3 comments

Drama Contemporary Desi

It was a glance, held for a little too long, that first wormed its way into Lena's mind. It laid eggs. The eggs hatched and worms of doubt bored inside her mind.



Lena set the box down with a thud, dislodging hundreds of thousands of dust particles that had clung to it for ages. Her eyes stung and she stepped back coughing. 

"That's the last one," said Hari. His head peeked out of a small door in the ceiling. "If it's not in there, then the album's gone."

"Oh, don't say that," said Lena. She knelt down by the last box and began digging. 

"It's not a big loss," said Hari, climbing down the retractable stairs. "It's not like we look through it often."

"It's our wedding album," said Lena, reproachfully. Hari was right in a technical sense, but it was about the sentimentality of it. The nostalgia of old photos. They're tactile. Touching them had a way of transporting you. They held more than an image. Somehow, they captured the sensations — the smell of the wedding sari, the sound of the click, the giggling off-screen. 

"We digitized them a long time ago," said Hari, collapsing the stairs and closing the attic door. 

"Anyway," said Hari, stretching. "Why the sudden interest in old photos?"

"Just felt like it," said Lena, looking up at her husband. He wasn't the man she married. He didn't talk of opening up a restaurant anymore. He didn't go running with her anymore. He stood slouched with his hands on his hips. His beer gut was getting more prominent by the weekend. His hairline stopped putting up a fight against the coming baldness. No, he wasn't the man she married. But she didn't think the man she married would have lasted this long. Hari had his eyes on the ground. He had raised a family with her. In two years, they'd proudly send their kids off to college. She loved the husband Hari had grown into, but lately, she'd found herself reminiscing. And in reminiscing, she realized she'd forgotten what the man she married looked like. 

"What? Why're you smiling like that? Is there something on my face?" asked Hari. 

"You just look so cute," said Lena. She meant it too. She smiled at him in a way that was often a prelude to other things. 

"You're making fun of me," said Hari, kneeling down. A mischievous grin spread across his face like a charm that hinted at the nostalgia that Lena was trying to reach for. All thought of the album was driven out of her mind. In fact, as Hari came closer, most thoughts were driven out of her mind. She leaned back with him, their weight on her elbows. Then downstairs the front door opened accompanied by shouts of "Mom, where are you?" and "Are you and dad upstairs?"

Hari's hand slipped. Lena grabbed one of the boxes for support. A loud crash later they were both covered in dust. They composed themselves just as their daughter bounded up the stairs.

"What're you two doing?" asked Samantha, trying her best to hold in her giggles.

"Just trying to get these boxes down," said Hari without meeting her eyes. He unnecessarily rearranged the boxes, coughing several times. 

"I'll be right down," said Lena, putting the strewn things back in the box. "Is your brother home?"

"I dunno," said Samantha, running back down the stairs. Lena and Hari heard her giggling all the way down.

“Well, that was embarrassing," said Hari, but something else had grabbed Lena's attention completely. It was an old photograph, worn and faded. In it, Hari looked younger than she'd ever known him. He knelt by a pond, flashing a wide bright grin at the camera. He had his arm around a pretty young woman. She looked happy too. 

"Ooh, is this an old girlfriend?" asked Lena, picking it up and turning it over. "Kashmir!" 

"What?"

Lena held up the photo like a kid who just discovered her best friend's crush. Hari took the photo and looked it over. 

"I'd forgotten about this," said Hari. He looked as if he was looking through a window rather than a photo. "Yeah, this was when we—"

"Mom," came Arun's loud voice from downstairs. 

"Shh. Keep your voice down," said Samantha, loud enough for Lena to hear her. "They need their alone time." Lena sighed. Sometimes she agreed with her son. Samantha can be a bit of a bully.

"I'm heading down," said Lena. "We can continue later... if you want."

"What? Yeah, sure. I'll put them back later."

Lena stopped at the stairs and glanced back. Hari was still looking at the photo. She couldn't quite make out his eyes. He was turned away from her.



The first worm that hatched in her mind was the tail end of a stray conversation.

"He got dumped," said Samantha. She was on the recliner, balancing a plate on her knee. Arun was on the floor, a chicken leg in his hand. Lena and Hari were on the couch. They were watching a movie on their large flat-screen TV. Three of them were, anyway. Hari was scrolling endlessly on his phone.

"No I didn't," said Arun, dismissively. He bit off a piece of chicken. "I'm giving her space to cool down."

"Smart idea. Real smart."

"Well," said Lena, tearing herself away from trying to glance at Hari's phone with great effort. "If you're going to make mistakes, there's no time like this. You have time to learn from them."

