The View From the Bridge
By the time the plane began its descent over San Francisco, Urmila had had enough. Her whole body ached from being cramped into that little seat.
Once you get on the plane, time will just fly," her sister had told her. "Theyll be feeding you all the time. And there are movies to watch. Magazines. You can even do some duty free shopping.
Stuff and nonsense, thought Urmila dourly. After only four hours of sitting in that seat she was ready to break someones head. That Pacific Ocean. Who knew that it was so big? It doesnt look that big on the map. At least if I had taken Air India the food would have been a little more edible. All these nonsense salads and cheeses.
She nevertheless stuffed her bulging handbag with wrapped wedges of cheese and little containers of jam. They would be useful for breakfast in San Francisco.
The pilot had put on the seatbelts sign. Now, of course, she wanted to go to the ladies room, but she decided she would wait till she could go to a proper bathroom. These plane bathrooms had hardly any room to put her handbag down without getting it wet. Urmila carried her handbag everywhere with her. Every now and then she would put her hand inside and touch the passport to make sure it was still there.
She peered out of the window to see if she could see the Golden Gate Bridge. But all she could see was an endless expanse of billowing dull gray clouds. She wondered if the people in the city below knew that above the gray clouds, it was bright and blue and awash in sunshine.
Can you see anything? asked the friendly businessman next to her.
No, she said, too many clouds. You cant even see the Golden Gate Bridge.
Oh, said the man, I don't think you can see the Golden Gate Bridge flying into San Francisco.
Urmila felt distinctly cheated. She remembered telling the travel agent she wanted to be on the Golden Gate side of the plane. Just wait till she got back - all that Yes madam, of course madamscoundrels all. Just after my money. Even after she landed, and was met by her son Santu, she could not stop grumbling about it. Santu wheeled her bags out of the airport and said, But it was cloudy anyway. You probably would not have been able to see it.
Still, she said He should have told me. We must call your aunt tonight and tell her to give him a good talking to.
Oh Ma, forget it. Well go and see the bridge. Well even walk up and down it.
Hmph, she snorted. Its different from the plane. But she felt her frustration
slowly dissipating. Customs had been a breeze - they had not even asked her to open her bags. Now she wished she had smuggled in some mangos.
She followed Santu as he headed out towards the parking lot.
My goodness, said his mother as they arrived on Level 3. Look at all these cars.
There are, I think, 6 levels like this. She shook her head in wonder. So this was America.
The apartment is quite nice, she wrote on the back of a postcard of San Francisco cable cars. The rooms are very big and with all modern amenities. The floors are made of wood. I am sleeping in the computer room where his roommate David used to sleep. David has a cot in Santu's room now. David is a student - filmmaking, I think.These Americans will study anything. Very polite boy. How are you? Have you seen Dr. Bannerjee again?
"Really, it is most kind of you to give me your room, David," she said as she heated dinner on the stove. It was almost eight but the sky was still bright. The window was open and she could smell the flowers on the creeper that climbed up the neighbor's wall.
"Oh, that's nothing, David said. I get such great food everyday. Santu, why don't you take some cooking lessons from your mother?"
"Arre, no cooking lessons. It is time Santu got married. Then his wife will take care of all this." She stirred the chicken curry one final time and turned off the gas.
"Mother, let's not bring this up now," said Santu.
"I am not saying you have to marry an unknown village girl. We can find a modern girl for you. Someone who can adjust to your lifestyle. And if you want to find one yourself, go ahead. Who is stopping you? I have nothing against love marriage."
"I just don't want to get married."
"Nonsense. I don't know where you get these ideas from. You are young now and active and running around. Wait till you are fifty. Then see how you feel. All these friends of yours will be married. Who will you run around with anymore?" she retorted picking up the saucepan with the corner of her sari.
"Here Mrs. Bose, why don't you use this?" said David proffering the mitt.
"No problem. I am used to this," she said setting the pan down on the table. Then turning to David, she said,"Well don't you think it is high time he got married?"
