Is It Me You’re Thinking Of? by Lakshmy Ramakrishnan

The phone vibrated against the dining room table, Arun leaned over, examined it and placed it into the back pocket of his jeans. He looked deep in thought afterword, as though he had read something he wasn’t expecting. I went back to placing the dinner dishes on the counter-top. Dinner was predictable simpleton food: dal tadka, brinjal fry and chapathi. My signature dish for a simple evening. I had always liked the combination as I was growing up and now as an adult am comfortable experimenting with different lentils and their flavours. Arun didn’t seem to mind whatever I spruced up in the kitchen. We were too early in our marriage so I couldn’t determine if I was pleased that my husband wasn’t surprised about my culinary finesse or whether I should be peeved that he simply wasn’t bothered about what I put together.

It was a Friday night, cool gusty winds were blowing through our French windows and into the dining room. On most nights, we ate at the kitchen counter-table, it was convenient compared to the fussy formal meals we had endured, post-wedding at our relatives’ houses. We sat in companionable silence, our knees barely grazing against each other, munching through the meal.

“Did you by any chance get time to send those thank-you notes to our guests?” I asked Arun, through a bite.

“Yes, I stopped at the post office by around 11 this morning. I had to go to the printing division and it was on the way.” He sipped a glass of water and went back to his plate. “A lot of people turned up, eh?”

“Yeah, I guess our parents’ went a bit overboard with the invitations. I think they were a bundle of emotions by the end of it.” It was true, our families appeared more excited than the two of us.

Don’t get me wrong, I was enthralled to be a bride and have a wedding, but our parents’ on the other hand, were, overly enthusiastic. “It was kind of cute and sad, really. I mean, they had been waiting to celebrate a wedding whole-heartedly for awhile now, especially with the debacle my sister created before hers. They never really got a chance to celebrate the ‘coming together’ of two families thing.” My sister, Ria, the eldest, had had her marriage fixed to Vijay, a guy she had known all throughout her schooling and college days. They got along well, our families had known each other for several years, hell, even I liked the thought of him being a brother in-law.

Fate had other plans however, or at least, my sister did, because she called off the wedding about 2 weeks before because she said she was in love someone else. Everyone was devastated, including Vijay, the poor guy was sportive about it but you could tell his heart had broken into several pieces. Ria eventually arm wrestled our parent’s and got married to Rohit (the colleague she figuratively left Vijay at the altar for). The two of them are happy and have a year old son. Vijay had probably suffered enough embarrassment because the following month, he opted for an assignment to the States. Last I heard, he started a live-in relationship with a daytime soap opera actress and hasn’t visited India since.

“Do you mind if I watch TV for a bit?” Arun asked as he rinsed the plates.

“Leave those in there, I’ll take care of them. Yeah, sure, go ahead, I have to make some calls anyway.”

I washed the dishes and served two generous scoops of ice-cream into a couple of bowls. I knew pistachio flavoured ice-cream was his favourite so I had picked it from the store earlier in the week. He had been tired and distracted lately and on most nights went to bed early so I hadn’t had a chance to open it. I personally liked the flavour of creamy pistachio ice-cream with melted chocolate and caramelised nuts, so I had even prepared the toppings from scratch.

“Here you go,” I passed a bowl over to Arun who was reclining on the sofa watching a ManU vs Chelsea game, that just gone into the second-half.

“Hey, what’s this? Looks as though you’ve gone into a lot of planning for a relaxing Friday night,” he licked the spoon and what looked to me as an afterthought, awkwardly leaned over to peck me on the cheek. “Pista’s my favourite. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. You seemed really tired from work lately, so I thought I’d get you a pick-me up.”

“Well, I’d say you’re almost there. I could think of a couple more things that could get me all relaxed,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.

I blushed from head to toe. The man had that effect on me. To make me feel all gooey and jelly-like with that mischievous smile and glint in his eyes. I patted away his hands that had found themselves resting on my derrière. I decided to play coy, “Don’t you think you’re a tad bit too tired and worn out for something so strenuous?”

Arun raised his hands as though in protest. “Well, Nikita, I know you’re one who doesn’t shy away from a good challenge. What are we waiting for?”

“Let’s see, the night is young,” I grinned back at him as I walked towards our bedroom. My tummy was aflutter, my heart was racing, and raw desire I never knew existed inside of me had been sparked, I made a mental note to finish off those phone calls quickly.

 

II

The man crept quietly, tip-toed away from the bedroom, opened the French windows by the dining room, and stepped outside onto the balcony. He was bare-chested, clad in shorts, and as he looked out, he could see a perfectly pitch dark sky, not a single star in sight. He couldn’t remember a single day in his childhood when he wasn’t able to count the stars. This was a time when he and his father would lie on the terrace and his father would recant his trials and tribulations as a struggling lawyer. Today, that boy was a man. As a result of keeping up appearances, he felt physically relaxed. But was left feeling emotionally drained and he knew it was showing on his face.

He dialled the international number that was saved on his phone as, ‘No name.’ The call was answered on the second ring.

“Hey, I thought you’d never get around to calling tonight,” it was a woman’s voice that resonated through the phone.

“Hey. I know, I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. We had a late dinner. So, what are your plans for the day?”

“Oh you know, the usual. I have a couple of doctor’s appointments scheduled for today and then I’m going to the travel agent to finalise my tickets. To India,” she added.
He wasn’t sure if she could hear his heart pounding but the stark reality of her making travel plans caused a multitude of emotions but he only ones he could feel were desire and excitement. He tried to keep his voice even. “That’s great. I think it would be good for you to get a change of scenery,” his hopes weren’t entirely pure and innocent but a man could hope.

The woman on the other end knew exactly which buttons to push and she wasn’t going to let anything stop her. “I know, I think it would do us both a lot of good,” she responded with candour.

This piece of news was more than enough to keep him going for the next few days. He felt recharged. They said their goodbyes but before clicking off, told him to check his WhatsApp(R) – a photo with the caption, ‘for your eyes only.’

He opened the photo, and before he could form a proper thought in his mind, primal instincts took over. He braced himself for an encore that he hoped would be convincing and trodded back inside.

 

 

 

III

I roused from my sleep and glanced at my phone, it was only 1:30am, but Arun wasn’t in bed beside me. I sat up and brushed tendrils away from my face, and as if on cue, Arun walked into the bedroom with a glass of water in his hand.

“Hey, I felt a bit thirsty,” he said and handed the glass over to me to have a sip. “What are you going up so late? Isn’t it past your bedtime, young lady?” he asked as he slid into the sheets.

I could feel his manhood pressed against my thigh, while his hands were making their way across my mid-region. I could feel myself responding to his burning needs.

It was awhile before we finally slept. As Arun’s snores reverberated into the darkness, I couldn’t help but feel that although we were physically sated, I had this nagging feeling that neither his mind nor his heart was really in it. It was lacking something. Passion, perhaps. It’s probably all the work stress I surmised and kept the thoughts aside.

 

IV

 

Being an academic in the pure sciences, hadn’t really given me an edge in the rat race, rather by ranking in the top 10 percentile of the National Eligibility Test had. Moving from Kochi to Bangalore meant that I had to give up my teaching job as lecturer at an arts and science college and look for something similar here. It was probably the most difficult thing I had to part with when we married. The independence, the satisfaction of earning your own bread and of course exploring the art of teaching were difficult to part with, even for a short time. I got along well with my students and colleagues and they were sad to see me go, as was I, but I was hopeful that this move would expand my horizons.

I had shortlisted colleges earlier but all of them had insisted on applying during the vacation, when they pooled the vacancies from all the colleges in the region. Arun had left for work early that morning and had left his laptop at his workstation in the study. He seldom left it at home but it was Monday morning and his car had already left the driveway before I realised it.  It gave me an idea to work on my applications and take printouts. I would have done it on my own laptop, except that my nosy brother in-law had updated it to Windows 10 and since then, I hadn’t been able to access the internet.

I was about to log off when I remembered that one of the colleges required both soft and hardcopy applications. It was when I opened File Explorer that I stumbled across a folder labelled as, ‘2009-2016  – Memories;’ that got me intrigued. What would the contents hold?

What I found when I opened it was completely unexpected. Tons of photos of Arun. With another woman.  I don’t know how to describe it. My heart sank and my mind was reeling. There were photos of them holding hands, embracing; candid photos that revealed the nature of the relationship. They were lovers. He looked so happy, you could see it in his eyes. And she was beautiful, there was no denying it. The photos told stories; there were photos of them sitting on a lawn with textbooks open feeding grapes off of each other, walking hand in hand on the beach, and as I scrolled further down,  my heart lurched. A photo of her propped up against a headboard reading the paper, in what was unmistakably a morning-after.

