Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"So Easy or So Slow"

When I tell people that I'm writing a blog I sometimes feel a little cringe on both sides of the conversation.  I think there are some amazing blogs in the world.  Blogs are a great way to write and to investigate the endless variety of unique viewpoints.  Its just that it has become a bit of a cliche and it is hard to think of myself as a real writer when what I write is a blog.

On this trip, however, I am relishing the opportunity that the format allows me to try and process my experiences in real time in such a way that it translates to a wider audience. As we, you and I, have gone along for the last six weeks I've been developing a policy about what is appropriate to share and what is off limits.  Strictly verboten are memories or experiences that belong to other people who are easily identifiable.  I also tend to shy away from putting into the ethernet certain difficulties I've had with anyone who might read the blog, or who it might get back to.  I've found, really, that I don't miss those elements for the most part and that I can tell my stories accurately and with all the emotional truth, regardless.

It becomes tricky, tho, when an intimate chapter in my life is also an intimate chapter in someone else's.  It is sticky when, in order to be true to the telling I must, potentially, expose the soft underbelly of a friend, someone who will read what I have written.

This happens in a small way all the time.  Chandana, Nicole, Gary have all been generous enough to allow me to narrate some of our shared adventures.  My mother, over the years, has been a champ, giving me the space to write about moments in time that she might otherwise want to forget.

But the story I am about to tell is one of the scariest because I am writing it in the midst of living it, not from a vantage point smoothed out by time and distance.  It is a chapter with a beginning, middle and end in a book that hasn't been fully lived and written yet......

I returned to Calcutta on Thursday.  Chandana had booked a room for two nights at the prestigious Bengal Club, a relic built by the English, straight out of the days of white starched linen dresses and stiff gin and tonics.  The club used to be white men only.  Now they let both women and Indians in.  But when Chandana's plans changed, they were going to keep the 50% deposit even though she is a member of the club and she had given plenty of notice.

I thought it might be fun to see what an English club in Calcutta looked and felt like, since that bygone era is so much a part of what fascinated me about India when I was young.  I also wanted to help Chandana out and to be there for her on Friday when, after staying in other accommodations, she went for a long anticipated and wildly anxious-making interview for the US visa she needs in order to visit her son at Stanford next summer.

I also wanted to see Martin before he flies off to Jaipur tomorrow.

You may remember that I met Martin on my last visit to Calcutta a few weeks ago.  Along with Nicole, we traipsed off to South Calcutta into a little village on the outskirts of the Sunderbans.  What I didn't tell you then was that there were moments, brief, fleeting smidgens of silently shared understanding that had lodged themselves in my imagination and wouldn't let go. Martin and I would, in the midst of some particularly INDIAN craziness not catch each other's eye, so much as seek them out, the way you do with an old friend or lover, someone you know so well that you are sure they will be be there sharing your feelings and your delight in each strand of the experience: the beauty, the insanity, the scariness, the grief, and the genuine and simple pleasure that life has brought you to this exact moment in time.

Along with his central casting, upper middle class British looks, Martin carries himself with the comportment of an Oxford educated man who has worked for years and years crunching numbers in the heart of The City in London.  Even in the escalating heat of West Bengal, Martin wears his black, lace-up leather walking shoes with dress socks.  He comes prepared for the day with a largish black hiking back pack that I can only presume is stocked with any essentials he might need.  He doesn't wear this pack slung jauntily, carelessly over one arm, but rather it lands squarely and solidly on his shoulders and then gets fastened securely around his waist.   He is a soul with clearly defined edges, though these edges neither keep people out, nor do they, in any exceptional way, beckon you in.  Unless, that is, he talks to you.  Then, he subtly proffers a sweet invitation with his eyes.  The invitation reads not so much as, "Please come in", but rather, "Should you decide to go exploring, I've left the door unlocked.  I might be painting, but do let yourself in and make yourself comfortable."

