All the while I was aware of what would happen with Jakie later. He had been trailing behind Seema all across the house since she had worn that perfume. His insecurity returned and grasped him wholly as he followed us into the bedroom and saw the bags were packed up. He traveled across the room sniffing, inspecting corner to corner, as if it was a new territory to explore, and climbed up the bed. I said, “You are going mad for no reason.” He jumped off the bed and sat down at Seema’s feet.
Seema, cloaked in a newly bought overcoat, had been sitting next to me on the edge of the bed for fifteen minutes without uttering a word. Her hand was in mine; our hands were resting in my lap. Her handbag and a luggage bag were placed beside her left foot, propped against the bed, waiting to be lifted and carried out.
Two weeks ago, Seema had first shown her desire to go back to Banglore to spend time with her sisters and friends in a warmer place; it had started getting cold up here in Uttrakhand. But with a different pretext each time, I refused her. However, at supper last night, while discussing what should be done with Jakie if we go out again to earn a living, our light-hearted arguments turned into a typical marital feud, followed by a long, cold, sleepless night. So early this morning she took a hot shower, dried herself off, and sat at the dresser before I had even rolled out of bed. We had morning coffee together, looking out the window at the fog.
“It’s getting late!” Seema said, and stood up. Jakie imitated her, clutched her overcoat’s sleeve in his mouth, and pulled her back. She frowned and said, “He should understand.” I said, “He wants you to stay a little longer.” Looking at Jakie, Seema sat down again in frustration. Jakie, too, sat down on the floor, close to the luggage as if guarding it. While his head laid down on his left leg, his erect ears frequently changed directions to every little noise, his copper-brown eyes scrutinizing each sound that came from the walls.
“He’s a poor little dog.” I said, looking down at Jakie.
“We’ve got our lives too, don’t we? And we are meant to live them.” said Seema.
“He doesn’t like to be without us. Isn’t it sweet?”
“Well, it’s rather irritating.”
“But what? He’s seven, don’t you know?” she blurted out, “It’s been seven years. It seems sometimes he is an unnecessary burden to us, to our lives! Pardon me for saying that, but it’s true- we are caged in this house all the time with him, can’t you see?” Seema stopped, shaking her head ruefully. Lifting her hands in an agitated gesture, she looked around as though she was cursing the walls. “We never took a moment to teach him that he’s got life without us too. But yes, it is my fault as much as it is yours.”
I remained silent, partly because that was the way I always acted in her presence, and partly because she was right. We never trained him when we had the time to do so. It was all fun, all the time, we were busy playing with him and carrying him wherever we went. He was just a mere puppy. But now what a pity!
I grabbed Seema’s hand. “Even if we leave fifteen minutes later, I’ll make sure we get there on time.” I put my arm around her, feeling the tender touch on the back of her neck. She looked up at the clock on the wall, which seemed to pace faster than it should. “We must leave now,” she said removing my hand.
But I took her in my arms and let my head rest on her shoulder for a while. Her perfume was enthralling, like some old Malbec wine. Had she not worn the overcoat over the shirt, I’d have started undressing her right away. The overcoat and the shirt inside were not a big deal though (It was way easier than removing the skin-fitted jeans in a public bathroom in the middle of a cold night). But after looking at the clock ticking unfavorably, I changed my mind. Her reddened lips parted to say something, but before she could say it, I laid my lips on hers.
It was a long kiss. I couldn’t remember the last time we locked our lips like this. Later, I sucked my lips in desperation of not getting enough before. Her hands slipped away through mine, and the moment she pulled herself back, Jakie began to whimper. A low squeaking, capable of sending depressing chills to freeze you on the spot. No wonder why I spent days and nights laying beside him in the bed or even on the floor sometimes after Covid-19 broke out in April and snatched my job under the excuse of a total lockdown that had just ended a few days ago. But now it was over, and life started all over again- only if you believe it had started; strangely I couldn’t believe it this time.
“I am sorry,” Seema said, peeking into Jakie’s rheumy eyes. She patted his head, “Poor dog!” and got up and walked to the door. Jakie stood up too. After glaring at her face, looking for a sign, his ears now dropped low in submission. His tongue stuck out, lolling, and a few beads of saliva falling from his mouth made a row on the brown carpeted floor as he went closer to rub his head against her knee. One could see how anxious he had become just by looking at the handbag hanging from her shoulder.
