by Lekha Dey.
We drove along the banks of the river, the road following its course. On the front seat sat my father, who was driving and my mother who was on the passenger seat. I sat in the backseat looking out the window, not talking to my seven-year-old friend, who sat at the other end of the back seat, looking out the other window. Our arms were crossed angrily over our chests and our faces wore deliberate frowns. From the corner of my eyes, however, I detected a sly snigger of satisfaction on the lips of the girl who was in possession of our earthly treasure. There was no sign of the golden container, however. She must have stashed it away somewhere in their car. Her parents, with her father driving and mother seated on the passenger seat exactly like us, were in the car behind us with her three brothers aged ten, twelve and fourteen, all squeezed into the backseat.
“I don’t want to sit with her,” I had announced as we hopped back into our cars. That was an about turn from the insistence that “my best friend” and I travel in the same car on the way here. It was a seven-hour drive from the city to this destination, the ruins of an ancient kingdom dating back to hundreds of years. We started out on our return journey around five in the afternoon which meant that we would reach home around midnight. If we took breaks on the way, to have dinner at roadside restaurants, for instance, it would become early morning around one or two.
The two families lived in the same neighbourhood. The two seven-year-olds went to the same school and were in the same class. Our fathers were colleagues and our mothers inadvertent “friends” who were really acquaintances. “Wives of colleagues,” probably describes most accurately their relationship built on nothing but chance.
At the grocery store, where a few other “wives of colleagues” often went together to keep each other company as they picked up their daily, weekly or monthly provisions, if someone were to ask, “Who is she to you?” I cannot imagine a more honest answer than “We are wives of colleagues.” Whatever the case may be, a generation of women married to men with white collar jobs can be said to have been born to be “wives of colleagues”, throwing dinner parties over weekends, spending the week at lifestyle stores picking up elegant home decor and their lives, decorating their homes with elegant, lacy love. Unless interrupted – jolted rudely out of the reverie of this blissful boredom – their fluid identities were defined by the dishes they cooked, the cutlery they curated and the clothes they dressed their children in. If you shone a torchlight into their hearts and minds, you would find one predominant ambition and that was to ensure that the white collars that their men wore remained white. Except, sometimes the starched white shirts with the spotless collars that they dressed their husbands in, become irrevocably soiled. So soiled that they had to be ripped off, exposing a soul, in which love is no longer laced with frills but a stark, starched white light.
“Get back into that car, right now,” my mother shouted at me.
“I don’t want to sit with her,” I screamed, my voice screeching.
“Just get in.” She said firmly. She stood holding the door of the car open until I got in and closed it behind me. She got in quickly in the passenger seat. Dad was talking to someone, holding his door open. He too got in. Everyone was now in their seats in their cars.
The friend-cum-enemy was already sitting in the car. She didn’t look at me. I didn’t look at her.
I could hear her ten-year-old brother hollering, “If you don’t want to sit in the same car with my stupid sister can I go and sit with you?” His brothers chuckled.
“Yuk,” I thought. I preferred the fourteen-year-old who looked bored out of his wits throughout the trip. In order to entertain himself he laughed at his brothers and sister and me. But I still liked him.
“Don’t you have anything better to do?” Their mother yelled at him. “Stop harassing them.”
He had just got through teasing the ten-year-old for liking a girl.
The sun was setting over the vast horizon.
I suddenly felt like howling. I couldn’t explain.
Everyone wanted me to “let go”. EVERYONE.
The strange entity out there. Who was it? I couldn’t see anyone. Yet there was someone there. The light. The light looked at me. And I couldn’t explain. I felt like howling but I couldn’t.
I wanted to get out of the car and be alone. Run. The entity. I ask today, “What power did it have over me that I felt betrayed by the command to let go?”
At that time I couldn’t ask, I couldn’t explain. I could only howl. But I couldn’t.
I fell asleep.
The car moved through darkened roads lined on either side by moonlit forests.
My father drove on. My mother must have dozed off.
It must have been midnight when I suddenly woke up.
In the half-light, half-darkness I saw my seven-year-old friend looking straight at me with a smile on her lips.
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