Mixing Politics and Sex with the Diplomat Next Door
"Mini Apple" by Mira Sethi, recommended by Farah Ali
Introduction by Farah Ali
How does one write stories about people in the chaotic, layered place that is Pakistan? At any given moment in a person’s day there, a variety of stressors act upon the mind and body. The news (politicians yelling from TV screens and phone screens), the commute (roads still left potholed from the last monsoon), the air quality (in the city, exhaust fumes happily mingling with dust). And they continue to act upon us even after we fall asleep. Then add to that the human longing for love and something resembling happiness. What motivations, then, does the writer choose to focus on for their characters, and which ones to not pay attention to?
Living in such a sensorily challenging place can cause the development of two defensive traits: cynicism and humor. Mira Sethi uses both naturally and writes leanly. Her debut collection, Are You Enjoying? (a question that causes one to shift around a little uncomfortably, guiltily), is filled with characters hustling to live in a manner that’s above mere survival. Teeth-gritted, they are determined to achieve the ideal states they have fixed upon, right or wrong. They are cynical and earnest (and it’s the earnestness in which the humor comes out). At the very moment of entering one of Sethi’s stories, you find yourself dealing with the aftershocks of events in that world. But because life must be lived and won, you instantly plunge ahead. You are aware of other happenings in your peripheral vision, but you put these aside—for now. That is a blueprint for decimating the odds, at least for a while.
In “Mini Apple” we meet Javed, an actor-turned-television personality. We meet him in the toilet. He is not a physically lonely man. He has people: a child and an ex-wife, management from the television network that airs his show. At the beginning of the story, he is invited to a party by his neighbor Marianne, an economic officer working at the American embassy. He is cynical: “He knew from experience that a little withholding went a long way.” But he’s not cynical enough to not want meaningful relationships. There is a connection to be rebuilt with his daughter, he recognizes. And then there is Marianne. With trepidation, the reader takes small step after small step toward her with Javed, watching his wariness fight with his need to give in.
We never want to look away. Not from Javed, and not from the other people we meet in the rest of Sethi’s debut collection. We feel compelled to stay with them until the end, offering our sympathies and unsolicited advice invisibly over their shoulders as we would to anyone else we want to protect.
– Farah Ali
Author of People Want to Live
Mixing Politics and Sex with the Diplomat Next Door
“Mini Apple” by Mira Sethi
Around 11:00 a.m., slack-limbed and sighing on the toilet seat, eyes closed, Javed heard a rap on the bathroom door.
He opened his eyes to the broken first flood of daylight. It was typical of the cook, these days Javed’s only house help, to disturb his delicate morning routine.
“Ye-es?” Javed said, his voice neutral, as if speaking across a glass door in an office.
“A gori madam is at the front door,” the cook mumbled.
As his fingers unclenched from the Muslim shower he was holding, Javed gulped back his sleeping breath. He’d gone to bed at 5:00 a.m., after recording a special report on the state of Pakistani democracy in his studio at Jeet TV.
“Show her to the drawing room. Use your common sense. And don’t disturb me in the potty next time.”
Javed had become even more of a workhorse six months before, after a raw and, he thought, unnecessary divorce.
He peeled the night shirt off his chest and let it fall to the floor. He looked in the mirror and breathed deliberately: once, and twice, three times, four times. These days a little meditation went a long bloody way. He brushed his teeth and walked back to his swampy bedroom. The bedsheets were soft with humidity. Javed threw on a clean kameez over his shalwar and sprayed Issey Miyake on his neck.
As he walked into the drawing room, Javed smiled to buoy his own confidence. “Aha! How nice to see you.” The good thing about being a television personality was that even in his gloomiest moments he could transform his mood at a moment’s notice. Tone of voice, steadiness of gaze, the spring in his smile: these aspects of himself now operated without effort, with the cold autonomy of need. Marianne Almond, an economic officer at the American embassy, had set foot in his house for the first time, but he knew her. He knew she lived in a house across his street; he’d seen her jogging in the neighborhood several times, a police officer always sprinting behind her.
“Sorry to have barged in,” said Marianne, a pale hand raised, as if testing for rain. “I figured you’d be home today.” She was wearing brown linen trousers and a black T-shirt. She had clear green eyes, and Javed saw that she was almost as tall as he was. Her eyebrows were so sparse light bounced off them.
She sat down on his plastic-covered sofa. “Do you have time to chat?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” Javed smiled, sitting on the sofa in front of her. “There’s an insect on your knee—”
“I’m having a party at my house tomorrow—”
“Go on,” she said. She swept a hand into her hair with the studied patience of a foreign dignitary. Then she cupped the beetle in her palm, set it on the floor.
“Would you like something to drink?” asked Javed.
“Oh, it appears your drinking pipes are leaking. My staff noticed the leak. You might want to get that checked.”
“I have bottled water. I’ll bring you a fresh bottle.”
To his relief he found two small bottles of Nestlé in the fridge. He grabbed a clean glass from the cabinet and brought the items to Marianne on a tray. He removed the cap in front of her.
