"Nell! Where are you?"
Bill's frantic voice reached me like muffled crying from a far-off land. Oddly enough, I could clearly recall that I had left the key in its hole at the front door. That must have alerted him in the first place. Now he was looking for me around the apartment.
He would never guess that I could be here.
"NELL! ANSWER ME, PLEASE!"
I wanted to respond, but I couldn't open my mouth. My survival instinct had kicked at the last moment and I struggled to hold my breath. But I didn't know how long I would be able to hold on.
Suddenly, I felt a strong pair of arms coiling around my body and heaving me up from water. They held me in a firm grip and carefully laid me down on the floor on my side. I started to cough violently as my lungs struggled to draw in air. A small amount of water which had already entered my throat and nose, came out rapidly.
I could breathe normally now, but I felt too weak to move my limbs. Bill's response had shocked me more than my near drowning experience.
"My love, my poor, poor love!" He sobbed as he pulled me up in his arms like a small child and carried me to my room. He took off my wet clothes, wrapped me in warm sheets and laid me on my bed with a few cushions supporting my back and neck. Then he went into the kitchen and returned quickly with a glass of warm milk.
"Try to drink it", he said, his voice still heavy with sadness.
I took the glass from him and put it down on the bedside table. Then I seized his hand in both my palms and laid it against my cheek.
"Why, Bill...since when…"
I couldn't finish what I wanted to say. But Bill understood me.
"I was fifteen...and I went to see mom and Inna before I went to the States with dad...you came there on a vacation, remember?"
Yes, I remembered. The silent boy with sharp eyes...How could I even know what went inside his mind?
"Bill, where had you been all those years?"
"I was in the States with my dad. He wanted to settle there. But I wanted to come back, to look for you. Then dad passed away suddenly and I came back. It was too late by then. You were already gone and I couldn't find you anywhere, unless Inna came to me and asked if I could arrange for your accommodation."
He paused and looked into my eyes.
"I never told anyone about this, not even Inna. I just wanted to be there by your side, to make things a bit easier for you. I just wanted you to be happy."
I couldn't look at his face.
All this time he was suffering, bleeding inside and he never let anyone have a wind about it. Poor Bill!
"Nelly is long dead, Bill. Why are you still holding on to her memories?"
"I DON'T BELIEVE IT!"
I was stunned by the low growl in his voice.
"Don't say that!" He said again. "You can change your body, but you can never change your soul. You will always remain what you really are."
I sat stunned. Perhaps he was right, after all.
"I have loved you and I will go on loving you. It doesn't matter whether you are a man or a woman, for I never asked for anything for myself. I just want you to be happy and safe."
I hung my head in shame. Yes, it was I who had been selfish in love. All I wanted was my own gratification. I never bothered to put myself in the shoes of the person opposite me.
"Bill, you and me, we two are just damn unlucky!"
We sat there silently for a long time, each suffering in their own way.
It was Bill who broke the silence.
"I've found Misha. She has agreed to meet you once. Do you think you should go and talk to her?"
"Yes Bill, I think I should. I've to clear this mess anyway."
The next day I went out on my journey.
It was going to be a journey of roughly around 680 kilometres; a journey which would take slightly more than a day on my Royal Enfield tourer bike.
It was the time of year when people went to that holy city on pilgrimage. I was on my own pilgrimage, my own little journey to find my place in the sun. Inside my chest there was a knot of pain which I had to untie anyway.
From far and wide people came in hundreds. I became one with the crowd and started to feel calm. So many people came there to pray so that their wishes were fulfilled. Perhaps, I, too, would find the solace I was looking for.
Bill hadn't given me any phone number. "She'll find you after you reach there," he had said.
I didn't know how that was possible, but that was not my concern anyway.
I had already informed Bill that I would stay in one of the tents put up for the pilgrims by a prominent religious sect. I had known them for a long time and it was their custom to arrange for accommodation for adventurers like us irrespective of our religion.
I guessed that Bill had informed Misha about my arrival, for within one hour of my arrival I received a phone call from an unknown person. She requested me to wait at a certain place around six in the evening.
I didn't ask any question. I had only come to find out what she had to say to me.
"Her family belongs to the most powerful business clan there," Bill had told me. "Her father is suffering from terminal illness and she had to go back to take over everything."
"Did she herself say this to you?" I had asked.
"No, my source is different. But she herself said that she wanted to meet you."
It all seemed like a riddle to me and I didn't like solving riddles. I only wanted to see her once more.
So here I was today, waiting for her in the crowd of pilgrims who gathered on the river bank to offer prayers. I didn't worry if I could find her in such a crowd. Even among ten thousand people I could find her out.
I saw her walking towards me through the crowd. For a second I felt that everything around us had stopped to exist and she was the last remnant of life that I was clutching in my hands.
I pushed my way through the crowd and came by her side. Our hands brushed against each other.
Just a single touch was enough to send the familiar jolt through my body.
Our fingers knotted together and we walked side by side.
I forgot that I had come not to ask any question but to listen to her.
"Why did you have to leave, Misha?"
"I didn't have any other option, Nell."
I could see that she did it for me. In order to protect me she had given away her freedom.
"How could you even think that I was gonna be alright without you?"
She pressed my hand.
"You have to be alright, Nell! My life has ended. It has stopped the moment I had to let you go. You must live well for the sake of both of us."
"I can't do that, Misha. I'm just not strong enough."
There was nothing we could say anymore. We just walked silently, hand in hand and reached the end of the road where the sandy river bank began.
"I'll have to turn back now," she said.
"See you, then."
She turned and walked in the opposite direction. Soon she was lost in the crowd.
In the river bank people lit small earthen lamps and floated them in the river in leaf-made boats. They believed the lamps would carry their wish to God and help them to be fulfilled. Standing on the river bank I could only see the lamps getting lost in the crowd of other wishes.
Just like that Misha, too, vanished in the crowd of unknown faces.
I turned around and started walking aimlessly. I didn't want to go back right now.
Why was I attached with her so much? Was it because she was the only person whose touch could sent shivers through my spine?
I looked into my mind. Would it be possible for me to be one with another woman? No, perhaps not. It had to be her, no one else.
Then I remembered Bill; how his strong hands pulled me out from water, how warm his chest felt as he held me close.
I wished I had never changed; that I had retained that incomplete body of a woman. I wished I had never erased Nelly out so ruthlessly.
I had refused to accept the duality of my existence. I wanted to be known by a singular identity. I had never realised that human identity is made of not only flesh and bones, but also the heart and mind.
All of a sudden, I remembered the lines from a song that Bill had been listening to one day. He had paused it midway and left the ipod on the centre table, when my eyes fell on its screen. I was surprised at his unusual choice of song, but didn't think much about it.
Now it came back to my mind and lingered in my ears.
"Beloved, next time you come to this world,
Exchange your place with me.
You'll burn as I burn now,
You'll cry as I cry;
Only then you'll know
How painful it is to be me."
I'll see, Bill. Even if it takes an eternity, I'll see what it takes to be you.