AMITA BASU

THE PHOTOGRAPH

 

          I’d asked Meenakshi to help me decide whether I was ready.  “I want to forget him. I don’t know if I ever can.”

          It was passport-sized, taken ten years ago, when he was twelve.  The prepubescent eyes already irresistible. His eyes not yet the eyes of the man who had broken my heart.  From a pastel background of blue wall and green shirt, his eyes summoned up the tenderness I’d poured into our six-month relationship.  

          Six months!  I’d spent them all with him.  I shouldn’t have. Meenkashi had told me I shouldn’t spend all my time with any one person.  I’d known that myself. Then I’d met him, and I’d forgotten.

This photograph was the only thing he’d given me.  I’d never thought that odd, never wanted more. After all, our love was secret.  

          “Really?  All your friends knew,” remarked Meenakshi.  “It’s as if he’s hiding you.”

I no longer blushed at that.  True: I had told everyone. How could I help it?  At twenty-two, beginning not to be ashamed of my body, still ashamed of my shame, a bad feminist – at twenty-two, a man had loved me.

          A man who’d slipped into my heart: peach-pit into peach.  Into the hollow that had threatened, since eleven, to suck me up.  Since my first crush, when I’d spent hours in the dark before the mirror hating my oversoft, overgenerous flesh.  Into the hollow I’d carried half my life – he had slipped. My core. Filling me up. Beautiful, brown, intricate.  Proving hard only when I bit.

          A man whom I could even tell, blushing but bold, when after months of G-Chats we finally met back home, that I’d skipped work to continue our chats.  I, who’d gone to school, college, work even when sick. He had often excused himself, studying for exams that seemed endless.  I didn’t mind. Waiting for his ‘brb’ to be followed by ‘back,’ I’d leafed through his Facebook albums.  Lingering. Each photograph articulating a fissure of his being. Intricate, like a peach-pit. So hard, so dark.  How can you but believe there’s paradise inside? If only you can break through.

          ‘You’ve seen all my photos?’ he’d cried, nipping my nose.  ‘You’re crazy. Almost as crazy as I am about you.’

          Words he’d not been stingy with.

          ‘Hm,’ Meenakshi had commented on that G-Chat, where he’d declared he loved me.  ‘He’s not tongue-tied.’

          Why should he be?  ‘You’re just jealous,’ I’d accused, half-joking.  Meenakshi and I were close. Both of us outcasts, she by choice, we’d turned upon one another with an almost vicious honesty.

‘I am.  But not of you.  Of him.’  She’d laughed.  ‘You’ve not left the room in a week.  But you’ve not said two words to me.’

          ‘Now look who’s declarative!’

          ‘I’m always declarative.  He’s a guy.  I’m not saying he doesn’t love you.  He’s just unusually fluent about it. People tell me their love-stories all the time, and when someone’s’ –

          ‘You don’t know him, Meenkashi.’

          Does he really love you?  I’d heard her unasked question.  Or was it my own bottomless insecurity wailing the question up at me?  And when he’d proved her right, proved that I’d just been an easy catch – an ego-trip – Meenkashi never said I told you so.  She’d vented her rage at him.  The rage that I couldn’t feel. How can you feel enraged at a piece of you that’s hurting you?  An athlete whose foot stops him running hates his foot. But if you just want to sit and experience your foot – then you relish everything.  Every tickle. Every spasm. Meenakshi had sat with me as I wept. Listened as I narrated how I’d discovered, from mutual friends, his real feelings about me.

          I’d called them liars, these friends.  To their faces. I, who had allowed classmates who’d loafed all semester to monopolize me the day before exams.  I told my friends they were liars. Even on the brink of losing his love, I’d been emboldened by his love. A woman wanted.  They were just jealous. On G-Chat, on the ISD calls I’d started making after my trip home to see him for one day, he’d continued to cascade love.  But I’d begged him to come over. Not from fear. From longing. I’d given him everything. Away from him I was hollow again: smiling yellow emoticons now unspeaking.  I’d asked him to come live here. Where better than Bangalore?

          I sat staring at the boy’s photograph.  “You can do it,” Meenakshi encouraged. “Like the plane-ticket.”

          I’d bought him that plane-ticket.  From Dubai to Bangalore, with a year’s savings from my internship at a startup publishing-house.  For our six-month anniversary. I’d explored affordable hotels where we could spend one secret weekend.  I seldom go anywhere but work. Meenakshi had been happy at my bout of activity.  

          Beside the photograph, the plane-ticket I’d bought him was the only relic I’d had of him.  I’d torn up the planet-ticket in anger. Not at him. At the aerospace commission, who’d scheduled the impromptu exam that kept him in Dubai.  Back when I still believed him.

          “If you want to forget him, you can.”

          I couldn’t.  It’d been two years since I’d cried over him: had begun to understand that it was real.  That I’d been dumped. And I was ambushed, still, by spasms of the gut. A radiating hollow of pain.  Usually at dawn: when, after ninety minutes of euphoria checking my ghostly blue watch-face, I used to creep (softly, Meenakshi sleeping ten feet away) from bed to keyboard.  I’d wait for him to get home from college. Neglecting my friends, ‘invisible’ on G-Chat – only there for him. Jumping him the instant the gray light beside his name turned green.  I’d wish him good evening. Once, he’d remembered that here it was morning.  

          I’d tried to forget him.  Repeatedly, with gritted teeth.  Then came the pang again. Always dreaded, never expected.  Bringing me with shockwaves to my knees.  

          “You only think about him because you want to.”

          “I dream about him.”

