(DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. It’s important to remember this is all totally fabricated, embellished, and exaggerated for entertainment purposes.)
Have you no idea that you’re in deep?
I’ve dreamt about you nearly every night this week
Artic Monkeys | Do I Wanna Know?
A light rain misted over the yard this morning. The kind that put a damp in old bones and awakened a deep-seated arthritis in the joints, or so I was told. I did not look forward to growing old. Wow, this place was a ghost town. Sleepy Hollow. Nearly motionless fog hovered over the garden, slowly encompassing the massive teepee, the wooden bridge that led from the back door along the left flank, the old shed that housed a replica of my grandparents’ pub: the Bradford Arms, and all the life-size Tekken action figures the boys had gifted me for my birthday a couple of years ago. Freaky silhouettes barely penetrating the grey. My own post-apocalyptic Neverland, engulfed by spring storms that had been relentless the last few days. As a result of this, the lawn had been reduced to sludge.
I inched closer to the glass parapet of the balcony and gazed down at the moat below, then at the plants returning to life before my eyes. Shivering awake and regaining color lost over a bitter winter. It seemed like only days ago I was snapping photos of the icicles dripping from the foliage and sending them to my mum, who got a real kick out of the situation. When I leaned too far over, rivulets of water that drained from the awning were swept back into my face by the wind. I chuckled to myself, shaking the excess out from my hair and swiping a hand down my face. Then I checked the tip of my cigarette to make sure it hadn’t been doused in the attack, and thankfully it was all good.
I took a hit and expelled the smoke forcefully from my nostrils. Would that feeling ever grow old? Mini jumpstarts to my system with every inhale. Blood transfusion. A chemical enlightenment. Vigor thrumming through my veins like a war cry. That same old opiated heaviness behind the eyes as the smoke wafted back onto my face each time without fail. Sweet, sweet nicotine. My bride. The undisputed love of my life. The only thing I could depend on hourly to get me through the hell of monotony, no matter what the day might hold in store.
Unfailing friend, never leave me. Everyone else could go, my faithful companion, but not you. I always made time for it. If I had to choose between this precious medicinal substance and literally anything else—anyone else—that would unquestionably be a cold day for every person in my inner circle. Including my dog and lizards. Truthfully, I couldn’t be without it. Not that I wanted to quit, anyway. I was still young. Why not risk it? I had plenty of time to quit once I reached my thirties. Around then I’d reevaluate my life and decide what the best course forward was. For now, I’d take most risks that came my way. It’s what helped me to feel alive. Give me my scrapes and bruises while I was young. Give me all the toxicity. Life hard and fast and cinematic.
By now it’d been a little over four months since we called it quits. Four whole months without my man. Four whole months since he last held me. Since we last touched. Since we last kissed—mutually and in earnest. Four months since he looked me in my eye and caused my world to stop spinning. Fuck if I weren’t a veteran of love. Kneecapped and harakiried. Eyeless, thoughtless, concussed—cerebral hemorrhaging.
Sometimes I sat around in the dark feeling like a fraction of the man I once was. A muttering amputee making home beneath a highway underpass; begging for a ticket back into society. Or worse, someone who’d undergone a pneumonectomy and couldn’t remember what it was like to take an unlabored breath. Couldn’t remember what it was like to be whole. Every now and again I looked down at my hands to ensure they were still there. I kept count of the lines in palms to make certain they belonged to me. What good were they anyway?
Chet Baker’s “I Get Alone Without You Very Well” played on my phone as I sat and scrolled through my albums. There he was. My Haz. It was a short video I’d filmed on the tail end of last year in Japan. He was sat in his room with Niall’s guitar, strumming away shirtless and dreamy-eyed. Voicing forlorn things. Half-hearted plans for the future. Improvising song lyrics. His voice got low and tender when he was sleepy, and he liked to talk to me like I was the sweetest thing in his world. The only thing he could marvel at in his life. I grew drunk on his streams-of-consciousness. Dumbstruck, love-stricken things spilled from his lips without end. Pillowtalk, except we weren’t lying down. Still, when he got like this, I was as good as prostrate. As though my spine had been surgically removed. I didn’t need a backbone around him anyway. And I was aware that this sort of trust only came once in a lifetime, if ever.
