And we all jumped together at the same time. All three of us – Joey, Rafi, and me – standing on the edge of the bridge, trembling, half-naked, hands gripped to the metal bars until our knuckles went white. Below us, the river flowed swiftly, and from the banks we heard the drone of the cicadas in the tall grass, that dull throbbing buzz that drowns out all other sounds. We had walked fast, barefoot on the hot pavement, past the hospital, down the hill to the bridge that crossed from one side of the river to the other. I don’t know whose idea it was, maybe mine, maybe nobody’s. We took off our shirts and climbed over the railing.
The summer had been long and hot and we three had spent most of our days roaming aimlessly along the almost-melting streets, laughing like hyenas as we glided on our bicycles through the thick humid air and basking in the sun’s damp glow until nightfall. We were teenagers, reckless and dumb; we chased and stole and hid out, and held roman candles in our hands, only to shoot them streaming at each other, instead of at the stars like we were supposed to.
It could have been any one of those endless summer days that I pedaled my bike out to Rafi’s house on the other side of the river, and together we rode back across the bridge into town. We had both turned fifteen that year, but already Rafi was bigger than I was. Not only bigger; he was slower, deeper somehow, a man in all the ways I wasn’t, and I envied him. Whenever I knocked on the door of his house, I could see the slouching shadow of his dark body through the stained glass window, the broad shoulders and thick hair; I heard his heavy steps as he lumbered down the hall, his deep voice calling to his mother in Pashto while I waited for her to open the door.
Rafi’s family had migrated to Quebec from Pakistan three years earlier, when Rafi was twelve. At first they had lived in Montreal, where a small tight-knit Pakistani community had set roots in the previous decades. But soon Rafi’s father – a doctor – was offered a position at a small hospital in the Eastern Townships, and the family took up residence in one of the few old houses that sat on the opposite shore of the slow wide river that elbowed through our town. When the teacher introduced young Rafi Abbasi to our grade-six class, Joey and I were already the outsiders, partly because we were geeks who played with Magic cards, but mostly because we were the only two anglos in an all-French school. Rafi himself spoke only broken French, so Joey and I jumped at the opportunity of serving as interpreters for him, instructing him on where to hang out, who to talk to, and how to mostly avoid humiliation.
Meanwhile, between card games and arm-wrestling matches, Rafi taught us about the world beyond our borders. We would listen to him in silent fascination as he described for us the mountain plains of his early years or the narrow winding streets of Peshawar, where his family had moved when he was ten. And he told us of Jalaa, the most beautiful girl in all the world. She had lived across the street from his family in Peshawar, and upon seeing her for the first time, Rafi had vowed in secret to marry her. He recited to us word for word the love poems he had sent her and showed us her bashful handwritten replies, with their obscure scripts and mysterious fragrances. They continued their correspondence to this day, he said, and every few months he would receive a letter from her – now neatly printed out in English – detailing her daily life and the progress of her education. It was in this way that they planned their eventual reunion. Jalaa hoped to migrate to Canada, but if that proved impossible, Rafi promised to return to Peshawar to build a life with her there. Under other circumstances, Joey and I might have mocked the story as a girlish fantasy, but something about Rafi’s calm devotion held us in awe of him. It was as if he were a portal not only into other geographies, but into a whole other spiritual realm; a hero in his own epic love story, one that took place in another time, and at a distance we couldn’t fathom. Over the next three years, we would often ask Rafi for news from Jalaa, and he always gladly obliged our curiosity.
The day we jumped from the bridge, Joey was waiting for Rafi and me in town. Joey had taken a summer job at the local sporting goods store, but that day he’d been let off early, and when Rafi and I rolled up on our bikes, he was slouching against a wall outside the store, smoking a cigarette and trying, as always, to look tough. He said he’d been waiting half an hour, asked where the hell we’d been, and punctuated his speech by spitting on the ground at our feet. We all laughed.
I don’t know whose idea it was, maybe mine, maybe nobody’s, but at some point we decided to bike back down to the bridge and jump off it into the river. Joey doubled up on Rafi’s bike and I followed close behind. When we got there, we leaned our bikes against a tree, slipped off our shoes and walked barefoot on the hot pavement to the middle of the bridge, where the water would be deepest. We took off our shirts and climbed over the railing. Standing on the bridge, trembling, half-naked, hands gripped to the metal bars until our knuckles went white. And we all jumped together, at the same time.
