Chapter Seventy Nine
The hall was beautiful, all our parents were happy (Hajra had, as I’d predicted, been a weepy mess ever since we’d told her, and Dad had let it slip that he and Mom had been hoping I’d figure it out with Zaakir but hadn’t wanted to push me in case it made me contrary.) It was a beautiful day, even. I should have been an ecstatic bride.
Should have been.
If one more gossip queen looked me up and down and clicked her tongue at me, I was going to lose it. I hadn’t wanted a large guest list largely because I’d known that this was what I would have to deal with. I’d gotten married less than two years after my husband had killed himself which, of course, made me a demon raised from the depths of hell.
I’d been saved from hearing the brunt of what came out of these women’s mouths simply because I didn’t have any friends who’d repeat it – or any friends at all, really. I’d kept to myself for so long that I didn’t even really know how to go about making friends now.
I pushed that aside for the moment, turning to shoot Amira a blatantly pleading look. She’d taken up a position in the far corner of the room where she could people watch but had promised a week previously, when I was having a breakdown over what my simple, small wedding had turned into, that if I got overwhelmed, she would help.
She’d also passed along a few tips for dealing with the attention, learnt in the many years during which she’d been forced into the limelight against her will. I attempted to recall them now.
‘Keep a smile on your face’, I remembered easily. ‘People find encouragement in provoking a reaction from you.’
She’d also told me to find something else to concentrate on. I searched the large room now as I waited for her to brave the crowd, and finally cast my gaze upward to the hall’s high windows.
How many were there?
Twelve a side? No, I’d missed one!
I counted a second time, mentally judging myself. Counting windows was the best I could come up with to entertain myself?
I heard a familiar cry and nearly leapt to my feet. My mother had warned me that morning, when she and my father had brought me a cup of coffee along with some final words of advice, to not run to Azmiah if she got cross during the day or, under any circumstances, bring her up to the head table (which was really just a little round table with me on it).
I’d understood even though it had irritated me to pander to people. My family, on the whole, did not enslave themselves to the good opinion of society (they never would have been ecstatic to have me marrying the son of their housekeeper if they had been) but they did sometimes cave. That morning, my mother had warned me that we would need to cave a lot today, if only to save us all from a mass headache.
Dad had offered a word of comfort, reminding me that it was only for the one day and then we could all go back to ignoring the nonsense. He’d also promptly promised me that if he heard anyone insulting either Zaakir or his mother, he’d deal with them personally and escort them off the premises.
Mom hadn’t admonished him. In fact, she’d looked a little proud.
She was meant to be sitting with me, as was Amira but they’d both gone off to do other things.
And while I sat and listened to poison, my mother was most likely dealing with an improperly folded napkin or something of that sort. I had seen Amira periodically disappear to check on Azmiah and her babysitter, a young nurse my mother had known for the past three years and who both my parents had vouched for.
I knew Azmiah would be safe, with Hajra, Amira, and my mother checking on her every moment they got but I still felt the urge to go investigate. Especially since she was with a stranger.
I reached discreetly for the purse on the floor next to me, thumbing it open and grabbing my phone out by feel. A quick set of text messages later, I was satisfied. My mother had assured me that Azmiah was fine, sent me a video of her giggling and trying to stick her own foot in her mouth, and berated me for taking my phone out where people could see me.
I put the device away as promised, but not before sending indulging myself and sending Zaakir a text. Was he as bored as I was?
The time stamp on it made me groan internally. Still another hour before we could expect guests to begin leaving.
Three hours later, I was freeing my feet from the stunning but incredibly uncomfortable shoes I’d been wearing and breathing a sigh of relief.
I heard a knock on the door and lifted my head, puzzled. Who was that?
Zaakir had gone to check into our hotel for the night, I knew. And Azmiah was settled with her grandparents for the evening. She’d drifted right off in my arms as soon as I’d gotten her back from her babysitter and my father had taken her from me to lay her in the crib that had that morning been moved into their bedroom.
“I’ve held more babies than you have,” he reminded me as he took her away. “And both you and Rayyan turned out just fine, didn’t you?”
The words had made me smile. He told me that every single time he took Azmiah and the routine more than the words were what reassured me.
“I turned out fine,” I’d told him as I always did. “Rayyan…” I wrinkled my nose.
The knock came again, louder now.
“Come in!” I called, staying where I was.
Rayyan walked in, still dressed mostly in the suit he’d worn all day but with the tie now hanging loose around his neck and the jacket nowhere to be found.
He looked stressed.
I straightened up. “What is it?”
“Needed to talk to you before you leave tonight.”
“Okay.” I gestured to the rocking chair. “Sit.”
He shut the door carefully behind him and then came to sit, not in the chair but on the bed opposite me, taking one of my hands to hold in his.
I pulled it away. “You’re scaring me. What’s wrong?”
