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Authors: Anjali Banerjee

Imaginary Men (9 page)

BOOK: Imaginary Men
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I'm always with you.

I snap my fingers. “Go away.”

I'm in your head, in your heart.

“You're a fantasy.” Tears push at the back of my throat. I get into bed and pull the covers up to my chin.

I'm real, my love
. The words slink through me, warming me to my toes. I feel him beside me, sense his breath, his weight, but he dwells only in my imagination. In the window, there is only a reflection of myself against the night. Alone.

There's no man here, but when I fall asleep, I dream of him. His molecules leave my brain and coalesce. The buzz of electrons and protons spin in space as he becomes flesh and bone, a man with solid arms, torso, legs, hot blood racing through his veins. He slides into bed beside me. I feel his strong heartbeat, his pulse as he kisses me and draws me into a world of pleasure.


unday afternoon, I meet the tennis player, Pramit Lall, for a drink at the famous Vesuvio Café, a historical monument to jazz, poetry, and creative Bohemians. The dim saloon, once a hangout for Jack Kerouac, now fills with tourists, executives in pressed suits, and chess players hunching over intense games. The walls are covered with paintings, artwork, and articles from the Beat era.

I find Pramit upstairs at a dim corner table. He's hairier than I expected, but that's okay. No problem, even if the hair emerges from deep inside his nose. I sit across from him, and we make our boring introductions. He orders a
Jack Kerouac—rum, tequila, orange juice, and lime served in a bucket glass—and I order a glass of chardonnay. Then he slips into intimate conversation before I can raise my shield.

“I believe in monogamy.” He takes a gulp of his Kerouac. “I believe in focusing on one woman.” He gazes at me with bright blue eyes. Does he wear colored contact lenses?

“One woman, like which woman?” I sip my chardonnay, chilled and sweet.

“You. I believe in giving the woman all the attention she needs, whenever she demands it.”

“You don't, think … um, that a woman should take care of a man?”

“Only if it makes her happy. Whatever she prefers, I prefer. I'm not a man who expects his wife to commit
if he dies. Imagine—the wife burning herself on her husband's funeral pyre. Such practices are barbaric.” He touches my cheek. Calluses roughen the palm of his hand, probably from holding his tennis racquet. I hope.

has been outlawed in India,” I say.

“Hah, but many women still immolate themselves rather than face life as widows—”

“They should have more options,” I say, growing annoyed. “Or they could remarry. My family is Brahmo Samaj, a tradition that has always condemned
. ”

“Then we're kindred spirits, Ms. Ray.”

Come on, you're not that gullible
, my imaginary man whispers in my ear. I swat him away.

Pramit waves a hand through the air. “Is there a fly in here? We could move to Molinari's delicatessen.”

“That's okay.”

He only wants to get into your pants.

“He's a perfect gentleman!” I snap.

“Who is?” Pramit blinks.

“You, of course. You haven't asked about my family or caste.”

“All that matters is that you're you.”

All that matters is that you're a woman
, my phantom says.
You have the correct plumbing

Pramit smiles, revealing perfect white teeth, which have probably received thousands of dollars worth of dental work. He reaches across the table and touches my chin in a playful way. I can't stop staring into his eyes, but a nagging voice tells me I'm a moth heading for a headlight.

“We'll see a movie this afternoon,” Pramit says. “How would you like that?”

Where he can cop a feel.

I grit my teeth. “I'd love that!”

“How about a classic at the Retro?
Casablanca ?

“Sounds wonderful.”

Pramit puts his muscular, hairy hand over mine, and then I notice the faint band of untanned skin on the third finger of his left hand.

Don't jump to conclusions, I tell myself. You're always eager for a quick way out. Don't sabotage this chance.

Follow your intuition
, my imaginary man says behind me.

“What would your wife say?” I ask. Where did that come from? I watch Pramit's eyes to gauge his reaction.

“I'm divorced.” He doesn't blink.

See, that wasn't so bad. Divorce isn't the end of the world. Many men are divorced.

“How long were you married?”

