MISSING YOU

Submitted into Contest #45 in response to: Write a story about inaction.... view prompt

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“Will you miss me?” There she was at it again. I had to tell her, yet again that I would not miss her one bit. Unlike most Indian husbands, I am very independent and am proud of the fact. I do not believe in needless niceties either. So, why would I pretend something I did not feel? I knew how to rustle up a quick dinner. The office canteen would handle the lunch. As for breakfast, all I had to do was put in two pieces of bread in the toaster, allow them to brown as I brushed, shaved and showered, took out the browned toast and downed them, bite by bite, with hot coffee that came out of the coffee blender. So what if, quite often, the toast turned to cinders? It behaved much the same way sometimes when she did it too, did it not? Not quite so often, of course, but it did. On days when my bread slices would betray me, I would pull out the packet of corn flakes kept on the kitchen shelf and pour some into a bowl of cold milk, much though I hated corn flakes and cold milk. They carry with them the bitter nostalgia of a childhood spent mostly at an indifferent boarding school where no one bothered what you ate and even whether you ate at all or not. How many married Bengali men could do the same, tell me?

 

She usually gave the maid a couple of days off when she went to live with her parents during the week. This was in response to my request. Request? Or, was it a command? All these years, it had never occurred to me to find out. Or, perhaps it was she who, in her own subtle way, turned all my commands around so that they appeared like they were requests.

 

“No, I know this might make you sad, but I will really not miss you.” That is what I told her that very first time she went to live with her parents alone for a week soon after our marriage. We had gone there already, twice, as per the norm for newly wed couples. Once for dwiragaman, the first time the daughter steps back into her father’s home along with her husband. “Coming home again the second time” is what dwiragaman means. Ashta Mangala, going together on the eighth day after the wedding, ashtha meaning ‘eight’ while mangala meant auspicious, followed this. There was a satyanarayana pooja that day meant for extra blessings for our wedded bliss. I sat back and passively took part in the ceremonies, watching my bride thrill at every turn of phrase I made, each little smile I flashed, with a surprise that soon changed to amused tolerance.

 

Three months after the marriage, she asked me if she could go and stay with her parents for a week. She was their only child after all and it would take time for them to get used to her absence. “Yes, of course, you most certainly can,” I told her, as I tied my shoelaces minutes before I left for work. I could feel her eyes follow my bent form at the edge of the bed without even looking up. She came closer, surprised me by ruffling up my neatly combed hair, and asked, “Will you miss me?” I looked up, irritated at having to go through the time-consuming hair routine all over again. I kept my irritation to myself and without looking at her, said, “No, I won’t.” Only then did I look directly at her, trying to read her reaction. “Okay,” she said, with that soft expression that came midway between a smile and a laugh with the corners of her eyes crinkling up just that little bit. Having said that, she picked the duster from the clothes peg in one corner and began to dust the dressing table. The conversation was over and done with. After I had finished combing my hair all over again, she came up to me to adjust my tie, patted me down my shirt front, turned me around, away from her and said, “Bye, have a good day.”

 

I had no way of knowing how or what her response to my brazen nature was. If I was brazen, she was extremely reticent about her feelings. Nor did I bend over backwards trying to find out. It never occurred to me to explain why I would not miss her. We were married for just three months, dammit. How could I miss her so soon? I was not even used to being a married man yet. How could I possibly miss a wife who did not exist in my life even a short while ago?

 

In the midst of this monotonous Q&A session, I slowly tried to peel off the invisible layers she shielded herself with. She went about her chores almost soundlessly. The roles of wife and mother fit her to perfection. Or maybe, it was the other way round? She made herself indispensable as wife and mother? The children followed her like Mary’s little lamb. The mystique around her always left me confused. But I was firm about never surrendering to her perfectionism; never mind what the children did. Somewhere along the way, her quiet nature made me feel weak. Instead of feeling happy with a wife who had no demands whatsoever, I felt empty and disturbed.

 

As the marriage mellowed with time and children, she continued to ask me the same question and I would give her the same answer. Why she never wearied of doing the same thing would sometimes amaze me. She knew what my answer would be. Or maybe, she did not. She kept on expecting a different answer and I stubbornly refused to oblige. When I once talked about this to a close friend, he blamed it on my massive ego hang-up. “What’s wrong if you tell her just once that you’ll miss her, if only to make her happy?” he suggested. “I don’t wish to fool her with dishonesty,” I told him flatly. I actually believed that I did not miss her.

