Authors: Anne Cherian
“Have you played it before?”
Irritation punched out her answer. “Yes, of course I have.”
Twenty minutes later, Leila leaned against the sofa and contemplated the letters in front of her.
I E N T R P
and s. Should she shock him with
? She decided on the safer route and adding an
“You aren’t beating me,” Neel complained, “you’re killing me. Why didn’t you warn me how good you are?” But in fact, he enjoyed her prowess. She was clever and imaginative and had already made use of two triple-word scores.
“You didn’t ask. You thought I didn’t know how to play,” Leila pointed out. The 100-point difference in their score gave her an insouciance she had never known.
“Why can’t there be an earthquake when I need one?” Neel sighed. “Just a tiny one that shifts the board so we have to call it a draw? Or maybe I should pour you a beer and addle your brains.”
“What are you laughing at?” Neel demanded. “I’m just about to make my comeback. Watch this.” He put down
“I’m not laughing at you. It’s Zubin Mehta. Doesn’t he look like a monkey?”
Arms going this way and that, face contorted, Mehta did look funny, and Neel began laughing. “He gets paid a lot of money to do that, you know. We should be more respectful.”
“Oh, I do respect him. It’s just all that gesticulating and jumping around seems so at odds with the serious business of conducting. Incidentally,
is not a word. It’s an abbreviation.”
“Since when have abbreviations not been considered words?”
“Since Scrabble was invented. So I’m afraid
is out. No triple letter for your zed.”
“It’s zee in America,” Neel corrected her. “People don’t understand when you say zed.”
“I’ve already used it. They thought I was British.”
“Ah, the good old British who left us our accents and nothing else.”
“I wouldn’t say that. What about trains, a divided subcontinent, and a ridiculous regard for white skin?” Leila said.
“I think they’re still using the same maroon bogeys from before Independence.” Neel laughed. “God, those things are old and filthy.”
“I must have traveled in one of those because it had an English toilet. No seat, and no one seemed to know how to use it, but there it was, very upright and very dirty.”
“Yuk.” Neel shivered.
“Do you value white skin?” he asked curiously a moment later. Perhaps if she had been much fairer she would have been married earlier.
Leila thought of long white legs.
“Skin is like the cover of a book…” she began.
“…and only the inside matters,” Neel finished impatiently. “That’s all well and true, but I think many Indians feel intimidated, inferior to whites.”
She hadn’t felt that way and so far had no reason to.
“Is that how you feel?” It was the first personal question she had asked him in the States.
Neel sighed. “Well, I don’t like it when a policeman pulls me over but not the car that’s going faster. Or when a salesperson goes past me to help a white customer.”
“But why does that make you feel inferior?”
“How would it make you feel?”
“Like it’s more their country than mine. Do you think Sanjay and Shanti feel inferior?” She knew the answer, but asked him anyway.
“Don’t know.” Neel laughed. “How did we get on this topic anyway?”
“Blame the British,” Leila said. “And now I have to thank them for adopting a Hindi word.” She put down
. “All my vowels in one fell swoop,” she said with satisfaction.
“Hey, I was going to make
in that spot. Now what am I going to do?”
“Save it for another game,” Leila said blithely. “That was my final word.”
“One hundred and fifty–point difference!” Neel looked at their scores. “Would I feel this bad if I’d lost by ten points?”
“Absolutely. Just ask the silver medalist at the Olympics.”
“Thanks a lot. I guess losers put things away?”
“Yes.” Leila stood up. “And I shall go celebrate with a long shower.”
As she felt the water heat her body, she considered the evening. This was the closest Neel had come to behaving like a husband. And at home there was no audience to play to, unlike at the barbecue and the wedding.
Why had she responded to him? Was this how she wanted to act?
Steam swirled around her as she turned this way and that under the jet of water. She loved taking showers. Back home they couldn’t afford a geyser so it was always a bucket of cold water. When she finally stepped out, she could hear Neel in their bedroom.
“I’m almost done,” she called, slipping on her robe.
He surprised her by walking in.
