Dev pulled down one of the two shutters at the wine store to save time. That way he’d be able to leave on the hour. Few more minutes to seven. His eyes scanned for the woman, who’d been by the store every Friday for the past few weeks, just before closing. She wasn’t pretty in an obvious way, like the other women he’d seen in Vancouver: green or blue-eyed, blond or raven-haired, milk-white legs clad in short denim shorts, boobs jiggling. But because she paid him attention, sieved her every word through a smile, to Dev, she was beautiful. More so now. Always dressed in sleeveless tops and really short skirts, she bought the Oculus, the most expensive red in the store and tipped him handsomely.
There was a single customer at the back—an old man with his pants up around his chest, inspecting with unsteady hands, a twenty-dollar bottle of pinot noir. Dev kept an eye on him, while he counted the cash from one of the tills.
—How’s this one? The man said after a beat.
—It’s medium-bodied. It’s good. When he joined, he wanted to learn everything about wine. He’d been here a year and didn’t care anymore. He said whatever he felt like.
The man pointed at the cab merlot. And this?
—Hints of red berry fruit, cocoa, cedar, tobacco. Dev was still half-bent, separating the loonies, small change.
The man frowned, went to shelves where the cheap, non-VQA wines were.
—Cheap fuck. Dev mumbled under his breath.
The old man held up an eight dollar bottle. Such a great price for an underrated wine. Am I right?
—The grapes aren’t a hundred percent Canadian. They are from all over, but it’s alright. Dev didn’t care about the grapes. There was no commission on non-VQA ones.
—It’s grapes. Who cares where they come from? The man laughed as he walked over, pleased at his own joke.
—10.85, please. How would you like to pay?
—Actually, hold on a minute. I better check with my wife if she’s O.K. with red.
Dev forced a weak smile.
—Women, am I right? Always interfering with everything.
Five minutes to seven. There was no sign of the Oculus woman. He’d been thinking about her a lot lately. There was something in the way she spoke, like a shower of electricity, that made his bones tingle. He keyed in the code to open till number two when he heard the ding sound. He smelled her in the air: jasmine, hibiscus, animalness.
She sauntered toward the counter.
—I almost freaked out when I saw one of the shutters down. Thought I wouldn’t see you today, Mr. Curry.
Mr. Curry. Her nickname for him. It was offensive, but not offensive enough to cock-block himself. He could be woke another time. Also, he’d read somewhere that a nickname was useful; it promised recall when say if she was out with her girlfriends and talking about men.
He pictured her when he masturbated, which was often. Imagined his hands crawling over her breasts, her stomach. Even while in bed, with his wife Diya beside him. Quietly. The release was more delicious that way. After it was over, he wiped his pulsing cock with his t-shirt. Spent, he went to sleep.
When he and his wife migrated from Bangalore two years ago, the plan was her to study contemporary arts and for him to look for full-time work. Eventually, they wanted to become permanent residents. Dev had been applying ever since they got here but with no luck. It was humiliating, going for interview after interview, sitting in front of cocky fucks throwing questions his way: Tell us why we should give you the job?; tell us what you will bring to the table? And they still rejected him. Eventually, he’d taken up this retail position at the wine store.
Diya still hadn’t finished her final portfolio, a terrible movie he’d seen clips of. She planned on applying for jobs only after her reel was ready. Most of the money he made busting his ass went toward her tuition, though he couldn’t bring himself to say that to her face. They practically were roommates; the only reminder that they were married was the heavy wedding album they had lugged from India and his last name on her passport. She spent most of her time at school. If she was home, she was on the phone, laughing, giggling, putting on a fake Canadian accent: That was weird, eh? If he arched an eyebrow, she said, This is how you keep relationships alive, by talking, by taking an interest in people’s lives. I’m sorry if you don’t have any friends.
—I’m so jealous of your eyelashes. They’re longer than mine. The Oculus woman leaned on the counter, her cleavage so close he could smell her perfume.
—I have an eyelash routine I’m happy to share with you. She snickered.
Around her, Dev felt like a different man, someone who was funny, desirable, capable of making a woman laugh. There was suddenly confidence in the way he spoke.
The old man returned, pulled his wallet out. Great news. She gave me the go-ahead. He stuck his wrinkled thumbs in the air and then got annoyed when Dev didn’t acknowledge him.
—This always happens when they hire people that aren’t from here. He didn’t look at Dev directly.
—Sorry, sir. Dev was expected to be polite. There were cameras in the store.
