“Saadi it’s almost twelve, wake up!” Mariam Saad exclaimed as she pulled away from the peach colored comforter from her husband’s face. Her husband just mumbled something unintelligent before turning around and burying his face in the pillow. A small smile tugged Mariam’s lips as she stared down at her prone darling and wondered for the millionth time how he managed to get up every morning in the unit. Sitting down beside him, Mariam softly ran her fingers through his short brown hair and once again said, “Wake up Saadi, what’s the point of your leave if you sleep the whole day away?”
Saad slowly turned his face towards his wife and smiled sleepily with his eyes still closed and whispered, “Begum the real question is, what is the point of my leave if I don’t sleep the whole day?” Mariam stopped stroking Saad’s head and frowned down at him. At the sudden halt of his wife’s fingers, Saad peaked up at her with one eye before bursting into a loud laugh when found her glaring at him. “Saad Ahmed you are honestly the most frustrating man on the face of the earth.” Mariam snarled getting up from the bed. Saad, however, caught her hand at the last moment pulling her back to him, “Correction Begum,” he laughed, “I am the most handsome, frustrating man on the face of the earth.”
“What is that you used to say, oh yeah Saadi it’s unfair how hot you are.” He added with a wink.
“I must have been blinded temporarily,” Mariam replied rolling her eyes.
“The Nile isn’t just a river in Egypt darling” Saad replied as he pushed a tendril away from Mariam’s face and tucked it behind her ear. She leaned into her husband’s touch as a soft sigh escaped her lips. She had missed him so much in the past four months he had been away.
“Saad I missed you so much.” She confessed softly staring into his chocolate brown eyes.
“I missed you too Begum”, Saad replied all playfulness leaving his voice.
“When will you be posted from there?” Mariam inquired as she laid down next to her husband and rested her head on his shoulder.
Saad intertwined his fingers with Mariam’s and stared at their joined hands for a few seconds before saying, “I don’t know, the unit was due to move at the start of next year but seeing the present situation I don’t think we will move at least until after February. ”
“Is it really serious over there?” Mariam asked turning her head to look at Saad’s face.
“Honestly Mariam, fire exchange on the LOC isn’t really a big deal, it happens every other day.”
“But now it’s a big deal?” She asked softly her heart thumping wildly at the thought of her Saad being so close to danger. She placed a hand over his heart taking reassurance in its strong and steady beat.
In the days to come when he would leave again, she would stare at her palms wondering how it felt to press them on his strong chest and enjoy its calm rise and fall as the heat from his body warmed her skin.
“It’s going to be okay, baby,” Saad reassured his wife placing a soft kiss on her temple.
“Saadi, you are never in the range of their guns, right?” Mariam finally gathered the courage to ask the question that had been on her mind since Saad’s unit moved near the LOC.
“Honestly, everyone on the post is a target and is very much in their range” Saad answered honestly even though he knew that the answer would crush Mariam. As much as he wanted to protect her from every kind of pain, he also wanted her to be aware of the situation. He knew that his Begum was stronger than she appeared and could handle the truth. Mariam didn’t reply to this and Saad kept playing with her fingers staring at the ceiling, already dreading being away from her. Even though he still had two more weeks of leave, his heart shuddered at the thought of being away from his wife.
It was when he felt something wet on his shoulder a few minutes later did he turn his face towards his wife, only to find her staring at him as tears slipped from her beautiful hazel colored eyes.
Seeing the anguish on Mariam’s face, Saad’s heart broke for her. He couldn’t even try to imagine the pain she was going through at the moment; he couldn’t put himself in her shoes. Just the mere idea of her not being okay drove him crazy. But maybe that was the reason only the women had to bear this burden, because if men were ever tested in such a way they would fail. Only women had the capability and strength to fight the battle away from the battlefield.
“I’m okay, baby.” He whispered wiping away the tears with his thumb before pressing his lips to her delicate forehead.
Taking a deep breath Mariam gently rubbed her finger over a small scar below his right eye and whispered, “I know, I’m just being silly.”
“You are never silly; it’s okay to be afraid.”
“Are you sure about that? If I remember correctly, you thought I was very silly when I refused to dive from that cliff.”
A small chuckle escaped his lips and said, “Okay so maybe you are silly sometimes. But this isn’t one of those times.”
She remained quiet for a few moments playing with his earlobe before asking, “Saadi can you promise me one thing?”
