Rain landed shamelessly on the fire escape and the sound made me uneasy. I knew that when Parvati returned, there would be more uneasiness, not less. But I still wanted her to return home to me as she had every night, even after she had stated three nights ago that she no longer wanted to return home to me. I had thought she was joking. She had thought I was an idiot not to see that we had only memories or future plans but no present in which to reside, as if even time couldn’t hold us anymore. At the end, we had decided to talk about it later although I didn’t really know what we would talk about. What do you say to someone who says she no longer wants to belong to your heart? What dialogue is that? All I wanted to say to her was, “Don’t be silly.”
But silliness had nothing to do with it. The apartment we shared – her apartment – was dense with the aftermath of arguments and sometimes a shattered glass against the wall or a broken remote control. But the most frightening thing to ever be thrown (and the air in the apartment reeked of such things) was a confession she had made while calm, during the good times. She had said, “You never know where life takes you. I didn’t know I was going to do this after flying a damn plane. “
I hated the word “this” because it meant nothing. She used it all the time.
“What is ‘this’?” I asked her. “Work, home, me?”
“See that’s why I can’t talk to you,” she had said, “You don’t get me. Flying was my passion.”
“And I am…?”
“Forget it, Richa. I’m going for a walk.”
I watched her get her orange jacket, the one reserved for long walks because it had a pack of cigarettes in the pocket for pondering. She only wore that jacket and smoked when she was so disgusted or angry she couldn’t care less. I knew that about her and it made me sad how hopeless she thought I was. She left quietly.
Parvati had wanted more than anything to be a pilot. She had taken all the necessary courses, had flown across the Atlantic twice and had enjoyed every minute. Then of her own accord, pressured by angry parents she said, she had quit and pursued a business degree at Wharton. Why this had anything to do with me I didn’t know. But she had hurled the accusation as if I was the reason she worked at Goldman Sachs and did not fly planes. What hurt me was that she considered me on par with the rest of her life, not her salvation or her own private Cessna but her Wharton and her Wall Street Journal.
I sat on the fire escape for two and half hours, pondering planes, watching people and waiting for an orange jacket to find its way home. Without my knowledge, two tears slipped from place and slowly down my cheeks. I tried to ignore the sadness. I loved her. I wanted so much to make her happy but everything I did or said seemed only to worsen “things” for lack of a better word. Soon, I felt the sobs come and I sat and choked and cried on the fire escape, waiting for my baby to come home.
The sky turned a hue of orange yet there was no orange coat. I sought out couples on the road and watched them walking hand in hand. I was jealous of their oblivion.
“It all comes to this,” I said, “And this means waiting on a fire escape knowing you’re not her passion but her downfall.”
After the sky was a faint haze of evening, I saw her walking towards home. I held my breath and then wiped my face. I almost jumped into the apartment and hit my head on the window. I waited on the couch, pretending to watch the news.
She entered and closed the door all in slow motion. She opened the closet to hang her coat and started moving hangers. I knew she was looking for a wooden one and was probably annoyed that her jacket had hung on one of the wire dry cleaning ones. She loved the wooden hangers best. Even these things I knew and loved about her.
“Do you hate me?” I asked. “Because I feel that way sometimes.”
“I don’t hate you,” she said, “I just can’t do this anymore.”
She held my spring jacket under her chin and used the wooden hanger for her orange jacket. She recklessly placed my jacket on the dry cleaning hanger.
What was “this?” What could she not do anymore?
“What is ‘this?’” I asked.
She slammed the closet door and turned to look in my direction.
“Pretend I am in love with you.”
I stared at her in disbelief. Did she know what she was saying? Something inside me felt like it was sinking to my toes, past my toes, through the floor into a deep abyss I had never even known existed.
“How long have you pretended?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What happened to ‘forever and a day’, Parvi?”
“You’re laughing at me?” I asked.
“No. Not laughing at you. It’s just that those were different days, Richa,” she said, “I meant it when I said it.”
I thought back to different days. I had met Parvati at a party I wasn’t invited to. I had passed by Leela Lounge on Mercer and decided to have a glass of wine. As I had ordered my wine, I had had a glass spilled down my back. I had turned around to face her, Parvati, the most elegant and beautiful woman I believed I had ever seen. Auburn curls frames her face and her hair flowed halfway down her back. Her eyes were a brilliant black so dark I couldn’t discern her irises from her pupils. She was stunning in a shining silver dress that ended just above her knees, the neckline an innocent V.
