The Point of No Return
The sudden throb of a passing truck woke him up. He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. It was a strange dream. His dreams would often dissolve into nothingness upon waking but this was one of those rare ones which still lingered in his eyes. In the dream he had been on the roof of an old building. All he could see in front of him was a line of white sheets hung out to dry on a rope. He penetrated the first line only to find another line of similar white sheets hung to dry. Layer after layer he went in to find more of the same. Soon he was lost in a sea of soft translucent white. He did not know right from left or front from back. For a moment he had the feeling that he was in a womb of white light. It was comfortable in a strange way but underneath that feeling of comfort there was a sense of panic that was waiting to be released. It was at that moment that he had awakened.
Shruti stirred beside him and mumbled something in her sleep. He turned to look at her. She was lying on her stomach. Her right hand was splayed across his chest and gripped his trunk, as if holding onto him while buffeted by a fierce wind. Her hair tried to walk across his face when moved by the thin breeze from the fan. She looked peaceful and loved in her sleep as she always did. She never remembered her dreams either. Even now she could not help hugging him in her sleep. It was one of his little secrets as he always woke up before her.
He disengaged himself gently from her half embrace, taking care not to wake her up, got up and sat on the edge of the bed. He picked up his watch from the sideboard by his bed. The hands read 6:30. His day normally started at 8. He was too keyed up to go back to sleep. Dawn was just beginning to break. The room was bathed in dim light from the window by the side of the bed. He got off the bed and looked around the room. It was sparsely furnished. A frugal existence on a scholarship did not offer much opportunity to lead a luxurious lifestyle. Almost all the furniture had been bought second hand. Therefore, the room had this mismatched look to it that came from putting together furniture of differing styles and make. But it looked comfortable and cozy. Two qualities the room owed to the care and diligence of Shruti. She had worked wonders with the limited resources they had.
He walked out on to the narrow balcony the bedroom had and inhaled the fresh cool air. Sundays always held this lazy quality for him. He remembered Sundays spent sleeping until noon. He remembered Sunday mornings that were given over to gentle lovemaking until they were too hungry to continue. And he remembered Sundays where he would be forced by Shruti, against his will, to go to the lab to set up experiments for Monday. Today was different though. It would be a long and difficult morning. He was not looking forward to it but he had no choice. Shruti would not change her mind. She wanted the break and there was nothing he could do.
He had met Shruti at a Cancer conference in Frankfurt. Her poster had been right next to his. She was working in Potsdam at that time. It was the final year of her doctoral research. He was in his second year of doctoral research then. They were the only two Indians at the conference and therefore during breaks between talks and in the evenings had spent all of their time together. She was also from Hyderabad. He had been to India a couple of months before the conference so they reminisced about how their city had changed. They lamented about the disappearance of laidback Hyderabad, where the day began at 11 am, both knew so well to be replaced by the gleaming malls, the new money and the unrestrained greed. In another of life’s inexplicable coincidences both had lost their parents. His, to a car accident and her’s in a bomb blast in Mumbai. Both had escaped anxious relatives bent on marrying them off to the anonymity and independence of Germany.
Their conversations into the night by the river while staring at the gleaming skyline of Frankfurt bridged their loneliness. On the last day of the conference they made promises to keep in touch but caught in work they had soon forgotten each other. One day, about two months after the conference, while clearing his wallet of old bills he had found her phone number. On a whim he called her up and contact was resumed again. As Potsdam was less than hour from Berlin they began visiting each other on weekends. They even traveled together to Prague. Somewhere around the same time love began to blossom. They began sleeping together after they came back from Prague.
Now he knew that it had been a love based more on shared circumstances rather than on the discovery of each other. Their love had been quiet and restrained, not the burning passion one saw in the movies. Perhaps loneliness and the loss of loved ones had played a part too. She would soon finish her PhD and did not want to go back to India yet. He was sick of Germany and needed someone familiar to talk to.
