Footsteps

He gets off the Green Line at Kenmore. As he climbs the stairs up Commonwealth Avenue, he wonders what Inbound and Outbound means. He’s been meaning to google that since he first noticed them this September. He takes his navy blue glove off his right hand to google. Nope, too cold- will do it later. He puts his glove back on. He hopes he remembers about it when he’s inside.

As he walks past Campus Convenience, he starts thinking about how beautiful winter in Boston is. It was snowing since yesterday night and it finally came to a stop only around an hour ago. The streets look white with a mix of snow and salt. He loves the fluffy, dusty feel on his boots, not a big fan of the sound of squeezing snow beneath though.

While his friends cannot stop complaining about how cold it gets, he was really excited to finally live in a place where it snows when he read the email that he’d been accepted to MIT’s physics department for a semester abroad. It was four in the morning, he hadn’t set an alarm or anything, he had just woke up. As he opened his laptop, his heart had started racing and he had started to feel sick. He was warm, he was shaking. After reading the email, he’d quietly gotten out of his apartment to go on a walk.

He notices an orange brick building with Yawkey Center for Student Services written on it. Shabnam had given him a brief tour of BU last month but he’d failed to notice the name on that building before. He wonders how much donation had Yawkey probably given to BU for that. He wonders if any building will ever be named after him.

As he turns over to Bay State Road, he notices a middle-aged man shoveling snow from the walkway in front of his house. He thinks about his mother brooming the section of the street right in front of their house. He doesn’t feel right about that.

The man looks up and greets him, “How you doing?”

“Pretty good. What about you?”

“I’m good too. Cold day, ain’t it?”

“Yes it is.”

He climbs up the stairs to the door and rings the bell. There’s a plaque with “MIT Student House” written on the heavy door. Why would anyone name a house “Student House”? It feels like a placeholder more than an actual name. Maybe it’s the whole meta thing like naming a bar “The Bar”. As he looks around, he notices an old man, probably in his eighties in a heavy coat, a blue Red Sox cap and a cane walking very slowly along the rails of the Vedanta Society. He stops and takes out a cigarette. He wonders what he’d be like when he’s that age. Shabnam had told him last time that the man is a Professor Emeritus at BU. It’s so tragic that people have to go through all that she had said. As he was contemplating about his parents approaching that age fast, he hadn’t said anything.

“Hey! Come on over,” a short girl, probably around five feet with blue, shiny, round eyes opens the door. She has a black sweater and blue jeans on.

“It’s brutal outside, isn’t it? It’s probably like five degrees.”

As he mentally converts that to Celsius, he notices that Shabnam’s dark black hair is now shorter than his, barely reaching her shoulder. He’d liked it better when it was longer.

“Yeah, but doesn’t it look so beautiful outside?”

“Yes it does. But the cold makes it not worth it.”

“You know, I like the winter here more than the fall. When it’s cold outside, it feels like someone just removed a blanket out of you. You feel so open, so relaxed, more comfortable, like you’re closer to life and to who you are more than you’ve ever been. It’s almost like you’ve opened up to a new part of yourself.” he notices that she has tiny DNA earrings hanging from her ears.

“Did you just say comfortable?”, she giggles.

Shabnam came to the US when she was nine. Her parents had won a Diversity Immigrant Visa lottery and so had migrated to US back in the mid-nineties. A lottery suddenly changed everyone’s life- her dad became a librarian from a History Professor over a period of weeks. When she asked him why he sacrificed his career to come to America, he smiled and said, “For you chhori.” As she hugged her dad, she thought she’d never be able to do something like that for her kids.

“Pratikshya will be here shortly. Abhi is downstairs in the kitchen. We’re making mashyaura.”

Shabnam was an undergraduate at MIT; a CS major in her senior year. She came to MIT wanting to do Material Science. I want to research graphene she’d told everyone during orientation. As her freshman year went by joking about how she’d be able to buy herself a nice car if she had a dollar for every “course-6” she met, she’d become one of those herself. Lately she’s been struggling to keep up her GPA. She works incredibly hard but she wants to go to grad school and her GPA “isn’t up to par for graduate work” her advisor had said.

