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Authors: Anjali Banerjee

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BOOK: Imaginary Men
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I turn away and find myself trapped among a group of aunts peppering me with questions. I deflect the nosiness with my best vague lies. My stomach churns. I escape to the room where the younger set congregates. Someone cranks up a Bollywood pop song, a high-pitched Hindi soprano over a repetitive synthetic backbeat. Women slip off their sandals and drag their husbands onto the dance floor. Kali dances with a handsome man with long hair tied back in a ponytail. I wonder if this is her Dev. Bellies gyrate, and Pee-wee cuts through the crowd toward me, a piece of mint leaf wedged between his two front teeth.

Didn't he get the message? I'm off-limits, taken, spoken for, practically hitched.

“One dance?” he asks in his nasal voice. “You'll not have another chance to be a swinger.”

“I'm … feeling too sick to swing.” I try not to stare at the green leaf in his teeth.

“Come, come. You'll change your mind about your fiancé
when you dance with me.” He grabs my hands, but I yank them away and rush outside into the courtyard.

I should dance with Pee-wee, try to make the best of the festivities, for Durga's sake. I should celebrate my sister's marriage, only I don't belong. Why? Because my own fiancé died two years ago, left me with unfinished dreams and half-formed wishes? Anger wells in my throat. I stride away from the house, away from the laughter.

Only the servants are here, clearing cups and crumbs from the ground. Flaming torches flicker around the courtyard, sending fingers of shadow across the grass.

I cross my arms over my chest, hunch against the dampness, and hurry out to the lane. My lies pursue me like chattering ghosts. I'll lose myself along the street between houses. I need time to think.

Threads of distant music drift out into the night. I'm light-years from my family. I glance back at Auntie's mansion, its window-eyes gazing out with indifference.

Then I turn and leave it all behind. The farther I go, the quieter the night becomes. The occasional bird rustles and twitters in the shrubbery. Pollution bathes the sky in surreal orange. Hard to believe that a city with over a hundred thousand people per square mile can snap into silence at nightfall. Anything could wait around the bend—a monkey, a cobra, a python.

Or a man.

I bump into him as he strides around the corner.

Three


E
xcuse me,” I say.

He's tall, maybe one of the wedding guests. He wears a
dhoti punjabi
and holds a scruffy gray kitten in the crook of his elbow. I tilt my head back to look up into his face, and I gape like an idiot.

His shoulders are broad, his lips full, his eyelashes long. The hint of a beard shadows his jaw. His eyes glint, almost menacing. Omigod, I've been flipping through too many romance novels.

He resembles the Hindu god Krishna, trickster and renowned lover. A thin scar forms an upside-down halfmoon
on his left cheek. A battle scar. I imagine him mounting a black stallion, drawing his sword, racing off to combat. What am I thinking? Nobody fights with swords these days. We're not in Middle Earth. He probably nicked himself shaving. Okay, instead, he throws me over his shoulder and carries me off to his lair, only we're ten thousand years past all that, too.

His gaze sweeps over me. I'm an escaped prisoner in the spotlight. “Are you lost, ma'am? What are you doing wandering from the party by yourself?” His voice is deep, with a cultured accent.

“You were at the wedding too? At Kiki's?”

He nods, skewering me with his gaze. “I'm a friend of a friend of the groom. Six degrees of separation.”

“I see. I came out to see the stars at twilight, but I can't see anything through the smog.” I smooth down my hair.

“This is not the best viewing time. Wait until after astronomical twilight.”

“You're an astronomer?” He's not carrying binoculars or a telescope. Only a kitten.

“My family sells granite overseas. India is the number-one stone exporter in the world.”

“I didn't know—”

“But I have a special interest in the stars. Did you know there are three different moments of twilight? Civil twilight, nautical twilight, and astronomical twilight.”

And I've spent my life thinking the sun rose and set in its predictable, cyclical way. “Which one is happening now?”

“The beginning of nautical twilight. General outlines are still visible, but the horizon is indistinct.”

“Fascinating!” I bite my lip. I might've drawn blood. “Is that your kitten?”

