Chapter 1

Shortly after six thirty in the morning, I crawled out of unconsciousness feeling empty and uneasy. My pupils strained to adjust themselves to the early morning rays of light that filled my room but failed to propel the darkness out of my heart. Blinking lazily, I steeled myself back to my sour reality and painfully it occurred to me that I no longer had a job.

I would have to sit at home on a weekday. How was I going to explain all of this to my mom?

Shit.

Did I do the right thing? Of course, I did, or did I? There was not a chance on earth I would work another day in that office, following his instructions, being a slave to his want of me. But how long was it going to be before I got the next job?

Curling up in bed with a million thoughts daunting me, I clutched my pillow tight against my aching chest and squeezed my eyes shut, forcing out the tears that welled up in my eyes. My vision blurred and my chest began to feel heavier with each passing second as memories of the relationship flashed before me. How could I have been so stupid for so long despite sensing his aloofness?

What I witnessed yesterday had left me feeling raw and vulnerable no doubt, but the truth was finally crystal clear. And it hurt. It hurt so badly even though I saw it coming.

I was used. And that gruesome fact made me feel like a piece of furniture.

That son of a bitch left me feeling like a worthless whore and I didn’t have the balls to do a damn thing about it. I pulled up the pillow that laid by my side and buried my face in it in an attempt to restrain myself from crying. Clearly, he had power over the way I felt, he’d left me feeling cheated on and degraded. I didn’t want to feel that way and he didn’t deserve power over the way I felt.

I wanted to jump out of this upsetting state before I was sucked in too deep; before my hurt ego gave way to an emotional breakdown.

The overwhelming and raw feelings that coursed through me were unbearable, I was in dire need of complete distraction to avoid falling into a depression. I loved myself too much to wallow in any sort of self-pity.

I need distraction. I need distraction. I kept repeating the words over and over in my head. I need distraction.

I opened my eyes, managed to sit up and slide my legs over the side of my bed, the feeling of vulnerability slowly overpowered by anger. I shouldn’t leave myself hurting, I didn’t deserve this. I wiped the tears off my cheeks with the back of my shaking hands and reached out to pick the half empty glass of whisky from the study table, gulping down what was left in it as I walked over to mom’s bedroom.

Swallowing past my burning throat, I pushed open her bedroom door a crack, just enough to peep in and catch a glimpse of her. She was fast asleep, her face looked relaxed and youthful except for a few lines at the corner of her eyes. She looked so much like me. Except older. And so much stronger.

Circumstances had forced my mom to raise me single-handedly, and I had no complaints about the way I was raised. But she’d never let me in emotionally, and that had somehow caused me to do the same.

Very carefully, I shut the door to mom’s bedroom and walked back into my bedroom. I grabbed my phone from my study table and moved to the kitchen without making a sound. To avoid any questions from mom, I washed the empty whisky glass, wiped it with a dry towel and set it back in place. I quickly checked my phone before fixing myself a strong cup of coffee. Ten missed calls from that asshole. I had no intention of receiving or returning his calls. I couldn’t believe he had the nerve to call me after what he had done, after what I had witnessed. My decision that no explanation can get us back together could not be wavered. Not a chance.

Mustering enough courage that was fueled by my growing anger, I did what I should have the previous day. I blocked his number on my phone, and hopefully, in due course, I’ll have the equilibrium and power to block that asshole from my life and memories.

I was about to take the first sip of the strong black coffee I had just brewed when my phone began to ring. I turned to look at the screen, hoping it wasn’t him, and to my relief it wasn’t.

It was Rachel, my best friend.

When I took the call, I realized he couldn’t reach me. I had blocked his number just a few seconds ago. God! Were these the early signs of depression?

“Hey Jess, good morning,” Rachel’s voice greeted me with just the amount of warmth I needed this morning. “You won’t believe how worried I’ve been about you all day. Is it too early to talk?... I’ll call you later if you’re still in bed.”

