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SUMMER – August
It was a proud moment in the life of Mira Sood, as she admired the set dinner table before her. A true work of art completed over the course of eight hours. Mira smiled down at it—the seven-course, traditional Indian dinner she’d made . . . from scratch. From the half dozen samosas to the paneer tikka masala, to the saag, the biryani, and not to forget, the gulab jamuns—deep-fried dough balls dipped in sweet syrup which alone had taken two hours to make. It was a meal fit for a Maharaja. Or in her case, her husband of three years, Jay Mehta. The latter had been acting strange for many months now, and Mira had no idea why. She’d tried everything from asking him about it, to making fresh parathas for him every morning (her mother’s advice), to offering to finally take the plunge and bequeath her maiden name for his last name (an aunt’s advice), to trying to start a family (everyone’s advice).
Mira considered this last piece of advice as she attempted to straighten out a plate. She’d spent the years of her married life shelving away her own dream of working so she could cook, clean, and support her husband’s career. Be the “good Indian wife” that tradition demanded. But with her turning thirty, the pressure had been mounting from her family for her to have a child. And so, Mira had (yet again) succumbed to her wifely duties. Did she want to be a mother? Did she think she had the chops to be a good one? Maybe. At least she was willing to try to bring her best to the table. Clearly, having a career wasn’t in the cards, so maybe motherhood was her calling. What was troubling, of course, was that Jay had been acting distant. They had vaguely tried to get pregnant, but only so much could be achieved in the absence of intimacy. Nothing had helped shake Jay out of his funk. Hence, Mira had decided to go all out. Tonight, she was determined to get to the bottom of her stale marriage.
When the doorbell rang at seven, Mira bounded up like an attention-starved puppy to open it. Jay stood there with his laptop bag slung across one shoulder, and yup, there was that ridiculous mood. She could see it as plainly as the nose on his face. “Hi, Jay.” She smiled, letting him in, determined to pivot toward cheer. “Look what I made. Diwali’s coming up in a few days, so I thought we could celebrate early,” she said, allowing him to take in the beautifully set table with the dishes all steamy, hot, and smelling irresistible, even to her.
But Jay turned and faced her instead. “Mira, we need to talk.”
She was glad to hear those words, because that’s exactly what she wanted to say to him. “We do, Jay. Listen, I know you’re stressed at work, and I’m sorry if I haven’t been supportive enough, but—”
“I’m having an affair.”
“Wh-huh?” A tsunami-like shock wave engulfed Mira from the inside out. “You’re—”
“I’m having an affair,” he repeated.
She was hearing him, but she couldn’t comprehend his words. “With a p-person?”
“Uff. No, a squirrel. Of course, with a person,” replied Jay, shaking his head.
“Oh, m-my . . . GOD!” Mira cried out, her hand muffling her mouth. “You’re having an a-affair?” She felt the earth ripple as the ground slowly began to sway under her feet. The women in her family had been prone to anxiety. Her great-grandmother’s panic attacks were notorious to the point where, by the end of her life, the old woman had taken to running down the street butt naked every time her nurse tried to get her in the shower. The gene’s baton pass down the generations had diluted the severity of this condition, but not enough to stop Mira from having a full-blown panic attack.
Jay rambled on. “Look, I met her on an airplane about a year ago while I was on my way back to Seattle from a business trip, and we hit it off right away. I wasn’t even sure what I was feeling at the time, but as the months went by, we got close and—”
Mira felt an explosion inside her head—a potpourri of shock, anger, and realization. “Oh my God, is that why you’ve been acting so aloof with me? Not wanting to—” She stopped short. She was a conservative Indian housewife, after all. Talking openly about their sex life (or lack thereof) wasn’t second nature to Mira. She preferred to imply. “Is this why you and I haven’t been close in months?”
Jay frowned, appearing almost confused at the insinuation. He offered up a shrug and off-loaded his laptop bag. “Mira, I’m tired of pretending. Reema just got a new job in California which made me realize, I have a choice to make . . . and I choose her.”
The words cut through her heart like a knife “Reema?” repeated Mira, incredulously. All this time, she’d been picturing Jay with an uncharted blonde with blue eyes and peach-pink breasts. But the fact that he’d cheated on her with another Indian woman was humiliating. Like losing a home game. Clearly, he wasn’t looking for someone different. He just didn’t want her.
By the time Mira surfaced from her deliberations, Jay had stomped away and was in the bedroom packing his suitcases. Instinctively, Mira tried to stop him.
“What are you doing?” he scolded her.
“Jay, this is crazy! You can’t just leave me?”
“I told you, I don’t want to be in this marriage anymore, Mira. I want to live my life with the woman I love, and that woman isn’t you. Don’t you understand?”
“But I gave up everything for you. My career, my family back home, my friends. I dedicated my life to you.”
Jay paused midway through laying a stack of his shirts into an open suitcase. “OK, so I am now giving you your life back.”
His words sent a shiver down Mira’s spine. She wasn’t getting through to him, and time was running out. But giving up wasn’t a choice; her marriage wasn’t the only thing on the line. Her father had, only recently, suffered a massive stroke which had left him completely immobilized, strapped to a wheelchair, and no longer able to speak. She couldn’t risk giving him another (and likely fatal) stroke with the news of Jay’s affair. “I’ll do anything, Jay, please. Don’t leave me . . .”
“Stop embarrassing yourself,” he replied waspishly as he continued to empty his side of their closet, packing his things into two large suitcases.
For the next two hours, Mira seesawed between pleas and reprimands. “Please don’t leave me, Jay” to “Shame on you, Jay” The lowest point in Mira Sood’s life was, hands down, her attempt to body-block her husband, to stop him from leaving her for another woman. But he left anyway, towing her heart through the mud behind him.
