The snow fell relentlessly. And the days disappeared into the nights. It had been five months since Meera and Siddharth moved from India into the ground floor apartment on Flexner Lane in Princeton, New Jersey.
On weekdays Meera saw Siddharth only late at night. Most of her days were spent indoors. She had little confidence in her newly acquired driving skills and felt sure the wheels of their 13-year old Volvo would skid and end up in the middle of the snow-ridden golf course. Or crash into one of those majestic houses on Battle Road or Haslet Avenue.
She had made no new friends. She cooked up new recipes, vacuumed the carpet in the living room, called her mother in India and binge-watched Grey’s Anatomy. On the dull and cloudy mornings, she sat near the huge glass windows in the living room and surveyed the neighbours.
There was a couple with four children just across the road. The father walked two of them to the school bus stop every day. The younger ones were wheeled to the playschool just next door. The couple would then drive away somewhere for the day. Though they exchanged pleasantries once in a while, Meera had never really talked to them. She decided they were software engineers, who had worked with the same firm in Jersey City for years. Perhaps, since they met at the coffee machine in the office.
A handsome long-haired man lived above them. Sometimes she would see him leave in his black Chevrolet and return with Trader Joe’s bags. He is a writer, Meera concluded. Or an artist. The number plate on the car said California Golden State. He must have grown up in San Francisco and studied in Berkeley.
And then there was the tall man just next door. He wore skin-tight colorful pants, often with bright patterns on them, and checked shirts. He always greeted her with a very bright smile. Once when she wore her Kalamkari printed Fabindia pants, he had shouted from across the garden, ‘Hey! I dig your pants!’ She had nodded, not knowing how to respond. Every Friday, a man came to visit him with a small rolling bag. A brother who lives in Manhattan, Meera decided.
Meera had inherited her sweet tooth from her father. Whenever she was in Calcutta, the two of them would hop into the sweet shop just next door and binge on the rosogollas, the nolen gurer sandesh and the chhanar jilipi. Here, in Princeton, she made do with the chocolate cupcakes from Wegman’s.
The Indian store was in Hamilton, about a 20-minute drive away. She waited eagerly for the weekends, so that Siddharth could drive her. The first thing she would pick up was half a dozen fresh gulab jamuns and a jumbo packet of the Haldiram Bhujia Mix. But in a couple of days she would be yearning for the Indian store again.
‘Why don’t you pick up a dozen at a time?’ Siddharth asked.
‘But then I would end up finishing all of them in a week. This helps me ration my greed,’ Meera argued.
One Saturday night, as she had just settled down with two perfectly heated gulab jamuns, she was startled by weird moaning sounds. A bed was squeaking very loudly somewhere. It was from just next door.
‘Strange, I have never seen a woman come to visit him. It’s only the brother,’ she told Siddharth with a frown.
‘I don’t think that’s a brother,’ Siddharth replied, continuing to type on his laptop.
Meera was confused for a moment.
‘What!?’ Then her eyes widened.
Siddharth put away his laptop, put his arms around her and said, ‘Shall we show them?’
Every following weekend night, she would toss and turn with two pillows on her head and shut her ears tight.
‘Why can’t you just ignore and try to sleep?’ Siddharth would say.
‘I can’t. If it was a regular relationship, I would still gag. And here there are two men! Aaarrrghhh, disgusting!’
‘C’mon, aren’t you a modern woman?’
‘Of course I am. But this is different.’
‘Why? They are in their own bedroom. They can’t help it if there is no sound insulation in these houses.’
‘Whatever. I can’t take this. I wish they would break up! Or live somewhere else! It’s unbearable!’
She started avoiding her neighbour. If they happened to open their doors at the same time, she would pretend to have forgotten something and duck indoors.
Meera didn’t quite understand her reaction. She had grown up in a liberal household, though she had never discussed homosexuality with her parents. She had always debated strongly for the equality of all orders. That everyone should be allowed to make their own choices and love anyone they wanted. Yet, at ground zero, she found herself thoroughly uncomfortable.
When winter started setting in, she saw less and less of her neighbour. She realized the weekend nights had suddenly become quiet. Perhaps he had gone somewhere. Then one day she looked out of her kitchen window and saw him sitting at his kitchen table, with his laptop in front. He was staring into space, lost in thought. There was something poignant about that moment.
One morning, after yet another brutal snowstorm had deposited one and a half feet of whiteness, Meera locked herself out of her home. She had just stepped out to throw the garbage when a strong wind had loudly slammed the front door shut. Siddharth was on a work trip and the storm had left him stranded in Washington DC.
She plodded through the snow to the back door, though she knew it was locked. She always locked every door thoroughly when Siddharth was not around. She sank down on the top step, the only one still visible over the snow. She felt tears running down her freezing cheeks.
‘Hey, something wrong?’ someone asked. It was the tall American next door. He was standing at his kitchen window.
‘No. I am fine.’
‘Sure? Okay.’ From the corner of her eye she could see him still standing there.
‘Actually, no! I locked myself out. My husband’s out of town. I don’t know what to do. Should I call 911? Oh, but my phone is inside,’ she said.
‘Come over. Let’s see what we can do,’ he had opened out his back door. ‘Hurry up, before you freeze.’
She gave him one apprehensive look and reluctantly walked over.
‘Don’t take off your shoes,’ he said.
