Author’s Note: This is a pseudo-sequel to what is now a series of stories revolving a group of siblings. The first story was written for the theme of Addiction, and the second story was written for Envy.
“This is nice.”
I turn to look at my sister lying on the last available beach chair in this resort, but her damned wayfarers are in between me and her dark eyes. “Sasha, you were the one who wanted to do this,” I say instead. “The sun’s not out and it sucks, yes, so let’s go inside and watch a movie, I said, but you refused.”
“I know what I said.”
“So don’t complain.”
“I am not.” She peers over her sunglasses at my spot on the ground, her eyes flicking briefly to my bare torso and her nose wrinkling in response. “You’re not going to get any sun, you know that. All attempts at a tan? Futile.”
“Staying out here was your idea.”
“Oh my God, Shafiq, I know that. I’m not complaining, I swear.” She flops back onto her tattered blanket, barely making a dent. I remember a time she used to walk heavily and make deep impressions everywhere she moved, pulling her into everyone’s attention and demanding it calmly. Now you can barely see her. It still takes some getting used to.
“I’m sorry,” I say, more out of habit than anything else.
She sighs, the sound loud enough to carry over the rhythmic gush of waves beating shore in the distance. “You don’t have to be sorry. And I wasn’t being sarcastic, Fiq, I actually meant it. This is nice.”
I can feel myself smile. It’s easier to do when her eyes aren’t on me. “Yeah?”
“Yes, it is. I miss us.”
“Us,” I repeat. It feels like an old, forgotten prayer – I remember it on my lips and then everything returns. The pressing weight on my chest is lifted and I breathe deeply. “Me too. I miss us too.”
“Good,” she says quietly. “You know, I was actually afraid that Ibu had put you up to this.”
“Spending time away from the zoo we call ‘family’ and going off to an island, just the two of us? You think our mother would even suggest that?” I put a hand to my chest, although she’s not looking. “How dare you.”
The huge laugh she gives is now one of those rare ones and I can feel my smile start to ache. “You never know. Ibu can be very elaborate.”
“But this trusting?”
“Ibu just worries a lot, you know that,” she says loyally, laughing at her own words. “But I see your point. And I’m glad that it’s just you with me.”
It’s a familiar line we both say to each other, but the smugness which comes to me never changes. “You know me. Making lots of people glad. That’s my job.”
“Ew. Now that just sounds wrong.”
“You’re not allowed to have dirty thoughts around me. New rule. I’m your brother, and between the two of us we should muster up some dignity.”
When she doesn’t reply, I sit up and look over at her; there’s a furrow in the middle of her wide forehead and her shoulders are tense. It’s a familiar look of Sasha’s nowadays, but I hadn’t seen too much of it until now. When I’m away at the oil rig, the two of us Skype late into the night once a week the way we did when we were both at university – empty conversations about home and work which usually devolve into quiet guitar and songwriting sessions past midnight, our voices harmonising quietly the way we practised as children – but the pixellated streaming doesn’t reveal the new wrinkles on her forehead or the way her eyes have grown terribly sad all the time. I had imagined that it was home that made her this way, the way she was the oldest one left and had to answer to everyone. I don’t like that she’s carried this sadness here, to me, to us.
“You could try and relax,” I say as I scoot over to her side, poking her open palm until she pulls it away. “That’s what we’re here for, after all. Come on, Sha, give your heart a break.”
The smile beneath her sunglasses spreads wide and lazy, and I feel like I’ve just won something small. “I knew you were secret Demi fan, Fiq. I just knew it. Team Selena can go suck it.”
“Think about it,” I barrel on, “you need good stories to tell the kids, like how much fun we had eating the fresh seafood here and riding banana boats and jet skiing –“
“I refuse to jet ski without a helmet – those things are unwieldy and unsafe.”
“Okay, no jet skiing. Or just, you know, chilling. At any rate, your neuroses are infectious. I mean, let me enjoy my holiday.”
Her sigh comes deep and slow, like an extended breath pulled from her toes. “Sorry. I’m just, you know,” she lifts a hand and waves it around a few times, “figuring things out.”
“Yeah? What things?”
I can feel her glare behind the shades, before her face relaxes and she stretches her body against the deck chair. “I’ll tell you later, maybe.”
“Sure, tell me later.”
“It’s not a promise though,” she says quickly.
“Too late. Promise me, or I will toss you on a banana boat and set you off in the direction of…that island.” I point off into the distance, where a green mound stands quietly in the middle of the sea.
