Stealing Nasreen – Farzana Doctor

Stealing Nasreen  (Inanna Publications, 2007)

Nasreen’s ex-girlfriend, Connie, will be dropping by to pick up her passport and a few other items she left behind when she packed up and left a few months earlier. Since the break-up, Nasreen and Connie have not had much civil contact…]

(Inanna Publications, 2007)

Nasreen checks her watch and sees that it is already five p.m. Connie will be at her place in three hours. She finishes up, tucks her work into her desk and looks out the window, observing that the evening sky is already darkening, the effect of the season changing and the days shortening.

She exits out the back doors of the Institute and onto College Street, which is already crowded with other nine-to-fivers on their way home. She hurries toward the streetcar, overflowing with passengers. A few people, pressed against the doors, struggle for better footing. She thinks she will walk one stop, and then the next one, until she decides to power-walk all the way home, hoping that the exercise will burn up some of the restlessness coursing through her.

Quickening her pace, her eyes dart at the store windows she passes: computer equipment at discount prices, greasy diners, a health food store. She strides by a sex shop, does a double take, startled to see a scantily dressed woman waving to her. The woman is window-dressing, a live mannequin wearing a red French maid’s outfit. Two prepubescent boys walk by, giggling and nudging one another with skinny elbows. Nasreen waves back at the woman who smiles and pouts out her lips at her, and the gesture leaves Nasreen unexpectedly flushed. She continues her brisk pace but glances over her shoulder again to catch another eyeful of cleavage and bare inner thigh.

She’s home by six o’clock, relieved that it is still early enough to prepare herself for Connie’s arrival. Although she agreed on principle with her friend Asha’s recommendation to ask a friend over during Connie’s visit, she has chosen, more or less, to ignore the advice. Nasreen does not want an audience for whatever could happen between her and Connie, nor does she feel that she needs a witness. Not that she has anything specific planned. She’s been too confused to organize a plan of action in advance; instead, she is hoping for the best. She is aware that this is not the best of strategies, and that perhaps she should have called a friend and made sure she wasn’t alone with her ex-girlfriend.

First, Nasreen tidies up the living room. She unwedges the tv remote from between the couch cushions and places it on top of the television. She wants to erase any evidence of the nightly sitcoms, game shows, and talk tv programs that have been keeping her company since Connie left. Then, she opens her desk drawer and finds Connie’s passport. There is also a university transcript, old bank statements, and an envelope from a credit card company that arrived three weeks earlier. She puts all the papers, except for the transcript, into a large envelope. She wants something of Connie’s to keep, something that may require a future visit. Who knows, she thinks smugly, maybe Connie will want to do a Master’s degree someday. She places the neatly folded transcript back into the desk drawer, beneath some other papers, and sets the envelope on the coffee table.

She notices a thin layer of dust coating the wooden surface and gets a rag from the kitchen to wipe if off. She hates dusting. That was Connie’s job when she lived here and Nasreen can’t remember the last time she dusted, or polished, or shined anything. She finds a second cloth and some furniture polish and gets to work dusting every surface in the living room: the bookcases, television stand, end tables, stereo, and even the picture frames on the wall. Id, Nasreen’s cat, watches her intently for a few moments and then saunters away, no longer interested. When she is finished, Nasreen opens the window wide to clear the air so that Connie won’t detect the fresh furniture polish fumes. There should be no evidence of the visit’s preparation; Nasreen wants to appear as informal and unstirred about Connie’s arrival as she imagines Connie to be. Will my performance be at all convincing, she wonders. And then, how pathetic am I?

Next, Nasreen goes to the bedroom and switches on the light. She looks at the messy, unmade bed and the mound of clothes strewn upon it. There is a pile of clean, unfolded laundry in a chair and an unsteady stack of books beside the bed. Nasreen sorts the clothes, hanging the clean ones in the closet, filling her hamper with dirty laundry. She piles the books on the white Ikea bookshelf beside the window. She surveys the bed and tries to calculate how long ago she last changed the sheets. Two weeks? Three? She tears the sheets off and then makes the bed with a set of her favourite red percale. Finally, she moves the blue dolphin vibrator, left sitting on the side table from its last use a few days ago, back into the bedside table’s top drawer.

