FICTION





L. Annette Binder
Taking the 11:10




Ramola D

Salt

There is not enough water for the earth and not enough salt in this water, she thinks.  She is crossing the edge of the backwater where salt pans stretch.  Padded oblongs of silver, with the white dusty powder evaporating at the rims.  A wide expanse of it, with reeds at the edge, and herons, here and there, graceful arches of white, flying across the water.

The road is narrow but they are pulling over by the side, at the edge of the bridge.  Her mother hands her an orange.  Eat, she says.  Eat something.  

Prithika motions No with her hand and looks out the window of the Qualis at the lustrous salt water rectangles.  They are halfway to Pondicherry from Mahabalipuram, tourists from one beach town to another.  Her father is driving the car, undertaking this trip because Bruce, who rarely reads fiction but has been reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi lately, on the plane from DC to London, and later London to Madras, has mentioned in desultory, hopeless tones that he has never been to Pondicherry. Bruce is her American husband, whom everyone wants to please.  On previous visits to India, she has taken him to Jaipur, Agra, Khajuraho, Varkala, Kodaikanal. Sometimes she thinks she has left India single primarily to return as tourist. Lately at brochured destinations, bussing to temples and touching the marble of tombs, she has felt a blurry transforming inside her, sensed the newly foreign stream of her own thinking, a visitor’s. She too has begun to wander, sunglasses and camera in hand, through caves, temples, and curio stalls with the selfsame hunger for ruin and its residual: whatever can be photographed, what can be bought, packed, cased and taken home.  Souvenirs fill her purse; ballpoint pens and chewing gum for the little children who run behind her craving pens and chewing gum loll in its folds. Also: cheap oxidized silver jewelry she picks up from the street, bright export-reject rayon scarves, rolls of film. She even has a favorite place to return to, on each trip to India, a place to carry in the heart like a secret memory, a place she no longer needs photographs of. And although things exist between her and her husband they do not share, this loved destination is also his. Every visit they spend a few days at a beach resort at Mahabalipuram, which is close to Madras.  Mahabalipuram, the temple town with the ancient stone temple eroding on the water, and its sixth-century Pallava carvings in granite. With its long rolling surfline of beaches, and its white powdering of shell on sand. They have visited again this time, lain on the sand, let the green waters cover and burn their bodies. They went with her parents but found time to be alone. And they cut short their visit so Bruce can see with his own eyes whatever remnants of French colonialism there are to see in Pondi, check for instance if the bakeries still sell French pastry, if the residents speak French or Tamil. Pondi is 150 km from Mahabs, through rice fields and coconut groves, backwaters and fishing villages. Air-conditioned (as their travel often is), road quiet at midday, it is a pleasant drive, two hours in the Qualis.

Now an hour has passed, and the steady rolling onward of the road has lulled the four of them into a spacious, narcotic silence.  Prithika is only peripherally aware she is traveling in a vehicle with three other people, one of whom is her husband.  She has mostly entered a private state of dissolution where everything around her merges into the silver, glittering water of noon, nameless. The water surrounds her, like a lover. She is dreaming of lovers these days (virtual men, real men): men she barely knows, men whose eyes she meets, briefly, on the beach, in the streets of Madras, in the stores.  Earlier, in the airports—Heathrow this time, last year Paris. In the plane.  At Dulles.  And earlier than that, men at work, in the corridors, men with blue eyes and gray eyes, sleepy eyes, half-open eyes. Men who work, asleep. Men who work, half-awake. Men who work, alive only to women, the women at work.  She had never believed such men existed, before, but now she saw they were everywhere. Their eyes met hers—she saw oceans crash in them, white birds fly above water.  They smiled and the ocean pulled at her mouth, dashed spray in her eyes so the opening of her face just then, smile of her body to them was involuntary. Unplanned, she thought, I have become pure response, reflexes mechanical. The notion both stirred and rocked her.  How was it possible for her to become like this, involuntary? Where a smile could be slid from a man’s eyes into her mouth, a man she did not know, would never know? In Heathrow sometimes, walking to the Toilets or to buy a soda, she had closed her eyes when men looked at her. They looked with abandon, with interest, wide-open, smiling.  They were men a woman would look at, she could see. Sometimes, she looked back. They were men from all over the world—Somalian, Tunisian, French, Australian, Italian, Brazilian, Japanese, Lebanese men.  She was impartial.  And they were all the same, she saw, serene in their looking. Deep in their seeing. 

Bruce sits across from her, a jute bag, three Kamala oranges, two white paper stars between them.  He has his wraparound green aviator’s glasses on, and he looks at the glistening vista of the backwater, neatly portioned into rectangles, as if he is watching a movie unfold on its fishgleam surface.  In the last hour he has said one word, repeatedly, to her.  No, he has said. No to suntan lotion, no to coffee, no to juice, no to soda, no to oranges. No. Once, to her mother, he has said, No, thank you.