“That’s very kind of you,” she said. She took a sip from the bottle and placed it between her feet.
That’s very kind of you. People in Pakistan had stopped uttering statements such as that’s very kind of you. No one said that’s very kind of you when you brought them water. The utterance reminded Javed of the photos he’d seen of Marianne at the launches of restaurants, boutiques, movie premieres, and inaugurations. In each photo, she had a that’s-very-kind-of-you air about her: eyes beaming with apology, face bashful with delight. That people invited her to cultivate proximity was obvious enough: Marianne Almond could always help in the facilitation of a visa. But they also jostled around her to inhale the source of her pristine foreignness, her teasing jokes, her voluminous brown hair that shone brassy in the Islamabad sun.
“Anyway,” said Marianne, interrupting Javed’s reverie. “I’m having a party at my place tomorrow. The guests will be a smattering of journos and diplomats. Join us if you can. I’ve been an appalling neighbor. Goodness. I’ve been meaning to extend an invitation for a long time.” And she rolled her eyes at her own unearthed delinquency.
“Don’t be silly,” said Javed. “It’s so nice that you came here. I will certainly try. I have a prior engagement,” he fibbed. “But it’s not so important. If I get done early I’ll be there with bells on.”
“Wonderful. I look forward to seeing you then,” said Marianne. She got up and smoothed the pleats of her trousers.
Javed couldn’t think of anything more to say, and she was already on her feet and waving goodbye with a twirl of her long fingers.
From the moment Marianne Almond had arrived in Islamabad two years before, during which time Javed had gotten married and divorced—his infant daughter lived with his ex-wife— he’d been reassured by an American presence across the road. Marianne had broken with tradition and chosen to live outside the Diplomatic Enclave—the sprawling complex of houses, gyms, grocery stores, tennis courts—where most ambassadors and embassy officers resided. Her decision was sanctioned by the Embassy, if unusual. The security architecture installed by her team had upgraded Javed’s neighborhood. Once a dusty expanse of eucalyptus-shaded bungalows, Green Acres now looked like the suburb of a spotless city: steel barriers, spikes, ramps, and towers padded by sandbags dotted most streets. The black-and-yellow concrete barriers had turned the roads into go-kart courses. “No security issues,” Javed would say to his friends. “Amreecans live here. Security is outstanding.”
Javed had switched to political commentary after fifteen full years as a television actor. He’d been a graceful presence on the screen, his gaze touched with roguish charm. When his first movie came out, in the early nineties, he’d had a business card emblazoned with the words Film Star. His friends had sniggered, and he’d burned all two hundred cards. A few years later Pakistan’s national channel had approached Javed to consider hosting his own talk show: he was selling himself short by being just an actor. He had more to offer the world, the producer said, like his wit and charisma. Javed had turned down the proposition. He had been, at the time, unsure of his ability to discuss, cleverly, culture and politics for a whole hour. Television had a way of revealing the inner truth of the host.
By the time privately funded channels came around, in the 2000s, Javed was in his late thirties, at the peak of his acting career. Umeed TV lured him with a package he couldn’t refuse: co-anchoring a news show with his then-girlfriend of three years. They were a power couple, beloved, on the verge of marriage. His girlfriend, a lawyer, had said the opportunity was the culmination of everything she had dreamed of. Javed’s analyses—critiquing the corruption of the ruling party, India’s belligerence, American interference in global affairs—had been widely praised on TV. What most people didn’t know was that Javed typed out his bare thoughts into bullet points; his girlfriend spun them into stunning discourses.
After a year of sitting next to each other four days a week behind a long red desk—of Javed occasionally pinching his girlfriend’s thigh behind it—she’d told him she was having an affair with the owner of the channel. Her expression was one of flat, unerring conviction, the same look she emitted to her viewers during a broadcast. She didn’t know where the relationship with the boss would go, she said, but she was certain she wanted to pursue it.
It was around this time that Javed, stricken, presented himself as a sacrificial offering. His parents reminded him he was approaching forty, that he was mad to still be single, so he said yes to his mother and his father. Actually what he said was yes—yes—yes, find me someone and I shall marry her. Then came Sameena, a marriage, a child, a rapid divorce.
After Marianne left, Javed fidgeted with his wristwatch and looked around. The torpor within him had been dislodged. Now that he was awake, he wondered what he would do for the rest of the afternoon. He said, “Allah ho Akbar,” with a long exhaling sigh to relieve a peculiar mounting restlessness. Though Javed lived alone, he’d observed that silences unsettled him: they rang in his skull, set his nerves on edge.
He walked around his house with curiosity, poking his head into dirty corners—behind the fridge, over the soot-stained wall above the oven—in astonishment at how seamlessly the order in his home had collapsed in the absence of his ex-wife. He didn’t miss Sameena, but his home had looked and smelled pleasant while she’d been around. These days going back to sleep often seemed like a sensible choice—if only he could truly sleep. He touched the blackened wall above the oven and looked at his smeared finger. Why had Marianne come bearing the invitation for the party? She could have sent a card; she could have asked any of her friends in the media for Javed’s phone number.
