I knew that it would be one of those days when I just didn’t feel like getting out of bed, even as the sun threatened to melt the dusty window panes on top of my bed and the plants decided to shrivel up on purpose so that I’d have to water them. But the morning heat was always enjoyable this time of the year. Sweet and capricious April. April never failed to bowl me over with her permanent mood swings, an extended version of a woman on her period. Sometimes the rays lashed onto the large mahogany out in the courtyard and made the compound smell of sweat and sun. And I would always get the incessant urge to smell burning rubber even though I had been assured that it wasn’t a very pleasant smell. I’ve never actually smelled rubber burning. Or I might have and marked it off as yet another one of the queer smells that emanate from this place from time to time. I could’ve sworn I once got the faint hint of rotting flesh mixed with the salty odour of tears from the open window at night. Then again, I had no experience of the former so I really couldn’t be sure. My mind is always surprisingly fresh on warm mornings.
Still, I could feel that it would be one of those days. How curious it would be, if I decided to just lie there until I molded in with the bedsprings; creak with them every night, complain at all the weight. You’re getting fat, watch it! That’s a definite disadvantage here, sugar! Or better yet, what if I were to slowly turn into Kafka’s cockroach? Metamorphosis. Sprout scaly wings and prickly feet and two gorgeous antennae that could graze over the slowly crisping leaves on the windowsill. It would be a lot of fun to buzz around people who are inexplicably afraid of such a small insect. Watch from behind my brown eyes as they cower and perhaps throw a shoe in my direction. But I doubt I would make a very accomplished cockroach. And Belal wouldn’t approve. Bad for business, Tara. Times are hard as it is. Indeed, there’s very little that Belal did approve of, if you discounted money. Although, people never really seem to do that.
It was Belal’s gruff voice outside my room that woke me. He always called out three times before entering, following a modicum of decorum he’d cooked up some time ago. “Tara,” he knocked with his knuckles as he called, the hardened edges gently displacing the calendar that hung on this side, “Tara!” Currently, the calendar was stuck on October, 2009. A demanding John unwilling to let go. Well, the four years since then didn’t have much in terms of the spectacular. I guess it was quite alright for the faded paper to want to hold onto time like that, a time long before I was here. “Tara!”
The lock turned and Belal stepped in wearing his least favourite orange shirt. Least because he wore it on the days when he knew there wasn’t anyone to impress. For that purpose he had a beige shirt with round collars and two fish embossed on the sides of the buttons. His face always reminded me of one of those people who would cease to exist should they have been called something else. I can never imagine, say, a Helal with those heavy-set eyes and the permanently raised eyebrows, as if he was constantly surprised by life. His hair was always parted at the side with a generous amount of coconut oil and his teeth were yellow from chewing tobacco and on the way to becoming blood red. I could see the forefinger on his right hand twitching, as if stroking an imaginary appendage next to his thigh. But the gait with which he stood, slightly leaning to the right and hunched forwards, made it obvious why he was here. And I mimicked his sentence with him inside my head as he spoke.
“There’s someone here to see you.”
* * *
There’s a thirty minute window between the first call and the soft knock of Belal’s knuckles on the door. Soft in someone else’s shadow. Over time, I’ve grown accustomed to all of Belal’s knocks as they revisit me day after day. There are the rapt morning knocks, the soft business knocks, the hasty, glancing knocks for when he just comes in for a chat, the reluctant payday knocks and the slow, stroking knocks on the nights he closes the door behind him. I guess one could say I’m more familiar with them than the forced, low tune with which he speaks, the one that always makes me think of one of those salesmen trying to peddle combs or brushes inside the compound. Very delicate, directly from China, they say as they sweat nervous bullets in the glare of all the women. Inside-out pressure cookers in a dirty sink.
I rather enjoy these thirty-minute windows, or at least used to. It gave me a sense of purpose as I slowly undressed and then put on a shiny sari and I could imagine myself fitting perfectly into the role of a disgruntled wife being forced to host a pretentious dinner party. The guests would arrive and then leave, emptying the glasses with them while I stood there and glimmered in red and sometimes golden if I was feeling particularly flamboyant. But over time, the ritual has devolved into something rather pointless. No one really bothers with the poison red of my lips or that one line of mascara that strayed too far. And dressing up is such a chore if I have to take it off all over again, anyway. I would very much like to remain naked and on the bed, perhaps sipping some tea as the guests walked in. Do come in. Leave your hat and hopes outside, please. Yes, they wouldn’t be too disappointed.
