ZERO POINT is an uncensored digital interchange on art, culture, and politics for Pakistanis and the subcontinent.

Fireworks

Fireworks

The Cadbury wrapper slips through my hand and to the loose gravel as I run off from the parking lot into the soccer ground full of scatters of grass and dirt patches. I know, behind me before he paces, that he picks it up. He catches up from behind me and rests his heavy, firm but nervous hand just above my hip – the movement slow and peaceful like some resisted sigh of relief. Maybe because he feels the mishmash of ease and unease that he sends through my body like a shock. I count about two seconds between its hesitation and once it resolves to stay there calmly. 

I tilt my body towards him, my head on him to feel his chest, but I am instead in the warmth of expensive cashmere. In tearing away, I reach the centre of the field, a part soaked in mist. I do not look back, ever, to see if he is following me; there is some stupor in wanting to feel him next to me without complaints or requests. Once, I remember, these noisy mornings used to taste and smell of car engines and parents’ faint remnants of perfume. He calls for me with my nickname as if we have been friends from sixth grade; he ignores that we only met last month. In this foggy safety, I console myself that he cannot tell whatever is on my mind. Today, the fog tastes like silence and nothing else – perhaps snow but no one can be sure. Two months ago, I sheepishly said my hellos to this boy’s tall intimidation. Today, he chases after me and caresses my back in an innocent possession. Yet a gaping silence in my heart claws its way through this timeline of intimacy and grabs the softness of my throat and tongue and whatever lies beneath. 

When he hugs me, he tries to feel my heart. He said, once, that it beats in a mayhem whenever he imposes onto it – almost like fireworks.

“Fireworks? You’re horrible with metaphors.” I retorted. Maintaining sass and pride under an overpowering fear of something vague about the way he looked at me, I had retorted successfully I remember thinking.

“Like teeth clattering – no, like fireworks.” And then his eyes beat shut to let his lips fight for the allegory.

I search around and there is no one and nothing in sight save from a silver Honda Civic that I have called mine ever since I can remember. In this all-boys empire of a school, the ground around us slips into a parking lot that slips into a wide road that leads to other grounds and academic buildings that somehow all slip into the white nothingness of the haze from this December almost-morning. The car is on, parked inches away. That was his idea, to let the car hum on for no good reason. 

We sit on the ground and he plays with the hem of my glove. There is no one around us. Sometimes, he strays and feels the warmth of my hand. He’s wearing his tidy uniform of grey pants and dark-blue blazer, unnaturally impressive and exalted, with a vagabond red sweater concealing his excellently tied Prefects’ tie. Everything fits perfectly, fooling observers into thinking that the clothes were not borrowed from a roommate here, a friend there, and so on. He’s a charlatan, he often declares himself, and I will never see anyone better at it. Something about the way he teases me with his hands and quiets me with his smile tells me that he has found comfortable sanctuary in this colonial toxicity of the brick bastion that makes up our 200-year old boarding school. We both know I have not.  I turn him to me a little and fidget with the knot of his blue and yellow tie as he smiles, knowing there’s no need.

“I can’t write anymore.” I declare, valiantly breaking silences with horrible missteps in an effort to, at least, have noise.

He takes up both my hands and proceeds to look into my eyes. I try to illustrate, in my head, how he would look without the rugged, defined beard or the zig-zag acne on the skin under his jaw. I wonder if maybe I am not in love with him since I always fix my gaze on that odd spot of acne as if it is a crucial mistake. What an ugly red patch to be in what an ugly spot of your neck, I think in a way eerily similar to simply saying it out loud.

“Why not?” He caresses my right arm slowly, lingering with just one finger.

“I think I’m in love.” I stop. Fuck. I shouldn’t have said that.

“You are.”

He puts my head into his lap. He is the first boy who looks back at me without any worry. He is also the first who wants me to see behind his eyes. I see in them nothing but love and God knows that is stubbornly obnoxious of me, even a bit tragic. For a while, I talk about school and Model UN. Does he want to to pair up with me and go to a conference? Does he want to sleepover at my house next Friday? I have to teach my dogs how to sit at least, I admit to him, and I am planning on throwing the most stunning party in January, I muse with him. He talks back in perfect and continuous English and there’s something really attractive about his unbelievably Pakistani face or demeanour but it’s not the typical anger or indifference, there is definitely something else. Maybe it is in the incomplete circularity of his face but it could as easily be in his cool indifference and sought-after appreciation. He says I am the smartest boy he has ever met. He talks in perfect English for long stretches without hesitation and with love and interest. I could listen to him talk and be silent forever. What words my friends would die to hear: on myself and shutting up. I could forget all the words to listen to him forever but he never talks for long enough; maybe, that’s the charm.

