Amita Basu

To Decide Or Not To Decide

     Achal waddles into our bedroom; with my decision to make, I’m noticing her waddling again. Her bathroom slippers flap against her cracked, Pond’s-night-cream-smelling heels; her flat arches squeak and squeal against the rubber; the rubber, in turn, slaps against the spotless tiled floor. Achal’s slippers make music like a dancer’s ankle-bells. The effect on me – six hours into my workday, drugged by the August air hanging in my nostrils, humid enough to taste, too humid to breathe – is hypnotic. I’ve been hypnotised all this while and I can’t decide if I want to shake awake now.
     Achal deposits on my workdesk a bowlful of cubed mango and papaya, and in my face her armpit-odour: basil perfume, mingling with the pungent sweat of an overweight woman approaching menopause. Mango-papaya-basil-sweat: they’ve come to smell of home and that’s why these smells go together, no longer separate smells. Achal leans on my chairback, her reflection on my work laptop gently gaping as I enter the last few lines of code.
     On SoftEx’s intranet I turn in another assignment; on the desktop monitor I’ve connected, working from home during lockdown, to my laptop, I tab away from football scores to the vaccine registry. I click Refresh. 
     “Still nothing, Ganesh?” Achal’s alto hums rich and hoarse.
     “No.” I read out the names of private hospitals offering vaccines in Lucknow, and, below each, in red: “Rajput Hospital, no slots available. Ajanta, no slots available. Lakshmibai, no slots available. This one, City Hospital” – Pointing, I turn over my shoulder; Achal nods, sparse eyebrows rising – “Appeared five minutes ago. I rushed to book a slot; the website froze; when I refreshed, all the slots had been filled. Two minutes after City joined the list, with 300 vaccines for tomorrow – they were all gone… But they’re adding more hospitals. Perhaps we’ll get lucky soon.” Trying to sound hopeful, I sound highpitched. Occasionally, slots do show green, but only for adults 60+. For many of the elderly have already been vaccinated, at least the middle-and-upper-class elderly with access to this registry and to vaccination fees; but, for our age range, in seven weeks of clicking Refresh, I’ve seen only red. 
     “Perhaps,” says Achal. “Eat your fruit. It’s good for you.”
     Is it? We’ve talked about whether two giant fruitbowls a day are good for a sedentary overweight 54-year-old and a sedentary prediabetic 44-year-old. In 2018, a forwarded message on Achal’s WhatsApp group with her ex-colleagues informed her that papaya cured diabetes; now she stuffs us both full of fruit. I’ve reasoned with her. ‘Neither of us needs more calories,’ I said. ‘Fruit might be healthier than halva, but a bowlful of fruit isn’t a prophylactic for a bowlful of halva, they’re both’ – here Achal had interrupted. She couldn’t quit sweets, she said; if that meant she must swallow fruit first, so be it. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Swallowing fruit first is probably worse’ – But one must find balance in everything, she said. ‘Balance,’ uttered with a Buddha smile, is one of Achal’s H-bombs to terminate a discussion. We’ve had the same discussion since, to the same end, no end. 
      So now I only say “Hmm,” and rotate the fruitbowl. This gesture pacifies my second wife.
     Achal studies my second screen. “So they were right! Clearly bookies are involved. Otherwise how can the slots be disappearing so quickly? Bookies are buying them up in bulk, then selling them at steep markups to individuals. There’s always someone to profit from catastrophes.”
     “Maybe.” Another conspiracy theory, another WhatsApp group, this one with her relatives back in Punjab. “But think about it: Lucknow has 3.8 million people. Three private hospitals, now four, are receiving small daily stocks of vaccine every day. People are stuck at home, fearing for their parents’ lives, now their own too, online all day. Even rickshaw-drivers have smartphones. Do we need to posit middlemen to explain the slots disappearing? It’s strange for us to see – but think about the numbers! 3,000 people waiting to pounce on each slot.”
     Achal’s listened breathlessly. Now she inhales sibilantly and says, “Very true! Things are very complicated.”
     “Yes, but we needn’t appeal to conspiracy theories.”
     “Mmm,” she says in her wise, I’m-reserving-judgment voice. I turn to her; she shrugs. “No, I just mean, it’s complicated. We should start going around again.”
     My online search being fruitless, before June Achal and I were also driving between government hospitals and healthcare centres. Those institutions are also receiving vaccines: but they’re unconnected to this online registry; nor do they answer their phones. So we spent some weeks queuing, hoping against hope, at various centres from dawn to 10am, only to be told: today’s stock is finished, or never arrived, or is reserved for frontline workers. Then came the monsoon, with drains overflowing, and fat flies hovering from drain to feet to faces. The exposure wasn’t worth the small odds of finding vaccines that way. But we’ve discussed this too. “Let’s see,” I say.
     My phone buzzes, and my heart leaps into my mouth, but my phone’s facedown. 
     “And if we can’t find vaccines,” says Achal, “I know a man who can get us gomutra!” I whirl. Achal’s smiling. I open my mouth to retort; she tosses her head and slap-slaps out.
     She’s only joking. For an M.Ed., who taught at a top international school for sixteen years, to seriously consider drinking cow urine as a vaccine ersatz! That’s just her sense of humour: ‘I don’t know anything; funny, isn’t it?’ I’d a friend like that in college.
     I wait. Achal slap-slaps to the kitchen, and I hear the clink of cutlery. Then more slap-slap, then the television. She’s settled down with her fruitbowl before her favourite soap: that distracts her. She hates fruit too, and swallows it medicinally. I unlock my phone.
     “Coming this evening?” Kusum’s texted. 
     “Let you know soon? Something’s come up.”
     I’ve realised this can’t go on. I always knew that, in theory; but, drifting day to day, I’ve avoided facing it as a fact. Last night, as I emerged from my evening try at a shit, Achal handed me my phone. ‘It keeps buzzing.’ Fortunately I’d disabled lockscreen notifications. That’s when I realised I must decide whom I’ll stay with. 
     Again the old doubt prickles my mind. Like a cold sore in my throat just out of reach of my restless tongue.


