There are gifts you give that are tokens, mere acknowledgements of dates or events. But the gift I was going to give Mr. Raj Anand was not a token; it was my entire heart and soul. You would think I knew him well then, Raj. In truth I had met him twice. What he was taking from me was my fiancée, my lover, my best friend. And I was delivering her to him, driving her in my old beat up Nissan Sentra from New York City to Toronto for the wedding.
It is not that I would not have married her myself. It is not that I hadn’t proposed and given the ring and even found two pundits who would marry us despite the lesbian thing. But when she had turned to me and said, “Life is not all about love,” I had had to listen. I had asked her what life was about, exactly. And she had said that she wanted her father to stop drinking excessive amounts of Chivas Regal and her mother to stop her excessive praying and the only way this could occur was if she married a man. And she had chosen him herself out of the line up of potential Indian grooms that had been presented to her. She said he spoke well, had a nice smile and stayed out of the country three weeks out of every month. She asked me if I understood. I did not. But for Chandni, I would give the world to anyone of her choosing. And Chandni was my world. I would deliver her to him myself.
And so I did not protest as she placed the ring I had given her in my hand and then closed my hand into a fist. She kissed my knuckles. I told her I was going to sell the ring because I couldn’t bear to see it again. She said nothing but did cry a few tears. And after this dramatic returning of the ring, everything in our lives focused on the wedding.
The day we left New York City, Chandni was wearing a blue ghagra, the skirt embroidered with silver and the blouse bearing the same intricate details. She had wrapped her sheer chunni around herself in an elegant twist. Why she had chosen to be so decadent I didn’t know. She sat in the car, pulling the fabric of her ghagra and chunni tightly around her so it would not get caught in the door.
“You know it’s a ten hour drive just about, right?” I said. “Are you going to be comfortable in those clothes?”
I felt inadequate in my tee shirt and jeans, sneakers to boot.
“I wanted to,” she said. “To dress up for you one last time.”
I felt something expand in my chest and then my throat. I couldn’t speak for a minute. But I didn’t want this to be a sad day for us. I swallowed as best I could.
“It will be a fun ride,” I said.
She looked at me, her eyes outlined in kohl, the brown of her irises swimming in something like grief.
“We had a great ride too,” she said.
I held my hand to her face to catch the tears before they fell.
“I have an idea, moonshine,” I whispered.
Moonshine was my nickname for Chandni when she was distraught. It came from the fact that her name meant “moonlight” and I thought it was beautiful. But just to tease her into smiles, I would call her “moonshine” when she was unhappy. It never failed. And that day in my Nissan Sentra, despite her tears, she smiled.
“What’s your master plan?” she asked me.
“We can fly to Canada tonight. I could tell them that the car broke down on the way and we had it towed.”
“And why do we do that?” she asked as she rest her hand in my hair, her palm resting gently against my forehead.
“So for one more day you could be my moonshine. Forbidden. Intoxicating. And mine.”
She leaned over and kissed my lips softly.
“I want you to listen to me carefully,” she said. “I will always, always be yours. If you have a ring that you love and it’s engraved with your name, you can sell it but it is still yours in essence. It still has the scent of your skin, the feel of your finger even if no one knows that. Your name is engraved on my soul, jaan. I am always yours.”
“I will miss your voice calling me jaan,” I said and then I kissed the edge of her ear, her diamond earring sparkling in the light.
I suggested we go to the airport, buy tickets and then check into a hotel. She did not disagree. So off we drove in the bright sun, towards JFK International Airport (why we chose JFK, I don’t know) and bought two tickets to Canada. We checked into the Crowne Plaza. She asked me why I chose the Crowne Plaza and I told her that it was because for this day she was a queen and every queen deserved a crown. She laughed at my silly joke and I laughed also. I think that is how you know love is genuine; love without laughter is a hollow love. We had laughed a lot in our three years together.
After I opened the door to our room, I motioned for her to wait. I lifted her in my arms and carried her across our threshold. I buried my face in her hair and it smelled like flowers. My soul is forever stained with that scent much like the pages of our holy books are stained with the petals of sacred flowers that we have pressed, unaware of the pain those petals might have felt at being burdened with our faith.
When I was by the bed, I did not want to set her down. She felt so perfect in my arms.
“Put me down, jaan,” she said amid giggles.
I set her down on the bed and then walked to shut the door. As soon as the door was shut fully and locked, I returned to her. I sat next to her on the bed.
