A Month of Sundays
Talking to his father on the phone was always discomfiting for Raj.
Do I like this voice? What does it remind me of?
Rhea gave him a quick wave from the far end of the pool before lunging to grab a rail when one of the bigger girls jumped into the water near her.
In person, it made him feel like shit, often impotently furious, but it must be different on the phone, it had to be, because the general verdict on his father’s disembodied voice issuing from speakers was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone loved him. Even here, in rural Indiana, you could come across his songs being played at Asian delis and Indian grocery stores. He, however, couldn’t say where the line was drawn, and when exactly Naren became father, whether it happened only when in close proximity to his son or, more worryingly, from the near-permanent sense of obligation Raj felt towards him. Did these thoughts even have tangible effects?
Her swimming cap was like something out of the 1920s. A strap went around her chin and there were individual pink rosettes, which flapped occasionally, pinned all over the crown with a single silver point in the middle of each flower. He had no idea where she had found it, but there it was. All the other kids had standard silicon caps in primary colors, at the most there was a boy—who, Rhea had told him, was actually incredibly shy—wearing a cap with violent explosions of yellow and red. Rhea pushed herself forward in the water and, from where he sat, he saw beyond the immediate frenzy of splashing water around her and her awkward, wheeling limbs to where the ripples flowed powerfully outward into waters which remained unbroken. She was holding her head wrong, he noticed, inclining it at a fastidious angle to make sure she didn’t get any water into her ears.
He closed his book as Rhea ran up to him, so out of breath that she could barely speak, while trying at the same time to keep the water streaming off her out of her mouth.
“Are Grandad and Gramma here already?”
“Yes, they just got in.”
“OK, good. They won’t miss me much, then.”
“Bit big-headed of you.”
She nodded fervently and wiped her nose with the back of her glistening hand.
“I think I’m going to be sick, Daddy.”
“Are you? I don’t think so, you’re probably just hungry. Why don’t you go change and then I’ll give you your snack?”
“Can’t I have it now because I’m sick?”
“You’re not sick. The sooner you’re done the sooner you’ll have a snack in your hand. Here’s Charlotte, now, go with her.”
He waited for Rhea in front of the women’s changing rooms. When she came out, he took her hand for the walk to the car. The sounds of splashing water and laughing children was cut off quickly and cleanly behind the insulated walls which housed the pool. Rhea took long steps walking next to him, sometimes stepping in elaborate sets of five for novelty. He looked up. It would get dark very quickly now, and as they crossed over to the parking area, the light was already taking on that strangely intense shade of twilight blue that appears without notice and makes it difficult to see anything other than things painted in shocking yellow.
He was kicking himself for not buying the plums on display at the supermarket when he saw Jennifer’s car in the driveway and braced himself.
Rhea ran in first, he heard her bare feet pound on the shiny wooden floor and stop abruptly. He hated that sound of flesh hitting wood, so he stood just outside the kitchen, absentmindedly fiddling with a thick and short strip of hangnail on his thumb to try and head off the unexpected flare of irritation. It had been peeling for the past few days, catching painfully on wool and his own hands whenever he washed them.
There was a shiny drop of blood on his thumb when he went into the kitchen and he crooked it so it wouldn’t fall on the floor. He saw Jennifer look at him amusedly and he gave her a tiny, mystified wave. His parents were clapping.
Jennifer and his mother were kneeling by a large suitcase and taking out jars wrapped in newspaper while his bespectacled father sat with a curled hand propping his head on the table, the white reflection of his phone’s screen obscuring his eyes.
“Oho, that was very well done, come here!”
Rhea ran and hugged her grandmother enthusiastically. His father unzipped the fanny pack around his waist with a grunt and took out a hefty, brightly wrapped lollipop with a royal blue ribbon knotted around its neck.
“How high can you jump?”
Raj had to stop himself from covering his face with his hands as Rhea crouched to jump, her face screwed up in concentration. His father, chuckling helplessly, brought the sweet within reach and then moved it further up. Her legs curved in a show of sincere effort each time she reached for the lollipop. This session, which reminded him of a show he had seen once featuring a performing monkey, ended when Rhea grabbed his father’s arm, brought it down, and twisted the lollipop away. Naren rubbed his arm, wheezing a little. Jennifer got up, two big jars in her hands and one tucked under her arm.