###


     I don’t know the answer; I know I must find it today. I hadn’t planned to decide at all; now I know that if I don’t decide today, I never will – some ugly scandal will decide for me. Kusum expects me at 5:30pm. Either way I’ll go tell her.
     Another buzz. I pick up my phone and unlock it with my thumbprint. “Want to talk about it?” 
     I jog the screen to keep away the lockscreen, which I’ve set at ten seconds. “No, just there’s something I need to do. I’ll tell you after.” It feels odd to write ‘just there’s’ and ‘after’ – but, grateful that Kusum doesn’t say ‘wanna’ and ‘gonna,’ I’ve met her halfway. Language isn’t about grammar.
     Kusum replies with a sunshine-yellow thumbs-up. My heart leaps with pride in the reasonableness of the woman who’s chosen me. Had I texted Achal, from office, that I’d be home an hour late, we’d be on the phone for ten minutes. 
     “Let me know if you’d like to talk later,” says Kusum.
     “Will do,” I reply, withholding, on second thoughts, a kiss emoji. This was meant to be an affair – Kusum’s stipulation. Nine months in, she expects me every other day. I need a little time.
     The curtains flutter. A breeze, rain-pregnant, reaches my skin, but can’t penetrate it – for the breeze is blunt, and my skin, even under the racing ceiling-fan, coated in oily sweat. It will rain tonight. This afternoon will be tolerable, if the electricity doesn’t go. They’ve taken to switching off the transformers at the first smell of rain. Well, a preemptive powercut does beat a blowout and a 36-hour outage with men up bamboo ladders pointing and arguing amid a forest of severed wires seductively swaying.
     This afternoon I will have decided. Then, perhaps, I won’t even notice the heat. How d’you feel after making a big decision? I pearl-dive into my memory, but resurface empty-handed. All my life, the next step has been before me, like the next step of a staircase. This decision is important. Should I take time to decide? In theory, yes. In practice, I know time isn’t what I need. Time is what I’ve had all my life. I close my eyes and uncrick my neck, glad that my decision has acquired this deadline, who knows how. 
     My laptop whooshes. Another assignment: debugging an intern’s code. Editing bad work is harder than doing the work from scratch. But I’ve learned what to look for. Beginners make the same mistakes: tie themselves into Gordian knots by squeezing in elaborate subroutines while overlooking the basics. SoftEx sends all our interns to me. I walk this one through his errors. ‘Wow!’s festoon my chatbox. I feel like a father walking a toddler, small feet stumbling, big eyes gazing up. Toddlers can’t flatter you, but they warm your soul. 
     Thank god there’re no children involved. That would’ve made this decision impossible.
     Another whoosh. I return the intern’s work, telling him “Good try; keep at it.” This other assignment that’s whooshed in looks similar to something I did for another client. I locate that code in my personal database. As I browse the 30,000-odd lines, planning tweaks, I picture Achal gaping over my shoulder, big-eyed. Programming scares people – needlessly, for it’s very systematic. But I don’t tell them that.
     On my second screen I check the football scores. Everton was trailing Southampton, but now they’ve caught up and it’ll be a tight finish. Good. But I search the minute-by-minute written commentary, seeking another satisfaction. Seeking, I realise, a hint to help me decide. 
     Hollowness settles under my ribs. When I was young, I mistook this hollowness for melancholy, love, or an important existential crisis. Now I know it’s just me looking for something to give me the answer to something else, disappointed that it’s not there. 
     I tab back to LinkedIn. I’ve set my profile to ‘Open to work,’ but ‘Visible to Recruiters only.’ LinkedIn’s looking for graphic design jobs for me. Programming was alright twenty years ago; I need a change. I’ve dabbled in technical writing and graphic design: I was SoftEx’s in-house designer till increasing specialisation superannuated my amateur skills. Perhaps at a startup I can be useful.
     Here’s a job in Hyderabad. I’ve never lived down south. I picture myself mentoring the bright-eyed young founders; bidding the still-slim graduates mind their health – and having a 23-year-old programmer ask my help, only to rewrite the code I offer at half the length. But that won’t matter. Everyone knows programming’s a young man’s game. My contribution will be as a team-leader, something I’d’ve liked to do here. The question is, can I transition from programming at a multinational company to graphic design at Brightline, Minimax, or Doloure?
     My degree’s in mechanical engineering. A decade into my job, Y2K drew my attention. I taught myself JavaScript and C++ at weekends, and became one of SoftEx’s first Indian employees – back when nobody in India had heard of SoftEx, or understood what programmers did. Today SoftEx India has 2,000 employees, and gets a quarter-million applications a year. I’ve worked at SoftEx twenty years; until Kusum, I was planning to stay here till 65. Well, not planning. Assuming by default. 
     How odd young folk find that! This default, for which we had no word, the youngsters call loyalty or stasis – they, who assess every relationship and every job as a springboard. ‘You must be resistant to boredom,’ the freshers exclaim. Young people, trying to boost themselves into confidence with backhanded compliments at other people’s non-choices. I was content, so I merely smiled.
     Then came Kusum, and I’m no longer content, and it’s all her doing, and now I glimpse happiness. Kusum’s never concerned herself with my job. But, being with Kusum, I want better things for myself. This job I can do half-asleep; a pentagenarian programmer is a rarity; every summer there’re more interns to gape at me. But this is no longer enough.
     I can afford this risk. SoftEx pays well; I’ve accumulated increments and bonuses. Bar the alimony, I’ve saved a lot. For there’s nothing I really wanted. Besides, as the son of a bank clerk and a homemaker, thrift was my catechism. Worst-case scenario: I make pennies the last ten years of my career. 
     And I want to take this risk. I just need someone to push me. 
     “I’ve made something,” Kusum texts.
     “What?”
     “Guess.”
     I do, in the interims of code-tweaking. Chatting with Kusum is a better keep-me-awake than browsing football scores or graphic designer jobs.
     “Clue, please.”
     “Something that’ll make me fat.”
     “You’ve made a funhouse mirror?” I startle myself with my inventiveness. I amputated my mind’s pastel rainbow limb decades ago, and that surgery felt successful.
     “Idiot!” and a grin emoji. “How would I make that? Am I a glassblower?”
     “At the rate you’re going, you’ll be one soon.”
     “Ga-nesh!” says Achal, stopping making my heart. “Eating your fruit?” My heart defibrillates: she’s calling from the kitchen. 
     Terror turned to distaste, I pick at Achal’s fruit. I don’t even like ripe papaya. Bus-hopping during my degree, I tried papaya in Orissa as a vegetable, curried; that wasn’t bad. Three decades later, deployed by WhatsApp University, Achal tracked down a supplier for ripe papaya. God knows how: here in Lucknow I’ve never seen papaya, ripe or raw.
     “You’re a rubbish guesser,” texts Kusum. “Here.” A photo: baked goods, evenly browned, sugar-dusted against a black counter. “Cinnamon twists,” she annotates.
     Pride jigs in my heart. I don’t care for baked goods, either, but these look spectacular. Where does she find the time to keep learning things? The photo’s good, too: twists arranged along the diagonal, one at bottom right dissected, illustrating intricate intestines. On the black counter the pattern of sugar-snow, artfully asymmetric, is striking. I’ll spare you the infelicitous metaphor re: constellations against a black sky – for over the metropolis the skies are never black, and there’re no stars. 
     Well, maybe now that the rains have washed away the smog? But I’m like Achal: over us the stars may as well not shine. We’re no good for one another. Kusum would drag me up to the roof to watch the stars in the sky washed clean. A fresh start.
     “Come get them while they’re fresh,” texts Kusum. “I can keep them out, but only for today.”
     But I’ve not decided. Didn’t I just say that? I put my phone away. Frowning at it across my workdesk, I soften. She wants me, she’s pushing me, and isn’t that what I need? 


