“You sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Eric asked.
“I think I‘d be all right.”
“I can come with you; I have nothing to do. Unless you rather I stay away.”
“I didn’t want to bother you,” she said. “I didn’t want you to feel that I won’t able to handle it emotionally.”
“You never gave me that idea. I think that I’d feel better if I come with you.”
Eric stopped and waited for a reply. Receiving no answer, he rose from the living room chair and began walking in the direction of his study. He stopped midway, stood silent for a second, hesitated, and then asked, “Do you still love him?”
“No. Not anymore,” she replied.
“Would you miss him?”
“I guess I will.”
Vanessa drank her coffee in silence. Her thin white form shivered in the morning chill. The blue and white hand-painted porcelain coffee mug looked awfully huge in her bony clasp. She didn’t mind the weight though. She stood leaning on the open porch door. The young light of the sun bathed the frozen landscape. From the parking lot came the smashing noise of ice-scrapers in action along with the cumulative whizzing noise of people starting their car engines tail-ended by a clangor of snoring vehicles and tow-truck beeps. The din, customary and mundane, seemed not to bother Vanessa. She was thinking about how Vikram never wore any substantial woolen clothing. Even on the coldest of days he would go out wearing that one maroon Salukis sweatshirt he had with golden borders around the wrist and on the neck area which had lost their sheen overtime. But he always covered his head and nose using double layers of fabric to safeguard the essentials, as he called them. “Silly,” Vanessa said with a smile and tapped on the snow with the tip of her plush maroon slippers.
When it came to expressing her love, Vanessa was as incompetent as a cynical diplomat. But she knew that Eric loved her, probably more than he used to after he first met her at Vikram’s studio party, greeting his guests and talking art. It was he who went ahead and introduced himself; she was genial. When he asked her how she liked Vikram’s paintings.
“I can’t understand them,” she had said. “They all seem awfully alike. Strange tall women with disproportionate features; I scarcely think that’s art!”
They stood laughing at a corner of Vikram’s studio with stacked canvasses, rolls of slightly yellow artists’ paper, brushes cleaned but still retaining the some of the red and blues tinctures, and the hanging smell of turpentine.
“Tell me what exactly a real-estate bee is doing at an artist’s studio?” she had asked.
“We were roomies at college. Did he paint you?” he asked.
“No, but he said he would someday.” She had a mischievous twinkle in her eyes when she said that.
“Are you a singer?”
“No, my mom thought it profane to perform art. I am a part-time schoolteacher.”
“What do you teach?”
“Do you like history?”
“I think I do.” She had said and her soft, nimble tone rose and fell like the tender touch of approaching spring wafting on the chilly, wintry air.
To Vanessa Eric was just the antithesis of Vikram. He didn’t paint, didn’t have long, disheveled hair, didn’t talk about art or expect her to understand or appreciate something which she naturally couldn’t. She thought he belonged to the flock of men and women who breed domesticity. If Vikram was associated in her mind with the crimson skies and the blaze of inferno surrounding a delinquent antihero, Eric was linked with the plaintive tunes of a cuckoo; with washed summery-blue skies, clear or with a few wooly clouds. He was just a suburban-brought-up; Springsteen-listening real estate agent who collected and pinned salt-smelling old cloth and silk maps on his study walls. In Eric there wasn’t a puzzle anywhere to be solved, all the tessellating pieces were neatly platted, ready to handle.
All of a sudden Eric had begun to miss her, he felt drawn to her by some mysterious magnetic pull. At the patio he found her still standing, detached and wooden. He felt the old tug and pull inside him. She was so cold and unfeeling, so still and frozen. She had always been like this to him, always been this mannequin of a lady, unemotional and hard. All the flicker and vibrancy that he had in him had now dimmed under her solid umbra. He was feeling an aversion towards her. An upsurge of bitter, self-demolishing hate was rising like gall, and Eric could taste the bitter yellow liquid in his mouth. He wished she would chuck her stiffness and just say it; why all the silence?
“I think we better get ready. The visiting hour starts at eight,” he said in a stiff, slightly angry tone.
“Okay,” she said, turning aside.
