1. The title is a tribute to Alexander McCall Smith — although the story has nothing to do with him, either in style or content. But I’ve been searching for a title for just about all the time I’ve been writing this, and none came to mind.
2. The story has been been written over some fifty odd sittings, over nine or so months, two countries, (at least) 3 cities. At times a few words, or sentences were added, or deleted. At time I just read and reread it to find a way to take it somewhere. Consequently, there is no flow. This has been, undoubtedly, the hardest story, in terms of effort I put in. Not that there is anything to show for it.
3. This is just an attempt to keep fiction writing alive, perseverance for the sake of it, mostly. And I suspect even the usual suspects are going to be disappointed. So read at your own peril, especially if you’re a first time visitor.
4. And still I’m happy, that it’s out. It’s finished, somehow. I’m going nowhere. And that, I believe is a good thing.
5. Kids, stay away. Has a bit of mature content.
Now all the disclaimers done, let’s start at the beginning, for a change.
I looked at Shivani as she gulped down another peg of scotch. She was dressed in a crimson colored sleeveless top, and a pale yellow skirt. In her late thirties, Shivani carried all colors well. But then she hardly looked her age. One had to look carefully to see a few graying hair (she, thankfully did not color her hair and they looked real), or watch her face from a close distance, to see inevitable signs of aging. Still, with two children and a job to manage, it was surprising that she managed to look that young. But one look at her eyes would have been enough for anyone to know that she wasn’t as young as she looked — her gaze was sufficient for that. That is, if you looked into her eyes and did not look away as she held your gaze. That night, though, she was looking almost schoolgirlish, as she kept on glancing sideways at Nirmal, her insane adulation for the creep visible to anyone who cared to look. But who, from the predominantly twenty something ‘we are the world’ generation would look at a women in her late-thirties with a gaze that told you to stay away? If you discount me, that is?
Not that I like the school-girl look — I detest its lack of substance actually, something popular culture mistakenly holds as carefree or innocent — but she was looking so much lovelier, with that trace of vulnerability that wanting something desperately introduces in you. The drinks were having their effect too, I guess, wearing down her defenses, and that ‘I’m in control’ look from her face. It must have been her fifth drink; I had stopped counting, and even stopped being surprised. At couple of pegs, I was already reeling a bit, myself. I’m a bad drinker, and so I am generally extra careful to not lose control. But I watched her, as she watched Nirmal, her boss — our boss, actually. Nirmal was openly flirting with Alpa, the new harebrained temp who’d joined us recently. But I wasn’t even looking at Alpa — by consensus the hottest temp ever to join our setup in a long while. My eyes were riveted on Shivani. I watched her, and watched her – a luxury I was denied otherwise, even while working in the same team.
I watched the delicate shape of her lips, and wondered how would it feel, to trace it with my fingertips. I looked at her eyes — on the verge of tears (I imagined, although I’m sure no one would have agreed with me) yet cold. I looked at her arms, bared by her sleeveless top and I noticed that she had a little mid aged fat after all. My eyes followed the neckline of her top, and then down and I noticed a hint of cleavage, and how the fabric clung to her breasts. It always drives me crazy, the way female body leaves its marks on the clothes, making even a fully clothed woman look more sensual than one showing off lot of skin. I let my gaze linger there for a moment, before moving to her face, again. It was then that I noticed that Shivani’s gaze had turned to me, catching me ogling at her, and this time it was impossible to pretend it was anything else, like in the past, when my lecherous gaze — yes that’s what it was, after all — was more circumspect. I missed a heartbeat. My face must have betrayed the guilt, and I thought about how awkward it would be next time we sat across the table in the office, or passed each other in the corridor.
Then she smiled — not her usual, formal smile, but a knowing, mischievous smile — and motioned me to join her. I walked with heavy legs, and slumped down next to her on a bar stool.
“You don’t seem to be enjoying your drink”, she said, pointing to my glass, her expression unchanged.
“Drinks are overrated”, I said, trying to sound cool.
“And what isn’t?”, she asked, looking away, gulping down more of her drink.
You, I wanted to say. But that would have sounded corny. There was so much I wanted to tell her, like: you’re demeaning yourself by going after that lecherous fool. But then what was I? A love struck romeo, a gutless lecher with a thin mask of respectability? I wasn’t sure myself what I was.
I sat there, awkward, unsure of what to say.
“I’m sorry”, I mumbled, barely audible.
