The Bengali girl has boots today. Not fashionable ones—I know what the fashion is from Serena, my ‘keeper’. If there’s anyone who doesn’t deserve the beautiful name Serena—derived, of course, from the Latin, meaning calm—it’s this woman. Serena’s boots are pale-blue suede, with a yellow fur lining. I’ve seen them on the girls when we go to the beauty salon for my hair. A ninety-four-year-old woman at the beauty salon is obscene, as I’ve told Serena, who says it keeps my spirits up.
Not if you tell me that’s the point of it.
Then she laughs: that mindless, placeholding laugh. She must weigh nearly two hundred pounds. If there’s anything more foolish than an old woman at the beauty salon, it’s a fat girl in blue suede boots.
The Bengali girl makes a detour on the way to the mailbox, meandering across the lawn. George must’ve taken her out when it first started falling, but this is the first time she’s walked in it on her own. She walks gingerly, as if it’s ice instead of soft powder, and looks behind her to see the tracks she’s made. Doesn’t she know that people are watching?
I’ve known George. I knew his parents, and I knew his first wife, April, and their children, Russell and Jessica. Now April lives in Florida with the children, one of whom is a drug addict. I don’t know whether it’s the boy or the girl. That’s not because I’ve forgotten, but because it was Edith Overton who told me, and she sometimes has trouble with her memory.
George started baking. He would bring me cookies or bars: lemon, pumpkin and seventh heaven. I gave him the recipe for the chocolate delices, and he made those, too. He must’ve gained twenty pounds.
‘How do you stay so skinny?’ he would ask me.
‘It’s because I’m so old.’ It looks awful, especially around my neck, which is rippled like the trunk of one of those equatorial trees. What are they called? This is a type of tree I’ve seen, but perhaps no one ever told me the name of it. I have an excellent memory for foreign words, even in languages I don’t speak. This is a direct consequence of knowing Latin. I ought to ask my new neighbour about the tree; she would certainly know.
‘I know I should lose weight, if I want to…’
George has a bad habit of not finishing his sentences. I used to penalize my students for that, and eventually they did stop. The problem seems to have gotten worse in the general population.
George would sit with me so long, I’d get tired.
‘You should be out meeting women,’ I would tell him. I haven’t told Edith Overton I was the one who suggested that. I hope all of this isn’t my fault.
First George ordered the Boflex, from cable, and then he ordered the Bengali girl. Not from cable, of course, but from the Internet: Asianladies.com, Where East Meets West. He brought a map next door to show me her country, but I know where Bangladesh is.
My granddaughter Meryl has shown me the Internet. They leave a computer here, Meryl and her father and Helen, because they can’t go three days without it. They never stay longer than three days. This time two weeks from today Meryl will be here, without her parents. She’s bringing a boy, the first time she’s ever done this; they’ll be on their way to a friend’s wedding in Canada. Helen says she thinks this is ‘the one’. I think that if Helen had had Latin, she wouldn’t resort to expressions like that.
The boy’s name is Sam, and he is a graduate of Harvard Law School. Helen, being Helen, hasn’t been able to give me any further details. I notice that Serena uses the words ‘farther’ and ‘further’ interchangeably; Helen admonishes me that it’s hard to find nice people in Serena’s line of work, and that I shouldn’t be so critical. I am eager to meet Sam.
I didn’t pay attention when Meryl tried to explain the computer. I pretended, because she seemed so excited about it: You can look up anything you want. That’s called surfing. Or you can chat with people in your community of friends. Like a conference line—you know what that is, right? Here, look: this is a picture of Budapest. It made my hands hurt just to look at the keyboard. Meryl set it up in Frank’s office, on his desk, with all the wires coming out of it, blue on one side and black on the other. She moved his typewriter to the corner of the desk, leaving a faint, discoloured square, then glanced at me to see if I minded. I pretended to be examining Budapest. The Chain Bridge looks exactly the same as it did when Frank took my picture there, in my new Burberry raincoat, in 1962.
‘Move it wherever you want,’ I told her. It’s a strange thing to dissemble in front of your own granddaughter.
The Bengali girl is still standing by the mailbox. What could have come for her? She’s reading it right out there in the cold. I wonder whether she has a boyfriend in Dhaka, whom she’ll eventually try to bring over here unbeknownst to George. (I know the name of the Bangladeshi capital, too). That’s the kind of thing that would happen to George. It’s winter and so I can’t tell whether she’s pregnant. I’m sure she wants to get pregnant right away, to cement things. George has told me that he wants to have more children.
Because you’ve done such a beautiful job with the ones you have. But I sit on my hands and don’t say anything.
Now the Bengali girl is running—running!—up the driveway, back to the house, clutching the letter in her unmittened brown hand. It’s like it’s summer, or she’s completely forgotten about the snow. If she’s not careful, she’ll fall, especially in brand new boots. George probably didn’t tell her about the black ice we get here: you can’t see it at all against the asphalt, until it’s too late.
She knocked so early on Thursday, I thought Serena had forgotten her key. I jumped a little when I saw her, because the garage was dark and so is she, and because I wasn’t expecting her.
‘Oh Mrs Buell,’ she said, ‘I’m George’s wife, Amina. I’m sorry.’
‘I thought you were my nurse.’ That’s all I could think of to say. ‘She forgets her key.’
She stood there a moment, holding a foil-covered plate, until I realized that she had come visiting, like any other neighbour, and was waiting to be asked inside.
‘George says he is bringing me over to see you this weekend, but I made some cookies, and I thought: If I wait, they will not be good. I can just leave them?’
George was right. Her English is good—as good as Serena’s, if not better. ‘Come in,’ I told her. ‘I’m afraid I can’t offer you very much. My helper is going to Wegmans today.’
‘I love Wegmans,’ the girl said, putting the cookies down on the counter as if she were accustomed to visiting my house. ‘They have everything.’
That’s true—it’s the flagship and it’s over 240,000 square feet. There’s a whole aisle for exotic fruits, and one for homeopathic medicine; there’s a sushi counter and a French patisserie. It shocked me the first time Serena took me there; I can’t imagine what it would look like to someone from Bangladesh.
The Bengali girl took off her parka, a red one that George must’ve bought her, and held it awkwardly in her arms. She wasn’t wearing her boots. This was the first time I’d seen her up close and I guess she is pretty. Her eyes are enormous, especially behind the oversized glasses, and her mouth is full. Flaws: she has a low, simian forehead, and a large space between her nose and mouth; her features could be better placed. She does not seem to have combed her hair when she got out of bed this morning. Maybe she was too busy getting George his breakfast.
‘You can put your coat over the chair, there. You might as well come into the living room and sit down—unless you have a job to get to?’
‘Oh, no,’ Amina said, and this got her started. ‘I want to work, very much, but I can’t drive. And so it has to be somewhere George can drive me. The timing is the most important thing, George says, and so every day I’m calling places. We drove around on Saturday, looking for signs. The Best Buy might be hiring. In Desh I was an English teacher.’ She had an animated way of speaking, almost as if she were performing lines in a play. Not that her words seemed false: it was just that they seemed to have a greater intensity than other people’s.
‘George says you were a teacher too?’
‘Latin,’ I said, which usually stops people. Either that, or they ask whether I believe that we should continue to teach ‘dead’ languages in the schools. They ask this very respectfully, with a measure of self-congratulation, the same way that the receptionist at the beauty salon sometimes mentions Frank to me, proud of remembering his name.
‘My great-uncle was a professor of Sanskrit in Calcutta!’ The girl looked as if we’d just discovered a remarkable coincidence. ‘George says that you’ve travelled all over the world.’
‘Not to India,’ I said. And then, in case that sounded abrupt: ‘I travelled with my husband and our daughter, Helen.’
Amina nodded and looked up at the oil portrait of Papa over the fireplace. ‘Is that your husband?’
‘That’s my father,’ I told her. ‘A Baptist minister in Corpus Christi, Texas.’
‘Your father was handsome,’ she said, which is true, but I wondered if she were being polite. Did she find white men handsome? There are several things I’d like to know, such as whether she corresponded with other men before she met George. Did her parents encourage her to learn the Internet to find a foreign husband? Is George the first man she’s been to bed with? But I’m not sure I can ask any of these.
‘Did you always know you wanted to come to America?’