“No, I just woke up,” I said, trying to control the slight sobs induced by the concern in her voice. “We just spoke last night. You didn’t have to call again. I don’t want to burden you with my shit, I’ll be ok.” I adjusted my grip on my outdated but still functional mobile phone and walked to my bedroom, taking my coffee mug with me and gently shutting the door behind me to keep from waking mom up.

I hadn’t seen Rachel in three years. We video chatted once a month, sometimes more frequently, but it didn’t do anything to assuage how much I missed her. I really just had one friend - Rachel, and she knew more about me than my mom would ever be allowed to know.

She’d left India to pursue a master’s degree after which she’d started working a pretty promising job, one that would help her take the burden of her student loan off her parents. After tasting absolute freedom, coming back to India wasn’t something she wanted. Her parents were pretty conservative and she wanted to experience life outside of the narrow thinking her parents imposed.

God! I missed her so much more today, if only she was around.

“How are you holding up?”

“I’m fine I guess. What time is it in Los Angeles?” I tried to change the subject, but my voice betrayed my attempt.

“It’s six fifteen in the evening. I stepped out to check on you. You don’t sound fine, and I’m not ok with that. I’ve put my work on hold for you, so you better make it worth my time.”

Yesterday, after what I witnessed, I had to tell somebody about it, somebody who’d listen without freaking out. She was my go to girl and I knew she’d listen to me irrespective of what time of the day it was. I called her and told her everything. I had to tell someone to figure out what to do next since my brain had stopped functioning and I needed help from someone smart, who I could trust.

“I think I’m on the verge of going into a depression,” I said truthfully. “I wish you were around. I don’t think I can burden mom with my problems, I won’t be comfortable doing that. If I tell her, she might go into a depression herself or it’ll be the end of me, the latter having higher possibility.” I shook my head as I spoke, “I can’t tell her, at least not now. She’s working so hard, she needs support and encouragement you know, not burden from the shit that is my life right now.”

Mom was three months away from receiving a PhD in English literature and she’d worked hard and funded her own education. Being a single mom, she always made me her top priority. After I had turned financially independent, a position I’ll not be able to maintain much longer if I didn’t get a job soon, she decided to go ahead and accomplish some of her career goals, goals that had to take the backseat due to her untimely pregnancy with me.

When I got my first job three years ago, not only did I lift the burden of the house rent off mom’s shoulders, I also shifted us from a one-bedroom apartment in an inconvenient area to a two-bedroom apartment in a relatively upscale locality. That’s when she decided to go ahead with pursuing further education and I couldn’t be prouder.

“Jess, Babe, I’m always around and no, you are not going to be depressed because I’m not going to let that happen. You don’t have to tell your mom a thing, you have me. I’m going to help you through this, alright. You trust me?”

In that moment, I realized how lucky I was to have her. “Yes. I trust you.”

“Right, then listen up. Shit happens. Shit happens all the time. I’ve faced it too. Welcome to the world of assholes darling! First times are never easy so you can cry it out. Cry all you want, it’s alright. It’ll help you unwind. Exhaust all those tears from your glands babe.”

I couldn’t fight back the soft sobs that erupted from my throat as she spoke. She was right, I had to let it out. My chest began to feel lighter as unrestrained tears found their way out of my eyes.

“Please don’t mind, I’m eating a sandwich as we speak,” she said as she munched.

“That’s ok,” I managed to say through the sobs.

“Good. You’re doing well. Now as you’re crying, tell me what’s on your mind.” Rachel had an inherent dexterity at relationship counselling.

“I’ll have to find a job soon. How many days can I sit at home before mom finds out?”

Rachel took a moment to swallow what she chewed before she spoke. “Ok. I’ve got a solution to that. What’s your next concern?”

I sipped from my coffee mug, settled on my bed and took a deep breath. “I’m angry, very angry. I want to teach him a lesson, a lesson he’ll never forget. He needs to pay for what he’s done. I want to kick him in the balls, make him feel miserable for using me like I’m some cheap whore. The least he could do was break up with me. I want to teach that fucking prick a lesson!”

