Keeping Pace – by Rheea Mukherjee

by TBLM

I was the first woman in his life, she, the most recent. Apart from him, the other thing we had in common was running. I’d finished one full and three half marathons. She was attempting her first 10k. The type of distance that becomes an accessory. She was the type of artist that makes a living out of being one. Her 10k goal was an urban layer of achievement that adds nicely to a personality. Her semi-public facebook profile routinely listed her weekday runs; ’3.4 in 29min, super slow, I know’ “ bad knees on just 3km. Crap.” and ‘6k today, knees = toast.’ Her army of friends would stitch together a never-ending thread of comments. Running isn’t about time; it’s about the act. Running is meditation, running is competing against yourself.

On Wednesdays she would come to the football park at 6pm and stay till 7. The first time I saw her was truly by chance. I had switched my usual route for the park. And there she was, a few meters away, stretching. She was the runner that needed the safety of routine and space. Thrice a week, this I knew because of Facebook. Her hair was pulled into a high bun, her legs wrapped in spandex; her shoes were pink check marks on white. She was exceptionally pretty, she was. Even in real life.

I had finished with my run when I saw her; sweat glued the back of my shirt to my shoulders. I felt a wave of inexplicable pleasure, and I acknowledge now, that it was strange. I would have expected to be startled, embarrassed, even nervous: she was a woman I was never supposed to see in real life. There she was and it felt like I was seeing an old classmate after years. She looked at me, stared for a few seconds. She knew who I was. She had looked at my semi-public page too, gathered I had no consistent musical taste, had a corporate job filled with commutes and team outings and took photogrpahes of every pair of shoes I bought. This running thing had to be a surprise though. I wasn’t athletic when I was with Rahul and ever since I started running I had never advertised it on social media. Running is a true sport, you don’t ask for credit. You run because you must run, like you must eat.
I had stared back at her, pulled down my headphones down, I looked down at my toes, a little too long, so I bent down to scratch my calf scratched my calf instead. Then I left.

I touched my fingers to my toes. I adjusted my headphones. I waited. She would be here. She would be here.

Rahul had left her two months ago. I had been scanning her social media pages trying to find for the parts of her that Rahul had desired. In the last couple of weeks I have tried to determine the parts he hated, the parts of her that made him leave her.

She has had art shows in Delhi, Mumbai, even Goa. Her latest artwork is usually her cover photo. She doesn’t do selfies, but she has friends who cover her slight body in giant group hugs. She reads mysteries and Manto and still listens to Coldplay. She was a Jayanagar girl, a goody goody girl, vegetarian and understated. But she got yuppie by getting lucky, her parents moved to Delhi to be with her brother. Freed from the pressure to live with them, she moved to Koramangala and painted her two bedroom apartment dusty orange, decked it out with bamboo shelves, brass frogs, and wooden floors. She stepped out of her Jayanagar life like it was a pair of jeans. She had parties at home, green glass bottles covering wooden tables, translucent potato chips in terracotta bowls and homemade bruschetta on painted trays.

In the pictures, Rahul’s giant hands pressed down on her tiny shoulders, holding her in place. It was evident he had found something he could not let go of. You could see it on his face, not pleasure not contentment, but a fierce anxiety to hold on. He was, in the grand scheme of things, utterly stupid without an ounce of culture. He had a peer circle that was smarter than him. He always managed to do that. His charm and his sense of purpose for life allowed him to gather more intelligent and consequently more interesting people. These friends formed a collective mass that fuelled him with appropriate world information, laid out the talking points for real life, rendering him a participant of sorts if not a championcamouflaged and buffeted by their acumen. It was only when you were with him, alone, for years, that you realized that he wasn’t that sharp. Rahul saw no grey, no nuance in the everyday. He couldn’t appreciate the mild fog on a late November morning, couldn’t feel the beat of lovely song. He could not contribute to a debate without latching on to a sentence he had read on buzzfeed.
But Rahul loved a woman in an extraordinary way, with a type of love that made you wonder how he loved others when he left you.

*

At 6:06, she sauntered up to the park. Her headphones were on. Black pants, a loose grey tee shirt and handpicked strands of curls that sat right at the curve of her jaws. She stood fifteen or so meters away and looked at me like she would at any stranger. She didn’t move, she stood in place, carefully bent her right leg to her butt. Her back arched, her chest popped out, her breasts were good, I can’t say if they were big or small, they just looked good against the grey cotton. I rubbed the sweat on my palms together. I had to run towards her, past her, unabashedly. I switched on my music. Steady and at my very decent pace of 10kmh I moved towards her, Her slight figure looked three-dimensional now, she looked real: Flesh, lips, eyes and hands that had touched Rahul. The music in my ears was the only the barrier between us.

