Fiction ยท 01/27/2016

Swap Space

Mu wakes up in a comfortable bed, in a room with blue walls, next to a woman who snores softly with her back turned to him. He props himself up on his elbows, scanning the room through sleepy, half-closed eyes.

The woman turns her head. He can see the profile of her face; she is beautiful and young.

“Who are you?” she asks.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I have to find someone. There is no time.”

He steps out of the bed naked and opens the door to the walk-in closet. He dresses quickly and efficiently.

“Come back,” the woman says. “We lucked out. Look at us. Come back and fuck me.”

He steps out of the closet, dressed in jeans and a pink shirt. He sees himself in the mirror; she is right, he is a looker. But there’s no time.

“I’m sorry,” he says again to the woman. “Have fun with your body.”

He locates a phone by the side of the bed, a wallet and car keys next to it. The woman steps out of bed, naked as well. She stretches languorously. For a second, he hesitates. But there’s no time.

As he runs down the stairs, he unlocks the phone using the fingerprint sensor. It opens someone else’s mailbox — he notes that his name is Jerry Sandoval. He opens a browser window and logs into his own mailbox.

Xi has already mailed him an address. 900 High School Way, Mountain View, CA.

There’s a Miata parked in the garage. He hurriedly opens the map on the phone and geolocates himself. San Francisco. He lets out a whoop of joy. The Miata purrs smoothly as he backs it out of the garage and revs it.

An hour and ten minutes later he pulls up to the apartment building in Mountain View. There’s a woman standing on the sidewalk. He parks the car and walks towards her. She is in her mid-20s and beautiful, possibly Chinese, with cut-glass cheeks and straight black hair streaked with russet. She looks at him and their eyes meet.

“We lucked out,” he says.

She laughs. This is the first time he’s hearing her laugh, yet it is an intimately familiar sound. They hug in the street. She kisses him for the first time. He can feel the youthfulness of her body under the light shirt she’s wearing.

“We lucked out,” she repeats, her breath hot on his face. “Let’s go inside. Let’s not waste any time.”

They make love in the bedroom of a strange apartment. He explores her body; locates the panda tattoo in the slight declivity above her butt; finds a tiny brown mole under her left breast and another on the white nape of her neck. Each discovery is a tiny epiphany.

Afterwards they shower together in the bathroom with the purple towels and the hello kitty shower curtain. She laughs as he soaps her body and he thrills at the sound. It’s a low, guttural laugh, sultry and inviting. As he dries himself with one of the purple towels, he marvels at his own body; at the lean, muscular lines, the puckered brown scar on one knee, biceps and triceps that swell and bulge under his skin like sleek subterranean monsters.

They walk down to Castro street, holding hands, and have lunch at a tapas place, sitting next to each other on the same side of a table on the sidewalk. The street is taken up by an arts fair; they watch the crowd flow through the stalls. He holds her hand and plays with it, admiring the whiteness of her skin and the delicate tracery of veins that glows red in the sunlight.

“This is nice,” she says. “I wish it were like this every time.”

“We were due for a good day,” he says.

“Sometimes I worry…” she trails off.

“I’ll always find you. And if I don’t, you just have to wait the day out. You know that.”

“But what if something goes wrong and we lose each other? What if one of us gets left behind, or we go out of sync?”

“Let’s not think about that,” he says.

He pays for lunch with a credit card from the wallet, copying the signature from the driver’s license. They walk through the street fair; she tries on a hat made by an old woman from Santa Cruz; they admire a painting of the Golden Gate Bridge as seen from Sausalito; he buys a beautiful vase from an elderly Japanese gentleman who lives in Saratoga.

“Why did you buy it?” she asks.

“It’s pretty. We can leave it for…”

“Her name is Alice.”

“A gift from Jerry to Alice. He did fuck her, after all.”

She giggles.

They go back to the apartment. She cleans the bedroom, tucking the sheets in. He places the vase on the kitchen counter. It has chrysanthemums painted on it in burnt orange.

