by M.L. Sawyer
Ebook ISBN: 07615-02455
[ Comedic Romance, MF ]
On a train tour through the Indian countryside, she meets Nirav, a kind and charismatic India native who teaches Mara, whom he affectionately calls Anusha, about culture, passion, and love.
“Uninspired.” The word jumped off the page and punched me squarely in the jaw. I read on: “Ms. Loughlin starts off well, but struggles almost the entire rest of the album. I found myself hitting Next after only ten or twenty seconds into each track. There was nothing remarkable, interesting or relatable here. Perhaps it’s time for Mara Loughlin to think about a different career path.”
Shit. My trembling hands crumpled the paper slowly as if they didn’t want to accept what was said. I pressed the ball in my fist hard to my forehead before releasing it to the floor. Done.
But I couldn’t disagree with the review. Or the two before this one. The album was a disaster. I knew it as I released it into the hungry hands of the critics.
“Uninspired.” It was uninspired.
I wasn’t really tired of the work itself. But still, I was tired.
It was like I had used up every idea, every combination of notes, melodies and words. I had racked my brain with every song, trying to figure out where I had heard this song before. Who had I unknowingly plagiarized? Had I written this already?
The same rhymes and meters were just shifted around into different patterns. Nothing new… just rearranged.
Maybe I hadn’t been at my best. Since Mark left six months ago, I’d been pushing along when all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and stay there forever. I’d stopped eating and grew thinner. I would forgo makeup on most days, and my long, dark hair was locked in a permanent ponytail.
Mark was not the love of my life. But I did love him. I think my depression came from a deep place of feeling like a failure. One relationship after the next, and each more explosive and painful than the last. My therapist told me, “You need to figure out what each of your relationships has in common.” But all I had come up with so far was… Me.
My cell phone vibrated violently as if to startle me out of my self-pity. My head lay defeated on my desk as I pushed the phone to my free ear and offered a muffled, “Hello.”
“Hellooooo! Whatchya doing?” Ahhh… the ever cheerful Christine. Note to self: find some new, depressed friends immediately.
With my cheek smooshed against the cheap, fake oak desk, I reluctantly responded. “Thinking about putting my head in the oven.”
“Hmmm… yes, I read the review. But you have an electric oven, sweetie, so unless you have forty minutes or so to spend on it, suicide via oven doesn’t seem very efficient. Why don’t you come out with me to the Indian Pride festival? There’ll be food and mu –”
“Chris, if you say music, I swear to God I’ll start preheating the oven and basting my head right now. I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stay here and be pathetic. If you were really my friend, you would allow me to do that. You would also stop by with booze of some kind.”
“Nope. No can do, Sunshine. I’m going to come get you in an hour. Be ready. Then, we can discuss the booze.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Yes. I can come pick you up, or I can call the County Mental Health Crisis Center and have you committed. See you in an hour.” Click.
Punctual as always, Christine arrived looking polished with her neat, auburn bob and olive green button down wool coat. I had never seen this woman in sweatpants or without makeup.
“Jesus Christ, Mara, you look like hell. I understand you’re upset, but for God’s sake run a comb through your hair,” Christine said, rolling her eyes.
I smoothed the front of my gray sweatshirt with my hands and gave a sarcastic demi twirl while posing for an invisible camera.
“What’s the matter? No good? Is this a formal outdoor festival?”
With a deep sigh, Christine gave a resigned, “All right. Let’s go.”
Outside, the sun was setting and the sky burned its sad orangey good night into my eyes. I slid my sunglasses onto my face and climbed into the car. As soon as she turned the key, the radio blared, and I slapped the button off with super speed. I resumed staring out the window.
Christine let out an exasperated breath, rolling her lips like a motorboat.
I did have to admit that the drive there (wherever “there” was going to end up being) was a pretty one. A combination of city lights and thick trees landscaped the horizon.
I loved the way the last house you see before cities changed to suburbs looked. I always made it a point to notice the color of that last one before I started to see grass.
