The morning after Priya has told me her story, I see Malik's second wife. I am about to go for a walk. She is emptying an apartment someone has moved out of, trying to pull a broken armchair through the narrow doorway.
The sun is not yet up. The breeze is still cool. A hint of cloud floats like lace in the distant sky. Dressed in old sweats, a smudge of dust on her cheek, she is older than I am. But by how much I can't tell. Is she beautiful? I can't tell that either. Already I've lost the distance you need in order to judge someone.
When she sees me she smiles, slowly, crookedly, one side of her mouth quirking up a little. And it seems to me--is it memory or merely longing?--that is how, once, my mother smiled.
I ask if she needs help, and she says, "Please." I hold the front door open so she can push the armchair out to the curb, only I miscalculate and let go too soon, and the door catches her wrist.
"It's okay, no, really," she says, over my apologies. "It doesn't hurt. It doesn't hurt at all."
Later I will see the bruise, swelled purple over the wristbone. Even later, I'll think of omens.
She takes me up to her apartment and makes me cha, boiled thick and red-brown and fragrant with cloves. To welcome me, she says. Pouring, she turns her wrist, and there it is, delicate and deadly as a bracelet sewn into her skin, the scar.
"My name is Radhika," says Malik's second wife, handing me a thin gold-edged cup.
"Mine is Mira."
Over soft tea steam we smile at our shared ironic legacy, both of us named after women of myth, women whose lives men had tried to ruin.
This Friday afternoon I sit on a chair in Radhika's kitchen and feel the sun seep into my bones like the jabakusum oil she is rubbing into my hair. The room is filled with a sweet, sleepy smell out of my childhood. Her fingers make little circles on my scalp. They trace the small dip behind each earlobe.
I moved in here a week ago. Priya had gone back to India to get married, and a new family needed her apartment. Radhika had been asked to find me a room with someone else, but instead she said, "Why don't you stay with me? I have more space than I need." And it had felt so easy, so right, that I hadn't even needed to ask if she were sure.
"Next page," she says.
I'm holding a book in my lap, a big library book with a blue-and-gold cover, titled The Great Deserts of the American West. I read: "The blooming season for cacti is very brief, a few weeks at most in the spring. But during this time the barren and sere landscape is transformed by the vibrant coronets of hedgehog cactus, candy cactus, and prickly pear that push out through the plants' spiny armament."
We do this a lot, look at books together. Radhika is hesitant in English, so usually I am the reader. But she is the decipherer of details I would have passed over.
"Look," she says, pointing at a picture, and I see how, after their brief flowering, only thorns are left on the plants. I don't know much about cacti; I have always imagined their thorns to be stinging, poisonous. But in this photograph the evening light has caught their fineness so they shine, tender and exalted as baby hair.
I want to say something about this to Radhika. But the phone rings.
"Yes?" she says.
I can hear the voice inside the receiver, tinnily obsequious. "Malik-ji will be sending the car eight p.m. this evening, as usual, madam. Please to be ready downstairs."
Radhika's fingers tighten on the receiver. But no. I am mistaken. Her tone is as calm as always when she says, "Tell him sorry, I'm not well today." When the voice, sounding unhappy, protests that Malik-ji will be bahut-bahut upset, she repeats the sentence patiently, as though to a child. Then she hangs up.
The silence bristles between us like barbed wire. In the months we've known each other, she has talked of many things--but not Malik, or the Fridays when his limousine glides up silent as some submarine creature to the curb and opens its hinged jaw.
I know what I should ask now. Why did you? A question that ebbs like a wave back to that day at her cousin's wedding when she felt a man's desirous eyes on her: shoulders, breasts, innocent ankles looped with silver bells. A question that gathers itself to rush forward to the hour when she opened the tap, mixed the warm and cold right, so it wouldn't hurt, held the wrist just so under the gush of it. Why did you? A question that breaks over this moment now, taking the breath. This moment, the cool danger of her voice saying no, what it might mean, what it might lead to.
But I'm afraid to ask. I've lost so much already. Besides, what would I say if someone knew to ask me why? As in, Why didn't you insist that your mother remain with you that day on the terrace?
Radhika's fingers are back in my hair, their circling slow, deliberate, as though there had been no interruption. She nudges me with her hip. "Go on," she says, saving me, and thankfully I turn the page.
Ajit is a regular at our restaurant. He used to come once in a while, but recently it's every week, sometimes two or even three times. Which surprises me, because he's not the kind of Indian man the place attracts. Our Indian men are usually middle-aged, balding, a little down at the heel, single or on an H-1 visa, men whose shoulders slump under the hopes of wives and children waiting in India. Who want a down-home meal that doesn't cost too much and like to order the specials. (The younger Indians, the ones who want to impress their American girlfriends, go to Khyber Palace down the street, where they have Indian karaoke and disco bhangra on Saturday nights.) Ajit's shoes are laced and eagerly polished, his shirts are the button-down kind with all the buttons firmly sewed on. And though he doesn't have on a jacket or a tie, I get the feeling he's just taken them off and placed them, carefully folded, on the passenger seat of his car. There's a certain trustfulness about him that makes it clear he has never lived anywhere except America.
What I like about Ajit is the way he seems to be at home in a room full of people who are nothing like him. Perhaps he isn't aware of how different he is from us. He jokes with the waiters--he's wildly popular with them, and not just for the substantial tips he leaves behind--watches the other customers with unabashed curiosity, eats with gusto. Even Malik, the one time he dropped by, patted his shoulder and said, "Ah Ajit, just the person I wanted to see!" He brought him up to the register and introduced us. "This is our Mira, a college graduate, just like you. Sharp as a needle. Hang around her and you'll learn everything you want to know about India."
I gave him a sharp-as-a-needle glance. Was he being sarcastic? If he was, it escaped Ajit. But perhaps he was the kind of person sarcasm couldn't touch. He shook my hand with a wide-open smile and said, "Delighted," as if he meant it.
Since then Ajit has taken to stopping at the register to chat awhile before he leaves. I am a little astonished at his frankness. Are all American-born Indians like this? Already I know that he's an accountant, that he's been out here for two years working for a small start-up company. His mother is a schoolteacher and his father an engineer back in the little Midwestern town where he grew up. He gets lonely for them sometimes, but thinks California is wildly exciting, mostly because of all the different kinds of South Asians he has been meeting. He doesn't have a girlfriend yet. When he leaves with a jaunty wave, I stare after him in envy.
In his letters my brother asks if I like it here, if people are kind to me. My sister-in-law adds, Is the weather better than Texas? Have you been down to San Francisco yet? Now that you've settled down, what are your future plans?
I consider replying that I've found someone with whom to read books, who is more than kind. I think of different words to describe Radhika: friend, sister, mother. (But none of them are right.) The weather is humid and exasperatingly un-Californian. (But to admit this would be a defeat.) As for San Francisco and my future, I have left them both alone. I am happy with what I have: a brief reprieve in which I can float without thought, as in a warm bath. (Then I'm ashamed: I should have been more industrious and touristly, taken a day trip on the Coastal Sights Bus Line; I should have taken a course at the University of California Extension.)
And so I don't write back.
That day, after the phone call from Malik's henchman, Radhika and I looked in the desert book at the picture of a woman holding out a handful of sand. Woman Miner Pans for Gold, Inyo County, read the caption. The woman wore jeans with frayed knees, a vest of some sort, a broad-brimmed hat that pulled her face into its oval of darkness. She didn't look at the camera, but at something (someone?) whose shadow fell across the edge of the photograph--a coyote, perhaps, or a horse. Her lips were parted in a small, secret smile.
Here is what I'm learning about people: just when you think you know them, they do something you'd never have expected.
This Friday evening, Ajit taps his fingers on the register, slides a card shyly at me, and clears his throat to ask if I'd go out with him--next Friday, maybe? I open my mouth to say no. My head is full of a dim vibration. But when I look, he has the guileless eyes of an animal. And here's another surprise: the way my heart thuds inside my chest, like runner's feet, light and rapid and almost without fear, why not, why not.
Perhaps this, at last, will be how I climb out of my water tank.
When I go to the back office to ask the manager if I can have next Friday night off, he throws up his hands. "Absolutely not possible," he says. "We don't have anyone to take your place."
"How about Ramesh? I could do his lunchtime shift, and he--"
"You must be joking. That banana-fingered bumbler? Every day after lunch we are spending one hour correcting all the things he rang up wrong."
"Come on," I say. I've gained a certain weight around here since I started sharing Radhika's apartment, and I attempt to use it. "It's just for one day!"
"What so-important thing is happening next Friday?"
I tell him about Ajit, and he throws up his hands again. "Dating with a boy who's no better than an Amreekan? Are you mad? Nothing except trouble in it. Chee chee, what would your mother say!"
A hardness twists its way along my shoulder bones, the corners of my mouth are rigid with it. "None of your business," I answer.
Then I hear the soft voice at the door: "What's all this hallah about?"
It's Malik, who seems to have a knack for appearing magically. Perhaps that is the key to his success. He is dressed with far more care than usual, in a beautiful dark suit--the way I'd originally imagined him. With his glossy new haircut, he is almost dashing. His tie looks like silk, looks like he's on his way to someplace important, a party, perhaps, in some glittery penthouse, uniformed servers carrying silver trays. I don't know. My expertise in such matters is limited.
