Our greatest joy in life can leave the biggest hole in our hearts, she reflected, standing before the mirror, studying the way her saree now draped around her. It looked good. To an outsider, it would look perfect. It would look as though nothing had changed.
But everything had changed. Oh God, how rapidly everything had changed! Ten months? No, less! Far less. Tears welled up in her eyes. She wept for herself. And then she wept for her husband. Sobbing softly, she wept for them both.
Just a few weeks had elapsed since she had first felt those lumps near her armpit, while soaping herself in the bathroom. Concerned, she had called her husband in. He had stepped into the wet bathroom, grinning. “So, you want me to help you soap yourself, huh? With pleasure, darling, with pleasure!”
Suppressing the anxiety that was already gnawing at the pit of her stomach, she had handed him the bar of soap, and allowed him to soap her breasts, closing her eyes.
It never ceased to amaze her how much pleasure he derived from her breasts during their lovemaking, and in those casual moments during the day. When she was working in the kitchen, he would come and caress her, pressing himself to her from behind like an adolescent. Fifteen years of marriage and two childbirths had done nothing to dim his lust for her body.
As he caressed and soaped, she guided his hand to that spot near her armpit, and whispered, “Feel there… does that feel normal?” He continued soaping and feeling. And suddenly, she realized that he was no longer fondling her. She sensed his fear. Turning, looking up at his face, she saw the answer clearly in his eyes.
The next few weeks were a blur of meetings with oncologists, mammograms, various tests, hospital admissions, surgeries, chemotherapy… And throughout it all, he was there, stewarding the process, fixing appointments, miraculously finding time for her despite his high-pressure corporate life. It went on and on. She thought it would never cease.
And then, one day, it was over. When she awoke on the hospital bed and looked down at herself, swathed in bandages, she lost every trace of hope that she had somehow entertained. It was over. They had removed her breast. Completely.
Three weeks later, the bandages were removed. That afternoon, standing together in their bedroom, the temple of their lovemaking, they had held each other and wept desperately. He had undressed her, laid her down on the bed and kissed her all over, taking his time, lingering over the flesh on her chest that was halfway raw, yet to finish the process of scarring over. Her body was wet with his kisses, and his tears. She had repeatedly pulled him up and kissed away his tears, herself crying all the while. And he had kissed away her tears. It had seemed that the afternoon of wounded tenderness would never end.
But it had.
He had tried to make love to her. Night after night, he came to her, wishing to somehow heal her inner wounds. But night after night, she had gently pushed him away, because she needed to heal herself first. She needed time to heal and accept herself. She needed time to become whole. She saw the hurt in his eyes each time, but something held her back from satisfactorily addressing that pain.
Ten months? No, not quite ten months had passed since that day in the bathroom. She had learned to wear prosthetics in her bra, which made her look whole. There was no need for outsiders to know anything. As far as they were concerned, the couple had been on a tour of Europe. And she had learned to smile ourwardly… a prosthetic smile, she called it, because it made her soul look whole although it was not.
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Two more months passed. And then again, two. Over a year had passed.
The days seemed to have slowed their progression. Each day seemed somehow empty, joyless. She wondered whether she could have done something to prevent all this. Maybe, if she had not taken all those oral contraceptives? Or maybe, if she hadn’t taken those hormone pills to delay her periods, just so that they wouldn’t coincide with a pooja, a wedding or a family picnic? Maybe… maybe… there was no relief from doubt.
It didn’t help that they had not made love for 14 months. A few times in between, she had tenderly put her hand on him and caressed him, with hands and lips, trying to arouse him. But there was no response from his body. Deep down within her, she knew the reason. Because although he deeply loved her, and tried to hid his true feelings to spare her pain, he had nursed a childhood horror of mutilation ever since his father had lost his arm in a farm threshing machine. The sight of scar tissue was far more than he could stomach.
Whenever he saw her chest, naked or otherwise, something within him shrank in revulsion. Try as he might to hide it with a shower of kisses, his eyes could not lie. And his body could not lie to her.
And something within her began to curl up and die a slow, lingering death.
There were no thoughts in her mind. Only a feeling of not being able to please him any longer. Of not being his woman any longer. And she wondered: if she was not his woman, who was she? What was she?
