Published in: Tumbarumba: a frolic of intrusions
"Sara?" Her husband stuck his head around the door of her studio. "Can you pick up Gaya from dance class this afternoon?"
"What?" Sarala blinked twice from behind her glasses, jarred from the image she’d held in her mind, the image that stubbornly refused to come out into the paint on her canvas. There was a body, she knew — a body, and wings — but more than that. Not as trite as a woman turning into a bird, seeking flight, freedom, escape. Along with the wings were powerful haunches, poised to leap, muscles tense and yearning. And claws, sharp and long; teeth, red at the tips. All caught at the moment of shifting, transformation, in that liminal space where every possibility hangs, glorious, waiting.
He repeated patiently, "Dance class, after school. It’s going an hour later today, and I have a meeting at 5."
"Nihal, you promised me — " She sounded whiny, she knew — and what right did she have, as a stay-at-home mother, to ask him to leave work to shuttle his kid around town? She was lucky, she knew, to have a husband who routinely did so much for his children. All her friends told her how lucky she was. (It was only a small voice that quietly amended to his friends’ wives, not her friends, and she squashed it without mercy.) She had so little time to herself, though. She loved the girls, loved being a mom. And it wasn’t as if she were a serious artist. But surely a few hours to herself once a week wasn’t too much to ask?
Nihal grimaced apologetically. "I know, kunju, and we’ll find some other time for you to work. Maybe Saturday morning? I can watch them then, maybe take them out to the zoo."
"They’re still a little young to be entertained by the zoo," she said sharply.
"Or the mall, then. Don’t all girls love shopping?" He grinned at her, clearly trying to pull a smile from her in response.
She sighed, and gave in, smiling faintly. "I’m sure they will, in a few years." Sarala did love shopping for clothes, even if her mother-in-law, Harini, insisted on commenting on the bright silks and chiffons she chose. Perhaps they were more suited to a girl half her age and half her weight, but Sarala felt pretty in them.
She had worn a gypsy skirt to a family gathering once, when they were first dating. She’d seen the eyes widening in all of Nihal’s aunts, who dressed so elegantly, so tastefully. After one restrained comment, carefully out of Nihal’s earshot — Darling, are you sure that skirt is your color?, Sarala had pled an upset stomach and returned home to burn the skirt in a trash can in the garage. She had doused it in gasoline, then threw in a lit piece of paper, not expecting the gout of flame that shot up, singeing the hair on her arm. Sequins and bits of colored silk had flown up in the air, dissolving in bitter smoke. It was only when the skirt was ruined past repair that Sarala had reached in and grabbed it out. She had cut it up for a collage piece, which now hung over their bed, and she had promised herself that from that day forward, she would wear whatever the hell she wanted. She left the sensible brown pantsuits to Harini.
"I suppose I can pick her up," Sarala said, trying for a cheerful, non-grudging tone, as she started to put away her paints and brushes. The canvas was ruined now, would dry half-finished. It didn’t matter.
"Thank you, darling." Nihal came into the room, bent and pecked a kiss on her forehead. Sarala wondered when she had stopped finding that small habit of his charming and started being irritated. It was never a long romantic kiss, the kind you saw in the movies. Just a husbandly peck, fond but hurried. Lately she wanted to grab Nihal’s head and drag it down to hers, tear at his mouth with her own, ravage him with kisses until he was gasping for breath. Sometimes when the impulse hit her, Sarala would have to bite back a gasp; the longing was so intense, so animal. And then she would squeeze her eyes closed, take a breath, and put on a careful smile, wondering all the while what was wrong with her.
Theirs was a mixed marriage, in more ways than one. Nihal the sensible engineer, the good Catholic, the beautiful one. Sarala, the flighty artist, either agnostic or atheist, depending on how certain of the universe she felt that day. Not sensible, not religious, and oh yes, not beautiful. She had seen the disappointment in her mother-in-law’s face, when Sarala walked up the aisle in her white and gold wedding sari, as beautiful as make-up and hair-styling could make her, as beautiful as she would ever be, but clearly not good enough for the shining only son. The old witch could not understood why her son had chosen this one — Sarala had heard Nihal’s side of the phone conversations, enough to know that Harini had begged her son to choose another, or better yet, let his mother choose one for him.
