I entered the house around five, a little earlier than usual. It was after all the most brutal winter we had seen in the last ten years and today was no different. Luckily for me, I work only a few minutes from here, so it wasn’t bad. Malathi was not that lucky though, a forty mile commute in this weather would be mind numbingly horrible. Though I don’t know if it could feel any worse after the fight we had last night.
I saw Dr Quinn struggle to start his car on the street across the house. I waved and asked him to come inside, it was after all really starting to get bad out there. Now this is a guy I could talk to, and the weather made sure we would be spending some time sharing what drove us nuts. We met at an NGO conference a few years ago, I was trying to contribute in my own way to spread the awareness about a group I worked for, and he was the key note speaker at the conference. The guy had given his whole life to something he believed in, working in camps in Africa and a degree on theology. But what made me interested in his life was his stint in Kolkata with the Missionaries of Charity. He managed a few orphanages run by the group for some years before returning to the US and opening his own shop in what he called the “shrink” line of business.
I had known him for a few years, a very good ‘fella’, always listened, never got mad, in fact there were days he was the only person I could turn to for advice and for that proverbial “shoulder to cry on”. How he managed to listen to every annoying detail of my relationship with Malathi , I never knew. But things were never this bad. Of course, she was everything I knew I wanted from someone I wanted to be with, independent, passionate and beautiful. But of late, I started doubting everything about her. She had become her own worst nightmare, things never were black and white with her and it almost ended up being miserably grey for me.
“A Grey day turning black, huh?” said Dr Q, “I was over at the Winghams, trying to set something up for their kid, really autistic, poor guy. This looks like its going to get worse, you do have shovel right?”
“A drink Doc?”
As I took out the glasses, the lights went off. The outages usually lasted a few minutes, but something in me sensed that this was going to be one long night. I lit up the fireplace and settled into my seat. I was getting worried about her now, I tried calling her with the one bar on my cell phone, but went straight to voicemail. “You’ve reached the voicemail of Malathi, please leave your message after the beep.” That was the last call I could make before it died on me. I switched the phone off and turned to Dr. Q.
“ I assume Malathi’s not here”, he said staring into the fire. “What happened?, Where’s the little one?”
Shubha, my three year old, was her mom’s daughter, same eyes, same smile. And weirdly, she always clung to her mom, weren’t daughter supposed to be closer to their dads?
He smiled, “Well it depends on the relationship at the end of the day, maybe your wife created that force field of emotional intensity you didn’t. She is one intense woman, after all.”
True, maybe Malathi took her along. But where was she? Our fights never prompted her to leave the house before, not with Shubha at least. But maybe I outdid myself last night, but it wasn’t that bad, I know she could put up with worse. What was wrong with her, I never was able to understand. I tried asking her, talking to her, but her eyes just kept getting distant. Maybe this was the end.
“I am thinking of a separation, Doc, this is just not working for me.”
A long silence ensued, after which he said, “How long have you been thinking about it?”
“Quite some time now, in fact last week after you visited, she almost threatened to get one herself, she says there are things I don’t see and will never. That I should be ashamed of myself.”
“Maybe she has a point, empathize with her.”
“She hates it when anyone does that with her, I think that would only make all this end much quicker.” I had an angry smile on my face as I stared at the orange glow.
He didn’t say anything. I looked at the guy, old wrinkled skin, almost no hair. The things he must have seen in Africa and Kolkata, I’m sure were crazier than my stories. And yet he never spoke about himself. Maybe that’s how shrinks operate, a shrink secret.
It was almost past midnight, the power was still out, and I was really worried now. My cell phone finally died, and this was as isolated two of us could get on a snowy night. She must have left me a note, I thought to myself and got up to check the office space.
“Checking under the phone?”, he asked with a smile
‘Checking under the phone’, that was a game Malathi and I played in Grad school. We left each other notes under our advisor’s phone so that no one else found them. Sweet memories from much simpler times. Dr Q thought it was a brilliant idea until of course the advisor found them. Our plan was to graduate before he did.
I walked upstairs and lifted the phone. There were some old notes, but there was one new one.
Finally! I thought to myself.
This one was in Tamil…weird, she hadn’t left me one in years.
“We are at home, I can’t tell where right now, make sure the guy goes…but be careful, he has a gun…J”
I felt a pain shoot up my spine, and a sense of deep freeze. I quickly wrote,” Seri, I’ll try keep him at bay, are you and Shubha safe? I will leave some coffee here in 10 minutes, its freezing here. I assume by man, you mean Dr Q., I wont ask you what happened, but let me know if its him. You can leave it in English, no one’s going to read the notes except me”
I could hear footsteps on the stairs so I quickly put away all the notes and turned around. I didn’t know what to expect but I had to outshrink a shrink here. Not an easy task.
He walked up and had a smile, so did you find what you were looking for?
I took a deep breath, laughed and said, Na, just some old mushy stuff from her. I wish she could always be that way.
“People change, that’s the way it always was and is, man is it freezing in here, why don’t we go downstairs?”
I nodded and followed him, the train of thoughts in my head that I just couldn’t keep track of. “ Why would she say that, is it Q she was talking about?? what did Dr. Q do?, This guy??. ..the same guy, I trusted with the innermost secrets of my life….and my Malathi, how could I doubt her….what is happening over here??....why the smiley face??”
