I’m coming to see you this weekend,” the voice on the phone announced. My sleepy eyes immediately widened as I recognized my mother’s voice. “What … this weekend?” I questioned weakly, “I’m a little busy …”
She interrupted me, “It has to be this weekend, Priti. I got a cheap flight, and I want to see you and your new apartment. I have to go meet Shobnum for lunch soon, but I will call you later with my flight details.” With that she hung up, leaving me in a state of semi-panic. It was raining outside. My window was open and the curtains blew towards me in a valiant, but futile effort to calm me down. I looked around my tiny SOMA apartment. Robert’s things were scattered everywhere. Every part of the apartment seemed to have an indent of him.
Robert and I had met a few months ago in a dingy bar in the Mission District of San Francisco. Bearded, with two diamond earrings adorning each earlobe, he grinned at me while I waited impatiently for my drink at the dimly lit, cramped bar. He was good looking, although quite skinny, and decked out in all black with steel-toed cowboy boots. I turned to look at him and found myself staring at piercing blue eyes haloed with a gold rim. He picked up my left hand and said “Finally I found a girl …”
“What does that mean?” I asked, snatching my hand back in shock at his invasion of my personal space.
“It means you are very feminine. See how your ring and index fingers are shorter than your middle finger? That shows you are a girly girl.” His eyes stared at me in amusement, daring me to turn away. He smiled and led me over to a secluded sitting area near the bar. “Let’s play a game. Let’s take turns asking each other questions,” he said.
His asked what made me happiest, to which I answered my niece and nephew. I reciprocated by asking him what he wanted out of life, and he responded that he desired pure and utter simplicity. By the third question, and my third cocktail, I knew he was an accountant by profession, recently divorced, and that his biggest fear in life was making the same mistakes his father had made. Two curved lines enclosed his lips like parentheses as he grimaced while mentioning his ex-wife. The scenery was slowly changing around us the longer we sat on the plush mahogany couch. A statuesque girl in a long red dress, held by a man in a tuxedo, twirled on the dance floor, her face a kaleidoscope under the flickering multicolored lights. Robert noticed me observing them and motioned towards the dance floor, but I shook my head, and we continued talking. By the time he had programmed my number into his cell phone, I realized a few hours had passed. This was a far cry from the men I had recently dated, in whom I had mentally lost interest in just a few minutes.
He called me the following evening to ask me to go out to a “fantastic” Thai restaurant he knew about near his place. I arrived at the restaurant before he did and was seated at the bar by an elderly Thai hostess with silver braided hair. Robert came in smiling five minutes later, his long dirty blonde hair wet and cold from the rain outside. The dinner began awkwardly, with both of us exchanging polite words, despite having spoken so intimately just the night before. We finally started laughing when the elderly couple sitting next to us, eavesdropping on our conversation, looked at me in response to a question Robert had asked.
At the end of dinner, while we waited underneath a faded green, cloth awning for cabs to take us back to our respective apartments, he kissed me for three seconds. I knew how long it was because I held my breath for those three seconds. After that, Robert and I saw each other practically every day, until one day, he casually and finally moved into my tiny brick apartment. I had asked him what his intentions were with this relationship, and he had paused, glanced at my face, and announced that his intentions were to move in with me.
I had never lived with a man before, and he laughed at my shyness in the beginning. I fell in love with his curly blonde hair and the way he wrinkled his nose at me when he was being silly. We laughed when we washed dishes together and danced in our living room after a few glasses of wine to Cesaria Evora’s “Mar de Canal.”
No one in my family knew any of this, of course, and I could only imagine the horror on my mother’s face if she ever found out that I was dating a divorced, older white man, never mind living with him. I made a mental note of everything I had to get rid of before my mother arrived: the crinkly pink piece of paper on which Robert had written “I love you” and taped to my bedroom door on Valentine’s Day, the black La Perla lingerie he had bought for me after we had dated for three months, and how could I forget the pictures that were on the refrigerator of us from our trip to Mexico?
When Robert walked into the apartment that night, all his belongs had been condensed into a narrow, brown cardboard box labeled Tide detergent. I laughed at the look on his face and informed him that my mother would be staying with me for a few days. “You have to tell her at some point,” he said, his mouth hardening into that familiar strict frown I had grown to hate.
“Don’t you think I know that?” I replied in a sarcastic tone.
“That’s fine. I’ll just hit up Jimmy’s place for the weekend,” he said quietly as he traced his finger along the long blue vein that ran up my right arm.
