Shaila paused at the door before entering the hotel room. She leaned against the frame to prevent it from closing, letting only the tips of her toes cross the threshold. The Lovely had upgraded them to the Honeymoon Suite, as a token of gratitude for the six hundred and eleven wedding guests she had brought. Even the florist had provided an extra hundred marigolds at no cost. Only the catering staff expressed displeasure, particularly when the older guests failed to use utensils during their meals. No hotel in city had ever booked such a large wedding. Special caterers were hired to cook the distinctive curries, tandoori chicken, and rice-milk sweets. The hotel’s profit margin for the quarter had been achieved by this single event.
Ravi had already taken a tour of the suite and settled comfortably into the sofa, his legs propped on the glass coffee table. Shaila surveyed the room from her perch at the door. It boasted eleven-foot French doors that opened onto a terrace overlooking the pool. The king-sized bed, though draped in down pillows and silk sheets, appeared intimidating. Ravi perused the twenty different movie offerings on the gleaming fifty- inch flat screen television. Papayas, mangoes, and kiwi, flown in from Australia and arranged to look as if they had accidentally spilled out of a basket, decorated the dining table. A bottle of Dom Perignon glistened in the silver ice bucket on the cocktail bar. Shaila presumed the card tied around its neck by the velvet red ribbon read, “May your future be filled with everlasting happiness. Best Wishes, The Lovely.” Even with every luxury the hotel had to offer, she thought the room was missing the essentials.
“You’re letting the cool air escape,” Ravi said to her as she continued to hold the door open. The city was in the midst of an energy crisis, and to conserve, the hotels only cooled the interior rooms. Acquiescing to pleas by Shaila’s mother, the management had agreed to keep the air conditioner running in the banquet hall throughout the day. In spite of their assurances, though, the air was turned off during the reception, turning the room into a pressure cooker. While her father and sister attempted to pacify the complaining guests and her mother argued with the manager, Shaila had watched in amusement as the guests attempted to cool themselves with floppy fans made from dinner napkins. Now, standing at the door, she preferred the warmth of the hallway to the coolness inside the room.
“Let’s open the bottle,” said Ravi and raised the champagne bottle high in front of him like a trophy.
“In a little while,” she replied, finally relinquishing her position from the doorway. “Let me change first.” The door lagged for a second, as if giving her a moment to be certain of the decision to walk inside. Then it shut behind her, securely.
“Good idea,” still admiring the bottle as he set it down. “My shirt is soaked. Do you mind if I shower first?” Without waiting for an answer, he walked into the bathroom.
Shaila sat down at the dining table and stared into the lacquered table, unable to see her face. Her countenance had been replaced by the portrait of a newlywed; a woman wrapped in all the elegance India had to offer. The red and white sari draped over her head exposed only the luster of dark lashes and ample lips. Her thick black hair, for most of her life cut just below the ears, was grown long for the occasion and pulled into a low bun just below the nape of her neck. Carefully arranged ringlets swept over her eyebrows and gave the demure suggestion of innocence. With one pull of a pin, she unraveled the bun that had taken an hour to wrap, and ironed the ringlets with her palms until not one flirtatious curve was left.
From the bathroom she heard the sound of Ravi reciting material for his dental school final exam next week, the reason their honeymoon was a weekend at The Lovely Hotel. Her disappointment had virtually passed. In college she backpacked with friends through Europe and only two summers ago she had gone on a safari in Tanzania. But while she had initially imagined that she and Ravi would have sailed from one Greek isle to another or hiked the trail to Macchu Picchu, Ravi’s allergies made it impossible to travel far. She was married now and understood that this yielded a new life of compromise—a simple, relaxing weekend without the hassles of delayed airplanes, lost luggage, or uncomfortable accommodations was probably fitting.
