Don’t Stop Speaking

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Don’t stop speaking.

You have a way of peering into me, as if your gaze does not merely cross the pretend barrier my glasses have built, but also sees right through me. It scares me every time you stop speaking that you’ve seen something that displeases you. That you’ve finally seen through a lie, a facade, something whose existence I can’t verify, nor truly deny. Or that you’ve seen me for who I really am, and I don’t know if that’s someone worthy of you.

When you stop speaking, I’m afraid a day may come when we have nothing left to say. And then you will walk away. It does not seem like something I can easily take. And so selfishly, I protect my own self, I guard against an ache.

In the silent hours of the night, I wonder what you dream of, and I wonder if you will tell me when you wake. I watch the way you breathe, rest a finger on the rise and fall of your chest, feel your heartbeat under the whorls at the tip. Do you ever wake up and watch me sleep?

Hold my hand before you leave, to reassure me. The sun rises and you leave my side, taking with you, your words, your touch, the sound of your footsteps. My thoughts trouble me, asking me where you spend your time, or if there is mischief that you hide. My heart refuses to believe it, but I wish you’d never stop speaking. Never leave me in this prison of solitude.

Tell me the big things, and the small. Tell me what you fear and what you crave. Tell me about food, or crack jokes, crass and crude. Your voice, silken, a work of art I cannot get enough of. Do not deny me this pleasure, for there are few things I want as much. I want this without missing a pause, for if someday we run out of things to say, it is the memory of your voice that’ll sustain me – a part of history binding us in its vibrations, returning to the present like a long lost echo.


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The Tribute

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There are places you do not belong to. Places that are physical. Places that are moments in time. Yet you find yourself in them, wondering what your purpose is, and where you’d find this purpose.

I feel like that right now, that I do not belong here, but I must not turn around. There are throngs of people around me, each in black, carrying flowers, weeping. Some sing tributes. I know the lyrics as well as any of them, but I do not join in. I hear ocean waves crashing on boulders in my ears – which is strange as we are far away from the ocean. The headstone lies right in front of me and I read each letter, left to right, observing the font, the color, the texture, each curve of each C, each line that makes the I and the Ls. But I refuse to believe it – this is someone else, a namesake, a doppelganger, an impostor.

Just last month, I’d sung one of his songs to entertain my friends; at the time I did not know that today it would turn into a song of mourning.

There’s a tap on my right shoulder. I turn around to see a man, dry-eyed like me, my dazed expression mirrored on his face. He says nothing, but I nod, and let him stand by my side, and we both turn to look at the headstone. I trace the letters with my eyes again.

“Isn’t it strange,” the man says, “when they say ‘loved one’ they only mean family or friends? Sometimes, strangers are loved ones too.”

“Except he wasn’t a stranger, was he? I know what you mean though. We all lost a loved one.”

“His wife and children…” he began, but trailed off.

“I caught a glimpse of them before they opened the service to the public. The wife refuses to believe it was a suicide, I hear.”

“He seemed so happy…”

Yes. Yes, he did. Maybe he felt like he was in one of those places – a gap in space and time where he felt he didn’t belong. When you’re going through the worst, you decide to put up the most cheerful front.

“The last song he sang the night it happened was a song about death,” I said to the man. He nodded, pursing his lips, a vein twitching in his neck, as though he too was on the verge of breaking down, like the rest of the crowd.

A long time ago, I had attended one of his concerts with a friend. I wanted to tell that friend how much those songs meant to me. But he had stopped me, saying he couldn’t hear me above the music. The subject was left for another day, a day that never came around, and I never got to gather my answer.

“You know what I hate about this?” the man said,”They’re going to romanticize this. Romanticize his death.”

He’s right. The press and the public love a tortured rockstar. It’s one of those tropes, sadly.

“It isn’t fair. Not to him, not to his memory. Not to people who admire him,” I said in response.

I think again about the song I’d sang last month, a song I’d spent a lot of my younger days singing. That too is a song about death. There is undercurrent of death in all his songs. Was it in front of us all along? Could someone have helped? Was the warmth, the friendliness, all a facade and nothing more?

The hours pass by, and soon, just a handful of people, the man who’d been talking to me, and I stay back. I’m still trying to collect my thoughts, collect all the ways in which his songs affected me, affected my life. It’s haunting, how certain things permeate our being, how the sudden departure of those we did not really know drains us so emotionally. But in the end, my reasons can be summed up in one line.

I take out an old notebook from my coat pocket. I’d written the lyrics of one of his songs in it over a decade ago, and pressed a wildflower between those pages. I take the now-withered flower and place it near the headstone, a lonely ghost of a flower among all the other bright ones.

