Note: This is an incomplete writing exercise with which I have become bored halfway. It has a beginning and an end but not much of a middle, and may develop into something with more meat at some point – or not. Any resemblance to real life situations is only to provide dramatic context. Posting anyway for what it’s worth, and to attract all the literary criticism it so richly deserves.
Anita’s tears had slowed to a trickle when the doorbell rang. She looked at her watch: 9.22 PM. Only guests and delivery boys called at that hour, and neither was expected. Anyway, she had received no warning phone call from building security.
Probably someone who’d got the wrong door, or an overfriendly neighbour with kheer or biriyani to share. Anita usually ignored unexpected rings, whether doorbell or telephone. She returned to her book.
Nothing at all happened for two pages; then there were three quiet knocks.
The soft voice was familiar, but indistinct. If only she could have sat in the balcony as usual, instead of in the living room! The sounds of the building were muffled there by the wind and the owls hooting. But it was raining too hard. She sighed, wiped her face on her sleeve, put the book aside and went to the door.
There was a peephole, but the passage outside was invariably too dark to discern any more than vague shapes and heights. This visitor wasn’t visible at all. Perhaps they’ve gone away, she thought, relieved, and began to turn away when the voice spoke again.
“Annie? Open the door, please?”
Shyam stood dripping on her doormat, his hair, face and shirt soaked with rain. His face was expressionless. She hadn’t seen him for a month; a horrible month in which pleasurable memory turned to nostalgia, nostalgia to vague longing, and vague longing to anxious desire so intense that the ache in her belly kept her awake at night.
At last in a fury of hurt she had deleted his messages and phone number, though this kept her from having the last word. She realised this too late and smiled wryly that even she of the infinite memory no longer bothered to memorise phone numbers. Lucky we don’t have any friends in common, she thought. Imagine how it would be to call someone and ask for Shyam’s number because I want to break up with him.
Break up… as though we were a couple… which we weren’t...
At this point Anita generally burst into tears at what might have been, almost was, and never would be, and allowed herself a good ten minutes of self-pity, patting herself on the head and saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” over and over until the crying stopped or her nose was too stuffed up to breathe. Okay meant that the feeling would pass: Shyam would fade from her life and consciousness, become a memory to smile wistfully at on some bright beautiful morning.
Okay never meant he would ring her doorbell on a rainy night and stand there soaking wet waiting in silence to be allowed in.
Tonight the rain had started to fall just as the sun was setting, and the clouds were all purple and golden. The city glowed ruby red in the indistinct light, and Anita had sat in the balcony, entranced and empty-headed, for a long time before the wet and the cold forced her back indoors. She lay down on the bed with its pristine sheets, listened to the rattle of water against window, and imagined what it would be like to have him there with her, until the tears came again.
This time she exceeded her self-imposed quota, and it was twenty minutes before she rose and went into the other room to read, choosing a juicy and familiar murder mystery and a seat from which she couldn’t see the bed. Still the sniffles came; if the doorbell had not rung at that precise moment, perhaps she would have cried again.
Now here he was, and Anita was at a loss. Her mental movie script wasn’t like this. Irreverently a thought came into her mind: What’s my motivation for this scene? Still silent, she pulled the door open, stood aside and inclined her head to indicate that Shyam should come in.
Shyam shook himself all over like a wet dog, scattering water everywhere, and stepped into the house. Anita shut the door behind him and went off wordlessly to fetch a towel while he took off his shoes and socks.
She watched while he rubbed off the water from his clothes and head and wrapped the towel around his shoulders. Neither had spoken since he entered the house. Shyam lifted his head and they stared at each other for a few seconds. Then he stepped forward suddenly and put his arms around her. She did not resist as his grip tightened and he pushed her head down on his shoulder.
They stood like that for a long time, not speaking, not moving. Shyam’s eyes were closed as he held Anita tight and inhaled deeply the green apple scent of her hair. Unlike her, he was not inclined to fantasise; and while he had wondered on his way here how their meeting would play out, he had not conjured up a dramatic scene or rehearsed dialogues in his head. Now that he was here, holding her, he found his uncertainty gone.
This is where he was meant to be.
