Silently For Me
It was not a good day to hear voices. I got home at a quarter-to-one in the morning, not because I’d been carousing on a weekday, but there was a great procession of people away from the office with the flu, depression, or on maternity leave (perhaps even fancier permutations of the three: I didn’t care), and I was meant to be standing in for two of them, besides my own usual overload of stuff.
Hence the kid ahead of me on the bus, as we waited at the door to get off, struck a chord. It was after midnight, and he was in school uniform, with a big backpack to underline the point. It seemed insanely excessive even to me. I could not resist being officious, in exactly the way I would have hated myself.
‘You’re getting home from school now?’
He turned around and nodded readily, as if he was accustomed to the response. Yeah, I get that all the time kind-of-look, on a face that should have been fresh, and full of fun, high on adrenalin or even something stronger.
Don’t misunderstand me, I had nothing against seeing fourteen-year-olds out at this hour: I only asked that they be in party clothes, preferably finishing off a fag, to leave enough time on the walk home to chew gum and kill off the stink.
‘So what were you doing at school?’
‘I go from school to biology class. Then I take the Metro to my physics, Sir. Today I had an English extra lesson, that’s why it got a bit late.’
‘And what time will you wake up tomorrow,’ I persisted, out of some dumb attempt to convey empathy.
His composure made it clear he was fine with his situation. Instead, it must have been me in some sort of delirium, because I remember turning around to the two guys on the opposite bench who were nearly dozing, and the conductor counting up beside them, and exclaiming, ‘Did you hear that? This is the extent of the tuition racket. He’ll be on a bus again wearing that uniform within seven hours.’
Perhaps they would have been roused enough to make a rejoinder if my stop hadn’t arrived right then. The boy walked off in the opposite direction without a backward glance, and I wondered if I’d see him the following night. How did parents agree to this? Was this made possible by cell phones, because you never needed to worry anymore?
But you couldn’t send your child a hot home-cooked meal through a text message, as he slogged through the city on public transport from one mercenary teacher to another.
Then there was the lady auto-rickshaw driver who told me off for no reason. I’d never even seen one before, and I was about to get on board on the seat beside her, since the back was already full. It was standard practice: in fact, after hours, when the police were not looking, they took in three at the back and two up front on either side of them, for the extra fare.
But she said to me, ‘Sorry, Dada, I don’t allow anyone in front at night, since people always try to get funny with me.’
‘What do you mean,’ I asked like a fool.
‘What do you think I mean? Their hands hold onto everything except the handles,’ she snapped wearily at yet another pervert, who apparently just wanted her to be explicit.
‘And I look like that kind of man to you?’
‘Oh, Dada, don’t say that. There’s no one kind of man who tries such tricks. Schoolboys try it, grandfathers try it, even respectable fathers with their little daughters sitting in the back try it.’
And with me well snubbed, and a couple of people at the bus-stop grinning in my direction, she vroomed ostentatiously and drove off, leaving me with the option of waiting another ten minutes in the December mist, or at least beginning to walk to keep myself warm.
Ten minutes later, wreathed in fog, along a stretch of road where the lights were all usefully off, I was convinced I had a brain tumour.
After all, the symptoms were unprecedented and truly alarming. The voice in my head was clearly not mine: it had a pitch and a pace all its own, and followed a line of reasoning in its statements that definitely didn’t originate within any of my likely hidden selves.
And yet, it was creepily personal, it knew exactly what it was talking about. It had the latest, most secret inside dope on me, stuff I hadn’t confided to anyone, or even written down. What else was I to think but tumour??
You will have guessed from my initial rationalising that interior dialogue was in itself not an unfamiliar phenomenon. I’m aware I do it in the shower, on long walks, looking out the window during bus-rides, and ex-girlfriends have assured me I’m a veritable through-the-night DJ while asleep. But it’s like playing chess with yourself, I suppose, although that’s not something I know a lot about. I mean, surely you can’t recreate the full experience of grappling with another mind, superior or not. Just other.
Well, this voice, and the mind behind it, were similarly just other. As in tumour other, growth other, malignancy other. An other that would require surgical intervention to remove.
