“Are you all right?” Anita asked.
He was sitting at the kitchen table, on a stool he’d pulled up from the counter. Anita leaned against the doorframe and studied his profile, remembering all the other times he’d done the very same thing in all those other houses.
The years had been kind to him, the nose was still the most prominent feature on his face, the brow a bit craggier, the cheekbones a little less defined – the face was lived in but reflected his indomitable inner strength a lot more now than it had when she’d first met him… 26 years ago now? 26 years and five months.
He didn’t look up. She thought he hadn’t heard her speak. Her mouth twisted. So what else was new? Clearing her throat, she tried again, louder:
“Dev?” He blinked, as if waking up from a dream before turning to face her. “Are you all right?”
“What? Yeah, I – um, everybody left?”
“All but you,” she said, gesturing with one hand to the pots and pans as they scattered around the big kitchen table, the sink full of dirty dishes.
“I’ll help you,” he said, his voice a little husky.
“Don’t bother,” she said politely. “I’ll manage.”
“Anita,” he said quietly. “I’ll help you.”
She nodded. “I’ll get some Tupperware, why don’t you fill them?”
“I can do that,” he agreed.
She moved around the kitchen, getting things ready, planning the sequence that would get her out of the kitchen in the least possible time, everything ready for the cleaners she’d arranged to come in tomorrow. He sat, arms crossed, and watched her through hooded eyes. This was the Anita he knew. Calm, methodical, even in the face of chaos.
“What?” she smiled, bringing over the promised Tupperware, twisting her soft shoulder-length hair up and out of the way as she tackled the overflowing sink.
“Wouldn’t it have been easier to just book a hotel?” he asked.
“It’s my son’s wedding, what’s the use of such a big house if I don’t open it up even for his wedding? Besides it wasn’t such a big deal.”
“Hmm, plus it very neatly cut me out of the process,” he commented, pressing the lid down on a stubborn bit of plastic.
She looked at him sharply. “You think this was revenge?”
“Wasn’t it?” he looked at her evenly.
“No,” she said in exactly the same tone. “If I wanted revenge, Dev, I’d have found more… permanent ways of doing it.”
The tension that could spring up between them, even after 15 years of divorce, hummed for an instant before he dropped his eyes.
“Touché,” he said.
“Is that why you paid for the honeymoon?” She snorted when he refused to meet her eyes. “Maybe you should have tried paying for a trip to Bali when we were married. Perhaps we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all.”
“Are you saying a trip to Bali would have fixed all our problems?”
“No, but considering how much you couldn’t afford it back then, you’d have been so busy paying it off, you wouldn’t have found the time to cheat on me.”
“You never let it rest, do you?” he asked, resignedly.
“Just because you married the slut doesn’t mean I have to get over it.”
He took a deep breath. “How about the news that we’re getting divorced? Does that make it easier?”
She stilled. “What?”
“Lali and I are getting a divorce.”
She didn’t say anything for a few moments. Dev stared at her impassive face, wondering what she was thinking.
“Say something,” he said when the silence had stretched too long.
“I had no idea,” she said in a cool little voice that gave nothing away.
He gave a bitter little laugh. “That’s all? Aren’t you going to crow a little? You’ve been waiting for this day for long enough.”
She looked at him, leaning back against the sink, her hands still in their bright pink plastic gloves. “That’s true,” she said at last.
“You admit it?” he asked, surprised.
She shrugged. “Did she find out?”
“About you and me?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “At least, she hasn’t said anything.”
“Then she doesn’t know,” she said. “Lali’s not the type that would keep it to herself.”
“Well, that’s all beside the point now, isn’t it?”
“You don’t have to look so disappointed.”
“Do I? Look disappointed?”
“Come on, Anita,” he said impatiently. “You’ve only been sleeping with me these past few years as payback!”
“So aren’t you cut up that she’ll never know…”
“She’ll never know you cheated on her with me? I suppose so.”
He didn’t say anything.
“What do you want me to say, Dev?”
“What do people usually say at times like this?”
“I’m sorry? I’m shocked? Hardly. Almost everybody who knows you expected this to happen. We were just off by a decade or so.”
He rubbed a hand wearily over his face. “Not really.”
Anita stared at him, that action of his bringing to mind another day in another kitchen – Dev asking her for a divorce…
“It’s pretty clear,” he’d said to her. “We’re not going to survive this, Anita. You can’t forget it and I don’t want to forget it.”
“I could forget it if you wanted to,” she’d told him, voice shaking. “But you don’t! Why don’t you just say that?”