Shyam had been in love with the woman from the office, with whom he spoke online for hours every day. Their first and only meeting had been at an official dinner with a dozen other people, when they were seated together at the end of the table. Shy and unaccustomed to social occasions, Shyam sat silent and smiling until she asked his opinion about the new IT security policy. From there they progressed to traffic, politics, films, music, books, plays, current events. She was intelligent and thoughtful, seemed genuinely interested in his opinions. By the end of the evening, he felt he had made a friend.
She was flying back to the US early the next morning, and Shyam squirmed in a welter of impatience until the next Monday evening when she appeared online. Still he hesitated – suppose she was only being polite? Suppose she only spoke to him because he happened to be sitting beside her? He was just about to shut his computer down and go home when the chat window flashed. “Hi, how are you?”
Shyam almost swallowed his tongue. His heart was hammering in his chest, the blood pounding in his ears. “I’m fine. How was your flight? Got enough sleep?”
He ended up missing the last bus and had to call a taxi.
For nearly three years, the evening hours were the best part of Shyam’s workday. They talked about their lives, joked, exchanged office gossip, confided in each other. Shyam had never been in love before, but it seemed to him that an emotion as strong as this couldn’t be mistaken. Although he hadn’t confessed his feelings, he was certain she must already know. How could she not? On weekends he reread their chat archive, looking for a clue, however subtle, that she felt the same way. She seemed friendly, affectionate, even loving – but not, he had to admit, in love. At least not in the same way that he was.
But what did he know of women? He told himself that his inexperience was all that held him back. Of course she loved him: she had been talking to him for hours on end every day for three years.
Finally she said she would be coming to India and asked if he had time to meet. Now, he thought, I have to tell her now. “Before you get here, I have some news for you,” he wrote. “It’s important. I’ll call.”
Shyam waited until the office was empty, went to a meeting room and locked himself in against nosy security guards and housekeeping staff. Receiver in hand he sat, eyes closed, for nearly five minutes, listening to the sound of his breath. There was a ping from his computer. “Are you calling or what?”
He dialed and she answered almost immediately. “Congratulations, Shyam!” she said.
“What?” he said, startled.
“You’re getting married too!”
If their first online conversation had started with a bang, their final conversation would end with a whimper. Shyam found himself making up the story as he went along. Yes, it is a lovely coincidence both of us getting married at the same time. Yes, it is such a pity we can’t attend each other’s weddings. No, I didn’t know you were living together for so long. Oh, are you quitting the job? Yes, he will enjoy a traditional Hindu wedding. Yes, she is a wonderful girl. No, I don’t know why she said yes to me. Yes, I am a lucky guy.
“I’ll see you soon, okay? Before our D-Days!”
Shyam hung up and sat motionless for a long time. He had thought having one’s heart broken would hurt, but this was more like someone was holding his head underwater. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t hear, and there was a tightness in his chest that was at once not at all painful and excruciatingly so. Finally he shut off the lights, picked up his bag and went home.
She sent the wedding invitation to his office; called him, emailed, sent him messages. He ignored them all. The company had always given its employees the flexibility to work from home, but Shyam usually went in anyway, saying he preferred to work at work. Now he seldom appeared in the office, and never smiled. Always thin, he now appeared gaunt. Colleagues expressed concern, and he waved them off. Friends invited him out; he declined all invitations, lying in bed staring blankly at the TV. Only when he was working was he able to concentrate his mind.
One night, months later, he was puttering aimlessly online when an advertisement for an online dating web site popped up. Almost without conscious thought he clicked on it and signed up. Shyam had never confided in anyone about his aborted romance. I’m not ready, maybe I’ll never be ready. But I can’t live like this.
The web site threw up matches. Lots of matches. He read through the profiles with indifference. Halfway down the page was Anita’s. He stared at the photograph. Her face, looking at something to the left of the camera, was partially in shadow, and though she was smiling, Shyam felt it was a sad smile. I wonder who took the picture. She seems lonely. Someone like me, he thought. Someone who’ll understand. On an impulse, he sent her a message: “Hello. I’m an online dating virgin. Does this thing work?”
Two hours passed before she replied. “Hello back,” she wrote, “So am I. And yes, it does.”
This time there was no swallowing of tongue, no hammering of heart or thundering of blood. Anita’s manner and humour invited confidences, and Shyam spoke to her simply and naturally, as though he had known her many years. As before, the evening hours became his solace and they exchanged hundreds of messages. This time, he decided, he wouldn’t let diffidence stop him. I’m not in love. But I need a friend and I don’t want to go on like this.
