A FAKE SMILE

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I faked a smile after I kissed the hand of the man who abused me.
“MashaAllah! He’s grown into a fine young man,” he responded as my father reintroduced me to him.

A lump had already formed in my throat. My mind was abuzz with activity as my heart tried to register the multitude of feelings that exploded inside me. It reminded me of the flurry of movement that takes place in a company when something major happens. Bosses making numerous phone calls as their subordinates jog in and out of their offices every thirty seconds to urgently report the slightest update, while a plethora of emails are sent and received as everybody tried to make sense of the situation.

“Aziz, the man asked you a question,” my father interrupted my thoughts.
“Hmm? Ah, yes uhh…” a long pause ensued, then “Come again?”
The man broke into a hearty laughter, “Kids these days, they always seem to be distracted by one thing or another!” he said as he playfully grabbed my chin. Dynamites exploded once more inside my chest. “I asked you about your studies. How are you faring in them?”
“Oh. Alhamdulillah, I’m doing well. I’ll start my first year of college in September God willing.”
His face lit up even more on hearing this, “I expect nothing less from my former student. I always told you that you are brilliant!”

Another fake smile.

“Well, it was a pleasure seeing you after such a long absence, Aziz. Work hard and take care of your parents. Through Allah’s Will, they are the reason you are where you are today.” He then turned to my father, “Thank you for the invitation Mr. Saleem. May God bless you!”
“May He bless us all,” my father replied courteously.
He chuckled as he shook hands with him once more and winked at me.
“Excuse me,” I mumbled as soon as the man went inside the hall, “I need to go to the bathroom.”

*******

Breathing became an alien concept. Thankfully, no one was present in the bathroom to witness my panic attack. I unbuttoned the collar of my kanzu and opened the tap. This cannot be happening! Why is this happening? It took several splashes of water on my face for my breathing to return to normal.

The sound of approaching footsteps snapped me out of my confusion and I quickly got in a bathroom stall that was farthest from the door. I closed the lid, sat on it and then went on to involuntarily listen to a man take a piss. Soon after the same footsteps faded into the distance and I released the breath I hadn’t realised I was holding. Distracting myself from the reality of what just happened was impossible. However, I tried to delude myself into thinking that if I stayed in the bathroom long enough, then he’d be gone by the time I got back. Maybe, just maybe, an emergency would come up and the man would have no other choice except leave before the wedding even started.
I barely noticed my hand shaking. What was this feeling? Was it rage? Or fear? Maybe it was both? Am I going crazy? I couldn’t understand. A short burst of laughter escaped my lips. I’m definitely going crazy.

Where are you? A message from my father lit up my phone’s screen.
I’m experiencing stomach problems. I’ll be a while. I replied.
Sorry to hear that. Get well soon.

I didn’t want to leave the bathroom. The prospect of seeing that monster again terrified me. Seven years had passed since that “unfortunate event”. I thought that it was all behind me, that I had buried one gigantic skeleton. I punched the wall once. Twice. Three times. The pain in my fist, however, couldn’t override the aching sensation in my chest.

An alarm bell in my head was warning me that I was on the edge of a precipice. One wrong move and I would fall into the unknown, a place I have been avoiding for almost a decade.

Counting backwards from one thousand gave me a false sense of stability, like papering over cracks that would surely reappear and worsen with time. I was now clinging onto the precipice with my hands, one delicate misstep and I would tumble down into the unknown.

“Six hundred and sixty seven, six hundred and sixty six, six hundred and sixty five…” I muttered under my breath. The man’s laughter would echo in my ears and his face would flash right before my eyes. My thoughts were beginning to spiral out of control, so I gritted my teeth and continued counting, albeit loudly. To Hell with being heard, my sanity was at stake.

Counting didn’t work, I could feel myself slipping away one finger at a time. Desperation led me to clamp my head tightly between my hands as I hummed a nursery rhyme. Was it ‘Mary had a little lamb’? Or was it ‘London bridge is falling down’? I couldn’t tell at this point. Cold sweat trickled down my spine. More images, memories from before, swirled around my mind, making me confuse past with present. I whispered “Somebody…please help me,” as my arms finally lost their strength and my body went hurtling into the unknown…

*******

“So today we’re going to learn some intermediate concepts of Arabic grammar. Before that, however, open your Quran and read where we left off yesterday,” my ustadh instructed us in an authoritative tone. None of us dared look straight at his face because he always had this imposing demeanour that demanded respect. I couldn’t help but steal a glance, only to make eye contact with the man. Apprehension gripped me, but it was quickly banished when he returned my gaze with a half-smile and a wink. I blushed and took this as a sign that he acknowledged me.

