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The Night of the Righteous Cynic

A short story

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The Night of the Cynic

photo source: liam tandy on Flickr

People confuse me for a nervous, reticent introvert, except that I am neither timid nor tepid. It is not as if I have distaste for all humanity, but I just don’t like having to engage in small talk with complete strangers or phony, pretentious assholes. I strike up a repartee every now and then, but I have no patience for tittle-tattle, especially when it involves gabbing with condescending, quasi-intelligent bullshitters.

It is no surprise then that I don’t have many friends, but the few I do, I value them like life itself. So, if they invite me to a party, I go, even if I have to put up with unwanted company.

That explains why I end up at Vikas’ party. Vic and I go way back. He is like the brother that I never had, and Maya his wife, is a sweetheart, and as the current lot of mollycoddled children go, their two hyper-energetic brats are relatively tolerable, but as I look around, I begin to hate Vic for the type of company he keeps.

It starts off innocuously. I walk into their house, greet the few acquaintances I know of, settle into a corner with some chips and home-made salsa – Maya’s specialty, turn on the tv with volume turned off to a ball game — my usual routine at their parties.

“Jiten – Can you please handle Varun? I have some work in the kitchen.”
Maya shoves her 1 year old into my lap as she walks into the adjoining kitchen.

“Do I have to?”

“If you want to eat tonight – I am afraid, yes.”

“Where’s his over-pampered brother?”

“Sleepover at friends’.”

“Where’s your irresponsible husband?”

“Out to get some sweets.”

I play with Varun for a while. Cute kid, very restless, very inquisitive, constantly twisting and turning, eyes darting at the guests coming in, and occasionally lighting up with that look of recognition and an unspoken, universal connection when he makes eye contact with other children. I could never figure out why they are attracted to rhymes, animals and other humans of their age, even without enough cognition. Just the way nature works I presume, birds of same feather and all that.

——————–

Guests start trickling in. The living room gets fuller – still no sign of Ranjit, aka, Bobby. Not sure how Ranjit became Bobby, but we call him Bobby since we were kids. So do his parents. We grow up together, Bobby, Vic, and I.  We go to the same school in India.  Bobby and I get admitted to the same school for our Masters in the US, while Vic decides to pursue employment back home.  Eventually, we treat Second City like the Romans treated their not-so-eternal Eternal City and end up together.  Vic, while missing out on the experience of the higher education, still ends up first near downtown Chicago on work Visa and in the process remains a few dollars richer and fulfills an enforced obligation of sustaining us enlightened graduates till we make a buck or two on our own.

And so we reunite – Three amigos, together again!

A decade later, we are semi-established pros now, and live the desi legal immigrant dream of obedient assimilation.  We follow all rules diligently – civic, cultural, and legislative – all the traffic signs, all the traffic lights, the speed limits, the seat belts, the right turns, the left turns, the lane merges, the solid lines, the dotted lines, the how-are-you-doings, the have-a-nice-days, the thank-you-you-toos, the eyes on the prizes, the kneels down to the corporate kingdoms, the mental wanderlusts for weekends – the whole enchilada!

Another hour goes by. Varun gets cranky. His mom obviously forgets about him, you hear her yucking it up with her friends. Finally, Vic gets back with sweets from his favorite desi sweet shop nearby.

“Kyon Bhe Jitu? Do I have to call you? Don’t you check your emails?”

“Email? When?”

“Last night, before calling you about the party.”

“Oh, I don’t check emails after 5”

“But you carry a spiffy little IPhone. Don’t you have your mailbox setup with your email account?”

“Why would I want to?”

“So you can be in touch with your friends!”

“I leave that to the phone portion of the Iphone.”

“Uh! Nevermind.”

He walks away to play good-host with the rest of his guests, ignoring me and his kid from my outstretched arms. I am stuck with the toddler. Varun gets more and more fidgety, and the cuteness begins to wear off. Kids are like toys, great to play with occasionally when they are still happy and well behaved. As soon as they get restless and start going gonzo, it is time to get rid of them. It is always best when they are not your own, so you can dump them without any guilt.

——————–

Finally, Bobby walks in with his new fiancée.  After the perfunctory greetings, he strolls in and leans against the sidewall next to me.

“How are you doing Jitu?”

“Great, man.  You?”

“Awesome.”

Awesome?  He can’t be doing awesome when he went through a seemingly tough divorce not that long ago.  Then again, he is re-engaged within six months, so who knows?  I obviously don’t.

“How’s Anjali doing?”  Another rhetorical question about his new fiancée.  I could care less about Anjali.

“Very good.  She’s here, talking to Maya in the kitchen.”

“Have you heard from Swapna recently?”  I ask him about his ex-wife.  Unlike this new chic he is marrying, I do care about Swapna.

“No.”

“Is she coming to this party?”

“How do I know?”  I can tell Bobby is irritated, but I don’t give a hoot.  “I am not the one hosting the party.” He throws a fake smile at me.

I look at him like he is an idiot, because he is a certifiable shithead to let Swapna go.  Fact is, relationship with Bobby Bonehead is like an all-in-one packaged deal.  The package comes with easy charm and wit, a disarming and friendly presence, an easy-going and carefree attitude, a refusal to grow up and take responsibility, and a lack of keenness to acknowledge the sensibilities of others.  New acquaintances immediately gravitate to him.  It takes a while before you understand the whole deal.

It gets abnormally dark. I look out the adjacent window and see thick black clouds rolling in. I bring Varun’s attention to a stupid squirrel in the backyard, barking up a tall tree.

Seriously, is everything in this country super-sized? I don’t ever remember clouds being so low and so huge growing up and these squirrels here look more like cats back home. I am going on a backpacking trip through Yellow Stone next summer; I will not be surprised if I run into a mammoth during that trip.

Varun looks at the squirrel in amusement. That keeps him quiet for a few minutes. The clouds get darker. Rain looks imminent.  Bobby closes the shutters.  Varun looks at me with those wide, innocent eyes, trying to shove his fist into his tiny little mouth.  I have a soft corner for this kid.  He almost didn’t make it.  We were there that surreal night when Maya delivered him, two months prematurely.  We couldn’t believe it when Vic walked back to our waiting area and told us what the doctor’s message was – that not only the child’s life but also Maya’s life could be at risk, if they didn’t go for an abortion and pushed for a delivery.  It was like an opening scene from a bad Amitabh 70s flick where the hero is born under heavy duress but the mom has to die to setup a clichéd storyline.  Only difference here was it was all too real and Vic was staring down the barrel.  He had talked to Maya and she was very adamant about proceeding with the delivery.  It all worked out in the end.  Varun came out barely breathing, relegated to a pediatric infibrillator for a while, and more than compensating for it since, but his arrival remains ever-memorable amidst extreme anxiety, apprehension and distress.  It still remains the only time I ever saw Vic cry, and still etched in my memory is the sight of Swapna, sitting next to Bobby, and sobbing her eyeballs out like she was about to lose her own child.

I get this sudden urge to punch Bobby in the face.

Even an unapologetic cynic like me realizes the world would be even more of a shithole than it is without people like Swapna.

Who in his right mind alienates a girl like that?  She is one of us.  She has always been one of us.

She started her Masters the same semester as we did.  I met her first during our student orientation.  She hung out with Bobby and I and our little coterie, she got our jokes and jibes, tolerated our male slobbery, bailed us out in group studies, went to movies with us, even cooked our share of food for those summer desi potlucks, and most importantly, she genuinely enjoyed our company.  I always liked Swapna.  She liked bantering with me, but she really liked hanging out with Bobby.  They were smitten by each other.  I remember the evening when we were walking back to our room; Bobby made that announcement to me, stargazing into the sky,

“I am in love, Jitu.”

“With yourself?  I know.”

“No, with Swapna.”

It was the worst kept secret in our circle.

“Have you talked to her about it?”

“Yes.”

“How are you coping with the rejection?”

“No man, she is ecstatic.  We are going to be engaged.”

“You proposed?”

“Yes.  We are calling our parents to let them know tonight.”

“You want me to talk to Uncle and Aunty?” I volunteer to break the news to their parents, if needed.

“Not sure how they are going to take it man.  I might need you to soften them up if I run into any issues.”

Wouldn’t have been the first time, but as it turns out, it wasn’t necessary.

“She’s a good girl.  Not sure what she sees in you, but I am happy for both of you.  Congratulations!”

“Thanks buddy!”

And so, a few months later, just before our graduation, they get married.

Their parents were apprehensive, but not against their decision, and after seeing the two together, they were ecstatic.  They saw what everyone that is not blind could tell, Bobby and Swapna were made for each other.

For the next decade that blazed by us in Chicago, they look the perfect couple.  The winds of trouble sweep in swiftly.  The many times we get together during that time, I fail to catch any noticeable strain in their relationship pointing to the impending breakup.  Obviously, they hide it well.  The once inseparable pair become so insufferable together that they decide to break it up once and for all about six months ago as Bobby drops the proverbial bomb on us that they are both filing for a divorce.  He says they have irreconcilable personal differences and that they both agree that this is their best recourse and it will not be acrimonious.

Imbecile dweeb!  Irreconcilable personal differences?  Who does he think he is?  Did he pick that up from the released statement of one of those Hollywood movie star breakups?  To hell with him!

He never expounds why, and neither do I probe, and for the first time in my life, uneasy grime contaminates my pristine universe, with an unsettling awkwardness beneath the pretentious normalcy.

——————–

There’s lightening in the distance now. Maya comes back to take Varun away.

“Hey Maya, do you know if Swapna is joining us tonight?” I ask.

“She wasn’t sure if she can make it.  She said she will try.”  She goes back into the kitchen, taking Varun with her.

Bobby hangs with the kids immersed in the world of video games, pretending he is not interested in what Maya has to say.

“Boss, can you flip the channel to Fox News?” says the guy on a nearby sofa next to me.

One too many Chicago style deep dish pizzas for this cat!  He looks as wide as he is tall and he is not very tall.

I flip the channel to Fox News.  A hot blonde with heavy makeup wearing an extremely short skirt is critiquing ObamaCare.  The fatso next to me giggles something to a studious looking character wearing glasses to his side.

The Studious Dude is apparently a fan of Rupert Murdoch.  He nods his head approvingly.

“Rupert Murdoch knows how to package things eh.”

“I’ll say.”  Deep Dish giggles.

“Look at what he is doing with Fox Sports.  NFL on Fox is the best.”

“Fox Sports?  Look at what he is doing to News.  Watching news has never been this exciting.”

“Their ratings are sky-rocketing.”

“As well they should.”  Deep Dish giggles again and turns to me with an invitation to join the Fox Fan Club.

I smile and throw the tv remote on to his lap.

“All yours.”

In the meanwhile, there is commotion near Bobby.  Many little dweebs hover around a teenage dweeb, son of the Studious Dude, who has apparently mastered some video game on his PSP.

He puts on a show for his fans, Bobby included, feverishly clicking away with his soon-to-be-arthritic little fingers with all the wide-eyed future gamers gaping in wonder at his wizardry.

I stare at them and shudder at the look of a whole new generation of future desi dweebs.

Deep Dish hops through a few news channels and settles on a Mitt Romney campaign speech on one of them.

“Boss, this guy will raise more money than Obama.”

Studious Dude gives him an all-knowing glance.

“They will be close.  It’s all about the party committees and Super PACs these days, hunting for more donors and more money.”

“I wonder if him being a mourmon will come back to bite him.”

“Always a risk.”

Ah yes, the surreal state of presidential politics and what we look for in our leaders.

Deep Dish and Studious Dude drawl on and on about the candidates’ family background, religious background, racial background, blue states, red states, campaign moneys and campaign strategies.  They seem to know a lot about it, but not once do I hear them talk about where either candidate stands on key issues that affect them and their PSP-driven dweebs directly like education, health care, economy, immigration and taxes.