“Here,” he said, ceremoniously holding up his set of keys to the apartment along with a check for three thousand dollars. “The rent’s paid through the end of this month, and I’ve closed out my bank account. This is your share. It’s whatever we had in there, split evenly. It’s generous, considering it was all my earnings.”
Mira stood frozen, unable to move or comprehend the words hurtling at her like a meteor shower. Jay considered her with frightfully calm eyes, then dropped his keys and the check on a nearby coffee table.
When Jay finally left, Mira sat down on the carpet with her back against the apartment door. The moment felt surreal. Her brain felt numbed by the shock. It was as if she were in a movie, suddenly playing out the life of someone else—someone she did not recognize. Because this neither looked nor felt like the life of Mira Sood anymore. This was nothing like the life she’d dreamed of for herself—the life she’d hoped to have when she agreed to marry Jay and move to America. Three years ago, Mira had been an emotionally secure, twenty-seven-year-old woman who was content with life and herself. She’d completed a B.A. in English, worked a few years as an academic counselor at a local school, and then at a call center. Yes, she was still living in a small town in Punjab, but she was happy. She’d never been overly ambitious and always assumed she would eventually marry and have children. As her clock began ticking, her mother and the family elders had begun needling her to get married. “Either you find someone you want to marry, or I will find someone for you,” was her mother’s ultimatum. Mira didn’t exactly go out of her way to find someone she could love enough to marry—there were only so many options out of the handful of men in her small town. She’d had a couple of boyfriends over the years, but none of those relationships had been serious enough to stand the test of time. So, in the end, her mother won the “find-Mira-a-groom” race. Jay Mehta was a highly eligible bachelor, living in America. “And he just became an American citizen,” Mira’s mother had beamed. Did Mira love Jay? No, not really. But her mother did, along with the family astrologer who had lauded the match and guaranteed its success. And considering Mira had zero excuses (and zero men) queued up, she was left with the “no choice” choice. This was the norm. Besides which, she’d absolutely no reason to mistrust Jay—he was polite to her friends, he came from a well-respected Punjabi family, he was well-settled, well-educated, and Mira knew America was the land of possibilities. She’d married Jay on account of trust, hoping love would find a way into her heart with time. She’d bungee-jumped into an arranged marriage, hoping to fake it till she made it.
Lesson learned, Mira Sood. For here she was now, a thirty-year-old, “married-but-separated,” Indian woman. Such a phrase didn’t exist in her conservative community—a place micromanaged by age-old stigmas and family orthodoxies. As Mira sat sobbing, she tried hard to search for a point of reference. She couldn’t seem to remember anyone in her family who’d crossed the forbidden line. Not one broken marriage among the hundreds. Unhappy ones, yes. But they’d all stayed put in their nuptial prisons, preferring to slam doors and sleep in separate bedrooms, speak in sardonic tones and whispered threats, but never daring to break the sacred matrimonial pact.
Mira suddenly felt overcome by shame. She felt like the failure who had dropped the baton and cost the team the race. If word ever got out about her, she’d be shunned by one and all in her family. Her parents would no longer be invited to weddings. Her mother would lose her coveted spot in the inner family circle—the place where stories of gossip not only first reached but were freshly churned for the benefit of the masses.
Mira closed her eyes, trying to shut out her panic-inducing thoughts as she slowly succumbed to a second anxiety attack—she was nauseous, dizzy, her heart raced like a spooked horse, and the walls closed in on her. In the hours that followed, she sat on the couch and oscillated between a jaded, half-awakened state, and moments of involuntary sleep. Amidst her transitions, her dreams felt like flesh and blood reality, while everything she’d known to be real appeared to turn to smokey imaginings.
It was the pain in her neck that woke her the next morning. With her head throbbing, and her hair smelling like a koi pond from all the tears it had absorbed the night before, Mira zombie-walked from the couch over to the window to look at the dewy world outside. The rain fell incessantly. It had been for three days straight. Typically, on a day like today, with the raindrops softly playing percussion on the leaves amidst a cool breeze, Mira would have taken her cue and banged out a dozen handmade kachoris—perfectly crisp pastry shells, with a sweet and spicy lentil filling. But that Punjabi-Indian housewife in her had just been fired. Who was she now, without a husband to cook for? Just a woman with a ladle. Mira’s head felt like it weighed a ton, so she let it slump forward to rest against the cool glass window. She had no appetite, but she knew she needed to eat something. She turned around in the hopes of finding some leftovers in the fridge. But then her eyes fell on the fully laid dinner table—it looked perfect from the outside, but on the inside, it had all turned cold. Walking over to it, Mira reached out to grab a cold samosa, which she then stuffed into her mouth with anguish. With her mouth overfull, she went back to the couch and picked up her cellphone.
She felt no shame in desperately calling Jay (many, many times). She knew it was a mistake each time she called. But, at the moment, she felt hopelessly devoid of any self-respect, so she called him. It hurt each time it went to voicemail. It hurt as she left him another message, begging him to call back. And each time she hung up, she felt even more worthless than before. At the end of it, she’d exhausted the hours in her day, finding herself on the couch again, physically beaten, and so desperately heartbroken. She wanted Jay back—even though she knew he didn’t deserve her—just so this massive sinkhole he’d left behind in her life would be filled. By the end of the week, it became clear to Mira that Jay wasn’t coming back. Her brain had understood, but her heart refused to comply. She continued to dash to the phone every time it rang, hoping it was Jay calling. But it never was.
Mira was now a separated, unemployed, thirty-year-old NRI housewife with absolutely no financial prospects, and in dire need of a plan. And along with it, the answer to the universal question that follows a predicament like hers: What the hell am I going to do now?
End of Excerpt