She looks over his shoulder, his arm across the window, to the water.  She has taken to looking at shoulders, clavicles, the taut muscled symmetry of backs.  Arms move her.  Hair on the back of a man’s hand as he lifts his coffee cup to his lips, glint of his watch or his wedding band, all of these subtly excite her.  The shaved, upward-rising stubble on necks, hint of fuzz on a jawbone, square-cut fingernails on a hand.  The eyes.  Yes, it returns to the eyes and she understands now the slow look a man gives, when his glance, traveling, stops where she is, involuntarily. Because she knows now he knows without words he is found and seen in her. That seeing, she sees, between a man and a woman, rises from underneath.  From the bones or the history of looking that is locked deep inside the self.  From the cells themselves, alignment of marrow to bone, blood to vessel. Involuntary.  Unplanned.  Nothing to precede it, announce it, shape or influence it.  A man looks at a woman.  A woman looks at a man. It is as singular and slight as that, as present as sand on the beach, or a ground-up smattering of shells.  All the calcium in the world, she remembers, comes from the sea, from lime-secreting algae and shells, simple seashells, the hard, chitinous coverings over marine creatures from the most ancient times, from near to three and a quarter billion years ago, when life as we know it on earth began. We owe our bones to snails. Their slow, accreting secretions, to become shell, those ever-present shells, scattered on the soft sand, embalmed in rock, dissolved in water, entering our cells to become spine, patella, clavicle, digits.

She flexes her fingers and looks down at the white diamond engagement ring and the gold wedding band, engraved with a snaking pattern of flowers.  Pansies, they look like.  Two flowers and a bud on a vine.  Inside the ring is carved his name. Bruce Thompson.  Carved by an Indian jeweler in Bookman Antique, just as she wanted it.  She was particular about fonts.  Their serifs and swirls spoke their own subtextual language.  She was, after all, a graphic artist, sensitive to their whisperings and insinuations.  She chose an Antique because its archaism felt pure and rooted to her, ancient and noble.  She had wanted their marriage to back into those delicate curves, into the ancience. She had believed in permanence.

Then, that is.  At Mahabalipuram these last two days she has put her hands on the hot, eroded stone of centuries and felt the crumbling.  Wind, rain, salt. The dancers are disappearing from the rocks, she thinks, once-round limbs flattened, dips of the waist indistinguishable now from the dent in the stone, pocked and salt-ridden.

She looks at the white glitter of the hardest stone on earth on her hand and sees a rim of salt powder beyond, through the window, a small mound, dissipating.  You must eat something, her mother insists, tucking her saree into her waist and unwrapping plastic bags, it’s one more hour to lunch.  She proffers small red bananas, soam papad from a box, orange cream Brittania biscuits.  Eat, she says, you’ll feel hungry later.

Coffee, her father says. Anyone want coffee? He has opened the trunk and is pouring coffee from the red thermos into supple plastic cups that say Merry Christmas on the side, in green cursive with a spray of red holly leaves beside the lettering.  The font is plain, italic, something like Schoolbook or CG Times.  Long ago, coming home to Madras one Christmas, she had bought them at a dollar store in Ballston along with paper napkins, paper plates, and white plastic cutlery. Now the napkins appear, red holly leaves and berries on white turning yellow at the edges. Her mother offers her a piece of soam papad on a napkin. She takes it, eats, the soft sugar flakes dissolving on her tongue. Her father hands her coffee and she drinks.  It is hot, coffee-like. But tastes of oranges, bananas, the plastic cup.

Bruce pulls out his bottle of mineral water and drinks.  Her mother says, immediately, Give him the cold one. Here, Bruce, take this one, it’s cold.  She begins to dig in the woven pink and yellow picnic basket.

It’s OK, Bruce says, swallowing, this is fine.

Here, here, just one minute!

Her mother discovers the cold bottle. She hands it to Prithika, to hand to Bruce.

Prithika feels for coldness on the bottle.  They have taken it from the fridge in their room at Sterling Resorts an hour ago.  Now the cold has disappeared and a tepid dampness meets her palms. It is like everything else, she thinks, one thing one moment, another another. 

Bruce says No, as the bottle, extends, approaches the sacrosanct of his private space.

Right now, she sees, this space is crushed and miniscule, a small tent of air around his body, crushed in the back seat.  Sometimes it stretches and blows, resolute and elastic, a body of water, she has felt it variously as a well, a temple tank, a subtropic ocean.  Such as the one that spreads, not far from where they sit.  That has slid this lagoon of water into the fields, thick with salt, so the people can build little berms and walls and harvest the pools for crystals as they dry.  But there is no ocean sleek with certainty around him now, the tent creases and frets inward.