‘I always wanted to travel,’ Amina said. ‘George says you have a lot of souvenirs of your trips.’
The vitrine was right behind her, but I don’t open it to just anyone. Sometimes at night, when I’m trying to fall asleep, I go through it shelf by shelf, trying to remember each object. There are the Dresden figurines, the coin from Sardis and the model of the pyramids in glass. There is the Chinese paper fan, a gift from Frank’s parents, who sailed around the world in 1929. In the corner of the bottom left-hand shelf is the picture of Helen in the Ancient Theatre at Ephesus, all alone except for a stray cat at her feet. Frank took the picture, and I was standing just outside of the frame, a little too close. You can see my shadow. ‘Look at your father,’ I was telling her, but Helen was more interested in the cat. I put it in the vitrine because Frank liked it, even though I usually reserve that space for things of historical value. Lately I have been thinking about how that picture perfectly expresses the American attitude towards the ancient world.
I remember when we had the roll developed. Frank noticed the cat and joked, ‘A very cute picture of Helen and Tabby.’ (He used to call me Tabby, which I didn’t mind, although I prefer Tabitha from everyone else.)
Once, after Frank was diagnosed but before we started seeing the signs of it every day, he called me into his office. He would still put on a shirt and tie every morning, and even I used to sometimes get confused, when he got up from the kitchen table and headed downstairs, instead of out to the garage. He would take the newspaper into the study, and when he was finished reading it, he would mark the mistakes. Then he would put it with the others, to take over to Mr Calthorp, the editor-in-chief, ‘when I have time’. Luckily, there was never time.
‘Tabby,’ he said that afternoon, ‘I want to show you something.’
I could see it was a stock certificate. His first investment had been in Gannett—some sort of deal for employees—and after that he’d made a few more, all Rochester companies. This one, it turned out, was from Xerox, and it was for much more money than I expected.
‘This is to keep you going, when I’m gone.’
I don’t remember what I said to make him yell at me. Probably something to the effect that he would be with us a long time. He wasn’t the kind of husband who raised his voice very often, and so I was surprised. Not that it was always a picnic, as Helen is apt to remind me now.
‘Listen, Tabby, goddamnit! While I’m—clear on it. You have to pay attention—it’s Bank of America, not Rochester Savings and Loan. It’s a separate account.’
He was only seventy-three then, not so old at all. I had been right there when Dr Pashman had given us the diagnosis, but Frank wasn’t forgetting anything big or shocking then. It was still things like, where did we keep the paper clips, or, was it milk or sandwich bread that I needed from the store? It happened suddenly, as the doctor said it would, the way that these November afternoons turn into nights, without any kind of evening in between. You look up and the light is gone.
Where did we keep the car, he would ask; was he correct in thinking it might be upstairs, in the guest bathroom? He asked these questions formally to cover the embarrassment, which lingered long after other things had gone—a strange and useless relic—and I answered them the same way, to preserve the equilibrium between us. I believe it’s in the garage, but I would be grateful if you would open the back door and check.
Ah, the garage—of course. And then a day or two later: could I tell him, by any chance, the name of the charming child in the picture in the vitrine, the one who is sitting on a large, circular flight of steps, trying to touch the kitty by her feet?
‘Tabby!’ Serena shouted. Serena is the type of person who raises her voice. She shouts my name every time she enters the house.
‘I’m right here,’ I said. ‘In the living room.’
When Serena saw Amina, she said, ‘Oh, excuse me. I didn’t realize you were entertaining.’ She said this in the tone you might use with two little girls having a tea party. I wished George’s child bride had managed to iron her blouse before coming over. I don’t care what Serena thinks, of course, but now that we spend so much time together, I can’t escape hearing her opinions.
I saw Amina out the front door. ‘Thank you for the cookies. I don’t have much of an appetite any more, but my nurse is crazy for sweets—I’m sure she’ll enjoy them.’ I heard an exasperated sound from the kitchen, and was glad.
‘George wants to come see you on Sunday,’ Amina said. ‘Maybe after church?’
There are many people in this community who visit me, some I’ve known for a long time. I can tell the difference between duty and genuine enthusiasm, however, and George’s wife reminded me that the latter is in scarce supply.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Please tell George I’ll be at home.’ Of course, I’m almost always at home, but the Bengali girl doesn’t have to know that. I wonder if she might think I’m younger than I am.
After Amina left, I went into the kitchen, where Serena was reading an article about George Clooney in People. That and US Weekly are her favourites. I’ve seen George Clooney on David Letterman and he seems smart, or at least smarter than most of them. It’s the magazines that are so stupid.
‘That’s George’s new wife,’ I told her. ‘George from next door, not George Clooney.’
Serena ignored me, probably because of my remark about the cookies.
‘He got her from the Internet.’
That caught her attention. She looked up warily: ‘What do you mean, from the Internet?’
‘Asianladies: Where East Meets West,’ I said, with as much authority as I could manage.
‘What is she?’ Serena asked, forgetting her magazine. That’s the kind of question that you couldn’t ask in front of my granddaughter, but I knew what Serena meant.
‘She’s Bangladeshi. Bangladesh borders east India, and the population is primarily Muslim. After Indian independence, it was called East Pakistan, but in the early Seventies, it became its own country.’ Serena didn’t go to college, although she holds a certificate in Home Care. I try to give her some sort of general education when I can.
‘Our neighbours are Indians,’ Serena said. ‘They moved in last April.’
‘When Frank and I moved here, this part of Rochester was only white.’ That’s another thing I certainly couldn’t say in front of Meryl, or even Helen. Meryl teaches at a public school in New York, and Helen tells me that most of the students there are black or Hispanic. Meryl won’t even say that: she uses all the new hyphenated language, and otherwise pretends that she doesn’t notice anyone’s colour. Once I told her that there had been two Negro students in the first class I ever taught—Latin I, at Springfield Tech in Springfield, Missouri—and she looked so horrified that I thought she was having some kind of physical attack, menstrual cramps perhaps. I didn’t realize what I’d done until Helen told me. Sometimes I wonder how we went from segregation in America—which I never supported, no matter what my granddaughter says—to pretending there’s no such thing as race. It’s like we’ve all caught Alzheimer’s.
‘There were Methodists and Lutherans and Baptists, and a couple of Catholics,’ I told Serena. ‘That was it.’
‘Yeah, well,’ Serena said, turning back to George Clooney, ‘not any more.’
For some reason I am picturing Sam as a redhead. That probably isn’t likely, because his last name is Hopper, which doesn’t sound Irish or Scottish. We have Scotch in our background, as well as English and Swiss German. Meryl Hopper would be a little silly, because Meryl, of course, comes from merle, for bird. I don’t think Hopper sounds Catholic, although you can’t tell as much as you used to from a name.
Meryl and Sam will be here on Thursday morning, certainly by eleven, unless the plane is late. It’s possible that they may be coming here to announce their engagement.
‘They live together,’ my daughter told me on the phone last week. ‘You know that, so I hope you aren’t going to do to them what you
did to us.’
‘What are you talking about, Helen? I can’t understand you when you don’t use antecedents.’
‘Separate bedrooms! Peter was so nervous anyway, and that made it worse.’
Of course Sam Hopper is going to sleep downstairs. There’s a pull-out couch in Frank’s office; Peter slept on it the first time he visited with Helen, and he promised me it was very comfortable. ‘They’re not married,’ I said. ‘They’re not even engaged.’
‘I have something to tell you,’ Helen said.
I felt a great, surprising happiness pressing out between my ribs. I had to sit down. It was nothing like when Helen told me that she was getting married, although I was glad at the time that she’d found someone as sensible—if as dull—as Peter. Meryl I trust to have chosen someone singular, like her grandfather. I felt all of a sudden that Frank had picked up another line, a conference line, and was listening in from wherever he was. ‘They are engaged,’ I said. ‘Aren’t they?’
‘No. But would that make a difference to you?’
‘No.’ There was an awkward pause, in which I could hear Helen covering the receiver with her hand, but not whatever she said to Peter on the other end. My hearing is not what it used to be: I can admit that.
‘I’m just glad to see her so happy,’ Helen said, returning to our conversation. She seemed to consider this bland sentiment personally ennobling. ‘Sam obviously makes her happy.’
‘I’m sure she’ll be happy in the guestroom.’
