This week’s story is a time capsule. I wrote it a decade ago when I was traveling to India for work. It was very early days for me in writing fiction so everything new I encountered became an ingredient for a story. This was my first trip to India and right away I was sensually overwhelmed. Everything about the place felt foreign to me. Traveling alone on a business trip creates an observational distance that makes you feel almost like a ghost wandering through a place where no one knows you. It’s perfect for a writer.
What wasn’t perfect was ingesting the wretched bacteria they fondly call the Delhi Belly and feeling like I might die of nausea for three days. That’s how I spent my time in the most luxurious hotel I’d ever stayed in. From the bed, I looked out the window onto the jewel blue pools surrounded by Frangipani trees in the courtyard and wrote this story. I also narrated the recording I’m including here from that same room on my phone. It’s strange to listen to a younger me. I was tempted to record it again but thought it might be better to preserve the original.
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The girl breathed through her legs, at least that’s what Billy imagined. He had observed the way one of her slender brown limbs would snake its way out of the snowy landscape of the hotel bedding at some point during each of the five sleepless nights he had spent with her. This was the only thing about her that was not completely concealed.
He studied the contours of the leg in the weak light of morning in the hotel room. The leg, like the rest of her, was smooth and brown like the chai the wallas served out of dented tin urns on every street corner in the city. The knee was large in comparison to the slender thigh and calf, coltish like she had not yet grown into it. There was a raised, sickle-shaped scar only slightly darker than the surrounding skin that cuffed her delicate ankle. Her toenails, like small seashells, were painted pink.
Billy’s insomnia did not require a scientific explanation. Even after a week in the country, he continued to have illicit affairs with his own time zone. Giving into lengthy naps in the afternoon, he would wake up overheated and disoriented with a string of drool connecting him to the pillow. The girl would always be there, sitting in the exact same position in the chair by the window where she had perched before he fell asleep.
Billy hoped she would keep sleeping this morning. It was easier when she was not awake, her attentive eyes following his every gesture, imploring him to put her to use. He had not put her to use, at least not in the way she had expected to be used. But he had used her, nonetheless.
She might have been happier to be used in the traditional way an aging man of money from the U.S. would use an Indian girl who was a fraction of his age. She would, at least, have understood her role in the transaction.
Her English was transactional, as was his Hindi. This worked well when inquiring as to the price of a carved Ganesh or when ordering a second cup of tea, but proved worthless in negotiating the complexities of the human heart. But Billy had found that most language, even the $250 an-hour words exchanged with a professional fell short in this area.
Mostly her role had been to bear witness to the seemingly endless flood of tears that Billy produced in racking sobs that shook the entire bed. And to watch him sleep.
That first night in the hotel room she had been nervous and fidgety, not unlike the wild monkeys that clung from the broken windows and doorways in the old city of Agra where Billy found her. She had approached him as he passed on the street looking pasty and disheveled and completely foreign. The girl, Anju, was not trying to sell her body, but rather one of any number of carved trinkets she carried in a basket on her arm. She had reached out and grabbed a hold of Billy’s arm, gently tugging him toward what he had assumed was her family’s stall. Her large eyes, brown with shards of green and gold made Billy feel as if she saw into his soul. Later, he would come to understand that this open, searching looking was as common in the streets of India as the small idols they sold. The touch, the intimacy of her touch had shaken him from the gauzy stupor he had been shuffling in.
He had purchased more than he could comfortably carry and paid more for the items than Anju’s family had earned in three months. The people in the stall, he would learn were not in fact Anju’s family, but rather the family of a friend. Billy would never learn anything about Anju’s actual family. After the money had exchanged hands, the sheer amount of the purchase had inspired the family to invite Mr. Billy to share some tea and a meal. He had accepted the tea and wisely declined the offer of food, having spent his first three days in India on the toilet after eating the best mango he ever tasted from a street vendor.
After the tea, Anju offered to help Mr. Billy carry his purchases back to the hotel. He thought it strange that her family would allow her to do this and not insist upon one of the rangy pre-pubescent boys who had been squatting in the shade and eyeballing him. But Anju was eager and had insisted, making up with hand gestures what she could not relay in words.
At the gate of the hotel, the royal-looking guards with their enormous mustaches, crisp white uniforms, and matching turbans had looked at Anju with open disdain when they approached. When Billy explained that she was helping him carry his purchases, the smaller of the guards, the one who had always been smiles and “Namaste, Mr. Billy,” had scowled at Anju and tried to pull the packages from her hands. To Billy’s surprise, she had not let go, but rather stepped away from the guard and toward Billy who had explained to the guard that it was fine, she could carry the packages in with him. The guard had relented but made it clear with his look that this was not acceptable.
Stepping into the hushed marble coolness of the hotel lobby, Anju stayed close to Billy and tried to look in all directions at once. When he stopped before the door to the courtyard so that the man whose job it was to open the door for guests all day could do so, she had bumped into him. Billy had grown accustomed to always being watched attentively by the hotel staff, but in the presence of Anju, he felt a distinct difference in the watching. When he looked down at her, he could see that the eyes were making Anju visibly uncomfortable. “chalie chalate,” he said softly to her. “Let’s go.”
The courtyard of the hotel was spectacular in its opulence and serenity, especially in contrast to the city that lay just outside its sandstone walls where every sense was assaulted. The stench of the trash piles and urine, the constant bleating of car horns, the unyielding press of the sun, the eye-watering tang of a good mango pickle when it first hits the tongue and the unending horror show of poverty and desperation – children, filthy and gaunt from malnutrition was more sensory input than most people could abide.