“I think I’m in love with you.” I should have stopped.

“How do you know?”

“I’m always looking for you in streets and corridors you have no business being in.”

He keeps looking, not a moment does he steal away for himself.

“No boy I have ever loved has loved me back.” I persist.

“Why do you tell them you love them so quick?”

“I could lose my chance. They could run away first.”

“Better unsaid, then, no?”

“Yes,” I heave a long sigh, “it should be.”

There’s an irritation in my stomach as I say what almost seems like a lie. It is better that way, I know. I play with his face and the prickly hair on it. He jerks my hand away, stands up and then leaps back down on me. He kisses me: his movement is almost angry but in the colorful passion in his face (and the sudden warmth in his pants), I can feel that it is not.

“Do you love me?” He asks as my hands in his let go and hold back, one could say even, stupidly.

“I just sai–”

“Sh.” 

He puts one finger on my mouth then lingers by playing with my lips, possessively; now there’s anger. I pull myself away slowly, hesitantly. In his face, I see the last boy who broke my heart, the men I read about in biographies of domestic abuse and violence, and my father, my eldest brother. I see the victims of circumstance and romance and myself all there in the way I cannot stop looking at him.

“I–”

He pulls me closer — too quickly — from my scarf as his teeth bite themselves away from my lips. I am terrified. I feel the stitches I spent so much time working on coming loose. He loses will and takes me by the crevices of my lips but I am so threatened, my heart mesmerized and confused by this assault (of what, passion?) and all that is left to me is an unsteady bickering, or drumming, from somewhere in my chest. It feels like it does in the minutes after you hear a bomb go off too near. Or those one-off Chaand Raats when the vagrants and pearly-eyed teenagers are on the same streets, the sky both a victim and canvas of their celebration. Red, orange and gold. Red, orange and gold. Red, orange, gold in the cacophony of cheap fireworks bought in the Old Lahore markets. At moments like these, I do something to hide my eyes and face but the last boy I loved told me I would never need a mask with him and so I could just do well to throw it away. Or, I would pull back and be unkind as a defence but the first boy I ever loved taught me that pain inflicted to numb pain starts a vicious cycle.

“You play too many games with your eyes and,” He pauses and picks up from dimensions away, “my parents, my friends, we’re going to be in different places for the rest of our lives.”

“I know.” He lets me go, almost pushes me away.

“I don’t even know if we’ll know where the other person is.”

“I know.” I turn around, shuffle my pockets for a cigarette but fail; the cold is far too in control for any careful, tactful fidgeting. A huge no-smoking sign stares at me from distant memories of being trapped in Aitchison College for boys.

“Plus,” he chuckles, “you’re going to go to Yale and I’m going to be stuck in Karachi or Peshawar.”

“I haven’t even gotten in yet,” I don’t tremble, save for the tremor in my heart and lips, “it’s a long shot.”

He punches me in the chest lightly, pulls me back from the hair. It hurts but as his lips touch mine again, I choose to forget.

“But when you do. You’re not-” he pauses, unsure, then looks me dead in the eye, an intrigue in his mind like something from childish expectations and imaginings, “You’re not going to stay for me now, are you?”

“And not go to Yale?” I wonder more so for myself than him.

“Yeah, forget it–”

“Ask.”

“What?”

“Ask and I’ll stay.”

He lets out a laugh; it is one of his rare occasions where he allows himself nervousness. Within moments, somehow, I am no longer scared by him. I do not worry about how big a consequence I am in his mind. If I am a boy, a kiss, a rebellion to a world of masculine boys from regal families that he and I so desperately want to fit in with. But suddenly, this outpoured declaration of commitment, an outright embarrassment of independence if anything, has struck him, has struck me. I look around and there is still no one next to us. In a distance, in a bat of my eyes, there hangs a dull bulb. What are we but two boys confused in the innocence of youth and the opportunity of growing up? What are we but two boys in the conflicted brick-walls of the revered Aitchison College for boys belonging to rich parents and fancy Friday night dinner parties. I do love him, this much we both know, but can I? There is a smile on his face, I do not know what it means. There is a rigidity in his arms, I cannot translate it. In front of him, I stand proud in my steps over a shameful admittance. Perhaps he is noticing the dark circles underneath the globes that took this world, set themselves and the terrain on fire. My eyes are committed to belying every utter of pride and confidence. Perhaps he does not look at my creased skin, spotted color, and uneven teeth – the zig zag of the upper braces that are still on me. In front of him, perhaps, is a boy, a kiss, a rebellion to a world he so desperately wants to fit in to – as he looks in front of me.

