We’ve reached the main city, where streetlights every few seconds illuminate her and then pour her again into darkness, back and forth until she smokes in slow motion. It’s like watching her through a haze-filled dance floor, the strobe light intensifying every back arch and hair toss. Time stops and starts as I watch her. The Canal is quiet. The streak of muddy water to my right is like a sheet of black glass, not a ripple, just a calm reflection of the streetlights. Nida sips the water, darkness, tongue and lips, darkness, the sheen of saliva against the pink. She tilts the bottle of water against her mouth, swallows slowly, the long thin expanse of her neck. In splashes of light I see her live an entire existence before me. I’ve seen her before. But where? Her name, her face, her eyes, they twist and slip through my memory. We pass a brightly lit traffic light and it seems the sun is shining down on her, her hair flaming in the night, the lights streaking stars across her eyes.
I tear myself away from her, concentrate on the grey of the city as traffic merges on to Jail Road. The car brightens. Gate lights and residential windows bright despite the late weekend hour. Lahore is a city of houses. Where they could build them they did, all dust and noise and breathing. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Would you like to hear some Queen now?” I ask, Bowie’s sci-fi pep starting to grate. The CD changers whirr to load my favourite Queen hits I’ve ripped from the station.
Play the Game is first. It starts with Freddie going all Mozart on the piano, hitting the keys with his elbows, the voices of screaming Brits chanting and clapping. And then his soft voice.
“This is the live version,” I tell her. “From Milton Keynes Bowl, 1982. Can you believe that? 1980-fucking-2”
Nida listens silently, lost in the melody. I turn it up and she shifts in her seat, sits up a little straighter. The energy is full and unparalleled. She looks over at me and gives me a wide smile.
“The live version is different from the original. He’s not able to go high into his falsetto, but I prefer this version. Feels real. You can really hear his voice,” I shout over the music, which doesn’t seem to bother her. “It’s from The Game. Fucking great album.” She just nods, listening.
“He wrote this song for his boyfriend, after they broke up. This is my favourite part,” I yell, as Freddie really gets into it. You can hear him trying to catch his breath as he sings the verse, Brian May opening up his guitar. I turn up the volume until the sharp chords vibrate in my ribs.
“Your car stereo is really awesome,” she says as the song comes to an end. “I can feel it inside me.”
“I know. Nothing quite like being drowned in the music. Otherwise, what’s the point. This song is part of a trio. It’s pretty amazing. It’s crazy, Farrokh, leaving behind a desi life, becoming something new, someone so wholly one-off and inimitable, and now heard by people back in Pakistan dreaming the same dream but who can’t share the same reality. I guess only a few get to live that life. The rest of us just get to climb into the music and pretend.”
“I know,” she says.
By the time she’s listened to the trilogy and You Don’t Fool Me is winding out with Freddie’s nah nah nah and Brian May’s high-pitched solo once again, decisions need to be made. I don’t want to drop Nida home just yet. I’m having too much fun. And, clearly, she’s not all that into the idea either.
“Are you hungry?” I ask.
“Obviously,” she says.
“Okay, I know where to go, as long as you don’t mind a drive.”
“Drive on, Bugsy.”
It’s late, almost three in the morning, but Defence Market is buzzing with neon and all-nighters. Young waiters scurrying about, running after cars, waving menus
This late, most people eat sitting in their cars. School and college boys hanging out, smoking up, waiting for their breakfast nihari; married couples and families parked at the juice bar; green-lit shopkeepers trying to sell cigarettes and chewing gum. Nida sits contently in the passenger seat and chomps on her shawarma, garlic sauce on her lips. Her kebab is still wrapped in its translucent paper neatly, not dripping down her arm to her elbow like mine. She leans over and wipes the garlic mayo off my hand, then my elbow, then my shirt.
“Sorry, I just can’t eat this without wearing it,” I say.
“It’s the only way to eat,” she says, pulling a long strand of raw onion from the wrap and gently placing it on her napkin. “I’m trying very hard to be neat. I don’t want you to think I’m a piggy.”
“I have three piggy sisters, remember?”
