By Niranjana Hariharanandanan
“I know my redeemer lives…” His tombstone read.
Hardly something he’d say in the flesh but how well did I know this man, who’d been a part of the last forty years of my life?
I take a last look at him, looking carefully put together even in afterlife- a chocolatey mound of red earth resting by a mango tree, born down with white chrysanthemums. Cue for an eye roll.
I thought I could smell Reebok. Or maybe I was finally going senile.
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have come. I’m not related to the man who sleeps so soundly behind me. I didn’t even love him. I think. But something brings me to his grave. It probably had to do with a lie that started in the summer of 2009. It probably had to do with how I ruined his life.
I could smell wet red earth and fragrant flowers. A waft of fresh misplaced guilt.
I open an old can of Fanta from my purse and sit cross-legged by his side. Pop goes the can, and the orange liquor gushes out seeping into his grave.
I clink cans with him, and we drink to his redemption.
Our story began in the summer of 2009.
2009- the year Obama swore in for his first term of Presidency and Slumdog millionaire bagged the best film at the festivals, making Amma dance around our floral living room with joy
I remembered it as the summer of firsts.
First drive around the block, first dress that showed off my newly waxed legs, first dates without a chaperone and the fizz of a first fickle love.
I was fifteen that summer, having survived the wrath of board exams, and standing on the threshold of adulthood- with my newly plucked brows and new summer wardrobe. Not yet the magic year of sixteen that comes with high school. A summer of early citrussy starts.
A summer ripe with mangoes, and tippy-toes, tall tales, and hot males. A summer flush with the scent of Fanta everywhere.
He was the older brother of this boy I was dating- Our neighbor and my classmate. It started with the little things. A conceited chuckle on the phone when I called for him after bedtime, a pointed rumble in the background of a two-hour-long phone call and by and by- a chat buddy who took over his brother’s messenger, nicknamed me his ‘nut’ and eventually took his place.
It began with a syrupy feel of flattery. A 25 -year- old being interested in a fifteen- year – old. He could have had anyone. Why me? I still had an 8 PM curfew, wore braces and braids to bed and had an open -door rule to my room. Why would he be into me? But he was, and he was charmed, if not indulgent about the terms and conditions that came with our ‘thing’.
We were cautious, but we weren’t. I didn’t stop to think of how my parents would react to my dating someone much older than me- They didn’t take well to him with his baggy frayed jeans that hung low on his waist and loud summery drawl that carried itself over his wall to ours. “He’s bad for you Ammu. keep your distance from older men. God knows what he does at sea” amma muttered as I poured myself a glass of Fanta, having returned from an afternoon of chatting across the wall with him. I knew he was bad for me, just like the glass of soda in my hand. It didn’t matter that there was more than a decade old age gap. In the summer of 2009 just like the copious amounts of Fanta I was downing, it felt like the right thing to do.
But I decided to go with the flow, sneak around behind my unsuspecting amma and ‘boyfriend’.
So, we slunk around the old mango tree between our houses for the one hour, when amma slept our trysts turning lengthier and zealous as the summer wound down. Nobody knew.
Two sharp rings on the home landline meant he was heading to the spot by our tree, giving me twelve minutes to spray on Amma’s Yardley on my neck and wrists, brush down my frizzed hair with baby oil and head down the backstairs out into the street.A fuzzy brained Amma was perplexed and ranted about wanting to alert BSNL of these mysterious calls. But she always forgot after her afternoon nap.
We were careful to keep us a secret. “Only until the summer ended and I eventually turned sixteen,” he said. We didn’t give it too much thought. That one carbonated hour we got under the tree was crammed with desire and everything else took second place.
He always brought a bottle of Fanta with him- Not coke, not Lemonade. It was always Fanta. One slim glass bottle shared by two straws strung together by illicit want.
I gave myself to him unhindered that summer. My first time with a man would always remain Fanta scented. He was an unfussy lover and seemed to like our monkeying around, though he often spoke of the other women he’d been with, beautiful women with throaty laughs and satin lingerie. But they didn’t have my wit, he said. It didn’t bother me. I was only flattered that he’d picked me to be a part of the élite compendium. He spoke with the arrogance that came with being conventionally good looking and I only faintly minded the boasting though it always came with a side of carefully rested careless reassurance.
We never spoke of the real things- very much like our preferred drink, that only looked orange on the outside. I didn’t tell him of my fears or foes or my darkest worries of what high school next year held. Neither did I ask him why he really was into me- transitorily or not. Neither did he tell. He said he didn’t like talking about stuff that bothered him. He said men are like closed books. They like to internalize. It struck me as odd, but he was my first man, so I mirrored him and bottled my perplexity into the Fanta bottle.