He meandered back to the drawing room to see it anew through her eyes. The walls were covered with framed photos of his parents and siblings and daughter. The room wasn’t sumptuous, but it was a picture of restrained dignity: a large red carpet bathed in afternoon light, sofas covered in plastic like expensive new cars.
He wondered if he should go to the party the next day.
He knew from experience that a little withholding went a long way.
For now, he would drive to the home of his former in-laws to see his daughter, Inaya. Before the divorce Sameena had complained that Javed’s working hours left him no time for their small family. She’d texted him verses from Rumi, urging him to realize the wound was where the light entered.
He hadn’t responded. Not once.
One day, she’d returned to her wealthy parents.
As Javed held his daughter in Sameena’s home, he was relieved to see Inaya gurgling with laughter at the slightest provocation: when Javed widened his eyes, when he touched and withdrew his hand from Inaya’s leg in repetitive fashion. His own face was thwacked with tiny hands, his chin streaked with spit. Sameena didn’t so much as offer him a cup of tea.
The next day, as a sound technician pinned a microphone inside Javed’s shirt, he thought of the way Marianne’s smile had lingered as she’d said I figured you’d be home today.
He resolved to skip her party.
On his way back from work he stopped at the supermarket and bought three crates of Nestlé bottled water. He bought bags of ice. He called up a friend to procure the number of a bootlegger, and ordered from Vicky Boot—the name under which his friend had saved the contact—bottles of red wine, scotch, and vodka. On the phone Vicky Boot spoke in a guarded tone; the indolence in his voice annoyed Javed until he realized that Vicky’s lagging manner was its own learnt protection.
Marianne’s party came and went. When Javed didn’t hear from her the day after, he curled under a cotton sheet and watched his most-viewed clips on YouTube.
Three days later, around 10:00 p.m., Javed heard the doorbell ring. He’d just gotten home from work, and his heart sped up as he switched on the air conditioner in his bedroom. He took off his white dress shirt and put on a white linen shirt. He spat in the sink and rushed to the door.
A police officer was standing next to Marianne. He was tall and square-jawed; a black handgun jutted from the holster around his waist.
“Any problem? Everything okay?” asked Javed.
“Jaav-ed!” said Marianne. “He’s here for my security. Nothing to worry about. May I come in?”
Javed invited the officer in but he said he’d prefer to stay outside.
Javed led Marianne to the drawing room. “One moment, please.”
He returned with a bottle of scotch, a juice jar full of water, a bottle of wine, and a bucket of ice. Some spicy peanuts in a bowl.
“What would you like to drink? What may I pour you?”
“You’re all so frantically—adorably—hospitable.”
“It’s in our genes.”
“But just a tiny bit.” She raised her index finger. “Red, please. Won’t you have any?”
“I don’t drink. Sadly.” And he shrugged.
“Don’t like the taste. Honestly.”
“How come I didn’t see you at my party?”
“I was with my daughter,” said Javed, fibbing, since he’d seen Inaya the day before the party. “She lives with her mother and I get to see her once a week.”
“Ah, right,” said Marianne. “The American ambassador asked after you. She was complimenting your show on the recent case of land grabbing in Karachi.” She took a sip of wine from the glass, looking at Javed over the rim. “ ‘Brave of him to do it,’ she said.”
“The channel wasn’t happy. They say I ‘cost’ them too much.” He took a deep breath. “But that’s jolly nice of the ambassador,” he said, and felt the intrusion of “jolly”—a word unpracticed on his tongue—hang awkwardly in the air.
He said, “The three of us should do dinner soon. InshaAllah.”
“That would be great. It seems you’re busier than ever.”
Then swiftly, but smoothly, Javed reached for the tips of Marianne’s fingers and kissed her hand. It was an old trick, the gesture courteous, restrained, poised on the edge of chivalry—or possibly something more. When Javed lifted his eyes to observe Marianne’s face, she was staring back at him, dumbly stunned, as if what he had done was strange yet somehow acceptable. Her lips were neither open nor sealed, but set in an uncertain moue. It was as if she was about to whisper, That was very kind of you.
She cleared her throat. “How do you think the government is doing these days?”
“It’s a nightmare, isn’t it.”
“Everyone in the world should have a right to vote in the U.S. election, however,” said Javed.
“That’s interesting.” She was smiling. “But what a relief. For us, I mean. Anyway, I should get going,” she said and put her glass down. With her fingers she raked her hair into a crinkled bun. “I hope you managed to get those pipes fixed.”
“Not yet. The leak isn’t so bad. Let me show you out.”
After she’d gone, Javed stared at himself in the mirror for a long time. He saw a divorced workaholic who could, if he really wanted, seize happiness at this late, wrecked stage in his life.
Marianne did not return the next day, or the day after. Javed had recorded a two-day segment on the energy crisis in Pakistan. He’d said solar-driven energy was the way forward, that the American government was going out of its way to provide Pakistan with sustainable solutions. It didn’t help to be pro-American these days, but he’d slipped in a compliment, and he wondered if she’d seen the show.
