In September, Anita left Mark for New York. She wrote out instructions for Maya, packed two bags, and took a taxi to Hopkins Airport in Cleveland. From there, she flew to LaGuardia. Ohio spread below like a checkerboard of green and brown. Then, a battleground of gray towers. It was only for two weeks. Two weeks that permitted, no matter how fleeting, the smallest thrill of betrayal.
The key, as Sohini had promised, was with the doorman who, with his gray suit and fixed stare, made Anita feel shabby. She gave him her name, signed the visitor’s register, and as she hustled her duffle bag and carry-on into the elevator, was distinctly aware of him watching her struggle.
The last time she had stayed with Sohini was somewhere else—downtown perhaps. Sohini was always moving, changing neighborhoods, the way one might change one’s wardrobe when it got boring or fell out of fashion. Mark and Anita had lived in the same house on Beaumont Road for as long as they had been together. Eight years and they had never bothered to paint the kitchen. She didn’t mind the flaking walls anymore. She had long come to an understanding with them. There was something about living among acres of land and under wide blue skies that felt fixed and settled.
She unlocked the door to the apartment and set the keys down on the entry table. They tumbled out of her hand and skated across the smooth surface. Quickly she picked them up, worried they had scratched the polished mahogany. At least, that is what she thought such wood was called. Whenever nice furniture was described in magazines, they always said mahogany. She knew because she used to stare at the pictures, then discreetly, without Mark noticing, search the pages for their prices, which were always written in the smallest of fonts at the very bottom.
When they first moved into that house on Beaumont, Mark constantly told her it was better to buy from flea markets—there were decent, solid pieces, reasonably priced, that only had to be sanded down or waxed or distressed. “We don’t want some factory-made, overpriced thing,” he would say. He had hair back then, long and straight, that always strayed on the sides. But everything else about him was contained: the way he ate (he cut everything into the smallest of pieces); his words (he rationed them just like his food, and sometimes Anita blabbed on just to get a satisfactory response out of him). Even the white T-shirt he always wore hung from his lean frame with austere athleticism.
The foyer of Sohini’s apartment opened out on both ends and Anita followed it to the left, which led her into the living room. The south-facing wall was entirely windowed, with blue fabric shades, Roman shades they were called, that ballooned at the bottom. She had wanted shades like those, not in blue but in a pale yellow and not rounded at the bottom but straight. She had seen them in the Country Curtains catalog.
Mark had said no. He had said, “Imagine how stupid they’d look in our living room with the metal futon and the scratched-up table.”
“Why would they look stupid?”
“Because you can’t do up half the room and not the rest.”
“What’s wrong with that? It’s kind of nice to have one good thing. It’s like wearing pretty underwear beneath track pants.”
Mark didn’t think that was funny. He didn’t think there was any point in wearing pretty underwear either. So Anita brought back curtains from India. The pillowcases were from there, too. It was true they never had much of a budget to work with, but she was proud that she managed, in her way, to make do.
This house was not, like hers, a collage of salvaged fabrics. Every surface in the living room was covered with photo frames and ornaments and books and bowls. It was the sort of room Anita saw in the home magazines. Sohini’s house in Calcutta was like this as well, only larger. She used to be scared of that house, of the large dining room, with its wood panels and crystal chandeliers and oil paintings. It felt old, and she thought ghosts hid behind the walls.
They used to play a game called Dark Room in there—hide-and-seek with all the lights turned off. Sohini always made her the first seeker. Anita didn’t dare argue because even back then her friend had a temper. If Sohini was upset, she wouldn’t speak for days and Anita would have to lure her back with little apology notes passed in class. When it was her turn, she stood outside the mirrored doors of the dining room with her eyes closed. Instead of counting till one hundred, she chanted the prayer her grandmother had taught her. From the other side she would hear little coughs, a hush, the sputter of Sohini’s clutched laughter. Then she’d open the doors and plunge herself into the deep dark room.
She parked her bags in a corner, where they looked more worn-down against the plump, upholstered sofa. They were coated in years of filth, collected while moving from one apartment to another, being hauled up endless flights of stairs, and now from the baby, who staked her claim on every conceivable surface. At the thought of Maya, Anita felt the prick of guilt. Not for having left but for failing to mourn in the ways mothers were meant to mourn the absence of their children.
On the other side of the long hallway, past the entry, was a door that led to a bathroom. She went inside, and her eyes fixed on the Jacuzzi tub. Somewhere, at the back of her head, she could hear Mark’s voice. “Annie, baths are such a waste of water. There’s nothing wrong with a shower-stall. They’ve got perfectly good water pressure and are a breeze to clean.” He would not say this sternly but rather explain it to her, the way she might explain the sun and the moon to Maya.
