Anyone who leaves home wants to be asked back. Even if she never plans to return, she wants to be asked. That was what my husband told me when I left him to go live in India. He then told me that I looked especially beautiful to him because I didn't want to be asked for anything. Riddles, I decided. The next day though, I visited my daughters apartment. We lunched on nutrition bars from her gym bag and cups of green tea, and as we were saying our goodbyes, my daughter told me much the same thing, and I knew I was going to be fucked.
I moved to my parents' birthplace, Hyderabad, to a small one-bedroom apartment overlooking a thoroughfare with a name I never tried to pronounce. The building had a security guard out front, an old man who sat on a metal folding chair tapping a baton against his boot, and who wore the olive green colors that in America mean the army but in India mean the police, though he was neither. There was a small grim garden with coconut trees at the heart of the building; in the nighttime, monkeys came to scavenge for the food we left out, and the guard dogs chased them up the tree trunks. When I had trouble sleeping, I stepped out onto the veranda and counted the gangs of campfires in the nearby shantytowns.
In the early morning, the daylight had a ragged, astringent, sandy quality. It reminded me somehow of Jerusalem, where I've never been but I'm sure that I would like. It would have been nice, perhaps, to marry an Israeli, some great barrel of a man, with a beard and an accent, both as thick as a bearskin rug, someone with military service: a man with a tan who had shot a gun. We might have met in college; he would have been a graduate student, assisting one of my classes; I would visit him during office hours and unconsciously start speaking in his accent; he would think I was mocking him, and from such mirthful misunderstandings our love would begin. He would ask me to become a Jew, and I don't know if I would, but I know that I would count that day as one of the happiest in my life. (But if a boyfriend had ever asked me to become a Christian, I would have dumped him immediately.)
When I first landed in Hyderabad, I was in a daze. Every aspect of the city was indistinct to me. I had not been here since I was a little girl and I did not believe that I had come back. It had to have taken foresight for me to make the trip--I must have decided to go, must have worried about where to go, must have arranged a visa and bought a ticket--but I could not remember any planning at all. On the flight to India, I kept thinking that each second I needed to make a choice, whether I should stay or whether I should go. It seemed to me that I could always do either, as if I were riding a subway and each second brought a new stop that I could visit or let pass. It felt that way even after landing. As we touched down and our seats shook, I still had not made up my mind where I wanted to go, and once I stepped out from the glossy airport fight and found myself back in India, I was astonished, as if I had arrived not after an eighteen-hour flight but on a great cloud of impromptu.
My ex-husband would ring up to taunt me with fake headlines of Indian news--"villagers riot after seeing elephant in short skirt"; "finance minister combats inflation with hunger strike"; "yoga causes cancer." My mother worried that, at the age of fifty-one, I had been sold into white slavery. She asked her nieces and nephews to look after me; the boys and girls she had coddled had grown into men and women with families she had never seen, yet they did not hesitate in helping me find an apartment and finesse the bureaucracies of power, gas, and telephone. Worried about my loneliness, my cousins also invited me to their homes for dinner; over the weeks, they spent an astonishing amount of time explaining to me all the pickles and vegetables they were putting on my plate; it was clear that they did not know what to make of me, that to them I was something in between a widow and a harlot. And my daughter did not talk to me for nearly a year.
But with some effort, I managed to stave off the doubters. I managed to reconstruct a life that resembled my old one. I still got to swim and jog every week. And, though I was not licensed to practice medicine in India, the local charity hospital allowed me to make rounds with the pediatric nurses as a "counselor." For a social life, I went to the consulates, where they showed foreign movies and where, unlike the restaurants, they served red wine that didn't come in chilled glasses and didn't taste like cough syrup. In all, the transition was a success. In fact, it seemed as if the best test of a city's sophistication is how little it forces you to change your routine.
One afternoon, I went to the Old City, to a halal butcher one of the nurses recommended, because my daughter would be coming soon for a visit, and I was going to make her my one specialty, chicken curry. Outside, as I was tying up the butcher bag to hide the smell of the blood, I felt something jostle against my hip: a boy wanted to pick my pocket. He was young and clumsy, not more than eight, with henna in his hair and tobacco on his teeth. He called me a cunt and, as I snatched his wrist, it felt as brittle as the stem of a champagne flute. I wanted to ruin his life with my fingers (I was a cunt), but I thought of my daughter and instead gave him half of the cash in my purse.
