Polar VortexNew fiction by Shani Mootoo
Book*hug Press, 2020
a cream-coloured kurta, the neck and cuffs of the long silk shirt trimmed in gold thread. a red dhoti. a cream-and-red turban edged in gold, from which a long curtain of pearl-like beads hangs and covers his face. around him red draperies — a ceremonial canopy. behind the canopy, walls decorated in red fabric. my eyes are lowered, focused on his cream silk slipper shoes curled at the toes. he is standing on red flowers strewn on the red carpet. people hover about, their backs to us. they are busy-busy, organizing his life, but they don’t pay him, or us, attention. there is a low table inside the canopy. no, not a table, a bed. he takes my hand. we move toward the bed and lower ourselves onto it. we lie side by side, his arm across my chest. i worry people will see us like this. i want him to lie on me. i am thrusting. thrusting my body. i plead, i want him. he is holding his penis, i take hold of it, can hardly breathe, my chest aches for the release of. no, not love, sex.
everything is red. his tongue. his penis. the palms of my hands. red red red.
someone draws back the hanging cloth of the canopy, i pull away just in time and get up off the bed. drums are beaten with fury, cymbals clash, tremble, and chatter, a rhythm red and violent draws near. his soon-to-be-wife approaches, mummy-like, shrouded in flowing red and gold, marigold heads scattered ahead of her steps. i leave through a side door, looking behind me. he remains reclined, no evidence in sight of interrupted pleasure.
That dream again. In it I always want him so badly. I am shaking from my waist down, like a dog yanked off a human’s leg.
I wonder if I moved about in my sleep. If Alex has any idea of the kind of dream I had lying next to her. She’s already left the bed. And she’s closed the door — that was considerate. She is able to navigate the house soundlessly. How does she do it? Whenever I try to shut that door quietly, the hinges squeak, the handle squawks, the lock hits the jamb loudly.
I must get out of bed. It’s 7:56 a.m., much too late to put a stop to him visiting us. I have no choice now but to face him.
But he’ll be facing me, too. I’m not the only culprit here. I must remember that. Odd that I’d sleep in on this of all days.
But not so odd, I suppose, that I’d have dreamt of him. But this, of all dreams.
It’s so quiet with the door closed. Funny, you can’t hear a thing from the rest of the house, but you can hear a dog out on the street barking and, from outside the window behind the bed, a bird — at least, I think it’s a bird — scurrying along the metal eavestrough. Could be a squirrel. A chipmunk maybe. Or a mouse trying to get in from the cold. We’re supposed to be fine with that, supposed to expect that sort of thing living in an old farmhouse on what is technically an island. I doubt I’ll ever get used to critters wanting to share space with me.
The desire I felt in the dream lingers in my body. Ripples of pleasure torture me. I’ll think of Alex. I’ll curl under the covers here for just a few minutes more and imagine her.
But a feeling of regret descends on me, and I take my hands from beneath the covers and pull the top sheet taut up to my chin. I wonder what she’s doing. We hadn’t ended the night well. Yes, that’s right. There’d been all that tension. I wonder how she is this morning.
We’d come to bed, both of us, with heavy hearts. The silence between us crouched on my chest like a small animal breathing in my face. After a while, my e-book held like a wall, I wondered if I should turn and hug her, perhaps say something kind. Instead, I closed the book, and she, closing hers, too, reached up and turned off her bedside lamp. When I heard her gentle sleep-breathing, I relaxed. But for a good while I couldn’t sleep. Then, just as I was finally drifting off, her perfectly aware voice ripped apart the veil.
“Was there ever anything between you? Is there anything you should tell me?”
I jolted wide awake. If playful jealousies had been part of our little games of arousal, it was too late — in the night, and in the trajectory that has led us to today — to expect this as a motive for her question. Should I answer with a clearly irritated voice, I wondered, or should I respond kindly? Should I take on a tone of indignation and ask what might she possibly be insinuating by “anything” and by “between”?
“Are you awake?” she persisted.
The pull toward sleep had disarmed me. I was too tired to properly gear myself up for a discussion that could easily deteriorate into argument. “I am now,” I said, biding my time. I stared tensely into the blackened room. Another tactic was necessary. “The only thing you need to know about Prakash,” I capitulated, my voice low to emphasize I’d been well on my way to sleep, “is that he’s loyal. Very loyal. He doesn’t drop his friends easily.”
She did not respond. This woke me further, and I felt pressured to continue. I added that while I wasn’t surprised he’d gotten in touch, I also wasn’t worried it meant the beginning of anything — for instance, a connection we’d be obliged to carry on. Again she didn’t respond. Fully awake, deciding on kindness, I softened and offered more: that was Prakash, I said — here today, gone tomorrow. Still nothing from her. If she’d picked up on my feeble attempt and the careless contradictions in it to reassure her, she didn’t let on. I knew she hadn’t just suddenly fallen asleep. She wanted me to speak. So even as I felt worn out so late at night, and was struggling for the right words, I acquiesced and added gently, “You’ve been so — suspicious is not the word, nor skeptical, but so — so something regarding him, Alex. As if it’s unthinkable that I could have an old friend who’d want to visit me. Am I that unlovable?”
