We used to sit at this spot every summer and dreamily get lost in the view ahead. The sky is now blanketed by a sheet of thick fog through which massive mountains peek at me. I feel a sense of calmness as I step forward on to the edge of the cliff. The drop is frightening and I had once taken a look below for the first time ever, around a decade back. It was tremendous. Fog had marred the vision but I could figure out that the valley was always ready to gobble you up at any moment. She had screamed at me and I had dropped back into her arms.
Now, I stand in that very spot staring at the vast nothingness below. The valley seems like a monstrous mouth awaiting my leap. I am scared yet the urge within me remains. My wife should be reading my note any moment now and would try contacting me. Impossible, given my phone lays shattered in the forest beneath.
Let me tell you how it all began.
The day was a Thursday, the 29th of September. The year was 2025. I picked up the newspaper and showed the advertisement to my wife who was busy tucking into a crisp omelet. She mumbled something through her half-filled mouth. I could not comprehend it. I smiled back and wiped some ketchup off the side of her lips.
‘DEXTRA in Bangalore now!’ it read. DEXTRA was an organisation that had cropped up out of a tiny lab in a university in Mumbai and was now a booming business across the country. What they did was to offer you the opportunity to take a peek into how your mind worked. You would have to stick a couple of transmitters on to your head while wearing an optical device on your eyes and in a matter of minutes you could witness your deep subconscious thoughts manifest itself on the screen. A virtual reality organisation with a psychotheraptical twist. It became a hit in those circles due to its study of the mind although it also turned out to function as a mode of profit gain for the company. For a fee of three thousand rupees you could have a half hour of insight into the matter your mind produced. It was exciting that they were opening a gallery here. Their gallery was a large, dark room that seemed like a barber shop with a row of chairs placed facing a gigantic wall. Unlike a barber shop though, you would have to maintain silence at all times as you sat on one of the chairs with the device strapped on your head.
‘We could go tomorrow’ I suggested to which she refused. She didn’t care much about what her brain produced but she did catch me by my collar as I stepped out the door to work and told me that I better tell her it all. I kissed her and scooted off in my black sedan.
‘That would be Rs.3000 sir’
I handed the money to the man who sported a neat cut across his forehead and wore a black t-shirt with Dextra’s logo on it. It was a bright red capital letter D stylized as a brain. The tightness of his upper garment served as a showcase for his muscular structure. He directed me inside. I walked across a sign that read, ‘Maintain Silence at all times’. I scoffed when the very first person I came across, a fat man wearing a hideous looking flowered shirt, was laughing out loud with the optical device strapped on his head. Good memories, I presumed. I sat on chair number 4. Another young man wearing the same uniform approached me and straightened me up. He then placed the device on my head. I stared into blackness now. They were two transmitters hanging shabbily on either side of the device which he picked up and stuck onto my head. It popped against my skull like a vacuum hanger on a door.
‘Relax. In about 5 minutes you should start seeing your thoughts.’ He said and left. If those words came out of a lady whispering seductively into my ear it would have seemed pleasant but all I got was some twenty-year-old working to fund his education. So, it was as unenthusiastic as it could be. I sat still and counted the time down. Around the four-minute mark the screen sprung to life. ‘Welcome to Dextra’ a deep throated male voice welcomed me. The baritone was intense. An introductory note popped up detailing what the organization was about and then was followed by a set of instructions. I listened with much vigor. Then it all began.
First the screen went black. Then, it shifted to some vast woodland terrain. It displayed a forest. They were trees everywhere, left, right and center. They stretched out into the horizon. Lush green grass waved around in the wind beneath my feet. The sunlight, peeking through the gigantic trees, gave it a yellowish tinge. I looked around by turning my head. Grass, trees. Trees and grass. Then I moved along slowly walking through the maze of trees. It was exceptionally quiet. Just the occasional whizzing of wind kept me interested.
A few meters ahead I saw a pink shoe peeping out from the base of a bark. It belonged to someone I knew. I walked and turned around. It was me and my wife. I had my arm around her shoulder and she had hers on my lap. I quiet clearly remember where this was. It was on our honeymoon trip to Kodaikanal. The scene was different; we were on more open ground. The conversation seemed the same though. To view this from the third person perspective was genius. I listened closely. It made me love her all over again. I held on to the chair’s arm rest rather tightly. I wanted to get back home.