 

A husband-wife relationship is all about sex to begin with, and then drifts slowly and surely into habit. Where does love enter into all this, I have always wondered. A wife is a habit, like your toothbrush and toothpaste are habits that grow with time and are hard to shake off. Do you miss your toothbrush and toothpaste, tell me? Do you love them? Do you miss the chair and the table you sit on everyday of your adult life for breakfast and dinner? Do you feel any love towards them? Do you love the cup you drink your daily coffee from? Do you love it? Not really. I had learnt that at boarding school. There is no such thing as love. A wife is just the same. You turn around and there she is, waiting for you, with you, by you. She just happens to be wherever, whenever you want her to be and no questions asked. She is there, an omnipresence you could not shake off unless she went away for a few days to her parents’ place, or, after they had passed away, to her cousin brother in Bangalore and now, to our son in the US. Each time, she kept putting the same question to me, and each time, I kept on giving her the same answer. “Will you miss me?” She asked with her benign smile and every time I said, “No, I won’t.” “Good,” she would say sometimes and move away, not allowing me to see her face. Sometimes, the response would begin and end with a simple “okay.” But mostly, she would look back at me with a strange smile and keep her thoughts to herself.

 

It was actually a relief when she went for her first confinement to live with her parents for six months. True that the home got terribly disorganized. My clothes remained unironed for days together, the buttons on my shirts continued to play hide-and-seek. I could not place my watch most of the time. My glasses went missing and I had to go to the optician for a fresh prescription for new glasses. Yet, I was sure of staying alone all by myself. I did fine so far as eating went. But the clothes remained unwashed and soiled because I always asked the maid not to come when her mistress was away. I did not like strange women hanging around. It cramped my style. I was too fond of my independence, fiercely possessive of it to even imagine that I needed to depend on someone all the time for sheer basic needs.

 

She asked me the same question yesterday evening, as she was being wheeled into the intensive cardiac care unit. She held on to my hand tightly, till it loosened itself slowly and I saw her wince in pain. “No, I won’t miss you. Have I ever?” I said, hoping that would keep her free of worry about me within the ICCU. From within her pain, she tried to smile. Through her pain, her face looked like breaking up into a cry. I knew she wouldn’t cry. She had too much of dignity and was too remote to cry in my presence. With her slender hand, she patted the back of my palm. The doors closed, shutting me out of her private world of pain.

 

A telephone call from the hospital woke me up this morning. They told me that Swati had slipped into coma. They had put her on an artificial respirator. I drove like a madman, thankful about the traffic signals that did not begin to function this early in the morning. I looked at her through the glass window. I could not recognize the woman that lay on the hospital bed covered in the blue regulation hospital sheet with a glass mask covering most of her face, a piece of cloth wound round her head and tubes sticking out from every which place in her body. Even through that small rectangle of glass, I could see her chest rise and fall heavily. She almost looked like a human octopus.

                                       

Five hours later, here I am, waiting in the lounge pretending to go through the magazines laid out for visitors. I am aware that I have not read a single word. My mind has wandered into the ICCU, sitting by her bedside, as she breathes through the artificial respirator. I keep dwelling around that one question that has remained between us, pricking and puncturing our relationship like a thorn. It is like the other woman who never was, but who very ironically, is always present like a solid invisible wall between Swati and me. Her question, “Will you miss me?” and my answer, “no, I won’t,” has evolved into a vacuum that threatens to remain empty and unfulfilled. I am waiting for the doctor to step out of the ICCU and tell me that Swati has come out of her coma. I desperately want to tell her what she has wanted to hear all these 27 years of our married life. And I am going to be knowingly honest this one time to tell her what I should have told her long ago.

 

I will miss you Swati, like I missed you every time you went away, leaving me alone to prove to myself how independent I was. I want to tell you the truth for one last time. I will miss you, never mind the burnt toast and the missing glasses and the unwashed clothes. You never were my toothbrush, nor were you like the table and chair I dined in – sorry – both of us dined and breakfasted together for 27 long years. Swati, I will miss you. I lied to you all these years. No, I did not lie Swati. I psyched myself to believe in a lie all my life. I lived a lie and forced you to live one too. I missed you much more than the missing buttons on my crumpled shirts, my lost glasses, and the furniture that gathered layers of dust in your absence. When I woke up in the morning and saw your side of our huge bed empty, I missed you. When you were around, your near-perfect personality highlighted my gross imperfections. So, with you away, I felt on top of the world. Your absence made me feel perfect. You took the children with you every time, so I felt free to do what I wished to, not knowing that within that sense of false and hollow freedom, the foundation of a wall was slowly getting built. I am the architect, the planner and the engineer who designed and built the wall. Today, I don’t know how to break it.

 

I feel a soft pat on my shoulder. I look up with a start to find the matron smiling down at me, telling me that the attending cardiologist wishes to see me. I walk in slow motion; my legs are so heavy and shaky that I can hardly walk. The door of his cabin swings open and I drag myself in. Will Swati allow me to tell her “I missed you?” Or will she slip away, no longer interested in the answer?

 

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WORD-COUNT: 2236

June 07, 2020 13:47

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