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the SMOKER

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(UPDATE, January 21, 2014: Three years after I first wrote this story, I’ve discovered that it has been linked to a Wikipedia page on quantum fiction. I did not do this myself and I don’t know who did. In any case, I’m flattered. But I thought I would expound a little on the ideas running through my head while writing this story. It had a very heavy Deleuzian influence. I was reading much Deleuze and it was inevitable and that his work would its way into mine. This story is a conflation of sorts, between I, Pranaya Rana the author, and Pranaya Rana, the character. There is also Pranaya, the father. It is a story of branching realities, of universes that preclude each other. It is what I would call a quantum narrative, for lack of a better term.

For better stories on similar subject matter, do read Paul Auster, especially his New York Trilogy, and of course, Borges and Cortazar.)

The SMOKER

 

EIGHT.

She crosses her legs and then uncrosses them. Eyes glued to her book, her fingers poised to turn the page, she does it again. As I sit watching her, she does it repeatedly, habitually, and without a second thought. Her gaze never leaves her book and neither does her fingers, but her legs, jean-clad, long and ended in bright red shoes, continue to cross and uncross. A few seconds between each cross and each uncross, each movement spaced just far enough apart as to not call attention to it. I try not to stare, my throat is dry and it takes me a full two minutes to get up. My head repeats a familiar mantra, maya, maya, maya and intermittently moksh, moksh, moksh.

The 7 train noisily rolls and the subway doors open with a hiss, but I’m concentrating on her, afraid to loser her for even a second. People exit in a stream and I try to slip past them, jostling elbows and knocking knees. By the time, I get to the bench where she had been sitting, she is already at the door of a subway car, boarding it. I push past more people but the doors close before I can slip inside. She stands in the middle of the car facing me but the book obscures her face. I can see her hair and it looks exactly like it did the first time I saw her, full and vibrant like a mane. As the subway starts to move, I knock on the glass of subway door, hoping to catch her attention but not once does she look up. I run along the car, yelling to her but the only glimpse I catch is of the book and its cover. She’s reading Cortazar’s Rayuela.

 

ONE.

Graduated from college and I had no job, no prospects, no money and nothing I was could say I was proud of. At first I was a little frustrated, but I figured it would go away with time and if I kept at it, something was bound to break through the haze of inadequacy and incompetence that was plaguing me. When it had been more than two months since graduation and I still hadn’t produced anything worthwhile, I started to get a little nervous.

I read voraciously in the meantime, hoping something would spark off an idea, a thought that I could spin into a story. I desperately read Cortazar, Borges, James, Kafka and O’Connor and each story I read convinced me even more of the genius that hid behind those words, the virtuosity that these writers displayed in the simple crafting of sentences, as if words were malleable lumps of clay able to take on any form, shape or meaning. I pored over the pages, scrutinized the sentences, even broke paragraphs apart and tried to make sense of them as individual parts. I read and read until I had exhausted my collection of short stories. I visited the library, poring over dusty volumes of the collected works of various others. I religiously bought each issue of the New Yorker and the Paris Review, surviving on just one meal a day to compensate.

Six months after graduation, I had stopped reading. I started work at a deli where I was the only non-Korean employee. The two Korean girls who worked with me almost always retired to one corner of the store the moment they got in. There, they would chatter increasingly louder, leaving me to do all the work. If I ever called out to them, the answer was always shrill laughter and more conversation in Korean.

I did my part, working late, five days a week. There was always just enough money to cover rent and food and a little left over for a book or two. New York City is a big fat bloodsucker. Even though I had stopped reading, I still bought books regularly, usually off the sidewalk if I could find something interesting. The City always obliged, each day displaying its wares on the streets of Brooklyn, where a cornucopia of reading material could always be found. The newly bought books always went into a corner of my increasingly chaotic room.

On the days I was working, I collapsed into a deep coma the minute I entered my room. On my free days, I tried to write the moment I woke up, but in about an hour or two, the frustration would set in and I would eventually stop. There was no internet to distract me, for I couldn’t afford it. There was no television, for I couldn’t afford that either. No marijuana, no drugs, but sometimes there was alcohol.

I would lay in my bed for hours, staring at the ceiling or out the window, sometimes trying to will an idea into existence, other times just pleading with whatever entity to give me something, anything. That was the peak of my frustration, those long days and nights with nothing to do except to think and ruminate on my own failure. If college had taught me anything, it was to feel sorry for myself. So it was only a matter of time before I started to give up. I stopped trying to write. It was sporadic now, once in a while.

The work was hard and I was wearing myself out. There was no writing yet and during each attempt, I came away with nothing except boring scribbles and cliché stories. The frustration built so much that I lost my job for snapping back at the deli owner while he was yelling at me for being late.

It was on my way back home from being fired that I met Maya. She stood on the 7 train platform at Queensborough plaza in a long summer’s dress and bright red shoes. There was a slight breeze and when the wind gusted, she clutched the hem of her dress, afraid of a Monroe. Sitting on one of those hard wooden waiting benches with the raised furrows in between each seat, I saw her from behind but paid her little attention. Her red shoes caught my eyes but I only gave them a cursory glance.

