Time was a string; the beeps from the oxygen and heart rate monitors were the beads, hanging on an ever-extending necklace. He was awake for a little while but as he tried to open his eyes a stabbing pain went through the right side of his skull all the way down to his chest. After a moment of confusion he voted for some more sleep if nothing could be done about the pain. His eyelids seemed unusually heavy. There must be a vent somewhere; he could feel the wind touching his neck like a feather. He sank into a deep blue fog again.
It happened at the crossing of West Hutchinson and South Braddock Avenue. Normally when the lights on both sides turn red, walkers could cross both ways. Raju didn't wait. It was not because he was in a hurry; it was the habit of it. As though he will be late for some magical coincidence that would change his life permanently. He always looked for a true adventure, one that you don't know how to prepare for, almost the way it happens in novels. Like any other Sunday mornings the streets were empty except some elderly churchgoers. Out of nowhere, in that remaining few seconds of the yellow signal, a rusty station wagon made a left turn. There was Raju, in the middle of the road.
As he was lying on the bed at the 7th floor of the university hospital, his bruised deformed lips were curved in a way it looked like a smile.
He slept quietly through the days and through the nights, the type of cheerful sleep he hadn't have for years.
"If you live ninety years, you will sleep more than thirty years of that away, imagine that!" his grandfather had told him on one of those walks during sunrise in Kolkata. Raju was shocked as he verified the math in his head; he was ten years old then.
A perpetual sense of urgency began eating his livelihood like a termite since then. It ran in their family, Raju had seen his father concocting a future misfortune in his small back room and pacing back and forth in there, his mother blaming her dead mother for not having a career in singing.
Raju woke up a few times in the middle of the night briefly and listened to the beeping sound. A concealed lamp cast dim blue triangle across the wall creating a soothing atmosphere and constant flow of morphine into his blood through the IV tube kept him sleeping. Drugs help people sleep, are tranquilizers; how appropriate, he thought. It's the morphine what killed that fidgety insect inside his vein, he could feel its absence.
When Raju woke up the next day he was surrounded by a group of medical personnel.
"Did you guys see? He seems to be happy," a female voice whispered.
"Well, he should be. X-ray showed no major fracture. The kind of accident he had it was unlikely. Figure that," a confident male voice replied.
"Don't be so sure yet, I am worried about the intracranial hemorrhage. I would know after the second MRI, keep me posted guys" owner of the assertive male voice walked away.
That conversation cleared things up a bit for him and it was good news too. He kept his eyes closed. Just by listening to them, he was trying to distinguish the attending doctor from the young intern, eager to impress his senior and the sincere yet jovial nurse. Rest of the morning he spent reconstructing what had happened to him and how, combining memory and imagination.
Once he went out with a doctor on a date, he met through an Internet dating site. She was elegant but lacked people skill. She had talked for a really long time without giving him a chance to respond. In that soliloquy she had specified what she wished to see in a man; gave him a list of her past and future achievements. There was no place for we in her vocabulary. That day Raju understood why I was the only capitalized pronoun. What puzzled him was the juxtaposition of narcissism and the profession of saving lives. Being on a hospital bed, he thought he was too quick to judge. What if, she was an insecure woman, doing her best to impress someone to hold on to.
He kept the news of his accident from his parents.
"My parents are on the other side of the globe. They are old, fragile and can't travel, I don't want them to worry about me," he smiled and replied to the nurses' question. They needed to inform someone about the accident, a relative or a close friend. He had a brother and a sister in Kolkata but they had never called him in last fifteen years.
Apparently when Raju was brought to the hospital unconscious, officials had tried to call the number listed as the emergency contact person in his health insurance card. It was Amanda's, his ex. It'd been eight years she left him for another guy. One day after he was done with the laundry, he found a pair of blue jeans, one gray shirt and a pack of condoms in between. It was at the bottom shelf of her closet behind a box of winter clothes. Raju's taste was a bit old fashioned than the owner of those trndy clothes, he thought. Amanda was having an affair with her colleague behind his back and she wanted to tell him.
"I am really sorry, that you had to find out that way. But trust me it will be good for both of us eventually," Amanda told him.
"What would be good for us?" his voice was dry.
"That we shouldn't be together anymore," she said.
