“Would you like some mosquito repellant cream?”
I hadn’t realised there was someone in the balcony right next to mine until the voice startled me out of my thoughts and absentmindedly swatting at mosquitoes.
“Uh, no thank you. It’s not so bad.”
He was quiet for a few minutes. I swatted at a couple of more mosquitoes.
Something hit my balcony with a thud.
“We’ve not sat next to each other in the dark, for long but I would miss you if you were to die of dengue.”
But I felt around in the dark until I found the cream and rubbed it on my exposed arms.
We sat in what some might refer to as companiable silence. I contemplated the overcast sky and decided these summer hours were worst hours of my life. I could give birth and spend 48 hours in labor and still count these mosquito filled, humid hours as the worst. It wasn’t even a competition – at the end of one, you had a squirmy, wrinkly and adorable baby. With the other, you had bites everywhere and not even the fun kind.
Oh, I was so not in the mood.
“This is strange. This is weird. This is awful. My phone has died and I am bored out of my mind. Talk to me.”
“I have better things to do than entertain you.”
“Well, my phone isn’t dead and the Internet is a vast and wonderful space with loads of cat pictures. I’ll find something.”
“You’re a cat person? I’m more of a dog person, myself.”
“Why are you still talking?”
My phone didn’t have as much battery as I claimed but I still checked it, in defiance. Everyone I knew personally was ranting on Twitter about the power cuts and everyone I didn’t know was off enjoying their weekend.
I swatted at another mosquito. I would move. Yes, I would move. I would much rather spend hours negotiating first with a broker, then with countless landlords, than continue living here in this-
That’s when he started singing.
“Siiinngginnng in the raaaiinnnn. I’m siiinngggiiinngg in the raaaiiinn. What a gloooorious feeling-“
“Do you mind?”
“Hey, you won’t talk to me. I have to keep myself entertained somehow. Plus, I’ve been told my singing’s not half bad.”
“They told you wrong.”
“I’m sorry, have we met before? I usually have a chance to piss off people before they talk to me like that.”
“You have pissed me off. We’re sitting on a balcony in the middle of a god-knows-how-many-hours power cut with mosquitoes trying to make sure I’m basically mummified by sunrise and you insist on talking to me when it’s clear I want no-“
“Based on the last couple of days, we’ll get power any time now.”
“The last couple of days, the power cuts have been pretty consistent so we should have power back any time now.”
“And the generator should be fixed in another couple of days too. Plus, this power shortage won’t last forever.”
“Well, aren’t you glass half full?”
“I find that it tends to make life a little easier to cope with. You know, mummification doesn’t involve just draining blood. They used to remove vital organs as well, some in ways that you would definitely not want mosquitoes involved-“
Thankfully, the tube light in my dining room flickered on. I shot out of my chair and into my apartment like my life depended on it. It wasn’t later until I was taking count of my mosquito bites in the shower that I realised I’d never said goodbye. Or even thank you.
When I finally could get myself to move out of range of my air conditioning, I found that his balcony was empty. It was just me and his mosquito repellant cream.
The next night also found me out on the balcony, flopping around on my deck chair, uncomfortable despite my light tee shirt and shorts. It was so muggy and humid that I wanted to climb out of my skin. Thankfully, I’d put on the mosquito repellant cream much earlier than yesterday so the the devil’s left hand men left me alone.
However, not everyone in my building had taken the same precaution. After the fifth swear word, I blindly aimed and threw the tube in the general direction of the balcony. I couldn’t hear it land but he must have because I heard a scrambling noise.
“Hello there! I hadn’t realised we were keeping company again.”
“I couldn’t stand by and listen to you get dengue.”
“Somehow, I knew you cared for me. Deep deep down.”
“Desperately. But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?”
The bark of laughter surprised me. I didn’t expect it to be so…loud or so close. He must be leaning against the wall parallel to the one I was closest to.
“A Shakespeare fan! I didn’t expect.” There was a scuffle. “Give me a second.”
“What are you doing?”
