Approached

This is my attempt to write a short story in the first person from a woman’s POV and in the present tense. I won’t be surprised if I’m bad at interpreting the feminine condition. Here goes…

 You’ll never catch me at a bar before 1 am. To do what—ripen other tomatoes by contrast? No thanks. Let the lawyers and stockbrokers make their withdrawals of the nines and tens. If I’m early, I’ll wait outside. A woman who sits too long at a bar un-approached takes a cab home, alone. I know my limitations and what they can fetch. You’ll say that I have a pretty face, but you’ll add that I’m not hot. Dolled-up, I turn a few heads with competition out of circulation. And I always wear high heels. They’re too conspicuous—they make me look short. Still, better than not being looked at. Whenever I put on makeup, I think how shallow I must be to give in to the standards of men. Do I really want the men who are all about height and tits and ass?

Who am I kidding? These are the men worth it. The others want the same stuff—they are just too cowardly to reach. Guess how many promotions and raises they get.

I make the last puff count. Living on twenty cigarettes per day is not easy—luckily it’s not true either. I pull out the Newports I save for emergencies. Newports, because if they were Marlboros I’d smoke them all before buying more. Even if I run, I won’t make it to 6th and 7th before Frankie leaves for the night. Frankie sells buttlegged cigarettes on 7th Avenue between 6th and 10th streets. He gets them from Virginia and sells them as loosies—one for seventy-five cents, two for a dollar. Because I have a pretty face, or so he says, he can let go of two packs for fifteen bucks. I know my pack-a-day habit isn’t healthy, but I don’t understand people who don’t smoke at all. The smell of a cigarette in the morning is my Starbucks. If only more people understood that, smoking wouldn’t have that stigma. People are so arbitrary about vices. Some habits are cool, others sin. But it’s not like I’m addicted. In Paris, I smoked fewer than ten in fifteen days, tired of asking Puis-je fumer ici? everywhere. Most people don’t understand that I don’t want to quit. To them, smoking is a pathology that people need to be socialized out of. Nobody thinks it’s impolite to drown someone in tales of doom as long as he’s dangling a cigarette. Try lecturing a guy on sodium as he’s about to eat a hot-dog. Speaking of which, the fat, black guy-at-the-door at Sehrgut is asking an obvious teenager what her sun sign is. Hey, if you have made up a sophisticated test for carding, at least update it now and then. He probably asked her mother the same question fifteen years ago. And it’s pointless too; the ones with the fake IDs have every detail memorized. I exhale upwards to avoid the menthol fumes—I hate smelling them and hate smelling like them.

I’m not carded when I enter Sehrgut at one fifteen. It doesn’t matter. I beat another woman in a polite race to the just-emptied empty stool at the far end of the bar. “Long time,” mouths the bartender. It’s deafening in here. He pours my Aventinus Eisbock into a glass, and immediately tilts his head and smiles when he remembers that I like pouring my own. It starts to get crazy. The bar plays Alicia Keys and Jay Z’s Empire State of Mind even though it’s so old, just so out-of-towners can go Newww Yawwrk. Only someone not from the city can enjoy that song. It irritates New Yorkers. Just like any other tribute to New York, it takes a piece of the city and hands it to outsiders to enjoy. As if they earned it. I start to pay, but the bartender waves me off, his fingers nearly knocking the credit card off my outstretched hand. “Compliments of…that guy,” I follow his finger with a smile ready, but my benefactor is already walking towards me.

“Hi. I’m Sam.”

“Meera. Thanks.”

“Sure. I’m from Chicago; here on vacation.” The stool next to mine becomes empty, and he is quick.

“Oh. I’m from here,” I say.

“That you are. The bartender clearly knows you. You’ve always lived in the city?” I can’t help but smile. He is awful at this. He is not bad-looking and seems sincere. But can he even taste his beer with gum in his mouth?

“I’m from here. But I moved back from DC a year ago.”

“Work?” he asks.

“Yup.” Not true, but no way I’m visiting that topic with a stranger in a bar. This type of situation always makes me uneasy. My pulse is making my wrist feel weird. His face rests on his fist as his elbow digs into the counter—he is trying to look casual. I’m worried that there will be a knuckle-impression on his cheek. Luckily, he switches topics and positions.

