Uzma was talking about her upcoming review when Asif noticed the pain. It was the dull kind which has no beginning and could’ve been throbbing away inside his body for a long time. An ordinary ache, except it was in his left testicle.
Are you listening to me? Uzma asked.
She clanged the spatula against the frying pan and used the broad side of the blade to turn the vegetables, which hissed in the heat. Her neck shone. He handed her a kitchen towel and she pushed past him.
How many times do I have to tell you we need a fan in here? Just because you keep the window closed doesn’t mean I should suffer. It’s so stuffy, I can hardly breathe.
I’ll take a look at this soon, promise.
He flipped the switch of the plug point closest to him. It was giving them problems and he’d been meaning to inspect it before purchasing a fan. Summer was approaching. Temperatures were already in the mid-thirties.
Uzma stuck her head inside the freezer and muttered to the boxes of frozen mince, This is my reward.
After dinner she sat down to mark homework. He normally spent this time reading sections on soft skills in business from the textbooks his company produced, ever since Uzma suggested it could improve his employability. But this evening he visited medical websites. He learnt the various terms associated with pain in the testicles, and went to bed thinking about discomfort and tenderness and what they might mean as symptoms.
How’s your confidence? Uzma asked.
He peered into the darkness of their bedroom. Meaning?
Wasn’t that what you were reading? The importance of self-confidence and communication in the workplace?
She lay close. Her hand was warm against his thigh. He brushed it aside, then held it between his own two hands. I’m worried about the review, she said. The headmaster keeps commenting on my lessons, that too in front of the other teachers. It makes me look bad. Now he’s monitoring half my classes. What will we do if I lose the job?
Just because he’s monitoring you doesn’t mean you’ll lose the job.
He’s had a problem with me from day one, remember?
Nothing will happen.
Money is already so tight.
Even if something does happen, we can manage. We have some savings.
And what about my mother? She relies on what I send her. How will she manage?
Try not to worry.
I don’t know why we took out that loan.
But that was your idea! Why are we talking about this now? It’s late. Can’t we just go to sleep?
There was an exhalation. The warmth of her hand faded, and the frame of the bed creaked as she shifted her weight away from him. He listened to her huff and toss and turn, and as the ache in his testicle deepened, he told himself not to worry, that the body would take care of itself and the pain would go away.
* * *
He returned from work to find Uzma watering the plants in the balcony. Her eyes were puffy and tinged pink. There had been an incident at school. During break, a boy in her class was caught playing hopscotch with the girls. The other boys had circled around him, shoved him to the ground and called him names till he burst into tears. Uzma found the poor boy covered in scrapes with his shirt ripped at the collar. Despite consoling him and reprimanding the other boys, she was called to the headmaster’s office at the end of the day.
So he was playing hopscotch, Uzma said. So what? I don’t understand those boys. She peeled a caterpillar off a leaf and threw it over the balcony railing.
Asif thought about his uncle catching him tying his hair into a ponytail with his mother’s hair clip. He crossed his legs.
I’m sure the boy’s parents will complain, she said. And then the headmaster will have yet another excuse to let me go. Even though I wasn’t the teacher in charge during the break. How is it my fault that poor boy was hurt?
Let’s wait and see what happens.
Why do you always say that? Always.
Because there’s no need to overreact, no?
I can’t even have a conversation with you.
I just said there’s no need to overreact.
He locked himself in the toilet and revisited medical websites that listed the same three likely diagnoses: testicular torsion, kidney stones or testicular cancer. He slid his thumb and forefinger along the back of his testicles in search of pea-shaped protrusions or debris. There were coils of veins, clustered and lumpy. There was a sensitivity too. Had that always been there? Whose body was this? Even now it moved with a life of its own, the skin around the testicles tightening and shrinking.
Uzma was lying face-down on the divan. He rubbed her back. It frightened him how someone so slender could be capable of such volume. During dinner parties he was always nervous the neighbours might complain about her peals of laughter or her heated lectures on the bigotry of the current administration. As he massaged the knots in her muscles under her shoulder blades he whispered, I’m sorry, it’ll be okay, everything will be okay, and wondered whether her laughter would continue to echo in their flat after he was dead.
* * *
Asif rode to a university in a nearby district. He met with members of the board of studies and impressed them with lines from a section on problem-solving and the promise of a generous royalty. They agreed to prescribe a textbook for the first-year BCom course. It was work well done, with a guaranteed print run of 25,100 copies. He returned to office and was keen to submit his field report and wrap up for the week when a sharp pain pierced his testicle.