She smiled again, dismissively this time. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re flattering me”
I attributed that to the drinks that had worn her out.
“But you are so beautiful”, I added, surprising myself.
You bastard, said a voice inside me. She’s vulnerable, and probably drunk way more than she should be. Don’t manipulate her. But was I? What did I want? Was I kidding myself, calling this infatuation at best, and lust at worst, love? What was the difference between Nirmal and I? He at least would be honest to himself about using her. He would not kid himself that he was interested in anything more than her body.
She looked at me sharply. Then her eyes lowered. A tear rolled down her cheek. The next instant she looked away, staring fixedly at some wine bottle on the shelves behind.
When she looked at me again, she seemed in control. “You young people have such uncluttered minds”, she said, “sometimes, I envy that”
I thought about that. Thought of denying that. But I couldn’t form words. I sat there, sipping my drink. An uneasy silence followed, as she sat there alternating between looking at me with a curious expression, and looking away into distance; nowhere in particular.
“Care for a dance?”, she asked me finally, looking towards the small dance floor on the other end.
Instinctively, I looked in the direction where Nirmal was seated a while back. He was still there, at his animated best. Alpa was laughing at some joke he had just told her. Shivani followed my gaze, and gave me a disgruntled look, as if saying, “Come on, I’m not that obvious, am I?”
I wanted to protest that I could not dance. But I did not.
“Sure”, I said, adding, “But you should probably wear iron shoes to protect your feet”
“Come on”, she said, “Any idiot can slow dance”
There I was, holding Shivani in my arms, feeling her weight on me every once in a while, as all that Scotch started asserting itself more and more. In a few minutes, the intoxication that I thought I had before was gone. I was feeling like the same shy loser that I always felt, even with this incredible women in my arms — someone I had infatuated with, since the first time I saw her. I wondered where I could rest my hand, without it feeling like a molestation, and yet, at the same time, wanting to savor every moment, every accidental touch, every step, as she moved gracefully, even in her inebriated state. Every now and then, I checked if she was still stealing glances at Nirmal. But she wasn’t. She had probably accepted her defeat. The loser in me kept underlying that fact: don’t you get it, she is in your arms because she has accepted her defeat.
“Please take me home, will you, I don’t think I can drive back”, she said abruptly, in the middle of a track, just as I was beginning to get comfortable with her touch on my body.
“Now?” I asked in disbelief, when only minutes before, I was looking at the whole thing as ‘good till it lasts’ mentality.
“Whatever”, she said, “I may get sick”
Losers typically get their dreams served to them with a stark touch of real life.
After a trip to the washroom, Shivani seemed better. She fished for the car keys in her purse and handed them over.
“I hope you can drive. That’s my husband’s darling. If you’re going to fuck up with one of us, make sure it’s not her”, she said.
I stood there, my mouth open, and no words came out of it. It wasn’t even the preposterous implication, it was the casual way in which it was spelt. And yet her face betrayed neither a hurt nor humor.
“It’s okay to laugh, Kris”, she said, shaking her head, “What’s happened to your sense of humor”
“I rarely screw up with cars”, I said, trying to sound casual, and took the keys from her. As we got into the car, she slumped into the passenger seat next to me, and pulled on the seat belt. She mumbled the address. It wasn’t too far away from where I lived, and I reckoned I could find an auto to get back home.
Even as I was taking the car out of the parking area of the hotel, she dozed off, leaving me to listen to Norah Jones’ “Don’t know why”. I didn’t particularly mind her, especially when driving in the night. The traffic was almost non-existent, and I kept on glancing at Shivani, her face looking lovelier in the shifting ambient light. Her face, for some reason, was calm. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t fit it all into a cohesive picture. The passing reference to a bad marriage, the rumors of affair with Nirmal (undeniably true going by today’s events), the way she humored me, and this calm face, as she slept in her car next to me, trusting an almost total stranger like me. The only thing that explained the last, I thought, was that she didn’t care. I was not worth being scared of. I accepted that explanation, and decided to leave it at that. I was a use and throw paper cup, or the proverbial shoulder to cry on. I didn’t particularly mind that.
When we approached the road where she lived, I called her name softly thrice. She was fast asleep. I touched her arm, and nudged slightly as I caller her name again, louder this time. She woke up with a start, and looked unsure of where she was. Then, gradually the recognition dawned onto her.
“Are we there, already?”