But Harini lost that battle, perhaps the only one she’d ever lost, and Nihal had married her, plain Sarala. Twenty pounds too fat, even before she had the girls, forehead too big, eyes too small, over-large breasts too saggy. Her skin covered with silvery-pale stretchmarks, on arms and breasts and thighs, and still he picked her. Sarala had never dared to ask him why. She had said yes when Nihal asked if he could sit by her in their college cafeteria. Said yes when he asked her to dinner that night. Said an anxious yes in her bedroom, five months later, sure that he would turn away now, repulsed, when he finally saw what lay beneath her clothes. When he only smiled and bent to kiss her, naked flesh to flesh, Sarala knew that she would say yes to anything he ever asked.
She sat on the oriental rug with Devyani, helping the toddler stack wood blocks. Or, more accurately, stacking them herself and then letting Devi knock them down again, chortling with glee. Devi didn’t have the coordination yet to stack to the blocks herself, but she loved watching Sarala build the tower higher and higher, waiting for the last block to go on top before she reached out and swiped a surprisingly strong hand through the stack, sending the blocks flying while Sarala quickly pulled her arms and legs out of the way.
The blocks were pointy, and hurt when they went flying — plastic would have been more practical, less dangerous. But Devi still insisted on chewing on most of her toys, and the wood blocks had charming paintings of bright animals on the sides — dolphins and elephants and monkeys and giraffes; Sarala hadn’t been able to resist them. So she took the occasional sharp blow to herself or her daughter, counting it a small price to pay for a little more beauty in their lives.
It would be nice to have someone to share that with, though. She didn’t know how it had happened, how she had lost all of her friends. Or not lost, exactly — they still kept in touch, through e-mail and phone. But it wasn’t the same as having a friend drop by for a cup of tea and a long chat, while the children played at their feet. That was the image that glowed so fiercely in her mind, but all of her friends were gone. She had moved to the suburbs with Nihal, seduced by the promise of broad streets to bike on and grassy yards for the girls to play in.
They’d bought a house three times the size of their city apartment, and she did love it — the old Victorian with its wraparound porch, art glass, splendid entry hall and winding cherry wood staircase. She loved it, but she hadn’t expected that it would become so difficult to stay in touch with her friends in the city. It’s only twenty minutes away, they said. But twenty minutes in the wrong direction, and more like forty if you had to take the train; most of them didn’t have children or a car, and there was so little time in their busy lives for getting on a train to drop in on a friend and sit on the floor, playing blocks with the children. So they’d started drifting apart, and then some had moved away — for love, or work, or adventure.
And here she was, sitting in her beautiful house, having dinner parties every week with Nihal, his friends from work, and their wives — who were nice enough women, she was sure, but all they seemed to talk about were their children and their nannies and their clothes. At best they would discuss a book they’d read for book club, but half of them hadn’t had time to read the book, and she couldn’t blame them — she had to steal time to read herself, when the girls were finally asleep. While reading, Sarala would be guiltily aware that she should be planning healthy dinners for the next week, or researching the best pre-schools, or at least doing some laundry, so they wouldn’t be stuck wearing their pyjamas to school the next day. The women were too nice to ever comment on that, of course — they just chattered merrily about their own travails, their own mistakes, inviting Sarala to share in the communal endeavor of parenting. They meant well, but sometimes she just wanted to rip off her clothes at the dinner table and dance naked on the table. What would such nice women do then?
Sarala placed the final block on the towering structure, and Devi shrieked with pleasure, plowing into it headfirst this time, sending the blocks flying, one to slam into Sarala’s forehead, perilously close to an eye. And then Devi was howling, indignant that her beloved blocks had turned on her, and Sarala was biting her lip, caught between frustration, pain, and a reluctant laughter. She reached out to gather her little girl into her lap, soothing away the tears.
Sarala scoured the windows in her husband’s study, disgusted with how dirty they’d gotten. He always told her not to bother cleaning in here, that he didn’t notice, didn’t care. Why should she go to the trouble? Nihal kept the door closed, and most days she could forget what lay beyond the dark wood door — the chaos of books and papers strewn over every surface, the empty coke cans and dirty espresso cups. But this evening she couldn’t seem to settle herself — the house was clean, the girls asleep, and Nihal was still out, working even later than expected. Sarala had paced restlessly, back and forth down the hallways, unable to concentrate, unable to paint. She had even climbed into bed and pulled out the little electric toy that she had bought secretly over the internet, yet even that had given only temporary relief. Finally Sarala had started scrubbing. The rest of the house was soon spotless — the only dirty room left was Nihal’s forbidden study. She took a deep breath and went in.
