Grin and Bear It

Neha Negi

2021
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The arctic waves lap over me, freezing the blood in my veins. Shame ushers in a memory of shame. The snapping strap of my bathing suit – shame – my incipient breast sliding out – it grips me – the horror and the shame. Shame is a hirsute monster lurking in the depths; slaying it was my salvation.

It can be cold within these walls, painted with tears, vomit, and blood.

Grin and Bear it.

The arctic waves lap over me as I see the plastic bag in front of me.

*

Did I tell you that I am a time traveler of sorts? Perhaps I was in another time. Hear it again. We are now meeting for the first time, again.

I prick the yellow zit on my nose with a needle heated on a candle flame. It is not the only one, there are constellations of angry red acne all over my face and craters of pockmarks, but this one irks me. It is making me wait. It has not come to a head—an odd spot on an odd person. And I can no longer wait.

I dip the needle in, and the lava spills over. The viscous white followed by watery red blood deposits in the grove of my philtrum. It reminds me of the tomato soups they served in the army mess with a floating island of fresh cream. I dab the future crater with Dettol and chuck the needle wrapped in a tissue down the flush. I can’t bring myself to open the dustbin and chuck it there. The thought of blood overwhelms me.

The stench.
Grin and Bear it.

It reminds me of the English girl’s room that smelled of festered blood. In my mind, I am in Via Delle Pinzochere, and I pass by her door to brew the second round of coffee. The door is ajar. I see her straddling the American boy, he fingers her, and she giggles. They are naked. Around them, on the floor, are strewn used tampons with black-brown blood. I pick the one that has rolled out of the door. There is a face in there. I pick it up and shut the door. The whole apartment stinks. I carry on to the kitchen.

Grin and bear it.

On an Autumn Sunday – our day off from the atelier – we sit and chat as she shows me eerie paintings on her computer – her blast from the past.

‘It’s nice.’ I try to be polite. I don’t understand the writhing liquid figures and flora in colors of the departing sun. As I look closer at the flowing figures saturated with darkness, I see more forms appear. They pull me in, and I am frightened.

‘It’s shit.’ She mumbles. She always thinks she is shit.

“The landlord is sending over people to take apart the false ceiling. That’s where the dead rat might be. Can I move my stuff in your room for a while?”

I balk. I don’t want her collection of unhygienic tampons and the noisome frayed rag she sleeps with to stink up my room that is thankfully on the other end of the apartment. Without hearing my answer, she leaves for the studio to finish the Bargue copy while maundering about a 4-euro sandwich place in Via Ghibellina.

Some evenings, I go out to the neighborhood trattoria for dinner with my limited circle (or should I say my frayed loop?): a silver-haired American woman with piercing eyes, an Israeli boy with a face like a baby’s and hips like a woman’s, and a raven-haired, middle-aged Romanian woman. I like the Romanian the most. She is a riptide in a still lake. Her perfectly caked face, slightly creased at the corners of her mouth and eyes, gives her an appearance of a retired show-woman.

I visit her in Bucharest. We drive through the wilderness and picnic at the castle of the Dark Count. She shows me an owl that is cat by day and a cat that is owl by night. Between the sips of Moldovan wine, we suck the bone marrow from the lamb leg. Wait, she eats only cabbage and hay. And I? Perhaps I don’t even eat the candy-striped Easter eggs kept on the table of the Dark Count. I forget.

Later, the Dark Count sent me emails that self-delete in the morning. His email tells me…..I forget. Perhaps best to leave him out of this. I can see him cowering in his coffin, nervous that I reveal his name.

As I fill this silence with myself, it starts suppurating—thin capillaries of time surface and burst into a deafening emptiness. An angst of enormous proportions grips me.

The shrill TING.
The raucous TONG.

Hammers beating my skull to a pulp. Coming back to the present is always excruciating. I have exiled myself to the past and feel safe in its suffering. Perhaps I was always tormented by this vague angst. I seemed to have lived with it for so long. Maybe his unfeeling touch and brutal affections are just empty reasons. I have felt this shame and angst and less-than-feeling since time primordial. It feels like it is my inheritance, much like violence.

