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13 June 2020

Less Than Perfect by Prateek Nigam

Anasuya lies between the crumpled bedding. Even the slightest touch of the chenille blanket irks her. The cooler spews warm air into the bedroom of their top floor apartment in Bangalore. The walls seem to glow with heat like a tandoor. She kicks the blanket into a ball, pushing it into a corner. Sweat seeps through her cotton chemise, making the sheet below her damp. Vardhaman did not want to go to the Orion Mall this weekend, or the one before that. ‘It’s damn far, yar!’ He had said. He would not want to go anywhere the week after, she knows.‘Ye Vardhaman hain!'’Vardhaman’s mother had introduced him at their first meeting. Her flattened open palms traced the edges of a linen shirt, showing him off like he was a prize to be won. Beads of sweat trickling down his smooth cheeks made him look like a peach freshly plucked from the field. He was earning a six-figure salary, working at Goldman Sachs, and had prospects of moving abroad —a wholesome piece of fruit at that, a prize indeed. Anasuya looks at Vardhaman sleeping without a care in the world. Thick puffs of air escape his parted lips. A clump of nose hair vibrates. The kind, peachy face of the man she had prepared herself to fall in love with, who her mother had found with a stroke of luck on north-india-matrimony.com and insisted that Anasuya would grow to like, is covered by long, thick sideburns. The untrimmed beard grates her skin raw each time he buries his face into her neck, or between her breasts. The short and stout room-cooler with little wheels at the bottom has to be rolled into whichever room they are in: the bedroom at night, the living room during the day. It’s out of water yet again. Anasuya cannot breathe in the hot box that is their bedroom. Irritated, she gets up. She splashes water on her face and walks to the fridge. They are out of fruit juice, and coke. The array of colourful plastic water bottles kept in the refrigerator are empty. Vardhaman has forgotten to fill them up. There is one Yona-Yona left. It’s the last can, but she does not drink beer. Vardhaman smuggled two six-packs back from their trip to Japan, or so he told his friends. When in fact he had decided to swap his carry-on with hers at the sight of custom officials at Bangalore International. The cold aluminium can perspires in her hand. ‘'Why the fuck we can’t get an AC?' She places the beer back into the chiller. The reasons are many. The landlord wouldn’t let them drill holes in the wall. '’Besides who puts an air conditioner in a rental property, that too in a city like Bangalore where it rains half the year around,’' Vardhaman said when she brought it up for the third time. ‘'Then we can get our own house!’' ‘'I asked your father to buy us one but he gave me a car instead,' he said with a sly smile. It could be a harmless quip, but then it may not be. 'But I don’t know how long we are here in Bangalore for,' he quickly added on seeing Anasuya’s knitted brows. ‘'You have been here for six years!’' ‘'I might get an offsite this year.’' He said, sipping on Yona-Yona. ‘'It’s usually not that hot. You will see.’' He said. 'This is not Delhi!' ‘'You wear too many clothes —look at me!’' he snapped the waistband of his white Jockey boxer shorts with the yellow stain in the middle. ‘'Take it off,’' he urged her to get out of her pyjamas. Anasuya places the beer back into the chiller. The living room is less humid, and Anasuya decides to watch TV. She leans against the armrest and lies with her legs splayed, melting still, like ice cream. The Bachelorette is on. Emilia is about to give the last rose. Anasuya cannot follow what she says against the drone from the cooler. She turns the volume up. ‘'Su, stop it yar. I am trying to sleep,’' Vardhaman yells. She peeks into the room with a tilt of her head. His face is buried beneath between the pillows. His chest rises and falls. He is still sleeping. She might not have to turn the volume down after all. Vardhaman cannot part with his sleep. Sleep, food, and sex; in that order of preference. He has drooled on the crisp, silk pillowcases she bought from the Home Center, and now they are ruined. Anasuya could not bear the thought of having to explain circles of sputum to the hotel staff at their hotel in Shinjuku. She scrubbed them clean before housekeeping showed up. ‘'Vardhaman, utho’' Anasuya had to plead to wake him up repeatedly. ‘'The tour group leaves in twenty minutes.’' ‘'Why didn’t you wake me up an hour ago?’' he complained, wiping crusty gunk from the corner of his eyes. She had tried. ‘'Can you go and ask them to wait? I will dress up.’' He said, slipping out of his shorts and stepping into the shower. Vardhaman had obsessed over this walking tour of villages surrounding Mount Fuji.. ‘'They left!’' She announced barging back into their room. ‘'Why didn’t you ask them to wait?’ ‘'What do you think I was doing downstairs?’' ‘'Didn’t work,did it?’' He smirked as he casually rinsed the lather off his chest. ‘'Relax! We can take a cab.’' He smiled and stepped into the room with the towel swung over his shoulders. Anasuya could not get used to the sight of a man walking naked around her. ‘'And just walk around without a guide? We will get lost.’' ‘'They have maps, you know?’' He said. He was rounding off his words with a lilt. That explaining rhythm of his which she did not like. ‘'Su.’' He walked up to her. ‘'I have just taken a shower,’' he said, grinning as he stroked his engorged cock. Their taxi looked like the packaging of a Kodak film: green and yellow, catchy and provocative. The woman driving the cab did not look a day over twenty. Vardhaman kept looking at her through the rear view mirror, trying to strike up a conversation with the few phrases he had picked up. Anasuya rolled her eyes and stared out of the window. The streets of Oshino Hakkai were bustling. The sun was out after three days. The little huts standing at the edges of the winding road looked over the snow-covered tip of Mount Fuji. Anasuya could feel its watchful presence even when she turned the other way. Vardhaman waited for a cluster of clouds to appear behind the peak. He delicately pressed the buttons of his new camera which he cautiously wore around his neck. It whined with each click. Anasuya stood behind Vardhaman clutching the camera bag in her grip. She would have liked to be asked to pose for a few pictures. She could demand for pictures to be taken, but that would be too childish. Besides, her lips were flaking in the chilly, dry wind that had started to blow. The wind cut through the fabric of the jacket Anasuya was wearing. The cold was making her lips quiver into a flickering smile. She could see the smoke and steam rising from the array of tiny shops at the corner. ‘'Restroom,’' she said, excusing herself. She walked up to the paved road. She slipped into the crowd of bargaining tourists. Every second store sold gaudy souvenirs: fridge magnets, Hello Kitty key chains, origami figurines, paper fans in ugly prints. A woman with feline glasses resting on the tip of her red nose urged Anasuya to come inside and take a look. ‘'Beautiful gifts inside. No charges for looking at pretty things!’' She insisted. Behind the beaded curtain was a table full of trinkets and charms. Neatly arranged in the last row were porcelain cups and teapots. ‘'Come on. Have a look,’' the woman said, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. ‘'Very pretty. Traditional,’' she added. Anasuya looked at the blue teapot with gold detail, and the woman picked it up in an instant. ‘'Fantastic choice,’' she said, thrusting it into Anasuya’s palms. It wasn’t china or porcelain. It was made of stone, yet it was so thin and felt so delicate in her hands. It could break if she held it too tight. ''No one is serving tea in that. I am telling you,’' Vardhaman had followed her, ‘'look, there is a crack here,’' he pointed to a thread of gold running along the length of the spout. ‘'Wabi-Sabi,’' the woman chimed in. 'Beauty in imperfections.' Anasuya ran her fingers along the golden line that kept the delicate pieces from coming apart. ‘'Eleven thousand yen for this junk,’' he said, looking at the price tag. He walked out of the store. Anasuya stayed back looking around, feeling flustered. ‘'I am sorry. I don’t have enough cash on me.’ The woman smiled a knowing, almost commiserating, smile that made Anusuya tear up. Anasuya clenched her fists. Her nails dug into the skin of her palms. Vardhaman was walking further along the road but she did not want to be with him. Cottony ice floated in the air and settled on the sleeve of her jacket. She examined the delicate, fractal geometry of a snowflake as it melted between her fingers. She walked up to the empty bench facing the peak and stared into the thick whiteness of the sky. It carried the strange allure of the unknown andmade her nervous. 'Su! Are you crazy?' Vardhaman came looking for her. He walked with urgency balancing two cups of tea and a paper bag. 'It’s snowing!' Anasuya folded her knees as she did at home sitting on the couch in front of the T.V. She refused to move. 'Are you upset with me?' He asked. He placed the cups on the bench and sat in the narrow space she had left. He put his left arm over her shoulder. The warmth of his body was soothing, but Anasuya did not say a word. 'It’s cold, Su. Have some tea. Please.' he passed her the cup. She watched him bite into the chubby, green doughnut that oozed yellow jelly into his mouth. His lips were covered in powdered sugar. Crumbs were falling down his jacket leaving smudges. She wiped the sugar off his lips, which were warm and toasty from tea. He brought his face close to hers for a moment and knocked his cup off the bench in the process. He rose clumsily and wiped the liquid off his jacket. Anasuya laughed. She got up from the bench and kissed him. 'You like that wabi-wasabi pot. Don’t you?' He asked. The blue teapot is placed at the corner of the wooden coffee table. Fake cherry blossom flowers that the lady at the shop threw in free of any charge are placed in a little cup beside it. Even the plastic flowers seem wilted in the heat. She rearranges them. Anasuya craves for something sweet, something chilled. A thick milkshake with chunks of mango is not a bad idea. But Emilia is yet to decide. Who would she choose? Jason, the farm boy with a heart of gold, or Wall Street Mark? Anasuya’s own farm-boy-Jason did not work in a farm, but worked night shifts at a tech support centre. It was not a love affair like the ones they used to show in those over the top Hindi movies where there was a need to be loud, or unpleasant, or unnecessarily dramatic. In fact Anasuya made sure that she acted cool and composed at all times when they were together at a restaurant, or in the room that he rented just beyond the city limits. When she introduced the boy to her mother, her mother’s hysterical cries scared Anasuya into ending things. She met Vardhaman two months after the breakup, and like her mother, sheconvinced herself of the benefits of financial stability that came with a proper business degree. Something that her mother so doggedly sought in all potential matches; something that tech-support-Arvind did not have. 