Prose

Melancholy Tastes the Same in Italy and Other Stories

“A sad story, don’t you think?”
Haruki Murakami, On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning

1.

I thought all the kids did it. Whenever it got too much, you’d just take it all, unspooled as it was, and pick a song. (Any song.) You’d listen to that song again and again and again, until the feeling was the song and the song the feeling. And… then you didn’t have to worry about it ever again. It worked really well — it still does. The only problem is that now I’m old enough to forget things. And sometimes I’ll play a song that’s vaguely familiar and, before I know it, all those threads that I’ve carefully stashed into it will come flying out. And high up on Mount Olympus, Ariadne can’t stop giggling.


2.

I remember the softness of her naked feet on the cold, clean tiles.


3.

At dusk, bright billboards of you across Lahore pursue me home.


4.

Even the smallest Dairy Milk is purple. Once, purple was worth its weight in gold. The Phoenicians would crack open hundreds of thousands of Mediterranean sea snails to make an ounce of Tyrian purple. Imagine that. Imagine the audacity of trying to overwhelm her with quantity, to stretch my hands out “thiiiiiiis much”, “to the moon and back”, “infinity times infinity”, but I can’t say all that, of course, so I do the best I can and save up for weeks and weeks and buy as many of the small, purple bars of Dairy Milk that I can. And when I turn the large backpack upside down before her, I can see the concern for my sanity in her eyes. Believe me, this is the best that I can do to show you how much. Forgive the quality of the chocolate. Once, purple was worth its weight in gold. I stand before you, hoping that the quantity is enough for you to extrapolate the quality. You were always good at math.


5.

The indolent Sunday afternoons of my childhood are estranged from me. Lost in time. They seemed so endless back then. Will I ever get them back? Or, if I do, will it simply lead to a relocation of those longings to another horizon, still further back. I dream of horizons of yearning, each gazing at the other, a succession of infinite funhouse mirrors in a Barnum and Bailey multiverse. “But it wouldn’t be make-believe / if you believed / in me.”


6.

A final memory. Another birthday party. She is not coming. So I talk to an old friend. An animated conversation about politics — the usual. When, suddenly. Small, soft palms cover my eyes. The heart-note of a perfume I can always pick out, no matter how crowded the school’s corridor. A voice breathes in my ear. Guess who? And I can not breathe. For I know that this moment will forever be a barometer for my happiness, the high-water mark left on the battered levees of my heart. When did the sun begin to set?


7.

And now here I am, on the last train home. And I do not know what to make of that.


we were running through the autumn leaves /
a couple kids just wearing out our jeans…

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Poetry

Arcadia

Just for this evening, let’s not mock them.

At least they had ideas about love.

Mary Szybist, The Troubadours Etc.

heavy New England sunlight floods your apartment.

in the mornings after, your bed is too small for us both.

the only music — faint — from your old phone in the shower.

it’s always Sunday, somewhere.

contrails fade into clear, blue sky.

the porches of the nation creak beneath

bluejeans and familiar conversation.

faded pastel flags above the strip

mall flutter in the breeze.

and somehow I am in a scratchy grey sweater

a schoolboy in a long forgotten —

now urgently familiar — corridor.

it is winter yet I am not cold.

something burns within me:

it is the thought of meeting you.

but every step is time, time, time.

Heraclitus’ curse.

decades pass.

I grow estranged from my self.

the music grows louder.

the bathroom door opens.

what’s wrong?

you ask

why on earth are you shivering?

The Cloisters, Fort Tryon

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Poetry

Camelot

Every love story is a ghost story.

David Foster Wallace

in a flyover state where

the trains do not stop

but chug on toward the

hills, a quiet chord drifts

out over the darkling

plains and is lost for ever

to the wind and rain and

perhaps we are only

this: ghosts before our

time burning through

books burning through

women burning through

ourselves hoping to find

Camelot.

oceans away — a place

where nobody speaks the

language of the heartland

— you wait for the Q44 to

take you home. lights

alight. church bells toll

the hour. tonight the

street is empty and the

night is empty and the

moon will not rise and

there will be no stars to

guide you home. only the

dumpster fires rage on,

filled with the debris of

yesterday.

