One Tuesday evening a few weeks later, Bela saw the woman at Lucky’s with her son. She followed them at a distance, a kind of recon mission. The little boy sat cross-legged in the grocery cart and pointed to the things he wanted, and his mother picked them up and handed them to him so he could arrange them in neat piles. Bela memorised their shapes and colours so that later she could examine them. What exotic items they chose, a window into an America she didn’t know. Betty Crocker Supermoist Rainbow Chip Cake Mix. Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli in Hearty Tomato and Meat Sauce. Beef was forbidden, but Bela bought a can of cheese ravioli, though later she was disappointed at its blandness.
Bela changed her shopping schedule to Tuesday evenings. As she had hoped, she saw the mother-and-child pair several times. She observed them carefully. Sometimes the woman shook her head in refusal, and the boy agreed with good grace. He was a docile child, not like the monsters Bela had to deal with in Tiny Treasures, who sometimes kicked her on the shin when they were in a bad mood.
She had even been bitten a couple of times. Bela had to admit that the woman was a good mother, though this did not lessen her resentment of her. Once, the woman turned around and noticed Bela and waved to her in a friendly way. She said something to the boy, and he waved, too. Bela almost waved back, but then she turned her cart and hurried into the next aisle.
She did not know much about being pregnant, what to expect from it.
Her mind felt as bloated as her body. Was that natural? The advice in the books she borrowed from the library seemed confusing and contradictory; the world grew newly dangerous. Exercise more. Too much exercise can cause a miscarriage. Rest. Don’t be sedentary. Drink fruit juices. Cut out sugars. Avoid runny eggs, caffeine, paint, non-stick frying pans, insect spray, household cleaners. How was a woman to manage, then? And had she damaged the baby by breathing in Comet fumes when she cleaned the house that was and was not hers?
She thought longingly of calling her mother, asking her opinion. But Sanjay hated Sabitri. Though reasonable about most things, he still fumed about the humiliation of Sabitri sending that doorman-guard to college with Bela, to protect her from Sanjay. And he always checked the phone bill because Bishu had told him that phone companies had a habit of charging you for calls you hadn’t made. He would see the call to India, Bela would have to explain, there would be an argument – oh, she didn’t have the energy for it. So she wrote instead.
The reply came so quickly that Sabitri must have sat down and penned it as soon as she received Bela’s letter.
Don’t worry about all those newfangled notions. You and your baby come of sturdy village stock. You’ll do fine. I want to come and take care of you – and the baby when it comes. When should I plan to arrive? Bipin Babu will be quite capable of running Durga Sweets once I go over a few things with him. I could cook for you, give oil-massages to the baby. You won’t have to buy my ticket – I have enough in my bank account –
When she read that part, Bela began to cry.
She knew her mother didn’t have much in her savings. She’d put everything into Durga Sweets, but because she took pride in using the best ingredients and serving only what was made fresh each day, the shop wasn’t as profitable as it might have been.
Growing up, Bela had both loved the shop and been jealous of it because Durga Sweets was Sabitri’s life. Even on her days off, Sabitri would stop in there – just to breathe that sweet air, she said. How much she must love Bela – and even more, the little one who was coming – to be willing to hand it over. But Sanjay would never agree to having her here.
Great, racking sobs erupted from Bela. She hadn’t wept like this since she was a child. She couldn’t stop even though she knew that getting worked up was bad for the baby: all the books had agreed on that. But everything she had tamped down, all her disappointments since – yes, for the first time she admitted it – her marriage, swirled in her like a dust storm.
She was stuck in this dingy apartment, stuck in a dead-end job she hated, stuck under a load of unpaid loans so heavy that she’d probably never be able to go back to college.
“Oh baby,” she whispered. “What am I going to do?”
Then she felt it, a movement, for the first time. It was like a tickle inside her. As though you were trying to cheer me up, she would tell Tara later, to stop me from all that crying.
Shocked into silent wonder, she walked to the bed and lay down, holding her belly, waiting for it to happen again, for her baby to talk to her with its body. Warmth pulsated from her stomach through her hand to the rest of her body. All the things she had been so upset about a few minutes ago faded in its glow.
She ran to Sanjay when he came in the door, pressed his palm against her. Move, Baby, she whispered, and as though it heard her, there was a flutter. Once, twice. She laughed at the disbelief on Sanjay’s face. It’s really real, he kept saying through dinner – tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, which he ate uncomplainingly night after night because everything else made her nauseous.
What a good husband he was. Lying in bed with his arm around her, his lips nuzzling the back of her neck, she thought, Tomorrow I’ll ask him about having my mother come and visit. Maybe, for the baby’s sake, he’ll agree.
Waking in the middle of the night she found herself alone. He was at the dining table, scrunched over their checkbook, his forehead furrowed.
“What is it?” she whispered, afraid.
She massaged his tense shoulders and waited.
“It’s the tenant,” he finally said. “He’s lost his job. We called him when he didn’t send in his check. He’s asked for a month to get the money together. I was looking to see if we have enough to pay our half of the mortgage.”
Her heart raced with anxiety. It tended to do that easily these days.
She let out her breath.
“But only just,” he added. “We’ll have to tighten our belts . . . .”
“That might be tough right now,” she joked, patting her stomach. Inside her, the worry pulsed like a live creature. Determinedly, she pushed it into the locked part of her mind where she kept all the things she did not wish to think about. They laughed together, and the baby gave a small, responding leap. Back in bed, she held Sanjay’s hand until his breath steadied and deepened. But sleep would not come to her. Disappointment pressed on her chest like a slab of concrete. She’d have to wait until the situation improved before she could ask Sanjay if Sabitri might visit them.
Excerpted with permission from Before We Visit the Goddess, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Simon & Schuster.