As they step down a narrow, rickety, wooden stairs to the kitchen, Kabir notices a familiar smell in the air- the sweet smell of onions being fried with chilies, cinnamon, cardamom and clove. He misses eating Nepali food. Pratikshya had once tried to teach him how to cook but after having to order pizza because he burned dinner multiple times, she’d given up. He misses the elaborate dinners she used to cook every night. Everyday, he looked forward to the end of the day so that he could go home and sit down and talk to her about all kinds of trivia nobody but they cared about over rice and goat curry.

There’s a small rectangular table by the window, laminated with a bluish green Formica that’s already come off around the edges. There’s a huge shelf across the door. It amuses Kabir to see them being meticulously labelled as “Studs Breakfast”, “Studs Condiments” and probably half a dozen more categories. What kind of house call themselves Studs? But then again, Student House to Studs isn’t that big of a leap.

“Hey Kabir, what’s up?” Abhi asks in his deep husky voice. Kabir’s always been envious of his voice- his sounds so shrill that it feels almost like a woman’s. Abhi and Pratikshya had tried hard to convince him that his voice was just fine but he believed that they were just trying to make him feel good.

Abhi had a big build. He was almost six feet tall- enormous for a Nepali. He always trimmed his hair as short as possible, his beard always longer than his hair. He was doing computer science too.

“Nothing much. What about you? How’s everything?”

“Kabir just said that he feels more comfortable in the winter,” Pratikshya interrupts the conversation.

“Yeah, he’s always been like this. Even back in Kathmandu, as the temperature fell to lower thirties, he’d never stop talking about how awesome it’d be if it snowed. I’m sure Boston must be heaven for him.”

Kabir, Abhi and Pratikshya had been friends since high school. They used to work on their Further Math homework problems together. They had an IM thread called “The Curious Kittens” where they sent each other math problems to work on. Pratikshya often joked about learning more math from that thread than from her professors but that might even be true- there was at least one problem each day to work on. Since Kabir and Pratikshya broke up four months ago, there hasn’t been a single message.

“Hey, how’s Madeline?”

Madeline was Kabir’s girlfriend. She was also a grad student in physics just like him. She was from Minnesota; when she’d asked him if he’d heard of it, he’d replied, “Of course. Marshall is from Minnesota.” They met in a Statistical Mechanics class where Kabir struggled for almost an entire semester before finally asking her out. He took her to a small Vietnamese place off Mass Ave.

As they took their seats, he complimented her, “You look really pretty.” He felt really awkward.

“Thanks! You look good too.”

After a couple of seconds that seemed like an eternity, he finally broke the silence.
“So, how was your weekend? Did anything fun?”

“I saw a movie. It was called The Fountain. Have you seen it?”

“Oh yes. I loved it. It was a little tough to understand at first but I watched it again after reading about it on the Internet and … oh, it was such a piece of art.”

“I agree. It was wonderful. Hugh Jackman was outstanding. I love watching Aronofsky’s movies. They’re so full of passion and meaning and they always make a point in this subtle way that’s so peculiar to Aronofsky. Have you seen A Requiem for a Dream?

“Of course I have. That was disturbing. I generally like to research movies over the Internet before watching them. Of course I don’t read the plots but I read a lot of reviews, from critics, from general people. And there was this guy at IMDB who had written how this film was such a psychological torture. After the movie ended, I couldn’t find better words to describe it.”

“Wait, so you didn’t like it?”

“No. Of course I liked it. I loved it. Sure it was a psychological torture but it was like … the kind of torture that you want to experience once in a while. I mean, it’s disturbing. It was very very disturbing. I was shaking for like ten minutes afterwards and just couldn’t stop thinking about it. You know towards the end, where Ellen Burstyn’s character, what’s her name…”

“Umm, Sarah. I think it’s Sarah.”

“Yeah, Sarah. You know, at the end, there’s this scene where Sarah’s friends come to see her at the hospital and after seeing her, there’s this scene where they just hug each other and start crying … oh man … that was so powerful. I start shivering every time I think about that scene.”, he was actually shivering as he said this.

