Originally published in KUY: stories and poems
Copyright (c) 2014 by Anjoli Roy
“Find any characters today, ogho?”
Chandrani is standing on the threshold of the front door, keys in hand. Hearing the voice of her husband, Deepak, she considers turning around. She could escape back down the stairs of the apartment building, across the half-block to the subway station, and down to the train plat-form without a word.
She steps inside, toward Deepak’s overeager voice, which he’s flung at her from the kitchen. “Yeah, ogho,” she replies, using the same term of affection they use for each other. “Those two kids and the mid-dle-aged man were on the A train again.”
She can’t see him, but she knows he is at the stove, stirring something. A metal spoon scrapes the bottom of their deep copper pot. Her skin prick-les. She drops her keys on the chipped turquoise end table by the front door.
“You know those guys, right? The ones who do the dance routine and then the man throws one of the boys up at the ceiling? Everybody thinks the kid hits his head or whatever, but he only smacks the roof with his hand, mid-flip. That crash gets ‘em every time.” She yawns, directs her words to the buckled hardwood floor. “The crew always makes out with a whole heap of money, especially if that kid acts dazed.” She stretches her arms up over her head and rolls her neck from side to side, pulls against the knot forming between her shoulder blades. “I got a pretty good draft, I think.”
She sighs, locks the deadbolt behind her, tosses her soggy, snow-drenched coat on their queen-sized bed. In front of the full-length mirror that hangs next to their bedroom door, she pulls back the heavy plank of her waist-length black hair and scowls at her reflection; sucks in, then forcefully distends her slight paunch. Rubbing at the dark patches under her eyes, she smacks her face to bring some color to her yellowed, sunken cheeks. She was pretty once, wasn’t she?
“You can read it if you want.”
She rounds the hallway to the kitchen and leans in to kiss him hello just as she has every day for the past five years.
“Your subway stories will make us rich in no time, huh, ogho?” His boyish hair, which he refuses to cut, roguishly falls in his eyes. His beard pricks out of his smooth, dark brown skin. His concentration pulls his eyebrows into a tight V.
His skin tastes salty. She wipes her mouth on her sleeve. “Doubt that.” She shakes the papers at him.
Deepak glances up at her, annoyed. “My hands are kinda full right now—maybe later.” He smiles his best salesman smile at her. “You’ve published one good story so far, ogho. I’m sure once the collection is out, the money’ll be rolling in.”
“It’s not really like that, ogho.”
“It’s just about the fans, right?” He winks at her, and she is mo-mentarily charmed. He pecks her on the cheek, watches her for a while.
She smirks at him, then busts into her best tap dance imperson-ation, complete with jazz hands, shoulder shrugs, and wide eyes.
He grunts, looks away from her. “What about the mail? Any fan letters for the infamous nom de plume, Rani Ray?”
She freezes, mid fake performance.
After a small national magazine published her first short story, accompanied by a bio that included the name of the local newspaper where she works as a freelance journalist, Chandrani has received a few letters under the name Rani Ray. Her boss insisted that anything referring to her under that name be forwarded directly to her home address, as “a creative writer’s fan mail does not belong on a journalist’s desk.” Since then, a few letters have found their way to the narrow mail cubby in the lobby of their building.
More than one of these letters has included corrections to various details in her story. A more accurate description of the wait for the A train. A printed schedule of the 1 train with penned annotations on what really happened on that train, on which performers actually frequent thatline. As if she doesn’t commute on those trains every day. As if her stories aren’t based directly on her experiences. She is a trained journalist, knows what it means to get and respect the facts, but this is what she gets for writing fiction. If she published them as nonfiction, they’d be “her truth.” Still, the small blip of fame from the publication of her first “Subway Story”—a fictional series she’s been working on about everyday occurrences in Manhattan’s underground—has made enough information available for the motivated reader to get a letter to her. Including the one that’s in her pocket.
“Nope. Just the electric bill,” she says as nonchalantly as possible. “I’ll pay it tomorrow, if you cut the check tonight.” You Doberman, she almost adds but doesn’t.
Deepak guards his money. Since she makes a pittance as a free-lancer, the two basically rely on his income from his position as a dealer at a mid-size hedge fund on Wall Street. Her income is hers, what she can spend without Deepak’s permission.
She remembers a secret he revealed to her when they first mar-ried when both were still eager to love somewhere between dinnertime and morning showers. The two started off commiserating about how they’d been teased in their predominantly white schools—Chandrani’s in California, Deepak’s at the tip of Long Island—the “mud food” that their classmates teased them for bringing for lunch, the 7-11 jokes and bobble-headed service men. Neither had siblings to commiserate with. Where this teasing drove Chandrani into herself—she and her father weren’t members of any South Asian American communities; she knew no Indian people in her largely white community—Deepak developed a dual identity.