Helen sighed. ‘I give up. Do whatever you want—just don’t blame me if she’s angry with you. Remember, I tried to tell you.’
When the doorbell rang, I was sitting on the bed, just thinking about Helen and Meryl. One of the things no one tells you about being old is how you are never allowed to do anything even remotely unusual. I have always had a habit of putting my head in my hands when I’m concentrating, and sometimes Serena will come along and find me in that posture. What are you doing? she asks, as if I were dressed up in men’s clothing, or finger-painting on the walls. Thinking, I always tell her, and she says, well, why don’t you come downstairs and think in the living room, where I can keep an eye on you?
‘I’m coming,’ I said. I didn’t really think it would be Meryl and Sam, arriving four days early for a surprise. Still, I was glad I had dressed properly that morning. I pretended, going down the stairs, that I would find them at the front door: Meryl, delighted with her surprise, and her fiancé (or soon-to-be fiancé), who might be nervous. He should be nervous, because I am not Helen: ‘just glad to see her so happy’. I will judge him on his own merits, which I expect to be considerable.
‘Meryl?’ I said, as I opened the door. There was a blast of frigid air and there, on the step, were George and his wife, all dressed up for church.
‘It’s George. And I brought Amina to meet you.’
‘We met last week.’ I had a cold feeling, nothing to do with the November morning. The girl had told me they were coming: how could I have forgotten?
‘She told me!’ George said. ‘Is now a good time for a visit?’
I opened the door to welcome them, but that was the best I could do. Had they heard me say Meryl’s name? I could imagine George mentioning that slip to his mother, who would certainly tell all her friends at Shady Woods.
‘I’m expecting my granddaughter Meryl and her friend Sam,’ I mentioned casually, just in case. ‘They’re probably coming on Thursday, but there was a chance they might arrive today. They’re on their way to a wedding in Canada.’
Amina had brought a second foil-wrapped plate. ‘Bengali food this time.’ She smiled. ‘No spice.’ Her teeth were white, but very crooked.
‘It’s delicious,’ George said. ‘We had it last night—chickadee.’
The girl giggled. ‘Kitcharee. It settles your stomach.’
‘Whatever you say, Chickadee.’
‘Please sit down,’ I told them. ‘My helper isn’t here today. I can offer you water, ginger ale or milk.’
‘You sit down.’ George was in high spirits. ‘I’ll get the drinks. I know what Amina wants—what will you have, Mrs Buell?’
‘What will you have?’ I asked Amina, ignoring George. She should be allowed to choose herself. I felt sure that Sam Hopper would always ask Meryl what she wanted to drink, even if he thought he knew.
Amina looked undecided.
‘Have milk,’ I suggested. ‘And be careful not to slouch. Unless you want to grow a hump one day like me.’
‘Mrs Buell, you don’t have a hump! And Amina loves ginger ale. But maybe you’d like a glass of milk?’
To be fair, Frank wouldn’t necessarily have asked me what I wanted to drink, but we belonged to a different generation. I told George that I wasn’t thirsty. I hoped they wouldn’t stay too long.
‘George says you went to Africa,’ Amina said, once George was out of the room. ‘He says you brought back masks.’
‘My husband took me to Egypt,’ I told Amina. ‘The mask is originally from Kenya, though.’
‘I would love to see that,’ Amina said, although I hadn’t exactly offered.
George returned with our drinks, setting them down on a Christmas tray. ‘It’s almost the holidays. We hoped Amina’s parents might be able to come—but the flights. Whew!’ George wiped imaginary sweat from his forehead, leaving a trail of wet there, from the drinks. ‘Maybe next year.’
‘I just got here,’ Amina complained. ‘It’s too soon.’ That surprised me, because I would have thought she would want to bring her parents over as quickly as possible. She’ll have a baby, and then there will be aunts and cousins showing up for long vacations, until George has a whole houseful of Bangladeshis. Maybe that’s what he wants.
‘Do your parents write to you?’ I asked.
Amina smiled and nodded. ‘They have a computer now at home. Even my mother uses it.’
‘I meant letters. Do they send letters, too?’
Amina looked confused.
‘She means paper letters.’ George turned to me. ‘Mrs Buell, nobody uses snail mail these days. Amina’s parents send emails—that way, she gets them right away.’
I know the expression ‘snail mail’, a favourite of Helen’s. To avoid saying anything, I went to the vitrine and took out the mask with the pocked, wooden face. There is a small, toothy mouth with a gap, where Frank used to stick one of his Pall Malls for a joke, before he quit cold turkey. The straw beard is delicate, and so I didn’t offer to let Amina hold it.
‘Some of the tribal people there believe that masks can help them communicate with their dead ancestors. And these are scarabs,’ I hurried on, handing her one, since she can’t hurt that.
‘Amina and I owe our marriage to email!’ George was rattling on. ‘Sometimes I wonder if she would’ve fallen in love with me, if I hadn’t had all the extra time to think of what I wanted to say to her.’
Amina frowned. ‘Of course we wouldn’t have fallen in love without email.’ This was the first time I saw her look cross with him. ‘How could we have?’
I liked to see her showing a bit of spine. In spite of the giggling manner, she was practical. Maybe that’s why I decided to say what I did. ‘What was that letter you got the other day? I happened to be standing by the kitchen sink, doing dishes.’ (I thought that was a nice touch, although of course Serena does the dishes.) ‘I noticed you’d gotten something exciting. I thought it must’ve come from your parents.’
Well, I felt a little bit bad, but in a way I thought I was doing Amina a service. She should know that the tract is the kind of neighbourhood where people stand by the windows, especially women, and that if she’s going to get excited about something, it would be better to do it indoors.
George was looking at Amina. ‘What letter?’
She wasn’t quick on her feet, at least in English. She looked from George to me, and back to George, as if one of us might give her the answer. ‘A friend,’ she said finally. ‘One of my girlfriends in Desh.’
‘What did she say?’ George’s voice took on an uncharacteristic sharpness, as if he were imitating more forceful husbands he’d observed, in the Southtown Plaza or on television.
‘Some problems.’ Amina’s English seemed to deteriorate suddenly. ‘With family and with the job. Money problems.’ She was holding an orange bolster on her lap, fiddling with the velvet-covered button, which could snap off if she wasn’t careful. I didn’t say anything. I found myself hoping George wouldn’t be too hard on her.
‘It’s a poor country.’ George sighed, turning back to me. ‘I knew that, of course, but I wasn’t prepared. The beggar kids, always asking you for money and pens.’
I had the feeling that George was using the poor children as a shield, to cover his own embarrassment. I thought I would offer him an escape route. ‘You have to forgive an old lady. If I don’t take my nap, I’ll fall asleep right here.’
George stood up right away, but Amina remained seated for another moment. She was staring at me through those enormous glasses, as if she were trying to communicate something urgent. When George moved towards the door, she got up and went in the other direction, to the vitrine. She was trying to replace the scarab herself.
I hurried over—to the extent that I can hurry. To my relief, she surrendered the scarab (which belongs next to a very fine set of French butter knives, crafted of silver and bone.)
The girl spoke so softly that I never would’ve heard her, if I hadn’t been standing right there. ‘Mrs Buell, I would like to—have a talk with you. Can I come visit you tomorrow?’
I don’t like whispered conversations in general. My father used to say, if you can’t say it out loud, best not to say it at all. I think that’s sound advice, although in this case I did keep my voice down, to humour her.
‘Not this week. My granddaughter and her fiancé are coming.’ I didn’t mean to use that word, but once it had slipped out, it was impossible to correct. ‘I’ll be very busy preparing the house.’
‘Your granddaughter is getting married?’
For a moment, she seemed to forget the letter—which I probably ought not to have brought up. It’s difficult when you get older: you forget how sensitive young people can be. ‘They won’t be married for a while,’ I told her. ‘It’s not a formal engagement.’
‘A secret,’ Amina said wistfully. ‘Where is he from?’
That was a sensible question, one that I hadn’t had the chance to ask Helen. I didn’t want to admit to Amina that I didn’t know, and so I said, ‘Harvard. The most distinguished university in America.’
‘I know Harvard,’ Amina said, a little offended. ‘It’s very famous.’
‘Come on, Amina,’ George said. ‘Mrs Buell needs her nap.’
