Short Fiction ~ Murali Kamma
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 8
When J first heard the murmuring voices—coming from his wife’s closet, no less—he wondered if she’d left the radio on. He walked over. Why would she have a radio there when she hardly spent any time in that confined space filled with neatly hung dresses, handbags, shelves holding more clothes, documents, and a small safe containing valuables?
Lately, with their daughter now in college, J and his wife seemed to have drifted apart. The ostensible reason for sleeping separately was his loud snoring, although it could have just as well been the growing silence between them. The silence took an ominous turn that evening, pushing their marriage into uncharted territory. But it was those bizarre voices, as if he’d gone bonkers, that started off the unsettling day.
J was in the master bedroom, where his wife slept, to pick up a few of his personal items before taking a shower. She’d already left for work. Not having been near her closet recently, it occurred to him that the radio might have been put there to fill the silence. There was no TV in the bedroom. Stepping into her closet, he got a whiff of her perfume and felt a shiver of longing. It became quiet again, and though J looked around guiltily, he couldn’t see even a clock radio anywhere. Switching the light off, he headed to the guest bathroom.
The murmuring sounds were gone, but not his disturbing thoughts. J was about to go down the stairs, after getting dressed, when he heard a man speaking in a low voice—and again, the sound seemed to be coming from his wife’s closet. Or was it in his head? It was creepy, giving him the chills. But J decided to get on with his routine. He wondered if his wife was having an affair, recalling her excitement when she told him about her new colleague, a Black man. Until now, she’d been the only person of color in her core team. Did her firm have policies on inter-office relationships? Of course, policies didn’t—or couldn’t—stop romantic desires.
“Now I feel a little less alone” were her exact words, which she delivered with a smile.
Slowly, J learned more about him. He was smart, she got along well with him, and he could be funny. Was he handsome? J wasn’t keen to find out, so he didn’t ask. She didn’t say anything about it, although J knew that he was younger than them (an advantage) and tall. Did he have a sonorous voice, perhaps not unlike what J heard upstairs? The colleague wasn’t married, crucially, but he did have a girlfriend. Not that those things mattered these days, J thought cynically. While the man had come from another city to take the job, his girlfriend wasn’t quitting her job to follow him. Interesting. Long-distance relationships were difficult to sustain, and before one did something about it, a girlfriend could become an ex-girlfriend.
That was when J downloaded the app on his iPad, almost as an afterthought while waiting for his coffee to heat up. And then, instead of scanning the day’s news headlines, as he normally did every morning over coffee, he opened this new app to explore it.
When he got back that evening, his wife was already home, to his surprise. Recently she’d been coming a little late because of, she said, management training—although J didn’t know who was training whom. He thought she was watching the news on TV, but she seemed more absorbed by her phone. Busy texting? He could tell that she’d gone to the salon, judging by her nicely coiffed dark hair. J greeted her, but she didn’t respond or raise her head.
And then came the bombshell. The iPad, which he’d left on the kitchen counter, was lying next to her on the sofa. She must have seen the app! How could he have been so stupid? When she finally looked up, her gaze was steady, fathomless. He shivered, albeit inwardly, as if an icy blast of air had escaped through the vent behind him.
“I see that you’ve been downloading apps,” she said. “Found anybody interesting?” Her tone was calm, even matter-of-fact, as if they were discussing a recipe he’d checked out.
What was visible on the tablet’s screen, however, was an attractive woman’s profile.
“Oh, I can . . . can explain that,” J said, feeling weak, as if his knees would buckle if he didn’t sit down soon.
Hesitatingly, he told her that he’d downloaded the dating app impulsively. It was just curiosity. He didn’t mention that the possibility of being cut loose after two decades of marriage filled him with dread. Nor did he say that his tentative exploration of the dating scene for middle-aged men was just a test. But J said that the first month was free, and he planned to cancel the membership and delete the app after doing some research.
“Research for what?” she said, switching off the TV.
“My next story,” he said, chuckling nervously. Then he added, recklessly, “Well, you may be having an affair . . . with that new person in your core team. Are you?”
Shock. Relief. Anger. Indifference. He couldn’t tell if her face registered any of those emotions, for she’d already risen from the sofa and turned away from him.
“I don’t want to talk about this now,” she said, just before exiting the room.
What did that mean? Was she too upset to talk, or did she want to reveal the truth later? J would have to wait to find out. Even somebody who never dreamed of cheating could fall in love unexpectedly—and, he thought ruefully, falling out of love could be just as abrupt. Perhaps his wife’s closet, if he was more patient, would spill the secrets of her heart.
Murali Kamma's debut book, Not Native, won the 2020 Bronze Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) for multicultural fiction. A collection of 20 short stories, of which 19 were previously published, it focuses on the lives of first-generation Indian immigrants in America. His fiction has appeared in Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, Rosebud and Coweescoowee, among other publications. Currently the managing editor of Khabar magazine, he has interviewed many authors, including Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, William Dalrymple, Chitra Divakaruni and Pico Iyer. He earned degrees from Loyola College, India, and SUNY at Buffalo in the United States.