Missed Calls

Rafia Zakaria
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I sit alone in the dim, book-lined room waiting for the phone to ring. Outside, a hot Indiana summer drags its swampy feet. I stare at my smartphone’s screen. The time, neat numbers superimposed on a picture of my daughter, stares back. My thoughts are steeped in the past, and so the device feels strangely alien and incongruous in my hands. Then it rings, and a man’s voice reaches out into the stillness of the room. It is a voice I have not heard for nearly twenty-five years. It is a voice I have not heard since the day I was married.

“You didn’t wait for me,” he says. 

“You never called,” I respond.

There are no doubts in our minds but we test each other anyway. I ask him to recite my telephone number, not the one he has just called but the one from long ago, from Karachi. He laughs and recites it easily. I do the same with his old number, surprised that it is on the tip of my tongue. 

This story is a love story, though its main character is not a person but a thing. The telephone, in this story, determines the possible and the impossible. Back in the 1990s, there were two telephones in my house in Karachi. The downstairs phone was a pale gray rotary model, which was placed on an end table in our formal sitting room. A phone call was still an occasion for the elders in our house, especially for my grandparents, who had known life without it. Each call cost money, and since every expenditure was closely monitored in our home, so, too, was the use of the telephone. When you did make a call, you would sit on the edge of the armchair, so as not to create an imprint or a sweat stain on the good furniture, and carefully dial each digit. Anyone walking by the glass door of the sitting room was entitled to ask who was on the other end of the line. Unlike now, one phone belonged to a whole household. Unlike now, it had to be shared.

The upstairs phone was in my father’s study—a room even more off-limits than the sitting room downstairs. This phone was “new,” bright orange with black buttons. It sat on the edge of a tall dresser that my father sometimes used as a standing desk. If you were upstairs and wanted to make a call, you had to stand—a deliberate arrangement meant to cut all calls short. My father did not like anyone lingering in his study, spending his money. Both these rooms, these telephones—I can say without exaggeration—would determine the course of my life. 

While meeting boys face-to-face was forbidden to me, looking at them was not. That is how everything began—by looking. F and I first laid eyes on each other entirely by accident, on an otherwise unremarkable day. My father, my mother, and I had gone to the drugstore for cigarettes. My mother and I were in the white sedan we had at the time, with her sitting primly in the front passenger seat and me in the back. Next to the drugstore was a copy shop. F, who had an exam the next day, was there making copies of his friend’s class notes.

F was really striking. Athletic and broad-shouldered, he was dressed that day in a button-down shirt and khakis. His hair was gelled back, and his wide mouth curled into something between a grin and a smirk. He had a sharp aquiline nose, and his dark brown eyes were set in a way that gave him a perpetual look of mild intoxication. And he was supremely confident—in the way the youngest son of a very wealthy government official can be.

My attention would not have been drawn to him had my mother not noticed him herself and said something quite out of character: “What a handsome boy.” I turned to look at the same moment that F finished paying for his copies, and in that instant our eyes met and our lives changed. We fell in love in the traditional way of a gender-segregated society. It is how most people in Pakistan fall in love, not knowing each other’s names, not having uttered a word. My mother’s
voice seemed miles and miles away.

The author on her wedding day. All the gold embroidery on the dupatta worn on her head was done by hand, and it weighed over five pounds, making head movements difficult. Photo courtesy of the author.

F made sure that we saw each other again. It wasn’t too difficult: the drugstore we frequented, the photocopy store, the grocery store, the video rental store were all clustered together in a neighborhood market square not far from our house. My family visited the shops at the square every day—my father to rent whichever movie was to be his evening viewing, my mother for fresh bread and eggs from the store, and I because it was the only way I was allowed to leave the house other than to go to school. My twin brother had once regularly joined us on these excursions, but puberty had given him considerably more freedom just as it had taken mine. He played cricket with the neighborhood boys in the alley next to our house, rode his bike around the nearby streets, did whatever he wanted in that hour before dusk when the rest of us went to the shops.

A few days after our chance encounter, F and I saw each other again. And then yet again, so often that I began to look for him every day. He drove a new burgundy Toyota Corolla, which I soon came to recognize as he drove up and down the short streets around the market square to catch a glimpse of me. Then one evening, while my father was taking his time mulling his selections in the video store and my mother had slipped into the bakery, F stopped his car directly next to ours. My heart thumped as his friend leaped out from the passenger seat and threw a small card through my open window and onto my lap. The front of the card was just an advertisement—I don’t remember for what—but on the back F had written his name and his phone number. As quickly as I could, I stuck the card in a book I had with me, hoping that my euphoria was invisible to my watchful parents. In my head played a single refrain: I have his number and I know his name.

