Jennifer would shop at a co-op close to her house, buying half a dozen kinds of tea. Peppermint tea, green tea, and also black tea with chocolate or blood orange, the more austere Sencha, the cloying and unpalatable cinnamon spice, the smoky flavor of Lapsang souchong, which I came to prize. She would get me to try foods that she thought I would like. Pasta, baby corn with lemon juice and tarragon, roasted leg of lamb without the spices I was accustomed to, or shrimp sautéed lightly and served with chopped scallion. One afternoon, in the green plastic basket, she also added a strip of condoms. I recognized the brand; Jennifer kept a similar strip under her mattress and reached for it on days that were marked with an X on her wall calendar. I had never bought condoms in my life. The woman at the counter didn’t even look up when she rang up the condoms, a bar of Kiss My Face soap, a candle, celery sticks, a cucumber, a bottle of tomato sauce, and a packet of ravioli. In Jennifer’s apartment, I learned to enjoy tea from China and South Africa and Malaysia; I liked sitting on her rocking chair, which I would drag into a rectangle of sunlight; I spent afternoons reading books from her shelves, writers like Jean Genet and Angela Carter, whom I hadn’t encountered before. She had a black cat and this was new too, stroking the cat as it lay on the wooden floor. I discovered that Jennifer had played the piano since she was a child, and gave lessons to little kids on the weekends. Young mothers, who appeared to be of Jennifer’s age, brought their children to the apartment. When they saw me, they hesitated at the door, hands resting nervously on their children.
The inquiring gazes of those women at the door made me ask myself the question, Are we now an item? This was a phrase that I had recently acquired; the words appeared strange to me. And also the sentiment. The truth was that even at the end of the summer, although I hadn’t told anyone at the bookstore that we spent time with each other, people had noticed. Often, I would be asked where Jennifer was, or what time she was coming to work. Jennifer hadn’t changed her behavior with me—or she had changed it in ways that only I noticed. I was content with this; I didn’t want anything more at that time. There was an imbalance in our histories. I felt she had lived a full life and I hadn’t; I had only begun to experience life, which is to say, sexual life. If I were living in Patna, I’d have immediately thought of marriage, but not here. Here, just a few months into my stay in America, I was finally leading a fuller existence. I understood that this newness couldn’t be shared with those I had left behind. I couldn’t imagine writing and telling my friends in Delhi, those who had sat laughing and hooting in the dorm only a few months ago, that I was sleeping with Jennifer. At least I couldn’t tell them anything about her that wouldn’t appear a betrayal. The reverse was also true. Was there any way of introducing my friends from Delhi into my conversations with Jennifer without turning them into sex-obsessed hooligans? Twenty-year-olds who looked at women and acted like the two adolescents I was later to watch on American TV, Beavis and Butt-Head. It was easier to keep the worlds apart, even if doing so meant seeing myself as split or divided. I was already learning that I was moving away from my parents; their world now seemed so different from mine. I wrote them fewer letters. My classes, everything I was learning, made up my new reality. Except that one day I looked in the mirror and felt the sudden clutch of vertigo. I saw a future in which Jennifer and I would be married, living in a small town maybe in Ohio, where I’d find a job teaching at a college while trying to write on the weekends. During family holidays we would drive to her parents’ home and each year someone would look at me and repeat the joke about Indians coming to Thanksgiving. We would return home the next day, the road winding endlessly into the future. Were there hills in Ohio? I felt I was rising and sinking with each passing breath. Then I realized that the mirror was moving. The wind made the sound a kite makes when struggling to get off the ground. When I looked outside through the grimy bathroom window I saw that the few leaves left on the branches of the trees outside were in danger of being swept away. I was safe in my apartment, and there was no immediate peril of any sort, but I was overcome by a feeling that took root then and has never left me, the feeling that in this land that was someone else’s country, I did not have a place to stand.