I gaped in despair. I needed air. I needed to breathe. There would be a simple explanation, this was after all, his ex. The folder name reiterated this. There hadn’t been any ‘memories’ since 2016. I chided myself in not being prepared for this. I couldn’t fathom something like this happening to me; that my husband of 6 months had been intimate with another woman, before me. We hadn’t had the conversation about our previous relationships. I didn’t want to get into it as the past was in the past as far as I was concerned. Nor did I have much to contribute, except for 2 relationships while I was studying. I wasn’t naive to the physical intimacies of relationships but I had never let it go far to the point of regretting it.

I gathered that Arun was also someone who thought along the same lines. But in hindsight, seeing the reality, made me wonder whether making such assumptions was the right call. Would there be any more skeletons in the closet that I could stumble upon? Was confronting him the right path to take? I realised I had a lot of thinking to do, but it would be moot point putting all the pieces together without any context.

Later that evening, I was folding the laundry and was preoccupied in my own thoughts that I hadn’t even heard Arun come in, till I heard the thump of a door closing. “Arun? Arun?” I called out from the guest bedroom. “Sorry, I didn’t hear the car. Dinner’s ready, I’ll just reheat it in the microwave,” hearing no response, I walked to the foyer only to realise that it was a one-sided conversation. Arun hadn’t bothered to respond because he had already made it into the shower. Slightly miffed, I put dinner together. I hadn’t figured out whether I should ask him or not but the images were cloned into in my head.

 

 

V

The man laid his head against the glass door of the shower. He sighed in relief as the water gushed down his soap-lathered body. It was becoming intense. He was pent up with anger and frustration towards her for leaving him in the first place, the guilt he was harbouring over the woman he just married and for the deception he would undoubtedly commit. If only there was a pause button on life, he thought to himself. If you could just take a break from responsibility and societal pressure.

Too late, he mustered. Hook, line, and sinker he was in deep shit and was getting himself into deeper shit. He didn’t want to carry on this charade but what was making him do so was incomprehensible to him.

While drying his hair he reminded himself to pack his laptop into his backpack. He realised he had forgotten it when he arrived at work this morning. It wasn’t a necessity for work, since the company provided a laptop but he didn’t want her to come across any surprises that would undoubtedly, rock the boat. He could put a password, he thought, but that could call for even more trouble, as couples were supposed to ‘share everything’. He grimaced at the thought of his mobile in her hands. He should be more careful, especially now that things were about to escalate. To what end, he thought to himself.

VI

“Your mother called today,” I informed him while serving cucumber raita, the accompaniment to tonight’s vegetable pulao. “She said that she had asked you to book one of those Annual Medical Check-ups at Apollo Hospital.”

Arun made a face, “I don’t know why they want to put themselves through these tests every year.”

“Well, I guess it’s easier this way for them to monitor their health especially since they’re not as active as they used to be,” I replied. She had told me she had been asking him to book the appointment for the past 3 months and that he had been forgetful in doing so. “If you want, I could book it for them. It’s online, isn’t it? Oh, by the way, I think your Kaspersky(R) Internet Security subscription expires next week. Did you want me to buy one? I’m going into the city tomorrow,” I suggested helpfully.

Suddenly, I hear a cluttering sound, Arun has thrown a fork onto the other side of the dining table. I’m stunned as I look at him, “What’s the matter?”

His fingers are curled up and his breathing is laboured. He isn’t looking at me, but at the point on the timbered wood where the fork had landed. I feel queasy inside. This isn’t a side to Arun that I had ever seen before.

Slowly, he paces his breathing, looks over at me, and asks, “How do you know about my Kaspersky subscription expiry date?”

I was searching for my voice; I hadn’t felt this awkward and frightened, even when I was caught stealing candy from a teacher’s stash, and sent to the Principal’s office. This was something entirely different but I thought it best to answer wholly. “I used your laptop to printout applications and send a few via email,” I hoped my voiced wasn’t quivering because I couldn’t help but think that this shouldn’t be a big deal.

“Okay,” that’s all that he said. Okay. After that explosion, we didn’t say a word to each other. I wasn’t sure what to think at that point.

While I was washing the dishes, Arun came up to me, dressed, and said that he was going out. I didn’t ask where, nor did he offer to tell me. I couldn’t fathom why he lost his temper, but he didn’t lash out or say anything harsh to me. A violation of his privacy, perhaps? Would he think that I was prying if I mentioned the photos?

I hadn’t thought of it until this moment, but what about his mobile? He’s never without it and I know he keeps it on him all the time. It’s passcode protected, but I never felt the need to check his phone. Until now. I was feeling confused. What are the rules here? I wouldn’t appreciate him poking around my phone or laptop with that intention but I wouldn’t mind him using it, nor do I feel the need to secretive about it. Does he have something else to hide? Am I over-analysing this?

 

VII

He was driving aimlessly across the city. He didn’t have a destination in mind. He needed time to clear his head. There was no excuse for the way he behaved, he felt ashamed and regretted his lashing out. She had no right to use his laptop. That was his justification. It was a clear violation of his privacy. What would be next? His phone?

Had she seen the photos? He suspected, she might have, but she hadn’t asked him about it. They hadn’t shared the talk on past relationships. He knew about hers; one of his colleagues, a few years her senior in college, had told him so. He didn’t let on that he already knew about her past. It was the main reason why he anticipated that she was an experienced lover, but their wedding night, had indeed, rendered him speechless. It was bittersweet but in his defence, he hadn’t known. Now, as he drove past Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens, he contemplated on how to fix the situation.

He made his decision as he parked the car into the parking lot. Admittedly, he had made a faux pas. Had he done what he was about to do before, it probably wouldn’t have come off as something funky, but now, he had painted a big, red ‘X’ on his chest. Despite all that, he knew he could talk himself out of it. That is what he did for a living, wasn’t it?

 

VIII

I was window shopping through home decor stores in the city the next day, in the hopes of coming up with some ideas for sprucing up our villa. Most stores I discovered had what I was looking for, which was a contemporary living space with some Indian ethnicity. For the furnishings, my idea was to mix brown and golden pastel colours with some bold ones like, Moroccan red and velvety peach. Most of our furniture was purchased online and gave off a rustic vibe, so I hoped it would all be complementary and pleasing to the eye.

It was when I was flipping through a paint palette book that I noticed a familiar face approaching me.

“Nikita, it’s so good to see you!” Gushed Ana, a distant relative on my maternal side, before hugging me.

“Hi, it’s good to see you too. Arun and I visited your parent’s during Diwali, they told us you had gone on holiday to Bali,” Ana and her husband Vivek loved travelling and what’s befitting is that they ran a successful travel agency. They had magnetic personalities and had this ability to put people at ease and get them talking. They had so many travel stories to share that they had customers eating off the palm of their hands; they were oblivious to a marketing strategy that was in play. Nevertheless, they were good-natured people.

“I know, I know. Mama told us. So, how are you? How is married life?” We stepped out of the shop and walked towards a Costa Coffee outlet.

“It’s good, it’s great. I’m liking Bangalore. Lots to see, lots to do. I’ve started applying for jobs, waiting for the academic year to begin. Just thought of doing a small decor project for the villa in the meanwhile.”

“I’m happy for you. Enjoy the break, you deserve it, after all the studying you’ve done. And, to be in a profession where you learn for a living!” Ana exclaimed. “I don’t know how you do it, Nikita, but if it were me, I would have jumped deck!”

“Oh! I’m comfortable with it, studying and teaching go hand in hand,” we had almost reached the outlet when a thought came into my mind. “Ana, didn’t you tell me that Vivek and Arun had attended the same college together?”

I couldn’t see Ana’s reaction but she replied by saying that, “Yeah, I think Vivek was a  couple of years ahead of Arun. Why? What made you ask now?”

Maybe it was my facial expression or the way I had asked her the question but Ana’s radars were alert. But I decided to dodge her line of questioning, “Let’s order, shall we? I’ll have a caramel flavoured cafe mocha. What will you have?”

“A hot chocolate,” Ana replied and insisted on paying the bill. “It’s fine, Nikita. Let me take it, let this be a welcome to Bangalore treat,” as we took our seats. “What’s wrong Nikita? Is something the matter?” she asked kindly as she put a hand on mine.

I took a deep breath. There was nothing for me to be scared of, really. I was worrying about something that had happened in the past. But I needed to share it with someone, so I filled her in with what I had seen on his laptop.

“Wow, I hadn’t known Arun was a guy who had a temper. He has always seemed so sweet,” said Ana in a distressed tone. “I guess people have their own issues about privacy. I hear a lot of customers talk about password protection on their gadgets, email and social media. It’s all a bit of hoodlum, if you ask me,” she said as she stirred a third packet of sugar into her hot chocolate. “I do more googling and phoning from Vivek’s phone than my own and we share all our passwords. We both agreed not to have anything between us. You can get influenced by all social media nonsense sometimes and it does tear people apart,” she advised.

