There’s this one spot in the front yard where the edge of the grass juts out into the driveway, so when you’re backing out you have to swerve to the right. I don’t know why it’s there; I guess the landscape designer thought it might serve some sort of aesthetic purpose to make our yard seem bigger than the neighbors’ or something, because that’s the way people think around here. I never gave it much thought – never saw it as a hazard or anything – until Ralph asked to learn how to drive. About a week ago, he got it into his head that he’d finally get his driver’s license, and he figured I could spend Thanksgiving weekend with him in places like the parking lot and the quiet streets at the edge of town, teaching him how to drive the pickup.
The pickup is a red Ford that looks antique. We never talk about the pickup. It sits in our backyard like a sculpture we work around but never look at, and we never use it. I get along fine with my bicycle and the public bus, and Ralph hardly leaves the house.
I’ve always wanted to get rid of it. It’s been sitting in the backyard forever, a gift from his ex-girlfriend, Lucy. And of everything, it’s the largest testimony to her still-sobering existence, rotting away in our backyard, taking up more space in our lives than it deserves.
The pickup isn’t the only gift we’ve received from Lucy. For a while, she was regularly leaving gifts, years after Ralph and I got together. Without showing her face, she’d leave small surprises in the mailbox, like holiday candy or photos of her daughter who wasn’t his; she’d put pies on the top stair of our porch; she’d make snowmen by our door to greet me when I left for work. One time, I found tickets to the opera in my mailbox at the university, nestled in between students’ papers on comparative government policy in Eastern Europe. I wanted to die right there. Ralph wanted to go, but I told him that we couldn’t. We just couldn’t.
Now it’s the day before Thanksgiving and I am way behind on my research. I’m working on this article about the Western influence on the recently improved Indian-Pakistani relations. I won’t have time to teach Ralph how to drive. I tell him I’m busier than usual. I’d like to skip the holiday altogether this year, if he wouldn’t mind.
I don’t think he would; he’s been spending all of his days on the computer, chatting with the rest of his family still in the Dominican Republic. It completely absorbs him. One of his cousins just hooked up his computer with a webcam, so suddenly they’re part of his life again, and he seems to have stopped caring about much else.
He is still in his boxers, video-chatting with his teenage nephew. He turns to me.
“You mean you won’t teach me to drive? And you can’t just skip a holiday, Miranda.”
He always plays up his accent when he is hurt. I don’t think it’s intentional, because Ralph never thinks strategically. But it always has this effect on me – makes me think he doesn’t deserve whatever I am doing to him. He’s just a foreigner who’s still learning after all. When I told this to my shrink she pointed out that I’m a foreigner, too, in fact, just as much as Ralph. But she doesn’t understand that Ralph’s foreignness is somehow stronger than mine.
Ralph stares at me with his drooping eyes and his nephew on the screen behind him is staring at me, too. Waiting for me to change my mind. So I cave. We get up early on Thanksgiving morning to have a driving lesson.
It feels strange getting into the pickup. The air smells stale and the leather seats are hard and they squeak with every movement. I hate touching the handles, the steering wheel, the keys; they are all things that Lucy has touched. But Ralph is a natural driver. After I explain the basics, he drives straight out of the parking lot like he’s been doing it forever. Not that it surprises me. He does almost everything smoothly without trying: dancing, cooking, singing … it’s so sexy.
He turns on the radio, and for a minute I forget we are in Lucy’s car. I relax in my seat. This is nice. Easier than biking to the bus stop in the rain.
“Why didn’t we do this earlier?” I laugh. “Now you can drive me to work, sometimes.”
“Because you’re always too busy, mi amor.”
I frown. A commercial for the community college comes on.
“Now I can go places,” Ralph continues. “I won’t have to stay cooped up all the time.”
“You talk like I’m holding you prisoner,” I say.
“I’m not. It’s just …” he sighs. “Do you ever think of going back to India?”
My body stiffens. “No. Why? You want to visit?”
But he doesn’t answer me. He just drives up and down every street, back and forth.
I glance out the window and think of Delhi for the first time in a while. I think of the apartment building that I grew up in before moving to the States for college. I haven’t seen it in almost a decade now. I think of its French bakery and its two swimming pools and the basketball court, and the series of uniformed men in the elevator who would push the gold buttons. I think of my parents, riding up to the fifteenth floor, never bothering to pull back the red curtains in the living room because the pollution, they claimed, ruined the view. But really they didn’t like to look at the shanty villages that surrounded our high-rise, villages filled with muddy roads and black pigs and barefoot children who were the children of our cook, our cleaning lady, our driver, and my mother’s meditation and yoga instructors. I think of the to-do lists my mother used to make for me each morning. I think of all the dinners she missed, all the plates of food the maid had to throw out.
