Somewhere out there is a door.
Sometimes a door is all that there is.
She checks her reflection in the window pane of the Raymond’s shop. She pats her shirt down flat across the tummy and heaves a sigh of relief.
“Thank God! It doesn’t show yet.”
She draws a deep breath and rounds the corner of State Street. She can see Ajay sitting in the café looking nervously at the Curzon Road entrance.
She shakes her head.
That kind of describes aptly their recently concluded relationship.
Love was never a problem. It was just that they could never match their expectations. If their life together were to be this café, Nandini always entered through the State Street entrance while Ajay expected her to come through the Curzon Road one.
Finally, it had gotten to a point where he had decided it was better to call it quits than to carry on. She had respected his decision and that had been it.
That was a month ago.
She awakens in a strange place. The first sensation she gets is that of emptiness. The place is a big white… nothing. She feels the void wrap around her like a misty blanket, the vast expanse of nothingness ironically triggering a bout of claustrophobia. There is nothing to see, or to hear, a truly silent null.
She is confused, too confused to be afraid. She tries to make sense of it, but her brain refuses to grasp even a tiny sliver of a context. She finds not even a tiny knob to hang her thoughts upon.
Just a big empty place full of nothing.
She stands at the café door, willing Ajay to consider the remote possibility that she might have entered from the other end. After a while, she gives up and starts walking towards the glass doors. The door chime sounds as she opens them and that catches his attention. He turns to look at her. Maybe she is imagining it, but she thinks she can spot a brief flicker of disappointment on his face that she had chosen to enter through this entrance and not the one he had picked for her in his mind.
“Easy now, girl! Be focused. This is really important.”
She does a few repetitions of the deep breathing technique she had learned from the Tai-chi book and walks up to the table.
By the looks of it he is already on the 3rd pack of the day. The ashtray on the table is crammed with butts, some still smoldering. She wonders if he has any inkling of the news she is about to break to him.
She orders an Earl Gray (no milk, no sugar, as usual) and sits there. Neither of them speaks for a while. Finally Ajay breaks the silence.
“So, how have you been?”
There is a hint of awkwardness in his voice. Nandini is nervous too. The ancient Chinese practitioners of Tai-chi apparently didn’t cover meetings this soon after a break-up.
She has thought of this moment and rehearsed what she was going to say a thousand times. But her mind betrays her and she forgets the opening words.
As she blurts out the words, she realizes that getting straight to the point perhaps is the best opening she could hope for. The subject she is about to broach had no right or wrong approach.
“Oh, it’s okay. No biggie. I came a bit early, was in the area.”
“No, Ajay. I’m not talking about that. I’m L-A-T-E. This is the second period I’ve missed. I went to the doctor day before yesterday. I’m pregnant.”
There! Just like that she drops the bombshell in his lap.
Ajay is transfixed. His hand is stuck midway between its arc from the table to his mouth. It takes him a solid minute or two to regain composure. He puts the cigarette in his mouth, but changes his mind the next instant and stubs it out. He stares at the dying wisp of smoke that curls up from the ashtray.
They sit like that for a few minutes. There is no conversation. A few times, either of them tries to say something. The words just get stuck in their throats. After a few of these false starts, they just give up and sit staring at each other in silence.
She thinks she can see some sort of dark shape form in that white haze. Perhaps her mind is playing tricks on her, but she decides to find out.
She walks towards it.
As she gets nearer, she can make out the shape.
It’s a door, a plain old wooden door with shiny brass door knob.
Even though there’s no light, she thinks she can see the knob gleam. It’s almost as if it’s beckoning her to open it and step through.
She stands there for a moment. She stands there for an eternity. She debates in her mind whether or not to open it. She doesn’t know where she is, neither does she have the foggiest notion what lies behind the door. Her hand is on the knob, yet her body is frozen by indecision, taut with the tension of inactivity.
“What the hell! At least something is better than this nothing.”
She turns the knob and steps through.
“I’m telling you strictly FYI. Don’t read anything else into it.”
She decides that the silence has gone on for long enough.
“Uh-huh.. you? How? Wow! This is all very sudden.”
“Ajay, did you hear what I just said? Don’t read anything else into it. I’m not here to guilt trip you. We’re history. I just thought you should know.”
She can’t help firming her tone as she speaks. She feels guilty about that the very moment she says it.
She had been up the whole night trying to debate whether or not to tell Ajay. Now that she had told him, she feels that she should never have come here.
But somewhere deep inside her, she feels glad that she did. It was also his child. Even though they had parted ways, there had been a time when they had been in love. Just for that he deserved to know.
She tries to remember their time together and how the world had seemed like a perfect place.
The door opens to a meadow.
It is beautiful. A stream flows through it. She thinks she can hear music, like the soft clink of silvery wires tapped with a delicate crystal wand.
“I have died and gone to heaven.”
She feels a mix of panic and ecstasy at the same time.
The place soothes her troubled mind. She stands their trying to make sense of it all. There’s a part of her that wishes to remain here, yet somehow after a while the place seems emptier than the void she had just been in.
She can’t put her finger on it. Maybe it’s the sameness of it. It seems like a fixed tableau, never changing, never altering a bit.
“Well! I AM getting bored of this Norman Rockwell shit.”
As she soon as she thinks this, another door appears in front of her.
“I don’t know what to say, Nandini.”
She doesn’t know what she expected out of this, but she can tell this isn’t going well. She had to speak to someone and she is secretly glad that she had told at least one other living soul about her situation. But now she wasn’t sure if Ajay was the perfect confidante in this matter.
“I… I… Are you absolutely sure that it’s mine?”
