It is in the bottom drawer, hidden behind her sweaters and shawls. A simple gold locket, sparkly new and heart shaped, hung on a simple gold chain.
What am I doing here, looking through her things, you ask?
Well, it’s not in my habit to go snooping around in my wife’s dresser, if that’s what you’re thinking. Not that this would be considered snooping. The house belongs to the both of us. And by extension, this dresser and its contents. And if you must know, I am looking for a shawl. A light one that looks stylish, but is warm enough to counter the unseasonable chill downstairs. It’s for the mother-in-law. You may say she is the source of this sudden chill. Her lipstick smudging the wife’s pristine glassware is frosting everything. What can I say, Meghna likes things a certain way — her way.
“Get the blue one with lilies on it,” she yells from downstairs. By the staircase landing from the sound of it. She sounds a bit tipsy, but that’s natural. It takes more than a gin and tonic to steady your nerves when her family’s around. “Hurry, will you? Everybody’s ready to eat!”
“Just a minute,” I shout back, studying the locket. It’s the kind that opens into two. A color photograph of a young man is on one side. Handsome-looking, with shiny cheeks and twinkling eyes. On the other side, there’s an engraving. From J.B. to M.L. M for Meghna, and L for … what? Lal, her family name? I feel bile, confusion, rise up my throat and a throbbing headache set in.
I grab a shawl from the drawer, turns out a garish green one with big, red roses all over, and rush down to the dining room, the locket still in my possession.
I quickly pocket it as I enter and handover the shawl to the mother-in-law sitting at the head of the table, smudging some more glassware. She looks disgusted at the choice, and mutters something under her breath (certainly not thanks) as she wraps it around her shoulders. Next to her highness, the wife and her sister, Meera (younger only by a year), are now arguing about the use of phones at the dining table. Meghna thinks it’s rude. Especially after she has “gone through all this trouble to prepare this healthy, elaborate, MasterChef-standard spread”.
I take the one empty seat next to the wife, and resume my role as a mute observer. A feat my dinner companions, Meghna’s father and brother-in-law, have mastered over the years. They shuffle through the veggies and salad leaves in search for more meaty bites, frowning at the occasional tofu chunks that come up, like they are alien rocks.
“So she was being serious about the healthy bit,” sighs the father-in-law and I grunt.
I grunt through the rest of the three-course meal as well, and the dessert and drinks afterwards. My brain is on overdrive.
I can’t help but question her moods, the extra-buoyant ones, the “leave me alone” ones, the “not tonight” ones. I can’t help but examine them against her casual absences, her meets with “friends”, her shopping/grocery trips that seemed routine, harmless at the time but that now seem wholly unnecessary and deceptive. Those mysterious calls in the middle of the night — that she dismissed with “just another crank call” and a shrug, like she was amused on being woken up at that hour for no good reason — they don’t seem that innocent anymore.
Why the insistence on following a diet? Why the manic need to get back in shape? Not for me. Not for herself either, it seems now. Every morning, at 6, she has to go on a jog, come rain or storm. Why? To meet him? Does he live nearby? In our very neighborhood? She does seem radiant after those jogs, on days I wake up to see her come in and make us tea. She doesn’t even allow more than a few crumbs of a cookie to touch her lips. A sliver of flour-less chocolate cake is still sitting on her plate, untouched. She’s even got a new modern-woman haircut, and is wearing makeup at home.
All this, so foolishly I’d chalked up to her version of a midlife crisis, but now I can’t help but wonder about all the hours gone unaccounted for.
Who is that boy, that man? How does she know him? Where did she meet him? When? Why? Do they know each other so well that he’s giving her signed mementos with his stupid face on them?
The party moves back to the living room and settles down around the television. Dancing with the Stars comes on and they all cheer and clap. Except me. I grunt. Some more.
Meghna’s favorite dance pair is swirling across the screen, and her feet tap in sync with the beat. Meera doesn’t like the tall, blonde actress, and says that the pair is having an affair. She read so in the papers a few days back. That gets everybody going. Even Bhaskar, Meera’s husband, who’s usually the quiet sort in any group. Who’d have known the man knew so much about famous celebrity breakups and hookups and such.
“To each his own,” the wife says coolly. Like it’s no big deal at all. “We all have our reasons,” she adds. “It’s only courteous to allow them theirs.” And with the speech delivered from her high horse, she resumes to watch the show amid more fervent protests.