Straightening the stacks hadn’t taken long — she hadn’t dared to try to actually put the papers away. She’d washed the cups, thrown out the trash, and now the windows were clean too, letting in a clear wash of gentle moonlight that disappeared in the brightness of every light in the room, even the closet’s. Sarala had wanted to be sure she could see all the dirt. All that was left was to sweep and wash the wood floors; thick layers of dust huddled in the corners of the room, and Sarala couldn’t wait to attack them with her broom and mop. If she could just move his desk; it was heavy, but if she wedged her fingers under the rim, jammed her hip against the side, and pushed — the side of the desk caved in, breaking in two with a sharp crack.
At first Sarala didn’t even know what she was seeing — she was too startled to find flimsy plywood where there should have been solid oak. She bent down, her fingers reaching out to trace the edges of the opening that had been revealed — long grooves along the edges of the frame, where a sliding panel had smoothly fitted seconds ago. Sarala had been with Nihal when they’d bought this desk — Pottery Barn, or Crate and Barrel? Certainly there’d been no mention of a secret panel in the catalog copy. He must have added this himself, afterwards. Just large enough to hide a few thick inches of paper. Sarala reached into for the pages, already knowing, somehow, what she would find.
She was sitting at the kitchen table when Nihal came home, the bright pages of the magazines spread out in front of her. Supple airbrushed flesh, thighs and torsos and oh yes, that. Lots of that. She didn’t look up when the door opened, letting in a cool draft of late August air. Just watched her finger trace its way across the pages, following the shapes.
"It wouldn’t be so bad," she said, quietly, "if they were women." Not that she would have enjoyed knowing that her husband spent secret hours poring over beautiful young women, with perfect breasts and slender waists. But it would have been better than this.
"Sarala…kunju. I can explain." His face was pale, his tone earnest, pleading.
She shrugged. "Why did you try to hide them? That’s what I can’t understand. Why go to so much trouble — " and here her hand swept out, encompassing not just the desk with its secret panel, but the house, the marriage, the children — "to hide it. This is the new millennium, after all, and we live in America. If you had just come out, you could have avoided all…this." Her voice had wanted to break on that last word, but she was proud that she had kept it steady. Pleased that there were no tears in her eyes as she finally raised her head to face her husband.
"No, no, you don’t understand." He took a step toward her, and she shoved her chair back, pulling away.
"What’s to understand? I’m a — what’s the word? A beard, that’s right. Your cover. A mask, disguise, camouflage. That’s all I ever was. I don’t even know how you could bring yourself to have sex with me, night after night. You faked it really well, you know. I have to give you credit for that. Although I suppose it was only for a few months." She’d gotten pregnant just a few months after their wedding, and while they hadn’t expected it to happen quite so quickly, they’d been happy. Sarala had heard that the second trimester was some kind of sexual peak, but she’d been so busy vomiting through all nine months of both pregnancies that she’d missed that completely. And after the babies there was the breastfeeding, and what Nihal had insisted was post-partum depression, though she hadn’t agreed, and Gaya and Devi climbing into their bed in the middle of the night. She could count the number of times they’d had sex in the last three years on her fingers, and still have fingers left over.
He had taken such good care of her through it all, changing far more diapers than she did, waking up with the babies in the middle of the night, walking them endlessly up and down the halls to soothe them back to sleep. And her husband had never pressed her for sex during those years when she had almost no interest. She had thought that it had been her choice, that Nihal hadn’t initiated things because he was being considerate of her needs. He’d only said, You just tell me when you’re ready. She had thought him the perfect husband.
"Darling, I’m so sorry — " Nihal’s eyes were bright with concern, and he reached a hand out to her, as if nothing is wrong between them. As if he could just pull her into his arms and it would all be all right, exactly the way it was before.
She forced the questions out through dry lips, not sure if she wanted to hear the answer. "Where were you really tonight? Who were you with?" How many had there been, on how many other late nights?
