The last leaf of autumn yellowed, curled brown, blew in the wind and rustled on a driveway in suburban Virginia. Ramesh stared at the fickle leaf absently for a few interminable seconds. Then he deliberately stepped on it, crunched it under the sneakers before going for a run around the neighborhood.
The trees stood bare, with skinny arms raised up to the skies in lament. The sun yawned lazily at the beginning of a crisp Sunday in early November. The neighborhood was slowly stirring to life. As he jogged through the sub-division, he wondered how many couple would be staying in bed, having breakfast as they made lazy conversation.
That was how it was for him until the final Sunday in summer; waking up lazily next to his wife, with the morning sun streaming through the bedroom windows. Right in the middle of that week, she announced that she was leaving him.
Ramesh was stunned by the bolt from the clear blue sky. He was not even aware that anything was wrong with their marriage, leave alone problems serious enough to break it up. When the shock wore off, he demanded an explanation. She said she had nothing to say, except that she wanted it to be amicable, that he did not have to pay alimony or provide any other financial support.
The terms of the divorce was not the response to the questions raging in his mind. So he pressed on. Was it another man? Was it something he did? If so, he could try and change that. Was she homesick? Did she want to return to Chennai? If so, he was willing to talk about that. But his beautiful young wife stayed stubbornly mute. What would she do? Where would she go? Not a syllable.
A fortnight went by, with him arguing, pleading her to stay, begging to reconsider. She put up a wall of silent defiance. By the end of the week she was gone, with a couple of suitcases filled with personal belongings.
Four years of what he thought was a happy marriage crumbled all around him without preamble. The fire that scorched his heart was unbearable. Propelled by the anger, he ran faster.
He came home drenched in sweat. After showering, he scrambled eggs and made some toast. Several minutes later, he threw the untouched plate of food into the garbage can as he cried over the sink in an empty, but splendidly decorated townhouse.
When they were a couple they put a lot of thought and effort into fashioning their dwelling into a work of art. His wife’s flair for interior design was visible throughout the house.
She transformed the place into an aesthetic expression of their romance and love. Every carefully placed knick-knack told a charming anecdote of their travels. Every piece of furniture, every accent was her refined taste. Their marriage and home was the envy of their social circle.
He wanted to smash the house and everything in it to rubble. But he was too drained.
When snow painted the region monochrome in the New Year, his estranged wife put an end to the clipped conversations over the telephone and began to communicate exclusively through her lawyer. After several futile attempts at reconciliation, he gave into vexed resignation and agreed to the divorce.
The domicile was his to keep. She took everything in the house, leaving him with some personal effects and the furniture in the master bedroom. He gave in without resistance.
Every day that winter he returned to an empty shell – devoid of warmth, filled with loneliness – as he tried to grapple with all that had come to pass at a speed with which he could not cope.
He put the house for sale. He told the realtor emphatically that he wanted the place to be sold as quickly as possible. He started searching for a job outside the tri-state area. He was hoping to move to some quiet corner of the country where he knew no one, just so he could nurse his wounds in solitude.
He severed contacts with several friends and acquaintances because happy memories taunted him. Only a few close friends remained. They were his only solace.
He could not even bring himself to share his sorrow with his parents who lived in Chennai. The thought of their suffering, especially the image of his mother’s crestfallen look, prevented him from sharing.
He tried to broach the subject numerous times during the weekly calls to his family back in India. He could not muster the strength. Whenever his mother asked to talk to her daughter-in-law, Ramesh came up with excuses. He would say that she was running errands or attending some type of classes.
Within a short period of time, the lies knit themselves into stories. Thus, a one-day session of an obscure class became an intensive course at a local college, which resulted in attending job interviews that sometimes took her out of state.
He even coerced his wife into calling his mother once or twice during their separation, to lend credibility to his stories. When the divorce was finalized at the end of January, he moved her to Texas on account of a job. He was grateful for the oceans and the continents that separated him from his parents.
In going through the daily strain of coping with a broken relationship, he began to find respite in the untruths and half-truths that he constructed meticulously to shield his parents from his pain. It gave him a small ray of hope that the love of his life would return to him, that his shattered world would be complete again. But the empty house and sleepless nights woke him up to a listless reality, as if to mock his delusions.
It was while meandering through the land of surreal, a routine call from his mother turned his already complicated world upside down. She called to say, that his aunt and uncle would be in Florida at the end of February. They would be staying with their son, Murali, for a few months. She wanted Ramesh to invite them in time for the Cherry Blossoms Festival.
