Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Turning Home

It was raining when Sheila got ready to leave Vibha’s on Sunday afternoon. Vibha insisted on packing her a something to eat for dinner so she would not have to cook after reaching home. For the road there was a big sandwich, an apple and a bottle of water. “You’ve become your mother" Sheila joked as her friend fussed over her comfort just as Mrs. Shah had done when the girls were younger and hung out at Vibha’s on the weekends fuelled by an endless stream of steaming hot chai and spicy snacks. “ I guess its in the genes. I can’t seem to help myself” Vibha laughed as they hugged goodbye. “Stay in touch and I’ll see you again at the baby shower if not sooner” Sheila said ducking into the car quickly to avoid getting drenched.

She absently fiddled with the radio knob trying to tune into a station that did not play those mushy soft-rock tracks she absolutely detested. She was thinking about the two versions of Vibha’s life that she had become privy too quite unexpectedly. The frantic email that read like she was on the edge of despair, hopeless about the future and deeply concerned about her husband’s fidelity - and so the fate of their marriage.

Then there was the poised and confident sounding woman who she had spend a couple of days with . Each version was equally credible but the “reality” of Vibha probably lay somewhere in between the two. Having given up on the radio, she switched on the CD player. It was the Shafqat Ali Khan Sufi music album Jayant had given her a couple of years ago. Jayant had been her only relationship where marriage had looked like a distinct possibility.

He was five years older with a personality type that could be best described as un-Sheila. They shared a love for literature and music and very little besides that. He was the one with an MFA and a former journalist but she was the better read and politically aware of the two. Conversely, she had many years of investment banking experience given her line of work but he had a really good pulse on the stock market.

As a hobby, he bought a house on the cheap, lived in it even as he rennovated it and sold it for a profit. This was a hobby that consumed all of his spare time. He took great pride in being able to fix most things without professional help. Someday, he wanted to quit his "boring ass" day job and become a realtor full-time.

Relationships had always been an afterthought – the filler between a trip to Home Depot and finishing up the dry wall. Sheila found it easy to trust him and that made up for the lack of combustible spark in their relationship – at least to her. She did not mind being on speaker phone talking while be put up new cabinets in the kitchen or worked on the plumbing.

It was a great deal more natural than having someone like MJ calling her past midnight to “feel really close to you” – the sound of his unapologetically lustful voice gave her goosebumps. Getting off the phone an hour later left her feeling empty and vulnerable at the same time. Discussing the color of kitchen tiles with Jayant on a lazy Sunday morning made her feel safe in a way she had rarely felt with any man who had come into her life.

She had been single for more than a year when she met Jayant and yearned for closeness that he either did not sense or perhaps chose to ignore. While they were both anxious about not rushing into things their approach to “getting there” differed widely. She needed to sense the connection right away to even consider going any further. He was willing to wait for a long time to feel anything special. He would settle for pleasant without seeking spectacular.

Despite the incongruence of their expectations, they enjoyed each other’s company as two very good friends might and neither was willing to give that up. It frustrated her that they were not able to make a seamless transition from casual to meaningful conversation without feeling pressured to make some kind of serious commitment to each other that they both would feel obliged to honor against their better judgment.

Listening to the words of the Ish Kamal song, took her back to the day they were driving back to her apartment one evening and Jayant was humming along. She remembered saying to him “Remember you once said, desis smell of curry all the time. Do I do too ?” He replied “ Right now you don’t. But then you haven’t been cooking in those clothes. You smell quite nice actually”.

“You like it ?” she asked. “Yeah” he answered and returned to the song. She said something about how the same perfume or spices smelled quite different depending on the individual’s metabolism, mood and energy level. Maybe the aroma of chicken vindaloo on her skin smelt like Faubourg by Hermes. To verify her theory, Jayant smelt her coat and then her wrist. “It is very different” he agreed.

“Give me your hand” he said and smelt her wrist once more as if to confirm the difference. This time, his touch was different and she could feel his lips and nose brushing her skin. Then he let go. They chatted about the afternoon they had spent wandering about in a charming little town midway between his place and hers. It was getting dark outside and the music had stopped playing when he said “Let me smell that perfume on your wrist again”. She held it close to his face and felt the warmth of his breath on her skin. There was a certain restlessness about his touch. “It’s a beautiful smell. Very heady” he commented and he let go almost reluctantly

After dinner at her place that evening, they relaxed on her couch – she cross-legged and he with his feet propped up on the ottoman. She thought it made for a cozy domestic scene except that they sat at opposite ends. He had dated last over six months ago – maybe his need for closeness was not nearly as strong as hers she thought. Maybe this was his way of “getting there” slowly.

It was close to midnight when finally he got up to leave. After he had put his coat on he took her by surprise saying “Come give me a hug”. He held her in a warm embrace for a long time. They were both silent. Sheila asked softly “What are you thinking ?” and Jayant replied “I am thinking if I should kiss you” . She buried her face in his coat and felt his cheek resting against her head. “I should really go now, its getting late” he said as he unlocked the front door. She watched the tail lights if his car fade into the darkness before turning indoors.

The rain had stopped and twilight was gathering outside. She felt a little hungry and remembered the sandwich Vibha had packed for her. She decided to stop for gas and stretch her legs for a bit. There were a couple of text messages from Arun. One of them “Hey Sheila – You will get official word from Vaishali but keep next Saturday free for the Meet & Greet Arun do that she’s going to have around 7 ish at her place. Ciao” The other had his number for her to call back.

Back on the road, she was able to pick up a jazz station on the radio. Along with the last song on the Shafqat Ali Khan CD, thoughts of Jayant faded as well. She found herself drawing a parallel between Vibha’s two realties and her own. There was Jayant and there was MJ – two dramatically different men she had at different points in her life been in relationships with. Despite how contrary it seemed, it was true that she had cared for both and it had not felt wrong in any way. The “real” Sheila was probably the woman who had remained friends with Arun through the systole-diastole of love and loss. Maybe the reality of every person is the sum of all those parts of them that remain constant through their life’s ebb and tide.


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