A CLOSE CUT
Afterwards, Kira blamed the beige shirt she was wearing. That color had just wandered off from the shirt and got into everything, words, dishes, food, the children, and most of all, Sam.
He was quite open about it. No, Kira did not have to discover hidden letters, agonize over the possible truth of his explanations, sift through his pockets or his appointments, sleuth through stains and word slips, nothing of that sort.
That whole May month, he had been coming home late. One evening, he came home later than usual. And after dinner, when the children slept, he said, “I have to tell you something, might as well do it now. It’s nothing because of you, I could not have asked for a better wife…”
Kira listened as if it was the neighbor’s life he was talking about, as if the neighbor had opened her windows, and Kira could look inside and listen to the dialogs, and match gestures, and facial expressions. Of course, she had been waiting for him to say these exact words, right from the very first day of their marriage. Most surprising, he had not, and they had lasted, what, almost eleven years and two children, and finally now, she could use her imagination somewhere else.
Her name was Sumi, he said. His best work, his most inspired work happened when she posed for him. “Something beyond my understanding, something I simply am unable to account for…” He had discovered dimensions within himself that were unthinkable before. He hovered over his statements, almost expecting approval from her, approval that he who was a conscientious husband could no longer be responsible as these were extraterrestrial feelings.
She waited then, even wanted for him to say the marriage was over. That never happened. Nor did he act like he expected her to say it. Not even when he stayed out all night and came home happy and crumpled. He did not take the trouble to hide his excitement, his sudden disappearances, her fragrance on his clothes; cheating must be some kind of marital right, a way to substantiate the credibility of their marriage. And always in her mind, her mother’s words to her sister during the first year of her sister’s marriage, “Does he hit you? Any cursing or shouting? Does he hurt you in any way? No? What are you complaining about then?”
So, she condensed herself into a hard set of routines, feeding the children, helping with their homework, shopping for groceries, working part time as a medical receptionist.
On the day when Sam sat on the couch reading the newspaper after brushing his teeth – something he had not done for the past four months – Kira knew the episode was over. She could not bear to call it an affair. He confirmed it after breakfast, when he took his plate into the kitchen and washed it up in a thoughtful way. “Where do you keep the plates?” he asked her after he dried it. She silently opened the shelf above the oven and he looked inside as if there was a hypnotic pattern there.
The silence crept into their apartment like an extra piece of furniture they both needed. It was in every room, visible, stretching in between the cupboards, by the dresser, across the bed; it blanketed the children and hung onto their playtime; for Kira, it was the same beige color, the color of her shirt on the day he first told her.
Occasionally, she thought of disappearing somewhere, to cause at least a momentary inconvenience; or, break something, like the fine china set that his sister had given for the wedding; or, kill the philodendron that grew with thoughtless fecundity across the kitchen window. It was then she understood that she was more capable of inaction than she had thought possible. She did go to an expensive hair studio. “Yes, chop it all off,” she said to the Korean stylist, who looked terribly concerned.
“But what will your husband say?”
“He doesn’t mind such things, not a bit. He’s very good, that way. I can do whatever I want.”
Still the stylist started cautiously at first. “Such a long hair! You Indian?” and as Kira nodded, she continued, “You Indian women, y’all have such thick, long hair, no? Are you sure, your husband not mind?”
“Yes, yes, I’m not an …” Kira stopped, not sure what she wanted to say. “It’s okay, I’ve lived here long enough. Here, that’s not enough. Take off some more, please, like that picture there.”
The stylist took a deep breath. “That much!”
“Yes, do it, don’t worry. It’ll be fine. Just go for it.”
In the end she emerged sleek, elegant, the length of her face accentuated by the close cut. The old lady beside her, who was having her hair colored, watched the transformation with great interest. “Looks beautiful, honey,” she commented.
Returning home, Kira stopped at Safeway for milk and the woman at the counter said, “Great hair.” And the driver on the metro bus pointed to his head: “Suits you.” And their neighbor shouted from across the street: “Love the cut.”
When she entered the apartment, Sam was rummaging on his desk. He looked at her briefly and went back to his search. She went to the kitchen and put away the milk. Sam came in and stood as if he would have liked to be in some other place. “I knew I had kept it somewhere there,” he said. “Meant to give it to you sooner, but kept forgetting.” He was holding out a card to her; he was getting an award for his photography; the event was at the Grand Hyatt in DC, the next day.
They took the train as silently as ever. For the first hour, Kira clung to Sam’s side; then she wandered around the ballroom hall, studying each of the huge mounted photo prints. One in particular was very striking, the only one in black and white; it was of a young girl; somewhat of a video game heroine, she looked mythic; the background was a metallic blue and grey alien landscape. It’s the setting, Kira thought, the surreal landscape, or was it the model herself who carried her figure with such pride, or no, it was the lighting that made this piece so special; or perhaps, it was that expression, captured once in a lifetime.
