Ruhi lay in bed between her younger sister, Disha, and her older sister, Cindy, feeling that, at eighteen, her life was over. A loveless life. Left and right, her friends went to pubs, fell in love, got married. They moved out of their parents’ tiny apartments and no longer shared a bed with their sisters. They lived real lives. Plus, as married women, they could wear lipstick without attracting judgmental stares from nosy punks on the street. Ruhi was dying to wear lipstick.
The room was hot and stuffy even with the windows open. She sat up and looked at her sleeping sisters. Fed up with the poverty, fed up to death with everything in this town.
She climbed out of the bed and tiptoed into the living room. The old wooden floor creaked in betrayal. On the pullout couch, her mother and stepfather groaned in their sleep. She’d already heard one of them use that pot — a big metal bucket in the hallway — earlier in the night. She was sick to death of that bucket. The night-time deed made the kind of shameless trickling sound Ruhi imagined woke the neighbors not only in their house but also on the other side of the courtyard. It gunned the message into the metal: I am alive and I don’t care what you think of me.
Which was very different from Ruhi’s current state of mind; first, the love of her life, Adel had jilted her. Second, she had been denied admission to the engineering college, where Adel was now stationed. And third, she’d just found out that her tall, green eyed, dark-haired, witty Adel, a newly graduated Engineer, guitar playing and campfire singing Adel, had married Ruhi’s former classmate- she wasn’t even that pretty and taken her to Maldives.
On top of this a certain Anosh, whom Ruhi had met just two weeks ago, had unceremoniously proposed to her. He was a medico assigned to Port Blair nine hours away by plane. He didn’t have to say it, but this was his last chance to secure a wife before the lonely life in the Island swallowed him. Ruhi always had so many admirers from school and the academy. She was the most popular girl in her neighborhood and the star at the dances. How had it happened that her choice now came down to this?
Disha laughed when she heard of the proposal.
“He can’t be serious about this,” she said. “He hardly knows you.”
“So what? A man can’t fall in love with me at first sight?”
“A boy. You don’t know him at all.”
Ruhi had known Adel well, and where did that get her?
So she considered ending it all.
She could cut her wrists, she thought now as she put on her sandals. A slow and painful death. That bastard Adel wasn’t worthy of so much suffering. She could jump off a building. It would have to be high enough so that she perished instantaneously. Life as an unmarriageable invalid was even worse than death.
She could hang herself, but she’d have to rummage in the closet for a rope or a belt, which would wake everyone up. Eventually the news would reach Adel in Maldives. He probably would be too busy with his new wife to give poor, dead Ruhi a second thought. Such a possibility set off another wave of self-pity.
Her mother was accused of stealing a watch from the shop where she worked. For this, she was arrested and sent to a reform center, where Ruhi and Disha would be born. Her father, who had worked at the center as a counselor, was accused of raping her mother. He was tortured; his penis bore the scars of the lighter. After several years in the prison, he returned home a sick and broken man. Their father lived for another four years.
She found a flashlight and picked up a cloth bag kept by the door for trips to the outhouse. Two flights of stairs later, she plunged into the warm cocoon of the summer night. Her own building was too low for a fatal jump. Two opposite windows were lit up on the dark faces of the ancient gypsies. Perhaps secret lovers had stayed up all night to relay messages via notes, Ruhi mused, though she knew that those windows belonged to two querulous old hags.
Either way, it was a night for secret rendezvous with one’s sweetheart; for kissing so long you didn’t need lipstick; for not being able to fall asleep. She sat down on a homemade tree swing and looked at the moon. Maybe Anosh wasn’t so bad. He was short. His grey eyes were playful, his cleft chin optimistic, his wavy hair shiny, no Anosh is better than Adel. Anosh was a painter too; he did show her his album of caricatures.
Ruhi wanted revenge on love and life, and on Adel. She wanted to wear lipstick without the gawks from punks who sat cracking sunflower seeds on the courtyard benches all day, gossiping about the past and predicting the future. She wanted to be the mistress of her fate.
