The first night her parents arrive from India is the one that means the most, because there is so much to look forward to, even now, even after everything that’s happened.
As the car turns into Swapna’s street, evening is creeping in on the neighborhood. The house that will soon belong exclusively to her is white with gold squares of light at the windows and stands at the end of the cul de sac. Even as families gather for dinner in the other homes, this one waits in silence. Swapna’s parents notice as soon as they climb out of the car.
“It’s so quiet,” says her mother, putting a hand to her chest. The crickets chirp in unison, emphasizing the silence when they pause.
“This is a residential neighborhood,” Swapna shrugs. “That’s why we – I – chose it.”
She opens the door with some hesitation. What she has grown accustomed to is likely to appear unnerving to her parents. They have always found America lonely. But tonight, the quiet desolation of the living room, which Linda cleaned only yesterday with such meticulous care, slams them in the face. Swapna catches a glimpse of their surprised and tired faces and wishes again that she hadn’t yielded to their requests to come and “help.”
Her father is too exhausted to reflect but her mother, never quite able to switch off her intuition or her concern for her daughter, looks around and sniffs. Swapna wonders with sudden panic if she is searching for Tom’s smell. Linda and she have sprayed bottles of bleach, window cleaner, floor polish, fabric softener, carpet stain remover, and other liquids in the last six months, in a maniacal bid to sanitize, but one never knows. Swapna hopes her mother cannot smell the debris of her marriage on her first night here.
The longer the interval between their meetings, the more significant the reunions become. She knows her parents feel it too, because even though they are so tired they feel like they are walking inside a cloud, they insist on staying up with her for a while. Eventually, when her father goes to bed, Swapna and her mother sit on the cream leather sofa. They barely talk, and every few minutes her mother lets out a yawn so wide and mournful that it makes Swapna want to curl up right there and doze off. Finally, her mother’s eyes start to close and Swapna nudges her towards her room gently.
“Tomorrow,” Ma says, as she stands up. “Tomorrow, we will talk about everything.”
Swapna goes to her own room and slips under the covers from where she can stare out at the large ghostly moon in the blue-black sky. Tonight she feels like a child again. She feels safe and warm and knows that unlike the last five months, tonight she will sleep through the night.
The next morning, as soon as she wakes up, Swapna remembers that some remnants of Tom linger around the house. The mug with the picture of the Eiffel Tower that he brought back from a European History conference stands among the other mugs on the top kitchen shelf. His toolbox lies in the garage for a time when Swapna might need to fix something even though she, like most other Indian women, has never learned to fix anything in her life. His faded brown corduroy jacket, which he wore on his walks every evening through the mild Atlanta winter, hangs in the closet. His books are in the library they built together over the years. Most of them are biographies. Of American presidents, European royalty, country musicians, baseball players. All of them have his name on the first page, scrawled in ink, alongside the dates and locations where he purchased them. Vienna, New Orleans, Toronto, New York, Jaipur. Somewhere there is a box full of Italian ties in various shades of red, the one vanity he permitted himself despite the jeers from his scholarly colleagues. When Swapna opens the top drawer of her dresser each morning, a blue Tiffany’s box stares at her. She never glances inside. She doesn’t need to. She knows what lies there, how it sparkles in the sun, and how it feels against her skin, hard and cold.
The way she speaks of Tom, anyone would think he were dead.
She wonders if her parents will discover any of these objects. It makes her almost smile to think how things remain the same over the years. The first time her parents visited her in the apartment she then shared with two roommates up north, back when Swapna was just a graduate student, she had removed things before they arrived. The bottle of whiskey from her bookshelf, the tube of KY Jelly from her bathroom closet, the packet of condoms from her nightstand, the subscription to the adult channels, and all pictures of Tom. This time, she did not bother to hide anything. That is the strange thing about marriage, even a failed one. It gives you a kind of legitimacy that no relationship can, at least not if you are Indian.
She finds her father in the living room, studying the switch for the air conditioning.
“Why do you have it on all the time?” he asks. “How much is your electricity bill?”
The question irritates Swapna. The temperature is in the eighties outside, and soon the house will warm up. It’s summer in the deep south, she wants to tell him. Everyone uses air-conditioning. It’s not India. But she says nothing and goes into the kitchen where her mother is making tea.
“What will you eat for breakfast?” her mother asks.
“Ma,” Swapna protests. “It’s the first day. Don’t do chores.”
