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Authors: Anjali Banerjee

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BOOK: Imaginary Men
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As Kali sifts through the lace panties, my mind wanders to Raja Prasad. India seems so distant now, a mirage, yet he sneaks into my memory. I think of the three forms of twilight and imagine him gazing at the stars. I wonder whether he always gives stones to women. He's probably found a perfect, obedient wife. I wonder whether she wears skimpy lingerie. I wonder—

“Here, this'll look smashing on you.” Kali holds up a black thong, a strip of floss attached to a waistband.

“Too risqué for a date with a doctor.”

“He probably sees naked women at work every day,” Kali says. “Is he a gynecologist?”

A couple of heads turn our way.

“Keep your voice down!” I whisper. “No, he's not, and I'm not stripping for him.”

“Oh, behave! You have no guts. How about this?” She grabs a red lace teddy. “Here, perfect!”

“Do you wear this stuff, Kali? Do Ma and Baba know?”

“Of course they don't know. They would both have heart attacks.” She pulls me to the mirror. “Raja will be so
switched on
.”

“Look, Kali—” Why did I choose the name, Raja? Freudian slip? If I tell Kali I'm making up the fiancé, what will she think? I have to tell her. The truth dances on my
lips, then she says, “You know, Baba hasn't been well again.”

I swallow my words. “What's happened?”

“Another bout of the flu, probably from one of his patients. He works too hard, and then Ma starts to complain of this or that ache. They're both such wrecks. I worry.” She picks a set of pink lace underpants and bra for herself.

“I worry too.” If I tell the truth now, our parents will end up in the ER. Or worse.

Twelve

I
yank all the clothes from my closet and throw everything on the bed. Ten different pairs of baggy pajamas. I love pajamas. I'd wear them to work, shopping, to nightclubs, if I could. I own only a few dresses. They fit my curves two years ago, but now I'm verging on anorexic.

You're beautiful
, my imaginary man says from the chair in the corner. He's in khaki slacks and a denim shirt with the two top buttons undone. He watches me peel off my blazer, blouse, and pants.

I try on the sleeveless purple dress I wore for Nathu. I look like a dehydrated grape. Then I try on a black tube
dress, which makes me resemble a burned breakfast sausage.

All those clothes look sexy on you
, my imaginary man says.
But I prefer you in nothing at all
. I picture him lighting a cloves cigarette. Nathu smoked but didn't live long enough to let it kill him. He inhales, then sends the smoke curling up to the ceiling.

“I can't go to dinner in nothing,” I mutter, heading for the bathroom to shower.

Why go at all?
He follows me, slips out of his clothes, and joins me in the shower.

“I have to get out of this apartment once in a while.” I grab sandalwood soap and work up lather.

Why not stay home? We'll put on a little music. Barry White. Open a bottle of champagne.

Barry White? I prefer Dave Matthews.

I wash quickly, rinse, and jump out of the shower. “I can't stay. I have to find someone my parents will like. Someone with whom I can settle down. A guy who makes money, from a good family—”

I come from a good family. I make oodles of money.

“It's not real money. It's like … Monopoly money! You're a Monopoly game guy.”

I picture him shrugging as he watches me choose a conservative maroon dress.

So what? I can satisfy you. What's wrong with me?

“Nothing.” I brush my hair, apply a shade of lipstick to match my dress. “You're perfect, except you're not real.”

I'm as real as this bed
. He pats the mattress, comes toward me, and kisses the back of my neck. His lips whisper across my skin.

Stay. Climb into bed with me.

“And do what? Have imaginary sex?” I press my fingers to my temples. “Oh, I'm talking to myself. My neighbors will hear. They'll know I've lost my mind.”

Who cares what they think?
He lies on the bed. Naked.

I turn away, force myself to finish getting ready. Then I leave him in the apartment and lock the door.

Thirteen

D
r. Dilip Dutta wears his white shirt buttoned to the top, a red tie strangling his thin neck. His calm features remind me of the Buddha. His steady fingers rearrange his knife and fork on either side of the plate. He sips ice water, then puts the glass down at the top right corner of the plate.

“You look lovely,” he says in the congenial voice of a yoga instructor.