They married ten days later, on Anosh’s twenty-third birthday. At the wedding Ruhi noticed with disappointment that his lower lip was sizably puffier than his upper lip, and five minutes after her hymen tore, she threw up next to the bed. The sex had revolted her, and she lay awake all night, wondering whether it would have been different with Adel. At dawn, she decided she needed to hurry up with her progress of love.
The day after the wedding Ruhi bought herself a lipstick the color of raspberries. It was the first object she had owned that wasn’t a hand-me-down, and putting it on felt as wondrous as she had imagined. In another ten days Anosh went off to Port Blair to report for duty and she would join him two months later.
At first Ruhi wished she could’ve spent more time strolling down the boulevards with Anosh, holding on to his arm and flashing her gold ring. Then, she realized she could enjoy her new status more without the discomfort of wifely duties. People no longer pushed her in lines, men gave up their seats on the bus, and everyone, even those punks, looked at her with respect and hope.
Ruhi sauntered around town with Disha, talking about her plans. She would have her own kitchen, with her own pots and pans a blue embroidered tablecloth, and she would cook whatever she wanted. And if Cindy didn’t like the taste of it, well, she wouldn’t be there to criticize her. She and Anosh would vacation on the coast of Caribbean, but not Maldives. Disha looked at her with reverence. Just don’t tell Cindy, Ruhi cautioned. By the time Ruhi celebrated her nineteenth birthday and began to pack, she found out she was pregnant.
With the anxiety thumping in her chest Ruhi packed everything she owned: three cotton dresses, a pair of woolen tights, a pair of shoes and old winter boots. Ruhi gave her fourth dress to Disha, who had long coveted the yellow number with violet floral print and a lace collar.
“Won’t you need it there?” Disha said.
Ruhi threw her head back in laughter, the way she’d seen an actress do in a movie “I’m sure Anosh would buy me more if I ask.”
In the days before Ruhi’s departure, Disha wore the dress non-stop. It looked beautiful on her but seemed to have a strange destabilizing effect. Usually dexterous and sure-footed, she dropped bags and parcels, cut herself while cleaning potatoes or chopping onions, and walked into furniture. And every time Ruhi took Disha’s small, clammy hands and said to her, “Sis, I’m not leaving forever,” Disha, once-copied version of Ruhi’s, burst into silent tears.
Cindy, meanwhile, acted like she didn’t care whether Ruhi left or stayed. A sturdy girl with highlighted hair and the same dark blue eyes that Ruhi had, she kept herself busy at the library. At home, her already upturned nose stuck up higher still. She was jealous of Ruhi’s marrying first. In a gush of magnanimity, Ruhi bought another tube of Raspberry lipstick and tucked it under Cindy’s pillow, wishing for a quick improvement in her sister’s romantic life.
With the commotion of the wedding and excitement about the pregnancy, and now preparing to move, Ruhi hadn’t completely forgotten Adel. But she found that focusing on his treacherous double-cross made her feel she was doing the right thing.
Anosh returned from Port Blair with a moustache strip that looked like a pencil stain. He packed up the few possessions he’d stored at his mother’s, and on a bright mid-September morning headed with Ruhi and her family to the airport.
At the terminal, after offering last- minute words of wisdom and house hold advice, Disha and her mother began to cry. Towering over him, Cindy briskly shook Anosh’s hand, then turned to Ruhi and locked her in an iron hug, the way she used to tame Ruhi’s tantrums when they were children.
“Good luck, Ruhi,” she said. “You’re going to need it, but you’ll be all right. You’ve always been the luckiest of the three of us.”
“You’re going to need it, too,” Ruhi said, annoyed. She wasn’t lucky — she was brave. On the plane Anosh sat straight, like a doctor. He looked out the bright window and for a moment his grey eyes washed out to almost-white. It frightened her.
“You are so beautiful,” he said and smiled shyly, as though she were not his wife but a fellow passenger at whom it was not polite to stare.
“You think everything will be fine?” One fears what one doesn’t know, her mother always said. Anosh was a good man; Ruhi knew that much in her heart.
