I had forgotten that it was a city of plans. People made them, penciled them into calendars, popped their collars and showed up with honesty on their faces. In those days, I had none. What I had were some button-downs in a carry-on, a scraped and stinging elbow from an escalator incident at the airport, an empty booze cabinet with a single can of tonic water waiting for me at my hotel.
It was Bombay in May. Glasses went milky when doors opened, when doors closed. I waited for Manish by the door of The Polo Bar, where a line for entry was beginning to form despite the early hour. As I waited, the rain beat the awning over my head in sheets, sounded like an animal being lashed. I was visiting India because I could tell from my wife’s face when she walked into a room that she had hoped I wasn’t there. You can only see a woman’s face turn so swiftly, with such surety that the smile ought to disappear, so many times before you believe it might be time to change something about yourself, or in my case, to take a flight. So I was glad to be there, my collar encircled with damp, the air heavy with its familiar salt and whiff of petrol, my presence unremarked by the passing bodies who hurried towards and past me, into the bar. One of these bodies, burly and short in a black T-shirt that strained to make the distance across his chest and biceps, approached me the way you approach air conditioning: skin warm, arms splayed, smile rippling.
In the days before we became husbands and fathers, before our real lives happened, Manish was a stud, a stallion, a St. Mary’s head boy, and eventually, a Rolex-wearing paper magnate. He was one of those mythological figures who received proposals through the ringing telephone, families from Lucknow and Hyderabad who saw him shimmering at so-and-so’s wedding, families hoping they needed to arrange just one coffee between him and their newly graduated daughter to gain a son-in-law. The rest of us had to do it the hard way. You would show up freshly shaved to whatever second cousin’s friend’s house, sit in a corner with the girl’s father and brothers, hoping the girl in question spared you a single glance. Just one! And if she did, then the afternoon was spent in a spell of drowsy relief. Relief that Manish would never need to know, for when he was twenty-four, he had fallen in love with a London-born Delhi girl on a work trip, brought her home to Bombay, and watched pridefully as she went off on Marxist sermons in the corners of parties. But to their story too, there was a crisp turning of the lock that marked the end. After three decades, their marriage was over. Manish was on his own now, looking for work.
The rumors of his rough patch, as we would come to call these phases of our lives, were floated to me through a chain of our oldest friends. The year before, returning home to India from a trip abroad, Manish had walked into his living room full of company executives—his uncles and brothers, his father, his petite wife at the head. He was advised to accept his share of assets and bow out of the business. They deemed him unfit to stand at the helm based on his penchant for luxury items. They pointed at his shoes, his watch, his gold-plated cufflinks, which he had recently gotten engraved with his initials, M. M. Ticking beneath this meeting and its excuses for Manish’s expulsion was a nastier, truer thread of news circulated on group chats that did not include him. They claimed that his wife, the Marxist, had fallen in love with Manish’s father. Together they had plotted to remove Manish from their lives. About this, people speculated, changed their stories, agreed and disagreed, but the verdict of the whole saga floated above their chatter like a big gray cloud that no one wanted to see. The fact was that parents and children alike could do unspeakable things.
We walked through The Polo Bar slowly, like two men in trouble. It was a time in my life when I believed that everyone was suspicious of me. I felt they could see through to my brain, that endless list of knots I needed to untie in this lifetime. The bastards I needed to forgive and the bigger bastards I needed to forgive me. My unending roster of debts uncollected and owed. Would they ever stop accruing? I thought then that life was just that: a trip to the bank. You racked up credit, accidentally used it all, and found yourself sitting across from a teller in Malabar Hill, sliding a wad of rupee bills under the table, asking for access to your dead mother’s bank locker in order to liquidate her old wedding jewelry.
As we walked to our table, I searched Manish’s profile for a glint of these stories, for a clue of our shared aloneness, but he had his teeth whitened recently and that was all I could see. Two rows of piano keys bright as mercury.
