In the equations of the world, it all works out. There isn’t much I believe, but I do believe that if you send out a thought or action, then it circles the universe until it boomerangs right back your way. Sometimes it isn’t even fair but that is the way it is. Now take Asha and me for example. Our story was a lot of things: sad, happy, exciting, exacting. But not for an instant was our story ever fair. And, like I said, that’s just the way things are when karma boomerangs and hits you in the head just to remind you that somewhere, your words and actions always find their way back into your life. And mind. And heart.
My second belief (because I have learned it is so) is time and love do not have a codependent relationship. You can love someone for years and still never react to her like you do someone you know for the length of a glance. I don’t think this is necessarily fair. But then fate likes her games too. And that is the game fate played with us, Asha and me, two people who logically should not ever have met.
The first time I ever saw her, Asha was dancing on a screen at the Regal on Route 1. She was wearing a white sari and swaying in the rain, her left hand wrapped around a tree branch and her right hand catching raindrops in its palm. As I watched her sway back and forth, her stomach gleaming with rainwater, I felt that any minute, I could enter the screen and make her a part of my reality. I wanted to stand behind her and whisper, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s leave these trees and the grass beneath our feet and get a glass of Sauvignon Blanc somewhere in the Village.”
Instead, I spent the half hour to intermission and the hour and a half after caressing Ajay’s hair. I ran my hands in circles just the way I knew he liked it. He moaned. I ran my fingers across his cheek and he turned his face to kiss my palm. He moaned. I rest my head on his shoulder and held his hand. He moaned.
Ajay was a moaner. He always moaned. If he liked the food he ate, he moaned. If I touched him anywhere at all, he moaned. If he ran out of gas and had to stop the car, he moaned. It was irritating yet comforting. In the dark theater with exit signs blaring red, all the while Ajay moaned, I stared at her and wished I could caress her hair and let my hand wander to her waist. I wanted to kiss her. Just one kiss.
I closed my eyes and I can tell you even today exactly what I said. Inside me, I heard my voice, soft and genuine, “God, I won’t turn gay or anything. If once in my life, if ever I have done anything good, I want to kiss this woman. And then I will walk away and marry Ajay and be happy.”
From where that prayer rose, I don’t know. But it was honest. I wasn’t gay. The world was full of beautiful women. I wanted to be among them, not on top of them. But I was taken with Asha. And it didn’t really matter because everything I thought was only a figment of my imagination. What were the chances that I would even meet this woman let alone touch her? And thinking of kissing someone did not make it happen, did not make me gay either, by the way. So why not kiss her? Why not stroke her hair? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, nothing wrong. So I prayed for her. And kissed it up to God.
When we left the theater, Ajay wanted Italian food. He never asked me what I wanted or whether I might not be hungry. Ajay always wanted Italian food and so I ate Italian food too many times to enjoy it. What would it be like, I wondered, to be with someone who asked just once what my tongue craved?
We walked to the car holding hands loosely, as if we both knew that in four years, the excitement and novelty of us had unraveled and now we had threads of all the exhilaration and we were holding those threads, trying to make whole what was no longer existent. We lived under a quilt of delusion, Ajay and I. And while it was not honest, it was very comforting.
When we reached the car, he turned to me and stood facing me, his eyes tired but content. I noticed his sideburns had hints of silver, like porcupine quills.
“Rani, I wanted us to talk,” he said.
I brushed an eyelash from his face, his cheeks rough with want of a good shave. But he was hoping to grow a beard so he could look more like a doctor and less like an intern.
“Rani, I have something I want to say but I don’t know how.”
“It’s okay,” I said softly. “Tell me.”
I was terrified. If Ajay had left me at that moment, I would have been devastated. I would not have known how to breathe let alone live. He had become so a part of the furniture of my life that I didn’t think I would ever be able to let him go. But Ajay did not leave me that night. Not then. Time is a funny thing. Timing is even more hilarious. So it was with us.
“Rani, I love you more every day,” Ajay said. “I can’t live without you. And today, today I want to ask you if you will marry me.”
