A Mother’s Touch
Author’s Note: I write in Word. The transition from there to here might have resulted in some elements being out of place or the design looking a bit wonky. I apologize for that. But after reading and re-reading this 7K-word monstrosity for the 9000th time, I wasn’t about to check it line-by-line on Medium. For the unacquainted (which I hope you are, because that means daddy’s about to get a new reader), this is the first chapter from my new standalone novel tentatively titled A Mother’s Touch. Also, the brusque humor and bravado is a complete front, because I’m nervous and prone to feelings (more like avalanches) of crushing inadequacy. Enjoy!
01 | Deliverance.
December 06, 2019 | 16:59
I’m told my life hasn’t begun, that I’m only nineteen. Yet I feel I’ve been alive too long. My limbs are as sore as my mind is weary. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been on the same daily routine for as long as I can remember, a blunted kaleidoscope of school, tuition, friends, and home. I crave change, knowing it’s not coming. I ache for a cause to believe in, but find only lies and deceit. I howl for a reason to keep going, yet only flail at thin air.
Even death appears routine, evokes no alarm. I was almost run over the other day. The car came out of nowhere while I was crossing the street. Or had I seen the approaching danger and chosen to step on regardless? It had to swerve to avoid me, the car. It was by mere inches that my legs weren’t swept out from under me. The driver was livid. Kept yelling at me, ranting about today’s goddamn generation.
Me? I was bored.
Which is why this ritual gives me pause. If the driver had hit the brakes a fraction later I’d be the one mourned today. I’d be the one over whom tears were shed. I’d be the one who was suddenly everybody’s favorite, whose death shattered everyone’s world. And I’d be the one not caring how I was remembered.
Instead today’s service is in honor of a neighbor who was murdered two weeks ago. Everyone’s devastated, of course. They’re all now his best friends and confidants and however will we move on from this terrible tragedy? He was such a wonderful and caring human being. Too good for this world, you know? Whoever I’ve talked to about this (excluding my mother) has said without fail: ‘It could have been me.’ A man was taken from his loved ones in the worst possible way and the first thought they had was it could’ve been them. That thank god they’re safe. It’s all about them.
I find hosting a gathering with good food upon a person’s death crass and distasteful. An argument could be made that the dead would want the people they leave behind to get together, connect, sometimes reconnect, have a pleasant time. Maybe that’s how we justify funeral services. But the dead aren’t concerned what happens after they die.
The event hall is bathed in a pale hue and adorned with portraits of the deceased. The walls are a dim shade of blue, illuminated by tubelights and a sole chandelier hanging from the center. The place is quite small. Not cramped, mind you, but inadequate for large crowds. Today, though, we are only thirty-seven. All dressed in austere clothing either black or white. I myself am in a black kurta with matching jeans and sneakers.
As I stare at some of the faces I am reminded of plastic. Plastic smiles, mechanical nods, a measured somberness, an acquired display of empathy. Only the widow seems truly affected by the man’s death. Watching her navigate one patronizing conversation after another while obviously pushing down virulent tears makes me admire her fortitude.
‘Abhik,’ cuts a voice through my thoughts. ‘Are you alright?’
‘Of course I am,’ I reply automatically. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘I know how funerals make you feel,’ she says. Even manages to lace a tinge of compassion into her tone.
‘And yet you dragged me to one,’ I respond evenly. Not an accusation. Not a sullen pout. A matter of fact.
‘I had no choice,’ she claims. ‘The widow personally requested your presence.’
‘Why?’ I ask, frowning.
‘She hasn’t seen you in years.’
‘There’s nothing to see,’ I mutter. Stand. ‘You want anything?’
‘A soft drink, maybe?’
I walk away without a word. At one end of the hall is a table brimming with refreshments. Water, drinks, juice, soda. Overkill. I grab a large bottle and pour two glasses. Replace the cap, bring back the drinks and hand one to my mother. ‘Thank you,’ she says. I retake my seat beside her. We’re the only two people not on their feet. The only two not mingling. No one looks at us, no one inquires upon our deliberate isolation. We might as well not exist.
She’s wearing that scent she reserves for events not related to work. It’s lovely. Makes me feel comfortable and safe. I find myself moving an inch closer. Today is one of the increasingly rare occasions that she and I are together. Her job usually demands her complete attention. Sometimes I wish her office would burn down, or her firm be liquidated. Anything to spend a little more time with her.
She isn’t even looking at me. I know that expression. Those glazed, vacant eyes. She’s thinking about work. She’s always thinking about work. Ever since my father died she’s been married to her job. Pushed out everything else, including me. Anything unproductive didn’t deserve a place in her heart. I noticed this a long time ago. I just never imagined she’d discard me as well. I didn’t prepare for that. Didn’t think I’d have to.
