Love in the Time of Corona

K. Raheen

April 10th, 2020 A pile of books. A bouquet of daisies. The fluttering of wings. Roshni looks out their window and watches the butterflies flutter through the leaves in the warm afternoon light, their heavy heart wishing to be able to fly away too. A sigh escapes them, as they try to focus their attention back to the story they have been working on. “Fuck this shit,” they mutter in frustration and slam their laptop shut. Grabbing the pack of cigarettes hidden in the drawer of their nightstand, they go to their balcony and light one up. Instantaneously, they feel a little calmer and attempt to brainstorm ideas for the story they are to write for their Creative Writing Course. Sadly, as hard as they try to think and come up with ideas, their creative side seems to fail them. Nothing comes to their mind, except the thoughts of 

Rahim, their best friend whom they haven’t seen in a while now. Annoyed with themself, Roshni flicks the cigarette butt out of the balcony and curses their own self. All they want to do right now is drive over to Rahim’s place and fall into his arms and weep, but the cursed lockdown won’t allow that to happen. Nearly two months into lockdown has left Roshni feeling wound up and restless, and all the uncertainty and turmoil, has been making their mind a living hell. Their mind keeps obsessing over all the horrible things that have happened, things that are happening, and things that will happen, despite their desperate attempts to keep themselves from overthinking. April 11, 2020 The smell of rain. The sight of lightning. The clang of thunder. No matter how hard he tries to focus on the story he has been wanting to write for a while now, his mind keeps wandering off. Sighing, Hassan gets up off the bed and glances at the sketch of the ornate butterfly hanging above his desk, thinking of the artist who had drawn him the simple yet mesmerizing piece of art. Amir is such a talented artist, Hassan thinks in awe, but as the memory of the last time he had seen him flashes through his mind for the umpteenth time Hassan’s eyes water up. The image of Amir, unconscious, lying on a hospital bed with IVs stuck to his arms while a machine monitored his battered heart rate, is a memory that keeps popping up in Hassan’s mind over and over, despite his constant attempts to forget it. He’s alive and healthy now, he keeps telling himself again and again, and yet he doesn’t know why the thought of Amir still brings him such pain. Amir, the boy who fought to die and yet lived, is one of Hassan’s oldest friends and the one person in the world Hassan has ever been in love with. The swirl of smoke. A pile of clothes. A blast of music.

“Rahim,” a loud yell reverberates throughout the empty house, shaking Rahim out of his reverie. He looks up from his laptop as Hassan walks into his room, looking more annoyed than usual. “What’s up?” he asks, clearly irritated at being interrupted from daydreaming. “You left all your dishes in the sink and didn’t even let them soak,” Hassan tartly replies. “Oh.” “Oh? Seriously, Rahim? How many times do I have to remind you that we no longer have the luxury of having a maid come in and clean up after us, that we have to do all the chores ourselves till the lockdown ends?” Hassan angrily asks. “I am sorry, man. I was going to do them, then I got caught up writing this story for one of my classes. I will do them as soon as I am done with the first couple pages, I promise.” “Be sure to remember, I am tired of cleaning up after you,” Hassan retorts as he walks away, slamming the door shut behind him. “Good god,” Rahim mutters to himself, feeling a pang of annoyance at his roommate’s recent tantrums. How am I going to get through this lockdown with my sanity intact if Hassan becomes more and more difficult every day? he wonders. To get rid of this annoying feeling he does what he always does, grabs his astray and lights a cigarette, letting the smoke swirl through the room. Inhaling deeply, he picks up the book he has been trying to read, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera,’ a gift from Roshni. The sight of the origami butterfly bookmark, that Roshni had painstakingly made for him, at the corner of the page he was at, makes him smile. The thought of Roshni always has this uncanny way of making him feel better, sweet, and caring Roshni, the one person in the world he knows he can always count on. His phone beeps, he looks down to see a text reading: “I miss you, baal.” “I was just literally thinking of you,” he replies back. “Were you now?” “Would I ever lie to you?” 

