By Janet Marie Sola

or weeks now, the California sky had been gray and dry as the inside of an empty skull. Rajiv pulled into the BART station, put the old Toyota into park, and leaned over to kiss Naomi goodbye. Long, soft, sweet, a little nip on the lower lip, the best he could do. “Mmmmm,” she said. She looked perfect, he thought, with her sleek sheared coif and dangling earrings that showed off her long white neck. Behind her elegant head the sky was darkening, massing into enormous clouds. Rain at last, Rajiv thought, and felt a hum go through him, pulling him away from her.

Naomi pressed closer and whispered into his ear, her voice husky, as if she were going to convey some erotic tidbit. “Don‘t worry about wine for tonight,” she said. Then she pushed him away with her fingertips and smiled pertly. “David and Sue will bring some. And Adam if he can make it. Hopefully.” She crossed her fingers into “X’s” and held them up. It was a gesture she liked, her cheerleader way of reminding him he needed to get a job, a good job, and Adam could help. She opened the car door, which creaked on its hinges, and then took her husband’s hand and pulled it to her stomach. “Shhhh,” she said, although he hadn’t said a word. “Feel anything?” He couldn’t feel anything at all except the smooth fabric of her black dress and her still-flat stomach underneath. It was still an abstraction for him, an idea that hadn’t quite come into being. He nodded his head and smiled. That seemed to satisfy her. “I can already see Adam’s dreamy smile when he takes a whiff of your fish curry, mmmmm.” She hopped out of the car. “See you sixish.”

“Love youish,” Rajiv echoed. In response, she slid her eyes upward, gently mocking him, as she seemed to do more and more lately. It was true, though, he really did love her. From the moment she had reached out with her pale ringless fingers for one of his brightly colored paintings – a wild-haired young woman soothing a tigerwith her flute – in his shop in India, he had been taken with her. “It’s yours,” he had said. “My gift,” and that had been the beginning of his improbable journey to this strange, hushed life he now lived in America.

His mother had warned him against her. “A pushy American girl,” she had said, with a shake of her head. She already had a wife picked out for him, a modest girl from a good family. But Rajiv did not listen. He had been on fire for Naomi. As he told his mother, he loved her not just for her sky blue eyes, but for her blue sky view of life. When the train broke down for hours in the heat on the way to the Taj Mahal she had started singing old Beatles songs and soon had everyone in their compartment humming. Confronted by the sadness of the beggars in the streets, she had set aside rupees every day to give away on the theory that adding a drop of joy to someone’s life adds something to your own. And after they had been moved by the exquisite tribute of a ruler to his wife, its marble dome echoed in the slender reflecting pool, after they had made passionate love in a nearby bungalow hotel, she had run the heel of her hand down his bare chest and said, “I’m going to find a way to keep you, whether you like it or not.” They started making plans for him to come to America, “It will be beautiful,” she said, “if we just keep our energy positive.”

He thought of his Mother’s warning now, as he drove back home on the narrow freeway that intersected huge housing tracts, listening to the growl of the thunder in the background, the strained wheeze of the car engine in the foreground. Naomi often said they needed a new car but it seemed OK to him. But then he was seeing it with his third world eyes, as she often reminded him. The supermarket sign beckoned to him as he drove by, reminding him of his shopping list for the dinner party: fish, eggplant, tomatoes, so many things. Everyone said Rajiv’s fish curry was to die for, which Rajiv thought was a very odd expression.

Rajiv saw the bullet-shaped supermarket sign off the freeway. He passed the exit and kept driving. There was plenty of time to shop and cook later. Back home, he made some tea, took his shoes off and padded around in his bare feet. The house was quiet, so quiet out here in the suburbs, each house like a meditating sadhu enclosed in its own self-awareness. But aware of what? Rajiv turned on his computer in the spare bedroom, and logged in to the online class. He was almost finished with the program that promised to take him to “Job City.” From the white wall, his old paintings looked down at him. Naomi had had them carefully matted and framed. Rajiv thought they looked imprisoned in the glass. “Honey, we’re honoring your work,” she’d said and sighed. But now, it didn’t matter. It was almost as if the paintings had been done by someone else, someone he could hardly remember.