“I know, in my mind, I know all of that,” I point towards my head in a somewhat spastic manner. “I even read about all of this privacy related stuff in Cosmo and Elle so I could get my head around what their perspective is,” I said in chagrin. “Ana, the difficulty I’m facing is in understanding, why?” It just wasn’t something I had witnessed in my parent’s or any other adults marriages’ while growing up. There didn’t appear to be any boundaries for these kinds of things. Then again, there was no social media or mobile phones to act as a deterrent of social contact.  I was feeling dejected and uncertain about what to do next.

Ana must’ve sensed it because she patted my hand and said, “Look, you both are younger than us, you’re still new to all this and every couple needs their time to fall into rhythm. I wouldn’t worry about it but you still need to talk to him about this. It’s obviously making you sad and uncomfortable and he needs to understand so you can both deal with the issue here.”

She was making perfect sense, but I was holding back and it felt as thought there was something caustic in my throat. “He left after the blowout and came back with a laptop for me.”

“What?” asked a startled Ana. “He bought you a new laptop the same night?” She was obviously perplexed. “But I thought yours just needed a repair or an update or something?”

“Yes, that’s true but he didn’t know that and he didn’t seem to be in a state of mind to hear my explanations,” I myself, was baffled initially. Then, I reached the likely conclusion, “Ana, this could only mean one thing. It’s a complete hands-off policy for him. This privacy thing. I mean, he just went out and bought a laptop when he realised I used his. Once. A one-time use. I mean, I know he has a good practice and all, but really, did he need to buy it the same night?”

“Hey, hey, calm down Nikita. Did he apologise? Did he say anything else?” Ana asked inquiringly.

I sniffed and replied, “Yeah, he apologised for the hissy fit and said something about it being how he had been living this independent life, not used to anyone interfering in his things, holding sensitive client information. Ha! He left out the part about photos of him and his ex-girlfriend canood ling.”

“Well, all things considered, you seem okay about the part where you saw the photos and what that signified,” Ana said judgingly.

“What do you mean? I’m not okay about that. But the fact of the matter is that we never had that discussion about our exes and our past. I have to take responsibility for not asking the right questions at the right time,” I replied testily.

“It’s lying by omission, Nikita. You’ve done it too. But I take it, your relationships didn’t leave lasting effects? Whereas, his obviously did,” Ana replied candidly.

I knew what she was referring to and told her so. “I know. He’s been with someone else. That fantasy of my husband being, “my man and mine only,” isn’t true to it’s word. But at least he’s faithful to me now and in the long run, I realise that’s what’s important. I’m sad and I’ll need some time to put it past me but I’m prepared to do so. I can’t crucify him for something he did when he was younger.”I knew Ana could hear the hysteria in my voice but I was trying to restrain my hurt and keep it together.

Ana replied carefully choosing her words, “Nikita, there’s something else you need to consider. Why does he still have those photos of the two of them? Let me ask you this. Do you have photos of your exes lying around?” she paused and when I didn’t answer, she continued. “I take that stoic silence to mean, ‘no.’ Moreover, you need to be asking yourself, why is he so darn stern about his privacy? Is he hiding something else?”

It was as though she was mirroring my own thoughts. Thoughts I really didn’t want to delve into because I wasn’t ready to face the answers. I looked at her with frankness and asked her what she would do if she were in my situation.

“Honey, look, I’m a bit old fashioned and you’re too honest with your heart hanging off your  your sleeves and all. But you need to take a good, hard, long look at your marriage. Whether it’s communication, sex, hobbies or whatnot, see what’s amok. Because, I’m telling you, I smell something fishy,” Ana peered at me through her full rim spectacles. “I’ve got you, don’t worry. I won’t let anything happen to you, you have my word. But if I know anything about marriage, it’s honesty and that is the whole foundation. You probably have nothing to worry about, but it’s your right to make sure that nothing is going on now,” Ana sat back and we sipped our drinks in silence, each mulling over the others’ thoughts.

I realised then that the ink on my marriage certificate hadn’t dried and I was already in dire straits.

 

IX

He was breathless from the run. Panting, he stopped to tie his shoelace and check his phone. No messages and no calls. It wasn’t like her to not contact him for more than a day or two. But this time was an exception, he had tried to talk her out of visiting India. To put it more frankly, he had tried to talk her out of this thing they had going.

He wasn’t sure what it was. All he knew was that he used to be head over heels in love with her, she dumped him for someone her parent’s approved of, and he moved on. He got himself married to a nice girl, then once fine day, hardly 3 months into his marriage, gets a message from her asking if they could talk. There should’ve been a warning signal in his head then because it sure as hell was deadening.

Slowly, he found himself becoming her listening board and soothing her over her problems with her deadbeat husband and her in-laws and she later, became his confidante. He was able to talk to her and open up his thoughts and feelings in away he could with no other person. She had an effect on him that frightened him. Later, the calls and texts became more risque when there wasn’t a crisis that she didn’t need help with. Gone were the innocuous conversations between two adults who were married to different people, these were 2 adults who shared a history and weren’t quite over it. Their conversations of late, had been laced with innuendos and were suggestive of an affair playing out in the future. He wasn’t sure if this was fantasy or real but when she messaged him a few nights back that she was booking tickets to India, he knew. He was a red-blooded man and he wasn’t exactly sure if he wanted to keep his urges at bay but the guilt was getting to him and he wasn’t sure what to do of it. He tried to do the right thing by pulling the plug on this fantasy play. They were both married and as far as he was concerned, his wife didn’t deserve this from him. So, when he suggested they cool things off he wasn’t expecting her to react so, he couldn’t describe it in any other way, violently.  She cursed and shrieked at him and threatened to harm herself. That stopped him dead on his tracks. He had been trying to contact her ever since. He knew she wouldn’t actually do anything to harm herself, but just the thought of it, petrified him.

He reasoned that the only way he was going to make things right was if the came clean about her to his wife.

 

X

I was rummaging through some of the furnishings that had been delivered that morning. Table lamps, book ends, and area rugs for the bedrooms were some of the items I had selected at the store that week. I was working well within the budget I had allocated towards this, but did feel the need to go down to some op-shop markets to pick up curios for that earthly touch.

Arun stood by the door while I was ticking items off my shopping list. I looked over and went back to surveying the items. I wasn’t ignoring him, but I didn’t feel the need to initiate a conversation either. I could her Ana’s words in my ears, ‘it takes two to tango.’

He cleared his throat and said, “Hey. When you’re done with that. Do you think we could talk?”

I shrugged and replied, “Yeah sure, over lunch?” I was planning on preparing aloo parathas.

“Yeah, okay. That sounds great. I’ll er….take a shower then,” he walked off to the master bedroom.

I had a nervous feeling about this. In no scenario did I think of him wanting to talk. In my mind, it was all about confrontation. Ana hadn’t coached me for this instance.

Our abode was isolated from the city and was part of one of those eco-friendly projects that catered to individuals who were prepared to invest significantly for a more sustainable living arrangement.  The entire housing complex was surrounded by luscious green foliage; there was even a picnic spot that overlooked a lake. Our balcony was the perfect spot for a rejuvenating Surya Namaskar in the morning or for a blissful respite during a nightcap.

We sat in what appeared to be an amiable quietude over lunch. I waited for Arun to break the silence.

He sat up in his chair and looked over at me and started, “There are some things about my past that I haven’t shared with you. I didn’t think it was important because that’s where they are. In the past.” He stopped suddenly and it looked as though he was waiting for me to stop him. I didn’t say anything so he kept going. “I had a relationship with a girl. I met her when we were studying law. We were besotted with each other and each other’s company. We finished law school together and ultimately started working for the same firm. Over the years, our relationship turned serious and eventually, we were living in and outside of each other’s apartments,” he paused to let it all sink in and to gather his thoughts. “I don’t know how it happened or what sparked it, but she took a compete 180 degree turn one day. She made it perfectly clear that she didn’t see me as the marital figure her parent’s had envisioned. And that was that. It was a clean break for her, she married someone else a few months later and moved abroad.”

I sat in silence. I didn’t realise his relationship with her ran so deep. “Didn’t she leave you any explanation at all?”

He sighed and expelled air exasperatedly, “No, nothing. Once her mind was made up, there was nothing I could do.” Arun pondered for a few seconds before slowly saying, “Her family was pleased and they wouldn’t let me near her house after the breakup. I gathered titbits of information from our friends but even they eventually grew tired of our farce.”

Arun’s ex sounded like an ice queen. Cold and calculated, I thought. I could hear it in his voice that he was resentful for how things had ended. It wouldn’t have been easy to take a beating after so many years of togetherness. “But what about you? How did you manage afterwards?”

Arun didn’t appear as though he had expected that question. He replied carefully, “I was obviously devastated. I seriously thought I would marry her, instead she broke by heart. I got over it, got another job, bought a new place.”

“And you got married,” I stated in a low voice. I looked up at him. My implication was clear. Was I just a rebound? Did he even want to get married to me at all?

