When Sunil called me with news that his wife zipped off to India for a short break, I should have politely refused. He cannot really be inviting me over for a drink, because I know this snob feels too intellectually superior to hang out with me whom he considers more or less as a blabbermouth. But since I only seem to think in hindsight, I was hammering the ring knocker on his door within five minutes.
He let me in looking slightly annoyed at the noise I was making. He led me straight into his game room, which is one fabulous man cave with a big screen TV and brain wasting games.
‘I need some help.’ he said, not without a little difficulty as the very idea of soliciting help from underlings flies against his natural instinct.
‘Where is the Blue Label?’ I rummaged through the shelves.
‘Please pay attention. Next Monday is my 20th anniversary.’ he said.
‘20th?’ I whistled. ‘You know there are counseling services for child marriage victims.’
‘It is not our wedding anniversary, smarty. It is the anniversary of our first meeting. Twenty years ago, we met on a badminton court. I was 16 and she was just 15.’
‘Very romantic. Now, do you keep the good stuff up here or downstairs?’
He ignored my question: ‘I lost the game, but I went on to win her heart.’
I opened a cabinet with rows of idiosyncratic bottles. ‘What are these?’
‘Please,’ he said, annoyed. ‘That is not your type of Johnnie Walker drink. It is my Franconia wine collection. Trust me, you will not appreciate this. Now, what was I saying? Yes, I need your help on a project.’
‘Can we first have a drink before we get into the details?’
‘No, no alcohol, no games today. I need your full attention here. I’m constructing a gift for my lovely wife.’
I thought he was kidding. We are not drinking, we are not playing games? He was just blowing away a perfect, sunny day.
‘No alcohol? No games?’
‘No. Listen. My wife has just been admitted to Pandit Maharaj’s Kathak school in Berkeley. She got it only because of sheer talent and perseverance. She is in India now to meet the Pandit himself. Now, listen to my idea. I have the perfect gift for this occasion.’
‘What is that?’
‘A dance floor!’
‘A dance floor?’
‘Right here, where I’m standing at this moment! In this game room! See … ’
In the next instant, he suddenly jumped up in the air, frightening me out of my wits. He twirled and skipped like a monkey, I should say, very unbecoming to his gait. It struck me that he was trying to imitate a Kathak dancer in a clumsy effort to drive home a point.
He said: ‘See, see? She can dance right here, rehearse for her stage shows … ’
‘Ah!’ I began to see it: ‘While you sit here, where I’m standing now, and watch with your drink in hand?’ I asked.
‘Yes, that would be where I sit, of course, if I were inclined to watch.’
I was beginning to appreciate the plan.
‘Now, this floor is all carpeted,’ he said. ‘What she needs is a proper dance floor with wood paneling and a wall-sized mirror.’
With some diwans and hookahs for the audience, I thought. Like a scene from the Hindi classic Umrao Jaan.
‘Ok, so just get the dance floor installed. What do you need me for?’ I asked.
‘Installing the floor.’
‘Are you kidding? I cannot even install a door stopper, forget a dance floor. Get some guy from Home Depot.’
‘No, I have to build this with my own hands. I only need your help for manual unskilled labor. ‘
‘But I’m sorry … I don’t really have the time.’
‘Remember, I helped you out in the winter. You owe me this.’
‘C’mon, man! That was just a loose towel bar. You cannot equate that with installing a floor!’
Just at that time, my rummaging hand discovered a locked cabinet. ‘What is inside this?’
‘Whatever is in there,’ he said with an ingratiating smile, ‘you will find very appealing to your taste in liquor.’
I rattled the locked door. Ok, darn it! What do I have to do?
We had only two days to complete the work before his wife returned from India. On the first day, we removed the carpet, scraped the floor clean, and installed the giant wall mirror and lights. Manual unskilled labor was 99% of the job description. I really don’t understand the do-it-yourselfers, how they actually relish this work getting down on all fours, pulling and tugging stuff. If that was not enough suffering for a day, I had to put up with all the details of his love story. Where they first had ice cream, when they first exchanged Valentines, and how much they missed each other when he came to US while she was still working in India.
On the second day, we leveled the floor and Sunil got down to snapping in the interlocking panels. He said it was a task that demanded advanced visual skills and an artistic bent of mind.
