Wife

 

It happened as many weddings do. He took two weeks’ holiday and she quit her job. The aunts and uncles and parents were delighted that there was a wedding in the family. The cousins only wanted to know if they had already had sex. The parents were busy attempting to outdo each other with wedding extravagances. He had never asked her to marry him. They met one evening under the watchful gaze of their smiling parents and they smiled at each other and the glasses of scotch (fathers) and gin (mothers) were raised because obviously, there was going to be a wedding in the family. It didn’t matter then, because she was happy and everything around her seemed to signal that this was fated. She was in love. They were in love. Everybody was in love with the idea of them in love. No one raised the needle-sharp questions that everyone raised here. Like, “So how did he propose to you?” or “He didn’t get you a ring?”

*

Two weeks later, here they are, married in this irresponsible country where there is a channel on cable that offers porn after midnight. Sunanda often makes a mental note to watch it, but somehow it never happens. Sometimes she wonders what would happen if Arun knew she thinks about watching pornography. She hasn’t told him. What if it doesn’t disgust him? What if he’s excited by the idea and suggests watching it together? What if he pulls out a video camera? What if he has a secret closet full of pornographic videos? Best not to get into these murky subjects.

It is during these times, when she tries to imagine a reaction from Arun, that Sunanda realises how little she knows him, how little time she has had to know him. Though, as she rationalises often, what difference would time have made? If it has to happen, it happens. People change, relationships don’t. Her cell phone friend told Sunanda that in one of their SMS conversations.

 

One person you would make love to but can’t.

 X-bf’s wife.

 Not the boyfriend?! Why the wife?

 Spoil her fr him frevr n spoil him fr her frevr.

 Bitch!

LOL.

 Remembering how they became friends makes Sunanda smile and so she reminds herself of it all the time. It was the night her best friend Trishna came over for dinner in the middle of a whirlwind business trip. Sunanda had been so excited at the thought of Trishna finally meeting Arun. Trishna had not got leave to come for the wedding. “It’s too short notice,” she’d wailed. “You’re giving me three weeks’ warning! What are you? Pregnant?” Both of them had cracked up at that question.

So now, when Trishna would finally meet Arun and see her new life, Sunanda wanted everything to be perfect. She wanted Trishna to see how happily everything had worked out. She took no chances and decided to order the food. Arun took responsibility for the wine. The house was clean. Arun came home from work earlier than normal. They had sex before Trishna came. Trishna found the house without any trouble. All the signs pointed to things going well.

But things didn’t turn out well. Sunanda found herself picking at the skin on the sides of her nails when the conversation between the three of them was forced at best and sluggish at worst. When Arun said he’d get the dessert, Sunanda had the distinct feeling he was fleeing into the kitchen and its comfort of absolute, un-awkward silence.

“Who is this?” Trishna asked holding up a small black and white picture standing on the bookshelf. It was obviously an old photograph of a little girl with blonde curls in a fuzzy field. She was running towards the camera, her face full of laughter.
“I don’t know. It was here before I moved in. Never mind that! Tell me what you think!” Sunanda asked in a theatrical stage whisper.
“He’s nice,” Trishna replied immediately, almost before Sunanda had finished her question.
“But you don’t like him,” Sunanda said slowly.
Trishna sighed deeply. “I don’t know him and that’s just my point. Neither do you. You meet a guy for five dates and decide you want to marry him!”
“Oh come on, we’ve been over this.”
“You’ve known him for three months. Three months! After it’s already been decided that you’re marrying him.”
“Trish, he’s perfect for me. He makes me feel… complete.”
“All the more reason to take more time!” Trishna shook her head. After a moment of silence, Trishna spoke again. “Look, these are all clichés. Let’s get real. You think you know him, but you can’t. You only know the parts of him that he is showing you. I’m not saying he’s not a good guy, maybe he is. But,” again she sighed. “A guy who has lived here for the past 15 years, is successful, blah blah blah just doesn’t, at the drop of a hat, go crazy enough to marry a girl –”

And Arun walked in with two plates laden with tiramisu, one for Trishna and one for Sunanda. The dessert was excellent, but it didn’t sweeten Sunanda’s mood. She knew what Trishna had been about to say: men like Arun didn’t marry girls like her.

For the rest of the evening, Sunanda was quiet.

When it was time for Trishna to leave, Arun diplomatically gave the two women a few moments to themselves. Trishna took out a pen and scribbled a number on Sunanda’s palm.  
“My cell phone number. Call me if you need anything. I’m in the city till Thursday.”
“I haven’t memorised mine yet.”
Silence.
“Look, Sunanda, I’m sorry if I seem too cynical but I just don’t want you hurt. You understand that right? I just want to know that you know he is genuine with you. That he isn’t, I don’t know, using you to get over some other woman. Or something like that. You’re an incredible person. I want him to know and love you, for yourself, and I’m just not sure that he’s actually seen you.”
“You’re jealous,” Sunanda had blurted out. “You’re just jealous that I’ve found someone while you’re still single. You’re jealous because you never thought I’d be ahead of you.”
Trishna’s jaw stiffened. “Being married doesn’t put you ‘ahead’ of me.”
“Being happy does.”

Trishna left without saying another word.

That night, Sunanda heard that conversation again and again and again in her head. Each time she heard herself, she would cringe. Finally at about midnight, Sunanda reached for her cell phone, charging on the bedside table. Pressing a button to make the display light up, Sunanda held the phone up to throw its light on her palm where Trishna had written her number. Washing the dishes and clenching her fist for the past few hours had made the writing faint. Still, she could make out the numbers. For a moment Sunanda wondered whether she should call her. It was very late. She opted for a mid-point, between silence and conversation. She sent an SMS to Trishna.

I’m sorry I said the things I did at dinner tonight. Let’s not talk about this again, ok? Just believe me. We’re in love. He is perfect for me. Take care & call me. 

