Before you leave for the office, you walk towards the bedroom window, naked, the light swallowing you. You hold your breath for a few seconds, letting your eyes adjust to the blinding light, sensing the suspense build. Is anyone watching from their cars on the bridge not far away, or from a closed window of the building across that is deceptively dark? The anticipation is excruciating. You turn and stare at the stranger in the bed. It’s her room and she is asleep.
Is anyone willing to notice you standing at the window? Will someone you love, on another day, equally bright, be sitting in a car on the bridge across and waiting for a nude man to emerge at the window?
It’s time to go.
Outside the door when you enter the lift it feels cold, perhaps it is the spent libido, you imagine, the heat that has been dissipated, the calories spent.
The coffee shop you step in is dark. There’s just one young man on a table at the far end and he ignores you even before you can look away—manners of construction workers anytime of the day, anywhere in the world. But as a rich, self-made man, who owns a fortune, you are not used to be ignored. But now you are.
You bang your fist on the counter and a young man emerges seconds later, his eyes still heavy with sleep, face indifferent, like the customer at the far end. You are taken back to the days when you were young and worked as hard.
The city wakes up and you watch it through partially open eyes, sipping fresh coffee and wondering if it is possible to fall in love, thinking, all the time, about tomorrow. You refuse to accept that love is about today, and that it is about the moment. Thinking only about tomorrow all your life has blinded you so much, and while you know it, you still can’t let go of this thought.
It’s a new week when you receive a call from an unknown number. Not sure you lean back against the chair, the dusk behind you darker at that time of the day due to the unexpected rains, buildings in the distance simmering like navigational lights at the mouth of a busy harbour.
Who could it be? Certainly not your wife, who had said months ago that she didn’t love you anymore and started to sleep in a different room.The phone stops ringing, and with it the silence returns with vengeance.
It’s been a long day and you are tired. The flowers on your desk have wilted but the plastic ones on the shelf look fresh and bright. You open the bottom most drawer and bend down, your hand searching for the bottle, and smile when your fingers curl on its neck. You drain the water from the glass in front of you, stare long and hard at the plastic flowers, pour three fingers of scotch in the glass and drain that too. As your forehead wrinkles and your eyes water, your true mood reflects in it. But comfort kicks in the very next minute and you relax.
The phone starts ringing again. It’s the same number.
You hit the green button and hear a woman’s voice. She wants to meet you. But you don’t know her, you insist. She disagrees, says you had made love to her a week ago. Which one are you, you wonder aloud and hear her gasp.
Her neighbourhood is familiar, so are the stairs and once she opens the door, the woman and her flat. She greets you, extending her hands and as you take them, she takes a step closer and embraces you. Her smell is familiar too.
Though you have been drinking in the car, you accept the drink that she fixes for you. She smiles as you take the first sip.
No one speaks. There’s no music, and you don’t ask for it. Yet it is comforting to be in company of the woman you can only vaguely remember.
You are not on earth, you force yourself to believe, and close your eyes.
She begins to speak about love and you listen to her but the words have no meaning. Love is a meaningless word in the circumstances, like food or music perhaps. She stops as abruptly as she had started.
It’s your turn now, she says. The way she says it, it arouses you. You reach out to her warmth and smell.
The gentle and rough alternate during the lovemaking and the bodies find their rhythm in no time. When you climax you realize that you don’t even know her name.
But her name has no meaning. She is doing it for money and you have lots to spare, to pay for a service, to help you release and preserve you a human, just as God had designed.
She refuses the money. And then you remember she hadn’t accepted money the last time too. Now you recall her name. It’s Tanya.
In life it’s not about winning and losing, she says, it’s about giving-in or abandoning it.
I am falling in love with you, she says, and you watch her lips quiver, and it looks like she is speaking the truth.
You are confused and so you slam the door and run down the stairs. Love is a compromise and you don’t like compromises. And in any case, love is no prerequisite to sanity. You mumble this favourite quote of yours, of which you are the author, and the victim.
