UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
When I opened my eyes and looked out of the window, for Asha had already opened the curtains, I noticed that the leaves on the tree outside were turning yellow.
In the bathroom, my night-time dreams faded and my penis withered as rust-colored urine spurted into the white bowl. I stripped, and looked at myself in the mirror. I have a tall, slim build, and my brown skin is still smooth and gleaming despite the silver hairs that have started to sprout on my chest and pubic area. I ran my hands over my upper lip and cheeks, my stubble like ground peppercorn against my skin, and felt the need to do things differently. To take my life into my own hands and run away with it. But as I listened to Asha clattering around in the kitchen, I wondered how one goes about changing one’s life.
Ronnie sat sleepily at the kitchen table eating his Cheerios while Asha put the dishes away, her soft flesh bouncing with every move. I kissed Ronnie on his head, with one hand on his silky straight hair, and sat down next to him.
“Interesting day ahead at school?” I asked. He nodded, and continued eating. I searched for something else to say to him. It was as if there was an invisible wall between us. I saw other kids with their fathers and knew it was unnatural. Maybe it was because I spent my childhood in India, and he is American. That didn’t seem to be a problem for Asha, but I suppose the mother-child bond transcends national barriers. I often wondered how it would feel to be so close to someone.
“You haven’t shaved,” said Asha, pasta bowl in hand. I didn’t know whether to thank her for saving me from yet another fruitless attempt to have a conversation with my son, or hit her for pointing out the obvious. Of course I would never hit her.
She shrugged, those round shoulders lifting and falling briefly, and I thought, maybe, step by step, I could change things - but she wasn’t done.
“I’ve arranged for Mandy to come round tonight,” she said, a smile breaking across her thin lips. In one corner of her mouth, a bit of spittle shone against her maroon lipstick.
“What for?” I said, knowing full well what for.
“Date night,” she said.
“But it’s Monday night.” As if date night, a concept that Asha had picked up from her American friends, wasn’t stupid enough, date night on a Monday was downright idiotic.
“It’s been nine weeks.”
Asha specialized in surprise attacks. One minute everything was fine, and the next she was hitting you with facts and figures that she had been collecting over the last few months, sometimes even years. I’d been arranging my shifts at the hospital to avoid another date night, but today I finished at seven and I had the day off tomorrow. There was no getting out of it.
“It’s Monday. All the restaurants are closed,” I repeated hopelessly.
“This is New York, darling. You’ll find something.”
Ronnie was looking at me with his big brown eyes, spoon paused halfway between his bowl and his mouth. I wanted to make him proud, to prove myself a worthy father-figure, but all I could do was nod.
Asha returned the pasta bowl to its cupboard and banged the door shut. Ronnie continued eating, mumbling a goodbye to me into his bowl without looking up. Kids are like animals, they can sense weakness and they hate it.
My first patient of the day was Mrs Nowicki, who has an inoperable laryngeal tumor. She didn’t get many visitors; the odor from the tumor was enough to keep anyone away. The nurses had competitions to see how long they could hold their breaths when they went into her room. Maggie claimed she could do the bed and change the IV without having to inhale once.
I took a deep breath, turned the handle and entered the room. She was unconscious. I checked her notes, then took a look at her. Her tumor was exactly where the throat chakra is. In India, they say that throat problems occur due to an inability to express yourself, to speak out. Secrets. In this case, it came from a twenty-a-day habit, but whenever I looked at Mrs Nowicki, I could not help but imagine a woman whose voice box was trampled on, her whole life, by her husband and children. I imagined her smoking cigarette after cigarette like an actress in a silent movie, nodding at cocktail parties, pushing prams, organizing birthdays. Now, her children never visited and her husband only came once a week, and I thought, “Is it worth it?”
On reflex, I took a breath. The foul-smelling rot entered my nose and made my taste buds recoil. Would Asha and Ronnie put up with this kind of stink from me? The thought made me want a cigarette.
I breathed the cool air before lighting up. It may seem strange for an oncologist to smoke, but I only have one cigarette a day. It was a pleasure usually reserved for the end of a shift, but that day I made an exception.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” said a voice beside me. Luca.
“You naughty boy,” he said, his blue eyes twinkling. I had to turn away. Without even looking at him, I was aware of those eyes, the flex of his biceps as his fingers travelled to his mouth, his lips wrapping round the cigarette, his chest, hard and flat, rising as he inhaled, the drop of his arm, the blue-gray smoke streaming out of his mouth, as if he was blowing away a kiss. I wanted to reach out and grab it.