While he attended Hindu religious festivals with his parents, he begged until they put up winking Christmas lights and purchased a plastic tree to fill their picture window during the winter holidays. A good boy at home, he told her with giddy enthusiasm about how he’d sold drugs to his classmates in his Long Island high school. Just weed, though, and he’d never smoked the stuff himself, he added quickly. He only sold to get the “guidos”—his word—off his back; to convince them that he shouldn’t be forced, like the few other Asians around, to do their math homework. He bought what he resold from other boys who lived around the way from him, a couple of privileged white kids who wanted street cred. Kids just like him that way, Chandrani thought. When he told her it was about the money and the respect, Chandrani understood why he had never finished his BA. Wall Street didn’t require a degree, and Deepak had a good salary—and a good excuse to strut around every day in the three-piece suits he wore so well. Still, she wondered what he, otherwise a momma’s boy and an only child at that, had leveraged to get his family off his back about dropping out of school.
Leaning over the contents of the pot that Deepak is stirring, Chandrani smells. “Lamb curry—my favorite.” She forces a smile. She feels his body tense beside her. She knows how long it takes him to make these meals, but isn’t feeling up to faking the glee he seems to expect from her.
She walks alongside the rim of the counter, does her best not to notice the stacks of empty “conventional” yogurt and meat containers that he has strewn here and there. She fingers the lamb’s slimy Styrofoam container, still bloody from the meat. Her throat tightens. The walls of a familiar argument rise up around her, but she decides not to start. She doesn’t feel like sparring with him when this letter, hot in her pocket, has already unsettled her.
Deepak tracks Chandrani’s line of sight, picks up the heavy kitch-en knife he’s used to chop up the meat. When she looks up at him, he is holding the blade to his throat, a dare-me look on his face.
“Jesus, ogho, that’s not funny.”
He gestures to the food containers she’s just been eyeing. “Don’t start with me, okay, ogho? I can’t take it.”
“I wasn’t going to. Stop being so crazy.”
“Oh, relax, it’s not like I’m going to kill myself,” he laughs at the stove, looking every bit as unstable as he is trying not to sound. Chandra-ni edges away from him, slightly. He chucks the knife across the counter.
“Look, it is Valentine’s Day,” he says, smiling broadly. “I thought it’d be nice if we both got what we wanted. I got you some chocolates.” He jerks his head toward a bright red paper heart, sealed in plastic.
“Thanks, ogho.” Chandrani tears off the wrapping, her fingers feeling wooden and shaky.
“Why she’s okay with eating that crap and not regular food, I’ll never know,” he mutters.
“Crap is crap and food should be the best food,” Chandrani sing-songs under her breath with a laugh. She stuffs a handful of quarter-sized chocolates into her mouth. The candy congeals into a chocolaty slime. She smiles at him, shows browned teeth.
“Don’t fill up,” he mutters at the stove.
She grabs another handful of candies before pushing the box away.
When they were first married, she caught him tearing up when he’d bent over the stove for half a day and she’d filled up on crackers. She’d been too hungry to wait, she whined, but she admitted to herself that she also wanted to push him, find out the limit to all his niceness, which had begun to feel too much like benevolence. When she found that limit, she couldn’t be trusted not to touch the boundary. Was it her fault that he was so easy to upset? A whiny dog, constantly following her around and yipping at her heels, asking to be kicked. Yet, at the same time, she’s felt a twinge of guilt—don’t they want the same thing? A happy marriage? That elusive term, “family”? Babies to raise and teach and learn from? Yet, the way he submits to her makes her hate him a little too. Him, so eager to please.
“The Sens want to do dinner soon, by the way. It’s been a while.” Chandrani shrugs, edges away.
“Ogho, I have to tell them something.”
“Maybe I’m not up to seeing their perfect little life, okay? Tell them what you want.”
“They’re going to think it’s odd if we keep putting them off.” “So what? Why do you care so much about what other people think, ogho?”
“Why don’t you care at all?” he barks.
She thinks fast. “How was your workout this morning? Did Charles box with you?”
“Gym was fine. Charles connected with me a little too hard, though.” Deepak points to the ripe orange lump on his chin. “I told him if we weren’t boys I might have to kick his ass for real next time.” He flexes his muscles at Chandrani. She rolls her eyes. While Chandrani likes her husband’s good looks—she enjoys introducing him to people and watching their eyebrows shoot up in astonishment that she, in all her greyness, has managed to land and keep such a handsome guy—she wonders, sometimes, where the power is beneath that muscle.
