"Yes, you can", she replied softly. "See, if you hold me..."
It was an image that would be etched in my memory forever. Vanessa, her chin resting on Stefan's shaved head, which was cradled in her arms, her chocolate-brown eyes encircled with fatigue. Stefan, his eyes scrunched tight, breathing in shallow, ragged gasps. His once-athletic frame was gaunt, his face drawn like an old man's.
And as I watched, a miracle happened. Stefan's face smoothed over, his breath calmed and suddenly, Vanessa's eyes dilated ever so slightly and she bit her lip.
Somehow, I knew.
Looking back now, thinking rationally, I know it could not happen.
But it did. Whatever bonds that tied them were richer than blood, stronger than love, beyond human explanation. She held him there for an eternity and neither of them moved or spoke.
And, looking at her, I couldn't recall her ever being so beautiful.
Her skin was creamy gold, nearly white. I could see the veins standing out blue on the back of her hands, her lips tinged a delicate shell pink. She had the translucent frailty of someone whose physical energy had left her a long time ago, whose only strength was the tremendous spirit that lay behind those quiet brown eyes that had drowned a world of sorrow within them, like bottomless, fathomless wells whose depths were unknown, even to herself. Eyes that comforted, and did not weep.
After a time, I slipped away. I felt inadequate, impure even, to be witnessing something so sublime, something that was beyond my comprehension...as if I had walked into a temple and suddenly realized that I had unwittingly kept my shoes on...
I do not know how long Vanessa remained in that room with Stefan. But at five in the morning I got a call from her.
"Please, Aryan. Can you come?"
* * *
Everyone thought they were a couple. Which was strange, because had that been the case, they couldn't have lasted very long. They fought every five minutes.
But I am forgetting my youthful wisdom. I remember seeing her getting on his bike and riding off into the sunset, leaving me as it looked, in perpetual darkness. I remember her hair streaming, her head tilted back in laughter at one of his dumb (I hoped) jokes, slapping him on the shoulder and saying "Oi".
So that's how they address each other, I thought. Surprisingly, this warmed me to her in a way I had never been by all the honey-bunnies, kiri-panies and sweetie-pies that formed the vocabularies of most of the airheads I knew.
But then, Vanessa was no airhead.
She certainly looked the type- extremely klutzy, extremely giggly and very, very noisy. But there was a difference about her that puzzled me and unsettled me, because it upset my perception of women. It was a lack of artificiality, a genuine niceness that other girls tried so hard to put on. If she laughed at a joke, I soon realized, it was because she found it funny, not because she was trying to flirt.
And she was smart. Man, she was smart. And she was not afraid to show it. Unlike other girls, she did not adopt that façade of naiveté that appealed to most men because it made them feel superior.
Admittedly, it was not the in-your-face, Ms. Einstein type of brains she possessed- but when challenged, she knew exactly how to react. The bigger the challenge, the better she fought. We would spend hours at a time in the college library, debating on every topic in the universe... I invariably took a completely opposing view to hers; sometimes because it was how I actually felt, but mostly because when she argued with me I would forget everything else except the delicious sparkle in those chocolate eyes.
She was smart enough to know when I was goading her- and she accepted the bait with pleasure because she knew I was no match for her. I with my brains, my theories, my A-grades, was no match for her brilliant perception and wit.
Before I knew it myself, I was caught, hook, line and sinker...I don't think it was really her intention but once she realized what had happened she didn't seem to mind, either. We complemented each other, she with her vivacity, me with my silences; her sensitivity to life tempering my rationality; her friendliness and charm melting my defenses.
Having never realized, however, how far I had really ventured into the treacherous jungle of Love, I was shocked to find myself cursing that idiot on the bike and wishing him dead. He was good-looking, no doubt, probably the kind of person Vanessa would fall for- easygoing, teasing, friendly... the sort of person you would expect to find on the cricket field when he should have been reading his notes.
The sort of person, in fact, that I was not.
He was her twin.
They were not particularly close. In school they had different interests, different friends. Vanessa was hopeless at sports; she loved literature and the arts. She was the best debator on the school team, and her house usually won any quiz she participated in. Stefan on the other hand was the typical jock- athlete, cricketer, Games Captain, national swimmer.
Vanessa was rarely interested in boys, although she had more than her share of admirers who simply refused to take "no" for an answer. She preferred the carefree life of singlehood, and in the process broke quite a few hearts. Stefan broke hearts too, but that was because he was unable to stick to one girlfriend for more than a month at best. Vanessa marvelled at how girls could possibly overlook this simple fact- the moment he broke up with their best friends they would rush to the pool or grounds in their shortest shorts and skimpiest tops, roasting in the sun and melting in the rain (weather meant nothing to Stefan when he was at practice!), showing off their sexy figures in all their glory.
Stefan's attitude was generally "the more the merrier", but at times the attention was too much even for him to bear. Vanessa would find herself threatened, bribed and blackmailed into answering the phone and saying, "Oh hi, Erandhi...Stefan has left to Canada...yes, already...you didn't know? I can't imagine how he could possibly have forgotten to tell you..."
But he got her out of scrapes, too. At parties when she was cornered by a love-sick Romeo or a stone-drunk Devdas, he would materialize from nowhere; no matter how high he was or how many girls he was with, he would invariably take her hand and say "Wanna dance?" and lead her to the floor.
And the tactic generally worked. They looked nothing like each other. Unlike Vanessa, Stefan was tanned and his eyes were grey. They were both short, but while Stefan had the biceps and six-pack deserving of a national swimming champion, Vanessa was so tiny she looked as if a gust of wind would blow her away if she happened to walk down Marine Drive.
