The elevator is seamless in motion, and slides up without a hitch that I can feel. It lets me be, free to stand here, and revel in the dizzying effect of being weightless, transported beyond gravity to a fourteenth floor which seems strangely surreal at times, something of a nonentity at others. But most of all, the elevator affords me a view of the breath-taking expanse of ocean yawning below me.
All this takes only a few seconds. I enter the apartment complex, the security guard tips his cap in my direction and I give him a slight nod in a salute of my own, I punch in the lift button and the car arrives, and I step in. Steel doors slide noiselessly together in a dream-like slow motion, and I ignore the liftman after telling him which floor to go to. And I turn out towards the glass back of the slithering elevator, looking out at the expanse of glimmering, waiting sea visible from high above Prabhadevi. All of it only takes a few seconds.
I remember my first vision of Bombay. The aircraft was circling around neighbourhoods I had absolutely no idea of, twinkling fairy lights, glinting yellows and golds, punctuated by staccato bursts of white and silver, some megalith Christmas tree spread over a flat expanse, black sea still yawning and gulping calmly from where I was, high up, feeling slightly sick, my ears blocked out because of the air pressure. I remember silly things like that, and I remember falling in love with the city after that view. I try to search for something of that view now, as the lift courses upwards, but it is strangely exhilarating and disappointing at the same time how different characters they all tend to have. Physical manifestations of sea and rock and water and concrete and a jumble of human beings, you’d think the mob mentality would be the same everywhere you saw them, but this night above Prabhadevi in a lift that slithers and soothes and makes love to me in its silence has a whisper that is quite unlike the gentle drone of the aircraft.
And I wonder whether I have lost something, or gained something, or am simply, inconsolably scared to death of something.
Two hours earlier
All it takes is a glance to know that you like someone. That’s so not true. All it takes is a conversation to know that you like someone. Another falsehood. I’m not sure what it takes, I’m not sure what it took, but I’m here, and I like this man opposite me. Perhaps it has something to do with the way he’s looking at me, not too concerned, not too worried, not too formal, but he wants me all the same. It’s something I can tell.
I propel him through the huge shelves to the deo and hair gel section. He’s finicky, he wants a L’Oreal, and the damn store doesn’t have any. I’m amused and I laugh at the state of affairs. It’s not that funny, he says. He has favourites. Well, so do I, and I understand what he means. I squeeze his shoulders in empathy. Shopping can be a terrifying experience, I have friends who can’t make up their minds about a silly handkerchief, but not this time. Both he and I take our time together. We lounge on our own through the warm white light streaming down on the cold white floor, each in our little reveries. This is a first date, something tells me, go and speak to him, find out more about him, so he’s cute, but he’s more than just something to ogle at, go and talk to him, and I stand looking at a dark blue linen shirt, wondering if they have my size.
“It’s perfect. You’ll look great in it,” he says, coming up behind me, his hands around my waist, and it thrills me for some reason. You’re not a virginal little child, you ninny, you’ve been down this road for ages and ages, stop acting like a school child.
So I grin and dimple, and take it off the rack, and look at myself in the mirror with it. “You think so?”
He nods, and shows me what he’s picked out for himself. It’s a white T-shirt with a slogan about tall drinks and teetotalers and I laugh at the silly line. There’s a dilemma though: he doesn’t know which size to pick, small or medium, and I tell him to try them both on. I follow him to the changing rooms and stand outside his little stall, while he goes in.
There’s a guard there, at the extreme end of the changing rooms, maybe he’s supposed to keep an eye so that nobody walks away with the clothes, after wearing them and snipping off the labels with a tiny scissor. I smirk at the thought, and wonder whether I would ever do something like that. It’s quite enticing, really, for a clotheshorse like me. But I stop thinking about shoplifting, when I see him take his shirt off inside the cubicle, through the gap in the door, which he hasn’t bolted. I’m tempted, and I smile to myself. I wonder if I’m blushing. People say I blush very easily. A human lie detector. Damn.
The door opens, and he comes out, whirling around for my benefit. It’s the medium size, and he likes how it feels. It’s nice, I comment, and tell him to try on the small size. All I want, right now, is to see him naked in the little stall, and I confess that I’m blushing now. Thank god, the guard is a bit far away. The door to the stall closes. He’s put the latch on this time, and I sigh. Is the guard looking at me now?
Another stall opens, and two men emerge from inside. They’re laughing, holding those big black-netted bags inside which I can see tonnes of clothes. Have they been trying them out, I wonder, or…? The guard evidently shares my suspicions (or so I think), because he steps a couple of paces forward, and the two men stop grinning and laughing and file away past him silently. They head towards the cash counter, but I can’t help smirking at the look on the guard’s face, as he traces them all the way there.
“And what do you think, now?”
“I like this one better. It fits better.” I nod. There’s something sexy about him now, something even better than the idea of him, bare-torsoed in the cubicle, taking his clothes off layer by layer. This leaves something for me to imagine. “I like this one,” I say again, in assent.
He’s frowning. “You don’t think it’s a bit tight… here?” He points towards his chest, and I find the gesture horribly funny. I laugh loudly, and tell him it’s all right, it’s not as if he’s got Pamela Anderson’s boobs, and that the T-shirt looks fine. He’s still a bit unsure, and looks at himself in the mirror, and that’s when I make my move.
Fuck the guard, something tells me, and I move inside the stall with him, and wrap my arms around him. He’s surprised, but pleased, and I roam my hands over his tight chest, on the stretched t-shirt, and over his flat belly. “I like the fit,” I grin at him, winking slightly, and even pat his butt. And then I step right out of the stall and back in the corridor, where the guard is, not quite sure what to make of this split-second of indiscretion. I should flash him a smile too, I think, but don’t.