We both got onto the 7 train at the same time and it was only when I was next to her, with her fresh, grapefruit scent wafting over me, that she noticed me. She gave a little start when her eyes met mine.

“Pranaya,” she said. It was a statement, not a query. She knew who I was.

I nodded in confusion.

“You went to Sarah Lawrence College.” She said again.

This time I shook my head no. “I went to Hunter College,” I said.

“Oh. My mistake, I thought you went to Sarah Lawrence,” she said flippantly. “But you don’t remember me?” She looked at me quizzically, her eyes moving back and forth across my face.

I blinked, and scrutinized her face once more. She wasn’t what I would call a pretty girl. She had large brown eyes, doe-like with long dark eyelashes, her oval face was framed by long loose locks of hair the darkest black, there was a small mole nestled in the nape of her neck, peeking out from beneath her curtain of hair. I had never seen her before. I would’ve remembered such a face, for I wouldn’t call her beautiful, not even pretty, but she was attractive in a strangely primal manner. There was a jaunty tilt to her head, and the set of her jaw, the line her compressed lips made, was aggressive even. When she talked, the left corner of her mouth creased a little in a half-smile, as if every word she spoke was some sort of inside joke. I felt mocked, and at once, intrigued. Her shoulderblades peeked out from beneath the straps of her dress and I couldn’t stop staring at them, first the left, then the right, clearly defined bones that jutted from her body like twin guardrails.

I said No, I didn’t remember her.

She asked me if I was Nepali, if I was from Kathmandu and if I had gone to Rato Bangala School there, I nodded my affirmation to each of those questions, but still asked if she might’ve mistaken me for someone else.

“No, I know your face. You were just as thin then as you are now. And that hair, it used to be longer but no, its definitely you. I would’ve recognized you anywhere.” she said, that half-smile again on the corner of her lips. “We met in Kathmandu, at least twice.”

I didn’t have to say anything.

“I’m Tara’s friend,” she said in Nepali.

I hadn’t assumed she was Nepali, she didn’t really look Nepali. Her nose was too Grecian, her complexion all wrong.

“I’m Maya, and I’m a little offended that you don’t remember me,” she said as she let go of the pole she was clutching. I apologized profusely, blaming my marijuana-addled brain for its lapse in memory.

“I’ll let it go, but I am disappointed. I remember we had some great conversations back then. We talked a lot about writing. Weren’t you working for a newspaper then?”

Yes, I said. I worked as a journalist for the Nepali Times before I made my way to America for college.

We arrived at Jackson Heights, where I was getting off and it turned out, so was she. We walked off the train and out of the station together. She talked mostly, telling me what she remembered about me: the long ponytail I had back then, my aversion to gin, the ratty Converse pair I wore almost every single day. I wondered just how much she knew about me when I didn’t even remember anything of her.

We sat down at an Indian restaurant, or rather, she sat down and I followed. I didn’t ask her where she was going and she didn’t either.

“I liked those stories you used to write,” she said, as we sat down. “They were so angsty.”  She smiled. She told me how she liked the one where a man gets addicted to the taste of ink from his pen and starts to spit out letters and words, she told me how she liked the one where a woman contemplates an unmarked box that has been entrusted to her. Over rice and chicken tikka, she described to me stories. She knew each character, as if they were people rather than caricatures on a page. She knew their backstory, their history, their family, lives, times and places.

For the longest time, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. She knew more about my characters than I did. How she had gleaned such intricate information from the stories, I don’t know. But each of her claims sounded true, and she made them with such confidence, that same tilt to her head and that same half-smile. But it couldn’t be. There was no possible way, for that story about the taste of ink, I had never sent it to anyone. As much as I can remember, not a single person besides myself had ever read that story, and yet, here she was, this strange girl who kept brushing the hair out of her eyes, who knew every aspect to the story.

She said she lived far into Brooklyn with two other girls. When I asked her what she did, she said she didn’t do anything. She didn’t go to school and she didn’t have a job. When I asked her how she paid her rent, she looked a little surprised.

“Oh, I manage,” she said flippantly. “This is New York. There are always ways. You can always survive.”

I had just lost my only job, I had barely enough money to pay my rent and stay fed but here I was, talking of survival. But here she was, her parents probably paid her rent. I could tell from her smooth, unblemished hands, her perfectly clean fingernails and even the lack of creases on her face that she didn’t work, maybe had never worked. She came from privilege.

Yes, this is New York, I said.

“City of millions,” she said, leaning forward so that the ends of her hair nearly scraped the top of her curry. “Each face on the subway you see, you might never see again. Do you realise how much possibility that opens up? Each day, you can adopt a different persona. With each new shirt you put on, you can remake yourself. Each morning, you can step outside your apartment and decide to be a different person. Do you realise how exciting that is? This isn’t Nepal, this isn’t Kathmandu where everyone knows everyone else. Anonymity is amazing; as long as you’re anonymous, potential is limitless. I put on a dress and I’m someone else. I put on jeans and I’m someone else. You never feel the need to step outside your skin sometimes?”

