Thursday, after I dropped you both at the airport, I worked for a little while, then decided to do what I normally can never do: leave the house during baby’s dinnertime, 5:30, and walk down to the lake with a book. I packed a sling purse with novel, water, and a cardigan for the lake breeze, and walked the twenty minutes between our apartment and The Point, where I set myself down on the limestone revetment between Promontory Point Field House and the families on 57th Street beach.
Was it my imagination or did the light look different at 5:30? Refract differently, illuminate a different street? I noticed a house on 52nd I’d never seen before, oddly set back from the road and with too much space between it and the Queen Anne-style rowhouses on either side. I saw what at first appeared to be concave sheets of water suspended over a neighboring hedge. They turned out to be plastic, and as I drew closer they resembled the cotton netting that approximates spider webs in Halloween displays. A few blocks down, there were framed collages of President Obama lined up before the cafes, strips of newspaper overlain with his face, some headlines left prominent, others obscured with swaths of paint. And black t-shirts, also for sale: “I can’t breathe.”
At the Point, there was too much garbage lying about, even though by most accounts there was hardly any at all—nothing like the trash heaps that abut even stately homes and national landmarks in India. Chicago is a clean city, and radiant in summer where Lake Michigan meets the shore. Of course, that makes the odd bit of trash—cellophane, bottle cap, paper bag, bag of chips—all the uglier. I sat on the rocks and tried to avoid the rubbish. I smelled someone else’s joint, heard the waves, couple’s voices, saw a sailboat out of the corner of my eye, and read about a poetry reading in Madrid.
At 7:30, bath time, I rose and started to make my way back through town. I read the menu at Siam House and contemplated dining alone, but I couldn’t decide whether I would order noodles or curry, so I moved on. I entered Maravilloso, which it turns out is an extremely popular, spacious Mexican restaurant, and not the forlorn dhaba we had imagined. It was too loud to think, never mind order, never mind read, and so I left, and that’s how I ended up at Pepe’s, where I ordered two-dollar tacos from the wide man at the counter, who is maybe named Pepe himself.
I opened an expensive chardonnay, that I had bought for you, turned the AC on, and watched a so-so movie on Netflix (audibly, and without subtitles, for a change), eating grocery store carrot cake I normally don’t buy, thinking it will spoil Mrinalini’s dinner. I felt so exhilarated that I imagined making this a regular thing: I take her away for a weekend; you take her away for a weekend. We don’t get to spend time together, but lots of married people spend less time together than we do, and at least one of us will get to have those things I always thought sounded too selfish, too self-indulgent, and too Western: personal space and personal time.
I was home alone for the first time in two years and two months, but which felt like forever, maybe even ever. No rhythmic demands of work and school, imperatives of companionship and parenting happily abstracted away. All that space and time (three and a half days!). Time to pay attention to what I was eating. Time to listen to music. Time to savor a novel. Time also to do laundry and dishes and cleaning: the things that it takes to maintain a middle-class life. And space. Space in my head, space in the house. Quiet.
On day two, I wasted time because I thought I had it (as usual, it had me). On day three, I wandered a bit aimlessly. On day four, I slept fitfully and woke at 5, hearing you both wake up some 700 miles away. Being alone returned to me the desire to see and hear and smell and think everything I’m normally too busy to see, hear, smell, and think. It also made me keenly aware of what I have traded all that time and space for.
I thought of my mother who didn’t spend a night away from me and my brother until we were seven and five. I thought of my father left home alone for weeks, summer after summer, while the three of us went off to India—how he loved those first few days, how he struggled to feed himself as the weeks drew on.
And I thought of you, and of my child who gets me up mornings before I want to get up and makes me stop working before I’m ready to call it in. I imagined her little feet with the painted silver toenails—her at-home pedicure a bon voyage gesture from me—and I thought of taking her to The Point, of walking with her down the street in search of our shadows. And I looked forward to your coming home.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.