A Good Indian Wife: A Novel (35 page)

BOOK: A Good Indian Wife: A Novel
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“But we’ve been together so long.”

“I’m sorry about that. It wasn’t right of me.”

“But you can make it right now.”

“I can’t, Caroline. At least not for you.”

She read the rest of the sentence in his eyes.

“How can you want to be with her? She’s so”—Caroline stopped herself from saying, “Indian.”

“She’s my wife,” Neel said quickly. He didn’t want her saying anything about Leila.

“But you told me you never wanted to marry her.”

“That was in the summer. This is now.”

“But what happened in that time?”

“She’s pregnant.” He hadn’t planned on telling Caroline about the pregnancy, but their meeting was getting too long and complicated. Maybe now she would believe him.

My grandfather asked me to marry her, not sleep with her, he had told her when he’d rushed over to her apartment, leaving the wife in the condo. He’d been sleeping with both of them. When her period was a few days late, he’d had abortion written all over his face. But the young wife was allowed to keep her baby. She got everything: the doctor husband, the condo in Pacific Heights, the new car, the plane, the baby.

“You bastard, you lying, cheating, bastard!” Caroline screamed, wishing her words were arrows that would pierce him so he’d topple from the pain. “How dare you sleep with both of us? How dare you come here and tell me she’s pregnant?”

“Caroline, calm down—”

“You’re standing there and telling me what to do? You bastard!”

“Oh, and you’re the good guy who just happened to call up my wife when I wasn’t home?”

Natalie had warned her not to do it. She could hear Natalie say, “It doesn’t matter how hard you fight, they always choose their wives in the end.” She could see the vein throbbing in his forehead, how his nostrils flared with every word.

Caroline crumbled, and now could not control her sobs.

She raised her face toward him, tears clotting her eyelashes.

“Caroline, I’m sorry. I’m sorry if I led you to believe we would marry. You will never know how sorry I am. But it’s over.”

“What did I do wrong?” They all left her. She’d end up like Natalie, alone and bitter.

Neel shook his head. There was so much that was wrong. But he could not blame her. She had only been thinking of her future. In Reno, in calling up Leila. Even today. She could not know that it was his past that had brought him here.

When Savannah had disappeared into the folds of her family, he felt anger, sadness, and shame. “She didn’t think I was good enough,” he told Sanjay, wild with grief at what he could not have. Sanjay had staunchly maintained that Savannah was the one who wasn’t good enough. “How did Oona do it, then?” Neel had not been able to stop that question. “I honestly don’t know.” Sanjay shook his head. “I was too busy trying to figure out how I had fallen for her. I always thought I’d go back and marry a nice Bangla girl.”

But, he added, he had no choice. As he’d said on numerous occasions, he would have married Oona if she had been purple.

Neel had dismissed the claim as one of Sanjay’s silly jokes. He had always envied the other man. But Sanjay wasn’t being funny. He had fallen for Oona in spite of, not because of, her color. And just because she was white didn’t mean theirs was a dream marriage. They had problems that couples in arranged marriages didn’t have. A white wife did not guarantee happiness.

He’d been wrong all these months spent railing against his lack of choice. For years he’d wondered why it was he didn’t have what Sanjay obviously had. Now he had it, too.

And just when he could say yes, he knew with absolute certainty that he no longer wanted that third item on his youthful list.

He didn’t know how or why, but he felt his old skin slip off, giving his brownness a comfort he had never felt before.

And when that desire for a white wife left him, so did his anger. He hadn’t realized how angry he had been. Angry at Caroline for not being the right white woman; angry at Leila for forcing him to become a husband and father.

There was no need to be angry with Caroline anymore. This time when he looked at her face, he saw past the rabbitish eyes and the leaking nose and found—desperation. She wanted what he represented; just as he had wanted what she represented.

“You didn’t do anything wrong. Please believe me when I say that. It just wasn’t meant to be,” he said gently.

“I’m never going to have anyone.” She couldn’t stop those fearful words.

“You will, Caroline.” Neel said, “He just has to be right for you.”

“Is your wife, this Lee, right for you?”

He remembered Tattappa’s words, felt the watch strap tight on his wrist. “It is better to be with one’s own kind,” Tattappa had said.

“She is.” The two words did not have the joy or freedom of “I do” but they carried the same commitment.