They settled in ramshackle log cabin away from the city proper. The sparsely furnished room was tiny, but Ruhi was happy to share the bed with just one person. Anosh left for work at dawn, came home for lunch and a nap, then returned in the evening, hungry and exhausted.
During the day, he sent the boys from hospital, to haul buckets of water from the neighborhood pump and chop firewood for the stove. They helped Ruhi with grocery shopping, too. Pregnant and therefore unhireable, Ruhi mostly stayed home. She liked gossiping with the neighbors wives. The nights she was unable to fall asleep because of Anosh’s snoring, she read — like her mother told her to — and thought of the nights back home.
One night Ruhi woke up in alarm. She had distinctly felt something scurry over her pregnant belly. She jumped off the bed and turned on the lights just in time to see two rats rounding the corner.
“Anosh!” she screamed. “Rats!”
“A rat just ran over your future child. We have to move out of here. You have to talk to someone about this first thing in the morning.”
Anosh made a sour face. “I’m still new here.”
“What does that matter?”
“Well, unfortunately it’s my duty to put up with the inconveniences” he said without conviction.
“Yes, that might be you, but not your wife and child’s. I didn’t follow you here like some —” She wanted to say but caught herself. It wasn’t safe to yell such things in the middle of the night, especially when the walls were thin enough for rats to chew through “Do you want your baby to be eaten by rats?”
Anosh put his head in his hands and stayed like that for so long, Ruhi thought he’d gone back to sleep. He wore a holey undershirt, which she hadn’t yet mended, and, generally, did not look like a husband at all.
A week later they were moved into a room in the two-room apartment with a shared kitchen. Their neighbor was an old army doctor, Homi Adajania, who kept to himself. This place was newer and had no rats, just cockroaches. It even had an indoor lavatory, though no running water.
Ruhi described her new life in vivid detail in her letters home. She knew her mother would read them aloud over dinner, and she hoped her parents, overwhelmed by pride, and Cindy, dumbfounded by jealousy, would talk about her in the libraries, and eventually the news would reach Maldives. She didn’t love Adel anymore, but she wanted him to know that her life didn’t end when he left. On the contrary, it had only properly begun.
Ruhi found much to like about Port Blair. Anywhere she looked, she saw their pyramidal outlines in scarves of clouds, white and mystical against the blue sky. During her first earthquake, the ceiling lamp swung wildly and the teacups tumbled from the table. Anosh had warned her that mild earthquakes happened about once every three months, and after that first one Ruhi was thrilled like a rookie sailor nothing this exciting ever happened in her life before.
In the first few months of marriage Ruhi learned the following about Anosh. One: As long as there was hot dinner on the table and a pack of Marlboro cigarettes on the bureau, Anosh was content. And two: he loved to play preferans, which his mother had taught him. When won, he came home cheerfully tipsy, with presents for Ruhi — usually chocolate bars with white, blotchy coatings. He gave her all his winnings, danced and felled her on their little bed. His veiny hands hovered centimeters above her swollen stomach, then slid between her legs. His eyes filled with glassy determination.
After Anosh fell asleep, she crashed back into her sore body. She must not have been in love just yet. But she would be soon, when the baby came — at the latest.
If Anosh came home with a short smile and headed right for the kitchen, Ruhi knew that he’d lost. He smoked in the dark, without taking off his overcoat. He didn’t look up at her even when she held his head against her round stomach — which, she knew, he didn’t like touching — and stroked his black, wavy hair. She felt disappointment but also a kind of power in his guilt. She assumed that Anosh would either quit when the losses became too big, or go on losing a little and winning a lot. She didn’t mention his gambling to her family. It seemed unpleasant but manageable, like the flu. Besides, what could they do? Aside from the cards, it was hard to pick on Anosh. He hadn’t cheated or raised his hand. Not when he was sober, not when he was drunk. Not even after a loss. A gambler but a doctor nevertheless.
Every few weeks Ruhi received a thick envelope from home with stories from her mother, step father, Disha except Cindy who sent proverbs.
To marry is not to put on a bast shoe. Bride has an axe, groom is barefoot.