Imbecile dweebs!

They are lapping up the superficial, substance-less servings from the media outlets.  We watch CNN where political experts draw out fancy charts and cool graphics explaining how each candidate is likely to fair in each state, and how they are targeting the Hispanic vote, Black vote, Asian vote, Women vote, the Gradma vote, the Grandpa vote, and any other vote you can think of.  You can hardly find a station that focusses on issues, stands and candidate plans, validation of these plans and the resulting impacts.  That would be too boring.  Instead, let’s sit back and enjoy the entertainment value these elections provide.

Anjali, Bobby’s new fiancée, tracks him down among the kids in the living room.

“Ranjit, the food’s ready.  If you can eat now, we can still stop by the mall on the way back.”

“We’ll shop  tomorrow.”

She sits in a chair in the far corner of the room in the little dweeb playground along with her would-be.

There’s something wrong with that picture, but to hell with them.  We may have exchanged a grand total of four hellos combined through similar meetings such as todays.  So, when she completely ignores me, I feel relieved and not insulted.

I would much rather discuss with Deep Dish and Studious Dude, what Romney and Obama are wearing during their campaigns, and how that appeals to the 40-50 Asian Indian demographics in the MidWest.

Just before the rain starts to pour in, to my pleasant surprise, Swapna arrives.  She waves at me, walks into the kitchen with some food she brought with her.

Vic pokes me from behind.

“Food’s ready.  Help yourself.  Bobby, food’s ready.  Those video games can wait.”

“Did you cook any of it?” I ask Vic.

“Those sweets you see over there.”

“Didn’t know you worked part-time on Devon Street”

“The way economy is going, you need a backup plan.”

 ——————–

As we go back into the kitchen to get some food, I see Swapna playing with Varun.

“Swapnajeee!”

“Jitujeee!”.

That’s our normal greeting, but I sense a somber tone to her response.

“How are you doing?”

“Getting by. You?”

“Livin’ la vida loca”

I caught her listening to Ricky Martin before one of our study group sessions in college and she never heard the end of it since.

She smiles and brings sunshine with it.

She should be smiling and laughing all the time.  Damn it Bobby!  Imbecile dweeb!

“Do you even know the meaning of it?”

“No, are you suggesting I shouldn’t say it if I don’t understand what it means?  Get out of here.  What planet are you from?”

“Ok, please don’t go off on one of your rants now.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about?”

“Yes you do.  All those diatribes about how the world is falling apart.”

She puts on a brave face, but the world must be falling apart for the poor girl.

“Gosh golly Swapna, I am the most optimistic person in the world.”

“Yeah right, and Ricky Martin has talent too.”

“Touche!  Let me finish my dinner here and I can catch up with you.”

I turn towards the food.

“Jitu, I’d like a chat with you before I leave.”

I sense some apprehension in her tone.

“Sure, I’ll stop by.”

I get back to the living room and see all the seats being occupied by the little dweebs intently watching the little dweeb cartoons on the tube.

I walk into the entrance room and join Bobby, Vic and Maya in the middle of their dinner.

“Should I bring some food over in this room?” asks Maya.

“Don’t worry Maya.  We’ll help ourselves.” says Vic.

“So, did this guy help you at all with any of this?”  I point to the food on my plate.

“Vic?  No!  He claims he is an awful cook.”

“You know that’s just a lazy excuse.  Cooking is not an art like everyone makes it out to be.  All it takes is attention to detail and a desire to get it right.”

“Hey now, I helped!  Who tasted all these items?”

“Yes, he is good at that.” confirms Maya.

“That’s what Bobby was good for, when we were roommates.” I point to Bobby.

“I tried man.  You know I tried.”

“Hey Bobby, you know I am not good at beating around the bush, so I am going to come out and ask.”

Bobby puts his fork down.

“Ok man, shoot.”

“Are you sure you know what you are doing?”

“Is this about Swapna?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, I thought I made it clear that we both know what we are doing.”

“She’s a good, decent human being.  Are you sure you couldn’t work it out together?  You were practically made for each other.”

Bobby gets annoyed again.

“We just want different things at this stage of our lives.  If it makes it convenient for you to accept it by painting me as a bad guy, go ahead, but you always lived in an over-simplified black and white world.”

“Why do you hate her?”

“I don’t hate her.”

“Really?  Then why the hell are you not talking to her?  Why do you both continue to avoid each other?”

“That should be obvious to you man.”

“If you are intent on avoiding any sort of an explanation, just ask me to shut up.  I won’t bother you again.”

“Jitu man, you live in a dream world where everything is cut and dry, no grey areas, only good and bad and angels and demons.  You want everything around you to fit in this world of yours.  It doesn’t work that way.  Each one of us lives in our own version of that dream.  In Swapna’s case, we have a couple of kids, a big dog, a pet parrot, a fish tank, a house with a flower garden and a big sprawling lawn, immaculately maintained.. you know, and we are characters in one of those National Association of Realtors ad pimping house ownership and family life.  Reality is, I am not ready for it yet.  Actually, we are not ready for it yet.”

“God Bobby, you are not starving, you guys got married when you were fresh out of college, totally broke, without a penny in your pockets, and without a place to stay.  Yet, you managed it fine.”

“You are just like her man.  She thinks we can manage just because we managed to eke out a living for ten years.  Look at where I am a decade later.  Still an unstable job, shipped around constantly in the consulting world, always worried about where I might end up next even before I am done with my active engagement, worried about when I am going to get fired if I stay on the bench for too long – tell me how is that an ideal situation for raising a new born?  Plus, I freaking hate the winters here.  I don’t want to buy a house in this market and watch it turn into an albatross around my neck without being able to sell it if I need to get out of town.  But she doesn’t get all that, never really seriously tried to.”

“Look at Vic and Maya here.  They’ve managed.  Looking around, I’d say they are doing pretty good.  You can’t put your life on hold until you win a lottery.  There’s no such thing as a totally stable situation.”

“Leave me out of your debates Jitu.  I am not the one pestering him about his divorce.”  Vic objects.

“So, you are ok with what’s happening!”

“Do I think it sucks?  Of course I do, but all of this is beyond my control.  I know it is hard for you to accept, but you have to trust the fact that Bobby is a fully functional adult who can make his own choices and live with the consequences.”

Bobby nods his head up and down like a bobblehead whose spring is about to come unglued.

“No offense man Jitu, but what do you know about relationships?  Have you ever had one long enough to even understand what it takes to live long enough with someone else?”

“No, I don’t know anything about it.  That’s why I am asking.  Trust me, if this was that Anjali girl you are engaged to right now that you divorced, I would have patted you on the back and congratulated you.  But this is Swapna we are talking about, you know, the same girl from your college days that sat by your bedside for 2 nights to take care of you, brought you meds, made you food, even did your freaking laundry, when you were knocked out practically unconscious by a flu bug in the middle of a nasty winter.”

“You are only interested in a wicked retort for everything, but people are never the same man.  You are not the same guy that you were from the college days and neither are Swapna and I.  You want to live in the past, fine, don’t expect everyone to do the same.”

“That’s fine dude.  As long as you can sleep well in the night, you don’t have to answer to me or anyone else.”

“Hey, you think this is easy on me or Swapna?  You don’t think we argued about this enough?  We lived together for 10 years.  You don’t think a decision to split apart tugs at our hearts.  It absolutely does, but thats life.  You have to move on.  We went through our rough patch, made our decisions and we both moved on.  I am at peace with it.  Right now, I am not thinking about this as much as I am about my future with Anjali.  No offense man, but I am not looking for your approval here.  I would love to have your support because you always stood behind me, but I am not changing my mind because you disapprove.  This isn’t first grade anymore. ”

So, Bobby Bonehead is all grown up right under my nose and I never even noticed it!

He wasn’t done yet.

“In fact man, while we are on the topic of taking responsibilities for our choices, what the hell are you doing with your life?  Can you explain that?”

“Bobby has a point Jitu.  What the heck are you doing?  Why aren’t you settled down?  You are no spring chicken anymore, and it’s not as if you are putting yourself out there among active singles.  Heck, do you even know how to text using your phone?”

Maya giggles.  I feel like I am sucker-punched, Bobby and Vic suddenly gang up against me.  I hate their freaking guts.

“I am waiting for my soul mate to show up on my doorstep, or maybe I’ll come out of the closet soon and announce that I am a homosexual.  Come to think of it, that fat dude that was sitting next to me looks kinda cute.  Can you get me his number?”

“That’s Dinesh. He’s not available. He’s happily married with two children.”  Maya was amused, but Vic wasn’t.

It feels like they’ve planned this counter-attack very well.

“You and your wisecracks! You can pull one out of your ass anytime you need it, but we ask you a straight forward question, and you can’t provide a straight forward answer.”

“This was never about me. It was about Bobby and Swapna.”

“Leave them alone for a second, what about you?”

“I am a single man, a very content one at that, who enjoys everything that the world around me has to offer without being tied down by meaningless social constraints or structures.  What’s wrong with that?”

“How long do you intend to live this lifestyle?”

“Lifestyle is a big word for it, but does it matter?  Do you always have to plan for the future.  What happened to living in the present?”

“If you continue this, you will die lonely and desolate.”

“Under all this fuss and feathers, when you die, you die Vic.  Why do you want to drag the ones close to you through that pathetic, useless state?  Are you telling me you seek pleasure in making your loved ones share some of your pain and misery of those final days?”

“You are incorrigible yaar!  I can’t argue with you.  Keep this in mind though.  You are old before you know it.  Heck, you are already old.  You may not admit it, but without someone to share your life with, that loneliness will consume you.  You still have time to fix it, do it before it is too late!”

“You should be posting to those dating services.” Maya chips in eagerly, “Do you want me to register for you?”

“Thanks, but please don’t do that.”

“Are you on Facebook man?”  Bobby asked.

“No, growing up, we didn’t have the concept of facebooks in our school.  You should know, you went to the same school.”

“You think you are so smart man, but you don’t fool anyone.  I can see through you.”

“Ok Bobby, why don’t you tell me what you see?”

“You are the biggest coward I’ve ever met man.  You plot your philosophies to cover up the fact that you are too afraid, too afraid to face the consequences of tough life choices, like falling in love, fighting through acceptance and rejections, asking for someone’s help to navigate your way through life, or bringing up a family.  Instead, you live behind the façade of some cynical bullshit.  You expect everything around you to be perfect, but you don’t want to do anything about it yourself.  You want everything in life to be neat and tidy, and don’t want to deal with it if gets messy, but life is sloppy and scuzzy and confusing and complex, and with your fear, you will always stay out of it.  You may spend a lot of time on this earth and die like the rest of us, but you would have never lived a life.  You know that saying about dying to live or living to die, you are a perfect example of living to die man, perfect example.”

Not sure if it was frustration from me needling him about Swapna or years of pent up resentment from my barbs, Bobby delivers the knockout punch.

Who needs a psychiatrist when you have friends like this?

I don’t have a response.  I don’t feel like providing one anymore.  I suddenly feel claustrophobic and get this urge to step out and get some air, but I dislike dramatic exits.  I start gobbling the remaining food on my plate so I can excuse myself.

“You don’t have to be mean Bobby!”  Maya interjects.

“Sorry man!  I didn’t mean to come out so strong.  I don’t know what I was saying; I didn’t mean anything by it anyway.”

I sense an impending doom of awkwardness coming, but perhaps for the first time in my life, suffer through a momentary loss of resourcefulness.

I finally recover after an awkward pause.

“No big deal dude.  Never apologize for telling what you believe is the truth.  If you can excuse me now, I have to go find a pet adoption center for some kitten.”

I get up with the emptied paper plate and pat him on the back on the way to the garbage can in the kitchen.

I see Swapna still playing with Varun, surrounded by a few more little dweebs.