She talked so fluently, so easily. She was strikingly arresting. Her gaze, her mannerisms, the way she crossed and uncrossed her legs unconsciously as she talked. I would never have forgotten her.

Once, I had shared a cab with a woman when it was pouring rain. We made small talk in the backseat and I gave her a fake name, told her my parents were from Peru but I had been born here. I even put on a slightly different accent. I don’t know why I lied, it wasn’t even a conscious decision but before I knew it, I was telling her about a wife and child I didn’t have and a job I had never worked. I almost convinced myself. So yes, I did feel the need to step outside my skin sometimes.

The rest of the meal passed almost in silence. We made small talk, of some people I thought she might know but she didn’t. I asked after Tara and hungrily devoured my food. She played with hers. I didn’t push her to speak and the rest of our conversation consisted of even more banal generalities. She seemed suddenly preoccupied.

We parted ways outside the restaurant. She asked for my number but I gave her my address instead. My phone had been disconnected for some time now. I watched her write it down in a small Moleskine notebook, her handwriting precise and ordered, but her letters long and elegant. Before I could think of asking for her number, she’d already closed the notebook, placed it inside her handbag and walked off. I decided against following her and instead made my way to a little cafe down the street that my friends frequented. Avi and Onta were sitting at a table in the corner of the second floor sipping tea. The three of us were able to come up with three Mayas that we had been friends with back in Kathmandu, but none of them matched the Maya I had just met.

It was dark by the time I made my way back home. There were no stars, only an inky blackness with wisps of dark grey cloud. As I walked from the subway station to my apartment, a wind started up, ruffling my t-shirt. I had never met Maya before. I am certain, even more so now. But I was sure then too. I might forget easily but I would never have forgotten her. She was too striking, something about her face that I couldn’t put my finger on. I tried to reconstruct her face in my head and I think I came away with mismatched eyes, fuller lips and a wider nose. I tried again and again, her eyes didn’t seem to align, her hair was different and her mouth all wrong.

When I got home, I tried to write, and for a second, I thought I had something. It was elusive, it only came after two or more paragraphs, but I could feel it coursing through my body, my fingers moved faster as my brain fluidly produced sentences as if possessed. And then it was gone. But I had managed two pages of a budding story. It didn’t seem particularly good at the moment but it felt like something different, as if it had potential to become something.

TWO.

The shady employment agency by 72nd and Roosevelt was able to get me another job that very night. I was to start the nightshift at another deli. It wasn’t much different from my previous workplace minus the giggling girls. I shared the nightshift, 9PM to 4AM, with Freddy, a friendly Mexican who spoke little and worked a lot. The first time I met him, he shook my hand and then held it up, saying, “Look. Six fingers.”

He did it to everyone he met. His sixth finger was the first thing he ever mentioned. On slow nights, I would try to get Freddy to talk to me. One night, he took me into his confidence. Speaking slowly and with difficulty he tried to explain to me his predicament. In his youth, he had been an alcoholic. He got drunk regularly and was basically a wastrel. But he had married young, a Filipino girl, he had gotten pregnant. When his drinking got worse, she left him and came to America, taking Freddy’s young daughter. Freddy’s drinking binge lasted five years, during which time, he confessed to losing touch with everyone, his wife, his family and his daughter. After the five years, he finally came to his senses, quit drinking and tried to find his family. Through a source, he heard that his wife was in Washington, so he managed to get to Seattle, Washington. There, he looked for her, but it seemed she was in Washington DC, not Washington state. But while in Seattle, he managed to catch a Nickelodeon show starring a Hispanic teenager.

“She is my daughter,” he said to me. Freddy was convinced that this young actress was his daughter. I tried to explain to him how unlikely that was but he wouldn’t listen to me. I told him we could probably look up the names of her parents on the internet but he wouldn’t hear of it.

“Her mother is very beautiful, that is why she no look like me,” he explained. I couldn’t make a very good case considering that I didn’t really know of the actress’ parentage. For all I knew right then, Freddy might well have been her father. And unless I learned otherwise, why couldn’t the possibility exist? The way I considered it, the world in which both Freddy and I existed had come to a fork in the road, just one of a infinity. On one side lay Freddy and on the other someone else. Barring a conspiracy to conceal her parentage, the moment I find out the actress’ parentage on the internet, the world will have chosen one fork in favour of another. Common sense tells me that Freddy isn’t the father, but then again, I don’t know for sure.

THREE.

Then, things happened fast. She knocked on my door but entered without waiting for a reply. I was barely awake and blinking through my morning haze. She stood looking at me, taller than ever, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She looked different, her face more defined, more angular. Maybe it was the ponytail but now she looked like a completely different person, and yet it was her.

“How late do you sleep?” asked Maya. “I knocked a few times but you didn’t answer, and the door was unlocked.” It wasn’t an apology, just a statement, made with a small smile. “Are you naked?”