Ruhi didn’t know what to make of it, though she didn’t think about it too hard. Her pregnancy was going well. She felt strong; she could haul water from the pump by herself.
These days Ruhi knitted baby socks and watched contentedly as Anosh read a newspaper in the yellow glow of the floor lamp, his brows drawn in concentration but his mouth bunched to one side in a smirk, as though, as entertained as he was by all the lies, he could see through to the truth. One day she might even admire him, she thought — when he rose through the ranks and stopped gambling.
The baby was born in mid-April. The labor was short and easy, the only thing that came easy to her, Ruhi would say in the years to come. The girl — they named her Kiyara — had eyes of indeterminate color, chipmunk cheeks, and a full head of chestnut hair. Ruhi spent hours staring at her small face, hardly believing that Kiyara was real and hers. Sometimes, she wondered what her child with Adel might have looked like, but the only image that rose in her exhausted mind was that of her new daughter.
In a recent letter from home, Ruhi was shocked to learn of the romantic developments in both of her sisters’ lives. Cindy was seeing a party worker fifteen years her senior, her mother wrote with palpable glee. Disha, meanwhile, confessed on her own that she’d met an engineering student. They had danced at a pub and gone around the melting city together. She wrote with so little of her habitual shyness about how much she adored her suitor that Ruhi became suspicious. Her little sister was changing in her absence. She tried hard to be happy for Disha and Cindy, and for her mother.
Husband with fire, wife with water, Cindy wrote in her letter without mentioning her new boyfriend.
One rainy Saturday night in May, Anosh stumbled home late from a card game; the drunkest Ruhi had ever seen him. Kiyara had been screaming for hours, and Ruhi, in her delirium, was ready to throw the baby out the window. Her headache had wiped out all the emotions besides anger and frustration. Homi had already come twice to their room to complain about the noise and attempted to calm the baby. Kiyara’s silky face was scrunched like a soiled handkerchief as she continued to screech.
Anosh took several uncertain steps toward Ruhi. The corners of his eyes still flickered with his usual impishness, but the pupils were black holes of fear. He stretched his arms to the baby, and Kiyara stopped crying. Ruhi gave the stunned baby to her father. Both stared at each other for a moment, as if confused who the other one was and what had brought them to this cramped, cold room. Then Anosh began to cry, soundlessly but with a boyish abandon. His daughter resumed wailing. He returned her to Ruhi and shuffled to their lumpy little couch, where he continued to cry with his eyes closed. Soon he passed out in his coat.
Ruhi worried all night.
She found out in the morning. Several exceptionally good players, new to the group, had ganged up to squeeze Anosh down to the last rouble. A month’s salary in one night.
“I don’t understand. What are we going to live on? And the baby.” It was both a relief and worse than she thought.
Anosh was sitting at the table in their room, eating a piece of buttered black bread with tea. His hair was dirty and matted.
“I’ll quit as soon as I pay off my debt,” he said, not looking at her.
“And what are we going to live on?” Ruhi heard herself say again.
“They can’t just come over here and raid your wallet. Although, they’re such dogs, they could. We’ll hide it under the mattress in Kiyara’s crib.”
“I don’t keep our savings in my wallet.”
“We have savings? Where?”
“In the closet,” Ruhi said. His cluelessness shocked her. But she was also moved by his neediness, his complete, childish trust in her.
“How much?” Anosh said into his tea.
“For food, another two weeks, maybe. Please don’t play anymore. Or maybe without betting so much. Can you? “She put her arms around him from behind, like a good wife would do.
Anosh turned back, clasped her hips, and pressed his head to her stomach, which he was no longer afraid of.
“Such a shame,” he said through his teeth. “I’m a good player, I am. If my mother found out …”
“Are you deranged? You can’t bet on winning. You’re educated. How can you be so stupid? If you don’t stop playing, I’ll leave you. I’ll take Kiyara and go.”
“I’m doing this for Kiyara and you.”
She slammed the table with her fist. Anosh’s cup of tea jingled in its saucer. He lifted his head and stretched his lips, as though getting ready to smile. Did he think this was a joke? She struck the table again; she didn’t know what else to do.
