He stepped outside the door and looked on either side of the corridor, half expecting to see her, maybe in conversation with a neighbor or maybe coming back from some errand that she had suddenly remembered. The corridor was deserted, children having gone to school by now and the adults getting ready to start their treks to their workplace. There was a sound of someone sliding the latch on a door and his heart leapt up as if this were the door from which she would emerge. A door opened half way down the corridor and an old lady with her walker and the girl attendant walked out, most likely on her daily walking routine. They passed him on their way to elevator, the lady staring at him openly and not bothering to look away when he stared back.
He came back into the house, closing the door behind him. And then, as he sat down, he was struck by a thought that the locked door might make her think that he had left. So he went back and opened the door, leaving it ajar. He sat down on the sofa, his thoughts wandering to the conversation that they had been having the previous night, her sitting on his lap and brushing away his hair from his forehead as she had grown used to doing. They had talked about what she would do over the next few days, setting up the place, how she would like to do it and how she wanted him to help. He had offered to take the next few days off when he realized that she had been pulling his leg, her whole body shaking with suppressed laughter at his gullibility. He had decided to take revenge then and …
The door bell rang loudly, breaking his reverie. He almost jumped out of the sofa and ran to the door, not realizing in his haste that she wouldn't be ringing the bell on an open door. The old lady in her walker stood outside, the girl attendant in tow. She looked impatient, as if he was somehow late in coming to the door, even though he had run to open it. He said, “Hello, can I help you?” and the lady replied, “Tell your wife that I have got her the Tulsi plant.” It was then that he noticed that the girl was holding a small pot containing a Tulsi sapling. A wave of relief washed over him. Finally, someone had met her and would now know where she was! He just stood there letting his relief wash over him when the old lady dashed his hopes to the ground by saying, “So, call her out, will you? I haven’t got all day.” He automatically muttered something about giving it to her and took the pot from the girl. The old lady turned to go and he suddenly asked her, “Where did you meet my wife?” She turned back and stated as if it was the most obvious thing, “Why, on the roof terrace of course!”
He ran back into the house, leaving the old lady standing there, her jaw dropping at his reaction. He ran outside to the terrace and then realizing that he was carrying the pot, he kept it at the bottom of the stairs that led up to the roof. He clambered up the iron ladder, taking two rungs at a time, his eagerness almost giving him wings. As he raced up the stairs, he realized that he had missed her so much the past couple of hours, he didn't actually want to go to office or anywhere else that day. He made up his mind to call in sick and spend the day with her. As his head cleared the roof, he saw a couple of ladies standing some distance off, talking. He could instinctively see that she was not among them. He almost ran towards them and then realized that he would look foolish running up to them to ask about his wife. So, he slowed down to a walk and tried to appear as cautious as he could, his heart racing inside at a pace that he was sure would show on his face. Taking a couple of deep breaths, he approached them, forcing a smile on his face that completely belied his anxiety.
One of the ladies saw him coming and muttered something to the other, both ladies now snickering, an obvious reference to him in some way. His resolve almost quaked away into nothingness, the only thing still seeming to make him walk towards them was his desire to know if they had met his wife. He stopped short some distance away from the ladies who were openly enjoying his discomfiture and asked them if they had met his wife. First he drew a teasing response about having brought in a new wife and then when the ladies realized that he wasn't biting, they responded that they had bumped into his wife in the morning, drinking her coffee on the roof. She had struck up a conversation with them about the place and nearby shopping haunts, the vegetable seller. Then, the old lady from the same floor had come out onto her terrace and had called out to her. They had been talking for a while and then his wife had gone back down to the house. All this seemed to have happened about an hour ago.
Muttering a hurried thank you, he went back down the ladder. He was none the wiser for this episode but he at least knew that she had met three people all in the space of the last hour or hour and a half. Where could she have gone, the question resounded in his head and he almost missed his footing on the ladder. Luckily he was on the last but one rung and he landed sharply on one foot, twisting it a little and falling awkwardly down. Cursing, he picked himself up and tried to walk, feeling a sharp twinge when his foot landed. He hop-walked it back indoors and fell heavily on the sofa. Pulling up his pajama bottoms, he saw that the ladder had torn a strip of skin from his ankle and it had now started to bleed. He got up to wash the wound and disinfect it. In the bathroom, he found the Dettol in the cabinet but nothing he could actually use to swab the wound. His eyes fell on his favorite green and white checked shirt that he had been wearing yesterday, the one that she hated and kept telling him to throw away. She said it made him look older and a little outdated. With a wry smile, he picked it up and blotted the antiseptic with it and proceeded to clean up the scrape.