“I feel like getting some air.  Actually, I am planning to get out of here.  Can we chat outside?”

“Only reason I stuck around was because I needed to talk to you.”

“OK then, let me say bye to Maya.”

I clean up, get some water and we both proceed to say good bye.

Maya insists on me staying longer.

“What’s the urgency?  Stick around.  We can watch a movie like the last time.”

“I’d love to, but I have to run some errands.  Where are Bobby and Vic?”

“They are hanging out on the deck.”

“Say bye for me, I’ll call them later.”

“OK, don’t wait for our invitation to stop by again.  Just swing by any time you are in the neighborhood.  Same goes to you Swapna.  You should stop by more often.”

We step out the front door into a fresh night.  The rains have passed us by and we walk back to our cars under a clear fall sky.

  ——————–

“Swapna, you still drink Coffee?”

“Yes, why?”

“There’s a Caribou Coffee couple of blocks south of here on Belmont.  Can you drive down there?”

“Sure, I will meet you there.”

As we drive down to the cafe, I wonder about what’s on Swapna’s mind.  She never made eye contact with Anjali and Bobby throughout the night, must have been really awkward for her to try and avoid them all night.  Not showing up would have been a much easier option.

We pick up our coffee and settle into the corner of the sparsely populated room.

“How are you doing Jitu?  How has your day gone so far?”

“Phenomenal.  You know, just another day in paradise.  How about you?”

“Not so phenomenal. “

“I know something is bothering you.”

“You mean beyond the lousiness of my divorce?”

“Yes, beyond the lousiness of your divorce and the awkwardness in that uncomfortable party.”

She circles her middle finger around the coffee cup, and notices me staring at her ring finger where the marks from her wedding ring she ones wore are still fresh.

“Luckily, I will not be attending any more of those uncomfortable parties.”

“I don’t blame you.  I will throw cool parties with cakes and clowns just for you, and we don’t have to invite the shady characters that you don’t talk to.”

She smiles, and it is still the same smile, a smile that can light up a room.

“Cakes and clowns?  That’s a bit creepy.”

“Oh come on!  We can throw in a few balloons, and add a few cocktails and add some Ricky Martin music – that would be perfect.”

She cracks up.

“Now you’re talking.  But you don’t have to. I will not be attending your parties either.”

“That hurts me.”

“No, Jitu, I took a new job out of town.  I am leaving next weekend.”

All remaining life gets sucked out of my soul.

“Out of town?  Where?”

“San Diego.”

The vacuum digs deeper.  San Diego?  She really wants to run far far away from us.

“You are going to miss the wonderful winters here for some lousy 70 degree weather over there?”

“Yeah, I’ll manage.”

“So you showed up to say goodbye?”

“Yes.”

“But you didn’t tell anyone.”

“I am telling you now.”

The sick feeling in the stomach becomes worse.

“You are going to desert us?”

“Jitu, I am choking to death.”

“I never saw this coming.  Between Bobby and you, there should be no differences wide enough to pull you apart like this.”

“But Bobby feels he is stuck in mud, and he wants me to wait until he wiggles out of it and builds his utopian palace in the NeverNeverLand.  I am not interested in his palace.  Wherever we are, however we are doing, I want to enjoy a normal life with a loving husband, a decent house and lovable kids.  There is no such thing as a normal life with Bobby.  Bobby is always interested in the next big thing, and is incapable of enjoying the ride.  I guess he was always like this.  Even on those long summer road trips, the entire conversation was about how anything we do on the way would delay the time of arrival, his entire focus would be on how to get there faster, and once we get there it’s the same thing all over again.  He is incapable of stopping and smelling the roses.  I tried so hard, but unless it is his idea, anything anyone else has to say is in one ear out the other.  I probably sound like your stereotypical whining housewife to you, don’t I?”

“I wouldn’t know much about your stereotypical housewives, but I would never associate you with anything stereotypical.”

“I am in my 30s, I don’t have any kids and you know how much I love kids, and Bobby seems to be totally uninterested in parenting.  He uses his perceived job instability as a clutch anytime I bring up the topic, and after a lengthy argument one night, I woke up the next day and  realized the insanity of expecting him to change to see my point of view, because at the end of the day, a Tiger doesn’t change his stripes.  All of this would be so much easier if I hated him from the bottom of my heart.”

It probably doesn’t make it any easy on her that Bobby is seemingly over her so quickly and re-engaged to another girl.  I’d give them a year, year and a half most.

Swapna held up pretty well so far, at least publicly in the few times we met at such parties after their divorce.  But her voice begins to crack and she gazes down into the coffee cup to pull back the tears welling up.

“Jitu, you know him since childhood.  You understand what I am saying, right?”

“Of course I do.  Only difference between you and I is I am too self-centered to bother whether he listens to me or not, and I don’t give a shit if he doesn’t.  I guess that attitude doesn’t work for your marriage, eh?”

She shakes her head sideways and makes a feeble attempt to smile.

“I tell you what Swapna, if I didn’t know Bobby at all, and got to know him now, I would stay away from him just like I stay away from all the assholes of the world, and the world is full of them by the way.”

“Jitu, no rants please, not now.”

“What I am trying to say is, you don’t pick and choose your friends, they just happen, like life itself.  You don’t have a choice after that.  You try to enjoy their company, and you put up with their miserable inadequacies, debilities, whatever you want to call them.  Bobby will always be my friend, but so will you.  Marriage is a different beast altogether, and I stay away from that hypocritical charade, no offense.  But, just because that bonehead doesn’t deserve you, you don’t have to leave. You have many friends and well-wishers here in the ChicagoLand.  In time, you will get over him, and live your own life.  You don’t have to leave on account of him.  He doesn’t deserve such attention.”

“I don’t have many friends here, Bobby does.  Of course, I’ve always looked at Bobby’s friends as mine, but now it is different.  How many times will I meet with Maya and Vic without Bobby being there?  Even if I do, they act as constant reminders of him.”

I look into her eyes, and beneath the sadness and tears, I still see the kindness that defines her.  You look for all the different aspects of a person’s character, and to me, kindness trumps them all, and a person that embodies it is a special human being to be cherished.   Amidst all the disruptive forces of aggression and human proclivity for domination, the one remarkable balancing feature of our species that binds us together is kindness.  And I see that kindness in her actions, her every move, her very demeanor, and her core being, and I wonder why Bobby can’t see it.  Am I the only one who notices it and admires it?  Has the world gone blind?

“Swapna, you know I am here for you.  Don’t insult me by calling me a friend by allegiance.”

“No!  I don’t know what I would have done without you.  All these people and all these memories strangle the life out of me, but you are the one reason I’ve managed to survive so far.  Thank you.”

I don’t need her to thank me.  I need her to stay.

Tears swell up again in her eyes.

The cafe attendant stops by to remind us they are ready to close.

We get up and walk out to her car.  I give her a goodbye hug.

“When is your flight?  Let me drive you to the airport.”

“Next Saturday.  I’ll send you the flight times.  Can you please let Bobby and everyone else know, on my behalf?  I wanted to, but I couldn’t muster enough courage to do it myself.”

“To hell with Bobby and to hell with them all.”

“Jitu, I worry about you.  How long are you going to keep this up?”

“Keep what up?”

“This pseudo act of playing the villain.  You are not very good at it.  The fake rage, that edgy persona you try to adopt to protect against getting hurt, all of that.  How much longer?”

“What a night!  First Bobby calls me a coward.  Now you call me a fake.  Let me ask someone who actually hates my guts.  They might thrown in a compliment.”

“If you wear a mask for too long, it becomes a part of your face.  I worry that if you continue like this, this mask will become you.”

“Then, don’t leave!”

She begins to weep again,

“It’s too late.  That’s what I’ve been trying to explain…. apologize… to you.  Sorry…. I have to.”

It’s never too late damn it! Never!

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The Night of the Righteous Cynic

A short story

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The Night of the Cynic

photo source: liam tandy on Flickr

People confuse me for a nervous, reticent introvert, except that I am neither timid nor tepid. It is not as if I have distaste for all humanity, but I just don’t like having to engage in small talk with complete strangers or phony, pretentious assholes. I strike up a repartee every now and then, but I have no patience for tittle-tattle, especially when it involves gabbing with condescending, quasi-intelligent bullshitters.

It is no surprise then that I don’t have many friends, but the few I do, I value them like life itself. So, if they invite me to a party, I go, even if I have to put up with unwanted company.

That explains why I end up at Vikas’ party. Vic and I go way back. He is like the brother that I never had, and Maya his wife, is a sweetheart, and as the current lot of mollycoddled children go, their two hyper-energetic brats are relatively tolerable, but as I look around, I begin to hate Vic for the type of company he keeps.

It starts off innocuously. I walk into their house, greet the few acquaintances I know of, settle into a corner with some chips and home-made salsa – Maya’s specialty, turn on the tv with volume turned off to a ball game — my usual routine at their parties.

“Jiten – Can you please handle Varun? I have some work in the kitchen.”
Maya shoves her 1 year old into my lap as she walks into the adjoining kitchen.

“Do I have to?”

“If you want to eat tonight – I am afraid, yes.”

“Where’s his over-pampered brother?”

“Sleepover at friends’.”

“Where’s your irresponsible husband?”

“Out to get some sweets.”

I play with Varun for a while. Cute kid, very restless, very inquisitive, constantly twisting and turning, eyes darting at the guests coming in, and occasionally lighting up with that look of recognition and an unspoken, universal connection when he makes eye contact with other children. I could never figure out why they are attracted to rhymes, animals and other humans of their age, even without enough cognition. Just the way nature works I presume, birds of same feather and all that.

——————–

Guests start trickling in. The living room gets fuller – still no sign of Ranjit, aka, Bobby. Not sure how Ranjit became Bobby, but we call him Bobby since we were kids. So do his parents. We grow up together, Bobby, Vic, and I.  We go to the same school in India.  Bobby and I get admitted to the same school for our Masters in the US, while Vic decides to pursue employment back home.  Eventually, we treat Second City like the Romans treated their not-so-eternal Eternal City and end up together, with Vic, while missing out on the experience of the higher education, still ends up first near downtown Chicago on work Visa and in the process remains a few dollars richer and fulfills an enforced obligation of sustaining us enlightened graduates till we make a buck or two on our own.

And so we reunite – Three amigos, together again!

A decade later, we are semi-established pros now, and live the desi legal immigrant dream of obedient assimilation.  We follow all rules diligently – civic, cultural, and legislative – all the traffic signs, all the traffic lights, the speed limits, the seat belts, the right turns, the left turns, the lane merges, the solid lines, the dotted lines, the how-are-you-doings, the have-a-nice-days, the thank-you-you-toos, the eyes on the prizes, the kneels down to the corporate kingdoms, the mental wanderlusts for weekends – the whole enchilada!

Another hour goes by. Varun gets cranky. His mom obviously forgets about him, you hear her yucking it up with her friends. Finally, Vic gets back with sweets from his favorite desi sweet shop nearby.

“Kyon Bhe Jitu? Do I have to call you? Don’t you check your emails?”

“Email? When?”

“Last night, before calling you about the party.”

“Oh, I don’t check emails after 5”

“But you carry a spiffy little IPhone. Don’t you have your mailbox setup with your email account?”

“Why would I want to?”

“So you can be in touch with your friends!”

“I leave that to the phone portion of the Iphone.”

“Uh! Nevermind.”

He walks away to play good-host with the rest of his guests, ignoring me and his kid from my outstretched arms. I am stuck with the toddler. Varun gets more and more fidgety, and the cuteness begins to wear off. Kids are like toys, great to play with occasionally when they are still happy and well behaved. As soon as they get restless and start going gonzo, it is time to get rid of them. It is always best when they are not your own, so you can dump them without any guilt.

