Authors: Anne Cherian
“Not on any day.” Sanjay laughed. “When my mother saw how tall Oona is, the first thing she said was ‘How is that girl ever going to wear the saree I bought her?’”
“I tried, but there was so little material to tuck in, I was sure I would unravel at any moment. But you look absolutely stunning.”
Leila was just about to shoot back with “Absolutely ridiculous” when Shanti joined them with “So this is where you all are hiding,” a pale green Kashmiri shawl providing the only other Indian touch that Leila could see.
“Just trying to keep from blowing away,” Leila said, aware that her saree had long ceased to be graceful. She could not stop thinking how out of place she looked, could not stop mentioning her gaffe.
“It’s starting,” Neel came to get them.
“Challo. We’d better go before Al accuses us of being the Indian Mafia.” Sanjay said, laughing.
Neel stood beside Leila, his earlier irritation increased by Sanjay. Why was it that Sanjay always turned more Indian when Leila was around? He would never say “Challo” in the hospital. And thank God Leila had better control of that damned saree. She had wrapped her shawl tightly around her body so only the bottom half flapped against his legs.
Leila felt that the nightmare she had anticipated for yesterday’s barbecue was happening today. Her every expectation was being proved wrong. The clean-cut man she had assumed was Al’s son from his first marriage turned out to be the preacher. The bride wasn’t even carrying a bouquet; and her sleeveless dress looked like a nightgown. The off-white material came to her calves, the only adornment the ruffles at the neck. Al’s nod to being the groom was a tie, though contrary to what Neel had said, he was in slacks, not jeans.
People stood around in whatever space they could find. The wind kept snatching the preacher’s words so Leila only heard half of what he said. She even missed Al saying “I do,” but had full view of the kiss that went on for minutes, it seemed to her. Their second time around clearly had a happy beginning.
The big Italian spread that Sanjay had looked forward to was in the dining room. Leila went straight to a corner, trying to secret herself. But her bright pink couldn’t be hidden and a number of the women she had envied came over to touch the saree, to marvel at its slipperiness, to tell her she looked lovely.
In India, compliments, if given, were usually backhanded. “Oh, where did you get this saree?” “Did I not see it in Saree Niketan?” which meant that it was good enough for them to buy. But no one would come right out and say, like these women, “It’s so beautiful.”
Were they being nice to her because they guessed she felt foolish? Little by little their smiling eyes and words relaxed Leila. It didn’t seem possible that so many would pity her.
The heat roared out of the radiators and she hung the shawl over the back of her chair. The warmth was like India, and now that she didn’t have to fight the wind, the saree draped around her perfectly, the pleats fanned out in flawless alignment. It might have been overkill to wear it, as Indy would say, but pants at a wedding would have left her feeling strange on the inside.
She held on to the glass of wine someone had offered when she came in. She was too afraid to drink any, given yesterday’s experience, but didn’t want to part with it. It made her feel like everyone else.
“Thank you so much for joining us today,” Al said. Leila had been watching him make the rounds with Julia and now looked up into his blue eyes, which were set off by his white hair and deeper blue shirt.
“Can we get a picture with you?” Julia asked. Up close Leila noticed her dress was silk, embroidered with tiny white flowers.
People had been taking pictures with the disposable cameras meant just for that purpose.
“Neel,” Al called out. “Can you do us the honor?”
Neel extricated himself from a group near the fireplace and came over.
“As Sanjay would say, ‘Don’t say cheese.’” Neel pressed a button and the flash went off.
“I feel like the mouse that got the cheese,” Al joked. “Snapped with the two most beautiful women in the room. Thank you, my dear.” He lifted Leila’s hand and kissed it.
Leila just smiled, not sure what else to do. She wanted to say that his accent—and the gesture—reminded her of actors in films from the fifties, but thought he might feel she was aging him.
“How about one with the two of you?” Julia asked, and held out her hand for the camera.
The question froze Leila as she stepped toward her chair. She glanced in Neel’s direction. Surely he would refuse. But no, he came beside her and even put an arm around her.
“Well, my dear,” Al said, “you are giving your husband a run for his money. He used to be the best dressed one amongst us, you know. But not anymore.”
The flash went off, and as before, Leila was momentarily blinded.
“You’ll just have to get used to being second-best, Neel,” Julia teased.
