A Space for Women of the World
i don’t try to remember you the way i should do, spent seventy-two hours since four am wednesday in the last week of october telling any stranger i could find on the 52 bus that the love in you was always brittle bone. they mostly shrug. the old lady with lipstick between her teeth moves to the seat at the front, the couple behind me carry on kissing, a middle-aged man, salt and pepper beard with skin like my brother’s tells me to stop dragging everything across a desert.
“doesn’t your mouth look lonely?“ he asks. i think about the earthquake in haiti.
the last time we speak it’s an accident. it’s a call i always promise not to make until i remember the elephant tattoo on your wrist. i call you just to hear the silence, the static of distance that makes it’s way between london and brooklyn.
“you’ve reached the voicemail of…” and i stay on the line long enough to feel how you curl that american around the french and spanish in your name.
it almost sounds like: “honey, i’m home“.
my first love was nothing like you, he was clumsy, had this voice that sounded like a eulogy no matter what he said. i was fifteen, back when my mama wouldn’t let me date and i’d do that teenage thing where you do it anyway. didn’t try to hide it either.
we met at the back of a hip-hop show, six feet of glorious mahogany with that keralan jawline, his eyes a heavy shade of red. my skin seemed so sallow next to his, sinking even but he pressed up against me anyway. watched me the entire time and i couldn’t tell if it was the drugs and alcohol or whether he was as hungry as he looked. he called the next day though and i answered on the second ring.
a week later we met on the bus, sat on the top deck and he didn’t hesitate to slip his hands around my waist. we got off near the chicken shop, got some of those spicy chicken wings i used to love and sat in the park somewhere between the tulips and a tree that looked like it had only just stopped mourning the sad winter. spring and a fleshy sun made whole of our bare feet and i wondered why all the indian boys i knew seemed to have hands as easy as his.
dilla was playing on the speakers.
didn’t take long for amma to figure out i was in love. my dad ignored everything except for my A grades but amma could see my skin stretching and the love bites that seemed permanent lingering on my neck.
“who is he,” she asked. her voice did that strange trembling thing before it erupts into a mix of urdu and english.
“his name’s sunil, amma…”
“he’s hindu, break. it. off. now.”
she didn’t ask how old he was, didn’t know what he did, didn’t ask after his family, didn’t wonder if he was good enough, was nothing to do with me being fifteen and all breasts. even with the modern in her some of that back-home stuff couldn’t be left behind, it was a habit too familiar to shake off.
every day after that she asked if i’d left him and every evening i would come home as sweet as freshly brewed chai. didn’t say anything, just let the silence settle into her tired face.
it took me sixteen months to begin to understand any of our love story at all. it was the summer he threw the tv off the balcony and the bathroom mirror too and the police came. the front door was never the same after that. we had to kick the bottom of the frame to get it open and the draft would blow in through the floor boards he never finished beading.
i’d moved some of my stuff in by then, had a bottom shelf with clothes and underwear and books – shit to make it feel a little more mine in that sad little apartment. he moved out when he was sixteen, his dad asked him to leave and this was the closest he’d had to home in years. he’d even started to decorate things when he had the money but by now we’d graffiteed half shapes over the clean walls in almost every room. he was always more sentimental than most people realised though, tough and tender i’d tease him. he had these fairy lights strung across his bedroom that he’d put on at night and on good mornings he would wake us up to frank sinatra and old bollywood songs he said i was too young for.
but slowly that all began to dissipate and the holes he’d punched into the walls seemed more noticeable. his drinking was getting out of hand and some evenings i’d have to wade through the empty bottles of vodka and coke that would pile up on the living room floor when i was gone for a few days. the bed we’d bought together would be scattered with rizzla and the weed stems and seeds he’d emptied out of the grinder. he could never hold a job down for longer than two months either and soon enough when the rent was overdue he’d tell me never to open the front door when he was out. “probably the bailiffs,” he’d say leaving the bike on the inside of the door.
