You don’t just back out at the altar. Not in Pakistan… “‘Til death do us part?”
“Because you love Natasha.”
And he froze.
His smile. His eyes. Everything.
It was an unfortunate circumstance.
Zaed was down on one knee, holding up a sparkly ornament; a masterpiece of one thick gold band set with a large emerald flanked by two smaller diamonds. After staring at it for a few seconds, he finally looked up at me. His chiseled face was crumpled into a curious frown.
“Uhm – Zaed?” I stared back. “What are you doing?”
“Found it on the floor,” he said. “Is it yours?”
Okay. So, he hadn’t suddenly lost his mind and decided to propose to me. I shook my head to answer his question.
“Maybe it’s Natty’s.” I pointed a thumb at Natasha and tried to speak above the deafening party sounds. “And by the way–”
I was going to prompt him to stand up but before I knew it, the relative peace was destroyed by a loud and unsavory sound. Someone was screaming. It was Natasha. She was screaming and gasping for air all at the same time.
I studied her to find an answer but she was too busy clutching her face with one hand and her heart with the other.
“Oh. My. God.” She gasped, staring at something south of herself. “Zaed – yes. Yes! I ABSOLUTELY YES!”
I turned sharply to look at our friend and my mind phased out for a few seconds. Zaed was still kneeling in front of her with the expensive ring gleaming like the North Star between his two fingers.
It was amazing how smoothly her shriek pierced through a blaring surround sound deck chugging out drum beats faster than my pulse rate and managed to get the attention of some twenty five howling and dancing adults in the den. Everything came to a momentary halt. Then, they all rushed over, talking, shouting, gesticulating all at once and hurting my poor ears. Each one was dead sure that Zaed had proposed to my cousin.
“Did she say yes?” someone asked.
“DID YOU, NATTY?” A girl standing just three inches away from me hollered.
“No! Wait!” Zaed seemed to have found his voice, not his legs so much. “I never asked her!”
“Well, then, go ahead, man! What’re ya waiting for? Be a man!” A boy we barely knew but often saw at Amber’s parties prompted.
“Ask her! Ask her! Ask her!” the crowd chanted. Zaed looked positively mortified. Too shocked to say anything. Natasha came to his rescue and slipped the beautiful ring on her perfectly manicured finger all by herself as if she owned the trinket. The crowd broke into a frenzy of claps and cheers.
“Show us the ring!” The girls went wild as the guys helped Zaed to his feet and took turns in congratulating him by patting him on the back like he’d just recovered from a coughing bout. He went through the two-minute ritual mechanically. Natasha was smiling from ear to ear, showing off her ring with no less pride than a newly crowned Miss Universe shows off her tiara and perfect teeth.
Once the crowd eased off into music and partying again, leaving the three of us alone, Zaed came to his senses. He took hold of Natasha’s arm and dragged her into a corner not very far from where we were standing. I could see and hear them.
“Natasha! Listen to me!” He didn’t even use the fond Natty he usually did. He was notorious for never resorting to endearments except for when he addressed the girls he lusted after. “I didn’t propose.”
“What?” Natasha asked absently, still admiring the ring that graced her long fingers.
“I didn’t propose!” he repeated forcefully. “This isn’t my ring!”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean – I found it.”
“Found it?” Natasha smiled coyly. “As in you found it in a jewelry store?”
“NO!” He was quick to check his raised voice and drew in a sharp breath. “I mean I found it on the floor. Someone must’ve dropped it. It’s not mine.”
Natasha eyed him quizzically for a minute before speaking. Her perfectly outlined and shimmering lips slightly parted as she surveyed his face. Then, she tossed her abundant chestnut curls behind one slender shoulder and smiled. Her slim five-foot-five frame, wrapped in dark jeans and a glittery top, rested easily on black three inch heels.
“Okay,” she finally said. “So you’re saying you found it on the floor and you were just kneeling in that certain way, holding the ring up delicately in that certain way, tugging at my elbow to get my attention in such noise – just so you could not propose to me?”
Yeah – even I wouldn’t believe Zaed now. And I knew he was telling the truth.
“Yes,” he said meekly, trying his best to avoid Natasha’s eyes, but failing.
Suddenly Natasha’s smile vanished, and a stern, cold glaze hardened her doe-like black eyes.
“It’s about Amber, isn’t it?” she hissed, her white skin turning pink. “I know you were dating her. You’re worried about her!”