###


     Kusum’s family were conservative, and Kusum, fairskinned, was marriageable. From the parade of candidates her parents placed before her at 22 she selected an engineer, a good-looking chap, even in the passport photo which is all she’s kept of him. White-shirted, close-lipped, he still radiates: a young face, unmarked by his sins. 
     He spent half their honeymoon with his older mistress, expecting Kusum to be amiable. Caught between shock and a love tested, intensified – she complied. But on a flight to his L.A. headquarters he fell for a stewardess, told Kusum he was leaving her, and answered her objections with a blow from the whisk that Kusum, baking her own 23rd birthday-cake, had set down between them. It was a heavy-duty steel whisk and nine years later Kusum’s left cheek, between eye and ear, is still cat’s-claw-scarred.
     ‘That was for your own good,’ he said. ‘Forget about me.’
     Kusum grieved for a week, merely daubing her wound with alcohol, watching it scar uglily – then decided he was right: he wasn’t worth it. He hadn’t mentioned divorce, or money; but neither did he ask her to vacate the house, which was his, and new, and big. Kusum’s B.A. was in History; now she set to work. Within a year she’d rented the rooms out to students, and found typing jobs. In the years since, she’s learned proofreading, then editing and ghostwriting. Now a half-dozen freelance sites, and her own website, bring her a dribble of steady clients. The Adonis hadn’t the decency to grant her a divorce, but three years later Kusum gave up the house to her in-laws, and used her savings to attend correspondence-school.
     “Ga-nesh! Finished your fruit? It’ll be lunchtime soon!” Achal’s voice singsongs over the metronome of her knife on the chopping-board. She’s not paused chopping to nag me. Women are multitaskers.
     I pick out a cube of papaya that’s more watermelon than peach. The riper pieces are alright, but these monsters never ripen evenly. The flesh dissolves on my tongue, half-sweet, half-astringent. All I can taste is Achal’s nagging. 
     I invited Achal to enjoy her fruitbowls alone. She protested: married couples mustn’t eat separate meals. As if she were the divorcee. But I persisted. I’d gained three kilos since she instituted her fruitbowls. ‘I’d like to cut back to three meals a day,’ I said. ‘Stop fussing and enjoy life,’ she replied. ‘You’re not that fat.’ I started telling her I didn’t enjoy fruit. She said – but you know how this conversation goes. Our life’s a loop of déjà vus, and I’ve been too stunned, too cosy to decide whether I like living in a simulation someone else has designed. I down some mango – Achal’s right, this tastes medicinal – and submit my assignment. 
     Afternoons are slow. Work’s probably over for the today. SoftEx told us that, working from home, we could set our own schedules. Not true. I start work at 5am – I never could sleep past dawn – but must stick around till 5pm.
     I click Refresh on the vaccine-registry: still all red. I check the football scores: still neck-and-neck. On LinkedIn, graphic designer jobs are piling up faster than I can scan them. Well, I’m not scanning them, not yet. Until I can decide whether, how can I decide which? 
     Should I set my profile publicly to ‘Open to work’? If SoftEx discover I’m looking to leave, they might save me trouble and urge me to resign. (They’re gentle that way.) That’ll make getting a recommendation letter harder – they’ll still give it to me: they’re big, British, and professional – but it’ll make my decision for me and my heart leaps hopeful. Once cut loose, I’d find the courage. 
     An urge, perhaps masochistic, perhaps tough-love, seizes me. It targets the first object at hand: Achal’s fruitbowl. I’m not that fat, she says. Not yet as fat as her. I’m done eating fruit. This, at least, I’ve decided.
     My intranet workspace stays blank. The rain’s holding off, too: I can’t see how, for the air’s all water. My mind heat-stunned, my loins warm suddenly – inside the polyester trousers I’m still wearing, for work eludes me out of uniform. I lean back in my swivel-chair; I lie back on Kusum’s bed. Kusum to my right lies in the shadow of her half-drawn curtains, their pink-brown pattern looking suspiciously like stains. 
     ‘Not “suspiciously”. “Conveniently”,’ Kusum corrects. ‘If something already looks dirty when it’s clean, there’s no point cleaning it, right? Hashtag Simplify.’
     ‘Nice logic, applying, I suppose, also to your hair?’ I’d combed my fingers into her thick, curly mane; now I sniffed my fingertips, greasy dank wonderful with her scalp-oil. ‘Quite the African safari my fingers have had.’
     Kusum turned over on her belly; the superbright sun streaming scattershot through the glazed glass struck to gold the ridged, glossy, tender skin of her scar. ‘Didn’t you come here expecting your body-parts to experience an African safari?’ She bent over me, sparing me the inevitable unoriginal reply. 
     With Kusum I try, and I like the effort. This was last month, and I tried a new technique I’d studied while Achal was in the bath – the only time I could be sure of solitude: for all pandemic Achal has been confined, contented, to our flat. Kusum was startled by the addition to my repertoire. She’d never experienced that particular safari; we mapped it out together. ‘You’re a quick learner,’ was her verdict. ‘I don’t just mean for a 54-year-old, I mean… yeah.’ She looked apologetic. I pinched her nose in forgiveness. She’s lived nine years alone: as a woman abused then abandoned (of course it must be all her fault) she’s disinclined to society. She’s not learned when it’s best to say nothing. Well, we’ve all the time in the world.
     I reach my phone. Kusum’s text hangs on WhatsApp’s lefthandside, waiting. ‘Can’t wait to taste,’ I’m impelled to reply. Or ‘You’re so skilled.’ Anything to avoid really replying. I put my phone away again. For her sake, I must take my time.


