He was severely suave in a jacket with a European cut and, although the sun had set already, dark glasses in which she could see herself, convex and bulbous-headed. She felt mortified. Behind her, she knew, paint rags were strewn across the floor. A cereal bowl left by the armchair, swollen flecks of bran drowning in bluish milk. A half-eaten packet of Cheetos on the counter. Jelly jars of turpentine with brushes soaking in them on the coffee table. The canvas she'd been working on (and which was totally wrong, she knew it already) was the only thing she'd managed to put away.
"Very nice," he said, lightly touching the sleeve of her short black cocktail dress. But already he was looking beyond her at the canvases hanging on the wall.
"You didn't tell me you paint," he said accusingly.
This was true. She had told him a lot of things about herself, but they were all carefully chosen to be shielding and secondary. Her work as events coordinator in an art gallery, which she liked because the people she met had such intense opinions, mostly about other people's art. Her favorite college class, "Myth and Literature" in junior year, which she had picked quite by chance because "Interpersonal Communication" was full. The trip she took two winters back to New Zealand to stay for a few nights in a Maori village--only to discover that it had waterbeds in the more expensive rooms and a Jacuzzi strategically positioned among the lava rocks. She felt bad now about her duplicity, her reluctance to give of herself, that old spiral with her boyfriends starting again.
He'd moved close to the wall and was standing very still. It took her a moment to figure out that he was examining her brushstrokes. (But only artists did that. Was he a closet artist, too?) Finally he moved back and let out a long, incredulous breath, and it struck her that she had been holding hers as well. "Tell me about your work," he said.
This was hard. She had started painting two years ago, and had never talked to anyone about it. Even her parents didn't know. When they came for dinner, she removed the canvases from the wall and hid them in her closet. She sprayed the room with Eucalyptus Mist and lit incense sticks so they wouldn't smell the turpentine. The act of painting was the first really risky thing she had done in her life. Being at the gallery, she knew how different her work was from everything in there, or in the glossy art journals. Her technique was crude--she hadn't taken classes and didn't intend to. She would probably never amount to much. Still, she came back from work every evening and painted furiously. She worked late into the night, light-headed with the effort to remember. She stopped inviting people over. She made excuses when her friends wanted her to go out. She had to force herself to return their calls, and often she didn't. She ruined canvas after canvas, slashed them in frustration and threw them into the dumpster behind the building. She wept till she saw a blurry brightness, like sunspots, wherever she looked. Then, miraculously, she got better. Sometimes now, at 2:00 or 3:00, her back muscles tight and burning, a stillness would rise around her, warm and vaporous. Held within it, she would hear, word for word, the stories her grandmother used to tell.
Ruchira has seen her grandmother no more than a dozen times in her life, once every two or three years during summer vacation, when her parents visited India. She loves her more than she loves anyone else, more than her parents. She knows this to be unfair; they are good parents and have always done the best they can for her in their earnest, Quaker Oatmeal way. She had struggled through the Bengali alphabet, submitting to years of classes at that horrible weekend school run by bulge-eyed Mrs. Duttagupta, just so she would be able to read her grandmother's letters and reply to them without asking her parents to intervene. When a letter arrived from India, she slept with it for nights, a faint crackling under her pillow. When she had trouble making up her mind about something, she asked herself, What would Thakuma do? Ah, the flawed logic of loving! Surprisingly, it helped her, although she was continents and generations apart, in a world whose values must have been unimaginable to a woman who had been married at sixteen and widowed at twenty-four, and who had only left Calcutta once in her entire life for a pilgrimage to Badrinath with the members of her Geeta group.
Copyright 2001 by Chitra Banjeree Divakaruni. This section first appeared in the publication Prairie Schooner in Spring 2001.
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