“I am so sorry,” she had said, “I am so sorry, someone pushed me. I would be happy to pay for the dry cleaning or a new shirt or…”
She had stopped and looked into my eyes as if recognizing someone.
“Or…dinner and the dry cleaning or a new shirt.”
Of course we had had dinner. Of course our meeting and even our falling in love had been painless and seamless. Of course back then, she used to say she’d love me “forever and a day.” But there is inherent pain in every place there is easy love. And although for the first six months our lives had seemed to just fit and “forever and a day” seemed to me the truth of all truths, once we acknowledged that we couldn’t live without each other and paid homage to Leela Lounge and got drunk for no reason and agreed to live together in her beautiful apartment, then everything was torn apart like a useless piece of paper and we began to question everything that we had held fast as immutable truth.
We wondered then if we had moved too fast, if we hadn’t asked the right questions of each other, if we were too different. The end result was Parvati saying we should “make the best of it.” That was, I was certain, the most defeating moment of my life. At least until the day she came home in her orange jacket and declared she was no longer in love with me. Then that became the most defeating moment of my life. I wondered if there were any more defeats to come that would trump the ones I knew.
“So what are you saying?” I asked just to be sure I understood what my heart did not want to understand.
“I’m saying…it’s over,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say. But then it wasn’t a question, was it? She hadn’t asked, “How can we make this what we had?” or “What do you think?” She had made a decision for both of us and somehow I had to agree to it because, after all, how do you disagree about loving with someone who no longer loves you?
“We can pursue what we had,” I said.
“It’s pointless,” she answered, “you don’t pursue what you had. You pursue what you will have.”
“And that isn’t ‘this’?” I said.
“No, ‘this’ is past. We can’t fix this anymore.”
“But you can’t just get up and break up without trying.”
She sighed, her shoulders moving up and then down in a defeated motion.
“You shouldn’t have to try. And what would we try anyway? To pretend we aren’t so far apart we don’t even know each other anymore? You want me to try to fall in love with you again?”
“No,” I said to myself.
I wanted so much to cry but I didn’t want to cry in front of her. I thought we could try, at least one last time knowing that the consequence of failure was parting. Maybe that would be enough to make us try well, try enough, try so hard that we could save ourselves and our love. Why couldn’t she see that?
We say we dream of togetherness and yet we break what has become whole of its own accord. Perhaps we desire spheres where we can reside but live in circles chasing exits that we believe lie in unfound corners. I don’t know what it is that doesn’t allow us to nurture what is ours but to reject it as if it can no longer belong to us if we just break it. But broken or whole, it is still ours and we carry it within us forever and a day. I wished I could make her hardened heart understand that.
“When do you want me out by?” I asked.
“Whenever you want. I don’t really want to talk about it now. I’m hungry. Let’s just eat and go to bed.”
Was she serious?
“We have to talk about this,” I said.
“Do we have to do it now, Richa?” she asked as she walked to the couch and sat down, her attention focused on a cat commercial even though I knew she disliked cats.
I leaned over and tried to kiss her cheek. She pushed me away. I went to the bathroom and closed the door. I stared in the mirror to see if perhaps I had changed and she couldn’t bear to look at me anymore. I looked at my eyes, the same brown they had always been. She called them honey brown.
“Shit brown,” I said to my eyes.
I looked at my smile. It was slightly crooked in the mirror.
“Defective smile,” I said to my smile.
I looked at my nose. She always said I had a cute nose.
“Stupid nose,” I said to my nose.
I hated my face at that moment. How could I not? Whatever it was I had done, she was not going to leave me and it was because she couldn’t love this face anymore. Or maybe it was my body. I had gained ten pounds and although I had resolved to lose it and she said it made me look better, a bit curvier even, I hated myself for not having lost it. Maybe that was the reason she couldn’t love me anymore. Maybe that was why when I had undressed lately, she had turned away. Maybe that was why we hadn’t made love in three months, her claiming she wasn’t in the mood for “this.” I had thought “this” meant the lovemaking but maybe, just maybe, it meant my body, my extra ten pounds and me.
I slid down to the floor and cried quietly. What had become of us? What had become of impromptu weekends in the Caribbean and whispers in the night? What had happened to random walks in the rain and hot chocolate at Chocolat? What had happened, most of all, to our faith that our love would redeem us whenever and however we needed? These stories of breaking up or of falling out of love, these were other people’s stories. Why were we borrowing their fate?
“Forever and a day,” I said to myself as I rocked back and forth.
