All through that winter, I spend more time at the apartment than at home. It’s cold in the city without a river. The days brief, the nights long. I bring along shawls and blankets, and we sit like children around the radiator, begging to be kept warm. I haven’t, in a long while, known such...informality. You place your socked feet on my chest, between my legs, on my back. While I do my best to undress you. I want not just to see your skin, but also to see whether you’re intact, that the red beauty spot on your stomach, to the right side, is still there, that the one on your back, perfectly placed between your shoulder blades, hasn’t shifted.
“It’s freezing...what are you doing?” you’ll ask, half laughing.
“Checking to see it’s still you.”
And you’ll be perfectly serious when you say, “It’s always me, you fool.”
How can anyone, I think, when I look down at you, lying under me, be so young?
No, that isn’t the word. Youthful. Yes, youthful.
I suppose all I’ve noticed for years now is the human body in need of repair.
And you, you are perfect.
“Have you ever had an operation?” I ask you once.
You shake your head.
“Nothing? Not an appendectomy...tonsils?”
On your body, you say, not a stitch. You’ve scraped and hurt yourself, of course – on your palm, the scar from the tender bite of a pet dog, on your knee, an old wound that had become infected – but you’ve never been sliced by a scalpel. Never needed a threaded needle to hold flesh together. Silently, I hope you’ll always stay this way, that you will remain intact.
One late afternoon, I find you wandering the street outside the apartment.
“China,” you say, “China’s gone.”
It takes me a moment to recollect that that’s what you’ve named the ginger cat. (The tiger-stripe is India.) China clambered out to the balcony, spotted a bird and, unable to resist, leapt over the gap, fell to the balcony below, and dashed back out again on to the road in fright. You watched all this happen, helpless, and then rushed downstairs, calling out his name. When I find you, you’ve taken about twenty turns. China is still nowhere in sight. You aren’t, as one might expect, apoplectic or hysterical, just deeply restless, unable to sit or stand still. I join you on the search. The two of us, to anyone watching, a father and daughter looking for our lost pet.
“He must be frightened and hiding,” I tell you. “He’ll come back later.”
But he doesn’t, not that night or the next.
You leave the windows open; the apartment grows so cold we sleep with our jackets on. You put out plates of cat food on the balcony. “But how will he climb up?” you agonise. And you want to take to the streets again. At first, I accompany you, exhausted, in the middle of the night. Then I try to make you see that there’s no point. When China disappears, I realise there doesn’t exist a body with no scars.
You stop going out to look for him but still keep the windows open. One morning, we wake to find India gone too. We’d left the bedroom door ajar, and he must’ve slipped out silently while we slept.
Then you weep, and don’t stop. I’ve only seen such grief at funerals.
After that, I sense a retreat, as though you hold me responsible. I knew this was bound to happen, inevitable really, if you look at our situation. There is nothing I can do. There is nothing I can do enough.
‘Why don’t we get another cat?’ I ask once, and you look at me as though I’m mad.
Before the disappearance of China and India, you would allow me to hold you when I spent the night. Now, there is a space between us on the bed, seldom bridged. When it is, I stroke your hair. Your sides, curving like hills. One night, I say that you will get over these abandonments, and then, because I feel compelled to be honest, that they may happen again.
“What do you mean?” you ask, your breath warm on my neck.
I regret it already. Who am I to warn you about these things? Can anyone ever be warned?
Just that, I reiterate, it might happen again, and that you’d be surprised at the lengths people would go to not to feel abandoned, or to abandon.
For a long while, you are silent. Then you say, “I know.”
I want to laugh and say, aren’t you too young to know, but there’s a look on your face that stops me. I wait for you to speak, and you do, slowly, haltingly. “I was with this guy once...and it was horrible at the end...”
“We fought...all the time...but we stayed together in spite of everything...probably because of this reason...”
“It’s the hardest thing,’ I say, “to bring things to a close.”
We’ve never spoken of my marriage before. “Even though you’ve been with other people, why do you still stay married?”
I have nothing to say but this pitiful thing. “I’m not the kind of person to leave.”
And you lie back, staring at the white ceiling, and say you understand. I’m silent for a while, and then ask, “Because you stayed with this...guy...even though you weren’t happy?”
You nod. He wasn’t either, you explain, but at least he knew when it was enough, when the unhappiness was too much, had gone on too long. “I don’t,” you say. “I never seem to know.”
And I long to say that you will learn, but how can I, when I know nothing of it either.
Excerpted with permission from The Nine Chambered Heart, Janice Pariat, HarperCollins India.