Come my Lady, Come Come my lady.
You’re my butterfly, Sugar ,Baby.

Her left leg was being stretched now; she looked to the side half-heartedly. I could feel her heart quicken, her successful artist persona sliced then grated into feathers, slowly falling to the tar. I didn’t look at her in the eyes; I kept my eyes on her knees, kept them there till I passed her and ran the first lap. I ran at a pace too fast to start with, but I wanted another close up look before she started to run. I cranked up the volume.

Such a sexy, sexy, pretty little thing.

I came back to the spot in a few minutes, I’ve covered .69 kilometers but she wasn’t there anymore. I ran faster, my chest squeezed my heart, my legs heavy. She appeared about 10 meters ahead, running so slowly; it looked like she was jogging in place. For those seconds she looked like a teenager, vulnerable, aching for a friend. She was a tiny magnet looking to attract something, someone. I imagined Rahul watching the both of us running. Did he ever watch her? Did he think she looked as silly? Because her running form was awkward, off-kilter, rushed in spite of her lethargic pace. I slowed my pace; even then I would overtake her in seconds. I felt the saliva in my throat bind together and form a liquid rope, tying knots around my tonsils. Would I look as silly when she saw my back? Would I look like sloppy mess rushing past her? And my terrible hips. All the running had leaned my face and legs out, even a lot of my midsection, but I had hips that jutted to the sides, alien nubs pushing out the fabric I wore against them. It was too late to weigh these risks, I exhaled, picked up my pace to meet Honey Singh’s tempo and ran past her. I ran slowly enough to discern the gray sleeve of her shirt form the corner of my eye. I wanted to pick up a smell, a perfume, the sporty clean prick of her deodorant, but I could only smell the burning garbage on the other side of the road. I propped my shoulders back and let my legs collect a rhythm. This would result in proper form, an elegant body moving like a musical note perfectly between the lines.

Elegance was big with Rahul, at least when I was with him. He was only a couple checkmarks away from being described as controlling. His fingers would flash when I was eating, indicating I was making too much noise chewing. His compliments would act as guidelines. ‘That shirt is so elegant, you are going to look so good tonight,’ and later ‘Those jeans will go better with something more elegant like that shirt you wore, you need more of those.’

And I would buy them. I would streamline my wardrobe to look graceful and feminine. I would prepare my conversations to sound clever but mild, articulate but not cocky. And we were going to get married. We were engaged. His mother had given me gold jhumkas and heavy saris. My parents weren’t thrilled, his family was from Delhi. Rahul, however, had been raised in Bangalore and preferred puliyogare to phulkas. But still, my South Indian parents were crushed by the weight of their North Indian stereotypes. They were brash, prone to violence, and would kick up a fuss about my career once i had babies. That’s what they said, but then you could see the progressive smoothening of their wrinkles as engagement day approached. I was 25 and going to be married, and it was a damn good thing for them too.

I couldn’t keep running this way; I was going much to fast. I slowed to the pace that she was running at, knowing she would catch up soon. I readjusted my headphones.

Boy, you been a naughty girl you let your knickers down.
I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob

She had to be running much slower now, because she wasn’t behind me yet. I started to walk. She would think I was one of those run- a -few –minutes, walk- a -few minutes type of runner. Mine was a calculated risk. The thing is she hadn’t the slightest idea of what it meant to run 42 km in less than 4 hours. When you know something, when you’re wiser about a particular aspect of life, then your frivolous, insecure self doesn’t have to lead. So I thought I could walk. I walked. I heard the tame thud-thud of her Nikes. Then I heard kissing sounds and a meaty whistle. I looked behind; she had stopped completely and was kiss-talking a fawn stray dog with three legs.

I liked dogs, liked them more than she did. She wasn’t on any of the Bangalore animal groups on Facebook. She didn’t take pictures of them either and she didn’t own any. Rahul was, is, a part of them, all of them, his mother rescued dogs like a part-time job. Rahul left her with a love for dogs, I could tell. She forced herself to stop for the dog, to savor what was left of Rahul, to remind herself that her memory of him was still fresher, more palpable than mine. She saw me looking back at her. My tonsils itched. I started to run again.

Rahul left me without any reason. No new woman or weird antics from his family. We never figured a wedding date, astrologers were in conflict, and we were passive. The ambiguity of our wedding date percolated into our relationship. I was just as passive, until he started slipping. That’s when I panicked, fought, wore tighter, less elegant clothes to seek a reaction. But he didn’t care much. His new interest was his new job, new team, and new friends. His interest was spending more time with his mother and her growing number of dogs. And his mother wanted what her son wanted.

