Wednesday mornings are like the plain pizza crust of the week. The bland insignificance of the day hit the window early at six-thirty in the morning, creating zebra patterns on the sleeping couples’ faces through the blinds. Fifteen minutes later, their respective alarms rang from either side of the bed. They both grunt and groan and roll over in angry silence to stop the consistent beeping. As the room plunges back into silence, Iman rolls back around towards her husband and rests her face, damp with the kind of sweat one only wakes up with in June, on his shoulder and sighs.
Babar keeps his eyes closed but lets his fingers slip into the maze of her thick, dark hair, gently untangling the curls as his fingers lace themselves within each strand. He feels himself slipping back into a comfortable snooze when Iman shifts subtly on his shoulder. Her face was slowly turning towards him; he could tell because suddenly his neck tickled with her warm, fast breathing as she inched in closer. He opened his eyes and sat up with a start, letting Iman slide off his arm. Leaning down over her in a rush, he gives her an peck on the forehead as insignificant as the day itself, and hops out of bed. “Gotta take a leak.”
He takes his leak and then hops into their cozy shower cubicle just as his wife sashays into the bathroom. She brushes her teeth while he shampoos his hair, then they switch positions. They move around each other like silent dancers; reaching over one, stepping over the other, slipping behind one another to use the towel then coming back to the front to check their reflection. The first twenty minutes of each day was what set the precedent for the rest of the day – two people living their lives so close to each other, so similar to one another, that the need to share their words or feelings had been nipped in the bud a long time ago. As she brushes her thick mane of curls into a tight bun, Iman watches her husband shave in the mirror, their reflections touching each other even though she was standing three feet behind him in reality. Behind the early morning scruff, every morning she got to see her pubescent freshman boyfriend emerge in her husband’s shiny cheeks and pouty mirror face, and she would smile to herself. She smiles today again.
Outside the four walls of their bedroom, their lives got noisier and busier as the day wore on. Their three children were on a permanent carousel – always rushing around with their own agendas, their conversations loud enough to drown out a passerbyer’s thoughts in his own head – and Iman at the center of the carousel itself. Babar sits at the kitchen counter, his older son and daughter like parentheses on either side of him as all three of them munch on their cereal and chomp down on their waffles. Iman packs lunches opposite them, taking breaks to sip her coffee and feed a bite to their youngest, who is perched on the counter.
Everyone shares their schedule for the day, the older two run out of the house without saying goodbye, and Babar and Iman, with Hussain perched on her hip, all hobble out of the house. They say goodbye to each other, and Babar watches his wife strap their son in the backseat of her car. She’ll drop him off to the daycare down the street and then make her way over to the diner that she still helped an old friend run. Back when they were young and unprecedentedly pregnant too soon, Iman insisted on working the first two trimesters as a waitress, at a diner her friend’s single mother had opened up.
They were young and Babar was only a lowly paid car’s salesman who had fallen in love with a beautiful woman when he heard her singing inadvertently loudly in the back of their college library – headphones on, scribbling in her notebook, belching out cheesy lyrics that echoed throughout the library the night before their finals. But not one person complained. One did fall in love though.
She worked at the diner with two young children until, right before their sixth and second birthday respectively, Babar got his big break. The shop he had worked at all his life for no recognition and even less money, finally needed him. It began as a proud business that Mr. McCain had wanted to pass down to his only son. But a few years ago Mr. McCain got extremely sick and had to leave the country, in pursuit of a better doctor. He left his business to his son as promised, but his son didn’t fit in as well at a car shop as he did up on a theatrical stage. A year after losing his father, Mr. McCain’s son handed over the business to their most trusted employee, and Babar used his new office window to watch the son stand by his car and cry profusely before driving away forever.
Now when Babar walks in to the shop every morning, a doorman stands up to greet him and open his door for him. The cool air-conditioner slaps him in the face and hugs his slightly damp shirt, cooling the flushed skin underneath. Everyone smiles at him, says their hello, or nods their greeting from a distance as Babar walks through the shop to his back office to drop his suit jacket and briefcase off. He may be the boss, but he loved the job for the same reasons he applied here in the first place: he was a salesman.