From her came finally a response, and it was one that relaxed me, a soft and breathy cluster of a chortle. I turned on my side and put my arm across her. She drew it tighter, as if it were a seat belt, and grasped my hand. We lay like that for some minutes, and at last, feeling relieved, I closed my eyes. Then, just as I felt again the tug of sleep, her voice, as alert as if we were in the midst of a daytime chat, startled me: “You know, five years ago, when we came here to live, we left so much behind.”
What was she getting at, I wondered. I was tempted to beg, Do you seriously want, at this time of the night, to talk about our move here? But gratitude for what I imagined was a switch from our previous contentious topic held me back. I gave her hand a light squeeze by way of acknowledging I’d heard her.
“I mean, we’re not the same people anymore,” she continued.
“Aren’t you tired, Alex?” I asked.
“I’m just thinking that one can’t really hold on to the past. Not if you want to move forward. We all eventually relieve ourselves of things and people no longer in our lives.”
I pulled my hand from hers. Despite the heat beginning to flush my face, I made sure to keep my voice even, and asked, “So what are you saying?”
“Well, just that if we’re not in touch with someone for several years, perhaps it’s not a friendship worth holding on to, even if it had once been. I mean, you’ll find out, won’t you? But perhaps these things just take time, and letting go happens naturally. On its own.”
I had to bite my lip to prevent my baser self from flaring up and announcing that Prakash was not simply any old friend, and that the history he and I shared — his part in it, my part in it — was more than reason enough for him to want to pay me a visit. But this was approaching truths and subjects I couldn’t afford to unbridle.
That’s why I overslept — I’d been awake most of the night stewing about Alex’s assumptions and worries, and my own foolishness. Oh, man. If only I could step back in time, I’d undo this mess. Why on earth did I invite him here? Into my home. My sanctuary. Our home, Alex’s and mine. But one can also ask: why did he, in the first place, contact me? It should have been clear, at least this time, that I’d meant to cut ties with him. I guess that’s what happens when you simply hope people intuit what you’re intending. But I couldn’t have told him directly, explicitly, to bugger off and leave me alone. Of course I couldn’t.
Alex has been testy ever since she learned of his visit. She knows nothing of my connection to Prakash, really, so why this fractiousness? Her discontent about his coming here has been less than playful. It amounts to insinuations, if not accusations, of a dalliance — past or present, who knows what’s in her mind? — and, whether or not she’s aware of it, casts aspersions on my sexuality.
It’s all really unfortunate, and her manner makes me feel guilty. Doubly guilty, in fact. For asking him here, to the home I share with her, and for cutting him out of my life.
Alex’s unease, given what she knows — and does not know — is unusual and extreme. I ask if something else is bothering her, but it’s always that uninviting two-word answer she delivers: “The book.” Or: “My work.” One and the same, really. Or she just stares at me blankly, unnervingly.
And when Prakash gets here, what will I say to him about why I so obviously tried to snip him out of the picture?
If he is to arrive right at noon, then he’s probably just getting in his car for the three-hour drive, if you count rest stops on the highway and all, before he even crosses the bridge onto the island. He doesn’t drink coffee. We have black tea in a tin somewhere. It’s old, but he didn’t used to be fussy. I wonder what he’s like today.
Alex has an unfathomable memory for even the most inconsequential of details. What was it she asked when I told her my friend Prakash had gotten in touch? The Ugandan guy you met in university? Something like that. I’d mentioned him briefly, one time, and that was a couple days after she and I first met. One time, that was all, six years ago, and yet she remembered.
We were sitting on the couch, with Elliot, good dog that he was, possessively and conveniently sprawled across a good half of the seat, and Alex and I were obliged to sit against each other at one end. A throw pillow was wedged between her and me. I remember my mind fixed on the small pillow, and how the act of removing it seemed too much of an announcement. We’ve joked about that since. It turns out that she, too, was focused on removing it but sensed my hesitation and didn’t want to “scare” me off.
We were flipping through a photo album she’d pulled off one of my bookshelves. I had one arm on the back of the couch behind her, my body angled toward her, Elliot pressed against me and snoring. I can still feel on the tips of my fingers the slight contact they made with the fine stray wool fibers of her sweater. We came to a group photo of my university table-tennis league teams, about twelve of us. Fiona, my “roommate” at the time (we didn’t know others like us; hard to imagine nowadays, but it was true back then), and I were pressed against each other. She and I had relished the idea that, despite facing a camera, the private heat and intensity between us would be known only to us, yet immortalized for all time. This was our secret. Our friend Prakash stood on the other side of me, smiling broadly, giving the photographer his trademark V sign, his two fingers curled just enough to assure that his peace was benign, not militant.
