WOMAN OF AN UNCERTAIN AGE
In her debut novel, India-born, New York—based journalist Malhotra vividly portrays aspects of Indian immigrant life in the United States." — Library Journal
An unconventional midlife coming of age journey
When fifty-something Naina Mehta¹s husband dies of a heart attack, she transforms herself from a suburban wife into a bold woman thirsty for new experiences. A far cry from the classic image of the aging Indian widow who dresses in subdued colors and focuses solely on her children and God.
Naina moves to New York City, takes up a low-paying job in a contemporary art gallery, and becomes besotted by Jai, her daughter's boyfriend. But that's only the beginning of her journey into this new world that allows her to explore the possibilities of being who she wants to be.
As Naina becomes more empowered, she dips her toes into the world of dating for the first time in her life. Maybe the possibility of love still exists for a woman of her age. But what happens if the man in question is Muslim and stirs generational wounds and the wrath of her conservative son?
Woman of an Uncertain Age explores the rocky, uncertain terrain of female midlife during a time when the parameters and ideas of midlife are being challenged. What does it mean to be a fifty-plus woman with grown children in such an environment? Especially for Naina, who comes from a culture where life is expected to follow a strict traditional course.
PRAISE for Woman of an Uncertain Age
In her gripping, immersive, and page turner novel, Priya Malhotra calls attention to as she explores often underrepresented themes of female midlife crisis, acceptance, judgement, society’s restrictions, and ageism." — Nidhi Shrivastava, BIPOC Monthly Review
"Fans of Marian Keyes, Kelly Harms, and Amy Sue Nathan will appreciate how Malhotra contrasts the corrosive qualities of shame with the power of forgiveness and acceptance." — Booklist
"Woman of an Uncertain Age is a resounding 'Yes!' to everything that can go right, all that's worth saving and whether life still wants to surprise us. In the intelligent and sensuous Naina, Priya Malhotra has given us the propelling verve of a classic Terry McMillan character with the multicultural tack we love Bharati Mukherjee's Indian American women for. An American story, a New York story, a grown woman story . . . Here is a novel to represent these high times of new life and reopenings." -- Kalisha Buckhanon, author of Speaking of Summer
"A poignant and yet witty account of a woman in her fifties grappling with her past, her at times inappropriate desires, and her life as a single widow. Woman of an Uncertain Age is a delightful and surprising read." -- Helen Benedict, author of The Good Deed and Wolf Season
"In Woman of An Uncertain Age, Priya Malhotra has deftly woven a complex novel that will draw in readers through her beautiful prose, vivid imagery, and memorable characters. I found myself mesmerized by every step in the plot while identifying with every character’s trait, choices, and whims. Even the ones I found challenging, they challenged me in a way that made me a better reader, thinker, and ultimately, human." — Reema Zaman, author of I Am Yours and Paramita: A Dystopian Matriarchy
“With a poet’s sense of lyricism, a painter’s sense of color, and a novelist’s sense of story, Priya Malhotra pushes her language to ever greater heights, teetering at the edge, but always pulling back in time. To me, A Woman of an Uncertain Age is about loneliness and longing, about acceptance and understanding, about the strangeness of existence, especially for Naina, who grew up in India but now lives in New York, all caught in an intoxicating range of metaphors, yet told with an honesty that cuts to the bone.” — Birgitta Hjalmarson, author of Fylgia and Artful Players: Artistic Life in Early San Francisco
"Priya Malhotra writes with style and verve. Woman of an Uncertain Age is acutely observed and ably brings to the fore the particular anxieties and challenges of ageing, immigration and finding love in the most unexpected of circumstances." — Pallavi Aiyar, author of Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China and Orienting: An Indian in Japan
In the Media
"TN10: Priya Malhotra, Author of Woman of an Uncertain Age" — The TueNight Social
"Recommended Reads" — Women Writers, Women['s] Books
"Holiday Gift Guide: 11 Things Gen-xers Wouldn't Mind Unwrapping" — TueNight
"Ep008: Woman of an Uncertain Age with Priya Malhotra" — Becoming a Good Ancestor Podcast
"The Most Anticipated Books of September 2022" — Bustle
"Woman of an Uncertain Age: An excerpt of Priya Malhotra's new novel" — Oldster Magazine
WHEN NAINA, A slender twenty-one-year-old with shiny black hair that touched her hips, and plush lips that, as her family constantly reminded her, were always parted as if she were about to ask a question, left New Delhi to move to New Jersey after marrying Harish in 1974, she was unusually calm compared with other distraught brides who couldn’t bear the thought of leaving their homes and families to go off to a foreign land.