"So, you just assume I'm the one making a mistake?"

Lena shrugged. Samantha snickered. She held out her empty plate, not taking her eyes from the TV. Sighing at the lazy bum her daughter was turning out to be, Lena got up. As she came back with a plate full of fried rice from the kitchen, she heard her husband say, "... but the mistakes you make now can be costlier."



The third worm that hatched in Lena’s mind was this: Her comfort had become her husband's boredom. Lena wasn't quite sure what to do with that thought. It intruded into their everyday life. It expanded in the awkward silences between them, and the silences lasted longer. It filled the gap between them in bed, and the space between their bodies widened. 



"Hold on a sec," said Lena, her phone between her ear and shoulder. She pulled up the chair in front of the PC in her bedroom. She saw that Hari hadn't shut down the computer last night. When did he sleep? ‘What’s he doing when he isn’t sleeping?’ asked the worm.

 It was a Friday morning and she was alone at home. Her client was on the phone. 

"How's the older one taking it?" Lena asked, adjusting the monitor. "Oh, that's cute. Mine was jealousy personified at that age. Yes... Okay, I'm sharing the design, now. Can you see it?" 

As she and her client worked through the design of a child's room, Lena's eyes found a tab among the cluster of tabs gathered on top of the browser. There were so many of them open — his and hers —that she almost missed the small Facebook tab. She remembered Hari's phone had some problem with connectivity last night. 

"Ah, yes, I'm listening," said Lena into the phone, wrenching the mouse pointer away from the tab. She closed the tab without opening it. "Mm. I have it, but it's not on this computer. It's in the computer in my office. Unless... Hold on a sec. I might have a physical copy in my drawer. Let me check. Please, hold."

Lena pulled out the drawer and ran her fingers down the many file folders — some his, some hers. Finally, she pulled out the file she wanted, but along with it came another file containing copies of Hari's license, identity card, passport, and an old worn photo. 

"I'm afraid I don't have it here," said Lena, unable to take her eyes off of the photo. The young couple grinned at her from behind the transparent plastic folder. "Yeah, I'll get it to you on Monday." 

She hung up the phone. Her hands moved to the keyboard before she decided what to do. She opened the last tab she closed. It belonged to a woman. Her name was Mary. She was older, about Hari's age. She was married. 

She lived nearby.



Sunday was a big day. Lena and Hari hadn't gone out, just the two of them, in some time. Arun and Samantha were at Lena's sister's house. Lena had a smile on her face the entire morning. They dropped the teenagers off on the way and were off. Their itinerary saw them visit the beach, have a fancy lunch, and walk around a bird sanctuary. Finally, they were at the last leg of their tour — dinner and a movie. Lena had Hari's arm in hers the whole day, but the worm in her mind told her she couldn't keep it forever.

"I'll be right back," said Lena, slowly letting go of Hari's hand. He nodded. As she turned around the corner to the restroom, she glanced back. He pulled his phone out of his pocket. She bit her lip and walked inside.

She took her time in the restroom. If she saw him again, she knew she would burst. Whether in tears or in anger, she didn't know. 

"Lena, it's been a while," said a voice beside her. She was standing in front of the large mirror in the restroom. She didn't remember when she came out of the stall. Seeing herself smile, it was hard to shake the feeling she was really on the other side looking at this strange woman pretending to be fine.

"The kids with you, or is this a date?" It was one of Hari's coworkers. Lena knew her quite well. They had gone on company picnics together.

"Yeah, just the two of us."

"We need time ourselves. It can't always be about the kids."

Lena saw her reflection smiling. 

"Good to know Hari's doing well. He's been off sick a lot lately."



Hari was nowhere to be found when Lena walked out of the restroom. 

"Must've gone to the men's room," said his colleague. "Well, have a good night." 

Lena struggled to find balance on even ground. She waded through the small crowd towards the railing and stood gripping it like it was a lifebuoy. Hari was taking days off of work without telling her. He was looking at her Facebook page. She lived nearby. The pieces fell into place one after the other. She gave it to him — the photo. She reintroduced her husband to his ex-girlfriend. And now...

"Why're you smiling like that?" asked Hari, snapping Lena back to reality. 

"Let's go home," said Lena.

"What about the movie? And dinner?"

"I don't feel like it. Let's just go."

"We already bought the tickets and made reservations "

"I don't care."

"What's gotten into you?"

Lena walked away. 

"Hey, don't just ignore me," hissed Hari, grabbing her wrist. People were starting to look. 