Rubbing his palms together he scopes out the thinning crowd opposite him. But it is a Wednesday morning after all and so the car-plot is scattered with bored employees and the occasional wandering eye. At around noon though, just as Babar is about to place a Marlboro between his lips, he spies the ideal customer sashaying into his plot. A young – maybe twenty? – man dressed in a black sweatshirt and grey sweatpants, as if he were impervious to the heat beating down on all of them, with airpods shoved in his ears. He bobs his head around casually. Babar knows that move – the people who don’t know shit about cars only come in here looking so ‘casual’. Babar watches him while the cigarette burns into ash between his very fingers, waiting for the man’s eyes to glimmer as they roll over the collection of vehicles that were Babar’s pride and joy. These, and the kids of course. But his eyes stay dead and Babar flicks the end of the cigarette behind a shrub as he approaches his new customer.
“Afternoon sir, can I help you?”
The man looks up at Babar as soon as he hears his voice. The airpods are just an accessory it seems. That’s okay, useless expensive accessories means a quick, expensive deal for Babar. Still, he makes a show out of removing them from his ears before responding to Babar.
“Hey man, uh yeah,” he extends a lazy handshake and Babar grabs it enthusiastically, giving it a firm shake as if to say “I got you.”
“Yeah? What kind of car are you looking for?” Babar asks.
“Uhh well,” he begins. “It’s my twenty-first birthday next week and I have a rich estranged father trying to make it right with me suddenly so… he sent me here to pick out a car for my birthday.” The kid – its safe to call him a kid – shrugs his shoulders, as if his father handed him a dollar bill and asked him to run to the gas station store.
“That sounds like a fantastic deal,” Babar replies, verbalizing what the boy should be feeling.
“It’s aight,” he responds, shrugging again. “I mean, I sometimes drove my uncle’s car, and its fine but now that I can get my own, I want something that feels like me, you know? A car that gets me, embodies me, you feel?”
Babar nods and smiles like the perfect salesman he is, but internally, he contemplates asking the kid if he could have a little bit of whatever he had clearly been smoking before this interaction. Once his sunglasses are off his face, his glassy red eyes make confused eye contact with Babar, and Babar’s heart slows down with nostalgia. Instead, snapping himself out of it, he says, “I think I understand. Walk with me.”
“See, you don’t want to get something… basic,” Babar says as they move away from the second-hand cars to the front of the store. “You want to get something that symbolizes who you are, a space that can be just yours. And perhaps, some room for a ladyfriend? Or guyfriend? That’s really-“
“Kyla,” the boy interrupts. “That’s my girl, Kyla.”
“Kyla,” Babar lets the name roll off his tongue, remembering the day Iman had leaned in across the bar counter to slide his drink over to him as she parted her lips to tell him her name, and how he had repeated it the whole way home that night.
“Well, sir, I have something special that I don’t really show to just everyone,” Babar says, using the same line he uses on everyone. “We have this beautiful, classic car – far from basic. A car that will redefine your manhood, make you feel special again, make you a king that everyone else envies but no one else can be. Let me introduce you to-“
They approach the car just on time, as if Babar hadn’t done this move a million times before.
“A 1966 Chevrolet Chevy II powered by a fresh LS1 – custom leather interior, a nice JVC sound system, Baer power disc brakes, she’s got all of it. And there’s plenty of room for Kyla in the front, and in the back!” The two men laugh and high-five one another’s ego and the kid is sold. As they go into the office to finish up the paperwork, the kid warms up to Babar and approves of his sense of machoism – Daddy issues is a real thing. As he leaves, he slips Babar a little nug wrapped up in cellophane but its potent smell immediately makes itself at home, taking over the entire office. The boy winks at a confused Babar, who stands there wondering when he expressed his desire to break his eight-year-clean-streak aloud. Regardless, he feels filthy – the good kind of filthy, the kind that only comes with a heavy commission. Grabbing his wallet and shoving the little bonus payment in his drawer, he decides to go to the diner for lunch.
