people versus people blog. ram's landing log

people versus people: A Temporary Matter (from Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter Of Maladies)

Queer things said straight


Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Temporary Matter (from Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter Of Maladies)

[my note: I like the copyright thingy]

"The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity
would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M. A line had gone down in the last
snowstorm, and the repairmen were going to take advantage of the milder evenings
to set it right. The work would affect only the houses on the quiet tree-lined street,
within walking distance of a row of brick-faced stores and a trolley stop, where Shoba
and Shukumar had lived for three years. "It's good of them to warn us," Shoba
conceded after reading the notice aloud, more for her own benefit than Shukumar's.
She let the strap of her leather satchel, plump with files, slip from her shoulders, and
left it in the hallway as she walked into the kitchen. She wore a navy blue poplin
raincoat over gray sweatpants and white sneakers, looking, at thirty-three, like the
type of woman she'd once claimed she would never resemble. She'd come from the
gym. Her cranberry lipstick was visible only on the outer reaches of her mouth, and her
eyeliner had left charcoal patches beneath her lower lashes. She used to look this
way sometimes, Shukumar thought, on mornings after a party or a night at a bar, when
she'd been too lazy to wash her face, too eager to collapse into his arms. She
dropped a sheaf of mail on the table without a glance.

Her eyes were still fixed on the
notice in her other hand. "But they should do this sort of thing during the day." "When
I'm here, you mean," Shukumar said. He put a glass lid on a pot of lamb, adjusting it
so only the slightest bit of steam could escape. Since January he'd been working at
home, trying to complete the final chapters of his dissertation on agrarian revolts in
India. "When do the repairs start?" "It says March nineteenth. Is today the nineteenth?"
Shoba walked over to the framed corkboard that hung on the wall by the fridge, bare
except for a calendar of William Morris wallpaper patterns. She looked at it as if for
the first time, studying the wallpaper pattern carefully on the top half before allowing
her eyes to fall to the numbered grid on the bottom. A friend had sent the calendar in
the mail as a Christmas gift, even though Shoba and Shukumar hadn't celebrated
Christmas that year. "Today then," Shoba announced. "You have a dentist
appointment next Friday, by the way." He ran his tongue over the tops of his teeth;
he'd forgotten to brush them that morning. It wasn't the first time. He hadn't left the
house at all that day, or the day before. The more Shoba stayed out, the more she
began putting in extra hours at work and taking on additional projects, the more he
wanted to stay in, not even leaving to get the mail, or to buy fruit or wine at the stores
by the trolley stop. Six months ago, in September, Shukumar was at an academic
conference in Baltimore when Shoba went into labor, three weeks before her due
date. He hadn't wanted to go to the conference, but she had insisted; it was important
to make contacts, and he would be entering the job market next year. She told him
that she had his number at the hotel, and a copy of his schedule and flight numbers,
and she had arranged with her friend Gillian for a ride to the hospital in the event of an
emergency. When the cab pulled away that morning for the airport, Shoba stood waving good-bye in her robe, with one arm resting on the mound of her belly as if it
were a perfectly natural part of her body. Each time he thought of that moment, the last
moment he saw Shoba pregnant, it was the cab he remembered most, a station
wagon, painted red with blue lettering. It was cavernous compared to their own car.

Although Shukumar was six feet tall, with hands too big ever to rest comfortably in the
pockets of his jeans, he felt dwarfed in the back seat. As the cab sped down Beacon
Street, he imagined a day when he and Shoba might need to buy a station wagon of
their own, to cart their children back and forth from music lessons and dentist
appointments. He imagined himself gripping the wheel, as Shoba turned around to
hand the children juice boxes. Once, these images of parenthood had troubled
Shukumar, adding to his anxiety that he was still a student at thirty-five. But that early
autumn morning, the trees still heavy with bronze leaves, he welcomed the image for
the first time. A member of the staff had found him somehow among the identical
convention rooms and handed him a stiff square of stationery. It was only a telephone
number, but Shukumar knew it was the hospital. When he returned to Boston it was
over. The baby had been born dead. Shoba was lying on a bed, asleep, in a private
room so small there was barely enough space to stand beside her, in a wing of the
hospital they hadn't been to on the tour for expectant parents. Her placenta had
weakened and she'd had a cesarean, though not quickly enough. The doctor
explained that these things happen. He smiled in the kindest way it was possible to
smile at people known only professionally. Shoba would be back on her feet in a few
weeks. There was nothing to indicate that she would not be able to have children in
the future. These days Shoba was always gone by the time Shukumar woke up. He
would open his eyes and see the long black hairs she shed on her pillow and think of
her, dressed, sipping her third cup of coffee already, in her office downtown, where
she searched for typographical errors in textbooks and marked them, in a code she
had once explained to him, with an assortment of colored pencils. She would do the
same for his dissertation, she promised, when it was ready. He envied her the
specificity of her task, so unlike the elusive nature of his. He was a mediocre student who had a facility for absorbing details without curiosity. Until September he had been diligent if not dedicated, summarizing chapters, outlining arguments on pads of yellow lined paper.

