Twitter

 Home
 Subscribe
 Renew
 Current Issue
 Back Issues
 Events
 Workshops:
    Online
 Submissions
 Contests
 FFC Winery
 Volunteer
 About
 Blog
 Contact Us
 Terms of Use

Vol. 4, No. 1

The Blooming Season for Cacti
by Chitra Divakaruni

To get to California I had to travel through desert. But no, the desert was part of California, too. Perhaps the best part, I would think later. Brown land, brown sky, hills like brown breasts. The Greyhound bus fishtailed in the wind, or maybe the driver was sleepy. I slid across the worn-slick vinyl seat with a slash in its center, like someone had had to hide something fast. Or maybe he'd been searching. Or merely bored and needed it, the hard, defined sound of the rip as the knife bit in, its controlled movement across the drab olive flatness. I slid all the way across and hit my head against the dusty window, but it didn't hurt because I'd seen it coming and braced myself just before. Oh, I was quick. Because only the quick survive. Or the fortunate--but already my life had proved I wasn't that.
    We were passing the dunes now, the sand rippled into a thousand lines of cursive, a dangerous alphabet. Everywhere, mica glittered like eyes. Above, vultures waited to swoop down on the helpless skitter of smaller creatures. I loved it--how could I resist? I wanted to climb to the top of the highest dune. I wanted to be transformed to the bone.
    Already some of the scared hardness at my core was melting in the desert's heat. For the first time since I got to America.
    I felt myself growing into all the words my sister-in-law had shouted as I packed my things in her Dallas home two days ago. Selfish, yes. Ungrateful, yes. Following only my own pleasure. I would be all that. And I was coming to California.

 

~

But first there was the lush, sweaty jostle of Bombay, the torrential monsoons that swept into the city where I was born, the greedy, flooded streets that sucked at your calves. On each corner the looming billboards promised romance, a dark, air-conditioned theater and Amir Khan in your arms--or Madhuri Dixit, depending on your preference. All the passion you could want and none of the consequences. The white ocean at night, necklaced with lights from Marine Drive, rocked just for you.
    Everything I had loved, and then hated.
    People thought I came to Texas because my older brother was the only relative I had left. The real reason: I needed something as different as possible from Bombay. How else could I begin to bear the memories, the city smoldering in the aftermath of riot? Hindus and Muslims, hate and slaughter, smoke that rose solid in a hundred pillars. On the street, the screams of women whose accents you could not have distinguished from mine. The smell of the water tank on our terrace, where my mother made me hide.
    This is what I made myself imagine: open country, dust rising from hooves as herds headed home. Fountains of iridescent black oil. Cougars. Cowboys with creased smiles and eyes blue as sapphire stone. Their kisses would be hard and innocent. Behind us in the night, rockets would take off for the moon, searing a path brighter than any meteor's.
    I found myself in a two-bedroom semi-detached exactly like a hundred others, a pocket- sized square of lawn, browning in patches because water cost too much. "We'll put in rocks, once we're sure your brother won't get laid off," said my sister-in-law, who was kind in the beginning. "Come on, Mira, let's take you to the mall."
    I knew it was my fault, my own desperate mythologizing of America. But I blamed her for my disappointment. And my brother. I blamed him for his patience, his second-rate career, his crumpled, apologetic shoulders. His letter that had asked me to come stay with him. It's not safe in India, how many times I told you and mother this. Especially now that you're an unmarried girl alone.
    The bus jerks to a halt. How many hours? It is a gray afternoon, a gray wind blowing Burger King wrappers across a scraggly city park. Gulls circle overhead, screaming, though there is no sign of water. I see graffiti on peeling walls, metal bars in a shop window.
    "Sacramento," shouts the driver, and I climb down.

 