A subtle fragrance in the air, like a mild afternoon wind that carried with it the smell of summer flowers. A spa, a tepidly heated massage bed, the serenade of ambient music, all wrapped in a shawl of lavender. Perhaps she would go for a massage in the city, before Mark and Maya came. It had been so long since she had pampered herself.
Past the bathroom was another door. On it, a sticky-note addressed to her:
This is your room. Make yourself at home. Your bathroom is down the hallway and I’ve kept out your towels. Kitchen’s a bit empty unfortunately but feel free to help yourself to whatever you want. I’ll be back from my trip late evening (flight lands at eight) and then we have some much needed catching up to do.
Catching up. How exactly would they do that? She could summarize her life in a few sentences: What have you been up to? Oh nothing. I wake up and feed Maya. We play. She takes naps. She wakes and I feed her again. In between I read catalogs and magazines that Mark doesn’t approve of. In the evening he comes home and goes straight to his desk. Then I take the dildo to the bathroom.
So much had happened over the years. She and Sohini had kept in touch at first—there were intermittent emails, a phone call every few months, a visit when possible. But it wasn’t like the old days, when they skipped school together and gave boys coded nicknames, or even much later, when they both moved to America for college and visited each other during breaks. Mostly it was Anita who came to New York, where Sohini studied, from her college town of Delaware. Delaware, Ohio—you could squeeze that name like stale lemon and nothing would come out. The woman at the Port Authority ticket counter once said, “I’m sorry, we don’t go there.” But Anita told her she was wrong. She told the woman that the bus did indeed go there—from New York to Cleveland, where she would change to a bus to Columbus, and finally to a third that went to Delaware.
For some years after high school, it was Anita who updated their alumni magazine with news of Sohini’s Fulbright and her internship at the Wall Street Journal. But these days the only regular news she heard of her friend came from the Huffington Post and other snippets she found. She gathered her friend had switched firms and now headed a small digital media company, that she had launched an online magazine and bought over a news site. There were also the pictures she found online. (It was amazing what one could find on the internet, given a few empty hours.) She wasn’t sure at first. They looked like someone else dressed as her friend. From the face up she was Sohini, but she wore clothes cut at strange angles and shoes that made Anita’s feet hurt just looking at them. She had never realized clothes made such a difference.
In some, there were men—various men—arms locked, lips locked. When was Sohini not locked with a man?
One of them Anita knew: Derek, who looked the youngest of the lot. He still had dark hair and his middle hadn’t started to mound as other men’s had. Although he wasn’t so young, Sohini once told her. He was past 50, but the sex was still amazing. He had taken her on an impromptu trip to Morocco. They had packed an overnight bag and gone, just like that.
Anita rummaged through her handbag, which was filled to the brim with her toothbrush, toothpaste, face wash, all the things that hadn’t fit in her luggage. She dug out her phone and dialed Mark’s number. “Hey,” she said when he answered in his familiar, unhurried speech.
“Hey. Missing me already, huh?”
“No. It’s not that,” she said, somewhat stiffly. Mark had told her right from the start that she wouldn’t be able to stay away from them. He had said they should just bite the bullet and move to the city together and use their saving while they both hunted for new jobs. It would only be for a month, two at the most. But he hadn’t thought things through. In spite of all his good sense, he never considered the real practical matters. Medical costs were far higher in New York, and they weren’t on friendly terms with any doctors here, as they were with their pediatrician in Columbus. What if something happened to the baby? Besides, in Delaware, they had Greta and Joy and Carrie and Dennis, the sort of community living she at one time had longed for—in the same way she had always dreamed of sitting by an evening fire, with a shawl over her lap. No one had told her then that her fires would be all smoke and ash.
Anita had insisted that Mark stay back with Maya, in Columbus. She said he should continue working at the bookshop while she prepared for her job interview and tried to sort out their living situation. Once the bookshop closed down and his position was officially terminated, he and Maya could join her. Hopefully by then she would have found something.
They had discussed things and he knew how important it was for her to find the right situation this time—a career, not just a job—perhaps working at a small nonprofit or, if she was lucky, at a gallery or museum. She didn’t want to be stuck working as an admin again—filing, typing, those sort of jobs. She told Mark she couldn’t do it anymore, live in quiet submission, away from people and the noise of a city. She was a city girl after all, born and raised in Calcutta. She told him that her emotional well-being was important for their future, even if it meant making small sacrifices now. They had been considering moving to New York for some time now. Then came the announcement that the bookshop would close, and they knew it was time to make a big change.
Mark’s voice hummed over the phone, like an old, scratchy song turning on a record player.
“Did Maya have all her food this morning?” she asked.
“Mostly. She didn’t like the carrots. She spit them on the floor.”
“She always does that with carrots.”
“She doesn’t like them.”
“No. She doesn’t like them at all.”
