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Authors: Anjali Banerjee

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BOOK: Imaginary Men
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I fall into a jetlag-induced coma, and in the morning, I hop the bus to my office on California Street. Lakshmi, the owner of the agency, works at home, and I rarely see her, but she calls in frequently. I look forward to seeing Donna, office associate and friend.

An hour after I've cleared all the e-mail that has accumulated while I was away, I daydream while listening to a client, Mr. Sen, extol his masculine virtues.

“I am active runner. I enjoy sports, meditation, golf, travel, and gardening. I like the outdoors in general.” He resembles a tanned version of Prince Charles in a tight blue suit. I wish he would stop tapping his fingers on the arm of the chair.

“All that? Wow! Impressive. I need you to fill out this personal preferences questionnaire.” I glance out the window at cotton clouds dabbing the Bay Bridge.

Mr. Sen leans forward. “I want to settle down with attractive and motivated woman, a professional girl, beautiful inside and out, with similar family background who can complement and enhance my family.”

I imagine his dream woman as a curved glass vase in his hallway, complementing and enhancing his family. I think of Raja Prasad, looking for the perfect, docile wife. Like the robot nanny in Ray Bradbury's science fiction story. She always smiles, always loves the children, never grows old. Never has a need of her own, except to be spritzed with WD-40 now and then.

“Of course I'll help, Mr. Sen, but I need to know more about you.” I push the forms across the desk.

“My father is a well-reputed family physician. Retired, of course. My grandmother is an intelligent and pious lady.”

“Your wife will be lucky to marry into such a family.”

“My family prefers a girl of Brahmin roots.”

“Of course.” I jot down notes.
Stuffy upper crust
.

“I prefer woman nineteen to twenty-fourish, no older.” In other words, his own personal flight attendant.

“I'll keep that in mind.” Mr. Sen is thirty-three, so why can't he choose a woman his own age? Long ago, I stopped asking this question aloud. Most men who come in here, no
matter how old, want young, nubile virgins. Dream on, I want to say. This is the twenty-first century. I grit my teeth and keep silent.

“And fair, very fair complexion preferred.” He stares at my dark face, which in Indian personal ads would be classified as “wheatish.” “Slim, athletic build. No children. I prefer that she has never been married.”

“Of course. I'll find just the right woman for you. What do you do for a living?”

“I am a hardworking professional, building my career in the finance industry.”

“Mmm-hmmm.” So he's a banker, investment consultant, financial analyst? Why can't he be specific?

He taps the chair, and suddenly I'm aware of the wall clock ticking away the hour. Another client waits in the foyer. I hear Donna chatting on the phone in her office next door.

“pursuing CFP course,” Mr. Sen is saying. “I have master's degree”

“Your annual income?”

His face reddens. “Fifty thousand to seventy-five thousand.”

I think of Ma asking how much money my fiancé makes. If I have to say we split up, I'll say he won the lottery and moved to a Caribbean island. “I don't mean to get too personal, Mr. Sen, but if I'm to find you a good wife, I must know everything.”

“I've tried the online dating services. Internet, you know? No luck.” He shakes his head. “When will you find?”

“I'll need a little time.” I ponder the possibilities. Miss Chatterjee! She was in here last week. Just his type. I stand and extend my hand.

Mr. Sen shakes it. “When shall I have my first date?”

“This week, I promise.” I escort him to the reception area, where Mrs. Mukerjee and her demure daughter Sonya are waiting. Sonya's wearing a candy-cotton-pink
churidar kurta
.

Mr. Sen strides past everyone and out the door.

“Ah, lovely Lina!” Mrs. Mukerjee slaps my cheeks and embraces me in a rib-breaking hug. “I must shower you with congratulations!” She steps back and regards me with a teary gaze. “We were all hoping and praying that the gods would send you the right husband, one who would not mind that you are so old, and look, our prayers have been answered. Who is the man? Why the big secret? I'm telling everyone he's a rich Marwari businessman, royalty straight from Rajasthan, but nobody believes me.”

“He's not rich Marwari. He's rich … Bengali.”


Acha
. What's his name?”

“Raja,” I blurt out. I must have Raja on my mind.

“Ah, Raja. A true king!” Mrs. Mukerjee shrieks.