It was foggy and cold and I was miserable, OK? It stank of piss all around, people were wrapped up tight inside the shacks on parts of the pavement (which theoretically should have made me feel grateful for what I was going home to), and all I had in the fridge was a leftover takeaway portion of biryani and chaap, around which the Dalda would have congealed long ago, just like it would leave the plate greasy in a few minutes and regroup inside one of my key arteries.
‘Do you really think, point by point, he’s that much like you?’ was its opening shot, from zero to ninety in nought point O seconds. Nothing by way of a greeting. Typically Indian in that, I guess, no time wasted in working up gradually to intimate from polite – in, I don’t know, like months or years. I was slowly accustoming myself to it all over again. It could just as easily have begun with why I returned home to settle for such a low salary and get dumped on by every senile quavering dotard at a fourth-rate never-was paper; if I really believed any publisher anywhere would pick up that second book of poems; or whether I’d finally accepted girls here weren’t so hot for lonely neo-symbolists in their late twenties. It was like any of the co-passengers we met on the cross-country journeys from the visits of my boyhood, who barely waited for the train to start before they forced themselves upon us for the next thirty-six hours – invasive, inescapable, impossible to imagine unless you’ve yourself visited India.
I have to reel in and explain who ‘he’ (that much was unmistakable) was referring to at this point, otherwise it’s useless to describe my shock. It won’t have the all-important impact.
An eerily identical colleague had really been getting under my skin. Peculiar as that sentence is, there’s no other way to put it. He’d been hired a fortnight before, and it wasn’t one of those cases where everyone but you right away notices the resemblance. On this occasion, it was me who had had to clam up on my startledness, because I didn’t want to appear insecure. And, I had to confess, contrary to all expectations, everybody else seemed to be respecting the delicacy of the situation, since no one had yet blundered into mentioning it within my hearing.
I mean, this guy was tall, equally good-looking (OK, it’s my story, cut me some slack), witty, smart, evidently a gifted writer, stylish, and an exceptionally smooth extrovert the few times we all went out in the evenings. He was insolently doing well with ladies I’d restrained myself from moving in on, because I decided to respect that they were married. Now, watching them giggle and purr, it looked like a waste of my conscience. This chap had no such qualms, taking advantage of his foreign-returned exotic sheen (which of course I also possessed in layers) in a way that was beyond pathetic.
The only difference was, he reviewed films whereas I handled books, and that too (infuriatingly) seemed to count for more with these bimbos. What was most frustrating was that his comments and conclusions offered no holds for my teeth to sink into, even though I spent hours at home trying, mornings as well as nights. They were judicious, clever, incisive, multi-angled, and once when I actually put a finger over his name on the by-line, I could have sworn the piece was written by me.
Do you begin to see how bizarre that is? I mean, we all complain all the time, privately even more so than to others, that oh, we’re so alone, there’s such a dearth of like-minded companions, there’s no one who just gets me. I’d been muttering along similar lines non-stop since arriving here three months ago. But now it turns out, an outcome I’d never have suspected, we also thrive on these sensations to feel unique. We derive our never-confessed sense of specialness kind of from our misery.
The worst of it was, he seemed to be so un-self-consciously nice to me, including me in all the jokes, making sure to come over – not just a quick email – and mention the particular lines he’d loved in this or that latest review. And, I spit out, he always picked the phrases of which I was secretly proudest.
Well, there was a difference between us. I was still in command of all my faculties. Did he just not see the absolutely obvious? How come only I became jittery and clumsy in his presence, and muffed up all the jokes, stop-started on my best-rehearsed anecdotes? I took care not to sit right beside him so no one else would remark on anything odd. We even had not-too-dissimilar hairstyles, though he could probably have given me a few pounds. Every day was a matter of keeping my fingers crossed until we met for the first time in the morning, that we weren’t actually turned out in identical outfits.
Twice already there had been close shaves: he wore a pair of jeans one Tuesday that I’d sported the Friday before, down to the brand-name on the butt, and last Friday it was even tighter. I had to decline the weekly gathering at the Chinese place, since someone was bound to notice it, if we were all clustered around the same table, no matter how dimly lit it was. Because we both had on the same shirt, of unique and elegant cut: I wore the royal blue edition while he’d gone for deep chocolate. However, I also had the chocolate one hanging in my cupboard at home.