One by one, Shaila removed the pieces of wedding jewelry bought during a trip to India taken especially for the wedding. She had never worn more than a pair of small silver hoop earrings before and the nearly ten pounds of gold weighed on her frame. The extra weight had made it difficult for her to circle the fire four times during the ceremony and her body sighed with relief as each piece was removed. The two silver and gold-plated rings slid easily off her middle and forefinger, leaving only the wedding band on her hand. The diamond was almost unnoticeable, she thought, feeling cheated and yet relieved. She rubbed her arms with soap and water to remove the arm bracelets nearly glued to her skin. With a quick tug she took all twenty off at once. She then unfastened the gold anklets adorned with little bells that had pinched at her heels during the first dance. As a child she would wear her mother’s pair at every opportunity, even to perform menial chores, just to hear them clink while she dusted or swept. But as she grew older, to her mother’s disappointment, she refused to wear them even to Indian dances and celebrations. The chimes had grown into a nuisance; she found them unnerving, as if they were intended to announce her arrival before she was prepared.
The infection in her right ear had nearly subsided, alleviating some of the pain as she unscrewed the gold earring weighted with rubies and diamonds. She traced the outline of its exquisite double teardrop shape with her thumb and stopped at the precious half-carat in the middle. “The piercing needles these people use in the shopping malls are not large enough for our earrings,” her mother had said when she doused the gold screw with Vaseline, allowing it to glide into place. Gravity prevailed as the ceremony commenced that morning, and the precious family jewel, ordinarily a privilege to wear, became the burden she had borne until now. Shaila began to rub the diamond, gently first, then with increasing speed, as if hoping to wake a genie from his slumber, only to be disturbed by the ring of the phone instead.
“Hi mother,” Shaila answered, knowing it was her before she picked up.
“Beta, can you hear me?”
“Can you hear me?” her mother repeated. “We are finishing downstairs and will be leaving soon. Do you need anything?”
Amid the clamor of the last wedding guests’ farewells, Shaila could hear the robust laughter of her father in the background. As a child she had been embarrassed by its resonance, particularly at school musicals when it echoed at inappropriate moments, like Dorothy’s invocation of “no place like home.” True, in a Hindi film a plea for the return to domestic life might be considered amusing, but home in West Eatonton, Georgia meant something delightful and gratifying, especially to the audience at West Eatonton High School. Now, though, the dissonant rise and fall of her father’s laughter brought her comfort she had not realized she needed.
“Mother, I’m fine.”
“And Ravi? Does he have his allergy medicine? ” A reminder she had someone else to think of.
“Yes mother. I packed it myself. We’re great. The hotel gave us a bottle of champagne and we’re just about to make a toast.” Shaila stared at the uncorked bottle still in its holder.
“Okay beta, I will talk to you tomorrow. Good night.”
“Was that your mother?” asked Ravi from the bathroom door. The towel wrapped around the lower half of his body revealed a broad, brown chest and defined shoulders. His wavy black hair had thickened due to the humidity.
“Yeah, she wanted to make sure you hadn’t forgotten your medicine.”
He grinned appreciatively. “I love how the Darshan ladies take care of me.” She thought to clarify that it was her mother who had remembered and not she, but realized the distinction might be lost. Instead, she watched as his sinewy frame, in its usual confident saunter, approached her from across the room. Standing just above six foot, Ravi towered over her five-two frame. While many women found his build dashing and strong, in the past she had usually preferred someone closer to her own size, lithe and agile. Ravi’s bulk and strength often swallowed her, making her feel barely even five feet tall. “He resembles a God,” her mother had exclaimed when she first saw his smooth, sculpted face with dark, wide-set oval eyes and high cheek bones, likening him to Lord Krishna or Rama. The excitement on her mother’s face had been palpable, knowing that her grandchildren would be tall and handsome.
“I’m no longer a Darshan. It’s Shah now.”
“Yes. Yes it is.” He nudged her into an embrace and kissed her lightly on the mouth. Then he began to caress her back, his hand moving up and down her spine, gently massaging the tightened muscles. But her body remained rigid and apart, and its response went unnoticed. She wanted to squeeze him tightly in return, to reach for the towel and pull it off his body. For a moment, while she played with the threads between her two fingers, the idea that she could muster the passion, the impetuous excitement every bride should feel on her wedding night, seemed possible. She gently tugged on the towel, watching as it began to unravel, the downy whiteness floating its way to the floor like a snowflake, light and transparent, and not made to be caught. But it fell into her open hand just before its final drop to the floor. She tucked the edge of the towel back into place.