Had dinner wid my t.v. tonite so u’ve got a wrong no.

I’m so sorry!

No prob.

After five minutes, Sunanda’s phone had beeped loudly, flashing neon light into the night, signalling the arrival of a message.

Mayb ur frnd thnks u cn do better thn him.

 No. She thinks he can do better than me.

 Thts nt v. frndly!

 Well, he can do better than me. He’s done better than me in the past.

 So u think ur frnd is right?

 Sometimes.

 But he IS wid u. He obvsly dcided ‘better’ wasn’t good enuf. Isn’t tht wht counts?

 Maybe he’s with me because I won’t leave him the way ‘better’ did. Even if it’s all a lie.

 Y wdnt u leave him if he lies 2 u?

 Because I’d never be able to do better than him.

After about five minutes, the phone lit up again.

Hope da sex is wrth it.

 

One eight that had half of its curves rubbed off and looked like three in the phone-lit darkness, and Sunanda had made a friend. She still doesn’t know her friend’s name. It doesn’t really matter. Sometimes, when Arun is out of town on one of his tours and she is going to bed early, Sunanda imagines she isn’t alone in the apartment. She imagines that her friend is here with her, this nameless woman. It must be a woman, Sunanda has figured after these past few weeks of chatting with her. Sunanda imagines she has long fingers with soft fingertips that are curious, confident, knowing and ready to linger. If they met at a bar for a glass of wine – because isn’t that what they do here? – then Sunanda imagines her friend will reach over and lightly trace patterns on the underside of her arm.

I think he used to shave his chest!

He hs stubble?

Not exactly stubble but his chest hair feels like its just started growing back. And it’s short!

Ur boy a drag queen? :-P

She never thinks of her cell phone friend as a man. Not because it smacks of infidelity if it is a man but because she knows it is a woman. She knows this intimately and without a doubt. But sometimes, just sometimes, she admits to herself that she doesn’t know. And then Sunanda shakes her head and puts the facts on the table: there is only one man in her life, her husband. She knows the person on the cell phone is a woman. She knows this intimately and without a doubt.

*

It has now been three months that they have been married. Three months of waking up next to someone. She doesn’t change in the bathroom any more. He doesn’t stand as straight-backed as he used to with her; it is as though he has softened, like perfectly-done pasta. She still stares covertly when he walks around naked. These days he kisses her in the morning even before brushing his teeth. She knows that he has a small tuft of hair, like a thinning bunny rabbit’s tail, just above his butt crack.

They went to Hawaii for their honeymoon. He booked for them a place with a personal swimming pool of their own and they made love almost constantly. It had felt like a film, one of those thrillers where Sunanda’s hair should be blonde. She had never even thought of anything like this.

“What did you think a honeymoon would be like?” Arun asked her one day as they walked on an old volcano. There was so much laughter in his voice, and warmth without the stickiness of sweat. She remembers their honeymoon sometimes and it makes her giggle even though there was nothing funny. Unless you consider their sexual marathon humorous. In Hawaii, she had wondered more than once how he didn’t get bored with the act. It was the same thing, after all. Whether you were in a pool, in a shower or on a bed, it was essentially the same thing. It makes her tremendously happy to recall those days and revisit in her head his desire for her. He said it was the best sex he’d ever had.

The only thing that jolts her is how Arun always refers to making love as having sex. Maybe if she had, like him, made love to many more people, perhaps she would also call it sex with that same satisfied nonchalance.

“And then suddenly I was calling you five times a day. It was madness but I needed to hear your voice within minutes of us hanging up.”

 “The moment I saw you, I knew.”

 “There are things I want to do to you that… I don’t know what you’ve done to me.”

 “If you left me, I don’t think I’d survive it.”

 “The city turned grey the Monday I returned without you.”

 

Arun used to write her love letters. He used to speak to her like he was writing her a love letter. He doesn’t say them to her anymore. There is nothing whimsically sweet in their conversation now. She still loves him, of course she does. But sometimes, when she watches him talk to her about his day at work, she wonders whether she imagined him saying those things to her.  At those same times, she also wonders why he really married her. She tries to gauge whether behind those thin-framed glasses and pointy-chinned face is a man who would marry a woman because his parents asked him to. Because now, ‘love at first sight’ seems just too much of an artifice. She knows, after having met his friends and stepped into his life, that she is not the best thing to have happened to him. Even when she sits alone in the house and looks at the two chairs he has bought from a designer furniture store with an unfamiliar name that she cannot pronounce or spell, she knows that she is out of his league. And she hates the house for constantly reminding her of that fact.

It sometimes alarms her how intensely she hates something as inanimate as this house. Where Sunanda comes from, there are some things a woman is supposed to do. One of them is to make a home. Single men are supposed to be incapable of this. They are supposed to inhabit mere spaces, empty of feeling and beauty and stuffed with an abject chaos that silently pleads for the magic wand of feminine touch – more specifically, wifely intervention – to turn its toadish appearance into something more princely. But here in this apartment, Sunanda feels like the toad. Without a well to hide in.

The first time she had walked in, a sense of disorientation had hit her. She had felt as though she had, without warning, stepped into the two-dimensional world of a magazine double spread. His apartment was like something out of an interior decoration magazine. An African tribal mask hung on one wall. An ethnic frame held up a mirror in the little passage leading into the living room. The vases had dust-free, dried flowers artistically arranged, complimenting the dark wood, white-cushioned furniture. A shaggy, white rug was spread out on the floor. Sunanda had walked towards it wondering whether Arun and she would make love on it.

“Honey, take your shoes off before you walk on the rug.” Arun grinned with an expression that was either pride or embarrassment, Sunanda couldn’t tell which. “It’s hell trying to maintain a white rug. I’d never have bought it but it just looks so damn sexy.” At that moment Sunanda realised, Arun was probably going to spend the rest of their life together making excuses for her sloppiness the way her mother did for her father.