“You’re really beautiful, you know?”

“Thanks!” I say.  Amazing how he swooped for the kill. I had not figured him to be aggressive. At least he’s looking at my eyes when he is saying it. And it’s not 3 am—that’s when guys go for backhand cross-court winners.

“What do you do, Sam?” I ask, my turn to objectify him.

He said, “I teach Mathematics at the University of Illinois in Chicago,” his last words apologizing for his first. Anybody who expands the word math is probably too serious for me. Suddenly he looks closer to forty than thirty.

I persist. “Nice. I took some grad-level calculus in college.”

“As an undergrad? That’s impressive.” His eyes twinkle. Can eyes really twinkle? “Yeah. I had a crush on this math professor. I worked extra hard. He was impressed, and he asked me to take a few of his graduate courses. It was a fun couple of semesters.” I say.

“You mind if we go someplace where I don’t have to read your lips?” he asks. I haven’t even answered, but he is standing and offering me his hand like I’m stepping off a carriage not a barstool. Thanks Lancelot.

“I know a good place,” I say. There are over two hundred bars in the lower east side.

We walk a few blocks north of Houston to a half-basement. It is louder than Sehrgut in here. People jostle us as they’re walking in, walking out, finding a place to sit, and stealing chairs with jackets wrapped around them. A lady is singing in some Russian sounding language, and at least forty people clap in a place that should really hold twenty. The restroom line goes all the way to the front door.

“I’m sorry. It’s quiet on most days, and they make great vodka infusions,” I say.

“I guess everybody in Manhattan found out. No worries. I know a place.” We walk back to Houston past my favorite overpriced juice stall.

“Nice,” I say, “This can’t be your first trip to the city. How did you find this place?” I look at the dust on the shelves, the refrigerator with beers I can’t recognize, the menu written in chalk with common words deliberately misspelled, the lady behind the counter with all those tattoos, and the shelf with books so eclectic I wonder how their readers ever ate at the same place. The sign reads Leave a book, take a book.

“I found this place the last time I was in the city drunk at 4 am, which is to say the last time I was in the city. I was hungry.”

Interesting. Math geek who likes to get drunk and knows weird places to eat in the lower east side. We talk about this and that for an hour. I surprise him by describing Goldbach’s conjecture. He surprises me by saying that he has to leave early tomorrow morning for Chicago, and that he had fun. I take a cab home, alone.

A good morning

It was sunnier than usual. A deceptive sunlight—a photograph of which would have you reach for your shorts and flip-flops with hands made frictionless by extra layers of sunscreen. But it was one that wouldn’t brook liquid water. Sam sighed as he glanced out the large circular window of his tiny square room in the cramped SoHo apartment. He was sharing it with two others, both of whom had demanding jobs, the stress of which they rebelled against by passionate, amorous wrestling. The floor was hardwood, but with the nails holding the boards generously offering their opinions on foot texture.

He opened the refrigerator and reached for the milk that his roommates kept in the door despite his reproaches about temperature fluctuations and bacterial growth. It was, strangely, in the middle shelf, preserved and ready to lighten his morning coffee. Perhaps one of his roommates’ overnight guests had stumbled on to his blog. What did people do before the internet became fast enough to overcome cognitive drift?

His eyelids had just barely surrendered to the sun, and he realized that his nose was a little slow on the uptake as well. The smell of coffee, not unlike their usual Sumatran, but with a little more body, and maybe a hint of cinnamon, hit him no sooner than five minutes after he entered the room. Smiling, he opened the door to pick up the Times. Waking early usually ensured getting a virgin, rubber-banded paper and the faint almost-escaped smell of ink. Today, all he saw was a bare welcome mat. Apparently, the cost of home-brewed coffee was going to be the trouble of reading news with an iPad balanced on four fingertips and the thumb around the center pole on the uptown 6 train.

