(DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. It’s important to remember this is all totally fabricated, embellished, and exaggerated for entertainment purposes.)
Will you lay yourself down and dig your grave
Or will you rail against your dying day?
Sleep On The Floor – The Lumineers
Everything I’d overcome, beginning long before Simon Cowell called my name in 2010, seemed to position me to conquer music on my own. Lots of strife to scream into the mic about. Lots of angst to inform my lyricism. Lots of ambivalence to keep me questioning…keep me curious. I was always a solo artist, Jawaad used to say. When I entered the X-Factor at 17, it was entirely on my own, and I had been prepared to sing my style of music. Cover the artists I’d grown up listening to and knew by heart. Shit that I could identify with. Turns out, the years with the band had been nothing more than a glorified derailment, and according to J., I was now back on track. Primed to take over the world.
For a time he was consumed with the idea of redemption. He’d read the biography of a Muslim revert from the eighteenth century who had essentially sold his soul to the devil and traveled the world transfixed with hedonism and avarice, but in the end returned home a redeemed man. I was not one for heroic comparisons, but he insisted it was allegorical to my experiences in the white man’s band, and that I was well on my way home when I left them in 2015. Never to step foot on that musty tour bus again, stale with the odor of unchanged socks and unwashed feet. Never to hear the roar of the rubber against the road. Never to watch the sunrise soar over a Norwegian cityscape again. Never to revist Peru. Never to run late to soundcheck in South Africa or the UAE, because I hadn’t made it that far.
I don’t know if I quite saw things the way J. did, although anyone who succeeded in music is generally thought by the public to have undertaken some Faustian Bargain behind closed doors. It was weird to think that’s how he saw me. Regardless of what anyone speculated about how I got my start, or how I acquired all this wealth and stardom, I can rest assured my soul was intact. From Day One I maintained who I was at my core, never sold out, never bent, and instead of robbery, I liked to consider the band a growing experience and an opportunity to dip my toe into what awaited beyond paths of convention. One for which I was eternally grateful.
I couldn’t deny I was born a maverick, despite how laughable and overused the notion had become in pop culture. I was an island. I was one called out from among many. An outsider intended to walk alone. Most of the time I couldn’t shake the notion I was trespassing as I moved from continent to continent with the other boys, leaving my footprints all over the globe. Culture shock was an understatement. Homesickness seemed like a mild agitation compared to what I experienced whenever I awoke in a strange country, miles removed from anything and anyone familiar. No Bradford to be found. No people who looked or sounded like me. Going months without seeing my dogs. Days without sleeping. Longing for the shadowy rooms of my parents’ first house. The one I had been technically too young to remember.
To cope, I sat on my own writing hundreds of tunes I feared would never see the light of day. That is, until 2014 after I met the right people. We started to establish a sound unique to me that would incorporate both my Eastern and Western musical influences; and as a result ease my conscience. For a while those were the only two warring parts of myself. A struggle to not let the East overshadow the West, and similarly not allow the West to erase the East. My roots were of value to me, even if I’d never stepped foot in South Asia. I was fortunate to develop a working relationship with a London-based Pakistani producer before I ever left 1D. He presented himself trustworthy and understood the internal cultural struggle well; helping me to navigate it with the music we created.
Naughty Boy had accepted me into the fold like an adored little brother who he deeply believed in. “We’re on the rise…” he’d always repeat like a homemade mantra, with a glimmer in his eye that reminded me of polished apples. He hardly let me travel anywhere alone when I was home from tour, since according to him it was safer for someone of my caliber of fame to travel in numbers. I failed to question his philosophies because I trusted him beyond reason. He was the older brother I had been dying for growing up in a universe of women, and at times being incapable of connecting with my dad because of the generational gap. Likewise, I’d fallen in love with his cat, which was an obese Shorthair dying of diabetes. I had prayed for that damn thing.