I had been to The Polo Bar as a kid, snuck a sip of my father’s Macallan on the rocks and was smacked across the face for doing so. Back then the bar was a daytime visit, a post-newspaper and tea meeting point for the families of Malabar Hill who had been invited to join the club as members. You were either invited, referred, or given membership in the will of an aloof and long-dead parent or grandparent. It was a big deal back then to receive one of those handwritten invitations to interview at the Hill Club. If you made it through, it meant you were a well-talked-about family, a family with one Mama and one Papa, with no divorces or suicides rotting leaves on the family tree. What you got for your good reputation and sturdy financial sense was access to a tennis court, The Polo Bar, and a pale blue lap pool that no one used, because most apartment buildings on the hill had pools anyway.
A group of people who seemed to know Manish floated over to say hello as we took our seats. I didn’t recognize any of them and didn’t feel the need to make new friends. I was slightly disturbed by how drastically the bar had changed. I looked up from the anonymous, powdered faces of Manish’s friends and saw what used to be. Shell-white walls, rattan furniture, bamboo ceiling fans that rotated slowly and uselessly overhead. A number of indoor plants, bright and unfurling, host to small swarms of insects that hovered permanently above their colors. No televisions, only an omnipresent radio that announced the highlights of whatever cricket match was happening that week. Sunlight would splash on the tables like paint, the day’s dust dipping and swirling around us. My little sister, her hair strung up in two asymmetrical ponytails, beaming demonically at me for anticipation of some prank she’d pulled that I was not aware of just yet. Salt inside my glass of Coke, etcetera.
Now the bar was polished and dark, a halfway imitation of an American dive. It was remodeled in the early 2000s with marbled wood and central air conditioning, a verbal history provided by the mustached manager, who trotted over at some point with a big slap on Manish’s shoulder. The air was dry and cool and our waiter brought over large jugs of iced water.It was a farewell to the delicious dampness that made places like this buzz, though I thought I felt a raindrop land on my skull. When I looked up, I saw that the fans had remained. They were frozen above us, those gorgeous, golden slats. Dirt was crusted over the blades like ash.
“Politician—he is fit to be a politician,” Manish was saying to one of his cronies with a big smile, his finger ringed with a thick gold band, pointed at the man in question.
Around us, people crowded at tables like insects to light, standing, sitting, one leg on a barstool, one off, arranging garments, checking pockets, checking purses. I saw a man a few tables over bring a hand to the dark space under the table and pull at his crotch. I felt the relief, too. Things falling back into place. I gave a strong imitation of someone who felt comfortable, laughing with all my teeth. Ha, ha, ha. People were dressed in rich colors, burgundy and beige. Hair bouncy, bright with shine or cropped close to the scalp, glistening with stiffness. The seams of their blouses seemed so perfectly snug that it was clear they had been tailored. Some of the women even looked at me. “Hey, darling,” they seemed to say. I felt myself harden at just the implication. I was trying to live in the moment more. If I wasn’t thinking about money I was usually thinking about when I would enjoy my next drink. The thirst was tidal, deafening. It flapped wildly in my ears, gave everything a grayish tint that I worried would become permanent, black-and-white vision forever, like a dog’s. I allowed myself one slow breath to focus on what was around me, the promise of a drink close enough to suspend worry. The thought made me suddenly cheerful. Under my own spell, I heard the barroom chatter rise like it was controlled by a volume knob.
Once Manish’s various greeters left, he looked at me with the high bite of someone who has been made to look good in public. Out of goodwill and impatience I ordered us a round of vodkas on ice, sliding my card out of its place slowly, carefully, praying Manish would object by presenting his own, but of course, he didn’t. He kept his gaze firmly in the opposite direction until I asked that the tab stay open. I wasn’t sure if the charge would go through.
“I always say,” said Manish, continuing the thread of some conversation that could have been unfolding for some time, “the last safe place for crooks is India. All of you in America are living on borrowed time.”
I didn’t respond. I had played out the India versus America debate so many times in my mind that I had prevented myself from ever reaching an opinion on the topic. They were both dead ends: that is, places in which you could die if you wanted to. The only difference was that the crooks of one place felt familiar in a way that the other wouldn’t, no matter how many elections I voted in or Costco memberships I renewed. I rubbed my palm against my face thoughtfully to avoid having to say anything.
“Why did you come, then?” Manish asked. “How is Natasha?”
