Fourteen years ago this day I sat next to you, your head on my shoulder, your disheveled long hair brushing my shirt softly, smelling of lavender. The sun was exceptionally bright that afternoon, flirting with the breaking shadows of white feathery sails on the waves of the Charles.
Every moment elongated to encircle a lifetime, to be savored.
There was a line written on the blackboard inside the classroom behind us.
I had scribbled it last night when you sat on that rickety chair and I was writing the solution to life.
After a series of equations, that line read with clichéd profoundness: “All’s fair in love and war.”
There was passion in the heart then, and the tendency to cling and trust, and look forward to a perfection that followed logically.
I was the best, you were great, and life abounded with its promises.
We had spent days and nights together, striving to find the meaning of life and existence, opting to belong.
There were diagrams on that blackboard that often got refreshed, displaying multiple universes, wormholes and journeys of an inexplicable but unique consciousness across the world, experiencing events most fantastic and worthwhile — adding value to the gift of life.
“Does consciousness move through time and space?”
“It is the same one, and time and space wrap around, so when you talk to another person, you are just interacting with you at another point of the wrapping thread.”
“That’s naïve and stupid.”
“That’s splendid, actually.”
We were nourishing the equations together, moment by moment, for months, sitting side by side as our essence sipped into each other.
You sat on that table, next to that equipment, and I caught a butterfly once.
It was sitting on top of the counter, next to the computer that analysed our data. You were drawing a woman’s face in that computer spreadsheet using your mouse while complaining how boring it all was.
That moment elongated to fill the space and fluttered into the lengthy string of time connecting the notion of now with itself
so this exact iota of time sitting delicately on those wings pervaded the very obvious — us.
In the confinement of that room, between the four white walls, there were a few questions marks scattered about
the universe — the mystery of the mass gap, the nature of dark matter and alternate sources of energy.
But the room was filled with photons bouncing off the books, the stark chairs and the table — making matter look mundane and mass seem solidly planted. Light washed out the glass panes and abounded — more than we could need or want, the halogen lamps all turned off. The equation gawking at us from the white washed pages looked tractable. A few hours would do, after the face was drawn to mimic us on that screen.
Fourteen years ago, we sat together and closed our eyes as we dove into the stream of time sitting side by side, fancying a lucid pool with mermaids and glittering fish, and the bright lemon light shining through the the glass irradiated the weed that swayed predictably, like a pendulum upon the pebble.
“What’s the speed of the stream?” I heard you say in my dream.
“Well, that’s quite obvious. Look at the maximum angle. It oscillates almost periodically.”
I did not vacillate to be assertive. The equations were certainly solvable. One would use Navier Stoke’s. There, the variables are well defined, summarized neatly. Newton’s second law works well, and had been used with accuracy. With that you added the simple notion that stress can be nicely decomposed. Pressure and viscosity are to be calculated. As we swam through that narrow tunnel of time lined with rocks and moss, the sun peeped in though a far away hole and the slender waves shimmered. We cataloged the fish and we gazed at the mermaids that slipped in through the burrows and we followed them into the wider part of the creek where the glowing star’s shadow was bigger and the bottom of a boat reflected on the sand.
As I closed my eyes and pushed through hard, side by side with you warm water and cold water brushed us lullabies. You would have saved me if there was a shark or if a storm broke out suddenly. Thunders were almost romantic. You held my hand firmly as confidence and trust were injected into my nerves. It was predictable, and it was doable. It was solvable.
Two stones struck together would yield fire — people figured it out.
A stone sharpened at the edge pierces into the heart of the dinosaur — some thoughts would harvest that too.
Deluges had come and people made dams. Tiny electrons dashed through thin wires, nudging one another, producing sparks. And a bold man sailing into the sea discovered new land.
The solutions were all out there. Nature had left those for us. Scattered on the skin of the world like star fish, waiting for us to pick and exhibit under glass sheets.
You and I simply needed to stay together and think. Think hard.