“I like the stubble. Suits you.” Those eyes again. “My businessman is arriving tonight,” he continued.
“Oh?” I said. Luca met his businessman on the way back from a conference he attended when a colleague fell ill at the last minute. He was upgraded to business and found himself sitting next to an attractive man. That’s at least four coincidences, although I can count up to about ten before I start feeling sick.
“I was wondering whether you could take my shift tomorrow, so we could have a lie-in,” he said. Everything he said felt like a tease. I could have said no, I have plans. Or no, I have ethical qualms about supporting your relationship when the other man has a wife and two kids in Pittsburgh. Or no, I’d quite fancy a lie-in with you myself. Instead, I said, “Okay.”
“Thanks a lot Anup, I’ll make it up to you.” He dropped the cigarette on the ground and stamped on it.
So much for taking matters into my own hands. I had agreed to date-night and given up my day off so that the man I desired could enjoy extra time with his lover and it wasn’t even ten o’clock. For the rest of the morning I went about my duties, replaying the encounter with Luca over and over again in my mind.
At lunch time, I left the hospital as usual and walked south towards Soho. Today, I felt like going somewhere new. My eyes flitted to open doorways and upstairs windows, looking for a sign. On the corner of Wooster and Grand, I saw one leaning against a dirty first-floor window: Fortune Teller: Tarot, Crystal Ball, Palm-reading. The door, sandwiched between two shops, was open. I crept across the damp-smelling hallway, up the stairs to the first floor, and stopped at the door, which was slightly ajar. It didn’t look like a very professional place, but that lent it a certain charm.
I knocked. There was no response. Impatient at the prospect of wasting my lunch break, I gently pushed the door open and slid inside. The furniture was old, made in brown, dull yellow and ochre colours that were fashionable in the seventies. A man with a towel round his waist padded across the room, only three meters away from me. His hair was still wet. The muscles in his back and legs rippled beneath his skin as he moved, droplets of water trembling on his shoulder blades. I stepped backwards, out of the apartment.
I only had half an hour left, so I headed straight to Madame Sung’s in Chinatown.
She ushered me in before a group of schoolgirls, and sat me down opposite her at the low table. Normally she would ask a customer if they had a particular question or matter that they wanted to consult the I Ching about, but with me there was no need.
She sorted and resorted the yarrow sticks, her practised fingers with their red-painted, clubbed fingernails - possibly a sign of pulmonary problems - working fast and methodically. Her black eyes glittered in the soft light and the rhythm of the sticks clicking together both relaxed and excited me. She noted down numbers as she went. It was a process that was mathematical yet random. At the end of it, anything could happen - it was my one unpredictable moment in the day. My life, even.
Madam Sung stopped and looked at me. Unlike most I Ching practitioners, she did not have to consult The Book of Changes; she knew it by heart. In her little girl’s voice, she explained that the present Hexagram was Fu, or Turning Point, which indicated progress and movement. The forth line, divided, showed a return to my proper path and the top line, divided, indicated being led astray on the matter of returning. She divined evil, calamities and a great defeat involving the ruler of the state. The situation was shifting, and Yang, the active, masculine force, was becoming stronger.
My future Hexagram was 21, Shih Ho, meaning Biting Through. This indicated great progress and advised the use of legal constraints. The upper trigram was K'un which was turning into Li, indicating docility giving way to brightness. The lower trigram was Chen, or Thunder, which represented initiative and action.
I left feeling exhilarated; things were going to change.
For the rest of the day, it was I who calculated numbers and predicted futures. “How long do I have left?” “What are the chances?” These were the questions I was asked most frequently. In between patients, I tried to find a restaurant that was open on a Monday evening. I finally booked a pizza place, which I knew Asha wouldn’t like because it wasn’t her idea of a classy night out and she was trying to lose weight.
At five o’clock I was midway through a consultation with David when he interrupted me to tell me that he wanted to take a road trip with his Harley down to the West Coast. With relapsed metastatic osteosarcoma, he was in no condition to go gallivanting across the country. I tried, for the next half hour, to discourage this man, who I had cared for over the last year and did not want to lose, but sometimes there’s no reasoning with cancer patients. I stopped speaking, and looked outside; a yellow leaf danced by, as if afire.
For this man, Fall had come. But it was not the same Fall that I experienced, year after year - that gradual, slow process that made me think about the passing of time, and initiate small changes, like not shaving, buying gym membership or cutting my hair to fool myself into thinking that I could thwart the endless pattern of the years. For him, Fall had been sped up. He was acutely aware that he only had limited time left, and only life-changing decisions would do. If for me too, Fall compressed into one day, one moment, I would also get swept away in the kaleidoscopic blizzard of changing, flying leaves.