###


     Kusum and I met on a dating site last November. 
     On the designated Saturday in December, I walked into her flat-complex, looking as bored as possible, stiff in striped shirt and trousers, in the morning, the designated least-sinful part of the day. Through the ground-floor window, I saw the man I guessed from her warnings was her landlord. His fairskinned tenderfleshed Brahmin’s torso gleaming from his bath, the tail of hair down the nape of his neck glistening oily and wet; his snow-white lungi hitched too high up his tubby waist – he stood gabbling mantras, left hand ringing brass bell in his own ear, right hand wheeling rapidly the trayful of lamps and incense-sticks before the framed pastel-coloured print, on his baby-blue-washed dining-room wall, of Krishna sucking his thumb. 
     Passing the tiny children’s sandbox en route to the building’s back, I glanced towards a gang of young men, lounging on the two swings and the one ten-foot yellow plastic slide. They were allocating routes for that afternoon’s unofficial anti-Romeo squads. 
     Lucknow’s official anti-Romeo squads consist of police-constables; the official squads’ official task is to apprehend men who’re harassing women on the streets with words, gestures, song-scraps, and hands. In theory, these squads are a useful measure for women’s safety in India, world rape capital. Unofficially, both the uniformed and the vigilante squads preferentially target young unmarried couples who’re holding hands, riding a motor-scooter, or existing in public.
     That first morning Kusum greeted me, masked and gloved, as ‘Uncle!’ Drawing me in, she explained that on all future visits I must come conspicuously armed with one or two items from the grocer’s. ‘I’m asthmatic, I’m not supposed to go out, with all this Covid business. So you’ll bring me things. That’ll be our story. I’ll Google Pay you the money beforehand. You are old enough to be my uncle. No offence, I like older men… I’m sorry about this shit story, but if anyone guesses what we’re really doing’ – she drew her finger across her throat.
     I drew breath to protest this incestuous arrangement. Then I remembered her neighbours. Idealists: ready to toil, through the blood of millions of flesh-and-blood Indians, towards their Ideal India. Kusum’s gesture was no exaggeration. Why shouldn’t I be her uncle, or any character in any shit story she had to tell to keep safe in her own flat from her own neighbours?
     ‘Alright. But you know I live nearby, and I go out anyway every day, and I’d be happy to actually shop for you till this settles down.’ I tried not to stare at her scar. She’d mentioned it in our chats, but her profile photo was a blank – on the dating platforms, with their fantastically skewed sex ratio, she’d been flooded with men even without putting up a photo – and the photos she’d emailed me were naturally of her other profile, or in a kind light.
     ‘Thanks, but it doesn’t look like this’ll ever “settle down”,’ Kusum replied. ‘And I’d go mad if I sat home all day… No. I, too, go out every day. But you can bring me small things, maybe a flavour of Lays that I can’t get at my local shop… Fortunately, hardly anyone here shops online, so your coming to drop off potato-chips won’t raise eyebrows.’
     ‘Fine. But Kusum, about that.’ I’d deferred my lecture till we met in person, though I hadn’t planned on opening with it. ‘You know your asthma’s a risk factor, and they’re not prioritising asthmatics for the vaccine. If you don’t want me actually shopping for you, fine – but why don’t you shop online?’
     ‘Ugh Ganesh, can we drop this? I’d go mad if I stopped going out, and going mad would be worse for me than getting Covid, wouldn’t it?’ She smiled sweetly, but her eyes glinted.
     I shelved the subject. Idle curiosity had led me online; the hope of chatting with someone other than family and colleagues about something other than Covid had kept me online; an affair was no venue for nagging. These preliminaries settled, an awkward silence seized us. 
     I found myself doing impressions. Don’t know why; haven’t done impressions since college. First I did her landlord: shoulders rounded, belly outthrust like a pregnant woman’s, waving his brass tray like a demented steering-wheel endlessly clockwise. Next I did her vigilante neighbours: ‘Maruti you take garden east end, Ram you take garden west end, Narayan and I will take Central College… Government is reopening gardens for people to get fresh-air, and college for people to get education, and see instead what-all they are doing in public spaces shamelessly. Not to worry! We will take-care,’ I concluded, with goodnatured menace.
     Kusum laughed and clapped. I was pleased. Then, distrustful, I made her guess who. ‘My landlord, of course, that pious fatso! And my neighbours from the saffron brigade,’ and she named them. I’d changed their names in my impression, to see if she could guess each one. She did. I was gratified that I’d done them well, and impressed that she, too, was observant of people’s eccentricities. Then, laughter-loosened, we proceeded to business.
     Neither of my wives has enjoyed sex with me. 
     My first wife and I endured stiff procreational sex every fortnight: she told me she didn’t care for sex. In the ninth year of our marriage she went to bed with the vivid-spectacled ponytailed hipster from the art workshop where she worked as part-time facilitator. 
     Achal, I think, does care for me. But her upbringing has had its intended effect. A virgin till 39, she’s still shy about sex, enduring my process with a carefully repressed pleasure that – given how inept I was till Kusum educated me – could only have been pleasure in my pleasure. Lying still, for king and country, thank you Victoria’s Morals, flattered that her husband was attracted enough to her to fuck her warm corpse.
     A shiver runs up my spine and tingles my cheeks. How did I go through with that farce? I used to think it right to take my pleasure while my life lay there. Kusum’s opened my eyes. A whole train of shivers runs up my spine – the world dances, the room telescopes out, I’m in Kusum’s arms, and she’s writhing and muffling her moans, wanting me. It’s only by imagining Kusum in my arms, laughing at my anecdotes, tears running – that I’ve been able to continue performing my conjugal duties to Achal. The sex ends, but Kusum’s still laughing, turning to me, asking me again, eyes orgasm-wide, voice orgasm-languid, that question I’ll never forget: ‘Why didn’t you become an actor?’
     Leaning back in my chair, now back in my chair, my laptop and second screen back before me, the warmth in my loins migrates north. I enjoy the sex, and the learning about sex – but this I enjoy even more. 
     You’ve heard of phantom-limb pain: pain in a limb that’s amputated, gone. Ma wanted me to become an engineer, so I enrolled in college till something else came up. But I did well, and graduated. I sent out resumes for engineering jobs, and sat interviews, again just till something else came up. Then I got a job offer, an excellent one, and I had to accept it. At 23 I acknowledged that engineering wasn’t just a backup: it was my real life. That week I amputated the my mind’s pastel rainbow limb, so that my body that remained could squeeze into the life that was to be mine. Thirty years later, that limb is regenerating from its stub, a starfish monstrosity, hungry to make up for decades lost, throbbing with the joy and terror of resurrection. I don’t know if I can lean on it yet, if I can ever walk on it. It aches.
     I no longer blame my parents. I did at first, when, through the lens of Kusum’s courage, I glimpsed the man I could’ve been. But blame is a child’s game. We were a low-income family in a low-income country: naturally my parents wanted me to get a secure job. All my life they’d taught me to say Yes, and I was a good student, and so at the moment of decision I uttered the correct response. ‘Yes,’ I told the nice lady who rang to say I’d got the job. ‘Thank you.’
     “Ga-nesh!” Achal sings. “I finished my fruit! Please finish yours before it turns to mush!”
     I push the fruitbowl away. Just a little, like when you want the waiter to clear the table. Will we ever eat in restaurants again? At least I’ll soon know who I’ll be eating with. 