She withdraws the bottle. 

Alright.  Her father comes round to the front, stoked and perky with caffeine.  More coffee, anyone? Bruce, did you eat anything?

Bruce looks at her father in the same way he has looked at the stone dancers in the ancient temple, a crumpled look of unease to his lower lip.  With his right arm, he pushes the door open.  I’m going to take a walk, he says, and steps onto the red powdery sand.  He walks up the side of the car to the front, toward the bridge. A goat comes up the side, from the brush, it appears not to see him.  A small black and white goat, with crusted mud on white legs, and tiny acacia leaves spraying down from white horns. Bruce raises his hand, as if hailing the goat. The goat moves questioningly towards him. Bruce sidesteps the goat, just in time,  mounts the cement bridge.

Prithika’s father observes these movements in silence.  Let’s see where he goes, he suggests, skeptically.

Why worry about him, says Prithika’s mother, craning her neck to see Bruce disappear round the bridge’s curve seemingly into the gray glittery water. He’s old enough to take care of himself!

Look at him, invites her father, who has walked up the slope to the bridge and is the only one who can see him still, he’s walking on the wrong side of the road.  Anyone can come up from behind and hit him!

In times past, Prithika would have said, Oh, stop it, or Let him be, pa, stop looking at everything he does so closely!  Or she would have jumped out, gone with him. 

Now she sits, mesmerized by the loosening of silver on water as sun catches and ripples on top of the smooth gray shimmering.  The gleam of distance that stretches on both sides into the palm-flecked horizon purls over her, stilling, uncreasing.  Slips her without thinking into the slow field that has opened between her and Bruce these days, that she hardly understands but that seems to hold her in thrall now as if she were a small, cup-shaped catamaran on the water, softly rocking.  She is relieved they are no longer fighting, openly, with words and not-speaking, the bright barbs released without thought no longer arcing and spinning to land, embedded in flesh, hers or his, but she is not quite certain if the current quiet between them is wound or hiatus. She senses the hostility has not abated, only transmuted, but the flat rolling indifference between them confuses her, she is not certain, herself, what she feels. Whether this is the edging forward into a new maturing, an acceptance and compromise that is mutual, or a slide backward into an abyss of ever-widening distances, or merely a trudging-on in an inexplicable and endless landscape, she is not certain. Neither is she moved to specific emotion by this uncertainty. Everything inside her seems dull and nebulous, incapable of sharper feeling.  Where he is concerned, that is. Everywhere he is, in her feeling, has become gray and still and formless, not dissimilar from this body of gray liquid surrounding them currently.

Abruptly Prithika snaps open the door, jumps out.  Yes, ma, go with him, her mother encourages from the front, much as she does each night when Bruce announces he is going to sleep, when Prithika resists moving, from her book or television news or newspaper.

Prithika does not say No this time or explain to her mother they are actually lone and separate people, Bruce and herself, as she often does, becoming hoarse and didactic in the process. She steps down the side of the bridge and walks past the brush, to the water.  The sudden heat of the sun after the air-conditioned cool in the Qualis is astonishing.  The white light of noon grazes her seeing, blinds her.  Everything is bright, the sun, the sand, the gray, crystalline piles of salt here and there, the shaken, stirring water.

She takes her sandals off as she approaches the water, steps in, and the warm, viscous gleaming laps at her ankles. Salt-laden, she thinks, this water is thick and gloomy with salt, the salt weighs it down and makes it heavy.  For years this seawater directed into these flats has collected salt, for days as it rests—or was it months, could it be years?--the water is stirred by sun into steaming away until only layers of moist remain, wrapped around a growing concentrate. That waits to show itself, waits for the moisture to blow away, waits to emerge, dazzling and crystal. 

