She had made it a practice to wonder when and how her husband would die. She did this not out of malice or suppressed rage or boredom, but rather because she was in remarkably better shape than him, had been ever since they had married four decades ago, and was aware that, if things continued this way—if he continued to cultivate a paunch and smoke and eat fried food—she would face a significant slice of her life alone: all her absurd fitness would be for naught. There’d be no one around to appreciate her sexagenarian glow, to keep her cutting through ribbon after ribbon of chlorinated water in the local swimming pool or smashing volleys with her swank blue tennis racquet stretched wide in its smile of guts. For years she’d quite enjoyed the mismatch in their habits and all the possibilities it presented for domestic coaxing and chiding, but now they were entering a new phase of their life: it was the day of Vinod’s retirement. She herself had stopped working years before—she was laid off rather mechanically by the local pension fund during a budget crisis, and was so ashamed thereafter that she never attempted to find another job. When people asked why she had quit (she’d encouraged this misconception) she explained she wished to bring up her children; after they were brought up, she claimed she and Vinod didn’t need two incomes, which was true, and also a veiled boast. She occupied herself with exercise and volunteer work and wondering when Vinod, her only love, would die.
His father had been leveled by cardiac arrest, so had a dozen of his cousins. She could picture his heart hibernating in its aqueous nest of blood and gore.
She waited at the dinner table, shuffling a pack of business cards handed to her by a variety of yoga instructors that she had located by driving around in her sedan a few hours after Vinod had left for work. All his life he had used work to excuse his home-time indolence—bloating about on two overlong legs, one hand wrapped in a packet of chips swiped from the office kitchen—but now she planned to confront him at once with all her apocalyptic visions: gallstones, pancreatitis, malfunctioning kidneys, corrosive diabetes (which he had already and could be measured out in Splenda spoons), failed liver (he drank two whiskeys a day), heart damage, the gout (it still happens), paralyzing strokes, lung cancer, and plain old obesity (he was vain, you could see it in the perfect part of his hair); and in this way frighten him into living for her the way he had lived for his work.
But he had as many excuses as she had putative diseases: retirement hadn’t relaxed him. He came in from his last day at the office looking as if the CEO had dinged him with a couple of all-night assignments as a goodbye gift. He sat down across from her at the table and then got up to turn on another light and succeeded instead in plunging the apartment in darkness. Through this constant fidgeting, Ritu kept speaking. He was now across from her, formally, at the table, glasses halfway down his nose as he peered at the cards she passed one by one for his inspection. His tan suit seemed to be shrinking around the breathing balloon of his body. As his body had gotten rounder, morbidly jolly, his face had acquired a gauntness to match Ritu’s over-exercised, tight expressions. He put his glasses on the table and grimaced. “Darling, I need to tell you something.”
“Will you let me finish?” she said.
But she was finished. “Okay—what is it?” she asked.
“It’s bad,” he said. “You’ll be upset.”
“Tell me and get it over with.”
She had always wondered how he’d supported three children and one wife with a job at a company that made wiring for houses.
Her next thought was: he’ll die if he has to go to jail.
He turned over a business card and inscribed a few small words with a pen plucked from the pocket of his favorite shirt—a shirt he hadn’t worn for an entire year because he’d reserved its pastel-services for his last day.
“Promise you won’t be mad?” he asked. “I wanted to write you a letter. But I’m not used to writing or typing anymore. I dictate everything to Susan—” Susan was his secretary, was he having an affair? “And I didn’t think I could dictate this.”
He passed Ritu the card; she turned it over. It said: I think I may be gay.
It was such a ridiculous statement that Ritu began to cackle. “So you’re not going to play tennis because you’re gay, is it?” she asked.
He looked at her with sympathy—like she was an angry client in need of placation.
“Don’t joke with me,” she said. “I’ve spent all morning thinking about you and your bloody health.” But his expression didn’t change. His face was still puckered in a lawyerly fashion. Ritu’s heart, which had been doing a bit of hibernating itself, began racing. She felt a twinge of pain down her sciatica. The pain dated back to the time she had tried to spice up their inert sex life with whips and ropes, thinking that this is what an American couple would do if faced with a similar situation: she was a big reader of women’s magazines, thought them a necessary part of her integration into the country.
