I woke up next to a beautiful, naked stranger, but stranger still was the apartment I woke up in. Unlike my own apartment, the walls of this room were clean, there was a carefully organised study table beside the window, and the bed I lay on was a real bed, not the flimsy mattress on the floor that I’d gotten so accustomed to.
What had happened last night? What were the events that had led me to this exact moment? I tried to remember, but my memory failed me; it wasn’t just the yesterday that I was forgetting. It felt as though I’d also lost something more... fundamental. It was a very unfamiliar world I’d found myself in, and I needed to escape it before it was too late.
I took the 8:53 fast train to Andheri and within an hour I was back in my own studio. In a city like Mumbai, an hour was the standard time it would take to reach anywhere, close by or far away. Distance was not a determinant.
In the studio, I gazed at the painting in front of me and the painting, Curtains, returned it. All my paintings were extensions of myself; within all of them, a piece of my identity — in a way I kept myself rooted with every piece that made its way to completion.
Curtains was a work-in-progress and after about forty minutes, I knew exactly what it was lacking. Baby Powder White. My picture was bereft of the purity that this colour would doubtlessly provide.
Except, there was a problem because my palette was lacking it. The colour, I mean. I reached for my paint box and rummaged through the countless bottles of paint. No luck there, either. After a rigorous search of my apartment, I came to the conclusion that my white had either been misplaced or god forbid, stolen.
I had a bad habit of pocketing my colours while using them, so I convinced myself that I’d lost my colour somewhere in the blur of yesterday’s memories.
I hopped onto the train once again. After about an hour, I sat myself down in my baby sister’s dorm room, which had been the last place I remembered visiting.
“You can’t recall anything?” she responded, cackling at my troubles. “Boy, you must’ve gotten sloshed.”
“I went to the bar?” I asked, despite having already known the answer.
“You said you were heading there to meet a few of your friends. And this was back when you’d been sober!” She laughed again. I joined in. It felt nice to hear her make light of the situation. Such would not have been the case if she’d known that I had lost my Baby Powder White.
I told myself that it wasn’t an important detail, and that I didn’t need to disclose it. It wasn’t like I was embarrassed, or ashamed of my carelessness. It’s not like it was a big deal to lose one’s Baby Powder White, was it?
‘No, these sort of things happen every day.’ I consoled myself as my laugh turned awkward and I hastily shut up.
The bar too turned out to be a total bust. The bartender lady seemed to remember my face and pointed me to my table from yesterday, which was thankfully vacant at this hour. After a thorough search, I accepted defeat.
With my tail between my legs, I made my way out, when suddenly, the bartender asked, “What exactly are you looking for?”
“I lost a small bottle of colour last night.” I sighed.
“By any chance, was it Baby Powder White?”
I was amazed. “Yes!” I exclaimed. “Do you have it?”
“Not exactly, but I’ve got several bottles of that in the ‘Lost and Found’. It appears to be quite a popular item to forget in our bar.” She gave me a kind smile. “If you’d like, you could just take one.”
Back in my apartment, I gazed helplessly at Curtains, who gazed back with judgment. I could feel a piece of myself fading away, like an unpreserved work of art.
In my hand, I held some stranger’s empty bottle of Baby Powder White. I should have checked the contents at the bar itself, but it didn’t matter anymore. Something told me that even if I had opened up every single one of those bottles individually, they would have all proven to be empty.
I continued to gaze helplessly at Curtains. My identity had depended on completing this painting, but I guess that wasn’t going to happen anymore, which now begged the question — so who was I, anyway?
“At least fade away in your own trousers,” whispered a voice in my head. I looked down. He was right. I had never seen these muddy khakis before. I must’ve left mine at the stranger’s apartment. Perhaps it was time to pay her another visit.
The beautiful, naked stranger’s name was Dahlia. She wasn’t particularly excited to see me again, but she didn’t seem displeased either, so I figured she was friendly.
Upon asking, she went to the bed I’d spent the night on and pulled out my bottle of Baby Powder White from underneath the sheets.
“I put your pants for a wash,” she said. “I’ll bring it over later.”
“Did I give you my address?” I wondered.
“I don’t recall.”
“There’s a Cafe Coffee Day next to my apartment?”
“It’s too expensive. Don’t you have coffee at home?”
We made arrangements to meet at my studio the next day for coffee. After that, I made my way back to Andheri.
Back at my studio, I painted for hours as I devoted myself to fixing Curtains. But something was amiss.