  She senses she has grown used to the barbed hostility she and Bruce have shared in the past.  It’s become a pattern between them, the needling, the ego, the deliberate petulance.  They have slipped from becoming aware of the diminishing time they were spending together, as both their careers intensified, his in programming, hers in Web interface design for programmers, to noticing that the itch of animosity between them is continuous, almost normal. Years seem to have gone by like this. Disagreement has become the standard.  Prithika does not know if Bruce has taken to being perverse or essentially disagrees with her – about things she is certain other couples must resolve amicably, or at least resolve: whether to rent again the next time or buy a house, whether to paint or hire someone to paint, whether to cook or eat out, whether to have a child or not, whether to travel to Greece or not. Decisions between them seem to crawl at snail’s pace.  After three years they bought a house in Alexandria, a fractious process, with the real estate agent clearly teetering on the verge of abandoning them, after they had viewed duplexes, singles, townhouses, condos, all across the circumference of the entire metro area, each rooting for a different set of absolute must-haves. They started to paint, then had to hire someone because they could not agree on the colors, the textures, the methods. They vacillated often between cooking and eating out, often waiting till late to dash out, miserable, to the late-open Anthony’s, the local Italian place, attached to a motel, where the food was hot, only passably edible, and markedly limited, given that it specialized in veal and beef and they were vegetarian.  Sometimes they went to the nearby Vietnamese place, which was not as good as the other Vietnamese places, or the nice Thai places, further up on Mt. Vernon.  They could not decide when to have the child, after they decided, after months of wrangling, that Prithika’s decision not to have a child at all was not tenable.  They never went to Greece, although they had bought all the guide books and Prithika had mapped out a route and an itinerary, because Bruce had to work late all the time and could never take two weeks off, apart from their trips to India. With all the back and forthing and endless vacillation, Prithika has grown cautious, uncertain. But while they were flying east across various continents, their bodies hovering over mountains and oceans, fists curled over silted rivers, it seems they have gone to sleep together and woken to a field of dull water lapping between them.

Prithika steps further into the lagoon, feet sinking into the moist, grainy mud beneath. Grasses sprouting up from the mud shiver doubly, in reflection, as a warm noon breeze shivers light across the water. Golden dragonflies buzz close to her feet.  Without consciously summoning him, she thinks again of the one particular man who has continued to haunt her, for months now, the man with the dark eyes and dark hair, surely a Latino, maybe Middle-Eastern, a waiter, whom she had locked eyes with at her friend Shaistha’s catered party six months ago. This man, more than all the men peopling her sudden awareness of manhood in itself as variable enticement, has clung to her memory. Their encounter so brief, yet intense. She shivers, remembering, breath catches somewhere in the process of her inhale, and laps, shivering, on the skin below her nostrils, while her lungs wait, diaphragm waits, heart waits, tense. She remembers his body, movement of energy inside his body as he walked toward her in the cool amber light of the room, offered her champagne. His legs long and sinuous in perfectly fitting flared black pants--he was tall.  Hair cut close to his ears, slicked back on the sides and the top. Dark hair, like his eyes, openly sexual, unafraid. He smiled when her eyes, riveted, kept looking into his. He lifted the glass himself, handed it to her.  She took it, not lifting her eyes from his. She stared because she felt choiceless, impelled.  Their fingers touching, small hot touch.

Yet this is not why he lives in her memory like a live irresistible being. He walked away from her that time, far to other people, proffering trays, pausing.  No, it was after.  After, when he came walking back toward her, and she was alone, and he walked down and down the hall toward her, his eyes fully on hers, deeply, steadily, completely, in absolute silence. Just looking at her all that time, looking and looking. He came toward her, stopped. The unspeaking between them hot and alive, as if lit. He was not smiling. The candor of what they exchanged with their eyes could not, she thought, have borne the slight, civil shimmer of a smile.  It was blatant, unashamed, adult. Mutual, the insolence. The open interest in it, immediacy.  The knowing, the all-consuming seeing.  They stood for a moment as she lifted another glass, each arrested by their own decision to look.  Then he turned slightly, walked.  He was doing his duty, passing from one group to another, passing out the night’s spirits.

But she never forgot that look.

A shell or piece of stone catches at her foot. She stops.  She sees she has been walking, slowly and aimlessly into the rectangle of gray water that has pulled away from its seeming contours and flows under the bridge. She is in the middle of the gray pearlescence.  All around her is water.  She can see the bridge hump over and end and the water continue.  She can see the figures of men and women ahead of her in the water, bodies bent, working.  She can see Bruce, a few hundred feet ahead, arms folded, staring at the people working.  She looks down but the water is murky and she cannot see what has lodged between her toes. Mud smooth and slimy on her feet. The water lapping a few inches above her ankles. 

She bends, puts her hand in, finger over big toe, between.  She pulls out the shell, for it is a shell, lifts it out. An ivory fan of tissue appears to fold itself into a tube with antennae and disappear inside the shell.  Tiny and whorled, a top shell.  A snail inside the shell, a live and ivory snail.  She drops it back reflexively, not thinking.  Not having intended to disturb a living being in her aimless walk. To think that snails lived here, in this salt.  She frowns and puts her finger in the water again, dips and lifts the finger to her lips.  Yes, salt.  She can taste the salt with her mouth.  The taste is of the sea. Deep saline churning on her tongue. 

She walks consciously now through the water, taking smooth slow steps on the mud.  Water ripples up her calves, sun shines hot on her skin.  The water is cleaner here, softer jade, and deeper, by a few inches. She is under the bridge.  A small concrete bridge, with two pillars sunk into the mud, a peeled-off railing and a swallow swirling abruptly up from beneath, diving upward, a blueblack shiny wing turned in a second to silhouette, flash, a disappearance.