“Good,” she says, and takes a giant mouthful, her cheeks filling up like a chipmunk’s. She holds her hand up, shielding her mouth from view.
“So, is Aliya your girlfriend?” she asks.
“I don’t think Aliya is ever anyone’s girlfriend,” I say. “She’s too busy with herself to take anyone else seriously.”
Nida nods as if she understands. “She’s really pretty.”
“True, but a pretty face can only take you so far. You know?”
The waiter brings our drinks – Fanta for Nida, 7UP for me. I roll down the window and he hands me two ice-cold glass bottles, old-school, with paper straws bobbing out. It takes a few seconds of reworking to figure out where to put them. Nida lodges hers between her thighs, bending her head to drink from the straw. I manage to balance mine in the cupholder.
“You said your brother’s in the army,” I say, after a few minutes of silent chewing. “What does he do?”
“He was in the army,” she says. “He died.”
“Fuck. I’m sorry to hear that.” I cringe at having asked her and sip my 7UP uncomfortably.
“It’s okay. It’s not your fault. When he joined the army we all knew it was a possibility. Especially when he was sent up to Swat.”
“He was in Swat? That’s hardcore. My father had retired by then but I remember him talking about it, about the Taliban and all the pressure to make sure the militants didn’t reach Islamabad.”
“His helicopter was shot down near Mingora.”
“That’s horrible. I’m really sorry.” I gently touch her shoulder.
“I prayed every night for him to be safe, you know – but it made no difference.”
“That’s the army family’s life. You live in fear until the day they retire. When I was a kid every phone call made me sweat. Every time my father went to work I thought it might be the last time I would see him. I think it’s one of the reasons why my sisters and I are so close. You grow up sharing such a deep fear, no one else understands it but you. It’s tough.”
“Yes, it really is. We didn’t get a phone call. I came home from school and heard my mother crying in the living room. I knew then.”
I don’t say anything. What’s to say?
She holds up her shawarma. “I don’t think I can eat this anymore.”
Nida is silent as I drive her to her house. I feel bad. I shouldn’t have asked about her brother. Her head is against the window, her face turned away from me.
“Are you okay?” I ask her.
“Kya? Yes, just tired.”
“It’s the joint. Heavy back-end.”
“Yes, I think so. It’s been a long day.”
“No shit. Do you want some music?”
She nods and I DJ, putting on something lighter, a compilation of Journey ballads. I drive across town to where she lives, the dawn light emerging slowly. We don’t speak much except to comment on a familiar song, a lyric. It’s not uncomfortable or forced and feels natural in its sleepy ease. I slow down at a checkpoint in her neighbourhood and the police wave us through without even looking into the car. They’re tired too.
“I’ve decided I like your music, Bugsy,” she says. “My father worked for PTV, so I grew up listening to Indian love songs, and Madonna. I didn’t think rock would be my thing. I’m surprised.”
“Amen and hallelujah, finally a convert.”
Nida laughs at this and I smile at her. She gives me directions to her house and in a few turns we’re outside her front gate. She twists towards me, almost full-body. “Thanks for dropping me, Bugsy. I’m glad your name isn’t because of Bugs Bunny. But I think we might have to find you a new nickname.”
“Too late now, babe. I don’t think Dick Tracy would suit me.”
She laughs softly and leans over to hug me, kissing my cheek lightly. She smells like cigarettes and grilled chicken, a slight lingering of something sweet – perfume? Sweat? Her face hovers in front of mine for a second and I wonder if I should kiss her. Does she want me to kiss her? Would it be a shit move if I did?
But before I can make any decisions she’s moved back and is yanking her shoes out from under the seat. She rummages through her purse for the keys. She grunts as she pushes the door open, but before it slams shut she turns, the shoes slapping against the window as she holds the door open.
“Bugs, you never told me, what’s your real name?”
“Maybe another time,” I say cockily. “If you’re good.”
She raises her eyebrows, gives me a look – All right, hero, if you want to play it that way – and swings the car door shut. I scroll the CD player to Audioslave’s Like a Stone, turning the volume up. Perfect for the drive home.
Excerpted with permission from Goodbye Freddie Mercury, Nadia Akbar, Penguin Random House India.