If we worked somewhere that was remotely in the twenty-first century, where anyone had an eye for such things, it would have been spotted within minutes. But everyone was (perhaps thankfully) preoccupied that day with the threat of next month’s strike by the typesetters!
OK, here are some of the other points. We’d both been taken from Calcutta as infants, and returned as American adults. As I said, I wrote poetry and survived through book reviews; he hacked away on films and openly spoke of this as his apprenticeship period,
à la Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol at the Cahiers du Cinema. He’d also shown something at Sundance, and seven other festivals throughout Europe and Latin America, he claimed, during his final post-grad year at Brown, a fact irritatingly immediate on Google.
Well, my first volume came out last year too, and I was fresh out of an MFA from uh
… Hunter. But the reviews were uniformly solid, and equally confirmable online.
Enough background. It annoys me to have to set it down at such length, and I wouldn’t have, if the story made sense without it. That’s one of the many things that puts me off stories, so much cause and effect, so many dull passages of joining the dots. In poems you just astonish and walk away. Enchantment is your only duty.
What are you babbling about, I finally responded, when the voice had repeated itself for the third time. Fourth overall.
‘Oh, glad to get your attention at last. I thought you’d never notice. I just wanted to suggest, you should consider him point by point. Then you’ll probably find the similarities aren’t as startling as they first appear, and that the differences are in fact more instructive. The others might have absorbed this unconsciously, which is why they’re so comfortable around both of you.’
You see what I mean – a thought process entirely other to my own. Impertinent, opinionated and presumptuous besides.
‘So, whoever you are, you cheeky fuck, think you can just barge in with your utterly unsolicited pearls of crap, are you suggesting he’s better than me? Do you actually have the nerve to make that the first-ever thing you say to me?’ Despite my numerous higher instincts, I found I was, after all, dignifying his insolence with my indignation.
‘Did I for once say better? Who said better? Where did you hear better? I recall saying different. In fact, the only reason I’m here talking to you on such a night rather than him is that I’m sure of your difference and I know what I prefer.’
What planet was this guy calling from? And that was exactly what I asked him next. Which aspect of this visitation was I supposed to feel honoured by? My drink must have been spiked the night I won him in Vegas, my very own Aladdin’s genie.
Not only did he jauntily ignore my questions as well as the rudeness I meant to rub his face in, he said he’d be sticking around for a while if I didn’t mind. There wasn’t much he had going on just then, and he was sure I’d soon have better evenings, when I was more willing to open up and chat. Maybe he hadn’t been so spot-on with the timing, he admitted.
You won’t believe what he did the rest of the way home. He kept interrupting my repeated resolution to find out first thing in the morning about a consulting neurosurgeon (which of my hypochondriac relatives could I call to ask for a recommendation, without setting off panic alarms relayed within a half-hour across the extended clan spread out over four continents), and ask for an MRI or the fullest kind of scan they had, with the same infuriating five-word twittering – I’m not a tumour, I’m not a tumour – quite cheerfully, obliviously, shamelessly, as if it were a bleeding jingle. All I could do to turn down the din was to pour myself a giant slug of Oaken Glow as soon as I arrived home (I wasn’t wasting any of my precious two duty-free single-malt Scotches on blocking out this joker), and then zonk out on the couch without even eating.
Because there was no word from him for the next three days, because I had begun to wonder if I might not have teensily over-reacted on one tough night to what was really loneliness, frustration, grave second thoughts and overwork, because I couldn’t with any conviction stretch the truth enough to admit to even one of the fifteen symptoms the kindly old doctor ran me through when I confessed my worst-case speculations, I didn’t push the point about the scan-panoply when he sent me off with a week’s prescription of mild sedatives.
Of course four days later the voice was back, this time in the morning, when I was zoned out over coffee and a Seinfeld rerun on Star World. It had been murderous the previous evening: I had had to come up with an obituary at a few hours’ notice (again substituting for a knocked-up colleague). The event itself was tragic – a junior national champion badminton player had been killed in a highway accident on his motorbike, crushed between a truck and a bus. He was eighteen, obviously no one in Deaths had prepared a contingency notice on him yet. He’d made the All-England semis on debut the year before.