He stepped out of the shower with red eyes. Somehow, the post-doctoral fellow in charge of knocking out specific proteins in laboratory mice had not mastered the art of closing his eyes before soaping his face. The roll-on deodorant seemed exhausted, but he rubbed it on anyway, vowing for the third time that week that he would buy some on his way home. He unslung his blue denims from the arm of his chair and put them on. A creature of habit, he sucked in his gut and appraised himself in the mirror. Nodding as if to pump up for one of many monotonous days, he got dressed, queued the audiobook version of Atlas Shrugged on his phone and left for work. He needed a new peacoat; this one felt like it was designed for a thinner man.

Coffee…and a defense (Part I)

“To be honest, I don’t remember that evening much. There are some things crystal clear in my mind, but most of it is kinda murky.”

“That’s a good thing. Witness memories tend to get murky too. That’s why their credibility drops exponentially with time. Delay and stall is a good tactic for you.”

“That would be true if I were guilty. I’m telling you there’s no way I would’ve touched her like that without permission. This is why I need this thing to be wrapped up as soon as possible.”

“Look pal, like it or not, this is a game of he said, she said. Circumstantial evidence has been enough to convict in many cases. Your DNA in her house is not a good thing. In fact—”

“I was in her house. I went there to pick her up. My DNA is bound to be there. What does that prove?”

“Nothing so far, but it does make it difficult for us to make this a clean sweep. If there wasn’t enough to link you to her apartment, this thing would’ve been open and shut.”

“In my opinion, the more I stall, the guiltier I look to people.”

“If your opinion was worth a rat’s ass, you wouldn’t be paying me $400 an hour for mine. So just listen—I don’t care how guilty you look to the public if you don’t get convicted. No one, I mean no one has emerged from a rape trial spotlessly clean. There will always be some people who think you did it, and others who’ll talk about it. Your image will improve over time, and nothing else.”

“I thought she was a good person. Why would she accuse me of such a terrible thing?”

“Good. At least you’re approaching this kinda rationally. Remember, the burden of proof is on them. They have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you did it. Based on the evidence they’re going to present, they don’t have it. While it might be tough, I think we can beat this if we keep our heads. Just tell me exactly what you remember, starting from when you picked her up.”

“I remember taking a cab from the corner of 95th and Amsterdam, and getting off near 34th and 1st. I buzzed her apartment, and got the wrong one as a sleepy Latina brusquely told me. I called her cell phone, and she buzzed me up. She told me to help myself to a drink while she got dressed. I did.”

“Sharp as a tack. Details are good. Remember, we can call the Latina to establish your credibility. Keep going, and avoid using words like brusquely.

“It had started to rain. She waited under the awning of her building while I spent five minutes trying to get a cab. We reached Bleecker and MacDougal around 12:30.”

“Do you have a credit card receipt for that cab ride?”

“I dry-cleaned those pants. Who knows where that receipt is.”

“Alright. How was her demeanor during all this? Had she already had a drink or two?”

“No. Not as far as I can remember. We entered some club. I ordered our drinks and took them to her. This was interesting. I was gonna have a Glenlivet neat, but she told the bartender to make two usuals.”

“What the hell’s her usual?”

“Something with white rum and mint and some other stuff. No, it didn’t taste like a mojito, but it was strong like hell.”

“And then?”

“We were chatting about how cold it had gotten recently, and how it was very unlike last October. She said something about the pool in her apartment complex, and how much she missed…”

“Missed what?”

“Well, it wasn’t really clear. We were in a club, you know. After asking her to pardon me a couple of times, I was too embarrassed to admit I still wasn’t sure what I heard. So, I just kept nodding and tried to furrow my eyebrows like I was considering what she was saying very deeply.”

“I bet she knew you were bullshitting too…anyway, did you order a second drink?”

“No. I think she refilled our glasses. It was the same thing. And then we danced.”

“Sure, how long was that?”

“Two or three songs. Then we left to go to another bar.”

“How were you feeling around this time?”

“Heavily buzzed. I remember I wasn’t walking perfectly straight. She seemed worse.”

“Yet, you went to another bar. This might be a problem.”

“How is it a problem? A man and a woman meet for drinks; it is in the best interest of the guy to get the woman as sozzled as possible. You can’t blame me for that.”

“Look, if she can find 12 jurors to think that you knew how drunk she was while making her drink even more, anything that happened between you could be construed as rape.”

“That is a god-awful law. And what if she had gotten into a car and driven over a bunch of homeless people? Would you still blame me for it?”