They haven’t made love on it yet. Sunanda now seriously doubts they will ever make love anywhere but on their bed and in complete darkness.

*

Coming from Hawaii to this terrible city turned them into a middle-aged couple. Standing in the Fruit and Vegetable section of the fancy supermarket, Sunanda comes to this realisation. She has come to the supermarket looking for green chillies. The little Chinese man with the green apron pointed her to this corner. It is a section for chillies. There are orange chillies, there are yellow chillies, there are capsicums, there are chillies that look like miniature pumpkins, but there are no green chillies. Sunanda can’t believe it. All she wants is a handful of green chillies. Those slender little things, the size of her pinkie, that sit around in green heaps at every roadside vegetable seller’s shop back home, are not available here. There are about fifty different kinds of chillies, each with a more unpronounceable name than the next, but the most domestic, commonplace one that she wants isn’t here. This is when she remembers no one thinks of Arun and herself as newly married. Everyone says they look like they’ve been married forever. Staring at the uncommon chillies in front of her, she wonders whether their marriage is a jalapeno or a piquin or a hontaka. She also wonders which tastes most like the green chilly she knows.

Sunanda takes a handful of an orange, squat variety. She will never again buy those chillies again. They are so fiery that just holding the chillies while chopping them up makes her fingertips burn. She ends up throwing out the prawns she had marinated in those chillies and just before Arun walks in, her order from the trusted nearby takeaway Chinese joint arrives. At the dinner table, Arun twirls some noodles around his fork and asks, “So what have you been up to all day?” Maybe there isn’t really an accusation in that question and it’s only her stinging fingertips making her irritable. Sunanda wishes she had a magic wand which would turn Arun into a yellow butterfly with one quick flick.

 

1 thng u wer all da time

 A crystal yellow butterfly locket on a silver chain.

 Cute. Gft?

 Yes. From him. Yellow butterflies are my lucky charm.

 Wow. Valntyn?

 No. birthday.

 V.cool. knws u well. Wot u gettng him on his bday?

 Cufflinks.

 Standard gfrnd gift. Boring.

 Not like he needs yellow butterflies!

 Get him smthg excytng!

 Like?

 Dunno. Ask his frnds. Or ex! Best way 2 get 2 knw a man.

 Haven’t met his ex.

 Hm. Wot presnts did she giv him?

 He doesn’t mention any. I don’t think she gave him anything.

 Impssbl. Bet he hidng frm u.

 I’ve looked around the house. No gifts anywhere. Except what his parents got him.

 No wnder he dmped her. Hw abt pouch thong wid an elephant face?

 What?

 Thong wid ele face in crotch area. V.cute.

 I think I’ll stick to the cufflinks.

*

It had never struck her to ask Arun her name when Arun spoke about her. It didn’t seem important. There were other things that Sunanda had wanted to know. Like what was the first love song he had heard; what was his favourite colour when he was five; what were the countries he had seen; what were the places he wanted to see with her. It hadn’t struck her the ex-girlfriends would be of any significance. He told her without her prompting him. He told her he had never lived with any one of them. That had somehow been important for her. She had wanted to be his first for something. His first cohabitation partner didn’t seem a bad tag at all.

Having been so nonchalant about her in the past, Sunanda finds it difficult to pose curious questions now, especially since Arun no longer mentions the ex at all. Now that he’s committed to loving Sunanda, it is too late.

Wittingly or unwittingly the house does deliver to little bits of answers that Sunanda is looking for. Like the small book that Arun keeps in his bedside drawer. It is a tourist’s handbook to the city. On its first page it says “Love Anita” in handwriting so beautiful it could be printed. In fact, Sunanda looks at it closely and touches the thick paper with her fingers, like a blind woman reading, to make sure that it is actually written by hand. She wonders who this Anita is, who gives Arun tourist guides with love on the first page. She also leaves it out on the bedside table, next to Arun’s alarm clock, with the intention of going through it later and perhaps with an unadmitted latent hope that Arun will tell her about this Anita. The next morning when she is alone in the house again she finds that the tourist guide is not on the bedside table. It is not in the drawer either. Arun tells her at breakfast that he is going for a day’s business trip on Friday. He will be back Saturday night. They move on to the complexities of outsourcing and Nita Aunty’s laproscopy smoothly. Sunanda doesn’t say anything but she notices that the detailed itinerary that Arun has provided her, while finishing his cornflakes without slurping, does not mention anything for Saturday.

 

On Thursday night, when he is packing his small bag, Sunanda hands him a towel and says casually, “It’s tough that work is spilling into the weekend.”

He takes the towel from her and replies, “I don’t know if it will. I’m just keeping a day in hand, in case it does. I’m hoping it won’t.”

“So you’ll be back Saturday morning if work finishes up on Friday?”

“I’ve already booked tickets so I’ll stay on either way. I have some friends in that area that I haven’t met in a while.” His head bobs up as though he just sat down on a pin. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“No, no,” Sunanda says with a smile. “I have work at home in any case.”

He reaches forward and kisses her softly.

 

It is, of course, a lie. She doesn’t really have any work, unless you count looking for a missing tourist guide book, last seen on Arun’s bedside table, as work. It is nowhere to be found. Sunanda goes through every drawer and every shelf and every cabinet, but finds no little black book. The only place she hasn’t looked at is Arun’s sock drawer and underwear drawer. Somehow it feels like a bit of a violation to do that. She keeps coming back to the closet and stands in front of it. “Love Anita,” it had said on the first page. Sunanda can remember it very clearly. The cover, the page on which she had written her name. The name starts resounding in Sunanda’s head. She realises she has heard this name many times before. In fact, the name Anita has come in every conversation she has sat in on with Arun’s friends. From the melee of unfamiliar names from Arun’s past and present that she has smiled at blankly, this one comes out now with sudden clarity. Love Anita.

