She moved quickly through the gray tunnel, re-adjusting the strap to her handbag, trying to keep up with the tall figure walking brusquely ahead. A soft voice greeted her, “Welcome aboard.” Sheela gave the airhostess a hesitant smile and was shown down a narrow aisle with never-ending rows of seats. It was her first flight and that too to San Francisco—there were butterflies in her stomach as she settled into her cramped seat.
“Care for a hot towel, Ma’am?” The same singsong voice echoed above her.
With a silent nod she took the steaming towel and looked at the near stranger who sat next to her. He was furiously wiping his face and arms and dropped the rag on a tray that had popped out. Gingerly she placed the hot towel on her face. It felt gloriously refreshing beyond her expectation of the little rag.
Her husband of 10 days sat besides her looking out the tiny window as the plane was taking off.
“To a new land,” she thought. “What is it going to be like, what adventures and opportunities?” As she wondered what lay in store for her, leaning back she looked at the turned figure and thought, “Perhaps love?”
Rahul was distracted as he pretended to listen to the score on the television. There was the phone ringing again and Sheela absent-mindedly picked it up. Almost immediately as she said hello the line was disconnected. She mumbled about someone having a bad connection as she garnished the spinach dal. She was observing Rahul from the corner of her eye as he seemed absorbed.
“Are you hungry? Lunch is ready!” She asked smiling, coming up close to his face playfully.
“Sheela,” he yelled, “Don’t bother me now, I am watching the game.” Sheela was stunned. She turned to the television. “What is the score? Is this a home team?” She asked meekly trying to figure out what had mesmerized her husband so.
“I don’t know. Look, why don’t you finish up and take rest. I am going to meet someone for lunch.” He barked and walked out grabbing his jacket from the closet without waiting for her to answer. Sheela’s face fell. She had made his favorite dish from her recipe book. At least what his mom had claimed was his favorite. He had not even glanced at the table. He seemed preoccupied. Sheela was almost sure it was not the game.
It has been a month since she landed in San Francisco. She saw the gloomy city as dusk fell on her way to their one bedroom apartment in Fremont. The flat, as she thought of it was cramped but cozy and had all the amenities; a fridge, an electric stove, a washer and dryer. Sheela spent her early days figuring out and getting used to the various switches and knobs. She had plenty of time to rest and recoup after the long journey and the hectic days leading up to the wedding. But Rahul returned to work the very next day. “Deadlines” he said casually without any further explanation.
Sheela finished her lunch early and promised herself she would complete the letter to her mom. As she sat by the balcony facing the laughing children frolicking in the pool, she felt out of place. This was going to be her home, but she felt like a stranger. She was finding out that her husband was a man of few words … so different from the man she had met before the wedding. Rahul who had been jovial and cheerful during the course of the wedding and gatherings after with her relatives was now distant and moody. During the week he left early for work and returned late. Sometimes he reluctantly ate what she had spent hours preparing; sometimes he just went straight to bed without even acknowledging her presence.
Sheela was suddenly aware of how alone she was even amidst the screaming children by the pool. Her thoughts went to her parents’ tiny flat in Delhi as she imagined her parents by the balcony having their evening tea, her naughty younger brother running around trying to grab their little Apso puppy which used to follow her everywhere. Tears stung her eyes as she focused on the strange words she had penned earlier. She missed her home, her family, and friends.
A shrill ring startled her from her reverie and she sprung forward to grab the phone cord upsetting the receiver. “Hello?”
“Hello Sam, This is Neel. Is Rahul there?” A voice enquired.
“What’s the number you are looking for?” She asked surprised. “This is Rahul Verma’s residence.”
“Hey Samita, it’s me Neel,” the voice persisted.
“I am sorry,” she was annoyed now, “I am Sheela, Rahul’s wife,” she said firmly.
Silence from the other end. “I am sorry, I must have the wrong number.” The line was disconnected abruptly, leaving Sheela uneasy and perplexed.
