The Great Affair (II)

This post is the continuation of The Great Affair (I). And no, it is not about marital discord. Also note that these are semi-fictionalized accounts and the characters are composites rather than any person(s) I know.

“ Oh come on, we’re here early. Things will liven up soon,” Tara said looking at the closed shops along the narrow Newport street.

“ Yeah, but I wanted something to eat first,” Chen said, “ And everything is closed.”

“ Well at least I had breakfast,” Tara said smiling.

We glared at her with ill-disguised distaste, the same way starving peasants view fat merchants.

“ Let’s go to the cliff walk first,” Tara said consulting her phone. She started her brisk march again. We followed, but reluctantly. If Tara had been the captain of a pirate ship, she would have had a full blown mutiny on her hands by now, with long bearded buccaneers hatching plans to make her walk the plank. But instead she was leading three docile undergrads who didn’t utter a word.

As we marched along the road, we still hadn’t seen a single person. The eery silence was oppressive and unnatural. The shuttered shops seemed sinister, hiding dark secrets. I was drawing comparisons between some of the horror movies I had seen recently when Chen let out a strangled gasp.

“ What? What?” I asked, looking around, fearing the worst.

The young swain mutely pointed in the direction of some stores.

“ Did you see a ghost?” I asked, clutching his sleeve.

“ No, but there’s a cafe that is open and it says it serves breakfast. Look.”

I turned my gaze to where he was pointing and saw an open diner with a charming blue-and-white canopy. For the first time since leaving Brown I experienced pure and simple joy; the happiness of a weary miner who after years of excavating finally finds gold. Without a word we all charged towards the restaurant. Tara followed behind complaining of lost time. We ignored her and hurried into the diner (Chen, in his haste, tried to go through the window instead of the door).

After a succulent and leisurely breakfast of pancakes and bagels, accompanied by several cups of coffee, we resumed our journey. Tara was silent, re-calibrating the plan to account for the lost time. Following the GPS we criss-crossed through an empty park, ventured into trash-can lined alleys and eventually emerged in front of a granite-facade bank.

“ I thought you were taking us to the bus stop?” Chen said.

“ According to the GPS it is right here,” Tara said, frowning.

“ Well I can’t see the sign,” I said.

“ Yeah, where’s the sign?” Julia asked, rubbing her hands together for warmth.

Just then an old gentleman passed by. Seeing our general haplessness he took pity on us and confirmed that we were indeed at the bus stop. He even told us which bus we should board and in how many minutes it would be arriving. Reassured, we waited at the spot and sure enough a red-and-green RIPTA bus drew up. It ferried us to our destination and shortly we disembarked in front of a large green board that read ‘Newport Cliff Walk’.

“ Well guys, here we are,” Tara said, gesturing with her arms.

“ I can almost smell the ocean,” Chen said sniffing loudly.

I could smell nothing but the Julia’s overpowering perfume but I forbore to mention it.

“ Where’s the ocean though?” I asked, as we walked towards the sign, shielding our eyes from the glare.

Just then the sea came into sight. The dark blue rippling water stretched as far as I could see, gently shimmering in the sun. I was mesmerized. I had seen the ocean before but standing on a cliff at Newport, with the expanse of blue spread out like a giant’s picnic mat, I felt as if I was standing at the very edge of the world. I felt the enormity of the ocean, and by contrast my insignificance. No matter what I did, no matter what we all did, in all our lifetimes, the ocean would not remember, and the salt-spraying waves would continue to crash on the hard rock cliff.

In some ways the thought was comforting (screwing up my Maths midterm seemed much less terrifying) but it also made me ponder, and think about the questions that have plagued philosophers for centuries – who are we, and why are we here? The grandeur of the sea always puts me in a contemplative mood.

The sight of the ocean however, had a different effect on the others.

“ Let’s take selfies guys,” Julia said, pulling out her pink sticker-plastered phone.

The rest acquiesced, contorting their bodies into unnatural poses, and smiling so wide that their facial muscles no doubt ached. I tried to ignore this barbaric behaviour for as long as I could but I was eventually coerced to take pictures of them with the sea just a smudge of blue in the background.

