Excerpt

The Well

Akhil Sharma

July 11, 2017 
The following is from Akhil Sharma’s collection of stories, A Life of Adventure and Delight. A Life of Adventure and Delight contains eight stories ranging from a young woman in an arranged marriage to a retired divorcé, who starts reading women’s magazines to be a better partner. Akhil Sharma is the author of Family Life, a NYT Best Book of the Year. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, O. Henry Award Stories, & elsewhere.

We lived frugally. If somebody was coming to the house, my mother moved the plastic gallon jugs of milk to the front of the refrigerator and filled the other shelves with vegetables from the crisper. The only meal my mother did not cook herself was our Saturday lunch. For this, my father walked six or seven blocks to get us slices of pizza. One Saturday morning, my father went to see a man who had recently come back from India with pickles and letters for his acquaintances, the way people used to do in the seventies. My father came home with a jar of mango pickles, but without the greasy paper bag from the pizza parlor. He took off his shoes and lay down on the bed with a cup of tea and the newspaper. When my mother went into the bedroom and asked if he was hungry, I heard my father say he had already eaten. My mother said nothing, only stepped out of the bedroom and closed the door behind her. After an hour, my father emerged from his nap and began to move around the apartment. Every time he came into a room my mother was in, she would get up and leave. Finally, my father demanded to know what ghost had stuffed itself into her. She started to cry. “I am just a servant. It doesn’t matter what I feel. You would like it if I cut out my tongue and threw it away.”

My father hurried from the house to get the pizza. When he returned, my mother refused to eat her slice. We were in the living room with its TV and plastic folding chairs, but none of us sat down. My parents stood there facing each other, and I stood between them. I began hopping in place. “I’ll eat it,” I chanted. I imagined myself from the outside, as if we were on a TV show and people were laughing at my cuteness.

“You have shown your heart,” my mother scolded my father. “What else is there to say?”

“I’ll eat it,” I sang.

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“Uma, are you a little girl?”

“My head hurts now. I can’t eat.”

“I’ll eat it,” I continued.

“Uma.”

“I’ll eat it.”

My father turned to me. “You’ll eat it?” he demanded.

I became afraid. I felt that if I did not go on hopping and acting cute, it would mean admitting that I was not like a boy on a show, that I was pretending and so I would reveal that I was dishonest. I nodded.

He smashed the slice into my face.

We stood quietly for a moment.

My mother took me to the bathroom and leaned me over the sink.

In those days, I was always falling in love. I fell in love with Mrs. Muir from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, with Mary Jane, Spider-Man’s girlfriend, with Wonder Woman. I loved the last two especially.

I would imagine going for drives with Lynda Carter or for walks in a park. I imagined us sitting on a sofa and holding hands. The fact that I could not drive and Wonder Woman would have to drive for us embarrassed me. It made obvious the difference in our ages. I felt that the proper relationship for me was with Mary Jane, who was younger and a cartoon, although I liked Lynda Carter more.

Years passed. We moved from Queens to New Jersey. I was thirteen and the town we moved to had a lot of construction going on. When a house was nearly done, it would stand with landscaping around it, but one could see through the front windows into the backyard. If, on my father’s evening walks, he came to a house with a new lawn that had freshly laid rectangles of turf, he would hurry home, get into his car, and drive back to the house. He would crawl over the lawn, peeling sections of turf from the yard. He would carry these into the back of his car and bring them home to our own lawn, which was yellow and sunburnt with rectangular patches of bright green.

One summer evening, I was sitting at my desk, in my room upstairs, when I heard my father’s car. In the back were the sheets of turf. My mother came running out of the house and stood by the driver’s side door. “If you are going to steal, don’t steal during the day,” she screamed. “Do you know nothing?” “Grass doesn’t belong to anyone,” my father said, getting out of the car. “Grass is like air.”

“Do people pay to put air on their lawn?” My mother was so angry she was panting.

I cranked open my window. I leaned out. “Are you circus folk?” I yelled.

Then, too, I often thought I was in love. First there was a girl named Joanne, who was very skinny and had square blonde hair and who worked at a dry cleaner. In high school, there was a pudgy girl with pasty skin named Cathy. Both were quiet and listened intently in class. Both were good at math and hoped to be engineers. Although I spoke to them only a few times, in each case I thought about the girl all day and dreamt of her at night. I would fantasize about living happily together and being good. When I am married, I thought, I will give my wife a single flower every day. In my fantasies, we were always married, although this idea was vague to me, represented mainly by our living in a house that had a dining table.

