I Just Love You
Twenty years ago, I made a mistake.
“You’re embarrassing me, and yourself. Stop hounding me. What’s the matter with you?” I’d said, and those were the last words I exchanged with Shahnaz. The sun was beating down and we sought shelter in the mangroves. Even there, she found an excuse to sidle up to me that afternoon. I erupted. Our classmates were watching. The crows were cawing. The cola drinks in our hands were fizzing.
“You look beautiful, today,” she said, and I sprung back in embarrassment.
She didn’t know then that I was unhappy. She couldn’t possibly understand that it was not a rejection of her character, or her nature, but of her sex. I liked men. Back then, boys. And it was a rejection of her unfettered, gushing and blind adoration at the most awkward moments.
“Your girlfriend is here,” Sonal would tease every time Shahnaz came to the library and I had to endure her longing stares from above the textbook she pretended to read, the room cold with the air conditioning humming in the behind.
I longed to be done with the day at university and be back home, and listen to music. I longed to be done with my degree, and hated every moment of it; it unfolded like a slowly enacted, directionless, meaningless plot to a movie. No excitement, no momentum. Just drudgery. And slow decay. And Shahnaz, hounding me at every turn.
I don’t think I am unkind. I wished the watchman a good morning at our university’s gates, every day, and fed stray dogs during lunch. For the first six months, I even took the bus to campus so I would not appear privileged. I liked people and people liked me. But Shahnaz’s constant and gratingly overt expressions of affection were getting hard to bear.
“Give her a break, girl,” Sonal would say, even as she found the situation amusing. “This is India. And, on top of that, she comes from a community where it’s probably unheard of, to be, you know, like that. She probably, just doesn’t know how to handle it.”
And so, I did. When Shahnaz gave me a red rose on Valentine’s Day, I dug my nails into the palms of my hands and accepted the flower, graciously. When she was one of the first to email me, I wrote back politely. I never disparaged her or talked about her to friends with leading questions. But, coming up to me, several times in public, and saying things like, “I just love you,” were hard to take.
I had my share of admirers in the university, but there is a way to express admiration for superficial things. One smiles, coyly. One opens doors. Besides, they were all men and I had my own romantic tragedy to deal with: I was in love with Jay, the mechanical engineering senior, who would stare at me longingly, too, but never worked up the courage, in four years, to ask me out. It broke my young adult heart. What could I do?
“Just go up to him and ask him out,” Sonal suggested often, half-seriously, mostly just wanting to put me out of my misery. It wasn’t that I hadn’t thought about it; I just knew in my heart that if it didn’t come from him, then something was probably missing. I know, the feminists at university would balk at that but that was how I was wired in my youth, and probably, still am.
I waited. And waited. Like the mosquitoes that pestered us in the canteen, digging into our youthful skin, Shahnaz would flit around me. The day I snapped at her had been particularly brutal. I was waiting for Jay by the campus convenience store, working up the courage to initiate conversation. I’d heard he was an excellent guitarist and I wanted to take lessons. Why not? If learning an instrument meant I could, also, pluck at the heartstrings of my man, it was a win-win situation.
I’d worn my red dress, the one that I believe he stared at with particular intensity and admiration, blow-dried my hair at the parlour the evening before. Sonal and some other classmates were milling about, close by, and we were drinking ice cold colas. I didn’t want to sweat and ruin my makeup, which I had applied carefully, to appear nonchalant.
Jay walked right past me, though he did smile at me, briefly. I froze. That is when the incident occurred, the one with Shahnaz, the one where she told me I was beautiful. I lost my temper. The murmuring of my friends stopped and there was silence as I hollered at her. “Why do you do this?”I screamed. Insensitive words poured out of my mouth as I fought hard to stave the tears that were surfacing.
Shahnaz looked crestfallen and scampered away, in tears. Even Sonal looked a bit disappointed in me, but well, we’ve stayed friends through the years. Sonal has three kids and I have none, having never married. My unrequited infatuation with Jay would prove to be one of my more successful ventures in the romantic realm. I don’t know what it is with me – I’ve seemingly been given all of the advantages that’d make the trauma of dating easier, but none of the skills.