“Take it,” I tell him, because he’s turned back towards the mirror, looking at his multiple images dancing to his left, right, centre, and I wonder if he can see me leering at him, through the mask of decided nonchalance now on my face.
All it took was a second.
Twenty seconds after Time Zero
Steel doors open, and I say a distinct “thank you” to the liftman in security guard’s garbs, who gives me a salaam, when I step onto the fourteenth floor. A corner of my mind wanders and wonders whether I’m an elitist snob, an elitist ass, who likes getting salaam-ed like this, and another little piece of conscience wags a finger at me, and says I probably am. I’m not a very nice person, but I’m the kind of person who loves you, o, who the fuck am I kidding? I’m tired and I’m high, and I think I like my life and I think I hate what I’ve got myself into.
And all this goes through, in circles and circles, with eagles high up in an imagined blue sky, while time ticks away in a matter of seconds. I’ve pressed the doorbell, and I’m waiting to be let in.
A week before Time Zero
I’ve been telling myself that I can do this, and yet I can feel myself faltering even now. It doesn’t help that he’s here. But then, I would not be able to do it if he weren’t. My world is a conundrum, and I’m the Mad Hatter in Wonderland. (Glad to meet you.)
We were at the hospital, from where he picked up a report for his mother. She’s wonderful creature. She smiles at me, whenever she sees me, and holds my hand, and sits me down, and wants to know about all the gossip going on at my workplace. She pretends to think that her son and I are merely friends, she knows we’re so much more than that, yet she lives happily in her dreams and is happy to see us romp in her reality. Her eyes are always open, and yet, she has a cataract in the right one. O, horrible thought.
But he was so wonderful at the hospital. He laughed and talked with the nurses, flirted with the ramrod straight old lady behind the counter he had to pick the report up from and took her scolding in good grace, said hello to the elderly gentleman behind us in the queue and introduced me to him before they started talking about how his parents were, held my hand while leading me out to the parapet where his bike stood, leaning against the wall, lined with little gladioli pots. It was the going to be hard, I knew, and I wondered why on earth I was about to do it. All my reasons seemed to fly away. I cried and laughed with delirium while he guided the Honda towards Bandstand, and I wished fervently that the world would end and time would stop ticking.
But he can sense it. I can sense him sensing it. He leans over the rocks, where the two of us are sitting, and he strokes my arm. “Sit nearer to me,” he whispers, but I demur, and by the look on his face now, I can sense that he can sense it. It’s a demented, twisted loop over which I ache for control.
Small talk is something I want now. So I start yapping about work, and my trip to Goa, and the beautiful people I saw there and flirted with, and the late nights and the tall glasses of Long Island Iced Teas, and the shifting sand biting and crunching on the beach. Are there crabs here on the rocks, I wonder and ask him, but he smiles and says, even if they are, they won’t hurt us. They’re afraid of us, more than we are afraid of them. I’m afraid of him, even though he can probably sense it. Can he understand it, though?
He does. “Tell me what you’ve been going through. You want to tell me something. Are you alright?”
So he’s the one who drags out my confession from me. I was too cowardly to do it myself. Too frail. Too undecided. But if I were undecided, what am I doing here in the first place? Too many thoughts spring unbidden, unwanted, to my mind, and I cloister them away. I have to be honest, but how do I find the words to tell him? Am I even aware that I’m not looking at him, I’m looking at the group of three college boys sitting some distance away, on the rocks, feeling the spray of the sea.
And so it falls like a tonne of bricks, heavy, hard, smothering. “I don’t know where we’re going.”
“I’m not in love with you.”
“I don’t think I’m ion love with you.”
“I want to be in love with you.”
“But I’m not.”
“It’s not fair to you, to not be in love with you.”
“Am I being naïve, saying that I’m not in love with you?”
“You deserve much more, you deserve some one who is so much in love with you.”
Sentences, frayed and misty, with common words and threads that somehow link them together. I’m not even aware that my cheeks are wet, but I can feel his fingers on them, brushing and wiping and strong, and soothing. He tells me not to cry, and I find that ridiculous (because I’m not crying, am I?) and he tells me it’s alright. He smokes a cigarette, and I would rather look at the stream of smoke playing filigree on the darkening sky, than his thoughtful eyes.
“It’s alright,” he says. “I’ve never been with someone so much younger than me. I wondered how it could happen now. But I hoped… But it’s alright,” and he smiles at me, as if I’m the one who’s heart is broken now, “There’s so much more time. It’s alright.”
He baffles me. Yet, it is no more than I expected of him. We sit there on the rocks, talking about work, the boys on the beach, the lovers ahead, one arm around another, and then we feel awkward on noticing them, and talk about mundane matters instead: credit card payments, auto loans, rent allowances, future career plans, and so many little things I would go to a tax consultant for, or to a career counselor.
I take an auto rickshaw back to the station. He remained on the beach, and I moved my fingers through his hair, as he smiled again and again, and told me that it would be alright. I knew it would be hard. Will it last, I ask myself, but don’t really want to find an answer. Is there any fat, bald old man on any tall mountain I can holler to, and ask my future from? What can he possibly tell me that I don’t know myself…
Thirty seconds after Time Zero
Wooden doors remain closed, and I’m exasperated. Bell peals sound maddening to my ears, and yet nobody lets me in. I rummage in my bag for a key, finally.