At the airport in Delhi, in the middle of the night, she hugged her parents tightly but did not cry or constantly turn back to look at them as she headed toward her flight. She was going abroad for the first time, and sitting on a plane for the second time in her life. She was going to a place she knew little about: America, which was, at that time in India, a far-off and unfamiliar place. It wasn’t like going to England, which she could easily conjure up with images of places like Buckingham Palace and Mayfair, people like Mr. Darcy and the Brontë sisters, and food like bread pudding and caramel custard. She already knew about British towns called Birmingham, Manchester, and Oxford—but what of Birmingham, Alabama; Manchester, New Hampshire; Oxford, Mississippi; and the clump of six states in the northeast that Americans called New England? These were places she had never heard of.
Although she didn’t know much about the country she’d soon be calling home, she’d definitely heard about this legendary city called New York, teeming with skyscrapers and ritzy areas called Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue. It was the city of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Age of Innocence, the city where the sky talked to the earth, the city that the Illustrated Weekly of India described as the “vampire kingdom of greed and capitalism.” And New York was where she would land, late in the afternoon at JFK, still wearing her chura, the red-and-white wedding bangles many Indian women customarily wear for a month after marriage.
It was a chilly day in April and she was wearing a light brown sweater and her father’s tweed coat, a tan-and-red coat from England two sizes too big for her, but the warmest garment anyone in the family owned. Her husband Harish also wore a coat similar to hers, except that his was brown and black; he had thrown it over a pure lambswool black sweater, a thermal undershirt, and a thick scarf whose tassels had irritated her nose while she tried to sleep on the airplane. Harish had tried to get her to wear more clothes, to “layer on” as he liked to say, but she hadn’t listened, never imagining the biting cold that would greet her.
The cold was the first thing that jumped at her when they exited the airport, the kind of chill that ripped through her clothes and plunged her into an agonizing delirium. As they waited for a bus to take them to Port Authority, it was then that Harish first held her hand in public—one of the few times in their thirty years of married life to come. Despite the freezing temperature, that public display of affection had excited her. His hands were long and supple, and he held her hand with a modicum of firmness, but she wished he’d squeeze it tighter, much tighter. They sat on a bus and she was astonished by the power of the heating system. It was her introduction to the supremacy of machines in this country. Before she knew it, she was warm again.
The bus was now going over the Bridge, and she saw the fabled skyline of Manhattan, draped in a twilight mist that softened the sharp contours of the majestic buildings. Her heart beat faster. The city looked like an emperor—haughty, invincible, and heroic. She was mesmerized.
But Manhattan vanished as fast as it had appeared once they changed buses at Port Authority and were off to suburban Montcrest, a New Jersey town full of drab, nearly identical Dutch colonial-style homes and large, long cars parked in driveways, like sentries on duty. It was the place where Naina would spend the next three decades of her life.
NEVER, IN ALL those years, had she imagined she might one day live in Manhattan, Naina thought as she shut her apartment window so she wouldn’t have to hear the dry cleaner and his wife arguing in Cantonese. Their bickering was really intolerable. It was, after all, Sunday. Those two could yell for hours with no consideration for anyone near them. She supposed that was what one had to endure to be in Manhattan, a small price to pay. Still amazed to find herself living in the greatest city in the world, she felt a shiver of excitement run through her. But the feeling quickly passed with the sound of a fiendish howl, as if the ten-headed demon Ravan was convulsing in the netherworld.
It was an ambulance on the street below. She covered her ears. Why did they have to be so loud? And if they had to be, why couldn’t they have a more melodious tune?
Again, the phone rang, the fourth time that day, but Naina, who would have ordinarily considered it rude, let it go to voicemail.
Although it was almost two o’clock on a gray Sunday afternoon in April, she was still only half-awake, unable to muster the energy to get up. She lay sprawled on her bed, under the white comforter, looking at the short, untidy pile of birthday cards that waited for on her nightstand. Languidly, she picked one up.
