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Read the attached story “Sexy” by Jhumpa Lahiri. Discuss the thematic importance of storytelling as it relates to either minimalism or postcolonialism. How does storytelling convey the desire for contact that these texts dramatize?


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“Sexy” Jhumpa Lahiri IT WAS A WIFE’S WORST NIGHTMARE. After nine years of marriage, Laxmi told Miranda, her cousin’s husband had fallen in love with another woman. He sat next to her on a plane, on a flight from Delhi to Montreal, and instead of flying home to his wife and son, he got off with the woman at Heathrow. He called his wife, and told her he’d had a conversation that had changed his life, and that he needed time to figure things out. Laxmi’s cousin had taken to her bed. “Not that I blame her,” Laxmi said. She reached for the Hot Mix she munched throughout the day, which looked to Miranda like dusty orange cereal. “Imagine. An English girl, half his age.” Laxmi was only a few years older than Miranda, but she was already married, and kept a photo of herself and her husband, seated on a white stone bench in front of the Taj Mahal, tacked to the inside of her cubicle, which was next to Miranda’s. Laxmi had been on the phone for at least an hour, trying to calm her cousin down. No one noticed; they worked for a public radio station, in the fund-raising department, and were surrounded by people who spent all day on the phone, soliciting pledges. “I feel worst for the boy,” Laxmi added. “He’s been at home for days. My cousin said she can’t even take him to school.” “It sounds awful,” Miranda said. Normally Laxmi’s phone conversations -mainly to her husband, about what to cook for dinner-distracted Miranda as she typed letters, asking members of the radio station to increase their annual pledge in exchange for a tote bag or an umbrella. She could hear Laxmi clearly, her sentences peppered every now and then with an Indian word, through the laminated wall between their desks. But that afternoon Miranda hadn’t been listening. She’d been on the phone herself, with Dev, deciding where to meet later that evening. “Then again, a few days at home won’t hurt him.” Laxmi ate some more Hot Mix, then put it away in a drawer. “He’s something of a genius. He has a Punjabi mother and a Bengali father, and because he learns French and English at school he already speaks four languages. I think he skipped two grades.” Dev was Bengali, too. At first Miranda thought it was a religion. But then he pointed it out to her, a place in India called Bengal, in a map printed in an issue of The Economist. He had brought the magazine specially to her apartment, for she did not own an atlas, or any other books with maps in them. He’d pointed to the city where he’d been born, and another city where his father had been born. One of the cities had a box around it, intended to attract the reader’s eye. When Miranda asked what the box indicated, Dev rolled up the magazine, and said, “Nothing you’ll ever need to worry about,” and he tapped her playfully on the head. Before leaving her apartment he’d tossed the magazine in the garbage, along with the ends of the three cigarettes he always smoked in the course of his visits. But after she watched his car disappear down Commonwealth Avenue, back to his house in the suburbs, where he lived with his wife, Miranda retrieved it, and brushed the ashes off the cover, and tolled it in the opposite direction to get it to lie flat. She got into bed, still rumpled from their lovemaking, and studied the borders of Bengal. There was a bay below and mountains above. The map was connected to an article about something called the Gramin Bank. She turned the page, hoping for a photograph of the city where Dev was born, but all she found were graphs and grids. Still, she stared at them, thinking the whole while about Dev, about how only fifteen minutes ago he’d propped her feet on top of his shoulders, and pressed her knees to her chest, and told her that he couldn’t get enough of her. She’d met him a week ago, at Filene’s. She was there on her lunch break, buying discounted pantyhose in the Basement. Afterward she took the escalator to the main part of the store, to the cosmetics department, where soaps and creams were displayed like jewels, and eye shadows and powders shimmered like butterflies pinned behind protective glass. Though Miranda had never bought anything other than a lipstick, she liked walking through the cramped, confined maze, which was familiar to her in a way the rest of Boston still was not. She liked negotiating her way past the women planted at every turn, who sprayed cards with perfume and waved them in the air: sometimes she would find a card days afterward, folded in her coat pocket, and the rich aroma, still faintly preserved, would warm her as she waited on cold mornings for the T. That day, stopping to smell one of the more pleasing cards, Miranda noticed a man standing at one of the counters. He held a slip of paper covered in a precise, feminine hand. A saleswoman took one look at the paper and began to open drawers. She produced an oblong cake of soap in a black case, a hydrating mask, a vial of cell renewal drops, and two cubes of face cream. The man was tanned, with black hair that was visible on his knuckles. He wore a flamingo pink shirt, a navy blue suit, a camel overcoat with gleaming leather buttons. In order to pay he had taken off pigskin gloves. Crisp bills emerged from a burgundy wallet. He didn’t wear a wedding ring. “What can I get you, honey?” the saleswoman asked Miranda. She looked over the tops of her tortoiseshell glasses, assessing Miranda’s complexion. Miranda didn’t know what she wanted. All she knew was that she didn’t want the man to walk away. He seemed to be lingering, waiting, along with the saleswoman, for