I heard he had a fling or two after me, nothing reliable or with evidence. And then there was she: the artist, the elegant successful artist, tiny and pretty. She came at a time when he really needed to settle down. They would be married, I was so sure. I had prepared myself for that day when new engagement pictures would stream from various albums. I waited for the public announcement, a solid wedding date. I anticipated our common friends picking sides, asking me if I was ok if they went. I imagined some of my closer friends lecturing me: We are adults now, they would say, and a devastatingly immature discussion on who should and shouldn’t go to his wedding would ensue.

But this time never came. My friends told me that Rahul broke up with her around the same time her FB page flaunted dark quotes about love and endless pictures of her newer artwork. The quotes got likes, the artwork got praise, which helped, which must have helped.

*

She was running again, she overtook me, almost hopping. She wouldn’t be able to sustain that pace for more than a minute. Oddly, she looked more graceful hopping like squirrel than she did jogging. I had run 9.6 kilometers by now, my coach has warned me from over training ever since I had my inevitable knee injury. I started to walk, waiting for her come around, pass me by again. She probably had finished 5 kilometers and would be done soon.

When I found out they weren’t together anymore, I wasn’t particularly happy, but I needed to know why he had left her. The reason for him leaving was textured, compelling. Apathy wasn’t the reason. Their breakup was explosive. He had been hurt, had ached, had panicked. He had changed for her, sought a reaction and when he knew nothing could form a scab over the hurt he had experienced, his ego kicked in and he left. Just when she thought the power was hers. She was the successful artist, the one who was supposed to tell the mediocre animal-loving corporate boy how things would be for the rest of their lives. But she hadn’t tested his endurance. He had none physically or mentally. Her life partner had sprinted. Her ego was shaken, not crushed and the response was a 10k goal.

My goal was to find the parts of her that was capable of hurting Rahul. The parts that I lacked. I know I will not find my answer in sentences, in a conversation, or in a letter. I will not find it even if I asked Rahul myself, even if he wanted to tell me he would fumble. I must find it in the length of her legs, from the sweat on her wrists. I had to find it from the music she ran to, from the stretch of her hamstring and the ache of her shins.

It felt too overwhelming and my throat thickened. It was as if I had lost complete interest in seeing her again, but I knew myself too well. It seemed too challenging to find these answers, it was impossible and the impossibility made me want to flee, forget this nonsense, go back to my house, eat dinner with my husband and watch TV. In that moment I wanted my nostrils to fill with the smell of my husband’s sleeping shirt and his tangy armpit sweat. I walked across the road to the juice stall, my hands on my waist: Don’t look back, don’t look back. I didn’t. The man at the counter looked expectantly at me, staring at my flushed cheeks. I heard her voice come out. Her grey tee shirt caught the corner of my eye.

‘Orange juice, no sugar.’

She was inches away from me. I wanted to clap, look her in the eyes and say, ‘well done, that’s a solid checkmate.’
She was braver than I was. I would have never willingly put myself right next to her, so close I could finally smell her body splash. Powdery -sweaty.

‘Pineapple Juice, extra sugar,’.” I said.

Sugar is not as evil as these crazies think. If you run enough, sugar is your friend. Sugar is your friend. I mouthed these words, whispered them, and then finally said,

‘Sugar is your friend.’

I did not look at her while saying it, perplexing instead the juice fellow because I had not said it to him either. I had said it to the broken footpath. The juice fellow turned his back to us and made our juice. She said nothing. I have no regrets because when I said what I said, I said it clearly, I did not mumble it, I uttered each world distinctly, confidently. In return she retreated a few steps away from me. I put my headphones on and waited.

Young, but I’m not that bold
And I don’t think the world is sold
I’m just doing what we’re told

Mine came first, and I drank it in seconds. She sat on a plastic stool with her paper cup, sipping, looking at her phone. She was checking her running stats, probably posting those on her profile page right now. I wanted to ask her, why did she come all the way to the juice shop, stand right by me, and then not say anything.

I already knew why though. There was nothing to say, nothing to ask. I wasn’t an artist; I wasn’t even talented at anything. I just had a safe solid career and a safe solid husband. All I had to show for my years was this. No art shows, no elite international friends, no boho earrings from boutiques in Pondicherry, and no trendy apartment built for entertaining. I was a woman who loved the same man who had loved her. But she was the only one who had found him, held his purpose in her palms, drew intricate patterns with his desires, warmed his compassion and forgave his stupidity. She would not say anything back. She had nothing to ask.

This is why I turned, and started to run back home. I ran leaving her sitting on a red plastic stool. I ran, leaving her behind the smog of the auto rickshaws, behind the honking, the howling strays, the burning garbage, further and further behind, and she got smaller and smaller, the massive trees lining the road framed her slight figure. My chest heavy, my legs weighted, I ran leaving her behind me, her breath still on my shoulder.

***