Kiyara began to cry and Ruhi ran to her. The smell of alcohol and cigarettes and acrid male sweat was making her sick. She was afraid he wanted to sleep with her.
“Wash yourself,” she said.
“We don’t have any water.”
“Bring it then!” The echo of Cindy’s righteousness in her voice made her shudder, but the results were swift. In a few moments Anosh was clunking with the buckets in the kitchen. Before going out to the pump, he came up to her.
“I will stop, Ruhi, I promise. I promise this time,” he repeated until she told him not to talk to her for the rest of the day.
She cleaned up the dirt in the hallway while Anosh heated up the water and splashed in the bathroom. She wished she could complain to someone. She knew that her mother, despite teaching her girls to count only on themselves, was relieved that Ruhi got married. One less mouth to feed, one less body to clothe. That day, in self-imposed penance, Anosh washed the dishes and changed Kiyara’s diaper for the first time.
Nothing changed. Anosh kept playing and losing. He came home drunk; often he didn’t make it to the bed. He didn’t defend himself when Ruhi yelled. He didn’t complain or hit her back when she came at him first with her fists, then with pots and pans or anything else within her reach, and he no longer promised to quit. She was ashamed when Homi caught them fighting in the kitchen or in the bathroom. The thread follows the needle.
To pay off some debt, old and new, and to buy food and other necessities, they had no choice but to borrow money from Homi and the same guys Anosh had lost to. Begging was below his rank, Anosh said, so Ruhi put on her red lipstick, and went knocking doors. She couldn’t bear the looks of the young boys when they brought water and wood to the apartment.
A marriage, she had discovered, was a deep trench inside which festered a hundred previously concealed details about the person in whose company you had enlisted. She wanted to caution her sisters, but before that, she would have to admit her own defeat.
Ruhi remembered how Cindy had once organized a charity concert to raise money for an orphanage; how she convinced every music ensemble and dance group in town to perform. She had several schools put on short plays, pantomimes, and gymnastics routines and persuaded shy poets to declaim their patriotic works on stage. Ruhi had insisted that, though she had nothing against the veterans, of course, no one would come to see a concert without a single professional performer. Cindy took Disha and went knocking on doors to invite half the town personally. The show was a huge success. Thousands came.
Only now Ruhi began to appreciate the magnitude of Cindy’s power. If Cindy was able to subjugate that many people to her will, how easy it would be for her to tackle just one husband.
I was tired of sitting home, Ruhi wrote, so I now work as a second-shift cashier at the Bread and Bread Products counter at the grocery store on the base. Like you said, it’s good to have your own money, just in case. Count only on yourself. A very nice lady from our building watches Kiyara in the evenings. Kiyara is getting big and has a loud voice, maybe strong enough to become an opera singer.
The full horror of reality ambushed Ruhi at home, in two variations. The first featured a mise-en-scene of Anosh and his friends at a card game engulfed in cigarette smoke. A vodka bottle stood on the table. Kiyara sat in her crib, covered with tears and snot. In this scenario, Ruhi went to the kitchen to pick up a frying pan and chased everyone out, disregarding the differences in height, weight, and rank. A young wife cries till the morning dew, a sister — till the golden ring, a mother — till the end of times.
In the second variation, Ruhi returned from work to an empty room. This meant Anosh was playing at one of his friends’ and Kiyara was with the babysitting punk. The dinner she’d made earlier would be gone, and Anosh would sometimes leave a humorous cartoon to explain the mess in the kitchen — for example, a cat with its tongue out sitting by a bowl of dumplings, sketched on a piece of paper he would leave next to a sinkful of dirty dishes.
In both cases, Ruhi was shocked and mortified anew as she crossed the threshold of her room, as though she kept accidentally walking into the neighboring apartment, the neighboring life, to catch its inhabitants at something shameful. She yearned for a break, for a summer vacation but Anosh told her that he was allowed free tickets to the continent only every three years, so they must be patient and wait.