“But you could try mixing them with apple-sauce,” she added. “She loves that”
“Apple-sauce,” Mark repeated, slowly. He may have been writing it down. He had a bad memory and she always made him write out lists. Once she even made him a list of all the things she wanted him to do in bed. But he looked at her with disgust and said that’s not what he was—a toy that turned on and off at her bidding.
What else? What else could she talk of now? She was tired of talking about baby food. She wanted to talk about other things, real things, the way Sohini spoke of her travels to Frankfurt or Rome, her new paramour, whoever that was now, the fifteen-course dinner they had on the closing night of some restaurant in Southern Spain that served a cup of halibut tea, frog’s leg in a wine glass, a little piece of beef beneath a silver dome of smoke, and who should be sitting near her and have a conversation with her but Sir Simon Rattle.
“Who’s Sir Simon Rattle?”
“He’s a conductor.”
“What did he do?”
“He conducts the Berlin Philharmonic.”
That was three years ago, when Anita was last in New York. On that trip, she had confessed to her friend that she and Mark were not having as much sex as she would like. She hadn’t meant to talk about that, but after the second glass of wine, it somehow felt right.
“We do have sex of course,” Anita had added, “It’s just not the same as before. He’s always writing at night and even when we do get it on, it’s a bit perfunctory.”
To her relief, Sohini didn’t round her eyes and lower her voice to a ribbon-like whisper and say, “Really?” She shook her head tragically and told her she knew all about complacent marriages. She had heard this story so many times.
“Yes, sex is important,” she said. “You just need a good fuck now and again, you know?”
They were at a restaurant on the fiftieth floor of a building. The room was dark. The stars and lights outside the panoramic windows almost seemed to meld with the walls, and she felt as though she were floating.
“Yes.” Anita had said. “Yes, that’s what I need. A good fuck. I should tell Mark that. I should just say, ‘Mark, fuck me.’”
“And then, you know, there are accessories,” Sohini said. She also said that older men didn’t like women to shave down there.
“Really? Not even the bikini line?”
“Trust me. They prefer it natural!” She leaned forward and lowered her voice as she said this. “And of course, they’re way better in bed than younger guys. You should really get yourself one.” She made it sound as easy as shopping for sex toys online.
That was the last time the two had met. Then Maya was born and her life spiralled somewhere else. Sohini couldn’t make it for the rice ceremony—she was on a business trip to Hong Kong––but she sent a gold locket. On Maya’s first birthday, she couriered a tricycle.
“Annie, you there? You’re really quiet.”
“Sorry. I was just thinking. I should go now. I just got here,” she said. “Call me later, after you put Maya to bed, OK?”
“OK, OK. I said OK.”
“I was just making sure.”
“Bye Annie. And please don’t drive yourself crazy. We’re doing fine.”
“I know, I know.” She sighed loudly.
She pictured Mark giving their daughter a bath that night, reading to her, turning the lights off and the blinds down. Not that he didn’t help with those things when she was there. He did. They shared all the household duties. He was truly amazing. Her rock. No, her coconut tree––bald and simple.
She was lucky to have found Mark. She really was. She had friends whose husbands never lifted a finger. But without her around, Mark and Maya might develop a new kind of closeness. Her daughter might start using new words, Mark might make up a new game for them to play, Maya might squeal and run around the park as he chased her—something that Anita’s lack of physical abilities (that and the fact that she had been somewhat sluggish in shedding her maternity weight) had prevented her from doing.
But this was also what she wanted. Mark said she was conflicted but all she really needed was a little time. Soon, everything would be normal again.
“Talk later,” Mark said, the words stretched, lethargic, a pace that promised, in its own way, that everything would turn out fine. Everything did in fact always turn out fine. But only because Anita worked hard at it. She worked hard at finding a job in the HR department of a law firm in Columbus, not one she enjoyed but at least one with decent benefits. She made monthly budgets when Mark went part-time so he could focus on his writing. She rationed their outings, resisted urges to buy new clothes, learned to drive so she could get to her old university in Delaware, where she used her alumni discount to take fitness classes. When New York became a real possibility, she looked for jobs online and proofed her cover letters over and over and even pleasured herself in the bathroom on those nights she knew Mark was not in the mood. She was proud of it. Life could never defeat her, she was a fighter, and everything became more bearable once she had Maya. Although it had been just three years, Anita couldn’t remember a life before motherhood. She had no regrets. She really didn’t. In fact, if anything, she should have had her earlier.
Sohini’s building was on the Upper West Side. You walked out and turned left and came up to the chaos of Broadway. There was an organic market at the corner, with yellow, green, and orange fruits and buckets of lilies, roses, tulips, daisies, and carnations overflowing in bins. She walked ahead, through the din of traffic criss-crossing the two-way avenue and the heavy artillery of construction. One block over, Amsterdam Avenue was lined with restaurants with foreign names and outdoor seating and umbrellas over which the evening sun scattered.