 

“Sunanda, don’t you think he needs to do something to relax? Anita and I had actually promised to pay him good money if he agreed to get into a yoga class with us.”

“You remember when Anita spilt all her wine over that French guy and then actually dabbed at his crotch with a tissue?”

“Anita’s doing well. She’s just got a promotion.”

“I’ll never think of the Long Island Ice Tea without remember Anita in Montreal!”

“Anita can waggle her ears. It’s totally far out.”

 

Sunanda realises something that she would have perhaps figured out if she had paid attention to those conversations about people she didn’t know – Anita is the ex-girlfriend. 

 

After the fifth instance of stand-and-stare-at-closet, Sunanda takes a deep breath and reaches towards the door. Exactly at that moment, the doorbell rings. It is a delivery for her, from her parents back home. The package contains the herbal kohl pencil she uses, a pashmina stole, a long letter from her father and a CD. Sunanda plays the CD and begins reading her father’s letter. He tells her that he finally found the cassette he has been looking for – it has the first recordings they have of Sunanda talking as a toddler. He apologises for the scratchy quality and hopes the CD has survived the journey. As she reads, sounds of her old home, her mother and father encouraging her to recite a nonsense rhyme, her careful elocution of ‘Found a peanut, found a peanut, found a peanut, just now’, her father prompting her and her mother telling her to talk into the microphone fill her new home.

That night, she spends one of the loneliest nights of her life. Nobody calls her. At one point, she gets up to buy a calling card to talk to her mother and father but then realises the little leftover money she had, she spent buying instant noodles and Arun hasn’t left any money with her. She looks in his sock drawer for money and finds nothing.

 

I feel like I live in a hotel where I have to do my own laundry and make my bed.

 Thats boarding skool, nt hotel.

 Welcome to the hotel California! Haha!

 Buy smthg u like n keep it in da house. Mayb flowers. Evn boarding skools allow flowers.

Do you ever cry without knowing why?

 R u ok?

 I’m fine.

 

 Sometimes I feel a little lost. Like I’m somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be. Like I’m in someone else’s home.

 Like u’re goldilks?

 Who?

 Goldilocks. Da 1 wid da bears.

 Ah. Something like that. You ever feel that?

 Dont fil lst bt fil lk ive lst smthg. Lk der’s less n less of me everyday.

 I hope you find what you need.

 U 2.

 

Lstn 2 sum louis Armstrong. Wrks fr me.

 Thanks. Sorry for being so weepy. It’s just the first time he’s left me behind so …

 Bord?

 No. Just wondering whether he’s getting away from me or he did this with all his ex-s.

 Ask hm.

 Not worth so much thought.

 

She drinks two cups of strong black coffee after dinner so that she is awake and alert when he returns on Saturday night. He comes home late. All the lights are switched off, except for the one over the front door and the little lamp at her bedside table. He walks in slowly, his long shadow wearily dragging in his suit-clad body. She wonders if she should let on she is awake. She wonders if he thinks it was easier when they weren’t married, when he could pick up the phone at his free time and call her, instead of having to come home to her, sit by her on the bed, forage for the energy to have sex with a lot of panting and quick release. Sunanda wonders if men can fake it. If he flicks through pornography on his way home so that he is ready and tumescent to do his duty, to earn his sleep as it were.
“Are you awake?”
“You’re home.”
They end up speaking together and it takes away the awkwardness of Sunanda having pretended to be asleep for the past five minutes.
 

He never gives her enough time to touch him the way she wants to but at least she gets to feel him against her. She can’t tell him to not enter yet because she wants to press another kiss on the ridge of his collarbone. She doesn’t want to delay him with her desire because he’s already ready. He doesn’t realise that it is too soon. But she doesn’t mind. When he falls asleep immediately after, she touches him as languorously as she would like to and bunches her nightdress between her legs to soak the stickiness. She holds her breath, hoping he will wake up and they’ll make love again, this time with her ready, even though she knows it won’t happen because he is sleeping too deeply.

 

The whole ritual of getting up in the morning seems to work as an elaborate reminder that she is still a guest in the house. Arun has carefully arranged the bathroom to place her toothbrush next to his; there are two small towels next to the basin; there are two big towels opposite the shower cubicle. It is a five-star bathroom, without the complimentary, miniature moisturiser and shampoo. One morning, she realises, by chance, that the mirror in front of her is a sliding cabinet door. Sunanda slides the door open. There are bottles with pills in them and big, thick labels with names that mean nothing to Sunanda. A big box of earbuds, a tube of shaving cream, a big bottle of Johnson & Johnson’s moisturiser with a French label and four packs of dental floss which make Sunanda smile because she has never used dental floss in her entire life. Then she sees the three lipsticks. She opens the lipsticks to see what shades they are. One is the dark chocolate colour that she knows is Arun’s mother’s favourite. It is a Lakme lipstick, with the thick wine-coloured body and a gold band round the middle to signify its exclusivity. No one has heard of the brand here. Sunanda’s first lipstick was a Lakme. It was a pale pink, bought under her mother’s watchful eye. The other two lipsticks in Arun’s cabinet are pale bronze and shiny pink, in Clinique’s pale green bodies. She opens them. She tries them on. They are meant for someone fairer than her. Someone who likes sparkling colours. Someone fairer than her, who likes sparkling colours and who lives here often enough to stake claim of the cabinet with her lipsticks.

The bathroom reveals more. Behind the stack of towels is a box of tampons that have purple wrappers for heavy flow, green wrappers for medium flow and yellow wrappers for light flow. Sunanda has never used a tampon. She wonders if it is proper to call Arun’s mother and ask how they are used. She also wonders whether these tampons have been behind the towels for a year because she remembers Arun’s mother told her in confidence that she had her hysterectomy done a year ago. And she wonders if they belong to Anita.

