The Empty Stretch
I sit huddled on the floor. The world is a blur. Karthik is speaking to me, but it feels as if we are in two different worlds. Strangely, it is the heaviness in his voice that has affected me more than hearing this story. It is just that – a tale. It didn’t happen to me. It happened to someone else in another age, another place. It is his melancholic cadences that have made me sad.
Suddenly, I become a woman with a purpose. Turning to him, I cup his face in my hands and console him. “It’s done with. Over. We will start afresh…if you want to,” I add shyly, remembering Madhuri.
He puts his hands around me and says softly, with tears brimming in his eyes, “This is the way you were, after your father’s death. I was proud to see you go about cheerfully.”
I look up at him and smile, determined to show that I haven’t lost my grit. He brushes my hair back and says, “Then you slipped and slipped and slipped. Guilt and loss,” he shrugs, holding me still. The colour drains from my face. “The delivery was a matter of life and death. Your surviving it was a miracle.” I go limp. “No more, the doctor said.”
I stop breathing. Where was he when I sat and cried, as if my heart would break, that evening when I recovered from sedatives and understood all that had happened? When the cyclone threatened to blow the world apart? What was he doing by the sea, alone? Trying to find calm? Saving another child?
Only his mother was with me in the hospital room, looking disapprovingly, all her insinuations vindicated now.
“I tried to convince you that it was for the best that we don’t try for a family. You were stubborn, keeping track of your cycle, trying to conceive. What made you think that I will love you any less? Why didn’t you see that you mattered to me more?”
I hide my face in his chest. Why, didn’t he know that it would never be enough? His love for children, and his mother, of course, all the time after me, telling me how much Karthik was suffering because of me. And failing three times? What a miserable apology for a woman! I could see it in their eyes, his mother’s, his sister’s, sometimes, even in my own. Not seeing it in his made me suspicious, mad. I clamoured for a fight, hot words, some ventilation. I got none from him. He bore my attacks silently. I felt shut out. The more I demanded a reaction, the more distant he became. I ached… I ached so much… For a word, for a touch, for some sign…
The distance grew. We didn’t even share the bed for a while after I returned from the hospital. And that added to the anger. The emptiness of my womb ate me from within. His father’s death away from his son nagged me. Then…
I look at him. That was not all, was there? I was angry with him, but something happened because of which I couldn’t bear it if he so much as touched me. “Why?” I ask, my throat dry.
He looks away, his hands tentative around me now. “I went for vasectomy.”
The ground under me slips. He steadies me, I pull myself back, away from him.
His arms drop to his sides. He looks at me helplessly. “You were angry with me about that. Why? I did it for you! How could you be upset with me? Do you think it didn’t bother me?”
I quickly grab a glass of water and drink, half of it pouring over me.
Yes, it bothered him and it bothered me all the more. Every time he came near, I could see the emptiness in his eyes, and see mine reflected in his eyes as well. I felt my inadequacy though it was he who had undergone the surgery. I felt his guilt, at the accident, and his way to make it up. But it only made matters worse between us.
When Sukumar came, he instantly spotted a ready victim. Without knowing the extent of our problem, but knowing well that it had to do with the child I didn’t have, he played with my feelings, with my vulnerability, with my all-consuming need to hold my child in my arms. How did Karthik miss that? Or did he see it and ignore it? Or, seeing it and feeling it himself, thought less of it? Or, with the distance between us already setting in, he only chose to see a game of adultery?
“And it is such a shame,” he says, after a long pause, as if reading my thoughts, “that it was Sukumar who told me you were not well, that you had fever and headache too often, that you should go to a doctor. When the doctors said you had meningitis, I thought I had lost you too. Those 10 days in the hospital were hell. When you returned, I thought we will put our house in order, but I fell for Sukumar’s scheming too easily.”
I try to feel calm as I look at him, but I fail and a sob breaks out. He steps closer, but hesitates. I try to stand erect, but drop my look. He comes closer and places a trembling hand on me. I sink low under the weight of my loss, and of my shame. He had talked of winding time back. I have done that now, and I mourn the loss of my child, the loss of my life with Karthik. I mourn my momentary weakness when I mistook Sukumar’s selfishness for kindness and destroyed two families.
And yet, here is this man, sitting with me, letting me hurt him yet again by making him relive all the pain that one shouldn’t experience even once in a lifetime.
I stretch a tentative hand towards him. He grabs it and pulls me to him.
“Couldn’t we have waited and tried?” I muster the courage to ask, looking at him.
“After seeing you battle for your life…?” He shakes his head, “it didn’t seem worth it.”
We rock together in silence.