Looking at her I come to a startling realization. I consider my mother the most beautiful woman in the world. She is forty years old, neither gorgeous nor unsightly. Neither slim nor plump. Her face is one of character and determination. A sharp nose, high cheekbones, a defined jawline. Piercing eyes. Pointed eyebrows that at rest resemble a vague frown. Her hair falls to the curve of her hip when unstyled. Thick yet smooth. The kind you’re tempted to run your fingers through. It’s tied in a tight bun at present, its shade a perfect match with her black cotton saree.
An objective onlooker would perhaps not linger at her beyond a couple seconds. But to me there’s none prettier. Not the models on those magazine covers, not the actresses my classmates lust over, no one. As far as I’m concerned my mother is the epitome of beauty, grace, and elegance. In her company I feel safe. Secure. Free. And I cannot stand that our time together has been so limited the past fifteen years. I’m perfectly capable of living on my own. I’m independent, self-sufficient. But that’s the thing about a mother’s embrace — though after a certain age you don’t need it, you want it. You yearn it. And when it is denied you, as it is being to me, it hurts. It aches.
The widow is approaching. She’s a slight woman, small and slim. Almost diminutive. Horn-rimmed spectacles lend distinction to an otherwise mild visage framed by wavy shoulder-length hair. She must be in her mid-forties, but the shock and grief of bereavement has aged her considerably. She has on a plain white saree. As mom and I rise to greet her I realize I don’t know her name.
She and mom share a sympathetic glance. The widow extends her arms as if to offer an embrace, then thinks better of it. My mother is known to be averse to any degree of intimacy. I’ve never seen her touch or be touched by anyone. Even I’ve never so much as tapped her shoulder. Not since my father died.
They exchange the usual platitudes. Mom offers her condolences, then asks how she’s coping with everything. She replies it’s tough but life moves on, right? Mom volunteers her unconditional support whenever required. The widow says she’s grateful but no amount of talking can bring back her husband. I zone out.
My mind turns to T. My mind always turns to T when unoccupied. My closest friend. My lover. The best thing in my life right now. Always there for me. With me through thick and thin, joy and sorrow, tears and laughter. I don’t know what I’d do without–
I start and stare at my mother. ‘What’s the matter?’ I ask stupidly.
‘Roshni is talking to you,’ she admonishes.
I turn my attention to the widow and apologize for being impolite.
‘It’s quite okay,’ she replies with a forced smile. ‘I was just saying how tall you’ve gotten. How much you’ve grown.’
‘That tends to happen with age,’ I reply, praying she doesn’t misinterpret ironic humor as discourtesy. Thankfully she smiles. A sallow, shallow contortion.
‘Indeed,’ she says. A silence follows, long and uncomfortable. The kind everyone wants to break but no one knows how.
I rise to the challenge. ‘Forgive me if it’s inconsiderate to ask,’ I begin, ‘but I’m not clear on exactly how your husband… I’m so sorry if I’m being rude…’
‘No, no, it’s okay,’ reassures Roshni, and suddenly I like this woman. ‘Your mother must have told you, but it seems you’ve forgotten. That tends to happen with age.’ A dry chuckle, a tender gaze. ‘He was murdered. In the living room at night, while I was out.’
‘How late at night?’ I ask, the only question I can think of.
‘Around eleven,’ she placidly confirms.
‘What were you doing outside at that hour, if I may ask?’
‘I’m a doctor. The hospital had called me thirty minutes prior. There was an emergency and my presence was urgently solicited. This happened quite frequently.’
‘So your husband was home alone.’
‘Yes. I don’t know how the killer knew that, but yes. He was home alone. I left him watching television, eating chips, completely oblivious. That was my Mohit. Always in a land of his own.’ Her eyes peer past mine, into the void, her mind miles away. Her thin lips threaten to quake, her countenance gradually loses its expression. I want to reach out and hold her shoulder, remind her she’s not alone. But I’m not that kind of person. I don’t have that kind of power. Fortunately at length she recovers her bearings. Continues: ‘The killer picked the lock and came in through the front door. My husband was in the other room, its entrance in his peripheral vision. But he was distracted. There were no signs of a struggle. He was stabbed thirty-nine times. The first one went through his neck and severed his windpipe. After that he was helpless. Couldn’t defend himself. He simply lay there while his killer cut him again and again and again.’
That she could say all this without breaking down is astonishing. But the effort has taken its toll. She is visibly quivering. Throwing caution to the wind I step forward and hold her, guide her to my chair. She sits, grateful for the help. I drop to one knee and put a steady hand on her arm.
‘I am so sorry,’ I whisper. ‘I should never have brought it up.’
‘No, it’s okay,’ she answers with a shiver. ‘It’s good to get it out. When you’re able to say it is when the healing begins.’