There is a Bell at the door. I am drawn to the rattle of keys. When I reach the door: it is already opened.

He is back from the office. His coat and wispy mane: covered in droplets that were flecks of snow a moment back. He plants a cadaver cold kiss on my lips. I taste sterilized steel. His boots bring back moist earth from the forest by the Rhine.

I tell him I am going in for a bath (to rid myself of this squandered affection). The other end of the huge house swallows him with his cup of tea.

The bathroom has its own private weather. It’s hot, and everything is sodden with the steam rising up from the bath. I crack open the window and let the icy specters prick my barely clothed body. Before I step in, I look at my swarthy feet – too massive for my body, always been.

Peacock feet: hard knobbed, gnarly and corned.

The loud stream, next to the house, enters through the open window.

I look at my fingernails or whatever is left of it – chipped and broken.

They are filled with mud. Perhaps I was in the forest last night. Did I sleepwalk there, following the sound of the raging river? Can you sleepwalk in your memories?

I was in the Romanian forest of silver fir behind his castle – the Count’s.

A bear had hugged me from behind. A swarm of electric wasps had flown up my spine.

‘Hush… be still. It won’t hurt.’ It was Lennie from Steinbeck’s Mice and Men, wearing a Black Bear, I realized as I eyed his reflection in the glinting claws clasped in front of my chest. I relaxed and dissolved in its embrace.

Grin and Bear it.

Later I climbed up the tall fir tree (black velvet now), flecked with silver moon, and straddled the highest branch. From the top, I gazed at the changing shapes within the moon. Bird’s Ghost’s eye view.

I gaze at the steam now, escaping through the window in unrevealed shapes. Windows. For how long was I going to be a child looking out of the classroom window watching crows fight for a piece of bread? For how long was I going to watch the world pass by from this skeletal opening? Have I always been a window gazer?

I peel the sodden tee away from my body and slip into the cedar-pine-scented bath. I sit in the piping hot water, only a few degrees less than what’s required to boil a lobster alive. I merely melt in it.

I sit there until I turn into a prune. After a while, the heat calms down, but my skin has transcended the difference between hot and cold. The water in the bathtub is a murky brown. I think of the dark, languid water of Cresta See in Graubunden, where I went with my cousin for a swim. I look down at the stygian jello, now swallowing in my ankles.

Show me what you got in your Belly.
Swallow me.

I immediately regret the words and hope that the lake only understands Swiss-German. I swim to the wooden deck built in the middle of the lake and shut my eyes every time my head dips inside the water, escaping the darkness of its depths in my own dark mind. On the other hand, my cousin remains on the shore as she pinches her nose, squeezes her eyes shut, and squats in two feet of water like she is taking a dip in the Holy Ganges.

Chicken. I mock her as I remain faithful to my condescending self.

TUttt UtttTuttt
A knock on the bathroom door.

These knocks and bells and knocks and shouts – when will they cease? When will I be able to steep in my own demons by myself?

Grin and bear it.

Another knock. Good heavens!

“You didn’t make dinner.” Speaks an adenoidal voice from the other side.

FUCK YOU.

I dry my skin with a towel from the hot coiled radiator, and my dead skin snows on the green bath mat – wet, dark green apparitions with reverse maculation. I see some faces – some strange and some familiar – in there too.

Hello there!
No one is watching us; we can talk here.

Does anyone else do that? See faces everywhere? I see them in walls with flailing paint, puddles, piss on the toilet seat, the blood-soaked underwear… especially the blood-stained underwear (new faces every month). And….they talk to me. They started talking to me some time back. Or did they always talk, but I refused to listen? They say Rembrandt saw faces everywhere. His etchings—crosshatched shadows revealing forms. I live in the crosshatched shadows of the past as if it’s the present. They are interwoven—like warps and wefts. You see, art and life are inseparable.

*

What is art? Anthony’s, the artist’s, words flash in my mind inopportunely.

With the world obsessed with hard-edged narratives, there is no fluidity.

I am at the group show. A vernissage by the Rhine. I stand under the 6×6 feet drawing and dish out moronic smiles to strangers as they hover in front of the exhibited piece and try to decipher my mind. Some even talk to me.

