Wine Boy by Bhargavi C. Mandava

 

 

Wine Boy

by Bhargavi C. Mandava

 

    

 

I glance at the sheet for my next delivery. A case of Barbaresco to East 66th Street, the affluent Upper East Side, as usual.  When I try to imagine that neighborhood, the color green comes to mind. I picture wispy trees that I’m just learning the names of, and the light, it’s soft too, like the light in mango groves. Up and down the street, birdcalls are heard, clear and sweet and extraordinary despite the fact that they’re being sung by ordinary brown sparrows. The sound is the opposite of green. That’s why it’s so distinct. It evokes flame-colored flowers and the violet of Dalaja’s sari, the one I last unraveled in Hyderabad.

     The light changes to yellow and I accelerate through it. I wonder what my wife is doing. Nearly sunset here, so it’s sunrise there. She is waking as usual, I suppose, before the birds, striking a match to the candle she keeps by the stove, though there’s electricity--she doesn’t want to wake my mother and father. She removes a filter from the tin on the shelf and eases the circle of cotton into the tea strainer. Though her mother cuts her filtering cloths into squares, Dalaja knows my mother prefers circles, and she obliges her, cutting them perfectly from fabric remnants the family tailor returns with each batch of newly stitched clothing. She has also deferred to my mother’s austere decorating sense and resisted cluttering our room with the knickknacks her family is in the habit of collecting. Dalaja is obliging to me, too, but passionate. I can almost feel her fingertips, unadorned yet like candies, touching me, not too much, but enough.    

       The light up ahead is already turning and I hit the brakes. The van jerks to a noisy stop at Park Avenue and 19th Street. The weather prediction called for drizzling, but the sun broke through and stayed. Consequently, the corners are packed with people, their arms uselessly burdened with umbrellas and raincoats. Though the red hand is flashing on the signal post, a woman in black boots begins to cross, undoing a button on her jacket as she walks. She has that American assuredness that I admire, believing she is perfectly in the right while doing something blatantly wrong, and with so many witnesses.

      Before she steps up to the safety of the pavement, I speed up the avenue, timing the lights as I go. To be driving is better than walking, though I take the subway to and from the wine shop. A truck runs the red, startling a woman eating ice cream and nearly hitting my van, Mr. Percy’s van. “Stupidshitmotherfuck!” I yell, sticking my head out the window. The truck is long gone and pedestrians stare at me, as if I’m the lawless one. I feel a charge of power in my chest.

     I curse now like I sneeze, suddenly, without warning. I rarely used coarse language back in India. Though Mother has a tendency toward the occasional indelicate usage, Father does not, and I guess I took after him. Anand suggested, however, it was best here. “Fuck adds authority,” he said. “Use it liberally, especially when you feel doubtful. Like when a taxi driver is taking you the roundabout route, say, ‘Son-of-a-bitch--I’m fucking late!’ or ‘Get the fuck out of here!’ Or bark into your cellular, ‘What the fuck?’ There are plenty of our people driving cabs there, but if they realize how green you are, Lucky, believe me, they will fuck you too.” I laughed out loud, adequately fucked on rum. “But we’re all brothers, aren’t we?” I said, passing him the bottle.

     Still, I’m not proud of it, this gutter talk. It became more rooted after the newsstand. It was there at Thandlay’s that I began to change, amusements escalating into habits. Bad habits.

     Uncle Nitin had met Ranjit Thandlay a long time back in an organization for Indian entrepreneurs. They had gone their separate ways, Ranjit investing in newspaper kiosks in Manhattan, while Uncle and Auntie bought two stalls at Crossgates Mall in Albany. One offers Indian novelties from papier-mâché elephants to mirrored troikas, and the other, more of a tiered cart than a stall, is stacked with miniature crystal cakes, tea sets, prams and the like, and at the backside, fantasy creatures carved from Lithuanian amber. “Smashables,” Mother calls them.

