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The Hidden Fortress

Wife


jana
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well, my lovelies, here is the first instalment of the story mentioned earlier. i'm putting in small instalments so that it doesn't take you too much time to load or read. if you do read, please do let me know anything you felt while reading it. if you felt nothing, then tell me that. :lol:

 

NOTE: i've tried to use "sms english" - a language i deeply abhor. but i don't really know it very well. so there may be mistakes. if there are words you don't understand or if the meaning of the sms conversations isn't coming through, please tell me. then i need to radically rethink things. :roll:

 

Wife

 

It happened as many weddings do. He took two weeks’ holiday and she quit her job. From the day she landed, little yellow butterflies that seemed to show up unexpectedly wherever Sunanda went. They were happiness on wings. They made everyone giggle because the old wives’ tale says that you know a girl is of marriageable age when butterflies hover around her. Some believe that if butterflies appear, then there is a wedding in the offing. And there was because Arun and Sunanda were getting married. The aunts and uncles and parents were delighted that there was a wedding in the family. The cousins only wanted to know if they had already had sex. The parents were busy attempting to outdo each other with wedding extravagances. He had never asked her to marry him. They met one evening under the watchful gaze of their smiling parents and they smiled at each other and the glasses of scotch (fathers) and gin (mothers) were raised because obviously, there was going to be a wedding in the family. It didn’t matter then, in the days of the yellow butterflies, because she was happy. She was in love. They were in love. Everybody was in love with the idea of them in love. No one raised the needle-sharp questions that everyone raised here. Like, “So how did he propose to you?” or “He didn’t get you a ring?”

 

In this irresponsible country, there is a channel on cable that offers her porn after midnight. Sunanda often makes a mental note to watch it but somehow it never happens. Sometimes she wonders what would happen if Arun knew she thinks about watching pornography. She hasn’t told him. What if it doesn’t disgust him? What if he’s excited by the idea and suggests watching it together? What if he pulls out a video camera? What if he has a secret closet full of pornographic videos? Best not to get into these murky subjects. It is during these times, when she tries to imagine a reaction from Arun, that Sunanda realizes how little she knows him, how little time she has had to know him. Though, as she rationalizes often, what difference would time have made? If it has to happen, it happens. People change, relationships don’t. Her cellphone friend told Sunanda that in one of their sms conversations. It’s one of the things Sunanda wrote down because it sounded like something that could hold true both here in this chrome and glass wonderland and back home, in the shadow of crumbling gargoyles and narrow lanes.

 

One person you would make love to but can’t.

 

X-bf’s wife.

 

Not the boyfriend?! Why the wife?

 

Spoil her fr him frevr n spoil him fr her frevr.

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Remembering how it happened makes Sunanda smile and so she reminds herself of it all the time. It was the night her best friend Trishna came over for dinner in the middle of a whirlwind business trip. Sunanda had been so excited at the thought of Trishna finally meeting Arun (Trishna couldn't get leave to come for the wedding since it was at such short notice). She wanted everything to be perfect and everything was. She wanted Trishna to see how happily everything had worked out. She took no chances and decided to order the food. Arun took responsibility for the wine. The house was clean. Arun came home from work earlier than normal. They had sex before Trishna came. Trishna found the house without any trouble. All the signs pointed to things going well.

 

But things didn't turn out well. Sunanda found herself picking at the skin on the sides of her nails when she saw the conversation was forced at best and sluggish at worst. When Arun said he’d get the dessert, Sunanda had the distinct feeling he was fleeing into the kitchen where there was at least the comfort of absolute, un-awkward silence.

"Who is this?" Trishna asked holding up a small black and white picture standing on the bookshelf. It was obviously an old photograph of a little girl with blonde curls in a fuzzy field. She was running towards the camera, her face full of laughter.

"I don't know. It was here before I moved in. Never mind that! Tell me what you think!" Sunanda asked in a theatrical stage whisper.

"He's nice," Trishna replied immediately, almost before Sunanda had finished her question.

"But you don't like him," Sunanda said slowly.

Trishna sighed deeply. "I don't know him and that's just my point. Neither do you. You meet a guy for five dates and decide you want to marry him!"

"Oh come on, we've been over this."

"You've known him for three months. Three months! Is that enough? It takes longer to find a good apartment to rent!"

"Trish, he's perfect for me. He makes me feel… complete."

"All the more reason to take more time!" Trishna shook her head. After a moment when they were both silent, Trishna spoke again. "Look, these are all clichés. Let's get real. You think you know him, but you can't. You only know the parts of him that he is showing you. I'm not saying he's not a good guy, maybe he is. But," again she had sighed. "A guy who has lived here for the past 15 years, is successful, blah blah blah just doesn't, at the drop of a hat, doesn't go crazy enough to marry a girl –”

And Arun walked in with two plates laden with tiramisu, one for Trishna and one for Sunanda. The dessert was excellent but it didn’t serve to sweeten Sunanda’s mood. She knew what Trishna had been about to say: men like Arun didn’t marry girls like her. For the rest of the evening, Sunanda was quiet. When it was time for Trishna to leave, Arun diplomatically gave the two women a few moments to themselves. Trishna took out a pen and scribbled a number on Sunanda’s palm.

“My cellphone number. Call me if you need anything. I’m in the city till Thursday.”

“I haven’t memorized mine yet.”

Silence.

“Look, Sunanda, I’m sorry if I seem too cynical but I just don’t want you hurt. You understand that right? I just want to know that you know he is genuine with you. That he isn’t, I don’t know, using you to get over some other woman. Or something like that. You’re an incredible person. I want him to know and love you, for yourself, and I’m just not sure that he’s actually seen you.”

“You’re jealous,” Sunanda had blurted out. “You’re just jealous that I’ve found someone while you’re still single. You’re jealous because you never thought I’d be ahead of you.”

Trishna’s jaw stiffened. “Being married doesn’t put you ‘ahead’ of me.”

“Being happy does.”

Trishna left without saying another word. That night, Sunanda heard that conversation again and again and again in her head. Each time she heard herself, she would cringe. Finally at about midnight, Sunanda reached for her cellphone, charging on the bedside table. Pressing a button to make the display light up, Sunanda held the phone up to throw its light on her palm where Trishna had written her number. Washing the dishes and clenching her fist for the past few hours had made the writing very faint. Still, she could make out the numbers. For a moment Sunanda wondered whether she should call her. It was very late. She opted for a mid-point, between silence and conversation. She sent an sms to Trishna.

 

I’m sorry I said the things I did at dinner tonight. Let’s not talk about this again, ok? Just believe me. We’re in love. He is perfect for me. Take care &call me.

 

Had dinner wid my t.v. tonite so u’ve got a wrong no.

 

I’m so sorry!

 

No prob.

 

After five minutes, Sunanda’s phone had beeped loudly again, flashing neon light into the night, signaling the arrival of a message.

 

Mayb ur frnd thnks u cn do better thn him.

 

No. She thinks he can do better than me.

 

Thts nt v. frndly!

 

Well, he can do better than me. He’s done better than me in the past.

 

So u think ur frnd is right?

 

Sometimes.

 

But he IS wid u. He obvsly dcided ‘better’ wasn’t good enuf. Isn’t tht wht counts?

 

Maybe he’s with me because I won’t leave him the way ‘better’ did. Even if it’s all a lie.

 

Y wdnt u leave him if he lies 2 u?

 

Because I’d never be able to do better than him.

 

After about five minutes, the phone lit up again.

 

Hope da sex is wrth it.

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She never thinks of her cellphone friend as a man. Not because it smacks of infidelity if it is a man but because she knows it is a woman. She knows this intimately and without a doubt. But sometimes, just sometimes, she admits to herself that she doesn't know. And then she shakes her head and puts the facts on the table: there is only one man in her life, her husband. She knows the person on the cellphone is a woman. She knows this intimately and without a doubt.

 

It has now been three months that they have been married. Three months of waking up next to someone. She doesn’t change in the bathroom any more. He doesn’t stand as straight-backed as he used to with her; it is as though he has softened, like perfectly-done pasta. She still stares covertly when he walks around naked. These days he kisses her in the morning even before brushing his teeth. She knows that he has a small tuft of hair, like a bunny rabbit’s tail, just above his butt crack.

 

They went to Hawaii for their honeymoon. He booked for them a place with a personal swimming pool of their own and they made love almost constantly. It had felt like a film, one of those thrillers where Sunanda’s hair should be blonde. She had never even thought of anything like this.

“What did you think a honeymoon would be like?” Arun asked her one day as they walked on an old volcano. There was so much laughter in his voice, and warmth without the stickiness of sweat. She remembers their honeymoon sometimes and it makes her giggle even though there was nothing funny. Unless you consider their sexual marathon humorous. In Hawaii, she had wondered more than once how he didn’t get bored with the act. It was the same thing, after all. Whether you were in a pool, in a shower or on a bed, it was essentially the same thing. It makes her tremendously happy to recall those days and revisit in her head his desire for her. He said it was the best sex he’d ever had.