I dutifully dole out some crap.

The truth is that I do not know what I was thinking when I made that piece. Maybe a rerun of thoughts I could not escape. Life is in the present moment, so they say. Mine is a seamless loop of the past merging into the present.

My mind has become stronger than me. I live in my mind’s mind now.

My exhibited work: I drew the galaxy of miniature squares (which resembled a roofless dolmen from one side and a sadist beast from the other) in suspended animation. When I was done, I saw faces peering back at me. The curator thought it was impressive just because of its sheer size and gave me the go-ahead. I didn’t know what to say about the work so mindlessly created. So I faffed, following the footsteps of my fellow artists. I wore a mask that evening, smiled, and pretended I was aware of what’s going on.

He does not come to the vernissage. The next morning, my body feels a weight that is not its own. I run my fingers on the coarse empty shell, shaped like an elephant, and place it gently on my bedside. My marriage. That’s when I decide to leave for Florence.

*

In Florence, I draw naked Italian bodies (and a few Russian ones) in all shapes and sizes – from sunup to sundown. I trace the outlines of their anatomy with an impossibly sharpened willow charcoal. For a while, I slip into the dreams of others and make them my own.

When did I decide that it wasn’t for me? I wonder in this past-heavy-present. My mind is as fogged up as the mirror in front of me. I return to the bathroom with the mirror.

I clear the mirror rimmed with a golden frame and look at myself. My face is an unending stream of mucous and drool. Have I been crying? Or has the heat loosened up everything inside? Am I melting from inside too?

I clean my face and slather it with petroleum jelly and my feet with a 250 dollar anti-aging serum.

I need you to look more beautiful. I tell my feet. They twitch. Good feet.

The bathroom still smells of putrid blood. The stink hasn’t gone but now become perverse – laced with the erupted bouquet of Forest in the Night bath oil.

Thank god he has a washroom to himself.
You don’t keep the house in order; otherwise, he would say.

We go through the motions of Netflix, dinner, and mint tea, just like every day. His cold, stiff presence comforts me today. I am in our – No – my bed now, which he shares. There is no small talk that can traverse the large crater floating between us now.

He is snoring, buried under the book.
Buried…Ha! So many puns.

He is snoring, buried under the book. I pick it up, tear two random pages off from the unread part, bookmark it and place it next to him.

Where has my life vanished? I wonder as I masticate and swallow the torn pages.

Like dread, sleep doesn’t come to me in a wave – the wave that laps over you and takes you away. For me, it’s a tube of darkness with flashing pictures on its cylindrical walls. I slide down it as the opening presents itself to me, shaped like a reverse womb. At places, the wall is thin, and I fall right through it into a parallel world.

The diazepam makes it worse – it elongates the tube, and it engulfs my waking life too. I sleepwalked to the Rhine yesterday and was retrieved just in time from the furious undercurrent. I don’t remember it. I only recall walking into a barrack where the pedophile lived, to the empty bus where the man rapes his own sister and the ice cream parlor that served toffee caramel with a crow leg. And yes… once I passed by a cow who was eating the apple from the mouth of a roast pig. No. I don’t remember the river. They say I was there last night. Now I hear the sound of flowing water, debris of some memory. Or have I been transported to the world where only Rip Van Winkles lived? Perhaps. Who knows? I might, but I don’t.

The sound of water carries me back to the tube. Can he hear, too, the stream underground?

They assured me that I would stop going into this tube of sleep where my dreams and memories are spliced up with frayed hallucinations.

Where are you? They? The Count, the Bear, the Nail Salon lady? Are you hiding in my mind? I hear the proteins breaking as my brain marinates in the dreams—the avalanche. I am entangled.

A distant moan unfurls me. I slip back through the thin walls to the bedroom. The room is silver with moonlight—an angel has shit all over it.

I like the bare white walls. I don’t mind the angel shit.

But what I cannot bear is a wall given teeth – frames, which crowd it. No, the walls must remain bare and bereft, or they will close in on me. They have hemmed me in my life already. I cannot let them march in on me.

