Dread (11.19.2009)

Z S
3 min readDec 13, 2023

Many years from now, when Hetali’s ashes are distributed back to the elements, when her sister Mitali strides the streets of New York City with her arms swinging, when Prakash is reduced to a colorful if painful story in my mind, there will occasionally be a day when I feel the dread. The knot inside me will unravel, and I will jerk suddenly in my sleep, my heart will pound uncontrollably, my palms will dampen, and my ears will begin to ring. Wherever I am, I will be desperate to escape. The urge will be to run as far as I can, as fast as I can, away from my own body. Like a tidal wave, it will come out of nowhere, this nameless, faceless terror.

I will try every so-called panacea, every cure — meditation, homeopathy, behavioral therapy — but nothing will make it go away. Not really. Sometimes, when I am sleeping with my head in Ana’s lap, her fingers running across my forehead, I will be lulled into thinking it’s gone for good. But then years will pass or Ana won’t be around to soothe me, and suddenly it will be there again, haunting me like an old curse. It will return to remind me that I still have her buried somewhere deep in my bones — That I inherited the terror that she went through that night in that dark barn, deep in the bowels of Bombay.

It is the winter of 2009, sixteen years after her death, I am at the Metropolitan Opera in downtown Melbourne, clutching the elegant little opera booklet. My company has sponsored a seat for the evening, and it is perfect: right center aisle, eight rows from the curtain. The lights dim, the curtains rustle, and the dramatic opening notes to Tosca fill the darkness.

And then it begins. Something that I have no idea about sets it off. Perhaps it is the younger girl in front of me, her long brown hair bent over the program. She reminds me of her and how she is not around me anymore. Or maybe it’s my own sense of myself in this moment, as a young man at the opera who looks as if he doesn’t have a care in the world. On the outside, I am cool and impassive, but inside me, the resounding chords have become indistinguishable from the pounding of my heart, which is suddenly racing as if I’ve just fought three well-trained fighters. The curtain is rising, but I can barely see a thing. My vision has gone blurry, and my fingertips and toes are tingling. A thousand thoughts race through my mind, a kaleidoscope of images. Would I need a doctor? Surely, in this opera-going crowd, there are at least a few cardiologists. In quick order, I imagine the production grinding to a halt, my body slumped in the plush velvet seat. I am still in my thirties, and I am already picturing my own death.

Quietly, I loosen my stiff shirt collar, reach two fingers beneath the silk red tie around my throat, and take my own pulse. The image of Hetali in the February sunshine walking next to me flashes in front of my eyes. I follow the seconds count on the phone for fifteen seconds and realize my heart is pounding at nearly one hundred and forty beats a minute.

I’m fading, I think to myself. Either that or I’m dying. I close my eyes against the swirl, waiting for the wave to crash over me, to sweep me out to sea. I have been expecting this; it does not surprise me. But now that it’s here, I am desperate for relief in any form — a handful of pills, a shot glass of scotch. This must have been what Hetali must have felt in the last moments of her life as she fought them, and now that she is gone she has passed it on to me in a sharp and terrifying legacy. There is a phrase running through my head, but the clamor is so loud it takes me a while to make out the words -

Be kind to yourself.

It is my friend’s voice barely heard above the roar.

Be kind to yourself.

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Z S

Life is represented by two distinct sets of people: The people who live it and the people who observe them. These are their stories.