He was so much luckier than Caroline. She had grown up with dates every night of the week, the freedom to live away from the age of eighteen, and here she was, still alone. All those choices, and she hadn’t been able to get her choice. Yet he, who halfway across the world had to keep his nights and days a secret from his family, now had, because of that family, a wife, and soon a baby.

Caroline had wanted all that with him. She wasn’t asking for the impossible.

Jacques Olivier had assumed Neel was going out with Caroline, but that hadn’t stopped him from inquiring if she was available. He was probably still interested in Caroline, still looking to find someone who would understand his French instead of being seduced by his accent.

He’d give it a few weeks and then encourage Jacques to follow up on his interest in Caroline.

It was that thought that followed him outside, not the tears and sadness of a time now passed. He had left her drinking the tea she’d wanted to make for him. This time she understood that he couldn’t stay, that he would never again ring her doorbell.

He checked the clock in the car. He’d been here for almost two hours. Leila wasn’t expecting him back quite yet. Perhaps he should have some of the tea Leila had made. She really was quite amazing. Instead of getting angry or asking him to change his plans, she had simply made him tea. For his cold.

He glanced around for the red thermos. Then he remembered she’d come running to the door and taken it from his hands, saying the milk was spoiled.

Too bad, he thought, as he started the car. The tea would have been nice.

THIRTY-NINE
 
 

NEEL OPENED THE FRONT DOOR THINKING
he’d have another hot shower to wash off the morning and then ask Leila to make him masala tea without milk.

“Leila, I’m back,” he called out, and waited to hear her voice, footsteps, any indication that she was home. Guilty that he had spent the morning with Caroline, he wanted to get this first-encounter-after-the-lies over with.

“Leila?” he tried again, raising his voice and walking toward the kitchen, only to find it empty. Figuring she might be taking a late shower, he headed to the bathroom, but knew from the open door that she wasn’t there, either.

He returned to the kitchen wondering what to make of her absence.

The newspaper was on the table and the dishes piled in the sink. The smell of frying dosa was still there, as was a small amount of leftover batter.

Then he noticed the aloe plant. It had tipped over and the green plastic container had split open, oozing soil onto the tile.

Everything was the same as when they were having breakfast—except for the plant. Had the wind blown it down? He scooped up the mud and placed the plant on a saucer. What had happened? Why hadn’t Leila cleaned it up?

Where was she? When he hadn’t reached her from India, he thought she had left him. But she had been in the condo the whole time.

Had she left him now? But why would she do that? She had no idea he was meeting Caroline and she had known for a week that he was prepared to become a father.

That was it, he thought with relief. Her pregnancy. She was probably feeling those strange urges and had gone out to buy something.

He sat on the squeaky new leather chair, trying to read the paper, listening for footsteps and the turn of a key. The printed words remained on the page, his mind still on Leila. If he hadn’t lied to her, if she hadn’t been so understanding about his going flying while sick, he wouldn’t be feeling this jumpy and guilty. Thank God it was the last of Caroline.

Half an hour later, the same section of the paper on his lap, he suddenly thought that she might have left him a note. He’d said he’d be back around now, and it wasn’t like her to take off without telling him. As he walked toward the fridge to check the board, he noticed the blinking red light on the answering machine. Hoping it was a memo from Leila, he pressed “play.” He hadn’t known about the memo feature, but she had read the instructions and shown him how it worked.

“Hi Neel. It’s Jake. I spoke with your wife earlier about the trip to Reno. Turns out I got the dates mixed up. It’s the following weekend. Leave me a message if you two can come. I’ll pick it up from the Big Apple. See ya.”

The happy, carefree American words sickened Neel. Of all the days in the year, Jake had to call this morning. He’d spoken to Leila and she had known there was to be no flying. Why hadn’t she told him anything?

Had Jake phoned while he was in the shower? Neel tried to remember if there had been a change when he came downstairs. But he was so anxious to leave, so worried that Caroline would call, that he hadn’t paid any attention to Leila. He had given her the thermos, waiting—interminably, it seemed to him, for the tea. All that while she hadn’t said a word, just concentrated on making the brew. No, he suddenly remembered, she’d asked if Jake would like some tea. She had been testing him and he had continued the lie. Was that why she practically snatched the thermos from his hands? Just when he was at the front door, ready to step outside. Had she given him that much time to confess?