‘Let me get you some water,’ says mom. Tactfully extricates herself from the situation. This has been her way since I can remember; whenever she detects trouble she leaves. We’ve never had a sustained conversation about matters of the heart, our emotions, our troubles; really, about anything that truly matters. She’s all practicality and business, that woman.
‘They never caught him,’ sniffles Roshni. I am acutely aware of the febrile silence sweeping the room. Everyone has the corners of their eyes trained in our direction. ‘They never found out who killed the love of my life.’ She wipes her eyes and nose. ‘It’s been two weeks. They say the first forty-eight hours –’
‘That’s a misconception,’ I cut in quickly. ‘A study in the United States found only thirty percent of all homicides were solved in the first two days. Two-thirds were solved within a month. The odds are still in your favor.’ And there it is. My wall. Your favor. Your battle, your problem, your predicament. Not mine. You and I are separate. I am not your friend. I am but a passive ally.
Roshni sniffles again, wipes away a tear. Dares not raise her head and meet all the stares. My hand is still on her shoulder. It feels awkward. Forced. But I don’t retract it. She doesn’t want me to. Not yet. ‘And afterward?’ she asks. A voice of fear, a question afraid of its own answer.
‘Well,’ I falter, suddenly awkward, ‘you still have a good chance up to a year… don’t worry, I’m sure the police will –’
‘A year,’ she mulls, as though the words simply don’t make sense. Incomprehensible. Even the indistinct murmuring of a moment ago has evanesced. The room is deathly quiet, deeply riveted to our conversation. Mom should have returned by now. I look at her and she’s got her back to us. Taking her time, avoiding the situation as best she can. ‘What are the odds after that? What are the odds after a year?’
‘I really don’t think it’ll come to that,’ I say helplessly. Why’d I ever open my mouth? This woman is crushed and it’s wholly my fault.
She finally raises her head, an expression of quiet fury. Instinctively I remove my hand. Her eyes burn as she spits through clenched teeth: ‘What are the odds, Abhik?’
My throat is dry. Arid. I could have kept quiet. I could have let her vent. I didn’t have to speak. But as is my compulsion, I spoke. And made matters infinitely worse. My eyes drop to the floor and I shamefacedly mutter: ‘Five percent.’
‘Five percent,’ blankly repeats Roshni. No longer tremoring, neither angry. When I look up I see nothing. All life appears to have deserted her. A terrible silence hangs in the air, accentuated by the total lack of chatter in the hall. I can feel everyone’s eyes on me, blaming me for shattering the widow’s hitherto stalwart poise.
‘I shouldn’t have said anything,’ I desperately blurt. ‘I’m so sorry. You’ve been through enough already without me adding to –’
Roshni raises her hand. Quietens me. Meets my frantic gaze. ‘Enjoy the food,’ she says drily. ‘It was his favorite caterer.’
She rises to her feet and walks away. Leaves me crouched on the floor, staring at the now vacant chair in compunctious silence. Of course now’s the moment my mother chooses to return. Grunts in faux surprise at the widow’s absence. Hands me the glass of water after I resume my seat and she hers. Over the next thirty seconds sparse pockets of conversation reignite. Roshni carries on engaging with the grievers. Putting on a brave face. Soon it’s like our unfortunate encounter never occurred.
‘People move on,’ says my mother, reading my thoughts. ‘You mustn’t get involved in their problems.’
‘I shouldn’t care is what you’re trying to say,’ I reply, rubbing my forehead.
‘Exactly,’ she returns with triumph. Pride. ‘People, they’re all the same. They say they want advice, but in reality all they want is for you to say what they desire to hear. And even after you go out of your way to help them, even after you get emotionally attached and expend your own energy, they do what they want anyway. It’s pointless.’
I could say so much in reprisal. Offer so many counterarguments, so many rebuttals. A clash of ideologies, of quixotism and cynicism. But just as my mother avoids me, I avoid my mother. We speak from time to time. But we never talk. Besides, I’m not sincerely idealistic. It’s simply that if I were to accept the world as it is and not as I’d like it to be I’d lose the will to live.
Unwilling to endure mom’s presence a second longer I get up and walk off. Make my way to the entrance, exit to the staircase. The service is being held on the second floor of a quaint community hall in Parnasree Pally, the homely neighborhood in Behala where shopkeepers extend credit to loyal customers and a familiar face carries more weight than an official signature. I’ve spent my life on these streets.
Descending the stairs, sidestepping an attendant along the way, I step outside and lean against the building. Take deep breaths. The keeper of a tea stall across the road keeks in my direction. Have I seen him before? Observing the mundane flow of traffic and pedestrians, I light a cigarette. Allow my mind to coalesce with its surroundings and forget the mortification of what happened upstairs.
Am I overthinking it? Would you react as I have?