“Looking up something. Hang on, got it. ‘Ay me!’ Wait that’s it? I thought Juliet had more lines-“ I couldn’t help giggling at that. “Hang on, hang on. Oy, Romeo! It’s your turn. You skimped out on your speech but no one else is wooing me on my balcony so I’ll let you google this one.”
“She speaks! O speak again, bright angel!”
“Wow, you’re really good at this. Did you do some theatre in high school?”
“No. I just really liked that movie where the setting is modern day with cellphones and guns.”
“I know that one. It’s the one with Leonardo di Caprio, right?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“I’m so bored.”
“My phone’s dead again. Read me something from yours.”
“I’m reading a romance novel.” I waited for the scoff. The laugh.
“Excellent. Read it out loud to me.”
“You read romance?”
“Why not? It’s just a genre.”
“…not a lot of people feel that way.”
“I’m not a lot of people. Come on. I’m dying here.”
I switched on my Kindle and prepared to read out loud.
“-he liked me wearing glasses. He said it reminded him of…”
The next three nights, I spent those dark hours on the balcony, reading my book out loud. To his credit, he scoffed only at moments I would have to, if I’d been reading just to myself. To mine, I plowed through even the hot moments as though I wasn’t a young, single woman reading an erotically charged book to another possibly young and single man in the dark.
When the power came back on, each night, I stopped reading, closed my Kindle, gathered up my stuff and went in for a shower. I never looked over to my neighbour to put a face to a voice. I never checked to see if he did, either. There was something in the air during those evenings and I just didn’t want to…ruin it. Not after my previous shambles of a relationship.
Every time I left the apartment, which wasn’t often, I tried to not look at the door closest to mine. I kept my head down when I was on premises.
The fourth night, we came to ‘The End’ before the lights came back on.
“What do we do now?” He asked as our discussion about the novel wound down. We’d agreed on pretty much every point the other had raised so there was not much even to begin.
“It’s your turn. Entertain me.”
“I don’t have a Kindle and even if I did, I’d never read you something from it.”
“Why not? Do you think I’m incapable of following along if it doesn’t involve a bodice ripping and someone-“
“What? No! Geez. Will you calm down? I’d never read you something from what I’m reading because I’m reading the Illiad.”
“The Homer epic about the Trojan war?”
“Oh. I’ve thought about reading but have often been put off by the um prose.”
“Tell me about it. Even the best translation has some clunky prose. But the book has some highs – there’s brooding heroes and fainting heroines, even a love story for those of who are inclined-“
“I’ve seen the movie with Brad Pitt.”
“Well, the movie’s not too far off but the love story isn’t just between Achilles and Briseis. There’s a theory that Achilles, that’s Brad Pitt’s cousin, was bisexual and-“
“So, you like Greek myth.”
“Sorry, I do tend to run on when talking about it. Yes, I do. I’ve liked them ever since I first read Enid Blyton’s Greek mythology book when I was a child. Some of the elements freaked me out but-“
“Freaked you out?”
“Well, brothers sleep with sisters and one of the gods turned into a bull-“
“Say no more.”
“See? It was practically traumatising for a child. I’m lucky I turned out to be as charming and well-rounded as I am, today.”
“Are you?” I thought I was murmuring just to myself but he must have heard it. “Of course, I am. And now you can testify to it too, seeing as how we know each other so well now.”
“We barely know each other!”
“We’ve spent the last week in each other’s company! We’re practically best friends.”
The tube light flickered on, just then.
“Wait!” He called out as I stood up. “I…I won’t be here, tomorrow. I have some overtime-“
“Okay, okay. I’ll see you then.”
I didn’t wait for another word.
He didn’t show the next night, as expected. The night after that, I was reading when he suddenly piped up.
“Did you miss me?”
“Not even a little.”
“You don’t have to lie. I can hear the truth in your voice.”
“Believe whatever you want to believe as long as you can resist the urge to stalk me.”
“I’ll try my hardest.”
My phone beeped. Someone had retweeted one of my retweets. I heard him sniff and blow his nose.
“That does not sound good.”
“Tell me about it. I’ve been miserable all day, with this stupid cold that will hopefully not descend into a fever.”
