One morning Rakhal Roy wakes up in bed and finds himself completely bald.
It is not a bald patch or a bald spot. It is complete, clean baldness. Sleek, silky, smooth. He runs a confused hand over his head, back and forth. He feels nothing there. Not a single hair. He remembers sleeping as usual on his left side with his arm under his head. He wonders if he is having that tormenting dream again. For months, he has been having a recurring nightmare that he was going bald. He has got so used to it that he has started to believe it.
Is he drifting between sleep and wakefulness? He senses this time it’s no dream: the sounds and smells are familiar. He turns his face to the only window in his small room. Outside, the morning sun of Dhaka shines brightly. The alarm must have gone off a while ago. He has about an hour to take a shower, have a large breakfast and get ready to go to the office. He works as an insurance salesman. Today’s assignment is at the head office of a bank. It will be a long day. His boss has arranged everything for him. And they are expecting ten to fifteen fresh, first-rate policies from there. He must not call off work last minute for any reason whatsoever, even for death itself.
What’s to be done? He rubs his head again. It’s as slippery as mustard oil. Why has the bad dream—the nightmare—come true? He curses himself. There is no mirror in the room. So he has no idea how enormously his old look has changed. Why doesn’t he simply jump out of bed and start his regular activities? Maybe no one will notice?
It is already 7.55. Rakhal tries to block his thoughts. He gets up, opens the door a little and scans the hallway. There is no one there. He does a quick calculation. His unemployed, busybody elder brother is still in bed. Father is out for morning air, and mother is in the kitchen. He puts one foot out of the doorway, and then scuttles to the bathroom.
The instant his eyes fall upon the mirror, he almost loses balance. The image staring back looks so unlike him. His heart stops beating until he is certain it is really himself: Rakhal Roy. His bare head looks as if there has been no hair from the day he was born. He feels older than a very old man. And he notices his ears stick out from his bald head: from each side they look like elephant ears. For God’s sake, how could this have happened to him? he thinks. He is too young to be old. He tries to recall when his hair disaster began. It started, like a waning moon, with a thinning widow’s peak. Then at a snail’s pace the balding moved backward. But however good or bad or ugly the situation was, he still had hair. Until last night. Until he woke up this morning.
For a moment, he is under the impression that he has lost not only the hair on his head, but all his body hair. He feels more naked than ever. Looking in the mirror, he touches his face. He still has facial hair. A great relief. He needs a shave. But he decides not to. He will grow a beard. He takes off his clothes. Being a man of twenty-three, below average height, he looks younger than his years. He has a bit of hair on his chest. A small trail of hair runs down to his belly button and continues down. His hand caresses his lush, lavish and vigorous pubic hair. A smirk grows on his face. What if the world turns upside down? Then he does what he is often used to doing: a woman appears naked in his mind. A naughty smile flickers across her lips. He feels her warm breath. His breathing quickens. He groans.
He turns on the shower. His hand from regular habit reaches for the shampoo. This one came from New York. He immediately realizes that it will be no use for him. Not anymore. In the basin cabinet more things will go unused. Baldpate hair tonic, organic shampoos, dusty hair gel tubes and much more. He cries.
As he comes out of the bathroom, he hears a shriek. It is his mother in the hallway.
“Ma, it’s me, Rakhal,” he says quickly.
“Huh?” She gapes at him, staring in disbelief.
“I’m running late, Ma. Is breakfast ready?” He makes for his room.
“Oh God, you scared me!” she says. “Where’s your hair gone?”
“I shaved it,” Rakhal says, slamming the door behind him.
He wears a white and blue striped shirt, pleated khaki pants, and a flat, charcoal cap to cover his head. As he sits down at the dining table, he hears the click of the door. His father walks in.
The old eyes squint. “Who’s this?” Holding the door half-open father studies him. “Ah, Rakhal! What happened to your hair?”
Rakhal does not reply. His mother does. His father claims he looks comical in the cap.
“No one in my family was bald. Not even on your mother’s side. How did this happen to you?” Father says.
Rakhal gives his father a stern look. The old man is right though. His sixty-five-plus skull is clearly ageing, but with no sign of balding.