“Good, I like your spirit. If I were you I would have kicked him in the balls too. Anyway… Next?”

“I have to find a job,” I said, a slight fear creeping in.

“You already mentioned that Jess. What are the other things that are troubling you?”

I took a moment to think. “I just got cheated on and I quit my job. What else could be on my mind? I’m jobless, how am I going pay the house rent?” “You’ve got money saved up, right?”

“Yes. But that’s enough for a couple of months, maybe a year. What am I going to do after that?”

I heard her sigh. “Alright, alright. First of all, you’re not going to remain without a job for a long time. Second of all, going by what you just said, you have enough money saved up so that gives us good breathing time. Now I’ll tell you what’s really troubling you. You feel used and dejected, right?”

I nodded and said, “Yes.”

“That’s because you don’t know your worth. You’ve given him the chance to define your worth. Your happiness lies purely in your hands Jess. Are you getting my point? That asshole doesn’t have the power over the way you feel, because you aren’t going to give him that power.”

She was right, but it was easier said than done.

“But what about my job? That job paid me well, now I don’t have a job. I have saved up some money, but that’s going to get exhausted soon. I should’ve thought about that before quitting, I’m scared now,” I said between soft sobs.

“If it comes down to dignity and a job, choose dignity. You can always find another job.”

“Hey I read that somewhere. If I’m not wrong, the saying goes – if it comes down to ethics and your job…”

“But in your case, it’s the question of your dignity. It would kill you to work with someone who fucked you for a year taking advantage of how hot and good you are. Maybe the universe is trying to tell you something. Maybe it’s time for a break from your monotonous life, and you hated that job anyway.”

I did hate my job, but it paid me well and I needed the money. If I didn’t find the next job soon, we would have to move into a smaller house and that would prove me a failure.

I didn’t want to be a failure. I didn’t want to fail my mom.

I sniffed and took a sip of my cooling coffee. “If this is a sign from the universe, I must point out – it’s a ruthless way of presenting a sign. What wrong have I done to deserve being treated like a fucking whore?”

“Ok. Good question. But inconsequential. Tell me, when was the last time you holidayed?”

Although completely unrelated, I thought for a moment. “I think after tenth grade, mom took me to Goa. That was my last holiday. Yes. First and last actually. Mom couldn’t afford much Rachel, you know the salary of a professor here right, they are paid peanuts.”

“I know, hats off to your mom though. I’ve never heard her complain about anything. My purpose of asking that question is, the last time you holidayed you were fifteen. You are twenty-three now. You haven’t holidayed in eight years, that’s pathetic. Actually, you’ve holidayed just once in your twenty-three years of existence. That’s even worse. You should be grieving over the two decades of no holiday that you’ve lived through instead, or a no holiday life if I may.”

I half sobbed half laughed. “Now I’m confused about why I’m crying.”

“Well, this is the perfect time Jess.”

“Wait a second, you’re trying to tell me I should pack my bags and go holiday?” My brows rose as I thought about it. “Right after I found my boyfriend sleep with someone else?”

“Yes. Close guess. I have been thinking about it for the last two hours and I think this is what you should do. I want you to pack your bags and come to America.”

“America?” I squeaked as my eyes widened. I took a big sip of my coffee as I tried to digest the idea of doing that. “What will I tell mom?” I heard her take a sip of something with a straw. She always made a sound when she sucked in the last of her drink with a straw. “Tell her you have to leave on short notice for work. She’ll believe you. Just maintain a poker face.”

“But. I don’t know… I mean… what will I do in America? That’s just crazy.”

“I am not going to let you sob to death in Bombay neither will I allow you spoil your mom’s crucial time. You are coming to LA, that’s it. We’ll have fun together, you’ll meet my friends, and this is probably a sign for you to get back to writing more seriously. Maybe you’ll get a new idea, a new story to write about. I’ll hook you up with somebody. You’ll have so much to look forward to. Come on…”

I shook my head. “No way. What will I tell mom?”