In the dark before dawn, I wake and don’t know where I am. For one chilling instant, I’m amnesiac. Then slowly, finally, pale memories arise from my half-sleeping mind and shed light on my surroundings. Opening my eyes, I can make out the faint edges of shadows: this is my room, and I’m alone. Outside my window, the mountains beyond Peshawar sketch a cragged line in the dark ashen sky. At last, I draw in a deep breath, and feel like my body is filled with substance.
Later, in the stark light of morning, I brew a pot of coffee and drink my first cup on an empty stomach. Then I wash myself with a cold wet cloth at the sink in the corner of my room and shave my face. As I drag the razor across my cheeks and breathe in the cold morning air, I hear the city begin to stir awake outside my window.
I’ve been in Pakistan six months, working on a British-sponsored bridge building project in the mountain region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where terror and severe flooding over the two previous monsoon seasons have devastated entire villages, destroying infrastructure and displacing millions of people. Our team was responsible – in partnership with local government – for installing twenty bridges in the Kabul river basin in order to connect villagers to nearby schools, markets and hospitals. The bailey-type bridges we provided were designed to be easily assembled and installed by a team of twenty men, and durable enough to resist regular traffic as well as heavy flooding. As a junior engineer, it was my job to provide training to local workers and to oversee the construction of support structures by local government.
I didn’t ask for the job. At least not explicitly. The project manager, Genevieve, knew of me by hearsay within our firm, knew that I had worked abroad before, and she sought me out for the position. For a field engineer, my situation was ideal: I was single, living alone, unattached, unmoored. I had a modest social life – the gym, the pub – but I was always careful to keep it separate from my private life. I tended to shy from human interactions, preferring to spend my time on work and study, areas I felt I could control. I had occasional intimate episodes with women, but I could never get comfortable, and I always ended up retreating from them back to safety and solitude. Maybe I knew all along the day would come when I would be sent to Pakistan, even though I had never hinted at any interest in the region, never mentioned anything about my old friend, or the fact that I had kept his memory hidden in the back of my mind these past twenty years. When Genevieve asked me to take on the bridge project, I said yes.
After putting on pants and a shirt, I toast a piece of dry roti on the gas burner and eat it with my second cup of coffee. Then, bundled in a heavy wool sweater, I shoulder my messenger’s bag with the letters inside and step out into the foggy streets of the city.
Every winter in Peshawar, as the cold air recedes into the mountains and daytime temperatures drop, warm and humid air sweeps in from the south and blankets the entire region in a thick white fog. The city is swallowed up whole by the pale sky and remains utterly veiled for several weeks. When I walk out of my apartment building, it is into this shrouded realm, where billowing fog floats up and down the streets in amorphous clouds, leaving the walls of houses wet and slick. As I make my way along the uneven road toward the edge of the city, I can see only the faint silhouettes of passers-by and the dim headlamps of trucks peering at me like so many sputtering phantoms.
I’ve had time to get accustomed to the rhythm of the city in the months since my arrival, but today I’m nervous, and every few blocks, I feel my bag for the two small stacks of envelopes inside tied together with twine: all the old letters, limp and frayed from reading, and the few others, the ones that never reached the hands of their intended, were never opened, never read. And beside these two stacks, one final unfinished letter. A single page, cut off mid-sentence: My dear eternal beloved…
I stole the letters from Rafi’s room that summer while everyone was gathered downstairs, shuffling their feet and speaking in hushed tones. They were in a shoebox under his bed, and I felt my heart heavy in my chest as I knelt and slid the box out from its hiding place. I opened it and ran my fingers along the stacked envelopes, remembering my friend’s words, the passion I had always secretly coveted. Then I closed the box and put it under my arm. As I turned to leave, I saw the unfinished letter on his desk under a pile of schoolbooks. I took it, folded it neatly and put it in the box with the others. Then I snuck down the stairs and into the hall, where I stuffed the box into my school bag. Only Joey saw me when I returned to my seat in the living room.
After that summer, Joey and I barely spoke to each other. We drifted apart, drawn by unseen eddies into separate social pools. I immersed myself in my studies, finding a special comfort in math and physics, in their constancy, their dependability. Meanwhile, Joey gravitated towards athletics. He spent countless hours in the gym after school lifting weights or running laps, trying to push his body to its breaking point. On the rare occasions we found ourselves face to face, we said almost nothing; the silence spoke for us, and we moved on to our separate lives. Years later when I was visiting home after university, I got drunk alone at a local bar and found out from another patron that Joey had joined the Armed Forces and served as an infantryman in Afghanistan. I asked the man if he knew where Joey was that night and he said he was probably home with his wife and kids at their trailer in the park on the edge of town. I paid for my last drink, walked to my car and began to drive. I remember now steering along the foggy dirt roads and pulling up outside number 7. I took the key out of the ignition and sat staring at the light in the window of the trailer for what must have been almost an hour. Then I started the car again and drove home.