He looked straight at me with unwavering eyes, “Nikita, all that happened a long time ago. My head has been straight since. I know we were married through conventional ways, but I truly did want to marry you. No one forced me, this is what I wanted,” and he grabbed my hand and placed it between his. It was a reassuring gesture but I wasn’t sure if I was entirely convinced. He must’ve sensed my body language because he responded by saying, “I know I made a tremendous boo-boo about the laptop,” he looked chagrined as he said it. “There are some old photos of the two of us and I didn’t want you to see them.”

“Why?” I asked softly.

“Well, because I hadn’t told you about her then,” he replied.

“No, I meant, why do you still have them? I have exes but I don’t have any photos or even keepsakes,” I couldn’t curb my anger but I desperate to know why he still needed them.

He looked at a loss as to what to say and waved his hands in hopelessness, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know why I still have them.”

I wasn’t prepared to leave it at that. “That still doesn’t give you the right to be so secretive about your gadgets. What kind of a marriage is based on stealthiness? We can’t live like that forever.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I explained to you earlier about how I was private and I haven’t really had anyone to share my things with before,” he said by way of explanation.

“You mean, except her?” He walked right into that one.

He opened his mouth as though to offer a counter, but thought better of it, and closed it.   We sat in ponderous silence not knowing how to sift through this mess.

He reached her hand again and stroked it, “Nikita, you’ve got to understand. It’ll just take some time for me. To let you into my space. I meant it when I say that the past is over. I’m looking forward to spending my life with you. I know I haven’t been forthcoming about this, but I will try to be a better husband.” His eyes looked imploringly at mine and they were honestly tugging at my fictitious heart strings.

I looked away and took a deep breath. “I was really hurt when I found about your ex.”

He nodded in understanding. I clarified, “I knew about your ex earlier.” He gaped at me when he realised the implications. “Before you jump the gun. I wasn’t snooping around for dirt on you. I came across the folder, when I downloaded my CV, and just thought to open it because I was expecting photos from your college days.”

He looked affronted and was chewing his inner cheek for some time before he said, “I guess I wouldn’t be pleased to see photos of you with another guy.”

We looked over at each other. I braced myself, “It’s not healthy to keep things from each other. No more secrets, no more lying. I want the past to be where it belongs.”

“I agree,” he pulled me over to his lap and wrapped his arms around me. “Just trust me. I will make it right and do better by you,” he whispered and nuzzled my neck.

I felt a warm feeling of relief spread down my body and smiled to myself, things were back on track.

 

XI

He was already positioned by the balcony for his nightly call. He was past his bedtime but this was becoming ritualistic. Their phone calls lasted not more than half an hour in the night, they were able to speak more freely when her husband was at work, which accounted for the late nights he spent at his firm. She hadn’t gotten a steady job since she moved to the States, rather worked temp jobs at Legal Aid and several other associations for the minorities. That was part of her frustration, he realised. She was a career driven woman who was foreign to the concept of boiling water or cooking rice. He chuckled in memory of a time when she made a face of disgust when he prepared tea for the two of them with tea dust; ‘Did that just come from that brown stuff? Why do you want all that mess? Just dip, squeeze and throw!’ Besides that, he could talk to her just about anything. Whether it was the ethics and legalities of driverless cars, constitutional amendments or euthanasia, they were on the same wavelength.

He wasn’t sure whether he could achieve that level of intimacy with his wife. Their latest talk appeared to be productive. He felt he made the right decision about coming clean about his past. He wasn’t ready to jeopardise his marriage about his current situation though.

He wanted to let it play out for some time. His resolve to end it hadn’t come through but he had convinced her that he just wanted to do the right thing by her as well. She was speaking to him again but it took some significant pillow talk to make it happen. They had come across a final critical point, should they wish to turn around before they embark on the next ride. But now, her intentions were crystal clear.

Women, he thought. They were so damn infuriating sometimes. He realised he could sweet talk them and make them putty in his hands but controlling them was another matter itself.

 

XII

“That was something, all right,” I commented to Arun as we left the multiplex theatre. It was full-house for a directorial debut by an upcoming Malayalee actor. The main attraction was the cameo appearance of a youth icon. The gutting was that the promos didn’t disclose that it was only a cameo appearance Too late, we were taken aback by the implication an hour into the movie, but since we had paid, we didn’t have a choice to do anything about it.

“Yeah, remind me not to let you book his movies any more. Isn’t that the 3rd or 4th movie of his that have turned out to be flops?” Arun quizzed as he opened the door to Pizza Hut.

I shrugged. The youth icon was one of those hotties that I didn’t mind watching on the big screen, regardless of how insipid the movie plot was but I tried to remain neutral. “He hasn’t had much luck but at least he’s trying out new and versatile roles,” I justified whilst reading the menu.

Arun gave me a sardonic look and started thumbing on his phone.

“What do you feel like? I’m not that hungry for any starters. Are you?”

“Mmm…yeah, sure whatever you like,” Arun was furiously punching in keys into his phone and not looking up.

“How about 2 medium pizzas? Margherita and one more? You choose,” I said after careful deliberation.

He was still focused on his phone, oblivious to the surroundings and my voice. I hated when men did this, I have a phone. Do you see me punching it in every 5 minutes and forgetting the world around me? Sigh. I don’t think men knew how to multitask, either, but seriously, what if I was choking? Would he notice me then? Streaming with rhetorical questions in my head, he finally looked up. He must’ve read something on my face because he immediately called the waiter and placed the order.

“How is work going? Is that big case finally over?” Arun had been working late nights for awhile now. He said they had a big case with a client who brought in a significant portion of billable hours and putting in effort now would be instrumental to getting on the partner track.

“Good, good. Everyone’s putting in their best effort,” he said as he put his drink down on the table. He leaned in and said, “Actually, I might have to do some travelling for a couple of days next week. Related to the case.”

“Oh, don’t they have junior associates looking into all that?” I had surmised he didn’t have to do much of the legwork but rather coach them.

He looked at me for a few seconds as though carefully choosing his words and said, “There are, but like I said they need someone to teach them the ropes. Don’t worry, it’ll only be for 2 or 3 days and I’ll be back before you know it.” As he reached out to clasp my hands, his phone suddenly pinged, and he jerked backward.

The moment was gone. He was back to keying his phone. A man’s entitled to have his free time, right? Even if it meant eyeing his phone all evening and being distracted. It pinged almost throughout the entire dinner and I was fuming by the end of it. I didn’t have any energy to pick a fight nor did I want to sound like a mother telling off her son. I thought to myself, there are some etiquettes you ought to follow without being told to do so.

 

XIII

I was thumbing through travel magazines, when I heard the doorbell ring. It was mid-afternoon and I wasn’t expecting anyone. The maid had already finished for the day and Arun would only be back by around 9pm. I checked my composure in front of the mirror by the foyer, hoping my lounge wear wasn’t too shabby. I hadn’t been in the mood to dress-up and play house today. I was bored, actually. I missed going out with my friends and having a laugh.

Arun and I were pretty busy during the lead up to the wedding and for a short while afterwards but now, we’d settled into a bit of a mundane routine. Not to mention the lack of conversation we had between us. I think he had started noticing it as well; it’s not that easy to come up with something to share. To be honest, sometimes our conversations felt forced.

The door didn’t have a peep hole but textured glass panels on either side so I could make out that it was a male figure standing in front of the door. I opened it wide and standing before me was Arun!

“Hey!” I beamed at him. His image was somewhat of a contradiction: he was standing very astutely with a bouquet of pink and red roses (Awww…), with his tie loosened and his coat hanging by his finger over his shoulder.. His hair was unkempt and he had a sheepish grin on his face. In other words, he looked yummy. My inner goddess had woken from her afternoon siesta and was already on the prowl, persuading every urge inside me to give out ‘come hither’ looks.

“I know I’ve been an ass to you lately. But let me make it up to you,” Arun said in earnest. He reached out and took my hand to gently plant a kiss on it. “My lady, your distress calls have not fallen on deaf ears. I have taken the liberty to book us a weekend away to rekindle our passion. I would be most humbled if you would join me on this trip. Your car awaits you,” he said whole-heartedly.

“What? Are you serious? We’re going away?” I couldn’t curb my excitement and was already clinging to his arms.

“Are you going to invite me in, M’lady?” I ushered Arun into the foyer and breathed in the fine scent of the roses. As I was putting them in water, he gave me an idea of where we would be going. It was a bed and breakfast for couples by a coffee plantation, in the northerns districts of Karnataka. It would be nightfall by the time we arrived but needed to start early to avoid the Friday night peak hour traffic. It took me less than an hour to pack and by the time I was ready Arun was holding out the door for me, and we were off!

 

XIV

The last stretch of the journey took almost half the entire travel time because of the steep hairpin bends, but we made if before nightfall. The drive from the main gate to the B&B was a couple of kilometres and every 100m or so was marked by decorative bamboo lanterns. We were welcomed at the B&B with masala chai and our very own gardening kit (I found out later that it contained seeds for a home vegetable garden; all the seeds were manufactured from the B&B’s agricultural company).