We would have scores of telephone conversations before we could be alone together.

During these months, he continued to try to see me any way he could. We faced a difficult dilemma: If we wanted to see each other, we could not talk to each other. To talk, I had to call, which required excusing my way out of the daily trip to the market so I could be alone with the telephone in my father’s study. With my parents gone—and my grandparents not yet used to paying attention to what I was up to—F and I could sate our hunger to hear each other’s voice. But if I wanted to see him, the call would have to be foregone. I would accompany my parents to the market, follow my mother into the grocery store. F would trail me as my mother shopped for sugar or spices or milk, and our eyes would meet silently across aisles laden with food. In those moments, we soaked up the heady intimacy of being close to each other even if we could not speak. 

Some days we tried to evade the choice between seeing or speaking. Instead of waiting until evening to see me, F would skip class and show up outside my school’s premises before dismissal. He would already be there, waiting and watching for the small glimpse he would get of me as I walked out the gate, before my mother arrived to take me home. When F and I spoke on those evenings, with me sweating at the edge of the armchair in the fanless sitting room, we felt victorious.

The first time we touched came a bit later, after we had professed our love for each other; he first and hurriedly at the end of a phone call, I embarrassedly at the beginning of the next. I was standing in a grocery store aisle helping my mother select ingredients for a special recipe she planned to try, my back to the aisle as I scanned the shelf in front of me. It was then that I felt fingers lightly graze my back. Startled, I turned around just fast enough for our eyes to meet for one second through the gaps between boxes of crackers. It was nothing and it was everything.

We became friends, best friends. I was so terribly lonely in those first few years of puberty, still stunned at how furiously quickly all sorts of things were forbidden. It was also a time of deep confusion as I tried to make sense of divergent messages from my parents. My mother would tell me every day to “study hard,” but she would also say that she, my father, and my grandfather would never permit me to study with boys. All the colleges and universities that taught law or medicine or engineering, the subjects I was told I should study, were mixed-gender institutions, where I would have to study with boys. What was I to do, then, with all the hard studying?

The restrictions that had been imposed upon me arose, I knew, from my father’s fears. The first was the trademark fear of all refugees: a distrust of the new “home,” which never seemed to match up to the expectations that had been pinned to it. (Originally from Bombay, his family was among those who had migrated to Karachi from India following the 1947 partition.) The second kind of fear was all his own: a dogged risk aversion that saw female freedom (mine) as a threat to male honor (his). In his cynical calculation, being a father to a daughter was a no-win situation. In order to ensure that I would be married off to one of the transplanted Bombayites he thought suitable  for me, he had to make nice and stay in their good graces. My father, a gruff and eccentric man who chafes at social expectations himself, hates being forced to be nice.

My family’s feelings of rootlessness probably played a role in why I fell for F. Unlike us—descended from Indian Muslims who had been instrumental in conceptualizing Pakistan—his family was Punjabi and very much rooted in the country. His ancestors had been in the Punjab region for generations and were fast becoming the dominant elites in Pakistan. F was a son of the soil, as unquestioning of his own sense of belonging as I was ambivalent about mine. My family, once rich, was keeping up appearances in the grand house my grandfather had built, which we now struggled to maintain. F’s family was among the prospering new, rich members of a tight Punjabi trading community. But in the eyes of a cultured and cosmopolitan family from Bombay, they were country bumpkins, no matter how much money they had or how deeply I loved him. My father never would have approved.

F could not remove these burdens, but in listening to me and loving me and showering me with attention, he made them a bit more bearable. Just hearing his voice on the line made me feel hopeful about the future. Somehow, I believed, we would convince our parents, and we would marry, be together forever. Foolish and idealistic, I underestimated my father’s resolve that I would marry only within the tiny community to which we belonged. I misread the intent behind my parents encouraging me to cultivate intellectual depth; I wrongly thought the books I was given to read—Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and Moby-Dick—signaled an openness to letting me determine my own fate. First love entrances, casts a spell that blots out the existence of everyone else, of pesky concerns and cares. Reckless and selfish as I was in those days, I refused to consider what might happen if my secret romance were exposed to my conservative family. At seventeen and thirteen, respectively, F and I had never known heartbreak. All things were possible. We knew nothing and so we loved fully and without fear.