“You don’t get dumb and old as the years go by, YOU just get SMART, SEXY, and BOLD” screamed a little white card with thick black lettering, which looked poised to pop off the paper. “Wild, witty, and wise, a woman in her fifties is a man’s most treasured prize” proclaimed a red-and-gold card that Naina immediately knew had to be from Shona, the optimistic chatterbox who, despite her efforts for almost twenty years, had enjoyed little success with men. “Age is sage, and knowledge is power, so let the GOOD TIMES ROLL!” declared another card with Elvis Presley on its cover. But the most unforgettable card, a pretty looking thing with lots of pink roses, was from Karen, her daughter Amaya’s friend. “You’ve touched so many lives, made so many friends, gained so much wisdom, and known so many joys and sorrows. These are all wonderful, beautiful reasons to celebrate.” Was this a preview of what Karen might say at her funeral?
Naina smiled wryly as she read the cards that invariably referred to this magical fountain of wisdom that apparently sprung from her. She heard the rusty cast iron radiator hissing away like a spurned diva and the maddening sounds, three floors down, of the dry cleaner and his wife who were still arguing. That tremulous feeling leaped within her again. She was certain of very little, and as far from possessing any sagacity as she had ever been.
Of course, that had not always been the case, and even though she had acquired a distaste for her former life, sometimes she couldn’t help being nostalgic for those days when she felt so sure of everything—days framed by predictable domestic rituals. At times, she did fret over little details but never saw or, if she did, never admitted, even to herself, to the blemishes smearing the canvas of her life: the layer of dust turning the emerald green into a moldy green; the cobweb of tiny rips making the majestic purple look like a sad, shriveled eggplant; the weathering of the shining red to the hue of an Indian bride’s clothes faded in the sun.
Her headache worsened and she forced herself to get up to take a couple of aspirins. She knew the culprit had to be those pale white drinks in those thin glasses she’d downed at some hazy point during the previous night. What were they called? Something that began with a sh. The letters arduously came together to form a word. Sho . . . ts. Yes, shots. Some kind of shots that sounded like military offensives. Kamikaze shots. That was it. Kamikaze shots. They were just as lethal as their name implied, and she regretted having consumed them without restraint. She should have been more careful. Stuck to wine. Not listened to Alannah’s have just one more. Her body was no longer young and as forgiving as it might once have been if put to the test. Now, like an accountant, it registered every indulgence, made her pay for every bit of carelessness. She decided to take a third aspirin just in case two did not do the job.
Her birthday party the night before had ended up being much more excessive than she had anticipated, but in retrospect she knew she should not have been surprised—considering it had been Alannah, her young friend, who had organized it. A thirty-five-year-old firebrand artist, Alannah thrived on excess and spectacle. She was a woman whose enterprising efforts intensified whenever she sensed she was drawing someone out of some supposed state of deprivation and repression. The theme of the party was “Arabian Nights,” and it was held in a lush orange-and-green room in Houri, a hip Moroccan restaurant in the East Village. Like many places on Avenue C, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Houri—which means “alluring woman” in Arabic—was on the ground level of a dilapidated brick building that still had traces of graffiti on its walls and an air of having once been a place for rough, illicit exchanges. But when you entered it now, you were immediately transported to a decadent paradise that seemed a world away from its questionable earlier life, and from its rundown neighborhood—the depressing-looking deli opposite it, the crumbling pavement outside, the leaky air conditioner wobbling in a window on the third floor of the building next door, on the verge of falling prey to the force of gravity at any moment.
Even though the East Village, once known for artists and beatniks, had long undergone gentrification, these were the vestiges of a bygone era full of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. To Naina, who had moved to the city from her large suburban home in central New Jersey a year-and-a-half before, no place in New York felt as exciting and edgy as the East Village. In Jersey, there was space and more space and nothing of consequence to fill it, and in the East Village, there was so much energy and electricity that it spilled out of the tiniest gaps, rattling doors and walls, threatening to break man-made enclosures.
