Walking briskly, almost at a half run, Hema loped around the track. She couldn’t believe how much space there was here – so much space to drown herself in. She loved it. Basked in it. Being alone on the track didn’t bother her – indeed she looked forward to these stolen moments at lunch. Instead of eating she would take off, run towards the track, the bottom half of her pantsuit exchanged for flowing cotton pants. Summer on the East coast was not arid like the heat of Calcutta and by the time her legs, unaccustomed to pantyhose and sneakers, hit the asphalt of the track, she was already sweating.
The dark circles forming under her arms and around her neck would later disappear when she exchanged this twin set for a fresh one. For now however, nothing mattered but her and the silence. She tried to imagine the vastness inside her, tried to compare it to the circle of the track. She wanted to picture her lining inside, red, soft and cushiony, waiting to nourish their baby. The image was fuzzy in her head because she kept getting distracted by the doctor’s voice, “Keep trying, keep trying. There’s nothing wrong with either of you. You’re both perfectly healthy.” Hema had wanted to slap his smug face. He had beamed at them from behind a desk cluttered with pictures of a chubby boy with a toothless grin and a dimply girl in a children’s bathing suit. They were in various poses, sometimes with a woman, sometimes on their own smiling into the camera. Each picture was in its own frame. Six in all. The images of their pale white skin haunted Hema’s sleep.
Her legs drove her onwards; she pumped her hands as she had seen the elderly women in her neighborhood do every evening immediately after dinnertime. She could feel the cotton rubbing slightly across her hips, chafing with the rotating movement of her thighs. The shell of her twin set hung directly below her navel and she fought the urge to feel for her bellybutton. She was fascinated by this hole. Its emptiness was evidence of her lifelong debt to her mother. She tried to imagine a cord stretching from between her legs to the center of a squalling, blood-covered infant. She couldn’t.
She was circling around the track a second time when she discarded the cardigan, looping it over her shoulders as she had seen in the shops. She fussed with its sleeves and arranged them so that they formed a neat knot in the center, between her chin and chest, lying in the hollow of her neck. She continued walking. Would I hear a baby inside me, she wondered. How long before it began kicking would I know it was there?
She tried to avoid the calendar. Unable to deal with the mounting tension and crushing disappointments, she no longer religiously kept up with her schedule. Hema met the sight of blood every month with stifled sobs while Vikram slept. She could never meet his hopeful gaze those mornings and always lingered in the shower, leaving him to prepare his own breakfast. Although, this month she had yet to see it. Maybe it would be this month.
Her doctor advised her that walking was better than running. Staying healthy was the number one priority. Healthiness would lead to more follicles; more follicles meant more fertility. And more fertility meant peace from Vikram’s family√É¬≠s relentless questions. So she found herself outside, every week, even when it rained, folded tight into her raincoat, doing what she knew to change her impending ejection.
Hema checked her watch; only twenty more minutes to go. She sighed at a bird flying overhead, heading into the cool forest surrounding the track. It was nice to be sheltered from the sights and sounds of the office park by this screen of oaks and myrtles. Nice to have the space to use for things that were pleasing to the eye, rather than purely function.
It was a system foreign to Hema, but one that she was readily adopting. After her visit to an officemate’s home, she promptly returned and discarded all the boxes Vikram had been storing up in the hallway. He wanted them for the next move and lacking storage space decided to place them in the next logical space, the hallway. Hema threw them out while Vikram was working on Saturday. After he left early in the morning she gathered her resolve and set to work. She split the adhesive neatly with a butter knife, folding cardboard until there were neat stacks. Both were higher than her head when she placed them at the end of the curb. The garbage truck came; right on schedule, and then they were gone. When Vikram returned, dumbfounded, she explained that if he wanted to be in India, living amidst rubbish, he could move back. He didn’t talk to her for two days. She trembled, waiting for him to display an uncontrollable temper. Her male relatives were always just a breath away from rattling the teeth in the nearest woman√É¬≠s head. But he hadn’t. Vikram√É¬≠s anger was silent and unsustainable. He forgave her as soon as she made his favorite lamb curry.
She smiled at the marigolds and tulips planted in the grassy center of the track. Beauty was here everywhere, people paid for it, lavishly. Even silly places, like the track at an office park held as much beauty that space and money could provide. She loved it here.
Her ring was growing loose under the growing clamminess of her hands. Vasantha had given her a ring to commemorate her son’s birth and laughingly asked for a necklace from Hema on the birth of her first child. That was before. Now that it had been two years, and the veiled threats whispered at family functions, no one joked about her first child. Hema twisted the ring back toward the base of her finger.
“She has definitely taken to the American way,” Vikram said, as they drove away from her sister’s townhouse. Hema had been silent; she knew he detested Vasantha’s gifts and parties.
“You two are so different,” he muttered, later in bed.
Hema shook her head. She rounded the curve, the tendons in her hips straining as she continued to push forward. How much weight would I gain? Would I show like a calving cow? She was prevented fro knowing these things, having been in India during Vasantha’s pregnancy. Shame kept her from asking.
