Sujay rolled the windows down by a few inches on the passenger's side of his Toyota sedan; winter air now could circulate through the car, from one window to the other. Snowflakes got in and disappeared into the air. He kept driving through Penn Avenue past the newly built shopping center at Bakery Square beyond the Children's hospital towards the tall buildings of downtown Pittsburgh. One stern face of an incoming driver was being replaced by the next on his left. Sujay just decided that he wouldn't be able to go to work that morning. His head was throbbing in pain again. In that mechanical morning Sujay longed for a snowflake's life. He wanted to disappear the way they did.
He pulled over by the side of the road, released the lock of the seat belt, and waited. Resting his head on the steering wheel he pressed the sides of his forehead with his thumb. Generally that relieved the intensity of the pain for a bit. The view of those crowded skyscrapers made him claustrophobic. Before moving to Pittsburgh he had lived in Cleveland for five years and prior to that he lived in Kolkata, a northeastern city in India.
Before Sujay could look away from the downtown skyline, he heard a familiar sound almost like someone released a handful of glass marbles on a hardwood floor. In front of him the sixty-four-story steel tower of Pittsburgh was slowly disappearing and the fifty-seven-story high key tower of downtown Cleveland was taking its place. He could even see the big red key resting on top of it.
"It is happening again," he said in disgust.
Penn Avenue began to look almost like West 25th Street. Sujay quickly turned around and kept his eyes on the pavement.
Years ago one evening Emilia left America permanently. She had returned to Milan where her boyfriend was waiting for a long time. The sky was flooded with colors in celebration of her departure that autumn evening.
Restless Sujay had rambled around the tall buildings of downtown Cleveland for a long time in that Emilia-less city and "I miss you Emilia," he had repeated a thousand times.
Today one of these side streets could take him to the house where she used to live. He tried to read the names of the streets but the letters didn't make sense. He could hear the wind chime ringing that used to be on her porch. Pentatonic melodies have haunted him ever since.
The night before she had left, they were on a large chair on that porch together. She didn't say much. Neither did He.
"Will you be ok?" she had asked after a long time.
He had pulled her close.
"I will think of it as a dream; an imagination that was too real," Sujay had said after a pause. He wanted to believe.
"Not again!" Sujay shook his head and walked faster. He tried to focus on something else. How about that old man leaning against the dirty plexi-glass wall of the bus stop? Oily gray hair was visible under a baseball cap, pale jeans, torn in multiple places, oversized jacket that originally had a bright cream color, faded. His Eyes were buried in deep dark circles. In his eyes Sujay saw flickering of two distant candles.
"Wake up! It is time for your study," he had felt the cold palm of his grandfather's trembling hand.
"Can I sleep a little more Dada? Let me? Please?" He had said turning to his left with his eyes closed.
"If you don't study, you won't be able to get in the school your brothers are in. Your mother will be upset if you don't do well," he opened his eyes and he had seen his grandfather's eyes. In them glowing were two far-away stars. They reminded him of his quiet mother and his angry father. Grandmother had come to his rescue and held him in her arms. Under the blanket he had began to weep. Didi, they used to call her.
"We love you. We will always be there for you Sujay! Please don't cry," she said.
They kept their promises. Sujay didn't. He had left India for a better life. Better life sounded odd those days. Both of his grandparents had died a year apart of each other. He wished he could see them. He wanted to tell them how much he loved them. Instead, he worked harder, that was the rule. Sujay wipeed his eyes with the back of his hand and started to walk back to his car.
"Today is not a good day," he mumbled. He was not able to stay in the present time. Did that make him someone who once lived but not any more?
A section of Penn Avenue was one-way. One could come all the way to downtown but couldn't drive back. He made a quick left turn to get to a parallel street.
"Why did you turn on this street? It takes longer," Amanda yelled from the passenger seat. "You should have taken Liberty instead, not Butler.
"It's alright. It will be few minutes more. Please don't get mad," Sujay begged.
"You never listen to me. You have to know the roads
Sujay, it is so frustrating. I cannot believe this. How many times do I have to tell you?" Amanda was audibly upset.
"You are not driving, are you? Please let me drive the way I am comfortable with. It is not a big deal!" Sujay defended being helpless.
He couldn't find his way back even in his own city Kolkata. He had changed, forced himself to learn a lot of things since then. He didn't tell Amanda, she wouldn't understand.
