Day Seven, Maybe
It could be day seven. Or day eighty-nine. Whichever way you looked at it, the day was as same as the day before. Sitting out on the balcony, Swapna obliterated the last nub of cigarette under her slippers. Out on the balcony because her live-in partner of eighteen months hated smoking. So far it had worked out. The living-in business. They had been able to side step disagreements smoothly. Now this virus who was no Cyrus but a nobody speck who looked like a blotch with bleeding edges and unflattering tufts had to ruin everything. Life outside the apartment complex looked like something out of Birds. All those eyes. Panicky. Cautious. Doomsy. Zombie-like. Averted. Inside, Pawan listened to a man with a flowing white beard, which seemed like an essential in any spiritual guru kit. Planets, the bearded one said. Hollywood, she still said.
Theirs had been a successful relationship. Swapna only did successful things. The art of succeeding was distance. But this brand of distance imposed was not so much distance as too little distance and Pawan felt as pleasing to her as a grater did to a carrot being scraped against it, spilling into a rain of orange. Where she longed for the distance that came from a life of movement, Pawan was less imaginative. He was all for physical distance, all six feet of it, as prescribed. He slept in the spare bedroom which meant Swapna could not get on top and grind to Redbone. It meant Swapna had to grind to rabbit which was not altogether so bad, possibly even better, which was also not a very good thing.
But. She could fart. Freely. The freedom was new. She had always been with housemates and partners, and now by herself in the bedroom what had to be polite could be expressed impolitely. When it came too fast and too frequent, she called her GP. Normal, completely normal, it is the stress, what stress is doing to you, the GP said. An explosion sounded. You hear that? Her GP asked. We are all in the same boat, honey. A sentimentality unknown to her surged and in a choking voice, Swapna said, a sisterhood. No! You are exaggerating now. Also a fall out of stress, her GP said.
Pawan came out, gave the sky a look of approval and Swapna, who sat in a smoky fog, a look of disapproval. It was five in the evening. He began to clap. In the building opposite, a woman started clanging pots and pans, and somehow amidst all that cacophony she was creating not so much to thank anyone but to ward off the evil, she freed one hand to vigorously wave at them. Swapna pretended not to see. Pawan chose to see and waved back with enthusiasm. Who knew we could make friends during quarantine, he said. Indeed, Swapna said.
The lockdown was a time of many discoveries. It was only day seven (or eighty-nine) and Swapna discovered her underarms didn’t fare well on their own without a spritz of deo. They smelled like fenugreek. She discovered a cloud of sound around her. The hum of the fridge and then something more ravenous with teeth in it which came out only at night. There was the strange metal string sound that she was not sure if others heard too or if it was just her. A metal string stretching with a tight tension in it. When she exhausted the sounds, she listed out all the swear words she knew. It was a short list. An unimaginative list.
fuck you fucker motherfucker bastard asshole
She listed the three C's of the Covid season: casteism, classism, clangs, and candles. Pawan flicked up one, two, three, and four fingers. Four, he said. She left the room.
She flicked on Insta. Instaregret. The coronavirus positivity was as catchy as the virus itself. We will get out of this as better people (eye roll) Let us slowwww down (heart stab) Write a book, Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague (clearly, he was not on social media) Think about how you came out of a stressful situation (Hmmm) She thought: the how-to mania, the greatest con ever. She had made it through it. Phew, better already. Wait, she was still in it.
The second wave of social covid media opened the door to a new world. You know it is a stressed world that is peering out at you with a goofy grin when All Is Food said the way you’d say Oh. My. God. Food books, people preparing food, food art, food non-art. Food, food, food.
It was her turn to cook. Pawan watched her from six feet away, playing and miming Come Away with Me. She blasted Offence. He and Norah moved further away, to a distance more palatable to her. She poured out semolina into the boiling water. Stirring, she contemplated on the word semolina. se.mo.li.na. semo.lina. se.mo.lina. semoli.na. semo.li.na. sem.oli.na. It was too smooth, without the lightest graininess. Comfort me, semolina, she said.
We have to vote for who should go out to stock up, Pawan said. Pawan, he said. Swapna raised her hand. Swapna, he said raising both his hands. Swapna sighed and went out. She conceded to a certain pleasure that came from going out unmade. Pajamas and most of her face hidden behind a disposable surgical mask.
Art from protests were being painted over. Essential services only. Right. A group of migrant workers walked by, a slow-moving river. It was a different kind of distance they were trying to overtake. Swapna had a few thousands on her. She gave two to the woman at the tail. She wanted to walk on before the woman said anything. But the woman was too tired to say anything. Swapna fought off the urge to take that woman back home. She made the woman’s helplessness hers but Swapna had a home around the corner. The woman who trudged, hers was many, many miles away.
[Country o' mine. Where all gods converge. Where and how did we go so wrong?]
Privilege pounded Swapna’s head like a sledgehammer. She came home. Pawan grinned. My hero, he said. Swapna wanted to transplant the pounding from her head to his. He was in the happy child pose. A turtle on its back. Swapna flopped down. An unhappy child pose.
She had hoped the walk to the grocery store would serve to be the rumored absence that made the heart fonder. Instead the lightness that came from it made him a stranger.
Her British coworkers were in worse shape. They looked at Swapna beseechingly from three square blocks on the screen after manically checking to make sure the virtual room was locked against intruders with a proclivity for pulling their pants down. It was strange. This reversal of roles. Third world, first world, one world. But how, they asked. How is India managing? By not testing enough, Swapna said every single time.
As despair gained on her, Swapna took an about turn into Optimism. She looked up at the clear blue skies with a sweep of cirrus clouds. She thought of Venice. When it finally goes under it will be into clear waters and a raft of ducks in its wake. She was not sure if that counted as a positive thought. Something told her not. She tried again.
It was strange, the coming together of hands at her heart. The future was a distance she wanted to catch up with and cross now.