As Us

A Space for Writers of the World

Saba Waheed—Fiction

You Want It Darker

You order a beer. It’s before noon, but I don’t say anything. I just turn my head towards you. What? We’re on vacation, you say. I walk into the sea and bury my head underwater. The water is turquoise blue but thick with sand and salt so that I can’t see beyond what is in front of me. I float on my back and let the sun darken my body. By the time I get back, you’re done with the drink and ordering another. You lean back and put on your sunglasses. I lie down next to you and read a book.

The beer arrives and you sip on it while scrolling through your phone. After a few moments, you point the screen at me to show what you’re about to post. It reads: The world screws you and then makes you live. I nod. When you order another drink, you say, We’re celebrating, right? My supervisor hit on me, said ignorant shit about my religion and I won a lot of money.

It’s true you won the suit, but you still lost your job and no companies are calling you back. When I lose count of the bottles you’ve drunk, I insist we walk around the town. We pass by souvenir shops and clothing stands. You sometimes stop, talking loudly to shop owners. You are overly enunciating and repeating your words.

We’ve been friends since we were kids. I know this dynamic. It makes me tired and quiet. We don’t see each other regularly, but we reach out when things are difficult. We also fight like we’ve known each other forever. You tell me I’m being bossy. I don’t tell you how much I don’t like you when you’re this drunk.

We eat dinner at sunset and the food starts to sober you up. Afterwards, we walk some more, the heat breaking us down, even with the respite from the sun. You hold my hand as we navigate the crowd. When we get back to the hotel, you thank me for the night, for the trip, for all the support.

My heart softens.

The next morning, we leave the beach to explore some of the inland areas. You are taciturn and withdrawn. We board a local ferry to the mainland and transfer to a train. Our cabin is filled with locals and a few other tourists. At one end, a sign designates an area reserved for monks.

This place just oozes with spirituality, you say, leaning close to me.

Don’t be that person who generalizes an entire country, I say, hearing the scolding tone in my voice. So I add, referencing the signs in the airport, Remember, the Buddha is not a tattoo.

You laugh and it lightens the mood. It’s comforting to see them, you say. Maybe their prayers will keep me safe.

Sometimes it’s easier to believe, I say.

You sit back and look out the window. The train is old and it shakes from side to side. The windows are down and the wind hits your face. You turn to me and ask, Did I ever tell you about that therapist and the perfume?

I shake my head.

It was our first session and the therapist tells me that she smelled this perfume all day. I realized I smelled it too. The therapist said she thought it was a woman, someone who watches over me, a spirit who came to her office to check that everything is okay. I didn’t really believe in that stuff. But also, I couldn’t think of anyone. Our relatives are buried on the other side of the world. Who’s got time to travel over all that water?

You are quiet for a moment. I look out the window. The land is pristine and green, the terrain sometimes broken up by shacks built along the tracks.

You continue, But when I got older, I found out I had this aunt who died before I was born. She had married but then told her family to come get her because she was leaving her husband. My dad went, but she got sick and died on the train ride back. No one knows why. When I heard her story, I just knew it was her. She was a woman of my spirit. Someone who refused to stay with shitty men, broke boundaries, and ran away from home.

I ask if you believe in her, wanting to believe in my own disbelief.

You say, I want it to be true. I need her to be watching over me. But I don’t know. I don’t feel very protected these days. You are quiet for a moment and then say, I’m sorry about yesterday. I know I was a lot.

I smile at you and say that it’s okay.

We get to the town. The driver quotes a price that is too high and you agree to it. I tell you that you’re supposed to negotiate down.

Consider it a privilege tax, you respond.

We arrive at the small town. The mountains hover above us and a river flows quiet and still next to it. We go to the train museum and read about its history. Indentured workers, many who died during the process, built the tracks. The trains that rode on it were called death trains.

You say, It’s the same everywhere, isn’t it? People with no choice but to work some place far from home under the worst conditions.

And then get blamed for all the problems there, I add.

The cycle, it just repeats, you say. These assholes that come into power.

We just elected one of our own. How do we know we’re not leading the world towards a death train? I say, and take a deep breath in.

We sit at the station quietly and watch an older, dark skinned man sitting on a blanket on the floor. He’s got jewelry and some artwork laid out around him. He threads beads on a piece of string.

Support the local economy, you say. You go up and buy a few bracelets and a hand drawn painting. I scratch at a mosquito bite just above my elbow. You come back and show me the image. It is a monkey-like beast, its face ferocious and wild.

You say, The scarier looking the beast, the greater the protection. I’ve seen them everywhere—in the stores, at the entryways of the temples, on the dashboards of taxicabs. They repel bad karma and spirits.

We’re gonna need a lot of repellant to take back home with us, I say.

Just take my old boss, and amplify him by a million and you have our next president. You rub your fingers over the painting, caressing the beast. I’m blacklisted, you say. No one will tell me outright, but I will never work in my field again.

I know that it is true and I know that any words will fall flat. So I say nothing. Just put my hand on yours.

You hum and then sing, Vilified, crucified, in the human frame. A million candles burning for the help that never came. You stop singing and say, Don’t you think it’s telling that Leonard Cohen died the day after that man was elected?

He saw the writing on the wall, I say.

You laugh and this time, speak the lyrics like poetry. But it’s written in the scriptures. And it’s not some idle claim. You want it darker. We kill the flame. You pause and then say, I don’t know how we’ll ever feel safe again.

We need one of these beastly statues the size of the world, I say.

You know when I feel safest? You turn to me and reach out. When you hold my hand.

Saba Waheed’s stories have appeared in Cosmonaut Avenue, Angel City Review and Hyphen Magazine. She recently won the 2016 Water~Stone Journal Prize in Fiction. She co-produces a storytelling radio show called Re:Work and works as the research director at the UCLA Labor Center using research as a tool to elevate community stories.

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This entry was posted on September 17, 2017 by .

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