“Yeah, okay,” she says, and I’m not sure which she just agreed to. I suddenly feel lethargic, and I nudge her to the side to make room for me. “What? No, stop it. It’s a tiny chair!”
“It’ll be just like science camp in ’98. Come on, Sha.” Her head tilts in that disapproving way and I grin back, because this is familiar and routine and this is what we do.
“That particular weekend ended with a leech on my armpit and a wild boar running amok at the campsite.”
“I don’t see any wild boars here. Scoot, Button Nose.”
We lie shoulder to arm to foot, the sparse sunlight providing just enough warmth. I count her breaths as they go deep and soft, the way I used to when we were younger, when our parents were still postgraduate students and our lives were a bit smaller and compact. We’d shared a room then, and because Ayah was too busy figuring out the future of the Internet and Ibu was making predictions about the economic downturn the country could face in a few years, we told each other bedtime stories, taking turns pitching our sibling heroes into valleys of fire and oceans guarded by nymphs who interrogated you before you could take a dip. The stories ended when Shakira was born and we moved into a house with more rooms for all the children our parents would belatedly have, so this – it is surprising how I still remember this.
“Hey,” I whisper, only half-expecting her to hear me over the sound of children squealing by the swimming pool. “You remember when we used to have those bedtime story marathons?”
She’s quiet for so long that I think she’s fast asleep and I close my eyes, but then her voice comes out in a thick drawl. “Yes,” she drags the word, “Ali and Alia, the Wandering Twins.”
“That’s the one. Although I don’t think that’s what we called them. Didn’t their names start with M?”
“I’m right, you know I am. Shut up.” She pulls down the bridge of her sunglasses and looks at me. “What about it?”
“Nothing,” I shrug. “Just remembering.”
She nudges me with her foot, shaking the entire deck chair because her legs are crossed at the ankles. “I’m maybe going for a jog later. Come with?”
I scoff. “Of course. I can’t let you wander off on a holiday island alone. What sort of overprotective brother do you take me for?”
The grin on her face is worth the bad joke.
Sasha’s not speaking to me.
Or rather, she hasn’t spoken to me since we left our chalet and made for the beach. I thought it would be fun if I brought her guitar along, so we could do the disenfranchised youth thing and sing on a huge rock by the seaside, like they used to in music videos of yore. But when she saw me pull the heavy old thing out of its casing, she pursed her lips, raised her eyebrows and walked away.
At least she’s still walking next to me, albeit avoiding my face. Her lips are still pursed, even though I’m not even singing. I’m just strumming absently, a mishmash of the songs we’ve written together and sung across the seas; I can see her mouth twitch every time I change the song mid-chord. It’s taking all I have not to point out that she’s wearing my old work shirt over her black burqini, the loose lycra peeking over the white cuffs.
“Are you quite finished?” she finally asks when I jog after a little boy running with a kite, playing Viva La Vida until he giggles and runs to his mother.
“No,” I say, switching to a pattern of D# minor and G major chords played one after the other – nothing but the two chords strummed quick and fast until they become a sort of staccato. It’s not any song we’ve played, but they make up two very familiar syllables and I can hear them in my head.
I don’t need that name in my head, not right now.
So I sing one of our songs instead. “I miss being in love, it seems the thing to do —”
“You’re not making me sing,” Sasha mutters instead. “Shut up.”
“Falling hurts more than the happy ending, the inevitable pretending.”
“Those aren’t the right lyrics, you know, but whatever.”
“Tell me what the right lyrics are, then,” I say, not missing a beat. I play the first verse again and again, humming off-key, making a rumpus out of the whole thing.
“It’s like watching a massacre,” she growls, and she should know because she wrote the lyrics and fit them into the melody and made it into a proper song, but she’s just shaking her head at me.
“Opening bruises and breaking bones, it’s easier to be alone—”
“But how I miss the being in love, the falling in love with you.”
I bite my lip to refrain from crowing, so I let her sing the rest of it, her clear alto ringing into the waves. People stare but none too long, as though they know the scrunched nose and the glare on her face are genuine and meant for them. The children do stop and crowd around us, and Sasha crouches low so she can sing to them softly while they shuffle and dance around us, shy but curious. It’s all ridiculously cute.
When it’s over we bow to the smattering applause of tiny hands and I fling my arm around her shoulders because it’s safe to do so now. She shakes her head. “This is exactly what I was worried about when you took it out with you.”
“Shut up,” I say, flicking the straw hat on her head. “You like being a superstar.”