Before that order was off-loaded onto my table, there had been the usual afternoon of finishing off my own reviews (since it was a Wednesday, I also had the Friday book page to finalise and fill), and cajoling the four other contributors of that week to email their stuff pronto. After such nights, I always went in on Thursdays just before noon, which is why I could watch Kramer experimenting briefly with life sans underwear at such leisure (‘I’m out there, Jerry, and I’m l-loving every minute of it’!)
‘So, have you given any more thought to those differences?’
‘Oh, fuck off,’ I replied instinctively.
‘I could help you out with a little list I have here,’ – as if I hadn’t hollered.
Once more, I emphasise, clearly not my thought process. NOT an inner demon. Bitter and bilious I might be inside my own head, I take pride in my unfailing courtesy towards others in all circumstances. I’d say more than courtesy, going far enough as to claim outright generosity of spirit. It’s a matter of significant import to me that no one ever knows what I actually think of them.
Which is to establish, I would never butt into a stranger’s life (nor a friend’s) with a sly little trample right on their Achilles heel.
But he held all the cards, and had no hesitation about rubbing that in. He could jump me anytime he liked, I had no idea where he was speaking from, and even less did I know about his sources. To be sure, there was a traitor in the ranks, but who and where if not the tumour?
Thick hide, poor taste, bad manners, ill will – such an attractive combination to be haunted by.
‘OK, I won’t itemise it, but on the whole, externally, I’m thinking, the ticks mostly go to him. There’s not really much competition. Whatever category you pick, he tops you quite clearly, including unscrupulous office romances, where I must say, you had a solid head-start but didn’t even put up a fight.
‘I don’t believe I’ve dropped any bombshells or spilt any secrets, have I?’ he concluded after a pause, during which I chose to remain inwardly spreadeagled.
With boundless hypocrisy the oily bastard followed up on the ground-glass shot of pure-malice he’d served me, with an apparently well-intended sermon on abstinence.
‘But of course, none of that matters, and you win outright. Because when the final score is totted up, you, my lucky friend, would have me in your corner. Just kidding,’ he went on, after pausing to cackle, delighted at his own dreadful joke. ‘You know why you’d win, right? Because of this secret I’m telling you. Listen carefully. There is no need for a contest.’
Still I didn’t reply, and still this appeared not to register. For someone I couldn’t see, he was remarkably hardened.
‘Yes, you know now there is no contest, there can never be one. The world is open to both of you. No one dipping in and drawing out as much as he likes can diminish in any way another’s portion. Anyhow, you can only draw out what you can, when you’re ready to. I’m referring of course to the stuff that really matters, your poetry and his future films, and to the souls whence they shall spring. Get it?
‘And you knowing this and remembering it is an immeasurable advantage over him. If he hasn’t reached this awareness yet – and OK, no point kidding ourselves, he too has the equipment to get there, although there won’t be someone like me serving it up to him spoonful by spoonful – he’ll be countless times more corpulent and weighed-down than you are. Although none of it might be visible on the surface, although none but the truly wise amongst your friends would notice, it’ll go on to make all the difference in your work. It’ll be evident in every frame, in each verse. You’ll be fluid and flexible, soaring and swallowing. So much of him will always fail to dissolve, so much of the world will be missing from his movies.
‘Now, will you get up and stop looking for something sharp to hurl at me,’ he concluded, with a teeth-grating degree of self-satisfaction.
Finally I responded; I was half-ashamed that it betrayed I had been listening after all. Yet, for the first time, despite leaving deep tank-treads over most of my self-esteem in getting there, the swine had touched a nerve.
‘How do you know he isn’t there already? It is he that seems to be floating on a cloud of his own, gliding through the hoops of the world, sparkling in any company, welcoming many at once into the circle of his flame. Maybe he’s already soaring above Olympus. Maybe his soul is already all-embracing, whereas I’m still so trapped and pinched’?