“I can’t see a thing.” He peered into the foggy mirror.
“Why do you need to see yourself brushing your teeth?” Leila asked.
“Because I want to make sure I’m still here?” He grinned.
“In that case, let me give you something else to look at,” and with her index finger she wrote across the mirror: “
Neel laughed. “I never knew you were so competitive.”
“I could have won, you know. Had a chance to use a triple-word score, but I didn’t know how you’d react if I made
“I was going to make
Only I didn’t want to embarrass you.”
The shower had softened Leila’s skin. Neel noticed that her cheeks were pink and damp twists of hair drifted around her face. She wasn’t wearing a bra and he could see the dark rounds of her nipples. Was her waist as small as in Ooty? His parent-picked wife wasn’t bad at all. She was Tattappa’s choice, too. But—she was a virgin. She would not know how to respond to a caress or a kiss. If she was a typical Indian girl, she had never kissed anyone. He hadn’t either, till he came to Stanford. Before his first time he had read Masters and Johnson, and tried to pretend he had lots of experience.
Leila braided her hair in the bedroom, then got into bed. It was another cold and fog-obscured night, but she was warm. She now knew what a penis looked like and exactly what coitus involved. American libraries didn’t have plastic covers on books.
She heard the whine of his electric toothbrush, the steady rain of urine followed by three spurts. Flush. She curled into her corner of the bed as his heavy steps echoed in the largely empty bedroom.
Neel’s eyes quickly adjusted to the dark. She was off in her corner, probably asleep. Or was she? Maybe they could talk a little. This was something else they had never done before.
“Lee,” he whispered.
She wasn’t going to acknowledge this name he had given her.
“Lee,” he tried again, then sighed, settling into the mattress. It was a virgin, like her. He had bought it a few weeks before the India trip.
Leila wondered what would have happened if she had answered him. She looked at the moon, a bright fingernail floating in the sky. “It is the same moon in America,” Indy had said. But in India Neel had not liked her. Tonight was the first time she had felt his enjoyment at being with her. This was the feeling she had wanted to bring home from Ooty. Not love, that would have been too quick, but enjoyment. Now Leila heard his breathing grow steady and the small movements of getting comfortable in bed ceased. She felt his body come closer and suddenly her neck stiffened. Didn’t he know he was on her braid? She tried to move, but her head was held in place by his weight. She couldn’t even try to free the braid because her back was to him. She couldn’t sleep like this.
“Neel,” a little louder.
He moved and suddenly she was free.
“You were lying on my hair.” Leila started to braid her hair again.
He wondered how it would feel to have that hair tent his face. His hands touched the shiny strands, lingering, sliding over her face. She didn’t say anything and his fingers cupped the smooth moulds of her face. She had almost made penis, he remembered. He had wanted to make coitus. He kissed her.
A roller coaster started in Leila’s stomach. She didn’t respond initially, almost catatonic, her heart thudding to the anxious knowledge that the auspicious night had finally arrived. Then she was suddenly aware that once again she was pinned on the bed. This time her caftan had got caught between them. She shifted, moved her hand to adjust the material, and didn’t see his face descending. Her hand hit his nose.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Leila apologized.
“Shh, it’s okay. Okay?”
He was asking her permission. Something held her back. Why now? Should she spurn him as he had her? His body was warm, his weight a pleasant thing to bear. Even as she struggled to come to grips with thoughts of anger, she started to melt. This was what she had wanted and dreamed of since the morning he had come to see her. Now he was approaching her, about to reveal the mystery of sex to her. As she continued to lie beneath him, the months of rejection, the fury and shame came together in a ball and she flung it aside, aware only that he wanted her. His desire for her was a strange and satisfying triumph.
Warmth and wetness surged through her and she felt desire loosen her limbs. Even though she knew he had been with another woman, she felt victorious. He was with her now. His shifting weight pressed against
Neel kept kissing her, and with every kiss, her response grew deeper and longer. She didn’t speak at all, just “Uh-huh” when he asked, “You safe?” Her heart stopped when he sat up. But he only unbuttoned his shirt and flung it on the floor. She caught him back in her arms. When he swung her on top, she lost that inebriated feeling and buried her face in his neck.
