by Reshma S
The rain has washed the staircase clear and the only mark of its age is the smithereens of gravel that have created ant colonies in its wrinkled indents. The tip of my shoe disturbs their self-effacing, waterlogged cohesion and slathers the muddy blemish across the step. I follow the color of dirty, damp brick as it merges with the mahogany of the unmoving door. I grasp the knocker in my hand and find myself jerked out of my idle agitation as the door opens. Therese looks pale and pensive and I am reminded of how pitifully I had played her foil, having always been befuddled through the few months of our marriage.
This is a house I had once examined through hours of stonewalled silence, with the earthy heirlooms of a humble past in turn watching the whimsical baubles that called for attention. They seem dumb today, their porcelain sheen covered by fine dust. I follow Therese to the room and the first thing that catches my eye is the spread of sepia and pride contained within an ample wooden frame. It’s a picture of Therese and her father. Mr. Hart stands with an arm draped courteously over her shoulder. Therese is seen looking at him and her profile – the lax edge of her lips – is impenetrable. I’d always felt, on seeing this picture, which was taken the day Mr. Hart had been recognized as a most successful entrepreneur, that her gaze had been fixed on the flaming cigarette cocooned by her father’s lips.
Today, the gentleman is not part of the race. Watching him lie here, domesticated by sickness and satin sheets, I feel a surge of affection. I recall his resigned acceptance of my decision to end that frigid marriage with his daughter. Therese leaves the room and I am left with a remembrance of how benign the man had been, through his early struggles to make a living. Those days were almost fabled, in our township, and I had spent entire hours talking to Therese about how her father had never let his scars show. Therese had listened, attentive and deadpan and I had wondered if, perhaps, she was his scar. Only once had she responded and then, it had been stunted and tangential. “Scars bleed”, she had said.
Therese enters the room with a single cup of tea in her hands. She bends across me to part the drapes and I am momentarily affected with parosmia. I smell blanched sun and sterility. Part of my experience in wedlock had been exactly this, not a kindling of pleasure, as one would expect but disorientation and sensory apathy. I devour the tea’s herbal fumes and set my eyes on the now theatric, bastard-amber sheets. I begin to tell Therese how I feel about her father being ill and only a few sentiments down the lane, I realize that I am regurgitating much of what I had always told her about Mr. Hart. Her brows are especially tranquil and I flush with moronic embarrassment.
I sit fidgeting against the inert, confessional air and Therese lowers herself onto a glassy chair, as if she had been standing till then, simply waiting for my cultivated stupidity to pass. I notice a glint of contained relief in her eyes and decide not to attribute to the circumstances. Even as I watch her thus, Therese’s gaze shifts to her father’s supine figure. She stands then, assured and near professional, before she moves to a rickety pale-wood cabinet. I try, for a few moments, to think of what she might be looking for when I become conscious of the drivel that is taking form an incessant soliloquy in my head. I am filling up the void that absence of dialogue has created. I remember our marriage yet again; remember our times at the searing, benumbing hearth. Acute discomfort, my love, can render your mind blank.
It is, perhaps, because of such a state of mind that I notice everything from this instant. As I write now about that which I am yet to notice about my wife, in that pseudo-fictional present continuous tense, my skin still zings.
I am forced to notice the bleeding sore as Therese uncovers his shriveled foot. In her one hand, she holds wads of cotton and gauze. I watch, irrationally enraptured, as she parts a bit of wispy cotton and brings it to the foot. It is pressed against the wound and as moments go, strands and infinitesimal layers are stained a coagulated, cherry-wine red. She repeats the action meticulously, hands moving in practiced automation.
I grow tired of watching these essential actions and I focus instead on her bent form. I am confronted with her physicality and appearance, peripheral bits of her person that had always seemed both untouchable and irrelevant. As she angles her torso further, the hem of her mauve blouse trails up her back. I see that strip of fair skin and my entire being is warped in a bizarre whiplash. I am taken back to the night, just a few past the day of our wedding, when I had seen the exact same expanse of her skin. That night, I had obstinately kept from myself the actual reason for the sudden diffusion of my arousal. Tonight, right now, as I suddenly become aware of the vapid stink of the man’s oozing, crumbling body, I cannot ignore the reason for my latent long due repulsion. Therese cannot ignore it either, as she catches my expression. I look away and at the waste basket at her feet before I find it in me to look at her again. Therese is still staring at the fluffs of stained cotton in the bin. I look again at the sacrificed innocence, at the purged blood that has clamped the cotton into heavy, alien lumps. Therese’s gaze is inescapable.
“Scars” she says, “bleed.”
We are standing at the threshold now. On one side, Therese stands brimming with a vitality which is aware that its fruition is close. Here, standing again on these steps, I know that I am to step into a night of reconsiderations. I think of how Therese had indeed been staring at the cigarette, in that photograph. I think of her seemingly impeccable father. I think of the cigarette imprints, the burns. Of the ice of her secret that had seeped through our shared bed. The surety of solace that I had seen in her eyes. I knew now. And as I saw how she looked eerily selenotropic, with an energy that seemed to emanate as much from her as from the moonbeams, I knew I would soon understand.