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by Prashila Naik

He feels no guilt when he pulls his t-shirt over his head and zips his new jeans. Instead, there is a sense of accomplishment; he is indeed doing the right thing. After all, this is the only life he has and will ever know, and it is entirely his decision, the kind of experiences he would want to build into it. He sprays some more deodorant (the one he is carrying from India) under both his armpits, somehow worried that a sudden bout of body odor would ruin everything that he wants to be memorable. The thought makes him want to laugh hard. Of course, this is memorable. Every minute asserts its existence before it gives way to the next.

His colleague is in the double room, snoring to himself, possibly dreaming of his beautiful wife and spike-haired son. His thoughts drift from the boy quickly enough to fall back on his mother. Why not? He calls her ‘didi’ but is it wrong to acknowledge the generous curve of her hips or the way her kurtas almost always display a slight hint of cleavage? How must she be in bed? He has stopped to spend a few seconds thinking of that, too. His colleague, with his floppy hair and boyish features, comes across as a person whom he somehow cannot imagine with that beautiful woman. He looks at the man’s legs, sprawled out on the bed. This is a good man, a good solid man, who loves his wife and his son as much as he does himself.

By the time he steps out of the room and into the elevator, he is certain he is sweating. He touches his forehead, his fingers tentative as if he isn’t sure of what he would find there. But his forehead is disappointingly dry, and so are his temples, cheeks, and even underarms. In the reception, the night concierge is peeping into her phone, and for a second he is curious to know the brand of the phone. Could it be an iPhone or one of those monster-sized Androids? By the time, he makes up his mind to find out the woman has put the object of mystery away. He puts his hands in his coat pockets and walks out, not thinking of the phone he has left behind in the hotel room, the one he had just used.

Rachana… He is startled, for in his mind she has always been Rachu. He searches for that term of endearment, associating it with the woman who is represented by it. A woman he has known right since she was a little girl with long thick hair that reached up to her waist, hair that she barely lets brush her shoulders now. Rachu, he mouths the name, as he steps onto the street. At this hour, she is probably fast asleep on the bed in her mother’s house, their three-month-old baby beside her. The baby, a girl, with a mouth he thinks is like that of her mother, the mouth he had once found extremely attractive. He is not surprised at the memory not filling him up with any form of desire. He would be surprised if it did.

The last time he spoke to her, Rachu had complained that the baby refused to let her sleep for more than three hours straight and that she also missed him, really badly. She then inquired about the new city, but he knew she was barely paying attention to his answers. She was either hungry or tired or bored or angry. He could sense that from the anxiety in her voice. She had always been a transparent person, but he isn’t sure if he likes that about her anymore. Keeping a part of herself accessible only to herself seems better now.

He shakes his head now, as if shaking off all the excess information he possesses about her, and walks up to the bus stop. Also, there is so much only he can allow himself to think of Rachu and the baby. Any more and the guilt would all be back. He takes up the empty seat next to an elderly man who smells strongly of cologne. Suddenly conscious, he slightly bends his head and sniffs at his underarms. The man beside him looks in his direction. He smiles back at the wrinkled man, apologetic and angry at the same time.

What a man does with his body is his own bloody business. Why is this simple fact so difficult to understand? Why does pleasure have to be restricted and slotted as moral or immoral? Let me be, OK? Just let me be. He wants to say it out loud to the cologne clad old man, to every other passenger on that bus, to the concierge woman, the unromantic colleague and his beautiful wife, and his own wife. He lets the thought pass. Rachu need not know this. She doesn’t have to. It changes nothing for her. A couple of hours is all this is going to be. Can she claim every single moment that makes up his life? No, she doesn’t. No one does.

The smell of the cologne is somehow more intense now, or so he is convinced. He straightens himself against the seat, his enthusiasm coming back in small bursts. With Google’s help, he has the route figured out already. He will be getting off after exactly two stops more and then walk the next fifteen blocks, two lefts and three rights. YouTube videos show the place to be easily navigable, and the windows all too convenient. He feels a rush of blood inside his body, and he is certain he is blushing in a manner he hasn’t done in years, or possibly never has before. His heart racing, he spends the next few minutes counting from one to hundred, over and over again. And, when two stops later, he is out of the bus and onto the road he is tempted to do the same again. But the road is bustling with light and an inert form of energy that he is not sure if he likes. Not wanting to get lost and prolong the arrival at his destination, he decides to stop a passerby and ask for directions. But, this seemingly innocent-sounding idea brings up a very important question. Who does he ask, and how? The thought is amusing, and for a second, it opens up some even more amusing possibilities. It also bothers him that despite being a man aged twenty-seven, a part of him still reels in the embarrassment that he as a thirteen-year-old, gawky teenager felt when it came to matters of the heart and matters of the penis. Disturbed, he decides to brave his way on his own and enters the first lane he encounters. He’d do this on his own, of course he would.

