"Arlene," she calls, turning wildly, as though hoping for instructions. But it is a different woman, one of Ruchira's neighbors, who looks vaguely alarmed. She carries a Hefty bag in one hand and holds on to a little boy with the other.
"Mommy," the boy asks, "what's wrong with the lady?"
It's very late now, and Ruchira has packed everything, even the bedsheets, even the pillow. She lies down on the bare mattress and watches the shadows on the wall. She's chilled, but inside her brain it feels hot and spongy. What would you do, Thakuma? Inside her brain, her grandmother says, Why do you ask me? Can you live your life the way I lived mine? She speaks with some asperity. Or maybe it's sorrow she feels for the confused world her granddaughter has inherited. Ruchira recalls a prayer her grandmother used to chant in the mornings after her bath, in her raspy, sugarcane voice, as she waved a stick of incense in front of the brightly colored pictures on her altar. Forgive us, O Lord Shiva, all our errors, both the known and the unknown. It had seemed impossible to Ruchira that her grandmother could commit any errors. Now she knows better, but she is still unsure what those errors might have been. Errors that took your life between their thumb and forefinger, Thakuma, and crumbled it like a muffin until you were alone, separated by oceans and deserts and a million skyscrapers from the people you loved, and then you were dead. Ruchira wants to say the old prayer, but she has forgotten most of it. Does a fragmented prayer merit a fragmented forgiveness? On the wall the shadows move like sleepy birds. If there really were a kalpa taru, what would she wish for?
She had called Biren at home and got his answering machine. But how could you tell a machine, You lousy jerk, you son of a bitch, forget about the wedding? How could you explain to metal and plastic why you needed to grasp the promises a man had made to you and break them across the middle, snap-snap, like incense sticks?
At his work, his secretary informed her he was at a lunch meeting. Could she call back in an hour?
No, she could not. She rummaged through her phone book. Here it was, his cell phone number, written in his expansive, looped hand.
On this machine, his voice sounded huskier, sexy in a businesslike way. Against her will, she found herself listening as he asked people to leave a message at the tone. But the tone didn't come on just yet. Instead, the voice said, "And in case this is Ruchira, I want you to know I'm crazy about you."
There were three short, impatient beeps. She held the phone pressed to her ear until the machine disconnected her. He hadn't informed her about that voice mail greeting, which was a kind of public avowal of his love. He trusted that one day, at the right time, she would find out.
Was that trust enough to outweigh a lifetime of imagining, each time she kissed Biren, that Arlene's papery lips had bloomed there already? He had never pretended Ruchira was his first. How could she blame him for a past he had admitted to right at the start, just because it had come to her door wearing a pierced eyebrow, an implosive, elfish smile? And the baby, smooth and oval in its ivory sheath, its head pushing up against the echo of a knife. The error its father had paid to erase. She couldn't blame Biren for that either. Could she?
She won't tell Biren about Arlene and the baby. Ruchira knows this as she watches the shadows detach themselves from her walls to flap their way across the ceiling. And she won't be sad for him. The baby, she means. A boy. She knows this inside herself as surely as though she were his mother. A boy--she whispers this to herself--named Arizona. There are many ways in the world to love. With luck he'll find one. And with luck Ruchira will, too. But what is she thinking? She already loves Biren. Isn't that why all evening she has been folding and stuffing and tearing strips of tape and printing words on brown cartons in aggressive black ink? Books: living room. China: dining alcove. Their lives are already mixed, like past and future, promise and disappointment, linseed oil and turpentine. Like the small exhalations of birds on a wish-fulfilling tree. Maybe they can be separated, but she doesn't have the expertise for it, even if she wanted to. Marriage is a long, hobbled race, learning the other's gait as you go, and thanks to Arlene she has a head start.
Copyright 2001 by Chitra Banjeree Divakaruni. This section first appeared in the publication Prairie Schooner in Spring 2001.
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