They lie for a while on the couch, limbs entangled and entwined, hearing each other’s heartbeats in the stillness of the afternoon. She falls asleep and he notices little things about her — the length of her eyelashes, the light remnant of an ancient scar on her cheek, the shape of her earlobe.

“Don’t sleep, there’s no time…” he wants to say. Instead he closes his eyes and tries to slow down time. But he’s happy and tired, and when he opens his eyes again it’s four thirty in the afternoon and she’s awake, her large eyes devouring him.

“Let’s go somewhere,” she says.

“Where?”

“The beach.”

“Hmm. Chai?”

She finds a saucepan in the kitchen and boils water in it. There’s ginger in the fridge and she chops it up and adds it to the water. There are tea bags and she snips them open with a pair of scissors and pours the tea leaves into the saucepan. There’s Lactaid in the fridge instead of milk.

“There’s no cardamom,” she says, as she hands him a plastic to-go cup of muddy brown chai.

“It’s perfect,” he says.

They get into the Miata and he drives it down 101 and then on the road to Santa Cruz. He plays old Hindi songs on the phone. The sun is low in the sky as they drive through the mountains towards the ocean.

“We’ve been here before,” she says.

“Yes, a long time ago.”

They have dinner in a little vegan restaurant in Santa Cruz, watching a bloodshot sun disappear under the waves. Afterwards they stop the Miata in the parking lot of an empty beach and sit there in silence, listening to the ocean breathe.

“Today was nice,” she says sleepily, resting her head against his shoulder. “What will happen tomorrow?”

“I’ll come find you,” he says.

“Unless you are too far away.”

“Unless I am too far away. If that happens I’ll come find you the next day.”

“I hope we are as pretty tomorrow,” she says.

Her voice is thick and sleepy, and it has a hypnotic quality. He struggles to stay awake.

“Goodbye, my love,” she says. “I’m falling asleep… I’ll … see you tomorrow…”

Don’t go, he wants to say. But she’s asleep, and he can’t fight the drowsiness anymore. He closes his eyes. Tomorrow will be a new day.

+

Mu wakes up to noise — blaring car horns, the creaking of a ceiling fan, the unhealthy roar of badly tuned engines, dogs barking, a man on the street shouting out something in a half-remembered language. He opens his eyes and sits up, groaning at the effort. Pain shoots through his lower back; a muscle knot twitches between his shoulder blades; his neck aches with a dismal steadiness. He runs his hand over his face, feeling the pockmarked skin, the thin moustache, a day’s worth of stubble on jowly cheeks. He staggers to his feet and into the tiny bathroom.

It’s dark and damp inside the bathroom. A naked bulb casts a yellow pallor over his face as he stares into the mirror. The man facing him is perhaps 40 but looks older. He has scraggly wisps of hair on a mostly bald head. His eyes are tired and sad, buttressed by purpling bags of skin.

“There’s no time,” he says to himself.

He moves gingerly back into the bedroom; he is the locus of an inverted sea-urchin of pain. He finds a wrinkled shirt hanging in the closet and a pair of beige pants, and struggles into them. There’s an Android phone with a shattered screen on a table. He logs into his email.

There’s nothing from Xi yet. He keeps the phone in the pocket of his shirt. He looks for a wallet and finds it after a few minutes under the pillow on the bed. It has a few thousand rupees in it.

He leaves the bedroom and finds a woman sitting at a dining table in a dark, oppressive living room. Heavy curtains block out the light.

“Not so lucky this time,” she says.

He limps past her; there is something wrong with his knee. He wears a pair of leather slippers at the door and exits the apartment, blinking at the bright sunshine. The apartment is on the fourth floor. He lurches down the stairs as fast as he can, tears coming to his eyes as the pain shoots through his bones, jarring the soft, pulpy cartilage between his vertebrae.

At the bottom of the staircase he checks the phone again.

“Inorbit mall, food court.”

