She walked into the store, pulling her white trench coat around her. The bells chimed as the wind pulled the glass door shut. He felt shy suddenly watching her from behind the counter as she made a beeline to the back of the store to the coolers. She stood in front of the beer and wine selection. She pulled the door to retrieve her purchase and found it chained and padlocked. He watched her reflection in the glass, her face a snowflake metamorphosing as it fell from heaven. She turned suddenly, as if to ask a question, it played on her forbidding looking lips, blue from the winter storm outside.
“The doors are locked on this cooler,” she said.
“Yes, Miss,” he said, “I will get what you need.”
“I’ll just take the Sangria.” He walked through the store room door, careful to avoid looking at the alabaster cheekbones, the black beneath her eyes where mascara had run from the hurtling winds, it looked as though sleeplessness had etched its melancholy mark upon her. He fetched the wine.
“Is this it?” “Mmm.” She nodded and followed after him to the counter. He lifted the gate and walked behind it; she rummaged in her purse for her wallet.
“Anything else today?”
“Yes, Miss.” He took the cigarettes off the shelf and laid them on the counter.
“Can I get you anything else today?”
“No, thank you.” She looked at him for a moment and their eyes met. He almost forgot where he was, she was so lovely, so austere. He wanted suddenly to take her to Gujarat where he grew up. Let her get warm under the sun as waves from the Arabian sea washed over her . She would melt there…she wouldn’t be so cold. That thin line around her mouth would disappear.
She opened the door to leave and the wind rushed in. Bits of snow and ice blew into the store as she pulled her coat around her and left into the inky night.
After 10 p.m. this side of town was quiet. The street lights came on, flickered out, came on. A few stragglers here and there. When Janardan went outside to empty the trash he glimpsed a teenager with a newspaper bag slung over his shoulder slugging through the snow. Both he and teenager’s breath hung in the streetlight illuminated air. Beyond the haloed light, banks of white snow receded into the shadowy darkness.
At 2 a.m. he set the alarm and waited for the beeping. The electronic sound signaling and hallow. He surveyed the quiet rows of candy bars and trial size boxes of food, canned goods and the eerie glow of the linoleum. He listened for a minute to the hum of the coolers and then went outside, the cold lashing him from all directions was a shock. Janardan leaned against the door for a minute, inhaling the cold air deeply.
He would go home to the large townhome he shared with what was left of his family. It would be quie,t or so he hoped. His mind was usually a mixture of practical details concerning the store, but tonight he thought about the girl who had come in earlier. Something about the look of sadness in her beautiful eyes, she seemed tired. Janardan could relate. Locking the door behind him he turned the key until he heard a click. He pushed the door to make sure it was secured and with his head down, walked around the building to his little silver hybrid car.
The four bedroom town home was quiet. The television glowed, but the volume was down. His mother was asleep on the couch, snoring softly. He took off his coat, trying to be as silent as possible. His mother stirred. He stood still, not moving until she quieted. After a moment he tiptoed over to her and pulled a blanket over her sleeping shoulders. Her eyes opened.
“Janardan?” His mother looked at him with sleepy eyes, still dreaming, “Are you home?” She sat up on the pastel colored tapestry couch and found her glasses that were on a chain around her neck and put them on.
“I’m home mother. Go back to sleep.”
“How is the store?” She asked, getting up and crossing the butter cream colored carpet to turn on an elaborate golden crystal lamp.
“It was fine. The store is fine. Go back to sleep. I will see you in the morning.” Janardan said, walking over the refrigerator in the spacious open-floor townhome.
“Your father would be proud.” She sighed and closed her eyes getting lost in a moment of reverie.
“Mother,” he sighed, realizing that she was in the mood to talk, “do you want something to eat?”
“What are you going to have?” She asked, walking into kitchen and sitting down at the large island.
Janardan fixed them both salami and cheese sandwiches. They then had scoops of vanilla ice cream, “to wash out the strong taste,” said his mother who would say that even about vanilla ice cream if it meant another scoop.