He rushed home as soon as he finished recording in his studio. He lay on his bed, slightly red in the face when he didn’t hear from Marianne. The ceiling fan whirred. He told himself not to worry. He would have to be patient.
Or he would have to be proactive.
He picked up his phone. He told his research assistant to comb Google for the words “Marianne Almond.” He wanted all the information, especially the stuff that seemed irrelevant.
The next morning his assistant dropped off a file at Javed’s house. Javed spent the morning huddled in his bedroom, orange highlighter in hand, going through a stack of printouts. He smiled as he highlighted the word “divorce” in a Saturday profile of Marianne. He noted her decision to retain her ex-husband’s last name—it was easy to pronounce in the parts of the world in which she worked, she’d said: Almond, just like the nut.
Around noon Javed showered, changed into blue jeans and a lilac polo, and walked across to Marianne’s house.
“I’d like to see Marianne,” he told the officer outside her gate.
“All right,” said the officer. “You have an appointment?”
“Just tell her Javed is here. From that house.” He pointed to his wrought-iron gate.
“Like I asked, sir, do you have an appointment?”
“I’m sorry, you can’t go in without pre approval.”
“If you tell her my name, she’ll be okay with it.”
“Let me see what I can do.” As the officer crackled his walkie-talkie, Javed heard a familiar voice: “Jaav-ed!”
He turned around. How pretty she looked.
“It’s okay.” She waved to the officer. “Let him through.” She was standing by the main door in jeans and a loose faded T-shirt printed with the words Yes We Can. Her feet were bare and her T-shirt dug a sharp V into the surf of her breasts. Three bars of sunlight pooled over her face, and seeing her framed in the doorway in her shoeless feet, her décolletage shimmering in the sun, Javed felt a tingle of delight at the sudden hidden provocation of the afternoon.
He was led through a hallway, patted down, his shoes, wallet, and keys put through an X-ray scanner, then handed back to him by a younger-looking security official.
Marianne laid a hand on the officer’s shoulder. “Thanks, Imran.”
She pointed to an open door. “I’ll be with you in a second, Jaav-ed.”
He walked into a vast, gray-carpeted, bureaucratic-smelling room. Plaques of Plexiglas lined the main shelf to the side of her desk: an award from the Pakistan Greens recognizing Marianne Almond as an environmental leader, another from the Government of Pakistan lauding her efforts to push renewable energy in the Punjab province, and one from the State Department honoring her commitment to public service. Behind her desk, a framed map of Minnesota—a cartoonish profile of a man with a long beak—hung next to a framed map of the Punjab.
Marianne walked into the room, a soccer ball in her hand. “Made in Sialkot.” She smiled.
She breezed past him like a headmistress inspecting the lineup for morning assembly.
“How are you, by the way?” she asked.
“Very well, thanks.” He paused. “All the better for seeing you.” He motioned with his hands that she should throw the ball to him, and she lobbed it.
“The soccer World Cup balls are all made here,” said Javed. “I mean in Pakistan.”
“I’m not a bad player myself,” she smiled.
“Are you not!”
“What would you like to drink? Lemonade?”
“That would be lovely.”
Marianne placed the order on the intercom in Urdu—“Dou nimbu paani shukria”—the words stacked together as if shukria were part of the drink. Her identity fragmented for a moment into that of a child in a foreign land.
She took three scarves from the top drawer of her desk and laid them out. “This one”—she trailed a finger over an orange scarf—“is from Larkana.” She looked up. “And this is from one of the Afghan shops in Jinnah Super. And this, oh, my favorite, a woman at Faisal masjid just gave it to me. I said no but she insisted I have it. Isn’t it beautiful?”
The words—Larkana, Sialkot, masjid in lieu of “mosque”— slipped from her mouth like air. Her pronunciation was far from perfect, but what a thing her confidence was!
“Frankly, I’m quite amazed by you,” said Javed. “By your resourcefulness, your positivity, your decision to live here. God knows this country is neither safe nor easy. I’m amazed by your courage—worn so lightly. It’s a hard place in which to plant roots.”
Marianne looked at him. She was quiet. She met his gaze. “I appreciate that.”
She knotted the orange scarf around her neck. “I wanted to live outside the enclave to experience the real Pakistan. It’s important to me. It’s important to immerse oneself.”
Javed strode across the carpet and kissed her on her hair. He’d meant to kiss her lips, but her height unsettled him, and the gesture spilled into solemnity. The blinds in the room were drawn. At first, Marianne didn’t respond. She stood stiffly erect, as if up against a wall. Then, she placed a palm on his cheek, and brushed her lips against his.
Javed could hear his heart thrashing inside his ears.
She led him to the sofa, where she shifted her buttocks deeper into the creased leather upholstery. She touched Javed’s nose. “You’re sweet.”
He blushed and looked at the carpet. “You don’t watch my current affairs show?”
