sweeter than the coffee we sipped all night long
that seaspoon of salt.
sweeter than the coffee we sipped all night long
that seaspoon of salt.
the cinder in this smokehouse still catches flame.
The first time I noticed you, nothing felt sunnier about it all than your teeth.
A smoker’s smile.
You pulled your bike over and yanked your helmet off, revealing a fallen flag of hair crumpled with sweat. I didn’t look directly in your eyes.
Until followed a hey, a particularly insistent signpost to the yet unmapped territory of you, and I was listening.
Your voice fleshed itself out like it never really did need words to mark another soul.
We ended up talking late into the night. Probably because you were an uncalculated diversion. Also, possibly because you didn’t feel like one.
And so it began. Our individual exploits for provisional solace and riveting distractions, together.
Also, the writing of a draft that was never meant to become a book.
It happened as quick as a cat thinning out into a side alley on sly.
Every time I would pick up your call, your voice would rush in like Christmas lights in October. And I would light up like a tree ready for the feast day (or night?) of Adam and Eve.
Do you remember the first time we got a table, I fumbled settling into the chair across from you as your eyes climbed into mine and we broke into a giggle? Do you remember how it only predated all the times when I would rest my head on your forearm lying next to you, parts of me perennially converging, diverging, curling, spilling, drifting, shifting like some tectonic plates under tiny earthquakes of your breath and you would murmur, find your spot already?
Every time I would dip my face into and out of yours, I would dig the quiet bonfires of everything that had once pricked the geometry of my world, ravenously chasing after consumption of the old parched me and the present bursting you and everything taut that stretched in between. Before I knew it, I was looking forward to our little transgressions with all the will, whim, and waywardness in me.
It was all discreet, until you started sleeping to the radio of my voice like it was some sorcerous sedative.
But there was this night when we had stayed up. When I had also earlier sent you a video of mine that pandered—handsomely well—to my self-deprecation instincts which I would—colossally often—exploit for my own amusement more than anybody else’s.
‘Do you feel like talking to me now?
Oh c’mon, I want to see more.
We both know you have seen enough.
No, we both know there’s so much more.
Sometimes, I wonder at your capacity for digging into shit. Like you hit the rock bottom and start all over with your spade.
Because, that’s the false bottom.
Oh—I know where my bottom is.
I don’t ever want you to say that again.
You want me to be in denial of my bottom?
No—I don’t want you to say that you’re seeing the bottom.
You want me to go find new bottoms? I don’t know how I should take that. *repressed chuckle*
No—I don’t ever want you to say you see yourself at the bottom.
Ha! Where else did you find me?
No—I don’t think we are following each other right now.
I am telling you a lot of things.
O-kay. Are you able to follow your own sentences? Because you sound drunk.
Let’s talk one thing at a time.
Yes. what’s going on with you?
Then again. It’s not about me. It’s about both of us.
What’s going on in Bangalore? Your Bangalore?
I think I just showed you my Bangalore very vividly.
Oh, ya. Let me watch that video again.
Oh my god. *chortle* Ohmygodohmygdohmygodohmygod. *more peals of laughter*
Told you, you are drunk. It’s not that funny.
Oh, ya? Let’s find out.
You know I am coming over in two days, right?
I don’t see what you are worried about.
Worried is a big word.
Okay. What are you concerned about?
Nothing I haven’t seen before. Drunk-dialling at 3.
You don’t understand.
But then again…
There is no but. I understand. Period.
Tell me why does it all have to be so fucking ridiculous?
Tell me what is truer.
We are—this thing. It’s good. There’s nothing better that I’ve seen before.
I am choking on your words.
Talk to me.
What the f—when is your flight? Is it tomorrow?
Will be for you if you don’t wake up for the next two days.
C’mon I’m really excited about this.
Ya both of us will miss you saying this soon enough.
Huh? No, look, tonight—I won’t forget. It’s one of those nights.
Days. it’s 5.
And now here is a fact. Sidus Premium White is an easy drinking wine with hints of candied fruit and vanilla on the nose and palate. Supremely easy drinking—if I may add?—so much so that the qualifier only begins to reflect its appropriacy in true earnesty past 11 by when you are done competing with Damien Rice swilling one too many live performing Cheers Darling, and are onto playing 90s lethal Bollywood songs. This is going to be a night dedicated to very particular agendas. Like—for one—finding out how one happens to mistake a Kitkat break for Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory to last them a lifetime. You were no Black Jack Davey. Just a two-year layover on my flight to some other river bank.
