(DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. It’s important to remember this is all totally fabricated, embellished, and exaggerated for entertainment purposes.)
She had a Patrick Bateman morning routine that involved acidic scrubs, detoxing masks, and long, meticulous showers. I sat at the empty breakfast table after separating from Haz while she hopped around the suite in her PJs, searching for clothes—dried toothpaste on her pimples. A tentative knock landed at the door. It was housekeeping, and they were determined to have a go at the room. I hadn’t let them in since we checked in. I cracked the door and told them to come back later, and the lady suppressed her disdain by mustering a twisted smile (the kind I imagined Bundy employed before he struck) and bobbing away. Now I shut the door, leaning back against it with a huff. When G started singing, a month’s worth of annoyance erupted within me.
“Yooooo…G??? Any day now!” I tossed my head back against the wood.
“Coming, coming, coming! I swear, babe!” she laughed. “Just five more minutes! Ok??”
“Youh said that 20min agoh, yeah?!”
“Yeah, but this time I realllly mean it!”
“Fuckkk, G! M’dyin’ here…” The bathroom door shut. She had honestly slept in as we planned, regardless of absence. I had to wake her up when I got here, then she spent an hour on the phone with her mom, and was only now hopping in the shower.
I pulled out my phone and checked my messages. Nothing but the usual. My cousins hitting me up. One of them had written a song and he wanted me to check it out. My mum was checking in on me. My manager offered revisions for next week’s schedule. The label followed up about the upcoming single. Taryn kept me posted on the latest, lining up appointments for the second I landed back in New York. Yet…nothing from him. Our thread was pushed further and further out of sight as everyone else in the world seemed to reach out just now.
I’d gotten back to the hotel around half ten, rehashing last night and this morning on the entire ride over. It just didn’t seem real that he was here. Worse, it felt awful knowing he was only a few miles away, prepared to fly to another continent, following which we wouldn’t see each other for weeks. Maybe even a month if our schedules continued to clash the way they did. When he was in LA, I was in France. When I was in New York, he was in the UK. When I was in the UK, he’d probably be back to LA by then.
Fuck it. I called him. He answered after a few rings, but I panicked and hung up. My heart was rattled at the thought of G walking in and catching me. Something about the risk made me giddy. Emboldened, I called back again.
“Hey…what’s up?” he wondered. “You ok?”
“Well…you hung up before.”
“Sorry. Finger must’ve slipped.”
“Where are you?”
“A hotel near the airport…waiting on my flight.”
“What time is it?”
“Few hours….” I shuddered at the thought of him boarding. “Hang on a minute.” He clicked to the other line. I felt like I was imposing, trying to keep him on the phone.
Eventually I moved back over to the table and lit a cigarette before making my way onto the balcony. It was chilly out. Nothing but a few joggers could be spotted occasionally, and loads of pigeons along the serried rooftops and gathered in dark throngs along the streets. I shivered, dressed in nothing but jeans and a t-shirt, but it’s what I needed. A good baptismal breeze to clear my head. I turned my face downwind and squinted.
“Hey,” he clicked back over.
“Youh need to goh?”
“No, it’s cool.”
“Is it lame if I say I miss youh already?” I squinched my eyes shut, scratching my eyebrow.
“No…not at all,” he allowed. “The thing is…I miss you too, y’know?” It was said with some reluctance. He sounded tired, like he hadn’t slept for a week. I was glad he got the little shut-eye he did last night, but knew he was jetlagged off his ass. Flying back to the US so suddenly would only make his sleep schedule worse. If he kept this up, he might suffer a deprivation-induced psychosis, and I felt bad he had risked all this for me.
“I miss you all the time.”
“Hey…Haz…” I began, sitting on the balcony floor with my back against the railing. “Don’t goh…okay?”
“Can’t stay mate…m’sorry.”
“Then I hate youh….”
“Of course you do,” he scoffed. “Gotta goh, babe,” he mimicked my accent and I laughed. “You know how crazy this month and next month is for me. I’m keen to get home, rest up…figure a few things out—”
“Well, I’m keen to get in those guts…” we laughed. “Babe…it’s crazy…almost like we never even met up yesterday. It all happened soh fast. Feels like a weird dream or sumthin’…d’youh know what I mean?”