“My Urdu isn’t that great.” He laughed.
“I’m sure it’s brilliant,” she said. “But, listen. This”—she pointed a finger at Javed, at herself—“is tricky.”
“I understand. Of course.”
“You’re not in the government, so it’s technically fine, but we have to be careful about this kind of thing. Only for security purposes. As I’m sure you understand.”
“You shouldn’t have to worry about anything. I’ve lived across from you for two years.”
“This reporter at my party—when I brought you up she said she was engaged to you at some point. She didn’t say more.”
“She left me. For the owner of the channel where she and I used to work.”
Marianne’s eyes softened. “Sorry, Jaav-ed.”
“Soon after she ditched me I got married very quickly. That too was a disaster.” And he laughed wearily.
“She wanted to make it work but I was too busy getting my show going.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“You don’t have to be sorry.”
Marianne fidgeted with her opal drop earring. She had beautiful fingers, long and clean, like a librarian’s. Then briskly she got up from the sofa, her arms crossed over her chest.
Javed didn’t want to sink the mood. “I’ll check in with you soon,” he said, standing up. He kissed her shoulder and walked out the door, past the security scanner, past her guard—whose stare he ignored—and onto the barricaded road, where he breathed a sigh of complicated relief.
When the map on the wall confirmed what he’d read of Marianne, that she was from Minneapolis, Javed set about reading everything he could about the city. He memorized the names of its historic sites of protest, its most famous parks—Minnehaha Park, Chain of Lakes, St. Anthony Falls—the names of renowned politicians who’d come from the city. The next time he saw her it was at his home, two days later.
The formality of their last encounter had disappeared. She rang a triple chime ding-ding-ding, and as soon as Javed opened the door she leaned in to hug him. He noticed that she’d ditched her security guard.
Javed handed Marianne a glass of wine as he sat beside her on the red damask sofa in his living room.
The TV screen was split into three: a male anchor with coal-black hair to the left, Maulana Amin of the Islamic Board in the middle, a female anchor to his right. The Maulana was asked his opinion on the recent talk on social media of reviving Basant, a kite-flying festival that had been banned by the government several years before. The government had argued that the string attached to kites was coated with glass: as the kites fell from the sky they often landed on the necks of cyclists and motorcyclists, leading to instant death. Dozens died every year. And since the illegal manufacturing of glass-coated string could not be halted, Basant would remain banned.
Maulana Amin rubbed his eyes, his stomach a gushing sack in the center of the screen. “Basant is a Hindu festival,” he said. “It was never part of Pakistani culture. That is why it should stay banned.” He raised a finger. “Today I hereby issue a fatwa against all those Pakistanis who are promoting this Hindu festival—”
“Sir,” the lady interrupted. “Public opinion shows that most Pakistanis miss flying kites.”
“I will give a fatwa.” He hiccuped. His speech was slurred. The anchors cast their gaze downward. A moment later they cut him off.
“Oh, Maulana sahab!” said Marianne. “He came to the Ambassador’s house recently and guzzled half a bottle of Black Label.”
“Of course. With us they’re open.”
“God, the hypocrisy. He wants to prove his moderate credentials to you,” said Javed.
“There are, like, fifty liberals in this country and I’ve met all of them.” Her mouth was slack, in exaggerated disdain, like that of a comedian. “The ‘silent majority’ isn’t interested in secularism or liberalism or for that matter fundamentalism.” She took a big gulp of the wine. “Folks just want economic uplift.”
Javed took a sip of his soda. He was listening.
“The conservative elites are definitely my favorite,” she chuckled. “At least they’re consistent: no sleeveless, no sharaab!” She tapped her finger against her wine glass. “And what about you?”
“What about me?”
“Leftist? Bhuttoist? Closet Islamist?”
“That’s right: you don’t watch my show. How would you know?”
She flared her nostrils.
She grazed her lips against his.
He led her to the bedroom, where she drank, slowly, another glass of wine. With her toes she peeled off the back straps of her sandals and climbed into his bed, cool in the vacancy of the afternoon. Their clothes were off before Javed could get nervous. He was astonished at the ease of the process, at Marianne’s instinctiveness guiding his own. He was accustomed to more tortured maneuverings, conversations held in codes of innuendo. He buried his face in her chest, scented like cake. He tipped her left breast upward with his fingers. “Mini apple,” he said. “Mini apple being the nickname of Minneapolis.”
Her face collapsed into laughter. Javed saw crow’s-feet, elegant in their translucence, in the corners of her eyes.
“You’re supersweet,” she was saying.
Afterward, she asked him about his daughter. He said Inaya was just under a year old, that she was a piece of his heart. His ex-wife, when they were still married, had wanted him to leave his job on TV, he told Marianne. He’d declined to do so, and, soon after, she’d left him, saying his career in the media had ruined him, that he acted like he was still a bachelor. He hadn’t at all, he said. He missed his daughter dearly.
Javed laid his head on Marianne’s chest, feeling the rise and ebb of her breath.
“Why didn’t you have children,” he asked.
