Authors: Anne Cherian
“But you have the complete set of Shakespeare,” Leila said.
“Doesn’t mean I’ve read it. It’s another one of those ‘I’ll do later’ items.”
Neel was still thinking of Shakespeare as he brushed his teeth that night. After dinner, Leila had pulled down the copy he had picked up from some going-out-of-business bookstore in Palo Alto and said it was no wonder he hadn’t read a word. His edition contained the complete plays, poems, and sonnets, but no notes. Neel listened to her go on about various editions, though he didn’t really understand the differences. When she recommended a particular one, he asked her to buy it.
He had just started flossing when the bathroom door opened and Leila’s face appeared in the mirror.
“I’m almost done,” Neel said.
“Okay if I brush my teeth?” Leila asked.
“Sure.” He was standing directly in front of the sink. The effect of her sudden appearance traveled to his fingers, and when he turned on the faucet for her, water gushed into the sink and sprayed them.
“Oops, sorry. We seem to have trouble with water today,” he tried to make light of his nervousness.
“Not with water. With you. This morning in the Shakespeare Garden you didn’t give me enough warning and now you deliberately got my sleeve wet.”
“I did not,” he defended himself and then laughed when he saw her smiling. “I did save you from falling at Al’s wedding,” he reminded her.
“You could have really saved me by insisting I wear pants,” Leila joked. “I feel so overdressed every time I think of it.”
“I remember it quite differently. You were acting like a queen, with long lines of admirers waiting to compliment you. The same ones who told me I didn’t look good anymore.” Neel wiped his face and left.
He was propped up under the covers, a book resting on his knees, when she came to the bedroom. But instead of turning the pages, he was turning over the events of the past days in his mind. They still hadn’t talked about Sunday night. He had wanted to bring it up, but there had never been the right opportunity. Time had gone by quickly, effortlessly. During lunch at a Chinese restaurant she had surprised him—again—by knowing how to use chopsticks. She tried teaching him, only to give up and call him a hopeless case when he speared an eggplant after numerous unsuccessful efforts to pick it up the right way. “You can’t give up so easily,” she said.
They wandered through Chinatown and he enjoyed watching her face become a visual “Oh” when he informed her that those brown things hanging in the windows were horse penises.
“They’re ox tongue,” Neel relented, laughing and continuing, “I can’t believe you believed me.”
But she defended her naïveté, saying, “The Chinese eat chicken feet, so why not every part of the horse? As if ox tongue is any better.”
Before he could respond, she darted into a store.
“You want something?” he asked.
But she was just happy to handle the various items, she said, reminding him that back home products were kept behind a counter and had to be pointed at if one wanted a closer look. Everything was touchable here, she said. Including her, Neel thought. He had never seen her look so animated before.
He kept forgetting that she represented an arranged marriage and his family’s interference. He could not understand how he could enjoy himself with her when he had started out not even wanting to talk to her.
He watched her enter the bedroom. She walked so softly, her movements gentle and unhurried. Now she, too, was getting a book to read. They were like an old married couple, reading before going to bed. She told him she was filling the gaps in her reading of American literature. She had only taken one course in college and was systematically going through Melville and Hawthorne, books she checked out of the library. She settled into her side of the bed.
Neel, who had planned and plotted his life—making a list at a young age—felt out of control.
He closed the book.
“Everything okay?” Neel didn’t know he had sighed until Leila spoke.
“Yes,” he lied. “I’m just tired.”
“You missed some toothpaste,” Leila’s finger dabbed the fleshy left corner of his lips.
Their eyes met and her hand remained suspended. He was suddenly aware that he was staring. Look away, look away, he told himself, but he couldn’t. He concentrated on the strand of hair that was entangled in her eyelashes. Did it hurt her?
She moved closer, bringing with her that perfume he still couldn’t place.
“We shouldn’t. I mean, we can’t,” Neel said, finding his words.
“Because, well, because,” and he remembered, “we don’t have any condoms.”
“Can’t you use something else?”
The question hung in the air between them for a second and then found his genitals. She knew so little. His partners in the past had been well prepared, some even carrying their own condoms. He had always been uncomfortable about being one in a long line, worried as to how he compared to the others who had come before him. With Leila, he didn’t have to worry. He was the first and only one, and her lack of experience engulfed him with desire. She didn’t have a diaphragm that had stopped the semen of other men. She didn’t take the pill to make her safe for anyone. “Can’t you use something else?” she had asked, as if he had all the answers.
He remembered the package Ashok had given him. “Wait, I’ll be right back.” He went to find the travel bag.
He didn’t want to think as he unzipped the black case and found the packet of condoms. His hands and legs seemed to have taken over anyway. One opened the square, silky package and the other took him back to bed.
WEDNESDAY DAWNED AS DULL
and rainy as Caroline’s mood. She was anxious to get to work and see Neel. The weather was supposed to clear, but the gray skies didn’t look like they were about to disappear any time soon. It would be a good night for staying in. Her short period had come and gone and there was no need for Neel to stay away. She had even turned down dinner with her brother to be with Neel.
