By Faiza Bokhari
When a thick stream of vanilla made its way down Seema’s fingers, she realised she’d been staring at the woman for too long. A piece of cone had fallen into the sand and Seema quickly picked it up and tossed it into a bag she and Hassan had been using for rubbish. It was already half full of soda cans and plastic wrap from the homemade sandwiches they had eaten earlier. Her hands were sticky and covered in granules. The sunscreen on her face congealed in the crevices around her nose and the prickly parts of her underarms began to itch.
Seema reached for her water bottle and noticed the woman emerge from the waves once again. She had long, golden limbs that contrasted against a bright green bikini. Her blonde hair was bundled up high, threatening to spill with each bouncy step. Seema had been watching her all afternoon. The way she weaved in and out of the water made it seem as though she was built for it.
Swathes of scratchy fabric stuck to Seema’s legs and she tugged at the long skirt she was wearing. It was Hassan’s idea to have lunch by the water. He’d wanted to go on the very first weekend after she’d arrived, but something always came up. Now, a month later, it was her first time on an Australian Beach. As they’d made their way down onto the sand earlier that day, picnic basket and towels in hand, Seema had been grateful there weren’t too many other people around.
Before their wedding, she’d exchanged emails with Hassan. They were introduced while he was visiting his parents in Pakistan and were engaged after a handful of meetings. I don’t like calling it an arranged marriage- Hassan wrote in one of his emails- it sounds like our parents placed us together like pieces of furniture in a living room. His candour drew Seema in. Each morning, she would check her inbox before rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.
In between discussing wedding plans, Hassan told her about life in Australia. He wrote about wide roads, which made driving easy. Also, could she believe that there were only cars on the streets? He explained that people preferred tanning lotions to whitening creams and described beaches with clear water. Seema’s responses were shorter. Instead of telling Hassan about herself, she asked questions. Do your relatives prefer lamb or chicken Biryani? What colour scheme should the bridal stage be? She wrote and rewrote sentences until the life was sucked out of them. Their wedding was a three-day affair in Lahore, with countless guests. Hassan returned to Perth days after, with Seema flying out to join him a few weeks after that.
Now, on the beach, Seema felt the searing sun was out to get her. She watched the woman in the green bikini and snuck in a few sideways glances to see where Hassan’s gaze was.
‘Do you want more ice cream?’ Hassan bit carefully into the last piece of his cone.
‘It’s fine,’ Seema replied. ‘It’s so hot today.’
‘We could buy a beach umbrella for next time,’ Hassan suggested.
Seema shrugged, wondering how many times Hassan expected they would come back.
The woman was laughing now, thrusting a frisbee into the air towards her friends. They were all as bare as she was, but her nakedness somehow seemed more pronounced. There was a starkness to her flesh, she looked like a textbook definition. The frisbee never quite made it all the way, and each person took turns running a little to retrieve it, before hurling it back across from where it came.
‘Looks fun,’ Hassan smiled.
Seema nodded and tugged at her billowing skirt once more. She tried to imagine herself running across the sand.
When Seema landed in Perth, Hassan was waiting at the airport with a bouquet of what looked like dried flowers. They were Australian natives, he explained on the taxi ride home, kangaroo paw and bottle brush. Before entering the apartment, Seema had started to pry her shoes off, when Hassan told her it was fine to leave them on. As she stepped inside, Hassan wheeled her suitcase in behind them. The apartment looked like a bachelor pad. There was a large television and dark leather couches. A big black and white photo hung on one of the walls. In the kitchen, grey marble tabletops were pristinely clean, with some appliances still in their boxes. Seema thought back to the bustling kitchen in her family home. Full of vibrant colours and smells that she would somehow attempt to create here.
There was a set of pyjamas already laid out on the bed for her. An oversized blue t-shirt with matching spotted pants. After their wedding, they’d shared a few nights together in Pakistan and Seema had worn the cotton shalwar kameez she usually slept in. When they went to bed, Hassan had leaned over and spoken gently about how there was no rush and explained things should happen naturally. As she watched his chest gently rise and fall in the dark, she pondered over the mixture of relief and impatience she felt.
Suddenly, a flash of colour whizzed past Seema’s face and she cowered. She heard Hassan’s throaty laugh and realised it was the frisbee, which landed a short distance away. He stood up, dusting stray crumbs off his lap, and strode across the sand to retrieve it. The woman in the green bikini ran over, smiling as Hassan passed the frisbee to her. Seema watched as they chatted briefly and easily, their strong lean figures standing tall, arms gesticulating- as though their bodies were having a separate conversation. The scorching heat made her view waver. Seema squinted her eyes. Small droplets trickled off the woman’s swimsuit and slid down her legs. It was then Seema realised that even though they had been at the beach all day, she was yet to dip her feet in the water.
Faiza has a Pakistani background, was born and raised in Australia and currently lives in Hong Kong. With a Masters in Psychology, she has always been incurably obsessed with stories. Her writing has appeared in places like Djed Press, Indian Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Burnt Roti Magazine, and elsewhere. She was shortlisted for the 2018 ‘Stuart Hadow Short Story Prize’.