I take a shower because it’s hot today, I’ve already taken one in the morning and it’s evening now, I feel like I’m burning out of my skin. The sun’s still up even though I’m back home from work because the summer stretches the days into long hours filled with thick California sun. I open all the windows and turn on the fan but this apartment is so stuffy that it doesn’t make a bit of difference. I keep it neat, though. Maybe because it is so small. Maybe because if you don’t keep even your small room neat then you don’t deserve a small room at all. That’s what you said to me once, isn’t it. You were always scolding me.
Lately Jeevan from work has been pestering and pestering me to go out with this girl named Suniti. She’s his wife’s cousin and she’s recently come from India. He showed me a picture of her, a Gujarati girl with long hair and arched eyebrows. I keep telling him no, but then yesterday I said yes. I’m not sure why, maybe just because I was tired of fighting him off all the time. His cubicle is right next to mine and he always brings these nice lunches his wife packs and eats them at his desk. Sometimes he’ll knock on the wall and I’ll come over and he’ll share his lunch with me, because the lunches I bring are always pathetic. His wife has started packing extra lunch for me too, I think. I always protest, but then I eat it anyway. I don’t care what you think, I think men just cannot cook as well as women. There is something in our nature that makes things too salty and not subtle enough; the right combination of spices forever eludes us. I have never met Jeevan’s wife, but I feel like I know her very well after eating her food. I think she is a kind woman, shy in public but bold in private, a brave woman when you need her to be brave. There is a picture of her on his desk, the two of them at the Taj Mahal, her in a yellow sari and him grinning and sweaty in a checked shirt. I don’t know why I’m going on and on about this person I have never met. When I look at that picture I always fill in my head for Jeevan’s head and your head for hers. You had a yellow sari that looked like that, freshly pressed even when it was too hot outside to move, and I never saw a bead of sweat on your face. We could have gone to the Taj Mahal, but we never did. Stupid of us, never to try.
So, this evening I am going on a “date” with Suniti, the girl I was telling you about. Can you believe it, Jeevan’s wife told Jeevan to tell me to put a matrimonial ad up on Shaadi.com or some such website, to start looking for a wife! I think those websites are a little sad because the women all say they are fair and slender and the men all say they are handsome and rich, and not that many people can be fair and slender and handsome and rich. After I take a shower I put on music and get dressed, and there’s one part where the flute pulls up, a long breath that sounds as blue as evening, when I cannot do anything but sit down and close my eyes and press my fingers to my temples. I still do that sometimes. Then I can get up and I wear some cologne and a nice new shirt that you bought me and I have never worn. I take that off right away though, because it feels wrong. I get so knotted up inside, over small things. I don’t have Suniti’s phone number so I can’t call her and cancel. We’re meeting at the restaurant. I put on another shirt and a pair of blue jeans. Sometimes I wish I could just wear a dhoti and a banian and be done with it.
The company has helped me finance a new car! It’s quite lovely, silver, sleek, and it has that smell that is leather and musky—new car smell. I’ve heard they bottle that fragrance and sell it. I think it’s one of the prettiest scents in the world. Last weekend I drove down Highway 1 to the ocean and I imagined you in the passenger seat, sitting in a white salwar with the duppata flying around your face. You’d have the window down, and you’d stick your hand out even though I’d tell you not to, it isn’t safe. You have such a pretty mouth, even when it’s frowning. Your skin is quite dark, from spending the day out in the sun, and your sleeveless salwar shows the tops of your browned arms, the width of your shoulders pinned to the car seat because we are going so fast and you are wearing your seatbelt. It’s useless to think like this.
I get to the restaurant early and I sit around in the car because I don’t know what else to do. It’s an Italian restaurant, her suggestion; I have never eaten here before. Since I’ve seen a picture of her, I know what she looks like, but I wonder if she gets here first maybe she will hold up a sign with my name on it, like they do at the airport. In the rearview mirror, I see her walking across the parking lot, and I get out of the car, calling her name, “Suniti, Suniti!”
She turns. She’s wearing a long sequined skirt and a tank top, not at all what I was expecting. Jeevan’s wife was saying once, “these Bombay girls are more American than the Americans,” and of course I already knew this but having been here for so long, I forgot. “Sahadev, right?” she says. She has a slight accent, which, for some reason, makes me more nervous. I wipe my palm on my pant leg before I offer it to her, hoping she won’t notice. She takes it, and gives it a shake. “Hi.”
“Hi,” I say. We walk together across the parking lot.
“Find it okay?” she says.
“The restaurant? Sure, sure,” I say. “Do you go here often?”
“Every once in a while,” she says. “The pizza is very good but I’m watching my carbs.”
