by Joanna Shireen
Gurupadam was scanning the City section of The Washington Post when
something warm pressed against his upper arm and a whisp of reddish-brown
hair fanned across his nose.
The train had gone only as far as Metro Station, but he had already nodded off more twice, lulled by the drone of wheels in the endless tunnels. His spotted tie hung open on his neck. He was extremely tired, even though his boss had told him he could leave earlier than usual. Piles of thick green files and sheaves of paper covered with tiny numbers swam across the backs of his eyelids, and the voices of endless meetings still buzzed in his ears. He longed for a hot shower and his wife's cinnamon-flavored tea with milk. When the train doors had slid open on another throng of commuters, he had wished he were working anywhere but DC. This was what he wished everyday and the secret longing for a quiet town where there were no huge rumbling trains stuffed with sweaty, garrulous people gave him a sense of self-important misery.
He folded the Post and glanced cautiously at the young woman who had sat down next to him, then quickly looked away again. His was not a strong heart, a doctor had told him more than ten years ago. Both his father and grandfather had died of heart disease, at 46 and 52 respectively. Mr. Gurupadam had not researched the details, but his mother once told him the condition could be inherited. He had already been a sickly child. His mother had nursed him through one infection after another. His entire youth had been a misery of cold hands and feet pressed between warm blankets, his sweaty forehead being wiped continuously with the end of a soft saree, with whispered discussions around the wooden cot on which he lay. While other boys waited for girls at dark street corners and talked about forbidden things, Mr. Gurupadam was moved in and out of crowded hospitals smelling of phenol and had thousands of pills and syrups forced into him and his buttocks jabbed incessantly with syringes. Throughout it all, thick hard-bound accounting textbooks, their pages stained by spilled cough medicine and phlegm, followed him everywhere. He read and read, until his burning eyes closed in sleep.
Then came his Big Moment: One day when he came home from college he found his mother shivering beside the alcove where she kept a framed picture of the Goddess Laxmi illuminated by two small brass bowls of burning oil. She was holding an opened envelope. Tears were running down the sides of her nose. The envelope had contained a letter of confirmation for a job as an accountant. 'You are going to America!' she gasped. 'Away from this country which is killing you!' Without telling him, she had sent his resume and to several different overseas corporations.
Mr. Gurupadam remembered going to his room and holding up the small hand mirror to his face, chest and arms. At twenty-eight he looked like an emaciated boy who seemed to have stopped growing in his mid-teens. His shoulders were bunched close around his neck as though he were still straining to grow. The peppery beard that spotted his thin jaw was the butt of jokes amongst his few friends, and his thin arms ached if he carried so much as a kilogram of rice home from the store. His relatives said there was a curse on the family and that his going to America was just asking for trouble. But his mother had ignored them.
For weeks after the letter arrived Mr. Gurupadam had walked around in a daze. There were affairs to be taken care of before he left India, and he dealt with all of them as doggedly as he had submitted to those long hospital stays. His mother presided over everything, standing in lines at various government offices, writing letters, taking passport-sized photographs of him, buying him new clothes. At the airport she cried on his shoulder and he touched her feet, and then he was off. Within a few months of his arrival in America, she was dead.Mr. Gurupadam had felt the news of her death like the blow of a hammer. The telegram arrived at his work address. He seemed to shrivel up inside as he read it and for a long time sat very in the little cubicle assigned to him, scratching at his shoes. But when he pushed his chair back and picked up his briefcase to catch the train home, a limp calmness came over him and had remained ever since.
The Wedding: He was shocked when his mother's sister wrote to say she had arranged a marriage for him. It was not in Mr. Gurupadam's nature to rebel against the wishes of his elders, but he felt that this time he must speak up. He had never felt the slightest sexual desire. Girls were to him as impossible a dream as good health. And even though, as his mother had predicted, his condition had seemed to improve in America, it had seemed to come too late for him to think of marrying. He shied away from office parties, took the long way to the lunch room if he saw a woman coming down the corridor and arrived a late to meetings so he could sit in the chair farthest away from the females in his department.
'Aunty,' he had written in a timid hand to his mother's sister. 'I do not wish to marry.' But it was a lost cause. His aunt spent ninety rupees to fax him the girl's photograph along with some predictions a local priest had written out for him. His aunt called him once from a public telephone and through the incessant buzz on the line pleaded and begged and yelled at him. The girl had made up her mind, she said. It would be good for him to have someone to cook and clean house.
