Soon after the curtain fell and the claps subsided, and even before Sumesh took his wig off, Prabhakaran, the troupe manager came with the voucher.
“Sumi madam, please wait, don’t change now. Some kids are here to see you. They want a selfie.” Saying this Prabhakaran handed over the voucher and an envelope.
Sumi Madam! That was what Prabhakaran called him when he was in a playful mood.
Sumesh took the envelope and stared at it in surprise. Three thousand! In the previous show which was two weeks back he was given only 2000. Seeing his surprise, Prabhakaran smiled, and handing him the envelop, informed him, “Thousand extra because they were all so impressed by your performance.”
Sumesh took the envelope and counted the money. It was correct. He looked around for his bag, found it and kept is safely inside.
He looked at the mirror casually and smiled at his own image. God! He was sure that a thousand eyes had feasted on his looks that night. He removed the wig. It was a character wig. The role he had played that night was of a village housewife who faces problems when she moves over to the city. He searched his bag for another wig. There were two more and he knew which one he needed. He wore it, adjusted his sari, touched up his make up and went out of the green room to meet the kids.
They were not kids. Most of them were college students. They were sitting on the parapet and seeing him, they got up. Sumesh had always noticed how men respected ladies if they looked rich, but only when they looked rich.
All of them were nervous and the least nervous of them mustered up all his courage and mumbled, “Madam, we want a selfie with you.”
Again Madam! May be they had heard Prabhakaran addressing him like that.
“O, sure, group or individual?”
“Hmm, group. Does anyone need individual?”
They all said they needed both. Sumesh posed for them whichever way they needed and they left happily after profusely hugging and thanking him.
When Sumesh went back in, the green room was already crowded. Two ladies and three child artistes were changing. They sneered at him. He asked their permission, went in and quickly collected his bag and other things.
When he was coming out, he heard a voice from behind.
“You are not changing? You can change in the men’s room,”
He didn’t respond to that. He knew what it meant. These ladies did not think that they were safe with him in this green room and he didn’t think he was safe with the men in the other green room.
The phone rang. It was Mathews. He said he had reached.
Mathews was the only one among his friends in the city whom he had trusted with his secrets. He had met Mathews several years ago at the Town Hall during a performance. They had no common friends and he thought it was OK to reveal his secrets to him
Sumesh had a desire to cross dress and he kept it a secret till two years ago when he heard about a travelling folk drama troupe which was reviving traditional plays.
For two years he had been working with them without his family find out. It wasn’t hard as he was a salesman who had to move around a lot.
Mathews was never too curious about it and they never discussed it. They were good friends who shared a lot of similar interests. That was all.
This time, since he was performing in Mathews’ village, he had proposed that Mathews could drive him back to the city. He always wanted to travel without changing after the show.
“But where will you change then? You have to go home. You have office tomorrow, right?”
“O, that is easy. I have taken the office key and I will stay there and go home only tomorrow evening after my duty.”
Thus it was settled.
Sumesh looked around. The place was getting empty. Other troupe members were inside the van and some of them called out his name to say bye. The organisers were all there. Sumesh saw Mathews’s new car parked at the gate and moved towards it. Sumesh took one last look at the auditorium and waved at the artistes in the van. Mathews came out of the car, gave him one look and went right back in.
Sumesh hurried into the car.
“What? Do I look so ugly?”
“ O, no. You look gorgeous!”
“Then why that look on your face!”
“I was shocked. Now I am all right”
The car moved and Sumesh took several selfies with Mathews. After they travelled a few kilometres Mathews spoke.
“I also feel like calling you madam like your friends did. How you blushed when they called you so! You really look fantastic like this.”
“Thanks. So, I am different from what you imagined.”
“Yes, of course. Hard to tell you are Sumesh.”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment or what? Do you like me as Sumesh or as this? Tell me honestly.”
“What does it matter? We never care about the looks of friends. In fact, we do think a lot about how our enemies look, not friends.”
“That is interesting. Did you eat?”
“What? No, no. I didn’t eat. We will eat in some nice place in the city.”
“City? That is a full two hours’ drive. I am famished. I don’t want to die in a sari”
“But you won’t feel comfortable in a small place.”
“Me? Who told you?”
“OK, we will stop for tea and snacks on the way. Let me see how you feel!”
They stopped at a small place and Sumesh applied more make up and smoothed his wig before he got out. He made a mental preparation. Though he had shown much gusto to Mathews and had so much experience on stage, he was more than a little nervous. He got out and held on to Mathews like a new bride. He could see their image on a shop window. It gave him confidence. Moreover, the place was not well lit.
They found a roadside tea shop and ordered tea and snacks. The shop keeper invited them inside but Sumesh held on to Mathews’ arm and whispered in his ears.
“Stay here, I want to show off.”
There was a little bit of traffic and a few people walking by. Most of the people looked at Sumesh, admiring a well dressed lady out at night. Nothing more, nothing less.
As they got back in the car, Mathews was the first one to speak.
“O, my god! O my god! That was fantastic. I enjoyed it. You were awesome.”
Sumesh even forgot to thank him. He turned towards the window and watched the night scenes as they flitted by. He was not particularly interested them. He was in deep thought.
