“In their silence they continued both to protect me and to punish me. The memory of that night was now the only tie between us, eclipsing everything else.”
“But you don’t wear an engagement ring.”
“I don’t have one.”
He studied the bangle, turning it slowly around.
“What kind of man proposes without a ring?”
She explained, then, that there had not been a proposal, that she hardly knew Navin. She was looking away, at a dried-out plant on the terrace, but she felt his eyes on her, intrigued, unafraid.
“Then why are you marrying him?”
She told him the truth, a truth she had not told anybody.
“I thought it might fix things.”
He did not question her further. Unlike her friends back in America, who either thought she was doing something outrageously stupid or thrillingly bold, Kaushik neither judged nor commended her, and the formal presentation of the facts, the declaration that she was taken, opened the door.
Only his kisses, rough, aggressive kisses that were nothing like Navin’s schoolboy behavior at her door, made Hema feel guilty. But the rest of what they did that night felt fresh, new, because she and Navin had never done them before, and there was nothing with which to compare.
Navin had never looked at her body unclothed, never explored her with his hands, never told her she was beautiful. Hema remembered that it was Kaushik’s mother who had first paid her that compliment, in a fitting room shopping for bras, and she told this to Kaushik. It was the first mention, between them, of his mother, and yet it did not cause them to grow awkward. If anything it bound them closer together, and Hema knew, without having to be told, that she was the first person he’d ever slept with who’d known his mother, who was able to remember her as he did. His bare feet were warm, surprisingly smooth against her soles as they lay afterward side by side. He slept on his back and at one point was startled awake by a nightmare, lunging forward and springing off the edge of the bed before falling asleep again. It was Hema who stayed awake, listening to him breathing, craving his touch again as light came into the sky. In the morning, looking into the small mirror over the sink in Kaushik’s bathroom, she saw that the area around her lips, at the sides of her mouth, was covered with small red bumps. And she was pleased by that unbecoming proof, pleased that already he had marked her.”
“At the end of that week, Navin arrived to marry me. I was repulsed by the sight of him, not because I had betrayed him but because he still breathed, because he was there for me and had countless more days to live. And yet without his even realizing it, firmly but without force, Navin pulled me away from you, as the final gust of autumn wind pulls the last leaves from the trees. We were married, we were blessed, my hand was placed on top of his, and the ends of our clothing were knotted together.
I returned to my existence, the existence I had chosen instead of you. It was another winter in Massachusetts, thirty years after you and your parents had first gone away. In February, Giovanna got in touch to say she had heard the news from Paola. A small obituary ran in The New York Times. By then I needed no proof of your absence from the world; I felt it as plainly and implacably as the cells that were gathering and shaping themselves in my body. Those cold, dark days I spent in bed, unable to speak, burning with new life but mourning your death, went unquestioned by Navin, who had already begun to take a quiet pride in my condition.
It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.”