On the cab ride back, I rued my decision. It was in elementary' school that my daughter would have had me give to every beggar I met; in high school, it would be only the child beggars. Now I would have to look deeper, to make sure the boy was begging for himself and his family and not a pimp. Every day of her life is less simple than the one before. That Sunday, after my daughter told me she was coming, I had to lie down for the rest of the afternoon; I wanted a whisky but couldn't suffer the embarrassment of being a single woman drinking alone in an Indian bar.
She usually came to rescue me from some kind of sadness. Usually, it would follow a personal departure of hers, from a man or a job, and she would come to celebrate her freedom, thinking that I'd find it potent. She'd make me jog with her despite the heat, and she would come with me to the hospital and play with the sick children. And she would talk; we would stay up through the night and I'd listen to her until the muezzins started.
Because of me, my daughter is half Indian, exotic, and that makes her a gypsy. She is beautiful, but it is a new, untested kind of beauty in this world, and with each visit, I could see her still trying to figure out its worth. When she was in college, her boyfriends would call me all the time for advice. They would call our house during spring or summer break, but she would just run to her bedroom. Because the boys were not wrong--she was moody--I would stay on the line, and sometimes my ex-husband and I would share the receiver, and we would just listen to these poor undergraduates complain about how much they loved our daughter. After, I would creak open the bedroom door to watch her sleep, and she seemed as much a secret to me as when she was born. As I tiptoed to her window to shut the glass and close the blue linen curtains, I would even feel a little proud of her because I had never made a man feel so desperate.
But that was more than ten years ago, and when my daughter told me she was coming for a visit, I wanted her to stay put. Since my move to Hyderabad, my family had come for me in turns. Instead of my daughter, I was expecting my ex-husband.
To both of our surprise, he would come every summer. The month before his arrival, the diet would start (no, rice; yes, chapatis), and the morning walks; no more cigarettes, no more alcohol. I wanted to impress him, if not as a wife or a mother, then as a woman. Of my family, I missed my mother and daughter the most, but he was the one I always wanted to see.
In fact, though I called him my ex-husband, I did not really think of us as separated. I did not know what he made of my decision to stay here, but I still thought of myself as his wife. I felt that, of all the people in my life, he may not have understood me the best, but the way he understood me was the closest to the way I understand myself: after each visit, he never asked me to come back with him.
As far as I could tell, he never found anyone else to replace me. Which was a shame for him because I had lost my imagination in the carnal realm. During his visits, we would still go to bed together. But when I took him into the bedroom, and when I undressed him, I did it only because I was as fond of his birthmarks as I was of his friends. It was a comfort to see again the body I know better than anyone else's, to know that I had now surpassed his mother as the reigning historian of his body.
When we were younger, our couplings were fond delirium; the tips of his teeth softly raked over the ridges of my anus, and his tongue the salve; such was the exquisite filth from which our love was made. Alas, from domination to collaboration; a conversation, not a sport, this was the sex our bodies left us with. As we somersaulted from position to position, our knees and our backs ached. Gone the taut map of muscles that used to be his abdomen, traded for the constellation of pinholes along my buttocks and thighs. Our failing bodies made us timid. We kissed for hours as a kind of procrastination; our mouths became dry, my lips ached, and my bite changed from the vacuum pressure inside my cheeks. We worked each other into a warm simmer, as usual, but I made sure to keep my knickers on. And for his part, he had lost that heavy-lidded, thick-lipped haze that an erection used to portend, that lustful, Cro-Magnon stupor that could seem like the most mysterious and beautiful thing in the world. There was a slightly forensic quality to the sex that I did not quite allow him. The only thing I perceived was technique. There was the pattern of attention he lavished on my breasts, switching between them as if he were tapping out a telegraph code: a dutiful minute with the larger but lumpier left breast, the dowager; then some time with its vivacious younger sister; then a quick visit back to the left so that it wouldn't get jealous; and for each nipple, a thoughtful battery of nibbles, licks, and suction. I followed the itinerary of his mouth as it first visited my own mouth, and then slowly traversed all over my body, leaving behind slicks of spittle and red scratches from his stubble.