She was furious that he could make her feel so unwell. “To you, tying me up was a game,” she said, getting up from her chair with some effort and pacing the living room with a hand on the topmost knob of her spine. “But for me—my health is ruined. I can barely walk some days in the winter without feeling shooting pains. The doctor said I have to do therapy if I want it to get better. I hate doing therapy. But if I don’t then I’ll never feel my right leg. It feels like someone has injected me with cold liquid steel. And for what. For nothing. For this.”
She was exaggerating. They had only engaged in this dubious activity two times.
When he tried to point this out, she said, “Stop. Don’t you dare speak another word.”
When he said that he still loved her, that nothing would change, she screamed, “I’m not interested in a goddamn retirement speech!”
For two hours, she left him. She went to the grocery store and walked up and down the aisles and didn’t drop anything into her swinging green plastic basket. The back pain vanished; she needed to tell someone something. But at the porch of her neighbor Helga’s house—the site she always stormed to in the aftermath of a passionate fight—she found herself undone by the simple prospect of ringing the doorbell. It was July and it was as if she had swum through a vat of sweat. The muggy stillness of the evening was still shot through with the after-slam of her front door, and towering above her were the oak trees that occupied so much of Helga’s attention: in August she would sit outside in a deck chair on her porch and stare down these swaying monsters, waiting for one of them to fall facedown on her property so she could then engage in the single most intimate act in her life: meeting a neighbor in court. Helga had sued Vinod and Ritu four times and now they were friends. Ritu pitied her loneliness—her sagging face with the smoke-yellowed teeth—the way she pitied her future Vinod-less self. The thought that the future was now, and that she had lost Vinod to a malady far worse than death made her turn on her heels and dash back home.
Vinod was on their front lawn, pacing up and down, head low as if he had accidentally dropped a cigarette—a common occurrence. He was such a smiley, nice, passive fellow that he could even make smoking look awkward—the glamorous, exact part in his hair was his attempt to defeat awkwardness with careful preparation. He was vain with his face because the rest of his body was falling apart. Ritu walked right up to him, her eyes clogged and red, both hands in deep fists at her side, and spoke through her teeth, “Why did you tell me today?”
Two lampposts sprinkled light like reluctant showerheads. In the humid air everything was smeary and simultaneous. Vinod sat himself down on the front step of the house and put a new cigarette in his mouth, adding to the gray confusion of sweat on his face. “To be honest? Because I don’t have a career anymore that you can ruin.”
“You think I would have ruined you,” Ritu said. “I seem like that type to you.”
“No—but it may have gotten out. And the children would have been so ashamed. I didn’t want them to have to suffer. I’ve known for thirty years. I’ve never acted on it.”
“So now the timing is right. You want me to ruin you now is it?”
“That’s not it,” he said.
Again that involuntary smile.
“You want a divorce?” Ritu asked. “You want to leave me for a man?”
He stuck his two index fingers through the laces on his shoe.
Ritu continued, “Because I have no plans of divorcing you—”
“Me neither,” he said. “I love you. I told you about this because I love you. I love you more than I love our children.”
She ignored this, and instead leaned over him threateningly. “My reasons for not wanting a divorce are straightforward,” Ritu said. “One. I’m not going to let you be a faggot. Two, you married me and you’re going to stay with me. Three—”
She couldn’t list a third reason.
Then they were silent for a second and the very fact of silence between them was such a terrifying premonition of life without each other that they instinctively fell upon each other, arms and hips and thighs locking in ways that were once sexual and now only muscled evocations of terror. From the corner of his eye as he rose he detected the visual beeping of the dying red cigarette butt cast out in the wet grass. She pressed her head against his broad shoulders so hard it hurt. The sound of the hinge creaking was long and otherworldly but who noticed. She held on to him tight and sobbed in his ear. After some time he made out what she was saying.
She was saying: If we’d stayed in India.
“Darling,” Vinod said finally. “It’s your old habit. To regret everything.”
“Now I have a good reason,” she said.
In this way they were dramatic together.
Things changed—of course. She began to loop through the eye of this tiny awful confession the entire thread of her life until every memory was knotted up in shame. Shame on him for telling her so late that even the remedy of adultery was unavailable to her: who would make love to her now? She was sixty-three and white-haired and in her last decade of sex. All her caring toward him, the maternal and almost superhuman warmth she felt on the occasions of his sexual failure, her soothing him and gathering him up from that embarrassed smile on that long downy bed that overpowered the room like a cruise-liner lodged in a pond, seemed utterly wasted. Of romance nothing could be said. The men who had passed through their life—colleagues, neighbors, friends, cousins, quacks, pundits—were highlighted now in her reminisces with double the attention: she wondered if her crushes over the years were his crushes as well, and she was inwardly sick.
She gave up her routine of aerobics, volunteer work, tennis, Canasta, and swimming, and racked up uncharacteristic fines from the local library for books on psychology that she couldn’t even crack open to the contents page. She made excuses to her white friends and didn’t bother calling back the Indian ones. The days seemed to pass now in a survivalistic pattern of cooking and sleeping, and even this she was doing less and less of as Vinod took over the pots and pans. He had moved into their youngest son’s abandoned bedroom and was reading all the books she’d borrowed. Finally, Ritu, needing respite, bored to tears, began calling her three children more and more. At the other end she encountered voicemail—deep practiced voices enunciating the twangy New England accent that Vinod and Ritu, for all their assimilation, had never acquired; they were lower-class and aspirational by birth, and had chosen instead to imitate their richer Indian counterparts, slowing and turning the vowels in their mouths till they sounded Oxfordian and regal. The Americans loved this regality, which was a valid consideration for Ritu and Vinod. It was their country, the Americans, and you had to entertain them, with jokes even.
When the children called Ritu back, it was always a disappointment.
They were overwhelmed by their own lives. Answers were curt and the updates were generic: the babies are good, work is good, health is great. It has been said that the human ear can actually hear a smile across a phone; with the children, Ritu could conjure vivid soundscapes: the creaking pressure of the phone jacked between the ear and shoulder, the hands of whoever (Rohit or Bharat or Anita) performing a task of such importance—cooking, diapering, typing—that it made up for the time wasted even as it was being wasted. But maybe you couldn’t blame them. None of them had married practically.
This had confirmed hers and Vinod’s greatest fears. Early on, with their few handpicked anglicized Indian friends they had shared the conviction that they wanted everything for their children—except BMWs.
“Because BMWs are made by Nazis?” the friends asked. “Is that why?”
“No, no, forget the Nazis,” said Vinod.
“Exactly,” said Ritu. “After all Hindus use Swastikas also.”
“B M W,” Vinod said, emphasizing each letter. “Black Muslim or White.”
Well, the children had obeyed. They’d married a Jew, a Chinese, and a Latino.
Now Ritu, wanting to blame her husband’s homosexuality for all her problems, became more forceful with her introspection. Why this fate for all the children? Why had all of them been so readily swallowed by other cultures? Their daughter, Anita, forever analyzing, wisp-shouldered and hotheaded, was happy to oblige with a fully formed theory on the phone. “Basically we’re white—our family,” she quipped. “We never had any interest in Indian culture. You grew up in India and you never had any interest in Indian culture. So we turned out like the Wasps but without the Wasp traditions. We married exotically. We’re deracinated. We didn’t think like Indians and we didn’t marry like Indians.”
Ritu’s hand was under the sobbing downcast eye of the kitchen tap. Two long green shoots of celery—the length of toothbrush handles—were piping water through the long cupolas of their bodies: she held them over the sink in graceful, domestic repose and spoke into a headset. “That’s an interesting theory,” she said.
“There’s nothing you could have done,” Anita said. “It’s just what happens. We’re an unusual family. Oh—John says hi.”
“Tell him I say hi,” Ritu said.
“What are you making?” Anita asked.
“Indian food,” Ritu lied.
Ritu stood in the kitchen afterward, summoning her first impressions of the young quiet Chinese boy her daughter had picked for a husband—she hoarded first impressions; it was the world’s currency; you could get used to oddity but the world still snapped you with its Polaroid judgment. John: He had a frizzy kinked mop and a habit of covering his mouth when he laughed. The first time she met him he was wearing a tie but the tie was too broad and its sister snake wasn’t looped in properly and so kept dangling into view. He said he liked Indian food and worked at Goldman Sachs. His parents were where: In China? In Long Island? In Queens? No: divorced. He was Chinese; his wife was Indian; their children were a world population problem. She went straight to the living room where her husband sat cross-legged on a couch solving a puzzle of Sudoku and screamed at him.
