Short fiction by the writer of 'In the Time of Others'
He’d looked at the new neighbour on his floor once, at the mailboxes, quickly dropping his eyes on the coupon books and junk he’d extracted from his box.
At sixty-four, Faiz had to be careful how and how long he kept eyes on women half his age, possibly younger in his new neighbour’s case. Twenty years ago even, he’d offer her a hi and a hand, welcome her, research her status, then ask how she felt about walking around to Clark Street for a cup of something or other, maybe a drink.
When he looked again, just to be sure he hadn’t scared her, she was smiling.
He could’ve smiled back. He didn’t; keeping his head and eyes down, he went past her to the stairs. Her scent was of day’s end and early fall.
Up the steps he went, on knees as wrecked as his heart.
He was sitting down with his soup and crackers when he heard a small stampede in the hallway.
There wasn’t much room for racket of that size and volume, unless it was a small child jumping Rumpelstiltskin-like being a brat, or an adult had gone up and down the stairs like a wrecking ball. Three units per floor, and he and the new neighbour were on the top, with the third unit empty.
Her door opened and slammed. Muffled exchanges vibrated through the walls.
It was almost three when the rumble of someone tumbling down the stairs awoke him. No one had tumbled, of course not. Just his neighbour’s visitor leaving.
No more sleep tonight. He switched on the lamp. He tried to read. Instead, he lapsed into memories. Memories he no longer wanted.
Shama was the sleeper. She’d snore through a rampage and wake up clueless and refreshed. After forty years she woke up one more time two years ago and decided she’d had enough. Because he was never there, next to her, and when he was, it was in passing, before his next work trip took him away for another week. Week after week, turning into months into years.
It was bearable when the children still lived at home. He’d made promises to put in for a local position, and he did, but the timing was off. His firm had slashed more than half its staff across four states, offshored IT to India and the Philippines, cut the in-house team, and saddled each person with the workload and travel itinerary of four.
The morning she left, she saw him off and told him she wouldn’t be there when he got back. There was nothing to discuss, nothing more to say. They’d tried, they’d done, they’d failed. Forty years was nothing small. In that time both their children had married and divorced and married again.
“If I’m going to be alone then I’d rather just be alone,” she’d said.
By the end of the week she was with her sister, in a different part of the country. Her sister informed him that she’d reached there safe, but asked him to not call and cause the phone number to have to be changed. Shama would be in touch as soon as she was ready.
Shama’s new routine, he’d learned from their daughter, included going out Fridays with her newfound social circle. Riham had joined her mother when she visited but not furnished details.
He didn’t press. Children should never have their loyalty tested between parents. People who did that should have their children taken away from them. Or some such reprimand that would put the fear in the parents of losing them forever.
It was the same with Raihan. He, too, said nothing of what he had seen of his mother’s new life. Once, Raihan’s son with his first wife who was close to Shama started blabbing about a white man Nanu went out with while they were visiting. Raihan yelled at him and made him cry.
The bar crowd had quieted down. The Clark Street bus went by once, the opening and closing of its door with its pneumatic hiss rude upon the silent night.
He sat up. At least once every night he thought how big the apartment was just for him. The idea was to have enough space for the kids and grandkids. It was before Riham and Raihan ended their marriages, left town, married new people and made homes in different cities.
He hadn’t visited them yet, and he got the feeling from speaking to Riham that her new husband didn’t mind that so much. Their very first conversation was less than three exchanges in when Derek made an offhand remark about illegal immigration and Faiz had responded that not only was that racist, no white American had the right to call any other Americans illegal.
If Riham tried to soothe her husband by chiding her father’s involvement in student politics back in Bangladesh, and his brief association with the communist party, as the basis of his worldview, Faiz didn’t know.
Riham and Derek were the more puzzling question. The same Riham who brought home long-haired poets and self-styled revolutionaries, Marx-spouting rich boys playing hardened proletarian, musicians with fingernails and lips painted black.