“Thank you for showing me how to live. And goodbye.” I cannot bring myself to say his name, but no tears of mine wet the headstone.


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The Haunting of the Opium Den

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Even smoke reflects the color of debauchery here, in this den. It is neither white nor grey. Nor black like the hearts of its patrons. It is red, as are the walls. The beaded curtains around the booths hide none of the ugliness, but the smoke tries its best, ensuing from each addicted mouth, rolling around limbs braided with other limbs.

There are fragrances in combat with this smoke – oudh, frankincense, rose musk. Heady perfumes adding to the haze – in the den and in our minds – but losing the battle with that which owns this place – opium. In a corner of newbies, even cannabis raises its head like a snake without venom. A child that no one pays attention to. A child frightened, but holding its own, adding its scent to the vulgar mix of luxury bought cheap.

And in a corner, next to a window painted black, on a mattress that was once white, but now dirty with all it’s seen, lay I, in another man’s embrace, his calloused toes tracing my ankle, his hand with its deeply grooved lines pawing at my breast, his stained, burnt mouth nuzzling the skin just below my ear.

My eyes have been dry for so many years, as has been the rest of me. This he doesn’t know yet, for my head is turned away. Not in the unfocused way of the rest, nor in the frigid stance of one unbothered. Nor is it a seductive tilt of my jawline. My head is turned away because beyond the beads, three booths away, I see ghosts. Ghosts so real, of you and I, from a time that’s perished.

Our gazes are so chaste, our smiles like water through glass. I am unable to look away from what I see of myself – my lips unpainted, my innocence untainted. I wish to shatter every pipe in this godforsaken place to preserve the ghosts I see. I believe, so strongly, like religion, that three booths away, you and I still breathe.

I push the man away, as I leap up to part the beaded curtain, each bead carrying within it an inverted flame, a speck of smoke. But with the parting, the illusion breaks, a ripple in still water, and I see nothing three booths away. I see nothing and my eyes remain dry.

I turn back to the man, pull him close, even as his eyes roll around dazedly, and place my mouth on his. The poison of the den hits me yet again. There is only one taste in my mouth. Ashes, ashes, ashes.


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Zombie | #AtoZChallenge

You are recounting more tales of your philandering. I stop listening after story number three. You are oblivious to the fact that I am hurting. That I still think of you and me as us, in spite of what I did, and in spite of all the evidence to the contrary you’re serving, story by story. Are you being deliberately hurtful, or just painfully insensitive?

*

It was our first official date. We were still tiptoeing around each other, like it was a dance, anticipating the other’s move, responding accordingly. At one point, you turned away. I leaned back, slightly tipsy, and I touched your elbow. And just like I knew you would, you kissed me. That was our first kiss.

*

After our first fight, we couldn’t stay angry at each other.  We kept apologizing, the argument then turning to how it was not the other person’s fault. Then we laughed with relief and fell silent. Until, we were both conscious of how heavy it was. It doesn’t matter if it was you who leaned in first or I. But I think of that too as a first kiss – a second first kiss.

*

It is different now. I’ve stopped listening, but I’m searching. Searching for a sign of that love in your eyes. I find a graveyard there – dead love, dead dreams. The words were yours; the crown of glory you were placing on your head with these shallow tales was yours. But the life, the joy you pretended to have was not.

We decide to take a walk. Through the old lanes, where each corner held something of us, the place I refused to return to after what happened. You point out familiar landmarks, as the fallen leaves get crushed under my shoes. We reach the spot where you park your car and I look in; there’s a flask on the dashboard. You’ve changed the brand of car freshener you use. I don’t know what your car smells like now. The passenger seat will always be filled by someone who isn’t me.

You ask if I have to leave in a tone that suggests you want me to stay.

I look up, taken aback, gauging the amount of sincerity in your question, and finding none. You misread my silence, and lean in before I can stop you. I realize even in that moment how forced it felt from your part, like you were fulfilling something. But I don’t realize it until you move away that I didn’t return your kiss. I don’t realize it until then that only half of me is present, the rest is numb.

Maybe we did this to each other. And maybe there won’t be any more first kisses for us. Because this feels like the last one.

 


 

Hi everyone! This is the last installment of the minimalist fiction project I’ve been working on all this month during the #AtoZChallenge. The story was shared in snippets, and the events occurred non-sequentially. I’m grateful to you for staying with me from A to Z. If you’ve missed any posts, you can find them all here

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You Before Me | #AtoZChallenge

Carefree – that’s how you looked in that photograph, the one from your younger days. Over-excited and at ease. Cocky even, as if the future didn’t exist. As if anything aside from that moment, before or after, didn’t exist.