her to say something. She stared at some bottles, some short, others tall, arranged on an oval tray, like a family posing for a photograph. “A cream,” Miranda said eventually. “How old are you?” “Twenty-two.” The saleswoman nodded, opening a frosted bottle. “This may seem a bit heavier than what you’re used to, but I’d start now. All your wrinkles are going to form by twenty-five. After that they just start showing.” While the saleswoman dabbed the cream on Miranda’s face, the man stood and watched. While Miranda was told the proper way to apply it, in swift upward strokes beginning at the base of her throat, he spun the lipstick carousel. He pressed a pump that dispensed cellulite gel and massaged it into the back of his ungloved band. He opened a jar, leaned over, and drew so close that a drop of cream flecked his nose. Miranda smiled, but her mouth was obscured by a large brush that the saleswoman was sweeping over her face “This is blusher Number Two,” the woman said. “Gives you some color.” Miranda nodded, glancing at her reflection in one of the angled minors that lined the counter. She had silver eyes and skin as pale as paper, and the contrast with her hair, as dark and glossy as an espresso bean, caused people to describe her as striking, if not pretty. She had a narrow, egg-shaped head that rose to a prominent point. Her features, too, were narrow, with nostrils so slim that they appeared to have been pinched with a clothespin. Now her face glowed, rosy at the cheeks, smoky below the brow bone. Her lips glistened. The man was glancing in a mirror, too, quickly wiping the cream from his nose. Miranda wondered where he was from. She thought he might be Spanish, or Lebanese. When he opened another jar, and said, to no one in particular, “This one smells like pineapple,” she detected only the hint of an accent. “Anything else for you today?” the saleswoman asked, accepting Miranda’s credit card. “No thanks,” The woman wrapped the cream in several layers of red tissue. “You’ll be very happy with this product,” Miranda’s hand was unsteady as she signed the receipt. The man hadn’t budged. “I threw in a sample of our new eye gel,” the saleswoman added, handing Miranda a small shopping bag. She looked at Miranda’s credit card before sliding it across the counter. “Bye-bye, Miranda.” Miranda began walking. At first she sped up. Then, noticing the doors that led to Downtown Crossing, she slowed down. “Part of your name is Indian,” the man said, pacing his steps with hers. She stopped, as did he, at a circular table piled with sweaters, flanked with pinecones and velvet bows. “Miranda?” “Mira. I have an aunt named Mira.” His name was Dev. He worked in an investment bank back that way, he said, tilting his head in the direction of South Station. He was the first man with a mustache, Miranda decided, she found handsome. They walked together toward Park Street station, past the kiosks that sold cheap belts and handbags. A fierce January wind spoiled the part in her hair. As she fished for a token in her coat pocket, her eyes fell to his shopping bag. “And those are for her?” “Who?” “Your Aunt Mira.” “They’re for my wife.” He uttered the words slowly, holding Miranda’s gaze. “She’s going to India for a few weeks.” He rolled his eyes. “She’s addicted to this stuff.” Somehow, without the wife there, it didn’t seem so wrong. At first Miranda and Dev spent every night together, almost. He explained that he couldn’t spend the whole night at her place, because his wife called every day at six in the morning, from India, where it was four in the afternoon. And so he left her apartment at two, three, often as late as four in the morning, driving back to his house in the suburbs. During the day he called her every hour, it seemed, from work, or from his cell phone. Once he learned Miranda’s schedule he left her a message each evening at five-thirty, when she was on the T coming back to her apartment, just so, he said, she could hear his voice as soon as she walked through the door. “I’m thinking about you,” he’d say on the tape. “I can’t wait to see you.” He told her he liked spending time in her apartment, with its kitchen counter no wider than a breadbox, and scratchy floors that sloped, and a buzzer in the lobby that always made a slightly embarrassing sound when he pressed it. He said he admired her for moving to Boston, where she knew no one, instead of remaining in Michigan, where she’d grown up and gone to college. When Miranda told him it was nothing to admire, that she’d moved to Boston precisely for that reason, he shook his head. “I know what it’s like to be lonely,” he said, suddenly serious, and at that moment Miranda felt that he understood her -understood how she felt some nights on the T, after seeing a movie on her own, or going to a bookstore to read magazines, or having drinks with Laxmi, who always had to meet her husband at Alewife station in an hour or two. In less serious moments Dev said he liked that her legs were longer than her torso, something he’d observed the first time she walked across a room naked. “You’re the first,” he told her, admiring her from the bed. “The first woman I’ve known with legs this long.” Dev was the first to tell her that. Unlike the boys she dated in college, who were simply taller, heavier versions of the ones she dated in high school, Dev was the first always to pay for things, and hold doors open, and reach across a table in a restaurant to kiss her hand. He was the first to bring her a bouquet of flowers so immense she’d had to split it up into all six of her drinking glasses, and the first to whisper her name again and again when they made love. Within days of meeting him, when she was at work, Miranda began to wish that there were a picture of her and Dev tacked to the inside of her cubicle, like the one of Laxmi and her husband in front of the Taj