Taken unawares, he fell silent for a few seconds before recovering from this unexpected twist. He put up a few weak objections, mindful of the fabrications. He said that the current project he was working on, will carry through June and he was already working round the clock with hardly time to spare. She pushed that excuse away carelessly. He was about to say that his wife might not be able to come home from Texas, but quickly decided against it because it would be unwise to bring up his ex-wife at this time.
He was left with no alternative except agree to fly his relatives to Virginia. The last thing his mother said, before ending the conversation was that his wife should be there with during their stay. He agreed.
After the phone call he paced the almost empty house swearing and cursing. As if his plate was not heaped enough with misery, now a fresh layer of humiliation was going to be to be added to it, because a couple of nosy old people wanted to break into his pathetic life to rub salt on burning wounds.
What is wrong with these people anyway? Why can’t they mind their own business and stay in their homes, instead of flying half way around the world to dance on the ruins of his marriage?
Just because they were related to him did not give them the right to barge into his life unceremoniously. Just because he spent a few happy childhood-summers at their home, did not give them the liberty to invite themselves over shamelessly.
No, he could not let that happen. He would not allow some old busybodies to trespass his privacy. It made no difference whatsoever that his mother was very close to this older sister of hers. He will not let others dictate his life anymore. He has had enough.
He pounded the walls as he screamed into the near empty living room. When he turned around, the lonely end table caught his eye. He walked up to it and kicked it. The table shook and rattled the phone sitting atop. He kicked the table hard. It fell to the floor, phone and all. Then he picked up the lawn chair, which was the only other furniture in the living room and hurled it to the far end. It fell on its face when it hit the door and lay there silently.
The enveloping silence plagued him. He fell to the floor and pounded repeatedly, yelling unintelligibly till he was drained of all rage.
Then he lay there, splayed, thinking about his mother’s demand, wondering, how was he going to make it work? She not only wanted her sister and her husband at his dismal abode, but she also wanted his ex-wife by his side. Now how was he going to make that happen? What if these intrusive relatives discover the truth about his broken marriage?
His fatigued mind raced with wild imaginings. What if his aunt nagged him mercilessly, forcing him to spill out intimate personal details of his marriage and divorce? Once enough information was gathered, that old cackling crone and that horrible husband of hers would embellish these stories with sordid colorings and regale it to all and sundry back in Chennai.
His precious life laid threadbare to be picked by gossiping vultures. What would that do to his parents? How horrible that his mother and father should learn about his divorce in such an ignominious fashion.
Without thinking, he dialed his recently divorced wife’s number. There was no response. This infuriated him. Like someone possessed, he re-dialed repeatedly. After half a dozen attempts, the phone was picked up. A man’s voice came alive and introduced himself as his ex-wife’s attorney. This man warned him of legal consequences, if Ramesh continued to harass his client. In response, Ramesh yelled back a mouthful of incoherent words, generously laced with profanity. He ended the rant by hurling the phone at the nearest wall.
As days peeled away from the calendar, he desperately tried to sell the house and move out of the region. His job hunt was not going at the pace that he wanted it to. Nothing was going his way. It was as though fates had conspired to mock him by adding insult to injury.
Meanwhile, he learned that his aunt and uncle had landed in Florida. His mother was pressing him about flight bookings. He finally realized that he had no choice but to deal with the real possibility of a visit from his aunt Vasantha and his uncle Krishnan.
As much as he loathed it, even though it added to his burden, he decided to lie his way out of this difficult situation. After all it was only for a weekend.
When snow began to thaw, his place was well furnished and decorated enough to not raise any suspicion.
The scattering of cherry trees on either side of the freeway had blossomed into their full beauty. Spring painted the region a lush green interspersed with bright colors. Its rejuvenation was visible everywhere, from the blades of grass to the treetops to the spring flowers that danced in the breeze.
Ramesh drove wearily to Dulles airport to pick up his uncle and aunt.
‘Where is Aparna?’ was the first question his aunt asked right after the initial exchange of pleasantries. ‘I thought she would accompany you to the airport.’
Hearing his wife’s name uttered aloud after a long time sent a sharp stab through his being. He winced before answering, ‘She could not make it this weekend, because of work.’
‘So, she is not at the house?’
‘No, she is not.’
‘Oh, I was eagerly looking forward to meeting to her. It was bad enough that I could not attend your wedding. Now you are telling me that she did not come home for the weekend. Can’t she make it at all?’
He shook his head silently.
She continued, ‘Maybe, when we get home you can dial her number for me. I am sure if I talk to her she will definitely come and see me.’
Ignoring the request, he simply said, ‘Just wait here periyamma(aunt), periyappa(uncle). Let me bring the car around.’
