Getting out of the car into the January chill, twenty-four-year-old Reena realized in ten seconds that wearing a short skirt and sleeveless top was like walking without shoes in Alaska. When heads turned and voices fell silent at the restaurant, she discerned that her sex appeal had just gotten beamed to the wrong crowd. She barely survived the knee-buckling urge to run back to her car and flee.
Seated in a corner of the packed Indian restaurant in Palo Alto, she waited for the first prospective groom to present himself.
Holding a jacket over his shoulder, wearing khaki pants and white t-shirt, a man walked in and stood at the entrance and panned the room. Her heart fluttering, she raised her hand to her eye level and smiled. Perceiving her recognition, his thin moustache stretched over his plump lips, he strode towards her. He plunked his keys on the table, meticulously draped his jacket over a chair close to the wall, and sat across from her without a word. He beckoned to the waiter and turned to Reena with a grin.
“Well, well,” he said. “What would you like to drink?”
First apologize for being late, introduce yourself like a civilized human being, and take that grin off your face, she thought. “Mineral water is fine,” she said, nursing her purse with fidgety fingers.
“I’m sorry. I seem to have misplaced my manners. I’m Kumar. You’re Reena, I presume?”
He detailed how he had lost his way from the airport and still managed to reach the restaurant in time. As soon as the waiter brought his beer and emptied it into a tall frosted glass, he proceeded to take a sip. She wondered if he was an alcoholic thirsting for a drink, or a man trying to get his anxiety under control. From the picture she had received of him she had anticipated that his broad shoulders could bear the pressure of uneasy expectations. Her parents told her that he would be completing his surgical residency this year at Cook County hospital in Chicago. There was an agonizing silence for a few minutes before he spoke.
“I am twenty-eight, youngest of three brothers. Both of my parents work at the University of Chicago, but they are not doctors. I’m six feet tall and need to lose fifty pounds.” He grinned.
“I already know that,” she countered, looking pensively at his gelled and slicked-back hair. She imagined him bent over a patient’s tummy, slicing the skin and sluicing away the oozing blood, and taking out the offensive organs with zeal and precision.
“That sounds better,” he said, leaning forward and speaking in a conspiratorial tone. “For a sec I thought … never mind. I’m hungry. Shall we order?”
The clatter of dishes from the kitchen muffled his voice. Reena ordered a plate of idli and hot chai without milk; Kumar asked for another beer, masala dosai, and a plate of pakodas. She thought it would take him forever to lose those extra fifty pounds.
“Wondering about my order?”
The waiter placed the beer and pakodas on the table. Kumar took one large-sized pakoda and popped it into his mouth and offered the plate to Reena. Before picking up the smallest piece from the plate, Reena noticed the grease on his fingers and lips.
“By the way, you look very nice. Tell me about yourself.”
“You go first.”
“Being cautious? Okay, I’ll take the plunge,” he said. “Plastic surgery is my major interest and I’m hoping to find a fellowship position soon. People have certain notions about surgeons. I’m sensitive, a bit choosy perhaps. I’ve been accused of being a perfectionist, but trust me, one needs to pay attention to the minutest details when one wants to be a plastic surgeon.”
“Interesting,” she said. She placed her half-eaten pakoda next to her plate and dove into her idlis.
When he beckoned to the waiter, she wondered if he was already fading out of her life. She was relieved when he said, “Let’s get out of here and find a more private place to talk.”
He draped his jacket over her shoulders as they left the restaurant, his stubby surgeon’s fingers delicately touching her bare shoulders, making her wonder what those fingers were capable of—lifting a chin, tucking a smile, shaping the spaces beneath a dress? They debated where to go when she said, “We can go to my apartment. My roommate goes home on the weekends.”
In the kitchen Reena set the water to boil and pulled the tea bags and masala mix from the cupboard. Kumar stood at the entrance with his eyes fixed on the teakettle, shoulder leaning on the doorframe, arms crossed across his chest.
“I did six months of my surgical rotation at a hospital in Delhi two years ago. My Jewish girlfriend at the time went with me. I thought she felt a tug of domesticity, but I was wrong. She hated cooking.”
What was he trying to tell her? She poured water into the mugs. “So what happened?” she asked, carrying the tray to the sitting area.
“We split up.” He walked around the room, stopping at the stereo and the CD rack. He pulled out a CD, Ghazals—Songs of the Silk Road, and asked if he could play it.
The cadence of the music pouring out of sitar surrounded the room; tabla followed every nuance of the tune; kamanche, the spike fiddle, set the modulation to the rhythm. Kumar settled in the sofa across from her.
“Do you have any hobbies?” he asked, sipping his tea.
“Working for this ad agency leaves me little time for other things in life. Even reading a good book takes a bigger commitment than I can afford right now.”
“Are you interested in an arranged marriage?”
“It has its merits,” she said. Impelled by the lyrics, a temptation to confide her brief affair with Nathan almost drifted off her tongue.
He looked at his watch. She asked if he had somewhere to go.
“Just debating whether to cancel my flight tonight and check into a hotel, or just go back to Chicago. We could finish our talk on the phone, no?”
Was he testing to see if she’d convince him to stay? “If you’re asking me for an opinion, I’d say, stay.” Nathan would not have asked her such a question.
“Thanks,” he said, and proceeded to make the phone call to change his ticket.