I think of the silence I used to listen to, so thick it would fill every room. Coat every wall. My parents used to bottle up all their words and then finally they’d release them at night, once they assumed I was asleep.
“Well, maybe I’d go back to India,” I say. “But not to my family.”
Ralph leans across my seat and he grabs my thigh. “You should reconcile,” he says. He runs his hand down my leg as he drives. I try to think of other things.
We pass by Emerson Park and the playground, and then some of the houses that my colleagues own and the students rent. Ralph and I have been to our fair share of Christmas and dinner parties at the other professors’ houses, but we often aren’t invited back for a second time. I think it has something to do with Ralph’s sense of humor. The way he pretends to hit on all the women, or his tendency to drink too much and then fumble with the stereo, trying to change the songs without asking. I don’t mind that we never get the repeat invitations, though. I prefer to be at home instead of wearing some itchy dress that I never feel pretty in anyway, laughing at other people who aren’t funny.
There is always the inevitable question at those parties: “and so how did the two of you meet?” The partygoers emphasize the “you” and I can never tell if it is a conscious or unconscious decision to insinuate that we are an unlikely pair: me, the serious, tight-lipped academic from Delhi who wears only dark colors, and Ralph, the unemployed and vivacious Dominican, who roars with laughter at the smallest things.
It used to be fun, telling our story. We’d stand together, his arm hanging on my shoulder, and he’d pull me in close to his body and start it off: “She tried to kick me out of a carro público in my own city!” He’d laugh then, but most people wouldn’t laugh back because they didn’t know what a carro público was, that it’s just a little taxi you can share.
I used to love Ralph most when he would say things like that, trying to bring out the feistiness that he swore was in me, even though nobody else could see it with such ease. But recently, when people have brought up the question, we’ve found ourselves separated, in different rooms of a party. He’s been somewhere stuffing his face with cheese or something, or trying to convince the oldest woman in the room to dance with him, while I’ve been listening to some colleague drone on about his son’s talent in chess, his daughter’s future in fencing.
“So, tell me. How is it that you two got together?”
After a few years I started to sigh at the question. Now I mutter something about how we met when I was visiting the Dominican Republic with my family, back when I was an undergrad.
And that’s that – no details of how when I was on vacation there, I grew so tired of my parents’ fighting that I did the first spontaneous thing I had ever done in my life: I ran out of our suffocating hotel room and hailed what I thought was a taxi cab in that hot, foreign city. I was only nineteen years old and determined. I wanted to go to the airport and catch the first flight to New York. I figured I’d show up at my university a month early and never go back to India.
I no longer tell the story of how a young man came to share the backseat of the cab with me. How he explained to me in English that I was in a carro público, or a public car, rather than a private taxi. I studied this man’s dark jeans and his expensive looking loafers, the stubbled slope of his jaw line. And I felt overwhelmed by his stretched-out smile, his chapped lips.
“This will take me to the airport?” I asked him, my heart racing.
He smiled and said, “You have to switch cars. I can help you.”
And I trusted him. There was something about his smile that seemed familiar. And his eyes seemed loyal. Protective. They were these beautiful, brown little mirrors. I wanted to put the palm of my hand on the back of his neck. I wanted to kiss him. The side of his leg warmed mine, and I made sure that our knees stayed touching for the entire ride.
We drove through the parts of the city where there were no tourists. I saw streets lined with rainbow-colored trash. The street sellers pushed baby strollers that they’d converted into cabinets and filled with potato chips and candy bars. The chocolate melted in the sun.
He told me his name was Rafael, but I could call him Ralph – which, for some reason, made me laugh. He asked me where I was from and when I told him India he smiled and said, “I will go there before I die.” He wanted to travel the world, he told me. And back then, I did too.
He grabbed my hand when it was time to switch carro públicos, and he kept holding it as we snaked through the traffic on the busy, boiling street. We entered the next carro público as if we were a couple. It was packed with people and I had to sit on his lap beside the window. When we reached the highway, I twisted my body so I could see the ocean. The wind slapped my face. That was the first time in my life I felt my vision was clear.
When he took me to the airport we stood in the middle of the sliding doors that separated the thick humidity from the cold canned air. I touched the calluses on his hands. And instead of saying goodbye, we tore a twenty-peso bill in half because we didn’t have any paper and wrote down our names, our addresses. After that, he wrote me a letter every day.
