They arrive after midnight on the twenty-third. Mala had called from Indianapolis at around 10 PM and said they were having dinner at a Denny’s. I told her I would put everything in the refrigerator, it wasn’t a problem. She said she was sorry, but they had left home later than they wanted, it hadn’t been in her control, the snow had been heavy since they crossed into Indiana. The weather was clear where we were, I told her. She said yes, but it was snowing where they were, and she really had tried to get home in time.
I could tell she was frustrated. The children were still awake, and the food hadn’t arrived yet. I could hear Vivek’s demands in the background and her own pleading, cajoling, halfhearted threats. Sachin had taken Shivani and was pacing back and forth in the waiting area, hoping to calm her. The tone of Mala’s apology was reproachful. She assumed that I was reproaching her, even though I wasn’t, even though I don’t think like that. I know she is harried, overstretched, a mother and a career woman. I cut the call short so she could focus on Shivani and Vivek.
I am still awake when she calls my phone again.
“Were you asleep?” she whispers. Her mood seems improved, I can tell from her tone. “We’re here.”
“Did you take the exit already?”
“We’re outside, in the driveway.”
I smile into the darkness. “Okay, I’m opening the door.” I tap Abhi’s arm, and he sits up and pinches the bridge of his nose, squeezing out the sleep. I get out of bed too quickly. The pain pills make me sway. Abhi throws off the covers and guides me to a sitting position. He lays his pillow at the foot of the bed, then stacks mine on top of it.
“Lie back and put your feet up.”
“They’re in the driveway.”
“I’ll open the door.”
“No. I’m coming.”
“They’ll know something’s wrong.”
“Something is wrong.”
“Don’t say that. Don’t even think that. Not for these next few days. You promised.”
We sit for several long seconds. Stalemate.
“They’re in the driveway,” I repeat.
He scoots to my side and, arm around my shoulder, helps me stand. As we get to the top of the stairs, my fingers press all the light switches, upstairs chandelier, downstairs chandelier, the fixture over the stairs. They will be watching from the van. They will see the light through the windows, the face of the house brightening in welcome. My daughter home, and my grandchildren: Will they see us on the stairs through the high oval window, Abhi with his arm around me, helping me down? I ease his arm off me and hold on to the railing; he hurries down a few steps and looks back, below me in case I fall.
“I am not dizzy anymore.”
“I sat up too quickly. That’s all.”
The winter silence has a presence like sound. The bright snow draws its glow from the track lights and the cat’s cradle of Christmas lights in our front yard maple tree. The light inside the van comes on, and I can see, between Mala and Sachin, the children in their car seats, symmetrical, brother and sister sleeping with their heads fallen aside to face each other. They look warm, serene.
Sachin tugs down his hat. His skin, still used to Indian weather, is more sensitive to the cold. Mala is already outside, no hat, no gloves, sliding Shivani’s arms through the car seat straps. Mala covers her with a coat and a scarf and hurries her to the porch steps, footsteps crunching softly.
I have been standing with the door open, feeling through my nightgown the same cold they feel. I want my focus of sensation to shift from inside, where the pain is, to my body’s surface.
The moment Mala comes inside, I worry about being seen in so much light. I worry she will notice at once a change too gradual for me or Abhi to detect.
“Is everything ready upstairs?” Mala asks, pushing off her snowy sneakers, sole to heel.
“It’s ready,” I whisper.
The house, sensing the cold, starts up the heating system. White noise, I think. Good, this will help them sleep. I follow mother and daughter up the stairs, keeping my face close to Shivani’s lying on her mother’s shoulder, cheek pushed up until the eye is just lashes. Abhi, who has gotten into his boots and coat to help with the luggage, pauses at the door. He waits until I make it to the top. Sachin arrives behind him, holding Vivek. Sachin greets Abhi in Gujarati. His voice is much too loud. He sits down on the stairs with Vivek still on his shoulder. He bites each glove’s fingertip to pull his hand free, then begins unlacing a boot. When he drops it next to Mala’s sneakers, the snow scatters over the floor and doormat.
Vivek shifts and mewls. He squints into the light, and my hand leaps to the switches, hoping to salvage his sleep. Sachin gets to work on the second boot. I hurry down the stairs, thinking I should maybe take Vivek myself. Abhi arrives at the door, a bag in each hand held off the ground, his frail shoulders sloping. He is just in time to see me fall.