From somewhere in his pocket he found a toothpick and took it to his teeth, where he winced and continued to hit a particularly sore region of gum. There was something about it all that endeared him to me, my old friend shading his mouth out of propriety. I felt his bulk, his comfort, his direct questions as a warmth particular to that side of the world. In Bombay every friendship was scintillated by exchanges of information about other people. I didn’t want to be the wind that blew my own bad news to another man’s ringing telephone.
“Vacation, brother,” I said. “Look at this liar!”
His flat palm clapped suddenly at my cheek.
“You don’t have to do all this drama, buddy,” he said. “Everyone has heard.”
I laughed by accident. I had been drinking since ten that morning.
“Now, listen,” he said.
“Are you listening?”
I nodded. He leaned in close as if to say something religious.
“Move back,” he said, his palm slapping the table for emphasis. “All your friends are here. You can live in your parents’ old flat, no? I was sorry about your mom’s passing, man. But I’m sure the old houseboy will even come back to work for you. What was his name? Chintu? Good fellow. Loyal. Tell me, is it true the apartment is just sitting empty, because if you don’t intend to sell it off, I’ll happily look into it for you.
“Are you listening?” he asked again.
“Listening,” I said. Natasha appeared once more in my vision, that neat trick of marriage, and I looked instinctively at my thigh, knowing how she would commit some violence to my leg under the table if she were here. She never liked Manish.
“Listen now. Divorce rates are going up here too—every Tom, Dick, and Harry is getting divorced,” he said. “Lots of single women.”
“We’re not getting divorced,” I said.
“Buddy, I heard that she didn’t even let you come back for your mother’s funeral. Is that true? You missed your own mother’s funeral because of her?”
He was speaking very loudly, and I was struck with that old gift of defense I knew so well as a young man. I explained that my oldest daughter had been going through a hard time at school. Natasha had been on the night shift for three months. There were things I needed to take care of at home. I couldn’t have left.
“You’re not listening,” he said. “Your chains have been loosened. You’re free. I tell you, we were lunatics to get married so young.”
I stood up slowly, gesturing to my desire for another drink. The glasses at The Polo Bar were so small. It was a complaint I had heard from my father’s mouth as a child. He was right. Was he always right? Another? I asked Manish with my eyes. I didn’t mention that I had thought up a plan to deal with my unobliging card. I would keep the tab open, let the card hit the limit, then call the bank in the morning to report the entire transaction as fraud. My wallet was stolen, I’d say.
Manish gazed into his crystal affectionately. “You know what,” he shouted as I was halfway to the bar. “Why not?”
Elbows on the counter, I was caught by the arabesque of liquor bottles that made up the far wall of the bar. They reflected the soft overhead light, shades of toffee and chartreuse, twinkling like they were in conversation with one another. To my left and right people were talking. I held the noise of their moving voices as a weight in my ears. Yes, I was suspended somewhere in the black-orange light. A man in limbo, a man with no country. I heard myself order our drinks with the transcontinental twang I usually saved for call centers and air hostesses. I was a man of here, living there. A man of there, visiting here. I wanted everyone to know it: I was a stranger, a guest, an apparition, a man on parole. It was my first time back in ten years and even then, I knew that The Polo Bar wouldn’t see my face again for another twenty. I imagined that I would go back to my wife with a fresh beam of light in my eyes. I would swing her leg over my hip.
In truth, we had talked about divorce. Some months before my trip, she had poured my last bottle of Stoli down the kitchen sink and I, delirious, childishly hopeful about our situation, spat in her face. It was my fifty-third birthday, and we were back from a party at the neighbor’s. She had worn a velvet dress with red stitching that went to her calves. All evening she was a kind of beautiful dragonfly, passing from group to group with the flutter of one who is liked by people and knows it, swinging out the cake, clapping with her long, almond fingernails. In our own home hours later, she was swinging a knife, screaming into the belly of our hallway that she wanted to stab me. We talked to each other that way sometimes. I didn’t mind. She came to bed later complaining about the bananas. They were ripening too fast in the heat. The first sunny days of spring. A hatch of small flies were disguising themselves in the spotted peels. You couldn’t see them until you touched the bananas, and then they’d fly up in a panic. It was disgusting, she said. She had to throw them all out. We could just live without. I felt the tragedy of this exchange as if she were talking about a child of ours.