George opened the door, and Amina turned her large, dark eyes on me. ‘I could visit after they’re gone then? The week after next?’
I watched them go from the kitchen window, both of them with their heads down against the wind. That’s the wind from the lake, and it can be bitter at this time of year. It was hard to tell, but I didn’t think they were talking. I thought that George would probably wait until they were back inside their house to do anything.
I didn’t sleep a minute on Wednesday night, and on Thursday morning Serena found me on my hands and knees in the bedroom, looking for one of the pearls that had rolled underneath the armoire.
‘I thought you’d fallen, Tabby! You should’ve warned me.’
‘How could I warn you, when I couldn’t see you?’ (Of course I could hear her coming up the stairs—you’d have to be stone deaf to miss that.)
‘Let me help you up.’ Serena puts her hands under my armpits, and I have to admit that this is her one skill: in contrast to her mind and her voice, her touch is gentle, empathic, as if she feels what you feel the minute she lays her hands on you.
Serena rescued the earring, her enormous bottom in the air. ‘Say anything and I’ll flush this down the toilet.’
I didn’t say a word. Sam is a lawyer and could charge her with blackmail, but I decided to wait until he was on the premises to reveal my advantage. Serena left me alone with my earrings, and went down to the laundry room to do the wash, and I must’ve sat on the bed for some time, with my head in my hands. What I was thinking of was Frank’s proposal, which Edith Overton asked me about the other day. She asked so that she could tell me about hers, once again, but I didn’t mind. At this point, one more recital probably won’t kill me. Buzz Overton proposed on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, a location Edith seems to regard as daringly original, and so I don’t speculate about the number of young people who’ve decided to join their lives together on exactly that spot. Along with the ring, he presented Edith with a single yellow rose.
Frank proposed in a letter. (‘A letter?’ Edith always says, as if I’ve admitted he’d asked me in a grocery store or a parking lot.) It might not have been dramatic, but it isn’t gone. A letter means I have it: the exact words in a drawer next to my bed, on stationery from the Hotel Statler in St Louis, although he was writing from Crystal City. This is the most important letter I’ll ever write. That’s true, but I wonder if he knew why at the time. When I think of how often I’ve held these three pieces of paper (perhaps the only surviving sheets of its pattern), I become dizzy with anxiety, imagining a reality in which the letter was lost or damaged, or one in which he failed to write at all. To say ‘I love you’ isn’t enough, because I’m also asking you to make the greatest sacrifice you’ll ever make. I’m asking you to give up your teaching, which I know you love, in order to be my wife and, God willing, to raise our children. (One child, as it turned out, was the extent of what God willed for us.) How can I ask this of you? I ask myself that question, and the only answer I have is a corresponding vow. I promise to protect you, to care for you, and to devote all my energies to making you happy, as you so richly deserve to be.
‘Hello?’ Meryl called from downstairs. ‘Nonny, we’re here!’ I heard her running up the stairs, and then she was in my bedroom. But she was alone.
‘Where is he?’ I asked her. ‘Sam?’
She laughs like me, Helen always says. ‘He’s right downstairs in the living room. Aren’t you glad to see me?’ She crossed the room in a couple of steps, on her beautiful, solid bones. I do think she gets prettier every time I see her, in spite of this new, shaggy haircut—a style which has perhaps not yet come to Rochester—and the eye make-up, which she doesn’t need. Her skin is cream and pink, without a hint of sallowness.
‘Serena said you were upstairs. I thought you wouldn’t want a gentleman caller in your bedroom.’ She hugged me tentatively around the neck, her hands shying away from my back. I don’t blame her: the curve is disturbing if you’re not used to it.
When she pulled away I glanced at her left hand: nothing.
‘I hope you like him. But if you don’t…’
‘Why wouldn’t I like him?’
‘I’m just saying—be nice to him. He might be a little nervous.’
I was pleased, although I tried not to show it. ‘Nervous of an old lady? What’s wrong with him?’
‘I like him already,’ I said, which was true.
It took me longer than it did Merry to get downstairs, of course, and I had the strangest feeling, as if I were sixteen years old, in my father’s house in Corpus Christi, and John Lindsey Button was waiting in the living room to take me to the Calvary Baptist Spring Carnival. There’s a mirror in the hall, and ordinarily I try not to look in it—but this time I did check, as if I might see brown curls and a lace collar, as opposed to this egg-white-stiff permanent wave.
But it was not John Lindsey Button. Nor was it the lanky carrot-top Sam Hopper, whom I’d been inventing so confidently over the past six weeks. This young man was standing in front of the green velvet chair by the window, looking out at the bare rose bushes. He wasn’t tall, maybe no taller than Merry; his hair was thick and black. His build was stocky, muscular, just the opposite of what I had pictured, and his complexion was somewhere between cinnamon and mud.
‘Nonny,’ Merry said. ‘This is my boyfriend, Samaj.’
The young man came forward to shake my hand. ‘Call me Sam—everyone does, except Meryl. It’s so nice to finally meet you.’
My first feeling was relief, because I knew that I had been wrong about the engagement. What Helen had called to tell me was suddenly very clear: I saw that no one had lied to me about Sam/Samaj, and that no one had told me the truth, either.
I didn’t want to look at Merry, who I knew was testing me in the same tiresome way she would when she was a child, putting ice cream in the shopping cart to see if I would notice. Instead I looked at Samaj, and there was something that passed between us, not friendly exactly, but an understanding, like two prisoners confined to the same cell.
‘Very nice to meet you, too.’
‘I apologize for being late,’ he said. ‘We decided to rent a car instead of flying. We’re going to drive to Toronto for the wedding tomorrow.’
‘So we have to leave a little earlier than we thought,’ Merry said casually.
‘Will you be able to stay for lunch?’ I saw my two meals with Merry slipping into one. She has never been a breakfast-eater.
My granddaughter shook her head. ‘We have to be on the road by noon, at the latest.’
At my age I should be used to the way that real life jerks not only the rug, but the whole floor out from under you on a regular basis. It doesn’t care about your age or the density of your bones. I saw that Merry had noticed my hesitation with Samaj, and was punishing me.
‘Tonight we’ll have dinner at five-thirty,’ I said, moving past this disappointment. ‘Did you meet my helper, Serena?’
‘Who do you think let them in?’ Serena shouted from the kitchen.
‘We’ll have to make do with what she prepares,’ I said, breaking my policy about whispering. ‘It won’t be anything to write home about, I’m afraid.’
‘Samaj could help,’ Merry said. ‘He’s a great cook.’
‘Great is definitely stretching it. But I could certainly give her a hand.’ He said this seriously, as if it mattered to him that we all have an accurate conception of his culinary skills.
‘Let’s put our stuff upstairs first,’ Merry said. ‘I have to hang up my dress for tomorrow night.’ She turned to me. ‘Where would you like us?’
‘You can sleep where you always sleep.’ (That guest room, next to my bedroom, I always think of as Merry’s room.) ‘And your friend can sleep in Frank’s office.’ (I was not being nasty. I was unsure of how to pronounce his name, and I thought it better not to attempt it out loud. My aptitude for foreign words does not extend to non-Latinate language families.) ‘There’s a sofa bed,’ I told him. ‘Peter tells me it’s comfortable.’
Merry rolled her eyes. ‘She means my dad. What year was that?’
‘That was in 1974,’ I said, glad to show off my memory for dates a little.
‘Only thirty-two years old! You’ll sleep like a baby.’
‘Why shouldn’t it still be comfortable? Almost no one has slept on it since then.’
Samaj seemed impatient with the two of us. ‘It’ll be fine.’ There was an uncomfortable silence, in which I decided to try to be agreeable. Of course, that’s what got me into trouble.
‘You’re the first young man Meryl has introduced to me.’
‘That’s not true, Nonny.’ I was surprised to see that my granddaughter was blushing. ‘You met Charles.’
‘The drunk!’ I was just remembering, and didn’t necessarily mean to say that out loud.
Samaj looked as if he were suppressing a smile. My granddaughter sighed. ‘He had a couple of beers. At a barbecue. And I didn’t introduce you on purpose. He just happened to be there.’ She turned to Samaj, ‘That was on Long Island, a long time ago.’
‘That’s okay. I see I’m going to have to rely on your grandmother for information about your past loves.’