I hold the door open for her. She’s wearing eyeliner and I can smell her perfume. Her skirt makes a thin jingling sound when she moves—there are small bells on the edges of the fabric. The waitress leads us to our table and it is noisy in here and crowded and smells like garlic. It’s an ordered kind of noisiness, and it’s times like these when I think of India and miss, irrationally, the pushy chaos it is filled with. Here everyone waits in line, takes turns. It’s as if they have forgotten they have elbows. I guess you miss the things you didn’t think you were going to miss the most. With you, I always hated the way you talked in your sleep, because it kept me awake. I hated how you washed the dishes I put in the sink immediately after I used them. I hated, when I took you to restaurants, that you would lean over the table after the meal was done and grin at me widely and ask if you had anything in your teeth. I thought it was really disgusting.
“Sahadev?” says Suniti. She waves a hand in front of my face and the glass bangles she’s wearing slide down her arm. “The menu can’t be that interesting.”
“Sorry,” I don’t know what to say. “It seems like a really long time since I’ve talked to anybody. I mean, I talk to people. I’m very friendly actually. I just haven’t done this in a while. A long time.”
“You’re doing fine,” she says, but she’s looking bored.
There’s a big silence. I start trying to think of things to say and can’t come up with a single thing. I should have made notes of things I could say to her.
“Have you been back to India recently?”
“Yes,” I say, and then wish I hadn’t.
“No,” I say. I pause. “Business.”
“Jeevan told me you’re an engineer.” She looks confused. Her forehead temporarily creases; there’s a line between her eyebrows.
“Yes,” I say.
“So do engineers often go to India for business?”
“What are you saying?” If you were here you would put a hand on my shoulder and that would calm me down. You would see I was getting angry.
“Nothing!” she says, surprised. Maybe I should have told her the truth, but it’s still too hard to say it out loud.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I think I should go.”
“Why?” She says.
“I just thought of something I have to do.”
“Are you sure?”
I get up and put my napkin on the table. “I’m sorry,” I say. “It was nice to meet you.”
I leave before she can say anything. I push my way out into the parking lot and I can see you sitting out there in my car. I run towards it. I open the door and sit in the driver’s seat and put my head in your lap. You smell like drugstore perfume and coconut hair oil. You run your fingers through my hair. I close my eyes and bury myself in the smell of you. Someone knocks on the car window and when I look up you are gone and Suniti is standing there, her hair blowing around her face because the wind has just picked up. There’s a glitter of sweat on her brow. I wipe my face, feeling embarrassed, and then I roll down the window.
“What’s going on, Sahadev? Are you okay?”
“Fine,” I say. Suniti is very pretty. She has a clean face that’s all angles.
“Can I come in?” she asks. I nod and she opens the door and sits where you were sitting. “Jeevan told me about your wife.”
“What did he say?”
“She drowned. That’s all he said.”
“He didn’t say how?”
“No,” she says. “I’m sorry I pushed you, in there. I know why you lied.”
“You don’t know anything,” I say.
“My brother died, last year,” she says. She looks straight ahead and tucks a piece of hair behind her ear. “I know a little bit, at least. It’s not the same thing but…”
Nobody knows the thing that I know, which is that you can swim. It wasn’t an accident, none of it, and I’ll never believe anyone if they tell me it is. I know you were unhappy here, but you could have tried harder. I wish I had been there before you did it, even if I couldn’t change your mind, just to see you before you left and tell you all the things I never got to tell you. I would have held back your hair and said something in your ear that would have made you laugh a little bit. Even if you wanted to do it still. Nobody loses their balance on a bridge, nobody is pushed by the wind. You jumped, and you could swim. You were wearing a dark sari and when they dredged you up I felt tired and will never stop feeling tired because there’s nothing else to feel. I hate you sometimes, for doing this to me. But if not for me, you would still be alive, so really there is nobody to hate but myself.
“Let’s go somewhere,” I say.
I start the car and roll down the windows. Suniti buckles her seatbelt.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say, and she nods, starts to smile. She looks nothing like you. I turn up the music in the stereo. I drive.
Katha 2007 Results
The Sacrifice by RAVIBALA SHENOY, Naperville, Ill.
First Date by SHRUTI SWAMY, Watsonville, Calif.
Abe and Mohan’s Burden by RAJESH C. OZA, Palo Alto, Calif.
On the Verge by
SRI PRIYA SRIRAM, Houston, Texas
Colors of the Sky by
SUMANA KASTURI, Cupertino, Calif.
|Shruti Swamy is working toward her Masters in Fine Arts in fiction at San Francisco State University.|