“Thank you—I didn't have a thing to wear.” I twist my right earring. Greens Restaurant is crowded on Sunday evening, the conversation a steady background buzz of white noise and clinking dinnerware. The dramatic views of Alcatraz,
the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Headlands mesmerize me. I imagine flying out across the water, alighting on a sailboat, and floating away into solitude.

“Your haircut is avant-garde. I like the modern look.” Dr. Dutta pats his own hair, combed to a fault.

Modern as opposed to what, antique? “Yours is unusual too. Very … smooth.”

“I have to keep it short for work.” His smile reveals straight, yellowed teeth. I wonder if he smokes. Doctors know the health hazards of smoking, don't they? Maybe he drinks too much coffee. Or maybe he had a high fever as a child or had acne and took antibiotics. I hear tetracycline leaves stains on your teeth. Oh, I'm thinking about teeth.

“Short hair is good.” I nod, keep nodding like a bobble-headed doll, then sip my water.

He unfolds the cloth napkin and flattens the corners. Then he opens the menu, carefully running his finger past each item.

I pretend to read the list of specials while regarding him. If he were my surgeon, I'd trust him. His hands wouldn't slip. He wouldn't make a mistake or forget a detail. He would arrange the options and weigh each one. He'll be well regarded in his profession. Patients will flock to him from all over the world. He has a trustworthy face—a doctor's caring, bland features and the Buddha's serene gaze.

I refocus on the menu. “So much green stuff. Makes me feel like a rabbit.”

“That's the name of the restaurant. Greens. If you'd like to go somewhere else, we can—”

“No, no, this is fine. I like leaves and dandelions.” I sound lame, but Dr. Dilip Dutta doesn't inspire me to poetry. His meticulousness makes me want to run home and mess up my apartment, toss my paper clips like confetti.

He points to the appetizers. “The Thai spiced potato cake with wasabi looks good.”

“I'm not a big wasabi fan. How about the marinated feta, asparagus, and melon salad?”

His nose crinkles. “I'm allergic to cheese.”

“Then we'll skip the appetizer.” I try not to sound irritated. These stockings scratch my legs. I never wear stockings. Why am I wearing them tonight? I feel like a bachelorette on
The Dating Game
.

I glance at the couple sitting to our right. They lean over the table toward each other, their words slicing the space between them. They're fighting. At least they're discussing something dramatic.

“I'll try the fresh pea ravioli with snap, snow, and English peas,” Dilip says, pronouncing each word as if it stands on its own.

“Then I'll have the linguini with caramelized onions and gorgonzola cream.”

“A woman of taste.” He closes the menu and signals the waiter.

After we order, Dilip gives me an assessing look, elbows on the table. An awkward silence follows, then the waiter returns with our drinks. Dilip pours ale into an empty mug, not spilling a drop, then sips and puts down the mug directly opposite his water glass.

I touch my earring again. “So, you're a doctor. What's your specialty?”

“I'm still doing my residency. I'm on Emergency Medicine rotation.” I notice a red tinge in the whites of his eyes. I wonder how much sleep he gets.

“That must be exciting. Lots of drama. Do you get many gunshot and stab wounds?”

“A fair amount. We also get sliced fingers and sick babies.” He takes another sip of ale.

“I thought I wanted to be a doctor when I was five. I had a doctor's kit, tried it out on imaginary patients.”

“Most children play doctor, but few go on to study medicine. Your father's a doctor. Are there any physicians on your mother's side?”

I sense Auntie watching me from afar, analyzing Dr. Dutta. She'd like his reserve, his dedication to his noble profession. He has a certain simplicity, or maybe he has unseen layers, like an onion. Or perhaps he just
smells
like an onion. I'm not close enough to tell whether the smell comes from him or the kitchen.

“They're scientists and engineers. My mother's family
mainly lives in Kolkata, yes, but some have moved to Bangalore.”

“Ah, the Silicon Valley of India. They're part of the outsourcing revolution?”

“I think they like the weather there.” I fidget in my chair. He asks polite questions, but what does it all matter?

“What's your favorite color?” His eyes grow redder by the minute. The poor man. He probably hasn't slept in a month.