“I think so. I need you to tell me where to go now”
“God, I think I had a drink too many”, she said rubbing her temple.
I wanted to laugh, but I dared not.
“Happens to all of us”, I said, trying to sound dismissive.
She looked at me, that naughty expression back in her eyes, “Doesn’t look like it happens to you”
“If only you knew”, I said, as I maneuvered the car into a narrow lane that she pointed at.
I parked the car in the front of a small bungalow that was her house. Their house, I thought, recalling the happy family photographs on her desk. Her husband, like husbands of all such lovely looking women, was ordinary looking but obviously well placed, probably a small businessman. That much was clear even from the photograph. But one look at the house confirmed that.
I locked the car and handed over the keys to her.
“You’ll be fine?”, I asked, more out of formality, yet wishing somewhere to prolong the moment of departure — did Cinderella try to delay the moment when that dream was about to end, I thought, and smiled at the ridiculous comparison, in every which way. The smile, apparently, registered on my face.
“Sure. What are you smiling about?”, she asked, her eyes narrowing, as if she suspected I was making fun of her.
“Nothing. I recalled something ridiculous I read”, I lied.
She weighed that for a moment, as if wondering if she should probe a little more. But then again, her tired mind gave up.
“How rude of me to not even ask you over for a coffee”, she said.
“No that’s okay. It’s too late for a coffee”, I lied again. “I better get going”
“Someone waiting back home?”, she asked. Her face seemed to hold the question, and not dropping it till the answer was received.
“Nah. Just TV and boredom”, I finally stopped the stream of half-lies.
“Come in then. It’s the same here”, she said, indicating the lock on the door.
I was a bit surprised.
“My kids are staying over at my mom’s place”, she said. “And Vikram, my husband, he’s out on a business trip”
Why was she telling me all this, I wondered.
“Isn’t it late, kind of? You should probably sleep. You look tired”
I must be different from that creep, Nirmal, I said. Or was I being different, so that I was noticed as a good guy?
“No I’ll be fine. Come in”, she said, as she opened the lock on the outside gate, and moved in without even checking if I was following.
Paper cup, I thought, as I followed her. Why should she not assume I was going to follow? Wasn’t it obvious to her, by now, if it weren’t much before, that I was smitten by her (or lusted after her — was there even a difference)?
The hall was a mess, as it is with many houses with kids. She quickly made some space for me on a sofa, and asked me to get comfortable, sounding apologetic.
“Should I make coffee?”, I offered, “you don’t look too well”
She looked at me. It was the first time that she really looked at me, without making me look away.
“You know, you’re very sweet for a man”
There. It’s easy being a nice man. Hide your libido, even partially. Keep your ego in control. And viola! Although, to be fair, it takes a lot of other factors: a few pegs of Scotch too many, an emotionally vulnerable woman, and few of your fellow men who lower the bar by being themselves.
I smiled. Even when I stood there stealing glances at her, every time she looked elsewhere, and mentally undressing her, thinking how would it feel to remove each garment, she was telling me I was sweet. I smiled at that irony.
“If only you knew”, I wanted to say, but just smiled.
“I need some black coffee”, she said, “how about you? Coffee, tea, or another drink?”
“Don’t bother. Just get me some water, please. I should be heading home, really”
She smiled dismissively, as she disappeared in the kitchen.
I looked around again. More pictures of the happy family. Her two boys, naughty like any kids that age, probably 6-8 years old. Her husband, with hair grayed bit more than in the photo on her desk, and hairline receded a lot more. I wondered how many happy families are like this, a collection of photos, selected for display, in homes and on social networks? Will these institutions survive, if we stopped projecting them selectively, and singing all is well? Or was I just reading too much into it?
“See if you need more sugar”, said Shivani, breaking my reverie. She was standing next to me, holding a cup with pale looking instant coffee.
A middle aged lady, by today’s unforgiving standards of age, probably going through her midlife crisis; and a horny, sensitive looking, young man, who’s trying too hard to lose his virginity: stuff erotic literature thrives on, I thought, disgusted at its banality.
She sat down on the sofa next to me, folding her legs under her, those shapely legs, with only her toes visible now, nails painted in a pale shade of nail polish, that was hard to make out in the dim light in the hall.
“It’s been a while since anyone looked at me with such care”, she said.
I was about to apologize again, when she stopped me.
“No. I’m not angry. I’m amused”
“Can I ask you one question?”, I said, trying to deflect the attention from me.