All’s fair in love and war. I remembered you writing on the board. And our love then spanned the field of imagination. Once you added to an element, you got yet another, possibly in a slightly different form, yet within the domain — a group of red, blue, ocher, orange and green coming together in a rainbow and unifying in pure white. Our war was against time and we would stretch it in our journey and bring it to the beginning to swim eternally in this stream with maidens clad in fish-scale sewn tails slipping into the darker holes and starfish on the sand.
When I woke up it seemed like ever, an eternity in the water of tepid temptation. I craved for your hand yet again but felt sullen. The sun had set and stars were tired of twitches, were now solemnly racked upon the darkened heaven. The room was airless and tasted fetid. Outside, under the line of stark lamps breathing halogen, the grass looked all but mysterious, creeping up slowly towards the unknown on an otherwise dark canvas.
Under my unlaced shoes lay the path we had taken together, holding hands silently before I my reveries set in. The pebbled road looked familiar, yet foreign. It could have led to infinity but most likely did not. The footsteps marked in clay had all but disappeared and none seemed to be returning. They looked almost like the marks I left as I walked along it now but not quite. And they vanished in the dark and did not quite come back.
Fourteen years ago, I sat next to you by this river. We sat and stared at the waves, oscillating slowly, almost predictably. The velocity of the water seemed tractable. You had fused two pipes to show me. Once the water flowed from the thinner to the wider, the velocity tapered down. It was about stress and pressure and Newton’s law. Simple Navier Stokes.
Fourteen years ago, as we walked into the room with machines stacked in diffused light, there was love pouring out of our eyes. We did not have to say, we knew, we laved in it. You held my hand in the dark below the table. The teacher did not notice. We looked engrossed with the numbers popping up on that screen blinking in yellow. An hour or so later, a nice result would come out. The value of g was always very close to 9.8 m/s^2. Not always, but always close. The errors were random but small. You took 10 readings and some fell within ten percent on one side and some within ten percent of another.
You look somewhat shielded now, though you still manage to somehow tempt me deep into your soul.
“Why did you leave?” I almost ask, as I look at us in the river. Your hair is now slightly gray, eyes a little saggy. I remember a reddish mark next to your left shoulder. That did not change much though. Your lips are full like they used to be but the pink is disguised with red.
I want to ask you but I cannot. My pride hurts. I feel bitter inside my mouth and my palm sweats a little as I think back at the days when I nearly starved, sitting on a stool stuffing envelops. I had lost my job at the lab. Something had gone wrong. Something did not start. It hardly was my fault but no one cared or listened. I sat there for many days and listened to radio — music, news and jokes — as I stuffed thousands of mails inside envelops.
I was told you were now married, and had a child. I heard it when I was waiting for my favorite song to play. The world knew all about it. Everyone listening to that channel I mean. I heard it too but was unsure. But then I heard your voice.
I saw you with a girl one day. One that looked like you, almost angelic. You were sitting at the food court in Lechmere sipping mocha. You and your reflection in time split a plate of fries. Fourteen years ago you had sat beside me under a sky filled with fireworks echoed in the Charles, reverberated with Mozart. We had reached for the fries together as our hands brushed and I imagined our child together that day, looking almost like you, like this girl sitting with you, just with different eyes.
Fourteen years ago, as we walked side by side like we are walking today, we saw our image cast in the stream morph slowly into a man and a woman with heads held up high. We were smiling and we were successful. We came together as a whole that made sense as the ripples tried to distort the glowing mirage.
I look down to find us there in the very same stream, an inch below the peel of water flowing mildly. There are two of us in the middle age but we look older. I am limping a little bit and you used to be more erect.
I want to ask you if you loved him again, but I can’t. There had been women in my life. Many. I could see their faces flashing by and I tried to erase you often; you and me I mean. There was a tall and blond girl with icy gray eyes. I was about to get married but I didn’t. Something wasn’t right. Something didn’t feel right. The stream just wasn’t limpid any more. It did not appear infinite. The lucid tepid water in which we two swam. It felt cold and I felt dizzy. The pebbles were stuck in mud, and each time I tried to pick up a treasure, the water just became addled.
But the more I use the eraser the more defaced the pages become. More obscure and more meaningless. The pages marked 20 to 200 in my novel. The story of my life that simply cannot be rewritten or thrown away from the bounded copy of volume six. I cannot tear away today, and so yesterday is here to stay. Here to stay with you.