The entire property belonged to a couple, Anita and Steve, who had made a trip to a resort in a nearby district more than a decade ago. They both fell in love with the place and bought the estate when it came on the market. They had been working in different cities across the world because their job required it and decided to take early retirement after spending a week in the hill station. The spent more than a year on construction of the B&B and most of their furnishings were imported.

The B&B had 8 rooms, each with a jacuzzi and obviously, a view. Meals were most often sent up to the rooms, but there was also an option to have a sit down at the dining hall in the next building, which was almost like a cafe. We were knackered by the time we arrived so we choose the latter and went straight to bed.

It was well after 7am when I roused from my sleep. My muscles were feeling like jelly. Why are hotel beds sooo comfortable, I thought to myself and stretched. Arun was lying on his front still fast asleep, with his head turned towards me. I brushed hair away from his face and just looked at him for a couple of minutes. There were lines on his face, marked by age and stress.  Meetings, cases, deadlines;  it all seemed hectic to me but he never acted like he was stressed. He deserved a break, I thought to myself.

I was sipping my coffee when I stepped outside on to the balcony. There were no words to describe it – the view was just breathtaking. Green, green, green. We were right in the midst of coffee plantations. I felt there something odd at first, then it struck me – it was the quiet. It was so peaceful and serene. There were no cars or buses buzzing by, there was no rush associated with city life; there was just the chirruping of birds and the rustling of leaves. Pure bliss. I smiled to myself when I thought that the picture looked perfect to go for a Nescafe(R) ad.

I was still smiling when I felt an arm around my waist, pulling me towards him. Now, this was a Nescafe(R) ad, I thought.

“What are you so chirpy about this morning? What’s got you all excited?” Arun asked teasingly, still in each other’s embrace.

“Just being here. Taking in the fresh air. Being with you,” I lightly pecked his cheek and we just stood there for a few moments taking in the view and nature’s beauty. “When you look at beauty like this, everything else seems insignificant, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, it gives you a jolt of reality. We should do this more often, I think,” Arun winked at me and we went back inside to plan the activities for the day.

We decided to take a plantation walk first and strolled through the estate hand in hand. The guide explained to us the different coffee plants grown there, their main pollinators, and even showed us some exquisite flowers that we’d never seen before. The weather was pleasant so I didn’t feel like the need to put a jacket over my sundress, instead I basked in the sun and soaked up all the vitamin D I could. The walk left us feeling refreshed and by the end, the guide, took us to the merchandise shop, which, surprise, sold coffee beans and other curios.

Later, we stopped by at the recreation centre and booked us spa and massage appointments for tomorrow. For me, that would be the most exciting part of the trip. The manager of the recreation centre convinced us to stay back and look around at some of the sports and games. We hadn’t really done anything like that before so it was a bit awkward when the two of us were saying pleasantries to each other every time he or I won a point during badminton. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun, but I was feeling as though it’s been far too long for us to keep up the act. I guess, our banter was friendly, but it was the kind shared between two acquaintances rather than partners. That was the part that was bothering me. It had never been this way with other men before, including friends, but this felt like those instances where you liked someone but you didn’t really know them nor where they showing any inclination to get to know you either. It’s the friend that you want, but you really don’t have because an aura of disinterest repels you. I forced these thoughts out of my mind, we were here to relax and relaxing would get us back on track.

For the afternoon, we had planned to take a nap and go by to the swimming pool by around 5pm when the sun would start to set. Over lunch, which was a 3-course meal sent up to our rooms, I tried to prompt some casual conversation in the hopes of getting to know each other better. “Hey, let me ask you this. If you hadn’t gone to law school, what do you think you’d have done?”

“Mmm…I don’t know, really. All I had ever thought about was being a lawyer,” said Arun in between a mouthful.

“Yeah, but still. You would have though about something else,” I persisted.

“Okay. Fine. I guess journalism is the first thing that comes into mind. I’m inquisitive by nature and I’m pretty good at digging for information and writing. I think it would’ve been a good fit for me, there would have been an adrenaline rush when finding more and more about something and making it sensationalist.”

“Hmm…,” I pondered for a few moments. Then something occurred to me, “Was it expected that you’d do law? Did your dad ever force you?”

Arun took a while to reply, “No, it wasn’t like that. He’s down to earth in that way. He didn’t have it easy building up his clientele. So, if anything, he disuaded me from it.” As an after thought he added, “I decided to practice corporate law to avoid a lot of the troubles he faced in civil litigations. Sometimes, it’s just easier to communicate with people who are on the same wavelength as you.”

“What wavelength is that?” I asked inquiringly.

“Money. Their language is in terms of money. And opportunity.”

“So, what they say about entrepreneurs and corporations is true. In the end, it’s all about money and being opportunistic?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean partially. The other part is that, they’re driven and goal-oriented. There’s no room for empathy around there. If anything, it’s antipathy. You have to be shrewd, smart, and ruthless in order to get what you want and a lot of that involves waving around money and attracting people with what they want. It’s amazing what persuasion can get you.”

“Wow, it’s a totally different world, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is. It’s not for everyone. Trust me, you don’t want to know some of the things I’ve had to get done in order to swing a vote or give a nudge to someone who could be useful or had information,” Arun said grimly.

I looked across him. He was beginning to sound like a Wall Street lawyer from TV. So I laughed it off and said, “Yeah, I get it. If I knew the things you’d done, then you’d have to kill me.”

Arun looked at me with a straight face and said, “Yeah, something like that. Only that I wouldn’t have to kill you. But, you’d look at me differently.”

I thought he was joking and waited for the punch line or an amusing line but nothing came.

“Like what things? You can tell me, I’ll listen,” I said in earnest.

“Nothing, there’s nothing. Nothing interesting anyway.”

I wanted to pursue it further but the subject seemed closed off and he started brooding. Instead, I was left with my half-baked thoughts and pondered about what he had said. There really was a lot that I didn’t know about this man, if only he would open up to me.

 

XV

The mobile phone reception was so poor he wasn’t able to talk without the call dropping every 30 seconds or so. WhatsApp(R) and Skype(TM) were better but the speed was slow. Useless, he thought to himself, as he waited for the app to finish buffering. He hoped she wouldn’t start getting annoyed, he was already on thin ice with her when he told her about the weekend getaway. She was upset and miffed with him but he explained that he needed to make things innocuous at home before their weekend getaway and this was the perfect setting to do so.

He borrowed the idea from one of this colleague’s at the firm, who had gotten married last year and was now expecting their first child. He had mentioned his wife thought it was a blessing in disguise and she’d been ‘appreciative’ in many a way. He wasn’t enamoured by the thought of the latter – not that he’d ever say no, because he’d take wherever or whenever he got it – but, the main objective was that he needed her doubt-free. He knew that the laptop thing had been discussed and set aside but he had a nagging feeling that she hadn’t let it go. Maybe she suspected something. What was it that they called it? Women’s intuition. He wondered if it was true. Regardless, it was imperative that things appear as they should for a newly wedded couple. He had even arranged for a candle lit dinner for this evening. He had just remembered that the B&B staff had asked him to confirm the dinner reservations a couple of hours prior, when his call connected.

“Hey, you,” he said languidly over the phone.

“Hey, to you too. I miss you,” the woman purred over the phone.

“I’ve missed you too, darling. The reception is pathetic here. I don’t know why India keeps making engineers when we can’t even get this right,” he said irritatedly.

“Hmm..I know. It’s such a drag. I’m surprised you’re getting internet. But I suppose you’re in one of those hill stations for couples, where they probably use a reception jammer to make sure their customers get their money’s worth by not using their cell phones when they’re supposed to be screwing their brains out,” the woman declared.

“True that.”

“Tell me. Is it the same one we shacked up after graduation?” she asked curiously.

He hadn’t thought of that trip in a long time. It felt like a lifetime ago. “No, no, it’s not that one.”

“Hmmm…okay, I believe you. It would be weird if it were don’t you think?” When he didn’t respond, she continued, “Come to think of it, I think I’m a little jealous.”

“What?” What was it with women? You tend to one, on one side, then the other needs the same.

“You heard me. You’re making me feel jealous. All this time away, in a beauteous hill station, the wine, the food – you’re seducing her, aren’t you?” she demanded.

“I told you, it’s not like that. I’m married to her. There are some things that I have to do.”

“Then tell me otherwise.”

He sighed exasperatedly, “Look, I’ve told you I need to make things appear normal before next week. Plus, I hadn’t even taken her on a honeymoon yet, so a trip has been long overdue. You get that.” He hoped he sounded convincing.

