Every man has tastes and pleasures. That is natural, and some, me included, would say it’s bad to deny them too often. Sometimes, irrespective of these pleasures, a man witnesses a glory of life, when the sun looks all too real, like it was borne for him, and the trees flicker with the guiding resonance that prepares him for death, and the clouds on high look like they are floating at a speed he directs. Some, me included, would say that a man’s life is judged according to the quality and frequency of these glories, since they’re practically impossible to maintain, as is everything we so often want to keep and ply and hold.
Sometimes a man can see the glory in fellow man, and that is often when it is richest. Daniel felt it in a spark here and there in thinking back to her pelvic bone, or the lines at the apex of her hamstring, and grew sad and desirous and had a sinking in his belly. In that loneliness there was creation too, as there is creation in all death. Daniel felt that way for moments at a time on his twelve hour bus ride from Khajuraho to Bhopal, but sleep and the absurdity of the bad roads and the bus bouncing on them overtook his mind and made him feel strong and preoccupied.
The next day he felt it recurrently when he sat in the airport as punishment for having had to splurge on a plane ticket to the south, since all the trains were booked, and his flight is Tuesday to Sri Lanka from Chennai, formerly known as Madras, where they’d make those fine patterned fabrics so often seen in the yachts of Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons. Rather than buy a hotel room for the day in Bhopal until his flight in the evening, he took a cab straight to the airport when he arrived early in the morning, not knowing where to go, slightly wishing he had a Lonely Planet, hers, and sat reading Yeats and Steinbeck and Trollope and soaking in his melancholy and practicing. During those twelve hours in the airport he felt that sinking feeling often. Something about recovering the Yeats he’d read in college in order to cope with his first love inspired him to cope with another ending, an affair with a Dutch girl he’d meet the day he arrived in India.
He walked into the Mumbai hostel room and into her brown eyes. That first night she came back from dinner and he from India Gate at twilight and they talked until midnight, planning the rest of their journeys and where they would meet. The next night in a luxe dinner where they were the most underdressed they laughed at laughing Japanese and went back to the room to find themselves on her bed making out after listening to Dutch songs about cycling.
And there were times they thought about each other while she was in the South and he was in the North, and they sent a facebook message until they agreed to meet in, how apropos, Khajuraho, home to kama sutra temples.
He got there the day before, to choose a nice place, and make her feel welcome when she arrived early the next mornning. He made friends with Rajesh from the hotel, who took him on his bike that evening, gratis, although he later asked for a hundred rupees, which Daniel gave him, because the eastern temples, with intricate carvings and in the sanctum a carved lingam driven into a yoni, he wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The most difficult position in the sutra is a woman fellating a man with her legs around his neck and bending backwards, supporting herself with one arm on the ground. An ancient king said that if any woman could do this he would give her a great temple. No one could.
Pahlarat was a friend and took Daniel on his bike, since Rajesh’s needed air in the tire. They went to another temple, then to Pahlarat’s brightly painted home, to meet his children, the cutest called Lucky, seeming to know the meaning of his name. Pahlarat is of the brahmin caste and married when he was sixteen because his mother got sick and he was the oldest boy, and who else would take care of the children and cook and clean? His slender wife made them chai and then they went to the Jain temple and drove through the actual village of Khajuraho, the brahmin, warrior, bussinessman and untouchable neighborhods. They drove under health-giving neem trees and a big twin banyan tree, 400 years old.
Daniel wished he could keep feeling like this, excited and happy with what was going on right then, and also, excited and expectant to see his Dutch friend in the morning– he wished he could prolong this suspension of newness and experience and expectancy and make it last a little longer. But as we know, life is very long when you can drape it on these feelings, and this made him even happier, because he knew that his wish would be granted in memory, which prolongs these feelings as he wanted them to exist in real life.