"High time," grinned David looking at Santu.
Santu glared at him and said, "Shut up David. Why don't you go get married?"
"No shut up, shut up," said Urmila bringing out the rice. "You know, David, when Santu gets married you must come to India. Have you ever seen an Indian wedding? It will be big celebration - going on for three days at least. With big feasts. You will enjoy it."
"I'd love to go," said David grinning, looking straight at Santu.
"Well if we are to go to Twin Peaks tonight we should eat quickly instead of wasting time on this nonsense," said Santu mixing food on his plate.
Not nonsense," said Urmila, ladling some curry onto her plate. She decided not to press the matter any further just yet.
After dinner Santu said, "Let's just leave the dishes in the sink and go. Do you want to come David?"
"Umm no," said David "You all go along. Don't worry about the dishes - I'll do them."
"Oh, no, no," said Urmila " I will do them tomorrow morning when you all go out. What do I have to do anyway - just watching TV only."
"Ma," said Santu "do you have a coat? It might be cold on Twin Peaks." "Yes, I brought the one your father got me from England." "From England? That's ancient. It must be covered in mothballs."
"No, no I kept it nicely. Am I like Americans? Throwing everything out after ten days." She caught herself and glanced at David to see if he had taken offense at her sweeping generalization. David chuckled and said, "Santu says you have all his baby clothes still."
"Of course. His son will wear them. God knows I might be dead by then or bent with arthritis. Who knows if I will be still able to knit?"
"Oh Ma, said Santu slipping on a jacket " Stop being so melodramatic. Come on put on your vintage coat and let's go."
"Oh, look your button is coming off," said Urmila, pointing to one of the buttons on his jacket.
"Oh, so it is," said Santu looking down.
"Get me my handbag. It has my sewing kit - I'll fix it in a minute." "Don't worry about it now," said Santu. "Fix it tomorrow."
That's why I say get married, get married."
"So that my wife can have nothing better to do than sew my buttons?" said Santu smiling.
"Don't be too smart. You know very well what I mean," said his mother going into her room to get her coat.
"My goodness," said David when she emerged. " You look like a movie star." The long black coat made her look very slim and elegant. Her hair was pulled into a bun and some wisps escaped around her forehead and ears. Under the coat was the brilliant turquoise flash of her silk sari.
"Film star?" she laughed, but she was pleased. As she went down the stairs she said to Santu " He is quite nice and respectful, that David. Not like the Americans on TV."
"I'm glad you like him," said Santu. Something in his voice made her glance at him. He seemed happy and his eyes were sparkling. In the car he slipped in an old cassette of Bengali songs into the cassette player.
"If I had known you still listen to Rabindrasangeet I would have brought you some more," she said.
"You can get them in Berkeley," he said.
How needlessly I was worrying, she thought. Ever since she had come she had
worried that Santu had changed in a way she could not put a finger on. It made her nervous to see he had lost the transparency of his boyhood when she could see right through his most clever lies. When Santu was a boy everyone called him"her tail" because he would follow her everywhere. And now here he was so far away, so grown up. She felt scared sometimes wondering if he needed her anymore, if he would ever follow her anywhere again. Perhaps it was that faint shadow of an American accent that clouded his English that made him a stranger. But there was also a reserve that had come between them like a thin sheet of glass. But now he looked carefree and happy, humming along with the music as he drove up the hill.
"There," he said, parking the car. "You can see the whole city." She stepped out of the car and pulled her coat tight as the chilly wind whipped across them. The sun had gone down but the sky was still suffused with its fading glow. The moon gleamed palely and she could see the brightest stars.
"Look at that," Santu said gesturing at the twinkling lights and the ribbons of traffic winding in between the houses. "Look, the fog's covering the Golden Gate bridge. We have to go there soon. Otherwise people wont believe you came to San Francisco. Isn't it beautiful?"
"Yes," she said but she was looking at the happiness in his face in the fading light.