“Maybe. xD” “Really, Rosh?” “You know I am kidding, Ra. And, and miss me? xD” “You know I do. More than I miss the outside or anyone else.” “Lies.” “Shotti,” it’s the truth. “Then how come you have been mia for the past week?” “Ah.” “What ‘ah?’” “Nothing, just binging on one show after another and sleeping.” “So nothing you don’t normally do. :3” “ xD” “ How is apu – sister, and your parents ?” “They are well, I mean that is what they tell me. But I think apu is kinda bummed that she can’t get married next month.” “I would be bummed too if that happened to me.” “Here I thought you didn’t want to get married.” “I don’t, I am just saying if I had plans to marry but then couldn’t because of a deadly virus, I would be upset too, ya get me?” They continue texting each other for a while, which makes Rahim feel calmer and glad to have Roshni as his best friend. April 14th, 2020 As soon as they are awake, Roshni rushes out of their room and gives their younger sister a tight hug, yelling out “Shubho Noboborsho,” – happy new year. “You seem chirpy given that you can’t go out to celebrate,” their dad says walking into the dining room. “I know, I just don’t want to let corona take boishakh away from us too. So what that we can’t go out and attend any mela -fairs and meet up with friends? Boishakh isn’t just about that, it’s about welcoming a new year with hope and love, isn’t that what you always tell us Baba?” “It is and I am glad you’re finally listening to me.” “I always listen to you.”

“Uh-huh.” “What?” “Kichuna -nothing. So what are you planning for today?” “Ah that is a surprise, but do wear a Panjabi for lunch, and Raheen you wear something traditional too, okay?” “Okay Roshni!” their 5-year-old sister excitedly yells out. After two hours of frantically running around and cooking, Roshni, satisfied with their creation, finally decides to dress up. Though they are not that big a fan of “dolling up,” at times they do enjoy wearing something other than an oversized t-shirt and jeans. Their favorite formal attire is hands down their midnight blue pantsuit with a white top, but sharees are a close second. Adorning a gorgeous crimson sharee, they walk out of their room looking as lovely as a rose. “Baba, Raheen lunch is ready,” they call out while setting up the table. Looking at the earthenware dishes which are only used for Boishakh, Roshni freezes as a wave of sadness washes over them, bringing forth the memories of Boishakh with their mother. “You okay, hun?” Baba gently asks, walking in behind them. “Yeah, I just, I just miss maa. She loved Boishakh and all its traditions.” “I know sweetie, I miss her too. But you know she wouldn’t want you to be sad on Boishakh right? Especially after you made her favorite dishes.” Roshni wraps their arms around their father and buries their head in his chest, an action that always helps calm them down. “Always remember Rosh,” Baba says, patting their head, “those we love never truly leave us.” May 15th, 2020 Finally done with all their chores, Roshni sits back on their bed and picks up their phone to check the time, restless for the clock to strike 8. Every night at 8, Roshni and a group of their friends, “The Mob”, have a virtual hangout and watch movies, a daily ritual that 

has helped Roshni retain their sanity. What will I do without them? they wonder, feeling lucky to have a group of friends who have been there for them since high-school. Their phone vibrates, a new text in the “The Mob” chat. They click on the notification and when they see the text their heart begins to constrict. The text, sent by Sayem, reads: “this is hilarious” with a meme that read “one more gender was added to the list, I am now a helicopter!” Before Rosh could gather their thoughts, another text pops up in the chat, “Wanna explain why this is funny?” Rahim writes. “Because the libs have taken things too far. I mean what the fuck is non-binary, you’re either a man or a woman or at most a hijra, the rest are all just these libtards asking for attention,” Sayem replies instantaneously. Roshni leans back, struggling to breathe. They had always known that their childhood friend Sayem had some problematic views, and they did their best to inform him. Last time, they had an argument about homosexuality, but Roshni had thought that they had finally been able to help him be less homophobic, and wanted to give him some time to come around to accepting Roshni’s sexual identity, though they did refrain from opening up to him about their gender identity – which they had disclosed to few close friends only. However, seeing those texts just made them immensely sad as they realize that he is never going to change his mind or be accepting of anyone from the LGBTQ+ community. As Rahim and Sayem continue to argue in the group chat, Roshni collects their thoughts and texts five words, words which will come to wreak havoc in her life, “I identify as genderqueer.” Three hours, several arguments, and two heartbreaks later, Roshni sits on their bed rethinking everything they had ever believed about friendships. How could someone be so close to you for so long and then abandon 