“I found her in a tree. I'll take her home and give her some food. Shall we walk?” He offers his free arm. “I'm Raja Prasad, and you are—”

“Lina Ray. The bride is my sister.” The name
Raja
means “king” in Sanskrit. He acts more like the formal Mr. Darcy in
Pride and Prejudice
.

I'm Elizabeth Bennet taking his arm, although I look nothing like her. I'm a sun-browned version in a billowing sari.

I catch a whiff of exotic aftershave, wildness hidden beneath Raja's civilized exterior. I walk fast to keep up with his long, easy strides.

“Ah, you're Durga's sister. You live in the States, then?”

“We traveled a lot for my mother's job. She's a professor. We all live in different parts of California now.”

“I've been to San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles. Beautiful country. My younger brother will finish his MBA at Berkeley this year.”

“My alma mater. I live in San Francisco.”

“Then he must look you up.” Raja raises an eyebrow.

I feel his gaze on my profile. I hope there's no snot hanging from my nose, but I'm afraid to wipe. I don't have a tissue, and my eyes still water from the dust and smog. I'm casual, cool. I won't trip over my sari. “Yes, of course. I'll give you my number. I mean, I'll have my father give the number to your brother. You know.”

“Of course. You live alone in the city?”

“For now, yes. I have a good job there.”

“What type of business?”

“I work for Lakshmi Matchmakers.”

“Lakshmi, the goddess of love?” His eyebrows rise. “You're a matchmaker? You don't strike me as the type.”

“What do you mean, ‘the type'?”

“Matchmakers socialize. But you're out here walking alone—”

“Matchmaking is different in America. More … anonymous. Much can be done over the Internet.”

“How did you choose such a profession?”

“I fell into it. In university, I learned about measurement and personality profiles, and then I realized I was able to predict who would end up together in my dormitory.”

“Remarkable. The parents trust you?”

“Why wouldn't they? I'm usually right. I measure body language; the way couples talk to each other. I have a sharp eye for detail. Quite mathematical, really.”

“Ah, so you're a scientist.”

“You could say that. I'm not your typical matchmaker.”

“How do you know when the match is right?”

“I find two people who fit each other's requirements. Age, interests, family background. If they're Indian. Not all my clients are. Then I get a sense of whether the couple has a rapport. They should laugh together. Laughter's important.”

“That doesn't sound mathematical.”

“I start with the math, then I resort to intuition.” I want to tell him about the silvery threads, but this would sound silly even to me.
You see, a shimmering filament sprouts from a man's chest and reaches out to latch on to the woman. Then I know the two are meant for each other
.

“So you agree that in the end, love cannot be quantified?”

The kitten has fallen asleep in Raja Prasad's arms, one paw extended. “No, I suppose not, but … Sometimes it's love at first sight. Sometimes there's just the promise of love.”

He studies me with intensity, as if he's holding a magnifying glass between us. “What about you? Do you have a promise of love?”

I stumble over my sari, but regain my balance before falling on my face. I guess he hasn't heard about my phantom engagement. “I'm, uh … holding out for my dream man. Or maybe I'll never get married. I don't know. What about you? Are you married?”

“I would not be walking with you here if I were. Although I'm considering prospects.”

“You're looking for a wife?”

“She must be an excellent cook, hardworking, willing to care for children and my mother.”

Children? His mother? Next, he'll want a slave to serve his entire extended family. I imagine I'm Cinderella scrubbing the floor while his evil mother yells at me. She's the size of a Sherman tank, with twenty rolls of fat on her belly. How would I care for her? I can barely care for myself. On busy days, I forget to eat breakfast.

I smile while I tuck my heart away for safekeeping. Oh, horror. How could I have thought this man could be perfect?

“What about your father?” I ask. “Doesn't he take care of the family?”

“He died some years back.”

“Oh, I'm sorry.” I look at the ground. Why am I tongue-tied?

“Thank you. So, you see, my wife must be willing to shoulder many responsibilities with grace.”

“What if her shoulders are weak? Maybe she doesn't lift weights.”

He chuckles. “Perhaps she also has a sense of humor.”