“…I feel like there’s never room to just sit and spend time together. Like…just chill and not have to worry about splittin’ in the mornin’, or being worried about someone catchin’ us all the time. I just want to breathe with youh. I just want to fuckin’ exist for a minute…”
“It’s tough,” he admitted. “And I know how you feel. Uh, sometimes I just wanna hit pause on everything…and everyone. But, uh, I guess that’s sort of a dangerous game, y’know? Because I might be tempted never to hit play again…”
“M’serious, maan…I wouldn’t blame youh. Not one bit.”
“I’ll come to New York in a little, alright? I have a few gigs over there after the drop. I’ll set aside a few days just for us. For you to show me around your old haunts—”
“As if we can actually do dat, Haz…”
“Maybe at like 3 or 4am we can?”
“It’s all we’ve known.”
“Guess I’m just tired of the same old song and dance, maan.”
“But it’s what’s kept uz safe. It’s foolproof…or, uh, failproof, however you say it.”
“Then I guess I’m just in a complainin’ sort of mood.”
“Happens to the best of uz.”
“We didn’t even make love…” I whispered, the thought emerging out of nowhere.
“We always make love…” I pondered aloud to myself. “It’s our thing.” A pigeon landed on the balcony a few feet away and pecked at crumbs we’d dropped a few days before.
“I know it is…” I could hear him ginning through the phone.
“Feels like we’re gettin’ old, innit? Not as frisky as we used to be.”
“Then I’ll prove you very wrong next time…”
“Promise?” I grinned.
I saw G walking around the suite through the balcony doors and just felt empty. No longer nervous, no longer paranoid, just overcome with a deep-seated numbness. Spreading as far down as my toes and all throughout my tastebuds. My whole heart, my entire consciousness was on the other line of the phone just now, and beyond that nothing else could faze me. If troops stormed the building, if bombs were dropped over my head, if an earthquake ripped through the city, nothing could convince me to hang up.
“I wanna make love to youh…” I murmured, close to the speaker as if she might hear.
“Then don’t goh…”
“You’re killing me, Z…” he chuckled. Then: “I’m soh tired, maan—”
“I’ll make it worth your time. That’s a promise…”
“You’re just fucking with my head now,” he deduced. “I’ve got so much work to do. And so do you—”
“Don’t goh…” I repeated, uncompromisingly. Knowing he was close to breaking. There was nothing he could hide from me in this world. Especially not in his tone or manner of speaking. I could virtually read his mind through the phone. “I really really need to see you again, Harry…” There was a prolonged silence, during which I imagined he was weighing up the practicality of rescheduling his flight and canceling his meetings for the week.
“I really can’t stay…”
“Soh youh just don’t give a fuck about me then…” I muttered.
“That’s not fair. You know that’s not true. I’m here, aren’t I?”
“But you’re still goin’, yeah? What difference does it make that youh came at all?”
“Can’t stay forever, Z. Plus, aren’t you here with someone else? You forget about her or something?”
“Hilarious, Haz. Very funny.” I spat, taking a hit from the Marlboro and thumping the ashes onto the splintering concrete.
“What’s she doing anyway?”
“Gettin’ ready to drag me around the whole city, shoppin’.” I spouted a few smoke rings, before exhaling the rest through my nostrils. It roiled out before me in spectral shapes before getting carried away by the gusts.
“Sounds like you have a delightful day ahead of you. I wouldn’t want to interrupt you two lovebirds.”
“You’re all jokes, maan.” I shook my head, staring at my own reflection across from me. I was beginning to look gaunt. I hadn’t eaten properly since the day before I met up with him. I took another drag of the cigarette and blew the smoke out the corner of my mouth. He was starting to piss me off.
“See, if youh wanna get technical, broh…the problem for me is that youh came here in the first fuckin’ place. Fuckin’ with my mind and shit. I was fine before youh got here, and that’s the fuckin’ truth, broh.”
“Whatever, Z…you pissed at me or something?”