you when you don’t meet their standard of normal? they wonder. This hasn’t been the first time they lost someone they were friends with because of who they are, but this has been the first time they lost more than one close friend at once, and this time the hurt they are feeling was all-consuming. May 25th, 2020 He wakes from his recurring nightmare again, covered in cold sweats and with his heart beating a thousand miles an hour. I don’t know how many more of these I can handle. He sighs and checks his phone for the time, 3 am. Previously, at this hour the members of “The Mob” would be smack down in the middle of playing Call of Duty, but since the other day things have died down. He still can’t believe Sayem’s texts and everything else that followed. Roshni has been constantly on his mind, and he feels awful that he hasn’t been able to see them in person, but at least they still get to watch movies together from time to time. What happened shattered Rahim’s heart too, not just Roshni’s. The hatred, the discrimination, – the reality of not being straight in a deeply homophobic country has always affected Rahim, though he had only recently come to terms with his own sexual orientation. But seeing his close childhood friends refuse to respect Rosh’s identity, refuse to understand her, and outright insult her, has made him feel like he can never open up as bi even to people he calls close friends, and that makes him feel immensely hollow. As if it wasn’t bad enough that I knew my parents would never accept me if I date a man, as if it wasn’t bad enough that I could never publicly come out, now I know that I have to hide that part of me from most people I am friends with. I really wish I was as brave as Rosh, who is always so bold and proud of her identity, refusing to take anyone’s bullshit. I really wish there was something we could do to make being LGBTQ+ here even a little more tolerable, with these thoughts floating in his mind, he slowly drifts back to sleep.

June 20th, 2020 Over a month has passed since that dreadful incident and Roshni feels like their life has been turned upside down. There are no more movie nights, no more playing games with them till the break of dawn, “The Mob” was no more, and without that lockdown has grown even more unbearable. If there is anything they feel thankful for regarding that incident, it is that at least they now know who their real friends are. Rahim, predictably, stood up for Roshni, so did Sarah and Nadia, and Roshni is truly glad to have them in their life. Now, most of her close friends were either a part of the LGBTQ+ community or allies. But it did break their heart to see Mahir and Said take Sayem’s side, and tell them that Roshni was the one who was overreacting by saying that they no longer wanted Sayem in their life. What got on their nerve more was seeing Iffat trying to remain neutral in this instance, Roshni really doesn’t understand how someone can be bisexual and still be okay with people who were insulting towards her queer friend. The clock strikes eight and fills Roshni with an overwhelming sadness that seems to be drowning them. They have been feeling a little lost lately, but they have realized that they can no longer put up with the disrespect or erasure of their identity, no matter how much the person insulting them once meant to them. A few days ago they wrote a short excerpt as they continued to try and accept the situation, “You know what’s sad? Choosing to leave when you don’t really want to. At times, love isn’t enough to keep a relationship alive. If they can’t respect you for who you are, if they can’t accept you for who you are, if they invalidate your sexual orientation or gender then how do you continue to put up with such disrespect, such erasure of your identity? Why are you even expected to stay? ‘You can’t break up a friendship over politics,’ they always say, little do they realize that what’s politics to them is sheer reality to me.