i started having to scrape whatever shitty pay i had from my part time job i took up between my AS classes at the store just to cover the electricity and heating. the sex never changed though, we’d still fuck until my thighs turned this dying kind of purple and he’d collapse into the most vulnerable heap afterwards. in those moments i remembered what it was to love the small, hidden thing in someone as if it was all the light anyone needed in a darkness as sharp as that.
suddenly the whole place began to remind me of the coffee table my dad broke one evening angry with amma about something: that ugly thing covered in fabric that matched the 90s couch in our first house with a glass top my brother and i tried to crawl over when no one was looking. even his kisses felt more and more like those familiar shards of glass. don’t get me wrong, sunil never hit me, never called me a bitch either but there was always an almost to it and i didn’t realise it until he up and left to sleep with other women.
what else do men like that eventually do but use women to fuck and break all their sorrow in to?
his mother left the way your father did. turned up right before his sixteenth birthday he said. ten years and he could barely understand how anyone could age so easily, not with melanin like ours anyway. she asked him to forgive her and of course he did, needed some warmth after his step-mum used to beat his arse the old indian back-handed slap kind of way. but he couldn’t stay close, didn’t know how to. after all he couldn’t remember anything except for how the moon looked when she held him sometimes.
the week before his trial he was an angry motherfucker. you’d think he would have mellowed a little, nerves and shit but no, he did what he always did – drank to it. i don’t know if he ever thought about it, about what going away like that would do to us, whether we’d survive it at all but at the time it didn’t feel like it mattered.
amma had given up begging me to come home and so there i was, seventeen and the type of fragile no one ever noticed let alone saw, waiting. i’d sit and wait for hours on end and when he’d turn his phone off, i’d think over and over again about the time i convinced myself he’d killed himself in the flat. we had to break our way in just to make sure he hadn’t choked on his own sick and i couldn’t let him go out like that, not again.
a few nights before he was due in court, i was done waiting for him like i wasn’t my own woman and couldn’t go where i pleased. i put on this lipstick i wore on our second date: this swollen red and wore all black (believe me, no one knows how to mourn a thing like the possibility of leaving like me). we went to this bar up in kenton, some kind of way out, only because his friend was singing and the drinks were cheap. it was one of those places filled with asian girls that never seemed to look like me, instead they stared as if i didn’t share none of that brown with them, like we didn’t come from the same damn story of what immigration makes of even second-generation bodies like ours.
there was this one girl in particular i couldn’t stand there though, the type of woman who had no shame whatsoever. she’d dance around him at every opportunity, thick thighs, and thick hips, just the way he liked them and she knew. he was one of the few asian men i’ve ever known that liked all of that, women with bold curves like ours, figures we didn’t have to apologise for. i remember the first time we met, she laughed a hollow laugh when she asked if sunil and i were brother and sister. we were at this house party and i pulled him close just to show her that this is how you do love. and there she was just waiting for the moment she could show me that it wasn’t.
everything felt like a blur that evening, he let go as soon as we entered the door and by his third drink he couldn’t look at me or my red lips. i let those girls swarm him the way they wanted to, all six feet of that mahogany.
even the tender in people can be a slow dance towards death. he hadn’t realised i wasn’t there until he got home and found my shit packed in his old suitcase. only my tooth brush was left in the bathroom sitting next to his, barely touching and he watched them as if they were strangers desperately trying to hold on.
the room became stale as anything and dawn crept in through the curtainless window. he looked at me with the kind of longing that ached, pulled me in close enough to cry into my collarbone; his breath a mix of vodka and another woman. i didn’t flinch, not even a little.
two days later he was sentenced to five years. i didn’t turn up to see him off, nobody asked why and he didn’t tell them. i heard that woman kissed him though, kissed him like she’d kissed him before, like she too had always been waiting.
it wasn’t until then that i realised that some overgrown things just have to rot.
until they don’t.
my best friend calls from a makeshift camp not too far from the swat valley, spent the week providing relief and medical aid for all the victims. it’s the summer that the floods swallowed everything whole: people, homes, the roads.
