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A decade of love doesn’t just evaporate. It leaves traces. In her mind. In her body’s unconscious habits. The position she slept in. The way she stretched when she woke up.
Priya wandered into the kitchen, half asleep. She was halfway through brewing the coffee, before she noticed. She’d added milk again.
She sighed. It had been over a year since the divorce, and she still automatically made coffee the way he liked it. Priya had always preferred black coffee. She turned off the stove and rested her hands on the counter. The dull milky coffee stared back at her. Priya took a deep breath.
Some days she cried. And some days she didn’t. Today looked like a dry-eyed day. She poured the milky coffee down the drain and started over. It was an extravagance, wasting good coffee. Initially she used to drink the milky coffee, simply to avoid wasting the ingredients. It tasted of home. As the months passed, though, she had slowly begun to notice that what she liked rarely reminded her of home.
She made herself a cup of black coffee and settled into a chair with a novel. She breathed in the smell of the coffee. The smell of a morning to herself. The smell of not organizing domestic life around Daniel.
Without even realizing it, she found herself scrolling through an app on her phone. She resisted the guilty urge to text Daniel and ask him how he was. It was getting easier with time. Instead she texted Kirtana. I did it again. Made coffee with milk.
She turned back to her book. A few lines in, her phone pinged. Restless and relieved to be distracted, she read Kirtana’s reply. A smiley rolling its eyes. I hope you poured it off and made yourself black coffee.
Priya: Yes yes. It’s just weird. It’s not even the same house we used to live in… but my muscle memory means I make coffee for him even in a house he’s never visited.
Kirtana: Uff… You need a change of scene.
Priya put the phone aside, mildly annoyed. How much change? She was just getting comfortable here. Slowly feeling less guilt and getting used to being alone.
The phone pinged again. And so do I.
Priya smiled. Kirtana, her best friend, had the opposite problem. Cooped up in their one room flat with her partner, Apoorva, the two were beginning to get on eachother’s nerves.
Priya: I don’t know about you, but I need to find somewhere that feels like home.
Kirtana: Home is overrated. As soon as this lockdown lifts, let’s go on that trek, no? I also need some space from Apoorva. This pandemic is driving us mad, and I swear we’ll break up if we don’t give eachother some space soon.
Priya: What about CoVID?
Kirtana: Trek only, no? We won’t meet other people while we’re trekking. And we can come back and quarantine. Trekking is the perfect post-pandemic activity!
Priya rolled her eyes, and put the phone aside again. Kirtana had been suggesting this trek for months now. Priya was more of a vicarious traveler, though. She preferred books and music, noting down words or lyrics that moved her. And she was already getting used to so much change.
She had done everything she could think of. Moved to a new city. Taken up a new job. She’d even had a one-night stand before the lockdown and its staggering toll on human life. Well… it had taken her three nights. She’d met Kabir on an app. And explained quite clearly, if nervously, that she wasn’t interested in a relationship as she was just getting over one. All she wanted was sex.
Contrary to all the horror stories she had heard about men on dating apps, he had been kind and understanding. The first evening, they had met for coffee. He asked her to relax. They didn’t have to do anything unless she felt like it. If she changed her mind, they could stop anytime. So they didn’t do anything. Just talked and laughed.
The second night, they had had sex. She’d had to ask him directly, because he refused to pick up on any hints. That was new. With Daniel it had always been a delicate build up of tension. Lingering glances and subtle touches building up to a choreography of passion. She had never had to think about what was unfolding, consider what she liked… or even whether she wanted it. She merely lost herself in the intoxication… and the thrill of his pride over apparently reading her mind and the subtle cues of her body.
With Kabir, it was just… fun. He did whatever she asked. That meant she had to figure out what she wanted and ask for it. This was strange and new, for Priya. She felt less like a woman under a heady spell, and more like she was playing a game. The third time, it was even more fun. Kabir already had some idea of what she liked, but kept checking with her and encouraging her to take the lead. It was almost like being a new person.
After that, she had texted him to say that she was done for now. That had been hard to do. She had been sorely tempted by fantasies of marrying Kabir, or at least getting into a relationship. Instead, Priya surprised herself by thanking him for a wonderful time and telling him she wouldn’t call him over anymore. He was cordial, and asked if they could be friends. So they still texted on and off.
Even now what lingered from the experience, was a sense of wonder at discovering bits and pieces of what she liked to do with her body. Little hints about who and what she could be when her body was not a playground for Daniel’s fantasies, however thrilling. When she wasn’t seeing herself through his eyes. When she wasn’t being a side character in his life.
The entire experience seemed surreal, like an incident from a movie with white people in it. She hadn’t thought it possible to have a pleasant one-night-stand in India. She was still amazed at her own audacity for trying it. Clearly there was a Priya inside her, capable and even eager to do things she hadn’t imagined before.
