As long as the man kept his sunglasses on, Nela could assume he was asleep. This was a man who knew how to keep still, hands folded in his lap, his breathing even and slow. Maybe he was meditating, or praying. Perhaps he was afraid to fly, and intended to keep his eyes shut for the entire trip. Fine. She had had enough of talking to strangers.
Leaning back in her seat, Nela adjusted her sari, angling her body toward him for a better view. She examined him like a bug under glass. Tall, long, lanky. Strong legs. Sinewy. Ropy arms not developed through hours at a gym, but through actual work. The long dark hair looked as if he cut it himself.
But she was not getting the full gestalt. She needed to see his eyes for that. Twenty years before, when she had first arrived in England as a student, she came to the same conclusion that no matter how much or little of an Englishman’s face she could see—he was ugly. It had taken a few months before she could parse the expressiveness of non-Asian faces. Now, it was Indian men whose faces she found hard to judge.
Nela had seen this man an hour earlier, at the metal detector. As she removed her heavy gold necklace, bracelets, and rings for the x- ray machine, passengers craned their necks to get a better look at the deep color of twenty-four karat gold, and the intricate designs. The man stood directly behind her and pulled his body to its full height, arms akimbo, to block the view of the curious. She relaxed a little, grateful for his shadow above her treasure on the conveyer belt.
Now that they were sitting together, thighs nearly touching, the man would certainly acknowledge her. In her green Banares silk sari and religious markings, she was braced for double-takes and “foreigner” questions. Her mother had insisted that she dress like a proper Brahmin for the trip. Is matter of prestige! Amma had said, gnarled hand clutching a heart always on the verge of attack.
Ten minutes passed without a word between Nela and her seatmate. Goose and gander, then—she would pretend not to recognize him, either. Finally the man, sighing deeply, took off his glasses. Blue eyes. Brilliant and clear.
The man nodded at her, then reached into his canvas bag to pull out a book. It was a biography of an Indian mathematician, whose science and story she had grown up with. She smiled. The man cleared his throat and said, “Something amuses you about this book.”
It was a statement of fact, not a question, and his tone prompted Nela to broaden her Indian accent as a way to widen the gulf between them, her usual response to a challenge. “Ramanajun received his theorems from the goddess Namagiri, it is commonly known. She came to him in a dream and inscribed the theorems on his tongue. Does your western author skip over that detail?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ve just begun it. It’s interesting that you’ve already formed your opinion without reading the text.” He flipped a page and added, “So you folks even have a goddess for math.”
“We mathematicians have Ramanajun.”
The man raised one eyebrow, and Nela waited for the usual questions: background, education, credentials. The man turned back to his book.
“Are you aware that the young Indian genius was dying at age thirty three from damp weather and lack of proper South Indian food?” She suddenly hated the sound of her own voice, the whining tone that had crept in.
“Hmmm. I thought he went back to India, and died there,” the man drawled.
“His Amma was correct-correct, she did not want him going. He should not have left India,” Nela declared, mimicking her own mother’s inflection, the particular head-waggle. The man smiled, the apple of his right cheek rising in Nela’s peripheral vision. He was dismissing her, or rather, this cartoon of herself.
Nela pressed on, unwilling to let him go. He had unhinged her, and she was unfamiliar with the sensation. “Ramanujun could not get warm in the English weather. When he came back, it was only to die. The cold had settled in his bones and he had not found enough pure South Indian vegetables to sustain him.” She rolled the r in “pure” extravagantly.
The man nodded his head to let her know he was listening, but kept his blue eyes on the book. Nela fidgeted in her seat until he closed it. “There’s a passage in there about the role of a daughter-in- law in an Indian household. My condolences.”
The phrase and its cultural assumptions infuriated her, but before she could unleash a withering reply, a stewardess leaned in to offer drinks. The man seemed to need one, and Nela made a face as he downed a Scotch in a single gulp. She delicately sipped at her mineral water, and the man said, “What—you don’t drink, either?”
“Only with friends,” she snapped. He chuckled, and immediately ordered another drink for himself. As he reached across her body to receive it, the name Ramanajun used for his wife passed through Nela’s mind. My house, he had called her.
England may have been the death of Ramanujan, but it had saved Nela. Now, away from the man and the airport, she couldn’t wait to get to her office. She hurried along the corridor in the math building, resisting the urge to skid along the waxed surface the way children do. She turned the lights in her office on, set down her suitcase, and ran a hand over her books—not to check for dust, but because she had missed them as living, pulsing things. She stroked the covers of Abraham and Marsden’s Foundations of Mechanics and Green and Schwartz’s String Theory. She paused at the Feynman, and pulled out the volume whose title always teased her, What Do You Care What Other People Think?