‘Anyway,’ Meryl said, ‘Samaj doesn’t drink.’
‘Or not much,’ Samaj clarified. ‘I have to admit, I do have a beer now and then. But not very often.’
‘Is that because of your religion?’
It was a perfectly reasonable question. I might’ve asked the same thing of the Bengali girl, if I weren’t already sure of the answer.
My granddaughter’s response, however, was not reasonable. ‘Nonny! Oh, my God, Sam—I’m so sorry.’ (I noticed that she called him Sam when she was distracted.) ‘Which religion do you assume he practises? Have you even asked him?’
‘I don’t assume. That’s why I was asking.’
‘I don’t practise any religion.’ Samaj hadn’t reacted either to my question or to Merry’s outburst. His voice was calm and even. ‘I just don’t like the taste.’
‘I’ll show you your bed—so to speak,’ Meryl said, not looking at me. ‘It’s this way.’ Samaj nodded politely, but I was surprised to see a hint of appraisal in that look—as if he were here to take the measure of me. One thing I can’t help remembering about the young man on Long Island, Charles, was that he had appeared to worship Merry; even in his inebriated state, his eyes followed her everywhere. I assume that sort of devotion wouldn’t survive a marriage, but I’ve sometimes wondered whether it might be a good way to start—along with picnics and yellow roses and things—if only to provide a buffer against everything to come. Doting was not Frank’s style, nor did it seem (from my brief period of observation) to be characteristic of Samaj.
While they were downstairs making up his bed, I put my hands into the pockets of his jacket, hanging in the hall closet, which were lined with fleece. I didn’t find anything, not even a pack of matches. Of course, most young people don’t smoke now, so Samaj doesn’t deserve any special credit for that. Although I can’t stand drinking, smoking is one of the faults I can forgive in a man most easily.
The sofa bed was not the only source of the difficulty during Helen and Peter’s unfortunate visit in 1974. Part of the blame did fall on Frank, who could be somewhat abrupt; it is even possible that my husband’s manner may have contributed to Peter’s asthma attack, on that first evening we spent together as a family. But fathers are notoriously protective of their daughters, and to be fair to Frank, there were some extenuating circumstances. Things at the paper were not going well. There were cuts and, as the managing editor, Frank was the one who had to make them. Dumbing down the paper didn’t make him happy, but it was the lay-offs that killed him; on the night that Helen and Peter arrived from the city, he had given notice to a good friend, a man who had been to our house for dinner countless times.
Things didn’t go well from the beginning. Peter, a confident talker, brought up topic after topic; Frank concentrated on his food. When the dinner was finished, he crossed his arms and squinted at the pattern on the wallpaper. (The wallpaper in the dining room is beautiful: a green-and-white scene of plantation house, dock and willow, repeating over and over on a pale ivory ground. But Frank was not admiring the wallpaper, or even seeing it. He was thinking of Ed McCurdy, who ought not to have lost his job.) Peter was talking about his job, which was in television, a field my husband despised. I was glad that Frank didn’t seem to be listening, and I smiled encouragingly at Helen, who clearly wasn’t happy about her father’s behaviour.
‘There’s a lot television reporters can learn from print journalists,’ Peter was saying. ‘As more and more people decide to get their news from TV, telejournalists are going to have to get more rigorous. The standards are going to have to go up, and we can learn a lot from people like you.’
Frank suddenly turned to Peter, as if he’d been waiting for this opportunity all evening. ‘Can you define for me, “telejournalists”?’
‘Oh…sure,’ Peter said, unaware that he was being baited. ‘It’s just the word we use for the reporters—the on-air reporters, mostly, although I guess technically all of them are telejournalists.’
Frank nodded, as if he were assimilating this information. I knew that look, and I thought it was time to intervene.
‘Peter,’ I said, ‘would you like to help me with the strawberry shortcake?’
‘You help, Helen. Peter and I are discussing telejournalism.’
Peter, who had risen to help me, now sat down again awkwardly, crumpling his napkin in his hand.
‘Because it’s always seemed to me that those men are just actors reading the news. Just a bunch of pansies, reading from a script.’
Peter gave an uncomfortable laugh. ‘Well, they’re involved to different degrees. Our nightly anchor, Mr Glenn, for example—’
‘And that if it’s as you say, that “more and more Americans” are getting their news from these men—and I use that term loosely—then this country is headed for trouble. Serious trouble.’
‘Well, Sir, I can understand, from your perspective—’
‘It’s not my perspective, son. It’s just a goddamned fact.’
‘Frank,’ I said, because I do not like swearing, and I never want anyone to forget that this is a Baptist household.
‘I’m sorry, Tabby, but the country is going to hell, and this character, along with his telejournalists, is trying to hurry it into an early grave.’
That was when Peter starting breathing heavily, and then gasping for breath, and Helen started to sob, and our wedding platter, on which I had arranged the shortcake, somehow slipped from my hands and smashed to the floor. That was not nerves. It was the beginning of the arthritis, although I didn’t recognize it then. That night especially, Frank and I were still the adults, and our child, on the point of marriage, was still a child. At the time, it would’ve been impossible to believe that our health would begin to decline in these various ways, and that within two years, we would hold a grandchild in our arms.
I noticed the Bengali girl midway through dinner. It must’ve been thirty degrees, but she had come out of the house for no apparent reason. I watched her lock the door: she was wearing the red parka, but she hadn’t pulled up the hood, and I thought of how cold her bare ears must be. I could see that George’s car wasn’t in the driveway yet; it was only a little after six, and he must not have been home from work.
Unlike Peter, Samaj was not a big talker. Meryl had to get him started by telling me how they met. She had been in graduate school at Boston University, getting her Masters in education; in her free time, she would jog along the Charles River with friends from her programme.
‘We would pass him every day, sitting on the same bench by the river, reading. The bench was on the opposite side of the river from the college, so I figured he was a law or business student.’ I could see that Merry was still angry at me, but that she wanted to tell me the story, too. One thing my granddaughter has never lost is the transparency of childhood: you can always see on her face exactly what’s going on in her head. I admire that quality, rare enough in adults these days.
‘I was running with Katie—you remember Katie, don’t you, Nonny? And she dared me to talk to him.’
‘Oh, yes?’ I said. I knew how important it was for me to listen to this account, but I was distracted by the Bengali girl, who was standing absolutely still underneath George’s outside light. For a moment, I wondered if she were drunk. I couldn’t think of any other reason for someone to stand outside in weather like this.
‘Finally one day I did it.’
Finally I understood. She was watching us. With the chandelier on high, and all of the candles lit, she could see the three of us clearly. I was sitting at the head of the table and Meryl was on my left. From where Amina was standing, she would have a clear view of both me and my granddaughter; only Samaj, sitting with his back to the window, was concealed from her.
‘Tell her,’ Merry instructed.
‘She asked what I was reading.’ I noticed that he was allowing his pot pie to get cold. These pot pies come frozen, and no one can mess them up—not even Serena.
‘He was reading a biography of Einstein,’ Merry said. ‘I thought that was cool.’
‘I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Manhattan Project,’ Samaj said.
‘Samaj was an American history major, before he went to law school.’
‘That was an especially dark moment in American history,’ I said. ‘What made you choose it?’
‘All American history is dark,’ Meryl said. ‘And they still teach the early colonial history as if it’s so glorious. When really we were in the process of conducting this enormous genocide.’
‘I’m interested in the scientific part of it, actually,’ Samaj said. ‘The history of fission. If I’d been smart enough, I would’ve liked to be a physicist.’
I thought I was imagining things when I saw her coming towards us. There was no way a girl like Amina would interrupt this dinner, after I had specifically told her not to disturb us.
‘Of course you’re smart enough,’ Merry said. ‘Samaj graduated fifth in his entire law school class.’
Perhaps she saw George’s car coming towards the house and she was going down the driveway to meet him? But Amina kept coming in our direction, until she disappeared into our garage. A moment later, the kitchen doorbell rang.
‘Who is that?’ Merry asked. ‘Tell me it isn’t George from next door—the most boring man in the western hemisphere.’
‘I believe it’s his wife,’ I told them. For some reason I couldn’t move.
‘Would you like me to get the door, Mrs Buell?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Maybe she’ll go away.’