During the drive, his aunt was enthralled by the scenery while his uncle could not stop talking about the roads and buildings. Ramesh could barely tolerate their voices.
He pulled into the driveway and helped them out of the car. ‘What pretty flowers?’ She remarked looking at the yard. ‘What are they called?’
‘Tulips.’ she repeated softly to herself and asked another question, ‘Did Aparna plant them?’
‘Yes,’ said Ramesh curtly and hurried to the car to fetch the bags.
‘Everything in this place is so beautiful. It is just like Ooty,’ she commented as she pulled the heavy winter coat around her tightly.
Ramesh opened his mouth to correct the comparison and then decided to say nothing.
She spotted the lone cherry tree covered in blossoms and walked toward it. ‘Is this the tree your mother was telling me about?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ said Ramesh as he picked up the bags and walked into the house.
‘Oh, Nimmy could not stop talking about it.’ Vasantha continued as she followed her nephew into the house, ‘As soon as I said that I’d be visiting Murali, your mother said, “Go to Ramesh’s house for the flower festival. It is just like the one in Ooty.”’
Uncle Krishnan made himself at home by stretching out on the couch. Ramesh showed them around the house finishing the tour in the guest bedroom. Then, he excused himself by saying that there was office work that needed to be taken care of urgently.
He hastened to his room down the hallway and the shut the door behind him and leaned heavily against the door. Why won’t his aunt shut-up about his ex-wife? Doesn’t she have any sense of personal boundary? How was he going to get through this weekend if his aunt would not stop meddling with his private affairs? How was he to keep his sanity for the next two days if she was going to be relentless?
He reached the end of his tether and the nightmare was just beginning. He fell heavily into the bed. He lay there devising cunning solutions to the various traps he anticipated from his aunt. Unable to keep his mind still, he paced around like a caged animal. He felt like a prisoner in his own home.
A couple of hours passed by, when he heard noises from downstairs. He knew that any moment now his aunt would be calling out to ask about this or that. To avoid her annoying voice, he steeled himself and went downstairs. The guests were sipping tea and snacks. His uncle was meddling with the remote.
‘I cannot find Sun TV,’ he said to Ramesh.
‘Oh, Sun TV. I don’t have it on my cable.’
‘Then do you have Jaya TV?’
‘Well, I don’t have any Tamil channels. If you want I can set up the shows on the internet,’ he said, turning around to walk up to this room.
‘There is no hurry,’ his uncle interrupted him, ‘I was just wondering. Get me the local news channel. I’ll be happy to watch some news.’
‘Here, have some tea,’ said his aunt as she handed him a hot cup. He sipped it silently. Having been accustomed to a quiet house in the past several months, the presence of other human beings seemed foreign and uncomfortable.
There was some easy banter during which his aunt once again brought the topic to his ex-wife. ‘It’s sad that Aparna is not here. I’ve heard so much about her from Nimmy.’
Ramesh smiled uncomfortably.
‘Well, can you dial her number for me? I’d like to talk to her. Maybe if I insist she would come home.’
‘I called her after we came from the airport. I told her how much you wanted to talk to her. She said it was a hectic day. She promised to call back when she had free time.’
Ramesh was shocked and ashamed at the ease with which the lie rolled out.
‘Oh, that’s too bad. But she will call back, won’t she?’
‘She will, as soon she finds time.’
‘Does she come home every weekend?’
‘No, every other weekend.’
‘Where does she live now?’ asked his uncle
‘Mm Dallas…,’ his uncle muttered aloud as he tried to locate the place on his mental map.
‘It’s in Texas, periyappa(uncle).’ Ramesh said helpfully.
‘Oh, Texas, how far is Texas from here?’ queried his uncle.
‘Over a thousand miles.’
‘That would be about the same distance between Madras and Bombay.’
Ramesh nodded and drank tea, grateful that the conversation turned to mundane topics. His uncle did some mental math, his face scrunched up, while his index finger danced in the air, murmuring to himself, while he worked out the numbers. Then the index finger moved to his temple and tapped it gently. It was at this point he decided the calculation was wrong and speculated that thousand miles would be the distance between Madras and New Delhi.
That brought about a nice chit-chat while his uncle talked about the improved infrastructure in India. He dwelt on the latest freeway system in India, explained how they connected the major metropolis. He talked about the latest cars in India and marveled at all the economic changes the country had undergone in such a short amount of time.
Ramesh chimed in through nods and monosyllabic responses, welcoming the change of topic as he sipped tea and nibbled on the snacks. He thanked his aunt for the tea.