Derek one could imagine in camo gear with a semi-automatic in each hand poised in front of a Don’t Tread On Me flag ready to blast, as it were, every liberal within earshot.
Love did what it did.
Raihan offered every month to pay his way anytime he wanted to visit. The honest-to-goodness truth was he didn’t want to see his grandkids. He knew them, they knew who he was, where their father’s name and family came from, who their grandmother was. That was enough. It was more than the first generation kids of many Bangladeshi immigrants knew, and Riham and Raihan were born Americans, which made their children as American as them.
Shama loved them, truly and honestly loved them. Faiz couldn’t fake anything close to love.
He’d loved once. Genuinely, of his own volition, and completely.
Shama’s parents refused to consider a boy from a provincial town in northern Bangladesh for their daughter, one no less the progeny of a postal clerk and an illiterate mother who believed smoking cleared evil out of the body. (It was a story Faiz told Shama that he’d used to justify smoking cigarettes to his mother. She’d bought it, his father had not. His smoking life ended prematurely three hours after it began).
What was more, on her mother’s side Shama was descended from the Nawab family of Dhaka. The sheer social terror that their match brought to Shama’s mother’s sleepless nights was enough to bring her life to a juddering halt. Sons of industrialists and politicians wanted Shama’s hand. She rejected their proposals, and not for a day regretted her decision.
That was proof of her love.
Faiz loved his children out of duty. He didn’t want children. He told Shama as much, and she would’ve been fine with it had it not been for the expectations of others.
A retrospective of his life would be a painful journey through every decision of import he’d made, all of them determined and directed by the expectations first of others, then, through convincing himself that it was for his own good.
Education was not optional. Making a better life than the one of his birth was a directive. Leaving his town was a mandate. His father died young, fifty. His mother followed two years later. His three brothers tore apart what little there was of the family homestead. Faiz being the youngest, and not being present when the division of the paltry spoils took place, was not consulted. Neither did he receive more than the equivalent of six months’ salary at the time. He was in Dhaka by then, and used the money to rent a room in a hostel and get out of the home of his father’s relative whom he’d caught several times rummaging through his things in the middle of the night.
“My house, asshole,” he’d shouted. “I do what I want.” He was drunk each time, and stumbled out, then could be heard crashing on his charpoy bed to fitful, snoring sleep.
He opened his eyes. Earlier it was windy, but his blinds were raised and he could see it wasn’t the branch outside knocking the glass.
He looked through the peephole.
She was standing there like she’d been expected, and, having arrived, been knocking longer than she appreciated.
He took a step back when she knocked again. Three measured taps. They weren’t urgent or demanding. Rather, they were questioning. An excuse-me not meant to intrude but nonetheless necessary.
She was hugging herself like she was out in the cold. She kept looking to her left, at the stairs, and back to the door. Faiz hadn’t turned on a light. Her view of the peephole would be solid black.
Her hand came up one more time. She changed her mind, as though someone told her not to be rude. Her arm was thin with ropy muscles that rippled on the underside as she clenched her fist. She was dressed more for the gym than for bed. It was clear that she took pains to stay in shape. She turned and walked away.
Faiz unlocked his door and peeked out.
She’d gone inside but hadn’t fully closed her door yet.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Are you all right?”
“No. I’m sorry.”
He heard sniffles.
“Are you hurt?"
“Is it bad?”
“Would you like me to call 911?”
“No, thank you.”
He left the door open and went to the couch. Her door remained open as well.
The sky slowly filled with light. He remembered hearing the forecast the night before that the morning was going to be overcast, temperatures in the thirties, and sunshine later in the day. He hadn’t closed his eyes or moved since he sat down, and there were no sounds from the neighbour’s place either. It was a workday, albeit still very early.
Coming out of the bathroom, he heard the sound of her door closing and being locked, the clicking of keys, and then hurried steps down the stairs. He couldn’t grab his robe fast enough. Three floors down the main door banged shut.