The new rules were strict even by Pakistani standards. Most of my school friends were allowed to visit one another’s homes after school. Many attended extra tutoring lessons, where they studied with boys. Some even arranged outings to restaurants or parks. All of these things were forbidden to me. School was the only place I went by myself, and it had its own set of exacting rules. After school, I could go nowhere at all, not even to my maternal grandmother’s house, five minutes away. Sometimes, if I really nagged, my mother would relent and intercede with my father on my behalf so that I could, for instance, attend a friend’s birthday party. Before asking him, she would confirm with the girl’s mother that no boys, not even older brothers, would be present. 

To amend what Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote in The Second Sex: a girl is not born but is made. In retrospect, it is not surprising that the restrictions made me rebellious. Practically speaking, these restrictions meant that meeting F would be possible only if I lied to my parents. This seemed unthinkable in the beginning, but as we came close to a year of knowing each other, the intensity of our feelings began to exert its own pull. Yearning all the time, I began to devise a plan to sneak out of school.

Ten minutes was all I could promise him. As soon as the dismissal bell rang, I would sneak off the grounds through a different gate from the usual one, where my mother picked me up. Then I could get into his car, and we would have ten minutes together before I had to sneak back across school grounds to meet my mother.

 For his part, F made sure the windows of his Corolla were covered with tinted film. That way no one could tell who was inside or what they were doing.

The day of our first date was the longest school day of my life. The bells marking the end of each fifty-minute period seemed to be late all morning. After recess the opposite effect occurred: time began to whiz by, and my insides knotted up. When there were ten minutes until the last bell of the day, I told the teacher I was feeling sick and she let me leave early. I ran down the flights of stairs, across the dusty, sun-scalded grounds of the school. When the dismissal bell finally rang, I was already at the gate and I could see him standing next to his burgundy car. My face was ablaze, and my body was wired from adrenaline. Ebullient, I crossed the road, my backpack bouncing on my back, past the rows of school buses and lined-up cars. I opened the back passenger door and got inside.

We did not get caught that time or the time after that. Once we had met, and we saw that meeting was possible, we wanted still more of each other, and all the time. We began to take big risks, and then bigger risks. I pretended I had to stay after school for extra physics and math lessons. We managed to steal an hour together, and then two hours, but still we wanted more. We consoled ourselves by reminding each other that very soon we would be older and then we could be together all the time.

New ways of meeting had to be devised. On the evening before my fifteenth birthday, he parked his car across the street from our house. I stood at my darkened bedroom window, watching the orange ember of his cigarette light up as he inhaled, then exhaled, his silhouette dimly lit by the single streetlamp. We stood there until it was midnight and I turned fifteen. Before he left, he got out of his car and let a thin, long box fall over our garden wall and into a flower bed. I would retrieve it later and open it to find a beautiful gold chain and a pendant with my initials. I couldn’t wear it, because people would notice, so I kept it hidden in my bra, close to my heart.

It was not our love that would eventually betray us; it was other people. At the time we met, F’s father had been serving in the federal government in Islamabad and traveling between his official lodgings there and the family home in Karachi. As his four-year term came to an end, he made the decision to move his family permanently to Lahore, where F’s parents were from and where the family had growing business interests. The decision was likely also owed to his belief that F sometimes ran with the wrong crowd in Karachi. While F himself was clean, it was true that he had friends who had been tempted into Karachi’s thriving drug culture. Late one evening, when F returned from hanging out with his friends who were part of Karachi’s underground party scene, his father told him that he would be moving to Lahore. 

We were devastated. For hours and hours, we had talked about our future—but the parameters of it had now suddenly changed. Late at night, after everyone had gone to sleep, I would sneak into my father’s study, unplug the phone, unscrew the plastic plug, and fold in the wires so it would appear to be plugged in when it wasn’t. It was only then that I could go downstairs into the darkened formal sitting room and call him without worrying that my parents would awaken, pick up the extension, and overhear our conversation. These pre-moving calls were all the same: I wept, and he stoically stayed quiet. We said “I love you” over and over again.