Until I saw that photograph, whoever you were before me wasn’t wholly real to me. A shadow or a ghost that I didn’t know well. The photograph gave form to that shadow. It filled it out.

When you told me that you’d like me to meet your friends – the ones you pointed out to me – the paper suddenly loomed in front of me like a mountain I was daunted by. Who were these people who knew a side of you without me? What yardstick will I be measured against? Who will I fail in comparison to? Those were my first thoughts, thoughts that I didn’t share with you.

Then later, as we gossiped about coworkers, my eyelids slowly began to droop; your fingers rhythmically stroking my hair reassured me that the past couldn’t hurt me. If I said, “I am,” it also meant “You are,” if I rearranged the letters a certain way – a little puzzle whose logic only I understood. It meant that, to us, only the present mattered.

If there was a you before me, it was someone I don’t know. But who you are is who I am.


Hi everyone! I’m working on a minimalist fiction project for this year’s #AtoZChallenge. The story will be shared in snippets, and the events occur non-sequentially. It is for the reader to interpret and form the “whole”. You can read all the posts here. Join me, and do share links to your AtoZ posts as well!

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XIX | #AtoZChallenge

It was impossible to ignore the grace with which she danced. Later that evening, we sat together and compared our music playlists, and talked about the songs we both loved, which were many. But the dance or the music isn’t why she had caught my attention.

She had three scars on her arm, just below her wrist. Possibly from a history of being a cutter. You know who else had marks exactly like that? Of course you do.

*

Did you know that you laughed in two different ways – one, short, harsh, rough, like a bark, if you were tolerating someone, if they weren’t particularly funny but you wanted to indulge them nevertheless; and another – intimate, soft, a laugh that embraced the person it was directed at. 

Having been on the receiving end of both, I had an inkling of what she meant to you when the tone you used with her was the tone you once used with me, and you laughed with her in that gentle way. It wasn’t that she called you at eight in the morning that ticked me off. It wasn’t even the tone or laughter. It wasn’t the number of minutes you spoke. It wasn’t that one kiss you gave her over the phone, that you tried to brush aside as a joke because you knew I was listening. It wasn’t the three completely random facts about her you told me to avoid answering my one question about who she was to you. 

It was the one question that she asked you, and while I only heard your end of the conversation, I knew right at that moment that there was more to the story than you wanted me to know. 

I thought of all the friends I’d had over the years. None of them ever cared about whether or not I had breakfast, and if yes, what I had. The right to ask that question is a privilege we give to few. When she asked you, I realized the lies had probably begun a long time before I even noticed.

*

The dancer I met had scars that reminded me of her. When I looked closely, she even looked quite a bit like her – the same jet black hair, the same height. And each time a song came on that made the two of us squeal in joy, I wondered if she had been with you on the night you died.


Hi everyone! I’m working on a minimalist fiction project for this year’s #AtoZChallenge. The story will be shared in snippets, and the events occur non-sequentially. It is for the reader to interpret and form the “whole”. You can read all the posts here. Join me, and do share links to your AtoZ posts as well!

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PS: The numbers in bold add up to 19 (XIX). Also, the first line of the song is: This song is not for the living | This song is for the dead.

Walking After You | #AtoZChallenge

It may have been because I told you so much about myself in my drunken haze the other night that I was making extra effort not to get personal over the conversations we had afterwards. Even over the texts we exchanged on Friday nights. It had become a habit now – you’d text me on Fridays and we’d talk late into the night about things that didn’t matter.

Tonight, among all those inconsequential topics, you slipped in one of consequence. I didn’t press, I didn’t ask you to clarify if you meant what I thought you meant, but I understood.

Do you know the story about the boy who, as he waited for the bus one afternoon, found himself thinking about a girl he knew? She walked right into his thoughts, on nimble toes when he was not looking. As the days passed, he began to wonder what she would think about the things he liked, if she would approve of them. He wanted her opinion about little things, yet he never asked her. He held himself back. Then he found himself thinking about her at the quiet hour of 3 am. Even the lethargic hour of 3 pm.

I read that story a while ago, but it reminded me of our Friday nights, of how you first began that tradition. I pictured you as the boy and laughed it off. Where did that thought come from, I wondered then.

Now I knew.

 

It was around 8.30 in the evening and I blurted out the first thing I could think of. “Can we meet?”


 

Hi everyone! I’m working on a minimalist fiction project for this year’s #AtoZChallenge. The story will be shared in snippets, and the events occur non-sequentially. It is for the reader to interpret and form the “whole”. You can read all the posts here. Join me, and do share links to your AtoZ posts as well!

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