Stars in the Sky

Smita Jain posted under Inverso Short Stories on 2022-12-18

Tonight I lie on the bed as my husband, Sanket, enters inside me. The tide of emotions rising and ebbing inside me escape through the moans and sighs out of my mouth.  Sanket pauses in the act to give me a curious look. “The trip seems to have done you good. For a change, you seem to be excited,” he quips. Excited I am. Not because of what’s happening in the present but an encounter in the past. There are stars in my eyes, the stars from the sky three nights ago.  My eyes wander away from Sanket and settle towards a corner of the room where a new pair of white sneakers rest. “I will remember the trip forever,” I remark, even as Sanket, more interested in my body than me, doesn’t listen.  He hadn’t listened to me earlier in the day as well. He seldom does. Perhaps it is for the best.   Six Hours Ago I stand in the queue holding my duffel bag, waiting to board the airport shuttle, when Pranav comes beside me and holds out his hand. “It was nice meeting you, Reema,” he says softly. I look at him and offer my hand in return. “Same here,” I echo. I mean it, though my reasons may be different from his. In a flash, he is gone from my life. Much the same way he had entered it.  I am preoccupied for the most part of the air journey home. “How was your trip?” Sanket asks as he opens the door. There is no hug or embrace, just words. “I will remember the trip forever,” I mutter. But Sanket, already walking ahead of me, doesn’t listen, leaving me alone with my memories.  Two Days Ago We wake up on the ground, looking at each other. No words are spoken. None are needed. The first rays of the dawn are making their way to earth. The saffron-tinged sky appears different from the star-studded one from the previous night. The chirps of birds ready to start their day reach my ears.  “I hate to say this, but is it time to go already?” Pranav breaks the comfortable silence between us.  He shouldn’t have. I come out of the trance now.  I rise from the ground and see in Pranav’s expression that I have gotten up more quickly than he would have liked. “Yes,” I say, draping the red saree I had abandoned the previous night. “We have overstayed.” “Did I say something wrong?” he asks. “I meant that we have to leave before someone arrives here.” “You have not said anything wrong. Let’s go.” I pretend to ignore Pranav’s outstretched hands and walk ahead, carrying my white sneakers. We sprint in uncomfortable silence for more than an hour. I hasten my steps at the sight of the resort gates. “When will I see you next?” Pranav asks. I turn and look at him. My heart breaks as I remark, “I will not meet you again.” I wipe away the tiny tear that threatens to come from the corner of my eye. Or am I imagining things? “But thank you so much,” I add, giving him one last look before disappearing inside the gates. For the next two days, I make sure to cocoon myself within a crowd of colleagues. Whenever I feel a familiar pair of intense eyes on my back, I deep-dive into conversations with my lady friends with more gusto, not allowing the opportunity to Pranav to speak to me. I have no desire to invite trouble; one night is enough for me. Three Days Ago I sit on the rooftop terrace, sipping a drink. It is the first of three days of the offsite organised by my employer. Though the open air is doing me good, and I am enjoying the interactions with known and unknown colleagues in the informal atmosphere, I feel cold and listless from inside, much like the dark night surrounding me.     “Excuse me,” a husky voice calls out behind my back. I see a tall, dark, handsome guy pointing to the empty chair opposite me. “May I sit here?” he asks. I nod, eyeing him with interest as he sits down. The pale blue shirt does a poor job of concealing the ripped muscles it adorns. The clean-shaven chiselled face goes well with the twinkling eyes. Eyes that seem to look deep inside you. “You are Reema, aren’t you?”  “Yes.” I am surprised. How does he know me? “I am Pranav. You might recognise the name. We have interacted quite a bit over emails.” “Oh yes, of course,” I say. We have been working remotely together for months on a project. So, this man is the face behind the name. “How do you do?” “I was good earlier. Now I am even better after meeting you.” His lips part wide, and I notice the dimples at the corners of his mouth.   I am sure I am blushing.  “Is this your first time in the mountains?” Pranav asks. “First time, no. But coming here after a very long time. Is it that obvious?”  “Well, you are wearing heels. I thought the afternoon trek would be difficult for you, but you managed it effortlessly. Still, I wonder whether the footwear is out of choice or habit.” I burst into peals of laughter for some reason. “Definitely out of habit. Unfortunately, I have only brought heels with me. I realised in the afternoon what a colossal mistake that was. Can’t do anything now,” I say. “Well, we can do something about it. What are your plans now?” Pranav asks with ease. “Now? Hmm...nothing, actually.” “That’s perfect. Let us walk across to the market opposite the resort. The roadside vendors have a decent footwear collection. You will find a suitable pair or two for yourself at a bargain.” Pranav gets up while speaking. I stare at him before getting up from my chair and walking beside him.  It turns out to be a long walk. We talk about the stars, the sun, and the earth under the moonlit sky. He narrates stories about the nooks and corners of the city where we had arrived this morning; it is his fourth visit here. I share experiences about my childhood, adulthood, and the town where I reside at present.  We are in no hurry to reach our destination.  Is there a destination in the first place?  At some point, we stop somewhere to buy a pair of walking shoes for me. I choose white sneakers and immediately replace my pencil heels with them. Pranav carries them in his hand while we continue to walk.  Eventually, the sound of strong water currents reaches our ears. We have arrived at the mouth of the famous lake that runs through the city.  “Care to sit and rest your feet here for a while?” Pranav asks. “I didn’t realise we had come so far.” “I am not tired,” I reply, “but I do want to enjoy this place. Just us and the water for company.” We gingerly tread the rocks that pave the way to the river’s mouth. Suddenly my foot slips. I am about to fall when Pranav holds me in a steady grip. I feel his strong arms secure me.   “My fault,” Pranav says. “I should not have walked ahead of you.” He doesn’t let go of my hand for the next few minutes until we reach the edge of the boulder adjoining the river body. Pranav lets me sit down first before settling beside me, still holding my hand. The lake in front of us glows in yellow and white like a bejewelled bride.   “This is so beautiful,” I whisper. “Yes, it is,” Pranav says. He looks sideways at me even as I keep looking in front. A shiver runs down my spine.  I continue staring ahead, looking at nothing in particular. Pranav lets go of my hand and places his wrist on my chin. Slowly he tilts my face towards him. We sit gazing into each other’s eyes. I cannot tell whether the throbbing in my ears was Pranav’s breathing or the sound of my own thumping heart. Our mouths find each other like magnets. Pranav brushes his lips against me from left to right before opening them to savour my mouth. I don’t realise when the slow kiss turns into a passionate embrace and a desperate longing for the other. We take time exploring each other, in no hurry to let go even though it is difficult to hold on. Eventually, we are lying under the horizon without any barrier of shame between us. Pranav slowly enters inside me, and I feel I will explode with all the pleasure I had not experienced until tonight. The stars, the earth, and the sky witness our moans and groans before we collapse into each other’s arms.  “You are beautiful,” Pranav whispers. “I hope you know that.” “Now I do,” I say. He is the first person to compliment me in a long, long time. We sleep in each other’s arms under the star-studded sky.  I would have missed this incredible feeling had I decided against making the trip.  One Month Ago “Are you sure it is ok for me to go?” I ask Sanket. I am wondering whether to go to the offsite or skip it. Although my work responsibilities do not entail travelling, the company that employs me has decided to have an offsite. It was calling all its employees to a picturesque hill station five hundred kilometres from the city where I live with Sanket and our son. If I went, I would leave my four-year-old son home for three nights and four days for the first time since his birth. In fact, it would also be the first time I would travel on my own somewhere during the seven years of our marriage. Seven years. How time has flown! Appearances have changed, circumstances have evolved, but my questions remain with no one to answer them. While outwardly I appear to be the same person to everyone, I have clammed up from the inside. I am going through the motions of making a living without appreciating my life. “Go by all means. You need to network to grow in your career,” Sanket