IV. Bengaluru, 2032
“Sometimes, Saturday has a lonely sound,” said the guy to the girl. A black-and- white from seventy years ago. That was the last line before the power cut out.
Goddamned India. I guess some things never change. They nuked the grid to save the country, but the construction was rigged, crooked in one way or another. Within a year the reactor exploded at the plant.
And here I was, miles away from the fallout.
This was where – I’d thought – she and I became inseparable, deep in those pandemic throes, in my dead mother’s old flat. We’d traipsed headlong into a burrow of Hitchcock VHS cassettes, and chai-biscuit happy hours, and Indo-chinese takeout from Big Bill’s, and Johnnie Walker dance parties and – Not anymore. Maybe mythology was all I had left. I traced the elephant tattoo she’d inked onto my chest and wondered if she still had hers.
The rain deafened as I sniffed a cheap brandy in the dark and thought about the mutant bird. A new kalpa. I needed something to tear the pain in my heart clean out, and I’d tried everything else.
III. Washington DC, 2027
She didn’t reach out again until her twin sister took her own life, discarded by a husband who’d only swiped right for her green card.
Their father cast out that daughter, and in so doing lost his other, who stormed out of the closet to tell him off and leave. After six long years, she was all mine.
We made desperate love and ate like queens for a month on her client’s dime before I saw it all coming again. Bitter tremors found the scars inside my wrists. I told myself, this was the last time I was going to let her take me for a romp.
I slid the note tenderly onto the pillow while she was in the shower, dripping hot tears onto the page so she knew it was for real this time.
I’d gotten better at leaving first, pride roaring, before falling apart out of sight. Now we’d come full circle. I was done putting myself out there. It was time to give myself back to the world.
I scrambled out of the hotel into the afternoon’s humid caress. I cried openly in Foggy Bottom, shaking and quailing in sweat as I summoned a car to DCA to fly away from her, forever.
Never again, all over once more.
VI. Seattle, 2035
Three around the sun and bad luck since that great bird shredded me open. It cured my heartache, but the radioactivity got me where it counts in the end, right between the legs.
Remember her face there? So long ago the echoes don’t tingle. How I gasped at the flicker of her tongue. All numbed out now; soon they’ll wheel me in to carve out the tumors.
No more dreams of family, but how many years since I’d set that hope free?
Outside this steel and glass cage that the doctors called The Hutch, a virgin snow graced the pane from the heavens. The first in years, the nurse said.
I traced the pocked stigma on my ruined breast, feeling the jagged remnants of the elephant and wondering if I’d even wake up to see the new year. Maybe this surgery will free me at last from these mortal coils.
Inside the soft contours of anesthesia, my eyes zoomed in a fog. Today was December 31st, the same day I’d met her. A bittersweet sixteen years later.
Memories unspooled, back to that fateful day of limerence. A young heart’s plunge, before I shattered on the crags.
Something beckoned from the deep. . . panic? Trapped in sleep, sinking past a forgotten memory as my body swam away from me.
Wait: What did she write? That day she walked out on me?
I. Tokyo, 2019
She stopped my heart the second I laid eyes on her in Narita. I’d just disembarked from the first overseas flight of my life, Los Angeles by way of Seattle. It was new year’s eve and we were both waiting to board the overnight to Bengaluru when the flight delay rolled across the screens.
She didn’t blink through the audible groan, turning those almond eyes instead to me to ask if I could watch her bag as she used the ladies room.
I nodded, a fluttering gulp. She came out in makeup and my stomach vanished. She thanked me and asked what I was doing in Bangalore. She pronounced it Bangalore, loose and punctuated, even though I was the American.
My mother just died, I told her. This delay meant I’d miss the cremation. She heard the darkness behind my eyes. I think she wanted to taste it. She took me in like a broken bird.
“You know what I do about unhappiness?” she said, taking my hand as we dragged our rolleys to a bar. “I buy it off.”
Oh, that tingle. I’ll never forget how her eyes lit up. Two Paulomis, four eyes, two lips, four arms, twenty fingers, one soul. Two drinks later when she went down on me in a bathroom stall, I came and I came until I cried and I was heaving and couldn’t stop.
My heart bulged with every beat, already overripe nearly to ruin. She hugged me so gently, and held my trembles and kissed my wet face and that’s when I realized I’d already fallen.
V. Bengaluru, 2032
I shimmied under the fat gibbous, through the torn fences of the power plant. Different kinds of sweat mingled under my makeshift hazmat: Tights and tinfoil and jeans, all swaddled up in one of my dead mother’s old sarees like silken snowpants.
I skulked onto the barren land, wandering around the abandoned facility until I saw the dying tree from my nightmares. I sat Indian-style on the scorched earth, looking up at the wide nest and tracing the years that brought me to this moment as I awaited my fate.
After DC, I’d turned to the Buddhists, who taught me only how to watch my soul atrophy at a distance. In ceremony, I burned her farewell note, the one she left me a dozen years ago.
But no matter how I’d tried, I couldn’t forget, nor fill rejection with time or space. Was it she who’d pushed me away, or vice versa? I was never going to find nirvana torn in limbo between those two truths.
So like a true American, I turned next to the cemetery of drugs and religion and came to India to reincarnate. The beaded, bearded holy men traded me bhang and ganja for modern favors, teaching me to distract myself in tantric trances and astrology.
For months I’d inched like a worm through daily charts of the pancha pakshi when the news reached: after the three-tailed rats and chappal-sized roaches skittered out of the blockaded contamination zone, rumors of a huge, two-headed bird swarmed social media.
Gandaberunda Pakshi! squawked the holy men. The government named it a hoax and made arrests, but not before grainy images captured the imagination of the locals – which, once I left the ashram to return to my late Amma’s blackening concrete flat, I was, too.
Surrounded by irradiated curses and glowing visions of past desires was I, when flapping it descended from the darkness; I opened my eyes and felt its cry, the same psychotic screeching that riddled my fevered dreams.
It landed, ten feet from talon to beaks, one neck longer than the other. I stood up and spread my arms, welcoming the tears as it jabbed, piercing my breast with one blood-eyed head. I fell in shock and watched it pluck at my wriggling lion heart with its second mouth, as cruel and alive as any pain I’d ever feel –
II. Bengaluru, 2021
I stepped out of the bathroom in a towel and pulled on fresh underwear. After a lifetime of lockdown, we were going at last to the clinic for our vaccine.
“Hey Babe, ready to leave?”
I didn’t hear her say anything. The television was off. “Babe??”
I checked the power, but the current was on. “Paulomi?”
The silence echoed so deep and quick that I lost my nerve. My throat locked as I saw her rolley was gone from its perch, next to mine atop the bureau, whose doors hung ajar. Her clothes were gone.
A clock shattered somewhere as a note on my pillow caught my blurry eye:
To my Paulomi: I’m sorry.
Being with you has been the best ever. But I need some fresh air now. A change of scenery. Space to spread my wings.
Let’s promise we’ll always fly to each other again? Love always,