City Lights

"It’s quite fine, you suddenly notice—the panoramic view, the Calacatta marble, the artwork, the baby grand. It is what you’d always wanted, but you don’t cherish it one bit."

Yes, the weather seems great but you don’t want to go out to enjoy it. You’re sitting at home, looking at the reddish-gold sky speckled with clouds, as twilight fades into the glittering city lights.

It’s Saturday, the end of another week of nothing new—little sleep, fast food, slow commute and something called work. Work, which is mostly that ritual of convincing strangers of lies you once believed and hated yourself for believing; but you’ve learnt to live with it. You wonder if you’ll be stuck in it forever but that’s a line of thought you don’t want to succumb to, so you pick up your phone to distract yourself.

Four missed calls from Mom, but it’s probably nothing important—she calls all the time anyway, so you take her for granted. Maybe once she stops, you’ll wonder where she is. For about thirty seconds, you browse through your Instagram stories—sweaty, glorified workouts, a friend holidaying in Zadar with your ex, your brother driving his new Bentayga and your tennis partner celebrating the tweener he’s been practising for months. It repulses you. There’s nothing refreshing in the news either—another dead rapper, melting icebergs, political scandals, and a second wave of “Me Too.” You switch to a game of bullet chess for some fun. The position develops into a closed-Sicilian, and you get skewered by white’s attack. You look outside again and see that the sun has slipped under the horizon. The breeze is gentler and the faint lights have grown brighter in the dark.

You open your messages. It’s Ilaria, the painter you met a few weeks ago. She’s been texting you for a while now and wants to go to dinner. Your story inspires her and she wants to get to know you better.

Really? She must be stupid.

Well, she’s got an exhibition coming up, about stuff you wouldn’t understand. You’re fascinated. Perhaps Ilaria could teach you something you don’t know– about art, about life, about being happy. She leaves town tomorrow but she’s dying to see you before she does. Maybe because you didn’t text her for weeks when she first gave you her number. You text back, telling her you’re free after dinner.

You look at your watch, the one your girlfriend gifted you on your birthday. You’ve got two hours to kill so you order in some pizza and start pacing around your living room. It’s quite fine, you suddenly notice—the panoramic view, the Calacatta marble, the artwork, the baby grand. It is what you’d always wanted, but you don’t cherish it one bit. With your monotonous high-paying job, you bought yourself a bunch of things in the hope that they’d make you feel wealthy and powerful. Were you surprised that the high didn’t last for long? Not really. But a strange emptiness in your chest began to expand. It terrified you so you buried it deep within.

You sit down at the piano, for the first time in months. It calms you. Despite your hesitation, the music plays itself. ‘Misty’. You navigate the standard with faded flair—murky 13ths, mushy “ballad-y” chords, chromatic approaches and conventional turnarounds. The sound echoes around your living room—the descending minor triad of the opening bar, enigmatic and inviting no matter how many times you hear it. For a few seconds, you’re in another world. You’re thinking of your disbanded trio, the friends you never spoke to and never saw again. Maybe you should try and call them. When it’s time for the improv, your pondering stops. It hits you like a kick to the ribs in the winter. You freeze.

Your girlfriend. Yes, she knows you better than most people, but that doesn’t mean she knows you. She’s so familiar that you take her for granted, even though you’ve been through a lot together. She cares about you and you care about her. When she called two hours back you told her you miss her—and you do, but that doesn’t matter. She’s gone for the weekend, and what she doesn’t know doesn’t hurt. What you really need is something invigorating and fresh—something like Ilaria. This artist, who you hope has the answers to all your questions.

You remember something you read in a book about ancient Indian spiritual traditions. It said that a soul is given a human birth only after passing through several other life forms—a cycle of 8 million species of transmigration—the pinnacle of which is humanity. Each lifetime in different bodies leaves an imprint on your soul—a groove in your mind that you can’t get rid of. Some impressions leave a scar more than others and these imprints make you the person you are. So it’s not really you who’s going to be cheating. You’ll deal with the guilt of betrayal, if you feel any, that is. Or you’ll let time make you forget. What you feel makes no difference anyway. After all, she loves you—you’re the centre of her world, so why not keep it that way?

You realise you’ve spent a while brooding and evaluating, so it’s time for action. Ilaria sent a voice note saying she’ll be over in half an hour. You listen to it a few times. Then promptly, you get to tidying up your bedroom and have a quick shower. You make sure to wear that CR7 underwear, hoping it’ll make your sloppy self look more like him. You put on a chic white shirt and dig out a perfume that probably wasn’t worth the price. Once you think you’re all good and ready, you look into the bathroom mirror. You stare at your reflection—he has a wry smile on his face, as though holding back a mirthless laugh. Is that really you? If it is, then he can wait, because just then,  the doorbell rings.