Rahul was very late that day. Sheela had forced herself to stop worrying. She had forgotten the strange phone call. She crumpled up her unfinished letter and called home later that day. Her mom sensed her uneasiness. Sheela avoided her mother’s pointed questions. By the end of the call she was cheered by her brother’s teasing and her father’s affectionate words. Even her little dog seemed to recognize her voice across the phone lines. She was asleep when he came in, contented and oblivious.
A week later, on his way out, Rahul nonchalantly informed her, “Be ready by 6 this evening. My boss has invited us for a party.” Sheela looked up expectantly hoping to have a conversation, but Rahul was closing the front door behind him.
This was going to be her first outing in two months. Apart from wandering around the apartment complex and her ritualistic trips to pick up the mail, Sheela did not have much human contact. The Indians in her complex ignored her friendly overtures. She did not feel comfortable approaching the American folk yet. So she was excited, wondering throughout the day what she should wear.
“A traditional Indian outfit or my only Western costume?” she thought listening to her favorite cassette by Rafi, modeling the dresses in front of the mirror.
She was ready by 5, in her henna green salwar kameez embroidered with tiny mirror’s sparkling in sync with her gold earrings. It was her mother’s gift for the engagement ceremony and her favorite color.
Sheela was dazzled by the huge mansion as she got out of the car and followed Rahul.
“Hi Rahul, come on in,” a deep accented voice greeted them at the door. Dressed in casual jeans and a sparkling white shirt a tall man stood by the open door.
“Is this your wife? Man! You are lucky,” he smiled extending his hand to Sheela. She smiled and shook his hand lightly.
“John’s the name. And you are Sheela?” He asked, his eyes twinkling.
Sheela murmured a “yes” as he ushered her in. The huge living room was filled with people. She made her way into the room uncertainly looking around for Rahul who had disappeared into the crowd. She walked up to the dining table to pick up a drink when she saw him in the corner of the room, saying something into a women’s ear. The woman was smiling up to Rahul in a familiar way. Sheela tried to maneuver her way there when she saw them slip into the backyard. She stopped and looked about her uncertainly and she saw John standing behind her.
“Sheela, that’s a beautiful name,” he was looking at her unblinking.
“Yes, it’s my grandmother’s,” she could not look away from the ocean blue pupils.
“Do you want a tour of the house?” he asked casually.
Looking at the backdoor hesitantly she shrugged, “OK, looks like I have lost Rahul anyway.” She smiled and let him lead her up the stairs.
The house seemed like a castle in comparison to her cozy one bedroom. It was decorated tastefully and there were lots of photographs of a curly haired chubby young girl.
“Is this your daughter?” She asked picking up a pink frame autographed “To daddy with love.”
“Hmm? Yes. She is 12. She lives with her mom in L.A.,” He said looking over her shoulders.
“Oh!” Sheela did not pry, “She has your eyes,” she said, keeping the frame back carefully.
“Rahul must be looking for me,” she said looking at her watch intently.
“Yes! Yes!” John said leading her down stairs holding her elbow. “He must be frantic for his beautiful wife.” A smile reached into his arresting blue eyes.
Later that night Sheela asked Rahul cautiously, “Who was that lady you were talking to?”
“Hmm, who?” He asked distracted.
“The lady in a red dress. I saw you two go into the backyard,” she said looking out the fogged window.
“No one. A colleague at work. We were discussing some issues at work.” He switched off the ignition as they reached the parking lot and walked down to the apartment without waiting for her.
Sheela made a friend. Ivanka was a Russian student who lived in the apartment by the mailboxes. She was an exchange student studying at the University in Hayward and spoke in fragmented English. Sheela met her couple of times and sensed a connection being foreigners in unknown territories. Ivanka invited her to her apartment for tea one day and they started meeting regularly at the mailroom when she returned from the University. Sheela had a wonderful time reliving her carefree college days. Talking to Rahul seemed impossible, he lived in a world of his own when he did come home. She asked him about his day at work, she told him about her new friend; he nodded politely but seemed unconcerned.
One day Sheela drove with Ivanka to the University and spent an afternoon in the library. She pushed her nagging fears and uneasy suspicions into a corner of her mind and looked forward to her meetings with Ivanka and her college friends, reveling in their college experiences.