“This is all your fault,” she said. “If you hadn’t wanted to be gay we’d have gone back and none of this would have happened.”
“What’s wrong with children marrying people of other races?” he asked.
He followed her into the kitchen, where she continued washing the celery—for no reason except to give her anger a domestic tint. “Nothing, except they have no interest in us. If they’d married Indians they would have been more traditional. They’d have asked us to live with them when we grew old. We wouldn’t be here in this stupid house alone. I wouldn’t have to worry what would happen to me after you died.”
“But you hated India too,” said Vinod. “You never wanted to go back.”
Ritu ignored this. “You thought you could reinvent yourself after retirement as a fag. Well done.”
“Ritu,” he shushed. “We both wanted to reinvent ourselves. And we did.”
They’d been not only poor in India—they’d been unsophisticated. The rest of their family was still village bound in Punjab, sugarcane farmers who spat between sentences as a matter of pride. Here they were rich and almost-white and anonymous—they boasted regal roots to their friends, and they had traction with the powerful elites of the neighborhood: the sheriff, the council member, even the pastor, who was so smitten by them that he’d tried unsuccessfully to convert them for a decade.
Only the children happened to know the truth about their humble background.
Finally Vinod said, “Ritu, darling. We gave the children too much love. We were too good for them.”
This thought had entered Ritu’s head before. That their unconditional laissez-faire love had backfired. In its simplicity it bored the children. Everyone in this day and age needed to have elements of a crazed game; it didn’t matter how you played as long as you kept changing the score. They should have scolded, threatened, beat up, slapped, abused the children. They should have met their attempts to marry non-Indians with promises of disownment. You needed to fill them up with revenge. Now, instead, like the bursts of water from the tap, they flowed downward. Their love—guileless, transparent, cold—flowed downward to their spouses and children.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” Ritu said. “I gave you too much love.”
That night, for the first time, she revisited their apparatus of whips—bringing it out of the long ski covers in the basement they’d been zipped into years before. Up in the room, she made him lay naked on his stomach and went at his body as his half-paunch bounced softly on the mattress. It was understood what was happening and so he winced and bit the mattress but didn’t—all said and done—scream.
In the morning they both looked and felt like death.
“We’re growing old,” Ritu said.
“Agreed,” Vinod mumbled.
The next morning she reignited the project of fitness she’d planned for him before his confession. She bought him a racquet and swimming trunks and dragged him along to all her sporting excursions, and though once or twice he threw his arms out and stuck to the walls of the pool like some unhurried mollusk, she was soon finding it difficult to count on her fingers the number of laps he could do—backstroke, of course, the old man’s stroke. But it was too frustrating to play tennis with him and so she assigned him an instructor ($80 an hour) to teach him how to throw the ball to the necessary height to serve his way out of an epidemic of double-faults.
When it got too hot, he complained incessantly, all evening, the way he’d complained about his work; she took pleasure in ignoring him.
Then, one day, on the tennis court, as she watched from behind sunglasses, he broke a volley, crouched down by the miniature green referee crane (it’s seat permanently abdicated), and jabbed the blackened bandaged racquet handle into his chest. The erratic bouncing ball and the slowing of his pulse appeared to be in concert; the racquet he turned like a screw; Ritu ran over from the sidelines, instinctively ripping off her headband.
His heart had fluttered, but the doctor said it was nothing, just the groans of a body unused to the rhythms of good health.
He was making it through. He became calmer, more graceful, fitter, a champion among retirees. The more anxious she felt, the more he seemed to luxuriate into this full-blooded routine. In the mornings she’d wake up and he’d already be on the porch with the wings of a newspaper flapping before his face. Then winter came again and she got used to the idea of his being gay the way one gets used to the callousness of one’s children or the seasonal rants of the mother-in-law. He was himself, but trying doubly hard: he cooked chicken curry and cleaned the garage and wasn’t as incompetent as before. The garden was mowed in brilliant striations of green and blue-green. He said he’d led the happiest life he could have under the circumstances. Eventually—when she began again to accept his circumstances as hers—she agreed as well. His admission after all was a pledge of dependence and trust.