“You’re just a fuckin’ fix at this point. Any exposure to youh sets me back a mile. Ten miles. A fuckin’ thousand. I can’t ever catch up to myself with youh around. You’re just a fuckin’ relapse, maan. I need to stay the fuck away from youh altogether if youh can’t ever give me what I need when I need it…” I wasn’t being fair, but I didn’t care. I just needed to guilt him into staying.
“You’re a serious asshole, you know that?”
“Yeah…” I said contemplatively. “Soh what if I am?”
“How’re you getting mad at your fucked up situation with her and then blaming it on me??” His voice shook. “You got what you asked for, when you were the one who left in the first fucking place, mate, and you’re the one who signed up for this bullshit with her. Don’t ever tell me I can’t give you what you need, when you never fucking allowed me to. The offer was always on the table. You were just to much of a coward to accept it. Always complicating things. You just never fucking let me take care of you—”
“Fuck you.” He hung up.
I finished the cigarette, worried that I’d gotten a mild gratification out of pissing him off. If I had to be miserable for the rest of this trip, then I wanted him to be too. That was the most depraved thing I could’ve done at the moment, but it’s what my brain told me was necessary. I was so sick of seeing him everywhere. In everyone, in everything. A smile, a laugh, a color, a sound. In my own fucking reflection. If I had to be tormented, so did he.
I called him back and it went straight to voicemail. I think he blocked me. I called again and it rang and rang. I could feel him staring at the phone, watching it until the cycle was exhausted. I could see him sitting on the edge of the bed, fully dressed, shoes off, socked feet curled against the carpet. Idly watching the telly and waiting for boarding time. A sinking feeling washed over me when I pictured him at the airport. I wanted to crumble.
“Don’t goh…” I said quietly, to no one but my own fantasy. If he couldn’t hear me, then I knew he could feel me willing him not to leave.
“Z…?” G said from the doorway, dressed in a homemade crop top version of my earliest merch campaign, black leggings, and an oversized wool coat. I hadn’t even registered her approaching or opening the balcony door.
“Y’ready?” she asked. I nodded and got up.
“Guess what…” she began in the backseat of the car, staring dumbstruck at her phone screen; her thin fingers scrolling rapidly.
“What?” I muttered, seated beside her as we whizzed through neighborhood after neighborhood, the streets flooded with thousands of milling figures.
“Anna…as in Anna freaking Wintour, just asked me to host the Vogue Fashion Fund cocktail event tonight. Isn’t that insane?!”
“Mm-hm!” she nodded, mouthing the words in the email, still trying to process it.
“That’s wild, babe…congrats…” I said, tentatively. Then, hoping to separate myself from the invitation, I asked, “Youh goin’?”
“Yep! And so are you—”
“G, babe…I’m really beat.”
“I knowwww, babe, but we don’t have to stay long. We’ll just go and do the opening ceremonial stuff, show her how much we appreciate the offer, and then dip. Some of those things can drag on forever, but if I have to, I’ll stay and you can go back to the hotel. She’s knows it’s super last minute. But still, there’s no way in hell we can turn it down. Not if we want the cover this summer!”
“Righhht…the cover.” I’d nearly forgotten.
“We’re soooo close to the approval I can taste it! She loved the proposal and the mockups, but now she’s just testing us. Seeing what we’re made of…seeing if we’re worthy of a major cover story. Especially you because she hasn’t met you yet and she only gives this opportunity to very, very few men.”
“How d’youh know she’s testing us? What’s one thing got to do with the other?”
“Everyone in the industry knows how she is. Besides, fool, haven’t you ever watched The Devil Wears Prada??”
“Oh, shit…that was about her??”
“Stop talking. Please, just stop!” She planted a hand over my mouth.
At the chocolatier she made me try everything, feeding me out of her hand from unappetizing pieces she’d already bitten in half. It was disgusting ingesting her cold spit, but if I refused even one, she’d be offended. After a while I told her I was getting a stomachache and it was the only thing that made her back off.
