He’s late again. Third time this month. Why am I not surprised? So here I am once more, strumming my fingers and sitting by the window at yet another expensive restaurant. All around me people are enjoying a quiet meal. There’s a table of businessmen in the corner. My god, they look serious, all dressed in suits. Probably arguing over splitting the bill. Lots of couples too. One Two Three… Four. That is a lot! You can always tell which ones are married. They’re the ones not talking to each other. No eye contact, no unnecessary talk, no wasted energy, just single-minded focus on their food. Look at them, blankly staring at each other with those dead eyes, like cattle chewing cud.
Hello hello, what’s this? A rather interesting pair I see. Footsie? Ah, she giggles even! Newlyweds perhaps? No no, he’s far too old and too accomplished by the looks of it, to go and create a scandal marrying a nubile young thing like her. What’s that on his finger, a wedding band? Ah. They’re having an affair. Well, good luck darling. Laugh and make merry while you can, enjoy this moment. Because it doesn’t matter that you spent all morning at the parlour primping yourself for this; when the meal’s done, he’s going to go back home to his wife. Oh no, there’s that waiter again. Damn.
Right. The clearing of the throat. Doesn’t matter. I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear it and continue looking out the window.
Dammit. The cough. Already? Its not even been twenty minutes. I can’t possibly ignore The Cough. Besides, he’s hovering over me like a vulture. And me, already hiding behind the biggest eyeshades in my collection, face covered by hair. Go away dammit, just walk away walk away…
It’s ok, it’s ok. That’s right, give him the snooty look. Look him straight in the eye with that one raised eyebrow and hint of a sneer. The prick. I’ll show him who’s boss.
‘Are you sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable at a smaller table?’
‘I said, my friend would be here shortly.’
I give him my frostiest tight-lipped smile.
‘Of course, madam.’
God, I hate this infernal waiting. The menu lies untouched on the table. What is it now forty minutes? Is he going to cancel again like last time? I look at my cell phone. No. No messages, no calls, nothing. It just lies there. Useless piece of metal and plastic.
The last time was at the Olive. When was that, a week ago? Thirty five minutes I wait at the table, and then he calls. Something’s come up. Emergency. He can’t make it. Raincheck? Of course, darling. I understand.
I hate the clandestine meetings, the hurried lunch dates, the stolen moments, the secrecy, the sneaking around. Like criminals. Why doesn’t he just ask me? Why can’t he just come out in the open and say it. It’s been four years already. Seems like a bloody eternity. We even picked out the color together for the living room. A nice ocean green. Brings the outside in, he said. That was nearly two years ago, when I moved into my new apartment. I always wanted a penthouse. Finally got one. On the 9th floor. With a balcony overlooking the sea.
Man, what wonderful times we shared, just him and me, sitting on the balcony. I’d cook him dinner, and then we’d sit out and talk. Just talk. Plans, hopes, dreams, music, films, books, current affairs, nothing and everything. And then I’d fall asleep in his arms. Oh the things we said to each other. The promises he made.
Bastard. Two years ago, that was. And he’s still living with her. Mother was right. Don’t fall for the married ones; they never leave their wives. And me? Left my husband, packed my bags, bought a new apartment. One suitcase, that was all I walked in with. I don’t need the extra baggage I said. Maybe I thought this was just a temporary set-up. Maybe I thought I’d be living out of a suitcase for just a short while. Till I finally move into his home. With my one suitcase, no extra baggage. Instead, here I am, still waiting. And waiting. And waiting. For those three little letters and a name that I may never share.
Rohan’s moved on. Well, of course he has. My mother-in-law always thought he married beneath him. And told him every chance she got. Rohan, you’re looking so gaunt these days, trouble at home? Rohan, how thin you’ve become, aching for some home food? Shweta, look at your nails, mummy doesn’t cut them? Shyam! My, your hair’s grown long, how do they let you in school, looking like some unwashed tramp?
The bitch. Thank god I moved out of there the first year of marriage. Imagine raising the children in that household. Ah but then, Rohan was very supportive back then. We clung to each other. Yes, we had some good times together, Rohan and me. Seven years. It wasn’t all bad. In fact, we had some wonderful times. Just got too ugly in the end. I couldn’t stay. Even if Amar hadn’t come along, I couldn’t have stayed. It had to happen eventually. Everything. Amar, the divorce, my children, the arrangement. Well, it was for the best I suppose. Amar would provide well for them. That old witch will look after them well; one must give the devil her due. She hated me from the start, but she always doted on her grandkids. You both look just like your father, you’re both all Rohan aren’t you, that’s what she always used to say to them.
