The First and Last Kiss

He could see the other man waiting in his bedroom. It was a tantalising prospect. The honesty, the daring, the sheer illegality of the night-time encounter made the hairs on his arms stand up. He walked inside and reached behind him to close the door. His hand tightly gripped the handle.

Quader was jolted out of his dream in a not-entirely pleasant way. It was always unusual to be pulled out of deep sleep. The dream drive was not supposed to work that way. Barring the gentle waking up process that accompanied pre-dawn prayers, the only situation in which anyone would be woken up before morning was if there had been an emergency that involved an immediate evacuation. The first time it happened, he had panicked, grabbed his valuables and rushed out of his flat before realising that nothing life-threatening had occurred. He thought it was a glitch when it happened the second time, and again the third. By the fourth repetition, he had been prepared to go to the local council’s technician to lodge a complaint. Then he remembered how all the dreams started.

He could see the other man waiting in his bedroom.

He still shivered at the memory of the realisation. It was not, in hindsight, the most shocking thing he discovered about himself.  If anything, it provided an unexpected sense of clarity. His unshakeable comfort with bachelorhood made perfect sense, as did his instinctive dislike of the way his friends and family uncritically viewed romance. It was like someone had just pointed out that the puzzle piece he was looking for since he was at least thirteen was in the box all along; he just had to reach in deeper.

As it turned out, it was not a puzzle he really wanted to solve. Being a soft-spoken bachelor with no real interest in women was perhaps not the norm, but at least he would not be executed for such eccentricity. The same could not be said for homosexuality. The penal code of the Theocratic Republic of Islamic Bangladesh had no patience for such deviance. Old-world colonialism may have been a project of infidel expansion, but at least it got some of its values right – even though the punishment had been a lot less severe. The Theocracy’s constitution, now in its 150th year, made sure to rectify that and other lenient shortcomings.

There was some small comfort in knowing that the secret was safe with him. The Ministry of Acceptable Desire scrapped dream surveillance decades ago. Too expensive. Instead, the technology in everyone’s personal dream drive was upgraded; as soon as the subconscious entertained a single sinful thought, the dream would be changed. It was quick, it was efficient, and it was largely effective. Change the way the brain works when it is not being actively influenced, and the rest of the mind would follow. Indeed, there had been a sharp decline in hell-worthy behaviour since the change was implemented. Of course, there had been rumours that some dreams were strong enough to break through the programming, if they were repressed too often. But he had given that possibility no thought until he stopped to think about his unusual predicament.

He could see the other man waiting in his bedroom.

Quader unplugged himself from the dream drive. His subconscious had overwritten the machine’s failsafe a dozen or so times since he worked out what happened. Most nights, he would simply reorient himself and go back to bed. He would occasionally get up, absent-mindedly fiddle one of the religious books that every household had to own by order of the state, and plug himself back in. But this time was going to be different. This time, he was finally going to end his suffering.

As he prepared his breakfast hours before anyone else in the building would start getting ready for the day, he wondered, and not for the first time, whether he would back out of the plan when it really came down to it. He was not an especially bold individual. Suppressed natural inclinations aside, he was not even particularly rebellious. Even after he had come to terms with his sexuality, not once had he considered skipping communal prayer, forgoing the daily readings of scripture, or refusing to take part in the weekly donations to mosque charities. The books lining his shelves were all ecclesiastically orthodox and his professional life – as a proof-reader at one of the two state-approved newspapers in the city – saw no changes. His name was still on the list of people scheduled to make the pilgrimage to the holy land in three months’ time. Provided, of course, he made it that far, a caveat he noted with morbid humour.

Perhaps none of that mattered in the end. After all, there really was only one aspect of the official line on scriptural interpretation and its enshrinement in the nation’s laws that really made his existence a crime. Were it not for that definitive condemnation of his longing, he would have been a model citizen. Unfortunately, that idyllic life was too far removed from reality. And with that understanding, his resolve deepened. Regardless of how he would like things to be, he was already condemned. He may have maintained the utmost secrecy, but there was no denying that he wanted more. No amount of physical freedom could negate the fact that he was already imprisoned in a life where he was not able to be himself. After finishing his meal and cleaning his dishes, he made his way down to the main entrance of his building, hoping that he would not bump into any of his neighbours.