That November, when Kiyara was seven months old, an earthquake much stronger than what Ruhi had become accustomed to shook the town in the middle of the night. While Anosh snored drunkenly on the couch, Ruhi rushed outside with Kiyara wrapped in a thin blanket, the first thing she could grab. Kiyara caught a chill, and it developed into pneumonia. Ruhi spent weeks with her at the hospital. As she wrapped the legs of Marina’s crib with rags soaked in roach repellent, she cursed the earthquakes, Adel, Anosh, and her marriage, she cursed Cindy’s proverbs. Kiyara coughed for months together, and with each wet heave Ruhi imagined someone scraping a layer of tissue off her baby’s lungs, tender like the inside of her chipmunk cheeks.
On the rare occasions when Anosh won, he still brought home presents for Ruhi, but she only yelled at him for wasting money on non-essentials instead of paying their Hydra-like debts. He had stopped bedding Ruhi, and at least for this she was thankful. She was still puzzled, however — in a sociological kind of way — how Anosh could continue doing something that was so destructive to the family.
More and more Ruhi thought about home and her childhood. Sitting in a field as a toddler, watching a bee circle a flower bush round and round. Bzzzzz — bzzzzz was the only sound in the world, the happiest sound, and in that moment nothing else existed or needed to exist. Bathing with Disha in the fountain, twirling with Cindy on a tiny patch of puddle imagining themselves as models. Speaking a made-up nonsense language with Disha and pretending to be foreigners.
And then there was the time when she, Disha, and Cindy had walked twenty kilometers on the train tracks by themselves at night. Disha must’ve been no more than four then. Ruhi remembered standing on a hill and Cindy pointing south: “That’s Siberia.” And when Ruhi went with Disha and Cindy to a fair , she ran into a boy she had a crush on in seventh grade. He asked her where she was going, and she replied, too mortified to think straight, “Looking for pancakes.” She was still a chubby girl back then. Cindy laughed about this for three days straight, and one night, when Cindy was sleeping, Ruhi cut off a thick chunk of her hair. In revenge, Cindy threw Ruhi’s most treasured possession, her grandmother’s gold locket, into the hole in the outhouse. The locket was retrieved grudgingly by their poor stepfather. It all seemed so important now.
One evening the following spring, when Kiyara was almost a year old and looked like a copy of her father, Anosh stumbled home after another gambling loss. His coat was open, his cap fixed on his head at an inadvertently jaunty angle. His features swam, with an idiotic smile and unsure frown.
When she saw his condition, Ruhi jumped at him with a book she’d finally just found a moment for and hit him tiredly in the stomach, chest, shoulders. Kiyara began to holler. The chronic phlegm slurped in her sinuses with that awful heartbreaking sound.
“You’re killing us,” Ruhi yelled. Her voice had been pitched to a high roof months ago and refused to come down. If only she could beat him hard enough that he would stop ruining her life.
Anosh twisted the book out of her hands and carefully set it on the floor. Then he rose, and slapped Ruhi in the face. In her shock, a proverb Cindy had yet to mention popped into her mind: If he beats you, he loves you. He hit her skinny upper arm, at first tentatively, as though measuring resistance of the muscle, then harder. His expression scared Ruhi more than the beating. He could kill her and not notice.
He struck her back as she broke free, then lurched after her and pummeled her backside with particular viciousness — perhaps for all the times she didn’t let him touch it. She ran into the bathroom, hoping Homi wouldn’t hear them. Anosh barged through the flimsy door and pushed her to the floor. He kept beating her, then throwing fists at her. Then just hands. His eyelids drooped unevenly. Abruptly he turned and staggered back to their room.
After a few minutes Kiyara’s wailing registered again, and Ruhi ran back to the room. Anosh was passed out on the floor by the couch. She picked up her daughter and carried her in a small circle as though in a dream. Eventually Kiyara drifted off to sleep. Ruhi sat down with her on the bed. She closed her eyes for a minute.
Ruhi woke from a sudden movement of the bed. Anosh had revived and was kissing Marina’s forehead.
“Don’t touch her!” Ruhi screamed.
