(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.)
Try to realize it’s all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you
The Beatles | Within You Without You
We passed a sign that said: “Welcome To East Bowling” and a weight lifted from my chest. My bones creaked awake, animated by the atmosphere and the distinct sound of the wheels hitting the pavement here. Heart-poundingly familiar. Home. I rolled down the window of the rented Land Rover and stuck my head into the wind, catching hold of the familiar scents. The reek of raw peanuts from the factory nearby, which I’d come to despise. I smiled when the air became uncontaminated again, watching the way the sunlight flickered between the buildings as if in a game of hide and seek with me. Watching the way the birds dove past the car, a split second shy of grazing the windshield.
What urban majesty. Everything imperfectly perfect, and preserved just as it was 40-50 years ago. Fields of towering, high-voltage pylons, cutting through the sky like steel giants. Walkers. Extraterrestrials that emitted silent magnetic fields…and cancer. As we drove by the old mills and rundown motels and tan brick buildings, my childhood resurrected and played out before me with a stunning vibrancy. Masala incense burning around the neighborhood. Our home alive with laughter and bickering. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan forever playing softly in the background of any setting. My mum’s perpetual cooking. Succulent dishes whose mouth-watering aromas stifled the house in summer. My grandad’s low baritone speaking in a rear room whenever he visited for dinner. He and my dad playing cards, both sometimes allowing me to sit on their laps and learn. The telly going nonstop until my mum shut it off after 11pm. My old faithful Packard Bell computer, which I used to pirate music I couldn’t afford off of momentarily stolen CDs. I’d always return them without fail, fearful that Allah was watching my every move.
I peered through the golden haze of early evening and saw my boyhood self-running along on foot behind my dad, his fingers negligibly reaching back for me. He was trying to catch up to my mum. She was strutting far ahead in a hurry because we were constantly late. The 1D boys often gave me shit about showing up to meetings and rehearsals late, but in my defense, tardiness was the only example set for me growing up. Well, my mum tried her best to be punctual, but my dad typically slowed the whole train down because he didn’t like to be social.
I remembered riding along with my cousins in their busted old cars. We had fabricated excuses to drive any and everywhere without our licenses, because it was the most liberating freedom in the world. In a town were most people didn’t entertain notions of ever getting out, having free reign of the roads with no one to control how far or fast we went seemed liked a nice compensation.
Haz hummed a familiar tune while a commercial played on the radio. We’d been cruising around downtown for a while, marveling at the extravagant city hall building and all the Victorian architecture. Now he wanted to run by and see my old place, insisting that he missed it. All the tall row houses with bright red doors to add a splash of color to the otherwise depressing uniformity. The screen door that wouldn’t properly closed. The plumbing that always flooded the laundry room. Before I’d brought the new place in the suburbs and moved the fam out of Bowling, he’d visited the terraced house a few times and always reminisced about us laying on the floor of my tiny room, exchanging music and tattoo ideas.
I remembered not wanting him to see the handsome Indian bloke with he bright blue eyes who lived next door. He had been the talk of the town before I became famous, and had pulled all the birds at school with so much as a ‘hello‘. I didn’t blame them though. He was the only guy who ever tempted me, apart from Haz. Haz, Haz, Haz. This entire trip had been his idea, dreamt up after I fainted and convinced him The Great Leveler was after me. He thought I needed to go home for a spell and see the family to recuperate, or at least get a good lungful of fresh English air. He wouldn’t be dissuaded either, so I told Pez I was going on a fishing trip with him and a few mates and allowed him to steal me away in the wee hours.
I hadn’t been feeling too good that morning, but I’d packed my essentials in a single duffel and lugged it downstairs. The missus was thankfully still asleep, so there were no worries when he unexpectedly met me at the front door to carry my bag the rest of the way to the truck. He still wouldn’t let me lift anything beyond a few pounds, and even took the cap off my water bottles for me. Suffice it to say, I felt like a massive pussy, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was enjoying being catered to. Making my way down the pathway towards the Land Rover, I listened to the incessant twittering overhead and welcomed the cool autumn air. This would be good.