A little boutique on the corner of 82nd Street caught Anita’s attention—the window was dressed in pink wallpaper and filled with mannequins with multicolored hair, wearing black clothes and platform boots. It stood out from the other neighborhood shops, which sold khaki coats and tapered pants and lace-trimmed children’s wear. She stopped in front of it. Not the sort of clothes she typically wore. But window-shopping wasn’t about looking at what you had in mind. It was looking for what you could never imagine.
There was one dress that she thought she could potentially wear. The skirt was ordinary and long, ending just below the knee of the mannequin. It would come farther down on her smaller frame. It opened out into a wide ‘A’ line that she imagined would hide her gradually expanding hips. What gave the dress an edge, the right to be displayed alongside the leather pants and corsets, was its top—a tight halter-necked bodice showing off a large portion of the back, with a thin vinyl strap with a gold buckle.
She was tempted to go into the store but stopped herself. She reminded herself that all these clothes were made somewhere in Bangladesh or South America, were produced and shipped in bulk. They didn’t hold the intrigue of time and memory that one found at vintage stores. Besides, that dipping neckline was too low.
She walked on. She walked three more blocks and came up to the burgundy awning of a restaurant. Through its tinted windows, votives swayed above white linen, and behind them were the shadows of dancing bodies. It was Friday evening. The weekend had begun.
Anita looked down in dismay at her own attire—nondescript blue jeans, a T-shirt that hung frumpily on her body, a brown bag picked up after much haggling with a street vendor. She might as well have worn an I LOVE NY cap. Somewhere along Amsterdam there must be a pizza joint, Chinese take-out. As she looked for someplace more suitable, she walked in what must have been circles, down side streets that tunnelled endlessly, shadowed by the spread of honey locusts and willows that gave the fleeting impression of something serene, then back around to the gray, concrete discord of the avenue. Windows lit up. Restaurants glowed with candles. The sky turned pink, but a different sort of light took over the city. Soon, she was back in front of the shop with pink wallpaper. Her feet were heavy and hot. Now, in the dusk, the neckline of the dress didn’t look so bad at all.
She lightly pushed the door open. A bell chimed. The woman behind the register looked up, tentatively, as though she didn’t want to unsettle the bright blue wig and silver tiara balanced on her head.
“Hey there,” she said. Her voice, at first husky, then ending on a high note, sounded as though it had been resting for some time. Anita thought she must have walked into a Halloween shop. But it was too late. The woman had looked up. She browsed the racks, running her fingers lightly over every item, suggesting that she was considering each of the black dresses and lace tops and vinyl corsets. Finally she found the black dress she had seen in the window. It looked much narrower than it did on the mannequin, but Anita couldn’t help herself from searching for the price.
“We’re having a sale,” the woman said. “That whole rack is 50 percent off.” Her voice had finally found its happy medium. Anita nodded. Another minute and it would be OK to leave.
“Why don’t you try it?”
“Oh no, that’s OK. I was just looking.”
“Really. Just try it.”
“No, that’s fine. Thank you.”
The blue-haired woman came out from behind the register. She wore leopard-print leggings under a short black skirt. Her legs—thick and sturdy.
“There’s nothing wrong with just trying. Really. What size are you? A medium?” Anita wanted to say “small,” but the truth was, she hadn’t fit into anything small since Maya was born.
“Let me see. Look. That’s a medium,” the woman said. She held out the dress over her own body and twirled gaily, as if all day long she’d wanted to do just that.
“No really, that’s OK.”
“Tsk,” the woman shook her head. “You see what’s written on my shirt? Read it. Come on now. Read it. Don’t be shy.”
“It’s all about me,” Anita read out loud.
“Now read the back.”
“I forgot about you.”
“You see that?” the woman said. “It’s all about you, girl. When was the last time you said that? Now I know you like that dress. I can see it in your eyes.”
The dress was even tighter than what Anita had expected, especially around the hips. But that, in fact, made the fabric cling to her butt, which she knew was her asset. (Mark used to say so.) From the front, it was demure and simple. Only when she turned around was the open back fully exposed and the vinyl strap with the little gold buckle visible; it nestled behind her neck like a secret. She imagined how Mark would respond. He wouldn’t make her return it of course, or say anything openly negative. He might say very nice, in the same way he said Hollywood movies or her friend, Sohini.
But Mark didn’t know anything about friendships. About loyalty and trust and lifelong ties that knew no formalities. They might not have spoken in a year, or seen each other in three, but their friendship, as always, would pick up where they’d left off. Sohini was the first person she could approach if she were ever in need.
“So? What do you think?” the blue-haired woman asked from outside the changing room. “It’s fifty percent off, so it’s only $85.”
Over the next two weeks, she and Sohini would do all the things they’d done together in the past––go to restaurants serving fusion cuisine, to bars with blue lights and cocktails in martini glasses, perhaps even to a party that Sohini was invited to.