There was nothing from her end for a few moments and he almost thought the call had dropped but it hadn’t. What she said next was something unbelievable, “Tonight, I’m going to be wearing what I wore in Mumbai for your 21st birthday. Do you remember that, Arun? I’ve been feeling quite frustrated really, and I do think strutting around in my lofty apartment with that outfit on, would relieve me of all that stress. Why don’t you do yourself a favour and put that image in your head when you’re in the covers with her tonight.”

Suddenly, he had flashes of images of black lace and leather against supple skin. His memories were still afresh, he realised. There was no way he going to be able to keep that out of his mind tonight now that she’d reawakened them.  Boy, was she into mind games, or what? ‘Touche,” he responded. She laughed her sultry laugh, she knew she had him hooked.

The thing was, their conversation weren’t always based on sexual encounters, they had intellectually stimulating ones as well. Tonight, they went on to talk about his pending cases; he never went into specifics of the client, but only the legal issues at hand. There was one particular case that had him bothered. It was a deal between 2 broadcasting corporations; one aired a show, while the other was planning its spin-off series  – the problem lying with the producers of the original show who wanted a larger stake in the profits. There was a lot piss fighting but eventually, a good deal was agreed upon.

What they didn’t realise was that during the brokerage of the deal, they had had to collect background information on their clients and their in-house investigator picked up some suspicious information on one of them, namely evidence of adultery. This information was subtly passed onto one of the senior partner’s of the firm, a divorce lawyer, who’d been retained by this very client’s spouse. The producer had been in the dark the whole time, but last week, they had sprung this information on him. His wife, was now, on the receiving end of a hefty settlement as a result of this. Arun was just a tad bit worried that this would deter further dealings with the corporations as he had brought them in as clients in his first year as associate. They were just apprehensions he had, which only another lawyer would understand. More to the point, only what she would understand.

 

XVI

I knocked on the balcony door as I had suspected Arun was having a closed conversation with a colleague and it wasn’t privy to me. I couldn’t make out the conversation, but I could detect that it was a bit of a heart to heart. I wished I was part of that circle. I wished he would open up to me. He turned around, I couldn’t tell, but he seemed a bit jumpy.

“Sorry, just some work stuff,” He quickly got off the phone and kissed me by the lips.

“Hey, are you okay? Is something wrong?” I asked concerned.

“No, everything’s fine. I was worried about something but I got it cleared,” he brushed it off just like that. “Shall we get ready for dinner?”

“Okay,” I pursed my lips, maybe it was legal stuff that I wouldn’t understand. I couldn’t help but think that I would want to discuss my work stuff with him, regardless of whether he knew anything about it. It was the sharing part that was special. Someone to talk to, someone to listen. Advice needn’t be spectacular but at least there was someone who was beside you as you journeyed across your career.

“I know you’re doing everything to make me happy and it is. I just wish you’d open up to me a bit more.” There, I said it out loud.

Arun seemed a bit surprised by my outburst. “There are just some stuff I can’t really get into. Client confidentiality.”

I felt slightly ashamed of having brought it out. But was this how it was going to be forever? “I understand that there are things you aren’t share, but you don’t have to tell me details. I just want  you to know that I’m there for you and sometimes just talking about going on helps.”

He looked across me and said, “Nikita, guys just don’t do alot of talking. We’re more doers than talkers. I mean, we’re not really into all this feelings and analysing stuff. Don’t take me the wrong way, I know it works for women but the male brain can’t take in all that information.”

I knew there was some truth in what he was saying. Maybe I was just knocking on the wrong door.

He must’ve sensed by hesitation because he went on to say, “Look, we’ll find some hobbies or something for us to do together. We’ll take time in getting to know each other as well. Let’s not rush it. Let things happen on their own.” Arun took me into his arms and stroked by back.

“Yeah, okay, you’re right.” I took deep breaths because I still had this unsettling feeling but I couldn’t work out what it was. I needed to be calm and stop worrying. It’s about taking things slow, I reassured myself.

 

XVII

I decided I needed some cheering up so I glammed up for this evening’s dinner. I put on a white dress, accessorised with earrings, and put my hair up in a messy bun. I wanted to relax and in order to cease worry, I needed a fix of alcohol.

Lest did I know that Arun had pre-planned a candle lit dinner for just the two of us on the terrace at the dining hall. The place setting was beautiful and the meal was splendid: candles, Chardonnay, Italian and Meditteranean cuisine, and decadent chocolate brownie sizzlers. The dinner was perfect. Almost. His phone was pinging all throughout the meal. What’s more was that it wasn’t even on silent and he was responding each time. I felt annoyed at him and myself at the same time: him, for putting more attention on his phone than on me during a candle lit dinner that he had planned and me, for being irritated at him when he’s probably just being a guy and not loosening up a little. I readily agreed when he asked if we wanted wine sent up to our room too. After sharing 2 more bottles of wine, I fell asleep in my evening attire. The last thoughts I had were on what was so bloody engaging on his phone that he couldn’t spend a romantic evening with his wife.

The next day, I was feeling a bit embarrassed about the night before but I reasoned that I was feeling particularly touchy and it was just an outlet. We had our massages and spent a few hours in the jazuzzi on our final evening. It was a more or less exciting day, but we basked in the quiet. On our drive back I replied to Ana’s messages; she was checking to see if everything was okay. I wasn’t sure if things were or not, but in light of their trip, they appeared as though they were making progress and that was something.

XVIII

“Hey, I was wondering, I mean, I know you like to have your own space and all so maybe I should start keeping my stuff in the guest bathroom. You’d have a lot more space for your make-up and beauty products and I would just keep getting in the way,” Arun said this matter of factly one night as we were getting ready for bed. I had just finished reading ‘The Other Us,’ and was too baffled to speak.

“Er…you don’t have to do that on my account. I do my primping after you go to work anyway,” I said a bit testily. I wasn’t quite sure how to react. Should I be pleased I get a bathroom to myself and to not have to share with a boy?

“I know and you’re a stickler for time, so I’m not making any complaints. But when you start going to work, you’ll need more time and we’ll both be in a hurry. Plus, what’s the point of having that bathroom if we’re only going to use it when someone visits? The pipes will rust from disuse and we’ll end up spending money on something we hadn’t even used,” he ventured.

He did have a point about the pipes and it would make life simpler when I resumed work.

“Okay, I can move everything over there, if you like,” I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of regret at the thought of the man vacating his own bathroom.

“No, no, it’s fine. I’ll do it myself in the morning,” Arun insisted, got into bed and switched off the lights.

Were we turning into strange bedfellows? It was the last thought I had on my mind as I fell asleep.

XIX

We were running late one morning, I had tossed and turned the previous night and slept through my alarm. The whole apartment was in a state of disarray because Arun had turned into the Incredible Hulk, and tore the whole place upside down while searching for one of his “oldest ties.” On top of that, the maid phoned in the morning to let me know that one of her kids was unwell and that she wasn’t going to make it. So, my whole day’s itinerary was planned out for me: clean the apartment and restore to what it looked like less than 12 hours ago.

Each of the bedrooms had its own dressing area, where there was plenty of sunlight and space for stowing personal items. Arun had moved his to the guest bedroom dressing area, but everything was cluttered and sprawled over the cupboards.

Was it just me or had his grooming care products multiplied over the last couple of days? He had almost as much product as I owned and I had started at the tender age of 17.  It was almost like walking into a healthy and beauty shop; there was everything from a vitamin C based-microdermabrasion cleanser, skin revitalising cream, shea butter-based moisturising lotion, a pack of different deos, an almond milk nourishing hair spa kit, hair styling gel, a nose hair trimmer (now, that’s not such a bad idea), and wait for it, a tea tree oil based D-tan face mask. I felt as though I had stepped into the wrong room. None of this existed before. Not that I was complaining about my man taking better care of his appearance but I felt as though he had transformed into a metrosexual overnight. Maybe this was his way of striving to be a better husband. Still chuckling to myself over the image of the two of us spending Sunday afternoons applying D-tan face masks and quite possibly pedicures, I resumed my work.

I thought I would take the opportunity to reorganise our wardrobes and perhaps find a place in our bedroom for a wooden coat rack I had ordered for Arun. He still hadn’t seen it, but I felt it would be prudent to have a separate storage space for his suits and shoes for the coming week, instead of him having to rummage in the mornings.

I had almost folded and pressed all of his shirts and trousers, dividing them into formal, semi-formal, and casual, when I realised I missed a top shelf. I didn’t have the wherewithal to reach and instead used a step-stool. There were a few travel books, a couple of graphic tees, old music show tickets, a few CDs, a tie (from the looks of it, it appeared as though it was the one Arun was scrambling to find in the morning), a worn out wallet, a G-shock that had seen better days, and a small shopping bag. Most of the items look like momentos he didn’t want to part with. I couldn’t help but think that they were gifts from her. There was nothing to suggest otherwise, but I put everything inside a box and shoved it towards the back corner of the shelf, leaving aside the tie and the bag. Before stepping down, I took a peek inside the wallet. Bull’s eye. The wallet contained a single photo of the two of them taken at one of those instant photograph places.