“I know, right? And you know, the background score on that part is like so perfect. Exactly what the scene needs. And then right at the end, where they show where their addiction, of those three I mean, ultimately led them to, when Sarah is on her bed and still dreaming about being on that TV show, winning the grand prize and basically, just being there with his son and the music gets louder and the credits just start rolling abruptly. I was like that’s some fucked up shit. I just lied there, motionless, the credits rolling while I couldn’t think of anything. It was probably like twenty minutes or so that I finally stood up. God, that was one hell of a movie. Not that it’s related but it kind of reminds me of this part in Infinite Jest where…. wait, have you read Infinite Jest?”

“I have. I think you mean the conversation between the psychiatrist and the girl on suicide watch.”

“She’s alright. She’s at her parent’s home for the break.”

An electric bell interrupts their conversation. Kabir wanted to build an electric bell when he was in college. It was a simple middle-school project for most people yet as the metal strip failed to vibrate even after working on it for two days, Kabir had finally given up. See this is why I want to do theoretical and not experimental physics. I fail to make something even as basic as this work out. As Kabir tried to reconnect the wire to the switch for the last time, Pratikshya leaned in from across the table and kissed him on his forehead. He missed those kisses. When they had arguments, she’d suddenly stop talking and kiss him on the forehead. That always resolved things- either she apologized after kissing or he did. He missed her.

“That must be Pratikshya. I’ll get her,” Shabnam heads towards the kitchen door.

Kabir and Pratikshya had been in a relationship since their sophomore year. They both had very similar interests- both loved working on intense math and physics problems, both loved having endless discussion about things nobody else cared about. After pulling two all-nighters in a row trying to model the transmission of Wi-Fi signal in their apartment so that they can find the optimum position to place their router, they’d discovered that it was already in the optimum position.

“Dude, how long has it been since you last met Pratikshya? Is it going to be awkward?”

Is it going to be awkward? I don’t know, he thinks to himself. They’d broken up four months ago. They didn’t have a fight, nobody had cheated, nothing had happened. A random August evening, he came home to Sandheko Chicken, and Aaloo Kerau curry; two food he loved the most. As they were eating, she suddenly stopped, put her forks down and, came and kneeled down on both her knees. He got confused and a little nervous. Is she about to propose me to marry her? Don’t guys usually do that? They’d joked about how it wouldn’t be too surprising if she had to propose him considering how shy he was even with her. Still, he wanted to do propose her not the other way round. He wanted to do something grand, something romantic, something that would take her breath away, something that would give awws as he tells his kids the story of how he met their mother years later. But not now. He wasn’t ready yet. He had no plans of getting married whatsoever before getting out of grad school. They’d talked about this countless times before and so he wasn’t sure why she was doing it already.

She reached for his hands and held them tight. Her hands felt warm and smooth.

“Something’s not working out, I think we should end this,” she was gently rubbing his hands.

“What? What? Wait wait wait. What? What do you mean?”

“This relationship. Something’s not right.”

“What? Why? What happened? What’s wrong? Did I do something Pratikshya? I’m sorry if something I did hurt you. I really am.”

“No. No. No. It’s not you Kabir. No. It’s me. It’s me. I love you. I still do. But I feel like we’re in a stage where something has to change and this relationship cannot keep going.”

“But why? If nothing’s wrong, why do you want to leave me?”

Later that week, Pratikshya had moved out.

“I don’t know man. It might be a little weird but I’ll be fine. We used to be just friends before we got in a relationship, remember? How’s your research going? Natural language processing, right?”

“It’s going pretty well. We’re working on integrating a bunch of different algorithms to take Wikipedia pages about stuff and make it able to answer questions about that particular thing. The kind of stuff to use in things like Siri, Cortana.”

“That’s cool man. Good luck.”

“Thanks! It’s a real bummer that we’ll be here for a couple of months more only. How’s your research going?”

“It’s okay I guess. I’ve been working on a bunch of different solutions to Einstein’s field equation to study how two neutron stars behave when they collapse into each other. It’s fun though.”

“Sort of like the Schwarzschild metric except for collapsing neutron stars?”

“Yep.”

One reason Kabir enjoyed Abhi and Pratikshya’s company so much was that they all spoke the same language. One could just start discussing about something cool they learned in lecture that day and nobody would feel lost. They all knew pretty well about each others fields and so discussing about any of them felt very natural. He remembers admitting to Pratikshya how she intimidated him. She was doing pure math and he’d shown him an xkcd comic about the purity of fields asking her if she thought what he did was inferior.