We walk side by side and closely. Our hands almost touch but not quite. No electricity flows through my nerves. Once you came close. Close enough to touch my coat and I moved away an inch. I shivered a little bit. I remembered years ago. A few years after you left.
I had thought that you were gone. There was an emptiness looming about but the void could have been filled after a day’s sun and a splash of rain. The grass was short but summer’s tears would hit the ground now and they would grow back sometime soon. The sky was about to get dark. The clouds gathered in layers of various shades of ashes — deep ones hurling below and fuzzy feathery ones trying to slip away but then succumbing to the pull of gravity.
My door bell had chanted a forgotten tune and a letter was left on the floor. A hand drawn splendid card. The edges smelled of lavender like you did long ago.
There were a few whitish flowers scattered about the page. A little larger than daisies — the ones we admired as we sat by the Charles many years ago.
I was unsure what to do. Whether I should have called you back or tried to locate your whereabouts. There was an address on the top, written in blue ink on the fibrous pink envelop. I was going to be in the area soon, very close to you. There was a meeting about machines that sorted food grains quickly. Something rather boring. Not one you would attend.
I would have invited you to a seminar on time and mass and space. But there was none that I quite knew of. I did not really think about those problems any more. I worked on sorting machines. Mundane ones. I had shelved all sorts of grand and high-browed ideas some place hidden. I had locked you up as well.
I shoved the card in a drawer and I tried to forget completely. I was sure I saw your house and was most possibly hoping that I would come across you by chance. But I don’t believe in accidents. I think about them in the back of my mind and then I drown them firmly. I never tried to ascertain if the silhouette behind the curtain of your house was actually you.
I met you once later, again. A few years from then. It was not the setting I had hoped for. You looked fragile and a little defeated. You were sitting in front of me at my office. With a folder on your lap. A folder that looked thin but was heavy. Very very heavy.
You came with a list of names. They were names circled in red, blue and green. They were names with numbers attached that definitely could bring this office down, and yours and the town — yes the town would go dark and the food would be quite questionable, if what you had in there was true.
I stayed seated erect in front of you with a stormy patch of emotions bubbling from the bottom — feelings that spanned love, hate, questions, concern and panic. Feelings that bounced around from you and me to me and the breathing walls of the town. Feelings in shades of red, yellow, blue, green and orange that did not come together but clashed.
I wanted to ask you why you left me but I didn’t.
I wanted to know if you were okay but I stayed calm.
I opened the folder slowly but my mind raced in time.
When I finally woke, you were standing baffled by the door.
“I am not sure if the data is all right,” you said. “I will have to recheck.
Don’t try to contact me. If there’s actually anything in it, I will come by soon.”
“I didn’t know you worked here,” you whispered, as you picked the folder up and slowly disappeared, yet again.
The cup of fuming coffee sat calmly on the table as I watched you leave, as your scent withered away.
I knew that you had lied. You lied coldly. You knew that I was here, and that’s why you had come. To tease me. You brought with you a folder. One with amazing numbers. Numbers and a list of names. A list that made no sense. A story that sounded fantastic. Almost like a science fiction with twists.
I was sure you came just to taunt me.
I tried to forget your existence and I wanted to sleep in peace. But I couldn’t. The list showed up in nightmares and a group of spectres haunted me in translucent white, almost like Casper but not childlike. They smelled of the living dead and they felt ice-cold, breathing chill. The names just became dynamic and chased me around to the edge. Faceless names that were ghosts.
I knew the list was untrue. It was your way of inflicting hurt. You knew the list would ache me and I would look for you in vain.
Like I searched for you after you had abandoned me that day. I woke up and you were not there.
But the apparitions you returned to gift me hardly went away. I saw them back at night and I felt them when I shut my eyes. When I tried to kiss that gorgeous girl they came back and laughed from behind.
I had been with many women. Many women and ghosts. Together over the years. As you must have sat back and enjoyed. It was supposed to be funny. But I would not have gone to look for you, I said. I would not let you win.