“There’s tax of course, but it’s still an incredible bargain.”
She could wear this dress out one night. She could keep the tag on and return it afterward. They could both dress up as they used to. Right up to their hair. Wouldn’t that be something?
The blue-haired woman folded the dress in pink tissue and put a little pink sticker on the top. She threw in a box of blue eye shadow and winked. “That’s for you honey, for helping me to reach the day’s target. Now I can close the store early.”
The sun had slipped behind the tall buildings. Darkness fell, gradually, and then all at once. People were heading out for dinner—in pairs, in groups, arm in arm. Conversations churned the air. A girl stopped outside the shop. She was talking loudly into her phone.
“What do you think?” she said. “He went for more booze of course . . . three vodkas so far. And a pretzel . . . God! It’s way steamy out here. I’m a bit drunk.” She giggled. “Just one but you know how I get with just a glass of wine . . . yes, he is . . . yes, I hope so too . . . his place, we’re right here . . . I hope he makes a pretzel out of me.”
Anita stopped the blue-haired woman, as she was about to put the dress in a shopping bag. “You know what? I’d like to wear that dress right now, if that’s OK.”
The restaurant was French, a name she wanted to pronounce as “cute” but she knew it wasn’t that. It was probably “cue.” Or worse. She was probably way off. It wasn’t the kind of name she was used to seeing—Le Chateau for example. Everybody knew how to say that. It was still early for dinner in New York, but many of the tables were filled. Waiters swerved between the dark wood furniture with trays tucked under their arms. The lights were turned low and the cutlery shone under the candles. The hostess, who was standing near the bar, looked up from her reservations book and smiled—not the generous kind, which she probably saved for the prime-time clientele and regulars, but with a certain reserve, possibly directed at the stragglers who walked in with no one.
“Are you waiting for someone?” she asked.
“No. No, it’s just me.”
She was led to the far side of the room, the part that was mostly unoccupied, where tables of two were set against the wall, like the empty side of a stadium. A menu was brought over and set down. While she read through it, Anita couldn’t help but notice the two waiters hovering to her side. Her back felt cold. She shook out her hair to cover it. She had thought once she sat down she would feel better, but if anything, the clanking of glasses, of forks against plates, the grating of chairs and raised conversations from the other, busier side, heightened their absence from her end. Getting up and leaving would look more absurd.
Instead of appetizers, the menu had something called amuse-gueules. She supposed they were appetizers because they were the only things within her price range—grilled calamari with fennel, country paté, some kind of a dish with baked Brie, a large selection of salads. Everything else was quite exorbitant. Far more than what Mark and she were used to at Le Chateau.
It had been some time since Anita had indulged herself with a good dinner. When they first met, Mark used to frown on her unhealthy Indian diet, which consisted chiefly of fried potatoes and spiced curries. He encouraged her (in his wonderfully gentle and inspiring way) to try healthier things, such as steamed squash and tofu. She had grown to enjoy that sort of food—which she discovered was excellent for digestion—just as she had grown to love the weathered and beaten dresser they had purchased from Rick’s Antiques and even reading the New Yorker. Mark said it was the only magazine worth spending money on. They took turns reading their subscription copy and afterward, at night, when Maya was asleep, discussed some of the articles. Mark always shared his insights, taught her new things—a new writer, new ways of understanding a topic. Last week they had discussed the fiction, a story by someone—a man—she was forgetting the name now. She felt badly, because she remembered that Mark admired the writer. But she could never keep all those names straight.
“Have you read this story, Annie? He’s one of my favorite writers,” Mark had said.
“Yes, I did. I loved it.”
“Oh yeah? Really?” Mark sat up. Anything about literature excited him. Sometimes, it seemed to Anita, he was more aroused by Baldwin and Borges than by breasts. “What did you think? What did you like about it?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. Her voice became softer and a little more hesitant with the burden of having to prove herself. “It was . . . you know . . . touching.”
“You found it touching?”
“Well no. Not touching exactly. But it moved me.”
“See,” Mark slumped back on his easy chair and she sensed that she had let him down again. “I didn’t love the story in itself. I actually think it was slightly flawed. Something about the beginning and the end just didn’t connect. You know? It felt like two stories grafted together. It’s hard, I can tell you—to get thirty years down in twenty pages.”
After some thinking, Anita said, “I like the way he looks at things.”
“An artist’s sensibility,” Mark said, using the sort of voice he did with some of the people that came into his bookshop—not patronizing, really, or preachy, but as if he were rehearsing for his future teaching career.
After some deliberation, Anita finally decided on the escargot. A good, economical choice, she thought. Not the cheapest, but reasonable enough, and far more exciting than salad.
It was what lovers popped into each other’s mouths. Why did she just think that? She wasn’t sure. Something about the rolling of the r in escargot felt sensuous and illicit.