A glittering curtain of red, gold, and blue beads led you from the restaurant into a cozy party room where there were sofas upholstered in the fiery red-orange of an equatorial sunset, plush cushions adorned with an elaborate pattern of green and gold, and walls hidden behind sheets of fluttering gold silk. Several hookahs sat on small mosaic tables, and delicate coils of apricot, apple, and spice-flavored smoke swirled and swayed as people puffed away, filling the room with beautiful misty patterns.
There had been about fifteen or sixteen people at the party, the majority of whom Naina had not known for more than a year or so, and some she was meeting for the first time. The only ones she considered to be real friends were Alannah and Mara, a forty-two-year-old self-help writer obsessed with everything yoga and new age, and Rob, a tabla player from a yet-to-be signed fusion band, who looked like a big bird as he waved his tattooed arms around while talking incessantly.
Rob had gray hair and a sagging face that made him look much older than his thirty-nine years, but his ebullience and constant use of the phrase “that’s cool” made him seem a whole lot younger. He gave her an orange-and-black idol of the fierce multi-armed Hindu goddess Kali as a birthday present, something he had bought during his biweekly visits to Jackson Heights to eat samosas.
“Nains,” he said (he was the only person in the world who had ever called her Nains), “Kali kicks ass, let me tell you. I mean that woman can create, that woman can destroy. That’s cool. It’s so cool. And all we’re stuck with here is the boring Virgin Mary, boring. Immaculate Conception. Gimme a break. Now, Kali, she’s hot, she’s totally hot.”
“Thanks, Rob, thanks so much,” Naina said, thinking how ugly the idol was. “This is wonderful.” She gave him a tentative hug. “But we should be kind to the Virgin Mary. She’s sort of soothing and nice even if she isn’t as interesting as Kali.” That part, she meant. She had always liked the Virgin Mary, much more than she had ever liked Kali.
“C’mon, Nains, that’s your Catholic School education talking. That’s what they drill into you. Love the Virgin Mary. Believe me, I went to one too, miles away from you though, so I know.”
In order to beef up the crowd at the party, Alannah had invited three or four of her own friends Naina had never met before. One was Iris, an exceptionally tall woman with pointy features, a freelance curator and art writer who exuded the kind of humorless overconfidence that made Naina want to run and hide in some remote recess of herself.
“So I went to see the new John Currin show at Andrea Rosen,” Iris said after she had greeted Naina with a “hello” and “happy birthday” in a manner that suggested that such banalities were not worthy of her time. “I didn’t think his work could get worse, but he surprises me every time. He’s such a lightweight and gets more misogynistic as he gets older.” She vigorously shook her head and exhaled loudly. “God, he just bothers me so much . . .”
Naina didn’t know how to respond because, even though she now worked as an assistant at an art gallery in Chelsea, she barely knew anything about Currin except that he was a famous artist known for painting distorted images of women with large breasts. She, did, however, know the Andrea Rosen Gallery, one of the most renowned galleries in Chelsea, and had gone there to see the colossal, dense installation of British artist Matthew Ritchie a few months before.
“I haven’t seen that show yet. But, did you see the Matthew Ritchie show in December? It was magnificent.”
“You think so?” Iris shot back. “I thought it was so lame, so lame . . .”
Although Iris did not, at any point in the evening, appear to be enjoying herself, she stayed until the party ended at three a.m., drinking one glass of white wine after another.
That image of Iris now crystallized into a hard-edged shape as Naina looked out at the distant, fog-swaddled spire of the Chrysler Building. Thankfully, her headache was getting better.
Then there was Andrew, Alannah’s soft-spoken English teacher friend. He seemed much nicer than Iris and had brought her a lovely bouquet of pink chrysanthemums—big, bulbous flowers like those in her garden in India. Naina guessed he was a couple of years younger than Alannah, maybe thirty-two or thirty-three, and probably didn’t know anyone who had children, judging by his look of surprise when Naina said something about Amaya’s slender span of interest when it came to literature.
“You have a daughter?” he said as Alannah came up to them, bringing Naina another drink.
“Not just a daughter, but a son as well,” Alannah interjected.
“Wow . . . how old are they?”
“Four and twelve,” Alannah said with a grin. “She looks great for that doesn’t she?”
