A short story submitted to the Times of India Write India contest for Ravi Subramanian’s passage.
Maya looked across the table at her husband of two years. The man she had married, the one who smiled for her no matter what, had disappeared. It had begun slowly, almost imperceptibly. But then she began to notice. And then he changed more, a little at a time, until there was nothing left of the man she’d known.
Only a stranger.
And now, that stranger was staring at her, lips pressed together, eyes exasperated, expression grim.
“I only wanted to know when you’ll be back,” Maya said, her voice cold as she attempted to reign in her growing anger. All she’d done was ask one question. And Vivek had lost his temper. Again.
“Only?” Vivek scoffed, rolling his eyes. “It’s not only that, Maya. You always want to know everything. One question after another. Every day. And why do I have to give you a report of every damn thing I do?” he almost shouted, slamming his fist down on the table.
“Enough, Maya,” Vivek snapped. “Just stop nagging me.”
“Nagging?” Maya retaliated, her voice rising in exasperation. “I ask you one stupid question and I’m nagging? Shouldn’t a wife care about her husband’s whereabouts?”
“Care,” Vivek pointed. “Not stalk. There’s a difference.”
“You used to love the attention once upon a time,” Maya retorted. “But I guess now that we’re married-”
“Not this again,” Vivek growled. “This has nothing to do with being married or taking you for granted. I’ve told you repeatedly,” he added pointedly. “This has everything to do with the way you question everything I do. Admit it, Maya. You don’t trust me.”
“Of course I do,” she replied without pause. “Even though you don’t exactly deserve it.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
Maya stared at her husband without replying, her nostrils flaring slightly with each angry intake of breath.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Vivek finally said. “Not this again!”
“It doesn’t even take you a minute to realize that I’m referring to her,” Maya said, the word rolling off her tongue in disgust.
“You’re too much, Maya,” Vivek said, shaking his head in disappointment. Grabbing the keys that lay on the table, he turned away and walked off.
“Yeah, yeah,” Maya sneered, her expression twisted in anger and disgust. “Better rush off to work. She’ll be waiting for you.”
Vivek stopped and turned to look over his shoulder at his wife. He stared at her for a long moment and then. Turning away, he left without a word, leaving Maya to stare after him with anger bubbling within her.
Vivek nursed the cool beer bottle between his hands, rolling it slightly as his gaze ran across the small apartment. He was sitting on a low sofa, his legs crossed in front of him. A low table lay in front of him and three more chairs like the one he occupied were around the table. Adjacent to the living room area was another one that had been made into a bedroom with a low bed, small dresser and a desk in one corner. A small but neat kitchen was attached to the other side of the living room area. Next to it, with a door that opened into the bedroom, was the bathroom.
Where Kanika was.
His eyes stopped on the door to the bathroom and he instantly recalled how sweet Kanika had been to him. She had caught onto his bad mood the moment he’d entered office and asked him about it. For days he’d avoided giving her an answer. But every day, he would go back to a home filled with nothing but tension and a stranger where his wife had once been. And his mood would get worse. Until now, three weeks after Maya and he had last fought – last spoke – when he’d finally realized that he needed to vent.
And he’d turned to Kanika.
“Still thinking about what Maya said?”
Vivek snapped back to the present and found Kanika standing in front of him. She’d changed into a pair of loose shorts and a tee shirt.
Vivek shook his head to push away the forbidden and surprising thought. He raised his gaze to look at Kanika, suddenly embarrassed. “I don’t know what to say,” he said, his expression turning sheepish.
“It’s not your fault that she’s insecure,” Kanika said, coming to sit next to him. “A niggle of doubt can blow into a mammoth of an idea. That’s what happened to Maya too.”
“There wouldn’t be any doubt if she trusted me,” Vivek said.
“Maybe I am the one she doesn’t trust,” Kanika said, her eyes sparkling mischievously as she grinned.
Vivek laughed, shaking his head at the friendly banter. That’s all it had ever been, friendly banter. He’d never thought anything more of Kanika.
Except that she really was spectacularly good looking.
Vivek was hit by another wave of embarrassment at his thought. But then, as he watched her speak, her comforting words going unheard, he had to admit that she was, truly, extremely beautiful. He’d have to be blind to miss that. She made heads turn. And it didn’t help that she was as sweet as she was pretty.
“Sorry,” Vivek said, Kanika’s questioning look pulling him back to the present. “What?”
“More beer?” Kanika asked.
“I shouldn’t,” Vivek said, leaning forward to place the empty bottle on the table.
“Are you feeling any better?” Kanika asked, concerned.
“Not really,” Vivek shrugged, finding no reason to lie to her.
“Then we’re not done yet,” Kanika said, getting to her feet. “I called you back to my place to change your mood. And you’re not leaving until that’s done. Now,” she added with a mockingly stern expression, “wait right here.”
Two hours later, Kanika jumped up from her seat and turned on her music system. The sound of English pop songs from the 1990s flooded the room. “Come on,” Kanika shouted over the music. “Time to dance your worries away.”