“Maroon. And yours?”

“I'm a fan of cool green. Or maybe it's because I wear scrubs at work.” His eyelids droop.

Then behind him, my imaginary man appears. I try to blink him away, but the image won't leave. He taps the top of Dilip's head and gives me a wicked grin.
I told you you should've stayed home
.

“Don't rub it in.” I finish off my wine. Dr. Dutta came to see me, and he could've been catching up on his shut-eye.

“Excuse me?” Dilip asks, yawning.

“I'm just wondering where our food is.”

On cue, the waiter hurries over with a tray. I'm grateful for the distraction. I try to ignore my fantasy man. At least he put on some clothes.

The room grows fuzzy. Don't I know not to drink on an empty stomach?

Dilip finishes his ale, we polish off our meals, and then he droops forward over his empty plate, his chin lolling against
his chest. He quickly straightens and blushes. “Please forgive me.” He gathers his cloth napkin and wipes his mouth.

“If you need to go and get some sleep, I won't be offended.” A lump of dessert sticks in my throat.

“It's not you. The hospital puts me on one rotation after another. You must work hard too.”

“I have to keep names and faces straight in my head, and—”

He's nodded off again, poor guy. He's nice enough, works hard, makes time for a date although he's exhausted. I see no shimmering thread between us, but sometimes the connection needs time to grow. I ought to give him a chance. So why is my heart curled up in the fetal position? All I want to do is sleep.

Fourteen

M
y time is short, and Mr. Right remains elusive.

Friday night, I'm on a date with Patrick Malloy, a software gazillionaire who pokes his elbow into me at the Dave Matthews concert at the coliseum. We're in the highest balcony, to the side. The seats press close together. We're all sitting half on top of one another, and Patrick's armpits give off a pungent odor. I lean away, but he angles his elbow to fill the space. He lifts a pair of binoculars to his eyes and sings along to “So Damn Lucky,” one of my favorite Dave Matthews songs.

I fantasize about Dave. He's singing to me, only me. The
rest of the audience falls away. He whisks me off in his limo, and we fly to the exotic island of Mykonos.

Maybe I should've returned Dilip's calls. He left two apologetic messages, and I could tell he was calling from the ER both times. Voices echoed on the intercom in the background.

After my date with him, I had a disturbing dream. I was sitting across from Dilip at the restaurant. He slept, chin on his chest. When he looked up again, he wasn't Dilip. He was Raja Prasad, brooding and black as a monsoon. I was supposed to marry him and take care of his mother, but I forgot.

“I do not tolerate insubordination,” he said in a deep, menacing voice, and then I woke up.

Now I focus on the guitar threads. Is this the man for me? Mr. Patrick Malloy, Irish-born computer genius extraordinaire? Do I love sideburns, ruddy complexion, and hands the size of baseball mitts? I prefer the image of Dave Matthews serenading me as he sings “Gravedigger” a cappella.

Patrick thrusts the binoculars at me, the damp residue of sweat still on the eyepiece. I wish he would disappear so I can enjoy the concert alone.

I focus the lens on Dave's expressive face. He sings three encores, then Patrick drives me home and I have to dash from the car to escape his sweaty grip. Once inside, I bolt my front door and lean against it, breathing hard. I've just escaped certain death.

My fantasy man breathes down my neck.

You're worse off now than when you started dating
. He trails me into the bedroom.

“I'm peachy keen.”

See, if you had stayed home
—

“What's the secret to finding the perfect man? Maybe I'll never find that special spark with anyone. I'm a matchmaker. I'm not supposed to be the one matched.”

You're matched with me.

“I know, that's the problem. I can't enjoy dates. You get in the way.” I kick off my high-heeled shoes and hurl them at the image of Nathu. He dissipates as the shoes smack the wall and bounce to the ground.

Then he returns, all patience and caring.
Now, now
.

“Don't you get angry about anything?” I peel off my stockings and massage my sore feet. “I'm not wearing those things again.”

You don't have to wear them for me.

I yank off my clothes and pull on flannel pajamas and slippers. “You weren't supposed to follow me. I'm not supposed to think of you when I'm with someone else.”

BOOK: Imaginary Men
13.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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