The bus stop is a two-minute walk. At a hurried pace, Rakhal keeps his head low and his eyes on the street. He thinks everybody is staring at the naked spots showing beneath his cap.
By the time he arrives at the office, the clock has struck 10:22. He makes no eye contact with anyone as he walks past. His heart starts thumping the moment he approaches his boss’s room. Just outside the door, he tries to gather his composure. The boss gazes at him with a fierce frown as he enters the room.
“Who the hell are you?” The boss sits erect in his chair. His shirt has no creases, nor his pants. His shoes are glossy enough to reflect one’s face. And his individual scent accents his big boss cologne. Everything about him is distinct and distinguishing.
The boss has recognized him, Rakhal can tell from his eyes. Before he opens his mouth, the boss snaps.
“This is an insurance office, not a fashion house. Why this metamorphosis?”
Rakhal answers that he has had his head shaved. He sneaks a glance at the to-grey-or-not-to-grey hair of the boss, which looks brainy with his olive skin tone.
“Fair enough,” the boss says. He looks Rakhal over from head to toe. Then in a strange, steady voice he tells him yet again the gravity of good looks, especially when it comes to being a terrific salesman. He finds Rakhal’s hairless head and hairy face totally unacceptable and unlikable. Therefore, in no way can Rakhal continue working for the company.
“But sir—” Rakhal attempts to protest.
“Let me tell you the harsh truth,” the boss cuts him off. “Over the last six months, the number of policies you have brought in for the company is not impressive. I don’t think you’re a good fit for this profession. You’re simply not an insurance sales kind of guy. You’d better make a career change.”
“But sir, I’m trying, and I’m not doing that bad.”
Speaking of selling policies, the boss always presents himself as a stellar example. He is a perfect insurance man in every way. He said that no one in the office has been able to break his record. Rakhal believes the secret to his success is his attractive looks rather than his powers of persuasion.
“Listen, the bottom line is, I can’t send a baldy agent to my clients. Simple as that,” the boss concludes. He tells Rakhal not to worry about today’s assignment and points him to the door.
Rakhal does not go to his desk. He slips into the restroom, turns on the faucet and looks in the mirror. The image of a forlorn and beaten soul stares back at him. He thinks. Should he go back and see the HR and payroll office to sort everything out? Or should he wait a few days to see if the boss changes his mind? No, nothing will change. Rakhal knows it. He is fired.
An hour later, sitting in a roadside tea shop, Rakhal watches people in the street. They have hair. They have jobs. They have destinations. What did he have? He sighs. At one o’clock he can go to meet his girl if he wants. He wonders how she will take him.
His girlfriend works at an elementary school. At first glance she takes him for a stranger. When he waves at her she shrinks back as if a phantom has appeared before her.
“Oh my! Is it really you?” she cries.
Rakhal notices the same frown as the one he saw on his boss’s face. The same question mark on her perfect arched eyebrows. “I shaved my head,” he says.
“I see,” she says. “We need to talk. Let’s go to the park.”
On the way she doesn’t say a word. Under the June sky the park and its visitors are in siesta. They sit by the lake.
“Now, look at me,” she blurts out. And without warning she seizes his cap.
“Oh my God!” her eyes pop out.
Rakhal allows her time to absorb it, makes no haste to get his cap back.
“Okay, who am I in your life?” she asks sharply.
“You’re my girlfriend.”
“Am I?” she says. “You didn’t even bother asking me before doing this…this… circumcision! You don’t care about me at all.”
“I do care about you,” he says.
“I don’t believe you. Tell me the bald truth.”
“I am telling the truth!”
“No, you are not!”
He is silent.
“Okay, here is my baldest truth. I can’t stand baldies. So we are done! Right here, on this bald spot!” She is red, breathless with anger.
“You know—” Rakhal stammers, “it just happened.” He takes her hand.
“It just happened?” she shouts, shoving his hand away. “This is not the first time. You never share anything. You never care about my opinion. I’m sick of you!”
She sounds like a stranger. She says she’s warned him several times. He watches her flaming lips move. He even has a sudden impulse to plant a kiss there. But he doesn’t. And says nothing. He wonders how a short, bone-thin woman can have such a piercing, potent voice.
“I tell you what, I’ll return the favor. This time I’m not going to bother listening to you. I’m done with you. Goodbye.” The words gush out from her mouth in one breath.