“Not for lack of trying.” Neel laughed. “I did my best to get Leila to change into pants, but she refused to listen to me.”
“A feminist!” Julia raised her fist in the air.
“I just know when I’m right,” Leila said, and looked Neel in the eye.
Out of nowhere Neel felt her rightness, her ability to be comfortable just being herself, and wished he had it too. Then he thought how ridiculous he would feel in a kurta—and the feeling disappeared.
“Is that your second glass?” Hadn’t she learned her lesson from the previous night?
“No, I haven’t had any. It’s just keeping me company.”
“From what I could see, you’ve had lots of company.”
“People are so nice here.”
“Does that include me?” The question surprised both of them. Neel tried to hide it with a smile but knew it was too late.
“Only if you get me some food,” Leila said. “I’m starving, but I can’t figure out which items are vegetarian.” His very question—this, from someone who preferred telling her things—allowed her to be honest and ask for help.
“I probably won’t be able to either,” Neel said. “But I can ask around.”
When he returned with a plate piled with food, Leila had begun sipping the wine. Shanti and Oona had drawn up chairs beside her, telling her she was clever to have found the warmest spot in the house.
“Glad to see you’re putting him to work,” Shanti said.
“Oh, this was Neel’s idea.” Leila began eating.
“Nice,” Shanti approved.
“Precisely,” Leila said between mouthfuls. “How did you guess? It’s Neel trying to be nice.”
“And succeeding.” Neel raised his glass. “To the Three Graces.”
LEILA CONSIDERED “FALL BACK”
a strange phenomenon, not just because India kept the same time year in and out, but because it was deceptive. It gave everyone an extra hour on the day the clocks moved backward, but for the rest of the winter it progressively did away with evenings, short afternoons quickly sunsetting into dark nights.
This night was even darker, with wind and rain drumming against the windows like a novice tabla player, all noise and no rhythm. It was like the monsoons, except that back home the wide-open windows brought in the rich smell of wet earth and the rain was warm, not stinging cold.
In the opposite building she could see the blue glare of a TV and just make out the contour on the couch. Another woman alone at night. Neel had gone flying. This morning she had hoped that maybe the two outings they had spent together would lure him away from his usual destination. But he had acted as usual. And so had she. She hadn’t asked any questions and he hadn’t told her any lies.
The woman in the other building switched off the TV and left the room. She had a life, as Rekha would say. Leila suddenly thought of Anu. Was Anu, too, looking out at the rain, thinking it was better to be with someone than to be alone?
The loud sound of the lock turning startled her. The air filled with the organic scent of rain, damp cotton, and masculinity. Neel walked carefully, trying to hold his coat and umbrella so they didn’t drip all over the wooden floor.
“What are you doing?” he asked Leila.
she countered silently. “I’m watching the rain,” she answered.
“Rough night out there. Too dangerous to fly.”
Not sure what to make of his unexpected presence, she stared outside, knowing that he had gone to place the umbrella in the bathtub.
“I’m starved,” he announced, as he came back into the room. “Am I too late for dinner?”
“I haven’t made anything. I was just going to cook something easy.” The words came out like an apology and she immediately wanted to retract them. The response had been instinctive, the same any Indian wife would have said. But they were not husband and wife. He was a cheater, and she didn’t want to continue being the subservient wife.
“Anything’s fine by me.” Tonight he had dropped off Caroline without suggesting dinner. He was surprised at how anxious he had been to escape her neediness.
Caroline had insisted on the trip to Sonoma, wanting to go even though it was foggy and on the cusp of rain. But it wasn’t just the weather that made him reluctant. The poolside encounter had been a close call. Leila hadn’t mentioned it, and he hoped she was too naive to suspect anything—unlike Sanjay, whose eyes had asked Neel what was going on, though he hadn’t voiced his question. Neel regretted his semi-drunk confession at last year’s Christmas party. He hoped everyone—especially Mr. Never-Stray-When-You-Are-Married Sanjay—had bought his explanation about the slides.
In the plane, Neel had handed the scarf to Caroline. “Please make sure that from now on you don’t leave anything behind.” He tried to soften the words, but they came out like an order.
“She saw it, is that it?”
“As a matter of fact, Jake found it and gave it to Lee thinking it was hers.” Neel worried that Jake would discover that Jason didn’t have a girlfriend. He didn’t want them to see him as a husband who cheated on his wife. They wouldn’t understand he had been forced to marry Leila, that he hadn’t touched her, that continuing with Caroline technically wasn’t cheating.