I was in my boxers, and felt a little awkward having her there while I scrambled to put on a t-shirt and pants.

”I brought you something to read,” she said and took out a plain blue hardcover from her bag. In simple black font, it said THE SMOKER. There was no title page, no publisher and no author. I asked Maya what it was about.

“It has nothing to do with smoking,” she said glibly.

I thanked her and put it aside, just as she asked if I wanted to go for a walk. I agreed and we spent two hours at nearby Astoria Park. We sat on a bench and watched game of football between a team of Dominicans and a team of Indians. The Indians lost by two goals but were amicable about it, shaking hands and cracking jokes with the opponents.

Maya sat next to me on a bench by the side, her body angled towards me a little, her hands in her lap. She made an occasional comment but for most of those two hours, she barely said anything. I asked her if she was alright and she said yes. As we sat there watching the ball fly back and forth, I was struck with an epiphany. Maybe it was the hypnotic lull of the slow arc that the ball made when it was kicked really high at that very moment, but an idea for a story, a brilliant one, entered my mind. I asked Maya for her notebook and scribbled down all that came to my head. It followed from what I had written a week earlier, exactly how long it had been since I had last seen Maya. It blindsided me like a truck on a Tuesday and I nearly lost it. If I had had to run all the way to my room and my computer, I would’ve lost it for certain.

When I had finished writing down I could, I tore out the page and placed it in my pocket. While doing so, I noticed that Maya had written my address on the previous page. I told her that she had the wrong address. My apartment building was 2340, not 2430. That was a completely different street.

“I know,” she replied.

I asked her if she had gone to the wrong building first but she said, “No, I came straight to yours.”

“Then how did you know it was wrong?” I persisted.

“I don’t know,” she dismissed the question with a toss of her head as if it was too unimportant. “I think I just remembered you telling me the address, I must’ve just wrote down the wrong number.”

It seemed a little strange but I let it go then. I was too excited about my idea. I outlined it for Maya and she seemed to like it.

“I’m glad you’re getting back to writing now,” she said, resting a light hand on my shoulder. I looked at her eyes and they seemed more black than brown in the light. Even her hair looked more red than the dark black I had thought it was.

She left for the subway after our walk and when I got home, I felt hot and sick. My forehead was warm I was heavily sweating. I sat down on the bed as my vision got blurrier. Assuming I was coming down with something, I got into bed and tried to fall asleep. Each time, I closed my eyes, I felt a stabbing pain in my head, right above the right eye. I was hot and feverish. There was no way I was making it to work so I stumbled out of my room to ask my flatmates if I could use their phone to call work. Both of them were out so I collected some change and made my way into the street for a payphone.

I remember walking down the street looking for a phone, leaning against the building walls for support. In my feverish delusion, I lost my way and wandered back to the park. Even though it was dark, I could see two teams playing football. As I got closer, I realised that they were the same two teams that were playing earlier, the Dominicans and the Indians. The air was helping me breathe and cooling my skin. My head cleared a little and I tried to make my way back.

As I was walking around the edge of the football field, there were two people sitting on a bench on the other side. They were locked in deep conversation, both bodies angled towards each other. The girl was talking, her hands moving expressively and the guy nodded occasionally, sometimes scribbling into a small notebook. Even from this distance, I could tell it was me. It was that same faculty that says “I” each time I look at myself in the mirror that told me I was seeing myself. And it was Maya, I could make out her legs and her crossing and uncrossing them as we/they conversed. Her hair was pulled back in the same ponytail and her gestures were the same.

By the time I reached the other side the bench was empty. I looked around and I thought I saw two figures walking towards the Broadway subway station but I had no energy to continue. Maybe it was a feverish hallucination but it was myself I saw. Not an illusion, not an apparition, but maybe a hallucination.

I managed to get back to my room but I was barely conscious when I did. I had lost all the quarters that I wanted to use for the payphone so I had no way to call work either. I fell into bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

FOUR.

The next day when I woke, I was still feverish and hot but my mind was buzzing with ideas. I searched for the scrap of paper and found it folded and creased deep in my jeans pocket. I don’t remember how long I wrote for but it must have been at least for three or four hours. I had 15 pages so far with minimal editing. I dared not go back and read it. I wanted to finish it first, get it all down and then I would go at it with a hacksaw.

At work that night, Freddy asked if I was alright and I said yes, I was a lot better.

“You need sleep and water for fever,” he said sympathetically, his six-fingered hand on my shoulder.

I thanked him but asked how he knew I had a fever. He seemed confused so I asked him again.

“You call last night. You said you have fever,” he said to me, a little perplexed.

I thought I had lost the quarters but I must’ve called work in my delirium. Another hallucination maybe, I thought.

The next day, Maya came to see me again. She brought me a pack of cigarettes.

I don’t smoke, I said.

“You’re a writer and you don’t smoke?” she laughed. “Don’t tell me you don’t drink either.” She threw the pack of Marlboros on the desk and took me out to lunch.