“Soup and tea will help.”
“And rest. Thankfully, it’s a Sunday. Have you heard of Cupid and Psyche?”
“Once upon a time, a king had three daughters. The third was considered to be so beautiful there were no words to express it. Fame of her beauty eventually got around as these things do and reached Aphrodite. Aphrodite was not impressed so she sent her son to do some ‘mischief’ – I did air quotes by the way. Make her fall in love with some random thing like a donkey ala A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, that’s probably where Shakespeare got-“
“What did Cupid do?”
“Sorry, got carried away. Cupid, the doofus, accidentally poked himself with one of his arrows and fell madly in love with her. So, instead of pranking her, he spirited her away to a deserted island with a palace and some invisible servants to wait on her hand and foot. The catch is that Cupid would come to her only by night.”
“But he was so tender and just all around amazing that they’re happy together. This odd, misfit couple.”
“Go on.” I whispered.
“But eventually, she missed her family so Cupid brought her sisters to visit. They were happy to see her but, unsurprisingly, the fact that she only sees her husband at night didn’t sit well with them.”
“As it wouldn’t with most people.”
“‘What if he’s an ogre? What if he’s monstrously ugly?’ The questions confused Psyche so to sort her out, they left her with a candle. And that night when Cupid comes to visit, she waited until he fell asleep to light the candle and look at him.”
“And? They lived happily ever after?”
“Well, Cupid wasn’t an ogre. Or monstrously ugly. In fact, he was quite good looking. She’d known it in the dark but to have it so confirmed…well, Psyche was entranced. So entranced that she didn’t realise that an itty, bitty drop of wax was winding its way down to fall onto his arm and wake him.”
I knew what he wanted me to ask but I couldn’t bring myself to open my mouth.
“Why he hid himself, I don’t get. I mean, it’s Cupid; it’s impossible to not love him. But he woke up pissed off and the rage just gets worse. They had a fight and he left in a huff. Psyche fell down and cried for a bit. She waited for him but he didn’t come back.
So, she wandered, looking for him. Eventually, she realized Aphrodite might know his whereabouts and prayed to her. Aphrodite was still not very impressed, especially more so now that she knew that Cupid basically lied to her about Psyche. She sets her some trials which Psyche managed to finish, with some help, before Cupid recovered from his wax drop related illness to swoop in and save her, during her third task. He plead to Zeus, got her some ambrosia and they lived happily ever after, immortally.”
My heart was pounding in my ears.
“Cupid…” he whispered. “Why are you doing this? For art thou so beautiful and I am unworthy.”
“You don’t know that.”
“No, I don’t. I’ve spent many an hour, imagining your exact features, your coloring.”
“I realised I don’t care. Cupid. Don’t make me go out and buy a candle. I don’t even know where they sell those anymore.”
“Okay. Alright. I can wait. I’ll go look for those candles.”
Let there be light. I gathered up my stuff and stood up.
“Good night, Cupid.”
The next night, he didn’t show. I reread the myth of Cupid and Psyche all night, waiting for him.
The night after that, he staggered in towards the end of the night.
“I hear the generator’s going to be fixed tomorrow.” He rasped as he dropped to the floor.
“You sound like shit.”
“This sore throat is oppressing me. But I can’t stay in bed any longer else I’ll go crazy. Hello, Cupid. Sorry, I couldn’t make it last night. The cough syrup knocked me out.”
“I hope you’re drinking lots of soup.”
He suddenly laughed.
“Unfortunately, Psyche doesn’t fall sick in the original plot. Technically, you should be the sick one.”
“What are you doing?”
“Being really really stupid. I found a candle.”
“What happens tomorrow?”
“We go back to our lives.”
“And this, whatever this is – this friendship, this mockery of a flirtation, ends here?”
I can’t, I wanted to tell him. I can’t see where this goes because it’d be a brilliant memory if I let it die here and a disappointment if I let it go on. This ending would be a warm glow in my heart for as long as I lived. And I’d had lots of the bitter disappointment. I just didn’t want more of that.
“And that’s what you want?”