We’d been driving for what seemed days to my cramping legs, although it was likely no more than a couple of hours. The plan was to head north through Bradford where we would stop and visit my parents for the night, then continue further north into the Lake District for a for a spell in the remote countryside. I hadn’t visited before, but heard wonderous things about how spellbinding the scenery was. All the old poets had gone on about it in their writings, apparently. There were loads of lakes and mountains and nothing but sky to be had. And in the heart of autumn, it all promised to be quite mesmerizing.
Some place on the edge of Bowling, he pulled over at a mom and pop run deli and ordered a turkey sandwich. He ate it outside the car because I’d declined to eat and he didn’t want to disturb my protest. By now he had figured out my refusal to eat involved far more than vanity. As I sat and stewed, absorbing the shakes in the truck as he shifted against the door every now and then, I finally climbed out and walked around to meet him.
Mouth full, he knew what I wanted without speaking and presented the sandwich to me. I bit into it between his thumbs, then watched him with a small look of gratitude. Now we took turns sharing bites, and he didn’t make me feel bad about declining my own sandwich earlier. Nor did he make me go order another one for myself, despite the deli only being a few yards away.
Back on the road, we passed my little primary school and I couldn’t hold back a smile. I buried it in my fist though as Haz tried to speak through a belch. He said he’d gotten a full sentence out once. I told him he was a liar, and that no one could burp for that long without dying. That if he did, something was wrong with him.
“Just get you some good ol’ indigestion going. It’s easy mate. You’ll see.”
“I’m fine on that, fanks. I think I’ll pass.”
“Suit yourself. You don’t know what you’re missing alright? It’s, uh, all good old-fashioned road trip entertainment—”
“Ugh, you reek!” I cried, covering my nose and reaching for the window switch. He laughed and locked them before I could get it down. “Fuck off, broh! Open it! It’s burnin’ me eyes!”
“Ah, take it all in. You’re welcome!” I shut my eyes and pretended to pass out. He said it was too soon to joke about that, and I agreed with a little mischievous grin.
By the time we got to my parents’ place it was dark as we had stopped a few times to piss around and explore the old historic neighborhoods. Their street was quiet, and only a few evening joggers could be seen about. Haz crept towards the middle of the block and I followed the GPS until we were just outside the driveway. He passed it, then reversed and pulled in to the garage door. As soon as our headlights hit the building, my mum appeared at the door smiling from ear to ear.
“Hey youuuh!” she sang, spreading her arms for me.
“Hey, mum. Youh alright?” I fell into her arms and a warmth spread, thawing my heart and all the bitterness it had been housing since September. She reached a hand up to pet my hair, marveling at how long it had gotten. I had opted to leave it down because I was too lazy to comb it when he woke me earlier that morning.
“What’s this? Youh growin’ it out?”
“Yeah, think it suits me?”
“It’s alright, love. Youh look like a different person.
“M’thinkin about shavin my beard too.”
“I’d love to see that baby face again.” She grabbed my face and planted a kiss to my cheek. By now Haz walked up with both our bags and she beamed.
“Harreh, hi love! It’s soh good to see youh! I’m soh ‘appy you’ve brought him home to me!”
“Of course, of course. Don’t mention it. How are you? You alright? So good to see you, too…” They embraced with a closed-eyed sincerity that made me feel gooey. Now she wrapped an arm around my waist and led me inside, telling me about all the letters and notes that had been left on the door for me by fans who’d discovered the house. She said she kept them and put them in an album for me. As we passed through to the lounge my dad and two youngest sisters, Safaa and Waliyha, were standing around waiting on me to enter. Doniya was missing as she’d already moved out to pursue a career as hair and beauty blogger in London. I kissed Safaa on the check when she squealed and hugged me, then pretended to put Waliyha in a chokehold. They flocked to Haz afterwards, forgetting I existed.