“I never wanted kids.”
“And your ex-husband?”
“He was happy to go along with what I wanted. He’s all right. We talk sometimes.” Her green eyes flickered. “He worries about me.”
“Why does he worry?”
“Because I’m in Pakistan, of course.”
Javed sat up. He held her shoulders. “You shouldn’t worry. Pakistan has embraced you. And you fit in so well.”
She brushed her thumb against Javed’s eyes. “It’s nice here with you.” She looked down at her bare breasts. “Mini apples, eh?”
“Would you prefer another, more obvious, fruit?”
She laughed. “I like mini apple. How clever of you. It can be our little secret.”
Javed and Marianne saw each other twice a week—in the afternoons or at night, depending on their schedules—once at his house, once at hers. They made love right away, and talked afterward. Javed longed to know the names of the journalists and lawyers and politicians with whom she frequently dined. Once he knew he could decide whether or not to feel anxious. It was too early in their relationship, if he could call it that, to ask her. Marianne shared select details of her social life in Islamabad, and Javed was smart enough not to prod.
One evening, as Marianne was standing in the kitchen of her home making an avocado sandwich, Javed asked her what Minneapolis was like. She said quickly and flatly that she disliked it. She was wearing billowy white pajamas and a white tank top. Her hair had been hurried, without a pin or a clasp, into a bun. Her parents had not gotten along, Marianne told him, and going back to Minneapolis filled her with a nagging sadness. That was one of the reasons why, she said, she’d taken a job that enabled her to see the world. She couldn’t stay in one place for too long; she became restless. Pakistan was not without its share of troubles, she said, but it was “resilient as hell.” Javed told her she seemed comfortable in Islamabad and she agreed.
“By the way,” he said. “When you came over to invite me for the party: Was that a pretext?”
She raised an eyebrow. “For?”
A ringing laugh, at once wild and surrendering, and a toss of her head that sent her hair cascading onto her breasts.
Another weekend rolled along, and Javed canceled his social engagements. Instead, he went shopping for snacks. He bought artisanal cheeses, hummus, crackers, lime cordial, soda water, tonic. He bought hand towels and arranged them in his bathroom. He sponged the sooty wall behind the kitchen stove. With a thistle broom he swept behind the oven, scraping out burnt matchsticks, Cheerios meshed with human hair, a cracked tennis ball. He scraped out a couple of dead roaches from under the sink cabinet, flicked them to a corner.
When the cook said he felt embarrassed watching Javed clean, Javed looked him dead in the eye. “The only thing permanent in life is change,” he divulged.
He gave the cook two weeks off.
Javed arranged a list of songs on his phone—Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Beatles, Abida Parveen—waiting for the moment when Marianne would ring the bell, and he’d rush to the door, the silence between them a promise of things to come. He chilled bottles of beer and wine, bought air fresheners and new underwear. He felt comfortable walking around in front of Marianne in his underwear, a hand patting the flatness of his stomach, as if the action ensured slimness. Marianne laughed at him, told him he was image-obsessed. “The camera puts on fifteen pounds,” he told her, grudging the fact as much as he was transfixed by it.
Marianne liked red wine, and Javed made sure he had a new bottle for her every week, though she never drank more than two glasses. He admired her discipline, and tasting the sour wine on her mouth made him stiff with desire.
She asked him, while they were sitting on his bed, what the real reason was for his abstinence. He told her his father had liked his drink a bit too much.
“We have more in common than you realize,” she said, stretching her legs. “My mother was an alcoholic. I went through a period in college when I didn’t drink. Then I realized how stupid that was: a reaction. You should try it sometime.”
He said he would, if they traveled abroad together.
On an overcast April afternoon, as Javed and Marianne sat on a glazed wicker settee in her veranda looking out at the garden, Marianne asked Javed if he wanted to go for a drive in her SUV. A light rain had begun to fall, and the raindrops trickling into the two-tiered stone fountain in the garden created a feeling of nostalgia, as if it were a scene from one of Javed’s old films. It occurred to him it had been nearly three weeks since he’d seen Inaya. He longed to introduce his kid to Marianne, perhaps take them to a restaurant. He could imagine a life in which Marianne encouraged him to be a better father. He could imagine accomplishing quite a lot with her at his side.
“I know how much you love cars,” said Marianne, trailing a finger across her chin.
“Will you drive?” he asked.
“Not allowed, I’m afraid.” She exhaled, leaning her head back.
“Don’t you miss the freedom of your old life?”
“I miss walking. Like literally walking to the supermarket to pick up a toothbrush. The U.S.? Not so much. I’m big on adventure.” She got up and stretched her arms.
“How much longer are you here for?” he asked.
“Could be a day, could be a decade! Not up to me.”
“I’ll drive your car, if it’s okay with you. Just this once.”
“That buffoon guard of yours can follow us.”
“Mmmmm,” she said, twirling on her feet. “Do I detect a hint of jealousy?”
“He’s very protective of you.”
“He’s here for my security. That’s all.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course!” She pulled him by the hands. “Let’s dance.”
