Saman still didn't know Asad, but there must've been some good in him for him to scavenge and unearth someone who could help her. That's how they ended up in a four-person, Honda BR-V car to the North. Most people would have gone road tripping solely to escape the merciless summer heat in Punjab, but they were not like most people, even if it was June currently. Even Asad's friend who had arranged the lodge booking in the hill station assumed they were heading for their honeymoon. Asad didn't correct him.
Neither Asad nor Saman liked the summer much; the only reason Saman liked it was because it was a precursor to the showers, as was their conversation on the second day of the trip.
"The rains are fine as long they bring some winds with them" Asad noted, "the humidity in July, August gets unbearable."
"That would give trouble with the electricity wouldn't it?" Saman asked.
"Give or take," Asad chuckled, "It’s not just the law of humans I guess."
This was how they went by: little, even sometimes meaningless conversations, as though they were talking to a friend or a stranger. Even if they had already agreed, in the presence of witnesses, to be husband and wife forever, it was unspoken between them. If nothing else, it silenced the awkwardness, momentarily.
As though a magic wand that had been swung nearby, a veneer of grey clouds crept into the sky, shielding the road ahead and the field on either side from the merciless summer heat. Within seconds, a shadow fell over the long grey road ahead, and the long fields of greens and mustard that outstretched from either side. Saman smiled at the clouds with a sigh of gratitude.
"I guess you never know when your prayers are accepted" she smiled.
Asad turned once to look at his wife's beaming face and smiled before turning his eye back to the road. A bell rang at the back of his mind questioning the purpose of this road journey. The man they were visiting was an old friend of Asad’s father who resided in Murree, but perhaps this excuse didn’t suffice enough. Asad didn't have a clear answer but his dominant hand remained glued to the wheel as he kept on driving. His only assurance was that Saman didn't have a clear reason for the journey either.
He remembered the first night - dawn was breaking outside when Asad was jerked awake from his sleep. He was usually a deep sleeper and would shut his eyes back again, but he turned to his side. Saman was up, panting; her face was gleaming, whether from tears or sweat he couldn't tell. For the next hour, she was still shivering as he held her hand and tried to get her to drink water. The first conclusion he drew was that she had had a nightmare. He didn’t ask for an explanation but slipped into the memory of his father and the words he had said to him the day before the wedding.
"There's a reason people call them life partners. I raised you but I won't be here forever. Saman will be, she'll be with you through the good and the bad. Take care of her."
His father had passed away less than two months after the wedding. Certain people at the funeral whispered that he was fortunate enough to see his only son's wedding before he wandered into the grave. Asad wondered whether this was all there was to his father's life.
"Do you think it'll rain?" Saman asked.
"In June?" The skepticism sounded higher than the tone of Asad's own voice.
"Baba once said that it rained in June. Mama was having cravings, and without a second thought Baba took off into the rain on his cycle. Less than an hour later, he came back drenched all over but the only thing Mama had an eye for was the bag of fresh, warm Jalebi he brought with him."
Asad laughed. It was his parents' story, one that he had heard nearly twenty times before; seven times from his mother and thirteen times from his father. But this was the first time Saman relayed the story, in the exact same manner his father had said it. He thought it would be peculiar for him to hear the story again from a stranger, but it wasn’t.
"Mama loved Jalebis, even in the piping heat" he added.
"Do you think we could find some out here?"
"Hopefully, at the hill station. But we still have an hour to ago."
Saman mouthed an 'it's fine but Asad wondered if her prayer would be accepted once more. The clouds didn't release the showers yet. Even Saman commented that they were too light-colored to pass for rain clouds. But they had covered every inch of the sky, even though every now and then, some sunlight would poke its way through in scattered holes.
Asad swiveled the car to the right, leading it down a much narrower road off the motorway. The road both descended and inclined into thick bushes of lush greens and coniferous trees towering so high, they could have competed with the clouds for sovereignty.
Saman let her window lower than before and took in the scent of the greenery around her. Asad's hands moved free of control; they swung to the side and pulled his own window down while loosening his grip on the wheel. The car was slowing down to let them both take in the spirit of the forest with them.
They passed bushes, tall and thick, and a long trail of bright pink bougainvillea that was climbing freely around tall pale grey trees. Asad was reminded of the peach-colored bougainvillea he saw blooming in the tiny little lawn outside Saman's uncle's house the first time he went there. It reached as high as to the balcony on the second floor. He had rarely seen the peach-colored kind flourishing in such luxury, and less than an hour later, he had met Saman for the first time in the lounge of the same house.
"I always preferred the peach one," Saman said.
Asad chuckled, "So you can read minds as well?"
Saman laughed, "Just observing. You were looking at them closely."
"The peach ones have their own charm, although most would prefer the pink ones."
"Maybe that's what makes the peach ones special. They’re rare because they get left behind."
"Or maybe they reserve themselves for those with good taste."
Saman smiled. Suddenly, her mind sank into her ocean of memories. This wasn't the first time Asad complimented her though. He had called her beautiful on their wedding day, although there was a chance that it was said out of courtesy.
Saman had read stories of princes and heroes; the ones who use words and subtle actions to pave their way into the heart of the unsuspecting female. Love was never a criterion in an arranged marriage like hers, and she never even considered the possibility for it. The only reason, she believed, people ever got married was because of convenience and security.