“Yes,” he said softly, “kiss me,” and she did, covering his neck with her mouth. She was boneless, her blood so hot she couldn’t feel the cold air though her caftan had long ago been taken off.
She never stopped him, just kept pace. Maybe she wasn’t a virgin. Neel looked down at her face, surprised at his disappointment, wanting to read her eyes, but they were closed.
Leila was wary when he parted her legs. She held her breath, wondering if it would hurt. She lay still, waiting to become a wife.
Neel felt her sudden tenseness, and almost stopped. Did she not want this? Then he knew. She was scared. He was her first. A tenderness, a desire to make sure she not feel any pain slowed him down.
“Did I hurt you?” he whispered.
She didn’t say anything, just pressed the hand that had reached out and clasped hers.
Caesar plowed her and she cropped
. The line from Shakespeare surfaced and suddenly made sense.
She lay awake for a long time, listening to his racing heart, which slowed down only when his breathing was even. How could he sleep? She could not stop thinking of all that they had done.
THE NEXT MORNING
, Leila wanted to run and look at herself in the mirror. That’s what Amber did after she slept with the king. Would she look as different as she felt?
Neel was asleep, their bodies facing each other, making a slight V in the mattress. In all her yesterdays she would have risen, taken a shower, and started her day without expecting anything from him. Now she closed her eyes, wanting him to be the first to awaken, talk, maybe even make love. They had fallen asleep without putting on their clothes. She had never slept in the nude before and was amazed how warm she felt.
Neel opened his eyes, not quite awake from the deep sleep that had been cluttered with dreams. He felt someone watching him and it all came back. Lee. Last night. She was smiling at him, her face so close he could almost count each of those incredible lashes. Not sure how to respond, he looked at the clock.
“Oh shit, oh my God, it’s eight!”
“We slept in.” Leila’s voice was a little hoarse.
“I’ve gotta go.” He pushed back the covers and tried not to feel embarrassed as he walked to the bathroom. When he was young he had developed a bad case of acne on his ass and typically made sure to keep it covered.
“I’ll make it up to you, Leila,” he called out above the hum of the razor. “Be home early tonight.”
In ten minutes he was at the front door. By then Leila had brushed her teeth and changed.
He turned, hand on the knob.
“Have a good day.” Leila came up and kissed his cheek.
A cable in a Muni bus had separated itself from the tangle of wires overhead and traffic was backed up for blocks. Neel felt impotent behind the wheel. At least in India one could honk and make noise. There was enough turmoil in his life without traffic making him late. His first operation was scheduled for 8:45 a.m. He had never been late.
The passengers in the next car were looking out of their windows, faces tilted to the sky. The Blue Angels were flying, making lots of noise with their precision patterns in the air.
Caroline! He hadn’t thought of her until now. All this time he had only wondered how to avoid Leila so he could carry on with Caroline. Now he hoped he didn’t have to see her. Maybe her period had come. He didn’t want to think—even briefly—that she might be pregnant.
Sanjay was someone else he didn’t want to run into. Mr. Pure-as-driven-snow Sanjay had probably only been with one woman, and that too without any mess. Neel knew that Sanjay would expect him to dump Caroline. Most days he, too, wanted out of their seedy, needy relationship.
Then he recalled Leila kissing him good-bye. Why had she done that? What did she expect?
The driver fixed the cable and, like the others around him, Neel stepped on the gas.
Leila felt like an American wife. She had desperately wanted moments like these and they were finally happening. She couldn’t sit still, couldn’t stop smiling, couldn’t stop thinking about last night. She went back to bed, and in her mind saw Neel reaching for her. She could still smell him. Helen Keller had said she could smell the musk of a young man in any room she entered. Leila, too, could breathe the essence of Neel. Not his aftershave, but the maleness beneath it that recalled strong brown skin, sweat, and that which kept trickling out all morning.
