I look up, for the first time. Straight into his eyes. Dead eyes.
Damn, I curse myself for making eye contact. I wonder if he’s dying. Dying eyes speaking a thousand words without any sparkle, deeply set in dark oily wrinkled hollows.
I fix my gaze down on my hands. I have odd hands, square shaped and small, soft and awkward. Nails bitten to brittle, chipped coral polish making them look almost ugly. I tighten my fists in a ball, shrinking the ugly hands out of sight.
Mother always told me not to bite my nails, I never listened. It became a habit for life. Life. Oh, if I get out of this now, I promise to make my hands look pretty. Pretty hands holding a glass of wine, a cigarette, like a temptress.
No, I will never smoke again, not even a tiny puff. Please God, just give me one more chance, a last chance to live. I shall make the best of it, I’ll take care of myself. I’ll eat healthy, I’ll even start running. I hate running. But I’ll do it. Just for that one chance to live. Please.
I feel panic rising, heartbeat throbbing at the base of my throat. I quickly and ungently probe my neck, expecting to find something. A tiny lump. I find nothing but the throbbing continues.
Maybe this is what happens when a tumor is taking up residence in the chest. My pulse races wildly as I try to seem calm. He’s looking at me again. Dead eyes. I look around searching for normal eyes, like my own. No one. Just him and I, seated in the hospital's waiting room. Waiting to be handed a sentence.
I wish I’d brought a friend along. At least I wouldn’t have to share the air with a strange man with dead eyes on this god-forsaken day. Today is the worst day of my thirty something years. The anticipation of ‘today’, the anxiety of the medical verdict on my life has caused fearful and sleepless nights. Heavy days, numb and disregarding all tasks to be completed or plans for the future. Thinking “just have to wait till Friday, I’ll plan after that. My will or life”.
Friday is here, Friday is now.
How long has it been since I bowed my head in the Friday prayer. Any prayer actually. Oh Lord, do I not believe? I believe. I just didn’t have time. I’ve been so busy with life, studying, and chasing boyfriends. I remember now. The last time I prayed, I was desperately begging God. Please let Daniyal love me and I’ll never ask for anything, ever again.
Daniyal never loved me, so now He owes me. If I get out of this, I know I’ll pray. I’ll pray to thank Him, I will be content and won't ask for anything more. I don’t need anything. I have so much already. God’s been so kind. Please be kind again, just once more. My ugly hands are in a silent prayer, fingers intertwined painfully.
My ears are ringing, my cheeks hot. Can he hear this too? This muffled ringing is deafening in my ears. It's not letting me think. I want to think. What will my parents do? I can't die before them, who’ll take care of them? Well, I don’t really take care of them, I quickly check myself. If anything, they take care of me. I wish I’d been a better daughter. My unexpected divorce last year pushed them to age fast. They had retreated into an almost social exile, not wanting to answer prying questions. Questions they had no comfortable answers to. They had only just begun getting out and about, skeptical and secretly fearful of run-ins with the past.
Sometimes I wondered, was it grief for my marital fate or loss of their status in the social ranks.
Their eyes are almost apologetic when they look at me now. Is it pity for what I had been through or fear for what I will go through in the future, without a husband’s name to secure my identity and future. Parents of a divorced daughter, their social identity had changed overnight. At least I didn’t have the baggage of offspring. Hence considered a fortunate divorcee by most.
Maybe my untimely death will atone for the dishonor I have set upon myself. A comforting conclusion. Romantic almost. Soothing the wild ripples sent through society when I left my husband because “I didn’t love him”. Love. What is love, a question I needn’t worry about anymore. The search for love can be called off, now that I’m dying. But if I’m not, I promise I won't be a love fool again. I wont chase birds in the sky like a foolish fool. I’ll marry a good man again and settle down. My parents will be so happy. Thinking of my parents, their soothing faces I fight back tears that sting my eyes. I quickly wipe them away. No tears, not yet.
I try gulping them down, my throat is too dry. I shut my eyes tightly and try again, the gulp stays stuck at the back of my throat. I need water. I feel my body shoot up from the leathery sofa, up on my legs. I walk towards the water dispenser in the corner of the waiting hall. A small plastic cup stands face-up on the table. Has anyone sipped from that? I can't afford a chance to contract any germs right now.
Still parched, I walk back to my seat. My legs feel shaky and weak. He’s looking at me. Did he ever stop looking at me? My lips change shape to a smile. He won’t judge me, I’m dying. Just like him. He smiles back, reassuring and sympathetic. I quickly look away.
