I never wanted to marry Akhil. My mother found his picture on a website I had never heard of (and to which I unwittingly belonged). He was an anesthesiologist. He was a graduate of Yale. We were married in a small ceremony outside of Skokie, Illinois. On the day of our wedding, I wore my mother’s silk sari and her diamond-studded choker with rubies and pearls.
I didn’t know him very well. He was cute in a way. His arms were corded with muscle. His thick dark hair was flecked with gray. Sometimes he would do something—bite his lips, flex his arms—and I would want to rip off his clothes. But then the moment would pass. We made love sparingly, at night usually, with Akhil on top. It was a life, I guess.
We moved to Chicago where Akhil started a practice in pain management and where I got a job at a prestigious law firm downtown. We made friends, too. Sometimes I would pretend to like one of them—then go home at night and complain to Akhil:
“What a bitch.”
He never said a word. He didn’t say much at all, really. Once, I went shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue and spent half our mortgage on a pair of shoes. Afterward I tried hiding the bill. A month passed and then two and then one night we were at dinner with the chief of medical staff when our credit card was declined.
He pulled out another one. Later, he checked the statement online.
“Looks like we never got a bill.”
The first time we tried to get pregnant, I went to CVS and bought a package of Plan B.
“It’s your sperm,” I told him. “It’s not strong enough. You’re not a strong enough man.”
He made an appointment with the gynecologist. I canceled it. A woman? I didn’t want her anywhere near my parts.
“I don’t want her touching me there,” I said.
After a few months of this we put the baby on hold.
“It’s Akhil,” I told my parents, crying to them over the phone. “—He won’t touch me anymore.”
It was like this for a while. I pushed his buttons on purpose. Then one evening, I came home to find a bassinet sitting in the corner of our living room.
“For when the baby arrives.”
I dropped my briefcase on the floor.
“Where did you find it?”
“At Macy’s, on my way back from work. I thought you would enjoy it.”
I stared at him.
“But you can’t even get me pregnant.”
He packed it away. I expected him to shout at me or to scream but as usual he took the derision in stride, saying nothing at all. The next morning, we made love in our usual way: for twenty minutes, or until one of us got bored. Then he kissed me on the forehead and went straight to the gym.
I should have known there was someone else. I discovered it one evening after a party: a napkin fell out of his pocket containing a phone number written in bright red lipstick, next to a name. Celine. I put the napkin back into his pocket. I wanted him to have it. I don’t know why. All weeklong I waited for his betrayal: a secret phone call, a canceled plan, the scent of another woman’s perfume. But nothing ever happened. Then one evening, I was tidying up in the bedroom when I found the napkin pressed into Akhil’s textbook, quietly preserved. The lipstick had smeared. But the number was still there. I went into the kitchen and dialed it.
“Is this Celine?”
She hesitated a moment before saying, “Yes.”
“Oh, hi,” I said. “This is Rupa—Rupa Varma.”
I poured myself a drink from the bar.
She hung up the phone.
That night, I cooked lamb curry and set the table for two. Akhil came home with a bottle of wine. Together we drank it over a platter of crackers and cheese.
“I talked to Celine,” I said.
He took a sip of his wine. A piece of cheese fell out of his hands and he picked it back up, slowly.
“Don’t be silly. I don’t know what you mean.”
“You don’t be silly,” I said, the wine blooming. I put the napkin in front of him.
“See? She gave you her number. She wants you to call. I thought we could be friends but she hung up the phone—how rude.”
He was silent a moment. The rice-cooker clicked and I scooped a steaming spoonful of rice onto his plate. Then I went into the dining room. We didn’t say anything for a while. After dinner Akhil rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher and began wiping the counters off with a rag.
“She’s a pharmaceutical representative,” he said, before retiring to bed. “She didn’t have her card.”
He was right: I found Celine’s LinkedIn page online. I was hoping to find a picture of her, too. But there was nothing. In my mind Celine had the kind of bright blond hair that made girls in high school want to kill themselves. She had long legs, too. Probably she was skinny and probably she wore silk blouses over the swell of her breasts. I went home that evening and called her again.
“It’s me,” I said. “Rupa Varma.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to know what the hell you’re doing with my husband.”