But now he would lie in their bed until he grew bored, gazing at his side of the closet which Shoba always left partly open, at the row of the tweed jackets and corduroy trousers he would not have to choose from to teach his classes that semester. After the baby died it was too late to withdraw from his teaching duties. But his adviser had arranged things so that he had the spring semester to himself. Shukumar was in his sixth year of graduate school. "That and the summer should give you a good push," his adviser had said. "You should be able to wrap things up by next
September." But nothing was pushing Shukumar. Instead he thought of how he and
Shoba had become experts at avoiding each other in their three-bedroom house,
spending as much time on separate floors as possible. He thought of how he no
longer looked forward to weekends, when she sat for hours on the sofa with her
colored pencils and her files, so that he feared that putting on a record in his own house might be rude. He thought of how long it had been since she looked into his
eyes and smiled, or whispered his name on those rare occasions they still reached
for each other's bodies before sleeping. In the beginning he had believed that it would
pass, that he and Shoba would get through it all somehow. She was only thirty-three.
She was strong, on her feet again. But it wasn't a consolation. It was often nearly
lunchtime when Shukumar would finally pull himself out of bed and head downstairs to
the coffeepot, pouring out the extra bit Shoba left for him, along with an empty mug, on
the countertop. Shukumar gathered onion skins in his hands and let them drop into the
garbage pail, on top of the ribbons of fat he'd trimmed from the lamb. He ran the water
in the sink, soaking the knife and the cutting board, and rubbed a lemon half along his
fingertips to get rid of the garlic smell, a trick he'd learned from Shoba. It was seventhirty.

Through the window he saw the sky, like soft black pitch. Uneven banks of snow
still lined the sidewalks, though it was warm enough for people to walk about without
hats or gloves. Nearly three feet had fallen in the last storm, so that for a week people
had to walk single file, in narrow trenches. For a week that was Shukumar's excuse for
not leaving the house. But now the trenches were widening, and water drained
steadily into grates in the pavement. "The lamb won't be done by eight," Shukumar
said. "We may have to eat in the dark." "We can light candles," Shoba suggested.
She unclipped her hair, coiled neatly at her nape during the days, and pried the
sneakers from her feet without untying them. "I'm going to shower before the lights
go," she said, heading for the staircase. "I'll be down." Shukumar moved her satchel
and her sneakers to the side of the fridge. She wasn't this way before. She used to
put her coat on a hanger, her sneakers in the closet, and she paid bills as soon as
they came. But now she treated the house as if it were a hotel. The fact that the yellow
chintz armchair in the living room clashed with the blue-and-maroon Turkish carpet no
longer bothered her. On the enclosed porch at the back of the house, a crisp white
bag still sat on the wicker chaise, filled with lace she had once planned to turn into
curtains. While Shoba showered, Shukumar went into the downstairs bathroom and
found a new toothbrush in its box beneath the sink. The cheap, stiff bristles hurt his
gums, and he spit some blood into the basin. The spare brush was one of many
stored in a metal basket. Shoba had bought them once when they were on sale, in the
event that a visitor decided, at the last minute, to spend the night. It was typical of her.
She was the type to prepare for surprises, good and bad. If she found a skirt or a
purse she liked she bought two. She kept the bonuses from her job in a separate
bank account in her name. It hadn't bothered him. His own mother had fallen to pieces
when his father died, abandoning the house he grew up in and moving back to
Calcutta, leaving Shukumar to settle it all. He liked that Shoba was different. It
astonished him, her capacity to think ahead. When she used to do the shopping, the
pantry was always stocked with extra bottles of olive and corn oil, depending on
whether they were cooking Italian or Indian. There were endless boxes of pasta in all
shapes and colors, zippered sacks of basmati rice, whole sides of lambs and goats
from the Muslim butchers at Haymarket, chopped up and frozen in endless plastic bags. Every other Saturday they wound through the maze of stalls Shukumar
eventually knew by heart. He watched in disbelief as she bought more food, trailing
behind her with canvas bags as she pushed through the crowd, arguing under the
morning sun with boys too young to shave but already missing teeth, who twisted up
brown paper bags of artichokes, plums, gingerroot, and yams, and dropped them on
their scales, and tossed them to Shoba one by one. She didn't mind being jostled,
even when she was pregnant. She was tall, and broad-shouldered, with hips that her
obstetrician assured her were made for childbearing. During the drive back home, as
the car curved along the Charles, they invariably marveled at how much food they'd
bought. It never went to waste. When friends dropped by, Shoba would throw together
meals that appeared to have taken half a day to prepare, from things she had frozen
and bottled, not cheap things in tins but peppers she had marinated herself with
rosemary, and chutneys that she cooked on Sundays, stirring boiling pots of tomatoes
and prunes.