She grabbed Vivek by the hand and pulled him to his feet. He pulled himself away long enough to place his empty whiskey glass next to hers and then joined her. Kanika threw her arms around his shoulders and closed the distance between them. Vivek’s hands slipped around her waist as he lost himself in the cheesy music and the buzz from numerous glasses of whiskey. They danced for a long time, neither one aware of the time that passed, and finally stopped only when the disc ended.
“Wow,” Vivek gasped, lips curved in a smile of satisfaction. “I haven’t danced in too long.”
“It didn’t seem like it,” Kanika laughed, squeezing his shoulders.
Vivek smiled wordlessly, suddenly aware of the lack of distance between them. He could feel the dampness of her skin through her tee shirt, could feel the soft curve of her waist. And he could feel the slight squeeze of her hands against his shoulders. Her laugh died away as she looked at him. Her eyes were suddenly shielded, like they were protecting the hesitation she felt. Her breathing became shallower and she gently, involuntarily, bit her lower lip. Vivek knew, without doubt, that she wanted him to kiss her.
And knew that he wanted to kiss her.
“Okay,” Vivek said, jumping back as he realized how wrong his feelings were. “I’d better go,” he added, dropping his hands to his side. He felt Kanika’s hands slide down his arms before falling to her side, each moment making it more difficult for him to stay true to his decision. “I…” he trailed off as he took a deep breath to buy time and frame the sentence he needed to voice. “I have to get back home,” he finally said and turned away.
He felt Kanika’s hand grab his wrist. “Back to a wife who doesn’t understand you? Doesn’t appreciate you?”
Vivek turned, his breath catching as he saw the earnestness in her expression. The flirting that had begun so harmlessly months ago had turned into something else without him realizing. He had developed desire for the woman with whom he worked, the woman who was gorgeous, caring and smart, the woman who always understood him, without exception. And now, he wanted to do nothing more than stoke the flames of passion that roared in her eyes. “She’s still my wife,” he said, his voice hard as he battled himself.
“Yes,” Kanika whispered, coming forward until her body just grazed his. “But I am the one who loves you,” she whispered, her gaze holding his as she ran her thumb across his jaw.
Vivek knew that the decision he was willing to take wasn’t a right one. He knew that it would bring Maya pain. But he was exhausted. He was tired of fighting her, fighting her baseless allegations, fighting her constant nagging, fighting her all the time on issues that didn’t even exist. And he was tired of feeling sad, alone, and unloved. All he wanted was some happiness, something that would give him some peace.
And that something was standing before him, waiting for him to make his decision. So, he did.
“God,” he growled, his stomach turning with anticipation as he slipped one hand behind her neck and the other around her waist. “I didn’t even know that I wanted you this bad,” he breathed. Pulling her against him, he brought his lips to hers. And felt the world melt away as she dug her hands into his shoulders with urgency and kissed him back with unbridled hunger.
Maya stared across the room at Sanjay, her expression impatient. Sanjay stared back at her wordlessly, his lips pressed together in unwelcome resignation.
“So that’s it?” Maya asked. “That’s all you’re going to say?”
“What else do you want me to say?” Sanjay countered. “You asked me if there was something going on with Vivek and I told you what I know, that there’s nothing. So, what else?”
“He hasn’t been home before midnight once in the past month,” Maya confessed. “He’s out all weekend and when he is at home, he barely speaks to me.”
“Your last argument was pretty bad, Maya,” Sanjay said, reminding her of the words she’d said to him seven weeks ago. “Maybe it’s still eating at him.”
“That’s bullshit,” Maya spat. “You know as well as I do that he doesn’t take so long to work things out in his head.”
“What are you getting at?” Sanjay asked cautiously.
Maya looked at him, her expression turning tired. For a moment, she looked like she would give in, accept that it had been their argument that had created the rift between husband and wife. But she knew that it was more than that. Much more. And her expression turned furious.
“What the hell is going on between my husband and that bitch?” Maya’s patience was at its lowest ebb and she was ready to burst.
Sanjay knew that she was serious. “Look, Maya. There is nothing going on between the two of them. Just a little bit of healthy flirting, I’d say.”
“Flirting? Healthy flirting? Really Sanjay…” she rolled her eyes in disgust. “That’s what you men call it? There is nothing healthy about flirting, Sanjay, not for a married man. Healthy flirting is a term introduced by perverted men who want to lend legitimacy to their extramarital dalliances. Flirting invariably has a sexual connotation to it.”
She got up from her seat and walked around the room gesticulating and muttering something to herself. Suddenly she stopped, turned back, looked at Sanjay and asked, “Did my husband sleep with her? You are his friend. Did he ever tell you anything about it?”
Sanjay’s expression gave away his answer even before he could speak.
“He did,” Maya said, her voice low, and the words spoken aloud finally making it a reality she had to accept.
“He said he regretted it,” Sanjay finally said.
“Then why is he still doing it?” Maya asked, her eyes wide and filled with tears that threatened to spill over.
Sanjay came up to her and gently held her shoulders. His expression was twisted in concern as he looked down at her. Suddenly, the anger and jealousy had disappeared. All that remained was a broken woman who knew that things were going to change.
