In the parking lot of the Pittsburgh temple, the priests were painting the Ganesh Chathurthi float. In late September the festival season would begin, and the float would be carried by worshippers, most of them middle-aged husbands from all over the Northeast, always the men. The women who were mothers and wives would watch as the men kept the float aloft on their shoulders, often for fifteen or twenty minutes longer than they were required to. Then the men, usually flabby though always energetic, would admit that they had reached a limit of physical exertion and move as one set of arms to put the float down with great gentleness, in the parking lot.
The children were brought there as reluctant observers. They were often blamed for the occasional clumps of litter in the lot. The young Indian girls had long tunic dresses over high-waisted pants that were tight and emphasized their calves, always tied with an invisible drawstring that held their backs straight no matter how bored they became. The boys wore T-shirts and even jeans, although when they were inside the temple they often took off their shoes without being told and stuffed them in nooks and crannies in the ground, away from the religious statuettes.
This was only the second time Michelle had attended the dance recital of her neighbor’s daughter, and while few of the families were friendly, some of them did recognize her from the supermarket, or maybe from the hospital. However they’d heard, the husbands seemed to know that she was a surgeon. They talked to her about wars and amputations and bombings and accidents that might have made women like their wives flinch. After the recital, when everyone was waiting to receive sweets and milling around the temple entrance, three of the husbands approached Michelle, wanting to know all about John. They wanted to know if it was a highschool student whom they saw mowing her lawn every weekend, arm resting on the leafblower every now and then, waiting for her to come out with lemonade. Michelle told them that he was not in highschool. Then another man, an older one, slapped his friend’s arm and said, “I told you not to ask.” She smiled politely. A third man said that he had read about a schoolteacher getting in trouble with the law for “taking in” a fourteen year old boy. The two of them had corresponded until the boy turned seventeen, and now they were going to get married. “But that boy was a Filipino chap,” the man added, as if reassuring her.
Michelle nodded, then left the men and started up the stairs of the temple. The building was white and set against a hill that accounted for the choice that had been made decades ago to build it here, in honor of the Lord of the Seven Hills. Here the hills were part of the Allegheny Mountains, according to a pamphlet she had picked up near the temple entrance, after she’d taken off her shoes. The rain had stopped. Midway up the stairs, three women were holding onto the railing. The women looked in the direction that Michelle was heading — where, on one of the temple’s highest peaks, there were tiers of golden engravings stacked in the shape of a ridged dome denoting the ‘head’ of the temple, with its ‘body’ a tall building with two side wings and two side entrances, like a heavy, still bird watching over the people.
Michelle looked at the women’s necks. All of them were wearing heavy golden necklaces. “Mangal sutram,” John had called them. In college he’d studied abroad in India for a year, the lone white man in a South Indian university. She thought then – with increasing annoyance that she had been ashamed- that she should have just told the men that John was her lover. That he was a medical student and that she had been his surgery attending. All they wanted was to confirm she was sleeping with him. That was what all husbands and their wives, looking at an unmarried woman with an unknown man, wanted to know, in all cultures.
For Indians, unmarried sex was especially exciting, she supposed, something they couldn’t even see in cinema. The Indians – who seemed able to introduce song and dance into the most dire of situations – could probably make a Bollywood film out of her affair with John, as long as they skipped over certain parts: of Michelle first ignoring his letters and small gifts, which had started after he’d worked only one week in the surgery clinic, as a junior student when she was a junior attending; then agreeing to go to dinner with him and standing him up because of work; then having sex in the coat closet of a night club where they’d seen each other unexpectedly; then refusing to answer his calls after she’d become a full fledged faculty member in the Surgery department and he was doing his clinical rotations. Then finally letting him move in with her once he’d reached his fourth year and determined that he was going to be a psychiatrist, and so would never again be her professional subordinate. He had decided to apply to residencies only in major cities where there would be a job for her. But only a month ago she learned that, in addition to his skill as a vegetarian Indian cook from all those hot, sultry days of being a foreign student in Madras, he had carelessly slept with one of his South Indian classmates, a girl who was determined to make it to the States, and unknowingly fathered an Anglo-Indian child with her. He had a ten year old son who lived with his graduate student mother in a tiny apartment in Berkeley. John was somehow managing to help support the two of them, despite his being a medical student at thirty.
The rain had started again when John pulled her car into the temple parking lot, waiting for other guests to leave so he could drive closer to where Michelle was standing. He had not come to the recital, though Michelle said more than once that she was sure the invitation included him. By the time she got in the car, her hair and face were soaked. “There’s a towel in the back,” he offered, keeping both hands on the wheel as she shook her hair and lay back on the seat. She flicked on the heater and watched the passenger window steaming up. “This’ll do,” she said, tracing wiggly lines in the foggy glass with a fingertip the way she’d done since she was a small child, peering out through the clear holes she had made at the now-distant Indian families holding umbrellas over their children or wiping the rain from their faces with white handkerchiefs.