‘Nonny.’ Merry giggled, ‘We can’t do that.’ She was pleased, although she didn’t know the source of my reluctance. I wasn’t sure I knew myself. I trusted Amina not to reveal what I’d said about an engagement, since I’d told her it was a secret. At that time, I had worried about what Sam Hopper would think when he saw what kind of neighbours I had. This was not, as my granddaughter would allege, because I have anything against Bangladeshis per se—but because of the manner in which the marriage took place.
Now that Sam was Samaj, however, it was almost as if the worry had been inverted: what would Amina think of me for not revealing Samaj’s origins, when she had asked specifically? His background was certainly relevant, if only because of its similarity to her own.
‘It’s the kitchen door,’ Merry told Samaj. ‘It sticks, so pull hard.’ Then she turned to me. ‘Her name is April, right?’
‘George and April are divorced,’ I just managed. ‘This is his new wife, of only a few months.’ I heard the door open, and then Samaj inviting her in. I imagined her surprise, on seeing him, but when the two of them appeared in the dining room, I could tell that Amina was completely absorbed by her own concerns. Of course she must’ve noticed Samaj’s colour, but whatever the reason for her visit, it was too pressing to allow her to concentrate on anything else.
‘I’m sorry to interrupt, Mrs Buell. I don’t want to bother you.’
‘Is something wrong?’
Amina looked unhappily from me to my granddaughter. She shook her head. There was nothing to do but make an introduction.
‘Amina, this is my granddaughter, Meryl, and her friend, Samaj Hopper.’ (I did the best I could with it.) ‘This is George’s wife, Amina…’
‘Barker,’ Amina supplied, as if I didn’t know George’s last name. Had I been aware of her maiden name, I would’ve used it, if only to avoid the kind of name that tells you nothing at all.
‘It’s so nice to meet you,’ Merry said. ‘There are never any young people around here.’
‘There are the Cruikshanks across the street,’ I said. ‘They’re right about your age.’
‘Here,’ Merry said, ignoring this. ‘Have my seat, next to Nonny. You can join us for dessert.’ I could see that she was immediately curious about my neighbour, probably wondering why I hadn’t mentioned Amina until now.
‘Oh, no,’ Amina said. ‘I won’t stay. George is home at every minute. Mrs Buell, if I could talk with you for just…?’
Merry and Samaj exchanged glances at this request, but they stood up politely. I could only imagine how odd this visit would look to them. ‘Then we’ll get started on the dishes,’ Merry said. ‘You guys can sit here and chat a little.’
Amina looked down at her hands while Meryl and Samaj cleared the table; she refused to take off her coat. Only after the two of them had disappeared into the kitchen—laughing about something unrelated to us—did Amina allow herself to speak.
‘Mrs Buell, I am sorry.’
‘George will be home at any minute,’ I corrected. It’s the teacher in me, I can’t help it.
Amina nodded. ‘But I have to tell you…’ Her voice trailed off. She was overheating in her parka and her cheeks were flushed; I was surprised by how pink such brown cheeks could get.
‘When you saw me…’
‘Yes?’ I was trying to be patient, but Amina seemed to have picked up George’s habit of not finishing sentences.
‘…in the window…’ She was glancing at the window now, probably watching for the lights of George’s car. ‘That letter—is not a bad thing.’
‘The letter you got from Bangladesh?’
Amina shook her head miserably. ‘It was not from Desh. But now George is asking me every day.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I shouldn’t have asked in front of him. I didn’t know it was a secret.’
Amina was close to tears. ‘It is not a secret. I am telling him, when—’
‘Nonny?’ Meryl stuck her head in. ‘Sorry—does this go in the dishwasher?’ She was holding a piece of the Francis First wedding silver, which I only bring out on special occasions. Like me, Merry will never make much of a housekeeper, but I do hope she’ll learn to recognize these things, which will one day be hers.
‘Of course not,’ I told her. ‘That’s the Francis First.’
Merry nodded, and the swinging door closed again behind her. Of course, you could hear everything from in there.
‘My learning permit,’ Amina said. ‘From the Department of Motor Vehicles.’
I was confused. ‘You’re going to learn to drive?’
Amina managed a small smile. ‘My lessons start tomorrow. That’s why I had to tell you. You might see me out there on the wheel.’
‘At the wheel,’ I said. ‘Or behind it. Why don’t you want to tell George?’
‘He thinks I might have accidents. Or get lost. He thinks we should wait some time. But how can I have a job without driving?’
I could not help remembering when Frank bought the Cadillac: I was Amina’s age, newly married as she is. Of course the tract is a safe place to practise, since it’s rare to see anyone going above thirty miles an hour. But driving is one of those things—like the ablative case, or nursing a baby: just because you know how to do it yourself doesn’t mean that you can explain it to other people.
‘You can’t keep accidents from happening,’ I said, surprising myself. ‘George will have to take that chance.’
Amina put one hand on my arm. ‘Mrs Buell—thank you,’ she said, as if I had offered to teach her myself. ‘It is not a secret—but only until I get my licence.’
I observed her strategy: putting the thanks before the favour, so that it was very difficult to say no. ‘Who will teach you to drive?’ I asked Amina, who was getting up, admiring the lace tablecloth that Merry and Samaj hadn’t noticed.
Amina smiled that overlarge, crooked smile. ‘Edith Overton.’
‘Do you know her? She is so generous, even with her own car.’
‘Generous’ is not the word I would use for it. Edith Overton is eager to be seen driving up and down the street, performing a charitable act, so that everyone will notice how she still has her licence. This is in spite of the fact that she’s only seventy-three—I had my licence nearly ten years longer than that.
‘Be careful,’ I told Amina, as I walked her to the kitchen door. ‘I have driven with Edith Overton.’
‘Would you like to take some shortcake with you?’ Merry asked. I could tell she was disappointed that Amina wouldn’t be staying. ‘Here, I’ll wrap it up in some foil.’
But Amina was all of a sudden distracted. ‘I think that is…’ And I could hear George’s car too, easing carefully into the driveway.
She looked at me. ‘But if I could have my plate?’
I was glad I’d told Serena to wash the Bengali food down the drain, so Amina wouldn’t have to see me do it. I showed her where the plate was, and Samaj reached up to the cupboard to get it for her.
‘Thank you.’ Now that she had her plate, her excuse, she lingered. ‘I hope you have a very wonderful stay in Rochester,’ she said, examining Samaj. I thought she was trying to place him, as I had, only with more specific information at her disposal.
‘Thanks.’ Samaj didn’t seem as charmed by Amina as Merry was; in fact, he looked as if she bored him.
‘Excuse me,’ she said suddenly. ‘Are you from India?’
‘My father is Indian—Bengali, actually,’ Samaj said slowly. ‘But my mother is American. She’s from Iowa.’
‘That is interesting!’ Amina said. She gave one more reluctant look around my kitchen. ‘I hope to meet you both again,’ she said, before hurrying down the steps, out the garage and across the lawn to George.
Meryl was fascinated by my neighbour. She wanted to know how old she was; how long she’d been living next door; where George had met her. I answered the first two questions and skimmed over the third. We sat in the living room, balancing our shortcake on our laps.
‘Someone must have introduced them,’ I told Merry and Samaj. ‘Someone in their community of friends.’
Merry looked at me strangely. I took a large bite of shortcake. After all, I couldn’t say that I knew exactly how Amina and George had met. Presumably there were many women like Amina on the computer, many men like George. What had caused them to pause on each other’s photograph, and start typing back and forth across their screens?
‘But who would’ve introduced them?’ Meryl asked. ‘I have to say, I didn’t think George was the type.’
‘What type?’ Samaj asked. I hadn’t thought he was paying attention. I wondered if that was a lawyer’s strategy—pretending to be distracted and then surprising you with a question.
‘The cradle-robbing type. There must be fifteen years between them.’
‘Only twelve, I think,’ I said. There were ten years between me and Frank, and that turned out to be a good thing: how else would I have had the energy to care for him?
‘Samaj’s father is from West Bengal,’ Merry told me. ‘That’s the Indian part, but people speak Bangla on both sides of the border.’ She gave the word a foreign-sounding long A—to be even more authentic, I suppose.
‘Where does your father live now?’ I asked Samaj.
‘I don’t know, exactly. We aren’t in touch.’ He said this nonchalantly, as if not being in touch with your living father was a completely ordinary state of affairs.