——————–

Finally, Bobby walks in with his new fiancée.  After the perfunctory greetings, he strolls in and leans against the sidewall next to me.

“How are you doing Jitu?”

“Great, man.  You?”

“Awesome.”

Awesome?  He can’t be doing awesome when he went through a seemingly tough divorce not that long ago.  Then again, he is re-engaged within six months, so who knows?  I obviously don’t.

“How’s Anjali doing?”  Another rhetorical question about his new fiancée.  I could care less about Anjali.

“Very good.  She’s here, talking to Maya in the kitchen.”

“Have you heard from Swapna recently?”  I ask him about his ex-wife.  Unlike this new chic he is marrying, I do care about Swapna.

“No.”

“Is she coming to this party?”

“How do I know?”  I can tell Bobby is irritated, but I don’t give a hoot.  “I am not the one hosting the party.” He throws a fake smile at me.

I look at him like he is an idiot, because he is a certifiable shithead to let Swapna go.  Fact is, relationship with Bobby Bonehead is like an all-in-one packaged deal.  The package comes with easy charm and wit, a disarming and friendly presence, an easy-going and carefree attitude, a refusal to grow up and take responsibility, and a lack of keenness to acknowledge the sensibilities of others.  New acquaintances immediately gravitate to him.  It takes a while before you understand the whole deal.

It gets abnormally dark. I look out the adjacent window and see thick black clouds rolling in. I bring Varun’s attention to a stupid squirrel in the backyard, barking up a tall tree.

Seriously, is everything in this country super-sized? I don’t ever remember clouds being so low and so huge growing up and these squirrels here look more like cats back home. I am going on a backpacking trip through Yellow Stone later this summer; I will not be surprised if I run into a mammoth during that trip.

Varun looks at the squirrel in amusement. That keeps him quiet for a few minutes. The clouds get darker. Rain looks imminent.  Bobby closes the shutters.  Varun looks at me with those wide, innocent eyes, trying to shove his fist into his tiny little mouth.  I have a soft corner for this kid.  He almost didn’t make it.  We were there that surreal night when Maya delivered him, two months prematurely.  We couldn’t believe it when Vic walked back to our waiting area and told us what the doctor’s message was – that not only the child’s life but also Maya’s life could be at risk, if they didn’t go for an abortion and pushed for a delivery.  It was like an opening scene from a bad Amitabh 70s flick where the hero is born under heavy duress but the mom has to die to setup a clichéd storyline.  Only difference here was it was all too real and Vic was staring down the barrel.  He had talked to Maya and she was very adamant about proceeding with the delivery.  It all worked out in the end.  Varun came out barely breathing, relegated to a pediatric infibrillator for a while, and more than compensating for it since, but his arrival remains ever-memorable amidst extreme anxiety, apprehension and distress.  It still remains the only time I ever saw Vic cry, and still etched in my memory is the sight of Swapna, sitting next to Bobby, and sobbing her eyeballs out like she was about to lose her own child.

I get this sudden urge to punch Bobby in the face.

Even an unapologetic cynic like me realizes the world would be even more of a shithole than it is without people like Swapna.

Who in his right mind alienates a girl like that?  She is one of us.  She has always been one of us.

She started her Masters the same semester as we did.  I met her first during our student orientation.  She hung out with Bobby and I and our little coterie, she got our jokes and jibes, tolerated our male slobbery, bailed us out in group studies, went to movies with us, even cooked our share of food for those summer desi potlucks, and most importantly, she genuinely enjoyed our company.  I always liked Swapna.  She liked bantering with me, but she really liked hanging out with Bobby.  They were smitten by each other.  I remember the evening when we were walking back to our room; Bobby made that announcement to me, stargazing into the sky,

“I am in love, Jitu.”

“With yourself?  I know.”

“No, with Swapna.”

It was the worst kept secret in our circle.

“Have you talked to her about it?”

“Yes.”

“How are you coping with the rejection?”

“No man, she is ecstatic.  We are going to be engaged.”

“You proposed?”

“Yes.  We are calling our parents to let them know tonight.”

“You want me to talk to Uncle and Aunty?” I volunteer to break the news to their parents, if needed.

“Not sure how they are going to take it man.  I might need you to soften them up if I run into any issues.”

Wouldn’t have been the first time, but as it turns out, it wasn’t necessary.

“She’s a good girl.  Not sure what she sees in you, but I am happy for both of you.  Congratulations!”

“Thanks buddy!”

And so, a few months later, just before our graduation, they get married.

Their parents were apprehensive, but not against their decision, and after seeing the two together, they were ecstatic.  They saw what everyone that is not blind could tell, Bobby and Swapna were made for each other.

For the next decade that blazed by us in Chicago, they look the perfect couple.  The winds of trouble sweep in swiftly.  The many times we get together during that time, I fail to catch any noticeable strain in their relationship pointing to the impending breakup.  Obviously, they hide it well.  The once inseparable pair become so insufferable together that they decide to break it up once and for all about six months ago as Bobby drops the proverbial bomb on us that they are both filing for a divorce.  He says they have irreconcilable personal differences and that they both agree that this is their best recourse and it will not be acrimonious.

Imbecile dweeb!  Irreconcilable personal differences?  Who does he think he is?  Did he pick that up from the released statement of one of those Hollywood movie star breakups?  To hell with him!

He never expounds why, and neither do I probe, and for the first time in my life, uneasy grime contaminates my pristine universe, with an unsettling awkwardness beneath the pretentious normalcy.

——————–

There’s lightening in the distance now. Maya comes back to take Varun away.

“Hey Maya, do you know if Swapna is joining us tonight?” I ask.

“She wasn’t sure if she can make it.  She said she will try.”  She goes back into the kitchen, taking Varun with her.

Bobby hangs with the kids immersed in the world of video games, pretending he is not interested in what Maya has to say.

“Boss, can you flip the channel to Fox News?” says the guy on a nearby sofa next to me.

One too many Chicago style deep dish pizzas for this cat!  He looks as wide as he is tall and he is not very tall.

I flip the channel to Fox News.  A hot blonde with heavy makeup wearing an extremely short skirt is critiquing ObamaCare.  The fatso next to me giggles something to a studious looking character wearing glasses to his side.

The Studious Dude is apparently a fan of Rupert Murdoch.  He nods his head approvingly.

“Rupert Murdoch knows how to package things eh.”

“I’ll say.”  Deep Dish giggles.

“Look at what he is doing with Fox Sports.  NFL on Fox is the best.”

“Fox Sports?  Look at what he is doing to News.  Watching news has never been this exciting.”

“Their ratings are sky-rocketing.”

“As well they should.”  Deep Dish giggles again and turns to me with an invitation to join the Fox Fan Club.

I smile and throw the tv remote on to his lap.

“All yours.”

In the meanwhile, there is commotion near Bobby.  Many little dweebs hover around a teenage dweeb, son of the Studious Dude, who has apparently mastered some video game on his PSP.

He puts on a show for his fans, Bobby included, feverishly clicking away with his soon-to-be-arthritic little fingers with all the wide-eyed future gamers gaping in wonder at his wizardry.

I stare at them and shudder at the look of a whole new generation of future desi dweebs.

Deep Dish hops through a few news channels and settles on a Mitt Romney campaign speech on one of them.

“Boss, this guy will raise more money than Obama.”

Studious Dude gives him an all-knowing glance.

“They will be close.  It’s all about the party committees and Super PACs these days, hunting for more donors and more money.”

“I wonder if him being a mourmon will come back to bite him.”

“Always a risk.”

Ah yes, the surreal state of presidential politics and what we look for in our leaders.

Deep Dish and Studious Dude drawl on and on about the candidates’ family background, religious background, racial background, blue states, red states, campaign moneys and campaign strategies.  They seem to know a lot about it, but not once do I hear them talk about where either candidate stands on key issues that affect them and their PSP-driven dweebs directly like education, health care, economy, immigration and taxes.

Imbecile dweebs!

They are lapping up the superficial, substance-less servings from the media outlets.  We watch CNN where political experts draw out fancy charts and cool graphics explaining how each candidate is likely to fair in each state, and how they are targeting the Hispanic vote, Black vote, Asian vote, Women vote, the Gradma vote, the Grandpa vote, and any other vote you can think of.  You can hardly find a station that focusses on issues, stands and candidate plans, validation of these plans and the resulting impacts.  That would be too boring.  Instead, let’s sit back and enjoy the entertainment value these elections provide.

Anjali, Bobby’s new fiancée, tracks him down among the kids in the living room.

“Ranjit, the food’s ready.  If you can eat now, we can still stop by the mall on the way back.”

“We’ll shop  tomorrow.”

She sits in a chair in the far corner of the room in the little dweeb playground along with her would-be.

There’s something wrong with that picture, but to hell with them.  We may have exchanged a grand total of four hellos combined through similar meetings such as todays.  So, when she completely ignores me, I feel relieved and not insulted.

I would much rather discuss with Deep Dish and Studious Dude, what Romney and Obama are wearing during their campaigns, and how that appeals to the 40-50 Asian Indian demographics in the MidWest.

Just before the rain starts to pour in, to my pleasant surprise, Swapna arrives.  She waves at me, walks into the kitchen with some food she brought with her.

Vic pokes me from behind.

“Food’s ready.  Help yourself.  Bobby, food’s ready.  Those video games can wait.”

“Did you cook any of it?” I ask Vic.

“Those sweets you see over there.”

“Didn’t know you worked part-time on Devon Street”

“The way economy is going, you need a backup plan.”

 ——————–

As we go back into the kitchen to get some food, I see Swapna playing with Varun.

“Swapnajeee!”

“Jitujeee!”.

That’s our normal greeting, but I sense a somber tone to her response.

“How are you doing?”

“Getting by. You?”

“Livin’ la vida loca”

I caught her listening to Ricky Martin before one of our study group sessions in college and she never heard the end of it since.

She smiles and brings sunshine with it.

She should be smiling and laughing all the time.  Damn it Bobby!  Imbecile dweeb!

“Do you even know the meaning of it?”

“No, are you suggesting I shouldn’t say it if I don’t understand what it means?  Get out of here.  What planet are you from?”

“Ok, please don’t go off on one of your rants now.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about?”

“Yes you do.  All those diatribes about how the world is falling apart.”

She puts on a brave face, but the world must be falling apart for the poor girl.

“Gosh golly Swapna, I am the most optimistic person in the world.”

“Yeah right, and Ricky Martin has talent too.”

“Touche!  Let me finish my dinner here and I can catch up with you.”

I turn towards the food.

“Jitu, I’d like a chat with you before I leave.”

I sense some apprehension in her tone.

“Sure, I’ll stop by.”

I get back to the living room and see all the seats being occupied by the little dweebs intently watching the little dweeb cartoons on the tube.

I walk into the entrance room and join Bobby, Vic and Maya in the middle of their dinner.

“Should I bring some food over in this room?” asks Maya.

“Don’t worry Maya.  We’ll help ourselves.” says Vic.

“So, did this guy help you at all with any of this?”  I point to the food on my plate.

“Vic?  No!  He claims he is an awful cook.”

“You know that’s just a lazy excuse.  Cooking is not an art like everyone makes it out to be.  All it takes is attention to detail and a desire to get it right.”

“Hey now, I helped!  Who tasted all these items?”

“Yes, he is good at that.” confirms Maya.

“That’s what Bobby was good for, when we were roommates.” I point to Bobby.

“I tried man.  You know I tried.”

“Hey Bobby, you know I am not good at beating around the bush, so I am going to come out and ask.”

Bobby puts his fork down.

“Ok man, shoot.”

“Are you sure you know what you are doing?”

“Is this about Swapna?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, I thought I made it clear that we both know what we are doing.”

“She’s a good, decent human being.  Are you sure you couldn’t work it out together?  You were practically made for each other.”