“Hey guys.”

Kabir turns around. She’s on maroon pants and a black overcoat that barely covers her knees. She has a brownish black hair hanging just over her shoulders. Her hair right above the forehead is shorter than the rest- she always parts them slightly to the right making it look slightly like she had bangs except at an angle. It’s called a shaggy hairstyle she’d told him when he’d asked her about her new haircut last summer.

“Hi! How are you?” He wants to say how beautiful she looks but resists.

“I’m good,” she hugs Kabir and Abhi.

“Good to see you Pratikshya. There, grab a chair.”

As Pratikshya, Kabir and Shabnam all sit down around the formica table, Shabnam notices that Kabir has socks of two different colors on.

“You have two different socks on,” Shabnam enquires.

Pratikshya chuckles. No one but Kabir notices.

“Oh I’m just too lazy to pair them up after doing laundry.”

Pratikshya knew that wasn’t true. Kabir’s obsessive nature wouldn’t allow him to keep his socks all unpaired. He wore different colors for the same reason why he’d have to kiss her on both the cheeks or else the symmetry of the universe would be broken. She’s always thought of his quirks like that to be cute, to be what defines him. He crossed his leg like he was sitting when he slept, did every single problem-set in reverse order.

“I can understand”, Shabnam teasingly says to Kabir. “By the way, did anyone do anything interesting this weekend?”

“I went to see The Judge. Oh by the way, did you guys know that there’s an awesome Nepali restaurant called Masala in Somerville. We went there after the movie and it was really fun. The food was fabulous and the best of all, all the servers are Nepali so it almost feels like being in a nice Durbar Marga restaurant in Kathmandu,” Pratikshya responds.

“How was it? The movie I mean,” Kabir asks.

“I liked it. You know, now I feel like I always gave Robert Downey Jr. much less credit than he deserves. It might be because I’d only watched the Iron Man movies and Zodiac before this and none of them demand great acting. I mean they’re just not those type of films. But, he’s phenomenal in this one. Probably one of the best performance I’ve seen this year.”

Kabir knew what movies meant to her. She probably had watched over three thousand movies by now. He also liked watching movies but she was definitely crazy about them. She wrote a web app to make a list of all the films she’d watched so that it’d give all the details about the total time she had spent, average duration, average IMDB rating, most common actor, director, etc. He’d watched over twenty days worth of movies and she had over four hundred.

He really liked that he shared his interest on movies with Madeline too. They’d spend hours on the couch watching Netflix together. Since she went home for Christmas a week ago, he’s been missing watching Scrubs with her. They’d fought right before she left about him not joining her. She had wanted him to meet her parents and spend the break at her parents’ house with her. He had said he just wasn’t ready yet.

“Guys, dinner’s ready. Let’s take all this upstairs. That table will be a little small for us,” Abhi declares.

Kabir and Pratikshya’s eyes briefly meet as they get up. It is weird Kabir thinks.

They carry all the food to the dining hall in the second floor. It is a huge room, huge at least compared to the kitchen. It has enormous floor to ceiling windows and you can clearly see the dorm row buildings right across the Charles. There is a pool table that looks like someone left an ongoing game immediately after the sliding wooden doors. They put the pans on a long narrow table by the window.

As they settle down to their chairs, Pratikshya realizes that she’s sitting right across Kabir.

“By the way, how’s your niece doing Kabir? How old is she now?” Abhi asks.

“She’s incredible,” there’s a sudden enthusiasm in his voice. “She turned one this August and she’s already walking now. She called me Mama yesterday. Can you believe that?”

Kabir’s life revolves almost completely around his niece these days. He’s been spending hours every day Skyping with his sister and niece who tends to take her mother’s iPhone for food. When she had a little fever last month, he’d called over fifty times over a period of two days to check on how she was doing.

After breaking up with Pratikshya, Kabir was broken. He’d decided to spend a couple of weeks at his sister’s home so that his niece would distract him away from Pratikshya. As he grew closer to her, he just wanted to be with his niece all the time.