“Why Nirmal?”, she asked, preempting my question.
“Because, with him, things are simple. We fuck. We go back home, each to their families. It’s not emotional”
“And why do you feel sad then, when he is with other women?”, I asked, instantly regretting the blunt question. How was it my business, anyways.
I thought I had overstayed my welcome, and crossed that invisible line, but she looked straight into my eyes.
“Because I’m a woman, Kris. Just fucking is not enough. Would I cheat on Vikram for just that, again and again?”
“Yes, I know. I knew it even when it started that it would be nothing else, but he is so chivalrous, when he has to be, you know. He made me feel special, even if I knew it was superficial, and deliberate. He looked like someone who could give, even if only in bed. Unlike Vikram, who’s now used to just taking. And to be fair, he did give. Because, for taking, he knew he also had to give. But now, it’s over. What he wanted was just a change of menu. Truth is, we both used each other”
I sipped my coffee in silence.
“I should go”, I said, getting up. A part of me wanted to kiss her. It even kept telling me that that’s what she wanted. But she was vulnerable, and drunk. There were levels of depravity I was not ready to step down to.
She got up and followed me to the door.
“You’re a nice guy”, she said again at the door, “stay that way”
Then, out of nowhere she gave me a peck on the cheek, and hugged me lightly. My hand moved to her back, gently patting her, innocently at first. Women know when your touch turns sexual, an experienced colleague had told me, the way they do when they want to brag about their experience. She surely did, but did not object. It was she who kissed me. I had kissed girls before, but never had I felt so much desire in a kiss. A kiss, so far, was something you had to do, on route better things. It was the unavoidable breath of the person (rarely pleasant), her saliva, in your mouth; it was the worry about position, and mechanics; just barely worth the effort — if not for the promise of things it led to — or did not. But with Shivani, I forgot the mechanics. I did not notice how her mouth smelled, although it must have smelled of coffee and alcohol — even that did not matter.
Still in embrace, she dragged me across the hall, to a small guest bedroom. We fell on the bed, awkwardly, resuming our kissing and touching. I kissed her neck, moving down inch by inch. Concentrating on it, as if I had to remember every inch of it for later, vividly, to save my life. I couldn’t believe I was with this beautiful women I had always desired. All my inhibitions about taking advantage seemed to be in some distant, inaccessible part of my mind. The dream ended abruptly though, when she unbuckled by belt, and pushed her hand in. I thought I could control myself, but then I knew it was too late. She withdrew her hand in reflex, while I collapsed alongside her, with an overwhelming feeling of shame and disgust, as she got up and went out of the room.
I just sat there, with no power to move.
“I’m sorry”, I mumbled, without even looking at her, when she came back.
“Don’t torture yourself over it”, she said.
I looked up, and saw her smiling — not derisively, as I had feared. Her smile was the smile of understanding. Incredibly, I saw sympathy on her face.
I got up. She indicated me where the bathroom was.
After a few minutes and a quick goodbye, I left her house, neither a nice guy, nor a real man.
I expected Shivani to give me the cold shoulder; not that we used to go beyond the curtsey smile before. But rather than avoiding me, or acting as if it all never happened, she was friendly with me. Every once in a while, she’d ask me to accompany me for coffee at the cafeteria, and indulged in small talk. She was the one who sent me a facebook friend request, and regularly commented on my posts. I was puzzled, but not that I was complaining. I liked being with her, even though my love/lust was now locked away in a distant compartment of my brain, protected by a layer of guilt, disappointment, and self-loathing — on more levels than one. Opening that locker, meant opening the whole can of worms. I had no courage for that.
And yet, it was impossible for me to forget that night, and behave as if it had never happened. I marveled at Shivani’s abilities to do that — to not look at the elephant in the room. Things between Shivani and Nirmal looked equally normal. I wondered if they had reached a compromise, and the affair had resumed again. I tried to read Shivani’s face, but unlike that night, when alcohol had opened up her face for scrutiny, it was inscrutable again. I gave up; in any case it was none of my business. The grapevine seemed to have dried up too, now that people saw me with Shivani. Maybe I was the part of the grapevine now.
Was Shivani aware of the way people talked about them, I wondered, or about her. I remembered a female colleague calling her a middle aged nymph, while male colleagues were less judgmental. That did not mean that they didn’t talk about her, though. Men don’t waste time in judgment, when it’s a women having an affair in question: they fantasize. It’s like she suddenly becomes accessible. I don’t mean to put myself above any of these representative men, of course.
