I scrolled down for the number, which used to be saved under Sasha. After I got married last year, I changed it to Dry Cleaners. I pressed send. As I watched the hour glass turn turtle I wondered if she would sound welcoming after so many months.
“Das from Central Railways.”
The silence was a little disappointing.
“Motorman Das --”
“Yes… I remember.”
“Do you have some time today?”
I rolled up the taxi window at the lights to avoid getting gassed by lorry fumes. Despite popping more than the recommended dosage, my headache persisted. It wasn’t so overwhelming now, but irritating like tiny pebbles that sneak into shoes. It wasn’t my fault, I told myself again. It seldom was. All you can do is sound the horn. I did. Thrice. This had happened so many times before. Every time I lost my peace for a while, and then was back to work. But this time was different. I had no appetite. She probably reminded me of my sister, her green salwar and blue kameez, the long braided hair that swung from side to side.
The heat was aggravating my headache. A teenage boy, his once-white shirt stippled with tiny tears, wads of cash rolled up behind his ears, thrust a bouquet of fading flowers in front of my face.
I recoiled and stared at him. “No.”
Impassively, he looked into my eyes, the bouquet still slumped over the window.
“Leave him alone,” screamed the driver. “Go away!”
I watched the boy saunter to the next window unconcerned with the lights that had just turned green. The taxi jerked forward and turned into a familiar gully.
Sasha didn’t smile as widely as she used to. Her face was chubbier, hair cut shorter than I remembered. She kept glancing at the clock on the wall. It didn't feel the same when I smelled the jasmine flowers in her hair, face buried in my chest. She was unable to lead me away from the railway tracks. I wondered if I could have violated the rules and applied the brakes. They warn that slowing down also increases the victim’s pain. I hadn’t noticed her until she was only several feet away; braking couldn’t have been so dangerously sudden.
Sasha was working on my belt strap. She hadn’t spoken one whole sentence. Before, it was difficult to get her to stop talking. She always made me feel at home, often easing my stress. Today, she was robotic.
“Are you expecting someone else?”
She didn’t reply, looked at the clock again.
“Busy today? I could have come tomorrow.”
“No, that’s fine.”
“I hit a girl this morning.”
“You can’t stay after seven today.”
The clock said six. I looked down at her head of neatly combed hair, dyed jet black. “OK.”
I remembered the last time I felt as low, when I had told Sasha about my mother’s failing health. Climbing on her toes, she had kissed my cheek, whispering something that made me feel wanted.
I saw her cell phone vibrating on the sofa. Sasha ignored it. I felt her breath on my thighs. “Like this?” she asked.
I didn’t hear her, just like the girl didn’t hear me. Not even the third honk that I had intentionally prolonged. She was listening to music, her ears plugged. People stood along the tracks waving and yelling at her. Probably in her late teens, she was a student at the nearby college I learned.
Sasha stood in front of the mirror, adjusting her sari, sliding lipstick over her mouth, and re-applying her mascara. I hadn’t felt a thing since I entered her room.
“I hope you have cash,” she said, “I don’t do credit anymore.”
As I washed my face in her sink, I gazed into my own eyes. How I wished she hadn’t turned around at the last moment. The stunned look on her face, death screaming down, all rust and metal, the final seconds of a life not meant to be lying cold in scattered pieces beside the stench of dirt and curious onlookers. I always hate the part when I have to assemble what I’ve dismantled and lug it to the nearest station.
Before stepping into the hallway, I paused at Sasha’s doorway. “Weren’t you talking about someone you hit today?” she asked casually.
I shook my head and descended the stairs.
Traffic hadn’t thinned. I finally waved down a taxi, an air-conditioned one this time. Sitting with the windows raised in the glory of the AC breeze, I wondered why I hadn’t gone home directly to Suba; my marriage wasn’t crumbling nor was I too constrained to take refuge in Suba’s arms. I knew Sasha was only intimate with her regular customers, so why the disappointment that she sleepwalked me, someone she hadn’t seen in months?
My eyes downcast, I waited for Suba to answer the bell when I noticed the tiny hand of our neighbor’s two-year old girl waving at me through the crack in her door. I waved back, feeling even smaller than she was.
“Hi,” said Suba, “worked late today?”
I kicked my shoes off and walked towards the sink. I turned on the faucet and stared at the running water. Suba was standing to my left, a dry towel in hand.
“Are you OK?” she asked. “Did you hit someone today?”
I straightened and turned to Suba, my feet feeling like sacs of jelly. “Yes, I did.”
She handed me the towel and gave me a tender hug. “You’ll be fine,” she whispered in my ear, her hand tightening around my fist.
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