My dad looked me over from head to foot and a flicker of something unnamable resonated in his face. Anger, sadness, disappointment, concern—I couldn’t tell. He was as reticent and as stern as ever, but couldn’t help but crack when he finally met my eyes. I watched him with unguarded nervousness, waiting for the signal that it was ok to hug him. Not that he would reject me if I leapt onto him like I used to do as a kid, but something in his regard made me a bit standoffish.
“Dad…” was my greeting, as I waited him to take the lead. We hadn’t hugged in a while, not since he had expressed disgust and last year about mine and Haz’s onstage antics, and initiating it myself just seemed too awkward. It only dawned on me now how he might’ve been put off by me bringing Haz home to visit. Our relatives might think something of it, despite me being engaged.
“Son…” he uttered, stepping forward in his dad jeans and black tee. His house slippers were nearly as old as my youngest sister. I’d brought him a hundred new different pair over the years—as it was my go-to dad gift—but he forever resorted back to the same old leather pair, which were now falling apart at the seams from being washed repeatedly. The surfaces cracking like creped skin. I’d be sure to get this specific brand of shoe before buying him another pair.
His eyes kept sweeping over my figure, concern radiating from his posture. I knew he wanted to make one of his infamous wry remarks about my size, but was restraining himself. Whatever he sensed about me stopped him from engaging in our usual banter. Probably because I’d brought along company. When he got close, he simply grasped the back of my neck, watching my fatigued face and spotting the dark circles beneath my eyes. He then nodded rather and moved away. That was it. No: ‘Hey, how are you?‘ No: ‘I’m glad you’re home, I’ve missed you.’ Just a cold cheek touch and an immediate dismissal. He wasn’t necessarily losing his affection for me. I believe the events of the past year just put him at a loss for how to express it. We hadn’t seen eye-to-eye in a while. Not since I allowed him to scare me into an engagement.
Harry was greeted with much the same fanfare. Zero touching, not even a handshake. A sternly uttered “Harry…” was the only thing to follow his tightlipped ‘Son…’ But Haz wasn’t like me. He didn’t take his dismissal lying down. He sidestepped my dad to cut him off from leaving the room, and with a shit-eating grin extended his hand and told my dad he’d missed him. Just like that, the ice was shattered. My dad broke into the most genuine smile I’d seen him offer anyone in a long time, and accepted Haz’s hand with a gusto that made me giddy with gratitude.
Turns out my aunt was over, my mom’s older sister, and when I greeted her with a hug, she crushed the wind out of me and said I was all skin and bones. Said it looked like I’d swallowed a tape worm. I laughed it off and asked her how the family was, to which she rattled off a breathless list of complaints about my growing cousins who had no sense of responsibility and were addicted to violent video games.
Later I moved into the kitchen and kissed my mom’s hair, peering over her shoulder as she cooked her famous lamb chops for me and a few other surprises. I wanted to drown in the scents filling the air. She’d even ordered me a strawberry chocolate cake, knowing I’d struggle to resist.
“How’ve youh been, mum?” I asked, moving to sit on a leather stool at the kitchen island. There were fashion magazines and desi cookbooks strewn about, as well as chopped potatoes and tomatoes and lime. I rolled an unused lime back and forth beneath my palm to rid myself of the jitters brought on by my dad’s weird scrutiny.
“Lovely, sonshine. Just keepin’ busy. Helping the girls with their coursework. Was gardenin’ a bit in the summer—”
“I see. The yard looks’ amazin’.”
“Thanks, son.” She lifted the lid to a pot and stirred it’s contents before joining me at the island.
“How’s everythin’ with youh? Safe travels?”
“They were. Haz did most of the drivin’—well, to be honest, he did all of the drivin’!” I chucked.
“Headed home after this?”
“Noh, actually. Up north for a bit. Lake District?”
“Oh wow! It’s so beautiful up there. You’ll really enjoy yourselves.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone’s been tellin’ me. We’re meetin’ a few friends up there,” I lied. “Soh it should all be quite cool.”