     Though I was content helping out at Crossgates Mall and reading library books in Uncle and Auntie’s partially finished basement until my working papers cleared, they wouldn’t have it. “You’ve been of great assistance, Lakshman, but the holiday rush is over,” explained Uncle Nitin. “This is a rare opportunity with Ranjit. He’s a very smart businessman, and you can learn much from him. You’ll be right in the heart of the city, too, where you plan to settle. Why postpone? With a wife waiting, you must start earning. You’ll make the plane fare in no time.” Aunt Hema added, “And with your English degree, you mustn’t be too particular about employment. It’s best to go now, before you lose your sense of adventure.”

     At the next red, a car pulls up beside me and the driver gives two short honks. I realize they’re trying to get my attention, probably for directions. I switch off the radio, quickly drawing a mental map of where we are: Penn Station is to the west; Grand Central not too far off; the Empire State Building is a block east.  Dalaja will be impressed when I take her on a tour. I turn to my open window and the driver leans forward and shouts, “Where’d you get your license, you fucking A-rab!” The car pulls away as the passenger gives me the finger. An angry horn sounds behind me and my foot presses the gas hard, my eyes searching the lanes up ahead. It was a dark color, blue. Yes, a blue four-door. There it is. No. There. Yes. That’s them. I go faster. I’ll tell them they’re mistaken. I’ll tell them… The light turns red and crossing traffic blocks me. I stick my head out the window and shout, “Fuck you!” I’ll never catch them now.

    In spite of such bastards, delivering wine is better than manning a newsstand. I’m no longer caged as the city streams past. I’m part of the rush now.

    Not that Thandlay’s was complete shit. It was a fancy one, jam-packed with papers, magazines, international mints,  “I Love NY” key chains, cigarettes and an extensive offering of pornography. According to Ranjit, given the close proximity to Times Square, the latter was a must. “It’s true what they say, Lucky,” Ranjit told me. “Sex really does sell. They can’t get enough of the sluts.” It was hard not to look at them though they were displayed partially hidden, one tucked behind the other. Somehow there was always enough skin to entice the eyes.

     Sluts make quite an impression, and it wasn’t long before I began transporting them home, concealed in the briefcase Dalaja’s parents presented me with the day I left Hyderabad. By the end of my first month at Thandlay’s, my mind was in a splintered state, sparking with images of splayed legs, birthing vulgar synonyms. They say there is a period when infants are more receptive to new languages, and I believe this to apply to fresh immigrants as well.

     In the past year, I’ve learned to live with this guilt, as I have with the others--the cursing, the diet compromises, the beef, the other meats blissfully unknowable, the consumption of wines, which I buy by the case and take home each Friday. With my employee discount, wine is cheaper than any other luxury beverage I could buy. In truth, a man does not leave one city for another to stay the same. He goes with the quiet knowledge that adaptation is not just a possibility; it’s a must. And he should welcome the novel availabilities of things, transportation, fruits, refreshments … He should want to witness how the streets fill and how they empty, how the sun rises up through steel and stone. He should want to identify the invisible bird that sings outside his window now and again.

     I turn onto 66th Street and there are trees, thin ones with leaves that spin in the breeze. I hear the tinkle of glass hitting glass--the sound of poorly packed wine bottles--and my body tenses, echoing with Mr. Percy’s maxim, “You pack, you break, you buy.” I stop the van and get out. On the sidewalk, the sound continues. It seems to be coming from up high and my eyes are drawn to the foliage shimmering above me. I search for birds and see none. I think of glass bangles, notches rubbed with gold, and then suddenly of my wife stripped of her sari, her hands clutching the headboard, our rhythm driven by the clink of purple rings banding her forearms. I stare into the gray pavement wanting to see her face, that old world nose like a fig, her eyes brimming with dedication, but I cannot.      

     Since I arrived, it has been like this. A jumble of new and old, expectations, noises, aromas, images, each jumping in front of the other. I often have the feeling of waking in a railway rest house, tired and hungry, the smell of something simmering all around, but never to be tasted because my train is leaving, and I must hurry to catch it.