From the bar I watched the door swing open for a woman in black. She moved like a bride, watchful, her destination clear to herself and those who looked up to watch her. She wore a sleek satin top that fell into folds at her chest, hiding any cleavage, but revealing a set of collarbones strong as branches. There was some hubbub further down the bar where a bearded man had spilled a red drink across his beige trousers. He angrily patted at his crotch with a napkin, emptying his embarrassment on the bartender, who observed from the other side of the counter apologetically. When I looked for the woman again, her jewel-studded hand with its darkly painted fingernails appeared at the back of Manish’s neck, where it pinched the skin lightly.
I started to walk over to the table when it occurred to me that it was bad manners not to bring her a drink. I set Manish’s glass down in front of her, knowing he would understand. Her fingers wrapped around the crystal easily. For this, I could tell that she was a woman who knew bad luck. She sipped without making a face. Manish and I looked around the room while she drank, hiding our wonder. As I sipped my own drink, I had a perfect understanding of their romance. He loved her more than she loved him, this woman who was not his wife. I felt a palpable and fast camaraderie with the pair. We were three fools who had failed at marriage.
“I’d like to play a card game,” I heard myself tell them, a skewered olive bursting bitterly on my tongue.
I don’t know where my memory goes from there. I see now Manish’s greenish jowls, moving to call my ear to his mouth, instructing me to stick out my tongue with that low whisper he reserved, even in our school days, for shenanigans. There was a blank sensation on my tongue, left there by the tap of his finger. But he couldn’t have given me the tab in the open like that. It would have happened in a bathroom stall or some dark alley. Still, I see us both laughing, gripping each other’s arms in anticipation of the fun we were about to get into, those large fans still above us in the high crescent of my eyeline. I see the woman in black shaking her head disapprovingly, but with that familiar sly smile of amusement that I had seen before on my wife’s face, when our daughters pushed each other around. Then we were all in a rickshaw, headed past Marine Drive, past the Flora Fountain, past a woman wrapped in red fabric sweeping rubbish off her stoop with a broom. She looked calmly at our passing vehicle before adjusting her sari and continuing to sweep. The little car ricketed as though we were traveling over cobblestone. It might even have been the case, some old stone from the nineteenth century. I didn’t recall looking down to check, but it was not difficult to picture the jackals or even to hear them chirping from a time when much of the city was still an overgrown jungle. I pictured phantom birds, wild things, flowers opening their sugary petals, and then marigold garlands, which were real, drooping from the rain around framed pictures of dead relatives, pictures of goddesses, nailed into arbitrary walls and left for a morning visit.
We approached a graying construction with gothic arches and a red, central dome. Something that looked as though it had been clipped and pasted out of a fading European postcard, its stone exterior stolid and bourgeois. The road dipped surreptitiously into a back alley and without warning we were underground. I got a whiff of patchouli and amber, which escaped from the cold wind of the oak door as it opened and closed for other guests. Behind the door was a blank room with a crystal chandelier and intricate paneling, empty aside from a wood desk with a clipboard and a pen. Hearing our noise, two security guards in what seemed to be bulletproof vests stepped in front of us, both of them chewing what I assumed to be paan from the reddish stains on the outer wall. Roughly, they asked Manish what he was looking for. I could hear the steady vibration of Western music coming from further inside. Manish pulled out a card from his wallet to show his membership, which satisfied the two guards. They vetted us by patting our backs, stopping at Manish’s girlfriend, Sonali.
“Sir, this is a gentleman’s club,” said one of the guards.
Manish made a show of digging inside his pocket for something and tucked a few notes into the man’s vest. “They make you carry weapons and all?” Manish joked to smooth over his bribe. “This isn’t an airport, bhai. No terrorists coming here.”
By a single touch of his chest the guard could tell how much money Manish had given him. He shot a neutral look at the other guard, whose expression seemed to encourage more haggling. Following a quick dart of whispers between themselves in a dialect I could not identify, they moved aside to let Sonali pass.