“Ask and I’ll stay.” I repeat. 

He searches messily for my hand, for a truth he wants to speak. Slips on my crotch, finds the truth tucked in my pocket instead. There is a solemn, somber smile on his face. He —

“I can’t do that. You’re my best friend.”

“I don’t–” I cannot stop staring straight at him.

“I’m sorry.”

I do not beg.

“Please, Zulfi.”

I pull up a face I know will be convincing. He lightens up too, gestures for a cigarette. He grabs me from the small of my back and leans on me. He is heavy and I am weak, weak enough to almost fall. He comes closer and, again, his beard tickles at the sides of my lips before I pull away.

“I’m sorry” I manage, if only for myself.

*

“I said I’m sorry.” I protest, muttering angrily. I can feel the nakedness of my legs and stomach up till my throat, I think. Sitting here on my best friend’s brother’s bed, I stare at the scratchings on the plain-white wall because I know if I dare look at his menacing silence, the rapidity with which he puts his clothes on, I might let out a rogue scream or tear or wail. All vocabulary has escaped me and freed itself to protect him like I do and today, I am the enemy. In a funny coincidence, today, my actions antagonize both of us in this misused room. Lighters scattered in odd corners or between the creases of the comforter on the bed, video games opened and unopened lying on the wooden TVdesk cum book shelf and two friends in shifting stages of nudity at different ends of the room. There’s something violently disgusting in losing a passion to love, a lover and a friend in the confines of a stranger’s bathroom.

“Why the fuck aren’t you saying anything, you’re making me feel like I–” He does not say the word for it would cement an accusation I have only made in the way I haven’t looked at him. Or in the way I told him to stop before we got in the shower. Or in the way I told him as he motioned me on my knees and I looked up to him, agreeing to some so he would stop with whatever left more. Or in the way I repeated his name, in unsure interruptions, while the shower rained down on dark-blue tiles like pitter-patter explosions in the sky. 

Weeks ago, we had shared expletives while fucking recklessly in my mother’s curated garden at 3 A.M. and then, I could promise you that I looked up at the unpolluted horizon of suburban Lahore and there was definitely some fiery, bright magic in the air. Bursting and making noises of wonderland in our groans and sighs.

“Take off your clothes.” He had looked at me with a love I had imagined only rested in silver screens or brilliant Virginia Woolf novels about colonial England. 

There was something strangely colonial about this, though I could not tell you what. I had followed him upstairs.

“Let’s not tell any of our friends.” He had whispered on a sleepover the first time we had slept together. These words followed this world the two of us had built like bookends. A world where I would roll us shabby spliffs that he would ensure us space and freedom to smoke in the middle of the day, in empty and visible fields of a disciplinarian school. He was, after all, the prettiest king that had walked this campus overrun with entitled and unstoppable men of Pakistan, and he was ruler to them all. For months I had teased him about a secret obsession with his paroles, intonations and inhibitions.

“Let’s go get naked in the shower together.” He had suggested, taking the risk that all our friends were inches away from us. He had no clue that they all knew.

I suddenly realize he’s standing over me, perhaps waiting for me to get ready. I tell him to leave and I will follow a few minutes later lest our friends get any suspicions. He knows I am lying, mask on, but he leaves without another word. I go back and turn on the shower. The water falls like clutter, clinking and clanking on the unsuspecting tiles. The pitter-patter almost raging. I hear footsteps running outside the room and someone’s laughter. Someone raps on the door. I cannot think over the white noise with which my heart runs and runs and runs its mouth. I take off the underwear, the sole item of clothing I managed to put on in the interminable last silence I shared with him. The shower head shoots unforgiving storms on the floor in clinks and clanks and patters. The knocks on the door grow stronger and stronger like drumbeats running parallel with the rhythm my heart has found unease but permanence in. The footsteps grow louder and weaker till this orchestra of sounds and drumming noises is all that I can hear, tears streaming into the shower like nobody’s watching and nobody was. Still, I feel l like I am up for exhibition to a crowd, me with all the sounds that surround me. A reckoning of weakness and defeat like loud, bursting and fiery displays of victory or anguish or celebration. Like fireworks.

artwork by Salman Toor.

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