Three weeks in, he asked: “Want to get out of here and use phones instead?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
But into the wild frontier of telephonic conversation Shyam found himself strangely hesitant to go. From sending messages on a web site they graduated to sending text messages. Shyam celebrated this step forward by rechristening her ‘Annie’; she made no remark. The tone was from the first light, funny and affectionate. Anita seemed a gentle, rather shy person with not a lot of self-esteem. She apologised constantly. Anything he asked she answered, with humour and apparent honesty; anything she asked him she prefaced with the comment that he was at liberty to decline. He felt safe in her company.
A week later, in the middle of a conversation about the best way to make rasam, he couldn’t contain himself any longer. He was still sure he wasn’t in love with Anita, but she felt more real to him than much of his life had for the past several months.
“Can we meet?”
And so they had, at what turned out to be the most inappropriate restaurant with too-loud music, too-fancy food, too-expensive drinks. They spent nearly six hours there, sitting close beside each other. When he laid his hand on hers, surprising himself with his boldness and quaking inwardly, she twined her fingers with his as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Still, Shyam noticed that she almost never looked at him, and never into his eyes. He spent a lot of time that evening studying her face. She smiled constantly, but it was an absent smile. Her comments and answers were prompt and often witty, but he wondered more than once where her thoughts really were.
They stayed until closing time. By then, he had put his arm around her, and she had rested her head on his shoulder in a fluid, spontaneous gesture of trust that was unexpectedly moving. Shyam offered to walk her home. They held hands for that half-mile, and when they reached her apartment building she didn’t break stride, just continued to walk, his hand in hers, into the lobby and up to the lift. “I should call a cab,” he said, panicked. Anita didn’t speak, merely smiled and shook her head as the lift door opened.
They went up in silence, walked to her front door. Her grasp was gentle, and Shyam wondered why he didn’t just jerk his hand away. He felt certain she wouldn’t pull him back if he did, but he was disinclined to leave her. Silently she unlocked the door and stepped inside, and he followed. Anita shut the door behind him and then, to his shock, leaned forward and kissed very gently the corner of his mouth.
Shyam’s panic intensified. It wasn’t a sexual kiss, or even an invitation; that much he was sure. But what was it? This was a woman he was meeting for the first time. He wasn’t even particularly attracted to her, though he felt unaccountably affectionate and protective of someone he barely knew.
Anita let go of his hand and went into the kitchen. “Water? Coffee? Tea? Wine?” she called. Shyam got a grip on himself.
“Just water, thanks.”
She came out to him with a glass in her hand and watched him drain it. He handed the glass back, and when she reached out to take it he pulled her to him with his free hand and kissed her with more self-assurance than he really felt.
They sat on the sofa, holding each other and kissing occasionally, for what felt like hours before Anita looked at her watch, sighed and reached up to turn off the light. “Come on,” she said, “Bed.”
In a daze Shyam stood and followed her into the bedroom where she resumed kissing him, her intent this time unmistakably sexual. This excited him too and he began to respond with rather more enthusiasm than he had shown thus far. In all the hours he had been in her house, he had spoken only one sentence. Still he had no words, but it didn’t seem to matter. Wherever she wanted to take him he now felt ready to go.
When Shyam thought back on that night, he never remembered his shyness or the fact that they never got very far. Instead he recalled how sweet and loving she was, how she held him, stroked his hair, kissed his temple and placed her palm against his heart as though she were trying to transmit the intensity of her feelings to him through his skin.
That had been the start of their nameless relationship. Shyam never called Anita, even after their night together. Somehow it seemed to him inappropriate, even blasphemous, to speak to her on the telephone. When they weren’t together, they continued to exchange messages. Her manner changed only slightly: she was occasionally flirtatious where before she had been funny but direct.
Eight days passed and he asked to see her again. “Come directly here,” she replied. “We’ll find something to eat in a better place.”
They went to a grubby little restaurant in the street outside whose proprietor, astonished at real live customers rather than telephone orders, inexpertly wiped one of the greasy tables with an equally greasy dishcloth. Anita apologised over and over, as though she were personally responsible for the grime. “The food’s good,” she kept saying.
Shyam laughed. “The dirtier the place, the better the food,” he said, watching her face. Her answering smile seemed genuine, but again he felt that she wasn’t actually there. What is it with this woman?
After dinner – good food, as Anita had promised – they went back up to her flat. This time there was shyness but no hesitation. This time he was sure.