“Amber? No! This isn’t about her. This is about –”
“Omigosh!” Natasha gasped. “This ring was for Amber. You thought I was Amber!”
“No, I didn’t think you were Amber.” He looked frustrated. “I knew who you were. It’s not like you’re wearing the same outfit or anything and I couldn’t tell you apart in the dark.”
“You remember her outfit?”
“Yes. No! That’s not the point –”
“Here! Take your ring! Give it to Amber!” She tore the ring off her finger and dumped it in his palm. “In fact, I’ll go call her so you can tell her the good news in person!”
She was about to dart off quick as a flash when both Zaed and I leapt to grab her.
“Whoa! No, don’t do it!” he was begging. “I don’t want to marry Amber. I never wanted to marry Amber. This is a mistake. This all is a huge mistake. You don’t understand.” He was rambling now and in need for someone to cut him off.
“Zaed, shut up!” I held Natasha, who was crying profusely by then, by her arms and she swayed and almost fell on me, hugging me tightly like she always did whenever she was sad and needed support. “You can’t cry like this here,” I whispered in her ear. “Everyone will get suspicious.”
She instantly detached from my embrace. “But Zaed said –”
“Forget what I said!” Zaed gave the air in front of him a quick wipe with his palms. “Just forget I ever said anything. You’re beautiful. This ring is beautiful.” He slipped it delicately back on her finger. “Just stop crying. Please. Please!”
She looked at him, then the ring on her finger, and then back at him.
“What about Amber?” she asked innocently.
“No Amber.” He smiled. “There’s no Amber.”
Natasha bit her lip and cast her eyes down, looking at the ring again. When she looked up next, tiny tears shimmered on her mascaraed lashes, but there was no denying the shadow of a smile that lurked around the corners of her lips creeping all the way up to her eyes. She sniffed and finally smiled up at him.
“Okay,” she said softly. “I need to fix my face. I can feel the puffiness from all those tears.”
“Yes.” He nodded emphatically. “You go fix that face.”
“It’s that bad?” She ran a nervous hand over it, looking like she was on the brink of another downpour.
“Of course not,” I chimed in before Zaed could mess it up further. “Just a little mascara ran out of line around the edges.”
She wiped her under-lash quickly and checked for evidence on her fingertips. There was none, but I knew my cousin. Without further delay, she walked past us over to the other side of the mammoth living-cum-party room. As soon as she was out of sight and earshot, Zaed let out an audible sigh and tried to bury his face in my hair.
“Get away!” I pushed him, smoothing down the static in my tresses. Aside from the itchy dryness, this was the other reason I hated winters in Karachi.
“What am I going to do?” he wailed as he grabbed me by the shoulders. “Sophia! You’re the only friend I’ve got in this sad, sad place. Tell me what to do!”
“You mean, in addition to what you’ve already done?” I mocked him. “Seriously, there’s room for more?”
He stared at me, totally unimpressed. “Don’t make fun of me, Sophia. You know it’s not my fault.”
“Okay.” I looked at him kindly. “Let’s just go home and sort this thing out, okay? If you try doing it now, I don’t think it’ll go very well.”
“I don’t think it’ll go very well at home, either.” He sighed again. “Sarim will kill me. He’ll hang me for corrupting his child. He’ll totally go karo-kari on my ass, I just know it.”
“Oh, come on.” I suppressed a smile. “You’re his favorite wife’s cousin’s daughter’s only son. You’re practically family.”
“Aunt Mona is his only wife.”
“All the more reason for him to like you, then.” I smiled broadly this time.
“I still don’t understand where that ring came from,” he said thoughtfully. “Who would lose such a pricey piece and not miss it? And she flashed it at, like, more than half the room – every girl – and nobody claimed it.” He paused for a bit. “And why in hell would she be so sure I was proposing?”
“Well, I guess we all know the answer to that one.” I raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been flirting with her ceaselessly ever since you set foot in Pakistan two weeks ago, regardless of whom else you were wooing that time.”
“No. I’ve been dating Amber all that time. Very single-mindedly, too.”
“No. You just met Amber a week ago at that Selina girl’s place who, by the way, you dumped for Amber after only three days of courtship,” I reminded him. “And before Selina, it was –”
“Okay, okay, I get it.” He frowned. “I’m a predator forever stalking single women.”
I couldn’t agree more, and would’ve been happy to annoy him further with my knowledge of his love life had my thoughts not travelled back to his previous remarks. Honestly, it didn’t make sense that Natasha would expect a proposal from him. Surely, she knew he was only being nice…?