The waiter had forgotten to take the wine list back. Or perhaps he had intentionally left it behind. Anita flipped through it. While she was on the path of self-indulgence she might as well go all the way. She summoned the waiter.
“Could I get a glass of red wine, please?” she whispered.
“Sorry? What?” He leaned closer.
She looked to her left, then to her right. “Red wine. You know . . .” she whispered again, a little louder this time.
“Any particular kind?” he asked and she wished he would lower his voice.
She looked through the list again. None of the names meant anything to her. “Merlot,” she said, because it was what she usually drank. When she did. Mark wasn’t much of a drinker. She loved wine. But it wasn’t so fun to drink alone.
Several other people had come in, and her section of the room was starting to get busy. She hadn’t realized before how closely the tables were set together, with barely a few inches between them. She was the only one who sat alone, separated from the din of the room, against the wall, in exile. Her wine arrived and she took a sip right away.
It felt good. It felt right.
“Excuse me,” a voice said from behind.
“Oh sorry.” She pulled her chair closer to make room. A man passed through and sat at the table to her left. They were seated so close that if she moved a little to the side, her dress would touch the leg of his chair, or their arms might accidentally rub. But she couldn’t see his face. In order to do so, she’d have to turn deliberately in his direction.
All she could see were his white sleeves, which rested on the menu but didn’t open it; all she could hear was a voice that spoke in the lowest octave, saying something to the waiter who took the menu and went away. Then he got up and reached in his leather bag, which was on the other chair, across from him, and she thought—what a fine ass he has.
Eventually, unable to bear it any longer, she circled her neck as if stretching it and gave the room a brief survey. She hadn’t noticed the wrought iron candelabras hanging from the ceiling before. Or the white flowers on every table. Le Chateau had roses. She never did like roses. They smelled too sweet. As she turned her head, she let her eyes slide over the next table as though it was just one more thing.
Their eyes met and the man smiled at her, an acknowledgement that they were two fellow diners, eating by themselves on a Friday night. The lines on the sides of his face—dark; his hair combed back from his wide, receding forehead. He looked good in his white shirt. Another button undone would have been better. Then he’d look quite dashing, in a Sohini’s old lover sort of way.
He flipped pages as if he were looking for a bullet point––a bunch of papers held together in a black clasp. A business brief? Manuscript? She wished she had a magazine. There was something so desperate about a woman eating dinner by herself on a weekend night. Or she should have waited for Sohini’s flight to land. If Sohini were here, she’d have started a conversation with the man already. Actually, she wouldn’t even need to. He’d be the one to say something first. And then she’d start on her questions, like running water. She’d ask him what he did. When he told her he was a corporate lawyer at Wells Fargo, she’d ask him how their East Coast expansion had worked out. She knew something about everything. They’d talk the whole night and every once in a while she’d look at Anita and say, “Don’t you think so?” There’d come a time when it might seem quite outrageous that Anita had considered him at all.
While he read, the man reached for his wine without looking up. Her own wine was done. She might as well get another glass. She raised her hand to call for the waiter.
A few minutes later, the busboy carried out her escargot. Instead of bringing it to her, he served it to the man who looked up, puzzled.
“I think that’s mine,” Anita said.
“Oh. Sorry.” The busboy took it around.
“New guy,” the man said, shaking his head when the busboy left. “They always get these stupid new guys.”
She laughed and looked away. Why did she do that? She always did that.
The man was back to reading. He flipped a black pen in his hand like a baton. His heel tapped against the floor.
“Well, you know, we single diners . . . we probably all look the same,” she laughed.
Alone. That’s what she had meant.
“Right,” he said.
“You probably thought it was on the house or something.”
He nodded and smiled and looked down at his work. His cheeks were shadowed. She had always preferred Mark’s smooth baby cheeks, but the prospect of coarse bristles made her hair stand up. She felt better now—the confidence that comes after a glass of wine, in new surroundings and a backless dress. The escargot was warm and slippery in her mouth.
“This is good.”
The man still had his head down but she knew he was aware of her, in the same way she knew the bartender and the old woman at the table in front had noticed that she was sitting alone.
“It’s really delicious.”
“Sorry?” he looked up. “Were you saying something?”
“The escargot. It’s very good.” “Yes . . . yes.”
“It’s very detectable.”
The man’s eyebrows dipped together like the arms of a bow.
“I mean delectable.”
“The flavors are very . . . interesting.”
“Uh, yes. They like to be a little innovative here.”
“Yes. Very innovative,” she said. Her voice had started to do that jumpy sort of thing. She needed to stop getting so excited. Mark always said she got excited easily. Oh, Mark.
She dipped bread into the sauce at the bottom of the plate. It dripped on the table and she dabbed it with her napkin. She folded the napkin over so the stain was hidden and put it back on her lap. She pulled it to the left to make it even. Then a little to the right. The man was still flipping pages.