Her labeled mason jars lined the shelves of the kitchen, in endless sealed
pyramids, enough, they'd agreed, to last for their grandchildren to taste. They'd eaten
it all by now. Shukumar had been going through their supplies steadily, preparing
meals for the two of them, measuring out cupfuls of rice, defrosting bags of meat day
after day. He combed through her cookbooks every afternoon, following her penciled
instructions to use two teaspoons of ground coriander seeds instead of one, or red
lentils instead of yellow. Each of the recipes was dated, telling the first time they had
eaten the dish together. April 2, cauliflower with fennel. January 14, chicken with
almonds and sultanas. He had no memory of eating those meals, and yet there they
were, recorded in her neat proofreader's hand. Shukumar enjoyed cooking now. It
was the one thing that made him feel productive. If it weren't for him, he knew, Shoba
would eat a bowl of cereal for her dinner. Tonight, with no lights, they would have to
eat together. For months now they'd served themselves from the stove, and he'd taken
his plate into his study, letting the meal grow cold on his desk before shoving it into his
mouth without pause, while Shoba took her plate to the living room and watched
game shows, or proofread files with her arsenal of colored pencils at hand. At some
point in the evening she visited him. When he heard her approach he would put away
his novel and begin typing sentences. She would rest her hands on his shoulders and
stare with him into the blue glow of the computer screen. "Don't work too hard," she
would say after a minute or two, and head off to bed. It was the one time in the day
she sought him out, and yet he'd come to dread it. He knew it was something she
forced herself to do. She would look around the walls of the room, which they had
decorated together last summer with a border of marching ducks and rabbits playing
trumpets and drums. By the end of August there was a cherry crib under the window, a
white changing table with mint green knobs, and a rocking chair with checkered
cushions. Shukumar had disassembled it all before bringing Shoba back from the
hospital, scraping off the rabbits and ducks with a spatula. For some reason the room
did not haunt him the way it haunted Shoba. In January, when he stopped working at
his carrel in the library, he set up his desk there deliberately, partly because the room
soothed him, and partly because it was a place Shoba avoided. Shukumar returned to the kitchen and began to open drawers. He tried to locate a candle among the
scissors, the eggbeaters and whisks, the mortar and pestle she'd bought in a bazaar
in Calcutta, and used to pound garlic cloves and cardamom pods, back when she
used to cook. He found a flashlight, but no batteries, and a half-empty box of birthday
candles. Shoba had thrown him a surprise birthday party last May. One hundred and
twenty people had crammed into the house-all the friends and the friends of friends
they now systematically avoided. Bottles of vinho verde had nested in a bed of ice in
the bathtub. Shoba was in her fifth month, drinking ginger ale from a martini glass.
She had made a vanilla cream cake with custard and spun sugar. All night she kept
Shukumar's long fingers linked with hers as they walked among the guests at the
party. Since September their only guest had been Shoba's mother. She came from
Arizona and stayed with them for two months after Shoba returned from the hospital.
She cooked dinner every night, drove herself to the supermarket, washed their
clothes, put them away. She was a religious woman. She set up a small shrine, a
framed picture of a lavender-faced goddess and a plate of marigold petals, on the
bedside table in the guest room, and prayed twice a day for healthy grandchildren in
the future. She was polite to Shukumar without being friendly. She folded his sweaters
with an expertise she had learned from her job in a department store. She replaced a
missing button on his winter coat and knit him a beige and brown scarf, presenting it
to him without the least bit of ceremony, as if he had only dropped it and hadn't
noticed. She never talked to him about Shoba; once, when he mentioned the baby's
death, she looked up from her knitting, and said, "But you weren't even there." It struck
him as odd that there were no real candles in the house. That Shoba hadn't prepared
for such an ordinary emergency.

