Jackson began to regain his health, but at a pace much too slow for him. He found his own neediness humiliating. “You would do the same for me,” Nela reminded him as she spooned his food into his mouth or bathed his thin body. He nodded in agreement, but still showed impatience when she hovered too closely over him. The knotted brows. The clenched jaw.
“Didn’t you come here to write?” he snapped at her one day, dodging her touch when she lingered at his shirt buttons too long. Nela dropped her hands at her sides like anvils.
“Yes. I came here to write. In peace. Alone.” She flounced down at the table and opened a book.
Now it was Jackson’s turn to hover. He leaned over her chair and cajoled her. “What are you reading?”
“It says here that women bond with their partners because of chemicals in the sperm,” Nela pretended to read, holding the book at an angle that made it hard for him to see the words. “It’s all a biological trick, a trap like the maternal instinct. It is in the pheromones. Once a woman gets a man out of her nose, she becomes unattached. Many people say that what we call love is just a reflection of oneself seen in the lover’s eyes.”
Jackson laughed. “You’re making that up.” He assumed her attempt to wound him was a joke! He trusts me, she thought, and was instantly ashamed. Guilt turns to anger, anger to guilt. She slapped the book on the table, and put head in her hands.
“What’s really wrong?”
“I am the cold fish,” she mourned.
Jackson laughed again. “What about your temper? That’s quite hot.” He would not take her self-criticism seriously. She stared at him from a safe distance.
“I did not think you would ever come back.”
“I know. That’s why I left my measuring device.” “I thought you just forgot it.”
“I forget nothing.” He pulled her out of her chair, and she turned her face into his chest. They lay down together on the pallet, and kissed, gently at first, then greedily. Nela yanked at Jackson’s clothes, not caring if she tore them, not caring about anything but filling her emptiness with his fingers, his tongue, his sex. She pushed him down, and crouched over him to find he was ready for her. They each pulled aside barriers that separated them, of fabric and flesh, time and distance. When he called her name, a shock juddered Nela’s spine.
A few hours later, Ranu came in, arms full of water, strained plantains, crushed ice, and another pot of medicine. She carefully set everything on the crowded table, and stood there silently for a moment, rubbing her arms, her face fisted tight. She had the look of someone who was keeping the kinds of secrets that go from bad to worse. Nela realized that Mami had slapped information about Jackson and her out of Ranu. It was clear from the clouded look in her eyes, and the new bruises blueing her thin arms. The sight riled Nela, and she wondered why, of all the aunties Ranu had told about her predicament, not one stood up to Mami.
It irritated Nela to think that so many strangers knew her personal details. She did not expect Ranu to be able to keep completely quiet, not at her age, but to tell her whole village things they had no business knowing? The solution to any problem rested in the hands of the group, according to this particular group, and Ranu had been raised in that tradition. She did think for herself occasionally, making choices out of her natural empathy. At night, she entered the sleeping porch from the back so as not to disturb the patient, for instance. And when she came to the front door, she peered into the room before coming in. She must have caught Nela many times in mid-mutter, anyway, whispering to a man who could not answer. It must have confused her, despite her wise eyes. How could she interpret all that to the aunties?
She thought again of Ranu’s bruises. “This would never happen if she was my own child,” she complained to Jackson. “How related we must be for her to be able to depend on me?”
“You don’t. Inclusive fitness, remember?” Jackson said. Nela had settled herself cross legged opposite him on the floor, dinner spread on her lap, and he was more interested in teasing her with his toes than he was in talking.
“Mami cannot see the forest for the trees,” Nela told him, leaning forward to spoon milky rice into his mouth. He didn’t need this particular service now, and took the spoon away from her. He aimed it at her mouth instead, and she swallowed the rice. “She has no idea who I am. If she did, she would try to extract even more, and I would laugh in her face,” Nela continued on, oblivious that Jackson was trying to flirt with her. He gave up, handed her the bowl, and stretched out flat. He put one arm over his eyes. She took the bowl, but between bites, she continued to complain. “Mami will probably just sit on the news that I have a man here, while she decides how to profit from it.”
Jackson uncovered his eyes. “Of course, she will tack on a charge of more rupees for rent. That’s expected from a motel keeper. And she might manipulate your increased need for Ranu’s help into more rupees above that. So be it.” The edge to Jackson’s voice startled Nela. He is still unwell, she reminded herself. He cannot care about everything.
