“The songs existed before you,” he said, “how can I hurt through them?”
“Yes. But you said they were our songs. Special songs for a special time. It breaks me when I hear them, cripples me, almost literally.”
“That was a special time. Now it’s not. There are thousands of songs we shared and thousands of others that I cherish which I haven’t shared with you.”
“Yes. Maybe. But what about nostalgia? When I shared that song with you, I thought you would at least get nostalgic.”
“How do you expect me to get nostalgic about memories when it’s 9 am and I have an entire day of meetings?”
“O I am so sorry, I was so inconsiderate. Entirely my fault that the moment was fraught with work for you, of course.”
“The moment was fraught with life. My survival. It’s not the right time to get nostalgic about memories. I am sorry if you are hurt. It’s just not the time for nostalgia.”
“What is a good time to send someone a memory?”
Rhetoric, of course. There is no answer. Just another meaningless fight going over the same old things, same old accusations, same old disappointments. The same heartache and the same love and the same bitterness and, yes, the same indifference. But this time they decide to meet.
When they meet again and go on the drive they are close. Close like the way two people who know each other’s faults and are still stuck together are. Like bickering spinster sisters in an old age home. Arsenic and Old Lace. In the restaurant, a baby smiles at her. She smiles back but it doesn’t reach her eyes. He won’t meet her eyes. And when he does with studied nonchalance, she is filled with contempt. At that moment she hates him. “You look good, not sick at all. Are you sure you won’t eat?” She hates him more for speaking such banal things. Can he not see how she is a sea of discontent?
“Good. No. I’ve eaten.” Clipped. In her heart she wants to become coquettish, laugh, flirt. Why can’t she be light like she wants to? She can comfort him. He doesn’t look good. He looks stressed, tired. He looks like he could use a friend.
She cannot though. She cannot make him laugh again, laugh with her again although it is the only thing she wants most to do. She decides to set aside her grudge and be nice but she stops herself. Again, she is doing it. Putting him first.
She can hear the counsellor’s voice. “It’s our upbringing. We are taught to put others first. We might be dying but we preëmpt our man’s cough. Have the water ready before he coughs. Fret about him.”
“It’s not just me then. I always thought it’s because I read a lot. When you read, you know so much more about the world. Nothing ever surprises you. But you are always open and filled with compassion somewhat. I can always put myself in someone else’s shoes and see how others feel so vividly that it always becomes easy to empathise, to understand, to forgive. You are saying all women do that?”
“All of us do that. All Indian women do that. You have to get out of it though. You have to become your own best friend, lover, spouse. Think only about yourself for now. What more damage do you want to do to yourself? Look at how ill you are. You cannot even walk normally anymore. You limp.”
“Yes. It’s like my legs refuse to carry me anymore. Sometimes there is no ground beneath my feet. Sometimes, it’s like I am walking on iron nails. It’s maddeningly painful.”
So she won’t offer him comfort. She won’t give him what might help. She is curt, cold, insulting, insinuating over and over again about the wrong done.
At the coffee shop, they sit quietly in the cold. Looking like a couple who have lost a child and been through a lifetime of inexplicable pain, mute longing, sheer despair. The couple who have aged ahead of time with no comfort to offer each other or themselves. When they leave the coffee shop her knees buckle. She thinks of The Last Song of Dusk and the message if you want it: Love is enough.
And then the friend saying, “Only love is just not enough. So what if you love each other? I don’t think he loves you, anyway. If he did, why is he causing you pain? He would not have done what he did.”
“I am causing myself pain. I am in pain. It’s a side-effect in my life, you could say. How can we blame him when the fault is mine? I think he loves me but just not enough.”
“Yes, that’s why I am saying, love is just not enough. You need to be in a healthy relationship.”
“Of course. Everyone chooses to ruin their own relationships. Everyone chooses a fucked up partner.”
“That’s not what I mean. I only mean that you have to get wiser. I want to see you happy. Make wise decisions now. Start dating again. And be discerning. You are getting older.”
“Getting older is good. I will hopefully die soon. I want to. I cannot deal with this fuckall pain anymore. And what is the point?”
The point is to get home early enough. Not to turn this night into another scene. Not to have another fight. To be cool and above it all. And to be prepared to put herself first. But now, she can barely enter the car. The door is too heavy to swing open and the handle is cold. But she does it. Because he is fumbling and doesn’t realise that she needs help. She manages to push herself in without any grace. There’s no hint of sensuality in her now. Nothing. Just flesh overflowing and stiff. He looks confused. He has forgotten his glasses again. The worry begins. Can he not see he needs looking after? Can he not see that she can be the woman who will love, cherish, and take care of him? Maybe forever? He brakes hard when he is just about to hit a speed breaker. But his hand doesn’t reach out to hold her as it used to in the past. She smiles at the irony. In the past she hadn’t needed it. Today, she can feel every jerk, every pothole in her joints. Today, she needs someone to care. Even if it’s the futile gesture of putting a hand out to ensure she doesn’t hit her head against the dashboard. Today, she really needs someone to care. She desperately wants it to be him. He used to have magic. When it came to her. He doesn’t have it anymore. He is a mere man now. And the car is heavy with damp and buzzing with mosquitoes. It’s best to say short goodbyes. But she wants to draw blood. More than the mosquitoes.
