The woman looks up, and the light slip-slides over her hungry cheekbones. What is she hungry for? She's finished demolishing the cake, but her fingers continue to twitch. Ruchira suspects scars under the leather, puckered fang marks in the dip inside the woman's elbow, the same place she loves to kiss on Biren's arm. Where she has chewed away the lipstick, the woman's lips are papery, like palest cherry blossom. Then she speaks, an unexpected dimple appears in her cheek, and Ruchira is shocked to discover she's beautiful. "My name's Arlene," she says.
Ruchira wants to ask how she knew about her and Biren, about this apartment. Did she see them on Telegraph Avenue, perhaps, late one night, returning from a movie at the Pacific Film Archives? Did she follow them back? Did she watch from the shadows as they kissed under a streetlamp, their hands inside each other's coats? Ruchira wants to ask if she loved him, too.
But she knows enough to wait--it's a game of silences they are playing--and after a while Arlene says, "It'll be born in a month, in February." She narrows her eyes and stares as though Ruchira were a minor fact she's memorizing for a future test, one she'd rather not take.
This time Ruchira loses the game because she can't bear not to know.
"Does he know about the baby?"
Ruchira holds this new, trembling knowledge like a too-heavy blob of paint at the end of a brush, threatening to ruin the entire painting unless she finds the right spot to apply it.
"He gave me the money for an abortion. But I didn't."
Ruchira closes her eyes. The insides of her eyelids are like torn brown silk, like hundreds of birds taking flight at a killing sound. When she opens them Arlene lifts her shoulders in a shrug. The knife hilt moves up and down over the bumpy bones of her thin chest. The blade is curved in the shape of a Nepali kukri. Ruchira wonders how much it hurt to get the tattoo done, and how the tattooer knew about Nepali knives, and if Arlene ever looked in the mirror and thought of it as a mistake.
"He doesn't know I kept it," Arlene says. She grins suddenly, for the first time, with gamine charm, a kid who's just won at kickball. There's a small, neat gap between her front teeth. A famous poet--who was it?--had proclaimed gap-toothed women to be sexy. Why is it that Ruchira can never remember crucial information when she needs to?
Arlene stands up with a decisive scrape of her chair.
"Wait," Ruchira cries. "Where do you live? Do you have health insurance? Do you need money?" She reaches for her purse and digs frantically in it, coming up with all the bills she can find, ones and fives and a twenty, and extends them to Arlene.
"I'm going to Arizona," says Arlene. She doesn't offer further details. She doesn't stretch out her hand for the money. She does a little pirouette (was she a dancer, before?) and from the door she calls out, "Think of me in February, in Arizona." *****
The first thing Ruchira does after she is sure Arlene is gone is to run down the stairs to the garbage area. There it is, next to the dumpster: the blue recycling bin with its triangle of arrows. In her mind she's seeing the garbage bag, white, with a red tie, that she upended over it--was it just two days back?-- freeing a tumble of papers and books. In her mind she's already dug past the discards of other people's lives-term papers and love letters and overdue bills-to grab it. She's opened its purple cover and has started writing, she isn't done writing even when her hand begins to cramp up, she fills her book of errors all the way to the back cover and has more to put down, that's how much she's learned in this one hour.
But the bin is empty.
Ruchira leans into the wall, pressing her forehead against the fake stucco. It smells of sour milk and diapers, and its bumps leave indentations on her skin. Behind her she hears footsteps approach.
Copyright 2001 by Chitra Banjeree Divakaruni. This section first appeared in the publication Prairie Schooner in Spring 2001.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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