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I was the only one that didn’t leave Chicago. Amir went first. He was offered a promotion he’d been seeking for a while and the position was in Dallas. Malik moved to California, also as a career move, leaving his company for a tech startup venture with another colleague. Teddy married the woman he’d been dating for a while and she no longer wanted to live in Chicago, or in Illinois. Zeeshan headed east to New York to be a lawyer at a corporate firm. I’d done decently selling two books, one of which got optioned for a movie, and was then offered a nice chunk of change to write the screenplay. I didn’t want to live in L.A. as my agent and my manager would have preferred. I’d been with the same woman for a number of years, and she too wanted to be in Chicago. She was a programmer with a firm she’d joined right out of college. We owned a comfortable condo in Wrigleyville. We talked about getting married. My life was all right.
“I think we can all afford to take a breath and just be,” Myra said. She was at her bureau mirror choosing earrings.
“I guess so,” I said.
“The left.” I topped off her wine and finished the bottle into my glass.
“You’ve been nervous all week,” Myra said. The earrings were in place and she moved from the bureau to the closet for a sweater. “You can’t do anything about people’s choices. This one?”
“No, I can’t, you’re right. I love that one.”
“Then we have a nice dinner with your best friend and his wife,” said Myra, “and listen to stories of you boys being boys.” Her head popped through the sweater neck and she fixed and smoothed it down.
“I don’t need to tell you that you’ll find boys will be boys stories offensive and crude,” I said.
“He said to the girl with four brothers.” Myra chuckled. She gave me peck and checked me up and down. “You look so handsome in that combination.”
I closed the bedroom door and looked in the full length mirror: a man shaking hands with early middle age with a modicum of distinction. Myra came behind me.
“I like what I see.”
In our Uber, once we started moving, a dread overtook me. “What if things get out of hand?”
Myra patted my leg. “It’ll get out of hand only if you let it.”
Like so many millions around the country, I had been living for the last one month with rising, ebbing, engulfing, flowing anger. Constant, distracting anger. We’d been dealt a blow and the future had gone bleak, blinked out like a billion-year-old star with whose demise we on Earth were only just catching up. Our vilest instincts had outmaneuvered us. The morning after, I didn’t trust our neighbors anymore. The kindly childless septuagenarians across the hallway that liked to have us over. The quiet, bookish researcher for a governmental agency on one side and the fitness trainer on the other who sometimes brought us concoctions he cooked too healthy to have taste. Neighbors from other floors we’d never meet but saw on rides up and down the elevator, maybe exchanged pleasantries with, stopped the doors from closing for, were threats. Myra said I was extreme. Maybe I was. I needed to be. The anger felt like all I had.
It was Teddy who told me. About Amir and Malik. That they’d “batted for the devil,” a phrasing I quite loved. Teddy had grown to be quite the man with words when he liked. He read books that he recommended to me. Mostly they were not the kind of books I ever read, but I found this unlikely turn in our aging friendship rather charming. Teddy had spoken with Amir and Malik shortly before me. Amir, he said, knew our friendship, mine and his, would suffer, and Malik’s message to me was to kiss his corporate conservative ass. Teddy didn’t laugh or see a joke in this, and I appreciated him for that.
Zeeshan had sat this one out, as he put it, and we had a tense exchange. That was as bad as batting for the devil, I shrieked and howled in the text message version of all caps and exclamation marks.
I didn’t contact Amir. I couldn’t. Not with the raging outburst I had brewing in my head.
So, when I finally heard from him couple of weeks ago, I had had some time to think, but nothing had changed. The betrayal was too big. Friendship not enough. We stood on either and opposing sides of this wretched invisible wall.
Myra talked me into seeing him. She’d heard enough about him and Teddy and Malik and Zeeshan that they’d become celebrities. She teased me, saying she wanted their autographs. She’d seen pictures and found them handsome. Amir lean and serious, Malik muscled like a swimmer, Teddy, large and unabashed, Zeeshan coolly brooding, and there at the end her man, pudgy, confused, to strangers a silly outlier among brutish, confident boys.
Amir’s email had me in a bind. It took me all of one day and half of the next to compose a reply: “Let me know your plans when you’re here.”
“Cold enough, you think,” Myra said.
“It’s either this or the end of our friendship,” I said.
Myra rubbed my back and kissed the top of my head.