Laying in the dark, Janardan allowed himself to sink into the comfort of his bed. He could hear the soft muffled sounds of his sister and brother-in-law talking in the next room. Their conversation made him feel lonely, an emotion to which he was accustomed. He liked his brother-in-law but he missed his own brothers so much that most times he would find himself angry and bitter about the way things had turned out and was so tired from that ache that he pushed it away if only to get a little rest.
“The suffering will still be there when I wake up,” he reassured himself.
He flipped to one side and then a few moments later turned to the other, then back again. He dozed a little and at dawn he was awoken by the cries of his little niece down the hall. He realized that no one was going to her so he got up and went to her crib.
“Little baby, shh shh.” He comforted. Her bright eyes focused on him in the shadowy gray light of morning and she opened her little pink bowed lips in a giggle. He picked up the little brown bundle of the lavender and lotion scented baby and held her close. “Are you missing someone, little one?” He asked her. “Don’t be lonely, I’m here.” She cooed.
He opened and closed his father’s store. He swept, he stocked, he counted, he signed for orders from the wholesale truck drivers, he stared out the windows, he waited, he dreamed. One week.
But there was still the whole day to get through. Would she come tonight?
“Mr. Patel? Mr. Patel, are you alright?” Janardan blinked his eyes.
The old Indian woman stood before him, withered and stooped, her claw fingers pushing coins across the counter for a newspaper.
“I told you not to call me that.” He chided gently, managing a smile.
“You just look so much like your father. He stood behind that counter for years, it’s hard for an old woman to remember or perhaps, not to remember.”
He didn’t respond, coming out from behind the counter he helped her towards the door and out into the bright sunshine. The glistening snow sparkling in the sun made him blink furiously for a minute. He watched as the old woman made her way to the bus stop and then he held the door for the next customer, thinking how odd it was that people told him all the time how much he looked like his father.
He barely knew his father. Janardan was ten when his father left for America to secure a better life for the family. For ten years his father sent a lot of money, but never sent for him, his mother, his younger two sisters or his younger two brothers. And then at the end of January 2001, the earthquake came, killing everyone in his family but his mother and his 16 year old sister, Achala. It was months of them living in shelters, begging and stealing food.
There was no way to communicate with the outside world. They tried. Every day they would go to the Red Cross and look for pictures or some note claiming that father had come to find them. Finally, one day a worker came and showed them a picture of an old man with white hair and an unhappy frown that Janardan did not recognize. She told them to wait and that she would go find him.
When she brought the man over, mother collapsed and could not be revived for an hour. When she finally was able to regain consciousness her and Achala clutched at the man, who one called husband, and the other called father. All of them wept, including Janardan who stood a couple feet off from his hugging and clutching family. For the rest of the day he would catch his father looking at him. Achala chattered incessantly about their parent’s great love and how it had saved them at last. Janardan thought his father looked ill. It pained him to see how desperately his mother clung to his father as she told him of how their other children had died.
He secretly watched his father’s face as the old man attempted to hold his torment inside of him in this public place where hearing of terrible loss was as common as the daily discussion of the weather. They spent another month in customs living like refugees, father paying large amounts of money to officials to secure the proper documents, the whole time not allowed to see his family.
They got to America on the day violence broke out all over the city of Gujarat and a thousand Muslims and Hindus were killed. The American media barely mentioned it. The world he had come to barely bothered to mention that the world he left had been destroyed.
Janardan’s father died two weeks later. Doctors said it was congenital heart disease and a massive heart attack, but everyone knew that he simply died from the burden of heartbreak and loss.
Such sadness was deadly. His mother donned black, lit candles and incense, praying day and night to Devi.
Janardan took over the store.
“Hey, Habeeb!” Two teenagers came wheeling in on skateboards, running their hands over everything, knocking stuff over. Janardan tensed. The kids walked over to the magazine rack and started pulling the magazines out of their plastic jackets, leafing through them and then haphazardly returning them to the wrong shelves.
“Are you going to buy something?” Janardan asked.
“Are you going to buy something?” The teenagers mocked him, laughing.