Finally Mr. Gurupadam gave in. He flew to India and, before he knew it, the wedding was accomplished. His memory of it was a blur of crying women, grinning men and flashing cameras. Rice was sprinkled on the couple for good luck and fertility. As he smeared his bride's forehead with red paste, it struck him that his bride was not beautiful. But then it also striuck him that it didn't matter.
Back in America, his co-workers pointed out that the new Mrs. Gurupadam had a patient smile and big eyes, and some of them joked that he couldn't ask for more than that. But what endeared her to Mr. Gurupadam was her lack of interest in his body. In the first weeks after the wedding she had half turned to him at night, then, sensing his stiffening body, she turned away again and went to sleep. Scarcely once a month Mr. Gurupadam turned towards her himself. It wasn't until five years had passed that a son was born to them, and after that neither of them turned towards the other in bed.
After the boy's birth Mr. Gurupadam found he could not bear the infant's crying and timidly suggested he sleep in a separate room. His wife immediately agreed. After that his affection for her began to grow and they settled down like any other family. She was a quiet woman. She cleaned house and tended to the boy, and he went to work and handed her his paycheck every other week. Sometimes he found her watching him furtively while he ate his dinner or watched the ten late news, and he thought he saw a sadness in her eyes much like what he had seen in his mother's during the long years she had sat at his bedside while he suffered through his fevers.
Why all this should be coming back to him now, just as he was about to raise his eyes to look at the young woman who had just sat down beside him on the Metro, he could not fathom. But when he did look at her a shiver ran through his small thin body. She was young, very fair, with pink cheeks and lips. Light brown freckles were sprinkled across her nose and cheeks. Her hair was cropped short to emphasize a slender white neck. She was wearing a short red tanktop whose neckline plunged all the way to her small navel. Beneath an expanse of smooth flesh at her midriff, her thighs, encased in a pair of short shorts kept pressing together and drawing apart with each jerk of the train.
'Hi,' she said. 'Where are you heading?'
He hesitated, unsure how to pronounce the word. 'AL-exandria'? Or was it 'Al-EX-andria'? Or maybe 'AlexANdria'? Twice he opened his mouth to speak, but the word would not form itself.
The girl widened her eyes, shrugged and turned away again.
'AlexANdria,' he finally burst out, afraid she might think he could not speak English. He cleared his throat then and picked up the newspaper. But the tiny print made no sense, so he looked out the window at the rushing darkness of the underground.
The train slowed to a stop and several people got on. It was very crowded now. The young woman pressed a bit closer to make way for a family of three children with a baby in a stroller. Mr. Gurupadam looked down at his legs where the girl's bare thigh was resting lightly. He held his breath until he thought his lungs would burst, then exhaled slowly so the other passengers wouldn't notice.
When the train started moving again he tried to think of something to say to the girl, but all he could think of were the endless rows of numbers on his computer screen. He could not believe something like this could be happening to him. The years had sucked out of him everything but a sense of the necessity to work and save for the Dreaded Illness that he knew must befall him sooner or later. But the terrible urgings of the teenage boy he had never been seemed to be exploding from every part of his being, more powerful and twice as painful for its happening to him now instead of at its appointed time. He was trembling beneath his polyester shirt, and a heat, not slowly rising but swift and searing, was rushing through him so violently that he thought the heart attack he believed was inevitable was about to claim him.
'It's so hot in here,' the girl said, her soft voice like a balm on the fire he was feeling even as it fueled it.
'Yes,' he found heard himself reply in a low, steady voice, 'very stuffy.'
She smiled, and he saw dimples dancing on her cheeks. From this close, they looked like two deep, constantly moving whirlpools. He felt an urge to put his finger into them and see how deep it would go.
'You must be from India,' she said.
'What an interesting country. I'm studying about the confluence of cultures in school, and we have a whole chapter on India.'
'Is it true that the Portuguese and the French and the Arabs all invaded your country?'
Mr. Gurupadam searched his school-boy memory for the details of India's invaders but could not even recall the dank classroom or hard backless wooden benches on which he had sat year after year. 'Yes. That's true.'
