Harsha Ganguly was a proud owner of Bombay Spice Market in Jersey City, New Jersey, a town situated near the Lincoln Tunnel connecting New Jersey to Manhattan Island, a.k.a. New York City. His sons Sanjay and Ajay, sixteen and eighteen respectively, worked the cash register and otherwise ran the store in his after their school was over at 4 PM. Harsha’s wife, Kalpana, had divorced him for another Indian man, an insurance salesman for MetLife, leaving Harsha for the past two years as a “single parent”. His store didn’t look like much inside or out – but it was a literal “cash cow” enabling him to sustain his intentionally modest lifestyle and support the limited whims and fancies of his teenage sons, who both had ambitions to attend medical school.
He had moved, after his divorce, to a newly renovated three bedroom condo located a mile into Jersey City from his store. His sons each had one bedroom and he had taken the master bedroom for himself. It was decorated sparsely with furniture he had picked up here and there over the years: a platform bed he once shared with his wife, a small oak desk he had found in the trash room in the basement, a nightstand and a chest of drawers he had purchased for $10 and a bag of basmati rice from one of his customers.
Marina had been moving into an adjacent one bedroom condo she was subletting from a friend when she first ran into Harsha, who upon seeing her moving stuff alone decided to offer the help of his son Sanjay and himself.
“Thank You,” Marina said to Harsha after her last cardboard box filled with dishes was set in her apartment. Harsha didn’t at first catch the origins of a heavy accent but now recognized it as being Russian.
“I am originally from Kiev, Ukraine…” Marina explained to Harsha over dinner on the floor of her living room. Harsha had picked up some Chinese food for both of them from the take out at the back of the adjacent building. His son, Sanjay had left to tend to the store in his absence.
“I came here on a fiancé visa…my Russian husband was a plumber in Brooklyn. He was cruel and cheated on me. He beat me often. I left him last month and until I found this apartment I was staying with a friend until I could file for separation.”
“What do you do?” Harsha asked curiously. Marina was beautiful in a classic Eastern European sense. High cheekbones, straight blonde hair cut to shoulder length, and deep, penetrating blue eyes made her look like one of the fashion models peeking out of those magazines he had seen at the newsstand.
“You should be a fashion model! You are beautiful,” Harsha said sincerely.
“Yes, people tell me that. I approached some agencies in Manhattan and was signed by one. I had one assignment and didn’t like the way the photographer was talking to me and had a fight. The agency let me go…”
“Do you need money? I can loan you some…”
Marina looked down somewhat embarrassed, “I don’t really know you that well. We just met…”
“Yes, I know…” also embarrassed at letting his “lower” instincts prevail but excused himself given the magnitude of prettiness in the young lady sitting next to him. The topic turned to movies and Harsha explained that the majority of his profits were in renting Indian DVDs. To his surprise, Marina knew the names of all the leading Hindi actors from the 70s.
“My mother and I loved watching Indian movies in Kiev…they were so different! Though we didn’t know Hindi the songs are so nice!”
After they finished eating, Harsha collected the food containers in an empty cardboard box and made his way to the door.
“Do you sell henna dye in your store?” Marina asked from her doorway just as Harsha was exiting.
“Why yes, we call it mehndi…” Harsha replied.
“My best friend Olga used it in her hair. She has blonde hair like me…and it became a beautiful red after applying this mehndi…I will come by your store tomorrow…”
“Don’t worry…I have to close up the store anyway tonight…and you live next door. I will bring some back with me in the evening.”
“Oh, thank you! You are so kind!” Marina said giving Harsha a hug, and, to Harsha’s initial shock and later pleasure, a soft whisper in his right ear: “Please, come back…I really enjoyed this…”
Harsha returned Marina’s smile with a bashful one. As he entered his apartment to get his store keys, he could make out Marina’s voice through the wall, who was speaking in Russian rather loudly on the phone. Outside, he found his car ticketed by police and without looking at the offence he folded the ticket into to his pocket, started his car and drove to his store. Along the ten-minute drive, his mind recollected with disbelief the past hour’s events in Marina’s apartment: he felt energized. Lust was not in his mind at the moment – just the future prospects of company with what seemed to him the most wonderful woman on the planet.