Mahal. She didn’t tell Laxmi about Dev. She didn’t tell anyone. Part of her wanted to tell Laxmi, if only because Laxmi was Indian, too. But Laxmi was always on the phone with her cousin these days, who was still in bed, whose husband was still in London, and whose son still wasn’t going to school. “You must eat something,” Laxmi would urge. “You mustn’t lose your health.” When she wasn’t speaking to her cousin, she spoke to her husband, shorter conversations, in which she ended up arguing about whether to have chicken or lamb for dinner. “I’m sorry,” Miranda heard her apologize at one point. “This whole thing just makes me a little paranoid.” Miranda and Dev didn’t argue. They went to movies at the Nickelodeon and kissed the whole time. They ate pulled pork and cornbread in Davis Square, a paper napkin tucked like a cravat into the collar of Dev’s shirt. They sipped sangria at the bar of a Spanish restaurant, a grinning pig’s head presiding over their conversation. They went to the MFA and picked out a poster of water lilies for her bedroom. One Saturday, following an afternoon concert at Symphony Hall, he showed her his favorite place in the city, the Mapparium at the Christian Science center, where they stood inside a room made of glowing stained-glass panels, which was shaped like the inside of a globe, but looked like the outside of one. In the middle of the room was a transparent bridge, so that they felt as if they were standing in the center of the world. Dev pointed to India, which was red, and far more detailed than the map in The Economist. He explained that many of the countries, like Siam and Italian Somaliland, no longer existed in the same way; the names had changed by now. The ocean, as blue as a peacock’s breast, appeared in two shades, depending on the depth of the water. He showed her the deepest spot on earth, seven miles deep, above the Mariana Islands. They peered over the bridge and saw the Antarctic archipelago at their feet, craned their necks and saw a giant metal star overhead. As Dev spoke, his voice bounced wildly off the glass, sometimes loud, sometimes soft, sometimes seeming to land in Miranda’s chest, sometimes eluding her ear altogether. When a group of tourists walked onto the bridge, she could hear them clearing their throats, as if through microphones, Dev explained that it was because of the acoustics. Miranda found London, where Laxmi’s cousin’s husband was, with the woman he’d met on the plane. She wondered which of the cities in India Dev’s wife was in. The farthest Miranda had ever been was to the Bahamas once when she was a child. She searched but couldn’t find it on the glass panels. When the tourists left and she and Dev were alone again, he told her to stand at one end of the bridge. Even though they were thirty feet apart, Dev said, they’d be able to hear each other whisper. “I don’t believe you,” Miranda said. It was the first time she’d spoken since they’d entered. She felt as if speakers were embedded in her ears. “Go ahead,” he urged, walking backward to his end of the bridge. His voice dropped to a whisper. “Say something.” She watched his lips forming the words; at the same time she heard them so clearly that she felt them under her skin, under her winter coat, so near and full of warmth that she felt herself go hot. “Hi,” she whispered, unsure of what else to say. “You’re sexy,” he whispered back. At work the following week, Laxmi told Miranda that it wasn’t the first time her cousin’s husband had had an affair. “She’s decided to let him come to his senses,” Laxmi said one evening as they were getting ready to leave the office. “She says it’s for the boy. She’s willing to forgive him for the boy.” Miranda waited as Laxmi shut off her computer. “He’ll come crawling back, and she’ll let him,” Laxmi said, shaking her head. “Not me. If my husband so much as looked at another woman I’d change the locks.” She studied the picture tacked to her cubicle. Laxmi’s husband had his arm draped over her shoulder, his knees leaning in toward her on the bench. She turned to Miranda, “Wouldn’t you?” She nodded. Dev’s wife was coming back from India the next day. That afternoon he’d called Miranda at work, to say he had to go to the airport to pick her up. He promised he’d call as soon as he could. “What’s the Taj Mahal like?” she asked Laxmi. “The most romantic spot on earth.” Laxmi’s face brightened at the memory. “An everlasting monument to love.” While Dev was at the airport, Miranda went to Filene’s Basement to buy herself things she thought a mistress should have. She found a pair of black high heels with buckles smaller than a baby’s teeth. She found a satin slip with scalloped edges and a knee-length silk robe. Instead of the pantyhose she normally wore to work, she found sheer stockings with a seam. She searched through piles and wandered through racks, pressing back hanger after hanger, until she found a cocktail dress made of a slinky silvery material that matched her eyes, with little chains for straps. As she shopped she thought about Dev, and about what he’d told her in the Mapparium. It was the first time a man had called her sexy, and when she closed her eyes she could still feel his whisper drifting through her body, under her skin. In the fitting room, which was just one big room with mirrors on the walls, she found a spot next to an older woman with a shiny face and coarse frosted hair. The woman stood barefoot in her underwear, pulling the black net of a body stocking taut between her fingers. “Always check for snags,” the woman advised. Miranda pulled out the satin slip with scalloped edges. She held it to her chest. The woman nodded with approval. “Oh yes.” “And this?” She held up the silver cocktail dress. “Absolutely,” the woman said “He’ll want to rip it right off you.” Miranda pictured the two of them at a restaurant in the South End