Then I’d met his mom, who quit cooking when she left his dad, so there was no food in the house whenever we visited. It was a two-story converted flat on the edge of Birmingham that she’d been granted in the divorce, and it was usually a pigsty when we stopped by. Dishes of half-eaten food forsaken in the living areas. Spills from over turned glasses staining the carpet like abstract prints; which we pretended were Rorschach tests. Like spotting wispy animal effigies in the clouds. The reek of weeks-old roast nested in the molding, in the sofa. It probably sat congealed in a porcelain dish at the back of the fridge, hairy with mold.
Dirty laundry left in piles in the hallway outside the toilet. Vermin scurrying around in plain view. Beady-eyed mice and tawny ants. Shahid (Naughty Boy) had trouble getting her to clean up, or to move into a new place. She liked that it housed the memories of her happy domestic past. Whenever he sent a cleaning lady over, she refused to open the door. She had become paranoid and too peevish to interact with anyone other than him. Eventually he confided that she was exhibiting symptoms of early-onset dementia, which left him unsure of how to help. We became inseparable ever since; airing out our darkest and most disturbing secrets in his London studio, helping each other through our shit. Once I even came unnervingly close to telling him about Harry after a few too many beers, but thankfully I bit my tongue instead.
Having a producer to myself had been a life-changing experience, one that ought not be taken for granted. He was someone invested in me as an individual, and didn’t need to cater to my four counterparts who were all making sure their contributions were heard. That relationship soured by mid-2015, though, when I suspected Shahid was leaking all my new shit. It wasn’t difficult to figure out he was being paid for exclusive listens; people in the media desperate to get their hands on any inkling of Zayn’s Malik’s new solo stuff. To cut ties with him hurt more than I cared to admit, after everything we’d been through together in that studio, particularly with all the indispensable guidance he’d imparted that I would cling to for the rest of my life. But when it came down to it, I just couldn’t trust him the way I hoped.
I admit I didn’t enjoy sending those tweets in July 2015. In fact, it hurt me when I read them back to myself 5 minutes later, but it was too late to change anything by then. The damage was done, and if I deleted them then it would seem I’d been mistaken about his intentions, which I wasn’t. I still felt a lump in my throat whenever I thought back to the late nights we’d shared in London with his boys and my cousins, getting high, ordering takeout, running the streets absolutely stoned. Hitting a few bars to finish off the night.
It was all laughs, and we were all obsessed with the booth. Obsessed with unloading onto the mic in unmitigated streams of consciousness that left us in tears. It was the most authentic studio experience I’d ever had, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But when I looked back, it was plainly obvious he only associated with me because I was “on the brink of greatness.”
He let clout and his growing social media engagement cloud his judgement, and ended up posting some really reckless shit a time or two. Like the demo I recorded for Haz a few years ago. Now the entire world had heard it and dissected it and attributed false meaning to the things I confessed in a song meant for one person’s ears alone. The only excuse we could come up with was to say it was a rejected 1D demo, when anyone with two active braincells could see the song was never meant to be heard by the public. I was in a terrifying state-of-mind when I recorded it, thinking I’d lost everything for good. But Haz reassured me in every way after he got the email that he was mine and only mine, forever. And when Harry said “forever” he meant it quite literally. He was scary in that way.
“Business or pleasure?” a gravelly voice ventured beside me. He was my seat mate and had been asleep since we boarded. He hadn’t turned to look at me; but instead kept staring ahead at the hive of mussed brunette hair in the row before him, clearing his throat with a impatient compulsion.
“Uh, both, I guess.” I answered, looking at his liver-spotted hands and thick, yellow nails. “You?”
“Always pleasurable for me…always.”
“Is that soh?”
“Yesss, of course, my boy.” He had a whiny drawl at times, like a veritable drunk. But I’m certain he was sober. “I’ve enjoyed the notion of flying since I was a small concern…” The corners of his eyes lifted in a smile of tender remembrance. Deep crevices came to life, framing his droopy lids. “Couldn’t ever afford to take to the sky back then. Air travel was never particularly inexpensive, you know. My folks thought it a luxury, and I suppose they were right. It’s always been the road for them.”
