For a brief moment I peeped out of the window curtain; a blazing Friday morning quietly spreading its wing, very unlikely for a Frederick mid-December day. A curse crossed my lips, ‘Oh, the damn green-house effect!’ Gone are those days when Frederick was white all over on a December 11th like this.
Cathy took a day off today. This means I have all the day by myself to ponder over. Suddenly missed that symphony of hers; dishwasher sloshing in the kitchen, vacuum booming on the wooden floor, alternate beeping of microwave and rice cooker and the constant chatterbox directly hitting upon my eardrums crisscrossing all these superlatives.
Didn’t feel like having lunch (or should I stylize it as ‘brunch’?), though Cathy has comfortably placed the covered pot right next to my bed. Suddenly my appetite revolted towards that cold junk which is sitting on the table since last evening.
I peeped again, didn’t see anything except the same maple tree which stands tall by my window ever since I stepped onto this house. It is December and no greenhouse effect can protect its leaves intact; as if to symbolize my depreciating mortality the tree has worn a groovy somber look. Just wondered, is it too cold outside? Sunny spells always usher a colder weather. Though Cathy’s calculated twenty five degree Celsius temperature always insulates me from the warmth (or the lack of it) year-round, I can still feel the shiver through my eyes when the moonlight glitters on the white carpet in a full moon January night. I can also sense the joyful profusion of those little violet cherries in my backyard when the first sun shines in an April morning. Thankfully the double glazed glass window can only mute the spectacle but cannot take away its opulence. And someone as imprisoned as me who has time in its abundance can soak in those sights like a bloating paper.
I am getting impatient now; no activity on the other side yet. To fill the gap, I started reminiscing about the day 3 months back, most probably it was 1st September.
She is wearing a new overcoat. Never saw it before, a deep purple mink coat; looks pretty costly. Quite unusual choice of color but she looks gorgeous in it. Women always look pretty in purple and pink. It’s been exactly a year since I saw her for the first time. Since then not for a minute I let her go out of my sight, of course only when she is out in the sun and Cathy is not around; otherwise the thick green curtains on her windows block my vision.
Can’t deny lately it became like an obsession. Honestly, when I started this, it was a mere curiosity, may be a means of killing time. But how the habit took over all my days and nights, perhaps even dreams, I didn’t realize it myself. As if watching her day in and day out is becoming the sole purpose of my existence. My long lonely painful days have become passable, in fact enjoyable to some extent.
All these twenty years, I was yearning for the prospect of a human interaction other than Cathy’s and her son Arthur’s. So when I first saw the ‘For Sale’ notice on that house behind my backyard, I went ecstatic,
“Good God! Can’t believe my eyes! Steve Harris’ house is being re-sold. Finally, yes at last, I will get to see some neighbours.”
Cathy rebuked, “Mukherjee, you have gone crazy!”
Again I had no choice but to ask Cathy,
“Do me a favour Cathy. Please find out who is buying Steve Harris’ house.”
It’s been almost three decades since Steve’s death that the house behind my backyard is lying abandoned like a fragile old man. Steve and Maria didn’t have any offspring. In fact I never met Maria; she died even before I set foot on this country. When I came to Frederick, it was ninety year old Steve and his dog Norton staying in that solitary house, separated from the neighbourhood by a small patch of woods of Shenandoah Valley. I was their only neighbour, and so were they for me.
I was thirty two when I arrived Frederick; finally started settling down after the initial struggle of ten years. The euphoria of a small town boy from India to travel abroad all alone and get a foreign doctorate degree and a job too was more or less faded away by then. After fulfilling everyone’s expectations back home, finally I started saving some money for my own future. My parents and other family members were slowly getting accustomed to my occasional long distance phone calls and bi-monthly money orders.
Yes, I came from a small Indian town near Calcutta named Howrah in the state of West Bengal, a town beside the holy river Ganges or Ganga as it is pronounced locally. Going by the Indian tradition that time, we had a large joint family with my parents and three other uncles and aunts and their children sharing the same house and same kitchen. I grew up along with ten other kids of my generation and I was the eldest among them. So I had a lot of responsibility, especially financial.
After getting a Masters in Bio-Chemistry from the Calcutta University, Prof. Bose helped me get a grant from Maryland University for a PhD. in Immunology.Though subjects like Radiotherapy or Chemotherapy was largely unheard of in India that time, it was a budding career in the United States. My whole family was sceptical about the prospect of it but I took the chance and it paid off. Parallel to my studies, I started working in a local hospital in Washington DC area to pay the fees and save money for my family.
When I finished after five years, Georgetown hospital offered me a full-time job as house radiotherapist. After working another five years there, I made the decision; to apply for a citizenship and stay in America permanently. With my salary, I couldn’t afford the luxury of buying a house in the capital; so I bought a small townhouse in Frederick. That’s how began the Frederick episode of my life.