The lights flickered on.
“I guess this is goodbye.”
“I guess it is.”
I didn’t move. I could still hear his low, raspy inhales.
Then he stood up.
There was a power cut the next night but the lights flickered back on instantly. The generator had been fixed.
I read determinedly through it, trying not to jump at every sound I heard. Every noise was a laugh or his low voice.
I’d never before been more aware of the emptiness of my apartment. Sure, my phone buzzed with texts and notifications and it was nice to have air conditioning and lights but those stifling hours filled with conversation and mosquitoes had been a highlight of the last few weeks, months…
If it were one of my favourite novels, the heroine’s best friend would have egged the heroine on to take a step just now. The hero’s mother. A sarcastic co-passenger. A sign as to what I was supposed to do. Validation.
The minutes ticked by and there was no sign.
Oh, wouldn’t it be easy if you just knew sometimes? If a giant hand just descended from the heavens and pointed at someone and boomed, this one. This is the one. Take a chance on this one.
I made some soup. Okay, it was Knorr and all I really did was stir to make sure there were no lumps but it counts. Then I knocked on the door, next to mine.
A scruffy-looking guy opened the door. He didn’t look ill enough, to warrant soup, so I assumed it wasn’t him.
“Is..Is your roommate in?”
“My roommate? He’s here, yeah.”
He turned before I could tell him to keep it down. “Rohan! Someone’s here to see you.”
Rohan. I had a name. I walked to the door Scruffy pointed to.
It swung open before I could get to it. I panicked and whipped around to face Scruffy. He looked startled. One of my hands automatically reached up to smooth my bangs so my hair hid most of my face.
“Cupid? You’re here. I knew I could recognise the back of your head anywhere. Didn’t I tell you-“
“Was that a container I saw in your hands just now? You brought me food? Oh, you didn’t have to-”
He sounded positively delighted. I cut in, determined to have my say, before he blathered on for the whole evening.
“I..” I took a deep breath. “My last relationship was terrible. He was emotionally abusive – he made me feel like I was supremely unattractive, like I was lucky he’d condescended to like ugly me. So, yes, you were right. Like Cupid, I didn’t want you to see me but unlike Cupid, I’m not-“
Scruffy was still staring at me, his eyes round. I looked at the floor.
“Cupid, stop right there. Do you have all your features? Eyeballs, nose, mouth? Laksh, nod if she has a face. Actually, it doesn’t matter.”
“What I’m trying to say is, even if your face were melted right off, you’d be beautiful to me.”
That made me smile.
“Even if I looked like TwoFace?”
“You’re beating me off only with a stick.”
It was like my feet were rooted to the ground. I heard him step closer.
“Cupid. Turn around and give me the food.”
“Vrinda. My name is Vrinda.”
“That’s a beautiful name. Isn’t it, Laksh?”
In my peripheral vision, I saw Scruffy start. I inhaled and slowly began to turn, but not before I made sure my bangs were still doing a good job of making sure you couldn’t tell what I really looked like. My hands were trembling.
“I forgot to tell you. I know I should have mentioned it previously but there was just never any time to bring it up and now, it’s just going to be awkward when you find out in the future-“
My heart was pounding. He had a girlfriend, I was certain. A boyfriend, if the Fates felt like being particularly cruel.
“What will be awkward?”
“I don’t actually have two sisters. Or two brothers, if you want to be more apt. How does it work for me, by the way? Are my brothers jealous I’m with someone as amazing as you? Or are my sisters? Well, whatever works for you but the important thing is, I have no siblings-“
“Rohan!” I couldn’t help the snort of laughter that escaped me when I turned around but he was laughing too. I watched him scan me – hair, face, neck, shoulders, torso, thighs, knees, calves and feet. When he looked at the pink nail polish on my toes, he smiled.
“Exactly as I expected.” He murmured.
So, he was. Down to the kindness in his eyes.
He held his hand out to me. “Shall we?”
I’d never felt so sure.
Thank you for reading. Here’s a cookie.
One day, I promise, it’ll be a romance novel with actual conflicts. One day.