"No one — Sarala, please! You have to listen to me…"
"I don’t have to do a damn thing, you lying, cheating, bastard." And there — there was the anger, welling up hot and molten from some internal core, where pressure had been building for longer than she could remember. Driving her up to her feet, striding one, two steps to him, pulling her arm back and shaping her hand into a fist until it drove forward, slamming into his cheek with the full weight of her two hundred pounds behind it, knocking her gentle, slender husband to the ground. It should have hurt — she knew that, knew it should have been a bright starburst of agony for her hand. But she felt nothing.
Sarala turned, and walked away.
He found her in the moonlit garden. Nihal knew her well enough to let her have some time — time enough for her temper to cool, and for a truly glorious bruise to start ripening on his cheek. Now her hand hurt, the knuckles sharp with pain. Sarala was deadheading his roses, tearing off the dying blooms. Old English varietals that Nihal had driven an hour north to find — Christopher Marlowe. The Dark Lady. Sarala had considered destroying the buds as well, shredding the flowers that he had labored over.
She should have known, when he took such pains with his flowers, leaving the vegetables and herbs to her. Nihal coaxed the hydrangeas into bright blueness, adding just the right amount of acid to the soil, and he was careful to mulch each and every bed and container, so the soil would retain its moisture. Every week, on Sunday morning, Nihal would go out early and cut the best of the flowers to bring inside, so that when she came down for her morning tea, a bright profusion would be waiting to greet her. He loved the flowers more than he loved her, and she wanted to tear them apart — but couldn’t bring herself to do it, in the end. The single punch would have to be enough.
"That must hurt," she said, after a quick glance at his face, quietly pleased with her handiwork. She didn’t know she had it in her.
He stood quietly beside her, not coming too close. "It does. A lot."
He sighed, then asked quietly, "Will you let me talk now?"
Nihal had left off the darling, the kunju, this time, she noticed. Lucky for him — if he’d dared try those endearments, she might have found the passion to hit him again. Sarala shrugged, her eyes fixed on the roses.
He took a deep breath, and then said, "I’m not gay."
"Please!" Did he think she was an idiot, as well as ugly?
"I’m not. I’m bisexual." He swallowed, as if the very word were hard to say. "I like men, but I like women too. I think women are sexy. I think you’re sexy."
She shook her head, not believing him. "Why would you bother to hide that? Tons of people are bi these days." Sarala had even wondered if she might be bi herself, in college, but since she’d never met a woman she actually wanted to kiss, she’d decided she probably wasn’t. But it would have been okay if she had been. It might have been interesting. She’d had friends who were bi, both men and women. It was no big deal.
Nihal said quietly, "I’m not that brave. If I had come out about it, my mother and father would have died of shame. I’m the only son, the only child. I had to marry and have children — "
"I know. So you picked the first girl you knew you could get — "
He snapped, "Stop that! I picked you first because you were pretty, and later because I fell in love with you. That’s the only reason I married you, because I wanted you. It’s just that…before I met you, when I was dating men, I tried not to think about getting seriously involved with a man. It would have been too complicated."
"But you have sex with them," she said flatly.
"I did. Sometimes, in college. Not anymore. Just like I don’t have sex with other women anymore either. Because I love you, and I want you, and I married you." He turned to her then, and reached a tentative hand out to take hers, squeezing gently. "I promise you, kunju, I have been faithful to you from the day we met."
Sarala felt her throat tighten. She’d spent hours waiting for him to come home, picturing him sneaking off to the park to have sex with strange men, or visiting his secret lover’s apartment. It had all seemed so real, so logical.
"I should have told you." Nihal reached out, put a few tentative fingers on the back of her hand, and when she didn’t pull away, took her hand tightly in his. Holding hands in the dark, surrounded by the heady scent of his roses. "At first, I was worried that you’d react badly, or that you might even accidentally let something slip to the family. And then it just became a habit. The magazines were something to do in private, like — like picking my nose."
"That’s a terrible metaphor." Disgusting, although also a little funny. But Sarala wasn’t ready to be amused by him, not yet. "You’re still not making sense. It would have been so much simpler to just tell everyone. You’re telling me you actually modified a piece of furniture, but for what — just so you could hide something from me? That doesn’t make any sense."