The diner still looks like it belongs in a cheesy 2000’s movie, with bright red booths by the wall, red leather stools lined up by the marble counter, and sassy women strutting up and down taking orders. Iman just liked coming around to help – she didn’t need the job anymore. But the diner had belonged to her best friend’s single mother who took Iman in and gave her a steady paycheck when she found herself suddenly pregnant. Once Aunty Liz’s back gave out a couple of years ago, and her daughter had moved to another state, Aunty Liz considered selling the diner. That’s when Iman told her that she wouldn’t mind looking after it on a day to day basis. She couldn’t cook anything like Aunty Liz, but she did manage the finances and stand behind the counter watching over the staff and customers until it was time to pick her kids up from school again.
As Babar walks in today, he sees her balancing four plates on both her arms spread out of her sides like wings, as she approaches a group of high school kids with burgers and fries. Catching her husband’s eye as the door dings to announce his arrival, she smiles half a smile at him and nods her hello. He smiles and nods back, settling on one of the stools.
“Hey Babar!” a chirpy, slightly nasal voice squeaks behind him.
Before even completing his swivel, he replies, “Hey Jolene, how you doing?”
“Living the dream, you know it,” says the gap-toothed young woman opposite him, the humor never leaving her lips, the fatigue never leaving her eyes. “You want your usual?”
“You got it.”
As she scurries away, he feels a warm hand on his back. Babar turns around and sees his wife standing right beside him. He pulls her towards him, his arm hung loosely around her back, resting on her backside as they both stare at the customers sprawled around the multicoloured room.
“How’s the day going?” he asks.
“Kind of busier than usual,” she says, gesturing to all the full booths. “So I’m on waitressing duty today.”
“Duty?” Babar teases with a smile. “You’re the boss, you get to decide what duty you want to be on.”
Iman smiles back and flicks his nose playfully as she pulls away. “Boss schmoss. I was free, is what I really was. And it’s just a lunch rush anyhow.”
The door dings and in walk three construction workers, carrying the sun’s heat in their red-burnt skin and wet hair and heavy breathing. They settle next to Babar, the smell of June and cement and cigarettes orbiting them and now everyone else in the diner. Iman moves behind the counter in time to slide over a pitcher of icy cold water and three glasses while a new kid rushes over nervously to take their order. Iman grabs a towel and walks over to a booth that just emptied, folding herself over the table to reach the entire surface. The construction workers turn around one by one and face her like a couple of school boys witnessing a nipslip for the first time.
Iman is a mother of three now. She is a beautiful woman, always has been, but now she’s a mother of three, and sometimes she wears that all over her more than she wears herself. The Iman Babar had met on the first night years ago was a young, enthusiastic girl who could make the perfect Old Fashioned for them; who knew all the words to House of Pain; who’s large mass of curls was always free and always wild and always dancing in the wind, just like her.
Today, her dark boot cut jeans were replaced by knee-length dresses while her hair is tamed into a neat bun, and the flat navel she loved to show off was now hidden under birthing three children and sensible T-shirts while she hummed nursery rhymes under her breath. Babar thinks back to when she showed up in the middle of the night, standing at his doorstep with a pregnancy stick in her hand as she cried and hiccuped too much to speak. He had let her in – into his house and his arms – as he held the love of his life against his chest, feeling their hearts tremble out of fear together, oblivious to all the joy that lay ahead. She had told him a long ago that she never wanted to marry, and he would fantasize about the day he would finally convince her to be his bride. This wasn’t how he had imagined it, and yet he pulled apart and got down to his knee and asked to be her husband. She had cried her yes.
As she leans over the table to wipe the other end, her sensible blue skirt clings to her hips and the back of her legs, her rounded behind bursting through the dress. As she scrubs thoroughly – putting some elbow grease into it, like Aunty Liz would say – her whole body gives into the task and wiggles with her arm, her once-smooth-hourglass-curves now just messily moving under the weight of her task, under the weight of the world.
The men snicker next to him and one of them says, “Damn that ain’t as pretty as I thought it’d be.”