Then they went to a mountain some kilometers away, through another village and in the sky were varicose vein clouds. Not spiderwebs, varicose veins stretched across pale blue sky with tints of frayed pink. Women climbed into remoteness, holding little metal jars of water to use after defecating on the marble ridge. Between ridges was a plain of grain farms which the government was not buying from, doing injustice to the locals. The landscape was treed and grassy and stretched on both sides for ten miles before the next ridge rose in the distance.
Pahlarat took him back home, and they hoped to see each other again on the morrow. But even in Daniel’s enthusiastic assent he doubted he would.
He lay awake in bed, in the dusky blue of early morning, waiting for her train, expecting every sound in the courtyard to precede her soft knock, and when it finally came, she shook his hand like a stranger. She lay down and they talked away the passage of time spent without each other. He tried to kiss her mouth, but she turned the other cheek and he began to doubt.
They breakfasted in a verdured tourist’s setting, with cappuccinos and omelets. When he first sat down she was sitting diagonally from him, because he had chosen his seat while she was still walking to hers. And she said why are you sitting there and he knew then that it was all okay, that the cheek kiss had been a pretense.
They sat there for six hours. He was bright-eyed and furrow-browed and she asked him many questions he knew all the answers to. When they went back to the hotel she sat next to him on the bed, he tried again and got another cheek. He asked why with a little hate in his voice. There had been another man. Of course. She had already mentioned him, said they’d traveled together for ten days. Jealousy had been there when she’d said, the Australian guy, and it flared whenever she repeated it during their leafy meal, but now that it was waving in the wind it didn’t matter a goddam. Inside he said, she still came to meet you, took an eleven hour train and agreed to share a room and must have known that you didn’t want to just look at each other all day; it’s not like there was no precedent. She just didn’t want to dive into another one. Not that it mattered to him. It was only for a moment he wondered which was better: to have had or to have now, they were the same and he thought since now is all we have, I am in the better position and I am a better man, since she left him for me (and maybe other reasons too, a small voice said). I’ve put away childish notions of jealousy and past partners; it would be different if she were my wife, my girlfriend, but she’s just a girl. Lover’s logic. All this reasoning took an instant. Now that it was out in the open, wide open, he was surprised at how unjealous he was, and how it didn’t matter. Now that it was cleared they had each other.
She stared at him with a twisted look of unbridled pleasure– or was it pain?– the dumb bestial blankness of disbelief and being outside of yourself that accompanies being in that now. Her grotesque contorted brows and open mouth and flared nostrils made him imagine his own stupid faces and the un-self-conscious lack of poise that comes with the newness of sex at age nineteen.
Then, again. But she was sore. When they had whiled away another hour or two in post-coital fluorescence, they stood for food. At her touch he gurgled and she thought he was joking but with his sigh her nipples got hard and he suggested one more and even though she was sore she told him to keep going. And when he told her he was on his way, she invited him, over and over again and it sounded so stupid and yet so necessary that when it was over she must have felt it. She said without a hint of irony, You must feel really good, like you did your job.
He laughed. I do.
Like you did your evolutionary work and now you can relax.
He laughed again at the truth in it, affirming.
In the midst of the fluorescent buzz was paradoxically vibrant silence of being alone in separate worlds and yet somehow sharing a new one they’d together created.
You’d be good in an orgy, she said.
Why? His ego swelled slightly.
Because you’re good at doing two things at once. Like kissing during sex. When I want to kiss I only want to kiss. When I want sex, I only want sex.
I guess when in a good orgy you need to always be doing as much as possible. And he laughed at the absurdity and possible truth in this realization, led to by her, pleased by her youthful and limpid insights.
The next day they went to the temples together and marveled at the one-legged standing positions, compared them to European cathedrals, and breathed in each other until all of the reliefs looked the same and yes they were great but…
At lunch they returned to their spot and watched a white tailed songbird feed her baby a too big banyan seed. Finally she mashed it enough for the chick to eat it and fall asleep on its branch. They ate thali and ice cream and she wanted more sweets. He could tell she wanted an adventure and thought of how it’s good to keep a woman happy. But he had to leave soon, just a few hours, and all he wanted there was only enough time for.