encourages me. My job is one area where I have always found support from him. “I will call my parents here during that time. Our son is now old enough to live without his mother for a few days.” So, I decide to travel outside my home a month later. I have no hopes or expectations, having given up on them years ago. Four Years Ago “It is the first time I am seeing you so active in bed. It is true what they say. Motherhood brings out the best in a woman, in every aspect,” my husband says, playing with a curl of my hair. I cover my impatience with a smile. The foreplay has gone on too long, and I wish Sanket would get down to the brass tacks soon. But I do not say anything. Like the rest of her life, having a say in bed isn’t a woman’s prerogative. She is expected to take things lying down, literally. My husband eventually goes limp in my arms and moves to the side, his face glowing with satisfaction.  “Are you done?” I ask in surprise. Sanket raises an eyebrow while wiping the sweat off his forehead. “Ehh…what do you mean? You want more?” I sure do. After coming home with the new arrival, I have been counting the days for the blood flow to cease. When it did today, I had wasted no time inviting Sanket to make love to me. The doctor was right. I didn’t feel anything. Neither pain nor pleasure. The pain I had withstood for three years has given away to nothingness. And nothingness felt like bliss. “I don’t mind,” I reply, wanting to test the waters and see if the missing pain was for perpetuity. Sanket is encouraged and aroused. He enters inside me again. With the same result.  With the pain gone, the frequency of our lovemaking increases, and so does my husband’s happiness. Our discussions start to revolve more around the happenings of the world than the compulsions of managing a home. Unlike in the past, he doesn’t let the household matters solely rest on my shoulders and supports me in caring for our infant son.  Everyone around is happy. Everyone but me. Four Years Three Days Ago I am sure I will die today. The excruciating pain is unlike anything I have experienced before. I am even willing to have sex in lieu of the torture. The creator of the world must have intended to sculpt a woman’s body of iron before bestowing the duty of motherhood on her, and then had a lapse of judgement. “I will die, Sanket,” I gasp in the delivery room after three hours. He speaks to the gynaecologist, and they inject an epidural into my body. The pain becomes bearable, but there is no further progress in the baby’s movement. “We have to go for a C-section,” the doctor announces after another three hours. I am relieved even as my mother-in-law shudders in horror.  “It’s a very healthy baby boy.” The doctor’s words reverberate across the delivery room as he holds the tiny body upside down, looking more excited than both Sanket and I. I am exhausted from the ordeal, and my husband is tired of watching me.  “Do you want to hold your baby?” the doctor asks. I want to say no. All I want to do now is to sleep. It would do no harm to the baby to wait for some time.  Am I a bad mother within a minute of my child’s birth? The guilt makes me nod at the doctor. When others in the room are busy admiring the new arrival, the gynae whispers into my ears, “Your vaginal muscles have loosened. Come to my clinic to learn about some muscle-strengthening exercises. You won’t feel anything during the act otherwise.” My sleep-addled brain registers the last words. Did the doctor really say that I won’t feel anything? No more feeling of pain during intercourse? Motherhood does have benefits for marriage, after all. Almost Five Years Ago “You are pregnant,” the gynaecologist declares triumphantly, two months after I missed my period. Sanket is over the moon, while a feeling of relief washes over me. A break from sex for seven months and beyond! My body will get time to heal, and my mind the time to think. The ensuing months are one of love and laughter. Sanket and his parents care so much for me that I do not want this phase to end. The house of two is filled with relatives from both sides who take turns to come, supposedly to look after me, notwithstanding the fact that I am still going to work. I have made peace with the knowledge that I would never understand some things. Six Years Ago “You are looking very unhappy these days, beta,” my mother-in-law remarks during a visit to our home in the city a year into my marriage with Sanket. “You two also don’t talk much. Is everything alright?” I nod mutely. What else is there to say? Beta, it is time to have a child in your arms. Everything appears rosy at the start of a marriage. Gradually life makes its presence felt. Love goes out of the window, and couples drift apart without children to bind them. Your marriage is at risk. It is up to you to protect it,” she remarks with an all-knowing look. I shudder at the prospect she is alluding towards. I love children. But the route to achieving motherhood route seems arduous; there’s too much pain involved.  