When Bela arrived in the United States at the age of nineteen, carrying papers that falsely claimed she was a tourist, Sanjay was the only person she knew in the whole country. He wasn’t her husband yet; the plan was for them to marry as soon as she got here. She was crazy about him—how else to account for this desperate thing she had done? But perhaps she didn’t trust him all the way, because when the airplane landed in San Francisco, her palms were slick with sweat. Where would she turn if he wasn’t out in the lobby waiting for her? But there he stood, on the other side of the frosted double doors, thinner than she remembered, his scruffy student beard replaced by a trim, responsible-looking mustache—grown, he later told her, so that Americans would take him seriously. He looked as worried as she felt. It struck her that he, too, had had his doubts. Would she really give up, for his sake, everything she was familiar with? Drop out of college? Cut herself off from her mother—a wound never to be totally healed, because that’s the kind of woman her mother was?
Bela had thought she knew what love felt like, but when she saw Sanjay at the airport after six long months, her heart gave a great, hurtful lurch, as though it was trying to leap out of her body to meet him. This, she thought. This is it. But it was only part of the truth. She would learn over the next years that love can feel a lot of different ways, and sometimes it can hurt a lot more. But on that day the lurching made her forget the cart with her suitcase on it and run through the crowd to Sanjay. She threw her arms around him the way she never could have done in Kolkata and kissed him on the mouth. No one cat-called. No one harassed them or took umbrage or even noticed, except for an old man who offered them a pensive smile.
When she had enough breath to speak again, Bela said to Sanjay, “I think I’m going to be happy in America.”
And he, smiling, said, “I know you will.”
But Bela had been wrong. Someone else had noticed them kissing, and once she surfaced, she noticed him, too. He was taller than Sanjay and more muscular; his mustache, though similar to Sanjay’s (so similar that later she would wonder if Sanjay had copied him), was aggressively luxurious. Next to him, Sanjay appeared young and inexperienced, not much more than a boy. Bela had never thought of Sanjay in that way. In Kolkata, he’d been the student leader of an important political party, someone people respected and even feared. His new American avatar made her uncomfortable.
The man had been watching their reunion with a mildly sardonic expression. Now he said, “Shonu, go get the cart before someone steals that suitcase.”
Sanjay’s smile grew embarrassed and he nodded sheepishly.“Yes, Bishu-da.”
And suddenly Bela knew who he was: Bishwanath Bhaduri, Sanjay’s childhood friend in Kolkata, his next door neighbor and mentor; his—and thus, her—savior. Her face burned because the first thing he had seen her do was behave in such a wild way.
Bishu loaded the bag into the trunk of his car.
“This is really light,” he said. Bela flushed, not sure if the comment was compliment or reproof. She’d had to pack in a rush; it had been hard to find a time when both her mother and Rekha the maid were out of the house. She had thrown in a few salwar kameezes and saris, a couple of sweaters, and her dance costume, though she would probably never get a chance to wear it. At the last moment, with the taxi already honking for her downstairs, she’d snatched up—guiltily, because it wasn’t really hers—the family photo album from the almirah in the living room. Now she wished she had thought to pick up gifts—a couple of packets, at the very least, of the hot dalmoot mix that Sanjay loved.
Bela climbed into the back. The men had offered her the front passenger seat, but she was still mortified. She wrapped the end of her sari around her shoulders. She hadn’t thought it would be this cold in California. At the airport, she had been too flustered to take note of her surroundings; now she longed to see what America looked like. But they were speeding along a dark freeway and there wasn’t much to observe except arced light-posts that loomed up suddenly, looking like they belonged on the set of a science fiction movie, and disappeared just as fast. The men spoke about work, Bishu telling Sanjay that he tended to trust people too easily. Bela tried hard to stay awake, but jetlag had her in its leaden grasp.
The conversation up front had turned to Bengal politics, something about police encounters. The men’s tones grew truculent. She tried to shut them out and thought she heard, faraway, her mother calling.
By now Sabitri would have received the goodbye note Bela had entrusted to Bishu’s friend in Kolkata, the one who helped her get her passport and ticket. Sabitri would be very angry.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning and bestselling author, poet, activist and teacher of writing. Her work has been published in over 50 magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker, and her writing has been included in over 50 anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, the O.Henry Prize Stories and the Pushcart Prize Anthology.