 

The only thing that jolts her is how Arun always refers to making love as having sex. Maybe if she had, like him, made love to many more people, perhaps she would also call it sex with that same satisfied nonchalance.

 

 

"And then suddenly I was calling you five times a day. It was madness but I needed to hear your voice within minutes of us hanging up."

 

"The moment I saw you, I knew."

 

"There are things I want to do to you that... I don't know what you've done to me."

 

"If you left me, I don't think I'd survive it."

 

"The city turned grey the Monday I returned without you."

 

Arun used to write her love letters. He used to speak to her like he was writing her a love letter. He doesn't say them to her anymore. There is nothing whimsically sweet in their conversation now. She still loves him, of course she does. But sometimes, when she watches him talk to her about his day at work, she wonders whether she imagined him saying those things to her. At those same times, she also wonders why he really married her. She tries to gauge whether behind those thin-framed glasses and pointy-chinned face is a man who would marry a woman because his parents asked him to. Because now, love at first sight seems just too much of an artifice. She knows, after having met his friends and stepped into his life, that she is not the best thing to have happened to him. Even when she sits alone in the house and looks at the two chairs he has bought from a designer furniture store with an unfamiliar name that she cannot pronounce or spell, she knows that she is out of his league. And she hates the house for constantly reminding her of that fact.

 

It sometimes alarms her how intensely she hates something as inanimate as this house. Where Sunanda comes from, there are some things a woman is supposed to do. One of them is to make a home. Single men are supposed to be incapable of this. They are supposed to inhabit mere spaces, empty of feeling and beauty and stuffed with an abject chaos that silently pleads for the magic wand of feminine touch - more specifically, wifely intervention - to turn its toadish appearance into something more princely. But here in this apartment, Sunanda feels like the toad. Without a well to hide in.

 

The first time she had walked in, a sense of disorientation had hit her. She had felt as though she had, without warning, stepped into the two-dimensional world of a magazine double spread. His apartment was like something out of an interior decoration magazine. An African tribal mask hung on one wall. An ethnic frame held up a mirror in the little passage leading into the living room. The vases had dust-free, dried flowers artistically arranged, complimenting the dark wood, white-cushioned furniture. A shaggy, white rug was spread out on the floor. Sunanda had walked towards it wondering whether Arun and she would make love on it.

"Honey, take your shoes off before you walk on the rug." Arun grinned with an expression that was either pride or embarrassment, Sunanda couldn't tell which. "It's hell trying to maintain a white rug. I'd never have bought it but it just looks so damn sexy." At that moment Sunanda realized, Arun was probably going to spend the rest of their life together making excuses for her sloppiness the way her mother did for her father.

 

They haven't made love on it yet. Sunanda now seriously doubts they will ever make love anywhere but on their bed and in complete darkness.

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Coming back to this terrible city turned them into a middle-aged couple. Standing in the Fruit and Vegetable section of the fancy supermarket, Sunanda comes to this realisation. She has come to the supermarket looking for green chillies. The little Chinese man with the green apron pointed her to this corner. It is a section for chillies. There are orange chillies, there are yellow chillies, there are capsicum, there are chillies that look like miniature pumpkins, but there are no green chillies. Sunanda can’t believe it. All she wants is a handful of green chillies. Those slender little things, the size of her pinkie, that sit around in green heaps at every roadside vegetable seller’s shop back home, are not available here. There are about fifty different kinds of chillies, each with a more unpronounceable name than the next, but the most domestic, commonplace one that she wants isn’t here. This is when she remembers no one thinks of Arun and herself as newly married. Everyone says they look like they’ve been married forever. Staring at the uncommon chillies in front of her, she wonders whether their marriage is a jalapeno or a piquin or a hontaka. She also wonders which tastes most like the green chilly she knows. Just then, the door opens to let someone into the supermarket and with the swaddled figure looking for a trolley, enter three yellow butterflies. They flutter straight to her at the chilly counter and all three of them sit on a small heap of orangey-yellowy chillies that are almost square. Sunanda takes a handful. The butterflies scatter into the air. Sunanda holds out her hand and doesn’t move a muscle. After a moment, one set of bright yellow wings come close to her skin. The butterfly sits on her finger. She cannot even feel it. A few steps away from her, a little boy pulls at his mother’s hand and exclaims, “Burrfies!” The wings immediately pulse to life and the butterflies are gone. Sunanda goes to the checkout counter with her chosen chillies.

 

She never buys those chillies again. They are so fiery that just holding the chillies while chopping them up makes her fingertips burn. She ends up throwing out the prawns she had marinated in those chillies and just before Arun walks in, her order from the trusted nearby takeaway Chinese joint arrives. At the dinner table, Arun twirls some noodles around his fork and asks, “So what have you been upto all day?” Maybe there isn’t really an accusation in that question and it’s only her stinging fingertips making her irritable. Sunanda wishes she had a magic wand which would turn Arun into a yellow butterfly with one quick flick.

 

1 thng u wer all da time

 

A crystal yellow butterfly locket on a silver chain.

 

Cute. Gft?

 

Yes. From him. Yellow butterflies are my lucky charm.

 

Wow. Valntyn?

 

No. birthday.

 

V.cool. knws u well. Wot u gettng him on his bday?

 

Cufflinks.

 

Standard gfrnd gift. Boring.

 

Not like he needs yellow butterflies!

 

Get him smthg excytng!

 

Like?

 

Dunno. Ask his frnds. Or ex! Best way 2 get 2 knw a man.

 

Haven’t met his ex.

 

Hm. Wot presnts did she giv him?

 

He doesn’t mention any. I don’t think she gave him anything.

 

Impssbl. Bet he hidng frm u.

 

I’ve looked around the house. No gifts anywhere. Except what his parents got him.

 

No wnder he dmped her. Hw abt pouch thong wid an elephant face?

 

What?

 

Thong wid ele face in crotch area. V.cute.

 

I think I’ll stick to the cufflinks.

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  • 2 weeks later...

It had never struck her to ask Arun her name when Arun spoke about her. It didn’t seem important. She didn’t seem important. There were other things that Sunanda had wanted to know. Like what was the first love song he had heard; what was his favourite colour when he was five; had he ever seen a snail up close; what were the counries he had seen. It hadn’t struck her the ex-girlfriends would be of any significance. The only thing she had wanted to know was that they were indeed girlfriends. He told her there were without her prompting him. He told her he had never lived with any one of them. That had somehow been important for her. She had wanted to be his first for something. His first cohabitation partner didn’t seem a bad tag at all.

 

Having been so nonchalant about her in the past, Sunanda finds it difficult to pose curious questions now, especially since Arun no longer mentions her at all. He did speak about her right at the beginning though. Within a month of meeting Sunanda, he told her that he had just come out of a relationship.

“I thought I could grow to love her,” he had said. He had grinned and lowered his head. “I’d sort of given up the idea of love at first sight. But she wasn’t you and so it fell apart.”

“Did you love her?” was all Sunanda had asked him.

“I loved her as much as I could have loved a woman who wasn’t you.”

“How much is that?”

“Nowhere near enough to make a relationship survive.”

That was when she should have asked her name, how long she wore her hair, how they had met, everything. Now it is too late.

 

Wittingly or unwittingly the house does deliver to her little bits of answers that Sunanda is looking for. Like the small book that Arun keeps in his bedside drawer. It is a tourist’s handbook to the city. On its first page it says Love Anita in handwriting so beautiful it could be printed. In fact Sunanda looks at it closely and touches the thick paper with her fingers, like a blind woman reading, to make sure that it is actually written by hand. She wonders who this Anita is, who gives Arun tourist guides with love on the first page. She also leaves it out on the bedside table, next to Arun’s alarm clock, with the intention of going through it later and perhaps with an unadmitted latent hope that Arun will tell her about this Anita. The next morning when she is alone in the house again she finds that the tourist guide is not on the bedside table. It is not in the drawer either. Arun tells her at breakfast that he is going to for a day’s trip on Friday. He will be back Saturday night. They move on to the complexities of outsourcing and Nita Aunty’s laproscopy smoothly. Sunanda doesn’t say anything but she notices that the detailed itinerary that Arun has provided her, while finishing his cornflakes without slurping, does not mention anything for Saturday.

 

On Thursday night, when he is packing his small bag, Sunanda hands him a towel and says casually, “It’s tough that work is spilling into Saturday as well.”

He takes the towel from her and replies, “I don’t know if it will. I’m just keeping Saturday in hand, in case it does. I’m hoping it won’t.”

“So you’ll be back Saturday morning if work finishes up on Friday?”

“I’ve already booked tickets so I’ll stay on either way. I have some friends in that area that I haven’t met in a while.” His head bobs up as though he just sat down on a pin. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“No, no,” Sunanda says with a smile. “I have work at home in any case.”

He reaches forward and kisses her softly.