Life has been playing with me. Vulnerable is an underword. A kitten toying with the mice. The whore teasing a pauper who cannot pay. The things we lack, cross our paths most often to tantalize us.

Moans of the strangers on the other side travel through the hollow walls of the building. I press my ear to the wall behind the bed and let the low groaning enter me. It reminds me of a warm red brook I buried in the forest. With the ascension of their passion, the moans turn barbaric.

I want to wake him up, but I am afraid he will misunderstand.

Ich Komme. Ich Komme.
Ja. Jaaaa. Jaaaaaaa….

With them, I tumble down the void that follows coitus, oblivious to the apple garden at the edge of the promontory. I wish I had a cigarette. I am reminded of the grocery store shelves from earlier that evening. The cigarettes were behind the lady at the cash register. They are expensive here. I tip-toe out of the darkroom and let out a burdened sigh. I have to admit, after years of denying it, in Florence, I had felt something close to ease. I was on my own. Unknowingly I had always sought this unburdened solitude. Why am I reminded of Florence? Because smokes….

I see two youngsters leaning on their bicycles, warming up to a kiss. I see the cobblestones bathed in streetlight under my feet. I stop next to the teenagers and flash my unarming smile, portraying I am happy for them, even though I am a stranger. Of course, it’s all a show, including my eyes that reflect back their elation. I get to the point.

‘Scusa mi… Ha una cigarretta?’

I get such courage only when I am inebriated. I once asked a complete stranger carrying a pizza box for a slice in the wee hours of the morning, walking back from an Irish pub.

Today I am not inebriated but wide awake and fully aware. Each moment is swollen as I pass through it. I feel everything, even second-hand lust.

Desire comes to me in an uninterrupted stream. I had lost it years back. It comes and withdraws. It never remains. It rips me apart.

Grin and Bear it.

I switch on the light in the dining hall and see that a half-empty plate with a fork and half-full glass of wine still remains. I have always carried a cold frozen continent within me. Inanimate suspension can often be mistaken for strength. I look at the plate again with the leftover fennel that resembles an aloof landmass.

Earlier today, I walk to COOP to buy a salad in the winter drizzle. When I look at my reflection on the automatic doors, I see a free woman. It is only drizzling, yet there is a pool of water near my boots—my melting continent. I enter the grocery store with the vast, unending, segregated aisles loaded with umpteen options. Even among those choices, I have always felt utterly deprived. I could buy anything I wanted yet could never bring myself to stray from the usual sections.

He likes full-fat milk. The sheep milk on the chilled shelf in its tiny artisanal glass bottle beckons me today. I pick one.

He likes gnocchi—that brand with the green writing on the plastic packet. I pick the cardboard box of hand-rolled spinach and ricotta ravioli.

He likes Emmenthal. I pick up Gorgonzola Dolce.

As I go from shelf to shelf, I choose today everything that I had ever denied myself. In the salad section, I pick avocadoes that he hates so much and fennel hearts that he doesn’t care for much.

Everything I like he dislikes. How did we ever get married? The thought crosses my head, but I don’t engage.

I only cease this grocery shelf rebellion when I come to the alcohol section. Amaretto is something I had always loved. It’s sweet and nutty, and its fortified kick always sends me back to the post-prandial hour in Italy. But I pass by the shelf and don’t pick it up.

At the cash register, I produce my Coop card. The lady behind the register looks at me for a second as if she is matching the name on the card with the face in front of her. She puts a reward sticker on it. Indian names are as alien to her. My husband’s name is on the card.

I catch tram no. 6 at Bankverein to Riehen. I sit by the window with my bags of groceries. This coach is empty. It stinks of old urine. There is only one other person, the source of the stink, who shares the coach with me—an old man with matted hair, a shaggy old black coat, and a wet fur hat (adding to the bouquet), mumbling away in Swiss German to himself. He has lost his marbles, they would say. To me, it seemed like he has begun to find them.

Grin and Bear it.

In the tram, the half-pondered question comes back to me—why did we get married? But there is no use now. It’s done with.