When a polite amount of time had passed, he found just the right pause in his uncle’s monologue to inform the couple that he had to go out for a while, on account of some personal business. As soon as she heard that, his aunt asked him to pick some things from the Indian grocery.
She started with a short list and then decided it would be better if she went along for the errand. His uncle was only too eager to go out and explore. So, all three of them went grocery shopping. Ramesh fumed silently and bore the excessive liberties taken.
After dinner, his aunt was doing the dishes and Ramesh was clearing the table. Uncle Krishnan was looking through the DVD collection looking for a Clint-Eastwood movie, when he called out to his wife, ‘Vasantha, look you were feeling bad about missing Ramesh’s wedding. Here is their wedding video. Let’s watch it now.’
Ramesh’s face darkened for an instant. Vasantha finished the dishes and joined her husband in the living room. Ramesh sat with them and watched his wedding video in unspeakable agony.
As the movie rolled on, his aunt and uncle recognized many of their relatives. They paused and played-back interminably trying to amuse him with anecdotes about people from his past that he did not care about. When they saw someone talking to Aparna, they asked him if they were her relatives. Ramesh responded the best he could, while fighting to stay normal. Despite his best efforts, he sounded cold and remote when he responded. When he could not endure it any longer, he stood up from the couch abruptly and announced tersely that he was going for a walk.
His uncle offered to accompany him. Vasantha caught her husband’s eye and shook her head almost imperceptibly. Krishnan changed his mind and said it was too cold that he’d rather stay indoors. Ramesh caught the exchange and did not know what to make of it. Nevertheless he was glad to be on his own.
The moment he stepped out of the house, the cool night air hit his face. He walked for a few moments, jaws clenched, hands tightened into fists, his mind in a frenzy, his breath short with fury. He broke into a run. In less than hundred yards, he came to a sudden stop, completely out of breath. He stood there stooping to his knees and clutching them, trying to catch his breath.
He could no longer pretend that he was married. He could not bear to hear his ex-wife’s name, especially when it was mentioned in the context of their marriage, which was presumed to be a happy one. He did not have the strength to keep up the sham any more. The weight of it all became unbearable. He sat on the curb.
The pain of the divorce was his to bear. Not to be preyed upon by intrusive relatives. Why was this any of their business? Why would they want to talk about his wife so much?
He sat there staring into the night. A car drove by every now and then. There were voices and laughter heard from a distance. He could see walking silhouettes of a human and a dog. His breathing slowed down, his mind began to cool off. A slow realization came upon him.
He realized that he was more furious at his ex-wife for tearing apart a happy marriage for no good reason, than he was at his relatives for meddling. He was angry at himself for holding on to someone who did not care a whit about him, for loving someone who destroyed everything he cherished with thoughtless cruelty. He angry at himself for being a deluded fool, for hoping against hope that every phone call was from her, every shadow was Aparna walking into his arms and into his life.
Oh, how he ached for her. His eyes closed in pain. He could almost feel her head pressed against his chest, in a tight embrace, silky raven strands caressing his arms. He could almost smell her perfume in the early spring air. He teared up a little as memories of what he thought was a match made in heaven started a parade in his mind.
It played scenes of small things, her smile, a quizzical expression, her lissome beauty, conversations, places and things that brim the lives of young carefree couple. The parade ended with an image of a room filled with lawyers and strangers, discussing, arguing and negotiating the end of their marriage with printed papers and calculators. Aparna sat there impeccably groomed, looking like a sculpture, her eyes looking past him as though he was non-existent. Even when she glanced at him occasionally there was no recognition of the four years they lived together, as man and wife day after day, body and soul, building what was supposed to be a lifelong bond. There was no familiarity in those beautiful cold eyes, not even an inkling.
While he sat there writhing in agony at the amputated relationship, unable to take his eyes off of her, she seemed quite eager to move on with her life. That memory of nonchalance rankled.
He sighed heavily and got up from the curb to walk home, when the thought occurred that his lonesome abode was taken over by strangers. He smiled dryly at the thought. Somehow his relatives did not seem invasive anymore.
After all, he did spend some happy childhood-summers at his aunt and uncle’s place. Vasantha was not just his mother’s sister, they were also close friends. As bad as the timing was, he had to do this for his mother and his aunt. So he decided to grin and bear it until he dropped them off at the airport.
He walked back to the house prepared for more ‘Aparna talk’. To his relief, the ground floor was empty. The house was quiet. He went upstairs to see the light peeking from under the guest bedroom door. A twinge of guilt flickered through him. He stood uncertainly for a few minutes on the landing.