“I don’t know,” Sanjay said, his voice quivering with deep honesty. “I’m so sorry, Maya. You don’t deserve this. I tried to tell him. But… you don’t deserve this,” he repeated.
Maya looked at him without speaking for a long moment. And then, she finally confessed. “I’ve known,” she said, tears trickling down her face. “I just didn’t want to accept. If it wasn’t her, it would have been someone else. The truth is that Vivek and me… our marriage is over. This is just the way it had to end. The truth is that I’ve been alone for a long time. I’m exhausted, Sanjay,” she said, laying her head on his chest and holding him against her. “I feel ugly and unwanted. And I don’t know how that’ll ever change.”
“You can never be unwanted,” Sanjay said fiercely, pulling her back to look at her. “You’re not ugly. You’re beautiful and warm and loving. Vivek is the fool who doesn’t realize that. Any man would be lucky to have you. And I don’t know any man who wouldn’t want you.”
“Would you want me?” she asked.
“I…” Sanjay paused, his expression giving away his uncertainty. And then, it turned determined. “I’ve wanted you since the day I saw you.”
“Then make me feel wanted, Sanjay,” Maya said, her voice hoarse with need. “Make me feel loved.”
“Vivek is my best frie-”
“Vivek and I are over,” Maya said. “Have been for a long time. I want you, Sanjay. I need you.”
Sanjay looked at Maya, his doubts and desires flashing across his face. And then, all doubts gave way to certainty. He pulled Maya against him and kissed her, holding none of his desire back. And Maya melted into the passion of his embrace.
Sanjay stared out the window of his dining room at the stars that grew brighter with every passing minute. He couldn’t hide from the truth any longer. He had met Maya a few months before she married Vivek. She’d already been dating his best friend so he didn’t act on his first reaction – he found her spectacular and wanted her to be with him. He hadn’t expected it to reach marriage, but it had. And he’s kept his true feelings for her reigned in.
But that didn’t make any of it right.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Maya asked, her voice soft.
Sanjay sighed and turned around. His heart jumped at how vulnerable she looked sitting at the table, how beautifully shy. But that didn’t reduce the guilt he felt.
“We shouldn’t have…” he trailed off.
“Maybe,” Maya said, coming to stand before him. “But we wanted to.”
“You’re a married woman,” Sanjay argued.
“Who has nothing left in her marriage,” Maya added.
“None of this matters, Sanjay,” Maya interrupted. “What matters is what we feel. I know I love you. You’ve helped me see that. Now you need to tell me honestly,” she added, raising her hand to cup his cheek, “do you love me?”
“Yes,” Sanjay replied without hesitation.
“Then that’s it,” she added.
“What about Vivek?”
“Vivek has no place in my life,” Maya said. “He hasn’t for a while. It just needs to be made formal.”
“You’d do that?” Sanjay asked, surprised.
“For you,” Maya nodded.
“Maya,” Sanjay said, elation filling him. He knew it would be difficult. He would lose his best friend. And he’d face guilt every day for a long time. But it would be worth it. For Maya. She was finally his. Only his. And he had no doubt that he had taken the right decision, in spite of the pain it would bring, when Maya pulled him against her and claimed his lips with her own.
The knock resounded clearly throughout the hotel room. Maya got up from the bed where she’d been sitting for fifteen minutes and walked to the door. She pulled the door open and broke into a smile.
“Sorry I’m late,” Kanika said as she crossed over into the room.
“No problem,” Maya said, shutting the door before turning to her guest. “How have you been?”
“Fine,” Kanika said. “Now that I’m sleeping with your husband,” she smiled.
“Yeah,” Maya laughed. “You really managed to do it.”
“It wasn’t much of a challenge,” Kanika replied, walking to the mini-bar and pouring two drinks. “I always get what I want. But you,” she continued, handing Maya one glass, “took me by surprise. I didn’t think you’d go through with it.”
“I always get what I want too,” Maya replied, clinking her glass against Kanika’s. “And I wanted Sanjay. You just gave me a way out of my boring marriage.”
“Why not just divorce Vivek?” Kanika asked.
“And get Sanjay’s wrath for hurting his best friend? No way!” Maya replied. “I needed to give Sanjay something good enough to betray his best friend. And that’s when I saw you at Vivek’s office party. I knew right then you had a thing for him.”
“So you convinced me to pursue him,” Kanika added.
“And I drove him away,” Maya nodded. “Now you have Vivek. And I have Sanjay. It’s too bad that they’ll take a while to recover from all the heartbreak. Going to throw such a wrench in our sex lives.”
“But putting both of them through so much pain just for what you want is a bit selfish, isn’t it?” Kanika asked, her eyes twinkling conspiringly.
“Doesn’t bother you,” Maya noted. “Nor me,” she added as Kanika laughed.
“True. But today is the last time we meet,” Kanika said.
“Yeah, we don’t need each other anymore,” Maya agreed. “You got what you wanted. And I got what I wanted,” she added raising her glass and watching Kanika mirror her movement. “Here’s to us!”
– Rishika S.