When we got back, she sat on the edge of my bed and started reading my worn copy of Cortazar’s Rayuela. When I asked her what she wanted to do next, she said simply, “Read.”

I sat down in my bed and tried to continue writing. My fingers poised over the keyboard, I wished: a word, I willed, anything. Maybe it was Maya’s presence in the room, but there came nothing. I read the previous two passages three times, each time trying to continue with a sentence but each word I typed was wrong. I looked over at Maya. She was still engrossed in the Cortazar book, reading intensely with her legs crossed. Her hair was in a ponytail again, the profile of her face sketched clear against the white of my painted walls. Strands of black hair, reddish in the light, fell against her cheek and she absentmindedly tucked them behind her ear. Her lips, fuller than I remembered, silently mouthed along with her eyes. Maya, maya, maya, I thought to myself. Maya is love in Nepali, but Maya is also illusion, maya is the lie that is reality. Moksh, mukti, moksh, I repeated to myself like a mantra.

I spent the next hour on the computer, playing video games while Maya read. After a little while, she lay back in my bed and read on her side. I looked over at her some time later and she was fast asleep, the book neatly dogeared and shut beside her.

I covered her up with my blanket and rose to get a drink of water when the room started to spin and the strength went out of my legs. I sat on the edge of the bed, clutching the bedframe until the spell passed. I felt an intense thirst and a pervasive weakness. It felt like the fever again. I struggled over to the sink and drank straight from the faucet. Cold water splashed across my face, cooling me. I made my way back to the bed and lay next to Maya, facing up towards the ceiling. I had difficulty breathing, my eyes felt hot and heavy in their sockets. I held my right arm against my closed eyes, letting out a feverish moan. I don’t remember when I fell asleep but when I did, it was to dark dreams.

On waking, I immediately forgot my nightmares. The weakness and fever seemed to have subsided but now felt an intense nausea. Maya was still asleep. I reached over her for my computer and started to write. The words flowed easily, as if flood gates had been opened. I wrote for hours and into the night. I filled up page after page, adding twenty more to the story. When I finally stopped, my right wrist made ominous cracking sounds as I rotated it. My fingers were cramped and hurt each time I tried to clench them.

By the time I closed the computer and put it away, it was late at night. I had missed work and hadn’t called in sick. Maya’s only signs of life were the steady rhythm of her heaving chest and air escaping her parted lips in slow breathy exhales. I reached over and brushed her hair away from where it had fallen into her mouth. I was afraid she’d wake up and find me touching her, I was afraid then she would get up and leave, and never come back.

Outside, the wind rattled the worn decaying old brown shutters, creeping in through the cracks around the windows. Even the air was hot and humid, the night breath of a rancid city. I shuddered in my bed. A woman, little more than a girl, lay next to me and in the jaundiced yellow light of the streetlamp, filtering through slats in the shutters, I made out the form of her body silhouetted against the sheer fabric of her cotton shirt. The garment, open at her neck, revealed the skin of her chest, the tops of her breasts, the hollow of her neck and something animal inside me said, ravage her, take her, fuck her.

In the faint half-light of the night, there were countless shadows, more nooks and crannies than I had ever encountered. The room felt more and more like a cell, cramped and claustrophobic, no room to even pace, even the shutters looked like bars. I needed to leave the room.

Outside, I took a walk back to Astoria park. It was empty, and except for an occasional car that sped by and the faint strains of the blues from a nearby window, it was quiet. I looked for myself on the other side of the field but nothing except the rustling of leaves in the summer breeze. Maya or Moksh, I kept turning over in my head.

When I got back to my room, at least an hour later, she was gone. Rayuela was missing and a pack of Marlboros rested neatly on my desk.

 

FIVE.

In the days that followed, I smoked each and every last one of those Marlboros while read and rereading the entire story obsessively, turning over each word in my head over and over again. I crossed out a few words, only to type them back in upon realizing that they were the best choices. I stopped going to work, I barely ate and I only stepped outside the room to goto the bathroom. Instead, I chainsmoked cigarettes. At first they made me jittery and jumpy, I was always looking over my shoulder at every tiny noise, but eventually, they started to calm me down.

The more I read of the story, the more it amazed me. I knew I had written it and yet I couldn’t believe it. I found ideas there that were new even to me. It was a story about time and a coincidence of times, the various minute happenings that lead you to become who you are. The forks that one takes in the labyrinth of time, only this labyrinth is one without a center. It is an endless spiral, like the one in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, into which Jimmy Stewart’s character falls so deeply. My story is also a spiral, it repeats itself, but each time it is different. Each fork, each event, each character, though they recur again and again, are different each time.

It is a redundant process, this, trying to describe the mystery of words through the very use of other words, just like me trying to describe time by using elements of time itself. There is no separation, no distinction. Everything bleeds into everything else. Each barrier, each border is permeable, no matter what you might’ve been fooled into thinking. Words recall other words, places recall other places. Do we ever look at one place without thinking of another? My story is in that vein, it is but one mode of passage in a vast network of bleeding and breathing bodies. It is not something heavenly or divine, but something base and primal. It is not a raising up of the senses but of a lowering down, back to our bodies and away from our minds. For do we really know what the body can do?