It’s no use of course. By the end of the day the kitchen looks different. Drops of water cover the sink and the counters, and even splash on the tile floor. The trashcan goes from empty to full. Swapna finds crumbs everywhere. She wonders why she bothered to get the house cleaned. When her parents go outside to admire the backyard, Swapna grabs a paper towel to and wipe the counters dry and mop up the floor. It is not India, she wants to say to her mother. Don’t make everything wet.
But when her father goes to bed right after dinner, her mother fights her jetlag and sits on the couch with her again. Swapna opens her Facebook page. They scroll down the newsfeed while she points out all her friends. Her colleagues, her grad school cohorts from Philly, and some of her old friends from Calcutta. Her mother looks intently and listens to every word, asking questions about the people she used to know. Where is she now? How old are her children? Are his parents alright? Then, suddenly, comes the question that catches Swapna off guard.
“Is Tom on Facebook?” her mother asks casually, without looking at her.
“No,” Swapna says.
There is no need to go into detail. Her mother does not need to know that she unfriended him the day they had the talk, back in the winter when the trees were bare and reached into the sky with skeletal arms. That night, still shaking from the confrontation, she hadn’t been sure if the unfriending was irreversible. But the gesture, ripe with symbolism, was not to be undone. Her mother does not need to know that she still goes to his profile sometimes, even though she can’t see his posts. Swapna looks at his profile picture, an old one, where he wears a red T-shirt and baseball cap and a two-day stubble, still looking like the Tom she knew. If she stares at the thumbnail photograph long enough, he morphs into a stranger. Her mother doesn’t have to know that Swapna needed to unfriend him, not out of anger or pride, but because she could not bear to see the girl’s casual posts on his wall. The photographs of helpless animals in shelters, the blogs about photography, the updates about running. And then his comments on those posts, so courteous, so decent.
“That,” her mother says, pointing. “Who is that?”
They both look at the picture of the Indian man with a receding hairline and a soft, round belly. He is not on Swapna’s friend list, but Facebook recommends that she add him.
“Joydeep,” her mother says peering.
And so it is. Despite the softening of his body and the roundness of his face, despite the thinning of hair, he still looks boyish and sweet. He is wearing a dress shirt tucked into black trousers, looking a lot more dapper than before. A pair of sunglasses hangs down the front of his shirt.
“Do you talk to him?” she asks, with the innocence of one who does not really understand the complicated mechanics of Facebook.
Even before she finishes the question, Swapna sends him a friend request. It has been so long. Surely, he has forgiven her by now. They are both middle-aged. They have found other people to direct all their strong emotions at in the past two decades.
It is after midnight when her mother finally goes to bed. Swapna keeps checking her Facebook page until Joydeep accepts her friend request. She lies in bed and looks at his photographs, trying to piece together a lifetime, when he sends her a one-line message saying, Good to hear from you, you look happy.
She takes her parents to see the Coca Cola museum, where they gaze at vintage ads. Her father and she stand in the tasting room side by side, sipping miniature plastic cups filled with different flavors of soda from around the world. Green tea from Japan, raspberry from New Zealand, candy pine nut from South Africa. He tastes each one with a serious look on his face and makes a brief comment as if the company’s future depends on him. Swapna watches him drink the fizzy liquids with the sincerity of a professional taster. His forehead is lined with creases and he looks frailer than she remembers from two years ago. He always looks less authoritative in America than in India. He speaks more softly and does not laugh as much. She wonders if it is the old uncertainty he feels in this foreign land, or if he is particularly debilitated because of her situation. He will turn seventy-seven in a few months. She should not have gone four years without seeing her parents.
He turns to her and says, “Try this one Buri. It’s very refreshing.”
He offers his cup. The soda is golden, like ginger ale. So many beverages on tap here in America, on every office floor, in public Laundromats, rest areas on the highway, the lobby of every apartment complex, and all over on university campuses. How Swapna had marveled at this when she first came here as a graduate student in the nineties. How jaded she has become since then. But when her father calls her by her pet name, Buri, for a moment she feels innocent again.
The last time Swapna was at the Coke museum was with a tourist friend from Germany, and Tom. Afterwards the three of them had gone to eat tapas. They drank two pitchers of sangria between them. Tom was a far better host than her, ensuring that their guest was constantly entertained. Swapna allows herself a little fantasy. If he were here now, he would walk ahead with her father, pointing out things to him, citing scientific facts about soda. Baba would keep up an endless stream of questioning, making Tom swell with the sense of his own importance. Meanwhile, her mother and she could have talked too.
There is so much Swapna wants to talk to her about, but where does one begin? On the night when she came home slightly drunk from the office Christmas party and extended an arm to Tom, only to be pushed away? Or on the afternoon at the gallery when she caught a glimpse of his former student, twenty-something and thin as a reed, laughing like she was high at something Tom said? Or maybe one begins much earlier, on the day when they bought this house when her bank balance was a third of his, and yet they decided to split the mortgage in equal halves because she fancied herself a feminist.