By then, my parents could tell something was amiss. They had both seen the same burgundy Corolla with the same boy in it every time we went to the shops. F now had to borrow his friends’ cars if he wanted to see me; if he didn’t, my parents would spot his car and abandon shopping altogether. By the time we learned that F would have to move, my mother suspected that I was complicit in some way with his recurring appearances. The telephone bill gave credence to her fears. Thankfully, the Pakistan Telecommunications Corporation did not, at that time, list the telephone numbers of outgoing phone calls. Even so, the phone bill had nearly doubled in the last several months. My father began to lock the door to his study. A tiny padlock was used to lock the rotary phone and my mother kept the key. Within days of this new arrangement, I learned to pick the little lock on the sitting room phone with a bobby pin. If my grandparents inquired, I would tell them I was discussing homework with a school friend and that my mother had unlocked the phone for me before she left. I would call F and talk to him until I heard my parents’ car in the driveway. Then I would lock up the phone and run upstairs, where I pretended to be studying. 

F and I had come up with our own plan to stay in contact despite his moving away. The telephone line that was installed at our home was of a sort that did not support outgoing long-distance telephone calls, which meant that after he moved, I would have no way to call him directly—and if he wanted to call me, he’d have to guess when I’d be able to pick up the phone. It was F who came up with a solution: When I could talk, I would call T, one of F’s close friends in Karachi—one I had seen because he lived adjacent to my aunt’s house. T would then call F in Lahore and tell him to call me. It was a reassuring arrangement. When F eventually moved, we put the plan into motion. Our love would conquer all.

This certainty was short-lived. One afternoon during the fasting month of Ramzan, my mother suggested that she and I go to my grandmother’s house. The suggestion itself was strange; my father had decided to come home after just a half day of work and my mother was never allowed to go off to visit her mother when my father was home. But I loved going to my grandmother’s house, where my aunts and cousins also lived, so I agreed immediately. 

An odd scene unfolded there. My eldest aunt was serving an extensive lunch to her husband and A, a young man I had never seen before. Instead of being told to go upstairs to my grandmother’s bedroom, as was usually the case when any young men were around, I was encouraged to linger in the dining room. I learned that the young man was my aunt’s nephew by marriage. He was finishing medical school in the United States and had come to Pakistan to do an elective rotation at a Pakistani hospital. He spoke barely any Urdu, so he spoke to me in American-accented English, asking what music I liked, what I was interested in studying—questions no man had been permitted to ask me before. 

That evening, after we returned from this visit, I told F what had happened. I knew even then that the only reason my family would be introducing me to a man was to marry me off. F laughed. “You’re fifteen years old,” he said. “They can’t possibly be thinking of marrying you off.” I laughed, too, but I was not so sure.

I turned sixteen and began my final year of high school. One ordinary evening, as we sat watching television, my grandfather suffered a heart attack. There are no state-
provided emergency services in Pakistan that can respond to medical crises. My brother and father managed to lift him into the car and drove him to the hospital, but he died in my brother’s arms before they got there. In an instant, my brother and I were lurched out of our childhood faith in happy outcomes. My brother began to spend even more time outside the house. I stayed home, hoping to be able to talk to F in faraway Lahore. 

Sometimes our arrangement with T as middleman worked, and we managed to have hurried, furtive conversations, assuring each other that our love was still alive. F’s world had also been transformed. In Lahore, he was expected to put in long hours learning the business, which involved spending time in the textile mills that his family owned. When we spoke, he was tender, always the easygoing antidote to my high-strung self. He still teased me and he still made me laugh, refusing to be morose or serious even as we both mourned being separated. I tried not to complain about the days when we were not able to talk, the afternoons when I waited by the phone while my parents were out shopping after having called T to relay the message to F. I am a very impatient person and as a teenager I was even more so.

Since I could not talk to F every day, I began to write to him. I wrote letters that described my day, or what was happening at school, and of course how much I missed him—his voice, his touch, his jokes, even his teasing. I had no way of mailing these letters; mail service in Pakistan was (and is) sketchy and unreliable, and even if it were not, mailing a letter required a trip to the post office, money to buy stamps and mail letters, and all these were impossible hurdles for someone who was never allowed to go anywhere alone. When I was done pouring my heart out, I would tear up the letter and throw it away.

The letters were how I got caught. One afternoon after school, I came upstairs to find my mother livid, her pretty face reddened in anger. She drew me into her bedroom and shut the door and locked it. I knew then that something was about to happen; closed doors signaled trouble in our household.