Then there were cows. I laughed to myself and hoped Christine wouldn’t ask me what I was laughing at because I honestly didn’t know. Slumped down in my seat, I just wanted everything to be silent. I was grateful that she seemed to understand this and said nothing.
The muscular, blond Mark popped into my head, and I spent some time talking to him silently. “How have you been?” I said, averting my eyes nonchalantly to the Mark inside my brain.
”I’ve been a mess, Mara. I didn’t know what I was doing when I left you.” Imaginary Mark looked me up and down in desperate longing. ”And might I add how amazing you look. You’ve lost so much weight, yet your boobs are so much bigger!” His bright blue eyes looked defeated as I waved him away in my daydream.
I laughed out loud again.
This time Christine did not respect the depressive silence I so desperately needed.
“What? What is your problem? You just keep staring out the window and giggling, Mara. It’s creepy… What?”
“Sorry. I was just laughing because I’ve lost all that weight and my boobs are nice and he can’t take it.”
Christine looked confused and deeply worried.
“Mark… But ‘brain-Mark’… You know?” I said tapping my temple with my index finger.
Her face gentle and kind, she said, “I know.”
* * *
The Indian Pride Festival was inexplicably being held at an Episcopalian church. We pulled into the dirt parking lot. “We’re here!”
“So I see.”
“Listen, you, can you at least try to have a good time?”
Because I adored it when Christine said, “Listen, you,” I got out of the car, pushed my sunglasses to the top of my head and took a deep breath. Something smelled very good, and I was suddenly ravenous.
There were vendors set up everywhere. Steam from food stations filled the air. I felt warm, and a sort of peace came over me.
The setting sun made way for the lights of lanterns, flickering candles, and glowing embers of incense that lined the perimeter of the lot, like roads of earthbound stars.
Women stood by their jewelry stands, entire tables glistening gold, as they chatted away making ting, ting, ting sounds with their bracelets as they gesticulated. They spoke quickly, the sounds rolling from their mouths despite the fact that they didn’t seem to open them very wide at all.
The language sounded like an ocean, cool and restless. Seemingly effortless. I could fall in love with that sound and listen to it forever.
Another sound caught my attention. The deep bass of some exotic drum. Fascinated, I looked around trying to pinpoint the sound that seemed to be coming from everywhere at once.
Christine put her hand on my shoulder. “Let’s grab some food and go listen.”
Before I could tell her that I had no idea what to eat, she presented me with a flat, fried bread and a thick, yellowish drink in a plastic cup.
“Naan and mango Lassi. You’ll like it.”
Agreeably, I took the bread and the drink, only looking for a split second so as not to take my eyes off the sound I was so desperately trying to “see.”
We wandered about and followed some girls, noses pierced and dressed in red and gold shirts with matching pants, over to the musicians.
There were three. Two men played tabla drums and a woman plucked a sitar.
I stood, mesmerized by the sound. Sad and joyful at the same time. It sounded ancient. Written in a musical language that the gods themselves spoke.
The deep bass, the sharp ring of the outer rim of the drum. The sitar was weeping, and the woman sang it to comfort.
If the universe had a sound, that would have been it.
Tears welled up inside me, and I stood there and cried.
Apparently, a crying woman in a gray sweatshirt (stained with mango Lassi no less) holding a limp piece of Naan, was not so unusual a sight to the other people, because a few turned and smiled at me.
One woman offered me a napkin, which I gratefully took and wiped my eyes.
I breathed so deeply, that I realized how long I had been holding my breath as it hit me sharply in the chest.
I felt like all the words I had been trying to write… to put to music and sing… were completely irrelevant.
That was what I had been trying to say. That music was exactly what I had been feeling. There were no words, just the vocalizations of the beautiful middle-aged woman with glossy black hair, singing back to her sitar.
As she sang, she fixed her eyes on the audience that gathered and looked as if she was imparting wisdom to the crowd. Secrets sent out into the air, waiting to be breathed in by all of us. By me.