Last weekend, Sonal called me and said, “You remember that lanky girl, Shahnaz, the one…with the pimples? You won’t believe this but she’s got, umm, cancer… stage three cancer. Breast. It’s metastasized. Poor thing.” I was shocked. Stunned.
In my mind, Shahnaz had remained nineteen, wearing spectacles and being picked up by her brother on his scooter after college hours. The rare occasion when I’d thought of her or anything to do with that college after we’d graduated; I’d imagined her to have been married and happily ‘settled’ as they say. When the shock subsided, I was grateful to Sonal for not alluding to my checkered history with Shahnaz. She continued.
“It is actually quite bad. A sad story,” Sonal continued. “She was in an abusive marriage apparently. Now, she is with her parents who’re taking care of her.”
“Where is she?” I asked, mutedly.
“Here, in Chennai, only. I hear they can barely afford the hospital bills.”
I’m a family lawyer, kind of successful too. I could have helped her, I thought randomly. For the rest of the day, like a thorn wedged deep into my shank, I was unable to shake off thoughts about Shahnaz. I was disturbed.
I waited until dusk, when the heat had dissipated, to stop with the obsessing. I needed a plan. I opened my laptop and logged on to my old email account, from university days, which I never used anymore. I dug up the exchange I’d had with Shahnaz, twenty years ago.
“I just love you,” it says here, as well. I ignore the words, pause for a moment at the white light glaring back at me, and then, click Reply.
Hi! How are you? I just thought I would drop in a line and say hello. I am in Chennai, these days. Do write and say hello, if you get a moment.
I hit ‘Send’. The email isn’t rejected, indicating the account might still be active. I didn’t want to ask for her phone number. Perhaps, it was the embarrassment over the last interaction I had with the girl – woman – twenty years ago, and the look of disappointment on Sonal’s face I still, so vividly remember.)
The response came later that evening, bringing me to this moment. I disembarked from my air-conditioned car and entered the tiny stand-alone house, painted pink, in a narrow by lane teeming with meshes of electricity wires and scrambling cyclists.
I rang the doorbell and was greeted by an old lady, she must be her mother.
“She’s expecting you. Shahnaz has been so excited all day, I had to calm her down with a tablet,” her mother confided, and immediately, a familiar pang of emotion resurfaced in me after twenty years – of resistance.
I was taken past a curtain which served as a door into a small bedroom and I was greeted by the sight of Shahnaz, hooked up to various tubes. She was post-surgical, something she’d failed to mention to me. I grimaced. I felt like a shameful intruder.
Shahnaz’s eyes welled up.
“You look so beautiful,” she says, that adoration unadulterated in two decades. Something in me stirred. No one had said these words to me in a long time. She brought me up to speed on her recent and tragic past. I was vague about mine, and I appreciated that she didn’t pry.
The fan was making a continuous, clicking sound. I noticed her desktop computer was lit up and my email stood open on the screen. Shahnaz saw that I had noticed.
“Some things don’t change, eh?” she joked, straining to get the words out.
I was not uncomfortable anymore. That had been replaced with something else. She was breathing with greater difficulty now, and her mother politely indicated to me that it was time I left.
It was all over in fifteen minutes. As I handed her the flowers I bought for her, she held me firmly by the hands.
“We could have been happy.” She said.
I inhaled and looked at her. “Yes, we could have.”
By the time I reached home, I had changed. I look up stage three breast cancer on my laptop.
I searched for sexual diversity in minority communities, and then closed the browser window.
I open my email.
How are you? I hope this finds you well. It’s been forever. There’s no easy way to segue to this but I’ve been wanting to say something for twenty years and feel I might as well just go right ahead and do it…”
Madhurika is an impact investor (vistariventures.com) and freelance journalist whose work frequently appears in The Hindu Op Ed. She’s an engineer by training and holds a Masters in Biotechnology from Columbia University, New York. She loves to write but lives for music. Madhurika is working on her first full-length novel. She plans on pursuing her PhD in Cancer Biology, soon. She lives in Chennai, India.