She willed herself to not to check her phone to see if he had replied. It had been about three days now. She hated that she was constantly checking his ‘last seen at’ status and yes, he had logged in just five minutes ago. Yet she couldn’t stop herself. This sinking feeling to find absolutely no communication from him was becoming unbearable, almost tortuous.
And then, just as she sat down in her chair, her phone vibrated. With her heart thudding in her ear, she unlocked her phone and stared at the screen. Finally! It was his message.
But when she opened it and read it, she nearly stopped breathing. She didn’t know if he was joking or not. What was this?
‘Is it a point of no return?’ she thought involuntarily moving to the edge of the chair.
Reading his ‘have you forgotten about the castration?’ message, she sank into the chair thinking, ‘is it a lighthearted joke or as a loaded message?’, and for a clue, began to recall the events of the year passed by.
‘Oh, how my life had turned on its head when I turned fifty?’ she thought in wonderment. ‘That’s when I immunized my heart against attractions and insulated my life from vacillations! So I believed, didn’t I? But when he enamored my heart to give a flirty spin to my life, didn’t it dawn upon me that I had only sterilized it for a ritual regimen, and no more. Oh, how his first glance pierced my heart to stir my life that very instant!’
Returning from a temple when she found him alone in the drawing room, she felt as if god had sent his angle to receive her in her own abode. The moment their eyes met, it was as if they began their joint search for a love ground to share, which they had to abandon as her husband entered the scene from behind the curtain.
He was a friend of her husband’s childhood pal settled in the States. Having spent the best part of his life there, he came back with his wife for good, leaving their two children, who were US citizens. That was six months back and they had since settled in Hyderabad, where, incidentally, both her married daughters stayed. As he happened to be in their town alone, to explore some business opportunities there, that evening, he came to call on her husband at their common-friend’s behest. Introductions over, as her husband wanted her to prepare some coffee for them; she went into the kitchen with a heavy heart.
‘While my missing his sight had understandably irked me, didn’t the thought that he too would miss my sight inexplicably hurt me?’ she began reminiscing about that dream encounter. ‘But then, how the smell of the boiling decoction lifted my spirits for it portended serving him some steamy coffee with my own hands. When he said he never tasted anything better, how I hoped he would leave some dregs for my palate to share his satisfaction. What a disappointment it was seeing him empty the cup and how exhilarated I was when he said he had broken his life-long habit of leaving the dregs. Then, as he was preparing to leave, how depressed I was, but how relieved I was when my husband invited him to visit us again!’
She got up from the chair and as if to walk down the memory lane, she walked up to the compound gate.
‘Oh, how that fateful evening changed the autumn tenor of my life!’ she went on reminiscing. ‘Were it the deities I pray that chose to pave a pathway of love for me? Or was it a case of my prayers gone awry? Before he stirred my heart, how sedate was my life, sterile though? After all, there was no material change after he had entered into it. Neither I did I venture onto his love ground nor did I let him into my sexual sphere. Why should life seem drab now as he cold shouldered me? Why not, won’t the change of heart alter the tenor of life? Even the one as dull as mine, well, but it did start on an exciting note for a provincial girl like me.’
She was born to humble parents, who felt increasingly proud of her as she grew up. After all, she turned out to be the small town’s beauty and the brains of its academics. When she was eighteen, calf love turned a new leaf in her life. The object of her adoration happened to be the stopgap lecturer from a nearby town. He taught maths alright but the equation was wrong for their marriage as he was doubly aged and twice married. Yet, amidst the protestations from her parents, with her tenacity of love, augmented by obduracy of adventure, she ascended the altar to be led by him to his native town. Her marital life, underscored by her zest for it, though clouded by his thrift, was exemplified by her two cute daughters born in quick succession.
‘Didn’t his thrift drift towards miserliness soon pushing my life into nothingness.’ she began to recollect that phase of her life when her children were growing up. ‘Why, as his passion for lovemaking too lost traction, how my life entered into the arena of frustration? Yet I shut my mind to adulterous thoughts, didn’t I? But did he stop at that? Why, he did acquire a sense of insecurity as well and how insensibly I imbibed both his vices! Maybe that’s why I learnt short-hand as a long handle for my secretarial security. Was it really so? Wouldn’t have my own fear of the future bred an urge for self-preservation in my subconscious mind? Who knows, I might’ve been seeking to secure my own future independent of him, but at what cost really. I was undone then, not known to me then.’
As a way out of her drab life, she shifted her focus away from her husband to center it on her daughters. How she wanted to keep them all for herself! But, as they grew up, seeing them getting closer to their father, all the more she tried to retain her mental hold on them. When she realized at length that she had ceded much of her daughters’ emotional ground to her husband, as if to offset that loss on a spiritual plane, she infused religiousness into her consciousness. Besides, by then, as the age gap began the spouses began to take its toll on their connubiality, her newfound spirituality became a tool to soothe her suppressed sexuality. Thus in time, she got habituated to lead her life in a semi-spiritual mode that was before the daughters were married off.
