He is soft, like a child. I have to be careful not to press too hard or hold too tight, and I am constantly careful the way you have to be careful to not touch the soft spot on a baby’s head. Everything has to be lukewarm, mellow, muffled. I bathe him with water that is close to the temperature of blood. I don’t want to surprise his body with something too starkly different. My spine makes popping sounds and my blood rushes to my head and makes it pound painfully when I bend down to soap his feet, but I can still stand and he cannot which is why I’m the one
sliding my soapy fingers between his toes even though he doesn’t really go anywhere barefoot.
He doesn’t really go anywhere.
His skin feels thin like the yellowed paper in old books and I think that maybe if I scrub too hard I will scour it right off his bones. His bones feel oddly close to the surface of his body as if his blood and flesh have been compressed into thinner layers, the way layers of rock are under the surface of the earth. He looks like a wet cat sitting there on a chair under the shower – cold and scared looking with his hair all clumped together in places. I turn off the water and go to get a towel.
Sometimes I am asked why I don’t hire a nurse. Nurses won’t understand him like I do.
We met at university. He was studying psychology and I was toiling through English. We made each other happy because we could at least construct a nice, sepia-toned image of a home in our minds if not of jobs and something is always better than drawing a blank. I started wearing lipstick and he bought a white dress shirt and we made a pretty picture with the one-foot difference between our heights. My head came up to his chest and I could hear his heart beating when we hugged. We would sit together in silence and read books. We compared the chinks and crevices in our families. We built an impenetrable fort around heartbeats and shared
books and common family problems and he told me how he missed his grandmother and I told him that my favourite flowers are frangipanis.
“Shaadi ke baarey mein kya khayaal hai?” he asked one day, as he rifled through a textbook, looking for a page of notes.
Silences weren’t too uncomfortable with him, our parents knew about us and we had taken so many hours away from other things and given them to each other. Everything added up. We were about to graduate and I was soon going to be twenty six and too old.
“Bura khayaal nahi hai,” I said.
Later, I wore my lipstick and he wore his dress shirt, we went out to dinner and he gave me a dozen red roses. Frangipanis don’t come in bouquets, he told me.
Our wedding was glorious. He was neatly boxed up in a black suit trimmed with a red tie that matched almost perfectly with the red of my lehnga. Shiny little silver sequins covered my clothes and threw off light, making grey spots dance on the side of his suit that faced me. I drew calibrated, appropriate breaths and I felt as if a rock was stuck at the top of the space between my lungs. A bead of sweat slid down the center of my straight back and I thought about the wet spot all those beads of sweat would make at the bottom of the back of my shirt. “Piled on the makeup, haven’t they,” he said when I sat down next to him and gave me a halfsmile and the kind of up-and-down look you would give your car after it has had a paint job. “I’ll have so much to take off tonight,” I said and tried not to let my teeth show as I smiled because brides don’t have teeth, only lips.
The straps of my shoes dug into my feet and my toes felt sweaty so I tried to lift them off the satin soles of my shoes so that they wouldn’t leave wet toe-prints, but my toes were strapped down as well. My mother told me I made a beautiful bride. She was right. The dents beneath my cheekbones had been coloured in darker and my lips were painted purple-red, the colour of deoxygenated blood in school textbooks, and my eyelashes were so long that they would have become squashed up against the lenses in my spectacles had I been wearing them.
He looked beautiful too, all angles and clean lines, with his neatly trimmed beard and neatly cut hair and squared shoulders and smile with his perfectly aligned grid of teeth. “Idhar dekhiye,” the photographer said, shining a light on our faces bright enough to light up a stadium.
We smiled. With our perfect hair and manufactured smiles, we were the picture the photographer would tape to the counter in his shop and show to people who wanted their wedding pictures taken.
With the mathematical precision with which we were progressing, I became pregnant in the second year of our marriage. It was easy and peaceful and the only pain I felt was similar to the growing pains I had when I was twelve, a dull, not-too-unpleasant ache and a sense of something in me stretching outwards. I slowly became rounder, softer around the edges, with the angles of my hipbones and collarbones disappearing under flesh.
Sometimes discomfort would settle in but I would ignore it the way you ignore the little bit of blood you sometimes draw when you brush your teeth. We bought little blue clothes and blue woolen shoes and blue teddy bears for our son who would probably outgrow all those little clothes in less time than it would take for him to be born.