“Fine.” His eyes had been so cold, the aloofness she’d sensed in him for the best part of a year coming forward and lying unmasked as an absence of emotion so severe she’d wanted to scratch his eyes out, just to make that expression leave his face.
“You won’t be happy,” she’d spat, desperate for anything from him, any bone at all that he might choose to throw her. “She’s going to leave you and then you’ll come crawling back and I won’t take you! Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” he’d clipped out. “Don’t worry, if she does leave me then I won’t come looking for anything from you. I gave up looking for anything resembling warmth from you a long time ago!”
Anita came back to the present with a sigh. She stripped the gloves from her hands and took a seat at the table, pushing aside a couple of plates to rest her arms on the top. “I am sorry,” she said.
He looked at her, surprised.
“You were married to her for about twice as long and I know it wasn’t easy for you the first time around.”
“What’s this, compassion?” he mocked. “I thought you’d be laughing your head off.”
“I’m grinning on the inside,” she told him.
Neither said anything for a while. “What am I going to do?” he asked finally.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Is that why she didn’t come for the wedding?”
“No – I mean, she wouldn’t have come anyway. She’s always been clear she’s not his stepmother in anything other than name.”
Anita nodded. “It was the only thing that made her bearable.”
He grinned briefly. “I’m surprised you allowed him to get married.”
She shrugged. “It was either that or get into bed with him and I don’t think either of us is inclined that way.”
“My God, Anita!” he said, laughing in shocked surprise. “You can’t say things like that!”
“Why not?” she asked. “It’s only you.”
“Why are we so much more civil to each other now?” he asked after a pause, studying her face.
She was silent for so long he thought she wasn’t going to answer. Finally, she said: “You don’t hate me now.”
“What? I didn’t hate you.”
“Yes, you did,” she insisted quietly. “I could see it in your face. You’d come home, walk in the door and see me and you couldn’t stand it.”
Dev thought back to their marriage – he had it filed in his memory under one giant block but when he looked at it now, he could see the individual bits fitting in to resemble a jigsaw puzzle more than anything else.
There was the time when he’d been completely in… lust with her. Not love, he thought. There was the pregnancy, which was when he’d fallen in love. But was it with her or the baby and thus by extension the woman who carried the baby? Did love work like that? And then, just life. For a very long time, there was nothing special about their marriage – nothing that stuck out in his memory, no highs, no lows, only a plateau. And somehow, from that plateau, a sudden drop off a cliff into… hatred?
“I’m right,” Anita said, beside him, watching his face fill with realization. “Aren’t I?”
He shook his head dumbly.
She smiled wryly. “I always admired Lali for that. It took me, what? Less than a decade to make you hate me. And she… well, she lasted quite a long time didn’t she?”
Dev caught her hand. “I’m sorry.”
She pressed his hand before disengaging herself. “You didn’t even realize until now. It’s not like you planned it.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t marry anyone,” he said.
“You have another candidate?” she asked, surprised.
“I was just speaking generally,” he explained.
“You hate her too?”
“Not…” he trailed off.
“Not as much as me?” she asked dryly.
He ducked his head. “I don’t know…”
She patted his hand. “Well, at least I come first in something.”
“I’m glad you can laugh at it,” he muttered.
“I’ve had 15 years to develop a sense of humor,” she reminded him.
“Did you ever figure out why I felt like that?” he asked before immediately shaking his head. “Never mind, I can’t believe I asked you that.”
“Don’t you know?”
“I just –”
“Found out,” she finished and shrugged. “Who knows? I thought it was me – I wasn’t pretty enough, nice enough, sexy enough. Enough. Then I entered the phase where I thought it was you – you were just a cheater, a louse, a liar… you remember that phase?”
“Vividly,” he said. “Then came the bitchy phase.”
“Whose story is this anyway?”
“Sorry,” he said, throwing up one hand. “Continue.”
“Then came the bitchy phase,” she said, making him laugh. “That’s when we had the power struggles –”
“Yeah, I’m glad that didn’t last long.”
“Especially for the sake of our son.”
“Amen,” he agreed.
“And that’s when I met Anand.”
“Right, the boyfriend. That bit I knew.”
“Careful, you sounded like an ex-husband there.”
“I am an ex-husband,” he said.
She smiled. “Then you ought to be a very grateful ex-husband because he’s the one who brought me back to my senses.”
He bit his lip. “Where is he?”