“they offer whatever they have left to us, even in this heat they’re fasting,” she tells me, her accent slowly morphing back into the lahori in her.
she sends me a picture of a small man shovelling debris out of his collapsed shop and i repeat the words “burst banks” and “floodwater” over and over trying to imagine what washed away looks like when there is nowhere to go.
it’s the same summer i move to brooklyn with you and am too afraid to look back.
new york is meant to do new things, make new loves out of old people. we take it upon ourselves to use our hands but never our teeth. we carefully pick the utensils in the kitchen and you ask if we can buy a juicer. there is a steel tin with spices (laal mirch, haldi, zeera) and every sunday you bring home some haitian bread and fry plantain. i fill the shelf above the stove with all our teas. sometimes, we stare at the leaves at the bottom of an empty cup and pretend we can read them. i tell you about the time my uncle read my palms in a dining room that smelt of fresh biryani, i have been too afraid to look into the future since. we both like elephants on the coffee table and on the desk is a collection of poems we only read when we think of london. our bed sheets are a thread count that matches the boateng of your suit, sharp and grown; the spread is a paisley print that looks like my tattoo, i am my history repeating itself over.
we are half-way into making something out of everything.
there was a time where your laugh reminded me of something wonderful right before it gets gritty, right before it sticks into the gut and bone of you. sometimes it would come to you in moments you’d remember things like the arrogance that found your way to my dorm room. you with that crude smirk had locked yourself out until i picked the lock open. you promised you’d owe me in books. books and a body, i smiled watching your smooth brown in a towel. staring at that infinite pile on my desk, you said you couldn’t compete.
“compete with what?” i asked.
“all that shit in your head,” you laughed.
months later you told me you learnt nothing on your year abroad, nothing but how to read a body you were afraid to touch, nothing and something and only the thick of me.
it’s the first time you ask anyone to stay a little.
“how did your mama get here?”
“i don’t know. i mean she wasn’t poor, wasn’t anything like those stories you get told about haitians trying to make it across the ocean in a boat that’s not built to hold fleeing like that.”
“don’t think it even matters anymore. it still feels like running, right? running to or from something?”
“sometimes i think that’s as permanent as anything gets, once you leave you’re always leaving.”
“i never felt homeless until you came along, or realised it anyway. then i left here, and left london and i came back and those first few months reminded me of the earthquake my grandma still tells me about. i had nightmares when it rained too hard and i missed you until i forgot all my english. fuck, you know this…”
“forreal though, you take all the brooklyn out of me.”
“you behave like you get no love… amma misses the beach every weekend, starts packing the house with her eyes, says she’s going to buy sweet paan from a street vendor and sit on a brick wall and count the waves when she goes back. she’s been going back for twenty-five years.”
there isn’t poem enough for all our homesick.
i wanted to be sorry every time i tried to ask you about your father but i wasn’t. you never spoke about how your mama met him, never about how they must have fallen in love in miami, never spoke about neither of them knowing english back then, never about how you had his skin and his lips and the slight of his hands, never spoke about what it took for him to forget your face in the street, just let the silence descend into a chaos you thought no one could see. you, beneath the surface were always breaking and breaking and breaking the blue/black of your skin.
slowly i started mapping that absence onto continents, bought an atlas that sat on a bathroom shelf above the sink and started pinning shit to it like photos of people and things we’d never met. i’d almost convince myself that their faces were the memories we couldn’t remember:
(pakistan and how india splits and kashmir and the war and saudi arabia and iran and afghanistan and london, our london and cuba and the revolution and spain and haiti and touissant l’ouverture and the revolution and france and somewhere in the stolen of west africa, new york, our new york.)
i was too preoccupied with making our love into a journey only our bodies could hold. sometimes it would look like bones swaying, restless you’d ask:
“did it say what you wanted it to say?”
i’d been practicing how to make an unplace out of a person/out of you
the strangest stranger is the one you used to know. it takes you six months to tell me you do not like holding hands, that you hate when i slip my fingers between yours in the street. you say it’s something to do with feeling like a child, being led and pulled and followed. i say it’s something to do with feeling like a man, like your father, like commitment, like your fucking nine hundred dollar suit when you haven’t got shit to say.