Fourteen years ago, you and I sat under a canopy of lights sparkling from beneath the dark water of the Charles. The tower to the left was studded with bluish stars. The mall, however, looks deserted now and the streets are almost barren. Students used to sprawl all across the lawn then. Only a few crows are now sitting close together, a little drenched.
I want to ask you why you left me yet again that day, but I don’t.
I walk side by side with you, trying to find the likeness among the pebbles by the river. Ochre, blue, pale and brown — I could stack them to paint a sculpture of sullenness topping the froth. A sea gull sweeps across.
“Remember we measured the speed of water here?” I say. “It is really not that simple.”
You don’t say much back in return. We walk on in a trance.
“I went near the ocean last June,” I say. “Right after the storm. The waves were splashing onto the cliffs. Dead bodies were stacked around. The men had gone out fishing.”
We walk a little more, and the breeze shuffle your hair. I smell the damp soil — a little salty.
“They didn’t look like people any more, you know.. just bodies.. piles of rotting meat spewed out by the ocean.”
I stop talking and we walk. There was a bridge right to the left. You and I sat on the pillar next to the boathouse once, trying to solve the problem set. The boathouse looks small.
“Navier Stokes, you remember?”
You don’t talk at all but I can discern a twitch around your chin. I know that you can see us sitting, our hands almost touching.
“The scales,” I elaborate further. “I read there was a problem with the scales. It works only when the scale is very coarse and you can approximate the motion because you can average everything out. But then all at once you have one particular inch. It breaks things down in a moment. You get turbulence out of nowhere.”
“You have done well in life,” you open your mouth at last, appearing impervious to my monolog. You say it quite softly, as if you just woke up or returned from a journey. I cannot comprehend whether it is sarcasm or admiration mingled with that voice. Fourteen years ago we saw us together climbing up to the crescendo, the world gazing at us.
“Yes,” I say slowly. I do not mention my job. I had lost it and then I had spent years stuffing envelops. Not in a lab, but in a post office across the block. I had a small one room apartment, and a stove. The car was second hand with an engine that failed often and stopped at times in the snow.
“Did you have an accident?” you notice at last my limp.
“Just a slip in the shower,” I lie. I had been at the hospital for a month. There were stitches all over my body. The pain was so enormous that most often I was sedated. When I was up I wanted to die.
I had picked up the pen then, and the books. Years after I had left them behind. I had started solving the problems that long long ago appeared sort of amusing, before life became too stark, too defined, devoid of any magic but a skeleton of simple brutality of every-day survival. I needed to think deeply. Think so deeply that I would not have the time to think of my pain. I could have lost my legs they said. I was lucky.
You and I stop at the foot of the century old bridge. It was supposed to be famous. They measured it with a man – not by but with– with a human stick and his ear. That was part of a fraternity pledge. We discussed it when we came before and the ethics of such tact. That seems quite trivial now.
We settle on the grass quietly. It is only slightly burnt, but the patch used to be cleaner.
“The folder is in my bag.” You sound stoic. “I just did not want to hurt him. I loved him. I didn’t love him more after I saw what he had done. But then again you must see, he was the father of my child.”
“Over a thousand people are dead!” I want to scream. I want to shout out aloud. “It was the worst scam in history and they did it just for money. Not that it was smart. It was stupid.” I want to cry to pierce the sky and so the people walking silently along the river and the bird sitting far away on the stark blackish branch can hear me loud and clear. I want to enunciate so lucidly that the soul of the dead toddler who used to come by to chat with me can hear me up from heaven or from another dimension.
“He said it was his war,” you look at me once again, like a clairvoyant who just read my mind. “He told me that people had died, many. And he needed to stop it. He needed to stop the culprits. He didn’t want the samples to get mixed. It was unintentional.”
I did not wish to hear more. I felt I could not breathe. I saw the a dead child who I used to play often laughing out from his grave. It was not meant for him. It was meant for some one else. It was meant to be some justice. Justice he did not get.
“But the child is dead,” I want to shout again, but I don’t. “There should have been people you could have gone to. People who would have helped. You can’t become the judge,” I want to tell you. But I don’t.
I say nothing. I try to look straight at you but I fail. I look at the sky instead.