Third rip of the evening. Clove mix ciggies effectively dimming my emotional range to a very singular indecisiveness about the strange aftertaste. A sweetened bad decision but mighty useful at this point. Sort of like you when I met you, only that this thing came with a warning. Unlike you—no red flags, and already licking the shores.
Do you remember when I had hung over the hungover you that night with my hair caressing your elbow? Adrift and anchored at once. Wanting but coy. Preemptive but off guard. Cautious but cut loose. Warmth was pronoun to me. I was allowing myself to feel, contractually—with reservations for clauses. Will it take months? years?- unwinding of something like that.
Oh wait—you are already onto gatecrashing another party? Right. I thought this was dinner for two. Saved you some icecream. Waited up for a crooked grin for serotonin over a reliable swirl of soft sugar. Huh? No?
What can I say, it’s more painful turning off morning alarms when you haven’t even been to bed.
Tea on boil over a scatter of ants. A sinewy sky spun of spider silk. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Too bad the moon wasn’t privy to this tea party. The sun already RSVPed a half hour ago. Weather forecast—still cloudy with Nicotine sullied breaths all over.
‘Keep stirring it and you will find no lumps’, mother’s words come sputtering over the Whatsapp call. Ebbs and flows of the internet. Forecast says it’s going to be drizzling into noon. Forecast doesn’t say how long it is going to be until noon. I am mixing besan into curd over flame to make curry. ‘Do not pause stirring.’ Apparently, both curry and relationships have a tendency to clot if stripped off a kinetic rhythm. Anyway, generous karchis of water are getting this composite runny and nice. A screwed understanding of ratio and proportion can’t fuck up this curry. Besan keeps soaking in everything like a mother.
‘Ajwain. Dalchini. Bhuna hua jeera. Garam masala….and don’t forget ajwain! Aur kya kya hai tere paas?’ Her list clearly betrays the ‘ready in 5-minutes’ promise she had sold me earlier. I lean out of my devotion for the spatula. I am cold. Remember how to keep warm you would drink a lot and I would drink little more than what would keep me up and one of us would triumphantly pass out before the other. Remember how one advantage of drinking like that each one of us sought was not being the last one standing to get the lights?
Do you remember collecting over me like a shawl while I lay there quiet, wearing you as a lone accessory? I hadn’t yet turned a stranger to the city of you; it still was—deliciously and blessedly—home.
So, you don’t remember me parking my eyes on those roads year over year? Nil? Zilch? Nada? Guess, love takes more than being able to unbottle with each other over Cube Libres after office.
Never bring too many things at once to a simmer, mother says. Okay, I am grabbing a towel and making a quick exit, thank you.
In the bath, I like temperatures that dwarf my temperament. And, a song for electricity. Today’s experience is charged by the voice of Nooran Sisters. Powerful. Epochal. Solid like rock. Fluid like eddies cutting through solid rock. High-volt incineration right through the fossils of my dumb, old woes. Welcome to your personal power station. Plug in and peace out.
I squeeze the coconut wash into the loofah and rub it on my shoulder in slow, concentric circles. I press harder to erase the once glowing comets and moons and asteroids that visited the Saturn of my body some hundred million years ago, but shredded, smashed, broken, came to envelop it in their icy embrace forever. I do not want to stay a permanent witness to the frozen halo of that destruction. Before you, love did find me, and love did leave me, and I—shrugged. Goodbye, a lifetime of pastries after sex, and kissing beneath the covers eye in eye. Goodbye, a lifetime of excuses to idle on the metro platform in the name of waiting for you. Goodbye, confiding phone calls after work and mopping up movies in bed amid recurring rounds of kisses. After you, maybe—a big maybe—love—real shit?—will find me again, and perhaps—a giant perhaps—it will choose to stay. But, here and now, in the steam rising up the glass, I already see it. Love has kind eyes, a massive nose, and tendrils for hair that fold just under the curves of her breast.