“You should get dressed,” she said and unlocked his arms.
“And you need to get undressed,” he teased. She searched for a clever response, but her mind went blank.
It had been easier with David, she thought. She could still visualize the neon lights from the Cactus Shade Lounge that had shined brightly into their Super 8 motel room. They had strung a bed sheet over the window to block the intensity of the orange and blue, which unexpectedly filtered the neon into a hue of soft violet. Lubbock, Texas had been the fifth rest stop on their drive from Boston to Los Angeles, and the sweltering August heat forced them to sleep with wet towels to compensate for the lack of an air conditioner. The humidity had been oppressive, and in the few moments David had stood in the bathroom doorway after showering, his thin, lanky body had already become wet with sweat. Shaila thought she had never seen anything sexier.
When she first began to date Ravi, there had been no physical affection. That wasn’t strange, given that the first few months they spent together had been only on telephone. A relative, maybe a cousin or aunt of Ravi’s mother, she couldn’t remember, had seen Shaila at her sister Rina’s wedding. At her mother’s urging, particularly her emphasis on “he was born here in America, raised here in America, like you,” she had let her mother provide the relative with a number. A few weeks later, Ravi had called. The conversations were awkward at first. Having always favored the concept of chemistry and first attraction, she had never thought of herself as a person who could date someone she hadn’t met. Yet, her sister had married her husband that way, and because her relationship with David had ended the summer before, she decided to oblige her mother this one time.
After a few conversations, she found out that it was not unusual for Ravi to begin his relationships over the telephone—Shaila was his third attempt at telephone courting. She had been a first year internal medicine resident in Bakersfield, California, and the grueling hours left her no time to meet anyone. Even if she had had the time, though, Bakersfield had a dearth of prospects. Ravi called with a persistency to which she was not accustomed, every day at the exact time he said he would. At the beginning, she was annoyed, finding him too confident and assertive for her taste, but after a while, she began to look forward to his phone calls, and eventually rely on them.
Her roommate Alice had been confused about their relationship. The night before she drove to Los Angeles to meet Ravi for the first time, Alice expressed surprise that she didn’t even know what he looked like.
“Why didn’t you ask for a picture?”
“I wanted to see him first in person. And besides, pictures usually lie.” He had had the courtesy to not ask her for a picture, and she would extend the same.
“What if you don’t feel anything when you do?”
Shaila didn’t answer. After three months of daily conversations, Ravi had suggested they meet. She knew from her sister’s experience that this was an important turning point in the courting ritual; a first meeting set them on the path to engagement. Later that evening when she returned, Alice peppered her for details as to his appearance—the name of the restaurant where they ate, the music that played on the radio as they drove around the city, even the sound of his laugh. By the time she got home, she had forgotten these particulars, not even sure whether she had noticed them in the first place. Now, watching him pull a sweater over his body, she tried to answer the questions Alice had asked over a year ago. Her memory still refused to cooperate.
Only the memory of her first encounter with David seven years ago grew more vivid with time. It was a cocktail party at the student center thrown by the professors for all pre-med students. She had been reluctant to go, as she wasn’t friendly with the other students in the program, but Alice wanted to meet with a particular professor over a grade in Biochemistry and thought an occasion where alcohol was to be served was just the right forum. David had approached her towards the end of the evening as she was gathering her coat. He claimed to have noticed that she never spoke up in any of their classes, and asked why. His voice was so soft and unsure, and unlike any she had heard from a man. Later she found out that he had noticed her on the first day of class, but couldn’t think of a clever opening. They talked for a few minutes, ordinary small talk between two people who had just met. When he tried to pour her a glass of wine, he fumbled with the wine opener, accidentally letting the cork drop into the bottle. They drank the flecks of cork in wine for the remainder of the evening.
“Shaila, honey, aren’t you going to change?” Ravi asked.
