In the Manner of True Conquerors
The sky over Humayun's Tomb darkens with a fury. She often comes to this very spot in the heart of old Delhi. Her refuge. The only relief from the overwhelming presence of a man who inhabits her heart and mind; who, in the manner of true conquerors, has purposely stampeded his way into her life. While waiting for this very sunset, she cleanses herself of the pain of knowing him.
| After many years of searching for herself, she has finally settled for her one true definition. A woman in command.
Karen Flores thrives in contradictions. After many years of searching for herself, she has finally settled for her one true definition. A woman in command. And yet, nothing has prepared her for the trauma of meeting MDB.
Dr. Manuel Dacanay Benitez, with the sensuous hooded eyes that probed and extracted acquiescence at will. These were just about all he needed to make her say "Yes, I will take the job" at a time when she had no plans whatsoever to move to India or any part of Central Asia.
Karen enters MDB's office and drops a thick three-ring binder on his desk. It is late, everyone has gone home but for the security guard downstairs.
"Your budget book is a mess," she declares.
"Really?" He does not look up at her. "Then work on it."
"How? I need documents. The bookkeeper is overly jealous of his books. Copies of previous budgets and other projects are nowhere to be found. Your so-called consultants are not interested in helping me, not the slightest bit!"
"You sound weary," he says. "Have a seat."
"I can't work like this
"It's been a long day, Karen."
as if I'm always under scrutiny. Can't be myself. Especially today when people saw me with this budget book under my arm. If you are to entrust me with such delicate work, you should deputize me
"My powers have their limits."
or give me a title that befits my job description and educational achievements!"
Now he looks straight at her, confronts her mood. "You work like hell. And damn good work it is. You perform far above what we both thought the job would require. I sure wish I could pay you more, especially for all the overtime."
"It's not the pay, and you know it." Her voice sounds resigned.
So far, working for MDB has been a breeze. She prepares his press releases and manages his public relations network. The speeches she writes for him win discerning praise from the international community. She amazes him with her sharp analyses of the refugee situation in Rwanda, the Middle East peace talks, the Balkan War. Her discourse is always casual and offhand, hinting at an intimate knowledge of the issues. She pulls out facts and figures from her head as easily as a magician manages tricks from his hat. His alter-ego, that's what he said she must become, and how gracefully she has achieved it. MDB wonders at times what else lies beneath that keen mind of hers. The opportunity to discover something new about her whets his appetite for more challenging encounters which, although experience warns him of imminent peril, flourish in the name of solving global problems.
Karen anticipates his every need. She prepares possible remedies for his frustrations. She understands his apprehensions, cradles them in her care with the utmost precaution never to betray them to anyone. He must always be the strong leader in the eyes of his peers and subordinates. And although she is privileged enough to glimpse scraps of his fragile disposition, his vigor never diminishes in her eyes. She is constantly moved by his fears over the magnitude of the task upon his shoulders, a duty he carries to the very personal core of him.
|"...To everyone else, all this is just politics. Just a game of power. But for people like you and me, it's about the poor, those we serve."
"What is it then?"
Karen hesitates. They're watching us, she wants to say. Everyone. My eyes betray me, roaming the office in constant search of you. But all she can blurt out is a vague line.
"I cannot... be myself!"
"That's right. You cannot. Not while you work for me."
"Is it because you're controversial?"
"It's because I have a cause. To everyone else, all this is just politics. Just a game of power. But for people like you and me, it's about the poor, those we serve."
"But you have politics and power."
"So I use them. Why hurl the world into upheaval when there are other, more clever ways?"
"I don't understand."
"Ah Karen, you will learn. Just stick by me. You might even find out why I, above all people, cannot be myself."
The flush of sympathy drowns her. "I know. Especially you. Like I always say, you're so public. A life without privacy. Must be unbearable."
"Even my wife complains about the lack of privacy."
She winces at the mention of his wife, hides it with expertise. "Everyone owns you, Mr. B, everyone but yourself."
