Smiles and Simple Things

By, Safa Saifudeen (CSE 2012-16)


Summary: When you don’t have much, it’s the little things that matter.


What mattered to her was the way their breathing matched when they lay in bed together with their legs tangled, how a little squeeze of his fingers was enough to make her day, those silent conversations with their eyes when they were in crowded rooms. That was what mattered to her, the simple things that made her heart race. The moments that made her smile when she thought about them years later.

 Smiles and Simple Things

All she really needed was to see his face on the pillow next to hers when she woke up.

It was the simple things that she lived for. The times he would smile up at her when she woke him up with his morning tea, sitting together out on their tiny little balcony cradling their warm mugs, his light tea, hers bitter coffee.

She sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes, forcing them open. Sleep clouded her view of the framed memories that adorned the yellowing walls of their seventh floor apartment.

Today he woke up early. She shivered when he sat up and kissed her bare shoulder. She felt the pressure of his hand on her arm and turned to look at him. His eyes asked her if she was okay. Hers reassured him that she was. She got off the bed, pulled on a robe and went to the kitchen that was separated from their living room by a waist high counter.

She put a mug of water into the microwave while a glass of milk boiled on the stove. She would add barely half a spoon of tea powder to the milk and then a whole spoon of sugar. To the mug of hot water from the microwave, it was one full spoon of instant coffee powder and a tiny sprinkling of sugar, almost namesake. He always said he was fine with coffee, but she knew he liked it better this way. Maybe because it was a quiet reminder of home. Something familiar, something comforting. Three years worth of morning teas later, he still tried to persuade her that he was fine with just a coffee like hers. She would laugh and say that he couldn’t bullshit her, it had been over a decade since they first met. To that he’d smile, pull her close and say, ‘Man, we’re old.’ She would smile back and lightly kiss his lips.

Sometimes it ended there, sometimes it didn’t. She was fine with it either way. She knew it mattered to him so she made an effort to kiss him a little harder, hug him a little tighter. She didn’t fake it, just made an effort to express what she already felt. Little things to make him smile.

What mattered to her was the way their breathing matched when they lay in bed together with their legs tangled, how a little squeeze of his fingers was enough to make her day, those silent conversations with their eyes when they were in crowded rooms. That was what mattered to her, the simple things that made her heart race. The moments that made her smile when she thought about them years later.

She handed him his tea and made her way to the bathroom. She never understood how he drank his tea just out of bed. For her, it didn’t matter if her coffee was a little less piping hot in the few minutes that she took to brush. Today she stepped out to a cold coffee, a towel wrapped around her, hair dripping cold water. She put it back into the microwave while she untangled her hair by the small mirror hung by the bed.

Her head was full of other thoughts and she didn’t notice him making his way to the bathroom or the microwave ping-ing to announce her now twice heated coffee.

“Your coffee is cold again,” he said, taking it out of the microwave, “Do I reheat it?”

“Screw it.” She reached over and took the mug from him. He picked up another towel from a chair and messed up her hair. She let him dry it, though she’d have to untangle all over again. “You’ll catch a cold, you idiot.”

“No I won’t.”

“Sure… Yuck. How can you drink cold black coffee..?”

“Used to it. Electricity doesn’t come cheap.”

He went down to get the bike while she locked up. Not that there was anything precious to lock up in their tiny apartment. Broken dreams of a better place flashed in her mind for a second. She didn’t push them away. They didn’t bother her.

The elevator was out of order. It didn’t matter. Morning exercise, she’d joke.

The only thing of any value that they owned was the motorbike. He had suggested that they buy a scooter; none of the women here drove bikes. She hadn’t said anything then, but he knew what the silence meant.

Riding pillion gave her terrible back pain. But she let him drive her around sometimes; it made him feel like he was taking care of her and not the other was around. It made him smile.

She lived for that smile. So she climbed on behind him, hanging his backpack on her back, putting hers between them, and making a silent promise to her aching back that she would drive on the way back.

She hardly noticed the looks people gave them anymore. He still did sometimes. She remembered that time he wouldn’t turn around to face her, one night in bed. She had got up and walked over to his side and knelt on the floor, her face inches away from his. She knew what it was that upset him the second she saw the tear tracks on his face that he hurriedly tried to hide. She held his face and hugged him and told him everything would be okay. Little white lies.

He knew they were lies to comfort him. He had done it plenty of times himself. Initially she had cried a lot. Then maybe indifference or dehydration, something crept in and she stopped. He hadn’t ever let it out. So it still upset him sometimes.