No, none of them is the beginning of course. Swapna knows that. She knows there was a morning back in Calcutta eighteen years ago, when her mother woke her up at first light of dawn for the turmeric bath. Bulu pishi led the other aunts on her father’s side to begin the ulu-uli, until the sound of their high-pitched voices rang out through all the rooms like a siren. The guests stared at the Americans. How the cousins nudged one another and giggled when Tom startled himself and everyone else by pricking his forefinger on a fishbone during lunch. Swapna apologized later for not having warned him but he simply laughed.
She had tried to see the wedding circus through Tom’s eyes. The heavy crimson sari and layers of gold jewelry that wore her down until she could barely move, the mournful notes of the shehnai that played all evening until the last guest was gone, the giant paan leaf she used to shield her face from the groom, the exchange of marigold garlands. Through it all, Swapna pretended she was an onlooker, white, foreign, fascinated, watching everything for the very first time. And despite her abhorrence of ritual, the sight of Tom, wrapped in a white and gold dhoti and silk kurta, made it quite charming.
Swapna finds herself thinking of that day for the first time in years, and wonders what she would do if she had a time machine. If she could go back to that day with the hindsight she now has, would she still go through with it? Her parents walk ahead, not speaking. Her father is almost a foot taller than her mother. The back of his head is bald and hers grey. Swapna watches them walk side-by-side, in sync. They have been married forty-eight years and they met only once before their wedding. It seems improbable but there it is. Yet another cliché from the country she has left behind, but all the sneering in the world cannot make her marriage more successful than theirs.
At night, a message from Joydeep pops up on her iPhone screen. He asks how she’s been. It’s a strange question, given how much time has passed since they last spoke. She considers the question, wondering how she has been since that night twenty years ago, when she hung up the phone after breaking up with him.
“Fine,” she tells him. “You?”
He tells her the basics. He moved to Bombay some years ago, to work for Microsoft, which she finds ironic because that’s what Indian men are supposed to do in America. He lives alone in a western suburb and has a small house in Goa where he spends many of his weekends.
“That sounds wonderful,” she says.
Swapna recalls the flat he shared with his parents when they were in college. It was right next to the busy market where hawkers set up their fly-by-night stands and sold oily fried snacks, cheap plastic jewelry, and produce. Sometimes, on their way back from college, Swapna and Joydeep would climb off the bus and stop at the market to buy guavas and oranges. During the frequent power cuts, the shopkeepers would light their kerosene lamps and lay them on the ground. The streets and houses stood in darkness, but the bazaar flickered with the yellow lights from the lamps.
Now he drives a Honda City to his weekend house on the beach.
“So,” she types. “You finally became a capitalist.”
He adds a laughing emoticon. “If you can’t beat em, you know.” He sounds almost American. “Living in India is expensive now, especially Bombay. One has to survive.”
Swapna wonders when survival in the motherland became synonymous with vacation homes and Japanese sedans. But, immediately, she feels guilty. It is the guilt of the Non Resident Indian, the latent double standard of one who casually pulls out cans of soda from vending machines placed strategically for maximum consumption. Besides, something in Joydeep’s voice suggests a lack of contentment. Or maybe, in her misery, she is simply seeking company.
One morning, she wakes up to find her mother muttering as she opens shelves in the kitchen. She randomly takes out unopened cans and jars and reads labels. She starts to throw away things from the fridge.
“Buri,” she says decisively when she sees Swapna. “I need to cook. You cannot live like this. You are not a student any more. You are.” She does not complete the sentence, which makes Swapna wonder what she thinks she is. Scientist? Middle-aged? Divorced?
There is no stopping her mother now. She makes a list. They go to the grocery store. Her father comes along because he is fascinated by American grocery stores. He insists on calling them supermarkets. Swapna hopes they do not run into any black people because her father also refers to them by the wrong word. His idea of America has changed little from when she was a little girl. Now, he pushes the cart while Swapna leads the way and her mother makes the selections. The women pour over things and consult while her father stares at the rows of cereals. A customer barks at him to get out of the way because he’s blocking the aisle.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” he says instantly, ashamed and concerned about the breaching of grocery aisle propriety in America.
To compensate for his apologies, Swapna glares at the woman’s back as she walks away. How uncharacteristically rude she has just been for this gracious city.
Her mother leans toward her and whispers, “Racist?”