"My cellphone rings at every unimaginable hour of the day. I'm hauled out of bed to attend unexpected meetings, asked to hand in some emergency report.."
"I know," Karen smiles, "I write them during unholy hours."
His eyebrow rises provocatively. "I hope the position offers satisfaction in other ways."
More than you can imagine.
"Think of yourself, too, sir. How can you give to others if you are not full?"
"I don't have the time..."
"Then find it."
"... except for those few minutes in the car, or a plane ride to another city. Call those the few private moments I have."
She must choose her words. "Then I will be a thief." She stands on the brink of exposure. "I will steal a moment or two from you
" and she knows it. "And then give it back
His gaze is fixed upon her now.
as a gift."
A gaze so sweet upon her face.
"Like now," he says.
She blushes and turns away.
But his hands are reaching out for her. She sits frozen in her seat, thoroughly bewildered. He takes her face in his hands, gently cradles her cheeks in his palms. One thumb traces her jaw. With furrowed brows he looks into her eyes, perhaps seeking to decode what lies hidden there. His kiss, when it came, surprises her. The moment catches itself, voluptuous as a tear balanced on her lash.
Nothing could describe the softness of his mouth. That very same one which stiffens disapprovingly at her lapses and mistakes, renders her shaken with apprehension, only to reward her the next second with a smile of forgiveness.
Like that morning a week ago when she was late for a breakfast meeting.
| Enchanted. Like the hope that accompanies her every day, the hope that at some point he might give her that special smile, a gesture disguised in every possible way from the inquisitive eyes around them so that only she understood.
You destroyed a perfectly wonderful breakfast, he had told her stiffly, then forgave her before she could finish her roughly-stuttered apology.
And now, here in their shell of an office secluded behind a shut door and the lateness of the hour. So unexpected that she is left astonished. Enchanted. Like the hope that accompanies her every day, the hope that at some point he might give her that special smile, a gesture disguised in every possible way from the inquisitive eyes around them so that only she understood. The hope that he would close the door, his hand on the knob, his head tilted in a silent command so that she would approach with a trepidation of her own making, half in haste and half with extreme hesitation for it may or may not be the hour of fulfillment, when her one true longing would be satisfied, trembling as she reached his spot beside the door, when all she could do was whisper an inch away from him, 'anything else, sir?' and he would languidly smile his farewell and leave her without a kiss.
And now this. She rides, like a vagrant cloud. Every thread of her being winds itself around the whisper of a kiss. She surrenders to every truth in the world she has denied, the very first of which is this man, that he is the one she has waited for all her life. His mouth speaks of landscapes she has not yet traveled. Teasingly they remind her of terrain not yet explored, forcing her to face the limits of her experience. Now she is prodded to seek it all, such knowledge as not yet within her grasp, and to devour everything already within her reach. To be selfish for once, to be consumed by this one logic above all else, that all her choices melt totally into his unknown.
She has, surely and audaciously, become a thief, stealing him for a moment or two, but only for herself. She who has no right.
"Let me take you home," he whispers. His voice intoxicates her. She is devoid of answer.
Having dismissed his driver earlier that evening, he now takes the keys from a desk drawer, locks the office behind them, leads her down the darkened stairs, walks her through the austere lobby of their modest cream-coloured building, steers her out into the starry Delhi night. The chilly winds of February sweep mercilessly down from the northern continent. She shudders despite her sweater and digs her hands deeper into her coat pockets. He pulls her into a warm embrace all the way to the side street where the driver left his car.
As in a dream, vague images of the city swim past them. Laundry dripping from clotheslines stretched across tall shanties, nameless domes glinting in the starlight, public vehicles speeding by, resembling the tricycles back home except that here they have four wheels. If not tricycles, what would you call them then, she asks herself dreamily. Then suddenly she pulls upright; they have reached their destination.
Her flat is only partly-furnished. Simply put, she has had no time, nor reason, to indulge in interior decorating especially in a city where frivolity is uncalled for. He probably has a tastefully furnished house, one that goes with his position. Karen feels a momentary stab of embarrassment at the prospect of him seeing the garret she is holed up in. She should at least have hung curtains over the naked windows.
