An Old Carton

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“Sweets, get going!!  We’re all waiting for you.”

“All?”

“Just come, will you? The heat is killing me, I’m going to kill you if you don’t come over in five.”

Would she be with them? The Chitra Basu. In her faded floral palazzo pants billowing in the warm summer wind, cat-eye sunglasses catching the glare of the sun and her lush locks shrouding half her beautiful face, brushing her supple pink unpainted lips. I picked my handbag, stashed some notes from the drawer, snatched the keys, locked the door and walked out before I could allow myself to hold back and hesitate.

Jade was in the shade, sipping coke, all by himself. He’d grown visibly bulkier and as I pinched his cheeks and then his soft tummy, I really was just fighting a drowning sensation, that familiar pit-in-your-stomach feeling, a loss of energy in my limbs, a numbness in my head, a slowness in my heart.

“I needn’t tell you that you’ve put on but you look such a cutie now.” As I hugged him, I was greeted with a faint scent of sweat enmeshed with a light woody fragrance. So him.

When we were inside the café, I asked, in passing, “So where is she?”

He folded the empty bag of fries in half. “If you’re not okay with her, just tell me, we can hang out on our own, I’m cool with it, just tell me”

“Where is she?”

He groaned. “She just bailed out, said she’s caught up”, he air-quoted, “with some shit.”

“What shit?”

“Some shit, she’s meeting some clients; do you guys even talk?”

I remembered the afternoon she had ‘dropped by’ to return my stuff. Old books. Old notebooks. Old sketches – she’s smoking a cigarette in one, by a window frame and the sun is seeping through her gauzy shirt into her skin. Summer, 2011. I didn’t know what time of the day it was until I heard noise in the living room. I walked outside to find the room lit in a bloody sunset and Chitra in the shade by the door and the carton by her feet. Placing the keys on the floor by the carton, she said she wouldn’t surprise me again. I choked. She said, dispassionately, “Oh, please, not again.” She wasn’t eliciting a reaction. It was what it was. She truly was done with me and my sketches, poems, and books.

I couldn’t tell Jade, I didn’t need to.

“Don’t be silly, it’s been years,” I made a silly blasé face that took some effort and must have appeared sadly comical because for a moment he looked demented until I laughed heartily and nervously and said, “Can’t wait to see her.”

We ate a lot. Jade talked about the guy he was seeing, blushing like a teenage girl as he poked his finger in the fig roll, “He’s ripped. Ripped. Like a Greek god. And he reads Proust and Iranian poetry.”

“You’ve hit a jackpot.”

“I know, I know, but it bothers me sometimes, you know, why should someone like him be into me? Look at me, just look at me, pimply, awkward, goofy. Eating a fucking fig roll with a loser like you…” Guilt flashed on his face for a moment, and it wouldn’t have bothered me if it hadn’t. I hardened a bit thereon and called out the waiter to get the bill.

“Don’t be so harsh on yourself. You’re a nice person.” I spoke slowly, buying time to muster meaning and maturity. I was thirty-three. He was twenty-four. Although I was but a loser in his eyes, I had seen it all. Rejection. Heartbreak. Even love.

“Is she meeting us anytime today? Is she meeting you? Has she been in touch with you?”

We were on our way home. My home.

“I don’t know, sweets!” he held me tightly.

***

Jade kept saying, almost angrily, “This shit is dope!” as I showed him around the house.

“You grow your own vegetables? Kill me already! You’re the coolest!”

“Just carrots, and papayas, and oh, chillies, and potatoes too.”

“You should totes grow weed, sweets.”

“I tried.” I said, and winked, and drew the curtains over the window that overlooked the vegetable garden. The sky had grown overcast.

“You’re nuts” he kept saying, and I couldn’t tell whether that was accolade or not. “You’re nuts” he whispered again, picking up the sketch of my late cat Dizzy that I had coloured in LGBT colours.

“I can vouch that he was more considerate than my parents when I came out to him,” I said, “I miss him.” We had smoked up then, and I felt lighter and also heavier somewhere deep inside. I explained to him, “Like a layer of honey at the base of a glass of water.”

“You’re nuts”

“I miss Dizzy, I miss him so much.”

We sat by the window facing the garden. The sky had grown evenly, deeply dark and the deep greens of the papaya tree had lost colour.

“So, are you single?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I’m happy you look so put-together. Sane and sorted. You don’t give a shit about anything. Look at you. You’ve been to a parlour in years. You almost have a uni-brow. You look like someone who’s given up on dating.”

“I’m designing jewellery.”

“Tell me about it.”

“With Kriti”

“That girl with Harley Davidson?”

I nodded, smiling involuntarily.