     My phone buzzes. “When would you be able to tell me whether you’re coming?” says Kusum. “If you’re not, I need to put these twists away. Can’t leave them out, you know ants.”
     My thumb massages my phone’s cold blue face. “You’ll have ants either way. Dusting your counter with powdered sugar!”
     “Confectioner’s sugar,” she corrects. “Which you brought me last week. Remember?”
     “Yes.” Kusum lets me do so little for her, I remember everything.
     In the nine months I’ve been visiting, I’ve repeated my offer to do all Kusum’s shopping. In April, her asthma peak-season, one Friday after the first proper orgasm I managed to give her, she had an awful attack. Gasping for air, she bleated like a goat being slowly slaughtered at Id, her eyes popping out. All I could do was crouch beside her on the floor, opening windows without showing myself, fanning the air. Why wasn’t her inhaler working? I didn’t know what to do. Had I been able to think, I’d’ve thought she was dying. 
     Afterwards, she picked herself up and, humming, sauntered around, making us tea. I, now able to think, sat where she’d left me, shaking.
     Over tea she explained why, even medicated, she’s had such a severe attack. She confessed she never uses the more potent medication her doctor’s prescribed. That she’s saving for when her asthma worsens with age. ‘If I use the strong stuff now, what’ll I do when I’m older?’
     My terror ignited into anger. ‘They’ll have made stronger, safer medicine by then. Anyway who the hell says a person builds up resistance to an asthma medicine, like it’s heroin? You’re scrimping on medicine, and you were about to die’ –
     ‘Rubbish. I’ve had worse. I know it sounds bad, and I’m sorry, but really I was fine.’ Calmly she confronted my glare. Was she joking? Only her eyes, red from being squeezed, betrayed what she’d just endured. Her fingers daintily ribboned the warmed-over aloo paratha. Her meals she mostly orders in; she doesn’t care for cooking; baking’s a hobby.
     ‘How’re you still going outdoors with this? You don’t think you can get Covid? Why won’t you let me shop for you?’
     ‘Relax. I go out dressed like an astronaut.’
     ‘It’s still a needless risk. What pleasure d’you get from exposing yourself?’ Incandescent with rage, I’d forgotten an affair was no venue for nagging. I’ve never lost anyone I was close to. I’ve been close to hardly anyone. Even my first wife’s leaving me hadn’t felt like something that’d been done to me – for she and I had long since lost the power to wound one another. 
     A veil of contempt descended over Kusum’s eyes, stiffening her, chilling me. But she squeezed my hand and rewarmed her eyes. ‘Ganesh, we’re different people. Please don’t be angry… All my life, I did exactly the right thing, what people told me, and it did me no good… None of us knows when it’ll be safe to go out again. I’m tired of postponing my life… I hear of people wearing two masks indoors, wearing masks to bed. I could never do that. I live alone, I’m not endangering anyone, only myself. For me – I’m only talking about myself, Ganesh – life isn’t worth clinging to for its own sake. It’s only worthwhile if I can do things, enjoy myself and, yes, take risks… I’m going to resume walking in the morning. No, don’t shout. Exercise helps my asthma. I’d like also to take a road trip with you, but that’s up to you.’ 
     I retorted. We argued. It was no good. Kusum is independent. That’s what I admire about her. 
     But now I just visit her every other day. If we were to live together – can an old dog learn to relax? 
     “You didn’t answer my question,” Kusum texts, appending a sunshine-yellow smile emoji.
     I jiggle my phonescreen. I’ve decided almost, but not quite. How can I tell her when I’ll’ve decided? At 5:30pm, I must be at Kusum’s flat, either saying goodbye or telling her that I’m hers. Knowing myself, I’ll probably decide at 5:29. 
     “You’d best put the twists away for now. I wouldn’t want them to get ants. As for me, I won’t know for a while. Weird day… But I’ll see you at 5:30.”