“Interesting question. But in this case, irrelevant. It’s good you’re getting indignant now. Get it over with here, so you’ll stay calm in court.”

“The remaining is a blur. I think we went to some after-hours place in Chelsea, I kinda remember sitting in a cab…”

“But you did wake up in her house. Did you slip out like a cat burglar or did you make conversation?”

“Well, she woke up as I was getting dressed. She seemed a little irritated as I was making morning-after small talk. She got up, and made scrambled eggs with toast. We spoke a little about the previous night. She said something to the tune of We really shouldn’t have…I’ve never done this before…looks like I had had too much to drink last night…

“And you left. That was Sunday morning right?”

“Wow, you catch on fast. Is my eye-rolling too quick for you?”

“I would get rid of all that sarcasm before I go to court dude, juries hate smug. Sarcastic righteous indignation often looks smug. Don’t forget that even though you’re chances are pretty good here, this might not be the end of the road.”

“What do you mean? I can’t be tried again if I’m acquitted right?”

“Yes…those hours of watching The Practice reruns have drummed some sense into you, but what you might’ve missed presumably while channel-surfing is that she can sue you in a civil court and inflict serious damage.”

“Civil rape trial? Does that even exist?”

“Yes. She can sue you in a civil court for sexual assault, and the smart money says she will. This whole criminal shakedown might just be a way to collect discovery for her civil case. A lot of people take this approach because the burden of proof on the accuser is a lot less than criminal trials. She can get you for a lot of money.”

“I don’t have a lot of money. No really, my profits are largely plowed back into the business and I take a small salary for myself. I’m looking to expand right now, and rolling in it is not the way to go.”

“Yeah whatever. I don’t mean liquid cash. If the jury finds for her in a civil case, they might ask you to pay a large sum, which you’ll end up paying in small parts for a long long time. Kinda like buying a boat, but without all the sailing and the tan and the obvious affluence.”

“So you’re saying that in spite of being innocent, I actually need to worry about losing everything I have and will work for?”

“Not really, right now I’m saying that you should worry about going to prison. If we successfully get you acquitted, I’ll refer you to a very capable friend of mine, who specializes in civil sexual assault defense.”

“It still doesn’t feel right. How could she do this?”

“I know you’re still on the clock but lemme venture an adverse opinion. Imagine her side of the story. She meets a guy who buys her drinks, and wakes up next to him not remembering exactly what happened. A lot of women take time to realize that their sexual encounters need not have been voluntary. Many still don’t pursue the matter. You just got unlucky.”

“You say it in such a cold way.”

“Come on man, at the last reunion you decided to regale us with the minutiae of a pancreaticduodenectomy…while stabbing hungrily at your steak…it’s just all in a day’s work. You get desensitized after some time. And for me it’s been 13 years. Anyway, let’s grab a bite to eat and we will hash it out further.”

“No you go ahead. I’m gonna go home. I’m not in the mood. We can do this some other time.”

“You’re sure? Hope you’re not too depressed. Do I have to follow you home and hide your razors or something?”

Eulogy – Part II

(This is the concluding part of a two-part series. Please read Eulogy – Part 1 before you read this.)

He yawned loudly. Somehow he always remembered to cover his mouth when he yawned. Even in private. She had reformed his bohemian ways a long time ago: her eyes large as saucers and an admonishment of ‘be polite’, with her hand gently covering his mouth. He wryly wondered how she expected him to improve such behavior while she doled out such delicious punishments. Nothing like that now. He was still drawing a blank. There was nothing he could think of that was profound enough to be said at a podium, but impersonal enough that it could be shared without causing any embarrassment.

His family had been extremely cooperative and understanding. His wife had stopped scowling at him, and had interrupted him only once to announce that the Fedex package he’d made her track would arrive only on Monday. Damn! The stuff that R had left for him would probably have steam-rollered through his writers’ block.

When I need you, I just close my eyes and I’m with you, and all that I so wanna give you, is only a heartbeat away…

What a freakish Karan Joharesque coincidence that the radio would blare out this song while he was thinking about her! She had sung this song to him once in expression of her love. True romantic that he was he had pointed out how the tune of the song was exactly like tumse milke, aisa laga tumse milke…. Her reply, of course, was less than charitable.