The state of her living quarters, however, seems to be of the least consequence to him.
He lays her down on the hard wooden bench which serves as her sofa, arranges the dark pillows around her. His lips darken the shadows once more, probing with certainty, his breath sucking her breath. Without pause, not even for a gasp of air as the moment protracts itself to eternity. On and on it goes, this kiss that sums up and at the same time whisks away all her hours of restraint from the day they first met.
| From the time she had turned thirteen, her old-maid aunts had been pinching her endlessly on that vulnerable spot along her thigh, causing her knees to jerk close together into a prim and proper poise.
Where is this liaison bound to lead? After the magic is chipped away by the glaring realities of day, what then? He would turn away from her, would pull back into the untainted leader that he was. Does she have the strength to survive his devastation, to tell herself: 'you see, he was never really worth it'!
But he is not, and will never be, hers to lose.
A deep shudder washes over the length of her body and nestles at the tip of her toes and breasts. He draws back, studies her with a smile, withdraws his hand from the intimate pocket between her legs where he has begun to explore. He fixes her skirt in the right position, smoothes out her blouse. He takes an abandoned pillow from the floor and wraps her arms around it like a teddy bear.
A final kiss on her forehead after which, in the half-sleep now engulfing her, he is gone, leaving her to wonder, was he there, was he really ever there?
In Karen Flores' world, the women knew well enough what taboo meant. From the time she had turned thirteen, her old-maid aunts had been pinching her endlessly on that vulnerable spot along her thigh, causing her knees to jerk close together into a prim and proper poise. She grew up in a convent school where the nuns strictly enforced the official length of the skirt, where she learned the proper way to laugh in public and never dared question why good girls should never go out unaccompanied at night. It was this history that had developed in her a hidden audacity, a sharp hunger to challenge her manner of upbringing, a fierce resolve to be freed from the scrutiny of all her family and peers. And thus she resorted to fashioning her own rules, pushing back the parameters of her childhood. A childhood where she had been boxed in and monitored like a penitent prisoner. Goaded by a vulgar hunger, her spiritual experimentation lingered for years, often bordering on decadence. And Karen had spent the last ten of her thirty years nursing the consequences of her rebellion.
Now here she sits in the dark, on a hard wooden bench, a spattering of pillows lying carelessly at her feet. The safe little glass wall she has built around her heart has shattered. Only some weeks ago, she was soaring with the possibilities of fulfilling a true cause, of enriching other people's lives. So how does one explain this crossroad, this confused and unsure turn? She is immobilized and helpless all over again, wanting to walk empty streets at night, waiting for something she knows not what, pinching herself the way her aunts had done long ago in a futile effort to wake up from the stupor of this folly now invading her life. That ancient pain, that prison of a monitored self and an unfulfilled hunger, has come back, has hired new personnel to dethrone her from her newfound peace. Is she, this time, truly and irretrievably lost?
In the next few days, she avoids him, he follows her with his eyes. She looks poised and beautiful in an untouchable way. He is undoubtedly bemused by the thoughts running through her head. Especially after that evening, that rash if unconsummated ending to an unpredictable day. He wonders if he isn't too old to keep up with such perilous sport, even as he watches her tap-tapping around on slender heels, assembling his schedule with the secretaries, getting his meetings in order. Surely, he could churn up reserve energy for this, the one last adventure, perhaps the most inimitable yet, of his colourful life.
Karen enters his office with the budget book in the crook of her arm, a pen poised between her fingers. MDB eyes her intently as she stands there smiling coolly at him, waiting for permission to discuss her report.
"What are my meetings for today?" His tone is brusque, scalding.
"You have secretaries who can look that up for you. Sir." Her voice has the rhythm of those computer voices at the check-out counters.
"I see." Trite now, are we?
