My friends tell me to move on from Matthew. What happens when there is nothing to move on from? We were never lovers and there was no relationship to speak of. At best, we had a clandestine friendship. Should I move on from a friendship?
With all these thoughts, I am, obviously, not ready to see Matthew. I have little choice in the matter, though. I have to attend this Memorial Service for Mummy’s best friend, Aunty Ruth, who passed away seven days ago. Matthew will also be there since he’s the deceased’s nephew.
As I stand at the top of the stairs by the side of this house built on a hill slope, I can see Matthew in the front row of the many chairs arranged on the lawn. Did all the steps going down have to be so uneven? Quick. Grab the metal banister. Concentrate and forget Matthew for now. Tumbling down the stairs will be worse.
My ring hits the metal banister and everyone looks up.
“Sorry,” I mutter. How embarrassing.
Matthew sees me and quickly looks away. Even from this distance, he looks so beautiful with those long lashes, almond shaped eyes and day-old stubble.
When I am on the final step, I can hear the priest instructing the congregation to stand up to recite a prayer. It’s the penultimate one on the Order of Service the usher hands to me. I am so late.
I hold the ends of the white dupatta behind my back. This long diaphanous shawl keeps slipping off my shoulders. This is what happens when I dress in haste and forget to pin it to the shoulder pads of my black salwar kameez.
Walking past a tinted glass door towards an empty seat, I can’t help but turn to admire my reflection. The kameez now hangs loose on my shoulders. Lovely. I’ve lost weight.
The priest invites the congregation to sit down so that he can say a few words about Aunty Ruth. Once seated, I can see the back of Matthew’s head in the gaps between people.
I can feel it, that treacherous yearning inside me to speak with him. Even if it’s merely to say hello. Even though he hurt me. I shouldn’t be this stupid. There’s no point talking to him. After all that happened.
A part of me prays he’ll ignore me altogether after the service is over. There’s no guarantee that he’ll remember me with any fondness.
When I first met Matthew six years ago, everything in my life looked possible. I gave away the paintings an ex-boyfriend presented to me as a birthday gift. I painted the walls of my tiny flat a light shade of green. For the first time since I started my writing career, I dared to attend a writers’ festival. The face that was reflected in the mirror then was more than pretty – it was confident. I was absolutely ripe to fall in love.
We met at yet another funeral. Certainly, an unconventional way to meet a man, yes. But how exciting it was to hide the fact from all our mutual friends that we were deeply attracted to each other. From the moment he said hello, I was smitten.
In the months ahead, we met for coffee, dinner or even a game of poker. You might see us huddled in the corner of Alexis Café, sharing a chocolate mud cake. Or drinking from the same glass during the intermission of a concert at the Petronas Philharmonic in Kuala Lumpur City Centre. Thanks to Matthew, I’ve become an expert at baking meringue pies because they are his favorite. Each time, in the privacy of his car, when he dropped me off after one of our meetings – for I still refuse to call them dates – he pulled me close for a hug.
I must concentrate on listening to the priest’s final words. It’s hopeless, though.
Unfortunately, my mind remains firmly on the past. In particular, on the sun-shiny day Matthew and I went to the animal shelter. I brought home a beagle I named Maleficent, while he adopted a pretty Bengal cat, already named Aurora.
Other than Daddy, Matthew remains the only man Maleficent readily went to. How she wagged her tail at the mere mention of Matthew’s name. He was the first person I called when she died. By then, Matthew had turned his back on us.
The priest invites us all to recite the Lord’s Prayer with him. When he says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I whisper, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we have great difficulty forgiving those who trespass against us.”
When Aurora dies and Matthew turns to a friend for comfort, I pray that his friend will not treat him with the same indifference Matthew showed me in my time of grief.
Why can’t I forget all that happened between us the last time we met? Why? I close my eyes. I pray. God, please remove the memory of what happened between us on that ‘Loop of Torture’ inside my head. Here they come again. Those awful memories.
It was October 2012. We met at a coffee shop in a mall in Bangsar. He ordered the specialty tea called teh halia. I hugged my white Sembonia handbag, as though for protection.
The words tumbled out of my mouth. “How you must laugh at my pain.”
He frowned. “I don’t know why you think that, Anjali. There is no merriment in this,” and he turned to look at the waiter.
If only I had the courage to touch him. Instead, I gave a short laugh then asked, “Are you sure? We have no chance at all?”
Matthew shook his head and said, “You have to accept reality and live life.” His tone was like that of a man frustrated that his aged-and-hard-of-hearing parents asked him to repeat everything he said. He touched his chest and said, “I feel nothing when look at you.”
Why couldn’t he look me in the eye when he said that? Did what had happened in my car park months before mean nothing to him? It had been after and we walked to his dusty Volvo parked in my garage. For a while, we had remained quiet. Then, he had put his hand on my waist and pulled me close. In that moment when I had looked into his eyes, my world was all Matthew. I had yearned to feel his lips against mine. I had also remembered a promise made to him when we first met that for as long as he remained with his Korean girlfriend, I would be nothing more than his friend. I had pulled away.
I will regret that decision for the rest of my life. I should have kissed him. Seduced him, even. I am sure he would have willingly reciprocated.
So, when he said he felt nothing for me, was he lying? If so, was he lying to me, or to himself? Still, I realized that there was no point in prolonging this meeting. So, I took a deep breath and said, “OK. Let’s go.”
He drank the last bit of tea, paid the cashier and we walked out of the coffee shop. Since he’d parked his car elsewhere, I was going to have to walk to my car alone. I felt a chill run down my spine. Wasn’t this the same car park where a woman was raped a month ago? Would I be safe? I prayed for protection.
Matthew held out his hand and said, “Goodbye.”
I looked down at it and blurted out, “Oh, we’re back to this.”
“Well, it’s better this way,” he replied.
Our fingertips touched, an apology of a handshake.
We turned and walked out of each other’s lives.
The Memorial Service for Aunty Ruth is now at an end. The congregation disperses and through the gaps, I can see Matthew turn towards me. Does he mean to come over? What do I say to him? I pull the ends of my dupatta and it tightens around my neck.
“Hello Anjali,” he says when he’s in front of me. He’s poised to shake my hand.
I release the ends of the dupatta, look up into his eyes and give a time-honored Indian greeting: I put my palms together and say, “Namaste.”