I just want to thank K for the continuing encouragement, being there to carefully read this and the wonderful feedback. Just, THANK YOU. :)
She's in a store, dusty and crowded, the smell of sandalwood filling the air in between, and with floors that creak. She pushes her phone to her ear.
"Simon's not someone that I hate after the break up. He's not a bad person. He's actually quite the opposite. And, now, I feel like the horrible one. But, it was getting to this point where, you know—you know, when you're in a room and there are hundreds of people, and everybody speaks every language but yours?"
Neela stops to think about what she just said, who has actually ever been in that situation? "Oh, fucking hell. I'm not making sense."
"It wasn't meant to be." The hum of Ray's voice emerges from the other side, calmly reaffirming what he thinks she wants to say.
She becomes sad, quiet. "No. It wasn't."
This is what their relationship is now, Neela and Ray.
They talk about their lives, work, and their significant others, things like top ten ways malpractice suits might spice up your sex life, how incomprehensibly brilliant it was to have been in the vicinity of Grant Park on election night, his girlfriend's word-a-day calendar (or the similar calendar that she got him for Christmas,) or why after all these years he still thinks The Clash is one of the greatest bands ever and how much it disturbs him that the only song Neela knows by them is "London Calling."
It is actually better conversation than their Wicker Park years because they seem to be on some kind of equal footing. They know each other better. They are adults. She isn't married, so they are able to be back out there together and bitch about the same things. In fact, it is almost preferable that she is the person he goes to when he wants to complain about his girlfriend.
And, yes, she's jealous when she could tell that he liked his girlfriend. But, so it goes. If his girlfriend was likeable, then so be it. She wouldn't spend her days worrying about all the "likeable" women he could meet out there. She has other things to worry about: like how much of an utter wreck her own love life was.
"You're not a horrible person, by the way," he says. "Not possible."
That's another thing about their talks; he is always on her side. He never bullshit, but he still is always on her side.
"Well, you don't know everything."
"I know you."
She smiles faintly, rolling her eyes and relenting.
"What about you? Please tell me you're having…" she squints with one eye, stopping to wince and get the words out, "…just a fantastic sex life with your girlfriend and everything, because I'll feel like total crap complaining away about my life if not."
What a horrible masochist she is, she might as well ask him to make a sex tape and send it on over to her.
She hears him chuckle a little. "Actually, there is no girlfriend at the moment."
"Oh." Her immediate thought, and she sort of loathes herself for it, is: Oh, thank God, I thought it'd never end. "What happened?"
"It just had run its course. You know."
"And, you're not—?"
"Nope, I'm good. She's good. I hope. It was a good experience."
It is mildly agitating that he was able to end his relationship in such a breezy, adult manner. That never happened to her.
"Good." She sighs and looks at the row full of hanging shawls she's been standing in front of for ages. No more talk about relationships. "So, Ray?"
"Do me a favor."
"How do you feel about shawls?" She draws the word "shawls" out when she says it, like it's not supposed to mean what it means.
At first he doesn't get. "Shawls?" And then he does. "Jesus Christ, Neela."
She is adamant. "You picked out the last shawl I sent my mum, and it was a hit."
"That's because it was from you."
"No… no," she says. "She's hated my taste in everything."
"Okay, if I remember correctly, you got all in a huff, claimed you couldn't choose, and then told me to. At which point, I pointed at one."
"I don't get in huffs. And, you thought about it. You thought about it, and it was a beautiful shawl."
"You think about it."
"I can't." She looks forlornly at the one she's holding. "I like the blue one."
"Then take the blue one."
She puts it back on the rack and takes another one. "She hates blue. She always thought I had too much blue in my wardrobe."
"Then pick the opposite of what you like."
"That's reckless, and probably in bad taste."
He sighs. She deserved to be sighed at, especially by him. Still.
"You do realize we have like Missouri and Tennessee between us? There are way too many states to make this decision."
It amuses her that he's getting kind of worked up about this, and that the last sentence was said in total seriousness. Although, she's certain he's also smiling.
"Okay, so—I'm going to begin describing them to you. So, you need to listen carefully."
"You can't just send a picture with your phone?"
"Have I ever been able to use that thing?"
He pauses. "What, you weren't the one texting back before?"
She'd forgotten that about "her" mini text-messaging spree from awhile back. Christ. She honestly, truly couldn't use the thing. It didn't have actual buttons you could press, which freaked her out. She even had people call her on her landline in the evenings.
"It'll just be better if I describe them to you." She replaces another hanger on the rack and begins to study the next shawl. "You listening?"
He is silent for a moment. A part of her wonders what it is that makes people put up with other people, especially when they didn't have to.
"Yeah," he answers, "I'm listening."