Don’t know what brought me and Steve so close to each other; perhaps Steve’s loneliness after Maria’s death and my yearning for those affectionate elders whom I left back home ten years ago. But in those three years of our friendship, despite the nearly sixty year age gap between us, I and Steve spent almost every evening together; chatting, sipping Scotch, playing Bach in his old gramophone and reading out portions from Shakespeare or Hemingway. Still remember Steve’s slurry words when I helped him go to bed after a few pegs,
“Mukherjee, you are truly an Angel, my boy. I know it, Maria has sent you here. Gosh, what would I do without you son.”
Ironically when the same void came into my life, no Angel came to my rescue. Or was it Cathy whom I felt to recognize till date?
Matching the color of her overcoat, she is donning a beautiful purple hat too; her long golden hair flowing down till the waist, almost touching the small of her back. But where is her boyfriend today, that tall blonde guy with a cute face, sharp nose and dreamy eyes? They make a great couple together. Suddenly felt a hollow in my heart; if I and Roma could have had a son and a daughter, they would be of the same age by now.
Nowadays I reminisce about Roma a lot. Is there any similarity between this girl and her? But how is that possible! Roma was a Bengali girl, born and raised in Calcutta and she is an American. Roma had long black hair which was her most prized possession like many other Indian girls that time and she is a blonde. Roma had a typical rounded Bengali face and hers is very much American, long-chinned-sharp-nosed. Then why does she remind me of Roma? Is it just her attitude? Perhaps so. That gracious walk with head held high, that confidence scintillating through the eyes and that vivacity in choice of colors make them alike. Oh, how ethnicity and upbringing fall flat in front of confidence and attitude! Truly, Roma had it all. Else how could a twenty something girl cross thousands of miles to start a new life with a complete stranger, that too fourteen years older to her.
My parents were asking me to get married for long time, but I couldn’t manage time. Finally three months after Steve’s death, I felt the need of a companion. My father already selected the bride to be, it was just a customary duty for me to visit her house and approve the selection. I still remember the reaction in her parents’ faces when I told them that I stay in a village in America.
Though Frederick was no comparison for an Indian village that time where electricity, paved roads or even drinking water were scarce, but still in American standard it was a village and I couldn’t start a new relationship on the base of a false hope. Many Indian parents were marrying their daughters off to wealthy non-residents just to see their daughters pictured with fancy skyscrapers and the grandchildren speaking rhymes in ‘Foreign’ accents. I couldn’t do that to Roma.
But don’t know what she saw in me that she agreed to marry me. Or was it her parent’s pressure? Or maybe the adventure of breaking out of a traditional medieval household overshadowed the fear of mating a stranger? Never thought of asking her when she was alive, did she actually agree to marry me, was there anyone else in her life before me? Today twenty years after her death, I wonder why it never crossed my mind. Actually we were raised that way. A boy was expected to finish studies and get a decent job and after meeting the household necessities and a few unfulfilled dreams of his parents, eventually get married to the girl his parents chose for him. A girl was, on the other hand, inculcated with the conviction of spending her entire lifetime with the man her parents marries her off to, no matter how good or evil he is. Life was so amazingly straightforward!
But isn’t life straightforward these days, too? Look at this girl, probably born to rich parents, raised in a wealthy household, got good education and now earning well from a high profile job, a good-looking boyfriend too who could one day be her husband; how simpler could it be. Never saw her mother, but once saw a middle aged man who seemed to be her father; the car’s logo spoke of his status. Cathy told me that she works in a large bank in DC.
This is a new trend in Frederick. Ever since the Maryland Transport Authority aka MTA started the daily weekday train service from Frederick to Washington DC, lot of people have moved in here to save on the real estate cost. Though, this has transformed our little village into a full-fledged small town, old residents like Cathy could not keep pace with it. She complains about it every now and then,
“These city people made our town costly, filthy. There are so many crime reports in the newspapers these days. It was never like this. Can you imagine nowadays we need to lock our car every night, otherwise it will be stolen! Could you think of it fifteen years ago?”
I know that it’s a fact; I and Roma hardly locked our front door, forget the car! At first Roma would go mad at me because it was so unthinkable in Indian standard, but slowly she gave up. Suddenly that startled expression on her beautiful large eyes when she first saw me going to bed without locking the door flashed before my eyes.
She unlocked the car, checked something inside and came out on the sun again. I feel so jealous every time I see her near that yellow Volkswagen Beetle. My wheelchair-ridden body twinges in anger when she speeds fast by my window morning and evening. I feel ridiculed. Didn’t I press the accelerator just like that when I and Roma were returning back from the Philadelphia conference? What happened that night? It was all over before I regained my consciousness.
While waiting for her boyfriend, she is smoking a ‘Virginia Slims’ as always. I can’t smell it from here but I know those extra narrow cigarettes very well; my colleague from Georgetown hospital Tracy Jones used to smoke them. Suddenly I felt insulted. In Indian tradition it is a disrespect to smoke in front of the elders. Though technically she is not aware of my presence, in fact if she was I would be in a jail by now in charge of clandestine stalking; but still I felt insulted that a girl of my daughter’s age is smoking in front of me. Somehow I feel an unseen inexplicable bond between us, something that binds us together even though we are still unknown to each other.