He had just opened the front door when a voice called out. “Quader Bhai! I did not know you had such an early shift.”

His hand still holding open the only exit, he looked over his shoulder and forced a casual and, hopefully, natural smile on to his face. “Assalamu Alaikum, Rafik Bhai, good to see you.”

“Wa Alaikum Assalam. I am surprised. You are not normally out of the building until eight o’clock,” came the response from the building’s superintendent, a friendly and unusually observant man on the cusp of retirement.

“I have an appointment. One of our journalists needs her piece read early as her chaperone is unavailable later in the day.” It was a believable excuse and keeping his ‘appointment’ anonymous would avoid needing a more intricate lie. Most people would not want further details; curiosity on the lives of strangers was unseemly and if the stranger was a woman, it was doubly so. Thankfully, such social conservatism worked on his interrogator.

“Ah, I understand. I should not keep you waiting then. Allah Hafiz.”

“Thank you. Allah Hafiz, Rafik Bhai.”

It was not raining but there was a slight chill in the air. Still, he decided not to risk public transportation and began the long walk towards his destination. He had never visited it before, but he had memorised the address and the directions with a level of diligence that would normally be reserved for young students learning to recite the full text of the Testimony of Faith by heart for the first time at the madrasah. The black text of the street names, written in both Arabic and Bengali (and English in the diplomatic quarter, though many complained about accommodating heretics), served a stark contrast to the plain white buildings surrounding him. They provided a useful reference point whenever he needed to double check his bearings.

He need not have bothered; his feet and his memory guided him, as if by some perverse preordained destiny, straight to his rendezvous without any hesitation. The house was nondescript, a single small floor in a residential neighbourhood that had once been the centre of long-forgotten polytheistic festivals in centuries past. Fitting that he had come to break his allegiances in a place such as this. Taking a deep breath, he knocked on the door, twice in quick succession then twice again, as instructed.

After a brief moment, the door creaked open and he was quickly ushered in. He followed his host through a narrow corridor, past two rooms that looked completely bare and into a small, windowless space that had a sliding door of its own. Only after this was shut did he trust himself to speak.

“I was not sure I came to the right place until you brought me in here. Our contact-”

“I don’t know who you mean by ‘contact’,” came the brusque interruption. “I don’t keep track of people who spread news of my services. Makes it easier to deny any connections if anyone is caught. No use asking my name either.”

“I hope you can still help me though.” Quader tried not to sound desperate. He was not entirely sure he succeeded.

“Depends on the nature of your query. Some people expect miracles. Not what I peddle in; that is the Theocracy’s job.”

“I keep having this dream but the system shuts it off. I want to see the rest of it. A man is waiting-”

“I don’t need details.”

Quader must have looked offended since his potential saviour smiled and continued.

“You misunderstand. I am not judging you – again, the Theocracy has a monopoly on that – and I am not going to deny you your wants just because some grand religious system deems it to be wrong. I just don’t need details.”

“I just felt like I needed to tell someone,” was all Quader could think to say. Someone to understand his nature, he wanted to add.

“None of my business. Now, do you have the money?”

Quader nodded and took out a manila envelope. It had not been difficult to take out such a large sum. When the bank staff asked for details, he truthfully said that he was scheduled for the next major pilgrimage, his lack of dissent coming in handy. A quick check confirmed his claim and his withdrawal had been approved with no further delays.

The other occupant of the room looked through the contents he had just been given before nodding and stepping out for a moment. When he came back, he was carrying a small parcel.

“There is a modified dream drive cable in here. It works like an extension. Plug it into the cable you already have on one end and use the other to connect yourself to the drive like you do every night. The signals will go through a filter and-”

“I don’t need details.”

The other man blinked, shrugged his shoulders and saw Quader out. The entire meeting had taken less than half an hour yet it felt like he had done a week’s worth of hard work. The day had not even really begun. Despite his impatience to try out his acquisition, he dutifully made his way to work. No need to raise any suspicions, especially as he would have to go to the three prayer slots during working hours to keep up appearances anyway.

