Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night to ponder what she was wondering. Most evenings, she would gait across the green grass, politely smile at the other dawdling contestants, and sit by the swimming pool. Then, she would dip her legs into the clear transparent water, look ahead, and repeat the same words. I wish sometimes I could sit next to her by the pool, and ask her the simplest question. Why?
Often, I have dreamt of sitting next to her by the pool, in those instances, I would take a deep breath, collect whatever little courage I had in my heart, and ask her. And every time she would look at me and before she could answer, I would wake up. The night would still be young as I would curl up and cry until my throat weighed and ached like I had swallowed an iron ball. Many nights, I cried until the darkness faded away and the windows shimmered with the bright orange light of dawn. More often than not, this makes me ponder if I want to know the answer.
But I have gained the courage now. I believe I am ready to face it. I am no longer afraid. It is better to have a hard answer than a crippling ambiguity. Ergo, I fueled up my car and traveled the 1300 kilometers between us, to the outskirts of Mumbai, to visit the filming set and request her the answer straight. As I began my journey, thick smoking clouds curtained the sky, occasionally descending and covering the roads. The parked trucks, accompanied by old cars, were rusting and sinking to the ground on the side of the road. There was hardly any traffic. It was an odd day; I suppose. It took me 10 hours to reach half distance and by dusk, I had reached the countryside. The dry road was narrow, full of potholes, and pitch dark with no street lamps to lead my way. I was too tired to continue, so I maneuvered my car beside the crop fields and the wild bushes growing on the edge of the road, which scratched my car windows. I pulled the brake lever, reclined my car seat into a cozy position and switched on my phone.
The phone sprung to life, and the bright light almost blinded me. Then, I clicked on the video-streaming application on my phone. And it played the recently viewed video again. The infamous title track of the reality TV show squealed, reverberating inside the car. A lady anchor, wearing a dull yellow dress, entered the screen from the left, followed by an artificial automated cheering and clapping.
“Hi! Hello and Welcome to today’s episode of the Modern Pairs, the incredible game show where our single models meet their destined one…” the anchor in the yellow dress paused for dramatic effect, “Or do they? Let’s find out what my friend and co-anchor, who isn’t drooling over the models, have to say to us today”
“Ha-ha! Thank you so much for the admiration, my friend” said the anchorman, entering the screen from the right, again followed by the automated cheering and clapping. He wore a generic beach shirt and brown shorts. He gave a synthetic laugh that made you cringe and continued, “I’ll take the compliment. Maybe Deepa will notice me.” He winked at the camera as the lady anchor gave an fake surprised reaction.
“Deepa! Did you hear that?” she asked the camera, still portraying surprise on her face. “Maybe if you don’t find a partner in our show, you will always have a backup,” she winked and pointed at the anchorman. “So, tell me, what’s happening in the Modern Pairs house? After last week’s elimination of our beloved model, Silva, and the heated arguments between Kristi and Manoj, I am curious to know what the other contestants are up to.”
“Definitely! So, come with me. Let’s go into the house and find out for ourselves,” said the anchorman as he held the microphone closer to his fake smiling mouth. He walked towards a black metal gate, which opened behind him and once he walked past the security guards, the camera turned around, panning the huge, yellow mansion behind them. The anchorman walked across the garden with the neatly trimmed croutons, towards the thick teak door of the mansion. The anchor swung the teak door open, revealing the insides of the mansion. It began with a long marble corridor with modern art paintings and golden chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Some contestants walked over to the camera, smiling and gesturing with goofy hand symbols, while the other contestants were unreactive to this man with the camera entering their house. The corridor paved its way into the living area, with large televisions and long kitchen counters. On the left, a polished glass staircase spiraled up to the first floor with the remaining contestants either sleeping or gossiping, guessing by the squeaky noises.
“We now feel something hot is sparking between Ritu and Lujha, and we, like you, were astonished when Nura kissed Khan although two weeks back, she had confessed her interests to Dhruva. I can’t wait to see the drama unfold!” said the anchorman, rolling his eyes in excitement, as he slid the glass backdoor of the mansion leading to the swimming pool, “And, look who we have here, our beautiful Anita, who still hasn’t foun–” Anita turned around and waved at the camera. Her dark hair fluttered to the wind and her soft legs played with the water. Her eyes were bright with full of light and she wore a short skirt and green T-shirt. She sat by the left corner of the pool and turned again to stare ahead.
I could not seem to grasp the next sentences or words. My thoughts got lost and were whirling around her name. Anita. Her name woke me up like a gentle wave refreshing the shore with life. I saw her face on my phone screen. A sense of familiarity swept me as if I knew her from a hundred splendid lives before this. The corner of my eyes became blurred and burned from exhaustion. Now sleep frightened me, for I feared the recurring nightmare of sitting by her side, and the soul-crushing vagueness after waking up.
I rubbed my eyes and drank the remaining last drops water I had. The single road leading ahead was ominous, with the unusual flickering of the streetlights. The crickets were chirping loudly from the bushes and some mice were squeaking from fields nearby, while the grey clouds sailed silently under the starlight.
I don’t need to sleep now, I thought. I just need to drive a lit bit more, and my thirst shall be quenched. I switched the car on, and the car vibrated to ignition and the silence of the countryside road scampered. The crickets stopped twittering, and the stars vanished under the bright car lights. I pressed the pedal, and the car zoomed into the dark, broken road. The road was empty and abandoned throughout the way. It seemed like few people used this road, but I knew this was a shortcut that eventually lead to the national highways. Moreover, it was 3 in the morning. I think even the few who stayed here would be fast asleep now. My next lurking fear was that my car would cease to run without fuel and leave me in this middle of nowhere.
