Valerie sat on the edge of the bed staring blankly at the ants swarming around the broken pieces of cookies. The ants were carrying the pieces double their size and going back through where they came from. She envied the ants who worked hand in hand. She hoped people could do the same too and not rely on others for each and everything, small or big.
The door suddenly opened and in came Robert,
‘What the heck have you been doing? I’ve been calling you. Why didn’t you pick up the phone? and what are you doing watching these ants instead of cleaning it up?’
Slowly she looked up and realised that she had left her phone in the laundry room. She got up and walked past her husband. Robert looked at her in anger but she remained indifferent. She would have retorted if it were a year back. But things were different now. She was different now.
Valerie and Robert had been married for over a decade now. Not a day passed by when she was not picked on by her husband. It wasn’t always like this. Things were better. Things were so much better.
Valerie went straight into the kitchen where she had put some eggs on the stove to boil. She turned off the stove and saw that all the water had evaporated. She had two very hard boiled eggs. Robert always went out early and used to have lunch outside. They didn’t have any helper and she didn’t have time to cook lunch for herself. She always cooked some rice in the cooker and ate it with boiled eggs or omelette or made kichchri and had it with aachar. Sometimes it was just the previous night’s left overs.
Robert had followed her to the kitchen.
‘Why are you acting like this? What are you trying to prove? I called you a hundred times to tell you that my friends will be coming over for dinner.’ Throwing some thousand rupee notes on the table, he went on, ‘Take this money, get what you’ll need and make sure you make a good meal. And yes, don’t you dare make a long face during dinner. And please get some good goddamn clothes to wear.’ He storms out of the house, slams his car door and speeds away.
As soon as she put a morsel in her mouth she heard her infant son cry. His sleeping hours had become shorter as he grew older. With the bowl of rice in her hands, she goes to their bedroom. She calms him down and starts feeding him and eats her lunch with her left hand. Her mornings, when her sons were sleeping, was for cleaning the house, washing clothes, making breakfast for Robert, then getting their three year old son ready for school, dropping him to school which was just a few metres away from home and taking a quick shower after all the work was done. It had been ages since she took a long shower. dress ups and make ups were now things of the past. She didn’t even have time to sit and have breakfast. She always ate with her baby in one hand. Her breast milk production was so low that she had to start feeding the baby formula when he was just one and a half months old. Her husband was always out. He never helped. He’d go out early in the morning and return only late at night. Even saturdays and sundays were not for family. They were for friends. Exhausted, rest and sleep deprived, life had turned into hell for Valerie.
She looked out the window and gazed at the unpruned, untended garden which once used to be her pride. Gardening was her passion or we can say it was once her passion. She used to spend hours and hours in her garden tending her flowers, and even talking to them. The garden which used to be filled with hybrid blossoms now only had wild flowers but they blossomed in abundance. They were beautiful in their own way and it seemed as if the garden was trying to live up to her as they realised now how and why their nurse was unable to tend them. The garden was still her pride even in its wilderness. Her spirits lit up when she saw butterflies sitting on her dahlias growing wildly. The savage wilderness had for her become synonymous with liberty and the butterflies with the pursuit of one’s dreams. She sought solace in nature and felt complete only in its midst. Bees and butterflies flocked around her wild flowers. Her garden was the only piece of green left in their locality and only blocks of concrete could be seen for miles and miles away. It had become a haven for the insects, birds, and sometimes even lovers who would steal some moments behind the overgrown shrubs. Valerie still believed in love and beauty only because her garden was evidence enough for them.
She withdrew from the window and realised it was almost time to pick up her son Bryan from school. But first she’d have to do some shopping for the evening. She hurriedly got into her shirts and jeans, brushed her disheveled cropped hair, applied babylips and stared into the mirror. She was still beautiful but stress and depression had taken its toll on her. There were darks circles around her eyes and some freckles and pregnancy mask unevenly spread on her cheeks and nose. Fine lines had also started to appear. She knew she’d look twice her age if she were to suffer like this for two or more years. Staring at herself, she started pitying herself. But she had to go now. No time for self pity. Her nose glistened, so she dabbed some powder and dashed out of the house with her baby in the pram and with the money Robert had given her.