###


     “Still nothing, Ganesh?” says Achal behind me, startling me, then laughing at me. How did she enter without my hearing her slippers? Even after lockdown compelled us to suspend the daily maid, our floors have remained spotless. Achal sweeps twice a day, but still wears slippers everywhere indoors because floors are essentially dirty.
     I return to my second screen. The registry allows one user to reserve vaccine slots for two people. You just enter both persons’ names and mobile-phone numbers. I click Refresh. In companionable silence Achal and I confront the red notices, below the hospitals’ names, announcing: ‘No slots available.’
     “Let’s just start going around again,” says Achal, in the same voice as half-an-hour ago, in the same voice as yesterday. And I don’t know whether it’s her voice or an echo, whether it’s now or then, and my head spins. Here everything will always be the same and if I want to get out the time is now. 
     “Finished your work for the day?”
     “Yes, but I’ve got to hang around.”
     “Aww. Poor good boy.” She pats my head. Occasional head-pats and shoulder-squeezes are all the contact she allows herself. Wives aren’t to touch their husband’s heads: that’s a gesture of condescension. For Achal it’s a gesture of intimacy. She’s not hopeless: she has overcome some of her straitjacket training. I yearn to lean into her head-pat, to invite a midday scalp-massage: my scalp is always clean. But my conscience is not. So I sit stiff, and Achal withdraws her hand. “At least your work is important.” Her voice wavers with a housewife’s self-abnegation.
    “Ha!” I grunt. If it were acceptable for a man, I might be a homemaker too.
     My work is banal. Working from home, the bracing routines and superficial variety of weekday breakfasts, packed lunches, commuting, and cabins stripped away, the banality of my work stares me in the face, like a toad settled statuelike on my table. But Kusum – she’d tell me life’s worth taking risks for. If she hasn’t already, it’s only because I’ve not asked her advice, and she’s no nag, as Achal is, as I’ve become. 
     “Ganesh! It’s almost noon and you haven’t touched your fruit. How will you eat lunch?” 
     She leans over, forks the largest cube of papaya, and stoops to feed me. Does she think it’s for lack of hands that I’ve not eaten? The aanchal of Achal’s cotton sari brushes my cheek, [evoking] Ma. Ma washed and ironed my clothes till the week I got married. At weekends I’d prepare to do laundry, only to find it done. We’d argue. It’d end with Ma wiping her hands, satisfied, on the aanchal of her cotton sari, in which she’d rocked me asleep as a child, and declaring: ‘You’ll never manage to live alone.’ Why do women insist on making you need them?
     “Thanks,” I mutter. 
     I take the papaya into my mouth, and the fork out of Achal’s hand. Brushing her basil-scented aanchal from my face, I glance at the mirror on the wardrobe across our bedroom. 
     When we were married, some of my friends expressed surprise that a man like me was marrying a woman like Achal. The size of Achal’s dowry compensated the difference: so eager were her family to rid themselves of an industrious, amiable daughter, shamefully single courtesy her dark complexion. But, five years on, we’re well-matched. My paunch overhangs my belt. My hair, too, waited only until after my second wedding to start graying and receding. 
     Achal’s smelled of basil for some time, but only now that I’m making this decision do I wonder – how? None of the toiletries in the bathroom we share is basil-scented. Has she a basil cologne, lotion, or body-powder that she hides somewhere? Basil is not a common fragrance, and basil is my favourite perfume, and now I wonder how Achal discovered that, and where she hides her basil-scented item, and why. Kusum never hides anything: before sex she gargles with the bathroom-door open; after sex she applies makeup sitting up beside me.
     Again that old doubt prickles me. Achal and I are well-matched – but why is Kusum with me? In her prime, forthcoming, independent, not unattractive. Yes, I’m well off, but she never lets me buy her anything. Yes, I can be witty, but looking back on these nine months, I’m a nag.
     “Which team d’you follow?” asks Achal, still standing behind me.
     “Which team?” I follow her eyes; I realise I’ve tabbed back to the football scores – when Achal entered, startling me, I tabbed away from LinkedIn, which of course is also a secret. She doesn’t understand tabs; if she understands startling, she’s given no clue. “Uh, whichever team is losing.” I chuckle. I’ve never wondered myself.
     “You’re too kindhearted.” Achal squeezes my shoulder and waddles out. “Finish your fruit!”
     Remorse wrings my gut. What was I thinking, signing up on OKCupid, two marriages old? But now – if Achal wants a divorce I’ll grant it to her, assume all the blame, confess anything short of abuse, and pick no bones about alimony. My alimony payments to my first wife finally ended last winter, when she got remarried. (Not to the hipster. He knew better.) Now I can afford another divorce. Getting a divorce wouldn’t help Kusum and me – for Kusum’s still married, and her husband’s disappeared: he might be dead, or living with a new face in Bolivia or Beirut. Still, if Achal wants a divorce she’ll get one. A second divorce would be a final severance from my parents: but, when I embrace my affair, I’ll’ve lost them either way. 
     Or if Achal wants a separation she’ll have that. If she wants no separation at all, I’ll move out but keep visiting, keeping up appearances. Whatever she wants, for this isn’t her fault, but I can’t do this anymore. Have the same conversations every day, fuck a warm corpse. It may be too late to save Achal from the penal-coding prudishness the British bequeathed to us before outgrowing it themselves, the prudishness to which we now cling as ‘our culture,’ for which we’re ready to invade hotel rooms and slit throats. But I’m done with this farce. I want a woman who wants me.
     I submit my assignment. I’ve all afternoon to start applying to graphic designer jobs. I won’t tell Kusum I’m looking. I’ll tell her when I’ve accepted an offer. 
     Still doubt prickles me. Why is Kusum with me? I really shouldn’t be having this question. Last month I recruited the courage to ask her, and she answered me. 
     ‘You must’ve had hundreds of men to choose from.’
     ‘From your perspective,’ said Kusum, ‘No doubt I’m spoiled for choice. But it’s a chore.’
     ‘Weeding through us?’
     ‘The day I joined OKCupid, I was flooded with messages. Three-quarters of them just sent me some text-message gibberish. Hw r u babe, gd mrng, whassup.’
     ‘So you’re a grammar snob?’
     ‘I’ve earned the right, I think! I’m the first woman in my family to get a master’s degree.’ She threw back her head, superb. There’s no snobbery like the snobbery of one who has escaped her own past by her own efforts. ‘Gibberish English, and unsolicited photos of muscles in the mirror! No thank you. That’s when I ruled out anyone under 40.’
     ‘Draconian!’
     ‘Ganesh, I’m tired of men my age. All they want is sex… I mean, of course, that’s what I wanted, too, but… I guess I’m a sapiosexual?’
     ‘Pardon?’
     ‘You know, I’m only attracted to people I can have intelligent conversations with.’
     ‘Oh.’ I rubbed my stubble to hide my smile. I was flattered, also amazed that people needed a word for this. ‘Right! Sapiens, sapio… So nobody under 40 passed your IQ test?’
     ‘Ganesh!’ She slapped my wrist. ‘The grammar and the age-limit were just shortcuts to narrow my choice.’ Her smile disappeared. ‘Ganesh, you’re nice. D’you know how rare that is?’
     ‘Not rare at all.’
     ‘I don’t mean being a pushover. I mean actually nice… I’m old enough, now, to know that that’s the most important thing.’ Then she changed the subject. She never voluntarily discusses her past. But now, sitting in my chair, confronting my blank baby-blue SoftEx workspace and my LinkedIn inbox bristly with opportunities, I remember another afternoon, this February.
     Kusum and I had watched Sherlock Holmes on her desktop. Afterwards, Kusum excused herself. She was gone long. I browsed her bookshelf – mostly How Tos – then ambled towards the bathroom. She unlocked the bathroom-door as I approached, her profile to me. She stood fingering at her scar, sucking in her stomach under her tank top, confronting the mirror: only for two seconds, before I could turn away. When she turned to me, before she saw me, her eyes were cold. She passed me without a word. I locked myself in, embarrassed. She never referred to that incident. But that evening I looked up the herbal pills she pops every few hours. They’re appetite-suppressants.
     Back in April it only puzzled me. Back then I hadn’t this doubt to make me scratch the surface.
     Now panic seizes me. She stipulated this was a fling, now she expects me every other day, but she won’t let me do anything for her, perhaps she’s afraid of owing me, is she planning to let me go, is this a fling or isn’t it? She’s not overweight, but she’s looking to slim, and is she looking to jump, too? Perhaps I’m only a springboard to better things, nice, an oasis, a confidence-boost. She’s healthy, I’ve told her I love her body, so not for herself and not for me so for whom is she taking appetite suppressants? Last week she told me she’d registered in a programming course, she knows I’m a programmer, why didn’t she ask me to teach her, or ask me to recommend a course, why present me with a fait accompli? 
     Now the urgency of this decision, that I’ve decided I must make today, that I’ve still felt no compulsion to make, seizes me. Now I see it’s now or never. If I intend to keep Kusum I must go tell her so. A woman who doesn’t need me, but wants me – I’ve been asleep, I must seize her with both hands.