Close to nine. Well past the time he’d seen her at the mailboxes yesterday. He switched off the TV and took his dinner plate and silverware to the kitchen. He was brushing his teeth when he heard footsteps on the stairs through the crack he’d left in the door. He tried not to run.
Her hair was in a tightly drawn ponytail. Auburn roots showed amid dark black strands, and the band that held the ponytail was bright red. She was in gym clothes, different from last night, and one shoulder held a backpack and the other a work bag.
“How are you?”
“Thank you again, for asking after me last night. And I’m sorry.”
“It’s no problem.”
Neither of them said a goodbye or good night. She went inside, and both bags dropped heavily to the floor. She didn’t close her door all the way. Neither did he.
He heard her moving around, tracking her by her footsteps from room to room, until after a long humming song of the microwave heating her dinner she brought the meal out to the living room and sat with it in front of the TV.
He set his dinner to warm on the stove, took a quick shower, put on a clean button-down shirt, jeans which he hadn’t worn jeans in ages, a thin wool sweater, combed his hair with a dash of pomade, observing that he needed a trim, and sat down in front of the TV with his dinner.
Her volume was too low, but whatever she was watching was making her chuckle either at the show’s implausibility or ridiculousness, or both.
Her cell phone rang. She answered it and walked around the apartment while she talked. The conversation was strained. She was practicing the kind of restraint she would if she was on a crowded train or bus. After the call she sat back down with a sigh and turned the TV up. Now it was the local news. He recognised the anchor’s voice and switched to the same channel. The item was of a police killing of a twelve-year-old Black youth on the South Side. He muted it. Before the details of the incident were fully revealed, and the anguish of the victim’s family leaked into a million homes, her TV went silent, too.
After hearing her leave early in the morning, he spent the day waiting for the night. He cleaned the apartment, did three loads of laundry, and got a haircut. It was barely a little after noon when he was done. He felt anxious. He didn’t want to sit around staring at her door for the next six hours. He went to a movie and sat through it without taking one minute’s notice of what it was about, and when it ended he forgot to leave until the young usher startled him with her small, fearful voice.
He went to a coffee shop, drank two cups of decaf, and tried reading a newspaper. Nothing he read stuck. The afternoon was chilly, but bright. Sunlight poured through the windows overlooking the street, the setting sun full of fire and blinding rays. He wondered where she worked, what she did, which gym she went to, and, hesitantly, who it was he’d heard that night, and if that person was the reason she was sad.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Just as the men Shama was meeting would maybe not want to know about her previous life. It was always the past or the unknown future that got all the attention, never the present. For all the talk of living in the moment, being in the present, a lot of effort went into pushing and shoving those moments and those presents aside to make room for looking back in regret, or towards the forever unknown.
Americans’ obsession with the future had baffled him, in the sense that whatever it held was surely, certainly fantastic, as had their disregard of the past, unless it was nostalgia for one that never existed. The future was without consequences and history was inconsequential. His father had wanted him to get out of their small town and “make something of himself,” set up for a future unlike any part of his father’s past, but never forget where he came from, which was the lesson of the past to always keep close. Once he got there, made that future his present, held the past in sight without embellishment or longing, the job was to hold on, to be, to live.
It was a little after six when he entered his apartment. Her door was closed. He left his open, and realised his heart wasn’t racing from the walk or the stupid run he’d made up three flights of stairs, but from anticipation.
Not since the early days of courting Shama had he known this lightness. The hours he’d spend grooming and combing, perfuming and shining before their meetings; and they couldn’t even hold hands, not get within distance of an accidental brush, not in the beginning. Not until Shama broke her parents down and had him over for tea, and then wrenched permission from them to meet him once a week under watch of a chaperone.
He showered, put on fresh clothes, heated his dinner, and settled in in the living room.
At seven o’clock, there was still no sign of her. Maybe a longer day at work, followed by an extended workout.
He opened his door wider, listened for her, in case she’d returned early and was already inside, and decided no, she wasn’t. He finished eating and sat flipping channels to give his restlessness an outlet.