Or maybe they would be. As I stood naked in front of the large mirror strategically placed at the corner of the room so that my eyes never wander on to them from the bed, I could see the morning sun toiling away, trying to make everyone sweat. But the light that filtered in inside was pleasant enough to light up the room in that fragment of glass. I could see the dirty white walls singing with all their black handprints, elbow marks and stains from over the years, the small table with the lamp that hadn’t worked in over three years and the cupboard with all its creaky compartments, threatening to spill over with years of secrets folded into musty clothes. But at the centre of it all was my increasingly unattractive body. The waistline was slowly bulging forwards and the navel no longer resembled the half-crescent it once used to. My cheekbones were less prominent and the jaw was slowly beginning to hide under layers of skin. My face no longer looked like the rough-edged oval it once was, instead deciding to take on a more contorted shape. And I never really liked my eyes; they perched unevenly on top of my broad nose. But, on the bright side, the stories were still there, free for me to trace with my fingers.
There’s the burn mark from the cigarette tucked in between my collarbone and my shoulder. Number 10, if I recall correctly. Although, there’s really no reason for me not to recall correctly. Then there’s the extra light layer of skin that looks oddly out of place amongst its older, darker siblings on the back of my thigh, where number 49 had scratched some off in a fit of haste. Don’t make me work for this, whore! I guess drunks aren’t renowned for their dexterity. And if I squinted hard into the light of the mirror, I could still see that solitary strand of hair that stubbornly grows under the nipple of my left breast. Number 110 had pulled it out quite harshly after noticing it. Now you look perfect, my love. But that patch of me had a mind of its own and it grew out again soon and I don’t think 110 bothered to notice again. There were more, of course. But I didn’t think there was much time left till Belal’s soft knock and Number 337’s nervous arrival. I always imagine all virgins to be nervous – walking with shuffling feet and heads bowed in embarrassment as they tread in through the looking glass of desire. I suppose some would say it’s presumptuous of me. But I can never think of a Daisy Buchanan-esque virgin. Daisy Buchanan with her voice full of money. I’ve seen many, tens and hundreds of Buchanans out on the curb with their honey-glazed eyes, hungry for their Fitzgerald. My old literature teacher once looked at me funny and said, “you’ll make a fine Buchanan.” He had eyes the size of slits and a tall nose that hooked out over his chest, his belly and all of him, really. I see him sometimes, his face on hundreds of faces, out and about the compound looking for young women to seduce with waxing words. You’ve come to the wrong neighbourhood, sorry. Out here you have to earn your stripes first. I never went to any of his classes after that. And even if I had decided not to drop out, I doubt I would ever go to one of his classes.
I decided to wear red. Blood for the big occasion. There were small patterned kites emblazoned all over the sari, to accompany the rips and the subsequent patches. He’s fresh, Belal had said. Fresh, fresh, fresh! It made me think of a newly made grave, where the earth was still damp from the soul stuck between the grains, forcing the seeds to break out and meld with the body. A fresh corpse, ripe for picking. And what of me? Somewhere way back in the cemetery with the others from a century ago, with a grand tombstone solemnly fitting all my deeds into one line – “Here lies Tara, a whore.” I wish the sun would set and the stars would show for a bit. A little symbolism never hurt anyone. But the knock would soon come and there was money to be made. It’s fascinating how my teacher had gotten it horribly wrong. My voice is hardly ever put to use. It felt quite like being a singer famous for nothing but lip syncing. I hope Number 337 isn’t very nervous. Just the right amount would do.
* * *
As he stood in front of me in his denim pants and a tight green shirt that had patches under the arms from the heat and his own anxiety, I thought it all resembled a rather hilarious movie, horribly botched towards the end. Prince Charming come to woo the damsel in distress with his spiky hair and nervous eyes and the yellow of his crooked teeth. Only the rescue wasn’t going so well. The curtains were drawn and only flashes of light stole in from the corners to paint the edge of the bed a gentle yellow, like a bleeding lily. He looked hardly older than 17 and the ends of his lips were curled upwards, perhaps disgusted at himself. A more pleasant explanation, of course, would be that they were ready to break into a smile at any moment should it be required of him, but the leaves sang and rustled under the ceiling fan’s wind to tell me that it was probably the former.
He took his spot on the bed at exactly the same place the light had stolen in, so that it now bled onto his denims. It would have to do, since he wasn’t going to bleed himself. The bedsprings shifted uneasily with him as he shuffled in his pocket for the money. Belal had remembered to brief him on all the codes of conduct. Be sure to leave a tip if she’s extra nice. No kissing, here’s your rubber. And perhaps a pat on the back before his soft knock.
“What’s your name?”