“Tell her it’s work, you idiot. For all you know, she’ll be happy you’re going. She likes to work alone, doesn’t she? She needs the calm and quiet while she’s doing her thesis.”

I shrugged as I gave it a serious thought. “I’m not sure Rachel. This is insane.”

“You have a ten-year US visa as it is, are you planning on letting it rot in your locker? All you have to do is book your ticket. You’ll be occupied babe, that’s exactly what you need right now. Distraction. I’m not taking no for an answer, you have to come here. Period.”

She was right and only she could persuade me to do things like this.

“I’ll check the tickets.”

I could sense her smiling even though I couldn’t see her. “Good girl. Do it right now.”

“Right now?”

“Yes. You are taking the next flight you get.” The nonchalance in her tone was sort of unnerving.

“You have to be kidding me.”

“If you don’t book the ticket, I will. So shut up and do it.”

First, she made me quit my job, which I did. Now, she wanted me to take the next flight to America and I was actually considering it. I couldn’t believe myself.

I rose to my feet and walked over to my study table where my laptop was. “I’ll check the tickets now.”

“Good girl.”

I set the coffee mug next to my laptop, stretched my arms, held the phone back to my ear and shook the mouse to bring my laptop screen to life. “I’m in front of my screen and I cannot believe I’m listening to you.”

“You’ll not regret it babe. Just do as I say. You need the break.”

I settled on my wooden chair that was probably older than me and tucked my legs beneath me. Surprisingly, my laptop was quick to wake.

“I’m on MakeMyTrip.com. The page just loaded. Now I’m filling in the details… International… Roundtrip. Mumbai to Los Angeles – LAX. Date - what date to I put in?”

“Tomorrow’s.”

“What?” My voice went up several octaves. “Tomorrow? I mean, it’s too fucking soon.”

“Do it,” she pressed.

“Ok. What about my return.”

“Two months.”

“God! I must be insane to listen to you Rachel.”

She laughed. “You will thank me. Trust me, you are in dire need of a big break.”

“Ok, surprisingly, the ticket is affordable. There’s United Airlines which leaves tomorrow. Actually, more like tonight, ten minutes past midnight. That’s too early, wait a second, let me check the next ticket.” I rubbed my eyes. “Holy shit. The next flight costs almost twice the money. Too expensive.”

“Cool. Leave tonight then. Where does it stop? Frankfurt?”

“No. The stop is at Newark.”

“Which means your first flight is a long one. Great. Tonight it is then, go ahead and book it. Forward the itinerary to me so I can be there at the airport on time.”

I blew a wayward strand of hair off my face, closed my eyes and took an impulsive decision out loud, “Let’s do this. I need this break.”

“Yes. Let’s do this!”

Butterflies grew wild in my stomach as I went through the payment gateway. It took me several minutes to go through with it. Rachel stayed on the line patiently.

“Booked,” I said, unable to believe what I’d just done. “I can’t believe I’m flying to America. Tonight. I’ll have to start packing.”

“Travel light. You can wear my clothes till we hit the malls. There are good sales coming up this month.”

“Do you need anything from here Rachel?”

“Not a thing. Just bring your sexy ass here in one piece. I’m going to go back to work now. You have a lot to do today, get started.”

I really did have a lot to do. “Bye. I’ll call you when I’m boarding.”

We hung up. Glancing at the clock, I saw it was nearing seven thirty. I had to start packing immediately.

In a few minutes mom peeped into my bedroom with groggy eyes. “Good morning. You’re up early today? Were you on a phone call with someone?”

I straightened and turned to look at her. “Good morning. I have something to tell you mom.”

She rubbed her eyes, gave me the why-so-serious look and walked to the kitchen. “What is it?”

I pushed to my feet and followed her. “Let me make you some coffee first.”