“Five years. We were young. It didn't work out.”

Ask him about the kids

“Do you have any children?”

“One son. He's four.”

“You didn't mention this on your profile form. There's a spot to check for ‘divorced,' ‘never married,' or—”

“I didn't want my marital status to hurt my chances with a woman like you.” He's smooth as melting toffee.

“You have a child.”

“I didn't lie. I simply failed to check the correct box.”

“You didn't check any box. A lie of omission is still a lie.” My voice rises. What am I doing? This man hasn't done anything wrong. One out of two marriages ends in divorce in this country, and he's allowed to have a son.

Indians don't divorce so easily. Use your brain.

“I bet you aren't divorced.” My voice shakes. “In fact, you and your wife probably don't even live apart.”

For the first time, Pramit loses his cool. His cheeks redden, and then the smooth look snaps back over his face like blinds. “My wife, you know, she has trouble getting along alone.”

“Cut the crap. Thanks for the drink.” I stand, crumple my napkin, and throw it on the table.

“Wait a minute, where are you going?”

I grab my coat and purse and stalk out, my imaginary man in tow.


drive to Ghirardelli Square near Fisherman's Wharf. What better place to lose myself in the crowds? When I get out of the car, my knees wobble.

I've upset you
, my imaginary man says.

Oh, no, he's still with me.

“I'm not upset.” I stop on the corner, press the Walk buzzer, and watch the tourists. Silvery threads vibrate in the air, linking lovers as they hurry across the street.

There's no thread between anyone and me.

The last thing I want to do is make you angry.

Right! And I might turn into the Incredible Hulk. “I
should thank you, I suppose.” The Walk light blinks. I cross the street, not looking to either side. I step up on the curb, nearly stumbling, and head for the safety and warmth of the stores in Ghirardelli.

My imaginary man is still with me. “Get out of here,” I tell him. “This is too weird.”

Why won't you look at me?

I shake my head, hurry up the steps to the first level. I feel dizzy. I sit on the concrete edge of a fountain. Droplets of cool spray hit the back of my head.

He sits beside me.

My heart aches for the past, for Nathu. This mirage man is Nathu and not Nathu, the past and not the past. My longings, dreams, desires.

“You weren't faithful, were you, Nathu?”

No reply.

“You don't know the answer because you're just some facsimile I created to keep me company. I know this is true now. You weren't perfect at all.”

I jump to my feet and run into the Potter's Wheel. He comes after me and whispers. You're scared to move on. I'm sorry I did this to you.

I pick up a terra-cotta elephant and turn it over. The sales clerk glares at me over thick glasses slipping down her nose. “Can I help you?”

“No, everything's peachy, thanks.” I put the elephant on
the counter and run outside, past the stores and down the steps to the street.

So, I'm imagining a man. Who cares? This time, he saved me from certain heartache with a real jerk. When would I have found out about Pramit? After we'd slept together?

I look up at the stars, except there are no stars. The cloudy sky, reflecting diffused, orange city lights, spits raindrops. I pull my fleece collar up around my neck, hunch into my coat. Desperation unfolds inside me. I'll never give up the past, never be at peace. What am I scared of, really? That there is no perfect man? So what? I could be happy alone, forever.

I hurry back to my car and drive home.

In my apartment, I lock the door and pull both chains across. A sharp pain begins in the back of my head and travels around to my temples. There's no aspirin in the medicine cabinet, so I search the drawers. Cough drops, small travel bottles of lotion, but no aspirin.

I never realized how much junk I've accumulated beneath the illusion of neatness—herbal shampoo bottles, toothbrushes, razors, remnants of sandalwood soap. The kitchen drawers burst with receipts, rubber bands, maps, newspaper articles about travel to exotic countries.
. I pull out a brochure and stare at the Taj Mahal, the white sand beaches of Goa. My heart aches with longing. My feet itch to roam the world. I think of what the astrologer wrote
in my natal chart many years ago. I'll search for love across many seas.

Then I shove the brochure in the garbage.

