This short story is participating in Write Story from Picture India 2012 – Short Story Writing Competition.
She fell in love with him the second time he came to met her before the final nod for their arranged marriage. It was raining that sultry day of March and she had not slept the night before and she burned her favorite red and brown salwar kamez, by leaving the hot iron unattended on it, when he had called her on the mobile.
“Hi. This is Arjun,” He said to her as if she wouldn’t recognize his voice. It came to her in her early morning dreams… deep bass with a catch in it. “Actually I want to postpone our meeting by an hour. Can we meet at 7 pm -the same place, China Town?”
She felt rivulets of sweat pouring down her back.
“It’s absolutely fine. No issues about it. I’ll be there.”
He cleared his throat like it was irritating him. “If it gets late, I can drop you home.”
“No,” She said in a loud voice and then lowered it in haste. “I’ll take the auto. There is no problem with time.”
She could imagine the open mouths of her aunts and grins of her cousins, when they would hear that she sat inside the car of a prospective groom. How cheap of her…
‘Great bye then.”
She was late by fifteen minutes. He was waiting for her inside and his hair had red highlights reflecting in the glow of the lamps. She sat beside him and let him choose the coffee and grilled sandwiches for them, vegetarian for her and non-vegetarian for him and refused the pastries. She couldn’t stand them. His aftershave was musk- pleasant and not cloying like the stuff some men splashed on them. And his fingers were slender with tapering ends and firm against the rind of the mug. She tried to imagine herself making tea for him every morning in his apartment.
She realized with a start that he was saying something important to her.
” Barnalee,” he said. “I’m going to say yes for us to your family. Are you okay with our marriage? If you’ve anything to say against it, you can tell it to me like a friend. We’ve to trust each other….”
She looked at him and smiled that half smile of hers which her friends always said never expressed her true feelings…
“Of course Arjun,” she said. “I’m okay with our marriage-no problems at all with it.”
He smiled a warm caress on her skin which took years off from his thirty-four year old face and reached out to touch her hands but stopped midway much to her disappointment.
“The life at Milan can be daunting for someone who has never been abroad. But I’m sure you’ll manage and adjust to it.”
She nodded her head in return to questions in his eyes-heady excitement filled her pores with images of Europe and her life there. God how her friends will envy her…….
On 15th April 2008, she became Mrs. Barnalee Goswami with her heart beating like that of a young pony on its first untamed gallop over the grassy meadows and waves of joy arching high up against her eardrums. Much later she looked at him, sleeping on his back, his body slim like an adolescent boy, and chest covered with a sprinkling of fur and traced the cleft on his chin. She felt love bubbling warm and cozy inside her, which threatened to flood her with longing and need to be by his side all the time.
That was a month ago and everything changed after their arrival in Milan. He was a drunkard and addicted to his first love whiskey.
And as the night fell he became Mr. Hyde, as lust reigned supreme in his heart for his bottles bearing no trace of the smiling and gentle man of the morning. She was determined to make him quit it…
In the first week she sobbed on her knees and begged him not to ruin her marriage but to no avail. The worse part was when he would go out of their flat in the night at Via Cornaletti, few yards from the Macdonald restaurant.
That first night when he tore from her grip and walked out-fear robed her of all reasons. The visions of unknown men entering their flat and creating havoc made her teeth chatter. Like a ghost she floated from room to room and chanting the Lord’s Prayer as she was taught by the nuns. Later she sat on the sofa, covered herself with a quilt and turned the TV loud. Let the people next door think there were people in the flat. The next morning he came back and refused to be swayed by her wan face and tired eyes looking like crushed petals of a flower, about to fall on the ground. He repeated it next day and the day after too.
She smiled at him when he emerged from the shower and came to say hello. She was dressed in a dusty pink sari and her hair brushed long and straight with rapid strokes of the brush.
“Good you’re fresh,” she said. “Lets go to the living room-there is a surprise for you. Come-don’t just stare at me like that.”
She dragged him to the living room’s center table loaded with two bottles of pure scotch, glass mugs shining in the glow of the lamps with pots of popcorn and chicken nuggets deep fried and icebox full of cubes.
“What are you doing?” He asked with his finger pointing at the bottles.
She smiled. “Simple. There is no need for you to go out. You stay at home and drink with me. I’ll not let you go out.”
