Published in La.Lit on 4 September 2020

About Nothing

Some days are charged. Have you ever noticed a certain kind of current in the air?

I got pulled out of bed one late November morning and drawn into the kitchen. The sky was overcast and gray but I didn’t feel the cold. I cut through the air, as if made of iron. After a cup of coffee, I got on my bicycle and rode down Kupondole Marg. It was early, not even seven. I wake up early but I don’t usually go to the gym in the morning.

But that morning was different.

On the treadmill, I watched myself in the mirror, rivulets of sweat dripping down my neck, heading towards my collar bones. One granola bar, that’s all I’ve eaten, I thought as I ran. I have this thing with workouts. Late afternoons or evenings are better, I’ve told myself, because I am sustained by the day’s meals. I imagine fresh, nutritious molecules flowing through my veins, easily accessed for energy. In the morning, somehow, it takes more effort. Don’t glucose particles convert into complex carbohydrates overnight?

In any case, whenever I’ve tried running in the morning, I get tired more easily. But that day, I didn’t have trouble running, even breezing through ninety seconds at my highest speed. What was providing the fuel? Later, inside the sauna, swaddled in heat, I imagined pores opening up all over my body, letting out more sweat, more toxins. I listened to the men chatter. “Careful how much water you throw down there,” someone said. “Yesterday, there was smoke. We all ran out.”

It still hadn’t struck me. I hadn’t noticed anything peculiar really. Even when my flatmate – back in the apartment – appeared in the doorway, a hand over his stomach, I didn’t make much of it. He wasn’t feeling well, he said, and went back to bed.

I sat on the balcony, soaking up the sun. It got too warm too fast so I went back inside and reached for my cellphone. But the screen was white, a few vertical lines sizzling instead of the date and time. It didn’t respond to regular commands. I took the batteries out and slipped them back in. But the screen did not wake up. I plugged the phone to the charger, but still no luck. It had died.

I scrambled around for a couple of hours, investigating options for a replacement, and finally settled on a cheap model at a neighbourhood shop. Relieved and a bit worn out, I fell back onto bed. The mission had been successful but I had lost every single one of my contacts.

That was sudden, I thought, closing my eyes, needing some rest. I could hear my flatmate stepping out of his room, heading to the toilet. I heard him retch. Twice, thrice.

I stretched my limbs and muscles. Was it pleasure or pain? I couldn’t quite tell. Lazy, relaxed, I fished out an old smartphone which still allowed me to go online. I punched in a message. To someone who had entered my life a few months ago. We had not met each other in person but there was a certain kind of affinity that bound us. I received a reply, in the form of a smile. Then a naked chest. “Imagine me gently kissing your navel,” I wrote back.

Words and photos flowed back and forth, across a great distance, but quick as lightning. There we were, both of us lying on our beds, hundreds of kilometres away from each other, making graphic love. Finished, I considered the rest of the day. A friend was going to come by to brainstorm ideas for a project but he sent a Facebook message, cancelling.

Instead, the new phone buzzed. It was a message from another friend in the neighbourhood, inviting me to spend time with her children. I jumped up, slipped into jeans and walked through the alleys of Patan. The evening hour was upon us. Jingles and bells, voices and laughter rose above the streets.

The friend worked from home sometimes; she was wrapping up her day. Upstairs, the children were with the babysitter. The boy was cheerful but the little girl was in a bad mood. She cried.

Darkness descended but I was distracted by the children’s sounds. We sat around the dining room table, pre-school homework assignments spread out in front of us.

The little boy had to draw twelve candles. On a different page, he had to write out Nepali alphabets that matched the teacher’s pictures. Meanwhile, their father arrived from work. He offered me a glass of wine and went to get the bottle. But somehow the cork got stuck. He wasn’t able to push it down into the bottle, nor pull it back up. The little girl was in a better mood, colouring, chattering away. Her brother continued to form his letters. The dad used a new tool to work on the cork.

Finally, the wine dripped out. I gratefully drank the rich, red liquid. We talked. The children ate soup. Then I hugged them goodbye and stepped outside.

Back inside my apartment, I flicked the light switches on. Then I opened a book about laughter and forgetting. I read about Czechoslovakians. About lovers and spies and poets. The local gym was playing really loud music. It jarred. I craved silence while reading.

Suddenly, there was a flash. The lights went out. I stood up to check the connections. The internet was gone. So were the backed-up bulbs. I stepped out to check the other switches, and also to check on my flatmate.

His condition had worsened. He hadn’t eaten anything. Feverish and cold, he had plugged an electric heater into a socket which couldn’t handle the voltage, causing short-circuits and electric sparks.

I felt bad for him, despite his carelessness. Outside, the music had gotten louder. I realized that it wasn’t coming from the gym after all. There was a party in the neighbourhood. When would they stop?

A friend of the flatmate was coming by with food and medicine. I checked the time. It was almost nine. But the music showed no signs of subsiding. The friend finally arrived around ten.

I changed into my night wear and got under the blankets. I lay there in the complete darkness. The flatmate and the friend were still scurrying back and forth from the toilet to the bedroom to the kitchen. The music stopped but I could still hear faraway voices of drunken merrymakers floating in the air.

I waited. I waited for every bit of sound to die out. I thought about the day. Nothing had really happened. In the larger scheme of things, nothing had happened to me. But it seemed a lot had happened.

What was it? What kinds of forces were at play? What had turned me into an iron rod in the early morning? How did my phone’s screen freeze? Why did the short circuit happen on the same day? What was inside my flatmate’s stomach?

Invisible things hover around us, creep in and out of our skin. One minute, we are intimately connected to someone. And then, in an instant, we get flung apart, lost inside the world’s immense vastness.

Why had one friend cancelled while another had summoned me? What made the little girl cry so incessantly? How did the numbers and alphabets flow from inside the boy’s brain out of his fingers in predetermined shapes and forms? Why did the cork get stuck?

I sank deeper into bed, seeking perfect stillness, waiting for the forces to cancel each other out, waiting for the energies to diffuse, asking to be released from this mystic hold, waiting for each thought to dissolve, trying to understand, trying, trying to solve this world’s unsolvable riddles.