i lay in bed, staring at the patterns drawn on the wall by the headlights of cars passing on the road below. she lay in between my arm and my body, her shoulder biting into my armpit, her head resting somewhere between my shoulder and my chest, crying softly. she was crying so softly, in fact, that i hadn’t noticed until i felt the dampness on my chest. i pulled up her face to my mine and kissed her longingly, trying my best to put out whatever fire burned in her eyes and gave rise to those tears. she kissed me back, with a hunger that i hadn’t experienced before.
“what’s wrong?” i asked. “did i hurt you?”
“no,” she replied, “it’s just that…nevermind.”
“tell me,” i said, wiping away the tears from her eye with the hand that wasn’t pinned under her. “you know i can’t stand it when people don’t tell me things.”
she smiled. “it’s just that i never imagined anyone could ever love me again.” she said, her smile not doing a good job hiding the pain and hurt that had come to the surface.
what was there for me to say to that? i bet even you couldn’t come up with an appropriate reply. so all i did was hold her tighter to my body, and pray that the silence that had descended upon us was one of those that countless authors describe as comfortable.
* ** * ** *
i’d told many girls i loved them – mostly so that they’d say it back to me, and with that assurance in mind, i could begin the arduous task of pushing them away. the process seemed to work extremely well – by the time some poor unfortunate girl had gotten around to getting to know me well enough to tell me she loved me, i had gotten to know her well enough to realize that, no matter how amazing and perfect she was, she wasn’t the one i was looking for. who was i looking for, you wonder? i’m not absolutely certain myself. it was much easier to label someone as not the one than to figure out what would make someone the one.
this time, however, i had come across something completely different. i’d told her i loved her an hour ago, and already i was feeling the familiar pangs (push her away, hurt her, insult her, get rid of her). but something kept pulling me towards her at the same time. i was caught in a frantic tug of war between these two forces, and i wasn’t certain which one i should succumb to.
* ** * ** *
i had met her at the psychiatrist’s office – my second home, my confessional – where i vented all my emotions and was absolved for having them in the first place. i’d been going to see the doctor for almost four years – he would have told me that my mind was perfectly fine four years ago, had i not meant some extra money in his pocket each week. over those four years, the number of people with psychological problems seemed to multiply exponentially, and i spent longer and longer hours in the waiting room waiting for my turn. i had learnt long ago to take a good book with me to pass the time, much to the consternation of the other people waiting, who could barely contain their inquisitiveness as to what i was reading. when i try and remember my sessions now i can’t remember dates, but rather i remember what book i was reading that week, and what the people sitting next to me said about the book.
somewhere between rushdie (evil satanist, said the schizophrenic under his breath) and asimov (useless trash, wisely proclaimed the father of the drug addict with a maze of needle marks covering the insides of his arms), she walked in to my life. she was shrouded in a black anonymous burkha, and i took no notice. i sat up and started to take notice, however, when she dug out a kafka book from her bag and started to read.
how cliched is that, i asked myself. reading kafka in a psychiatrist’s waiting room. perhaps next week she’ll bring in some freud while waiting for her appointment.
it wasn’t her appointment, however. as i learned later, she’d come in with her mother, who was undergoing counseling for some anonymous ailment.
if one person reading a book was strange, two apparently were normal. people stopped taking notice of our avid reading week after week. eventually she finished with kafka and moved on to hemingway. and then to salinger.
i stopped counting weeks according to what i was reading. instead, i started keeping track of the weeks according to what she was reading.
* ** * ** *
after salinger came vikram seth, the beginning of her south asian fiction phase. throughout weeks of jhumpa lahiri and arundhati roy and hanif kureishi, i often found myself sitting opposite her, with my book perched on my lap solely for the purpose of camouflage. what i was really interested in, however, was her eyes – the only part of her that i could see – particularly the way her eyes skimmed through the pages of the book, the way they sometimes reflected joy, and sometimes sadness, and sometimes anger. i had read the books myself years ago, yet i found myself reliving each and every chapter through her eyes.
several times she caught me looking at her, at which point i quickly pretended to be engrossed in my own book for a few seconds, before returning to watching her. it took me several months of this delicate subterfuge to get up the nerve to talk to her.
one day, fed up at the interminable wait, i decided to get myself a cup of coffee at the nearby cafe. sure that she would reject my offer outright, i asked her if she was interested in a cup, too – her mother had gone in for what seemed a year’s supply of counselling. to my surprise, she agreed, and we made our way quietly to the cafe.
i was at a loss at what to talk about. but she led the conversation. “how’s forsyth,” she asked, much to my confusion.
“frederick forsyth, the author of the book you’re reading.”
“oh. good. i think.”
“which part of the book are you up to?”