“He went home. I wanted to be the mother of the groom by myself for a while. No pity, nobody to ask me ‘What are you going to do now?’ as if I haven’t done anything other than mother him all my life.”
“Anand didn’t mind?”
“What we do works for us.”
He inhaled deeply. “I guess so. Are you two thinking of getting married?”
She didn’t say anything until he looked up to meet her gaze.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” she said. “You’re getting divorced and we’re having a heart to heart. But that hasn’t changed anything else. The universe is still on the same axis, get it?”
“I was just asking because it’s been ten years since you two –”
“Got it.” He brooded in silence for a few minutes as she stacked dishes.
“I can feel you staring,” she said at last.
“Sorry. It’s just – you know, you know everything and I don’t know anything!”
“You’re the one who keeps telling me things, I never –”
“Ask. I know.”
She shrugged. “What do you want to know?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Are you planning on getting married?”
“That’s very general,” she mocked. “He’s asked.”
“And the answer was specific.”
“You said no,” he guessed.
“What makes you think that?”
“You said yes?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You’re trying to make me crazy,” he groaned.
“If that’ll make you shut up.”
He looked her over. “You ever feel guilty about us?”
“I feel guilty that I don’t feel guilty,” she said at last. “What about you?”
“I don’t know. That’s a good way of putting it – guilty for not feeling guilt. I should be guilty. When she said she – when she told me this morning, I –”
“She told you this morning?” she interrupted.
He nodded. “Remember how we’d go days without speaking to each other?”
“We’ve been having those. For a while now. Lali sure broke the pattern.”
“Serve you right,” she said with ill-concealed satisfaction.
“Did you always have that mean streak?” he asked, watching her get back to the sink.
“Don’t you know? I thought I was the bitch from hell.”
“That was when we broke up,” he dismissed. “No, I mean, as a person. I kind of remember you as – sort of vanilla, you know?”
“Ouch,” she said. “At least, I think ‘ouch’.”
“Ouch is right. That was not a compliment.”
“Vanilla is a very exotic and expensive spice you know.”
“Yeah, and we use it in custard pudding,” he remarked.
She made a face at him. “Maybe you were the custard pudding. Once I got you out of the mix, I could shine again.”
“Ouch.” It was his turn to wince. “Anand isn’t custard pudding?”
“Anand is,” she paused to think, hands immersed in the sudsy sink. “Anand is ice cream. Very expensive, very high quality ice cream.”
“Well, custard puddings have their own charm,” he said, a bit annoyed.
“Hey, Lali was your jelly.”
The silence was awful.
“I didn’t mean –”
“How did we start this dumb comparison anyway?” he asked at the same time.
They smiled at each other. He continued clearing the table as she briskly loaded the dishwasher.
“What are you going to do now?” she asked.
“Well, the apartment is mine. She’s moving out today. I guess I’ll have to find a lawyer and stuff.”
“Do you think she’s been cheating on you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything.”
“Hmm, you never do.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
She paused for a few moments before turning to face him. “Have you ever asked yourself why you hit on me that day?”
“We’d had a bad day.” She watched him search for an acceptably evasive answer. “We were two parents who thought their son was going to die and we were tired and in shock and we just – ended up in bed.”
“It didn’t mean anything,” she said. “That’s what you’re saying. It was just human reaction to a near-tragedy.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’d put it that way,” he hedged. “Not precisely.”
“A coping mechanism,” she mused. “And then? All those other times?”
He rubbed his face, thinking. “I don’t know. I don’t – know. You were there and you didn’t say no. And somehow, that was enough.”
“Was it because of Lali?” she asked, leaning back against the sink, her face impassive. “Did she make you angry in some way?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“Because you only slept with her to get back at me. Pattern.”
“That’s not true,” he shot back. “She wasn’t just revenge.”
“You were in love with her?”
“Yes!” He faced her eyes squarely. “Yes.”
“And then you cheated on her with me. The woman you hated even if she was the mother of your son. The woman she hated. Thinking – knowing that I was sleeping with you for revenge. You did that to the woman you loved.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s complicated. I don’t know, dammit! I have no idea why I did any of those things. With you. I don’t know why it was you.”
“You know,” she said steadily.
He shook his head. She gazed at him in silence before she visibly reached a decision of some kind.
“I didn’t figure it out for a long time,” she continued in that calm little voice that never failed to drive him crazy when she sprung it on him. “I wouldn’t have figured it out at all if I hadn’t come across something of yours when I was cleaning out the house before the sale. Remember how I called you and told you to come pick up that box of things you’d left?”