Nevertheless, fortunately, I found one old gas station on the side of the road. I got out and fueled my car till it was half, then I entered the store to pay. The articles were surprisingly quite fresh. I took some mint gums and protein bars, and since they sold the water bottles out, I reluctantly took some cola to drink along the way. I walked to the billing counter and called for the cashier. I waited for someone to come through the back door and attend to me. But after fifteen minutes, no one came. I think they either slept off or no one ever lived here. So, in the end, I left my 50 rupees on the dusty counter and left for the car.
I traveled the remaining kilometers within a few hours, drinking and singing along the way to keep the sleep at the bay. My car did not break down but sustained until the last drop of gas. The filming location was on the outskirts of Mumbai, so I had to take a badly maintained road, which I’m certain broke my car’s suspension, to reach the mansion. After driving for a few minutes along the back-breaking road, I was driving towards the black metal gate of the Modern Pairs mansion. I parked my car on the side of the road along the compound wall of the mansion, and my car completely broke down, by letting one final loud grumbling, and ceasing to start again.
I did not care; my answers were a few meters away. All I had to do now was to go into the building, meet her, and ask her. Simple. I left all my belonging in the car and I walked to the black metal gate. It was still dark, and the sun hadn’t risen yet. For the first time, I knocked on the gate hoping someone would open it for me. I observed the paint peeling off the gate and its corners rusting. I knocked on the gate again and waited until I didn’t get any response. Then I opened the gate and peeked into the mansion area. The mansion was dark, and it was not as luminous as I had witnessed it in the show. There was no sign of any person living there. So I sneaked inside before someone caught me.
The crickets were chirping here too, and I bent down a little and sneaked to the front door. I looked to the side and saw that most of the bushes were dead and what remained were their rotting skeletal stems adorned with layers of spider silk. I reached the teak door and tried to crank the knob, trying to cause the least noise possible. The door, although it slightly creaked, swung open with enough gap for me to creep inside.
The mansion looked more enormous in real than on television. The grey clouds illuminated the mansion in semi darkness. The corridor was dirty with something slippery spilled over either blood or oil. Whatever the liquid was, it made my shoes squeak. So, I took off my shoes and walked toward the backdoor in my socks. The shattered chandeliers hung from the ceilings and the glass shards were dispersed randomly upon the marble corridor. Some chandeliers were gone, leaving behind only the ceiling hooks. The paintings were lying on the ground, with only the broken frames except for one painting which was burnt. The enormous television was on the floor, broken and decaying. Lying beside the kitchen counter was a rotten skeleton of someone. I couldn’t see their face in the dark, but it was be beyond recognition. Its head faced the window to the other side, and it lay there in the dark silence, resting peacefully. I tiptoed to not disturb its sleep.
I brushed the walls as I walked and the old paint was peeling off into thin dust. It caused so much dust to stir in the air and almost forced me to sneeze, but I abstained from myself. There was no one living here anymore, but it fascinated me to see the Modern pairs mansion in person. To walk in the same corridors, which I have seen countless times on television in physical form seemed bone-chilling. Obviously, it has been fifteen years since the show aired, and ten years since the pandemic collapsed upon us, taking one-sixth of the world with it. I realized I can’t expect the mansion to be filled with people, and I feared not.
I gaited to the backdoor, the broken door was open, sliding from end to end to the mild breeze. I noticed some mice running out of the mansion, sensing my presence. The hall behind was pitch dark and quiet, like an old man reminiscing about his fabulous life on his deathbed. I took a few steps into the backyard and climbed a small series of stairs. And I finally saw the swimming pool. But Anita wasn’t sitting there anymore. Overgrown moss surrounded the pool, but the pool itself was dry. The pool tiles had cracked and filled from the side to the bottom with green algae. The grey cloud turned lighter and lighter as minutes passed. The sun was rising. I took off my socks, and in my bare bloody feet, I strode to the pool, as the mosses tickled my feet. I sat in the left corner of the swimming pool, next to where she used to sit. I even left some space for her to sit. I gazed forward and saw the orange sun rising from behind the collapsed walls, clearing the settled chill mist around the backyard. I took a deep breath and closed my eye.
I felt cool water engulfing my feet and the water’s resistance as I moved my feet around. The clouds were fresh and fluffy, reflecting upon the mirror-like water. The bright orange sun shone through the sapphire sky, sending the swirling winds in my direction. The breeze caressed my hair and face, kissing me as it passed. The tiles were no more broken, and the water was clear. Its ripples were rushing back and forth, giggling like children. The overgrown mosses were gone, and I smelled fresh-cut grass around the pool. I turned to my left, and I saw Anita. She sat silently in her short skirt and green shirt, with her hands by her side. I gently placed my hand on hers. She twitched but didn’t look at me. A smile appeared on the corner of her lips. She looked at the sky ahead, occasionally sighing in relief. I saw her hair flutter to the cold autumn breeze, and her brown eyes eagerly sensing a brighter future that would never come to pass. Both of us sat together by the side of the pool, despite existing decades apart from one another. We held each other hands and witnessed the sunrise. My questions no longer needed an answer, and my miseries vanished. My heart no longer palpitated, as I sat calmly by her side. I spoke the exact words in unison with her, “Isn’t this enough?”
Just then, I recalled the words of a long-gone poet, “Love each other, but don’t make a bond of it: let it be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Let each of you be alone, just like the strings of the violin are alone, though they quiver with the same music”. We both are shores of distant lands, never destined to know one another, yet the waves of her heart transcend like a wind stringing my soul. After several years, I felt complete. I felt safe. I felt loved.
I was no longer alone.