As I looked at her, memories of everything flooded my senses. There was our apartment on Sixteenth Street in Chelsea, above the drycleaners, where I would walk up five flights and, before even opening the door, smell the lamb curry she had made for me. I remembered weekend breakfasts where I read the New York Times aloud to her as she fried eggs. Sometimes the everyday things seem like they will last forever and we wish for change. And then change comes and it brings loss and we wish to retreat into the mundane again, just one more time, to be covered and safe, like turtles in their impervious shells.
“What are you thinking about, jaan?”
“Sunday breakfasts,” I said.
“Eggs and bacon. Never anything else. How I used to wish we could do something different.”
“You can now,” I said as I pushed a stray hair from her face.
“Don’t do that,” she said.
“Don’t make this sad, okay? Today is the happiest day of my life!”
She got off the bed and twirled in her ghagra, the skirt spinning in a circle by her ankles.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked.
How many times I had asked this question, I don’t know. If insanity is repeating the same actions and expecting different results, then I was totally insane. More than anything, I wanted her to give me an answer that would soothe my soul. In all her ramblings, I hadn’t found one yet.
“Doing what, jaan?”
“Don’t call me that. Call him that!”
I lay face down on the bed and wept.
She came and sat next to me. She rubbed my back with her hand, her bangles chiming in time to the beat of my sorrow.
“I told you, for everyone to be happy, this is best.”
“And what about us, Chandni?”
“You will find someone whom you love more than life.”
“I did,” I said. “That was you.”
I turned my face to look at her. She was absolutely stunning.
She nudged me aside and lay next to me. I held her to me and felt as if she would evaporate like a dream.
“You are a dream,” I said. “And soon I will wake up.”
“You’re my one true love. Waking or sleeping, that will not change.”
“You wear my engagement ring?” she asked.
“Until I sell it, yes. It makes me feel close to you.”
“You’ll never sell that ring, jaan.”
“I don’t know.”
“I asked you for something,” she said.
“A wedding present.”
“To write a poem for you? I did.”
“Recite it,” she said, “as you make love to me.”
I stared into her molten eyes. I touched her lips with my thumb.
Does it all come down to stolen hours and knowing that just as there are first times there are also lasts?
“I’ll be looking at the moon but I’ll be seeing you,” I said.
“That’s my favorite song, jaan,” she said.
“That’s the first line,” I said as I kissed her mouth.
“My first confession,” she said.
“I have said your name before I’ve slept every night of my life since I knew you. Although I will never call you anything but jaan.”
She grazed my face with her fingers.
“In nights washed with your memory,” I said.
I kissed her neck.
“When you had the flu last year,” she said, “over that week, I used to kiss your forehead while you slept. I counted one thousand and one kisses over seven days. I was the Scheherazade that told you a thousand and one tales of my love.”
She kissed my collarbone.
“Where a touch of wind past my ear becomes the whisper of your voice.”
I unwrapped the chunni from around her and it grazed her face. She smiled. Like a crescent moon, I thought.
“Last Christmas,” she said, “I found my ring before you could wrap it. I felt so guilty but it wasn’t intentionally. I said ‘yes’ to the ring before I ever did to you. That ring carries that promise forever.”
She placed her hand under my tee shirt.
“Take it off, please,” she said.
I would miss her polite requests. I took my shirt off. Her hand rested on my stomach, my skin grateful wherever her palm and fingers touched me.
“Where the talk of leaves becomes the dance of your body.”
I removed her blouse and her bra and kissed her breasts. I had flashbacks of all the ways I had ever kissed her chest and I wanted, for this last moment to kiss her in all those ways again, all together, all at once. And I did. And then I stopped.
“I can’t,” I said as I look into her eyes.
“Why not?” she whispered.
“I can’t define a ‘last’ with you.”
She sat up. She didn’t say anything.
I looked at the blank ceiling which mirrored my blank self. When lasts are determined by life’s serendipity, we learn to handle them even if clumsily. But when lasts are determined by our heart’s desire, it is hard not to want to change her mind because we think the mind is more reasonable than the whims of fate. It is not so. I was learning that as I lay with my lover, waiting to deliver her to a man neither of us knew.
“Jaan, do you want to talk then?”
“I want to sleep.”
She lay upon my chest, the corners of her open blouse settling peacefully around us. I stroked her back slowly as I closed my eyes. It was not sleep she was delivering to me but peace. And I was in need of such benedictions.