     Sliding the side door of the van open, I pull out the appropriate box and head up to the door. There are only six names on the buzzer and S. Vigiliano is in apartment F. Of course, the top floor. Of course, a walk-up. I don’t mind as much as Gustavo or Jorge. I’m accustomed to such exertions--all the spiral staircases I had to climb in Hyderabad, tucked behind paanwallahs and astrologists, through mazes of complexes, up to those balconies lined with hot little rooms with broken fans, in search of the pundits of immigration--records seekers, application rigorists, epistolers, passport haberdashers, resume butchers. My mind when faced with such bureaucracy did not writhe and spit, but behaved like a drifting boat, its motor switched off to conserve petrol. It had to be done, and so it was. That illegible signature was compulsory. That sloppily inked stamp was compulsory. And, yes, that misery was absolutely fucking compulsory. It all worked out in the end. I’m here.

     I hit the button three times before the intercom crackles and a woman’s voice says, “Who is it?” “Percy’s Wine Cellar,” I reply, and I’m buzzed inside. The staircase is a steep chute, sagging on the left, doors all on the right. There are more steps than usual between the floors, and by the time I reach the second door, I must pause to hoist the box from my arms up to my shoulder. When I reach apartment F, I knock several times, but there’s no answer. As I raise a fist to pound harder, I hear the voice of the woman who let me in. “So you did fuck him. I thought so. Was it everything you expected?”

     For a moment, I stop breathing. My arm lowers, and I lean in closer. There’s silence, and then I hear her laughter. It’s distant, nothing like the words, which were clear, explicit. I think she’s moved farther from the entryway. I grasp the silver knob and give it a turn. The door is unlocked. Gently, I push it open a crack. Turning my head side-to-side, I’m able to see inside. The apartment is enormous, the white space broken with dark wood furniture. There are two striped sofas with needlepoint pillows and a coffee table on a burgundy rug, and above this a fan rotating so slowly that I can count the blades. The woman laughs again and through the black perforated screen partitioning the sitting area, I can see her moving in white. Quickly, I give a hard knock, push the door open fully while calling out, “Excuse me.”

    Her head pops out from behind the screen. She mouths “One minute,” and then disappears again. I put the wine carefully down next to a crescent-shaped table displaying a red lacquered box and notice there are many more tables in varied shapes and sizes scattered about, also with shiny boxes on them. I’m reminded of British colonial villas back in India, in hill stations and other tourist-favored sites.

     “Let me call you back, Gauri,” she says. “The wine boy is here.”

     But she doesn’t hang up. “Mmm-hmm…Mmm-hmm. Really?”

     I turn to the bookshelves, stare through spotless glass at the titles, mostly architectural histories and classic literature. There seems to be no logical order. The Pyramids of the Giza Plateau is sandwiched between Goethe and Jonathan Swift. On the shelf below, The Evolution of the Dome is next to Anna Karenina. The latter is bound in black leather and so much bigger than the copy I had purchased in Abids for my Russian literature class. I carried it around everywhere I went for weeks. How can this brick of ebony be the same as that? It must. It must begin here as it did there, with the Oblonskys, the infidelity of husband with governess. 

     “I really have to go,” she says. “Of course I want to know all the gory Gauri details. Later. Later.”

     I wonder if gory Gauri is married.

     She steps out from behind the screen wearing a man’s pigeon blue button-down shirt, dirty white socks and in between, the cordless phone presses into her exposed right thigh. 

    “Sorry, but I just need a signature,” I say, holding up the order.

    “Right,” she says. She starts moving around the apartment, looking for a pen I assume. She is tall, but not taller than me, and her legs are very pale. Pausing by the sofa, she lifts up the newspaper to reveal a pack of cigarettes. She inserts one between her lips and offers me the red and gold box. I decline, handing her the paper and a pen. She seems offended, lighting up and throwing the match still aflame into the stone fireplace.

    “Would you like to confirm the order?” I ask.

    Shifting the box from the crescent table to the wood floor where I won’t be concerned about breaking anything, I take out my knife to cut open the cardboard flaps.

     “I’m sure it’s fine,” she says, walking over. She stands close enough for me to notice the skin on her legs is tinged blue, and shiny with oil or lotion that smells of a flower I cannot place. “Do me a favor and put them in the kitchen, will you?”

     I place the six bottles of Barbaresco on the counter, and when I return, I find her sitting on the couch, smoking, watching me. The order sheet is abandoned, unsigned, on the coffee table.

     “I need that,” I remind her, pointing.

     “Oh, right.”

     She signs quickly and hands it to me.