Then he walked downstairs and switched off the lights. He walked to the couch and saw the DVD player was still running. He played back the DVD from their wedding and watched it in snatches. He paused the screen when, Aparna’s face showed in close-up. He wondered if all that smiling radiance had an iota of truth to it. He turned off the entertainment system and sat in the darkness for several minutes.
Early next morning he told his aunt that he had to go to work. He said he had half a day’s work that he could not avoid. He assured that he would be back as soon as he could. He set the laptop up for them to view their favorite shows. He taught them to navigate to their favorite soap-operas in Tamil.
He took the car out and drove aimlessly. He stopped at a park and walked around for a little while. He went into a local diner and had a long brunch. He drove to Gravelly Point and watched the planes land and take off. He whiled away time until he drove back home late afternoon, bracing for another round of ‘Aparna talk’. Nothing happened. His uncle asked him about museums and expressed his desire in visiting them. He took them to the Smithsonian Space Museum.
The rest of the evening flowed smoothly. Dinner conversation revolved around updates of all their relatives. Ramesh relaxed when he heard childhood notoriety of his cousins. He contributed by revisiting the memories of the summers they spent together. He relaxed a little and breathed easy.
The morning of the following day brought the usual call from his mother. The first question she asked was if Vasantha and her husband were in Virginia.
Ramesh took that as cue and passed the handset to his aunt. He sat on the couch, adjacent to her, pretending to work on his laptop while he kept his ears pinned to every word uttered.
In response to a question from his mother, she said, ‘Aama(yes),’ nodding with the receiver at her ear, ‘Ramesh will be taking us to Washington DC soon after breakfast.’
‘. . .’
‘I saw a tree in their yard. It looks so beautiful.’
‘. . .’
‘No, Aparna could not make it this weekend. But she has been calling several times every day to see if Ramesh was taking good care of us. She apologized over and over for not being here. She sounds like a sweet girl.’
‘. . .’
‘I know, maybe next time when they visit India, I will be able to meet her. The timing did not work out this time.’
The sisters talked for some more time. After putting down the phone, Vasantha started to set up the dining table for breakfast. Ramesh sat stupefied, staring at his laptop, unable to believe the cool lies of his aunt. He looked at his uncle who appeared to be glued to the television. Ramesh suspected that his uncle was privy to the whole conversation.
For the first time since they arrived, Ramesh was relieved that his paranoia proved groundless. He was yet to fathom his aunt’s wisdom. For now he was grateful for her husband’s and her civility, for respecting his boundaries. The breakfast that followed was a quiet affair. The drive to Washington DC was a pleasant one, with sprinkled with some small talk.
During the drive to the cherry blossoms parade, his aunt marveled at the natural beauty, while his uncle expressed interest in visiting other museums. The incessant banter was honey to his ears.
They watched the parade. They walked to the Tidal Basin. Ramesh told them the history of how the cherry trees came to be in Washington DC. He was leaning along the guard rail while his aunt listened.
‘For how long do the trees stay like this?’ asked Vasantha.
‘For two weeks.’
‘That’s all? Just two weeks?’
‘Yes, for about two weeks this place would look like this and then the leaves come out and everything is green again.’
‘It is all so beautiful,’ she said smiling at the canopies of blossoms. ‘I am glad your mother insisted that I come and see these flowers. I have never seen anything like this. Maybe this is what Indralogam (Lord Indra’s world) looks like.’
Ramesh looked around and thought she might have a point about the mythological comparison. He smiled at his aunt and expressed his earnest desire that they would stay a little longer.
‘We don’t want to impose on you. I am glad you invited us and took such good care of us.’ Vasantha expressed sincere gratitude. Ramesh blushed, shamed by her graciousness. She patted his cheek gently and gazed at him tenderly. Ramesh saw unspoken volumes in those kind eyes and felt comforted. She broke the moment and said, ‘Next time, when you come to Chennai, make sure to visit us.’
‘When is your next trip to India going to be?’
‘I am thinking… probably in the next few weeks.’
‘So soon? Nimmy didn’t say anything about that.’
‘She doesn’t know. I made the decision a little while ago. I haven’t even booked the tickets yet.’
‘So when you come down, do visit us.’
A smile started from his lips, spread to his face, brightening it. He felt a sense of lightness wash his being. He realized he has not felt the sweetness of a simple smile, since the day Aparna made her cold announcement.
He smiled ever so broadly and called out to his uncle, ‘Come on periyappa(uncle), let’s go see the Lincoln Memorial. The walls are inscribed with his speeches.’
They walked among the happy throng of tourists who laughed and talked and clicked pictures, while the trees showered petals on the multitude that came to celebrate the advent of spring.