‘To be honest, I don’t. I’d be deluding you if I claimed to have as good a vantage point over his insides as I do over yours. With him I see more or less what you do, the persona, the charm, the articles, the Internet reviews. But you can now go forth with what I’ve told you, and decide for yourself. What calibre of lightness has he? Is it purely social, or is he a true butterfly in spirit? Remember though, don’t turn this into another contest, because that means you’re only falling away further from what I’ve shown you. If I were you, I’d just back out of this corner altogether and drive off towards the widest spaces I could find, alone and heedless. The world is all around to be noticed and re-described. It is visible and infinite and nothing is barring your way. If you kept this up any longer, you’d be sparring in a corner with a shadow for no prize, in a match that no one’s watching.’
And before I could snort ‘Well, I knew that!’ he was off without courtesy or warning, exercising his brazen prerogative to show up, proclaim, ignore and vanish always keeping to his own time. My coffee was uselessly stale by now, Seinfeld had played out without my noticing, and all I had by way of comfort was to heat up the water for my bath, and then pour it upon myself out of the bucket, shivering in between mug-fuls. This flat (this town) had no electric showers (it would be frowned upon to get that comfortable). But servers-up of it-like-it-is – straight up and neat, throat-corroding country-made truths – came in all sizes here, a kindness provided gratis at all hours by concerned relatives, uncompetitive colleagues, encouraging editors, adorably frank children, the unembarrassed, unrelenting stares of strangers and even by ghosts apparently, although it was the one service I specifically never requested.
Doubles seem to be growing on trees this winter. It must have been the following Wednesday, because I was out to sneak a breather at the nearby Coffee Day in the midst of an absolutely stinking rush. They knew what I liked, even the specifications didn’t need to be reiterated. The frappé here was potentially a deeply pleasing beverage – I’d worked out after a couple of errors-by-trial – as long as they left out the ice cream, and went real easy on the sugar. I’d insisted on this as if my diabetic life depended on it – let them think I’d be in danger of expiring on the premises if they got my order wrong. All I wanted was to lean back and stare at nothing for forty priceless minutes. It was an essential bit of insulation, between the insanity that had been driving me hoarse since ten, and putting the final paragraphs on a first-novel review that could still swing either way. This time-out would be the key. If I’d rushed it instead of just breaking out, I’d have ended up unfairly casting the writer as a smug poseur, so sure of making all the right noises. If all went well here, she’d be an original experimentalist whose talent was racing slightly ahead of her themes, for now.
The kid at the next table was shooting me the most honeyed of smiles. He was on all fours, on the table, three feet away, probably not yet one. I seemed to have made his day. I smiled back and looked away, but a minute or two later when I glanced again in his direction, he was still fixedly beaming at me. Normally I’d find this pressurising and even sinister, depending on my mood, but there was nothing in that smile that sought anything back. Someone, for once, was just delighted that I was.
In fact, he wanted to give me stuff. First he held out a plastic spoon, so evidently intended for me that I had to reach over and accept it. I thought it quite clever of him, since my coffee had just been delivered. His ma, who was immersed in a film magazine, and hadn’t noticed our blossoming connection, must visit cafés often with him as company.
Then, a minute later, he was considerate enough to pass on the in-house newsletter, because I was sitting there empty-handed and would be glad for something to read. Another glimmer of outstanding geniality, I decided, but also prodigious capacities for making associations. Through all of this, the smile never dimmed or wavered.
This latest kindness finally got the attention of his mother, who looked over to tell him not to disturb the busy gentleman.
I said he was being a splendid host, and she went back to her magazine.
I remained there for another half-hour, and of course during that time the kid’s attention wandered, but somehow always swung back to me. I know, because I too kept looking to check. There was no more he had to say, he didn’t demand any ackno
wledgement: he just wanted to bestow free radiance upon me.
I fell into something of a trance within this warmth, and got up with a start when I eventually noticed the time. Yet the spell didn’t break. Instead, when he realised I was leaving, he reached out with both arms, and I thought he meant to say goodbye. So I took his warm fingers into mine, thanked him for the pleasure of his acquaintance, and left him with as bright a beam as I could manage. It had all been slightly dreamy and strange, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I wasn’t yet out the door when the voice startled me out of nowhere, self-invited and didactic as always.