—Not good enough. You’ve lost my business. I’ll go to BC Liquor, where they know how to pay attention to their customers. He banged the cheap bottle he spent minutes picking on the counter and left.
—I don’t know what your problem is. The Oculus woman went after him. He pays a lot of attention to me. Maybe if you spent more than ‘eight’ dollars he’d serve you well too.
The old man glared at them, shaking with anger.
—You should get a medal for dealing with dicks like him.
—Sure, I’ll put in a request with my manager.
It was well past seven, the PA announcement for the closure of all the shops had been made, the tired man signing off with a “God bless” in his nasal, Asian accent. He could hear the staff at the other stores – the butcher, flower girl, chocolate guy, coffee guy packing up; mops scraping against the floor; the familiar sounds of garbage bins being emptied, shutters being pulled. If he focused hard enough, sometimes he heard their sighs of gratitude for being able to go home until starting all over tomorrow.
He wasn’t sure what his next move should be, or if there should even be one.
—Want to get out of here? She winked. But before anything – she winked again – let’s eat something, I’m starving. Indian? I’m not working tomorrow, so don’t have to worry about the tummy troubles.
Usually, that would mean strike number two for him, but he let it pass. He wasn’t expecting her to be this forward. Though from movies and hearsay, he knew white women were frank, not stuck up or skittish like some of the Indian women he’d dated in the past. Even Diya was demure, very reserved in the beginning. They hadn’t even kissed till a year into their relationship, and when they finally did, he thought this was it.
His cock stirred. His wife suddenly sprung into his mind with a pair of scissors trained towards his trousers. Dev flinched, then clicked his tongue at the implausibility of that idea. Flinging his apron over the coat hanger, he enabled the alarm and was out of the shop in a flash. His heart kicked, something crawled up his skin. This was happening. His dream was coming true: he was going to fuck a white woman.
Still, he kept his tail tucked firmly between his legs. He daren’t do something stupid like pawing at her waist. He kept his hands deep inside the pockets of his hoodie as they walked past the Polygon museum, glancing at the crowd at Tap and Barrel, its belly bursting with people. There was still time to birth an excuse: oh shit, I left something at the store. Next time? I have to buy milk. Some shit like that. For the second she touched him he was going to come all over her, and she’d laugh at him, at the pseudo version of himself he’d been playing, pretending to be someone cool, someone funny.
White women even smelled different, something unattainable yet accessible about them. Any minute she was going to turn around and say, You thought I’d be into you? But she took his hand into hers, blond hair shimmering around her pink face. Her skin was so soft Dev was scared he was going to squeeze her hand too hard.
As they crossed the city library to the left, Dev realized they had come quite far. The further he moved from his neighbourhood, the more his desired swelled. Before long, he noticed London Drugs to his right. After that, the roads suddenly turned unrecognizable: looping streets, houses as tall as mountains, giant fir trees with strong, thick barks piercing the skies, the air apple-crisp, sharp, swirling wisps of fog. A new, strange world.
She stopped in front of a gilded building, light bouncing off its tinted glass. It was tall, kept going higher and higher, the top of its concrete head wasn’t visible. A tiny man (or was it a child?) with one ear, sat behind a large desk in a bulky suit. He stood up and greeted her, not paying heed to Dev. The elevator opened with a ding. Inside, there were no buttons, no arrows telling passengers whether the lift was travelling up or down. He must’ve hesitated, for she leaned and licked his ear. I’m thinking of the things you’re going to do to me. His dick strained against his trousers, fears dissipated.
Her apartment was charming – skinny, tall lamps threw pale shadows on the off-white walls, pendant lights hung from the ceiling, colourful papier-mâché giraffe figurines sat or stood at different angles; a Mahogany shelf was full of paperbacks and hardbound books; a potted Jade plant on the centre table, succulents; a sleeping elephant god from India, in brass.
A shaft of dying sunlight poured in through the big window, out of which he could see the entire city. If he didn’t blink, all the windows with their tiny pockets of light blurred into each other. The people in those windows looked important; they had lives that mattered, as his did right now. He was more than others. He looked down at the world, from what looked like the 40th or 50th floor, at the bug-like metal creatures below with their headlights on, little smudges of reds and oranges and yellows. People, insignificant black dots, crawled slowly, much like him moments ago. This is how the rich must feel like: that they are better than everyone who isn’t.