Now, amid the murk of Peshawar’s winding streets, I walk with steady purpose as the cold air seeps through my clothes and brushes the skin of my back. At one intersection, I see a stray dog across the street pawing at a pile of garbage. The dog sees me and begins to trot along on the opposite sidewalk, keeping pace with my own strides, and occasionally shooting a glance over its shoulder into the fog behind us. Together, we cross the Ring Road on the southwest edge of the city, into the suburb of Hayatabad, and walk through the deserted Itwar Bazaar with its empty stalls leering like skeletons on either side of us. I begin to feel as if somehow the dog and I are kindred spirits – two wandering strays – but then it turns up a side street and disappears. I stop for a moment, alone in the fog, and close my eyes; in the distance, I hear the Fajr prayer echoing out from a loudspeaker.
And we all jumped together at the same time.
Except I hit the water last, didn’t I? I must have held on to the railing one second longer, jumped one second later. When I hit the water, the heel of my foot collided with the back of Rafi’s head, and he was thrust down with a violent jerk. When Joey and I burst forth from the river’s surface, panting like dogs, it was Joey who saw Rafi’s inert body, Joey who swam downstream after it, Joey who finally, after thrashing about against the current, dragged Rafi to shore. I merely floated, watching. And when I washed up further downstream, I ran away.
I open my eyes and walk a few more blocks before finally arriving at my destination: a plain house of brick and concrete, two storeys high, with pink-fruited spindle trees running along the wall and clumps of rosebushes on either side of a metal door painted bright blue. I pull one of the letters from my bag to make sure that I have the right address, and suddenly I’m struck by the futility of this whole endeavour: all the letters, all the bridges; all vain designs to try to span the gulf between present and past. I stand dumb in the cold, staring blankly at the old yellowing envelope, knowing all at once what a fool I am to have ever thought this would amount to anything, twenty years later. Twenty years, Jalaa, since the letters stopped coming. What becomes of a young girl in twenty years? What memories does she keep?
I hear a voice. There is an old man standing in sock feet in the doorway of the house, peering at me with an inquiring look on his bearded face. He’s asking me a question, but I haven’t learned the language, so I can only shake my head and shrug. I try to show him the name on the envelope in my hand, but he takes no notice of it. He simply nods and smiles, as if he were expecting me, puts his hand on my arm and pulls me into the house, talking all the while. He guides me gently into the lamp-lit front room, to a low table surrounded by cushions on the tile floor, where he sits and beckons me to take a seat across from him. I hesitate for a moment, standing in the doorway, certain that I’ve made a mistake coming here, but then I remove my shoes, step gingerly into the room, and fold my legs beneath me on the cushion.
After I’m seated, the man speaks a few words over his shoulder, and almost instantly a young woman emerges from the kitchen carrying a tray with a pot of tea and two clear glass mugs. I watch as she approaches us slowly, kneels and sets the tray carefully on the table. I watch her slight hands as she pours the tea, then her face, still and serene beneath her dupatta scarf as she sets the pot on the table between the man and me, and I try to connect the vision before me to the image in my mind of Jalaa. Then her eyes meet mine, and I stop breathing. I want to speak, to say anything, but I find I have no words. I fumble for the letters in my bag and in my haste, I send them spilling out onto the floor. As I begin to gather them up, I see the woman gently place the tips of her thin brown fingers on the single sheet of Rafi’s unfinished letter and draw it slightly towards her. I see her eyebrows furrow and the corners of her mouth curl up in a puzzled half-smile as she scans the page. Then she picks up the paper and places it calmly in my hand.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
A baby cries out from the other room and the young woman slips away through the dark doorway just as quickly as she came. I stare after her, stunned, for what feels like ages, before finally gathering up the last envelopes off the floor and stuffing them clumsily back into my bag. Then I look across the table at the old man. He simply smiles and raises his mug to his lips. I smile back and raise my own mug, and we drink together while outside, the thick winter fog floats by in perfect silence.