He looked now for something to put the birthday
candles in and settled on the soil of a potted ivy that normally sat on the windowsill
over the sink. Even though the plant was inches from the tap, the soil was so dry that
he had to water it first before the candles would stand straight. He pushed aside the
things on the kitchen table, the piles of mail, the unread library books. He
remembered their first meals there, when they were so thrilled to be married, to be
living together in the same house at last, that they would just reach for each other
foolishly, more eager to make love than to eat. He put down two embroidered place
mats, a wedding gift from an uncle in Lucknow, and set out the plates and
wineglasses they usually saved for guests. He put the ivy in the middle, the whiteedged,
star-shaped leaves girded by ten little candles. He switched on the digital
clock radio and tuned it to a jazz station. "What's all this?" Shoba said when she
came downstairs. Her hair was wrapped in a thick white towel. She undid the towel
and draped it over a chair, allowing her hair, damp and dark, to fall across her back.
As she walked absently toward the stove she took out a few tangles with her fingers.
She wore a clean pair of sweatpants, a T-shirt, an old flannel robe. Her stomach was
flat again, her waist narrow before the flare of her hips, the belt of the robe tied in a floppy knot. It was nearly eight. Shukumar put the rice on the table and the lentils from the night before into the microwave oven, punching the numbers on the timer. "You made Rogan josh," Shoba observed, looking through the glass lid at the bright paprika stew. Shukumar took out a piece of lamb, pinching it quickly between his
fingers so as not to scald himself. He prodded a larger piece with a serving spoon to
make sure the meat slipped easily from the bone. "It's ready," he announced. The
microwave had just beeped when the lights went out, and the music disappeared.
"Perfect timing," Shoba said. "All I could find were birthday candles." He lit up the ivy, keeping the rest of the candles and a book of matches by his plate. "It doesn't matter," she said, running a finger along the stem of her wineglass. "It looks lovely." In the
dimness, he knew how she sat, a bit forward in her chair, ankles crossed against the
lowest rung, left elbow on the table. During his search for the candles, Shukumar had
found a bottle of wine in a crate he had thought was empty. He clamped the bottle
between his knees while he turned in the corkscrew. He worried about spilling, and so
he picked up the glasses and held them close to his lap while he filled them. They
served themselves, stirring the rice with their forks, squinting as they extracted bay leaves and cloves from the stew. Every few minutes Shukumar lit a few more birthday candles and drove them into the soil of the pot. "It's like India," Shoba said, watching him tend his makeshift candelabra. "Sometimes the current disappears for hours at a stretch. I once had to attend an entire rice ceremony in the dark. The baby just cried and cried. It must have been so hot." Their baby had never cried, Shukumar considered. Their baby would never have a rice ceremony, even though Shoba had already made the guest list, and decided on which of her three brothers she was going to ask to feed the child its first taste of solid food, at six months if it was a boy, seven if it was a girl. "Are you hot?" he asked her. He pushed the blazing ivy pot to the other end of the table, closer to the piles of books and mail, making it even more difficult for them to see each other. He was suddenly irritated that he couldn't go upstairs and sit in front of the computer. "No. It's delicious," she said, tapping her plate with her fork. "It really is." He refilled the wine in her glass. She thanked him.