Two of her four brothers and her father had batted for the devil. The family was split down the line. I’d been refusing to go for visits, asking her to understand. She did. She knew her father was a racist. He’d “My best friends are Black” every chance he got, and he got them a lot because he constructed them, wrenched it out of the moment when he saw his position teetering, before admitting who he was, or, god forbid, keeping quiet. On our first meeting, knowing I was Bangladeshi, he told me about the time he’d gone to Egypt. He had nothing against Islam. He just disagreed with everything about it. Especially jihad. Which he then asked for me to explain.
Myra was more tolerant than me. She could put family and friends above lesser trifles. Though that was how I’d phrased it, not she. Her civic conscience was strong. If there was ever a case of one vote tipping an election, it would be Myra’s.
Amir and Noreen were waiting for us out front of the restaurant. I’d seen Noreen only once before in person, and over the years in pictures Amir posted on social media. Amir had filled in around the waist. A brooding, slack fatigue weighted down his jowls. We shook hands and hugged. The women introduced themselves. We went inside.
Through drinks and appetizers we got caught up on our lives. Amir’s successful rise to managing partner in his firm, Noreen running the campaign of a rising star in Texas politics, a Democrat, to Amir’s chagrin, and a point that made me slip into my earlier bout of anxiety about the evening. Myra sensed the change. She laid her hand on the back of mine and gave it a pleasant squeeze. Our talk had somehow made its way to children.
“I’m just too busy,” Noreen was saying. “So is he. Kids are a second life, and neither of us have enough time in the one we have.”
Amir drank water and looked across the table at his wife.
“I wouldn’t want to be born in the world the way it is,” I said. Amir made a face I’d seen a thousand times before. An expression of reason mixed with judgment, an innate awareness of right.
“There’s a lot that needs to change,” Myra said.
“Change?” I said. “The crazy just got started.”
Myra gave me scolding eyes.
Amir excused himself to use the bathroom.
“Listen,” Noreen said, “he hates how upset you are and how much this causes tension between you two. I get it. I’m married to him. You know, two of my colleagues and a friend are this close to ending their marriages over this? I mean, really? Giving this one narcissist this much power? To upend our lives?” Her head angled at me. “He really looked forward to seeing you.”
“He couldn’t stop talking about the first friend he made in this country either,” Myra offered.
“Some things are more important than politics,” said Noreen. “And this coming from a campaign manager. But here’s the thing: he’s been a registered Democrat all his life.”
“Those are the worst,” I said.
“Please,” Myra said, giving me a corrective, I-know-better glance. “Oh, no, Noreen, what’s the matter? Hey, what is it?”
Noreen had started crying.
“Sorry.” She grabbed her cigarettes and beelined out.
“I’ll go,” I said.
Noreen had walked to the end of the block. She was leaning on an honor box, pulling on her cigarette, facing the expressway and the skyline. I said nothing and stood beside her, taking in the nighttime city.
“He might go to jail,” Noreen said. Short bursts of smoke puffed out of her nose and mouth. At the corner of her left brow was a tiny scar, the size and shape of a thumbnail. “Insider trading. If it comes out he did what’s being alleged…” She dropped the cigarette and crushed it with a rotating motion of her foot. “Please just give him a break.” She was turning the pack of cigarettes end over end on a palm. “We have this stupid wedding to go to, my cousin’s. I committed to it a year ago. Last fucking thing I need. A roomful of relatives wondering why he looks like death warmed over.” She took my arm and started walking us toward the restaurant. “He needs a friend more than anything right now. And I can’t alone be everyone to him.”
On our way back inside, I caught a glimpse of Myra and Amir through the street-facing window. They could be on a date. Myra’s head was tilted, the way she did after asking a question, smiling the smile with which she’d bowled over my heart.
“Sorry,” Noreen said as we took our seats. “Needed a fix. Also, got to chat with Faheem. We’d never really talked before. And you two got to know each other, too.”
Amir looked from her to me, his large, inquiring eyes suggesting we were doing something else.
“We did get a chance to talk,” Myra said. “Amir told me all about Beowulf and English class.”
“Always the man of words,” said Amir, thumping my back.
It occurred to me as we continued with dinner that the whole thing had been planned. Amir going to the bathroom, Noreen breaking down. They could count on one of us following her, the other staying back, at the very least so the restaurant didn’t think we’d bailed on our check. For the rest of dinner I watched them. Myra showed no sign that she’d been told. Noreen’s mood had lightened up, and Amir did not seem a man facing prison.
“My god,” Myra said when I told her later. “The poor thing, no wonder she couldn’t hold it in. I mean, I know it’s horrible for him, too, but…”
“He didn’t say anything to you?” I asked.
