by Anjana Basu
town was blanketed in snow with a great lead sky like a lid. Between
town and sky, people shuttled to and fro, hurrying to get their daily business
done before the lid fell hard on their heads and sealed them in again with
more snow. On street corners, spiky green bristles of fur with strained
mechanical Santa Clauses moving their arms up and down announced that it
was almost Christmas.
She slithered through the snow clutching an armful of bursting brown paper bags to her chest, thinking grimly that there should be a law. Here were all these people determined to be cheerful flooding the department stores to the rhythm of synchronized lights blinking on and off and steadily determined furry Winnie-the-Poohs winking to the tune of "Jingle Bell Rock." With the slush leaking into her boots at gutter level, she couldn't see anything in it except a forced merriment that had nothing to do with her.
Her own happiness depended on whether one person was going to come home for Christmas or not. If he did, then the long line of cars stretching as far as Texas could go to hell or Hoboken, whichever came first. Grimly rescuing a can of soup that was falling through a pulp of soggy brown paper, she imagined a vast pile-up: Cadillacs on top of Mustangs on top of Chevys, screech grind crash. That would scream its way into the newspapers the next morning, she thought with satisfaction. But only provided he came home.
She moved her shoulders under her coat in a sudden shiver of doubt. There was nothing to guarantee that he would come home. Or ever come back at all. The last phone call was like a lid as heavy as the snow. "Yes, what ... that doesn't matter ..." as she rattled off a string of chores he had asked her to attend to.
Like all women, she thought love just happened and went on to the inevitable happy ending. It didn't clamp abruptly shut. "I don't fall in love," she said to the slithering snow, "but I did." Turkey, her shopping list reminded her: don't forget the turkey. Cold turkey neatly sliced and packaged and labeled "all white meat." No stuffing and stitching and shoving into the oven in a welter of orange and cranberry. She certainly wasn't going to go to all that effort just for herself. She'd go cold turkey alright, the hard way. Starve herself out of love and take the heartache and the shivering as it came
Her feet were wet and gnawing at her for attention: this was what came of buying suede lace-ups at a discount. They were big clumsy things straight out of a lumberjack's dream. She'd actually fancied something black and sleek and fleece-lined, but none of the suave night-on-the-tiles models would fit over her calves. The shop girl lost interest at that point and dumped the brown suede clodhoppers in front of her. "They're on sale," she added firmly as if that were the clinching part of the deal.
Which it was. Winter was coming on, she needed the boots, and foreign students on scholarship had no money to waste on luxuries like black leather. He would have laughed at those boots if he ever saw them. The other Indian students had made her wear them with a silk sari on her birthday. "You've got to dress up," they insisted. "C'mon, c'mon. We're going to see a real good Hindi movie." At home she had never been in the habit of seeing Hindi films, but they buzzed and hummed around her until, for the sake of peace, she gave in. The boots under the sari plagued her throughout the film, which turned out to be Anand Ashram with Uttam Kumar, dubbed in Hindi.
"You agree to such things because you’re not really interested in people," he told her before he left.
"I don't know how you can say that."
He smiled. "Think about the number of times you've let grad students do things to you you didn't want. Like give you that extra-short hair cut in the library, or talk you into that lunch where everyone went Dutch..."
"What does that prove?"
"That you don't care enough to say no."
"I'm saying no to your going," she pointed out.
He laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling. "That's different," he said, packing his bags.
They had moved into the apartment in the second year of her studies. Sometimes she thought she had only done so because she was revolted by the idea of another year of staring at the naked breasts and hairy armpits of the Argentinian students who stalked the halls of the graduate dorms careless of their appearance and manners. Her decision had set many of the Indian students staring: not that they were concerned enough to actually say anything; it was only because of the way their eyes glazed over when she told them where she was living that she realized what they thought.
"It's a Third World attitude," Kim, the Filipino student, told her seriously. "None of us would dare to do these things back home. But because we're here, because everyone else does these things, we break away from our roots. These are not our traditions. That's what outrages people."
Kim: eighteen years old, a man she called her illegal husband left behind because of military service in Baguio. Kim: being carried home late and drunk by a large Parsee man.
"What are you doing? I thought you said you were married to Ramos, I thought you were a good Catholic."