For Caroline, jealousy now took on a name: Lee. That’s what Neel called his wife. The wife who had attended the barbecue. Who had gone to Reno. Caroline jammed the scarf into her purse. For a brief moment she hated him.
An anger Neel didn’t quite understand made him say, “I have a feeling this storm isn’t going away. I think we should give up the idea of that mud bath and dinner.” He had suggested it because Caroline kept saying how awful it had been to leave Reno when all she wanted was to be with him. He was used to thinking of the plane as his refuge, not as a seesaw between two women.
Caroline burst out crying. Tears annoyed Neel. She sniffed and the sound grated on him like an instrument on glass. He handed her a tissue.
“I’m late.” Caroline sobbed, because she wanted it to be true. It was a sure way of keeping Neel.
Fear, steel-cold and sharp, sliced into Neel’s stomach. He thought he might throw up.
“How late?” He hoped, ordered her to say a day.
“I thought you were on the pill? Did you go off it?” he shouted. He’d kill her if she had. He was so careful he even paid for the pills.
“Oh Neel, of course I’ve been taking them. It’s probably nothing. I shouldn’t even have told you. I must be late because I’ve been so upset recently. Haven’t you noticed how stressed I’ve been?” She wanted his anger to go away, wanted the evening they had planned to unfold. Why couldn’t he kiss and comfort her?
“Let’s hope that’s what it is.” He hadn’t noticed anything unusual about her, too preoccupied with juggling the various compartments of his life. Now it had entered the plane, his haven. He felt like a dying man who sees his whole life before him, except that he was seeing the future: Caroline giving up her job to take care of the bulge beneath her sweater, the entire office knowing who caused that swell, Tattappa outraged…He knew that every time they had sex, no matter the precaution, there was always the chance a sperm would defy the odds.
He put another tissue into her trembling hand. Her nose was bright red, and a light pink highlighted the wrinkles around her eyes. Three years. Three years together, and he didn’t even know her real age.
His marriage—and this—were both getting out of control. Should he make an appointment with a shrink? Sanjay had surprised Neel by admitting going to see a psychiatrist before his wedding. Neel had not expected Sanjay to be so American. And though Neel considered himself better adjusted, he couldn’t divulge the various strata of his life to anyone, much less a stranger.
“Let’s go back,” he said, and this time he meant it.
IN THE BLACK AND WHITE KITCHEN
, Leila cooked the meal she wanted to eat. It went against all of Amma’s teachings, who prepared only those dishes Appa enjoyed. Leila knew this dinner was not heavy enough to be considered man’s food. Amma used to make it the evenings Appa wasn’t home, and her three daughters had always regarded it as a special treat.
Leila chopped onions, garlic, ginger, and green chili, and while they browned, cut potatoes into paper-thin slices. When the potatoes were semi-cooked, she added chunks of fresh tomatoes, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper, and let it simmer. Amma had begun using the sauce only when Leila explained that yes, it was made by two Englishmen, but they had been trying to reproduce an Indian curry.
Sitting at the table, separated by the dish with no name, Neel thought, she looks so quiet. He remembered the night they had talked effortlessly, recalled her ease at the wedding and realized afresh that he didn’t know much about her.
“How is your friend from Berkeley?”
“She’s fine.” Her mind on Caroline, Leila had to think for a moment before replying.
“Have you seen the campus yet?”
“No.” Why was he talking to her? He never asked her anything personal. Except about ads and interviews.
“I can take you there one day if you like,” Neel heard himself offering. They were married and slept in the same bed, and yet he had never done something as simple as drop her off somewhere.
“That’s okay. Rekha usually comes to San Francisco.”
“Have you seen her recently?”
“Yes. I did some translation for her.”
“Really? For the university or for her personally?”
“For a woman at a shelter in San Francisco.”
“This woman could not speak English, so I went.” She deliberately didn’t tell him that she had signed on as a volunteer. Or that she was scheduled to start teaching at the YWCA as soon as they had need for her.
“Was it a bad case?”
“Not good, not bad.” She, too, could talk the way he did.
“I see. How is your driving coming along?”
“I changed instructors,” she informed him.
“Why? Wasn’t he good?”