To break up the afternoon she bought a shirt and he bought a plane ticket to Malaysia. He almost bought a ticket home, it was a good price, but it was too much conclusiveness all at once, too much set right then.
At home they showered together and lay on her bed her while he taught her American history. Maybe it was their impending loneliness, maybe it was her being still sore, but it was enough to stay on the bed. They showered again and she was full of compliments and love and turned off the water and they stood with arms outstretched on each others’ shoulders and talked about how they were entirely naked. They were so naked, so quickly in and out of each others lives and their honesty about it denuded them further.
She stood on the bed to be taller than him, wanting him to pick out her flaws but he couldn’t. It would be too cruel. Not to her, but to himself, to strip what they’d built away so that nothing remained. She wanted him to help her become better by making her more aware of herself, by testing her self-security, and by being that person who had taught her to grow up, the one person who had bettered her by speaking one of her flaws so she could hate him a little bit and make it easier to leave. But he couldn’t do it. Someone else could do it, make her better for the next person, to spite love, but not him. She begged, but he resisted, needed it to exist for their last hour. To denude her further would destroy what they’d built from their first meeting to that moment and he needed it maybe more than she did.
So he walked over to the other bed and folded his underwear and suggested they eat. They sat outside in the light gray rain and ate aubergine and tomato curry and chapati and counted down the minutes until he had to leave. She said, the rain is symbolic. It’s washing out our…connection. She laughed. They had used that word many times already, for not just themselves.
He said, There are so many other ways we use that dumb word. Like I have a train connection at eight o clock. I would use the word love. There’s only one word for love in English and so even though ours may not be love love, you can still figure out what it means from the context. The rain is washing away all our love.
They agreed to meet in five years, when he became famous and she was a little older than he was now. She saw him outside and he could feel her self-consciousness melt away about the Indians watching them kiss goodbye in how he kissed her. She saw him into the took-took and as it started she held out her hand and he touched it and their hands slipped apart as he drove away.
And as he sat in the bus bumping along for twelve hours, he intermittently hated himself for not doing it, for not telling her what he didn’t like about her. She would have been so much better for that, but he had been too selfish. She was good enough, he had said, someone else will do it, he had said, but he knew that if he had done it, it would have been enough for her to really love him, to really remember him, and that it would have killed their last moments together and plunged the dagger into the heart of their love, but in its place, long after its corpse had rotted, over its grave would have grown a heavy-hanging twin banyan tree.
So he liked to imagine. It took most of his lonely morning before he grew tired of being melancholy and wanted to break free of it. He stopped reading Yeats and tried not to think of her, and when he did, a voice said, you be a cowboy, dammit, you take what you need from the ladies who give it, and be on your way. Another said, but she was so sweet and I like indulging this little love and melancholy for her. It feels so real to throw my head in the mulch and bang on the ground because who knows what could happen.
But enough is enough already.
Fine. I’ve given a little of myself to her and in return gotten a little from her, to judge against what I already knew existed within me, and that makes me even stronger.
Thatta boy, the other voice agreed.
With this resolution he was ready again for the world. After those glorious outpourings experienced intermittently throughout his past couple of days, he was undiminished, stronger, for he had seen what part of him could become, had known it before, which meant it existed in others too, and he was now more part of the world, and withdrawing from it at will strengthened him. But now he had had enough glorifying and needed to withdraw entirely. He was exhausted from jerky bus sleep, and meager cat naps he pulled on barred airport seats and the deep valleys of emotion he’d explored, and he still needed to get to Hyderabad, where he’d land at midnight, and find a hotel, and he needed his remaining energy to do that. He looked forward to a period of transit again, which would remove him from loneliness and ambling waylaying thoughts, and he would be able to speculate on and prepare for future glories in people and earth.