They decided to get married as soon as she finished her thesis defense. They traveled together to India and had a quiet civil marriage. Relatives on both sides were not happy due to differences in caste but did not create much of a fuss when they realized that the two did not care what they thought or wanted.
As soon as she was done with her formalities in Potsdam she moved to Berlin and they shifted to the present apartment. He still needed a couple more years to be done with his PhD so they decided she would look for a post-doctoral position in Berlin to supplement his meager scholarship. After he finished they would decide about moving back to India or going to the US. She did look seriously for a position for about a month but soon gave up and instead started concentrating on making their apartment more comfortable and also convincing him to start a family. She had never been interested in serious research. A PhD had been a ticket to freedom for her from the clutches of her conservative relatives. As soon as she had the beginnings of a family of her own she pushed the idea of a scientific career off her priority list. She deeply desired to become a mother.
This was when the early friction had started. He did not want a child so soon. It would be so impractical, he thought, to have a child when they were living on a single scholarship and did not know how their respective financial futures would pan out. He also wanted her to work instead of sitting at home but his nagging only increased her stubbornness.
Things were not as bad initially. Every marriage where love is involved passes through a golden phase at the beginning. The future seems filled with the brightest of hopes and romance saturates every waking moment. Each passing day seems suffused with love and each aching minute spent apart increases the anticipation of the next phone call or return home after work. There were mornings that meandered into late afternoons in the company of their conversations. There were endless dreamy silences after dinner punctuated by sips of white wine and passionate kisses. There were silent walks taken through the snow lined paths of Tiergarten in the winter hand in hand. There were romantic trips to Paris and Venice. There were the pleasures of waking up next to a warm body on cold mornings and making love until every part of their body ached sweetly. There were the little decisions that needed to be made together, be it about which film to watch on a Saturday night or which color to paint their bedroom wall. But the honeymoon period had to end and then reality came dancing in through the open window of responsibility.
It was her condescension that made matters worse, at least for him. She came from a cosmopolitan family and had gone to an elite private school. Both her parents used to work for multi-national companies. She used to speak only in English at home even though her mother tongue was Telugu. By the age of 12 she had already been to three different continents. In contrast, he came from more humble origins. His parents were simple and typically middle class with all the attendant struggles to make ends meet and give him the best education possible within those financial limits. The first time he had ever sat in an airplane was when he came to Berlin. He had picked up very good English along the way but being a mostly self taught person his pronunciation sometimes led to inadvertently funny results. This lack of sophistication was a constant source of amusement for her. She would often make fun of his dress sense, the way he ate and his tastes, be it in books, films or furniture. Often, it would be harmless ragging on her part but it would hurt him nevertheless each and every time as he was quite sensitive about his origins. He had tried telling her how much it irritated and hurt him when she said those things but she would dismiss his concerns by laughing them off and saying that she did not mean any of them.
Another reason was that like all women Shruti secretly believed that she was superior to men. No matter what the argument she had to have the last word. No matter how wrong she was she was right, a womanly logic he could never understand. So every decision required her oral stamp of approval. Every cent had to be spent under her watchful eye. There was a limit to even his patience. So he had snapped several times. Harsh words were exchanged and arguments had escalated. It had all added fuel to the fires of freedom.
Dawn had come and gone while he was lost in the past. It was bright and cold. The sky was a patchwork of clouds busily rushing away to the south as if the world depended on their movement. It was time to get ready for what lay ahead. He wandered back into the bedroom and entered the small bathroom. There was another note on the bathroom mirror written in her precise feminine hand.
Can you wake me up at 8 am? Thanks.
So she had dropped the ‘Dear’ too finally. Leaving small sweet notes to each other was one of the ‘romantic’ things they had started initially. Now, they were the sole media of communication between them for mundane things. Conversations had collapsed into monosyllabic mumblings. They hadn’t talked at all in the last one month, which was when she had suggested the idea of a break.