The next day, after Santu left for work, Urmila sat down and read the newspaper. There was a small news item about a train accident in India. She went into the kitchen to wash the dishes but David had already done the dishes from the night before. Then she suddenly remembered the button on Santu's jacket. His jacket hung on the back of the kitchen chair where he had flung it after coming home - one sleeve rolled in, one sleeve hanging out. She quickly sewed the button on securely and checked the others.
She took the jacket and went into the bedroom. That Santu, still the same, she thought, smiling looking at his unmade bed. The covers were half-on half-off. The pillows were about to come out of their cases. The blanket was bundled at the foot of the bed. She glanced at David's bed. He was obviously much tidier than Santu. His bed was neatly made.
Santu is just spoilt - there has always been someone to do everything for him, she thought as she opened the closet door to hang up his coat. He had several jackets hanging there.
He really has no idea how to keep his clothes, she wondered shaking her head as she saw how he had stuffed his clothes in there. No wonder all his shirts were so crumpled. She thought, I'll just have to get in here one of these days and sort everything out. She found an empty hanger and was about to hang up the jacket when she noticed on the hanger next to it what looked like a black dress. Surprised, she pulled it out. It was a dress - with a tight little black skirt and a low cut top. She turned it over wondering who it could belong to. There didn't seem to be any other dresses around. Could he possibly have a girl friend who stayed over? Was that why he was so resistant to the idea of marriage? There must be some perfectly innocent explanation, she thought, suddenly weak at the knees. After all why would she leave her dress here and nothing else?
She opened the drawers and rummaged through the underwear looking for lacy underthings. But there didn't seem to be any. All day, however, the doubt kept eating at her. She even ended up adding salt twice to the dal in her distraction. She wondered if she should ask him about it when he came home, but part of her was not too sure she could. It was different in India. There she felt she had the right, the authority to know every detail of his life. But this was his house. Why, she even had to knock to go into his room if the door was closed.
In the end she could not stop herself. Santu was sitting in the kitchen reading the new issue of India Today while she heated the chicken curry.
"I made your favorite cauliflower dish too," she said.
"Good," he replied. You must write down the recipe for me."
"I also mended that jacket." "That's nice," he said absently, still reading his magazine.
"Yes, and I put it back in the closet."
"Uh huh," he said, still not looking up from his magazine.
"I found this curious thing in the closet. I have no idea where it came from. A woman's dress." She tried to keep her voice as matter-of-fact as she could. But the effect on him was electric. His head jerked up as if she had touched him with hot tongs.
"Dress, what dress?" he stuttered.
"A black dress," she said putting the ladle down and looking at him.
You were rummaging in my closet?" His face was suddenly a few shades paler.
"I had to put it back. You'd have just left it lying around the house forever."
"Oh, um I remember," he said not very convincingly. "It belongs to David's
cousin. She stayed with us last year and left it behind, isn't that right?"
She turned to see David standing at the door.
"Isn't that right, David? " he asked again. That black dress is your cousin's?"
"Yeah," David said slowly his eyes never leaving Santu "That's right."
"Well, is dinner ready yet?" said Santu dropping his eyes from David's gaze.
"What cousin?" said Urmila. Staying with you two by herself?"
David left the room. She heard the door to the deck bang. Santu abruptly got up and followed him out. After a while she went to tell them dinner was ready. Almost despite herself she stopped near the door to the deck before pushing it open. She could hear their voices, taut and low. She could not make out the words. Then she heard David say, You have to tell her."
Suddenly, fear grabbed her heart. She remembered Santu's face - the confusion as he was caught off-guard. If it was David's cousin's dress what was it doing in Santu's closet? For one moment she thought she should just stand and listen to them argue. But something inside her pushed her forward and she opened the door and said, "Dinner is ready."
They both stopped talking and turned around. For a moment everything was frozen in place - she with her hand on the door, they with their heads half-turned towards her.
David said,"You go ahead, Santu. I am not hungry right now." Santu didn't protest. He walked back to the kitchen with her quietly. In the middle
of the meal David came in and said "I am going out for a while."