A little after seven-thirty he heard vigorous, athletic footsteps jogging up the stairs. He made to get up, but changed his mind, only keeping eyes on the door.
She came into view, jangling keys.
“Hello, good evening.”
She walked in, leaving the door open wider than his.
For the next half hour, as she washed up, changed, made dinner, and nestled into her evening, he kept his eyes on the news on MSNBC.
Seated on their couches they faced the same direction when watching TV. A slight tilt forward and they had full view of each other. Once she was seated, he did just that, and, sensing he was looking, she turned her head. She smiled.
Half an hour later, she was stretched out on the couch, reading on her iPad. He picked up a hardcover biography of an American president from under the coffee table and opened it to the first chapter. He didn’t remember buying the book. The president wasn’t well-known. It was the kind of historical obscurity that would interest Shama. He checked the front of the book; she always put her name and the date the book became her possession on the top right corner of the cover page. This one had neither.
A card dropped out of the middle. “Dear Dad, Happy Birthday! Hope you enjoy reading this piece of history. Raihan.” Poor boy. He never had much of an idea about anything, really, and clueless gifts like these broke Faiz’s heart. Riham’s gifts were tersely practical. If they could speak they’d remind him of their practicality every day.
He must have been laughing loud enough to grab her attention, because she was looking at him, watching his enjoyment with a questioning smile of her own.
He held up the book. As if that was the joke itself, she, too, laughed, and showed him the screen of her iPad, which had a pie chart in red, blue, and yellow. He laughed harder.
He heard her yawn, a long, tired yawn.
“Goodnight. I’m bushed.”
“Sleep well. Goodnight.”
He fell asleep without trouble and slept as deeply as he hadn’t slept since he was a student and getting three hours a night was a luxury. It was eight when he awoke. He hummed through showering and getting dressed, had his tea and toast, and started out the door with no plans for the day, until the evening.
A man in a brown leather jacket was pressing his eye to the neighbour’s peephole.
“Can I help you?” Faiz asked.
“You fucking her too?” The man’s head was an almost perfect square, topped with bristly crewcut light blond hair, and his eyes were so far apart they seemed to function independently of each other, one on the lookout for trouble on one side and the other roving between the other side and the front.
“Sir, is there something you need?” Faiz asked.
“Yeah,” the man said, his nostrils widening to the size of quarters, “fuck her all you want, man. Have at it.” He horse-kicked the door with one foot. The shoeprint he left was comically big.
“How did you get in the building?”
“Want me to show you?” The man took a step forward. He towered over Faiz. The combination of his breath and body odour was suffocatingly rank.
“You should leave.”
The man’s box head hovered over Faiz a moment, like a boulder precariously balanced on insufficient ground, and he bared a grin of yellow-stained teeth made for nightmares.
Faiz walked around in a daze for an hour. He needed to call the management company and the police. But he also didn’t want to alarm her. Or make her situation worse.
There was no need for people to be lewd. Disrespectful. A man his age had had his reckoning with sex. Not the insulting kind thrown in his face by the neighbour’s…whoever he was…Faiz shuddered to think of them as a couple…no, not that demeaning version that turned men and women into writhing beasts with no conscience or decency. Shama was the only woman he’d been with, and he was resigned to the fact that so it would remain. Even if he had the opportunity, he wouldn’t know what to do.
He’d walked unintentionally to the Shakespeare statue in Lincoln Park West, one of his and Shama’s favorite spots in the city. A pigeon sat perched on the Bard’s head. From the profile view Faiz had the bird looked like a mohawk. He sat on one of the benches and watched the pigeon keep its place for a long time, atop one of the finest brains known to humankind, leak a trickle of guano down the rounded forehead of the poet, and fly away like a teenager out for a night of pranks.
He wished his knees would allow him to mount Shakespeare and clean the indignity off his face. Nature would eventually. Faiz would get a kick out of witnessing a statue of himself shat on.