 

It is, of course, a lie. She doesn’t really have any work, unless you count looking for a missing tourist guide book, last seen on Arun’s bedside table, as work. It is nowhere to be found. Sunanda goes through every drawer and every shelf and every cabinet but finds no little black book. The only place she hasn’t looked at is Arun’s sock drawer and underwear drawer. Somehow it feels like a bit of a violation to do that. She keeps coming back to the closet and stands in front of it. Love Anita, it had said on the first page. Sunanda can remember it very clearly. The cover, the page on which she had written her name. The name starts resounding in Sunanda’s head. She realises she has heard this name many times before. In fact, the name Anita has come in every conversation she has sat in on with Arun’s friends. From the melee of unfamiliar names from Arun’s past and present that she has smiled at blankly, this one comes out now with sudden clarity. Love Anita.

“Sunanda, don’t you think he needs to do something to relax? Anita and I had actually promised to pay him good money if he agreed to get into a yoga class with us.”

“You remember when Anita spilt all her wine over that French guy and then actually dabbed at his crotch with a tissue?”

“Anita’s doing well. She’s just got a promotion.”

“I’ll never think of the Long Island Ice Tea without remember Anita in Montreal!”

“Anita can waggle her ears. It’s totally far out.”

Sunanda suddenly realises something that she would have perhaps figured out if she had paid attention to those conversations about people she didn’t know – Anita is the ex-girlfriend.

 

After the fifth instance of stand-and-stare-at-closet, Sunanda takes a deep breath and reaches towards the door. Exactly at that moment, the doorbell rings. It is a delivery for her, from her parents back home. The package contains the herbal kohl pencil she uses, a pashmina stole, a long letter from her father and a cd. Sunanda puts on the cd and begins reading her father’s letter. He tells her that he finally found the cassette he has been looking for – it has the first recordings they have of Sunanda talking as an infant. He apologises for the scratchy quality and hopes the cd has survived the journey. As she reads, sounds of her old home, her mother and father encouraging her to recite a nonsense rhyme, her careful elocution of ‘Found a peanut, found a peanut, found a peanut, just now’, her father prompting her and her mother telling her to talk into the microphone fill her new home. There’s a pause and Sunanda hears the whirr of the scratchy tape recorded on to the cd.

“What happened?” she hears her father asking. He sounds exactly the same.

“Burrfies!” a little Sunanda exclaims. “Ello burrfies!”

 

That night, she spends one of the loneliest nights of her life. Nobody calls her. At one point, she gets up to buy a calling card to talk to her mother and father but then realises the little leftover money she had, she spent buying instant noodles and Arun hasn’t left any money with her. She looks in his sock drawer for money and finds nothing.

 

I feel like I live in a hotel where I have to do my own laundry and make my bed.

 

Thats boarding skool, nt hotel.

 

Welcome to the hotel California! Haha!

 

Buy smthg u like n keep it in da house. Mayb flowers. Evn boarding skools allow flowers.

 

 

Do you ever cry without knowing why?

 

R u ok?

 

I’m fine.

 

 

Sometimes I feel a little lost. Like I’m somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. Like I’m in someone else’s home.

 

Like u’re goldilks?

 

Who?

 

Goldilocks. Da 1 wid da bears.

 

Ah. Something like that. You ever feel that?

 

Dont fil lst bt fil lk ive lst smthg. Lk der’s less n less of me everyday.

 

I hope you find what you need.

 

U 2.

 

Lstn 2 sum louis Armstrong. Wrks fr me.

 

Thanks. Sorry for being so weepy. It’s just the first time he’s left me behind so …

Bord?

 

No. Just wondering whether he’s getting away from me or he did this with all his ex-s.

 

Ask hm.

 

Not worth so much thought.

 

She drinks two cups of strong black coffee after dinner so that she is awake and alert when he returns on Saturday night. He comes home late. All the lights are switched off, except for the one over the front door and the little lamp at her bedside table. He walks in slowly, his long shadow wearily dragging in his suit-clad body. She wonders if she should let on she is awake. She wonders if he thinks it was easier when they weren’t married, when he could pick up the phone at his free time and call her, instead of having to come home to her, sit by her on the bed, forage for the energy to have sex with a lot of panting and quick release. He falls asleep immediately after. Sunanda wonders if men can fake it. If he flicks through pornography on his way home so that he is ready and tumescent to do his duty, to earn his sleep as it were.

“Are you awake?”

“You’re home.”

They end up speaking together and it takes away the awkwardness of Sunanda having pretended to be asleep for the past five minutes.

 

He never gives her enough time to touch him the way she wants to but at least she gets to feel him against her. She can’t tell him to not enter yet because she wants to press another kiss on the ridge of his collarbone. She doesn’t want to delay him with her desire to touch tongue to his small nipple because he’s already ready. Touching him is erotica for her; he’s already inside her and he doesn’t realise that it is too soon. Either that, or he doesn’t know. But she doesn’t mind. When he falls asleep immediately after, she touches him as languorously as she would like to and bunches her nightdress between her legs to soak the stickiness. She holds her breath, hoping he will wake up and they’ll make love again, this time with her ready, even though she knows it won’t happen because he is sleeping too deeply.

 

What makes a good lover?

 

A woman.

 

HAHA!

 

Srusly. U wan good sex, find a lesbian. Men suck.

 

What if you’re not lesbian?

 

Have sex w lesbian n u’ll wanna b @ least bi. Women don’t fuck w cock as a timer. Men do.

 

Are you a lesbian?

 

Nope bt I wish I was! I’d hve more orgsms!

 

Come on! That’s not true. Men make good lovers. If they didn’t, why would we still have sex with them?

 

Bcos cock stil scores ovr dildo.

 

So you’re saying gay men have bad sex?

 

No, gays r fine. Both hve jst 1 erognus zone in der body: da crotch. Its equl.

 

Ah. I see. So we should all be homosexual?

 

If we knew wot ws good fr us, we wd be.

 

 

 

Remember about the flowers? Not a good idea.

 

Huh? Wot d’u mean?

 

He didn’t like the flowers. Said they weren’t pretty. Put them in the bathroom. Dried flowers are back in the living room.

 

Get a Doberman n make it go for his balls. That’ll teach him prtty.

 

Haha! If I had a Doberman, I’d feed that disgusting mask to it.

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  • 4 weeks later...

The whole ritual of getting up in the morning seems to work as an elaborate reminder that she is still a guest in the house. Arun has carefully arranged the bathroom to place her toothbrush next to his; there are two small towels next to the basin; there are two big towels opposite the shower cubicle. It is a five-star bathroom, without the complimentary miniature moisturiser and shampoo. One morning, she realises, by chance, that the mirror in front of her is a sliding cabinet door. Sunanda slides the door open. There are bottles with pills in them and big thick labels with names that mean nothing to Sunanda. A big box of earbuds, a tube of shaving cream, a big bottle of Johnson & Johnson’s moisturiser with a French label and four packs of dental floss which make Sunanda smile because she has never used dental floss in her entire life. Then she sees the three lipsticks. She opens the lipsticks to see what shades they are. One is the dark chocolate colour that she knows is Arun’s mother’s favourite. It is a Lakme lipstick, with the thick wine-coloured body and a gold band round the middle to signify its exclusivity. No one has heard of the brand here. Sunanda’s first lipstick was a Lakme. It was a pale pink, bought under her mother’s watchful eye. The other two lipsticks in Arun’s cabinet are pale bronze and shiny pink, in Clinique’s pale green bodies. She opens them. She tries them on. They are meant for someone fairer than her. Someone who likes sparkling colours. Someone fairer than her, who likes sparkling colours and who lives here often enough to stake claim of the cabinet with their lipsticks.

 

A few days later, she finds behind the stack of towels a box of tampons which have purple wrappers for heavy flow, green wrappers for medium flow and yellow wrappers for light flow. She has never used a tampon. Sunanda wonders if it is proper to call Arun’s mother and ask how they are used. She also wonders whether these tampons have been behind the towels for a year because she remembers Arun’s mother told her in confidence that she had her hysterectomy done a year ago. And she wonders if they belong to Anita.

 

She finds nothing else after that. The bathroom no longer hands her personal possessions of strangers who clearly belonged here before she did. It doesn’t stop her from wondering whether there are more little secret hideaways that she hasn’t discovered because she doesn’t know where to look.

 

Is it very rude to sms in the middle of a dinner? A boring dinner?

 

Lol! V. rude.

 

The topic of conversation is dinner. Go figure how wildly exciting this party is..

 

Talk abt tom cruz or oprah. Alwys wrks. N b4 leavng ask da 1 dat laffed most wen u 2 cn meet.

 

After everything is over, when they are at home and Sunanda has already settled herself under the quilt, Arun says to her, as he switches off the light, “Good move bringing up Tom Cruise at dinner tonight. When Nitin started on when the sun sets in summer, I almost felt like ordering a pillow instead of another drink.” Sunanda laughs and kisses Arun good night. She hasn’t brought her phone with her to bed. She’ll have to send an sms tomorrow morning.

 

 

Breathing in the sharply-perfumed air of the mall, Sunanda acknowledges dully to herself that she should have followed the sms advice with some modification. Shaili might have laughed the most that evening but now she is boring Sunanda to the point of letting salesgirls with blue eyeshadow spray things from a florid pink bottle on to her wrist. She should have asked Ann, whom she has met a couple more times. The thing with Ann is that she always seems to have so much energy that Sunanda feels she will never be able to keep up with Ann.