I don’t mind the smell; in fact, I stop detecting it after a while. We get used to things after a while, even acidic stench. A lady passes me by; from her attire, she looks like she is returning from the office. She wonders how I can bear the nauseating stench. She is transitioning to the next coach. Before she steps into it, she looks back one more time and smiles. I know she has guessed I am from India, and like many westerners, she assumes Indians are used to filth.

The tram passes by Foundation Beyeler—my respite on those reverberating empty days. I avoid weekends and exhibits of known artists. I learnt my lesson on two occasions. Once, an Odilon Redon exhibition on the weekend had a waiting line snaking out to the street. Then this other time, they had a special exhibit of Delacroix’s watercolors in the gallery. Even though it was a weekday and the crowds were considerably less, the exhibition had drawn the noisiest kinds of people from far off—the art enthusiasts. I have always found it annoying to hear, listen and talk about art—like an inner experience is being muddied and diluted. I want to meet paintings and sculptures as strangers.

There is a section at Beyeler for resting with a wall of glass. The seating peers into the rolling green hills of the country. It was four years back, I discovered this chasm of respite. He wanted a baby. It was my duty. The space between my legs was a burning sore that day.

Grin and Bear it.

On a whim, or perhaps unable to bear the circulated air of the tram, I got off here. I bought a ticket at the counter, and my legs, as if guided by this chasm, took me to this seating area overlooking the neon green hills under the greyed skies. Since then, I have lodged myself in it from time to time and watched the sheep embedded in those hills. I am invisible here, as I am outside and at home. Not today, though. I have all this gourmet food to make, to celebrate.

Now, I pour myself the aquavit we bought in Copenhagen on my 30th birthday and down it. The fiery warmth ascends to my palpitating empty chest. On the wall is a painting of a bunch of frenzied flowers—my attempt at painterly strokes. The colors remind me of a famous corpse. “The body of the dead Christ in the tomb.” The great portraitist of the 16th century painted this famous corpse. This obsession with pain and beauty of suffering is not only my vice then; it belonged to Holbein and many others. The outstretched corpse of Jesus, imagined so disturbingly, lying in the depths of the earth, appears to me. Those wispy fingers with skin pulled back…. This grotesque devotion reminds me of him—lying peacefully—and the forest that runs along Rhine.

I sneak back under the covers and slide down my tube of sleep. The couple next door has, too, gone off to sleep, exhausted by lapsed copulation.

*

In this tube—the past commingles with the present as dreams crossover to reality. Till today, I cannot tell if all that happened in the tube was a dream.

I decide to walk instead of taking the tram. I had walked to the forest near the river again, I can tell by the loamy residue on my boots. A couple walks hand in hand in front of me. They are talking. They seem happy. But I don’t understand happiness. It is safe to say then that they seem content. I remember a distant waking dream of being this content. I held that hope like a delicate flower growing up. Back in India, I had worked for a while. But even as I was making money, I was always searching for that contentment. Then marriage happened. I was elated. A month after the consummation, I understood my place. I met my flower once—lying on the road. It was a stranger to me now. There it lay–flattened and bruised—on the asphalt. I wanted to pick it up and take it home, but I realized it was only my reflection.

Oh hello! It’s me on the asphalt.

Where are you?
Oh, under it.

I want to feel envy. I do feel it for a micro-moment in memory of the flower. But it goes as quickly as it comes. I have heard enough of their cloying endearments. Maybe he will hurt her. Perhaps she will push him down the ridge of the hill they are climbing now. I break away, having heard and seen enough.

I walk to the nearby suburb street, lined with shops that stock necessities and some inexplicable extravagances. There is a Nail Salon run by an Asian immigrant. She has spent 15 years in the country, but she will always be an immigrant.

I walk in.
I have never got my nails done. When I sit across a Malay lady, she holds my hands with extreme tenderness, with an almost affection. A silent sob chokes my throat. Instinctively, my fingers lightly clasp hers.

Don’t let go. I want to tell you something.

She doesn’t react or look up but flattens my fingers with utmost care. She may be used to lonely women walking in, seeking this inadvertent tenderness. I had washed my hands, but the dried brown under my nails is still there. I am glad that it’s not a part of her ritual to smell nails, or the metallic smell would have given me out.