For my part, moans and lip bites were customary--I didn't touch his body very much with my hands because I thought it would just remind him of his weight--but, at times, I overdid it, and he would then try to pull off my underwear with his teeth. To calm him down, I usually would end up trying to going down on him, and we'd pay for my good intentions. He took forever to come, and he'd see me stretch my mouth in discomfort, which is a motion indistinguishable from a yawn, and then he would lose his erection and make me watch him pout for the rest of the night.
Plenty of other times though, he got what he wanted. I let him on top to catch some rest. I'd close my eyes and breathe deeply and daydream about getting a chicken biryani or some kulfi from the stalls outside. But at such a late hour, we would have had to get dressed and hire a taxi to go to the Old City. Instead, I was quite happy for us to shower, get into our pajamas, and eat pomegranates, watching the news on television as we listened to the monkeys scampering on the roof.
Those moments were hard won. In my final years in the United States, it seemed impossible to think my husband and I would ever want to see each other naked again. During those final years, it seemed that our curiosity about each other had finally ended. Each time I laughed at his jokes, a cloud of dullness gathered in my mouth, just as when I was a girl mulling over the last bits of cold rice that my mother told me to clean off my plate. "I'm sorry, but do you mind ..." was how we began nearly all of our sentences. If we went to dinner parties, we did so just for the pleasure of driving back, so that we could tally up how much gin and sarcasm our friends needed to endure their spouses, and so we could get home and make love like teenagers, giddy at having watched marriages even worse than ours.
Otherwise, to rekindle our romance, we went on grand European vacations, touring countryside and city alike, puttering along dapper streets with imaginatively scarved Svengalis and goat-struck alleys with single-browed milkmaids. It was my husbands idea not just to travel but to travel to Europe. He was a scholarship boy all his childhood, and every castle, every painting we saw was something he had once read about, was something he had found in the books he had made himself read to get where he wanted to go. That boyish curiosity, that zeal, was something he wanted to find in Europe, just so he could seduce me with it.
We looked hard, but it never appeared. Instead, we ate pastries that were ornate, decadent things, pocket-sized cathedrals of fruit, flake, and cream. We drank wines and ate cheeses named after the very places where we were enjoying them. We did the same with symphonies, cars, and words--everywhere we looked, there were origins, everywhere history, and we took it all in, hostages to each other's company. Through the museums and the boulevards and the gardens, not once did we leave each other's side because to do that would be to admit defeat. Despite all the masterpieces, despite all the opportunities for pleasure and beauty that the continent provided, I can best recall only three things: gray skies, a winter chill that always found its way through my overcoat, and the concomitant need to pee.
It was wrong to have married him: that was the thought I kept fighting. My father died during this time, and I admit I was satisfied that at least he died with the knowledge I was still married, but otherwise it seemed like a mistake. My marriage had not made me a better person in any respect; the daily exposure to my husband, our shared meals and beds, our conversations and affections, our kisses and surprises, all the rituals that love requires, they had not developed me at all. Instead, my virtues had become furtive, my talents elusive. The world had separated into long ranks of demeanor and personality, and the chances to jump from one rank to the next were now largely over. There had been choices to make, and I made the wrong ones, and now the rest of my life would be governed by those habits of thought--the world does make people into castes.
And in a moment of insanity, I told this to my daughter. I did not plan to. Suffering in silence is an important precursor to righteous indignation--by far my favorite emotion. Nevertheless, for our weekly call, I broke my vow and told her everything. I told her that, in my paralysis, I felt precisely the opposite of how I felt when I first realized I would marry my husband. I told her that: from the moment he and I first spoke, it never mattered what he said; just the beat of his voice against my eardrums was intoxicating. To make him happy, to have a family with him, that was the job I wanted for myself. My marriage had inaugurated the period in my life I consider My Great Equanimity; I set aside my doubts and accepted the familiar solution to desire: the things you want you do not need, and the things you need you have. I know this is trite--I knew this at the time--but I had the strength not to need more. The desire for profundity was corrupting. It inspired a certain restlessness, a search for meanings beyond what I could see, touch, or feel, and that search was itself pointless. I wanted to make no trouble for anyone. I just wanted to be reasonable. My family deserved as much.
