Did you like the food?’
‘Yes, very much, like always. Grilled prawns are my favorite.’
All the poetic verses in the write-up are in Urdu and are originally penned for this story.
Cover image credits: https://unsplash.com