“Yes. Yes I am.” She kissed him on the mouth, ashamed that her thoughts had wandered to another man.
“I’ll make us something to eat while you shower.” As Ravi strode into the kitchen, she observed how he moved with ease. He sliced a loaf of French bread into perfect symmetrical shapes. In the refrigerator he found various cheeses and sampled each one. “They even gave us a slice of brie,” he reported. “I’ll bake it for us,” he added, placing it in the oven. Next, he lightly scrubbed the skins of the papayas and mangoes, smelling the aroma of each fruit and tossing those that didn’t pass muster. Then he began to juice them. With each half cupped by his large hands, he squeezed every bit of pulp from the skins until not one fiber remained.
As she slid into the warm water of the bath, the images of the squeezed mangoes drifted from her mind and her thoughts traveled to a pleasant place, where tiny bottles of lavender oils lined the edge of a tub. The smoothness of the bathroom’s marble tiles soothed her aching feet, and the porcelain tub wrapped her body like a blanket. She rested her toes on the opposite edge of the tub and leaned back against the bath cushion. Her family adored Ravi. There were many reasons why, but she knew his enthusiasm for the enormous family gatherings was high among them. He actually looked forward to them. The nieces and nephews were always charmed by his card tricks, the Hindi film star impersonations, and his own children’s version of the Ramayana. He had even taught Shaila about India’s ancient history, explaining nuances from the Mahabharata that she had never bothered to learn. Even now on occasion she would converse with her family in Hindi, a language she had not spoken since childhood, and while her pronunciation might be off, her mother’s beaming face would make it clear that it didn’t matter. She dribbled a few drops of the lavender oils and lay back. Perhaps a warm, soothing bath was all she needed to relax.
When she returned to the sitting area she found Ravi shaking on the sofa, beads of sweat outlining his face. He glanced up at her and pointed to a prescription bottle unopened on the coffee table. “It’s the wrong medicine,” he muttered. “There were pine nuts on the fruit.” The brown face turned redder, but her legs stayed rooted, instead of rushing towards him. A dream or nightmare, she couldn’t tell which, was being staged before her eyes and the performance was not to be interrupted.
“Where’s the Lymocane?” Ravi gasped. His eyes pleaded with her. His lips had begun to swell. She wanted to answer, but her own throat felt swollen and no air could pass, as if she was the one with the allergic reaction.
“Shaila, where’s the Lymocane?” he repeated, this time louder. She could hear him wheezing and sensed the urgency in his voice, but the phone, which lay just on the side table, seemed out of reach. Her arms betrayed her as she tried to lift her them, growing numb themselves. Sweat began to stain his shirt at the heart pocket and she watched, mesmerized as it enlarged into a near perfect circle. Ravi continued to call her name, but her eyes remained focused on the stain.
“Shaila, honey, find the damn Lymocane.” She touched the back of her hand against his face. His damp face felt refreshing against her dry hands.
“What the fuck is wrong with you!” He managed to muster before he slumped towards the ground. The sound of the oven bell broke her reverie. The brie was baked. Ravi’s toppled frame finally came into focus.
“Oh no!” She threw his arm around her neck and supported him from the sofa. “I’m so sorry. So sorry. Sorry.” His legs shuffled across the hotel floor and his eyes were half-closed. “What happened? What just happened?” This time it was her who pleaded and Ravi failed to respond. By the time they reached the car he fell unconscious. She knew that he had one hour to be resuscitated. She arrived at the hospital in less than 10 minutes.
The emergency room attendants responded quickly and admitted Ravi to the ICU. She paced in near empty hospital waiting. Why hadn’t she responded as quickly as these complete strangers? She was his wife. His wife! Wife. She continued to repeat the word, slowly as if she was learning it for the first time. It rhymed with knife.