Was it just a few months ago that whenever she met him after a day of work, or even after a fifteen minute trip to the grocery store, John would grab her by the waist and kiss her on the mouth no matter who saw and no matter what she looked like? Odd to recall how annoyed it would make her if he tried to do it anywhere near the hospital. How she would move away, instead of shouting at him, unclipping her pager from her waist and clicking through messages she’d already responded to. Back then she hadn’t known about Shalini, mother of his child, or Jack, his son. Michelle wondered now if what she’d interpreted as passion was really desperate need – if it had just felt lonely to John, sending a check every month for a child he’d hardly ever seen.
“Dollar for your thoughts,” John said.
His eyes were on the road, but his right hand snaked over to her thigh, which was dry and warm from the car heater.
“Trying to keep up with inflation,” he added.
She let him keep his hand where it was, but didn’t cover it with her own.
“Better keep your dollars then,” she said.
For a moment, he needed both hands to guide her old Honda Accord around a narrow curve. They were still up on the mountains, traveling on a scenic road from Penn Hills back to the city of Pittsburgh. With its dubious mysteries…John had been talking, the other day, about a short story collection that he’d read, called “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”, something he compared to a “bisexual Midsummer Night’s Dream.” By now non-medical books had little meaning for Michelle. After practicing medicine for nearly eleven years, more than specific books she’d read in college for a course, she remembered the undergraduates who once sat in classrooms with her. Michelle wondered if they now mourned the smooth elasticity of their skin, the reckless vigor of their hearts. She wondered how they might react if they needed emergency surgery, or if someone they loved had died in an OR where the nurses were playing something loud and oblivious on the radio, and a strange woman, Michelle, were to come out into the waiting room in the middle of the night and offer explanations, instead of producing a person. Michelle herself was now forty-one, and her own body had remained intact. Never split in two for a miraculous moment and then remade, as a mother’s. Never distended, full and precarious.
“Stop here,” she said. “Oh shit.”
She got out of the car before he’d turned off the engine. Another car, a black station wagon with two young children in the back, had pulled over to the shoulder; a thin, crew-cut teenage boy had gotten out, holding his chest and grimacing, his heavy-set father holding him close and waving a white cloth with his free hand, trying to get someone to stop. An Indian woman she took to be the boy’s mother was still sitting in the car, fumbling through a purse and shouting through the open window, “Abhijit, Abhijit, saans lena, baccha, saans lena.” The boy’s eyes were nearly closed. Gently Michelle pulled him from his father, shouted, “Call 911”, and took him to the grassy look-out point off the shoulder of the road, laying him down and doing mouth to mouth, encouraging him to cough and to stay awake. By then John had parked their car and helped his parents find the asthma inhaler. He ran it over to Michelle, who was busy murmuring reassuring words, “It will be alright. You’re going to be alright now,” as she helped sit the boy up and operated the small, flimsy but vital device, hardly looking at John when she took the thing from him.
“Did they call 911?” she asked, the boy still coughing and pale but much better.
“I think they did, I’ll check,” he said. She kept going with the inhaler.
As John made his way back to the parents’ car, they both heard the sound of the ambulance, the sirens loud and near. Michelle had been continually checking the boy’s pulse and respirations – his eyes were wide open now and his pulse had come down to the low 70s, from the 110s. His color was good and he could speak; no need for her to make a hole in his windpipe. That was a relief, because all she had was an Army knife in her pocket, the same one she and John had used on a last minute picnic that June, when life together was new and untroubled and they found it amusing to pull off the side of the road, driving through Brandywine Valley after a day of kayaking, to make love under the trees, to lie down and feed each other grapes, expensive cheeses, honey and bread.
“Like college kids,” he’d said at the time. “You could pass for a freshman.”
The paramedics looked like freshmen themselves, no more than nineteen or twenty. When they learned Michelle was a surgeon at University Medical Center, they weren’t just deferential, but flirtatious.
One of them asked, “You wanna grab a drink after this?”, not seeming to care that she said no. He lingered with Michelle once the kid had been taken into the ambulance, hooked up to oxygen and had two sets of vitals normal with a normal cardiogram, once his mother had settled in the back of the ambulance with him, pressing her hands together in gratitude and bowing her head slightly to Michelle. The father had gotten back in his car with the other children by then and was watching the scene, ready to follow when the ambulance got going.
“He never arrested or lost consciousness,” she told the young man with his clipboard, smoothing down her hair, which was still a mess from being caught out in the rain.
John had come to stand beside her.
“This your medical student?” the same paramedic asked, not bothering to listen to the answer as he kept writing his note. “Your students are lucky, I bet.”