I tentatively told him I loved him on one of the afternoons as we lay side by side on the roots of the tree. He nodded vaguely, his hands on my shoulder as he sifted through his phone, a smile playing on the cleft lips.
You should probably get a phone. This landline business is becoming a pain.
“Well, aren’t we both relieved you only have two more of these painful weeks left then,” I replied with a careful dose of sarcasm and nonchalance. He rolled his eyes, and we shared a laugh. That was the last time I bore my vulnerability to him. Or anyone.
I didn’t know a lot about him- only that he spent most of his time on the ship sailing across the east coast, and the time off was spent playing with video games and women. I came from a sheltered world of little joys- hardbound books, Amma’s chicken curry on Sundays, Dreams of straight teeth and daydreams of going to University. Middle-class dreams. We came from different worlds.
Nerd meeting needy.
He called me naïve as he played with my hair on a late summer afternoon by the steps of my home. “One day, I’m going to turn on you, get into wedlock and that’s going to crush you…”
I smiled and nodded, slurping the last of the bubbly orange liquid off the sides of the bottle, not really giving it much thought. Indeed.
Summer ended all too fast, and so did our ‘thing’. It lost its fizz- an old bottle of unopened Fanta left out in a crate. He didn’t want to do sweet and awkward, and I didn’t want to tiptoe around the rules of a long-distance relationship so we called it quits.
So, we celebrated our last time, by the mango tree and when I stood up and put on my T-shirt over my sticky neck, it only faintly smelt of Fanta. It felt over.
At least I thought we did.
He had to leave the country and I had to leave for high school. Different borders being crossed, lines once rubbed off hastily retraced.
A few days passed, and a few more. A letter from Shanghai arrived. He’d written on three sheets of paper. A letter that elaborately described a life out at sea and his newfound love for boxing. He hated writing or spending time articulating his thoughts.
I hadn’t given it much thought after he’d left. Sure, I’d sat at the steps of my house a few times around, missing the distinct smell of his hair and snuggling under the crook of those broad arms. He’d always smelt of Reebok. A grown-up smell! I’d also decided to break up with his brother. It didn’t seem right, and they had the same eyes, which unnerved me, almost making me miss him. I certainly wasn’t in love, and I decided to keep it at that. A first of many fickle feelings. Though I knew I’d always have a thing for men who wore Reebok.
The letter threw me though. And I found myself writing back, scrawling the number of my new shiny mobile phone. Part of me hoped he wouldn’t call.
Three weeks later my mobile rang. It seemed like we’d begun again.
A few more months passed peppered with several calls from so many shores around the world- some tainted with stories of women with cherry blossom mouths and thick locks, who welcomed him with warmth and wine.
But he said he missed me. Almost as an afterthought. I listened to his long lonely rants from the last step of my stairway. He had two hours of phone time. He always spent one hour on me. He didn’t ask me too many questions. So, I didn’t mention the bullies of high school or the demons in my closet. In that hour-long island between many seas, we remained exclusive.
And one day it stopped. Just like that. He’d become my bad habit.
Two summers passed, and then a few more. I grew up, left my nest and moved on (and away).I swapped my love for Fanta with coffee instead, preferring espresso shots to the sticky orange froth.
One day my phone beeped in the middle of the night and he asked me which part of the country I was in. With shaking fingers, I typed out my college location- a few thousand miles away from where we used to be us.
A few months passed.
He came for me on a summer day. I found him sitting on the steps of my hostel. An older stocky man with a chiseled jaw, cropped hair and dark stubble on a gaunt face–a contrast to the lanky boys I hung out at college with. A misfit that reeked of Reebok. But something in my throat constricted and I found myself spending the night with him.
A night of familiarity, yet with a gnawing feel of impermanence. He held me tight as we spent our first night together. When I’d shut my eyes, he whispered to my ears that nothing had changed for him since 2009. I kept my eyes shut, blocking out the light.
“Me too”, I replied (blithely). It was easy to give myself to him in the dark. I heard the conceited chuckle again, as he pulled me closer, with a somewhat smug reassurance. In the darkness, I was almost certain what we had was real.
We ordered steak and fries and a bottle of Fanta for old times’ sake and spent the night talking, plotting our future. Fickle plans for a white wedding. A family portrait by the mango tree, and a secret wedding of course for my Hindu parents. His ma should never know though. He was going to come clean to his brother now. Could I tell my parents soon enough? He clapped his hands and strung a wound- up potato chip on my finger. It was about time. A fresh start. Pure as white. An almost white chip. White wedding. white lies. And some more. White-faced me. a white bottle. Till the sky turned white.
Then we again went our separate ways. He promised he’d call soon. When he hugged me goodbye, he stayed there holding me for a second too long. For that second, I wondered if we were really meant to be.