“You buy something or leave.” Janardan said, moving towards the gate, he opened it and started stepping through. They repeated his words in a smarmy tone and then each grabbed a candy bar and a soda from the coolers and threw handfuls of change on the counter.
Janardan said, “I’m not going to count this change. I do not have time for this.”
But the two boys had already opened their drinks. Janardan counted the change out and the boys left.
She came. One week to the day. To the very hour, there she was. Here she was. Janardan’s breath caught in his throat and suddenly he felt his face grow hot. He suddenly felt like a foreigner, instead of someone who had spent the last six years in this country. It didn’t seem like any of his Indian friends ever dated American women, so it stood to reason that American girls didn’t date Indian men. This fact made him feel pitiful and impotent, as if he had no right to even dream of her porcelain skin, her blue eyes, her tiny lips.
She looked towards him at the counter as she walked in. She seemed to smile tensely at him, not quite meeting his eyes. He swallowed hard, as she turned down an aisle and stood looking at cans of soup, boxes of macaroni and the single sleeves of cookies. She piled a couple items into her arms and then went to the cooler. She opened it after a moment and grabbed a vitamin water.
He tried to smile as she approached the counter and then realized he was already smiling. His face felt like plastic. She gave him an odd look as she set her items down.
“Marlboro Reds?” He asked. His voice cracked.
“No thank-you,” she replied, pulling money out of her wallet. “How much?”
Janardan stood looking at her, stuck in time for a moment, as a piece of her hair had fallen out of her white fur lined hood and into her sea colored eyes that were ringed in charcoal.
“How much?” She repeated.
He felt his face flush with shame and he quickly rang up her groceries. He couldn’t even say, “Have a goodnight.” He stood rooted to his spot long after she disappeared into the darkness.
He lay in bed that night, his hands on his stomach, staring at the ceiling. He thought of her eyes, the color of the Arabian sea, reminding him of his youth, the days spent lounging on the beach talking with his friends. Most of whom were now dead. She had the same look in her eyes as his mother had a week after she realized that no one was coming to dig her children out from beneath the rubble of concrete.
He thought of how both his mother’s and that woman’s lips always seemed to be pulled tight, colorless.
He thought of her pale skin, he wondered about her hair, about the texture of it, the smell. He thought about how he thought about what her breasts might look like, thought about taking off her winter clothes, unwrapping the long scarf from around her neck, pushing back her hood, kissing her. He wished he knew her name. He whispered into the darkness, and fell asleep.
This time he was ready for her. He didn’t know where she had come from or where she would go when she left, but he felt her coming, he longed her there.
This time she was wearing a black coat, she clicked across the linoleum in tall shiny black heels. Her tiny ankles looked so fragile to him. She looked at him with a hint of recognition and he felt enlightened. She grabbed a water and came immediately to the counter.
“Hello.” Janardan said, his hazel eyes begging to be seen by her, this angel of the night.
“Hi,” she said back.
“Will that be all?” Janardan asked, kicking himself. Why couldn’t he strike up conversation with her?
“Yes.” He rang her up.
“Is it cold out?” He asked. Of course it’s cold out. It’s winter. Oh Devi, I am messing everything up, help me.
“I hear another storm is coming.” He tried again.
“Tonight.” Janardan wished he could talk about something besides the weather with this girl.
“Oh, well I’m headed home, so…” Her voice trailed off, biting her lip, as she handed him two dollars.
“Try to stay warm.” He said, repeating a familiar American nicety.
“O.k. I will,” she smiled and took her water off the counter, “have a goodnight.”
“You too.” When she left Janardan went to the door to watch through the glass as she walked away. He would have went all the way outside to see if after she turned left down the street she would turn again or go forward, but another customer was coming in.
The next day, Janardan hired a young Indian man going to school to become a doctor to help him in the store. He trained quickly and on the fourth night Janardan left at 8 p.m. and spied from a distance as the night wore on.
The young man closed the store promptly at 2 a.m., locking the doors and setting the alarms, just as he had been shown. Janardan did not want to go home and arouse suspicion from his mother who would question his choice to hire someone and bother him about it. For the next two nights he wandered the icy streets, winding through neighborhoods, stopping to look into the lighted windows of homes and stores alike.