“Welcome back, how was your trip, what the hell did you do to your hair?”
Nela groaned. Ashoke! The constant reminder and remnant of childhood, now a colleague, a sticky shadow. “Thank you, trip was OK, I shaved my head for Amma’s sake,” she said. She touched her forehead with the fingers of both hands in greeting. Most of what she called her Indian “tics” had been consciously trained out of her, like that gesture, and her accent, which was now more Oxbridge than Indian. But whenever she saw Ashoke, it triggered the old cadences. At least he understood her shorthand. Anyone else would want details about the custom of hair sacrifice for a relative’s illness. They would force her to respond to their succession of why, why, why, a world of three-year-olds forever asking questions.
She looked away, frowning, and a disturbance in the familiar patterns of her room caught her eye. She pointed to her gyroscopes, a wall hanging, and favorite coffee mug, all packed in a cardboard box and half-hidden under the windowsill. “Who is responsible for this presumption?” Ashoke smoothed his mustache in the way he’d done since he’d been able to grow one. What did it mean again? He had something to hide. He had something to tell. Which?
Ashoke took a rattling breath and plunged forward. “The department is interviewing a candidate for an interdisciplinary project and possibly a faculty position. We had to find office space for him, and you gave us no real notice of your return, so…” he waved his arms helplessly. He looked the way he had as a child right then, and a wave of sympathy flooded Nela. He had grown into a pompous man who used too much hair oil, but he still bit his nails to the quick. Often he would stand as he stood now, with his hands captured behind his back, trying to hide his nervousness. The posture pushed his belly out so far, Nela expected him to lose his balance. Hoped for it, actually.
She’d call him on his use of “we” and “us” later. For now, she would stick to the point. “Well, find him someplace else. I need my privacy. I’m about to start my new book on the mathematics of collectives.”
He stammered a weak protest. Nela knew he had less power than he pretended to have, and the thought made her smile, confusing him. “Just fix,” she ordered, flinging her hand at the wrist.
Ashoke slunk out the door and left her alone with her belongings. She upended the carton onto the desk, hung the tapestry back on its hook on the wall, arranged the tops on her desk, and placed the mug to the right of her chair. Ashoke would leave it there, if he knew what was good for him. He usually did. He had a feel for appearances, and would not want to lose face with the visitor by making a mess over something as trivial as office space.
Ashoke worried about the way people viewed him. He had literally taken Nela under his wing when she first arrived here, a brotherly arm always around her. One day, Nela lifted his hand from the small of her back, and said, “We don’t want people to get the wrong idea, do we? Gossip might get through to your wife.”
His face had collapsed. He scratched his dark hair vigorously. “Oh, I did not think!” Both hands locked behind his back once more.
Now here he was a second time in the same day, popping his head back into Nela’s office. He had forgotten to extend a dinner invitation. “It is in honor of your homecoming, so you cannot refuse.” Going to a dinner party was the last thing she wanted, but she considered the idea, while he cooled his heels. He tried to keep still while he waited, but the anxiety was too much for him. He beetled his black eyebrows, flecked with recent silver, and began to hum softly, some nervous, tuneless song. Finally, Nela said, “See you at eight,” and put Ashoke out of his misery.
Nela smiled to herself and began to tidy the papers on her desk. She pulled out an official-looking sheaf, stamped here and there with gold seals. It was her new contract. She shoved it into her drawer. There would be plenty of time to read it later. She was in no rush to discover what hoops the dean had erected for her, and whether she had the energy to jump through any of them.
“Anywhere but here,” Nela grumbled as she picked through the flagstone minefield of toys and tools that led to Ashoke’s house. Untrimmed shrubs hung over the porch, and a sharp piece of peeling bark stabbed Nela’s finger. She took it into her mouth, and punched the buzzer’s eyeball with her elbow. A dog barked on the other side of the door. It was still barking when the door opened, the sound at odds with its wagging tail.
A graduate student leaned across another hill of toys to let her in. He mumbled an offer to get her a band-aid, which she waved away. Ashoke’s wife, a thin woman with thick glasses that made it hard to read her face, thought the wave was meant for her. She waggled her fingers and gestured for Nela to come all the way in.