~

It is dusk by the time I find Malik's restaurant. The light has seeped away, leaving inkpools under the eyes of strangers in the street, in the secretive hollows of their throats.
    In Bombay, before the riots, darkness had fallen decisively, dramatically, in one gay swoop. Comparisons are futile, I know that. Now is all I have. But my feet hurt, the backpack straps bite into my shoulders, and the frr-frr of white pigeons flying home is the rustle of my mother's sari.
    "Malik-ji?" says the manager, who is at the cash register, picking his teeth. "Yes, he's in. You're lucky. He hardly ever comes into the restaurant anymore." He peers at the note that my brother had insisted on giving me. "I don't know if he'll talk to you. So many people come through here, claiming to be relatives of relatives."
    The air is full of cumin and coriander, a roasted brown smell. They must be frying samosas inside. My mother used to make the best samosas, fat and crisp. "Stuff carefully, Mira," she'd say. "Wet the dough ends and pinch the tips together so no air bubbles remain." But I never had the patience.
    "Did I say I was a relative?" I let my voice hit the shadowed ceiling, ricochet back. My head feels like a bubble, enormous with hot air, ready to burst. "I'm looking for a job. If you don't have one, I'll be happy to look elsewhere."
    A few early diners turn to stare.
    "Arre bas, what temper," says the manager, not unkindly. "Just left home, didn't you? A week on the streets and you'd be singing a different song. Sit there, on the empty side, I'll go ask if he'll see you. Ei Priya, bring this bahinji a cup of chai."
    I sit in the banquet section of the restaurant, decorated with maroon velvet and mirrors, curtains with thick gold pull-ropes, wall-to-wall plush carpeting. I want to feel disdain. In our drawing room in Bombay there had been a hundred-year-old rug from Srinagar that belonged to my grandfather, its faded design like a glimmering of jewels through fog. But this American carpet is so soft around my ankles, so innocent of history--like young grass--that I can't stop myself from slipping off my shoes.
    The tea comes, brought by a young woman in a purple sari and neat braids. Her blackbird eyes take in my wrinkled jeans, my less-than-clean shirt, my hair bundled into a knot, even--I am sure--the giant blister taking angry shape on my left heel. She is about to speak, but someone shouts, "Pri-ya!" and with a flash of a smile she is gone. The kitchen door swings open to her touch, closes on a burst of female laughter, a question that could be who is she, or maybe what does she want, the old, known smells and the boundaries they once promised. Sputtering mustard seed, the bright green glaze of chilies cooking in my mother's karhai. I no longer feel desert dangerous, only tired and, again, afraid.

 

~

The water tank in our Bombay house smelled of river bottoms, of rust, of sun-heated metal, and still water. Inside, it was colder than I had expected, shiver-cold, and the smallest sounds echoed and boomed, hitting my ear like a fist.
    We were lucky to have a water tank at all. It had been put in a long time ago by my grandfather, when such things could still be done. Having grown up in the lake-filled villages of Bengal, he had liked long baths. Now it meant that when the municipal supply was cut off twice a day, we had water to cook and drink.
    But our real luck lay in the fact that none of the surrounding houses had tanks. This meant the rioters would not think to look on the terrace, my mother said. From her voice I knew she was only hoping.
    The tank was not large. Still, it could have held us both. When I said that, my mother shook her head. "I must padlock the house from outside," she said. "That way they might believe it's empty."
    "Where will you go?" I asked.
    "I've let half the tank water out," she said, "but you might need the rest. It's a good thing this old lid doesn't close too well. There'll be enough air. Don't come out, no matter what you hear. Here's some fruit, it's the only thing that'll keep in there. Eat it sparingly. Who knows when--"
    There were shouts in the distance, a rumbling sound like heavy machinery. Perhaps there were guns. I thought I smelled burning oil.
    My mother pushed me down into the tank, handed me a banana and two oranges. She let her hand linger for a moment on my hair. "God bless you," she said.
    I thought of saying, Who? The god that's letting this happen to us, to this city? And, What if they set the house on fire? Of saying, None of this would have happened if we'd moved to America after Baba died, like my brother invited us to.
    If there's one thing I'm glad of now, it's that I stayed silent.
    I ate the banana that night. Next evening I ate the oranges. The screams had stopped by then, mostly. I let the peels fall from my hand and watched them float, slow motion, to the tank bottom. I crushed the seeds in my teeth as though the bitterness could bring me relief. For a long time, the moist, weighted air of the tank smelled of oranges and tears.

~

"You won't be happy working for me, not for long," says Kishan Malik in his resigned, matter-of-fact voice. "You're too educated, too smart, I can see it in your face."
    What had I expected him to look like? When my brother told me of his empire of restaurants and groceries and apartment buildings, I'd pictured someone like Seth Ramchand back home, corpulent in an overstarched Nehru jacket, smoking a cheroot, flashing a diamond on every finger. Or, given the American context, maybe a suave Armani-clad villain. (Who but a villain could so easily rake in the millions that steadily eluded my brother?) Bodyguards would hover in the background as he stepped out, dark-glassed, from his limousine. But here he is, a trim man, not too tall, with a bland blue department-store shirt and a cautious haircut. (He does own a limousine, but I will not learn this fact until much later.) His mustache is neat and nondescript. I've seen a thousand mustaches like that on the streets of Bombay.
    "Too pretty also," says Malik, and suddenly there's a look in his eye that's neither bland nor cautious.