“I’ll go put these in the garage, all right, Anu?”
“Yes, thank you, and I’ll remember to check on them. They’re your mango pickles, Raj, but they need soaking for a little longer.”
His mother pushed his hair back and cradled his face. He lifted her up to the tips of her toes in a bear hug, resting his chin in the dip of her shoulder momentarily, then glanced at his father behind her. He decided to say it, though he knew what his father’s reaction would be.
Naren’s Adam’s apple bobbed in distaste.
“Dad. Why do you have to be so American? Dad. It’s such an unpleasant nasal sound, like a whine, or a complaint. Dad, Mom. Like a foghorn. No offense to Jennifer, of course.”
“Relax, Papa. I was joking. How was the flight?”
“Long, as usual. It becomes like hell in the air after six hours. I walked up and down the aisles fifty times to keep the circulation in my legs going. Can you believe it?”
“Fifty, wow. Would that be—what, just under a mile?”
Naren ran a fingernail between a groove in the edge of the table and wrinkled his nose.
“It was a big plane. Fifty rounds is no mean feat. By the way, I hope our room is on the first floor. You know my knees are giving me trouble.”
Raj’s mother exhaled pointedly.
“Your knees are fine.”
“You wouldn’t know, would you? Here, Raj, Raj, what does this mean? Tell your mother how serious this could be. I’ve had this feeling in my knees for the last few months, this feeling that they’re floating up.”
“Come look at them, you’re not going to find anything out by standing all the way over there—it’s like they’ve come loose, almost, and they want to float up out of my body.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. Those aren’t proper symptoms.”
“I’m lying to you, then, is that what you’re saying?”
Raj turned so his father couldn’t see his face and massaged the bridge of his nose.
“I’ll do a test for reflexes tomorrow.”
He had tried to make his consulting room as pleasant as possible by keeping a close eye on any Architectural Digest pieces about medical interior design. As a result, one found a lot more earth colored fabrics and pastel wall hangings in Raj’s office than in your standard ophthalmologist’s consulting room. Initially, the only reason he chose to become an ophthalmologist was because it was convenient and there weren’t a lot of emergencies. Recently, though, he found himself taking longer and longer to examine people. Where before he had dismissed it as a part of the job he didn’t much need to worry about, he increasingly found himself struck by the inventions developed to maintain eye function, like the angular flower of the stitching after a corneal implant. You could find canyons, frozen, feathered streams of water in the irises of eyes, and all the textures you have ever seen and touched, all curving inexorably together into the pit of the pupil. The precision of its mechanism did not convince him of intelligent design, but instead gave the impression of seeing a very large structure from far away; like an avalanche he had seen on the news where the sheer volume of the tumbling snow filled the entire screen, all of it accompanied with no corresponding sound to communicate the intensity of the event. It had filled the entirety of his world for so many years. A mute phenomenon on a grand scale.
Wendy’s eyes were unusually dark compared to most of his other patients and after her cataract surgery, he could swear that there were ropy streaks of silver iridescence in them, reflecting the bright light overhead. She sat dutifully until he finished examining her eyes. His torch flashed over her earrings, large ones with crystals arranged in an oval setting around a pearl, the kind of earrings worn by older women of a certain class and which they had to take off if using a phone.
“It still gets a bit blurry sometimes, is that bad?”
“No, it’s normal. But I’ll still give you a prescription for some new eye-drops. The old ones might be leaving them dry.”
“Right. So, when can I get back to work?”
“Let’s give it another two weeks, I don’t want you to strain them too much just now. Any spots in your vision?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“That’s good, Wendy.”
She took a deep breath and slumped back in her chair.
“It’s a nightmare at home. Greg left his job and bought a parrot. Can you believe it? He said it was to keep him company while he was looking for a job. Hello? I live in that house, Doctor. I said, why would you feel alone? But he bought it any way. Now it sits there and says random things, advertisements from TV, or most of the time just copying sounds, like the other day when I was blending a smoothie. It’s not even funny.”