She wished the day would hurry into evening. They always had dinner on Wednesdays and she wanted tonight to be special. Candles, champagne, chocolate: the three Cs she always splurged on with her lovers in times of uncertainty.
She wanted Neel to forget the outside world, and most of all she wanted him to forget that awful day on the plane. She should never have told him she was late. She had never seen him so angry, and it was the first time he had cancelled a trip with her.
Neel lingered on at the hospital, not wanting to leave the safe haven of the antiseptic building. He had forgotten about the dinner until Caroline paged him. It had forced him to cancel plans with Leila. Claiming she missed Indian food, she had suggested they go to New Delhi. Neel had balked, then noticed the smile in her eyes. “It’s a restaurant that just got a great review,” she said, and he was looking forward to it.
The streets were crowded with evening traffic and the slow, creaking cable car caused further delay. Ordinarily, Neel would have been like the man in the next car, constantly changing lanes in a futile attempt to get ahead. Stuck behind the San Francisco trademark filled with leaning, beaming tourists, Neel thought of Caroline’s neat apartment, the full-size bed, the shelf on which she placed her collection of miniature Teddy bears, and the lamp she sometimes draped with a scarf.
Her period—along with his anger and the confusing developments with Leila—had kept him away until now. He had even managed to avoid her until today. She had been so understanding, apologetic, anxious to get back to their evenings.
As he walked up the stairs, an elderly couple passed him and the man said, “Evening. Haven’t seen you in a while.” Were people watching him? What the hell was he doing here, anyway?
He was just about to turn back when Caroline opened the door. She must have heard his footsteps.
“Sweetie, come sit by the fire. Can I get you something to drink?” When he hadn’t arrived by six thirty she’d started worrying. He
to come; she had to romance him back to the old days.
This evening she’d waited nervously, moving from chair to sofa to chair, afraid the phone would ring and it would be Neel cancelling on her or her brother asking if she’d decided to forgo the show and have dinner with him. Caroline had lied about the tickets. What else could she do? Tell Dan that things were rocky with Neel? She needed to be with Neel, even though this was the only evening Dan would be in town. She couldn’t tell Dan the truth, that she couldn’t postpone dinner with Neel because, well, he was married and their time together was limited. Dan would insist she break it off—even without meeting Neel. It was so easy for other people to tell her to leave Neel; and the reasons didn’t matter. He’s Indian, he’s married, he’s stringing you along. They didn’t understand that Neel was the best man she had ever gone out with and now he was her only hope. She had invested too much not to fight for him, for them.
And now Neel was here and they had the whole evening together.
“Nothing right now, thank you.” Neel stared into the fake fire. The cement logs looked real, but the flames gave out more light than warmth. “A Stone Age TV,” Leila had called the leaping, addictive reds and yellows of the fire he had lit during their Scrabble game.
Caroline surreptitiously touched the red silk underwear she had bought yesterday. “Let me give you a massage.” She came up behind him.
Neel submitted to her touch and closed his eyes against the glare of the flames. He was in a position most men dreamed of. If only his college friends could see him now. Here he was, being ministered to by a beautiful white woman who a hundred years ago would never have considered him a man, much less a lover.
Caroline loosened his shirt and rubbed the cold from her hands before touching his neck. She crouched behind him, happy to be there. Flesh against flesh, she worked to untie the knots in his back. She desperately wanted to take them back to the days when nothing stood in the way of her confidence.
“Mmm, that’s better. Can I have that something to drink now?” He didn’t bother offering to help, just stayed where he was, the strain almost completely gone from his body.
“Champagne?” he raised an eyebrow. “How extravagant.”
“You’re worth it.” Caroline smiled. “To us.” She raised her glass. She was so nervous, she misjudged and banged Neel’s glass. Golden liquid spilled onto the carpet.
“Your good carpet.” Neel dabbed at the spot with a napkin.
“Just leave it,” Caroline insisted. “I’ll get it later.” Tonight she didn’t care about the small Persian prayer rug Neel had bought for her at an auction.
“Yes. To us,” she said again, and this time was more careful.
Neel regarded her with half-closed eyes. She looked like the angel on top of the office Christmas tree. Except that he could reach out and touch her. At one time he would have done just that, rejoicing in her body and how she responded to him.
“Can we have some music now?”
“Of course. Anything you want.”
Neel fiddled with the knob. Their first night together, she had seduced him. It was she who had taken command, he who had followed her to the bedroom, tail wagging like a puppy. Things had changed so much since then.
“Do you think you can strip to this?”
Caroline stood up immediately, relieved that he wanted her, but uncomfortable and almost shy. This was and was not the evening she had envisioned when lighting the candles and putting the champagne on ice. She wasn’t used to him being the initiator. The music was slow but she tried to marry herself to its rhythm as she removed her jeans and the striped silk shirt.