She shakes her head. “That’s what you get for boxing, right?” She fishes out a potato from the large pot that Deepak is adding spices to.
“I’ve gotta release the tension somehow—”
“Why are you adding spices now? They won’t have any time to flavor the meat.”
“Here we go again, ogho. I always cook like this. These are the products I like.” He gestures to the contentious containers. Would he cry? “And now is when I add the spices. Your father may have cooked in a dif-ferent way, but this is my way.” He grits his teeth, eyes glassy, and chucks the metal spoon at the stove. He leaves the room.
Chandrani stares off into the dark waters of the curry bubbling before her.
“Now don’t look at me like that. This is extra virgin olive oil— nothing heavy,” she hears a familiar voice say.
She inclines her head toward her father’s voice and smiles. She is at home with him. Tucked into the southern California foothills, the house is exactly as it was when she left to go to college nearly a decade before. On their acre property, Chandrani, raised without television and with few friends, sought refuge in her father with a rare affection. “Yeah, Baba. But it doesn’t really matter when you’re putting in so much.”
“Geez! Between your demands and my herbologist’s forbidding me to cook with salt, my food will never taste the same again.” His hands are strong, paw-like; the nails are thick claws, blunt from working in the garden. He rotates the simmering eggplants one at a time with precision, being sure to turn them just as each side of the cubes brown. Even in a thin cotton tank top, he is flushed from the heat of the stove. His dark brown skin shimmers with the light thrown from a high flame; sweat glit-ters across his forehead. His graying beard is a thick trim on his otherwise soft jaw line. His eyes dart back and forth over the stove, taking in every-thing with the precision of an animal tracking prey. Chandrani smiles at him. “Eggplants need this amount of oil. They soak up every bit and only then will they turn brown.”
Chandrani drags her big toe across a gritty river of grout between the smooth tiles beneath her. Math people are so precise about every-thing. Everything is a measurement. An exact distance. A formula.
“But at least a little bit of salt is something I can add later—the oil I cook with my food can’t be added at the end!”
“I’m sorry, Baba. I just get touchy watching you cook.” She recites with equal parts fear and pride, “You are the only male member of our family to live to your age.”
The phrase is one Chandrani has repeated for as long as she can remember. Having grown up in a drought of extended family, she sprouted roots in the cool shade of her father’s canopy, her existence inextricably linked with his. This reminding is a game she likes to play—one that brings to mind how important her father is to her, and inspiring a sense of dread regarding the magnitude of the hole he will, one day, leave behind.
He has told her more than once that most men on his side of the family pass around age fifty, an age her father surpassed some time ago.
“It’s a bit late to waste time worrying like that!” He smiles, locking heartening eyes over his wire-rimmed glasses with her worried ones. His wispy eyebrows, black and laced with gray, form a kind, concerned line.
She ignores him and jokes, “How would I eat without you?”
“Yeah, sure.” He plays along and casually pats his belly. “You feed yourself now, all the way over in New York.”
“I do eat in New York, it’s true,” she admits. “Deepak cooks for me. I seem to have found the only two Indian men in the world who cook!”
“I imagine there are more of us out there than you think,” he says to the browning eggplant.
He will never approve of my decision, she thinks.
Then, he says cheerily, “We may grow up being shooed out of the kitchen, but we know what it takes to make food that’s good to eat!”
“Maybe. But Deepak never makes anything like this.” She gestures to the expanse of food before her: a hot pot of yellow dahl bubbles softly with a few red peppers; a fan of fried papadum stand upright for her to munch on before the meal begins; next is a cauliflower-potatoes-and-peas dish whose name Chandrani always forgets; and on the stove is some-thing she didn’t have during the years she was vegetarian: macher jhol, with thick pieces of steaming white fish to which her father is adding those browned eggplant cubes. This food, her ancestors. Her only link to her father’s country.
Chandrani knows that though he won’t admit it, her father has scoured his garden, the organic grocery, and the farmers’ market that comes to the neighborhood once a week on the backs of trucks, rolling in thick clouds from the ocean and dust countries—all for her. “Seriously, Baba. You’re spoiling me.”
“Anything for my darling daughter.” He looks at her over his glasses again. “This is an occasion, and we must welcome it with open arms. Hello, occasion! Come in!”
Her heart contracts at her father’s habitually strange turn of phrase.
Since her mother left them when Chandrani was small, she has known her father to be a recluse. The quantity of food he’s capable of preparing is Chandrani’s only evidence of the parties she believes her par-ents must have thrown in the early years of their marriage before she was born. Yet her father, alone, is the way she knows him: leaving the house only to go to the university to counsel mathematics Ph.D. candidates; spending most of his time at home, nursing his garden amid all the plants that he’s silly enough, Chandrani thinks, to name.