Now, I am no Luddite but sometimes I think smartphones should have been banned by the Geneva convention. They are the interrupters of conversations, the marauders of nature, the anchors to mundanity. And while they might capture memories, they often lose something far more important.

After the photo-shoot was over (“ These are all going on Facebook,” Julia happily proclaimed) we decided to explore the cliff walk. I was eager to renew my acquaintance with nature but I was also slightly hesitant. The cliff walk seemed awfully narrow and I couldn’t help but noticing the rocks below were extremely sharp and pointed (“ The incisors of the ocean,” I thought). Just as I had put my foot on the paved path Julia said, “ Oh no.”

“ What happened?” I asked quickly withdrawing my foot.

“ Part of the cliff walk is broken, look,” she pointed to a sign.

The black and white sign said that a storm had damaged part of the cliff walk and it was closed for repairs.

“ That sounds dangerous.”

“ Oh stop being so scared,” Tara said. “ We’ll just stick to the parts that are OK.”

“ But how will we know where to stop?” I said.

“ They’ll have a sign put up or something,” Tara said. “ Come on, we have to walk the full length.”

She once again set off walking. Once again we followed. However, I was trying to stick as close to the land as I could and every now and then shooting an uneasy glance at the teeth-like rocks. It was probably only my imagination but they seemed to be grinning.

For all my apprehensions the cliff walk was uneventful. Chen wandered into a private property (there are mansions along the walk) and was chased off by an alert guard dog, he managed to escape with his life but his dignity and ankle were severely bruised. Julia unused to the East Coast clime turned a fine shade of blue and started trembling, and Tara was hit by a well-aimed projectile from an airborne seagull. But other than these small mishaps the trek was remarkably peaceful.

“ Isn’t the view gorgeous,” I asked. My fellow travellers all looked up from nursing their ailments, and glared at me but I just turned around and looked at the ocean for a bit longer.

“ Alright guys, the next stop is the museum,” Tara finally announced after she had finished wiping her hair.

Chen gingerly got up with Julia helping him. I reluctantly got up from the bench (several wooden seats are located along the walk). Chen started to hobble painfully towards the end of the path.

“ Hurry up,” Tara said, showing the understanding and sympathy she was famed for.

“ This way,” she said, as we reached to where she was standing, pointing her hand in a vague direction.

“ Are you sure you know the directions?” Julia asked, as we left the cliff walk behind.

“ I don’t but Google does,” Tara said holding up her iPhone.

30 minutes later we discovered there were limits to Google’s knowledge, or so Tara purported. Instead of reaching the main street of Newport, we were wandering among tiny houses with white picket fences.

“ But Google is never wrong,” Chen said, leaning against Julia (who was still shivering), ” You must have messed up the directions.”

Tara bristled, “ If you’re so smart, why don’t you try?”

Chen held out his hand. Tara handed him the phone scowling. Meanwhile I was sitting at the curb massaging my calves. All the walking had begun to take its toll and I was thinking dark thoughts.

Chen stared at the phone, twisted and turned it, and held it close to his eyes. Tara stood with her arms crossed, while Julia had her hands buried in her pockets and was looking like something out of Oliver Twist.

Finally Chen looked up and said,“ Follow me.”

The announcement would have been more impressive if he hadn’t collapsed while trying to walk across the road (Julia had to help him up). Tara followed, a first.

While Chen’s constitution was not what it should have been (the only exercise he got was lifting orgo textbooks) his navigation skills were certainly above par. Within 10 minutes we were at a main thoroughfare.

“ See, simple,” he said handing the phone back to Tara. She stuffed the phone back into her pocket without any comment. It was too bad, I had hoped to see Tara smote Chen a blow or at least some verbal sparring (it would have made up for all the extra miles).

“ Let’s go and see the museum,” I said with something close-to enthusiasm. I like museums. They harmonize with my state of being. Centuries of history collected under one stately roof for the viewing pleasures of a discerning audience. No tramping around on narrow streets and being buffeted by the winds, no danger of being swallowed by the sea. No, museums are a bastion of civilization.