And a year later, he showed up on the doorstep of my rundown college apartment, holding a neon green teddy bear. It was such an embarrassing gift that I couldn’t help but laugh. But he kept standing there with that goofy smile of his, and I couldn’t believe that he was really there, right there on my doorstep.
A few months after Ralph moved in with me, his ex-girlfriend Lucy followed him all the way from the DR to New York. She was fierce and gorgeous and obsessive. And she was crazy, I quickly learned. Ralph told me that even though she was very wealthy – her father’s family owned a large part of the Dominican sugar industry – she was too insane for him to deal with.
“Esta chica ‘ta loca,” he’d say with disgust. He wanted nothing to do with her.
Lucy started coming to our door with her wild eyes and her hair slicked back tight, so tight that I thought it might pull out all the skin on her head. I’d smile, tell her Ralph wasn’t home. And after I closed the door on her face I’d feel all that power and energy of hers transfer into my own body, and for those few moments afterwards I’d walk back towards my bedroom with an uncontrollable hip-swinging confidence, and I’d find Ralph there, snuggled underneath the covers in my bed, and I’d wake him and I’d kiss him hard, my body leaning over his.
I used to laugh about Lucy back then because I didn’t feel threatened. Her intensity fueled me. I liked being the winner of a dramatic love triangle – the natural hero of a soap opera.
Ralph and I spend the rest of Thanksgiving break the way we spend most weekends; I work on my research while he video-chats his cousins back home. And the following Monday morning when I walk into my empty classroom, I see Lucy sitting at my desk, her jacket draped over the back of my chair, her hands folded in her lap. My stomach sinks.
“Miranda!” she says with fake enthusiasm. She opens her mouth, her eyes, her face. Like she is ready to eat me alive. Her hair is slicked tight back like usual, her black eyes popping. “A long time,” she says.
Has it been? The last time we heard from her was in the summer, late July, maybe: a note addressed to Ralph with a rose taped to it. He didn’t bother to read it – just tossed it in the trash. But it’s been a while since I’ve actually seen Lucy; her presence in our lives has died down considerably in the past year. I guess I’ve been hoping that she finally gave up.
“You cannot be here,” I say. “This is where I work. You need to leave or I will call security.” I enunciate my words so that she will understand. But she just smiles.
“You have to leave,” I say more firmly. I feel my body turn weak.
She stands then and walks towards me in her towering heels. Her ponytail sways behind her like a heavy rope.
“I need to organize my lessons,” I tell her. But she just stands close to me and inhales deeply, and I wonder if she is trying to smell for my weakness. My small hidden fears.
Then she says what she always says to me. She whispers in her raspy voice, leaning close to my ear so that I can feel the warmth of her breath, smell the coffee that she must have had this morning. It is like a mantra, each word memorized and repeated so many times that they have begun to lose their meanings:
“He will leave you and come back to me. He will leave you and we will go far away.”
Maybe it’s because those words have been repeated so many times that they’ve become buried deep within me, woven into my bones. The words blend in my mind so that I can no longer separate them, make enough sense of them to deny them. They’re inside of me now.
She walks back to my desk, grabs her jacket from my chair, and walks out. I hold my breath as I listen to her heels click and echo down the hall, until they fade. I will not cry. Class will start in ten minutes, and I have to stay composed. But all day a lump the size of a marble hovers in my throat, rolling a little bit up and then falling back down, threatening to get stuck somewhere, perhaps in my chest, where it could clog up a pathway so I won’t be able to breathe.
After class, I sit in my office for the office hours that no one ever comes to. I think of calling Ralph, but I figure he’s either sleeping, or busy chatting with his family online. Not that I would tell him Lucy visited me. There’d be no reason to tell him; it would just complicate things, make him upset.
I stand up and smooth out the wrinkles in my skirt. I wish I had some more things on my desk to straighten out, to keep my mind busy. Maybe a family photograph. A shot of “the kids” at the zoo or something. I never wanted kids but Ralph’s always wanted them. He used to get on his knees and beg me for them every night.
“Por favor, Miranda, por favor,” he’d say.
“What if we mess up?” I’d ask him. But he’d just keep on begging, and I’d stare down at him, thinking what terrible parents we’d be. How I’d grow too busy and he’d grow too bored.
One time I brought home a goldfish in a little bag of water. I dangled it in Ralph’s face.
“Here. Here’s your kid. Happy?” I said. He put the little guy in a bowl by the window and he fed it each day, but it died in its second week. After that, he stopped begging me for kids.
Now I stare at the beige walls of my office. I only have one window and its view is the side of a brick building ten feet away. I can’t get Lucy’s whisper out of my ear, can’t erase the smell of her breath in my nostrils.