He stood still in the middle of the sales department. The ache continued to beat away, and so too did his heart, but the pain which flashed through him was gone. He held his breath as he sat at his desk. What was that? The closest sensation he could compare it to was the white heat of nerve pain when his dentist drilled too deep.
Sanath sat next to him with a groan. His belly strained against the buttons of his shirt and circles of perspiration spread from his underarms. He breathed heavily as he wiped his face with a handkerchief. This new chairperson is a tricky bugger, he said. I was supposed to meet him today, but he called in sick. What nonsense. He was happily meeting with sales guys from other publishers yesterday. Sick it seems.
Asif swallowed a glassful of water.
What’s the matter with you?
Why so tense? See how you’re sitting like you’ve got a thumb up your ass.
The only discomfort Sanath complained about was gas, belching to make his point. Next to him was Kumaraswamy, who drank so much on the last company retreat that he vomited out of a moving bus and then bellowed he had space for more booze.
Asif stared at his laptop. He was yet to fill in any of the cells in his spreadsheet.
He got back home to an empty flat. Uzma was attending a residents’ association meeting to challenge the decision to cut down a tree in the parking lot. Most of the elderly residents complained about falling branches during storms. Uzma felt they were thinking only about themselves and not the environment or the children in the building. She worried the association wouldn’t listen to her because the members were old men, while he worried her fiery nature might draw unwanted attention upon themselves.
He swallowed another glassful of water. The air in the kitchen was suffocating. Despite Uzma’s protests, he insisted they keep its window closed and curtains drawn because it overlooked the building hallway and their neighbours could otherwise peer inside their flat. They really did need a fan. He considered inspecting the plug point, unscrewing its plastic casing and stripping the wires, checking the conductors. His uncle had been an electrician. Asif had learnt from him in his childhood during the year he’d come to live with the family. He’d sometimes accompanied his uncle to other people’s houses, hefting his toolbox up flights of stairs or aiming the light of a torch into a fuse box. There was something pleasing about repair work, watching his uncle solve a problem with his rough hands so that devices whirred back to life. People were so grateful when things returned to normal.
Asif searched on his phone for the nearest hospital. He dialed their number to make an appointment, and as the nurse on the other end of the line took down his personal details, he remembered his uncle asking him if he was a boy or a little girl who liked to wear skirts.
* * *
The other patients in the urology ward were swigging water from one-litre bottles the nurse had handed to them. Asif didn’t have a bottle. The nurse didn’t yet know if he needed an ultrasound scan or not, but he went to the watercooler and drank from a paper cup anyway. Nearby, a father encouraged his son to keep sipping water. Asif listened to the father’s gentle insistence. He and Uzma had been trying for over a year. She was in her late twenties and they’d spent plenty of sleepless nights wondering if it was too late for them. But what if this pain was the root of their problems? What if it was his fault they couldn’t have children? His bladder was heavy when the nurse called his name.
Tell me what’s wrong, the doctor said.
Asif looked at the painting of Jesus Christ hanging behind the doctor as he spoke, confiding his symptoms to this man he’d just met. He waited to be reprimanded for taking so long to seek help, or worse, for bothering the doctor over something so trivial.
But the doctor only asked him to lie on a bed behind a screen. Take off your trousers, he said.
Asif had expected this. He bit his tongue as he lay down, his underwear and trousers pushed to his knees. He faced the wall, which was whitewashed like the walls of his childhood bedroom. He knew that in a blackout the paint would carry a dull gleam.
Where does it hurt?
Asif pointed. The doctor palpated his left testicle and Asif started at the twinge of sensitivity that came from a nodule of veins. The doctor touched the same spot again, provoking the same reaction, then turned to soap and rinse his hands in a small washbasin. Asif pulled his trousers up to his waist. He was cold now. He wanted to go home. He wanted Uzma to swaddle him in blankets and hold him tight.
What you have is a common condition, the doctor said. Studies indicate one in four men are affected by it. Young men like yourself. They come to my clinic and repeat exactly what you just said. For these young men, it’s not the pain that forces them to see a doctor, because the pain itself is bearable, is it not? It’s the anxiety. You understand? They want to know, what does the pain mean?
What does it mean?
Asif looked at the doctor, who smiled and said, You thought it was something else? Yes, many of those young men first go on the internet for answers. But what they find only scares them. As I said, it’s a common condition. I too have it. I’ve had it for fifteen years.