She empties the garbage in the bathroom, gives the vanity a quick swipe and puts out fresh towels. Nasreen looks at her watch. Seven-ten. She pulls the vinyl shower curtain across the tub to hide its brown ring of grime; there’s no time to clean up. She washes her face and brushes her hair, then reapplies her lipstick. She looks into the bathroom mirror, checking herself, looking for anything on her face that would reveal her emotional state. She surveys the small pimple just beginning to surface on her chin, the shadows under her eyes, the one or two grey hairs that have sprung up near her temples. Mona pointed them out the week before, telling Nasreen that they contrasted nicely against her black hair. Nasreen wonders if she should pull them out. In the end, she decides against it. Perhaps it is good that she has matured a little since the breakup, she thinks.

She backs up from the mirror and scans her body. She feels fat today. She pinches the loose flesh on her arms and around her waist. She wonders if she has gained weight since she last saw Connie. She changes into a loose fitting green blouse that holds up her heavy breasts well. Then she squirts some perfume into her cleavage. She takes one last look at herself and recites the positive self-talk she has trained herself to say each day, the one gem of good advice she picked up from her first therapist years ago, “Yes, you are a beautiful woman.” Today, she’s not quite sure if she believes the affirmation, but she knows it is worth saying regardless.

Maybe one day I will believe this self-inflicted brainwashing. Whatever.

She turns off the bathroom light and sees Id watching her in the hallway. He mews loudly at her. Nasreen picks up the overweight cat and cuddles him, happy for his attention and diversion.

“Is that a meow of love, or are you just hungry again?”

At five minutes to eight, there is a knock at the door. Nasreen opens it and there Connie stands, holding a small plant in her hands. A peace offering.

“Hi Nasreen. Here, this is for you. It’s a Christmas cactus. It’s easy to look after. And it should flower soon.” Nasreen takes the plant, looks at the small, tight red buds and then steps back.

“Come in.” Connie does, and Nasreen closes the door behind her. She sets the plant down on the coffee table. “Thanks. It’s nice,” she says blandly, unsure if bland is what she wants to sound like.

“It’s almost impossible to kill. Just water it a couple of times a month and it should be ok.” Connie stands awkwardly, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “Everything kind of looks the same.”

“Yeah, it is,” Nasreen says woodenly. How is it that this woman who was once her lover is now like an alien to her? “I guess it must be weird being back here.”

“A little. Oh, there’s Id.” Connie sits down on the couch, puts out her hand to the cat, coaxing him closer. Id circles Connie’s ankles seductively and Connie strokes his back. Nasreen watches their easy familiarity with a lump in her throat, and sits down on the couch too.

“Do you want some tea? Do you want to stay a little while, or you in a hurry?” Nasreen wants to offer Connie an exit strategy, or perhaps a way out for herself. Door Number One, she leaves with her envelope and the world returns to normal again. Door Number Two, she stays, and we talk. About what?

“Sure, if that’s all right with you. I can stay a little while. I mean, I wasn’t sure if you would be open to that after the last time we saw each other.” Connie looks uneasily at Nasreen. “You know, at Tango’s.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not sure what I’m open to, but a pot of tea would be ok.” She says, bristling for what feels like no good reason. She walks away to the kitchen and puts the kettle on. Id remains in the living room with Connie, basking treacherously in her attentions. Nasreen takes down a small blue teapot from the cupboard and puts in two bags of peppermint, the way she has done many times before. She doesn’t have to ask Connie what kind of tea she wants. Nasreen stands at the counter, closes her eyes a moment, pressing her eyelids together. Numb. No, sad. It feels sad and strange. I should be angry, she tells herself. She reviews her mental inventory of things she hates about Connie, the injuries she will never forgive, the wounds inflicted that she doesn’t know how to heal. She remembers the quiet nights when Connie came home late, too late, the many little lies that made a fiction out of their relationship. The kettle whistles at full blast and Nasreen opens her eyes again.

“Do you need any help in there?”