He looked at the empty passenger seat on his right and felt like a hypochondriac. It's been three whole years after the break up. Sujay couldn't understand how she still had that much influence on him.
After returning home he dropped his backpack on the floor, ran to the bathroom rinsed his face with cold water vehemently.
"What is happening to me?" he screamed at the mirror, "There must be an end to this. I have to endure just a little longer, is that's about it?" Sujay made an effort to calm himself.
There was a Belgian mirror on the wall of their living room in Kolkata. The frame was varnished dark brown almost like his dad's violin. On Sundays his grandfather used to shave his white beard standing in front of that mirror. With the water running, the bathroom mirror became foggy and a reflection of their living room appeared on the mirror. A cold sensation moved down his spine as his elder brother walked by behind him.
"Dinner is ready! Come to eat everybody!" his mother
yelled from one corner. She was standing at the kitchen door. He could now smell the bread, freshly made by hand from wheat flour. He knew what they are going to have at dinner. It was always the same, four breads, a curry and a giant glass of milk with sugar. He saw everyone paced towards the kitchen. Almost Everyone. He didn't see himself. After coming back to reality, he wondered about that.
Why did he not find himself in that mirror? Why did no one ask where Sujay went? That was bizarre. How can Sujay be erased from the past? Was he not there from the very beginning then? He felt lonely.
He didn't know how long he could keep his job this way. How could he pay attention when everything he saw transported him to his past? Everything he saw reminded him of multiple incidents that already had happened before. Sometimes they were more vivid than the real world. The Department Chair gave him one warning already. He had to. Sujay got that.
It happened only last week, he was supposed to bring medicine from the pharmacy downstairs for a patient. After a couple of hours, someone found Sujay outside the pharmacy, sitting on the chair waiting quietly. Would he be better off without a job? He could have all the time in the world to sort things out whatever the hell was going on with him?
"Are you sure?" Department chair asked him, "You could tell me if there is anything I can do."
"I am sure, sir. Thank you for your kind offer. I just want to take care of some unresolved things," Sujay said. He could survive few months from his savings account.
It was many years ago, he was then a little boy. People had enough time to think. Computer, cable TV or social networking didn't exist. Every night in that brief time between getting into the bed and falling asleep he had meticulously carried out a simple routine. With his eyes closed he decided to re-experience any special incident that had taken place on that day.
It was an addictive game. Sujay did that over and over until it was perfect. Until he could see every wrinkle of someone's face, feel the texture of every surface on the street, inhale the smell of the wind carrying the moisture after a brief rain, listen to the melodic voice of the girls he admired or heard the sound of waves of the river gently touching the shore.
Soon this innocent game turned into an obsession, a private ritual. Sujay looked forward to that time of the night everyday, all day.
Although he was in his bed with his eyes closed, Sujay didn't realize that he slept very little. Over time his invisible and imaginary pastime had spilled into his dreams. It was like having a personal library of short films of experiences. He could access any film he wished anytime.
"It was a long time ago! I have not done that since then," he says.
"Yes, but you could have internalized the habit," Sujay explained to himself, "You might be doing it all the time now not knowing. Do you remember you were on sleeping pills for some time when you were in the dorm in Kolkata?"
" Of course I remember. They were Lorazepam and nitrazepam derivatives, one was anxiolytic and the other was for insomnia. I was worried about my future. Even Amanda didn't know all these," He said.
"Why didn't you tell her?" Sujay asked.
"I was too embarrassed," he said.
"Embarrassed to show her that you had to struggle in life? Are embarrassed about your past? Are you? No wonder she had left you. You cannot fool someone you care about. In love one must be honest. She was a special person and you lost her. You need to stop blaming her," Sujay completed his own thought and felt good.
From the morning he was glued to the couch, holding his head between his knees. After losing his job he didn't have rush to do anything that morning. His head was hurting from the same pain.
Sujay forced himself to get up and stand at the window. He noticed that he could see neighbor's living room from there. A toddler was taking his first steps. The mother was encouraging the boy standing a few feet away. She surely would catch him if he falls.
The way the little boy was walking reminded Sujay of drunken adults, heading home from local bars past midnight. There, the boy caught himself again. And behind the window for the first time Sujay too caught himself from a different kind fall.
The neighborhood was peaceful at dawn. The sun was coming out from the other side of the railway track. He opened the blinds, placed the little plant on the window pane. The original plant had long died, but two green leaves were shooting out of an unknown seed. Sujay didn't know the name of that little plant.
He didn't want to.