“Men! So predictable. I’m telling him I’m going to have his child and this is all he can come up with.”
She cannot help snickering even in this situation, abeit it happens entirely in her mind. That response was just… so Ajay.
“Yes. The doctor’s office called last evening. I’m two months pregnant.”
Ajay looks like he is ready to cry.
Damn! That’s the last thing she wants now. She nervously looks around the café to see if anyone is looking. She feels that hard not in the pit of her stomach tighten and all of a sudden she feels very sick.
She is sinking.
The door had opened into a quagmire. As soon as she had stepped through, she had started sinking into the quicksand. She was up to her waist now in it and it wouldn’t be long before it engulfed her completely. She tries desperately to break free, flailing her arms in futile attempt to swim in that gloop.
The muck completely restrains her lower half and she can no longer feel her legs. The harder she tries to break free, the stronger it seems to get.
She has sunk till her chest by now.
She tries harder.
Ajay bursts into tears.
She hadn’t expected this. When she had decided to come here, she just wished to tell him and walk away.
“Ajay, please don’t do this. Don’t make this harder for me than it already is. Please!”
The crying subsides, but he keeps on sniffling.
“It’s all my fault. I should’ve never left. If only I had known!”
He raises his head and looks at her. His nose is red like a child’s after a bout of cold and his voice sounds like he’s gasping for breath.
“What do you plan to do?”
She had asked herself this question a thousand times last night. Now hearing him articulate it, she feels that she is back at square one. The truth is she doesn’t know. Not for the first time in her life, she is unsure of everything.
She doesn’t know what the hell she wants to do.
She is up to her neck now in the mud. Her arms are barely above the quicksand and she is getting tired.
Resignation has set in. She doesn’t want to fight anymore.
She stops moving and waits for the inevitable.
“We… We could get back together. We could get married.”
“Stop it, Ajay. I didn’t come here for pity. It was a mistake.”
She starts getting up, but Ajay holds her hand.”
“No! No! Nandini, please hear me out. I want us to be together again. I was a fool to walk out.”
Now people are definitely looking at them.
She feels the tingle in the nape of her neck as she realizes that they are now the center of all attention in that small smoke filled café. She feels like time has paused around her. She looks at him, his eyes pleading with her. She feels the knot in her stomach tighten further. She has that somehow vaguely familiar feeling that she is sinking deep into something primordial that is sapping her of all feeling of being alive.
She feels her body and mind go numb.
It’s up to her chin now. She can’t see them, but she almost feels her numb arms dangle lifelessly by her side. She feels utterly helpless.
Her body is not responding to her mind and slowly she feels her mind giving up too. Her thoughts have crawled to a standstill. As she sinks even further, she feels the cold mud engulf her entire being.
This is the end.
She surprises herself with the violence of her own thought. She feels as if something inside of her is crying out loud, lashing out with all her strength. In that briefest of instants, she feels her mind fire with the last spurt of energy left in her numb form.
She understands. She has made a decision.
She stops moving and closes her eyes. She slides completely into the quagmire and she opens her eyes.
A door appears before her.
She looks at Ajay with a level gaze and even he can feel the intensity in her eyes. He stops bawling and lets go of her hand.
When she speaks, she feels as if she were out of her body and is hearing her own voice from a distance.
She doesn’t care who overhears her words or what they think of it. She has made up her mind.
“Listen to me carefully, Ajay. What we had was once wonderful, but it’s over. It’s no use for you to come back out of guilt. It would just be the same shit, over and over again.”
“B-but, I thought…”
“As I had told you before, I came here because I felt you had a right to know. I have made a decision and the best you can do is to honor it and support me one last time.”
The door opens back to the meadow. Something has changed. It feels different, as if someone has breathed life into it.
She sees a cottage by the stream and there is a bench there overlooking the meadow and the woods beyond. She walks over and sits on it.
She doesn’t know how long she sits there, nor does she care. For once in her life, she is at peace. Her trance is broken by a sweet sound of laughter that sounds purer than the untouched snow on the hills, the voice of an angel calling out to her.
“Mama! Mama! Look at what I found.”
She turns to see a little girl running towards her.
Nandinit smiles and walks towards her. The child is excited and is jumping up and down with enthusiasm as only a child can.
“You must see this, Mama. Come.”
The girl grabs her hand and she lets herself be led towards wherever the child wishes to take her.
They cross the rise in the heart of the meadow and there on the dip, she sees the most beautiful sight she has ever seen.
“I’m going to have this child and she’ll be mine alone. You needn’t worry. I’m not going to ask you for child support. You’re welcome to your life and I wish the same favor from you. I want you to have nothing to do with me or my child.”
He is crestfallen, but somehow he seems to accept her words.
She turns and walks towards the front door of the café. She can hear him sign and when she is almost at the door, she thinks she can hear him start to weep. She resists the urge to turn and look back.
In front of her the brass door knob gleams as if beckoning her to open it and step through. She opens the door and steps outside.
There on the meadow, mother and child behold the wonderful sight of an infinite number of doors, each looking different and glowing in the morning light. Each door beckons them to open and step through.
Nandini pulls her daughter close to her and they both start laughing with joy.
This story was the winner of Sulekha.com/DNA-Me short story contest and was published in the Nov 2006 Issue of DNA-Me. I had to edit the story down to 1000 words for publication. The version posted here is the longer / uncut version with some changes made. It was the first time I had to write something non-genre and for a publication geared towards a female audience. I’m really thankful to Sathya Saran, editor DNA-Me for choosing this story and working with me on the condensed version.
The first two lines are part of a writing prompt I used to write a story called “The Door”. I loved the line so much I wrote this story around that line.