Kumar’s thick eyebrows reminded her of Nathan. The long planned trip to Rome after graduation and the surprising encounter at the airport with Nathan, her classmate from University of Iowa, slid back into her memory. He didn’t ask her permission when he stretched his hand over her shoulder and pulled her close as he drove her around the city for a week. When they stopped on the Capitoline Hill, he gave no excuse when he slipped his hand up her shirt in the dimming light and sent shivers down her spine. He was the snake charmer and she was his dancing boa. That passion felt as natural as singing a love song or delighting in a glass of fine wine. At her hotel, she didn’t remember what movie they had watched when she fell asleep in the middle, her arm over his chest, trudging between frenzy of desire and state of trust. After seven days of fun and faith in the future, the day he was going to show her Pompeii in all of its glory, he vanished.
She despaired but could not share her grief with anyone. Back at home, shocking her parents, she signed up with the Peace Corps. Two months into her work in Santo Domingo, five months after her trip to Rome, while working on a vegetable patch at the local school, she received the forwarded mail from her parents. The one letter with the foreign stamps got her attention. The words on the envelope were crooked and misspelled. The letter from Nathan’s uncle was brief. He informed her that Nathan had died in a car crash on his way to meet her. A poem that he wrote the night before he died was enclosed. Reena had lost her will to live for a while.
After the phone calls, Kumar turned to her with a smile.
“How long have you been living in California?”
“All my life, almost,” she said. “I was born in Modesto, grew up in Los Angeles, studied in Boston, and found my first job in San Francisco. In between, I did one year of Peace Corps work in Santo Domingo. I’ve been here for three years.”
“Isn’t it strange that we’re born and raised here and still cling to some of our Indian traditions?”
Reena noticed his hawkish eyes watching her. Was he expecting that she’d reveal something that he could hold against her, or deciding that she was more Indian than he had anticipated?
“Is that good or bad?” She threw the question back at him.
“Good. Because, it tells us how flexible we are that we can still turn to our traditions to guide us.”
“What are you searching for?”
“A companion, someone I could trust and share my life with.”
“Has trust been an issue?”
“In more ways than you can imagine.”
She wondered what woman had compromised his trust and sent him reeling down the road of compromises. Listening to the melodious outpourings of love declarations from the stereo, she felt a readiness to actualize what had not been hers for a while, the longing to be held by someone she could love and cherish. The room felt warm and sensuous, she took a deep breath and let it out silently. She walked to the window and watched the night sink into the city.
“I had a friend once. His name was Nathan …” The words tumbled out. Keeping the intimate details clasped to her bosom, she told Kumar about the love she had cherished once. She explained the feeling of betrayal, the revelation, and the grief that followed. When she was finished, she saw him stand and stretch. There was a silence for a while.
“Stuff happens, Reena.”
“You need to smart up. You seem to know zip about life. If you’re still talking about your affair, you haven’t come to terms with it.”
A chill blanketed her heart. “That is not true,” she said, with her own diffidence expanding. Tucking her hair behind her ears, trying to latch on to a softness in his eyes and not finding it, she slid down the arm of the sofa and sat on the floor, hugging her ankles, cupping her chin on her knees, and rocking back and forth.
“If you ever happen to pass through Chicago, I’d like to take you up the Sears Towers and have lunch,” he said. “Then we can go to the Art Museum. Did you know that it has one of the best collection of impressionist paintings?”
She watched Kumar’s black shoes walk to the chair where he laid his jacket. In a world full of arguments and declarations of justice, she felt like a silent lamb. What could she tell her parents, that she had messed up? She’d hate to see the pain in her mother’s eyes one more time, but that would be for another day to worry about. Her rational reasoning torpedoed through the remnants of a memory of love long gone, through the medley of emotions churning inside, and through the inarticulateness of her anger. The urge to rattle Kumar’s righteousness took shape.
She stood up and said, “What’s wrong?”
“You are just not my type, Reena.”
“Meaning what? That I’m too Indian to succumb to an arranged marriage, but not Indian enough in values? Where do you fit into this dichotomy? What expectations do you have of yourself?”
He stared at her for a few seconds. “You looked so meek there for a while, I thought, perhaps, you had no opinions. I still think that we are on parallel tracks. You seem to be running on emotions and I’m too logical. Don’t feel so desperate, you will find someone compatible.”
“I see. So you analyze the girls and discard them? What about my interpretation of this meeting, want to hear it?” she said.
“You are ambitious; you tend to mow down people you meet with relish. On the other hand, I am generous, caring, and flexible. I agree that I need to toughen up. There is a lot we can learn from each other.”
“I never looked at it that way. You have a point there.” He draped his jacket back on the chair. “You’re an interesting person, full of surprises. I like that.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“You can change my mind.”
“How long would that last before it changes again?”
A volley of words bounced back and forth.
“Can I call you sometime?”
“Maybe,” was all she could say before she picked up his jacket and handed it to him. She walked to the door and held it open. She listened to the sound of his footsteps clicking away.
Ashamed of what her body told her what it needs, what her mind told her what she should do, what remembering her past was doing to her, she realized the struggle between living for the society and living for oneself. There was no satisfaction but fear. Ignore what I said and please come back, she wanted to shout. She didn’t.
Suseela Ravi lives in Bangalore.