She noticed the vases at the nurses’ station were filled with wild flowers. This was in stark contrast to the hospital that she had grown accustomed to during her residency, with its institutional white walls and spotless linoleum floors. Here, however, her nose did not itch from the lingering smell of bleach. A young man, probably not over seventeen, was her only company. He inserted coins into the coffee machine, one by one, waiting until each one dropped to the bottom before inserting the next. Finally, a paper cup fell into the holder and bitter, watery coffee spilled into it. She thought he was too young to be drinking coffee. Her own habit had not developed at least until medical school. His shorts rode low and unbelted around his waist and his white t-shirt was two sizes too large. The dark circles under the eyes and a slightly furrowed brow suggested a maturity belonging to someone at least twenty years older. As he walked back to his seat he gave Shaila a smile, one that seemed to recognize her transgression. She turned around to avoid him.
At the nurses’ station two women bickered about the possibility of a marriage proposal on a popular television show. The blonde nurse recited statements made by the bachelor in a magazine interview as support for her position. The other refused to listen.
“Excuse me?” Shaila asked the blonde when she approached the desk. The nurse tossed her magazine to the floor and stood up from the chair.
“Yes?” The brassiness of the blonde hair pulled tightly into a ponytail was a result of home care coloring and the premature wrinkles around the corners of her eyes and lips revealed a smoking habit that probably started in her teens.
“Is the Doctor nearly finished with his examination?”
“I’m sorry. But who are you here to see?” replied the nurse.
“Mr. Ravi Shah.” The nurse flipped through the papers on the clipboard. As the only other person in the waiting room, Shaila thought it was surprising that the nurse had no idea who she was.
“Oh. Here it is. Mrs. Shah, is it?”
“Yes. Well, actually it’s Dr. Shah.”
“Dr. Shah.” She continued to stare at her clipboard and twirled a pencil between her fingers. Suddenly the twirling stopped, and the eyebrows perked in a flash of memory.
“Dr Shah!” she repeated, with greater enthusiasm. “My mother’s doctor’s name is Dr. Shah. Do you have a brother in Canton, Ohio? Is that your brother?”
“No. I don’t have a brother. It’s a common last name.”
“Shah,” she explained. “It’s just like Jones or Smith.”
The nurse appeared confused. Her blue eyes turned a shade grayer. She sat back down in her chair, turned to the other nurse and from the corner of her mouth said, “The doctor will be out to see you shortly. Why don’t you just have a seat in the waiting area?” She resumed the discussion with her colleague about whether Amber or Jessica would be the ultimate winner on the show.
By now it was nearly 2:00 a.m. and Shaila knew she would be at the hospital for a while. She scoured the bottom of her purse for enough change to get a cup of coffee. Ravi had always told her to organize her money. He would explain that how she treated money reflected her respect for it, and each time, to his annoyance, she would agree. She caught a glimpse of the young man in the corner. He rested his legs over the back of the chair in front of him and leaned his head against a rolled-up green sweater supported by the wall. He’s been here before, she thought.
She stood in the entryway to the waiting room on lookout for the doctor. Ravi had to be in stable condition by now, if not nearly fully recovered, she thought. The sound of the young man blowing bubble gum began to grate on her.
“Who are you waiting for?” The young man asked. She wanted to avoid answering, but realized a response would end the conversation quickly.
“My husband.” she replied. The words flowed from her mouth with a surprising certitude. This was the first time she spoke those words aloud. My husband, she repeated to herself. She had thought she would never get married. She and David always spoke of living together as life partners, without the need of a ceremony to solidify their love or cement their commitment.
“Why’s he here?” He continued to blow bubbles. This particular one eventually hid his entire face. She resisted the urge to come over and pop it. Did she really need to confess that she was the reason her husband laid in a hospital bed? Did she have to explain how she had just watched as he gasped for air and called her name? How his eyes had pleaded with her and she couldn’t even move?