“Happy for you, love.” She sat at the counter beside me after I declined a cup of tea. I stared absently at her wedding ring while she tided up the space in front of us.
“Mum…?” I began.
“Notice sumthin’ about me?”
“Of course I did…but I know better than to fuss about your weight by now.” I forgot I was wearing a hoodie and she couldn’t see the true extent of the weightloss. It was far worse than ever before. “We’ve been through it before, Zen. Once last year. You always bounce back, son. Especially when I get youh home and fatten you up a bit.” She looked over at me with her trademark grin. Eyes but slits. This was my safe place. Protected in the warmth of her undying affinity. No matter what I did or who I became, the only certainty I had in life was that her love for me would not ever change.
“It’s been a rough few months, mum…” I sighed, rubbing a hand down my face, resting my elbows on the counter.
“Youh know youh can talk to me, Zen. Haven’t I always told youh that?” She reached over and ruffled my tousled hair.
“It’s just that…I wanted youh to know…when the album comes out next month…none of my tunes will be on it. I just thought youh should know.”
“And why the hell not?” she grabbed my chin and turned my face towards hers.
“Cause, mum…they didn’t want them. They were noh gud, I guess.”
“Hah! I know…” My face slipped out of her hand. “Tell me about it. But it is what it is, y’know?”
“Even ‘One Chance To Dance’?? Everyone loved it!”
“I know, I know. I have noh ideah why they dumped them all, yeah? But they did. Soh that’s it, innit?”
“Is that why you’re not eatin’? Because if it is Zen, I’ll sue ’em. Just say the word. There’s noh way they can cause youh this much stress—”
“Chill, mum!” I laughed.
“They can’t just get aweh with it, y’know? It aint’ right.”
“You’re not wrong…but there’s just nothin we can really do about dat, now is it?”
“Have youh tried to appeal the decision?”
“Have done. They practically told me to piss off.”
“To hell with them!”
“Hah! Mum, you’re feisty today!”
“I’m pissed. Where do they get off??”
“It took me a while to swallow it. I’m gud now. Just lookin’ forward to the day I can write and produce me own stuff. Under no one else’s rule and regulations. I’m ready to represent my real identity, not one that’s made-up for me.”
“Why haven’t youh eaten?”
“To show them how pissed I am, I guess.”
“I get what you’re tryin’ for, son, but at the end of the day, you’ll only be harmin’ yourself. And those that love youh the most. Those big companies couldn’t care less. They’ll always do what they want. Youh have to look after youh noh matter what. Especially when I’m not around. Noh one else will look after youh the way I can.” Clearly, she hadn’t met Haz, supermom extraordinaire. He could read me with the precision of an atomic clock, and jumped to my aid long before I ever voiced a need. Still, she would always be my number one.
“Thanks, mum. I’ll keep that in mind, yeah? I’ll be okay. I’ll put some weight back on soon. I promise I’m in control of it all.” Something about that last sentence made her burst into tears. She propped an elbow on the table and hid her face. I rubbed her back, and just then my dad walked in.
“Haven’t been home more than twenty lousy minutes and already your mother is in tears?” His humor hadn’t changed a bit. My mom smiled reluctantly, dabbing at the corner of her eyes with a napkin.
“She’s just happy to see me, is all. I’m a joy to be around.”
“Likely story,” he set his heavy comforting hand to my mum’s back before moving to stir her unattended pot. “That Harreh’s a real character.”
“Isn’t he?” I perked up.
“The girls are crazy about him. Your sisters should be ashamed of themselves.”
“They ought to be.”
“They should not!” my mum insisted. “They just love him soh much. They haven’t seen a lot of him lately.”
“Well with what they’re putting him through now, it’s sure to be another year before he visits again,” my dad said.
“I’ll make sure we back come early next year…” I offered. My mom winked at me.
“Look at all this food! A bloody proper feast!” My dad despaired, lifting foil to another dish and peeking beneath. “Asparagus! When do you ever cook me asparagus, woman?! You know I love it!”