I’ve been smoking for five minutes when I become aware of a presence beside me. My mother’s. As I turn upon her she studies me for signs of guilt or repentance. Weakness. But I proffer none. My façade is one of stone, impassive and detached. She’s never seen me smoking before. Didn’t know I did. What do mothers do in such situations? Berate their children? Beat them? Have a tete-a-tete? Preach about the dangers of cancer and heart disease? Lipi Burman is no ordinary mother. Whatever she does won’t be in conformity with custom and tradition.
Sure enough, she holds out her hand. The implication clear. I reach into my pocket. Notice for the thousandth time the long, diagonal scar on her outer wrist. She got it while accidentally falling off a moving bus. A jagged piece of metal jutting out from the handlebar she tried to grapple in panic. The one piece of imperfection on the chef-d’œuvre that is my mother.
She takes the cigarette, produces her own lighter. I suppress a smile as she flicks into life the docile flame and brings it closer to her lips. Of course this is how my mum reveals she’s also a smoker. Not through dialogue, but through action borne of a need for theatricality. She won’t disclose anything unless the situation permits her to simultaneously surprise her counterpart.
Mother and son soon smoke as one, attracting thinly disguised stares of disapproval from pedestrians throughout the street. We stand resolute. Unperturbed. Why is she here? She’s made it clear she’ll spend only as much time with me as is necessary. Is this her way of making amends for not helping with Roshni? Realizing she won’t speak unless I do, I ask: ‘What’re you doing out here?’
‘Fresh air,’ she replies with an ostentatious gesture toward the heavens.
‘That’s it?’ I press.
‘I find funeral services morbid,’ she admits, wiping a spot off her saree. ‘They remind me of people I’ve lost. Like your father.’
‘Then why’d you come?’
‘Roshni considers us good friends,’ she responds indifferently. ‘It would have been rude not to.’
‘Do you consider her a good friend?’
She glances at me but makes no reply. An answer in itself. We finish our cigarettes in silence. Stub them out and chuck them on the edge of the road. She looks up at the community hall in a moment of contemplation. Eventually inquires: ‘You want to go back there?’
I shake my head.
‘Good,’ she says, hailing a rickshaw.
>I love you.
It feels liberating to type these words. To send them without worry or trepidation. Secure in the knowledge it won’t end in heartbreak. A second later, my phone buzzes.
>I love you too.
Sighing in contentment, I set aside the device and close my eyes. I’ve always been the kind of person to be in bed by nine. My classmates make fun of me, call me vanilla and rigid. But it’s the only way I’ve known, the only system that has worked. A structure, an order. Without it my life would become chaotic.
On any other night I’d fall asleep within minutes. Tonight however, I cannot. I keep picturing Roshni’s face, her grief. The keeper of the tea stall peeping at me. Every mourner quietly judging me. I’ve never cared what anyone thought of me. Then why’s it bothering me now? And why can’t I get the vendor out of my head? His eyes, they weren’t curious or condemnatory. They were calculating. Cold. Implausible as it sounds, I think he was watching me. Following me.
Snap out of it, Abhik. Why would anybody follow you?
My eyes creep open. Staring at the ceiling, I can’t help but remember my childhood. I wanted to be an astronaut. Three years of age and I imagined myself on hostile planets, fighting aliens and forging relationships with local lifeforms. I’ve always had a vivid imagination. My mother used to smile when she saw me fighting imaginary monsters. She’d play the part, feign agony when I shot her. Drop to the floor and act dead. When I inched closer she’d spurt back to life and we’d wrestle.
For my fourth birthday she bought me a glow-in-the-dark wallpaper of the solar system and stuck it to the ceiling. Every night I’d eagerly wait for her to be done with work and come to my room. She’d read me stories of space exploration and intergalactic warfare. I’d cuddle against her, stare at the vast expanse of stars and planets, play with her hair. Let my imagination run wild.
Now the ceiling is bare and my mother doesn’t talk to me.
She was a different person back then. When my father was still alive. He died when I was five and she died along with him. I remember the look in her eyes when she broke the news. The distance in them. The dissociation. For weeks afterward I’d hear her softly crying into the night. I’d walk to her room and she’d tell me everything was fine but mummy just needs some alone time right now, okay darling?
She eventually got back on her feet, but things were never the same. It was as though she were playing a part. Only before it’d been of an extraterrestrial demon and now it was of a single mother. She became distant. Mechanical. Relentlessly practical. Obsessed with her job. Gone was the wrestling and the bedtime stories, gone was the closeness and the intimacy. Our relationship, once loving and filial, became contractual. And it’s been that way ever since.
I get up and move to the window. Slide it open, light a cigarette. Smile that I don’t have to be sneaky anymore. It’s then that mom knocks on the door and enters the room. Dressed in a white cap-sleeved top, dark pajamas, glasses on, hair loose. Her usual nighttime attire. She makes no comment on the smoking. Simply says: ‘I’m afraid something’s come up at work. I’ll be home late tomorrow. Close to twelve. We’ll have to cancel movie night.’