“Maybe she’s tired or frustrated about something or unhappy. Maybe,” she pauses. “Her husband left her for another woman.” She grins.
Her mother looks at her without smiling.
“I don’t think you should joke about serious things. This is your problem, this is why you annoy people,” she says, with her lips pursed.
Swapna avoids speaking to either of them for the remainder of the trip. The thought of carrying the tilapia filets, ground beef, spinach, carrots, and beets back home, makes her weary. She already bought all the things she thought her parents would enjoy, stocking up the fridge in the days before their arrival. Liver pate, prosciutto, various cheeses, portabella, asparagus. What was all that for?
“This is for you,” her mother says. “You need to eat the things you miss. Especially now that you don’t come to India.”
She wants to tell her mother she misses nothing, at least nothing edible. What she misses is not from India, and her mother can’t cook it up for her. But since she is trying not to have conversation, she says nothing. While they wait at the checkout counter, Swapna glances at her phone to see when Joydeep was last online.
That night, when she gets under the covers she feels an old familiar stirring. It is almost like excitement. As the computer lights up, she finds herself shivering a little.
“How can you chat at work?’ she asks.
“Don’t worry, I’m the boss.” He adds a smiley, fat, yellow, infinitely cheerful. “No one’s in my office. I can do whatever I want.”
“Why did you never marry?” It is only a faint curiosity.
“Never found the right person after you. I was too cynical and angry, then time passed, I got busy with work, and it seemed too much of an effort.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?” She wonders if he will protest this intrusion, or say she has no right to ask him things like this.
“Yes. In Goa. I see her when I go.”
“It’s fine. Life is fine. Just enjoy the moment.”
“Yes, I suppose.”
She thinks he must be a good lover. In college, Joydeep, Swapna and their friends often skipped classes and hung out at each other’s homes in the afternoons. The fun part about going to Swapna’s parents’ flat was the food her mother would make for them. Cheese pakoras, home made pizza, fish fry, potato tikkis. They would sit on the balcony and eat, drink numerous cups of tea, and talk. Sometimes, her mother would join them briefly. Her friends tried to include her in the conversations. Mashi, join us, they would say, making room. The food is delicious as always. Only Joydeep would look uncomfortable. He would stare at his scrawny hands or long feet, and not say a word while her mother was there. Later, he admitted that he was intimidated. It was the little things, he would say. The thin gold necklace her mother always wore. The piano in the living room, which he knew she played. The pipe her father smoked. Whenever her mother was around, he seemed to freeze. Swapna wanted so much for him to be lively, to tell his jokes and impress her with his knowledge of Marx and Jung and Derrida.
The Joydeep that Swapna knew privately was a boy of simple but acute pleasures. In India they did not have enough privacy for sex. Instead, they went to the movies. Mostly afternoon shows, when the sun beat down on the streets with unrelenting force. To escape the heat and humidity, they bought plastic packets of salted popcorn and hot chips, and sat in the cool darkness of Lighthouse or Globe or New Empire, the three theatres around New Market that played Hollywood movies a few months after their global release. In the darkness, Swapna glanced at Joydeep’s profile many times. His cheekbones were so sharp and his face so thin, they made him look ghostly in the blue light of the screen. His goatee made him look slightly older than his years. They sat with their elbows touching on the same armrest. He always watched the movie so intently, observing every detail of filmmaking, while she let her mind wonder. The seats around them at that time of day were nearly all empty. If he had wanted to, he could have kissed her. Many of their friends went to the movies for that. She waited for him to turn to her with blazing eyes, but at the movies he never did.
Some winter days, when the nip in the air chapped their lips and the sunshine actually felt good, they took a bus to the zoo. Swapna still remembers thinking that the animals looked uniformly depressed. And there is this one memory, an image, of monkey pairs searching one another for head lice. Joydeep and she spent hours outside the monkey arena, watching them do this. How carefully, how patiently, they would look for the lice. That is love, Joydeep once said to her. It was unlike him to speak overtly about emotions. When I grow up, he said, I want to be a monkey.
The cooking begins on Sunday. Her silent, cold kitchen is transformed into a cauldron of scents and sounds. The pressure cooker hisses and whistles. The microwave beeps. Oil sizzles in the pan. A cloud of steam rises from the pot. The kitchen smells of turmeric and cumin. Swapna chops vegetables on the counter facing the backyard. She can see the back of her father’s bald head as he sits out on the porch, reading the newspaper. The grass is lush after a night of rain. She watches her mother cook, hoping to acquire some magical culinary talent from the act of observing. Her mother in the kitchen is brisk and confident. Her fingers move swiftly. She asks Swapna for the garam masala. But Swapna has no idea where it is. It’s been so long since she made Indian food. Tom did most of the cooking until six months ago. Even the last night, before he left, he cooked spaghetti and meatballs. They drank a glass of wine. Swapna drank two. No, three. She drank a lot that night. She broke a glass. He stayed calm. He calmly cleared up the table, loaded the dishwasher, wiped the counters. He wanted to make sure, he said, that the house was tidy before he left. Because he knew how much she sucked at housework. He said it without malice.