I first got a look at the invitation on the train from Santiniketan to Calcutta two weeks ago when, while boarding the train, he saw me in my seat and said, "I hope I'm on the right train.  But I've just seen my name on the passenger list.  So I suppose I'm in the right place."  We shared a small laugh and he went on to find his seat four rows ahead.  I remember looking at the back of him and hoping, somehow, I could will him to turn around and decide to come and have a chat.  No such luck.  But the next day, when he arrived at the cafe and turned out to be the man Nicole and I were waiting for, he moved from intriguing to quite attractive when he said, "I'm starting a career as an artist."  I mean really?  What kind of guts does it take to up and declare in mid-life that you are quitting your day job to "start a career as an artist."???  By the end of the day I declared to Nicole that I had a wee crush on Martin.

"Really?  I'll be.  Martin?"

"He's quite handsome, once you get past the 'terribly British' exterior."


Well, I went back to Santiniketan and Martin's ex-wife arrived with her mom for a brief visit and a week went by.  Martin and I exchanged a few innocuous emails and when these two days came up we made a plan to meet for drinks on Thursday night and to plot out a day of sight seeing for Friday.  Though Martin was quick to make a plan, I had no idea if it was a "date" or not.  Of course, Martin is new at being a professional artist, so he tends to play his "cards" like an English accountant, at that.

We decided to meet at "my place" for a drink in the bar.  We greeted each other like old friends, or maybe just as new friends who are mutually relieved to get a chance to know each other a little better.

For the past couple of weeks when I would wonder about Martin, I practiced my mindfulness breathing along with the mantra, delivered in Mathew's voice, of "Be here now."  Sometimes I would switch things up and chant a little, "Que sera sera," because, well, what will be, will be.

So I sat down to drinks with Martin with no expectations, just an awareness that it was a pleasure to be out with a handsome, intelligent man, having drinks (my long awaited margarita!), in INDIA, and the evening felt complete.  We caught up on our adventures of the last week, and a week in India holds more adventure than the average bear of a week anywhere else.  Time flew by.  We decided to move on to dinner at a restaurant called Peter Cat where the line to get in gave it the air of exclusive sophistication.  Martin said, "It'll be like we won the lottery when my name is called."

We sat at a table against the wall.  I looked out, Martin sat across from me, with a phalanx of overly attentive waiters hovering just behind him, looking, from my view-point, like they were floating just above Martin's shoulders.  They remained there, grinning like Cheshire Cats for the whole meal.

Throughout dinner we conversationally delved deeper, touching upon the inner geological strata of our lives.  Every once in a while I was aware of being surprised by Martin's intelligence.  I wasn't shocked that he was smart, but rather I was taken aback by the way his curiosity and intellect led him to ask questions that took me off guard, or led to his own personal revelations, none of which were mired in the kind of brackish emotional soup I'd inadvertently pre-supposed a divorced, ex-ish accountant with clear-cut boundaries, starting a new career in his early 50's might get stuck in.  Everything he said, often so quietly and simply that I strained to make it out, was grounded in the present, like he was making sure he was reporting from the front lines of his inner evolution.  He was neither trying to impress me with his exploits or emotional maturity, nor did he seem concerned with moulding my perception of him with an ill-formed grasp of what his future might hold.  Whatever mid-life make-over he is going through, he seems to be doing it with grace and ease, putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time which made walking back to my hotel with him through the throngs of Calcutta feel easy and carefree.

Martin dropped me at the front door with a brisk kiss on the cheek and a promise to meet me the next morning at 11.  I went to my room happy, smiling.  I fished out my computer and sat on the side of my bed that hadn't been turned down.  In India, big beds are made up of two smaller beds nestled side-by-side.  Since I was alone, my personal room 16 go-to guy, had left one half of the bed dressed up in it's depressingly ugly duvet cover, essentially giving it the feel of one of those couches that some people keep encased in clear plastic slip covers.

While I waited for my travel modem to hook up to the Internet, I had a fleeting moment not of desire, so much, as whimsy and I thought to myself, "What a shame Martin has gone back to his hotel when there was a perfectly good, unused bed right here."  By the time the thought was finished my Internet was up and running and I was lost to the world of facebook.

15 minutes later the phone rings.  It's Martin.  We'd gotten out of dinner so late, that Martin discovered the hard way that the curfew at his hotel was strictly enforced.  I didn't hesitate and said, "come on over to my place.  I have a perfectly good bed that is just going to waste."

Hmmm?  Did I will that to happen, or had I had a premonition of things to come.....?