Manish led us through a dim hallway where all the light was kept out by a thick, burgundy curtain. In the inner room, cheap purple lights twinkled where the ceiling met the walls. There were two makeshift stages with poles and plush chairs around the periphery. A tall woman came to greet us, her palms joined together in a casual namaste. It was only when I heard the gruff bubble of Manish’s laughter that I realized the woman was nearly naked. From the waist down she wore a traditional sari with a thigh-high opening from where a bronzed leg would protrude each time she took a step forward. To cover her breasts she wore a jeweled bra. Her skin appeared lacquered, and it glowed an electric blue under the light.
“Some goddess,” Sonali whispered to me.
The woman led Manish to a chair in the room, in front of a pole that she prepared to use by undressing from the waist down. Underneath her sari, she wore a gold thong, the strings of which she checked for tightness. There were two other men inside, a father-son duo. Once we were seated, they raised their glasses to us, and Manish called out to them with his usual masculine warmth. “Kesai ho, bhai?” The father nodded his head to indicate that he was doing well and invited over a member of the waitstaff. Relieved, I thought I heard him order us a round. His son looked nauseous, either at our presence or his own. He sported a fresh pubescent mustache and a Yankees T-shirt, both of which he fussed with incessantly.
Sweating bottles of Kingfisher appeared beside each of us. Looking up, I saw a young woman in a bindi and glasses holding an empty tray. She was dressed in a white shirt and a black vest, though I remember thinking she looked young enough to wear a school uniform. I had the urge to ask how she got caught up in this world. From what I knew of Bombay, you could ask people things like that and they would tell you. They would inch out torn photographs from the folds of their clothing as an explanation, usually a child or a sick mother in some far-off village. I wanted to ask but I was beginning to feel exhausted from our journey. For a moment, I could not remember if I had left my car at The Polo Bar and if I had, as I suspected, forgotten where I parked, I needed to find it at some point.
We thanked the man across the room for our drinks. He raised one palm in our direction as a parting greeting. It occurred to me then that he wanted us to continue to exist in the room in our disjointed worlds. The drinks were a promise of that—his own privacy.
Time began to disappear, replaced by waves of wanting and unwanting. Wants: a pressure at my lips, my wife’s sleeping body in its curled shape beside me. In my mind I began a conversation with her. I told her that I knew what my problem was, that I had been too happy as a child and had lived my entire adulthood trying to recapture that rapture. And was I sorry for what I did? she would ask. Yes, I was sorry. As the finale of our arguments, she would often assert that I did not consider our family my real family. “You think your real life is still in India,” she would say. I knew that she didn’t speak the truth to help me see myself clearly. She told the truth to hurt me, to humiliate me in front of our children. This was the dance of our marriage, and so I would put out a hand for the waltz. “This is not a home,” I said to her during one of these fights. “This is temporary for all of us.” The fizz of beer rose in my mouth; in it, I tasted the black tongue of our arguments.
On the other makeshift stage, where the boy and his father were sitting, a shining, lilac woman crawled around the floor. At our stage, the gold woman’s eyes became a clothesline connecting to Manish. I figured she could tell he was the only one among us with money. I thought about the exchange rate, if Manish was putting exactly seventy-four rupees between the string and her skin.
“I heard you’re getting bored,” Sonali said to me.
I motioned for her to repeat herself into my ear. The speaker vibrations overpowered the melody of whatever song was playing.
“I heard you’re getting divorced.”
I told her that I was still married, that I intended to stay that way.
“Me too,” she smiled, her breath gingery and bright. She turned the diamond around from the inside of her palm and presented her left hand to me. It was a modest ring, an old-fashioned band. The setting had been popular in the nineties, thick gold with a smattering of small diamonds. My father had specialized in it back when his shop was still open: The Bridal Set. The bestseller, the winner, the one that paid the bills. When my father sold his first, we celebrated with a duty-free bottle of Moet & Chandon.
I wasn’t much of a joker, never the funny guy, but I instinctively jabbed Manish in the arm. “Congratulations, yaar,” I said. “You couldn’t buy her a better ring? This design is thirty years old.”