“No, the tea’s ready. Just a sec.” Unnerved, she pours the boiling water into the teapot and carries the mugs and pot to the living room on a small wooden tray. Id lounges in Connie’s lap. Nasreen sits down beside them, a couple of feet away. “It will take a minute to steep.”

“Id seems the same as usual. And you’re looking well, too.”

“Thanks, you too.” And Nasreen means it. She looks shyly at Connie’s muscular arms, bulging slightly out of a tight navy blue t-shirt. She registers her flat stomach, her short, spiky blond hair, her languid amber eyes ringed with dark brown lashes. Nasreen can easily imagine her naked, her small breasts, the angles in her collarbone, ribs, hips. Their sex life had been the easy part of their relationship, even close to the end. Lesbian Bed Death did not even come close to looming over them as it had with other couples Nasreen knew. She and Connie folded easily into each other and Nasreen wonders if Connie is the same with other women, or if it had been something special between the two of them.

“So, you’re going to New York?”

“Yeah, it’s a short trip. I start a new job in two weeks, so I wanted to go somewhere before I have to build up vacation time again.”

“A new job? Really? You’re not at Starbucks anymore?”

“I’m still there for another few days. I got a better paying job with Coffee Love. I will be doing more or less the same kind of work for them, you know, PR, some advertising.”

“Coffee Love? Connie, there are huge boycotts against them.” Nasreen can’t wait to tell her friend Mona, the protest’s main organizer, about this.

“They’re not as bad as other companies. I did some research.” Connie reaches for the pot and pours them each a cup. Id jumps to the floor.

“I don’t know about that.” While they were a couple, they had often disagreed about politics. They had also learned how to avoid arguing about politics. “Well, I hope it works out for you there.”

Connie follows Nasreen’s lead out of the contentious subject to other topics: Nasreen’s job; gossip about some of their friends in common and Nasreen’s plans to go to India with her father.

“I’m glad to hear that you are taking a vacation this year too. How long has it been since you went anywhere?”

“Probably not since we went to New York.”

“That was a couple of years ago. I liked that trip. Do you remember that neat restaurant we went to, in Soho? They had amazing mussels.”

“And grilled shrimp. I do remember. We sat on the patio for hours.” Nasreen allows herself to enjoy the moment. Since the break-up, she hasn’t given herself permission to tread into the fleeting warmth of Good Connie Memories. Nasreen observes Connie reaching for her hand, senses Connie’s warm fingers intertwining with her own, feels Connie’s thumb pressing lightly into her wrist.

“Listen, I’m really sorry for the way things turned out. If I could go back and do things differently, I would. I didn’t mean to hurt you, Nas. I mean it, I’m sorry. I hope you’ll be able to forgive me some day.”

Nasreen looks into the dark irises of Connie’s eyes and sees in there a well of hope. She means it. Her own dark eyes become wet. Connie takes the mug from Nasreen’s hand. Her vision blurred by tears, Nasreen doesn’t see what comes next. She feels strong arms pulling her, hot breath on her neck and then soft lips on her cheek, forehead, and mouth. Nasreen becomes uprooted, Connie the gale force wind snatching her up. Caught in this tornado, there is only motion now, the force of legs and arms, the crush of eager lips and hungry mouths, the whoosh of clothing being unzipped, unbuttoned and discarded. Nasreen struggles to hold on. By the time she opens her eyes again, Connie is kissing her from somewhere above, and Nasreen is flat on her back, her hands gripping Connie’s hips tightly. Her brain registers that things are too far gone for her to bother stopping now, so she runs her greedy hands over Connie’s back and pulls her weight down onto her, whispering teasing, bawdy words into Connie’s receptive ear.

Id watches them from the pile of still-warm clothes on the living room floor.

Farzana Doctor is a Toronto-based author and social worker. Her novel, Stealing Nasreen (Inanna, 2007) has received critical acclaim from the Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire, and NOW Magazine. She has had her poetry, reviews, short stories and creative non-fiction published in a variety of publications. She has also co-written a manual for therapists and was part of the video collective that produced the documentary, “Rewriting the Script”. She is completing revisions on her second novel, New Skin (working title). Find out more about her at www.farzanadoctor.com