“Same, by the way. I didn’t see the inside of a plane until I was, like, 18.” I chuckled. “It felt a little embarrassing admitting it was a first for me back when the tickets were purchased. All my friends had flown before.”
“You’ve got me beat. I was at least 27 before I could afford my first ticket. Flew over to Canada for business. Another man’s business, that is, never my own until I was about 40.” He cleared his throat. “Stayed under 24hrs before heading home.” Finally he glanced over at me, beneath the brim of his old-man-cap. A gray Herringbone tweed, like something out of the 1920s. He smelled like spearmint Dentyne and pipe tobacco. “Say, where you from anyhow?”
“The U-Kay…Bradford, originally.”
“You sound it. Can’t be mistaken.”
“Soh I’ve been told.” I laughed, pulling my headphones away. “Youh from New York, or just visitin’?”
“Schenectady. Born and raised.”
“You ought to. Everyone should.”
“Maybe I will,” I gave it consideration. “I’ve been trying to, like, take my time and explore the place since I got there late last year. Uh, my girlfriend’s shown me around a bit, but really only, like, the neighborhoods around Manhattan. She’s been there a few years.”
“There’s much more to New York than the cinematic dreaminess of Manhattan…”
“I would think soh. I’m excited to have my family over from the U-Kay…show them around a bit. Maybe we’ll get into sumthin'”
Later he told me about the trouble he’d gotten into as a teen stealing cars and joyriding them on the weekends. There was a whole car thief ring where he was from, ran by the local butcher, and they all taught each other to drive. Meaning mistakes were commonplace and never corrected. A lot of them had driven with both feet, some riding the brake and ruining the transmissions. He and his friends made it a monthly ritual until one of the newbies lost a hand in a head-on collision with a teacher. She didn’t live to tell the tale, and the guy had been charged with her death; made to serve his sentence with the new handicap. Luke, my old-timer seatmate, said it was the last time any of them went within a hundred feet of a stolen car. He thought karma had it’s way with him when his Buick was stolen a few years later, and he was left to bum rides around town.
I told him I was a musician and he didn’t hold it against me. He thought it was cool I’d been in a boyband, although he couldn’t name a single member of One Direction if his life depended on it. He told me about his three ex-wives, two dead, one survived. Then he told me he had known one of the girls from the Manson Family who hadn’t been apart of the murders. That his aunt used to babysit her once she moved to California. I wouldn’t understand the significance of that reference until I got home and researched it. Towards the end of our talk he had dozed off again, but not before inviting me to visit him in Schenectady anytime I wanted.
In my quiet time I liked to replay the greatest year of my life, longing to relive it. Perhaps make different choices. Perhaps live more keenly in the moment. The last few hours of the flight was no exception, and in an instant, I fell back into that mode of thought; “Just Like Honey” by The Jesus and Mary Chain seeping through my headphones.
2016 came and went in a heartbeat. My solo career shot out from under me like a crotch-rocket I was ill-equipped to manage. That was owing to the power of 1D, of course, and my leaving it so infamously. Landing a #1 on the Billboard was beyond my wildest dreams. Nothing I’d ever thought of aspiring to, seeing as how the band never achieved one for itself. We came close a time or two and the sales were always through the roof, but a #1 on the Hot 100 for an international artist was like stumbling across a four-leaf clover. It rarely ever happened, and if it did, it was usually a flash in the pan sort of thing. Something that required the careful attention of industry specialists and a formulaic rollout. All supplemented with just the right airplay and continuous hype. Nothing I was aiming for in the least. I just wanted to make the music I wanted to make and send it out to my fans. I’d do it all for free if I could, since I’d made my money and was content in that department.