I knew she had sensed something unusual when a ghost of a smile curved her lips. I only offered to make her coffee when I had some unexpected news to break and that didn’t happen very often.

She walked to open the main door and collected the newspaper from the doorstep, then settled on the couch in the living room and stretched her legs out onto the coffee table. Once she had settled into a comfortable position, she leaned back and opened the newspaper to read. That’s how she would always begin her day.

While making coffee I concocted a lie that she’d hopefully buy, I had to mentally prepare myself to believe the lie with enough conviction so that my facial expressions wouldn’t speak otherwise. With her coffee mug in my hand, I braved up and settled next to her. “Here,” I said, handing her the mug.

She took it while studying my expression carefully. Her eyes weren’t groggy anymore. “What do you want to tell me?”

I didn’t know how to begin without freaking her out. She had a lot of things on her mind already. “I…um… I have to…” It was hard to frame it.

“Spit it out.”

“I have to leave to America tonight.”

Her eyes widened with surprise. She lifted her feet from the coffee table and placed her coffee mug on it, set the newspaper aside and turned on the couch to give me all her attention.

“You are telling me now?”

I shrugged. “Well I found out this morning. It’s for a new project. I agreed to go on short notice. My colleague who was supposed to go can’t make it. He’s in the hospital with some fever or something.”

She looked at me for a long moment as if trying to figure out if I was speaking the truth. I did my best to maintain a poker face. I knew I was successful when her nose scrunched and she smiled. “You must be excited.”

I nodded. “I am sort of excited I guess. I need to start packing right away.”

The realization that she was ok with my lie was a little surprising and unexpected.

“How long is your trip?”

“About two months.” I shrugged and managed to keep my tone low and casual.

“Two months?” Her brows shot up. “Your trip and stay will be taken care of by the company?”

I nodded and reached out for her hand. “Yes. They’ve arranged everything. I’ll be in Los Angeles. I even spoke to Rachel, she’ll be around so I’ll get to spend the weekends with her. You’ll have time to concentrate on your thesis too, mom. A few days of quiet will do you good.”

She squeezed my hand and smirked. “Good for me then.”

“Now you sound like you’re waiting to get rid of me?” I scoffed.

Mom shook her head sagely. “You are getting to travel abroad on work at such an early age, that’s fast progress.” The words came out carefully from her, as if she scrutinized each word before uttering it.

She looked into my eyes expectantly.

I smiled to make her believe all of this was true. “Yup. Fast progress. You’ll be fine, right?”

She nodded, gently brushed a strand of hair off my face and tucked it behind my ear. “I’ll be fine. I have a lot of work to keep me occupied. You do a good job with the project. Make everyone proud. Do you want me to take the day off to help you pack?”

“No mom. I’m not going to be carrying anything much. Rachel said it’ll be sale time, so I’ll do a lot of shopping. Be prepared for a lot of surprises when I’m back.”

I cringed inwardly as soon as I said that.

“Fine. I’ll come back early today. Now hurry up and start packing.”

I moved closer to mom and hugged her tight. “I love you mom.”

“I love you too my baby.”

Phew! That went easier than I had thought it would.

Time passed faster than I had expected it to. The stuff I was going to pack was neatly laid on my bed, my toiletries packed in a travel pouch and the suitcases were dusted and ready. All I had to do was set them all into the suitcases. I made a mental note to get prints of the tickets and keep it in my passport wallet, incase my phone died on me which it had been doing quite often lately.

Mom was at work, she taught English to the B.A. students at St. Xavier’s College. She usually returned at six in the evening, but she said she would be home early today.

I looked at the clock, it was noon. I wasn’t hungry so I went to the kitchen and poured myself some cheap red wine to stimulate my appetite. The previous day’s revelation began to cloud my mind. Slowly, pain began to course in. I shook my head as I walked to the living room. I was not going to surrender myself to the grief that was waiting for me with arms wide open.