     “Feel free to borrow a book,” she says. “You look like you’re a reader.”

     I’m not sure if I should take this as a compliment.

     “I have a literature degree, if that’s what you mean,” I say.

     “Yeah, me too,” she says.

     I stare at her scribble of a signature.

    “Thank you, Miss--”

     “Simonetta,” she says, gathering her long brown hair into a ponytail and then releasing it all again. “Like Michael Corleone’s exploding bride. You know, The Godfather.” I nod, clearly remembering the Sicilian beauty. “You’ve seen it, haven’t you?”

     “Yes,” I say. “All three. Back in India.”

     “I thought you were Indian,” she says. “She’s Indian too--my friend on the phone.”

     She turns her face toward the books to exhale. I want to say something, but I cannot think properly and end up remaining silent. As she gives a thoughtful pull on her cigarette, I hear it again, that faraway tinkling.

     I open the door and pound down the stairs. Wine boy? Wine guy would have been better. Boy is servile, stupid, Gunga Din. Shitty.

     On the street, I glance up at the windows to determine which belong to her and am startled to see her standing on the fire escape, still wearing the soiled socks, the button-down shirt, grinding the ash of her cigarette against the railing as she watches three men maneuvering a beastly orange sofa into a small truck. I give in to the temptation to stare too--between her legs--and though I see only darkness, I decide she’s not wearing any panties. At first, I’m excited at the thought of her suspended above me, exposed to the spring air, and then suddenly I’m nauseous as if staring at a freshly severed lizard’s tail, wanting to feel it spasm, but too paralyzed to do more than gawk. When she flicks her cigarette into the street, I duck into the van and speed off.

     Driving through Central Park, I wonder about this woman. She is at least ten years my senior, her features not of classic beauty, but memorable in their openness. Her figure, though, is striking. I emerge from a short tunnel and see a man and woman disappear into a phalanx of trees. I wonder what they will do there in that privacy.

     Coming out of a curve, I let the steering wheel slip, enjoying the bump of the ridges across my fingers. My hands are barely chapped now, thoroughly healed from all the stocking of magazines, the masturbation, the compulsive scrubbing that immediately followed. After leaving Thandlay’s, I really thought I had regained control of my energies. I thought I was on a better track.

 

Taking the subway to Jackson Heights, I stop at the corner cash and carry to collect my usual items, some packs of two-minute curried noodles for evening meals, and the rusks I soak in tea for breakfast.

     At the register, the Indian woman ahead of me looks from my purchases to hers--green mangos, elephant garlic, one pound of chili powder.

     “Pickling?” I say.

     She nods, adjusting her black and gold dupatta, which she wears over jeans. It’s not stiff with starch, but soft and pliable, as if it’s a favorite. Her hair is down.

     “It’s the season for it,” she says.

     “My wife is a pickle champion,” I say.

     “Oh?” she says, handing her credit card to the cashier.

     “She’s won many competitions back in Hyderabad. She’ll be joining me very soon.”

     The woman nods, and sighs, as if she has been through the separation and reunion before, some time ago.

     “Well hang in there,” she says, glancing at my items moving on the conveyer.

     I watch her leave, trying to make out her ass through the long fringe of her shawl.

     Both the windows of my apartment bear view of an alley where the trashcans are kept. Judging from No. 6 on the sheet of rules given to me by the landlord Mr. Ng--Always Close Lids and Bags Tight!!--I expect when summer arrives, it will bring with it the stench of stewing rubbish. In anticipation, when I unpacked my suitcase, I set a box of incense on the sill in the living room. I am grateful for this scrap of color, the image of Radha and Krishna twined with lotuses, preserved in cellophane.

     When the noodles are boiled, I stir in the mustard-colored powder from the Flavormaker packet. On top of this go the sliced carrots and onions, and then the juice of an entire lime. I ache all over. Dalaja’s last letter lays open on the card table, demanding a reply. What can I tell her? About these, my two-minute noodles. She would be horrified.

     Her script flows straight as cane though there are no ruled lines.

