Author's note: This is sort of for school, and sort of for fun. We just finished reading The Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, and I decided that I wanted to retell the first story from the other character's point of view. I might do other stories as well, but, for now, this is what I have. I hope you like it.
Disclaimer: Things I do not own: Jhumpa Lahiri, interpretation of maladies, love, Shoba, Shukumar, any of the dialog in this story, knowledge of things, broken relationships.
She read the notice quickly, not really internalizing it. It wasn't important; she had too much to think about without worrying about their electricity being cut for an hour a night for five days. Still, she read it aloud anyway, hoping that hearing herself say the words would make them real. Nothing seemed real to her anymore. She lived her life in a sort of haze, one that veiled her from the world. She stayed inside herself, basking in the awareness of her own internal pains and triumphs. Not that there were many triumphs these days.
"It's good of them to warn us," she conceded, more for something to say than because she actually meant it. She tried to say things, tried not to slip too deeply into herself. She wasn't quite sure why she still persisted, but she did. It seemed like the proper thing to do. She followed Shukumar into their home, her satchel slipping from her shoulder onto the floor as she walked into the kitchen. She left it there; she could pick it up later.
Looking for something more to say, she glanced once more at the notice in her hand. "But they should do this sort of thing during the day."
"When I'm here, you mean," Shukumar said, putting the lid on whatever it was that he was cooking for that night. Shoba didn't answer him: he was right, though she didn't want to admit it. "When do the repairs start?" he asked without turning around to look at her.
"It says March nineteenth. Is today the nineteenth?" She couldn't remember. Once she'd always known the date, but now that too was hidden on the other side of her personal veil. She drifted towards the calendar to check. She looked at it, then frowned, looking at it again. Did they really have a calendar of wallpaper? When had that happened? With a sigh, she realized that there were probably a lot of things here that she didn't know anymore. It was like she was a stranger in her own home. She looked back at the calendar half of the thing, her eyes scanning the page until she found the proper day. "Today, then. You have a dentist appointment next Friday, by the way."
He didn't answer, giving her time to turn away from the calendar and go back into the hallway, bending down to pick up her satchel and moving to install herself on the couch of the living room. She set the satchel down by her feet and fished the first of the files out, clipping it firmly onto her clipboard and beginning to attack it with her colored pencils. Shukumar didn't follow. He never followed anymore.
Six months before, it hadn't been like this. Six months before, they'd been happy, had been in love. Six months before she'd been pregnant. With the death of their child, all the serenity they'd built up over three years of marriage vanished, leaving nothing but what she had now: two strangers living in the same house together, one throwing herself completely into her work, the other moving steadily away from his.
Yet again, she asked herself why it had happened like this. What had gone wrong? Surely they loved each other enough that losing the child would make them stronger, not pull them apart. She'd thought that before, it the dark moments of the pregnancy when she visualized what might happen if disaster struck, never for a moment envisaging that it actually would. Her fantasies had all been wrong: their love was not strong enough to get through the darkness. In an odd way, it relieved her. She didn't have to be a strong one, didn't have to be one of those wives who stuck with their husbands no matter what.
She looked back down at her work to find that her hand had stilled. Frowning, she got back to work. She had to finish these before tomorrow: another batch would come in then, and she couldn't afford to fall behind in her work. Not now, especially.
She worked steadily until almost seven-thirty. Finally, she put her last file aside and walked back into the kitchen, to find that Shukumar still stood in front of the stove. She watched as he rubbed a lemon half across his fingertips, feeling oddly nostalgic. There were days when she missed cooking. Not enough to take it back up again, but enough to feel a slight pull when she watched Shukumar move deftly through the small kitchen.
"The lamb won't be done by eight," Shukumar told her. "We may have to eat in the dark."
Lamb. That was what it was. She nodded. "We can light candles." She reached up and unclipped her hair, letting it tumble out of its restrictive coil. Without bothering to untie them first, she kicked her sneakers off. "I'm going to shower before the lights go. I'll be down."