“Quite something, isn’t it? That’s Sam for you,” a man said from behind her. Kira turned and he introduced himself: “Mike. Mike Alpern, I work with Sam. Not photography, though. I’m an illustrator.”
For a moment, they stood side by side, looking again at the photograph.
“Yes, yes, quite unusual,” Kira said. “Very striking. Wonder who it is?” Even as she asked, Kira knew what the answer would be.
Mike nodded at the photograph, “Sumi, that’s Sumi. Pity she’s gone. Died a couple, no, it must be more than three months ago.”
“How,” the word creaked out of her throat.
“I’m not quite sure. I believe it was an accident; Sam would know.” Mike nodded his head at the photograph again. “Very sad business, such a great loss.”
There was a scuffle to the far end of the room, the ceremony was about to begin. Kira watched her husband accept his award. He made a flawless speech, though at one point, she could hear his voice sink beneath the flawlessness.
So, this marriage, at least the formality of it, gets saved by an Act of God, a random act of god, Kira thought as she dumped the coffee grinds, the next morning. She felt wrinkles forming everywhere, in her clothes, her skin, in the wall paper, in the pavement. Still she must cultivate thankfulness, that she did not have to explain to her parents, that the routines of her life formed a hedge around her.
She added a lot of walking to that hedge of routines. More than 15,000 steps. Perhaps that was a reasonable number for thankfulness.
She looked for cues in the objects around her, cues that could point to what’s next in such a life. She read every word in the junk mail: the three brochures on hearing loss, the dazzling smile and real estate flyers, the community college catalog of courses. This last seemed the most promising; there was a course on Human Anatomy. She studied the sketch next to the course description; the trick is to find the right point of insertion in all those fibers, ligaments, bones and tendons, the right point where a kitchen knife might do maximum damage, she sighed and closed the catalog. Maybe she would register for the next session.
Some days, when she saw the flower man outside the grocery shop, with his two buckets of roses on a cart, she would buy a dozen roses for ten dollars. Not because they were beautiful, but that they rotted in four or five days and comforted her with their brevity.
She soon became a regular buyer. One day, as she got her roses she saw the homeless man who had settled himself nearby. He raised his used Styrofoam cup at her. Kira looked away and began separating a dollar from the wad in her hand, when the flower man whispered to her, “There’s really no need to do that. You have no idea how much he makes in an hour. Much, much more than me. I’ve been watching, see, it’s an easy life, I can tell. Look at me struggling. What for?”
Kira smiled, “Oh, don’t say that. Who knows what troubles he’s got? There’s your dignity, you know.”
Still, that gave her the cue she had been waiting for. She rummaged in her closet for the wig of scraggly white hair, she had worn one Halloween. That and an old jacket, a pair of stained canvas shoes, some plastic bags stuffed with newspaper, that’s all she needed. She stood before the full length mirror in the bedroom, in the wig and jacket, and examined this new persona. The wig itself was quite convincing. But her face looked a little too untouched, too homeful. Carefully, she mixed some eye stuff and then some lip stuff and created a muddiness on this canvas; she tried to brush in some wrinkles on her forehead, that didn’t work out, too obvious. She went for a general beige smudginess.
Once outside, she found a bench near a park and settled there. It all makes perfect sense, she thought as she watched people pass by, some of them with averted faces, some with pity, some with disgust. When a man dropped a quarter near her, Kira felt a quick thrill. That shining coin seemed to touch off something, it was soon followed by pennies, dimes, more quarters and even a dollar. The flower man was on to something, alright. When she was ready to leave, she counted six dollars and fourteen cents. That was in an hour and forty minutes. She left the money on the bench, and went home as if in a dream.
In the evening, she sat with her son and daughter on either side of her and her son said, “Amma, why were you sitting in the park, with your hair all funny and white? I saw you when our bus went by.”
Kira laughed then, the sound of her laughter filling the living room’s silence. Didn’t see that coming, did you, she thought. That Anatomy class may not be the right thing after all, too, too much planning involved.
She felt Sam look at her, from across the room, where he sat with his laptop.
“What a smart boy you are,” she said to her son. She ruffled his hair and pulled at his nose. “Maybe it wasn’t me, just another version of me,” she added, her eyes glowing with mischief.
As she prepared for bed, she promised herself: Give me five years, or just two, maybe even sooner – and I will say to you, how much you must have suffered, what was it like, to lose your inspiration forever.
Padma Prasad is a writer and painter. Her fiction has appeared in Eclectica, The Looseleaf Tea, Reading Hour and ETA Journal. She blogs her poem-drawings here. Her art is mostly figurative and can be viewed here. In her writing, she tries to capture stillness; in her painting, she tries to paint narratives. Padma lives in Northern Virginia and works as a federal contractor in records management.