I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. "Ten, nine, eight, seven..."
…six, five, four…..” No, the feeling did not pass. I stood there, almost rooted to the concrete beneath my feet, the feet that now seemed to have a mind of their own. The cold of the floor did not seep into my heart. I could almost hear my own heart, the way it was beating against the thin parka that I was wearing over the light-blue cotton shirt. Wrong clothing for such an evening, I know, but then when everything seemed to be broken, I had no time to ponder over my attire. Suitable or unsuitable, it was there, in some way protecting my skin.
I looked up again and saw him.
The weeping willows had always drooped gracefully outside my window. The picturesque scene outside a window that belonged to a house that knew no joy was an odd contrast, but then my life had thrived on these vast contrasts and I now knew nothing else. Maybe I was just not capable of it anymore.
For as long as I could remember, my mornings would begin with the weeping willows. I think I had always envied them. There were two of them right outside my bleak window, lining the tiny lake on one side and the decrepit new house on the other. The lake was tiny and bereft of any life except for what it had originally been given. No lotuses, no ducks, no waves as unseen kids swung their well-practiced arms to throw pebbles on its surface. Nothing. It did not seem to miss something it never knew. And that seemed the strongest bond that I shared with it. On the other side of the graceful trees was the house I was born in, grew up in, cried in and wiped my tears never to shed them again. There just seemed no point in shedding them anymore. A loss of precious salt from the already depleted body. No more, no less.
The house itself stood against the beautiful backdrop of the graceful willows, and the beautiful lake. Built no more than a quarter of a century ago, it had been his gift to her on the occasion of my birth. He had designed it all by himself, genius that he was, and given it all he had before gifting it to her. I was born there. She had collapsed on the front porch, her body racked by the force of her contractions. Doctors said that she would never have made it to the hospital anyway. They were too far out. And for that same reason, there had been nobody to call for help. Only the weeping willows stood witness to my birth. And it was only the weeping willows that stood witness to her death as life slowly ebbed out of her and into me. She left before I could understand what a goodbye meant. She left me alone with him. And him with me.
Oddly enough, he never forgave me. Perhaps that was too strong a word to use. He just never acknowledged me at all.
There was no one from either of their families who could have come and taken care of rearing me. One of her friends took me home after a few days, during which I had reached a point close to total dehydration and was on the brink of joining my life giver. She gave me as much as she could, but she had no motivation to hold on to me. I was not the type who inspired much love, never have been. To her I was just an ugly little thing that needed some nourishment and nothing more. To him I was a creature that had sucked out his love just as I had sucked out her life to fan my own. Call me ungrateful, but did it matter that I had no control on these happenings?
It was time for the lady and her family to move on to a better life. Childless though she was, she chose that state over me. In all the years together, I had never managed to rouse any maternal feelings in her. She preferred to remain a care giver, temporary in nature. She handed me back with a few statutory warnings and moved on without a backward glance.
As far as he was concerned, the whole event made no difference. She could have just taken me without requesting adoption. He would not have cared. She could have left me on the front porch where I had sucked out her life. He would not have cared. He put me through school and gave me food and I have learnt to remain grateful. After all, I had company throughout the growing up years. I had the willows weeping outside my window.
The interim years seem to have gone by in some sort of a fogy haze. I don’t really remember much of them, or maybe there was just nothing remarkable that happened. Friends came and went away. The monthly visitors began their monthly calls as if on alarm mode. I had no warning of their onset of course. And then after a stage, boyfriends came and went away. Only the willows stood there, firm in their intention, unwavering in their silent friendship.
Then one day, after I graduated, as if it was the most natural thing to do, I went away.
I did look back. At the willows that had silently borne witness to the first few phases in my life. Would I miss them? I was not sure. Perhaps they were like the lifeboat you grab when you are on the brink of drowning and spare no thought for once you are ashore. I did not even leave him a note. I don’t think he would have cared anyway. He would have thought that it was just in the natural course of things. Maybe in some weird, inexplicable way, he had been a lifeboat too. I was ashore the minute I left and I no longer needed a lifeboat.
Moving away changed me. It changed me completely. I have always wondered what the term new lease on life meant. I, on the other hand, seemed to have gotten a new life altogether. For a few days I just drifted about, waiting at tables, helping out in supermarkets, and all such general stuff so that I had enough to eat. If anyone had pointed out saying that I was just drifting my life away, I would have retorted saying that this was the first time I was seeing things, experiencing things and living them. I did not care. What were a few weeks where I had lost an entire chunk?
I moved from city to city this way and with each move I felt something new opening up within me. Then I reached the place that I wanted to be in, not forever, but at least for the longest, steadiest time possible. I reached there one morning, really early. The sun was not completely up yet. It was the break of dawn and as I got off the bus, I looked up in that dim light to see a row of what looked like weeping willows. I dropped a temporary anchor there.
After a few years, I went back. I daren’t say home. It never was. Why I actually went back I can never really say. Neither I nor he had reached out or made any effort. We were both too comfortable and peaceful in the separation it would seem. It could be a morbid curiosity or just some glimmer of concern. I never delved long enough on the emotion or the lack of it to figure out which. I just went.
I couldn’t bring myself to go to that decrepit old house, no longer new. Not even to catch a glimpse of the willows. I had my own now. I went, instead, to the bar that I knew he went to every evening without fail. I sat down, ordered a drink and waited. I thought of the little one back at home who had been curious about where her mommy was going. I couldn’t tell her much. Her father had said that he understood. I am not sure that he really did. But I came anyway.
Time was running out. I had told myself that I would stay to catch a glimpse and no more. Funnily enough, I had felt this impulse to time my visit and stay like a visa that is stamped with an arrival date and a definite departure date. Was I afraid that I would get caught at the window again, watching those willows from another lifetime for another lifetime?
He walked in. He took his usual beer from the fridge that stood by the counter. He dropped the change in front of the unseeing bartender and turned around to leave. Predictable as ever.
I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. The last bus out of the town was in 20 minutes. I never know why I timed my visit so close. But I had. He hadn’t changed at all. Just the same. But why did I expect any change at all? I was the one who had gone away, not him. He still had the willows for company if he wanted them. I had new ones now.