“Pratikshya, you’re flushing. Are you alright?” Abhi’s voice suddenly interrupts Kabir rambling about his niece.

Kabir turns to her and notices that she is staring at his plate.
“Oh nothing. Maybe it’s because of the huge temperature gradient as I came inside. You know it’s so cold outside today.”

Kabir doesn’t believe her. Something definitely looks wrong. He can always spot when she’s hiding something.

Abhi keeps pressing Pratikshya, “Are you sure you’re alright? Have you recovered from the complications?”

“What complications?”

Pratikshya’s eyes turn towards Abhi and she gives him a dirty look.

“What complications?” Kabir repeats.

“Oh nothing. I just had an upset stomach. Nothing serious.”

“Come on Pratikshya. You really think I’ll buy that?”

Pratikshya got sick a lot. Two years back she’d started getting sudden, sharp pain in her chest. After seeing a cardiologist over a dozen times, he’d said that everything looked normal yet she should avoid intense physical activities just in case. Last winter, she had to be taken to the emergency room because she started getting sudden pain in her lower right abdomen as they were having dinner. After the doctor had diagnosed that her lymph nodes were swollen because of a viral infection in her stomach, he was allowed to see her. As he cried in her arms next to her bed, she’d said in her calm gentle voice, “Heyyy,  don’t worry, I’ll be just fine. You just heard the doctor said it’s nothing to worry about. I promise I’m never going to leave you. I’ll always be here for you. Trust me, I will. Stop crying please. Please Kabir. I’m fine.” She’d also started crying when he hadn’t stopped.

After a silence of a few seconds, Kabir repeats, louder this time, “I’m asking what complications?”

Abhi and Shabnam get up from their chairs and slowly leave the room.

“I’m so sorry, I thought he knew,” Abhi whispers to Pratichhya as they pass her.

“I told you, it’s nothing. Really, it’s nothing. Just a minor stomach ache, that’s it.”

Kabir pushes their plates away and grabs her hands in his. It feels weird to hold her hands like this now.

“Pratikshya, please tell me what’s going on. Please. You know, I lov- I mean care about you. Please tell me what complications. Pratikshya, please. Please”, he sounds desperate.

“How many times do I need to repeat it Kabir? It’s just a damn stomach ache. Can’t you hear me?” she seems annoyed already.

“Yeah right”, he was almost whispering by now. “I believe that. Why do you always do this to me Pratikshya? You broke up with me and didn’t even tell me why?” This was the first time they’d acknowledged that they were in a relationship since they’d broken up. “I didn’t keep pressing because I trusted you. I thought maybe something’s up. But not now. You’re going to tell me what’s wrong with you. And you’re going to tell me now.”

“You really want to know?” she’s almost screaming by now. Her eyes are slightly watery. “You really want to know?”

“Fine. I was pregnant this summer. With your baby. I was pregnant and I had an abortion. Because I’m too small and I took too long to decide, there were some complications and so I keep passing out. That’s what’s wrong with me. I was about to have your baby but didn’t. That’s what’s wrong with me.”

Kabir’s ears suddenly gets red and hot, as if his heart suddenly decided to pump all his blood there. He collapses to his chairs. He cannot process what she’d just said.

“You were pregnant?” he repeats more to himself than to her.

“Yes. I was. I was pregnant.”, Pratikshya’s already crying by now. “I didn’t want you to ever know that our daughter was growing inside me. I knew it’d kill you to find out. She was our daughter. Our. She was our daughter.”

“I had a daugher? I had a daughter growing inside you and you killed her?” he throws her hands away. He feels disgusted by her. He feels nauseated.

“You killed our daughter Pratikshya. You killed her. You killed her. You killed our daughter. You killed her. You killed her.”

“I’m sorry Kabir,” she grabs his hands. “I really am. You weren’t ready for a child. I wasn’t ready. Neither of us were ready for a child then.”

He leans back to his chair and stays motionless for several minutes. He takes his phone out and texts Madeline,

“I’m coming over to Minnesota tomorrow.”

He looks outside the big glass windows. There’s no traffic on Storrow Drive and beyond the road, over in the Esplanade, he notices giant footsteps slowly fading into the emptiness of the dull, white snow.

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