Raju didn't ask why or for how long; the answers to those questions were rooted in a tradition too distant to him. He had gathered some essentials and left her house that night quietly. Months passed in tears and in grief for his first love. Then one spring evening at a coffee shop Raju saw the guy who had replaced him. Amanda was saying something and he was nodding in agreement. Much taller and had sharp features; hands down more presentable than Raju.
Eventually she had settled in San Antonio with her family. After getting the call from Pittsburgh hospital she had wished a generic good luck and politely requested to remove her name as an emergency contact.
"I am sorry about that. It was so long ago that I didn't even remember that she was an emergency contact at one point," Raju lied. He privately held on to the phone number like the last artifact of an extinct civilization. The only time in the past, he had experienced some joy. He had never thought he would need those seven digits, not in that order, until the accident.
"I will change the number later with a different one, as he couldn't think of any" he told the nurse.
That evening, as the clock arrived at the first three digits of Amanda's phone number, no face appeared behind the dial the way it did all these years. Clock moved on a circular path, one second at a time. If that loss of memory happened from a blow on his skull then it could be a good thing, he thought.
That night with a lesser dose of morphine, he dreamt of an empty spacious apartment with wide windows, floors were newly carpeted and the walls whitewashed. Plenty of sunlight flooded the room. He could hear the sound of a harp; someone was playing the instrument on another floor perhaps. Who plays harp at home these days?
Do they have apartment buildings in heaven? Is he dead?
The attending doctor had to ask a few questions regarding his medical history after he was awake for the first time since the accident.
"I was wondering about those two spots on your abdomen? How did you manage to burn there?" Doctor pointed at his belly.
"It had happened when I was a child," Raju continued, "I will tell you if you insist."
"I am curious," doctor said.
Raju decided to give him an honest answer although it was not necessary.
"It was the year of famine in rural West Bengal; at first we didn't realize that. No one in our village did. At the end of a scorching spring, our village celebrated the first rain of monsoon as usual. After first few days it had stopped. All of a sudden there was no more rain just like that, for months. Price of food went up, specially rice, so much so that we could afford very little. In that year of drought I excelled in starvation and became adult years before it was time. Only adults could smile when they are suffering inside, I learnt. Often, along with my mom and dad, I boldly skipped dinners after feeding my sister and younger brother. There used to be long lines of people holding aluminum bowls outside our school for potato and wild rice. Corpses of livestock began to show up occasionally in the middle of the cracked fields. One of those days, I stuck a pair of my sister's scissors into my stomach after heating them on the kerosene lamp. At first my dad thought I wanted to kill myself. I don't blame him. Interestingly this time he didn't scold me or beat me up for that. Instead, after everyone had slept, he had gone outside and screamed his like an wild animal," Raju stopped. He was not embarrassed at all, rather it was somewhat liberating, he thought.
"My goodness," Doctor was genuinely moved.
"But believe me doc, I wanted to see if the pain goes away, the other pain. It did. I was not hungry for the rest of the night," he made an attempt to smile. Raju spared the busy doctor from other adventures of his life, other stories of fighting one type of pain with another.
Before the nurse gave him the dose of tranquilizer that evening, he couldn't locate the anger that he had been nurturing against his dad for years. Such were his parents, who couldn't even provide food for their children. Instead of feeling pity for a ten-year-old Raju, he was ashamed; a pleasant sense of guilt caught him off guard. His parents were hungry too, more than him, hungry and heartbroken. On a hospital bed in a foreign land, he wanted to see his poor parents.
"I miss you ma. I miss you baba," he kept repeating like a hymn until he fell asleep.
"You are one lucky man," a talkative doctor told him before his discharge. One lucky man- Raju repeated those three words a few times as he walked through the revolving hospital door. Of course the doctor didn't know his life. He could have had severe injuries like leg amputation or damaged spine for instance and that could have left him on a wheel chair for the rest of his life, paralyzed. Other than few stitches and bruises he was fine. Still hospital insisted on a follow-up visit few weeks later.
Exactly two days after he was discharged from the hospital, Raju received a phone call from his dad. It was one of those middle-of-the-night phone calls. The monotonous ring had an ominous feel to it; he knew, before even answering the phone that it wouldn't be just an exchange of pleasantries.
"Raju" his father's voice choked as he spoke, "your grandmother passed away this morning."