Manish dismissed my comment with a sharp shake of his head; he was focused on some trick the woman in gold was performing with a lollipop. Sonali put a hand on my chin. For some reason I felt that I was the one who was undressed.
“Not him!” she said. “I’m married to Rohit Shetty.”
“The real estate guy?”
“Isn’t he in jail?”
She looked down at her hands, her ring shining like a berry. I knew jail, I wanted to say. When you’re at the bottom you come to know all the dark places that you thought were only for other people. In fact they’re for everyone. They welcome you. You’re in them before you know it. But it wasn’t the time to talk about myself. I felt Manish’s eyes on us and when I turned to face him he took one of Sonali’s cheeks between his thumb and index finger. He kissed her with a splotch on the mouth.
I pretended to be engrossed by the woman on the pole, knowing I would not get aroused with a teenage boy in my eyeline. I watched his hand flutter to the lobe of his ear, his gaze zip between his crotch and his father, parsing out the correct behavior for a situation like this. I thought then that maybe we didn’t like ourselves very much. I tried to catch the boy’s eye so we could share something, some wave of discomfort, a shrug, and that was when Manish stood up and walked to the front of the stage. With a curled finger, he called the woman from her high place on the pole. She faced away from Manish and bent down so that she was on her hands and knees. He raised his hand to touch her, but a man’s voice erupted from the back room. “No touching!” It was the security guard from earlier. He approached the stage with a baton in hand.
Sonali and I watched as Manish grabbed the woman with his right hand. She let out a shriek and it felt like a glass prism had shattered somewhere in the room. The guards rushed over to Manish and held his two limbs apart as he struggled against them. They waited for the woman in gold to have her revenge: she caught Manish by the collar and channeled her twenty-something years into a gorgeous, crystalline glob of spit. They hit him once to stop him from struggling and I, with my misplaced righteousness, stood up to help my friend. For several minutes they were on both of us, and we ended up on the ground, fighting, audibly cursing each other for our stupidity. Once the commotion flatlined, a high whistle began to sound in my ear.
Or maybe it didn’t happen like that. Maybe it was something else that bruised my ribs. But I remembered the woman’s voice, calling the guard by his first name for help. Ashwin, Ashwinder, one of those godly names.
Manish’s lower lip had swollen into a fig and Sonali kept her gaze fixed outside the window of our cab. The shifting navy screen of nighttime, copper and crystal lights. Manish asked her to take a look at his mouth. He held it to her eyes, a chubby finger pointing at the damage.
“You act like a donkey, you’re going to get treated like one,” she said.
There was a lull, sounds of traffic, a series of gated apartment buildings. I felt the faint pulsing of blood in my ear, though I was too afraid to touch it, in case I was left with a profile of mangled flesh.
“Now we do what he wants to do,” Manish said. It was an instruction to the cab driver, who turned around and looked at me.
I was humming an old Bollywood love song that my mother would often sing after dinner, when she took a knife to the spotted skin of a pear for our dessert. I aimed my humming at Sonali, who knew the tune immediately.
O heart, take me to the alleys,
The streams of love,
I have gotten lost,
Looking at the moon,
Waiting for her to come back.
We sang together in the backseat of the cab and a silver thrill flashed and disappeared between us. I heard myself guiding the driver about where to go with Manish’s interjections. When we arrived, twin gates swung open to let us in. A security guard in a blue uniform, delight across his face, walked us into the marble foyer, past a placard the size of a billboard listing last names and apartment numbers. We were headed to 5A and everyone seemed to know, though no one had to say it. The elderly elevator attendant called me by my name.
“Well,” he said to Sonali in Hindi, “they’re men now. I’ve been here since they were this small.” His flat palm shot down to his waist for a visual representation.
We all breathed loudly, the lobes of our ears red.