She had claimed the milk was sour. Neel wasn’t so sure about that now. He checked the date on the carton; good for another four days. She had lied to him. So many lies between them, he thought, pressing his fingers to his temples where the fierce thud-thud of his headache was in full force. Since he wasn’t giving Jake a lesson, Leila must have guessed he was with Caroline.

Where
was
she?

Neel paced the floor, trying to figure out what to do. Trying to figure out what Leila might have done. The problem was, he didn’t know her well, had made so little attempt to get to know her.

She had that friend from Berkeley, he remembered. A journalist. What was her name? He strained his memory but nothing came to him. She’d kept that new friend to herself, and now Neel would never be able to get ahold of her if she’d gone there.

Maybe she had gone to see Shanti. They’d spent a lot of time together in Reno and it made sense that she would seek out a fellow Indian. He called up and wondered how he could ask about Leila without giving anything away.

Shanti, Bob reminded him, was in New Zealand. “She’s left me for three whole weeks,” Bob complained. “I can’t wait to have her back.”

Oona was the only other person Neel could think of. Sanjay had told him their two women were getting close, having tea, “and no doubt telling each other how impossible husbands can be.” Sanjay had laughed. Neel responded with a smile, sure that Leila would never discuss such things with Oona. But perhaps she did.

He picked up the phone, then replaced it. He couldn’t call up and ask, “Is Leila there?” If she wasn’t, he would be forced to tell Mr. Goody Two Shoes Sanjay all that had been going on. He didn’t want Sanjay and Oona to lose respect for him, especially now, after he had finally cut off the past.

Neel suddenly remembered Leila telling him about Oona’s miscarriage. He would call up, offer his condolences, and ask about Leila at the same time.

“Well, at least I know I can get pregnant,” Oona rallied valiantly. “So we’ll just keep on trying.”

“Of course, of course.” Neel was uncomfortable. “Is Sanjay there?”

Sanjay came on the line. “I tell you, Neel, it’s very different when it’s personal. We had to rush to the Emergency Room. I was with her the whole time but it wasn’t my body having the D&C. I used to joke that I’m just the sperm donor. But I was right. We men aren’t as brave as our women.”

“Leila will agree with you. She says that the Adam and Eve story has been interpreted wrongly all these centuries. According to her, God created Adam, then decided He could do better, and so created Eve.”

“Good one,” Sanjay acknowledged with a laugh. “Leila told us the good news about you two. How is she doing? You taking good care of her?”

“Trying to,” Neel answered. So Leila definitely wasn’t there. Where
was
she? Had she really left him?

“Trying is not the same as doing. Arre, do I sound like your parents?”

“Yes, but also like a good friend who’s been bugging me from day one to behave. Hey, Sanjay, hang on a second. I’m getting another call.”

When he switched back to Sanjay, he said very quickly, “That was the hospital. Leila’s there. I’ve got to go.” He hung up even as he could hear Sanjay offer, “Can we help?”

Neel was halfway to the hospital when he realized he hadn’t asked what had happened. All he heard was “hospital” and he panicked. Not sure in what condition he would find her, Neel made his way to the room the nurse at reception had given him.

Leila was lying on the bed, awake—and whole. She hadn’t slit her wrists. Then, even as he relaxed, he realized he was in the maternity section. And Patrick was in attendance.

Had she tried to do something to the baby? His headache drummed inside his temples, but he could think clearly in spite of the pain.

“What happened?” Neel asked the other doctor. He couldn’t bring himself to speak with Leila just yet.

“Why don’t you tell Neel while I get us prepped,” Patrick suggested easily.

Now he had to talk to her, look at the blue and white hospital gown from under which her legs splayed out into the stirrups.

Leila was taken aback by his appearance in the room. When the nurse suggested she call Dr. Sarath, Leila had resisted, giving in only because the woman seemed surprised. He might be gone the whole day, Leila said, then kept quiet when the kind nurse insisted a message on the answering machine would let the doctor know immediately upon his return home. Leila wasn’t sure if he ever planned to return home. Still, she told the nurse to go ahead and call, and was relieved when they moved her to a private room before the woman could tell her if she had reached Neel.