I got this window that looks out to Orion / I paid extra for

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Poetry

The Fifth Season

Slaves in the realm of love are the only truly free men.

Ibn Ammar, Seville, Arab Andalusia 

And I’ll love you like the sun loves California.

Beth Hart, My California

it demands a new vocabulary for

it is the fifth season

it is deciduous

it is like those flowers in the desert

that bloom once in a blue moon after long

nights of rain and fade away in the face of

solar slaughter leaving behind

the singing sand dunes

to tell of them

to tell of us

 

i

read book

after book

after book

and yet

i

can not find the words

to tell of you

to tell of me

to tell of us.

 

what us?

(she said)

what words?

there are only

twelve keys

seven seas

and

four seasons

yes

(i said)

yes

and yet…

and yet.

 

like an addict Gilbert begged the gods

“let me fall in love one last time”

he said and

i get it.

it can be hard to live so long

in the grey to live so long

that you yearn for the colours

because you’ve — almost, almost —

forgotten what blue looks like

what you look like

 

these are words on paper

these are pixels on a screen

one of these days they’ll upload you

to the web and stream you to the stars

you’ll materialise on the other side

a little tired, a little bewildered

but pretty much the same except for

what was it?

it’s right on the tip of your tongue

it’s all that they couldn’t put into

ones and zeroes because

there’s no language

there’s no lexicon

(yet)

to tell of you

to tell of me

to tell of us

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Poetry

Byronic heroes are people, too

For the sword outwears its sheath,

And the soul wears out the breast,

And the heart must pause to breathe,

And love itself have rest.

Lord Byron, So, we’ll go no more a roving

All these books in my library — lives lived

out, words spent, atria emptied of their 

blood. I see them and realise that I do not

have much time. But, like all the rest, I am

bound in webs of responsibility and class

and aspiration. A small cottage by the beach

with a well-stocked library and a fire in the

hearth where we could spend our evenings 

before the dark descends. And, perhaps, 

there is where I’ll have the time to ponder over

the mysteries of the Sufis. Why do the stars

call me so? Why does the sea, why do old

houses, and old books, and saudade call me so?

The dreams of another life… almost

forgotten… breaking on the shores of my

heart, and I… I frantic, searching among the 

ruins and the driftwood for a compass to guide 

me home. Home? The place I yearn for when I 

hear someone playing A minor softly, clear as 

a bell, through the sweet, sad sounds of static 

on old radios. In a short time, this will be a 

long, long time ago…

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Prose

They have not lit the lamp at the other farm yet / and all at once I feel lonely 

If there is only enough time in the final

minutes of the 20th century for one last dance

I would like to be dancing it slowly with you,

say, in the ballroom of a seaside hotel.

My palm would press into the small of your back

as the past hundred years collapsed into a pile

of mirrors or buttons or frivolous shoes,

just as the floor of the 19th century gave way

and disappeared in a red cloud of brick dust.

There will be no time to order another drink

or worry about what was never said,

not with the orchestra sliding into the sea

and all our attention devoted to humming

whatever it was they were playing.

Billy Collins, Dancing Towards Bethlehem

I WENT to my grandfather’s grave today. It’s high up on the side of a hill and to reach it you drive up through secluded streets shaded by large trees and there, between two houses, is a tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lane. It’s so narrow that even if you’re small, you can reach out really, really far and touch the dusty whitewashed walls on either side. 

As you emerge from the lane you find yourself at the top of a hill, all of Karachi spread out before you; below you grave after grave until your gaze rests at the foot of the hill. That’s a hell of a view, you think, this is a good a place as any to be buried. And imagine what it must look like at night with all those city-lights sparkling under the stars. 