Ever since my first encounter with him, my heart fell in love. The kind of unconditional love a child could afford for his parent, or a student for his master. Here was a man who would be seen constantly with a rosary in hand, invoking praises and glorifying God. Always on time to lead the congregational prayer, everyone in our neighbourhood adored and respected him. He was my second father. No, I considered him more of a father to me than my real one. My ultimate goal was to become like him, or even surpass him if that were possible.

The afternoon wore on until four o’clock reached. We had concluded our lessons for the day and were dismissed, except he called me back and said cryptically, “Wait for me after ‘asr prayer.”
My heart started racing. What does he want with me? Did I do something wrong? No, that’s not possible. It has to be something good, right? Or maybe he just wants me to pass a message to my father? No, that doesn’t make sense. Dad always comes to the mosque, so he could talk to him personally.

Concentrating on my prayer was next to impossible, my body simply made robotic movements as I imagined one scenario after another. My palms grew cold and sweaty. After the prayer was finished, I waited for most of the congregants to leave the mosque and asked ustadh if I did anything wrong. He gently pinched my cheek and told me there was nothing to worry about. My sense of anxiety disappeared, only to be replaced with excitement. If it’s nothing to worry about, then it’s definitely something good. My face grew warm and I stared at the carpet. Finally, he’s acknowledged me and I’ll get a special reward from him, I thought elatedly.

“Let’s go, Aziz,” he said as he got up and put his rosary in his pocket. Five minutes later we arrived at his home and went straight to his study, which was at the top floor of a three-storey building. He called out to his wife in a loud voice, saying that he shouldn’t be disturbed, “I have a very important student of mine!” he added as he beamed at me and winked. He even considers me his friend! I said to myself as I laughed. A few moments later we entered his study and he locked the door behind him after allowing me to enter first.

“Please, have a seat,” he gestured towards a couch. He took off his kanzu to reveal a white T-shirt and kikoi. Sometimes I’d be curious about how he looked like without his usual garments, but now I saw that he was powerfully built, with strong arms and a barrel chest, making him even more imposing.

“Now then,” he began as he sat next to me, “I brought you here because I’d like to give you a special present, for the consistent results you have produced during the four years you have been under my tutelage. However, let’s talk first. I’m in no rush and I’d like to know my favorite student a bit more.”
Favourite student? I smiled instinctively. “Well, what do you want to talk about?”
“Anything you want my child. But let me ask you first, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
I didn’t even need to think before I gave my answer. “I’d like to be an ustadh, just like you!” With this, he broke into a rapturous laughter. I was so entranced by this that I didn’t even notice him place his hand on my knee.
“Like me, you say? That’s good, that’s very good. I’m really happy to know that I’ll have a capable person take my place when I’m gone.”

We continued talking for a little while, about my hopes and dreams, my plans for the future. However, with each passing minute I could feel his gaze intensify as he started to slowly caress my thigh. I noticed this, but I merely took it as a form of parental affection, the same way my mother would hug me tight and crush me against her heavy chest, or how my father would pull my nose and flick his finger on my forehead.

“Tell me, Aziz, what do you think of me?” he asked, but the gentleness in his voice was gone. He sounded…sinister? No, I’m imagining things, there’s nothing wrong. My spark of paranoia, however, transformed into flames when he pulled me closer. The slow caressing motion picked up pace, as did his breathing.
What’s going on? What is he doing? Why doesn’t this feel right? All of this and more coursed through my mind. I couldn’t think clearly. I checked the clock, it was five thirty. I didn’t want to stay in his study anymore, something was definitely wrong. Maybe if I could get him talking until Maghrib arrived, then it would be prayer time and we’d both have an excuse for leaving.

I gulped, trying to calm my nerves, but I was fumbling with what I was trying to say, “I uhh…I think that…you’re a great man…and…everyone respects you…and…and…umm…you’re my…my…my role model,” I finished meekly. Unable to disguise my fear, I met his gaze, but all he did was look at me dreamily, while an evil smile played on his lips.