I’ve learned from experience it was better to avoid Jakie’s silent pleadings while leaving him behind than to pat him and whisper good words. We went out; he followed us to the door anyway. After succeeding in pushing his stuck out head inside with my knee, I slammed the door shut and locked it. Through the glass that also reflected my worn-out face and scattered greying hairs of my early thirties, the poor dog saw me. I went out carrying the bag, bravely.
Once in the car, I turned to face our house. It was painted white and sea- green. When we had planned the house nine years ago, Seema fancied to make the windows on the ground floor higher, but I objected, changed the design myself, and kept the windows low. Through one of them, I could make out a dark brown figure now tilting his head as the half-dried leaves of the myrtle tree in our small garden were blocking his view. He started scratching the panel where it was already ruined by his claws.
I lowered my eyes, rubbing lightly on the leather of the steering wheel with my thumb.
“The more you wait, the more he cries,” warned Seema.
“Alright,” I agreed, though my ears found a hint of a canine shriek dwelling in
the thin morning air.
We drove off through streets submerged in the crispy greyness of a late November morning.
I changed the direction of the mirror, remembering how Seema had kept the same hairstyle for all these years. But now it was tied behind in a low bun, making her look a bit different. Even so, an urge to touch her, to feel her exposed neck, struck my mind. While shifting the gears, I intendedly brushed Seema’s hand with mine, and finally, she regarded me with a smile. I slid my hand into her lap and handled the steering with the other. I grabbed her hand; slowly, it warmed our joined hands. That time I wanted to say something to her, my chest was swelling up with the prolonged thought. But then she continued scrolling down the over-brightened screen of her mobile phone, not smiling anymore. Right then, the high pitched howl of the dog came to me from behind; it was heart-wrenching.
This morning, the road was quite busy. I have always been cautious, even when it was altogether unoccupied, but today I couldn’t keep my eyes forward and was looking out of the window to catch the glimpse of the stray dogs; fortunately, there were many. In this part of the city where we lived were a hell of stray dogs. From our house, whichever direction you turn into, you would spot them in the packs, growling and eating the wasted food humans have left for them.
As I turned left to the main road, I noticed a starving lapdog sitting by the footpath. My eyes were captivated by the way he was licking the maggot wounds on his hairy back. All of a sudden, as soon as I looked back to the road, I jerked Seema’s hand away to hold the steering steady with both of my hands and pulled the brakes. The wheels screeched, and the car stopped.
Ahead of me, about a meter away, was a puppy, walking briskly on his tiny, scared paws towards his mother, who was anxiously waiting for him at the footpath. It was a wide lane. Many small and large vehicles were crossing it. But nobody cared to slow down to give the little one the necessary space and safety. No one really cares if their actions make someone feel insecure for their life. On the contrary, some take pleasure in it.
This malnourished black pup reminded me of the day we took Jakie home seven years ago. An uncontrolled scooter had bumped into him, giving him bruises, fractures, and cuts all over his body. He was unable to stand upright, and laid there alone to die on the road. When we found him, he was fighting for his life, breathing rapidly as if someone was pumping the air into his baby lungs- or, more precisely, taking it away. I lifted the blood-soaked body with my bare hands and took him to a veterinary clinic nearby. There, he was put under medical observation for 72 hours, and later, at home, we fed him with the nutritious diet a dog needs. When he was able to walk again, we inquired about him around the same place where we found him injured. We came to know that his mother had died in a fatal car accident, and all of her pups died of ailments or starvation in the winter nights except the one we had in our hands. We decided to adopt him, as we always wanted a pet, and raise him like our own child; so we did.
Looking at this frightened puppy, seized by the ruthless traffic yet trying to reach his mother only if he could, I had an impulse to open the car door, to go out and carry him to his mother, to ultimate safety. But I turned left to look at my wife. Her face showed an unusual indifference, and the way she had been complaining about the time all along the way I was left with nothing to say but to start the car right away and move on, leaving the puppy on his own poor luck.
I parked the car with Jakie and the puppy stuck in the traffic lingering in my head, so it took more time than necessary. The tightened muscles around Seema’s eyes proved it. I was panting as if I had been running for a long time, and it was funny because I had just gotten out of the car. We walked in; my heart kept racing.