He was thinking of his wife. Was this how she felt when they went on long journeys? Or, was it a different feeling for ladies? He could not see how it could be different. He glanced at Mathews and thought he looked more handsome than ever. He wondered whether the change was in Mathews or in himself. Whatever it was, he felt more like a woman than when he had been on stage that day or ever. On stage, he enjoyed the admiration of other people and his own ability to fool them. But now, in this car with Mathews, his best friend, he was enjoying himself. There was no admiration from Mathews to speak of. Did that worry him? No, he thought. This was his night. His own night. Such a night may never happen again and it need not happen again. One was good enough and if it happened again he would happily welcome it.
“How is my driving?”
“O, very good. So smooth and comfortable. You have brought your new car? Trying hard to impress your girl.”
“Yes, girl friend, me!”
“O, I can see that there is no need to try hard to impress you!”
Sumesh pinched Mathews on his left arm.
“You naughty. But you are right. I am enjoying this. Never thought this night would end up like this.”
Sumesh wanted to do some shopping too. He wanted to buy some goodies for his children. But the shops were closed or about to close. He felt a little disappointed. He wanted to get out again with Mathews and mingle with the crowd.
He turned on his mobile and checked his messages. Boring. Then he looked at his own pictures he had taken that day and pictures of previous performances. He didn’t like those old pictures. The new ones were fine, especially the ones he had taken with those young men and those he took in the car.
Mathews turned on the stereo and started swinging his head. It was a song he too knew and joined Mathews in swinging his head. The singer had a very husky voice which reminded Sumesh of cold nights in Kumily where he was born. He thought of that place only when it felt so cold or when he smelled spices. All the other memories he had buried long ago. Now this voice brought it back again. The chorus was dynamic and powerful. Mathews was enjoying it so much that Sumesh had to warn him repeatedly to be careful.
Almost two hours later, they were in the suburbs of the city and Mathews was constantly looking outside to find a restaurant. He was looking for bar attached ones. But Sumesh knew that Mathews never drank. So, probably he just wanted a good place to celebrate. Was Mathews feeling the same as he did? O, that was impossible. Sumesh rebuked himself for day dreaming.
They could not find a proper place as it was close to eleven and bars had to be closed by ten. Finally, they settled for a small place which had a good drive way across a garden.
Mathews parked the car and Sumesh took some time to adjust his sari and smooth his wig. Mathews came to the left side of the car and was waiting. He opened the door and held Sumesh’s hand as he rose up like a nymph from the ocean and sailed smoothly away from the car.
Sumesh took extra care to walk just like a lady, with minced steps and his each feet toeing the other. He kept his head down and held on to Mathews’ arm.
The place was a small one and wasn’t crowded. Sumesh went to the ladies’ bathroom. It was the first time he was peeing in one. When he came back Mathews had gone to the men’s washroom. The waiter, a young man came over and asked him what they needed. Sumesh gestured towards the washroom to say that he had to wait. He did not trust his own voice.
When Mathews returned, they placed the order. There wasn’t much to choose from but whatever was there was really good. It felt like eating in the family dining room during a private birthday celebration.
When they were about to get into the car, Sumesh went back in and gave a generous tip to the waiter who smiled at him and said a nervous thanks. Sumesh also smiled back and glanced around with the same smile lingering on his hot red lips. He knew that he was sending a chill down the spine of everyone sitting there.
When he returned to the car, Mathews commented on him, “You are a big show off. I never knew that about you.”
“Why not? You have a talent to sing and I hear you singing all the time. This is my talent. This fooling the world. And I am thoroughly enjoying it.”
“I can see that, both your talent and your enjoyment.”
Sumesh found that Mathews was a little rude which was quite unusual of him. Usually he was a meek and mild person. May be this was how he was with women. He wondered why all men thought that they had to show a rough jarring exterior when they were with women. Was he himself like that with his wife and daughter? No, he was very very soft with them. But he recalled that it was only at home. With other women whom he wanted to impress, he too did what Mathews was doing now. Rough, jarring exterior. Rude remarks. Sarcasm. Decent and polite, no doubt. But such things were only in the elaborate manners. A show off! Right. Just as Mathews had said just then. A show off. In attitude, just like sand paper.
The car came to a stop outside Sumesh’s office. The place was deserted and shrouded in darkness. From some street light far away, long shadows of trees and posts lay like they were painted across the road. The building itself looked like it might crumble down any minute.
Mathews cleared his thought. He was struggling to say something. Finally, when he spoke, his voice was different.
“Sumesh, I have known you for long and I know your preferences and nature. I know you are not gay and I am not gay either. But, tonight seeing you like this, I find it very difficult to let you go.”
Sumesh’s heart began to beat louder and faster and he too found a lump in his throat. This was the moment he was waiting for, the moment he had feared and desired at the same time.
“Please, if you don’t mind, let me kiss you.”
“O, that is OK.”
Sumesh moved closer to Mathews who put his arm around him, hugged him hard and kissed him on both cheeks. Sumesh sensed his own smell more than Mathews’, the smell of the generous make up he had put on hours ago, thinking of the audience’ applause. Now that large crowd shrank to a single person.
Mathews took his arms from around Sumesh.
“Now dear, that was what you asked for. Now I am asking you for one. Yes, give me another.”
Sumesh leaned over to Mathews and put his face on his chest. He turned his head around and stared into Mathews’ eyes.
Mathews bent down and planted a loving kiss right on his lips.
Sumesh collected his bag and other things, l looked around and asked Mathews to turn off the head lights. He made sure that there was no one around and got out. He couldn’t bring himself to look back at Mathews and say bye to him.
As he walked away he felt like someone walking toward his own death.