Then a thought comes to me. It is Friday--could it be for Radhika that he has dressed?
When the manager has poured out his complaints, Malik says, "A date, hanh? Our Mira wants to go on a date?" His eyes move over me, appraising but absent, as though he is thinking of something else. In the corridor's shadows, his expression is hooded, satyrlike. Finally, he says, "Perhaps that's what she needs."
My cheeks burn. What does he mean?
But already he's turned a suave smile on the manager. "Oh, don't be such an old fogy. Let the girl go. And give her an advance so she can get something fancy to wear."
Still smiling, he stands back courteously to let me pass. The cologne he is wearing--understated, as only the most expensive ones are--follows me down the dark corridor like a suspicion of something I can't quite put into words.
The evening light is rich and gold this Friday, the day of my date with Ajit, and when I enter our apartment, the tiny mirrors on the sofa cushions Radhika finished embroidering last week dance and wink. The room is filled with a smell I know well but can't place for a moment. Then I see them, a platter of samosas, sitting on the kitchen counter, ready for frying.
"Is that you, Mira?" Radhika calls from her room. "What good timing! I just finished filling the samosas. Let me fry you a couple."
I set down the packages I'm carrying and collapse on the sofa. My feet hurt, and my head. Already I'm regretting my extravagance, wondering if what I've bought is all wrong.
I've never been a good shopper. Even in India, where you sit on a large white sheet spread under a cool ceiling fan and drink Jusla and point while the storekeeper takes out one sari after another and tells you the name of each and where it came from, I would ask my mother to do my shopping. She always knew what was suitable for a particular occasion, what would look good on me.
Radhika comes out of her room wearing a thin batik robe that molds itself to her body as she walks. She moves, like many Indian women, with delicate, careful steps that hardly disturb the air around her. Her hips ripple under the silky robe. It's a new one, and beautiful, but not something you would go out in. My heart thuds out of rhythm. Did she refuse Malik again?
"I bet you're wondering how I knew you weren't working this evening!" From the kitchen Radhika throws me a mischievous smile. "One of the girls downstairs mentioned that Ramesh would be doing his first evening shift--the entire restaurant is nervous about it! So I thought this would be the perfect time to make you some samosas--I know how much you like them--and chat a little." The oil sputters as she turns the stuffed triangles that must have taken her hours to prepare. "There's something I've been wanting to tell you."
She brings me a plate of golden-crisp samosas and a bowl of deep brown tamarind chutney, and sits across from me. Her face is flushed and lovely. I give the clock a hasty, guilty glance. In a few minutes I'm going to have to tell her about my evening plans.
"When I met Malik," says Radhika, "I was so young, just a village girl. I thought being a wife--the wife of a rich man--was the best thing that could happen to a woman." Her lashes tremble darkly against her cheek as she looks down. "When he told the matchmaker he was mad for me, that he'd do anything to marry me, I couldn't believe it. I was so proud to be desired by such a successful man, I didn't stop to think of anything else. My parents didn't want to send me so far away, with a man they knew so little about, but I persuaded them. I insisted I'd be happy with him. And then I got to America and found--" Her voice splinters apart.
"Radhika . . ." I reach for her hand. "Maybe it's better if you don't talk about such--"
"No." She is crying, openly, unashamedly. Her hand closes on mine the way, in the Bombay ocean, a woman's might have closed upon sea froth at the last minute--as though it could save her. "I've had enough of silences. But it's not Malik I want to talk about. I learned to live with him years ago--like I learned to live with this." She turns her wrist and gazes at her scar for a moment. Then she looks at me with new intensity, her lashes spiky with tears. "No. It's something quite different I want to tell you. Something sudden, like a summer rainstorm. Something that's given me more happiness than I hoped to have in this life."
I hate myself for what I'm going to say next. But it isn't merely selfishness that drives me, it is also a strange fear.
"I'm terribly sorry, Radhika, but can we talk about this later tonight? I have to go out. I promised"--I stumble over the next word--"a friend."
She lets go of my hand right away. Wipes her eyes. "Then of course you must." Her voice is polite, but I hear the hurt in it.
"We'll talk as soon as I come back--it's just a couple of hours--"
"Yes," she says distantly, then goes into her room. When, dressed in my new clothes, I knock to say that I'm leaving, she doesn't answer. I stand in front of the shut bedroom door, guilty as a teenager. I know I should turn the knob, go inside. But I don't. Right now I need to be focused. Confident. And I know Radhika would disapprove of the lacy white dress that stops at my thighs, the stiletto heels in which I stumble a little, the glittery crimson outlining my mouth. My flyaway hair from which I've shampooed all traces of the jabakusum oil she rubbed in with such care.
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