When Ajit sees me, he lets out a long whistle. "I'd planned a quiet dinner," he laughs. "But now I see we've got to go dancing."
So that's what we do. And even though I've never danced in my life, in the dimly lit nightclub where music ricochets off of every glistening surface, and swaying bodies brush against us unselfconsciously, I find that I can do it. I shimmy my shoulders and throw back my head, dancing my way into the new life I'd begun to dream--it seems so long ago--on the Greyhound bus. When Ajit spins me so I end up against his chest, I don't shove away gasping, as an earlier Mira would have done, the Mira on whose hair rust flecks from a water tank once settled like dried blood. Instead I make myself lean there a minute, savoring the boyish, lemony smell of his skin. When, after a walk along the riverfront with its glimmering waters, he kisses me, I find it pleasant, and not the disgusting, spit-and-groping occurrence I'd feared. And when, somewhat timidly, he asks if I would come to his apartment, I am not outraged or even embarrassed. I lay my fingers lightly on his lips, as a woman in a movie might do, a dangerous woman, and say, with a smile, "Not yet."
It's a little after midnight when I open the door of our apartment. Inside, all is silent. Dark. I slip off my heels, tiptoe toward my room.
"Mira, do you know how late it is? I was so worried!" Radhika's voice is a whip, lashing out of blackness. When she flicks on the light, it blinds me.
She's still wearing the batik robe. It's wrinkled now, and her hair, come undone, is mussed as though she's been running her hands through it.
Now she notices my dress, the high heels I'm holding. "Where did you go?" she asks hoarsely. "With whom?"
My cheeks are hot, but I lift my chin. "I went dancing--with my friend Ajit."
"Dancing! With your friend Ajit!" Her voice is thick. She takes a step toward me. "Look at you--out till midnight with some man, half naked in that dress--" Her eyes take in my hair, my makeup, stop on my mouth, kissed bare of lipstick and a little swollen. "Like--like a common--"
"Like what?" I'm angry too, now. What gives her the right to talk to me this way? "Like you?"
Her eyes widen in shock. For a moment she's silent. Then she says, very quietly, "Not like me, Mira. I'd never want you to be like me. To make my mistakes. To end up tied to the man who tricked you in the worst way, because what else is possible in your life."
There's something raw and heavy in her voice, about to break open. It makes my heart pound. And so I shout, "Stop trying to be my mother!"
"Your mother!" Radhika makes a small sound in her throat that could be a laugh, or a sob. "I don't want to be your mother. I only want to save you from the suffering I see you rushing toward." She puts her hands on my shoulders. "If I could take all the pain from your life into mine, I'd do it right now. Mira, my dear." She pushes away a wisp of hair from my face, kisses my cheek. "My love," she says. And then her lips are on mine.
For a moment or a lifetime, I stand there stunned, surprised and yet not so, trying to make sense of what's happening. Trying to make sense of my body, the shivering that rises up from the soles of my feet. Do my lips want to kiss her back? Do my treacherous arms long to crush her softness against mine? Then I thrust her away.
"Don't touch me," I whisper. "Don't touch me." My voice shakes with horror. But who am I horrified by? My shoes have clattered to the floor. Or is it my life, falling in broken pieces? As I stumble to the apartment door, I hear Radhika cry, "Mira, don't go--" Then I slam it shut.
I stand on the curb outside our building, shivering. When numbness has seeped into all the bones of my bare feet, I call Ajit from the pay phone. I am not sure what I will do if Radhika comes looking for me. When she doesn't, I'm not sure if it's thankfulness I feel.
The choices in our lives, what impels us to them?
A few late-night folks pass by. I cringe back against the wall, but they don't seem to notice me. Perhaps an Indian girl, barefoot in a gauzy white mini, is a common sight to them. Perhaps they have worse problems of their own.
Ajit's car takes the corner too sharply, screeches to a stop.
"Mira, what happened?"
Dressed in sweats and sleep tousled, he seems startled and young. Too young to save me, I think tiredly.
"God, you're freezing," he says as he shepherds me into the car. He pulls off his windbreaker and guides my arms through its sleeves. In his apartment, while I sit on the couch and stare at my hands, he brings me a pair of woolen socks. When I begin to cry, he puts an awkward arm around me, not sure what to do.
