We Were Apart
We pooled our bonuses and fled the cloying humidity of Mumbai. We drove down to the beaches of Goa, where cosy huts and bottles of beer cheaper than water awaited our parched throats. When we had gobbled up all the pleasures only the seaside could throw our way, we swerved through the twisty winding turns that led us to the hill-stations. We nibbled on strawberries by the roadside and scooped whipped cream upon their stiff peaks in the privacy of our bedroom.
At every resort, inn, or hotel where we checked in, we used his name. We called ourselves Mr. and Mrs. B. Other vacationers complimented us – what a handsome couple we made – and badgered us to reveal how long we’d been married. We totted up our respective years of matrimony (three for him and nine for me) and served them a neat average of six. The tourists fawned over our story. They did not demand slips of paper or slabs of plastic that would prove our identities as a married couple who had circled the holy fire. Only the hotel managers probed our stories, aided by the police, their trusty companions in foiling unholy trysts.
A few of the travellers glanced at us from one to the other as if seeking confirmation – were we really husband and wife? We showered genial smiles on them, and they teased us. How we blushed like newlyweds! How charming that our mutual attraction had withstood the test of time. Later, as B propped my feet up on his shoulders, he said we were newlyweds who had never celebrated a suhaag raat. I laughed – our every night together had been like a wedding night.
The first time we escaped for a holiday, neither of us had the forethought to meet secretly. We became the cynosure of all eyes at the gate. Ambling neighbours stared in undisguised shock at our public meeting of private affection. Under their collective burning gaze, I loaded my luggage into the boot, warning B with my eyes to stay where he was. He gamely complied, and remained ensconced in the driver’s seat, striving to emulate nonchalance, trying and failing to act as if he had merely wandered by and picked me up by happenstance.
Thereafter, I arranged to meet B away from our respective neighbourhoods, at a coffee shop or mall, where the spectacle of lovers uniting offended no one. I called up an Uber that dropped me at the rendezvous point, steering clear of the prying eyes of the residents that hovered close by, eager to pounce on fresh morsels of gossip.
I caught the suspicion in the eyes of anyone who saw me on B’s arm – why had I chosen him? Truthfully, I did not know. The average woman would never swipe right on his profile.
C, with his barrel-chested physique and towering height, attracted the attention of all the perfumed and hourglass-figured women wherever he went. He ignored their wiles, only triggering more fits of coquettishness on their part. But a pretty face and a neat figure did nothing to entice him. He had warned me of that even before we married, in our first meeting itself, in the privacy of his bedroom where our parents left us alone “to get to know each other.”
In the beginning, things were different. My head swelled when C flattered me with compliments and kisses, as he had done when we were courting. He seized every moment he could to kiss me. When we staggered home from parties, pleasantly drunk, he would grab me close. When we visited either of our parents’ houses and stayed over, he stood with his ear fastened to our bedroom door, alert for the invariable hums of silence, and locked it when he detected the hush that had shrouded the house. Even after I gave birth to our son, he would foist the infant on his mother and close the door so we could come together.
The seeds of my suspicion were sown the day he first came home with orange lilies. Years had passed – he had never brought me flowers, I had never asked for them. Orchids followed, then red roses. I cornered him in the bedroom. I asked him what I wanted to know, and he told me what I already knew.
He didn’t covet me any less, so I granted him the luxury of a mistress, but he had to permit me my moments of fun too. He recoiled – the idea must have sickened him. Months later, he caved in, and admitted that it balanced our relationship – me with my lover and him with his mistress.
My lover remained a secret from the world beyond my husband. I did not seek anyone to fill any void. I did not ogle the taut buttocks of the handsome shaggy-bearded youngsters in my gym, or the luscious lips of the androgynous waiter in the café near my office.
For a long time, he and his mistress lay secure in their cocoon of happiness. One day, I discovered B wandering the aisles of the little start-up where I worked. I showed him the way, helped him pour out a cup of coffee. Our fingers touched, and soon enough, the kissing of palms and caressing of shoulders grew less accidental.
He surprised me when he mentioned his marriage. He astounded me when he showed off his beautiful wife D, the day she drove by to pick him up.
I knew nothing of their arrangement. C’s mistress held on to her single status, and presumably staggered home on the arm of a different Tinder date whenever C stood her up. But I didn’t know how B and D handled it. D worked in a bank, and she had skipped several rungs in her rise up through the managerial ranks. At times, I envied her career. Assistants like me never had to rush to important meetings or stomp through hallways yelling into their phones.
They had no children. They had all the time in the world. The biological clock hadn’t turned into a time-bomb for D, not as yet.
B could boast no features that would attract the girls in our firm. They seldom noticed him, and even when they did, it was only to smirk, to mock his glasses or his accent. They admired only his tan complexion, or perhaps envied him for it.