"Let go of me," said Lena through her teeth. "I know about Mary."

The color drained off of Hari's cheeks. She wished her words had a different effect.

"What do you mean?"

"You know what. You were looking her up on Facebook. You have her photo—" She stopped. Saying it out loud, she realized that's all she had. So he looked up his girlfriend from college and saved an old photo. She's been married to him for twenty years. Then she hit the snag. ‘Why did he get flustered?’ asked the worm.

 "I'm sorry if I hurt you,” said Hari, taking her aside. "I didn't mean for you to find out. It's just— I looked her up because I was curious. Nothing more. I just— sometimes, lately, find myself wondering what could’ve been. I know that sounds terrible. It’s not about you. It’s just that not everything— well, most things didn’t go the way I thought they’d go when I was in college…“

He looked lost.

So he hasn't been having an affair? He's just been going through some weird mid-life crisis. She looked him full in the face, took it all in — the creases, the shadows under the eyes, the stubble. He seemed thinner. He was depressed and she didn't see it.

"Let's go home," she said softly. 

She turned around and came face to face with the woman in the photo.

"Oh, excuse me," said Mary. She walked past Lena and Hari. There wasn't a hint of recognition.

"Let's go," said Lena, taking Hari's hand. She held it tight and didn’t look at his face until they reached the parking lot.



She smiled at him in a way that was often a prelude to other things. In the half-shadow of the bedside lamp, their faces shifted and morphed. They were different people, different ages. Their clothes fell one after the other on the floor. She leaned back with him, caressed him. He saw her as he saw her all those years ago and smiled. He whispered into her hair. She bit her lip as a soft moan betrayed her. With each arching breath, one felt the other with their whole body. At its crescendo, he whispered her name, "Mary!"



Bright fluorescent light illuminated the room. Lena sat at the edge of the bed, a bedsheet wrapped around her. Hari sat at the other end with his head in his hands. Lena was numb. Her mind was blank except for one question. She thought she knew the answer. She knew, too, that once she heard the answer there'll be no more pretending. The worm slithered inside her mind. 

"Where did you go when you skipped work?"

Hari lifted his head slowly, his eyes wide. 

"How did you—?"

Lena didn't answer. She didn't think she owed him an answer. She didn't think she owed him anything anymore. After a while, Hari spoke.

"I hoped to run into her."

He looked pathetic as he said it. 

"Did you?"

Hari shook his head.

"You never went up to her and introduced yourself?"

Hari shook his head.

"Because you didn't think you were good enough? She'd made more of her life than you?"

Hari opened his mouth a few times and closed them just as many times.

“I’m sorry,” said Hari, after a long pause. “The more I saw those old photos, the more I remembered what I imagined my life would be. I had… plans. I've got a better car, a bigger TV, and a house, but I— I haven't really achieved anything, have I? I've been coasting through life. She— At first I just hoped to see her. Then I saw her and I thought maybe… I thought if I… I don’t know what I was thinking.”

"You haven't achieved anything?" asked Lena. He didn’t even have the guts to have an affair.

"You know what I mean. I — I should've done something."

"Was everything we built so inadequate?"

Hari said nothing. He looked at some point past Lena's ear.

"Were you ever...? Where you ever proud of...?" Lena shrugged and held open both palms.

"If I hadn't seen that photo again," said Hari after some time. 

"You would've pretended," said Lena, getting up. She picked up her clothes and went into the bathroom.

"I was in a trance," said Hari. He was right outside the bathroom door. She wasn’t afraid of him, but now that she was alone, the thought that her husband was stalking a woman while living with her send a slight chill down her spine. ”I don't know what I was thinking. We can work through this— I can."

Lena opened the door and came into the room, dressed. She looked around the room. For a moment she thought she was in a hotel room. Then she picked up her purse and walked to the door.

"What about Arun and Samantha?" asked Hari. “They’ll be home for just two more years. For their sake. Just— let's just try."

"I'm done pretending," said Lena, opening the door.

"Wait. Wait," said Hari scrambling for his clothes. "I can't have— you can't just leave. I can't have a divorce. Just wait."

"What's one more failure in a life full of them?" asked Lena, slamming the door. 


***



December 05, 2020 01:25

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

3 comments

Graham Kinross
08:29 Nov 18, 2021

Damn, that went downhill fast. It looked bad and then I thought they were going to make it until right at the end.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Mou Sukoshi
05:38 Dec 15, 2020

Pacing was superb.. The suspense was there till the end.. Good job :)

Reply

Rohit Mukundan
11:38 Dec 18, 2020

Thanks.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply