Authors: Thrity Umrigar
A million times over
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.”
Belief me when I say not single day pass in six years that I not thought of you. How are you, my dearest?
Then I takes the paper, roll it like a ball of dough, and throws it across from the room. It land on top of the coffee tableâwhy he call it the coffee table when in this house we only drink chai?âand I goes to pick it up to place in the dustbin. Shilpa never reading my note. He will never posting to her. Some things even stupids like me know.
I look at clock on the wall. Eight-forty-five, evening time. Husband be home by ten-thirty. Quickly-quickly I goes to the bathroom and open the medicine chest. I takes all the bottles out and carry them to the sitting room. I put the bottles in a row and for one minute only my stomach faints, as if the medicines is already in it. But then Bobby's thin face come to me and I see his sad blue eyes and the pain shoot my heart again. It was not my imagine. Bobby, too, look sad when he leaf today. I will miss you, he said, and his words was both honey and poison, sun and moon in the same sky.
I didn't say: Why you must go to the California? I didn't say: I wanting you to come to the restaurant every Thursday forever so I can watch you eat and feel the full in my stomach. I didn't say: In this cold country where I having no friend or relation, you are the only one who smile to me, who talk to me like I am person and not the garbage. I did not say: I have betrayed my husband twiceâonce to saves my family, second to save my soul. I didn't say, I didn't say anything at all.
Six tablets in the husband's My Grain bottle. Three antibiotic. Seventeen green tablets for relaxing the muscle from when he had the back pain last year. I remember something, and hurry from the room. In kitchen cabinet above microwave is big bottle of ibuprofen from Costco. I open. Hundreds of orange tablets. While in kitchen, I fill large pitcher of water.
I feels I should pray. Do pooja. Ask Bhagwan's pardon for sin I am doing. Ask husband's forgiving, also, for inconvenient I am causing him. Marry Rekha, I want to tell him. Rekha work in our grocery store next to the restaurant and I have saw how she look at him all flirty-flirty. Husband is good man, he work hard, eyes down, never notice Rekha or other ladies. Not his mistake he don't love me. Not his mistake I don't love him. Early on after marriage, I was hoping that slowly-slowly, the love will come. If my ma still alive, she could tell me what to do to make the love come. But Ma dead long back, and so I wait. When husband's father die three year back and he can't leaf business to fly to India, he so sad and griefing, and I think love will now happen between us, for surely. When I buy a new red sari for his friend's marriage and husband look at me and smile, I think that is love but it just the alcohol. Now I know. Husband love one woman. That woman not me.
I am not ascare to die. I am only ascare that after death I be alone. Maybe because of suicide, I go to the hell? If hell all hot and crowded and noiseful, like Christian minister on TV say, then I not care because it will be just like India. But if hell cold and quiet, with lot of snow and leaf-empty trees, and people who smile with string-thin lips, then I ascare. Because it seem so much like my life in Am'rica.
Bobby said he moving to the California to be near his sister. “I'm tired of being so far away from family,” he say. “You know?”
He listen something in my voice because he look up immediately. His eyes as blue as July sky. His long yellow hair fall like sunshine on his forehead and my finger burn from not touching it. “Yeah, I guess you do,” he say, and then he smile, and I feels something hot and living move from my stomach all the way to my face. The husband is thirty feet away, sweating in his white undershirt in the too-hot kitchen, but he is nobody to me right now, a stranger on the bus, a blind man who never seen me. Bobby is the one who reading my heart, who knows my feets are in Am'rica, but that each night my heart fly like a bird over my father's fields, over our village square, over the stone house my dada build himself, searching, searching for Shilpa. Bobbyâwho never talk to my husband even though husband sometimes leaf the kitchen to come joke with his regular customer and say, “See you next Thursday, sir”; who sometime send an extra-special sweet from kitchen for himâBobby can see that my husband do not let me talk to my relations, that he has made me a tree without root system, that he look at me and see the nothing. Sometimes when husband call me from the kitchen and his voice is sharp as the knife he holding, Bobby look up at me and make the face, the way children do when they taste a sour green mango from the tree. But something encourage in that face, also, like he say, “Go, Lakshmi. You strong woman. I knows you sad but the God will help you. Be brave.”
For last two year, Bobby come for lunch every Thursday. Some week he on vacation and no show, and those week go as slow as the bullock-cart climbing the mountain. Then I hating myself for wearing good sari and putting Pond's cream on my face to make it more fair. Then I irritate with grocery store customers who want to know where this-and-that is, and Rekha look at me with frown and say, “Kya hai, Didi? Go upstairs and take a nap for an hour, na?”