Bobby gets annoyed again.

“We just want different things at this stage of our lives.  If it makes it convenient for you to accept it by painting me as a bad guy, go ahead, but you always lived in an over-simplified black and white world.”

“Why do you hate her?”

“I don’t hate her.”

“Really?  Then why the hell are you not talking to her?  Why do you both continue to avoid each other?”

“That should be obvious to you man.”

“If you are intent on avoiding any sort of an explanation, just ask me to shut up.  I won’t bother you again.”

“Jitu man, you live in a dream world where everything is cut and dry, no grey areas, only good and bad and angels and demons.  You want everything around you to fit in this world of yours.  It doesn’t work that way.  Each one of us lives in our own version of that dream.  In Swapna’s case, we have a couple of kids, a big dog, a pet parrot, a fish tank, a house with a flower garden and a big sprawling lawn, immaculately maintained.. you know, and we are characters in one of those National Association of Realtors ad pimping house ownership and family life.  Reality is, I am not ready for it yet.  Actually, we are not ready for it yet.”

“God Bobby, you are not starving, you guys got married when you were fresh out of college, totally broke, without a penny in your pockets, and without a place to stay.  Yet, you managed it fine.”

“You are just like her man.  She thinks we can manage just because we managed to eke out a living for ten years.  Look at where I am a decade later.  Still an unstable job, shipped around constantly in the consulting world, always worried about where I might end up next even before I am done with my active engagement, worried about when I am going to get fired if I stay on the bench for too long – tell me how is that an ideal situation for raising a new born?  Plus, I freaking hate the winters here.  I don’t want to buy a house in this market and watch it turn into an albatross around my neck without being able to sell it if I need to get out of town.  But she doesn’t get all that, never really seriously tried to.”

“Look at Vic and Maya here.  They’ve managed.  Looking around, I’d say they are doing pretty good.  You can’t put your life on hold until you win a lottery.  There’s no such thing as a totally stable situation.”

“Leave me out of your debates Jitu.  I am not the one pestering him about his divorce.”  Vic objects.

“So, you are ok with what’s happening!”

“Do I think it sucks?  Of course I do, but all of this is beyond my control.  I know it is hard for you to accept, but you have to trust the fact that Bobby is a fully functional adult who can make his own choices and live with the consequences.”

Bobby nods his head up and down like a bobblehead whose spring is about to come unglued.

“No offense man Jitu, but what do you know about relationships?  Have you ever had one long enough to even understand what it takes to live long enough with someone else?”

“No, I don’t know anything about it.  That’s why I am asking.  Trust me, if this was that Anjali girl you are engaged to right now that you divorced, I would have patted you on the back and congratulated you.  But this is Swapna we are talking about, you know, the same girl from your college days that sat by your bedside for 2 nights to take care of you, brought you meds, made you food, even did your freaking laundry, when you were knocked out practically unconscious by a flu bug in the middle of a nasty winter.”

“You are only interested in a wicked retort for everything, but people are never the same man.  You are not the same guy that you were from the college days and neither are Swapna and I.  You want to live in the past, fine, don’t expect everyone to do the same.”

“That’s fine dude.  As long as you can sleep well in the night, you don’t have to answer to me or anyone else.”

“Hey, you think this is easy on me or Swapna?  You don’t think we argued about this enough?  We lived together for 10 years.  You don’t think a decision to split apart tugs at our hearts.  It absolutely does, but thats life.  You have to move on.  We went through our rough patch, made our decisions and we both moved on.  I am at peace with it.  Right now, I am not thinking about this as much as I am about my future with Anjali.  No offense man, but I am not looking for your approval here.  I would love to have your support because you always stood behind me, but I am not changing my mind because you disapprove.  This isn’t first grade anymore. ”

So, Bobby Bonehead is all grown up right under my nose and I never even noticed it!

He wasn’t done yet.

“In fact man, while we are on the topic of taking responsibilities for our choices, what the hell are you doing with your life?  Can you explain that?”

“Bobby has a point Jitu.  What the heck are you doing?  Why aren’t you settled down?  You are no spring chicken anymore, and it’s not as if you are putting yourself out there among active singles.  Heck, do you even know how to text using your phone?”

Maya giggles.  I feel like I am sucker-punched, Bobby and Vic suddenly gang up against me.  I hate their freaking guts.

“I am waiting for my soul mate to show up on my doorstep, or maybe I’ll come out of the closet soon and announce that I am a homosexual.  Come to think of it, that fat dude that was sitting next to me looks kinda cute.  Can you get me his number?”

“That’s Dinesh. He’s not available. He’s happily married with two children.”  Maya was amused, but Vic wasn’t.

It feels like they’ve planned this counter-attack very well.

“You and your wisecracks! You can pull one out of your ass anytime you need it, but we ask you a straight forward question, and you can’t provide a straight forward answer.”

“This was never about me. It was about Bobby and Swapna.”

“Leave them alone for a second, what about you?”

“I am a single man, a very content one at that, who enjoys everything that the world around me has to offer without being tied down by meaningless social constraints or structures.  What’s wrong with that?”

“How long do you intend to live this lifestyle?”

“Lifestyle is a big word for it, but does it matter?  Do you always have to plan for the future.  What happened to living in the present?”

“If you continue this, you will die lonely and desolate.”

“Under all this fuss and feathers, when you die, you die Vic.  Why do you want to drag the ones close to you through that pathetic, useless state?  Are you telling me you seek pleasure in making your loved ones share some of your pain and misery of those final days?”

“You are incorrigible yaar!  I can’t argue with you.  Keep this in mind though.  You are old before you know it.  Heck, you are already old.  You may not admit it, but without someone to share your life with, that loneliness will consume you.  You still have time to fix it, do it before it is too late!”

“You should be posting to those dating services.” Maya chips in eagerly, “Do you want me to register for you?”

“Thanks, but please don’t do that.”

“Are you on Facebook man?”  Bobby asked.

“No, growing up, we didn’t have the concept of facebooks in our school.  You should know, you went to the same school.”

“You think you are so smart man, but you don’t fool anyone.  I can see through you.”

“Ok Bobby, why don’t you tell me what you see?”

“You are the biggest coward I’ve ever met man.  You plot your philosophies to cover up the fact that you are too afraid, too afraid to face the consequences of tough life choices, like falling in love, fighting through acceptance and rejections, asking for someone’s help to navigate your way through life, or bringing up a family.  Instead, you live behind the façade of some cynical bullshit.  You expect everything around you to be perfect, but you don’t want to do anything about it yourself.  You want everything in life to be neat and tidy, and don’t want to deal with it if gets messy, but life is sloppy and scuzzy and confusing and complex, and with your fear, you will always stay out of it.  You may spend a lot of time on this earth and die like the rest of us, but you would have never lived a life.  You know that saying about dying to live or living to die, you are a perfect example of living to die man, perfect example.”

Not sure if it was frustration from me needling him about Swapna or years of pent up resentment of my barbs, Bobby delivers the knockout punch.

Who needs a psychiatrist when you have friends like this?

I don’t have a response.  I don’t feel like providing one anymore.  I suddenly feel claustrophobic and get this urge to step out and get some air, but I dislike dramatic exits.  I start gobbling the remaining food on my plate so I can excuse myself.

“You don’t have to be mean Bobby!”  Maya interjects.

“Sorry man!  I didn’t mean to come out so strong.  I don’t know what I was saying; I didn’t mean anything by it anyway.”

I sense an impending doom of awkwardness coming, but perhaps for the first time in my life, suffer through a momentary loss of resourcefulness.

I finally recover after an awkward pause.

“No big deal dude.  Never apologize for telling what you believe is the truth.  If you can excuse me now, I have to go find a pet adoption center for some kitten.”

I get up with the emptied paper plate and pat him on the back on the way to the garbage can in the kitchen.

I see Swapna still playing with Varun, surrounded by a few more little dweebs.

“I feel like getting some air.  Actually, I am planning to get out of here.  Can we chat outside?”

“Only reason I stuck around was because I needed to talk to you.”

“OK then, let me say bye to Maya.”

I clean up, get some water and we both proceed to say good bye.

Maya insists on me staying longer.

“What’s the urgency?  Stick around.  We can watch a movie like the last time.”

“I’d love to, but I have to run some errands.  Where are Bobby and Vic?”

“They are hanging out on the deck.”

“Say bye for me, I’ll call them later.”

“OK, don’t wait for our invitation to stop by again.  Just swing by any time you are in the neighborhood.  Same goes to you Swapna.  You should stop by more often.”

We step out the front door and walk back to our cars under a clear fall sky.

  ——————–

“Swapna, you still drink Coffee?”

“Yes, why?”

“There’s a Caribou Coffee couple of blocks south of here on Belmont.  Can you drive down there?”

“Sure, I will meet you there.”

As we drive down to the cafe, I wonder about what’s on Swapna’s mind.  She never made eye contact with Anjali and Bobby throughout the night, must have been really awkward for her to try and avoid them all night.  Not showing up would have been a much easier option.

We pick up our coffee and settle into the corner of the sparsely populated room.

“How are you doing Jitu?  How has your day gone so far?”

“Phenomenal.  You know, just another day in paradise.  How about you?”

“Not so phenomenal. “

“I know something is bothering you.”

“You mean beyond the lousiness of my divorce?”

“Yes, beyond the lousiness of your divorce and the awkwardness in that uncomfortable party.”

She circles her middle finger around the coffee cup, and notices me staring at her ring finger where the marks from her wedding ring she ones wore are still fresh.

“Luckily, I will not be attending any more of those uncomfortable parties.”

“I don’t blame you.  I will throw cool parties with cakes and clowns just for you, and we don’t have to invite the shady characters that you don’t talk to.”

She smiles, and it is still the same smile, a smile that can light up a room.

“Cakes and clowns?  That’s a bit creepy.”

“Oh come on!  We can throw in a few balloons, and add a few cocktails and add some Ricky Martin music – that would be perfect.”

She cracks up.

“Now you’re talking.  But you don’t have to. I will not be attending your parties either.”

“That hurts me.”

“No, Jitu, I took a new job out of town.  I am leaving next weekend.”

All remaining life gets sucked out of my soul.

“Out of town?  Where?”

“San Diego.”

The vacuum digs deeper.  San Diego?  She really wants to run far far away from us.

“You are going to miss the wonderful winters here for some lousy 70 degree weather over there?”

“Yeah, I’ll manage.”

“So you showed up to say goodbye?”

“Yes.”

“But you didn’t tell anyone.”

“I am telling you now.”

The sick feeling in the stomach becomes worse.

“You are going to desert us?”

“Jitu, I am choking to death.”

“I never saw this coming.  Between Bobby and you, there should be no differences wide enough to pull you apart like this.”

“But Bobby feels he is stuck in mud, and he wants me to wait until he wiggles out of it and builds his utopian palace in the NeverNeverLand.  I am not interested in his palace.  Wherever we are, however we are doing, I want to enjoy a normal life with a loving husband, a decent house and lovable kids.  There is no such thing as a normal life with Bobby.  Bobby is always interested in the next big thing, and is incapable of enjoying the ride.  I guess he was always like this.  Even on those long summer road trips, the entire conversation was about how anything we do on the way would delay the time of arrival, his entire focus would be on how to get there faster, and once we get there it’s the same thing all over again.  He is incapable of stopping and smelling the roses.  I tried so hard, but unless it is his idea, anything anyone else has to say is in one ear out the other.  I probably sound like your stereotypical whining housewife to you, don’t I?”

“I wouldn’t know much about your stereotypical housewives, but I would never associate you with anything stereotypical.”

“I am in my 30s, I don’t have any kids and you know how much I love kids, and Bobby seems to be totally uninterested in parenting.  He uses his perceived job instability as a clutch anytime I bring up the topic, and after a lengthy argument one night, I woke up the next day and  realized the insanity of expecting him to change to see my point of view, because at the end of the day, a Tiger doesn’t change his stripes.  All of this would be so much easier if I hated him from the bottom of my heart.”

