Adil felt a fresh frisson of excitement watching the vista of the Blue Mountains unfolding before him. He clutched Girish’s handsome hand. Girish had, despite numerous nudges from Adil, dozed through the entire journey up the mountains until a few moments ago when a rough stretch of snores had woken him up. Adil couldn’t stop smiling – the day had finally dawned when he’d be travelling as Aditi – with a man. A tall dark man. His nails dug into Girish’s cheeks as he pinched them and Girish offered a tired smile. “Oh, don’t be such a downer, get excited already, we’re here, we’re here“
In the hotel room, Adil changed into a hot pink salwar, put on a gray woollen coat and donned his oversized cat eye sunglasses. Girish couldn’t contain the surprise on his face. He had seen Adil as Aditi before, but it never ceased to jolt him out of himself.
He particularly remembered the time when he’d met Aditi first. His wife wasn’t home that weekend and he felt an intense, almost burning pressure smothering his insides. He jogged over to the university gym where he worked out every morning for two hours, where his students often eyed him with respect, where Sunidhi – a resident research scholar – always chose the treadmill adjacent to his. The gym was closed that day and he jogged into the woods surrounding the university campus. He halted at a small coffee shop for a smoke. A group of guys from another department stood there smoking and dipping biscuits in chai when a girl in a yellow jumper appeared from a building nearby and walked past them. When she was out of earshot, one of the guys said, “Bhai, dekh” and everyone’s heads turned to watch her walk away from them. Girish crushed the cigarette butt under his feet. An hour later, he was home, but he wasn’t Professor Girish anymore. He had logged in to that unspeakable site and before he knew it, he was chatting with another stranger – someone named yoloqueen1980. An hour later, he was at her apartment – she had opened the door and he could see how thrilled she was to find him there. They spoke briefly, rapidly, spanning through their lives in haste and when they were done, Girish noticed the wallpaper on the bedroom wall that read a platitude that he then regarded with some ironic amusement – “Not all those who wander are lost.”
Aditi pouted her lips, took a selfie and said, emphasizing each word, “I feel so alive.”
Girish was awkward at first but Aditi was playing her part well – everyone called her ‘Madam’ and averted their gazes when she adjusted her neckline to hide her man’s cleavage. In the tour bus packed with couples on honeymoon, Girish let his hand stay on her shoulders. She smiled knowingly and rested her neck on his shoulders. She smelt of freshly plucked strawberries and strangely, he felt dirty beside her – his faintest scent of sweat filled his nostrils and something stirred inside him – something that demanded tenderness. He gripped her tightly and almost immediately looked away. It was cold outside and as they travelled through the meandering road in the woods, Aditi said, over and over, “I feel so alive.”
They were in the pine forest by a brook smiling towards the camera when a sadness swept over Girish – as it always did after every rendezvous when he’d find the oddest of objects highly unsettling. The set of red bangles by a mirror at a man’s house who called himself Parvati. A leather belt withered at the edges waiting to uncoil on the bed – he didn’t remember the guy’s name – too frail and finicky. An unwashed spoon on the bedroom floor. He felt a sudden winding down now, looking at Aditi’s face lit in the sun, at the edges of her lips where the thick red lipstick had strayed onto her skin.
Aditi seemed to have noticed – she flung a menacing look. She stopped saying, “I feel so alive” and stopped talking altogether until they stopped at a restaurant for lunch. She tore open her ghee roast dosa and said, “I deserve this, I’m on a sabbatical, I need this, I feel alive,” and then she sighed deeply, and looking at him, she said, “I’ve always wanted to be someone else.” Girish nodded. He knew Adil was a bigshot at a consulting company; that his family name was one that anyone would easily associate with a business family. His skin was light and taut, his face bony and his eyes an exquisite shade of green. When they’d first met, he’d marvelled the hair around his belly button that he’d since shaved off – they were a fiery shade of auburn. Girish chose to eat in silence as Adil rattled on about how he had to ask for a sabbatical, of how he’d to try out clothes at FabIndia while everyone threw him the dirtiest of looks, of how he’d to take a stance, make a choice and build a life for himself, a life he always wanted, and then he said, “But there’s so much more, I could be anyone I want to be, I could be working at a pizzeria, it’d be exciting, wouldn’t it? I could open up a coffee shop that’d double as a bookstore, I could play guitar, I could strand tables at a restaurant, I don’t want to be limited by anything, or anyone.” Girish licked red chutney off his index finger and a heat seized his mouth.
They went out for a walk at night. Girish was too tired and overcome with guilt not an ounce of which was because of what he’d done to Adil back in the hotel room – he’d asked him to shut up and entered him without mercy. Adil was quieter now and walked slowly and uneasily. They walked over to a small coffee stall where a passing man glowered at Adil who’d taken off his glasses and wiped his lips clean. Sipping the hot coffee, Adil said, “I just want to lead a simple life, like this man over here, selling coffee in the cold to strangers, under the stars.” When Girish didn’t respond, he said, “Don’t you ever think you could be someone else? Can you not imagine yourself out of your university? You could be anyone you want to be.” In the darkness, he saw Girish look away before he said, “I do, in fact, I could very well imagine myself being someone like him, if only life had been a little bit different, you know…” His voice was lower and deeper than it sounded in the morning light. Adil tried to hold his arm but he moved away. But then he moved closer and his foggy breath hit Adil’s cheeks, “And sometimes I wonder if it holds the other way around – if this coffee vendor can ever imagine being me, or being you, and whether it’d even matter. Sometimes it keeps me awake at night.”
They walked in silence, inching away from each other, until they reached the hotel room.