The man she keeps returning to, as if tuning again and again into a far sweet refrain sounding on the periphery of her awareness, returns, burning, smiling, eyes on hers, out of the gray salt-laden liquid at her feet.  She smiles without meaning to, heads for Bruce, for the place where he stands. And without meaning to, thinking as she walks, of not Bruce but him.

 

Something sharp and clear resolves. Ahead is an island, long narrow stretch covered scantily with grass, shrubs, palmyras, a cluster of round, thatched huts the color of straw.  It floats rather than rises out of the water, so slim and modest is its stretch, as if it were merely an extended wall between the silver rectangles.  The tops of the palms smudge into the bright white of the noon sky like smoke-shapes. In the water that laps at the edges of this island and further out where it shudders purely against itself, a scattering of figures bend, hunched over. A man. Bare backed, bare limbed, except for a dhoti hitched around his hips.  More like him, brown-backed, bent.  Women, saris folded up and knotted at the thigh.  The saris bright, even from a distance. Specks of magenta, gem-blue, purple.  Children.  A little boy, in no shirt and shorts.  Two girls, in shirts and skirts.  Plaits going down their back, bent over. 

Up, near water’s edge at the neck of island and road, stands Bruce, tall, pale, hand shading eyes, searching the water.

She is learning to slide forward in a way that opens and closes the water’s skin around her legs without disturbing the smooth even meander of her thoughts.  The water has begun to feel as sinuous and warm as the blood flowing through her body.

That night at her friend Shaistha’s party she had felt the sharp illicit current of being by herself, a vivid thrill of possibility lurking just outside her skin. She had gone to the party with Bruce and Bruce had never been far from her side yet she had felt completely alone as she often did with him. It was an anniversary party and later there had been dancing. Shaistha, who was a manager at her firm, had invited all her business school friends and they were changing the CDs, turning the lights down, dancing the salsa, the merengue, approximations of these.  Bruce did not know anyone except Shaistha’s husband Tim and wanted to leave early. Shaistha had introduced them to her friends but her friends kept aggregating among themselves. Prithika had not wanted to leave, after the champagne encounters.  But she left, because they left early.  Later, for weeks, his face rose toward her as she drove nightly home, on the ground-glass face of the shower stall in the mornings as she showered, on Telegraph Road as she drove to work, on the wall as she worked, on the computer screen.  She thought, over and over, of asking Shaistha.  For a name.  Maybe the name of the company.  They lunched together often.  She could ask, quite naturally.  Then drive, maybe, on her lunch hour the next day, past the building.  Maybe enter the building, take the elevator, walk toward the double doors. Ask questions, small benign ones.  On rates, times, menus.  Things like that.  Natural, innocuous aspects of catering that all caterers would be used to. No-one would suspect. What was his name?   She yearned to know. But how could she ask this question? Not yet.  But Juan, she thought, Vicente, Julio. Maybe Khalid, Sayeed.  He might be lounging by the desk, chatting with the receptionist.  He might be in an office, on the phone. He might be in the corridor. Walking toward her.  He walked, often.  She saw him walk. She could never drum up the foolish, useless courage to ask. Months passed. She was bright in Shaistha’s presence, animated.  A brightness that pushed through her without warning, minus intention. A tingling champagne clarity, bubbly and rising, all for him.

Now her feet slides against the mud of the shallow lake, creamy clay-like mud.  She has become like this mud, she thinks, this mud-like clay, slideable, foldable, malleable. Involuntary.

She has walked her way closer to where Bruce stands, his figure growing progressively larger and quieter and gloomy.  His scanning of the silvery water seems to have taken her in once or twice, with no discernible shift in his expression or posture.  On their honeymoon seven years ago in the Grand Canyon he could not keep his hands off her.  His face would dissolve into a smile each time he looked at her.  They had sat on the tour shuttle arms wrapped, looking into each other’s eyes and only partially at the scenery.  When they stopped and looked over the edge at the plunging, striated canyons of rock wreathed in purple evening mists, they had stood back to chest, wrapped close, breathing.  Such a century ago, she thinks, now, as she approaches the silence of his figure, the unsmiling.  When she rises, sinuous and dripping out of the water and walks to where he stands, he looks at her as calmly as if she were a plausible part of this saline scape, a reed blowing in the wind, or a heron, rising. 

 

The rolled-up ends of her jeans sink from thigh to below her knee, wet and heavy.  She glances down and sees bits of grainy mud. She pauses, wrings out the hems, cloth and mud and water squeezing through her hands.  She walks up the dry cake of beach to Bruce. Behind him is the road, and beyond that again water.  Every now and then a car drives by on the road, an Ambassador, or a Hyundai.  Sometimes a bus. 