When the first drops of rain splashed against the window, Rajiv put the computer on sleep. He took his tea and went down the stairs that led to the first floor that connected directly to the back yard. He went outside, bareheaded and barefooted, into the rain. He stood at one end of the garden, looking over the lawn that had browned through the summer, and watched the rain fall, hard and fast now. It darkened the patch of ground where he grew his herbs, slicked over the grass, blackened the stones in the path that led to a flowering purple bush. Rajiv sat down cross-legged on the patio, a cracked patch of cement, and let himself be soaked. Rivulets started to form around the edges of the lawn. The water was carrying away the soil around the flower beds, exposing the roots of the plants.

He waited for great coughs to shake the air the way it happened in the monsoon in Udaipur, when the rain swept over the plain and didn’t stop for weeks and women waded through the flooded streets, holding their plastic bags with food up in the air, and his grandfather, a skinny brown man with a huge white moustache, carried a black umbrella even though he was immersed up to his knees, but the newspaper he carried under his free arm somehow stayed dry. Then all his family – all his aunts and sisters and cousins – would prepare a great picnic and go to the country and sit in the gazebo and watch the rain.

He went back inside, and rolled a cigarette. He liked sweet hand-rolled tobacco and Naomi only let him smoke outdoors. Now he stood in the open doorway, dripping, and watched the energy of the storm gather and burst like a mandala, the sun shining through in a gap in the sky so it cast light in each drip, a million of them, that created designs – scrolls and great swirls – before his eyes.

He started when he heard a familiar voice, a low chirrupy sound not unlike his cellphone ring, but human. He glanced to his side and smiled to see his mother standing by him, wearing her blue sari, her hands folded in front of her. “Are you happy in your new country?” she asked him. He could not answer her. There was happiness here, like a cartoon balloon over his head, but it was not his happiness. He did not know who he was anymore, except a man with a dark face who sat in a big empty house. “Does your wife love you?” she asked. Again he could not answer. His mother looked dim and dusty, barely visible, he noticed, and Rajiv suggested she wash off in the rain. She did, and the film fell away from her face and hands and for a moment she became luminous.

Rajiv’s real cell phone rang and his mother became blurry at the edges and then disappeared altogether. He fished the phone out of the pocket of his jeans and shielded the phone from the rain with his body. It was Naomi, wanting to tell him that Adam was coming for sure, and if he wouldn’t mind he could add raita – that lovely dish of cucumbers and yoghurt – to the menu. “You make it like no one else,” she said. Yes, he would do that, he promised. “How are things going?” she asked. “It sounds like you’re outdoors in this god-awful rain.”

“You caught me at a good time, I’m just about to go the market.”

“So late?” she said. “Well, you don’t need to pick me up. We‘ll all come together from the office. That will give you extra time.”

“See you later sweetie,” he said, and pressed the disconnect button.

His cell showed it was two o’clock. Rajiv made a mental note that he needed to get to the store, with its counter of fish wrapped up individually under plastic, like gifts. But an idea had come to him, and first, he had something he wanted to do. He found a shovel in the garage, and in the middle of the garden he began to dig. He pushed it into the water-softened ground, against the entrenched roots of the lawn grass. After he had dug for a while, he reached down and brought up a handful of soil. A small bug was struggling in the dirt. He looked at it, a shiny winged creature that looked too wet to fly, and had a wild impulse to pop it into his mouth. He let it crawl down his forearm until it finally fell off to the ground and was carried away by a stream of water.

He went back to work, and as he worked he felt his body come alive and his sadness fade. He dug instinctively, without quite knowing what he was doing, maybe digging all the way back to India, he thought ruefully. The minutes and hours went by and still he kept at it, until he looked up from his project and found he had dug a long narrow trench, perpendicular to the house. Then he went back into the garage, rummaged around, and came out with a length of black plastic. He used it to line the trench and secured it with rocks he removed from the border of his herb garden. He brought the two plastic chairs from the patio and put them at the end of the trench furthest from the house. The rain was waning, and made a sound like radio static as it fell on the plastic lining and started to fill the trench.