She shrugs. “Our fans are more awesome than most.” She bows again to the crowd of children, most of them just slightly taller than our knees, and I stand back and clap along with them until one by one they shuffle back to their parents and their sandcastles.
“Well, now,” I say, flinging the guitar to my back and wrapping an arm around her shoulders, “it’s talking time.”
I wave my finger. “No cursing in front of kids. After all, you promised, Sha.”
“Shhh. I am considering how I feel about banana boats and distance travelling,” she retorts, looking across the water at the small island I’d picked out before.
“Opening bruises and breaking bones, it’s easier to be alone,” I sing, just to have her scowl back at me. “But it’s so terribly lonely.”
“Also terribly confusing,” Sasha pipes in, her voice gaining a nasal quality I recognise as the beginnings of a whine.
“Oh? Tell me more, good madam.”
“You’re not serious.”
“As serious as the way you’re wearing my shirt.”
“This?” She looks down, then back to me. “But you forfeited this when you moved out to that dumb metal pyramid in the middle of nowhere.”
“Also known as the oil rig where I work.”
“Still keeping it.”
“Fine,” I say, nudging her forward, “my awesome shirt in exchange for your thoughts.”
We walk quietly for a while, kicking the wet sand by the fringe of the waves as I adjust my palm on her shoulder. It feels weird, like I’m holding the bony ridges together, my fingers brushing against her protruding clavicle the way it did the day we yelled at each other and I finally saw (because I had been lying so easily to myself before) how frail she’d become. I’d told our parents and they’d reacted with surprising calm, considering the circumstances, calling up a few psychologists in the city and picking one who fit. The two weeks they did that, updating me intermittently, I wondered why neither of them saw it sooner. They were the ones who were always near her, after all. Maybe they were lying to themselves, too.
She didn’t talk to me for a month after that – no number of emails or texts or instant messages would make her pick up the phone.
When Sasha finally speaks, the sun is already beginning to set low and quick, the sea reflecting blinding red and orange streaks. “Are you sure you want to listen to my problems, Fiq? It gets trivial and troublesome pretty fast.”
“Hit me.” A mistake. She moves quickly, too quickly, and I double over, my rib beginning to throb.
“Literally? Literally. Sasha, you moron.”
“I hate the song you played just now, you know that.” She looms above me, blocking out most of the sun with her obscenely wide hat.
“The kids loved it!” I wheeze.
“The lyrics are dumb,” she continues, “like something Taylor Swift would write in the depths of her LiveJournal before unleashing it on the world, like some unrelenting piece of personal history that she needs to sing out loud.”
“You wrote that song last month; give me a break, oh my God.” I wonder if Saif’s been hiding the fact that Sasha’s taken up kickboxing classes lately, because I can feel an almighty bruise bloom in my side, and she was never this sharp when we took taekwondo together as kids.
“You should have stopped me, you know.” She flops onto the sand next to me, cross-legged and miserable. I’m still on all fours, catching my breath; I resist the urge to strangle her inconsiderate ass. “Should’ve told me, ‘No Sasha, bad lyrics do not belong here, Sasha’ and – I would’ve been okay with that. How do I know what to do if you’re not there to tell me?”
I take my time, lowering myself to the ground and lying down. “You know I’m still sorry about telling on you to the parents,” I say. I touch her hand gingerly; it’s cold and clammy and familiar. “I was just really worried. I didn’t know what to do. You needed them to take care of you.”
She nods once, twice. Her sunglasses are on again and I can see the sea’s bright glares on her dark lenses, but nothing else.
“I just hate going to therapy,” she says slowly. “I like Dr Salmah and she’s nice and reasonable and I feel like I can trust her. I just hate the walking there on a pre-set day and time every week. Sometimes I forget that I’m a patient and I feel normal again. Then Wednesday rolls along and the alarm on my phone goes off, telling me that I have 1.5 hours to get to her clinic on time, and I feel like a weird freak again.”
“We’re all weird freaks.”
“Okay.” I shift around, feeling the inevitable seeping of the damp into my old bermudas. I grab a handful of sand and let it slip through the cracks between my fingers, breathing out slowly. “You’re just healing, Sasha. You’re better off than most of us. You’re getting help, making yourself better. So many of us walk around, feeling like damaged goods, letting ourselves be treated carelessly, letting ourselves hurt and bleed. We just…sulk in our own crap because it’s easy to pretend you’re okay. It’s easy to pretend everything’s fine. It’s harder to acknowledge that you’re messed up.”
I look up at her, and her face is cast to the sea. “I mean it. I envy you.”
