In a neighboring slum in Mumbai, the open stage is flooded with blue and green strobes. Rockstar Sweetie’s dazzling─tight golden pants and a matching unbuttoned jacket. Goggles and metallic chains. He calls Ajmera, my step-mother, on stage and together, they hip-hop on Bollywood duets. Ajmera stumbles in her high heels and Sweetie seizes her arm, keeps her upright. The rest of us sway like a slow night.
Ajmera is a thirty something homebody living with me after my father died. But here she’s radiant in a silver skirt and a busty green top─shimmies with Sweetie as if she’s a teenager like me and has never been touched.
Sweetie stays over for chicken curry and peppered rice, Ajmera’s specialty. His eyes─brown and shrunk, blink hard. There’s something girlish about his hair, long with bangs. Later, I wake up in the living room─dark and hot. When I walk outside, I can see through the bedroom’s open window. Ajmera’s naked, her legs wrapped around Sweetie. A flickering streetlight makes them appear and disappear. Lunge and hide.
Weeks later, I see an egg in the bedroom—oblong, off white.
“We need to throw it somewhere far away from here.” Ajmera stands next to me and presses the heel of her palms to her eyes. Blood trickles down her thighs. I open my mouth but words get lost─part fear, part disgust. That evening we walk silently past the railway tracks, past the sugar factory, leave the egg under a Banyan tree.
The next time, Sweetie stays for a whole month, inserts himself into our lives. He gets flowers and cosmetics for Ajmera, calls her Darling. I feel aroused and irritated as if those feelings are supposed to belong together.
At night I imagine Sweetie’s cool touch beating the stuffy humidity of the city and my body, dream about a heap of eggs on the outskirts of Mumbai, released into the sea: half-snake, half-human clones of Sweetie swimming back to the shore, winking at me.
Ajmera delivers another egg; her skin looks pale and wrung out, the white of her eyes shot through with tiny red veins.
“He’s cursed,” I warn her.
She smirks, her hands covered in soap foam, the water from the tap splashing from the surface of a dirty dish.
“You want him, don’t you?” She glances at me as we’re walking towards the banyan. “That forked tongue in your mouth, those slippery scales between your legs. A brand new body that emerges after shedding. Oh so sweet.”
Next few times when Sweetie’s around, I borrow backless blouses with mini-skirts from my friends, wear low cut tops and fitted jeans. Every time he kisses Ajmera, the heaviness in my chest grows; my eyes water.
One evening when Ajmera’s outside, Sweetie sits next to me while I’m watching TV and places his hand on my thigh. I go slippery inside. “You know what I’d like to do to you?” He removes his glasses, brings his face closer to mine. “I’d like to peel away that spotless skin of yours and wear it so it never sheds again.”
Ajmera feeds on her eggs. Sweetie’s recommendation. She looks slender, her face glows. And all I think is if Sweetie would have me once she’s gone. One late morning, I walk into the bedroom, quiet as a secret. Sweetie’s drunk from the previous night and snoring. Ajmera’s next to him, her fingers laced in his. When I place the curved blade against her neck, she jerks and breathes hard. The meat knife drops and I see her face─afraid, familiar─desperate to hold onto love. In a flash her body turns purple and then darker, narrows into a snake that slithers outside the window. Sweetie hisses, raises his hood. For the first time I see his body, like a long scar on a face, like a crack in the floor. “Wait,” I say and start crying but he lowers himself and follows her. Outside, the birds go crazy as if they’ve spotted danger. I close the window and lean against the wall with a memory of their presence, just empty, missing. Under the hot air circulating from a ceiling fan, a snakeskin trembles on the bed.
A Closed Circuit
My husband says I am out of love. He claims there is an empty space two fingers down my ribcage where love used to be. So he goes out with other women. When he returns: he cleans the house, puts on music, showers for long. His skin glows, his teeth shine. Sometimes my husband cries and talks in his sleep. I interlace my fingers with his and whisper, I understand. But he pulls away as if he can’t stand the vacuum that oozes out of me. Lying next to him I smell a woman I used to know but can’t recall her name. Was it Claire, Judy, Raina? Doesn’t matter, it makes me wild, it turns me on: this dream, a culmination of all the women he has loved. It fills the void, makes me giggle. My husband wakes up, presses his hand under my bust, feels the flutter and confesses he does it all for us: to feel this moment together.
Sometimes the dream rises like smoke from my husband’s cigarette, forms a funnel: a cone of faces revolving around him. Blondes, redheads and brunettes. Lost and beautiful. When my husband emerges, he looks brand new, a man ready to seduce again. He dyes his hair, wears contact lenses, and finds a different girl. Buys her expensive clothes and jewelry, slow dances with her until she cracks open like an egg, and spills her cravings in a cheap motel in the middle of nowhere. He brings her home. Together they watch movies, eat popcorn and fall asleep on the couch. I slip away, from the house into the streets and parks, washed in loneliness, sitting in my car, as the dusks flow into nights. My husband swears he never makes love to other women because he wants to stay loyal to me. Commitment is what we live for, he says. Eventually, the girl leaves him. Her scent, her longing to find true love, her wish to be remembered, all becomes a part of the dream.
The dream gets stronger, its grip tighter around our souls. A closed circuit.
My husband asserts he wants me to get better, to become a woman whose body is a large, beautiful bird: soft and accessible, whose heart explodes with love and understanding. The hope in his eyes makes me dizzy. I carve out cardboard wings, attach to my loose kaftan and flap in front of the mirror. I try to feel a movement in between my breath, a rush of color on my cheeks. Nothing. Usual rise and fall of my chest. Thump thump of my heart. The woman in the mirror raises an eyebrow at me. In the background, my husband winces.
Five weeks in a row, my husband gets red roses for the girl he is seeing. I soak in the warmth of their rich color that rises like a giant bubble and settles in the empty space inside me. I’m making progress, I exclaim but he doesn’t believe me. The dream is the cure, he says, running his fingers over a rosebud, tight and tender like a rolled tongue.
My husband takes a break between dating girls. Those nights are the hardest. I ask him about signs of love and his silence sweeps through me. As days go by, I feel less sure about who I am. He promises things will recover: one day, he’ll hold my hand for hours, paint my fingernails, massage my scalp, tongue-kiss between my legs, raise kids. The way he says this makes me believe it. Or want to.
Intermittently I worry if we’ll run out of girls, if my husband will no longer have the passion to fill my bareness. If I’ll never carry in my womb what I want to know about love, and pass it on. But he is always ready as if there is nothing else for him to do. As if finding another girl is as involuntary as his breathing. As if he needs the dream more than I do. As if I’m not the one out of love, I never was.