The video progressed and I didn’t want it to end. That night he had shot up out of his sleep and wanted me to hear some half-cocked tune he’d come up with. Said he couldn’t get it out of his head, and had begged Niall to use his guitar for a few days until he could nail it down. It’d originally come to him in a dream. He played and played and played for me, but couldn’t get it right. Eventually he drifted to sleep sitting upright in the bed, hands on the strings, mouth parted. I’d gotten up to record him and had been sitting on the foot of the bed in awe of his impulsivity. The little documentary ended with me snickering and zooming in on a thread of drool falling from his mouth like gossamer.
Never a dull moment with this dude or one unworthy of film. That one was my favorite. It was entirely perfect. I looped it back and watched it again before moving on to photos from the same trip. Him in the tub with a hat and beard made of suds. Him asleep in the middle of my hotel room floor, both hands shoved down the front of his sweats in search of warmth. Him staring out of the balcony windows while I lay in bed and admired the glorious morning vision he was. Bathed in sunlight. Rocking my t-shirt and Calvin Klein briefs. I couldn’t understand why I was so drawn to him. It was baffling. Why was I so afraid of losing him? Why did I need to document almost everything he did? Was it the only way I could control him? God, his personality was so enormous he just needed to be contained somehow. Most days he felt like a commotion. A funnel cloud dipping down into my heart and shredding everything in its path. Too much to be around. I tried so hard to tame him, to mature him, to make him dependent on me, but in the end knew I would lose sight of him.
So, I resorted to preserving stolen slivers. As much as I could get my hands on. Trap him behind a polaroid. A thousand polaroids if I had to. I fell to using the excuse that my parents had raised me to film as much of life as I could, so that he wouldn’t ask questions about my worryingly extensive camera roll. In part, that was true. My mum was big on making memories, and my dad was big on filming them. Growing up, he thought we were the most amusing, free-spirited kids in the world. Since he stayed home with us while my mum worked, he’d gotten used to our games and helped us to create others, even making a riot out of the most mundane household tasks like sorting out our rooms, scrubbing the walls, washing the dishes, or dusting the furniture. Everything was a race. The floors often turned to lava. Hide-And-Seek was prompted with a spontaneous countdown and no further explanation.
I could so easily recall the smell of the foam furniture polish he would use on the coffee tables and wood paneling. I distinctly remembered he wouldn’t allow us to handle the chemicals, but we liked to watch the foam vanish into thin air as he buffed it into the surfaces. I used the same stuff around my house now, just to be reminded of what was. Those days were endless, until one day I looked up and they had indeed ended. There were heaps of family photos and home-movies to show for it. Some of holidays, others not. Some impromptu, others rehearsed and staged. Some with homemade costumes and others with Sharpie goatees.
Being around Haz took me back to that unquantifiable sensation. The effervescence of childhood. It’s like he had bottled that feeling and carried it with him everywhere he went, which would explain his spontaneous dance parties and infinite, almost otherworldly idiosyncrasies. Some of the photos I came across in my phone alarmed me. His eyes were scarily penetrating at times. The green almost looked blue in a few. Seeing right though my carefully curated façade like a CT Scan. It wouldn’t end well for me in this relationship, both he knew it and I knew it. I wasn’t built for making other people happy, and he needed to be happy. That’s why I ultimately failed him, and why he had rightfully deserted me.
The next video got a laugh out of me. Him lip-syncing the Bee Gees “How Deep Is Your Love.” He’d done the whole song too, complete with choreography and a costume that consisted of a pink and a pair of sunglasses. That smile was incalculably gorgeous. Nothing but a memory now. I traced his face through the screen and didn’t regret how pathetic I looked. He used to be mine and it was okay to cherish that. Anyone would. Used to be mine. Used to be mine. Used to be mine.
