My name is Maqtoub Hafiz. I am a mid-level employee working at a Goliath ad firm. I hate my job. Sadly, I’m ridiculously good at it. The money is steady, so I can’t leave. I fight two hours of traffic on my way to work, and one hour on my way back, if I’m lucky. I haven’t been outside of my home-to-work and work-to-home routine in almost over three years.
In college I was little more than smoking lump of flesh. Always high. Always trying to get away with doing the bare minimum. Never wasting an opportunity to get drunk or stoned. I was jealous of guys who were always surrounded by a giggling group of hot girls, but I was still happy in my own way. I never had much ambition, I always chose to have fun now and worry about stuff later. A habit that had cost me dearly many times.
That’s when I met her. Serafina Taskin. The most perfect creature in existence. She was kind, she was gentle, and she was artsy. She could paint and sketch and draw and do mind blowing illustrations with just a pencil and a pad. And she wrote even better than she drew. And she was gorgeous. And she smelled like peanut butter and steaks… and I could go on… and on… and on…
“Get a grip on yourself, man!” I snapped at myself. I ate breakfast. I hardly noticed what I was eating. It all tasted like cardboard. I put my socks on. Going through the motions. On my way to work I could smell her shampoo. I twitched and turned around, then checked the pulse on my neck with two fingers. These twitches lasted a fraction of a second but they were intense. It was almost like I didn’t exist for that tiniest bit in time. And when I came back from oblivion, the throbbing of my carotid artery calmed me. I was still here. I must have used the same brand of shampoo as she did. The scent was from my own hair. I rolled up the windows and smoked a joint in the car. The next two hours in traffic were a haze of daydreams.
I was in front of the office. Then inside the elevator. Then inside a cubicle. Then inside the lunch room. Then inside a meeting room. During the meeting I felt a warm breath on my neck. I twitched violently this time and cricked my neck. I checked my pulse. Everyone in the meeting room either didn’t notice or pretended not to notice. I went to a bar, had a few drinks. I went home and had meaningless conversations with people I rarely met and barely cared for. After a while I got tired, streamed cartoons online and rolled myself a knockout joint. I passed out. I would wake up next day with a somewhat tolerable hangover and go through the motions all over again. Same shit I did today, same old routine.
I felt like I was on autopilot. Except for the twitches. The following morning, for the first time, I twitched so hard I woke myself up. I was having a very lucid dream about me and Serafina taking long walks along the beach. The day I told her I loved her for the first time. It felt like more than just a vivid dream. I remembered snatches of conversation. The comforting weight of her head on my shoulders. Her random pecks on neck, face and cheeks sending little sparks of happiness to my chest. I could almost smell her shampoo. I checked my pulse. I was shaking. I took a few deep breaths and tried to calm myself. “It was just a dream. Just a very very vivid dream. Nothing to worry about.”
I decided to skip work today. I turned off my work phone and thumbed through my backup phone. I knew someone who could take my mind off Serafina.
“Hi. I’m skipping work today, wanna hangout?”
“I haven’t even woken up yet Maqtoub it’s the crack of fucking dawn! Why can’t you call after noon like civilized people?”
“We can score. I’ll buy.”
“Fine, but after an hour later. I’ll meet you there.” She hung up.
“Gooti lagbo mama?” (Would you like some pills?) Asked the dealer. He was young, barely 19 and had a sly pockmarked face. I shook my head in disagreement. “Four bullets, that’s it.” His interest seemed to wane. His lips curled. He clearly thought less of me after hearing what I wanted. Marijuana “bullets” were cheap as dirt. 20 takas a pop. Yaba pills were a dozen times more expensive than weed. I wasn’t going to give him much business. He handed me four tiny rolls of weed. Each wrapped in pages from old books, and each roll made to shape like a bullet. I enjoyed reading the little slivers of text written in them. Some days they contained hidden gems of wisdom. This one piece I’d found read, “Decisions made in the heat of anger are decisions you will regret”. It was scrawled in handwriting. Someone was trying to send me a message. Or I was finally starting to lose my mind.