You can sip your tea in peace and discuss whether being gay is an option, discuss whether LGBTQI+ people are sinners, condemn us to a life of suppression, and debate about our right to live. This doesn’t impact you, it’s just another topic to discuss, another group to hate on. And you expect us to let you continue with your hatred, with your disrespect, we are hostage to your kindness, – the kindness that allows us to exist in the same social circle as you. If we dare to ever speak up, ask for basic respect, ask you to acknowledge that we exist and that we are real, we are the one being hysterical, the one overreacting. And if we simply leave, we are the one who doesn’t know how to coexist, we are the one asking for too much.” July 2nd, 2020 They sit on the balcony, a lit joint in their hand, as a gentle summer breeze blows by, tousling their short hair, Their phone rings, “Hey you,” they warmly greet, picking up the call, “Hey,” replies Rahim from the other side. “You sound down, are you okay?” “I…I don’t know.” “What happened?” “I don’t know, I just feel like shit” “I am sorry dost. Is there anything specific bothering you or just feeling like shit in general?” “I don’t know. I feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and pretty isolated.” “I get that. With everything that has been going on, I don’t know how else to feel either.” “Yeah. But it’s not just that, Rosh.” “If you want to, tell me what else has been bothering you.” “A childhood friend of mine killed themself yesterday.” “I am so sorry, Ra. That is awful. I hope they rest in peace.” “I do too. They were such a bright and lovely person,” Rahim replies, his voice cracking. “They deserved better than to have been born into a country that never accepted them for who they are.

For years they had to put up with their shitty parents because they couldn’t afford to move out. But they couldn’t anymore. Their parent tried to force them into an institution for gay-conversation therapy, and they…” unable to complete the sentence, he breaks down in tears. “Fuck Ra. Fuck.” Rosh says, gulping for air, their room slowly seemed to be closing in on them. They have always struggled with the sheer reality of being queer in a world that is so intent on casting you out, so intent on hating you, and recent incidents have not made it any easier. Roshni balls their left hand into a fist in anger and frustration, their long nails digging into their palm. “I just feel so tired, I keep wondering about the world we are living in now,” Rahim softly says. “It feels like we are living in an episode of Black Mirror, or a dystopian novel or maybe the 1800s.” “Everything just feels so ugh.” “I know. Sometimes, when everything begins to feel like too much I just want to scream my lungs out.” “I feel you. As if life wasn’t shitty enough before, 2020 had to make things even worse.” “I know, it’s all too much.” “I don’t know what to do, Rosh, or how to feel.” “I know, me neither, but do you think it’d help to talk to your therapist? I can’t begin to imagine how badly all these have been impacting your depression.” “Yeah, they haven’t been helping me keep my sanity intact. But online therapy sessions aren’t the same Ro, and thanks to corona money have been a little tight and I feel guilty spending so much money on an hour-long call.” “I get that Ra. But there is nothing to feel guilty about spending money on your mental health, and I am sorry about the financial situation, it hasn’t been that easy for us either. I just want you to know that I am always here for you, okay?” “I love you.” “Love you too, always.” “Always.”

July 20th, 2020 He left his dishes in the sink. Again. What am I gonna do with him? With anger and resentment writhing inside him, Hassan approaches Rahim’s door. He is about to barge in when he stops in his tracks. Is he crying? He gently knocks on the door, but there is no reply. He slowly opens the door and walks into the room that is as dark as a cave. “Rahim?” he asks gently. “Hassan?” replies a wary, tearful voice. “Yes, it’s me, dost, what’s wrong?” Hassan, in the six months that he has been living with Rahim, has never seen him in such a state, and as much as Rahim gets on his nerves he couldn’t bear the pain in his voice. “Have you seen the news?” “Not yet. What happened?” “They hacked another LGBTQ+ blogger to death. He was a close mentor of mine.” “Fuck” “Yeah.” “I don’t know what to say,” he quietly says, as his mind tries to take in the information. Fear and anger and resentment begin to boil within him. “There is nothing you can say. There is nothing anyone can say or do. I feel so hopeless, life just feels too long.” “Rahim…,” Hassan gently says, as he begins to fathom Rahim’s despair. I never thought Rahim was someone who felt so deeply, especially for the plight of people like me. “Do you want me to get you anything?” Hassan asks with concern. “No, I am good.” “Want me to stay here with you?” “Would you?” “Of course.” 