Curiously, I looked inside the shopping bag, which by the looks of it, was the newest of the lot. There were two velvet boxes, covered in soft tissue paper and there was no mistaking that it was jewellery. I felt like the cat that ate the canary but I couldn’t resist taking a peek inside; there were two boxes, one contained a thin golden chain with a diamond studded peacock pendant and the other, a similar chain with a solid golden love heart as a pendant. Hurriedly, I put everything back in place and tended to the rest of the organising. If that, along with the trip, didn’t scream out that he is genuinely trying to win my heart, then I don’t know what else would. Perhaps, I should put in a little bit of effort myself and use my imagination to make things interesting at home, I thought with a smile.

 

XX

Everything was in place. All files pertaining to his pending cases were either submitted to the court for further direction while the more pressing ones were delegated to his colleagues. It was only 2 days, but he needed it to be a disturbance-free couple of days. He couldn’t help but feel nervous. It had been awhile since he had last seen her but he was suddenly self-conscious about his looks that he spent a mini-fortune on products he knew not of. The sales girl had really helped me out with what to put when and for what purpose.

He hoped his wife hadn’t noticed yet. If she did, she would probably understand why he wanted the other bathroom as his space and wouldn’t think much of it because all she would see was a husband who trying to look good for her. Part of the problem was that he still wasn’t used to living with another person, not permanently anyway. Before Nikita, it was always a temporary kind of arrangement. She would be in and out of his apartment, nothing was set in sand. But now, his wife wasn’t doing anything wrong per se, but he still felt he needed his space.

She was flying into Bangalore tomorrow, husband-lessly and exclusively to meet with him. He had made reservations at the Ritz-Carlton, under her maiden name, for 2 nights. Now that it was closer to her arrival, he realised he missed her. Their debates on legal issues, the music shows they used to attend, the vivacity she enticed in him, and their fervent lovemaking. After she had dumped him, he had almost numbed himself to emotion and it was only now, after she made a reappearance in his life that he felt alive again. Nikita didn’t do that for him, he realised.

He took a deep breath, as though to smell her signature scent. He wasn’t certain what she wanted from him. They were married and he had been bitten once, so he was shy to instigate anything more than this game. She made it difficult though, he had received several more photos of hers, and it felt as though she was sexually priming him for their meeting. He couldn’t curb his excitement and she had instead whetted his appetite. Not long now, he thought as he drove down the suburban streets.

He had almost reached their apartment when he realised he hadn’t bought his wife any flowers. He planned to surprise her with a gift that evening to show her that everything was okay. She seemed upset on their trip about him not opening up to her about his work or his feelings. He tried to reason with her that guys didn’t feel comfortable talking all that. Hell, he did enough analysis at work. She didn’t seem convinced but he didn’t blame her. He wasn’t able to talk to her because he didn’t feel what he felt with her nor did he feel inclined to feel that way with Nikita. Honestly speaking, he wasn’t sure if he could feel that way with anyone except maybe her.  He had hoped the trip would reassure Nikita but it hadn’t. Instead, when she confronted him, he bluffed his way through an explanation and she sulked in red wine. So tonight, he wanted to make amends and ensure he wouldn’t have to deal with her antics during his break. He didn’t set out to be so calculated and deceptive but it was a means he was willing to venture.

After dinner, he insisted on asking her to put her feet up and relax while he set the stereo to play some contemporary jazz music. He massaged her feet and toes with scented massage oil he had picked up from the shops earlier. He could tell she enjoyed it especially since she was almost always on her feet. “Close you eyes now, Nikita,” he cooed at her while he placed the velvet box in her lap. “Okay, now you can open them,” he smiled down at her and kissed her on the lips.

She opened the box delicately and murmured a soft ‘wow’ or something to that effect. He couldn’t tell but her eyes had suddenly turned grey and she bit her lower lip. She wrapped her arms around his neck and while doing so pressed her chest against his. It was momentary, but it caught his attention. You little vixen, he thought, you’re not as innocent as you make out to be; a bit of jewellery and you’re purring like a kitten.

Without saying a word, she stood up and whispered something in his ear.

He had to wait and to bide his time he browsed his phone and set it to update its software. He wasn’t aware of his mobile’s whereabouts or its condition when a woman wearing nothing but a sheer negligee, stood in front of him, beckoned him to join her in the bedroom. Little did he know that the update he had authorised on his phone overrode all security measures, including passcode requests until the update was complete.

 

XXI

The clock hadn’t struck midnight, but I was completely sated and felt as though an itch I had been willing Arun to scratch and finally been quenched. I stretched out on the bed and lay thinking,  exuberating with confidence. The feeling was bliss and for some reason I felt unabashedly more womanly than I had ever felt before. I kept aside all the thoughts about his wanting more personal space and honoring his privacy. Maybe it’ll take time, but I guess this is part of finding out our rhythm as Ana had mentioned earlier.

Arun had to leave early the next day and hadn’t finished packing. He had packed his overnight bag and was polishing his shoes in the entryway, when I heard his phone ping. It was sitting on his bedside table. Who could be messaging him so late, I wondered, as I leaned over to examine the phone. Thinking that it would be passcode protected, I swiped the phone, only to walk into stark horror.

It was an explicit message. A photo, to be precise. Of a woman. And boy, had I seen all there was to see about this particular female. I brushed aside my hair and sat up on the bed. Why was she messaging my husband these lewd photos of herself?

I sat up in bed and kept thumbing through the phone: text messages, WhatsApp(R) messages, emails, they were everywhere.  This wasn’t a one-sided correspondence. Certainly not, these were intimate messages between two fornicators – they were both married to different people and yet, were carrying on, right under my nose. There were messages about whereabouts, call timings, flirtatious innuendos, and explicit photos. Dating months back.

Another ping on the phone, this time a message, ‘I’ve cleared security. Flight is on time. Will you be there to pick me up? Call me when she’s asleep.’ The implications didn’t fall on deaf ears. I could surmise that they talked often, probably after I fell asleep. The matter at hand wasn’t that, it was that she was coming to India. To see him.

I was starting to feel light-headed and dizzy but I wanted answers. I suddenly had an eerie feeling. I opened the cupboard and on tip toes tried to find the shopping bag I had discovered earlier. It was gone. Where was the shopping bag and more importantly, where was the necklace with the heart-shaped pendant? I rummaged through his belongings in search for it all the while thinking how big an idiot I was for believing he had been keeping the other necklace as a gift for Valentine’s day, which was only 3 weeks away.

I could put two and two together but to make sure I needed to look one more place.

His overnight bag. He insisted on packing it himself. There it was. After a bit of digging, I found what I was looking for: the shopping bag containing the other velvet box and that godforsaken tie. I sat down on the edge of the bed. So many questions, so many explanations were coming to light. This was no work-related trip.

I couldn’t believe what was happening, my eyes were burning, my stomach in knots and I could feel something in my heart being torn apart.

 

XXII

As soon as he stepped into the room, he could sense that something was amiss. Shit. She found the other necklace, his eyes wandered to her other hand, he saw that she had his phone with her. If looks could kill, he’d be a dead man. The shit had finally hit the ceiling. He closed his eyes and groaned. How the hell was he going to get out of this one?

 

XXIII

I walked over to him and waved his mistress’s photo in his face, “How are you going to defend yourself now, Counsellor?”

Arun covered his face with his hands and rubbed his eyes, “Nikita, look, just calm down.”

“Calm down? Calm down? Do you even know the amount of deception you have done here?” I demanded.

“Look, I never meant for things to pan out this way. I don’t think you’ll understand.”

“Oh no, you’re not getting away without giving me an explanation. How long has this been going on?

He looked exasperated as he said, “A little over 3 months.”

I looked around the bedroom, trying to find something to focus on before I started crying as my eyes had already started welling up with tears. I sure as hell wasn’t going to cry in front of this treacherous man. “Did you know I found your other necklace?”

He had the decency to look surprised and before he could reply I put a hand out and said, “You see, it’s the wife’s responsibility to take care of her husband’s things: whether it’s his food, clothes or his belongings. It’s the Indian way at least. If you don’t want that, then you need to do it on your own, instead of leaving everything cluttered like a slob. That’s when I found the necklaces. Even tonight, I gave you the benefit of the doubt when you only gifted me one. I thought ‘hey, maybe he’s saving it for another special occasion.” No one says nothing for a few moments. The only sound in the background was that of the crickets and the blustery winds.

“I gave you a chance to explain yourself, and instead you throw it right back at me!”

“Nikita, it’s not like that. I’m just,” he trailed off and waved his hands as though in despair. “I like living alone, I like my things the way they are.”

“It’s not just that though is it?” I asked sharply.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean this,” pointing to his mobile that was still in my hands. “You’re sexting her, aren’t you?” he chooses not respond but I don’t leave it there. “Was this all for show? To keep up appearances?” I gesture to our bedroom. Thinking about it, was literally breaking my heart, but I needed to persevere before I lost my cool. Or what was left of it.

