“Hi Maya. I’m here.” I whispered, glancing towards the centre of the room where the double-bed used to be. Where, Nafisa told me, Maya’s body lay sprawled in her nightwear. She had died in her sleep and when her death was discovered, her mortal remains had already begun to decay. These details were not in the email that I received from the Dean, of course. But these I needed to know, I definitely needed to know.
The room looked oddly bare. I wondered who disposed of the bed, and the study table in the corner… and the nice, comfy chair, the seat wrapped with wine-red velvet. It was my favourite perch… I pulled open the wooden wardrobe where the two compartments used to be… hers and mine in stark difference. Maya’s cluttered, disorganized. Mine just the opposite.
Like the rest of the room, it looked oddly barren, too. I do not know why I say ‘oddly.’ Did I expect the room to be furnished just as I had left it? Those last moments when she clung to my arm and wept. Despite the claustrophobia that I sometimes felt when I was around her and which finally made me plan my escape, I knew I would never forget that moment. Her pain was so tangible… it was like a solid, heavy block crushing her and for one tiny second, I had almost changed my mind.
I never did tell you Maya, but that one moment summed up all those months I had spent with you. I remember feeling so stiff, I couldn’t even put my arms around you to comfort you. Terrible guilt knifed inside me but what alternative did I have! I could not let myself get smothered Maya, I…. I never had plans to settle down with you! I’d been clear about it since…..
A heaviness obstructed my chest. I needed air. The window should open unless it’s jammed. No, it isn’t… it opened without much shoving and I sighed with pleasure as a familiar gust of fragrant breeze rushed into the room. Just like her.
“Do you like how my hair smells?” Her shoulder-length, dark hair was wrapped in a towel but the whiff of her shampoo had filled the room. I nodded without looking up from my laptop. Out of the corner of my eyes, I knew her exaggerated pout was well in place. Almost everything about her manner was exaggerated… her flair for dramatics, her little joys and sorrows and the love she felt for me. I decided to play along and tease her a bit more. I focused on my paper as I heard her storming out of the room, then back inside, then out again, clearly trying to get my attention. I feigned ignorance.
Then I heard her trotting out of the front door and into the little garden. She positioned herself where I could have a clear view of her through the window. Spreading her legs ever so slightly, she unwrapped the towel from her head. Black night cascaded down her shoulders and caught the light of the golden sun. I held my breath. As if she was performing on stage, her body started swaying, almost imperceptibly. She flipped her head from side to side, trying to shake off the water droplets from her glistening hair, occasionally caressing those gorgeous locks with her towel. I was not fooled as my eyes lingered on her form and that almost suffocating feminine allure. The chair screeched as I pushed it back abruptly and stood up. She tiptoed to the window.
“What! I’m just drying my hair!” She retorted with a pretend-frown. I laughed.
“You were doing more than that, you imp!”
I made to join her in the sun and she gave a little squeal. Such a drama queen! I held her wrists firmly and buried my face in her wet hair. “Strawberries,” I mumbled and drew in a long breath.
The familiar need surged inside, rearing its gigantic head and I began to lower her onto the green and brown earth. “NO!” She shrieked, pushing away. It was my turn to pout.
“Oh, why not?”
Her eyes now held a look of fear and embarrassment.
“Don’t you know? Amma!” She had dropped her voice to a whisper and pointed to the second-storey window of our nosy neighbor.
A lady in her fifties or sixties, she lived with her daughter and a domestic help. We would often meet her on our way to the University or around the local markets. Although very friendly and prone to chatting, we never failed to notice the overtly-curious look in her eyes as they swept upon the pair us, especially me. On a couple of occasions, when we were tending to our little garden or just standing there chatting, we had caught her face hidden among the fluttering curtains on her window. To be honest, I didn’t mind much. Everyone is entitled to some harmless voyeuristic pleasure, after all. But not Maya. Her shy, Indian upbringing made her very conscious of the fact that she was living in with me. Maya would always turn slightly red when we were together and happened to meet somebody we knew.
“Let’s go inside!” She said urgently, trying to free herself from my embrace. “Absolutely not!” I quipped, “I’m loving this sun and this red-faced you!” My smirk widened and she was almost in tears. I could feel her go limp in my arms before struggling a bit more. I was careful to lower her down gently but she gave a small yelp. The garden was filled with pebbles of all kinds and sharp twigs. Neither of us was very diligent in maintaining it rigorously.
Thinking that a jutting stone or a sharp twig had hurt her, I whispered, “Oops, sorry!”
Her wide eyes stared straight past my head and across the little arbor. Amma’s window was now open, I recalled it was shut when I came into the garden. Our voices must have carried. Taking a quick glance, I chuckled. It seemed someone was clutching the closed curtains tightly, leaving only a very narrow slit. As Maya’s breathing quickened, I crouched low and lifting her in my arms, carried her behind the half-grown, dwarfish mango tree. In spite of herself, Maya started to giggle and I knew why. Now, even if she strained her neck, all Amma would get a glimpse of were Maya’s dirt-smeared feet.
