Friday, February 14, 2014

Since it's Valentine's Day...

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 Englishmans 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 dont know yet. Ive just begun it. Its 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  mothers inflection, the particular head-waggle. The man  smiled, the apple of his right  cheek rising  in Nelas 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. Theres  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 Nelas 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 couldnt 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 booksnot to check for dust, but because she had  missed them  as living, pulsing things. She stroked the covers of Abraham and  Marsdens Foundations of Mechanics and  Green and  Schwartzs 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 Ammas 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 relatives 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 hed done  since hed 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.
Shed 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. Im 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 dont 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 Nelas 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 Ashokes house. Untrimmed shrubs hung over the porch, and  a sharp piece of peeling  bark stabbed Nelas finger. She took it into her mouth, and  punched the buzzers  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.  Ashokes 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 Priyas 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 Nelas 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 Ashokes parents for her mildness.” All that, and  a face like a fallen pudding, Nela almost had said when she saw the brides  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 Nelas 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. Hed always been a bad liar. When  caught, hed 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 Nelas 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 JacksonI 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 youre  going! she snapped.
He grinned at her.  Were 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 Nelas 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 Nelas 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 wasnt 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 boys 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 Jacksons case, to go out for a smoke.
He hadnt 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.
“Ive usually got a strong stomach.
Youd have to, to get through an evening like this.
Oh, they seem hospitable enough,” he replied. “Its 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? Im a little slow tonight. I havent  slept in two days.
Grad student hours,” she said softly, taking his cigarette. They stood together outside Ashokes retaining wall, smoking. Suddenly Nela pulled the cigarette out of her mouth. You were quite  the storyteller back there, she said.
“Its 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, Nelas 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 drivers 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 couldnt 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.


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