‘Where do we go from here?’ — had been my first question when Taryn and a few friends brought over giant #1 balloons and champagne. Later they got me a massive arrangement of cupcakes in the shape of the number and took me to a fancy sushi bar. The world was my oyster, or so a dozen colleagues had assured me. Simon had personally called with congratulations since he had helped author the deal right out of the gate. I also got loads of DMs from old friends I hadn’t spoken to in a while, like Bieber and Katy Perry and even some of the suits over at Syco and Modest. Liam eventually reached out, then Niall. Nothing from Lou, and of course nothing from Haz until we ran into each other again at the gala.
I checked my phone compulsively to see if he had texted yet. Still nothing. He was upset and attempting to give me the cold shoulder. Fuck if it wasn’t working. I broke, which he claimed I never did first, and texted him a poop emoji. Ten minutes passed and I got agitated that he hadn’t responded. I wished there was a way to unsend texts. Fuck him, anyway. Best thing to do was set my phone down and call it a day. He would stay pissed for a while, as long as he was under the impression that I had left him to be with her; which technically was the case, but not really. It didn’t sound right once you said it aloud, because in truth, I never left LA.
I was still laying right there beside him. Could almost taste his skin on the tip of my tongue, so utterly lifelike were my recollections. I was never more present than when I was with him. G often got the absent me. The aloof one emotionally preoccupied with what was happening on the opposite coast. My thoughts tucked away in The Hills behind the soaring doors of a 1940s mansion. A place that once belonged to a renown film producer who had driven off a cliff one drunken night. Yeah, she got that version of me. The inattentive scatterbrain.
I imagined I could still smell every bit of him on my dominant hand—just the way I liked. I pressed the back of my fingers to my nose and inhaled like a sicko, glad Luke was still asleep. There was nothing left since I’d washed my hands earlier, but to be on the safe side, I needed to make a pit stop in the restroom before G caught up to me and found any traces of him. Problem was, I despised airplane bathrooms. They made me feel claustrophobic. And there was always some dickhead who had pissed the toilet seat by the time I got there.
Typically it seemed like there was piss dripping from the walls when I stepped into a space that small where strangers had been shitting all day. It gave me the creeps, like one of them portable chemical toilets at a festival that had seen better days. Probably serving a stretch at a seedy truck-stop before making its way to me. I had hair-raising memories of an outdoor festival that had been rained out a couple years back, and when I stepped inside the toilet, it was pitch black. Full of vomit and muddy footprints and wet toilet paper. I left there still having to piss, that is, until my cousins and I were able to relieve ourselves on the side of the road outside the venue.
Up, I got. Making my way to the first-class toilet and avoiding eye-contact with the other passengers in case anyone wanted a selfie, I was relieved to find it unoccupied. I marveled at how spacious the room was before staring at myself in the speckled mirror. It looked like someone had sneezed directly onto the glass and hadn’t bothered to clean it off. Just my luck.
“Babyyyyy!” G squealed when she saw me, running down the sidewalk along Arrivals in a red peacoat and collapsing into me. “Heyyyy, Z!! Oh my gosh, I missed you sooo much!” I laughed and squeezed her, lifting her off her feet a bit.
“Yeah, youh too.” After that, she started in on me, wanting to kiss with her extra sticky lip gloss. It landed on my cheek first, then on my lips and consequently in my mustache. It was thick and tacky like body wax—almost impossible to remove without that special solvent.
“Heyyy, babe,” I chucked, pulling her back for a quick kiss on the forehead. Sometimes I shuddered, thinking: If only she knew where my mouth had been. My stomach flipped at the thought of her finding out. We still needed to have The Talk.
“Oh god, babe, damn I missed you! It’s been like, ridiculously boring without you here. Apparently, according to Leah—”
“—I must’ve said that like a hundred times since you left, but hey, it’s true, right?”
“Well, youh too, babe. I missed youh too. C’mere…” I grabbed her over to me by the waist and we walked side by side for a bit, until she got tired of the dawdling strangers and charged forward through the masses. She knew I didn’t like crowds and always helped me push past them. We took a few pics here and there, but when it became overwhelming, she rushed the remainder of the way to the SUV.