Just then Kali bursts in, clenching and unclenching her hands. “Lina, I have to talk to you now!”

“If you'll excuse me.” I give Mrs. Mukerjee an apologetic look.

In my office, Kali slumps into an armchair, her cleavage nearly spilling from her too-tight paisley dress. “Oh, my knickers are in a twist!”

“About what? Make it quick. I'm working.”

“Remember the man I met in India? The one with mojo? Dev? I'm falling for him.”

I press the back of my hand to my forehead. “How many times have you seen him?”

“Only once, at Durga's wedding—”

“Oh, Kali! How can you be falling for him?”

“We spoke on the phone. Long distance.”

“How many times?”

“Only once, but—”

“Did he say he was falling for you?”

“Well, no, but he was polite. He's also rich. He's studying here, so he'll be back from India soon. He wants to meet.”

“Then reserve judgment until you see him again.”

“There's something else. His family used to own palaces.”

“So?”

“He has an older brother. They're princes. Descended from royalty.”

I groan. “Princes marry princesses, Kali. Not the daughters of doctors. Why don't you date someone at work?”

“I don't meet guys at work. How many straight men do
you think work in layout for
City Chic
magazine? Zero. Zilch. Nada.”

“You haven't even
dated
this guy.”

“I wish you could've met him. His brother is named after a king. Raja.”

The blood drains from my face. “What's their surname? Dev and Raja who?”

“Prasad. Dev Prasad and Raja Prasad, princes. I can't believe it.”

I grip the edge of my desk. “Princes?”

“Sons of the late Maharajah Ranjit Prasad. Raja and Dev could be the most eligible bachelors in all of India.”

How can Raja be a prince? What did I expect? That he would walk around with a crown on his head? How does a prince act, anyway?

“Your fiancé, have you heard from him?” Kali gets up and adjusts her dress, what there is of it.

My face heats up. “As a matter of fact, he's here. He wanted to be back for my birthday.” Lies, lies.

“Well. It's about time. What's his name? Come on.”

“Raja.” I think of Mrs. Mukerjee, waiting to tell the world.

Kali's eyes widen. “Not the same Raja—”

“It's a coincidence. Raja is a common name in India.”

As soon as Kali leaves, I pick up the phone, my hand shaking, and call my good friend Harry Kumar. “Harry, I'm in big trouble. I need to talk.”

Seven

O
n my thirtieth birthday, Kali shows up in a low-cut summer dress, saffron yellow this time. In a fog of Calvin Klein perfume, she dumps several packages on the dining table and glances around with a shrewd eye. “Where is he, huh? Mr. Perfect Raja? Hiding in the bedroom? Hello! Mr. Dream Man!” Her heels clack on the hardwood floor as she makes her way to the kitchen.

“Kali, pipe down. He's at work. Had a meeting at … Bank of the West.”

She narrows her gaze. “Why haven't I seen you dating this guy?”

“Well … You, uh, moved to the city only a month ago, didn't you? You wouldn't know him.”

She grabs the shiny brown bag of coffee grounds. “Caffeinated Peet's, Major Dickason's Blend. A man after my own heart. Are you going to start drinking coffee now?”

I shake my head. “He's the coffee aficionado. I'm a tea woman.” Thank you, Harry, for providing your coffee.

She already has the fridge open. “Aha! I knew it. He drinks real organic whole milk. No more unsweetened soy milk.”

“What does it matter what he drinks?”

“Real men don't drink soy. He bought a bottle of chardonnay.”

She races out to the living room and grabs Harry's blue Ralph Lauren shirt from the couch. “He's a size Extra Large.” She brings the shirt to her nose and inhales. “Smells good, too. Polo cologne?”

“Chanel for Men.”

“He has taste. What's this?” She drops the shirt, dashes to the fireplace, and sniffs the two dozen long-stemmed red roses in a crystal vase. “Oh, they smell wonderful. There's a note.
To my one and only rose, on her birthday
. He's so romantic. Beautiful handwriting, too.”

“What did you expect?” I clasp my hands in front of me as she opens the closet in the foyer.

“He's a size
thirteen
boot. The man is a giant.” She squeals.