Jackson had fallen asleep again. Nela pushed away from the table. Maybe some physical movement would jar her out of her mood. She looked around for the clean towels she had asked Ranu to bring that morning. The girl must have forgotten. “I will have to fetch them myself,” she grumbled. She walked out of the hut, and covered the distance to the main building in a few steps. She did not intend to announce her presence. It would be better just to take what she needed, and leave, without having to argue about the rent. Of course, Jackson was right. Nela couldn’t blame Mami for increasing it. It was what she and her family were here for, to make a profit. In a place of scarce resources, it was easy not to care about a stranger’s samsara in the face of one’s own need. Beyond the kitchen, the hum of female voices could be heard, one high-pitched, the other, low and sullen. Nela cleared her throat at the archway to the dim living room. It smelled of incense, and she sensed rather than saw a shrine in the far corner. The family must be celebrating some occasion. What day was it again? Nela rummaged in her mind for the dates of the springtime festivals. It was too early for Vishu, too late for Shivaratri. Then her eye caught the piles of colored powders on the long rosewood table. The family was preparing for Holi, the festival of color and “togetherness.” Meaning, women were more tolerant on this day of inappropriate lustful overtures. A secular, not a sacred, holiday. Nela remembered the celebration, neighbors tossing colored powders into the air, filling the sky with red, orange, and yellow until it seemed it was raining color. Children together, the celebrants were uninhibited and joyful. Nela felt a wave of distaste.“I will instruct you in our proper ways, daughter,” Mami was lecturing a kohl-smudged young woman. She was too well dressed to be a servant. She must be a daughter-in-law. Mami jangled the household keys she kept around her waist at all times. She had not heard Nela’s polite cough. “Why your mother neglected you in training for marriage?” she ranted. “A spoiled woman is useless, an unsuitable bride with too little dowry. Come along, I must teach you your place in joint-family.”
Nela stepped fully into the room. There was a man, probably Mami’s husband, slouched on the low couch, watching his wife handle their son’s wife. He looked at Nela with both coldness and curiosity, then leaned over and spat betel juice into a saucer on the floor.
“Where is Ranu?” Nela turned to Mami, as if she had only come into the house to find the girl. “I am paying you for her service, and where is she keeping?” Nela made a gesture belonging to Amma. It didn’t fit, and she grimaced.
“You are keeping a visitor. More work for Ranu,” Mami said, beginning to haggle.
“My husband is ill. He is only beginning to take food again. “Food is costly.”
“You can discuss with my husband. He will want you to pay me for helping Ranu at the market. I am knowing how much food costs there.” Nela reeled off the bargain prices Ranu had paid for the groceries.
Mami began to fidget, shuffling her weight from one foot to the other, dismissing her daughter-in-law, who stood there with her mouth hanging open, with a flip of the hand. When the girl was out of earshot, Mami said, “I give you,” and pointed to the kitchen.
Nela took what she needed from the cupboards, paying no attention to Mami’s suggestions. She shunted her to one side, and delicately ransacked the place in front of her.
Once outside, Nela broke into a run. Something about the exchange reminded her of committee meetings at the university, the capacity she had developed for deflating a man’s ego before he knew what happened. What was Ashoke plotting right now, with her out of the way? Nela only hoped he didn’t take his frustration out on his cow-eyed, dutiful wife. Nela slowed down and scuffed the dust in front of the porch. Daffodils were probably just starting to push through the ground in her garden at home, unless Ida had neglected the garden, even to steal from it. That was the more likely scenario. It had probably turned to mud, like the work she had abandoned to take care of a man she barely knew and a child who did not belong to her. She kneed open the door, arms full of food. In the time it took to travel between buildings, Nela’s mood had come full circle. She was as irritated now as when she had left. She glimpsed Jackson in the corner, once again enduring a bout of the shakes, damp hair stuck to his skull, eyes glowing with fever. She waited for the expected twinge of sympathy. This time it came in slow and weak. Another second passed before she realized that there were two figures under the sheet. Ranu! She was holding Jackson in her thin arms, crooning a village song in his ear.
“How dare you!” Nela flew at the girl and yanked her off the mattress by her braids. Ranu yowled as if a bone had been broken, and Nela swore at her in every language she knew. The girl sobbed and pleaded with Nela, grabbing at her legs, reaching up for her with her spindly bruised arms. Jackson, oblivious, continued to sleep it off like a drunk. Nela, shaking her fists at the girl, ordered her out of the house. She could not bear the sight of her, although the girl clearly hadn’t understood what her crime was. She had only imitated Nela’s ministrations to Jackson, imitated exactly every detail of posture and word like a child who, when playing with a doll, shows the culture of the household.
Alone now with Jackson, Nela filled the empty space beside him. They both shivered, one with rage, the other with fever. At last, Nela sunk into an uneasy sleep. She dreamed of the masked mattress cleaners in her childhood, who ripped open the family cots and pillows and pulled out the tufts of cotton and feathers to fluff them before sewing them back into the fabric. For days, bits of white stuffing would float about the courtyard, clinging to bushes and trees with surface rough enough to make them stick.
Nela rose in the dark, overcome by a nameless foreboding. She pulled the girl back into the house from the dirt on which she had sobbed herself to asleep.