[ Asok Pillai ]
In the shelter of your eyes,
I have finally learned my song;
It took so long to realize,
I just can’t make it all alone…
That’s the ballad in the background.
The scene is the balcony of Mary Marbaniang’s house in Lei Boulevard, a leafy suburb in Happy Valley, some way outside Shillong City.
Paul Khongwir – 5’9″, slim, with shoulder-length hair – has on his favourite Levi’s jeans, leather boots, a blue shirt open at the collars, Brut perfume, and a lopsided smile that’s halfway between drunk and slightly sober…
He’s holding a bottle of Black Crow whisky in his hand and leaning against the hip-high balustrade, facing the room across the spacious marble floor of the balcony… merging his senses with the sweet slow voice of Kent LaVoie spilling sentimentality onto the balcony.
After a while, he turns away from the crowd he knows is in there, and stares out at the stars up in the sky. There’s a lover’s moon tonight, just over the hills in the distance.
Paul raises the bottle to his lips and takes a long swig. And another. Then he holds the bottle up to the light. It’s half empty; to Paul it appears half full – so he drinks some more…
“So, you came,” a familiar voice speaks up behind him.
Paul spins round, and finds Alice at his elbow, beaming the angelic smile that can still stir memories in his mind like a dust devil in autumn.
Alice is wearing a midnight blue body-con dress that amply highlights her bosom. She is short, and pretty in a gamine way, with a pixie haircut and wide eyes that betray mirth and guile at the same time.
…Words are only what they say,
But this feeling isn’t wrong…
Paul’s gaze rests on Alice’s, and the music as if fades in the background…
“Why are you standing all alone here on the balcony?” Alice asks tenderly, a spark of old familiarity flickering briefly in her eyes. “Why don’t you join the party inside?”
“No, Alice,” Paul sighs, looking in the direction of the room. “Lobo sounds just fine from here. Besides, you guys can enjoy the party without my interference.”
“Paul, you’ll never change your attitude,” she smiles.
“You’re right, Alice,” says Paul. “Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowin’, I took a wrong turn and I just kept goin'”… glug glug glug glug…
“Do you realize how much you’re drinking these days, Paul?” says Alice, sorrow dripping from her voice; “people have started calling you an alcoholic, you know that?”
“No, this is not funny, Paul,” she says, “I’m serious; I’m concerned about you,” with emphasis on ‘concerned’.
Squinting, Paul concentrates on a point in the middle distance. He then drops the question, slowly, like a heavy snake from a tree: “So, how are you and Danny boy doing these days?”
“Oh, we’re doing fine!” Alice replies, brightening up, unaware of the irony in his voice; “we have adopted a couple of pups, y’know – cuuute little devils!” she says. “Danny is quite taken up with Tipsy and Mr John. In fact, he named them, y’know.”
Paul clears this throat discreetly into his fist.
“So the two of you have started living in, have you?” he asks, studying his fingertips, trying to sound as subtly contemptuous as possible. Then he hits the bottle again.
Alice barely notices, though. There is a contented smile on her face as she replies in the affirmative: “Umm, yes” – apparently quite happy to be living in with an unemployable male model in a filthy apartment in Cleve Colony.
Paul sneers grimly at his fingertips. He starts to say something, pauses, as if unable to make up his mind how to begin… then he says, “Would you like some drink?”
“I just had some wine,” Alice smiles, raising her hands at her sides in a gesture of surrender. “In any case, you know I don’t take the stuff you’re drinking,” says she, eyeing the bottle in Paul’s hand mock-warily – which makes Paul reflexively tilt the bottle to read its label, Black Crow, by the moonlight. He smiles, but says nothing.
…And I’m gonna stay
right here coz I’m
in rhythm with your eyes…
There is a comfortable lull in their conversation. The moon is shining ever so brightly upon the wet alpine trees. A cool breeze blows into the balcony, and blows away.
“‘Shall we make love tonight?'” Alice drones.
‘”Under the harvest moon?”‘
‘”Shall we savour these days of our lives, before we marry in June?'”… Danny wrote those lines in my diary last night. He dabbles in poetry, y’know.”
There’s a pause before Paul recovers: “Profounder thoughts were rarely put into words,” he mutters, looking away – and takes a small sip.
A brief stretch of silence spins out between them.
“Do you feel lonely sometimes?”
This time he’s cautious. “Are you beginning another one of his stuff?”
“No, I’m asking you, Paul. Do you feel lonely?”
Paul thinks for a while, and says: “I always feel lonely, Alice, even when I’m in a crowd. Nobody knows me the way I know myself…”
Alice reaches out and touches his sleeve, and speaks in a motherly tone.
“Paul, why don’t you quit this sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll trip?”
“What sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll trip?” he protests, looking very puzzled. “What are you talking about, man? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Alice sighs patiently. “I’m talking about all the fine ways in which you’re destroying yourself, Paul. Everybody says-“
“Aw, skip it, shall we?” Paul snaps, more heatedly than he intended to. “To hell with everybody!” he blusters on. “What do they know about music – about life? They think they’re all so perfect. Pretentious b*****ds! To hell with them.”
“Paul, I understand-“
“No-ooo, Alice. I don’t think you understand,” says Paul, and describes a wide outward arc with the bottle in his hand. “I don’t think anybody understands!”
Alice folds her arms across her chest, and tries to suppress a smile. “I really do think you’re slightly drunk, Paul,” she says.
