Sayali is a seventeen-year-old from Mumbai who claims she enjoys “writing poetry, reading Archie comics, and cuddling with little puppies.” Her submission,The Opposite Pavement, is a remarkable character study. Though compressed within the confines of a short story, she manages to create distinct characters. On writing this story Sayali says, “My motivation for this story was to craft a character that would be confused but bold. In using the literary imagery of the rain and its dreariness, I’ve tried to maintain the constant layer of deprivation that the protagonist feels is sponging its way through her life.”
THE OPPOSITE PAVEMENT
Mr. Epcot left the house at eight-thirty every morning, except on Sundays, and he returned by two in the afternoon. In the vapid, windy, sepulchral space that existed between eight-thirty and two, Mrs. Epcot sat, either with her green and blue yarn or her old typewriter, pretending to not think about her husband, and thought of her husband.
It had been four rainy days ago that Mrs. Epcot had learned of a disturbing truth, and now she was faced with the task of digesting it, which was not very palatable. Although she considered herself simple and beautiful and nothing more, the truth had forced her to go a bit ahead and consider herself in a newer, darker tint of perception, and she wasn’t sure if she liked what she had perceived.
‘Bye, for now,’ Mr. Epcot would say every morning from Monday until Saturday, as portly as ever in his disposition, and then, ‘Call me if you need anything.’
Mrs. Epcot did need something, but she wasn’t going to tell her husband what it was. From time to time, walking down the cobblestoned streets in the marketplace, where she haggled for cucumbers and spinach and fresh fruit in large baskets, she was disconcerted by the sight of good-looking men. And there were plenty of those – at least that was what Mrs. Epcot told herself, laughingly at times, to lighten the prospect of the tragedy she felt she was in. The sight of those good-looking men brightened her up, then saddened her, then prickled her and then ultimately put her in an uncomfortable place. From time to time, over hot kettles and bowls of eggs or mashed potatoes, Mrs. Epcot would steal glances at Mr. Epcot and wonder if he knew that she thought him unattractive now, rather fatherly and unapproachable, and that she gagged – at times – at the lack of physical compatibility their marriage faced.
But Mrs. Epcot’s simple and beautiful face refused to give any indicator of the distress she felt. Sometimes, to be convincing, she hummed popular tunes. At other times, to be more wifely, she acted petulant and shallow. But what she wanted the most in her heart was to walk next to one of those handsome men and be the woman they could openly stare at. Her distress was deepened further by the fact that Mr. Epcot didn’t even want to stare at her, much less mind if others did the same. A lack of a challenge was a very depressing thing indeed.
Two weeks before she learned the truth, she had been pondering through the hours of the early morning, watching rain gather into puddles on the pavement outside their colonial. She looked at the puddles, then further ahead at the black road now made liquid by thin streams of water, and then at the opposite pavement, where she spotted a young man standing with the collar of his trench coat pulled up, shielding the rest of his face with a dark blue umbrella. Even from a distance, Mrs. Epcot could tell where his gaze was directed. And she knew it wasn’t at her well-maintained lawn, or at her generous porch, or even at the flourishes of the house above, rising ambitiously in the sheets of rain. Mrs. Epcot knew the man was looking at her, and she knelt with exciting candor in the armchair, knees sinking with a dying thrill, her fingernails already in her mouth.
To confront or not to confront – that was the question. One day passed. Then another. More mornings pouring in through the perceptual filter of time – and days flew by, tumbling in their usual fashion into each other’s evenings. Mrs. Epcot couldn’t tell when she’d done what, but she knew two things for certain: it rained every morning, and every morning he was there, across the street.
When one fails to see things clearly, one often imagines them the way one wants. Now while this autonomy of seeing things can be quite dangerous, for Mrs. Epcot it was also exhilarating. Immediately, as her knees sunk deeper and the nail color on her fingernails went redder, she put together snatches of all the men she’d seen and all those she’d desired. The man stood in the rain and watched, as effectively as a statue, but Mrs. Epcot was convinced he was reciprocating.
Up went a pair of mahogany eyes, and brows the color of toast; a prominent Cupid’s bow, maybe? Yes; Mrs. Epcot added that too. His mouth was elaborate and painterly, and his hair was the same color of his brows, soft and thick. And she didn’t yet know for sure, but she thought his cuticles needing paring.