Have you ever been slapped across the face when you least expected it? His proposal made me feel the way I did when I was a child and my father had had enough of my wailing for a Voltron figurine and he slapped me hard and told me girls do not, do not play with Voltron. The shock of that slap repeated itself with Ajay’s proposal. No bent knee, no emotion, damn it. At least pretend, Ajay, that we haven’t become stale and boring and lifeless.
I repaid the favor by taking out my translucent face powder and fixing myself in the tiny mirror. My eyes met the reflection of my eyes and my reflection asked me, “What the hell are you doing?” I didn’t know the answer. I stared into my eyes, the green flecked with so much brown that they looked dangerous sometimes. My hair needed to be dyed again because the roots were beginning to show under the autumn brown. I smiled. Were there seriously slight laugh lines around my mouth?
“Rani! Are you for real?”
I snapped the powder shut.
“I’m sorry,” I said as I glared at his face.
When I had met Ajay, I had been drawn to his defined jaw and taut abdomen. As I looked at him outside the movie theater that night, I realized his chin was now a chin and a half and all that was taut were his shirt buttons against a bulging gut. If at least he bought bigger sizes he could still look decent. But I heard time and time again about a gym he never went to but would as soon as he had some time. So he didn’t need bigger sizes, he would lose it all within a month. That month never came.
“Rani, I just proposed to you and you are staring yourself. That’s rude.”
I sighed. My voice dove an octave as it always did when I was angry.
“That,” I said, “that was a proposal? It sounded like here’s a ring, wear it, love me, fuck me, feed me.”
“Rani no! I just, I just don’t see the point in clichés.”
“That certainly wasn’t a cliché, Ajay. In fact, that was nothing.”
I looked into his eyes, black and vacuous but content. Always content. I hated him for that. My eyes, I knew, spoke of my desire for a genuine smile, a beating heart and a woman in a drenched white sari.
He took my hand.
“Rani, I will propose any way you like. I love you. I need you. We are so good together.”
“Four years and you don’t know what I want?”
“All I know is I want you,” he said. “And all I thought you knew was that you wanted me.”
He held me. In his arms, I felt comfortable. I knew this embrace. I knew the feel of his cotton shirts and the scent of his Ralph Lauren Romance for Men. What was I thinking anyway? Four years and yes, the proposal was lacking to me but wasn’t he right? All that mattered was that he had finally asked, that our parents would be ecstatic and that I would marry a man who was kind. Not exciting, not spontaneous, sometimes not even interesting but kind. And he loved me. And wasn’t love the hardest thing to find?
“I love you, jaan,” I said.
“Rani, I will make you so happy.”
At least I knew he would, in his own clumsy way, try to make me happy.
He slipped a Tiffany’s one a half-carat princess cut diamond platinum ring onto my ring finger. And just like that, I belonged to someone.
It was less than two weeks after that Ajay had to go to San Francisco for an ophthalmology conference. He wouldn’t talk much about it and I was glad because I didn’t want to hear any more about detached retinas or hardened lenses and cataract catastrophes. I had, in that week, received many hugs from my parents for my wise decision. Ajay’s parents had sent gifts for no reason. The world around me rejoiced as I tried not to listen to the voice within me that said, “No.” And why not? Why wouldn’t I marry this man? He was a successful doctor, a kind man, a gentle lover. Did it matter that his lovemaking was ineffective most of the time? Did it matter that he cared so much about scratching his Seven series BMW that, despite the fact that I would have to walk ten blocks across New York City in heels if he parked in a garage and not on the street, he insisted on the garage? These were minor things. Because, after all, he was also the man that held me when I cried or made soup for me when I was not well.
Ajay was not a bad man by any means. He was just a flat man. But then so were Mickey, Matt, Suraj, Ricardo, Hasting, Gerald, Amit and Pankaj. Why was the world so full of flat men? The reason I forgave Ajay so quickly for his indecent proposal is that I had been proposed to three times before him. When Mickey proposed, it was at the top of the Empire State Building with roses and a two-carat ring. With Suraj, it was in a carriage ride by Central Park, my eyes tearing from the sting of a crisp, cold autumn wind. With Hasting, it was on a plane to London, a vacation he had planned so that I could see where he had grown up and played cricket and loved and lost and hated and cried. So when Ajay spoke of clichés, I realized it was all a cliché anyway, a repetition of a scene with a change in script. So I finally accepted the role and I think it was because I could not hear this story again. And that week before he left me for San Francisco, everyone around me was so happy, I started to believe I had done something miraculous.