‘You know he wanted to hug you, right? He wanted you to pick him up?’
‘What?’ I said.
‘That’s why he was reaching out like that. I mean you probably did the right thing by restricting matters to a manly handshake, but he wanted a full-on embrace.’
‘You really think so?’ I was almost coy, as if I’d just found out for certain about a half-suspected crush.
‘Sure, I saw the whole thing. That kid was duck to your water. Don’t ask me why, though.’
I ignored the jibe. By now I had Park Street to cross – I couldn’t afford to be on a cloud. ‘There was something uncanny about the whole encounter,’ I said absently.
‘I was coming to that’, he went on. ‘You’re absolutely right. The resemblance was unmistakable’.
‘Hey, you thought so too’? In my amazement I overlooked this fresh evidence of the unsettling extent of his penetration.
‘Straightaway, at the same time as you. I’ve never seen a kid who looks more like you did. Go home and look at the pictures if you need to be sure. Aren’t you pleased I’m here to confirm this for you? Otherwise, you’d never be sure of what just happened.’
That was it. He’d relaxed and dropped his guard by saying that. By the time I passed through the revolving doors of the newspaper building, I knew who the voice was.
It didn’t bother me biding my time. Since he had the privilege of opening all my thoughts at the same instant as me, that meant he’d now take a while over his next appearance, if there was to be one at all. On a few occasions I did try to lure him out with enticements and even insults, knowing all along it was pointless, as my motives were glass to him. So I gulped in some air and slipped into waiting mode: he’d made the running from the start, and now it was up to him to carry the story further. I grew sure I’d been wrong in assuming initially the key give-away had been a boo-boo.
‘Well, you got what you came for, right? I was only trying to give you what I knew you wanted.’ It took a week for him to emerge with this defiant declaration.
‘That’s the best you can do, after a week? And also, notice you’re interrupting Seinfeld. Surely you’d know that?’ The ads were on at the moment, but I doubted we’d have this thrashed out so smoothly. I just wanted my little Thursday evening pleasures to myself, even though I knew each line of the episode.
‘I’ve extended every courtesy to you by waiting patiently, surely you can give me fifteen minutes in return? I mean, I could re-watch this tomorrow morning, but what guarantee you’ll be done by then,’ I added.
At eight I put my plate in the sink, brushed my teeth, visited the bathroom so we wouldn’t be interrupted by that, drank two glasses of water and filled another, and poured myself a sustaining shot of whisky, this time the good stuff. The good stuff for the real thing.
‘My question is, why the absurd get-up?’ I finally resumed, having pulled the coffee-table closer so I could stretch my legs.
Of course he had to keep me waiting, otherwise I might get some crazy idea I had the upper hand. I put on some Chet Baker (of all people) to fill the silence.
‘I had to show up somehow. No entry point would have been less absurd. Think about it.’
That much was in fact true. And now what? Yet I felt so relaxed. Time was like my bubble gum. I could pull it out as long as I wanted, just exhale and watch it grow. At that moment I forgot I had limbs at all. I was looking out the window at a swarm of winter bugs underneath the nearest streetlight.
‘You held all the cards,’ I said. ‘I didn’t even know your voice. Is it the same on the other side?’
‘Your mother would know it,’ he said after a short pause.
‘You must know how she is too, right? Can you travel overseas? I’d be interested to know that.’
This he didn’t answer. I decided that was his right. Their re-encounter was their affair. He was entitled not to take questions that concerned them.
Maybe this had happened to her, and Ma had never told me. Could I ask him that at least?
‘So anyway, stands to reason our pal at work will not be receiving similar visitations from any entity resembling yourself?’
‘I still believe it’s an advantage,’ he persisted.
‘Well, that might be so, but personally I surmise it’s evened out by the fact that both his parents are happy and alive, and he speaks to them everyday. And when they visited last month, some of his closer friends were invited over for lunch, and I heard about it all the day after. Apparently his dad is great for impersonations.’
I see it sounds bitter when I set down the words like that, but I promise I wasn’t feeling harsh when I spoke them. They just needed stating. He would have the stomach for them, undoubtedly. He’d have seen a lot worse.