She climbed in first and I followed, plopping my bag onto the seat between us. The driver shut the door. New York was a bit chillier than Hollywood, winds like the whispering prelude of a nor’easter, so I was glad I unpacked my burlap jacket before landing. I glanced over and she was already lost in her phone, free-falling into cyberspace and heedless to my existence. I wanted to smoke so bad my fingers itched. She smelled nice as hell. Powdery and fruity, like deodorant and mid-summer mornings.
“Oh wait, look-it! You missed this…” she laughed, reaching over to show me a picture of the botched Spaghetti Bolognese she’d made the other day. My recipe, which she’d been trying to nail for a while now. “I’m getting better, right? I think so!” She never waited for the answer. A girl of many rhetorical questions. “The sauce just wasn’t it, y’know? It wasn’t the consistency I wanted. Not exactly. Don’t you think? You always complain about that. Anyway, it’s probably better you missed it—”
“Right, don’t embarrass yourself in front of the master, babe. Maybe next time. I’ll have to teach you a thing or two—” That got me an elbow to the rib.
“Ew, you’re suck a tool,” she snorted. “But guess what?”
“You’re here now, so I can make you be my test pig—”
“More like a lab rat! Shit, not again…”
“—yeah, that too,” she laughed brokenly, like hiccups.
I missed her Californian accent. It was a stark contrast to what I’d been hearing the past couple of weeks—listening to Haz drone on in his lazy, indulgent way. Lips sometimes pressed to my ear in bed, talking me to sleep. Without question I preferred his more. Mainly because I’d grown up with it, and over time it had become synonymous with home. But hers was a nice change-up after a long time away. It helped jolt my brain back into NY-mode.
“Also…” She drawled, scrolling through her emails; those varnished nails like oily candy. “…Vogue called while you were away. Anna wanted to have a sit-down.”
“Anna herself? Is that soh?”
“They’re really REALLY interested in having the two of us together.”
“Yup-yup,” she said, leaning her head on my shoulder as we settled into the gridlock traffic headed out of the airport. The driver was an old Indian guy who wouldn’t turn the radio on and kept all the windows up. The cab was filled with the leftover smells of his peppery lunch. I tried to roll the back one down for a bit of fresh air, but found it locked. He definitely had no concern who we were, and wasn’t angling for a tip by any stretch of the imagination, since he hadn’t offered a smile since we climbed in the truck.
“Yooo,” I said. “Mind unlocking the windows, bruv?”
“I know, right,” G interjected.
“No problem, sir. Very good,” he replied with a heavy accent, glaring at me through the rearview mirror. He had crazy white hair and eyebrows, like Raiden.
“Thanks, maan,” I offered. He nodded. I set my cheek on top of G’s head and sighed. It would be a long trip back to NoHo.
“A cover?” I asked belatedly.
“Dunno yet. Hopefully—” Suddenly something occurred to her. She always came to life when talking about fashion, springing off my shoulder to look me in the eye. “Wait, Z, oh my gosh, there’s no way…like, a cover?! Could you imagine?!”
“You’d only be like the 8th or 9th guy to ever do it!”
“The cover?! Helloooo?! Keep up!” She snapped her skinny fingers.
“Ah! Okay, sick.”
“With it being us together, that would be major!”
“Major.” I repeated, raising my brows like she was crazy.
“Z?! Think about it. Look at me! Look at me real quick. You, Me, Vogue….” She sighed, fanning her hands around like a stage actress. “The cover?! Together?! That would be the most insane thing to ever happen…right?! People will eat that shit up. Tell me I’m wrong, Z. You know I’m right.” She bubbled over with laughter before gazing dreamily into the distance. “We would look, like…stupid sexy!”
“Yeah, that’d be quite cool. Pretty sick—can’t even lie,” I said. “On some historic shit—”
“Fuck yes, babe—see that’s what I’m talkin’ bout,” she barked, acting like a dude and punching me in the chest.