“Stayin’ Alive” had begun playing on Marianne’s phone. Javed stared at her.
Then his shoulders shimmied while his feet remained perfectly still. His forearms flicked and unlocked. The right hand rose skyward, finger erect, his hip thrust gorgeously to the left. He danced a pointy-finger dance. He spun on his feet and landed on a seamless toe stand.
Marianne grabbed him and kissed him on the lips. “Spend the night today. I don’t know when we’ll get the chance again.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m really happy to be with you and I want you to stay. And I want to be able to say that.”
“Of course. I’ve always wanted that, Marianne.” He pulled her by the hands beyond the veranda and into the rain, where her face, streaked with rain, flushed a sultry freckled red.
On Sunday afternoon as Javed was shaving shirtless in front of the sink, his phone vibrated on the terrazzo countertop.
“Haan jee!” Javed pressed the speakerphone button.
His producer said he wanted to talk to Javed about something important. It would be best, he said, if they met in person. Javed said he would be happy to meet immediately, since he was busy in the evening.
Javed showered and changed and drove, his car zigzagging through the black-and-yellow concrete barriers, onto the main road, and on toward the studio headquarters of Jeet TV. He walked into a harshly lit meeting room with yellow chairs and a long beige table. His producer, Ahmed, in khakis and a denim shirt, met him inside. They hugged, and Ahmed tapped his hand to his heart. After asking Javed how he was, and whether he’d like some tea, he told Javed that the rating of Javed’s show had dropped. He wasn’t sure why, he said: the channel had monitored the rating for a month, and instead of climbing up, it had dipped. He told Javed, taking long pauses in between his words, that the channel had decided to shift Javed’s show to the 3:00 p.m. slot.
A wave of distress plowed into Javed. The 3:00 p.m. slot was given to second-rate anchors and watched by housewives. He recognized a demotion when he saw one.
“I see,” said Javed. “This is news to me.”
He knew it would make no sense to share his concerns with a junior producer—a twenty-seven-year-old kid—like Ahmed.
To register his displeasure, which he knew would be reported to senior management, he added that the decision felt very sudden, and strange. He told Ahmed he would get back to him.
When Javed told Marianne the news over dinner at a Chinese restaurant, she tipped her head. “How do you feel?
“Bloody upset,” he said, sliding to one side the chopsticks he couldn’t use. “Feel cheated.”
The restaurant was small, bathed in red and black tones. The ceiling was strung with illuminated red lanterns.
“Ask them to show you the numbers,” she said. “Don’t leave the slot without having seen the numbers.”
“It’s so bizarre. My show is one of the most popular. There’s something fishy going on.”
“Are you surprised?” she asked. “Did you have a sense of how the show was going?”
“Absolutely fine,” said Javed. “As far as I know. My interview with the Chief Minister had the highest rating recently.”
She placed her hand over his. “You’ll be fine.”
“I want to get to the bottom of this,” he said.
“You absolutely must. And I’m here for you. Let me know how I can help.” From the small bamboo steamer she pinned a dumpling between her chopsticks. “Try this, they’re so good.” Javed leaned over and she slipped the dumpling into his mouth.
Two days later a sanitation team in white uniform arrived to fix the pipes in Javed’s house. Marianne had sent three Pakistanis, and an American supervised them. Javed was touched by the gesture. It hinted at a subtle intimacy, one that asked no questions but took liberties with its love.
Javed watched the men as they went about their work soundlessly. When he offered to pay, the American supervisor said the bill had been taken care of.
Javed went to the local florist and bought a large bouquet of imported lilies. He picked up a bottle of wine from his house. He’d never anticipated responding so readily to a woman’s needs.
At the gate, the guard stopped him. “You should know me by now, buddy.”
“How can I help you?”
Javed told the guard to pat him down quickly so he could see Marianne.
A pink-orange sky stirred behind rows of swollen cloud. The guard said Marianne Almond had left.
“What do you mean left?”
“She’s gone back to the U.S.”
The guard said she’d left Pakistan the night before. A new officer was due to move in.
Javed stood still, not sure if he had heard right. He knew he had heard right. A hot rushing pressure rose in his chest.
“But why?” he finally asked.
“You’ll have to ask her that.”
Javed stood on the pavement, trying to suppress the panic lashing inside him.
“I see,” he said, and turned back.
In his bedroom Javed opened up his laptop and wrote Marianne an email. He typed an anguished note—How could she just leave without saying goodbye? What was going on? Was she planning on returning?—and deleted it. He typed a cooler note—Why had she left? Had something happened?—and deleted it. With a woman like Marianne, confrontation would not get him far. In the few weeks he’d known her, he’d learnt that resolute cheerfulness and candor—a strange combination— worked best with Marianne. Her own temperament was a mix of the two, and she’d demanded the same of her lover. As he fought back his tears, he thanked her, first, for having had the pipes fixed. He told her he’d walked over to her house to find her gone. He said he missed her terribly. He said he wished she’d told him about her departure. Why hadn’t she told him?
