I had lived all my life in the city but never paid much attention to the river. I always thought Coovum was the Tamil word for sewer, until I met him. The fetid, repulsive stench was all that came to my mind at the mention of the river. But, his face lit up every time he spoke about the Coovum river; how it carved its way through the crammed city and its four million people. He was new to the city. New-age yuppie would insult him, he had old class and new money.
We ate Chinese one afternoon. I told him about my diagnosis. It filled the space between us, a sudden silence that I didn’t know how to break. We sat near the window and he pointed to this narrow back street near the restaurant and said, “There is a park behind the trees. We should go there.” The park ran along the Coovum. The river didn’t stink as much as I thought it would. There was hardly anyone along the tree lined river bank but for a couple sitting on a bench. As I stood there watching the black water crawl along, I wanted to hold his hand, but I didn’t.
A few weeks later he called me from Freemason’s Hall, “This is such a lovely building, you should have come,” he said. I couldn’t, I had a laundry list of things to take care of – rum cake, electrolyte, batik bandanas, chemo, war movies, antacids. But I would have liked to be there with him, admiring the nuances of British architecture. The British apparently went boating in the Coovum River, coasted into Freemason’s Hall, took a dip in the pool and lounged in the corridors. That piece of trivia wouldn’t have piqued my interest, but he made the British real people, not generals from the History book.
A month later we stood at the Marina watching paper kites in the sky.
“The Coovum empties itself a few kilometers away”, he said, pointing to the murky border between the ocean and the smog filled sky.
“I never think of the Coovum and the beach in the same thought. It ruins coming to the beach,” I said.
“There was a triathlon a few months ago and some foreign athletes refused to swim in the ocean while the city sewer emptied itself just a few kilometers away,” he said.
I wondered if he spoke so much about the river because he didn’t want to talk about my sunken eyes and bald head. It was oddly comforting. I noticed the wind lift his shirt collar and hug his neck. I wanted to do the same. I didn’t. It would have been clingy and careless, a little bold too.
“Maybe the currents take the sewer water away from the beach.,” I said trying to preserve all my childhood memories of playing at the beach.
He continued to explain how the currents worked and how there were more molecules of the collective urine in a glass of beach water than oxygen molecules. I wanted to sit and talk till the moon rose over the water. So I said, “I came to the beach once with my cousin. We were sitting on the rocks and talking for a while. A man came along and stood in the water. I noticed that he was jerking off. He periodically looked at us and went about his business. My cousin and I never spoke about it. We just got up and walked to the bus stop.”
“Hmm,” he said throwing tiny stones at the waves.
As I stared at the dilapidated tenements along the beach, the Coovum laced itself with the memory of the man pleasuring himself. The gentle breeze made me forget that the urine from the ocean evaporated and sometimes soaked our sweat. We sat in silence for a while watching the waves lapping against the shore.
We never made it to the beach again. A few weeks later, before I drove him to the airport, we went to see the Coovum empty itself into the Bay of Bengal. We stood at the bridge looking at the different shades of gray in the water and I said “I want a picture with you.” We turned to face the setting sun. I held my phone and clicked us. It’s an odd picture. Ravaged by chemo I look much older and frail. He looks young, alive, with ambiguity in his eyes which I sometimes chalk up to sadness, sometimes to youthful inattention and sometimes to masked compassion. “Email it to me,” he said at the airport and disappeared into the crowd.
I sometimes go see the Coovum merge with the Indian Ocean.
Sowmya Santanam grew up in Chennai, India and now lives in Milwaukee, WI. She has a Master’s degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison which has made a few people ask if she writes science fiction. Her first story won the Flash Fiction Competition conducted by the Global Short Story Competition in September of 2010. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming with 6 Sentences, Flash Fiction World and Journal of Microliterature.