Mehreen Ahmed
"Sponge-grass"

            I stood on a patch of grass in the wetlands. I called it the sponge grass. If one were to step on it, the sponge-grass patch, typically, sprung up and down under one’s feet movement, not submerge completely. This porous patch of the drenched grass, as resilient as it was held up some promise of stability, but not a whole lot.

            Standing on it, I also watched birds through handheld binoculars at a distance. Today, I watched something spectacular—the rare ospreys. I almost thought they had disappeared from this part of the globe—the wetlands. Almost, they never flew in here at all. But here they were, today, alive and well.

            The ospreys helped my mood to turn around. I was on a downward trajectory in my writing career. My blues had reached their outer limits with all the rejections I’d received in one day. Doubts gnawed at me like termites. That perhaps I was deluding myself as a writer. Perhaps, I should leave writing with the more sophisticated minds, and be an astute reader in its stead—less stress and more enjoyment—win-win. This self-flagellation of despair was a trigger towards being a defeatist—a quitter, which I was not. 

            At a difficult moment like this, I met him. A random guy whom I dared to choose online from my friend’s list. That I was so bored, I wanted to do something—anything. It had all started with a song. I had recorded a song and sent it to him via messenger. The response was almost immediate. He sent me back one of his voice-recorded song clips but was deaf to the tune. By far, I at least sang in tune. I thought this exchange was funny listening to his off-tune songs which he sang so much in earnest to impress me, taking the trouble of recording and sending them through. 

 

            I took this in the spirit of a short-lived craze until the boredom was gone. A few exchanges of songs, what bad could come out of this? I took the liberty to trifle with him. At one point, I decided to end it. The sweetness was turning sour. I wrote to him THE END. Immediately, the phone rang. As I looked at the screen, his name came up. My heart skipped a beat. I did the most unusual thing. I took the call. I could feel some trepidation in his voice, too. It quivered. 

            He asked, “What did you mean, THE END?” 

            “It meant what it means, END of this? That we don’t sing to each other anymore. And no more contact.”

            “What? Why? Why did you even start it then? If I knew this was how it was going to end, I would not have sung at all. Your fault, you started this.”

            His words were ringing through like an incisive jab, as he blamed me squarely.

            “What do you want?” I asked him. “A few friendly exchanges of off-tune notes, not even proper singing. That’s all— and that’s all there is to it. ”

            He said, “No, there has to be more to it. These were not empty songs. These were love songs, and they meant a lot to me. They were interpreted as something more than just frivolous to me, as you put it. I want this relationship to deepen—I want to bind it further.”

            “You will not do any such thing?” I yelled. 

            “Just watch me,” he said.

           

            He hung up at that moment but sent through a bunch of poems that he had written over many years, complimenting on my looks, my eyes, my hands—and how beautiful I was. That he was already in a relationship with me. 

            Wait a minute? What relationship? Had he been stalking me all those years that he had been on my friends’ list? It appeared to me that given half a chance, he would start making love to me online. And the sexting had already ensued. This puzzled me a great deal, and I thought this surely was a scam. But he was relentless and did not back out. He continued to send me a deluge of off-tune songs again, but beautiful love poems written in a half-formed second language meant for me as he didn’t speak my language too well. I laughed at first and even tried to block him. 

           

            But the next day, I unblocked him thinking that he was probably right. It was all my fault—my stupid idea which led to this. I may have taken this as a game. But I should have thought this through before I embarked. I hadn’t thought of its consequences. But who knew it would end up like this? If only I had even a quarter of a notion of how this would affect him, I would not have indulged in this at all. However, could I trust him, though? 

            Trust—whatever was happening was all in songs and fantasy alone, not anyone’s lived experience. It was the fastest depleting value, anyway. This declaration of romance for me, could it be that he was faking it—all in the same spirit of jest? He texted me saying that he had been my online friend for seven years. But he never had the courage to speak to me. He had the maddest desire to live with me, make love to me, make me a part of him. He found me soft and sensitive and could not get over me—not today, not in a million years.