Exiting the gallery, I paced back and forth along the length of the terrace before halting and taking several intense breaths to shake me out of my daydreams. Time to live in the now. This was shaping up to be an alright day, weather-wise. I could already see the sun breaking through the heavy cloud-cover. I couldn’t help but acknowledge that he’d rate a morning like this. He’d join me for my cigarette on the balcony with a quiet fidelity. With the dutifulness of a domesticated love. I could almost feel him how, standing behind me as I puffed away. I would’ve leaned back against his chest as he kissed my hair in meditation.
According to him, light spring rains were ideal for nude revelry. They made him primal. Dance parties in the garden with no accompanying sound. Silent films, grossly nostalgic, like the close of summer. Just a mad man kicking about with hostility for the commonplace. Slinging his arms until he grew exhausted of his own antics. He’d come back to me dripping wet and grinning from ear to ear. I rarely joined him, as I wasn’t particularly fond of the world seeing me naked, but if it was dark enough, I couldn’t help myself. Couldn’t let him have all the fun.
Just then, I broke and texted him. Despite tour rehearsals, we hadn’t spoken in almost two weeks, and I was close to crumbling. Most days he got in and got out and didn’t bother to look my way while we ran through the setlist. I had a lot to say to him that morning on the balcony, but couldn’t grasp the proper words. Forfeiting, I sent him a link to “Only You” by The Flying Pickets and hoped it’d do the trick. Music spoke for us and was a reliable recourse in moments as these. Just as I hit send, a voice appeared behind me at the balcony door. I’d almost forgotten she was here.
“Zen? Zennnnn, babe! Look at me! Give me sum attention!” Pez called, her accent too high-pitched for this time of day. “Bubz! What the bloody hell are you doing out here, then? It’s right cold, isn’t it? Come back inside now.”
“Mornin’ babes…I’ll be there in a minute,” I called over my shoulder. I took my last hit of the cigarette, and as I dropped it onto the floor and stumped it out, she jumped on by back, biting me on the ear. I laughed and stumbled with her back inside. I was happy to see she was feeling better after her grandmother had passed away. The funeral was a crying affair. It was nice to hear her laughing freely again without a sense of guilt.
“Easy now!” she cried through a cackle as I dumped her onto the mattress. She rolled away to the other side with a shriek, robe falling open.
Apparently, she’d been up a while too, gathering everything I needed for my upcoming camping trip with her dad. We’d be headed out later today and I was stoked. A change of pace and scenery was welcome. The season didn’t seem ideal for it, but he preferred camping in the spring because the crowds weren’t as large, and that left many sought after sites available. It’d be our third time heading out together over the past two years, and I’d fallen in love with the notion of getting off grid. Unlike anything else I could implement in my life, this offered a hard factory reset for my brain. For a few days it would get me away from social media to reconfigure my self-perception, my goals, my Zen, all of which I’d lost scrolling compulsively for hours on end after I’d been dumped last year in the apotheosis of love.
Pez fixed her robe then slung herself across the foot of the bed on her belly to check her phone. She kicked her pale legs up behind her, fanning them back and forth with a cheery tempo. The bottoms of her feet were beet red.
“Pumped for today, then, little lad?”
“Guess soh,” I grinned, zipping up my backpack and setting it onto the floor. I then sat on the edge of the bed beside her and looked over at her phone. She was scrolling idly through her secret Twitter feed which only her close friends were allowed to follow. The Directoners hadn’t been exactly kind to her when we first started dating, and eventually ran her off her main account altogether. Now she tweeted through the official Little Mix account whenever she had a message for the fans, or stuck to her private socials.
“Y’know, bubs, Dad really enjoys spending time with you. He really does. It’s all he could talk about for a week straight! ‘Goin’ camping with Zen again‘!”
“The feelin’s mutual.”
“I’m starting to think he might even prefer you to Jonnie. Get a load of that!”
