Saturday, November 21, 2015

2015 DNA-OUT OF PRINT Short Fiction Shortlist: Meghna Pant

The Good Husband
Meghna Pant

The digital clock is blinking its red numbers: 3:45 pm. What day is it today? I count the last time my downstairs neighbour Aliya had visited. One … two … three … four. Four days ago. So, today is Wednesday.
I stretch languidly on my bed. I don’t have to be anywhere, not even at work. My consulting company has put me on paid leave, ‘giving me time to recover from my indescribable loss’, as that lumpy Mrs HR lady wrote in her terribly long email.
Aliya, my downstairs neighbour, will be here shortly, to fulfil her duty as one of my many sympathisers, though none of my other sympathisers have a mouth like a liquid feather bed, breasts like paddling pools and legs long enough to wrap around me.
I need to take a cold shower. I bathe on days that Aliya comes home, twice a week. On the other days, there is no need. I no longer meet people. No parents. No wife. No colleagues. No boss. No friends. I am losing my former life like a snake shedding skin. But I have one thing. I have a body. That is enough for me.
I look at the clock. 5:05 pm.
The body will be here soon and I’m getting horny. My hunger for Aliya reaches my stomach. It growls. I walk to the kitchen and open the fridge.
I haven’t gone hungry since the tragedy. Mrs. Khanna, my next-door neighbour, has devised a roster system whereby each household in the building takes turns to make food for me. My father had loaned her twenty-thousand-rupees three years ago that she hasn’t repaid. She doesn’t know I know. I allow her to pay for her guilt by playing on the sympathy and morality of our other neighbours. My neighbours do not know what to do with a man in his forties living alone in his three-bedroom apartment despite having a wife, so they feed me like they’re feeding a family. My fridge is bursting with food, most of which has turned green and leaks brown liquid. I like to watch the food dwindle away and come to naught, as all life must. I don’t clean anything either. My house smells of ammonia and sulphur, unlike anything I’ve smelled in a house before. It’s scented with my odours. I feel proud.
I light a doobie. I smoked endlessly now, not out of the window, as I would have around Katie, but inside the house. I watch the smoke spiral languidly from my mouth. My eyes are always red now, from drinking and drugs. People think I’ve been crying. It isn’t my fault that people ascribe emotion to every relationship. In marriage they expect to see love, or at least, co-dependence. Who am I to shake this universal paradigm?
I switch on the TV and flip channels. I stop at National Geographic where a man’s self-assured British accent tells me that lions move on pretty quickly after their mates die.
I think of how Mom and Dad would have coped if I’d gone before them. Would they have died of heart failure as Dad had after Mom’s accident? Probably not. In the circle of life, parents witness their child’s birth and a child witnesses his parent’s death. My parents hadn’t witnessed my birth. Mom was heavily medicated, while Dad was stuck in traffic. I was born alone. They never expressed regret or guilt about it. In turn – karma, of course – I didn’t witness my parent’s death. They left quickly, efficiently (this was just the kind of people they were) and without saying goodbye. I too refuse to feel regret or guilt. We are (were?) an efficient family.
I speculate on what Katie would do if I die before her. She’d have a dinner party on the day of my funeral, as is the custom in her family. The next week she’d book a one-way ticket to New York. Six months later she would remarry, probably that ex-boyfriend of hers, the one (she confessed once in a martini-infused state) who got away. She would be an elegant widow, a short-lived one.
Some dead are forgotten as if they are shadows passing the earth.
I will not cry.
It’s six o’clock. Aliya will be here any minute. I look around for a clean pair of underwear. I can’t remember where I’ve kept one. Katie would’ve known.
Katie knew everything about me. And despite that she stayed with me. She played house-house with me: husband and wife. She planned the names of our children. She remembered my birthday and reminded me gently of her own. She flattened the end of my toothpaste tube so I didn’t have to squeeze too hard.
I wonder then if I’ve been unfair to Katie. All I have of her are memories that I haven’t been entirely true to. Maybe I love her. Maybe I need her. Vegetable or not, I need her, I love her. Without her I am alone in the world.
A little hope comes back to me, as if hope can be big or little, like a person. And then, the cry I’ve been holding back for all these months, wells up in my eyes. It becomes a sob. And then I am wailing. I cry first for myself, for my pathetic loneliness, then for my Katie who may never hold me again, and then for my parents whose love was incomplete but sincere. I cry for everything in my life that has gone wrong, and right. I don’t care if anyone hears me, not even Aliya with her breasts like paddling pools. I let it all out.
Come back to me, Katie. Come back.
I will be a better husband, a better man.
The doorbell rings. It’s Aliya. I wipe my tears and open the door.

Meghna Pant is an award-winning author, journalist and TEDx speaker. Her debut collection of short stories Happy Birthday, Random House India, 2013 was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Award 2014. One And A Half Wife, Westland, 2012, her debut novel won the national Muse India Young Writer Award and was shortlisted for other awards, including the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.
She recently abridged the world’s longest epic, The Mahabharata, into one hundred tweets. Her short stories have been published in over a dozen international literary magazines, including Avatar Review, Wasafari, Eclectica and QLRS.

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