Easier said than done. A trampoline was set up for the little kids in the middle of the room, and two of Ashoke and Priya’s children were performing some kind of trick. Priya made appreciative noises in
their direction as she circled around to Nela, a plastic cup in each hand. Her body partially blocked the view of her slightly tipsy husband, who was trying to impress some graduate student. The girl looked as if she already knew better than to believe a word he said.
“Darling Nela, we missed you!” Priya kissed Nela’s cheeks, and whispered, “Have you heard about the shake-up in the department?” Nela shifted her weight, steadying herself for the blow of bad news. But before Priya could say another word, Ashoke frowned at her from across the room, stopping her cold.
That she paid him any mind at all amazed Nela. Priya had been hand-picked by Ashoke’s parents for her “mildness.” All that, and a face like a fallen pudding, Nela almost had said when she saw the bride’s photo. “She is from a good family,” Ashoke had boasted, meaning her people had not been disgraced by a headstrong daughter like Nela. “She knows that I am wearing the pants in the family.” He was dressed in a lungi when he said it.
In the living room, Ashoke briskly hooked Nela’s arm, leading her past his wife and neighbors to the circle of colleagues. “Our visitor from America is here,” he said. His fingers caressed the air close to her spine as she disengaged his arm from hers.
“Did you find him another office?” That was the main thing. Nela glanced toward the guest in question, whose broad back was turned to her. A tall man in a blue blazer, he was listening intently to a lecturer, head bent to expose his shaggy sunburned neck. Maybe it was a certain way he moved his hands, or the shape of the fingers, or perhaps the shape of the gesture that jolted her. She felt her face and throat flush. The man from the plane!
Nobody thought to introduce her to the guest, not even Ashoke. He had probably either mangled the withdrawal of the offer of her office space, or neglected to do it at all, and wanted to keep the newcomer and Nela apart. She could simply ask him. He’d always been a bad liar. When caught, he’d stack excuses one on top of another until he lost all credibility, as in “Dr. Nela Sambashivan has bad back, she needs her space just so, she has chronic coughing, she may be contagious.”
Nela stood just outside the crush of men angling for position, shunted away from the locus of the action. She clucked her tongue, and Mrs. Singh, a neighbor from two doors down, suddenly appeared. Standing barely more than four feet high, the woman had a kewpie doll mouth bookended by dimples, and had once been considered a beauty. Upholstered now with more pounds than her sari could hide, she still carried herself like a tiny princess. “Your mother survives due to your devotion only,” she declared, gesturing toward Nela’s shorn hair. Nela ducked slightly, and Mrs. Singh pressed her lips together tightly.
“So who is the guest of honor?” Changing the subject always worked with Mrs. Singh. If she immersed herself in the gossip of the moment, she would immediately forget whatever had irritated her the moment before.
“He is doing engineering, is one of the engineers with no borders people,” Mrs. Singh said. She picked up a pakora and nibbled at the chickpea battered crust. “He is here for colloquium. Name of Jackson—I cannot be sure if that is first or last. Jeremy from your floor is knowing him, and EE people want him to join the university. I do not remember degree chronology.” She chewed thoughtfully, as if the rhythm of her jaws could loosen it. “He is looking quite expensive,” Mrs. Singh said, appraising the visitor. “Heads will be rolling in order to accommodate him.” She winked at Nela.
Startled by the thought, Nela took a step backward and stumbled on a toy. She struggled to regain her balance, but fell back into the arms of the man from the plane. “Watch where you’re going!” she snapped.
He grinned at her. “We’re going about this all wrong, you know,” he said.
A brass bell rang. “What the hell,” someone said before his wife could shush him. The guests followed one another to the table, looking down at the crocheted lace runner from India, searching for their names on the cards. Nela sneered at the affectation of a dinner bell and the lace runner, but Priya had read about these little touches in an old novel and would not be talked out of them. Ideas struck her, and stuck in her mind like spinach in teeth. That bell would stay on the table forever, probably, through generations of guests. Polished and ready to ring.
Glancing at the place cards, it was no surprise that Nela’s card and Jackson’s were standing side by side. Of course Priya would try to push them together. It seemed to relax her when Nela was involved with a man. She played the part of approving auntie, even when Nela’s man was non-Indian. “What is wrong with marrying English?” Nela once overheard her say to her husband. “She lost caste long ago.”
Nela snatched her place card and seated herself next to the wife of a colleague, whom she proceeded to ignore. Without looking at Jackson, Nela concentrated her attention on him. His voice rose above the others and Nela pursued it, more for sound than sense. She followed his cadences, the rhythm and pitch of his words. He had one of those voices that sounded as if it was on the verge of a cold. The huskiness drew Nela to it, heat pulsing through wet and steam like a monsoon.