“But I need company when I drink. Who will give me company?”
“I’ll give you company. I’m your friend,” she said. “I’ll drink with you tonight.”
He stared at her as if she had turned into a pumpkin. “Don’t make me laugh. You’ll never do it.”
She came forward to him and ruffled his hair. “Try me honey-fix us the drinks.”
When she sipped that first sip of that vile liquid-a ball of fire squirted down her throat to her belly. She is burning-god help her.
He laughed great bellows of laughter as he watched her. No she won’t let him defeat her…
“You don’t need to do all this. You’re not meant for drinking.”
“And you’re right? Can’t you see it? It’s important for me. After ages we are sitting together as a family. I miss you Arjun. So how was your day at work?’
Their conversations flowed like tiny streams-slow but steady to the river, both at peace with each other. The next morning she woke up with her head on his chest.
It was ages since he had touched her. If drinks were the only way… let it be like that. She cannot let him walk away from her life. Her eyes clouded at the words of her uncle, the head priest of the temple near their locality.
“Never drink Maa, its forbidden for us.”
Next day she went to the balcony of their 8th floor apartment and took out her Nikon camera and mounted it on its stand. She had made up her face. She wanted to keep a memento for her first happiness in Milan. It was time to make a catalogue of her life.
I’ll look good. The camera always loved me…
She clicked it with her face facing it, her long black hair falling over her shoulders and her hand resting on her left cheek. When she looked at the saved screen picture –her eyes became tiny pinpricks of horror. What is going on…?
She looked like a specter hovering in the background away from the light-a faint silhouette identified only by the shiny gold bracelet on her wrist, given by her mother on her wedding day -and in the focus was Samor. He was dressed in the white full sleeve shirt complete with the logo of their high school, a log of burning wood with two pens on each sides of it, monogrammed on his shirt pocket. His eyes were wide and stared straight at her-accusing her with his silent reproaches. She had forgotten about him…
He used to write her poems.
“Please Barnalee,” His eyes pleaded with her to be gentle. “I wrote this poem for you. I was up all night writing-do take it.”
“Samor you know I’m not interested in either poems or you. Stop wasting my time.”
He shook his big head at her like a dumb animal.
Something was churning inside her heart-melting and turning solid like wax-maybe pity but she refused to play tag with it. She gave an impatient shake of her head, stuffed it inside her handbag and later gave it to her chums to snigger over it…
And one day she exploded when he brought the fragile pieces of his heart again. For one wild moment in time that balcony changed into the lane leading to their high school. She shivered as he approached her. There were ominous gongs of thunder in the western sky and the screeching gulls the sole witnesses when she screamed at him, in her falsetto seventeen year old voice.
“Get lost will you. Just leave me alone. You make me sick-do you get it. Sick!”
He stood in the middle of the road, holding his poems-ink leaching blue blood on the canvas of his heart as she stormed inside her class. He didn’t turn up for his class and later left that term.
Years later she heard from a friend of her Maa, that Samor committed suicide, so that’s why he didn’t finish their term so many years ago…
I’m so sorry Somor. Please forgive me… I’m not that girl anymore. Theses drinks are making me crazy-I never had them before. It must be a hangover… that’s all.
She snatched the camera and ran inside the flat.
Next night she made mutton chops spiced with chilly flakes, green pepper and oregano and Pasta with vegetables fritters. Arjun came back from work early and watched her cook, which brought a glow to her face.
“Go and set the table,” she said. “And change that T-shirt will you, it has a stain on it. Wear that green shirt I had brought for you at C&A.”
After he left, she finished it and covered them with aluminum foils. She had a quick shower, slipped inside a pink flowered patterned summer dress and tied her hair into a tight bun. She smiled at her reflection as she applied her favorite red gloss.
He’s here with me-at home. Let him be near me always.
The drinks made her mellow and she asked him. “Why do you drink Arjun-is it that important for you?”
He smiled. “I drink because when I’m drunk-for that moment of time I’m the king of my world. Everything is possible for me to achieve. Can you get it? May I making sense to you?”
“Well I can understand the felling if being king of the world…”
They finished many rounds after it.
She started getting up late in the morning but otherwise everything was okay. She cleaned clothes and utensils, shopping in the nearby shopping marts for meat, vegetables and fish, arranged flowers in their apartment and had the starters ready in the evening before he arrived from work.