Then I saw what was in her hand. My mother had found tiny torn pieces of a letter I had written to F and put them together with long strips of Scotch tape. 

“Who is he?” She glared.

“Who is who?”

“Who is this boy you are writing to?”

I still do not know how much my mother knew then, how much she had read. Did she know that we had been meeting outside school? Did she know his name? Did she know that we were in love?

I denied everything. The letter was imaginary, I insisted. I had written it just for fun and because I was bored. She did not believe me. 

“If you are in love with some boy, then you know what your father will do if he finds out,” she whispered angrily. “He will make our lives a living hell.”

Then she opened the door and walked away, taking with her the taped-together fragments of my love letter. 

My favorite aunt, the eldest of my mother’s three sisters, had just returned from a summer trip to the United States. Traveling to the United States from Pakistan was a big deal in the ’90s, and when people returned, you visited them to welcome them back home. That is what my mother and I were doing that late summer afternoon. My aunt had made a photo album of her travels. She had stayed mostly in Connecticut, where her hosts—her husband’s brother and his wife—lived. The pictures showed my aunt posing in their sitting room, their dining room, and even by the Jacuzzi in their palatial marble bathroom. The home was gorgeous: modern, contemporary, and set on the banks of a river. Clearly, her brother­-in-law and his wife had realized their American dream.

I was unprepared for the last few photos in the album. These were not of my aunt at all.

They were graduation pictures of A, the man who had been having lunch in my grandmother’s house a few months ago. My aunt, I now realized, had been visiting his parents. “He just graduated from medical school,” she told me pointedly when we got to those last photos, “and they’re coming to Karachi in December.”

It all came together in my head—the strange lunch where I had been introduced to a strange man, my aunt’s visit to his parents’ house and now his parents’ imminent visit to Pakistan. I had just been told that my marriage was being arranged, without anyone actually saying the words.

My parents took forever going to sleep that evening. Hour after hour, I could hear their muffled voices, stopping and starting and mixing with the sound of the television. The theme of their conversation was what you would expect: Was their daughter too young? Was this the best marriage proposal they would get? And, of course, the unanswerable: Were they doing the right thing? It wasn’t until after midnight that the house was finally silent. I followed the usual process to ensure the phone line’s privacy, then I tiptoed into the sitting room and dialed T’s number. He answered groggily. “Can you call him?” I begged. “It is so late, Rafia,” T grumbled. I hung up. Staring at the sitting room clock, I watched the minutes tick by, hyperalert so I could answer F’s call at the first tiny ring. 

Ten minutes passed, and then fifteen. It was a warm night, and the sitting room with its stuffy furniture was even warmer. Dripping with sweat, but afraid to turn on the fan, I waited. That night there was no call. I went back upstairs and cried myself to sleep.

F called a day later. We were all at dinner when the phone rang—a pet peeve of my father’s. I sprang up to answer it, feeling my mother’s eyes following me out of the room. I had only minutes to tell F what I thought was going on. Before he could respond, I heard someone coming toward the sitting room. Afraid of being caught, I hung up. 

“I am only twenty. I am not going to be able to convince my father that we should get married.” F and I were arguing about what to do if my parents agreed to the match that was being arranged with the doctor from Connecticut. “And if they do ask you,” he pleaded, “you just have to be brave and say no.”

These conversations, even when we could have them, were not reassuring. It was becoming harder and harder for us to talk. Now, nine times out of ten, when I called T, there would be no return call from F. Sometimes T would call back instead and tell me that F wasn’t answering or that he wasn’t home. Bereft, I would confide my fears to T instead. “Does he not love me anymore?” I would ask poor T again and again. He would listen and give the same answer every time: “I don’t know… I just don’t know.” 

I began to feel neglected. It would serve him right if I were married off to someone else, I would threaten in a whisper, before I heard steps approaching the sitting room and had to hang up. In my teenage passion, I always assumed that while I was constrained by my parents, F was free to do anything he pleased. 

T believed me when I told him I suspected that my marriage was being arranged. T was understanding about anything I told him—and he always took my phone calls. Ours was a platonic friendship, one that grew out of necessity. Our phone could not connect me with the man I loved, and T was there to listen, always.