Shopping done. Bryan picked up. Now she headed for home. It was becoming more and more difficult handling both the kids and housework. She wondered how she’d manage when she would have to join her office after three months. Daycare was the only option left for both the kids.
It was 6:00 pm. Robert and his colleagues would be home anytime soon. Valerie, with dishevelled hair, stained apron and messy kitchen was still juggling with the kids and dinner preparation. She was tensed because she knew she would not be able to finish cooking, cleaning or bathing.
At 9:00, the doorbell rang. Valerie, now in her blue blouson dress, opened the door, giving a broad yet sweet smile. She had just finished her chores and tucked the children to bed. She was glad they came late. Robert looked up. He gave a crooked smile.
‘Hellooo Mrs. You look lovely!!’
He had been drinking. His friends too. They still had two whisky bottles with them. Valerie’s smile faded. Anyhow, she welcomed them.
Robert and his friends continued with their drinks. Val wasn’t expecting such a thing. She served them some fried chicken and french fries.
It was almost midnight. Robert and his friends were still drinking. The volume of their voices increased with the passing of time. Val was starting to feel sleepy, irritated and frustrated. Physically and mentally exhausted, sleep was taking her over. ‘When are they going to have food’ she said to herself.
Just then, she heard her infant son cry. She goes to the room, feeds him and instantly fell asleep.
The rays of the sun hit her eyes. She realises how she had fallen asleep and she jumps out of bed and heads straight to the sitting room. There she sees her husband in an inebriated state scrawled on the floor like a spider. His friends were gone and were most probably in the same state as him. She cleared the glasses and plates, cleaned up the sofa and the table, and finally woke up Robert who slugged to the bathroom. As Val cleaned up the mess after him, her rage grew and grew, but she tried to remain calm.
Robert now came out of the bathroom fuming. Val tried to act calm. She tried not to look up.
“You didn’t even serve dinner for my friends!”
“How could I? You all were still drinking away.”
“You were not there. How could you even go to bed when there are guest at home? It’s not done! Don’t even try to justify your actions.”
Val kept quiet. She had fallen asleep. Yes she couldn’t justify it.
After cleaning up and laying down breakfast along with an aspirin for Robert on the table, she went to do the laundry. She frisked Robert’s pockets and felt a box like thing. When she took it out, she couldn’t believe her eyes. A packet of condom, one already used! It was more than she could take. She went out with it to confront him but he had already left. He had taken the aspirin but didn’t even have breakfast.
She had never expected him to do such a thing. Her mind raced back to the past. He used to come late almost every night. She had always thought it was work, but now knew what the real work was. She remembered how a few months back, he had sores. Is he having an affair with someone? Or is he visiting prostitutes?
Then her eyes caught his phone lying on the ground near the sofa. He never allowed her to look at his phone. She picked it up and tried drawing patterns to unlock. She finally unlocked it and went through his messages. There were some messages from unsaved numbers which just texted the time and place. Then she went to the photo gallery. There it was! All there! Pictures of him with naked women. Different women. That was it! That was the end. She kept the phone on the table, along with his trousers and the packet of condom, and a note .
She hurriedly packed her bags, woke up Bryan, fed him and carrying her infant son waited for a taxi. Just then Robert came back home for his phone.
He asked her, “What’s this? Where do you think you’re going?”
“Anywhere life takes me, but never again with you.”
She waved a taxi, got on it and never looked back.
Robert couldn’t believe his eyes. He went inside the house. The house was in a mess. It had always been clean, neat and tidy in spite of having kids around. His breakfast was still on the table. As he glanced around, he now began to realise his mistakes. He had always taken her for granted.
Then he saw his phone, his trousers, the packet and the note saying “have fun with your bitches.”
That was the moment of truth.
Valerie was free at last. She had never felt so liberated as she did now. She felt like those birds and butterflies in her garden. She was going to miss her garden but with her sweet little angels life would be beautiful anywhere. Tears rolled down her cheeks yet she smiled. She cried because her little ones wouldn’t have a figure to call papa. But she was not the only one out there. There were many more such women raising their kids alone. Strong women. And she was one.