Without conscious planning they started seeing each other every weekend. Shyam never again asked her out, Anita never invited him over. It was as though Thursday afternoon exerted some unknown but irresistible force that directed their thoughts towards each other. Every Friday evening Shyam stood outside her door wondering how he had got there. Food was secondary – sometimes they didn’t eat at all.
They spoke only rarely when they were in bed together. Anita sometimes whispered his name, so softly that he strained to hear it. When they were apart they spoke not at all – he still preferred to text, and she showed no sign of wanting to change the mode of communication. Shyam was frequently amused at the irony of being naked before her while being unwilling to let her hear his voice.
For six months life continued during the working week, Anita became Shyam’s Friday night, the memory of her his Saturday afternoon. Though they exchanged messages every night, Shyam felt he had hit a wall with her and knew her no better now than he had when first they met. It was hard to put his finger on why; Anita behaved exactly the same as she always had. She isn’t really with me and I need some time off, he decided, and without a word of explanation he shut her out as he had the woman from the office.
Anita had in fact fallen deeply in love with Shyam almost from the first. This had very little to do with him personally – she was a lonely, shy woman with a great gift for affection, qualities that tend to attract the worst sort of men. She had kept away for many years until Shyam came along and all her pent-up love flowed over him in a torrent. Analysing her feelings, she had decided that while she loved Shyam, she didn’t care whether he loved her so long as he kept on seeing her. It was his warmth that she craved. She had tried her best to act casual, so as not to scare him off too soon.
And then inexplicably Shyam had subtracted himself from the equation. I’ll get over it, she told herself. It will pass. I just have to wait it out.
Much as Shyam had done so many months before, Anita withdrew into herself and closed the door on the world. She spent hours sitting silent in her balcony staring as the gold-tinged clouds raced across the western sky. What were we to each other? Friends? Friends with benefits? Lovers? Nothing seemed to fit. Their relationship had stalled, in a way, after they had slept together the second time. They had no friends in common; their conversation became about events, not ideas; sex became almost the only reason for them to meet. But there had been such gentleness that the term friends, with or without benefits, seemed inadequate, the term lovers too cold and clinical.
That left Anita with a drought of answers and an oversupply of tears. The physical need of him tormented her but even more she missed the feeling of warmth and safety she got from being held in his arms with his lips against her forehead. An entire month without Shyam and her bewilderment turned to blind rage, though she knew she would forgive him everything if only he would come back.
And tonight he had come to her in the pouring rain, rung her bell, called her ‘Annie’. Tonight here he was, holding her tight (making her clothing as wet as his own, towel or not), as though the past month had never happened.
She raised her head. “You’ll catch cold,” she said. “I’ll make you some tea.”
Shyam smiled. “I’ll do it. I think I remember where everything is.” He gave her one last fierce kiss on her hair, released her and went to the kitchen, handing her the towel as he went.
Anita stood unmoving where he left her, holding the towel in her hands. She could hear, as though from a great distance, the sounds of Shyam clattering around her tiny kitchen, the saucepan being filled, the gas ring being lit, the cupboard being opened. She felt herself a creature of senses alone, reacting to the world instinctively without rational thought. Shyam was here. Shyam was here! Perhaps I should go help him, she thought vaguely, but she couldn’t bring herself to move.
At last she heard his footsteps coming back into the hall and saw, out of the corner of her eye, his hands setting down a steaming mug on the low table. He didn’t make tea for me, she thought idly.
“I’m so sorry, I’ve passed all my rain to you,” he said. “Let me dry you out.”
He took the towel from her unresisting hands and standing behind her, began to wipe her hair. The towel moved over her face and ears, gentle as Shyam always was, and Anita closed her eyes. When he had wiped her neck, he draped the towel loosely around her shoulders, put his left arm around her and pulled her back against him. He kissed her neck with more aggression than he had ever shown, but she fought the urge to open her eyes in surprise. Her neck arched and her head fell back against his shoulder.
Shyam kissed Anita’s neck again as roughly as before. His right arm came out from behind his back and cut her throat from left to right with her own chef’s knife as neatly as though he had been working at a halal butcher’s all his life. The towel fielded most of the spurting blood.
He let her body fall to the floor, covered her face and neck with the now blood-soaked towel, and washed himself at the sink.
Then he calmly drank the still hot tea, rinsed the mug and let himself out of the house.