The job done, he dumped the shirt back into the wash tub and then shaking his head, finally decided to consign it to the dustbin. But that couldn't happen without a celebration now could it? So he picked it up and carried it through to the living room where he draped it like a flag of surrender on one arm of the sofa. He sank back onto the sofa, laying his head back and closing his eyes, wishing that this was just a bad dream and that he would wake up from it any moment now. Unwittingly, his mind flowed back to the previous evening and how they spent it. Lying next to her, watching her eyes look back at him from behind the curtain of her hair, mischievously darting about, crinkling with laughter that she was trying to suppress, the dimples in her cheeks deepening and inviting. The whispered words, disappearing into long stretches of silence and then resurfacing as if they did not want to lose the night to Morpheus. Her fingers intertwined in his, never for a moment letting go, cherishing their togetherness. The thoughts and words said aloud again and again, marking the start of their life together, alone by themselves.
At that thought, he woke, alone by himself, in the harsh light of reality. A sudden feeling of loss swept through him inexplicably. He almost groaned out aloud at the coldness of it. Feeling a shiver like someone had just walked over his grave, he hugged himself, wishing she was there to envelope him in her warmth. He remembered feeling like this when she had left for a week on a trip abroad to visit one of her cousins. She had not activated the international roaming on her phone and so could not call or message. Three days into her visit, he was badly sick, a case of shivers and fever that foxed the doctor at the nearby clinic. The next day an email came from her and immediately he recovered. He mailed back asking her for a number at which he could call her. And the very next night, spent three hours nearly on the phone with her. He was right as rain the next morning, even though he hadn't slept. And when the telephone bill for that month came, he fell off his chair on seeing an amount that was ten times his normal bill. But then, that conversation had been worth it. Talking to her had brought his temporarily lopsided life upright again.
After that, he would call, no matter how much money it cost and they spent hours talking, telling each other about the things that happened around them, to them, their dreams, their disappointments. Each day had been incomplete without them first talking their hearts out. They could talk for hours or so it seemed. He remembered watching her speak about the police atrocities in the aftermath of the Delhi rape incident, her eyes flashing and voice quivering with indignation. He also remembered her eyes, soft and moist when she recounted the incident of her school friend who had suffered an accident. She always did get caught up in her emotions. Suddenly she would stop, to find him watching her intently, drinking in her expressions, her words and would smile sheepishly and say, “I've been going on and on about it, haven’t I?” And he would always deny it, the sheer pleasure of listening to her and watching her, sometimes overwhelming him with the sheer intensity of it.
Suddenly, the thought struck him that his entire life in the past few months had been defined by her. Each moment, each memory, framed with her in it. In fact, he realized that he could not recall any specific thing that she wasn't a part of. Even the office party that had happened had been made more special by her calling him in the middle of it and him screaming responses to her to be heard over the noise. It seemed like his life had now become a series of memories that had been stitched together by her, each one sharply etched in his brain. The coldness that surrounded him seemed to get worse. He shivered, despite the sunny morning all around him. How he wished he could hold her in his arms again, letting her warmth drive away his chill, tell her how much he had missed her and that she should never ever go away like this again without telling him where she was going. His longing was like a physical pain, a blow to the gut that made him double up as he sat, hugging himself.
Suddenly, out of the blue, like the child that can hear his mother’s voice amongst a babble and turn unerringly, he heard her laugh, that lilting, floating laugh that always brought a smile to his face. It seemed to be coming from somewhere down below, the sound floating in through the balcony door. He stood up, almost thinking it was his imagination playing tricks on him. But no, her voice followed next, laughingly asking a question or so it seemed. His feet moved towards the balcony, his mind barely registering the action. He quickened his pace and reached the balcony, stopping at the railing. He could see her, or someone that looked incredibly like her and also sounded amazingly like her. She was talking to a heavy set old man who was sitting on a scooter and she was holding a bag of what appeared to be groceries. She looked up suddenly, as if sensing his eyes on him and smiled. That smile was enough to drive away all his worries and anxiety. She shouted up, as usual, uncaring about protocol and public posturing, “Mamaji” And he recalled that she had mentioned something about a mama in this town who had been estranged from the family. And the pieces of the puzzle fell into place and the clouds finally cleared up, the worms went into their wormholes and the sun came out again. He raised his hand and waved, his heart drumming a crazy three step tango, which he was sure, could be heard all the way down. Mamaji waved back and then waved goodbye as he started off on his scooter. She turned back, her step quickening at the thought of being with him again. The grocery bag that was precariously loaded to the brim suddenly seemed to give up on itself and decided to split open. And she reached out for the falling groceries mid step.