“Promise to recite Ayat-ul-Kursi before getting out of your bed each morning.”
“Always, Begum”, he promised staring into the hazel eyes that had him mesmerized since the first time he had stared into them two years ago.
“Good, now get out of bed we have too much to do today,” Mariam ordered pulling away from him and standing up.
“Please don’t tell me we have another lunch to attend.” Saad groaned, throwing an arm over his eyes.
“Not today, but Shafia Phupho has invited us to dinner tomorrow,” Mariam replied opening the wardrobe to take out clothes for him.
“I told you I don’t want to attend any more parties. I’ve had enough in the last week; can’t a man just relax on his vacations?” Saad inquired picking up the towel from the chair.
“I had absolutely nothing to do with it, Auntie agreed to it.”
“Couldn’t you have stopped Mama?”
“Umm and why exactly would I do that? I love seeing you stifle your yawns when Uncle and Phupha start discussing the stock market.”
“I hate you” Saad grumbled closing the bathroom door behind him.
“But I love you, darling,” Mariam responded cheekily, “Also what do you want for breakfast?”
“I want that crispy paratha you make. I’ve been here for five days and you still haven’t made it for me.” He replied from the other side. And Mariam could bet anything that he was pouting on the other side.
“Aww! you missed my parathas.” She cooed, making the bed.
“Well duh, who wouldn’t miss them?”
“I swear to Allah this is the best paratha in the whole universe!” Saad moaned, as he stuffed another bite into his mouth.
Mariam smiled fondly at her husband from across the table and asked, “Don’t you get Parathas in your unit?”
“We do but no one in the world can make them as good as you.” He explained taking a sip of tea.
“Why are you so cute?” She asked taking a small bite of her toast.
“It’s a mixture of good genetics and my general awesomeness.” He replied with a grin.
“How exactly do you walk through doors with that humongous head of yours?”
“It’s a talent only a few have, so what’s the agenda for today?” Saad asked taking another bite.
“Well first we need to pick up your uniform from the tailor, afterward you’re taking me shopping since there is a sale on Khaadi and after that, we’re going to watch the Suicide Squad.” She listed off with a sweet smile.
“I don’t want to watch the Suicide Squad, can we watch Ben-Hur instead?” He pleaded pouting at her.
“No, I’ve been dying to watch the suicide squad. I refused to go with Sara last week because I wanted to watch it with you.” She replied laughing at his silly pout.
“But the reviews aren’t so great and Morgan Freeman is in Ben-Hur.” He added wiping his hands with the tissue paper.
“And Jared Leto is in suicide squad” Mariam informed, picking up the empty plates from the table.
“That guy is lame” Saad exclaimed, helping his wife clear up the table.
“Have you seen how hot he looks as the Joker?” She asked with a raised eyebrow, putting on an apron.
“How is someone with green hair hot?” Saad inquired, tying the apron on her back before placing a soft kiss on the back of her head and inhales her sweet sour apple scent.
“Thank you and if I remember correctly, someone had a man crush on Heath Ledger,” Mariam said craning her neck back to press a kiss on her husband’s jaw before she made her way to the sink and started doing the dishes.
“That guy was a legend!” Saad informed, “His acting was just too good.”
“It was okay I guess,” Mariam said in a bored tone, rinsing a teacup.
“Who are you and what have you done to my Mariam?” Saad asked in absolute horror, putting down the plate he was wiping with a clang.
“I’m just saying that according to the internet, Leto was amazing,” Mariam said with a shrug closing the water tap and wiping her hands with the kitchen towel.
“He might be good but he can’t be as good as Ledger.” Saad huffed.
“There is only one way to find out then, isn’t there?” Mariam challenged with a wicked grin.
“I know what you did their woman, but fine, we’ll watch the suicide squad.” Saad replied before adding with a smirk, “Besides I’ve heard Margot Robbie looks great in it. I have always had a soft spot for Harley Quinn.”
“That’s it,” Mariam snapped throwing the apron on the counter rather dramatically, “We’re watching Ben-Hur!”
“Are you sure Begum, because I don’t mind watching the suicide squad?” Saad inquired following her to their bedroom.
“I’m sure you don’t,” She glared at him.
Saad had just opened his mouth to reply when his cell phone started ringing. Taking it out of his pocket casually he checked the caller ID, the playful grin slipped off his face and he answered it with a serious, “Assalam-o-Alaikum Sir!”
