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I soaked myself in bitterness, pickled my heart till it was sour and wrinkly, and did not attempt to forgive or forget. There was safety in this: if you expect nothing, nothing can let you down.
Mrs. Kaul was asking me a question but I could not focus. Never in my life had I met a more irritating human being. I made a silent wish right then that my new neighbour would keep her visits rare. She was one of those imbeciles that had a sugar-coated fairy-tale version of the world and saw everything as infused with love and positivity. She made me sick.
Because she reminded me of me.
I had been an idiotically happy-go-lucky child. I trusted everyone and everything. I believed the world to be a beautiful place.
I was so naive.
The softest hearts bruise the deepest: that’s what I heard someone say.
It started in school. There were those nasty notes slipped to my desk penned by anonymous monsters – ridiculing me for my fat, my hairiness, my pimply skin. My innocence still unblemished enough to not understand the cowardice that is bullying, but subtly registering the message that I was undesirable and unlovable.
Alongside this, there was my mother’s inability to compartmentalise what she should confide in her daughter with what she should confide in her own peers, and my inadvertent absorption of more than a few of her feelings of inadequacy.
Later on, there was my condescending college boyfriend that criticized my every feature – even those he considered good before leaving me for someone else. There was also my first boss who picked at everything I did, before promoting his own son over me.
But nothing was so terrible as my ex-husband. The subtle gas-lighting, the emotional and then physical abuse. By the time I was in it, the universe had succeeded in teaching me that I should under no circumstances, trust my instincts, and also that I should count myself lucky if anyone loved me at all.
When I found him in bed with “Loud Lavanya” (his nickname not mine) and he turned it around to blame it on me, I finally understood. 35 years of life, and it took a half-naked mid-coital pair of losers to make me understand.
After that, I never looked back.
My sister urged me to seek therapy. “You need to move on,” she said. But I feel no desire to let go, to move on, to forgive, to fool myself into happiness once more. Because what if it happens again?
Basically: other humans are not to be trusted.
Which is one of many reasons, I was not interested in being friends with Mrs. Kaul.
She was mid-monologue when I abruptly interrupted and said, “I am expecting a phone call, if you’ll excuse me.”
I recognised the momentary guilt that crossed her face as something I would have felt 20 years ago. The small pang I felt in the pit of my belly gave me pause, but I ushered her out anyway. It was the most I’d felt for another human being in as long as I could remember.
When the doorbell rang again, about ten minutes later, I felt a momentary rush of annoyance. I had just settled down with a good book and had no intention of making more pointless conversation.
I opened the door, already mouthing the excuse I was going to make when I stopped short.
The man who was at my door, was not conventionally handsome – in fact most would have called him very ordinary looking. But as soon as our eyes met, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. So much so that I stared at him blankly when he asked me a question.
“Priya?” He was saying.
“Who?” And then it registered. This, in front of me was Mr. Kaul. I pulled myself together. “Yes, sorry, she left about ten minutes ago.”
He nodded and left abruptly. He was a strange man, yet there was something about him that had gotten under my skin. I couldn’t tell if it was mutual though, and I found myself wishing that Mr. Kaul, had a little bit more of Mrs. Kaul in him and vice versa.
I sat down with my book again, but I couldn’t concentrate. My eyes glazed over the words, seeing them without reading them. Why had I had that reaction? It disturbed me deeply, because I could feel something so alien, something I hadn’t felt in years. A stirring of something I could not name.
I ran into Mr. Kaul, whose name, I later learned was Gaurav, over and over again over the next few days. He seemed to have my habit of sullen silence except his was even more intimidating than mine.
Although I still found him extremely magnetic, I would feel awkward and shaky in his presence, till one day, when he finally broke the uncomfortable silence.
“That’s a great book,” he said. I was reading a biography of Indira Gandhi.
“Yeah, it is,” I said, expecting that to be the end of the conversation.
“I found myself horrified and fascinated by her in equal measures,” he said.
And then suddenly the conversation started to flow.
45 minutes later, we were still outside my door chatting, when his phone suddenly rang interrupting our conversation. We said a hasty goodbye, and I locked myself back into my apartment. Once back inside the safety of my home, I found myself pensive.
I know it may seem hard for you, the socially well-adjusted, to believe, but I haven’t had a conversation like this in years. And from the looks of it, it wasn’t too common for him either. But here we were, connecting like old friends. “Or new lovers”, a voice inside my head whispered. I shushed it.
I did not intentionally start to look forward to running into him, but I couldn’t help it. I found myself able to speak to him in a way I hadn’t been able to with anyone I had ever known. Still underneath the superficial lies I told myself, I began to feel uneasy. I grew to be extra sweet to Priya, inviting her over on more than one occasion, though I found her conversation frightfully dull.