Deboarding the plane, my daughter looked different in almost every way. She had on sunglasses so large, black, and beetle-like they made me forget the color of her eyes. She took them off when she hugged me, and I was relieved to see her face largely unlined. But as we walked to get her luggage, I noticed her more and started to worry. She had no make-up on, and her clothes were barely better than pajamas, loose, ill-fitting things, flouncy at the wrists and ankles, that she did not even bother to match. The way she stood, she seemed taller yet somehow stooped. She'd gotten a little more flesh in the chin and the cheeks, and she was unusually subdued, smiling little, saying little.
Yet, she also seemed undeniably warmer too; the mere sense of her hit me with a furnace blast of affection. She looked more like her father than I remembered, with her tall forehead, her proud, jagged nose, the ears slightly flapping out. (Even though she has always had more of my features, like her beauty marks and my thick eyebrows, it has always been her father's features that made more of a mark.) She never looked so clearly like her parents and yet never had I felt so strongly that I don't know what to do with her.
She has been dumped: that was my first guess, a man she loved has left her, and she has come back to me to recover. Out of the airport gate a hawker came to us carrying a basket of jasmine garlands, and I bought some, draping the limp, pungent flowers around her neck. I hailed a taxi and she sat next to me like a sullen bride. On the ride, I prattled on like her visit was a job interview or a first date, and I put my hands on top of hers and held them tight, our mutual palms sealed in sweat.
To understand something is really a physical process, I suppose.
When we got home and my daughter finally told me why she had come, her words to me had been as tight and as small as pills; they went down smoothly, with little taste or effect. She offered me no emotions to respond to; as she spoke, she did not cry. Her voice was low, if quick, and the only mark of emotion I could see was in her hands, her palms constantly consoling her knuckles. She said what she had to tell me and afterward she seemed not relieved at all. I smiled and told her again it was going to be all right.
Her news shocked me, but I did not know that I was shocked. I made her bed and I let her sleep. I put on the TV, took out the chicken, and opened up a bottle of consulate wine for it to breathe. I took a sip of the wine and its heavy, drying taste seemed a little more doleful than usual. I ate a bit of the chicken with some rice. When mustard oil seeped into the basmati rice, my breath started to feel caustic, antic with pepper, yet, as far as I could tell, that was the extent of my nerves. I needed the call from her father to throw my emotions into proper relief.
"Did she land?" he asked.
"She told me something," I told him.
"-- -- --"
"She told me. Just before she left. I was just as shocked. I can't believe it."
"She won't even say who the father is."
"I know, I know. But remember darling, this is wonderful news as well."
"She just told you before she left."
"Yes. I don't know. She did. But that's fine. Just be upset with me. Let her alone."
"I don't--look--I don't think you'd want me to say what I want to say right now."
"Stop this. Look, this is splendid news. I know that you're happy about this. Congrat--"
What my daughter told me was hard to fathom because she was so joyless about her news. Her father was right, it should have been celebrated, but if she was not going to, I didn't see how I could. She was pregnant of course; that was her secret. She did not know the father, was very sorry how it happened, but was fairly sure she wanted to keep the child nonetheless. The facts of my daughters news came together in a logical suite--my daughter was going to be a mother, I was going to be a grandmother, her father was going to be a grandfather--yet each had to be reckoned with alone; each provided me with an irrevocable and distinct portrait of the future. The minutes of my night were drawing into a peculiar syntax; I had to worry about the facts and my reactions to them, my worries swaddled my recollection of her words. I knew that I was not supposed to be selfish, and I did not want to remember myself as selfish in this moment. But I was. She told her father first: that unnatural fact overshadowed everything else.
"Do you have any boyfriends?" she asked me one night, her head on my lap while my fingers sifted through her hair.
"No. Not at current.... When I was pregnant with you, your father was dumbfounded. Any moment, I swear, he would just grab me and stare at my belly and say, 'I did that.'"
"There's not even a man on the side? You look as if you've been watching your figure."
"Your dad would stop me in the grocery store, the gas station. He was just flabbergasted at the fact of you."
"I know, ma. That's sweet."
"Well, who is the father anyway?"
"He is a sweet man, erratic. Fresh-faced. He is freshly faced.... What do you think? About my mothering prospects?"
"You don't think you can make a go with him?"
"But you're sure you're ready."
"What do you think?"
"I think we'll wait and see."