From his balcony high up, he saw her missing her step and going down on her knees. He reached out involuntarily, as if to support her and stop her fall. And suddenly found his feet slipping out from underneath him. He had leaned out too far across the railing and now he found himself tipping over. It seemed an eternity while he slowly toppled over the railing, screaming out her name and hearing her screaming out his. It seemed a long way down and he could see the sun shining out brightly from behind one of the buildings. He turned to look down at her and saw her stricken face, blanched white and wanted to tell her not to worry. It would be alright now that he had found her, they would be together and he would tell her how she had become the seamstress of his memories.
He was rushed to the hospital, bleeding profusely. The doctors took him into the OT immediately and came out seven hours later declaring that he seemed to be OK except for the multiple fractures of his hands, legs and shoulder. There was only a small note about his possible concussion and the fact that they had to keep him under observation. She was completely distraught and in the arms of her parents and his, not willing to listen to anyone or anything. The doctors’ words gave her the first signs of hope.
It was thus that he woke up, bandaged hand and foot, his body a mass of bruises and one continuous channel of pain that seemed to build up and run down in cycles. He saw all the equipment around and the place and realized he was in a hospital. He saw his parents there at the bedside, their faces tear lined and weary, as if life had shaken the will out of them. He wanted to raise his hand to wipe their tears away, to tell them that he was OK or will be OK soon. His mother held his hand, a fierce grip that seemed to give strength to him and solace to her, her fingers almost crushing his in relief. His father seemed to have grown a lot older than he had last seen him, head bent as if with the load of the burden that life had placed on him. He wanted to hug both of them, telling them it was alright, he was there and that everything would be OK now.
Then another set of old people came into view, their kindly faces as tear lined as his parents. They were younger than his parents but had the same time worn quality about them. He couldn't quite place them. His parents seemed to be telling something to them and they seemed to be telling his parents that he would be OK. He guessed that they must be parents of someone else like him.
His parents then left his bedside and a young lady came in. At first he thought she was the doctor. But then, her face and her voice betrayed her. She seemed somehow related to him though he could not place his finger on how. She was really pretty even in her distraught condition. He noticed her eyes, large and expressive and the dimple spots that creased her cheeks. He had a feeling that this was a woman who could light up with her laughter. Her voice sounded husky, a strange quality about it, like something he could keep listening to. He racked his brains for some idea of who she was and why she was sobbing uncontrollably at his bedside. She lay her head down on the bed beside his hand and he almost reached out to lay his hand on her head, the crow black hair hiding her face completely from view. And then, not realizing why he felt that way, he dropped his hand back, choosing to remain silent.
After a length of time, the nurse came in announcing that visiting hours were over and she stood up and walked away, dropping a kiss on his forehead, her lips warm and moist, wetted with tears. As she walked away, he lifted his hand up, wincing at the sudden intense wave of pain at that and touched the spot where her lips had been. The warmth was familiar and yet distant. As she had leaned over him, he had smelt a curiously musky smell that he was sure had come out of a high priced bottle off a department store shelf. And yet in spite of this, he could not place her. It was almost as if he were throwing each of these hints at a blank white wall that was absorbing them and giving nothing in return. That curious sense of knowing and yet not knowing, something at the edge of his memory, almost peeking from around the edge of that white blank wall but quickly retreating as soon as he turned to catch sight of it.
At the door, she turned back and smiled at him, a smile that lit up her eyes and creased her dimples just as he had somehow known it would. And her lips curved up in a smile as she mouthed “I love you” and then the door slid closed behind her. Seeing her go, he felt a pang, a sense of loss that he simply could not explain. The pang seemed to break open something in his head, almost like a crack in the cover of ice that seemed to hide a whole lot of secrets in the lake underneath it. He wished for someone who could help him completely break down this layer of ice and uncover the secrets that lay beneath. It was only a momentary lapse, for, seconds later, the ice had completely closed up and the lake lay silent and dark beneath.