As I stepped out of the alley, a shiny Mazda convertible almost ran me over. The girl on the wheels was shinier. “Did you get them?” She asked. She was hyped up from speedballing earlier. The degenerate kids of Dhaka had their own junkie terminology. Chasing heroin and Yaba on the same foil was fondly referred to as speedballing. If I did something like that I’d probably be zonked out for hours. Not this girl, though. She was insane. I got in the car and dropped the ganja pellets on her lap. “Drive. You’re attracting too much fucking attention.” She was wearing a tank top that was straining against her ample chest. As if a girl driving a convertible in Gopibag wasn’t conspicuous enough. The cops and thugs were staring but keeping their distance. I could read their minds. They knew what we were here for. The only reason they weren’t harassing us yet because they were scared of the girl. No normal girl would dare show up in Gopibag dressed like she was, chewing gum and smiling at the thugs. She was mocking them with winks and sneers. She wanted them to come over. She had to be from a powerful family. Daughter of a godfather or a politician. Not someone worth messing with. They were right, partially. She did come from one of the few families that could literally get away with murder in broad daylight. Except Samin didn’t need her family. She was bad enough on her own. I laughed at myself. These C grade cops and street hoodlums had better sense than I did. “Can you not fucking do that? Smiling by yourself and shit. Laughing by yourself. You’re a fucking creep, Maqtoub!” She scowled at me. Even after staying awake for 38 hours at a stretch, she looked like a fucking vision.
“I’m sorry, I was just thinking of something funny. Nothing important.” I managed to mumble. It was hard maintaining eye-contact with her for too long. “Well think on your own fucking time. Or share what’s so funny. It creeps me the fuck out when you laugh by yourself.” She was driving on the wrong side of the road. And she was teasing the cars coming towards us from the opposite direction. She would speed up towards them until the last moment and swerve recklessly right before it looked like we might crash.
I could imagine the drivers swearing at us even though I couldn’t hear them. She zipped by too fast. Samin Saphire Rahman did everything way too fast.
I woke up at 5:30 in the morning. The sun wasn’t up yet. It was twilight. I have only been up this early a handful of times in my life. It’s always peaceful. I turned around and looked at Samin. She was naked under the sheets. I checked her pulse. She was still alive. After scoring weed, we got back to her place and finished a bottle of cheap whiskey. Some idiot pharmacist she used to screw around with brought morphine. I remember snorting some. And then doing heroin on an aluminum foil. I was drunk and she promised to show me her tits if I did some. Fuck.
I got up and paced around the room. The place smelt like burnt rubber. I always promised myself I wouldn’t do heroin before coming over to Samin’s house. And I always ended up doing it. I was like a slut trying to justify my addiction with one lame excuse or the other. “I was really pissed at some person and didn’t know what I was doing”, “I was alone and vulnerable, I just wanted to feel loved”, and of course, “She promised me to show her tits.” Each excuse was flimsier than the last, and I had and endless reservoir. I’d run out of life before I ran out of excuses.
Samin started mumbling gibberish in her sleep. I stopped pacing around the room and looked at her. Her back was arched and her butt was perfectly contoured under the blanket. Her chest rose and felt as she slept. I forgot what I was thinking about. I slid my hands under the sheets and groped her butt. Her cheeks were nice and supple. After several good squeezes, I looked for my clothes and got dressed. I walked out of her room, imitating a cartoon ninja on his toes. I tried to blend in with the curtains and the furniture. Samin’s parents were vacationing in the States, but I didn’t fancy running into her grandparents. Thankfully no one saw me as I slid down the stairs and walked out the front doors. I reached the middle of their lawn and was smothered by her golden retrievers, Jack and Jill.
I let them rub up against me for a little while then made my way to the front gate. The guard frowned at me but opened the gates anyway. I could almost feel him making a mental note about me. “Yes that skinny kid with crazy hair was here. He stunk of alcohol. I didn’t want to let him in but he came with apu.” I wondered why security guards all over the world were so dedicated to their jobs. They never looked like they got paid enough.
Once I was out of the gate, I felt like I could breathe again. Samin and her dogs were always warm to me, but her house and the people in it were suffocating. I bounced on my toes and jumped over little pools of water left on the streets from last night’s rain. I could see the sky reflected in them. A tiny blue bird whizzed over my head. A squirrel scampered out of a bush and into another one. You don’t see squirrels in Dhaka very often! It was a glorious morning. It would be a shame to waste such a fine day slaving at work. I texted my supervisor that I wouldn’t make it to work on account of some foul shrimp I ate the night before. My supervisor had a bad case of the shits. Which made him empathize on a personal level with anyone else going through similar gastrointestinal tragedies. I got a response almost immediately. “Damn. I bet you ate from one of those sea food carts. Had me sitting on the throne for days last time I ate some of their fried shrimp. Take care of yourself buddy. I’ll call you if there’s an emergency.”
Now that the official niceties were done with, I took a deep breath and jumped out into the main road. It was barely 6 in the morning and I had a whole day ahead of me.
I called Utsha, my friend from Komolapur. He’s the only one who would be up this early. Right as rain, Utsha picked up. Within minutes I was on a CNG, taking in the beginning of a beautiful day and scents of the rain.