            Those words astounded me. How extraordinary? I tried to remember what he looked like. So much for friendship; I hardly even noticed his posts. He was a cold number on my list of friends as far as I was concerned. Nothing to rave about. And today, this? I started thinking about him. Suddenly, I began to take those poems, not his songs, more seriously. As I read through them one poem at a time, I felt I was being drawn into its musicality, its lyrics, as simultaneously as I was trying to block him. 

            They were beautiful. Even in those broken words. I realized that all of his poems were not about me, my looks, or his fascination with me. But about other girls too, who looked different to me. His passionate compliments of their fair looks, their blonde hair, and their perfumed bodies lit an ugly fire inside me—jealousy. There was a situation. It was getting out of hand, not the way I had intended to address my boredom by a long shot.

            I began to feel an alien emotion—a mad rush, surging within me. This man online did not even speak my language, only broken. One, whom I had ignored for seven long years. Now that I had actually looked at his pictures, I found him quite charming. The more I looked, the more I saw him—his innocence—his captivating smiles.

            Indeed. These rare desires seemed to have found a home in my heart. I tried to switch them off. I was mystified by how his gentle persuasions were affecting me. I was gradually slipping into his grips of some kind of magical power. This, I thought was totally not me. I blocked him again. And again, I unblocked him straightaway, and repeatedly until I decided that I was going to stop doing this—I missed him—I was actually missing him? How was this possible? Regardlessly, I had to see him, his pictures every day, and see the green button on top of my screen to know that he was logged in. That he was well and was writing poetry profusely. But, I couldn’t respond to his advances—the strange demands he made—the urgency of kissing him on his video calls; because making love online was not my feat, nor had I signed up for this. 

            What had begun as a childish prank to adjust my state of boredom transpired into this? When he insisted, coaxed in fact, trying to convince me with those romantic words which he executed so well, even half-formed to ignite arousal in me—a romance which had never been my forte, but was a rare emotion. No—nope—this wasn’t me. I had been beguiled. I argued and became determined to block him from my thoughts, at least. But his love poems kept coming through, slowly albeit regularly, overpowering me. 

            Those written words. “I have everything in my life except one thing, and that’s you. Do you not hear the sounds of my beating heart at all, the unspoken words of my soul? You’re my love. You’re the only one in my life. Kiss me. Kiss me, my love. No one likes me; they move away like waves. Am I not good-looking enough?”

            I felt a stir within me. I would have to be spectacularly stone-hearted otherwise if those words didn’t move me. Still, it was way too condescending for me to respond to this man whom I  had hardly known to violate my rules to make love to him online. I couldn’t trust him! That was it. My logic had finally kicked in!

            In the heart of it, this unresolved and un-relinquished burning sprinted through my heart. The more I nursed it, the more pronounced it became. But there was no other way around it. Why? I was charmed by the lyrics of his poetry, even though they didn’t mean much in my language, apart from its sweet sound, which had transformed meaningfully when translated into his own; I understood so well. Too well. Those poetic expressions sang in full tune; they were refined and profound, as I snared myself into those woven words. Until I had my back against the wall. 

            It made me forget that demise may be waiting in the offing. My emotions were raw and immature, his wasn’t—those words proved it. As I processed them more and more discretely, they made sense down to the last phoneme, I could forget-him-not. Was it really my fault? That I had opened a world of lyrical fantasy through this? Looking back on it now, perhaps it was, but fanning love certainly was not in the plan, strictly with a man online. Who was linguistically challenged in mine but sweet-tongued, in which he pursued this uncomely romance?

            I asked him if we could ever meet face to face? He was uncannily quiet for some time. I kept looking at the screen, thinking where are you now? Then came the bombshell. 

            “No, not really— never actually—I am married and I can’t leave my wife because she is disabled. Love never dies. I love you…I love only you. I don’t feel romance for anyone else.”

            How could I be so blind? Was I so wrapped up in these enchantments, like a sobby sponge that I allowed myself to plunge into this kind of non-reality? Distrust reared its ugly head. I thought, was there any exchange of love at all between us beyond the music and poetry across the two languages? Perhaps, it was all about the love of the words alone. Unlike his songs, his poetry was far too beautiful to ignore. Were those urgent love-filled video calls, pleading me to kiss him and to make love to him partly his poetic passions unlocking? Which might have been fine by him, I thought the next afternoon, as I stood in the same place? It should have been fine by me too. We were after all two lonesome, stale-mated hearts interlocked within the framework of an infinite stream of tune, upended. Conflicting, even stifling sometimes, I stood on an unnerving patch of the sponge grass on the edge of the great ospreys’ thriving breeding grounds, we stood on our own metaphorical ground.

