Things came to such an abrupt end that they didn’t seem to have gone away from my life. In fact, even today when I am alone, I feel her presence around me. I feel that I am breathing in that jasmine scent and touching those petal-soft lips with mine.
I cried a lot the night my grandmother died, and that surprised everyone because no one expected me to have grown close to that senile old woman with whom all I had shared was a few minutes of conversation. Everyone billed me to be a softie and my father and his friends laughed at me for that. But no one knew what the real cause of my sorrow was—the death of my Grandma also spelled the death of my meetings with Marlena. It wasn’t one chapter but two chapters that had been brought to an end.
I didn’t go to Marlena’s house after that; there was no reason to. We crossed each other several times, and though I spoke casually with her now, there wasn’t anything more to it. I moved on to my next grade and I met girls and Marlena somehow receded into the background. I never thought she would, but it happened over a period of time.
Then one day, Johnny called me to his house. I had to convince my mother a lot to be able to go to his place. When I reached there, the usual gang was all there, and then Johnny took something out from under his shirt.
“Looksie,” he said. “Your girlfriend!”
I kept looking at the jacket of the cassette he clutched. Rachel’s Games, the cover announced. And it featured a picture of a much younger Marlena, bare-breasted, with leather straps all around her body, surrounded by four hunky men.
“Oh, but would this matter to him?” Sam teased. “He must have seen the live performance, right?”
“She made this boy a man!” Rusky said, grabbing my crotch.
It was typical boy banter, not meant to degrade me, but for some reason I felt terribly offended. And I snatched the cassette from Johnny’s hands and flung it on the floor and stamped on it again and again till the blow landed right across my cheek.
Mother asked me several times how I had got the torn lip, and I repeatedly told her that I had tripped over and fallen, but she refused to believe me. She knew that I had been to Johnny’s, of course, and with that annoying motherly instinct, she put two and two together and understood what might have happened. I thought she would go to Johnny’s place and give him a piece of her mind, but she was fresh out of the death of her mother and didn’t want to do anything of that sort.
That kind of saved me.
But the larger punishment of that brawl was yet to come—for that year, when I finished my grade, I was packed off to a hostel where I spent the next three years of my life. “I will have to take a job to make ends meet,” my mother said, “and with your Dad out of the house most of the time, it is best that you are under the supervision of the matrons there.”
I never returned home in those three years. My mother came every three months to meet me and once she even brought Dad. She was right—the hostel life did harden me up. Marlena and the hostel, those were the two things that made me a man. Living with my parents, I would dream of an independent life. But here at the hostel when I had to clean my own underwear and shower in the common area, I understood what I had missed. Anyway, it put the edge on me eventually and I was a very different person when I returned home as a sixteen-year old in 1991.
As I walked the corridor to reach my house, most of the aunts came out to welcome me—Aunt Janet was there and so also were Aunts Mercy and Candice, though Candice had become so old that she could not see me properly. “What a strapping young man your son has become, Edith!” Aunt Mercy said, shamelessly feeling my abs. And as I neared my house, my heart started beating faster. Marlena’s door was approaching, and I wondered if she would be standing out there to welcome me too.
But I had no such luck.
All the doors on the corridor were open to usher me in. Even Johnny was there, and he showed me his middle finger as I passed by, but this one door—Marlena’s door—was ominously shut and locked.
Later, when we were inside, the first question I asked my mother was, “Where is she?”
“Who?” my mother asked. “Marlena?”
I nodded, not really wanting to hear the answer.
“Oh, that was a really bad turn of events. She died last month.”
I knew it would be something like this. I had seen this a long way coming. Even when I was at the hostel, fantasizing my way through those lonely nights, I knew that there wouldn’t be a happy ending to my story with Marlena. It was too good a thing to have a happy ending.
“What happened?” I said, my mouth choked, though I checked the tears this time.
“She had cancer,” my mother said. “She had it all along. Even before she came here. Who could guess? With all the makeup she put all over her face? Maybe she did that to hide all those scars. And did you ever know she used to wear a wig?”
I didn’t want to act as though as I was in mourning. Marlena had entrusted me with a secret—the secret of the kiss—and I had to keep it. I could not dishonor her by letting loose a volley of tears and making people suspect my affection for her.
But my diffidence in shedding tears was challenged when my mother brought out a large paper envelope. “Marlena asked me to give this to you, in her last days,” she said. I opened it carefully, and saw that it contained the first portrait I made of her. Behind the picture was a line scrawled in her handwriting: Returning it to you because only you can keep it best.
Then mother came back again, holding the statue of the Buddha in her hands. “She never came back for this,” she said.
“Give it to me,” I said, fighting back my sobs. “I think I know where this belongs.”
It was difficult to find the house of Alex Morrison. He was listed in the telephone directory, but there were several Alex Morrisons and when the operator asked me what he did, I could not bring myself to say that he was a porn movie director. Finally, through the process of elimination, I hit at the right one.
“Who is it?” he asked the girl who opened the door.
“Some young man named Geoffrey,” she said.
Alex came out to see me. It was evident he had been crying.
“What do you want?” he said in an annoyed tone.
“Sir, you don’t know me,” I said. “But I have something of yours.”
He looked at me curiously as I put my hand in the bag I carried and got the Buddha out.
“How did you get this?” he asked.
“Long story, sir,” I said. “But you should know I was Marlena’s neighbor. She had given it to us.”
“So that’s where she was hiding it all the time!”
“Why would she hide it?” I asked.
At that, he took the Buddha from my hand and held it by the sides with the fingers of both his hands. Then applying some pressure, he managed to pull the two halves apart. And, in those halves was a picture of a little girl.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“You see her here,” he said. “This is Isobel, her daughter.”
Isobel, the girl who had opened the door, was almost my age. She had her mother’s eyes.
“Why would she hide her daughter’s photograph?” I still could not understand.
“Because I have been a bastard, that’s why. She never told me that she had that… disease. When she knew, she just walked away with two things—the Buddha I had given her as a present and our daughter’s photo in it. And when I landed in her house and was a dick and forced her to give it back, she wouldn’t give it to me. She said it was lost. I didn’t realize these were the two things that really mattered to her, and she wanted to keep them safe. With you.”
And, once again, the last two words of a sentence spoken to me had a profound effect on my soul. An effect that still sends a shudder down my spine.