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Passenger ~ Monica Gebell

This non-fiction essay appeared in today’s The Forge

 


“Wherefore, unsatisfied Soul?
and Whither, O mocking Life?”

-Whitman, “A Passage to India”

“Only connect.”

-E.M. Forster, A Passage to India

 

Do you believe you known me for last ten years?
I remember almost everything
X

I remember everything but names.
You bought me a beautiful outfit. What do you call it?

This is my car, madam, wherever you wish to go. Backpack, passport, journal, hiking boots, antibiotics, and dollars: to you, I was these, from Delhi to Agra. After the Taj, you took me to a nearby restaurant for tourists like me. Rich girl, Westerner. You sat across from me, watching me order food with your chin on your hands. You refused to order, so I shared my meal, which you didn’t refuse. The manipulation wasn’t subtle, but I admired the technique.

I was nearly engaged to an American. You were betrothed to an Indian girl since her family promised her years ago. We passed aromatic dishes in silver bowls between us, hardly talking, but for a nod, a glance, head gestures I’d learned from tuk tuk drivers and the hostel’s proprietor. When I paid the bill, you flitted your eyelids and smiled, palms together. Thank you! Wifey! and you opened the back door for me, closed it after I sidled into the car, feet last.

 

On the day we got to Pushkar, it was my birthday, an already dripping hot morning. You dropped me off at the temple, and, having explored the dozens of its ancient rooms, found a path that wound up to the fortress on the hill. A young man in a tunic and jeans asked me if I wanted a ride up on his motorcycle. He offered no helmet, and I didn’t care. Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. He gave me his card, in case I needed anything in Delhi when I returned from the north. When I told you this on the ride back toward my hostel, you were furious. I was only to trust you, only to ride with you.

 

From the driver’s seat, you dutifully pointed out Pushkar’s other tourist attractions: the bejeweled camels, the pink palaces, the lake, where you insisted we make puja. At the water’s edge, the pandit pressed red powder onto my forehead and gave me marigolds to throw into the water. He wrapped red thread around my wrist and then your wrist. Now we are married! and you winked at the pandit. He laughed so loudly that he disturbed the other visitors’ prayer.

You tried to take my hand and swing it, but I put it back on my shoulder bag, pretending to keep everything inside it safe. At the hostel, you said that you had a surprise for me, so to freshen up and come out to the car when I was clean.

 

I showered, put on the last of my clean clothes, and stepped back into the thick, evening air, the dusty expanse that was the parking lot. The thread bracelet was still intact, the red dot from performing puja still visible. You’d bought me a birthday cake, which you’d asked to be made round and decorated with sugary, yellow flowers. The proprietor, his brother, and you sang me a birthday song in Hindi, and we cut pieces of cake for everyone, even the other guests. You produced a bag from under the seat of your car. Good girl, take this present. It was a traditional outfit—you call it a Punjab suit. So that you look proper. No more pants. In Delhi we’ll meet my mother. The proprietor and his brother gave you a nasty look when you told me to put the new clothes on.

 

But you are not Punjab, right? You’re Hindu?

 

Yes. You still have that outfit? Where r u. What time is it now? Why you don’t come back?

 

I don’t want to tell you that I’m not home with my husband and three children, not cooking nor cleaning nor earning. I’m in Vermont with friends, an escape from my two-story house in Suburbia, it’s late, and I’m tired from too much wine. That my husband and I named our daughter the word that means goddess in Hindi and little bee in Hebrew. That I shouldn’t be chatting on Facebook with you, but I have questions for a story I want to write about being in India.

 

I can’t come back now! I have three babies, it’s expensive!

 

I have baby too. My father died. Life is hard.

 

The red sands of Rajasthan seeped into the car, between my teeth, into the corners of my eyes, the endless tents of prostitutes sped by at 50, 60, 70 miles an hour, past skeletal cattle and around hand-painted trucks. You thought I was crying at the poverty, I motioned to you to roll up your window. I was in the passenger seat, cross-legged, singing with you the soundtrack to the movie we watched at the stunning theater—the one with the chandeliers and grand staircases to the balcony. My introduction to Bollywood. The goddesses on the screen with the light eyes and light brown skin, dancing between seduction and innocence, flirtatious and coy, beckoning and rejecting. You were amused by my singing memorized sounds that mimicked the movie’s soundtrack in Hindi. You stopped the car by a bridge, under a flowering tree.

 

I am here in New York. It’s almost 2 a.m. My daughter can’t sleep so she’s laying next to me. We are preparing for our Jewish holiday. What time is it in Delhi?

 

I wish I am with u. It is daytime. My wife is nice.

Pretty. Our boy is 2.

 

In this unreal city, where you led me by my elbow through alleyways, up and down cement stairways, past street merchants selling embroidered silks, through the antimalarial smog, to your home, your mother and grandmother squatting on the floor making chapatti. They nodded to me and continued baking. Your mother muttered something to herself under the headscarf of her sari. You shouted at her, she shouted back. I was impressed and startled by your ire. I was a quiet intruder. I’ve always imagined that she called one of us a whore, or asked you to stop bringing Western girls home.

Two rooms, one bed, too many children to count and still be a respectful guest. I kept my eyes down.

 

Even in Forster’s India, we would never marry.

 

Why you come to India? Yoga?

 

No. I read some books. I loved India before I ever came. What was the name of that movie theater?

 

U r crazy. Tell me about yr babies.

 

The Grand Rajmandir. You slept in the car that night. I couldn’t invite you in, because that would have been suggestive, unbecoming. Because you would have taken it as a proposition, and I would have made you sleep on the dusty floor. Over the candles on my birthday cake, you stared at me for too long.

 

Tell me more. Yes, life is hard. I lost my father too. Cancer. He was young.

 

You watched me buy a crimson, beaded tapestry, a silver necklace, and some saffron at the Pushkar market. Then you asked me into the front seat, passenger side, and closed the door as my ankles and feet made their way in. We can live up there, you said, pointing to an apartment building. I will build your parents American toilet. We will be happy. Ha ha, my wife! I told you about the man I was certain to marry. You were quiet. The road back to Delhi was a straight line, as if on a meridian, but the car precariously wove between more cows and trucks, rickshaws, women with babies on the backs of motorcycles.

You dropped me off at the hostel. The proprietor was surprised to see me get out of the seat in front, said something to you that I couldn’t translate but understood perfectly. I was ashamed, because I knew I’d trespassed beyond the boundary of client and into the territory of familiar. The next day, I was to catch the southbound train to Kerala. You wanted to drive me to the station but were on probation. I gave you money to compensate the loss of the day’s income, but you wouldn’t take it. When you wrote your address in my journal, you were crying. You will forget me. We were not allowed to embrace in the street.

 

The baby climbs a lot. He likes to climb everything! I have more questions for you.

 

Haha, like his mama! Climbing!

 

I remember almost everything. The smell of the oil in your black hair, the sticky, hot, pleather seats of your white car that left red marks on my thighs. The way you can’t hold a note. The flower you stuck behind my ear under the tree by the bridge, the hike I insisted you take with me to the mountaintop temple, where the air was so thin I was lightheaded. The peacocks brooding by a shrine, the furious way you yelled at the weaver who you pretended overcharged me for the tapestry. The slope of your nose, the shape of your feet. The sound of the muezzin at dusk on my birthday. You’ve aged, I know, from your profile picture on Facebook. Your hairline is receding. Your teeth are somehow still perfect and white. You are smiling in your profile picture the way you smiled at the mountaintop temple, the way the heroes in the Bollywood movies smile at their goddesses.

 

© Monica Gebell

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