July 25th, 2020 He emerges out of the bathroom, with unkempt hair and stubbles on his face, and falls right back into bed. I want to sleep. I just want to sleep. “Rahim, get up. You haven’t eaten anything in two days, you have got to eat something,” Hassan commands walking into the room. The past few days have been a really low point for Rahim, but Hassan has been an unexpected blessing that Rahim feels truly thankful for. “I don’t want to eat.” “Do you want me to call Roshni and have her yell at you to eat?” “No.” “Then just eat. Aunty will hate it when she sees that her son is as thin as a stick. So eat.” “I don’t think my mother cares either way if I live or die.” “What? Of course, she cares. No mother ever stops caring for their child. ” Hassan says, even though his first-hand experience has made him realize that that’s not always true. “You don’t know my mother,” Rahim says with a rueful grin. “I am sorry,” Hassan softly says and reaches his hand out and gently pats Rahim’s hands. “Toxic parents just feel like our birthright.” “Yeah, it does. I just really wish people would stop having kids if they can’t accept their kids growing up to be different than their expectations.” “Me too,” says Hassan as he sits down on the bed beside Rahim and softly caresses his hair, his heart suddenly beating a hundred miles an hour. July 30th, 2020 They glance at the screen, hoping to see a text from Rahim, only to be disappointed. They have slowly been getting used to things being different with the old group, it has been difficult but Nadia and Sarah’s constant support has been an immense help. But they

missed Rahim, and everything that has been happening around the world and in Bangladesh has been getting to them too, and they just wished to discuss all these with their best friend. But it has been two days since they last heard from him and since then they have been worried sick. Wishing to be able to physically be there for him, they text Hassan, “Did he eat anything?” “I got him to eat some noodles, but that’s it,” comes the reply. “I wish there was something I could do, or say. You’d think I would know what to say given that I have been through something similar, but in times like this there is never anything helpful to say, is there?” “I guess not. But hey, he knows you are there for him and that helps.” “I hope it does.” “How are you?” “Damn, I don’t remember the last time I thought about how I am.” “Is that good or bad?” “I don’t know. Both I guess. I have been keeping myself busy to keep myself from spiraling down, so I guess it’s good that I haven’t yet, but it’s bad in the sense that I might lose it at any moment.” August 2nd, 2020 “You ready?” Hassan gently asks. “Yeah. Are you sure you want to go with me?” Rahim asks, for the hundredth time. “Once again, the answer is yes. If you ask me that one more time, I will assume you don’t want me to go.” “No… I just… it’ll be nice to have a friend there.” They take their bags and head towards the bus station, both wearing masks and gloves. The traffic lights glisten amidst the halfempty roads, while an eerie silence lingers in the air. The lack of people on the streets, the lack of traffic jams, all just feels surreal to Hassan. As difficult as things have been, he has been able to cope 

with everything and Rahim’s friendship and presence has been a welcome blessing. From time to time thoughts of Amir still floods his mind, but the intensity has died down, and he’s getting used to their new friendship dynamics. As random thoughts float through his mind, Hassan glances at Rahim, sitting in the cab beside him, and feels a stab of pain in his chest. He can’t begin to imagine what Rahim is going through, but he wants to just take all his pain away. He reaches out his hand and grabs Rahim’s, squeezing it softly, half expecting him to snap his hand away. August 2nd, 2020 He feels Hassan’s hand grab his, and a warm feeling spreads through him. He encircles Hassan’s hand, their fingers intertwined. Even in a time as dark as this, Hassan’s presence provides Rahim with comfort and helps keep the demons at bay. He feels glad to have discovered this kinder side of Hassan. I don’t know what I’d have done if Hassan hadn’t been there for me. “We are here,” Hassan’s voice brings him back to reality. “The bus leaves at 10:30 right?” “Yeah. I hope it’ll depart on time.” They descend from the cab and grabbing their bags they head towards the counter. As they enter the counter, a soft voice greets them from behind. “Hey,” Rahim quickly looks around and finds himself staring at a maskclad person. “Rosh?!” he asks, dumbfounded. “What are you doing here?” “I came by just to see you.” “You didn’t have to.” “Yes, I did. I wish I could go with you but I see you’re in good hands,” they say, glancing towards Hassan. “Hey, Roshni,” Hassan says in greeting, to which Roshni replies with a smile. “Before I forget, I made you guys some snacks to eat on the bus,