“Don’t tell Jon then,” I chuckled. “He’d probably choke me out and leave me in the middle of the woods to die.”
“That’s a possibility!” she snicked.
“I’m super excited to get back out there, though. Just chillin’ in front of a fire with a few brews—”
“‘Brews’ she snorted, mocking me. “Give it a rest, then. We all know you drink lite beer.”
“I’m just looking for a good time, babe.”
“I’ll show you a good time,” she said throatily, like an old man, flinging open her robe and flashing me. I fell back laughing uncontrollably.
“Seriously though,” she tied her robe again, sobering. “Sounds good, babes. I’m glad it’s something you’ll actually enjoy. You deserve a break!”
“Hah! For sure!” I sat back up and absently pet her hair, then remembered to ask about their new charity single. “The song’s still killin’ it, yeah?”
“Unbelievably so! Your tweet really helped send it over the edge, I bet.”
“Well, I’m proud of youh, babe,” I leaned in and kissed her lips. They were a bit dry after she rinsed off her facemask. “Youh guys are smashin’ it. I can’t believe how far you’ve come.”
“Oh fanks, sir,” she made a dorky face, nostrils flaring, teeth protruding. She cracked me up whenever she was in a good mood. Her ability to make me laugh at even the tiniest things she did seemed like witchcraft. And her ability to distort her face and speech in an infinite number of ways left me in stitches every time. I was convinced she was the coolest bird on the planet, and for that reason I was entirely wrapped around her finger. This morning it seemed she had an absurd amount of energy in the tank.
“Last time, when we were campin’, we went soh far off course to find a quieter spot that there were, like, noh toilets. None! Remember dat, babe? I told youh, yeah?”
“Ugh, don’t remind me,” she said, fanning a hand in front of her nose.
“I had to lay a few bricks in the dirt…it was horrible!”
“Come to think of it, they weren’t even really bricks. I had a major blowout—”
“Nooooo! STOP!” she dropped her phone and covered her ears, recoiling away from my touch.
“It was more like shit soup, if I’m honest,” I was exaggerating of course, but it was worth it to get a reaction out of her. I needed to pay her back for that bite on the ear.
“Ewwwww! You’re so gross, bubs! Keep that to yourself, sir, I’ll lose me grapefruit I just wolfed down. You probably didn’t even wipe either!”
“Barely. I had to use leaves!” At that she pretended to gag, and I laughed so hard my stomach ached.
Shahid Khan. Quite literally my brother from another mother. I couldn’t have been more perfectly matched for a mentor in the industry if I’d begged Allah to send one my way every day since I’d become famous. Truth be told, he was a godsend. We’d been inseparable from the moment we met back at the Brits. I’d been to his studio more times than I could count, and it didn’t take long for him to get me in the booth and singing a tune he had set aside for another client. It was a practice run, he said, but singing a song that sick on my own had me pretty gassed up to make more.
Last week I’d met him over at his place and we’d gotten dressed up to head to the Asian Awards. His stylist helped me put a little something together and made me look presentable, as my attendance was sort of last minute. Shahid had convinced me to attend the ceremony with a speech about how it was important to honor our heritage in an industry that was aggressively trying to whitewash me. That I had a massive platform and it was important that I represent the Asian community with dignity and pride. I was something special. A voice of my people. A beacon of promise for hopeful Asians everywhere, demonstrating that it was possible to chase my dreams and succeed, and even become a massive global superstar, earning the respect of many far and wide.
I couldn’t have agreed more, but I wasn’t used to going off to massive events on my own without the other boys or our team. I called up management and PR and they explicitly warned me not to do any interviews, which I had no plans of doing anyway. The whole event would’ve been a socially awkward nightmare for me if my cousin Javvad hadn’t tagged along, because as expected, Shahid knew nearly everyone in the room and navigated among them, having been a major part of the London music scene for years now. He was also a presenter, so he abandoned me frequently to shake hands and pat backs. Later he made tons of introductions which left me at a loss for how to manage the small talk with them all individually. By the end of the evening, I was knackered, and so tired of smiling that my cheeks ached. For me, the highlights of the night were watching Jackie Chan accept the Fellowship Award virtually, and Norah Jones being named a winner as well, putting me in the mind of her music, which instantly evoked lazy afternoons with Haz in 2011 and 2012.