"Where are you going? said Santu.
"Out," he replied shortly and left.
"What's the matter?" she said "Doesn't he want dinner? Is it something I said?"
Santu just shook his head and said, "Who knows? He has his moods." He was very quiet all through the meal. He didn't even tell her if he had liked his cauliflower. After dinner he said he had a headache and went to his room.
Urmila sat quietly in the living room by herself. It was only seven thirty. She turned on the television and switched it off again. She wished she could see more of the street from the window. All she could see was a little bit of the neighbor's yard. A marmalade cat sitting on the wall looked at her indolently and flicked its tail. Urmila sighed and went to her room and sat down to write another postcard.
Dear Nirmala, I am having a most wonderful time. Santu is taking me everywhere in his new car, We are eating at all kinds of fancy restaurants. But I like to cook at home. Poor boy , he doesn't get home-cooked food much. Please check and see if Santus father is all right and the maid is coming regularly.
After a while she heard Santu go into the living room and turn the TV on. She put down her postcards and wondered if she should go in and join him. She rather liked sitting with him in front of the TV at night. He would be reading some magazine or the newspaper, half-listening to the news. She would sit on the settee writing in her travel journal, filling him in about her day. Just as she was about to get up and go to the living room she heard the front door open.
"Dave," said Santu from the living room.
"Yeah?" he answered sharply.
"Come into the living room," said Santu. "What for?" said David.
"Just because," said Santu.
"Where is your mother?" said David and walked into the living room. She could not hear Santu's answer. She left the room and walked towards the living room. Hearing the low murmur of their voices she paused. For a moment she stood undecided not sure of what to do. Then without going into the room she turned back to her bedroom, turned off the light and quietly lay down.
Urmila woke up in the middle of the night feeling thirsty. Glancing at the little clock beside her bed she saw it was only a little before midnight. She thought she could still hear the low murmur of the television. She could see from the window that the neighbors still had their lights on and the moving silhouettes of their heads. She got out of bed and felt around on the mantelpiece for her glasses but could not find them.
Maybe I left them in the kitchen, she thought. Santu had left the computer on again. A procession of little toasters with wings was streaming across the screen. She opened the door carefully. The hall light was off. The kitchen was dark too. The only light she could see was from the big lamp in the living room at the end of the hall. She could see the television from where she stood - the flickering grainy face of characters in some movie, the lips twisting into words she could not hear. She walked towards the room without switching on the hall-light. Then she peered round the door to see who was up and froze.
Both Santu and David were up- sitting on the big settee - the settee on which she sat and read the newspaper every morning. Santu's glasses were on the side table. The book he was reading was lying in front of him still open. His face was turned towards her but his eyes were closed. At first she thought David was removing something from his eye like she used to do, wetting the corner of her sari and inserting it gently into his eye to remove whatever it was that had got in there - a speck of coal-dust, a little gnat. But then she realized with a sickening feeling that he was bent over Santu in a kiss. With his open mouth. His tongue. She stood there not knowing what to do or where to turn. The sight turned her stomach but she could not tear her eyes away. There was a scream welling up inside her. She could feel it pushing its way up. She could feel its clammy coarse hand scraping the walls of her very womb. There were nine stitches low under the line of her petticoat - nine stitches where they had closed her back up after they had taken Santu out from inside her. She felt like her nine stitches would burst. She put her hand out to feel the wall. To her relief it did not sag and give way. She leaned against it. The plaster was cold against the naked small of her back still warm from the bed. She thought of coughing or clearing her throat. But she knew the only sound that could come out of her was a scream. She bit her lip hard to keep it in and then stumbled back to her room. Her knees were about to give way. She clutched the top of the desk for support and then sat down on the swivel chair in front of the computer. Her glasses were on the desk right beside the keyboard. She put them on blindly.
She tasted salt on her lips and realized she had bitten her lip too hard and drawn blood. She took off the glasses and went and sat down on the bed. She closed her eyes but the sickening vision of her Santu in that man's arms swam up again and again threatening to bring her dinner up. How did this happen? How could this possibly happen?
