ONE OF THE TOP THREE ENTRIES OF BOUND’S VALENTINES’S DAY SHORT STORY CONTEST 

When he walked into my bedroom, he brought in the scent of the sea.

By the time the song ends, This Charming Man will leave.

But right now, he is in bed with me, his body, like mine, naked under the heap of blankets. The bed is not so much a bed. It’s just a stack of cheap cotton mattresses piled atop each other, sheets tucked into the corners neatly. It is a pretence bed, a semblance of a bed. And This Charming Man is in it with me, playing a song on his phone I don’t know the words to.

He asked me to guess his favourite Tom Waits song. I guessed the wrong one, named the only one I knew. He laughed his hoarse, gravelly laugh that was enough to tell me I was wrong. But I liked hearing him laugh his full-bodied laugh that could take people by surprise. There was some comfort right there, in his laughter.

*

When he walked into my bedroom, he brought in the scent of the sea. Crisp, sharp, fresh, a touch of salt on the tongue-tip. It wasn’t  a sea I knew. It evoked azure skies and turquoise waters and the money that buys it. Maybe it is a sea his travels took him to–he is the wanderer amongst us.

He replaced the air in the room with this sea-scent. Where there was the putrid scent of old laundry and cigarettes there was now his exotic scent. Today, as he sat down on the pile of mattresses I call a bed and stretched out his legs out on the floor, he brought that sea-I’ve-never-seen to my bedroom.

The room was not This Charming Man’s usual habitat. His shiny shoes against the dusty floor set the tone for this incongruity. There was very little I put into this bedroom by way of personal effects. All my belongings still fit into one red suitcase and the only extra baggage I carry as I move from city to city, looking to put down my roots somewhere is a peeling carton-full of books. This carton was pushed against a corner of this room; it had stayed there for the last three months, expecting to see some sunlight indefinitely. The only other piece of furniture in this room, besides the built-in closet I inherited, was an inflatable couch. The bubblegum blue air-filled sofa was stained with coffee and ghosts of takeaway-dinners straight from the containers. The couch was a deliberate addition to the room—I thought it would indicate I am open to having company over. But all it did was mock me and my failed attempts at trying to live as an adult. This Charming Man, with his shiny shoes and starched pinstriped shirt and perfectly creased pants, found it amusing, the slightest twitch of his half-amused smile, the only expression on his blank face. It made me aware of the fluorescent-lit stains of my failure, displayed like an art exhibit for his private viewing.

A Charming Man is usually older, a lot older than you, and that is part of the charm.

‘I’m sorry,’ I mumbled.

‘What for?’ he asked.

‘For this mess,’ I replied.

He let out a monosyllable, a single ‘hah’ released in that sparsely-furnished room, and took my hand into his. It looked so tiny, so fragile against his sturdy palm. He laced his fingers into mine and the diminutiveness was emphasised further, like his palm could just absorb mine and leave no trace of me if he wanted to. In that moment, I was glad the door was shut. That monosyllabic hah was still floating around this room.

*

It was my idea to bring out the cheap wine, left over from Christmas eve, and pour it into two water glasses. The weight of this decision comes rushing to me now as the song plays in the background. I feel a throbbing headache coming on that can only be blamed on the cheap wine. It was my decision to drink wine after we spent the evening chugging beer, my decision to mix grape and grain despite all the clichés that warn otherwise. It was my decision to then drunkenly slur these clichés out loud. Beer after wine, you’ll be fine, I said, but wine after beer… what happens when you drink wine after beer?

*

I needed a mentor, I needed This Charming Man as my mentor.

Here is the anatomy of A Charming Man:

A Charming Man is usually older, a lot older than you, and that is part of the charm. He is in his late thirties or early forties and he doesn’t make an attempt to hide his age. He knows this is exactly what works to his advantage. That and his position of power. A Charming Man is a man of the world, well-connected, and always in a position of power. A Charming Man is not much of a looker, he is shorter than most, a bit heavyset and has un-special features. He could be a stock character in a low-ratings TV show but he is not. A Charming Man has what most gym rats your age don’t, he has gravitas. He measures his words with a teaspoon and only uses them to add flavour to an otherwise bland conversation. At work, he is decisive, affirmative and distant. He shows up when he wants to, takes a smoke break every 30 minutes and leaves without so much as saying goodbye or looking back. A Charming Man never smiles at you when you see him in the pantry but you always say a breathy hi. If he looks at you, you consider the acknowledgement with hope.

A Charming Man is married and his partner is equally (if not more) accomplished. They are a power couple in the suffocatingly-closed Lutyens Delhi circle. They spend their evenings hobnobbing with media tycoons, art gallerists, publishers and the likes. He and his partner make a charming couple, together a unit of power to be reckoned with, even if begrudgingly so. They throw dinner parties in marble-floored rooms and bring out the wine they got back from their trip to France earlier this summer. Their dinner guests are accomplished, the noteable monde who always have industry gossip and outrageous stories to share. They won’t admit it but the dinner parties are specifically thrown for this purpose, the Lutyens Circle feeds off its gossip.