It was a conversation with T that changed the course of my life. One evening, as I indulged in my usual dissection of F’s waning attentions, I asked T’s advice on the choice that I sensed I would have to make. If he were in my shoes, I asked, would he wait for F? His answer left me reeling: “F will not marry you,” he said. “You should listen to your family.” I believed T. I felt he had no incentive to lie.

The days that followed were a blur of rage and self-destruction. Now that I was confronted with the loss of the man I loved, the accrued guilt and shame of the past two years engulfed me. I had been a bad daughter and a bad sister. I had lied and I had cheated. 

It was time to stop, I scolded myself as I prayed and prayed with a newfound piety.

It was time to repent for all the deception I had heaped on those who loved me the most, whose honor and expectations I had nearly dashed to bits. 

I stopped calling T, not wanting to seem even more pathetic and desperate for the attentions of a man who did not love me and did not want to marry me. Instead, I medicated myself, stealing the Valium that had been prescribed to my grandfather when he was still alive. 

December is a beautiful month in Karachi. The muted winter sun is kind and inspires a seasonal gentleness in everything else. December is also the month of weddings, the cool air an encouragement for guests to gussy themselves up in finery and head to banquet halls. There were a few weddings in our family that December, and my mother had ordered new outfits to be made for me. I remember one of them especially well: it was a long tunic of deep burgundy velvet with antique gold embroidery, which my tailor had recycled from an old tunic of my mother’s from when she was about to get married. 

It is what I was wearing when I met the people from my aunt’s photo album. It was an intentional meeting that everyone involved pretended was a chance encounter. A’s father, a jovial psychiatrist, made corny jokes as we all sat around a table. His mother, a woman who had gone to college only after her children were grown, wore blue silk and diamonds and assessed me openly, without embarrassment. My aunt and her husband were also present, to ensure that the conversation ambled along smoothly. The groom-to-be, now in his first year of residency, had not been able to make the trip.

I watched all of it happen with some detachment. The loss of F had left me numb. I had surrendered, fueled by the warped logic of heartbreak, and with a near masochistic acquiescence. I had tried to choose my own fate, my own love, and I had failed. If others wanted to take over now, I would let them. If F did not want me, then anyone who did want me could have me.

Before the week was over, A’s parents showed up at our home with a marriage proposal, accompanied by my aunt and her husband. For several hours, the grown-ups sat and discussed the future A and I would have, were we to get married. I eavesdropped from the top of the stairs. My parents were concerned about how young I was, younger than any previous bride in our family. A’s mother dismissed these concerns with her own promises and assurances: they would allow me to go to college after marriage; she herself had been a sixteen-year-old bride, and her life had turned out just fine. After several hours, the visitors left. It was not an immediate yes; my parents still had some concerns. But everyone appeared to be in a positive mood. 

On December 31, we were all invited to my aunt’s house for a celebration of the imminent nuptials. I was at home, getting ready, when I saw my father’s car pull into our driveway. He came bearing terrible, shocking news. My aunt’s husband, a man I had known my whole life, had died of a heart attack on his way home from work, at only fifty-­two years old. My aunt, only forty-­four, was now a widow.

The tragedy meant that the arrangement of my marriage had become a dead man’s final wish—unfinished business that had to be completed so his soul could rest in peace. Even if I had had the courage to say no to the proposal before, I certainly did not have it now. My shame at having fallen in love with F goaded me to accept my fate. I had thrown myself at a man who did not love me. I could ask Allah for forgiveness and pay for my sins by agreeing to marry the man my family had chosen for me. 

In saying yes, I believed, I would achieve moral deliverance, become a “good” girl rather than the defiant and deceptive one I had been. My heartbreak did the rest. After all, what better way to forget about F than to marry A? But aside from all this, there was a childishness in it: this would teach F not to disbelieve what I said, not to ignore my calls. All the one-sided conversations I had with myself convinced me that F did not love me and that I had to learn to forget about him. I said yes, and preparations for the wedding began.

The last time I called F was the day I married A. I was upstairs, dressed in heavy silk bridal clothes, with henna that stretched from my fingertips to my elbows. Not long after I was engaged, the telephone line in our house had been upgraded to make it easier for me to call A. Standing in my father’s study, I used the familiar phone, orange with black buttons, to dial F’s number in Lahore. He answered, and for one small moment, I thought about running away. But I was prepared for it; in the months since our separation, I had taught myself to take such thoughts and shove them whole into some remote and inaccessible part of myself. There would be no running away, no reunion, no happy ending. My last words to F that day were simply “You have ruined my life.”