She went upstairs to get ready. Her face on the mirror somehow resembled Vikram’s women. Her face was that of a woman in her early thirties, slightly lopsided and gaunt with sun-spots and blemishes sprinkled sporadically. The lines around her mouth area were becoming prominent. She pulled up the tufts of loose red hair around her forehead region and started finger-tweezing her eyebrows. Her eyes seemed awfully bright like tiny light bulbs in a dark room; the upside down universe in the dilated earthy-brown pupils intrigued her. Suddenly she remembered how as a child when the house was empty she went to her room, sat before the mirror and made herself cry. She felt the warmth of the tears down her cheek, observed the wet face on the mirror and then when she thought she had enough, she dried her face and powdered it. She wished she could cry now, but there wasn’t any specific sorrow to well up the eyes.
She put on a crimson scoop-neck sweater tee over a pair of straight-legged denim leggings and took her purple duffle coat. She brushed her hair and applied a dab of fruity lip-gloss on her lips. Although Vikram wasn’t a man who was used to complimenting ladies, Vanessa knew from his kisses that he loved it when she applied lip-gloss. How ill would he look, Vanessa wondered. Would he be able to recognize her? Would he want her back now? But it was worthless thinking about Vikram and his reactions. Vanessa had had done the exercise once spending sleepiness nights over the apprehension of disclosure. What would Vikram think, she had thought then? Would he cry? Would he throw a temper or possibly fight a duel with Eric over her? She knew she wanted him to fight for her, to throw a temper and beat Eric and win her over. She had wanted such an outcome at the time, wanted, begged and yearned for it. But Vikram never told her that he loved her, he had always called her a special lady in his life, not his girl friend, not once, not ever. What was there in the words, why couldn’t he say it; wasn’t Vanessa worth it? She couldn’t bear the trepidation, she confided.
“You are really in love with Eric?” Vikram had said dipping his long haired flat brush into a muddle of royal blue and coal black.
“Yes,” Vanessa retorted, stressing on the word more obdurately than she normally did.
“Well, good for you, baby,” he had replied with a chuckle and continued making large penannular shapes in his broad canvas.
What a waste of canvas, Vanessa had thought. “So, you don’t mind?” she had asked, her soft lilting tone sounding softer.
“Why should I mind? It’s your life and you are free to live it with whatever fellow you want to,” he gave his brush a vigorous shake, a trail of tiny black-blue droplets stained Vanessa’s white cotton floral; “But then,” Vikram continued, “I thought you could do better than Eric.”
Vanessa felt as if her whole body was developing red oozing papules. All the unfulfilled challenges and failures of her life danced before her eyes like some photic illusion. Her teeth clenched inside her closed mouth, and she was aware of the terrible knocking in the cardiac region.
“Why, what’s wrong with him?” She had cried wishing she could head straight to the beaded man’s painting and tear the damned circles into pieces.
“Don’t shout, Vanessa, I am not deaf.”
“I am not shouting. I just want to know why you think Eric is a bad choice.”
“I didn’t say he is a bad choice; I said you could do much better,”
“I didn’t have any luck when I chose you, you are way worse that he is.”
Vanessa felt a bout of apology after she had uttered her last words. She had been looking at the wall when she had spoken them. When conscious, she found Vikram standing before her looking like an emperor who had lost a deserving win and was still soaking in the failure at field. And before he could formulate and utter his sentence Vanessa gave tongue, “I am leaving you, Vikram. It’s over between us.”
Vanessa had often felt she shouldn’t have uttered the last sentence it partly because they really didn’t have anything worth breaking between them, and partly because in her heart she didn’t want to break whatever it was that they had.
But the end did not stop confrontations, since they met over and over again in parties and social gatherings and football grounds and artists’ functions until it struck both of them that probably people were inviting them just for fun. But that did not stop either of them from attending the common hangouts. However, they seldom talked, except when coaxed into a conversation, and even then Vanessa would spend her time inspecting the females that accompanied Vikram and finding out their flaws. She would hold Eric by his arm and stand and observe while Vikram talked to the others.
Eric had asked her several times about Vikram, and every time he did she had lied to him. She had told him fictional accounts of her love life with the man, stories that she wished were true, but sadly weren’t. But she wasn’t ashamed, not then, not now. She had filled a hole in her life with the figments of her imagination, and overtime she had even driven herself to believe in that fake truth. And there was nothing wrong with that. At this point, Vanessa focused at her reflection in the mirror and noticed that her face was flushed.