The railway station looked outlandishly grey, and way less noisy than it was the last time I visited. We were scanned at the opening. Then throughout the way, I heard a lady announcing arrivals and departures of the trains, along with how the rules of travelling after the pandemic had been changed. Her voice, though young and gentle, surged my blood with anticipation each time she mentioned a name of a city or a station. But five minutes into our plodding toward the platform, passing a few passengers eager to give you the way just by looking at your masked face, I didn’t really hear the young lady say anything about Bangalore. That made me smile in my thoughts. Many trains were cancelled without any prior notification, and I thought how jolly Jakie would be if Seema returned home with me.
But what was projected on the screens over our heads erased my smile. The train to Bangalore was shown amongst the delayed ones, not the cancelled ones. Seema and I looked at it angrily. We inquired about the train at the ticket window and the double-chinned man inside first yawned and then laughed, explaining satirically why they hung up those wide screens and how much stress he would have if people stopped having good eyes. We just moved on.
“Let’s go and wait there,” I suggested signifying the wide-open glass door of the not-so-clean-looking waiting room. Seema’s face showed an expression of unwillingness, but there was no other choice.
The waiting room was warm and cozy, with twenty rows of steel benches; their metallic edges reflected the light of the thin sunlight that came in through the huge windows.
Seema just sat down at a bench a little away, talking to her sister or a friend or someone on the phone, swearing about the delayed trains with the jerks of her hand. The cold hesitant flames rose from my gut when I thought of sitting by her. She was still my wife after all. Anyway, I sat there, and she cut the call. “She’s also mad at the trains,” Seema said to me.
“Yes, she must be,” I nodded.
Shifting toward her, I put my arm around her and asked her to put her head on my shoulder if she could. She did. This pleasant warmth of closeness between us had always been soothing for me, but this time I just shivered. I asked her, “Should we have coffee? I feel cold.”
On the right was a canteen. I waved, and a waiter came to us. A queer, multi-colored muffler was tightly wrapped around his gaunt neck. Looking at it caused a painful fluttering in my stomach. He seemed in a hurry when he came to us to take the order. He was breathing rapidly when he said, “My boss gave me this beautiful muffler.” and stopped to breathe again before he went away. I wished he’d take more time to deliver the order so that I can be with Seema for a little more.
Outside, a blue train came on the first track but passed the station swiftly with an aerodynamic sound that lasted a few seconds. The next train on the other track came slower and stopped with an irritating noise of the wheels which somehow matched with that of my whimpering dog’s, and the passengers began to rush in. I felt jittery, so I preferred to look at Seema.
That moment in my arm, her body looked stunningly alluring. Her breast was firmly pressed against the thick cloth. I began to rub her shoulder, feeling her creamy skin through the layer of her overcoat. I was dying to tell her something, whisper some words to her, but then the waiter came with our coffees. We picked up the cups and, unlike my wife, I sipped slowly looking out of the window at the fog and tracks that had emptied again. The cup was warm and pleasant to hold.
“He must be whining madly by now, you know?” I said to Seema, just to break the silence.
“Well, I know. You think I don’t?” Seema snapped, pouring out her frustration at the delayed trains and other things on me.
“Of course you do! I didn’t mean that” I tried to explain.
“You said it as if I do not care.”
“You do care darling. With all my heart I know.”
“Don’t talk like this, at least not when I am going.”
“Okay. But, I didn’t mean what you are thinking. I mean – oh, I just don’t know what I meant – It’s just that you are going, I guess, I am losing my mind.” I shook my head.
“It’s simple! Just don’t think too much.” Putting down the empty cup on the table, she studied herself in the window-glass, rubbing her lips together. Looking at the pout of her lower lip, I fantasized about kissing her. But the very next thought that came to my mind forced me to reconsider my desires. I saw myself in the glass; I seemed sleepy and old. Rubbing my eyes with my index finger and thumb, I said, “It’s not easy to stop thinking,” as though complaining about something I don’t know.
“That’s the real problem. It’s crippling you. Good for Jakie too, if he learns to keep calm when left alone.”