"I'll find a church and confess," Kim said. "I won't do it again." But there she was being carried home early every Sunday morning, and one Sunday morning she didn't get back till the church bells were ringing and the yellow sunshine was making her red-smeared lipstick flare like a stop sign. Kim: spouting Third World traditions out of something she was putting together for her thesis.
Kim’s behavior had seemed to her a stirring declaration of independence. And so she worked up the courage to move out of the stayed graduate halls and in with the man of her choice. It had been so easy. They bought a queen-sized bed from a Salvation Army and found a mattress and pillows at a garage sale.
The bed was their first piece of furniture. In the evenings they sprawled across it and prepared their lessons for the next day, making notes to the low hum of the old refrigerator. It felt like something out of Love Story, she thought the first time it happened, letting the black-and-white page in front of her dissolve into a romantic haze.
"Do you write about me to your mother?" he asked the first time she sat down to a blue welter of air-letter forms. Their eyes met and held, but she found the expression in his own unreadable.
"No, not exactly. She knows I've moved into an apartment. She also knows I'm sharing. But I haven't told her you’re a man."
"And supposing she starts looking for a husband for you?"
Her pen hesitated over the paper. Then, "She won't," she replied confidently.
One by one the chairs found their rightful places in corners of the flat and the coziness of the Love Story bed and the asthmatic refrigerator waned. She tried to get him to go on studying on the bed with her, but he refused. "It's bad for the eyes," he said, and there was really no point arguing. After that she had to be content with the huddled warmth of his back at night.
"It's so romantic," Kim declared when she paid her first visit. "I can't stay long," she said. "There's this scholarship committee I have to meet with. They've got applicants from Banguio." But she draped herself across a chair and showed no signs of leaving. And it was hard not to notice how the sunlight shone through her skirt, outlining her legs. Kim: throwing herself at someone else's man while mouthing a Third world ethic.
But her reason told her that jealousy was bad, this was not a relationship with strings attached.
"I like her," he said after Kim reluctantly detached herself from the chair and went in search of her scholarship committee.
"Which is why you lit up like a million volts, I suppose."
His eyes sparked back at her with
“There's this boy in Connecticut I want you to meet," her mother wrote. "He's a friend of the Chatterjees. He's at the state university. Perhaps if you have some time during Thanksgiving ..." A photo slithered out of the envelope into her lap. He snatched it up. "I thought you said she wasn't thinking about marriage for you. What's this about?"
"I don't think she's serious. It's just a suggestion." She swept the photographs back into the envelope and put the letter away.
"Who are the Chatterjees?"
"Friends of ours. They live in Boston. "
"Boston ... Connecticut ... Well, perhaps you can meet him in Boston for Thanksgiving. That's a convenient midway point." And he put away the notes he was studying and said he had to go to the store.
He came back with three bottles of beer and Kim on his arm, as she was still rehearsing what she planned to say to him in reply. She was so angry when she saw Kim that the speech vanished from her head. Kim spread her legs on the windowsill and drank beer all afternoon, talking endless inanities about life in Baguio and the Rotary Scholarship Committee and how they were giving her a grant so she could spend the winter in Los Angeles. She stayed well into the evening and would have hung around for dinner if they didn't tell her they had an invitation to go out.
Afterward, he fell into the bed and went fast asleep, so drunk that the next morning he was unsure how he had got home. "We caught a cab with Susan and John," she said, handing him a fistful of vitamin B and some Tylenols. He groaned. "We have to talk," she said.
"What about? Must we? Now?"
They never did talk. Things got in the way: studies, hangovers, Kim. They kept piling up like an endless silence between them, a silence that persisted in the queen-sized bed at night. He delivered her mother's letters to her without comment and watched her read them incuriously. She tried to draw him into them: "Aunt Bina's daughter's got a scholarship to Amherst. She wants me and my roommate to take care of her, ask her down during the holidays or go up to visit her. I think you'd like Moina, she's very bright and funny." He made some innocuous reply, excused himself and left for the library. She thought: it was that word "roommate." Why on earth did I say it?
After that the only thing she had was his warm back at night, and after a while even that didn't seem so warm. The evening that he went to the library she took out her mother's letter and photographs and stuffed them into the basement incinerator. But she never sat down to write the reply that she knew she should write. Perhaps, she thought, if he said something himself about marriage, then I could write that letter.