And, miraculously, the Tuesday before Ajay left, he asked me where I wanted to go to dinner. I said I wanted sushi and graciously, although he wanted Italian, he agreed to go to Benihana’s.
I drove Ajay to the airport. I parked, went in and watched as he checked in and proceeded through the security gate. After I could no longer see him, I kept staring after him, realizing how many times in my life I would repeat this scene, exactly the same each time, never faltering or changing or becoming any more meaningful to me.
I finally turned around and left. I walked to the parking lot and sauntered to my car. Just as I was about to reach the driver’s side, someone said, “Excuse me.” I turned around and found myself face to face with Asha Mehta, my woman in a white sari, one of Bollywood’s finest. Luck and misfortune had it that Asha was at Newark Liberty International Airport. So there I was, staring into those chocolate eyes that, by the way, I was sure, were flecked with light traces of hazelnut.
They say that actresses look different in person and this is true; she was more beautiful in person than on screen if that’s even possible. I stared at her. I drank her beauty, her flowing jet black hair (no white porcupine quills), her hazelnut flecked irises, her perpetually pouting lips, shining a muted pink.
I realize now that she didn’t shift her gaze either. I would give anything now to know what she saw when she looked at me. I wondered if she saw the rim of my contacts around the green and brown of my irises. I wondered if she noticed my nose was slightly deviated due to being kicked in the pool by Ajay who didn’t realize I was under the water. I wonder if she noticed my thin lips and very well defined jaw line. While I noticed she was built like a woman, all curves, no shame, I wonder if she realized I was built like an athlete, a runner, lean and strong. But that was a long time ago, my athletic adventure. A decade later here I was, staring into the eyes of a Bollywood film star.
Time is a funny thing. How long we stood there in silence as if it was perfectly natural for us to stare at each other without words, I don’t really know. What I do know is that she spoke first and I felt as if it was a victory for me.
“Excuse me, I’m very lost,” she said.
“I can try to help you.”
“I’m so sorry, my name is Asha,” she said.
“How could I not know you?”
I wish I had said something different as soon as I released those words into the air.
“So you watch films, then?” she asked.
She smiled and I felt as if the glacier around my heart had started to retreat into a cold ocean and all I was left with was inner warmth.
“Yes, I do.”
She ran her hands through her hair.
“Your favorite film?”
“Woh Anjaam,” I said.
“Yes,” I said. “Your film.”
She smiled and something inside me shifted. I don’t know how to explain it but if I spoke of flatness before, this was a smile that made my flat world round, like a spiritual Galileo.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Rani,” I said.
“So Rani, I am lost. I don’t know where to go. I mean I know I should go to a cab perhaps but I think I am on the wrong side.”
“You are,” I said. “I can take you to the other side. That’s no problem.”
There are people who are ordinary in every way but conduct life as if they are indispensible. Then there are those who are beautiful in every way but so simple and unassuming you want to hold them and protect their innocence forever. Asha was very much the latter. I wanted to hold her and let her talk and cry for as long as she needed or wanted. Why or how I knew she wanted to do either, I can’t say. But her eyes, although the color of sweetness, spoke of emptiness. I wanted to help her fill that void. And then I wanted to kiss her.
“I’d be happy to drive you to your hotel if you trust me,” I said.
I tried not to look at her mouth or envision kisses along the nape of her neck. Why did she have to be so beautiful?
“I don’t trust beautiful women, Rani. They are dangerous.”
I think my heart stopped for a few seconds. And then I looked at her and my heart started beating again.
“You have no luggage?”
“Just this bag,” she said pointing to a very large carry on.
“I like to shop,” she said.
I caught her gaze again. When she smiled, it reached her eyes. There was a brightness in them that I had never seen in anyone’s eyes, not even mine. As I kept looking at the molten brown of her eyes, I remembered a prayer I had uttered in a darkened movie theater a little more than a week ago. I tried not to remember that my fantasies arose on the night Ajay proposed and I accepted. I rubbed my thumb across my engagement ring. No genie appeared. My ring finger felt heavy and uncomfortable.
