I sat on the bed staring at the pink shirt. I had ironed it twice but the creases just wouldn’t go. It’s the only shirt I had that I was sure she liked. It was someone’s idea of a cruel joke, perhaps. I distinctly remember coming home late one night to see her ironing the very same shirt. I asked her to go to sleep, she had had a long day and I could probably iron a shirt, right? She laughed and asked me not to worry about it. Something about the temperature that I didn’t understand. “It’s the only shirt that looks good on you. Why don’t you ever come shopping with me?”
Why didn’t I? I don’t know. I didn’t then, and I’m no wiser now. I could have done with more shirts. More dinners with her. Asking her about her day. Doing the dishes. The theatre, the one she always kept talking about. I suppose I could have done a lot more of these things. I never really got around to putting the screws to hang clocks from, and then one day I saw her struggling with a drill machine. She had made four holes before she got one right, but she had done it herself. That’s how she was. She came from money and somehow for her that meant she would do everything herself. I didn’t understand her.
Then again, I cannot claim that I tried.
It was a button-up shirt with pink stripes. The creases would not go, besides, the creases were just my way of wasting time before the big day. I put on some cologne. I put the shirt on and remembered how she’d always roll my sleeves down and then back up, because I wasn’t good at all this. I don’t remember what I was good at, in those days. I have trophies from work to remind me when I forget. I spent ten minutes trying to do my hair properly before giving up. They had a mind of their own anyway. I exercised no more control over my hair than I did over the rest of the universe. And how much of a difference would it make anyway? I was just stalling. The cab driver called as a welcome intervention. The wheels, figuratively, were in motion and I would soon head out into the great beyond.
I stopped again in front of the mirror. I was a mess. My sleeves didn’t look right and my hair would not even pretend to. Looking like this had worked once before. I hoped it would work again.
“You can smoke, you know?”
“What?” I asked, as the cab driver’s words broke my reverie. The roads seemed so familiar and yet so strange. Like a house I had moved out of.
“You can smoke if you want to.” he said, eyes on the road.
“How do you know I smoke?” I asked him, trying to catch his eye in the rearview.
He just smiled. He took a pack of cigarettes out of the dash and handed me one.
“Not today, man.” I surprised myself. I would really have done well with a cigarette. The cologne was nauseating. I was sweating. My fingers kept drumming some surface or the other.
“Date night, huh?” he said, putting the cigarettes back. He allowed himself a moment as he looked out the window towards the setting sun. The world seemed ablaze. It was a beautiful evening. I hadn’t seen the sunset or the sunrise for close to a month, it was all quite wonderful, and sad at the same time.
“Yeah, I suppose you could say that.”
“No sweat, man. Remember to breathe.”
“Remember to breathe.” The words glowed, hanging in the air. I tried to catch his eyes in the rearview again. He had gone back to the road, back to his groove. Remember to breathe. It’s what she had said, before disappearing into the dressing room on the big day. Or maybe she had said, “Don’t forget to breathe.” I don’t remember. I remember how I felt though, and I had been glad for the warning. I shook my head and returned to the present. The sunset was heady, I could feel its effects on me. The radio didn’t work and I was left alone awkwardly with my thoughts. They seemed unfamiliar.
I got out of the cab, wrinkling my shirt further in the process. I looked around. This was a strange place. It was too close to the airbase, too open, too loud. You could see the sky meet the earth in three directions. In the fourth lay urban decay, greying buildings in a city of smoke. A plane was landing and the windows around rattled much like my eardrums. The landing lights flashed red and blue in the dying orange of the sun and I started feeling cold. I tried to recall the address again. I walked for a few minutes till I found the building. I didn’t notice anything. I was too busy concentrating on something I can’t recall now. I believe it was fear, but I think it was more hope than fear. The most dangerous feeling of all.
I walked up the staircase, too steep and too dark. This was no place to be. It wasn’t bad, perhaps, but that just wouldn’t do for me. But it had worked for her. I walked up to her door on the sixth floor, panting slightly. Both my literal and figurative hearts had been strained over those six flights of stairs. The nameplate had the landlord’s name on it. I realized that I would be struck by a lot of things that night so I would do well to think about them later on. The doorbell was one of those with bird calls. I never got the point of those. I remember opening the door every time a bird sang near our house as a child, only to find no-one around. It still was a rush, though. As was this.