Apparently, Neel had been reached and now here he was. Leila looked down at the white sheet. Her legs were apart, exposed. Should she expose Neel the same way?

“After you left to go flying,” Leila said deliberately, “I felt a small pain, but I thought it was nothing. Then, when I was doing the dishes, it hurt so much I couldn’t stand and I grabbed the counter. I was worried about the baby, so I came straight to the hospital.”

The counter-clutching had happened an hour after he left. He had barely stepped outside the door when she hurriedly emptied the thermos, appalled at what she had almost done. Sanjay had said almonds could kill Neel. Then, as she watched the brown beads vanish into the drain, she wished they
were
going down Neel’s throat. He should have stayed home, had another dosa, a cup of tea; but he was rushing back to Caroline. She could not fathom his decision. She had sensed a change in him this weekend, felt a closeness, a tie that went beyond the baby. Was he faking it?

She wanted to call up Caroline and tell her off, make up for that other time she had been unable to do anything but listen. But Neel was the one to blame. She should have said something before he left, when she had the chance. Instead, she’d wanted to kill him, then let him—the man she had forgiven enough to think of as a husband again, the father of her baby—walk away from her.

She remembered the baby with a rush of guilt. Could the baby feel her anger and panic? Would all these awful feelings cause a miscarriage? She had to protect the baby. It was hers. No one could take this tiny growing being away from her. Desperate for some calm, she had taken a long shower, forcing herself not to think of Neel up in the plane with Caroline. She tried to go about her day in the usual normal way, and so progressed to doing the dishes. That was when the first pain exploded.

Neel heard her say, “After you left to go flying,” and felt a deluge of shame overwhelm him. “I shouldn’t have gone this morning. I’m sorry. I’m here now. It won’t happen again.”

“Leila got a lot of sympathy, checking in by herself,” Patrick said. “And once they knew she was your wife, they rolled out the red carpet for her. Called me from one of my patients. Only the best for Mrs. Sarath.”

A nurse knocked on the door and Patrick excused himself, saying, “Probably that other patient. I’ll be right back.”

Leila still hadn’t looked at Neel.

Neel knew he had to take the first step.

“You have every right to be angry,” he said, and meant it. “I was taking care of some unfinished business. It’s over now. It’s just us.”

She remembered Jake’s invitation, his expectation that they were a happy couple who would want another trip to Reno. “If Jake hadn’t phoned…” Leila let the sentence alone.

It dangled in the room, and Neel saw its completion as his chance at getting a new start.

“If Jake hadn’t phoned, you would not have known where I went this morning. But the outcome would have been the same.”

“What was the outcome?”

“I took care of that unfinished business,” Neel repeated.

She wasn’t going to let him off easy. “You already said that. What does it mean, though?”

Neel took a deep breath and said, “Those phone hang-ups this weekend were Caroline. She was trying to reach me because she thought I would marry her when Tattappa died. I never said that, but she refused to believe me. So I met her today to tell her once and for all not to bother me—us—again.”

“Why should I believe you this time?”

“Because I am with you now.”

“But you were with me before.” In Reno, in their condo, he had spent every night with her, but still found time to be apart.

All relationships were like seesaws; Neel knew that. It was simply that with Leila he was used to being on the upper end. How could he bring them both to the same level? He had just started with “Leila,” when Patrick, after a quick knock, entered the room.

“Okay, I’m back,” he announced. “Leila clue you in as to why she came here this morning?”

“Yes.” Neel answered.

“Everything checks out fine. The intern gave her a once-over, and I also examined her. But I want to do a sonogram, just to be on the safe side.”

He sat down, touched some buttons, and then said, “I’m going to put this on your abdomen, Leila. It may be cold, and I’ll need to move it around some. Try not to move too much, okay?”

Neel had been glad to turn his attention to Patrick, but now he looked down at Leila. She was crying.

“Leila,” he moved quickly toward her. “Are you in pain?”

She shook her head.

“What’s the matter?” His guilt rose afresh and now he would do anything to calm her. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there with you this morning. I promise it won’t happen again.”

“Yeah, Leila, give your husband a break,” Patrick interjected from behind wires. “We men are human, after all. And if you ever have to check in alone again, he’ll have to answer to both of us.”

BOOK: A Good Indian Wife: A Novel
5.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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