In the deep purple ambience that radiated around us, I saw very few familiar faces, but hoped to network with many of them in the future. This show wasn’t strictly about honoring musicians, instead Asians from all walks of life and fields of merit. Tons of actors too, like Jackie Chan and my childhood idol Shah Rukh Khan. I actually didn’t get a chance to meet him this time around, but vowed to attend next year and have my moment in the sun with him. As the ceremony wore on, a few people pulled me aside and forced me to record videos for their kids and extended family, because apparently a photo wasn’t enough for anyone anymore. When a few tables asked for autographs in addition to videos, Shahid finally spoke up and told the white lie that I was contractually inhibited from signing autographs, since they had been monetized by the label with our official signings. The story was utterly untrue, but I went along with it because it got me out of a ton of hassle.
At the end of the day, we headed back to the studio, which Shahid called “the lab,” located on the second floor of a high-rise in Ealing. I didn’t get over to West London too after the band changed studios back in the early days, but this place was quickly beginning to feel like home. I found myself craving his studio when I was away for more than a couple of days, like I did with all of my addictions. Although I was in no position to make my own music, I still yearned to be around the process more than ever before, particularly in an environment that wasn’t strictly geared toward commercialization. Shahid loved music for music’s sake and sometimes we’d spend an entire day getting a beat down only for it to never be used for anything. It was all a part of the process, as he would say.
Sometimes I stuck around to watch other artists record if they allowed it, and had even gotten the opportunity to write with Emeli a time or two. Over time I began memorizing the all the dials and switches on the console of the mixer. What I used to imagine would take a lifetime to acquire had come to me quite naturally once I understood the purpose behind each configuration. Learning what really went into making music MUSIC. An artform. Components I’d taken for granted before. Intricacies I’d overlooked for years despite recording incessantly since 2010. Every decision made in this sacred place was so painstakingly mulled over it blew my mind. Even the most minute adjustments could make or break a song. Make it a hit or a flop. I was almost learning too much to keep my head on straight, and every bit that I consumed made me desperate to invent my own stylistic flares and adhere to the dictates of my own creative direction, not anyone else’s. Suffice it to say, a beast was being awakened in me, and sooner or later I feared it would break free. No matter the calamity.
Shahid was a life savior of sorts, because his entire mission from the moment we’d met had been to convince me of how uniquely talented I was. It was a noble pursuit. Every day he insisted that my opinions mattered. That my tastes and culture and identity mattered. That I had the ability to impact the industry on my own. According to him, my voice was a rare commodity that deserved to be exercised, not restrained and buried among four other more mediocre sounding guys. Sure, we gassed each other the fuck up, but there was a lot of truth behind the encouragement we exchanged.
I’d heard kind things from people in the industry before, about how singular my vocal ability was, but what lacked in these songs of praise had always been belief in me as an individual artist. My vision. My metaphorical voice, not so much the physical one. That’s were Shahid stood apart from the others, and aside from mentoring me and setting the stage for what would later become my solo journey into music, he became the big brother I never had and never realized I needed. Urgently needed.
While some of my more religious cousins gave me shit for supposedly becoming materialistic the more money I made, sneering when I bought a big house and nice car and loads of expensive clothes and jewelry, Shahid insisted it was okay to enjoy the spoils of hard work. There was no point in grinding if you couldn’t treat yourself every now and again. Plus, he said stuff like “pray up” and “bless up” which I thought was super dope. My very own DJ Khaled, except more intelligent. I looked up to him tremendously and really admired his achievements in music. He had worked with some big-timers, for sure. Emeli Sandé, Labrinth, Devlin, Leona Lewis and it was easy to see his stock would only rise as the years rolled on.