 

There have been moments in this shopping trip when Sunanda has been certain that Shaili must be making fun of her. Except her expression when she plucked out the bright pink, satin shirt with huge white rhinestones on it seemed entirely earnest and genuinely excited. Sunanda has replayed that bit in her mind about a hundred times already, trying to figure out if there was a smothered smile when Shaili lowered her head, bringing the curtain of her hair around her face, and put the shirt back. It is so hard to tell with Arun’s friends. There is nothing to warn you that a joke is round the corner. Only after you’ve fallen for it and given them fodder for laughter and an anecdote about ‘how I fooled Arun’s wife’ do you realise this was a humour trap. At the cash counter, Sunanda actually looks at the outfit and realises it is actually very pretty. Automatically, her mind replays the Episode of the Satin Shirt. Sunanda is now reasonably certain there was a smirk behind the hair.

 

The conversation during lunch is pleasant. Shaili is certainly sweeter than most of Arun’s men friends and much more predictable. She asks the usual questions of ‘tell me how you guys met’ which Sunanda dutifully recounts. As she is retelling the story, she suddenly realises how happy it makes her feel to remember all of it and know that it was real, that it did happen. It makes her realise that Arun has made her happy, more happy than she had ever been before. She laughs to herself and makes a note to tell her sms friend her discovery of the day: being married makes you forget the strangest things, like the reason you got married in the first place. Sunanda suddenly finds an overwhelming liking for Shaili because she made Sunanda remember. Sunanda decides she has found a friend among Arun’s friends, finally.

“That’s wonderful,” Shaili says warmly at the end of Sunanda’s love story. She takes a forkful of salad and laughs. “We were all so taken aback when he said he was going to get married. It was like, huh? Because he’s just never seemed to be the impulsive kinda guy, you know? So for him to have a whirlwind romance plus marriage is a lot of credit to you!”

Sunanda laughs. “Has he always been like that?”

“Well, I’ve known him for the past two and a half years and he’s definitely been anally organised for all of that time.”

“Oh, I thought you knew him from his college days.”

Shaili shakes her head. “I hang out with the boys from time to time because of Brian. You know we’re dating, right? Yeah, so that’s why. I actually met Arun when he began dating Anita.”

The moment Shaili begins to say the name, Sunanda knows that there could be a moment of silence here that would thrust awkwardness into the conversation. This is her test because if she lets the silence in then it will be the stuff of conversation for the entire gang: how Sunanda reacted to the mention of the ex-girlfriend.

“Wow,” Sunanda inserts the word smoothly before a lapse in conversation is possible. “I’d never have guessed you’ve joined the gang late!” She eats a bit of her salad. The air between them is filled with the valid crunch of fresh lettuce between teeth. “Does it ever get awkward for you?” Sunanda asks, looking straight at Shaili, waiting for her to look up and see the steadiness of Sunanda’s gaze. “To be part of your friend’s ex-boyfriend’s gang?”

It seems to Sunanda that Shaili takes a little longer than normal to finish her mouthful. Her eyes remain lowered upon her salad bowl until her mouth is empty. “Well, it’s also my boyfriend’s gang,” Shaili says with a smile. “It felt a little odd when they first broke up but it’s cool now. I mean, Anita will always be my best friend, no matter who she’s dating.”

 

Lunch goes off very well. Sunanda learns the party on Friday is Anita’s birthday party, that Anita studied Sociology in college, that Anita ran naked for half a kilometre after losing a bet about what the capital of the Sudan was called and that Shaili is planning to get her a pair of silver chopsticks for her birthday. After the meal, Sunanda excuses herself to go to the bathroom. When she comes out, the maitre d’ tells her that Shaili has already stepped outside.

 

The wind is sharp and strong and it pulls at Sunanda’s hair like a spoilt child. It also drops in her ear words from the conversation Shaili is having with someone on her cellphone.

“Well, it’s the first time I spent with her alone, so … she’s nice, really nice in a really good, Indian girl kinda way, you know? Like, you know, innocent, naïve, really good. No vices, no sex before marriage, no wild side … No, definitely not like you! You should have seen her face when I told her about you streaking! … Totally! … Yeah… Sure… Yeah, bye.”

 

I bought the elephant pouch underwear for him!

 

Lol! Good nite????

 

It looks really cute. :-P

 

Nxt: frnch maid outft fr u!

 

No chance!

 

Boots n whip mayb?

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Sunanda's grandmother had a favourite saying: "Everything happens when it does because it is supposed to." That logic followed to its end would mean that Arun dilly-dallying for an extra five minutes over the Sunday papers was meant to be because if he had not done that, he would have gone to have his shower at his usual time and if he had done that, then he would have been out of the bathroom when the sms came. Instead, he was singing in the shower, entirely unaware that a sms had come. It would also mean that Sunanda reading the sms was not simply Sunanda reading someone else's sms but some sort of metaphysical plan to enlighten her.

 

It was a sms from Dominic, Arun's friend from work. It said, 'Get the bitch a job and get ur life back.' They were talking about her. She was the bitch. Arun's friend was writing to him about her and calling her a bitch. He had called her a bitch. Without even thinking, she deleted the message.

 

"Get the bitch a job..."

 

Sunanda opened up his Sent Messages folder. The last message he had sent had been to Dominic. She opened it. 'She's around me all the fucking time. Like she's going to come with me to the men's room. Feel like I can't breathe sometimes.' He had sent Dominic another message this morning. 'Gave up life when I got married. Can't look at another woman, can't take a step without her. Like I'm walking a dog, 24-7.'

 

She wanted to go bang on the bathroom door and tell him his friend called her a bitch. What kind of a friend called a friend's wife bitch? She wanted to ask him why he hadn't told her that he wanted to be alone. She wanted to give him a fucking list of the number of times he's dragged her out to dinner even though she hasn't wanted to. Like that godawful Tom Cruise dinner night. She wants to know which women he wanted to look at. She wants to know if Dominic ever called Anita a bitch.

 

Ultimately, when Arun comes out of the bathroom, he finds his phone without any new messages. Sunanda is watching t.v. in the other room. She doesn't bang on his door because she wants to give him his life back. She doesn't say anything to him because she doesn't want to be a bitch. But at the same time, she can't forget it. His friend called her a bitch.

 

That evening, she says she has a headache and pleads off the dinner invitation they have.

"But you should go," she tells Arun.

"I don't want to go without you," Arun replies. She wants to tear the flesh off his guileless face with one vicious tug when he says that.

"Just go. It'll be fun," she says to him. There is probably a tight edge to her voice. She can hear it. She wonders if he can.

"Look, I don't want to go anywhere without you," Arun says again. "That's why I married you remember: Because I don't want to do anything without you. Why don't you go lie down while I cancel with those guys? You want a cup of tea?"

Sunanda shakes her head. She wants to ask him whether he is lying to her or to Dominic. She wants to call Dominic and tell him that she told Arun to go on his own but he didn't. She tried to give him back his life but he didn't take it. She isn't a bitch, bastard.

 

While Arun talks on the phone, Sunanda goes to the drinks' cabinet and pours herself some vodka. She drinks it like a shot. It feels terrible down her throat. One door away, Arun tells his friend that he won't be coming for dinner because he doesn't want to leave Sunanda alone. She pours herself another, larger, measure of vodka and knocks it back. It tastes as foul as her last drink but this time, the vodka makes her head spin a little. She finds her way back to the bedroom. A few minutes later, Arun pops his head in and says, "Trilok has invited us over next week. I've said we'll go if everything's ok." There is so much concern in his eyes. "Are you sure you don't want anything? A cup of tea? Aspirin?" She wants to spit on his face. All she does is shake her head. Then she closes her eyes and goes off to sleep. In her dream, Arun peeks in a minute later and seeing she is asleep, picks up his jacket and tiptoes out of the apartment. He meets Dominic and they go to a strip club, like the one she saw in the film Closer. She doesn't hear Dominic call Arun. She doesn't hear him say he doesn't want to leave Sunanda alone. She doesn't see him checking in on her every half an hour. She doesn't know that he keeps the volume at the lowest hum so that the television doesn't disturb her. She is dreaming of Arun in a stripclub. She also doesn't know that after two hours, Arun gets bored and he calls Dominic and then they chat for the next one hour about many things, including how bossy wives should be put on leashes that can be jerked or kicked hard in their vaginas, as a joke, of course.

 

Tost! 2 lonly hrts club band!

 

Are you all right?!

 

Lisning 2 btles n drnkng whsk. Wot mor do I nd?

 

Are you alone?

 

Y alone? U're joining me 4 a drnk, arnt u? TOST!

 

Haha. To what?

 

R u aln?

 

Yep. Very much alone.

 

2 lonlines. N frnds.

 

Cheers!

 

 

Do you often drink alone?

 

Only wen I need to pretnd am hving a lil drink wile I hv big 1.