Inside I am split in two. One Mira watches the other crying, distantly, tries to gauge the reason. Is it Ajit's kindness? Or the shattering of the only friendship in my life? Are they for a mother who believed she must keep her daughter safe at any cost, these belated tears? Or for myself, because the dark new vortex of my life is sucking me into a chaos from which whispered words rise like ancestral ghosts: disgusting, perverted, unnatural.
I turn to Ajit, pull his face to mine, press my lips on his. When he says he doesn't think it's a good idea, I'm too upset right now, I merely hold him tighter, open my mouth. I will the pounding in my head to grow louder, to drown my thoughts. I rake my nails across Ajit's back (how do I know to do this?) and hear him gasp. I tug his sweatshirt off and kiss the ridges of his collarbones. He no longer protests. Against my mouth, his skin is salt and smoke. My head is exploding. Fiery meteorites flash across my eyelids. Briefly, before the pounding pulls me under, I wonder if a woman's skin would have tasted different.
There is, in empty apartments, a certain shifting of energy, an absence of breathed air. I feel this as soon as I open the door to Radhika's place. But I am too exhausted to wonder where she is at 3 A.M. Or where I will go when I leave this place, as I know I must.
I stumble to the bathroom and start the water. I kick off the too-large men's sandals that Ajit had insisted on giving me, shrug off his jacket. I'll leave them for him at the restaurant. My own clothes--the lace dress ripped carelessly under the arm, the panties stained with blood--I throw into the wastebasket. My aim is shaky and the basket tips over, spilling crumpled wads of paper over the bathroom floor.
Sex had been a disappointment. I hadn't expected pleasure, but I had hoped for ecstasy, the way the Greeks had meant the word--something that took you out of yourself, made you forget who you were.
In Ajit's bed, no matter what I attempted, I had remained myself, caught in my unresponsive flesh like the seed inside a hard, green mango. When finally he took my face in his hands and said, trying to mask his disappointment, "It's okay, Mira, stop now. We'll try again another day," I had closed my eyes, shamed by his generosity. I knew there wouldn't be another day.
The water sends a welcome shock of heat through me as I climb in. I should be soaping myself clean, but I'm too tired. I just lie there and watch the ripples of reflected light on white porcelain, on wet, brown skin. In the stillness, it is easy to drift into other waters. Orange peels floating down, humid air that clogs the throat. When the knocking begins I have to put a hand over my mouth to stifle my scream.
But it is only one of the downstairs girls. "Sorry to disturb you so early," she says. "But I heard the water running, so I knew you were up. Do you know Radhika's in the hospital?" She nods to confirm the question in my eyes. "Yes, another suicide attempt. Late last night, in Malik-ji's apartment. She took his sleeping pills this time. Luckily they found her before it was too late. Listen, you better sit down, you don't look so good . . ."
The waiting room of the hospital is unbearably cheery, with pastel printed sofas and posters of baby animals peering from behind unlikely objects with dreadful coyness. I sit on a bench out in the corridor, taking comfort in its plain hardness, in the way my back begins to ache after a while. Sooner or later they must allow visitors to see Radhika.
"Are you family?" the nurse had asked. I tried to say yes. But I'm only good at lying to myself.
"Sorry," said the nurse.
Radhika must have called Malik late that night, saying she felt better. She asked him to send the limo, to meet her at his apartment, as they always did. After it was over and he left for his other home--his real home, the mansion up on the hills where his wife and sons slept--she must have done it then. She reached under the bathroom sink where he kept the pills, and smiled a bitter smile. She knew all his secrets now. She looked out the window at his Porsche, its ruby lights receding into fog--but she was the one who was leaving, who was gone already. Out of my life, taking the honorable way, enduring this final night with Malik so I wouldn't have to be the one to find her body. She had planned it all--except that when she said to the limo driver, "Please take me back to my apartment in the morning, I'm too tired right now," he had called Malik to inform him of this unprecedented request.
After the girl from downstairs left, I went back into the bathroom. I let the water out of the tub and watched its downward spinning, at once lazy and urgent. I wiped my wet footprints and righted the wastebasket, picking the wadded sheets off the floor. On an impulse I smoothed them out.