She springs to her feet. Without waiting for any reply, without looking back, she strides towards the street. Rakhal attempts to stop her but it is in vain. Her dark hair flows behind her, rising and falling with each angry step. His eyes become blurred. His chin trembles. A warm wave of memory flashes through him. She has ended as she began. He looks back on the day they met. About a year ago, after school, she said, “I need to talk to you. Let’s go to the park.”
Rakhal wakes up with a start. He finds himself reclining on a bench. The park is darkening. Has he been sleeping long? He thinks and yawns. After his girl walked out on him, he didn’t leave the park. He bought a newspaper and read every article word by word.
He feels achy and lethargic. His stomach growls. Then he remembers he didn’t have lunch. Instantly an instinct tells him that something is missing. He touches his crown. The cap is not there. He looks around, but there is no sign of it. He rises and checks his pants’ pockets. His wallet and phone are fine. Someone must have walked off with his cap while he was asleep, he figures.
The dark is now deeper. The presence of people around him is light. A hawker passes him carrying a flask of tea. Rakhal calls him over. He has two buns with two cups of tea. Afterward, he fires up a cigarette and gets on his feet. His body unjams. In the cool night breeze, he sniffs the smells of some familiar flowers. He avoids the walkway and wanders over the pristine grass. It saves him from embarrassment in the low lighting Victorian lamp posts. And from the few kissing couples who might have noticed his cap is missing.
Once upon a time, not many years ago, he had hung out with his friends in this park. He had a full head of hair then. Hair that was dark, healthy, and suitable for his Facebook profile picture. Ever since he started losing his hair, he hated running into old friends. With a funny look at his head, they taunted: “Seems we can call you Uncle Rakhal now.”
Rakhal tries not to look back. He tries not to think of so many things. Family, friends, work, his woman or his hair. He rests on a shadowy bench. The park has emptied out. He lights another cigarette, puffs in and out. He watches the rising smoke with intrigue.
Something moves in the darkness of the trees. Little by little a human figure emerges. A woman in black. She advances with hesitant steps, then stops. She eyes him in silence and comes close.
“You need?” she says in a near whisper.
Rakhal stares at her. Still.
“All kinds. It’s safe here. No police.”
He likes her wording. “How does it work?”
“First time?” The woman sits at the corner of his bench, keeping a distance. “Well,” she says, “it depends how you wanna do it. Sitting, standing or lying? Sitting or standing fifty. For lying a hundred bucks.”
Rakhal controls himself so as not to explode with laughter. All day this is the only moment something amusing has happened. “If I try the full course? All three?
The woman narrows her unthoughtful eyes. “You kidding, right?”
“Nope.” Rakhal looks at her intently. She is kind of pretty, and younger than him. Not wanting to spoil the charm of the night, he adds at once, “Yes, I was kidding. I’m sorry.”
She rises and starts towards trees where she appeared from.
“Listen,” he calls out, “I’ll do it.”
She stops short, turns her head a little and gives him the once-over.
“Here’s the money.” Rakhal holds out a hundred-taka bill.
She comes back. “You wanna do it right here?” She slips the bill into her bra.
He asks how much time he will get. She says fifteen to twenty minutes.
“Could you simply talk to me for that time instead?” he says.
“You not gonna do it?” She squints and surveys him. “Are you a virgin?”
“Yeah? I knew it.” She says with a friendly grin. “No worries, man. I know how to take care of a virgin.”
“Listen, night queen,” he says. “I had a bad day, the worst of the worst of my life. It’s a life-and-death situation. I just want you to talk to me for a while.”
“Ahh,” she says. “Now I get it. Okay, okay, I’ll give you half an hour.” She smiles a sweet smile.
Beneath her cheap makeup he sees a compassionate face. Black eyes penciled with kajal. Sad lips with flattering red. All a little exaggerated. Short and stout, she has dark hair and dark skin. He asks her name. She says Mariam. He wonders what else he can ask. He checks his phone, ten minutes to ten. He turns it off. Mariam talks about the park. She talks about the police. She says they rarely visit this place. When they do, they only ask for money or a free fuck; sometimes both. “They’re the nastiest creatures on the planet,” she says. He agrees.
