Table of Contents

 

MEASURE OF AN ESCAPE

Shailen Mishra

 

When there was nowhere else to go, you hugged the person you could bring yourself most close to. You wrapped your arms around him, only to find that his chest got puffier and your grasp turned weaker. No embrace should get rejected like that, let alone a tender and loving one. Something was wrong, yet you ignored the warnings. Why?

  1. Love has always been resurrected upon ashes
  2. Having never hugged anyone so tightly before, you didn't know how it worked
  3. You failed to take some basic precautions, like measuring the length of your arms and the width of his chest
  4. He was him, one of a kind, why should anything be wrong with him?
  5. His name was Paras

     Paras was gone. He had been gone for fourteen weeks now. No, not dead, rather he went to Mumbai to become an actor. Good luck to him! It suited a man like him with sharp features and charming manners to try out his destiny in Bollywood. He used to be a bright and alluring fixture of the street. To watch him pump iron on the roof, to watch him pretend to read while he had a phone sandwiched between the pages of the book, to watch him run in the neighborhood in circles, to watch him enjoy his morning tea on the balcony, to watch him smile and wave at you and to turn away shyly when your eyes lingered too long. You did a lot of watching when he was here. He was doted upon by his parents and the entire neighborhood. He knew his powers, and that's why he left to test them in a bigger pond.
     From an early age, you had your eyes and intuitions tuned to numbers, even though your talent remained unacknowledged by your teachers and parents. You moved in the numerical world with ease. Be it doing mental math or solving arithmetic puzzles, you were crystal clear about the surety of numbers and their predictability. But then you grew up, got married, tried for a child which never worked, and your father, the only family you cared for, was the first to go before your mother. Your closest friend moved to Dubai and calls from her stopped coming. You no longer knew whether she was dead or alive. You gradually came to realize that there's no predictability in your domesticity, work life and everyday routine. You felt so played at times that you couldn't even trade numbers for complacency. Yet, you overheard Paras giving his phone number to someone and you instantly remembered it. You played silly games with the numerals in his phone number, discerning patterns in them. One plus one equals?

  1. Start of a mistake
  2. Distracting yourself with a riddle, when the answer is in plain sight
  3. Two, since as a banker your livelihood depends on it
  4. You & Paras
  5. One and only, lonely

     At some point in the dead of the night, the coconut fronds started rustling in the breeze and the summer heat dialed down a bit. Stray dogs got their cue; they stopped kicking ruckus. Your husband wasn't awake. Only you were at this hour, because this was when you revisited the holes in your past so that they didn't reappear in your dreams later. You scooted away from your husband and walked up to the window. Across the street from you, there was Paras, framed in his window without a shirt on and idling away his time. You grabbed the bars of the window tightly and brought your intense focus to lap up his little moves, like the toss of his bouncy pompadour, the patting of his shaved chest, the tugging of his chin to generate a thoughtful reflection…two mischievous souls up at this hour.
     When the breeze stopped, the dogs roused themselves from slumber and went after one another again. The mosquitoes buzzed too close for comfort. Your husband blabbered in his sleep. You weren't irritated at him this time; rather, you found sympathy for this selfish, inconsiderate man, who had forgotten why he married you, just like you had.
     Do you consider yourself a voyeur?

  1. How dare you? I'm a respectable woman
  2. True/False questions are not my strong suit
  3. Can a woman ever be a "voyeur" (even if she wants to) in this sexist and patriarchal society?
  4. I don't think mere appreciation for someone warrants a judgment like that
  5. Sometimes when I'm at home all by myself and the weather is a touch salty, I get into red and comfortable underwear, purple lipstick, pearl drop earrings and nothing else, and I take a ton of selfies; you want to see them?

     When Paras started a door-to-door canvass to advertise his father's new electronics showroom, you got excited. You'd get to talk to him at length and stand close enough to catch his scent. Not before two whole months did he bother to stop by and on an evening when your husband wasn't at home. It felt too good to be true. This is where the plot slips out of your grasp. Even though you had looked forward to such a private moment with him, you were genuinely vague about the course it would run. Paras, though, was calculative. When he followed you into the dining room, uninvited, you were tingled by his boldness. So impatient of him. He was there to steal a kiss perhaps. You won't say no. But things turned against you too fast. He moved clumsily but through a sequence of maneuvers that could only be deemed premeditated. He wasn't there for a kiss. Even realizing that, the extremities of his intent, took you some time. You remember being pinned against the wall, yet you remember holding his naked butt against you at some point. The whole thing had instances of rapture and at the same time feelings of betrayal. He left as soon as he buttoned his pants, while you remained glued to the wall. Your head and veins burned until you realized it's the insult that's stinging you. That night you couldn't share the bed with your husband. You dozed through the night, sitting on the daybed in darkness, fretting over the shards of your sweet infatuation. At one point, you were flattered by the thought that you, a woman in her early forties and almost twice his age, could elicit such passion in him. The next moment, you're appalled by that thought and you bawled, not caring that you might wake up your husband. You seethed over how aggressively he took advantage of you and how casually he washed his hands off you. You cried out: "Scum! You didn't even ask!"
     There's a happy place between the slipperiness of the make-belief world and the pain of the present, you just need to invoke the right word. What would your magic word be?

  1. ?
  2. x
  3.    

     The day Paras left for Mumbai there was much fanfare. The street was packed; a two-wheeler couldn't even pass through. He beamingly soaked up tears, wishes, and adoration showered upon him. From your balcony, you watched the spectacle with the amity and compassion of a well-meaning neighbor. Enough time had passed, and you had come to a fragile compromise. You had not forgiven him but you had come to view his going away as a relief to you. When your eyes locked with his, you waved, and as your gaze gratingly lingered he responded with the same shy and evasive smile. Out of habit, your heart leaped in excitement. In his absence, your memory of him would sweeten again perhaps. Yet, as his car was about to leave, your tongue involuntarily cursed: "Swine, may your dreams crash in the city of dreams." After the friends and neighbors left, his house turned sad and quiet. His mother and sisters went to his room to tidy things up and preserve their order as fiercely as they could. You immediately melted in tears. Paras, that name, always had a spellbinding effect on you. Paras, the one meant to parse out the precious from the fake. You banked on him to truly see you one day, to discover you, to give you a sense of security that numbers once gave you. Yet, you ended up finding him instead, trapping yourself in a haunted maze, puzzling over the multiplicity with no easy answer, pinpointing each time something confounding, and all this for measuring things wrong, just once.
     Somewhere in Mumbai a young man named Paras is finding a new foothold, settling into a new life, enveloping himself in rosy ambitions. His new world though is still unfilled, untried. Here is his apartment window, very similar in size and design to the one across from you, and he's not home yet. You can frame this empty canvas as per your wish and end the chapter. How do you want to remember him in his new place?

  1. He never returns, because he's forgotten his way back
  2. He enters the frame as a movie star, a changed man, ready to repent but on his tongue is another woman's name
  3. He walks into the frame backwards; time is ticking in reverse; stubbornly you accept the deal even though you know there's no going back
  4. His hanging body is seen in the window with a letter of apology left on the table
  5. Instead of him, you enter the scene to announce that you've escaped and they're casting you as Paras

 

 

 

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The form of this story is inspired by Alejandro Zambra's Multiple Choice.