She wanted to hear his voice but didn’t call in case Madam Fake answered. She was no longer jealous of the woman, she just didn’t want to have any reminder of Neel’s past. He was hers now.
She was about to start on dinner when the phone rang. If it was one of those annoying telemarketers who always mispronounced their surname she would not hang up. She would say that both Mr. and Mrs. Sarath were on an extended honeymoon.
It was Neel. She loved the deep sound of his voice, that he was calling her Leila. There was a birthday party for Patrick and he had to show his face. He’d be home a half hour late, maximum.
She had been wanting him to come home to her ever since she arrived in San Francisco.
Once the clock sounded seven, she began to grow nervous. He’d said half an hour, but it could be any time now. In the past, cooking had always calmed her. The routine of chopping, stirring, frying, tasting, had been familiar, a balm to anxiety. Today she had wanted to cook an erotic meal, wondering if he, too, would get the moist suggestiveness of eggplant, the obvious sex appeal of zucchini. Now she understood why a woman she once saw on TV had said filling up the car was erotic. Everything reminded her of sex. She kept checking the pots, opening the oven, running to the bathroom to ensure she looked nice. She was wearing blue jeans and a new olive green sweater. When she’d tried it on last week, another customer in the changing room had told her she looked fabulous.
The door opened. She didn’t run to him, but stayed in front of the stove. Her fingers trembled as she felt him crossing the floor toward the kitchen. She wanted to go up to him like in the morning, but was too shy. He could probably smell the brownies, maybe even the spaghetti that was almost done.
“Hi. I got you some cake.” Neel proffered the small package, grateful to have something to hold between them. He’d been busy at the hospital, but not so occupied that he didn’t think back to last night or the evening ahead. How was she going to be? And he? He hadn’t planned to make love to her. It had just happened. Midway through the day he figured he’d just let this evening happen, too.
It didn’t seem to be happening, he thought. She had barely turned around and didn’t meet his eyes.
“It’s chocolate?” He tried a second serve. It was like playing on a clay court. You didn’t know how the ball was going to land or if your partner was going to hit it back to you.
“My favorite,” Leila said, finding her voice. She didn’t tell him about the brownies. It was so sweet—literally—of him to bring something for her.
“Let’s share it,” she suggested.
“Why not? We can do whatever we want.” She handed him a fork.
“You know, I’ve always wanted to eat dessert first, so yes, why not?”
Neel lingered over the meal, concentrating on the food so he could avoid her eyes. He had been nervous to open the front door, aware that his “I’ll make it up to you” had been empty words, something to fill in the gap between waking and leaving. He wanted to say, “I wasn’t thinking last night. I shouldn’t have slept with you, and now I don’t know what to do.” But he couldn’t bring himself to form those words.
After dinner, he took the easy route and suggested a movie. They wouldn’t have to talk and it would take up at least two hours.
“I’ll make popcorn, if you get the movie,” Leila said.
“Don’t you want to see one of the new movies in the theater?”
“It’s so much nicer at home,” Leila said.
“You’d better come with me, then. I don’t know what you’ve seen.” This was just one in the long list of things he didn’t know about her.
“You mean the bits and pieces of movies I’ve seen. When they showed
, it lasted forty-five minutes only. Indy and I wanted our money back, but the man laughed in our faces.”
“I haven’t seen
either. Shall I get it?”
The movie proved a good choice. They both had to concentrate on the dialogue, and when it was over, he didn’t have to fake being tired. He could barely answer Leila’s question: “Why did the censor board cut so much in India?”
By the time Leila showered and brushed her teeth, he was already asleep.
The next day, Neel awoke to the predicament that he had switched days with Dr. Stael. It would be churlish to fly without inviting Leila. Though right now his plane didn’t feel like a sanctuary.
“Do you need to buy some more clothes?” he asked during breakfast, thinking he could drop her off and not have to worry about finding things to do, at least in the morning.
“I have enough.”
“Even for interviews?”
“Yes. The saleslady told me I just need one good suit for that and I bought a blue one.”
