Happy Valentine's Day, My Dears!
And because you deserve a gift besides my ongoing love and thanks, here's a peek-a-boo at...
Now without further ado, I bring you My Last Love Story
Quick #MLLS FAQs:
This novel is not like WORDFREAK or the BEAST.
It's a romance, but it's not light or flirty. I like to describe it as a cross between P. S. I Love You with the husband still alive and a desi version of Me Before You.
Note: The title My Last Love Story is not a karmic statement. I will write many, many more love stories for a long, long time.
Release date: May 2016
Now without further ado, I bring you My Last Love Story
“Love is a dish best served naked.”
As a child, those oft-quoted words of my father had me rolling my eyes and pretending to gag at what I’d imagined was my parents’ precursor to a certain physical act. At thirty, I’ve long realized that getting naked wasn’t a euphemism for sex.
Neither was love.
It wasn’t my father wording the meme just now but my husband. Nirvaan considered himself a great wit, a New Age philosopher. On the best days, he was, much like Daddy had been. On the worst days, he was my tormentor.
“What do you think, Dr. Archer, interesting tagline for a vlog? What about ‘Baby in a Petri Dish’?” Nirvaan persisted in accruing a response from the doctor and/or me for his ad hoc comedy, which we’d been ignoring for several minutes now.
I wanted to glare at him, beg him to shut up or demand that he wait in the doctor’s office like he should’ve—like a normal husband would have. Khodai knows why he’d insisted on holding my hand through this preliminary check up. Nothing of import would happen today—if it did at all. But I couldn’t perform any such communication, not with my eyes and mouth squeezed shut while I suffered through a series of uncomfortable twinges along my nether regions.
I lay flat on my back on a spongy clinic bed sheeted with paper already wrinkled and half torn. Legs drawn up and spread apart, my heels dug punishingly into cold iron stirrups to allow my gynecologist’s clever fingers to reach inside my womb and check if everything was A-Okay in there. We’d already funneled through the Pap test, stomach and chest checks, and like them, this test too was going swell in light of Dr. Archer’s happy approving hums.
“Excellent, Mrs. Desai. All parts where they should be,” he joked only as a doctor could.
I shuddered out the breath I’d been holding, as the feeling of being stretched left my body. Nirvaan squeezed my hand and planted a smacking kiss on my forehead. I opened my eyes, focused on his beaming upside-down ones. His eyelids barely grew lashes anymore—I’d counted twenty-seven in total just last week—the effect of years of chemotherapy. For a second, my gaze blurred, my heart wavered and I almost cried, “What are we doing, Nirvaan?” What in Khodai’s name were we starting?
Nirvaan stroked my hair, his pitch-black pupils steady and knowing and oh-so-stubborn. Then his face rose to the stark white ceiling and all I saw was the green and blue mesh of his gingham shirt—the overlapping threads, the crisscross weaves, a pattern without end.
Life is what you make it, child—another one of my father’s truisms.
So, I swallowed the questions twirling on my tongue and focused instead on why I was here. I’d promised Nirvaan this if he agreed to another round of cancer-blasting treatments. I'd bartered for a few more months of his life. He'd bartered for immortality through our child.
Dr. Archer rolled away from between my legs to the computer station. He snapped off and disposed the latex gloves and began typing up notes in soundless staccato clicks. Though the examination was finished, I knew better than to sit up until he gave me leave. I’d been here before. Done this before, two years ago, when Nirvaan had been in remission and the idea of having a baby had wormed its way into his head. We’d tried the most basic procedures then, whatever our medical coverage had allowed. We hadn’t been desperate yet to use our own money. Which we shouldn’t be touching even now—we needed every penny we had for emergencies and alternative treatments—but try budging my husband once he’s made up his mind.
I’m a businessman, Simi. I only pour money into a sure thing, he rebuked when I argued.
I brought my legs together, manufacturing what poise and modesty I could, and pulled the sea green hospital gown bunched beneath my bottom across my half-naked body. I refused to look at my husband as I wriggled about, positive his expression would be pregnant with irony if not fully smirking, and kudos to him for not jumping in to help me like I would’ve. The tables had turned on us today. For the past five years, it had been Nirvaan thrashing about on hospital beds, trying in vain to find relief and comfort, modesty or release. Nirvaan, who’d been poked, prodded, sliced and bled as he battled aggressive Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I’d been the stoic spectator, the supportive wife, the incompetent nurse, the ineffectual lover.
And now? What role was I to play now?
As always, thinking about our life left me feeling even more naked than I was in the open-fronted robe. I turned my face to the wall, my eyes stinging, as fear and frustration bubbled to the surface. Flesh-toned posters of laughing babies, pregnant mothers and love-struck fathers hung from the bluish walls. Side by side were the more educative ones of human anatomy, vivisected and whole. The test-tube-like exam room of Monterey Bay Fertility Clinic was decorated in true California beach colors—sea foam walls, sandy floors, pearl-pink curtains and furniture—bringing the outdoors in. If the decor was meant to be homey or home-like, it wasn’t having that effect on me. This room, like this town and this country, was not my natural habitat and I felt out of my element in it.
I’d lived in California for seven years now—ever since my marriage—and I still didn’t think of it as home. Not like Nirvaan did. Home for me was India. And no matter the dark memories it held, home would always be Surat.
“All done.” Dr. Archer pushed the computer trolley away and stood up, smiling. “You can get dressed, Mrs. Desai. Take your time. Use whatever supplies you need. We’ll wait for you in my office,” he said none too soon.