“He’s too old to learn anything new.” Saying this, the image of his greying muzzle floated in front of me. The last time we took him to the vet for the regular check-up and vaccination, the thin, calm man said to me, “It’s too early for a dog to go grey. Aren’t you feeding him as suggested? Eggs? Sweet potatoes? Few drops of salmon oil in the food?” The doctor made a perplexed face, rubbed his stubble, and continued, “This dog of yours is suffering, I don’t know what”. Only later when I googled about dogs going grey in their early ages did I find out what the doctor couldn’t tell us, and what Jakie was really suffering from – the separation anxiety!
“As now I am going, you and the dog have plenty of time to learn anything, new or old,” said Seema, glaring down at her wrist. It was rude. So, like any other time, to not worsen an already dismal situation, I said nothing. I just swallowed down my thoughts and closed my eyes to forget them; most of the time it worked. Then she wanted us to go out. She said it was already too much waiting, and the coffee made it even worse. I stood up and lifted the bag.
Passing through a lighted passage with slightly dirty tiles under our creaking shoes, we took an overpass. The tracks below us went in both directions as far as my eyes could see and all of them were empty, but I could hear the train whistle coming over from the west. While descending the steps on the other side, I heard the lady mentioning ‘Bangalore’ twice or perhaps thrice. Few people walking wearily next to us just broke away from their yawning and made a quick leap towards platform number 7 when the lady finished saying the train to Bangalore had just arrived and will be departing at 9:40- 5 minutes from then.
People almost ran. Seema was jumpy. Contrary to her, it turned my legs into pillars of cold steel. She wanted me to walk at least as fast as others. But without a thought, I grabbed her arm and drew her back to me. Staring deeper into her widened eyes as if searching, the words came out of my mouth, “He’s gonna miss you a lot.” That’s all I could manage to say. Raising her brows, she said, “You’ll take care of him.” Noticing that her lips had dried up, I craved to moisten them with mine. “I’ll miss him too,” she said and walked away. I stared at her moving shoulder, the bun, and the overcoat, all disappearing in the wave of the crowd.
With a heavy bag in my hand, I jostled my way through. My eyes tried to catch a glimpse of her. Soon I found myself panting. The screeching noise of hundreds of shoes agitated my ears. No longer did I want to listen to the soft voice of the lady making announcements. I heard the exasperated sound coming out from my nostrils while struggling with the broad-shouldered, taller people. The smell of my own sweat was suffocating. Finally, I was spewed out by the crowd onto the floor. With my palms on the ground, I was breathing almost like a dog. There at the edge of the platform, I found Seema. I made my final tread toward her. The bag in my hand was getting heavier and heavier with every step further.
“I thought I had to leave without the bag!” she said jokingly. I went inside the car after her and found that it was half-empty. With the altered regulations, passengers had to sit leaving one seat between them vacant. So, they marked those seats with a red cross. I felt bad looking at this bloody, obscene sign. The train gave a loud signal of departure.
“I must go,” I said.
“I’ll call you when I am in Bangalore. I don’t know when. It’s already too late,” she replied. I exhaled from the bottom of my heavy heart. She was finally going and was happy. I gave her a goodbye kiss on her cheek.
As I stepped out of the train, it began to move. For a moment I thought I was drifting backwards with the platform, but I realized that was a lie as soon as I looked away from the train at the faint sun above. Seema came to the side to wave at me, smiling ear to ear. I waved back but failed to return the smile. It was strange. All along the way, from the moment we left home while driving leisurely and struggling with the crowd, at last, I waited for something really painful to occur right in the center of my chest, at least at this very moment when the train would leave, but to my shock, nothing really happened. Even before she was out of my sight I turned and began to walk out of the station.
The glow of the sun on the brown tiles of the platform and my skin was soothing to my eyes as it was deliberately sweeping out all sorts of coldness. I stopped to see through the panel of the waiting room. It was full of passengers, strolling here and there, worried about their baggage. At the other door, a crabby old man was sweeping the floor each time someone stepped onto it with dirty shoes. On the right, a mother was trying to breastfeed her crying child. There was a man at the same bench where I had been sitting. He had held his head in between his palms. My eyes were glued to what was going on in the waiting room. Hard to believe we were there a few minutes ago. As if it was all a dream and now I was woken up by a hard push or a blinding light or a deafening sound like a train siren.