I can’t pinpoint when, exactly, I started to feel threatened by Lucy. Maybe it happened the tenth or twentieth time she whispered her strange obsessive chant into my ear. Or maybe it happened when Ralph admitted to me, once, that his family preferred her to me. Or maybe it happened when he stopped talking about Lucy altogether, when I couldn’t be sure whether he still thought she was crazy or not.
I don’t tell Ralph about Lucy’s visit for another two weeks. We start to dog sit Sasha, our neighbor’s yellow lab, and we get to keep her for a while.
We take Sasha out on these long cold walks through the woods almost every day, and we end up spending more time together than usual. It’s fun pretending we have a dog. Ralph loves it, of course. And it gives us a reason to roam through the woods silently, aimlessly, staring up at the bare black branches that cut pieces out of the white sky, breaking it up like a jigsaw puzzle.
During one walk, we stop in the middle of the pedestrian bridge that crosses over a frozen stream. We look out at the water, the sides of our bodies touching all the way down to our knees, separated only by our coats and our layers. Sasha sits on the bridge beside Ralph, shaking slightly from the wind. I wrap my fingers around Ralph’s frozen limp ones.
“It’s beautiful,” I say. I am happy with Ralph at my side and the dog there too. I feel the way I used to feel back when we’d go to dinner parties and Ralph wouldn’t take his arm off my shoulder the whole night. I feel excited again. Excited and loved and like I really belong there on that bridge with Ralph and that stupid loyal dog that doesn’t even need a leash.
I guess I tell him then because I’m not really thinking. I feel comfortable and want to say whatever comes to my mind.
“Lucy visited me,” I say.
He looks up and his face crumbles. “What? Where?”
“At the school.”
“I don’t …” He pauses, letting go of my grip to push back his hair. “What’d she do?”
I sigh. I could tell him about Lucy’s crazy empty threats. About that mantra she always repeats. But I no longer want to say anything. What is the point, anyway? He already seems annoyed. It would just ruin the walk we’re having, just me and Ralph and the silly dog Sasha.
I start rubbing my fingers along the grated edge of the key in my pocket, and instead of answering him I take it out and start to etch my initials in the wooden handrail of the bridge.
“What are you doing?” Ralph asks me after I finish carving the “P” for Patel.
I try to laugh. “I’ve never done it before,” I explain.
I move on to carve his initials, R.H., and add a plus sign between ours. “I know it’s childish,” I say, running my fingers over the letters. “But I wanted to do it just once.”
He stuffs his hands into his pockets. He seems so uncomfortable in the cold.
“Have you ever done it?” I ask.
He shakes his head. I feel his body stray away from mine. He wants to walk on. We stroll towards the other side of the woods before turning back. Sasha’s footsteps and ours are the only sounds I can hear.
“Never?” I ask again, teasing, shoving him playfully. “You don’t have to lie to me, you know. It won’t make me feel any less special.”
He shakes his head and something inside my stomach drops when I see him shake his head like that, so seriously. I know something is wrong, but I can’t figure out what. Is it just the cold? Or is he upset that I mentioned Lucy? I feel some part of him beginning to slip away from me then, in some inexplicable way, and it continues to slip away after we return Sasha to her owners at the end of the week, and for the weeks that follow.
Early one morning in February, when it is still dark outside and the world is asleep, I am curled in my bed, nearing the end of a dream. The rumbling of an engine starts to crawl its way into my sleep.
And as Ralph slowly begins to roll down the driveway in the pickup, I dream that he is leaving me. Escaping the frost-covered plants in front of our gate, fleeing the beige and grey houses of our town, breaking away from me and my books, my red pen, my black clothes.
When the pickup screeches to a stop, right at that part at the end of our driveway where it juts in, to the right – that’s when I wake up, and when reality takes over and my dreams get erased. I put on my glasses and run outside in my pajamas, not bothering to put on my coat.
Outside, the engine is still running but the pickup is parked, and Ralph is sitting alone in the driver’s seat, his forehead resting on the steering wheel, his body heaving just slightly, up and down, up and down. I walk over to the car and open the door, but I don’t get in.
He brings his forearm to his nose and he wipes, sniffling and then looking at me. His eyes look like broken glass. His face is just these soft folds of red.
“I almost ran over an animal,” he is saying. “A cat, I think. A black cat.”
I narrow my eyes, afraid to come any closer. “Where were you going?”
He looks back down at the steering wheel, running his hands along it and then he says quietly, “I wanted to go home. For a visit.”
I stand there for a long time, with my bare arms wrapped around my body, listening to the roar of the engine.