“Pregnant?” His fingers clenched around the phone. “That’s—” he pried apart his teeth, “that’s great, Rani. Congratulations. When are you due?” He waited until his sister’s voice stopped, then nodded, caught himself. “Right, of course. Nine months. Sorry.” His gaze moved irresistibly to the wallet lying on the desk in front of him. The picture of his ex-wife that was still tucked into the back compartment seemed to be burning its way through the soft leather, taunting him with the memories of endless fertility treatments, doctors, tests, and the deep rush of disappointment at every negative result.
Rani, on the other hand, was expecting her fourth child in five years. Fuck, he thought to himself. Ain’t life a peach? He mumbled a few more platitudes and then hung up. Tossed the phone across the desk, not even noticing when it bounced on the edge and landed on the floor. He ran a hand over his head, feeling the friction of the short hairs scratch against his palm. Slowly, deliberately, he unclenched his jaw and took a deep breath. Then another. He closed his eyes, leaned back into the soft leather chair, consciously relaxing each individual muscle in his body.
No more calls today, he thought. He opened his eyes. “If you had a secretary, you could tell her that.” He leaned back his chair so that he could see through the slight opening of the door to the reception area just beyond. Empty. With a sigh, he sat up, pulled his laptop toward him and punched in his password. The desktop on his screen was black, a single, white word sitting in the center, whispering ‘silence’. He clicked on his mail, waiting patiently for the spinning wheel to stop and for his mail to download.
‘Error: Incorrect user name or password.’
He blinked. What the fuck was this? He tried again.
‘Error: Incorrect user name or password.’
He checked his internet. He could browse, he loaded his Twitter feed. Everything was working except for his mail. He logged into the control panel where his site and mail were hosted.
‘Your account has been suspended due to non-payment.’
There wasn’t any money on his card. He had the money in the company account, but he didn’t have a card for it. Without his email… He tried opening the company website, knowing it would be down. He glanced at the clock. 4:51. The bank would be closed by the time he got there, so this wasn’t going to change until Monday morning. He felt like smashing something, except that there was hardly anything in the office that he could afford to break.
He shut it down, packed it up, searched for and found his phone, picked up his keys. He turned off the lights and banged the office door shut behind him. There weren’t any clients to worry about, no colleagues, no staff, not yet, at least. So if he left a minute before five, no one was going to complain.
The cab he flagged down wanted a ridiculous amount of money to drop him to his small room in the guest house where he had been staying for the past three months. He decided to walk. By the time he’d reached the corner of his office block, his shirt was stuck to his back. He plucked at it in distaste, scowling at a fruit vendor who was watching him with casual interest. “You’d never guess it was February, would you? How the fuck is it so hot in this city?”
The vendor laughed.
“We’re surrounded by the fucking mountains. This is the north of Pakistan, for God’s sake. There should be a breeze a little.”
The vendor muttered something about God’s wrath.
“Oh, sure. All our problems are because God’s punishing us, not because we have anything to do about it.” He rolled his eyes, shook his head and walked on. The narrow pavements were obstructed by encroachments, vendors and shopkeepers’s stalls and shelves. There were vegetables, fruit, juices, wrapping paper, magazines, boxes and discarded crates, and he danced around them all, stepping on to the road a couple of times where there was no room on the sidewalk.
It took him close to a half hour to reach the small guest house where he had been staying since he arrived in Islamabad. On the way, he’d stopped at a general store for some junk food and soda. He dropped the plastic bag on to the table under the window in his room. The guest house had a common room with a refrigerator, but he’d lost so much food from there, he had decided to stick to canned or packaged food that was unlikely to go bad. He thought wistfully of the pleasures of bread and cheese melts, something he and his wife, his ex-wife, used to snack on late at night. Strange how it was the little things that hit the hardest.
He missed his large-screen TV, the cats crawling over his back while he lay prone on his bed; the en-suite bath with fluffy towels, clean sheets every third day, the tool closet with everything he would ever need. He missed the pretty cushions in an actual living room, the friendly neighbourhood where everyone knew who he was. He missed his old handyman, his favourite cabbie, his doctor. He missed the warmth of a body with him in bed, the presence of another human being in his life who would support him no matter what.