“What do you mean, why didn’t I call?” F asked me when we spoke again, twenty-five years later.

I was surprised at his question. “I called T again and again and begged for you to call me,” I said.

There was silence on our cross-continental telephone call—a call made easy by the fact that we both had iPhones, devices that allow us to speak to anyone anywhere.

“I never got those messages,” he said, finally. 

In the conversation that followed, we tried to untangle the knotted misunderstandings of our long-ago love story, slipping into a familiarity that only deep intimacy creates and leaves untouched in some forgotten corner of the heart. The truth we uncovered by comparing notes shocked us. A few months after F moved to Lahore, T had simply stopped relaying any messages between us. Instead, T pretended that he was not in contact with me at all. All the while I had confided in him, he was betraying both me and F.

In Lahore, F had concluded that I did not love him anymore. In Karachi, waiting for calls that never came, I believed that he no longer loved me.

After we realized this, the terms of our conversation changed. Perhaps we had been willing to risk a conversation with the long-ago ex we once loved passionately, because we felt safe in the assumption that the other presented no danger to the lives that we had built for ourselves since then. I felt I had become a different person from the girl who had loved him, a brave and independent woman who would never wait for a man. From his perspective, the boy who had once loved me was a distant memory, with little resemblance to the middle-aged man who headed companies and was devoted to his family and to Pakistan. 

The question we faced is impenetrable. How does the alteration of one crucial detail at the beginning of a story transform everything that follows? Our mutual shock peeled back the layers of reserve and maturity that had been shielding us. Without those layers, we became vulnerable again, not unlike the teenage lovers we had been. Suddenly the answers to questions that had no longer mattered felt important again. I wanted to know why he had not tried to tell his parents, or tried to save me from being married off to someone else. F was angry that I had not been braver, had not stood up for him and waited until he was old enough to marry me. Had my parents been in such a hurry to get me married? How could I have married someone else?

The ease with which we slipped back into the people we had been so long ago was as terrifying as the revelation that we had been betrayed. First love is idealized in literature and movies and everywhere else because of its intensity, its  compulsive overriding of all practical sense. Some believe that first love is the only true love, the only time we do not edit our feelings and desires to be in accord with the world in which we live. If first love is thwarted by the treachery of a villainous other, it is ennobled even further.

We opened up and told each other about our lives. A few years after I was married, his family arranged a match for him; he was engaged for a while, but then broke it off. Another failed engagement followed. Finally, a marriage was arranged with the daughter of one of the most powerful families in Pakistan. They are now the parents to three children. He has founded and managed many businesses, his latest a project to transform the way K–12 students receive instruction in Pakistan. He never fell in love again, not unusual for a man living in a society where most relationships are built on duty, and only dutiful love is considered legitimate. 

I am no longer married to A, the man who was chosen for me. I endured that abusive relationship for eight years, and then one day I fled with my daughter, then a toddler, to a domestic violence shelter. I got divorced and I became a single mom, all against the wishes of my family. I went to law school and then to graduate school. I wrote books. I also fell in love again: a grown-up love that made me believe in the possibility of two independent people being committed to each other through the tumult and turnarounds of life. 

One of the certainties of getting older is realizing that you will not get everything you want, that only some of life’s possibilities will bear fruit, while others will wither on the vine. This is not entirely unpleasant knowledge; the endless possibilities of youth are energizing but also exhausting in their inherent uncertainty. The knowledge that comes after a few decades are behind you can be comforting in its own way. 

F and I decided not to stay in touch. This was not easy at first. I believed that if I got to know him as a friend, I would be less likely to fall into the many unknowable what-ifs of our story. I had been looking for closure grounded in reality. He was not interested. In the end we did stop speaking. Perhaps we stopped because of the ease with which we had slipped into who we had been—because in that single second of our reunion, we had still wanted what we had wanted when we parted. When you coddle a mistruth as long as we had, it becomes a little more truthful. We decided, I suppose, to cling to the narrative that was familiar, that I had not loved him, and he had not loved me—leaving the fabric of the lives we had woven intact. 

We let each other go. The loss of our love had injured only us and that was a victory. To attempt some resurrection, even just a bit, would have hurt too many innocent bystanders. Faced with a choice like that, we chose to hurt only each other.

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