My mother arrived the next morning to a glowing, newly sterilized apartment. Any possibly androgynous objects had been neatly replaced with incense sticks and Pottery Barn decorations. Her polka-dotted black and white skirt twirled around my apartment like a tornado as she weaved in and out of the different rooms. Dark, lipstick-laden lips kissed me, leaving me with aubergine stained cheeks, and then frowned at me, exclaiming that my apartment in Baltimore had been so much nicer. I inquired about my father in an attempt to change the subject.
“He is fine,” my mother answered curtly, “He is always fine.” Her eyes grew weary when I mentioned him. My father barely talked to her these days. I used to hear rumors, whispers, from my friends’ mothers that my poor father had to deal with so much. I didn’t understand what that meant, until I had gone home from college and seen my mother. Growing up, my friends had made fun of her lopsided messy bun, and the way she waved her pinky around while trying to make a point, but now she had soft waves framing her square face and a peaceful smile. She had started wearing heavy makeup and was taking poetry classes at a local community college. In the past, my mother had always been shy around strangers and conservative about raising me. One day, when I had asked her if I could go to a movie with a boy from school, she had almost slapped me just for having the audacity to ask.
We weren’t sure what had spurred the transformation, but I remember when I was six years old, my maternal grandfather, a bit tipsy from a glass of cabernet at dinner, had gone on and on about how he felt that he had made a mistake by marrying my mother off too young, but that my grandmother had insisted on it. I had looked up at my mother with big eyes to see if what he said was true. All I saw was her bending her head against the light, her mile-long eyelashes casting a shadow on the dining table.
These days, the three of us ate our meals around that faded wood dining table in silence, my father’s black and silver rimmed glasses hiding any expressions until his face became as immobile and plastic as the surroundings. My mother banged pots and pans around in the kitchen to break the silence, served bitter garlic with our meals, turned the radio on loudly, but my father’s face remained stoic. My father resented this abrupt and considerable change in my mother, treating it as a betrayal of sorts.
I noticed my mother pause as she opened up the empty chest of drawers to put away her clothes. One by one, she meticulously arranged underwear, shirts, and saris into the drawers. I cleared my throat, forced a laugh, and asked her how long she was planning on staying. She glanced at me sharply, “Only until Monday dear, you know that. I’m very hungry now Priti. Let’s go eat.” We headed over to the same Thai place Robert had taken me to.
“So baby, what have you been keeping yourself busy with? How is your new job?” she asked after we had ordered our vegetarian pad thai and red tofu curry.
I replied that my new job was wonderful, and that I had been busy exploring the city for the last few months. She glanced down at her newly manicured nails. “It’s high time you get married now,” she declared. I tensed up, preparing to be defensive as this conversation proceeded. Suddenly, though, my mother announced that she used to be impulsive and strong-willed, just like me. She looked tired, as if she had been waiting to make that announcement all night.
The candle that the hostess had surreptitiously placed on the table while my mother was talking illuminated the dark circles that resided underneath my mother’s eyes. “I don’t know how I have changed so much Priti.” She laughed and declared that before she met my father, she had had a dream to live in every city in Europe. She said she couldn’t imagine settling down with someone as serious as my father, but the way he looked at her when she laughed convinced her. “That may seem silly to you, baby, but he liked me so much, and sometimes … that is enough.” Her face momentarily resembled the young woman with long hair and a ruby nose ring in the clear glass and bronze photo frames that I had seen scattered throughout my parent’s home.
She stopped talking and looked at me. “There is so much I don’t know about you anymore, Priti,” she whispered as she pushed her coarse, hennaed hair behind her ears. “When did that happen?” I wanted to tell her it had happened when I left for college, that it happened while I lay on the lawn with the first boy I fell in love with, that it happened while she and my father sat underneath the stars on summer evenings without saying a word to each other. But I couldn’t say it because the lump in my throat had replaced my voice.
We ate our meal in silence and returned to my apartment. I quickly brushed my teeth and got ready for bed, exhausted from the day. My mother climbed into bed with me that night, just like she always did when I was a child. She said her prayers in the dutiful tone she saved for anything pertaining to God and turned toward the wall to sleep. She looked indulgent as she slept, as if trapped in a memory. I quietly tiptoed out of bed to turn the light off when something caught my eye. Right above the chest of drawers was one of Robert’s button-down shirts that I must have left in the drawer, neatly folded by my mother.
Pooja Santwani is a dentist in San Francisco, Calif.