“Remember, he's my man, not yours.” I trail her into the bedroom. She points at the suitcase on the chair in the corner, then rushes over and grabs a pair of Harry's black Ralph Lauren briefs. “Does he look like the male model on the package?”

“I don't study underwear pictures, Kali.”

“Well, I do.” She picks up a pair of jeans. “A Tommy Hilfiger man? Oh, Lina.”

I snatch the jeans from her, drop them in Harry's suitcase, and slam the lid shut. “That's as far as you go, Miss Nosy.”

She goes to the dresser and grabs the shiny black stone, Star Galaxy. I should've hidden it in a drawer.

“What's this? It's beautiful. Where did you get it? Did he give it to you?” She holds the stone up to the light. “Look at the weird white speckles.”

“Yes, he gave it to me.” I snatch the stone from her and put it on the dressing table. She focuses on the computer beneath the bay window with a view of Coit Tower. It's a clear, true blue San Francisco morning. On a day like this, imaginary men come to life.

She picks up a printed e-mail in blue and pink type. “
Only two days until I hold you in my arms again
… .”

I snatch the paper from her. “That's private.”

“Why are you keeping him a secret? I won't tell, promise.”

“He's nobody you know. I met him at a function for foreign dignitaries … a party thrown by a … prominent client.”

“I'll meet him today, then he won't be a secret anymore.”

Harry's belongings will have to do, for now. What will happen when my family realizes Raja won't be here for my birthday party?

At one-thirty, my parents and friends arrive. Ma and Baba drove all the way up from Santa Barbara. They're staying with friends in Berkeley. Ma made
samosas
and
pakoras
. Donna from work and a few others trickle in, and then my best friend Harry Kumar arrives alone. I take his coat, stand on tiptoe to whisper in his ear. “Where's Jonathan?”

“I figured your family wasn't ready for him yet.” He winks, stunning in Ralph Lauren shirt and form-fitting jeans.

“You could pretend to be just friends,” I say, disappointed. I like Jonathan. I was the one who set up the two of them on their first blind date.

“I don't pretend, Lina. I'm not comfortable giving you all my stuff—”

“It's just for a while. You're not actually
impersonating
my fiancé,” I whisper.

“Then who will?”

“I'll find someone.” I kiss his cheek, inhale his cologne. I've often fantasized about him, but where will that lead? He could be a movie star in Bollywood, India's equivalent of Hollywood. He once auditioned in Mumbai—formerly Bombay—but nobody would hire him because his Hindi accent was too Americanized. He became a commercial airline pilot instead.

We congregate in the living room, where Ma lights a single candle on the chocolate cake. I make a wish, blow out the candle, and we feast on the snacks. The afternoon passes in a soft rhythm of friends and family, until Baba proclaims in a loud voice, “Where is this Raja? Why is he not here?”

“He'll be home shortly.” I throw Harry a
help me
look.

“He's practically moved in,” Kali says in a low voice.

Harry ducks out to the liquor store, and a few minutes later, the telephone rings.

“That's him!” Kali shrieks, scrambling for the wall phone in the kitchen. Her face goes gaga as she says, “Hello, yes, lovely to talk to you, we've heard so much about you.” Then she covers the mouthpiece and shouts, “He's got an emergency at work! Can't come now.”

Baba shakes his head. Ma's lips turn down in disappointment. My heartbeat picks up as I rush to the phone.

“He has an utterly cool voice.” Kali hands me the phone, her hand still over the mouthpiece. She runs back to the living room. I hear her talking to the family.
It's him. You should hear his voice. Deep baritone. God, he sounds fantastic
…

“Hello, Raja?” I say tentatively into the telephone.

“Lina.” Harry's voice reverts to normal, which is still deep and smooth. “You have to do something about this problem.”

Eight

I
dream of my deceased fiancé, Nathu. He strides toward me in his khaki pants and windbreaker, his shoulders hunched against the cold. We're visiting the Japanese Garden in Golden Gate Park. I run into his arms, relish his particular scents of cloves and citrus. He loved mandarin oranges.

I was sure he was dead, but here he is in the flesh, the gentle man who wouldn't kill a spider. He put bugs outside, where they smashed into car windshields instead.

“Why did you make us have a memorial service for you?” I ask as we walk hand in hand.

BOOK: Imaginary Men
6.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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