Two or even three times each week that semester, I would be at Jennifer’s apartment. I preferred going to her place rather than having her come over to my cramped room. Her apartment was a two-room space, in the shape of an L, and it was located above a drugstore off 148th Street in Harlem.
On a Friday morning, while I was there, Jennifer went downstairs to the store to buy a pregnancy-test kit. She had called me late the previous evening and said she wanted me to be with her. I didn’t ask any questions. I thought perhaps her father in Ohio, who had suffered a mild stroke the previous May, had taken a turn for the worse. But when we were getting ready for bed, she said, matter-of-factly, that her period was late. I felt ashamed. Here I was, standing close to her, thinking that we were soon going to fuck. And now this news. I didn’t know what to say. Then I asked whether she had seen a doctor. She shook her head and turned off the light. In the dark, I tried to work out when she could have become pregnant. I saw that during the previous week the calendar on her kitchen wall had empty black and white squares. What had gone wrong?
In the morning, I woke up first and began making coffee. Jennifer lay in bed longer than was usual, perhaps more than an hour. When she got up, she opened the front door and said she’d be back in a minute.
She appeared carrying a blue-and-white paper bag in her hand. Through the half-open bathroom door I caught sight of her sitting on the toilet bowl. After a few moments, she shut the door.
Jennifer hadn’t spoken to me but I heard her on the phone saying she was calling to set up an appointment to confirm a pregnancy. Her period was late, she said, by five days. I heard her ask how long one had to wait for an abortion. Then she asked how much the operation would cost. In answer to a question by the person from the other end she mentioned the name of her insurance provider.
When she hung up, she stood at her window looking out. I went up to her and put an arm around her.
—If we split it equally, she said, it’ll cost us each a hundred seventy-five. Do you have the money?
—I do, I said. I’m sorry.
Her face didn’t look sad as much as blank, as if she hadn’t slept at all the previous night, and who knows, she probably hadn’t.
The bookstore’s insurance plan provided its employees access to three abortion clinics and Jennifer chose one on Seventy-eighth Street. The doctor’s name sounded Hispanic. The receptionist had told Jennifer that she could wait a few more days but Jennifer didn’t want that. An appointment was made for Monday morning.
—Stay in the waiting room. I don’t want you to come inside with me.
—Do they allow others to come in?
—I don’t know. I haven’t done this before.
I thought I should protest, just in case Jennifer was doing this to spare me. But spare me what exactly? I didn’t know, but also felt that I couldn’t ask. She was brittle, maybe she was angry and blamed me. I felt I ought to show that I was big enough to understand this.
A five-minute walk from the subway station and we were standing outside the clinic’s beige-colored walls. The first floor had three large rectangular windows with one-way mirrors. For a minute or two, Jennifer searched in her bag and then took a card out.
We passed through a metal detector and, once inside, we waited together in silence. After maybe twenty minutes, a nurse called out her name and held the door open for her. Jennifer didn’t look at me as she left. I picked up a National Geographic from the stack of magazines. I was skimming through the pages, looking at pictures of alligators in Australia, when I suddenly saw Jennifer’s oxblood Doc Martens next to me. She had come to tell me that I could go. There was going to be a consultation and blood tests and an ultrasound. It was going to take hours.
Are you sure, et cetera.
After that, there was another wait. Was it two weeks? I didn’t keep a journal till another year had passed and I don’t have any records with me now. Nevertheless, I remember the afternoon we went to watch a movie at a theater on West Fifty-eighth Street. Cyrano de Bergerac, with Gérard Depardieu as the lead. There was a forty-minute wait. I suggested watching Green Card instead. It was playing in the same theater and just about to start. Jennifer said no. She said she couldn’t stand Andie MacDowell’s smile. The annoyance I felt was sudden and unexpected—I frowned but then said that we ought to get a drink after we had purchased our tickets. It goes without saying, Your Honor, that theaters are dramatic spaces. They unlock our instinct for performance. Histrionics. You look at the outsize posters showing faces presented in vivid colors and you immediately want to express yourself and, if it suits you, vent.
