< An edition of this story first appeared in The Telegram Magazine – https://www.magzter.com/IN/Talking-Books-in-Delhi/Telegram/Fiction/215124 >
In the car, he was unusually silent and if Sushil Deka was silent, then, the situation was serious. I had expected that. It’s not everyday that a man learns that his wife is in a sexual relationship with another woman. I did not break the silence as I concentrated on threading my way through the city traffic. Then we were on the highway to the airport and I felt the time had come to talk.
“So, wanna talk about it?” I asked.
“Smita, there isn’t much to talk about, is there? I need time to process the situation. I can’t respond to it until then.”
“You really believe that? You’re not normally this slow at coming to a decision. Aren’t you even going to try?”
“I …,” he broke off, shaking his head and staring out at the road ahead. I kept just below the speed limit. I needed all my concentration for this conversation.
“You what? Go ahead, let’s hear it.”
I wanted to push him into reacting, into screaming out loud.
“Look, Smita, here’s the thing. I need to go away for a bit. You have issues. I have issues. You’ve known me a long time. I’m not someone given to knee-jerk reactions. In fact, you yourself have said, many times, that you wished I was more impulsive.”
“Spontaneous, not impulsive,” I wanted to make that clear.
I was treading on thin ice here. Sushil had a temper that flared suddenly. He did not respond, which was a good thing. Or was it? Out of the corner of my eye, I got the impression of a sudden straightening of his body. I risked a quick glance over and he was rigid in the seat, the seatbelt seemed to cut him in half. Maybe it was just my imagination.
“Maybe if you opened your mind and looked at it from my point of view it will help. You’ve been away so often for so long. I’m not sure how it happened. Let’s be honest. It wasn’t a nice thing to do to you. I should have spoken to you earlier about it. I shouldn’t have let it happen. Maybe, I felt a lack of companionship and let it get the better of me, cloud my judgement.”
“Did she talk you into it? I can’t quite understand how it happened. She must have pushed you into it.”
“What you really want to know is if I’m in love with her.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I just don’t want you hurt. Is she nice to you?”
For a minute he was silent, his hand moved as if he was trying to say something, but couldn’t. Finally, he got it out.
“You know, whatever happen, happens for a reason. I didn’t choose to be away. It was a matter of work. I wasn’t to know it would take so much from our relationship. It was an insidious thing.”
“It just crept up on you, did it?”
“Oh, so now you know how it happened to me.”
“You are going to equate work with a same-sex relationship?”
“No, I’m talking about the way life overtakes us. Has overtaken us.”
“I think there is a difference, though.”
At least I had him talking. I’d been afraid that the ride to the airport was going to be a long and painfully quiet one, full of bruised egos, regret and guilt.
“How is it any different? You developed a relationship with work, didn’t you? And it took you over. Took you away from me. You didn’t mean that to happen. Or did you?”
I glanced over. He was looking at me.
“Not clever enough to not let that happen to me, too.”
“I had already got the point you were trying to make.”
“What is the point I was trying to make?”
“That you did not mean to. It just happened.”
I waited. I didn’t want to say it, so I waited for him to say it.
“The fact is, nothing happens to us that we don’t allow to happen to us.”
It was out there, finally.
“So you admit that you preferred work over me?”
“Just like you admit that you preferred the company of another woman to mine.”
“Are we calling it quits then?”
I wanted to know. I suddenly realized that I wanted to know quite desperately.
“That’s what we have to figure out.”
“Is that why you are going away? Or is it work-related?”
“My going away today was work-related.”
The inflection on the “was” and the past tense caught me off-guard.
“Yes, it was scheduled. You may or may not be surprised to hear that I have cancelled all my meetings for the week. Personal health reasons.”
“So you’re going to Hyderabad, but not going to work?”
“Who said I’m going to Hyderabad? I told you. I cancelled all my sessions.”
“So where are you going?”
“I’m just going to disappear for a while. Lie around and think. Today is Monday. I shall get myself off the grid till the end of the week for sure. Then we shall see.”
I wanted to ask. I wanted to know. Somehow, I did not want him to go away and not be able to connect with him. A wave of sudden nausea swept over me.