Nihal’s eyebrows drew together. "Look, can I show you something?"
What more could he show her? Was there another magazine she hadn’t found, a video, something worse? Sarala shrugged and nodded, feeling fatalistic. She might as well know it all.
"I need you to come inside with me. To the bedroom." He must have felt the sudden stiffness in her hand — Nihal waited, not moving, until she forced herself to relax again. Sarala squeezed his hand lightly to let him know she was at least temporarily okay; only then did he draw her slowly across the lawn, leading her inside the house.
Sarala stood in the doorway to their bedroom, unable to make herself step forward into the room. Nihal had released her hand and walked over to the bed, standing beside her pillow, letting his fingers rest on the bedspread . She’d made the bedspread for their first anniversary, already very pregnant with Gaya and needing something to do with her hands during the endless queasy hours when she couldn’t seem to move her elephantine self away from the couch and tv. Sarala had embroidered a riot of roses for him, throwing restraint to the winds and covering every inch of fabric in bright color. Like Joseph’s coat from the story — red and yellow and green and brown, scarlet and black and ocher and peach…cream and crimson and silver and rose, azure and lemon and russet and grey — and more, every color she could think of. Her friends had thought she was crazy — what man would want a bedspread covered in roses? But Nihal had loved it, as she had known he would. She had thought she knew her husband so well.
"You won’t come in?"
She shook her head, mutely.
He took a deep breath. "Well, watch, then." And Nihal reached up, along one of the tall posts of the four-poster bed, to touch something small, near the top finial. A bird, she thought it was — a hawk in flight. The bed had been his anniversary gift to her, the romantic four-poster she’d always wanted, king-sized, big enough for both of them and the children too. She had polished the mahogany wood — okay, not every day like she’d originally planned, but at least once or twice in the past three years. But she couldn’t reach as high as Nihal could, and the bird his fingers lingered on was well above her head. He pressed his fingers into the wood, and she heard a sharp click. Then he reached down, twisting the post and lifting, pulling it away from the base. Nihal pushed his fingers into the dark opening, lifting out something small and fragile, glittering in the moonlight shafting in through the open window.
"What’s that?" Sarala stepped forward, drawn against her will by the mystery. It was only a few steps to her husband’s side, and then Nihal was lifting his hands, laced with gold. He waited for her bemused nod before he reached his hands around her neck, clasping what was now clearly a thin gold chain, bearing a small charm which now hung suspended between her breasts. Sarala reached down and lifted it — a tiny gold bird, spreading a glittering tail.
"You dropped this."
"What?" She knew this piece of course, but had thought it lost long ago. Where had he found it?
He smiled, tentatively. "On our first date. I was walking you back to the dorm, and it was late — it must have been three or four in the morning by then. We’d been talking for hours. And the clasp must have just given way, and the pendant dropped, and you didn’t notice. I picked it up, and saved it, for luck. Because I already knew — I knew that you were something special. Someone I wanted to hold onto."
Sarala was bewildered. "You stole my peacock! My grandmother gave me this…"
Nihal looked stricken. "I’m sorry — I didn’t think it was anything important. I’m really sorry." He leaned forward quickly, dropped an apologetic kiss on her forehead. "I just — it reminded me of you. Solid, dense — "
Sarala swallowed, hard. "Are you trying to insult me?"
He said quickly, "No! I mean — reliable. I had just met you, but I already knew you were someone who could be trusted. And at the same time, you were shining. Full of color, of life. You sparkled. I wanted a token to hold on to and bring us luck. I always meant to give the pendant back to you someday — I just never quite got around to it."
He had kept this all these years, for her. She still wasn’t sure what to believe, but it had to mean something, didn’t it?
Sarala had finally agreed to come to bed. Had dressed in a faded pair of flannel pyjamas — she didn’t want her husband getting the wrong idea. But here they were, in their marriage bed, and she was resting her head on his shoulder, his arm wrapped tight around her. She still had so many questions.
"And this hiding place in the bedpost? You built that too?"
Nihal swallowed, before admitting quietly. "Actually, there are little nooks and crannies like that all over this house. It’s a hobby of mine."
"You’ll show them to me? All of them?"