Oh how she enjoyed it, when I finally told him I was leaving him. She knew it, she said. Right from the start, something was up with that girl, something not quite right. Receptionist. She used to spit out the word like I was a prostitute. They all sleep around too much, everyone in the entire hotel industry. There were rumours about her from day one. Not a very good reputation you know. It was a mistake marrying her. Rohan, the way she has been carrying on behind your back, oh the shame…
I was the one carrying on? Me? I, the one with the reputation? The problem is, Rohan, she used to say, she doesn’t understand you, understand our ways or our background. The problem is, Rohan, you just couldn’t keep your cock in your pants. It had to happen. Amar just made it clearer for me that’s all. Just put it all in perspective. I’d had enough. Of the hoping, the waiting, the utter humiliation. I’d had it. Goodbye Rohan, I’m leaving you. I’ve found someone else.
Funny. Never thought I’d be the one saying those words. Always expected to hear them instead I suppose. Who would have thought, that I’d end up having an extra-marital affair? When do you realize that you’re having an affair? When is it, that exact moment in time, when it hits you, my god, I’m a married woman, with a husband and two kids, and I’m leading a double life.
Is it at that first evasive reply?
Or the first outright lie?
Or the first time you pick up the phone and realize with disappointment it’s only your husband.
Or the first time the tip of another man’s swollen penis pushes itself into what you have pledged in undying loyalty to your husband. And what god hath joined together, let no man put asunder.
When did I start having a sordid affair? Ah but, love isn’t borne out of sex. It’s the little things that add up. Running in from the rain, both of you huddled under his jacket. Helping him pick out a birthday present for his eight-year old daughter. Sobbing into his shoulders. Sharing the same bottle of coke, taking a swig, without wiping the mouth on your sleeve first. That’s how it started. And then one night I woke up and looked at my husband and realized, I’m lying next to the wrong man.
Oh god, how long has it been, an hour? What’s keeping him? He’s never been this late before. I hope he’s alright. Useless phone, ring, godammit.
But then. Of late, he has been canceling quite frequently. Turning up late. Not even an apology anymore. Just a look. As if to say, you know how it is. And then he’d pick up the menu and order, like this was perfectly acceptable behaviour. The chicken for me, and the fish for the lady, he would tell the waitor. He always ordered for me. Amar, where are you? Well, it doesn’t matter. After today, it won’t. I’m calling it off. The whole thing, the whole sordid affair. So long and thanks for all the fish. Bastard.
It was always something. Never the right time. She’s been through a lot just now, with the miscarriage, I can’t walk out on her now. Father’s suffered a stroke, it’s been quite mad at the office, I can’t really rattle things up at such a time. It’s tough on the children, they’ve just lost their grandfather, I can’t abandon them now when they need me the most.
And what about my children then? What about that day we took them to the beach? The day you bought Swetha that pink cap, and she insisted you buy one just like it, and you did, and you both wore it and walked on the beach with her sitting on your shoulders. Or that day with Shyam when you helped him with his math homework, because he was in tears and he came to me, and I just couldn’t make sense of all those cryptic symbols, and you saw and you understood, and you took the book from his hands and you gently explained it to him. What about that then? It’s not hard on them I suppose?
Well, it doesn’t matter. They’re older now. They’ll get over it. I’ll get over it. Amar hasn’t seen them in over six months. God, it’s been a long time since he’s come home. He seems reluctant these days. Well, screw him. Screw him. Who needs this? Not them. Not me. I’m tired of waiting. Tired of it. Dammit, there’s that waiter again. It’s been over an hour. He’s walking this way. Think fast, think fast.
‘Erhm… Perhaps madam would care to…’
The waiter is visibly shaken. There is a woman sitting in front of me. I hadn’t noticed while she walked up to the table. I was busy looking outside, hiding behind my menu, trying very hard to avoid making eye-contact with those uniformed vultures.
She had pulled up the chair and sat down. She gives him a look, and the waiter disappears. One look, it is enough to tell him… you are dismissed. Now she turns her gaze on me. I am taken aback by how stunning she is. My god, she’s beautiful. A little tired around the eyes, but undeniably beautiful. A modern day goddess with thick black hair, loose, cascading down the back of the chair. She’s in a sari. At a place like this. But she doesn’t look out of place, funnily enough. She looks quite elegant, like she belongs here. More than belongs here, in fact, like she’s far better than everything and everyone else here.
‘Erhm, Hi… I’m sorry, do I know you?’
She sits there looking at me. Everything around us seems to have suddenly become quiet. How deafening this silence is. Why doesn’t she say something? I wait.
‘I know you.’
‘You’re fucking my husband.’
Right. The wife. The shadowy third figure in our relationship whom we never allude to. The ghostly apparition always hovering in the background, tainting everything with her non-presence. The voice on the other end of the line. Amar’s voice always went three notches higher whenever it was her. He’d immediately straighten up, and run his free hand thru his hair. Then he’d walk into the other room to finish the call. And then come back irritated, or preoccupied. That’s how I knew. Her. The voice was finally here, in flesh and blood, sitting before me and boring holes into my skin with her unblinking gaze.
‘He’s not coming.’