I do not yet know what this story can do. It had been written, the words had been chosen, all that remained was the end. Five pages, maybe a little more, for one final shot, for one final expression of the body that is the story. Then it would involve the reader, the writer, the paper on which it is written or printed, the social and cultural milieu of the time, when it is read. Like Pierre Menard’s Don Quixote, mine too would become a different tale each time it is read. But this is not something special that only my story does. Every good story does it. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and precisely because of that, each book recalls another book. Each book, when read at a different time, a different place, is a different book, because it recalls different things at different times, the linkages changes, the patterns shift and where you once saw connections, you might only see ruptures. Each repetition, a difference.

But this ending, it still eluded me.

SIX.

After that night that she vanished from my apartment, Maya visited me just one more time. She brought me two books, bound together with a rubberband. On top was a tattered copy of Paul Auster’s City of Glass. On the first empty page, in her handwriting: ‘the self as fiction’ and beneath it, signed, La Maga. On the opposite page was a faint address of an apartment in Brooklyn. The other book was an even older copy of Homer’s Iliad, the front cover almost falling off. On the first page, in old script and unfamiliar handwriting, just a simple name: Calliope.

She sat on my bed and read again, only this time, she actively enunciated each word, reading slowly and methodically. She read me all of TS Eliot’s Four Quarters in a slow, lilting tone, her back resting against the windowsill and her naked brown legs hanging off the edge of the bed. When I closed my eyes, the world was word. It was all her voice, and she had a strange accent, not quite Nepali and not quite anything I had ever heard before. The manner in which she read, there was harmony, as if each word anticipated the one after it and was influenced by the one that came before it. Gone were the distinctions between word and sentence and paragraph, instead it was all a torrent of language, of wordplay and idea.

Beneath the dark of my eyelids, I conducted a conversation with Maya, where each sentence she read replied to a sentence in my head. While she read TS Eliot, I answered with sentences from my own story, the sentences I had hammered into my head all the while I had been waiting for her to arrive. Next to Eliot’s unimaginable poetry, the rhythm that each syllable beat out against the roof of her mouth and escaped her lips as a vibration, my own words seemed as bleak and uninspiring as a desert, bereft of all life.

We went out for a walk later that night, walking Astoria with our hands clutched tight. Maya seemed preoccupied, rarely talking. When I told her I still had no recollection of ever meeting her before, she finally smiled, this time a crooked half-smile, not unlike the ones she would often assume but this seemed sadder, as it had to be performed.

“Forgetting is sometimes a luxury,” she said cryptically. “We do what we do so that we will be remembered. Why else do we sign our works? Doesn’t this ever bother you? Or is that why you write? I feel hopeless sometimes. I’d like to forget so many things, but forgetting eludes me.” She looked at me sadly, her eyes wide and unblinking in the dark. Her skirt billowed in the wind and ruffled my pants. She dropped her gaze and shifted her feet.

Outside my building, on the stoop, we stood close together. She leaned in and held me close and right then, I wanted to kiss her so badly. But she turned her face away, still not letting go of my hand. She said goodbye at the door and though I pleaded with her to stay, she left quietly.

That night, I lay in my bed, trying to read The Smoker, the book that Maya had first given me. I had to stop after the first five pages. It was too familiar. There was something about the manner in which it was written, something too close to me. I felt like I had written it.

 

 

SEVEN.

Over the course of a week, I tried to write, day after day, surviving only on cups of noodles and cigarettes. I withdrew the last 60 dollars from my bank and spent the first 20 on two packs on Marlboros and the second 20 on a dub. I thought the weed might help with the writing, but I got through the bag and still there was nothing. I smoked incessantly. filling the room in a billowy grey haze. I paced in the smoke, trailing ash on the floor. I was smoking in my bed, the embers making hundreds of tiny holes in my sheets and pillows. But no matter how hard or how long I tried, I couldn’t write. The rush that had accompanied my previous spells of writing was all gone. The ending, no matter how much I willed it, refused to come.

On one of my rare jaunts outside I met my friend Tara at the Astoria Park. She was walking her Japanese Spitz on a long red leash and waved to me from the distance. My eyesight, as always, failed me and I thought she was someone else. We talked idly for a few minutes before I brought up Maya. I told Tara I had been hanging out with her.

“Who?” She said, a little perplexed, tugging and coiling the leash around her hand.

“Maya? She’s your friend right?” I asked, although I already knew the answer. I had feared this moment, this very moment when my world would choose a fork and in doing so, would damn me, either which way.

“I don’t know any Maya.”

And there it was. The path was chosen.

I made my way down to Brooklyn later that week, following the Lefferts Blvd address that I had found in the Paul Auster book. There was a faint smell of cardamom outside the olive green door, and a large yellow stain on the wall beside it. I knocked and the door was opened by a young lady, pretty and petite. Her hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail and she was cradling an infant on her hip.