Of course, like you, I had a teeny tiny sliver of a doubt that Martin had really been locked out.  It's an awfully convoluted story, though.  I'm pretty sure if he had just wanted to come over he would have said so directly.  Besides, I was quite happy to have him back again.  He came up to the room and I continued on with my pre-phone call plan of taking a shower.  I put QI on for him to watch; he'd never seen it and I knew he'd love it.  I watched the second half with him when I was done bathing.  Then he asked if he could take a shower.  Of course I said he could.

It's funny how one moment can lead so simply and strangely to the next when you don't know, or think you know, what is going to happen next.

I am sitting in the bedroom and he pokes his head out of the bathroom door and says that he can't figure out how to get the water on.  I go in to the bathroom and he's there in his boxer briefs, as comfortable as can be.  I turn on the shower.  I leave, he takes a shower.  I crawl into my bed, safely tucked into the edges of my mattress.  He comes out of the shower, wearing his briefs and apologizing because, of course, he has nothing else to wear to bed.  He climbs into his clearly defined sleeping space.  We chat for a little while about this and that and then turn off the light and say our goodnights.

I feel like we are two teenagers at a slumber party.  I tell him I'm glad he's there because, "it feels festive."  And it does.  A grown up slumber party.

We toss and turn in our individual little rectangles.  It's dark in the room with the heavy hotel curtains, but I can see that after turning away, Martin's now facing towards me.  We are facing each other.   The narrow trench created by the edges of our mattresses delineate his safety zone and mine.

I half want him to touch me, or kiss me, or say something, anything that will tell me what he's thinking, and I half want to relish the exact moment we are in, the moment where I have no idea what, if anything, will happen.

His hand was dangerously close to crossing over into the territory of my bed.  I thought about grazing it with my hand.  I shifted a little, but chickened out on touching him.

Then I had to get up to go to the bathroom (Darn my bladder).  When I got back into bed it was the perfect excuse to see what would happen if my hand "accidentally" breached the outer limits of his bed.  At first nothing happened, but then he took my hand and suddenly moved closer saying, in his imitable English way, "Care for a cuddle?"

 It would be bad form to tell you what happened next.

I'll just say that it was lovely.

The next morning, my room-16 go-to guy who brought the coffee wouldn't allow me to carry the tray into the room and out onto the veranda, so he got a bit of a shock when he discovered that I was not alone.  Martin was sitting, as blazé as can be, on "his" side of the bed in his boxer briefs.  I had thrown my Santiniketan batik nightgown on and was shepherding the room-16 guy this way and that and feeling very much like I'd been caught cheating on my imaginary husband or, at the very least, cheating on the Bengal Club.

Once we'd been left alone, Martin and I went out on the balcony and sipped coffee.  Neither of us had really managed to sleep because, let's be honest, it's nearly impossible to fall asleep the first night you share a bed with someone new.

I joked about what I was gonna write in my blog.  Martin said, quite seriously, "Write whatever you like."

We checked in about the time spent in bed when we were, well, not trying to sleep which, like our conversational chemistry, was fresh and present, and not like any other time I'd spent in any other bed with any someone else.  I told Martin about Dr. Ganguly reading my palm, which he'd done only a few days before.  I'm not sure Dr. Ganguly believes that palmistry has any validity, but he's studied it from a very scientific and academic viewpoint and memorized what hand reading experts have determined that different characteristics mean.  Examining the cushiony part under my thumb, Dr. Ganguly decided that sex wasn't very important to me.  I informed him that that wasn't true.

But the more I thought about it, and this I told to Martin, I realized that in some ways my fleshy palm was right.  I'm not really interested much in sex just for the sake of having sex.  I need there to be a deeper connection, a spark, a little bit of a "what if" attached to the situation.  The older I get, the more true that becomes.

However, I think Dr. Ganguly was right in another important respect, and Martin helped me remember this.  Sex is nice, but sensuality is what I call "important."  I'm sorry that I don't feel comfortable elaborating on how Martin jogged my memory, but hopefully you can supply your own example.  However, sadly, I also know there are more than a few people who will think they know what I mean, who really don't.  But you, yes YOU, are not one of those unfortunate few.