The shop owners (an old man and his arthritic wife) were amused by her chatter, and once they realized she was an easy sell, they toted out their most expensive products on mirrored trays and told her it was the best in the entire country. I thought to myself no one could possibly know that to be a fact, but G never thought of the logistics of these things. She liked ideas and she liked people, and she always made a fuss over superlative-laced marketing whenever it was presented with the right packaging.
An entire entourage equipped with two vehicles had escorted us around the shops since she required security during fashion week, and with us going around together it made us super recognizable. We would’ve been stopped every two feet if it weren’t for the hulking men in suits that shadowed our every move.
Thousands of dollars in charges later, we headed to the smaller boutiques for exclusive finds. We stopped briefly for lunch at a posh place with live music and obnoxiously plated foods. The meat was lost among weird colored foams and purees and unrecognizable vegetables. Total mush. I was still hungry after picking around the place for half an hour. Then she helped me record a little thank you speech for the iHeart awards, in which I unknowingly smiled like a hostage. Too late to change it though. She’d already hit send and shot it over to Taryn.
Once we headed back to the shops, my feet grew tired; my boots becoming hard and forming blisters. We’d been walking a lot today from store to store, moving blocks away from the car with each new excursion into a different label. It was like running a relay down a never-ending Rodeo Drive, and I was more than prepared to pass the baton to the next dude to take my place.
“Ugh, I’m so ready for this! This is the whole reason I wanted to come out today.” G exclaimed, planting a kiss on my cheek. I couldn’t help but think: If it was the whole reason, then why the fuck did we go to like 50 other places first??
She squealed, hopping out of the backseat of the hired car as the store owner approached to greet her. We had arrived at an exclusive resale shop that carried such high-end rarities that appointments were required and many of the pieces were only available to be rented, not purchased. It was more a museum for vintage clothes and accessories than it was a shop. Lots of celebs had famously worn these things to various events and performances, and G was hoping to join the ranks. There was a similar place back in NY, but she insisted this one had a far more expansive inventory.
“Hey, uh, G?” I called from the car. She kept talking to the owner, gesticulating wildly, the heels of her boots occasionally cocking sideways. The man lapped up her every word with his limp and fraying combover, totally over the moon about one of fashion’s fastest growing prospects gracing his doorstep. “G?!” I nearly shouted. She turned immediately.
“What’s up babe? Y’comin’?”
“Noh, uh…listen, babe. I think m’gonna wait in the car, alright? M’feelin’ a bit pooped, if I’m honest. I’ll save my energy for the party tonight.”
‘Aw, y’sure…?” she pouted. “I wanted to show you some stuff…there’s loads…”
“Positive, babe. I can’t do it.” I’ve seen e-fucking-nough, woman. “Take pictures for me. yeah?” I winked and she blew a petulant raspberry before shutting the door.
I laid down across the length of the seat facing the ceiling and took a deep breath. Just a few more hours and it’d all be over. I’d manage to get through the party in one piece, get back to the hotel, sprawl out across our bed, and get some long overdue shut-eye. I wished I could fall asleep on the spot, right there in the backseat like a toddler. Day naps were the best. They left me more rested than any sleep I managed to score overnight. I practically drooled at the idea of drifting, lids growing heavier already. Fuck it, it’d be an early one for me tonight.
My phone buzzed and I wrestled it out of my jeans pocket. It was Jawaad again, trying to tell me he nearly got into a car wreck yesterday. I humored him for a while, knowing he was being overdramatic, and let him know I was glad he was safe. Eventually I let my phone drop onto my chest in boredom. This man thought everything was a sign. He was like my granddad in that way, terribly superstitious, always philosophizing the ordinary happenings of life.
My grandad had been proven right too many times, though, for me to doubt his omens. I still had vivid memories of my times with him as a kid, because they were always marked by some eye-opening pearl of wisdom he dropped on my head at the time. Things that would later play out just as he had foretold. Like the fickleness of friendship and the insincerity of love. The shallowness of understanding from a finite perspective. The ineptitude of humanity. The necessity of self-reliance and an unbreakable spirit.
Some people personified their conscience as a devil and angel perched on either shoulder, but for me, it was my granddad’s voice and his stern guiding principles that steered me through life, always supplementing what my parents had instilled in me, as well as the things I’d figured out on my own after being ripped away from them so early on.