Rayyan bit his lip. “Nothing yet. Maybe nothing at all. But I’d feel like a first class idiot if I didn’t speak up and this caused problems between you and Zaakir later.”
Immediately he had my full attention. “Tell me what’s going on. Did someone say something? Do something? Is this about Azmiah?”
“No! No, no, no.” Rayyan held his hands up. “This is about you and Zaakir. About the way the two of you act with each other.” He tugged on the cuffs of his shirt. “You trust me right?”
There was an expectant pause.
I nodded hurriedly. “Of course.”
“I need you to keep trusting me and listen to what I have to say. Listen to everything before you start talking. Okay?”
I shrugged. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Rayyan repeated. “You promise?”
I nodded before he’d even finished speaking. “Yes, okay. Just tell me already.”
“The two of you don’t see each other clearly,” Rayyan announced.
My mouth dropped open in disbelief.
“You promised!” he reminded me.
I shut my open mouth and waited.
“You think he’s perfect,” Rayyan said softly. “And he thinks you are too.”
My immediate reaction was denial and it showed clearly on my face.
“Tell me one of his flaws?” Rayyan challenged.
I bit my lip. Zaakir was… Zaakir was… Drat.
“See? He’s not perfect, Az. He’s a normal human being. You should be able to think of at least one thing. Something. Something small and stupid.”
Yes, but I loved Zaakir. I was about to say this but Rayyan beat me to it.
“Do you love Mom?” I nodded.
“And Dad?” Another nod.
“And me?” This time I just gave him a look.
“And do we all have flaws?”
Of course they did! Rayyan was stubborn, Dad deferred to my mother far too much for my liking and Mom loved to control things.
“I know Zaakir tries harder with you than he ever has with anyone else, but still!” Rayyan raked his fingers through his hair, pulling strands out in his frustration.
“He doesn’t do that,” I contradicted.
He didn’t. He couldn’t. Because that would mean he didn’t feel comfortable with me, which-
“Azraa! Stop it. Don’t go off on a tangent and panic,” Rayyan cautioned me. “He wants to impress you, is all. And yes, sometimes he’s a little uncomfortable. But it’s nothing more. Okay?”
“But why?” I couldn’t understand. “He’s so good, why would he even think he needed to bother?”
Rayyan rolled his eyes heavenward. “Give me strength with these two,” he muttered. “Because he thinks he has to. He thinks that he has to win you. Be good enough for you.”
“But that’s ridiculous!”
“I know – and I told him so,” Rayyan assured me. “Both of you are ridiculous. You’re not a fairy princess and he’s not an angel.” He gave me a pointed look.
“I know that! But, in comparison to Mirzaq, he’s-”
“Mirzaq,” Rayyan made the name sound like a curse. “Is not a suitable comparison for any normal, decent human being. Come on, Az. You know he’s got flaws. You’re not blind.”
I shook my head. “I do. Don’t you think you’re overreacting?”
“No, I don’t. I think the two of you might exhaust each other if you carry on like this. And… I think you need to be more careful than he does, Az.” Rayyan shook his head, looking worried. “Zaakir’s still got it in his head that he needs to serve you sometimes. You need to remind him that he doesn’t.”
“Of course he doesn’t!” My voice was sharper than I’d intended.
“Tell him that,” Rayyan told me, pointing to my phone.
My brother got to his feet. “And think about everything else I said too, okay?” He tapped the door frame. “I don’t want either of you thinking something ridiculous about yourselves.”
“Yes, big brother,” I said dutifully.
He left then and, instead of reaching immediately for my phone to message Zaakir, I shut my eyes and tried to think.
What were Zaakir’s flaws?
Thoughts came to mind, and out of habit I rejected them, seeing them as the bratty remnants of the lonely, unhappy girl I’d been when I first thought them.
Then, deliberately, I took one and re-examined it.
He’s always so stupidly happy!
The phrasing left something to be desired. But… when I gave the thought voice, I realized what had truly upset me; Zaakir held such a tight rein on his emotions with me. I knew, from watching him with his mother and Rayyan, and even some of his other friends, that he wasn’t always happy and unflappable.
But that was how he’d always portrayed himself to me.
Did it make me love him any less?
But it was frustrating. It was a flaw.
And, if I ignored it, it would eventually become a problem. Just as Rayyan had worried.
There were other things. Little things: that he fretted so much about whether I was eating and often brought me food without asking; that he rarely ever did – or even mentioned – something he wanted to do unless he was positive I didn’t have anything I might want to do instead at the same time; that he was so inclined to simply let things slide when people took advantage or demanded things of him.
None of it made him lesser in my eyes. But, in the years to come, I would think back and remember how vital it had been for me to accept those things about my husband – not just because they made me feel somehow more comfortable around him but also because they were part of him. Not my favourite part by any means. But part of him nonetheless.
I can’t wait for the final chapter. Can you?