            Just at that moment, when I felt some relief as to how I was in love with his poems only, not really him, his message came through. 

            He wrote. “I cannot get you out of my head.” 

            I read that and asked him if he had ever loved anyone else, online. There was a pause in his reply as I waited. 

            His short reply, “Yes.” 

            My immediate response was—“Did you make love to them too, online? How do you know so much about this stuff?” 

            He replied, “Yes” again. But I love you, I didn’t love them. I only made out with them, online. They were really good— “advanced” not like you, at all. Why? You said—you said, you hated it, no?” 

            “Indeed, I did. And will continue to do so.” 

            He wrote. “Still, I only want you, You’re the only one for me. You give me the energy to take care of my wife. You are the reason why I can do what I do, my muse too.” 

            I quickly logged out and continued to watch the birds of prey through the handheld binoculars. The sponge grass under my feet felt like a dull doormat.

            I shook myself and woke up from a trance I was drowning in. I made a decision, whether or not to help him or move away. I tried to block him, many times. But I couldn’t. Hence, I changed my tactics. I tried to focus on him instead of my emotions which were getting in the way. Clearly, I saw a desperate, young man in need of assurance; with low self-esteem because of body image; living with an invalid wife who starved him of sex. I felt I was finally getting a fuller picture. No, I couldn’t move away. I decided to support him. I told him that he was handsome, he was young, he had money, he had a cute smile and above all, he was a poet. 

            “Do you know what’s lacking, though?” he asked. “You—I don’t have you in my life. Your love, only your love can make me complete.”

            “I love you, too. Only, I can’t make love to you on cam. Can you understand that?”

            “You don’t love me at all,” he said and logged off.

            Seriously? How was I even going to make romance on the web, except in love songs? I felt naive and silly. His poems had already touched me. But I had to know that I could also keep my boundaries. How far was I going to go to help this man boost his confidence so he could get on with his life? There were all these questions jamming in my mind, in futility. I had to wait it out to find how far down the road this relationship was taking me, knowing that he had mated with many on the net. I texted my soul to him and he sexted it back. However, both were doing wonders for one another. That I found him attractive, I liked to see him grow. He was going to get his poetry book out on romantic poems. I flirted with the idea that I could be his dark lady.

 

            Six months had passed. He debuted his book of poems. He acknowledged me and his invalid wife. He had already crossed the boundaries in our relationship, for a long time; It was only me holding back. However, his success gave him access to others. It gave him a strange kind of high. Fans and young girls flocked around him, going crazy over his magical lyrics. He was beginning to distance himself from me. He called them gfs who were only too eager to make love to him online. 

            It was time to let him go. But I still couldn’t. My internal logic kicked in, again. What about his wife? Between them, I had acted as a catalyst by changing the complexion of that relationship? 

 

            No? In a ground-breaking resolve to instill courage into him, my resolve was gradually thinning. While he continued to make love to those gfs online—they were just “satisfying flings,” he said, while I was always in the center because I was his only true love. Music to my ears, I lay low like a dove in a pigeon-hole—lightning throbbed a heart behind the distant translucent clouds; it sparked the stuff of life, not a fancy.

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Multiple contests winner for short fiction, Mehreen Ahmed is an Australian novelist born in Bangladesh. Her historical fiction, The Pacifist, is a Drunken Druid's Editor's Choice. Gatherings was nominated for the James Tait Black Prize for fiction. Her flash fiction has been nominated for 3xbotN, Pushcart. Included in the Best Asian Speculative Fiction Anthology, her works have also been shortlisted, as finalists, and have received honorable mentions. She is critically acclaimed by Midwest Book Review, DD Magazine, and The Wild Atlantic Book Club to name a few. A reader for The Welkin Writing Prize, Five Minutes, a juror to the KM Anthru Award, and a featured writer on Flash Fiction North and Connotation Press, her short pieces have been reprinted and made it to the top 10 read on Impspired several times. Some of them have been translated into German, Greek, and Bangla.