Jackson was speaking about a water system he had built for villagers in Peru, and he told the story without a touch of the missionary. He wasn’t thin enough to pass for an ascetic, for one thing. He spoke like a raconteur, zeroing in on the human interest aspects. He made his listeners weep for the little boy under a yoke of buckets who haunted the site waiting for water, and the mother with a bundle of baby tied to her back, pleading for work. He told them about riding a wreck of a bus for hours past his destination, armed with only two pieces of bread, and having to beg money from the driver to take another bus back. At one point, he seemed to become self-conscious about his impact on the other guests, and the tips of his ears turned red. Nela tried to hide her smile.
The children had been trying to leave the table for awhile, their whiny chorus of “May we be excused?” becoming louder and more insistent. Finally, at their parents’ nods, they fanned out like a swarm and began to jump on the trampoline. Of course, one of them immediately got sick. That little boy’s mother pushed back her chair and rushed to him, scolding and comforting him at the same time. The buzz of conversation ceased abruptly. Some of the guests got up to use the bathroom, or, in Jackson’s case, to go out for a smoke.
He hadn’t seemed to Nela to be the queasy type, and she appeared at his side on the sidewalk to tell him as much. Jackson looked at her with a sideways glance that she would come to love.“I’ve usually got a strong stomach.”
“You’d have to, to get through an evening like this.”
“Oh, they seem hospitable enough,” he replied. “It’s better than drinking alone.” Nela laughed. She hugged herself, although the evening was not chilly. Jackson offered her a cigarette. She waggled her head. Jackson raised his eyebrows, confused by her meaning. “Sorry. Is that a yea or a nay? I’m a little slow tonight. I haven’t slept in two days.”
“Grad student hours,” she said softly, taking his cigarette. They stood together outside Ashoke’s retaining wall, smoking. Suddenly Nela pulled the cigarette out of her mouth. “You were quite the storyteller back there,” she said.
“It’s not my first time,” he laughed. The light from the street lamp showed all the lines in his face, and Nela felt an urge to touch him. She looked down at the line of night-blooming shrubs, as if she could avert the feeling, hide from it somehow.
The light illuminated four insects on each of four petals of a blossom. Before she knew it, Nela’s attention was fully engaged by the movement of the bugs. Each one seemed to reach for the insect across from it, and a slow spinning began. One pursued one other, without regard for the rest, and soon they began to chase one another in a circle.
Nela looked at Jackson to see his reaction. He had not even noticed the very thing that had riveted her. “Shall we share a cab?” he asked. Taking her speechlessness for agreement, he pulled out his phone to punch in some numbers. “Should we say goodbye to our hosts?”
Nela shook her head, and he laughed softly. As they waited for the car, they did not speak. Time seemed to become elastic, stretching all the way to the crest of the hill to where the cab pierced the fog. It approached slowly.
“You iterate and I converge,” Jackson smiled as he piled into the backseat after Nela. She responded to the warmth of his voice, and a thrill went through her.
To bury all possibility of small talk was the only way to shatter this kind of tension. The mood had already become too intense and complicated. They talked science all the way to his hotel, and Nela felt her body relax, all her energy concentrated on the subject. When the cab stopped abruptly in front of a decadent-looking structure with a blinking neon sign, she stopped the flow of words, although she had not run out of things to say.
She did not move a muscle, but stared straight ahead at the driver’s dashboard. Jackson leaned toward her, looming, she would remember thinking, and covered her mouth with his. He drew back, waiting for a signal. Receiving none, he sighed and opened the door.
Jackson had misunderstood. At that moment, Nela would have gone with him anywhere, but she had been caught in the middle of a thought labyrinthine enough to paralyze her, and stop her breathing for a few seconds. Jackson couldn’t know about that.
The cab pulled up at the cottage, and Nela stormed her own door like a burglar. She locked it behind her and slid down its surface until she was sitting on the floor. Her mind, which had been so overloaded in the cab, emptied in a gush. There was a low buzzing between her ears, and she sat on the floor for a long time, trying to think. At last, she got to her feet and looked around the room. The moonlight streaming in through the curtains showed a portion of the formula she had left on her living room whiteboard long ago. She pulled the curtains apart to watch the moon swell above the equations crumbling on the board.
She yanked the fabric closed again, and turned to the writing on the board. What had she meant when she wrote it, and how did it apply to what she and Jackson had spoken about? She touched her lips where he had kissed her, and began to work.