We weren’t the sentimental type, of course, most brown men aren’t—hell, most men in general aren’t—but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the reason I was so drawn to the studio was because I loved spending time with him. Without a doubt, he was filling a deficit in me, and I was incapable of expressing my gratitude for that, and at times I became fretful of when it might end. That’s how I existed in all of my relationships these days. Petrified of the day it ultimately wouldn’t work out and I’d never see that person again.
Already I felt indebted to him for all he’d enlightened me of, but he was super chill and made it clear he didn’t expect anything from me. We were just vibin’, as he would say. We were safe. And with a few of his friends and a couple of my cousins all colliding in one room and getting high and drinking almost every weekend, we had too much fun together. It was a fraternity experience I’d missed out on growing up, and was looking to absorb as much as possible with every moment of my free time that Perrie didn’t claim for family functions. Shahid just got me, and by his side, it’s like I was falling in love with music all over again.
After we left the awards and met up at his place, I took my jacket off and messed around with his cat, Naugthybob, then jabbed at the free-standing heavy bag for a bit. I snatched my tie off when things got serious, and Javvad thought he could beat me in a speed test. Later I watched Shahid toy with a beat he’d been working on for a few days for an up-and-coming rapper, during which he would occasionally stop and grin and encourage me to freestyle. His presence was so approachable and forgiving that I felt no embarrassment no matter how much I stuttered or messed up my bars. Everything about this place made me feel protected, with all it’s weird hodge-podge goodness.
That night, I was high as fuck and noticing things about my surroundings that I hadn’t before. I was familiar with the massive painting of the Godfather and a few of Pacino in Scarface, but it was the first time I noticed the picture of him and his mom in a garden propped on a shelf near the entrance. Sure, I’d noticed the life-sized jeweled statue of a tiger nearby, but never the stark contrast between the black and white tiles in the checkered floor. Man, this place reeked of weed and weird incense, and buckets of cologne. Then I stared at Shahid so long he became unrecognizable.
Fuck, he had a disproportionately pudgy face. The face of someone maybe twice his size. And it glistened perpetually. Like he was always sweating. It took a while for me to realize he just had super oily skin and could do with adding an astringent to his morning routine. Pez made sure I kept a good one. I nearly recommended the brand I used, since looking at his big shiny face and beady eyes was becoming irritating, but I thought against it because I didn’t want to offend him. He was too good to me, and I valued his friendship far too much to jeopardize it over something so petty. Still, he reminded me of a tightly packed sausage near to bursting out of the casing. Not too appetizing at that. I looked away to regain my proper train of thought.
As if our love of food and cooking wasn’t enough, which led us to have a few cook offs where we compared our shepherd’s pie and best curries and he outclassed me with a special coriander butter chicken, but he also liked all the same movies as me and had grown up with the same musical influences I did. Perhaps it was the mere fact that our birthdays were only eleven days apart (his being on January 1st) that we bonded so powerfully. Eleven was his lucky number and quickly became mine. He insisted it was meaningful that we were born exactly eleven days apart, and I was in no position to argue with that. We also had similar ideas about our stance on Islam, and neither were technically practicing Muslims. The sort of music we wanted to make didn’t allow it, for starters. Plus, we loved alcohol, smoking, and tattoos too much to be devout.
When I got home that night, I took all my clothes off and climbed into bed like I weighed a metric ton. Despite having the time of my life with the boys, it still felt like the weight of the world was on me. I heard Javvad crash around down the hall in the guest room and shook my head at how much of a klutz he was. As I lay uncovered, I was glad Perrie was spending a few days at her mum’s place. In secret, I listened to Norah Jones’ greatest hits, as her discography had been his and his mom’s means of bonding when he was a younger. After looping “Don’t Know Why” multiple times until I fell asleep, I dreamed of him precisely as planned.
(Thanks for reading!❤️)