“This was his fight. He believed in it. There were people dead,” I hear you murmur again, and I say nothing. I hardly comprehend what any sane person might have to say to justify what he did with a vial of mutated genes.
You reach for your side bag slowly, and bring out the red folder.
“It has all you need,” you say curtly. “How much time do we have?”
I try to focus hard on the crow that’s sitting drenched, the daffodil next to my socks and the empty white boats.
“Can you give us a day? For old time’s sake?”
I am unsure what to say. Time had not been kind, not benevolent at all. Not to me for sure. There were scratches al over my body that felt lacerated and used. My car whirled out of control a lonely frosty noon when I was leaving home for work. It was a simple miscalculation. A slip. The engine failed afterward. And then I knew nothing. I should have been at the office by two but I didn’t get on time. No one looked for me. I woke up in a room with lights a sullen afternoon, with bandages over my body. You were not there when I worked those problems out at last. The problems about efficiency that you found to be too boring. You were on vacation with your daughter. The inner page of the newspaper had the picture. You had made it to the social column somehow.
I want to ask you why you had to get involved in this at all, and why you hid the evidence.
You had buried the file for ages and people died as you stayed calm. You approved the defective medicine yourself later. The mice lay dead in the labs but you did not really note that. The pH level was dangerous but you failed to report. After the bodies of the dead mice were discarded in the bins, people were buried with grief. Some of them were old, yearning to extend their lives. But some were only blooming. There were children. There were pregnant women.
Then the strain just became dangerous. A form that would not leave. It multiplied like maggots and it infested living cells. One had to kill the cells to kill them. One had to kill the host. They buried their very own alive and then they cried for hours. They looked at themselves in the mirror and tried to slit the image. They killed so they could live and then they wanted to die.
I wanted to earnestly ask you if a child was more than another. If a pile of corpses was sand.
You possibly would have asked me back about a dead child some where else, and I would not have agreed at all. If there was a case, I would think, someone would have cared. Some one sane around. The world worked about well — on an average that is as I saw it, until the scales got blown out from the hidden little corners, and a tide came up and drowned us.
But I don’t really ask you much. I don’t intend to hear about your love for the man you followed as I stared at the piles of books — now gathering dust. I simply look at you and I start to walk to the station. I had not brought my car. I had not brought my credit card. I did not wish to let them know. I could not have said I knew you.
I hold the folder close to my heart covered with my bag. I hide it from the eyes that seem to pierce my depth with derision– to divulge into my secret. I want to run away but I can’t. I want to dash back and start exactly where we left fourteen years ago, to wake up and discover that you are sitting next to me, but that is impossible. I think of walking back to you and ask you to come with me, to travel back in time with me through that narrow watery hole where the fish are small and shiny. I want to hold your hands and escape through a black hole and come out through a white hole into another universe. One that none had seen. If you cross the event horizon you fall back to one unknown and from there you move to another and another and yet another. There is no real escape from there but the end evades as well. I want to keep moving from one world to another to shred the huge burden of this very world you threw at me. I don’t want this world.
But I sit still with the onus of a million dying upon my shoulders, and I want to cry out aloud. I cannot carry this weight.
I don’t believe it’s you I saw. I don’t believe it’s that is me sitting here with this folder. I don’t believe this is real. I don’t believe this time or this space or the existence of mass. I feel that I am floating in a pool of nothingness.
I am unsure how to recount exactly what happened here with you to another soul. How I got this folder and how I knew about it. Why I had it now. People had been killed. Many. It was not a joke. It was just not funny.
That day when I dreamed of us swimming in that stream, we picked up all the starfish and piled them on the sand. I had gathered a few more and I packed those in your box. They were yours and mine to share. Scattered along the sandy bed to be picked up as we passed.
I think about the scarlet folder pressing against my heart, and I am sure I just do not wish to share your life right now. Your burden that is the world. You did not come to see me when I lay injured for a month. You had been vacationing under the sun. I had no electricity for a week. No health insurance to cover me when my teeth hurt. As my body ached in the hospital, and I lay alone, I slowly tried to think, think hard, and I rebuilt my life on my own, slowly, painstakingly.