“Can I ask you a personal question?”, I asked her, when we were alone in the cafeteria.
“About Nirmal?”, she asked.
“No”, she said, coldly, and looked away.
Neither of us said anything for a few minutes.
“I’m sorry”, I said at last. What was it about this women that made me want to apologize for everything I did? Now, after what had happened that day, I did not harbor any hopes of having her. Having her — such a man’s phrase it is, I thought. But I decided that I must be honest at least with myself. Having her in my life would have been just too messy. Was I prepared for anything other than a fling, with this married woman, with two kids, and a well placed husband, even assuming for a moment that she was looking for something like that. Even the suggestion was laughable. Yet, then, why did she have this power over me?
“No it’s okay. I’m not pissed. I just don’t want to talk about it right now, okay?”
“Sure”, I said.
“I must stop this”, she said to me a few days later, as we met outside the office, first time after that night.
“Are you as innocent as you look, Kris?”
“What do you mean?”, I asked, alarmed.
“Are you even real? Don’t tell me you don’t know what people talk about me an Nirmal”
“Recently, I don’t”
“No wonder you still sit here and talk to me”
“Shivani, listen”, I said, conviction in my voice surprising even myself, “I would be your friend, no matter what you do”
A friend, who has always wanted your body, said a voice within me. A friend who has been leaching after you, stealing glances at your body, every time you aren’t looking. A friend who will use you, if given a chance, just as that creep Nirmal would. What sort of friend takes advantage of someone emotionally troubled, and drunk? Was I just offering this unconditional, non-judgmental friendship as a quid-pro-quo? Since you don’t judge me, I won’t judge you?
“I’d like to help you, and that is why I wanted to talk to you about Nirmal, but you don’t want to”
She looked away, wiping a tear.
“I know. I am just not strong enough, on that front”
But what was I going to tell her about Nirmal? That she should stop seeing him. She must know that herself. And if she should stop seeing Nirmal, she should also never get involved in me. She must know that herself, too. But would I tell her that, if — not that it was likely — she did get involved in me?
“Nirmal is going to invite the team at his place for a barbecue party, next Saturday night”, she said after a pause, “I hope you’ll come”
I was hardly going to refuse a party invitation, with good food and spirits, even though I hated the host. But I was surprised about the way she said it. Why did she want me there? As a fall back option? Surely at his own place Nirmal was hardly going to flirt with Alpa or some other girl. Or did she want me there, because she won’t be able to bear seeing him with his wife. Was I the shoulder she needed to cry on? Was I her sounding board?
“As an escort?”, I said, and then regretted it the very next moment, realizing how it could be interpreted.
Her face turned cold, even before I could start my apology.
“No I didn’t mean it that way, Shivani. I swear, I did not”
“As a friend”, she said, with infinite sadness, “if it’s not too much to ask”
I placed my hand on hers, for I did not trust my words anymore. “I will be there”, I mumbled.
Deja-vu was the word that came to my mind, as I saw Shivani at Nirmal’s place. Was this the same women, who had said, as a matter of face: “with Nirmal things are simple ….”. There she was, like that other night at the office party, like a school-girl, unable to even look in the direction where Nirmal was, and drinking like a pissed off teenager.
I was late. And the party was already at full swing. Nirmal, the showman had made sure that it was going to be a great party. But Shivani and I were doomed — Shivani, for obvious reasons, and I, because it was impossible not to think about her situation. Part of me, the jealous, possessive part, was of course in rage. It was easy to smother that part, and believe that it was just Shivani’s hurt I was thinking about. I mean, who pins her hopes on such a jerk? I wanted to get angry at Shivani, but the anger wouldn’t come. All I really felt, was pity, and sadness.
“Help yourself”, Nirmal said to me, pointing to the well stocked bar. For a moment, I thought I saw a wink on his face. I felt disgusted, both at him and me. I tried to keep my face straight, and helped myself to another drink, taking his words literally.
Shivani kept drinking in the same vein I had seen her drink before. And with the same results. No one could have accused her of being too high, but her hurt was more and more visible on her face. I was afraid Nirmal’s wife would see it and guess what was going on, although I knew it was a ridiculous thought. I kept my drinking in check, because I was going to drive. After a while, approached her, and gently asked, “Do you want to leave?” She looked at me, her eyes betraying the effort of looking as if she did not care, and nodded.