A stout man went past me, shoving my shoulder. I stumbled, almost fell to the ground. Getting upright, I walked on, my eyes on the floor until I was out of the mechanical door. I was desperate to go out, far, far away from all the stone-faced people and the hubbub of the station.
On my way back I bought a pack of cigarettes. An unusual craving for something serious had been boiling up in my stomach ever since I left the station, not to mention it had been several months since I smoked anything.
I drove smoking and staring at the stretched ahead road I had driven many times in my life, knowing it was the same road with the same hoardings, and the buildings on both the sides and the empty parks and the shops. Knowing that only Seema and Jakie were not with me, I felt the emptiness coming back to me. I smoked and saw the fog slowly lifting. One could make out the upper windows of the tall buildings and clearly read the signposts on every turn, which were helpful if you were new in the city. The sun parting through the leaves of trees that grew on the sides was much clearer now.
I slowed down where I saw the puppy in the morning. My eyes examined the road and the footpath and beyond, but found nothing. My heart was relieved when I saw no signs of a casualty. Hoping that the pup must be happy somewhere playing with its own shadow, I just moved on.
I knew Jakie would turn up in the window any moment hearing the noise of the car engine while I parked it – I was accustomed to this behaviour of him – but he didn’t, which was beyond my belief. I unlocked the door and walked into the house, and my eyes started looking for Jakie on instinct, but he was nowhere to be seen. What they found instead was damn disturbing.
All the things that were once kept safe: the diary mentioning household expenditure, the pay-bills of water and electricity, the receipts of car loan instalments, the newspaper cuttings of advertisements of properties, the resume that I prospected to mail to the IT companies probably by the end of this month or next –I hadn’t decided upon it– and the other important papers such as the medical report from a gastrologist who had rather frankly asked me if I was getting enough sleep or not. Next to these were cushions, table cloth, dog food, the hiking shoes we bought for a future adventure, and the gifted woolen gloves Seema had intentionally left behind on the couch as it was warm where she was going to. All these things were either torn apart or chewed up in frustration and scattered about the floor as though the remnants left after a flood had dismantled a once-tidy house.
I had to rearrange it, now or later. I chose later. First I wanted to see where Jakie was and if he was alright. I found him sitting in a corner beside the couch, trying to make himself so compact that he’d not be seen. Almost hidden, he looked as though a different dog. To my shock, he didn’t even get up to greet me nor did his tail show any movements except his eyes, which followed my feet as I proceeded toward him, looking at what he had done to the house.
I put my hand on his head. He shuddered away, as if unknown to my touch. For a moment, anger aroused in me, but I suppressed it. Sitting on the couch and staring at the chaos was a much better idea, I thought. Looking pitifully at Jakie, who in his curled-up position seemed sick, I puffed the cigarette smoke. Then I got up, sauntered across the house, and looked at my reflection in the mirror over the sink while washing my hands and face and thought of having a coffee while watching the TV. It was a stupid idea, I realized. My eyes fell upon the only photograph of my mother hanging on the wall above the couch. The dust made it look old and unclear. Then, I resolved to have a good sleep.
Standing in the doorway, I looked at the quietness of the room; at the slow movement of the clock; at the light pink stillness of the bedsheet and then finally outside the window at the dying myrtle tree. I sat down on the bed heavily. The surface felt warm, as the sun had been there all the time I was out of the house, but I knew how cold it was below that. I caressed the bedsheet and I closed my eyes. That’s how the process of forgetting takes off.
Jakie came into the room himself, walking limply, considering my face for a moment as if I was an intruder. His questioning eyes were somehow penetrating mine. Then he rubbed his left ear on my knee as if he finally recognized me. “Oh, poor Jakie!” I patted him and let go of myself; my torso fell onto the bed.
Jakie came up on the bed, sniffed my nose and mouth, and sat down, carefully placing his muzzle on my chest. I let my fingers run through the fur below his ears, where he liked it the most. He moved closer, cuddling. The warmth came between us. I shut my eyes tight, then opened them and stared at the white ceiling and the fan until it all blurred and hot fluid came down my cheeks. “It’s fucking too much,” I said, “We have to get out of this, Jakie. It’s fucking too much.”