‘Samaj was born in south India,’ Merry said. ‘In Kerala. His mom brought him back to the States when he was five.’
‘Is “Hopper” your mother’s maiden name?’
Samaj nodded. ‘I’m really from Iowa City. To be honest, I hardly remember anything about India.’
‘Samaj and I are hoping to travel in Bengal next summer,’ Merry told me. ‘As soon as he can take enough time off.’
‘Either Iowa City or Calcutta—we haven’t decided. Both have their attractions.’ I thought this was a joke, but I wasn’t sure. I noticed that Merry seemed annoyed.
‘You remember some things,’ she prompted him. ‘Like those white lizards. The ones that would sometimes fall into your bed at night. And walking along the backwaters with your parents.’
Samaj didn’t confirm or deny that. Instead he turned to me, with that same, surprising focus. ‘Why do you think your neighbour decided to look for a foreign wife?’
‘I suppose he couldn’t find an American one.’
Samaj nodded in agreement. ‘But why from Asia, do you think? Do you think he had a thing for Asian women?’ There was something not quite sincere about these questions, although Samaj’s voice was perfectly neutral. I had the feeling he was leading me in a particular direction, and I had the impulse to answer very simply, to avoid making a mistake.
‘I suppose that was just who he met.’
Samaj frowned. ‘But presumably he would’ve met a large number of American women before that. Perhaps none of them were interested in what George had to offer? No offence to your neighbour, of course. Maybe it makes most sense to think of it in economic terms, like any other commodity—just following the law of supply and demand. If there’s a glut, say, of marriageable women in Bangladesh and not enough men who can support them, then they simply begin to export them here.’
I looked at Merry to see how she was taking this reference to people as commodities—just her sort of subject—but my granddaughter didn’t seem to be listening. She was looking out the picture window at the house behind ours, which used to belong to the Gelbs. She had played with the Gelb children during the summers when she was nine and ten; the four of them (two boys and a girl, plus Merry) would disappear into the cornfield where the tract ends for hours at a time, until I worried about what they could be doing in there. I knew children of that age sometimes experimented with sexual games, ‘playing doctor’, et cetera; Frank told me not to worry, but I was terrified that something might happen to Merry while she was under our protection.
‘What were you doing?’ I demanded once, when she reappeared at the back door especially late, dirt on the knees of her jeans. I remember that she answered the way children do, patiently but with no expectation of my comprehension—the same way a foreigner will, if you ask them to say something in their language.
‘We were playing spaceship,’ she told me. ‘We landed on Alpha-Omegatron, the farthest planet from the earth. It doesn’t have any gravity. You float around in the air all day, and if you want to visit someone, you have to swim through the clouds. It’s more than a trillion miles from earth, so that’s why it took me so long to get home.’
That night I kept my clothes on. I wanted to go down and check the boiler. Helen tells me not to worry, that if anything happens she’ll take care of it. But before Helen takes care of it the orange light could go off, and the pipes could freeze, and it would take thousands of dollars from the Bank of America account to fix it.
I waited until I thought the two of them would be asleep. Our floors creak, unless you walk extremely slowly, heel, toe, heel, toe, like a book I used to read to Helen about Indian braves. There’s no limit to how slowly you can do things, as long as there’s no one there to get impatient. This is one blessing that goes along with being alone at my age.
I must not have noticed the light in Frank’s study on my way down, but when I started back upstairs from the basement, I saw the glow coming from underneath his door. Then I heard Samaj moving around in there.
‘Mrs Buell, is that you?’
‘Don’t mind me,’ I said. ‘I don’t sleep well these days. I was just checking on the boiler.’
Samaj came to the top of the stairs and held my arm for the last few. This is the sort of assistance I don’t need, although I know it is meant kindly. I can do it, if people will only let me take my own time.
‘Do you always stay up so late?’
‘I was doing some work,’ Samaj said. ‘I guess I forgot the time.’
‘What kind of work?’
‘Some research for a case. We’re defending a company that manufactures tiny parts for computers. There’s a class-action suit against them—it’s pretty boring, actually.’
‘Do you have to surf the Internet for that?’
We had stepped into Frank’s study. ‘Meryl said I could use the computer in here—I hope that’s all right. She said you didn’t use it very much.’
He said this with a perfectly straight face, acknowledging the possibility that Meryl had been mistaken, that I, at ninety-four, had become a computer whiz in secret. I thought that was cheeky.
‘It’s for Meryl and her parents,’ I told him. ‘Of course I don’t know how to use it.’
‘Oh,’ Samaj said. ‘Well, it’s easy. I could show you if you want. You sit here, in front of the computer,’ he said, pulling up a stool for himself.
‘I’ll just watch.’
‘It’s better if you do it yourself. Otherwise you won’t remember.’
‘I have an excellent memory,’ I told him. ‘I always have had, and I haven’t lost any of it. I’m lucky in that way, at least.’
Samaj nodded. ‘There’s something about the computer, though. It helps to learn it with your fingers. Do you touch-type?’
I was glad to be able to say I did. Frank believed that everyone ought to know how to drive and how to type; after I stopped teaching, when Helen was born, he bought me a book. While she napped, I went through the exercises page by page. I am thorough—one of the qualities Frank always told me he admired—and after only five weeks, I was at sixty words per minute. ‘Except that these days my hands bother me a bit.’
Samaj nodded. ‘Then I’ll type and you’ll tell me what to do. What should we look up first?’
‘Asian ladies,’ I said. Samaj looked startled. It was the first time I’d seen any uncertainty in him since they’d arrived. ‘Dot com,’ I remembered to add. ‘Where East Meets West.’
A moment later he understood. He was quick, at least. ‘That’s where your neighbour met his wife, isn’t it? On the Internet.’
I nodded. ‘Have you heard of it?’
‘I know that kind of site exists.’
‘But you don’t know how to find it.’
‘I can find it,’ Samaj said. ‘I just wonder why you want to see it.’
‘I want to see the other girls. The ones that George didn’t pick.’
Samaj hit the power button and the screen turned bright blue. ‘I’m just warning you—I don’t know anything about this particular site. It might be disturbing for you.’
‘I’m ninety-four years old,’ I told him. ‘I’m not dead yet.’
Samaj didn’t argue with me any more. He showed me how to move the arrow to the Internet symbol: a blue ‘e’. Then he showed me how you ‘click’, twice, with the left thumb. (He had me practise that myself, which was surprisingly painless; I have more trouble with my fingers than my thumbs.) Finally he showed me where to type the subject of my search. I’m sure that Merry is wonderful with her students, but in this case, I had to admit, Samaj was the better instructor. He remembered to reduce the process to a series of steps—which is the secret to teaching anything. With declensions, I would always ask them to choose a noun—advena, for example—and then make them draw the table every time, starting with the nominative, singular and plural, and working through to the ablative: advena, advenue, advenis, I did not allow them to skip any steps. Only that way would the pattern stay in their heads.
In only a few moments, we had found the site. The screen was lavender, with Asianladies in script and a picture of a white, tropical flower.
‘Do you have to pay?’ I asked.
‘It’s interesting, actually.’ Samaj had taken over the keys and was typing very fast, so that the screen kept changing. The text was too small for me to read anything. ‘You can scroll through all these women: here’s ‘An’ from Nanjing, for example, and ‘Kelly’—not her real name, I assume—from Mindanao. Her dream is to move to California. Bon is from Chiang Mai, and she’s looking for a man who’s looking for a ‘traditional wife’. Samaj looked up from the screen. ‘The point is that you don’t have to pay to look at the women, but you do if you want to send a message to them. That’s how they draw the men in.’
‘I agree with you.’
‘Why would George get involved with something like this?’ Perhaps I’d forgotten I was talking to Samaj; it was just what I was wondering at that moment.
‘It might work out for Amina and George,’ Samaj said. ‘You never know.’
‘Do you plan to ask Meryl to marry you?’
Samaj didn’t seem especially surprised by the question. He clicked a button and all of the Asian ladies disappeared.
‘If that’s what she wants. We’ve been talking about it recently, because some of our friends are getting married.’
‘Is that what you want?’ They were leaving tomorrow. After that I might never see Samaj again; alternately, he would become my granddaughter’s husband. Either way, I thought I had the right to ask some questions.