What are they doing?  Bruce jerks a finger toward the people in the water. 

Prithika turns and looks.  They seem to be scooping the water into tins they hold.  Harvesting salt? She is being facetious, but a small overlay of mockery enters her voice without her invoking it, she hears its familiar rasp in her words as they hang, jagged, in the air between them. 

Bruce slants his aviator shields toward her.  Say you have no idea, he suggests. As sarcastic.

I have no idea. She strives to keep her voice cool and even, even shrugs a shoulder.  They are words after all, she tells herself, that she can slide through her and evict with no disruption of her fluid interior.

That’s better, says Bruce.  He even sounds like he feels better.  Validated, comfortable.

They stand in sunlight, return to silence.  The water ripples and glimmers.  Prithika notices that the people seem to have noticed them, standing together, staring. They point, talk among themselves.  After a minute a child loosens himself from the knot of people and wades toward them.  Then another, a little girl.

Prithika hears a shout behind them, a clapping of hands.  She turns, it is her father.  A smudge of mustard shirt and black pants, against the dull silvery green of the haphazard acacia shrubbery. A small cluster of goats beside him, black, white, biscuit-colored. He has mounted the concrete bridge and stands, calling.  Preee-thikka!  Come On!  His hands pump the air in a question as he meets her eye.  Like, what’s going on? Why the delay? What are you both doing? Vivid, decipherable semaphore that she is used to, having grown up with him.  Her father is never one to condone dawdling.  By nature—and by her mother’s allowance—he is impatient.

We’re Com-ing, she calls, just as loudly.  Her voice shatters the rippling sheen of silence around them.  A group of small brown birds paddling by the island break apart and fly abruptly upward. Wings beating.  The people look up, startled. 

Prithika turns back to the water.  She absorbs the slow white glissade of sun on top, long verdigris undulation toward the skinny palms, white horizon.  It is hypnotic. A warm breeze blows down the back of her neck, where her white cotton shirt clings to skin.

I knew that would happen.  Bruce is meditatively matter-of-fact, as if accepting. Your father can’t leave us alone for a second!

Prithika surveys the small crinkle of water that laps at the beach, small frill of white at the edge, salt foam in the frill.  He’s probably wondering what on earth we’re doing.

Bruce laughs, a hard, hollow sound with no humor in it. Yeah, well, he can join the club. Do you have any idea what we’re doing?

She looks at him.  He stands, feet apart in their white and blue Nikes, socks half-rolled up, half-rolled down, camera slung diagonally across shoulders, long tan shorts bulging at the pocket with their usual random store of items—a pocket knife, she thinks, a nail-clipper, a crumpled Milky Way, an orange.  The way his clothes on holiday always make him look, a boy, exploring.  But sullen this time.  Rolled-up inside and angry this time. Arms crossed across his chest, a look of brooding melancholy on his face.  His eyes shaded by the green wraparound glasses still, as if emptied.  Yet insight pulses in her like conviction.  He too has been looking at this body of gray water stretching into the unbearable horizon, he too has felt the sun’s heat on this surface, endlessly glittering.  

She looks at him looking at her and does not say anything.

The children have arrived at the shore and push their way out of the water.  They are both bright-eyed, smiling.  The girl speaks.  Our father says to say to you we can make lunch for you, she says, in Tamil.

Ask her what they’re doing out there, says Bruce, almost in the same breath.

Tell your father many thanks, says Prithika, in Tamil to the child.  But we have to go soon.

Where are you going, asks the boy.  They have both come out of the water and stand on the sand looking up at them.  Water drips and gleams a satin-bronze on their legs.  The boy’s shorts are torn at the hem.  The girl’s clothes too, a faded indigo skirt with ruched embroidery and a brown cotton shirt, are ripped in places—at the shoulder, by the middle buttons.

We’re going to Pondicherry, says Prithika.

We know Pondicherry, says the girl, very soft, through gap-toothed smiling.  Our father’s brother lives there.

Have you been there, asks Prithika.  To Pondicherry?

Once, says the boy.  When we were small children.  We went to the beach.  They catch big fish in Pondi!

Prithika smiles.  Is your father a fisherman?

The boy nods, then elaborates. His hair falls in a dusty unkempt fringe into his eyes, he rubs it away. The salt-work, he says.  We do the work with the salt.  The girl has come close to Prithika and is touching her bracelet, an oxidized silver clasp with a tortoise head on it. Prithika has picked it up near the temple at Mahabalipuram.  The girl says nothing as she touches it, just looks up at her, that small tenderness on her face, smiling.