And yet at the same time whenever I read a phrase that I liked or had a thought I wanted to share with someone, I found my fingers reaching for my phone to text Gaurav.
The heaviness in my heart grew more acute which each passing day. The volume of communication more and more intense and deep. I found myself opening up to him, telling him things I hadn’t told anyone. I told him about my parent’s divorce, my father’s suicide, and my sister’s patronising way of making of making me feel like I was always the problem in my own life. He told me about his wife’s lack of emotional intelligence, her overbearing family, his struggles with his art, and how sometimes he couldn’t keep depression at bay.
I grew disappointed on days I didn’t hear from him, and yet, on days I did, I felt that sickly feeling that I was inching closer to that line between honesty and treachery – and no matter how irritating Priya was, I did not want to do that to her.
Yet I found myself fantasizing about hypothetical scenarios in which we would validate this chemistry that seemed to exist between us. Who would make the first move? Would we be able to stop at just one time? I found myself wondering what his lips would feel like, the texture of his skin, the callouses on his palms. I knew it was wrong, but I soon found I could think of little else.
It was one of these evenings, as I enjoyed my evening drinks, that I unblocked my ex-husband on Facebook. I stared at his picture, a solo picture. He looked at peace.
A memory floated into my mind –
The palpable chemistry that he and “Loud Lavanya” had – chemistry that I had noticed at several group dinners. They had so much in common, and I realized that’s why it had hurt so bad – because I knew they were better for each other than him and I could have ever been.
I started to understand his infidelity a little better at that moment. Or did I? Was I possibly projecting? I was feeling tempted as one of them had once, to go after another woman’s husband. Okay, going after another woman’s husband is an exaggeration. But I was feeling temptation, that like I’d never felt before.
What a bizarre feeling it was: suddenly being on the other side of the equation – in a position to do to someone else what had been done to me. And yet it was not out of any sense of malice or poetic justice that I found myself suggesting a late-night drink but this magnetic force I could not stop.
He was over in 10 minutes. As he stepped through the doorway, my heart began to quicken, and I began to feel a little anxious. Would I? Could I? Was I capable of it? I could feel a slight tremor enter my voice as I said hello. His face was expressionless besides an intense gaze that seemed like it could penetrate my deepest thoughts.
An hour later, drunk partly on wine and partly on conversation with him, I started giggling at something – I can’t remember what – that seemed hilariously funny at the time, and he leaned in.
Our eyes met and my heart started to pound. What flooded my mind at that moment was the chemistry, the sparks, the sense of finally finding home. This was the moment I had wondered about for so long.
I leaned in and an image appeared in my mind’s eye.
My ex-husband and loud Lavanya in a half – dressed embrace all of us frozen and not quite sure what to do next. I thought of Priya, and of her whole world shattering. Was I capable of doing this to another human – the thing that had hurt me so much? I remembered the exact moment I learned I was living a lie, and I realized I could not possibly wish that feeling on my worst enemy, let alone Priya.
I pulled back, and then he did too, abruptly. We stared in silence at each other.
He broke the silence first.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You must think I’m a complete jerk.”
“No, no,” I said, but he cut me off, a pensive look in his eyes.
“I don’t do this,” he said. “I’m not someone who’s a cheater, I just..”
“I understand Gaurav,” I said. “I feel it too.”
“But then..” he started.
“I’ve been cheated on before and it pushed me into such a dark place,” I said. I sighed. “Gaurav, I could never do this to anyone else.”
We sat there in a sudden awkward silence, sipping our drinks. A short while later, our glasses drained, we hugged and said good night. We never spoke again.
But the encounter awoke something within me: my emotional floodgates. I remembered how it felt to feel. My heart started to sweeten, and I began to see hope and springtime where previously I saw emptiness and sorrow. With each passing day, week and month, I started to see the events of my life in a different light.
It wasn’t that the things that happened were no longer terrible. The things my husband, my ex-boss, my mother, and those kids that bullied me did were wrong and hurtful. But at the end of the day, I could still hope for love again.
I started connecting with people – new and old – again. I started therapy. And over the years, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to see the world as beautiful once more.
This short story had been shortlisted for the December 2020 Muse of the Month short fiction contest.
Image source: a still from the film Life in a Metro
Mira Saraf was born in Canada, grew up in New Delhi, and went to a British School half her life, and an American school the other half which has, as a result, made her grammar read more...
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It will mean the world to your mother if you answer her calls. If your sister seems lost give her a hug and assure her about her strengths. Tomorrow, there might come a day when you would have to make your daughter feel empowered with few words of wisdom every now and then. For the children to feel wanted and loved, you must be able to spare some quality time with your wife and be present in the moment.
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