The other man stepped up into the rear and took a seat next to the boy and his mother, closing the back door with a thud after saluting Michelle and his partner. The boy’s father honked; both John and the paramedic who was still standing near Michelle shot him a wave.
“Later then, ma’am,” the man with Michelle said, brushing shoulders with John as he strode past, taking the ambulance driver’s seat and winking at her from inside the cab.
“And what the hell was that?”John said, when they were alone, and Michelle started walking back to their car, not looking at him.
“Hey, answer me when I’m talking to you Michelle.” She kept walking, not wanting to speak.
Muttering, “Goddamn,” he followed her and slammed the door behind him, starting the car before she’d had a chance to put her seatbelt on.
Was there something new and harder in his voice? A lean tension in his hands? He didn’t try to touch her now. She looked at him with renewed interest, with hot but temporary lust. In Allegheny, that’s where it had changed, she thought she would say, years afterward, when she and John no longer were in touch.
In Allegheny she had begun to prepare herself for the thick envelope that came in the mail about six months after the dance recital, in March, revealing that John had matched at Stanford in California, for psychiatry.
He would be living and working just an hour from where his son was being brought up. No way to deny the opportunity. And so Michelle had worked up the conviction to say carefully, folding a towel as meticulously as an OR tech would and standing a little apart from him in their bedroom:
“John, I think you should go alone.”
In the Allegheny Mountains, where the air wouldn’t stop being bluer or thinner even when you’d come to pray to God. Where your child could lose the power to breathe on his own in a heartbeat, in an instant, unless the right person decided to go out of her way to do the right thing. In Allegheny was where Michelle’s decision had begun, she told herself as she went on, now patting the towel on the top of a pile, its perfect neatness a proof that she’d made up her mind.
“You should ask for family housing and help Shalini with your son. You should be– “
“What? A family?” John spoke the word too bitterly. She’d been right, Michelle thought, with the odd sag of relief. Yes of course, she knew what he meant. His parents had divorced; his father remarried a woman who didn’t love John and his sister; his mother had a string of boyfriends who were polite enough but already had children of their own. He had already told her everything, enough so she could never say she didn’t know. He had a son with no father.
Three weeks had passed since John learned he was going to Stanford. After their most recent fight, followed by several days when she didn’t allow him to touch her, Michelle told John it would be better if he moved out of the house.
“I can’t tell you what to do,” Michelle said, thinking again, with an odd glassy remoteness, that he really ought to go be with his child. When she was alone, she admitted she was taken aback by her decision’s clarity — so different than the more instinctive, tense and doubting decisions she’d grown used to making all the time in the OR, the ones she made quickly but would constantly revise, the decisions that, when they affected or cost a human life, would haunt and torment her until she was convinced she’d learned enough to be better next time.
“I just don’t want you to feel like I’m holding you back,” Michelle told John again. “Like I kept you from being with the mother of your child. Like I broke up you and Shalini.”
“There is no me and Shalini,” John said once again. “There’s me and you.”
He was obstinate, repeating his position even after he started staying at a friend’s, talking on the phone with Michelle late into the night. She’d thought it would be easier to give him up, to have no contact, that she could easily revert to the life she had that was contented if boring, of solitary hikes along the Ohio River, of days off spent going running, reading magazines, sleeping or eating take-out while proofreading academic articles, letting old movies play on in the background. When John had lived with her, she’d often missed that life. Now there was the absence of John’s quirks. His reading in bed with the lights off, never minding how hard he strained his eyes. His gentle insistence on seeing grainy, obscure black and white Japanese movies Michelle had never heard of — about solitary women swallowed by sand, about rice. The bite marks he left on Michelle’s shoulders. The non-alcoholic drinks he mixed for her before a big case — iced tea with fresh squeezed lime and orange peels, strawberry virgin daiquiris he made without a mix. The way he carefully packed lunch for the both of them, every day, putting aside the money he saved to send to his son, to Shalini.
“Listen, Shalini has never , not a single time, asked me to move in with her,” John said. He showed no sign of letting up. It was the middle of the afternoon, the kind of Sunday they would have spent having sex if he’d still been living in Michelle’s house. “She just wanted money for our son, and she was right to want it. She wanted to make sure he didn’t lack for anything. But her love life is a mystery to me. I don’t even know if she’s dating somebody, that’s just how jacked up this is. I don’t know where all this duty and sacrifice for my kid, who’s doing perfectly fine by the way, and whom you’ve never even met, are coming from. Or is it something else, Michelle? Have you just fallen out of love with me?”