They were on normal talking terms and snowed inside the house by a terrible winter, and she said, “Did you never really act on it?”
They were watching TV but not really.
“No,” said Vinod. “I swear to God.”
“You should have,” Ritu ventured. “Maybe you should.”
“It’s too late for me,” he said. “I’m too old.”
Ritu was suddenly despondent. “It’s too late for me also. You should have just told me earlier. That way we could have separated and I could actually have been with someone who loved me.”
“I don’t know why you keep saying that,” Vinod said. “I loved you.”
“Someone who actually desired me,” Ritu continued.
He was quiet.
“How did you manage all these years?” she said.
He sank his chin into his chest. “I told myself I was interested in human faces. I would stare at men and women too. And for men I thought: this is how I wished I could look—and so I felt less guilty.”
“But how did you manage?” she interrupted.
“The Internet,” Vinod said.
Their intimacy was such—had always been such—that when she requested he show him exactly what he meant, it took only a few more minutes of coaxing before he, in fact, did. He booted with a triumphant beat his Macintosh computer. Before it he sat on a soft executive chair as she watched over his shoulder the most fantastic and grotesque images of man with man. She had always been a prude—whipping notwithstanding—and being aware of this, acted blasé, nodding her head and humming.
“Show me more,” she commanded.
Images appeared with that peculiar abrupt blink that images load on the Internet.
The revelation made him chatty. “It’s horrible. You can see. But what could I do? I used to go here sometimes in the morning before work. I used to wake up early and do this instead of exercising.”
Vinod seemed almost proud.
“That’s why you’re now having heart problems,” she smiled.
“Ha. I suppose,” he said. Then, after a pause: “I did all this surfing in secret. But I can tell you one thing. I never acted on it. I never masturbated to these images. They just were there, a thing to see. I know it’s deviant but what to do? I knew I couldn’t act on it. So I didn’t.”
“And you weren’t afraid of being found out?” said Ritu.
“I was,” Vinod said. “God, I was so afraid.”
She began to stroke his tense shoulders as he tapped the keyboard.
He turned around and said, “Actually once Anita saw me.”
He’d always been like a child—why didn’t he understand that not everything needed to be confessed? She now felt demoted in the scheme of her family; she had probably lived in the midst of their silent mockery for years. On the phone, Anita was unforgiving as usual. “I didn’t even know you knew how to use a computer.”
“Well,” Ritu said, building on her lies. “I was trying to write you an e-mail since you never call me and I found this picture of—men having sex—with men. It was horrible. Do you think it was Rohit?”
“Rohit? No—probably Dad. It’s not that big a surprise is it? I mean, we’ve all sort of known Dad is gay.”
Afterwards she pledged never to talk to her daughter, the queen of cool, again, but the shame wouldn’t dissipate: it was hers and hers alone. She imagined her children discussing her marriage clinically with their spouses: She’s so oblivious, she probably had no clue. To distract herself, later, when Vinod was asleep, she went online, with great difficulty and a flutter of fingers on the keyboard, to Shaadi.com, a marriage portal for Indians. The interface was confusing but she soon saw that there were thousands of postings by lonely Indian widowers—men her age, in their sixties—and she began to see how her life would be if she left Vinod. She’d have to go on dates with awkward men who put brilliantine in their hair and licked their fingers before they counted off bills and perhaps had lost a tooth or two to a betel-nut addiction. It’d be disgusting but at least she wouldn’t be an object of ridicule for her children: why did her children have to be so callous? Why couldn’t Anita have comforted her? She didn’t want to leave Vinod, but she hated the idea of being pitied. She wanted her self-respect back. She wanted Vinod back. The next day, she left him.
She was surprised by how welcoming Anita and John were—how quickly, despite Anita’s curt manner, they accepted her presence in the small Brooklyn apartment, and how little they quizzed her about why, after forty years, she felt the need to abandon the man she’d always referred to as her “outside heart.” But everything happens for a reason: she could see now that without this trip she’d never have known how wrong she was about her children and their spouses. John, who was Chinese, was as nice as any Indian son-in-law would have been—nicer, maybe, since he seemed to overcompensate for the mere fact of his existence. “Stay for as long as you like,” he said, over and over again, while his wife expressed her affection through aggressive hospitality.
