My mother always told me to be a good boy. I suspect she knew that I wasn’t.
I’m lying next to Jacob when she calls. The last time she called this late was to tell me my father had died of a heart at- tack. Now, sweat licks my spine as I slide my finger across the screen: maybe my mother has found out about Jacob and me.
“Akash, you’re up?”
A slant of light illuminates the silky sheets on Jacob’s bed. He snores by my side.
“Mom. What’s wrong?”
She’s silent as I pad into the bathroom, the glass shower beaded with water, jewelled soaps lining the shelves. I stare at my reflection, shadowed and puffy. I wonder how she could have found out, what clue she could have stumbled upon. Face- book. Instagram. A sighting by a mutual friend. Maybe Chaya Aunty’s daughter, Neera, saw Jacob and me holding hands on Santa Monica Boulevard. Maybe my mother sent me something in the mail and was confused when it was returned – after moving in to Jacob’s place, I had forgotten to forward my mail. This is the problem with lies: they always circle back to the truth. My mother breathes deeply into the phone.
“I just wanted to make sure you booked your ticket home.”
“Oh.” I relax. “Yeah. I fly in Saturday.”
“I’m keeping Dad’s puja next week. I can’t believe it’s been – ”
“A year, Mom. I know.”
She falls silent, and I get the sense there’s something more, something she’s holding back. I think of all the things we haven’t said to each other, emotions buried beneath my mother’s stiff smile. I can hear Jacob twisting in the sheets outside. I pray he doesn’t come inside. I’m still haunted by the time he approached me from behind at the grocery store and buried his face in my neck. “I wanna fuck you right here.” I had been on the phone with my mother then, too, asking whether to use red onions or yellow ones to prepare the lamb keema she’d once made for me every Friday night. I’m about to lock the door behind me when my mother sighs softly into the phone.
“Akash,” she says. Her voice is uncharacteristically small. “There’s something else.”
She’s silent, the static sizzling between us. “It’s the house,” she says.
“What about it?”
I picture it: white brick with a slate roof, ivory pillars, trimmed hedges, and windows that reflect pinkish-gold whorls at dusk. All week long, I’ve prepared for my return, reimagining every glossed surface, every cozy nook. “The house? When did you – I didn’t even know it was on the market.”
“Well, you don’t call home.”
I think back to the last time I called my mother. It must have been June, or was it April? A rare wet day. Strong winds rattled the floor-to-ceiling windows in Jacob’s condo.
“When do you move?”
“That soon? To where?”
She’s silent, and I fear she’s going to say she’s coming to Los Angeles. Jacob has been talking about her recently, that he would like to meet her, that we could fly down for Thanksgiving, or maybe she would like to attend his cousin’s wedding in Newport Beach, wouldn’t that be nice? We don’t talk about the truth: that my mother has no idea who he is, that in her world people like Jacob don’t exist.
When she answers, her voice is resolute.
“I’m moving back to London, Akash. I’ve made up my mind.”
“I’ll explain everything when you come home. This will be the last time you see the house. The last time you see – everyone. All our memories are here.”
The word “memories” is like the sharp nick of a blade, breaking skin.
“But what about – ”
Suddenly, the door opens and Jacob’s bearded face appears in the light, his hair slicked over. He puts his arm around my waist. “What’s wrong, babe?” I want to shush him, press his back against the wall, but it will only make things worse, so I say nothing instead, letting his fingers glide up my shirt, pinch- ing my nipple. I close my eyes. I know it’s too late, because my mother asks, “Is someone there?”
“No, Mom,” I say. “It’s only me.”
My husband liked me to wear makeup around the house. “Come, Renu,” he’d say. “Taiyar thaija.” According to women today, this would make him a bad man. I never questioned his motives. I never said, “Why? Don’t I look good without it?” Instead, I powdered my face, applied lipstick the color of red wine. Sometimes I tried on an expensive gown, something I’d bought at one of the posh stores when Ashok was not around. I turned side to side, batting my eyes like Susan Lucci in All My Children. I liked Susan Lucci. I liked it when she slit her eyes and said something nasty like, “I know you’re sleeping with my husband, Cassandra – you whore!” then turned around and slept with someone herself. Everyone was sleeping with someone on these shows – slapping people, too. Sleeping and slapping, sleeping and slapping. Un- til it was time to throw a drink in someone’s face. Such vile disrespect – I liked it. Before I moved to this country, I had assumed all American women were whores. I was wrong. Not all American women are whores. Only the ones on TV.
I would not have chosen to live in this town with its quiet roads and its dark winters, but back then, I didn’t have much of a choice. I married Ashok. He brought me to Illinois. There was no alternative. I could not have been what the whites call a “spinster,” drinking martinis at three pm. According to my parents, women like those were failures. They were dangerous. But what’s so wrong with a dangerous woman? Women have choices now: what to wear, whom to marry, even whether to be a woman at all. It’s all fine with me, as long as everyone shaves their legs. I didn’t choose this life for myself, but now I’m choosing to leave it. The women in my book club say this is very feminist. They’re all very young and very blond and very excited – about everything. I made the decision to move six months after Ashok died, contacting a Realtor and putting the house on the market, replacing the carpets and doors, fixing the leaks in the gutters, doing all the things Ashok had been meaning to get done before he passed, before God took him.
I don’t wear makeup around the house now. I don’t do a lot of things I used to do, like preparing a full Indian meal: vegetable, lentil, roti, rice. I don’t chop mint leaves for cucumber raita. I don’t set out jars of pickled mango, floating in red oil. I don’t stock the refrigerator with Ashok’s favorite cheeses and wine. Sometimes I don’t even buy groceries at all. Instead, I eat simple things, sandwiches and soups, cereal with milk, Chinese takeout or Thai, watching the sun set behind black, skeletal trees. It’s the first time in my life I’ve been alone.
Before marrying Ashok, I lived in a small flat in London with my brother and his wife, working in a pharmacy nearby. I can still see the red buses and perpetual silver drizzle, the small Peugeots with their mustard-colored plates. I can see the sleek shops on Oxford Street selling cashmere and silk, luxuries I couldn’t afford at the time but now, with millions in my account, can buy in bundles if I like. I lie awake at night and dream of the day I will return, landing at Heathrow Airport, walking along the Thames. Maybe I’ll buy a flat, one of those chic glass cubes that juts out like cut quartz in the sky. I have languished in this town with its Walmart and its Applebee’s, its quiet, rural roads, where I was known only as Mrs. Amin, only as Ashok’s wife, only as Bijal and Akash’s mother, and where I have thought, even after all these years, only of you.
Excerpted with permission from Tell Me How To Be: A Novel, Neel Patel, Hamish Hamilton.