Andrew seemed to believe her until Naina corrected the lie, telling him her daughter—the girl in the charcoal gray dress with shoulder-length black hair engrossed in conversation on the far side of the room—was twenty-eight and her son was twenty-six. At that point, both his eyes and mouth widened, making his face look like a misshapen pretzel with deep hollows. Naina surmised his reaction wasn’t because she looked so young, but because no one in his universe was likely over the age of thirty-five. It probably hadn’t even occurred to him that a friend of Alannah’s could be so much older. It was funny, after that, his tone toward her changed; he became more respectful and after a few drinks, even took to calling her “Ma’am.” While she never said anything, she had yearned to tell him that being in one’s fifties wasn’t as old as he might have thought, that she too had once seen fifty-two as surreal as death, that just because she had grown children and was maybe old enough to be his mother, did not mean there was a huge gulf between them.
The most unsettling moment of the party for Naina was when Karen walked in. The young woman was Amaya’s childhood friend who had transformed herself into a trendy-looking journalist from the chubby, chatty blonde girl she always remembered sniffing jars of spices in her kitchen. After they gave each other a quick peck on the cheek, she felt as if Karen was looking at her with the probing eyes of a reporter, trying to reconcile the image she had of Naina with the one facing her—a fifty-two-year-old woman in a long, sleek black dress with two slits on either side; a tummy shaper underneath; and knee-length, three-inch stiletto heel boots. At that moment, Naina felt exposed, as if she were wearing a transparent dress through which her daughter’s friend could see every droop in her flesh. The last time she had seen Karen, her stomach was looser and had a small, visible bulge.
Before Karen thought she was a fraud, a farce, a fool, Naina yearned to get away, but she could not be so rude to Amaya’s friend.
“Mrs. Mehta, happy birthday,” Karen said, her bewilderment conspicuous. “You look marvelous—my gosh—you seem like such a New Yorker now.”
“Uh . . . thanks, Karen.”
Karen’s eyes felt like they were peeling away layers of her skin. Skin that felt as thin and flimsy as paper.
“So . . . so very glad . . . you could make it. Especially . . . especially . . . since you’re here . . . I mean . . . visiting New York . . . for such a short time . . . Very . . . really nice of you. So . . . how are . . . sorry, I mean . . . how is everything with you in D.C.?”
“It’s good, thanks. Have you been in touch with anyone from Montcrest lately? Oh, by the way, you probably already know this, but I recently spoke to someone who told me that Rishi Nambiar had gotten into Stanford, but his mother didn’t want him to go that far away, and I also heard that the Sharmas are completely freaking out because Puja has decided not to go law school but wants to study music therapy . . . isn’t that awful? Of all the people in the world, I never thought the Sharmas were that conservative, but you probably know better— Gosh, Mrs. Mehta, you look so great. I can’t believe it. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that, you always looked good . . . you know what I mean.”
Naina smiled weakly, muttering something vague about being too busy with her new job to keep in contact with everyone in Montcrest. Through the beaded curtains, she saw Rita, an arts administrator acquaintance, and Danielle, whom she had once met at an art opening of a Czech installation artist, walking in. Relieved, she excused herself and rushed off to greet her two new guests, grabbing another glass of red wine on the way.
Toward the end of the party—somewhere between one and two in the morning—two Lebanese belly dancers dragged Naina to the floor and made her rhythmically jiggle her hips in concert with theirs. As the alcohol and the swaying of her body took over, everyone and everything around her—shimmering and multi-hued under the colored lights of the Moroccan lamps—seemed magical, and she ended up dancing somewhat provocatively, drawing loud claps and hoots from her guests. She had surprised herself—and by that point in the evening, every surprise seemed like a good one, so she danced alone for an entire song, swept away by her own performance.
Now, standing in her apartment kitchen, with the demonic howls of the ambulances again piercing her eardrums and scattering her consciousness like beads of a necklace coming apart and dashing in different directions, she felt veins of embarrassment course through her as murky images of herself dancing bobbed inside her head. How silly had she looked? What must have everyone thought? At least, Amaya had not seen it since she had left the party by midnight with Karen. Naina pressed her fingers against her ears and closed her eyes. Finally, silence, that sublime wisp of calm she experienced only in brief spurts in New York, came.