It probably doesn’t make it any easy on her that Bobby is seemingly over her so quickly and re-engaged to another girl.  I’d give them a year, year and a half most.

Swapna held up pretty well so far, at least publicly in the few times we met at such parties after their divorce.  But her voice begins to crack and she gazes down into the coffee cup to pull back the tears welling up.

“Jitu, you know him since childhood.  You understand what I am saying, right?”

“Of course I do.  Only difference between you and I is I am too self-centered to bother whether he listens to me or not, and I don’t give a shit if he doesn’t.  I guess that attitude doesn’t work for your marriage, eh?”

She shakes her head sideways and makes a feeble attempt to smile.

“I tell you what Swapna, if I didn’t know Bobby at all, and got to know him now, I would stay away from him just like I stay away from all the assholes of the world, and the world is full of them by the way.”

“Jitu, no rants please, not now.”

“What I am trying to say is, you don’t pick and choose your friends, they just happen, like life itself.  You don’t have a choice after that.  You try to enjoy their company, and you put up with their miserable inadequacies, debilities, whatever you want to call them.  Bobby will always be my friend, but so will you.  Marriage is a different beast altogether, and I stay away from that hypocritical charade, no offense.  But, just because that bonehead doesn’t deserve you, you don’t have to leave. You have many friends and well-wishers here in the ChicagoLand.  In time, you will get over him, and live your own life.  You don’t have to leave on account of him.  He doesn’t deserve such attention.”

“I don’t have many friends here, Bobby does.  Of course, I’ve always looked at Bobby’s friends as mine, but now it is different.  How many times will I meet with Maya and Vic without Bobby being there?  Even if I do, they act as constant reminders of him.”

I look into her eyes, and beneath the sadness and tears, I still see the kindness that defines her.  You look for all the different aspects of a person’s character, and to me, kindness trumps them all, and a person that embodies it is a special human being to be cherished.   Amidst all the disruptive forces of aggression and human proclivity for domination, the one remarkable balancing feature of our species that binds us together is kindness.  And I see that kindness in her actions, her every move, her very demeanor, and her core being, and I wonder whey Bobby can’t see it.  Am I the only one who notices it and admires it?  Has the world gone blind?

“Swapna, you know I am here for you.  Don’t insult me by calling me a friend by allegiance.”

“No!  I don’t know what I would have done without you.  All these people and all these memories strangle the life out of me, but you are the one reason I’ve managed to survive so far.  Thank you.”

I don’t need her to thank me.  I need her to stay.

Tears swell up again in her eyes.

The cafe attendant stops by to remind us they are ready to close.

We get up and walk out to her car.  I give her a goodbye hug.

“When is your flight?  Let me drive you to the airport.”

“Next Saturday.  I’ll send you the flight times.”

“Can you please let Bobby and everyone else know, on my behalf?  I wanted to, but I couldn’t muster enough courage to do it myself.”

“To hell with Bobby and to hell with them all.”

“Jitu, I worry about you.  How long are you going to keep this up?”

“Keep what up?”

“This pseudo act of playing the villain.  You are not very good at it.  The fake rage, that edgy persona you try to adopt to protect against getting hurt, all of that.  How much longer?”

“What a night!  First Bobby calls me a coward.  Now you call me a fake.  Let me ask someone who actually hates my guts.  They might thrown in a compliment.”

“That old saying is true, if you wear a mask for too long, it becomes a part of your face.  I worry that if you continue like this, this mask will become you.”

“Then, don’t leave!”

She begins to weep again,

“It’s too late.  That’s what I’ve been trying to explain…. apologize… to you.  Sorry…. I have to.”

It’s never too late damn it! Never!

———————————————————————————————————————-

The Old Man and The River

A short story

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River Twilight (photo: Paolo De Faveri)

“Are you alright?” asked a voice with a cheer in it.  Perhaps I looked more dispirited than I wanted to disclose or maybe he was just one of those upbeat types.

“Yes, Thanks.”  I mustered a faint reply.

The smoke from the distant embers of a dying winter campfire sauntered into the night above the river.  There was no one around.  It was too cold and too late, even for those diligent dog walkers to be taking any leisurely strolls by this frosty riverside in this remote town.

The moonlight glistened on the water surface and revealed a broad smile on the man’s face.  He wasn’t walking a dog, but he looked elderly, perhaps a good 30 or 40 years older than me and justifiably bundled up to handle the midnight chill.  He was of medium height, about as tall as me, with round and puffy cheeks, and a shining bald head atop with striking grey hair on its sides.

It was way past midnight, possibly closer to the morning hours, but I didn’t know.  It didn’t matter to me.  I had no idea what he was doing this late all alone, but I didn’t care.  It didn’t matter to me.  Nothing mattered to me.

“You are not thinking of jumping. Are you?”  He asked, with the smile still intact, peeking at the slope in front of us leading to the water current, mild, almost stagnant.

“Do I look suicidal to you?”  I asked, annoyed at the unexpected intrusion.

Thin stretches of ice from along the banks extended almost all the way to the middle of the river where a small current of water kept it from being completely frozen; two more weeks and you can skate across.

“You know I’ve lived here all my life.  I remember the times when I used to walk along the bank here and it used to be full of woods and the downtown behind was nothing more than a general store, a butcher’s place, an Irish bar and a burger joint.  It is amazing how this place has grown over the years.”

Surely, standing here in the middle of the night and listening to an old man ruminate over his nostalgic life story should put me out of my misery.

“Now-a-days they have statistics for everything – softens the shock to the people receiving the news,” he snickered, “like the fact that this river claims about 5 suicides in this town every year.  I would hate to see you end up becoming just another one of those numbers.”

The winter coat he wore looked clean and well maintained, but the scarf around his neck looked in disarray, suggesting he might have been in a hurry to get out.  He looked like all respected elderly men do, the sort you’d feel compelled to hold a restaurant door or an elevator door open to let them in.  His most distinguishing features were his eyes.  He had a gleam in his eyes and they sparkled even more in the reflection from the water surface as he turned his face to look at me.

“I don’t know if you made up your mind, but I think you are thinking about it.”  He said solemnly.

I felt too numb inside to pay any attention to what he was saying, and continued to stare ahead.

“I live in the top floor of those apartments you see tucked behind the Main Street.”  He went on.  “I like the place because I get a good view of this river through my bedroom window.  At my age these things matter you know.” he chuckled inwardly, “On a clear night, if the moon’s out like tonight, I can enjoy the luxury of relaxing in my bed, while looking out the window watching these trees dancing to the gentle breeze along this river side.”

The apartments he was referring to are a gated cluster of three-floor housings in a nearby subdivision, but the downtown itself was a good 20 minute stroll from here and it would have taken him at least half an hour to walk down from there.

“I was looking out tonight and noticed you standing here for more than an hour.”  He said.

“Just enjoying the moonlight.” I replied.

“I wouldn’t call this weather enjoyable son.  Please don’t think… about anything.  Go home.  Go to bed.  Wake up and look at the sunshine tomorrow.”

Condescending old fart!  He thinks he knows everything.  Just like my parents.  I talk to them but I might as well be talking to a wall.  They are completely clueless and utterly incapable of ever understanding the vacuum that is my life.  They mean well, but that’s all it is… they mean well.  Oh… how they mean well!  I know they will sacrifice anything for me.  They were obsessed with providing me a “better” life than what they had growing up.  They did the best they could to put me through good schools and set me up for the future.  Now they just expect that I lead a “successful” life.  Afterall, they worked too hard and made too many sacrifices to see me “fail.” They hear fairy tales about how well the kids of my generation, kids of their friends and colleagues do.  Those stories build their perceptions of my ideal existence for them and those perceptions turn into expectations, expectations they never reveal but hold me to, and measure me by silently.  They just want everything to work out for me so I can match this outlook of theirs, without ever truly understanding what I am going through.  Every time I talk to them, anything I say to them, I can imagine them measuring up my words against those expectations.  The more I realized this the more I felt the vacuum build inside me.  The debilitation and the degeneration within became more and more unbearable.  Eventually, I cut down my conversations with them to common banalities.  Hello.  How are you Dad?  How is Mom doing?  I am doing great Mom!  Yes, I am eating well and work is great.  I am quite healthy and I feel great.  How are you two doing?  Ok, I will talk to you later.  Bye.

I don’t blame them, how can I?  They mean well.  So do my friends, colleagues and acquaintances.  They all mean well.  Well wishers – the world is full of them.  Add another one to that list.

“I don’t pretend to understand what you are going through,” he said, “but I remember how I felt when it first surfaced as an option for me.  My wife died 5 years ago.  We were married for 40 years and I had no recollection of life without her when she passed away.  Our three children, a son and two daughters grew up here, but after graduation, they all moved out and settled out west.  When you hit old age, it is not just the fear of death but the conversations surrounding the anticipation of it that gets to be exhausting.  Every year, we would see friends in hospital practically on their deathbed, we would hear about acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances perish, or put in the hospital to perish.  We knew our time was coming, but through it all, what comforted us was the fact that we had each other.  We always did.”  He gulped, staring into the water.

I didn’t want to hear his love story.  I was not interested in his life story.  Doesn’t he realize it is of no consequence to me?  The emptiness inside me is indescribable and extra-ordinarily overwhelming.  The doors that are open lead me to the great abyss; the walls all around me close in to come squash me to a pulp.  The silly idealism of self is vanquished by cutthroat hypocrisies of reality.  The foolish romanticism of love is butchered by the ruthless agonies of betrayal.  I enjoy no simple pleasures of living; only suffer prosaic drudgery of endurance.  No one can help me.  I can’t help myself.  I can’t help him.  I am of no use to him.  He is of no use to me.

The full moon dodged in and out of the sparsely scattered clouds.  The clear sky with the river breeze made the cold night even colder.

The old man didn’t stop. “We brought our children up the best way we knew. She was the good cop and I was the bad cop and I know now I was also a bad father.  I was especially harsh on my son.  He was the first-born, and the only way I knew how to raise him was from how my own father raised me.  We are all a product of our times, aren’t we?  But I was wrong… completely wrong.  I wanted him to be tough, responsible and become the leader of the family.  Anytime he cried out for help, instead of embracing him with love, I asked him to toughen up.  Anytime he would make a mistake, instead of nurturing him along, I would punish him with discipline.  By the time I realized my follies, the distance between us had grown too wide.  I didn’t make the same mistakes with my girls, but they grew up fond of their only brother and while they have their affections for me as a father, they still haven’t forgiven me for my severity against their brother.  We still meet for Thanksgiving and say all the right things, but I can see the detachment in my son’s eyes.  He’d much rather be somewhere else, the only reason he endures my company is to serve the bonds of obligation painfully.  I don’t blame him one bit.  It was my fault and my fault alone.”

He was choking up now.  The cheer in his voice was long gone.  If he came here to play the hero and rescue me with some spirited words of encouragement, he was doing a pretty poor job of it.

“When my wife died,” he turned to me with tears swelling up in his eyes, “I didn’t know how to continue.  I questioned the purpose of carrying on further.  The warmth in my life was gone.  I woke up to a bleak desolate feeling day after day and year after year and only a couple of weeks ago, it dawned on me that the solitude is never going away.  It is here to stay with me till I die.  Withered by old age, beaten by inescapable loneliness and tortured by a guilty conscience, I stood here two weeks ago just like you are right now my friend, and wondered if the best recourse was to end it all quickly.  I didn’t because I thought I couldn’t leave without apologizing to my son and letting him know how much I love him.  We don’t get to do over our life and I can’t fix my wrongs and bring that childhood back to my son that he deserved, but the one lifeline I am hanging on to… is the hope that I can mend my relationship with him before I pass away so that he is not suffering in the future because of my mistakes. But in the back of my mind, I wonder if I am using that as an excuse because I don’t have the guts to end this pain by jumping into that river.”  He looked straight into my eyes.   “I don’t know if you feel as if everything is collapsing around you or if you find your existence unbearable, and I don’t pretend to have an answer for your problems, but you see, if there is no reason for someone like you who has a whole lifetime ahead of him, how can I be expected to hang on to this sliver of a hope at the brink of death?  How can I justify my own existence in my twilight days?”

