Smoke & Mirrors
Written by Qaanitah Hunter and edited by Benazir Cassim
Have you ever met someone and felt like you have known them your entire life?
I wonder if there’s a science to it because it happens with only some people. It’s almost as if you can’t remember a time in your life when they were not there?
It probably has to do with the ease of the relationship and how much you share with each other. It also has to do with the amount of time you spend with each other.
If you gym with someone five days a week within a few weeks you probably can’t remember a life before then. Or is it just me? I wonder.
Our routine was pretty standard.
Adil: 6:15am: “Leaving”
Adil 6:25: “Here”
At 6:30 we get into the gym and we talk while we train for about 50 minutes. How much we chat is dependent on how much I have to film for my social media.
Once we are done, we stand around the water cooler, chat for a bit and then he drops me off.
He doesn’t text me for the rest of the day and night.
Even when I reach out and text him sporadically during the day he doesn’t respond and I am too sheepish to ask him about it in the mornings. Our conversations are very colourful. We have the same obsession for binge-watching series. He is a bit more serious about it than I am. We talk about work quite a bit. But mostly, he tells me his crazy travel stories, like the time he slept in an igloo on a trip to Iceland or their buggy got stuck while dune bashing in some random Emirate in the UAE.
I have zero travel stories because I am yet to travel overseas. Simply put: my bank account doesn’t align with my ambitions to travel the world. It needs to get on board!
My photoshoots and brand events are usually what I speak about while we run or cycle. Adil is, thankfully, a great listener, even when I talk about random YouTube wars in the online beauty community, which he doesn’t give a toss about. There was once a war between two super famous beauty influencers about who buys followers on Instagram. It was lit! I would on occasion mention my mother and he sometimes mentions his sister Ayesha, but our conversations are not very personal.
Some days it feels like we are dating, as I would bank stories of what happened during my day to tell him the next morning. On weekends it feels like we are not even friends, because even when I do text him, he almost never responds. Come Monday morning, we are besties again, chatting while doing cardio or experimenting with weight training.
Then stone-cold silence until we repeat it the next day.
Five weeks in and I am sitting up at night, wishing it could be something more. A friendship even. I mean, it kinda is a friendship. If friends don’t chat outside of the gym or share anything too personal. Or maybe he thinks he is my trainer and our relationship is strictly confined to the gym? That would be absurd!
Then again, I seem to be attracted to messy and absurd, so I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, I married a man who loved a completely different person so this wouldn’t be the strangest thing that happened to me.
Why can’t I have normal? Girl and boy meet. They like each other. They get together. They live happily ever after. The fine print can be dealt with later. I just want to have a normal, functional relationship.
Scratch that. I will even take a half-decent friendship.
This morning, he drops me off at home after gym as usual and I start my day as usual. I make breakfast which is almost always two eggs, have a shower and do my laundry. Then I sit down to plan content for a few days because I’m in a mood to just chill this weekend and I want all my admin planned and sorted. Nabs has one paid campaign that we had shot prior to this to be posted and I have a few ideas of what I wanted to share.
I’m knee-deep into emails when I get a text. Who messages at 11am on a Friday? It’s probably my mother who forwards me bogus chain messages. You know those messages that end with “send this to five of your contacts or face bad luck”? Yep. That’s my mother.
Only this time it wasn’t.
Adil: “You keen for pizza tonight?”
Well, firstly, hello? How are you? Are you messaging me? Out of the blue? To ask me out?
I take a minute before I respond. This is new. Not only do we never hang out socially, but we also never talk about hanging out socially.
Me: “Hey. How’s it?”
Adil: “Good, man. Are you in the mood to eat all the calories we worked so hard to shed?”
Me: “Haha. Yeah.”
Adil: “Cool. I will text you later.”
Me: “So, I just realised I have a perfume launch event at about 6pm... I should be done by 8 or so?”
Adil: “Where is it? I will fetch you.”
Me: “Are you sure? I can Uber.”
Adil: “Yeah, I don’t mind. Where is your event?”
Me: “At Mall of Africa”
Adil: “That’s like two minutes from my home. Why don’t you come over and we can order in some pizza instead?”
If the phrase ‘I was never ready’ was a person, it would be me. I have so many questions, starting with WHAT?
As much as I prefer to spend the rest of the day consumed by these questions, I have a ton of work to do before tonight. And by work I mean glam. At the beauty salon, which I recently became affiliated with, I have to do a wax, an eyebrow thread and a set of lashes. They do my treatments for free and in exchange I promote their salon. It seems like a fair deal but I am sure they are benefitting way more than what my treatments are worth.
Then I need to get my hair trimmed and ready for the evening event at the hair salon at the mall near my house. The perfume launch is a paid gig so I have to bring my A-game to the event. Then I have a nail appointment straight after. All of that grooming is ‘work’ and I have to post every last shred of it and tag all the brands that are affiliated to me.
As I go about my day, I can’t help but think of my date with Adil later. It is a date, right? Gosh, are we back here? I am not googling it this time! Let me focus on work. I set up to film a ‘get ready with me’ video where I apply my makeup on camera while I chat and answer questions from my followers.