it takes me eight months to tell you i hate the parties and the lights and the people that look at me like i’m broken glass, that i didn’t sign up for this, didn’t come here to try and be a pretty something i could not be – not with body mass and a mind, not with broken glass like mine. you say i let that resentment cut through us like a glacier, like all my lonely, like my brown, like the only men i’ve ever loved who yessir don’t love me back.
two years in we try to fix the things the things that can’t be fixed: the bathroom shower, the squeaky door that needs oiling, the window with its overgrown wood, all our fights.
the first time you told me you love me you thought you were being brave. you pulled your chair in real close and let your breath stick to my skin like a borrowing. the sky that evening looked like all your armour you hadn’t known how to let go off. it was clunky and grey and stiff and just above the folds a coldness i eventually would learn only you know how to do. each time I hear you say it like this: with all the clamour in your heart, with all the unknowing you’ve ever known and it comes out slow and sad, uneven at the edges.
you were smeared behind your ribs every day after and i took everything i could get out of you, silently begging.
at twenty-one girls like me always think we’re grown, think we’ve done all the learning we need to, that there isn’t much to fill into until a boy comes along that almost looks like a man. at twenty-five, we are nobody’s wife. all the height and depth in us turns into an ocean floor and we realise we only know how to drown, to sink into the bottom of things, people even.
when my therapist asks what it is i see when i look in the mirror, i show her a list of all the names of men who have loved me like someone else’s bath water. she records everything like a prayer song.
“swimming,” she tells me, “takes courage.”
but no one teaches you how to be brave.
everyone thinks love comes in a neat package, that they will open it up and out comes the answers for every unasked question you’ve stomached your entire life. that somehow, like immigrant english, all that unfortunate will be cleansed out of you over time, the uncouth and undocumented; that eventually you will be saved before you try and save yourself.
the truth is like amma i thought i’d never leave home for a man, move countries, shift cities, never thought i could up and leave what little of everything i know for someone or something else that wasn’t mine. i thought i was more woman than a thing to own and discard, leave behind, move out of.
for a while i thought about it a lot: thought about how you were different, thought about the brick and cement in you, thought about how i’d confused your chest for a dome, or your tattoos for a prayer held like calligraphy, thought about how i was a grown woman now, thought about how you weren’t him/my father/my brother, thought about my degree and all, making ground, moving forward, letting go, how i was starting to believe that there’s no where safer than my own skin (even when they call me paki), thought about how bones matter just as much as anything, thought about how well-loved i thought you were until you came round here begging, thought about that studio apartment and the cold brick, thought about the sand and wind in our mothers, thought about our fathers as make-shift men, thought about no permanency, thought about space and gaps, thought about how you laughed when my thighs touched, thought about how i was too eager to be loved like all of the fifteen year old in me still knocking on dead wood, thought about your name in my mouth, thought about moving and earthquakes and floodwater, thought about running, thought about making you a habit, thought about you being stop and searched, thought about my brother being stop and searched, thought about how you never prayed, thought about how you never read bell hooks until i moved back to london (all cause some girl with pretty eyes and an ugly mouth told you to), thought about lonely and longing, thought about how i asked you not to bring the debris, the homes, the people, the roads, the stop and search here, thought about how you did, how you brought all of that into our bed, most of all though i thought about you no longer here.
even back when things were molasses good i imagined us carrying bags like they were bodies, kept going at the doorway until there was nowhere to go but through it.
smiling with all the gap in your teeth on that brownstone stoop you once said, “we don’t do home”.
i shrugged, we never did know how to.
Hana Riaz is a politically Black, British South Asian Muslim Feminist living in London. She is a Writer, Blogger and believer in the transformatory power of love. Having received her Masters of Science in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies from the London School of Economics, University of London. Her work on race and gender has published in a number of online magazines and blogs. Healing, transformation, and humanity for her is what this whole journey is about.