I made myself comfortable on the couch and stretched my legs out onto the coffee table. I turned the television on and ended up watching The Big Bang Theory and sipping red wine for the next hour before my phone rang. Lowering the volume on the television, I answered the call. “Jessica, are you fine?”

That was my colleague Priya who had joined work about a year ago. She and I worked on the same team and we usually had lunch together. I thought the news about me quitting the job would have reached everyone by now. Maybe she’d called to confirm the news.

I leaned back on the couch, bracing myself for the explanation I was about to give. “I’m fine, yes. Just a little occupied. How are you?”

“We had decided to go to that new North Indian cuisine restaurant that opened up last week, remember? You ditched me! I really wanted to try that place today. Why did you choose to skip work today out of all days?”

Her tone confirmed that she hadn’t got the news yet.

“I’m sorry… I…”

“It’s ok. Is the pain that bad?”

I tilted my head to one side as I tried to figure what she was talking about. “What pain?”

“You’ve got your periods, right?”

“No,” I said. “I quit the job yesterday. It was a spur of the moment decision, I was going to tell you soon.”

“What?” she said incredulously. “What’s the matter Jessica?”

“Nothing serious. I want to get back to writing, get my work published, get recognized, if you know what I mean. The job wasn’t leaving me with any time, you know how stressful it gets, right?” Those were the best excuses I could come up with straightaway.

“Are you out of your mind? You can’t just quit your job like that! Did you find a better job?” It seemed like Priya would take time to wrap her head around what she just found out.

“No.”

“What? Have you lost it? You are basically jobless right now. Did you really quit or were you fired?”

“I quit,” I said, now a little irritated. “Like I said, I want to write, get published. If I continue working, I’ll never find the time for it.” I thought about it as I spoke, I could really use my time to get back to writing, the last time I wrote a complete story was about two years ago, and because all the publishers and agents I approached rejected my work, I conveniently gave up.

“Did you tell your mom?”

“Yes.” I couldn’t help but lie to that question.

“What did she say? I’m sure she freaked out.”

I was sure she’d freak out when she found out. But I think I was safe for the next two months. I would have to either begin hunting for a job as soon as I was back or break the news to her and face the consequences. I did not have the equipoise to worry about that now.

“She’s ok. You are the one who is freaking out. I actually quit because I’m leaving for America tonight. Keep this to yourself alright. I need the break. I’ve been wanting to make this trip for a long time.”

Partial truth partial lie.

Priya had this one unique trait that I wanted to fully exploit right now. She could never keep anything to herself, especially if one specifically mentioned and requested her to keep it to herself. I wanted to answer all her questions, make her believe that I was up for something bigger and that I’m happy about it, so that the news reached the asshole and he realized that I didn’t give a fuck about him.

“America?” she asked, failing to keep the surprise out of her voice.

Along with the unique trait of spreading information at no cost, Priya was also the caring type, but maybe a little too caring and that irritated me at times, times like now.

“Who is funding your trip? What are you going to do when you run out of money? Do you know how difficult it is to get a job… especially if you’ve taken a break?”

Her tone made me frantic as I hadn’t thought about everything in such depth. “Relax Priya. I’ve thought about everything.”

Everything I had been doing since last afternoon was impetuous.

“What about the visa? When did you get your visa done?” Her inquisition knew no end.

“Two years ago. I was supposed to go for the previous project, but that obviously didn’t happen.”

“I don’t know if you’re doing the right thing Jessica. You shouldn’t take decisions in a hurry. I’ve seen people break down without a job. I’ve mentioned my cousin Preeti who lost her job, right? Her parents had to take her to a psychiatrist. She was on medication for five whole months, that’s how much it affected her. Living without a job isn’t a joke. I don’t know how you are so cool about it.”

I wasn’t cool about it. I had just found out that I was being cheated on. I had a lot of shit on my plate and I wasn’t sure if things would be ok. The last thing I needed was for someone to freak me out further.