they’d been to, where Dev had ordered foie gras and a soup made with champagne and raspberries. She pictured herself in the cocktail dress, and Dev in one of his suits, kissing her hand across the table. Only the next time Dev came to visit her, on a Sunday afternoon several days since the last time they’d seen each other, he was in gym clothes. After his wife came back, that was his excuse: on Sundays he drove into Boston and went running along the Charles. The first Sunday she opened the door in the knee-length robe, but Dev didn’t even notice it; he carried her over to the bed, wearing sweatpants and sneakers, and entered her without a word. Later, she slipped on the robe when she walked across the room to get him a saucer for his cigarette ashes, but he complained that she was depriving him of the sight of her long legs, and demanded that she remove it. So the next Sunday she didn’t bother. She wore jeans. She kept the lingerie at the back of a drawer, behind her socks and everyday underwear. The silver cocktail dress hung in her closet, the tag dangling from the seam. Often, in the morning, the dress would be in a heap on the floor; the chain straps always slipped off the metal hanger. Still, Miranda looked forward to Sundays. In the mornings she went to a deli and bought a baguette and little containers of things Dev liked to eat, like pickled herring, and potato salad, and tortes of pesto and mascarpone cheese. They ate in bed, picking up the herring with their fingers and ripping the baguette with their hands. Dev told her stories about his childhood, when he would come home from school and drink mango juice served to him on a tray, and then play cricket by a lake, dressed all in white. He told her about how, at eighteen, he’d been sent to a college in upstate New York during something called the Emergency, and about how it took him years to be able to follow American accents in movies, in spite of the fact that he’d had an English-medium education. As he talked he smoked three cigarettes, crushing them in a saucer by the side of her bed. Sometimes he asked her questions, like how many lovers she’d had (three) and how old she’d been the first time (nineteen). After lunch they made love, on sheets covered with crumbs, and then Dev took a nap for twelve minutes. Miranda had never known an adult who took naps, but Dev said it was something he’d grown up doing in India, where it was so hot that people didn’t leave their homes until the sun went down. “Plus it allows us to sleep together,” he murmured mischievously, curving his arm like a big bracelet around her body. Only Miranda never slept. She watched the clock on her bedside table, or pressed her face against Dev’s fingers, intertwined with hers, each with its half-dozen hairs at the knuckle. After six minutes she turned to face him, sighing and stretching, to test if he was really sleeping. He always was. His ribs were visible through his skin as he breathed, and yet he was beginning to develop a paunch. He complained about the hair on his shoulders, but Miranda thought him perfect, and refused to imagine him any other way. At the end of twelve minutes Dev would open his eyes as if he’d been awake all along, smiling at her, full of a contentment she wished she felt herself. “The best twelve minutes of the week.” He’d sigh, running a hand along the backs of her calves. Then he’d spring out of bed, pulling on his sweatpants and lacing up his sneakers. He would go to the bathroom and brush his teeth with his index finger, something he told her all Indians knew how to do, to get rid of the smoke in his mouth. When she kissed him good-bye she smelled herself sometimes in his hair. But she knew that his excuse, that he’d spent the afternoon jogging, allowed him to take a shower when he got home, first thing. Apart from Laxmi and Dev, the only Indians whom Miranda had known were a family in the neighborhood where she’d grown up, named the Dixits. Much to the amusement of the neighborhood children, including Miranda, but not including the Dixit children, Mr. Dixit would jog each evening along the flat winding streets of their development in his everyday shirt and trousers, his only concession to athletic apparel a pair of cheap Keds. Every weekend, the family—mother, father, two boys, and a girl—piled into their car and went away, to where nobody knew. The fathers complained that Mr. Dixit did not fertilize his lawn properly, did not rake his leaves on time, and agreed that the Dixits’ house, the only one with vinyl siding, detracted from the neighborhood’s charm. The mothers never invited Mrs. Dixit to join them around the Armstrongs’ swimming pool. Waiting for the school bus with the Dixit children standing to one side, the other children would say “The Dixits dig shit,” under their breath, and then burst into laughter. One year, all the neighborhood children were invited to the birthday party of the Dixit girl. Miranda remembered a heavy aroma of incense and onions in the house, and a pile of shoes heaped by the front door. But most of all she remembered a piece of fabric, about the size of a pillowcase, which hung from a wooden dowel at the bottom of the stairs. It was a painting of a naked woman with a red face shaped like a knight’s shield. She had enormous white eyes that tilted toward her temples, and mere dots for pupils. Two circles, with the same dots at their centers, indicated her breasts. In one hand she brandished a dagger. With one foot she crushed a struggling man on the ground. Around her body was a necklace composed of bleeding heads, strung together like a popcorn chain. She stuck her tongue out at Miranda. “It is the goddess Kali,” Mrs. Dixit explained brightly, shifting the dowel slightly in order to straighten the image. Mrs. Dixit’s hands were painted with henna, an intricate pattern of zigzags and stars. “Come please, time