          “Yeah, because when you’re awake you think you loved him.”

          “I did love him.”

          “Tell yourself you didn’t!  Like… the people in your stories.  They don’t really feel love, doubt, whatever.  They only act like they do, because you tell them.  Just tell yourself you’ve never loved him. It was just a story you wrote.  And now that story’s ended.”

          She was serious.  That’s how she got over her infatuations.  We both wrote fiction, but Meenaskhi was really a poet.  Keats’ poet: unpoetical, lacking an essence of her own. Flipping words over each other in springboard somersaults, continually manufacturing selves, her own tastes and attitudes changing.  As if there were behind them no fixed anchor of self. It frightened me, this continual shapeshifting. I admired it.

          I couldn’t do that.  I believed in prosaic truths.  Fixed. Outside words. I’d been in love.  I’d been dumped.

          “No.  I loved him.”

          Meenakshi had stopped suggesting emotional gymnastics.  Over those two years, as I repeatedly sought and rejected her suggestions, she remained – beneath her contempt for suffering in love, well-developed over the dozens of stories that men and women pour into the ears of placid women – patient with me.  Where friendship alone would’ve worn thin, her enthusiasm for solutions made her the still sympathetic to my undying dilemma.

          “Okay.  D’you still love him?”

          “No.  No! I want to tear it up.  Don’t know if I can.”

          I’d torn him out every other way.  From Facebook. From my G-Chats. Deleted every email containing his name, the Facebook photos I’d downloaded.  His phone number. The dress I’d worn when I’d surrendered to his eager hands, when I’d flown home to see him. That endless day when I’d imagined: All that I’ve made him, I have in fact found him to be.

          I’d even, at Meenakshi’s suggestion, burnt the shreds of the plane-ticket – the ticket that’d postponed the M.A. I’d persuaded my parents to let me do, promising to pay for it myself.  Postponed it, perhaps cancelled it. For now my parents were in a hurry to get me married.

I kept the photograph in my wallet, behind my ATM card.  I hadn’t looked at it in months. Didn’t need to. I knew now the peach-pit for what it was: still I remembered every intricacy of his face, every ugliness to another eye.  It’d become part of the instinctive thickness of my wallet. Twice it fell out as I removed my ATM card. I missed its thickness as I replaced my card, wallet gripped in palm.  I looked down. There it was, at my feet. A boy smiling face-up.

          “Really?” said Meenakshi sceptically, “You missed the weight of that bit of paper?”

          I was silent.

          “Well,” shrugged Meenakshi.  “Not for me to say; I’ve never been in love.  Never plan to be.”

          “Because of this?”

          “Not just because of this, but your object-lesson has been seared into my mind…”  More gently, she continued, “It’s okay if you wanna keep it. It’s a part of your past.  He’s taught you something.”

What has he taught me?  Never again to trust a man who wanted the body I’d spent my life hiding from myself with super-sized underwear, oversized kurtas, drab jeans?

          “Someday you’ll be able to think of it calmly.  Maybe even write about it?”

          “Never!”

          Meenakshi glanced at me with her piercing eyes.  I was afraid she’d ask: ‘Okay, then why do you keep the photograph?’  But she looked away.

          After he’d told me he couldn’t use the plane-ticket I’d been about to mail him, couldn’t come to see me because another exam had been scheduled – then I’d confronted him.  And he’d ended it. Then I’d devoted myself to getting him back. He and I were victims of a misunderstanding. I’d spent a half my stipend continually buying mobile-phone talk-time.  Ringing him, begging to know I could do. He’d played along. Careless with my heart, so why not with my money. I’d never asked him to pay for the plane-ticket he, knowing he wouldn’t use it, had let me buy.  I never asked him if he could ring.  So, on my time, he’d woven his languid webs of lies.  It was a year before I knew. We were done.

But we weren’t!  I still had the photograph.  The flicker of hope I’d banished into the unsceptical twilight of dreams.  

          “Anyway, why right now?  Why the hurry to decide?”

          “My parents are looking.  I might be married soon.”

          “Oh.”  She looked at me, inviting me to complain.  Against arranged marriage.  

          But I’d always wanted to be married.  Expected, till I met him, to be married to a stranger selected for me.  Now, two years after him, that prospect was again becoming tolerable. I was still in the same dead-end job, prolonging the circumstances in which I’d met him.  Now he was gone, and the circumstances ached heavy and empty. I was ready to move on.

          Except for that photograph.

          “That’s why I need to know.  If I can’t do it now, I never can.”

          I didn’t miss it that time.  A month before the flight home my parents had scheduled.  I’d gone to work, got through the day.

          In the dusk I fumbled into our room.  There it was. On my table. In shreds.  His eyes, his lips, his nose, his chin, more intimate than my own.  It was gone. She’d taken it. I hadn’t missed it.  

I sank to my knees shaking.  Grasping for this bit of myself pulled out of me, shredded, tossed before me.  Like it was yesterday.

          Meenakshi entered.

          I looked up, bewildered.  Reaching for stray shreds, trying to glue him whole again with the sweat of my palms.

          Meenakshi watched me, knelt beside me with a Fevi-Stick.  New. She uncapped it, pried the shreds from my hands, gathered them on a cardboard square.  She offered me the Fevi-stick.

          “No more saying ‘I’ll never know.’  Time to find out. Now or never.”

          I looked from the shreds of the photograph to the Fevi-Stick in Meenakshi’s hands.

Amita Basu is a postgraduate student of cognitive science living in Bangalore, India.  She writes fiction and is working on a mystery novel about art. She likes running.

 


 

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