To her uncle and her, Asad seemed like the man who could give her all those things. He was not a bad person. He regularly asked her if she wanted anything, he didn't speak to her unless she began the conversation first, and he hadn't pressed her about the dreams. Those awful dreams had gotten worse after stepping over the threshold of matrimony.
"We're getting close," Asad said. Saman didn't answer. Some part of her was excited, another part wanted Asad to stop the car. She wanted to stay here, right in the middle of the greens and yellows of the mysterious woodlands. Flowers and bushes grew unattended and carefree; a trait she wished would take over her.
She had heard of people who live their entire lives in just routines that lead to mediocrity and nothing more. This view, this place was the first sign that her life needn't be mediocre. She could be happy here, in the unknown. Maybe then the dreams wouldn't haunt her, maybe they just came when she was sad.
"Close your eyes."
Saman turned to Asad, whose hand hovered over her shoulder without contact.
"Get some rest," he said, "I'll wake you when we get there."
"I don't want to sleep" Saman blurted. The smiles began to fade from their faces.
They hadn't spoken off it, until a couple nights after his father’s funeral, when Saman mustered the courage to tell her husband. Asad didn't believe her at first, and Saman didn't know what else to say. The moment the words escaped her she regretted them, as though she were responsible for the death itself. She didn't sleep that night, keeping herself awake using remedies of coffee and loud television, even after her eyes had turned pink and ached more than they ever did after a nightmare. Saman believed that the only reason Asad looked at her the next morning was that she was close to fainting with a headache.
She was sick for the next few days, and her aunt mistakenly assumed that a new life would be paying the couple a visit. But that was cleared up soon. Saman's cousin Maleeha knew though, the reason why she was torturing herself every night. Maleeha had urged her to be honest with Asad. Saman protested that it was pointless. Nobody ever believed the dreams she had, some of them wouldn't even amount to much. At nights, the dreams ruined her sleep and by day, she would suffer anxiety by simply thinking of them. She remembered all the people she had seen in those nightmares: her parents, then a friend of hers back in school, then Asad’s father. “Where are they now?!” she cried to Maleeha, “Gone! They’re all gone!”
Asad was too much drenched in melancholy to think too much about her. But when his senses started coming back to him, he started looking: online and in person, but not without subtlety. Whether it was a coincidence or a moment of prayer acceptance, he received a call from a titled psychologist who also dabbled in oneirology. Asad had not known before that something like that existed, but the man was an old friend of his father’s and was calling to offer both his condolences and congratulations on the wedding he couldn’t attend. After doing his bit of research, Asad called him again, and with a heavy breath relayed everything that Saman had told him. He was surprised alone when the man believed him, but not as much as when the man invited him for a visit.
The day before they packed their bags for the journey, Saman wondered whether Asad was taking her to relieve himself of a lifetime of regret and anguish. It was the only way she saw it: his father was dead, and now he was stuck in a lifetime with a woman he didn’t know.
The car quietly sped up. Asad looked ahead to see a water tower rising in between the forest. They were getting closer to the hill station. Suddenly, a current seized his hand, and he used both his hands to control the car. His mind flashed to the Saman's screams at night and ended at the sight of his father's body lying under a white sheet. Saman's eyelids were drooping now. She hadn't slept for nearly ten hours, but she kept her fingers rubbing over them. Her eyes began watering, begging her to let them rest, but it was her mind she didn't trust. She was scared of the images it might show her, the person’s face whose life might be at an end. She gulped and tried to keep her eyes open and looking ahead. But even the curiosity of the hill station’s sights could not keep them from drifting. Like a moment of insobriety, she slipped into a slumber and her mind was now free to take over. It happened in seconds, as most dreams did. A cliff, beautiful white rocks scattered in the middle of the valley leading to a clear, green lake. She saw Asad standing at the edge of the cliff, waving his arms about and purposely calling attention to himself and the giant smile on his face that revealed a dimple in the space between his cheek and lips. He took a few steps back, and then darted forward, jumping off the cliff and cannonballing into the deep ocean-like water underneath. She saw him underwater, swimming in the benthic of the lake which was deeper than she thought. But he swam upwards, towards the white-streaked surface, and laughed as soon his lungs grasped the air over the surface.
Saman awoke with a jerk. She touched her face; it wasn’t sweaty and her eyes weren’t aching either. She turned to see Asad looking at her with a straight face. She looked at the place where his dimple ought to have been.
“Want me to get some?” Asad pointed outside. Saman turned to see that they had reached civilization. Their car was standing outside a vendor’s shop at the edge of the street, where people moved nonchalantly. Blocks of a brick-colored plaza lay ahead of them, rife with open shops and a cornucopia of colors from tents and signboards. The vendor Asad was gesturing towards was just pulling a fresh pile of orange jalebi from a giant black wok.
Saman nodded but before he walked out she called him, “Asad? Have you ever gone cliff diving before?”
Asad looked at her with his eyebrows raised, and an elusive smile on his face.
“I have a couple of times before with my friends,” Asad said, “Why?”
“No reason” she shook her head with a smile on her face and sank back into her seat, “Thank you.”
Asad hadn’t walked out yet, and Saman waited for him to ask her why. But he didn’t, instead, he simply looked at her. He tried to remember the last time she hadn’t woken up from a dream with tears in her eyes. The only thing he remembered was the nights with cries or the nights without any sleep at all.
“Well, even I need a good night’s sleep every now and then,” Asad said, “So does my wife.”
Saman laughed, tilting her head backward. When Asad laughed with her, Saman saw the dimple forming softly near his lips.