His plea was too earnest for me to suspect that he was either fabricating his story or manufacturing his rational. He could have just called the cops, let them handle the situation and went back to bed.  Instead, he chose to walk down here in the middle of a cold night to try to hang on to his hope and reinforce his belief at some sort of redemption before he can die  peacefully.

But I had to ask.  “You said it yourself.  I might end up as just another slice of statistical data you read about in your newspaper.  What difference does it make to you if I find a reason to live or not?  There are millions of people dying every year.  By the end of this day there will be hundreds younger than me committing suicide because they feel they have no reason to live.”

“Yes, but they are not dying in front of me.  You are.”  He said feebly, collapsing to his knees with his shoulders slouched forward.

I didn’t realize how long we’ve been here.  The biting cold had taken a toll on the old man and he looked pale and tired.  I could see a faint break of dawn over the river on the deep horizon.  I gripped his arm with one hand and helped him up with the other.

“The Coffee House on Main Street has to be open by now.  Let’s get some coffee.”  I said.

We walked back silently to the downtown area into the Coffee House.  I helped him into a seat and asked for a couple of cups of coffee.

He took a few sips and looked up at me.  The gleam in the eyes was back.  He fumbled in his coat pocket and pulled out what looked like a silver heart key chain with some engraved initials.

He pulled the keys out of the key chain and handed the key chain to me.  “A gift from my wife with my initials,” he smiled pointing at it, “I want you to keep it.”

I refused but he insisted.

“Give me your keys and your mobile phone.”

I obliged.

He separated my keys from my key chain, hooked them to his silver heart and handed it over to me.  Then he punched his mobile number into my phone and called his number.

“Now we’ve exchanged our numbers.” He chuckled. “See, I am up with modern technology.  Don’t hesitate to call me if you ever feel like talking.”

We split from the Coffee House our own ways to our lonely abodes.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

I went back to the riverbank for a stroll the next evening and was surprised to find the old man there again.  He was throwing a few breadcrumbs for the geese when I walked up to him.

“You must have volunteered at the local suicide hotline to bring that riverside statistic down single-handedly?”

“No, I am here every evening.” He said with a smile, “You see I have nothing better to do.”

We met a few more times that winter. He would call me every now and then for a cup of coffee at the Coffee House.  I ran into him at the Library a few times.  I found out that we shared the same tastes in books and he had an active interest in movies and boasted an impressive collection.  I also found him to be an engaging debater, with an opinion on every topic, but not overbearing in how he expressed them.  I helped him with getting his groceries moved to his apartment a few times; in particular I was concerned about him walking on the icy pavements carrying a grocery bag in his hands.

As the weather turned warm, I ran into him more often by the riverside.  One day he brought a little kid with him and introduced him to me as his grand son.  “My youngest is visiting me and brought her son along.”  He had an ear to ear grin that day and that was the happiest I had seen him.

I asked him if he met his son yet.

“No, I’ve tried inviting him over a few times, but he always comes up with reasons to avoid.  I am sure we will meet for Thanksgiving.  I am looking forward to it.”

Little did I know then that he didn’t have to wait until Thanksgiving.  He started falling ill towards the end of that summer.  He lost the spring in his step.  It took more of an effort for him to walk to places, like he was used to doing, especially to the riverside.  The few times we met there since, his poor health showed in his face.  Gone were the puffy cheeks, sucked into a tired, scrawny, wrinkled face.  He still had the gleam in his eyes and brushed off any mention of his health with a characteristic “I’ll live.”  After a while, he became too weak to even make those occasional trips, and was relegated to watching the river from his bedroom window.

I met him a few times at his place, and occasionally at the Coffee House when he was up for the short walk from his place. I was very concerned about his well-being and asked him if he could consider moving in with me into my place.

“It’ll make me feel better, plus, I enjoy having you around.”  I said.

He would have none of it though.  He could be very obstinate when he wanted to be.

“I’ll manage fine on my own, plus I would hate to cramp your lifestyle cowboy.”  He said, making a sly face.  “Seriously, you should move on with your life.  I am probably over-simplifying it, but I was extremely lucky to spend all my adult life with my wife.  But there are plenty of people who find that right fit in a second or third chance.”

“You are right,” I said. “You are over-simplifying it.”

“Fair enough.”  He laughed out aloud.

He never felt offended by the fact that I rarely talked about myself.  It didn’t stop him from opening himself to me.  He talked often about his children and grand children and his friends.  “They are dropping like flies….”  he would chuckle, talking about his friends.  Sometimes he would repeat the same stories he told me before, but I didn’t mind as long as they kept him engaged.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

The summer gave way to autumn and the leaves started turning color.  My conversations with the old man were mostly over the phone.  I called him at least once in two days to check on him and he came to expect those calls from me.

So, I was surprised to get a call from his phone one day.  When I answered it, there was a woman’s voice on the other end.  She introduced herself as his daughter.

“My father would really like you to stop by.”  She said, “It would really mean a lot to him.”

“Of course, I will be there in a few minutes.”

Knowing his ill-health, and knowing that he had refused to admit himself into the hospital, I feared the worst.  When I got there, I was not entirely surprised to see both his daughters along with his only son there.  He looked very pale and very weak, but was propped up against a pillow on his bed.  His son, perhaps as old as me, was sitting on a chair next to him, and looking at his face, it was clear he was crying.  I looked at the old man and I saw a look of contentment that I hadn’t seen before.  I suspected that he had that heart to heart conversation he so desired with his son.

As I walked into his room, his daughter said.  “Please come in.  My father has mentioned a lot about you.”

I looked at him slightly alarmed, when she continued “We can’t thank you enough for all the help with the groceries and being there for him through these tough times.”

I mumbled an indiscernible Thank you for I had a lump in my throat when I realized the old man couldn’t talk aloud.  He whispered into his children’s ears when he wanted to say something.

I spent a few minutes talking to his son who seemed like a pleasant guy who was quite distressed at his father’s condition.

The old man gestured to me indicating his wish to say something to me.  When I approached, he leaned forward and whispered into my ear one more time.

“Get on with your life.”

I bid good-bye to everyone and as I walked out of his room, I looked at him one last time.  He looked back and winked at me with a smile, as if to confirm that his final wish of mending fences with his son was fulfilled.

As I stepped out of his apartment and started walking back to my place, I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t see him again.

A couple of days later, I got a call from his son mentioning that his father passed away earlier in the day and that his father would have dearly wanted me to be one of the pallbearers at his funeral.

Later than night, I walked back to the riverside almost involuntarily.  A thin fog from the adjacent woods descended down and hovered over the river.  I stood there staring into the water half expecting to hear his cheerful voice from behind.  I pulled out my key chain and looked at the silver heart with his initials on it.  I unhinged my keys and tossed the heart into the water.  As I stared at the river disappearing into the autumn fog in the horizon, for the first time in my life, it hit me hard.  I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of loss… not the type that brought me here on that fateful night when I met the old man, but the type that makes your heart ache at the loss of a dear friend… at the thought that you will never see him again… perhaps this is what they call grief, grief at losing a well-wisher.  Until I met him, I had always taken my well wishers for granted, never valued them enough and even discarded them with harsh judgments at their first misstep.   I left the riverbank with that lasting impression of him, serene and satisfied, winking me goodbye with his children by his side.

The Old Man and The River

A short story

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River Twilight (photo: Paolo De Faveri)

“Are you alright?” asked a voice with a cheer in it.  Perhaps I looked more dispirited than I wanted to disclose or maybe he was just one of those upbeat types.

“Yes, Thanks.”  I mustered a faint reply.

The smoke from the distant embers of a dying winter campfire sauntered into the night above the river.  There was no one around.  It was too cold and too late, even for those diligent dog walkers to be taking any leisurely strolls by this frosty riverside in this remote town.

The moonlight glistened on the water surface and revealed a broad smile on the man’s face.  He wasn’t walking a dog, but he looked elderly, perhaps a good 30 or 40 years older than me and justifiably bundled up to handle the midnight chill.  He was of medium height, about as tall as me, with round and puffy cheeks, and a shining bald head atop with striking grey hair on its sides.

It was way past midnight, possibly closer to the morning hours, but I didn’t know.  It didn’t matter to me.  I had no idea what he was doing this late all alone, but I didn’t care.  It didn’t matter to me.  Nothing mattered to me.

“You are not thinking of jumping. Are you?”  He asked, with the smile still intact, peeking at the slope in front of us leading to the water current, mild, almost stagnant.

“Do I look suicidal to you?”  I asked, annoyed at the unexpected intrusion.

Thin stretches of ice from along the banks extended almost all the way to the middle of the river where a small current of water kept it from being completely frozen; two more weeks and you can skate across.

“You know I’ve lived here all my life.  I remember the times when I used to walk along the bank here and it used to be full of woods and the downtown behind was nothing more than a general store, a butcher’s place, an Irish bar and a burger joint.  It is amazing how this place has grown over the years.”

Surely, standing here in the middle of the night and listening to an old man ruminate over his nostalgic life story should put me out of my misery.

“Now-a-days they have statistics for everything – softens the shock to the people receiving the news,” he snickered, “like the fact that this river claims about 5 suicides in this town every year.  I would hate to see you end up becoming just another one of those numbers.”

The winter coat he wore looked clean and well maintained, but the scarf around his neck looked in disarray, suggesting he might have been in a hurry to get out.  He looked like all respected elderly men do, the sort you’d feel compelled to hold a restaurant door or an elevator door open to let them in.  His most distinguishing features were his eyes.  He had a gleam in his eyes and they sparkled even more in the reflection from the water surface as he turned his face to look at me.

“I don’t know if you made up your mind, but I think you are thinking about it.”  He said solemnly.

I felt too numb inside to pay any attention to what he was saying, and continued to stare ahead.

“I live in the top floor of those apartments you see tucked behind the Main Street.”  He went on.  “I like the place because I get a good view of this river through my bedroom window.  At my age these things matter you know.” he chuckled inwardly, “On a clear night, if the moon’s out like tonight, I can enjoy the luxury of relaxing in my bed, while looking out the window watching these trees dancing to the gentle breeze along this river side.”

The apartments he was referring to are a gated cluster of three-floor housings in a nearby subdivision, but the downtown itself was a good 20 minute stroll from here and it would have taken him at least half an hour to walk down from there.

“I was looking out tonight and noticed you standing here for more than an hour.”  He said.

“Just enjoying the moonlight.” I replied.

“I wouldn’t call this weather enjoyable son.  Please don’t think… about anything.  Go home.  Go to bed.  Wake up and look at the sunshine tomorrow.”

Condescending old fart!  He thinks he knows everything.  Just like my parents.  I talk to them but I might as well be talking to a wall.  They are completely clueless and utterly incapable of ever understanding the vacuum that is my life.  They mean well, but that’s all it is… they mean well.  Oh… how they mean well!  I know they will sacrifice anything for me.  They were obsessed with providing me a “better” life than what they had growing up.  They did the best they could to put me through good schools and set me up for the future.  Now they just expect that I lead a “successful” life.  Afterall, they worked too hard and made too many sacrifices to see me “fail.” They hear fairy tales about how well the kids of my generation, kids of their friends and colleagues do.  Those stories build their perceptions of my ideal existence for them and those perceptions turn into expectations, expectations they never reveal but hold me to, and measure me by silently.  They just want everything to work out for me so I can match this outlook of theirs, without ever truly understanding what I am going through.  Every time I talk to them, anything I say to them, I can imagine them measuring up my words against those expectations.  The more I realized this the more I felt the vacuum build inside me.  The debilitation and the degeneration within became more and more unbearable.  Eventually, I cut down my conversations with them to common banalities.  Hello.  How are you Dad?  How is Mom doing?  I am doing great Mom!  Yes, I am eating well and work is great.  I am quite healthy and I feel great.  How are you two doing?  Ok, I will talk to you later.  Bye.

