In the cab, I was getting hallucinations of Mount Fuji. Closed confines make me nauseous. I’ve got vertigo I think. Curious things happen inside my ears. But then again, Mount Fuji. Did you know there are thirty six views of Mount Fuji. I couldn’t recall more than four. Mount Fuji under the bridge. Mount Fuji as seen from the bucolic fields of Japan. Mount Fuji from in between waves. The bloody red Mount Fuji erupting, the quiet dormant volcano of centuries. Mount Fuji, like God, is omnipresent. Overlooking everything. No matter where you are, there is always a Mount Fuji behind you. Tiny or huge, nevertheless. And those nostalgically mesmerizing Ukiyo-e Japanese paintings by Hokusai. It meandered through my mind as the cabbie honked and halted in impenetrable traffic. I was so going to miss that flight, baby.
My nausea wasn’t going to cure itself. And lemons were sparse. Minutes ago, I was telling him about my recurring bouts of yearning for raw mango slices dipped in salt and chili powder. Strange yearnings, you’ve got, he retorted. But that’s the only antidote for nausea, there is. With the onset of summer, raw mangoes come plenty in this country. This ain’t no Japan.
The mid-May sun shone relentlessly as we scrounged for a little bit of road to the airport. If I missed the flight, I would have to come back to his apartment. And that was not a feasible option after the motions we had just been through. My tongue felt funny, saliva accumulated beneath my tongue. That was it, I could puke any moment now. As one last resort, I closed my eyes tight and tried to remember the smell of cosmetic closet. It had an amalgamated smell of deodorants, body lotions, face creams, nail paint etc. I thought initially, that it was the previous tenant’s smell left behind in that closet. But then I shifted apartments and then I realized that the smell was mine. It feels backward to say that science still hasn’t found a way to preserve and carry smell, or have they. Our olfactory senses are underrated. My vomit subsided and I had two gulps of water. He could probably read the relief on my face.
My apartment otherwise stank of cigarettes. Almost perennially. A week after I had publicly proclaimed that I had quit. Just like it did the week before. I never quit, actually, I lie, for convenience. White little lies. Or because I read somewhere, that when you say it aloud, you feel scrutinized and your resolve to perform is doubled. But you double zero, it stays unchanged. Similarly, my resolve. I wanted to smoke again. I wouldn’t be able to, in the two hour flight.
I looked sidewise. Drops of perspiration on his forehead had dried up. His face nearly covered the vent of the air conditioner. I held his collar from the back of his neck and pulled him away. He smirked. A smirk suits his face. His almost pentagonal face, such a nice jawline he has, I thought. His glasses sat capriciously on his nose. Sliding down from time to time. He put them back in their place Every time, without fail. Sometimes even before they had begun to nudge in the slightest manner. He is prone to his habits.
One cannot blame habits. He works in this city. Wakes up, goes about his ablutions. Walks fast to the train station, takes the train. Walks out, walks to his work place. Eats breakfast. Starts working. Goes about his work. Taking timely breaks in between. Eats and drinks in those. Smokes as well. When it’s time, he walks out, walks to the train station, takes the train. Takes the long lone walk to his apartment again, or hails an auto rickshaw, if he’s too tired. Eats dinner out of cans, sitting on the table, going through the morning paper and goes to bed, after two rounds of masturbation, of course. Sometimes, he skips dinner and goes for a drink. But rest of the routine remains the alike.
On most weekends, he has to work. But on some of those, he visits his aunt. She lives in the suburbs. With her borderline alcoholic husband and fourteen year old daughter. That fourteen year old cousin of his is as good as twice her age. She, apparently has a very four pronged sex life. Once rummaging through her cupboard of books, he found cigarettes, alongside a pack of condoms and an unused pregnancy kit. Kids, these days! When he told me so much about her, I told him, that if he rummages through my cupboard, he would find pretty much the same things. But she would probably have been more discreet and hidden them safe. In my case, he wouldn’t have to rummage that much.
But then I am much older. More than twice that cousin’s age. So that’s a given.
His lighthearted misogyny got to me. What is with his putting women in parenthesis. Of defining what she should be like and not otherwise. I began choosing the right words to rebuke him. Such that the idea is communicated and the man isn’t scathed much. But soon, I gave up on that idea. The traffic was relentless. The airport was still fifteen minutes away. May be I should just pick up my bag and walk.
But wait oh, I had no bag. I was there only for the day. The limited length of time of a few hours, rather. A few days ago, he had mentioned that he was planning on purchasing a washing machine. A washing machine, a big electronic purchase. A washing machine before a television or a fridge. He said he had become exhausted of washing all his white shirts. He wore white shirts only. Just like Donald Draper. Or sometimes, a few variations of white. Egg shell, cream, ivory, vanilla. Too many hues for a man, who by virtue of his gender is gifted colorblindness.