They weren't like this before. Now he had to struggle to say something that interested her, something that made her look up from her plate, or from her proofreading files.
Eventually he gave up trying to amuse her. He learned not to mind the silences. "I
remember during power failures at my grandmother's house, we all had to say
something," Shoba continued. He could barely see her face, but from her tone he
knew her eyes were narrowed, as if trying to focus on a distant object. It was a habit of
hers. "Like what?" "I don't know. A little poem. A joke. A fact about the world. For
some reason my relatives always wanted me to tell them the names of my friends in
America. I don't know why the information was so interesting to them. The last time I
saw my aunt she asked after four girls I went to elementary school with in Tucson. I
barely remember them now." Shukumar hadn't spent as much time in India as Shoba
had. His parents, who settled in New Hampshire, used to go back without him. The
first time he'd gone as an infant he'd nearly died of amoebic dysentery. His father, a
nervous type, was afraid to take him again, in case something were to happen, and
left him with his aunt and uncle in Concord. As a teenager he preferred sailing camp
or scooping ice cream during the summers to going to Calcutta. It wasn't until after his father died, in his last year of college, that the country began to interest him, and he
studied its history from course books as if it were any other subject. He wished now
that he had his own childhood story of India. "Let's do that," she said suddenly. "Do
what?" "Say something to each other in the dark." "Like what? I don't know any jokes."
"No, no jokes." She thought for a minute. "How about telling each other something
we've never told before." "I used to play this game in high school," Shukumar recalled.
"When I got drunk." "You're thinking of truth or dare. This is different. Okay, I'll start."
She took a sip of wine. "The first time I was alone in your apartment, I looked in your
address book to see if you'd written me in. I think we'd known each other two weeks."
"Where was I?" "You went to answer the telephone in the other room. It was your
mother, and I figured it would be a long call. I wanted to know if you'd promoted me
from the margins of your newspaper." "Had I?" "No. But I didn't give up on you. Now
it's your turn." He couldn't think of anything, but Shoba was waiting for him to speak.
She hadn't appeared so determined in months. What was there left to say to her? He
thought back to their first meeting, four years earlier at a lecture hall in Cambridge,
where a group of Bengali poets were giving a recital. They'd ended up side by side,
on folding wooden chairs. Shukumar was soon bored; he was unable to decipher the
literary diction, and couldn't join the rest of the audience as they sighed and nodded
solemnly after certain phrases. Peering at the newspaper folded in his lap, he studied
the temperatures of cities around the world. Ninety-one degrees in Singapore
yesterday, fifty-one in Stockholm. When he turned his head to the left, he saw a
woman next to him making a grocery list on the back of a folder, and was startled to
find that she was beautiful. "Okay" he said, remembering. "The first time we went out
to dinner, to the Portuguese place, I forgot to tip the waiter. I went back the next
morning, found out his name, left money with the manager." "You went all the way
back to Somerville just to tip a waiter?" "I took a cab." "Why did you forget to tip the
waiter?" The birthday candles had burned out, but he pictured her face clearly in the
dark, the wide tilting eyes, the full grape-toned lips, the fall at age two from her high
chair still visible as a comma on her chin. Each day, Shukumar noticed, her beauty,
which had once overwhelmed him, seemed to fade. The cosmetics that had seemed
superfluous were necessary now, not to improve her but to define her somehow. "By
the end of the meal I had a funny feeling that I might marry you," he said, admitting it to
himself as well as to her for the first time. "It must have distracted me." The next night

Shoba came home earlier than usual. There was lamb left over from the evening
before, and Shukumar heated it up so that they were able to eat by seven. He'd gone
out that day, through the melting snow, and bought a packet of taper candles from the
corner store, and batteries to fit the flashlight. He had the candles ready on the
countertop, standing in brass holders shaped like lotuses, but they ate under the glow
of the copper-shaded ceiling lamp that hung over the table. When they had finished
eating, Shukumar was surprised to see that Shoba was stacking her plate on top of
his, and then carrying them over to the sink. He had assumed she would retreat to the
living room, behind her barricade of files. "Don't worry about the dishes," he said, taking them from her hands. "It seems silly not to," she replied, pouring a drop of
detergent onto a sponge. "It's nearly eight o'clock." His heart quickened. All day
Shukumar had looked forward to the lights going out. He thought about what Shoba
had said the night before, about looking in his address book. It felt good to remember
her as she was then, how bold yet nervous she'd been when they first met, how
hopeful.