So the tactic worked, as long as neither of them smiled at the same time. Because when they did, everyone who shook their heads and exclaimed "Twins?” were quick to swallow their words and stare in wonder at the similarity between them.
As was the norm in middle-class Sri Lankan families, Stefan left to UK after completing his A Levels, while Vanessa stayed on at college in Sri Lanka. He was initially interested in sports medicine, but once there he discovered that his true strength lay in people- understanding them, helping them, caring for them.
He went on to specialize in child psychology, working as a sports therapist with autistic children at Oxfam. When he came to Sri Lanka on vacation, Vanessa would take him to refugee camps or border villages on her assignments- by now she was an economic consultant for UNICEF- and it amazed her, how he brought laughter into the bleakest places; how he so effortlessly achieved what others spent a lifetime trying to accomplish. Stefan had such life, such boundless sunshine radiating from him that it warmed the hearts of everyone around. His love of living was infectious.
* * *
She stared at him a long moment, at those smoky
eyes, like live coals, that burned into your soul with their intensity, eyes
that saw beyond, far beyond the veil of human bluff.
The embers were dead now, the eyes blank.
A stranger's eyes.
He had given people the gift of life, and when he left he had taken it back with him. The world felt dead, haunted with a thousand ghosts, mere shadows of the living.
* * *
He was everyone's shoulder to cry on. And when he needed one, it was hers. They rarely told each other their intimate troubles; yet, inexplicably, they knew. When our relationship ended Vanessa was on the verge of suicide; she never told Stefan her intentions, but it was he who boarded the first flight home in time to shake her back to her senses.
By now Vanessa was dating a world-touring wildlife photographer who was half French and half hippie, and blending somewhat into the wildlife herself; I was subsisting on an achcharu of business partners, business clients and my boss's wife. It took another shaking from Stefan before we both decided to eat our pride and get back together.
* * *
When I turned to Vanessa she was seated on the floor, quietly arranging the medical reports. How much easier if she could cry, I thought. I wanted to hold her, comfort her, share her pain.
Oddly, her calmness comforted me.
She had endured her own private hell for the past six years, I knew, and it was so much worse because she had to smile through it all. And, brave girl that she was, she did.
But there were times when she would crack beneath the strain, the pretence, and she would burst out in helpless agony. At first I thought it was the baby she didn't want...and I was terrified that her violence would kill them both.
If I lost the baby I would live, but without Vanessa I would die.
I remember the night she came home late, walking to her room and shutting herself in. I could hear the screams inside...those of a wounded animal, caged, trapped.
It was the longest hour of my life but when I finally got to her and she clung to me, sobbing, I held her close, kissing her, cursing her, telling her to go ahead with the abortion.
But she didn't want an abortion, she wanted Stefan, she wanted him forever but he was dying, he was dying, goddamn it and she couldn't do anything about it...
So what, she said, so what if the world called him a freak and a bastard, so what if their parents hid their pain and their love behind self-righteous accusations... If they hated him, it was because they didn't know him, didn't know him like she did... He was still Stefan, her Stefan and nothing in the world could change that. She was not afraid to love, not afraid to hurt...
It was fear of her hurt that had kept him from telling her the truth, until one day she lashed out at him; he couldn't lie to her and she knew it-
And he had said it quietly, without any bitterness,
"Is it the truth you want to know? I am HIV positive...I am dying, Vanessa..."
He feared her pain; also, he feared her hope. But
surprisingly, she accepted reality almost as calmly as he did. She was with
him, as always, sharing his pain, his laughter, his emotions.
But when she cried it was always alone.
* * *
Each day was bloodier than the last. I prayed that death would come easy to him but I dreaded to tell Vanessa my thoughts. The torture in itself would have been enough to kill me but unfortunately for Stefan, he possessed such miraculous strength I was almost afraid. He was a macabre caricature of a Cyclops, or a Wolverine, cursed with his super-human powers.
"You know, Ari?" he once told me. "If it's a boy this time, tell her to go ahead and call him Stefan. But if it's a girl", he winced, "God help her but if it's another girl, don't ever, ever, let her name her Stefanie. I wouldn't have a niece of mine named after a bimbo!"
And I would vaguely recollect pleasant memories of a blonde with long legs sunning herself by the poolside in Hikkaduwa... and I would laugh, and he would grin, and for an instant I would see Vanessa lying there on the bed, Vanessa with the tubes piercing her body, looking Death in the face and laughing, softly.
* * *
She seemed to sense my presence, because she looked up suddenly. I knelt down to touch her, but something held me back.
I left her there, alone. I climbed the stairs, slowly, my mind absurdly numb. I ought to feel pain, I knew. But I felt a strange emptiness, a nothingness that was almost peace but not quite, almost contentment but not quite.
The bedroom looked the same as it had the night before, but I felt the tension, the apprehension and anticipation of returning home after a long vacation, afraid that things have changed, but they haven't... it is only your mind that needs to re-adjust to the past. It was the same peach satin sheets I abhorred, the same strawberry lipstick smears on the mirror; the same perfumes on the dressing table and the same Burberry handbag hanging behind it...
Taking out the empty bottle I refilled it slowly, upto the brim as Vanessa had done that morning. I was about to replace it on the bathroom shelf but then I changed my mind. I flung it out of the window, and watched as the shower of tiny chocolate-coated pills scattered far and wide. Neither Vanessa nor I had any trouble sleeping...
Stefan, I knew, would not be needing them again.