But love is busy hiking foreign terrains for want of the legend to her own map. Tracing contour lines on stranger soils, in place of trying reading into the depths of her own scale. How unfortunate. A lack of taste compass for dangerously true attraction mucking up a whole life’s ‘must-‘ checklist with misjudged points of interest.
Why has love been like that—a live wire ticking to combust? Welcoming split second decisions without splitting for second thoughts. Welcoming second hand wisdom with no second guesses. Renting houses on account of a single photo of a balcony with a dreamcatcher. Trading phone numbers after two extra pints. Breaking away from a career, a people, trust—one email is all it took, and even before that, one sigh on the porch.
Love needs fixing. Love needs an absurd lot of love.
With an almost inadvertent spring in her step, love beckons me deeper into the mirror, shrugs an idle, wet strand off my numb, right eye with her quaking finger, says,
I really like your room. He says, while placing the skinny monitor on G’s desk. Must be the lighting. It really does everything. Just the right mix of yellow and white. I shift the cigarette between my fingers. It’s just a butt now. He rather attributes the fascination to the chalkboard and the window aloe and everything else tangible. I am meeting him for the first time and the last time, like catching the nearest open liquor store’s shutter going down, halfway through. He’s leaving town the following week.
The house is two blocks of grey and white caught in greyer shadows of the opposite tree—its crown finding root in its kaleidoscopic apparitions shapeshifting on the street with every turn of the breeze. The main gate is canopied by an angled roof slanting downwards as if to meet the smoky profiles. Moths bomb the sodium lamp on the electricity pole to the right—a slender rectangle of concrete, wearing fat blue wires with staunchier curls than mine around a body svelter than I could ever have. There are pots lined up—like a docile row of students in a prayer assembly—against the front wall that takes over from the gates to circumscribe the house on its left frontiers. A cocky red Hyundai parked right ahead is a wink for breaking code of conduct.
He’s a friend of G and is dropping by to contribute to G’s study with G’s monitor. G is my flatmate who is presently away.
Once inside the main gate, a miniscule veranda spreads out with an aquarium the size of two shoe boxes with fish in ombré of gold and of black, and a clothesline marks the width with checked kitchen cloth one after the other after the other after the other like flags boisterously proud on the little mountains of The Times of India running under them. The floor is all squares like a chess board—only these are red and white and you always win because hey! this is my flat. Then ten odd steps lined with more planters to an intermediary landing—a favourite of cats—whereupon it’s just four or so rungs to the welcome mat. A Spanish colonial-style lamp plunges you in a peanut butter pool of light as you walk in through the white door.
So what do you do? He asks. He’s settled himself into the bony sofa by now —all frame, no flesh, the sofa, not him. Exactly, at least.
The scraggy skeleton with its metal appendages holds his back, his rear, his arm as he speaks. The distracting vines of pink flowers float horizontal on the beige fabric, offset by solid maroon bands, as if a lawn mower had blazed right through, marking its territory in that little blossomed garden of scrawny cushion.
Not a lot, I answer. Quit my job. Yesterday was my last day. Cake’s still in the fridge. Have thought little about much else. Other than the quitting thing. Not the cake thing, I mean. Though that is not entirely untrue either.
Before us, across some ten foot of nothing, lounges a twin-size mattress clothed in a fine floral orgy of mustard and pink cotton from P. A koala-faced pillow with crazy eyes—white balls peeking from within black eggs—and a sprightly red tongue, a comparatively sobering headrest with Oswald and Weenie on a parakeet green lawn perimetered by even sides, and a stuffed baby panda on all fours are lounging on their respective thrones. Beck and call from ceiling hooks for hanging macrame pots in knotted jute—that’s how I’d like them—has remained unanswered.
Wow. Was my last day too. He states. What a coincidence.
He surveys the three-row bookshelf—A Burst of Light by Audre Lorde abutting The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told by Arunava Sinha neighbouring Dilbert books by Scott Adams— as areca palm spills over the pear-shaped dining table in the corner.
And you’ve got yourself a nice place. He adds.
A mauve rug with tufted yarn more like eyelashes occupies space beside a rack with the first bunk painted ochre and abandoned midway as if picking up the brush had inspired urgent activity elsewhere. The coat of colour is now cracking and exposing the black shiny surface underneath. More books attempt to provide cover for the whim—Azadi and Indira Bai alongside Fantastic Mr Fox and The Invisible Man.