In no time Raju was wide awake but he couldn't find anything to say. The phone call was harder for his father to make than Raju answering it, yet he was speechless. Is there a way to measure pain in metric system or it is always relative? He wondered if losing one's grandmother (in his case) was less painful than losing one's mother (in his father's case)? It was a bizarre thought. In Bengal people expressed happiness and sadness openly; why can't he feel sad? How could he unlearn something that is supposed to be an inherent quality of their culture?
"Are you listening?" his father sounded worn-out.
"Yes, I am just shocked!" Raju replied with his brain. Was he really there? Was he the same person whom his father was talking to?
"It happened naturally and we were all present. You don't have to rush because the cremation will be over long before you arrive," his father continued, "Your mother had advised you to be watchful of the road there if you are going places. Sometimes bad news brings companions. Also, according to our religious text in Sanskrit, probashe niyom nasti which means, in a foreign land, one didn't need to follow any ritual."
"I cannot believe that didi is no more with us. I am sorry, I am so far away. I will call tomorrow again and please take care of each other," Raju had lowered the phone.
Then, all of a sudden, he felt an unusual urge to laugh. An alarming sensation gave him chills and that is when he realized not everything was same as before. He couldn't explain the bizarre reaction to that grim news and the temptation to laugh was very much shameful. He kept it on top of his pile of secrets.
Next few days, he was preoccupied with the memories of his grandmother who had just stopped making memories. The last one was the phone call about her passing away. He unconditional love stayed with him for few days like an aura. It was odd to think about her subtraction from his family, as though a layer of safety was taken down without asking him. A silhouette of her, behind the corner window was always visible from the serpentine lane that had connected their house with the main road. She sat there waiting and prayed to god Shiva for everyone's safe return, everyday, unharmed.
We were all present, his father had told him over the phone, how could they all be present when Raju was in America? Or they had stopped counting him as one of we? He felt embarrassed that the thought even crossed his mind.
Following his mother's advice, he remained alert while driving back and forth from work or grocery stores. At times he was at best pensive.
After few weeks of his discharge he went for a follow-up check-up. Final MRI showed no major blood clots in the brain.
One afternoon he decided to go to the Park, a ten-minute walk from where he lived. He wanted to get his strength back slowly, legs that were weak being in bed for almost two weeks. It took much longer to hike up on a familiar trail, reaching at the top he sat on a bench. Numerous sugar maples and few black cherry trees surrounded that flat, circular area. In spring the foliage was bright green but he could imagine the vibrant red color the maples would wear in the fall. In a few minutes everything around him became still, at the end of the day the sky was almost orange; Raju leaned back to rest his tired back against the bench. Two house sparrows were having a dispute over a stick only few inches from his foot, oblivious and a mourning dove was cooing from somewhere intermittently. As though the trees offer him the status of their own.
Time passed, he was not sure how long. He stayed there even though a possibility of thunderstorm was in the forecast and he couldn't run or walk fast. Before long, it started to rain, he listened to the rain as it came down on the trees first and then he felt it. A forgotten smell of the soil after the first rain transported him back to a different spring decades ago.
Raju was not worried if anything had changed in him because of that accident. Rain rolled down his hair, dripped from his chin and his tormented existence was undergoing an ancient process of healing.
"Are you alright?" someone asked softly.
At first Raju thought he was imagining words from the sounds of wind and rain. Then he saw her standing next to him. At this hour in the middle of the woods he wasn't expecting any company. How did he not see her coming down this way? Light was diminishing sooner inside the park because of all the trees; her bright blue running clothes complemented the dark green surrounding.
"The rain feels good. I was getting ready to leave," Raju was awkward. The way he was sitting still in the middle of the rain she was probably concerned.
"Me too. I had a good run. Oh, by the way I am Lisa," she said extending her hand.
"I'm Raju, nice meeting you," He got up slowly with his aching legs. They kept talking about this and about that and walked down the trail. Although he was struggling to keep up, it felt much better going downhill. It was raining still. He didn't want it to stop.
A butterfly was going from one tulip to the next. Spring arrived late this year around here. As winter receded, flowers blossomed in excess.
It was, in a sense, a premeditative murder; the way Raju had killed himself that night. In the living room, he was on a recliner across the window. Eyes closed, his face was touching the brown velvet of a recycled old fashioned chair. He couldn't see this beautiful day.
On the coffee table in front of him, pieces of a half finished jigsaw puzzle left scattered.