She was entering the last straightway of her journey. The tension between Vikram and Vasantha started immediately after their move. The two months in Vasantha’s house had been hard on him; Vikram was unused to her ‘brash’ ways. That Vasantha divorced her husband of six years hadn’t really helped matters either. But Hema knew that without her sister√É¬≠s sponsorship, they would never have been able to come to America. Her long braid swished along her back, its tightness not loosened by her exertions. She longed for a reason to cut it. She yearned for the stylish bob of a new mother – the only acceptable reason for losing womanish length. She would bemoan her lack of time for personal grooming to Vikram and he would let her cut it.
Hema sighed and wiped away the sweat above her lip. Vikram worried about the baby. His own brother waited only six months before news of their first child. And Vasantha was so fertile she reaped within the first year. For Hema and Vikram, eighteen months meant being doomed to infertility.
Ajit. Vasantha√É¬≠s son. Hema√É¬≠s mouth softened. At seven he was the star of their small family his every achievement, an instance for praise. Ajit was everything to them. The first male child in Hema√É¬≠s family since her father, and the only grandchild. With the addition of a cousin for Ajit, Hema knew everyone would be satisfied.
She was startled out of her thoughts when the bird flying overhead emitted a sharp squawk.
“Is someone coming to my house, Mr. Crow?” Hema asked. Mother always said that the black messengers knew more about humans than humans themselves. It was Friday and Vikram didn’t like to have visitors on Fridays.
“Not tonight, Mr. Crow, but maybe tomorrow.” Hema sighed again thinking of her mother. Mother had not been to America and sworn she would only come to help her daughters if they were in need. Hema knew this meant if one of them were pregnant. Vasantha had Ajit at home, and wasn’t likely to remarry any time soon, despite Vikram’s premonitions otherwise, Hema knew it would have to be for her child that her mother braved the transatlantic flight. She watched the crow flying away, still squawking, loudly. Maybe he intended his message for someone else.
Just below where the crow disappeared, Hema saw the faintest trace of a figure. She squinted in the bright sun. Usually no one else was around during this time, her time. She specifically chose her time so that she could walk without the weight of social chatter that slowed people to a crawl.
As she continued, Hema realized the figure was a man, standing almost at the very end of the track. She kept advancing. Here it was okay to be among different genders. It was a fact that had startled her the first time a male co-worker offered to drive her to the office Christmas party. Christmas itself had been a difficult enough thing to manage; but this intermingling was astounding. Later, when she told Vasantha, Hema puzzled over her sister√É¬≠s reaction.
“Hema! He was only being polite. He knows you are new to the area!” Vasantha laughed all over again at the blank look on her sister’s face.
“But Vasantha, Jeffrey is married,” she said.
“Hema, in America it is okay to be among men. They don’t all think you are loose, you know. You don√É¬≠t have to sit on your own side of the bus or the classroom here. They all mix freely. They start young.” Vasantha managed to wipe tears from her eyes and pat her sister’s shoulder. Sometimes Hema forgot Vasantha was the same girl she slept next to for most of her life.
“Well. I knew they showed that in the movies. I just didn’t know it was okay for normal people to do.”
Hema smiled again. It was funny to her now, eight months later. She was almost finished her shins aching. She was closer now, could see the man√É¬≠s profile faced her, but a bit turned away. He was standing in the middle of the track, almost in her direct pathway, head cocked like he was talking on the phone. There was enough distance to adjust her movement. She shifted over to the left. He wore a grey suit, the jacket hooked over his shoulder with a lazy finger, the shirt collar rumpled, tie loose, buttons undone. Hema saw curly hair creeping into the opening above the tie; Vikram√É¬≠s chest was as smooth as her own.
The man laughed.
Her strides slowed so that she was ambling now, not really walking, but still heading toward him. She was torn between hearing her sister’s laugh echoing inside her head and the years of warnings about avoiding men. She was almost upon him and he had not moved. She swallowed. What would Vasantha do? Her sister would walk forward with her bold gait, short hair bouncing at each purposeful step. Hema chewed her lower lip. Her hands rubbed the fabric of her sweater, holding it like a talisman.
He had seen her. She wished her sweater were a heavy raincoat. Within seconds they would be level with each other. She forced her hands to her sides and took a few breaths – meant to be relaxing but their shallowness only underscored her mounting anxiety. I’m in America, she reminded herself. This is just a man. Not a threat to my honor. Somehow the words made a dull pinging sound against her inner ear. The man was facing her fully now. A mere handbreadth away. Go. No, turn around! Hema pressed her hands against her hips.
“Hema you must be careful while in public. American men are not like Indian men. They might misunderstand your politeness.” Vikram’s voice, warm and soothing, while he rubbed her back with coconut oil. She had glanced over her shoulder.
“Vikram, Vasantha told me that!” His finger on her lips interrupted her.