“It wasn’t like that, Nikita. She contacted me, I was a listening board for her and we just fell into a rhythm,” Arun volunteered. “We hadn’t done anything.”

I replied with a murderous glare. “Then tell me this, are you not planning to stay with her these 2 days? You’ve been going on about this ‘work-related trip’ for weeks.” When he didn’t respond, I went on, “Were you even at work all those late nights? Or have you been with others?” It was a cheap shot, admittedly, but I didn’t know know an honest bone in this man standing in front of me.

“Of course not, I’m not some kind of a pimp, Nikita. Jeez, what do you take me for?” He had the audacity to look affronted.

“You didn’t answer my question,” I insisted.

He looked sheepish and replied, “No, I’ve been talking to her at nights. At work.”

Wow. My husband was cheating on me. Digitally. Whether it was email, Skype(TM), or messaging – it didn’t matter how. The fact was that he was looking elsewhere.

“What was going to happen tomorrow when you met her?” I wanted to extricate everything I could from him so I would never have to look back.

Arun rubbed the back of his neck, “I don’t know, okay? I was going to see her. Isn’t that enough explanation for you?”

“Huh, you don’t have the right to use that tone with me after all the shit you just pulled on me. The lies, the deception, the fact that you intended to do this all along, makes it even worse. Why did you even decide to get married? Couldn’t you have avoided ruining someone else’s life?” I cried out.

“God, just to think that I was so gullible to listening to all your rubbish about privacy.  You’re secretive because you had something to hide. It wasn’t my problem, it’s your need to deceive. I still don’t get it. How long you were going to string me along till you decided you needed to be in the States with your mistress?”

“I told you, nothing happened. Why are you making such a big deal about this? It was just a few messages and chats, okay? Nothing happened between us. I wasn’t planning on leaving. It’s just an infatuation,” he sat down on the bed dejectedly.

I couldn’t take any more. Not without completely losing it. Either this wasn’t a big deal to him or he had already made himself a permanent fixture in her life story. Whatever it was, I needed to get out of there. I realised then that I was still naked under my robe. Within minutes I changed into jeans and a tee and started grabbing all the clothes I could pack into a small suitcase. I didn’t know where I was going or for how long but it suddenly dawned on me that I was alone in this marriage.

“Nikita, you don’t have to do this,” Arun tried to take my hand whilst I was cramming item after item. I swatted it away. I didn’t want to feel his touch. I felt cheated. Hold it together, Nikita. You don’t need to show him your tears, I thought. “It’s late, where are you going? Let’s talk about this in the morning.”

I rounded on him, “Tomorrow morning? When you’re on your supposed business trip?” He looked away.

“Nikita, give me a chance. Look, I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking,” Arun tried to reason.

“Then, tell me, why! Are you still in love with her? Or is this some kind of friends with benefits sort of things you have going on?”

“No, I’m not in love with her. I told you, it’s an infatuation. The first time she contacted me after the breakup was 3 months ago.”

“Little too convenient, don’t you think? I assume she’s also stuck in a loveless marriage and then she decided she needed a boy toy.”

“Nikita, you’re being unreasonable. Nothing happened.”

“Arun, take some responsibility for thinking with your dick. You may not have done anything physically. But you sure as hell weren’t thinking about your wife during this charade.”

“Nikita, grow up, everyone’s doing it. They may not be sleeping around as you say, but here’s alot of people who like to see what’s out there without actually trying it.”

I could feel bile rising in my throat at the thought of what he was describing. “What are you saying that there are couples who wilfully and knowingly do this?”
“Sure there are. Hell, there are couples who do alot more. You needn’t get everything you want in a relationship from a single person.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “Is this what you believe?”

“No” he answered thoughtfully, “But I’m trying to tell you that what I’ve done is far less than what other husbands out there would do.”

“So I should be thankful?” I sarcastically question.

He sighed. “Don’t take it the wrong way and become defensive. But you have to go with the tide. All I’m saying is that I haven’t acted on anything so why are you getting your panties in a twist?”

“Because, Arun, what you explained now and what you’re doing now, is not normal. You may not have committed the act of adultery but you are no saint. Besides, that was your ultimate intention, anyway. I’m not an idiot to biology but I can see what the attraction is about – the lies, the secrets, the sexting, the thrill of doing something bad and possibly getting caught. Or in what you’ve described, exploring different partners. I get it. And I think that it’s a pathetic way to live life and dress it up as a marriage.”

“The fact is, I’m hurt by the fact that for you, it’s more than sexual, isn’t it? You didn’t spend any of the extra time you had with me. Instead, it was all her. What is it that you share with her that makes you so unhinged and reckless? Since we’ve been married, we haven’t had a single spontaneous conversation about anything other than our meals, shopping or our family. But seeing all this – you’re a different person, besides the cheating,” I hadn’t vocalised these thoughts in my mind but it all made sense, hearing them out loud.

Arun looked up, “What do you mean by that, Nikita?”

I took a deep breath. I didn’t feel as though I was jumping the gun but it was something I felt strongly about and the voice in my head was steadfast and undeterred. “I don’t want to be married to you any longer. I will return home and make the official arrangements for separation.” He started to protest but I shook my head firmly. “You obviously don’t know what you want in life. I don’t know why you’re still hung up on someone who obviously broke your heart earlier, especially when the two of you are married. I can only speak for myself, but I am not going to be someone’s second best or their afterthought. I have tried to be a dutiful wife to you but you seem bent on committing adultery, which I cannot live with. I don’t think you realise it now, but maybe later you will. A wife will perform everything in her powers to make sure her husband is happy, whether it’s cleaning, cooking, going to work, looking after the children, she’ll make sure it’s done. But at the end of the day, she is a woman, she needs care, pampering, sex and a best friend. Two people are needed to make a marriage work. And it’s not going to happen if one of them finds comfort outside of that.”

 

“Arun, I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to even look at you right now,” I took a deep breath and it suddenly dawned on me. “I’m going to Ana’s,” I hope that you will extend the courtesy to stay away from me for some time.”

He realised there was no way he could win this battle, or perhaps he didn’t want to fight it. He offered to drive me to her place but pride wouldn’t let me so I booked an Uber and was in front of Ana’s house, with a suitcase and a crying jag on the way. Without a word, they took me in and let me pour my heart out in their living room at 3am.

 

Epilogue

That was the longest conversation I had ever had with Arun. I couldn’t bare the thought of spending another night there. I didn’t know whether Arun had spent his weekend with her but I realised after several agonising hours of crying that he wasn’t mine in the first place, for me to worry over.

Ana was a shoulder to cry on and a pillar of strength during what was probably the worst time of my life. Vivek was completely understanding to the situation and tried to do a mediation session for us, but I declined. I stayed at their house for a few days before Ana and I packed all of my belongings when Arun wasn’t at home and stored them in a storage space I had rented out.  My parent’s hadn’t taken the news well, but they were glad to see me out of that nefarious situation. They put on a brave face and with help from Ana and Ria, I was able to get back on my feet faster than I had anticipated. It’s been almost a year now since the final divorce papers came through.

Sometimes, when I’m alone, I would think back to when it all started. Would any of it have happened if there were no computers or mobile phones taking place of social contact? Then again, it was a relationship that had existed before I even came into the picture. It was social media that reignited it. Thinking about it, riled me. Temptation, impulses, enticements, they were all readily available with the internet, but they mess up your psychology so much that it can deter you away from something good in your life. I resolved to curb my interaction on social media, strictly for business, and continued to relish in the old fashioned way of actually seeing and talking to people, rather than through a virtual medium.

I was still feeling emotionally vulnerable and raw from it all when I noticed a wedding announcement in the paper with a familiar figure smiling. It was her. But the groom in the photo, certainly wasn’t my ex-husband, but rather a younger more muscular version. I felt some satisfaction; it was poetic justice. I guess, Arun was yet to learn the lesson once bitten twice shy.

I decided to remain in Bangalore and found college to be fast paced and exciting. I was teaching subjects to final year students and was part of the student-mentoring centre. It gave me a alot of opportunities to explore careers options for graduates and kept me abreast with the latest developments in various employment sectors.

Meanwhile, I started my very own blog. It helped me promote the consultations I was carrying out for home owners on home decor. I was quite busy but I had enough spare time to lounge about reading novels and home gardening. My parent’s were anxious to get me married off again. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to commit to another relationship but I wasn’t putting a lid on the possibility. I just needed time to heal and find my way to someone who was on the same wavelength.

About the Author

Having lived most of her life in Australia, Lakshmy felt the need to return to India, her home country, and explore her cultural identity. Despite being a gold medallist in the life sciences and being a keen researcher, she continued her passion for writing and finally had the opportunity to write a work of fiction. For more, please visit her blog – validatingmymusings.wordpress.com

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