Compartment C Car, 1938 by Edward Hopper
78 wasn’t very different from 77, he found himself thinking as he sat alone in the room, the day after his birthday. He had woken up each morning, as if he were surprised to be alive - counting the days that were strung together loosely, some days just merging together into one dense blob. Today was day 78. This had all begun on what was meant to be a boring train journey. His wife, Rumi sat opposite him, watching silently as the houses, fields, telephone poles and trees quickly blurred and disappeared.
She strained her eyes, attempting to identify a distinct feature of the passing objects. That tree - coconut. That cow - pregnant. That telephone pole - slightly crooked. When she felt the back of her head tinge with an acute disapproval at her insistence on this pointless game, she closed her eyes and waited for the pain to subside. She straightened her head and opened her eyes to the relatively stationary, more permanent world inside the train carriage. Ajay was reading the paper. She noticed he was still on page 4. He had been on it for nearly 30 minutes. She wished the scene before her was the one that would soon distort and evaporate and that she could be outside, somewhere in the now-rapidly shifting scenery, never knowing whose souls the train carried or where they were deposited.
“Crossword?” She croaked. He jumped in his seat but they both ignored it. He scrunched the paper between his legs and the pages crackled as he identified and painstakingly removed the relevant section, then smoothed the remaining pages and returned to studying page 4. She took out a pencil with a mangled eraser at the top. When twenty minutes had passed and she typed out the answer to the clue ‘a room containing a toilet and a sink’, she decided she needed some fresh air and wanted to use the lavatory.
She stood up with an urgency that startled Ajay. She mouthed ‘loo’ and he nodded and returned to reading. She paused for a second. She opened her mouth but nothing came out. Ajay hadn’t noticed. She swayed drunkenly as she made her way to the toilet. She was relieved to see that there wasn’t a queue. She hurled herself inside and fished in her purse for a cigarette and her lighter. She had hidden them in her make-up bag. She wasn’t allowed to smoke anymore. On doctor’s orders. Not after losing the baby. They were trying again. She violently triggered the lighter and pressed the flame to the slightly bent cigarette. She kissed the edge and drew in a deep breath, mimicking the very basic yoga she had been forced to learn. On doctor’s orders. She exhaled clouds of smoke and leaned against the door. Ajay smoked though. As often as he liked. Convenient. She was expected to make the sacrifices. She gazed dreamlike at the claustrophobic smoky room. She saw the puffs of smoke form a host of disappointed faces, her husband’s stony glares, her mother’s piteous tears, and her own bottled fears. She felt the racing train slowing to a crawl. She hastily dropped her still lively cigarette down the toilet and released herself from the lavatory. She walked to the door and stood squinting in the sunlight. “Which station?”, she asked a red-faced paunchy man who had appeared behind her, wearing a shirt and holding a suitcase, both of which looked like they would burst any second. “Anantapur,” he gasped.
As the train drew to a halt, she daintily stepped out on the platform but didn’t move. She just planted herself, still like a pillar, as people hustled and hurried all around her. She received curses, bruises, and icy disgusted expressions thrown at her but she waited, soaking in the impulsive freedom she had just granted herself. A few minutes and a loud whistle later, the train jerked to a start and the compartment groaned sluggishly in motion. She fixed her gaze on him.
He appeared to finally be turning a page of his newspaper. She always hated that he was a painfully slow reader. His eyes rested on hers, turned away just for a second, then darted back to hers. As he struggled to assemble the facts, he half-stood, then shouted her name, disappeared for a second, then reappeared at the door. He yelled her name again, either in desperation or anger, Rumi did not know. But it was too late. The train was going too fast. He could not get off. She would not get on. As Ajay faded into the distance, she smiled and made her way toward the exit.
He had hoped she would contact him. That there would be some explanation. Some sort of closure. He’d been blindsided. It had been 78 days. He thought of the previous evening. When he had played Tambola at the country club with a bunch of friends and colleagues - feeling an unbeararable pang of loneliness as he struck off numbers on a sheet. The numbers he got were a short summary of his life until then. The paunchy man on a high podium called out in a loud, wheezy voice - “In your prime - twenty nine! Up to tricks - forty six! Your place or mine - sixty nine! Staying alive - eighty five!” Seventy Seven was ‘two hockey sticks’. Certainly felt like it. On to day number seventy eight - Heaven’s Gate. A threshold had been breached. Twelve days short of ninety - the end of the line. “Nine-Zero”, he said aloud, with an air of finality, “As far as we go.”
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