I walk out with burgundy red nails.

I walk around another street of old houses. I curb the urge the look into the windows of these old cottages as I walk into an erstwhile barn converted into a coffee shop. I take my time to run my fingers through the menu, hoping that the waiter will see my freshly shellacked nails and assume that I have always kept manicured hands. I steal a glance at him. He is young and too eager, but he has nice fingers. I see no ring.

Maybe he can touch me—softly. I shudder.

He may have noticed the thin gold band on my finger. I order a macchiato. And I take an hour to finish those 2 ounces of coffee. The smell of coffee and sweet things make me heady after a while. The disk in the sky is beginning to fade and giving in to the approaching darkness. Twilight—that indifferent shade of the sky!

I don’t want to go back yet. The stench may have grown.

I know, I know.
Grin and Bear it.

I take a tram to Theatre station. At the theatre, a rickety Tinguely sculpture adorns the fountain’s center, covered with frozen water. I can’t help but smile as I enjoy its suspended animation.

I have been there too. I console the junk sculpture.

Pick up the rock and smash the ice. I advise it.

I walk up to the ticket counter and look at the schedule. Verdi’s La Traviata is playing now. I have seen it once before in Florence, in a rundown Cappella.

No harm in doing it again. No one knows how much time I have left.

This life without shame is a light one. Unaccustomed to fluffy whims, unburdened neck, and lighter steps, I feel a little heady—in a grand way. So, I buy the balcony tickets.

Midway, as the tenor’s shrill voice rings in my ears and shakes my insides, I fantasize about seducing him to this curved ornate balcony I am seated in and tossing him down from here. I could throw in my goose-down jacket after him as a sign of respect. But then I realize it is biting cold outside. I also look at my stomach rolls protruding out of my black wool dress. This urge to finish the tormentor….or the seducer…. the spider devours her mate after the act.

Grin and Bear it. Until you can’t.

When I walk back to the station, it is already dark. I pass a passionate procession in support of Kurds, holding electric candles, pleading to the Swiss to help its people in Northern Syria.

The atrocities of the regime must end!
One plaque read in German.

I see some blonde heads, too, lit by the lamplight, bobbing in the crowd. I can see some faces. They look ghostly in the dark. I can’t partake in this collective feeling. I lack empathy because I have lacked it for my own self all my life. If at all, there is a tinge of disproportionate sadness. I feel a sense of deprivation, a lack of something that was being thrown at my face now—humanity, solidarity, and….visibility.

Look at me; I am now jealous of a country!
I marvel at my newfound audacity.

But I have never known to be reasonable. Laconic, morose, submissive, and even a looming shadow—yes. But never reasonable. Except my decision to secretly take the morning-after pills—not an absolutely unreasonable thing.

I smile now and remember the times I had tried to tell my family and friends. They almost always altered the course of the conversation to a mundane topic—the new paint in my brother’s room, WhatsApp home remedies for infertility, the Prime Minister who promises a ‘developed’ India, etc.

Even if they didn’t say it, I could hear the words.

“Grin and Bear it.”

It happened once at his parent’s home. There were screams. They must have heard. The next morning, when we left for the airport, his mother gave me a fist-sized Ganesha idol. Even if she didn’t say it, the idol relayed her message to me.

Grin and Bear it.
I did too.

*

THUD THUD THUD

There is a beautiful Italian word, untranslatable in English—Dormiveglia. A word for the semi-conscious state upon waking from sleep, at the threshold of awareness. I have homed that state for decades now. I abhor this conscious world—running after the very desires that destroy it. I flit in and out of sleep. I hate leaving this bed, warmed by my skin, carrying his smell.

THUD THUD THUD

When will they let me be?
I am alone in bed. It’s morning, I think, the third morning after I went to sleep that night with a fire in my veins.

There is Banging: loud and urgent.

I taste gutter-doused cotton in my mouth. Aquavit had helped.

Before I open the door, I pick up the amaretto bottle with my new shellacked nails, painted burgundy. I take a greedy swig from it. I must have picked it up from the grocery store after all.