She finds nothing else after that.

 *

Is it very rude to sms in the middle of a dinner? A boring dinner?

 Lol! V. rude.

The topic of conversation is dinner. Go figure how wildly exciting this party is..

 Talk abt tom cruz or oprah. Alwys wrks. N b4 leavng ask da 1 dat laffed most wen u 2 cn meet.

 

After everything is over, when they are at home and Sunanda has already settled herself under the quilt, Arun says to her, as he switches off the light, “Good move bringing up Tom Cruise at dinner tonight. When Nitin started on when the sun sets in summer, I almost felt like ordering a pillow instead of another drink.” Sunanda laughs and kisses Arun good night. She now has four numbers in her phone’s address book: Arun’s, Trishna’s, her friend’s and Shaili with the golden eyeshadow who laughed most at this hellish dinner. Shaili, her first real friend in this city, who herself suggested going on a “shopping date”.

 

Breathing in the sharply-perfumed air of the mall, Sunanda wonders how long this wandering through counters and racks has to continue before she can go home. They still have to have lunch. There have been moments in this shopping trip when Sunanda has been certain that Shaili is making fun of her. Except her expression when she plucked out the bright pink, satin shirt with huge white rhinestones on it seemed entirely earnest and genuinely excited. Sunanda has replayed that bit in her mind about a hundred times already, trying to figure out if there was a smothered smile when Shaili lowered her head, bringing the curtain of her hair around her face, and put the shirt back. It is so hard to tell with Arun’s friends. There is nothing to warn you that a joke is round the corner. Only after you’ve fallen for it and given them fodder for laughter and an anecdote about ‘how I fooled Arun’s wife’, do you realise this was a humour trap.

Still, Shaili is certainly sweeter than most of Arun’s men friends. At lunch, she asks the usual questions of ‘tell me how you guys met’, which Sunanda dutifully recounts. As she is retelling the story, she suddenly realises how happy it makes her to remember all of it and know that it was real, that it did happen. It makes her realise that Arun has made her happy, more happy than she had ever been before. She laughs to herself and makes a note to tell her SMS friend her discovery of the day: being married makes you forget the strangest things, like the reason you got married in the first place. Sunanda suddenly finds an overwhelming liking for Shaili because she made Sunanda remember. She has found a friend among Arun’s friends, finally.

“That’s wonderful,” Shaili says warmly at the end of Sunanda’s love story. She takes a forkful of salad and laughs. “We were all so taken aback when he said he was going to get married. It was like, huh? Because he’s just never seemed to be the impulsive kinda guy, you know? So for him to have a whirlwind romance plus marriage is a lot of credit to you!”

Sunanda laughs. “Has he always been like that?”
“Well, I’ve known him for the past two and a half years and he’s definitely been anally organised for all of that time.”
“Oh, I thought you knew him from his college days.”
Shaili shakes her head. “I hang out with the boys from time to time because of Brian. You know we’re dating, right? Yeah, so that’s why. I actually met Arun when he began dating Anita.”
The moment Shaili begins to say the name, Sunanda knows that there could be a moment of silence here that would thrust awkwardness into the conversation. This is her test because if she lets the silence in then it will be the stuff of conversation for the entire gang: how Sunanda reacted to the mention of the ex-girlfriend.
“Wow,” Sunanda inserts the word smoothly before a lapse in conversation is possible. “I’d never have guessed you’ve joined the gang late!” She eats a bit of her salad. The air between them is filled with the valid crunch of fresh lettuce between teeth. “Does it ever get awkward for you?” Sunanda asks, looking straight at Shaili, waiting for her to look up and see the steadiness of Sunanda’s gaze. “To be part of your friend’s ex-boyfriend’s gang?”
It seems to Sunanda that Shaili takes a little longer than normal to finish her mouthful. Her eyes remain lowered upon her salad bowl until her mouth is empty. “Well, it’s also my boyfriend’s gang,” Shaili says with a smile. “It felt a little odd when they first broke up but it’s cool now. I mean, Anita will always be my best friend, no matter who she’s dating.”

Lunch has gone off very well, Sunanda decides when it ends. She knows Anita’s birthday party is on Friday, that Anita studied Sociology in college, that Anita ran naked for half a kilometre after losing a bet about what the capital of the Sudan was called, and that Shaili is planning to get her a pair of silver chopsticks for her birthday. After the meal, Sunanda excuses herself to go to the bathroom. When she comes out, the maitre d’ tells her that Shaili has already stepped outside.

The wind is sharp and strong and it pulls at Sunanda’s hair like a spoilt child. It also drops in her ear words from the conversation Shaili is having with someone on her cell phone.

“Well, it’s the first time I spent with her alone, so … she’s nice, really nice in a really good, Indian girl kinda way, you know? Like, you know, innocent, naïve, really good. No vices, no sex before marriage, no wild side … No, definitely not like you! You should have seen her face when I told her about you streaking! … Totally! … Yeah… Sure… Yeah, bye.”

 

I bought the elephant pouch underwear for him!

 Lol! Good nite????

 It looks really cute. :-P

 Nxt: frnch maid outft fr u!

 No chance!

 Boots n whip mayb?

 

 Sunanda’s grandmother had a favourite saying: “Everything happens when it does because it is supposed to.” That logic followed to its end would mean that Arun dilly-dallying for an extra five minutes over the Sunday papers was meant to be because if he had not done that, he would have gone to have his shower at his usual time and if he had done that, then he would have been out of the bathroom when the SMS came. Instead, he was singing in the shower, entirely unaware of the incoming message. It would also mean that Sunanda reading the SMS was not simply Sunanda reading someone else’s SMS, but some sort of metaphysical plan to enlighten her.