‘How their marriages threw my life out of gear.’ she continued with the recollection of her life and times. ‘With much of his life-long savings turning into their dowries and what with his retirement too round the corner, didn’t he become a pathetic picture of insecurity? And when it was my turn to foot the bill, didn’t I become even more insecure about my own future? That’s in spite of my handsome savings and the remaining length of service life! Maybe, insecurity lies in one’s mind and not in the investment portfolios.’
So, reinvigorating herself on the religious ground, she began perambulating around the deities in assorted temples, praying them for reciprocity in acting as her security guards against life’s vicissitudes. Not content with insuring her life for material impediments, she added numerous goddesses to guard her against feminine turpitudes. Living thus in a man’s world, she managed to keep the womanizers at bay from her exceptional ‘past the prime’ charms.
‘How did the goddesses down their guard that day?’ she thought amusedly as she walked back into her house. ‘Didn’t they also leave me vulnerable to his charms when he came the very next day?’
That morning, when her husband went out to fetch some vegetables, he knocked at the door saying he wanted to peep into their place passing by it. Enjoying his expected lie, she involuntarily said that he could feel at home till her husband came. But when it occurred to her that he could’ve been lying in the wait to meet her alone, she felt like soothing his weary legs by exposing her shapely ones to his thirsty eyes. So, before her husband’s arrival, she conceived umpteen ways by which she slyly revealed many of her sari-clad charms to his feasting eyes. When he asked her cell-phone number to ‘soothe his ears’ as well, she gave it along with a safety manual.
Sometime after husband’s return, when he left with a heavy heart, while feeling palpably excited, she felt vaguely miserable. That night as she relived those enlivening moments, brought about by her uncharacteristic behaviour, she realized that she was in love with him. Though she was amused at that, yet she suffered from chasm of qualms over her conduct as a married woman. Shocked at the prospect of a liaison, she resolved to use all her moral strength not to let her love sway over her fidelity.
‘Didn’t I want to nip his infatuation in the bud by warning him that it would be inimical to his marriage as well?’ she began to reconstruct that night’s chain of thoughts. ‘Why, I was certain that he would tuck his tail and run, leaving me alone to overcome my vacillation. How eagerly I waited for his call to unburden his burdensome love, but then, how cleverly he foiled my plan! Didn’t he say that his wife was pragmatic as well as practical throughout, and now that he had crossed sixty and she was well past fifty, he was certain that she was bound to turn a blind eye to our autumn love? Why couldn’t I prepare a counter for that? Didn’t I, on the other hand, love his mischievous speculation that his wife might even welcome our healthy adultery? What an audacity? So to say, didn’t he pulverize my resistance to his courting that was so joyous anyway? How thrilling it was to be nicknamed Sexy-Ms and, how titillating were those prolonged telephonic conversations that followed! Oh, how his recollections of my sly exposures became music to my ears to lift my spirits!’
Thereafter, deluding herself about the innocence of her harmless romance, she came to abandon herself on the flirtatious path. Soon, however, as he tried to press her into a liaison, she panicked no end, and at the next turn, she stunned him with an ‘I told my husband’ lie and he hung up in dismay with her ‘below the belt’ hit.
‘Didn’t he say it is one thing to lead a man up the garden path and another to push him into an abyss of shame?’ presently she began recalling his words tearfully. ‘Though he was dying for her possession, yet he could live without her love but it was hard for him to live with the thought that she belittled it before her husband.’
She always wondered why his sense of hurt didn’t dent her senseless fidelity then and there! She was shocked at his loss but felt relieved as well for the breakup put her back on the familiar track of unwavering fidelity. But, soon, as she began missing him even in the precincts of the temples, she strengthened her resolve with a sense of triumph over the devil of infidelity. So she tried to put the vacillations of her mind behind to put her life back on the sedative course. However, her sense of guilt for having unfairly hurt him never left her. Besides, as her husband’s ‘ever on the raise’ cussedness only helped increase her sense of alienation from him, she began to see the futility of fidelity itself. As that insensibly tipped the scale of her life towards the autumn of love, she sent him that belated invitation for union.
‘Have I lost him before I had him?’ she thought, once again staring at his message on her phone’s screen. ‘What am I to do to win his over? Well, have I got to do anything at all than merely waiting for his call? How long can he hold himself at the threshold of possession? But what if his sense of hurt singed his passion for my possession? Whatever, there is no way I can lose him, I’ve to cut the Gordian knot myself and quickly at that. Once I confess that I lied about making my husband privy to his passion, won’t that address his main grouse against me? Of course it would. Why won’t his passion come to the fore, once I dispel the clouds of hurt? Worse come worse, won’t I be able to sway him by gate crashing? Well, even if nothing works, won’t my life be still alive with the pulsations of love. Let me see what life has in store for me.’
She picked up the phone to provide fillip to her life.
Short story based on Preeti Shenoy’s prompt for November 2015 ‘Write India’ short story initiative of Times of India