Across the road was the Ulysses bar, where the white-aproned waiter, short, his hair in a ponytail, took my order for a beer. Jennifer didn’t even look at the man when she said she didn’t want anything.
—Why don’t you have a beer too? I asked, when the waiter had gone.
—I don’t want it.
—I thought that when we agreed to have a drink you were going to have one too.
—It’s okay, she said. You can have your beer.
—I will but I don’t think you’re getting my point.
—You can tell yourself that, of course. I don’t remember our discussing what each one of us wanted.
The waiter brought the beer in a frosted glass. I drank half of it in one go.
—You know, I intoned in a wet voice, after a pause during which I weighed the implication of what Jennifer had said, the medical advice against drinking doesn’t apply to pregnant women getting abortions.
It was the wrong thing to say, and I regretted it the moment I had said it. A stupid, cruel remark. I had justified it by telling myself that I had not hidden what I wanted. I had said I wanted a beer. More to the point, was it I who had remained locked in my own silence ever since finding out about the pregnancy? But Jennifer was standing up. She unclasped her purse and took out her keys.
—I’m going home. You’re such an asshole. I’m sorry I came out with you.
I didn’t get up. I told myself I needed to pay for the beer. Jennifer’s dismissal of me seemed so final, so complete, that I didn’t think I should accompany her. I paid and crossed the street. It was dark and quiet in the lobby of the theater. I took in the silence and the emptiness. A youth with a large blue visor over his forehead leaned on the counter near the popcorn machine. It felt wrong to be inside, however, and I rushed back out into the street to look for Jennifer. It was improbable that she had lingered. Soon I was running toward the subway stop. She was wearing a thin brown coat and I wanted to catch sight of her shoulders. The sidewalk wasn’t very crowded. A smattering of people and small dogs. A hand holding a briefcase raised high in the air to hail a taxi. A woman was walking toward me, pushing a stroller with twin girls. Then I saw Jennifer. She was waiting for the light to change, or maybe the light had changed once already and she hadn’t moved.
When I was close, I called her name, and she turned around, her face crumpling. Without warning, she sat down on the ground. This was so uncharacteristic that I first thought she was sick. My appearance had released something in her, or weakened her, it was impossible to tell. She was crying helplessly and people turned to stare. An old woman stopped near us; she was thin, gaunt even, wearing glasses, and she looked at me sternly. She bent down and asked Jennifer if she was okay. Jennifer said loudly, still wailing, I’m not okay, I’m not okay. At the same time, however, she reached out and took my hand. I pulled her up gently. The feeling in my heart was one of relief, sure, but also a lot of love. As we quickly walked the two blocks to the subway, I put my arm around Jennifer’s shoulders and kissed her hair.
When we woke up the next morning, Jennifer was her composed self again.
—Oh man, she said, her voice strained with cheer. There’s something definitely happening with my hormones. I want this to end.
The next time we went to the clinic it was a Friday. I left during Ehsaan’s lecture on Heart of Darkness to meet Jennifer at the bookstore at two in the afternoon. This time she had brought her car. She broke the silence to say that her friend Jill, who worked at the campus ID office, had said that she ought to have made the appointment for the morning. I didn’t ask her why. We were late by about five minutes. A man had been standing outside, his head bowed, and it was only because Jennifer stepped away from him that I even looked at him a second time. The man was praying. Inside, the same guard we had seen the other day, a middle-aged, gray-uniformed black man, fat, with gold-rimmed glasses, checked a register in front of him and said that he didn’t have Jennifer’s name on it. He spoke in sonorous tones and acted officious, as if he were calling Congress into session.
—I’ve been talking to someone named Colleen, Jennifer said to the man.
He picked up the phone and dialed three digits.
—Yes, I have an individual named Jennifer here for a two-thirty, but I don’t see her name on the list here . . . No, you see, I cannot properly do my work if you don’t do yours . . .
He looked up.