So he needed a washing machine. I suggested some brand my parents had for years, but rarely used. In my family, all our lives, we washed our clothes with our own hands and wrung them dry in the window railings of our middle aged two bedroom apartment. But he lived alone in the city and needed fresh shirts every day. He asked me do some further research. Should it be front load or top load. Should it be automatic or semi-automatic. I compared some brands for him, but he wasn’t satisfied with the long lists and short lists. After days of perambulations, motions between yeses and noes, he decided I should come down to his city and go to the store with him so that we could pick it out together.
His father was a surgeon. His mother had pigeon like eyes and read poetry. His brother was gainfully employed whose wife had just has twins. They all lived in a different town though. He lived alone in the city where he worked. I booked my ticket, before second thoughts creeped in. I had known him for three long years, on and off. How bad could a meeting go? It would be a make or break. Okay, then so be it. I took a long look at my tickets, both to and fro and rechecked the days and timings. The AMs and the PMs. Everything was in order.
Without allowing chance for much suspicion, I met him that day at the airport. He had come to pick me up though he had said he wouldn’t be able to make it. Our eyes met uncomfortably for a moment or two. We sized each other up. I remembered that I had shaved my armpits and my legs, that very morning. They would be bristly, but not before tonight. We shook hands, mine were soft, his were firm. He was smaller than I had imagined. His shoulders stooped and his glasses made him look nerdy than your average person. A lot of regions in my body, tingled at the same time. The temperature in my temples rose, suddenly.
We picked out the washing machine within ten minutes of entering the store and the sales girl told me that I was going to like it very much. He winked at me and smiled back at her. I disapproved of people jumping conclusions. We didn’t look married to each other at all. What newly married bride would wear a man’s t shirt and have a back packed slung on her shoulders and have hair opened and spruced up like a tree. Not many.
They said they would deliver to his address within the next three hours. He asked me what I wanted to do next. Subtly indicating that he hadn’t had any rigid plans in his head and was as flexible as I would like him to be. I was agile enough to say it aloud that I wanted to see his apartment. And anyway, shouldn’t someone be there to check if it was installed alright. He nonchalantly said mentioned that he left a spare pair of keys with the security guard of his building and tipped him heavily not to rob him.
But I insisted that we ensured it was done right and in our august presence.
He kissed me as soon as we shut the door and told me that he knew he wouldn’t be able to hold himself back if we came to his apartment. With that breakage of ice behind us, I closely inspected every square feet of space that was as he made me some black tea on his hot plate. I checked the window panes, the corners behind the shelves, the bathroom, the railing in the portico, the view to the road that spiraled lazily downstairs in the near soporific pre noon traffic. There was nothing to be found. And I didn’t know what exactly I was looking for. I hadn’t finalized that yet. Was it hidden cameras, was it belongings of his ex-girlfriend or paraphernalia that his mother had left behind from her last visit.
I made myself comfortable on a corner of his bed and sat with my feet up, crossed like in yoga. The pastel color bedsheets gave themselves away easily, they deserved a wash. With rocks or something. This man sure needed a washing machine. He entered with two cups and a plateful of crackers. Don’t mind the mess, he told me. Of course I didn’t. Living alone could be taxing, for some reasons apart from the tremendous freedoms it betroths one with. Like I never split a straw. I understand how life functions when you are a single person in a one bedroom, I told him.
We discussed rents in our respective cities and security deposits to be left interest free with the landlord, deductions from it thereon etc. After being through that, we came to public transport and climate change and so on. Somewhere in between, our fingers touched, accidentally, on the bed. I confessed, I never thought I would ever get to see him. Why, he asked. Because life doesn’t work out in our favor as much as it works out in its own meandering aimless manner. Not to our specific benefit, particularly, but we see others doing relatively better, leading distinctly more happy and content lives, at least from what it appears. And when sometimes, that meandering aimless life takes one capricious turn, bents that seem to have erupted from nowhere, we find ourselves at a loss. We can’t cope with that loss, because, one, we didn’t see it coming and two, the life of others.
The life of others, I long paused after this, is a tremendous phenomenon. He told me, he was the brighter of the two children his parents had. He didn’t think so. But everyone did. His older brother wasn’t as good as school as he was, there was no reason except that despite having been constructed from the same material, from zygotes that may have been very similar, his elder brother by three years turned out to be a shy individual. And because of that shyness, possibly, he slowly vanished into himself, like gobbled himself down. And became invisible, most of the times, outside of home. He graduated in Commerce and worked as an accountant in a company office near their house. It turned out, his brother never went anywhere far from where he had begun. He had gone to school and college, both in the same town. Worked there as well. When the time seemed right, a girl was chosen for him suitable for a quiet arranged marriage. Under strands of jasmine and marigold in a podium in their backyard, they took vows and hosted over three hundred guests, none of whom was the younger brother.