The apartment door was open, or at least I did not remember hearing a click at the keyhole. I could not tell you how many people were present, how many of them rushed to the door to greet us, making a commotion of our chests and cheeks with their hands. I could not tell you if it was real. But I remember that I was presented with a toffee-colored dachshund who yapped into my hair. Manish switched on lights that glowed from the two baby chandeliers, illuminating a room heavy with the thick, hot haze of men drinking. I saw that there were two tables set up: one for food and one for a game of cards. I pulled out a chair at the first table, settling the dog in my lap, and found myself face to face with an uninspiring cucumber salad. Beside me there seemed to be an old woman counting cash. She looked up with indifference and I thought it was strange how closely she resembled my mother. She was dressed in a Victorian nightgown, her long gray hair in a thin braid that hung by her waist. I knew the texture of her at once: the straw hair, the pilly cloth, the perfect white crescents of her fingernails. I wanted to hear her voice. I asked her what was in the salad.
“Arré Chintu!” she yelled into the sky. “Inside salad, what is?”
An irritated young man scurried from the kitchen, his hands wet from the still-running tap. In English, he began reciting the ingredients, counting them off on his fingers: “Cucumber, mint, pear, apple, honey, watermelon.”
“It’s a fruit salad,” the woman clarified matter-of-factly. “Please eat. All day you haven’t eaten.”
I watched her fingers swipe bill after bill, the freckles of old age dusted across her arms. Surely it was my mother, dead now for over a year. I nodded at her to seem calm and wondered how long I could continue to sit there without somebody asking me to introduce myself. From inside the kitchen, Manish brought me a glass of something pink, a sweet foam nearly running off the brim.
“It’s really hitting me now,” he said.
I remembered then that we had taken something before we left The Polo Bar. Its consequences were concentrated in my eyeballs. Across the room, chairs scraped the floors pink as the poker table was set up. The salad was plump, squealing things I couldn’t understand. I remembered feeling a deep sadness that everything in the world wasn’t painted green, the best color. I hungered for green. The gift of sunlight flecked on leaves, the pale chartreuse of American money.
People kept patting me on the back, saying that it was good to see me. “Good to see you, Tiger,” they said. Some of them had long, naughty anecdotes from when we were in school together. Me, the backbencher, bribing lecture proctors to count me as present when I was anything but. What was I even doing? No one knew. I would just disappear, they said; it was a miracle I ever graduated. I asked whose house we were in, but even at this they laughed. I thought the dachshund laughed at me too, but she had only raised her small skull to observe the noise before letting it settle again on her front paws. I felt unwelcome, annoyed that everyone behaved as if they knew something I didn’t. I looked at the old woman with a blank face, like I was in on the joke, and she smiled back at me warmly.
“Eat something,” she urged again.
She pushed a plate towards me, thumped a helping of salad on its side. It was usually impossible to negotiate with women like her—benevolent party ghosts who force-fed guests until they begged for peace. There was one of them in every old apartment. I complimented the food after my first bite and removed myself from her reach.
On the far end of the room, Sonali was running a hand over the woodwork on one of the cabinets. I had watched a YouTube documentary about her husband’s arrest. The courts were auctioning off their various properties: the Dubai villa, the Alibaug farmhouse, the Bandra bungalow. She saw me see her, and a thought we shared told me that she was remembering the house she once lived in. I imagined it to be eclectic but classic, like her, something with many unsuspecting antiques mixed with modern pieces, good art, chestnut floors. I could tell from the envy with which she eyed those old cabinets that the sadness she carried was new. I took the dog to her as a silent offering but she recoiled at the sight of its tongue, afraid. She was never one for small creatures, she explained, ordering me to take it away.
Standing next to her, I became aware that I was newly damp between my legs. My first thought was menstrual blood, but then I remembered that that couldn’t be. I took the dog with me to the closest bathroom, a dark, high-ceilinged space with a black toilet. For several moments as I undid the buttons of my jeans, I considered the possibility that my body was changing, that I was being sucked into a deep, emerald hell. I held onto the wall, frightened, certain that I would not be strong enough to withstand any sort of karmic wind. The oculus in the ceiling appeared to open briefly and I felt tremendous shame standing there as the universe opened up before me in my underwear. I shook myself dry and took the dachshund to my breast.
The pictures on the wall were in shades of sepia and gray, posed photographs of a young woman, her bouffant stiff as a lampshade, holding a bundle of cloth to her neck. A baby. In another photo, a man with a furrowed brow carried the child, older then, on his shoulders. I was looking at the pictures when Sonali came in. “Princess!” she said to the dog, refusing to hold her again. I showed her what I saw, expecting her to provide me with some history. Her hand was on my back. She asked if I knew that the lady’s husband died in a terrible accident some years before. He had drowned.