"No seriously. Tell me ma."
"I think you'll try.... It's good that you're questioning yourself. You have to. It makes you careful. It means you care."
"Is that right?"
It took about two days for my daughter to work up the courage to ask me to come back with her.
She sneaked the offer into a discussion of baby names, flattering me by suggesting ones inspired by my parents. We talked for hours about my parents. She told me how much she liked seeing me now in saris. She explained, in a nostalgic alexandrine, how it reminded her of my mothers saris, how they seemed like flags of her childhood. She thought of the smell of my mother's saris, the smell of baby powder caught on starched cotton, and she could not imagine feeling any safer.
This nostalgia did not belong to my daughter though. She was borrowing mine. It was when my mother raised me that she wore the starched saris my daughter claimed to remember; the pleats of her saris were razor-sharp, and the gold stitching and their crisp touch gave them the cast of armor and jewelry. By the time my daughter was born, my mother had started to hide her body in sweatpants and the salwar-kameez.
And my daughter would have known that. My mother baby-sat her when I was in residency, so, as a toddler, my daughter picked up bits of Telugu, my mother's native tongue, which I was never taught. I would get home and my daughter would run to my ankles, tug at my pants so I would pick her up, and she would tell me her whole day, running down her exploits in her unique pidgin of English and Telugu, tossing off incomprehensible apergus like a sage. For nearly six months, my mother was the only person in the world who could understand what my daughter was saying. She would watch me on the rug with my daughter, the both of us stacking blocks or bashing cars into each other, and my mother would sip her chai and tell me what my daughter thought.
My apartment was too small for fighting. My father never bought a large home and he wanted me to follow his lead: in a large house, it gets too easy to hide. Of course my husband and I lived on a veritable estate, replete with swimming pool and guesthouse and a tree-lined drive. When guests entered our foyer, suspended twenty feet above them was a burst of Venetian blue crystal, dangling scythes of seaglass that held little votive lights in their crests. The chandelier was something commissioned by the first owner of our home; he grew up in rural Virginia, and it was his hope that the fixture would resurrect an effect once popular in the antebellum homes that occupied the neighborhoods of his youth; when aglow, the chandelier was supposed to suffuse the entrance with a quiet, mysterious, Mediterranean light. To us, the fixture looked nothing so much like the keychain of some extraterrestrial superintendent, but the pomposity was endearing. In fact, the house itself was doubled over for our entertainment; it was carefully carved into rooms for the family and rooms for the guests: a family room and a sitting parlor, an upstairs kitchen and a downstairs one, bedrooms galore and each with at least its own sink and a television, full of places to be loud and places to find quiet, full of places for others and places for ourselves.
Yet if my father was right, if architecture must be the bete noire of intimacy, then the opposite had its own disadvantages. I heard everything my daughter did. The apartment floor shifted with either of our steps. An opened door shook every wall. Any phone call, no matter how carefully whispered, became a murmur through the other rooms. Across continents and oceans, my daughter and her father conjectured about my life. She was full of insights: "Mummy doesn't talk much about home ... but she misses it. I can tell.... Well, it's like you said. She's proud. She just can't admit what a mistake she has made.... I don't know. Yeah, exactly, she should just look at herself in the mirror.... It'll be a lot easier once you come over, Dad."
Just before daybreak, she would get up and I could hear her passing water. At that hour of the morning, the sound started to seem like my greatest accomplishment, all the work it took to render something so difficult and unnatural for her now to become so commonplace, all the patience I had to spend to make her a palatable member of society.
She did not sleep enough. Her hair was frayed, weather beaten; beneath her eyes, hard-water stains were starting to set. So, she was never going to listen to what I wanted to say: Family is the lazy woman's fix for loneliness.
(Besides, I have, in fact, never seen myself in a mirror; not only is the image reversed, but it's younger, if slightly.)
