Wow, thought Maya. Wow.
She remembered the frenzy that had overtaken her parents shortly after her 20th birthday, approaching her final year of college. Astrologers had virtually taken up residence at their house, smirking old men wafting in the door clutching red, cloth bound books full of strange little scribbles and complex diagrams; she’d been displayed in fetching finery at every wedding, party and reception her parents could inveigle an invite to and she’d met more tongue-tied young men than she’d imagined existed.
And to think that all that hectic activity would find her here, thousands of miles away from that cool white cotton and chik house of her childhood, getting her face sprayed with brine mixed with God only knew what effluent, seated on the rock that indifferently recorded her once weekly commune with a sea so unlike the one that raced to kiss the sands of her hometown. Yet this sea, like all seas, held the promise of comfort within its lashing waves and frothing waters.
“Hi, do you have a light?” asked a voice at her elbow.
Startled, she looked up to find the Hispanic guy who’d started showing up a few weeks ago at what she considered her stretch of the California coastline. However, until now he’d stuck to his end of this desolate stretch of rock and sand. She pushed bits hair streaked the color of burgundy (a very hot shade the year before) out of her eyes. “Um, sorry, I don’t smoke.”
“Neither do I, actually.”
She studied at him more closely. Tall, well-built, sherry eyes and ragged denim, he was smiling at her in a friendly fashion there was no mistaking. Oh no, please God, don’t set the cap on this absolutely crappy day by making this random stranger hit on me, she prayed. She sent him a noncommittal smile and pointedly turned her back on him.
“This is a bad time,” he guessed after a short silence.
“Very.” She nodded without turning around.
“I should go.”
“And yet… I’m still here.”
She sent him an exasperated glare. “Please don’t.”
He shrugged. “Can’t help it. I see a troubled country cousin and just have to offer my shoulder. It’s a compulsive habit.”
“Country cousin?” She stared at him. The last person she’d heard using that term was her ancient Economics professor back in India. It sounded distinctly odd emerging from the tanned throat of this foreigner. “I haven’t heard that in a while. Anyway, I’m Indian not Hispanic.” Her gaze should have withered him on the spot.
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am. My dad’s from India.”
“What about your mom?” she asked suspiciously.
He smiled. “American – well, she’s really Columbian but…”
“I knew it!”
“No, you didn’t. I just told you.”
“Well, you know what I mean.”
“Nope, why don’t you explain? Do you mind if I sit?”
“I do, yes.”
“Thanks.” He made himself comfortable on the rock just next to hers.
“Hey!” she protested. “Look, I don’t know who you are –“
“Rikhil Srivastav,” he pronounced in a very American accent. “Rick, for short.”
“I don’t care!” The time had clearly come to lay all politeness to rest, for she had the distinct feeling that if she didn’t, she was going to wind up with a new best friend she didn’t want. “Go away!”
“Okay,” he said, suddenly serious. “Just promise me that you won’t suddenly decide to take a swim.”
“Take a swim? Out there? What for?” she asked, baffled. “Anyway, I don’t have a swimsuit on.”
He grinned at her. “You really are Indian, aren’t you?”
Why, she thought, a bit shocked. He’s really good looking. For a second she nearly smiled back at him, allowed herself to be just a woman faced with an attractive man before she snapped back to focus and tightened her jaw. “Unlike you, yes.”
“Hey, I swear, I’m desi.”
“Then you should learn how to pronounce it – it’s ‘desi’ like in ‘that’,” she stressed the soft “th” sound. “Not ‘desi’ like in ‘dairy’.”
“So my Dad tells me,” he agreed equably. “But then he also tells me Cliff Richards is the best musician ever, so what am I to believe?”
She had to really concentrate on trying not to grin.
“Alright! You have the power.” She slapped her hands together and formed a high namaste the way she’d once seen Jennifer Kendall do to Shashi Kapoor in a Merchant Ivory film. “Now will you go away?”
“Nope, not until you tell me what’s going on. C’mon you can tell me. Look, I’m the best kind of person to talk things over with – a complete stranger. Well, not really I suppose, because I know you, but only as the Indian lady who comes out here, like, once a week and stares at the water, that’s it.”
“You come out here to stare at the water too,” she pointed out rather defensively.
“Nah, I come out here for the whales.”
“The whales?” she exclaimed. “There are whales here?”
“No, but hope is a fine thing.” That earned him the second grin of the day. Apparently encouraged, he went on. “Okay, okay, you’re twisting my arm – there may be a certain Indian lady involved… in a strictly platonic sense of course!”
“Of course,” she agreed cordially.
“Yeah, well,” he slid her a sidelong look. “So what’s the story?”
“What makes you think there is one?” she countered.
“Well, usually you sit here and you look like… I don’t know, you’re communing or something. Like you’re talking to the sea or the fish or the great beyond,” he waved his hands expressively. “Either that or you’re nuttier than a squirrel’s winter stash and real happy about it. Today, though, you just look kinda sad. No talking, nothing. So what’s up?”
As a self-conscious teenager, she’d had to sternly teach herself that people weren’t staring at her when she thought they were staring. Most people were too involved in their own lives to pay much attention to what was going on with a complete stranger: that was a lesson drilled into her head by her mother, fed-up of the adolescent neuroses of her only child. The only way to get stared at, said her mother, was to do something shocking in public. Streaking, for example, was guaranteed to get you an audience. Did Maya wish to streak? No! Well, then no one is staring at you!
And yet, here, all these years later, was conclusive proof that her mother had been spectacularly wrong. People did notice. And some of them even came over and quizzed you on it. Thank God I didn’t find out at fourteen, thought Maya, it would have completely screwed me over. Striving for a light note, she said: “Oh, you know – same old, same old. Man trouble.”
“Ah,” he nodded sagely. “The bastard boyfriend.”
She shook her head. “Close. It’s the bastard husband, actually.”
There was a split second of silence. “Oh… but a bastard, you said?” he inquired hopefully.
She laughed out loud at that. “Well, strictly speaking, every bit as legitimate as I, but…”
“Fat, old and ugly with bad breath?”
“Young, muscular and very handsome with excellent dental hygiene.”
“You married Adonis!” His voice was awestruck.
“It was a tough fight with that old witch of a Venus but I prevailed – for all the good that it did me!”
They smiled at each other. “You’ve got to be a liberal arts major!” he crowed.
“Hey, so could you!” she shot back.
“The correct word is ‘was’ – very past tense. These days I’m sober and respectable and gainfully employed.”
“Well, I’m present tense and I happen to like it!”
“Hey, best years of my life!”
“Hmm. Well, don’t take my word for it but I think I like you.”
“Madame! My palpitating heart!”
She giggled. “You’re silly.”
He made a mournful face. “More than one woman has accused me of it – yeah.”
She sobered. “I think it’s great! I didn’t know how much I missed being silly until, well, right now I suppose.”
“Let me guess again – insensitive Indian male?”
“What would you know about insensitive Indian males?” she smiled.
“My mother keeps telling me she married one.”
“So you really are Indian.” Her gaze was searching.
“Did I hit the nail on the head?” he asked, referring to his earlier query.
“No. Not exactly.”
“Okay, I give up!” He flung up his hands in the classic gesture of defeat. “What happened in paradise?”
“Well, this morning he –“
“Adonis,” Rick interpolated.
“Yeah, him. My perfect husband. He answered this question.”
She fell silent as she again ran through the scene in their kitchen that morning. He’d looked the epitome of everything her parents had hoped for, he’d looked every inch the rising professional he was, he’d looked like every girl’s dream man. She, on the other hand, had looked like some fugitive from a women’s shelter. The kind of woman who has an inevitable date with Jerry Springer sometime in the future. Well, that was something. At least that fate hadn’t been hers…yet.
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense,” he begged.
“What would you like to know?”
“Anything, nothing, whatever it is that has you sitting here with an expression unlike any I’ve seen on your face thus far,” he shrugged.
“Since you know me so well,” she mocked.
He sent her a quick look. “Believe it or faint.”
She gave a short humorless laugh. “He admitted his best friend was actually his boyfriend.”
That struck him dumb, she was pleased to note… for a few moments, anyway.
“Must’ve been one hell of a morning,” he said in a neutral tone of voice.
She didn’t laugh. She didn’t think he expected her to.
“Yes,” she said softly. “Yeah, it was.”
“If you had to ask him, then it can’t have come out of the blue.”
“But you hoped he’d deny it.”
“You really loved this guy, huh?”
She thought it over. Had she in fact loved him?
She ought to have. He’d courted her with all the clichés a young girl would like best – flowers, candy, long drives and expensive dinners mixed with short emails and long conversations across international telephone lines – even though it had not been necessary. They’d been affianced, she would have married him regardless, but he’d still bothered to take her out, write to her, talk to her and spend time getting to know her in that long year between their first meeting and splendid wedding.
In the eleven-and-a-half months that had passed since then, he’d proved an attentive, considerate husband. Well, as attentive as a busy young doctor could be, she amended. He’d held her hand through those first few bewildering months in a strange new country, he’d patiently coached her to drive on the wrong side of the road, he’d helped her choose a college where she could get her feet wet in the American educational system, introduced her to his best friend (the son of a bitch!), made an effort to meet hers, agreed that children could wait, made plans to travel and see the world, and held her through the cold winter nights of northern California.
Thinking back, she couldn’t even think of a single moment in her married existence when she’d thought – there is something wrong. No sixth sense, no feelings of unease, no red alarms, nothing. She distinctly remembered describing her marriage to an envious friend as something out of a fairy tale. He’d enveloped her in a cocoon of romantic perfection, somewhat baffling in its precision… until an explosion in her head had torn it apart like cheap confetti last week at that God-awful party she wished she hadn’t attended.
“No,” she said at last. “Although I think I might have. Given more time, you know?”
“You don’t know the half of it,” she agreed.
“Tell me,” he coaxed.
“Oh, you know…” she thought back. It all suddenly seemed so long ago. “Half a dozen astrologers to set wheels in motion and then the granddaddy of them all to approve the whole thing. A constant stream of uncles and aunties nobody had ever met except for weddings and funerals, all with nephews abroad whom I was sure to suit and be lucky to marry. Then finally, The One. The man decided by destiny to be my husband. For my next seven lifetimes. You know, I always wondered about that.”
“What?” He leaned back more comfortably on the rocks.
“You marry this guy once, right?”
“And then you marry him again in your next seven lifetimes, right?”
“I don’t know.” He linked his arms behind his head pensively.
“Well, you do now!” she snapped, annoyed. “Imagine, will you?”
“Sorry,” he apologized. “What was I thinking?”
“Hm. So, anyway, if you marry him again in your next seven lifetimes then you will presumably be marrying him according to Hindu rites, which means in each lifetime you will be pledging your life to his for the next seven lives. Right? So basically you’re signing up for eternity.”
He stared at her.
“Shall I draw you a diagram?” she asked sarcastically.
“Only if it’s dirty,” he replied with great promptness.
She looked at him in some amusement mingled with increasing irritation. “Why can’t you be like a proper Indian male and be tongue-tied at least once in a while?”
“Have you met every Indian male?”
“No, but –” she began.
“Then you’ve obviously been associating with the inferior sort. Us class acts are never at a loss. Especially with gorgeous women with a taste for banter.”
“Are you calling me a flirt?” she mock-glared at him.
She swatted him lightly on the arm. He had a very nice bicep, she noticed. Great skin too.
“The feeling’s mutual.”
“What?” she glanced up startled.
She blushed. Then thanked the stars for her light coffee complexion. “Where was I?”
“You tell me.” A definitely wicked grin flashed her way.
She looked at him severely. “I just found out my husband of less than a year is gay!”
“Well, you had nothing to do with it,” he pointed out reasonably.
“How can you be so blasé about it?”
“Two things: one, I’m not married to him and two, I’m not the one who had to look his wife in the face and tell her I’m gay.”
Her gaze was speculative. “You’re not offended.”
“By your question? Why should I be?”
“I don’t know, I just know so many men – heterosexual men – who’d be offended.”
“Uh-huh. Not me.”
“Can I ask you something? Did you ever wonder?”
“Whether I was gay? No, I can’t say I did. I always liked women.”
“So, that means…”
“Your husband probably knew a long time ago – by the way, what’s his name?”
“Right – Ajay. And what about you?”
“What about me? I’m straight.”
“No, although personally that’s nice to hear. What’s your name?”
“Thank you. Although honesty compels me to admit I had very little to do with it.”
“That’s alright. I’m sure there were extenuating circumstances.”
She poked him in the arm. “We were talking about Ajay.”
“Right, the guy you’re married to but don’t love who is gay.”
“What am I going to do?” she groaned.
“Well, I can tell you one thing you can’t do – and that’s make a husband out of him. Unless you’re okay with an open marriage?”
“Lorena Bobbitt and I could be first cousins under the skin.”
He winced. “I’ll take that as a no.”
“So, you need to get a divorce.”
“On what grounds?” she wailed, all the one hundred and one evils of her situation washing over her again.
He thought about that. “He doesn’t want to come out of the closet?”