“Drowned?” I asked.
“He was a drunk,” Sonali said. “He tried to go swimming.”
She leaned against the sink, produced a cigarette from somewhere in her pants, and brought a flame to her face with the nonchalance of an old habit. A velvety puff of smoke surrounded us. I let the dachshund out. Wanting to fill the silence, I asked Sonali to tell me something surprising. She said there was another man in the picture, a man other than Manish, other than her husband. He lived in London. I thought, wow. It was my turn and I shared that I had kissed a man once, during a dry phase of much rejection from both employers and women. I was twenty-one, newly anointed with a bachelor’s degree in management science, though I wasn’t ready to manage anything yet. And did I enjoy it? she asked. I confessed that I did, though I did not know it myself for some time.
Unprompted, Sonali began to talk about her husband. She said it was an open relationship now, that she wasn’t doing anything wrong. “Rohit always had his whores,” she said. I wanted her to say more but I knew that anything she said would depress me. Talking about other couples was always a dangerous game; either they made you think you could have done better for yourself, found someone as good for you as they were for each other, or that you could have been better for your wife, which was always true.
But she still loved him, she admitted. She believed he was innocent.
“I don’t think he is,” I said. “He was convicted.”
Then she stopped talking. We listened together to the insects outside, who said things we couldn’t understand. I could hear them in color: brilliant pinks and oranges, chirping, chatting out in the wind. I knew I was hallucinating only when I began to hear a sitar track the melody of the song we were singing earlier. Sonali looked at me like she understood what was happening, like she heard it too.
“Relax,” she said.
There was her hand again, making a generous circle on my back. I wanted to put my arm around her, this firestarting woman. I let her kiss me, let her guide my hand to her thin, silky underthings, then down, down, where her legs were parted slightly in anticipation. Kissing her was extraordinarily loud, like moving furniture. I had the instinct to swallow her whole. I looked into the great glistening mound of her, the reddened mouth, the spidery lashes, the hint of an Adam’s apple. The growing redness of her inner thigh, where my belt had hit up against some thin but strong bone. I was grateful. I hadn’t touched a woman other than my wife in twenty-seven years. She moaned so sweetly in my ear that I heard it as a chord.
I had another drink. I felt I had some business to complete at the pool.
I knew where the pool would be from the way the bodies in the apartment craned their white necks out and down from the balcony. I took the stairs to the ground floor, expected and received a whiff of Dettol past the changing rooms. I can’t explain how I knew it would be there, that black rectangle of stillwater, shining under the moonlight like a sheet of metal. I took off a shoe and threw it in to make sure it was all real. It was. The splash untied some taut ribbon deep in my abdomen and before I could think, I had taken one step and then another, laughing at myself. The water was warm. Tenderly, it pulled me in, set alight a coolness in my scalp. In the center of the glowing orange square of the fifth floor, I watched Sonali’s body waver with the dachshund in her arms. I knew that she recognized me from her great height, and I wanted to return the comfort. I waved to her: an invitation. There was the sound of thunder from somewhere far away. Would it rain? At first I felt fear for the weather, for the gossip, for the state of my marriage, but beneath it, growing, I sensed the spread of a stony new calm. I had an ancient impulse that knew this building, knew this water. I knew I had seen it all before as a child. I had jumped off the diving board. I had touched the bottom tile. I swam out to the middle of the pool and dove under. The string of an old memory came to me, but I could not catch it. In the deep, the water was colder. It separated me from myself, dulled the crescents of my fingertips. I imagined that I was all gone, one with the black. There was no skin, no cloth that made me different from this, the dark. I thought I saw a glint of something silver float close to my face and flicker away. It looked like the long, gray hairs of an old woman. I put my hands out for her to come again but she did not. Above water, the thunder sounded again. It belted gently, muffled like words from another language. The salt of hot tears ringed my eyes. Not even our memories came back when we wanted them to. I felt a rising froth of longing for my mother and then hands, pulling me up, quick, by the collar.
Rumpus original art by Rosie Struve