Sometimes I thought back to my teen years and felt robbed, despite how much that robbery had ultimately rewarded me. Was it worth it? I’ve often wondered. Was money and fame really worth the agony of those hard-hitting, overburdened years? In some ways, I felt mentally underdeveloped. Unfinished. Like I was moving through life with training wheels on and still had twice as much as the average person to learn. Like I’d never really grown up. Maybe I needed to read a thousand books to replace all the practical knowledge I’d overstepped on my path to success. But then again, the many things we were forced to overcome on the road at so young an age reminded me I’d already lived at least 10 lifetimes, and all that I’d learned in that cramped period was invaluable.
I missed my grandad so much when I first left home. I still remember his face, laid up in the sick bed on the last leg of his life. Features ashen and hollowed out. Feeble-minded, but still funny. I had dreams about entering that sickly smelling room and saying goodbye before moving to London, not knowing I would never see him alive again. Had I known, I wondered if I would have said something more impactful or done something to demonstrate my gratitude for all he had given me. Wondered if I would’ve even backed out of the amazing opportunity with the band to look after him.
I felt comforted knowing he might’ve saw me on TV in the last days of his life and knew that all the wisdom he had inculcated me with would help propel me someplace far. I hoped he knew how much I missed him. Missed celebrating Eid at his place, in white cotton kurtas and loads of savory foods. Missed praying with him, even if I had no idea what I was praying about at the time. Missed watching old Bollywood movies and humming the songs together in the stillness of his sitting room; always poorly lit. Missed the incense that would choke-out the whole house with enough potency to fill a stadium. A smell you simply couldn’t get away from, lingering in your nostrils long after you’d left their house. Missed the fresh walnuts he’d crack for me which never seemed to be in short supply; they were his only addiction. Missed reading him letters. Missed being his personal translator and errand boy.
Then occasionally I wondered if he would be disappointed in how I’d turned out. What I had become in the end: a tattooed stoner and an apostate. An abandoner of the faith. A miserable fuckboy…trapped in a sick and convoluted addiction with a fucking dude. He’d passed shortly after the X-Factor began, long before he ever met Harry. Thankfully he would never come to know that side of me or the things we had done together.
He had been left with the starry-eyed hopeful I’d been so long ago. Back when I had color in my cheeks and could still pass for being pure in the eyes of those who weren’t privy to my thoughts. And I was funny too, just like him. Just like my dad. A dreamer setting out to make his family, his heritage, and his fellow Muslims proud on the world stage. To bring international attention to the sleepy Bradford neighborhoods. A brown-skinned phenom. Not a queer, sex-addicted loner who hadn’t prayed properly since I was seventeen, and who made music that’d make him roll over in his grave.
On a whim, I sat up and called Harry to resume our conversation from earlier. I wondered if he was on the plane by now, since he still refused to answer. To be honest, he was probably halfway across the Atlantic, mind consumed with a million different things that no longer included me. I was not of concern to him. I called about nine more times in a row like a lunatic, following which he finally called back.
“M’sorry,” were the first words spoken; by me of course.
“Youh outta here?”
“Almost,” he muttered. “At the airport now.”
“I really wished youh could’ve stayed, maan.”
“Yeah,” he let out a sardonic chuckle, quite uncharacteristic of the person I knew. I guess I had that effect on people. “You’ve made that clear already. But mate…I really can’t—”
“I know, I know, babe. M’only thinkin out loud, is all.”
“Yeah…” his voice dropped short of a whisper. I could picture him finding a quiet spot in the bustle of the Charles de Gaulle, plugging his ear with a finger to talk to me.
“I’ll pay for the flight back.” I offered. “I’m soh grateful youh came at all. Nevermind what I said earlier, okay? I didn’t mean it. I was wiggin’ out, babe, youh have noh idea—”
“It’s alright. You know I don’t want your money—”
“You’d be the only one,” we laughed. “Soh, what’s next for youh?”
“Crazy schedule this week. People are expecting me back. The label especially.”