She slumped in the chair across from the young man. His face appeared more empathetic than before. He looked as if he would wait as long as it took for a response and that he would understand whatever the response may be. She tried to speak, but instead shook her head and just glared at the coffee machine. She had had dreams too; she wanted to say. Only her fantasies were different from those of most women she knew. Hers involved a man who was clumsy and insecure, and who made her laugh with impersonations of cartoon characters she’d never heard of. A life with two dogs, a greyhound named Marlo and a dachshund named Buddy, and no children. A small Spanish bungalow in the hills outside Los Angeles and a pick-up truck for carrying antiques. The fantasy differed from those of others: children, a big house in the suburbs, and a four-door Honda. Had her dream blurred with that of her mother, sister, aunts and cousins? The two dogs morphed to two children, a boy and girl to be precise; the Spanish home enlarged into a five-bedroom house on the outskirts of Atlanta; the pick-up truck upgraded into a four-door Lexus. Or, had she just borrowed their dreams?
“Mrs. Dar-shan?” The doctor asked. He was a distinguished man with neatly trimmed gray hair, the type for who even the elderly gave up their seats. He had pronounced her name as if it was a hybrid of two unfamiliar words rather than one.
“Yes.” She rose immediately from the chair and felt comforted by her quick response. “Actually it’s Shah now and, well, it’s Dr. Shah.”
“Dr. Shah, your husband was touch and go there for a while, but he’ll be fine now. We’ll need to keep him under observation for the night, though.” He quickly thumbed through the papers on the clipboard, as if looking for the next person he needed to speak with.
“It was just an allergic reaction, right?”
The papers fell from his fingers and he looked up at her. “Yes, but as you are probably aware, the reaction was exacerbated due to the delay in bringing him in.” She felt his eyes scrutinizing her for the reason her husband was lying unnecessarily in a hospital bed.
“It’s a good thing your husband noticed it was the wrong medication. Otherwise it would have been much worse,” the doctor added.
“Yes.” Ravi always made the right moves, especially in important situations.
“Mrs. Dar-shan? I mean, Dr. Shah.”
“Wouldn’t you like to know when you can see him?” He suddenly appeared much taller.
“Of course I would.”
“We are moving him from the ICU and he’ll be ready shortly.”
The chair felt colder when she sat back down, despite the lingering body heat from her occupancy. It was her fault Ravi was in a hospital bed. It was her fault David had left. She had let him walk out after telling him their relationship had no future. He was never able to fully comprehend her need for seeking her mother’s approval, or her reluctant desire to live in a nearby town, or her obligation to attend every family event even if it was the first birthday of a baby she’d never seen. In spite of her parents’ tacit approval, she knew that their passion would not be enough to sustain them in the years ahead.
David had been upset with her ambivalence, especially when he sought a commensurate response to his grand gestures of affection. He regularly questioned her feelings, and although she would assure him there was no need to worry, the assurances were often directed at herself. It was only while on her first date with Ravi, as she watched him cut into his roasted duck, that the words flowed from her mouth so quickly and unconstrained, like a waterspout that had been unplugged after a long winter. Within an hour of meeting him in person, she had told Ravi she loved him and he had not questioned its authenticity. He never did
She noticed the young man’s chair was empty. The nurses’ argument had turned to the wedding dress the chosen bride would eventually wear. Names of designers went back and forth—Vera Wang, Cynthia Rowley, Donna Karan—though neither could properly pronounce their names. Shaila’s mother, in turn, never understood why American brides wore only white. “White is the color for funerals,” she said.
This time the doctor returned and explained that she could now see Ravi. Nervousness consumed her, as it had during the drive to Los Angeles before her first date with Ravi. She treaded down the corridor two steps behind the doctor. He paused at the room on the right and he glanced at his chart. “Wrong room.” She patted the sweat from her forehead and continued to follow him around the corner. He stopped again and scanned the chart. This time he pushed open door and allowed her the first walk through. “He’s sleeping, but is stable and will be just fine.” She met the doctor’s eyes, whispered
“thank you,” and walked into the room without hesitation.
About the Author: Natasha Patel is a writer and counselor living in Atlanta, Georgia. She’s studied writing at Sackett Street Writers Workshop with Julia Fierro and Ted Thompson and an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She writes fiction and plays, when she is not serving as an adjunct professor at Mercer University. Her short play “Diaper Relay” was produced last summer at Onion Man Productions annual summer harvest festival. This year Onion Man will produce her feature play “Cul-de-sac.”