“We fight less when you’re here Mom,” Anita confided.
If Vinod died, Ritu knew, they would take good care of her, and the thought, ominous and comforting at once, spiked her vision with tears. She began to suffer a full-blown depression. Waking up one morning with a table fan pointed at her face, she was unable to convince the muscle of her left arm to reach over and turn it off. She was pinned to her bed, on her back, a pillow stuffed under her legs as per a doctor’s advice. She felt simultaneously dehydrated and on the verge of going to the bathroom but nothing in the room—its generic plastic blinds, the landscape photographs that would have been at peace on an orthodontist’s wall, even the golden field of Anita’s mini tennis trophies planted on the wooden dresser—nothing in the room possessed the visual or mnemonic power to orient her, to show her a way out. The question wasn’t where she was, but why she was at all. Simple objects appeared to exist at the confluence of infinite chance: Why was a sari called a sari? Why was it wrapped one way and not tied another? Why were jeans blue? Why did the racquet reach for a tossed-up ball and not vice-versa? Could the pool be hungry for humans? Why were the blades of the fan pushing air out rather than sucking it in? What if she was Chinese and didn’t know it?
She didn’t think about Vinod because she was living in a world where Vinod had ceased to exist: a world without logic. The goodness of her children, the vanquishing of her prejudices, had destroyed her. She couldn’t move.
The psychiatrist, brought in on the tenth hour of her immobility, prescribed Zoloft; she flushed it down the toilet, ashamed: over the course of her life, Ritu had escaped many things—India, poverty, crassness, even work—but she had never escaped shame, the burning feeling that you may be caught in the crosshairs of someone else’s truth. If anyone needed a psychiatrist, it was her husband.
It was almost a relief to hear that Vinod, two hundred miles away, had suffered a minor heart attack on the tennis court.
It gave her a reason to go back: she arrived in the heat of July with Anita and Rohit and Bharat following a series of connecting flights. They each spent a day with Vinod, patting his chest in a paternal manner as he lay solidly on the hospital bed. “I was practicing to beat you when you got back,” he told Ritu once the kids had all left.
He had aged in the two months he’d been without her, and she felt, not without a certain measure of shameful pride, that she had killed him. His inheritance of cardiac arrest had caught up with him.
“But instead you’ve become a potato,” Ritu said.
“Yam,” Vinod corrected.
Then he fell asleep, sitting upright on the bed—what else to do?
“Are you at least going to be upset at your children?” she said, waking him up. “They hardly stayed a day. One tight slap will fix them.”
“My slapping days are over,” Vinod said drowsily. “You should know that. So are my whipping days.”
“You’re perverse,” Ritu said.
“And fat,” Vinod added.
“And gay,” Ritu said.
They were like an awkward couple on a first date. In a year she had gone from picturing his death to picturing life without him: he was to have valve-replacement surgery in a few hours.
“I should have had sex with many men,” he said suddenly. “I should have had sex with a man every day of my life. I should have had a man for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert.”
“You should have. That’s why I left. Did you have any luck?”
“It was a mistake to have not come out earlier. Years ago, when you were first pregnant, I wanted to tell you. I wanted to leave you. I thought you’d learn to deal with it: you’d have five tough years, maybe six, but you’d find your feet. But being a divorced Indian woman is as hard as being a gay Indian man, and it wasn’t right to force you into that role. Besides, I got used to performing. And then it was difficult to stop. You get addicted to it. It’s like being on a TV show or on Broadway, day after day. It’s like being Alan Alda on MASH. Now that I’ve stopped I feel I’ve lost my core,” he said. With one hand he felt around for the vain part in his hair. “Maybe telling you was a mistake. Maybe I should have kept on performing.”
She said, “So go back to it.”
He said, “But you’ll know.”
“Or not,” she said, “I can perform too. I’ll pretend nothing happened. I’ll pretend that we’ve just moved to the US and we’re one of those young fresh-off-the-boat couples that doesn’t know better. We’re both innocent. We’ve just had an arranged marriage,”—they’d had an arranged marriage, fantastic to think about now— “We’re at the start of our lives. Nothing has happened. We’re together.”
He put his hand in hers and then went in for his surgery. The next day he was dead.