Swapna is impressed with her mother’s efficiency in her foreign kitchen. It is not just about making food for her family, though that is her mother’s calling. It is the shrewd wisdom with which she senses things, what to buy, how much to pay, when to cook, when to eat, what medications to track, whether or not to nap. While she is here, Swapna is tempted to abandon all responsibility and let her make the decisions. She wants to simply crumple up like a used paper towel and yield. She is so tired of being self-sufficient.
“How is he doing?” her mother asks as the turmeric-coated tilapia fries in the hot oil.
She glances sideways at her daughter.
“Tom? He’s fine I think. We don’t communicate. His lawyer talks to my lawyer.”
“Surely he will pay you something? After what he did?”
“We’ll see. It’s hard to prove.”
“But he was? Wasn’t he?”
Why won’t her mother utter the words? Why won’t she say adultery or cheating or any of those words that would instantly condemn him to some Hindu hell? Swapna doesn’t respond at first because she doesn’t really know. What she wants more than anything else is to know. But she cannot bear the thought that his denials were true, that the marriage in fact disintegrated for other reasons.
“What do you think Ma?” She finally asks. “Do you think he was having an affair with that girl? They were always texting. They went to art events together. They had so much in common.”
“They were both American,” her mother says.
That’s all. That’s all she has to say. As if that is enough.
The kitchen smells of fried fish, warm and fragrant now, but tomorrow, and over the next few days, it will turn into a stink that will refuse to go despite copious quantities of air freshener. If Tom were here, he would have thrown a fit. Broil the fish, don’t fry it, he would yell. The house will stink for days. Perhaps her mother is right. Perhaps his American self couldn’t bear the burden of her any longer.
But now that they have broached the subject, her mother looks deflated. Her movements are suddenly slower. Swapna feels so sorry to have done this to her aging parents.
“It’s ok Ma. Lots of people get divorced nowadays. You should understand. You’re not like other people of your generation.” She wants to point out how her parents eat beef, how they read poetry, how they watch documentaries on the Middle East. How her mother has even exchanged her Bengali sari for the salwaar kameez. They should be fine with divorce.
“You don’t understand,” her mother says, laying down the wooden spatula with some force. “We will not live for long. Baba is nearly 77. I am 70. How long do we have? Then, what will you do?”
“I have friends.”
“Who? Where are these friends? No one visits you. You are always alone.”
“Not always,” Swapna protests. “They are busy with work and families. And besides, it’s the summer. You know that during the summer I don’t see people much.”
“You will have no one when we are gone.” She turns to the skillet, and carefully picks up each piece of fish and places it on a paper towel.
Swapna leaves the kitchen to demonstrate her anger, and joins Baba on the porch. They talk about the world news. He says nothing about Tom or her marriage or her lonely future. The grass is moist, and Swapna can see her mother cooking tilapia in yoghurt and a light meat stew with vegetables through the kitchen window, as she sits with her father and discusses current affairs. She could be sixteen, in a condo in south Calcutta, with a future as open as the sea.
In the middle of the night, with all the lights off except the blue from the computer, Facebook offers a virtual party, with videos, photographs, news reports, jokes, confessions, and recipes streaming constantly on her news feed. How can anyone ever feel alone again, she wonders, with all this stimuli from all these people playing endlessly in one’s bedroom? The inevitable thought occurs to her. If such a platform had existed when she first left India as a nervous young grad student, would she have kept going with Joydeep? If they could have talked on Skype on weekends and kept abreast of one another’s activities every second of the day, would they have stayed together?
The evening before she left India, twenty years ago, a college friend had invited them all over for a proper farewell. In the middle of the party, the group of friends ceremoniously handed her a goodbye gift. It was a brown and tan upright suitcase. Joydeep gave her nothing. When the others were preoccupied with their drinking, he pulled her into the bathroom and kissed her. They ran the tap so it would drown any sounds. He was a scrawny boy whose bristly goatee tickled her chin. She had stifled a laugh. The next day, after the airplane took off, leaving a trail of lights below, she thought of how the kiss felt and wept quietly in her seat.