so don’t eat anything from any vendors,” they say, handing them a tupperware box filled to the brim with food. “Thanks, Rosh,” Rahim replies affectionately. “I hope the memorial service does him justice.” “I do too.” August 30th, 2020 Rahim and Hassan’s journey to Chittagong for the memorial service brought them closer than they ever could have imagined. On the way back, Rahim found himself coming out to Hassan and was delightfully surprised when Hassan confided that he was gay. As he lay his head on Hassan’s shoulders, trying to get some sleep in a very rocky bus, a warm feeling came over him. Nowadays, every time he is near Hassan that warm glow seems to envelop his heart. Before he could realize what was happening, he found himself craving to spend more time with his roommate. He has never felt that way about another man before, and it takes him some time to sort out his feelings and realize what his heart yearns for. Feeling too shy to talk about all the confusing emotions he had been experiencing, Rahim refrains from telling Roshni about this, though they have now been virtually joining him and Hassan almost regularly to watch movies and the trio has gotten pretty close. They have become one another’s support system, and that has provided them with the strength to tackle whatever life throws at them. They often try to brainstorm in order to find ways to somehow help the queer community in Bangladesh, though it mostly results in disappointment and desolation. One thing they have come to realize is the significant need for a safe queer space in Bangladesh. And after much deliberation, they began to think and plan for a virtual safe space for the queer community where everyone can support each other, share with one another and share memes and bond. The concern for safety has made them be very cautious and careful in figuring the logistics of how these will work. But they, after a long time are feeling hopeful and their heart has begun to feel lighter too.

September 3rd, 2020 Hassan feels a little jittery as he is forced to sit inside his room, Rahim won’t let him out for the next ten minutes. Spending time with Rahim has been nice, but also hard at the same time. Sometimes, when he lays his head on Hassan’s shoulder a whiff of his shampoo drifts towards him making Hassan’s heart beats as fast as a bullet train. He never thought that after Amir, he could ever feel anything for anyone again, but then Rahim came along and somehow his heart began to flutter once more. “You can come out now,” Rahim yells from outside the room. “Alright, coming,” he says, baffled at what Rahim was trying to do. As soon as he emerges out of the room he is showered by a bouquet of balloons, as Rahim yells out “Happy Birthday!” “Oh my god!” Hassan yelps, wide-eyed, and totally taken aback, “how did you know?” “Rosh did some digging,” “Happy Birthday Haas,” Rosh screams from a small screen, “I gotta go, there’s a virtual game night I’m supposed to host for the “Queer Beers,” you two have fun! And join us when you can! Love you both!” “Love you too,” Hassan and Rahim’s synchronized voices chime. “You didn’t have to do all this, Ra,” Hassan says as he takes in the warmly decorated room. Underneath the twinkling fairy lights, a beautiful rainbow cake sits on the table surrounded by beautifully lit candles. On a corner, beside some beautiful sunflowers in a vase – Hassan’s favorite, lays a box of presents. “It’s the least I could do, after all, it’s your birthday,” Rahim replies, warmth and love flickering in his eyes. A piece of soft piano-instrumental music begins to play, another of Hassan’s favorite things, and Rahim asks him for a dance. As they dance under the glimmering lights, their arms wrapped around each other, no words are needed for them to know how they feel towards each other.

First Published
First Queer Short Story Collection of Bangladesh

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