‘Perfect alignment is the key here. Not for everyone,’ he declared, as he snapped the first one in place.
Five hours later, when the floor was almost done, I heard him suddenly grunting and swearing with the one last piece in his hands. He was trying to insert it, but it kept popping out.
‘It is supposed to snap,’ he said with a frown. ‘It is supposed to lock in.’ He tried again.
I heard a loud snap this time.
‘There you go, you got it! Yes, we are done!’ I said.
‘That snap,’ he grunted, ‘wasn’t the panel.’ He lay there motionless on all fours.
‘Is something wrong?’
‘Yes, I’m afraid I injured my back.’
He scrambled on his feet but couldn't straighten his back, looking like the number seven.
We rushed him to urgent care where he was seen by the doctor on duty, an easily-amused garrulous man with an eyebrow that seemed permanently up. The doctor gave him a Cortisone shot and laughed heartily.
‘You heard the old joke about how to spot a do-it-yourselfer? The walls in his house are painted in different shades, and he walks around with a limp. Ha ha ha!’
Sunil did not seem particularly amused.
‘You guys should be renamed to mess-it-yourselfers . Well, my dear boy, no more physical activity to strain your back unless you want to walk like an Orangutan.’
‘For how long?’ Sunil asked.
‘For the rest of your life.’
‘Listen, your back will be straight again in a few days and then, maybe, you can play bocce ball. But that is it. Don’t worry, get your physical exercise by a stroll in the park. It is not like your living depends on your athleticism, does it? I hope it is not. You are one of those Indian software engineers, aren’t you? Ha ha ha!’
We drove back in silence. Sunil asked me for one last favor as he stooped into the game room and collapsed in his chair.
‘Can you put the last panel in place?’
I got down and snapped it in. The floor was finished. Sunil switched on the lights with the remote control.
‘Ah, it is beautiful,’ he said, teary-eyed. Then his expression turned into a sickening contortion. He was trying to thank me. Not something that comes naturally to him.
‘I don’t know how to thank you. But I need one more favor … can you pick up Chitra at the airport tomorrow? I can’t really drive in this state. Don’t tell her about my accident, I don’t want to ruin the surprise. Just lead her to the game room.’
When I hesitated, he pointed at the desk.
‘I’m going to leave my key in the cabinet door tomorrow. Drop her off here, and you can pick up all the good stuff.’
I stopped the car in front of the airport where she was waiting. She seemed surprised why her husband couldn’t receive her, but I glibly steered the conversation to her India trip.
‘Too many mosquitoes,’ was the only opinion she had about India. This couple was made for each other.
When we reached her house, she opened the door and heard Sunil’s voice:
‘Hi sweety, come on upstairs, I’m in the game room.’
I followed her into the game room with the luggage. It was pitch-dark until Sunil turned on the lights with his remote control. The dance floor sparkled and the wall mirror reflected the perfect O-shaped astonishment on her face.
‘Happy Anniversary, Darling,’ said Sunil sitting in the corner.
‘Oh Sunil, you remembered our anniversary. What is all this?’
‘It is a dance floor, my dear. Just for you. Made with the finest floating wood and their patented spring enhancement technology. This is your stage in your own home.’
Chitra started crying. ‘Sunil, it is so beautiful. ‘
‘Don’t cry, I’m so happy you like it.’
‘Sunil, but …’
‘… Oh Sunil! I didn't tell you about the incident in India. The Pandit asked me to twirl and twirl and twirl, and I got motion sickness. I threw up all over his face.’
‘Oh no!’ said Sunil.
‘It wasn't a pretty sight. But, it is all for the best. I don’t think dancing suits me. I spend too much time away from you. Honey, I don’t need a stage, I need a court.’
‘A court? Eh?’
‘I brought you an anniversary gift. You will love it!’
She grabbed the bag in my hands and pulled out a package wrapped in plastics. She handed it to Sunil.
‘What is it?’
'A badminton set, darling! So we can play again like the first time we met.’
The package slipped from his hands, and he buried his head in his hands. I heard a half-groan and some bestial sounds like a hyena screeching.
He gave up his back for her dance. She gave up her dance for a game with him. I heard a story like this before. Touching, but my eyes were glued to the key on the locked cabinet. I pondered for a moment if I should quietly open it and take what I had been promised.
On second thoughts, now is not the best time to take all the good stuff.