On my way to Utsha’s house, I saw a random kite. It was oddly bright against the dark grey sky. It was Utsha. He knew I had trouble finding directions. I paid the CNG wala and ran up the stairs. I was out of breath when I saw him up close. It was drizzling again and he looked peaceful controlling the flight of his kite. “What brings you here at such an unlikely hour Mister Mohon Das?” Utsha called me Mister Mohan Das. There was no rational explanation to why he did so. Utsha did many things without reasons. Like flying kites at 6am in the morning. He handed me a thick roll of weed wrapped in textbook pages. I unfurled and opened the package. “Hedonism is only lasting if it is controlled.” The text was scrawled in neat handwriting. Another message? Or just another nutjob writing random shit on paper trying to sound smart?
“How is your work on sci-fi-erotica going?” I asked Utsha. He lit up a cigarette. Took one long drag and stared at the horizon. The effect was theatric. He turned around and spoke after a significant pause. “There is this butterfly drawn on both buttcheeks of my protagonist. They glow in the dark and flap their wings when she wiggles her butt. They only change color if you spank them.” I stared at Utsha. “That’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard.” I told him. “Thanks,” he said to me and sat down on the wet concrete floor of his roof. I sat down too. We needed to make cover so the weed didn’t get wet in the rain.
We rolled many joints. I lost count after seven-ish. All of them were thick and generously coated with spit. Utsha thought human saliva made the joints burn slower. I didn’t mind because the thing would be burnt anyway by the time it reached my lungs. I was high long before I finished my first joint. It was distracting. It was comforting. I remember long shadowy blobs floating about and swirling in from the skies. Just relaxing to the vibrations of my brain. I liked them. I forgot I was with Utsha. I was too engrossed with the blobs. I snapped back and forth from blobworld and other worlds when I was in that particular place in Komolapur. It was peaceful.
Me and Utsha watched clouds for a while when the skies had cleared up. We both saw unlikely shapes forming in the clouds. A dragon torching a giant robot. A T-rex chasing a sports car. And above them all, engulfing a gargantuan portion of the sky, a smirking woman with hair that wrapped up the universe. I hung out with Utsha for a while then took my leave. He never spoke much. I thought about hitting the watering hole near Kakrail. Those bastards would be open by 11am. And the bartenders were non-judgemental. I loved those guys. I got a rickshaw and made my way through Arambagh and Motijheel. This part of town was simple, unassuming. I loved South Dhaka.
I arrived at the bar and got celebrity treatment. These guys were old-school. They knew how to make you feel good about yourself. And they were extra nice to legit alcoholics as opposed to “thursday nights only” types. I ordered 3 cans of local beer. Which was the only sort of beer available. Surprisingly the bar wasn’t empty. Even at this time of the day. Apart from myself, two other tables were occupied. The drinks reached my table before I did. Like I said, these guys didn’t fuck around when it came to service. “Mama (Uncle) must be from a very good family. He never yells, never makes a scene. Always tips well.” The head waiter was lecturing his underlings. Just loud enough for me to hear. I chugged half a can of frosty beer in one go and relaxed. The day was going splendidly.
I had a view of the streets below from the bar’s window. I saw a bunch of crows looking annoyed as hell. They were wet and huddled up on an electric pole. Communicating in their telepathic crow language. I wonder if they thought of humans as humans thought of them. “Why are all these humans gathered in one place? Shouting and making loud noises? Do their lives have any meaning?” I watched one of the crows shuffling its wings and shitting on the bald head of an office going pleb. The pleb cursed and flailed a stone at the crow. Missing by more than a foot. The crow never moved a muscle. I think he estimated from the trajectory of the stone that it would never reach the top of the pole, where he was sitting. Crafty bastard. I raised my glass to it and asked for a plate of nuts mixed with onions and chilli. They went well with the bitter beer.
I looked around to see if there was anything interesting taking place in the other tables. Then a familiar face barged in. He smiled as he entered the bar. I had seen this man before. I couldn’t remember his name at the moment. He sat down right at my table as if we were old friends. “I’ll have two beers, please. Frozen, if you have them.” He smiled with his eyes as he faced me. It was hard not to like him. “Congratulations. You have won yourself a pyramid!” he said. I saw two tiny pyramids on each of his palms. They seemed to be made out of concrete. He handed one to me. The pyramids were cold to the touch and weight felt good in my hands. I looked up and the man was gone. I asked the waiters about him but they kept ignoring me every time I asked for a man who was at my table just a second ago. After a while I felt silly asking after a man who came in with two tiny pyramids, like the one I was holding now. I decided to forget about the whole thing and ordered more beers. Eventually the bar started to swivel. Bartenders and furniture and neon signs all melded into each other. I walked out of the bar and tipped all the guards outside with crisp hundred taka notes. Their salutes were elaborate and filled with genuine gratitude. I reached inside my pockets and felt the pyramid. There was also a little scrap of paper. It was a page from an old textbook. “If you no longer see it, it has already consumed you”. The text was scrawled in neat handwriting. Probably leftover from a ganja bullet. I crushed the message in my palm and flicked it away. It was swallowed up by the wet streets.