Ummm—thanks. But these past few months haven’t exactly been easy…I mean…everybody’s left the city owing to COVID…sometimes…often…all this…this house has felt as empty as a political speech.
But anyway. What were you doing? And what are you going to do? Now that you’ve quit. Too. I remark.
Was into engineering. Not really into it but working with it. Will be 3D printing stuff now. I am starting my own business.
Got a proposal to do a plane model. He completes, before launching towards G’s room to untape the cardboard box in his hands.
From inside it, comes out a pocket Thor with a handsome jumbo head ballooned over a muscular petite body, the lustrous Mjölnir in one hand, and a sexy swat of blonde hair tied into a button of a pony in the back. Balmy blue eyes above a raunchy beard and an unflinching flutter of a red cape from the shoulders which are not very conspicuous right now but—you know him.
Ah! escapes me. So this is what your rest of the months are going to be about.
More like years. I am never getting a job again in my life. He declares—with a conviction that had preceded him in those resolute blue eyes.
Oh. Wonderful—that you have got things sorted out. For you.
What—what about G. Are you going to miss her—miss it—now that you are, you know, leaving.
I believe in going with the flow.
Right. I am shifting the cigarette again. Had replaced the butt a while ago. Do you want something?
Water will be fine.
Cool, I fill in as I advance to the kitchen.
An Alicia Souza illustration of Julia Child invites you in with two irresistible platters of cupcakes and a completely resistible dictum—find something you are passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it. Sure. I cast a side glance to the loo. It’s through the kitchen. Whoever designed that, fucking savage.
What are your plans anyway? He asks.
I—I am a fan of the same school, you know, go with the flow.
So why did it not work out? I mean, between you and G.
Wasn’t really my thing. In fact, I am seeing someone else now.
Right. And what’s she like?
A complete opposite of G. Independent and head-on with stuff. I like that.
O—kay. In any case, good luck. I guess.
Yeah, thanks. I should be booking my Uber now.
Right. Do you smoke?
I haven’t. In my life. But I can try.
You don’t really have to.
I want to.
Okay. I say, extending the one in my hand.
He takes a long puff and exhales.
Nothing. He passes it back to me.
I’ve been trying to quit. I say, and exit to the balcony to get the ashcan.
God! How many are in there?
Just my entire year.
Why don’t you throw them away?
I think about it.
Are you stressed about something? You know, I could help.
Not about anything in particular, not really.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, warns one wall poster—an unmissable disclaimer beside the killer orca in action by the keys.
I stub out the fag in the flip-open pseudo-notebook-kind ashtray (had flicked it from a pub) and quickly address the stiffness with ‘your cab must be here’.
Yeah, two minutes to location. Okay, I’ll be down now.
Over the metal latch clasping the gates shut, I mouth good luck with a genuine grin and break off to head back up to my fortress.
Home, the mat announces in moss, with a coral heart-silhouetted O, in a cobblestone print.
Thor is still on his watch on G’s table. If you look closely, his sexy swat of blonde hair reveals army green undertones, his ponytail is kinda chipped, and his costume and all the silver and even the Mjölnir—they aren’t exactly finished very neat. But it’s still something, the model. It is a force and it conjures that in you. Unsolicitedly. And now it’s already out there. Conjuring more of it. In more people. Notwithstanding all its imperfections. In utter disregard of them rather.
What you got is enough to get you started.
Erect, ready, with his guts in his eyes. Balmy blue eyes.
I place it back where it belongs and retire to bed to blow away another hour with Phineas and Ferb. On a completely different note—for some evil reason, I can really identify with Doofenshmirtz.
In the morning I wake up with the stench of mangled cabbages rising up the back of my throat and a nicotine-sullied breath and a tousled head rested obliquely upon his spindly chest and he is asleep on his back quiet like an untouched doorknob. I feel queasy. Like my stomach is staging some mutiny against everything that went down last night. Went down its walls. Went down the walls of this house. Before I can cease wondering and locate the coordinates for my slippers—his slippers—vomit is rising from the centre of the nucleus of my existence like molten magma rushing upwards to the crust of the earth from chambers unknown only that this volcano is spouting it all out frigid cold. I am painting hieroglyphs on the stone flooring. With a little reorientation, I get a clean shot at the balcony door. Sturdy canvas. I use only natural colours. Pure organic green and brown and every shade of slime. This is an interactive session where you will engage with art and gain a deeper understanding on a wide range of subjects. All original designs. On show until the aunty shows up or I can muster up the spirit to bathe the room—whichever happens first. You’ll get to be an empowered participant. I feel sick to the core.