“She'll need one.” Raja might be dashing on the outside, but on the inside, he's sexist.

I hold fast to the image of my ideal fiancé. He'll rub my shoulders after my long day at work. He'll make dinner. He knows my cooking skill extends to heating up organic cheese
enchiladas in the microwave. He loves me all the same, nurtures me, nourishes me, but this Raja Prasad—

“But you know,” he says, “perhaps the only thing I really want is a best friend, a lover, someone with whom to share my life.”

“No, what you want is a Stepford Wife.” I clamp a hand over my mouth. Why did I say that?

“Perhaps. We'll see.”

“I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding the perfect woman.”

Kali's melodic voice breaks through the night. She's calling me from the house.

I disengage my hand from Raja's elbow. “I should be getting back.”

“Wait. I have something for you.” He digs into his pocket and produces a black stone the size of a robin's egg. “This type of granite is called Star Galaxy.”

“You needn't—”

“Consider it a reminder of India.” He gazes into my eyes as if to say, Consider it a reminder of me.

“That's very kind, but I have nothing to give you.” I take the stone, flecked with white spots. It feels warm and smooth in the palm of my hand. I catch another whiff of his cologne, and a flicker of awareness passes through me.

“You've already given me your friendship,” he says. “And your candor. Honesty is of great value to me.”

“Thank you.” Ha! Me, honest? If only he knew.

“If you decide to return to India, bring the stone back to its home by the sea. Now I must take the cat to the car. Good evening.”

“Good evening.” I give the cat's head a quick pet, then turn and run back to the house in the rising wind. Good evening? Nobody says “Good evening” any more. They say it only in old movies like
Casablanca
.

“Lina, where have you been?” Kali rushes onto the veranda. “We've been looking for you.”

“I met a man. He's a chauvinist. Good thing I'm already engaged.” I don't mention Star Galaxy.

“Where'd he go?” She squints into the darkness.

“Into oblivion, I hope.”

Inside, the atmosphere is subdued as the bride and groom prepare to leave with the groom's family. I go to the drawing room and drop the stone in my handbag. There's no sign of Raja Prasad as we all file back outside and bid the happy couple teary good-byes. After the honeymoon in Goa, on the west coast of India, they'll return to their software jobs in California.

“Don't do anything I wouldn't do.” Kali throws her arms around Durga's neck. They both burst into tears.

“I'll be back, don't go saying this is forever.” Although the youngest, Durga is the tallest of the three of us, muscular and big-boned like our father. She holds herself with a sporty air, bouncing with every step.

Kali is voluptuous, creamy-skinned, a wannabe Bollywood actress with the quick temper of the formidable goddess Kali, killer of demons. I got Ma's slim limbs, dark complexion, and passion for reading.

I hug Durga and then the groom. “Be good to my sister. She takes lots of milk in her tea, and three cubes of sugar. And she snores and sometimes falls off the bed—”

“I know. Not to worry.” Amit wraps his arms around Durga. “Now we must plan
your
wedding.”

I wave him away, but a lump rises in my throat as I watch the groom's wedding party fold into hulking Ambassador cars. Durga will cook breakfast tomorrow for Amit's family, to stake her place in the household. But times have changed. She won't live with his family in Kolkata. If she did, she would fall under the iron hand of his mother.

Kali grabs my arm. “I'm going to miss her, Didi. I hope this is right.”

“They can always get a divorce.” But I know Durga is the most traditional sister of the three of us. She will hang on to this marriage until her fingers bleed, no matter how bad things get.

“When I marry, it'll be for keeps,” Kali says. “Maybe it'll be the cool cat I met tonight.”

“The long-haired guy?”

“Don't tell, nah? He says he'll call me.”

“Long distance? So I guess the Catholic guy is out of the picture.”

She nods, and I roll my eyes. Kali prefers impossible long-distance relationships.

The other guests trickle away, congratulating my father and patting him on the back. Could it be this easy, letting go of my youngest sister? Durga will return to America, but she'll be different. She'll be a married woman with obligations. A husband, children, a house, henna in her hair part.

BOOK: Imaginary Men
8.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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