Raj had labelled Greg as an unrepentant layabout from Wendy’s descriptions of him. He imagined him as the kind of loud, bombastic person who invested in a monster recliner and proceeded to drown it in biscuit crumbs. He wished Greg would come in, someday.
This is how utterly useless you are, Greg, he would think while looking into his eyes. You’re a piece of shit, Greg, for thinking that you’re better than me.
I work hard and I deserve all of this.
“People do funny things when they have nothing to do, Wendy. If it’s any consolation, this is the weirdest story I’ve heard on the subject. Tell him I said, good luck, Okay?”
He glanced at his watch. Jennifer had left her office early to take Rhea and his mother out to a film, which meant that it fell to him to drive his father to their dinner later. The thought of spending twenty minutes locked in a car alone with Naren was making him skeptical about the overall prospects of the evening.
The door to the house swung inwards just as Raj turned off his car. His father stood peering at him from the top of a double step, dressed in a navy-blue suit of soft wool.
“Aren’t you going to be too warm in that suit?”
“No, it’s cold here.”
Raj waited for his father to move so he could go inside, but he remained standing in the doorway. Raj finally motioned him to move aside.
“I’ll just go up and throw something on as well.”
“You look fine, otherwise we’ll be late. I was listening to some of your music today, and I’m not very impressed with your collection, Raj, I must say. There’s no Hindustani, not even anything by that show-off, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and a distressing amount of Schumann. And not Clara, either, which would at least have been interesting.”
“Yes, thanks for doing that, and that’s all very useful but can we talk about this once I’ve cleaned up for dinner?”
But Naren had pushed past him and was standing with his hand on the handle of the passenger side of the car. Raj looked at his feet and then walked quickly over to the driver’s side.
“I drove in a car like this you know, when I performed at Carnegie in the Nineties. Were you there?”
“Did something happen at work?”
Raj pressed a button and they waited for the garage door to close. A few minutes later they had left the neatly planned, wealthy community behind them and were surrounded by vast corn fields. Distant silhouettes of crab-like pivot systems used for watering loomed in the fading light.
“Was it a good day, then?”
“Did you get any interesting patients?”
“How much do they pay you?”
Raj moved his hands around the steering wheel restlessly, took his eyes off the road and stared at a bristly inch of Velcro that was sticking out from under the leather cover.
“I’ve been thinking of moving on to a different sort of job.”
His father smiled and raised his hands to heaven, as if taking a private moment aside with his personal friend, God. Raj realised that he was crouched right at the edge of his seat.
“At a university hospital, maybe, one of the big ones, with more research.”
He looked around at his father for the first time. Naren cleared his throat. His forehead shone in an oncoming car’s headlights.
“You’re not good at taking criticism.”
“You have no passion.”
A familiar, bitter sort of pressure was beginning to build in Raj’s chest.
“You know what your problem is? The Western World, this is what it does to people. Sensible, sane people go abroad. What happens then? You see yourself surrounded by so many good things that you begin to think about useless things. Who cares about knowing or not knowing? At least you have less dust here, your house is always so clean, eh? The only thing, you’re upset about, as far as I can tell, is being born.”
He leaned back in his seat and began to hit his knees with the base of his palms. It made a weighty, trembling sound, much like Rhea’s feet on polished wood.
“I saw this exercise on YouTube, for my knees, since you couldn’t do anything for it.”
Raj thought of his office. In his mind, he ran his eyes up the wall opposite his desk to where some extra paint or plaster had accumulated in an irregular lump. He moved forward even further so that Naren was a slight shadow at the corner of his vision, something he mustn’t look at.
Naren slapped the back of Raj’s head hard just as they were pulling into the parking lot of the restaurant.
“Not too far from the entrance. Look at this restaurant. Look at how good it looks, hain, yes? I chose it.”
Naren raised an arm theatrically. They both turned to look at the squat looking building plastered with strips of tastefully dimmed gold neon lights and the name JULIENNE in cursive.
Saturday was his day off. His alarm hadn’t gone off when he woke up and he saw the pale underside of Jennifer’s arm on the bit of duvet in front of him. He touched the side of it where he knew her skin became imperceptibly darker. She yawned, turned to put a hand on his chest, and pulled him close. Her mouth was hot under him and the erotic aftertaste of sleep made his spine arch slowly until his forehead was in her hair, which bunched and brushed against his face.