‘How corny of you to appear when I’m twenty-seven? What is that supposed to do?’
‘That is not my fault. You can’t pin that on me. You decided to make this trip yourself, and you happened to be twenty-seven. Perhaps it unconsciously influenced you.
‘You might say I only took the opportunity that you were in the neighbourhood’ he added. His cheek had not diminished.
…’ I said.
… what’s your verdict, obviously? You can now compare. How do I measure up at the same stage? By the way, what is the deal with age where you are? Are you stuck on twenty-seven, are you fifty-four, are you timeless? What’s going on?’
‘It isn’t counted that way,’ was all he’d say.
‘OK, forget the numbers. Tell me about wisdom instead, and your magic powers. What else can you do, apart from lodge in my gut, which, let’s face it, isn’t much of a trick, considering tapeworms here do it all the time.’
‘Wisdom doesn’t apply either. There’s nothing to be wise about. The time for that is over. You’re not a contestant any more. You’ve opened all the envelopes now and seen the answers.
‘But I was trying to give you a little peek, by putting in a capsule for you what I know. And you noticed the one thing I was saying that wasn’t bullshit. So that’s the difference between us. At twenty-seven, I was very far from any such recognitions.’
At this point, I wanted to say, not to mention I’m still around and chugging on. Another teeny point of difference there. Though I didn’t speak up, I imagined he would have heard me, because that seemed to be one of his super-powers. Well, I didn’t care, and I hoped he was wincing.
‘You knew what you were doing when you dropped in that little bit about the kid’s resemblance to me, didn’t you? That was deliberate. You decided it was time.’
Now he remained unvoiced, but I took it for a yes.
‘Well, down here age still matters, and I realise I’m a hundred days older than you,’ I continued, not really sure what I wanted to drive home. Maybe my whisky was starting to talk.
‘So, what do you have in mind? Will these visits become a regular affair? Should we introduce ourselves? Fill in a bit of background? You seem to have the advantage over me. What have you been up to my whole life?’
You know what he said to me. This is unbelievable. He said I couldn’t know if he would return. I simply couldn’t, and there was nothing he could do.
That was the only occasion I lost it that night. I called him a bastard who hadn’t changed. Did he
think I needed a Sideshow Bob in my head? Was that what he thought I was missing? He’d spent this entire time being trivial at best, and then hurtful, and here he was claiming he was giving me what I wanted? Had he ever given anyone what they wanted?
I asked if he’d heard of the writer who said every father that commits suicide is condemning his son to the same fate?
He replied that was simply not the case. Statistically, there is no such linkage.
With that he sputtered me out. It was like he’d pissed all over my flames. There was no common ground possible. Instead, I finished the rest of my drink, and reminded myself time was my bubble gum.
I said, ‘you must have noticed I haven’t mentioned Ma yet. But now I won’t, because you’re trash. You’re not worth the effort. For her sake, I hope you’ve never troubled her.’
After a while, I steeled myself and threw the match onto the bridge. Look, just leave, I said. I know you don’t do requests, but see if you can make an exception. I have no clue what you’ve come out of the woodwork to find, but I’m not going to be able to satisfy you. All this has achieved is to plant a memory in my head that I have no place for, and no idea what to do with.
In fact, do you even realise how incongruous this is? I actually had never met you.
He said yes to that – sheepishly, I like to believe.
There isn’t much more to tell. I decided later that night not to do the noble thing and serve out my notice period at the newspaper, since they’d never even paid me a subsistence wage. I’d lived here out of my US savings, and it’s time to call in the favour, I repeated to myself as I made the appointment with the travel agent the following morning.
Ma is thrilled I’m returning early, and I can’t wait to see her either. If only fucking Air India would get a move on. There was some storm in Tokyo and the aircraft we’re supposed to board will now arrive in the morning. This is their sorry excuse. They’ve sort of impressed me by putting us up at the airport hotel, individual rooms and all. I’ve had some trouble sleeping the past week, including tonight, and now, as I write this sentence, you are exactly where I am, with me, at the same point in this story.
© Rajorshi Chakraborti