He took the note and walked to the desk by the window. From the lowest drawer he took out a small box and opened it. It contained all the notes they had written to each other from the beginning of their marriage. As he was about to place the latest note on top his eyes fell on the note underneath in the box. He took it out and read what was written on it.
Three pink pillows
you wanted yesterday
in exchange for a
notional apology from me.
Today you think
and refuse to talk.
So I wander around the
house looking for words
you forgot to erase from
our common conversation.
Ravi smiled in recognition. He had written that about two months back when Shruti had started tearing these scraps of conversation. He picked out another note from the pile. It was an old note written by her.
Trace my eyebrows
with your rhymes
as they arch over
your words left unsaid.
He arranged the notes and closed the box. It was strange how memories were so closely linked to words in their case. If he read through each and every note in the box he would live through a different memory each time. Most would refer to mundane activities but even those common place references were very much part of their lives. The hard clarity of the written word sometimes even replaced the wispy nostalgia of reminiscence in his case.
He replaced the box in the drawer, went to the bathroom and closed the door. The door opened again precisely 25 minutes later. He checked the time. It was two minutes to 8. He walked around the bed to her side, sat on the edge and gently shook her. For a second he wondered if he should try waking her up by tickling her feet or running his tongue along her ear. He smiled as he remembered how she would bolt up and be instantly awake when he had done those things in the past. He decided not to risk her anger as he knew they had burnt those bridges of intimacy. She stirred when he shook her again and slowly opened her eyes. Her eyes swam into focus and then registered him. She smiled involuntarily, a smile as bright as the light outside before she quickly cut it short as she came awake completely. She mumbled something and then looked at him. He understood that she wanted him to get off the bed. He quickly got up from the bed, walked out to the balcony and resumed his contemplation of their conjugal life.
Behind him he heard her get off the bed and stretch herself. Once upon a time he loved to stare at her legs every morning as her shorts crept upwards slowly as she stretched. Usually they would stop at the mole which was three fourths of the way above her knee. On rare occasions the shorts would cross that mark and he would smile at receiving such a bonus. He heard her walk to the bathroom and close the door.
He did not contemplate the future. There would be pain and he knew that within a few days he would descend the stairs of his dreams into a vortex of insomnia, self-loathing and deep depression. The signs were already visible on the horizon circling his thoughts. But what he dreaded the most was the point of no return. The point where both would have wandered so completely off the path that it would be impossible to cut through the thicket and return. That he could not bear. For he was the old fashioned type, one who thought a marriage was for life. And every fight, every argument between them had seemed to suggest to him that they were hurtling towards that very point. He wished he could fight for them. Explain to her how much she meant to him and how he could not live alone without her. He had tried in the past but words always failed him at such crucial moments. They only came to him while he sat like this thinking over things. The irony of a relationship built on words did not escape him.
“Shall I make breakfast for you too?”
He suddenly realized that Shruti was talking to him. He started and looked back as she repeated from the kitchen.
“Shall I make breakfast for you too?”
“Yes please. Can you make me an omelet too?”
“Yes, no problem,” she replied.
He hadn’t realized she was back from the bathroom and was already busy preparing breakfast. He was surprised. He could not remember the last time she had offered to make breakfast for him. It must have been months ago. Perhaps she was trying to be nice before she walked away from everything. He walked back into the apartment and sat at their small dining table. He watched her toast the bread, apply Nutella and then pour olive oil onto the pan on the stove. She arranged the bread slices neatly on the edges of two plates. Six slices for him, two with Nutella and four plain and four for her with Nutella. Coffee was already on the table. She broke eggs with a spatula and dropped them onto the pan. She worked quickly and cleanly. He had always marveled at her efficient actions when it came to cooking. She could handle cooking four different dishes and not break sweat. And she had picked up all her cooking in Germany. On the other hand he was an indifferent cook. When he was in the mood he could whip up some nice meals but normally he would subsist on a diet of chips, nuts and a good novel.