Samaj brushed his hair away from his face. He didn’t have long hair, but a piece of it hung in his eyes. It was not unhandsome.
‘I guess I’m not completely sure what the point is.’
‘What the point is?’
‘Of marriage. I mean, if there isn’t a religious tradition that compels you to take that step.’
I should’ve been relieved. It did not sound like Samaj was going to ask my granddaughter to marry him. And yet I found his answer irritating: of course he wanted to marry her—how could he not?
‘Were your parents compelled by a religious tradition?’
‘No,’ Samaj said. ‘But they’re divorced.’
‘Was your father trying to escape an arranged marriage?’
Samaj shrugged. ‘I don’t think that was it. But like I said, I don’t know my father very well.’
‘That’s the “point” of it!’ I told him. ‘So that children know their fathers.’
‘You’re saying I would leave my children? Unless I had a piece of paper from the county clerk, in which case I wouldn’t?’
It’s true I’d raised my voice at him, but I was surprised when he snapped back; it had been a long time since a stranger had been sharp with me. ‘Marriage keeps families together,’ I said, more gently now. ‘No matter how hard it is.’
‘The divorce rate in America is fifty per cent.’
I know that, of course. You can’t watch the TV news without hearing all about it.
‘Anyway—do you want me to marry Meryl? I haven’t gotten the feeling that you like me very much.’
Every once in a while I do get the feeling that Frank is somewhere nearby, not hovering overhead like an angel, but hiding the way he sometimes did at the very end, waiting with a stupid grin for me to find him. I imagine him sitting on the occasional chair in the living room, concealed from view by my father’s rosewood sugar chest. While I’m doing the laundry, I notice a dark shape in the broom closet, making himself slim behind the louvred door. I don’t feel angry in these moments, the way I used to. It’s comforting to pretend I might be able to ask his opinion.
‘I want what Meryl wants,’ I told Samaj. ‘I just want her to be happy.’ I was surprised to hear those particular words coming out of my mouth, words I had scorned just one week earlier. Didn’t I want much more than simple happiness for Meryl, who had so much to offer to the world?
‘Me too,’ Samaj said, but he wasn’t thinking. He didn’t know what making someone happy meant. If he were to promise, it would not be in Frank’s language; in fact, he would find Frank’s letter insulting. He would argue that Merry had to take care of herself, protect herself—that he was her companion, nothing more. That view of marriage is wrong, although I wouldn’t attempt to make Samaj Hopper understand. One person always has to take care of the other, even if it’s not the one who appeared stronger at the start. There’s a giver and a taker, and if you pair two takers, like Merry and Samaj, they’ll eventually tear each other apart.
I wished Samaj goodnight, and he attempted to help me up the stairs, an offer I declined.
‘I hope you sleep well,’ he said, as I was leaving the room—a common politeness, but I thought he knew I wouldn’t. I lay awake much longer than usual; it was after five by the time I finally fell asleep. When I woke up it was late, later than I’d slept in years, and Serena was opening the blue curtains, letting in bright winter sunlight.
‘You’d better get up now,’ she said, ‘if you want to say goodbye to them before they leave.’
I‘ve noticed recently the way that time expands and collapses, with very little warning: sometimes I’m examining a single hour over the course of days, with my head down in my chair, and other times the events of years are compressed into moments, the blocks of colour on a folded paper fan.
My granddaughter telephoned to tell me she was engaged.
Merry sighed. ‘Samaj, of course. I know you don’t like him, so you don’t have to pretend you do. I wish you did, though.’
‘Why don’t you think I like him?’ I’d been wondering whether Samaj had described our late-night conversation to Merry, but the next thing she said made me think he’d kept it to himself.
‘I’m not sure he noticed—except for that thing about religion, Jesus. It was completely obvious to me.’
‘I just think you’re a little young to be married.’
‘I’m thirty! And you don’t think the Cruikshanks are a little young. They have two children already.’
‘There’s a difference between you and Lori Cruikshank. What about your career?’
‘It’s not like when you were young, Nonny. I’ll still teach after I’m married, even if we decide to have children.’
This is the way that people ordinarily talk to me: as if I’ve never heard of anything that happened after 1965. I’ve been alive all this time—if anything, I’ve paid more attention over the last forty years. Still, young people can’t understand that. I’m not sure I did either, when I was their age.
‘I guess I should be happy Mom and Dad like him,’ Merry continued. ‘It’s just that I was hoping…’
Well, that made me very happy, even if she didn’t finish her sentence. ‘I do like him,’ I heard myself say, ‘I think he’s very smart—Harvard, after all.’
‘Not everyone who goes to Harvard is smart, Nonny.’
‘And he’s doing well at his firm, at least according to you. You won’t have to worry about money, which is very important. You might not think so now, but it is.’
‘I know that,’ Merry said. ‘I’m not a child.’
All of a sudden she did sound very young, younger in certain ways than Lori Cruikshank, who takes care of those two children alone for ten hours every day, while her husband is at work.
‘I hope you’ll be very happy,’ I told my granddaughter, and then I listened to her talk about the details of the wedding, which would take place in eight months’ time in a public park in Brooklyn. I thought about that trip and it was hard to imagine how I would have the energy to make it. Of course I won’t live long enough to see whether it will ‘work out’ for them, as it seems to for fifty per cent of American couples. That, to me, is the interesting statistic: that so many stay together, given all the things that can happen to two people these days, in our frighteningly long American lives.
Sure enough, Edith Overton is teaching Amina to drive. I can see them right outside, coming up Skytop Lane in Buzz Overton’s Lincoln Continental Givenchy. I wonder what they’re talking about, whether they’re sharing stories of their proposals. It hadn’t occurred to me that Amina’s proposal would have been a letter, too (although, of course, not snail mail).
‘An email!’ Edith will say, horrified. ‘Well, I suppose if you were halfway across the world.’ Then she’ll tell Amina about the Empire State Building, and the single yellow rose.
I haven’t told Edith about my more recent proposal. It happened fourteen years ago in our kitchen, a year before Frank died. He was eating a boiled egg, which I had peeled for him. All of a sudden, I noticed that Frank had fallen to the floor. I rushed to help him, so that we were both crouched on the linoleum, our heads at the level of the kitchen table. Frank had fallen to his knees, one hand gripping the chair’s cane seat; now he managed to get one foot on the floor, as if he were trying to stand.
‘Stay where you are,’ I told him. ‘Don’t move.’
‘Where does it hurt?’
Frank put his hand to his chest, and I thought: this is it. In a way it would have been a blessing, to go quickly then and avoid the worst stage of the disease. I would have called the ambulance, and they would have come for him, and he would have died at Strong Memorial Hospital, one of the best hospitals in America according to US News and World Report.
At the same time that I was thinking those things, I was praying for the opposite: for that dumb, ugly muscle to keep doing its job a little longer, to give me just a little more time to prepare.
‘I’ll call Dr Pashman, Frank. Don’t move.’
Frank looked at me with deep frustration, an expression I got used to in the last few years. I imagined his state of mind like the kind of dream in which something needs to be done or said, and the feet or the voice can’t be made to accomplish the necessary action. Either that, or they insist on acting in a way completely contrary to your intention.
I don’t know if that was what it was like for Frank. I didn’t try to put myself in his shoes. That’s something I never did with my students, and I do think it’s a mistake in general. How can we presume to know what other people’s experiences are like?
In any case, Frank finally spoke. He did not seem to be having a heart problem at all.
‘Will you just listen for a minute?’ demanded my husband of forty-seven years, his voice too loud and annoyed. ‘Tabby, will you marry me?’
Edith and Amina are making a three-point turn. They’re practising right in front of my house, where the tract ends in a circle. All of the snow has been cleared from the streets and driveways, and most of the rest has got dirty from everyone’s boots. It’s piled up on the side of the road in ashy, yellow banks. Only the cornfield is pure white and unsullied. It’s likely not to snow again until late January or February; our winters, everyone says, are not what they used to be.
Amina backs up and brakes sharply. Then, unexpectedly, she rolls down her window and calls out. She lifts her hand in a little wave, even though it’s impossible that she could see me. She’s waving just in case I’m here, standing in front of the sink, hiding in broad daylight like a ghost.
For reasons of copyright this article is not available online.