 

Cheers! To little drinks!

 

Sitting in Swati and Trilok's house, Sunanda realises she is comparing their flat to the one she lives in and is feeling an elitist pride that her flat is nicer to look at. Swati and Trilok talk animatedly about how they have put together their higgledy-piggledy house. They are full of laughter as they recount altercations and disagreements in upholstery stores. Sunanda looks at Arun. He is smiling faintly. She wonders if he is remembering the bunch of green roses that she bought and arranged in the living room in place of his dried flowers. "They made the living room look like a hotel lobby," he said to her, with a laugh. Did Arun and Anita had organised an evening like this where they shared stories? Perhaps Arun and Anita had laughed like this while recounting stories of how they selected the dried flowers. Sunanda looks around the room. They are all Arun's old friends. They were probably all there on that evening. They have probably all noticed that the apartment looks just as it used to. They have probably all noted the fact that she has no stories.

 

Her eye catches a bright-coloured cushion with gold embroidery. Here they call it an unpronounceable 'fuchsia'. Back home it is known as the 'rani' colour. Arun would probably slash his wrists if she brought a cushion this colour home, or sell her and the cushion to an Indian restaurant.

"These are gorgeous cushions," Sunanda says in a voice as bright as fuchsia.

Swati giggles. "They are made from my wedding sari," she says.

"It's very pretty," Sunanda replies, holding up one cushion admiringly.

"Only as a cushion cover," Trilok says dryly. "It's only because I'm a man with a strong heart that I didn't die when I saw her dressed as a bride."

"Shut up!" Swati says, laughing. "It wasn't that bad."

"It was precisely that bad," Trilok maintains. "Show her the wedding album," he says. "Then she'll believe me. Oh, and Sunanda, I'd advise you to wear sunglasses."

More laughter rings around the room and everyone starts on stories of how taken aback they were when they saw Swati in bridal regalia.

 

The wedding album comes. It is, predictably, red and gold. Sunanda starts flicking through the pages. Trilok is right. The sari is precisely as bad as he made it out to be. As hideous as the sari might be, Swati looks beautifully happy. In fact, everyone is full of smiles, real smiles, smiles that were so happy that they couldn't be smothered or held in. Trilok, Swati, their other friends, their family, Arun, everyone is blissfully happy. Every photograph has a neat label under it, with notes written in handwriting that looks like print. Sunanda suddenly realises that she has seen this handwriting before, on the first page of a little tourist guidebook. Every label details the occasion and who all are in it, even if they are in the background. Like a picture from the reception labelled, "Arun and Anita making out wildly in the background."

 

So this is how Sunanda ends up meeting her. She stares at the corner where the fuzzy outlines of two heads blur into each other. This is Anita. She has blonde hair. In her hair, she has silver butterflies. She probably grew up on a farm, where there was a field, and on a sunny, summer afternoon, when she was a little girl, she came running up and someone took a picture of her which years later would sit on her ex-boyfriend's mantelpiece.

 

Sunanda forces herself to turn the page because she knows the others will notice her lingering over this one photograph. She does not want them to know that she wants to ogle at that part of the photograph. She wants to know every little thing about that moment... what was outside the window, whether they had already eaten, why he is holding her so close, what did her breath taste like, does he still remember that she had butterflies in her hair? Sunanda is gripped with a manic urge to slyly slip the photograph in her bag. She could do it so easily. Perhaps no one would even notice.

 

She turns the pages with the hope that there will be another picture, a better picture. It had never struck her that Anita might be white. It had not struck her that Arun might have been with someone who was not Indian. Sunanda wishes she could turn back to see if he is holding her closer than he holds Sunanda in pictures but she doesn't because she knows someone will notice and then someone will add up that she is looking for Anita after seeing that caption and then they'll snigger about her behind her back, to Anita perhaps. So she keeps flipping pages while reading the labels carefully, looking out for Anita.

 

She finds her 8 pages later: "Anita in a lehenga-choli". It is a rich shade of purple and the skin of her bared waist is white against it. Twinkling at her pierced navel is a diamond. Sunanda turns the page casually. As she does so, she pulls the picture of Anita in a lehenga-choli off the page and onto her lap. Much, much later will it strike her that Swati and Trilok will in all probability think Arun stole a picture of Anita from their album. Sunanda imagines there are very few women who stare for hours at their husband's ex-girlfriend's smooth stomach and curved waist. Even later than that, Sunanda will wonder whether Arun noticed her stealing the picture and whether he stares at it in hiding, just like her.

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Found something today. A torn up postcard.

 

Hm. So?

 

Pieced it together. It said - The first time we made love, you promised you would never hurt me. But you did. And all I keep remembering is that you asked me to trust you and that you always laughed when I called it lovemaking.

 

Wow.

 

There's more. On the other side, it says - I would have loved you with everything I have. But you didn't want to be loved. Turns out you just wanted to be fucked regularly.

 

Wer u find it? Whos is it?

 

Found it in my hallway when taking out garbage. Maybe it's my neighbour's. Made me feel really sad.my heart feels like its going to burst.

 

Relx. Y u frikin out abt strngers probs? Frgt it.

 

Doesn't matter that it's a stranger. Can't you feel the pain in those words?

 

Ys.

 

This could be me.

 

No. u wdnt send pstcard. U'd jst cry in scret.

 

Haha. You know me well now. I think you'd send a postcard, wouldn't you?

 

go fr walk. U'll feel better. Cold wnd outsyd. Makes u frget evrythng but da cold.

 

It'll make me feel more alone. I'll get lost in this stupid city.

 

No u wont. I'll mek sure u get hom. Clsest subway?

 

Of course she didn't find it in the hallway. When Arun left for work, she double locked the door and put the chain on, just in case. Then she started looking for the black and white picture of the little, blonde girl running. She looked through the books on the shelf. She looked through Arun's work cabinet, in the drawers of his desk. But she found nothing. Then she started looking in his wardrobe - in the pockets of his jackets and work suits, in pockets of his neatly-folded trousers, between the few handkerchiefs he has, in the pockets on the front of some of his shirts. She started opening his drawers and was momentarily taken aback to realise he had three drawers full of underwear. She found out that the one thing that Arun didn't fold neatly in his wardrobe was his underwear. She also found out that he had a pair of boxers with Donald Ducks on them. The last drawer in his wardrobe was his sock drawer. He keeps his passport and bank papers in his sock drawer. Sunanda knows this because he told her that. He even showed her where he keeps a copy of his PIN number, in case she needed to use his card to withdraw money from the bank for some emergency. It was in that drawer that she found it. Not the photograph, but under the passport folder, next to the black socks, were the coarse-ly torn pieces of paper. It wasn't exactly a postcard but she didn't know how else to describe it. The paper was hard, like that of postcards. But it was plain white, with writing on both sides. When she pieced it together, like the jigsaw puzzles for 5 year olds, it said, "The first time we made love, you promised you would never hurt me." On the other side, once turned around and pieced together again, it said the rest of the message. "But you did. And all I keep remembering is that you asked me to trust you and that you always laughed when I called it 'lovemaking'." It was a postcard from Anita. Sunanda recognised the handwriting. She wondered why Arun had torn it up and then kept it. Could he not bring himself to throw it away? Sunanda found herself almost ravished by a desire to find out Anita's number and ask her what else Arun used to say to her when they made love.

 

She can see it so clearly. A dark room, with light from the streets flashing brightly from time to time - perhaps it was this room and this bed - with Arun holding Anita close and guiding her to the bed. They fall on it. She puts a hand on his chest.

I'm not sure about this, she says.

Trust me, he says to her. I won't hurt you. I promise.

She looks up at him. She has light eyes that the darkness makes shinier. She puts her hand up to cup his cheek. He kisses the mound of Venus on her palm.

I promise, he repeats.

I love you, she tells him.

I love you too, he says. And then he lays her on the bed and, just like in the movies, the little movie in Sunanda's head fades to black.

 

I want to know what he did with his ex.

 

Wot? Y?

 

I don't know. I just want to know. I want to know everything.

 

Ask hm.

 

He won't tell me. Doesn't talk about her.

 

Den y u care?

 

I want to know what he's like when he isn't around me. Always feel like with me he's on his best behaviour.

 

LOL. Mayb he dsnt hav bad bhevyr.

 

Well, he dumped her badly so he can't be all good.

 

No sch ting as a gd dump.

 

You think I should ask one of his friends about her?

 

NO. I tink u shd go 4 a walk 2 sum gr8 chizkek. R u @ da subway nr ur house?