There were three of them. One said, "Mira--" One said, "I never expected--" The last one was a poem of sorts.
In the desert of my heart,
you, cactus flower,
blooming without thorn.
When she wrote those words, I was dancing. I twirled on tiptoe, making myself tall. My hair wild with abandonment, I let Ajit pull me into his chest, into the possibilities of my new American life.
I think nothing of the footsteps, muffled on hospital carpeting, until they stop in front of me. Then I look up and it is Malik. His eyes are swollen and I see, with wonder, that he's been weeping. When he speaks to me, his voice shakes with hate.
"We were happy until you got here, until you put your sick ideas into her head. I should have gotten rid of you right at the first, when she started acting different. But I didn't--wouldn't--believe that she could--" A spasm shakes him and he looks away. When he turns back, his voice is cool and serrated. "I'm giving you twenty-four hours to leave."
I watch him as he walks down the hallway, his right leg dragging a little in a limp I had never noticed. If the stories about him are true--and I think they are--I am too full of other emotions to feel fear. How ironic that of the three of us, he was the one who first smelled the change in the air. He brought Ajit over to the cash register, he made the manager give me the evening off for my date. Maybe that's what she needs, he said. I had thought, naďvely, that he was talking about me. But he was talking about her, the woman he loved in spite of himself, the one person who had shown him how, while you tighten your fist around a life, the heart can slip away.
It takes me only an hour to pack my belongings. I should leave for the bank now, get out what little money I have. Then the Greyhound station, where I need to check the schedule, decide on my destination. Instead I wander restlessly through the apartment, touching a table mat Radhika had painted, the roses--now dying--that she'd arranged in a brass vase. I think how I've turned out to be all that I dreamed of on the bus--burning wind, bramble bush, things that scorch and scrape. But none of them are what I imagined. It had not struck me that a lit fuse must burn itself first, before setting the world on fire.
Finally, because I must, I go into Radhika's bedroom.
Radhika's room reflects her neatness. The bedspread is creaseless, the photos of her parents hang straight and level with each other. Even last night, after getting ready, when there was no longer any need, she had put everything back in its place. Face powder, deodorant, perfume, hair oil. They stand lined up on her dresser, precise, giving nothing away. Comb, brush, filigreed hand mirror. Kumkum powder in a silver box. I pick up each, try to think what she had thought. Then I see the book.
Splayed at the far end of the dresser, it is the only thing that is out of place. The Great Deserts of the American West, turned to the picture where the miner squinches her eyes against the glare of sun on sand.
I carry the book to Radhika's bed. When I lay my head on her pillow, I think I smell her hair. Down at the Greyhound station, the drivers are starting the engines, lifting their feet off the brakes. The buses begin to roll down the highway, each taking you to a different destiny.
Did the woman in the photo take a bus the day she moved to the hills? How many people had spoken to her in my sister-in-law's voice, saying that what she was doing, it just wasn't right, wasn't natural?
She shrugged her shoulders, turned her face a little. Maybe she smiled that small, secret smile.
Who is to say? If a woman finds joy in the spare, pared flesh of the desert, if she finds joy in another woman's sand-brown body, who is to say?
I have so many words I need to articulate, I who had stopped believing in their possibility. In the hospital, slipping past the nurse's station, searching each room to find Radhika, I will start saying them. I will begin with forgive, continue with accept. I will say, desire. I will say, Come with me. She will turn her head away, her earring will glint like an evaporation of dew, I will keep speaking. This time around, I have learned insistence. The rest I will tell her on the long bus ride south--and later, in sand and rock, among the fierce, momentary blooming of cacti, among reproach and sorrow, guilt and doubt. I'll tell her of my night with Ajit. Of the water tank. The women swimming out into the Bombay ocean. I'll tell her about my mother, who, like her, had believed that to save the one you love, you have to give up your own life.
On the way out I glance at the book, the miner holding out her cupped palm, daring us to decipher what in it is sand, and what gold. I decide I know who she is smiling at. It is her lover, the woman whose shadow has entered the photograph, and in doing so shifted, critically, the balance of light.
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