He hoped to see her, hoped to just come across her standing on the porch of one of the these houses, perhaps smoking a cigarette with a neighbor. The thought warmed him in the freezing night air, his breath visible as he roamed, the stars in the clear hard night winking at his secret.
On the seventh night he hid behind the building and waited. She came right on time. He questioned his sanity while she went into the store for an unusual length of time and emerged with only her water.
She immediately turned to the left and strode down the street. He followed her, a good pace behind. The sidewalks were clean of slush and ice and he listened to her heels clicking with a hallow sound as it echoed off the houses.
Every other street light was out. The circles of light from people’s homes made the street seem occupied and it made him feel as though he was being watched. He followed behind her but after several blocks she stopped suddenly, dead in her tracks and turned.
“Are you following me?” He was so caught off guard he almost ran away. He felt his insides lurch, his sight grew dim.
“You there,” she demanded, “are you following me?” He thought they were separated by at least a block, but she was so near him now, he could see the puffs of her breath. How could he have been so stupid? He thought again about running away, but she was walking towards him. He wondered if anyone inside the houses might have noticed them and were calling the police. “Wait. I recognize you,” she said, “you’re the man from the party store. You weren’t working tonight. Someone different was there, he made a mistake and had to re-ring everything. It was a real mess.”
She stood before him. Her breath hanging in the air, he restrained himself from pressing his face into it. He didn’t say anything, just stood there, looking guilty. “Do you live over here?” she asked, she seemed annoyed. How many times had she asked? He wondered. A dozen? Had they been standing here, frozen in the snow, for a century?
“No,” he managed to mutter, “I was following you.” He almost whispered it. “Really?” She didn’t believe him. “No.” He tried to laugh. It sounded fake to him.
“Well then, where are you going?”
“Ha! Me too,” she said, “Shall we go together?”
“I…I…would love to.”
“Let’s go. My place is right over on the next block. I’ll make us some tea? We can smoke some hash?” She laughed. “Your people like hash, right?”
Her apartment was at the top of the stairs in an old Victorian house. It was warm inside with blue woven rugs made of jute, scattered here and there. Tiny white Christmas lights hung around her window. She lit a stick of incense in the fire place, the room filled with the heady scent of sandalwood. She put some soft music on, deep ambient beats, rhythmic and mysterious, foreign music he had never heard, but that settled him instantly.
She removed her coat, revealing a tight black sweater and large breasts. She kicked her shoes off. “Make yourself at home. The bathroom is over there,” she gestured, “Do you like this music? I can change it…” She wandered off into the kitchen, her hips swaying in a perfect pencil shaped skirt that clung to her.
He licked his lips, his mouth felt dry. He sat down heavily on the couch, listening to her work in the kitchen. He couldn’t believe he was here in her world, her warm, sweet smelling apartment, with hardwood floors and tall windows looking out over a snow covered quiet residential street at night. She brought the tea and sat it on the table next to him and then knelt before him, lowering herself to the ground with her hands on his knees.
He froze. It had been years since he had been close to anyone like this. The scent of her perfume enveloped him with a sense of intimacy. She handed him a pipe and he put it to his lips. She lit it and told him to take small puffs. “What is it?” He managed to ask.
“It’s opium, baby.”
“Opium…” he said, and closed his eyes as he inhaled the sweet smoke, his mind scarce disbelieving her lips on his, her tongue in his mouth, her breasts pressed up against him.
“Breath the smoke into me.” She muttered against his lips. He exhaled his breath and the smoke into her waiting mouth. She breathed in deeply and fell back onto the rug. Her arms spread out, staring at the ceiling. He felt like he was floating.
She was at once modern and exotic, a snow angel and opium pusher with white dreadlocks and Arabian sea eyes, a dragon and a princess. He felt protected by her presence, and protective of her all at once.
“What is,” he started, his head fell back against the cushions of the couch, “your name?” He finished.