She is smiling to herself on the subway. Shopping bags lie limply on the seat next to her, the folded cloth of her mother's shawl shining against clear plastic. It is the deep color of wine with an ash trim. At least that's how she had described it to him.
The sun is setting into the city. A sight so intense, the light seems sentient. Its blazing orb peeks out in between the edges of buildings as the train moves alongside a piece of the skyline. An emanation of the blended hues of orange and yellow serves as foreground to the whiteness of an early evening sky. She is floating the whole way, just gliding along.
She thinks of what there's left to do tonight. Clean her kitchen. Order takeout. Sit and watch something. The Philadelphia Story came in the mail today. It wouldn't be so horrible to spend her night with Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.
Bride of Frankenstein is next on her Netflix queue, she remembers, as well as Nosferatu. She had never gotten around to watching them, never felt like it.
After moving out of their apartment three years ago, their account became Ray's account. He never changed the password, which ended up presenting a truly vexing temptation to mess with the movies on his queue whenever she felt cross with him, or even just because.
Tonight, there'd be more thinking about her future, a decision she was going to need to make sooner than later. She could just make the decision on autopilot, like she usually does, which would undoubtedly lead her to North Carolina. Either way, she knew she was leaving Chicago. It was just time.
This realization had lead to a sudden surge of commiseration and nostalgia for the streets and the buildings and the stairs she had to climb everyday to take the El home, like she felt she was forsaking a childhood friend. She found herself spending more of her days out in the city, reacquainting herself with certain places, soaking in its virtue, its hardiness, the sight of elderly women of any ethnicity sitting patiently at bus stops, fresh gusts of Chicago wind on her face, and whatever else, reminding herself she'd miss it all. What a shame it was that she'd almost certainly be leaving sometime before the Spring, at least at the very beginning of the season.
This was the train where she first decided that she wanted to marry her husband, maybe in this very car. She can almost watch a hazy hologram of herself saying yes; hear her own voice asking about bouquets. It strikes her, how much of a privilege she thought it was to have him ride the subway to work with her that day. Something she did alone so often. And, there he'd been talking to her, making stupid arguments about grandchildren, asking her if she loved him. It was a culmination of a love story that lived in letters, in things sent and received, in between continents.
She misses him, she will always miss him.
The smile on her face fades. It is time again for decisions to be made.
There are some other things she knew she always seems to miss, so much sometimes she couldn't sleep, that she felt it in her bones, that she felt disoriented all of a sudden in the middle of doing something, like the dementia patients, barefoot and in hospital gowns, strolling out dazed in and out of exam curtains.
She had honestly thought she was over it.
A dawdling smile had stroked her lips when they finished their conversation. It kept reappearing all the way to the station. There always came a certain high after talking to him, and a sense of release, of coming home.
There had once been a time when she didn't always ride the subway alone.
On late night rides home, she often closed her eyes and put her head against the jacket covering the contour of his shoulder. Her ears taking in the rattle of the El in motion, a few murmurs of words from the conversation of passengers nearby, the announcement of station names, and sensing his own sudden, very nearly breathless silence. She too would hold her breath a little.
She misses getting lost in this city with him, getting on the wrong train, off at the wrong stops and coming home sore and pissed with each other, dropping jackets on the floor, all the while, both quietly thankful for the company. He always let her drink his liquor, and complained about it only when she moved out—and that wasn't even really complaining.
She remembers what Ray Barnett looked like in the beginning, in those first few months after he came to County, just before they became roommates. Handsome, disheveled, untested, untouchable, and incredibly foreign— random, really, if a person could be random.
It was incredibly frustrating when she seriously tried to figure him out, like solving one of those impossible problem sets her calculus professor put on the board at the end of exams in university. There were most certainly no answers at the back of Ray's book.
Maybe a part of her wanted to take both her hands and straighten him out like you would a crooked frame on the wall. And, maybe she was just a self-righteous pain in the ass and was just as much in need of… something or a lot of things.
Courage, for one, maybe.
There is a story behind the first shawl Ray had picked out. It was beautiful, this bright red and yellow cashmere wool, crafted with needlework that reminded her of the most elaborate bridal henna, the kind that took hours to do.
It was bought essentially weeks before the accident when they were beginning to spend time with each other again. She sent the shawl to England after he left Chicago, fixatedly asking her mother if she'd gotten it, or was wearing it, with a tone not so understated.
She learned that it was taken to India, where her mother planned on giving it to her aunt, because she'd liked it so much. Ultimately, she ended up forgetting to do so, which Neela was thankful for at the time. The possession had so much significance, and a part of her wanted to see it again. But, it intrigued her, the way her mind was working that year, how oblivious everyone was to the story that shawl embodied, the conduit that it was; and the image of that shawl hanging in her aunt's armoire in Punjab, having been picked out by a former punk rock musician in Chicago.