for cake.” Miranda, then nine years old, had been too frightened to eat the cake. For months afterward she’d been too frightened even to walk on the same side of the street as the Dixits’ house, which she had to pass twice daily, once to get to the bus stop, and once again to come home. For a while she even held her breath until she reached the next lawn, just as she did when the school bus passed a cemetery. It shamed her now. Now, when she and Dev made love, Miranda closed her eyes and saw deserts and elephants, and marble pavilions floating on lakes beneath a full moon. One Saturday, having nothing else to do, she walked to Central Square, to an Indian restaurant, and ordered a plate of tandoori chicken. As she ate she tried to memorize phrases printed at the bottom of the menu, for things like “delicious” and “water” and “check, please.” The phrases didn’t stick in her mind, and so she began to stop from time to time in the foreign language section of a bookstore in Kenmore Square, where she studied the Bengali alphabet in the Teach Yourself series. Once she went so far as to try to transcribe the Indian part of her name, “Mira,” into her Filofax, her hand moving in unfamiliar directions, stopping and turning and picking up her pen when she least expected to. Following the arrows in the book, she drew a bar from left to right from which the letters hung; one looked more like a number than a letter, another looked like a triangle on its side. It had taken her several tries to get the letters of her name to resemble the sample letters in the book, and even then she wasn’t sure if she’d written Mira or Mara. It was a scribble to her, but somewhere in the world, she realized with a shock, it meant something. During the week it wasn’t so bad. Work kept her busy, and she and Laxmi had begun having lunch together at a new Indian restaurant around the corner, during which Laxmi reported the latest status of her cousin’s marriage. Sometimes Miranda tried to change the topic; it made her feel the way she once felt in college when she and her boyfriend at the time had walked away from a crowded house of pancakes without paying for their food, just to see if they could get away with it. But Laxmi spoke of nothing else. “If I were her I’d fly straight to London and shoot them both,” she announced one day. She snapped a papadum in half and dipped it into chutney. “I don’t know how she can just wait this way.” Miranda knew how to wait. In the evenings she sat at her dining table and coated her nails with clear nail polish, and ate salad straight from the salad bowl, and watched television, and waited for Sunday. Saturdays were the worst, because by Saturday it seemed that Sunday would never come. One Saturday when Dev called, late at night, she heard people laughing and talking in the background, so many that she asked him if he was at a concert hall. But he was only calling from his house in the suburbs. “I can’t hear you that well,” he said. “We have guests. Miss me?” She looked at the television screen, a sitcom that she’d muted with the remote control when the phone rang. She pictured him whispering into his cell phone, in a room upstairs, a hand on the doorknob, the hallway filled with guests. “Miranda, do you miss me?” he asked again. She told him that she did. The next day, when Dev came to visit, Miranda asked him what his wife looked like. She was nervous to ask, waiting until he’d smoked the last of his cigarettes, crushing it with a firm twist into the saucer. She wondered if they’d quarrel. But Dev wasn’t surprised by the question. He told her, spreading some smoked whitefish on a cracker, that his wife resembled an actress in Bombay named Madhuri Dixit. For an instant Miranda’s heart stopped. But no, the Dixit girl had been named something else, something that began with P. Still, she wondered if the actress and the Dixit girl were related. She’d been plain, wearing her hair in two braids all through high school. A few days later Miranda went to an Indian grocery in Central Square that also rented videos. The door opened to a complicated tinkling of bells. It was dinnertime and she was the only customer. A video was playing on a television hooked up in a corner of the store: a row of young women in harem pants were thrusting their hips in synchrony on a beach. “Can I help you?” the man standing at the cash register asked. He was eating a samosa, dipping it into some dark-brown sauce on a paper plate. Below the glass counter at his waist were trays of more plump samosas and what looked like pale, diamond-shaped pieces of fudge covered with foil, and some bright orange pastries floating in syrup. “You like some video?” Miranda opened up her Filofax where she had written down “Mottery Dixit.” She looked up at the videos on the shelves behind the counter. She saw women wearing skirts that sat low on the hips and tops that tied like bandannas between their breasts. Some leaned back against a stone wall, or a tree. They were beautiful, the way the women dancing on the beach were beautiful, with kohl-rimmed eyes and long black hair. She knew then that Madhuri Dixit was beautiful, too. “We have subtitled versions, miss,” the man continued. He wiped his fingertips quickly on his shirt and pulled out three titles. “No,” Miranda said. “Thank you, no.” She wandered through the store, studying shelves lined with unlabelled packets and tins. The freezer case was stuffed with bags of pita bread and vegetables she didn’t recognize. The only thing she recognized was a rack lined with bags and bags of the Hot Mix that Laxmi was always eating. She thought about buying some for Laxmi, then hesitated, wondering how to explain what she’d been doing in an Indian grocery. “Very spicy,” the man said, shaking his head, his eyes traveling across Miranda’s body. “Too spicy for you.” By February Laxmi’s cousin’s husband