I took care of myself the way I would take care not to bang my knee against the side table when I got out of bed and he took care of me the way people who are afraid to pick up children worry about them from afar. We would sleep with a strip of empty bed sheet between us and I would wake up slowly and quietly during the night, careful not to wake him up.
One night I woke up with a jolt followed by the feeling of being frightened by a dream I didn’t even remember. I had wet the bed. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and carefully lowered myself onto the floor. Warm wet lines came down my legs and I felt my face go hot in the dark. I turned on the light and walked to the bathroom and it was as I closed the bathroom door that I happened to glance at my feet and saw irregular lines on them that looked like rivers on a map except that they were a darkening red. I took off my clothes and saw clots forming on my wet legs and I may have gasped or screamed but all I remember from that night is muffled and coloured fluorescent white, like the light in the bathroom, and red. I washed off the red in the shower and couldn’t find a towel so I put clean clothes on my shower-wet body and walked back into the room.
He stirred as I opened the bathroom door and opened his eyes, squinting at me. A dark shape coloured the sheets where I was supposed to lie. I shivered in the cold of the fan and couldn’t stop shivering and stared at the stain as if I wasn’t sure how it got there. He looked at it, too, except that he seemed to know what it was while I wasn’t even sure if I was awake.
He stripped the sheets and put them in a plastic bag which he put in the bin. He laid down a clean white sheet, fluorescent and unmarked.
“We should go to the hospital,” he said.
“Soney dou mujhe. I need to sleep,” I said. I was shivering and I drew the sheets around myself and tucked them under me and moved away when he tried to move close to me. I told him that I needed to sleep. He told me to suit myself.
Everything was white and clean in the morning and I wondered if I had had a bad dream. But the rock between my lungs seemed to have settled somewhere below my stomach and the maasi who cleaned our house looked at me with round eyes and arched eyebrows and offered to make me tea. The dustbin in our room was empty and the bathroom floor was a wet and
He came back late at night and had puffy crescents, pink and grey, under his eyes. I asked him where he had gone, especially after last night. He told me he needed to get out of the house and that he had had dinner from outside so I needn’t worry.
I slowly started noticing the ridges of my collarbones pressing against my skin. The soft
roundness was gone.
There were more times when I would become aware of the rock between my lungs and then there were times when I felt the kind of comfortable you feel at dawn on a weekend in winters, when you wake up and know that you have hours more to sleep in the soft warmth of your blankets and you don’t have to wake up until you wake up yourself. But then nobody ever does let you sleep that long.
Marriage and what comes with it causes a thinning of the boundaries that you carefully draw between yourself and your violation. Before, there are layers of clothes and rules. He had never heard my heart beating because his face would have been too close to my chest.
After, there are only thin, moist membranes that separate the body that you so arrogantly believe to be yours alone from everything that threatens to take ownership away from you. Suddenly, the difference in our heights was twelve inches too many and six and a half inches would leave me sore and unsure and filled with an uncomfortable heat and cold that was so cold it burned. The makeup on my dresser multiplied. I had different kinds for painting on over
the blues and reds and all their shades that he would leave on my skin. But his antiseptic, aftershave smell would cling to me even after I showered.
My body had so easily, with one gush of fluid, cheated him out of a family. It refused to even try again. It was not me he hated, it was my treacherous body. I didn’t know how to stop him and I knew he still loved me and maybe this was him taking comfort in me in the only way he remembered. Time was kind to my body but it seemed to hate his so his body gave up on him. He stopped. Like a car without wheels standing on four bricks, he no longer went anywhere, not even behind my thin layers.
Outside the bathroom, I pass by the chest of drawers with the towels in it and pick up my mug of tea which has become cold in the time that I was bathing him. I turn on the television in the bedroom and sip my tea and close the windows against the winter evening. There are still twenty minutes to the hourly news so I turn off the television and hear my name being called in a faltering falsetto. I finish my tea and pick up a towel from the drawer and walk into the bathroom.
He looks at me with his muggy eyes and wheezes and water drips from the soggy clumps of his white hair. His fingers, which grip the handles of his chair, are a pale white and his lips are faintly blue. “Kahaan thee? I’m cold.”
I wrap a towel around him and place his treacherous body in another chair.