'Interesting,' the girl said, stressing the first syllable so that the others escaped her red lips in a slurred rush.
'In the monsoons it rains every day, sometimes all day,' he added. The rational part of his brain seemed to have broken up into separate parts that were working independently and were each sending him contradictory messages.
He thougth of his entire past life, and suddenly it seemed but a single day and of no consequence.
He felt as though he had just been born and thrust shivering and naked into an enormous, dazzling world full of color and light. 'I am from Belgaum,' he said. 'We have big monsoons there.'
The train had emerged from the tunnel, and the girl was looking out the window at the trees and the buildings and cars that seemed to be rushing to meet it. 'Where did you say you get off?'she asked absently.
It had been a long time, in another life, but he was sure he had heard that tone of voice before. When he was at college he had a good-looking friend who attracted a lot of girls. They would stop him on the street and ask the time just to strike up a conversation, and their voices always carried a hint of...this same thing. He clutched his copy of the Post and wondered how he should respond. Should he suggest coffee? A drink? Was she old enough to drink? Should he just get off the train with her?
'King Street,' he said in a higher pitch this time, almost a squeak.
'Oh,' she said with a shrug. 'I get off at National Airport.'
Mr. Gurupadam felt a pain in a part of him that he hadn't known existed. The young woman must be a tourist on her way to catch a plane. In his mind's eye, where he had never before been wont to see such images, or any images at all, he saw clearly a tiny airplane, no more than a dot in the sky, disappear- ing into the clouds. He also saw himself on the ground, looking up, up.
'You must tell me something more about your culture for my term paper,' the girl said with a giggle. 'You don't want me to get an F?!'
'Belgaum is a small town in Southern India,' Mr. Gurupadam began, stressing each syllable carefully so she could remember it and write it down later. As he spoke, every detail about his native town came back to him more clearly even than when he had lived there--the lowing of the cows in the field across the road, the smell of monsoon rains on the cakes of manure his mother laid out for drying, the evening cries of bare-footed boys playing R abadi while he sat watching from the verandah, too weak to join them.
For a while the girl sat quietly listening, her small hands pressed together on her lap, her pink-tipped nails curled around them. Her lips were parted dreamily as though inviting more of his reminiscences. Then the train pulled into another stop and her attention was diverted. A homless man got on. He was blind and had on layers of fowl-smelling clothes under a tattered khaki jacket with oversized pockets. From one of these he removed a rusty mouth organ and as soon as the train began to move again he started to play. The girl's eyes grew wide with pleasure and her slim back straightened. 'My grandpa's favorite song. "The Great Speckled Bird!"'
Mr. Gurupadam nodded, feeling this was a precious confidence. He had no idea what the Great Speckled Bird was.
'My friends think I'm crazy, but I love folk music,' she said, gesturing excitedly. 'All music has its roots in the folk tradition, don't you think?'
'I do,' Mr. Gurupadam replied earnestly.
The blind man took off his hat and everyone dropped in money, mostly quarters and other small change but a dollar bill here and there. Mr. Gurupadam reached for his wallet and tossed a five dollar bill into the hat. The man moved down the aisle, and his music soon blended with the low drone of the passengers' conversations. Then the girl said, 'Look at the river!'
He turned towards the window. The muddy Potomac that he had crossed every day for the last five years undulated beneath the bridge, slapping a dirty froth against the bottoms of the barges and motor boats making their ways up and downstream.
'The rich get to travel in sailboats, but we have to commute by Metro,' he said in an attempt at humor.
The girl's expression remained serious. 'Look at the sun!' she said, pointing to the big orange ball hovering over the water like a giant penny about to be dropped into a slot machine. It moved lazily along with the train, slashing the river with shimmering reds and oranges. It seemed to him that no sunset had ever been so exquisite. But when he looked back at her she seemed to have lost interest and was bent over his copy of the Post. The burnished light seemed to be caught in her hair.
Mr. Gurupadam began to remember other long-forgotten pleasures: running like the wind down a new macadam road in Belgaum; eating hot upma and sambar while sitting cross-legged on the assisuously swept floor of his home after a month of the clammy-rice-and-curd hosiptal diet; walking to the store by himself to buy a packet of bright pink sweets for a rupee and then walking back slowly without opening the packet, talatalizing himself with the antici- pated pleasure.