They stood side by side at the sink, their reflections fitting together in the
frame of the window. It made him shy, the way he felt the first time they stood together
in a mirror. He couldn't recall the last time they'd been photographed. They had
stopped attending parties, went nowhere together. The film in his camera still
contained pictures of Shoba, in the yard, when she was pregnant. After finishing the
dishes, they leaned against the counter, drying their hands on either end of a towel. At
eight o'clock the house went black. Shukumar lit the wicks of the candles, impressed
by their long, steady flames. "Let's sit outside," Shoba said. "I think it's warm still."

They each took a candle and sat down on the steps. It seemed strange to be sitting
outside with patches of snow still on the ground. But everyone was out of their houses
tonight, the air fresh enough to make people restless. Screen doors opened and
closed. A small parade of neighbors passed by with flashlights. "We're going to the
bookstore to browse," a silver haired man called out. He was walking with his wife, a
thin woman in a windbreaker, and holding a dog on a leash. They were the Brad
fords, and they had tucked a sympathy card into Shoba and Shukumar's mailbox back
in September. "I hear they've got their power." "They'd better," Shukumar said. "Or
you'll be browsing in the dark." The woman laughed, slipping her arm through the
crook of her husband's elbow. "Want to join us?" "No thanks," Shoba and Shukumar
called out together. It surprised Shukumar that his words matched hers. He wondered
what Shoba would tell him in the dark. The worst possibilities had already run through
his head. That she'd had an affair. That she didn't respect him for being thirty-five and
still a student. That she blamed him for being in Baltimore the way her mother did. But
he knew those things weren't true. She'd been faithful, as had he. She believed in him.
It was she who had insisted he go to Baltimore. What didn't they know about each
other? He knew she curled her fingers tightly when she slept, that her body twitched
during bad dreams. He knew it was honeydew she favored over cantaloupe. He knew
that when they returned from the hospital the first thing she did when she walked into
the house was pick out objects of theirs and toss them into a pile in the hallway: books
from the shelves, plants from the windowsills, paintings from walls, photos from tables,
pots and pans that hung from the hooks over the stove. Shukumar had stepped out of
her way, watching as she moved methodically from room to room. When she was
satisfied, she stood there staring at the pile she'd made, her lips drawn back in such
distaste that Shukumar had thought she would spit. Then she'd started to cry. He
began to feel cold as he sat there on the steps. He felt that he needed her to talk first,
in order to reciprocate. "That time when your mother came to visit us," she said finally.
"When I said one night that I had to stay late at work, I went out with Gillian and had a
martini." He looked at her profile, the slender nose, the slightly masculine set of her
jaw. He remembered that night well; eating with his mother, tired from teaching two classes back to back, wishing Shoba were there to say more of the right things
because he came up with only the wrong ones. It had been twelve years since his
father had died, and his mother had come to spend two weeks with him and Shoba,
so they could honor his father's memory together. Each night his mother cooked
something his father had liked, but she was too upset to eat the dishes herself, and
her eyes would well up as Shoba stroked her hand. "It's so touching," Shoba had said
to him at the time. Now he pictured Shoba with Gillian, in a bar with striped velvet
sofas, the one they used to go to after the movies, making sure she got her extra
olive, asking Gillian for a cigarette. He imagined her complaining, and Gillian
sympathizing about visits from in-laws. It was Gillian who had driven Shoba to the
hospital. "Your turn," she said, stopping his thoughts. At the end of their street
Shukumar heard sounds of a drill and the electricians shouting over it. He looked at
the darkened facades of the houses lining the street. Candles glowed in the windows
of one. In spite of the warmth, smoke rose from the chimney. "I cheated on my Oriental