“You don’t act like an actress,” I said.
“Really, Ms. Rani? And what do most of the actresses you know act like?”
It was my turn to smile.
“I don’t know any,” I said.
“Well, this is Asha. I don’t know about anyone else. This is me, myself, and I.”
“Is it true that Pavan Saini is your boyfriend?” I asked.
She was silent. I didn’t know what prompted me to ask the question. Perhaps it was because when I had seen them on screen in Woh Anjaam, I had felt strangely jealous of his hands as they encircled her waist. I remember his mouth tracing kisses along the nape of her neck and I had felt sad. So I wanted to know if these things occurred now, past the film, past fiction, and in her reality. So I asked.
And there we were, virtual strangers and I say virtual because my reality felt virtual at that moment. I had seen Asha half naked, sometimes fully clothed and drenched with rain, touching, teasing, testing men on screen. Yet as I stood before her, I knew nothing of her at all.
“I mean if it’s personal, I am sorry,” I finally said.
She laughed but it was not like the laugh before. It was nervous. And false.
“Rani, of course it’s true.”
Sometimes it is not what someone says but how she says it. Her “of course” was at odds with her voice. The airport continued its routines, unaffected by our silences and awkward starts.
“Let me give you a ride,” I said in a voice so soft it was almost like I was pleading with her.
She sighed. She ran her hands through her hair. She smiled at me.
“All right but if and only if you have dinner with me tonight. Wherever you want to go. Whatever you want.”
I think my mouth opened in surprise and I stood there, speechless. Ajay who?
“Then let’s go.”
And this is where my life began. Looking back, it is when she first stepped into my car that my life somersaulted and changed me forever. Asha’s exuberance and Asha’s enchantment took me by surprise. Have you ever felt that certain things were bound to be flat forever and then realized you were just looking at flatness all along because you didn’t believe in dimensions? That is where I was when I met her. And that is where I would remain with Asha, for Asha and forever.
I held the car door open for her. She stepped inside. I closed the door and went to the driver’s seat.
“So where are we going?” I asked.
“Can we drive just drive around? I want to see New York,” she said.
I turned the ignition. I waited. What I was waiting for I don’t know. I think I just wanted more time with her and didn’t want this afternoon to end in darkness and loneliness.
“Rani, we going?”
“Yes, of course.”
I pulled out of the parking lot and through the parking lot toll booth and off we were, heading towards New York City.
“So tell me about your Pavan,” I said.
I was fixated on her boyfriend. Was he flat too? Would his shirt buttons eventually threaten to burst off his shirt? Would he ever grow a beard to seem scholarly?
Asha reached over and took my hand. I felt my heart beating faster, sweat on my forehead. What was she doing?
“I never have the chance to be alone,” she said. “There’s always someone there, making sure I am safe and I have everything I need. I hate it. This is truly beautiful.”
“So you want to be alone, unsure and not having everything you need?”
“Sometimes not having what you need teaches you what you want and then you pursue not what you think you should but that which is worthwhile.”
She pressed my hand gently and stayed silent. She was profound. She was beautiful. She was someone whom I had wanted as I watched her on screen. But I wasn’t gay. It was just her persona. I knew that. I believed that.
It is only when truth enters us and takes over every aspect of us that beliefs become excuses and turn to a fine ash. Sometimes we anoint ourselves just to be ignorant again. But most times, we learn to live. So it was with me. But I didn’t know it then.
“Are you comfortable?” I asked.
“You just want me to keep driving?”
She turned towards me and although I wanted nothing more than to look into those eyes again, I was driving. I pressed her hand. I quickly stopped. What was I doing? What were we doing?
“I want to play pool,” she said.
“Pool it is. But you realize there are a lot of Indian people around New York. Someone is bound to recognize you and you’ll be mobbed.”
She laughed. I still treasure the resonance of that laughter within me.
“Who do you think I am, Angelina Jolie? I don’t get mobbed. Just an autograph or two sometimes. I’m Bollywood famous, Rani, not Hollywood famous. And even at that, I’m no Aishwariya Rai.”
“Do you want to be Hollywood famous?”
“I want to be happy.”