“Would you want to come out to your family? Oh, wait, never mind.” Indian-American families were probably very different from the plain Indian kind.
“Hey, my family wouldn’t exactly erupt in cheers if I jumped out of any closet, you know. Believe me.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, meaning it.
“That’s okay. I’m used to it.”
“To insensitive Indian women who snap your nose off for trying to help them?”
“To people who have no idea what to make of my lineage. But that’s not the point. What does Ajay think you should do?”
“I don’t think he’s really thinking about it. I think he’s just so relieved that everything’s out in the open. It just happened this morning,” she explained.
“Oh, come on. It’s one thing to come out to your wife and another to come out to your entire family. I know he won’t want to do it.”
He was silent.
“God! How could this happen?” she cried. “I mean, we were a perfect match! We even got married on the best day ever.”
“Loads of sunshine and cherubs in pretty dresses?” he sympathized.
“No, perfect planetary configuration. Otherwise it rained non-stop and my uncles got drunk, my nephew fell into the sugar syrup kept for the gulab jamuns – and because they didn’t have time to make some more, they actually used it. We ate Rohan-flavored gulab jamuns for my wedding brunch.”
He was laughing. “Well, that’s a part of him that’s with you forever more!”
She grinned reluctantly. “At least he was clean.”
She laughed. “Yeah, that was pretty funny wasn’t it?”
She caught her breath as the memories of her wedding day suddenly crowded into her mind. The wedding had taken place on her parents’ front lawn and a great many of her father’s family had been disappointed by the deceptively low-key affair that refused to air its tremendous cost through the tried and tested means of overly gilt-edged fabric and well-paid Bollywood stars dancing to their latest songs. Some catty old aunties had even asked her father point-blank if there was something he was ashamed of, giving away his only child in such a shabby manner. Her mother’s family, of course, had been almost honor bound to take the opposite position and had spent the whole day audibly congratulating her mother on her good taste in holding such an “exclusive do” although not exclusive enough according to some (hint, hint).
Maya had worn the most divine pink and silver creation, specially created for her by a top Delhi-based designer and after the ceremony her mother had packed it away carefully, awaiting the day it would adorn Maya’s own daughter. They had shed a few tears in each other’s arms for those precious few minutes before the knock on the door of her childhood room had sent her downstairs where Ajay’s car stood ready to bear her away to her new life.
Now she wondered how she could tell her mother any part of the conversation between her and her husband this morning. And even if she told her mother, with what words would she convey the same to her father? And how would she look Ajay’s parents in the eye and explain her reason for leaving their son?
“Tide’s rising,” she observed.
“Usually you’d have left by now,” he replied, stretching his long legs to catch the lip of the foremost waves as they vied to reach the humans perched on the boundaries of their world.
He sighed. “Only a fantasy, alas.”
“You’re impossible,” she laughed.
“No, I’m pretty easy. You wouldn’t believe how easy,” he said with mock lasciviousness, wiggling his eyebrows exaggeratedly.
“What should I do?” she asked him, suddenly serious.
“You don’t love him, you’ve only been married a year, he’s gay and he’s not going to change. You figure it out.”
She sighed. “I should tell my parents.”
“Not at all. Invent another woman if that’s the way you and Ajay want to play this out. Or else you can make it another man – in your life, that is. I’d like to volunteer my services.”
“We don’t even know each other,” she protested.
“Rikhil Srivastav,” he said, extending his hand.
“All right.” He subsided.
She laughed all of a sudden.
“I’m twenty-three, thousands of miles away from my home, I just discovered that not all the signs and portents of heaven or earth can make my marriage work and here I am, on a deserted piece of rock with a perfect stranger in the middle of nowhere, who wants me to use him to paint myself a… harlot, so as to escape my marriage! I mean, do you think I’m going crazy somewhere deep inside and this is just delayed reaction?”
“Let me see,” he commanded, reaching for her face. “With the power of my X-ray vision I can see that you are definitely not going mad.”
“That’s nice to hear. Although I always thought X-ray vision only helped Superman see through physical things.”
“’S alright. You should go home and think about it.”
“About your superpowers?”
“You know, I might think you were flirting with me.”
“But you won’t because you’re a lot smarter than that.”
“Do you think it’s this country?” she asked, changing the subject abruptly.
“Huh?” was his inelegant response.
“Ajay being gay – do you think it has something to do with America?”
He snorted. “The land of the gay and free?”