“My name? What does it matter what my name is?”
“It matters to me.”
“And who are you?” “I’m Janardan.”
“No, not your name. Who are you?”
“What? You don’t understand?” Was she mocking him? No. She was sitting up now. Her eyes were moist and there was a pinkness in her cheeks he had never seen before.
“I am suffering” he finally managed, “I don’t know who I am, but I know what I am, does that count?”
“Yes,” she nodded, “most people would never admit that to anyone.” She lit the pipe and inhaled and then came to him again, slithering up between his legs, her hands moving from the outside of his thighs, up his arms, and cupping his face, she gently pressed her lips to his. He opened his mouth and took everything in that she had to offer. They fell into each other. She pulling him towards the bedroom, he pushing against her the whole way.
A large made up bed was in the center of the room and he moved her towards it. Janardan had never seen such perfect white flesh, such rose colored nipples as hers. He put his mouth on them and in the darkness, making love to her, he wept. She tenderly stroked her tiny hands over his back. Tiny gasps escaped her lips as he kissed her throat, her arms, her legs, her thighs. She arched up into him, meeting his rhythm with one of her own, until the two of them were holding onto one another as if they had never been apart a day in their lives.
“What is your name?” he whispered. He felt himself beginning to climax, he wanted to slow down, make it last but she wasn’t letting him, she was frantic almost, holding his hips, clinging to them with her hands, her legs wrapped tightly around him, constricting him, not allowing him to remove himself from inside of her as he started to come.
He watched as her hands gripped the sheets in the pale light of the room, her eyes were closed and her head was turned. “I’m…I can’t…not inside you.”
“Yes. Yes. Inside me. It’s o.k. I’m already…It’s o.k., it’s o.k.” She repeated it over and over like a mantra, and then with his face pressed against hers, he felt her hot tears like molten lava sliding down her cheeks and onto her neck. He kissed them away furiously, exploding inside her. Immediately, he felt terrible guilt and shame. How could he have allowed such a thing?
“Stella,” she said, as he lay heaving on top of her.
Suddenly he became angry. He pulled himself out of her with such force she yelped with an injured animal-like sound.
He stood up, and all at once, looking into her eyes, he was back there.
The room started spinning, and shaking. He could see the beach, no longer an idyllic place, but covered with the bodies of the sick and the wounded. He heard the helicopters overhead, dropping bundles of supplies; food and medicine. The Red Cross workers zipping body bags, and piling people into the backs of their trucks. He heard his mother wailing as she picked her way among the living and dead, searching for the faces of her two lost sons who had been at school that day. He saw his sister rocking back and forth, her long shiny black hair was covered in dust and blood.
“Are you with child?” He asked incredulously. Such a rage building inside of him he could barely quell it. He suddenly wanted to kill her. How could he have been so blinded by her beauty, this devil masquerading as an angel.
“Where is your husband?” He demanded, shaking all over.
“I’m not married. There is no husband. There is no one. Janardan. Listen to me. I am alone.” The last part trailed out of her in a moan.
“What is wrong with you? You are trash? You are a slut?” He felt like crying. He felt so lost. He had wanted to love her and now she could be nothing to him. He wanted to punish her for tricking him. She would not see him cry or how she had wounded him. He had been through so much, this American princess would not get to him.
“I am not a slut.” She pulled the blanket up to cover herself, looking as though she was trying to regain some dignity from his wild eyes that raked over her.
“What? And now you cry? You fake tears?”
“I am not faking! How dare you!” She pulled herself up. The two of them began to look for their clothes. He pulled on his jeans. She pulled her sweater over her head.
“What do you know of anything sad? You living here in America. You don’t even know what goes on in the world. You are a spoiled American bitch!” He spat at her, his ire surprising even him, the last syllable hanging in the air almost like a threat.
“I do know.”
“You know nothing. Have you ever lost anything? What do you know? Have you ever lost anything? You lose an earring and you probably cry like this!” He didn’t know what he was saying, just that he was saying something. He felt like if he stopped yelling at her he might dissolve, he might disappear forever, like a snowflake.