I turn around to take one horrified look at R before I can walk over to the other room to take a leak and drink some Colgate Plax. It’s 10 am. I have half an hour before I would be needed to log in and show up for work from home. This is not my home. I pick up the kettle from the other room and drag myself downstairs to fill it up for coffee. This house has three stories and a rat living in the greasy exhaust fan duct of the kitchen on the ground floor. I yank open the fridge door. You have to turn all the lights on and off along the little journey through the stairs and back since the guys have no real concept of illumination for an uplifting mood. A brick of vanilla ice cream. Real’s fruit juice in orange flavour. A large bowl of salad. There is a porch in the front and a veranda in the back and a television in between that is only switched on for playing songs or very specific scenes from very particular movies for when people are really drunk. My dehydrated body ditches the kettle to lug the juice tetra pack upstairs. There’s an ashtray on every table and a stray dog J who rules the house as his own and has never displayed a want for affection or validation from anyone and now there’s also a flood of my insides in the room that overhangs the main road where I had locked myself in last night. I turned 25 last night.
It was a Sunday among Sundays because it was my birthday which went by not unlike most days because I stuck to whittling it away watching nailbiting accounts of snow leopards fighting it out for food in erratically severe mountain winters while biting into Zomatoed paneer rolls not so quite à la masters of the freeze. ‘The most powerful force in the Arctic grows small—inch by inch—but once it starts, there is no stopping it.’ Sure. Mustn’t be just a local phenomenon though because the small, powerful forces in my belly are showing no detectable signs of reining in their impeccable throwmanship any time soon. Inch by inch, we are losing the basin. And it had all begun—last night.
S was in and so was M and there was always R and since it was supposedly a day of celebration for me, I too raised a glass which really didn’t count as an excuse since I would have anyway. ‘What is one thing that you do very well and by very well I mean you deliver it at its best’, S asked.
One thing I do very well is not doing anything very well. One thing I do very well is taking up everything or trying to take up everything or thinking of trying to take up everything and then not doing a single thing very well. And that’s what I would have said if I had not gone on to say, ‘umm…I can read. Most things’.
One glass after another after another after—I saw everyone leaving the room for more water or whisky or cigarettes save for I and R. They would have come back to find no one in the room. They would have come back when I would have already locked myself up in the opposite room and shoved my stuff—and most of R’s or whomever-that-room-was’s stuff—in my suitcase and R would be climbing up the drainage pipe to the roof to dive into the balcony and come in through the entrance I had forgotten shutting out before cradling myself into the bed with my bags. When he finally made it in and opened the hallway latch, an Oyo had been booked and an Uber was waiting outside and I was hauling two trunks of luggage down the stairs. I had come in with only one.
The bags and we shifted from rooms to the lobby to the street to somewhere before either of us had any energy left to move around anymore and flattened out one on top of the other in the corner that has survived a massive ejection drive today. Scars on flesh will be discovered later. This is not my house. I have been living here about two months.
R comes in to see me industriously hunched over my laptop—back against the wall—scouring through pages and pages on the web for applications of conversational AI chatbots. This is my job. Well, a part of my job. Another part is not sounding like a bot while writing about one. To not lose myself in the botverse, I am simultaneously leafing through an old copy of The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton. “Dear to us ever,” says Homer, “is the banquet and the harp and the dance and changes of raiment and the warm bath and love and sleep.” Exactly the values my every day is founded upon and yet he wrote The Odyssey and I am just living one.
Most of what I remember from last night crescendos like a pressure cooker whistle with the capital case beginning of every sentence I type. Most of what I don’t remember from last night plucks me at the stop of every full end like pesky, little strands of hair you cannot keep your hands off even after digging pins into either side of your head. I just about manage to type out 100 odd words by noon.