The courtyard was lined symmetrically with manicured Frangipani trees. The honey sweetness from their blossoms combined with the citron candles and incense burning around the perimeter of the three cobalt reflection pools gave it the air of a holy space. The frantic noise of the city was masked by the trickling cascade of water spilling over the tiled walls from the glassy pools. Billy was certain the girl had never witnessed such a place. The evidence was clear in the language of her body. She had fallen behind him by several paces and was simply staring, open-mouthed at the large sapphire that was the swimming pool glinting in the sun.
From that point on, he had watched her carefully, enjoying the experience of seeing through her eyes. He had slowed his pace, even lingering at various points of interest on the way to his room: the fountain, the large flower arrangement at the end of the hall, and the gilded gold frames of the mirrors along the corridor.
The spell lasted even into the dim light of his room where fresh fruit was waiting in a bowl on a marble-topped table by the window, along with an arrangement of fresh-cut flowers and some small chocolates wrapped in gold foil. He watched, outside of himself, for the first time in months as her eyes panned across the room, devouring every detail until they reached the bed. There she was shaken from her trance, realizing the impropriety of the situation and her eyes widened, this time with fear as she set the packages down on the dresser.
He had not wanted her to leave but could think of no compelling way to make her linger. The last thing he hoped to do was scare her. He opened the drapes, letting full sunlight into the room, and offered her a chocolate. This had relaxed her and when he gestured to the sofa by the window, she sat on the edge as she unfolded the packaging of the candy. From there, his strategy was purely to please her. He had ordered room service – an assortment of fresh fruits, yogurt, and pastries. He turned on the television, showing her how to work the remote.
After an hour or so, he asked her if she needed to go. She shook her head, no, but he was not clear that she had understood the question, so she had stayed. Then it was dark. Hours later, after another tray of room service had come and gone and several Bollywood soap operas had played out, she was asleep on the couch. He pulled the comforter from the bed and covered her before laying down on the farther side of the king mattress in his clothes.
He had slept that first night more than he had slept in months, though he would still wake occasionally and look at the silhouette of the girl on the couch. Billy was not sure what he would find when he woke up and he discovered that he hadn’t cared. He was living moment to moment, which was something he had never done before in his life.
The covers on the bed stirred and the leg that had been exposed snaked beneath them. Billy rose from where he was seated at the small desk, turned, and gently pulled open the drapes enough to let the early morning light in. Anju rolled over to face him, the luxuriant splay of her dark hair covered the pillow. She rubbed her eyes and blinked at the light.
“Shuba praahbat,” he said.
“Shup prahBAAT,” Anju answered, gently correcting his mangled pronunciation. She smiled and stretched, arching her back like a cat.
“Hungry?” he asked.
“Ne, ne,” she said shaking her head.
She sat up, pulling the sheet around to cover herself. Billy had trouble understanding her modesty. After all, he had seen her naked on several occasions over the last few days. The nakedness had been her choice on the second day of her occupation in his room. When she had come out of the bathroom after taking what he believed must have been her first hot shower in complete privacy, she had simply dropped the towel. Her eyes had remained on the floor between them. She had not moved to pick up the new sari he had bought her in the hotel gift shop that was folded neatly at the foot of the bed. She had just stood there – part offering, part testing.
Taken by surprise, he had not had time to turn away before taking in the measure of her. Though only a flashbulb imprint on his retina, it was enough to establish that, relative to his age at least, Anju was just a girl. It was no false act of propriety when he had turned away. Without saying a word, he had just looked out the window until he heard her return to the bathroom and close the door. When she emerged a second time, she was covered in the beautiful vermillion cloth of the gift shop sari. In her eyes, he could not be certain whether it was gratitude or disgrace he saw. Either way, he had no appropriate response.
Anju patted the pillow beside her, her enormous eyes again imploring him. He moved to the bed and lay down, resting his head on the pillow. She leaned back on the headboard behind him, encircling his head with one arm and stroking his thinning wisps of hair with her slender fingers. As hard as it was for her to understand, she had come to know that this is what he wanted – what he needed.
She continued to stroke his head until his breathing slowed and transformed into whistling snores. He was like no man she had ever known, and Anju was as disgusted by his frailty as she was drawn to it. How could a man survive and be so weak? Perhaps he had not always been so she thought. She thought of the old oxen that pulled carts in the marketplace day after day, year after year. His eyes were tired and sad, like them.
The barrier of language had prevented her from understanding anything about him beyond what could be teased out of rudimentary nouns. She was not clear that he belonged to anyone or if anyone belonged to him. Occasionally he spoke on the phone, his voice serious, his words clipped. There was a laptop computer he opened once or twice and clacked on the keys for an hour or so. The rest of the time, he had spent simply making offerings to her as if she were Shiva herself. In return, he only wanted to be held and even this he did not demand. It was something she was compelled to do because the sadness radiated from him like heat from an infected wound. Only in holding him did the flow of tears slow.
In their five days together they never ventured beyond the fortress of the hotel. It was a sanctuary set apart from the real world and they seemed to understand that the precarious nature of their relationship would not survive beyond its walls. Even a meal in the restaurant or a swim in the pool pulled at the fragile strands that held them together.
She bent and kissed him on the forehead before slipping from the covers and retreating into the bathroom.
Crossing the courtyard in the expensive sari, a morning breeze coming off of the pool blew her hair across her face. Her hair was fragrant and sweet like the air of the courtyard itself. Morning doves wheeled across the sky above her head as she neared the tall doors that led to the lobby. As she approached, the doorman smiled broadly, pressing his hands together in front of his chest.
“Namaste,” he said bowing slightly as he would for any other honored guest.
When Billy awoke in the afternoon he knew she was gone before he called out. He looked at the chair by the window. On the butter-cream seat cushion laid one of the carved wooden Ganesh idols he had purchased. It was encircled by a ring of Frangipani blossoms.
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