She gives a short bark of laughter. “Not difficult to get where I am. I can pass you Dr Salmah’s number. Or her husband’s – did you know he’s a shrink too? That’s so bizarre,” she shakes her head, “because if I were her there wouldn’t be any peace. I think my shrink husband and I would psychoanalyse our love to death.”
“Okay, first of all, I think you’re, you know, brave.” I toss a bit of sand into her lap; she pulls down her shades to give me a sharp look. “Sure, Ibu and Ayah shoved you into her office, but you were the one who went every week after that. That takes guts.”
She shrugs. “She’s nice. And paid for by our parents, so.”
“Regardless, guts.” I dust the sand off my palms and pick up the guitar, my hands shaking for something to do other than pluck a cigarette I don’t have from the side pocket of my shorts. “And secondly, you really think you’d do that? You think you’d be that vicious?”
She shrugs again, a quick twitch of the shoulders, burrowing her chin. “Yes. You know me, you know how I am.”
I shake my head. “You know, I really think I don’t anymore, Sha.” There is a look of hurt on her face before I can continue. “I think we’ve both changed, so much. We changed the moment I left for uni and you went to Chicago. And that’s completely fine.”
Her sigh is deep, long, pained. “It’s not fine. I’m not fine. I don’t know who I am anymore. And I’m glad you said it first, because I don’t know who you are. You’ve become…a stranger, I think.”
It hurts more than I’m willing to let on.
“How do you feel, then?” I ask gently, closing my eyes. “How do you see yourself?”
She hums. “Dr Salmah thinks that unrequited love broke me – her words, not mine,” she adds quickly. I nod, eyes still shut. “She thinks that being rejected made me feel like…like garbage. Only I tried to recycle myself, make myself new, and different, so…” I can feel a pile of damp sand dumped on my torso. “It’s a bit of a stretch, that analogy, isn’t it?”
“You wouldn’t repeat it to me if you didn’t think it was pretty accurate.”
A pause. “Right.” I can feel her arm brush against mine; I squint one eye open and she’s already lying down beside me.
“Recycling, making yourself anew?” I prod.
“Ah, yes. Recycling, or rather, reinvention. Also the need to control at least one thing in my life. So all that combined, manifested itself into my weird…eating thing.”
The words at the tip of my tongue are ‘Your non-eating thing, you mean?’ but even I know it’s just not done. “Hm?”
“Oh, just say it.”
“Yeah.” Her laugh is shaky and I want nothing more than to reach over and hold her hand. “I thought if I lost some weight I would be – I would be a better person. Someone not so odious. Someone worth knowing. Maybe someone worth having.”
I reach out blindly and grasp her fingers, tight as I can.
“But,” she goes on, “it’s not like that at all. I feel different, sure. It’s a lot of willing yourself to be different, dieting is, and I felt better for myself. But now I look in the mirror and I’m not sure I know myself? I feel like I can be anyone, anyone I want to be now.” She gives my hand a light squeeze. “But I’m not sure who I want to be, much less how. Like I said, it’s all a mess in my head.”
I can relate, but this isn’t the time to burden her with my foolishness or spare her my worries. “I think I understand.”
“You do?” I don’t miss the upturn at the end, that bit of Yeah, you too?
“We do foolish things,” I say evenly, “like trying to change for others—”
“—picking the wrong friends, buying the absolutely wrong outfit for ourselves—”
“That better not be a dig about my burqini.”
“—or fall in love with someone we’re not supposed to.”
She chuckles. Or perhaps it’s a sob. “Whoa, boy.” I look at her and she has an arm slung over her eyes, her shoulders shaking. “I am in such deep and putrid shit.”
“Hey,” I say slowly. “Sasha—”
“Who told you? Shakira? I should’ve known this was why we’re on this trip. I mean, thanks for the sun and the sand, but you could have just, you know, asked.”
I sit up and shake my head, feeling grits of sand brush across my face. “That’s not why. No, Shakira didn’t tell me. The girl doesn’t tell me anything. It was just – I was just saying, Sha. Oh my God. So are you –?”
She gives a quick nod, her eyes squeezed shut. “Yes. Yes I am. Very foolish, I know.” Her eyes snap open and the look she gives me is an accusation. “But I’m sure you know all about that.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Priya,” she says, and I flinch. “When were you going to tell me about her?”
I bite the inside of my cheek, wait for the taste of iron before I speak. “There is nothing to tell.”
“Having an affair with your roommate’s fiancée is pretty—”
“Don’t talk about shit you don’t know!” I can hear myself growl and I can’t bring myself to care. “We are not having an affair! She is nothing, okay? I mean, she is everything to me, but I am nothing to her. There is nothing between us, nothing at all.”