“He was a good driver, I’m sure, but he didn’t treat me nicely. Kept making comments about immigrants and how California isn’t like it used to be.”
“That’s racist. You should have reported him.”
“I did. It really shocked him. First I stopped the car while I was driving on Van Ness and told him not to shout at me and to take me back to the school. Then I spoke to his manager and so next week I will have a woman instructor.”
“Good for you.” Neel hadn’t realized she had that much spunk. “Any news from your family?”
“Everyone is fine.”
“How’s your sister, the one who got into Mills?”
“She’s good,” she said, and added, “She may be getting married soon.”
“What do you mean, may be?”
“Right now she is corresponding with a man who studies at Cambridge. They will see each other in a few months and then decide.”
Neel remembered his first sighting of Leila and how he had been pleased by her looks and command of the English language. “What does he do at Harvard?”
“It’s Cambridge, England. He studies economics. If it does work out, I’d like to go for the wedding.”
“Sure, sure,” Neel agreed, noticing the “I” and not “we.” The Sunday of their meeting he had looked at her bent head and thought she would be a clinging wife. Now she was thinking of going to India by herself.
It was as if he were seeing her for the first time. Her black hair flowed over her shoulders, easily touchable. Her white caftan cast an upward glow, turning her skin into sunlit honey. Her face was bare of makeup, brown skin molded to the high cheekbones, and the eyes that Tattappa admired were outlined with long, dark lashes. Tattappa had said her eyes were made for dancing. Mummy had wanted to be a dancer, but she didn’t have the right-shaped eyes. What kind of eyes do you need? Almond eyes, she had said. It was so funny, he ran to tell Tattappa. “Tattappa, Mummy wants almonds instead of eyes.” Now he had a wife with the eyes his mother wanted.
Leila felt Neel staring and wondered if there was a smudge on her face. She pulled her hair into a bun and then excused herself. In spite of the cold, she was feeling hot and increasingly uncomfortable.
“What were you planning to do tonight?” Neel asked when she returned to the table.
“I was going to watch Zubin Mehta.”
“Ah, Sanjay and Oona just went to hear him. They were raving about his conducting.”
The phone rang. She didn’t move. She waited for him to spring up from the chair like a suddenly released jack-in-the-box and run to the study. He always picked up the phone in the little room that was so clearly his she hardly ever entered it.
Once in a while she played out a scenario that began with the phone pealing and Neel racing to get it, shutting the door with a bang. In her mind’s eye she gave them a few minutes before picking up the extension in the kitchen. Then she would hear for herself the voice that had brought its accent from France. Would the other woman be whispering sweet somethings into Neel’s eager ear? In her fantasy, Leila interrupted their illicit words. She never said, “I’m sorry.” Instead she interjected, “Oh, I thought you were finished.” That was a clever line. If she said it, perhaps their affair would be finished.
This time, however, Neel reached for the extension on the kitchen wall.
“Oona, what a pleasant surprise! We were just talking about you.”
Leila listened to his smooth voice easily speaking the white lies that would bring a smile to Oona’s face. His plate was empty, as was the dish containing the curry. The fork lay beside the plate, unused. Neel had copied her and used his fingers, tearing the tortilla and scooping the vegetable with it.
“I know, I know, it’s the perfect night to sit around the fireplace playing board games. But I’m afraid we’ll have to beg out. It’s just too wet. Another time, perhaps.”
Neel patted his stomach as he returned to the table. “Dinner was very good, thank you. That was Oona. She called to see if we wanted to go over and play Scrabble, Monopoly, and some other games I’ve never heard of. I hope you don’t mind, but I told her we couldn’t.”
“That’s okay. I wanted to watch TV.” She wasn’t about to change her plans just because he had changed his and come home.
“I was wondering”—Neel laughed, surprised that he was so unsure of himself; it felt like he was on a first date with Leila—“would you like to play a game of Scrabble? It’s been years since I’ve played, but it is a fun game.”
Competing emotions staked their claim in her. Anger, sadness, scorn. And most astonishingly, happiness. She wished she could say, “No, thank you,” just like that, with no reason. Instead she said, “Okay.” This was what she had longed to hear when she first arrived in San Francisco. But Neel had hardly been home and never stayed long enough to talk, much less make words on a board. Now, on an evening she was to spend on her own, he was proposing they pick letters and play for points.