“Idiot! That song is a copy of the English one.”

“Oh! I thought you had composed the lyrics of this one for me, and simply Anu Malik-ed the tune!”

Anyone else at any other time would have assumed that the song was merely being alluded to, but the sheer spontaneity of R coupled with her literary promise allowed no such conclusions. If anything, one was more inclined to believe that she had extemporaneously composed the whole thing.

Again, that moment was too trivial to be shared. Also, no one else would understand what he felt there. Without any warning, his writers’ block dissolved and thoughts words started flowing in his head. He started scribbling furiously like he did during history exams whenever he was afraid that the answer would simply evaporate from his head.

He read and re-read it to make sure it was just the way she would have wanted it, which was an irony in itself. From then on, it was like someone had pressed a fast-forward button; the next moment of coherence he experienced was at the podium, in front of her weeping family, the staid-expressioned extended family, and the various acquaintances to whom this was merely another social call. It was an out-of-body experience as though he could float over the happenings and actually observe the man in the blue suit giving a sweet eulogy.

“The fact that you’re all here in no way means that R meant equally to all of you. In fact, knowing R as I did, I’m sure some of you are here to make sure she’s really gone.” There were small knowing smiles among the family and friends, and looks of pure horror on the acquaintances’ faces.

“R and I were very intimate at one point of time and drifted apart rather cynically. We were never in touch and surprisingly her probate attorney contacted me with her wish that I give this eulogy. This surprised me in two ways. One: I did not think I meant so much to her after all this time, and two: she was an extremely private person who had opened up to me very slowly. The thought that she would want a speech inspired by one of her most intimate life-periods to be made in front of (quite frankly) pure strangers would have been ludicrous to me fifteen years ago. I suppose she changed a lot in these years, but then, you know her more than I do now. What I do know, is what she was then. I would like to talk about something from that space-time.”

Her eleven-year old or so daughter was staring at him at this point with those very eyes…

“Of all the moments we shared, and we shared some great ones as friends and many more as a couple, the unlikeliest choice for this occasion would be the time we parted ways. For some reason, as I thought about what epitomized her personality; this somehow allows me to convey the most while saying the least.

It was a warm night in Manhattan. (Those things come once in a while!) I remember her eyes burning a hole in mine. She had the ability to appear ice-cold while seething and fuming inside. She said, ‘I love you and a part of me always will. This is just not working out. No matter how much we are attracted to each other, and how much we miss each other when away, we can’t seem to allow the other to breathe freely when together. I am unhappy in a quiet desperate way without you, and I am kicking and screaming while crying myself to sleep when I’m with you. There just seems to be no solution here. I love you a lot and want more than anything else for you to be happy. Neither one of us is happy when we’re together, and no matter how much we pretend otherwise, we both know that our relationship is volcanic and tempestuous, sans stability. Now that we’re parting ways, I am going to feel like I made a ridiculous mistake, and that being without you is like slowly choking to death, but this is a feeling I can overcome, and I will move on. I am sure it will be even easier for you.’

She said that and walked away slowly. I knew she would not turn back to look at me even once. The amazing part of this woman was not that her resolve never weakened. It was that she anticipated those moments and took precautionary measures. I just kept watching her leave until she became a humanoid speck on the horizon and then nothingness. Her last words lingered like an eerie echo. ‘…I will move on. It will be even easier for you.’

Friends and well-wishers, as we say goodbye to a truly exceptional human being, all I can say is, ‘She was wrong.’

He climbed down the podium tearfully and walked straight into his wife’s embrace. It was a beautifully conducted funeral.

The next day Fedex brought over the package that should have arrived on Saturday. It contained an old love letter he had given her, and a neatly printed-out letter he had never seen before. Written above the heading, in that scrawl he had loved so much were the words, ‘This is the eulogy I want you to give. It is nice enough, and has nothing personal. I have loved you all these years.’

He laughed through his tears at the control-freak he now missed so much.

THE END

PS: Snafu celebrates its 100th post! I hope to keep writing, and writing more frequently. A warm thanks to all readers.