But their social life went on. Dinners with friends, poojas, picnics… They laughed, they exchanged witty comments on all the things in this world… except the things that really mattered. They often held hands as an estranged couple might — with a memory of their lost camaraderie, and a trace of pity for each other.
One such evening, at their club, she followed the direction of his eyes, and realized that he was gazing at her best friend’s cleavage. At first, there was a flash of her old anger, for she had always been fiercely possessive of her husband. Then the feeling passed, and there was curiosity. Aha! So the man in him was still alive? Did he have an erection at this moment?
Hidden by the tablecloth, her hand caressed his thigh, and reached for his crotch. And she felt the warm, firm cylinder in her fingers that told her everything that she needed to know. He looked at her with guilt and bewilderment in his eyes. For the first time in several months, she gazed into his eyes, into his very soul…
He averted his eyes. But had he not, he would have seen a smile begin in her eyes, and end up as wicked smile on her beautiful lips.
Something changed at that moment. Everything changed. The conversation, which had been going nowhere, acquired a new energy. Before dessert was served, flirtation was in the air. Her feet accidentally rubbed against her friend’s husband’s feet. “Oh, sorry,” she said. “It’s all right,” he said graciously. Before dessert was finished, she said, “Do you mind if I put my feet up on your chair? I’ve ridiculously overeaten, and I desperately need to stretch out and feel comfortable!”
“Oh, perfectly Ok,” he said, giving her feet some room beside him. She met her friend’s eyes with a slow, deliberate look, and found that they were dancing with amusement.
Over the next hour, the two women drove each other’s husband slowly crazy, with a word here, a gentle touch there, an arched eyebrow, a laugh, an implied invitation. It was a game that they had never played, but a game that they instinctively knew… and they played it deftly, keeping the men off balance at every turn of the conversation. When they headed for their cars in the parking lot, she curled her arm around her friend’s husband’s arm, and went home with him in his car. His home.
********* ************** *****************
The next morning, she came home in a taxi. Her friend was still asleep in their bedroom, but her hubby was awake, and opened the door to her.
“Hi.” She gazed into his eyes. He was awkward. “She’s still inside,” he said lamely.
“OK, I’ll go and wake her,” she said cheerily, and started going in. He held her arm and gently restrained her. “No, I’ll do it,” he said in a low voice, anxious not to subject her gratuitously to the sights and smells of their night of passion.
As he began to go inside, it was now her turn to restrain him. “Let her sleep it off,” she said, drawing him by his hand to the sofa. “Knowing you, you must have kept her awake through the night. So tell me, how was it?”
He gazed intently at his smiling wife, looking for traces of irony or anger in her face, and bewildered because there were none. “It was good,” he whispered, anxious to understate his pleasure.
“Hmm? Just good?” she insisted, putting her hand to his cheek to keep him from averting his face. “Ok, it was very good… very, very good! Oh God, I missed you all through the night, but it was very, very good!” Tears welled up in his eyes, and his face twisted in grief, in regret, in gratitude… in a mixture of tender emotions that was impossible to describe.
“She has lovely breasts, doesn’t she? Large, soft, white…” She knew that she was now turning the knife in the wound, and she got a howl of grief in response. He wept bitterly. Burying his face in his wife’s lap, he wept like a child on his mothers lap. And she laughed, though the tears ran down her face, into his hair, which she was ruffling affectionately.
Five minutes later, he had cried himself dry. His face looked wan as he raised his face from her lap. His voice was slightly hollow, with traces of sadness that still lingered, as he said, “Yes, her breasts are lovely. White, and soft, and pleasurable. God, yes. Yes her breasts are lovely.”
And then he gazed into her eyes, as he used to gaze in the old days, and both their hearts leaped as he whispered, “But not as lovely as yours. No, definitely not as lovely as yours. Yours are the best, the loveliest, the most wonderful smelling breasts that I’ve ever kissed. And today, after we drop off your friend to her house, I want you to give me the whole afternoon to let me show you how much I love them.”
He buried his face in her chest and inhaled her fragrance. Nothing, nothing, nothing had changed. Nothing ever could change. Her fragrance was uniquely hers. She was unique, special.