The Wikipedia entry calls them ‘Windows’ and now he understands. What he sees is not as expressive as the moving images that all the videos on YouTube presented. In the confines of that little size screen, the promise had been potent and concentratedly carnal. Here, he only sees them all as skimpily-dressed prostitutes, doing their jobs. He likes how their attention is equally divided among all the men, not for once judging or evaluating one over the other. In that crowd, he is comfortably lost. He could get through any one of the windows, and he could be any one of those men.

And yet, he takes his time, takes in the sights, experiencing freedom in a manner he has never experienced before. Rachu and the baby, his parents, his colleague, the busty wife of that colleague, everyone is pushed far, far back into his mind. He walks on, increasingly dazzled by the various forms of physical perfection out on display, stunned by how much grace and elegance are exuded in each of those appearances. Rarely when his eyes meet another pair of eyes from across the window, he doesn’t wait long enough to ascertain the emotion in them. That would mean bringing the experience back to its specifics, and giving it a trajectory. Just for now, he doesn’t want to do that.

The clothes too, as if made solely for the bodies they are on, make him woefully aware of his imperfections. His hand consciously reaches out to feel the bulge of his stomach under his jacket, and his thighs, and the patchy skin on his face. He decides he would cut down on beer and would make it a point to hit the gym once he’d get back home. But just then, his mind drifts off to his wife, and the startling transformation he has seen her go through in the past months. He doesn’t want to linger on that nagging thought because he is all too aware of its unfairness though it’s impossible not to acknowledge how comfortably she had managed to adapt to the changing specifics of her body, all on her own, not once stopping to let him be a part of her thoughts. Sometimes, she almost seems like a different person; as if the invasion of her body almost overshadowed a part of her personality, a part he cannot exactly identify, but can easily remember experiencing. And the same part he knows he definitely misses, and in all likelihood is lost forever.

It is this sense of a sudden loss that prompts him to stop on the street and turn at the silhouette he sees from the corner of his eyes. This one is not as stunning as the rest he had seen. Her body is thick, and her hair too short to be fodder for any instant fantasies. Even her clothes are plain. And yet, he sees himself curling his fingers into fists inside the pockets of his jackets, as he walks up to her window.

The next few minutes pass in a haze; the next thing he knows he is inside a room with the woman who is watching him with what seems to be a vacant stare. With nothing more left to do, he tries to convince himself that this is the most beautiful woman he will ever get so close to; but as she straddles him, and her face is alarmingly close to his own, he decides he’d be a fool to let himself believe that. And yet, the act in itself is not bad. The woman takes her time and gives him complete attention. He likes to think that there is also a certain grace in the manner in which she is conducting herself, even though he may not be able to ascertain how one can be graceful in an act that involves an intrusion of one’s own body. But what strikes him the most, and not at all in an unpleasant manner, is how she takes the experience to a completely different level with every passing second. He likes how her hair is close enough for him to smell, and how his hands are on her bare back which feels solid and sturdy under his palms. He also likes how her breathing stays erratic all along, never once letting him decipher her next move. It takes him a painfully long time to climax, and he is worried. Would she display her displeasure? Would she charge more because of this? But the woman displays no emotion on her face, as she tells him the amount he owes her, which turns out to be just what he had anticipated.

He hands her four notes, all given to him by the Forex department in his office back in India, and then he smiles at her impulsively, silently mouthing the words, “Thank you.” For a brief second, he is even tempted to ask her name, her age, and what part of this world she comes from, and how long has she been a part of this business, and most importantly, if she would remember him ten years or for that matter, even ten days from now. But, with a slight nod of her head, which he thinks is her way of acknowledging his money and his gratitude, she shows him the way out. There are no questions in her world, he thinks, and she probably doesn’t need to provide any answers.. The realization makes him restless, and he desperately tries to recollect the last time Rachu and he had a meaningful conversation with each other, the kind he only vaguely remembers of having in a past that is not so distant.

Back on the streets, his misery is only enhanced by how the world around him seems still the way it was, while he has just earned himself an experience that is supposed to be once in a lifetime. But apart from the slight bulge inside his pants, and a faint tingling sensation inside his right armpit, where the woman had held him for most of the act, he feels nothing, not even the disgust he was worried he would feel. If only, there is a sense of unfulfillment; a sense of being deprived of what should have been his. He looks around at the random man and woman on the street, wishing he could stop at least one of them and tell them how he is being denied something he so desperately wants for himself. But they are as unaware of the turmoil inside him, as they are unaware of his presence. He is a part of that street, and yet nothing more than a meager man with a secret of his own.