I stayed in the bathroom. Eventually, she knocked on the door.
“What is it?”
“Is Thai food all right?” she asked.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Well I’m ordering food, Richa. Is Thai okay?”
“What do you want specifically?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Are you sure?”
“What are you doing in there anyway?”
I heard her footsteps as they walked away from me.
The food came and we ate little and placed the rest in the fridge as if either of us would ever touch it again. Our fridge was full of left over dinners of all ethnicities, Chinese, Indian, Italian even some Vietnamese. We never ate the leftovers and eventually threw them out. But it was a ritual to place them in the fridge as if they held the promise of a meal. A ritual of our togetherness, diverse wasted meals.
That night, we didn’t talk as we lay in bed. We slept or tried to sleep throughout the night, each of us migrating to the edge of our side of the bed.
But that had been three days ago. From then until now, we hadn’t mentioned the break up or her wanting to leave me. We hadn’t talked much either and we were extra polite to one another, like passengers who sit next to each other on a flight and apologize when they accidentally bump elbows on the armrest.
Today, I thought, perhaps the rain would bring us together. Our first kiss had been under an umbrellaless rain, both of us drenched, neither of us caring. I went to the window and watched the rain pelt the fire escape. I knew she would be somewhere without an umbrella, enjoying the rain on her skin. I wanted to be with her. I wanted to kiss her and once again give birth to our story except this time, I wouldn’t let it turn out this way. I would be better. I would know her better, give her more of what she wanted and needed.
I was thinking these thoughts when I heard her key in the door. I went to the entrance and opened the door for her. She stood drenched in front of me, a smile across her face as if she had just done something delightful. I laughed.
“Did you have fun?” I asked her.
“Come in. Stay a while,” I said.
She left a trail of water as she went to the bedroom to change. I had left her plaid Scooby Doo pajamas ironed and folded on the bed. They were her favorite and she wore them despite a small tear on the left knee. I would miss knowing these things about her. But I would always know them nonetheless.
She emerged from the bedroom in an oversized Wharton tee shirt and plaid boxers.
“I ironed your favorite pajamas,” I said.
“I think I’m going to throw those out. They have a hole in the knee.”
“I can sew it for you,” I said.
“You’ve said that for two years,” she said as she smiled.
“They’re only pajamas.”
Yes, I thought and I am only your girlfriend and this is only an apartment, why not throw it all away?
She came and sat next to me on the sofa. She moved a stray hair away from my face and then kissed my lips.
“I remember the first time I saw you,” she said.
“Leela Lounge. I remember.”
“No, that’s the first time we introduced ourselves. I first saw you at Barnes and Noble at Union Square.”
I was more than confused. I weaved my fingers into hers and enjoyed the softness of her hands.
“N for Neruda,” she said.
“N for Neruda?”
“Think of Barnes and Noble Union Square in the cold. It was snowing outside.”
“I don’t remember.”
“You were looking through poetry. I watched you. You had a ring on your engagement finger and you were looking at T.S Eliot. I wanted to talk to you but you had this ring. Your hair was lighter then, almost like…like the color of acorns on the ground. And before I left the section, I said, ‘Read Neruda’s ‘Tonight I Write….” It’ll change your life. N for Neruda.”
“You were N for Neruda?”
“Yes. And then through the randomness of the universe as that is how all things happen, I met you as I as I spilled a glass of Cabernet down your shirt.”
“But you’re choosing not to be with me. Is that the universe too?”
Somebody had to bring it up sometime. Why not me? Why not now?
“Oh my baby,” she said as she kissed me.
Then she said, “Everything we have in this home is full of love. But inside, I feel no love here. I feel that everything is tainted and if we remembered the whole story, everything here was preceded by or followed by some inane argument we had. We forget that too, don’t we?”
“Everyone argues,” I said defensively.
“Sometimes love has nothing to do with loving,” she said.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Really? Do you really want us to keep going because you love me or you love the comfort of memories? Every time we talk of something good, it’s in the past tense. Do you even realize that?”
“Because once it happens, it quickly slips into the past.”
She loved the word “bullshit.” She rolled it so perfectly around her tongue it felt like a sensuous word whenever it fell upon my ears. She made it sound like a lovely artifact brought back from some exotic European country. If I had not understood what it meant, I would have liked to keep some of this “bullshit” on a shelf, admiring how beautiful it was.
“I just think that we are two people who, over the course of time, have drifted apart and we no longer share the ties nor the connection that brought us together.”