I don’t blame them, how can I?  They mean well.  So do my friends, colleagues and acquaintances.  They all mean well.  Well wishers – the world is full of them.  Add another one to that list.

“I don’t pretend to understand what you are going through,” he said, “but I remember how I felt when it first surfaced as an option for me.  My wife died 5 years ago.  We were married for 40 years and I had no recollection of life without her when she passed away.  Our three children, a son and two daughters grew up here, but after graduation, they all moved out and settled out west.  When you hit old age, it is not just the fear of death but the conversations surrounding the anticipation of it that gets to be exhausting.  Every year, we would see friends in hospital practically on their deathbed, we would hear about acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances perish, or put in the hospital to perish.  We knew our time was coming, but through it all, what comforted us was the fact that we had each other.  We always did.”  He gulped, staring into the water.

I didn’t want to hear his love story.  I was not interested in his life story.  Doesn’t he realize it is of no consequence to me?  The emptiness inside me is indescribable and extra-ordinarily overwhelming.  The doors that are open lead me to the great abyss; the walls all around me close in to come squash me to a pulp.  The silly idealism of self is vanquished by cutthroat hypocrisies of reality.  The foolish romanticism of love is butchered by the ruthless agonies of betrayal.  I enjoy no simple pleasures of living; only suffer prosaic drudgery of endurance.  No one can help me.  I can’t help myself.  I can’t help him.  I am of no use to him.  He is of no use to me.

The full moon dodged in and out of the sparsely scattered clouds.  The clear sky with the river breeze made the cold night even colder.

The old man didn’t stop. “We brought our children up the best way we knew. She was the good cop and I was the bad cop and I know now I was also a bad father.  I was especially harsh on my son.  He was the first-born, and the only way I knew how to raise him was from how my own father raised me.  We are all a product of our times, aren’t we?  But I was wrong… completely wrong.  I wanted him to be tough, responsible and become the leader of the family.  Anytime he cried out for help, instead of embracing him with love, I asked him to toughen up.  Anytime he would make a mistake, instead of nurturing him along, I would punish him with discipline.  By the time I realized my follies, the distance between us had grown too wide.  I didn’t make the same mistakes with my girls, but they grew up fond of their only brother and while they have their affections for me as a father, they still haven’t forgiven me for my severity against their brother.  We still meet for Thanksgiving and say all the right things, but I can see the detachment in my son’s eyes.  He’d much rather be somewhere else, the only reason he endures my company is to serve the bonds of obligation painfully.  I don’t blame him one bit.  It was my fault and my fault alone.”

He was choking up now.  The cheer in his voice was long gone.  If he came here to play the hero and rescue me with some spirited words of encouragement, he was doing a pretty poor job of it.

“When my wife died,” he turned to me with tears swelling up in his eyes, “I didn’t know how to continue.  I questioned the purpose of carrying on further.  The warmth in my life was gone.  I woke up to a bleak desolate feeling day after day and year after year and only a couple of weeks ago, it dawned on me that the solitude is never going away.  It is here to stay with me till I die.  Withered by old age, beaten by inescapable loneliness and tortured by a guilty conscience, I stood here two weeks ago just like you are right now my friend, and wondered if the best recourse was to end it all quickly.  I didn’t because I thought I couldn’t leave without apologizing to my son and letting him know how much I love him.  We don’t get to do over our life and I can’t fix my wrongs and bring that childhood back to my son that he deserved, but the one lifeline I am hanging on to… is the hope that I can mend my relationship with him before I pass away so that he is not suffering in the future because of my mistakes. But in the back of my mind, I wonder if I am using that as an excuse because I don’t have the guts to end this pain by jumping into that river.”  He looked straight into my eyes.   “I don’t know if you feel as if everything is collapsing around you or if you find your existence unbearable, and I don’t pretend to have an answer for your problems, but you see, if there is no reason for someone like you who has a whole lifetime ahead of him, how can I be expected to hang on to this sliver of a hope at the brink of death?  How can I justify my own existence in my twilight days?”

His plea was too earnest for me to suspect that he was either fabricating his story or manufacturing his rational. He could have just called the cops, let them handle the situation and went back to bed.  Instead, he chose to walk down here in the middle of a cold night to try to hang on to his hope and reinforce his belief at some sort of redemption before he can die  peacefully.

But I had to ask.  “You said it yourself.  I might end up as just another slice of statistical data you read about in your newspaper.  What difference does it make to you if I find a reason to live or not?  There are millions of people dying every year.  By the end of this day there will be hundreds younger than me committing suicide because they feel they have no reason to live.”

“Yes, but they are not dying in front of me.  You are.”  He said feebly, collapsing to his knees with his shoulders slouched forward.

I didn’t realize how long we’ve been here.  The biting cold had taken a toll on the old man and he looked pale and tired.  I could see a faint break of dawn over the river on the deep horizon.  I gripped his arm with one hand and helped him up with the other.

“The Coffee House on Main Street has to be open by now.  Let’s get some coffee.”  I said.

We walked back silently to the downtown area into the Coffee House.  I helped him into a seat and asked for a couple of cups of coffee.

He took a few sips and looked up at me.  The gleam in the eyes was back.  He fumbled in his coat pocket and pulled out what looked like a silver heart key chain with some engraved initials.

He pulled the keys out of the key chain and handed the key chain to me.  “A gift from my wife with my initials,” he smiled pointing at it, “I want you to keep it.”

I refused but he insisted.

“Give me your keys and your mobile phone.”

I obliged.

He separated my keys from my key chain, hooked them to his silver heart and handed it over to me.  Then he punched his mobile number into my phone and called his number.

“Now we’ve exchanged our numbers.” He chuckled. “See, I am up with modern technology.  Don’t hesitate to call me if you ever feel like talking.”

We split from the Coffee House our own ways to our lonely abodes.

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I went back to the riverbank for a stroll the next evening and was surprised to find the old man there again.  He was throwing a few breadcrumbs for the geese when I walked up to him.

“You must have volunteered at the local suicide hotline to bring that riverside statistic down single-handedly?”

“No, I am here every evening.” He said with a smile, “You see I have nothing better to do.”

We met a few more times that winter. He would call me every now and then for a cup of coffee at the Coffee House.  I ran into him at the Library a few times.  I found out that we shared the same tastes in books and he had an active interest in movies and boasted an impressive collection.  I also found him to be an engaging debater, with an opinion on every topic, but not overbearing in how he expressed them.  I helped him with getting his groceries moved to his apartment a few times; in particular I was concerned about him walking on the icy pavements carrying a grocery bag in his hands.

As the weather turned warm, I ran into him more often by the riverside.  One day he brought a little kid with him and introduced him to me as his grand son.  “My youngest is visiting me and brought her son along.”  He had an ear to ear grin that day and that was the happiest I had seen him.

I asked him if he met his son yet.

“No, I’ve tried inviting him over a few times, but he always comes up with reasons to avoid.  I am sure we will meet for Thanksgiving.  I am looking forward to it.”

Little did I know then that he didn’t have to wait until Thanksgiving.  He started falling ill towards the end of that summer.  He lost the spring in his step.  It took more of an effort for him to walk to places, like he was used to doing, especially to the riverside.  The few times we met there since, his poor health showed in his face.  Gone were the puffy cheeks, sucked into a tired, scrawny, wrinkled face.  He still had the gleam in his eyes and brushed off any mention of his health with a characteristic “I’ll live.”  After a while, he became too weak to even make those occasional trips, and was relegated to watching the river from his bedroom window.

I met him a few times at his place, and occasionally at the Coffee House when he was up for the short walk from his place. I was very concerned about his well-being and asked him if he could consider moving in with me into my place.

“It’ll make me feel better, plus, I enjoy having you around.”  I said.

He would have none of it though.  He could be very obstinate when he wanted to be.

“I’ll manage fine on my own, plus I would hate to cramp your lifestyle cowboy.”  He said, making a sly face.  “Seriously, you should move on with your life.  I am probably over-simplifying it, but I was extremely lucky to spend all my adult life with my wife.  But there are plenty of people who find that right fit in a second or third chance.”

“You are right,” I said. “You are over-simplifying it.”

“Fair enough.”  He laughed out aloud.

He never felt offended by the fact that I rarely talked about myself.  It didn’t stop him from opening himself to me.  He talked often about his children and grand children and his friends.  “They are dropping like flies….”  he would chuckle, talking about his friends.  Sometimes he would repeat the same stories he told me before, but I didn’t mind as long as they kept him engaged.

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The summer gave way to autumn and the leaves started turning color.  My conversations with the old man were mostly over the phone.  I called him at least once in two days to check on him and he came to expect those calls from me.

So, I was surprised to get a call from his phone one day.  When I answered it, there was a woman’s voice on the other end.  She introduced herself as his daughter.

“My father would really like you to stop by.”  She said, “It would really mean a lot to him.”

“Of course, I will be there in a few minutes.”

Knowing his ill-health, and knowing that he had refused to admit himself into the hospital, I feared the worst.  When I got there, I was not entirely surprised to see both his daughters along with his only son there.  He looked very pale and very weak, but was propped up against a pillow on his bed.  His son, perhaps as old as me, was sitting on a chair next to him, and looking at his face, it was clear he was crying.  I looked at the old man and I saw a look of contentment that I hadn’t seen before.  I suspected that he had that heart to heart conversation he so desired with his son.

As I walked into his room, his daughter said.  “Please come in.  My father has mentioned a lot about you.”

I looked at him slightly alarmed, when she continued “We can’t thank you enough for all the help with the groceries and being there for him through these tough times.”

I mumbled an indiscernible Thank you for I had a lump in my throat when I realized the old man couldn’t talk aloud.  He whispered into his children’s ears when he wanted to say something.

I spent a few minutes talking to his son who seemed like a pleasant guy who was quite distressed at his father’s condition.

The old man gestured to me indicating his wish to say something to me.  When I approached, he leaned forward and whispered into my ear one more time.

“Get on with your life.”

I bid good-bye to everyone and as I walked out of his room, I looked at him one last time.  He looked back and winked at me with a smile, as if to confirm that his final wish of mending fences with his son was fulfilled.

As I stepped out of his apartment and started walking back to my place, I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t see him again.

A couple of days later, I got a call from his son mentioning that his father passed away earlier in the day and that his father would have dearly wanted me to be one of the pallbearers at his funeral.

Later that night, I walked back to the riverside almost involuntarily.  A thin fog from the adjacent woods descended down and hovered over the river.  I stood there staring into the water half expecting to hear his cheerful voice from behind.  I pulled out my key chain and looked at the silver heart with his initials on it.  I unhinged the heart from the key-chain and  tossed it into the water.  As I stared at the river disappearing into the autumn fog in the horizon, for the first time in my life, it hit me hard.  I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of loss… not the type that brought me here on that fateful night when I met the old man, but the type that makes your heart ache at the loss of a dear friend… at the thought that you will never see him again… perhaps this is what they call grief, grief at losing a well-wisher.  Until I met him, I had always taken my well wishers for granted, never valued them enough and even discarded them with harsh judgments at their first misstep.   I left the riverbank with that lasting impression of him, serene and satisfied, winking me goodbye with his children by his side.