I bought a house in the Hampton’s last year. It’s like the one we drew on the board, as I was talking about my plans, my future, and us. I had drawn a corner with orchids, and I have it there now even if I don’t have you. The whitewashed stony home has an inbuilt hot whirlpool. Vines crawl up the walls, and long and slender birch trees sway along the boundary. I have a butler and a poodle. When I drive to my office little Jamie nods his pointed nose sitting next to me. His brown and long hair glisten like a willow after the rain. There is a nice patch of greenery right across the lake. I had been thinking of buying the land up. In spring time it looks beautiful.
In the heavy oak shelf now near the door, I have most of the books I had loved, when I loved you back those days. I have collected even more. My accident had left me with a thirst to defy time. To sit and swallow all that can be devoured within the span of space and time. To race.
I had asked for the heaviest wood, to hold the large volumes. Heavy and expensive. It was meant to stay for decades. To be handed over proudly to the next who came in here.
I feel that solid shelf would break if I put this folder on it. It would collapse my entire room and I would sit in shambles. Shards of what I had made throughout life.
I could throw this folder away, right into the river. Accidents do happen. This and what took place before. With you and your marriage and LIFE in general, you know. People die. People die when they shouldn’t. That is part of life. Some one died of flu that day. Someone very young. A girl who should have lived for years and could have become a musician, or a dancer perhaps, or a thinker. But she didn’t. Who said life was fair?
I could post this entire folder as well. That was option B. Post it without any type of indication or trace of who the sender was. There was a chance some one would open it. And it was possible it would get trashed, like I solidly locked away all you had to say for months and then for years when you walked up to my office. People do get mail. Junk mail. You had come with yours. And I would be sending mine. And I would be relieved of my charge.
The train stops in a minute. This is Rutgers. I used to come here often. There was a former classmate who had transferred early. I know exactly where the post office is and I take the first left turn. It is late in March and the flowers are in bloom. It should have been much hotter but I feel chilly. The post office looks stark though, and solid. Like it used to be.
They have a new set of stamps with pictures of white flowers displayed upon the counter. I ask for an entire strip and then I start back. I still have an hour to go before I reach home.
The stamps make my head much lighter. I feel elated for a minute. I am relieved. If they ever receive the folder and open it, you will by then be gone. Far far away with your life and with our past and my ghosts will go away. They might chase you to another corner, or any nook of this planer, I don’t know. People died. That REALLY ISN’T my problem. That is you and your life and your choice of how to die and how to live and how to get away, with your very own life. If they don’t open the folder then perhaps some more people will die. But they will finally figure it out. Some time, some day they will. They can’t be just that stupid. If they really are that inane, I just cannot help them.
I start to get a headache when I finally reach home. It looks familiar yet quite foreign. The edge of the lawn looks dark and the lamp hanging from the post leaves the grass unilluminated. Jamie barks from a corner and I pick him up and pat him.
“No dinner,” I announce. “Nothing else for today.”
I am unsure if my house was left unadulterated when I was gone or if a group of party goers used it behind my back. The place has traces of cigar odor and whiskey pervades the air next to the sky blue pool that should have been kept pristine. The dark patches of grass, however, hide the story from me. If footsteps were left on the mud they had been washed away by the rain.
I walk slowly into the bedroom and light the fireplace. The bed looks somewhat ghostly as the flame dances along. The police station is a mile away. I could walk there and ask the sergeant if he had seen anyone around. Any hooligans. I could also hand in the folder. I had found it near the pool that smelled of thick whiskey. He would rightly be dubious though. I had a butler and a poodle and a newly installed CCTV. But who could you trust these days? Not them and not the sergeant.
Or I could paste the stamps nicely on top of a pink envelop and drop the folder in the box, wrapped up neatly, not here but from the Upper East so no one would think of me.
The fire dances along. It is orange and often blue. A strange ensemble of lucidity and brightness shrouded by wisps of smoke that gets to my nerves and tempts me. I will wake up some time soon, and the ghosts will go away. I will wake up by the pool that would smell clean and I will sit there next to you, dripping water and laughing gregariously, raising the glass to our future as we finally made it in.