Meera’s woe: Part 1

September 2003

Meera sighed at the sight of the building. It was more dilapidated than she had imagined the ruined palaces of the Ottoman Empire to have been. She had to strain to hear the rickshaw driver. This surprised her, for she had never known a man to speak with such a soft voice. She paid him Rs. 100 and expected him to make any excuse possible to avoid giving her the change of Rs. 7.50, but he surprised her again. Ooty was warmer than she had expected in September. She walked in and asked the soporific guard to direct her to the matron’s office. A groggy thumb point later, she found herself face to face with one of the saddest people she had seen (not counting her little brother at the sight of her leaving).

“Welcome. You have been assigned room 22. It is on the second floor.”

“Thanks for letting me know, I would have been hunting for 22 on all other floors if it had not been for you.”

“No problem dear.”

Uh oh, she thought. When people don’t get sarcasm as simple as that, you can’t expect much sharpness from them.

Trying to outrun the rats was a lost cause. They just knew their way around the hostel better. Meera just had to see the bathroom. She knew what to expect, but her optimism always put her in embarrassing positions, like betting on India to win even when they needed ten runs per over with three wickets in hand. Her instinct did not disappoint. The bathroom was ugly, and the smell quickly reminded her of the time when she had passed by an opened men’s room at her old school.

Doing Bachelors in Engineering was her decision from the start, but she had not bargained for the archaic rule that all first year students were mandated to stay in the government hostel. It was basically a lockdown. You are actually paying money and being force-fed something. Is this what communism feels like, she thought. She dragged her dejected self to room 22, and sure enough it was on the second floor!

“Hi, I am Jyoti; this is Kusum, and you must be…”

“Meera…nice to meet you. So, you must be BE too right?”

“Oh! You are BE, no yaar, this hostel has freshers of many streams. I am doing my Bachelors in Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Kusum here is doing arts.”

How the hell are these girls so cheerful in this hell-hole? “By the way, how is the food here? Do they serve non-south Indian food anytime?”

“Yes, Thursdays and Sundays we get to have some Punjabi dishes, if the mess aunty is in a good mood? Why? Surely you are South-Indian…”

“Yeah, does not mean I need to live on sambar and rasam for the entire year right? Also, I was brought up in Mumbai.” Well, it was Runwal Nagar, Thane, but these people need not know that.

“Oh Mumbai, I have many relatives there…”

“Really lemme guess, Matunga right? I can practically smell the coffee beans and chicory!”

“FYI, it is Thane, but you need not be that rude. In any case, I am Malayali, not Tamil.”

“Oh! I did not mean to offend you” (Well, I did actually but, I am sure you will believe me if I say I did not.)

Nine weeks later.

“Meera, Dr. Bala is asking for you. You need to see him at the end of class today.”

“Sure, who is he?”

“You have been here two months and you don’t recognize the principal’s name?”

“I wasn’t aware of that being on the syllabus!”

“Yeah whatever, just go see him. That’s all I care about.”

“Cheer up Kusum, I’m sure it is about the hostel.”

Outside the class, up the stairs, thirty paces to the right and through a door bearing Dr. A. S. Bala in gold letters.

“Ah, Meera Iyer. Have a seat. I take it our conditions in the university hostel are below your expectations?”

Silence.

“Don’t you know that all freshers have to spend their entire first year in the Uni hostel? I cannot allow you to change hostels at a whim.”

“I don’t get it Dr. Bala. I changed hostels two weeks ago. Your sphere of influence is shrinking fast.”

(Come on…don’t be a smartass. You don’t want the principal after you in the first year itself.)

“Yes, you need to move back in the hostel or face the consequences.”

“Please do whatever you wish sir, I have made my decision.”

“Very well, you may go.”

She spun on her right heel and left the room. The private hostel was a small bike-ride away. No more rats for roommates and food dabbas delivered by hand every afternoon and evening. Things were good so far…

Something always bothered her. It was like a grain of sand in her eye, or a stone in her shoe, annoyingly uruthufying her, reminding her of its presence. She knew that these four years were just a limbo. Her future happiness and contentment was elsewhere. Little did she know how close she would get to it before losing it.

Meera’s woe Part II

Meera’s woe Part III (Concluding part)