still hadn’t come to his senses. He had returned to Montreal, argued bitterly with his wife for two weeks, packed two suitcases, and flown back to London. He wanted a divorce. Miranda sat in her cubicle and listened as Laxmi kept telling her cousin that there were better men in the world, just waiting to come out of the woodwork. The next day the cousin said she and her son were going to her parents’ house in California, to try to recuperate. Laxmi convinced her to arrange a weekend layover in Boston. “A quick change of place will do you good,” Laxmi insisted gently, “besides which, I haven’t seen you in years.” Miranda stared at her own phone, wishing Dev would call. It had been four days since their last conversation. She heard Laxmi dialing directory assistance, asking for the number of a beauty salon. “Something soothing,” Laxmi requested. She scheduled massages, facials, manicures, and pedicures. Then she reserved a table for lunch at the Four Seasons. In her determination to cheer up her cousin, Laxmi had forgotten about the boy. She rapped her knuckles on the laminated wall. “Are you busy Saturday?” The boy was thin. He wore a yellow knapsack strapped across his back, gray herringbone trousers, a red V necked sweater, and black leather shoes. His hair was cut in a thick fringe over his eyes, which had dark circles under them. They were the first thing Miranda noticed. They made him look haggard, as if he smoked a great deal and slept very little, in spite of the fact that he was only seven years old. He clasped a large sketch pad with a spiral binding. His name was Rohin. “Ask me a capital,” he said, staring up at Miranda. She stared back at him. It was eight-thirty on a Saturday morning. She took a sip of coffee. “A what?” “It’s a game he’s been playing,” Laxmi’s cousin explained. She was thin like her son, with a long face and the same dark circles under her eyes. A rust-colored coat hung heavy on her shoulders. Her black hair, with a few strands of gray at the temples, was pulled back like a ballerina’s. “You ask him a country and he tells you the capital.” “You should have heard him in the car,” Laxmi said. “He’s already memorized all of Europe.” “It’s not a game,” Rohin said. “I’m having a competition with a boy at school. We’re competing to memorize all the capitals. I’m going to beat him.” Miranda nodded. “Okay. What’s the capital of India?” “That’s no good.” He marched away, his arms swinging like a toy soldier. Then he marched back to Laxmi’s cousin and tugged at a pocket of her overcoat, “Ask me a hard one.” “Senegal,” she said. “Dakar!” Rohin exclaimed triumphantly, and began running in larger and larger circles. Eventually he ran into the kitchen. Miranda could hear him opening and closing the fridge. “Rohin, don’t touch without asking,” Laxmi’s cousin called out wearily. She managed a smile for Miranda. “Don’t worry, he’ll fall asleep in a few hours. And thanks for watching him.” “Back at three,” Laxmi said, disappearing with her cousin down the hallway, “We’re double-parked.” Miranda fastened the chain on the door. She went to the kitchen to find Rohin, but he was now in the living room, at the dining table, kneeling on one of the director’s chairs. He unzipped his knapsack, pushed Miranda’s basket of manicure supplies to one side of the table, and spread his crayons over the surface. Miranda stood over his shoulder. She watched as he gripped a blue crayon and drew the outline of an airplane. “It’s lovely,” she said. When he didn’t reply, she went to the kitchen to pour herself more coffee. “Some for me, please,” Rohin called out. She returned to the living room. “Some what?” “Some coffee. There’s enough in the pot. I saw.” She walked over to the table and sat opposite him. At times he nearly stood up to reach for a new crayon. He barely made a dent in the director’s chair. “You’re too young for coffee.” Rohin leaned over the sketch pad, so that his tiny chest and shoulders almost touched it, his head tilted to one side. “The stewardess let me have coffee.” he said. “She made it with milk and lots of sugar.” He straightened, revealing a woman’s face beside the plane, with long wavy hair and eyes like asterisks, “Her hair was more shiny,” he decided, adding, “My father met a pretty woman on a plane, too.” He looked at Miranda. His face darkened as he watched her sip. “Can’t I have just a little coffee? Please?” She wondered, in spite of his composed, brooding expression, if he were the type to throw a tantrum. She imagined his kicking her with his leather shoes, screaming for coffee, screaming and crying until his mother and Laxmi came back to fetch him. She went to the kitchen and prepared a cup for him as he’d requested. She selected a mug she didn’t care for, in case he dropped it. “Thank you,” he said when she put it on the table. He took short sips, holding the mug securely with both hands. Miranda sat with him while he drew, but when she attempted to put a coat of clear polish on her nails he protested. Instead he pulled out a paperback world almanac from his knapsack and asked her to quiz him. The countries were arranged by continent, six to a page, with the capitals in boldface, followed by a short entry on the population, government, and other statistics. Miranda turned to a page in the Africa section and went down the list. “Mali,” she asked him. ” Bamako,” he replied instantly. “Malawi.” “Lilongwe.” She remembered looking at Africa in the Mapparium. She remembered the fat part of it was green. “Go on,” Rohin said. “Mauritania.” “Nouakchott.” “Mauritius.” He paused, squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them, defeated. “I can’t remember.” “Port Louis,” she told him. “Port Louis.” He began to say it again and again, like a chant under his breath. When they reached the last of the countries in Africa, Rohin said he wanted to watch cartoons, telling