Then as quick as the thought had arisen it faded away into obscurity as I (the person in the virtual reality) had decided to leave us alone and move on. I continued walking along the rarely changing landscape. I have always loved the open vastness of nature. Maybe that was a reason as to why this landscape was chosen. Up ahead, towards my left was my dad teaching me to ride my bicycle for the first time. That memory seemed stuck to me like a spider on a wall. There was few and far in between instances of my father showing any form of real physical love to me. I watched the sign of happiness on my face as I witnessed him help me up as I fell down from the two-wheeler.
Then on my right was me leaning against a tree sheepishly asking out my first love from high school. I smirked at the shyness I saw in the younger me. I was a different man now. Then a slight dread pulled within me as I knew what was to come but I kept going. Suddenly, the view opened up along the horizon. Sunlight battered through the open space. I walked towards it. Trees dwindled in number as I approached the horizon. Now I could see fog and mountains. Yes, I knew where I was. I saw a couple sitting ahead. I walked over. One had her head submerged in the other’s shoulder; the other had his arm carefully clutching her shoulder. Her face. I remember it like I had seen it yesterday. Her hair, shaped in a bob cut, rested on my collar bone. My palm was clasped with hers, fingers in between one another in a perfect fit. We were lost in each other’s company. There was no talking. It was silent. We didn’t need talking. Neither did we need smiles. We had looks of contentment and satisfaction plastered on our faces.
My fingers felt weak and nimble as it rested on the arm of the chair. A few tears rolled down my cheek. and onto my lap. I kept staring at her face, her body and all that she was. It seemed like eternity.
I snapped back to reality and yanked the device off my face. I kept it on the counter with a mild thud and walked out. ‘It has been only fifteen minutes.’, came the scream. I didn’t turn back.
She had asked me all about it. I told her everything including my ex-wife, it would be idiotic not to. I did leave out the part at the end though.
I finished my coffee and shut my laptop close. He walked over to me. A tall man he was. And for a forty-year-old he was impressively handsome. Women of all ages swooned over him at work but he remained happily married. ‘We are going out for drinks. Do you want to join?’
‘Nah’ I replied. I had some work I told him. He tried persuading me as I got up and walked towards the window. The view down below was radiant. Headlights from automobiles illuminated the streets. I could see the entire southern block of the city from the seventeenth floor. I placed my hand on the glass and refused his offer for the sixth time.
‘Shucks. Well next time.’ he said, patting me on my shoulder. I looked down below. I focused on the gallery up ahead, a couple of blocks from work. Three thousand rupees, I thought. But it was temporary anyway. I surely wasn’t going to continue this forever. It had been five years since she had passed away and I all I wanted was to have a little recap of the moments I had with her.
I love my wife but truth be told I love my ex-wife even more.
I had fallen in love with her at the age of twenty-five. We had gotten married a couple of years later. I have never felt happier ever since. Spending time with her was all I looked forward to on a daily basis. It was kind of disturbing that I could feel a part of me dissipate away and another human being fill that hole. We used to visit that spot on the hills often. I have never mentioned that spot to anyone after she had died. I wish to keep it for what it is, a shrine that encompasses the love I felt for her. So, it struck me hard like a bolt of lightning when she disclosed that she had cancer and devastated me further when she succumbed to it.
I lit my cigarette and walked across the busy road. Honks battered my ears.
‘You again. Another fifteen minutes eh?’ he asked, smiling.
‘Let’s see’ I told.
I sat on chair number three now. I yanked the device on. Thirteen minutes in, past a memory of me meeting her for the first time at the theatre I acted in and another of me getting my first job, I was seated in a plush upscale restaurant. Sounds of violin and mild chatter reverberated across the hall. It was the Olive garden. It is here that she had disclosed that she was pregnant. I had held her hand in mine and wished that we were in a different part of the globe where I could kiss her as we were. I instead landed a peck across the back of her palm. I was on cloud nine expecting a future that never happened.
The half hour went smoothly and I was happy. Yes, money dwindled down my account but reliving the best moments of my life mattered more to me.