You think about the future, wondering if its invisibility is the key to make you rooted in the present. For those who die, the future ceases to exist, and the dead are forever trapped in the present and the past, things you didn’t care for when you were alive. How different are the same people, when dead or living.
You return to your house and peek into the other room where your wife is sleeping. A used condom on the bedside table catches your eye. You look at her face, in sleep she looks happy, as if the man who fucked her while you were away, has fulfilled her dream to be in love. Is she doing this for money? You don’t remember giving her any in the last six months. You dig into your pocket and pull out the wad of notes the woman you visited had refused.
There is no space on the bedside table: napkins, lipstick tray, books and the spent condom. You place the wad on the condom and are happy as the money hides it. Money, you smile, what all it can hide, or find for that matter.
Your thoughts don’t come with expiry dates and that is a big tragedy.
In the office the next day, you immerse yourself in work, the perfect antidote to miseries of life. Or, sometimes, the perfect harbinger of miseries. Work teaches you about winning and losing, about life and death, about sanity and morality.
At lunch you look at yourself in the mirror and wonder if it is really such a good thing. The reflection suggests failure, a man who was rich and successful, who fell in love with a beautiful woman and lost her.
You are making love to an unknown woman and your lover is with someone else. The man in the mirror is a stranger and you step away from him. You decide never to look at the mirror again.
You look out of the window and imagine a flower in the sky. You know the flower isn’t there but you can see it and it sets a temporary smile on your face. You hold on to the moment, the artificiality of beauty, the magnificence of imagination. But the moment slips out of your finger and now there is no flower, just dark clouds filling the afternoon sky from the south. Looks like it will rain soon.
The police are here, the receptionist says and you tell her that you don’t have time. The door opens moments later and two men in plain clothes walk in followed by two in uniform. They produce the arrest warrant and take you away, handcuffed. The metal on your wrists feels hot and when you sit in the police jeep you realize the reason—it’s not air-conditioned. It’s hot and you start to sweat. The police guard requests you to take it easy and you resist telling him that you are not afraid.
Your lawyer meets you after a few hours and asks you to plead not-guilty.
What have I done, you demand to know. The police didn’t reveal the details, and the warrant just said a criminal charge.
The lawyer says you were the last person to leave Tanya’s house.
Who Tanya? And then you remember. She has not called you for a week now.
Her body was discovered this morning, maggots falling from it. The lawyer removes his handkerchief and places on his nose as if he can still get the smell as he says it.
But you haven’t killed her.
You had only said you didn’t love her.
Did she kill herself, and forgot to leave a note? She surely wouldn’t want you to get into trouble. You think of your phone and calculate the time she had called. If you have the phone you could find her number. But phones can’t reach dead people.
The judge turns down your plea for bail. Your fingerprints are everywhere in Tanya’s home. Your hairs are on her bed, your semen on her dress and your skin cells on her sofa. Probably your dried saliva on her breasts. She died bathed in your DNA.
Your wife visits you a week later. She looks fresh and you wonder about her lover. She wants money and you are relieved at her frankness.
You get bail finally. It’s unexpected but your lawyer says he was able to bribe the judges now that months have passed and no one is following the case. Tanya—and this hits you hard—had nobody in the world.
You return home and pause before knocking at the door. But you ring the bell after a few minutes. When the door is not opened, you go around the house and enter through one of the back windows that lead to the store. That’s when the stench hits you. Another dead body? You curse why you didn’t warn your wife and navigate into the house.
Sitting on the sofa is an unknown man, a bullet hole in the middle of his head, blood dried in a neat line across his face from the side of the nose all the way to his white shirt. You step closer, your fingers clasping your nose.
And then you stop.
Written on his shirt is your name with blood.
This short story, written in second-person, was originally published in Indian Short Fiction literary magazine here.