A Happy Meal
'MA,' SAID Amit, 'I have to talk to you about something.'
Dinner was over. Romola and Amit were alone in the kitchen. She was putting away the leftovers while Amit wiped the kitchen counters. June was upstairs with Neel and his homework. The last traces of a California evening still dappled the neighbourhood in tranquil honeyed light. Romola could hear the hiss of a hose as their neighbour, Mr Nguyen, watered his lawn. Somewhere a little dog barked.
'What is it, son?' She put down the leftovers and turned to
him. 'Is anything wrong?'
She could sense he was struggling with something. She wondered if he was having fights with June. Perhaps June didn't want her here any more, she thought worriedly, though it had
only been two weeks since she had arrived from Calcutta.
It had been a long time since the two of them had talked — just her and Amit. Even when Avinash had died and Amit had made the long journey back to Calcutta for his father's funeral, they had never really talked. Oh sure, they had discussed Avinash's stocks and shares and what to do with his bank account and who to invite to the funeral but that was not really talking.
'What a good boy that Amit is, such a dutiful son,' everyone
told her. 'You are a lucky mother.' She would smile and say, 'That I am.' But they never talked, not like they did when he'd come running back from school and plant himself on her stomach while she lay in bed taking her afternoon nap and launch into long stories of schoolyard fi ghts and teacher sagas. She had been his confidante then on lazy summer afternoons, half-listening to his convoluted long-winded stories while the fan whirred sluggishly overhead.
'Ma, remember I brought back a bunch of my old books
and diaries from India?'
She remembered. Several years after Avinash died, she had finally got around to going through the closets and had found a shoebox filled with old diaries. They were Amit's and she'd started reading them, smiling at little-boy accounts of school friends and birthday parties until the dust made her eyes water and her throat sore. She'd put them aside for later and had forgotten all about them. She remembered mentioning them to Amit but had no idea he had lugged them back to California.
'Well, there was one of your old address books in there somehow,' said Amit.
'Oh, really?' She shrugged. 'But an address book that old is useless anyway. All the phone numbers must have changed. Half the people are probably dead. Just throw it away.'
'It's not the address book,' said Amit. 'I found this in it. I think it's just the last page. I don't know where the rest is.'
He wordlessly handed the letter to her.
The paper was almost translucent with age, but the handwriting was still clear, the ink Royal Blue. She recognized it with a jolt, even though it had been almost four decades. She remembered exactly where she was the day she had first seen that letter. Funny, she was in America then as well, a newly arrived bride in her neatly ordered kitchen trying to organize her spice jars. Until that letter arrived and turned everything upside down.
I wanted to surprise you by telling you I had finally secured admission to graduate school in the United States. I guess the surprise ended up being mine, getting your wedding invitation. I was hoping that once we were there away from the prying eyes of families we'd be able to live the life we dreamed about during those evenings in Calcutta.
Now it tastes like dust in my mouth. I feel betrayed that you couldn't be stronger. Couldn't you have waited longer? Or did you feel, since whatever we had was a secret anyway, we could just carry on as before? Hadn't we promised to be together, the world be damned? Did you think it was just a phase we'd outgrow like children do with their clothes?
I never asked you to tell the world. I just hoped you might wait for me. I wrote and rewrote this letter three times wondering whether I'd ever send it. I don't really expect you to reply.
Romola sat there in Amit's armchair slightly stunned. After all these years how could she have been so careless? She knew she had saved the letter, unable to destroy it the way she should have years ago. She remembered reading it and rereading it, each word striking her like a sledgehammer, cracking her open over and over again. She had always meant to throw it away, shred it, but somehow she never could. She had hidden it instead – stashed away like a secret pain. But she had never meant Amit to see it. She sat there speechless wondering what to say. This was like one of those terrible television shows she saw during the day where the wife would confess that their little girl wasn't her husband's and the studio audience would gasp in horror.
'Ma,' said Amit, as if reaching across a great divide. 'Ma, tell me about Sumit Uncle. It is the same Sumit Uncle who once came from America to visit, isn't it?'
Romola stared at him shocked. No, she thought, this couldn't be happening, not now. The past she always thought could be wiped clean like a kitchen counter if you were careful enough. She had wanted no shadow of it to fall on Amit, to haunt his dreams. Once he told her that he never dreamed. He said he woke up every morning, his mind as clear as a cloudless summer sky, unremittingly bright in its glare. Was it her, she had wondered. Had she wiped the past clean with such determination that she had given her son only a gift of dreamlessness?
But how could she explain everything to Amit now? Did any of it matter any more? Avinash, her husband, his father, was dead. She was sitting here, a widow in her sixties in a suburban kitchen in California while the late summer evening turned golden. As for Sumit, who knew where Sumit was any more? Was he even alive or, like Avinash, dead from a sudden heart attack?
'It's okay, Ma.' Amit awkwardly put his hand on her shoulder. 'I think you were incredibly brave to do what you did — to give up Sumit Uncle for Baba.' Romola stared at him, confused. She wanted him to stop but he kept talking. 'We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. But did father know about him? I thought they were friends.'
Romola let his words sink in. She was an adulteress in his eyes, she thought. How had that happened? No, no, she wanted to tell him. You have it all wrong. Anger welled up in her. How quick they were to assume everything was always her fault. Avinash's face floated into her head. And Sumit's.
She didn't know who she was angrier with but she clenched her fists to keep her hands still.
She wanted to protest her innocence but the past seemed too complicated to explain now, full of serrated edges that could rip everything to shreds. She twisted the border of her sari in her hand and shook her head, wondering how it had come to be that Amit was asking the questions and she was the one rummaging for excuses.
It was so long ago, she could say. It was just a momentary foolishness, could be another explanation. It's not what you think. It's all lies. You misunderstand. The babble of voices in her head grew louder and louder, their urgent tones more and more shrill, criss-crossing like anxious telephone wires. But nothing seemed right, even to her own ears, each explanation weaker than the previous one, tissue-wrapped in white lies, the cracks showing through the arguments even before she could utter them.
Then she looked at Amit's face and saw something she had not seen for many years in his eyes. He was trying to connect to her, as tentative as the first ghostly little toadstools that sprang up after the monsoon deluge.
He is not angry, she thought in baffled wonder feeling someone had unexpectedly overturned a judgement. He doesn't even seem upset.
From Don't Let Him Know by Sandip Roy. Copyright 2015 by Sandip Roy. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.