They wrote letters for a while and gradually she wrote less and less. His became more and more desperate. His accounts of the unshaven, scruffy Bengali boys sitting on the steps of their fathers’ houses and smoking, talking about Communism and Kafka, began to fill her with disgust. No one went anywhere or did anything interesting in Calcutta. One day, she met Tom at a seminar on the French Revolution. He was nearly a foot taller than her, and so confident, and so curious about everything Indian. The first time she visited his parents in suburban Ohio, everything was so clean. The wine glasses shimmered on the table, the fireplace flickered all evening, and snow fell softly outside. Everything in her old life seemed to fade away in a few brief months.
But now Joydeep and Swapna chat like old friends, and she wonders if she erred in picking a midwestern white man over someone who grew up listening to the same music, speaking the same language, and smelling the same odors. How had she lost herself so, in just two years in the West?
The elections have just ended in India. Swapna’s newsfeed is crammed with reactions, celebratory and otherwise. Joydeep falls in the latter camp.
“Bloody rightwing Hindus,” he types. “They will fuck us and squeeze every shred of independent thinking from their followers and dignity from the rest of us.”
A wave of relief washes over Swapna. She can imagine the look of disgust on his face and the snarl in his voice. Here is the same old Joydeep, fiery and passionate about politics and human rights. She remembers how he marched across campus with the red Communist Party flag. She remembers his torn jeans and khadi tunic, and the canvas tote bags he swung across his shoulder. She is tempted to provoke him further, to drive him to a point of frenzy.
“But the economy? Your jobs? Aren’t those important? The new government is supposed to lure in foreign investors again. Doesn’t the prime minister have an impressive record in his home state?”
Swapna pulls the comforter over her even though it is a warm and humid night. “You mean the murders and riots??? The rest is his crony media campaign. The poor haven’t benefitted. Muslims haven’t benefitted. What fucking record are you talking about?”
She smiles in the semi darkness. “You haven’t changed that much after all.”
“But you have.”
It catches her by surprise. “Really?”
“Yes, you’re calmer, and not in a good way. Like something’s left you. Spirit or romance or that innocent faith in the world.”
“I’m a realist now,” Swapna says.
“It’s not enough,” says Joydeep. “I will retire in a few years and move to Goa, where I can climb coconut trees and sip feni, watch the waves lap the shore, and write a book.”
Tears spring to her eyes at the vision. It is like the cover of a romance novel. So foolish, so embarrassing.
“You should come visit me in Goa. Or better still, come live with me. Rekindle.”
“What?” Her heart may have stopped as she waits for his response. It has been a long time since anyone has flirted with her.
“Your romantic side,” he says. “Innocence.”
“What about your girlfriend?”
A chubby yellow smiley appears on the screen, before the chat abruptly ceases and the green light next to his name goes out.
The night before her parents leave, she finds it impossible to sleep. She gets out of bed in the middle of the night and wanders to the living room. It is raining softly and the large bay windows are fogged up. Swapna makes her way to the couch and finds her mother sitting there, staring out of the same window. She sits next to her and they gaze outside as if the window is a TV.
“What will happen to you when we leave?” her mother asks.
“The same things that happened before you arrived Ma,” she says. But the truth is she is a little afraid too. This departure feels different, more significant somehow.
“How will you live alone?”
“Please Ma, I am not a child. I came here alone, when I knew no one and had nothing. Now look.” She waves her hand around the house. She is a senior researcher for the US government, she has colleagues and friends and even in laws though soon they will not be hers. Still, she has built a community in this country, and lives on her own terms. All this she wants to tell her mother but instead she simply waves her hand as if that gesture might encompass an entire existence.
“Perhaps it is our fault,” her mother says.
Swapna looks at her, surprised. She expected blame, not guilt.
“How can it be your fault?”
“We should not have allowed you to come here. You could have lived in India, married Joydeep or some other Bengali boy, and we would all have been nearby. We should have put our foot down when you wanted to marry an American.”
“Ma,” Swapna begins, startled by the anger rising in her breast. “Allowed? You would not have allowed me?” she pauses to collect herself. “What would I have done in India? Got a nine to five job and popped out a couple of babies? Or stayed at home and not even worked like so many of my old friends? I love my job, Ma. And you know, I did love Tom too. He was so interesting.” She yells out the last word and realizes only then that it is true.
Her mother starts to weep. Swapna shakes her head in frustration. Behind them a light comes on in the hallway. It is her father.
“What are you both doing? It is the last night.”
He stands in the arched doorway, silhouetted against the light.
“Stop crying. Stop,” he says abruptly to his wife. “This is not the time to cry.”
