(Reading Time: 10 minutes)
Breathe. Breathe. Please. This isn’t the place. You need to let it pass. You need to wait till you get home. Breathe. Just finish this and go home.
“Oh my god, my brain is so fried that I’m starting to type gibberish,” Meera yells out from her cubicle. She knows that I am close by. I am the only one here. We’ve spoken to each other before. Actually, she talked and I listened. She is especially friendly after a few glasses of rum and Coke at office parties and likes to talk about Sam, her blind cat, whom she found abandoned in a dumpster outside her house two years ago. She doesn’t know if it was a dog or a monkey who got his eyes, but insists on making sure that we all know how much she loves him.
It’s getting late and I have a story to submit. A news piece about the growing number of potholes in the city. Potholes. Who gives a shit? My editor does, that’s who. 500 words of nothing by midnight. All I’ve written so far is the headline. “The Growing Menace of Potholes.” I’m drinking water to keep my stomach from growling. The last meal I ate was nearly six hours ago. I thought I put an apple in my bag this morning, but I can’t seem to find it.
“You’re Radha, right?”
Suddenly, she breaks my internal monologue. I look up to find her standing before me, dressed in a lovely summer dress, hair tied in a loose bun (held together by a Reynolds’ pen). I, on the other hand, am dressed in a black t-shirt that matches brilliantly with my black pants, with a stupid frown on my face for not being able to find that wretched apple.
Damn it. This is like high-school all over again. The most popular girl in class asks you if that’s your name and all you have to say is yes, but it’s taking longer than expected.
“Yeah, I’m Radha.” My face softens. “You’re Meera, isn’t it?”
“Right. Listen, I’m sorry to bother you like this. I’m starving and I was wondering if you have something to eat.”
The freckles on her nose have gotten more prominent ever since she got back from Goa last week.
“It’s funny you mention that, because I’m starving too and I thought I had an apple, but I can’t find it.”
“Are you going to be here for a while?”
“Yeah, I have this story to finish.” I point towards my computer.
“Oh, what are you working on?”
“A story on Indian textiles.”
“Hey, do you want to grab a quick bite somewhere?”
“Table for two, please.”
We are the only two people here apart from a couple sitting three tables away from us.
“I don’t understand why it’s called Café Kink” I mutter, as we sit down.
“Ooh, they serve Mexican food.”
There’s random art on the walls, from portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn to quotes like, “Are you a parking ticket? Because you have fine written all over you” and “I just want you to be happy. And naked”. The strangest thing is a giant piñata hanging from the ceiling close to the entrance – I wonder if it’s just for show or if we can actually smash the life out of it.
“I’d like to smash the crap out of that,” Meera says.
“We should do it before we leave. But first, we need a drink. Waiter.”
“Their Sangria is so good.” Meera stifles a nasty burp. “I hope Sam ate something. I hate not being home to give him food myself.”
“Who feeds him when you’re not around?”
“My neighbor does.”
“Can you trust this neighbor with your house keys?”
“Yeah, he’s a sweet old Parsi guy. Almost 75 but still likes to flirt with me.”
“Who doesn’t like to flirt with you?”
“I can’t believe you said that.”
I’ve always been terrible at small talk. And even when I’ve tried, the pressure of having to say something interesting or funny makes me sweat profusely. Perhaps that’s why in response to her question, “Where did you grow up?” I say, “Meera, are you happy?” I realize, I’ve crossed a line the moment I say it, but it’s too late.
Meera stares at me for a few seconds before answering. “You mean with this job or –”
“I mean, with life.”
“I don’t know.” She takes a sip of her drink. “I mean, I don’t want to say something I don’t mean.”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Are you?” She finishes the last of her Sangria.
“I’m tempted to give you a vague answer. Glass half-full half-empty kind of bullshit. But I’ve already had three glasses of wine and I’d rather tell you the truth.”
“No, I’m not. I’m 35 years old, married and miserable.” I look down at my half-eaten plate of enchiladas and sigh. “Rohan, my husband and I are so disconnected that we don’t even feel the need to talk about that disconnect any more. I can’t remember the last time we had sex or just felt close, you know. I wish he could shake me out of this and things could be normal again.” I push my plate away. “When we could both look at each other and not feel disgust.”
I can sense her discomfort. All she wanted to do was share a good meal and a few laughs and go back to her desk. Unaffected. And here, I’ve shat all over it.
“I’m really sorry, Radha.” She reaches out and holds my hand.
I brush her hand away. “No, don’t. Please. I don’t need your pity.” For some reason, I feel a terrible rage inside. Perhaps because I’ve never even admitted to myself that after nearly 12 years of marriage, it’s finally over.
We sit quietly and avoid looking at each other.
“I lost my virginity the day I turned 18. I was in school and he was in his second year of college. I remember the day so vividly. It was a Saturday afternoon and his parents were out for the day. We were lying in his bed and he rolled over, kissed me on the lips and told me that this is nice but he’d like to be with other women too,” Meera says and crosses her arms over her chest – a gesture I later realize is a sign of shielding oneself.
I don’t know why, but tears start rolling down my face, both for my pain and hers. I don’t offer words of comfort or try and reach out in any way. I just look down and stare at the beige tablecloth.
“I should have told him, no, that’s not okay. That I can’t be with him, or that I want him to be my boyfriend and bring me flowers and make me feel really wanted and loved. Instead, I told him I was okay with that. We were together for the next two years, with him fucking other women whenever he wanted to, no questions asked.”
She starts to cry. I start to cry.
“Ever since, I’ve met men who want to sleep with me but don’t want any drama. And I’ve been too afraid to ask for more. But the truth is, I feel this void inside me getting bigger every time I put myself out there, and all I get is a pittance in the name of love. I want intimacy. I want connection. I want – ”
She’s sobbing by now. Nobody is around. It’s as if they’ve all disappeared because they’re afraid to be sucked into this vortex the two of us have managed to create.
I take a sip of water and tell her how, “Sometimes at work, I get panic attacks, and feel as if I’m about to drown. And I keep telling myself to – ”
“Breathe,” Meera finishes my sentence.
Ten minutes later, we call for the bill. On our way out, we notice the piñata still hanging there.
“Is this for show?” I can’t help but ask.
“Yes, it is.”
“Isn’t everything these days?”
It’s chilly outside. As chilly as it can get on a November evening in Mumbai.
“Want to share a cab till Khar?” Meera removes a pack of Classic Milds and lights one before nodding. We get into a taxi and it’s filled with the smell of jasmine ittar. It’s so overwhelming that I have to roll down my window. Still, it’s a refreshing change from the smell of cigarettes and sweat. Something passengers usually leave behind. When we stop at the first red light, I ask the driver where he got it from. At first, he blushes, then turns around and tells me that it was a gift from his uncle who works in Dubai. I tell him it smells lovely and sink into the backseat of his taxi with Meera on my right, smoking her cigarette, completely unaware of my conversation with the driver. I don’t know if I’m ready to go home yet, but I’m in no rush to decide.