Mariam keeps him company for over thirty minutes. Then she disappears into some trees. Rakhal feels a desire to follow her. But he sits unmoved, and for a long moment stares in the direction she went. He sighs, scratches his stubble and takes a walk. After a time, he returns to the bench. Mariam who was right here, Rakhal reflects, has gone to another man now. “Slutty bitch,” he says to himself. He pictures a paunchy man with a big ugly face and stinky mouth cupping her breasts and enjoying her night’s virginity. Rakhal rubs his head a couple of times, his breathing ragged. His jaw tightens. He gets up and paces back and forth. And the minute he decides to go find Mariam, he sees her walking up to him.
Rakhal blinks, breathes a big sigh, and beams at her. “Ah, you are back?”
“No customers,” she says.
They sit at the bench. He offers her a cigarette. She takes it. He lights up hers and then his. They smoke together. They puff together. They both try to blow smoke rings. Neither of them is good at it, but they keep trying and failing. She giggles. After the fun is over, Mariam stands up to make another round on the lookout for customers. Rakhal proposes another hundred bucks for a second time, to buy another half hour. She hesitates. He insists. So she accepts. They begin to chitchat about this and that. Over cigarettes and smoke.
“You know what,” Rakhal turns to her, “it’s great to have a cigarette together.”
Mariam tilts her head a little. “Aren’t you going home tonight?”
“Nothing there,” he sighs.
Mariam wraps a strand of hair around her index finger. “I’m going to get some food. Ya wanna eat?”
Rakhal nods. Mariam leaves for a street shop. She comes back with some chapatti and beef fry. They eat hungrily. Her face is so close to his. It is then Rakhal notices that she has a beauty mark on her left cheek. He brushes her cheek with his fingertip. It gently moves over to her redder-than-red lips. She neither stops him nor says anything. His fingertip grazes her full lips. She giggles and shakes her head.
“What?” he asks.
Mariam shakes her head again. “Men suck so bad. They don’t kiss, they bite. Their mouths stink. They’re horrible.” She spreads a Mona Lisa smile. “But you’re a good-ass anyway.”
Her ribald humor touches him. Mariam sighs.
“Okay,” she says. “Enough. Time for business.” She stretches out her arms and yawns. “And you, good ass, don’t be miserable. Your girlfriend left you? Forget it. There’s no love in this world. It’s all sex, dirty sex.” She gets on her feet.
“Mariam,” he looks up at her. “Why don’t you spend the night with me?” He pauses. “Let me check how much I’ve got.” He pulls out his wallet and counts his cash.
“Are you serious?” she cries. “Well, I don’t mind as long as you can afford it.”
Rakhal hands her all the bills. Mariam counts them twice. She curls her lip, bites it and after a moment says yes. Then she folds the bills and buries them in her bra.
“Uhh,” she grunts as she sits down. “My nipples burn.”
“It’s a girly thing,” she says in a nonchalant manner. “My period’s coming.”
Rakhal regards her, an uneducated, uncomplicated and unpretentious woman. “You’re interesting,” he says.
Mariam snorts with laughter. “You men are dickheads. You think women’s bodies are all hush-hush. C’mon, it’s an open book. It’s on sale, you see. Damn cheap.”
Rakhal takes out a cigarette, holds it between his fingers, leaving it unlit.
“You don’t want to know how I became a night queen? Everyone does anyway.” Mariam says with a shrug. “Men are bastards. All the same.”
Rakhal gives her a long look. This woman is not what she seems. He listens to her talking about the beginning of her tragedy. With a strange naturalness she tells him how she lost her virginity. It was her no-good drug-addict stepfather. The abuse began when she was fifteen. A year later she ran away from home.
Rakhal is at a loss for words. Mariam asks for a cigarette. He opens the pack before her. She plucks one out and plants it between her lips. She lights it up herself. He lights his. They smoke together in silence.
“Mariam, can you give me an honest answer?” Rakhal says.
Mariam turns to him.
“How do I truly look?” he says.
She eyes him thoroughly, gives two glances at his top. “You look what you look. Like everybody else. You just have a shaved head. That’s it.”
His jaw goes slack. “Nothing odd? Or horrible?”