He jumped away from her. “What’s wrong with her?”
“You beat me.”
He squinted in playful disbelief. Ruhi knew that look well.
Shaking from anger, Ruhi carefully transferred Kiyara off her knees and onto the bed. The girl curled up into a ball, bracing herself, even in sleep, for yet another skirmish between her parents. Ruhi showed Anosh her arms. They were covered in bruises, blots of dark water under thin ice. Then she pulled up her house coat and showed him what he’d done to her backside.
“This is what you did,” Ruhi said and began to cry. “Like a drunken peasant.”
Anosh stared at the floor without moving.
A bad husband’s wife is always an idiot.
He hobbled to the kitchen. There was a violent banging of drawers, then silence. In a few moments he returned with a knife. He placed a chair in the middle of the room, sat down, and slashed both of his wrists. As he bent forward to put the knife on the floor, blood began to spout out of the cuts. It was a surprisingly bright hue of red as her lipstick.
Ruhi turned away. Everything settled within her and retreated. She picked up whimpering Kiyara and rocked her, staring at the dark window. A few more months and her daughter would no longer be a baby. She wondered whether anyone was still awake, curled up with a book or huddled in the kitchen over tea and secrets. Kiyara kept sobbing. If Ruhi fell asleep now, she would sleep through this noise, too, and the ambulance sirens. She would happily sleep through the rest of her life, she thought.
A heavy sigh blew like a ghost from the chair. Anosh sat slumped, with his eyes closed. His hands hung at his sides, lifeless as oars. The blood flowed steadily. Ruhi rocked her baby from side to side. They were out of milk. She would have to go first thing in the morning. Lots of milk and sugar.
By the time Homi burst into their room — he’d had a premonition about the silence that followed half a night of fighting — there was a puddle of blood next to the chair.
“Why are you sitting there like a statue? Waiting for him to bleed out?” the old doctor yelled. He rummaged through their room. “Nothing. What kind of wife are you? Prepared for nothing.”
“And what kind of doctor are you?” Ruhi said.
Homi grabbed a pillow off the bed and tore the case into strips. Cursing and groaning, he tied Anosh’s wrists. Anosh didn’t shift, but he didn’t fall either.
Ruhi still hadn’t moved from the bed when the ambulance came and took Anosh to the hospital. Kiyara had at last tired herself out and dropped off to sleep. Her daughter was solely hers now. Every problem and burden hers alone. Relief was spreading warmly through her body.
She put her daughter into the crib and began wiping up the puddle of blood, the edges of which had already congealed into a maroon jam not like her lipstick.
The following day Ruhi went to the base to see about the plane tickets home and was surprised to learn that Anosh had paid leave and free tickets available for himself and his family every year. So Anosh had kept her prisoner in their smoky room because he couldn’t return home broke.
She divided their meager marital possessions into honest halves, assigning herself the last unpaired pillowcase, since its mate had been sacrificed in Anoshs botched suicide. There was no time for a painstakingly calibrated letter, so she went to the post office to call home. Cindy picked up the receiver; no one else was around.
“Kiyara and I are coming.”
“For a vacation?” Cindy said.
Ruhi detected underwater mines in her tone. “Yes.”
“Well, it’s about time we all met your little chipmunk.”
“Cindy, already for a while I wanted to ask you. Why did you write those proverbs in the letters? If you wanted to tell me something, you could have just written that. I’m used to your lectures.”
“I never lectured you, Ruhi. It’s the voices in your head.” Cindy laughed, not maliciously.
As the days passed and her departure date grew closer, Ruhi’s euphoria swelled. At first Anosh thought that her plan to leave was a ruse. Then he begged for her forgiveness and promised to quit whatever she wanted him to quit. “You’ll be the general,” he said over and over, trying to hook her with his wobbly smile. “Everything will be the way you want. Just tell me.” To Ruhi, his pleadings were a faint prattle on a radio someone had forgotten to turn off. She and Anosh had failed at not remaining strangers.