She headed towards the stairway, looking forward to the feel of the hot water running over her body. It never failed to relax her, never failed to get her to come out of the protective veil and actually enjoy something. It wasn't much, but she looked forward to it all the same.
Because the lights would be going out, she couldn't enjoy her usual luxurious forty-five minute shower. Restricting herself to half that was hard, but she had no choice. Showering in the dark, for all that it would be interesting, would be too dangerous. With a sigh, she reached for the shampoo and got to work on her long black hair.
"What's all this?" The table hadn't been this fancy in a long time. Shoba, wearing a towel over her head and a robe over her body, surveyed it critically, wondering if Shukumar meant something by it. She didn't want him to, not anymore. He couldn't mean anything more to her, not now. It was far, far too late. But Shukumar didn't know that. She remembered her promise, just the night before, and refrained from commenting any more about the fancy table. He would find out soon. Instead, she changed the subject. "You made rogan josh." A pointlessly obvious observation, intended merely to change the subject. He didn't reply, only checked the lamb.
The microwave beeped then, signaling the beginning of the hour of darkness. "Perfect timing," Shoba remarked.
She couldn't see Shukumar, but she thought he might have nodded.
"All I could find were birthday candles," he apologized, lighting them. He'd stuck them into the pot of fake ivy, giving the entire thing a slightly eerie look.
"It doesn't matter," she assured him, surprised to find that she meant it. "It looks lovely."
Once again, he did not reply, only took her wineglass and filled it carefully, holding it close to avoid spilling any of the red liquid on the tablecloth. He did the same with his own, and they served themselves, both leaning close to their plates to see what they were doing. Shukumar reached over and drove more candles into the ivy, lighting them one by one.
"It's like India," she commented softly. "Sometimes the current disappears for hours at a time. I once had to attend an entire rice ceremony in the dark. The baby just cried and cried. It must have been so hot."
She deliberately didn't follow that thought to its logical conclusion: their child. She didn't often let herself think of the child that had never been. It never would be. Better just to move on. Yet she couldn't let it go, couldn't get over it. It annoyed her that Shukumar had so few problems getting over it. Was he so callous as to not care that a child, their child had never lived?
"Are you hot?" he asked, pushing the ivy farther away. His face was thrown into even more shadows by the sudden loss of light. She found she preferred it that way: when she couldn't see him, it was easier to pretend that nothing had changed between them.
"No. It's delicious," she said. "It really is." She closed her eyes, willing him to say what she always used to when he complemented her in such a manner: 'I'm glad you like it. I think it could use a little salt myself.'
He didn't, only reached over and refilled her wineglass. She thanked him softly, surprised at how disappointed she was.
The silence stretched on once again, and she sighed to herself. It would all be over in a few days. She could make an effort now, for his sake.
"I remember during power failures at my grandmother's house, we all had to say something." She had his attention, she knew. He would be leaning forward slightly, squinting to see her face better.
"I don't know. A little poem. A joke. A fact about the world. For some reason my relatives always wanted me to tell them the names of my friends in America. I don't know why the information was so interesting to them. The last time I saw my aunt she asked after four girls I went to elementary school with in Tucson. I barely remember them now." She thought back, trying to remember. What had their names been? Rozanna, yes, and Emily. Those two were easy: she'd known them well. What were the other two? She frowned, trying to think. The names stubbornly evaded her, and she grimaced.
Shukumar didn't answer, and she found herself scowling. He could at least try and make an effort! It was all very well to say that she was going to be nice these last few days, but being nice to an unemotional void was hard. Still, she pressed on, aware that she was going to leave in a few short days. She owed it to him to try one last time.
"Let's do that."
"Do what?" Finally, a response!
"Say something to each other in the dark."
She could picture his frown. "Like what? I don't know any jokes."
"No, no jokes." She didn't know any jokes either, not anymore. She couldn't even remember what laughter was like. "How about telling each other something we've never told before."
"I used to play this game in high school. When I got drunk."