Martin and I valiantly tried to make sight-seeing plans, but we were so tired that neither of us was moving very fast.  After he went to his place to get clean clothes and do some errands, we met Chandana for drinks and snacks in the hotel bar to celebrate that she'd gotten her US visa.  I sat on a couch, while Martin and Chandana sat opposite each other in over-sized chairs.  Chandana was glowing from relief and Martin was all satisfied relaxation.  I was happy to sit and bask in the two beauties I hadn't even known a month ago.  Chandana, my Indian big sister, gently grilled Martin and talked me up, but mostly charmed Martin who obviously knows a beautiful woman when he meets one.

Eventually, I had to retreat like a wilted flower to the quiet confines of my air-conditioned room for a little nap.  Chandana headed to Howrah and the train back to Santiniketan, and Martin completed some travel related errands.

While I tried to sleep, a rattle started up somewhere in the room.  I hid my head under the pillow, hoping to drown out the sound, but it only got louder. Finally I got up and saw that it was the door to my bedroom being blown against it's jamb by wind coming in from the other side where the bathroom vents to the outdoors.  I ran across to the door on the opposite side of the room, the door to the balcony, flew open the curtains and discovered a magnificent storm was raging over, and through, and against Calcutta.  Rain was pouring, wind was howling, thunder was booming and lightening was thrilling this storm deprived, west coast transplant.  I had literally been waiting and wanting a good storm in my life for years.  I never thought it would discover me in dusty Calcutta at the height of the dry season.

Martin came back and we realized that we weren't going to go anywhere. Instead of exploring the city, we explored each other.  When we did go out to eat, I was relieved that Martin simply left his bag and hat in my room; there was no emotional tussle over whether he should go back to his place, or any of that nonsense.

At dinner in a Chinese joint with a large domed ceiling that looks like a giant engraved golden gong, the sullen waiter didn't help my slowly sinking mood.  I was doing my valiant best to stay right there in the present, to enjoy the time Martin and I had left rather than thinking of the moment, 12 hours later, when we would have to say good-bye.  I kept thinking of that damn Bob Dylan song which I find rather depressing, but it is on my ipod none-the-less, and now it was playing in my heart: "you are gonna make me lonesome when you go."  I told Martin what Bob Dylan was saying.  Martin said, "you know if I'd met you back home I'd have asked you for a drink and then I'd ask you for another one a few weeks later, and then maybe dinner a few weeks after that, and so on.  Travel can somehow accelerate things, intensify them."

I kind of wished we'd met in London.  I mourned for those two weeks of anticipation, for the next date, and so on.

Martin had told me earlier in the day, while we waited for Chandana to arrive from the American Embassy, that contrary to how he may behave, "going with the flow" was a challenge for him.  But he likes, he said, to push himself to step out of his comfort zone (another of the many blindingly sexy things about Martin) and he just kept telling himself, he told me, "What will be will be."

As I struggled to stay present and to enjoy the date that I was actually on, I paused Bob Dylan, changed tracks in my heart and asked Doris Day to croon a little Que Sera Sera.  Doris worked her magic and I managed not to dissolve into heartache.

When we stepped back out on the street to walk back to the hotel, I turned to thank Martin for dinner and he leaned over to give me a kiss.  We started to walk arm in arm, but then he said, "I know displays of affection aren't really done around here." We both respectfully pulled ourselves back into our own little bubbles of airspace.

Back at the Bengal Club, tired and vulnerable we laid in bed and talked around the elephant in the room.  Martin leaves the country a week before I do; we compared our itineraries for our remaining weeks in India, being careful not to voice expectation or need for there to be a meeting point somewhere down the road.  As it stands, I have more freedom after the first of April; he has booked the rest of his trip with lots of commitments to various friends along the way. "But", as Martin said, "plans could change.  Let's keep in touch."

Are there four words that are more dispiriting when parting from a lover than, "Let's keep in touch?"

Sitting back in Santiniketan tonight, I am telling myself what I suspect Martin is telling himself:  That we've only known each other for three days.  I suppose I could have made it four.  I could have changed my train ticket, but I have to teach my Chitra girls tomorrow and I can't be depleted for that.  Besides, Martin flies away, and we'd only have been delaying the inevitable.

Three days is only three days.  Right?  Like me with my writing, Martin, the newly minted career painter, is just setting off on a mission to transform his professional life, even his very identity.  People can only cope with so much impute, so much change, so much possibility at one time.