“Let us not fight tonight, okay?”
She nodded her head. It was their night to try. Again. She felt the passion leaking out of them like a punctured balloon. This is what her mother warned her of when it came to ‘obligations.’ Hema longed for the child so that she could return to being with Vikram rather than to service him.
“Please, just listen to me and be careful.” Vikram clasped her to him then, fiercely, encircling her stomach from behind.
Remembering the desperation in their lovemaking that night, without realizing it, Hema halted. She was now standing next to the man. He was looking at her.
She wanted to move on and show Vasantha√É¬≠s fearlessness of every situation. She wanted to stride by with a large grin, stretching from ear to ear. Hema started forward grinding her teeth. If she were going to live here, she better learn how to blend in. Her hands fisted. The man turned. He had sharp eyes, green like bits of the Heineken bottles that Virkam loved to drink but Hema had never touched.
She broke every rule she knew about being around men. In flagrant disregard of womanly shyness, she met his eyes. It had been three months before she looked directly into her husband√É¬≠s. Her boldness was short-lived, she felt weak and she trembled under the man√É¬≠s penetrating gaze, which latched to her face.
“Hello.” His voice was soft, like the homemade butter she and her mother churned.
She, somehow, managed a nod. His shirt was untucked, the cuffs of his pants dragging on the ground. He was almost a full head above her, 6′ 2″ or 3″ if she was correct. She realized he wore no shoes.
And she was rooted to the ground. The sight of his feet, white, broad toes, and clean, short-clipped nails startled her. Americans normally wore their shoes everywhere; her few American friends had special shoes to wear inside their houses, shoes even specifically for their bedrooms called bedroom slippers. Vikram had placed a sign near the doorway at their housewarming to help their co-workers. Either the sign had been too subtle or the pile of Indian shoes too small, they had entered into the puja with their shoes on.
The green gaze followed her direction and then he laughed. Even white teeth, strong neck. She smiled back.
“Yeah, I’m busted,” he said, swung down the jacket and tossed it on the grass covering the middle of the track.
Hema started – busted for what? As soon as she thought it, she began looking out the corner of her eye. The unkempt nature of clothes meant an illicit romp. She was disgusted at herself for being attracted to him; of course that√É¬≠s why some woman had met him out here and he was standing without any shoes on. To think, he used this routine to catch his next partner! She lengthened her spine as her mother had taught her to do; “Remember Hema, no man would dare molest a woman with a queen√É¬≠s posture.”
Hema nodded, what she hoped was severely at him, and swept by. The encounter had put new fire in her veins; she was ready to sweep around the track. Maybe then my cheeks will stop burning, she thought. His wide green eyes were still before her, as she marched with each purposeful step. And even golden brown skin√É¬≥not the pasty tone of most of the people she knew here. She sniffed. He probably spent time in those tanning beds. Why Americans spent money to get darker, she would never know. She had been shut in during most daylight hours or made to wear a screening shawl so that her parents could write √É¬¨parents seeking groom for their well educated fair skinned beautiful daughter√É¬Æ in her matrimonial ad. Of course all parents liked to boast of these qualities; the groom discovered their accuracy at the initial family meeting.
She had been disappointed by Vikram – his parents promised a ” 5’11” medical doctor, American citizenship, six figure salary.” No one would have understood her objection to the false representation of his height; so she had kept it to herself. But rather than the powerful 5′ 11″ shoulder she expected to nestle into, she found herself at 5′ 8″ stooping to reach his 5′ 5″ frame.
“What is a few inches when you know he will provide for you the rest of your life,” her mother would have said, smacking her in the cheek. Not a smack really, just more of a tap as if to say, I-am-just-checking-to-make-sure-you-are-awake-saying-these-things.
She sighed. Well, mother was right. Vikram provided well for her. Except for this child situation, there were no outstanding issues. She had a dependable man, unlike the snake with the emerald eyes, frolicking at the exercise track at work, in the middle of the day. Hema rounded the top curve of the south end of the track. She had come around in half the time. She flexed her shoulders and back, putting her palms in the small of her back. Just half a length more and she would be back to her side of the building. And she would have to pass him again. She exhaled through her nose, trying to control the air. She would bolt by and in her silence; freeze him as she had seen her aunts do at the market with a stubborn produce vendor.
She gathered speed, and noticed his broad shoulders did not fill the horizon as they had on her initial trip. She ignored the tinge of disappointment. Perhaps the couple had finished.
“You really should slow down; you√É¬≠re missing life you know.”
She almost snapped her neck, looking back to see him, on his stomach, propped up by elbows, fingers rifling through the landscaped grass and marigolds, not a woman in sight. He rolled over onto his back, his shirt bunching and exposing tight muscles. Out from underneath the discarded jacket came a zip-locked sandwich. He took a large bite and winked at her.
“Have a great day,” he said, those green eyes knowing everything; even her desire to know him; to try a different man, to see if it really was her fault or her husband’s as she secretly suspected.