Dearest Lakshman,

I will help you in the booth. I can sell papers and gum. We will be a team…

Anand accompanied his sister and me to Chikkadpally to see the new Aamir

Khan picture. It is a wonderful love story. Is it warming in New York?…

What are the vegetable selections at the market? And the shopping?…Have

you enough for my ticket yet?…in all good things …

Your Ever Loving Wife, Dalaja.

     Quickly, I realize this aching is not muscular. It is for her, my wife, for she has an optimism that’s so potent it could burn away bad thinking like acid. She wants it, America. It was with her urging, after all, that I left. “Everybody’s going foreign,” she said. I stare into my glass of red wine, wanting to see her, speaking the words. On the Tank Bund promenade, wasn’t it, the monolith of Buddha aglow behind her? Instead, an image forms of Times Square, people rushing past in all directions, men and women with briefcases and cell phones, school-bound children, and then in the midst of all that activity, framed by the steel of Thandlay’s stand, my placid wife bidding the cheeriest “Good day,” a collage of boobs and ass behind her. When a paper was bought, she’d fix on making the customer part with his change. “Some minty gum for you, Sir?” And the bloke might think he’d forgotten to brush that morning, that his breath stank, and he’d reply, “Sure. Why not?” It wouldn’t matter that we got paid by the hour and the quarter she’d extracted was for Ranjit, not us. It wouldn’t matter because this is the way my wife lives. One hundred percent. All the time.

     I chew a rubbery carrot, thinking of her nipples, her perfect delicate brown nipples, and then the nipples of sluts push in. Peep show nipples. Enormous, pink, reaching out like roots from their breasts. After we pulled down the steel shutters, I sometimes accompanied Ranjit there. Peek-a-booties, he called them. It is strange what I remember, the nudie cocktail stirrers that came with the Screwdrivers, the walls of the booths carved with obscenities and phone numbers, the sensation of the wood against my face as I pressed it close to look through the peepholes.

     Ranjit enticed me with a promise of dinner afterward at Sultana. “Very posh Indo-Pak,” he said. “They even have belly dancers.” My tastebuds piqued with memories of Hyderabadi favorites--Chicken 65, Seekh Kabob, Mutton Biryani--and I agreed. But always after the peep shows, Ranjit was too inebriated to want food, much less remember his promise. Looking back, I suppose the Sultana was a necessary pretense for both of us. Only now can I face the possibility that it never existed.

     I move aside the amber bird sitting atop the blank aerogrammes and slip out a single sheet.

Dearest Dalaja,

How are you? Good news. I have switched jobs--from newspapers to wine.

It is not like the shops in Hyderabad, with the loitering drunkards. I am mobile

with my own vehicle, delivering orders to customers all over the city. It is a

better job.

    There, my pen stops. I pick up Dalaja’s letter again and see on the back flap where my mother claimed her space.

Babu,

Are you eating properly? Remember, no matter what these Americans

stuff themselves with, they will grow, up, down, sideways, like amaranthus on

a dungpile. But you need special care. Write your cravings, my son. Cousin

Karthik’s friend will post the parcel from Ottawa. Dalaja is taking very good

care of us.  How are Auntie and Uncle?

Amma & Nana

     I sip my wine, my attention falling to the amber bird I’ve come to use as a paperweight. Aunt Hema gave it to me when I moved from Albany. She said it was a swan, and indeed it is, but it has the exact smile of the stone Hanuman in Anand’s mother’s village, both gentle and pervasive.

     I break the seal on the box of incense sitting on the windowsill. Lighting a stick, I hold it up and watch as the room clouds up with sweet smoke.

 

There’s another order for Simonetta on my sheet. Only two days have passed since the last delivery. I’m perplexed, and oddly excited, but I stick to the sensible route, winding my way uptown. 

     When it’s a special occasion, it’s indicated in the box below the address on the order. I always check, tally up the simultaneous celebrations. Today, a Wednesday, there are two birthdays, a company anniversary, a gallery opening, and two dinner parties.     

     In the box next to Simonetta’s address, as for the bulk of deliveries, Mr. Percy has written “NS,” an abbreviation for none specified. The “NS” customers could be private drinkers, ashamed. They confirmed this in the way they received me, making me wait in the hall, leaning on the box in my hands for support as they signed the sheet, refusing my offer to carry the wine inside and muttering something like “I can handle it,” or “Thanks, but the place is a mess.” Not so in Simonetta’s case. I believe wine is another item on her grocery list, of equal importance, perhaps as milk or tomatoes. Rather than confidential, she was convivial.