Miranda to watch them with him. When the cartoons ended, he followed her to the kitchen, and stood by her side as she made more coffee. He didn’t follow her when she went to the bathroom a few minutes later, but when she opened the door she was startled to find him standing outside. “Do you need to go?” He shook his head but walked into the bathroom anyway. He put the cover of the toilet down, climbed on top of it, and surveyed the narrow glass shelf over the sink which held Miranda’s toothbrush and makeup. “What’s this for?” he asked, picking up the sample of eye gel she’d gotten the day she met Dev. “Puffiness.” “What’s puffiness?” “Here,” she explained, pointing. “After you’ve been crying?” “I guess so.” Rohin opened the tube and smelled it. He squeezed a drop of it onto a finger, then rubbed it on his hand. “It stings.” He inspected the back of his hand closely, as if expecting it to change color. “My mother has puffiness. She says it’s a cold but really she cries, sometimes for hours. Sometimes straight through dinner. Sometimes she cries so hard her eyes puff up like bullfrogs.” Miranda wondered if she ought to feed him. In the kitchen she discovered a bag of rice cakes and some lettuce. She offered to go out, to buy something from the deli, but Rohin said he wasn’t very hungry, and accepted one of the rice cakes. “You eat one too,” he said. They sat at the table, the rice cakes between them. He turned to a fresh page in his sketch pad. “You draw.” She selected a blue crayon. “What should I draw?” He thought for a moment. “I know,” he said. He asked her to draw things in the living room: the sofa, the director’s chairs, the television, the telephone. “This way I can memorize it.” “Memorize what?” “Our day together.” He reached for another rice cake. “Why do you want to memorize it?” “Because we’re never going to see each other, ever again.” The precision of the phrase startled her. She looked at him, feeling slightly depressed. Rohin didn’t look depressed. He tapped the page. “Go on.” And so she drew the items as best as she could-the sofa, the director’s chairs, the television, the telephone. He sidled up to her, so close that it was sometimes difficult to see what she was doing. He put his small brown hand over hers. “Now me.” She handed him the crayon. He shook his head. “No, now draw me.” “I can’t,” she said. “It won’t look like you ” The brooding look began to spread across Robin’s face again, just as it had when she’d refused him coffee. “Please?” She drew his face, outlining his head and the thick fringe of hair. He sat perfectly still, with a formal, melancholy expression, his gaze fixed to one side. Miranda wished she could draw a good likeness. Her hand moved in conjunction with her eyes, in unknown ways, just as it had that day in the bookstore when she’d transcribed her name in Bengali letters. It looked nothing like him. She was in the middle of drawing his nose when he wriggled away from the table. “I’m bored,” he announced, heading toward her bedroom. She heard him opening the door, opening the drawres of her bureau and closing them. When she joined him he was inside the closet. After a moment he emerged, his hair disheveled, holding the silver cocktail dress. “This was on the floor.” “It falls off the hanger.” Rohin looked at the dress and then at Miranda’s body, “Put it on.” “Excuse me?” “Put it on.” There was no reason to put it on. Apart from in the fitting room at Filene’s she had never worn it, and as long as she was with Dev she knew she never would. She knew they would never go to restaurants, where he would reach across a table and kiss her hand. They would meet in her apartment, on Sundays, he in his sweatpants, she in her jeans. She took the dress from Rohin and shook it out, even though the slinky fabric never wrinkled. She reached into the closet for a free hanger. “Please put it on,” Rohin asked, suddenly standing behind her. He pressed his face against her, clasping her waist with both his thin arms. “Please?” “All right,” she said, surprised by the strength of his grip. He smiled, satisfied, and sat on the edge of her bed. “You have to wait out there,” she said, pointing to the door. “I’ll come out when I’m ready.” “But my mother always takes her clothes off in front of me.” “She does?” Rohin nodded. “She doesn’t even pick them up afterward. She leaves them all on the floor by the bed, all tangled.” “One day she slept in my room,” he continued. “She said it felt better than her bed, now that my father’s gone.” “I’m not your mother,” Miranda said, lifting him by the armpits off her bed. When he refused to stand, she picked him up. He was heavier than she expected, and he clung to her, his legs wrapped firmly around her hips, his head resting against her chest. She set him down in the hallway and shut the door. As an extra precaution she fastened the latch. She changed into the dress, glancing into the full-length mirror nailed to the back of the door. Her ankle socks looked silly, and so she opened a drawer and found the stockings. She searched through the back of the closet and slipped on the high heels with the tiny buckles. The chain straps of the dress were as light as paper clips against her collarbone. It was a bit loose on her. She could not zip it herself. Rohin began knocking. “May I come in now?” She opened the door. Rohin was holding his almanac in his hands, muttering something under his breath. His eyes opened wide at the sight of her. “I need help with the zipper,” she said. She sat on the edge of the bed. Rohin fastened the zipper to the top, and then Miranda stood up and twirled. Rohin put down the almanac. “You’re sexy,” he declared. “What did you say?” “You’re sexy.” Miranda sat down again. Though she knew it meant nothing, her heart skipped a beat. Rohin probably referred to all women as sexy. He’d probably heard the word on television, or seen it on the cover of a magazine. She remembered the day in the Mapparium standing across the bridge from Dev. At the time she thought she knew what his words meant. At the time they made sense. Miranda folded her arms across her chest and looked Rohin in the eyes. “Tell me something.” He was silent. “What does it mean?” “What?” “That word. ‘Sexy.’ What does it mean?” He looked down, suddenly shy. “I can’t tell you.” “Why not?” “It’s a secret.” He pressed his lips together, so hard that a bit of them went white. “Tell me the secret. I want to know.” Rohin sat on the bed beside Miranda and began to kick the edge of the mattress with the backs of his shoes. He giggled nervously, his thin body flinching as if it were being tickled. “Tell me,” Miranda demanded. She leaned over and gripped his ankles, holding his feet still. Rohin looked at her, his eyes like slits. He struggled to kick the mattress again. But Miranda pressed against him. He fell back on the bed, his back straight as a board. He cupped his hands around his mouth, and then he whispered, “It means loving someone you don’t know.” Miranda felt Rohin’s words under her skin, the same way she’d felt Dev’s. But instead of going hot she felt numb. It reminded her of the way she’d felt at the Indian grocery, the moment she knew, without even looking at a picture, that Madhuri Dixit, whom Dev’s wife resembled, was beautiful. “That’s what my father did,” Rohin continued. “He sat next to someone he didn’t know, someone sexy, and now he loves her instead of my mother.” He took off his shoes and placed them side by side on the floor. Then he peeled back the comforter and crawled into Miranda’s bed with the almanac. A minute later the book dropped from his hands, and he closed his eyes. Miranda watched him sleep, the comforter rising and falling as he breathed. He didn’t wake up after twelve minutes, like Dev, or even twenty. He didn’t open his eyes as she stepped out of the silver cocktail dress and back into her jeans, and put the high-heeled shoes in the back of the closet and rolled up the stockings and put them back in her drawer. When she had put everything away she sat on the bed. She leaned toward him, close enough to see some white powder from the rice cakes stuck to the corners of his mouth, and picked up the almanac. As she turned the pages she imagined the quarrels Rohin had overheard in his house in Montreal. “Is she pretty?” his mother would have asked his father, wearing the same bathrobe she’d worn for weeks, her own pretty face turning spiteful. “Is she sexy?” His father would deny it at first, try to change the subject. “Tell me,” Rohin’s mother would shriek, “tell me if she’s sexy.” In the end his father would admit that she was, and his mother would cry and cry, in a bed surrounded by a tangle of clothes, her eyes puffing up like bullfrogs. “How could you,” she’d ask sobbing, “how could you love a woman you don’t even know?” As Miranda imagined the scene she began to cry a little herself. In the Mapparium that day, all the countries had seemed close enough to touch, and Dev’s voice had bounced wildly off the glass. From across the bridge, thirty feet away, his words had reached her ears, so near and full of warmth that they’d drifted for days under her skin. Miranda cried harder, unable to stop. But Rohin still slept. She guessed that he was used to it now, to the sound of a woman crying. On Sunday, Dev called to tell Miranda he was on his way. “I’m almost ready. I’ll be there at two.” She was watching a cooking show on television. A woman pointed to a row of apples, explaining which were best for baking. “You shouldn’t come today.” “Why not?” “I have a cold,” she lied. It wasn’t far from the truth; crying had left her congested. “I’ve been in bed all morning,” “You do sound stuffed up.” There was a pause. “Do you need anything?” “I’m all set.” “Drink lots of fluids.” “Dev?” “Yes, Miranda?” “Do you remember that day we went to the Mapparium?” “Of course.” “Do you remember how we whispered to each other?” “I remember,” Dev whispered playfully. “Do you remember what you said?” There was a pause. “‘Let’s go back to your place.'” He laughed quietly. “Next Sunday, then?” The day before, as she’d cried, Miranda had believed she would never forget anything-not even the way her name looked written in Bengali. She’d fallen asleep beside Rohin and when she woke up he was drawing an airplane on the copy of The Economist she’d saved hidden under the bed. “Who’s Devajit Mitra?” he had asked, looking at the address label. Miranda pictured Dev, in his sweatpants and sneakers, laughing into the phone. In a moment he’d join his wife downstairs, and tell her he wasn’t going jogging. He’d pulled a muscle while stretching, he’d say, settling down to read the paper. In spite of herself, she longed for him. She would see him one more Sunday, she decided, perhaps two. Then she would tell him the things she had known all along: that it wasn’t fair to her, or to his wife, that they both deserved better, that there was no point in it dragging on. But the next Sunday it snowed, so much so that Dev couldn’t tell his wife he was going running along the Charles. The Sunday after that, the snow had melted, but Miranda made plans to go to the movies with Laxmi, and when she told Dev this over the phone, he didn’t ask her to cancel them. The third Sunday she got up early and went out for a walk. It was cold but sunny, and so she walked all the way down Commonwealth Avenue, past the restaurants where Dev had kissed her, and then she walked all the way to the Christian Science center. The Mapparium was closed, but she bought a cup of coffee nearby and sat on one of the benches in the plaza outside the church, gazing at its giant pillars and its massive dome, and at the clear blue sky spread over the city.

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