“Nah, you look rather hot.”
His eyes glimmer. “Thank you, Mariam. You’re a nice person.”
Mariam suppresses a shy smile. She wraps and unwraps a small strand of hair around her finger. It strikes him that his ex-girlfriend who’s just broken up with him has the same sort of smile. Mariam yawns. He yawns back.
“I’m bored.” She takes one last puff on her cigarette and then tosses it. “C’mon, let’s do it.”
He says nothing.
She stands up. “Come, I’ll show you my little secret spot.”
Rakhal is still. “It’s fine here.”
Mariam rolls her eyes. “Hey, good ass, you got any problem there? Why don’t you wanna do it?” She pauses. “You take me as sleazy, huh? Go, fuck your mommy then.”
Her stabbing voice surprises him. He draws a deep breath and says, “Okay, let’s go.”
He walks with her. She leads him to a mini-topiary garden where the plants are all at chest height. This is a real privacy hedge. A natural bedroom. A heart of darkness. With a magician’s hand, she whips out something folded from inside a hedge. She rolls it out on the grass. It is a poly mat. Rakhal sits there beside Mariam. He can smell her armpit odor mixed with cheesy perfume.
Mariam holds his right shoulder and pushes her breasts against his back. And before giving him any time to swallow the bubble of these moments, she strips off her tunic.
Mariam hugs him from behind. Rakhal feels the fullness of her breasts on his back. This time more intense, sharp. He grows stiff. Warm air blows over his neck.
“Let me take off your shirt,” Mariam extends two hands from both sides.
“No one comes here?” his voice nervous.
“There are three other night queens in the park. But this is my territory.”
Rakhal lets her unbutton his Egyptian cotton shirt. He scans the surroundings one more time. Without looking over at her, he knows she has unhooked her bra. He shudders when her bare breasts touch his bare back.
“How does it feel?” she presses her hardened nipples into his skin.
“Ohh,” he lets out a suppressed breath.
Mariam stretches out her feet. He is now between her legs. She cups his chest.
“Uhh,” he grunts in pain as she twists his nipples.
Mariam giggles. Her hands softly rub his pecs, move down a little, stroke his stomach. Then her fingers inch down. His youth responds. The youth that has been pure, untouched.
Suddenly the wail of a baby breaks the stillness of the night. Then a dog barks. Then the noise of screeching brakes. And in the topiary garden a mosquito hums around four ears.
Now naked, the nude limbs, the lonely nude bodies, are face to face. Despite her cheap perfume, despite her sweaty, unappealing figure, despite her low life, Rakhal crouches over Mariam. He crouches over her chocolate breasts and drinks the mangrove taste of her ebony nipples. Drinks as noisily as a child does. She caresses his head.
Rakhal sees Mariam diving down between his legs. She squeezes him, tastes him. Then she pushes him down on his back. She climbs over him.
“I always ride on top,” she says.
When he disappears inside her, when the two bodies melt into one, he cannot think of anything. He gets wild. He gets violent.
The air is soupy, yet serene. Long after it is over, they smoke, facing the sky. Naked, side by side.
“It feels wonderful to stay like this!” Rakhal says.
“Yeah, free, like animals. Sometimes I feel I should wear no clothes.”
He puts one hand on the back of his head. “Mariam, I’ve had the best day of my life. The happiest day ever. I have no woes left. I think I can die.”
Mariam smiles. The same shy smile. “Do you have any wishes?”
“Nah,” he says. “Oh! Hang on—yes, just one. I want to see every man bald.”
“I want every man to sleep with me. Every bastard. I want to fuck them, not to be fucked.”
“Mariam, you are some woman.”
She laughs aloud. A laugh that shatters the night. “I’m a bad girl.”
“You’re one of the nicest girls I’ve ever met.”
Mariam peers at him. Then closes her eyes. “I hate myself.” She cries in silence.
Rakhal feels an ache in his chest, his eyes stinging with tears. “I hate myself too,” he says.
They both cry in silence. Over nothing. Over everything.
Rahad Abir is a writer from Bangladesh. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Wire, Himal Southasian, TSS Publishing, Brick Lane Tales anthology, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from Boston University. He received the 2017-18 Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia. Currently he is working on his first novel and a story collection.