      It’s late in the afternoon when I arrive at her building. She buzzes me in immediately, and once upstairs, I find the door ajar. I give a knock and push it open. She is standing in front of a table backed by a large mirror, vigorously brushing her chestnut hair until it falls in a glossy sheet against her white dress.

     “Come in,” she says, addressing my reflection. She gestures to the box in my hands. “Put that anywhere.”

     As I head for the kitchen, she is right behind me. I assume she wants to check the order, so peeling back the top, I pull the four bottles of Rioja from the box and set them on the counter.

     “Great,” she says. “This is a superior year.” I stare at the label. It’s a 1995, from Spain and there’s a regal coat of arms. “I’ve heard there are vineyards in India,” she continues. “In the south somewhere. The soil analysis received high marks.”

     “I wasn’t aware.”

     “I’ve always wanted to go to India,” she says.

     She pulls open a large cabinet to the right of the bookshelves and I see inside many more bottles stocked horizontally as in the shop. She didn’t consume the wine I delivered last time. Needing something to hold, I open the glass door and slide a book from the shelf. By then, she has latched the cabinet and is facing me, staring.

    “This is a very nice apartment,” I say.

    “It’s a floor-through. Where do you live?”

     “Jackson Heights. I plan to move to Manhattan … after my wife arrives.”

     She turns her back to me, and gathering her hair, she pulls it over her shoulder to the front to reveal a series of shell buttons, the top four of which are unfastened.

    “Could you lend a hand?” she asks.

    I put the book on the coffee table and move close to her. The first button slips easily into place, but as soon as it’s secured, I find my fingers undoing what I have done and, worse, continuing to open the other buttons until I am faced with her bare back. Against her thin skin, the spinal bones strain, irregularly shaped but in perfect sequence, like a broken alphabet. I touch them. All of them. She turns so suddenly that I expect a slap, but instead she presses her body to mine and kisses me. I kiss her back, dark nose to pale skin. I close my eyes and kiss her more. Closed eyes seeing colors. I kiss the slut. I pull my fingers from her hair and step back. It takes a moment to find my breath, another to find my voice. 

     “I have to go,” I say.

     Her mouth closes. She turns her back again.

     “Do you mind finishing the job?” she asks.

     I stare at her shoulders rising and falling and then start in the middle, careful to handle only buttons and cloth.

     “What’s her name?” she asks, still with her back to me. “Your wife.”

     “Dalaja.”

     “Dalaja,” she repeats. “That’s beautiful. What does it mean?”

     “Produced from petals.”

     “My husband’s name is Paul,” she says. “It means jackass.”

     She laughs first, and then I follow.

     “Where is he?” I ask.

     “London.”

     Before I can tell her that I’m finished with the buttons, she begins walking away and disappears down a wide hall. I see my order sheet on the coffee table, unsigned. I sit down and wait. The apartment is silent so who knows what she’s doing. Using the bathroom. Getting naked. Calling Mr. Percy.  I run my hands over my face and reach for the book I placed on the coffee table. The lettering still vivid in bronze on the spine reads The Resurrection of Knossos. I open it to the first page and am surprised not to find her name in black ink, or even jackass Paul’s, but the initials W.D. In its span of life, this book belonged to someone else, was touched by someone else.

      Her footsteps sound in the hall, and she soon appears wearing white shoes with heels. I put down the book, stand up. She is taller than me now. She scoops up the order sheet and signs it, handing it to me along with a twenty.

     “That’s not necess--” I start to say.

     “For last time, too,” she says firmly. “It’s a lot of stairs.”

    

That evening, I open a fresh bottle of Italian red table wine and sit down to finish my letter to Dalaja. Dalaja, my wife. She nearly died of diphtheria when she was three. She fasts on Fridays. She hates the telephone. She’s a good seamstress. She has a pea-sized black mole on her right buttock. She hums while she cleans. She talks to birds. She will kill cockroaches, but nothing else.