A dagger goes through my heart. Okay, maybe not a dagger. We’ve been married for way to long for that. Say a butter knife, or a fork, slowly working its way through the layers of carefully crafted “don’t cares” over the years.
She is having an affair, isn’t she? the thought finally takes concrete shape in my head. But why? For how long? Is it because of that one time …? But then nothing happened. And how could she even have known. They moved away soon enough.
Is she bored? Does she want to leave and all this, this life we have, is an act? That man’s our son’s age for god sake.
Does her sister know? I wonder. Does her mother, her entire family know? Are they secretly laughing at me, making inside jokes that I’m too thick to understand?
She seems fidgety, and suddenly embraces her sister, like she couldn’t bear to part from her. Who do I know who has the same initials as J.B.? Or any of the two initials? Besides the brother-in-law? I glare at him and he looks away, unsure of the reasons for this new-found hostility. We have been brothers in arms for so long, one in the face of our common enemy (the Lal women). No, it’s not him. He looks nothing like the picture, never did. No, I am losing my mind.
The evening comes to an end, and we are finally alone. I ponder the merits of letting this slide. But how can I? Good sense says to not rock the boat, rake-up mud, disturb still waters. But the words are just waiting to burst out.
I drop the locket before her eyes. She’s sitting before the dressing table, wiping off her makeup.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“What?” she says, tilting her head back to get a better look.
“This … This bloody locket. Listen, are you having an affair?’
She looks at me funny, like I have sand for brains, and says, “Really. That’s what you think when you see a locket? That I am cheating on you?” She snorts and resumes scrubbing her face with pinking cotton swabs.
I sit down on the edge of the bed. “Don’t mess with me,” I say. “Are you? Lord knows I’m not the best husband around. Things like this happen for a lot less.”
She snorts again. “I told you, nothing’s going on.”
“Listen, if you’re unhappy you can tell me. We can work this out. You don’t have to leave. We can have an open–”
“Enough,” she says. “You’d like that, won’t you? You and your wandering ways.
“If you must know, I nicked it off my sister the last time we went to her house. She was being mean to me. She said I looked ‘tired’, ‘undernourished’. Not slim or fit, but too skinny. Skinny, as if that’s a bad thing. She could do with some less pounds. ‘How could anyone like this new look?’ she said. So I took it from her, something that she holds precious.”
Of course. M.L.: M for Meera, her sister’s name. But how could have I known that if her locket was in our drawer?
“I take things from people all the time,” she says and empties her pockets. Her loot from tonight’s melee. “When people are being rude to me.” There’s her mom’s lipstick and her sister’s phone. “That’s going to set Bhaskar back by a tidy sum right there,” she giggles.
Then she pulls out the bottom drawer and turns it upside-down on the bed.
“See?” There are silver candle stands, wrist watches, handkerchiefs, tiepins, earrings … a whole mini used accessories store spread over the woolens. And there’s my Cartier fountain pen that I’d lost years ago, and the notes I’d left Rhea, Mrs. Kayla, when we were seeing each other back in the day. Notes that she had apparently saved as keepsakes.
“You knew,” I say, surprised.
“Of course, I did. You think I’m blind? Who do you think left that note for her husband to find out about you two.” She sweeps all the stuff back into the drawer and puts it in. Then she pulls down the bed cover and gets in, and pats my side of the bed. Like nothing of consequence has happened. Like she hasn’t just confessed to being a kleptomaniac, a thief.
I consider this. This careful manipulation of my life. What could have been had she not intervened? Would we still be together if she hadn’t? Am I mad? Angry? Sorry for myself? For her? For Rhea? I haven’t even thought about her in ages before tonight. Am I relieved that she cared? Or resentful? She knew all these years and didn’t tell me. Never ever brought it up. Even at the height of an argument that she was losing. Unless …
I wonder what else she has nicked to get even with me. My favorite world-cup jersey from 2011? The football-shaped coffee cup I loved so much? My limited edition formula 1 racing cards?
“Your cards are safe,” she says as if reading my mind. “Now come to bed.”
I sigh, take off my slippers, and get in.
“So who’s J.B.?” I ask finally, thumbing the locket’s smooth edges, as if waiting for a genie to show up. To make this whole insane day go away.
She turns off the lights, and turns to face me. And I wonder what she thinks when she looks at me now. Across tables, rooms, aisles; across the memory of our shared life. I know your little secret, honey. I know everything. And yet, she’s still here. With me. By my side.
“Oh,” she giggles, “some guy Meera met online. He sent her this, before he found out she’s 40 and married with kids. Isn’t that a laugh?”