So preoccupied had he been with his project that he didn’t notice that the light was fading. When he checked his cell he saw it was nearly six, too late to go to the market, too late for the elaborate curry. He went indoors, dried off, put on a clean white shirt, dark cotton pants and loafers. In the kitchen, which still had the morning dishes in the sink, he found several large pots and turned on the tap to fill them. How different this water seemed from the water that came from the sky, a different substance altogether, as if it came from a water factory. He looked in the cupboard for rice and lentils, found them, and put the pots on the stove, one for each, when he heard the key in the lock and voices, Naomi’s with its bright, rising inflection, and her friends.

He went out to greet them, and they came in all at once, shedding their raincoats and piling their black umbrellas in the entry way. Rajiv had met Sue and David once or twice before. They were a couple who seemed to outdo each other in plumpness and blondness and their obsession with restaurants and food. (We’re foodies, they had told him when they had gone out to dinner. So you worship food, Rajiv had observed. Yes, you’ve got it, they said, and laughed with great hilarity.) Now, apologizing for their dampness, they reached out to hug him, a greeting custom he had not quite gotten used to. Naomi shook her head, arched her neck and sniffed the air, again and again. She flicked her eyes and looked puzzled, as if perhaps she were in the wrong house. Adam extended his hand to Rajiv. His gray moustached face, ruddy with weather, along with the bulk of his big body, had a certain comfort in it, Rajiv thought.

Five minutes later they were seated in the living room, sipping white wine. Rajiv did not drink, but after he put the rice and lentils in the boiling water, he joined them. “I hear you may want to go to work for us,” Adam said.

Rajiv nodded. “Online classes, you know. They’re really excellent. I believe I’m passing with flying colors, and all that.” He excused himself to go tend to the rice. Naomi followed him into the kitchen and stood near him at the stove. The gas flame licked around the pots. Her already big eyes were becoming bigger. “Where is dinner?” she said in a half whisper.

“I am making dinner,” he said. His cheeks began to burn.

“Rice!” she said. “That’s our dinner?”

“Yes, rice and dahl.”

“What happened to the fish curry? What happened to all the beautiful things you said you were doing? What have you been doing all day?”

His mother appeared again. She stirred the rice and shook her head at Naomi’s anger. “Is this a good wife?” she asked him. “No, this is not the way a good wife treats her husband. But now I cannot help you.” Rajiv had no idea of what to say to Naomi. He had no experience in this. His own father had commanded great respect from his mother.

“I have been working on another project,” he said, his voice barely audible, his eyes focused now on his task. He took the spoon from his mother who again faded away.

Naomi bit her lip. “I don’t understand you,” she said. “What are you thinking! Don’t you care?”

“Yes, I care.”

“Can I help?” It was Sue’s voice at the kitchen door, and then her face, her curly blonde hair still damp.

“No, we’re fine,” Naomi said, and with a final withering look, turned her back on Rajiv and went back to her guests. “So remarkable,” he heard Naomi say in a too bright voice, “that we’re having this storm so early in the year.” Rajiv stirred, and with the wine their voices grew louder and their laugher more intense. “Where is that husband of yours? He must be very busy in the kitchen,” he heard Adam say.

Rajiv went to the living room to announce dinner. “Please, everyone come to eat,” he said. They picked up their glasses of wine and followed him to the dining room. Naomi had set the table the night before, five beautiful place settings with their wedding-present silver and crystal. Rajiv lit the candles in the center of the table and returned to the kitchen, took a stack of white china plates, another present, and spooned a lump a rice and a creamier spoonful of lentils onto each. As he brought the plates to the guests he realized he had never noticed before how rice and the lentils seemed to have the same gray color.

After he served them, everyone looked at Rajiv with an expectant expression. “Please go ahead,” he said as he sat and took a mouthful of his own. Their faces fell. They began to eat, quietly, as if they were at a gulag feeding station. Naomi vacillated between a pained, pleading glances at a spot on the wall and a look of cold fury directed at him. Sue had a frozen smile on her face and made strange movements with her eyes in Naomi’s direction. David finally broke the silence. “So healthy,” he said.