The younger brother, had cleared tougher tests, went to far off schools, paid hefty fees with big fat education loans. Worked in big blue chip companies, in their big blue sky scrapers. Travelled to foreign lands, lived months of his life in hotel rooms that were serviced right and refilled with supplies, but never felt like home. In fact the night his older brother got married, he was in a similar hotel room, several time zones away because his employer wouldn’t reimburse him for a trip back home for a family function in the middle of an assignment.
He met scores of men and women from different backgrounds, his mind opened up, he was supposed to be the one who had seen more of the world. Known life better. At his age, he was richer than the average man his age, and most definitely than his older brother. Though, by genes, he was as shy, but he wasn’t withdrawn like his older brother. He went about life welcoming it. And nothing too bad ever happened.
I wondered if his older brother viewed him as the ‘others’, the way, I viewed the ‘others’ in my life of ‘others’. I was the underdog in my family. Always had been, always will be. And anyway, precisely because of that, I never thought I would see him in person. Because good things happened primarily to other people, people who weren’t me.
And now, if he stopped calling me after I went back this time, an incident which had happened to a couple of my girlfriends, I would again be the one who didn’t benefit from this entire act of taking two flights on the same day, and having my expectations stacked like an unstable stack of pastries, waiting ultimately for it to crumble and create an irreparable mess. This would be a futile chain of events. Like a life lesson learnt.
But of course, I wasn’t telling him this. Did never want to bring up the topic of estrangement. Estrangement was the elephant in the room. He had known me for three years alright, after having accidentally stumbled upon on social media. But he left me intermittently in between. Without a word, he would stop calls and messages. Like one of us had died. Like one of us never existed. That would leave me high and dry. And dealing with terrible bouts of heartache. And months down the line, he would make acquaintance as if the sun rose the next day. Without an inhibition, without doubts towards what I might feel like. I felt envied his lack of fear of retribution but I reconciled nevertheless.
But I never did ask him what happened in the gaps he abandoned me. Did he get too busy with work? Did he get a real girlfriend? Did he have a reality check in his life because he was getting too close to me and was keeping too much at stake through half a dozen calls a day, besides score of text messages. I never asked him anything. Questions were risky. I was afraid of what he might say and my weak chested-ness to absorb that unpredictable truth. So we never brought up the elephant in the room. He never asked him if I had been seeing someone. If there was another man, if at all, besides him. But I had participated wholesomely in the kiss at the threshold earlier, I had taken long pains for this trip. This was no plaything for me, he must know. Whether he had similar feelings for me, were open to debate and a solitary mind’s tribulations.
To cut past this, I suggested eating lunch. Food was a good cause. Food was a good enough distractions. He asked me what I wanted and ordered something online. While waiting for the food, we smoked a few and had a drink. His eyes got a little red and lips swelled up. Or probably, I was hallucinating.
There were knocks on the door. The food and the washing machine came at the same time.
An hour later, all hints of the afternoon disappeared as he strung the curtains on the sole window in the room. A mild yellow light persisted somehow. Was it through the skylight up in the wall. Was it the residue of the light that still continued to filter through the light navy blue curtains. Was it light that had locked itself up from before and showed up after we made the room dark enough.
In a bout of quiet panic, I bit my nails and the skin on my fingertips. He made me another drink and gently asked me, if it was alright, if he went ahead. He was too soft to be audible, at first. When I told him I couldn’t hear him anyway, he withdrew a bit for a moment or so and after an elongated pause near my ear, asked me again.
The ceiling fan left a ghost like shadow on the roof and made a creaking noise sometimes. Like it was too tired. Looking at us sweat profusely, he told me the air conditioner was next. And asked me to look up a good one. I asked him to wait the summer out, they would come much cheaper in the off season. With this ongoing conversion in the backdrop, we can conveniently unclothed each other, like it was everyday business. There was no awkwardness, but yes a plethora of endorphins in our heads. His mouth still smelt of the garlic in our lunch. His chest was hairy and his grandmother’s locket dangled from it, all the time. Sometimes, it was all I could see. The remaining light dimmed out with time. The sun must have set. For hours, I couldn’t absorb the act, even though it had been in the planning for months, almost.