Was she planning on returning?
As soon as Javed sent the email, he received an automated reply. Marianne Almond, the text said, would be away from her email for the next two weeks. It was her personal email address. The message didn’t say more.
Javed coiled onto his bed, summoned by a sticky ache in his heart. A gusty rain swept Islamabad, showering leaves in his driveway. It carried away dust, glittering the trees and bushes. Marianne had told him that rain in Minneapolis made her blue, but the thundering Islamabad rains always gladdened her. It was impressions like these, so removed from his expectations of a foreign sensibility, which made her unique. He had marveled at her ease, her interest in his land and his people. Or perhaps she had said these things to impress him. Well-traveled people made masterful liars. As the rain slashed against his window, Javed imagined being killed. A scenario composed itself in his head: a group of terrorists would get past the barricade while Javed was out for a walk. They would kill him, and the Americans would retaliate. Javed would become a martyr, and Marianne Almond, cut up by relief that she’d escaped, and a very American guilt that Javed had not, would start a fund in his name. Old clips from his show would be played on TV. “A crusader on the screen. A hero in life.” Marianne would feel wretched for having deserted him.
Javed looked out the window; the sky was a glinting pane, blue-gray, after a storm.
He wished desperately to cover the ground of his pain as fast as his body would allow. To muffle the wound for the time it took to forget it. It was how someone like him got by.
That night, Javed emptied a bottle of wine in the kitchen sink and watched with grim focus as the liquid slunk down the drain. The splash of red-purple filled him with despair. Without feeling coerced or pressured, he’d fallen in love. It wasn’t an idealized past he missed, but the real encounters of intimacy—the jointly created jokes in which they’d sought sanctuary, the exchanging and shedding of vulnerability in their homes. She’d managed to pull him up from above, helping him become a more secure version of himself, at once holding him, comforting him from below.
He wished Marianne were standing next to him, pleading with him to not break the bottles. She would hold his arm and he would prop her up on the sink and fuck her.
From the kitchen window, Javed saw a new officer, perhaps Marianne’s replacement, getting out of a black bulletproof SUV. She was a small woman with a mousy face and small shoulders. She tottered on high heels. She didn’t touch, in passing, the hands and shoulders of her colleagues, as Marianne used to do.
He sprinted out of his kitchen, toward the gate, and up to the SUV.
“Javed Rehman.” He plunged his hand forward. “Your neighbor.” He pointed to his house.
“Hello, Javed. Vicky Shields.”
“Welcome, Miss Shields. Excuse the intrusion, but any idea why Marianne Almond left so suddenly?”
“Not at liberty to say. I’m sorry.” Her face froze. And she turned on her heels.
“One moment!” said Javed. But her security guards indicated, their palms out, that he should stay away.
Though Javed had retreated to the sofa, to the churning darkness offered by his eyes, sleep eluded him. He flipped and tossed. No matter how hard he pressed his eyes shut, the mind chugged. Javed ignored the many phone calls from his producer asking him where he was, what he’d decided, and, finally, if he was alive.
When he arrived at the home of his former in-laws to meet Inaya, Sameena came by to say hello. Javed apologized for not having shown up for four weeks.
“We were wondering what happened,” said Sameena, a hand on her hip. “Bachelor life too hectic?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m really sorry.” His voice was rough, dispatched from a place deeper than his vocal cords.
He placed his phone on the table in front of him. He picked up Inaya, inhaling her tart, powdery scent. Sameena sat down on the sofa next to the door.
“I need to see Inaya more often,” he said.
“Just look at the bags under your eyes.”
“I just. Please. Twice a week.” He kissed Inaya’s belly.
“Once a week is more than enough if you can be bothered to make it.”
“You can send her to my house if you prefer.”
“Absolutely out of the question.” Sameena flicked the hair out of her eyes. “Your house is a hovel. Just stepping inside gives one depression.”
“I promise it’s clean now. I clean it myself sometimes.”
“If you’re going to lie about stupid things, I’m not letting my child near you.”
“I’m not, but fine. I’m really not. I’ll come here to see her.”
His phone lit up. The locked screen showed the first line of the email. Javed heaved himself toward the phone, handing Inaya to her mother.
Hi—great to hear from you. Sorry for late reply—just arrived in Sierra Leone. And sorry not to have said a real goodbye! Left in a rush. Am working in the countryside, not checking email regularly. Yrs, MA.
He read Marianne’s email twice. The first time his heart surged so loudly he could barely focus on the words. He read it again, taking in the more helpful aspects of the information she’d provided. He imagined Marianne in a green field, brushing hair off the foreheads of strangers’ children. The thought of her walking around in her cotton tunic, her breasts safe and fragrant, steadied him. He read the email for the third time, registering her heartbreaking reserve. He wondered why she had signed off so formally, with her initials.
His eyes mapped the text.
Yrs, Mini Apple
He looked up from the phone and saw Sameena staring at him. He sat down next to her and, his hands hanging by his sides, gazed blankly forward.