And Paul has no answer. So he stares at her.
On her part, Alice is trying to maintain a relaxed posture. She wants to join the party inside, but she cannot leave this drunk on the balcony here like this, either. So she holds on to the night, anticipating, not knowing exactly what-
Suddenly, Paul explodes into the night air.
“That Danny – that, hic!, guy you’re living with, is a jerk, Alice, you hear me?” He lowers his face close to Alice’s. “You don’t know what you’re in for, kid. Danny Warjri is a cheat and a repeat offender. Know what that means? Hanh? Repeat, hic!, offender. The cops call him The Conman from Cleve Colony, don’t you know?”
Alice fetches a sigh that suggests she already knew this would figure somewhere in their conversation. She looks into Paul’s eyes and answers patiently.
“He’s not like that at all, Paul, believe me. Danny is often misunderstood. He’s a complete ubertrosexual man, and for me that’s enough. He’s homely, caring, totally sensitive to my needs. He knows how to balance his modelling career with our times together, y’know. He is courteous, intelligent… His past is a closed chapter, Paul – over,” she chops the air with her hand.
Then: “Can I have some whisky? I’ve changed my mind about it.”
Paul hands her the bottle, and lights up a cigarette for himself. When he exhales, white smoke rises into the moonlight and is swept away in a breeze…
“Your sensitive guy has a sinister past, Alice. Be careful what you wish for,” Paul drawls, raising the cigarette to his lips. Alice looks up at him with a glow in her face that Paul knows so well.
“If you’re still in love with me, Paul,” she says, “you’re only fooling yourself. Don’t try to put your arms around a memory.”
Smoke gets into Paul’s eyes… he uses his thumb and forefinger to pinch off the tears, quietly cursing the cigarette.
“Paul, are you all right?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m all right. Bloody cigarette…”
Alice waits, saying nothing.
…tune out the world,
and rest my head…
Lobo’s paean to his lady-love cascades onto the balcony like a stranger in the night. Somewhere down the street a man screams seriously. The screaming stops.
Paul takes another pull on the cigarette, and speaks through a billow of smoke swirling out of his mouth and nostrils. “I’m appalled at your choice of my replacement, Alice.”
“You could’ve at least picked someone in my league, sweetheart, not some down-and-out with an unsteady income and a dark history. I’m trying to save you from that piece of shoot, alright?” Paul says, his voice loaded with needles and pins.
Alice lowers her head and gazes at the grey marble floor of the balcony for a while. When she looks up again, she has her lips compressed and her brows raised, which expression lends her face a winsome petulance. She hands back the bottle, and Paul drinks from it.
“Don’t play your rock ‘n’ roll to me, Paul,” says Alice. “You are jealous of Danny, aren’t you?”
“I’m only advising caution, baby,” Paul replies suavely; then he lets out a burp and says: “You might get hurt.”
“Really? Who would hurt me?”
“The Ubertrosexual Man.”
“You. Are. Being. Very. Offensive, Paul.”
“Facts are facts, Alice.”
“Oh, how I hate you right now.”
“Now let’s not get paranoid about this; you’re being paranoid.”
“I’m not paranoid, Paul, you are paranoid!”
“Paranoid? Me? Ha-ha-ha! Why would I be paranoid – paranoid about what? You ought to be thanking me for trying to save you from that – that ssserpent.”
A sharp intake of breath as Alice regards him, her mouth agape with incredulity.
“Oh my god… you’ve done it this time, Paul.”
And Paul knows well the import of those words, too. Delivered in an undertone that’s half lament, half rage, they heralded the bitter conclusion to every argument they’d ever had. He closes his eyes, thinking: Mistake…
Ergo, with the full moon in the sky and the zephyr in the pines and the ballad in the background, the fragile metaphorical sand-clock of their memories appears on its way down from heaven… down… and down… and down… and crashes silently at their feet.
Alice’s voice is but a whisper. “To hell with you, Paul!” she hisses. “Goodbye…. Goodbye, goodnight, and-“
Her hand hovers uncertainly before her face as she starts stepping backwards from him towards the sliding doors of the room, her tremulous lips fighting a losing battle to stifle the river in her eyes.
“Oh, Paul…!” Alice turns one-eighty degrees on her stilettos, and with a sudden spring in her steps, she’s gone from his life one more time – perhaps the last.
…and I’m gonna stay
right here coz I’m
in rhythm with your eyes…
The time was 9:45 pm.
When Alice was gone, Paul found himself alone on the balcony again, smiling to himself.
The bottle of Black Crow was nearly empty. He drank up the rest of the whisky and, going into a crouch, sent the empty bottle sliding across the floor. Then he rose, somewhat unsteadily, and fished out a marijuana cigarette and a gold-plated lighter from his shirt pocket.
He tapped the filter-end of the cigarette thrice on the flat side of the lighter, put the joint between his lips, and made a cup with his free hand as he lit it up against the breeze.
When the fire in his head had cooled, Paul began to hear the echoes of Alice’s parting words in a different corner of his heart – and his vision began to blur…
“Goodbye, Alice; goodbye and fare thee well.” He smiled longingly at the moonlit hills yonder, as two tracks of tears slid gently down his cheeks.
“Love can make you blind, make you act so strange; so here I am, and here I will stay,” he murmured to the wind, and sighed, feeling cheap and insulted.
…in the shelter of your eyes.
(The foregoing is a work of fiction. The writer does not endorse sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.)