The response he hopes for is missing.
| Still she does not respond with the earnestness he has hoped for. Instead, Karen tilts her chin and, without a word, starts for the door.
"Is that it?"
"Thank you. So call my secretary."
He senses her hesitation, her uncertainty over whether to leave the room or say something in rebuke.
"About the budget, sir. About the sources of funding for our women's vocational schools in Bangalore
"Not now. I have something more important in front of me. Unless it's urgent
He waves his hand. A dismissal. "Alright then."
"Actually, there is one thing."
"Oh yeah? What?"
"I have a suggestion, sir, if you would be so kind to humor me." Her face shows no sign of her inner thoughts. He leans back in his chair, a signal to proceed. "In case you need some time alone, to reflect perhaps, to get away from the crowd, or simply to marvel at some aspect of this magnificent country you have not given thought to, may I suggest that you visit Humayun's Tomb."
He raises an eyebrow.
"Your driver probably knows it. Should do you good, especially on a day like this when you don't seem much like yourself."
Ouch. Nothing has changed after all. She is still her usual smart-cheeked self.
"Thank you. I just might do that." A pause, then, "You look extra pretty today."
His remark sounds nonchalant, meant to disarm. A startled look darts across her face. Still she does not respond with the earnestness he has hoped for. Instead, Karen tilts her chin and, without a word, starts for the door.
"I have a better idea," he calls after her. "Regarding that tomb, why don't you take me there?"
Her hand pauses on the doorknob. "It's always best to go there alone."
"Look, I know what you must be feeling..."
A stiffening of the spine that says, really?
"... a feeling of... spacelessness."
She turns around in a formal posture. A pivoting. "Pardon me for saying this, Mr. Benitez, but, for the first time, I do find you obscure and I cannot for the world of me fathom what you are trying to say."
"May we please drop this now," he sighs. "It's unbecoming of us. And totally exasperating. Look here, I know you probably feel lost because
"Because I am for the first time working on a project independent of you?"
"I wasn't referring to your projects. Let's just say there's a link between us..."
"You need sleep. You're beginning to sound preposterous. And you seem to have the impression that I seek out your presence all the time. And so now you are trying to find comfort for this imagined deprivation. Truth is, I prefer that we do not have this"and she laughs"link. It will eliminate the intrigue surrounding you and me."
| He is mapping out the terrain they both refuse to acknowledge. She leans against the door, he resists the urge to approach her.
He deliberately ignores her sarcasm. "We are linked. There is a highway if you will, from me to you. Something deeper, a oneness in spirit. Don't you feel it? When we work, when we talk, when we long for a moment or two together. To touch. To... make love."
Silence. For once she is at a loss for words. There, he has defined it. He is mapping out the terrain they both refuse to acknowledge. She leans against the door, he resists the urge to approach her.
"You look... Florentine." His voice sounds far away.
"From Florence, a city ravished by the ages, captured in time, and yet polished, more modern than what it actually shows."
His words move her deeply now, dismantle her defenses like an avalanche.
"I think of you all the time," she whispers, fighting back tears.
"You miss me," he says under his breath.
She shakes her head. "It's more than that. It's..." How can I miss you when you're around me all the time? I smell you even when you're not there. All the way across the city when you're off to another meeting, I smell you. You are some golden thread woven into the air around me. You invade my space, every minute of my day. Even sleep offers no escape. You have colonized my dreams, my mind, you have made me your territory.
He looks into her troubled eyes, and then he knows. He will make love to her. It is pre-destined. It will be slow, unhurried. Each brush of skin will be committed to memory. Her hair will fall upon his chest. His hand will trace the curve of her thigh.
Before he can say anything more, she has slipped out the door. Gone again. A fleeting presence. He wonders, this bizarre ritual, did it all take place? Was she really ever there?
Back at her desk, her head swirls in a daze. She pours over the budget book. Best way to push him away, this tedious job of scrutinizing figures, of finding explanations for curious entries here and there. Hints of unauthorized projects keep popping up. So many things, all wrong. And she must solve them. MDB's career and the future of their projects are at stake.