If I get out of here with a chance at a new life, I’ll change myself. I’ll be compassionate and mindful. Not indifferent and cold like today. I’ll smile, I have a good smile I’ve been told. I’ll think about this some more when I get my chance, not right now. I don’t have time.
I look at the clock on the white plastered wall. It's been twelve minutes since I’ve been waiting in this cold white room but it feels like forever. Today was slow to come and even slower to pass.
“They always make us wait” he speaks up as if reading my thoughts, forcing me to look at him. His voice is gentle and knowing. It sounds like a voice that knows of all that happens in this room, or what will eventually happen.
I mumble something, intending a yes. I just wish he wouldn’t look at me or talk to me. It breaks my concentration. I stop tapping my heel on the floor. I stop chipping my nails. I stop thinking about my imminent death. Death. I want to think about death. I’ll be brave, I won't break down if I have to die. I want people to think me courageous and brave. “Laughing in the face of death – ha ha ha”, I remember the lines from some cartoon. Which was it, I don’t care. I don’t have time. So many movies left to be seen. So many books, waiting to be read. I’ll cram them all, before its time, I’ll do it all. I feel brave all of a sudden. I straighten my back and hold my head higher, I want to look brave too.
The sliding door opens with a squeaking shrill noise, making me jump out of me seat. The nurse walks toward me with an open envelope. I search his face. Nothing. I notice a yellow stain on the collar of his white lab coat. Nothing worse than a stain on white. Just like cancer cells. They won't go away no matter how hard you try.
Please God, just give me one more chance, a last chance to live. I shall make the best of it, I’ll take care of myself. I’ll eat healthy, I’ll even start running
My heart feels like it's beating in my mouth now, I can feel my chest tighten, difficulty breathing normally and I can't bring myself to speak. The ringing is back in my ears, my cheeks hot. I think of a prayer, nothing comes to mind.
“Your results are here”, he says in a cool, unaffected voice handing me the thick envelope. I wish he’d called me to a separate room, I don’t want to break down in front of that stranger. Why is this envelope so thick? Maybe because they have to go into great detail to explain why I’m dying at thirty.
I hold it in my hands, no signs of the coral nail polish now. I’m very impatient with envelopes but today I take some time to pull out the papers. I can feel the dead eyes piercing through me from the side, waiting for the drama of the sentence to unfold. The lab assistant is walking back, he’s probably used to this by now, unmoved by human suffering.
I try reading the document, too many words. Too much information. Can they not keep it simple, malignant or non-malignant. I scan the page for bold letters, words in CAPS or even red. None.
And then there it is, “…no signs of malignancy”. That’s it, that’s all I need. Shaking hands put the document back into the envelope, it takes longer than I’d like. I look up, he’s smiling as if he knows. He knows because I’m smiling. Our eyes locked for a couple of seconds. “It's not my turn today”, I think shakily.
Gathering my belongings, I start walking out in haste. Never, never will I ever come here again. Almost out now, near the door. I can feel his eyes on me, pulling me back. I stop and turn around. He’s looking at me, almost pleading for me to stay with him, not leave him alone. “Good luck”, the words come out shrill and high and not sounding like me at all. I really mean it. I turn around fast, before he engages me.
The cold dry winter air hits against my hot skin. I walk against it, face turned up towards the night sky thinking “Not today, not now. It's not my time yet”. The chant is building up in my head as I rush towards my car. Walking fast, confident and alive. The driver, an ever hyper chap, holds the door open for me. I smile at him, he looks puzzled at my unusual display of happy emotion towards him. I ignore him, I’ll be nicer from now on. Sitting in the warm comfort of my car, I reach into my bag and pull out a thin mint flavored cigarette. I need nicotine to calm me down right now. This shall be my last, I promise myself, as I light it and take a long comforting puff of smoke.
Mahreen Durrani is a writer based in Oslo, Norway. Originally from Lahore, she is a social anthropologist with a passion for human rights advocacy. Mahreen is a contributing writer for notable Norwegian newspapers.
Zaam Arif is an American-Pakistani contemporary artist residing and working in Houston, Texas. He is the youngest Pakistani artist to be published in The New Yorker. In 2021, his work was selected to be exhibited in the Malamegi Lab Award and was awarded the Malamegi Lab Research Grant in Italy.
Zaam explores existentialist experiences of the layman, the experiences that we tend to hide. He confronts it with a penetrating interpretation of human nature, transforming it into a visceral reality. His work is a manifestation of his understanding of the contemporary human condition along with insights garnered from his study of classical literature and psychology. He is adamant in exploring the harsher truths and inner conflicts that plague us all in this day and age, using visual contrast in all his pieces, whether through colour, lack thereof, or the medium itself, to express it.