Prithika looks back down and catches sight of her gold ring, glinting on her hand.  The sight of it--curl of leaves on the vine, the flowers--all of it comes to her now as old-fashioned, ancient, even without seeing the words engraved on the inside, his name. She feels she does not want to see the swirls and promise of the font in which his name is carved. She feels she has stepped into a different font now, one she has never admired or even seen before, a jagged, modern font that eludes classification. 

A small wind blows spray from the water over them. She looks up at Bruce and sees the tight look of frustration on his face as he looks at them. She knows his grasp of Tamil is slight, slighter than hers.  She says to them, what are you all doing out there in the water?

Crabs, says a man’s voice.  From the water, behind the boy.  A young man and woman have come wading through the water behind them.  We catch crabs.  You want to see?  He holds out a tin and Prithika sees a crammed, uneasy writhing.  Creamy, translucent crabs the size of her palm with round orange eyes and streaks of biscuit-orange running down the insides of their legs.  Arms and legs climbing over each other, a small mountain of crabs, frantic to escape.  Salt crabs, says the man.  They live in this water.

Bruce leans forward, puts a hand in and almost immediately draws it out, with a yelp.  They pinch!

Everyone laughs. Prithika notices, half-disbelieving, even she is laughing. Even he is.

They have claws, says the man, that’s what they use them for.

The woman turns to Prithika.  You want to come?  We’ll make you nice colombu with the crabs.  With lots of tamarind and garlic and tomatoes and onions.  Our house is there only, can you see?  She points to the straw-thatch huts on the island.  Her face is trusting and open and friendly.

Prithika feels this must be because the woman is seeing her as like herself, one of us, one of our family, one of our country.  The woman is not to know that Prithika feels, looking at her, like a tourist observing the native people of a foreign country, awkward, and different, and without language.

A thread of emotion rises inside her.  It isn’t pity, a little stream of which coursed through her for a moment when she saw the torn clothes of the children.  This woman too wears a blouse, a faded aqua, that is torn at the neck, by the sleeves. Her sari is a dull purple, wound tight around her hips and wet to the waist.  Prithika can see holes in it, pin-prick holes, as if something with sharp edges—the salt?--has worn it through.  The man’s white dhoti too, fully wet, wrapped high around his hips, has frayed threads dragging down from it.  But both their faces are so young, so open, they look like teenagers.  They are so small-made and thin. Their skin smooth and gleaming, smiles wide.  The woman wears gold rings in her ears and a dot of gold for a nose-ring.  Her eyes are unprobing, accepting.  The man too looks simple (no, not like the men of her dreams), innocent.  As if nothing would give either of them greater pleasure than making this meal they are planning, for herself and Bruce.  The tourists.  The American tourists, who must have advertised their tourism from a mile off, by the mere fact of walking down to the edge of this lagoon, to stare uselessly at the water. The girl pulls at her hand, a small weedy insistence. Will you come?

Prithika looks down at her, intending to say, dismissively, conclusively, We don’t eat crabs, we’re vegetarians. But she is beginning to understand the feeling inside her.  She sees how the girl has the same eyes as the father, the same long nose of the mother.  She looks at the boy and sees how the nose is on him too, and the shiny eyes.  The resemblance between them fluid.  There is no mistaking the look of the family in each of their faces. And there is more, it is the feeling of the family that is fluid between them, a small pool of knowing that laps equally at each of their feet, that surges and swirls between them, a tenderness. What each of them wants, they all seem to want. There is something very gentle and sweet about this.  Something gentle and sweet between them.

It is hunger, she realizes, a small uneasy hunger that unfolds inside her. She is looking into the open trusting face of the girlchild, the tender smiling. She is looking at the bright live insouciance on the boy’s face, calm tender receiving on their mother’s face, seemingly completely asexual warmth on the father’s. The hunger slips deep familiar roots in her. She does not experience it as new, a moment’s frenzied wanting. She feels instinctively it is the same hunger that has grown in her, sown its seeds in her and dropped its roots and started growing, day upon day, almost without her knowing. What is it really, she wonders—secret hunger for warmth, intimacy, family? She chafes at the thought, even as she feels, uneasily, its metal barb of truth. It is the hunger she has come to feel without thinking or wanting to. Sinuous love-hunger, that keeps her alive now only inside a dream. Inside the sensual dream-life that her life has lately become, moving and dreaming.

Many thanks, she says to them.  But we have to go.  She mouths the refusal, feeling the old quality of surrender in her actions, in her mechanical relay of words to Bruce, to them, yet unable to say anything else. She is always the same, she thinks, she does things and says things because these doings and sayings are habitual, expected.  Her parents would not expect otherwise.  Bruce wouldn’t.  They want us to eat with them, she says to Bruce.  They want to cook a crab sauce for us.