“Nothing,” said Myra. “He came back from the bathroom and it was like, he didn’t even notice you two were gone. I mean, I guess he’s got a lot on his mind. Oh, but he did say how much he hates that Noreen smokes.”
“Because that’s so much worse,” I said.
“Don’t be mean. He’s still your closest friend. All the stories I’ve heard, I can’t believe there isn’t more to him.” She started going toward the bathroom and stopped. “It could be someone else’s doing that he got caught up in. Happens all the time with things like this.”
I was on the internet half the night. I did searches with Amir’s name, with his name and insider trading. Nothing out of the ordinary came up. If anything, his reputation was stellar. On his firm’s website, his bio ran a page and a half, most of it awards and accolades.
“Go to sleep,” Myra mumbled from the depths of sleep at one point. I didn’t. I couldn’t.
I got out of bed thirty minutes before Myra’s alarm and went to the kitchen and set the coffee. While it brewed, I turned on the TV in the living room. The news was a perfect way to ruin the day, day after day, all day long, and yet I couldn’t stay away. Watching cycle after cycle of the madness that had swallowed the country whole, I understood the hope felt by people that believed in the End of Days, of the Second Coming, and all of everything going up in flames. At least then it would be over.
“Your phone’s been going off.” Myra came out of the room, tousled haired and sleepy.
“Sorry, I forgot to DND.”
She gave me a peck and zombie-walked toward the kitchen for coffee.
Five messages from Amir back to back: “Didn’t get to talk properly at dinner. Let’s meet?” “Myra is great. Happy for you.” “Really sucks things became so tense.” “I need to tell you some stuff. Been a while since we talked.” “I’ll be working from parents’ house but I can get out anytime.”
“Everything okay?” Myra asked, setting down a cup for me and slurping hers.
“Just Amir. Wants to hang out.”
“God, baby, please don’t watch this crap first thing.” She switched off the TV. “Good. You two should hang out, talk.” She sipped her coffee. “If I was a praying kind of person, I’d send one out for him.”
I, too, wished I was the praying kind. Amir was once upon a time. He and Malik and Teddy and Zeeshan were Shi’a Ismaili Muslims, also known as Aga Khanis, after their imam Kareem Aga Khan, as devoted a community of Muslims as I’d ever known, and they went to mosque every evening. You’d see them dressed to the nines every evening, arriving at their Jamatkhana on Broadway. I nearly lost my mind the day Amir told me the portrait of Aga Khan in his living room was a picture of Allah. I’d never met an Ismaili before. My family being Sunni, there was an unspoken – and sometimes spoken – belief that we were the “real” and “true” Muslims.
I wrote Amir back and said it would be great to get together.
I spent a nervous, edgy day before our meeting. I hoped, truly hoped, there wouldn’t be a fight. I was mad enough to have one, but not the stamina needed to sustain it. Besides, there was nothing new to be said. Amir had made his decision, and he knew my mind. That day after Teddy told me I stood one text away from ending our friendship. I told Teddy as much. He talked me down. I railed and ranted. A Muslim voting for an overt Muslim hater, where did all that piety suddenly go. The racism, the misogyny, the hate, none of that mattered? Teddy understood, of course, he didn’t need my lecture. I know, buddy, I know, Teddy said and kept saying, on that call and many more after it, as well as a few hundred texts. Very soon, I didn’t need my lecture either.
Myra got on the phone and texts with her family, too, as soon as the hour was decent. In fact, her father called her first, before we were up. She’d taken the phone out of the room and out onto the balcony. I watched her through the glass, in her shorts and t-shirt, in the November chill, phone to ear, chewing on her nails, for close to half an hour, and when she came back in, goosebumps bristled all over her skin, but she wasn’t cold.
“Dad?” I asked.
“He was very kind, very understanding,” Myra said. “He sends his best.” He never sent his best or anything when he called. The greeting had a double meaning.
“Send him mine,” I said, with as much rancor as I could muster as Myra walked away.
After she got dressed for work and I was pouring us mugs of coffee, she leaned against the kitchen door and crossed her arms like a displeased teacher.
“Please don’t make this a thing,” she said. “It’s my father.”
“Cheers.” I handed her her mug.
“Don’t be like this. It’s not just him. Dan and Patrick, too. Like that’s a surprise either.”
Dan was the eldest, a riotous Bears fan, and Patrick in the middle, after Myra, not much into anything at all. I’d seen Dan knock heads with Myra and their other brothers Alan and Drew, and he’d reminded me of Malik. That persistent, haughty posture, the pushing, goading jabs, the ridicule of everything the other party said, until, hands and eyes to heaven and shaking head, they retreated, and still he wouldn’t let it go.