How much more change did she need? What did she truly want? Priya had no idea. Well, in the short term, she wanted what everyone wanted. For the pandemic to pass, and for it to leave her and her loved ones alone. For life to return to normal, whatever that was! Perhaps some improvements to the healthcare system. To be able to go to an actual workplace, instead of working from home. To meet colleagues, go out with friends, stop feeling guilty… maybe meet someone new. Her mind still shied away from that last thought. Did she truly want to meet someone new?
The thought itself was exhausting. She and Daniel had dated for five years before they married. It had been perfect. A fairytale. Both their families had approved and couldn’t understand why the couple took so long to marry. They knew each other well. They laughed, joked and were romantic together. Daniel’s was the perpetual voice in Priya’s head, even before they were married.
The thought of getting that close to another person was exhausting. Idly, Priya wondered what Daniel was doing. Had he learnt how to clean up the kitchen after cooking? Did he remember to order a water can before the water ran out? Had he installed the water-purifier she had bought him? Had he met someone new?
Priya shook her head, angrily. What was the point of the divorce if she continued to fill her head with all the mundane worries that had eventually lead her to leave? These days, that was what she felt most. Anger. With herself. Slowly overpowering her guilt at leaving.
What she found most bewildering was the silence. The static of it, where there had once been his voice. His gentle humour, his perpetual avowals of love, his encouragement, the mannerisms of his speech, his subtle dismissal of her ‘practicalities’… these had been the flavours of Priya’s internal monologues. Daniel’s had been the voice in her head for as long as she could remember. As the months wore on, she had slowly found his voice growing quieter, in her head.
Initially, she had tried to cover this gaping absence with music and phone-calls and podcasts. But these days, she sometimes let herself examine the shape of it. His absence. To touch it’s edges with her thoughts. A decade of love doesn’t just evaporate. It leaves traces. In her mind. In her body’s unconscious habits. The position she slept in. The way she stretched when she woke up. The coffee she brewed unthinkingly… None of this meant that she regretted her decision to leave. She just missed him.
She began to feel a restlessness in her body, as his voice got quieter. She tried out new habits. Exercising while listening to a podcast. Keeping a diary. Some days she danced, quietly in her one room apartment. It wasn’t joy exactly. Or sadness… it was a sort of acceptance. Of his profound absence. An awareness of the space she could now take up. Of not having to exist around another person.
Kirtana had lent her a well thumbed copy of Ibsen’s A Doll House. They had read it together in college. This time, Priya cried as the tale washed over her. She had curled into a ball and cried for days. Three days later, she had got on the app and met Kabir. That had been strange and interesting. Afterwards, her body felt more languid. Less restless. More ready to accept not being touched.
The very different experiences she had had with Daniel and Kabir made her wonder what her body was like when she was alone with it. Neither under a spell, nor playing with a new friend. Who was she and how did her body feel when no one was watching? In some ways, the pandemic was the ideal time to explore this. Unable to make sense of the intensity of the unfolding human tragedy, it left her feeling lonely and withdrawn. Longing for a sense of home.
Even her parents only called her once a day. They disapproved. Strongly. They couldn’t understand why she had given up her stable future with Daniel for a lonely existence in a new city. They would have visited, but her brother insisted that they not travel till the pandemic died down. And Priya agreed.
Of course, she missed their comforting presence. Even in their anger, they could be caring. The smell of the home-made cutlets frying, the routine of her father reading interesting news articles aloud to them, over a morning-coffee… the litany of familial woes her mother recited after long phone conversations with her cousins… this was home. The refuge Priya had hoped to retreat to, and heal from leaving Daniel and the familiarity of their marriage.
Instead, here she sat. Alone. With her book and her coffee. And her message from Kirtana telling her she needed more change.
It was strangely liberating. To be. Just to exist without an audience. She didn’t know where it would lead. The smell of black coffee, the risk of a one-night stand…
Priya reached for her diary and re-read the lines she had scribbled in the early hours of the morning.
Home was perhaps just this body I inhabited and this too was alien to me at times, its folds and creases, its pains and needs. Home was everywhere and nowhere. Home, I realised now, was anywhere the heart slept in peace. Home was where one unpacked one’s cares and settled them into the wardrobe with one’s clothes. It was where one was complete.
Priya smiled. She picked up her phone.
Perhaps home is something we carry with us? she typed. Let’s do it. Let’s plan carefully and go as soon as the pandemic dies down.
Kirtana sent back a beaming smiley. Yes! Cheers to being the homes we need!
This story was shortlisted for our June 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. Our juror for the month Kiran Manral says “Finding oneself after a divorce is perhaps the toughest thing a woman can do. This story effectively conveys the internal conflicts and readjustments the narrator faces.”
Image source: MmeEmil from Getty Images Signature Free for Canva Pro
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