‘We Indians never walk into a house with our shoes. And these shoes are covered in snow!’
He smiled and said, ‘I actually knew that. Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘No, thanks. What do you think I should do?’
‘I guess since you seem to have everything else locked so tightly, we should call the housing office,’ he said.
‘Oh. Do you have the number? Do you think they might be working in this weather?’
‘No idea. But there is an emergency service. Someone should come, even if not immediately.’
The emergency number was answered after the fourth try. The security officer promised he would come in a couple of hours, only after the roads had been cleared a bit.
‘Thank you so much. I will just wait outside on the porch,’ Meera said.
‘Are you out of your mind? It’s 20 degrees outside. You must of course wait here.’
She didn’t really have much of a choice. She followed him into the living room and dropped herself on a chair nearby. This time without asking he brought her a cup of herbal tea. It was chamomile. She didn’t refuse.
It was a very warm room. There was one big couch, one rocking chair, couple of wooden chairs and an exotic Iranian rug. On one wall there were several framed portrait photographs of people, of different races and colours, fitted like a jigsaw puzzle. On another, there was a huge photograph of the Sultanahmet Mosque in Istanbul.
‘Did you take these photos?’
‘Yes. I am a photographer. I freelance.’
‘I have been to Istanbul as well. It’s an amazing place. The interiors of the Blue Mosque are stunning. I will never forget its blue colour, the hand-made ceramic tiles and the stained glass.’
‘Yes, it’s stunning. So many things around the world can leave one completely breathless.’
‘Have you been to India?’
‘That’s one place on my bucket list.’
Despite their differences, in that room, Meera and her neighbour seemed to have found a connection. Even the moments spent in silence were filled with conversation. Along with the warmth in his living room, Meera felt the warmth within her neighbour as well.
The man from the housing office arrived after two hours. To Meera’s surprise, she was not happy to see him.
The weekend after Meera had spent those hours with her neighbour, she invited him over for dinner. She wanted to thank him for all his help.
He arrived just on time with a huge tray of Wegman’s cupcakes.
Siddharth and her neighbour got along well. They talked about politics, music, literature, travelling to exotic countries.
‘I don’t see your friend anymore?’ Meera asked finally. She saw Siddharth frowning at her.
‘My friend?’ he sounded surprised.
‘Yes, the person who used to come on the weekends?’
‘Ah! Yes, we are not together anymore.’
Meera felt a shiver run through her.
‘You shouldn’t ask such personal questions,’ Siddharth told her later.
‘Why? I was really eager to know why the weekends have gone quiet.’
‘I thought you would be happy about that.’
‘I don’t know. I feel terrible about it. Do you think I might have cursed them?’
As the days passed, Meera became closer to her neighbour. He even drove her to the Indian store in the middle of the week. Every other day he would appear at her doorstep with various kinds of cakes. He liked to bake but it soon became obvious that he did it so often just for her.
He told her about how his mother had stopped talking to him when he brought his first boyfriend home. He had soon left home. Now, he just spoke to his father sometimes. And almost never visited his parents. She told him about her family in India, her friends and that Siddharth was the only man she had ever been with.
They often spent hours at the Princeton Public Library, stood in the queue outside Hoagie Haven and Thomas Sweets Ice cream. Or just walked through the University on to Nassau Street.
‘You know their love can be as romantic as in a normal relationship. He really misses his ex-boyfriend,’ she told Siddharth one day.
‘Why should it be different?’
‘I don’t know. Perhaps I just wasn’t sensitive enough. I haven’t really seen anyone from this close. He is so sad and lonely. He wants to believe they will be together again soon. I feel so bad. Perhaps I should do something!’
‘Don’t pry too much into his life,’ Siddharth said. ‘This is not India.’
She nodded. But she continued to think of ways to get her neighbour back in touch with his ex-boyfriend.
Then one Saturday morning, while her neighbour was in Boston for an exhibition, Meera heard the very familiar sound of a rolling bag against the gravel. She rushed to the window. It was the ex-boyfriend, walking towards the house next door.
‘But he is not in town!’ she exclaimed.
‘What?’ Siddharth looked up.
Without another word, Meera was out of the front door.
‘What are you doing?’ Siddharth shouted. Meera ignored him and hurried towards her neighbour’s house. The man was standing, looking puzzled, with his head down and one finger on the doorbell.
‘He is not here,’ she said. ‘Why didn’t you call him earlier?’
‘Excuse me? Do I know you?’
‘Perhaps not. But I live next door and I know that you shouldn’t have stayed away for so long.’
The snow melted, there were crocus and daffodils in the garden. Meera’s neighbour was hardly at home. In fact, he had not spoken to her properly since he returned from Boston. He sent a short and curt mail informing her that he had gone on a long assignment to Trinidad. He had to photograph bats at the Tamana caves and then the leatherback turtles in Grande Riviere. She asked him whether he had got in touch with his ex-boyfriend. She didn’t hear from him again.
She missed him.
She no longer needed anyone to drive her. She often zoomed past the sign that said ‘No thoroughfare’ through the golf club to Alexander Street. In fact, she raced past other cars on US-1. She even talked to the couple across the road now.
Sometime in the middle of May, Siddharth was called back to India. Meera’s neighbour had not returned.
On the last day, as Siddharth was loading their suitcases into the taxi, she slipped a note into her neighbour’s postbox. Just three words, ‘I am sorry.’