“Dude. Dude. Dude.” He was lying on the floor, with his feet perched on my thighs and his eyes on the incomplete warped Koch fractal I had etched on the ceiling. “Don’t tell you’re sleeping with her, are you sleeping with her?”

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in, you tight-ass bitch” Jade hissed. I pushed his feet off my thighs. I entered the bedroom and latched the door behind me. I stood behind the door until my feet could no longer keep me standing. I slid down and sat by the door with my back pressed firmly against it. I heard Jade get up, heard her sweet voice whisper in his ear.

My bedroom was covered in a thick layer of dust when I first moved out of her apartment. There were no paintings on the walls and no curtains on the windows. There was no vegetable garden. There were no books, not even a bookshelf. There was nothing. Nothing at all except the carton of old discarded love.

“Give me a moment, just a moment” My voice was shrill.

Chitra Basu already had her signature cinnamon cigarette pressed between her lips. Even in the evening shadows, she wore her sunglasses. She wore a dazzling sequin crop top and breezy dreamy palazzo pants. Her purple satin scarf lay sprawled on the sofa beside her.

“It’s good to see you, your house, Jade told me about the vegetable garden, and the paintings, lovely, how lovely…” She had been registering the talking points as bullet points in a presentation. Snap. Snap. Snap.

I ran my hand through my hair and stood where I stood, not a flicker of emotion on my face, but stillness. A lazy hazy stillness. I offered a smile because she needed it and she adjusted her sunglasses.

When I settled down beside her, she said, “Jade told me about your – er – new venture. Jewellery. Who would have thought? But good for you, I’m so happy,” she picked up my hand and squeezed it, brought it close to her lips and planted a quick cursory kiss. “I’m so glad you’ve finally found a way, you know,” she paused and looked around, “to make peace with yourself, with everything.”

We smoked up again for about an hour or so. She squeezed my hand again and kissed it again, this time with a palpable anxiety, but I was just a heartless, cold heap of flesh. I had yielded to her, I had already yielded to her.

The rain arrived without warning. We rushed about the house to close all the windows and then the power just went off. A booming thunder shook the house.

Chitra grew frantic. “We must get going”

“Not in this rain, I can feel there’s a lightning with my name on it” Jade was on the sofa now, with his arms crossed.

“I could whip up some food, shall we all wait until the skies are clear?”

Jade lit some candles. I washed carrots and tomatoes under the cold water of the sink. When Chitra appeared in the doorway, without her sunglasses, and her eyes glistening and sunken, in the flickering light of the candles, a tomato slipped out of my hands. She offered to help and didn’t wait for my consent.

After thirty minutes, we were arranging dinner. Pasta with authentic red sauce. The three of us sat around the small round dinner table for two. Jade held my hand, he had smoked up for far too long and he was sobbing like a child.

“I love you, Sweets, I love you. You’re the coolest. Look at us, just look at us.” He was beaming and sobbing at the same time. Chitra smiled weakly and licked the sauce off her finger.

We spoke in silence and when we were done, I surprised myself by thanking Chitra for coming over. “Despite everything” I added. Despite everything.

The power came back on. Jade was quick to blow away the candles. I piled the dishes in the sink. Chitra checked her phone nervously. I opened a window and sat by it. The rain had ended but water dropped occasionally from wet leaves as a breeze rushed through them.

Chitra and Jade were out in the living room getting ready to leave. Soon, the cab driver called and her phone ringed with an unfamiliar ringtone. We’d barely spoken to her. Jade ran in and tried to hug me but couldn’t and kissed me on my right cheek instead.

“You’re the coolest.”

“I know.”

“I wish I didn’t have a flight to catch.”

“You don’t have to.”

He kicked his feet to the ground as if in agony. “Being an adult sucks big time.”

In the background, Chitra stood in the doorway, wearing her sunglasses again.

At the front gates, I said, “Send my regards to the Proust reader.”

Jade furnished a tight-lipped smile. “Wish me luck.”

“Just don’t try too hard. It’s never worth it.”

I waited until the cab’s bright headlights rounded the corner. I washed the plates, put the candles back to where they belonged, scraped the wax off the dining table.

I had put off the night-lamp when there was a knock on the door. A warmth swept over my skin. As I stepped out, I was trembling. Not again. No. I walked out anyway, letting my feet take me where they wanted to take me. But not again. No. On the living room sofa, I saw her purple scarf sprawled just as it did when she’d first arrived. I picked it up, folded it neatly, opened the door and pressed it into her hands, and before she could utter a word with those beautiful lips of hers, I slammed the door shut, switched off the lights, all of them, and went back to my bedroom.

It’d take until morning for me to open the front door again and find her purple scarf right on the first step, covered in dew. I’ve all the time in the world to iron it, fold it and send it back to her in an old carton.

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