“I’m sorry. I had no idea you were this ill or it was this serious.”
“Yes. Well. What are you doing about it anyway? What can you do?”
“How can I do anything? It’s in your hands. Only you can make yourself better again.”
Her laughter crackles with disdain. The air in the closed car shifts. The mosquitoes seem to have stopped biting.
“Of course. But you see, I want to be sick and crippled. Who wouldn’t want that?”
Why has she been stating the obvious to everyone?
No one chooses heartbreak. Or a bad boyfriend; a no-happy-ending relationship. Or an illness. Or pain. Or poverty. It happens. Some of us are lucky and can move on within three hours, three days. For others it becomes malaise, triste incurabilis. You deal with it as best as you can. Or you acknowledge that you cannot do it on your own anymore and see a counsellor who asks you probing questions.
“What is the one thing you want to have in life right now?”
She looks at the roads she had walked and cycled around as a teenager. And the trees that were always there. Comforting. Solid. Wholesome. Herman Hesse about trees in that book called Wandering which is not available anywhere.
“Right now, I’d want a tree.”
“A tree? Not money, luxury, cars, jewellery, any of those things?”
“No. What will I do with that? I want a tree.”
“So there you are. Plant a tree. It’s an easy step to take to heal yourself. Trees are such healing elements. Go plant a tree this week.”
Instead she was trying in vain to plant a memory.
“How can you forget everything so easily after you say it was so intense, especially when you say it was intense?”
“Let’s not start that again. We’ll be stuck in this car through the night if we start that again. I can feel mosquitoes bite me.”
“I need you.” It’s abrupt. Her tone has no warmth.
“What do you want me to do?”
She has no idea.
She does. She wants it to go back to the way it was before the illness, before the break, before the hatred. She wants to go back at least five years. Be the woman she used to be. She wants to go back at least a year and a half and be the lover he had enjoyed. Though she is sure sex now is mostly a theoretical concept.
“I want you to be there for me. I cannot go through this pain alone. No one is helping. No one understands. I don’t really blame them. And yet I do. I feel so let down. Everyone is callous in their own way. I need someone who truly cares. Be there for me. Please.”
“I am there for you. Only don’t start thinking…”
His voice has begun to stutter. That nervous tic when he feels cornered or threatened. She feels only contempt and a boiling rage.
“Wait. Stop talking. Stop panicking. I don’t want to get back to you now. I cannot, not when I am so ill.”
“Good. I don’t want to. I will not. It has nothing to do with your illness.”
“So that’s not what I want.”
Is she lying? She barely knows. Yes. She doesn’t want him now. Not the way things are. But she does want him the way he was before. He was a magician. He had healed her. She wants that. But what was the price he had extracted in the end? It gets so muddled. She needs to see the counsellor again to resolve this. But it’s already resolved. There is no future. And hope is that teasing bitch. It’s wise just not to give in.
She has begun crying and she doesn’t notice till he says, “Please don’t cry.” And starts to weep himself. She is genuinely curious. “Why are you crying?”
“I have done you wrong.”
“I am a terrible man.”
It hurts them both.
She whispers in that smoggy car. “It doesn’t matter. I love you still.”
“I love you too but…”
“No. Don’t say it. Don’t ruin it. I know you think it’s not enough. Not the way it was for you in the beginning. I know all that. I just; I don’t know. The pain is too much for me to deal with alone. And such rubbish treatment options. I have no idea what to expect. I have no idea what to do next. I have no idea.” She is crying in earnest now.
He tries to hug her but freezes because she is stiff.
“See, you cannot even bring yourself to hug me.” It’s amazing how many times a heart can break.
“You are stiff. You don’t want me to hug you.”
“Yes, you bloody idiot. I have arthritis. Stiffness is part of my life now.”
“Fine. I will hug you.”
“It’s idiotic when you say it and then do it. The moment is lost.”
She really doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She cries because she has anyway started on with the waterworks. It’s easier to just continue than change to the way she actually feels. Idiotic. Mirthful. Desperate for a kiss. Desperate for an assertion of a sensuality that is quickly fading. And besides all those things will make her cry again anyway.
She wants to kiss his forehead like she used to but she doesn’t. She wants to reach out and touch his ear. But she has a catch and cannot lift her arm. In any case, she is terrified of touching him. She is mortally afraid of seeing him shrink away from her touch. She thinks that will kill her. He rests his head on her breasts. That’s how they end up hugging. For a second, their tears mingle. “I will listen to the song again.”
She can see a glimmer of that bitch called hope in the rearview mirror and sighs. It will all probably be okay.
“Yes. I will listen to the song again. But now, I will always remember how we fought because of it and I don’t think I will get nostalgic.”
She has no words. She feels truly alone and helpless.
What, really, is a good time to send someone a memory?