The thought of him at home alone now, trudging to and from an empty house, is too much.
Chandrani scratches his back.
“Oh, yes. That’s nice.” He crosses his arms on top of his gen-tle paunch, rounding his shoulders and arching his back slightly. He scrunches up his face so that all of his features pucker around his nose.
She looks at him like this—needing a shave, sweat clinging to his thin cot-ton shirt, and thinks about how her father is a bear. He is a good Indian, loving lamb and mangoes that drip down his chin but he belongs out in a cold river, clawing at salmon and ripping off their heads with his mouth, or pounding across dry land and shaking the wet out of his fur. Or rub-bing his back on some tree. A bear. A good bear that makes you feel right at home.
“Well I’m so glad that you were able to get to me today, even if it’s only for a short time.”
“Me too, Baba,” she says.
She feels Deepak reenter the room before she sees him. Perhaps he has been standing there all along. “Smells good. The potatoes are still crunchy though. Maybe a few more minutes?”
“That’s what I was planning on.” His voice is curt.
Chandrani feels him watching her, sees how his lips are pressed into athin line. She bristles. “So how was your day?” She walks to the room that acts as both a living and dining room. Glancing back at Deepak, who is now jabbering on about work and returns, to her consternation, shakingorange, burgundy, and brown spices into the food, Chandrani hurries out of his sight and removes from her trouser pocket a sweaty wad of cash that she shoves in between a stack of shoe boxes on the hall closet’s floor. Slowly, she takes out from her pocket the letter she—Rani Ray—received today, and double-checks the return address to Honolulu, Hawai‘i. She shoves the letter deep into the recesses of the closet.
Walking to the living room, she breathes deeply, rolls her head to loosen up that knot, now pulsing in her back like a second heartbeat. Deepak hasn’t noticed.
“Come over here, will you?”
She walks over to him, slow as a begrudging child, makes a “what?” face up at him when she reaches the stove.
He cups her face in his hands. “You okay, ogho?” he asks, making that concerned-doctor-to-terminally-ill-patient face that annoys her the most, his head cocked to the side.
She steps back, pulling her head out of his annoyingly gentle hands, fights the urge to knock his head vertical again. “Yes, I’m fine. Gawd.”
“Is it time to give notice at work yet?” He looks at her, smiling now, his eyes suddenly watery. “It’s been more than a month since your last period, right? Should we take a test?”
“I was spotting a few days ago, but I guess. But you know I’m usually about 35 days every other month. Maybe we should wait a few more days?”
“Yah, but that was last month.”
“Oh, yah. Guess you’re right.” Chandrani tries to fade out of the room. Why does he keep closer track of her cycles that she does?
“Do we have any more tests left from that last pack?” She shakes her head. “I’ll pick some up tomorrow.”
He is all smiles. “Sounds good, ogho. Let’s be sure to do it before I go away for the conference. If it’s good news, I won’t have to go.” He smiles broadly.
She hasn’t seen him light up like this is a while. Maybe ever. “What do you mean you won’t have to go?” She sounds as disappointed as she is. What does it mean that she so looks forward to having the apart-ment to herself? The smile melts from his face.
“I—I just mean if it’s good news, I’ll cancel,” he stammers. “So we can be together.” His 120-watt smile returns and he pulls her back to him, steps behind her, puts his hands protectively on her lower belly, hugs her so tightly she can barely breathe. “Maybe it’s finally our time.”
“Yah. Maybe.” She pecks him on the cheek, disentangles herself, then heads to the living room, prodding at her admittedly sore breasts. Could she be pregnant? The thought lights up in her mind. She smiles her best smile at Deepak, who is rambling on again about work, and she, once again, isn’t listening. A baby could change everything. It could be a path to a new life. A way to have real love.
It could also be the biggest anchor of all.
She runs her fingers across the beloved face of her marbled-wood dining-room table and sighs.
“—and I just told him, ‘Mike, I’m a trader. You’ve gotta start treat-ing me like one, one of these days!’”
Chandrani snaps back into focus, heads back to the kitchen. “That’s terrible,” she says, picking up from Deepak’s tone that it is. “So you two still aren’t getting along?”
“Does it sound like we’re getting along? After an incident like that, how could we?”
Chandrani shuffles back into the kitchen, searches through the cabinets for the candles they put on the table for special occasions. “Would you like a glass of wine?” she asks, taking a long swig from the bottle when Deepak’s back is turned.