He is instantly disheartened. Maybe then, all of this was a bad idea right from the beginning. Maybe this lack of exhilaration is nature’s way of telling him that his fantasy had been nothing more than a beautiful illusion. It would never materialize into anything real, anything substantial. And so at this moment, all he needs to do is go back to the hotel room, take a hot shower, and then lie down on his bed, covered in those cozy blankets, dreaming about a future that will be real. But, just when he decides to make a turn and head back to the hotel, his eyes are almost helplessly drawn to one of the windows where he sees a silhouette in that pleasantly dull light. This time, he lets his eyes wander all over the woman’s outlines, instantly turned on. Even from a distance, he can see the promise the apparition on the other side of the window presents.
When he gets into the elevator, all he can think of is the woman—no—the girl, for that is all he pleasantly realizes she was, she could have been, a girl. He is certain he would never see anything more beautiful in his life, and no amount of guilt or confusion would take this feeling away from him.

After getting inside his room, he sits at the edge of his bed to take his shoes off, not wanting to do anything more with his body. The night had to stop now. But, just when he is about to lie down on his bed, and switch the tiny beam of light from his cell phone off, his colleague calls him.

“Where were you, Alok? I was worried. Your phone was unreachable too.”

The man is half lying on the bed, his voice sounding strangely terrifying in that silence. He has known the man long enough to know that the concern is genuine. And yet, when he turns around to face him, he does nothing to hide his inscrutable expression.

“I was out visiting the red light area here. It had always been a fantasy of mine, you know bhaiyya. Spending some time with a fair-skinned woman, an experience that is…”

He stops at this point, angry at himself for being so apologetic for his choices. His colleague has by now sat up on the bed, possibly shocked and so rendered speechless for any coherent response to that confession. But, he knows the silence would not last for a long time, and very soon he would indeed have to explain himself and his motivations. For a second, he is also worried that he has opened avenues for this piece of news to reach out to Rachu as well. The thought makes him uneasy, and he has an urge to fall at his colleague’s feet and tell him how he needs to be forgiven for what he has done and how sorry he is. But he does nothing like that. He is not sorry for what he has done, and he isn’t sorry for anything he will do in the future.

He points his cell phone towards his colleague’s bed such that the beam of light falls awkwardly on his face. The older man’s face seems to be comically stuck in an expression that makes him want to burst out laughing. A man who couldn’t even produce an appropriate expression when presented with a situation that he most certainly would not get to confront every day, was he even worth so much thought and attention? This man would never be able to tell Rachu. His secret was as safe as it could be. Maybe, he would go back home and tell his wife what a horny bastard Alok was. Maybe his wife would groan with disgust, and tell her good husband, how they need to keep away from such a filthy man. Maybe, they’d pity poor Rachana and the baby who would probably never know that her father had once spent an unforgettable night in the company of an unforgettable woman. Maybe the couple would gradually sever their ties with him and push him out of their existence. Maybe…

“… and to do something like this. How…” his colleague is saying now, he realizes when he snaps out of his thoughts, his colleague’s voice is thick with accusation. He doesn’t want to listen to that sermon, doesn’t want to be reduced to a discussion on morality and fidelity. All he wants to do is lie down, and surrender himself to sleep. And so, even through all the fondness and respect he feels for his colleague, he finds it easy to look him straight in the eye, and say, “Bhaiyya, I think you are just jealous that you will never be able to get a similar experience for yourself. So, can you please cut all this nonsense and go back to sleep.”

Those two sentences work like a charm, their damage staggeringly accurate, as his colleague stops talking, and puts himself down under the blankets. Something tells him they will never discuss this night again, and for some strange reason, it saddens him, for he would have loved to discuss this experience with someone.

He lies down on the bed and closes his eyes. At least he has himself to discuss and re-live all those memories until he could analyze and dissect every single one of its moments, crafting and editing it until he’d finally built himself the most authentic and the most genuine experience any night had offered.

PramilaPrashila Naik is a writer and technologist, who perpetually longs to retire into the idyllic landscapes of Ladakh. Her work has previously been published in various literary magazines in India and elsewhere, Bewildering Stories, ‘2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology, Muse India, Papercuts, The Bombay Literary Magazine, to name a few. She was shortlisted for the DNA-Out of print short story contest. She is currently based out of Bangalore, India.