The only thing C lacked was a full head of hair. B’s mane, though trim and professionally cut, tempted me to run my fingers through it. But B sported a visible pot belly, a gentle curvature that protruded over the waistband of his trousers. He flaunted it, almost. Strangely, I found it endearing, even if I had always loathed paunches.
When I straddled C, I recalled the mole on B’s neck, and resolved to kiss it the next time. He’d hate it, I knew, but I’d do it anyway. C never suspected my absentmindedness, or perhaps he said nothing even if he did. His girl met him less often than B met me, but I readily supplied what she couldn’t, knowing that B would do the same for me.
D fainted halfway through a presentation she was giving to her senior management. Later, when she had recovered, in the privacy of her home she took a pregnancy test. The second line blurred into focus before she had even a moment to prepare herself for the outcome.
When B told me all this, I didn’t know what to think. D had claimed a Czech student as her lover, a young man who’d found his way to Mumbai for pursuing a course in fashion design. B grew furious – he could never pass off as the father to a pale-skinned infant.
B let forth his anger in short sharp bursts. I did not condone his fierceness, but somewhere within me, I understood. Unplanned conception was the wind that would shatter our house of cards. The whole structure that rested on B and me as a foundation would come crumbling down.
B and I frittered away the time we had together, and we could not escape our humdrum lives for a while. When we did contrive a weekend getaway, we squabbled. I wanted him to abandon everything. D had inserted a weak link in our otherwise strong chain. But B looked away, and so did I.
Presently he raised my fingers to his lips and kissed them. Later I asked him why she couldn’t terminate. He said she had crossed the threshold of three months.
How could a woman not know her own body for three months? Many women didn’t know until they delivered, B argued. That was simply not true, I said, possibly just wishful thinking on the part of women who had succumbed to lust. I loved my son, but one experience had taught me all I needed to know about motherhood, and as soon as I possibly could, I had myself an operation. B said nothing to this.
B cut down on alcohol, and by the sixth month of D’s pregnancy, he stopped drinking altogether. I had never expected this.
C was different. He enjoyed me most when he was drunk, completely drunk, so that the alcohol had switched him inside out for another person altogether – the kind of person who threw back their head and laughed when they saw someone slip on a banana peel and fall. In that inebriated state he wanted me front and back, inside and out.
But with B I had grown to enjoy the occasional drink. His taste in wine and beer differed from C, and with him I tasted the pleasures of draft beer and ale. C preferred wine, and plied me with Rieslings and port and sherry.
When B renounced drinking, I consumed one glass more each time, to right the balance in the world.
The months blinked past, and before long, D (I thought of her as the other woman) gave birth to a baby girl. The baby slept during the day and played during the hours of darkness. B fell into a state of perpetual tiredness. I coaxed him for another vacation, even a mini one, perhaps for a short weekend away. But how could he, he said. She needed him. I hoped he meant the baby, not D.
D’s Czech partner visited the hospital, and upon seeing the baby’s caramel complexion, he planted a kiss on D’s forehead, shook hands with B, and left for his hometown a week later.
When B told me this, I didn’t know what to think. Was it his child? I wanted to know. But I couldn’t ask the question while standing in the middle of the cafeteria, fenced in by senior managers and junior staffers sipping green tea and chatting about meaningless politics.
We were none of us exclusive. But with his increasing aloofness, I felt the shards of betrayal collapse around me.
I told C about it as we lay together in post-coital harmony. He murmured sympathetically, but I could glean he wasn’t listening.
She’s getting married next month, he said.
I said nothing. His girl had flaunted the solitaire of her engagement ring for more than a year now. She or her intended had grown impatient, and I couldn’t fault them.
I will stop seeing her, he said.
B and D packed their belongings and boarded a bus to Bangalore, where they had come from.
I probed into why, the reason for his leaving, but he said his world had changed now. I let him slip through my fingers like so much sand. I couldn’t make him stay even if I wanted to. He took the long drive to Bangalore with his family, and I wondered if he rolled down the windows and allowed the wind to ruffle his thick hair, the way he did when we drove to Goa. Did he allow her to place her hand on his, while his fingers rested on the gear?
I dreamed often of visiting Bangalore. Under the pretext of visiting friends, we might have contrived it. I even goaded C about it, but he merely sighed.
I imagined how I would startle B in Bangalore. He would be walking with his nose buried in his phone, emerging from the glass building that housed five thousand other technophiles. He would look up at me, recognition followed by mild surprise flashing one after another on his handsome face.
He’d stride up to me and enfold me in a warm embrace so I could smell the coconut oil in his hair and the faint scent of Gucci from the bottle I had gifted him. The world around us would melt away, if only for a moment. Then if anyone turned to us and asked us our names, I would say, “Mr. and Mrs. B.”
Gargi Mehra is a writer, software professional, and mother living in India. Her stories have placed in writing competitions and appeared in several journals online and in print, including Litro, On the Premises, and Papercuts magazine, among others.