That nice lady at the shop was nice to her only when nobody else was around. She found it funny. About half the people around their age were okay with it. The rest of them along with the rest of the population of the so-called-city that they lived in still frowned upon an unmarried couple living together, especially since they were both of different communities.

At work they pretended not to know each other though everyone knew. Most people were too polite to ask. But office gossip can be vicious, people found plenty to talk about even if they barely acknowledged each other at work. The truth was out after a while. For a day nobody could shut up about that unmarried couple living together but the next day it was dismissed as a rumor. Maybe they were siblings, they spoke so similar. Maybe they were secret agents. Who gave a fuck anyway?

They had a few close friends that they held on to. A few from school, a few from university. In any case, their friends kept them sane. After long weeks at work when the exhaustion made the idea of sleeping on the same bed nauseating, a few words from old friends kept them crawling into bed to find from each other the warmth that they didn’t realize they had missed so much.

Of family, she had more than he did. Both their parents had reacted equally badly to what they had to say, three years ago. But since about a year ago, her brother began to call up regularly, even visiting their run-down apartment once. Sometimes she spoke to her mother, rarely to her father, but it was more than what he had. He didn’t have siblings so there wasn’t anyone who could play peacemaker. She was all he had. So she promised the person she saw in the mirror every morning that she would do everything to keep him happy.

Except get married. She felt everything would lose its meaning once they were married. She couldn’t explain it if anyone asked but that was just how it was. She felt that their little secrets and inside jokes would all just become meaningless and get sucked into an enormous black hole if they did become man and wife.

Sometimes on their way back from work they would stop by the beach. Sit in the sand, scooping ice cream with little spoons from a shared plastic cup. Stolen kisses and ice creamy bits. Other times they would walk along the beach, waves lapping at their feet, holding their shoes in one hand, holding hands once in a while with the other.

Sometimes when it rained they would climb up onto the terrace of their building. Sit there, dangling their feet off the side, looking at the people in buildings nearby. Sometimes she put her head on his shoulder; sometimes he put his on her lap. Both were equally comforting to her. To be protected and to have someone to protect.

Twenty minutes of toweling each other’s hair dry, another ten to shower and change into shorts and t-shirts that they would unceremoniously throw on the floor a little later. They sat down cross legged on the floor to feast on dinner, usually rice leftovers from lunch and meat from yesterday and sandwich vegetables from the morning all fried together and thrown into a bowl to make a special sort of yummy bokkeum bap that they had grown to love. She made it best, it tasted like nothing when he tried, so if she wasn’t feeling well, he made soup and sometimes fried eggs.

Then they got into bed, under the sheets, with the laptop if they felt like smashing virtual things or with books if they didn’t want to talk or sometimes nothing, if they wanted to just be together.

He always fell asleep first, leaving her to battle with her insomnia. He used to try to sit it out with her but that ended with neither of them sleeping till five in the morning. She watched his chest rise and fall with his every breath and stroked his face, feeling the grainy roughness of his chin against her skin. He coughed and she got up, stepping over the shorts and t-shirts they had changed into earlier, to get the comforter from where it had fallen on the floor and covered him with it. He had never liked the cold. If he had been awake he would have protested against her cold fingers accidentally brushing the bare skin on his arms and chest while she tucked him in.

Love was a crazy thing. It made you feel things you had no idea you were capable of feeling, it made you do things you never thought you would. It made you learn things about yourself you never knew before.

In a few years they would get married. A year after that they would move into a bigger apartment to make room for the addition into their family, the one that promised dirty diapers and wailing though the nights. In another ten years, one day when their elder son was in school and their younger daughter in playschool, they both would drive to their old apartment in the bike they still kept, where they had started out, where the elevator was still out of order. They would climb up onto the rooftop and talk about whether or not they should buy a villa, more room for the children.

Time flies and it’s been another ten years. They didn’t have to worry about the electricity prices any more. One morning when their daughter tells them she has a boyfriend, she reminds him (and their elder son) that the news does not warrant a death sentence. That night she would cry, she would wish her own mother had been that way.

They’d still find time for strolls by the beach, and ice cream in the sand. She still had her insomnia; he still didn’t like the cold. She still made both coffee and tea in the morning, her son liked the bitter coffee with a spoonful of sugar and her daughter liked tea, ‘the way daddy likes it.’ He still tried to convince her that he liked bitter coffee.

But all that was to happen years later, she didn’t know, neither did she care about the future at that point.

With the little bit of moonlight filtering through the crack in the shut curtains she realized that this was what she lived for. All she really needed was to see his face on the pillow next to hers just before she went to sleep. It made her smile.

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