Just outside the apartment building is a large, busy roadway. He knows where he is; he has been here before. He flags down an auto-rickshaw.

“Take me to Inorbit mall,” he says, in perfect Hindi.

The driver thinks about it. “400.”

“Too much. I’ll find another auto.”

He walks away but the auto follows him. The driver leans out: “350.”

“No.”

“I have to eat. Petrol is expensive. I have three kids.”

“250.”

“Have some mercy on the poor. 300.”

He gets into the auto. The driver weaves in and out of traffic, trumpeting the rubber ball of the horn incessantly. Mu winces as the auto bounces in and out of potholes on the road.

They are at the mall within ten minutes.

“You cheated me,” he tells the driver as he hands over the money.

The driver grins, white teeth flashing against the yellow and black of the auto.

He goes inside the mall, through the security scanner flanked by large men wearing khaki and submachine guns. Inside, he takes the escalator to the top floor and locates the food court.

A young man sitting at one of the tables looks up. He’s wearing blue jeans and sneakers and a designer shirt. He is thin and pale, clean-shaven, with bright eyes that hide behind an expensive pair of glasses.
Mu sits down opposite the man.

“I found you.”

The young man laughs at him and reaches out for his hand.

“Be careful,” warns Mu.

“It’s okay here,” replies Xi.

“No, I don’t mean that. People like you don’t associate with people like me.”

Xi laughs again, his clean, even teeth flashing brightly. “You are a mess.”

“Yes, everything hurts. My lower back, my knee, my teeth, my eyes, my -”

“Poor baby. It’s just a day. We’ll get luckier next time.”

The food court is illuminated by sunlight through a large skylight. Mu closes his eyes.

“Chai?”

Mu nods, eyes still closed. Tiredness seeps through his bones. He knows that tomorrow will be different; but for now he wishes it would all end. Perhaps one day he will stop looking for Xi.

“Here,” says Xi, placing two cups of mud-brown chai on the table.

A tear streaks down Mu’s face as he looks at the cups of chai and at the young man sitting opposite.

“I can’t do it anymore,” he whispers. “Everything hurts.”

“This isn’t you,” Xi replies. “This is just the body. It’s broken. It’s the chemicals in your head. You are not used to it. Just wait it out.”

“Yeah, okay.”

They sip the chai in silence.

“You’ll come find me tomorrow?” Xi asks.

“Yes. I’ll find you tomorrow.”

“I’ll always wait.”

“And I’ll always find you. Unless I am too far away.”

But Mu can’t take it anymore — he can feel the pain in his brittle, abraded bones, in the tight, swollen muscles and the rotten connective tissue that binds them to each other, in the veins of his temple and the roots of his teeth. He begins to sob, his fleshy, discolored palms pressed against his eyes.

Xi drinks his chai with a quiet, meditative look. A boy and a girl at the next table — in school uniform — look over at them curiously. The food court is sparsely populated. It’s probably a weekday.

“Come on,” says Xi. “Let’s go outside. We’ll do something fun.”

They walk away from the table, towards the escalator, Xi leading Mu by the hand. But as Xi is about to step on the escalator, Mu pulls away; he staggers to the railing.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

He levers his bulk over the railing and drops. Xi waits at the top of the escalator. He hears the sound of the body hitting the ground four floors below, and then the screams. He sighs. It’ll be a long day.

+

Mu wakes up in a tiny apartment with blue walls. She springs out of bed. There’s no time. She looks around frantically for a phone and a wallet.

“Mu,” says the large man in the bed. “Stop. We got lucky.”

Mu looks at the man with a widening smile. She jumps back into bed and straddles him.

“Come here,” says Xi, pulling her down.

Outside the window Paris bakes gently in a summer morning’s sunshine, and the tourists are just beginning to venture out, maps in hand.

+++

Mahesh Raman is a full-time computer scientist and a part-time writer. He lives on the eastern seaboard and spends his time fiddling alternately with gadgets and sentences.