My heart sinks. Concerned we’d been drifting too far asunder, mom and I’d decided one night to watch a movie together. We hadn’t spoken and were seated considerably apart. But it was the first time in years we’d done anything in concert. It felt nice. In due time an unspoken agreement developed, that every alternate Friday would be movie night. Nothing was ever discussed. It just… happened.
Since the genesis of that tradition I have fervently looked forward to those two nights a month when I got to spend time with my estranged mother. But she canceled the previous three times. And here she is, bailing for the fourth time running. I’ve heard of parents who crave the company of their children, whose love for their offspring borders on the fanatical. Every such child I’ve met grumbled about their need for space. The anger and bitterness I felt each time was frighteningly ferocious.
I turn my back to her, signaling I’d like her to leave. She doesn’t. The hands of the clock continue their rhythmic ticking and my mother remains standing. Still as a statue. ‘What is it?’ I ask, surprised at the rage in my tone.
‘I have no choice,’ she says quietly. ‘A client of ours has developed a new antivirus. It’s supposed to be their big gamechanger. But I examined their code and found several flaws. I’ll need to be in the office all day tomorrow and coordinate with them. This’ll continue for a week or so, I expect.’
‘I don’t care,’ I spit, worriedly noting my unsteady hands. ‘Go.’ Her absenteeism has never evoked such a reaction before. Why now? It’s uncontrollable, this anger. Like a beast rearing to be let loose.
‘Don’t be like that,’ she says. And for the first time in years I hear emotion in her voice. Shame. Regret. Dejection. Tearfulness. Why tonight? Why’s she breaking character tonight?
‘Just leave,’ I mumble.
She doesn’t. In fact she steps deeper into the room. I hear a soft thump and realize she has sat down on the bed. I turn in disbelief. She takes a look around the room, remarks benignly: ‘You should decorate a bit.’
‘I like it this way,’ I reply, which is the truth. My room is my shell, the only place I feel safe. It is an extension of my personality. The walls are colored turquoise and are bare. No posters, no wallpaper. The only three pieces of furniture are my bed, my desk, and my dressing cabinet. The latter contains a scant but eclectic assortment of clothes, each neatly pressed and folded. The desk accommodates my textbooks, novels, stationery, and laptop. The bed has two large pillows. Since it’s winter there’s also sprawled across it a thick blanket. There are two charging ports, one beside the desk and the other beside the bed.
This is my base. My center. The only place in existence where everything is precisely to my liking. Where everything is just so. But there is at this moment an intruder in my safe haven. And she shows no indication of wanting to leave. ‘I don’t know,’ she says, motioning toward the wall, ‘a couple of posters, a nice calend –’
‘What do you want, mom?’ I demand.
She looks at me. Catches my eye. Her expression shocks me; it is one of extreme penitence and endless sorrow. Her skin is faintly lined and wrinkled, a physical manifestation of the distress she has been under for fifteen years. When she speaks, it is in a strained whisper: ‘I want you to yell at me.’
‘I’m sorry?’ I say, caught off guard. Shadows dance across her face as traffic passes below. It is only by the weak, exiguous glow of streetlamps and the pale moonlight that I can see her. And what I glimpse is a damaged, remorseful, frightened woman.
‘Yell at me,’ she repeats, louder. ‘Hit me.’
‘What’re you talking about, mom?’ I say, suddenly discomfited.
‘You want to. I know you do. I saw it back at the funeral service, when I told you to not get close to anyone. I saw it. It was fleeting, but I saw it.’
‘What did you see, mom?’ I ask. The cigarette is burning out between my fingers. I pay it no attention. Something is wrong with my mother.
‘Rage,’ she says. ‘Suppressed. Animalistic. You were angry with me.’ I say nothing, allow her to continue. Get it out. ‘And then I saw despair. Despondence. Defeat. As if there were no point to your anger, that it couldn’t do anything, that it couldn’t change anything. That it couldn’t change me. You pushed down your resentment and walked away. And since then I’ve been wondering just how much of a jerk I must be if my own son thinks communicating with me is impossible.’
A deep stillness fills the room. Over the years I’ve imagined this moment countless times. When my mother and I finally talk about the distance between us. But in all the scenarios I concocted I was the one who brought it up after having reached my breaking point. I shouted at her, berated her, chastised her. Things never quite work out how we imagine, do they?
‘I’ve been thinking,’ she continues, ‘about how far we’ve separated since your father… you grew up without a mother. Without a parent. That’s the simple truth. And it’s been eating at you for years. I’ve seen it before and I’ve done nothing. It was easier to do nothing. But today, when I saw that look in your eyes, I realized what a colossal mistake I’d made. I have incurred your fury and denied you the opportunity to express it time and again. I must now pay the price for that sin. I want you to yell at me, son. I want you to say all the things you’ve sealed in your heart. I want you to hit me. Slap me.’