I got the car back under control.
We drove on in silence. I could sense him looking at me with care. It made me feel good. I couldn’t explain it, but it did. We were approaching the airport now and as I turned off the ramp he spoke again.
“Drop me curbside.”
I flashed a look at him.
“No. I’m coming in.”
He didn’t say anything. I focused on negotiating the lane mergers that always annoy me about airports and then headed towards long-term parking. I ignored his protestations about curbside drop offs. I wasn’t just going to see him off at the curb. He took his bag out of the car and I saw now that it was a big bag, not the carry-on he normally took for his trips. He slung his laptop bag over his shoulder and wheeled his suitcase along as we walked into the terminal.
“You want to find out where I’m going, don’t you?”
He was slightly amused, I thought, by that.
“Yes. I don’t like the fact that you are going to bury yourself away somewhere and not be able to talk. I don’t like the idea of you cutting off all communication.”
We walked up to the Lufthansa counter and checked his bag in. He was on the flight to Munich. Munich! Why Munich? Thoughts, questions and wild accusations welled up inside me. Why Munich?
“You have plenty of time before your flight,” I said, as he turned away from check-in.
We took our coffees over to the uncomfortable airport seats and sat down in silence.
“So Munich, huh?”
“You’re wondering why Munich, aren’t you?”
“I am, yes.”
“Well, let me put your mind at ease. I don’t have a second wife there.”
“That wasn’t what I meant and you know it.”
“That’s exactly what you meant and you know it,” he said, with a trace of temper.
“Look, I have to think. This flight will take me to Munich. Then I’ll figure out what next.”
“You always have a plan. You’re telling me you’re going to go to Munich and you don’t have a plan?”
“Yes,” he said in a curiously tight voice.
I leaned over and looked up at him.
“Look, if it means anything, I’m sorry it turned out this way.”
We sat there in silence as the minutes ticked away. Then it was time for him to go through the security check-in. We walked with what seemed like slow steps up to the big sliding glass door. He turned and gave me a quick hug.
“Thanks for driving me here. I’ll be getting along now. You drive back safely, okay?”
“Bye”, is all I could manage.
He strode away. I watched him as he walked up to the door. This was it; I could almost sense the time running out like sand through my fingers. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain a countdown began.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five..,”
I got down to “two” before he stopped and turned. His face a study in self-control, he walked back, with decisive steps. He slipped the bag off his shoulder and let it rest at his feet. I saw as much as felt his left hand on my shoulder, squeezing very gently.
“I have to go now.”
I felt the accent on the ‘have’. I said nothing. I waited. He searched my face for an eternity. I felt nothing, my body felt hollow; a hollowness that was surprisingly heavy.
A voice said, “Take care of yourself.”
With surprise I realized, it was mine. I’d been sure that the shell that was my body had neither brain nor muscles to process thought, let alone convert it into speech. His hand squeezed a little tighter, then he slung his bag over his shoulder again, looking into my face again as if searching for something.
Then he walked away as decisively as he had walked towards me. The sliding frosted-glass door opened and swallowed him. I stood there for a brief moment, wondering how I should feel, how I did feel. Then I, too, turned away and walked back to the car, got in and drove back home. I turned the key in the lock, walked in, turned the TV on and stared at it.
When the doorbell rang, it was Sheena. Sheena, my lover, the other woman in Sushil’s life. Sheena, 8 years younger than I, with lovely hair, flashing eyes and hungry lips.
“Hi, I tried calling your cell and got no answer.”
“I went to the airport to drop him off. I didn’t want to be disturbed.”
“Oh. How did it go? I’m sorry for putting you through it. I wish I’d been there.”
I wasn’t sure that would have been a good thing, but I didn’t say so. I sat down in front of the tv again. Sheena, I could see, wanted to talk. I didn’t.
“He’s gone away for a few days. To think, he says. He’s on a flight to Munich.”
Sheena nodded. There didn’t seem much to say so we sat and watched the tv in silence. From the corner of my eye, I watched Sheena. I’d have to give her up. He was lost forever. I was going to lose them both. My mind whirled through the possibilities, unable to fix on any one with any certainty. Sheena, always perceptive, knew better than to open a conversation.