Our son walked up the stairs to his bedroom for the night.
It had been the thirteenth time I had visited the gallery now and to be honest, staring at my wife as she sat across the table that night, I felt nothing but contempt. Contempt because the person sitting opposite me was not the one I truly loved.
“Why are you acting weird?” she asked.
“No, I am not.” I said.
“Yes you are. You seem restless and shallow. Your eyes are here but you aren’t”
“You are talking rubbish.” I thundered.
“No – “
“Just shut up!” I implored and got up. The plates on the table rattled like they had witnessed an earthquake.
I didn’t turn back. I heard her gasp behind. A part of me yelled within to sort things out but the other overwhelming portion shut it down in an instant.
I was now finding it a bit hard to function in the real world. I found it hard to even tell myself that this was the real world. I heard somewhere it was called dissociative identity disorder. I could walk from the office parking lot to the sliding door of my office, open it and walk into the elevator but I just wouldn’t be there. It was kind of apt for me to remind myself of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho and when he said – ‘You will shake my hand and smile at me but I am just not there.’ I may not even remember all the details. I would smile, talk and work because it paid my bills and, more importantly, my entry into the gallery. I was there almost every night now.
Work had become a problem too. I was spiralling out of control. I had become addicted to the gallery and my dead wife. This rational thought seemed to voice itself somewhere deep inside me, struggling to break out. That saner part of me wondered why this problem I was facing hadn’t troubled anyone before. After all, the more you get lost in the virtual world of your past the more you disjoin yourself from reality. An internet search said that it was mandatory for Dextra to conduct background checks on customers. What would have cropped up for my profile would have been the sanest of the lot. I am a forty-year-old blue collar worker, married with a child and living in a posh upscale neighborhood. How saner can you get?
Besides this industry of virtual addiction was no different from the alcohol and tobacco industries. They all traded a fine line.
My wife wasn’t letting go that easily. She had her doubts. An affair was one of them. So she hired a detective who followed me day and night, to my disdain. I did notice him once but nonchalantly brushed him off. Divorce was impending and I didn’t care much.
She had then stormed out of my house with my son and a sizable cut of my fortune. It sucked. I sat alone on the teak wooden chair in my hall and reminisced all that had gone wrong in my life. I needed an answer and that was to hire an Uber and head down to the gallery one more time.
You know how they verify backgrounds, don’t you?
So now I was blacklisted post my divorce and all. The man at the counter refused entry. I had grabbed him by his collar and then offered a lump sum as a bribe. He didn’t budge. I twitched like a man needing drugs.
Another young man, thin with a dark complexion, approached me. He agreed to take the money and let me in that night. I let out a sigh of relief.
That night as the city rested and dogs howled mercilessly into the sky, I followed the man into the dark room. I sat at chair number 2 now. I placed the box shaped device on my eyes and relaxed. I felt peace within.
This time it was different from anything I had ever seen. Infact, it wasn’t even any memory anymore but a form of an imagination that my mind sprung up.
There she was, as beautiful as ever. She stood dressed in her favorite white gown. There was no scene, no background. She stood in pitch blackness. She caressed my face with her fingers.
“Baby” she said.
“Come with me”
I felt powerless as she dragged me along. The blackness slowly began changing into the forest from the first time I had visited this gallery. She took me to the edge of the cliff. She looked down.
“Jump baby. And meet me after that.”
I was scared. She was now floating away into the fog like a helium balloon. She stared at me with those seductive dark eyes. “I love you” she said.
I scratched the chair rapidly. The man beside me held me down. He was screaming. I took the device off and then slapped him hard across his right cheek. I then banged his head on the metal of the chair. He fell down bleeding from his temple. I ran out the door.
So I stand here now. I can feel the wind beating down on my face. Cold breeze. I take a deep breath, spread my arms out and jump. I fall down rapidly. I can see the trees approaching. I bang into one of them and turn over. I now face the cliff I jumped from. The back of my head hits another branch and I turn around. Now I face the ground into which I smash hard.
“He is lost. We have work to do.”, the doctor said and left a disoriented Varun on his bed. His wife sat next to him, struggling to hold the tears in. Dextra lay closed now after the case of the forty-year-old man who lived his life shuttling desperately between his past and his present.