My eyes drank her beauty and she lay still with half-closed eyes. He lips parted slightly, inviting me to her. When Maya looked like that, I forgot the world. The scent of the warm earth mingled with the scent in her hair and her fragrant body.
“Darn! I had just taken a shower,” Maya grumbled but I comforted her. “You can take one more… with me.”
“Anton! You alright?” It was Rebecca’s voice. What’s she doing here? I spun around and walked out to the front door. Her eyes were apologetic as she tried to bring on the semblance of a smile.
“I…I… just that it was taking you so long…” she stammered, “I know you wanted to be alone… I got a bit worked up,” Her face flushed slightly. I nodded.
“It’s okay,” I replied, “Come in, it’s too sunny outside. Did you walk all the way?” I noticed Becca panting and realized I didn’t have a drink to offer her.
What the heck! I thought, I don’t live here…anymore.
“It really isn’t too far from Nafisa’s… nice, little town.” Becca said casually but I saw her eyes darting from one corner of the bare living room to another, as if she expected Maya’s ghost to jump out at her from the dimly-lit corners. I put my arm around her and pulled her close.
“There’s no one here, Becca. Just you and I,” I said, teasing as I ruffled her hair. Embarrassed, she smiled but it vanished in the next minute.
“Are you done yet? Can we… just go back to Nafisa’s? It just is a bit…. weird standing here.” I understood. But I reminded her that she need not have come. Besides, the idea of visiting Maya’s memories and seeking closure was hers. She looked flustered but did not budge.
“I understand you feel uncomfortable here, Becca… someone passed away in this cottage…” I was trying to make her feel better but she shook her head vehemently.
“I’m not scared, Anton… not because Maya died here. Just that, I feel… it’s a strange feeling I can’t really describe. Like… you know, when you feel you don’t belong somewhere?” Her face looked pale, strained.
“Anton, this place… all these people who knew her… her, her diary… it’s like… this isn’t our world…” She gasped, “Oh my God! I… I shouldn’t… we shouldn’t have come…. Maya…. and all these people! They were waiting for you!”
It didn’t help that the front door slammed shut at that moment. Becca screamed like a frightened bird as she clung to me, shivering. Her face had drained of all color. I decided enough was enough and gripped her shoulders firmly.
“Look at me, and get this in your head. This door always had a problem, been like that since I moved in here. Maya isn’t here and even if she was, she wouldn’t hurt a hair on your head. I can vouch for that! Maya held dear all that I love, and I love you, Becca, very much!” I finished forcefully.
She threw her arms round my neck, breaking down in sobs and I knew it wasn’t out of fear. This was really the first time that I had confessed my feelings to her. For a brief moment, Maya’s dazzling smile flashed before my mind’s eye. On our way back, Becca seemed slightly better as I mimicked how scared she was back in the house. Nafisa realized what had happened from her visibly shaken appearance and rushed over to comfort her.
“I suggested her not to go, but she seemed agitated,” she whispered, as Becca went inside to lie down. I nodded before asking, “Nafisa, why isn’t the front door ever locked?” At first, she looked confused, then realized I was talking about the cottage.
“Oh, the owners want to demolish the place. Quite old anyway, and hardly any buyer for such property these days.” Nafisa replied, shuffling into the kitchen to get us cold drinks.
I sat down, feeling that abrupt heaviness in my chest return. Maya loved that cottage. Perhaps that’s why she remained there after I left, alone with the memories that we had made together.
That evening, Becca seemed tired and went to bed early. We were making preparations to leave the town soon. Nafisa sat on the couch, her make-shift bed. Her generosity was starting to weigh heavily on me.
“Nafisa… am just so sorry,” I paused as she looked up. Her eyes were vacant but she tried to smile.
“Thanks for coming, Anton. Maya would be so glad,” she said as tears filled her eyes. I looked away and she sniffed, retrieving a tissue from the box on the table. We sat there in silence for a few minutes, our unspoken thoughts pervading the room. Glancing at the clock, I stood up.
“I’ll go to bed. Goodnight, Nafisa and thank you for being so kind!” I added sincerely.
She smiled and pulled something out from behind the cushion. It was Maya’s diary that Becca had been reading. I tried to recall if I had ever seen Maya write in this journal. No. May be, she started after I left for Italy.
“Err… Anton, would you like to keep this?” she asked hesitantly.
I wasn’t very sure, especially after the way Becca was in the cottage but I could plainly see that she wanted me to have it. And rightfully so. This diary was a constant companion in her best friend’s last years, months perhaps. And Maya’s writings were addressed to me. Most of them at least, from what I had heard from Rebecca. Nafisa longed to see her best friend’s prized possession find a home with me.
“Yes, of course!” I replied, thanking her.
Later, I lay awake next to Becca who was sleeping soundly. Slowly, I sat up and turned on the tiny bedside lamp next to me. A soft amber glow spread around the bed, not enough to light up the entire room. I opened Maya’s diary, just leafing through the pages.
The last entry said: ‘I need you like I need air.’
The tears came unannounced and totally unexpected. For a long time, they would not stop. I was relieved Becca was sleeping. I’ve never been comfortable crying, much less in the company of others.