“Is this a family recipe?” Sue asked.

Adam kept filling his wine glass. “I was in trekking in Nepal once,” he said, “and this is what my porters ate. Morning, noon, and night. Which is why they had such excellent constitutions.” Then he sensed he was saying something inappropriate and shut up.

“Rajiv had an elaborate dinner planned – his fish curry,” Naomi finally blurted out. “But there was a family emergency.”

“Oh dear, I hope no one’s hurt,” said Sue, looking at Rajiv.

Rajiv shook his head, staring at his plate.

“A different kind of emergency,” Naomi jumped in. It was obvious to everyone that she was on the verge of tears.

“Perhaps we should do this another time,” Sue said.

“Yes, maybe we’d better go,” Adam said. David mumbled an agreement, and in unison, they pushed themselves away from their almost untouched plates, and tiptoed away.

“Good luck, chap,” said Adam to Rajiv, who stood up by his chair.

“I’ll call you,” Sue mimed with her mouth to Naomi, as she followed the men out the entryway. Rajiv could hear them murmuring as they put on their rain gear, closed the door behind them, and, a few moments later, drove away.

Naomi stared Rajiv down across the table. He shifted uncomfortably, then started to gather the dinner things. “Don’t walk away,” she said, her voice strained. He stopped, and held the plates in the air. “How could you do this? Are you trying to humiliate me? Or are you just crazy?”

“Is it about the food?”

“Food!” She began to shriek like he had seen women do on TV reality shows. “It’s not about food. It’s about responsibility. Being a partner. Being able to count on someone. What‘s wrong with you?” She raked her nails across the material that covered her stomach. “I am not going to do this.”

“What are you saying?” he asked.

“You know what I’m saying. There is no way, no way I’m going to do this all by myself.” Her shoulders were shaking.

He stood for a while, frozen. He could leave, he thought, he could still do that. He could go back to the place he longed for, where he would move again in a flock, as he had with his family and friends all his life, instead of facing this adversity, this emptiness.

“Please, Naomi. Please don’t talk to me like this,” he managed to say. “You don’t see me anymore. I am only your project.” She turned away from him.

“Look at me,” he said. He went to her and took her by the shoulder, gently spinning her back to face him. She lifted her eyes. In the low light, she looked pale and frightened. “Follow me,” he said. “Just this once.” He led her down the stairs and into the back yard. It had stopped raining. On either side of what used to be a lawn were mounds of dirt and running the length of the yard, the trench he had dug. “What is this?” she said. “What happened? Oh my god what a mess.”

They stood at the edge of the trench. In the strip of still water, they could see the moonlit clouds, purple and grey and luminescent, like the inside of an abalone shell. “Oh, Rajiv,” she said, but it sounded like exasperation. He took her hand and led her to the other end of the pool, where he had put the two chairs. They sat in them. From this angle, a slice of the house, lights in the windows, looked back up at them, upside down. “Just look,” he said.

She was quiet for a long time, and in that pause, he felt as if he was waiting for himself in some way, for himself to be invited to come live in this house with her.

Finally, she spoke. “It’s beautiful. It really is. Is it the Taj Mahal?”

“Yes,” he said, “I think so.” He laughed as if he had been holding his breath for months. She took her shoe off and held her bare foot up over the pool until she could see its dark image in the water. He watched it for a moment and he did the same, moving his foot closer to hers till they touched, over the reflection of the house. He knew then he would do whatever was necessary, go to work and shop at Wal-Mart and drive the freeways and fill the house up with the smell of curries as best he could.

Naomi moved his hand to her stomach. “Shhhh,” she said.



Janet Marie Sola is a writer living in the beautiful Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon, where she enjoys hiking, kayaking, and hunting for the elusive spotted owl. Her poems have been published in literary journals (e.g, Poetry Flash, Alchemy and others), and articles and reviews in many publications (e.g, San Francisco Chronicle). She has an MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University.

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