Naina pulled out two bags of a strong peppermint tea she had recently discovered near Union Square. Her rattled thoughts gathered again, like beads of a necklace being slowly restrung with a needle by Ramchand, the bony, shaggy-haired man who used to sit cross-legged on a tattered beige cushion at Ashoka Jewelers, the dusty and crusty jewelry shop in Old Delhi her mother always went to.
She wondered what Karen must have thought of her. The shock on Karen’s face had been obvious, but she suspected the full strength of her feelings had not made it to her face. Had she really changed that much since the New Jersey days? Yes, her hair was now shorter and more layered; she had given up her rich burgundy lipstick for a shimmery, subtler red; she had her eyebrows done regularly and had started going to the gym a couple of times a week—but that much?
Still, whatever changes had occurred in her physical appearance had to be small in comparison with the changes inside of her.
She switched on a Beatles CD as she waited for the tea to cool down. She absolutely adored the Beatles and had done so ever since her college days in Delhi when she fell in love with John Lennon.
For most of her life, Naina felt certain about what would come next, the anticipated rituals of life unfolding themselves with remarkable timeliness. An arranged marriage at twenty-one to a doctor, two children shortly thereafter, the joys and annoyances of raising children followed by the inevitable sadness of letting them go to forge their own way in the world. Yes, there had been a few things she might not have foreseen had she been given a crystal ball when she was younger, like becoming the associate director of a women’s health organization in New Jersey or taking several art history courses at Rutgers University in her forties. But nothing hit her with its unexpectedness like Harish’s death at the age of fifty-three. He had been a healthy man with no history of heart disease or problems with cholesterol; yet, he had been the one who collapsed and died while performing a colonoscopy on a patient.
She sat down on her couch and buried her face in her hands as the memory of her husband’s dead body—so utterly helpless and heartbreakingly pure as it lay in the casket before it was taken to the crematorium—ambushed her. It had been over two years since Harish had died, and while there were days when she did not think of him (that fact did make her feel guilty), that final image still had the power to make her shudder—as if she were suspended in the throes of an unknown limbo.
She was, of course, stricken with grief over her husband’s untimely death, but it was more than that. She was so profoundly mystified by this abrupt bend in her life that it punctured her soul, severing it until it never returned to its previous composition.
How could this have happened to her? She had always pictured them as husband and wife reading the newspaper every morning until their eyes could read no more, looking after their grandchildren when their children went off on holiday with their spouses, and reminding each other to take their pills as their memories dulled with age. This vision of the future had seemed as clear to her as an often-traveled road on a sunny day. There was no rational way to explain her belief in this sort of predictable contentment, but when a woman married an educated, well-paid man who had properly been vetted by her parents, security—lifelong, uninterrupted security—was promised in exchange for entrusting your life to a virtual stranger.
At least that was how she had understood the deal—though she had never put it into words until after her husband’s death when her thoughts curled inwards, burrowing into murky, cobweb-filled areas. Before he died, that assumed and unspoken bargain had been kept. But, then, it fell apart, suddenly, senselessly, and she felt as if the bricks that held her life together had been jerked out of place, turning her existence into something vulnerable like a cheaply constructed house in an Indian village, trying to keep upright in the rain, thunder, snow, lightning, or anything else that decided to strike it.
She got up and poured her tea and did not add any sugar or milk as usual. If Harish had been there, he would have discouraged her from drinking it like this. He preferred his with lots of milk and sugar, diluted to something that barely tasted like tea. She could imagine his tall, lanky frame swimming in a polo shirt too big for him, his long legs covered in slim, dark-colored slacks, and his pointed, bony feet engulfed in a pair of Clark’s brown leather sandals; he would be standing against the kitchen counter and adding more milk to his tea.
Just thinking about him, she became soft with tenderness.
“Why don’t you add some more milk?” Harish would invariably ask in his low-pitched, gentle voice that had the effect of a salve. Of all the things about her husband, it was probably his voice she missed the most.
“Then I can’t taste the flavor of the tea, you know that,” she would always reply.
“I know, I know, I just don’t understand how you can drink it like that. Okay, I won’t ask anymore.”
But inevitably he would ask her again.
There were so many things they knew about each other after so many years. She knew he liked his lamb roganjosh extra spicy with roti, his chicken curry mild with rice, his pastas without any Parmesan cheese, his yogurt always plain, and after dinner; she could tell from his facial expression if he wanted to stay longer at a party or not, from the tone of his voice which nurse he was speaking to; she could see the question marks darting in his small brown eyes when she said or did something he did not understand, the currents flickering in his brain warning him against questioning her at a particular moment.