It was a message from Dominic, Arun’s friend from work. It said, “Get the bitch a job and get ur life back.” They were talking about her. She was the bitch. Arun’s friend was writing to him about her and calling her a bitch. He had called her a bitch. Without even thinking, she deleted the message.

“Get the bitch a job…”

Sunanda opened up his Sent Messages folder. The last message he had sent had been to Dominic. She opened it. “She’s around me all the fucking time. Like she’s going to come with me to the loo. Feel like I can’t breathe sometimes.” He had sent Dominic another message this morning. “Gave up life when I got married. Can’t look at another woman, can’t take a step without her. Like I’m walking a dog, 24-7.”

She wanted to go bang on the bathroom door and tell him his friend called her a bitch. What kind of a friend called a friend’s wife ‘bitch’? She wanted to ask him why he hadn’t told her that he wanted to be alone. She wanted to give him a fucking list of the number of times he’s dragged her out to dinner even though she hasn’t wanted to. Like that godawful Tom Cruise dinner night. She wants to know which women he wanted to look at. She wants to know if Dominic ever called Anita a bitch.

Ultimately, when Arun comes out of the bathroom, he finds his phone without any new messages. Sunanda is watching TV in the other room. She doesn’t bang on his door because she wants to give him his life back. She doesn’t say anything to him because she doesn’t want to be a bitch. But at the same time, she can’t forget it. His friend called her a bitch.

That evening, she says she has a headache and pleads off the dinner invitation they have.
“But you should go,” she tells Arun.
“I don’t want to go without you,” Arun replies. She wants to tear the flesh off his guileless face with one vicious tug when he says that.
“Just go. It’ll be fun,” she says to him. There is probably a tight edge to her voice. She can hear it. She wonders if he can.
“Look, I don’t want to go anywhere without you,” Arun says again. “Why don’t you go lie down while I cancel with those guys? You want a cup of tea?”
Sunanda shakes her head. She wants to ask him whether he is lying to her or to Dominic. She wants to call Dominic and tell him that she told Arun to go on his own but he didn’t. She tried to give him back his life but he didn’t take it. She isn’t a bitch, bastard.

 While Arun talks on the phone, Sunanda goes to the drinks’ cabinet and pours herself some vodka. She drinks it like a shot. It feels terrible down her throat. One door away, Arun tells his friend that he won’t be coming for dinner because he doesn’t want to leave Sunanda alone. She pours herself another, larger, measure of vodka and knocks it back. It tastes as foul as her last drink but this time, the vodka makes her head spin a little. She finds her way back to the bedroom. A few minutes later, Arun pops his head in and says, “Trilok has invited us over next week. I’ve said we’ll go if everything’s ok.” There is so much concern in his eyes. “Are you sure you don’t want anything? A cup of tea? Aspirin?” She wants to spit on his face. All she does is shake her head. Then she closes her eyes and goes off to sleep. In her dream, Arun peeks in a minute later and seeing she is asleep, picks up his jacket and tiptoes out of the apartment. He meets Dominic and they go to a strip club, like the one she saw in the film Closer. She doesn’t hear Dominic call Arun. She doesn’t hear him say he doesn’t want to leave Sunanda alone. She doesn’t see him checking in on her every half an hour. She doesn’t know that he keeps the volume at the lowest hum so that the television doesn’t disturb her. She is dreaming of Arun in a stripclub. She also doesn’t know that after two hours, Arun gets bored and he calls Dominic and then they chat for the next one hour about many things, including how bossy wives should be put on leashes that can be jerked or kicked hard in their vaginas.

*

Tost! 2 lonly hrts club band!

 Are you all right?!

 Lisning 2 btles n drnkng whsk. Wot mor do I nd?

 Are you alone?

 Y alone? U’re joining me 4 a drnk, arnt u? TOST!

 Haha. To what?

 R u aln?

 Yep. Very much alone.

 2 lonlines.  N frnds.

 Cheers!

 

 Do you often drink alone?

 Only wen I need to pretnd am hving a lil drink wile I hv big 1.

 Cheers! To little drinks!

 

Sitting in Swati and Trilok’s house, Sunanda realises she is comparing their flat to the one she lives in and is feeling an elitist pride that her flat is nicer to look at. Swati and Trilok talk animatedly about how they have put together their higgledy-piggledy house. They are full of laughter as they recount altercations and disagreements in upholstery stores. Sunanda looks at Arun. He is smiling faintly. She wonders if he is remembering the bunch of green roses that she bought and arranged in the living room in place of his dried flowers. “They made the living room look like a hotel lobby,” he said to her, with a laugh, moved them to the bathroom and brought the dried flowers back.

Her eye catches a bright-coloured cushion with gold embroidery. Swati notices Sunanda looking at it.
“They are made from my wedding sari,” Swati says, giggling.
“It’s very pretty,” Sunanda replies, holding up one cushion admiringly.
“Only as a cushion cover,” Trilok says dryly. “It’s only because I’m a man with a strong heart that I didn’t die when I saw her dressed as a bride.”
“Shut up!” Swati says, laughing. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“It was precisely that bad,” Trilok maintains. “Show her the wedding album,” he says. “Then she’ll believe me. Oh, and Sunanda, I’d advise you to wear sunglasses.”
More laughter rings around the room and everyone starts on stories of how taken aback they were when they saw Swati in bridal regalia.

The wedding album comes. It is, predictably, red and gold. Sunanda starts flicking through the pages. Trilok is right. The sari is precisely as bad as he made it out to be. As hideous as the sari might be, Swati looks beautifully happy. In fact, everyone is full of smiles, real smiles that can’t be faked or smothered. Trilok, Swati, their other friends, their family, Arun – everyone is blissfully happy. Every photograph has a neat label under it, with notes written in handwriting that looks like print. Sunanda suddenly realises that she has seen this handwriting before, on the first page of a little tourist guidebook. Every label details the occasion and who all are in it, even if they are in the background. Like a picture from the reception labelled, "Arun and Anita making out wildly in the background."