A ten-minute makeup look ends up taking a whole hour and I need to be done before the light gets bad so Simmi can take pictures for my blog. It is not all glamour, honey. Never believe a blogger who claims to have woken up like this. It’s a lie. It takes a village to make us look the way we do... which is going to be my next Instagram caption: ‘It takes a village...’
I don’t want to look overdone when Adil picks me up for pizza, but I have no choice. He sees me sweaty with no makeup in the gym in the morning and now he is going to see me with hair extensions and double-stacked lashes. Whatever.
I start my live tutorial on my Instagram where I’ve carefully laid out all the products I plan to use — most of which came from press drops. I also carefully set up my camera so only the nice side of my bedroom shows. It took me months to set up one side of my room so it looks good on camera. The other side looks like a dorm room in a hostel. One day, when I am an internationally renowned influencer, I am going to have those amazing Insta-worthy houses where every part of it is a backdrop for a YouTube video.
One day is one day!
Doing a live tutorial is always tricky because you have to focus on doing your makeup and answering live questions that come in, all while praying that the WiFi doesn’t bomb out. I start with my makeup prep which includes a moisturiser, sunblock, and primer from a brand that recently signed me on as an ambassador. Then I start with my foundation, which literally costs half of my rent.
“Guys, should I do natural glam or go all out?” I ask, knowing full well everyone wants to see a proper cake-face. I have become really good at doing my own makeup because when I worked at Icon, Molly showed me all her tricks of the trade. For example, the outcome of your foundation is heavily dependent on how well you’ve prepped your skin. Moisturising and priming is SO important for your makeup to melt in your skin and not look like a thick cakey layer on top.
There’s so many times I see girls at events and I am just tempted to go to them and say, “Let me show you how to blend your makeup, honey,” but I instead say the opposite. “Girl your makeup is on fire!” I say, even though this person’s makeup has been applied like zebra stripes.
Once I push all the product in my skin, I go onto concealing and contouring.
“Do you prefer powder or cream contour?” I read a question that comes in.
“Uhm... it depends. I prefer cream for nights like tonight and powder when it’s a relaxed day look,” I say as I buff the product in my skin.
“What type of look are you doing?” someone else asks. “This is definitely not a natural casual look. But I am not going too heavy like wedding makeup... Maybe this is like a date-night look with a bit of drama at the eyes but a nude lip”.
Because it kinda is a date? No?
“Okay, guys, I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. Let me get done off-camera quickly and I will show you the final look later,” I say before disconnecting.
I am actually sweating.
“Yo, What’s up Mar,” Simmi says at my room door.
Today she is dressed in an elaborate Malaysian scarf she bought on her trip there recently. I promise you, tomorrow this girl will wear an African shweshwe skirt and the day after she will wear a kurti top. Simmi is a walking contradiction. I love it.
“I am almost done, I will be ready to shoot in a bit”.
“Cool. I have time.”
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Nothing much... I was going to go to a work event but thankfully it was cancelled so I am just going to chill.”
“Do you want to come with me?” I blurt out.
“To the fragrance launch?”
“Ja, and I am going to a friend afterward for some pizza”.
I instantly regret my offer the moment I blurt it out. I have been dying to spend time with Adil outside of the gym. And now when he invites me home for pizza, I am taking Simmi of all people with. What is wrong with me? No, seriously, there has to be something wrong with me.
“Is this the bugger who rings our bell at 6:30am?”
“Okay cool, but you have to lend me something to wear. I don’t have any clean clothes.”
The shoot goes much quicker than usual because Simmi still has to shower.
Once she goes to her room, I message Adil to say Simmi is coming along for pizza.
“Cool... the more the merrier. Ayesha and my cousins will love the company.”
That clears it then. This is definitely not a date.
He’s not kidding when he says it’s going to be a full house. About an hour into the launch, which Simmi was weirdly enjoying, Adil messages to say he can pick us up now, if we’re ready. I ask Simmi and she’s happy to leave.
“There’s only so much fakeness I can take for one night,” she teases, but the truth is, Simmi loves being out. The glamour and fluff are new to her but she loves it. She even got two people asking for her rate card for content shoots for their blogs after I introduced her as my personal photographer. Nabs says Simmi must get fashion shoots to fund the passion projects she wants to travel for. I know she is obsessed with Serengeti migration.
I message Adil and about five minutes later he texts me to say he is waiting at the entrance. I don’t know what to expect... are we going to his family home or his own space? Does Ayesha know that we are gym buddies? What type of friends does he have?
What if it’s super awkward?
It’s too late to have these thoughts now as I am getting into Adil’s car.
“Hey, you look nice,” he says in a nonchalant way.
“This is Simmi. Simmi, this is Adil,” I say, deliberately ignoring the compliment.
“Hey! I’ve met you before!” Simmi says.
Great. This is just great.
“Oh yes... at the Premier’s office like two years ago... or was it last year?”
“I think it was last year.”