My Baby Powder White felt more like muddy alabaster. No matter how hard I tried, my picture refused to achieve the brightness I had been striving for. It was seven o'clock at night and my time had long run out. Something in me had faded, just like the purity that I had once envisioned for Curtains. My relationship with this painting had changed; Somewhere between the blur of last night and the time I opened my eyes, we had stopped resonating with each other.
‘No colour can complete this piece,’ I thought to myself. Suddenly feeling bereft of any motivation to see it to the end, I picked up the canvas and threw it out the studio window.
I placed a fresh canvas on the easel and reached for a clean brush. My movements were fluid, the brush strokes, organic; giving rise to striking, fearless swathes of colour, and the overlap of accidental splatters only adding to the animated chaos.
Hours passed, and my lips pulled up into a smile as the canvas began to show me something I once again resonated with; every canvas, a mirror in tune. Gone were those subdued tones of Curtains. Baby Powder White became dispensable. Raging bold, bright, and violent — reds, yellows, and violets — my canvas breathed new life, and it needed a name.
Images from today flashed through my mind, of the immaculate room I’d woken up in, of the strangeness I’d felt as I had opened my eyes in the morning — I could see them on the canvas in front of me. Tomorrow, that feeling would be lost forever — I would meet Dahlia for coffee, and we would become acquaintances, or even friends, and I would exchange that strangeness for familiarity, and again, something would alter within me. My canvas, however, would continue to remember that feeling.
I turned the canvas and scribbled on both my name and the painting’s. The Morning After.
A sense of accomplishment flooded within me as I stared at the painting, finally satisfied, when —
I tilted my head. For a good ten minutes, I studied it from every angle, and then I saw it.
There was still something missing, something that prevented it from achieving completion. The bold strokes of red, yellow, and violet were like three islands with no bridge to connect one to the other. The Morning After demanded a fourth colour, and I had absolutely no clue as to what that colour could be.
Despondent, I tried to shove my hands into my pockets when I realized that both of them were stuffed to the brim with little bottles of paint. I quickly began to take them out, god forbid they too suffered the same fate as Baby Powder White.
After all the reds, yellows, and violets had been successfully extracted, I finally pulled out the very last one. I turned it in my hands to read the label, and it just so happened to be Night Sky Black. One look at the pigment and I understood that I had found the bridge I’d been looking for. I did not question how this colour had found its way into my pocket. Perhaps it was fate. More likely, I had a poor memory.
I could’ve finished the painting right then and there. The answer was right there, in my hand. The canvas too, having witnessed the unfortunate fate of its elder brother, was impatient. It couldn’t wait to attain completion.
Unfortunately, after hours of work, my body was tired and my mind was exhausted. Where exactly the Night Sky Black needed to go on my canvas was still a mystery, and I decided that it wasn’t going to be solved tonight. I went to put the bottle in with the rest of them when my fingers suddenly tightened across the surface.
For some reason, I was reluctant to let it out of my sight. ‘It’s obviously special,’ I thought with uncertainty. ‘So vital to this piece — what if I lost it in the studio’s clutter?’
Without this colour, there would be no Morning After. I put the bottle back in my pocket, determined to keep it close, confident that I wouldn’t repeat the same mistake twice.
To celebrate the day’s productivity, I headed for the bar.
“You’re back again, I see,” said the bartender as I took a seat by the counter. “What’ll it be then?”
“Same thing,” I replied. “Whiskey ginger.”
“No one joining you?” She grinned as she began to prepare my drink.
“Just here to wind down. It’s been a long day.”
“One of those, eh?” she commiserated as she presented me with my Whiskey Ginger. “And how did it go with the Baby Powder White?”
“Turns out that I didn’t need it after all,” I said, taking a sip. “I’m working on something different now. Thanks for the help, though.”
“No problem. So you’re a painter, is it?”
“Almost,” I quipped. “Still struggling, so I guess I haven’t yet qualified for the title.”
“Welcome to the club,” she laughed.
I raised my drink for a toast and she clinked it with an empty glass before slipping away to tend to the other patrons. I felt for the bottle of paint through my trouser pocket to ensure I still had it on me.
Music blared through the speakers, and I allowed myself to sink into it. It was Once in a Lifetime by The Talking Heads, and it was loud enough to eclipse every conversation, but I thankfully didn’t intend on having any.
As I sipped on my drink, I wondered what the bartender was struggling to achieve. As I crunched on the ice, I wondered what anyone in ‘the club’ was struggling to achieve. Was it even going to be worth it, or was it all for nothing?
But then the paint again made its weight known against my thigh, and I decided to discard these needless, existential thoughts. I had to focus on what was truly important.
The morning after.