* * *
I am not out long. Mala rushes down when she hears the noise. Abhi props me against his coat’s cold sleeve. He smells of the outdoors and of the snow.
“Where are you hurt?”
“It was just a few stairs.” I look into Abhi’s eyes, and he understands he must not tell.
Mala turns the lights back on and kneels beside me on the stairs. “Is she okay? Dad?”
“I’m fine,” I say, moving away from Abhi so I don’t appear dependent or weak. I glance upstairs, toward the guest room door where I have set up the mattresses. “Did I wake her?”
“How many stairs did you fall, Mom?”
“Just a few. Two steps, right here. Go close the door, Mala, she’ll wake up.”
Sachin speaks to me in Gujarati. “There’s a bump. I’ll go get some ice.”
I touch my forehead, embarrassed. “I shouldn’t have turned off the light. I slipped.”
“You go in the room with the kids,” Mala orders Sachin. “I can get the ice.”
Sachin nods. I turn to find Vivek’s face close to mine. He is still a little disoriented. He blinks at me.
I kiss his forehead.
Sachin picks him up, and he puts his head on his father’s shoulder right away. I bring my knees close to give them passage. Mala, at the foot of the stairs, pauses. “Are you hurt anywhere else?”
She comes up to touch my arm and my knee, as if to see if either gives. “Your legs? Are your legs okay?”
I know what she is thinking—that I have fallen and fractured my hip like an old woman. “I haven’t broken a hip,” I say with a little impatience.
“Just have to check,” Mala says, and kisses me, unexpectedly, on my widow’s peak.
She goes to the kitchen. Abhi holds me. I can hear the refrigerator’s ice dispenser. “Did you tell her?” I whisper to Abhi. In Gujarati, the question is only two quick words.
“When could I have told her?”
“Let’s get you to the bed.”
“No. The couch. Downstairs.”
“Everyone’s going to sleep.”
He takes me to the couch, tracking snow on the hardwood. Mala’s ice pack against my forehead, I watch the bits of white boot-print soften and clear. Sachin is still upstairs with the children, so Abhi brings in the rest of the luggage. Mala helps take it up the stairs. I lean forward to listen. Are they exchanging whispers? Mala turned on the kitchen lights to get me ice. Did she see me here on the couch and guess? She is a doctor, after all. She has called a patient’s name, swished the penlight over each glassy eye, knuckled the sternum. She has seen illness before, and she will see mine. Haven’t I seen it myself lately? Every night, I feel a stranger staring at me while I sleep, nose to nose. His shadow remains on my face.
Mala comes down with two bottles and starts washing them in hot water. I would have done it for her, but she has a specific ritual, and I have learned not to interfere. Abhi opens the closet. I hear a click and slide of hangers as his hand parts and pushes aside our coats, making room.
Sachin joins me. In his white socks he walks through Abhi’s melted boot-prints and doesn’t seem to notice. When he sits on the couch, his thighs tilt upward because he is so tall. He grew up in India, where everyone is shorter, and learned to slope his spine to hide his height. Resting on the carpet, his feet point slightly inward, just as they do when he walks.
Sachin asks me in Gujarati about my fall. He is relaxed, almost garrulous, anticipating Abhi’s arrival. When Abhi, smiling, comes into the still-dark family room, Sachin rises to hug him. They begin chatting immediately in Gujarati.
Abhi turns on the light, and I fear Sachin and Mala will see everything. I move the ice pack to hide my face. I am ashamed of this stupid bump that has brought me so much attention. Abhi, sitting close to me, murmurs a question about the drive. I know how happy Abhi usually is to see Sachin; I want to tell him he doesn’t have to distract himself with sympathy, he can sit next to Sachin.
Sachin eyes my forehead periodically. He is also a doctor, but maybe he doesn’t see the change in me, either. I wonder whether my slip on the stairs might be a windfall, this tender swelling distracting from the harder lump inside me.
Sachin turns the conversation, predictably, to OSU football. It’s what Abhi and he would usually talk about at this point. Mala, over by the sink, looks up in annoyance from the running faucet.
“Yes?” He is already on his feet.
“Sippy cups. I’m missing two.”
“Where do you think they are?”
“The back row. Or else check the floor between the car seats. I know I gave her apple juice.”