It seemed to Mrs. Epcot that by looking into her house through the window, the stranger was effectually doing the same thing as her – for on multiple occasions she had suffered the guilt of being a neutral narrator in her own story, looking in like a stranger into her own marriage. She was still fond of her husband, still his wife of faithful virtue. But she felt apologetic when she told herself these things. And the rain made it worse – pouring with clarity as if weeping openly for her, and the thunder clapping with joy every time Mr. Epcot left the house and every time the stranger appeared at his spot, putting things into place, putting Mrs. Epcot in her armchair.
One full week later, Mrs. Epcot made up her mind. She pulled out a large brown poplin coat from the closet, put it on, and then decided that she should confront the man about his staring. Ask him when he would cross the street.
One thing bothered Mrs. Epcot; what would happen once she crossed the street? The thought was vast with possibilities and endless descriptions raced through her mind, coloring it with vivid images and vibrant words. She decided she had to be optimistic about it all, alluring even. She decided to be comely about the whole thing.
Mrs. Epcot owned but one beautiful chalky blue umbrella, and this she retrieved from the stand and stepped out onto the porch. Without warning, now, the stranger was closer to her. He was standing in his spot; she had made the first move.
Without the barrier of a solid wall and the comfort of a soft armchair, Mrs. Epcot felt that the wind was colder and the rain, chillier. She thought of her husband. Not surprisingly, no thought came to mind.
Mrs. Epcot was crossing the road. Another week later, she would remember most intensely how she had crossed the road; how everything was better once she had left the safety of her house, of her marriage. She was striding across the small breadth of the slippery pavement, and then she was walking closer to him. And every single time she breathed something sour and electric twanged inside of her, and she blinked. And the stranger was still there.
After knowing the disturbing truth, the one thing Mrs. Epcot had done the most was ruminate over the conversation.
‘Hello,’ she said.
‘Hello. Good morning.’
‘I – this is routine now, isn’t it?’
‘You could say it is.’
‘I just came out to say – ’ now there was a smile starting to grow on her face, a smile she had flashed Mr. Epcot when he was handsome to her, a smile she flashed the other handsome men – in her mind.
‘That you’re wise to my act?’
The smile was suddenly disappearing and the stranger was suddenly desperate, like he didn’t want to be out in the rain.
‘I keep on telling him that you’re cautious, very cautious, that you stare me down every single time I come out here. He’s suspicious, though. I’m sorry if I upset you.’
Mrs. Epcot blinked at the stranger. No twangs riddled her belly this time. The man was dark-haired and sallow-skinned, with a nose almost made auburn by acne. His face was angularly shaped and his jaw impressively set, but he didn’t have russet skin or golden hair or any of the things Mrs. Epcot had imagined. And despite telling herself that she wouldn’t be surprised if this happened, she was surprised. The rain was constant, the wind ferocious.
‘Would – would you like to come in?’ She hadn’t asked the immediate question that his reply begged: ‘Who is he? Who was suspicious?’ But that was only because Mrs. Epcot knew.
‘No, thank you. I just need you to tell me the truth so that I can tell him the truth, and get the hell out of this rain. I might just die of sodding pneumonia.’
He was sounding coarse now, uneducated and intellectually infirm. Not that Mrs. Epcot had imagined him to be vastly different. But there was, nevertheless, an even greater sinking feeling.
‘He doesn’t trust me?’ she shouted into the rain.
The stranger was quiet. Then he shouted, ‘No.’
Her quandary was over, her guilt suddenly washed away. In that moment, knowing that her husband suspected her of adultery, she openly hated him, and was overcome by sympathy at the same time – imagining him pacing the office floor in anxiety until a drenched subordinate arrived with the news.
She left the stranger to his drenched job and returned home. She realized that her husband had seen through all of her humming and joking and complaining that the curtains in the bedroom were see-through. Mr. Epcot had reason to believe that his young wife wasn’t just enjoying thoughts of infidelity – he believed she was living the sin too. Mrs. Epcot was shocked by her husband’s distrust, and even more shocked by the fact that she was going to prove his suspicions right, with the man he had trusted to prove him wrong.
She went back inside the house, calmer, steadier, more immune to the rain. She felt a growing respect in her heart for fate, and for the uncanny way it had of effectively severing the leftover threads between two people without making either of them feel more righteous about it.
She digested the disturbing truth a day after those two weeks were over and searched for suitcases to pack.