Without a recognizable cue, the musicians changed tempo and rhythm. The drummers shifted seamlessly into another pattern, and without missing a beat, the sitarist followed, her focus now on the men.
It’s difficult to explain how I was processing what I was hearing. It was sexy. But sexy in a most divine way. I blushed a little when I thought it, but they all looked like they were in love. Not with each other, but with something.
Something that I couldn’t possibly understand because that was who they were. That was their life. They played for love, for gods and goddesses, for their heritage. They were not bound to the “Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus” formula. There must have been some structure, but it was indiscernible to me. The men in their flowing white shirts sang harmonies in increments I would never have thought of putting together. Strange combinations of notes that I had never heard before.
How could I have called myself a musician and a writer all this time when I was obviously so very limited?
I was jealous and upset that I had let labels, critics, and twenty-something “A&R” phonies tell me all that time what made a great song. “No more than a ten second intro. Get to the chorus in under forty seconds. Make the song no longer than three minutes and thirty seconds.”
Had I settled for being a songwriter only, when I wanted to be an artist?
Christine had been watching me quietly and suddenly aware of it, I felt embarrassed.
“Hi,” I replied.
That night I slept better than I had in a very long time.
* * *
I dreamed I was walking along the side of a mountain. Rain had accumulated in pockets of the deep rolling green of the land and I was walking not through it, but on top of it.
The puddles appeared to get deeper and deeper until they became a small lake. And still I walked on top of it, the bottoms of my pants barely touching the wetness.
As I walked, I could no longer maintain myself above the water and my shoes became wet. As the lake deepened, I began to sink.
From the distance I saw a man with golden brown skin waving at me with much agitation.
“Ma’am! You are not supposed to be there, ma’am!”
Feeling embarrassed, I could only give a small, apologetic wave back as if to say, “Okay… I will be gone in a moment.”
The water rose up to my knees, then quickly, my waist. Freezing cold, I shivered and tried desperately to appear as if I was not being rude, but simply trying to hurry out of the water.
It rose up to my chest and neck. My lips kissed the surface as I braced to drown.
I spied three snakes coming toward me from left, right, and straight ahead. I did not fear them and called out, “Can you help me?”
The snakes stopped only inches from my face and lifted their heads skyward.
I lifted mine to look. The sky was churning, the clouds weaving in and out of themselves against a deep red sky.
The clouds parted to reveal a large palace. Golden and frightening in the sky, it seemed to be slightly rotating.
My eyes were blinded by the lake water. The snakes whispered to me as I went down, “Come and see… Mara, come and see.”
With one arm stretched above the water, my flattened palm begged them to help me.
Everything darkened and all I could see was the slight green of the murky water as the palace light shone down.
Suddenly I was propelled by a force that seemed to come from within myself. I went racing to the surface of the lake. I felt a warm hand on mine, and my body tingled with electricity as I found the golden brown man lifting me up out of the darkness.
I collapsed against his chest and cried as if I’d just emerged from the womb.
* * *
The next morning I woke up feeling like I had been sleeping for years.
I was always tired. Always. I could wake up at six am and go right back to sleep at eight. The perpetual bags under my wide set green eyes gave testimony to that. I required coffee intravenously if I ever wanted to stay awake past nine pm. My grandmother used to say that I was born an old woman.
But that morning, I woke up rested. I quickly realized the foolishness of analyzing why I felt good and stopped immediately.
Out of bed, I pulled back the curtains and let a little sun in. I was immediately shocked by the state of my apartment. Dust particles flew around like angry little nymphs. Dirty clothes mixed in with clean ones, both so crumpled, washing them all again would have been easier than sorting them out. What seemed like a mountain of shredded paper and used tissues created a moat of sadness around my desk.
It suddenly occurred to me that I’d been in pretty bad shape.
I navigated my way around the clutter and headed toward the kitchen to make coffee. The coffee pot, despite my ritualistic use of it, was covered in a fine layer of dust. I popped open the lid to find a wet coffee filter growing what might have possibly been the cure for the common cold on top of some old coffee grounds.
