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Through the Crucible

Maryam Piracha

Excerpted from a short story that first appeared in The Aleph Review, Vol. 3 (2019).

When Kay had first mentioned opening an infertility clinic, Sam had asked her if she was serious. They’d been sitting in Sam’s recently leased flat, on the terrace, the city unpacking itself at their feet. Stretching out unevenly on either side, the jagged peaks and valleys of the Margallas, the Mona Lisa hills of Islamabad.


“Of course, I’m serious, Sam.”


“Do you really this think this city needs another one?”


“This city doesn’t even scratch the surface of the demand. Besides, this clinic will provide a niche service.”


“Which is?”


“We’re women. That’s its USP.”


“Or its death warrant, Kay.”


“What happened to the girl who just politely declined her parents’ offer of help?”


“She moved out and realized shit’s expensive.” They laughed. “What’re you thinking of calling this place?”


“The Woman’s Clinic… what? Don’t look at me like that, Sam. The more unassuming it is, the better. Besides, aren’t hospitals given lame names like ‘The Children’s Hospital’ all the time?”


Sam groaned. How could a woman so logical be so divorced from social reality?


“Hang on,” Kay said, her hand on Sam’s leg now. “Hear me out before you start pouring your cynicism…”


“Realism.”


“… all over my concept,” Kay finished. Sam frowned but said nothing.


“Okay. So look, we’re talking about not being able to have kids, right? But as you and I both know, infertility isn’t just a woman’s problem.”


Sam covered her mouth in mock horror. “What? Are you disabusing me of conventional Pakistani wisdom? How could you?”


“Shut. Up,” Kay said and slapped Sam’s foot. Sam grinned. “So, like I was saying, what if a man’s impotent?”


Sam raised her hand. “Am I allowed to talk now?”


Kay rolled her eyes and flung her hand forward. “Proceed.”


“Thank you, my liege. Okay, so, let me phrase this correctly, for us duffers in the back. You’re saying you want to help a man who can’t get it up for his wife? That is what you’re saying, right? I didn’t get that all mixed up? Okay, cool.”


Kay squinted, and Sam laughed. “You have to know how crazy that is.”


“Why? We’re in the twenty-first century now, Sam. It’s a medical procedure.”


“You know where we live, right? We’re just getting to the stage where men are mildly okay with their wives earning… nearly as much as they are. I’m not talking about the pseudo-feminist men who hope to mooch off of their wives’ earnings forever without pulling their weight with the housework. Pakistanis aren’t ready for this.”


“Well, I think you’re wrong.”


Sam reached for Kay’s hand, but Kay withdrew Sam’s leg from her lap and stood up. At night, the city was a stranger. Above them, nothing but pale, inky sky, and the shaky thrum of commuters below. Kay leaned against the bannisters, the wrought iron digging into her arms. But she paid no attention to the warm pain vibrating up her wrist. Here she was, in a city that always seemed ready to open its legs for any passing stranger. Lahore had its centuries of culture embalmed in its veins. Karachi had its melting pot of not-quite Pakistani. But Islamabad was the country’s stepchild, born from the love of one man and his despotic god, with nothing but the hills to call its own. The hills and the bureaucracies that governed them. Horns blared, tires squealed; below them, life went on—lawless vehicles careening together, racing maniacally through an obstacle course of traffic lights that might, in other metropolises, govern them.


Digital Collage by Nidal Sher

“I know you do… but that doesn’t mean I can’t give you my opinion, Kay. We’re not always going to agree on everything.”


“I know that,” Kay snapped. She felt Sam come up behind her, her arms encircling her waist, drawing Kay into her. Here, where no one could see. “Stop it, Sam. You are not forgiven.”


“Really? Because your body disagrees.” Sam’s hand cupped Kay’s breast, her breath warm on Kay’s neck. Kay exhaled softly.


“Sam… Sam, not here.”


“Why? Nobody’s looking at us. Everyone just wants to go home. Look at them, worker bees returning home. They’re too caught up in their lives, their squabbles, to focus on two women far above them. Isn’t that why I’m here?” Sam whispered, her lips moving down Kay’s neck.


“We’re still talking… I’m serious about the clinic.”


“Oh, I know,” Sam whispered between kisses. “So, come back and let’s talk.”


“Okay, so… what do you think I need to do?” Kay asked her after they were back in their seats, Sam’s leg resting on her lap again.


“Do you want my honest opinion?”


“Of course.”


Sam looked at her closely. Kay had a distinct tell—she smiled too widely when she was nervous, scratched her nose when she was lying, or began playing with her rings when she heard too many things she didn’t like—but there was nothing to give her away.


“Well, for starters maybe work with a man who a) won’t have a problem working with you as a business partner which you and I both know is slim pickings, or b) a philanthropist dude who’ll buy into your vision and be okay with being your silent partner.”


“What about you? Why don’t you join me as a partner?”


