At this time of the day, the boulevard was full of people. The moon and the stars were bright, their lights twinkling, shaded by the occasional small puffs of dark clouds.

The boulevard was a seashore stretching along the bay of the Caspian Sea that was turned into the biggest park in the center of the city. It was a popular place for people to spend their evenings.

I was walking alone by myself, as my thoughts wandered, until finally, I decided to sit in one of the famous chayhanas in the center of the boulevard. It was crammed with people, mostly men, and the place was loud with gossip and laughter. The canopy above was lit with small lamps, coloring the place in an orange hue. Breathing in the scent of the sea, I ignored the weird stares I got from the men in the room and looked through the menu. My dad’s words rang in my head: If you ever wonder what’s it like being a performer, walk the streets of Baku.

I was about to order black tea when I heard my name. Searching the room for a familiar face, my eyes stopped on my cousin Elshan. Elshan was older than me by eight years. He had a big, lumpy nose and thin lips. His eyebrows and hair were a black, disheveled mess. But his eyes were kind and soft, which made his face look friendly, even if not the most attractive. He came over, kissed me on both cheeks and sat down across from me with a stern expression.

“What are you doing alone? No woman is supposed to walk alone through the city, especially when it gets dark,” he reprimanded, and his bushy eyebrows furrowed. No hello, no nothing. 

I started explaining that I’m not scared of being alone when he cut me off, saying it’s not about being scared, but about tainting my family name. No parents should let their daughter be out after it gets dark. I didn’t know what to say, so I changed the topic.

We ordered black tea, and as he was talking about his job, my eyes settled on a toddler walking with his mother through the park. The little boy was stomping his feet, throwing a tantrum because his mother refused to buy him pink cotton candy, sold in a small cart by an old man. The mother ended up buying the cotton candy, hastily looking through her purse for the spare change. 

“How is Maryam?” I asked, turning back to Elshan. His expression instantly softened after hearing his daughter’s name. The waitress settled the white fat teapot in the middle of our table. The glasses clanked in their navy saucers with golden buta patterns, the same ones that adorned the red tablecloth. The waitress left and Elshan started pouring us tea. “Last time I’ve seen her she just started walking.”

“She’s running now, leaving a mess after herself like a tornado,” Elshan chuckled, staring into his pear-shaped glass of bright dark tea.

“How’s Sabina handling her? Don’t you want to get a nanny or maybe a maid to help around?” I inquired.

“Sabina is handling everything just fine. Sure, she’s more tired, but it’s normal. Our mothers handled us and the house; she can do it too,” he replied, his expression darkening again as if my idea was absurd. 

I said nothing as he sipped his tea. His phone rang an annoying melody, and I was only able to glimpse a heart next to the contact name when he answered. 

“Hey baby, I’m with my cousin sitting at a chayhana, couldn’t let her sit by herself. I’ll be there soon, don’t worry. Love you.” He ended the call, and I smiled.

“Sabina?” I asked. 

He looked at me awkwardly, saying “No.”

I stared at him, not sure I understood what this meant properly. He sipped his tea again, ignoring my look. But when he couldn’t ignore me anymore, he said, “What?”

“You’re cheating on your wife?” I asked incredulously, my heart sinking at the thought.

“So? Everyone does it. A man has his needs,” he defended himself, brushing off the topic as if it was nothing. 

My body temperature dropped to a chill, quiet rage. I was used to the topic being thrown around like it’s nothing. Husbands cheated, wives didn’t mind as long as he came back home, and children grew up believing it’s normal as well. It was absurd.

I started explaining how it’s an awful thing to do, and I was rambling for minutes before I noticed something in Elshan I’d never thought he would do. His big kind eyes were full of tears and he was frantically brushing at them, afraid of people around us noticing. Gossip is like black tea for Azeris. They gulp hot gossip as much as they could and shared it with everyone. 

“I can’t help it baji, I was forcefully married to a woman I didn’t fully know because it was time to give my parents grandchildren. I was in love with another girl, but for Papa she was unfit; her family was lower class, and they didn’t like them as much as Sabina’s family. I can’t be loyal to someone I don’t really love. I love Sabina for giving me a daughter, but I don’t love her as a woman,” he said, his eyes fully dry now; the only remnant of his breakdown was a slightly snotty red nose. 

I didn’t know what to say nor how to help or support in a situation like this. So, I quietly sipped my tea and watched the smug toddler on a bench next to us munch on his pink cotton candy. 

Picture credits to Pexels