And, here she is again, with another damn shawl.
She feels curious to see what he looks like today, what his home looks like, where he put that turntable and all his vinyl albums.
For some reason, in this moment, it suddenly feels truly wrong that she physically cannot see them, him.
How many times is she going to do this?
Neela thinks of that CD he sent her, something she tried not to think about too much, because it was dangerous. Yet, the songs dwell in her head all the time, every song he's given to her.
It was good in the beginning.
As the city lights steadily begin to bloom, it is in this moment, on this very train, that another crazy proposal begins to ferment in her mind, one that scares the hell out of her. However, it is the certainty, and the downright, practically inconsolable want that is disorienting now.
Her head leans back against the glass of the window behind her as she starts to ready herself to eventually say her decision out loud to someone. To make it official. She closes her eyes, swallowing hard, and listens carefully for the station's name.
Her stop is coming up, and she's not going to miss it.
"There you are."
"Sorry about that." He closes the door behind him, ruefully smiling. "I hope I didn't make you wait too long."
He cut his hair since the last time she'd seen him.
Seeing him again, he looks good. Really good.
They are alone in a small break room on the floor he works on. He told her to meet him there. It's clean and quiet, and has a counter stocked with fresh coffee and plenty of tea, creamer, sugar, and honey. They have it good.
There are no lights on in the room.
She shakes her head. "No. I got to wander around a bit. See my new home."
Ray walks toward her. He looks as though he has too many questions in his head, struggling to pick which one he should ask first.
"And you… just flew in today?"
"Actually, I would've been here earlier, but the flight was delayed, and you know how much of a mess O'Hare is."
There is a breeze of shyness in the air, like middle schoolers on their first date. She suddenly can't even look straight at him for more than five seconds, because she can feel herself blushing and she knows the sight of his face is making her grin, in just the loopiest way.
He's inches away from her.
"Could've told me you were coming."
She smiles slightly with affectionate self-satisfaction. She had said the same thing when he visited on Halloween, her heart still pounding hard from the surprise.
Vengeance is truly sweet.
"And, miss the look on your face? Not a chanc—"
He kisses her, both hands touching the line of her jaw. Tingling thoughts of Newtonian mechanics and kinetic energy shoot through her mind. Her own hands make their way to his face, her thumb idly rubbing his temple. She then thinks of nothing, nothing but him. The way he gently moves, yet bursts with absolute confidence; the smooth, tentative grin hanging onto the corner of his mouth, the tilt of his mouth; the rediscovery of and an unfettering submergence into what he tasted like. It is good, in every respect; thawing. His taste reminds her only of him; it belongs to him, and nothing else, except maybe the subtle memory of a cup of tea and an obligatory drop of honey.
They are frantic, everywhere. Her lips leave a flutter of kisses on his brow, against the bone of his cheek, back to his mouth. His mouth. There is a jolt in her heart when she spots a shimmer of sunlight reflected in the green of his eyes, just as he closes them once more. She basks in the indulgence of being able to touch her lips to his, to nuzzle against his skin, the clean cut of smooth hair on his chin. To consume and be consumed.
They draw their bodies closer, so tightly close, and feel the disarray of the other's breathing. Both his arms enclose her body; she does the same to him. She hears him sigh deeply into the side of her neck, mouth hovering over the tremors of her carotid. Her fingers press against his back, instinctually curling to clutch the fabric at the back of his shirt. She decides that the shade of blue he's wearing looks so goddamn soft, it suits his new specialty; she had felt restored by just looking at him.
That tickle of sentiment that often heralded tears begins to amass at the base of her throat. Something aches just a bit inside her body, begetting a sense of residual, yet freshly smarting melancholy. Her arms tighten around his body to calm her jitteriness. Everything about him consoles her; everything about being near him serves as solace. She just can't seem to get over this, it's so overwhelming. She doesn't know what to say or do, nor does she really mind the idea of just staying like this.
He says something slow, in a whisper. She loves it when he whispers and how the pace of his sentences changes with it, like he holds the power to decelerate time for her. He asks her how she is, even though she was certain he asked her this before. Is she tired or hungry? Does she have a place to stay? All in what seems like one breath. There is a restrained uncertainty in his questions, and for some reason, she can't quite summon right words to answer him.
She laughs with her head now tucked under his chin and asks if he needs to get back to work. It seems like a conversation of questions now, kinds of questions they've been waiting to ask each other face-to-face for a long time.
He replies. "Not today." And, he asks her the same— whether she has any business she needs to take care of.
She's wholly, perfectly finished with all of her business.
"No. Not today."
"Okay," he says.
He smiles and holds her hand, bringing it close to the denim of his jeans.