The day wore on, uneasily, broken by the usual business of preparing dinner. Some semblance of conversation returned as we ate. Sheena recounted another anecdote from her work; a fairly amusing little tale of a mixup and the near catastrophic loss of a client’s eyebrows. Some of the stories she told me were, I suspect, more than a little embellished. Sheena had given up her career in advertising to take over the management of the spa her family owned. Embarrassing encounters and crises seemed to occur daily according to her.
We went to bed early. I flicked on the TV to watch the news. The usual collection of mayhem, murder and political chaos flashed by in a blur on the very busy screen. Reporters yelled out the news, an endless loop of video ran in the top right corner and a ticker tape scrolled by at breakneck speed at the bottom. Just above that, the weather kept changing from a week’s supply of clouds and sun to an hourly forecast. I turned to look at Sheena. She was lying on her back, looking at me.
I flipped the TV off and put the remote away and turned off the light. I slid under the covers and in the darkness, Sheena moved over to put her arms around me. She knew better than to make any advances and we lay there for a while. Eventually, we must have slept, because I became aware of the light that was flooding the room. We must have forgotten to shut the blinds last night. I padded over to the kitchen to put some coffee on. I could hear Sheena in the bathroom. As I finished setting up the coffee percolator, she came in.
“I’ll put some toast on. You’ve brushed?”
“No. I wanted to get the coffee started first. You look after it, I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”
We sat at the table next to the wide open French windows, sipping coffee. She’d lathered the toast with marmalade. She looked at me as I munched away.
“You like a lot of marmalade on your toast,” she said.
“Yep. Nothing beats marmalade on toast. With coffee.”
“Well, I took the day off today. I know you did too. So what’s the plan for the day?”
“I don’t quite know. I just knew that I’d like a day off…,” I tailed off.
“Well, let’s just finish breakfast and play it by ear. I’m going to take a shower. Maybe, we should go out and get some lunch and talk.”
“Yes. It is a pity.”
“Is it? We can’t all live in this triangle forever? You’re going to choose?”
“I don’t know. I barely had my coffee! Get off my back. Go take a shower or something. We’ll figure something out.”
“You know, the thing that really confuses me is how he just left. You said he didn’t have a plan. He was just going to chill? Really? That doesn’t sound right.”
“Yes. That bothers me too. He always has a plan.”
“Well. I’m going to take a long bath.”
I watched her body under the almost sheer, knee-high nightie as she walked away. I felt, again, the nausea, as I thought of Sushil, of Sheena, of the choice I would have to make. I sat there a long time, waiting for the feeling of dread to fade away. I heard Sheena’s hair dryer go for a while. Then she came in, dressed in a pale pink silk blouse tucked into a pair of tight jeans.
“Go take a shower, I’ll put the breakfast stuff away.”
I heard a faint buzzing. I got up and hunted down the source of the buzzing. My cell phone, hiding under the cushions on the couch, glowed with an incoming email notification; a confirmation email from Lufthansa to Sushil Deka, forwarded to me – two reservations for a flight to Munich on Friday, for Mrs Smita Deka and Miss Sheena Singh.
There was a note from him.
“I’ll pick you up at Munich airport. There’s this lovely little hotel in Salzburg and there’s always Mozart in the air at this time of the year. See you… with or without. Sushil.”
A wave of emotion swept over me. I recognized anger, quickly followed by relief.
Sheena said, “What are you smiling about? ”
“We’re going on a road trip!”
“Well, he’s being a little presumptuous, isn’t he?”
“Is he? Is he, really?”
She gazed at me for a few seconds.
“You want me to make the decision for you.”
I scanned her face anxiously.
“I’m not going to. You need to figure out what’s important to you. It’s you who has to decide.” she said.
She walked away and sat on the couch, her back to me. I stood there, alone in a welter of emotions, the warmth of the sunshine streaming through the window doing nothing to take away the ice that was flowing through my veins. Silently, I walked away to the shower. When I came out, she was gone. There was no note. I hadn’t expected any.
I sat down to email Sushil with my decision.