Unlike that day, however, Shivani seemed much more in control. As we drove back, she did stay awake, changing the music every other minute. After a while, she settled for Ghulam Ali. She looked at me, as if for approval. I was fine with anything that did not change every other minute. Okay, almost anything. If, on that day, she was laconic, today she compensated for it. It was as if she owed me some talking. She was alone, again, she told me, sounding casual. Her husband was again out on tour — he’s out like that twenty days a month, she added. And her kids were again with her mom: I wondered how many days a month that was the case? I didn’t ask that though, as I was also wondering again why was she telling me that? Part of me dreaded being alone with her anywhere, especially in her house.
When we arrived, I tried to make a quick exit.
“See you on Monday”, I said, handling over the keys.
She looked at me surprised. “Leaving already?”, she said, with a pout. “I was hoping to talk to you”
That’s too much to take. My resolve melted just like that, predictably.
We entered the house. It was in a much better shape. Maybe because she knew I’d come in. I wanted to laugh mirthlessly. How transparent I must be. How boringly predictable.
“I think I’ll have another drink”, she said, “how about you?”
“Are you sure, Shivani?”, I said.
She chuckled. “Stop babying me”, she said, her voice flat.
Then it happened. All those tears she had held back in public, suddenly decided to let loose. I stood there, not knowing what to do. The enormity of it hit me — my situation. I was terribly ill-equipped mentally to deal with even a part of it.
“Shivani”, I started saying, hoping I’d know what to say, when I started talking.
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude”, she was still sobbing. “You’ve been very kind to me, and I’ve been horrible”
Maybe I should have been angry. But the sight of her, the women who was in control all the time, broken down like that, made anger the last of the possible options. I don’t know what made me do that, but I stepped ahead and gave her a bear hug. She rested her head on my shoulders and sobbed uncontrollably. I kissed her on her forehead, an infinite compassion took me over. We stood there like that for a long time. Then the sobs became less and less frequent. She was the one to move, as she went into bathroom to wash her face. When she came out, I was still rooted to the same spot. She came and touched my cheeks.
“Don’t mess up your life with me”, she said, “I’m too fucked up. You are just starting your life”
“It’s not like you’re at the end of it”, I said.
“Well, like they say, this is as good as it gets. You make choices, and you pay for them. And once you’ve made them, the choices make you in turn. After a time, there is no turning back. Yes, times have changed, but when you’re on the wrong side of thirty, with children, and a dysfunctional marriage, you know your choices”
I opened my mouth to speak, but she stopped me.
“No let me complete. I know what you’re thinking. I know, at your age, being a martyr is still glamorous. But that’s only because at your age, you don’t have the advantage of hindsight. You don’t know how fucked up, and futile martyrdom is — mainly because it is so darn boring, so … wasteful. In a moment, one chooses to live an alien life, because it seems like the right thing to do. Be it for love, honor, spite, ego … reasons don’t matter … because reasons don’t last, only consequences last”
“Use me if you have to. I’ve been used by worse men. Again I’m being dishonest. I’ve been in these ‘let’s use each other’ relationships before. I don’t think I have anything else left in me. I won’t be able to live with myself if I ended up using you, and you made up a martyr of yourself”
“Are you done?”, I asked.
“Shivani, when I started lusting after you … no don’t look surprised, I think you knew it all along … I did not worry if was using you. Okay, maybe I did worry a little, but I did not let it stop me. I just stopped thinking about it. So no, I’m not going to make a martyr of myself. I’m not that honorable. It’s just that on the way, somewhere, it stopped mattering, because I was being the guy I wouldn’t mind being — I grew beyond my lust. I found a part of me I didn’t know existed. If clinging to that part is being a martyr, then I guess I’m tempted”
“No. It’s just that that part is not the whole of you. And it should not even be. You’re much too young to transform yourself into nothing but that — however fine that part of you is”
“But if I used you, even mutually, it won’t survive, will it?”
“No it won’t”
“I want to help you”, I said.
“You have”, she said.
I nodded. She kissed me lightly on the cheeks, almost a motherly good-night kiss.
“I’ll be alright”, she added, “I promise”
“We’ll see. I’m going nowhere”, I said, as I opened the door, and walked out of the door.
I knew in that moment it wasn’t love. But it didn’t matter.