This story is by Maneesha Khalae and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Of course, hindsight is always wasted on the future. Where the window of opportunity to change the past has swung shut and you are left gazing wistfully at the thing you desperately want to change. And yet, you would have it no other way, if it meant not having it at all.
Alice stands in my window, staring off into some fixed point in the distance above my head, so that I look up upon her frozen face in longing. Her long auburn hair is moving as if a gentle breeze was passing by. I reach up to touch her fingers pressed against the transparent glass window, but my hands grasp on nothing but thin air. I am moving away, slowly at first and then quickly, quickly so that I move so far she is gone.
I am back in a cool, long-ago blustery fall, in a blue wool cardigan and black jeans, and dark navy boots. My arms are dotted with goose pimples, the fine hairs stand up in response to the cold. In my hands, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ and hot chocolate in a green mug, steam running off the top like a train. It is sweet and warm, that teases my tongue, so welcome on such a day. Alice arrives, in a flowing orange sundress, with her shoulder length black hair and her French accent, a tote bag, sandals.
“Alice,” I whisper, my voice saturated with naked longing, “Alice, is it you?”
I reach out to touch her, feel the taut, supple yet somehow yielding skin under my fingers, to sense the presence of her ethereal essence, to determine if it is she. She smiles, her thin lips parting to reveal such glistening white teeth, the bottom two slightly too narrow and crooked. They glint in the mid-morning sun.
“Oh, it is you!”
And too suddenly, I press my hands against her arm and she crumbles. Soft skin becomes gritty sand, dissipating rapidly under my touch. She recedes back into the beach of dreams, from whence she came, and I am falling and falling-
Until I land, unceremoniously and without fanfare, into the same reality I had tried to escape earlier through sleep. Stanley turns in his sleep, grunting, and muttering inaudibly into his pillow, with his sweatshirt soaked in midnight sweat from his tossing and turning. The air-conditioning has stopped working. I feel sticky from the damp humidity, longing to peel off the loose grey T-shirt I wear and also the sweat pants, but feeling as though it would be inappropriate because Stanley is there. Has it always been like this, I wonder, a sense of disgust whenever he touches me, or a sense of embarrassment when I am naked next to him. I suppose it never used to be.
We were once madly in love with each other, taken with each other; after all, he was the one I left Alice for. I stare at Stanley now. His features have been thickened with alcohol and the good food, and the stress of being wealthy. Where once he had a sharp chin, and clear eyes, and a strong voice the pressure of luxury has subdued his good looks and receded them like his chin hidden in jowls, and the beginnings of crows feet eagerly etching themselves next to his eyes, and his voice became reedy and thin. Stanley Chacko is everything I could have wished for, he makes a dutiful husband and a kind, doting if emotionally confused father. He remembers birthdays, and makes the effort always to find an artisanal present far daintier and more delicate than department store types and he does care about anniversaries.
Flowers, candles, cards and kisses. My favourite movie and something Russian for a meal, maybe borscht because I developed a taste for it during college as a pretentious Russian major in Boston. He plots fastidiously immunisations on a small chart, he attends parent-teacher meetings. He is an active father, spooning gently mouthfuls of white and orange Scotts Emulsion down young throats, reading stories avidly and on Sundays, going to my temple with the children, who are starting to not be children, even though he is agnostic and questioning because they need a firm family structure.
“Stanley,” I whisper, trying to recall how I used to say his name with the kind of film intonations and breathy notes. A shake but no response, I lean in to kiss him with no response. There is both the feeling of being simultaneously tenderly attracted and also repelled, though I cannot find any reason for repulsion nor disgust. He hasn’t really changed except in the usual ways of getting older and deciding to stay away from bright colours in clothing because of the loose flesh and paunches. His gaiety has remained, still, at forty-five and that is remarkably fortunate in and of itself. He is still constant, his happy countenance unchanged by the passing years, he only regrets not having a horse because we have no stable. When we were dating, he was always genuinely good, so much so that it turned made your toes curl and your cheeks a dark shade of red under brown. My friends’ boyfriends were terrible, flawed and hormonal teenagers, youths that smoked and drank too much and hurt them emotionally. They forgot the easiest things, forgot where to touch and caress. Bouquets never came on time with them. Valentine’s Day was often spent in miserable silence.
Stanley and I never had fights, only small uncomfortable spats, where I would avoid him and he sit sorrowfully simmering in mild annoyance, hands wrung and teary-eyed.
“I love you,” he would say, patting the bed amicably next to him.
“I love you too,” I replied, with gusto and feeling, believing it.
When I kiss him now, it feels soft and flopping and empty. It is without meaning or grace, without passion or fervour. It feels like a silence stretched slightly too long for comfort; manageable but just. When his hand meets my waist, I shrink from it guiltily, half-hoping that the touch will become lighter and more feminine. I am hoping for Alice.
Half-good and half-bad, she lingers in my waking thoughts and in my dreams, in sundresses and skirts that I long to push aside to see the real her beneath the clothes. The narrow freckled torso, the flat stomach and small breasts. Her lips so thin and yet so softly inviting. Tracing the shape of clavicle bones pressing against her delicate, thin soft skin, I want to shout out to the world that I love her. And yet, my marriage stifles me, presses down against my flailing fragile voice and silences my declaration of love for her.
‘Who are you? Who are you? Who are you?’ I ask the imaginary Alice, as if the answer will absolve me of her memories, and my not-loving-Stanley-anymore. But this Alice, a mere shadow, has experienced entropy of her mind, for she cannot reply. She flounders instead, the lipsticked mouth opening and closing garishly, as a dying fish, the eyelashes fluttering a secret language that I had relinquished the right to understand the day I turned my back on her.
Desperately, I call for her again and again, repeating her name futilely. I begin to wonder and then wander into murky, forbidden territory; trying to picture her new life with her fiancé, and then trying to remember his name. The jealousy comes surprisingly and unbidden but determinedly focused in its demands; namely, that she should not have loved him at all, should not have had any children and instead devoted her whole life to loving me. The children register in the back of my head vaguely as I think this; it is terrible to admit but I almost entertain the thought of their being vanished into the glass window in exchange for Alice coming back out. Even after all these years, I think as the guilt begins to seep over my head like scalding bathwater, I would do anything if it meant seeing her again. And yet, it was my choice to let her go.
“Don’t leave,” I whisper into my pillow, the tears beginning to pool in my half-shut eyes. Stanley smells like sleep, that milky smell, and it only adds to how much I miss her. Alice always smelled of lavender and sunlight, a crisply fresh fragrance that I can just almost smell. There begins a dull pain in my chest, an ache that deepens until it is boring into my soul, my very essence; the place that Alice used to occupy. The glass window breaks, and becomes stone. Goodbye, Alice. Farewell, adieu, lost forever to time.