I sat in the living room with the television on mute, vague images flashing over my face. I could hear music on the other end. She was silent a moment, as if she hadn’t heard the question. Then she spoke abruptly, in a voice that was stilted and clear.
“I’m his friend.”
“What kind of friend?”
She didn’t answer me. She must have been pouring herself a drink in the kitchen because I could hear the sound of liquid crackling over ice.
Then she replied, very softly, “I’ve given him something you won’t.”
“What kind of arrangement?”
“A special one.”
“But he’s married.”
She hung up the phone. I dialed her number but there was no answer. I dialed it again. Then I sent her a nasty text message. I waited for Akhil to come home and when he didn’t I fell asleep on the couch; then I crawled into our bedroom. The next morning, he wasn’t in our bed.
“Akhil?” I said, checking the bathroom and the den. “Akhil?”
I went downstairs and found the doorman: Raul.
“Where is Akhil?”
“I haven’t seen him, Miss. Not since yesterday morning.”
I went back upstairs. Hours later, Akhil came home with Chinese takeaway from the restaurant down the road.
“Where were you?”
I was wearing sweat-socks and leggings. My eyes were smeared with mascara. I was holding a glass of sherry.
“I was on call,” Akhil said. “You know that.”
He went into the kitchen and opened the cupboards, looking for a pot or a pan. Then he spun around.
“Are you hungry?”
“You were with that whore, weren’t you?”
He was silent. “I told you: she’s a pharmaceutical representative.”
I threw my glass across the room.
The next evening we had a fight: something about the way he looked at me sent me flying into a rage.
“Don’t you look at me that way,” I said.
I’d spent the entire evening drinking red wine on the sofa, watching soap operas on TV. I’d discovered a lump in my breast. It was nothing, really; my breasts had always been lumpy. Still I couldn’t help but imagine myself bald.
“You didn’t go to work today,” he said. “You haven’t been to work all week.”
“I was bored.”
“They’ll fire you.”
“Good?” He arched his brow. “And then what? How will you afford to pay for this loft? How will you afford to buy those $500 shoes?”
“Sue for what?”
“For sexual harassment,” I said. “For all the leers and the stares. You should see the way they look at me over there: like they’re all screwing me in their heads.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
He didn’t come home for three nights that week. I spent my evenings on the sofa, watching reality TV. I wondered if he was with Celine. Probably he was. Probably they were in some dark bar with snifters and smoke. Probably they were screwing in the back seat of a cab.
I woke up one morning and called her again. This time she didn’t answer, but later, at work, I found her Facebook profile online. She was pretty but not in the way I had imagined: her hair wasn’t blond to begin with it; it was dark and moist and curly. She looked vaguely African American. There were a few pictures but in each of them she looked the same: bright-eyed, smiling, as if she knew I was watching. There was one in particular that I liked. She was standing at a bar in a gold sequined dress. A man stood behind her with his hand on her breast. It was a picture that foreshadowed some sort of perversion or cruelty or perhaps it was just a funny story to tell about drinking too much the night before. I downloaded the picture onto my computer. Then I left work for the day.
That night, Akhil was late again but this time I didn’t bother asking him where he was. This time I ate my dinner on the sofa and went straight to the den. I found the picture again. It flickered brightly—different, but the same, in the way an ex lover’s face can seem different, but the same. Only this time she wasn’t looking at me at all. This time, her gaze had drifted elsewhere, as if I now bored her.
I called her again.
“It’s me: Rupa Varma.”
“Look I told you: I’m not getting involved.”
“But you are involved.”
I was dressed in a business suit. Akhil was in the shower. The apartment windows were streaked with morning light.
“I’m pregnant,” I blurted.
She was silent.
“So it’s important that you stop seeing him. It’s important that you leave us alone. Do you understand?”
She said nothing.
“We have a child together—a child—and you’re coming between us. Is that the sort of woman you want to be? The sort of woman who comes between a father and his child?”
I thought she would tell me to get lost or hang up the phone or threaten to call the police.
Instead she gave me her address.
“Meet me at 5:30,” she said. “And come alone.”
All morning I was jittery. I drank three cups of coffee. I ate a jelly donut. I went across the street for a glass of champagne. I couldn’t concentrate on my work. I crawled underneath my desk and took an afternoon nap. Pretty soon it was 5:00 and by then it seemed likely that 5:30 would never arrive. When it did, I closed my laptop and left work for the day.