“Your food is taking quite long,” she said.
He looked up again and exhaled strongly—like a bull. No, a wild horse. A fuming stallion.
“Well, I think that’s just the steak being cooked—they usually take a while,” he said.
He pursed his lips, as though he wanted to smile more fully but circumstances prevented him—a wife, a marriage that had run its course. She imagined he spent many hours at this restaurant, wading in his sea of papers, in order to avoid returning to the perdition of the four walls that had caved in on his life. He couldn’t leave because of the children—duties, promises––she knew how that worked. Somewhere in his eyes, she saw a quiet grieving.
She took another sip of wine. She’d almost finished the second glass. Something was rising up through her abdomen. If she closed her eyes, she could feel it moving up her chest, lifting her as though she was tied to the wings of a thousand birds. She swept her hair to one side and leaned forward. Her hand brushed against the gold buckle behind her neck.
She felt at any given moment anything could happen to change her life forever. She leaned over and whispered, “I think it’s because we’re sitting alone, you know? I think there’s some conspiracy against single diners.”
“Um, yeah, sure,” he said. He lowered his head again and turned pages briskly.
The room was buzzing. She could feel her eyes glaze and tried to focus on something steady, the wall. There was a ceramic plate hanging on it. A blue ship set out on the sea with its sails swollen in the wind, its oars swiping through the water. It wasn’t a pirate ship. Majestic towers rose over its masts and flags blew merrily in the wind. A happy ship, on its way to an adventure.
If she stayed like this, as though with blinders on either side of her face, then it wasn’t so bad. Everything around her went away and the buzz faded and she felt as if she were the only one in the restaurant. And the miserable man. She felt a certain responsibility toward him, to show him that the future was long and uncertain and it was on this prospect of uncertainty that they must thrive. She leaned closer.
“You want to try some?”
“Escargot. Try some.”
“Ah . . . no. That’s fine. Thank you.”
“Really, try some. Just dip some bread in the sauce.”
“I have my steak coming, but thank you for your offer.”
“Seriously. I don’t mind.”
“Well, if you change your mind, I’m right here. I mean, it’s right here.”
“Um, yeah,” he said.
“Yeah.” She took another swig of the merlot. She should have drunk more slowly because now she had to go to the restroom. The weight of the wine had settled in her pelvis. She got up and smoothed out her dress and made sure she walked around her table and passed in front of him. Without looking up, he pulled the table closer towards him to make room. She knew he’d do that.
“I’m just going to the restroom,” she said. She didn’t need to say it but she wanted to. Wanted to let him know that she wasn’t abandoning him. As she walked away, she could feel his eyes light up her body.
If Sohini were here, they’d have both gotten up together. While Anita went into the toilet, Sohini would lean forward and suck in her cheeks and examine her face in the mirror. Then she’d stand back and examine her full body. Before Anita was done, she’d say she was going back out—her shoulders pulled back, her hips swaying. They wouldn’t giggle or gossip as other girls did. They’d leave all that for later, when they went home. Just as they would tonight. Only an hour now. Well, perhaps two, there might be traffic.
She opened her bag to take out her lipstick and saw the green light on her phone winking surreptitiously from its cubby. Mark! She had forgotten all about him. On a blanched Columbus night her husband was calling to let her know that he’d put their child to sleep and turned the phone on silent and drawn the curtains and switched off all the main lights and was about to retreat on his easy chair for the next two hours with Anna Karenina (he was rereading Tolstoy lately).
It wasn’t Mark. It was Sohini. “Darling. It’s me,” she said on the message. “I’m really sorry but I won’t be able to make it tonight. I have to stay here a little longer. I might be back next week sometime, I’m not sure. Something’s come up. I’m really sorry. But don’t let that change your plans. Stay as long as you need to. Make yourself at home. If you need anything ask the doorman. My cleaning lady will come day after. She’ll look after the house so you don’t have to worry about a thing. And to make it up, I’ve booked you a day at the Bliss Spa in Midtown. I insist. Really. Once you settle in, call them to make an appointment. They have my card. Bye. I miss you.”
She shouldn’t be disappointed. This wasn’t Sohini’s fault after all. But now what was she to do with the dress? Or the evenings she’d set aside? The long trip from Columbus felt so pointless. She wondered where Sohini was. Burying her red toes in hot sand? Or sitting at the back of an open-air Jeep while a balmy wind tousled her hair? Or maybe in a striped suit, sitting on a leather chair at a board meeting in San Francisco. Sooner or later, Anita would find out. She’d find pictures on a blog, an article in Condé Nast Traveler, perhaps some comments or a link on a mutual friend’s Facebook profile. She’d sit on her bed, poring over every little detail until she imagined that Sohini herself had told her all of it. This was how they had remained close throughout the years, even though they’d never met up. This is how they’d always stay in each other’s lives—acquainted just enough so that they never slipped into an obscure acquaintanceship. The internet was an incredible thing.