“He doesn’t.” She rolled her eyes. “Complains of the texture every time.”
“And chocolate cake! Such an extravagance.”
“Anythin’ for my sonshine.”
“Since when are youh an outdoorsman, anyweh? Harry tells me you’re headed fishing up north some place?”
“Hey I’m and outdoorsy kinda guy, alright. I do things. I took youh fishin’ this year, didn’t I?”
“Some fishing trip. Didn’t even catch any damned fish.”
“Because of youh, old maan!” I laughed. “Controllin’ everythin’! Youh had noh clue what youh were doin, yeah?” He chuckled, tossing up his hands.
“Dad, beer me.” I said, sometime later. He stopped what he was doing and found a couple of Beck’s in the fridge. Now he cracked them open and clinked the glasses together in a silent toast after handing me mine.
“Youh better not get full on that.” My mom fussed, popping the back of my head as she moved back over to the stove. My dad moved into the next room and keyed up a Yellowman album on the record player. I could hear him humming about back there, out of sight. So much like the nights at the old place in East Bowling.
I later got up and wandered into the living room to see what my sisters and Haz were up to, and stumbled on the craziest sight that I had seen in a while. All three were seated on the floor in front of the couch, watching reruns of Keeping Up With The Kardashians and gabbing about the things they had gotten up to since they last saw each other. Haz’s dimples were on full display, as was his deep-chested laughter. His hair had been put in two ridiculous pigtails that sat at the top of his head, secured with pink bows, and his nails were halfway finished being painted in a vivid purple.
“Why’re youh two torturin’ my mate?”
“He loves it!” Waliyha asserted, making a face at me and straightening the pigtail closet to her.
“Mate…it all happened so fast!” he marveled.
“You’re next!” Safaa tossed over her shoulder at me. “You’re hair’s long enough now too. And we already know youh get manicures!”
“On that note…” I said, hurrying out of the kitchen and away to the guest room. I needed to grab my phone and check-in with Pez.
Haz captivated the entire house as we sat for dinner, telling stories about our tour overseas and embellishing details to make the table erupt with laughter. I sat back and laughed too, as if I hadn’t lived it myself. He was a world-class storyteller. Born for it. In just the short time since we’d arrived, everyone had fallen for him, particularly my aunt whom he was meeting for the first time. I sensed in her a giddiness that often overtook me whenever I watched him hold court. It instilled an urgency to touch him to see if he was real. Far too often her hand landed atop his, or she would go out of her way to make sure he got his fill of every dish at the table, sometimes skipping over others in the process. I watched him scarf down more potatoes than I could count, and knew he’d be farty later.
We all stayed up pretty late, and he and my dad joined me outside in the cold autumn air for a couple of smokes. We star-gazed, standing on the raised deck and discussing the upcoming album, My dad expressed his sympathy that my songs wouldn’t be included. He cursed Shahid for blowing our chances. He then assured me there was always next year, and I appeased him by agreeing. After midnight I was ready to call it a night. I let Haz take the guest room on the first floor, and I decided to sleep on the air mattress in the attic. But when the house was asleep, I snuck down to join him. If was creepy as fuck up there alone, and I didn’t want to sleep with the light on all night to remedy that.
Doris Day’s “Secret Love” played on his phone as he held me under the covers, both of us freshly showered. I digested the moment, in shock of where we were and how we’d managed to be together in this way. If only my parents could see me now, they’d probably string me up outside and leave me hanging for the entire neighborhood to see how disgusting I was. The imaginary jeers became so palpable that I covered my ears, then flinched awake, only to see I had drifted. He was still awake, humming along to the tune. I bent my face up towards his and he kissed me tenderly.
“What were you dreaming about?”
“Of course,” he chuckled. I decided now was as good a time as any to let him know my thoughts.
“Hazza…” I sighed.
“I just wanted to say…youh don’t have to hold back anythin’ from me, alright?”
“What’s this about?”
“Y’know…I just mean in general?’