She felt herself aching for her own bedroom in Calcutta with a longing that was like a sharp pain shooting down her side. She wanted the familiarity of the ceiling with the flaking plaster. And the little side table with the picture of the whole family during their vacation in Simla. And her glasses which were always near so she could reach out in the middle of the night and feel them right there. Sometimes she would stick her head in to Santu's room to see if he was all right. He would be asleep, the moonlight from the open window splashed over his upturned face. Perhaps he had been studying all evening worrying about some examination. But now he would be sleeping without a care in the world, his hand flung over a side pillow, his folded blanket kicked off the bed, in a heap on the floor. She would pick it up and put it back near his feet. And touch his forehead gently in passing - how quickly they grew. She could still remember going down the stairs with him inside her. And right at the landing he had kicked suddenly so hard, she had had to sit down on the ledge to catch her breath. "A football player, that's what my son is going to be," his father had said. She had leaned back and said, "I don't care what he is as long as he is healthy."
But not this. She had never meant this. How could this be? She wondered if she had mistaken a harmless hug without her glasses. But she knew she had seen his lips, and David's mouth on him. And his tongue - her face burned with shame as if she herself had been caught. She sat quietly at the edge of the bed not knowing what to do. Finally she heard their footsteps coming down the hallway. She heard their whispered voices and then the creak of the bedroom door shutting. She clapped her hands over her eyes to shut out the visions that crowded in.
When she woke in the morning she lay in bed for awhile wondering if she had dreamed it all. The toasters were still flying across the computer screen with their wings flapping. She lay in bed staring blankly at the ceiling wondering what to do. Whenever she had a problem she would call her sister. Nirmala was always the more levelheaded of the two of them. When the maidservant had become pregnant it was Nirmala who found out about the clinic. But Urmila knew that this time she could not turn to Nirmala. This time she had to figure it out alone. She closed her eyes wearily.
Santu had always been the perfect son. Nirmala was always telling her own son, "Learn something from Santu. Just look at him. Mother's pride." Urmila would laugh and protest half-heartedly, "Oh, you are making him sit on your head." But deep inside she would be bursting with pride. That was why even though her heart had wanted to keep him close to her, she had let him go to America. She had dreams that he would become very important. When she was preparing to come visit him, Nirmala had said, "You must be so proud." She had laughed but she was proud. Perhaps she had been too proud. Perhaps God had been laughing.
"Ma," said Santu knocking on the door. "Are you up?"
"Oh yes," she answered. "I am just getting up. I overslept." "Well hurry up. We are going to the Golden Gate Bridge today."
The first thing she saw in the kitchen was David. He was wearing his bathrobe and pouring himself a cup of coffee. She suddenly noticed how hairy his legs were under he bathrobe. She had never thought of David as a man somehow. Now she felt she could not look him in the eye.
"Good morning," he smiled. "You slept late. Do you want some tea?"
Now be calm, she thought, behave normally. There is nothing to be gained by making a scene and everything to be lost.
"Yes," she said, "a cup of tea would be nice." She felt she was reaching into some deep dark depth within herself and painstakingly dredging each word out.
"Here you go," David said smiling handing her a cup. His lips, his hands all nauseated her. But she took the cup. Her hand shook and the tea sloshed.
"Careful, it's hot," said David, putting out his hand to steady her. She shrank from his touch. At that moment Santu called from the bathroom: "David, can you get my towel? I left it in the bedroom."
"I'll get it," said Urmila quickly.
"Oh, don't worry about it. Have your tea," said David leaving the room.
Urmila wondered what she was going to do. Her carefully planned world was coming apart and she had no idea how she could stop it.
David decided not to go to the Bridge with them.
In her heart Urmila was secretly relieved. She had gotten used to his funny American English, but today she felt like she had to strain to understand anything he said. His words buzzed around her head like angry summer flies.
