She went inside, telling him she was going to get Akash ready and look up the schedule. He was suddenly desperate to leave, the remaining twenty-four hours feeling unbearable. He reminded himself that tomorrow he would be on a plane, head- ing back to Pennsylvania. And that two weeks after that he would be going to Prague with Mrs Bagchi, sleeping next to her at night.
He knew that it was not for his sake that his daughter was asking him to live here. It was for hers.
She needed him, as he’d never felt she’d needed him before, apart from the obvious things he provided her in the course of his life. And because of this the offer upset him more. A part of him, the part of him that would never cease to be a father, felt obligated to accept. But it was not what he wanted. Being here for a week, however pleasant, had only confirmed the fact.
He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it. He did not want to live in the margins of his daughter’s life, in the shadow of her marriage. He didn’t want to live again in an enormous house that would only fill up with things over the years, as the children grew, all the things he’d recently gotten rid of, all the books and papers and clothes and objects one felt compelled to possess, to save. Life grew and grew until a certain point. The point he had reached now.
The only temptation was the boy, but he knew that the boy would forget him. It was Ruma to whom he would give a new reminder that now that his wife was gone, even though he was still alive, there was no longer anyone to care for her. When he saw Ruma now, chasing Akash, picking up after him, wiping his urine from the floor, responsible for his every need, he realised how much younger his wife had been when she’d done all that, practically a girl.
By the time his wife was Ruma’s age, their children were already approaching adolescence.
The more the children grew, the less they had seemed to resemble either parent – they spoke differently, dressed differently, seemed foreign in every way, from the texture of their hair to the shapes of their feet and hands. Oddly, it was his grandson, who was only half-Bengali to begin with, who did not even have a Bengali surname, with whom he felt a direct biological connection, a sense of himself reconstituted in another.
He remembered his children coming home from college, impatient with him and his wife, enamoured of their newfound independence, always wanting to leave. It had tormented his wife and, though he never admitted it, had pained him as well. He couldn’t help thinking, on those occasions, how young they’d once been, how helpless in his nervous arms, needing him for their very survival, knowing no one else. He and his wife were their whole world. But eventually that need dissipated, dwindled to something amorphous, tenuous, something that threatened at times to snap.
That loss was in store for Ruma, too; her children would become strangers, avoiding her. And because she was his child he wanted to protect her from that, as he had tried throughout his life to protect her from so many things. He wanted to shield her from the deterioration that inevitably took place in the course of a marriage, and from the conclusion he sometimes feared was true: that the entire enterprise of having a family, of putting children on this earth, as gratifying as it sometimes felt, was flawed from the start. But these were an old man’s speculations, an old man who was himself now behaving like a child.
Her father left early the next morning, while Akash was still asleep.
Again she’d offered to go to the airport, but this time he was even more adamant, telling her he didn’t want to upset Akash’s schedule. They were all tired from their day in Seattle. After the ferry ride they’d gone up the Space Needle and then had dinner in Pike Place Market before driving home. Joining her father in the kitchen, she saw that he’d already finished his cereal, the bowl and spoon in the drainer. The tea bag normally saved for a second cup later in the day had been tossed out.
“You’ve got everything?” she asked, seeing his suitcase by the door. He’d come bearing gifts but had bought nothing to take back with him. Everything he’d purchased in the past week, all the things from the nursery and the hardware store, the coiled-up hose and tools and bags of leftover topsoil now neatly arranged under the porch, had been for her.
“Call when you get home,” she said, something her mother would say to her children when they parted. She asked for his flight information, writing it on the bottom of the same sheet of paper that was on the refrigerator door with Adam’s itinerary.
“Adam will be here tonight?”
“Good. Things will return to normal then.”
She wanted to tell him how normal it had felt, to have her father there. But she couldn’t bring herself to say the words. Her father glanced at his watch, then poured a bit of his tea into his saucer in order to cool it more quickly. He raised the saucer to his lips, sipping from the rim.
“It has been a marvellous week, Ruma. I have enjoyed each day.”
“These days with Akash have been the greatest gift,” he added, his voice softening. “If you like, I can come for a while after you have the baby. I won’t be as useful as your mother would have been.”
“That’s not true.”
“But please understand, I prefer to stay on my own. I am too old now to make such a shift.”
His gentle words fell on her thickly, too quickly. She understood that he had not had to think it over, that he had never intended to stay.
“Make time to look into law firms here,” he continued. “Don’t let all that hard work go to waste.”
He stood up, and before she could stop him, rinsed out his cup and saucer and put those into the drainer as well. It was time to go.
“Let me go downstairs and give Akash a kiss,” he said. He turned to leave the room, then stopped. “Do you have a spare stamp? I need to put a bill into the mail.”
“In the drawer of the little table in the hall,” she said. “There’s a roll there.”
She heard the drawer opening, then closing, then the sound of his flip-flops hitting the stairs. When he returned, he went to the entryway to put on his shoes, tied his laces, fit the flip-flops into the front pocket of his suitcase. He kissed Ruma on the cheek. “Take care of yourself. Let me know how the garden comes along.” He glanced at her stomach and added, “I am waiting for the good news.”
He turned and walked outside to his car, putting the suitcase into the trunk. She stood watching as he turned on the engine and backed out, wondering when she would see him again. At the mailbox he paused, and for a moment she thought he was about to open the window and put his bill inside. But he only waved through the closed win- dow, leaning toward her, looking lost, and a few seconds later he was gone.
Excerpted with permission from Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Random House India.