The drive to the hospital was quiet. As Eric drove he thought what was he doing driving his wife to meet a soon-to-be-dead ex-lover? Was it normal? Of course it was not, but somehow he was having this vicious idea of wanting to see Vikram and Vanessa lip lock in front of him. The thought sent jitters down his manly system. He observed Vanessa looking at him; her face was set and expressionless. Eric wanted to listen to her meta-voice and face it, boldly. He wanted to catch her red-handed for some offense and then remonstrate with her and let her take the blame.
They found Vikram lying on his bed in his green hospital clothing. The covers were drawn up to chest; his upper body was bandaged like a mummy; a couple of circular button like stick-ons attached to long thin pipes were pasted on either side of his chest. There was a raw wound under his chin the color of summer pudding. The under-section of his face was swollen and lumpy. A thin tube with two small nozzles protruded into his fine-tipped nostrils. There was a needle sticking into his hand fixed to point by medical tape, the devise was attached via a long pipe to a plastic bag filled with blood from which the red liquid poured in droplets, travelled down the transparent pipe and entered Vikram’s system.
Vanessa made her way towards his bed. Vikram had a handful of other visitors who stood about the place talking among themselves. Eric recognized one of the guys as Vikram’s younger brother, he had often visited Vikram at college; he didn’t know the others. There was an upholstered green lounge chair next to Vikram’s bed and scattered on it were a couple of sketchbooks, charcoal pencils, children’s crayons, felt-tipped pens in black and brown, some plastic folders and the Jackson County Tribune dated two days before where the news, Police: Artist jumps out of four-story window from house in Southwest Hillsboro Pike; jammed bullet found on wooden floor, was marked using red crayons.
Vanessa stood next to Vikram and looked intently into his face. Her hand softly rubbed Vikram’s needle pinned arm. He was breathing softly, intermittently; empty breaths devoid of life. His face was drawn back; his long hair was tied to a ponytail with a green rubber band, the beard was shaved, there was a fresh razor-cut on his chin, the red glowed on the backdrop of his ashen features. The deep spectacle marks on either side of his nose made him look aged and frail. Eric found it difficult to believe that only seventy-two hours ago a man who was beaming with his leonine charisma was now enervated beyond recognition.
“Will he survive?” Vanessa asked, softly. Her face had assumed a silent, bridal look. Her eyes were focused at the black and white tiled floor.
Eric had no answer for the question. The pale, underfed, emaciated, nozzle-protruding zombie did not excite his imagination. He wished he could do something nice for him. He turned to Vanessa and said,” I will be waiting outside for you.”
When Vanessa walked out of Vikram’s room she found Eric sitting on the bench drinking coffee while another cup was placed next to him on a folded white paper towel. His nose and cheeks were red from temperature fluctuations; his lips dark from smoking.
“Let’s go home,” Vanessa said.
She sat in her window-seat crumpled like a small kitten warming itself in a cold weather and cried. She didn’t howl, just sobbed. She sat in her half-lain half sitting posture and tried nothing to hold back the downpour. Eric wanted to ask her what the matter was, but he couldn’t speak the words. Instead he asked, “Are you cold?” She didn’t reply. The tears warm and heavy like rain after a season of harrowing drought came down as readily as the first shower of relief. Eric couldn’t bear it; her silence was more stringent than her words. What did she want now, to go back to the dying patient, or was she feeling apologetic, once again, for leaving him? Eric braked the car and the vehicle halted suddenly in the middle of the highway. The cars behind him honked impatiently, Eric didn’t care.
“What is it? What is it now, damn it?” he shouted. He wished he could tell her all. He wished he could declare how she had tortured him day after day with her stories of adventurous sexual encounters with Vikram. Oh, how she made him feel like an impotent, day after, day, night after night. And now she was doing it again, all over again.
Vanessa shook like a little truant facing the metallic slaps of the master. She didn’t speak. Eric swore a little and then pulled at his hair. The car stood motionless, parked midway, a giant thwarted monster humbled by life. Vanessa observed him, but said nothing. For some reason a voyeuristic vile pleasure seized her when she saw how distraught Eric was getting. She wanted it to prolong, the suffering, the agonal distance between them, the cold play.
A couple of people got out of their cars and began shouting profanity. Eric started the car and pushed at the gas pedal with all his masculine force, crossed three stop-lights and didn’t bother to slow down.
When they reached home Eric slammed the door behind him.
“Are you done with the drama now or are you gonna cry some more?” he asked.
“You think it is drama, Eric?”