She nodded and made a noise in the back of her throat. He slid one hand around her, stroked the back of her thighs with the other, and moved his leg between hers to pin her closer to him.
And then he flinched. He even glanced down. An image of his parents, pausing mid-conversation to look up at the ceiling, at the unmistakeable, absurdly loud sounds of their squeaking bedsprings came to him.
“Mmmm. I don’t feel like it.”
Their presence had changed the house for him; it weighed different and sounded different, and the air took different paths through its rooms.
She reached casually down for him and he slapped her hand away sharply.
“Raj! What the fuck?”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.”
He covered his face with his hands. Jennifer threw off the duvet with suggestive force and got out of bed. He watched her through the gaps between his fingers.
“It’s my parents.”
She pulled her robe on and sat on the bed by him, rubbing her bottom lip.
“Oh, shit. Ugh, now I feel weird.”
“I’m sorry. I feel so useless.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
Business-like, Jennifer pulled the belt of her robe tight and disappeared into the bathroom.
There it is.
Secret thoughts often slip out under the guise of mundane things, and in Raj’s experience, those closest to one almost always reacted in a way that felt dismally inadequate. Yet, every time it happened, he was inevitably rinsed in the same obliterating sense of rejection.
His mother was in the kitchen downstairs. The sky was overcast and though the light coming from the window by her was subdued, it felt hard on his eyes. She was rolling out a sheet of dough and cutting it into circles the size of his palm. The sheets of dough were rolled so thin that they looked faintly blue. He took out a jar of blueberry yogurt from the fridge.
“What are you doing?”
She turned around and smiled.
“Mom. You don’t have to do that.”
She scattered some flour over the circles and arranged them carefully on a damp sheet which lay folded over before her.
“I need something to do, you can’t just sit around at my age, you have to keep moving.”
He watched as she counted the circles and repeated the number to herself in a whisper.
“Jennifer said Rhea takes a packed lunch to school.”
He licked the last of the yogurt from the back of his spoon and came to stand behind her. His hand hovered over the twists and turns of her slate grey hair. Her hair was coiled in a bun and held in place with wide, u-shaped hairpins. He remembered the smell of it, a steady sweet heat right near her scalp, from when she had let him comb it when he was little. It had been soft and dark then, falling well past her waist.
“Can you teach me how to make them?”
She looked at him, surprised and pleased.
“I can write down the recipe for you.”
He pulled up a chair and sat down.
“No, you’ll have to show me. Otherwise I’ll forget.”
“Your papa gets very fidgety with these. I suppose you could start with—it’ll take some time to get the hang of it, then, watch.”
She dipped her index finger in a bowl of water by her and drew a line around the edge of the circle of pastry. It shone softly in the monochromatic light. Quickly, she scooped up a crumbly mix of khoya, smelling of milk and burnt sugar, put it in the middle of the pastry circle, and crimped the edges shut in a half-circle.
“See? And then you put it under the sheet to keep it damp and moist before you have to fry it.”
She inclined her head to a sad looking dumpling at one the corner of the sheet.
“That’s your father’s attempt, so you’ll be fine.”
He cleared his throat prissily and began following her directions.
He was transferring wet clothes from the washing machine into the dryer a few days after they left. The clothes were cool and scratchy against his skin, the water had slicked together the tiny fibres across their surface into furry bunches that tickled him. As he looked down, he saw something tiny skitter across the floor by his foot, and looking closer, saw that it was a tiny leaf, curled upon itself. It looked unfamiliar, colored pale green, almost white near the stem and darkening to emerald at the tip.
How long had it been here? It didn’t seem to be from any of the trees growing around the house. As he twirled it between thumb and forefinger, he saw the frail leaf fall, folded inadvertently into a shirt after being taken off a clothesline under trees; he saw it shrivel in the long darkness of a transatlantic flight. Outside the small window, set high up in a corner of the laundry room, dark and silky wisps floated in front of a towering heap of clouds in the far distance.
Raj pocketed the leaf, humming one of his father’s songs, and turned the dryer on.