“Would you like some coffee Doc?” I asked,
He said, “Sure,
As I prepared coffee, I started going back to the time I started doubting her for what I would call random behavior. Skipping dinners at home, going straight to bed, out for work the first thing in the morning. All along, I kept noticing small things that I never questioned because when you generally trust people with your lives, you do that unconditionally. I then switched my attention to Dr. Q. Here is a guy who had nothing to lose to begin with, who learnt everything about me, my fears and hopes, because he listened. But the big question in my mind, could it be unconditional ? What was in it for him, that he never stopped my incessant rambling.
“Among most things out there that smell better than they taste, I think coffee takes the cake..” he said. That was true, coffee did smell a lot better than it could taste, so are we more forgiving of the taste because the smell already did its job?
I said, hold onto that thought, I’ll be back in a bit; forgot something at the office.
I rushed upstairs, and looked for the note.
“Yes, its him”
My heart sank when I read that.
“I cant say more for now, but please be careful, he has a gun. He was leaving the house when you arrived, I couldn’t believe you called him back in.
My phone is dead, I cannot call the cops.
The coffee will last Shubha and me for the next few hours.
She is in pain, more in shock than anything else. I stopped him before he did anything.
More when this pedophilic bastard is gone.
My eyes filled up with tears as I read that.
I wanted to pin the guy down and choke him right there. But she said he has a gun. I am not sure what had happened but I think it made sense to behave like nothing happened and let him leave when the storm had passed.
But what about the storm that had just begun to brew.
I would have to find out more about this guy. Why would Shubha be in pain, did he hurt her? Man, if he even said anything to her, I would punch the living daylights out of him. Ok, I think I need to get him out of the house first. A lot can be done later.
“Looks like I’m stuck here for the rest of the night, I cant even see my car out there. You do have a shovel right?” He said
I just nodded.
Where could that gun be? How do I act normal when all this is happening?
I had asked him the same exact question a month ago. “How do you act so calm when you know so many of your patients are messed up, Doc?”
“So, you think its an act?”
“No, Im sure any human being would be affected by what they find out through psycho-analysis of another person, disturbed or not. You really don’t want to get into the head of anyone else.”
“So, Doc, tell me more about your life in Kolkata. What was it like being around those kids in the orphanages?”
This was the first time I had ever asked him a question about his life.
“ It was very schizophrenic.”
“ You would have these beautiful moments with kids who looked upto you when they were young, and then they would walk out on you when they realized all this was not real.”
“ Drugs, skipping school, poverty, the entire kitchen sink of issues as they grow older.”
“ And you, doc, I mean what made you want to be there? Not ever get married, have kids of your own, I’m sure religion and service only went so far, what about your personal choice?”
He smiled and looked at me.
“Quite interested in my life now, eh?”
I felt a shiver when he said that, his piercing glance made it tough to look away.
“Just as interested as you were with mine, doc” I said with a smile.
“Well, lets just say things didn’t happen, and I made a choice for them not happening. We cant run away from the outcomes of the choices we make right?”
“ You could make new choices though.”
“ True, but look at me, I’m old, Ive spent my whole life thinking about an ideal, never quite got close to achieving it. I doubt making new choices is going to help me now.”
“So are you suffering? Did you hurt anyone in Kolkata? ”
I had to throw that one out, had to be brave that he wouldn’t pull out his gun and shoot me.
He looked at me straight in the eyes. I didn’t flinch after asking that question.
I knew evil resided in all of us, heck, it had made me doubt Malathi of all people in the world, it made me trust this guy, it also probably made him hurt those who had looked upto him for safety.
“So are you?” I asked him again.
“ Arent we all?”
“ Yes, But are you?”
He looked at the fire as the last piece of wood was burning,
The silence said it all. He had tears in his eyes, but wiped them off before he asked his next question.
“Trust, how do you decide who deserves it?” he asked me.
“ I don’t have an idea, doc. But I can say this, the ones you can trust, probably are the ones who trust you too. Détente at a more human level.”
We looked outside, it had stopped snowing, though I thought he could still not leave.
“Can I get that shovel, I think I should leave now.”
I knew he wouldn’t get far in this weather, but I had Shubha and Malathi to think about. If only there were three clones of me out there, I could probably request one clone to help him.
He needed help.
His car pulled away from the street as I watched him wave back for the final time. I knew I would never see him again, and I really prayed that he got some help. Endings aren’t easy. Especially with strangers.
I ran upstairs to my office, there was one new note.
“ Is he gone for sure?”
Where was she watching all this from? Man, she was smart, I don’t think I would have managed all these hours without landing a few punches at someone.
I heard the footsteps walk down the stairs as Malathi and Shubha emerged from the shadows. We spent the rest of the night near the fireplace in silence as Shubha slept, just gazing at the fire. I never felt so peaceful ever in my life.
A few days later, we heard that Dr. Q gave up his practice and joined rehab.
Good riddance, said Malathi.
I prayed that he recover. Noone deserves a life like that.
Not even someone who played with all of our trust.