“Fuck it. Runaway with me…”
“This is my career we’re talking about here—”
“Aren’t I worth it?” There was a pause in which we both recognized the familiarity in those words.
“No…” was all he answered, and I doubled over with laughter. Then, I asked the driver to give me some privacy. He took a stroll outside the car. My stomach knotted badly, and I had no idea why.
“Lately I…I just I don’t feel too gud, Haz.”
“Just feel shitty, if I’m being straight with youh.”
“I dunno.” That was something I hadn’t taken the time to analyze for myself.
“You gotta poop?”
“Well…you said you feel shitty so…”
“I think m’goin mad.”
“I’m seein’ shit, yeah? And hearin’ shit…feelin’ too much—”
“What’re you seeing?” I shut my eyes and swallowed the lump in my throat, resting my head against the window.
“Youh.” There was a pause. I knew he was struggling to form a response, so I took the liberty of elaborating. “It’s sort of like a dream…only I’m awake when it happens.”
“And what is dream-me like?”
“A proper dick.” I muttered. “He’s like…really evasive. He likes to see me suffer.”
“It figures. Sounds about right, I guess…” There was a faint element in his tone that let me know he was just now beginning to take me seriously. “Does he speak?”
“Of course not…” I sniffed, rubbing a hand down my face and pulling at my goatee. “He’s not real, innit? He’s just a figment of my imagination. Sleepless days…”
“You haven’t been sleeping lately?”
“Not too well, y’know.”
“Sleep deprivation can make you hallucinate.”
“That’s what G said.” I noted. “I guess we’re both sort of fried. Youh and me both.”
“Why haven’t you been sleeping?”
“Why do youh think, Haz?”
“Because you’re not there…laying beside me.”
“I never really have been…”
“Yeah…but this time is different. I’m getting older and theoretically wiser, and I feel, like… really fuckin’ guilty all the time . It’s easier to see how fucked up this all is, unlike when we were younger and just didn’t give a fuck about all the ancillary shit. All we cared about was fuckin’. Now, with me feelin’ the way I do about youh, but being unable to act on it whenever I want; like…denying myself the comfort of your presence. Deprivin’ myself of layin’ down and wakin’ up beside youh. It’s kinda startin’ to destroy me. All I see is red.”
“Z…” he said softly. “What do you mean…? I’m lost.”
“M’serious…” I blinked back a few tears. “It’s like…ever since we started this whole thing again…laying down without youh feels so twisted. Like bizarro world on steroids. Like my own personal hell. And then she’s there all the time…in my ear. It’s been harder to look at her after New Year’s. I hate it, Haz. I hate wakin’ up and seein’ her face and hearin’ her voice and havin’ to pretend like everythin’s okay. That I’m not always crumblin’. It’s drivin’ me crazy. And it’s not because I hate her or anythin’, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s because I love her in my own way and in my own style…that this is all becomin’ soh hard to configure in my mind.”
“Just listen to me for a sec, alright?”
“It’s youh. It really is. And I don’t mean to put all that on youh, because it’s noh more your fault, the way m’feelin’, than it is hers. But you’re all I know. You’re the first thing I see when I lay down at night…and the first thing I see when I wake up in the mornin’. It’s fucked, babe…”
“No, it’s not. I know exactly how you feel. I swear I do…”
“Do youh? Or are youh just sayin’ that?”
“Look, it took you a while to come to these realizations, Z. But try having them since like 20-fucking-13, alright? Try having them while you went off and got engaged. Try having them when you left in 2015. Try having them when shortly after that, when news broke that you were now with her. The shit you’re feeling right now, it’s all I’ve ever felt. Why d’you even think I called you on New Year’s in the first place, despite how humiliated and desperate you me feel?”
“I don’t even know what to say…” I pressed my forehead into the back of the front seat. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for not understandin’ sooner…” He didn’t respond. “Soh what do we do now?”
“Yeah…I don’t know.”
“Can’t keep livin’ like this, Haz. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It’s ruinin’ my life.”
Sorry, I know this was a long one, but I felt the conversations were needed since they don’t often talk things through. Two more chapters coming today, very soon!