Civilization exam in college," he said. "It was my last semester, my last set of exams.
My father had died a few months before. I could see the blue book of the guy next to
me. He was an American guy, a maniac. He knew Urdu and Sanskrit. I couldn't
remember if the verse we had to identify was an example of a ghazal or not. I looked
at his answer and copied it down." It had happened over fifteen years ago. He felt
relief now, having told her. She turned to him, looking not at his face, but at his shoes -
old moccasins he wore as if they were slippers, the leather at the back permanently
flattened. He wondered if it bothered her, what he'd said. She took his hand and
pressed it. "You didn't have to tell me why you did it," she said, moving closer to him.
They sat together until nine o'clock, when the lights came on. They heard some people
across the street clapping from their porch, and televisions being turned on. The Brad
fords walked back down the street, eating ice-cream cones and waving. Shoba and
Shukumar waved back. Then they stood up, his hand still in hers, and went inside.
Somehow, without saying anything, it had turned into this. Into an exchange of
confessions-the little ways they'd hurt or disappointed each other, and themselves.
The following day Shukumar thought for hours about what to say to her. He was torn
between admitting that he once ripped out a photo of a woman in one of the fashion
magazines she used to subscribe to and carried it in his books for a week, or saying
that he really hadn't lost the sweater-vest she bought him for their third wedding
anniversary but had exchanged it for cash at Filene's, and that he had gotten drunk
alone in the middle of the day at a hotel bar. For their first anniversary, Shoba had
cooked a ten-course dinner just for him. The vest depressed him. "My wife gave me a
sweater-vest for our anniversary," he complained to the bartender, his head heavy
with cognac. "What do you expect?" the bartender had replied. "You're married." As
for the picture of the woman, he didn't know why he'd ripped it out. She wasn't as
pretty as Shoba. She wore a white sequined dress, and had a sullen face and lean,
mannish legs. Her bare arms were raised, her fists around her head, as if she were
about to punch herself in the ears. It was an advertisement for stockings. Shoba had been pregnant at the time, her stomach suddenly immense, to the point where
Shukumar no longer wanted to touch her. The first time he saw the picture he was
lying in bed next to her, watching her as she read. When he noticed the magazine in
the recycling pile he found the woman and tore out the page as carefully as he could.
For about a week he allowed himself a glimpse each day. He felt an intense desire for
the woman, but it was a desire that turned to disgust after a minute or two. It was the
closest he'd come to infidelity. He told Shoba about the sweater on the third night, the
picture on the fourth. She said nothing as he spoke, expressed no protest or
reproach. She simply listened, and then she took his hand, pressing it as she had
before. On the third night, she told him that once after a lecture they'd attended, she let
him speak to the chairman of his department without telling him that he had a dab of
potatoe on his chin. She'd been irritated with him for some reason, and so she'd let him
go on and on, about securing his fellowship for the following semester, without putting
a finger to her own chin as a signal. The fourth night, she said that she never liked the
one poem he'd ever published in his life, in a literary magazine in Utah. He'd written
the poem after meeting Shoba. She added that she found the poem sentimental.
Something happened when the house was dark. They were able to talk to each other
again. The third night after supper they'd sat together on the sofa, and once it was
dark he began kissing her awkwardly on her forehead and her face, and though it was
dark he closed his eyes, and knew that she did, too. The fourth night they walked
carefully upstairs, to bed, feeling together for the final step with their feet before the
landing, and making love with a desperation they had forgotten. She wept without
sound, and whispered his name, and traced his eyebrows with her finger in the dark.