###


     I’m on my feet, chair wheeling back, both hands seizing the fruitbowl. Saving myself, refusing myself time to realise what I’m doing, I rush to the bathroom, empty the fruitbowl into the toiletbowl, and flush. 
     I’m sorry, Achal. I didn’t want any more explanations, those never help and never end. Last month, d’you remember, when Patanjali’s masala powders went off the shelves, we spent an hour debating the merits of three alternative brands of garam masala. I’m getting fat, I’ve got grizzled, and I didn’t want to spend an hour today, again tomorrow, explaining why I don’t want a giant fruitbowl twice a day. I’m sorry, Achal.
     “We need jeera powder!” Redhanded, stupid with shock, it’s a moment before I realise Achal’s only calling from the kitchen again, again, again.
     “Fine!” I call back. 
     I didn’t shut the bathroom-door. I dumped the fruit and flushed the toilet, door open. What have I become? Perhaps I do want explanations. That, too, would make this decision for me and my heart leaps hopeful. But she’s not seen me and it’s still my decision to make.
     On my second screen I open Amazon and place a one-click order. Several times I’ve shown Achal how to do this. Always she bends over me (refusing to sit, always some unnecessary chore on hand), studies the screen wide-eyed, then inhales and says, ‘You do it, Ganesh! I don’t understand this computer stuff.’ I tell her it’s simple – I show her – but it’s no good. She’s decided she can’t do this. 
     I can’t really complain. After my first marriage, a love-marriage, foundered, I asked my parents to choose for me. They chose a simple woman who’d obey me, nag me, need me. Contentedly, five years ago, Achal gave up her job. Now she’s given up going outside. She isn’t paranoid about Covid; she just doesn’t seem to miss the world. Her married life’s always been narrow: her family are all back in Punjab, and she’s not made friends here. To the pandemic’s further narrowing she’s reconciled herself with that same horrible contentment. 
     Achal needs me. To book vaccines, to drive her around, to order groceries online, to counter the conspiracy theories she pretends to espouse. Achal needs me and I don’t know how I feel about that. On one hand, it fulfills my soul’s irrational need to be needed. The years between my first wife moving out, and Achal moving in, were hard. I drifted. As if, with nobody to care for, I’d no reason to care for myself. Have I always needed a nag?
     I enter the one-time password and complete the transaction. I’m just sitting around. Why shouldn’t I make myself useful?
     Achal needs me, but it’s an artificial need, acquired at 39. Till we married she worked, shopped, cultivated friendships and hobbies, and dealt with the world. Had singlehood not been a sin, she’d’ve continued happily single. She’s adaptable. (But, of course, I’d want to believe that.) She was happy teaching; she looks happy housewifing. But if Achal’s needing me now is an artificiality – it’s I who created it.
     When we became engaged, my parents nagged me to encourage Achal to quit her job. ‘You don’t want her going around and meeting strange men, like that first one, do you?’ 
     ‘Where would Achal meet men in a primary-school?’ I wanted to retort. Perhaps if she went down to the potbellied Physical Education teacher who visits one afternoon a week to shout the 500 seven-year-olds through drills.
     But the failure of my first marriage compelled me, at 48, to yield to my parents’ nagging. I relayed their suggestion. Achal protested; but I was delighted to see that her protests concealed complaisance. That’s when I realised I, too, wanted her to quit. Sure enough, a month before we married, she quit. These five years she’s never mentioned missing work. 
     I was surprised. She’d worked in that school from 23 to 39. Now I wonder why I was surprised. I’d quit my job in the blink of an eye. Who would work if they didn’t have to? People who love their work. I’m not yet one of them.
     Now with this decision to make, still seeking clues, I wonder what I’ve not wondered before. Why’s Achal still in touch with her ex-colleagues? I assumed it was because they were friends. Does she miss work? I felt too guilty to ask her, and she didn’t volunteer the information. Perhaps she’ll get her job back, or find work elsewhere. She was a good teacher. 
     I know what I must do. Free Achal from this artificial dependence, this abdication of all interaction with the outside world, this feigning ignorance as a running joke that isn’t funny. Divorce, separation, secrecy, whatever Achal chooses, she shall emerge from the murder of my old self with all the respectability I can give her.
     I know what I must do. Free myself. From this fruitbowl, this hypnosis, this loop of déjà vus, this trap. It’s a trap, I didn’t see it before, Achal still doesn’t see it. And now enough, I must get free, but have I missed my chance?


###


     I seize my phone and start typing, my thumbs have become wrist-sized, I’m typing gibberish, I turn on swipe-typing and autocomplete, still gibberish. I see my hands shaking. I put down my phone.
     Of course I must make this decision calmly. I mean, I’ve already made it, but I must convey it calmly, consider it calmly. This is the first time I get to take a risk, do what I want. I must consider it carefully, be sure what I want. There’s no hurry: 5:29pm is still five hours away.
     I sit back, disappointed. That, I realise, was almost it. The hint from the football-scores, the getting fired by SoftEx, the Achal walking in on me flushing her fruit or texting Kusum – the impulse irresistible, that I’ve been waiting for, that’d stun my rational, cautious, terrified mind, make this decision for me, then allow me back into my body, facing action – the decision made, irrevocable, no more choice, only relief, only striding down the one path now left to me.
     I feel my mind still tonguing at that cold sore, that memory still out of reach, and I feel glad that my clumsy fingers postponed my decision. I need to know what that splinter is, that’s made this cold sore, and tucked it just out of reach.
     Groping in memory, I fall back into Kusum’s bedroom. I say bedroom, but her flat’s a studio: bed, workspace, kitchen counter, and a balcony where she dries her clothes, that’s all you need, the rest is bullshit. I fall back into her arms. Who knew there was so much, anything, to learn about sex? I’ve drifted through life on the myth-raft of female frigidity. Perhaps, if I’d disbelieved my first wife, if I’d tried to meet the needs she denied to me, the needs she took to the hipster – 
     No. That’s gone. Here’s my future, still waiting to be seized.
     I come to. On my second screen I tab away from LinkedIn to MakeMyTrip. Kusum’s right: Covid or no, I can’t live scared. We’ll take a road-trip. Some business travel has resumed; I’ll fake a conference invite. We need a holiday. I’ll ask her, and please god let her say yes. A few days away to talk it over with her, then back here to talk it over with Achal.
     Achal waddles back in. I tab back to the vaccine-finder and prepare for a repeat.
     But Achal says, “Bhindi or baigan?” I’d forgotten: it’s time for that other conversation.
     We’re six months into north India’s nine-month summer. Only okra and eggplant now, occasionally relieved by pallid pumpkin and bland bottle-gourd. Here in the metro, winter vegetables are sold year-round – cauliflowers and cabbages hauled out of cold-storage, anaemic and overpriced – but Achal, wisely, cooks only seasonal. 
     “You decide, Achal.”
     “Bhindi for lunch, baingan for dinner?”
     I nod. Achal collects my empty fruitbowl – I struggle to keep a straight face, bland and bored; Achal waddles out. When I want to look innocent, I act bored. The problem is that I’m a good actor, a method actor: so, after the guilty situation passes, I’m left feeling only bored, not guilty. Do other method actors have this problem?
     The fruitbowl gone, my stomach, used to seven meals a day, empty, I hunger for bhindi. Achal makes it just as Ma did, with nigella, cumin, onion, and garlic. Deepfried, of course. Bhindi’s gotta be deepfried. We lunch at 2pm; I’ve 90 minutes of hunger ahead. And we breakfasted at 10am. I’ve become spoiled as stupid as Kusum’s gabbling pious landlord.
     Tabbing back on my second screen to the vaccine registry, I click Refresh.