I got on a rickshaw. It was drizzling, but I refused the polythene wrapper offered by the rickshawala. I was on my way home. I longed for the comfort of my bed. The rickshawala was in high spirits. He was commenting on the political situation and using the choicest swear words to describe some very powerful people. We were turning in the center of a four-way street. That’s when I saw a pair of headlights rushing towards me at breakneck speed. I was too surprised to react. By the time I realized I was going to die, it was already too late. I uttered a silent prayer, and waited for the bone crushing impact. One second, two, then the third one passed…
“You can open your eyes, now,” said a cheery voice. I opened my eyes and saw the friendly face from the bar. It was the pyramid man. I looked around and rubbed my eyes. I was inside what looked like an old warehouse except with no walls and a tin shed for a roof supported by wooden columns. It looked like evening outside, which was weird because the sun was up only a minute ago. It was also pleasantly breezy. I could smell wildflowers. There were large trees all around, swaying gently to the breeze. I was definitely not in the city.
“Where am I? How did I get here?” I asked the pyramid man. He set aside two wooden crates and offered me a seat. “Sit down. I understand you might be feeling a little confused right now. What I am about to tell you will only result in further bafflement,” he paused to reach inside one of his many pockets sewn on his jacket. He took out a small glass pipe. The pipe was emerald green, with black and gold snakes swirling all over it. “Such fine craftsmanship!” He held it up and took a moment to admire it, then offered it to me. I was drawn to the pipe somehow. I reached out and took it. As soon as I touched it, the pipe seemed to morph and adjust to my grip. It changed color and shape, and writhed like a live snake in my hands. I was so taken aback that I almost dropped it, then it settled to purple from green and tiny black birds appeared on the pipe, replacing the snake etchings. They were flying about in random directions all across the pipe’s body. I thought I was hallucinating. I pinched myself, but the pipe was still there and the birds on it were still flying about, like living patterns. The strange man looked amused. “I have heard of the pipe doing that but I thought it was just a myth.” There was a playful glint in his eyes. He seemed very pleased with himself. “This place, is an old warehouse where I used to play with my childhood best friend. You could say this is my happy place. But technically, we’re inside my pyramid.” He turned around and smiled at me. I looked around for a pyramid and felt foolish. “What pyramid?” I asked him. The man chuckled. “Like the one I gave you not too long ago. The reason I brought you here is to give you that pipe. The pipe is the key to your pyramid. I would have preferred to ease you into all of this but the circumstances left me no choice. You would have been dead, crushed under that bus if I hadn’t pushed you out of the way.” Even though what he was saying made little sense, and he looked like a common hobo from the streets of Dhaka; for some strange reason I couldn’t write him off as a complete madman. And the fact I seemed to have traveled a great distance within a split second was no lie. A moment ago I was in the middle of a busy fourway intersection in Kakrail. The next moment I found myself under a tin shed warehouse in the middle of what looked like a very dense forest. Last thing I remembered is curling up and waiting for a bus to flatten me against the streets. Then a morbid thought occurred to me. Was I already dead? Was this afterlife? I tried to remember what I was supposed to see after death according to religious texts. Shouldn’t there be an angel explaining the rules of afterlife? My knowledge in this matter was rusty at best. I looked at the guy sitting in front of me. Dirty matted hair, wild scraggly beard, tattered clothes and a ridiculous amount of beads around his wrists and neck. He didn’t look much like an angel. But he didn’t seem like an ordinary human to me either. His eyes were unreal. They were electric copper, and they made you feel naked. Somehow I could sense this man had been places and seen things no man was meant to see. And I got the eerie feeling that he could read my thoughts somehow.
“Ease up you idiot, you’re not dead!” The strange man boomed with laughter. “But yes, a near death experience can be very unsettling for someone who’s not used to them. Especially under the current circumstances.” He got up and walked over to me, then smiled. He leaned in close and placed a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Just keep the key and the pyramid safe. Get in touch with me when you feel better,” he whispered.
“Dude, I just want to go home!” I had barely gotten the words out of my mouth and I was home. I closed my eyes for a few seconds. Opened them. I was on my bed in my room. The water pipe still clutched in my hand. I reached inside my pocket. The pyramid was still there. Either I was losing my mind, or the fucker had teleported me into my room somehow. I looked out the window, it was bright and sunny. I checked my watch. 12:30pm. The date on my computer screen was today’s date. I remember leaving the bar around 12:30pm.
Absolutely no time had passed while I was with the strange man in his warehouse shed. I felt a cold sweat trickle down my temples. Fuck.
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