She shook her head. "You're thinking of truth or dare. This is different. Okay, I'll start." She considered momentarily, taking a sip of wine as an excuse. "The first time I was alone in your apartment, I looked in your address book to see if you'd written me in. I think we'd known each other two weeks."
"Where was I?"
"You went to answer the telephone in the other room. It was your mother, and I figured it would be a long call. I wanted to know if you'd promoted me from the margins of your newspaper."
"No. But I didn't give up on you." She still wouldn't. Not yet. "Now it's your turn."
He was silent for a long while, and she began to wonder if he was just ignoring her.
But he spoke at last, and she felt herself relax. "Okay. The first time we went out to dinner, to the Portuguese place, I forgot to tip the waiter. I went back the next morning, found out his name, left the money with the manager?"
"You went all the way back to Somerville just to tip the waiter?" It sounded like something he would have done. He'd been kind like that, always thinking of others. It was one of the reason's she'd loved him.
"I took a cab."
"Why did you forget to tip the waiter?"
It was dark – the candles had burned out – and she waited for him to answer. It seemed to take an eternity.
"By the end of the meal I had a funny feeling that I was going to marry you. It must have distracted me." For once, it was her who had no answer.
The day at work passed slowly. Shoba spent it alternatively dreading the evening and longing for it. Every day that went past was closer to her departure. She wanted to leave, of course, but it wasn't easy just to pack up and leave. And maybe she shouldn't have started encouraging Shukumar again. He might be better off if she hadn't. But she'd had to try, had had to make one last effort. At least now he would have something to remember her by.
The meal was delicious again, but she didn't tell him so. He wouldn't respond with the proper words, and it seemed useless to begin the ritual if he wouldn't complete it for her. Still, as an apology for not trying again, she began to clear the dishes away.
"Don't worry about the dishes," he said, taking them away from her.
It struck her all of a sudden how much their roles had been reversed. Once, it would have been her saying that and him trying vainly to help her with them. Almost rebelliously, she poured soap onto a sponge. "It seems silly not to. It's nearly eight o'clock."
He didn't object again, and they finished doing the dishes rapidly. They didn't move away from the sink for a long moment after that, content to stand next to each other as they hadn't in long months.
The lights went out at eight o'clock, and Shukumar lit more candles. He'd bought real ones, she noticed. Their light held, bright and steady, allowing her to see more of his face. She didn't like that, and turned away. She had to pretend nothing had changed to be able to go through with this, and she couldn't do that if she could see him clearly.
"Let's sit outside," she suggested. "I think it's warm still."
They each took a candle and headed towards the porch. They watched as their neighbors walked to and fro, too restless to stay indoors for long.
"We're going to the bookstore to browse," one man called out, grinning at them. "I hear they've got power."
Shukumar smiled back slightly. It was the first true smile Shoba had seen in months. "They'd better. Or you'll be browsing in the dark."
The man's wife laughed, putting her arm through her husband's. "Want to join us?"
"No thanks," Shoba and Shukumar said at the same time. They glanced at each other, then away. They hadn't done that in months.
Silence fell between them once more. Shoba wondered if Shukumar would begin this time. It would only be fair. It was his turn. But he didn't seem about to do so, and, after a long moment, she took a breath.
"That time when your mother came to visit us," she told him. "When I said one night that I had to stay late at work, I went out with Gillian and had a martini." Not the best secret, but she had to work up to the last night, had to work up to the big one. That was the point of the game.
Once again, he didn't say anything. She sighed, wondering if she would be forced to conduct both sides of the conversation. "Your turn."
He blinked, returning to the present. "I cheated on my Oriental Civilization exam in college. It was my last semester, my last set of exams. My father had died a few months before. I could see the blue book of the guy next to me. He was an American guy, a maniac. He knew Urdu and Sanskrit. I couldn't remember if the verse we had to identify was an example of a ghazal or not. I looked at his answer and copied it down."