—You go ahead, ma’am. You have to understand we keep this list here for your safety. It has to match what is inside. We have security—
But Jennifer wasn’t going to wait for him to finish.
Once again, I stayed in the waiting area. Although I had expected to see other men there, the only others in the room were two matronly women, maybe in their forties, sitting together with their bags in their laps. One of them wore a bright red sweater and the other a dazzling white one. I was reading a book by Rachel Carson but now and then my eye wandered outside. The man who had been praying near the door hadn’t moved at all. What would happen if he said anything to Jennifer? She was a quiet person but religion brought out her rage.
A young woman came in alone, wearing dark glasses, teetering on high heels, giving to the room a sudden slightly illicit air. After a while, I stopped looking at her and went back to my reading. More than two hours passed. I began to worry why Jennifer wasn’t coming out. The woman called Colleen had told Jennifer on the phone that the operation wouldn’t take long. They were going to run a couple of tests—“merely procedural”—and that part lasted only a few minutes. Colleen had said the whole affair would take an hour.
The door to the inside opened and a young woman and a man in a camouflage T-shirt came out. They headed for the two women seated together. The women got up and hugged the couple. It was unclear whether the woman had been operated upon, or whether she had only gone in for a consultation. I thought she looked fine. I began to pretend I was reading, aware that my stomach was churning. At least another hour passed. Then the door opened again but it was only the nurse.
I went back to my reading and the nurse came closer and spoke to me.
—Are you with Jennifer?
What had happened to her? Who was to be called in case of an emergency? People died during childbirth in India, I had heard this all the time when I was a boy. Just a few years ago, Smita Patil had died soon after giving birth. But this was an abortion, what could possibly have gone wrong?
The nurse’s tag said paula. She was in her forties.
—Jennifer would like you to come inside.
A door opened into a narrow hallway and Paula allowed me to walk into the room alone. Jennifer was lying on a bed, a sheet covering her up to her waist. She had been crying, her eyes were red. An untouched cookie and a cup of water waited on the side table. When I asked if she was in a lot of pain, she shook her head and, as if she was cold, pulled the sheet up to her neck.
—I don’t want the car to get towed. Can you put more quarters in the meter?
Why hadn’t I thought of this myself?
—Yes, yes. Do you want anything else? Would you like me to get you some tea or juice? Why did it take so long?
Jennifer wasn’t really saying anything and that is why my questions were so rushed and confused. I went out in a hurry, not waiting at the door for the Middle Eastern woman who was coming into the clinic. She wore the hijab and holding the door for her was a thin man with a toddler in his arms. I shouted back an apology. There was a ticket under the wiper. Twenty-five dollars. I put it in my pocket, telling myself that I would pay it immediately but wouldn’t tell Jennifer about it. And, with my hand still inside the pocket of my jacket, I thought I’d cook basmati rice and chicken in coriander for Jennifer. She liked that. And I’d make some dal. Keep some red wine handy, if she wanted it. I must bring her flowers. And wash her sheets if they were bloody. Would the sheets at her home get blood on them? I didn’t know the answer to the question but I was certainly going to be generous and attentive.
I didn’t recognize at that moment what I already knew, that nothing I could do would ever be adequate. It seemed that Jennifer had made a discovery about me, a discovery that I wasn’t privy to. It was as if a policeman had stopped by one evening when I wasn’t there and asked a few disturbing questions about me. And at the end of the conversation, Jennifer had risen and gone to a drawer in my room and found the evidence. All that was required now was for an accusation to be aired in the open.
Late evening. I had placed a bouquet of fresh flowers near her bedroom window, white and red carnations, a couple of asters and yellow daisies, a stem of tiny white spray roses. Now I brought her dinner with a small glass of red wine on the tray. Jennifer sat up on the bed and looked at me.
—I appreciate what you’re doing but really I’d just like to be alone. Will you please take that bottle of wine and leave?
—I’ll go in a bit. Why don’t you first eat? I want to make sure you eat something.