All I wanted to do was follow Rachel’s advice. I wanted to keep things simple and do whatever helped me get out of my desolate state faster. “I’m fine Priya, don’t be so worried for me. I’ll be back in two months, we’ll meet then alright?”

“Two months?”

Feeling exhausted after answering Priya’s endless questions, I hit the shower. Her questions forced me to confront the reality of my situation, made me wonder if I was doing the right thing by running away from everything.

I stood beneath the shower with a clogged mind. The cold spray of water swept away my tears, but what was I going to do about my lingering fear? I sat down and surrendered to my grief.

For the next hour, with my face in my shaking hands, I wept.

After a quick lunch alone, scrambled eggs and brown bread, I decided to go to the convenience store that was a five-minute walk from where I lived. I knew Rachel loved spicy pickles and Indian sweets, especially kaju katli. Since I wasn’t going to carry much, there was more than enough room in my suitcases for it.

I grabbed my wallet and a market bag and set out. Just when I locked the door and took a few steps down the stairway, the neighboring door opened and Mrs. Rita stepped out.

“Jessica,” she said excitedly.

I turned reluctantly and forced a smile. “Oh! Hi Rita aunty.”

She greeted me with a wide smile and asked, “Where are you going?”

“Just down the road to buy a few things.”

She locked her door and put the heavy bunch of keys in her tiny purse. “I’ll join you.”

In India, whether you lived in a row house, an upscale gated community or an apartment that’s part of a housing society, living next to a minimum of one nosy neighbor was inevitable. On a usual day, I would make an excuse to escape indulging in a conversation with Mrs. Rita, but it occurred to me that today anything was a welcomed distraction.

Out of respect, I pressed myself against the wall to give her enough space to pass by and then followed her.

“You didn’t go to work today?”

Somehow, I knew that would be her first question.

“No aunty. Too busy to go to work. You look very excited, any good news?” I changed the topic immediately, my attempt to escape her nosy questions.

“Oh yes. We found a boy for Neha. Her engagement is in a week.”

That didn’t surprise me at all. Mrs. Rita’s daughter Neha was as old as me, which meant she was approaching her ‘expiration date’ as per societal norms.

I put an arm around her shoulders and bent to air kiss one of her cheeks as I congratulated her on the news. Standing five feet tall, Mrs. Rita was about ten inches shorter than me. “That’s wonderful news aunty, congratulations.”

“Thank you. Neha’s father is very excited too. The boy is perfect for Neha, he is doing extremely well. He owns a two-bedroom house and a fancy Volkswagen car.”

I managed to match her snail pace as I walked behind her. The sidewalk wasn’t too narrow for two people to walk together, but Mrs. Rita wasn’t in the best shape to accommodate another pedestrian to walk in step with her. On this particular path, one could either walk in front of her, or behind her, but never with her.

“That’s very nice. Neha must be very happy.”

“Oh yes. Soon she’ll be twenty-four, and after that it’ll be very difficult to find a nice boy for her. As parents, it is our duty to get her settled at the right time with the right boy. It was very difficult to get her to agree, but she’s an understanding child. When she saw the boy - his name is Adarsh by the way, she agreed. Adarsh is just too charming.”

I pitied Neha, poor thing was forced to endure such gruesome pressure from her family when she should actually be going out and enjoying while she was still young. Of course, it was not my place to decide what she should or should not be doing considering what a social recluse I was, but she was Neha – the party animal.

In her community, being a spinster beyond twenty-four was an embarrassment, and she had no choice but to comply with the outrageous traditions unless she decided to run away, which I’m sure she wouldn’t. She was wild, no doubt, but she lacked guts. I had known Neha for three years, I probably knew her better than her parents think they did. Neha stuck with one man for a lifetime, that was a little too hard to picture. Mrs. Rita stopped and turned around. “When are you planning to get married? You are twenty-three too.”

I had a hunch this conversation would steer in this direction.