Arjun was right-whiskey did help into making her feel good… It sure smooths the edges of her heart where there is an ache because he never told her once that he loved her company or that she matters to him. She didn’t have the courage to phone home and inform her parents or her friends. He had no time for her, she Barnalee Sarma-the one with that raven hair which cascaded down to slim hips and those pink tipped lips. Her hazel eyes would flash fire at any guy who dared to approach her in the college.
She tried to click herself again on the balcony curious about the snaps and scared what it might show…
This time she checked the camera and cleaned its lenses. Her heart started to drum against her ribcage like a dragonfly against the car windows… when she clicked the button.
Please god let it be my face this time… It was a hallucination last time-she had deleted that picture.
No it was not Samor for sure this time but then not her too…
It was Rajib Tamuli smiling on the camera –the way he used to do, before destiny ran its own course… like sands of time.
Her admirer at college –it amused her when he wore his heart out for her and she laughed over it with her friends at the college canteen
That day when he walked with his head held high to her table…all conversations stopped as curious eyes stared at him. He must have used all his chips of self-esteem and pride, when he followed that primeval rite of men writing their hearts on a letter for a paramour. No, no it was not her-it was pride who swapped her place at that moment and she tossed hair away from Barnalee’s face and tore his letter into shreds. She laughed aloud at his haunted eyes as others laughed along with her glee.
He looked at her with angry tears clinging at the edges of his lower lashes. “You’ll never be happy Barnalee Sarma. You dared to laugh at love. You could have just refused it but no- you made a complete mockery out of it. But you’ll see one day, how it will come back and haunt you again and again. When you want it the most and search for it like a mad woman -it will spit on your face. And then you’ll remember my face.”
And he walked out of her life.
Her friends kept silent on hearing his words as red streaks disfigured their cheeks but not she, who kept on laughing till dragged out by them out of the canteen, that hot summer afternoon. Her best buddy Toralli twisted her arm to stop her giggles.
“Are you nuts Bernee? You’ve humiliated him enough. Stop it.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks as she looked at his lean hungry face on the screen, straight hair falling over his beautiful fringed eyes… lover’s eyes-they seemed to be liquid pools of molten brown spilling out of the screen with their eagerness for life and love…
How could she never see those eyes? She has to give up drinking-it is making her see ghosts.
She ran back to the bedroom and huddled under the covers. She sobbed into that afternoon- her bitter tears like sudden bursts of shower over barren earth as she hit her hands raw on the wooden edge of the bed…
But when he tried to go out alone after a month, she grabbed him by the shirt’s collar and shrieked at him.
“Don’t you ever think how much I’ve changed to be near you and make you like me? I come from a home where drinking is a sin. I went out against everything what I use to believe. I did it for you.”
“Let go of me.”
“No I won’t. You’re not going anywhere,” His collar ripped off …..by her strangles on it. “I thought the sight of your wife drinking would make you give it up. But that was not meant to be… Okay forget it. But you’ll be by my side. You cannot leave me alone you bast**d.”
He pushed her so hard that she crashed against the mantelshelf and overturned the glass knickknacks on it and they exploded in white showers of dust…
Since yesterday Arjun didn’t turn up at home for the third day in a row. His mobile was switched off and her heart was pounding by every passing minute. She was tired of running after him. He’ll never give on drinking-must have found a new watering hole with his cronies.
What to do now? It was almost 6pm.
She went to the bedroom and dressed herself in slinky black cocktail sari she got as a wedding gift. She sprayed herself with the perfume and put on the black pearl-drop earrings. Strange the images of him sprawled drunk on the road or dead had disappeared…
She had tried again to take a snap few days back –by now she was immune to its thrills. The snap came out dark as the night with no face on it—black like her soul.
She finished her first peg with a gulp of pure content and mixed the second with equal helping of the coke and orange juice. She found it diluted the taste of whiskey. Her eyes fell on the Vodka bottle she had purchased in the afternoon-silver letters glinting on the white frosted background. A vero tresoro… as her Italian teacher at Scoula Migros would say…
She ran her fingers on it-hands smooth and sure like stroking a purring cat. Not now baby… I’ll drink you after some hours. The night is still young.
She raised her mug to her head and saluted the room.