As we were walking towards the museum tragedy befell us. While months have passed since this particular sequence of events, my eyes still moisten at the memory, and Whittier’s saddest words come to mind – it might have been. I will however, try to tell the tale as simply as possible, without prejudice or a further preamble. On the way to the museum, Tara’s eyes fell upon one of the many shop windows that lined the main street. She abruptly stopped and pointed to the store with all the grace of a Roman statue. Such was the power of her stance that we too turned our eyes towards the shop. Chen and I saw nothing special. However, Julia immediately sighted what had captured Tara’s imagination. The magical word ‘sale’ was scrawled boldly across the window.

This mystical ancient word when invoked has an irresistible allure to certain people (I thankfully am not one of them) and draws them to a shop faster than honey attracts bees. The fact that the shop was dilapidated and had nothing worth purchase was secondary to the urgency of the Pavlovian reaction. Chen and I were left with no choice but to follow. Julia and Tara were busy questioning the shopkeeper by the time we entered the antique shop. The bespectacled owner astonished by this sudden influx of customers had begun to talk excitedly. I found a seat (that looked like an ‘antique’ itself) to watch from the side-lines.

Here I must confess that negligence on my part has resulted in the loss of the exact details of Tara & Julia’s Great Shopping Adventure for posterity. I tried my hardest to stay awake but soon I was yawning so wide that a passing dentist could probably have conducted a cursory examination in between yawns. Boredom soon shut my eyes, and around the same time as my customary afternoon siesta, I fell asleep albeit in an uncomfortable creaking chair instead of my bed.

What seemed only moments later, but was actually an hour by the clock, I was woken by Tara’s bullhorn voice.

“ Well at least, the day wasn’t wasted.”

I opened my eyes and saw Tara and Julia decked in shopping bags.

“ Did you purchase the entire shop?” I asked.

“ Haha funny,” Tara said,” We didn’t even have time to look around properly because Chen kept complaining.”

I shot Chen a grateful glance. He was holding several bags as well – bearing would perhaps be the mot juste; Julia had hoisted her purchases on him.

“ OK, can we go to the museum now?” I said.

“ Later, I’m hungry,” Tara said, ” Let’s find a place to eat.”

So we set out in search for a restaurant. We found several, they were spacious and well appointed, with tantalizing names and promises of distant and delicious cuisines. They were also all closed.

“ What’s up with this place?” Julia asked after we had been wandering for half-an-hour, “ Do all the restaurants shut down in winter or something.”

“ No, it’s Sunday so most of Newport is closed,” Tara said.

“ Then why did we plan this trip today?” I asked.

“ Because tomorrow I had to meet with Taylor for skydiving, and the day after me and Lauren have planned a biking trip, then I have to go to Boston with Josh….”

“ I get it, I get it,” I said holding up my hands.

“ Oh look that Thai place is open. It looks good,” Chen said, pointing to a small shop with a wooden interior.

“ But it’s deserted,” Tara said.

“ So?” I asked.

“ So a place the locals don’t frequent must be bad.”

“ What crazy logic is that?” Chen asked, removing his arm from around Julia.

“ Listen, don’t argue. I took Intro to Anthropology*,” Tara said as if that explained everything.

We walked in silence for a while.

“ Oh, look, let’s go there,” Tara said pointing to a restaurant that had a neon sign in the shape of a milkshake.

“ But even that doesn’t have any customers,” Chen said.

“ Who cares, I like milkshakes,” Tara marched in. Julia and I walked in too. Chen stood for a long time in the middle of the street, looking longingly in the direction of the Thai restaurant, before finally entering.

We placed our orders and sat down at a table. Conversation was fragmented. Julia and Chen were whispering between themselves. I was busy communing with God (“ Why do you try me so?”). And Tara was talking loudly, under the misapprehension that we were all listening.