She looked over at him, focusing on his shoes so that she wouldn't have to look at his face. Why had he explained it to her? She wasn't going to explain hers to him. Almost unconsciously, she reached over and took his hand. By the time she realized what she was doing, it was too late to pull back. "You didn't have to tell me why you did it," she said instead.
Silence descended once more, and she didn't try to break it yet again. Clearly he didn't want to talk. She could handle silences. Still holding his hand, she turned inwards, retreating back behind her veil, noticing that it had started to thin around the edges. Was that a bad thing? She wasn't sure any longer.
The ritual continued, both of them sharing secrets. They were just little things, mostly, but Shoba knew how important this was to Shukumar. He was letting himself hope, poor man. She shouldn't have begun this, shouldn't have allowed his hope to grow. Yet she hadn't been able to help herself, and, if she had to be honest, she enjoyed it too. It was nice to know that there had been one last good time before it ended forever. As the fourth night waned and they reached for each other in the safety of their bed, she found herself wishing, only briefly, that this didn't have to end. Maybe there was a way they could continue, a way they could save themselves. But then morning dawned and he lay quietly at her side, his mouth half open, his arms clutched around himself, and she knew she'd made the right decision. She couldn't do this to him. He deserved someone who could love him. He deserved someone who wasn't her. And she deserved someone who wasn't him. They'd had something, once, but no longer. She was surprised to realize that the thought didn't make her sad any longer.
The fifth morning started out badly. Shoba reached into the mailbox, as was her habit, pulling out a flyer. The moment she saw it was from the electric company, she knew what it would say. Sure enough, the repairs had been finished ahead of schedule. The lights would not go out that night. Her heart thudded in her chest as she replaced the flyer in the mailbox for Shukumar to find. She'd hoped for one more night, had hoped for just a little more time. But she couldn't do anything about it, and so went off to work, her heart heavy and her mind distracted. Almost unthinkingly, she began to rehearse how she would break the news to Shukumar. She went through her lines in her head, saying them over and over again until she had everything exactly right.
She came home to the smell of shrimp malai. For something to do, she picked the flyer up once more, rereading the words. All her excuses had run out. She had to tell him. Her free hand went to her pocket, where the brand new apartment key rested.
They ate in silence, Shukumar waiting for her to speak first, and Shoba waiting for them to finish. Finally, as they finished the last of the shrimp, she rose and turned the lights on, blowing out the candle.
"Shouldn't we keep the lights off?" Shukumar asked, but she only shook her head, setting her plate aside so that she could look straight at him. She owed that to him, at least.
"I want you to see my face when I tell you this."
He frowned. She saw it in his eyes: he thought she was pregnant again. She shook her head mentally, willing him to do the math. They hadn't made love, apart from last night, for the last four months. If she were pregnant, he would have noticed. But men never did the math. Not even Shukumar. Maybe she didn't regret this as much as she'd feared she would.
"I've been looking for an apartment and I've found one." He didn't answer, and she continued, explaining her reasons as though to a small child. Still he said nothing. Finally, she ran out of words, merely staring down at the table, willing him to understand.
It took far too long for him to answer her, and she began to fear that he never would. At last, he raised his head, his eyes hard. She swallowed hard, steeling herself for his harsh words, for his insults. She deserved them. But they didn't come.
"Our baby was a boy. His skin was more red than brown. He had black hair on his head. He weighted almost five pounds. His fingers were curled shut, just like yours in the night."
She stared at him, stunned into complete numbness by his betrayal. This was much worse than hers. He'd had no right to keep this from her, had had no right to see the child she had never laid eyes upon. She searched for the veil to hide behind, but she'd become complacent these past few days, and all that remained were tatters, not enough to block the pain that came with his words. She turned away from the table, moving back towards the light switch. Almost without thinking, she flipped it, sending the room into darkness. Silently, she walked back to the table. Shukumar joined her, and she didn't turn away. Their tears mingled on the tabletop, reminders of the ways in which they'd betrayed each other, tribute to the things they now knew.