*

I’d been working with the magazine for six months when I was told This Charming Man would be my boss. He had a hard-to-ignore reputation about him, so when I found out I was to work in his department, I was unnerved. This Charming Man was hardly the accessible boss one hopes to work with, and like it or not, the boss maketh the job. The first month was spent tailing him around from meeting to meeting, learning the ropes by observing how he made his connections and spending a good part of taxi rides in awkward silence.

It was only when I was assigned a task I thought I was completely inept at that I decided to shed my meek skin and ask him questions. He stopped typing, turned around and looked at me with curious amusement. That was when I knew why he was The Charming Man, I’d fallen for his charm.

*

This Charming Man has undeniable clout. Every business meeting we went together to, we were greeted with a kind of  reverence that is usually reserved for patron. I didn’t fully grasp his job specifics to understand why and how he had come to earn this level of influence – the gossip around Lutyens was he was an outsider who had worked his way up. Now he was that indispensable cell without which the Lutyens circuit would disconnect. I didn’t have the skills, he told me, but I had the ambition, and if I followed his advice, I might possibly be able to break into the industry. This Charming Man offered to be my mentor, a godfather-like figure who would help me make my career. I lapped up every word, every piece of advice he had to offer hungrily. I needed a mentor, I needed This Charming Man as my mentor.

*

Rumor around the office was This Charming man had a brief dalliance with the sub editor. Hushed words about how they were sleeping together and how this was the reason for her resignation from the company filled up the lunch room. I kept my silence and punctuated these conversations with well-timed hmms to come across as interested despite its feigned nature. Truth was, and my best attempts at denial could not refute it, I had developed a crush on This Charming Man. This banter around me had a sting to it I could not justify to myself.

*

Here’s a list of reasons that make you fall for A Charming Man:

  • He has undeniable charm. It might not be genuine but it’s hard to resist. That’s how he got to his place of power. And you admire power.
  • He gains your trust. In not-so-many-words he makes you believe he’s got your back, he’s a sounding board, a friend, a support system you didn’t think you need.
  • He tells you he’ll guide you, he’ll be your mentor. You have ambition and he knows this. He tells you he wants to cultivate this, that your professional development is his pet project. You are willing to believe it.
  • You don’t know why but you are physically attracted to him. Maybe it’s his gravitas, maybe you are just curious to know what it would be like to sleep with him. He’s married so you stop yourself, you eliminate that thought from your head–or at least put it on a back burner.

*

The song stops abruptly and his phone begins to buzz.

He answers it, replies in monosyllables and ends the call.

One particularly arduous business meeting in Gurgaon made me exclaim how badly I needed a drink. Let’s get one, he suggested. We got into his car and he drove us to his favourite bar in that part of the town – a dimly lit pub that played Miles Davis and served Scotch. He ordered two Balvenie on ice, didn’t stop to ask if I wanted that, and lit his Gold Flake, completely disregarding the ‘No Smoking’ sign behind him. I was a gin drinker, whisky never really sat well with me. But I went along with it.

‘So, tell me,’ he said, as he exhaled a ribbon of smoke, ‘how is work treating you?’

‘It’s fine,’ I replied.

The waiter placed a glass in front of me and I clutched it before the other hit the table.

This Charming Man gave me his twisted ghost of a smile.

‘It’s not fine,’ he said ‘I can see you struggle.’

I took a gulp of the amber liquid, a little too quickly for my own good and felt it slide down my oesophagus searingly. I felt attacked by his accusation.

‘I’m not struggling,’ I retorted, ‘I’m just…overwhelmed by the workload.’

He said nothing as he twirled the ice in his glass. I watched his movements. That’s what I was supposed to do, let the ice dissolve a bit. As if to make a point I took a big gulp again.

‘You know what your problem is?’ he said as he shifted around in his seat,  ‘You want to do everything yourself. You think the onus of it is on you. It’s like you’re trying to prove yourself, your worth to someone. Are you trying to prove yourself to me?’

I had nothing to say to this so I gulped down my drink and ordered another one, this time neat. The look of mild amusement never left his face as he slowly sipped his drink.

That night, he said I was too drunk to make it to my house so I could crash at his place. We got into the car and he started driving but stopped near a grocery store.

‘Why are we stopping here?’ I asked.

‘I have to run an errand,’ he said and got out of the car.

When he came back, he was armed with two large grocery bags. He opened the back door and set the bags on the seat. I turned around to take a peek. There were bottles of wine and some cheese. Dinner party contents his wife must have asked him to get.

*

The song stops abruptly and his phone begins to buzz. He answers it, replies in monosyllables and ends the call. The song starts playing again but he’s off the mattress-bed now and I can hear his belt-buckle rattle. As the closing notes of the song fade he declares he has to go. I try to say ‘stay’ but the word is stuck in my throat. So I silently watch his shiny shoes move out of the room. I hope he closes the door behind him.

Also Read: Cooking for One

Dyuti Mishra is a writer and editor from Bangalore. She has been a journalist for over a decade and has been published by The Hindu, Vogue, GQ, Conde Nast Traveller, Femina etc. Her short fiction has appeared in Helter Skelter, The Bombay Review, and Juggernaut Books.