Is the ‘mother’ status worth the onslaught on my body?  I deliberate the dilemma for days before concluding I have no choice. I cannot imagine being single again. The rigmaroles of changing my surname alone seem a big hassle. Like the pond is the world for the frog, so is this marriage to me. I have to save it at all costs. I grit my teeth every other night as Sanket enters my body, wiping away the tears that sometimes flow from my eyes lest he takes offence. I look at the ceiling, fan, window, and fluorescent bulb—anywhere to divert my mind from the act. The pain increases even as my marriage improves. Sanket starts smiling and talking to me again. Friendly banters replace the stony silence. The monotony of life makes way for hopes and desires of the future. This is how it is meant to be, I conclude. Movies and books sell us dreams, and we accept them as gospel. A woman is meant to endure, and lovemaking is the peak of endurance, culminating in the zenith of motherhood. You have to suffer the pain for the gain. Six and Half Years Ago “Tell me one day of the week when you don’t feel tired or sleepy,” my husband snides. “You behave as if sex is a sinful act. We are husband and wife, for God’s sake! Sex is as natural as eating food and drinking water.” I know Sanket is right; husbands always are. So, I am to blame for this predicament.  As per my parents, I couldn’t have asked for a better husband. Sanket’s intellect is praiseworthy, and he can hold his own on any subject. I enjoy our debates and discussions. But all our conversations invariably lead to Sanket holding my hands, kissing my cheeks and attempting to explore my body, making me clam up.  Gradually I start resorting to excuses to avoid sex, my demanding job making for a convenient pretence. Eventually, the discussionslike the lovemakingcease, and the sarcastic remarks begin.  Six Years Nine Months Ago I stare at the ceiling above my head while Sanket lies on top of me. At one point, I almost tell him to be quick before biting my tongue. “Women cannot demand anything, anywhere, from their husbands,” my mother had counselled me before marriage. Sanket eventually pulls away and lies alongside me with a zen-like expression on his face that I envy. I wonder, not for the first time, what it is about the act of love that gives way to peace. I myself have never been able to enjoy our lovemaking.  My supple body had yearned for the warmth of Sanket’s muscular physique the few times we had kissed and petted during our courtship. Now, three months into our marriage, seeing my husband enjoy the climax I dread is both puzzling and painful. I look sideways at the only lover I have ever had the man I have known for a year, my husband of three months.  Friends and relatives say we have everything going for us as a couple. Except that I don’t feel anything during our interludes in the bed. I can’t confide to anyone that the spark is missing in our marriage. Right from the first night. Seven Years Ago The night is very different from what I have read in the books and watched in the movies.  A few minutes ago, I had sat on the bed shivering with anticipation about Sanket and my first night together as a married couple. Now I am screaming in pain.  Both of us are novices in bed, and it shows. Much of the night was first spent removing the heavy jewellery adorning my body and then the innumerable bobby pins holding up my false bun. Then we spent considerable time figuring out what to do and where. After a few trials and errors, Sanket finally succeeded in coming inside me, causing my exhausted body to give up.  Sanket covers my mouth with his hand. “What are you doing?” he asks. “Everyone will wake up.” “Sorry,” I whisper through his fingers. “I didn’t expect it to be so painful. Will it always be like this?” “It gets better after the first time,” he assures me. Except that it doesn’t. I feel the same piercing pain in the middle of my thighs every time Sanket is inside me.  My husband making love to me is not a pleasant affair for me. I had fantasised about making love under a star-studded sky someday. Will it remain a mere fantasy for me? 

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