Santu was in a good mood all the way to the Bridge. She was quiet watching the street outside. The houses were like the painted houses on those boxes of assorted chocolates her aunt used to send from abroad. It was a lovely day with scudding white clouds and a little breeze. The car crested the hill.
"Look Ma," said Santu proudly as if he had personally designed the view for her.
She looked dutifully. It was indeed beautiful. The road just fell away in front of her running down steeply to meet the blue-green waters of the bay. She could see the white sailboats on the blue waters. The cars in the distance were like brightly colored metallic insects. The creeper snaking around the house in front of them was in bloom - the flowers a brilliant coral red. She tried to shake herself out of her stupor to look at the view and remember it so that she could describe it in her letter. But all she could think about was Santu and David.
"Santu," she said carefully, looking straight ahead. "You have your degree. You have some years experience. I hear there are fine opportunities for people like you in India. Why don't you think of coming back?"
"Ma, are you going to start on the marriage thing again?" said Santu wearily.
She pursed her lips. Then still without looking at him she said, "Santu, you are young. This is all very exciting for you. But this is not your country. Its culture, its society is different. Remember we went to Berkeley - there were some naked people in the streets. No one was saying anything. But that doesn't mean it is right. You are Indian -whether you live in America or in Calcutta. Don't try to escape that."
"You want me to go back because of the naked people in Berkeley?" chuckled Santu. "Ma, we have naked mystics in India. The Kumbh Mela is filled with them."
"Kumbh Mela is one thing. The main street of Berkeley is another. And those people on the street were hardly sadhus. And you know perfectly well what I am saying."
Santu glanced at her, startled at the sharpness in her voice. Her face was closed. Her eyes were fixed on the distance. He had never seen her like this. Even at her angriest, she always fixed her eyes on him. He did not say anything more but drove quietly towards the bridge. The bridge was crowded as usual with tourists. He parked the car and got out.
"We should get someone to take our picture," said Santu. "Maybe one of these tourists will." Urmila looked across the water at the city - shimmering in the morning light, this beautiful city that was destroying her life. She remembered sitting on the plane craning her neck to look through the clouds. Now she just wanted to be on that plane again going back to Calcutta where the earth did not move under her feet, where she knew the rules and people lived by them.
"Ma," said Santu hurrying up, "why are you walking so fast?"
She shook her head and went to the parapet looking across the water to the city - the buildings washed in the morning sunlight.
"Where is your house?" she said.
"Let's see," said Santu squinting into the light, but she was no longer looking at the city. She was looking at the mossy green slopes of the Marin headlands behind them.
When she turned around she saw Santu was looking at her quietly. The look in his face frightened her. She saw nervousness and trepidation and the flicker of fear.
"Well since you brought up the subject of going home, there are things I have been meaning to tell you for awhile," he said clearing his throat. This time it was he who was not looking at her.
"Wait," she said desperately trying to keep the panic out of her voice. "First I must tell you something." She did not know what she was going to tell him, only that she must stop him before it was too late. Because once the words were out there was no way to push them back in.
"Did you know," she said grimly holding the parapet tightly with her hands as if its presence alone prevented herself from falling headfirst into the cold water of the Bay, "that you had a little brother?"
"A little brother?" said Santu slowly, looking up.
"A year and a half after you were born I was pregnant again." "What happened to him?" said Santu.
"He died. I miscarried," she said. "I wanted so badly to give your father another child. But I never could anymore. We tried everything. But something had just dried up in me."
"Why are you telling me this now? he said.
"Because," she said meeting his eye, "you should know that you are everything we have. All our hopes, dreams, ambitions - all of it we put into you. It is not like this country, Santu. Here parents encourage their children to leave and come back once a year for Christmas. That is not our way."
"Ma, what are you talking about?"
"Santu," she said, a touch of desperation creeping into her voice, "let us just go home. What has happened has happened. It will be all right. I promise you."
That was when she realized he knew his secret was out. It seemed like all the carefully worded arguments left him. His face was taut with misery framed against the San Francisco skyline.