'Not wall street Mark, Em. Please!' Anasuya sprints across the hall to gather ingredients and equipment. She decides to prepare the milkshake in the hall from where she can still guide Emilia. Vardhaman stands near the bedroom door. 'What’s with all the noise, Su? You could have shut the door yar.'. Anasuya pours the drink into a glass and offers some to him. 'No. I want the beer,' he replies, scratching his armpit. She places the glass on a coaster and turns the volume up even more now that he is no longer sleeping. 'How do you sit here, in this heat?' Vardhaman says, rolling the cooler into the room. He lifts his eyebrows and gives the empty plastic tank a knock. 'Your turn,' he says. 'It’s not.' 'It is! I filled it this morning.' He sits down and e puts his cracked feet up on the table. She reluctantly gets up to fetch the bucket. Vardhaman puts on the repeat of the Copa cup final.. Anasuya waddles in with a bucket leaving splashes of water on the floor along the way. She jerks open the cover and pours water into the tank. Vardhaman looks at the puddle forming on the floor and grunts. If he needs anything to be done properly, he is sure that he has to do it himself. The room is humid now. The cooler has made things worse. The Bachelorette is over. Anasuya’s last refuge, the living room, is Vardhaman’s. At least the sun is setting. Hopeful, Anasuya gets up. Vardhaman hears the sounds of her flip flops slamming against the floor as if in protest. She slides out of her shirt and steps into the shower. The copper pipes running on the roofs have soaked up the heat from the sun. The water is hot, but it rinses the sweat off her body. Vardhaman peeps from the door that she has left ajar, half wanting to join in. 'Are you upset? I can think of a few ways to make you happy.' He extends an arm trying to graze her naked thigh. Anasuya closes the door. They are not going anywhere for dinner, she knows. She steps into a fresh night suit that smells clean. She opens the door to the balcony to get some air in. She rubs lotion on her hands, filling the room with the smell of ripe peaches. She takes out the iPad and plugs in the portable speakers to watch Emilia on YouTube as she describes how excited she is to start a life with Wall Street Mark. Anasuya sighs. Vardhaman can hear the sounds from the frivolous show she is watching. How dare she shut the door in his face. Couldn’t he even touch his own wife now? The week before when he was tired, he even told her so, but she wrapped her legs around him like an animal in heat and did not leave him until she was done. She did have such unseemly spurts of wants. He knew the moment he entered her the first night and there was not a single stain on the sheets that she had shamelessly let all her past lovers have her. And there are many more than she cares to admit—he is sure. And she has the courage to deny him a touch? Just a touch? His own wife! 'Spoilt little bitch.' He is going to rip that shirt of hers, that she clutches against her breasts when he wants to slide his hands inside. He will have it his way. He has decided. If she complains one more time he is going to smack her across her bare buttocks until they are burning red. His cock stiffens up at the thought. He sweeps his foot across the surface of the table and knocks the teapot off. 'Haven’t I told you a million times to keep it someplace else? It was a fucking hundred dollars, you idiot!' Anasuya walks into the living room alarmed at his screaming. She picks the teapot in her hands. It’s blue surface seems chipped. 'You! You are an idiot.' She screams back. He pulls at her hair and pushes her towards the couch while she protests. He forces her bottoms down exposing her butt. Before he could rid himself of his boxer shorts, Anasuya hits him with the tea pot right in his face. It shatters into pieces. One of the shards slices open his left cheek. He yelps in pain as blood seeps through his cupped palm. He cries like a dog that has been kicked in the guts. The bloodied teapot lies in pieces. The golden line running through the surface of the teapot disappears into the dark hollow where the spout had been. Its imperfections are irrevocably multiplied.   Prateek is based out of Bangalore where he has been working as a software developer for almost a decade. He has been a kickboxing instructor in the past and has more recently started to dabble in the art of short story writing. He is a graduate of Bangalore Writers Workshop. He writes short stories to capture the oddities of life—his own and of those around him. His stories have appeared in Spark (an Indian literary magazine). Enter the 2020 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize here.    
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