With the omelet done she neatly lifted it off the pan and placed it on the plate with his bread slices. She placed the plate before him and settled herself with her plate opposite him. She poured herself a glass of orange juice and started eating. He started eating too. They ate in silence staring at neutral points on opposite sides. After ten minutes of this strained silence she broke it with a question.
“Are we even going to talk about it Ravi or are you going to sit there silently as usual?”
“What is there to talk about? You seem to have decided everything already.”
This seemed to irritate her. He could see her lips quivering as she sought to control herself.
“Is that your standard response to everything? How do you know I’ve decided everything? Why do you always assume and not talk? Every time we have an argument and fight you withdraw into yourself and use your silence as a weapon. Do you know how frustrating it is to try and break through your silence and get to you?”
She stopped as her voice broke over the last sentence. She looked away for a moment as if to hide the watering of her eyes. Ravi looked as if he was going to say something but kept quiet when he realized she was not finished. Shruti faced him again and continued.
“Ravi, you know very well our marriage is breaking apart. Your PhD is going nowhere and you know it. You have no idea when you are going to finish it. You expect me to work when all I want with all my heart is to have a child with you. But you refuse to even understand why I want it. You hate to admit to yourself that you are afraid of responsibility. Maybe I’m paranoid but I think you are delaying your PhD so that you do not have to face tough decisions about us.
Ravi who had been looking away while she was talking flinched and looked back at her as she said the last part. He sighed and asked in a low voice, “Why do you want to have a baby so badly? What is wrong in waiting a little?”
“Because I love you Ravi and want you to be the father of our child. It is as simple as that. And I’m not getting any younger Ravi. I’m already 28. I don’t want to have children when I’m over 30. You know there will be complications with age.”
“So is this an ultimatum Shruti? Have children with me or else I’m gone? Is that what you are trying to say?”
“I don’t know Ravi. One part of me wants to say that and be done with this mounting frustration and unchanging situation. But that is too easy. I just want a break. I want to be away from you for some time. I’ve already talked to Neha and she said I can move in with her if I wanted.”
Neha was her best friend from college who had followed her to Germany. He had known she would want this but the blunt and abrupt nature of her words still hit him hard. How long would she be gone? Would she ever return? A hundred questions jostled for attention in his head but he could not ask her any of them. He did not want to. If she wanted to run away then let her. Why should he stop her? It was not as if he had not tried. All he had asked for was a little time. Was it that hard to wait? But her words had touched a chord and softened him. She still loved him and that was important. Perhaps there was reason to hope as well. So he asked her, “How long will you be gone? What about your things?”
“I don’t know for how long. It could be a week or it could be a month. I need to think about a lot of things. I’ll leave my things here for the moment. Yesterday, I packed some essential stuff so I’ll be fine for a while.”
She got up as if to signal the end of the conversation and started clearing the table. She hadn’t eaten half her bread slices and even he had lost his appetite. She threw away the leftovers and stacked the plates and cups in the dishwasher. She walked to the closet and took out the carry bag she used for small journeys and headed directly for the door without another word. Her face was inscrutable. He did not know if he should try to convince her to stay but he knew from past experience that once she made up her mind it would be impossible to convince her otherwise. So he got up and said, “I’ll walk you down to the bus stop.”
Shruti nodded her head and opened the door. She hesitated for a second and looked back at him as if she had something to say to him. But she did not say anything and walked out.
They rode down the lift in silence and walked out of the building onto the road. The silence continued and stretched around them encompassing all their mutual memories and dreams. He had the feeling that he was walking in slow motion and somehow that moment would last forever. But that was wishful thinking. They reached the bus stop. The bus soon arrived. Shruti calmly walked up to the door and got onto the bus. He stood still waiting for her to say something. She did not say anything. The door closed and the bus started to move away slowly. She was lost among the many people in the bus. Soon the bus was a dot on the horizon and after a minute the dot disappeared too as if erased. She had not looked back once.