Sachin heads to the door and begins the process of lacing and zipping. Abhi says it is too cold to go out for two cups, but Sachin, in English, says it isn’t a problem. Abhi acquiesces. This is between husband and wife. Mala turns the faucet off, grabs a hand towel, and looks down the hallway at her husband. “What are you doing?”
“Putting on my glows,” he says, the v becoming a w. Most of the time he sounds American. Suddenly, under Mala’s glare, his accent comes out strong. Abhi and I keep our eyes on the carpet.
“Take your time, all right?”
The sarcasm has not registered. She keeps drying her hands while he pulls on his hat and gets his hood over it. She looks at us.
“Mom, Dad, you can go back to sleep. You don’t have to wait.”
Abhi smiles. “We’ll go up with you.”
Sachin closes the front door behind him, at last.
“How’s that bump, Mom?”
She comes close and draws a gentle fingertip across my cold skin. “It’s fine now,” I say. The bump is at my hairline. I haven’t colored my hair in some time. Neither has Abhi. Although we are stocked with L’Oréal boxes in the bathroom closet, one shelf below the towels, Soft Black, we’ve lost the desire to do it. From this close, Mala must be noticing my gray hair.
Though I, too, see some disturbing signs up close: the sinkhole above my daughter’s collarbone, the brittle lines from elbow to wrist, the too-sharp outline of her jaw. She needs to eat. She does not eat.
Have I gone completely gray under the dye? Would what is happening inside me seem less of a shock if I didn’t fool myself with young hair? I have my mother’s hair, loose at the roots, every morning a matted tangle over the shower drain, and wisps wound around two fingers and tugged free of the comb.
Sachin returns with the sippy cups. He takes off his gloves and boots but stands with the winter coat still on, shoulders dusted in fine snow. His hands look small at the ends of his puffy sleeves, the plastic Mickey Mouse cups even smaller. Mala takes them without saying thank you. As Sachin removes the rest of his gear, the talk turns to weather, how many inches of snowfall in St. Louis versus here, how bad it was last year—and I think how merciful it is that all people have the weather in common, the one subject everybody can talk about. We three speak in Gujarati, Sachin at ease again, his pleasantness undiminished by his humbling. Steam rises from the sink as Mala turns the fixture all the way left and holds the cups under the water, her face set, as though proving to herself she can withstand the heat.
* * *
Upstairs, in the dark, Abhi sits on the bed. I tug at his pajama sleeve.
“Do you really think we can do this?” he says. “Pretend this way? Let them know.”
“It’s late. The little ones will be up early.”
“Tomorrow morning. Take Mala aside.”
“This is their last visit before things change, Abhi. I told you.”
“You will have her as she is, then.”
“That’s what I want. You saw, she was sweet to me when she came in.”
“Tonight she snapped at Sachin, tomorrow morning she may snap at you.”
“I don’t mind.”
He shakes his head. “How can we walk about as if there’s nothing crushing us?”
“This is their last visit before they find out and things change.”
He covers his face a moment, palms side by side, then slides the heels of his hands up to his eyes and presses in frustration. “Things have already changed. You are in pain. I know it. I see it every time I look in your eyes.”
“It’s not nothing.”
“You should sleep, Abhi. Mala says the kids have been getting up lately at six thirty.”
“It’s not nothing.”
“Come here. Come here and sleep.”
Abhi shakes his head again and joins me under the covers. He lies apart from me for a few moments, then he turns and sets his thigh over mine, brings his arm under my breasts, nuzzles my neck. Once, this used to be a signal that he wished to make love; now it is the burrowing of a scared creature. The thigh and arm that rest on me make sure that I do not vanish without warning. I cannot remember when we last made love. I do not want to remember, either. If we let it happen now, I will keep thinking, This may be the last time. Maybe I will think it just once, then concentrate harder, focus, shake the thought from my head—but the pleasure, if there can be any pleasure, would rise between my legs like a lump in the throat. I would be conscious of every moment. And later I would remember this one night, our last, more intensely than all the others we have spent together, back when we were time’s millionaires, rolling in nights.
I lie on my back for a while, unable to sleep. I trace Abhi’s arm across my chest, the soft hairs of his hand, his rough knuckles, his fingers limp now that he has fallen asleep. I find the white gold of his wedding band and turn it around and around, as though winding a clock.
Copyright © 2013 by Amit Majmudar