She started to pace about the bedroom. She was looking for something. He kept going. “What do you know of loss? What do you know of pain? Look around you. The way you live! S
uch luxury has made you weak.” “I am weak.” She opened a drawer, she was heaving, near hysterics, she found a pack of cigarettes and taking one out with shaking hands, lit it, gestured with it. Paced with it. He watched her.
“Yes. You are weak. And you are pregnant and you are smoking. You are selfish.”
“I don’t know if I am going to keep it.”
“You would murder your own child?” He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You are a selfish slut, you are an American whore.” He heaped insults upon her and when he couldn’t look at her anymore to see that the way he was speaking to her was making her shrink, he started to talk about loss again. And then he felt the world go sideways. The walls were shifting, the ceiling was coming down, the earth was rising up, the earth was opening up beneath his feet, the earth was taking him down, swallowing him as if he were nothing.
“Did you see your little sister get crushed by a wall?” He screamed, following her out of the bedroom and into the kitchen. She turned on the light and started pacing back and forth across the wood floor. “Did you see her die, and could do nothing? Did you see? Did you see? What do you know of loss? What?” He came at her, she backed away, he still came at her until her back was to the refrigerator and his hands were on her shoulders and he was shaking her. “Tell me. What do you know? What? What? What?”
“I lost my daughter!” She said suddenly, a great sigh escaping her as she visibly deflated, shoulders rounding in she slid down to the floor. “I lost my daughter… She drowned in the ocean. I took her to the Connecticut shore,” she said quietly, “I was drinking. I was drunk. Oh my God…my daughter…oh my God, oh my God…”
She looked up at Janardan and shook her head.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m doing right now. I’m so lost.”
And then she put her head down on her knees and wept quietly for several minutes while he stared at her, feeling sadness slowly replace the anger. The refrigerator kicked on and she sniffed, lifting her head and wiping her eyes and nose with her sleeve.
“Please don’t hate me, Janardan. There’s something about you. I think I need you. If you wouldn’t have come to night, I don’t know what I would’ve done. It’s like you are an answer to my prayers. I couldn’t be alone tonight. It’s been one year today that she died, I just…” she left off and started crying again, tears dripping off her chin and getting stuck in the little hollow of her upper lip.
A few tears made their way to the floor creating a tiny, salty ocean. He lost all strength within him. He could say nothing. She appeared broken to him, crushed. He suddenly couldn’t bear it. He sank to his knees in front of her, and tried to take her hands in his. They were cold and limp, but he gripped them tightly.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Do you know where I go once a week? Why I come to your store once a week?” He shook his head sadly.
“I go to AA,” she whispered. “I found out I was pregnant and I… I went to a meeting and I stopped at your store, and I bought wine and I bought cigarettes. These same cigarettes I smoke now. I haven’t drank anything since then. I don’t know what I am going to do. God is punishing me.”
“God is not punishing you. God does not punish.”
“Maybe your God doesn’t, but mine does.”
“No, do you think God killed my family, my friends?”
“Oh, Janardan,” she wept, looking up at him. He suddenly understood the look in her eyes, the same look as the one in his mother’s eyes when she realized no one was coming to dig her children out from beneath the concrete rubble.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“No. No, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the things I said to you. I didn’t…”
“You didn’t know. I didn’t tell you. It’s my fault,” she said.
“You didn’t know either about my family, about the things I’ve seen. How can you tell someone…how can you just lay bare your soul with the sufferings…” He trailed off.
He gathered her up in his arms and pulled her towards the couch, taking her cigarette from her and placing it in the ashtray on the table. “What are we going to do?” She asked in a small voice, the voice of a little girl.
“We’ll figure it out. Shh shh…don’t cry,” he soothed. “I know you are lonely because you are missing someone. Don’t be lonely, I am here.”
“I can’t be alright all the time,” she said, breathing out the last heaving sob with a shudder, settling her head against his chest. He cradled her head in his hands and ran his fingers gently over her hair, marveling at how soft it was.
“No one has to be alright all the time,” he whispered, kissing her again.