"If you want." He sounded reluctant.
"You don’t have to, if you’d rather not." Sarala felt her stomach churn, queasy in the dark. "I thought I knew you."
Nihal said softly, "You do — you know almost everything about me, I swear. I just…liked having some secrets. Something to myself." He was quiet for a long moment, then said, "Marriage can be overwhelming, you know?"
"Oh, I know." Marriage had slammed into her, like an onrushing train — or maybe not the marriage itself, but the wedding, and the pregnancies, and the children, and his family — so much in so little time, and somewhere along the way she’d lost him. Lost sight of him, without realizing it. He’d been hiding right in front of her. "But the bi thing — you could have trusted me." It hurt, that he hadn’t trusted her. She felt him shrugging against her.
"I know — it seems stupid now. It just all seemed easier this way. Once I knew I wanted to marry you, and I knew so quickly — being bi wasn’t relevant anymore. If I had met a guy I was serious about, before I met you, well then maybe I would have gotten up the nerve to face down my parents." He shrugged again. "But maybe not. I’m not as brave as you."
Sarala laughed sharply. "You think I’m brave? I’m scared all the time. I’m terrified." She hated how much she worried about what other people thought.
Nihal squeezed her shoulders tightly. "Maybe. But you never let it stop you. That’s why I fell in love with you, you know. You remember that time when my mother made that awful comment about your skirt?"
Sarala nodded. Of course.
"The next week, you showed up at her house in something even brighter, the gaudiest thing I’d ever seen you wear. I loved it. That’s when I knew that I was going to marry you."
Maybe he did love her, but that still left one question unanswered. The problem was, she didn’t have the nerve to ask it. Hadn’t had the nerve for months. But here she was, asking him to be brave, at least with her. It was only fair that she be brave too.
She took a deep breath, said the words quickly — "Our sex life…" Sarala trailed off, feeling her heart thumping, her mouth dry. Not sure where to go from there.
He said, "I was only waiting for you to be ready. It’s been killing me." His voice was hoarse.
"Really?" Her voice seemed very small, not brave at all.
Nihal turned toward her then, pulling her to him, pressing his lips to hers — first soft, then, when she didn’t pull away, when Sarala pressed back against him, her mouth opening, he kissed her fiercely. He kissed her with all the heat and passion she’d been missing, she’d been longing for. So that she finally remembered — oh yes. This is how it was. It was so long ago… When he finally let her go, her heart was racing.
He whispered the words, "I didn’t want to, unless you wanted to. I was just waiting for you."
"I am so ready." Sarala was startled to find herself smiling. "We need to communicate better."
Nihal laughed. "We need to get more babysitting."
He paused, then said softly, "I’ve been so worried about you."
"About me?" He’d been thinking about her? She had thought he was busy — busy with work, with the girls, with anything but her.
"I worry about you all the time. You just seem — lonely. Restless. But every time I tried to talk to you, you didn’t seem to want to talk to me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if you were getting tired of me."
"No," she said firmly, realizing it was true. "No, I love you, and I love the girls, and I love my life. It just needs to be — bigger." Sarala wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, but she knew she wanted more. She had so much, but she wanted more. It felt greedy to ask, but better greedy than stifled. She thought she’d learned her lesson years ago, had refused to let anyone else restrain her. How long had she been smothering herself?
"We can work on that," he said, dropping little kisses on her forehead.
How had she ever found that irritating? It was adorable.
Nihal added, "And please don’t worry about the magazines — I’ll throw them away. They were never that important."
"Well, hold on a minute there." Sarala grinned, feeling the heat rising now, all the way from her toes. If her husband really did love her, and thought she was sexy, and also thought other men were sexy — well. She’d thought her life was stale, ordinary, boring. Maybe it wasn’t boring at all. "Just hang on to them for a while, okay? Maybe someday we’ll bring them to bed with us. You can tell me exactly what it is you like about them." She shrugged. "It might be interesting."
Nihal laughed out loud, pulling her close and rolling her over so she lay on top of him. Sarala worried for a moment that she would crush him — then laughed, pushing the thought away. This was her husband, and with him, she could be as big and sparkly as she needed to be.
They’d learn each other again, properly this time. And maybe someday, Nihal might try sparkling a bit himself. She’d like to see that.