I went to Rutgers for college. I was fat. I didn’t know much about women. My father once told me, “Pavan, don’t be proud. Marry someone taller than you.”

My mother laughed with malice. “The first well that gives this boy water, he will build his house next to.”

After college, I started working as an accountant in the comptroller’s office of a big pharmaceutical company. I liked working. I liked going to an office and getting a salary. I liked driving into an office park with lush green plantings and a fountain. I felt that I had been allowed into an important world. It was here that I met my first true love.

Betsy had short blonde hair and was thirty-one and very pretty. She had green eyes and her hair curled over her forehead. Sometimes a patch of it on the side of her head would stick up, and then she reminded me of Tintin. There was a scar on her right thigh where a malignant melanoma had been removed. And she played tennis, which made her seem more white than the other whites in the office. Betsy also flirted with all the men. If any of them had been away on vacation, she would greet him with a tight hug. The men in the office resented her, because she had gone out with a professional baseball player. The women disliked her, too.

For me, Betsy’s beauty and her whiteness were hard to separate. I had only slept with one person till then, a very fat Hispanic girl. When I had lain on top of her, her belly had lifted me up and her face had been several inches below mine. I had penetrated her, but in the jerkings of my climax I had flicked out and had come on her bedsheets.

On Friday evenings, most of us went from the office to a bar. In the bar, I would try to be useful to Betsy and ferry drinks for her. I would stand near her among the other men and notice how long she spoke with each and what she said. I also regularly had lunch with her in the cafeteria. Often we talked about dieting. I would raise the subject because I felt the need to make my body real before her, to show that I, too, had a body. Also, Betsy was proud of her slenderness and liked talking about what she did to be so thin: having only coffee for breakfast and rinsing her mouth immediately so her teeth remained white, eating lettuce leaves with mustard for dinner several nights in a row if she knew she would be going out to a restaurant later in the week.

Often, I believed Betsy was beginning to like me. She would come by my cubicle at different times of the day or smile broadly when I went to her office. Then I would see her smile the same way at someone else and my heart would sink.

When Betsy drank too much on Friday nights, I drove her home. Many of the other men offered, but I think she felt safer with me. This belief of hers, that she was safe with me, made me angry. It was because I was Indian, I told myself, it was because she did not see me as a man.

One Friday night in December, perhaps because she had not eaten anything all day, she got very drunk. I held her by the bicep as we left the T.G.I. Friday’s. “Be careful,” I said, as we stepped off the curb. It was one of those cold nights when sounds seem loud and hard. We got to her apartment building and along the edges of the parking lot were snowbanks shining blue in the moonlight. “Let me walk you to your apartment.” My mouth was dry. “It’s icy.”

The apartment was dark and smelled of ginger, and there was a ticking sound. As she stood there, in the dark of her open kitchen, I tried to kiss her. “No,” she said, and swung her head away. But I tried again, and she did not step back. This seemed promising to me. I kept my hands on her waist and kissed her cheeks, her ears. I remembered when my mother would hold both my wrists in one hand and slap me and I would try to duck and her hand would strike my brow, my eyes, the side of my nose. After a minute or two, Betsy put her hands on my face and kissed me in the practiced way of a woman trying to make a man feel desired. Now I became nervous. I felt that I had forced the situation into being.

“Should I go home?” I asked.

“Yes.”

After this night, we kissed regularly, but only after she had been drinking. I would drive her to her building and say that perhaps I should walk her to her apartment, and my mouth would grow dry as we walked.

Kissing her was wonderful. To stand for an hour in her dark apartment, kissing, swaying side to side, made me so happy that I wanted to tell someone. In the car, driving back to my apartment, I would speak out loud to myself. “Is there anything better than kissing a beautiful woman?” I would say. “If there is, God is keeping it for himself.”

At least once or twice a month we went to her apartment and kissed. There were occasions, though, when for several weeks in a row she would have dates on Friday night. I would feel very sad. My arms and legs would grow heavy, and I would find myself blinking away tears. I felt sad and also I would hate her.

Although I was the one chasing Betsy, I felt that she was using me, that to her I was simply a source of attention.