“With what capital?”


“Use your practice as collateral?”


“For a business I’m not sure will succeed?”


“So, what you’re really saying is you don’t trust my business acumen. Okay, I see how it is.”


Sam laughed. “Nice try. Would you invest in a new business run by someone with little to no business acumen? An untried upstart?”


“I would if the untried upstart happened to be my lover.”


Sam shook her head. “The things you talk me into.”


“Is that a yes?”


“I’ll need a little more convincing,” Sam said. Kay smiled. But later, everything that had once seemed so promising about their relationship suddenly took on greater meaning. As Kay slipped out of the sheets and into the shower, Sam leaned back into the pillows and wondered if this new practice would lend their arrangement more legitimacy. What would it be like, she wondered, when they had the luxury of seeing each other every day without an excuse? There was something seductive about the way things were now—stolen moments unfettered by white noise.


“Sam? Are you coming in or what?”


Sam pulled the curtain aside and stepped in behind Kay, the triangle between her legs throbbing. As she went down on Kay, Sam wondered how often people gave voice to the quiet voices inside their heads where truth lived. I’m in love with my best friend and I think—the voice even quieter—that she may love me too. Only, and this was the trickiest thing of all, we can’t tell anyone.


*


“Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic, Abbu?”


“Dramatic? Someone threw a brick through your window, baitay. This is why…” he stops. Kay looks at him.


“Why… what?” But he shakes his head, unwilling to articulate what’s been hovering in the air, in the silences when she’s entered any room. “Just say it.” You know you want to. Another thing that settles into their silences, unvoiced.


“Well, this is why it’s dangerous for two women to run a business.”


“It’s a clinic, Abbu. We’re helping people.”


“Conceive. How do you know the couple walking into your offices are married?”


Kay rolls her eyes. “This again?”


“It’s a valid question, Kiran. What does Sameena say? She’s always had such a sure head on her shoulders.” How would he feel, Kay wonders, if he found out all the things Sam did with that precious head of hers?


“She wants us to install cameras on the doors, but I’m not sure.”


“That sounds like sensible advice. What’s wrong with that?”


How to explain that the business subsists on the belief that their clients wanted the strictest of confidence?


“What’re you afraid will happen?”


“We’ll lose our clients?”


Her father looks at her, blinks.


“They come to us because they value their privacy.”


“Baitay, what use is their privacy if your clinic ceases to exist?”


“That’s exactly what Sam said.”


“Well, there you go. That’s two people saying the same thing.” Her father leans forward, touches her wrist. “We can’t both be wrong, you know. What else did she say?”


“That we should stop relying on sharing the bank’s guard and that we should probably hire an agency of our own.”


“Smart advice.”


Kay sighs. “I’ll bring it up during our next meeting.”


“You know,” her mother says, breezing in. “So much of this could be avoided if you agreed to meet with the potential suitors I have lined up for you.”


“How will having a husband make this situation any better? None of the men you’ve shortlisted is a doctor.”


Her mother clucks her tongue. “Uff-ho, why would you even need to work when he can provide for you?”


Kay looks at her mother, the woman to whom everything has a simple solution: marriage. Did everything unresolvable in her life vanish when she married her father? Or was the only real reason for her mother’s marriage escape from the house of her father? Kay remembers a slight man, bowed with age, but with stern black eyes beneath bushy eyebrows. He died when she was eight; she doesn’t remember much about his funeral, only the stretches of uninterrupted silence, as though his spectre still hovered about them.


“That isn’t very helpful right now, Ammi. We need to find a solution for this issue.”


“The real problem here, baitay, is your independence. Tell me, what will happen when you’re the one looking to settle down and all the good ones are taken? Men like their women to be a little helpless, you know. Ask your father… hain, where’d he go?”


Her mother looks at her, hands on her hips, nostrils flared, as though the two of them had hatched a conspiracy to her exclusion.


“Why’re you asking me? I’m not his keeper.”


Her mother clucks her tongue and goes on the hunt for her elusive husband.


*


 


Maryam Piracha is Editor-in-Chief of The Missing Slate, an international art and literary magazine that has published work from over 80 countries and featured translations from over 40 languages. She graduated with distinction from Lancaster University with a postgraduate degree in Creative Writing in 2011. Her work has been published in Chowk, Blackhearts Magazine, PaperCuts, The News, The Express Tribune, The Aleph Review, and other publications.





Nidal Sher is an artist and filmmaker. Originally from Noshki, Baluchistan, he moved to Lahore and graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore in 2015 with a degree in film and television. He says, “The art I create is just a fluid paradigm of my nomadic soul. I make digital art borrowed from my imagination, while my heart stays rugged and dry like the mountains of Noshki.” His work can be viewed on Instagram: @nidalsher


Bios for archival pieces are reprinted as they appeared in the print volume and may not reflect the updated activities of the author and artist.

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