I decided this might be a good time to practice leaving the house. Like normal people do.
Out of respect for Christine, I decided to forgo the old gray sweatshirt and opted for an actual jacket. I tied my hair back, planted glasses on my face, and took a quick look in the mirror to admire the newly normal me. Just a girl in a blue jacket and ponytail heading out for her morning coffee and a newspaper. Nothing out of the norm to see here, folks.
Out onto the street I went. Confused for a moment about where to go despite living here for five years I followed the people in suits.
Ahhhh… Starbucks. Nice.
As I waited in line, a beautiful woman in an Indian kurta, jeans, and about 50 sparkling bangles smiled at me when she caught me staring. Caught off guard and feeling stupid, I apologized. “I’m sorry. I was at the Indian festival last night and I’ve become a bit enamored with the culture. Your bracelets are beautiful.”
“Well, then,” she offered. “You must take a trip to India someday. Perhaps you had a past life there.”
Attempting to tear myself away from her buttery accent, I smiled and said, “Yeah, maybe someday I will go.”
I froze. The words ricocheted back at me the moment I spoke them.
I could go to India. I could just get on a plane and go to India.
Stupid. How could I go to India? I don’t even know where I’d stay. I don’t know anything about India.
Was it safe for a woman to travel alone there?
How would I know the money, or the transportation system, or what a cab ride should cost?
I couldn’t go to India.
The wiser Mara, who did her hair and makeup and had her shit together, spoke in my brain. But there are people who book trips for people touring a country, idiot. Get a travel agent.
Yes! A travel agent.
“Ma’am, are you ready to order?”
I woke from my reverie to see a line of angry faces, now late for work, waiting for the mental patient in the blue jacket to order her coffee.
I headed home, and for the next twelve hours, I scoured the Internet, reading everything I possibly could about India and researching travel agents.
I scrolled through endless pictures, and because of the sheer abusing I’d done it, I donated $25 to Wikipedia before deciding on a destination: Mumbai. I said the word over and over because it felt good on the lips. I whispered the word, “Mumbai” putting an emphasis on the M and the B. Lovely.
With a quick phone call to a local travel agent, I started compiling everything I would need to travel. Thank God for my credit cards (and my extreme cheapness, which meant I still had money left on them) and the passport I had purchased in the hopes of becoming very famous and needing to go on a whirlwind world tour.
So, when did I want to leave?
I could go when winter set in, or when spring arrived. Or, I could wait until summer to see how hot it really got there.
I had nothing here to wait for. Mark was gone. I had no career and no prospects. I had no family since they disowned me for my “manic” life choices. I didn’t have pets. I didn’t even have a plant that needed me to stay.
I could go… now.
* * *
“What do you mean you’re going to India?” Chris sounded frantic.
“It’s going to be good for me. Really, Chris, I think I need to do this.” I tried to sound reassuring, but was probably just as scared as she was.
“By yourself? If you can hold off ‘til the spring, I’ll go with you, Mara. But this sounds a little impulsive.”
I laughed. “You say that like it’s a bad thing. I’ll be okay by myself. The travel agent booked me with some tour group so I won’t really be alone. And I’ll be taking an Indian rail tour for some of the time. I’ll be fine.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“I’m not sure. As long as it takes, I guess. I’m starting with a couple of weeks, though. I can’t explain it, Chris. It’s like that night at the festival woke me up. It’s not like I wasn’t aware of India before, but I had a narrow view of it. The ‘they eat a lot of curry’ view. But that was it. I feel like I’m missing out on parts of the world that have been making history for thousands of years. The U.S. is only a couple of hundred years old and sometimes we forget that this isn’t all here is, you know? I’ve never been anywhere, really.”
Chris sighed deeply. I knew she was worried. It made me love her even more than I already did.
“I’m gonna miss you, girl.” She sounded resigned.
“I’m gonna miss you too. But I’m bringing my laptop, and I promise to bring you back something fantastic.”