She sat at the window of the bus, gripping her bag firmly in her lap. It was a cool October evening and the leaves fell soundlessly around as the bus rolled along towards Porvorim. But Laxmi gazed at the passing scenery on her right with unseeing indifference. What intrigued her was the man seated to her left. He seemed to be in his thirties, neatly dressed in a short sleeved shirt and jeans, with his hands casually resting on his thighs.
The barren rocks of Porvorim with its ugly nouveau-riche buildings streamed past her window, with an occasional old house putting up a defiant show of dignity.
She looked sideways at his hands and noticed the curly black hair on his forearm and the veins on the back of his hand. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Her inhaling had pushed her shoulders deeper into his side and she flushed all over.
She wondered who he was, Hindu or Christian, married or unmarried. There was no ring on his finger, but nowadays many married men didn't wear one. Was he salaried or into business? A salary would keep life steady, business brought risks.
She was bound for Mapusa, like most of the passengers on the bus. At Mapusa, her maternal aunt awaited her with another of her endless marriage proposals. Of late, getting her married seemed to be Sheela-tai's sole mission in life.
What right did anyone have to force an arranged marriage on her, she grumbled silently. She could break this inevitable pattern of her life. Why, she could even talk to this stranger sitting next to her right now and take control of her life. She would talk to him, they would converse. He would then invite her for tea at the Mapusa bus stand. They would meet again, fall in love, get married and have children. He would be her choice, their love affair would be her adventure. Then someday they would travel by bus together like this and she would fall asleep with her head resting on his gently rocking shoulder.
But which girl would initiate a conversation with a strange man in a bus! Shameless! What would he think! But why not? She was a modern, broadminded girl. Dressed in a skirt and blouse as against the sari that her mother had advised her to wear!
Maybe an interesting magazine she was reading might have sparked his interest, but she had no magazine, not even a newspaper with her.
Talk to me, talk to me, she began to mentally urge him, say something, anything! But his eyes kept travelling idly outside the window and back inside the bus. He too seemed lost in thought. Thinking of his wife and kids? Work? Girlfriend? She had to ask him if he was married. How! Within ten minutes, before reaching Mapusa and the waiting Sheela-tai? Relax, she could ask him the next time they met. But what if they never met again? His deodorant smelt heady. Laxmi inhaled deeply. Her shoulders dug into his side again and she blushed at the increased contact.
She was prone to fantasy like this. The art teacher at school, her cousin Pundalik from Shiroda, even Shirish, the young bhat who performed puja at their place, she had had torrid affairs with them all, in her mind. It didn't matter that she had never exchanged more than a few words with them. The imaginary liaisons were exhausting enough.
She decided she would ask him a casual question. 'Do you know where Pharma Labs is located in Mapusa?' But when? Now? Yes, now, she decided to ask the question five seconds from now. She looked at her watch, 5..4..3..2..1. She turned around to him and mumbled, 'Excuse me….' But she choked the rest off as he had turned to the bus conductor to pay his fare. She fumbled in her bag and paid her own. He hadn't heard her.
She had lost her nerve now. She lapsed back to curious wondering. Would he like her? Was she likeable? Her clothes, her speech, her smile, were they good? Did people like her? If they did, why did they?
He hadn't moved any closer, but Laxmi was intensely aware of the side of his thigh touching hers. Her skirt and skin felt warmer, and she shifted slightly to relieve the heat.
Shameless girl! Going to see a prospective match and lusting after a stranger in the bus! She was skeptical of Sheela-tai's matches. Those fellows always fell short. One was handsome, but a Mama's boy. Another was good looking and rich, but kept making sniffing sounds every five seconds. She had timed him. And then there was the goldsmith whose ears bloomed with hair and whose eyes were constantly fixed six inches below her chin.
Maybe if she were not happy in her marriage, she would have an affair with a man like the one seated to her left. Stop! Stop! Shameless bitch! The more she tried to rein in her imagination, the more perverse it became. Her mind filled with thoughts of straddling him in his seat, pulling his face into her breasts and kissing the top of his head.
In desperation she suddenly turned around to him again and said 'Hi!' At that very moment the bus horn blared and her courageous greeting was drowned out. He had begun dozing lightly. She turned back to the window, red and furious with herself.
She had tired herself with these bouts of fantasy and began dozing off. Her nodding head slowly slumped to rest against the man's shoulder. She remained asleep in that position as the bus wound its way through the suburbs of Mapusa.
The man sat still, slightly dozing himself. He dared not move for fear of waking the sleeping girl at his shoulder. But as the bus entered Mapusa bus stand, he gently nudged her awake.
'We've reached,' he half whispered to her.
He collected his newspaper from the overhead rack and headed for the door. The meeting was fixed for five thirty, in just another ten minutes. He would have to take a rickshaw, he thought. He had detailed directions, but his mother had said to just ask for Sheela-tai's house near Pharma Labs.
The bus almost emptied out and some passengers headed off walking towards the market while others moved toward the rickshaw stand. Laxmi sat alone for a while, sleepily gazing through the window at the bustling people outside, wondering whether to alight or to take the same bus back to Panjim.