 

Sunanda's beginning to look forward to these walks. They have given her great cheesecake on one occasion. One another occasion, the directions landed her at a shop that sells fancy dress costume. The shop assistant and Sunanda laughed for hours as Sunanda twirled and batted her eyelashes as Pocahontas, Pocahontas' father, a pussycat, Captain Hook and, of course, Marilyn Monroe, complete with the blonde wig. Each time, the walk takes her to another direction. As a result, she still knows nothing of this maze of a city. The first walk, after the discovery of the torn postcard, was to a bookstore that looked like a library but wasn't. It had shelves made of old wood and the books were crammed into them so tightly, it didn't seem as though one would be able to pry a single book out without making the entire shop fall down. There was a sign on the glass door that said they were looking for a shop assistant. For more than a split second, Sunanda thought about asking if she fits the bill. Then she didn't. Arun is not Nicholas Cage. He is too senior to have a shop assistant wife. It was during this first walk that Sunanda got thirsty. She was given directions to the best lemonade in the city. On the back of an old grocery bill, crumpled in the corner of her back, and with a pen borrowed from the girl selling lemonade, Sunanda wrote down the name of the place where you can get lemonade with a hint of mint and cumin. Nimbu pani meets jal jeera. Reversing the sms-ed directions and thanking the city municipality for not having one-way streets for pedestrians as well, Sunanda returned to the bookstore, went inside and bought a little notebook. She notes the names of the shops she’s seen and the road the shop is on. She'll never be able to find it on her own but Sunanda is getting into the habit of glancing through the notebook before going out to meet Arun's friends. They make conversation much simpler. After one of her walks took her to a music store run by an old, bearded and pony-tailed man who bought her a cup of coffee and talked to her for an hour about classic rock and roll (she took notes), she can drop names and catchphrases in a conversation about music at any time. She bought some cds at shop, as per sms suggestions. They have some of the most beautiful love songs she has ever heard. Arun came home early that evening and seemed taken aback by music in the house. She laughed at his bemused expression when she saw him. He was used to walking into a silent house and now here it was, throbbing to the sound of a beautiful bass guitar and a voice that was almost sexual in its huskiness.

"Dave Matthews' Band?" he said over the music.

She nodded and put her arms around his neck.

"I didn't know you liked them," he said.

"I love them," she replied simply and kissed him. "I've had it on repeat since I came home from lunch," she confessed. "I think I need to get another album of theirs. I went through your cds. You don't have any."

Arun started laughing out loud. Then he held her closer and kissed the tip of her nose. "Then we’ll get another one."

 

 

She goes out for more lunches since the shopping expedition with Shaili. She still feels as though it's more like taking a zoo animal out for a walk than meeting for the pleasure of her company. She is certain that a call goes out to Anita to tell her what she did after every lunch, detailing her dress, her walk, her behaviour. The first few times, she kept bringing up Arun in the conversation. She wanted to get across to Anita that she and Arun were tightly together, that Anita was the past no matter how many tampaxes, lipsticks and torn postcards she scattered around their home. Now she doesn't try so hard. He stumbles into the conversation occasionally and rolls out within a few sentences. Instead, they talk about jobs, about infuriating family members, tattoos they want to get but never will and so on. Sunanda plugs uncomfortable silences with her discoveries from her walk.

 

Like when she met Swati, they talked about the comforts and discomforts of living here and just when Sunanda said that she wouldn't stay on here for all its white-man comforts, Swati said, "Well, I don't think I could do it. If not for anything else, I couldn't go back and deal with the bugs. It's like Arun said, the one reason to settle here is the comfort of knowing there won't be a cockroach climbing up your bed while you sleep." There was a moment of silence. Swati stabbed at some lettuce. Sunanda told her about a photo exhibition she'd seen by a crazy Japanese photographer whose exhibition was entirely made up of insects on humans. The one that made Sunanda shudder was a picture that had just a pair of red lips with a single mosquito drinking blood off them.

 

 

*nimbu pani - literally: lemon water. our version of lemonade.

jal jeera - a cooling, summer drink, heavily spiced with roasted cumin powder.

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Sometimes, she doesn’t follow the directions given to her. Now and then, a street beckons her or a shop’s bell calls to her. Sometimes, she just doesn’t feel like walking after having set out to do just that so she sits down at the first opportunity. She wonders if it is disappointing for her friend when she does that. She tells her friend one day – I don’t always follow your directions. The reply comes immediately, as always –I know. :-D Sunanda doesn’t ask how she knows.

 

The first few times, she worried about what would happen if she bumped into Arun. One day, he noticed the miniature slippers she had bought from a little old Chinese man’s shop during her walk the day before. “Where did this come from?” he asked. “I got it while I was walking.” The answer slipped out of her lips before she could bite her tongue. Silently she began to panic about what she would say if he asked her why she was walking around a city she didn’t know. But he didn’t. His smile was broad and happy and he came over and pressed a kiss on her forehead. “They’re cute,” he said to her.

 

The streets stop feeling so unfamiliar after a few days and the anxiety of being stranded passes. She begins noticing details about the roads she is walking – the cracks in the pavement, a dropped button, the remnants of cotton candy lying next to a garbage can. She watches the people she goes past in portions. Someone’s hand with a beautiful ring catches her attention while someone else’s orange sneakers wink at her as they stride past. Often as she walks, Sunanda tries to gauge secrets of the people walking past and the windows looking at the street. Whenever she sees a head at a window or when her gaze is caught by a stranger’s for more than the usual fraction of a second, she wonders if that is her friend. Does she watch Sunanda? Is that why she urges Sunanda to go on these walking trips? Perhaps she’s had an accident and can’t get out of the house and so she sees the places she used to frequent through Sunanda’s eyes. Perhaps this is the only way for her to get Sunanda out of the house so that she can see her cleanly, undisturbed by reflections on glass. She begins to dress carefully for these outings. Every morning, she plans what she will wear if she should be invited to walk.

 

Initially, it used to be absolutely simple: an indistinct shirt with matching trousers and a coat whose pockets were big enough to stuff her notebook into. It was the day she noticed there was a head at a window both when she walked past it and when she crossed it while walking back that she looked at herself in the mirror after coming home. She took a magnet from the fridge and stuck the picture of Anita on one corner. No one would notice her if they had someone who looked like Anita to look at instead. She could walk up and down the street a hundred times but no one would offer her a second glance. She stepped up closer to the photograph and examined the small photographed face against her closely-reflected one. Anita wasn’t necessarily prettier than her. She was sexier, with that stomach of hers, but Sunanda could be considered prettier, face-wise. Sunanda looked at herself. She looked at the photograph. Then she looked at herself again.

 

The shoes have to be practical but she has found herself a nice pair of black shoes that are comfortable, smart and versatile enough to go with most things in her wardrobe. There is almost always an element of black in her outfits anyway. The coat is rarely chosen, unless it’s terribly windy outside. Instead, she wears her shawls and pins them to her shoulder with the jewel-studded brooch her grandmother had given her. Instead of the straight skirts she used to wear, Sunanda buys some flared skirts that brush against her ankles when she walks. She buys skirts that lie lazily on her hips while the hem of the skirt dances with a life of its own when she walks. She even buys skirts with slits along the sides. She stops wearing pants. Her shirts are abandoned for blouses in darker, intense colours that make her skin look fairer and that hint at a cleavage, often quite boldly. She ties her hair up and wears dangling earrings so that her neck looks longer. She also spends ten minutes turning her eyes smoky and learns never to use the paste eye shadow and the powder eye shadow together.

 

Sumrtym n da luvin is ez!

 

Summer lovin’ had me a blast! Summer lovin’ happened so fast!

 

Bk in da sumr of 69!

 

We’re all going on a summer holiday. No more workin for a week or two!

 

Sumr strechin on da grss/ sumr drsses pass/ in da shade of a wilo tri/ crips a-crolin’ ova me

 

Summer, Summer, Summertime!

 

Frm U2 2 will smth. Classy! :-P

 

Arun calls her in the afternoon, unexpectedly.

“Hello.”

“Hey.”

“Arun? Hi! What happened?” She is completely taken aback by the unexpected middle-of-the-workday call. “Everything ok?” Maybe he has been offered a promotion?

“Yeah, yeah. I was just wondering if you want to go out for dinner tonight.”

“Sure. Are we meeting up with anyone for dinner?”

“No. Just you and me. Is that ok? Or do you want to stay at home?”

“No, no. That sounds great. Where do you want to go? I’ll call and book a table, just in case.”

“I don’t know. You pick.”

“Arun! How can I pick?”

“Why not? It’s not like you don’t know your way around the city.”

“But I don’t!”

“Of course you do. Just find a place near the comic book shop you were telling Nitin about over dinner the other day, and we’ll meet there. Simple.”

“Arun, I can’t! Please choose!”

“Look, you got there while on of your random walks, right?”

“Yes.”

“It must have taken you at least an hour to get there from home, right? I mean, if you were targeting St. Marks’ Comics then it might have taken you a little less but you just landed up so you must have roamed around in the area. Right?”

“What’s your point?”

“Sunanda, there are tons of little café-type eating joints there. Just pick any one of them. No big deal. It’s just you and me. Shit. Listen, I have to go. I’m getting another call. Do the booking and then let me know where by email. Ok?”

“Are you sure you can’t do the booking?”

“Sunanda! Have to go. Bye.”

“Bye.”