“Yes?” she said questioningly.

As politely as I could, I asked if Maya was around.

She gave a small laugh, and peered past me as if looking for someone else.

“Who put you up to this?” she said with a smile, still searching enthusiastically over my shoulder.

I told her I didn’t know what she was talking about and repeated that I was just looking for Maya.

“You’re looking for Maya?” she chuckled. “Here, meet Maya.” And held out the girl child on her hip. Maya blinked back at me, barely a year old, and reached for my face.

I reached for her hand and let her hold my index finger as she giggled and gurgled. I apologised, stammered out some sort of explanation and was turning away when I ran into a man standing just behind me. He was about my height, wore glasses and had a receding hairline. Probably in his late twenties, he clutched at the shoulder straps to small black pack on his back.

“Hello.” He smiled at me. “Were you just visiting?”

There was something very familiar about this man, something in his speech and his mannerisms that made it seem as if he were but a reflection of someone I couldn’t quite recall.

“He was looking for Maya,” said the woman from the doorway.

“Why?” asked the man, moving past me and into the apartment.

I tried to explain, not the situation for who could really explain my situation, but about finding their address on a book and that I was looking for my friend Maya.

“Are you Nepali?” the man asked when he had heard me out.

When I nodded, he started to speak in Nepali.

“I don’t know this Maya. I don’t think there are really any other Nepali people in this area. I mean, I’ve been living here for close to 5 years now and I don’t know of any. The only Maya here is my daughter and since she can barely stand, I don’t see how you could be friends with her,” he said goodnaturedly. “Want to come in for a cup of tea?”

With a cup of tea in my hand, I tried to describe Maya but the description I gave didn’t seem accurate. I couldn’t remember if her hair had been black or reddish brown the last time I had seen her. The first time I met her she had seemed so much taller than me, but that last night, I remember our eyes being on the same level. Both husband and wife shook their head at the vague description I gave. I told them I assumed that they would at least know who she was since she had given me a book with their address in it, but the man assured me that he regularly sold his books to thrift shops and used bookstores.

Halfway through the tea, the man introduced himself, “What’s your name, by the way? I’m Pranaya.”

The tea cup nearly fell from my hand. Rattling noisily, I set it on its saucer and carefully set it back on the coffee table.
I answered that my name, too, was Pranaya. At first he didn’t believe me. His wife thought that I was still joking, that one of their friends had put me up to this. Then, she thought that I was a distant relative come to visit her and this was my big joke. I had to show them ID before they finally believed me.

After the tea had been drunk and when the door was closing behind me, I felt a pervasive uneasiness take hold. That man had the same first name as me, he had also gone to Rato Bangala School like me, but Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester instead of Hunter College. Sarah Lawrence had rejected me. He now worked as a stringer for the AFP, writing short stories on the side. He had even just been accepted for publication in Ploughshares. Was I his doppelganger or was he mine? Except for the married part, he didn’t seem to have a bad life.

EIGHT.

On the way home from Brooklyn, I went back to where I had first met her. There were a few people standing, a few other sitting, all waiting for the train. I sat on one of the benches at the end of the platform, my hands deep in my pockets. I slouched down in the seat and closed my eyes. There was a hum of voices, a few speaking Spanish, a few Hindi. There was always a steady low roar of machinery and sounds from the streets below.

There would be no end. Maybe that was the way it was supposed to be. Maybe that’s how Maya would’ve liked it. After all, no story ever ends. There is always the after, what happens after the happily-ever-after, after the credits roll and the lights come on. The illusion is gone but the story is always alive. When you read a book, you reread every book you’ve ever read. In the endless repository that is your brain, each new word you read is born from the bed of the every word you’ve ever read. Maybe Jung was right, maybe we do all draw from the same reservoir, but while some of us have water spouts, others still use divining rods. Just like each place recalls another place, each idea recalls another idea. My story only existed as a thread in an vast and meaningless tapestry, branching off and intertwining. Maybe it was never meant to end, only recur and repeat, again and again. Maya would know.

How do I find Maya in this infinite city? Its towers reach for the stars and its trains tunnel feet underground, shuttling forth millions along rat-infested tracks. This anonymous city is heartless. Like the angler’s fish luminous bulb masks its hideous teeth and monstrous appetite, New York’s grey steel and cold concrete hide underneath the bosoms of beautiful billboard models and the thousand pretty lights of Times Square. Just one among millions.

Down in the street, a car screeched and a horn blared. A man walked by in front of me, plugged into his earphones, bouncing his head to the beat. From the other end of the platform, there was shrill laughter and a burst of loud Spanish. There was a woman sitting on another bench to the left of me. She was leaning back on the bench, a book in her hands and reading intensely. As she read, she crossed and uncrossed her jean-clad legs, her feet in bright red shoes.

 

Pranaya RANA
23-26 January 2011
Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY.

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14 Responses

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  1. No story ever ends. But we forget. That is an end.