“the…uh…part where…uh…the terrorist runs into the hero,” i fabricated.
she laughed, too polite to tell me that that never happens in this forsyth novel. “you aren’t concentrating on the novel much are you?”
“no,” i admitted, and our conversation took on a life of its own and proceeded from there.
soon it became a weekly ritual. i fidgeted anxiously for her mother to be called in for her session – she didn’t know about our burgeoning friendship yet, and was not to be told. and then we’d go off and have coffee and talk about everything and anything. after a couple of weeks of this, i stopped going in for my sessions; instead, i’d just go to the doctor’s office so that i could go out for coffee with her.
* ** * ** *
as she slept quietly nestled in my arms, i found myself tracing the scar across her body with my finger tip. from the first time she had shown me her face, i had been entranced by the scar she bore: black turned to white, night turned to day, evil transformed itself to good. my gaze was always drawn to the boundary between the two opposing forces – the no man’s land where black was white, dark met light, night segued into day and evil became good. this had always confused her – instead of being appalled by the grotesque (her word) remnant of what had happened to her, i seemed entranced by it. she had shown me her face in an effort to get me to understand that she wasn’t normal (her word again), and that my intense interest was being wasted on her.
seems like i’m not the only one who’s good at pushing others away.
but it was too late. i’d seen too much of her in her eyes and through that thick black burkha to care what lay directly beneath it. i was more interested and attracted to what lay further down, in her soul, in her consciousness, in her very being to be pushed away by a scar.
with my finger, i traced the scar down her face, down her neck, through the delicate valley of her shoulders, and down to her arms, where it slowly petered out.
* ** * ** *
when she was 12 years old, a guy in her village fell in love with her. when she refused to marry him, he got his revenge by throwing acid on her face, so that he could take away her beauty and so that nobody else would marry her. this was, of course, after he raped her.
i wanted to go to her village and find the guy. just to tell him that he couldn’t do what he set out to – could never do it in fact. he’d never be able to take away her true beauty – it was hidden too well within her soul for that to ever happen. what he had taken away from her with that acid attack was her innocence, and that was something he had no right to take away.
* ** * ** *
no matter how i tried, sleep would not come. my head had begun throbbing, and so i got up softly, making sure the sudden movement did not disturb her sleep. i walked into the kitchen to grab a glass of water and have a quick smoke on the verandah.
as the distant noise of traffic floated to me through the nigh, i stood caught in a crossfire of conflicting emotions – should i push her away? should i let her stay? should i tell her, good lord, should i tell her?
the only reason i hadn’t pushed her away yet, i realized, was because some part of me was truly convinced that she was the fabled one, the person i’d been waiting for. this had caused the rest of me to be in severe confusion – what if she is the one, and i lose the one thing i’ve been waiting for all my life?
* ** * ** *
“you never tell me anything about you,” she opined in the cafe one week. this was a few weeks after she’d thrown off the veil in an attempt to shock me, but was rewarded with awe instead.
“what do you mean? i’ve told you tons of things.”
“yes, but most of it isn’t about you, it’s about other people. that doesn’t count.”
“well, what do you want to know?” i asked.
“let’s see,” she said, before lapsing into silent thought. suddenly, she asked, “why did you start going to the psychiatrist?”
“i once thought i was depressed, but i realized i was just tired.”
“so why did you stop going?” she asked, the smile on her face betraying the fact that she knew the answer.
“let’s just say i found a better way to spend the time.” i smiled back.
* ** * ** *
the first sign of dawn in this great city is the cawing of the crows. as they woke up to greet the morning with their angry chatter, the throbbing in my head intensified, as if something else had awakened as well, to the point where i had to grab hold of the railing to stay upright.
i went back to the bedroom. she lay on the bed, blissfully asleep, bathed in the neon glow of the streetlight outside. i sat on the edge of the bed, watching her, trying to overcome this confusion that seemed ready to tear me apart?
as the neon glow bathing her body was steadily replaced by the first rays of the morning sun, i came to a decision – this was one person i wasn’t going to push away, no matter what. i just couldn’t afford it. i also couldn’t afford to hurt her either – she’d been through enough pain and punishment in her life, for something that wasn’t even her fault, for me to add to that.
her eyes fluttered and opened, the remnants of sleep still visible, as a smile stole across her face when she saw me sitting there watching her. she sat up and gave me a kiss that told me in a heartbeat that i had made the right decision, and pulled me back in to bed.
after we were finished and she was back resting in my arms, i told her i loved her. and this time, the first time, i felt no desire to push her away.
maybe one day i’ll tell her why i was depressed and went to the psychiatrist in the first place.
or maybe i’ll wait the four more months until this cancer kills me – then she’ll definitely know.
* ** * ** *
apologies if that was awful. i wrote it for two reasons: it was stuck inside my head, dying to come out, and also because i wanted to make sure i could still write. it’s been almost a year since my last story.