     I could describe Crossgates Mall to her, all the shops stacked in one deluxe complex. But I cannot remember much about them. What I do remember is Auntie, her voice thick with honey as she flirted with the Japanese man who sells Hello Kitty cell phone accessories next to her stall, and, at the north end, Uncle Nitin explaining strategies at Khan’s Mongolian where for a fixed price, two men penned in a circular grill will cook up as much as you can hand them in a bowl. “Bypass the noodles. First, veggies and meat. The noodles are gummy and tangled and it’s easy to build a nice tower on everything else. Taller! Pile it on. Let the people look. Are they thinking, ‘Look at that pig?’ No. They are thinking, ‘Oh, so that is how to do it!’ Believe me, Lakshman, America is no place for timidity.”

I have been dreaming of kabobs. The hot dog is no comparison. Gustavo the

Venezuelan I work with doesn’t understand. “But have you tried the Sabretts?”

he says. “Those are the bomb.” This is a compliment. I explain to be crystal

clear to you and anyone else that will read my words. (Uncle Nitin says after

the Twin Towers tragedy, correspondences from India and Pakistan are being

monitored by censors.) I did try the Sabretts, pale tubes of waterlogged meat.

Lord, what I’d give for a kabob! My mouth waters as I write this, longing for

the taste of lamb, onions and wood fire. Did I mention even the limes are

different here. Larger than an egg, but such weak juice. I miss you…how I

miss you.

     I look at our wedding picture tacked to the wall, our sober faces imposed over the garlands of white mums, and then the one of Dalaja alone, a portrait snapped in a studio before a backdrop of beach and palms, her lips more restrained than relaxed, but nonetheless a smile, a smile full of promise. I reach for the wine bottle, thinking I shouldn’t, and filling my glass anyway.

 

After lunch the next day, as I’m loading up the van for a second round of deliveries, Mr. Percy comes out with a bottle of Pinot Grigio that he’s put in the 10-minute chiller in the basement. “Emergency drop,” he informs me. “Go there first.” It isn’t until I’ve placed the bottle in the icebox that I look at the order and see it’s for Simonetta.

     Heading uptown, the streets seem more congested than usual, packed with vehicles and pedestrians.  I wonder where they are all going, looking at their own feet, muttering reminders to adhere to diets, send flowers, call mothers, drink water, meditate. The light starts to change, but I stay on the gas pedal. I’m almost clear of the intersection when I look to the right and glimpse a car coming too fast to stop. It’s going to hit me. It’s going to…There’s a roaring sound and then a stifling silence. A man on a bike opens my door and shouts, “You all right?”  And someone farther away, “Anyone get that fucker’s license?”

     Pebbles of glass fall from my lap as I look back into the cargo area and see the side door, the punctured steel curled like paper, white light pouring in. I smell wine; I taste salt. “The ambulance is on the way,” the man on the bike tells me. “Head wounds are never as bad as they look. Stay put.” But I don’t want to. I’m not far from Simonetta’s and the engine is still running. I shift into drive and see through the shattered, ticking windshield the horror on their faces as the van begins to move forward.

     On 66th Street, I park and find her wine bottle unharmed. Cradling it, I head upstairs and, for the first time, I feel the number of steps. The door is open and I walk inside, panting softly. She is by the kitchen counter with a clear vase, arranging tall branches of lilacs, pausing to free the wide sleeves of her robe that snag now and again on the stalks. The sight brings tears to my eyes, and it is then that she notices me, gasps and runs over.

     “My God! What happened?”

     “Accident.”

     “You’re hurt.”

     I look in the mirror behind her and see the blood slowly dripping down the sides of my face and joining the drops of condensation on the wine bottle in my hands.

     “Let’s clean it,” she says.

     She leads me into the kitchen, to a stool, and takes the bottle. My arms are suddenly weightless, and I can now feel the blood leaving. On the counter, beside the vase and the wine, she sets down a silver box stuffed with bandages and ointments. With some gauze, she applies pressure to my forehead.

     “Don’t worry,” she says. “It’s not bad. The bleeding has stopped.”

      I take a deep breath of the lilac-scented air and begin to sob.

     “It’s okay,” she says, wrapping her arms about me. “Really. “It’s okay.”