When our food arrived, we realized that there was some wisdom in Tara’s maxim. The reasons no locals bothered with this restaurant became apparent immediately. My pizza had taken a strange and misshapen shape and so resembled prehistoric flint that I considered gifting it to Brown’s archaeology museum. Chen’s sandwich was soggy and slowly disintegrating like a decaying monument. Julia’s salad appeared to be composed entirely of decomposing vegetables, it would have made fine manure in a few days but was certainly not fit for human consumption.

“ The food is disgusting,” Chen said taking a tentative bite from his sandwich.

“ This milkshake is delicious,” Tara said slurping loudly.

After our meal (during which few words were exchanged) we ventured back into the Newport streets. The wind was still chilly but the sun was shining now and breathing back warmth into us.

“ Can we go to the museum now?” I asked, discreetly discarding the pizza in a dumpster.

“ It’s too late for that,” Tara said scrolling through her phone.

“ What?”

“ Yeah, there’s a bus to Providence in 25 minutes. And paying for the ticket is not worth it for such a short time.”

“ Can’t we take a later bus?” I said, pulling out my phone to look at the time.

“ No because if we don’t catch that one, there won’t be another till 7 PM. And I need to be back before that. I’m having dinner with Jake.”

“ So what are we going to do for the half-an-hour?” I asked.

Tara checked her phone, “ I don’t know, we did everything on my checklist.”

“ I know,” Julia spoke up.

We all looked at her.

“ Look there’s a pier there. Let’s take some more photos.”

I inwardly groaned.

As we walked onto the pier it wobbled dangerously under our weight.

“ Is this thing safe?” I said.

“ Even if it isn’t what’s the worst that can happen?” Tara asked.

“ We drown and die,” I thought but refrained from mentioning this.

“ OK, this is perfect for a photo,” Tara said looking around at the pale blue water surrounding us.

I brushed back my hair and fixed my collar. One has to look suave and collected for such occasions.

“ Here Tushar you take the photo,” Tara said handing me her iPhone.

I stopped preening myself, “ But then I won’t be in the photo.”

“ Take a selfie then.”

“ No, never,” I said shuddering at the thought.

Tara, Chen and Julia stood at the end of the pier smiling. I took a photo, and held out the phone.

“ Wait, stay there,” Tara said. They shuffled around and adopted another nonchalant attitude.

I took another photo.

“ Now come slightly closer, yeah OK, take one from there,” Tara instructed.

After 30 assorted photos, I was beginning to feel weak standing in the sun. Tara too had become tired but Chen and Julia were just getting started. They intent on documenting this truncated-trip thoroughly and some of the poses they struck were so nauseating that I had to close my eyes and haphazardly stab my thumb on the screen to take the photo.

“ Come on guys, its time to get back to the bus stop,” Tara said from the shade.

As we walked back to the bus stand: Chen still limping, Julia still shivering, and Tara still strutting, I couldn’t help but feel dissatisfied. The trip, the promise of adventure had ended sooner than it had begun. We had seen so little and spent so much time taking photos for an unseen audience. I felt cheated, like the child who turns the last page of the fairytale, and finds no ending.

The bus was on time. We boarded it. I settled back in the hard plastic seat, and fell into fitful sleep. When I woke up we were back in Providence. We walked up the hill in silence and parted our ways at the Main Green with mumbled “byes”. I walked to my dorm and took the elevator to the fourth floor. As I walked by Will’s room I noticed the door was ajar.

“ Will?” I asked poking my head into the room.

Will wasn’t there but I noticed a streak of orange, it was Pepe the goldfish practising aquatic acrobatics in his glassbowl.

“ Oh hi Pepe,” I said. Pepe swam to the side of the fishbowl I was closer to.

“ You know what I saw today?” I said, looking over my shoulders to make sure no one was watching me converse with a fish.

Pepe wriggled and resumed moving around restlessly.

I leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “ There’s an ocean out there Pepe, a big endless ocean, lying there, just waiting for us. And you know, maybe…maybe someday they’ll let us stare.”

Pepe stopped swimming, and floated languidly towards the edge of the bowl; and just for that second, for that tiny moment between the ticks, I thought he understood.

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