Mariam stared at him in confusion before he mouthed the word 2IC and understanding dawned on her face. She sat down at the edge of the bed watching her husband pace along the length of the room talking on the phone.
“It has just been five days, Sir”
“I understand, Sir.”
“It will be difficult, Sir.”
“Sir, I will see what I can do.”
“It not a problem, Sir.”
“Yes Sir, I will let you know.”
” Allah Hafiz, Sir,” Saad said before ending the call and throwing the phone on the chair beside him. Mariam heard him take a deep breath and watched him squeeze the back of his neck staring outside the bedroom window. “Khariat?” She inquired, her voice weak on hearing the one sided conversation and her heart beating wildly at the sudden tension in her husband’s muscles.
“Yes, yes it-it’s okay,” Saad replied turning to face her with a tight smile.
“Saadi, why did the 2IC call?” Mariam asked worriedly, her eyes begging Saad to tell her something other than what she feared.
“Can we postpone the movie?” Saad asked, making his way to where she was sitting.
“I need to leave for Rawalpindi today.” He said softly sitting down beside her.
“What do you mean you need to leave for Pindi?” Mariam screeched as sudden chills covered her body.
Taking her hands in his own, Saad looked directly in her eyes and explained,” I need to report to the unit on Wednesday. Maj Khalid called to inform me that due to the present situation, all leaves have been canceled.”
Mariam shook her head, squeezing her eyes tightly she muttered, “ B-but it’s our second anniversary on Friday. I don’t understand, I had two more weeks with you.”
“I am so sorry, baby,” Saad whispered pressing a kiss on her hand. He noticed how cold they had become all of a sudden.
For the second time in the day, tears slipped Mariam’s eyes and she fought to hold back the sobs that were fighting to break free. She dared not open her eyes for she didn’t want Saadi to know how much the news crushed her. How this was breaking her heart. How the idea of going on each day without him, all alone was an unending torture. How all those dark lonely nights scared her. How would she get used to living without him again? She knew he would have to return but not so soon, not so suddenly. She just wasn’t ready. She wanted more time with him. She needed him to be with her.
“Mariam, are you okay?” Saad inquired worriedly.
Slowly opening her eyes Mariam took in his worried brown eyes, the frown on his forehead and the tick of his jaw. This was equally hard on him, if not more. Raising a hand she pushed the hair back from his forehead before tracing her fingers down his cheek and whispered honestly, “No I’m not, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be. I am a wife of a soldier, I am strong.” I am not strong at all; I am breaking into a million pieces. Please don’t leave me Saadi; I can’t survive away from you.
“I know you are; my Begum is one strong chick.” He replied with a soft adoring smile, his eyes tracing every part of her face as if committing it to memory. Why did it have to be so hard, couldn’t it be easy?
“How many times have I told you to not call me a chick, it makes me feel like a hen,” Mariam said with a watery laugh. Acting, pretending, hiding behind the jokes, the same routine every time. Pointless lying when the truth was so clear in their eyes, so obvious in the tight embraces, so loud in the unspoken words.
“More than a million, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop,” Saad replied wiping her tears with his thumbs before pressing his forehead to hers, “You are my hen and I’ll call you whatever I please.”
“We need to inform Auntie Uncle, Auntie will be heartbroken,” Mariam whispered her fingers brushing the side of his neck, tracing random senseless patterns.
“She’ll get very mad, and then Baba would have to calm her down,” Saad added, his throat tight once more at thinking about his parents. It felt he had hardly spent any time with them.
“You should call her, they went to the farmers’ market to get fruits and vegetables, it’ll take then at least an hour on the drive back,” Mariam said. Her mother-in-law was like a second mother to her and being a wife of a retired military man herself, she understood well what Mariam went through. Auntie was the shoulder on which she leaned and shed her tears of anguish when she missed him. It was Aunties’ warm embrace that stopped Mariam from running after Saad’s car as it turned the streets corner.
Mariam knew that after Allah, it was her parents-in-law’s love and support that gave her courage to survive Saad’s deployment. But the parents who were her support were also human and missed their only son terribly. After Saad’s departure, all three of them would avoid each other remembering the time spent with him, missing him. That was until Saad would call and then all three of them would be united once more remembering once more together that it would be okay.