“What do you think I’m holding back?”
“A fuck ton.”
“So graciously put,” he snickered.
“I just sort of figured that since Rio, like, maybe you’ve been afraid to…sort of speak your mind. Am I wrong in thinkin’ that?” There was a long silence. I didn’t want to pressure him. This was an incredibly sensitive subject.
“Uh…shit mate. You just spring that on me now?”
“Sorry…” I huffed. “But I wanted youh to know.”
“I appreciate that, Z. I honestly do.” I began to doze against his heaving chest, but still tried to sound convincing.
“Youh don’t have to walk on eggshells around me, baby. I’ll never leave youh…”
“It really hurt me when she showed up in Brazil.”
“I know it did. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so embarrassed in my life. I almost died in that bathroom of embarrassment. Willing myself to vanish. Listening to you two talk on the other side of the door. It was fucking insane. I hear her come closer and I just dove out of the window without thinking. Scraped by the ledge till I got to the balcony, then I was out of there.”
“That was the sickest, dopest shit I ever saw, by the way. You’re like…Spiderman.” He laughed, then sobered and continued.
“I also didn’t like pretending to just be a mate at the hospital…when everything happened. They wouldn’t tell me anything.”
“I’m sorry, babe. I didn’t mean to put youh through that. That was heavy.”
“It’s not your fault. I just hate the way it is, that’s all.”
“We ever gonna talk about the eating disorder?”
“Noh…because it’s not an eatin’ disorder.”
“The doctor said it was…”
“What does he know?”
“Like…everything. He’s only a medical practitioner.”
“Yeah, but, he’s an ER doctor. He doesn’t know shit about me or my medical history. He’s just grasping at straws so he can cut a bill.”
“You’re incredibly cynical, mate.”
“I’ve got it under control Haz. I know what I’m doing. There’s a method to the madness, and even the hospital stay only helped drive home my point to those assholes.
“Sorry, Z, but I disagree. I think you’re a bit off on this one, and I think you’re—”
“Can we just drop it already?” I snapped, beginning to climb out of the bed. He pulled me back down by both hands, begging me not to leave.
Lying down beside him on my back, I took a deep breath and stared at the ceiling. He kissed my temple and promised he wouldn’t mentioned it anymore. Told me I was right about everything. That he was just being a nagging dickhead. Before I knew it, his hand was snaking beneath the blanket and feeling me out through my briefs. Tracing the curve of my cock. Pinching the soft head. The shock of him touching me this way beneath my mother’s sheets was alarmingly disturbing, but also tantalizingly wild. I spread my thighs with a gratified exhale, wincing when his freezing fingers slipped beneath to touch my bare flesh. My balls recoiled. He apologized and brought his hands to his face to warm them with his breath, getting me to help as well, before heading back down and gifting me a mind-blowing handjob that left me questioning whether or not I had locked the bedroom door.
Moments later I lay there basking in the physics-defying secrets of us. Sordid, unquenchable, propulsive desires. Like the dark energy driving the universe apart. His lips kept seeking out mine in the shadows, and I kissed him sightlessly before gathering the strength to tend to his pulsing cock. Warm and hardening in my dry palm. Collecting the drips from the leaky head with a swipe of my fingers. He audibly shuddered. He reached beneath the covers and encouraged me along, his larger hand covering mine, deepening my strokes and controlling my every move. Cursing me whenever I did something wrong.
I liked him showing me how he wanted to be touched. It was an unexpected turn-on. There was nothing sexier than him demanding for me to please him. I was a fool for this dude, ready to wake the whole house if it meant helping him bust the biggest nut of his life. I watched his face as my eyes adjusted to the moonlight spilling into the room, and his eyes were blissfully shut, his bottom lip caught between his teeth. Now both his hands encircled mine like a couple of slavedrivers, forcing me to work harder and faster and more brutally. When I lost control of the motion, I allowed him to lead. All I could do was moan and seek out his mouth for my own pleasure.
(Thanks for reading! ❤️)