“Recite the poem to me.”
I moved so my mouth was by her ear.
“I’ll be looking at the moon but I’ll be seeing you
in nights washed with your memory
where a touch of wind past my ear becomes the whisper of your voice
where the talk of leaves becomes the dance of your body
when the glow of night catches me in glints
when memory grazes my mind
like the petals of a wild flower
raat ki rani or mogra or chameli
like exotic flowers from your land
fragrant enough to absolve the night of its beauty
the moon of its intoxication
when I left I thought that I had left you
but you hid yourself
in something as devious
in something as eternal as moonlight
I love you, Chandni.”
I felt her tears as they wet my skin.
“How can you do this?” she asked.
“Do what, Chandni?”
“Take me to this wedding?”
“Because it is the desire of your heart.”
“You are the desire of my heart.”
“So stay with me. Fuck the world.”
She said nothing.
I closed my eyes in hopes of a dreamless sleep. She was there, on me, kissing my body in random places, trying to find peace in the pockets of my emptiness as if I had anything to offer but anger and grief. But underneath her kisses and her soft henna filled hands, I was finding my way to sleep.
“Jaan,” she said.
“I want you to see something.”
I opened my eyes.
“Find the letters of his name in the depths of my henna.”
I stared at her.
“Will that make you happy?”
I held her hand to me. I looked at the intricacies of paisley. I found the “J” close to her thumb. I felt myself start to cry.
“J,” I said, “’R’ and ‘A’ left.”
My tears slipped onto the pillow. She did not move. I searched her hands for his name and I felt as if this was the strangest punishment for ever having loved.
By her index finger, I found the ‘A’.”
“‘A’ I said, “‘R’ to go.”
“You’re looking for the wrong letter,” she said.
“No.” she whispered as she kissed my ear.
Slowly, she took my finger and found another A by the mound of flesh by her index finger. And then, slowly, she traced an N in the middle of her hand.
“Jaan,” she said, “No one else, ever.”
I wished at that moment that Chandni loved me less. Or maybe that she did not love me or she betrayed me or she was not true to me. But none of that was true. And that was the hardest truth for me to accept.
“My last confession is that you and only you have me forever.”
“Then why are you doing this?”
“For all those who can’t understand,jaan. Chivas Regal and prayers remember?”
“Even after, they will always have their crises,” I said, “You are not their reason. They are their reason. Can’t you see that?”
She kissed the pillow wherever she found the wetness of tears. She kissed my face. She lay on top of me and unbuttoned my jeans.
“I can’t,” I said.
“I just want to feel you against me,jaan.”
I felt that I should deny her something. After all, she had denied me a lifetime.
She smoothed my anger by running her hands over my body. Then she lay still beside me.
I closed my eyes and this time, as she wept and as I lay still, I allowed sleep to take me. I allowed myself to forsake her for those few hours just as she had chosen to forsake me. Reason had nothing to do with it. Nor society or culture or Chivas Regal or empty prayers and full sounding prayer bells. If she wanted, she could change the world with a word. “Yes. No.” Such powerful words these are and we utter them as if they are leaves in the wind.
She wept. I slept. When I awoke, she was still sleeping. I traced my finger from her temple to her chin. I kissed her lips.
“Chandni, it’s time to get up.”
“Chandni, let’s go.”
She opened her eyes.
“What if I say…” she said.
She lay on me and kissed my chin. Her eyes danced, almost twirled like her ghagra had when she moved in circles.
“I want to be with you, jaan. Fuck Canada. Just forget it.”
She removed his ring from her finger and flung it against the window. It made a sound and then landed soundlessly on the carpet. I looked at the ring, so ineffective without her finger to give it any consequence.
“Chandni why now? I’ve been trying for months and now when everything is about to happen…what happened? I’m just confused.”
“You are right, jaan,” she whispered to me, “I cannot have lasts with you. That is why. Whatever happens now, happens.”
“I will deliver us from whatever happens,” I said, “I promise.”
“I know,” she said, “I know.”
If the whims of fate are strange, the whims of lovers are stranger. I quietly slipped her ring off my finger and onto hers. There, it had meaning. It sparkled like a star in the light of the moon.
We looked at each other as if it was the first time we had seen each other. The look turned to a stare. We did not move.
Softly, moonlight filtered into me.
“Can I now make love to you, jaan?” said the moonlight.
“Yes,” I said simply, “yes.”