The phone in his pocket buzzed, vibrating against his leg. He pulled it out, flopping down on the bed as he answered it.
“Hey, hi there.” It was a friend, someone he had met at a party when he’d first arrived in the city six months ago. “No, just got home.” He paused to listen, then frowned. It was the same old thing—people had begun to question whether the company would ever get off the ground, question his ability to make things happen. Why hadn’t he rented a place yet, moved out of the guest house? Why hadn’t he hired anyone for the office yet, or printed marketing material? Why hadn’t he finished the book he was planning?
He held his head in his hand, taking a deep breath. “You know what, I don’t need this. I have a shitload of work to do, and no one to help me do it. I also don’t have a cushy trust fund or deep pockets to speed up the process of setting up an office or finding myself a new home.”
Pause. He listened again, the scowl on his face deepening. “You can think whatever you like. Maybe I shouldn’t be blowing my hard-earned money on dope or cigarettes. And maybe you’re right. Maybe I need to be working weekends and late nights in order to become a success. I just don’t want to, okay? I guess I should be shocked that in six months I’ve bagged all of two clients, but considering that it’s just me—” He pulled back and stared at the screen. The line had dropped. Or his friend had hung up. He almost threw the phone against the wall, but it was an iPhone and he couldn’t afford to destroy it.
His body went slack and he fell back against the pillows; he stared up at the ceiling, wondering how he had gotten here. What had gone wrong? His marriage, well that was a failure but the divorce had been a triumph of civility. He was even friends with his ex. On the other hand, Islamabad wasn’t all that he had hoped. He had lived here before, but he had been in Karachi for seventeen years. Nothing was familiar any more.
When his phone beeped, he was almost afraid to check the message. It had been a long day of demands, arguments, disappointments. His father had railed at him for hours, first thing in the morning, about the direction of his life. His mother hadn’t spoken to him since the divorce. His sister had made him feel like a failure for not having seven kids of his own. His client had yelled at him for being slow getting back to them about their work. His friends seemed to want a successful friend, not a struggling one. And the hole he lived in, well… He turned his head to follow the line of ants that were marching in from a corner of the window and into the fraying edges of the carpet. An insect spray stood on his bedside table—an indispensable can that accompanied him to the bathroom everyday. Without it, cockroaches ruled the tiles.
He lit one of the cigarettes that were burning, along with his lungs, money that he didn’t have. His eyelids drooped. Around this time every evening, he wondered if this was going to be his life from now on. Keeping a smile on his face was getting harder and harder every day. There was a bottle of pills in the drawer next to his bed. Anti-anxiety pills. Easy to get, even without a prescription. He could take a couple to help him sleep tonight.
Or, he could take fifty and not worry about waking up again.
The idea danced through his head. If he was gone, would anyone miss him? Would it make a difference in anyone’s lives? Would they even mourn, or would it be three days and then back to business as usual? Would he fade out of memory the along with yesterday’s news?
He put out his cigarette and sat up. Picked up the phone and checked the message.
“Massage, spa, relaxing days. Willing to make house calls. Call now.”
His hand clenched around his phone. Someone somewhere was willing to make house calls to massage strangers in order to make a living. Someone somewhere was worse off than him. He had his health, he had friends, he had, such as it was, a family. And he had a brain that allowed him to charge exorbitant amounts of money, when he could get the client.
He sat up, straightened his shoulders, stiffened his spine. One day at a time. He was a fighter, and he didn’t give up. At some point, he would get out of this slump and live free of this stress. One day. He checked the time on the phone. Seven p.m. He pulled up the laptop and turned it on. Popped in a DVD of Spooks. He let the DVD play in the background while he changed into shorts and a T-shirt. Placed an order for a pizza, then climbed into bed.
Tomorrow was a brand new day. Tomorrow, he’d start his life again, just as he had every day for the past six months.