Dev remembered it quite well. It had been around the time Anand had entered her life. Their lives. He’d somehow convinced Anita to sell the house that Dev had bought for her and get a place of her own. A fresh start. It was something Dev himself had suggested during the divorce but she’d accused him of trying to throw her out of the house and so he hadn’t said anything further on the subject.
He recalled a faint feeling of resentment – something about bloody Anand just ticked him off. Maybe it was that Zen-like calm that he carried around with him like some sort of comfort blanket when he wasn’t infecting others with it. And it didn’t help that one word from him could make Anita do things he had never been able to convince her to do, try as he might. Not even in the early days of their marriage when she’d been a lot more malleable than she was now at the age of 47.
There was something else about that whole house changing event that tugged at his memory but he couldn’t put a finger on it exactly.
“I remember,” he said aloud.
She nodded. “It was just little things. Mementos and tapes and things that you never got a chance to pack or forgot to pack or whatever. And a diary. A planner actually, not a diary. Do you remember that?”
And just like that, he remembered. Such an insignificant thing, really.
“Yes, I see you remember that too,” Anita said softly. “It didn’t have anything written in it. But there was a letter. From your old friend. The one who’d just gotten engaged to that model.”
“What about it?” he asked shortly.
She looked at him, head tilted to one side. “Did he make you feel old, Dev? Did I make you feel old?”
“Pop psychology,” he scoffed. “All these years I thought you’d understood – we just didn’t work out. And here you are.”
“Yes, here I am. And there you were – the father of a child, husband to a wife who was struggling to manage home and family with a demanding career of her own. I didn’t have any time for you, did I?”
“Ancient history,” he said impatiently.
“Yes.” She was quiet for a few moments. “But that’s not the whole story is it? You looked at me and all you could see was an adult. And you didn’t want it. You didn’t want to be that person in the mirror and I defined that man.”
“I was also a father,” he shot back. “And a damned good one. If I was trying to get away from my responsibilities then why just dump you? I’d have left him too.”
“You did,” she told him. “You left him with me. It took you a good year to come back to him.”
“That’s not true!”
“Isn’t it? That first year, you moved to another town, got a different job, married Lali, went on an extended honeymoon – how much time did you spend with him?”
“I came back,” he said after a while, his voice thick.
She nodded. “You came back.”
The emphasis on the middle word was subtle but he heard with the clarity of a thousand bells rung together. There was a buzzing sound in his ear. He shook his head.
“Are you saying – are you trying to tell me this whole thing – that it was all a midlife crisis?”
“Does it sound that simple?”
“Answer me dammit!” he shouted.
“I don’t know!”
“You sure seem to know a lot for someone who doesn’t know,” he said, his face ugly.
“I know you,” she whispered.
“Why did you sleep with me?” he asked suddenly.
“I thought you knew.”
“Why did you sleep with me?” he repeated.
“Because I wanted you.” She swallowed. “Because I loved you.”
He stared at her for one long second and then laughed, the sound of it harsh and loud. She flinched.
“Almost,” he said savagely. “You had me there – almost. Nearly pulled it off. But there’s a limit to how much even we puppets like to be managed.”
“You think I’m trying to manipulate you?”
“You love me?” he shot back. “You – love – me? You can’t stand me. I don’t what sick game these past few years have been about but I know one thing for sure and that’s how much you hate me.”
“I don’t hate you,” she whispered.
“If I was about to get run over, you’d pay the driver to back up and run me over a couple of extra times.”
“Is that what you think?”
“It’s what I know!”
“And you? What would you do if you saw me about to get run over?”
He stared at her, his eyes gleaming unnaturally bright in the late afternoon light streaming through the window. “I have to go,” he said at last.
“What would you do,” she asked softly, walking across the few feet that separated them, “if you saw me about to get run over, Dev?”
Suddenly his hands shot out, fingers digging into the soft flesh inside her upper arms. She bit her lip on a gasp of pain as his grip tightened mercilessly, his eyes drilling into hers. He shook her lightly, her face mere inches away from his. She could smell his cologne, the light lemony scent of him cut with the smoky undertones of the Scotch he’d been steadily consuming all day. His teeth were clenched tight as he brought her closer and closer, inch by slow, painful inch. Her lips parted as she struggled to breathe, forced to stand on her tiptoes as he pulled her up against him.
And then he was gone. Just like that. Just like always. Anita heard his footsteps, loud on the parquet floors, right before the front door slammed shut. She listened to its finality echoing through her house.