Gooseflesh had erupted across my skin due to the near frigid clinic temperatures that doctors tortured their patients with—like a patient didn’t have enough to suffer already. Medical facilities maintained cool indoor temperatures to deter inveterate germs from contaminating the premises and so it’s vast flotilla of equipment didn’t fry. I knew that. But knowing it still didn’t inspire any warm feelings in me for the throng of professional sadists with a god complex. I quoted my husband there.
Nirvaan captured my attention with a pat on my head. “See you soon, baby,” he said, preceding the doctor out of the room.
I scooted off the bed as soon as the door shut behind them. My hair tumbled down my face and shoulders at my jerky movements. I smoothed it back with cold, shaking hands. Long, wavy and of a deep chestnut shade, my hair was my crowning glory. My one and only feature that was lush and arresting. Nirvaan loved my hair. I wasn’t to cut it or even braid it in his presence, and so it often got hopelessly knotted.
I shrugged off the clinic gown, balled it up and placed it on the bed. I wiped myself again and again with antiseptic wipes, baby wipes and paper towels until the tissues came away stain-free. I did not faint. I didn’t allow myself to freak. I concentrated on the flow of my breath, the pounding of my heart, until they both slowed to normal.
It’s okay. It was oh-kay.
I reached for my clothes, slipped on my underwear. They were beige with tiny white hearts on them—Victoria’s Secret lingerie Nirvaan had leered and whistled at this morning. Silly man! Typical Nirvaan, I corrected with an eye roll.
Even after dressing in red-wash jeans and a full-sleeved sweater, I felt cold. My womb still felt invaded and odd. As I stepped into my red patent leather pumps, an unused Petri dish on the workstation countertop caught my eye. Is that what had triggered Nirvaan’s impromptu comedy? Despite major misgivings about the Hitleresque direction my life seemed to be taking, humor got the better of me and I grinned.
Silly man! Baby in a Petri Dish, indeed!
One thing I’ve come to love and respect about doctors is their ability to remain unruffled in the most bizarre circumstances.
A large mahogany work-desk headlined the length of Dr. Archer’s office. I took my seat, my stomach twisted into Twizzlers. Nirvaan sat on my right, gregarious and talkative like always, as if all was right in his world. As if he had every right to reweave the very fabric of my existence forever and ever. But there was an animation in him today I hadn’t seen for some time now, and I let that wash over my qualms. If I overlooked the thinning hair, the tired curve of his spine and the melting muscle beneath his shirt, he almost looked like the man I’d married.
For better or worse, Simi. I can’t say no to you.
He’d always been there for me. Always. No matter what I’d asked of him. Did he not deserve the same courtesy from me?
My husband caught me staring. He winked, grinning wolfishly, and my lips responded to his charm with a helpless smile.
Dr. Archer cleared his throat and began his spiel. He skimmed over our options, from the cost-effective natural fertilization via Intra Uterine Insemination to the more expensive ICSI—Intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection. A method that involved injecting a single sperm—Nirvaan’s—directly into my extracted egg in order to fertilize it. He explained how my eggs would be extracted and the zygote reintroduced into my womb for gestation.
I loved that he spoke directly to me. He addressed Nirvaan only sporadically. Childbearing was a woman’s prerogative, after all. Though in my case, I’d hardly use the word prerogative. Coerced would be more apt.
My fingers hurt as I gripped the armrests of my chair. I wasn’t ready to be a mother. Not yet. Maybe I’d never be. The thought of being responsible for another person’s health and security scared me like nothing else. Nirvaan knew that. Or he ought to know it. I’d thought of children as waves crashing over a distant horizon. I’d discussed…or no, we’d never discussed having a baby, Nirvaan and I. Not before we got married. Not after. Not until Nirvaan was diagnosed with cancer and the option of freezing his sperm before his first chemo came up—a treatment that had left him irreversibly sterile.
I didn’t want to deny my husband his wish. But I did not want a baby. Not now. Not when our lives were in flux again.
“You have a good chunk of information to sort through.” Dr. Archer wound down at last. The walls in his office weren’t the calming colors of the Pacific Ocean. They were the no-nonsense white of his doctor’s coat. “Meanwhile, we’ll start monitoring your cycle. You need to come in for a detailed consult next week, Mrs. Desai. We’ll do blood work, a preliminary ultrasound. Narrow down the best route for you. Prescribe medications for maximum ovarian stimulation and so forth.” He glanced at his desktop monitor. “I have Monday afternoon and Thursday morning open. Or, you can call my assistant for later dates.”
“Monday’s great,” replied Nirvaan when I pretended to scroll through my largely appointment-less phone calendar.
Monday was only three days away. I could be pregnant by the end of the month.
My husband might be dead this time next year.
My breath turned to stone in my lungs. The white walls of the doctor’s office shrank. I thought I’d finally scream.
“Call whenever you’re ready.” Dr. Archer’s words were kind. His pale blue eyes were kinder. “Call if you have any questions. Any doubts. Your youth really is in your favor, and its not infertility we’re dealing with in your situation but extenuating circumstances. Even though we have a limited amount of your husband’s sperm to work with, we have an excellent success rate, Mrs. Desai. Rest assured.”
Hysteria bubbled up in my throat. He thought I was worried this wouldn’t work. How do I confess to him, to anyone, that I was petrified it would?
~ ~ ~
And that's the end of the excerpt from My Last Love Story.
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