It was not difficult for me to find out her name in this entire year of her existence in my neighbourhood, especially when an informant as good as Cathy is handy, but I didn’t want to. Since she is not aware of my existence, I liked her to be unknown to me as well. Somehow it gave me an adventurous frisson.
Sometimes I wonder how contradictory human emotions can be; one hand she appears to me as the daughter I could never have and my yearning affections craves to reach her, on the other hand I feel like crushing her body under my wheelchair to take the revenge of Roma’s death. That night the drunken teenager who crashed onto our car from the opposite lane was of the same age, wasn’t it? Jim Morrison was singing full volume in her car’s music system; it was too late before she could hear me frantically blowing the horns.
And she destroyed everything; my family, my career, my dream. Roma was carrying seventh months. Doctor Rogers warned, “Mukherjee, be careful. This overnight long drive may not be a good idea.”
But Roma was adamant, “Please don’t stop me doctor. I want to see Sameer being felicitated. He has been working on that research paper so hard.”
I feel agitated with this prejudice of the Almighty. When one person, losing his wife and yet-to-born child at a single stroke of luck, is trapped in a wheelchair for twenty years living on a mighty disability grant from the Govt., and all these for no fault of his; what gives this girl the right to live life like this? Every time I see her, she seems to be bursting with energy; be it doing the gardens or throwing Saturday dinners and late night parties for her friends, she does it all. I can’t stop my wrath towards that blind divinity whom we Hindus worship so gracefully in thousands of temples year round.
I feel like destroying that beautiful garden of hers. Steve and Maria would have been amazed to see how she has transformed that front porch. Heard Maria had a flair for gardening though when I moved in here, it was already a dilapidated scrub-land thanks to Steve’s gout and negligence. Roma too tried to grow some flowers in our backyard and did succeed to some extent; also Arthur does a decent job keeping the yard clean, but this girl has really woven a magic wand.
When I see the beautiful blooms in her garden, I feel rejuvenated. Twenty springs I missed the extravaganza of cherry blossom in Washington DC but thanks to her that colourful delight has once again come back within my reach. As if she has brought back the lost spring of my life. But still every time my mind writhes in pain for the numbness of my lower body, I can’t control my disdain towards her.
Lately she disappears frequently on weekends, sometimes even on the weekdays, and then comes back with her boyfriend after three or four days. Those days I feel lonely. Without the light seeping through those thick green curtains of her windows till late night, the house seems lifeless. I can’t wait to see them coming back holding each other’s arms. Their long kisses ooze so much of love that it overwhelms my hatred.
She is still waiting for her boyfriend; don’t know what happened to the guy today. She removed her purple hat and sunglasses; tried tying a knot on her golden tresses. Now I noticed the dark circles under her eyes. Her face looked a bit haggard. Even the hair seemed to have thinned and lost its shine. She never wore such heavy make-up earlier, as if she is trying to cover the fatigue in her face. Is she not well? Is she having a drinking problem or perhaps taking drugs? Felt curious, felt helpless. I am a total non-existent to her, so can’t do any help. Or why should I?
She took out her cellphone and called someone, talking agitated; perhaps to her boyfriend. Now she put the phone down and suddenly screamed in anger. Then she ran into the house and didn’t come out.
Finally they are coming out. I jolted back to reality; returning back from my time travel 3 months back to the December 11th once again.
Cathy is also with them, I asked her to go; sent some flowers too. Everyone is wearing black today. Suddenly wondered what colour did they put on her? I will see her after three long months. All this time, Cathy has been a loyal informant; couldn’t keep my daily sojourns a secret anymore and luckily Cathy didn’t condemn. After all she is not only the nurse of this paraplegic Sameer Mukherjee, she is his only human contact to the outside world; his sole friend, philosopher and guide who has served faithfully for twenty long years. Don’t know if it was love or friendship or loyalty or simply sympathy that has tied Cathy for so many years, but I feel blessed to have her around.
I can’t see anything but the long brown casket. Cathy told that in these three months she lost a lot of weight, became thin and fragile like a cane, lost all her hairs, and her skin became dark too. It’s good that I can’t see her today. I don’t want to. Will forever remember that purple overcoat clad beautiful blonde girl on a beautiful autumn morning.
Don’t know from where this twenty five year old woman gathered so much of mental strength to fight blood cancer with this much courage and grace. When I was busy cursing God for making me decrepit for life, she was living her last breath. Now I understand the secret of her vivacity; she was seizing every moment from that short life of hers. I construed the silent sights in my own way, disdained her for her liveliness, wanted to take revenge for my miserable incapacitated life and the interpretation was wrong all along.
Life amazes with its everyday ironies; an expert chemo-therapist in her neighbourhood couldn’t do any help except candidly stalking her for over a year! Suddenly felt very guilty; was her blood cancer a consequence of my continuous profanity? I don’t know. But today this sixty year old man learnt a great truth of life thanks to a girl less than half his age, the other side of the garden is not always as green as it seems to be.