As time passed, the blue aerograms from her mother started getting dog-eared and yellowed because nothing further about marriage was said and the months of silence had begun to pile up. Aunt Bina's daughter arrived and called collect to announce herself. Luckily she was alone when the call came--luckily, she thought, catching herself up guiltily at the word. Of course, Moina could always be kept quiet about her situation, she was bound to do the same thing herself after a while.
Nowadays she had to stop herself from scowling whenever she saw Kim, because she saw so much of her. The girl seemed to flicker through the apartment like a bright red streak, chattering thirteen to the dozen, her shiny boot-button eyes snapping with excitement. Kim: who always seemed far more interesting than she herself did. Kim: who did all those exciting things with her life.
Kim took them apple picking one afternoon just as autumn was catching its breath before beginning to turn cold. The windfalls lay on the ground waiting to be picked up. Eight dollars a basket, the farmer said, and don't take anything from the trees. But Kim did, leaves and all, insisting that the branch had just broken off. He found that funny and chuckled over it all evening. It irritated her so much that she left a wooden spoon lying on the stove and the spoon caught fire. The charred handle and the memory would pester her for years to come.
She was slowly becoming the thing she most hated: a woman who nagged. She couldn't help herself. Whenever he was nearby she began to nag. Sometimes she confusedly thought that their fighting was an indication of intimacy, and sometimes she despaired that it was driving them farther apart. When he received an invitation to attend a seminar in Texas it came almost as a relief. "I think we need to give each other some space," she said, hearing the echo of a soap-opera heroine in her voice.
"Is that what it's about?" he said. "Space?"
With the word echoing in her mind, she saw him off at the Greyhound bus station with Kim in tow like an unwanted shadow. Because of Kim's presence she couldn't even utter a last, "Come back soon," settling instead for an airy, "Have fun." And because Kim was there he said goodbye to her as casually as he did to Kim so that, later, alone in the apartment she couldn't dredge the least bit of sweetness from the memory. If he wanted to, she thought petulantly, he could have said something. Or was it that bit about "space" that had spoiled it?
And the space grew and grew. The paper he read at the seminar was so good that he was asked to deliver it again a week later for the same university at its Corpus Christi campus. There wasn't any point to his making the long journey home just to go back down again two days later. It had started to snow in drifts of fine white powder. "You'll be warmer where you are," she told him. He didn't contradict her, just gave her a list of things to do, bank accounts to tend to, and the next time she called the conversation consisted of what had been done and what had not and not much else.
At night the wind rattled the windowpanes and she thought of all the thrillers and she had read it, the ones that rose to a climax with bloody-handed ax murderers chasing lonely women through apartments with endless hallways. Whenever the wind rattled exceptionally hard she expected it to blow a murderer into the room. She could invite someone to stay with her. In the old days, it might have been Kim. Kim: warm in a new overcoat with a fake-fur collar--her exchange-student-programme-designed family had given it to her. "Isn't he back yet?" Kim asked. "Poor thing, you must be so lonely. Come over to the frat house tonight." Then she was off, crunching the snow under her slinky black fur-lined boots, the type that didn't let in the slush, ever.
Early December stretched into late December. Christmas cast its long lonely shadow, and ahead stretched the longer, bleaker shadow of New Year's Eve. Turkey was a must, cold or otherwise. It gave her an excuse to pretend she was celebrating, that there was actually something called Christmas which justified slithering through the slush to the tune of "Jingle Bell Rock." By the time she slipped in the snow for the third time, she had the words of the letter she was going to write all worked out in her head
"Deer Ma, I've been telling you all this while about my wonderful roommate. Well, I have something to confess: my roommate is a man. His name is Deepak Rao, he's a postgraduate maths student...."
All that fuss about a postgraduate student who wasn't even American. Her mother would find a way to make it look acceptable to the neighbors if it ever came to marriage. There were tons of worse things being covered up every day. Far more important things than her petty little affair. It wasn't disturbing anyone but the other Indian students, with their home-bred hypocrisies. In fact, unless it did end in marriage it wasn't worth writing home about at all. "It will just hurt them," she said out loud, then said it again, liking the way her breath fogged the cold air.
Just outside her apartment one of the paper bags she was carrying disintegrated and the dented soup cans inside tumbled out into the snow.
(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. She is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her work has appeared in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)