This isn’t happening. This isn’t real. It can’t be. My heart beats loudly as I say: ‘I was just thinking about the times you pretended to be an alien and wrestled with me. Do you remember that?’
‘Of course I do,’ she whispers, taken aback. ‘It almost always ended with me on top, tickling you while you laughed and pulled my hair and pinched me to make me stop.’
‘Do you treasure those moments?’ I ask at length.
‘Sometimes they’re the only memories that get me through the day,’ she replies, her voice cracking.
‘I don’t understand, then,’ I say, struggling to keep an even tone. ‘Why’d you stop? Why’d you distance yourself from me? It was me, wasn’t it? You hate me, don’t you?’
There’s a moment’s silence as mom turns to hide her tears and wipe them away. When she faces me her eyes are moist. ‘Baby, you are the only reason I’m still alive. I shudder to think what would happen if I didn’t have you.’
Baby. This is the first time in over a decade she’s called me that. My eyes instantly brim with tears. I push them down, manage to keep a steady voice. ‘Why, then?’
She shrugs helplessly. ‘When your father –’ she frowns, ‘– died, I pushed everyone out. The man I loved was gone and I couldn’t trust anyone anymore, because what if something happened to them too? I cut myself off from everyone. The biggest regret of my life is that list included you. In the beginning loneliness was a shield. A lifestyle choice to protect myself. But over time I became used to it. You must remember I’m an intensely private person by nature. Like you. I enjoy solitude. Being alone simply felt natural.’
I feel weak. ‘Would you do things differently?’
‘In a heartbeat,’ she asserts in a shattered undertone.
I have vilified this woman for years. Assigned her countless labels and monikers. But she’s a human being. Flawed and susceptible to poor judgement, just like the rest of us. Perhaps I was unfair in my assessment of Lipi Burman. ‘So you don’t hate me? I still occupy a place in your heart?’
‘Abhik, you are my heart,’ she fiercely replies. ‘You are my whole life and don’t you dare think otherwise.’
What would normal people do now? Embrace each other? Shed profuse tears? We’re not built that way. Neither of us has moved an inch toward the other, nor are we crying. My throat is choked. I know she wants to weep. She will. Both of us will. But in private.
I pivot and stub out a cigarette already on withering embers. Catch a brief respite from this conversation. It is by pure happenstance that I see him. Walking by our house, observing me surreptitiously. Clad in a tangerine sweater and black jeans, eyes concealed behind tinted glasses, a week’s stubble clinging to the chin. It’s the same height, the same build, the same aura.
There’s no doubt about it.
It’s the tea stall vendor from before.
My head begins to throb, a searing pain. Shockwaves of anxiety race through my body. My pulse rises dramatically. Danger. I see danger. That man is dangerous. He wants to harm me. He’s spying on me, measuring me. Testing me. Realizing I’m on to him, he angles his face away from me. My eyes remain glued to him as he ambles along the road, rounds a corner, disappears.
The pain eases as soon as he’s out of sight. My heart slows, the panic subsides. The sense of danger gradually dissipates. What just happened? Why is that stranger following me? He is following me, isn’t he? His presence here cannot be a coincidence. He wants to hurt me, that much is clear. But why? What have I done to him? What is going on? What the hell is going on?
I almost jump in surprise. Spin around; my mother is staring at me in concern. When did she get here? When did I get here? I feel disoriented. Why do I feel disoriented? What is happening? He wants to hurt me. That man wants to hurt me. Think, Abhik, think. Focus. What was happening before? Why is your mother here?
Bit by bit, second by second, my internal calm restores. My memory returns. Still dazed, I stagger to the bed and thump down. Bury my head in my hands, squeeze my temples.
‘Abhik, what’s wrong?’ asks my mother.
I must appear disheveled when I look up because mom visibly suppresses a shift in aspect. ‘I’ve been having thoughts,’ I say drily.
‘What kind of thoughts?’ she presses.
I gaze at her and she’s beautiful. Angelic. Her determined yet vulnerable eyes, her severe yet kind lips, her undefined yet cuddly figure, her thick yet soft hair. It is my ardent desire to slide over and lean into her embrace. Have her hold me. Feel safe in her arms. But I know she’s averse to touch. Even more so than I am. ‘Just thoughts,’ I reply in the end.
‘Abhik, something’s wrong,’ she says adamantly. ‘Tell me what it is. Let me help.’
‘What’s wrong,’ I say, ‘is you won’t be home for movie night tomorrow.’
She sighs, looks away. ‘Fine. Don’t tell me.’
I think about tomorrow. The empty house. Eating alone, wishing desperately for company. Going to sleep by myself. An entire day spent in isolation. I think about it, I think about it all. And suddenly I blurt: ‘Let’s do it now!’