I swallowed as I heard her behind the door. I could tell it was her. I had come home to her opening the door for years. Long, weary years.
She opened the door. I smiled, and then it faltered and I let out a small “Hello.”
She blinked, her face impassive. I had my hands at the back. I could hear my heartbeat. She opened the door further and stepped out of the way. “Come in.” Her first words in a thousand years. I followed her in and closed the door.
The house was modest. It smelled of an overworked mother and a child who loved to paint. The sunset had all but left from the giant glass windows that formed one wall of the living room. I stepped on a toy brick and it cracked. The sound stopped her in her tracks. “It’s alright, he keeps them lying around.” she said and took her place on a rocking chair. It was the first time I had heard her mention him in years, I thought to myself as I walked to the old sofa. Dark coloured, and wisely so. There were crayons all over the place. The child would not have spared a lesser piece of furniture. I was hit with the realization that I had felt like remarking on how similar he and I were. A part of me could just not understand that it wasn’t the same.
“Did you have trouble finding your way?” she asked, face expressionless, still searching me. She was wearing a loose blue shirt and a white skirt. It was her day off. No jewelry or makeup. She never did that. There was just a pair of earrings with some animal or the other on them. I couldn’t see them tonight because she had grown her hair a little. It hurt to look at her, just as I imagined it would. It probably wasn’t a good idea, coming here. One should let injuries heal before heading off to the field again. I realized I was thinking in football metaphors again and wondered if she’d still laugh.
“No, I found it.” I said hopelessly. I didn’t know where to take this conversation. She’d have to drive me. “You look pretty.” I said with the weakest, strongest smile I could muster.
She blinked again. “Thank you.” she said, allowing her head to tilt a little, like she always used to. “How’s it going?” I asked, hoping the question would buy me time.
“It wouldn’t hurt if it got better. This is a low-rent place, being near the airport and all. It gives me headaches but thankfully, he sleeps tight.” she said, nodding her head towards the only other room in the house. I could feel the resentment in her voice. I didn’t know what to say. Luckily for me, a fighter jet chose that very moment to takeoff. The engines thundered as the afterburners engaged and the windows shook so hard that I feared they might just break. She just rolled her eyes, though. She was used to this cacophony. “And how’s work?” I asked over the dying echoes of the engines.
“Still not sure if I like it. The hours are long and I’ve used up my leaves but the boss is nice so he lets me off early.”
“That’s not too bad.”
She stared at me for a second. “Actually, it is fucked up. I have to carry my work home and I don’t get to sleep most nights. I don’t even want to do this. I never did. It’s just..” she trailed off as she looked yet again towards the other room.
I didn’t know what to say. “My work is hectic too, although it has gotten better. There were talks of a layoff but I’m still around.”
“How do you eat?” she interrupted me as I was thinking of what to add my inconsequential small talk.
“What? Me?” I was surprised. “I, uh, cook a little. I cook for the week.” She nodded and looked away. This was going nowhere. I could hear the traffic on the road and the clock on the wall. I could feel my collar bothering me. I could see that she didn’t know what to do either.
“Do you know that fighter plane that just went by…” I began, hoping to draw the conversation away.
“Oh, shut up.” she interrupted, head thrown back, eyes still closed.
“What?” I was caught unaware.
“I said, shut up. You think you can just walk here after seven years and tell me how many engines that fucking thing has or how fast it goes?” She was looking at me now, nostrils flaring. She was going to be very angry. I hoped it would pass. I looked down at my shoes.
“Stop staring at your shoes for once, goddammit. Tell me more about the plane. How many miles to the gallon?” she was standing up now. “You think this is a joke? You think we can just talk about fighter planes like there isn’t a goddamn elephant in the room right now? You disgust me. I haven’t slept for three days. And then you suddenly call to let me know you’ll be showing up. For what? What do you want after all these years?” she screamed. She was going to cry. She always did that when she was angry. I felt like answering her. But for once, I didn’t.