The metal-rimmed hornets carry me to their nest. The putrid smell rode on the vapors from my bath and snitched to the neighbors.

*

At the interrogation room with the clichéd pendant light, they dangle something in front of me, and I recoil. It was out of a freezer, I think, in a Ziploc bag.

The arctic wave laps over me. The phantom presence of my frozen continent.

Darn it! They found it. They found me out. The arctic waves recede, and I smile in the warmth of my awareness.

Maybe I should have buried the hand with the wedding ring in the forest, along with the rest of the body.

But I did not want to.

I had carried it back and put it safely in the dustbin.

The ring didn’t come off the swollen hand.
I wanted it back.

Why should my name that is engraved on it be buried into oblivion? I was waiting for the flesh to shrink so that I could slip it out and wear it around my neck.

I see faces on the wall stained with betel juice and dried blood. I smell testosterone-induced violence and vomit here. Yet, I sit poised like Rodin’s thinker.

Warum? The lady officer roared, quivering in half-anger-half-fear.

Next to the Ziploc bag lies die Mordwaffe (the murder weapon) – the rock. I am reminded of the smash, and then I think of the baseball bat that extinguished the light in my dog’s eyes.

No.
She screamed – Why?.

The memory of the deportation to India is a blank.

I am not in Switzerland, though I slip into it from time to time. Florence too.
I am a time traveler, and I live in simultaneous past laced presents.

My life re-started here again when I was extradited to India. Swiss don’t want to keep mad third-world foreigners who murder their economy-contributing husbands and can’t be incarcerated.

“Why this heinous crime?” They are not allowed to hit, but she delivers a backhanded slap with her ornamented fingers. His parents want to find out, I know. These are not her questions.

Blood on my face. I look at the filigree gold engagement ring on her finger. Cheap design – the bitch, too, is trapped.

I smile to evoke a sisterhood.

There is none.

A sharp pain returns to me. It is not the pain of the gash on my cheek; it is the returning pain of a thawing frostbite. My frostbitten continent is a glacial lake now. I borrow some moisture from it and spill into a flood of tears.

She is now more baffled and curious than disgusted.

Is it heinous? Is it really? To free the saddest man alive. To free oneself, so one can face the sun and finally breathe. He was miserable. I could see. I was unable to give him a baby. I did not want to. But he didn’t give up, even if he had to turn into a monster. Every time he hit me, I saw him falling in his own eyes. I had to end his long tumble down from grace. Or, he would have taken me with him.

Look now – he is beautifully covered in the white shit of angels. I envy the empty slate he has now. Maybe I, too, will get a blank slate someday!

Telling her that he killed my dog, that he hit me, and that there was no consent would not help. I don’t want sympathy. I simply cannot have it.

It started with a push on one of our rare walks together in the forest. The river was loud with a word—Enough. Full of unknown courage, I pushed back. That force, fueled by years of buried rage, sent his body crashing onto the ground and his head on a rock. He was still alive when we both realized what had happened, but his eyes were now dim. There might have been a plea for mercy in them as they watched me pick up another rock from the ground. Those dying eyes—innocent and sweet. I could have called an ambulance.

It will just be for a moment.
Come on, darling!
Grin and Bear it.

I let the rock land on his face. I wanted him to be free of his miserable existence. He had hated himself for a while.

It was a release of instinct. Perhaps, my wishboned darkness. In that moment, I was brazen and still remain so.

The burying was hurried and could have been done better. As I flashed the light from my phone to study the face under the rock, I saw the wedding ring glint. I wanted it. It had my name. It wasn’t ready to be buried.

I see a thinker’s sculpture shift to his side, uneasily, in Musee Rodin. In a parallel universe, Dante Alighieri has set to work—lovingly designing a new subsection of hell for me.

WHY? She thumps her fist on the table. She is angry, again.

I cower and point to Damru, the shaggy mountain dog with his fur matted with blood. Only I can see him with my shameless eyes. He is right there in the corner, looking serene. He has been there all this while—trying to come through the faces that reveal themselves to me. For a while now, I have been alone with him, like I was alone in the coach with the old man who had pissed himself in the tram. Damru jumped out of the story that night when he boasted of smashing the skull of our pet dog because it had not listened to him. The palisade had crumbled down to dust. For years, I had thought of my dog in India as lost one rainy evening.

