She leans over casually, across me, and rummages in her bag for a moment. I push away the spark of hope that had crept over me when she turned towards me. My heart sinks even further when I realise what she’s pulled out – a cigarette. As she casually holds one end to her lips and then lights it without any semblance of hesitation, I watch. I’m pretty sure I don’t like this new habit of hers. Within three months of moving to Bangalore, after every meal, every nap, every stint in the shitpot, and of course, after every serious make out session, she smokes. She blows out her first drag as she does everything else – precisely, expertly, casually. Gracefully. I don’t like it, I think to myself, and I don’t have to like it. I bury my head on her naked arm, my nose wedged between her bicep and her breast. The sheets now reek of smoke. The curtains, the walls.For days after she goes back, the smoke smell lingers. By the time the fortnight is over, the smell has been replaced by detergent smells, and the odour of damp walls when it won’t stop raining. By the Friday night when her bus is due to roll in, I have forgotten this part, and I am on every kind of edge with wanting her skin, flesh, smile and taste between my fingers and my lips. Conversation is relegated to dessert.
And here she is – the youngest daughter of a ‘respectable’ upper-caste family, technically married and ‘settled’ as they call it, yet eking out a life on her own. There’s a complicated story there, but she rarely talks about it. Every other day the phone rings and a conversation about this-and-that ritual and obligation reluctantly unfolds through her suddenly tight voice. Her face does its own version of don’t ask, don’t tell. So I don’t ask the obvious why. I try to inhale her skin instead of air. Her other hand – the one holding the cigarette, plays with my hair and with every absent touch I can tell she is barely aware that I’m there. My discomfort grows – with the nicotine, with my own past of trying to quit for years, with our agreement to not interfere in each other’s lives, and with what all of this means. Without warning a thought sears through my mind – Why does she even bother to come back? Before I can stop it, visions of her lounging at some posh cafe in Bangalore pop into my head. I can see her every gesture precisely. I know she will be smiling because she is always smiling. Even when she sleeps, she smiles. Sometimes it means nothing, sometimes everything. I’ve seen it a thousand times and I never grow tired of it, because frankly, I never know what is behind it, except that it could literally be anything. I risk a glance upwards and there it is – corners turned up at a memory. Her fingertips continue their rhythmic circles on my scalp, twirling and twirling the three inches of my hair. She seems unaware of me. I bury my face into her again, this time a little lower – around her breasts. I want to hear her heart beating.
The story continues in my mind. Someone asks her to dance – not just anyone, but someone she has been watching for a while. Let’s face it – I amend my story a little – two seconds of her watching would have zoomed that person to her. Is it a woman? Is it a man? My mind says it would be a woman, but in my story it is a man. I torture myself with this picture of her dancing around this man who obviously cannot keep up. Not with her style, not with her energy, and certainly not with her. Nevertheless, she enjoys it because she genuinely has no expectations. The fantasy man in my head is extremely polite, even shy. I know she has a soft spot for those shy, awkward ones. From being a suave handsome rival, the man transforms into a bumbling, shambling, smitten admirer. Yes, I think, that always works on her. She tickles his chin, she looks at him and sees a thousand puppies to be rescued. I sit huddled and unwanted in a corner of the imaginary pub and order some tomato juice (with lime and salt) to feel something other than jealousy. A disinterested part of me notes that I never have this impact on men. I feel a familiar surge of queasiness at the thought. I am torn between wanting her and wanting to be her. I am torn between being wanted by him and wanting to be him. All this happens while in reality, in our house in Chennai, she continues to blow smoke into the bedroom. Every puff makes me think of air pollution. I forget about my ten years of a-pack-a-day smoking. I’m beginning to feel asphyxiated – by the smell, by the memories, by everything that this represents. What I really want to say is “Why are you so far away?” and instead I say, “So how come you started smoking?”
She turns towards me when I speak, and I can feel her eyes thinking over my words, sensitive to any hint of criticism. Her thighs slide against mine, and for a moment we are both distracted by the naked coolness of our bodies. For a moment, we look at each other. I suddenly realise in that pause that she isn’t sure of herself. Not fully. “It just happened,” she says carefully. I know what she means. It wouldn’t be sudden or sharp or thought out or not thought out. It would just be a lazy sunny afternoon, and someone at her human rights NGO happening to pass something to a different person who on that particular day decided, why not? And felt a little strange doing it, felt a little excited doing it, and felt a little happy doing it, because one more brick of being in that place had been laid.
I feel bitterness oozing out of my fingernails, which unconsciously press just a smidgen more sharply into her skin. I want to scream about distance, and loss, and break-ups, and longing. That I don’t want her to change. That I’m going to be so messed up if she continues to turn into a stranger with a stranger’s life. Outside, a cat meows. I picture huge red gashes running down my thighs as I weep in the aftermath of her deservingly adventurous future.
“Come here,” she suddenly commands. At least, I think it’s a command. I want it to be a command. But it’s not really. Her voice wavers a little. Insecurity underlines her words even as they come out. But it has the veneer, the smoky black line of command.
I place my palm on her stomach, partly covering the dark lines of her tattoo. I close my eyes. I can feel her breath on my fingers, the rising and falling of her diaphragm above. I listen to it till it feels as if the entire cosmos is on that beat. Then I open my eyes. It must have only been a moment but her eyes are expectant, uncertain. “Come here,” she says again, and this time it’s a whisper, a question, a request.
I hold myself really still because I don’t know how to respond. I want her to grab my hair with both hands and pull me towards her, to swallow me and crumple me in the palm of her hand, to claim me. I want the reassuring exhilaration of her teeth on my neck. I wish desperately that I could feel wet blood on her teeth. I touch both her arms with my fingers. I straddle her. She stubs out the cigarette and places her hands on me. We could do anything right now, I know. We may have kissed a thousand times, but there is no script, ever. I look at her. She looks at me. I imagine the sound of ocean waves between us. I remember a Russian folk tale I had read as a child where two lovers are separated by a huge ocean, and they stand at the shore and wave to each other. I vividly recall the magnificent distance I had imagined. Two specks on far away shores, visible to the other. I raise my hand and flutter my fingers weakly, “Hi.”
She smiles. Her eyes smile. “Hi,” she repeats. Our fingers touch and touch some more. I’m suddenly shy. It feels as if her eyes are grazing my face. At first tentatively, and then quite confidently, she kisses little bits of my skin. Little by little, my imaginary worlds crumble. I can hear a clock ticking, a heart beating, and the moment is somehow bereft of memories. When she reaches for her cigarette twenty minutes later, I find myself watching the red flame slowly and inevitably consume the paper. And I wonder – is this really a bad way to die?