“I have a kid here who has never seen his father. I take the long route when I drop him to daycare so that he doesn’t see the park with all those kids having fun with their families. Because when he does, he cries. And I have to trade a leave for a day spent trying to catch a ball that he’s throwing. Do you have any idea how hard it is to catch a ball?” I looked up in surprise. I nodded, compliantly, surprising myself with my restraint. “I’m hanging on but I don’t see anything changing in the future. When does it get better for us? When do I get to do what I wanted to?” Tears streamed down her face. She really had had no-one to talk to. To say that I felt bad would be an understatement. I kept nodding.
“Look at you nodding. Aren’t you going to argue like every damn time?”
I looked up at her. “No.” I said firmly. “I’m not. It isn’t what you need right now. Please sit down. Let me get some water.” I walked to the kitchen, needing water as much as she did. I was parched and I didn’t have a plan. The fridge was mostly empty. I stared at it for a moment longer than I should have. She didn’t need my defense. Neither did I. What did we need? Why had I said what I did?
I walked back to the living room and handed her the uncapped bottle. “Couldn’t find clean glasses.” She took the bottle wordlessly and drank. Water spilled down her mouth and onto her clothes, like it always had. She still wasn’t looking at me. “You’re not going to answer back?”
I took a deep breath. “No. You’re right about what you said. What good would it do to argue? I’m an idiot, trying to talk about planes right now. I would like to apologize for a lot of things but I don’t know where to begin.”
She was looking at me now. Her eyes looked softer. “You don’t have to. It wasn’t all your fault.”
“I will feel better if I do.” I closed my eyes. I thought of everything that had gone wrong. I knew each and every detail of how it all came to be because for seven years I had done nothing else before sleeping except for thinking what went wrong. I wondered where I should begin from. I looked at her face. Helpless, red-eyed, and with a prayer upon her lips. What would she want to hear? I had never bothered paying attention to her. What lay there?
But then, I knew.
“You know what? I don’t think you need any more drama today. We will speak of this when we have the time and it doesn’t feel like a film or a story. Right now, it does. There are other things that need our attention.” I said calmly, nodding in the direction of the bedroom. The door was open, and an eight-year old was walking toward us, rubbing his eyes. I bit my lip. He wore a t-shirt with an airplane on it. It was someone’s idea of humour, after all.
She looked at him and I, at her. She was his mother, alright. You could see it even if you were blind. He kept staring at me, though, with his big, curious eyes just like hers. “Do you like airplanes?” I asked. He thought for a moment, a very long moment, and then nodded. I closed my eyes and breathed a silent prayer.
“Listen.” I said, finding my voice again. “Take the weekend off. I talked to the guys at the airbase. They’d be happy to let me show him around. If you are okay with it, of course.”
Her eyes looked wider when she was surprised. It was disarming, it had always been. She thought about it. I could tell when she was thinking because she’d do this thing of touching her neck and looking sideways.
She answered with a question. “You’ll get him dinner?”
“Him and you both.” I smiled, looking right into her eyes. She lost her composure. A smile found its way to her lips and she looked away. “You had to be smooth didn’t you? What is this? Jerry Maguire?”
“It’s a man trying to get his life back, so yeah.” I called after her.
She didn’t hear me over the afterburners of yet another plane taking flight. I saw her staring at it lose itself to the sky through the window, her hand resting on a shoulder some four feet off the ground. The trail of blue flame streaked across the sky that was just about beginning to reveal the stars that it had hid all day long. “You said something?” she asked, without looking away. “Yeah, I was saying I have to go back now but I will pick you up at seven on Saturday. And yeah, cut your hair a little.”
“I knew you’d say that.” she said as she led me to the door.
“Take care.” I added with my brightest smile and walked away.
This time I’d be back though. I knew I would. I caught a glimpse of my hair in some glass on the way down and saw that it was as misbehaved as ever.
Some things never change, do they?
by Srijan Dubey
Photograph – http://daremenj.tumblr.com/