 

~

When I announced my plans for leaving Dallas, my brother had tried his best to stop me. He explained how dangerous it was, a girl traveling America alone. Dangerous was a word my brother liked to use. In this he was like all men who have never experienced its reality firsthand. He cajoled and pleaded, said he'd pay for me to take classes at the local community college. He tried damage containment. "Why does it have to be California? Go to the East Coast instead, if it's excitement you want. I have friends in New Jersey, solid family men, they'll take you in, treat you like a sister."
    At last he gave me Malik's address in Sacramento. He and my brother had gone to college together briefly, before Malik dropped out to start his first restaurant. Now they stayed desultorily in touch, sending each other Diwali cards, informing each other of the births of children or changes of address.
    My brother kept at me until I said, "Very well," I would go to Sacramento rather than Los Angeles, like I wanted. Even then he wasn't happy.
    "Leaving us like this to live by yourself--Ma would have been most upset if she knew," he said at the bus station, handing me my backpack with a sigh. "At least Malik will be there in case you run into trouble. But I do wish it were someone more suitable."
    I shoved past him without answering. My skin felt like someone had rubbed chili powder into it. What right did he have to speak of my mother? He wasn't the one who had searched for her through the rubble of streets filled with the stench of kerosene and burned flesh, calling her name. He wasn't the one who had gone to one police station after another with her photo, to be told by exhausted officials that there were too many missing people for them to keep track.
    "Maybe it's better if you don't find her," one inspector had told me finally.
    I kept my face turned away from the tinted bus window, from my brother's waving arm, the crease of worry between his brows, simple as a Crayola line drawn by a child. Still, I heard him through the engine's backfiring: "Watch out for Malik, Mira. He has a reputation."

 

~

I sit on one end of the sagging sofa that takes up most of our living room and watch Priya trying on makeup. She outlines her lips in sultry red and pouts into the mirror she is holding. She flutters her mascara-thickened lashes. She is practicing, because she is to be a wife soon. Her hair, unbraided now, falls in a sleek torrent over her left breast.
    Malik has given me a job at the restaurant--I am to be a cashier, morning shift until I'm ready to handle the heavier evening crowds--and a room in an apartment building he owns down the street. The rent, to be deducted from my pay, is reasonable. I can eat in the restaurant kitchen for free, if I wish.
    "He's a fair man, you have to admit," Priya says as she shifts her hips, trying to find a comfortable spot on the sofa. She wears a demure nightgown, high necked and long sleeved. Malik had called her into his office and told her that he was putting me in her apartment, since it had a second bedroom. I would have resented the intrusion, but she doesn't seem to mind. "Kind, even. Looking at him, you'd never believe the stories."
    She pauses, lips parted expectantly, until I ask what the stories are.
    I listen absently as she talks of under-the-table deals with warehouses, a partner who died too conveniently, huge bribes paid to Immigration so they won't look too closely at his employees' green cards. A manager who crossed him, and now he's gone, disappeared, even his family doesn't know where. And then there's the matter of his second wife.
    Priya's sleeves are pulled up above her elbow; her arms are smooth and dimpled as she raises them in a languorous stretch. She undoes the two top buttons of her gown--it is a warm night--and fans herself with an old copy of Good Housekeeping. The gold-brown gleam of her skin disturbs me. But why? Where I come from, it isn't unusual for women to undress in front of each other. Growing up I saw naked women many times, in the jenana changing rooms by the sea, and paid them no more attention than the rickety clothes-racks on which we threw our saris.
    "He saw her on a trip back to India--by chance, just like in the movies. He'd gone to his cousin's village for a wedding--and saw her in the crowd of guests. He liked her so much he married her that same week, didn't even ask for a dowry. Her parents were delighted, they knew how rich he was. But when she got here she found he was married already, even had kids and all. So she tried to kill herself. Slit her wrists, right here in this building--he'd put her on the top floor, in the best apartment. What a mess it was, ambulances, police, scared us all to death."
    A lot of women killed themselves after the Bombay riots. People were shocked, but not surprised. "For centuries of Indian women," the editor of a Hindu newspaper wrote, "it has been the honorable way." Remember Queen Padmini of olden times, who, along with her attendant women, threw herself into the fire rather than become her Muslim captor's concubine?
    In modern Bombay, death by hanging, a noose made from a sari, was the most common. Those who had connections and money bought sleeping pills. A few women swam out into the ocean.
    "She didn't die," Priya says, "luckily." Her voice wavers over the word, unsure if it's the right one. "Malik-ji must have felt terribly guilty, because he transferred the building to her name, yes, the whole thing, she owns it all, they say it's worth a million and a half, maybe more. I think he really loves her, but of course he can't divorce his first wife because of the children. Every Friday night he sends his limousine for her--oh, you must see it, I've heard it even has a TV and a fridge inside. And she'll come down the steps in a silk sari and diamonds, with tuberoses in her hair, beautiful, but in a sad kind of way, like Jaya Bhaduri in Silsila, did you ever see it, when she finds out that Amitabh has been having an affair with Rekha. You'll see when you meet her."
    My mother used to wear tuberoses in her hair. After my father died, she gave up the habit as a vanity. But she would place bowls of the slim, fragrant flowers on tables and windowsills, so that a visitor, coming in from the bustle of the Bombay streets, would be faced with cool whiteness. When I allow myself to think of it, I like to believe that she was one of the women who swam out to sea.
    "Just two more months left," Priya says as she begins to wipe off her makeup, "for my wedding. He's in India. My parents have set everything up. I've been saving all my money for the trousseau."
    My mother would have swum through the warm salt--we had done it many times together--her sari growing heavy with it. Maybe she would have loosened the cloth and let it drift from her so she could move more freely. The waves were silver, like flying fish. They bore her up, they sang in her ear. Behind her the charred mass of the city drifted away, terror and loss. Did she look back in the direction of our house?
    "How about you?" asks Priya. "What are you saving for?"
    I don't reply.
    "Never mind," says Priya kindly, patting my shoulder. Her lips glisten like wet plums. "Things will work out. You're so pretty, you're sure to find a husband soon."