I was about to speak, when suddenly he embraced me so tightly that my arms couldn’t move. I felt like a rabbit being squeezed by a python as it prepared to devour the poor thing whole.
“I must confess something to you, my beautiful boy,” he began, his voice heavy and excited, “Ever since I laid my eyes on you, I have been beset by a demon, a demon only you can exorcise. You’re the only who can do this! If not, then I don’t know what will become of me. I need you, my beautiful child. You’re the only one that I want in this world my precious boy!”
I tried to pull away, but it was impossible against such strong arms.
“Will you exorcise this demon Aziz? Will you?” his voice was so frantic, that for a moment I thought he really was possessed by a demon.
“Y-y-yes…I’ll try!” I found myself agreeing to his request. Anything to get out of this choking embrace.
“I’m so glad you’ll help me. Thank you so much, this means a lot to me,” he whispered reassuringly as he pulled back, though his hands were still locked on me. I thought that the worst was over, but in the blink of an eye his lips were firmly placed on mine. Shock ran all over my body and I was rendered immobile. One of his hands was firmly set behind my head, so pulling away wasn’t an option.
After what felt like an eternity, he stopped kissing me and for the first time, the desire in his eyes was apparent.
“That felt good, didn’t it? It always comes as a shock for first-timers like you, but with time you’ll end up loving it, I promise.”

How could I ever end up loving something as disgusting as this? I thought as my body trembled. This couldn’t be him. This couldn’t be my ustadh. It must be the Devil himself. They say that the Devil can shapeshift into the form of any man, except prophets. So it had to be him. There’s no way that this monster before me could be the same pious and dignified man that I loved and respected so much.
“You seem shaken up. Would you like some tea?” he asked with feigned concern.
I nodded, too shell-shocked to speak. He then got up and went to heat two mugs of tea in a microwave. I checked the clock, fifteen minutes until six o’clock, fifty minutes until the maghrib call to prayer. If I drink my tea slowly, then I might make it. Otherwise, there’s no knowing what this man would do next.
“I had the maid make us some before we came in,” he said as he returned a couple of minutes later holding a mug in each hand, “I’ve warmed it up a bit in the microwave, but you should be able to drink it without burning your tongue. Go on then!”

I took a small first sip, then another. I decided to give myself three-minute intervals in between sips. Alright, I can do this.

All of a sudden my vision started blurring, my head grew heavy and my hand could hold my mug no longer. It slipped to the floor and I felt my body fall on the couch in slow motion.
“No…please…stop,” I protested weakly. My voice sounded far-off as I tried to stay awake. Whatever was laced in my tea started taking full effect, and the last thing I saw was ustadh on top of me, his burning eyes like twin coals, and then darkness…

*******

I saw my father’s concerned face when I woke up. The first thing that came to mind was that I was home. Thank God! it was only a bad dream. I must have come home and dosed off.
“Are you okay?” he asked, as he pressed his palm against my forehead.
“Yes, but my back hurts. I must have slept badly,” I replied with a smile, but it quickly vanished when I realised I was still in ustadh’s study, with the man himself standing a few feet behind my father, his face expressionless. My hands tightly gripped the blanket I hadn’t noticed until now. So it wasn’t a dream? No this can’t be happening! I panicked and my breathing grew rapid and shallow.

“Aziz are you alright? Ustadh told me that you fainted.”
I didn’t even register my father’s question, all I did was recall what happened before I lost consciousness.
“Can we go home? I don’t feel so good” were the first words I blurted. All I wanted was to stay as far away from the Devil as possible.
My father acquiesced and held my hand as I got up from the couch. I still felt dizzy. Ustadh, no, the Devil said something to my father but I couldn’t process anything. I was in flight mode. He moved towards me and placed his hand on my shoulder. It took all I had to stay put and not make a run for it. “You take care, okay?” he started, the warmth in his voice had returned, “I’d be beside myself if something were to happen to my favourite student.”
I did nothing but stare at the floor, hoping it would open up and swallow me whole…

*******

Where are you? The ceremony is about to start.
I’m on my way. Give me five minutes.
Good. I hope your intestines are still intact though.
Haha. They certainly are.

I leaned on the toilet and stared at the ceiling gloomily. Seeing my abuser for the first time in seven years revived that feeling of being tainted, that there was a certain impurity which will never go away. Like a stubborn stain you thought you had removed, only to realise that it was painted over, and now the paint has peeled off.
I shuffled out of the stall and headed towards the sink. I looked at my tired face in the mirror and became amazed by how sometimes it takes only a few seconds for someone to ruin your day.

I sighed pitifully. Is there truly an end to this nightmare? I wondered, as I straightened my back and faked a smile.

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