“Isn’t it our fault?” her mother asks him. “Your sisters had warned us before the wedding. Maybe we should have tried to stop her.”
He comes towards them in the dim light and Swapna sees that he is shaking his head. “Stop her from what Malati? It was twenty years ago. How could we know? No one knew what the future held, not even Tom. He was so sincere. Don’t you remember? He took the bus everywhere in Calcutta, and ate with his hands. Don’t you remember how he cooked with you in the kitchen and how he tried to learn Bengali? It must have been so hard for him, and yet I never heard him complain.”
Swapna feels her father’s hand on her head. It is surprisingly steady. She wills it to stay there awhile and tries to memorize its shape on her head. Her father strokes her hair and beside them her mother’s tears slowly subside into an occasional sniff. They stay like that for a while, and watch the sky. Tomorrow her parents will disappear into it. A day later, they will look at it from different hemispheres. But now, in this moment, they are united.
Swapna wonders what Joydeep would say if he knew that she has begun to think of him during the day. Or that she checks her phone for messages every few hours. There is a level of comfort in their online conversations that reminds her of a less complicated time. Despite the superficial changes, Joydeep and she belong to the same community, and share the same sensibility. This is what she had thought of Tom once.
He begins tonight’s chat with the most intimate of questions. “Where’s Tom now?”
“He lives with Julia,” she says. “She’s very young. And not even very pretty.”
“Who’s paying whom?
“She’s a student, works as a bartender to pay her bills. So he must take care of her.”
“No I mean you and he. Who’s paying? Settlement? Is the house yours?”
“Oh that. Our lawyers are working on that. I’ve been asked to stay single for a few months.” Swapna adds a smiley.
“You should squeeze him. Don’t let him get away. When in the States…”
“I don’t know if I care that much. I have a job. And in Georgia it’s all about how much either of us needs. I do have the house because it was half mine anyway.” Swapna looks around her room at the floral wallpaper, the shag carpet, and the furniture they had bought slowly, over months, with their first paychecks. The large window reveals the dark night sky over the backyard. The house has a sunroom, where Tom and she read on Sunday mornings after he brewed cappuccino for them both on his high-end espresso maker. The basement downstairs is full of their winter clothes which they haven’t used since they moved down south. Tom’s down coat and hers, their thick wool scarves and hats, and winter boots, lie entangled together in old boxes that haven’t been opened in a few years. Yes, this house is hers, and she can live out her life in it, surrounded by their memories.
She glances back at the screen and sees Joydeep’s words waiting for her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. It’s just that after all this time I still feel protective of you.”
It has been a long time since Swapna has had a man feel protective of her. This was the patriarchal impulse she had once fought. In Tom she had found the liberal white man who treated her as his equal and expected her to solve her own problems. How refreshing it had seemed then. But now, this instant, faced with the prospect of her parents leaving the next day and a future spent in solitude, she finds herself longing for a pair of protective arms around her.
“My parents leave tomorrow,” she says.
Joydeep sends her a little red heart. “It will be lonely. I wish I were there to keep you company.”
“Their being here has been so comforting. I didn’t realize just how much it would help.”
“After they leave, we can chat every night before you sleep.”
“You’re sweet. Thank you.” The thought of chatting with Joydeep relieves some of the weight that has lately settled in her chest. She wonders what might have happened if they had found each other online before Tom left. Then she thinks of destiny. Fate. Those Indian words she once sneered at. Is this how things were meant to be? With a return to her youth and to whatever she had left behind? In the next room, her parents sleep, her father’s gentle snores drift through the walls. In the morning, her mother will make a last cup of tea for her. Swapna wishes this night could last eternally.
“I hope your parents are heavy sleepers,” Joydeep types.
“Yes, unless Ma is up worrying about me.”
“How long has it been?”
“You must miss things.”
“It’s only occasional now. The anger’s faded. Some days I’m really happy to be free.”
“But you must still miss some things.”
Swapna looks at the screen, a little confused about what he means.
“What was it like being married to an American?”
“I don’t know. How does one sum it up? Same as being married to anyone else I would think. Complicated.”
“But Americans are less traditional. Especially a man like Tom who married an India. He must have been very liberal.”
“Yes he was. That was one of the nice things about him.”
“What kind of things did you do? Did you experiment much?”
“Wait, what are you talking about? You mean like drugs?”
“No, I mean, did he teach you stuff? You’ve been in the States 22 years, you must know all kinds of things.”
The room suddenly feels cooler than before. Swapna tries to recall if she locked all the doors.
As if on cue, Joydeep types, “My door is locked. Tell me some of the things you did. While your parents are in the next room. More fun this way.”
