Everything about Akaash felt real. Real, because he seemed to have existed in my life forever, despite this being untrue. He is most real in my memories. We were sharing an apartment back in college. Dormitory life did not suit us, and we found refuge in each other’s company. It was a decision made over store-bought pizza, a random idea come to life.
My most vivid memory?
It was the end of the exam season, evident by the state of our place. Books were stacked on every possible surface, utensils still waiting to be washed in the sink. We were watching a crappy, low-budget horror film on Akaash’s laptop. Our Cheeto-colored couch sagged under our combined weight. A bowl of dried raisins sat between us.
‘I don’t like the knock-off Drac,’ I said.
‘That’s Mister Drac to you,’ he said with a grin. It was his most used expression, the second being the scrunched nose face. I threw a raisin at him, which he had no qualms with eating.
Living with him was calming, a cycle I was used to. I was used to him knocking on my bedroom door, asking if I want a snack. I was used to him falling asleep on the couch, and to seeing him bring more potted plants despite my warnings of killing them off. I was used to him telling me that nothing is wrong, and I was used to telling him to take it easy, even after we went our separate ways. I was used to calling him at every opportune moment, at the inside jokes, at his uncanny manner of knowing my thoughts.
He is real, still very much real to me. Which sounds like a colossal joke, since I can’t see him anymore. All for one simple reason.
My best friend is dead.
‘What do you mean?’ I did not shake, did not tremble.
‘He’s passed away.’ Her voice sounds reedy like she has been crying for hours on end. I wonder when she found out his breath had left him. The thought rankles in my chest.
‘How?’ If it happened to be an accident it would leech the life out of me.
She sniffed before replying. ‘In his sleep. The doctor says it may be due to overworking…’
My chest went tight again. Truly, nothing I could do about it. It was something out of my control.
The rest of the call is a jumble. I don’t think to offer my condolences, don’t think to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’
I am unmoored.
The rest of the day passes in its usual fashion. Dinner gets cooked, but my appetite decides to desert me today. Things are fine until the lights are put out, and I become a stranger in my own room. I do not know this person who sits up in bed, numb. Sleep calls out, but I’m deaf to it. I can only think of calling him and reminiscing the past, a need to share nostalgia.
When I do sleep, I dream of being afloat, in an all-encompassing sea. There is no fish, no other life. Only me, salt, and sea.
Time is slippery like an eel. One drive feels like minutes and decades.
Akaash hated driving, meaning I was the designated driver when we had a vehicle at hand. And driving to his place feels right. I have a bouquet of white flowers next to me but giving his wife flowers now seemed rude.
Time slips from me again, and I am at their place. I do a shoddy job of parking my car, I’m so keyed up. I get my knee to stop bouncing, fix my lipstick in my rear-view mirror. My hair is tied back so tight I can feel pinpricks of pain in my scalp. I look like a ghost.
I finally pick up the courage to bear pleasantries.
My breaths are shallow as I am ushered in. The new widow nowhere to be seen, but I follow clusters of people till they lead me to her. She is a tiny thing, eyes red-rimmed and her smile is drawn taunt. I barely hold myself from pushing the crowd circling her. But when lock eyes we move towards each other without hesitation. I am hugging her tight.
‘You’re late.’ Her voice is muffled by my shirt, and I hold her head still.
‘I didn’t want to be here,’ I admit, ‘but I needed to know you were fine.’
She pushes me ever so slightly. ‘How do I look?’
‘Terrific,’ I lie, and a shadow of her real smile passes by.
I don’t enjoy crowds, least of all now, so I move out to a balcony. The view is stunning as always, a spread of restless water, but it does not hold my attention. I instead watch the person who arrived there before me.
My old flame has aged well. His hair has shifted from sandy to snow-white, and the same could be said for his trimmed beard. A lit cigarette sits between his fingers, a sad smile on his lips. He has not noticed me yet.
‘Hi stranger,’ I say.
He looks at me, first in disbelief and then in wonder. ‘You haven’t aged a day.’
I scoff. ‘Your surprise offends me. How is your bride?’
He gives me a knowing look, but answers regardless. ‘Getting ready to put up with me. She does not like the house, but she will manage. So, is it really true?’
My budding smile wilts. ‘I’m not a liar. The more time stretches out in front of me, the more obsessed I am with the past. Death will not come for me.’ My hands are fists. ‘Is it true? Look at me. Have I changed?’
I know how I look. Not a wrinkle has made it on to my face, and not a strand of hair has changed colour. Just like all those years ago.
He takes this in silence and then nods his head in affirmation. My anger breaks as quickly as it rises.
‘I believe you now. Back then I thought you were making excuses not to marry me.’
‘It does sound outlandish.’
‘Understating as always.’ The cheer is back in his voice.
I look at the sea head-on, noticing how it almost sparkles. ‘I’m going to be gone for a while.’
He puts his cigarette out, throwing the butt over the edge of the balcony and turning to me. ‘How long is a while?’ he asks, false nonchalance in his countenance.
‘Two minutes, two years,’ I gesture, ‘time is liquid to me.’
His expression is intent, focused. I notice the crow’s feet by the edge of his eyes. They weren’t there the last time we met. ‘And?’
‘Please take care of her for me. I have an album of Akaash’s college photos, she can have them. I already sent it to your place.’
‘Nita.’ He sounds sad again. I wonder if it looks like I’m mourning. I only feel numb.
‘I’ll see you whenever,’ I say, and leave before I hear his reply.
I decided to stay the night. They have enough rooms, and it is best to keep her busy, keep her moving. It would be my last meal in a while, and I eat my food with relish.
‘You were always a good eater,’ she says.
‘And you were always a good cook.’
We avoid talking about Akaash. I have an inkling that we will cry if we do, and we can’t have that. We need to be strong now.
‘This may come as a surprise,’ I begin, ‘but I will be going on a…pilgrimage of sorts.’
She furrows her brow. ‘You’re not the religious sort.’
‘No,’ I agreed, ‘I’m not. Like I said, of sorts.’
‘How long will this so-called pilgrimage be?’
She detests long answers, so I answer truthfully. ‘I don’t know.’
She expects me to say more but looking at her hurts. I go back to eating.
When I’m sure the house is asleep, I make my way out. The walk to the beach is not long, by any estimates, but the dark makes it difficult to navigate. I walk down a slope barefoot, and before I know it my footfalls on sand instead of concrete. It is cool, and I feel settled.
It is a new moon, and no light reaches me. It is comforting, this natural nothing, not like the night in my room. I follow the sound of waves crashing till I feel the water lapping my toes, and then breaking at my ankles. It is warmer than I anticipated.
I feel a chill as I take off my clothes, goosebumps running up my arms. I walk into the water until the sand disappears and I am suspended in space.
I am unmoored but safe. Time will heal, I tell myself. And I have enough of that. And so I stay afloat, only sea, salt, and me.
Mahika Mukherjee is a student at Krea University, India. She is known for her self-published collection of poetry titled ‘A God’s Tears. Her writing can be found on her blog: mahikamukherjee.com