One day in the pantry at work, I came up to her as she was making tea in the microwave. “I would like to take you out on a date sometime,” I said. I murmured this.

Betsy looked at me. She didn’t say anything, then she patted my cheek and left.

On a sunny Saturday in spring, I was driving down U.S. 1 toward my parents’ and I saw a blue Corolla like the one Betsy drove. I began following the car. I knew it probably wasn’t hers, but every time I lost sight of the car, my heart began to race. “This is stupid. This is crazy,” I said to myself, and the words spoken aloud made me feel my helplessness even more. I followed the car for an hour, until I lost it near the exit for Cranbury.

The weeks and months kept passing. I tried to distract myself. I would go to see my parents. My mother had lost a tooth near the top center of her mouth. The gap made her appear young. She remained mean, though. One of my high school classmates had become an investment banker, and she had learned from his mother what he earned. At the kitchen table, she asked me how much I made, even though she already knew. I thought periodically of telling her about Betsy, but I knew she looked forward to the prospect of negotiating my marriage, and she would get angry and perhaps start cursing me and Betsy if I told her.

Betsy and I began having sex. I always tried to do it without a condom. She was still going on dates with other men, and I believed that if I could get her pregnant she would stop. Sometimes she demanded I wear a condom, sometimes not. Once, in the middle of sex, as she was on her knees and I was inside her, I, full of sexual excitement, asked what she wanted. “A rubber,” she said angrily.

Despite the fact that we were having sex, I thought she did not care for me, that she was probably just tolerating me. I think, though, that she did care for me. I don’t think it is possible to have sex with someone regularly without caring for the person. Once she told me I was the best lover she had ever had. I don’t know what this meant. She sometimes spoke of a French soccer player she had dated as being the great love of her life. I asked her one night if she had told any of her friends about me. She said no.

Betsy was afraid of getting pregnant. For some reason having to do with her skin cancer, she couldn’t go on the pill. Twice she had had abortions, once because of a rape. Occasionally after we had sex, she would lie there in the dark murmuring to herself, “I am pregnant. I can tell.” She looked small and helpless then, her hair damp, sticking to her forehead. I couldn’t understand why she would have sex with me without a condom. The only possible explanation was that there was something in her that was weak and baffled, just like there was in me. The sympathy I felt seeing her lie there, in the dark, murmuring to herself, would briefly brush aside my insanity. I would have the sense that I should leave this poor woman alone.

Betsy got pregnant.

“I want to marry you,” I immediately said. We were both in her kitchen, in jogging shorts. I had imagined this day coming, and my saying this.

“I knew I shouldn’t have told you.” “I love you.”

As I told her I loved her, I felt, as I often did with Betsy, that what I was saying was a lie, a melodrama, a way to capture her, that things would not work out, that I was being foolish, that I was acting as if I didn’t understand the reality of the situation, except that I did and was willing to break things and make things very bad just so I could get her.

Tears slid down her cheeks.

“Why are you this way?” she asked.

Seeing her pain, I was thrilled to be sharing an important moment with her.

“I love you. I want to marry you,” I said, as if it explained everything.

Betsy turned around and walked away. After a moment, I followed her into her bedroom. She pulled her sports bra over her head, pushed down her shorts, and pulled back the sheets of her neatly made bed. She lay down on her left side, holding a pillow against her stomach, and closed her eyes. I didn’t know what to do. I sat on the bottom corner of the bed.

After a while Betsy began to breathe deeply and evenly.

I got into my car to go home. As I drove, I was scared. I felt that Betsy would leave me. I also felt that our relationship was hollow, that it should end, that it consisted of my pretending various things and of her being bullied by my pretense into various halfhearted agreements.

I thought of going to my mother and telling her that I wanted to marry Betsy, that she had to come with me and make a formal traditional offer. I thought that if I did this, if I took my mother and did the things that are done when a match is proposed, I would be acting like someone who had behaved honorably. I would be showing that I meant what I said.

I took the Metropark exit and went to my parents’ house. My mother tilted her head to the side and stared at me. Sun was coming through the kitchen window. She had just bathed and her curly black hair was dampening the top of her green blouse. “Will you come with me to talk to her?” I said, my voice squeaking. “I love her.” The Hindi word for love sounded silly outside the movies.

“Will you come today?” I asked. “What is the hurry?” she said quietly. “There is a hurry.”