“You spilled a glass of wine down my back and that brought us together.”
“But the fundamental component of our relationship, that desire we had, that passion, that isn’t there any longer.”
Her eloquence had been charming at some point yet had, over the course of two small and short years, become annoying. I wondered how it would be if she could use short sentences and imperfect grammar. It would still allow her to keep “bullshit” in her vocabulary.
“Why are you always so proper?” I asked her.
“What?” she snapped.
I looked at her. A snapper turtle. If she were any animal in the world, she would be a snapper turtle. That would explain her snapping to attack me and retreating when she felt she could not get through to me.
“Do you ever pay attention to me?” she asked.
“I’m listening to you.”
“No, you’re hearing me. It’s not the same. “
I pulled my blanket tighter around me.
“I am listening,” I said softly.
Sometimes, even when we know that something has ended, we hold on hoping it can endure even if we know it cannot be salvaged. I think this is the real definition of what we say is “comfortable.” All other definitions be damned. Break ups be damned. We ourselves were so far gone, so utterly damned that not our history nor our love nor our fear could save us and pretend to make whole what was not only broken but also shattered beyond recognition. The days of meaningless giggles and hungry lovemaking seemed relics of a time I had never inhabited. But even then, I thought performance of these acts, no matter how false, would lead us back to the place where we felt that we knew “forever” and claimed it for ourselves.
We had pretended we still could find our way to where it took only a glance or a touch to redeem us. We had learned we couldn’t. I now placed our redemption in the hands of the storm, thinking that if we talked long enough and it rained long enough, she would stay with me. It was not logical by any means but what does logic have to do with anything when you’ve lost your grip on reality?
“I did read ‘Tonight I Write…” I said.
“Did you like it?”
“Yes,” I said.
In the silence that followed, there was thunder. The lights flickered.
“The same night whitening the same trees. We of that time are no longer the same,” she said.
“Is that just quoting Neruda or is that how you feel?”
She smiled at me and then laughed softly.
“So you did read it!”
“You’re sweet,” she said.
I moved so I could place my head on her shoulder. She didn’t hesitate. We sat staring at a blank television, not talking, not moving. I understood less than anything else how we could abandon these moments as if there were worthless. I could not imagine a life without her citrus scent and her soft skin, her defined shoulders.
“And we have nothing to say,” she said.
“Well, say something.”
“Why do I have to initiate conversations? Why can’t you?”
“I am up for a promotion at work,” I tried.
“That’s great. For what?”
“I don’t know if I’ll get it though.”
“You think so?”
I waited for the “I am proud of you” or “We will celebrate by going away somewhere” but neither came. She stopped at “definitely” and I stopped talking. If I had tried to talk, I think I would have cried. And she would have seen me. And I couldn’t bear to cry in front of her. It made me feel foolish. The truth was, my Parvi never cried so she never understood the language of tears. It was a language I spoke and understood too often and too well but always alone, in silence, in secret places and in stolen times.
The thunder rumbled at us again and lightening crackled. And, in a flash, the lights turned off and we were in darkness.
“Wonderful!” she said.
“It’s okay. We can just relax for a while.”
“Sure we can. We can’t even hold a conversation.”
“Why are you in such a bad mood all of a sudden?”
“I’m not. I’m fantastic.”
“You know now that I wasn’t engaged. It was just a ring. The one you saw at Barnes and Noble. You know that now. Had you known that then, would you have approached me?”
She was quiet. And then, “I wanted to read the poem to you right then and there.”
“That would have been nice.”
“Well, we had a more memorable encounter when we met,” she said.
I laughed. So did she. And then we were quiet as if all had been discussed and there was nothing more to say.
The silence assaulted my ears and the darkness that had fallen upon us was heavy. I uncrossed my legs and stretched them gently across her lap. She placed her hand over the blanket, where my knees were underneath, as if securing me in place. Although we both knew there were candles in the drawer to the left of the sink, neither of us moved.
“Is there someone else?” I asked, not really wanting to know but wanting to know at the same time.
“But this is it?”
If there had been someone else, at least I could have blamed her fickle heart. But to leave for emptiness when I was so full seemed like the greatest slight of all. I didn’t know where to place blame anymore.
We huddled in the dark, rain falling endlessly like the broken wings of angels. She kissed the top of my head.
“What now?” I asked hoping then that the rain would never stop and she would never leave me.
“Nothing,” she said as she held me to her, “Absolutely nothing else to be done.”