“Really? I think its all right, I like me some wiggle,” one of the older men replies back, sipping his lemonade through a straw.
“I mean, this is just messy Ricky,” the only blonde of the group replies. “She ain’t gotta move like that for a table.”
“But hey if she wanna move like that on me though…”
“Here’s your burger!” Babar snaps out the terrible nightmare to wake up to a large, juicy burger in front of him. He leans over the counter and grabs a paper bag, shoves his burger inside it, slaps a couple of bills down and rushes out before Iman even rises from the table to see he’s gone already.
Instead, he decides to eat his lunch in the comfort of his silent and solitary office, with John Oliver on Youtube harping on about some hoopla that happened last week, to keep him company. After lunch his lungs automatically start shriveling inside him, desperate for a hit of tobacco. Grabbing his pack, he goes outside but sees another potential customer who is still walking around alone. Although he’s rarely ever interested in entertaining people who are doing that slow walk this woman is doing right now – the slow, I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-here, maybe-I-should-come-back-another-time, lost kind of walk. This woman is pushing a stroller with a squirmy, unhappy little baby who’s cranky groans had absolutely no impact on this woman. As he weighs his options and thinks about summoning Janet from the back to take over instead, she feels her eyes land on him. Shit.
“Good afternoon ma’am,” he says, slapping on his cheesy smile, hoping there was nothing stuck in his teeth. The woman smiles nervously back, her face shiny with sweat and devoid of any make-up. Her auburn hair has been pulled into a loose braid that lazily rests on her small shoulders. “How can I help you?”
“Hello, good afternoon,” she says, her voice a low, hoarse whisper. “I’m really just browsing today. My husband and I have been planning on finally buying a car for months now – since this little guy came around,” she says, cooing at the baby in the stroller who stops squirming as soon as his mother pays attention to him. “It’s difficult to keep pushing a stroller around to get anywhere, you know? It’s also gotten so fucking hot.”
Babar finds himself slightly taken aback when she curses. Not because he didn’t think she was a curse-er but mainly because most moms he interacted with weren’t swearing right off the bat. He studies her in her loose mom-jeans and a flannel buttoned low enough for her chest to breathe in this heat. Her watch covers a part of a little tattoo on her wrist and her lips are as purple as his almost. A smoker too.
He smiles at her honesty and says, “It is too hot to be lugging this little one around in this. Let’s see if we can find you something comfortable. Do you have any more kids, or is the beginning of your beautiful family?”
“Jesus no, it’s just little Davey in the stroller and his older sister back at home. She’s, erm, not mine. My husband’s. Not that that matters, don’t know why I brought that up-“
“No it’s all right. But in that case, how about we look at some station wagons? It is a family car.”
They walk towards a large, brand-new station wagon and Babar preps his regular spiel in his head when she interrupts him out loud: “They’re just so bulky. I mean why can’t they be spacious and nice to look at?”
“Well you know, it does have one-swipe-clean leather seats that-”
“In high school we skipped football practice, just so we could egg mom-cars like these that came to pick and drop their kids,” she says, handing her baby a carrot to teethe on while still staring at the car. “Guess I’m on the other side of the same game now huh?”
She doesn’t end up buying the car. Babar didn’t think she would. Whenever someone walks in saying they are considering getting a car, the sale is rarely ever made on the first day. He avoids customers for the rest of the day, signs a couple more papers, begrudgingly returns some calls, and then finally heads home by six.
He walks into the same crazy, bustling home he had left this morning. The kids are sprawled across the living room, each on some kind of device or the other, as if electronic dialysis is all that keeps them alive. He kisses each of them on their head as he skillfully hops around them and sees his wife standing behind yet another counter. Smile still pasted on her face. The small butterfly on the nape of her neck glistening. Her bun still tight but loose enough to let a couple of curls dance around her face. As she cuts potatoes for dinner tonight, she hums along to whatever animated cartoon Hussain is watching on the iPad. Babar walks over to her tired body that is still somehow standing despite all it goes through in one day. He holds her from behind, nestles his face in the crevice of her neck and breathes her in but doesn’t exhale.