Whenever my daughter ignored me, I wanted revenge. I wanted to feel that I knew something she did not. I wanted to feel I knew something better than anyone else in the world, something to keep tight in my pocket, its edges secretly digging into my palm. I could never think what that would be. It obviously had nothing to do with Andhra Pradesh, motherhood, or wifehood. It was certainly not medicine. I am a good doctor but not a brilliant one; I'm thorough and careful, but I have no intuitive knowledge of how to treat people. Medical facts are things I fish out reluctantly, and everything I know can be taught to others. So what did I know better than others? I could not even say that it was my self--if my marriage had taught me anything, it had taught me that. It seemed such a joke to think that introspection produces self-knowledge. My consciousness offered only a false intimacy. As for my subconscious, it was something I learned about only through observation, not experience, through what others told me, or my own memories, which were not much different: it was something I learned about only through the third person. My mother, for example, knew that I was in love with my then-not-yet husband before I did, and she knew that, if she told me that, I would never marry him. (And this was a fact she told me the day before, not after, we got married, and then I ran to my soon-to-be husband in tears, and he reassured me that he too knew I was destined to marry him, and that made me even sadder because I never had the same confidence about him.)
Besides, the self-knowledge that the philosophers prized, that my family exploited, even if I had been blessed with it, that would not have been good enough. The most important moment of my life was when I gave birth to my daughter. That woozy crush of elation and exhaustion and hormones was exactly like my mother said; bar none, the most moving experience of my life. It was also the least original. I wanted something private.
One day my daughter and I went to the market. Outings, events, sunlight--my daughter and I needed activities and the audience of a city to protect us from each other.
Every time my daughter came to Andhra, people got curious. Because my ex-husband is West Indian by blood, my daughter is black as well as Telugu. Between my light brown skin and his dark brown skin, everything about my daughter, from her hair to her complexion, looks like honey. She doesn't look like a white person; she's not white but off-white. We went to the bazaar and women and children crowded around her as if she were a politician or a movie star. Little girls gingerly tugged on her kinked hair, mothers compared their skin tones to hers and hailed the god of genetics for the cyan splendor of my daughter's blue eyes. Her admirers made me impatient, but my daughter enjoyed the attention. Certainly for this trip, it was a much-needed fillip. She smiled at everyone winningly, proud to be a testament to my sexual entrepreneurship, dispatching her onlookers' attentions with a gentle, unruffled manner that I have spent her entire life envying. She was patient with them, but I could see her quietly filing away stories, experiences of their quaintness for her friends back in the States.
I closed my eyes and I could see the sonogram, the pulsar of cells inside of her. It was a glow so powerful I almost wanted to forgive her for her doubts. I almost wanted to buy a train and ride around the country with her. Before she gave birth, we should have made the time. We should have seen everything I missed, everything my parents kept from me, the ports of Delhi, the mountains of Bombay, the white cliffs of Calcutta. We should go now while we both still have the time, while we have nothing but time.
I should have taken all of that more seriously--heritage, culture, and so forth--and in fact, I did once. My daughter shared with me her secret. But I still keep mine. Before I was married, I was nearly married. Before I met my husband, I was dating an Indian man, my only one, and I was certain we would get married, not because I loved him but because it seemed so convenient. He was from India proper, and he liked to wear bespoke linen suits with mango-colored scarves, and I thought our children would look exactly like that--the Italian version of India. My sons, darkly tousled heads with ever-young eyes and craggy, hard noses; my daughters, buxom girls with waists the size of wedding rings, aware of their beauty only as some kind of a rumor.
It was a modest inheritance and his spendthrift nature that made him look good, and both allowed him to try his hand as a poet. As a poet, he was a failure, but given the orientation of the world that my parents' middleclass striving had instilled in me, an orientation in which failure, not evil, was the chief fear in life, I found his failure to be something close enough to danger; it was so indolent and lazy that it actually seemed audacious. After we made love, the poet gave me ornate descriptions of the time he'd just had. In a Bengali accent flecked with Oxbridge consonants and tobacco, he improvised paeans to the bliss of being kept in my "hungering wound," my "well-buttered calipers," "my hearth," and I felt so sorry for him, to be so old and so unaware that gratitude is the least erotic of the emotions. (With an Indian accent, "sexes" is "success" backward.)
Nevertheless, I was twenty-one, he was thirty-nine, and I was still at an age at which I could be seduced by affection alone. Our affair seemed entirely improbable to me and I loved it for that reason, and I loved at least the idea of the man he presented to me: someone with a deep voice, with chest hair rising up like steam from his shirt collar. He would read me his poetry, which I can't even describe now because I don't remember it; the poems were all inscrutable, gnomic words linked together not by sense but only by his will, which, as I have suggested, was none too strong to begin with. But I was touched by the spectacle, this older, awkward man reciting things he had written for me. His words came to him with effort, his voice both tentative and forceful; the words for him were hard fought, and he spoke them with such a conviction that his voice convinced me he must have surely said something beautiful.
