The first time that I saw him, he was either smoking or coughing or perhaps a little bit of both I am not certain. I didn’t know him. I was interested to see a man who kept smoking his cigarette, despite the coughing that was induced every time he brought the cigarette to his lips. It had stirred my thoughts and made me ponder this question that why do people keep doing those things that harm them? I recalled some other such cases and on reflecting on this for a while I had even found a reason; pleasure. ‘Pleasure is a great folly’, I thought. I had finished my drink and would have given more thought to this perplexing riddle when I realized that all this exercising of my brain I was doing with my eyes fixed on this poor, smoking soul.
I was naturally very ashamed and more so when I found that the subject of my rude staring had also taken notice. I instantly called the waiter and hurriedly paid the bell. It was outside that café that he spoke to me for the first and the last time. Once out of the café, I had stood and waited for something to happen. I hadn’t known what then, but now I do. I was waiting for him to come and talk to me.

He had come and stood beside me, still smoking his cigarette. I looked at his face, which was too close for my liking. His features were not what people would call attractive, yet I found him attractive. I think when a person of opposite gender is at a certain distance from you, it is not difficult to find him attractive-a certain distance; not too close yet not too far; just the right distance.

I could smell the stink of cigarette that clung to him like a dying person clings to his life; faint yet strong. He threw the stub of his half smoked cigarette and killed the small red embers of the ash with his right foot.

I was frightened that he will talk to me and then there will be a lot of embarrassment. Half of me wanted to run away from this smoker who on closer inspection looked very ugly to me. Yet, there was this other half, which was unusually attracted to him and wanted him to say something to me. All this was in my mind, but what I was really thinking was something totally useless. I was thinking that he has used his right foot to kill the ashes so he must be a left brained or does that make him right brained. I was very confused with this thought when he finally spoke.

‘Hello’, he said. I looked at him and was confused what to do. He waited, and then he said, ‘you are very beautiful, you know’ I nodded at this, he smiled and said, “and vain too”

I shook my head at this. I wanted to tell him that I am aware of my beauty just as much as an ugly husband is aware of his beautiful wife’s charms that make him proud and hurt at the same time. My beauty reminds me of my dishonoring, and my silencing. At the mention of my beauty I am capable of showing two kinds of emotions; crazy anger or extreme delight.

My anger is the result of my remembering the greatest tragedy of my life that happened to me four years ago, on my sixteenth birthday. It was an exceptionally clear day and I was very clear in my mind as to what I would do with my life. Sixteen is an age at which girls all around the world become one in thinking that they have achieved some great feet, as if the mere passing of this one-year that turned them from fifteen to sixteen has somehow magically transformed them into a different person. As foolish as this concept is, I was a staunch believer of it and just as the clock had struck 12; I had in my mind and thought converted from an inexperienced and timid girl to a mature woman; an epitome of grace and wisdom.

Such was the fanciful mood in which I went to take a stroll in that wretched alleyway at the back of our house. ‘The dark side’ was what they used to call it and all the girls my age and younger were not allowed to step a foot in there. Even the sons of the gentlemen were discouraged to go there alone. It was said that this street was the dwelling of evil witches and warlocks and the stories that most vile crimes were practiced here were common. Yet, I was drunk on my idea of sweet sixteen and went to do what few other of my gender had ever thought of doing. Besides, I wanted to show Eliza, my nemesis, what I am capable of doing.

When I stepped into the street, it was already half past five in the evening. I had planned to return before six, to participate in the preparations of my birthday party. Initially, I was not frightened at all because I didn’t believe in the dark forces and I used to have this whimsy idea that my beauty is powerful enough to fight the evil or at least what would be evil to me. It was not so whimsical, though, for, I had on previous occasions used my beauty to avoid many retribution and flogging, for whom could possibly think of hurting such innocent and lovely a girl as little Margaret.

Little they used to call me in my younger years for as a child, I used to be very small, but now that was not the case. I was not only beautiful in the face, but I was and Istill am, what they call perfection in physique as well. I used to walk with such pomp as would be befitting a Queen. I was walking in a similar manner in the alley too. I was half way through it when I first felt terror. For a minute I thought I was being stared at and then it was confirmed as I saw two huge eyes somewhere in the shadows. I turned around immediately and walked hurriedly towards the light that was the end of the street, from where I had entered. I chanced a glance back and the eyes were not there anymore. I took a breath of relief, but just, then I collided with something. When I summoned up the courage to look at what I had collided with, I found a man looking at me and his eyes had what I dreaded they would have; lust. I tried to run, but I had not taken a single step before he thrust me towards the wall with his hand on my mouth. I was not given a chance to escape.

Why the mention of my beauty hurts is quite understandable now. No matter how much of an idiot I was, I knew that what attracted that man to me was my beauty. ‘The dark side’ had not been infamous for dark magic and the occult, but for the common day to day villainy. The kind of evil that is even worse than the practicing of dark magic for the forces involved here are humans and not some dark spirits. The bad spirits are expected to be bad and they do not do anything that is not expected of them, but humans in their act of felony only work under their own influence and make their own choices.

The mystery of my hatred towards my good looks is revealed, but what would give me a pleasure if it has proved to be such a bane, is still to be revealed. I feel delighted to hear that I am still considered beautiful and even happier, then I used to feel before this unfortunate accident. As it happens that before this incident, only men cared to indulge in the routine exercise of paying tributes to my loveliness. While women did not tend to find me so appealing and vehemently discouraged the praises I drew from the men of their kin by simply declaring that my looks are merely a matter of over exaggeration. Moreover, I used to discard such comments by classifying them as the consequence of a wicked yet highly common emotion termed as jealousy for I didn’t much care about women’s opinion. But now the women and men share the notion equally and if I start keeping an account of these praises it may not be very surprising if women superseded the men in this activity. For women are a very unpredictable species, they can denounce you when all the world is in your favor and yet they can easily find it in them to grace you with prestige when there would not be many who would like to stand behind your back.

I think we women, have usually very sympathetic or more likely empathetic hearts for a woman is a universal phenomenon and no matter how wide apart, it has spread in this world, it ends up facing similar situations and problems. I care for the opinion of my fellow gender now and their approval gives me a satisfaction that no other thing can give. People can react differently to the same suggestion. It depends on a number of things such as the weather, your mood, the colour of your dress, but most importantly, it depends on the person and his manner of approaching the subject.

In case of this stranger, for the first time in the last four years of my life, my instincts told me to show a different response than the two extremes I was in the habit of practicing previously at the mention of my beauty. I wanted to shout at him all of this that I have just written here, but could not. I wanted to tell him all the stories of my life from the moment I was born to the moment I stood beside him, but my tongue failed me.
It failed me because it was not in my mouth anymore. The scoundrel in the alleyway in that dark night had not only robbed me of my virginity, but had also taken my tongue as a caution for guarding his identity. I saw this stranger recede, just as I had seen the other stranger recede four years ago. Helplessly and with a longing to shout!

Iqra Aslam By Beyond Sanity Publishing

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