“Are you unhappy?” I asked.
She turned towards me and I watched the rearview. I felt her stare.
“I’m just about as happy as you.”
I put my signal on and didn’t answer. I cleared my throat. Finally, I spoke.
“I’m not happy or unhappy really,” I answered.
“Then I guess we’re in the same place.”
We were not in the same place. She was a beautiful actress, a beautiful woman who danced with trees and cried without having her kohl run down her cheeks. She made straight women like me want to kiss her full lips and maybe even touch her abdomen through a monsoon rain drenched sari. And me? I was a flight attendant who had failed out of business school and was getting ready to marry a flat man who prized himself above anyone else for all that he had done in ophthalmology which, by the way, wasn’t very much. So how were we in any place that was similar? She danced to the tunes of singing monsoons and I lived in a desert waiting for rain. So how then in any way were we the same?
“We are not the same,” I said. “Not in any way.”
She was looking out of the windshield at the road, a row of red brake lights lighting our path forward. The sky was a deep blue and I was sure that stars blessed us above. It was cool in the car but I lowered my window anyway.
“I seldom have the luxury of solitude,” she said.
“I never want to be alone,” I replied.
“Is that why you agreed to marry him?”
“Is that what? How do you…?”
She tossed back her hair with her hands. Her hands stayed in her hair and for a moment, I wanted my hands in her dark deep black hair.
“The ring,” she almost whispered.
How could I forget my mammoth ring? It sparkled every time I moved my hand as if deliberately trying to catch my attention or remind me that I belonged to someone who would steal my name and superimpose his in the void.
“Why are you here with me?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
It wasn’t quite the compliment I was expecting. I don’t really know what I was expecting. But all of a sudden I felt foolish. If I could look at us, two strangers in an Infiniti, driving through Manhattan with the excuse of finding a pool hall when we had passed perhaps six of them, I felt ridiculous.
“Do you just want me to take you to your hotel?” I asked.
“Why? Are you bored with me?”
I didn’t answer her. A slightly falling rain dusted my windshield and I turned the wipers on full force although all that did was smear droplets of rainwater in streaks across the glass. I shut the wipers off.
“Rani, what is it?”
“Why are you here with me?” I said.
“I am with you because when I saw you I thought you were magnificent. I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to know you. And I thought, ‘Why not?’ That is why I am here. And if you want, I’ll leave.”
“Do you generally pick up random girls at airports?”
“Yes, I do.”
Sometimes you ask a question and you don’t want an answer but an affirmation of your worth. She answered. And I didn’t like it.
“Like you knew me? You saw me and started talking to me. Why? Can’t I ask the same question of you?”
“I like you.”
“You like my films. You don’t know me.”
When I look back, I think the reason I didn’t pull over and toss her away and the reason she didn’t threaten to leave is because we were both wrong in some ways. And in other ways, nothing was more perfect.
The rain began to fall in slants and lightening repeatedly split the sky in two. I turned on the stereo system so that thunder wasn’t the only sound between us. What played was a song from her film, the song in which she is embracing a tree branch and swaying to rain, to music, and, I like to believe, for me.
She pressed my hand and then, in a gesture I will never understand, she took my palm to her lips and kissed my lines of fate. Once. Twice.
“Can I suggest something?” she said softly.
“Let’s just find a hotel somewhere and we can talk. Just us.”
I braked for the red light and stared at her. If I had been rational or if I had been in love with Ajay and his Tiffany’s ring, I perhaps would have told her absolutely not. I would have questioned her or wondered how any of it was sane or possible. But I was not rational and I cared for Ajay and sighed when I looked at my ring finger. When I stared at her, I did not want to question her. I noticed her deep eyes and her slightly parted lips, quivering as if cold. Yes, I wanted to be with her in a room where it was just us, no cars, no windshields, no rain.
“To your hotel, then?”
She shook her head no.
“Somewhere no one will know I am. With you.”
I remembered having gone to Bookmarks Lounge at The Library Hotel months ago. I thought perhaps this would be a good choice since it was still a luxury hotel but more obscure than a Sheraton or Hyatt. I drove until I was at Madison and Forty-First and then some until I found a parking garage. A thin man in his mid- twenties handed me a ticket and drove my car away. Asha and I stood looking after him.