Which wasn’t far from how he was feeling. The ugliness of the morning’s encounter had left him beyond watchful; he felt unclean. The man had smeared him as bad as slander, in the process insulting a woman the man was supposed to care for. He’d shat on them both.
She stopped at the top of the stairs as if her path had been blocked. When she came into his doorframe it was clear what had stopped her. She stared at the footprint a long time. Faiz had given it a passing look on his way in, and somehow it looked bigger now, and menacing.
“It’ll come off.”
Her whole being slumped with her shoulders.
“Go in. I’ll take care of it.”
“No, thank you.”
She dropped her bags inside and came back out with a roll of paper towels and a spray that didn’t look like it should meet wood. She shot the contents on the footprint, way more than needed, squeezing the trigger until she was shaking all over. A frothy mess oozed like a giant’s spit. She unrolled half the roll of towels and attacked the mess.
The footprint was replaced with a perfect concentric circle of rings in the pattern of her cleaning. She gave it a once-over, threw Faiz a look, and went inside.
Her phone rang several times. She didn’t answer it. After a dozen times—Faiz counted—the calls stopped. She was on the couch, staring ahead, not at the TV, which she hadn’t turned on, still in her work clothes.
After a while the silence became awkward. Just as it would if they were sitting next to each other, suddenly spent of conversation.
Faiz went to the ten-year-old CD player that sat on the mantle over the fireplace, switched it on, and checked what CD was loaded. He remembered listening to the Sabri Brothers about a month ago, some memory or other had stirred a longing for their qawwalis. It was still in there. He switched it out with Billie Holiday. The only memories the Sabri Brothers stoked were the nostalgic ones of a past that no longer existed.
He hit play and turned up the volume. Billie started When You’re Smiling. Faiz reached for the button to skip to the next track, but he’d turned the volume up loud enough that the first few strains had reached across the hallway.
She was on her feet, arms out to her sides, head thrown back, standing under imaginary rain falling on her. She swayed and twirled, did steps with an imaginary partner around the floor. Faiz hadn’t danced in years. Shama had taught him the foxtrot and the waltz, and just plain moving with a beat. The only dancing he’d done before meeting her were at the pujas in his hometown, without rhyme or reason and all for fun, and it had given him rhythm. Shama had complimented him, and laughed gratefully.
He took a few steps this way and that. His knees pulsed. He was glad he was far enough away for his wince to not be seen. Thankfully, the pain passed quickly and didn’t come back. A minute later he wasn’t thinking about the pain anymore and circling the room, springing up and down, until they ended up at their doorways at the same time. He held up his arms, she hers. They swayed slowly to the end of the song. She let out a long sigh and clasped her hands together. He took a step back and made a slight bow.
“I want wine.” She danced away to get it.
He didn’t move. He couldn’t bring himself to leave watch over her door, afraid of the man returning. He hadn’t forgotten about contacting management, but when he came home earlier he’d found the main door properly closed and locked. Which pointed to the possibility that the man had a key.
She came back with a glass full to the top with red wine.
He felt he killed the moment. She raised her glass and took a long drink.
“Thank you for the dance.”
“It’s my pleasure.”
With a smile she turned and went to her couch. He waited another moment or two and moved to his. She didn’t look again. He watched her time to time. She drank slowly to the last drop sitting in the same position, and then he heard the couch released of pressure as she stood up.
“Sweet dreams, good night.”
His head popped up and he awoke in cold terror. He lifted the phone off its charger.
The man wheeled around. If the walls had been tighter his shoulders would bang into them.
“You need to leave.”
The man stood still a long time. He was panting, and with his breaths came the tangy fumes of vodka and rum and whisky, and who knew what else. He was wearing the same leather coat, dirty jeans, and a ratty polo shirt that had the outlines of chest muscles in frieze. His eyes were doing their strange vigilant roving.
“How is she?”
Faiz didn’t know how to interpret the question. An honest inquiry or another dirty reference to knowing her in bed.