At one point yesterday, in the late afternoon light of a rain washed Calcutta, Martin was lying on the bed beside me. When I sat up, my eyes took in his torso on the way up to the window and my brain transplanted us, momentarily, to St. Ives in Cornwall, half a world a way, a place where Martin and I have both been, but, obviously, not together.  It was as if, after taking Martin's eyes up on their invitation to "come in and make myself comfortable while he painted", we'd jumped ahead in time and place and become happily ensconced in each others lives.  Though I could not see them in the vision, I knew his canvases were all around us.

I tried to tell Martin about the vision, which lingered in the air like an impressionist painting.  I wasn't very brave in the telling and only vaguely implied that we were in St. Ives, in my minds eye, together.  I think he thought I said that Calcutta somehow reminded me of St. Ives just then and so he said, "I've been to St. Ives. It's very beautiful there.  Great light."  The impressionist painting dissolved and we were once again surrounded by the fading beauty of old Calcutta.

In the night, I'd had lots of dreams, bad dreams mostly about India, caste, and class.  I'd tossed and turned, being careful to keep my sturm and strang confined to my bed.  We'd decided to fall asleep without the a.c. and at some point, after my dreams had finally turned to the lighter side, I awoke with a start.  I turned toward Martin's bed.  He was looking at me and he said tentatively, "It's, umm, gotten a little warm, don't you think?"

I said, "Hmmm, yes,  I suppose it has.  Should we turn on the A.C.?"

He said, "What do you think?"


He got up and turned it on.  While he did so, I told him about the dream that had awoken me: he'd been telling me how he'd had to change from one pair of jeans into another, but for some reason he couldn't take off his shoes to do it and he'd said, in the dream mind you, "It was a rather difficult transition."

For some reason, that made us both laugh.

When he got into bed it suddenly occurred to me that he'd been waiting for me to wake up to address the temperature question.  He'd patiently been lying there without disturbing me.  He hadn't nudged me awake to discuss the issue, nor had he simply taken matters into his own hands and turned on the a.c.

I am pretty sure that's one of the nicest gestures any man has made for me.

Martin settled into bed.  We were facing each other.  I let my arm cross the great bed-divide.  We held hands.  Out of the haze of sleep that was engulfing me I said, "I like you Martin."

Martin liked me back.

After Martin and I said our goodbyes in the hotel room the next morning, he went off and left me a few minutes to gather my things and check out on my own.  I'd told Martin that I was going to be stoic, I wasn't going to cry or make a fuss and I had held to my word.

I walked down the third floor hall.  All the room "boys" were there, smiling at me.  Maybe it's my imagination, but I felt certain they knew I'd entertained a gentleman all weekend long.  Surprisingly there were no leers, but rather a series of sweet, kind faces greeted me.  Maybe they intuited that my heart was feeling tender, so they responded accordingly.

My room-16 guy carried my bag, took me by the atm, and hailed a cab.  After the taxi ride to Howrah 10 days before with Nicole, I was fully prepared to be hastled for the fare, but the driver simply put on the meter.  When we arrived at the station, he maneuvered the cab close to the door.  I gave him a 100 rupee note for a 60 rupee fare and asked for 20 rupee back.  He started to give me the full 40 rupee in change.  I insisted he take 20 back.  He insisted on handing me the 40.

I said, "don't you want a tip?" He shook his head, "no."

It was too much for me.  I could feel the core of my being crack open.  If I could have, I would have grabbed that taxi driver and clung to him for a full ten minutes.  I would have let loose a torrent of tears.

Instead, I took the change and put it in my purse.  I put my purse on my shoulder.  I got out of the cab and opened the front door and collected my suitcase.  I put the suitcase over my shoulder.  Then I put one foot in front of the other and walked one step at a time into Howrah station.

1 comment:

Kirstin said...

I knew it. Not in a cocky way or a way that would dare call you predictable but there was something in the way you initially wrote about Martin that I knew we'd here of him again...more tenderly. I don't believe 3 days is only 3 days. I can fully appreciate "You're Going To Make Me Lonely...". And I'm smiling with happiness and at the same time sending you a hug. Love from Tacoma. xo