"All I ask," she said, "you give your father and me the peace of our last years. I asked him, 'Come to America to see your son.' He said, 'You go, I have traveled the world enough. You want to see America. You go and see how your son lives and come back and tell me.' What am I to tell him, Santu? You tell me."
"Ma," he said. "I just ."
"And what about Nirmala? What am I to tell your aunt when she asks, 'When is Santu getting married? Isn't it time he settled down?' I am the one to face the questions. It was always this way. Your father was busy with his work and meetings and conferences, you with school and degrees. I am the one left to answer the questions, to face the world."
"Ma, I wanted to explain to you...."
"There is nothing to explain. If you are my son, and if you care one bit for what we mean to you, you will know what to do. Look in your heart Santu and the answer is already there. If not for me, for your father's sake don't destroy everything with this foolish stubbornness."
"I don't want to hurt anybody, Ma. If you would just try to understand...."
"Understand?" she said bitterly. All I know is when I woke up that day in the hospital the first thing I saw was your father holding my hand. He was still wearing his suit and his shirt was all rumpled. I said, 'What happened to our baby?' And when he did not say anything, I started to cry and he stroked my hair and kept saying, Don't cry, whatever happens we have our Santu. He will be more than ten sons to us, you mark my words. Now look at this." She gestured helplessly towards him and then turned away to look at the unchanging vista of the city.
Tourists all around them looked at them curiously and then moved on. A beaming family stood next to them, their smiles frozen for the camera.
"Cheese," said the man taking the picture.
"Cheese," said the family obediently in unison.
"Ma," he said. "Please." She held up her hand in a gesture that was half plea, half admonition. Enough - it said. No more.
Santu glanced at her, then at the milling crowds around them. Then he said shortly, "Let us go home."
They drove home, the silence settling around them like the fog. He did not even turn on the music. As they drove across the Bridge, she looked at the orange girders and wondered why they called it golden. As they drove to the toll plaza she realized they never took the photos after all.
When David opened the door, he took one look at their faces and said. "Are you OK?" Santu just stalked past him and went into the bedroom and banged the door shut. David looked at her quizzically and then hurried into the bedroom.
Urmila went to the living room and sat down. She had hoped that getting it out of her system would be like lancing the boil and draining the pus. But she felt no relief. She felt her wound was out in the open now, festering.
All day she sat in the living room reading the newspaper. By late afternoon, she knew all the sale prices at Mervyn's by heart. Once she heard the microwave turn on as David heated some food.
"Why don't you have something to eat?" he said sticking his head in.
She just shook her head. After a while, she lay down on the bed. She knew she could not sleep but her eyes were heavy. She must have dozed off because when she awoke it was dark outside, the lights were on in the hallway. She ran her hand through her hair and then went towards the bathroom to wash her face. She pushed the door open and stopped short.
Standing in front of the mirror was a woman - a woman in the short black dress she had seen in the closet and black stockings. The woman was looking into the mirror and carefully drawing her eyes with eyeliner. She turned when she heard Urmila approach and she realized it was Santu. His lips were a ripe shade of glossy dark red. She stood frozen staring at him. Then he turned back to the mirror and said, "Do you need to use the bathroom?" Hearing his voice emerge from that dress was obscene. She shook her head and walked away, her heart hammering. She could not trust herself to speak.
"Be calm, Urmila," she told herself. "He is only trying to provoke you. "
She heard them getting ready, the sound of the tap water, the clatter of shoes. Then David popped his head in and said, "We are going out." She did not look up.
"Don't wait up," said Santu. Almost against her will she slowly raised her head and forced herself to look at him. He was wearing a coat so you couldn't see the dress but she could see the black stockings and the high-healed shoes.
"You are going out like that?" she said almost despite herself.
"Yes," said Santu shortly, and started down the stairs.
"Santu, wait," said David. He turned and looked at her and shrugged apologetically. Then he said, "I think he needs to get out for a bit. You should go to bed."