One evening she saw Ivanka running towards her. Panting she said, “Come on, lock up quickly. We’re going to the movies. We’ll be back long before your husband returns.” Sheela hesitated just for a second before she yelled an enthusiastic “OK” and ran back to lock up.
They reached the huge multiplex with 25 theaters. While Ivanka looked at screening lists, Sheela looked around in amazement. She hadn’t seen so many people together since her last time at Delhi. Her eyes rested on a couple, facing each other as they were smiling and cooing into each other’s ears. She tried not to stare but there was something very familiar about the bent figure, curving his arms across the lady’s hips. Then he turned around and looked up at the screening lists, his arm still around her possessively. It was Rahul; with the same women she had seen at John’s party.
The room seemed to tilt around her as the droning voices suddenly turned deafening. Subconsciously she had known, but she was not prepared to acknowledge the truth even as it stared at her. Numb, she followed Ivanka and her friends into the theater when an arm grabbed her as she stumbled.
“Hey, steady. Didn’t mean to startle you,” he said still holding her elbow. “It’s me, John.”
“Hello,” Sheela smiled weakly trying to focus on her ticket.
“So are you at the movies alone? Where is Rahul? He left early today,” he asked looking around.
“I am here with some friends,” She said looking at the curly haired girl tugging at his jacket.
“Ah ha,” He looked down smiling “Ladies’ day out, eh? Have fun! We should meet again soon.” He said and walked down the hall catching up with his daughter.
Sheela felt someone looking at her. She turned around to see Rahul’s companion looking straight at her, then Rahul joined her and followed her eyes to Sheela. Sheela stood frozen unable to break eye contact with Rahul, when Ivanka ran to her and dragged her into the theater unbeknownst to Sheela’s turmoil.
That night Sheela stayed up waiting for Rahul to come back. He was later than usual. It was 2 a.m. when she heard the door. She had left the uneaten dinner on the table.
“I am not hungry,” he declared and walked into the bedroom. Sheela took a deep breath. She was very calm as she followed him. He was sitting on the edge of the bed rubbing his temples. Without looking up he said –“Sheela, I didn’t know how to tell you this. I know you saw us at the theater.” When he looked up, he was not the same man she had married. The man she had married and lived with for six months was a stranger, a stranger pleading to be let go.
“I am relieved you know,” he said looking up. “Samita and I have known each other since our school days. We were living together in this apartment before you came. Sam has been pestering me to move in with her.” His voice was desperate, “I am sorry to do this to you but my parents would just not understand or agree. I had no choice.”
He was hurriedly packing a suitcase with his clothes. “I cannot live without Sam, I need her. She is waiting for me outside,” and he walked out just like he did everyday without even a goodbye.
Sheela had lost her voice. She heard everything as if she had already heard it before. It was not surprising to her nor was she shocked. But she lay awake a long time that night before sleep took over her haunting thoughts of the future.
Six months had passed since Rahul moved out. He had transferred the car and the apartment lease to her name. Not long after that she opened the suitcase she had packed from India and removed a forgotten leather folder. She examined the contents carefully and took it the next day to Hayward University.
She registered for a master’s in computer science and started working part-time at the university library. Ivanka was a pillar of support and encouragement, “You are too smart to sit at home anyway.”
Sheela did not explain or discuss Rahul’s departure with her parents. They were worried … she knew that. But she talked about her future and her course work and tried to stay away from what could not be changed. She had no regrets. She did not know where Rahul was, nor did she care. He was a stranger whose path had crossed hers inadvertently. She felt free now.
Sitting by her balcony on a warm Sunday afternoon, Sheela idly stirred her tea musing over her letter pad. She hadn’t written a word in an hour when the phone rang once before her recorded voice came on cheerily. That had been her first step towards independence. A soft sophisticated voice in perfect English asked to leave a message for Sheela. She listened as an accented voice answered, “Hello Sheela, Hope things are going well for you.” He hesitated, “I was hoping we could have a cup of coffee when you are free sometime.” Then abruptly he gave his name and number and hung up.
Sheela tried to focus on her letter while her reflection on the window smiled as a pair unblinking ocean blues eyes haunted her thoughts.