‘What?’ she asks, that tender, mellifluous timbre.
‘Movie night,’ I say. My eyes must be sparkling in excitement. ‘Let’s do it now.’
‘But –’ she begins in protest, then halts at my wounded countenance. Grasps the true gravity of this request. My mother has of her own admission erred in the past. We might be contemplating watching a movie, but this has nothing to do with films. This is an olive branch, an opportunity, a test. Did she mean what she said? Or does her guilt shrivel when it grows inconvenient? As if in reply, she gently smiles. ‘Of course. We can do it now. Let’s watch the one we were supposed to last time.’
I feel weak-kneed in joy and relief. She meant it. She meant all of it. My mother really does love me.
‘I know this must have been hard for you,’ she continues, her voice soft. Seraphic. ‘Take five minutes. I’ll get everything ready downstairs. Sound good?’
‘Yeah,’ I frailly utter.
She smiles once more and stands. At the doorway she turns around. Feebly asks: ‘Abhik, do you forgive me?’
‘I would have,’ I reply after a moment’s thought, ‘if you’d acted out of malice. You didn’t. You haven’t done anything wrong. There’s nothing to forgive.’
She rotates her face, wipes a tear in the shadows. Nods gratefully. And then she’s gone.
The instant she leaves the final vestiges of strength depart from my being. I collapse on my back and stare upward in muted shock. I feel light, hopeful, content. Liberated. At peace. Is this what they term deliverance? I am positively giddy with exhilaration.
And still it remains. The uneasiness. Furrowed in the farthest reaches of my psyche. It has made my paranoia its home. I need to shake it off. I get to my feet, stride into the washroom. Splash cold water on my face, into my eyes, behind my ears. Turn off the faucet, peer into the mirror.
What do you see, Abhik?
I see someone of average height, average build, an undistinguished physiognomy. Dressed in a basil sweater over dark jeans. A plain black wristwatch. An appearance entirely unremarkable. Thick tangles of hair fall over my eyes. I constantly find myself tucking curls of it behind my ears, only for them to come loose seconds later.
How old do I look? Early twenties, I think. I have a thin, plain beard which lends a certain gruffness to an otherwise nondescript face. No one would notice me in a crowd, no one would think of me in trying times. I am an everyday everyman. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I walk into the corridor. There’s another bedroom on this level but the entire second tier of our bungalow might as well be mine alone. Mom rarely comes upstairs and the other room is reserved for guests, which we seldom have. Accordingly the floor is dully furnished. There are no family photos, no trophy cabinets, no libraries, no flower vases delicately placed atop elaborate plinths. Only bare walls lightly painted. I make my way to the staircase and fearfully descend the steps, afraid I’ll find downstairs deserted. That the conversation I had minutes prior was imagined.
Thankfully I find her sitting on the sofa, tapping at her phone. Work, no doubt. I enter the kitchen, drink two glasses of water. Feel my wilted throat come back to life. Through the transparent panel separating the kitchen from the living room I glimpse mom frowning at her screen in concentration. Wonder for the zillionth time what it must be like to work at a cybersecurity firm. Indeed, to work at all. To be a single provider. How lonely it must get. How much pressure one must constantly be under. Suddenly I feel ashamed over my behavior upstairs. I should’ve been more understanding. Treated her with compassion and not contempt. Tried to view the situation from her perspective. Everything I own and enjoy is because of her. I have no right to question her love.
She looks up as I approach. Puts away the phone and smiles. I sink into the couch, leaving a seat between us. Habit. The outsize wall-mounted television was a precipitous purchase made with the intent to enjoy high-definition movies with the extravagance afforded by mom’s generous income. Several topflight speakers were duly bought and arranged on high mountings to create a surround sound system. That was three years ago. Since then the set has been switched on typically no more than twice a month on movie nights. If there ever were a symbol of the dissonance between the life my mother covets and the one she lives, the television would be it.
She powers up the rig and logs in to her preferred streaming platform. Finds the movie I’d chosen last month and plays it. A deep boom immediately reverberates throughout the room. As my insides rumble I marvel once again at the potency of our audio setup. ‘Kill the lights, would you?’ requests mom.
‘Sure,’ I say, rising. ‘How’re you not cold? You’re wearing just a top.’
‘I’m secretly a Martian lizard,’ she replies and returns to the screen.
‘Would explain a lot,’ I mutter, making it to the switchboard.
No. No… oh no. It’s here. The disquiet. The panic. The fear. What’s happening to me? That man, is he looking at me right now? He is, isn’t he? How? Think, goddammit, think. Cameras. There are cameras in the house. Where? Slotted between the DVDs on a shelf under the television? Pinned to a petal in a flower vase? Affixed to a picture frame on the wall? Has he hacked into my phone? Has he hacked into mom’s? She’s not safe. I need to get her out. I need to –
My head jolts in surprise. What the…? Where am I? What happened? I’m standing beside the switchboard, fingers hovering in the air. The panic came back. I lost control again. Why is this happening to me?