What does one say at a time like this? I shift uneasily in my seat.
‘In fact. He’s never coming back. Not to you.’
She smiles. How hard her face looks. Hatred crystallized, into a hard smile. She’s enjoying this! Enjoying hating me. Looking at me, savoring every visual detail, and hating me, here and now, tangibly.
‘I know what he’s told you. It’s what he tells all his girlfriends. My wife and I are not compatible. It was a mistake from the start. I was too young when I married. She’s all wrong for me. Country girl. Villager.’
She spat out the word. Spat it out like my mother-in-law used to every time she said Receptionist.
She folds her hands, and rests them on her crossed legs. She closes her eyes, a second to compose herself. Just for a second. Then she opens them and looks me straight in the eye.
‘Well, it’s all true. Everything. I can’t say it isn’t. We’re not compatible. It was a mistake.’
She waits for my reaction.
I wait for hers.
She sits there, looking. Clearly, she had expected me to say more. We both watch each other, waiting. She takes a deep breath.
‘So’, she begins again, ‘When he realized, that this wasn’t what he wanted, he decided to find out what it was that he wanted, and go get it. Affairs, one-night stands, women. Lots of them. I know them all. People used to come tell me all the time. Some, well-wishers, with concern and pity in their eyes. Others, just gossip-mongerers, morbid curiosity mingled with ill-suppressed joy in their voices. Sometimes, they’d come tell me themselves, the women fucking my husband.’
She leans forward till her face is inches from mine.
‘He always went for the same sort. They all looked alike. Like you. Fair skin, artificially-colored hair. Make up and painted nails. He thought they were cultured, because of the way they dressed and spoke English with an accent. They’re not cultured. Just a different kind of ugly.’
She sits back in her chair and looks out the window. She seems lost in her own thoughts. I open my mouth to speak.
‘He always grows tired of them’, she continues, still looking out the window, ‘It’s not the women he’s after. It’s the thrill of the chase. It’s the attention. Of being wanted. And wanting. And getting what he wants. Once he gets it, he doesn’t want it anymore. He never does, that’s just the way he is. He bores easily. And then he comes back to me and asks me to make him a cup of coffee, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.’
She abruptly turns her head and looks pointedly at me.
‘That’s why you can never have him. He’s never going to leave me, you see. Too much has happened; too much that we have both endured together. He’s old and he’s tired. He can’t start all over again. And the children aren’t so young anymore. They know, they watch, they observe. They can think, and they can judge, and he knows that. So will the entire family. Judge him, and condemn him. It doesn’t matter that they all depend on him, financially. He depends on them, in a different way, for acceptance, for recognition, for the things that he can never get with you. That’s the one part of him that you can never satisfy. None of you can. He always comes back to me for the one thing he wants, the one thing he craves, the one thing he can’t do without.’
She sits back in her chair. She hasn’t stopped smiling. Hatred distilled. It drips from her in large, black, sticky drops. She can’t stop the edge from creeping into her voice. She doesn’t even try.
‘Leave my husband. He is not yours, he never was, he never will be. I won’t give him up. Not after all this time, not after everything we have gone through. Tomorrow you will be gone, and he’ll find someone new. It doesn’t matter. It’s me he comes home to every night. And that’s something you will never have. So take my advice. Make it easy on yourself. Leave.’
I look at her. She seems eerily calm. She has finished saying what she came to say. Is she now waiting for me to say something? I open my mouth to speak.
‘Goodbye. Enjoy your lunch.’
She gets up and leaves the table. I watch her walking out of the restaurant. She gets into her car and drives away. She never once looks this way.
The cellphone rings. It’s Amar. I pick up.
‘Veda, listen, there’s been a crisis of sorts, I really can’t…’
‘Sort of an emergency, you understand…’
‘Nothing really that I can do, damned inconvenient, how about next week at…’
‘I just met your wife.’
‘At the restaurant?’
‘Yes. Listen, that doesn’t matter. She came to me. The point is..’
‘How?! What did she say..’
‘She must have gone through my appointments book! That conniving, sneaky… she always…’
‘It doesn’t matter. I’m leaving you.’
‘Veda, don’t be stupid. I’m leaving her. She’s gone too far this time, I don’t care about anything else. It’s about time, I’m going to…’
I hang up. The silence seems to have lifted. The couple at the other table are having an argument. He’s just received a phonecall. He has to leave. She’s pleading with him now. No, it can’t wait. He’s up already, and taken out his wallet. He lays a bundle of notes next to his unfinished meal. She places her hand on his sleeve; she tries once more. Pathetic. How women throw themselves at men who won’t have them. She sits at the table and watches his receding figure. He doesn’t turn back. She looks dejected.
I look at the cellphone lying on the table. It’s ringing. Amar calling, the display reads. Useless piece of plastic and metal. I turn it off. I take off my eyeshades and raise one hand. The waiter catches my eye.
‘I think, I’ll have the chicken.’