—No, I’m sorry . . . Why am I even saying sorry? I’d like to be alone. Go. Please go.
My first thought, Thank god I’m wearing these sandals. I had brought them from India. They were inappropriate for the season. But they were proving useful now, I didn’t at least have to upset her by taking time to put on my shoes.
Stepping out of her door, I wondered why she had insisted that I take the wine. Then I realized it was unimportant. I had failed. I knew I had failed in the way one knows one has failed in a dream: you might not know the cause, but the proof is available to you, the train is coming closer, you hear a clanging, there is only the feeling of vast regret that you have no legs and you can’t possibly snatch away to safety the small bundle lying on the tracks.
A man was sitting at the bottom of the steps that led up to Jennifer’s apartment. He didn’t move when I came out. His right hand, with a large sore on one of the fingers, was resting on a shopping cart filled with black garbage bags spilling with rags. I pulled the door shut a bit too forcefully and stepped onto the street telling myself that I needed to eat some rice and curry chicken. The bottle of wine was in my hand. I would eat a bit and drink, and yet, as I said this to myself, I also experienced a clutching sadness.
The world had darkened. A giant hand in the sky had painted the city around me with a black, smudgy substance. Two blocks down, I saw that a basement door opened to a tiny Lebanese restaurant. There were no other customers. I took a seat in the corner and asked for lentil soup and bread. Whenever the waiter was out of sight, I took swigs from my bottle in a manner that wasn’t very pleasing. The food and the wine disappeared in some empty place inside me. I called Jennifer’s number the next day and for several days that followed but the phone just rang in her apartment. Once I called the bookstore, and God said Jennifer was sick, and that she wouldn’t be back until after Christmas. Did he know what was wrong with her? He had heard it was pneumonia. But that couldn’t have been correct.
A week passed and I got a card from Jennifer. The first line said that she was sorry but she couldn’t talk to me anymore. I didn’t read any further than the next line, which said, All possibilities are stillborn. The language appeared heavy-handed to me, the too-deliberate, and somewhat inaccurate, metaphor dragging me into waters muddy with misery. I understood that Jennifer was upset and disappointed. I also knew that it wasn’t anything I had said, but instead everything that I had left unsaid. She knew that I didn’t love her in a deep or lasting way. I felt guilty at first but then another thought took its place. Over the coming weeks, I would start telling myself that it had been a good thing we had done by getting together. We had seized an opportunity for happiness. A part of me would always feel that I had been shallow and opportunistic. But we had also been happy. She had changed me, and I had changed her. This part of what had happened had been a gift.
I was not to see Jennifer till a year had passed and it was winter again. I was with a young woman I liked. We had gone in for a hurried lunch at Ollie’s, the Chinese restaurant near the university gates. We had eaten spicy mock duck with steaming bowls of rice. When we stepped out in the cold, I touched my friend’s elbow. I was about to tell her that I wished I had drunk a Tsingtao. I stayed silent because I was looking at Jennifer. I knew the coat she was wearing and also the gloves. Our eyes met. She didn’t acknowledge me but her upper lip curled up over her teeth in such distress that I was transported to the room in the clinic where I had seen her lying on the bed with the sheet drawn up to her neck. I looked away and walked briskly ahead of my new friend, who, after she became my lover, never asked me anything about Jennifer and so we never discussed what had happened between us.
 Orgasms of twenty years ago leave no memory, wrote Elizabeth Hardwick in Sleepless Nights. Is that really true? I’m thinking now of the day only last year when I had walked past the store above which Jennifer had lived. It was a cold autumn day. The pale green paint on the wall of her apartment was still the same and looked dirty. The window where I had often sat and read books had a white fan placed in it. I wondered who lived in the apartment now. I thought I might buy something in the store. A large handwritten sign with jagged edges, orange in color, had been pasted to the front door: no public restroom.
This is an excerpt from Amitava Kumar’s new novel, Immigrant, Montana. Read about the notebooks that this novel was based on.
Image © Faber & Faber