I hung out with Drew and Alan more than I had the other two, and I had an amiable relationship with Linda, Myra’s mother, who, like her son Patrick, was largely neutral about life. They even looked the most alike. Linda seemed unsure of herself much of the time, as if she’d woken up to a life she was told would be other than the one that presented itself. Being married to a man like Ron for half a century might have that effect.
“Please understand,” I told Myra, “if I don’t feel comfortable going over anytime soon.”
Amir was outside the bar. He waved at me as I walked up. He seemed healthier than he did at dinner the other night. He looked rested.
“Noreen was right,” he said, shaking my hand, “you don’t age.”
I had no idea what we were trying to accomplish.
We took a booth and ordered drinks, a glass of wine for me, a Coke for him. The place was mostly empty. A stagger of lonely drinkers lined the bar, staring blankly at the TVs along the top.
“Congratulations,” Amir raised his glass. “On all the success with the books and the movie. A movie,” he said it like a brand new thought, “man.”
“Nothing’s final,” I said. “It could fall through just as well.”
“Happens all the time. The rights get bought, writer gets paid, but the movie never happens.”
“Sounds like a waste.”
“I got paid,” I said. “It’ll be nice to see the movie made, but I don’t control that.”
He sipped his Coke. “How much does it cost to make a movie?”
“The size of the production, the cast, the director, and a whole bunch of things I have no idea about.”
“Million, two million? Ten?”
A small applause erupted at the bar at a score in one of the games.
“Again,” I said, “depends on the production. I’d say that range is on the lower end.”
His forehead creased with lines as he seemed to give this serious thought.
“So how does it work? Like how does someone that wants to fund a movie, fund it?”
“Thinking about a career change?” I said. One of the few times during the night that Amir actually looked me in the eye happened then. A stern, no-nonsense look to my lightly jesting note.
“I’m just curious,” he said.
“I wish I knew,” I said. “It’s a different world and a whole different language. If the movie ever gets made, I’ll see what I learn, and I’ll tell you.”
“Don’t be pessimistic. I see the garbage that gets made all the time. You probably have something ten times better. I haven’t read your books, but I know what you can do. Fucking Be Wolf.” He made the tiniest smile.
I had an image of men in suits entering the bar and surrounding our booth. Amir was not supposed to have left the State of Texas. They had Amir on his feet. Amir being Amir, he didn’t make a fuss. The bar was full of his family and friends and well-wishers. He was getting a mobster’s farewell. The men in suits scowled at everyone as they walked him out, loathing them for loving such a villain.
“Don’t get defeated,” he said, cryptically. “Lose on your own terms. I’m proud of you, man.” He insisted on paying and then slid out of the booth and said, “For old time’s sake, let’s go for a drive.”
We drove by our high school, our old apartments, and out to Montrose harbor. We didn’t speak, didn’t exchange memories. Our nostalgia came out in muted laughs to ourselves, which we knew the other was sharing.
In front of my building, he put the car in park and we sat in silence for some time. A light changed from red to green to red again.
“Noreen filed for divorce.”
“Man, I’m so sorry.”
“It was my idea.”
“You don’t want to be married to her anymore?”
“It’s not about that.”
“I know she told you.”
“She told me what?”
“Come on, man. I know, okay.”
“Did you plan it that way?”
“Plan it? No. We didn’t plan anything. Noreen does what she wants.”
“I didn’t ask.”
“It’s fine. It’s not a secret.”
He sounded almost proud, his acceptance a source of power. There was something regal about him. He was in charge, he had control, even of devastation. Had he been a general whose troops had been massacred in battle, he would offer his up his commission in disgrace and walk away. “That’s why we’re here,” he finished. “It’s for the wedding, but it’s really to tell our parents in person.” He gave me his hand, an offering and an ending. I wanted to ask what was going on. I wanted ask why on Earth he’d batted for the devil. I wanted to ask what the hell was going through his head. I wanted to shout, bully, yell. I wanted him to shout, bully, yell in return. I didn’t care how old and tried and tired it would all be, we had to hash it out. We had to know where we were headed. We had to understand what was wrong and what was right, and then we had to agree on it.
There lay the flaw in my demands. Rights and wrongs no longer mattered. If they ever did. If their definitions were at any time exact, defined by lines, drawn to rigid perfection, they’d been blurred. They existed now, as perhaps they always had, in minds that gave them those definitions, inexact as minds were wont to be, egg-shell fragile and subject to deceit – worst of all our own.
