The last show of the evening ends at half past six. After that, people shop, shop some more, cradle their fussy children in vain and go home by eight o’clock. Some families settle down for a family sized pizza or a family bucket of fried chicken. No family for Fabi though; she finds herself following Farhan down the dark theater staircases, exiting the near-empty hall after handing in their VR glasses. She catches herself humming a tune from the musical. Farhan does not let that slide without a comment.
“Pah! I can’t believe we had to watch that La La Land crap. Has a ton of Oscars eh? Bull fucking crap, that movie.”
“Yeah…white people singing and dancing and prancing all over a blue screen. Funny. I like the songs though.”
Fabi frisks her purse for her glasses, the ones that give a reality check after some mushy 3D. With a little help, her vision is soon HD-quality. Her eyes adjust to a flabbergasted Farhan, who has stopped dead in his tracks. “Fabi, Fabi isn’t that her?” he points and prances.
“Who? Oh her? Well I wouldn’t know, really.”
“Hold on a second. Let me see if it’s her.”
“Is it important though? She might feel uncomfortable …”
It is Farhan’s turn to fish his pocket for a phone. He dials a number that had never left his fingertips. “Oh hey there, accha where are you?... Oh, me too! Yeah? Wait, hold on hold on,” he says and runs to meet her. They exchange one of those cocktail party hugs. Fabi turns the other way to allow them privacy.
It’s a nice view from the seventh-floor court. She shifts her weight from foot to foot, waiting for Farhan to resurface while leaning against the wrought iron railings.
“Damn, I wish I hadn’t met her! That’s it, she has jinxed the day for me. And did you see her? Crap, she has put on so much weight. Whatever the fuck happened to her dress sense! God!” is the first thing he tells her after coming back. No “sorry to keep you waiting” is there in his dictionary.
“I don’t think you should keep saying that. She’s really pretty and stylish…”
“Naw man, good riddance. I couldn’t live with that. Damn, what on earth has she been eating?”
Fabi decides to keep quiet through this tiresome ordeal as they descend down the escalator. Four flights of moving-stairs down, though, Farhan is still busy badmouthing that long-lost love of his. Fabi has heard enough, enough to keep her gossip-meter going for the next three years.
“I think you should shut the fuck up.”
“Huh? What’d you say?” The bearded jock looks at her with a sense of entitlement. It makes her stomach turn.
“Let me rephrase that for you Farhan. Look, it was nice meeting you, I enjoyed the movie but not your company. Especially your Gettysburg Address after running into that girlfriend of yours.”
“Oh? Is that so? Just one date and you’re possessive already? Pah, all girls are the same.”
“Yes, we are all the same. We can see right through your bullshit. You were the one who called her number, not me. If you were so disgusted to see her, why dig her out of the grave?”
Fabi realizes that they have created quite a little scene. The other mall on the other end of the city is a crowded mess. This larger mall sees less visitors on an average. Their “scene” was mostly devoid of an audience. Besides, Farhan has already stomped his feet and stormed away.
“Don’t sweat it, there will be better dates. Also, never go to the movies with a jock.”
The voice makes Fabi lose footing on the slippery mall floor. It is one of those soft, husky voices of the late-night RJ, the one that plays songs that are suddenly about ourselves, at 2 am. She swirls around to face the most peculiar sight of the evening.
“Excuse me…whoa where are you going dressed like that?”
Fabi turns around to face a girl in elaborate bridal garb. The mall lights are bouncing off of her heavy gold necklace, hands full of jingly churis and a humongous jhapta on one side of her head. A long, dark braid cascades down and rests on one of her shoulders. None of Fabi’s friends, colleagues or cousins looked this amazing on their wedding day.
“It’s a long story, but I hope you’re doing okay though,” said this other girl. She stood a good few inches taller than Fabi thanks to her chunky heels. “I’m Natasha. About the guy, well, good riddance! I don’t even like them anyway.” She rolls her eyes, Fabi finds herself chuckling.
“I’m Fabi,” she finds herself moving closer to the maroon bride.
“Fabiha, Fabliha or something else?” Natasha’s eyes travel all over Fabi’s tiny form.
“Nope, just Fabi. The family likes to keep it short.” She points Natasha toward her pixie cut. The bride runs her henna-stained fingers through Fabi’s short, brown hair.
“It’s the cutest thing ever, Fabi. I like it.”
“So, what’s your story? Running away from your own wedding?”
“Not running away per se, just buying myself some time. Squeezing in some space to think, you know?”
“Fair enough,” Fabi holds a thin cigarette against her lips, takes a puff and passes it. “Why are we sharing this like a joint again?”
Natasha shrugs, “For the heck of it. Like how I came here, you know. For the heck of it.”