“You look so young. You look like a young boy. How old were you?” Alex asked. This pleased me. The photo was taken in our fourth and final year, I told her. I was twenty-two or so. Alex didn’t pay Prakash any attention, but she honed right in on Fiona. “The woman next to you. Who is she?” she asked, her forefinger tracing the seam that joined Fiona and me. I was impressed and, at the same time, made shy by the obvious perceptiveness in the question. There was expectation in her tone. I laughed guiltily and, nevertheless, asked why she was asking. She said I was between two people, a man and a woman, and the woman and I seemed to be leaning into each other. Of course, once she said this, I, too, saw how obvious, how intentional-seeming, such closeness was, and I saw for the first time the looks on our faces. I became in that instant a stranger looking at a found photograph and saw the half-smile and deviousness, a kind of fear and daring at once. And I saw how naive we were, how reckless, in posing so intimately, but more importantly I thought Alex was disarmingly perceptive.
And, Alex continued, it would not have occurred to her that I would have been involved with the man.
Alex and I hadn’t yet slept together, but the air in my little living room had become so electric I knew I wasn’t the only one with it on the brain. I found myself telling Alex that Fiona and I had met in a first-year class and decided to rent an apartment together, that within days of doing so we became lovers, my first time, her first and only — at least at that time — with a woman. We remained lovers throughout our university years, I said, the wistfulness in my voice hopefully pointing to the unforgotten sensations of first-time love.
“First time?” asked Alex.
“Every time,” I remember responding, grinning.
She twisted her lips and smiled at the same time, and said, “Come on. You must have been in your late teens, early twenties? Was she the first person?”
I was too shy to simply tell her yes, Fiona was indeed the first. I quickly explained that when I was growing up on my little island in the Caribbean, women from families like mine remained girls in their family’s care until they were married, regardless of their age. You were so sheltered, so watched in my kind of family — an Indian family — that unless you were wayward or just stupidly brave, you didn’t get to flirt or experience sexual intimacy with another person until you were married, or, if it was in the cards for you, you left home and went to another country where, in the case of people from families like mine, you attended university — which allowed you more freedom than you’d ever imagined possible. And what do you do with freedom like that? You learn to kiss and you learn to fuck. You learn what’s possible, you experiment, and you figure out in the dorms or in your little bachelor apartment off campus what you like to do and to whom, and what you like to have done to you, and by whom, who you are in bed, who you can and can’t be. All of that, a vital part of your university education abroad. I laughed coyly when I said this. She didn’t think it funny. She nodded soberly. When you went back home, I continued, you went back a different person, with more than one degree under your belt. Still, she wasn’t amused. If you weren’t so stupid as to marry while you were away, despite the paper degree you had to show off when you returned home, they’d still call you a girl, and you wouldn’t be considered a woman until you married — but what a girl you’d become! She smiled.
So, yes, first time, first person. And it was magic — frighteningly magical, I repeated in a quiet, pensive voice. Alex had angled her body slightly to face me. “You?” I asked.
“Elementary school, in Montreal.” The throw pillow was definitely an intrusion. “There was a girl, from a very rich and powerful family. She instructed us to touch her and each other. I think about that now,” Alex told me, “and I have to wonder how she knew.”
I feigned a nervous chuckle and said, “But you don’t really count that, do you?”
“So the real first time, then,” she answered, “was when I was fifteen. A boy, my age, from my high school. We did it on a couch in the basement of his parents’ home.”
There we were on a couch, and I stopped myself from the tempting crudeness of drawing a parallel. Alex examined the photograph more carefully, and I imagined she was trying to picture Fiona and me, our mouths pressed together, tongues touching, the heat of our bodies against one another. As I was whipping up something between Alex and me, I was aware that we were being stared at by a broadly grinning Prakash waving his weak V-shaped fingers. I decided not to mention anything about him, but elaborated that it was with Fiona I’d experienced that first-time sensation of ascending, ascending, and ascending yet further, and then, that sudden dive-bombing feeling, your body shattering into a trillion shards of twinkling, long-dying light.
In a whisper, Alex asked if I’d remained friends with Fiona, or with any of the other team members, and although I didn’t want to get into a conversation about Prakash, I said, “Him,” landing my forefinger on his face, and, for some reason, unable to leave it at that, as if it were the most important thing about him, I answered that he was our friend, a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda.
“You’re still friends? What’s his name?” she asked.
“Sort of. Prakash,” I said, and she left it there.
I didn’t tell her that in the last months of our university years, Fiona had begun to have an affair. With a man. A student named Stan. Had I embarked on this story, I might have told her then that it was the man in the photo who’d helped me through that wretched period and many others, but I did not want to derail the moment with tales of woe and disappointments.
Shani Mootoo writes fiction and poetry, and is a visual artist and video maker. She is the recipient of the K.M. Hunter Arts Award, 2017 Chalmers Fellowship Award, and the James Duggins Outstanding Midcareer Novelist Award. Her forthcoming novel Polar Vortex will be published early 2020 by Book*Hug Press. View bio.