     I cannot believe how good her body feels against mine, how good it is to be embraced. She holds me until I am calm, and then she kisses me, not my lips, but my cheeks, my neck. I slip the robe from her shoulders and kiss her back.

     The sex is like the collision, unstoppable, with a halting perception of time. For a long moment, everything is still, until I turn my head and see the second hand on the clock spinning round and round. It’s then that I feel my injuries, the stinging all over my body, the hollowness in my gut. She puts on her robe, climbs out the window onto the fire escape, and the odor of her cigarette reaches me. That’s when I hear it, the tinkling sound I heard when I first arrived at her building. I sit up and see above her head, a wind chime of glass rods turning in the sun.

     She leans over the railing, her hair reaching down toward the street. I wish she would disappear,  suddenly and violently. Her smoke pours in the open window, over the little tables, the mound of khaki on the floor, my trousers that Dalaja mended with a swatch she had originally cut for filtering tea. A familiar feeling settles over me. It’s how I felt when I first awoke at Auntie and Uncle’s. That morning, in the darkness of the pre-dawn, after feeling my way through the unfamiliar house, I opened the bin on the door of the refrigerator, expecting butter as indicated in silver cursive, and instead caused an avalanche of hot sauce packets from Khan’s Mongolian.

     I get up and hastily pull on my pants and shirt.

     “Listen,” she says from the fire escape. “I feel terrible about this.” She ducks back inside and picks up her wallet from the bureau. “You shouldn’t be responsible.” She holds out a stack of bills to me. “Let me pay for the repairs.”

     “No.”

     “It’s my fault. I lied. There was no emergency, was there?”

     I look down at the floor, her pink painted toenails on the parquet.

     “Take it, Lakshman. You must.”

     Stunned by my name on her lips, I accept the money and leave.

 

That night, I slip the letter I am writing to Dalaja out from beneath the amber swan. I pick up my pen, to unburden myself, and then I stop.

    Dalaja, my pickle champion, what will she do with this disclosure? She will preserve it with turmeric and garlic and chili powder in a glass jar as large as a baby. It will sit in a cupboard for months untouched until one day she will open the door, a stern look on her face, scrutinizing the contents to determine ripeness. She’ll sniff at the ruby gingili oil pooled at the top, stab at a fleshy piece with a knife, have a taste. The pungency will burn, make her choke. She will cough and cough. I will offer her water, but she will not take it. She will cough until tears roll down her face. I will be unable to console her. What could possibly be uttered? Sorry. Mistake. Fuck. Love.

     She will say the pepper hasn’t taken. It’s gone limp from too little salt. Moisture has made way for fungus. But she will not discard it. She will put it back in the cupboard. She will not serve it with piping hot rice as the other pickles, the tomato, drumstick, lemon. She won’t check on it for some weeks, or months, maybe years, and when she does, she will always be unsatisfied.

     Still, when we save enough to move from the studio to a two-bedroom, it will come with us, and from there to our first house, as innocuous as a box of dusty books, it will come. Space will be made in every kitchen; this Oblonsky pickle will have its own special cupboard.

     I cannot tell Dalaja. Ever.

     I put down the pen and stare at the amber swan with the Hanuman smile. There is dirt beneath the left wing. I polish it with some toothpaste as Aunt Hema instructed, but it does not go, and I quickly realize it’s embedded in the cognac–colored crystal. I recall Auntie explaining to customers that on rare occasions whole insects were trapped in the amber, or, more commonly, pieces too small to see with the naked eye. But the more I study this darkness, the more I believe it to be something prehistoric. The leg of a centipede, the antenna of an ant…the result of some foolish creature’s meandering.

     Dalaja’s parents’ house comes to mind, the cabinets crammed with sandalwood deities, glass peacocks, an ivory Taj Mahal. I cannot bear the thought of my wife finding this and setting it, too, on some high shelf for display. Opening the window, I hurl it down into the alley of trash. It hits the brick of the wall, once, twice, and though I clearly remember Auntie cautioning me about the brittleness of amber, it does not break.

 

**

 

Bhargavi C. Mandava is the author of the novel Where the Oceans Meet (Seal Press, 1996). She is working on a collection of stories and her next novel.

 

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