Natasha seems to know the mall like the back of her hand. Earlier, she and Fabi had sneaked out through one of the deserted back alleys. There, some abandoned plastic dumpsters sat with their lids shut tight. Natasha perched herself on top of one of these surprisingly clean lids, and helped Fabi up as well. A bright half-moon peeped in through the clouds. The world below spun madly on.
“I can’t imagine getting married. Like ever. But look at me, going out with whatever trash that asks me out. Ammu says this can’t go on forever, that I need to “settle down”, whatever the heck that means.”
“I kind of gave in to Mom-pressure too. The guy is nice, rich family, will ‘let’ me study abroad if I want to. ‘What’s the harm?’ she says. And here I am, sharing a cigarette with a pretty girl. Dressed in a Manish Malhotra. Woo!” Natasha catches Fabi staring at her. She makes a great show of taking off her round glasses, cleaning it with the edge of her orna. “You look like a little owl.”
“Thanks, I get that a lot,” giggled Fabi.
“It’s cute though, it’s really very cute. You shouldn’t be upset about the date, you know. You’re so pretty, you can have anyone you want. Oh, hang on!” A phone rings. Natasha takes it out of her bridal purse and receives it immediately. Some of the sound leaks from the speaker.
“Tashu, where are you? We’re waiting here, isn’t the parlor lady done yet?”
“Don’t worry phuppi, my makeup is done. I’m actually stuck in traffic right now… yeah … okay, Allah hafez.” She flashed a mischievous grin at the little owl beside her.
“Oh, so this is how you’re buying time!”
“Yep. Desperate times call for desperate measures.” The runaway bride throws her head back in laughter.
The city gets colder at night, but noisier. The busy shoppers are already heading home, scurrying away in little silver cars. The gigantic mall is a respite from the hue and cry; it allows one to get lost in its endless maze. The cigarette ends for the two lost little girls. Fabi takes the last puff and flicks it away. The bright, hot embers disappear into the dark, leaving smoke and memory.
“Say Fabi, what’s your favorite Black Mirror episode? Not from like, the creepy ones though, pick one of the happy stories.”
Fabi likes how she has just assumed she would be a fan, out of nowhere, “Let me think…well, from the back of my mind I’d say ‘Hang the DJ’. What’s yours?”
The otherworldly-looking bride let out a deep, heavy sigh, “So you like all those ‘straight’ stories then.”
“Not necessarily,” says Fabi, sensing the disappointment in her voice, “I also really like ‘San Junipero’. It’s beautiful. And…”
“You’re so much like Kelly you know. Being with you is…”
The bride holds her face between her hands, “Is?”
“Liberating.” She lets the word hang in the air for a moment.
“Yorkie, have you always been sure, you know, about what you want?” Natasha gathers the courage to probe. She lets her fingers tiptoe against the dumpster surface. They seek out another pair of fingers within a short distance. The soft, short new fingers shiver a little.
“I have known. I have always, always known. And today, I’m pretty darn sure.”
The phone in Fabi’s hand lights up when a text message arrives. The notification says, “Hey I’m sorry, can we talk about this again when you…” A quick long press reveals the “delete” option. She has seen enough of him for the night.
“I’m calling an Uber,” declares Natasha’s bold, decisive voice. “I’m getting out of here. I’m not marrying him, or anyone.”
Fabi feels the bride’s grip tighten around her fingers.
“Run away with me?”
Running away is tempting. Running away is wild and free. Running away is an exquisite bride who wants to whisk one away from the world. The city restrains, the city asks, the city forbids, the city punishes the ones who run away.
“I’ll run away with you Natasha, I’ll go where you go. I’ll follow you wherever, I’ll…”
Unlike the red bride, barefaced Fabi has no trouble letting the tears stream down her face.
The Uber arrives in around five minutes.
Both of them hurry toward the car, toward the porch. Two sets of escalators, still running on full power, either bring people down from the second floor or take them on an upward climb.
It takes Natasha a while to get in the car. She carefully holds her lehenga, gathers all the folds and jumps inside. She fidgets around and adjusts her garb while on the seat. “Alright, I’m done fixing this stupid skirt. Now you get in.”
Escalators with a red arrow bring people down.
Escalators with a green arrow help people climb.
“Aren’t you coming, little owl?”
She took a careful step forward. Not toward the car ready to whisk her away. Not toward the girl who looks stunning tonight. Not toward the girl who made her feel something.
Fabi’s tiny feet barely take up any space on the automated stairs. She finds herself standing on one of the steps. It takes her up without effort, without her having to move, without her having to care.
Natasha’s expression is blank for a split second. She gathers herself the very next moment. Looking away from the mall, she simply tells her driver to step on it.
Qazi Mustabeen Noor is Staff Writer, Arts & Letters, Dhaka Tribune.