For so long?
Yes. It comes and it goes, but it’s there. Think of it like a headache. Do you run to a doctor when you have a headache? No. This is the same. You see, the body isn’t a machine. It isn’t predictable. This type of infection happens when the bacteria in the prostate flare up. The resultant pain typically manifests in the testicles, the pelvis, the thighs or lower back, sometimes even in the penis.
Why does it happen?
Unknown. But we know what aggravates it. Stress.
Asif looked around the doctor’s cramped consultation room. I’ve never heard of this, he said. No one ever told me.
Men are embarrassed.
Are you a woman? his uncle had asked. Do you have a hymen? No. Then you keep your mouth shut if you know what’s good for you.
Asif looked down at his palms curled in his lap while the doctor went through the prescription sheet and explained the antibiotics he needed to purchase and what side effects he might face. When he stood up to leave, the doctor said, No need to worry so much, okay?
* * *
Uzma sent a message: Bad news. She didn’t pick up when he called her. He swallowed his medicines and brewed two cups of tea, their scent reminding him of early morning weekdays, kissing Uzma goodbye and tasting ginger on her breath. He still hadn’t fixed the plug point.
From outside came the hoarse yells of municipal workers cutting down the tree in the parking lot. The crunch of branches hitting the ground would’ve upset Uzma. He stood in the balcony waiting for her. In the clay pots which lay clustered on the floor around him were a variety of plants and herbs which she nursed. She delighted in listening to the soil crackle when she watered them.
The sun was dipping and the streets were crammed with traffic. The state government had warned that with expected power surges over summer there would also be load shedding in the evenings. He scraped his front teeth against each other at the thought. It surprised him at first when his uncle visited his room during blackouts. He thought his uncle wanted help trying to fix the problem so that electricity would magically fill the house with light again. But no, he was mistaken. The click of his door lock charged the room with a different energy.
A pressure built within his chest, twisting the muscles of his body tight against themselves till he struggled to breathe. This must be how Uzma felt when she was anxious. How could he help her with this feeling when he couldn’t even help himself?
She came back home with her mother, who greeted him with half a smile before disappearing inside the kitchen to prepare dinner. Uzma stood in a corner of the living room, her arms crossed as though she was preventing herself from bursting apart. The ginger tea he’d made for her lay cold on the dining table.
What happened? he asked.
I was let go.
How is that possible? The review is still a week away.
The parents of that boy met with the headmaster. They were furious and threatened to call the newspapers. Said it was negligence.
Over a few scrapes?
He didn’t tell me.
Who? Tell you what?
His legs were covered in bruises. That poor boy. They’d kicked him till he couldn’t even stand properly, and still he didn’t tell me. I don’t understand. Why didn’t he tell me?
But that’s not your fault.
It doesn’t matter. I told you the headmaster was looking for any excuse. I told you. She cupped her mouth and shook her head. Her chin trembled.
You’re sorry. Now what will we do?
It was the same question he wanted to ask her.
I’m so tired, she said, crumpling into a chair. Her mother came in from the kitchen. She opened the windows to allow a cool breeze to flit through the living room, then sat next to Uzma, pulled her close and cradled her in the softness of her arms. She gently rocked her. Uzma’s face contorted. She shuddered, then cried, her ragged breaths turning into wails that rang within the walls of their flat. Her body changed as she cried, shaking and contracting, pulling into itself before loosening, relaxing, till her energy was spent and her fingers were no longer clenched in her fists but lay grasping her mother.
There, her mother said.
It was a word meant to console, but to Asif it was a place he’d never visited. As the two women pulled each other upright and discussed what to do next, the ache in his testicle throbbed. Stress, the doctor had said. Uzma crossed the room and fit her slender body against his. She was murmuring into his chest, asking him if he was okay and why was he being so quiet, and he suddenly longed to be the same schoolboy whose hidden bruises had brought trouble down upon them all. If he was that boy, then he would still be at an age where all it took to be heard was the act of raising his hand. He wiped Uzma’s cheeks and swallowed. If he was that boy, then perhaps his parents might’ve been those who understood his silence.
Bikram Sharma is from Bangalore. He completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, and in 2016 was awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust writing fellowship at the University of Kent. His work has appeared in various literary magazines including Atlas & Alice, Litro, and The Suburban Review. In 2017 he won the DNA/Out of Print short fiction contest.