My mother had to go to Grandma’s house for several days after that. “Maybe this week is the last,” she said for four weeks. “It’s good that you saw Grandma that day,” she said. “Now she does not recognize even me,” she said. But I did not have any sympathetic answers for that. Marlena was too willing to have me over, and I was just as willing to go over to her place. In fact, the three of us—my mother, Marlena and I—developed an unspoken routine.
I would return from school and find my lunch and, at times, even dinner prepared by my mother waiting at Marlena’s house. I knew that my door would be locked, and so I would directly knock at her house. She would open the door each time with that warm smile of hers and receive me. When Grandma eventually passed away in December that year, I had spent close to a month at Marlena’s house, and each day she had received me like I was a first-time visitor to her place.
The first few days had been hard on mother. She would spend the whole day tending to her mother, but in the nights when she returned, she would ask me all sorts of questions about my stay at Marlena’s place.
“Did anyone visit her?” she would ask most of the time. But no one ever visited Marlena. Rarely did her doorbell ring, and even if it did, it was someone with the groceries or some or the other bill. I was her only privileged visitor.
“Does she behave normally with you?” she used to ask too. But why would she not behave normally?—I wondered. And what is normal really? My mother didn’t realize I was a grownup now.
I never answered such questions from mother. And most times those days, when mother came home, Dad used to come back from his work too, and then mother wouldn’t say anything. I never saw the two of them share a good word in all those years, and that was very surprising to me. People who marry out of love should not spend even a moment away from each other. But if anyone would have met my parents, they would have had a very different opinion of that generalization.
The first painting took an hour to make. I showed it to Marlena when it was done. I have that painting somewhere still, and now I am actually embarrassed to even think f it. But back then, I was proud of that creation. I showed it Marlena with the same pride. And full credit goes to her for not mowing it down.
“How wonderful!” she said. I had observed that Marlena usually spoke in exclamations. Her whole life was a large exclamation mark. Maybe it was the energy coupled with her beauty that made her such a lethal combination.
“Do you like it?” I asked, trying in vain to wipe the stupid grin off my face.
“I love it!” she said. “Can I keep it?”
“Of course!” I said.
“I’ll keep it very carefully. You can be sure of that.”
I’d later realize that that sentence was the only lie Marlena had ever told me. And even that wasn’t intentional. The painting—my first good portrait—was destined to come back to me in a manner most unexpected.
I could never guess Marlena’s age in all the time that I spent in close proximity with her. She looked like a 25 to me at times and sometimes she looked like a 45. She never spoke about any family and I never asked. Talking about family is boring, I felt, mostly taking a cue from my own family. But when I had to go to the bathroom, I had to go through her inner room, and on one of these occasions, I saw a photograph on her bedside table.
The bed itself had intrigued me. It was a large bed made of the softest material I had seen. It didn’t have the hard coir mattresses that I had back home. This was soft, maybe of that eiderdown thing that was in vogue back then, and it had soft silken sheets on it. There were two pillows on it too. I wondered why she needed two. And my hormonal mind imagined me on that other pillow with her. I was learning new things through my Dad’s medical books back home, and I had begun to understand why these ideas were entering my head.
But the photograph—when I saw it, it put all these fantasies out of my head. It was her in the photograph, but she wasn’t alone. There was a man with her. Someone tall and muscular, with a French beard and a slightly balding head. The moment I saw him, a strong feeling arose in my mind, and I was surprised to note that that feeling was of hate. Today I know better—that feeling was envy.
“Who is that man?” I asked her pointblank when I came back into the sitting room.
“Who?” she asked.
And I pointed to the inner room.
“He is Alex Morrison,” she said.
“His face seems familiar.”
“Yes. He used to direct movies. Not any more though.”
“Oh! Do you know him?”
“I used to work with him once. As an actress,” she said.
I then recalled seeing his face in my mother’s movie magazines sometime long ago. “Which movies did he direct?”
“You must not have heard of them,” she said. “They were not meant for children.”
“Oh, those kind of movies?” I felt a strange excitement well up within me.
“What do you mean—those kind?”
“Come on, Marlena, I know. Johnny tells me about those adult movies. Porn, right?”
She clammed up immediately. “Maybe I should now serve you your dinner, Jeff,” she said.
The next afternoon, when school left, I caught up with Johnny and his group. Being seniors, they didn’t walk with me. I had to run quite a bit before I found him and I had to separate him from Sam and Rusky and the others.
“What is it, Jeff?” he asked impatiently when I had managed to take him privately at a distance from the others.
“I want to ask you something Johnny,” I said with the right amount of hesitation for the thing that I was going to ask. “Please don’t get angry with me.”
“Why would I get angry?” he asked.