I gave David my blessing and wished him well.
Asha did not seem to be put out by the pizza place. She talked animatedly in between mouthfuls of margherita, oil from the cheese gathering at the corners of her mouth. I couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying or enjoy my first proper meal of the day because I knew what was expected of me when we returned home.
As always, dinner raced by, and I found myself standing in the bathroom again. Ronnie was in bed, Mandy had gone home, and Asha was waiting on the other side of the door. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply and thought of Luca. The image came: first his face, then his body. I imagined taking off his shirt, putting my hands against his hard chest. I could almost feel the wiry hairs pricking my fingertips. He leant forward, his blue eyes sparkling, and pressed his lips hard against mine. The tip of his tongue pushed into my mouth. It was all I needed to get started. I opened my eyes, unlocked the door and stepped into the bedroom.
Asha was already under the covers in her nightdress. The bedside lamp was on. I climbed into the bed, cool and taut. She moved over to my side, bringing her warmth and smell with her, making the mattress curve. I closed my eyes and we kissed. Her kiss was lighter and wetter than I imagined Luca’s to be. She had an annoying habit of letting her jaw slack, so that her mouth fell slightly open, from the moment she became turned on. A hint of margherita pizza floated on her gentle breath and as I caught the glint of her teeth in the black hole of her mouth, I realised that I was losing my erection. I closed my eyes once more and lay back, trying to go with the sensation of her hand rubbing me through the thin cotton of my pyjamas.
I was back with Luca, and it was his hand and his fingers that wrapped around me. I put my hands above my head, surrendering myself to him.
His other hand grabbed mine, and it was what I wanted, to be pinned down and seduced. But instead, Asha brought my hand up to her chest. I opened my eyes and saw her smiling above me. Against all instinct, I wanted to satisfy her. I made my hand stroke her eggplant-like breasts, and when she went to take off her nightdress, I shook the pyjama bottoms from round my ankles, and leaned over to switch off the light.
In the darkness, I grabbed her by her hips and turned her round onto all fours, images of Luca - the curve of his biceps, the dark trail of hair leading to his groin, the smallness of his buttocks - running through my mind. I moved back and forth in her cushiony wetness, imagining that I was Luca, and Asha was me. His blue eyes twinkled and he whispered, “You naughty boy,” over and over again. I pulled out.
Asha’s body stiffened. I inserted my finger into her anus, even though I heard her say no. You naughty boy, I shouted in my mind, and plunged into her rectum.
The next morning, driving over Brooklyn Bridge, I saw that one of the skyscrapers was on fire. Smoke billowed out of the top floors of the building. It was one of the twin towers. As I got to the end of bridge, I could see little orange and yellow flames licking the concrete through gray-white clouds of smoke. Instead of taking my usual road to work, I went towards the building, drawn to the destruction.
I parked the car blocks away, as ambulances, police, firemen and civilians crowded the area. A plane, flying so low that I could feel the hum of its engines glided above, and I watched it, slow motion, impact with the other building. A frenzy broke out. I ran towards the towers, past screaming, crying, fleeing people, past a man on his hands and knees closely inspecting the random things scattered on the ground in the road, apparently unaware of the chaos around him. As I got closer I realised that it was not bits of the building, but people, actual bodies, that were hurtling through the air out of the top floors of the buildings.
I identified myself as a doctor to the police and paramedics. Everything that followed happened in a blur until the building started to crumble, as if it were made of sand. I ran, grabbing, pushing, shouting at others to do the same as the building fell.
I stopped amidst clouds of pulverised concrete, looking at the space where the building once stood. Papers, thousands and thousands of bits of paper and ash swirled around me, and I was the calm eye of the storm.
If a building could disappear, so could I. If I had moved a few seconds later, I would be dead. The number of coincidences flashed through my mind: the sick colleague, Luca’s upgrade, the businessman’s trip, the untimely cigarette, the lie-in, the drive to work today.
I was halfway to Chinatown, instinctively tracing a path to Madame Sung’s. I stood next to her by the window, looking out at what seemed to be the end of the world, and for me, it was. Asha would get over it, find someone new, and Ronnie would finally have a father-figure he could idolise. I would be hailed a hero: a doctor who had died saving the lives of others. For the first time, it was me who did the talking at Madame Sung‘s, as I told her about my plans for the future.
© 2004-2011 Underground Voices