So this is how Sunanda ends up meeting her. She stares at the corner where the fuzzy outlines of two heads blur into each other. This is Anita. She has blonde hair. In her hair, she has silver butterflies. She probably grew up on a farm, where there was a field, and on a sunny, summer afternoon, when she was a little girl, she came running up and someone took a picture of her which years later would sit on her ex-boyfriend’s mantelpiece.

Sunanda forces herself to turn the page because she knows the others will notice her lingering over this one photograph. She does not want them to know that she wants to ogle at that part of the photograph. She wants to know every little thing about that moment. She is gripped with a manic urge to slyly slip the photograph in her bag. She could do it so easily. Perhaps no one would even notice.

She turns the pages with the hope that there will be another picture, a better picture. It had never struck her that Anita might be white. It had not struck her that Arun might have been with someone who was not Indian. Sunanda wishes she could turn back to see if he is holding her closer than he holds Sunanda in pictures but she doesn't because she knows someone will notice and then someone will add up that she is looking for Anita after seeing that caption and then they'll snigger about her behind her back, to Anita perhaps. So she keeps flipping pages while reading the labels carefully, looking out for Anita.

She finds her again eight pages later: "Anita in a lehenga-choli". It is a rich shade of purple and the skin of her bared waist is white against it. Twinkling at her pierced navel is a diamond. Sunanda turns the page casually. As she does so, she pulls the picture of Anita in a lehenga-choli off the page and onto her lap. Much, much later will it strike her that Swati and Trilok will in all probability think Arun stole a picture of Anita from their album. Sunanda imagines there are very few women who stare for hours at their husband's ex-girlfriend's smooth stomach and curved waist. Even later than that, Sunanda will wonder whether Arun noticed her stealing the picture and whether he stares at it in hiding, just like her.

 

Found something today. A torn up postcard.

Hm. So?

Pieced it together. It said –The first time we made love, you promised you would never hurt me. But you did. And all I keep remembering is that you asked me to trust you and that you always laughed when I called it ‘lovemaking’.

Wow.

There’s more. On the other side, it says –  I would have loved you with everything I have. But you didn’t want to be loved. Turns out you just wanted to be fucked regularly.

Wer u find it? Whos is it?

Found it in my hallway when taking out garbage. Maybe it’s my neighbour’s. Made me feel really sad.my heart feels like its going to burst.

Relx. Y u firkin out abt strngers probs? Frgt it.

Doesn’t matter that it’s a stranger. Can’t you feel the pain in those words?

Ys.

This could be me.

No. u wdnt send pstcard. U’d jst cry in scret. 

Haha. You know me well now. I think you’d send a postcard, wouldn’t you?

go fr walk. U’ll feel better. Cold wnd outsyd. Makes u frget evrythng but da cold.

It’ll make me feel more alone. I’ll get lost in this stupid city.

No u wont. I’ll mek sure u get hom. Clsest subway?

 

Of course Sunanda hadn't found that letter in the hallway. When Arun left for work, she double locked the door and put the chain on, just in case. Then she started looking for the black and white picture of the little, blonde girl running, which had disappeared at some point when she hadn't realised that it was Anita. She looked through the books on the shelf. She looked through Arun’s work cabinet, in the drawers of his desk. But she found nothing. Then she started looking in his wardrobe – in the pockets of his jackets and work suits, in pockets of his neatly-folded trousers, between the few handkerchiefs he has, in the pockets on the front of some of his shirts. She started opening his drawers and was momentarily taken aback to realise he had three drawers full of underwear. She found out that the one thing that Arun didn’t fold neatly in his wardrobe was his underwear. She also found out that he had a pair of boxers with Donald Ducks on them. The last drawer in his wardrobe was his sock drawer.

He keeps his passport and bank papers in his sock drawer. Sunanda knows this because he told her that. He has even showed her where he keeps a copy of his PIN number, in case she needs to use his card to withdraw money from the bank for some emergency.

It was in that drawer that she found it. Not the photograph, but under the passport folder, next to the black socks, were the coarsely torn pieces of paper. It wasn’t exactly a postcard but she didn’t know how else to describe it. The paper was hard, like that of postcards. But it was plain white, with writing on both sides. When she pieced it together, like the jigsaw puzzles for 5 year olds, it said, “The first time we made love, you promised you would never hurt me.” On the other side, once turned around and pieced together again, it said the rest of the message. “But you did.  And all I keep remembering is that you asked me to trust you and that you always laughed when I called it ‘lovemaking’.” It was a postcard from Anita. Sunanda recognised the handwriting. She wondered why Arun had torn it up and then kept it. Could he not bring himself to throw it away? Sunanda found herself almost ravished by a desire to find out Anita’s number and ask her what else Arun used to say to her when they made love.

She can see it so clearly. A dark room, with light from the streets flashing brightly from time to time – perhaps it was this room and this bed – with Arun holding Anita close and guiding her to the bed. They fall on it. She puts a hand on his chest.

I’m not sure about this, she says. 
Trust me, he says to her. I won’t hurt you. I promise.  
She looks up at him. She has light eyes that the darkness makes shinier. She puts her hand up to cup his cheek. He kisses the mound of Venus on her palm. 
I promise, he repeats. 
I love you, she tells him. 
I love you too, he says. And then he lays her on the bed and, just like in the movies, the little movie in Sunanda’s head fades to black.