“Okay, look,” I said. “You remember you and Sam were talking about those movies?”
“Oh fuck! We don’t have any movies.”
“Johnny, Johnny, please don’t say no. I know you have.”
Sam walked in at that time, followed by Rusky. “What does the little squirt want, John?” he asked.
“His little weenie’s been talking!” Johnny said. “He’s asking for the movies.”
“Oh!” Sam said and his eyes went round in eagerness. “Someone just discovered why he gets a stiffy!
“Guys, calm down,” I said in a very grownup voice and it did calm them down. “I don’t want to watch those movies. At least not all. Look, can you find out for me if a man named Alex Morrison made any of those movies?”
“What the hell?” Rusky said. “You wanna do research on this, pip?”
“Seriously, what’s with you?” Johnny asked.
“You gay?” Sam said.
I knew what gay meant and I had figured out by then I certainly wasn’t one, but I wasn’t inclined to retaliate. “Let me know if you find out, Johnny,” I said, ignoring the others.
“Keep away from this ’mo, guys,” Sam said and shoved the others away from me. Johnny looked at me quizzically and followed Sam, and so did Rusky.
The days immediately following the discovery of that photograph, Marlena did not seem very cheerful. I thought she would forbid me from coming to her house altogether, but she did not do that. The next day she received me into her home, with her large amount of makeup intact, but I could make out that her smile had faded a little. She served me the food my mother had prepared for me, and I ate it in relative silence. I even did some homework that day. She read a book too, and she did read out a few lines to me from it that she found interesting, but that was it. We had only a bit of general conversation that day, no personal talk at all.
The ice hadn’t thawed the next day either. She continued her book and I did my homework and I ate in silence and watched a little television.
But when the silence continued for a third day, I thought that I should stop visiting her place. Maybe I was making her uncomfortable but she was too polite to say that to me. I thought I would put an end to her misery if that was the case. But what would I tell mother? She would ask me all sorts of questions if I refused to go to her place. She would jump to some bizarre conclusion that would make matters worse for poor Marlena and me.
So I went there again, all prepped up for a fourth day of silence, but this day something very strange happened.
It was around 9 in the evening, when I had just finished dinner, that there was a heavy knocking at the door.
“Oh, I was afraid of this,” Marlena said and got up immediately.
“Who is it?” I asked, frightened at the sudden noise piercing the silence of her house.
“Look, Jeff,” she said, “Will you do one thing if I ask you?”
“All right then,” she said. “Please hide in the kitchen for me, and don’t come out whatever you hear.”
I didn’t understand that, but she was my host and I was just a guest. The ethical thing would be to do whatever she wanted.
“All right,” I said.
“Thanks. I will try to fend him away as soon as I can.”
I wanted to ask who, but the knocking happened again.
I sat on the kitchen floor and Marlena closed the door. “This is the last place he will come,” she said. And then she opened the door, and it was a strong male voice.
“What’s wrong with you?” he said.
“Nothing, Alex,” Marlena said and I heard her bring in the visitor.
I had to see this Alex. But there was no way I could do it from inside the locked kitchen. Then I noticed there was a little gap under the door. If I left my inhibitions and lay down on the floor, I could see just a glimpse of the sitting room.
So I lay on the cold floor and pressed my left eye as close to the gap as possible. It gave me a good enough view, and I had a first look at the legendary Alex.
He was nothing like the man I had seen in the photograph. The French beard was still there, but the muscles were all gone. So had the hair. He was a shadow of what I had seen in the photograph, and I began feeling my envy for him slowly converting into pity.
“Do you have anything to drink in this godforsaken place?” he asked.
Marlena walked up to the cupboard and poured some alcohol into a glass. She brought it to Alex. He took it and made her a sign to sit next to him. She obeyed.
Then he did something that really shocked me. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that it traumatized me, scarred me for life. Holding Marlena’s arm with one hand, he used the other to open the zipper of his trousers. And then he pulled her down, forcing her mouth on his thing. “Not today, please,” Marlena said, but he tugged at her hair making her wince, and forced her down all the same.
I was thankful that I was watching this disgusting sight only through a sliver of space; if I had seen it in its entirely, I would have puked. It was horrible—he was definitely hurting Marlena, and I wanted to go out and do something to him equally horrible, but I knew I shouldn’t go out. So I stayed there, and fumed, and finally tears flowed down my cheeks (I didn’t understand why at all) and eventually shut my eyes tightly to save myself from any more mental damage.
When Marlena came to open the door, I was seated in the farthest corner of the kitchen, pretending to have seen nothing, heard nothing. But her expression bore it all. She had not repaired her tainted makeup; she had not even bothered to touch her marred lipstick; and just like that I knew—Marlena was ready to open up to me.
Continue to Part 4.