I switch on the computer and check my e-mail. Several messages from friends and relatives, many congratulating me on my pending marriage, and one from Harry,
54 , asking how my date went with Pramit. The headache worsens. I reply, “Peachy. He's married,” and shut down the computer.

I check the answering machine. A message from Harry, reminding me about his commitment ceremony at Point Reyes National Seashore. In case I forget to check e-mail. Another blank message, a hang-up.

I'm in the kitchen making tea when the phone rings again. Who could be calling so late? I pick up. “Speak!”

“Hello? Lina Ray?” The voice sounds familiar, but I can't place it.

“Yes, this is Lina.”

“Raja Prasad here. Do you remember me?”

My heart flips. “Of course. Mr. Prasad. How are you?” I draw a sharp breath. Across thousands of miles, his voice has the power to send a thrill through me.

“I'm well, thanks. And you?”

“Fine, fine.”
Hunky dory, nothing to complain about
. “How did you get my number?” Did he talk to my father? If he did, then he knows about my engagement.

“You told me the name of your company. Lakshmi Matchmakers. I called and spoke to a … Donna? I hope you do not consider me too forward.”

“Not at all. What can I do for you?” I put on my businesslike voice. I won't get personal with the poster boy for chauvinism. Even if he did give me a stone called Star Galaxy.

“I may be in need of your services.”

“My … services?” All sorts of weird thoughts flash through my mind.

All I hear is “brother,” and “right away.” Then the line goes dead.


hat a pleasant surprise, Mr. Prasad,” I say the next morning at the office. What a complete shock. I want to run into the closet and let out a primal scream, except the closet is cluttered with office supplies. The word
parades through my mind on a royal elephant. What will I say to him? I'll stutter like a fool.

“Call me Raja.” Raja Prasad folds into the chair across from my desk. The collar of his white cotton shirt opens at the neck, revealing hints of muscular chest. A custom-tailored black suit falls in a perfect fit.

I saw him once, in semi-darkness. Now, in daylight, he no
longer resembles Krishna, the playful deity. Raja Prasad is rough-edged, like the action-movie hero Vin Diesel, except with hair. The scar on his cheek forms a faint line, a reminder of a violent moment.

He's a prince, a real prince. My fingers tremble holding the pencil. “What can I do for you, Mr… . Raja? What brings you to San Francisco?”

“You.” He stares, and I turn into a puddle of butter.

“Me?” I point at myself, then regain my bearings. Okay, breathe. You're in your office, on your own turf here.

“You're difficult to recognize in Western clothes.” He raises an eyebrow.

I smile. “I wear saris only on special occasions, like at weddings.”

“Saris suit you.”

Oh, gag me. Does he mean that I look like a bum in my pressed Charter Club slacks and sweater? I fought with my hair this morning. Instead of following orders, it's wreaking havoc in frizzy rebellion. What right does he have to comment on my appearance, anyway? He barged into my office as if he owns the world instead of a few measly palaces. “I'm sorry I couldn't hear everything you said on the phone.”

“I apologize for the bad connection. I was flying from Japan.” His gaze travels at leisure across the bookshelves, the plants, the paperwork on my desk, and lingers on the postcards from Harry. I'm thankful that the writing faces the wall.

He fixes his spotlight gaze on me again. “And how are your parents? Your auntie? Your sisters?”

“They're all peachy keen. Thanks.” In true Indian style, I should whine, “Ma's arthritis pains her.” Nobody's ever peachy keen in India.

“Please inquire after them and extend my fondest regards.”

“Thanks, I will.” From what century did this man sprout? Even in India, he seemed like a throwback to the nineteenth century.

He steeples his long fingers in front of him. He's waiting, so I keep talking. “And how is your family? Your mother, your relatives?” I ask.

“They're as well as one can expect. Your thoughts are much appreciated.” The ensuing silence makes me fidget but doesn't seem to bother him.

He leans forward. “Let's get to why I'm here.”

I catch a whiff of his cologne and lean back. I need all my brain cells in working condition. “Why are you here, Mr. Prasad?”

BOOK: Imaginary Men
8.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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