Of course when he got me pregnant, the news scared him more than me. He took me to the women's clinic, held my hand while the nurse put my feet in the stirrups, talked to me while they administered the anesthetic, and then, like I asked, he looked away as the vacuum pump entered me and he pressed his fingernails into my hand as the machine started. When I came to, I was still giddy from the anesthetics and the pain medication and for the next months, I was sick with shame. I never felt any guilt over my choice to lose a possible child--it was my utter relief that caused me shame. It seemed obscene to me, to be glad about what I had done. It made me think I was desperate in ways I did not even realize. I have never told anyone about this, not even my ex-husband. And as much as I regret the carelessness that led up to my choice, and as much as I regretted my relief after the fact, I have never doubted that the choice I made was the right one. The older man and I were not in love, and apart from the coincidence of our skin, we made no sense together. He would have resented me for making him grow up, I would have resented him for being such a fool, and I would have resented myself for tethering my life to him, and I would have ruined the child with my resentment. By getting pregnant, I made clear what a farce it would have been for us ever to have been a couple, and by getting an abortion, I made obvious and easy the inevitability of our split.
That my life is better off, this has been a central tenet of my adult life. But I no longer feel as much relief from my decision as I once did. It seems less important. Apart from the choices I have made, apart from the actual events of my life, there stands my experience. And if faced with different choices, with different events, it is not clear to me that the experience those events inspired, the marrow of my life, would not have been the same. I would have grown tired of him too. I would have come back to Hyderabad regardless.
On her last night with me, there was peace. Her father called, and we all talked on the computer face to face. I told them I would come over in a couple of months. When I dropped my daughter off at the airport, she told me, the problem with you is that you think you're ruthless, but you're a total sentimentalist.
I remembered when my daughter was little, she would ask me all sorts of facts about the world, why the sky was blue, why blood was red, why her hair wasn't straight like mine, and my explanations mesmerized her; I told her that her blood was red because of the ketchup she puts on her French fries, that I made the sky blue because it matched her eyes, that her hair was kinked because her thoughts were electric.
And then she would ask me all sorts of things about myself--what kind of ice cream I liked, what was my first birthday present--and I often lied even more. I would tell her that my favorite ice cream flavor was hot peppers and that for my birthday I wanted to sit in time-out. I would embellish: for example, I wanted to be in time-out because I was such a good little girl I had never been before; as a girl, I didn't even understand the idea of punishment because I couldn't imagine not doing what I was told. And most of the time, she did not doubt me. I would keep going as long as I wanted, adding implausible facts gently, like the breaths tucked inside the skin of a bubble, and my daughter was just rapt at how I could have been such a daft little girl, and how I could have grown to become her mother.
She did not believe me simply because I was her mother. She knew that I liked to lie and she was good at catching me. If I told her, for example, the sun was made of syrup, or that birds fly so they can feed on clouds, she knew that what I said was not right. And sometimes when I told her lies about myself as a girl, she did catch them, because she understood that children just cannot think like adults. But if I lied about myself as a woman, then she did not know what to think; she found my emotional life labyrinthine.
This upset me at the time--I did not want my daughter to think I was so erratic, so unpredictable. But now that I'm older, I see that her confusion was not quite the indictment I thought at the time. In my own life, I have been just as gullible. When it comes to the adult emotions, you can never rule out anything. For example, my own mother used to tell me my father liked a drink because he was just a jolly man, and that my uncle liked a drink because he was miserable, and I never heard a contradiction in what she said. One of my friends tells me love is a farce, another insists it is the only thing that matters. Another tells me that a man becomes a womanizer because he adores women, or because he despises them. All seem plausible enough. You can tell me that the sun is made out of syrup, and I'll understand what you mean even though I also know it is impossible. When my husband tells me that he loves me though, despite everything I've done to him, I know that he does not really feel that way. But simply because I understand what he has said, I know there is a kernel of truth to the psychology, I know that someone else in the world might.
Or what I mean is this: Almost all my thoughts are true, even when they have not been true about me.
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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