As he made love to her he wondered what he would say to her the next night, and
what she would say, the thought of it exciting him. "Hold me," he said, "hold me in your
arms," By the time the lights came back on downstairs, they'd fallen asleep. The
morning of the fifth night Shukumar found another notice from the electric company in
the mailbox. The line had been repaired ahead of schedule, it said. He was
disappointed. He had planned on making shrimp malai for Shoba, but when he
arrived at the store he didn't feel like cooking anymore. It wasn't the same, he thought,
knowing that the lights wouldn't go out. In the store the shrimp looked gray and thin.
The coconut milk tin was dusty and overpriced. Still, he bought them, along with a
beeswax candle and two bottles of wine. She came home at seven-thirty. "I suppose
this is the end of our game," he said when he saw her reading the notice. She looked
at him. "You can still light candles if you want." She hadn't been to the gym tonight.
She wore a suit beneath the raincoat. Her makeup had been retouched recently.

When she went upstairs to change, Shukumar poured himself some wine and put on a
record, a Thelonius Monk album he knew she liked. When she came downstairs they
ate together. She didn't thank him or compliment him. They simply ate in a darkened
room, in the glow of a beeswax candle. They had survived a difficult time. They
finished off the shrimp. They finished off the first bottle of wine and moved on to the
second. They sat together until the candle had nearly burned away. She shifted in her
chair, and Shukumar thought that she was about to say something. But instead she "Shouldn't we keep the lights off?" Shukumar asked. She set her plate aside and
clasped her hands on the table. "I want you to see my face when I tell you this," she
said gently. His heart began to pound. The day she told him she was pregnant, she
had used the very same words, saying them in the same gentle way, turning off the
basketball game he'd been watching on television. He hadn't been prepared then.
Now he was. Only he didn't want her to be pregnant again. He didn't want to have to
pretend to be happy. "I've been looking for an apartment and I've found one," she
said, narrowing her eyes on something, it seemed, behind his left shoulder. It was
nobody's fault, she continued. They'd been through enough. She needed some time
alone. She had money saved up for a security deposit. The apartment was on Beacon
Hill, so she could walk to work. She had signed the lease that night before coming
home. She wouldn't look at him, but he stared at her. It was obvious that she'd
rehearsed the lines. All this time she'd been looking for an apartment, testing the
water pressure, asking a Realtor if heat and hot water were included in the rent. It
sickened Shukumar, knowing that she had spent these past evenings preparing for a
life without him. He was relieved and yet he was sickened. This was what she'd been
trying to tell him for the past four evenings. This was the point of her game. Now it was
his turn to speak. There was something he'd sworn he would never tell her, and for six
months he had done his best to block it from his mind. Before the ultrasound she had
asked the doctor not to tell her the sex of their child, and Shukumar had agreed. She
had wanted it to be a surprise. Later, those few times they talked about what had
happened, she said at least they'd been spared that knowledge. In a way she almost
took pride in her decision, for it enabled her to seek refuge in a mystery. He knew that
she assumed it was a mystery for him, too. He'd arrived too late from Baltimore-when
it was all over and she was lying on the hospital bed. But he hadn't. He'd arrived early
enough to see their baby, and to hold him before they cremated him. At first he had
recoiled at the suggestion, but the doctor said holding the baby might help him with
the process of grieving. Shoba was asleep. The baby had been cleaned off, his
bulbous lids shut tight to the world. "Our baby was a boy," he said. "His skin was more
red than brown. He had black hair on his head. He weighed almost five pounds. His
fingers were curled shut, just like yours in the night." Shoba looked at him now, her
face contorted with sorrow. He had cheated on a college exam, ripped a picture of a
woman out of a magazine. He had returned a sweater and got drunk in the middle of
the day instead. These were the things he had told her. He had held his son, who had
known life only within her, against his chest in a darkened room in an unknown wing of
the hospital. He had held him until a nurse knocked and took him away, and he
promised himself that day that he would never tell Shoba, because he still loved her
then, and it was the one thing in her life that she had wanted to be a surprise.
Shukumar stood up and stacked his plate on top of hers. He carried the plates to the
sink, but instead of running the tap he looked out the window. Outside the evening
was still warm, and the Brad fords were walking arm in arm. As he watched the couple the room went dark, and he spun around. Shoba had turned the lights off. She
came back to the table and sat down, and after a moment Shukumar joined her. They
wept together, for the things they now knew."

9 comments:

  1. daaa, foarte frumoasa poveste; cand am citit-o mi-a amintit de "Vanturi alizee" a lui Cortazar..

    ReplyDelete
  2. Uaaaau! A citit-o cinevaaaa. Ce bine ma simt :)
    Acum pot ,,esei" mai cu spor. Cortazar n-am citit dar caut. Multumesc :)

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  3. :) acuma ma intreb daca sa mai scriu ceva sau nu...ca sa nu te am pe contiinta ca ti-am distras atentia de la teme :P
    Cei doi, Lahiri si Cortazar, mi se pare ca au in comun gustul dulce-amar pe care ti-l lasa lectura lor; iar finalul de la Alizee- cum ii spun eu- e asa de tipic J. Cortazar...cred ca o sa-ti placa :)

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  4. scrie...nu are rost sa ai nici asta nici altele legate de mine pe constiinta ;)

    o sa caut gustul amar, fara indoiala. multumesc pentru recomandare. :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. gata eseul de ieri?
    am gasit povestirea in spaniola, daca citesti...
    http://www.escribirte.com.ar/destacados/1/cortazar/textos/642/vientos-alisios.htm

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  6. daaa...gata chair si cele pentru maine. :))
    am si scapat de doua examene azi.
    multumesc frumos pentru link. imi deschid si google translate pt orice eventualitate si la noapte ma dedulcesc la ,,amareala".

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  7. oooo, felicitari! meriti o pauza :)
    salutari din biroul intunecos catre studentul mai usor cu doua examene! :)

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  9. Must be an enjoyable read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

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