Faiz remembered pictures of dragons in his children’s books when they were young, flames flaring out of huge nostrils, eyes fierce, chaos in their wake. The man was straight out of those books.
“Maybe you should go home and sleep, too.”
There was little he could do if the man lunged, or even blocked his door. He could overpower Faiz with a push.
Faiz kept looking out for her door to open, but it didn’t. He gripped the phone and went back and forth in his head about mentioning the police.
“Would you like a glass of water?”
The man drew in a huge breath and the release expelled demons.
He was suddenly very small. His bulk withered in seconds, as though he was atrophying in real time, muscle mass shrinking by some act of god.
Faiz left the door open and went to get the water.
The man hadn’t moved. He drank the water like a life-giving serum, slurping and chugging and splashing it down his chin and shirt. He swiped his leather-coated arm across his mouth and set the glass on the floor. He jammed a massive hand in his pocket and brought out a set of keys. He held them up then set them down at her door.
He opened his eyes from troubled sleep with a stiff neck, to the sound of her coming out and picking up the keys. He sat up, embarrassedly rubbed his eyes and straightened his clothes, the same ones from last night. His throat was a funnel of gravel, his mouth in a severe drought. The day was overcast, leaving him in shadows. She couldn’t have seen more than the movement of a shape that resembled him in darkness.
As soon as he was showered and changed he was out the door, his first stop a flower shop. He never got a look at what she ate, and her devotion to fitness kept him from getting something for her at Lost Larson, where the banana bread was his favourite. He got a loaf. He went to Ace Hardware to look for something for her door and learned that all he needed he already had at home.
He mixed the water and vinegar as the Ace employee instructed, and after five minutes of applying it softly with a sponge, stood back to give his work an admiring look. The whole mess, the footprint and the one she made cleaning it, was gone. No one who didn’t know would ever guess.
He put the flowers in water and set the vase next to her door. She’d be coming home soon.
He freshened up, changed his shirt, and sliced up the banana bread. It was still early enough to be teatime. He laughed to himself. Teatime. Talk about the past, about nostalgia, about bygone, forgotten ways.
He took a bite of banana bread and watched the sky. The day had cleared up around lunchtime, and now, close to sunset, clouds from over the lake had made the sky prematurely dark. He may have heard thunder in the west, far away. These days of climate change made December no different than September. Last week was in the fifties, this week in the thirties so far.
The main door opened. His heart jumped to his throat. He looked at the vase, and a panic struck him. He was out of his mind. He didn’t even know her name, and he’d left flowers at her door, bought banana bread thinking she’d want some, because it was the healthier choice…? The footsteps trotted up the stairs. They had a different cadence. Neither athletic, nor tired, and as though they weren’t sure where they were. At the top, they stopped. Faiz waited for her to come into view.
When she didn’t, he went to the door and looked out. A woman with a strong resemblance to her, slightly shorter and rounder in the face and body, was making her way from checking the number on the vacant unit to Faiz’s apartment.
She frowned at the flowers.
“Yeah, good luck with that, asshole.” She moved the vase aside and unlocked the door.
“Is everything okay?”
“I’m sorry, can I help you?”
“Sorry.” He backed away.
She closed the door, and he heard her moving around for the next fifteen minutes, like someone cleaning up a crime scene.
The door opened and she dumped two large athletic bags outside, packed with clothes. One of the bags bumped the vase and it fell over. She didn’t notice. Water spilled and darkened on the carpeting. She went in one more time and came back out with clothes on hangers draped over an arm. She threaded them through the handles of one bag, locked the door, picked up both bags and without paying him any mind stomped down the stairs. Faiz listened for the main door to catch. When it didn’t, he left it alone, and closed and locked his door.
Nadeem Zaman is a fiction writer. His debut short story collection, Up in the Main House & Other Stories (2019) is published by Unnamed Press in the USA and by Bengal Lights Books in Bangladesh. His debut novel, In the Time of Others (2018) is published by Picador India. He can be reached at [email protected]