“Sickkk broh.” We laughed. After a while of riding in silence, she shrieked, starling me and the driver. Then she threw her phone on the floor.
“Wha—babe, what the fuck? Is it the game?!” I asked. She rolled her eyes, sulking against the opposite door. I picked up her phone and all I saw was: Game Over and adefeated high score.When I closed the app and mocked her, she blew an indignant raspberry across the car and snatched her phone back to respond to a text.
“Yo, babe, I’ve got this massive fucking pimple in my earh,” I remembered.
“Will youh pop it for me?”
“If youh loved me youh would—”
“You’re cracked if you think I’m popping your ear pimple?!” She dissolved into laughter. “What’s wrong with you? That’s not even something you ask somebody!”
“Babeee, but it hurts—” her phone rang. It was Bella.
“My sissy’s calling shush.” She said, popping a hand over my mouth. I talked through it and she tightened her hold. “Hey babes,” she answered the call. “How’s it goin’?”
While she was busy, I slapped her hand away and checked my phone. There were a few missed calls, but none from one contact in particular. He was probably deep in his feelings by now, knowing I’d landed in NYC and was most likely with her. I thought about texting him again, but decided to let him mope a little more. I dialed up my mom and she picked up right away.
“Hey youuuh!” she sang, always in a good mood. “How’s my sonshine?”
“Hey, mum, really gud. Youh okay?”
“Good, son. What’ve youh been up to? Heard you’re travelin’ around today. That’s what T. told me, anyweh.”
“I already have done. But I’m home now. Soh happy to be back too. Just wanted to check in, see if you’re alright. See how things are back home.”
“Well, they’re alright for the most part, Zein. As good as can be expected. Dad’s been a bit out of it, latelyh.
“Still? Since January? Well…he was mostly alright when I was there—”
“Well, he’s done his back in again—”
“What’s it like the third time?!”
“Old, nasty injury, it is—”
“What’s he even doin’ over there?!”
“Trying to keep up with your uncle at the gym, I suppose. I dunno. He’s only told me he’s pulled it again, not exactlyh how. I told him he has to take it easy, Zein. It never really healed properly from the truck—from the old accident. He rushed to get back into the gym too soon, in my opinion—”
“—It was never properly looked after.”
“—it never fully mended, now has it? Now he’s payin’ for it over and over again. It’s just gettin’ worse, I imagine.”
“Not gud, maan. He knows better than to act like that. What’s he actin’ all tough for, anyweh? He ain’t no spring chicken.”
“Who dares to tell him that?” she chuckled.
“He don’t wanna end up on a cane, or in a wheelchair or somethin’ like that. Talk to ’em, mum—”
“What’d youh think I’ve been doin’, Zein? He won’t listen. He misses his boy. Maybe if youh were here—”
“Oh don’t start like that, mum. I don’t wanna hear it again. I don’t mean to be short, but it’s the same old talk all the time. I’m too tired to hear it now. I was just there in January, weren’t I?”
G had gotten off the phone and was absently running her fingers through my hair, messing up my deflated quiff. “I come when I can…youh, know that, mum.”
“I know, I know, son, but he’d do good if he could see your face every now and again. The girl’s do what they can, but sometimes he needs to hear it from a man. His brother’s no good, anyweh. He’s gotten him into this mess to begin with—in the gym.”
“Yeah, well, I’m comin’ again soon. Tell the old man I’ll see him in a bit, alright? Tell ’em I said take it easy or he’ll have a proper beat down waitin’ for ’em when I get there.” She laughed and promised she’d convey the message. We said our goodbyes, and G was looking to make-out before I could even put my phone away.
WHAT TO EXPECT NEXT!
-Zayn surprising Gigi in Paris (February 2017)
-Major drama in Paris
-Flashback to 2013, picks up after the engagement
-Flashbacks to 2014-2015
-More Zarry in all time periods!!
Can’t wait to share the next few chapters with you! Thanks loves 🙂