“It hurts so much.” I whimpered when he told me. He was hurting, and he wanted me to share his pain. He had begun hating himself, I told you. I could see it in his eyes, in his touch, and in his long pauses. For the first time, we shared a constant synchronized state.

“Grin and Bear it.” He told me as he delivered another slap.

The policewoman can’t see Damru, who is now fading away – satisfied – like the short-lived stars which appear when I rub my eyes too hard. There is a glint of something in her eyes – not sure if it’s rage or pity. She thinks I am mad? SHE is. They all are.

He said – Grin and Bear it. I can now see his faceless apparition smiling among other faces on the wall.

*

I live in a white-washed home now. Perhaps it’s a sort of retirement home or a luxury madhouse. I can’t tell. Either senescence has caught on with me, or I have transcended all labels. I dwell in the tube.

The law is kind to the deranged. It is the range-bound who are guilty, not us: the de-arranged.

My walls are empty as usual and mirror the movements of the sun. Some things never change. I like bare white walls.

They said I have healed. Are they implying that I have become sane again?
Thus far, I have managed to not tip over the garishly painted railing on my balcony. That must have been reassuring – for them – to let me be. But how can I fall when I am homed in the innermost chambers of my mind and live in the belly of the underworld.

So are you! Do you still not see it? There is a moment of action that differentiates madness from sanity. In our thoughts, madness prevails. Sanity is a manmade thing.

One can trip over and straighten up, but can one turn back to life before the fall? Blood, when spilled on the floor, seeps away and closes in simultaneously.

Once a painter had painted me. He said that my bleakness had inspired him and reminded him of the void after a great loss. I am that void now—tubular void. I am content for the first time. Hollowness is a respite once you stop looking to fill it with something.

I revisit the Count’s castle. It is decrepit now. The once windows are mere structured holes, overtaken by the aggressive creepers. The vines shoot out its mouth, the walls carpeted with moss, and the floor now holds the Count in his sleep. He has abandoned his coffin. On my last visit, in the oblivion of the tube, I whispered in his ears: the real darkness lies inside. He knows now, he need not act needy. He will have a place in my heart always. He thanks me, I know. And the others, whose dreams he has stopped haunting, thank me too, unknowingly.

The last time I visited him was during the monsoons. I took a long stroll in the pelting rain. I took shelter in the Bear’s cave, who’d hugged me with his claws clasped. The Bear was now a heap of bones. I pick his claw up from the moss-ridden floor as a keepsake. When the rain subsides, I visit the Count. He is sleeping so peacefully. I need not visit so often.

Plop!

A tumid leech falls off. It is huge—the size of my index finger. It had latched on to my leg at the Bear’s cave. I carefully pick it up. I don’t want it to burst in my hand or another creature to step onto it. I feel an almost affection for it and want it to survive. I place it on a leaf under the tall fir tree I once climbed to see the moon. I haven’t even walked two steps when a bird swoops down and carries the blood-filled leech away. The bird now lands on my shoulder, asking for scraps. Its breath laced with my blood. I feed her a piece of bread I had that morning. I look at her and smile.

I am feeding my own devourer.

I look back at the forgotten castle and leave, ridding myself of the vestiges of hope. Hope is a double-edged sword. I am better off without it—the creature of the future. I am content without it. I toss the bear claw in the muddy stream under the moat as a tribute to the Count. Then, as I walk away, I don’t look back—even when the earth swallows up everything in a deafening roar.

Now, I sit and watch the white walls. I see the sky in them. Was the sky ever blue? I wonder. Or was it the wrong color all this while?

I am always in this past-present, the future removed. I told you: I am a time traveler of sorts. Time shifts and I float on its back. But then look closely, aren’t you a time traveler too?

A knock on the door. The house help is here with the food.

These knocks and taps and bells have still not left me. But I don’t get rankled.

You have taught me well, my Darling!

I Grin and Bear it.

***

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