"But the alternative--it doesn't seem to work that well, does it?" he would say later, shrugging, and she'd agree, thinking back on all the boys she had dated in college, Indian boys and white boys and black boys and even, once, a young man from Bolivia with green eyes. At a certain point they had all wanted something from her, she didn't know what it was exactly, only that she hadn't been willing--or able--to give it. It wasn't just the sex, though that too she'd shied away from. What throwback gene was it that stopped her, a girl born in America? What cautionary spore released by her grandmother over her cradle when Ruchira's parents took her to India? Sooner or later, the boyfriends fell away. She saw them as though through the wrong end of a telescope, their faces urgent or surly, mouthing words she could no longer hear.
Thumbing through her book of errors, Ruchira thinks this must be one of life's most Machiavellian revenges: one day you look back at your teenage self and realize exactly how excruciatingly clueless you were, more so even than you had thought your parents to be. And pompous to boot. Here, for example, is the quotation she'd copied out in her tight, painstaking handwriting: An unexamined life is not worth living. As if a fourteen-year-old had any idea of what an examined life was. The notion of tracking errors possesses some merit, except that her errors were so puerile, so everygirl. The time she told Marta that she thought Kevin was cute, only to have that information relayed back to her, with crude anatomical elaborations, from the walls of the girls' bathroom. The time she drank too many rum-and-cokes at Susie's party and threw up on the living room carpet. The time she believed Dr. Vikram, who wore maroon suspenders and gave her a summer job in his dental office, to be so cool--and then he made a groping pass at her.
She tosses the purple notebook onto the growing pile of things to be recycled. (Recycling mistakes, now that's a thought!) She's come to terms with misjudgments and slippages, she's resigned to the fact that they'll always be a part of her life. If there are errorless people in the world, she doesn't want to know them. She's certain they'll be eminently disagreeable. That's something else she likes about Biren--all the mistakes he has already admitted to. How he dropped out of college for a semester during his freshman year to play electric guitar with a band aptly named The Disasters. How late one night, coming back to the city from Sausalito, he gave a ride to a hitchhiker of indeterminate sex only to have him/her try to throw him/herself from the car and off the Golden Gate bridge. How, for a short time last year, he got involved with a woman who had a knife tattooed on her chest, even though he knew she did drugs.
Ruchira was shocked and enthralled. She wasn't sure why he was telling her all this. To impress her? To start clean? To gain her (or was it his own) forgiveness? Small disquiets nipped at the edge of her mind like minnows; she let them slip away. Questions filled her mouth. What had he lost by jilting Tina Turner for Standard and Poor? What had he said to the hitchhiker to stop her--Ruchira was sure it was a woman--from jumping? (He had tried to stop her, hadn't he?) What made him break up, finally, with the knife-woman?
She pushed the questions into a corner of her cheek like hard candy, saving them for later. Meanwhile, he was the most exciting man she knew. His was a geography of suicide bridges and tattoo parlors, night concert alleys and skyscrapers rising into the sky like blocks of black ice. A galaxy far, far away from the blandness of auto-malls and AMC cinemas which she'd never really escaped, not even by moving from her parents' suburban house to Berkeley. But now conjugality would confer that same excitement on her.
He saw the paintings when he came to pick her up for a concert. They'd discovered a common interest in classical Indian music, and Chaurasia was playing at the Zellerbach. She had not intended for him to come up to the apartment--she felt she didn't know him well enough. She was going to meet him downstairs when he rang the buzzer. But one of the other tenants must have let him in because here he was, knocking on her door. For a panicked moment she thought of not opening it, pretending she wasn't there, calling him later with a fabricated disaster.
Copyright 2001 by Chitra Banjeree Divakaruni. This section first appeared in the publication Prairie Schooner in Spring 2001.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
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