Thank god she knew him from work.
It takes us about three minutes to drive from the mall to his house on the estate nearby. I’ve only seen this estate from the highway, but at close range, these houses seem much, much bigger. These are mansions, not houses.
We pull up to Adil’s house, which seems modest compared to his immediate neighbours, but is still a massive house. My mum’s entire house could neatly fit into his garage, and there’d still be space.
“Who stays here?” I ask.
“Me, my wife and four kids,” he casually says, and it takes me a minute to realise he is joking.
“Just me, my sister and my Dadi.”
“It’s cool that you stay with your grandmother,” I say as we walk in.
“Yeah, let me take you to her room first so you can greet her.” I look at Simmi. She looks at me and then starts laughing but doesn’t say anything. Simmi can be a clown sometimes!
As we walk in, Ayesha is there to greet us. She is wearing shorts and an oversized hoodie with a slice of pizza in one hand and she hugs me with the other.
“Everyone, this is Maariah. Maariah this is everyone,” she says as I greet a room of about five other people.
“These are my crazy cousins,” Adil says, “Ahmed, Umar, Fatima, and Zahra.”
“This is my best friend Sarah,” Ayesha points to the girl in the scarf.
“Where’s Ma?” Adil asks Ayesha.
“She’s in her room. She said we were making too much noise and was upset we didn’t eat her curry and are eating pizza instead.”
I laugh and follow Adil to his granny’s room downstairs.
This house is truly beautiful. Not overdone and clearly well lived in but so classically beautiful.
“Ma... this is my friend Maariah.”
“Oh. Hello beti,” she says.
“Ma, she’s a Muslim,” Adil responds.
I start laughing and Adil joins in too.
“Oh! Assalamulaikum. How are you?”
“Wa’alaikum salaam ma. I am okay, alhamdulillah. Lovely to meet you.”
“Those monkeys were making so much noise, I decided to come to watch Isidingo in my room. Did you feed her Adil?”
“We’re going to have pizza now, Ma”.
“You children only know pizza, pizza. I made such nice mutton curry and rice but what you children know. Never mind I will give Thobeka to eat tomorrow.”
Adil’s granny is a delight. One of those old Indian ladies that are so comfortable in their own skin and don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks.
As we get back to the living area, I see Simmi already comfortable next to Adil’s cousin Zahra as they pass out the Uno cards.
“Simmi, aren’t you eating?” Adil asks her.
“I gobbled three slices of pizza already. I am ready to play..
“Okay you guys go ahead. I will warm some pizza for me and Maariah,” he says.
I follow him to the kitchen and watch as he takes out plates and warms pizza for us.
“Can I help with anything?” I ask.
“Just get something to drink from the fridge and some glasses in that cupboard over there. I think let’s sit here and eat and then join them after.”
“How are these your cousins?”
“Their mother and my father are brother and sister.”
“Firdaus’s mother is the other sibling. But she got married in Cape Town so they live there.”
“Are you guys all close?”
“Ja, we’re super close. Firdaus is my favourite cousin though. We were inseparable as kids.”
“So, do they have game night often?”
“They come here every Friday night. I usually am never home to join but it’s nice when I do. Umar is so competitive and is such a sore loser,” he says.
“I am really bad at board games because I was the only child, I had no one to play with.”
“Don’t you have cousins?”
“My mother’s sister has twins, but they are like 14 years younger than me.”
“And on your father’s side?”
“Uh... I don’t really know Zayn’s family.”
“That’s your father? Zayn?”
“Uh... yeah he is married to my mother.”
“Oh okay... sorry to pry.”
“No, it’s okay. I don’t have a relationship with my biological father. Zayn married my mother when I was a baby. But I don’t really know his family.”
“Oh okay,” he says awkwardly.
“It’s fine! I get questions like this all the time”.
“I know but it’s still insensitive.”
I just look down and continue chewing. We live in a world where the concept of nuclear families has evolved. So many people have better relationships with their step-parents than their biological ones. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. What does it matter that I don’t have a relationship with my father? It’s his loss. He chose not to get to know me. And a part of me always feels grateful that I was not torn between two worlds.
“Adil! Maariah! We’re starting a new round of Uno, you guys in?” Ayesha shouts from the lounge.
“Two seconds. We’re just washing up,” he shouts back.
Two rounds of Uno, one round of 30 Seconds and a million rounds of SingStar later and I can confidently say this was the most fun I’ve had in ages. There was no pretence or worrying about people’s issues. Just plain fun and lots of teasing Adil’s cousin Umar who hated that he lost every game we played and was convinced we were all cheating.
Within an hour of playing, I noticed that Ayesha’s bestie since childhood, Sarah, really has a thing for Adil. It’s so obvious that even Simmi, who is usually oblivious to such things, gave me the side-eye.
When we were playing 30 Seconds, she insisted on being on Adil’s team and forced me to pair up with Adil’s cousin.
I don’t know. I got this vibe that she doesn’t want me here; almost like I am invading her terrain. Am I?
This is fiction
No, really. It is fiction. All characters are made up.