You pass headstones and shaded tombs and carefully step over mounds — some so heartbreakingly small that you don’t want to think. All of them carry a story. 

PROF SURGEON H. M. SIDDIQUI says one. 

EAT WELL, DIE YOUNG, AND HAVE A GOOD LOOKING CORPSE says another. 

One of the smaller ones has a red bicycle with black handlebars carved carefully into the marble. Underneath, in small, neat letters it says LOVING SON RASHID YOUR GIFT CYCLE. 2000-2009. 

There’s a small staircase that leads down to my Nana’s grave. And there’s a small, white marble bench at the foot of it for visitors. The caretaker comes and washes the grave and then I lay the rose petals on it and say a small prayer. As the caretaker leaves, he tells me how my grandmother came just yesterday. She’s here most days, he says. Sits just there, on the bench, till sunset. He walks away up the staircase. 

And now I have to sit because my vision is blurry and my legs feel strange and I can smell the rose petals on the sea breeze. And I think of her, sitting here all alone, day in day out, even though it’s been three years, sitting on that bench that looks over Karachi and the grave of the man who spent his whole life with her and I wonder at a loneliness I can not begin to imagine. 

At the end of his book Contact, astronomer Carl Sagan writes that for small creatures such as we the infinities of the cosmos are made bearable only through love. We need the enveloping arms of those we love, ready to catch us when we grow dizzy from contemplating eternity. 

And as I lie here on the roof watching Sirius twinkle across the vastness of space and the immensity of time, I realise he knows what the hell he’s talking about. 
  

“The flowers did show us spring for a while / yet I long for the flowers that never bloomed at all.”

— Translation by my old friend, Yousuf Mehmood.

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Prose

Heartbreak, You Know, Drives A Big Black Car

 I would sell

all I own and have and built

for more time

with you.

— Tyler Knott Gregson

“FALLING slowly / Eyes that know me,” he stopped. They all stared at him. The café was full and now they all stared at him and even the waitresses who would bustle about and pay him no heed stood in the silence, staring. He tried to clear his throat. It didn’t work. He looked at the mike and felt the weight of the guitar on his knee and all the patrons and waitresses staring at him and felt the sweat collect on his brow. A group of rowdy teenagers walked into the café. Everyone turned to stare at them. They stopped. But that was all he needed and by the time they had turned back, the stage was empty and only the angled mike stood in the spotlight — a little off-centre — alone.


He sat on the bench outside, waiting. He didn’t have to wait long. He smelt her perfume on the breeze before she’d said a word and he wondered how a smell could do that to you.

“That was quite a performance!”

The cadence of her voice hadn’t changed. The lilt he remembered so well that he often caught himself thinking in it; it hadn’t changed.

“It was embarrassing.”

“I don’t think it was embarrassing.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Liar.” He smiled at her.

“Hi.” She smiled back.

“Hi.”

They looked at each other like that for a while, each watching the other watch them, drinking in the ravages of time — a line here, a wrinkle there.

“So,” he asked. “Where’ve you been?”

She considered this for moment.

“Tangier,” she said, narrowing her eyes. He could hear the teasing in her voice.

“That was one time, okay? The one time I play a Dylan song for you and —”

She laughed just then and he wondered how a laugh could do that to you.

“I was just kidding!” she said.

“Sure you were.”

“I was! I was! It’s just the way you sang it. So … poignant!” And she began to laugh all over again and this time he couldn’t help but join her.

“Hey, we both did some stupid things back then, okay?”

I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did!”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

They watched together as a car drove by, the afterglow of its tail lights fading into the darkling twilight.

“Do you remember all those promises we made?” She asked.

“I do,” he said. “I do.”

“Me, too.”

“Seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said. “But sometimes it seems like it was yesterday and now its morning and I’m awake now — I’m finally awake — and I’m brushing my teeth and going to college and walking up to the quad and there you are with that stupid grin, waiting for class to begin.”

“I wasn’t waiting for class to begin.”

“No?”

“No,” he said. “I was waiting for you.”

