Today’s not a day for cleaning. The disarray—empty beer bottles leftover from last week, piles of unlaundered clothes, an unused yoga mat—reflects an inner lopsidedness. These are all calls for an escape. Luckily, I’ve picked up the habit of mysticism. Palm readers and crystals factor into my weekly routine. There’s a jewelry shop at end of the road in Bengali Market. I hear they’ve got coral. According to lore, it imbues the wearer with blood force and Mars’ fire. It disintegrates dead memory. So I heard.
You ask me what New Delhi looks like. I’m caught off guard—you’re not one to ask questions. I mumble oh, you know, fluorescent lights, fanatics, mangy dogs. The city’s ordinary, chaotic din fills a space that your silence has overwhelmed. For someone so quiet, you make plenty of noise. Your fingers tremble along the expanse of the piano. You, hunched over in your basement studio lined with egg cartons, building melodies. On the level of notes, cells within a body of song. A reverb; a chiming bell; a haunted woman’s vocals. You are stirred by marijuana, Café Bustelo, and American Spirit cigarettes. Smoking and playing until you can’t feel your fingers anymore.
The market is covered in January dust. Clouds of it kicked up by buses and cars coat the bicycles and men parked around. The bottle green door appears like an oasis. In the doorway, I feel the tremor of exporters trying to capture perfection in grams. The shop is the size of a small living room, with gray shag carpet, wooden drawers on every wall from floor to ceiling, reminding me of a library’s card catalog. This modest jewelry shop seems to be a mom ‘n pop operation. Within minutes, I’m inside a drawer, finding faceted, glittering sapphire bits. But I want something old and looked-over.
A man, possessing the air of an owner, is watching me. In his fifties, I decide, and certainly the tallest person in the room. He’s dressed in white, half-moon glasses perched on his nose. Vermillion fingerprint on his third eye.
“How may I help you my dear?” he calls over to me. “Please.” He beckons me into his office, a tiny room next to the shop. He sits at his desk and matching cherry wood chair with ornate scroll-legs. I sit down on a commoner’s fold-up chair. Odd pieces of gold, piles of photos and papers, strewn all over. A microcosm of my mess at home and my room, sans precious metals. A mustached fellow with a gold hoop in his ear and bare feet brings in a tray of chai and biscuits. He doesn’t look at me and mutters, “Thank you sir,” although he’s the one serving the provisions. He shuffles out of the room to climb a ladder. Outside, in the shop, a lady exporter wants a drawer of opals.
“I’m looking for a coral,” I say.
“Have some tea.”
I oblige, and we sip sugary tea silently.
“Can I be quite frank with you?”
“Please,” I say.
“Pearls are better for you. For protection.” He lights a cigarette and offers me one.
I think of things I never tell you. I let you play your unformed tunes. You asked me what New Delhi was like. Here, everywhere, is a fecund city: the hustle, the elite, the impoverished, the thirsty, the fashion boys, the intellectuals, the musical, the yogic, the ayurvedic, the markets, the flyovers, the parties, the dargah, the temples, the food, the ex-pats, the dirty, the hospitals, the mountains, the hash, the youth, 3rd class trains, the dust and the ancient and divine.
The Jeweler and I, chain smoking, drinking cups of milky tea, ignoring other customers. He owned beach huts down in Goa and sold MDMA to Israelis. He’s been married twice, first to an Indian woman who never fucked him, and now, to an Italian, who has gone wild for a younger buck. I just can’t keep up, he tells me.
In my hand, more gifts and talk than you and I have shared in three years in a matter of hours.
He gives me a gnarled branch of red coral that I bury in my jeans pocket. Then, the prize, a silver necklace, fitted with a milky pearl. He stands up to clasp it on my neck. Like the pearl, his fingertips are cool to the touch. He sits back in his chair to admire his taste. He tells me something about you. He says he cannot see you from my words, that you do not truly exist. He says loving without returns is like a parched tongue in the desert. The more time passes, the more you want water.
He asks me questions. Rather, he says, “When you’re hunting. When you bring them home. Tell me what you do to enjoy your meal.”
When there’s bliss in your voice I wonder what she looks like. When there’s a faraway hollow in it, I summon a worthy list of prey. A DJ; a half-French, half Punjabi banker; a tabla player from LA, an Australian teenager, a British food writer, a divorced painter, a masseur who speaks only in Hindi. When we talk, you forget the time difference. Me, getting ready for bed, sprawled on a low-lying mattress, curled into myself like a pencil shaving, waiting for you to speak. You, up and about, ready to start the day, concerned only with calisthenics and oatmeal.
“I’m thirsty,” I croak.
“Yes, I was just thinking you may be,” he says, magically producing a glass of water from under his desk. With the tips of his fingers on my neck, he brings the liquid to my lips. His touch is light.
I drink the whole glass.
Words gone, little jewelry shop to ourselves. We’ve filled up hours, hours worth of cigarettes and gifts and run-on sentences.
He stands up and comes around to my chair, which long ago numbed my bottom. He lifts me up, by my armpits, and I’m so surprised I forget to feel tickled. He deftly unbuttons my shirt. His hands, sweaty and large—and unpleasant—rub my naked chest, sliding up toward my neck. The clasp is weak, and silently I feel the pearl swim down my sternum. His heart meets my cheek, tapping codes upon it. A tiny clink on the floor. His musk. His oldness. His hard on. His eyes closed.
I leave him there, un-deciphered.
I slip on my shirt in the green doorway, thankful it is dark.
You are still asleep, I think, while the auto-rickshaw bumps and rattles. Tin cans on wheels, I tried to explain to you once, and you just laughed at my sense of adventure. My driver hits a speed bump and leers at me in his rear-view mirror, as if to say, Nice ride, na? My knees fly upward. There’s a sharp pain in the crease above my thigh, a jagged twig of coral, forgotten. It is as red as fire, lodged in the denim folds.