You are surprised, to say the least. She’s wearing sweatpants and an orange t-shirt while you stand there, confused and suffocating in your brogues. She smiles and hugs you. Her hair is tied in a pony-tail—this evening is already off the script.

You get out some wine, but you want to take her for a drive first to get things back on track. Santana’s guitaring from Black Magic Woman sets the mood as you show her your neighbourhood. You talk smooth–unexcited and calm. Soon, her heart’s beating fast from the speed of that roaring V12. Her lips are flushed from the rush of blood; the excitement. An hour later, when you’re back in your living room; she says that you make her feel euphoric. You know it’s the adrenaline from the drive, but she thinks innocently it’s something special about you. You play along.

“Do you do this with a lot of women?” she asks, laughing, but doesn’t even wait for you to reply. You notice her unusual accent—clean plosives that are so impeccably British, but an intonation that’s unmistakably Italian. That’s not a Poirot-ish discovery since she is British-Italian. You watch her singing along to Alex Turner’s “It’s hard to get around the wind” in her oversized t-shirt, sipping on her wine. The casual confidence stupefies you. She doesn’t seem to know or care about your presence. Or maybe she does? Your heart flutters, but you play it cool.

You really enjoy listening to her and just watching her be so… carelessly relaxed. But you’re not going to let her charm overwhelm you—you say all the right things, subtle and snarky. Soon she’s inching closer to you on the couch and looking longer into your eyes. She tells you about how she paints for hours on end. She hates and loves it, because that’s when she’s all alone with her feelings. She tells you about her struggles and how she almost quit.

You kiss slowly, like unsure teenagers.

Is she like you? You tell her about your journey; share some stories that you usually wouldn’t. She tells you her father was an alcoholic but always tried to give her the best he could. How typical. You kiss her again, this time for longer. You feel the softness of her lips. There’s something about her that makes you feel calm and… a word you can’t find. Or is it just all in your head? You tell yourself not to think so much. She gasps in delight as your hands start to caress her body of their own accord.

Fifteen minutes later, you’re fucking her on the bed on which you make love to your girlfriend. Your devious tricks never fail you. She’s screaming your name as though you’re her heroic saviour. In those moments you possess her, a woman most men wouldn’t dare to approach. It’s quite a high, but before you know it, it passes, like it always does.

When you’re done, you just lie in bed, absorbing those strange, languid moments. Oddly, you talk about past lovers—some that meant something, others simply names. She’s not just spontaneous, but at ease.

“Do you know how much you frown?” she says, smiling. Then she massages two fingers on your forehead and your wrinkles fall away. You feel so much lighter that you smile in surprise.“You really should stop thinking so much,”she whispers.

She’s right, and it’s funny that she knows that already. You smile and try to nod, but it’s easier said than done. You go out onto the balcony and stare into the darkness. You see the lights, the traffic and the stars—all bright and clear now. All the people, on from one place to another—in pursuit of what? You wonder. Do they find it? You stare at the enegetic bustle under the night sky and wonder.

You glance at your watch.

For a moment, everything is still. You can hear a car passing by. You can hear your heartbeat. You’re reminded of an earlier version of yourself– the kind of guy who had bright expectations, not just from the world, but from yourself, too. Your decisions, the success and journey you had let you believe you were the one in control. Pure and ambitious; you thought that good things happen if you work towards them. You tried to be a better and kinder person. But life wanted to change you.

It’s not like you didn’t know that strange, sad things happen in the world, but one day something shook inside of you. It made that emptiness in your chest expand. Maybe it was because of your father’s ‘natural death.’ That was two years ago. You dealt with it. Slowly, but you did.

Then, a couple of months later, your best friend—a classical violinist, had his right hand crushed in a car accident. Aside from the mutilated fingers, his body was unscathed, but his mind wasn’t. Over time, he broke contact with everybody—his quartet, even his wife and kids. You think of him often, but you haven’t heard from him in months. Or maybe it was your colleague at work—the one you liked and hung out with during lunch hour. He told you he had a tumour in his lung.

“How’d you get it?” you had inquired, because you knew he didn’t smoke at all.

“Maybe the tumour wanted a clean lung to live in, for a change, you know?” he joked, and you both laughed dryly. “Your sense of humour—I think it’s giving me a tumour in my brain”, you’d said.