And now I am to never see Bobby again. Because he tell me today he is shifting to the California and although he say he come visit sometime, his eyes look down and his white teeth bite his lip when he telling the lie. Also, he wait till he finish his lunch, before to tell me. I say nothing, just nod my head, which feel heavy, like a mountain is sitting on top of it. I balance the mountain while I nods and smile, nods and smile. He is saying “job transfer,” and “good weather,” and “near my nieces and nephews,” while I nods and smile. After a while, he stop talking and he lean back in chair and put his hands behind his head and breathe out. “But I will miss you, um, that is, this place,” he say. And his lips become a half-moon, upside down.
I shake off mountain on my head. “Wait-a,” I say. I rushes toward store. Another customer put hand out to ask for bill but I ignores him. I go into store and look around. Something I want to give Bobby. Something to carry on the aeroplane, something to take to the California. A memory from me. A memory of me. I look at shelves I have stockedâbottles of Pond's cream, Vicks VapoRub, Ovaltine, Horlicks, milk of magnesia, Kalvert's raspberry syrup, Patak's lime pickle. Nothing here to give. I go to next aisle and lookâbhelpuri mix, fried moong dal, banana wafer packets. I grab a packet of gathias. He will snack on this on the aeroplane.
But I am not satisfy. I want something .Â .Â . more fixed. I moves quick to next shelf. Boxes of sweetmeatsâhalvas, pedas, jalebis. Cans of leeches, mangoes. Nothing, nothing.
And then I remembers. I go to front of store, behind cash register, where we keeps our boxes of expensive saffron. And behind the boxes is our silver tray, where each morning the husband lights a diva and says the prayers. In the tray we have small statues of our godsâa blue painted statue of Krishna, a wood carving of Hanuman, the monkey god, a silver statue of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. Rekha is at the counter, checking out a customer, and I slips behind her and reaches for Lakshmi. But she having eyes in the back of her head because she open her big fat mouth and say, “Didi, what are you doing?”
Shut up, mind your own business, I want to say, but instead I say, “Nothing,” and move to the door that connect restaurant to store.
But when I reach, the table is empty. Bobby has left.
Next to his empty plate, Bobby has kept twenty-dollar note. Lunch buffet is costing only $7.99. I grab the note in same hand holding the statue and rush to the front door. The brass bell above the door say ting-tong as I opens and shuts it behind me.
In parking lot, I look at bluegreenredwhite cars sitting neatly in a row, like tooths in the mouth. Quickly-quickly my eyes looks around the lot, trying to find Bobby. Has he driven away already? Without saying proper goodbye? My heart fall like the sparrow from the tree when I think this. The tears begin to burn my eyes, and then I sees him, far ahead of me. “Mister,” I scream. He not look back. And so, for the first time since I am knowing him, I speak his name. “Bobby,” I yells. “Mister. Bobby. Please.” Without telling me, my feets start to move and then to fly, as if to catch his name before it leaf my mouth.
He turns around and his face look surprise as I rush toward him like the Rajdhani Express. He take a steps back, as if he thinking I will run into him, like train derailment. But I stops just in front of him and now my mouth feels dry and no wordings are coming to my mind.
“Yes?” Bobby say after a minute. He always look at me so kind.
“You leaf without saying the goodbye,” I say, but his face turn red color like I pain him, and so I say, “You leaf without proper change back. Buffet only seven-ninety-nine.”
He begin to laugh but not in mean way that the husband laugh when he make fun of me. “Oh well. It was only twenty dollars, Lakshmi. And it was a tipâfor all the care you've taken of me these past few years.”
The word “care” open a cave in my heart. In my old life in India, I takes care of so many peoples. Shilpa. My ma. Dada. Mithai the elephant. Here, I have nobody to care for. My husband don't want caring from me. Every time I nice, he just remember what he don't have. And what he do haveâme.
I opens my mouth but nothing is living in itâno words. Still, I must try. “My pleasure,” I say. “No extra tip required.”
He smile again. “Lakshmi,” he say. “It's okay. Really. No big deal.”
At his naming me, I remember the statue in my hand. “Here,” I say. “For you. A gift for the California.”
His eyes grow big when I put the silver statue in his hand. And suddenly I not feel shy. “It's Lakshmi. Goddess of the wealth. Same name as me. Something to remind you of me in the California.” I looks at him quickly and then looks at my feet. But still I am feeling Bobby's eyes on my face, making it hot like the sun.