 

~

The trouble started about a month after I arrived in Dallas, in my sister-in-law's house. But there were signs earlier. Hushed consultations in the corners of parties, telephone conversations that turned innocuous when I entered the room. Appraising glances. Little questions here and there, sharp as ant bites.
    "Mira dear, what did you think of Mr. Advani, the man in the maroon Adidas T-shirt who brought us drinks--most attentive, wasn't he?"
    "Don't you just love Ashok's jokes, Mira? The one about the sardarji today--oh, I laughed so much I thought I would burst."
    "He was most attentive," I would say. "That joke was hilarious." Then I would go to my room.
    On this day, just as we started dinner, my sister-in-law said, "Mira, you'll never guess what happened this afternoon. Arpan Basu called your brother at work. He wants to marry you!"
    She waited for excitement, delight, coy confusion at the very least--Arpan was eminently eligible; he owned his own company, something to do with bathroom cleaners.
    "I don't want to get married," I said.
    "Why not?" said my sister-in-law. "You think you're too good for him, for all our friends?"
    "Please--" said my brother.
    "Ask your sister," said my sister-in-law to my brother, "if she doesn't want to get married, what does she want? Now if she had a brilliant career, instead of a job selling pots and pans at Sears--"
    "Please," said my brother, putting his hand on her arm. "Don't you remember how it was for you when you first came here? Mira's been through a lot. She needs time."
    My sister-in-law bit her lip and was silent. When she spoke again, her voice was different. For just a moment it made me see that all our lives have depths that strangers can never chart. And that's what I was to her, a stranger.
    "Unfortunately," she said, "time doesn't wait for us women to get over our shocks. Today the men are buzzing around Mira. Tomorrow, who knows?"
    I watched them sitting across the table from me, a graying man, a woman tending toward plumpness. They meant well. How could I tell them that when I thought of a man touching me, I smelled the water tank: smoke and corroding metal. Below, the streets were filled with weeping, struggling women, their blouses ripped open, their bodies pinned down right there, on the pavement's dirt. The mob yelling encouragement.
    "A marriage might help her get over what happened," my sister-in-law said.

 

~

That night in my room in my brother's house I took down the atlas, opened it to the United States, to the word that gleamed for a moment at the edge of the continent: California.
    My mother and I had discussed California after my father's death, when we received the first of my brother's letters asking us to come stay with him. He included postcards from a trip they'd taken to Los Angeles: Hollywood, Universal Studios, a boardwalk somewhere with Ferris wheels against an unnaturally brilliant ocean. There was one card titled MOJAVE, all glinting rock and cactus.
    "If I were a traveling kind of woman," my mother had said, "I'd go one time, just to see California. They say there's still gold in the deserts there. They say the beaches are more beautiful than ours in Bombay."
    We'd caught each other's eye and laughed disbelievingly. Gold in desert sand? Beaches more beautiful than Bombay's?
    Now I closed the atlas and sank back against my pillow, it's small comfort. Small comforts were all I had: a softness beneath my head, a place to go next.
    All night as I slept for the last time in my brother's house, California was the brightness that pulsed through my narrow-tunneled veins, the contracting chambers of my heart.

~

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.

~

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.
    "I'm sorry."
    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, naïvely, 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.

Back to Top

© 2001- American Zoetrope
All trademarks used herein are exclusive property of The Family Coppola