It was one thing having your loved one hundreds of miles away from you, but it was another thing having the loved one hundreds of miles away from you, sitting in the line of fire. In the former, you just missed them with a gut-wrenching intensity, but in the latter, every second was filled with immense worry. Every phone call had your heart thumping fearing the absolute worse, every breaking news had you at the edge of your seat. Unanswered text messages and switched off cell phones scared you more than any monsters under your bed ever did.
“I swear to Allah I will strangle the tailor if he messes up your uniform,” Mariam announced as she packed her husband’s clothes .He hadn’t even unpacked completely and now he was leaving again.
“Are Mama Baba picking it up?” Saad inquired, himself picking up his books from the small bookshelf.
“Yeah Auntie just texted, they have collected it, couldn’t they tell you last night that your leave is canceled?”
“And where would be the fun in that?,” Saadi replied,” Where is the book I was reading yesterday?”
“You were reading it in the lounge last night.” Mariam said, “Should I pack this green shirt? Wouldn’t it be too cold to wear this now?”
“Nah it will be fine, now where is my laptop charger?”
“Where did you put it last time?”
“On the shelf, of course,” Saadi replied with a frown.
Mariam looked up and noticed the charger on his nightstand, shaking her head she said, “Are you sure because I see it on your side table.”
“How did it get there?” He said with a chuckle pressing his lips to her cheek before picking up the charger.
Falling on back in the bed with his arms spread Saad said, “I will miss this bed the most when I am away.”
Mariam glared at him for a moment before putting away the half-folded shirt in hands and picking up the pillow closest to him and smacking him on the chest, hard.
“Ouch!” Saad exclaimed, “What was that for?”
“Ask your beloved bed, darling.” She replied sticking her tongue out and running to the other side of the room.
“You are a violent woman!” Saad said shaking his head but still grinning hearing Mariam’s laughter fill the room.
“But you still love me?”
“Yes, but I love the bed more.” He answered looking down at the bed between them with a flirtatious grin.
“Okay then,” Mariam said with a naughty smirk and once more putting down the same half-folded shirt, “I am just going to go down and make myself a cup of tea while you have your beloved bed pack your stuff.”
“ Okay okay! I was just kidding. I love you the most and will also miss you. Now can you please pack for me?” Saad said dramatically with an exaggerated pout.
“You’ll miss me the most?” Mariam inquires her arms folded on her chest and an eyebrow raised.
“Honestly? I will miss you on number two, number one is your parathas. But you’ve got to realize they are amazing.” Saad said after a moment of consideration with somber eyes shaking his head sadly as if sharing the very sad news.
“Well they are pretty tasty so you’re forgiven and I guess I can pack for you,” Mariam said with a sigh, picking up the abandoned shirt before they burst into a loud laugh.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go on Daewoo, it can be hectic on a train.” Mariam inquired making her way to the bathroom to collect his toiletries.
“It’s too far away, while the railway station is a walking distance away from the mess.”
“When will you leave for Kashmir?”
“Tomorrow morning Inshallah, I hope I get some sleep, but if my course mates get the air of me being in Pindi they’ll drag me out for awaragardi.”
“Don’t make it sound like it will be a chore, I am well aware of how big of a party boy you are,” Mariam replied in a playful tone staring down at Saad’s stuff on the counter.
His shampoo, his shaving cream and the razor, the hair gel and the deodorant sitting right next to her toiletries and cosmetics, right where they belonged. She remembered how two days ago Saad had mistakenly used her shampoo and had smelled like sour apples for the rest of the day. She remembered how last night after returning from a dinner, in her exhaustion, she had started using his toothbrush and when she realized it half way through she just shrugged and continued.
It was the little things that she missed more than anything, shirt thrown beside the laundry hamper rather than inside, misplaced books and chargers, tantrums over dinner not being of his choice, midnight ice cream dates, the brush of his finger against hers as they sat with the family, a mischievous wink, the brush of his lips against her skin. She missed their late night conversations, sure they talked on the phone until wee hours of the morning but it wasn’t the same as talking while sharing the same duvet. She missed his reaction whenever she dressed up, because a compliment on Whatsapp didn’t compare to the way his eyes would flare up and a soft smile would be played across his lips when she walked out of the room.
Saad said something but she couldn’t make it out with the blood pounding in her ears, tears trickled the back of her lids and she didn’t try to stop them. She didn’t have the power to stop them because all her energy was consumed on keeping the screams of anguish muted.