She sat in front of the television for awhile. Then she got up and heated some leftovers. But halfway through the meal her appetite left her. She put the remnants in a small container and put it in the back of the refrigerator. She thought of calling India but decided not to. How do you make normal conversation when your son is out walking the streets in a dress?
She slept in fits and starts. Every time she woke up she looked at the watch: 2:00, 3:00, 3:30. But still the apartment was quiet and dark. Once she even got up and went near the bedroom to see if she could hear the sound of their breathing. Hearing nothing, she carefully opened the door. The beds were empty, the moonlight streaming across the covers.
She must have dozed off in the early morning for the sound of the door opening woke her with a start. She hurried out of her room. Santu entered the apartment and quietly shut the door behind him. He turned and saw her and she gasped, all recriminations choked back. He had a bruise under one eye that made it look puffy and discolored. His hair was a mess. One of the straps of his dress was torn.
"What happened? Are you all right? Where's David?" she asked, frightened.
"We went to a bar," he said, "a gay bar. On the way back these men started calling me names. I was angry. I'd been angry all evening. I started answering back. David kept saying, 'Shut up Santu, just keep walking towards the car.' I should have just listened to him. But I was so angry and I had been drinking too much." He paused and looked at her but her face was impassive. "There were four of them. Before I knew it they had surrounded us. David said, 'Look he's drunk and upset. Just let us go.' But by then they were mad, too. One of them called me a name and punched me in the face. David struck out at them and they jumped on him - punching, kicking. Then I saw the baseball bat and I screamed. I heard David fall. Then I saw the lights of an approaching car. The man who had been kicking at David froze. I saw him in silhouette in the car's headlights. The baseball bat raised over his head. The car stopped. The guy started running. I just fell down and the pavement was cold and hard but I just wanted to sink into it. Ma, I wanted to die."
Urmila's head jerked back as if he had slapped her. Then she slowly said, "Where is David?"
"In the hospital. I think he will be OK. They want to do some more tests and take some X-rays, check for concussion. The doctor said, however, he thought he hadn't broken anything. If that car hadn't come just then, who knows what might have happened."
Urmila sat there her head swimming. "Go and change. Should we put something on your eye?"
"Can you put on some tea?" said Santu stepping into the kitchen and pouring himself a glass of water.
She looked at him bending over the sink. The black dress, the strap coming off his shoulder. The hose covering his legs. The heels. Nothing made any sense to her. In her wildest dreams she had not imagined she would be standing in the kitchen in broad daylight talking to her son in a torn black dress.
"Why do you do it? Just to spite me? Why do this to yourself ?" she asked gesturing at his torn clothes.
"Mother, I don't get beaten to spite you," Santu said tiredly.
"Look at the state you are in. Even here in your America look what they do to you. How can you live like this? To go onto the street like a woman? It is like a deathwish. Just come home Santu."
"Ma," he replied, "I'd love to talk to you about this. But right now I am too exhausted to even think. And I need to go to the hospital to see David."
"Yes, yes," she said distractedly running her hand through her hair. "I am sorry. Sit down, let me make you some tea." She filled the kettle with water and put it on the boil. He was sitting on the chair his shoulders hunched forward when she turned around. She longed to put her arms around him and feel his face buried in her sari as she shut out the world for him as she once did back home. "It's dirty," she would laugh, "you'll get turmeric stains on your face." "I don't care," he would say and bury his head deeper.
Instead she only went and stood behind him and let her hand fall tentatively on his shoulder. His shoulder tensed and she froze - the moment electric in the air. Then she felt his shoulder relax and with a little sigh he leaned back ever so slightly against her. Very gently she brought up her other hand to touch his hair. She could feel the brittle stiffness of the gel. Softly, almost hesitantly she ran her fingers through it. He closed his eyes and then with a little sigh, leaned back against her. Outside she could hear the cars. Someone banged a door. A small bird was calling insistently outside the window. But inside, the only sound was the hiss of the kettle and the beat of her heart.
"It will be all right," she whispered as much to herself as to him.