“What else is there to think? Why don’t you just tell me you still love that dying bastard?”
“How can you be so mean to me…Eric?
“I am mean to you? Huh! You think I am mean to you? And you think you are a saint?”
Vanessa stood stupefied for a second. It was the first time in their semi-long wedlock that they were having a fight, and she was unprepared.
“I hate you, Eric,” she said
“Oh well, as if I didn’t know it,” Eric muttered under his breath and walked to his study and kicked the door shut with brute force. For a second the whole house reverberated with the slamming noise and Vanessa felt as though she was hit by shrapnel.
She went to the kitchen and began washing a dish full of bell peppers for the mid-day meal. The fridge door was left open, and she didn’t bother to close it. She stood at the sink her hands holding the colander, the sleeves of her sweater wet and dripping. Beyond the narrow confinement of the filmy white walls, the noise of suitcases being dragged, closet doors opened and closed could be heard; the sounds of disintegration. As she stood listening to the noises in the other room the artificially lit kitchen seemed to take up an ashen hue, the mundane drabness of life, the regularity of the same song played over and over again began to seem unbearable.
Vanessa felt stifled as though somebody had been strangling her; she could sense the sticky nylon threads on the nape of her neck. She coughed. And then, without any warning, even to her own self, she hurled the colander full of green, yellow and red bell peppers at the kitchen cabinet. The steel container struck the lower edge of the glass, a hole, and rubble of glassy iridescence. The container whirled like a rotating gyroscope spinning on its steel base before falling on the white tiled floor with pencil-heel marks on them with a clang.
Vanessa stood with her back to the wall, the noises in the other room had ceased. What now, she wondered? It all seemed so lame, so utterly worthless. The idea brought back a train of thoughts, ugly thoughts, thoughts she had been having the whole time she was at the hospital inspecting Vikram’s detrimental decay. A tingling pain tickled her features. She sat crouching on the floor; her back white from the chalk colored like paint-dust, and hid her face under the embracement of her arms and began to rock back and forth.
She heard inside her mind a whirlwind of voices all carping her for her actions. What was she doing? Why was she deliberately destroying something that could survive, it only needed a little tending to. But nothing made her walk to Eric and apologize, even the thrust and pull of her inner self could not make her expiate. She found talking so much difficult. She knew it was impossible to explain to Eric that the tears she had been shedding were not directed at Vikram, but at her. She could not possibly make herself tell Eric that she had realized earlier that day that all these years she had been engaged in a gladiatorial conflict with Vikram; all her motives, her decisions even her choice of marrying Eric had been directed at silently convincing Vikram that she could indeed do much better than him. For all these years she had been trying to prove herself valuable and desirable to that man unbeknownst to herself. The negative inspiration had been propelling her in her social and marital life; it was all a charade, a big vacant lie. And now as Vikram lay in the deathbed the need to carry on with that lie seemed to have abated. She didn’t have to convince him anymore, didn’t have to prove anything. It was the utter futility of her scheme, her stupidity, her failure in life, the consciousness of the wrongs she had done against Eric by never telling him that she loved him, by never acknowledging him in the presence of society that made her cry. And she knew that she did not possess the emotional vocabulary to relate all this.
Ultimately, Vanessa stood up and walked to the door. A couple of suitcases with airline tags on them stood outside the kitchen in the dark hallway. Eric came out of his study wearing the same clothes he had worn to the hospital, to his rendezvous with Vikram at the Art Museum ground three days ago— a red flannel shirt with white buttons and a pair of Levis. In his pocket Eric still had his .44 Magnum handgun, a gift from his dad, a member of the National Rifle Association. The device was still loaded, its compartment holding five bullets. The firearm poked his skin; its cold metallic touch singed the thigh area. Eric had worn his shirt down, but that didn’t help. He was constantly reminded that he had a purpose, something had to be accomplished.
"He stood before Vanessa, his eyes meeting her unfalteringly “I am leaving you, Vanessa. It’s over between us.”
Copyright 2011 by by Barnali Saha
I am a compulsive blogger, an amateur photographer, and a self-taught creative writer. I enjoy writing short stories and articles. My works have been published in several newspapers and magazines in India (The Indian Express, The Statesman, Woman’s Era, Muse India, etc.) and in several e-journals in the USA (Mused- Bella Online Literary Review, The Smoking Poet, Fiction at Work, etc.)
Shirley Gerald Ware-Publisher