“Shall we go?” I asked.
She smiled at me. She took my hand.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Hand in hand, no words to offer, we walked to the reception area and asked for a room. We were on the seventh floor. We took the elevator, Asha holding her one bag, me empty handed, wondering what I would wear to sleep or even the next day.
When we entered the room, Asha shut the door and hugged me. Something inside me moved. She smelled like jasmine kissed by raindrops. She fit perfectly in my arms.
“Do you want some coffee?” she asked. “I love coffee. I was thinking of making some.”
“Sure.” I whispered by her ear.
She made coffee and poured it into two Styrofoam cups. We sat on the bed.
“So tell me about you?” she asked.
And that is how it all began. I would love to say we finished the coffee and made passionate love. The truth is, we talked. We talked the entire night of my life and hers, our fears, our so-called boyfriends. When the coffee finished, we asked the operator on the telephone to bring more. When the sky paled and it was almost morning, we shut the lights off and talked to each other in semi-darkness. She stroked my cheek. I ran my fingers through her hair. She set her coffee cup on the floor. I did the same. She held me. I buried my face in her hair and closed my eyes. We stared at each other.
Outside, the sun was orange and bursting through the sky. The room paled just as the night had. She placed her hand behind my head and leaned forward. I waited. I waited. Then I leaned forward and kissed the corner of her mouth. I kissed her lips. And then, as I had prayed and the universe had, for some reason listened, I kissed her.
It was a perfect kiss. I had my hand in her hair. She held my face, her hands soft and luxurious.
I do not know what finishes a kiss but at some time, it finishes and we pull away, hopefully satisfied. So it was with Asha and me. She spoke first.
“Rani, you know there are consequences?” she asked jokingly.
“And what is the consequence?”
“We might just like each other, no?”
“Yes.” I said. “Yes.”
But I wasn’t gay. I just liked her.
She started to talk of chances and coincidences and what we could do to see each other again. I wanted to see her again. Truth is, I felt awakened for the first time in my life. That kiss was the most sensual and sexual lovemaking I had ever known. And yes, as I think back now, there are consequences for such pleasure. Always.
When it was morning, we decided to go out for breakfast. Asha liked diners. Who was I to argue?
“Asha, your name means hope doesn’t it?”
“Yes, my queen, my Rani. Why?”
I pulled her to me and kissed her neck.
“Because. I mean my name is boring. Queen. Who wants that? You always have hope?”
She looked into my eyes and spoke gently.
“Yes, you always have hope.”
She kissed me softly.
“Let’s go,” I said.
To this day, I wonder what would have happened if I had allowed her to kiss me some more or if I had decided to talk some more. I said before that time is a funny thing. Timing is even funnier. Sometimes we cheat death by taking a half a step too soon or waiting a step too long. And sometimes we tempt fate by deciding we are in charge of whatever it is we are destined to do. Fate laughs at that, you know. She does. So does karma. What had she said, “You always have hope.” That sentence was enough. And so when we opened to door to exit, we were greeted by a camera flash and a dark, fat man. The man’s shirt was half open and revealed a mess of chest hair tangled with a thick gold chain. No pendant. His belt was as wide as his belt loops and was a strange orange color. He had on jeans that were far too tight and, to finish the look, brown wing tipped shoes. To this day I remember his eyes, unforgiving and, for some reason, satisfied. His smile revealed crooked teeth stained a dingy yellow. I still don’t know how he found her or whether he was even looking for her. I didn’t even know who he was. But there he was, smiling, staring, waiting.
“Monty!” Asha said in a voice that was foreign to me.
“So this is what we do in America? How would India like this? How would Bollywood like this? And Mr. Pavan? You tell me now. Should I tell? ”
“Monty, this is a cousin of mine,” Asha said.
Her voice wavered and so did my heart. But then what place did I have in her life? None. We had kissed. I had been granted a wish that I had made in a darkened movie theater. And I wasn’t gay. Neither was she.
Monty grunted before he whistled. He flashed his camera again. And then he turned to walk away.
She ran after him. I stood feeling like a fool.