“Great. Well—” Neel took a bite of toast. It was so crunchy a section broke off and landed on the floor.
Leila laughed. “Remember how Sanjay wanted to toast us?”
“Ah, Sanjay, I’m sure his little patients appreciate his sense of humor.” Neel stood up. “I think—” he started, as Leila said, “Do you think—”
There was an awkward silence as each waited for the other to continue.
“Ladies first,” Neel said.
“Since you are free today, I thought maybe we could go to the Golden Gate Park? But you were going to—”
He was faced with the first request she had ever made. “Oh, nothing,” he said. The tune-up he was going to get done was something he’d concocted. It could easily wait another month. “I guess. Sure,” he said. “What do you want to see there?”
An hour later, Neel turned to Leila in the car. “Are you sure there are supposed to be buffaloes here?”
“That’s what it says in the guidebook.”
“Well, I’m relieved to see the enclosure. I thought they might be roaming free.”
“Like the pigs and cows and dogs back home. That’s why I wanted to see them, actually. I miss those animals running all over the roads—streets. Is there any place you want to see?”
“Nope. This is my first time in the park and unlike you, I didn’t read the guidebook.”
“You’ve never been here?”
“I also haven’t seen Alcatraz or Coit Tower. I keep thinking there will be time for all that.”
“Then maybe we should park the car and walk,” Leila suggested.
The green grass was as inviting as a red carpet. It was a weekday, but there were people everywhere. A group of women were stretching to tai chi. Several young boys flicked a Frisbee. Workers were erecting a stage and fences for the upcoming dog show. Couples lay together under the trees. Leila was happy to be part of this large family.
The children, couples, parents, reminded Neel that he was a husband. It seemed to him that Leila was even walking closer to him as their steps continued past the Steinhart Aquarium.
“Want to go in?” Neel remembered the two-headed snake he had read about.
“It’s such a glorious day,” Leila said. “Let’s stay outside.” She didn’t want to lose his company to display cabinets and darkened rooms where they would have to speak in whispers, if at all. In the Botanical Garden in Ooty he had kept his distance, taking photographs she had never seen.
They had walked a little farther when Neel saw a sign near the elaborate metal gates. “How about the Shakespeare Garden? Isn’t that what you used to teach?”
Leila had somehow missed the garden when looking at the map. But when they went in, she was disappointed. Like its location, the garden seemed an afterthought. No bust of Shakespeare, just a few flowers and a large sundial.
She walked toward the back wall.
“Watch it,” Neel said sharply. But it was too late. Concentrating on what lay ahead, Leila hadn’t seen the sprinkler and didn’t hear its sputtering approach. Neel sidestepped, but a passing arch of cold water doused her left side.
“Should we go back?” Neel looked at her wet sleeve.
“It’s just a little damp,” Leila said.
Four metal plaques were fixed to the wall. Leila approached one end. It was etched with lines from various plays.
“Are there more quotes on your side?” she asked.
Root of hemlock digged i’ th’ dark
,” he read the unfamiliar words slowly. “
Liver of blaspheming Jew
“One of the witches in
,” Leila said immediately.
“Impressive,” Neel heard himself say. “But which scene and act?”
“Toward the end I think, so Act Four?”
“It always bothered me that Shakespeare could be so racist.”
“Well, no racism that I can see in this one,” Neel said as he read on: “
And in his blood that on the ground lay spill’d, A purple flower sprung up, check’red with white.
A little macabre, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think that’s a play,” Leila said slowly, trying to recall where she had read those lines. “
Venus and Adonis
“Yes. I thought Shakespeare only wrote plays?”
“No, he also wrote long poems.”
“Here’s your last one, and if you get it right, I’ll never quiz you on Shakespeare again,” Neel said. “
What’s in a name
Romeo and Juliet
,” Leila interrupted.
“How did you know? I didn’t even get a chance to finish it.”
“Everyone knows that one,” she dismissed him.
“I guess that’s what makes me special. I’m not everyone,” Neel joked, though he was feeling a little intimidated.