Harsha returned to his building after closing up his store with three Hindi DVDs and a small box of imported Indian mehndi. He knocked twice on Marina’s door and she opened the door after a minute or two delay. She was wearing a slip and panties. Her hair was noticeably unmade and she smelled of perspiration.
“Can you please get the fuck back inside!” a male voice with a working-class New Jersey accent shouted from behind her.
Marina looked down and then looked up rather ashamed, and said:
“Harsha-ji, please don’t misunderstand…”
“It’s OK my friend…” Harsha replied rather saddened for reasons unknown to him. He then offered the box of mehndi and the DVDs to Marina who then said softly after accepting at them:
“Thank you…you’re so sweet…”
“Marina!” the male voice inside shouted once again from within.
“I have to go…please Harsha, come by tomorrow…I should be free…”
Harsha entered his apartment and found Sanjay and Ajay watching WHEEL OF FORTUNE on the television in the living room. In his bedroom, he tried putting his ear to the wall separating his apartment from Marina’s. Instead of hearing the goings on in Marina’s apartment he heard Pat Sejac announcing: “What’s Vanna gonna wear tonight?” He lapsed into a fitful sleep.
The next day at the store was unbearable for Harsha. A young Madrasi couple were having an argument behind a rack on which pulses and Indian pickles were stacked. His phone rang and Harsha reluctantly answered it:
“Hello…Harsha? It’s your neighbor Marina…”
Harsha felt his heart leap out of his chest.
“I hope you are doing well…I got your number from one of your sons this morning. He told me you had already left to your store when I asked for you”
“I’m sorry I disturbed you last night…it wasn’t my intention…I was just bringing you the things you had asked for…”
“I know…will you come again tonight?”
“If you wish me too…” Harsha said meekly.
“Yes, I do…very much so,” Marina replied, “…I will expect you then…”
Marina had lit up her apartment with candles and put on a white cotton Adidas tennis skirt. Harsha entered the apartment with a bouquet of red roses he had purchased from a Hispanic street vendor near his store. Marina took the roses and placed them on a glass dining table. She then embraced Harsha and kissed him, initially softly, then parted his lips with her tongue and inserted it into his mouth. Harsha, initially in shock, followed male instinct and aggressively embraced Marina now kissing with equal passion and intensity.
“Wait…” Marina said pulling her head back momentarily from his, “not here…come into my bedroom…”
Harsha woke up the next morning to the light from her bedroom window filtering through sheer curtains. Marina was asleep on her stomach beside him. Her soft fair skin and light blonde hair sparkled and glowed in the morning light. He looked at his watch. It was 10 AM and an initial panic struck him and he quickly put on his clothes: he had forgotten that he had to open his store for business at 9 AM. He then relaxed and sat back down on the bed and caressed Marina from with his hand. Upon feeling it Marina turned her head from her slumber looking at him with a gentle smile.
“I have to go…” Harsha said softly.
“Yes, I know…take care of yourself sweetie…”
Harsha reached into his wallet and pulled out two $50 notes. He placed them on the bed next to Marina.
“Thank you.” Marina replied taking no offense. A mutual understanding and trust had been established.
Harsha’s eldest son Sanjay had been accepted into a six-year medical school program at Boston University. The younger son decided to forget about being a doctor and instead decided to study journalism part time at Rutgers University nearby and help his father manage his store. They were never cognizant of Harsha’s arrangement with their neighbor. Marina continued seeing Harsha every few weeks. Harsha would bring the same type of bouquet of roses from the same flower vendor outside his store. In the morning after, Harsha continued to leave two crisp fifty dollar notes on the bed next to Marina before leaving her to sleep in. Life no longer was simply pain and toil. It had become an adventure through the power of Eros and, specifically, the girl next door.
Marina never used the mehndi. Her hair remained light blonde upon the request of Harsha.
Submitted By: Anil Rao
Place: Hyderabad, Telangana
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