What transpired between her and Monty, she never told me. All I know is she came back and said she had to leave. We entered our room, our room, damn it, and I watched her take her bag. The sun was bright in the sky and the room was bathed in light. She walked to me and stopped.
I never knew until that morning that smiles could be that sad, that lonely.
“What now?” I asked as if we had plans.
“I will come find you. Until then, you always have hope, right?”
She smiled again and in my ears, I heard the sound of my brittle heartbreak. In a day, I felt things for her I hadn’t felt for Ajay in four years. What did that mean? What did that say about me? I did not want those questions answered. Not then.
We walked out, her in front, me behind her, watching the crashing waves of her hair. I shut the door.
She turned to face me. Her eyes revealed her fright, her aloneness. She held me and I felt her cry.
“Would you come away with me? If I walk away from the films, will you walk away from the nonsense? After this one night, will you come away with me?”
To this day, I don’t know how that word escaped my lips so easily. Perhaps it was because I knew myself despite my denial. I could lose myself in those eyes or fall asleep with my face buried in her hair. I could listen to her talk forever. I could trace kisses from her temple to her collarbone for eternity. I knew I could love Asha the way I wanted to be loved. And she could love me that way too.
“I will wait for you at the entrance here at six o’clock,” she said. “Will you come?”
She kissed my lips. I kissed the corner of her eye. Her temple.
“Then I will take care of everything,” she said. “Go home and come back. I will be here.”
I rushed to the parking garage and retrieved my car. I drove home with my heart rushing beats here and there. But then as I turned into the driveway and exited, sanity began to seep into me. And when I walked through the front door, it all seemed a dream. But I was awake now. Six o’clock. Six o’clock.
I spent the next three hours pacing. At one o’clock, I walked to my mother’s alter and prayed. No answers came.
I stayed at the alter praying I was straight, that I loved Ajay, and that I could forget the ways in which she awakened me. I tried to forget our night of talking, our coffee, and our kisses. And when I looked at my wristwatch, it was already half past two. I breathed.
I talked of fate before and how she hates for us to think we control her. At three that afternoon, I called Ajay. I was holding my breath.
“Hey baby,” I said, full of guilt and anxiousness.
What was that in his voice?
“We need to talk.”
“We do,” he said.
I realize now that it was not a question on his part.
“Ajay, I love you…”
“Rani, I love you too. I do but….”
“But I’ve been thinking. And the thing is I’ve been meeting people here. The thing is….the thing is, that I don’t think we’re happy, Rani.”
“What happiness are you searching for, Ajay? What’s wrong with us?”
I knew what was wrong with us. I had spent my life compromising myself just to allow us to work. Perhaps he had also done the same. But more importantly, I had spent my time fantasizing about half naked actresses, namely Asha Mehta. And when he had gone away, I had spent my night kissing Asha Mehta. But he didn’t know all this. So then why would any man leave after a Tiffany’s diamond?
“Is there someone else?” I asked.
“Rani, I met someone here and I think we are better suited….I mean….Rani we’re not going to work. I love you but I am inlove with her. I don’t know how you can fall in love in a glance. But Rani it happened. And that happiness, that excitement, she really likes me Rani. Not just because we’ve been together so long or it makes everyone happy. She loves me because I mean something to her. She sees me as not as perfect, but as perfect for her. I know this is all crazy sounding. I didn’t think you could fall in love in a glance but you can and you do if you just allow fate to run her course.”
“Ajay, fate? You never believed in any fate. Come home and we’ll talk about this.”
“But Rani, it’s over. That’s what I am saying. And I… and I’m sorry.”
Could I blame him? But my insides churned like a hurricane waiting to break. What would I do without Ajay? How I could think this and simultaneously have called him to tell him I was leaving him for Asha, I don’t know. But it made sense until he turned the tables. And now I felt lost. And confused. And yet I remembered…six o’clock.
“How could you? How could you?” I screamed at him.
“Rani, I am sorry. I am. But love doesn’t ask before entering your life.”
“Four years and you want to talk of love? Try putting up with you, asshole!”
Why I was so angry, I still don’t know. Perhaps in some ways, it lessened my guilt and placed blame where it belonged, on him. Perhaps in some ways, I had nothing to fall back into if I were to want to turn around. Comfort is a powerful bribe within which we sometimes lose ourselves. I had done it for years. And now he had had the strength to break away. I envied him his confidence.