My mother stared at me. “Did you put something in her stomach?”

I didn’t answer.

“She’s educated,” I said. “She’s from a good family. Her parents are still married.”

“Boy or a girl? You know?”

“No.”

She sighed. “Boy or girl, both are family.”

This was the first time I had thought of what was inside Betsy as a baby, as a child, as a member of my family.

My mother and I left for Iselin to go to the Indian jewelry stores. It was evening and the sky was darkening, and where the Indian shops start on Oak Tree, there was a banner above the road and traffic began to get very slow as men and women led their children across the middle of the street, looking at the cars and holding up their palms to signal stop.

In the car, I phoned Betsy. It was strange to call her with my mother present. “It’s me,” I whispered on her answering machine, and I thought about the baby inside of her. The poor thing was not loved the way a baby should be loved.

“She won’t kill the baby, will she?” my mother asked. Many of my female cousins had been forced to undergo abortions when they learned their first child was a girl: to my mother an abortion seemed an unmediated cruelty.

“I don’t know.”

Inside the jewelry store, amid the crowd created by the mirrored walls, my mother and I sat on stools and looked at jewelry sets.

“What kind of earrings does she like?” my mother asked. “Light ones. She says her earlobes are delicate.” “Does she like rubies or emeralds?”

“Emeralds. And she likes things she can look at more. Rings or bracelets more than earrings or necklaces.” It surprised me to realize I knew these details about her. I felt a surge of grief because I knew my relationship with Betsy was probably going to end. I wanted to tell my mother details about Betsy. Both of her parents had worked, and for dinner Betsy and her sister would heat hot dogs for themselves. Her mom would call hot dogs “tube steaks.” Betsy liked to do laundry and fold clothes but not to vacuum. If she had to choose between tennis and swimming, she would choose swimming.

Betsy agreed to meet with us—me and my mother. We sat on her white sofa in the living room, and she placed a tray of tea and cookies on the coffee table. When I had called her to ask if I could see her, she had said, “I am so angry,” and her voice had been hard. “You didn’t behave like a good man. I should have done something to take care of myself, but you didn’t act like a good person.” Now, she was polite. She told my mother how nice it was to meet her.

My mother put the red box with the jewelry on the table. She opened it to show the gold necklace and the earrings and the bracelets on the red velvet. “Daughter, I hope you will hear our request to marry Pavan. He will be a good husband. He is loyal and hardworking.”

Betsy looked at the jewelry once and then back up to my mom. “Mrs. Mishra, I am not ready to get married. I like Pavan, but I don’t want to marry him.”

My mother was silent for a moment. “Daughter, will you consider marrying him?”

Betsy looked at us. “I don’t wish to get married,” she said softly.

“What he did was not respectful. It was not kind. But good things can come from things that start badly. God is there in everything. He is there in the good and the bad.”

“I will think, Mrs. Mishra, about what you have said.”

My mother was silent for a while, then, in an almost pleading voice, she said, “Daughter, the baby is part of our family. It is part of your family, too.”

Betsy did not want me to come with her to the doctor. I called her several times the day of the appointment, but it was dark out before she finally answered the phone. “It went fine,” she said. “I’m just tired. I’m going to sleep.”

My parents and I held the funeral ceremony for the baby on a weekday morning at the Sri Ram temple near Princeton. We sat in a far corner, hidden by pillars. There were only a few people in the temple. We had picked a weekday morning so nobody would ask what we were doing.

I sat across from the pandit. There was a fire between us, and he directed me to cut a ball of dough with a string and feed various stones by touching them with drops of milk. I was wearing a suit and it was uncomfortable there on the floor. My parents sat behind me watching.

“What is the baby’s name?” the pandit asked.

I didn’t know how to answer and I was silent, then my mother spoke. “We hadn’t given it a name.”

I started crying at how selfish I had been. I had been cruel and indifferent and had learned nothing from my own life. I put my hands over my face.

“It’s all right,” the pandit said. “We will call it Baby.”

Later, in the car, I drove and my father sat in the front passenger seat and my mother sat behind me. We were on Route 27 when my mother reached over my shoulder and slapped me, hard. Her hand hit my face and ear. Her breath was loud. She reached over and hit me again. I thought, Good, I should be hit.

__________________________________

From A Life of Adventure and Delight. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2017 by Akhil Sharma.


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