Anosh still couldn’t believe Ruhi and Kiyara were leaving when they said goodbyes at the airport. Homi had come, too, probably to make sure Anosh didn’t do anything else stupid. From the bus that took them to the aeroplane, Ruhi spotted Anosh’s slumped grey figure in the crowd of passengers’ families. He was waving along with the others. He wore the winter greatcoat to conceal his ban dated wrists, which made him look especially sad on such a bright spring day.
As the plane was about to take off, Ruhi looked one last time at the mountains in the distance. For a second, it seemed as if the clouds had thickened above one of the tops. She squeezed Kiyara tighter to her chest. The plane broke through a layer of clouds and the city, the crater of her marriage, disappeared.
Back home, everything was understood and all the questions were now asked. Ruhi’s sisters were ecstatic to have her back and fought over who would get to babysit Kiyara. One of Ruhi’s classmates was taking the entrance exams to the surgical facultet at the Medical University and dared Ruhi to try, too. What if? She needed to move on — and quickly. Besides, she already knew she wasn’t afraid of blood. All summer Ruhi reviewed the old chemistry and physics textbooks at the library. Cindy’s boyfriend had to pull some strings: Ruhi got in. The surgical facultet ended up with an overflow of qualified candidates, and she was offered a year-long deferral or a transfer to the dental course, which was four years shorter. The choice was clear.
While in school, Ruhi lived with her parents. Both Disha and Cindy had married soon after Ruhi’s return (although she had counseled them about the perils) and moved out. In the evenings, Ruhi studied on the bench in the courtyard while Kiyara slept in her stroller under a jasmine tree. Every morning, when Ruhi went to medical school, her mother took Kiyara to the nursery under a shower of golden leaves and chestnuts in the park. In time, Ruhi’s stepfather taught Kiyara to ride a bicycle. Ruhi and Kiyara slept together for years in the sisters’ big old bed and were happy.
In her thirties, Ruhi soon became the chief doctor of her city. It was considered improper for a woman in her position to be single, so she got married again — this time again to a doctor. Her second husband chased every skirt at his hospital and had a several affairs before they finally divorced, but it was his miserly ways that offended her most. The days when she would open the fridge and see his name written on cartons of milk and packages of cheese and ham that he had bought on his salary, she thought of Anosh — how he gave her all his money and was content as long as he had his Marlboro cigarettes.
Many more years later, Ruhi retired from her post as the chief doctor and returned to live closer to her sisters. They got together often at one of their apartments and talked of the past. All three agreed that their childhood and youth had been happy. Cindy never bore children, and Disha, had in the same year lost her husband, to an accident and both of her grown children. Elmo, her son, was poisoned by a drug addict friend, who knew that Elmo had money in the house after selling his car. Her daughter, Minosha was stabbed by a boyfriend in a drunken fight.
Now and then Ruhi’s thoughts drifted to Adel and her second husband, but most often she thought of Anosh. It was inconceivable to her that she, who spent her whole life taking care of people, had once almost let her husband bleed to death in front of her eyes. His good and open heart seemed like the most important quality a person could possess, and she now felt something for him akin to loving pity. Maybe, in due course, Anosh would have gambled away his youthful folly.
Other times, she shuddered at the tragic cliché that was her first marriage.
Ruhi saw Anosh again once, several years after their quick divorce. He was in town visiting his elderly mother and turned up at Ruhi’s to beg her to return. She was about to go grocery shopping and had just put on her signature raspberry lipstick. He looked at her with a stranger’s voracity, as though he was seeing a beautiful woman for the first time. She refused. Her mother had always said, If he hits you once, he’ll hit you again.
He asked whether he could see his daughter. “She’s on vacation at Florida with my parents,” Ruhi lied. Kiyara was doing her homework just two closed doors away.
“Next time, then,” Anosh said. His eyes were mischievous but tired.
Ruhi never tried to find him. She didn’t want his money. She didn’t want anything from him. A few months after his visit, she heard through the town’s rumor mill that some woman had come in search of Anosh, claiming to be pregnant by him. Another naive soul trying to capture a doctor.
Ruhi smiles at those rumors for she was proud of her “Raspberry Lipstick”