Sunanda stares at the wall in front of her with blank despair for a few moments. It is a test. It is an unfair test, something inside her head shrieks. She needs to find a place that will make an impact. This is the first time she is organising something. And not just any old something but a dinner, for just the two of them. It needs to surpass everything that he has had before. It needs to be entirely different, memorable and spectacular. She goes to her closet and takes out her notebook from the back of the underwear drawer. She knows there is nothing there. In here are simply cafés that serve little shots of coffee in beautiful glass and silver cups, shops that look small from the outside and stretch on inside like a python’s stomach, vintage jewellers who believe they have rings given by the Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna to her handmaiden, unsettling photographs, beautiful parks, tarty lemonades – all useless. She flips to the back of her notebook where the picture of Anita is hidden. She looks at the happy smile, the flat stomach, the radiance of the woman in the photograph. Anita wouldn’t have been sweating like this. If Arun asked Anita to find a place, she had it in a flash. Not just Arun, all the friends asked her for restaurant advice. Sunanda had heard it so many times. Shaili’s girls’ night, to which Sunanda wasn’t invited, naturally. Amazing how she always knows where would be perfect, isn’t it? Steve’s wedding-day speech that Arun and she saw in a video online because Arun and she couldn’t go down to the Caribbean for his wedding. Listen, I don’t think Carol would have said yes to me so dreamily if Anita hadn’t told me where I should propose. She can find places that people remember, where she can dance on tables without being labelled a whore, where friends can share secrets, where lovers can sip drinks off each other’s shining lips. Sunanda knows nothing. Blinking away tears of self-pity that she loathes even as she cries them, Sunanda tears up the stolen photograph of Anita.

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Tell me a nice, new restaurant. For dinner a deux.

 

Hot d8?

 

You could say that.

 

I knw a Frnch rest dat duz gr8 stuf. Bin my fave 4 yrs. Will send no. as biz card.

 

No, I want a NEW place.

 

Ok. Lemme thnk.

 

 

U ok wid non-veg?

 

Sure.

 

Frnd tol me abt a nice egypt rest. Only prob: nt much veg.

 

New , right?

 

Ya. Opnd 2 mths bk or smthg.

 

Great. Send me number.

 

Try da fig or appl martini. N ask 4 da tent. Hv fn!

 

Thanks so much. Really. Hugs.

 

She wants to take Arun to a place that was shiny-new, unvarnished by any old memories. That is why she insisted on a new restaurant. She doesn't want him to look at the place and think of anything but the fact that it is just the two of them, husband and wife, coming out for dinner. She wants it to be a place that he will, from now on, only associate with her. As soon as she gets the business card in her phone, with the name and number of the restaurant, she opens up google.com. Her search results show her a restaurant with warm, yellow lighting, ornate mirrors and shiny, wooden tables. She reads about the Cleopatra tent that can be booked for couples, providing them privacy, Egyptian style, which explains the strange comment of asking for the tent. It seems a little bit like a film set. She wrinkles her nose without realising she is doing so. Her mouse hovers over the white tent in the photograph for a few seconds. A giggle bubbles out of her as she imagines sitting in a tent, under a solid roof, pretending to be in Egypt while sitting in a bustling city on the other side of the world. She decides to make the reservation ultimately because the food, according to all reviewers, is supposed to be excellent. She does not ask for the tent. Eating in that monstrosity will just make her feel like she's fallen into one of those idiotic romances with Arab princes and nubile, kidnapped heroines that her cousins read as substitute for pornography.

 

It all goes well till the belly dancer shows up at their table. Actually, it all goes well till they come home and talk about the belly dancer. She calls him at work after making the reservation and they decide where they will meet. She laughingly warns him that the place will look a little cheesy but the food is great, she promises. He asks where they're going. She tells him he'll find out soon enough. He laughs. As they walk to the table, Sunanda discreetly points out the Cleopatra tent and Arun bursts out laughing. They sit down and he tells her that this restaurant used to be downtown, that he had no idea it had shifted, that he'd heard a lot about the food here, that he'd never come here before though. She orders herself a fig martini and relaxes. He tells her she's looking beautiful. She tells him it's a new dress. They start making a list of the cheesiest romances they can think of with Arab princes in them. When the waiter comes with the menu, Arun asks with a straight face, if they serve shoulder of goat. The waiter, without a flicker of a reaction, apologises politely and suggests the filet mignon instead. She manages surreptitiously to send a message while smothering laughter. Thanks so much. It's perfect.

 

Because it is. They're laughing and talking and watching each other light up while pronouncedly Middle Eastern music plays in the background. It is almost like those days, right at the beginning, when they used to only talk on the phone. It used to be so easy then. Words of love came easily, jokes came easily, cheeky rejoinders came easily; conversation came easily. Sunanda crosses her toes under the table. There is no need to go back in time. Right now, the present is pleasurable enough. Sunanda makes a mental note that they must go out for dinner like this at least once a week. Perhaps it is the security of being packed with strangers that is turning them on. Perhaps it is the martini. They talk to each other openly, like good friends still at the stage of wondering what sex would be like between them. She tells him about the men she finds attractive. He tells her how old he was when he lost his virginity. She asks him how marriage has been for him. He says that it has completed him and all he wants to do is just work to keep it as it is now. As he tries to explain why he works as hard as he does and apologise for it simultaneously, Sunanda wonders if he has ever told Dominic this. What did he say before leaving for dinner? "It's dinner a deux, dude," with an exaggerated and excited waggle of the eyebrows? Or "No man, can't go for a drink. Have to babysit the wife"?

 

Just before the main course comes, he holds her hand and says, “"Thanks. I'm having a really good time."

"You sound surprised that you are," Sunanda teases.

Arun laughs. "I'm not surprised that I'm having a good time. I'm just surprised I'm having such a good time. How did you find this place?" he asks her.

She takes a sip of her martini and doesn't answer, instead smiling over the rim of the glass. "So how does this rank next to the dinners Anita organised for you?" she asks lightly. The moment the question comes out of her lip, she puts the glass down. Shock at her own behaviour makes her hand shake slightly. How could she have asked that? Why did she have to drag that wretched name into even this evening?

"This is far more special than any dinner I've had before in my life," Arun tells her without any hesitation. "There is no competition but even if there was, you'd win hands down and tongue wagging!"

 

No one had told her -- not Google, not her sms -- that there would be belly dancers at this restaurant. Everyone talked about the tent, the food, even the music. Nobody mentioned the belly dancers. Sunanda had never really seen belly dancing before. Of course, she had read about it but somehow, she had expected belly dancers to be uglier, lewder, more distasteful. They weren't. They were reasonably attractive women, skilfully made-up, with statuesque bodies and curved waists that seemed to invite caresses. They moved sinuously, but not like snakes. It was intensely rhythmic, as though the beats and the hips were moving to the pulse of the dancers. Their hips moved as though they were tied to their backs with an elastic string. Of the two dancers, one was blonde and she had tied her hair up. She seemed to be all about curves -- the soft curve of her neck, the sloping curve of her shoulders, the pronounced curve of her breasts, the curving dip at the small of her back, the deep curve of her waist, the voluptuous curve of her waist. She danced close to their table and Sunanda saw the pale blonde hair on her arms. The stomach was unblemished by a single hair. It was taut, but with a soft curve below her navel. Sunanda wondered what this woman would do if she ever got pregnant. She wondered whether her pubic hair was as pale as her body hair. She wondered if Anita got her stomach waxed before wearing the outfit she wore at Swati's wedding. She wondered whether a blonde woman dancing in front of Arun reminded him of Anita.

 

They come home straight after dinner. While Arun changes, Sunanda turns out the lights. There are no messages in her phone. She checks if Arun has switched off the computer. He hasn't.

"Are you going to check mail before coming to bed?" Sunanda calls out.

"I'll check it later," he replies.

"Shall I switch it off then?"

"Sure. Or let it be. It'll go into sleep mode on its own anyway."

Arun is watching tv in the bedroom. He doesn't notice that she hovers in front of her closet for a little longer than normal. She also goes into the bathroom to change but he doesn't pay much attention that either.

 

In the bathroom, Sunanda hangs her nightie on the rail and looks at what she has smuggled out of her closet -- the torn-up pieces of Anita's photograph. She places them on the counter next to the basin and puts them together, like a jigsaw puzzle. When Arun saw the dancer, did he think what she is thinking now -- that the two women, the blonde dancer and Anita, look similar? They are not the same person but one reminds the onlooker of the other. The stomach, the blonde hair, the long, toned arms, the cleavage. She gathers the pieces together and puts them in her packet of sanitary napkins. Then she changes into her nightie.

 

Arun is watching VH1 when she comes out.

"Are you watching Shakira?" Sunanda asks, laughing, as she gets into bed.

On screen is just Shakira's bare back, with little silver things stuck on it. Her hips roll.

"Wow," Arun says softly.

"I can't believe you're watching Shakira with that kind of awe. How much did you drink tonight?"

"They should have a video of hers in a shower, man. That back and those hips, with water running down them, oh baby!"

He is laughing as he says it and Sunanda laughs too but she can see that it is not really a joke. She wonders whether he is drunk. A sudden profile of Shakira makes something click in her head.