I held on to time, desperately but it passed relentless. From among the gaps between our intertwined fingers in a tight fist, I saw the time on his wrist watch. I wouldn’t be able to make it to the airport, if we left any later. I went in to the bathroom to wash myself. He hugged me from behind in front of the mirror and said somethings. I was too sober for having had three drinks myself. Probably, the sex undid the effect of alcohol or vice versa. I was totally cool, with everything. I heard every word of what he said. I almost knew he wouldn’t stand by what he said. It wasn’t my pessimism or lack of adequate beauty. It was just that every little thing came with its own life span. A stretch of time beyond which it died a natural death.
And frankly, I have seen more painful departures. Couples being done apart by orthodox parents, couples being torn apart because one of them didn’t make enough money, didn’t have a job that paid enough, the color of skin, a couple of college degrees. I have seen couples being done apart by disease and death as well. So honestly, this was a better end to the whole thing. Just outgrowing, forgetting, not living up to promises, said and unsaid. Yet, I heard him out and kissed him back when need be.
It wasn’t dark still, this was the west coast, night came much later here. The bathroom had a tiny window and in that light our naked bodies revealed many truths they didn’t back in the bedroom. I took a good look and him and saved it for later. My legs grew sturdy. Outside, I got dressed with him watching me. I almost wore my top inside out. He helped me out a bit. I walked into the kitchen and squeezed an entire lemon into my mouth and drank a bottle of water.
He assured me that I didn’t smell that much and nobody would stop me from boarding the flight. We laughed at that thought. He called a cab and I unpacked my backpack. I had a few gifts for him, a pair of cufflinks I had bought for him a two years ago, when I had been deeply infatuated with the idea of the man he was. Or I imagined him to be. He appeared quite stunned to see them. And a tiny box of chocolates. Which was actually a silent retort to the number of times I had asked him for chocolates and had been stranded empty handed. High and dry. In the lovelorn months and months for which he had abandoned me for other women, or friends or foreign trips.
In all those years, this time it felt as if he was here to stay. But didn’t it always feel that way with him. Every time more convincing that the last. But he never hung around long enough to be the one and only. Always took the easy exit and I had gotten used to that behavioral pattern. Or so I would like to believe.
I licked his fingertips after he squeezed me another tablespoon of lemon juice. The aftertaste of nicotine had stayed in them. I stole a pack of cigarettes from his cupboard. And this was my return gift, I told him. We were going to quit smoking together, hell yeah, I told him. Sure why not.
The day felt like a poem. I got in the cab and he followed suit. He was coming to see me off. But why the extra trouble, there was no need for it. I would be safe, I had learnt very well how to defend myself from errant taxi drivers, random molesters, run off the mill oglers on the road and the like. I needed no man to protect me. I had a pepper spray in my bag and all the alarm apps installed in my phone. I was fully prepared. If I needed any protection at all, it would be from his lack of response for my unrequited love of years. His lack of answers to my several questions. His absence in my scores and scores of longish solitary nights. The smells and sights of that I was carrying with me which would trouble me for weeks to come. He was the dirty villain, not the bystander who would stare at me for more that his quota of allotted time, or the taxi driver who would utter a slang or three when I haggle with him regarding the negotiated fare, or the man whose hand would brush past my breasts almost as callously as it brushed past a bunch of mangoes at a fruit stall.
He was the villain, not all of those other men. He was the villain, now leaning towards the vent of the air conditioner in the cab, with my hand at the back of his neck, pulling back his collar. The air conditioner was sure the next equipment he was going to purchase. He asked me to book my tickets for the week after next or so. I pretended to be flabbergasted. He pretty sure understood the reason behind my reaction but still asked me what that meant.
I drew in my breath. Looked out the window. The highway to the airport was deserted. I was relieved he had accompanied me. The sun was now melting into the clouds tending to the western horizon. I closed my eyes, the hot evening breeze rolled in as I slid down the window on my side. I imagined a snow clad Mount Fuji, like in those paintings. Feeling a shiver almost, I looked on to his side. The sun reflected on his fair face and his chin shone in the orange light. The wind was throwing his hair haywire. I squeezed his chin and told him he damn sure knew what I meant.
If this status quo of cozy attraction was maintained for the next two weeks, I would think about coming down. For all you know, I might be the one to stop talking abruptly this time. Sans any explanation, any word. Leave alone a decent good bye. He was embarrassed, and looked away. I had never imagined conversation would ever flow this smoothly with this man. I would always, in the past, experience hiccups before talking to him, not knowing where to begin, what to say, how much to reveal and how much to conceal.
He didn’t apologize. He would have to come out of his skin to apologize. And no amount of apology anyway would heal me for the hurt caused. And yet I was there beside him. And was inching closer to booking my tickets for the next, praying like a child that he didn’t change his mind. My resolve to love him wasn’t questionable. His whim to love me even one bit, definitely was. I was slowly filling myself up with anger and simultaneously drawing myself further and further away from him.