Secondly, it was odd that no one in the room had claimed the ring yet. Then, it hit me.
“Maybe the ring is Amber’s.”
“I’ve never seen it on her finger.” He said it as calmly as if he kept stock of every piece of jewelry that she owned.
I told him as much.
He rolled his eyes. “I mean, of course it could be hers but it’s too expensive for a casual ring. I mean, it could only be an engagement ring. Besides, if it was hers, wouldn’t she have raised hell by now?”
“Well, maybe it belongs to someone else in her family – maybe a relative or a guest.” It was my best theory and seemed to appeal to him as well.
“Yeah, it is her house,” he agreed. “In that case, shouldn’t we ask her?”
“Are you crazy? That’ll be like suicide.”
“But I can’t have Natasha wear something that she thinks I gave her when I didn’t give it to her and that, too, under the pretext that I –”
“Okay, okay, no need to freak out.” I held out a hand to control his rant as I scanned the room, looking for nothing in particular but thinking hard of what to do next. “Let’s discuss this. Let’s talk to Mikael. He’ll be better with ideas than we are for sure.”
“Yeah let’s – Wait. Where’s Mikael?” Zaed’s observation left me surprised, too.
“He was here just now, wasn’t he?” I was trying to remember the last time I’d seen the sanest member of our quartet. “He was standing next to me right before you showed me the ring and –”
“It was his ring!” Zaed almost sang out in exasperation. “It has to be! He was standing here,” he pointed to the exact spot where we both had last seen Mikael, right between Natasha and me, “and must’ve dropped it. I found it. Showed it you and all that fuss. He must’ve slipped out before all the commotion.”
“That means he must be carrying it to propose to somebody.” Who? “I didn’t know Mikael was seeing someone.”
“Dunno.” He quickly flicked out his cell and started punching numbers. I knew he was dialing Mikael even before he barked Hello and then made a face to indicate his call had been picked up by the answering service. “He’s not in.”
“Sheesh! He sneaked out in the middle of the party to meet whomever he was supposed to give the ring to, and without the ring…” I gulped. “I think he must be having a very bad night.”
“I’m going over to his place and find out what happened. If he knows anything about the ring, he can tell Natasha it’s not mine,” Zaed said urgently, patting his shirt down. “Keys? Okay. I need my jacket. Where’s my jacket?”
“Amber took it when we came in.” I scanned the sprawling den before us again and blinked as Amber morphed out of the psychedelic shadows. I was about to query her regarding Mikael’s whereabouts and those of Zaed’s jacket, too, when her deathly shade of pale killed my words.
Unfortunately, Zaed wasn’t as observant.
“Hey, Amby Bambi!” He smiled his dimpled smile. “Say, have you seen –”
Amber’s right palm made contact with his left cheek – literally slapping Zaed into silence.
“You pig!” she spat. Then, quickly turning on her heels, just as she had materialized out of darkness, she melted into it.
“Ouch,” I whispered as Zaed blinked. “How close were you two?”
“We weren’t.” He still seemed dazed by the happening.
“She was your girlfriend.”
“Two dates!” He held out his fingers for me to count. “And one kiss. That’s it!”
“You sure you didn’t sleep with her?” I eyed him suspiciously. “That slap hinted at more than kissing, my friend.”
“Oh please, I’m still a good boy by that count.” He looked bored. “Now be a good girl and take your cousin home. I’ll go check on Mikael, okay? I think that Rania girl will be nice enough to drop you guys home.”
“Is she next in line on your list of potential babes?” I teased him. “May I remind you, you got engaged, like, five seconds ago.”
He ignored my comment. “And do get my jacket from Amber, will you? It’s my favorite. And please tell her a few dinner dates never meant I’d actually marry her. It amounts to nothing even by Pakistani dating standards – that much I know.”
“I’ll get your jacket.” I frowned. “The rest you can tell her yourself. I wouldn’t be too surprised if she accuses you of telling her just how she was the girl for you. Probably proposed to her, too, over hot fudge ice cream scoops.”
Zaed smiled, leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. “You are the girl for me, Sophia. You’re amazing.”
“See? That’s what I’m talking about.” I scrunched my eyes. “You’d flirt with a wall if you had to.”
“Bye. See you in a bit.” He chuckled and headed into the foyer and out of the house, his tall six foot something frame disappearing into the dark December night.
I stood idly for a few seconds before finding my way back into the partying crowd to locate my very euphoric and wrongfully engaged cousin.