Written By: Jenia Bernstein
About the Author: My name is Jenia Bernstein. Born and raised in Uzbekistan, I came to the United States as a refugee in 1991. I was nineteen years old and did not speak a word of English. I now live in San Francisco with my husband and two teenage children and run a business. Lately I am finding time to try new things. I grew up reading Russian classics but over the years I have spent in US I fell in love with the English language so I have decided to take a writing class at CCSF. The piece I have submitted titled “Unicorn” is one of my first short stories.
They stayed at Fort Tiracol Heritage, ten kilometers away from the little beach town of Arambol, Goa. Tiracol Heritage was a former 17th century fortress, converted into a luxury hotel where each room had a view of the Arabian sea and a monumental poster bed decorated with gold embroidered canopy, all of this for the exuberant cost of a Motel 6 room. In this grand place, they played out their sexual fantasies evoked by visiting numerous museum forts during their past three weeks in India. Instead of battles and politics, tour guides mostly focused on luxurious lifestyles of kings with their multiple wives and mistresses. The couple found their play scenarios challenging to reconcile. Rushi fantasized about being a king who was choosing one of his wives for the night. Jemma imagined being a queen who was picking a lover from one of her young servants. They seemed to always agree on the ending.
This afternoon they drove to Arambol and signed up for Ayurvedic massages by the beach. The appointment was in the afternoon so they decided to go for a swim. Multiple sanitation concerns would arise anywhere in the world from being on this beach but this was India where cows, pigs and street dogs enjoyed wading the water in perfect harmony with human tourists. While the couple were in the water, a young woman floated up from the waves like a mermaid and started a conversation. They must have seemed like safe people to talk to, a mixed Indian-European couple speaking English, obviously foreigners on vacation. The woman was alone and craved company. Droves of young men – consequences of female infanticide – were all around and she – no doubt – spent a lot of energy deterring unwanted attention. A woman traveling alone in India is rare, especially an Indian woman. She was wearing a sporty swimsuit and did not have a t-shirt over it as did all other women on the beach. Some of them were going into the water in full sari. Rushi chatted with her for awhile, told her they were waiting for massages and shared their dinner plans. She was from Calcutta and staying in Arambol for a one week vacation. Today was her last full day in Goa.
At 4pm the couple went back to the massage shed and had themselves four hand massages. Jemma’s body felt like butter but Rushi was all perky. “Let’s go eat! What was that place called?” The restaurant was right on the beach and live music was promised. It had only two walls, the beach and the street sides were exposed. There was a stage with a mural for backdrop and a dance floor in the depth of the restaurant. They got icy cold beers with tiny drops forming on green glass and ordered dinner: kingfish – deep fried to a crispy skin, coconut vegetable curry, rice – infused with spices, pistachio kulfi for dessert.
Rushi waved to someone. Jemma turned and saw her walking through the door, their mermaid. She came looking for them and was now on her way to join them at the table. The mermaid had a lovely angelic face, dark brown eyes and smooth olive skin. She was petite, about the same height as Jemma and similarly built but also reminded Jemma of the goddesses from bas reliefs decorating Hindu temples. Maybe it was her narrow wrists and the tightness of skin on her shoulders, or the contrast of her small waist and full hips. She had had dinner already but would like to have a drink with them.
They danced and the young woman watched and took pictures at their request. She told them she was a family psychologist and twenty seven years old. They discussed how psychology is stigmatized in conservative cultures. She assumed they were married. They went with it to avoid launching a storm of involuntary psychoanalysis on her last day of vacation. Her name was Radikha. She showed them a gesture from a popular Bollywood movie that would somehow help them remember her name. Neither of them had watched the movie.
“Do you want to ask her?” Rushi whispered in Jemma’s ear as they stood up to dance to a catchy tune.
“We can try but I think she will run away,” Jemma laughed. The song ended and they got back to the table. Musicians started to pack away instruments.
“Would you join us for a walk on the beach?” Jemma asked. She would.
They walked and then sat on the sand to watch the sunset, the two women on either side of Rushi. He suddenly switched places with the mermaid so she was now in the middle.
“Would you like to be our unicorn?” he asked.
“What is a unicorn?”
“No one knows if they really exist but everybody wants one. A unicorn is a woman who comes to play with a couple.” He locked a gaze with her as he did with Jemma three years ago in California when they first met and she still could not get enough of this intense eye contact. Jemma could tell this was not what Radhika expected to hear. She momentarily pulled back, shocked, but composed herself and stayed. She turned to Jemma with an incredulous glare, silently questioning if Jemma was on board with this proposal or if it was a joke.
“I was a unicorn once and it was the most sensual experience of my life,” Jemma said to her. It was true. Too bad it did not last. Tripod is a flimsy construction. They got divorced. It was not her fault.
“We are staying at Fort Tiracol hotel, the room is lovely and you can come with us. We will bring you back here. Or we could come to your place if you prefer,” Rushi said.
“Let me think about it for a moment,” She replied after a pause. “I did not know I would ever consider anything like this but here I am, thinking hard.” She looked at each of them again. Jemma could tell Radhika liked him. He looked younger, more her age, even though in reality he had just turned forty, only four years Jemma’s junior. Men choosing to be free from responsibility age slower than the rest of us, Jemma theorized. She remembered thinking he was no more than 26 at the time they met.
“You cannot come to my place, I am renting a room from a family. We are in India, you guys. This kind of stuff does not happen,” She laughed. “And I have some reservations, I don’t even know where to start…” She seemed more hesitant again and Rushi sensed the moment slipping.
“We can just rent a room here on the beach. I saw rooms for rent sign across from the restaurant. And you don’t even have to participate. You can just watch us. Come on, let’s have some fun,” He got up. She got up too, reassured of safety, curious and sweet, and happy to defy the norms of her culture in the biggest way yet. Running back to the street to rent the room, holding hands like children, they passed dozens of young men, all of them oblivious to the presence of a unicorn, creature of their wildest dreams.
Well past midnight, the couple drove back to the fort. The road, so lively earlier, was now deserted, with packs of skinny dogs roaming in search of food. Radhika, thought Jemma, my tender magical animal, I will forever remember you. I am sure you will too, although I understand why you did not want to stay in touch.
“How was it for you?” Jemma shifted gears, still struggling with the stick shift on the left side.
“I did not care for her that much,” Rushi said. “It did not do anything for me.”
“Liar. You did not care for her, right. Just in the same way you did not care for sleeping with my friend, when I asked you to leave her alone. So which is it? Are you trying to hurt me on purpose or protect my feelings when there is no need? Decide already.”
“If you were with me it would all be different.”
“I am with you now. What else do you want? Even if I was single, I would not spend more time with you than I do now. And you are still a free man,” she said.
“I don’t want freedom. I want to belong.”
“Then you should have stayed with your possessive wife. You just don’t want what you have.”
Visual Art Piece By: Matt Luedke
About the Artist: Matt Luedke is a former editor of Forum. He loves to use words and art to pursue the magic of the Bay Area.