He needs her. Now more than ever. You will be my alter-ego, he had said during her job interview. We are linked. A highway if you will
Why must you lie to me in order to use me, Karen whispers heavily. I will do anything for you. Don't you know that? Anything.
His voice echoes in her head. "I know you can fix it."
Friday evening at last. MDB reclines in the backseat of his car, musing. His driver steers the old Mercedes smoothly through the misty streets of New and Old Delhi. They head for that part of the city where he would rarely be caught walking around, where rough tenements rise from equally rough streets crowded with bicycle-drawn tuk-tuks and merchants hawking their wares, everything from vegetables and plastic crockery to textiles colorfully displayed on makeshift stalls. As his car cruises slowly along a bridge on this strange thoroughfare, he notices the vivid sunset above the city, suspended over the outline of rectangular roofs and occasional minarets, shimmering through the gray smoky fog that hangs perpetually over Delhi. The fiery ball haunts the landscape with no indication of bidding farewell, as though forever itself has no name, and it looks bigger than any twilight sun he has ever seen, bigger even than the sunsets he has known all his life back home. He can not remember the last time he has looked back on his life. He has never been one to indulge in inner battles that sabotage the ability for focused work. His most reliable weapon is clear thought. Tonight he chooses to keep it.
Night falls as cruelly as a cloak flung over the horizon.
| Dark curtains adorn the windows. Her paintings, in simple glass frames, line the wall. He walks over to observe a reclining nude sketched in yellow-ochre.
MDB reaches inside his coat, pulls out the cellular phone. His fingers pause for a split second, then dials her number. Hearing her voice, his blood quickens.
"What are you doing tonight?"
"I'm busy. I brought work home with me."
"I was just in a meeting. They really screwed me in that one. I must talk to you."
"Do you want me to come over? I'm not too far away."
Silence on the other end.
"Alright, in twenty minutes."
Karen opens the door of her flat, catches the faint aroma of alcohol on his breath. She pretends it's his first time at her doorstep.
"Welcome." She takes his coat and hangs it on a hook behind the door. She sweeps a hand at the sparsely furnished living room. "Well, this is it. My space."
MDB notes some interesting additions to the decor. Dark curtains adorn the windows. Her paintings, in simple glass frames, line the wall. He walks over to observe a reclining nude sketched in yellow-ochre.
"You made this?" He scrutinizes her signature at the lower right hand corner.
"That's the problem with having a boss like you. Simply refuses to believe that I have other talents."
He turns to face her. He is uncomfortably close. "Oh but I do. You never cease to amaze me, that's all. So, tell me about this space."
"It's where I can be alone." She sways in the aura of him. You are so privileged, damn you. Standing here like some
subjugator. Pieces of me bared to your scrutiny. On the walls, between the bookends, propped up on that easel by the window. You look around, catching a whiff of me here and there, and already you think you know me.
"You like being alone."
"I choose it."
He undresses her in the living room with an urgency as though the stars would die that night. They crumble to the floor as one, are swallowed up by the worn-out persian rug. A crippling sadness engulfs her, she clutches him desperately. She feels herself shooting back through years matted with decay, across highways jammed with fallen heroes. Until she is back in this neck of time, stranded in his embrace.
He reaches the moment of sobbing relief. He sees the youth die in her eyes. He groans her name, arms swarming, tastes mingling. His gasp tranquilizes her wounded heart. They touch souls at last, teetering on the blade-tip of time, in one immeasurable night deep in the heart of this strange city where the sun refuses to expire.
She closes the bulky three-ring binder, then picks up a computer diskette. A pause, a draw of rattling breath, then she braces herself and snaps the diskette in two between her fingers. A sharp edge of the broken plastic slices her palm, draws blood. Slowly she licks it away. Then taking a thick sheaf of papers from her desk, she walks over to the shredding machine. For a moment she watches it churn out curtains of white noodle-like strips, then turns her back on her work and her future, switches off all the lights, and leaves the office.
| He sits for hours, drumming a pen on the surface of his notebook, reviewing the events of their night together in his mind, turning them over and over again like a leaf in the wind, drawing breath at every remembered moment, at every breathtaking revelation...