Amir was right to give his wife a way out of his mess. He was wrong to create the mess, and it was right that he was going to pay for it. I was wrong to be anything other than a friend in time of need. I was right to be mad. Or maybe I was not.
Next I heard about Amir was once again through Teddy. His legal troubles hadn’t changed. Teddy said nothing about them getting worse. “No news, good news, is about where things stand,” he told me.
I hadn’t reached out because I didn’t want to know. I didn’t have the courage to face what could have befallen him, and then him, in whatever ruins lay his life. Divorce, jail. I was not a good friend. I couldn’t be called a friend at all. Teddy was that person. Teddy talked to Amir every day. Checked in on him. Made sure he was eating, resting, sleeping. Not working too much. To the point that Amir got irritated. Told him he didn’t need an extra parent or a second wife just yet. But Teddy didn’t back down. He texted, emailed, or called, and Amir responded. Amir himself wasn’t aware how much he needed a friend.
Teddy and his wife Noelle were in town for the Memorial Day weekend. Noelle was pregnant, due later in the year, and Teddy was walking on air. If I were to make a pick I’d say he was the happiest of us all. Happy in that vapid way people attach the word to the succession of points and turns that come and go to make up life. I was happy for him. They had a happy home in Seattle. Teddy made good money freelancing, and in his free time volunteered at the VA with soldiers returning from deployment. His dedication to what we always treated as a foolishly outrageous whim was enviable. He cared. He wasn’t interested in debating the rights or wrongs of war. People need more. They needed to be human. They needed to know they were here for a reason and that reason was a good, or at the very least a dignified, one. He quoted Hemingway. He swore the writer was profoundly right when he said that we were stronger in those places we’d been broken, that being killed by our wounds was not an option.
Malik was in Chicago for a short trip in the summer. I didn’t know until he was gone. I was glad and impossibly sad we hadn’t met. I don’t think we would have walked away with whatever we had left that we could still call a friendship, intact, if we had. I hoped I was wrong. I wished in a corner of my heart that that would change. I learned of his visit from him, when he emailed to say he wished we could have gotten together. He’d been on a tight schedule. Maybe next time. But when the next time showed itself, he declined. It was for my wedding. Zeeshan told me I didn’t need to try so hard.
“Still, tell him he’s a shit,” I said.
“You were pretty hard about everything, too.”
“With good reason. I had fights with my own father over it.” My father had, in his caustic, classic best, said nothing I didn’t already know: that America had gotten exactly what America wanted, I can shout and moan and criticize all I wanted; to the point that I feared he too had batted for the devil. He hadn’t. My mother had outed him. To her, in the privacy of their marriage, to the woman he still told his innermost thoughts, whom he’d worn down but not defeated, he said he had no hope for this country. “Happy?” my mother said after telling me.
“Stick to what you believe,” said Zeeshan. “It’s all we can do.”
He hadn’t told me before, but he and Malik had had an exchange of heated words. Some of it was politics, some about practices in business. Zeeshan’s moral compass hadn’t balked. Corporate law didn’t faze him either way, didn’t make him greedy, unhuman, vicious, or vile, didn’t turn him altruistic either. The people he worked with, he told me, were decent for the most part, as, he added, people tend to be. The day’s work sometimes left their spirits wracked, but they understood that if they weren’t doing what they were doing, people far worse would happily fill the gap. Zeeshan’s world had never been black and white, it would never be. I couldn’t tell him I agreed. I didn’t tell him I disagreed.
On a blustery day in March, with good news that I’d sold another book earlier in the year, and the movie of the previous seeing some rays of hope, I proposed to Myra. I put my great-grandmother’s heirloom on her finger and then we called our parents. My father had always liked her, enough to show it openly and ask me how she was when we talked on the phone and why she hadn’t come when I went over and when she would again, and when she bent down to touch his feet, he brought her up and kissed her on the forehead and called her daughter. My mother did the same and blessed us with a prayer.
Nadeem Zaman is the author two works of fiction, two novels, "In the Time of the Others" (Picador India, longlisted for the 2019 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature), and "The Inheritors" (Hachette India 2023) and a collection of stories "Up in the Main House" (Unnamed Press 2019). Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he grew up there and in Chicago. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Louisville Review, Singapore Unbound, Wilderness House Literary Review, Roanoke Review, Dhaka Tribune, Bengal Lights, and other journals. He teaches in the English department at St. Mary's College of Maryland.