    Samragyee

    March 27, 2011 at 11:04 PM

  2. wow. i don’t really know what to say because this was so beautiful, but i think being comment-ed means read and if i read and walk away that’s also al right but you wouldn’t know you’d imparted thoughts/ideas/emotions into someone else … which is exactly what you did. i’m not much of a writer or a read-er so i may be way off when i say this seems to me to be touching magical realism. i’ve never read nepali magical realism and while i hate fantasy i do love the mr and i just wanted to say your write beautifully. almost, hauntingly. hope there’re eight, nine and ten coming too …

    nepaliketi

    March 28, 2011 at 4:59 AM

    • thank you for reading, and getting through it all even. now if only i could get this published.

      Pranaya

      March 28, 2011 at 10:03 AM

      • mmmm i emailed you at the address you last commented …. or did you judge me by my name? NAHIN!

        nepaliketi

        March 29, 2011 at 2:54 PM

  3. wow. can i just say, this is amazing! you really do have a word with words. i mean, just wow. i felt like i was reading a published well written short story, only it happened to be written by a nepali with a point of view i could relate to. i had a look in your about me section, you mentioned you used to write for WAVE. i used to read that magazine, absolutely loved it but that was when it used to be size of a newspaper.i brought those issues of WAVE with me when i left nepal. for some reason, when they reduced the size of the magazine, the articles werent as good anymore.everyone that i thought was a brilliant writer had left.at least thats how i felt. havent read it since. might go to the website and check your articles.
    and again, you seem to have tremendous talent, pranaya. i think i will enjoy reading your blog!

    alisha

    May 25, 2011 at 1:32 AM

    • i’m glad you enjoyed the story. unfortunately, i’ve been trying to get published but it seems no one will have me. but i’ll keep writing and i hope you keep reading. thanks.

      Pranaya

      May 25, 2011 at 2:05 PM

  4. Like all the previous comment says – WOW! I was gripped from the start till the end. You’re a great writer and an amazing story teller! 🙂

    Kreeti

    August 28, 2012 at 1:11 AM

  5. As I get it, this story tells that Maya is the one whose very essence or presence puts ideas into the head of the protagonist. That is one thing.. Then there is another that the protagonist had never seen Maya before, and there is the third thing that the protagonist had already written stories before graduating i.e. about the man who gets addicted to the taste of ink and the woman who contemplates about the unmarked box (I read all of your fictions that you provided here, and found that the name of the woman in question is also “Maya”).
    Now, what I find as something unconvincing is the fact that if the protagonist had written stories already, that means he must have been acquainted with Maya already (because Maya is the source of the stories he writes) but here, he doesn’t even know who Maya is, let alone remember her!
    Let me know if I got the story wrong..

    Sharad Duwal

    June 9, 2013 at 11:22 AM

    • Thanks for taking the time to read, analyse and comment on my pieces. It really means a lot. Now about your interpretation, you are right in many ways. I don’t want to tell you everything. I believe that the story is as much what you interpret as it is what I put out there. I’m glad you have taken something from these and I’m really really happy that you saw the connections between many of my story.

      But I will say one thing, Maya is different for different people. The man is not always the same man and Maya is not always the same Maya.

      Thanks, once again!

      Pranaya

      June 10, 2013 at 12:33 AM

      • Oh, that means, Maya is not someone whose essence makes the writer write, but she is herself the idea personified? So each time the protagonist is to get an idea to write, a version of Maya appears and that way the idea is put into him? Alright. But I have to say you are one hell of a writer. Glad to see that I can see a writer in you. Actually, I wanted to walk in your steps — I still want. But, maybe you’re not got enough time to see your emails at Gmail once or maybe you don’t have time to accept a friend request on Facebook sent so long ago.
        Why, thank you (I learnt this from you, seriously) for the replies and thanks again, because I was replied in an hour and 11 minutes.. that was better than waiting for months for your replies. Keep this good side of you up. You are fated to succeed.

        Sharad Duwal

        June 10, 2013 at 3:55 AM

      • I apologise. I’m sorry but I’m just so taken up with work that I have very little time to blog or write stories, which is really quite sad. And about Facebook, I don’t accept friend requests from people I don’t know. If you had sent me a message saying why you added me then maybe I would’ve accepted faster. But no worries, I know you now. And thanks for all the nice things you said.

        Pranaya

        June 10, 2013 at 11:44 PM

  6. I know that most of the people don’t accept requests on Facebook easily, that group includes me too, but as I remember, I had sent a message too. Maybe you didn’t see it.
    Actually, I wanted to acquaint with you so that I could discuss about reading and writing. I had sent you an email too, about a month — or two — ago but I wasn’t reciprocated. Maybe you would go to the hidden requests (if you had pressed “Not Now” when you first saw my request) on Facebook the next time you log into it and accept my friend request. Waiting for that. I want your recommendations. And Keep writing..

    Sharad Duwal

    June 11, 2013 at 1:39 AM

  7. I loved it !! what an intriguing piece. can’t believe this is an unpublished work. keep writing and publication will surely come your way.

    Suman Khadka

    January 21, 2014 at 11:44 PM


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