"Doesn't she look a lot like that girl who was dancing for us at the restaurant? The blonde one?" she asks.

Arun doesn't answer. Instead, he begins to describe his ideal music video involving Shakira and the shower. As she listens to him, she wonders whether it really is Shakira in his video or another statuesque blonde who resembles a dancing girl at a restaurant. So much for a place with no memories. She realises he is turning himself on with his imagination. He will reach out to have sex with her in a minute or so. The lights will be switched off. In the darkness, all vaginas feel the same, she imagines. He switches off the lights. Sunanda feels herself going slightly taut. Her husband is going to make love to her swiftly, passionately and intensely. And she can thank Anita for it.

 

Once it is done, he rolls off her and falls asleep almost immediately. He doesn't hold her. She doesn't want to touch him. She picks up her phone from the bedside table and is about to type an sms when she realises it is 3 in the morning. She puts the phone back in its place. In any case, she doesn't know what to say. She just does not want to go to sleep feeling like she was a body double for someone. She wants to fill her head with something that will make her hate herself a little less. She gets up from bed and goes towards the computer to see old emails from Arun and new emails from her parents. Next to the computer are a stack of cds. They remind her of the cd her father sent, full of the sounds and scratchy noises of her childhood. She finds the cd and discman to bed, and falls asleep to the sound of the peanut song.

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Which proves the veracity of Sunanda’s grandmother’s favourite saying: “Everything happens when it does because it is supposed to.” If Arun had not left those cds on the computer table then Sunanda would not have seen them and if she hadn’t seen them, she wouldn’t have thought of the cd her father had sent her and if she hadn’t thought of that cd, she would have sat down at the computer and if she had sat at the computer then the black screen would have faded out to Arun’s email inbox, with one new email from one Anita Spiegel.

 

Dear Arun,

 

Thank you for coming out tonight. You’ve been working such crazy hours of late, it seems like you’re always at the office. Crazy how work has picked up so dramatically now that you’re married, isn’t it? As though someone has decided that they must chain you to your desk and give you as little time as possible with the new wife! Don’t work so hard, sweetheart. No one made a good marriage by staying away from the spouse. You should plan more dinners like tonight’s. I think it meant a lot to your wife.

 

I’m so glad you two enjoyed yourself. Sunanda, poor thing, was so worried about where she should take you. Totally frantic. At first I thought I’d tell her about our little French café but then I decided that it’s best we keep that one our own. So I thought of Casa. Did you recognise Casa? It used to be the Egyptian joint near my place but then they shifted to where they are now. It seemed fitting that she should take you there since it was at Casa that I was planning our 2 year anniversary party. You know what, I think that was what pissed me off the most about the break-up – that you chose to do it the day before our anniversary, when I had EVERYTHING set up at Casa. I almost wanted to call you and tell you to cancel. If it hadn’t been a surprise party for you, I would totally have made you do it. I went there though, on our anniversary that wasn’t an anniversary, and I sat in the tent and I drank a fig martini. A year later, you were doing the same thing. Except you had your wife with you.

 

Is your head swimming a little? Don’t scroll down, darling. You could scroll up but it won’t really help you understand. Yes, it’s me. And yes, not only do I know your wife took you to dinner, I’m the one who told her where to take you.

 

There’s just one reason I’m writing to you. To let you know, it’s done. She’s a little … what shall I say? … in need of finishing. Like her sense of geography about the city is still abysmal but we’re working on it and I’m hoping it won’t take much more time. But the bulk of it is done. She now sees the things I see, she walks the routes I walk, she likes the things I like, listens to the music I listen to and she talks about the things I talk about. I’ve taught her pretty much everything. Whatever’s left, I’ll have finished by the time it’s your birthday. She’s my birthday present to you. Congratulations, you are the proud owner of a cheap replica of me. She won’t react like me and you won’t react to her like you did to me, like a teenager with his first whore. But it’s the best I can do for you, given the lying, spineless bastard that you are who can’t say no to Mummy and Daddy.

 

No, she doesn’t know who I am. I wouldn’t have known who she was if she hadn’t sent me a message from what used to be my phone. I think she’d mixed up some numbers or something. You know, when I saw the number in my inbox, I thought for a moment it was you. But you don’t have the guts to actually get in touch with me. You’ll just keep asking our common friends all about my life. Do you know everyone knows you still love me, including your wife?

 

You know what the real pity is? She’s a sweet kid. You’re thinking you know that but you don’t and you never will because she isn’t herself anymore. But I can tell you about her because I know her. I know everything about her – from her erogenous zones to her favourite colour to what she thinks of when you have sex with her. I think she loves me, actually. I think if I asked her to leave you tomorrow, she would. How does that make you feel, Arun? I’m the one keeping your marriage together. How’s that for poetic justice?

 

Happy birthday, Arun, in advance. And please, don’t write back.

 

She wakes up in the morning to the sound of “Found a peanut, found a peanut, found a peanut just now”. The space next to her is empty. Stopping the discman, she gets up and is about to open the door when she realises she can vaguely hear the sound of Arun’s voice on the other side. She presses her ear to the door to hear more clearly whether he is talking about last night and what he’s saying about it. She doesn’t notice that her cellphone is not on her bedside table. She has missed the part where he talks about the fact that he doesn’t know what to do about the fact that his wife and his ex-girlfriend have exchanged a few hundred sms.

“I can’t have someone going around saying this shit about me, man. I mean, who… I’m married, dammit! I want to know who – did you tell Anita I still love her?”

Sunanda feels herself pressing into the wooden door.

“No, no. All that is irrelevant. Look, the point is, I married her. For whatever reason. And I did not marry Anita. Yes, I regret the break up and blah blah blah but man, I was never going to marry her. I couldn’t have, dude – she almost made toast of my mum each time they met.”

Whoever he is talking to is replying in detail. Sunanda tries to figure out who the other person might be. Trilok? Nitin? She waits for him to say he loves her.

“It doesn’t matter. No, it doesn’t. … No, it really, really doesn’t. I have a good thing here. I have a reasonably attractive woman as my wife whose company I enjoy and who doesn’t demand more from me than I can give. My parents like her. She can talk to my friends. She’s fine. I can do this. I don’t need the crazy excitement of Anita in my life 24-7. Sunanda will never find even half of the sexual positions Anita does and she won’t do any of the unpredictable shit Anita did but that’s fine. Being with Anita is like being on a rollercoaster all the fucking time. I can’t handle it. This is fine. It’s occasionally a little boring but that’s ok. This is way more doable.”

She should move away from the door. She can either go out or she can lock herself in the bathroom. It is Sunday. Arun is going to be home all day. She walks into the bathroom and looks at herself in the mirror. Her white nightie stares back at her blankly. She takes it off. Breasts, indented waist, a deep navel. Sunanda suddenly feels hatred pump into her blood. He called her boring. Her nipples harden. She puts her nightie back on and cups her palm over her breasts to put them back to sleep. Maybe while she has been doing this, he has grudgingly admitted that he loves her. She should go out. How do you say good morning to a husband who wakes up next to you every morning, not because he wants to, but because this – you – are doable? She goes to pull the door just at the moment that Arun pushes it to enter the bedroom. The door slams against Sunanda’s temple. She stumbles and falls down.

“Fuck! Oh my god, I’m so sorry sweetheart. Shit! Is it bleeding?”

His concern scrapes against her skin like new sandpaper. “No,” she replies.

“Wait, I’ll get some ice.”

Sunanda remains on the floor, cradling her head in her hands. He comes back and gently places the ice on her forehead. He finds the right spot unerringly. The tears swell into Sunanda’s eyes. How can he know her well enough to be able to tell where it’s hurting and yet…?

“What were you crouching behind the door for anyway?”

“I wasn’t crouching.”

She is about to look up at him with an angry jerk of her head but there’s a sharp stab of pain.

“Shhh… don’t move your head. Can you get up?” Arun slowly brings her to her feet. “Should we go up to the hospital?”

“Don’t be silly.”

“It’s a head injury, sweetheart.”

She wonders what endearment he used for Anita. “It’s not a big deal.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“It’s fine.”

They sit on the bed.

“The ice is dripping,” Sunanda says after a stretch of silence.

“Doesn’t matter. How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine.”

“Can we please go to a doctor?”

“Arun, it’s just a bump on the head, for fuck’s sake!” It’s the first time she’s snapped at him. She wonders if he will notice.

“Just humour me,” Arun replies. “Please.”

She doesn’t say anything. He slides off the bed and kneels on the floor in front of her, still holding the ice to her forehead.

“I love you,” he tells her.

She doesn’t know whether to believe him. “You want to go to the doctor now?” she asks instead.

“Please.”

“Fine. Let me go brush my teeth first.”

He hovers closely as she gets up and walks to the bathroom. She locks the door behind her. The moment the lock clicks she realises she has doesn’t have her cell phone with her. Sunanda cries silently into a towel while Arun waits outside. A yellow butterfly hits against the glass window with its soft body and delicate head. Its yellow wings beat desperately.

 

 

THE END

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