Celine lived in a dark neighborhood lined with restaurants and bars. I had expected something different. In my mind she lived in a condominium with a doorman and a pool. I was wrong. When the cab pulled up to her townhouse I saw a rusted Dodge in the driveway. The house was tall and crumbling with sheer white curtains above. There was a wraparound porch with a bench and a swing. I rang the doorbell. She answered it. Moments later, it started to rain.
She looked different from her pictures—she was still pretty, but in a different way. Her face was slimmer. Her house was crammed with junk, too: jade statues and thick books on art and sex and food. There were pictures of her and some woman who looked just like her all over the walls, a sister perhaps, maybe even a twin. I wondered if Akhil had been here. I wondered if he had left something behind: a pair of shoes or a hat or something else I would recognize. But there was nothing. Then Celine led me into her living room with its beige rug and its soiled chairs and its dusty bookcases that covered the entire length of the wall. She pulled up a chair.
“When are you due?”
She looked panicked suddenly, her eyes growing wide. “He said you couldn’t get pregnant,” she said. “He said you were getting a divorce. That was part of the deal.”
I said nothing. Finally she went into the kitchen and came back with a kettle of tea.
“Would you like some?”
We sat in silence, stirring our mugs, the rain drumming against the leaves. Then she put her teacup aside and folded her arms.
“I take it he didn’t tell you. I take it you don’t know. He told me you did. He said I shouldn’t worry, that you’re not well,” she paused, staring, “But you don’t seem all that unwell to me—and now you’re pregnant.”
I didn’t tell her I was lying. My eyes landed on a picture of Celine with her arms wrapped around another woman, the same woman from before. The sister.
“That’s my lover: Claire. She’ll be the one to carry it.”
“The baby,” she said.
I dropped my saucer onto the carpet.
“Of course I’ll be in charge of the insemination. He’ll have no part in that, well, not completely, but we did agree to let him be a part of the child’s life, to be the father in practice and in name, and there’s the biology, too, I mean, it won’t technically be mine.”
I began to feel dizzy.
“He didn’t tell you this?” she said. “He said you didn’t want a child. He said you were barren. I mean a doctor, a graduate of Yale, we couldn’t pass up the chance.” She paused, dropping a cube of sugar into her tea. Then she leaned in and whispered, “He offered me some money, too, but of course I refused.”
She was lying—I could see it in her eyes. I bolted for the door.
“Where are you going?”
I ran downstairs, hailing a cab, instructing the driver to make a left at the curb. I closed my eyes. I kept them closed the entire way home until finally we were sitting in front of my lobby, the rain dribbling to a halt. Then I opened them again.
“That’ll be $20, Miss.”
That evening, I saw her everywhere: in the reflection of the shower, in the shadows of the hall, even in my dreams. Where are you going? It was maddening. I couldn’t shake her from my mind. I kept seeing those wild green eyes and that glossy mane of hair. I kept hearing her name, too: Celine, like the whisper in a breeze.
I never called her again. I didn’t have to. Three days later, she left me an angry voicemail.
“I haven’t heard from you. You never called. You better not ruin this for us—that baby is ours.”
I didn’t tell anyone about it—not because I was sad or scared but because by then I had begun to believe her a little. I don’t know why. She could have been anyone, really: a lunatic, a crazy person, someone who invented things the way crazy people did. Still I was careful. I got pregnant six weeks later during a weekend trip to Tulum, when Akhil and I were celebrating his fortieth birthday. I made sure of it. He was drunk and a little stoned when I led him upstairs, asking him if he was ready, and later, when he wrapped his legs around me, telling me that he was.
Or maybe he wasn’t. Two years later, I ran into Celine at a hair salon with a baby bjórn and a baby who looked an awful lot like Akhil. “Excuse me,” I said, walking over to her. “How is this even possible?” She raised her hands, backing away from the door. After a few moments she bolted out of the room. I followed her outside but by then it was too late: she had already disappeared. Out of the parking lot. Out of our lives for good. ♦
- Grateful acknowledgment is made to The Southampton Review for publishing this story in their Winter/Spring 2016 issue.