After her mothers death, Rumas father retired from the pharmaceutical company where he had worked for many decades and began traveling in Europe, a continent hed never seen. In the past year he had visited France, Holland, and most recently Italy. They were package tours, traveling in the company of strangers, riding by bus through the countryside, each meal and museum and hotel prearranged. He was gone for two, three, sometimes four weeks at a time. When he was away Ruma did not hear from him. Each time, she kept the printout of his flight information behind a magnet on the door of the refrigerator, and on the days he was scheduled to fly she watched the news, to make sure there hadnt been a plane crash anywhere in the world.
Occasionally a postcard would arrive in Seattle, where Ruma and Adam and their son Akash lived. The postcards showed the facades of churches, stone fountains, crowded piazzas, terra-cotta rooftops mellowed by late afternoon sun. Nearly fifteen years had passed since Rumas only European adventure, a month-long EuroRail holiday shed taken with two girlfriends after college, with money saved up from her salary as a para- legal. Shed slept in shabby pensions, practicing a frugality that was foreign to her at this stage of her life, buying nothing but variations of the same postcards her father sent now. Her father wrote succinct, impersonal accounts of the things he had seen and done: Yesterday the Uffizi Gallery. Today a walk to the other side of the Arno. A trip to Siena scheduled tomorrow. Occasionally there was a sentence about the weather. But there was never a sense of her fathers presence in those places. Ruma was reminded of the telegrams her parents used to send to their relatives long ago, after visiting Calcutta and safely arriving back in Pennsylvania.
The postcards were the first pieces of mail Ruma had received from her father. In her thirty-eight years hed never had any reason to write to her. It was a one-sided correspondence; his trips were brief enough so that there was no time for Ruma to write back, and besides, he was not in a position to receive mail on his end. Her fathers penmanship was small, precise, slightly feminine; her mothers had been a jumble of capital and lowercase, as though shed learned to make only one version of each letter. The cards were addressed to Ruma; her father never included Adams name, or mentioned Akash. It was only in his closing that he acknowledged any personal connection between them. Be happy, love Baba, he signed them, as if the attainment of happiness were as simple as that.
In August her father would be going away again, to Prague. But first he was coming to spend a week with Ruma and see the house she and Adam had bought on the Eastside of Seattle. Theyd moved from Brooklyn in the spring, for Adams job. It was her father who suggested the visit, calling Ruma as she was making dinner in her new kitchen, surprising her. After her mothers death it was Ruma who assumed the duty of speaking to her father every evening, asking how his day had gone. The calls were less frequent now, normally once a week on Sunday afternoons. Youre always welcome here, Baba, shed told her father on the phone. You know you dont have to ask. Her mother would not have asked. Were coming to see you in July, she would have informed Ruma, the plane tickets already in hand. There had been a time in her life when such presumptuousness would have angered Ruma. She missed it now.
Adam would be away that week, on another business trip. He worked for a hedge fund and since the move had yet to spend two consecutive weeks at home. Tagging along with him wasnt an option. He never went anywhere interestingusually towns in the Northwest or Canada where there was nothing special for her and Akash to do. In a few months, Adam assured her, the trips would diminish. He hated stranding Ruma with Akash so often, he said, especially now that she was pregnant again. He encouraged her to hire a babysitter, even a live-in if that would be helpful. But Ruma knew no one in Seattle, and the prospect of finding someone to care for her child in a strange place seemed more daunting than looking after him on her own. It was just a matter of getting through the summerin September, Akash would start at a preschool. Besides, Ruma wasnt working and couldnt justify paying for something she now had the freedom to do.
Excerpted from Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri Copyright © 2008 by Jhumpa Lahiri. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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