“I think you might be,” he marveled, twisting around to get a better look at her face.
“Maybe there’s something about Americans, about America that makes people do things they normally wouldn’t do.”
“Maya, I don’t think anyone made him gay; no one came up to him and put a gun to his head. If they had he wouldn’t be gay, he would be the victim of a rape. You know – the way you like boys and nobody made you like them, well, so does he. And I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”
“Well, how do you know? He married me, didn’t he? Maybe he’s just experimenting.”
“How old is he? Fifteen?”
She glared at him.
“I’m just saying.”
“Don’t!” she told him. “God, you don’t understand anything!”
“Why don’t you try explaining it then?”
“I have to tell my parents – I have to tell his parents! And I don’t think they even know what homosexuality is! And I sure as hell don’t want to explain it to them!” she blanched. “God! Why do I have to tell them? He should be telling them, not me!”
“You know, it seems to me that you’re a lot more worried about telling a whole bunch of other people all about it than the fact that you just got effectively dumped. And before you work yourself into a state maybe you should try talking to Ajay about it – he might have a few ideas of his own.”
“Are you just terminally stupid or are you trying to provoke me?” she yelled. “Why is it so difficult for you to understand that this is a tragedy? A tragedy!”
“Easy! You’re slipping into psycho mode.”
“’Cos if I did that you might just try to find your answers in those waves out there.”
“What are you talking about?” A thought struck her and widened her eyes, while lowering her voice. “Are you – are you all right?”
His eyes crinkled up at the corners. “You mean am I crazy? Rather late to ask, isn’t it? But, no I’m not. Although, when you think about it, if I was crazy I’d hardly tell you so, would I? Relax,” he laughed. “If you could see your face! No, I’m not crazy… except when I’m really drunk, I guess. What about you?”
“I’m not crazy.”
“Hmm, maybe you aren’t. Suicidal?”
“Oh, for – No!” She thought a bit more about it. “Well… if you make me get up at five in the morning.”
“Five in the morning? That’s disgusting!” he exclaimed.
“Tell me about it!” she agreed.
“Okay, so you’re fine.” It was more a statement than a question. “Right then, I’ll leave.”
“You’re leaving?” she asked, taken aback and upset with herself for feeling that way.
“Yeah, that is what you wanted me to do, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes but…”
“I could stick around if you wanted me to,” he offered.
“Oh no,” she said quickly. “That is, unless you wanted to…”
He lounged back on to his unyielding seat. “Sometimes, all you need to do is ask.”
She smiled at him.
Nether felt the need to say anything as they sat together on the rocks, wrapped in the elemental world of sun and water. The surf was now billowing around them, furiously flinging water at the solid rocks disintegrating a fraction of an inch a day under its stubborn force. The water touched their feet, bare in the warm sunshine of the day.
“If this were the movies, I’d now slowly turn and look at you just before gathering you into my arms and then we’d make wild, passionate love,” he idly commented, staring straight ahead.
“If this were the movies, you’d be Brad Pitt.”
“Touche,” he laughed. “So…”
“No wild sex on the beach for you.”
“Right now at least.” His eyes glinted wickedly.
“My mother warned me about men like you.”
“Yeah?” He looked pleased.
“Yeah. She called them angels,” she said soulfully, batting her eyelashes.
He looked horrified.
She burst out laughing. “Too much of a Hallmark moment?”
“You are a Bad woman,” he said with great feeling. “You said that just to freak me out.”
She still had the giggles as she found her feet. “I have to go.”
“All right.” He heaved himself up.
They faced each other in the now gentle sunlight.
“Thank you,” she said.
“At least for this afternoon?”
“At least,” she acquiesced gravely. “I could swear this morning was the worst of my life – but I sort of liked the afternoon.”
“Made your decision?” he queried in would-be casual tones.
She hesitated. He is a stranger, she told herself, but found herself unable to believe that. “I don’t know but at least I won’t automatically grab the butcher knife when I get home,” she told him honestly, at last.
“I’m glad,” he said simply.
She didn’t say anything, just brushed some hair off her face.
He nodded. “Well, I’ll be here next week, looking for whales.”
She’d cleared the last line of rocks and was almost at the spot where sand met asphalt for the first time when she halted and walked back toward him. Silently she kissed his cheek.
He cleared his throat. “As I said, I’ll be here next week.”
She nodded, smiling. And made her way back to the city to talk to her husband who never was.
[originally published at Chowk, 2005 – my very first attempt at chick lit]