She’s sitting up now, looking utterly confused and almost angry. “But then all those messages and all those calls—”
“She just—” I run a hand through my hair. “She just trusts me. I don’t know why. She thinks I can help her with the wedding planning, and it turns out I can, and it’s the least I can do for them, so I do it. That’s all there is.” I stand up slowly, feeling my knees creak and my shoulders slump. “I don’t even want to ask how you know what’s in my phone.”
“I picked it up by accident.” Her sunglasses are perched on the top of her head and she’s peering at me carefully. “And then I noticed all those message alerts and…you can’t blame me from wondering. You speak of her like she’s…”
“Yeah,” she lets out in a breath. The pitying look I receive isn’t worth it.
“Because she is. But she isn’t mine, okay? David met her first, and he’s great, and they just – they deserve each other.”
She nods. “When’s the wedding?”
“In a few months,” I say. Three months, 13 days, 16 hours.
“Why haven’t you told her how you feel?”
I laugh. Her questions are made of the stuff that keep me up at night. “I have nothing to give her, Sasha. I don’t know that I can provide for her. I can’t love her the way she wants. I can’t provide for her the way she needs. She needs a man who has his shit together. All I have are stupid existentialist questions and thoughts about politics and shit.”
I squeeze my eyes closed against the glare of the sea. “I don’t have answers, Sha. I don’t even try to find them, sometimes. I’m content to just spewing my questions out into the universe and hoping to stumble upon some wonderful epiphany, but life doesn’t work that way. She has someone who loves her and loves her enough to want to marry her. I don’t know what I want. I just know that I love her. And if I have learned anything from all this ridiculous bullcrap, it’s that I want her to be happy, always. Even if it isn’t with me.”
She nods, her eyes brimming with tears and her arms stretched to her sides. “I understand.”
“Okay. I’m…I’m glad.” My own arms are strained, stretched, hurt from all the tension in my shoulders. We stand there unmoving as the sky darkens, her eyes steady on me and my own gaze fixed somewhere near my feet. When she finally pulls me into her embrace and wraps her hands around me, it feels like a release – like home. I push my face into the crook of her neck and breathe in the smell of sea salt and the lily essence she wears like a second skin.
“I’m sorry, Fiq,” she mumbles into my shoulder. “I’m really proud of the person you are, and how generous you can be. But I’m sorry that you’re hurting all the same.” I feel wetness seep into my t-shirt and I pat her head.
“It’s all okay, Button. I’m okay. Always.”
A sniffle, and I’m not sure who from. “I know you are. I’m glad.”
It’s barely light out by the time we pull apart, her eyes puffy-red and my chest heavy and aching. She picks up the guitar, I pick up our flip-flops, and we make our way to our chalet, near that constellation of lights on the far end of the beach.
We’re almost there when I remember to ask. “Sasha, what you said earlier, before the whole Priya thing came out…were you talking about Basil?”
“What? No,” she gives me a look like I’m crazy, but her eyes are a little too wide and she’s biting her lip. “No. It’s someone else. It’s — a friend of Basil and I, but…” Her sigh is heavy and forlorn and familiar. “Well, I don’t stand a chance.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“I just know, okay? In the same way you know how you are with Priya. It’s the same shit all over again.” She gives me a look of exaggerated despair. “It’s like our love lives are mirrors, bro. Screwed up mirrors, full of heartache.”
“Huh. Funny how that is.”
“It really isn’t,” she says sadly.
“It’s not,” I agree, swinging my arm in a huge arc, landing on her shoulders, pulling her close. We sway a little on our feet and she laughs. “But I’ve got you, okay? And you have me. We can wade through this shit together.”
Her laugh is loud and it echoes between the coconut trees and the wooden chalets. “Poetic as ever. You should write the lyrics next time.”
“And I’ll come up with a song. It’ll be a good one, with chords of heartbreak and unrequited love and everything.”
“And the first letters of each line of lyric will spell out the names of the people we’re secretly in love with but cannot have.”
“Please stop taking the Taylor Swift business seriously.”
“I love you long-time, Fiq.”
“I love you longer, Button.”
Image is ‘Bali’ by WordsManifest on Flickr.
Now that Syazwina knows how difficult it is to write song lyrics that don’t pander into odious sentimentality, she may never make fun of Taylor Swift or Najwa Latif again. Tweets are more her kinda thing.
Yeah, no, she can definitely make fun of TayTay and Wawa.