He knew by the look on her face when she did not like someone, the right moment to interrupt her when she was reading, by the way she clutched his arm that she had had a bad dream—after which, he knew all she needed was for him to say “it’s okay, it’s okay” in his reassuring voice and to massage her forehead, and she would fall asleep again.
But he never knew what her bad dreams were about and she never knew what caused him to stare blankly at nothing when he’d wake up in the middle of the night, at least a handful of times every month. She had asked him, but he brushed her off. “Nothing, nothing,” he would normally say. But there was something about his gaze in the dark, the specter of something undefinable hovering in his bony face. Was it actually there or was she imagining it?
There were so many things they did not know about each other.
She went to sit on her sofa and sip her tea, the unadulterated flavor of mint swirling in her mouth like a salubrious spring. Suddenly, she felt glad not to have to defend how she liked her tea to anyone. It was one of many benefits of living alone.
Had she been attracted to Harish, she wondered, now surrounded by New York women who constantly examined the question of attraction. Yes, she had found him sort of appealing, and wanted to be touched by him, particularly in the early days. But whatever was there was never rekindled, and, in the later years, there had been little amorousness left in their marriage.
Recently, Alannah had asked her why she had been so confounded by Harish’s death. She understood her friend being devastated, but why the huge bewilderment? Naina thought about it and then said, “Why are people stunned when a sick or healthy loved one passes away even though they know countless people die all over the world every single day? Death is one of those things where inevitability never protects you from startlement.” Still, even as she said it, she again felt how naïve her reaction to Harish’s death had been.
A few weeks after he died, Naina moved into the guest room, hoping she might be able to get some sleep there. But she would invariably wake up at three in the morning, make herself a big kettle of peppermint tea, put on her favorite Ella Fitzgerald CD, sit in the rocking chair, and stare at the meandering floral pattern on the crumpled bedspread. She would ponder over existential questions like the meaning and purpose of her life, questions whose answers she had always figured lay somewhere in or around the palm of her hands and so had rarely given them any real consideration. Whenever she thought about them, it was just as an intellectual exercise where she may have prodded the edges but did not probe further.
But at fifty years of age, those assumed answers had seemed to have dissolved into sand and flown away from her hands. She had pictured herself stranded in an eerie void, like someone stuck on a lone highway at night, and because she was slightly afraid of driving—even after so many years—that image had terrified her more than most.
She took her last sip of mint tea and put the cup on her rectangular glass-top coffee table, which she had chosen because of its bamboo-pole legs and because it was neat and compact for apartment living. Paul McCartney’s voice came through the speakers. There will be an answer, let it be. Really, she wondered. Will there be an answer? When? Where? How?
An hour later, she glanced at her watch. It was past five o’ clock. Oh my goodness. It was so late. In a couple of hours, she was meeting Amaya and, for the first time, her half-white, half-Indian boyfriend, and she had yet to shower and dress. There was no more time to sit and ponder. She had to step out of her mind quickly, a skill she’d never quite acquired. But New York life demanded that she learn it.
Naina picked herself up from the sofa, stretched out her arms, and forced herself to hasten the pace. She went to her closet and took out a bunch of clothes. What to wear to such an occasion? She wanted to look like a proper mother of a daughter just a few years shy of thirty, but she didn’t want to look like a fuddy duddy aunty either. She threw another set of clothes on her bed, feeling her hands twitch. Meeting her daughter’s boyfriend. How odd. What a strange thing to be doing.
First, she tried on a high-waisted black-and-white dress, but decided against it because it brought too much attention to her breasts. Then she tried on a pair of jeans and a black cotton sweater but rejected that because it looked too casual. She settled on formal black pants and a caramel-colored sweater with some delicate embroidery around the neck and cuffs. And what about the shoes?
She spotted her pointy black boots from last night’s party standing on the floor—they looked awake and alert, as if ready to dance again with abandon, ready to take long strides, ready to trespass boundaries. She would wear those boots. Meanwhile, a strange restlessness and trepidation scurried about inside her in haphazard streaks.