The words caught me off guard and I felt for an instant that I would like nothing more than to leave this room behind; this room that’s been my home for two years. His voice had a tinge of trepidation to it, but it mixed nicely with the throaty honesty with which he asked. I shuffled the folds of my kites for a second to see if they would fly me away. What do I tell him? Tara. The name on my tombstone, the name on the lips of the 336 before him who never asked, the name carved into the bedpost at the far end of the bed, the wood displaying my immaculate handwriting. Zuleykha. The name that had somehow slinked quietly out of my suitcase like I had slinked out of the house, the name that drowned thirteen times in the lake beside my old apartment, the name that had caused many a bitten tongue over the years until it decided to let go and recline freely in the corridor where abandoned things retire to. I felt the buzzing of a rather feisty fly that I had maybe absorbed through the ends of my toenails which had, in its persistence, made it all the way up to my brain and was happily sucking out the brain-juice. The words and the ability to form coherent sentences.
In reply I shifted forwards on the bed towards him and started to slowly unfold my kites, discarded one layer after the other as they fell limply to the ground, floundering on cut strings. I always wondered if one day, on a land purer than this, a kite would assimilate with the soil and sprout a magnificent tree or a shrub of fledgling kite-lings ready to take to the skies for the first time. My blouse was a plain stretch of red and it unclasped readily, emotionlessly. In a matter of seconds, I was bare as he fumbled with the hooks on his denim. There are never any birds here, even at dawn the compound remains silent and stirs only with the first woman stretching sleepily and turning to her other side. I could hear the faint hum of all the children playing in the courtyard as 337 broke open his condom. Unlucky, was that the word? No, somehow unwanted, these children. In the same curious manner that the truth is unwanted sometimes, but required nevertheless, to fill the empty coffers and the putrid chamber pots. To my surprise, he put it on immaculately, belying his label as a virgin to all things sinister and wonderful and climbed on top.
How low, our waking up. Insignificant specks of dust on the broken china, tottering on from one fragment to the next. Don’t bother me anymore, you’ve had your fill, you. The world is slowly turning away from me, melding with 337’s hot breaths and thrusting sighs. Inside, the music plays on an old, worn-out record player that jams into each groove and remains there for however long it pleases. Would it please you to stay there? Lay down a few bricks, a welcome mat, hang a picture and call it home? It’s dark here, it needs better lighting. And a few sprinkles of love. The music is jarring and I can already hear the bedsprings telling me you’re about to come. I would ask you to stay for lunch, but the chicken’s gone cold.
There was a whimper and a stilled silence to mark the finish line. He rolled over and lay down on the small space at the far end of the bed, next to me. The ends of his spiky hair were pointed upwards away from the slightly tousled sheets and the roll of bills flapping impotently on the table. Three deep breaths and he started to stir once more, his shirt now clinging desperately to his slender frame. I raised a lazy hand and pointed towards the small door next to the cupboard which led to the bathroom. The bathroom had another door from the corridor so that occupants had to lock both while doing their business. It was smart in a way, I suppose. It allowed clients to go to the corridor directly after washing up, without returning to the scene of the crime. Number 337 got up gingerly and stooped to pick up his denims from the floor. I could tell from his posture that he wasn’t going to leave a tip, but I didn’t mind much. The drawers were full of clothes and the clothes were full of rolls of notes. Here’s something extra for you, buy yourself something pretty. The only thing that comes to my mind that I would really like to buy is perhaps something or someone that would water the plants for me. I should very much like a cigarette, right now.
337 was almost at the door, the clasp of his belt striking his bare knees as he walked, like a miniature version of a metal cilice reminding him of his many sins. It would be strange if I knew his name, but his name didn’t matter anymore. He wasn’t the same fresh-faced, awkward young man who had walked in, hands in his pockets. He would go back home and shower and try to get the stink off him, the stink of being stamped with a number he couldn’t cash in at any bank. My name is Tara. My name is Tara.
“My name is Tara.”
I don’t know if he heard me, or simply pretended not to. My voice could be quieter than the wind on a hot day, sometimes. But there was that one moment where his hands stopped short of the bolt and shook, as if debating about what to do with this piece of information. But the moment passed and he slowly unlatched the door and went inside, shutting it behind him with a finality that reminded me strangely of a train conductor telling the people on the platform that it was too late now to board this train. Try again, later.
The kites were still strewn haplessly, one on top of the other, on the floor. I didn’t feel like getting dressed or cleaning up just yet. No one would be bothering me for a while. Morning customers are rare and Belal would know better than to send another one in before breakfast. These morning sessions always gave me a raging appetite and it was such a bother to get dressed and walk all the way to the other side of the compound for breakfast. Stand with the other confused, disheveled ants waiting for their morning eggs and vegetables. I wondered faintly how long Number 337 would remember this little encounter of ours, how long it would be before he buried it under a pile of broken distractions. And how long would I remember him? His face and his nervous hands that died and were reincarnated in front of me? He didn’t leave a lasting mark on me to remember him by like some of the others. Or maybe, he left the most indelible mark yet. My name is Tara. I hope one day I can hear the birds sing from my window.