Most hours on most days pass like this. Lit incense sticks slowly losing their length under ribbons of smoke wisping out of their cylindrical bellies that continue to char while you are lost in intoxication from all the lavender and soon, straight slender towers are reduced to powder on steel. Ticking by and by, one brilliant orange ring at a time. You want to share it with everyone at once, you want to share it with no one at all. Someone had said to me, ‘in life, one thing leads to the next and it’s really like sequences in a flowchart and if you bail on one choice, you go down a whole different path and those are not the same opportunities’.
R extracts a cigarette out of the pack on the bed, lights it up, blows out smoke, and asks if I want to go out to eat.
The screech of tires on the road puts out one fiery orange ring forever.
2:15 AM. I am thinning out a brick of butter into a pan, waiting for you to intervene and scoop out another cube. Only that you are in my inbox slipping me bad puns and dad jokes. I wonder if what we share also began like this. Some runny pancake batter, given carte blanche over a flame.
It had all started outside that pub on the fifth block. I had gone out celebrating my flatmate’s friend’s baby daughter’s birthday with my flatmate and her friend and her baby daughter. I had worn my new flamingo-pink earrings, navy blue denim shorts, and paisley-print pink top. In that order. The top was also the one I had worn to Goa earlier. Used to soaking up brine and tequila, I had reasoned.
Fast forward four hours when we were just about to hail our Uber to get back, stuff in the remaining cake in the fridge (this part had been just me), and call it a night, you walked up to us. You said you had felt distracted by how cute the baby was. Or at least you let on that he had had. Whatever. You spoke on. And I was drawn to you like a moth puzzled by incandescence. Just like that, a brief interaction pared down the distance between your world and mine.
It was a blank sheet of paper all over again. The frailest thing. Cracking at the slightest hold. The mightiest ammunition. Cracking up the toughest in its wake. Disarming and humbling in an instant. At the face of its emptiness. At the depths of its void. A paradox of sorts. Torturous but benevolent. New vocals for an old soundtrack. Fresh aroma oil in an old diffuser.
We eventually drifted away but not before I had given you my phone number. Of course, at the time I had no idea that two years later, I would be saving cigarette stubs in an old Bacardi bottle in my cupboard. A monument to an afternoon we would have shared on a hill. When we wouldn’t have been able to bookend our emotions. When time would have become a Gregory Alan Isakov song.
You had met me at a point when I would have welcomed lovers into my life almost omnivorously — trying to substitute the entropy in mine with theirs. I just fell into your arms, like one sinks deep into a leather armchair, swivels 180°, and never puts a foot down again. You became a placeholder to me, for anything and everything that I could be bothered with at the time. Not that I could quite understand or grasp at who or what you were. Only that sometimes you just know, you know?
But you still were a foreign movie to me. Without subtitles. And I couldn’t care less. I fell in love with the beauty of the frames.
It wasn’t very grand if I think about it now. It was really just the boy-next-door thing. Something like neon. Inherently inert but bright-as-fuck at times when it was. An anthology of sorts. Short stories written down in the oddest hours of the night in apartment basements, car parks, under-construction houses, stranger’s parties, friend’s hallways, cold highways, and crisp hotel beds. Except that every time we forgot to change the plot.
But you never know you are not just dabbling in something, precisely when you are not.
To me, commenting on ‘love’ had been like saving online screengrabs of recipes to matcha green tea muffins and orange caraway seed cakes when you know you don’t even own an oven. So christening what we shared with that label was like trying to zhuzh up a bowl of Maggi with some chilli sauce and oregano seasoning.
And I haven’t come very far. As I write this, I almost think, love is a bean bag. Seeming all comfy and warm at the first look but really just viciously waiting for you to fall into it to fuck up your back.
But then there were moments that had hit me like the sea stabbing at rocks only to envelop them intimately into itself for however brief a second it does. Moments more like wistful reminders. Of a native touch. Of a feeling of home. Like how you feel when you hear chalk graze a blackboard? Or fingers tapered at a keyboard clicking away in devotion. And before you even know it, you are a surface burning golden, in the hold of a wooden spatula and its soft, sacred strokes.
I discovered I ain’t the one to turn the heat off too soon.
DISSENT, DEBATE, CREATE
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