That’s so nice, says Bruce, looking disbelieving.  He looks, bemused, from the woman to the man to the children. In much the same way, Prithika thinks, as she has been looking. Is it with hunger, she wonders briefly, the same hunger she holds like a canyon inside her? Is it envy, is it want, for everything they both can see in this family but do not seem to have, anymore, between them?

But we can’t, she continues. She knows she has made this decision alone, without him, without her parents. Just imagining what each of them wanted.  Her father, eager to resume the driving.  Her mother, eager to check in at the next hotel, the one in Pondi.  Bruce, falling in with the family’s plans, being accommodating.

No, he says, dutiful. I know.

They turn to leave and the little family, accepting of their decision, disappointed but not questioning, not insistent, smiles, waves. They walk back to the car in the heat, in the silence. Prithika gives herself over to the sensation she feels of floating between sliding panes of light. She imagines her body is lifting although the sand crunches firmly beneath her feet. She sees the rough edges of salt crystals on the sides of the water walls as she walks. The sheets of water ripple and glitter in the sun. She sees the unruly acacia bushes by the side of the road, glitter of mica in the sand. A heat haze appears to hang over the tar, spiral shimmer of air.

When they come to the car she sees both her parents are sitting inside, waiting.  The doors are open.  A fly is buzzing on the inside of the windshield and her father is swatting at it with a curved length of orange peel.  Her mother wipes the back of her neck with her pallu.  She says, with interest, Yenga, where did you go?  Her father says, with vehemence, Really, what is taking you so long?

We’re here, says Prithika.  We can go now.  They settle in the back seat, push the window open.  A warm breeze plays inside the car as they move forward.  They reverse, pull back onto the bridge, drive in between the gray shimmering.  Prithika looks across the rippling water as it moves wetly across the landscape, at the people in the water, the little family, waving.  Beyond is the island and the straw-thatch huts.  Then they are gone. The water shimmers and stretches for half a kilometer, a kilometer, a kilometer and a half.  Here and there, in between the rectangles, long low mounds of salt.  Then dry scrub, earth, huts.  They are passing a village.  Hibiscus trees in front of the huts and the flowers scarlet, pulsing.  Banana palms.  Little tea-shops with pink diamonds of coconut barfi inside.  Glimpses of bottles on a counter: Fanta, Miranda, Limca.  A little stray dog running after a group of children. 

When they come to Pondi, she thinks, they will roll in along the broad promenade on the beach road, the creamy Tax Commissioner buildings to the right, the Bay of Bengal to the left.  They will climb the wall abutting the rocks piled against the water and gaze upon the creamy buildings.  Bruce will see how difficult it is to tell the French from the British style of colonial architecture.  He will look at the ocean and see how the water appears neither French nor Tamilian. But, salty and full of fish and minerals, is itself, an uncolonizable continent.

Now on the left, beyond open land and a smattering of palms rolls a slow blue line of this salt-filled ocean.  All the salt in the earth comes from the ocean, she has read. Salt beneath the crust of the earth marks the site of ancient seas, ancient evaporations. In those places, layers of rock salt sleep quietly beneath the rock. Sleep without eyes, sleep without seeing. Something must happen, something must wedge, deep within, before the eyes can open, meet in their seeing.

I wonder, says Bruce.

She might have, a year ago, two years ago, turned vibrantly toward him, said, teasingly, You wonder what? Wanting to know, piqued, engaged. Now she barely glances at him, the glance is wary.

Bruce takes off his sunglasses. The skin around his eyes is pale, exposed. What it would have been like, to go eat that meal with them. 

Over his shoulder, her eyes travel to the distant blue of the ocean. She wants to shrug, fabricate, say what it would have been like. Somewhere inside her, she knows she wants to speak, be animated, be again the person she was when they met, dated, were first married. That warm, live, interesting person. Interested in the world around them, in him, in his thinking. She wants this even as she feels incapable. That person feels ephemeral, too far to recover. She seems to have become a new kind of person now: remote, stuck in mud. Something between herself and Bruce seems to have diminished, shrivelled into a powder and lifted on wind. And she has sensed this underneath, a fine sweet refrain sounding on the periphery of her awareness, for a long time. She looks sleepily at him, slips without meaning to into the dream that continually loosens its shimmering inside of her. That sweeps her along, outward and away from the ocean of the long-before life she shared once with him. Whatever has happened, whatever it was, that long period continuous with fracturing, sinuous with dissolving—it has led to this private appeasement in dream, secret opening, silent meandering.

Bruce asks where the water is, she barely hears him.  Her mother passes her the cold-water bottle.  Her calves itch and for a moment she puts a hand down, involuntarily, to still the itching. For a moment she feels the small layer of salt crystals there, drying white on her skin.

 

 

ξ