“Rani, I am sorry. I don’t know how people fall in love or why. But I connect with her better than anyone. When I touch her face, she closes her eyes and she is happy. We talk, Rani. We make love and she enjoys me. I don’t think you ever did. Do you know how it feels to feel inadequate for four years?”
“Rani, I am truly sorry.”
“Keep the ring, Rani. I have to run to a seminar. We can talk again if you want. Bye.”
He hung up.
Why I started to cry then, I still don’t know. I don’t remember any one emotion that assaulted me. But there was guilt. Definitely guilt. Fear. Anger. Relief. Yes, relief. He had done it first so the burden of guilt was his. It was over. Done. And I had not broken us, he had. And I had played along. So what then? The consequence was the same, wasn’t it? I washed my face and pushed the conversation away into a corner of myself. I was done. I had places to be. I would go. I would go.
At five, I rushed frantically to the hotel. I waited until midnight. Asha never came.
Sometimes wishes come true in ways that torment us. This was one of those times. Asha had found me. Asha had kissed me. Asha had wanted me. Ajay had left me over the phone, in less than three minutes. And yet the consequence of all of this randomness was never clear to me. Except everything I ever knew or wanted to know was far from me.
For a week, I waited from six o’clock to midnight at The Library Hotel but to no consequence at all. And then I drove myself home, blasting Bollywood tunes, envisioning her in white, in rain, in my arms.
A month later, Asha married Monty. I learned then that he was her manager, appointed by her father, a long time friend of the family. She stated in an interview that it was love at first sight, that Pavan was a good man but she had fallen in love with Monty in New York, on a chance trip where glances defined her world. She said, “It takes only a glance into green eyes to fall in love.” All the respectable Bollywood tabloids carried the story. I read it. I looked at the pictures of Monty and her. And I realized that Monty’s eyes were not green but grey. She had remembered my eyes. I slowly grazed her face with my hand. I read the line again. And then I wept.
A year later, Monty committed suicide. All the respectable Bollywood tabloids carried the story. And I read it. And I remembered fate is her own master. And karma never forgets. But whose fate? Whose karma? These questions stayed within me, unasked. Who would answer anyway? Maybe now I could find her.
I never saw her again. I never knew her kisses or the feel of her skin. But now and again, I would read an interview and she would say things like, “I love the library, it has such beauty. But sometimes, life is difficult and you have to leave.” Or, “Chance meetings at airports are the best things in the world. You can run across someone magnificent and never be the same again.” At those times, I wondered if that was meant for me. But then I thought perhaps not. And I went about my life, flying to different countries, staying in hotels, thinking of her every time I used a hotel key to unlock a room. But regardless, I never saw her again.
I went to the movies once, a few months later, by myself. It was a Bollywood film, her film. The title was Hamesha Asha. “Always hope.” I stared at the screen. In the opening scene, she stared at me. The first word of the film was, “Rani.” She said it three times. Aladdin’s three wishes. The pain I felt surprised even me. I could not bear to hear her voice say my name when she was lost to me. I walked out of the theater.
I haven’t seen a Bollywood film since. But I have lingered at Newark Liberty International Airport near the parking lot. Whenever I return home from a flight, I linger at the airport hoping I will be surprised, that she will find me randomly as she had once. I hope always for what I believe now is true love and I am willing to accept whatever that makes me. I hope always to see that smile again and to close my eyes as she touches my face. Isn’t that what Ajay had said? Yes, I do understand that kind of love, Ajay. I do. We did not have that. But Asha and I, we do. And so I hope always, especially when it rains and I hear the thunder in the distance, that we will be together and we will find a future through a maze of curious pasts.
On those days and nights when it does rain like the monsoons, I close my eyes and pray. This time, my prayers are not at my mother’s alter where I had begged to be straight and had begged to feel for Ajay what I felt for Asha. This time, my prayers are within me as I stand in a pouring rain. I close my eyes and turn my face skywards. I pray for my love, my faith, my hope, and towards the end, when I am drenched and have prayed it all away, it is only then that I pray and ask once again for Asha.