Thoughts of Diya, of bills that were due today: internet, mobile, MSP, rent, of the paneer and capsicum he was going to cook tonight, drifted out of his mind. Even the fact that he had the opening shift at the store early tomorrow.
—I’m so wet. The woman’s eyes were hungry.
He expected her to start easy. He hoped for them to hang around the living room a little, her offering him a cup of tea or beer, them being awkward before it all began. He didn’t mind, of course. She guided him towards the bedroom, to the right of the living space, through a long corridor full of art: the same subjects in every frame: plump children with disproportionate hands, face, and feet. She brought with her the bag of wine.
The bedroom was hotel-like with clean, expensive-looking bedding, fluffed up pillows, an orange Moroccan carpet on the floor, a potted Rubber plant in the corner, a big, circular mirror on the wall with gold plating around the edges, etched birds. Up close on the bed with her, he convinced himself, she was pretty despite a thin layer of fat under her chin. She made the first move, kissed him, a leisurely exploration of his mouth. Unable to contain himself any longer, he grabbed at her breasts. She gave him a knowing smile and removed her top. By the time she unhooked her bra, Dev had slipped out of his clothes except for the underwear (size M), he’d picked at Miniso: it was cheap, tight, squashed his balls.
—Ooh! Mr. Curry is also Mr. Muscles.
He’d rarely been to a gym his whole life, yet her words turned him on, her compliments making him feel like the built men he saw on the streets: bare-chested, ripped muscles. The only thing that was off-putting about them was their scrawny asses and skinny calves. He dug his teeth lightly into her neck, her perfume bitter on his tongue. He chewed her earlobes, licked her armpits, bit her hip. Blood rushed to his groin.
—Talk dirty to me.
—You’re so hot. That was all he could think of.
—She is, isn’t she? It was a man’s voice, the sound of his voice an echo, hollow yet deep. He wore big, round gold-framed glasses and a beige beanie, curved moustache. In an oversized green jacket and baggy trousers, he was slightly built, like the man or child at the lobby.
Dev jumped off the bed and backed into a corner, in front of the plant, his hands over his dick. Words crowded his mind, whole sentences crammed at the base of his throat. Nothing came out. The man stood there, scanned him, an amused expression on his face. Dev looked back and forth from the woman to the man. He was going to die here, like in those horror movies. The beanie man was going to tie him up and hack off his limbs one by one as he cried and begged for mercy. Weeks, maybe months from now the police would crack open the door, full of stench, find his remains drowned in his own piss and vomit and blood.
—Fuck, shit, fuck, sorry, shit, sorry, I’m sorry, Dev repeated, like a refrain. There was pee on the floor.
—Look what you made him do? The woman was propped on her arm in a side-plank position. The man slapped his belly and chuckled.
Dev was still glued to the wall, terror coursed through his body.
—I’m bored, the man said. The woman beckoned to him, and they fed on each other’s tongues, making long, wet sounds. This was his chance. He collected his clothes from the floor and moved towards the door when his body turned lead-like, refusing to budge. His legs hardened, turned to roots of a tree. He was that boy again who’d grasped someone else’s hand at a party his parents had taken him to, instead of his dad’s. He’d looked up to find a bearded man reaching for him. Dev whimpered.
— That gorgeous caramel skin. These guys have the best skin. No, hon? Said the woman. The man nodded with a smile.
From the bedroom window, Dev saw that it was dark outside, a dense forest. No buildings, no people in those homes, no cars, nothing anywhere. Diya was going to elbow him any second, in that funny spot near his ribs, like she did every night to stop his snoring. He’d wake up to realize he was still in his bed and his wife had gone back to sleep, her back to him.
—You’re not dreaming, she said slowly, deliberately, gave a manic laugh.
The man removed the bottle of Oculus from the paper bag and offered Dev a glass and Dev knew he shouldn’t refuse. He’d had Oculus before, during one of the tastings at the store, though this one tasted odd. With each sip, he felt more and more unsettled, his head floated. If only he could somehow let Diya know how sorry he was. It wasn’t all fuck yous and hate yous between them he’d tell her; there were some mornings where he kissed her face, her neck, pulled her shirt over her chest; days he made her omelette stuffed with caramelized onions and spinach and feta the way she liked it.
—Forget about her. The woman rolled her soft blond hair into a severe bun.
Dev on the floor, still naked, trembled. In the past when he’d thought of leaving Diya, of finding another woman, someone who was nicer and didn’t correct his English all the time, it felt good to lose himself to that fantasy. To be free, of having a life without her.