A week goes by and Karen does not report for work. The phone in her flat rings unattended. MDB tries to explain to his staff that she has fallen ill and would take an indefinite leave. Meanwhile, in the seclusion of his office, he makes phone calls in an attempt to find her. He sits for hours, drumming a pen on the surface of his notebook, reviewing the events of their night together in his mind, turning them over and over again like a leaf in the wind, drawing breath at every remembered moment, at every breathtaking revelation, treading on that high-wire where he had, finally, relinquished himself of all the inhibitions that had impoverished him. She is probably running scared and unsure somewhere, and he must find her.
He picks up the house phone, summons his driver. Surely the man knows where it is, this tomb she once so reverently talked about.
He finds her there, haunting the ancient latticed walls with the wistfulness of a lost soul. As he approaches her, he becomes aware of the silence that surrounds his life. Though he lives it on the fast lane, he knows it is hollow without her. He studies the sunset reflected in her eyes as she looks across to him. Could she be the one to take his emptiness away? Could she lead him to that one true cause, that one true passion which has eluded him all his life?
Or would she be another giant, a bigger titan than all those who have sought to crush him, clad in her slender heels that tap-tap across his office floor, stepping upon his hunger, mocking it, ripping him to unknown shreds? Just like those despicable foes of his profession who come howling after his confused heart and mind. . . but no, this woman is after his very soul, his very identity, everything he would live and die for. And he, like a damned fool, stumbles now towards her shadow.
The tomb of Humayun, India's last Persian emperor, lies in absolute stillness. Multi-colored rays of sunlight stab the gloom, shifting with the gathering and thinning of clouds. What irony that even the greatest of all conquerors, the proudest of them all, could be vanquished to his knees like this, his face to the soil, kissing the shadows of his subjugator.
Karen stands motionless. Trapped by his malevolent charm, his elan, his intellect and success, she waits for his approach. From a hundred domes and minarets spill forth her dreams, splashing to the ground to be sopped up by the soil on which he treads. Here they are, together ensnared by this gray city where sunlight knifes through the fog.
"I was worried," he says simply. "I received no word from you for several days. So totally unlike you."
His voice holds no reproach, only genuine concern.
"Have I... been unkind to you? Karen?"
She shakes her head. Then, with tears brimming in her eyes, she bends down and picks up a paperbag from the ground, holds it out to him.
"Your budget report, sir. I fixed it."
This is the last thing he had expected. Work is of no value during these moments between them. He takes the heavy bag without a word.
"You have abused your position, sir. You have taken unscrupulous means to get your way. You have betrayed my trust. If discovered, you would willingly throw me to the dogs, have me take the blame and the consequences of covering up for you. All in the name of serving the poor, as you always claim."
| The scarlet sky ices up the edges of the thin paper with the fire from a dying sun, violent in its last upheaval as it surrenders to the young night. He reads it over and over again..
Even with eyes narrowed in a dangerous frown, he looks proud, immaculate. And yet, just another fallen hero on her highway of dreams.
She continues in a hushed tone. "You have occupied my heart and used my love to bend me to your will. And yet, I will always love you."
Karen pulls out a letter from her coat pocket. His name is written on the envelope with her own graceful handwriting. He takes it out, opens it. The scarlet sky ices up the edges of the thin paper with the fire from a dying sun, violent in its last upheaval as it surrenders to the young night. He reads it over and over again, her letter of resignation, irrevocable, leaving him no room to negotiate or re-establish terms. After a long moment, he folds it, slips it back into its envelope. A gesture of finality. He surrenders the last of his hopes to her decision.
He looks up to say something, some vaguely uttered question, but she is gone, swallowed up by the gathering dusk, leaving him to wonder, was she there? Was she really ever there?
© Edessa Ramos
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