“Joydeep,” Swapna begins. Her fingers hover over the keyboard, searching for words that might explain what she’s feeling now, or any of the emotions she has undergone in the past six months.
“Do you remember us kissing in Janani’s bathroom the night before you left for the States? How it turned us on but we couldn’t do anything because of all the people right outside? I have never been more aroused in my life.”
Her father’s snores get louder. The clock ticks on the nightstand next to her. Its metronomic beat sounds like someone’s heart.
When she doesn’t respond for several minutes, Joydeep types, “Tomorrow, after your parents leave, ping me. It’s ok if you wake me up.”
She still says nothing. Posts keep streaming on her newsfeed. Baby pictures, someone’s lunch menu, a conversation someone overheard in a coffee shop in Seattle. Minute-by-minute accounts of life around the globe pour in.
“I get lonely too Swapna. This corporate life, this traffic, the crowds, the noise. It’s all deafening. All I crave is a human connection.”
“This is your idea of a connection? Cyber sex?”
“Come on Swapna.” Everyone in India is doing it. Young, old, single, married, everyone. And you? You’re free, and in America. You of all people should not pretend to be a prude. We are both alone.”
“You girlfriend in Goa?”
“She’s sweet. Really shy and not very aggressive. Not a cosmopolitan, if you know what I mean.”
“I should sleep,” Swapna types. “I think you are not quite well. You sound a bit messed up.”
“I am not well? And what about you?”
She knows she should let it go, end the chat, and turn off the laptop, but she feels compelled to type something definitive, as if putting the words down on the screen will make her life’s decisions mean something.
“We have nothing in common Joydeep.”
The words come faster at her now, and Swapna notices how he misspells them. “Oh yah? And what did you hsve in commmon with Tom? You on your high hoarse. You think I need help? What about you? What will you do for the rest of your life?”
Swapna closes the chat abruptly without saying goodbye. She lies in bed, trying to swallow the queasy feeling that’s washing over her. Once or twice she gulps hard to push back the acid that’s climbing up her throat. The room is plunged in cool darkness now, free of the harsh glare of the computer screen. She lies there and ponders Joydeep’s final question to her. What will she do with the rest of her life, what will she do when her parents are dead and there is absolutely no one to call her own?
On the way to the airport, her parents argue about whether to leave the window up or down, whether her father has remembered the tickets, and whether they should grab a bite before boarding. Swapna drives absent-mindedly, listening to her mother scold her father for no reason.
“How can you fight constantly just when you’re leaving?” she finally asks.
Her father turns to her. His tone is gentle when he speaks. “It is because we are leaving. She is upset.”
This is how he sums up forty-eight years of marriage, Swapna thinks, with this primal understanding of the other person.
Swapna watches them leave at the airport, and bites her lower lip to concentrate on that pain. Their backs recede slowly out of sight. As always when her parents leave, she feels momentarily orphaned.
Instead of heading home, Swapna goes to the zoo for the first time in eleven years. She buys herself a ticket and walks slowly around the grounds. It is the peak of summer. Even the animals want to stay inside. Only a few other fools like her have ventured to the zoo today. Swapna makes her way to the primate section. They come in various sizes and shades. Drill, lemur, tamarin, macaque. Swapna stops suddenly in front of the orangutans. There are two of them. They are large, almost like adult humans, and they sit close together, their bodies touching. In fact, every time one of them moves slightly, so does the other, in tandem, as if tied with an invisible rope. They move slowly, inching their way across the large outdoor cage.
Swapna sits on a rock and watches them. A few other people walk by. A young mother pushing a stroller stops to look at the apes. Her baby stares at them from its seat and gurgles with what Swapna assumes must be pleasure, for instead of hurrying away, the mother lingers. If she had kids, Swapna might have been a regular at the zoo. The apes, dark brown and hairy, have long, mournful faces. One of them is slightly smaller than the other. The larger orangutan waits patiently for the smaller one to catch up. They touch each other constantly.
This southern summer is scorching and humid like the tropics. Sweat trickles down her back but she cannot turn away. The apes stop in the middle of the cage. The smaller one reaches up to the larger one and begins to search for lice. It works patiently, its fingers kneading through the other’s hair. Every now and then the apes glance up and blink slowly at the sun, as if bewildered by the world outside.
Oindrila Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor at Grand Valley State University. She has worked as a journalist in Calcutta, India, and been the creative writing fellow in fiction at Emory University. She is a regular contributor to the Indian magazine Scroll, and is currently working on a novel set in India and a collection of stories about recent Indian immigrants in the U.S.