Her hands shook as one by one she picked an item and placed it in a small bag, and when came the turn of the deodorant she opened the spray bottle and inhaled the spicy masculine scent, it resembled Saad’s smell but not quite exact.
Saad’s odor was special, it couldn’t be trapped in a silly aluminum can, it was a mixture of his soap and the deodorant along with the peppermint gum he chewed, the smell of books he was always reading soaked in his sun-kissed skin and something that was very uniquely him. She would bury her nose in his pillow for days after he left taking comfort in the familiar smell, but it too would fade away after a while, leaving her alone with her thoughts and fears on an empty bed missing her best friend, her husband.
Suddenly she couldn’t take it anymore, she let the bottle slip through her fingers and roll down the counter before falling to the floor with a clang. Resting her palms on the counter she stared at her reflection for a few seconds taking in the haunted look in her eyes before bending her head between her shoulders, letting her hair curtain her face as a soft sob escaped her. She couldn’t do it, she couldn’t let him go, it just wasn’t possible. Her heart wasn’t strong enough, she had lied earlier, she wasn’t a brave chick like Saad insisted. How disappointed he would be with her, how very disappointed. But she could no longer pretend to be okay when she wasn’t. Maybe it was the unrest at the border or maybe it was the canceled leave or was it the combination of both? it didn’t matter, she just couldn’t let him go.
Allah Mian, why does it have to hurt so much?
Why can’t it be just a little bit easy?
Suddenly she felt a warm hand on her shoulder and the tight knot her chest loosened right away. All it took was a single touch from him to make it better.
“Mariam?” Saad whispered his voice hoarse. Mariam shook her head and refused to look at him
“Please look at me”, Saad said rubbing her shoulders.
“No,” Mariam whispered.
“Why?” He inquired his voice giving away his helplessness.
“Be-because I don’t want you to see me like this.” She replied honestly squeezing her eyes tightly.
“Because I am being weak and stupid.”
“Never, you’re just being a woman whose husband’s leave was canceled, you’re just sad. And it’s okay to be sad, quite flattering even.” He explained slowly making her look at him.
Pushing back her hair and wiping away the tears he pressed a kiss to both her cheeks and the tip of her nose before saying, “I will miss you too.”
“The politicians need to wake the hell up and see the bigger picture, the world doesn’t revolve around power or their egos,” Baba announced angrily as he changed the channel furiously.
“They are not going to learn, a few people dying doesn’t concern them so no need to raise your blood pressure getting angry at them,” Mama said from beside him.
“But it should Mama, when will they realize that the lives of poor matter as well?”
“The way things are going right now, never I think,” Baba grumbled as Mama took the remote from his hand and turned the TV off.
“I was watching that.”
“No, you were raising your blood pressure,” Mama replied.
“According to you both, everything raises my blood pressure,” Baba said pointing at Mama and Mariam who was sitting next to him smiling at Mama Baba’s bickering.
“Me?” She said in mock outrage, “ I have accused you of no such thing, Uncle.”
“Are you sure? because I remember you depriving me of your delicious parathas because they aren’t good for me.”
“Well they aren’t, they clog up your vessels and since you won’t quit smoking, we aren’t taking any additional risks.” Mariam defended herself with a diffident flick of her chin. God, he loved how she took care of his parents, how she treated them as her own.
Zoning out the argument taking between the three of them, Saad stared at his wife in wonder and awe for the millionth time, how did he become so lucky to have her in his life. He loved her smiles and her glares, he loved how she stood for what she believed in and didn’t take no for an answer.
He loved her courage and strength. He loved how she loved him and his family. But most importantly, he loved her for existing and being there. It was her smile and trust in him that made him stay sane when bullets flew, bloodshed and men fell. When the harsh winters burned his flesh and the hot summers suffocated him. When miles away she was his strength, his hope. If it had been any other reason other than for his country, he would never leave her. Only for his beloved motherland, the gift from Allah, would he leave her. Because for her, he bends, for Pakistan, he breaks.
Mariam clenched the pendent of the chain Saad had given to her on their first anniversary with one hand and with the other waved at her husband one last time before he left. She grinned and blew him a kiss when he winked at her right before Uncle turned the corner and the car disappeared. And as the car disappeared, Aunties’ and her smiles as well. Wrapping an arm around Auntie’s shoulder she rested her cheek beside hers as they both watched the now empty street.
*Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.*