After he had left work to attend the fifth and final evening prayers, he joined a steady stream of people heading in the same direction. Most of the crowd at this point were his fellow tenants, returning home just like him. None of them had any idea what he had planned for later. It almost felt surreal.

“Assalamu Alaikum Quader Bhai. Nice to see you again.”

It was Rafik, who had somehow managed to squeeze his way next to Quader on the last stretch of the journey back.

“Wa Alaikum Assalam. Yes, nice to see you too.”

“I hope your journalist explained why she never turned up in the morning. It must have been frustrating having to wait.”

Quader’s heart skipped a beat but he maintained an aura of dismissive calm. “I am not sure what you mean Rafik Bhai?”

“Oh, there was a parcel that came for you a while after you left. You would normally be in to receive it at that hour but you obviously had to go. It had a Ministry seal on it, something to do with the pilgrimage I am sure.”

“Indeed?” He was sure he was sweating now.

“Yes. Naturally, I did not want you to miss it so I took it over to your office. I told your receptionist that I was happy to wait until after your meeting but I was politely informed that no such appointment was on the books and that you had not arrived yet.”

“Oh, that. Yes, you see,” he clutched on to an excuse just as he clutched on to his other parcel, the one holding the key to his dreams, “I was told there was a scheduling error so I went out to get some fresh air and a quick bite to eat. No point in coming back home at that point.”

“That is what I thought had happened.” Rafik’s response was exactly what he wanted to hear. They had reached their flats just as the conversation came to a close.

“Allah Hafiz, Rafik Bhai.”

“Just a moment. Here, take this,” said Rafik as he held out the troublesome mail from the Ministry.

“Thank you.”

He was not sure if he was imagining it, but it felt like Rafik waited a little too long to reply. “Allah Hafiz, Quader Bhai. Enjoy your parcel.”

Quader did not look back again after that. After a quick meal, he tidied up and took out his contraband. He had been honest when he said he did not want any details, but there was a small part of him that could not help but admire the ingenuity that must be involved with making such a device. He plugged the cable in exactly as he had been told to and, his hands shaking with anticipation, he connected himself to the dream drive. Sleep overtook him…

He could see the other man waiting in his bedroom. It was a tantalising prospect. The honesty, the daring, the sheer illegality of the night-time encounter made the hairs on his arms stand up. He walked inside and reached behind him to close the door. His hand tightly gripped the handle. He closed it and walked further into his room.

The man had no discernible face. It was not that he was featureless; in fact, Quader was struck by his piercing eyes, his strong jawline, his almost comforting stubble. But they seemed to change from one moment to the next. Only his lips remained the same. Alluring and just out of reach.

The man held him with one hand while his other gently began to undress him. As he reached below Quader’s waist, the two leaned into each other, their lips finally touching. They kissed. All of eternity was wrapped up in that one moment of intimacy. It was quick and it lasted forever. It was rough and gentle, two bodies at war and in love at the same time.

He no longer felt different or unusual. Finally, he knew what it meant to love, to lust, to feel that human touch he had been longing for since the first time he had laid his eyes on his companion all those nights ago. Nights? Was it just mere nights? No, years, lifetimes, millennia had passed since his first encounter, waiting for the time this clandestine encounter would feel right again.

He embraced the other man and drifted away.

Quader woke up slowly this time. Things were different this time. He did not bother unplugging his new possession though he did take the time to throw away the packaging. The Ministry’s parcel lay unopened as he methodically made his breakfast.

He knew he had crossed an unspeakable barrier, never again to return to the land of refuge and salvation. When the knock came at his door an hour later, he was expecting it. Whether it was Rafik or his anonymous benefactor who informed the authorities did not matter to him. It was all over. As he opened the door, he smiled, the taste of his dream kiss etched into his mind. He was happy.


 

The author, Ibtisam Ahmed, works to decolonise histories of South Asia, including challenging legacies like Section 377 in his academic and activist work. He submitted this short story to the Commonwealth Short Story Contest but it was rejected due to its controversial themes.