*

She goes out for more lunches since the shopping expedition with Shaili. She still feels as though it’s more like taking a zoo animal out for a walk than meeting for the pleasure of her company. She is certain that a call goes out to Anita to tell her what she did after every lunch, detailing her dress, her walk, her behaviour. The first few times, she kept bringing up Arun in the conversation. She wanted to get across to Anita that she and Arun were tightly together, that Anita was the past no matter how many tampaxes, lipsticks and torn postcards she scattered around their home. Now she doesn’t try so hard. He stumbles into the conversation occasionally and rolls out within a few sentences. Instead, they talk about jobs, about infuriating family members, tattoos they want to get but never will and so on.

She’s also started going on more walks since the one that she'd gone on, following a route her SMS friend had sent her, hadn't ended up to be a disaster. The streets stop feeling so unfamiliar after a few days and the anxiety of being stranded passes. She begins noticing details about the roads she is walking – the cracks in the pavement, a dropped button, the remnants of cotton candy lying next to a garbage can. She watches the people she goes past in portions. Someone’s hand with a beautiful ring catches her attention while someone else’s orange sneakers wink at her as they stride past. Often as she walks, Sunanda tries to gauge secrets of the people walking past and the windows looking at the street.  Whenever she sees a head at a window or when her gaze is caught by a stranger’s for more than the usual fraction of a second, she wonders if that is her friend.

 

Sumrtym n da luvin is ez!

 Summer lovin’ had me a blast! Summer lovin’ happened so fast!

 Bk in da sumr of 69!

 We’re all going on a summer holiday. No more workin for a week or two!

 Sumr strechin on da grss/ sumr drsses pass/ in da shade of a wilo tri/ crips a-crolin’ ova me

 Summer, Summer, Summertime!

 Frm U2 2 will smth. Classy! :-P

 

 She wants to take Arun to a place that is shiny-new, unvarnished by any old memories. That is why she had insisted on a new restaurant. She doesn’t want him to look at the place and think of anything but the fact that it is just the two of them, husband and wife, coming out for dinner. She wants it to be a place that he will, from now on, only associate with her. As soon as she gets the business card in her phone, with the name and number of the restaurant, she opens up google.com. Her search results show her a restaurant with warm, yellow lighting, ornate mirrors and shiny, wooden tables. She reads about the Cleopatra tent that can be booked for couples, providing them privacy, Egyptian style, which explains the strange comment of asking for the tent. It seems a little bit like a film set. She wrinkles her nose without realising she is doing so. Her mouse hovers over the white tent in the photograph for a few seconds. A giggle bubbles out of her as she imagines sitting in a tent, under a solid roof, pretending to be in Egypt while sitting in a bustling city on the other side of the world. She decides to make the reservation ultimately because the food, according to all reviewers, is supposed to be excellent. She does not ask for the tent. Eating in that monstrosity will just make her feel like she’s fallen into one of those idiotic romances with Arab princes and nubile, kidnapped heroines that her cousins read as substitute for pornography.

It goes beautifully. It is almost like the beginning, when they used to only talk on the phone. It used to be so easy then. Words of love came easily, jokes came easily, cheeky rejoinders came easily; conversation came easily. Sunanda crosses her toes under the table. There is no need to go back in time. Right now, the present is pleasurable enough. Sunanda makes a mental note that they must go out for dinner like this at least once a week. Perhaps it is the security of being packed with strangers that is turning them on. Perhaps it is the martini. They talk to each other openly, like good friends still at the stage of wondering what sex would be like between them. As he tries to explain why he works as hard as he does and apologise for it simultaneously, Sunanda wonders if he has ever told Dominic this. What did he say before leaving for dinner? “It’s dinner a deux, dude,” with an exaggerated and excited waggle of the eyebrows? Or “No man, can’t go for a drink. Have to babysit the wife”?

 

Just before the main course comes, he holds her hand and says, “Thanks. I’m having a really good time.”
“You sound surprised that you are,” Sunanda teases.
Arun laughs. “I’m not surprised that I’m having a good time. I’m just surprised I’m having such a good time. How did you find this place?” he asks her.
She takes a sip of her martini and doesn’t answer because that would mean telling Arun that she'd asked her SMS friend. She's Sunanda's little secret. Instead, Sunanda smiles over the rim of the glass.

They come home straight after dinner. While Arun changes, Sunanda turns out the lights. There are no messages in her phone. She checks if Arun has switched off the computer. He hasn’t.
“Are you going to check mail before you come to bed?” Sunanda calls out.
“I’ll check tomorrow,” he replies.
“Shall I switch it off then?”
“Sure. Or let it be. It’ll go into sleep mode on its own anyway.”

Arun is watching VH1 when she comes out. “Are you watching Shakira?” Sunanda asks, laughing as she gets into bed. On screen is just Shakira’s bare back, with little silver things stuck on it. Her hips roll.
“Wow,” Arun says softly.
“I can’t believe you’re watching Shakira with that kind of awe.”
“They should have a video of her in a shower, man. That back and those hips, with water running down them, oh baby!”
He is laughing as he says it and Sunanda laughs too but she can see that it is not really a joke.

It’s 3am. Arun is sleeping. Sunanda has just woken up after dreaming of a yellow butterfly in a glass box. It ran into the transparent walls again and again, each time releasing a little puff of yellow. Now Sunanda is awake and her pulse is fluttering. Arun isn’t holding her. She doesn’t want to touch him. She picks up her phone from the bedside table and is about to type an SMS but what is there to say? She gets up from bed and goes towards, fumbling silently in the dark, until the computer wakes up. It shows Arun’s email. There are 28 new emails. One of them is from Anita Spiegel, whose email signature has her mobile number on it. It turns out she has almost the same number as Trishna, but for one digit: a 3 instead of an 8. 

Her grandmother always said, "Everything happens when it does because it is supposed to."

At 3.48am, Sunanda gets up from the desk and finds the discman. She puts in the CD her father had sent and goes to bed. She presses play and waits for sleep while listening to her baby voice singing, "Found a peanut, found a peanut, found a peanut just now...".