Before going out, Anita retouched her lipstick, smoothed her hair, and practiced her smile—she mustn’t show her teeth when she went back out. She had to remember that. Refined women always smiled demurely, with little show of anything. She rehearsed her smile again. One more time. There, that was the one. She reasoned that if she bought herself some time, the man’s steak might arrive and they might finish dinner at exactly the same time. Nothing came for free in life. One had to create opportunities. She knew that. If she coordinated this exit well, on their way out of the restaurant the man would hold the door open for her. She would wait for a taxi, even though Sohini’s apartment was nearby. He’d ask her where she was going.
“Oh a little ways off,” she would say. A well-told lie was necessary, not a crime.
He’d say he’d just finished working on a big case and was going down to Gramercy.
“I’m staying with a friend,” she’d say.
“You’re not from here then?” he’d ask.
“Actually, I’m staying at her place while she isn’t here.”
Then he’d ask, since she was not doing anything else, if she would like to have a drink together.
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s kind of late.”
There wouldn’t be too many taxis at that time but one would happen to pull up to let someone out. He’d get in and hold the door open for her and she’d say, “Oh well, OK, just one.” She’d suck in her cheeks and throw her hips forward.
They would cut across the park, snaking through the long winding road. Tall trees on either side making the night feel heavy. They would ride in silent acquiescence toward something inevitable.
Down wide Park Avenue, the traffic lights would blink their lonely warnings, a bicyclist would ride by, pedaling furiously and paying no attention, windows would drop down their shades, preparing for a new chapter in the morning. They would come to a stop on a side street. It would be a brownstone building with a green awning and heavy glass doors with white frames. A pied-à-terre he owned in the city. There’d be a long hallway with checkered floors and a mirror to the right. But no doorman. Doormen always led to unnecessary conversation and then awkwardness. As they walked to the elevator, at the far end of the hall, she would quickly glance at her reflection in the mirror to make sure everything was still in place.
When she stepped out of the bathroom, the man was gone from his table. The door of the restaurant swung back and forth like a broken pendulum and she caught sight of him for a split second—coat slung over his arm, papers clutched to his breast, rushing around the corner, like a streaky photograph. Perhaps he’d gone in search of her. Or perhaps, like her, he was flustered by this moment that had passed between them. That’s what this had been—a moment shared by two strangers, a turn in life when something crucial might have happened. It didn’t—not out of circumstance but out of choice. It was always important to have a choice. She could have pestered him a little longer, tried to coax out that morsel of life that lay buried beneath the rubble of his miseries. She knew now that she’d gotten up because something inside her said she must leave things alone. More chances would come along. As long as there was more to come.
Broadway was a steady stream of headlights. Like balls of fire they appeared out of nowhere and followed her all the way home. The sidewalk drummed under her feet. Above, the sequined black shawl of nightfall. All around her there were people, but being in a crowd only reminded one how solitary life was. As she walked, she imagined how she might relay all this to someone. She tried to memorize the evening in a way that might make it easier to explain later, when things made more sense.
The night doorman was different but Anita took no notice of him, as she pressed the button and waited for the elevator to go up. The apartment was dark. She groped along the wall and found the light switch. The hallway sprang to life like a toy box, objects that had melted into obscurity took their appropriate shape and form. From somewhere came the soft but heady smell of flowers that kept the empty apartment company. The Roman shades billowed gently as she closed the door, then settled back. Nothing else moved. The walls too were still, which was unusual in New York apartments. It was hard to imagine that anyone lived behind them, and she wondered what lay behind that silence—the amazing, the unbelievable, the wrenching tales that spun each person’s world.
Years from now, this evening would continue to play in Anita’s mind, looped over and over, like scenes one remembers from an old movie—gray streets, white tablecloth, sprightly candles, a crisp white shirt with one button undone, brown leather shoes tapping the floor, a dishevelled stack of papers. The conversation and the scenes would often vary. Sometimes they met in Rome, sometimes even in Columbus, at Le Chateau, where the man would have come for work (he owned a carpet manufacturing business and had a factory nearby). Always they would ride in a car, in silence, and get out in front of a building—doors with arches or grills of wrought iron, and then that long, lighted aisle that led to the elevator.
She would think about it at some times more than others, especially when Maya had grown older and the hours became empty. At first she would be ashamed of her thoughts, guilty perhaps, that she was betraying Mark in daring to wish for something else. Soon, this would give way to fear—that if she hoped too hard, nothing might ever happen. Eventually, a time would come when she would dream freely and continuously. The dreams would be vivid and wild. It would take up many hours of her day––many years later, when everything was quite settled and she was old enough to know just how long each story would take.