—It’s time. The woman said to the man, who nodded and left the room.
Dev made himself even smaller, curving his body into a ball, surrendering to his fate.
The man returned, holding a green glass pipe and a bag of weed. The woman pointed to the balcony, directing Dev to follow her. She slid the glass door open, and the cold burst of wind swooped in. The man took the first hit, sucking the smoke deep into his lungs, holding it for as long as he could before exhaling. Then he handed the pipe to Dev who flinched. He inhaled slowly through his sobs, swallowed the smoke and coughed violently. His lungs rattled, gut tensed. He’d never smoked weed before, and when it kicked in, he believed he could levitate.
—Be thankful you were chosen. It’s an honour. The man’s words were fluid, overlapping each other.
The woman’s skin, whose name he didn’t know still, gleamed in the moonlight as she fixed his cheek with a peck.
—Look at her. Tell me you have seen a woman more beautiful. The man clutched Dev’s chin, coercing him to look at her. He found himself nodding. Something overbearing whipped about him: sticky, viscid, sewing itself securely around his neck and she appeared stunning to him yet again.
—Are you happy? She caressed his face tenderly, laughed a pity-filled laugh that seemed to come to him from far-far away. Sounds rose and fell, crashing around him. Dev was tired and wanted to sleep.
What was it that approached him at night: a hallucination, fever, madness? He was alive but buried inside the bowels of the earth. The more he struggled, the deeper he went. He swung his arms and legs, yet people continued to throw dirt on his body by the handfuls. He shrieked, though no sound left his mouth. Was that Diya? She held a child in her arms—whose child was it? He watched both of them walk away as dirt filled his mouth, nostrils, his entire body, as a deep, desperate yearning for his wife and child brought tears to his eyes.
The morning after, he woke up feeling sick, heavy-headed, unable to lift his head off the pillow. The clothes he had on weren’t his: an oversized green jacket, loose pants, a beige beanie on his head. The woman was by his side, head resting on her palm, observing him. She leaned over and blew air on his skin. His hair stood on end.
—Morning, baby. It’s a gorg day, shall we do brunch?
Dev’s mouth was dry, not enough saliva to even wet his lips. He pressed the sides of his head, groaned in pain. He should get out of the bed, get out of the house, take the stairs, run, run, run. He lifted himself off the bed, jumped away from her and stumbled across the room. He must have reached as far as the bedroom door, before the same powerful, unseen, unknown presence clamped down on him, swaddling him tighter and tighter until he gave up all thoughts of escaping.
Breathe. He shouldn’t forget to breathe.
—Can’t you see? There’s no way out. She cracked a sweet smile.
—Such a cutie, she pouted. Go see if your friend had a good sleep.
The man from last night was folding a pink duvet into a neat little square, evening out the creases with the flat of his hand. He piled it on top of the pillow, placed it at the head of the pull-out couch.
—Morning, the man said.
The balcony was open, and the air carried with it the smell of fried bacon from the neighbour’s kitchen.
—Coffee? The woman looked at the man as if he were an acquaintance.
—No, thanks, I must get going.
The woman gave a polite nod.
—Please, don’t go, Dev heard himself say. He clutched the man’s hand. Don’t go.
The man pulled himself free of his grip.
—It’s normal to be afraid in the beginning. You’ll get used to it.
The man left, walked out into the dim hallway. As soon as the door closed shut, Dev started crying, a slow, quiet cry, a cry of agony, despair. He rushed to the window, feeling like his only accomplice had abandoned him. The buildings and people and vehicles magically reappeared. The man was already down, not much bigger than an insect, but Dev could somehow see him glancing back at him, his shoulders restful, eyes brimming with gratitude, like the workers at the quay at the end of their last shift. He was going home.
Years have passed, and during this time, Dev has tried several times to cross the threshold, escape the house, each failed attempt bashing the hope out of him. Still, he waits, to be let go, to see his wife, to ask for her forgiveness.
Dev looks out the window all day hoping Diya will find him, but mostly he hopes for someone weak, gullible to catch the woman’s eyes; seeking what he’d sought, searching for what he already had, pretending to be someone he wasn’t.
Kailash Srinivasan is a fiction writer living in Vancouver and has recently completed his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Oyster River Pages, Bad Nudes, Lunch Ticket, OxMag, Santa Ana River Review, Going Down Swinging, Regime, Tincture, and others. Image: Red Oval, Wassily Kandinsky, 1920