‘Abhik,’ says mom, pausing the movie, ‘something is obviously bothering you. Tell me what it is.’
‘It’s nothing,’ I dismiss and kill the lights. When I glance back my heart skips a beat. The rich luminosity of the screen has bathed my mother in a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors, resulting in a rapturous polychrome. She looks divine. Celestial.
‘Clearly it’s not,’ she crisply says as I resume my seat. Mom is used to getting her way; she must find my reticence infuriating.
‘I’ll tell you when I figure it out myself,’ I respond firmly, looking her in the eye.
‘Fine,’ she lets up at last. Recommences the film. Understands it’s something I must face alone.
An hour passes by, the cozy silence punctuated by sporadic laughter and hoots. I feel uncharacteristically relaxed in my mother’s presence. Our miens have gradually settled into the shared repose of two individuals enjoying each other’s company. This is nice.
Eventually I notice a mannerism that makes me grin. ‘You want something.’
‘How’d you know?’ she asks, astonished.
‘You’re nibbling on your finger. You do that only when you want something but are too lazy to get it.’
‘I’m that predictable?’
‘To me,’ I shrug. ‘So what is it?’
‘There are soft drinks in the fridge,’ she sheepishly says. ‘I feel particularly indolent.’
‘I’ll get it,’ I chuckle.
‘Let me put the movie on pause,’ she says, reaching for the remote.
‘Don’t,’ I tell her. Push myself off the sofa. ‘I’ve already seen it.’
‘What?’ she says in surprise. ‘Why’d you choose it, then?’
‘I’m not here because of the movie,’ I smile. As I’m leaving she grabs my wrist. The first time we’ve touched in months.
‘I haven’t hugged anyone in a while,’ she says, not meeting my eye. ‘I hate hugs.’
‘I know,’ I reply, suddenly tense. Where’s she going with this? ‘One of exactly two things we have in common.’
She raises herself up and, before I can react, wraps herself around me. My chest thumps in shock. What the hell… I can’t remember the last time… no, I don’t think we’ve ever hugged. This is wrong. I need to get away. I don’t want to get away. I want to stay. Unable to decide how to react, I simply stand.
But my misgivings soon give way to a strange blend of comfort, safety, and thrill. This feels good. Better than anything I’ve felt in years. I hug her back, tighter than I’d meant to. I need her. I need my mother. My life has had a certain emptiness without her. I grab her with reckless greed. Clutch at her clothes, her hair. Let my face sink into her shoulder.
She’s trembling. Is she crying? Am I? Is that why my eyes are wet? What is happening?
She pulls away. Turns her face, wipes the tears. I stand here for a few seconds, trying to process what just happened. My mother hugged me for the first time in my life. I hugged her back. And we both cried. Why? Has she been repressing her emotions? Have I? This void between us, has it made us both lonely people?
Without another word I retreat to the kitchen, my steps mechanical, my mind swimming. Is this what love feels like? My mother and I never expressed ourselves before. We’re private people. We operate alone, surrounded by towering walls. Everything that’s happened tonight has felt surreal. She cried. I cried. We need each other more than we thought.
Where’s the fridge? There, beside the island. I grab the bottle, pour two glasses. Return the bottle and close the door. I’m about to take the glasses and go back when something catches my attention.
On the edge of the island, a smidgen of blood. My head begins to spin. It’s happening again, the panic is clawing at my skin. Why is there blood on the island? Did he hit her? Did that man hit my mother? No. She’s right there. He could’ve hit her before. She would’ve mentioned it. Would she? She doesn’t tell me anything.
I track the thinly dispersed drops of blood to the drawer in which mom keeps the cutlery. I can’t breathe. Why is… I can’t think. I can’t breathe. Help me. With violently shaking hands I reach for the drawer and skate it open. Immediately push it shut and stagger back. My head is dizzy, my legs rubbery. The world is swaying. Stop it. Help me. Please. Help me. Why is it there? Why is there a bloody knife in my mother’s cutlery drawer? What is happening? Save me. End me. Focus. I can’t think.
The blood isn’t wet but it’s recent. He was killed two weeks ago. Roshni’s husband. Hacked to death with a knife. And now I find a bloody knife in my mother’s cutlery drawer? This blood isn’t faded enough to be fourteen days old. Don’t defend her. Think. She knows Roshni. She would’ve known she’d been called to the hospital. She would’ve known Roshni’s husband was home alone. Easy prey. This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening. Is this happening?
My phone buzzes. A text from T. A text that makes the panic reach a fever pitch. Makes me grab the refrigerator for support.
>Hey, just heard there’s been another murder in your neighborhood. You okay?