Neel was beginning to enjoy himself. Men paid money to see this. He poured himself some more champagne, not taking his eyes off her. All she had on were bikini panties. The red glowed against her skin and he knew, puffy and soft beneath the silk, was hair the same color as on her head.
“Stop,” he ordered. He didn’t want her naked.
As if his words were a leash, she stopped. She approached him slowly, not just to delay the delight but also to try and take some control. She kneeled in front of him, knowing exactly how she would gain complete mastery.
Leila’s black hair floated in front of Neel’s eyes. He recalled the pleasant aroma of her skin, her teeth nipping at his neck, her taste. How surprised he’d been by her eagerness, her willingness to explore and lead.
The longer he looked at Caroline, the less he wanted her. He stood up, knowing he was doing the right thing. He had started something with Leila. And he had to figure out where that was going.
Disappointment gripped Caroline so hard that for a moment she couldn’t say anything, couldn’t think. Then the doorbell rang. Dan. It had to be Dan.
“Stay, please stay,” Caroline said softly. “Let’s ignore it. Just some kids playing around.” The evening had been like an obstacle course, starting with whether or not Neel would even show up. Now they were at the final hurdle. If he stayed into the night, Caroline would know she had won him back. All she had to do was make sure he didn’t leave now.
“I’ll tell them off on my way out.” Neel walked toward the door.
“No, Neel, please—” Caroline said, quickly putting on her discarded clothes. What hold did the unwanted wife have on him? Sex had always worked in the past.
“It’s just kids,” he said. “I promise I won’t let them get a peek at you.”
Neel was surprised by the burly figure outside the door. “What do you want?”
The blue eyes narrowed in surprise. “This Caroline Kempner’s apartment?” the man asked, even as he checked the number on the door.
“Yes,” Neel answered.
“I’m her bro—Sis,” he broke off, as Caroline came into view behind Neel. “I came to drop this off,” he indicated a package, his voice loud and jovial. “Then I heard the music and—” His voice trailed off as he noticed the candles, the champagne glasses, Caroline tucking in her shirt, and Neel.
“Dan.” Caroline reached up and kissed his cheeks, fingers trembling on his broad shoulders. “Neel, this is my brother Daniel. Dan, this is Neel. Dan’s in town for just this evening and I wasn’t sure we’d be able to meet.”
“Well, little sister, I was free. You were the one with tickets for a show. I thought you couldn’t cancel them.”
Neel wished he had left ten minutes ago, wished he had never come over. It was clear that Caroline didn’t want him to meet her brother. Otherwise why tell so many lies? He felt his face grow hot. Sanjay used to joke that Indians were embarrassment-free because they didn’t blush, but Neel could feel the blood pour into his cheeks.
“Actually, I was on my way out.” Neel reached for his coat.
“No, you’re not.” Caroline inserted herself between Neel and the door. “Please stay, Neel. Dan, now that you’re here, why don’t you join us for dinner?”
“I don’t want to interrupt your plans.”
Caroline was still blocking his way and Dan hadn’t made any move to leave. He was glaring at his sister, his voice devoid of any warmth. Was he that angry about her lie? Suddenly Neel knew why Caroline had not wanted to answer the door, why she hadn’t invited them both to dinner.
“I’m taking off,” Neel said and stepped around Caroline.
“You don’t have to, not on my account,” Dan said.
“Neel, please don’t go.” Caroline had tears in her eyes, her hand on his sleeve. “I’m sure Dan would like to get to know you. Wouldn’t you, Dan?”
“Sure I would. But he said he’s leaving. Another time, then. Neal, did you say?”
“Neel. Well, Suneel.”
“That’s a new one. Suneel,” Dan tested the name. “Mexican, is it?”
“Indian. Suneel Sarath.” Not sure why he felt impelled to present his credentials, Neel added, “I’m a doctor at the hospital Caroline works at.”
“We don’t get too many Indians our way. First time I saw any was in New York City. Taxi drivers. With those things on their heads. What do you call them?”
“Turbans,” Neel said crisply.
“How come you aren’t wearing one?” Dan asked.
“Different religion.” Neel wished he could end the conversation and leave.
“Those drivers,” Dan shook his head, “couldn’t speak much English. Your English is pretty good.”
“So is yours,” Neel said quietly.
The men stared at each other.
Dan was the first to speak. “Thank you for being so understanding about tonight. We don’t get to see Caroline too much, what with her being in California and all. Now I can give the folks back home a full report.”
This time there was no mistaking the meaning. Neel had met this type before. They believed themselves to be superior simply because their families had been in America for generations. The sort who saw a Sikh and thought he should “go home,” conveniently forgetting that once their families, too, had been immigrants.
Now Neel ignored the brother and spoke directly to Caroline. “Thanks for the champagne,” then deliberately added, “and the massage.” Yes, he was taking the prudent route and leaving, but he could give that lump something to think about.
Caroline stepped toward him, but he didn’t break stride. The last thing he heard was Dan saying, “Let the man go, Caroline.”