“You’re sweet, but I’m not buying it.”

“Well, it was worth a shot,” he grinned.

She reached for the guitar lying between them and plucked at the strings.

“You used to say something to me when we were kids.”

“I said a lot of things,” he smiled. “Most of them to impress you.”

“I know,” she said. “And it worked!”

“Until it didn’t.”

“Yes,” she sighed.

“Hey, listen. Don’t, okay? Tell me something else. Tell me something — okay, what pseudo-intellectual bullshit did I say to you?”

He could tell she wasn’t convinced but she relented and he saw the hurt as it cleared from her bright eyes.

“You told me,” she said with care, as if each word meant something different to her. “You told me: Listen! One day we’ll graduate and we’ll be old and we’ll never see each other again and never feel this way again and it’s weird, isn’t it, how life is learning to say goodbye?”

She looked at him looking at her, remembering.

“You also said how much you hated Mondays.”

“Fuck Mondays!”

“You said that, too!”

“You know, I had this dream last night.” He looked off at the lights on the buildings.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I was late for this stupid party. I didn’t want to go. I was sleeping in the dream and I didn’t want to go and then my Dad came into my room and woke me up. “Aren’t you late for that party?” he said. And I could tell he wanted me to stay — I could just tell — and I didn’t want to go but I got up just the same and I got dressed and I left and I didn’t say goodbye.”

She gazed at me for a moment with her hazel eyes.

“Why didn’t you say goodbye?”

“I don’t know. I woke up then and I ran downstairs and then I remembered. So I walked up again and sat on the roof till dawn.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s funny though, isn’t it? How we never do the things we want to do? We never do those things.”

“I’m so sorry.” She reached for his hand. He felt her skin touch his and the hurt and the pain and the years melted away and he was fifteen and in love for the first time.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. “I’m fine! I’ll be fine.”

“Liar.”

“Hey, that’s my line!”

“Too bad!”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“God, I missed you.”

“Liar.”

“No, seriously. I always miss you. Even when I’m with you, I miss you.”

“Well, maybe it’s not me you’re missing.”

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Good boy.” She intertwined her fingers with his.

“What are the chances, though?” he asked.

“Of what?”

“Of this. Of you. Of us meeting again.”

“It’s crazy,” she smiled.

“You’re crazy.” He smiled and he knew, just then, that he’d never let her go. Not ever. Not again.

“What are you smiling about?”

“Nothing! C’mon, let’s get some coffee.”

“I hate coffee!”

“I know, I remember,” he winked.

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“Ice-cream?” she asked.

“Only if you’re paying,” he said.

“What happened to chivalry?”

“Feminism happened!”

“You’re horrible!” she said. And, laughing, they walked back towards the café.


He woke with a start and his hand reached out to touch the sheets beside him. They were cold and he remembered and it took him a few minutes to compose himself.

When he could breathe again, he sat up, pushed the sheets to one side and went to the sink. The water was cold and fresh and when he saw his weathered reflection staring back at him, he smiled.

“Who’s the best?” he said, aiming a punch at the mirror. It was something he did in the mornings when she’d walk in behind him, hair messy from just waking up, cascading to one side like a waterfall that you’d chanced upon in a clearing in the woods and it was all yours, the curtains waiting to be parted.

“Who’s the best?” And she’d loved it and told him it was adorable — that he was adorable — but now she was gone and it wasn’t morning it was night and he felt silly and old and so he stopped.

He stared at himself for a while and then switched off the light and walked up the stairs to the roof. The old acoustic lay against the door and he picked it up, took it outside and tuned it under the stars.

He played a chord and it was hesitant and unsure and the sound died out soon under the vast night sky. He tried again.

“Spent all night / Tryin’ to remember your face,” he stopped. He tried clearing his throat. It didn’t work. His hands shook as he took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt. He laid the guitar down on the dusty floor and lay back in the dusty chair and closed his eyes, trying to remember her face.

They wouldn’t find him till Monday.

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