Suddenly he felt very tired, though just a moment earlier he had felt fresh as new-born baby. As the dying sun shone its dying light directly into his eyes, he fought off an urge to cry.
He turned towards the girl and said softly, almost directly into her ear, 'It's beautiful.'
He rode for a while in silence, happy just to be there. Then the train began wheezing and suddenly came to a stop. Mr. Gurupadam decided to take this opportunity to ask where she was from, but just then a voice on the puclic address announced, 'Next stop: National Airport' and Mr. Gurupadam was struck dumb, just as he had been when he got the telegram announcing his mother's death. And then, no sooner had he heard the announcement than the train arrived at the station. The girl stood up and handed him back his copy of the Post. 'My stop. See you!'
He stood up with her and took hold of her wrist. 'So soon?'
She gave him a look that was more puzzled than offended. 'This is where I get off.'
He let go of her wrist and, still holding his newspaper, she jumped through the car doors just as they were about to close. He watched as a young man with a beard and wearing a smart brown jacket put his arm around her and together they walked towards the escalator. Just before they stepped onto it the girl reached behind her and deftly tossed the paper into a trash bin.
Mr. Gurupadam could not quite take it in that she was gone. He thought of the damage her presence might have done his heart and, placing his hand on his chest, felt carefully for the tender beating of that organ. Sometimes he could barely feel it, but then it began to beat with a pronounced thut-umph thump, thut-upmh thump. He looked at his wristwatch. Only thirty minutes had passed since he had boarded the train. He closed his eyes. For the first timein many years his mind was not cluttered with anxious thoughts of work or bad health. With his eyes still closed he reached out and placed his hand gently on the seat the young woman had occupied and traced his fingers in the still warm impression her body had made there. Even the touch of the warm plastic roused in him an aching desire. He withdrew his hand, frightened by the merciless hunger he felt. In this state he let pass the next two Metro stations, including his own, and it was only when the train reached Huntington that he realized his mistake.
He took out his cell phone and dialed his home number to tell his wife he would be delayed. But there was no answer, and he decided not to leave a message. He wanted to surprise her, and knew she would be very surprised indeed. How different I feel! he thought as he tapped his toes impatiently for the return train to arrive. The wind flapped his shirt open at the throat. He pushed his hands deep into his pants pockets, leaned against a pillar and began whistling. He took out a pocket comb his wife had given him a long time ago and began combing his thinning gray hair, peering into a lighted billboard to make sure the strands were all in place.
'Maybe I should dye it,' he thought as he stepped into the train that would take him back to his own station. It was all he could do not to keep gazing at his reflection in the window lest everyone else in the car should wonder about him. He thought suddenly of his son, now sixteen. Was this how the boy had felt at his first high school dance? A fierce feeling of jealousy came over him for all the things the boy had enjoyed that Mr. Gurupadam had not even known existed when he was a youth. But as he stepped off the train his jealousy gave way again to a sense of excited expectation.
The house was dark and empty, but the phone was ringing. He rushed to pick up the handset in the dining room, assuming illogically it would be the girl on the train who was calling. 'Hi,' he yeard a male voice say even before he himself had a chance to say hello. 'Did you get home safe?'
Mr. Gurupadam swallowed hard.
'Ramani?' the voice spokeagain, this time hesitantly. Mr. Gurupadam pressed the 'end' button and replaced the receiver in its cradle. He sat down on the living room sofa, feeling suddenly weak and helpless, just as he used to as a child when he was sick with fever.
A few minutes later he heard a tinkle of keys, the front door was opened and there was a whiff of strange perfume. Humming to herself, his wife passed through the small foyer and stood for a moment under the high cathedral windows in the moonlight, not aware of his presence. With a start he saw that she looked almost pretty. Her hair was pulled up into a wide loop and fastened with a silver pin on top of her head. Strands of loose hair clung to her cheeks. Even in the subdued light he could see there was a red flush on her cheeks. Then she turned and saw him, and they stared back at each other in shock and silence.
(Shireen Joanna is a 29-year old journalist and writer of poetry and short fiction who is currently at work on a novel. Based in Fairfax, Virginia, she believes in T.S. Eliot's creed of identifying an 'objective correlative' for emotion and translating this into pure art.)