Soon didn’t come soon enough. He deactivated his social media so there was no digital footprint. The many digit numbers from telltale shores lasted only for their one hour before they stopped abruptly altogether. I assumed the worst and let the night (and the fry) slide.
I carried on with life. Graduated. Got a job with a new corporate number. Made amma proud.
A few years passed. He floated to the back of my mind, resurfacing every once in a while, – when I chanced upon the oddball ordering Fanta (not coke?) with his popcorn or when someone mentioned the color white- Which wasn’t too many times to be honest. I had changed, so had Reebok because they didn’t make the brand of perfume anymore. No more brownie points for a man wearing Reebok.
It was in my late twenties when he came back again! I was at the butt end of a failed relationship, my self- esteem shredded into a stir fry, and he found his way into my Instagram DM’s. A stockier older salt and pepper version of the sailor I’d been carried to the darkest depths with. No women in sight, at least for social PDA. He called me his old nut and asked for my number. He didn’t address the ten -year -old elephant in the room and neither did I. I was just happy for the familiarity. He cautiously asked me if I was married and whooped at my single status. He said he couldn’t fall in love or settle for one, and I gingerly dared to ask why. “because of you of course”, he said nonchalantly pausing before asking me if I still liked fries. I paused to roll my eyes heavenwards and we spent the next couple of days smiling into our phones, promising each other of a fabled future together- our real lives on a hasty pause. The white castle of make-believe keep building, and a virtual world of white lies molded.
A few days and five thousand texts later, we were done for the season again. The goodbyes weren’t hard this time. At least for me.
He’d ping me on an odd cold night, or on a musty afternoon, a breath of fresh air to my mundane. He’d ask me if I loved him or imagined us being together. He’d always follow it up with a LOL or a smiley- a sad attempt at assuaging the blow. I daren’t tell him our ‘thing’ was as old fashioned as men using LOL. Besides, I wasn’t going to give in to him again. I was no longer fifteen and soft-soaped. His very hurt younger brother had growled as we broke up about his brother’s many maritime conquests. Of how I’d traded something real for an inland seasonal affair. I didn’t want to be just another woman of 2009’s summer. I decided to take him and his marine prophecies with a pinch of salt.
A few more salted summers passed. Sometimes I stood by the sea standing one with the beer bottles strewn from last nights’ party by the bay, a broken dialogue of bottled feelings and make-believe conversations with a Fanta scented man. A man who never/ no longer existed.
I found uncomplicated love in a man who liked to talk over chai. He wanted a Christian wedding but this time around it was easy to say yes. I realized it wasn’t a white wedding I minded so much. We got married that summer by the sea and I thought I heard his laughter out at bay as I was pronounced a brand -new wife. Then a new mother. I stopped wondering about him.
And then one summer, he had to return again. My phone flashed with the unfamiliarity of an overseas number I knew in my guts there was a message from him.
He’d asked for my address and I replied with a carefully put together witty reply. He sent me a beaten -up picture of an aging man by a horse. Your prince is coming for you on a horse, it said, followed by a Lol. It took a second for the penny to drop. That this defeated man with love handles and thinning hair was him. I wonder if the bottle was finally creaking.
I probably should’ve told him then. But I replied with my address instead of almost certain he wouldn’t come.
A few months later the bell rang. He stood there, an old stout man in his late 50’s. Fine lines crisscrossing that once perfect face, but a smile that feebly reminded me of the 25-year-old boy. He said he’d had enough. He was done with the games. We’d waited long enough.
He held out a ring, a real one. The promise of the fabled white wedding from 30 years ago.
I held out my child. I saw his face turn white. White as Crushed frosty paper.
I wonder which of us the naïve one is.
That’s the last time I saw him in the flesh. He left me, his French fry fiancé, his inheritance.
A nest egg of all the things he didn’t say to me.
I wish we hadn’t wasted these years on something so unreal. Unreally real. Pure as white. my least favorite color.
Perhaps, we’d be growing older together now, sharing a bottle of Fanta under a mango tree.
My phone blinked with a message from his brother. The location pin of his final resting place.
Perhaps I’ll go over and see him. Or perhaps I should stop leading him on in afterlife. Or perhaps I’ll pop some Fanta to drink to his redemption
I let myself build a castle in the summer one last time.
About Niranjana Hariharanandanan
Niranjana Hariharanandanan is a writer/ documentary filmmaker and works as Executive Producer with Discovery Networks Asia Pacific. When she’s not working on a piece of fiction or on a documentary film, she’s traveling back and forth to run her heritage homestay in Cochin, Kerala. Niranjana is a scuba diving enthusiast, a Murakami maniac and loves all things Japanese. Her work has been published by JaggeryLit, ChaiCopy, The Book Smugglers Den, Indulge and The Punch Magazine. She is an alumnus of the Dum Pukht writers workshop and is working on her first novel.