But you didn’t sleep too well for a while.

You’ve spent your life chasing things, not even knowing whether you’d get to keep any of them. How you used to walk out onto the street every day, thinking you’d spend your day a certain way, not having the slightest certainty if you’d actually be able to. You think of all the confident promises you made, assuming it was you who’d make sure they came true.

You look at the lights and think of how they will soon disappear into the dawn. Inside, you see Ilaria fast asleep. You sit down beside her. You look at her chest move slightly as she breathes. She reminds you of a Jacques Prevert poem that you thought was corny but, suddenly, you seem to like it. You recite it to yourself under your breath.

“Une orange sur la table

Ta robe sur le tapis

Et toi dans mon lit

Doux présent de la présent

Fraîcheur de la nuit

Chaleur de ma vie.”

You notice her eyelashes and the tanned colour of her neck. A little scar on her arm makes you wonder how she got it. Then you bend and kiss her on the forehead and, like in a fairy tale, she stirs from her slumber. For a second it feels like she’s going to wake up, but then she just turns over and carries on sleeping. Romance usually disappoints—even more than poetry.

You lie down next to her; look at the ceiling. Your thoughts are racing once again. There were times you were happy or at peace, weren’t there? There were days you were sad, too, but you’d stopped caring. You were unaffected by your own self and when feelings stopped making a difference to you, you got rid of lies and truth and right and wrong. You weren’t really feeling anything but watching yourself feel—numbed and liberated, from a distance. Didn’t some philosopher call that a lack of cognitive continuity or some such term? Was it Schopenhauer? Camus? Well, maybe you’re the next great thinker in town.

You wake up to blinding sunlight and car horns. You’d left the blinds up, as usual. Ilaria is gone but the room still smells of her. You’re exhausted, it’s like you never slept. You eat, then smoke a cigarette. You have a shower, then smoke some more. You skim through a collection of poems by Faiz. Then you sit down, doodle at the piano with “Detour Ahead”. You stumble through Keith Jarrett solos and call up Bill, the bassist from your trio. No answer. Before you know it, the sun has set and once again, you wait for sleep to arrive.

Tonight, it comes with dreams, and it feels like a scene from childhood. The sky is a clear blue, and the golden sunlight envelops you. You’re in a garden, perched on a mango tree. You hear your father’s voice, asking you to be careful as you go higher, but he’s also urging you to get to that one perfect mango you’re climbing towards. You go higher—you’re almost there. But suddenly you’re afraid, so you turn down to see if he’s there to save you if you fall. He is. So you go just a little bit further, and then you have it. You feel an enveloping joy, brighter than the searing sun. You really feel itdeep and united with your being. You want to look down at Dad, but you can’t.

When you wake up, you remember the dream, but you feel like you’re missing something. You try your best to remember every detail and every feeling, but the harder you try, the more it escapes you.

The next morning your girlfriend is back. You check on the guilt meter but there’s nothing there. You’d almost forgotten she was going to return. It’s Sunday. She kisses you, looking chirpier than ever. You’re happy too, so you smile back. She asks how your weekend was and you wonder whether you should tell her what you did and let it all end right there. Before you can do anything, your shirt is off and her full lips are muffling your words.

You stop her.

She deserves the truth, doesn’t she? You look her in the eye and consider the fact that she thinks you love her, but you don’t. You smile at her and hold her face in your hands. You kiss her on the lips, then on her cheek and her forehead. Then, you tell her your weekend was no good with all the genuine emotion you can muster and say you missed her more than you could handle. She hugs you and breaks into tears.

A lazy and pleasant day saunters by. Things are back to normal—the usual place for dinner, while a dozen infuriated emails invade your inbox. Your girlfriend is talking passionately sitting across you, but you aren’t listening. What you are listening to is Entre Dos Aguas, which plays in your head. The active melody quells your thoughts, for the time being. Your surroundings dissolve and you try your best to disguise the faraway look on your face.

Late into the night, you catch a glimpse of your reflection in the bathroom mirror. Once again, you feel it’s him looking at you as you stand still, watching in the dim light. This time he isn’t laughing—he looks worried. He holds his head in his hands and begins to sob. You watch, for a few seconds, and it makes you frown. Just then, the memory of Ilaria’s slender fingers on your forehead enters your mind, and a wide smile takes over your face. You go out into the balcony to check on the twinkling city lights, which are slowly, but surely, fading into dawn.

Yuvraj Nathani
Yuvraj Nathani

Yuvraj Nathani is Founding Editor at ALMA Magazine. For more, follow him here.