I smiled thinly. “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

“Oh but you should, it’ll take the burden off your mom’s head.”

“My mom’s pretty ok with me living with her. I don’t see how I am a burden.”

She looked away and continued to walk ahead. “I didn’t mean it that way. Every parent wants their child to settle down, have kids and build a family. I know you Catholics are cool about age when it comes to marriage, but when you are older, it’s difficult to have kids. The body doesn’t wait.”

I know you Catholics are cool…? What the fuck!

“I’ve not thought about having kids yet aunty. Maybe after ten years I will, I don’t know. If my body isn’t able to bear a child, I’ll adopt one. That’ll be sort of a contribution to curbing India’s population too, at least in a little way.”

She laughed. “You are just scared. Even I was. It’s natural. I just remembered, I have a friend who is into matchmaking. She’s very good you know, it’s better to find a match through a known source than search over those funny matrimonial websites. I can give you her number. She’s facilitated some very successful marriages.”

This lady was just so overbearing. I tried my best and managed to show no hint of indignation.

“No aunty, I’m fine. Thank you for being so thoughtful though.”

When we reached the store, the two of us split to pick the items we each wanted to purchase. We met again at the payment counter when I told her, “You carry on aunty. I have to go to the sweet shop.”

“I’ll go with you, I need to pick pedas, need to distribute sweets when I break the good news about Neha’s wedding to everyone. Apart from family you are the first one to know by the way.”

I half smiled. “I’m honored.”

I was kind of curious to know what Neha had to say about all this. Was she really ok marrying someone her mom found her?

“You know Adarsh earns one and a half lakh a month. Isn’t Neha so lucky?”

Mrs. Rita was beginning to sound ridiculous. “That’s amazing. She’s very lucky.”

“The wedding is next month. You have to come. I’ll give you the invitation card once it’s printed. It’s all happening so soon, there are so many preparations to be looked into for the wedding. The Pandit said that the next auspicious date for marriage would be a year from now, that’s too long a wait, I want to be playing with my grandkids by then.”

“Lovely aunty. Too bad I’m going to be out of town for a while. I won’t be able to make it to the wedding. I’m sure it’ll be amazing.”

Her eyes widened. “Where are you going?”

“America.”

The look on her face bespoke her utter surprise. “When are you leaving?”

“Tonight. That’s why I didn’t go to work. I had to pack and stuff.”

“I see, that’s nice. Very nice. But be careful in America beta, my cousin’s daughter Natasha went to America and never came back. She fell in love with a black man. Now the entire family is shamefaced. They have little black babies, it’s so embarrassing I tell you. You concentrate on your work, don’t fall in love with an American or African. Okay?”

I laughed inwardly at how narrow minded she was. “I see no harm in falling in love with an American or an African if he loves me back and is a good guy. I’m sorry to say this, but you’re being extremely irrational and racist.”

She shook her head vehemently. “Oh no. Those American men want just one thing,” she looked around to make sure no one was hearing and whispered with raised brows. “Sex.”

“Isn’t that what Indian men want too? Isn’t that what every man wants?”

“Not before marriage. Sex before marriage is a sin.”

If only she knew how many boys her daughter had sinned with. But I was going to save her the heartache. I didn’t respond to her last remark, didn’t want to hurt her immature and absolutely ridiculous belief.

She continued rambling about how great her to be son-in-law was the entire time on our way back. I nodded and smiled periodically, chewing on the peda she offered. When we returned to our building, she held my hand before I entered my apartment.

“You don’t do the wrong thing Jessica. Your mom fell in love with a foreigner and ruined her life. People don’t follow family values abroad, it’s only in India people value relationships and take the right decisions with the guidance of the elders of the family. You don’t want to do what your mother did.”

Her words left me hurt and angry. She had no right to judge my mom. She had no clue what my mom had gone through.

“I would appreciate it if you mind your own business. Once again, congratulations on your daughter’s wedding. Let’s hope your decision doesn’t ruin her life. Good luck.”

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