Michelle hung up. Wanting to get out of the house so she wouldn’t be tempted to call him again, driving alone on a mountain road, after an hour of driving aimlessly she found herself near the Hindu temple in the mountains again, after she’d passed by signs for a local Hooters bar and Chick-fil-a on the same road. She wondered if the proximity of those places to sacred ground bothered the vegetarian, sexually conservative Indians. Then again, the Indians showed plenty of breasts in their movies, even if covered by tight, often wet clothes. Maybe she’d been looking in too far-off and exotic a direction by thinking about Bollywood as a reflection of her life. Maybe the movie of her relationship with John could be written as a Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant movie instead, or better yet, a Bette Davis vehicle about a stubborn, smart woman, proud until the end, slurring her final, regretful monologue.
“I haven’t fallen out of love with you,” she said out loud, though she was the only one in the car to hear the words.
She stopped the car and got out. The temple looked smaller and quieter than she remembered. Michelle walked around the whole structure once, making a wide circle, like she remembered her neighbor saying she was meaning to do because her daughter had gotten into college. Making the circle was how the family would set their minds at peace about such a major decision, such a large outlay of money. While the neighbor was talking, too busy with her own daughter to ask Michelle where John had gone, Michelle felt glad she didn’t need things like superstitions, rituals, because she was at peace already, letting John go, knowing she was doing right.
But here Michelle was walking the same path as the other worshippers, adrift and confused and waiting for mercy. She stopped short of actually going inside, thinking it would be too strange, not wanting to make the effort of talking to the people she’d see there, whose questions were inevitable.
She got back in the car, fiddling with her keys, reluctant to leave. For the next two days, she wasn’t on call and would probably be at home. There would be too many hours to fill. Through her windshield she saw two boys spilling out of the temple, laughing and trying to hit each other as their parents followed slowly and heavily behind. The mother and father were looking around gloomily and bending with effort to put their shoes back on as the boys raced in circles, picking up their shoes only to aim them at each other. They couldn’t have been more than nine or ten years old.
They were reminders of John’s son; the sight hurt her. How happy, and how utterly careless the two boys were in their happiness, knowing that the mother who mumbled angrily to them to stop fighting, the father who slapped one of them in the shoulder to get him to stand still, would always be there watching, knowing what was wrong with them and able to fix it, the parents solid as a house. What every child deserved. The children played. Then in front of her, as her car engine sputtered to life, a lone man appeared, his hips and legs wrapped curiously in excess layers of white cloth that had a festive, almost garish gold at the edges. The costume gave an unexpected grandeur to his sad, brown chest. His old-man, exposed skin was speckled with white and grey hairs here and there, and despite his having the look of someone with an important job to do — he shushed the two boys, beckoned them to move aside and started scattering spoonfuls of water from a sort of gold scoop he kept on dipping into an equally burnished gold pitcher in his hand, muttering some words and dropping the water on the ground in a pattern known only to him –he also had the look of someone resigned to staying late at work, to going home alone after the families had long disappeared from the temple. Later Michelle would learn, from John, that the faded orange thread around the priest’s shoulder and neck meant he too was the head of a household, a married man, a dad. But at that moment John wasn’t there to point out or explain anything; he was packing his things and thinking about California, Michelle supposed, and she thought the priest was celibate.
She stared at the priest’s bare, mottled shoulders, seeing how alone he was, how no one would listen when he said something out loud. One of the boys, the younger one, looked over at the man and made a face, sticking out his tongue and trying to cross his eyes. “Ho,” his father said, pulling him away from the priest’s view, sheltering him in a corner with his body.
John’s son. Michelle started driving forward slowly, out of the parking lot. John’s son was a stranger, just like the two boys. The thought came quickly, mutinous, like a long-suppressed but vital instinct. Or: like a blessing from a foreign priest. What the hell did she have to care about strangers for anyway? What did their pain have to mean to her? Her car sped up when she got to the main road leading out of the temple grounds; she cut off another family sedan that was trying to edge in front of her and took off hastily, driving like one of those teenage hotshots who got in trouble drag racing, pushing the limit as she hurried back to the city, and to John.
The taller of the two Indian boys stared after her admiringly. “Did you see the lady?” he said. “See how she drove? I want to drive like that!”
The father had been watching too, at first concerned about any car moving when his boys were playing so heedlessly, when one of them could easily chase the other one into harm’s way. But then he’d recognized Michelle’s face, feeling grateful but too shy to approach, averting his eyes instead of calling out to her.
“That was the lady who saved your brother’s life that day in the mountains,” he said. “She thinks of others first, she’s like a saint. Why don’t you say a prayer for her, my little one.”
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer. She has received a Henfield-Transatlantic Review award, as well as awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Time Magazine, and the Yale English Department Elmore Willetts Prize for her writing. She is a Rhodes Scholar. Her fiction has appeared in Nimrod and other literary journals and was a Glimmer Train Fiction Open finalist. She has recently completed her first novel.