###


     A fifth item has appeared: Medical Care Centre. Below the name, in green: ‘Open: 120.’ Vaccines are available here. Slots are still open!
     I click through. The page loads. “Booking for? 1 or 2?” Two, two, two.
     At slot #1 I type ‘Ganesh Srivastava’ and my mobile-phone number in the blank fields, thank god I’m a clean typist, I type the 27 characters in three seconds, navigating via Tab key not mousepad, save time, how many people are competing with me, don’t know, god knows whether there’ll be any slots left when I’m done typing. 
     I tab down and still unthinking enter ‘Achal Srivastava’ and Achal’s mobile-number. The back of my mind registers another buzz on my phone. Another message from Kusum.
     My mouse hovering over ‘Register Now,’ I pause and stare at the screen, and around the white screen the world goes black. What’ve I done? Should I return to slot #2 and type Kusum’s name and phone-number instead? What’s Kusum texted me now? The longest second of my life begins.
     Kusum has asthma and goes out, Achal has prediabetes and doesn’t. And yes, I’ve been exposing Achal indirectly, via my own trips outdoors, but I’ve taken every precaution, and yes, I feel bad, cheating on my wife with this supercontagion going around, and no, Achal doesn’t deserve this. Kusum needs the vaccine more, but Achal’s my wife. Kusum is my future, but I’ve already put down Achal’s name. And this, I realise, this is it, the moment I’ve been waiting for, which will decide for me, have I already decided, but no I can backspace, there’s always backspace and there’s always another day, another chance at a vaccine for Kusum, she’s not even trying to get one – and this is it, it’s Achal or Kusum, now and always, SoftEx or Minimax, scared or free, a loop of déjà vus, hypnotised by slap-slap, or a track I must beat out for myself. And now my tongue reaches the cold sore I’ve been reaching for, all these months when the back of my mind but not the front knew I had to decide, and the reason why, even after asked and answered, I’ve been wondering why Kusum is with me.
     In 2018, via Facebook, a college friend rediscovered me. Rohan, whose sense of humour was to act stupid – and then, in his case, mock interlocutors for thinking him stupid. He’d emigrated after college, and become a famous artist. Now he apologised for having dropped out of touch. He told me he’d been divorced; he ranted about other ‘woman troubles.’ 
     ‘…But you’re thinking, this could only happen to our gullible old Rohan, this case is a one-in-a-million?’ I wasn’t: I was thinking of my own divorce. ‘Don’t take my word for it! Let me tell you, Ganesh. Right around that time – such is life – I read this book, and it was like reading my biography. It’s an eye-opener. Written by a woman, no less. Esther Vilar is the lady who’s done the sterner sex the inestimable service of leaking the playbook of her sex.’
     ‘Oh? Maybe a man writing under a woman’s name.’ 
     ‘Listen Ganesh. She talks about how women put all this effort into looking good, and acting all complaisant and easygoing and independent. You know, I’m a modern woman, I pay my own way thank you very much, this is just a fling don’t get any ideas, and oh, no, you choose where we’re going tonight… Bollocks! It’s all tricks, Ganesh, to catch you before you know where you are, till it’s too late to escape! And then it all starts, the nagging and demanding and profligacy and tantrums… What does it matter who wrote it, if it’s true?’
     Esther Vilar. That’s the cold sore I’ve been tonguing at, the splinter stuck in my brain, now I know why. Why is Kusum with me? She never asked about my job but I told her, she knows I’m well off, and said she likes me for being nice, what does nice mean if not a pushover, pursestrings open, and if a fling were all Kusum wanted why does she expect me over every other day, and why go out of her way now to be so independent, won’t let me fetch her groceries, won’t let me teach her programming, what’s this conspicuous independence in aid of, if not to trap me into chasing her, begging to do favours, please take my money, I’ll leave my wife, and perhaps it’s me she’s losing the weight for, the better to trap me. And I keep telling her I don’t know if I can visit this afternoon, but she keeps texting, she’s just texted again, hasn’t she work to do, how is she texting me all day? She’s already nagging me, meanwhile I’m forbidden to question needless risks, and we’re not even together.
     To fling away this job, that’s become so easy; to fling away Achal, who’s so pleasant; to fling away my parents, so longsuffering, elderly – I’d be mad. At SoftEx I’m somebody. Achal deserves better, she’s held up her end of the bargain, she does care for me, she’s been opening up, shoulder-rubs and head-pats, I can teach her as Kusum taught me. I can’t have another failed marriage, it’d kill my parents. And how did she work out that basil was my favourite perfume, it’s an unusual scent, and where does she hide her basil-scented lotion or cologne or mystery item, I’ve never seen it and I don’t want to. And there sprawls Kusum doing her makeup right beside me. And she stipulated she wanted only sex, maybe that’s all she really wanted then, but now she wants more, but no, a woman like that doesn’t mistake her own mind, this was premeditated. And cinnamon twists are very well, but Kusum can’t cook bhindi, and no, an old dog can’t learn new tricks, I took the only path I could’ve. Bye-bye pastel rainbow, I killed you before and hereby I kill you again, maybe in another life, maybe this is why people believe in an afterlife. I’ve enjoyed the adventure, browsing jobs and football-scores and dating-sites, and doing impressions – but impressions I can still do, Achal might like them. But when normality resumes all the rest must go the way of my second screen, back at work there’s no room for my second screen, only for my work-laptop, fantasies are for young people and lockdowns, what’s wrong with contentment, I can’t throw away contentment for a chance at happiness. And enough. The longest moment of my life ends, how long I don’t know, and have I missed my chance?
     I click ‘Register Now’ and wait for the next page to load. Please god don’t let it be too late, I’ve not seen green on the registry in seven weeks and I don’t know when I’ll see it next. I reach my phone, prepared to message Kusum my decision about this evening, this lifetime, and I wait for the page to load, to see whether or not my wife and I have slots to go get vaccines.
 

tiffany jolowicz Monday on Michigan Island, Yesterday, the Day Before, Two Thousand Years