Excerpt: The Lovers by Amitava Kumar
In this first exclusive excerpt, the narrator, Kailash, an Indian student in America, attempts to help his girlfriend through a difficult timeUpdated: Jul 01, 2017 08:23 IST
Two or even three times each week that semester, I would be at Jennifer’s apartment. I preferred going to her place rather than having her come over to my cramped room. Her apartment was a two-room space, in the shape of an L, and it was located above a drugstore off 148th Street in Harlem.
On a Friday morning, while I was there, Jennifer went downstairs to the store to buy a pregnancy-test kit. She had called me late the previous evening and said she wanted me to be with her. I didn’t ask any questions. I thought perhaps her father in Ohio, who had suffered a mild stroke the previous May, had taken a turn for the worse. But when we were getting ready for bed, she said, matter-of-factly, that her period was delayed. I felt ashamed. Here I was, standing close to her, thinking that we were soon going to fuck. And now this news. I didn’t know what to say. Then I asked whether she had seen a doctor. She shook her head and turned off the light. In the dark, I tried to work out when she had become pregnant. There was a calendar with empty black and white squares on her kitchen wall that Jennifer would consult before deciding whether or not we ought to use a condom. What had gone wrong?
In the morning, I woke up first and began making coffee. Jennifer lay in bed longer than was usual, perhaps more than an hour. When she got up, she opened the front door and said she’d be back in a minute.
She appeared carrying a blue-and-white paper bag in her hand. Through the half-open bathroom door I caught sight of her sitting on the toilet bowl. After a few moments, she shut the door.
The bookstore provided its employees access to three gynaecologists and Jennifer chose one with a clinic on 78th Street. The name sounded Hispanic. The receptionist on the phone said that we could wait another week but Jennifer didn’t want that. An appointment was made for Monday morning.
— Stay in the waiting room. I don’t want you to come inside with me.
— Do they allow others to come in?
— I don’t know. I haven’t done this before.
I thought I should protest, just in case Jennifer was doing this to spare me. But spare me what exactly? I didn’t know, but also felt that I couldn’t ask. She was brittle, maybe she was angry and blamed me. I felt I ought to show that I was big enough to understand this.
A five-minute walk from the subway station and we were standing outside the clinic’s beige-coloured walls. The first floor had three large rectangular windows with one-way mirrors. For a minute or two, Jennifer searched in her bag and then took a card out.
We passed through a metal detector and, once inside, we waited together in silence. After maybe twenty minutes, a nurse called out her name and held the door open for her. Jennifer didn’t look at me as she left. I picked up a National Geographic from the stack of magazines. I was skimming through the pages, looking at pictures of crocodiles in Australia, when I suddenly saw Jennifer’s Doc Martens Mary Janes next to me. She had come to tell me that I could go. There wouldn’t be a procedure today, only a consultation and blood tests and an ultrasound. It was going to take hours.
Are you sure, etc.
We waited. Was it two weeks? I didn’t keep a journal until another year had passed and I don’t have any records with me now. Nevertheless, I remember that the next time we went to the clinic it was again a Friday. I left during Ehsaan’s lecture on Heart of Darkness to meet Jennifer at the bookstore at two in the afternoon. This time she had brought her car. She broke the silence to say that her friend Jill, who worked at the campus ID card office, had said that she ought to have made the appointment for the morning. I didn’t ask her why. We were late by about five minutes. A man had been standing outside, his head bowed, and it was only because Jennifer stepped away from him that I even looked at him a second time. The man was praying. Inside, the same guard we had seen the other day, a middle-aged, grey-uniformed black man, fat, with gold-rimmed glasses, checked a register in front of him and said that he didn’t have Jennifer’s name on it. He spoke in sonorous tones and acted officious, as if he were calling Congress to session.
— I’ve been talking to someone called Colleen, Jennifer said to the man.
He picked up the phone and dialed three digits.
— Yes, I have an individual named Jennifer here for a twothirty, but I don’t see her name on the list here… No, you see, I cannot properly do my work if you don’t do yours…
He looked up.
— You go ahead, ma’am. You have to understand we keep this list here for your safety. It has to match what is inside. We have security—
But Jennifer wasn’t going to wait for him to finish.
Once again, I stayed in the waiting area. Although I had expected to see other men there, the only others in the room were two heavy-set women, maybe in their forties, sitting together with their bags in their lap. One of them wore a bright red sweater and the other a dazzling white one. I was reading a book by Rachel Carson but now and then my eye wandered outside. The man who had been praying near the door hadn’t moved at all. What would happen if he said anything to Jennifer? She was a quiet person but religion brought out her rage.
A young woman came in alone, wearing dark glasses, teetering on high heels, giving to the room a sudden, slightly illicit air. After a while, I stopped looking at her and went back to my reading. More than two hours passed. I began to worry why Jennifer wasn’t coming out. The woman called Colleen had told Jennifer on the phone that the actual procedure wouldn’t take long. They were going to run a couple of tests but that was ‘merely procedural’ and that part lasted only a few minutes. Colleen had said the whole affair would take an hour. Then, the door to the inside opened and a young woman and a man in a camouflage t-shirt came out. They headed for the two women seated together. The women got up and hugged the couple. It was unclear whether the woman had been operated upon, or whether she had only gone in for a consultation. I thought she looked fine. I began to pretend I was reading, aware that my stomach was churning. At least another hour passed. Then, the door opened again but it was only the nurse.
— I went back to my reading and the nurse came closer and said to me, Are you with Jennifer?
What had happened to her? Who was to be called in case of an emergency? People died during childbirth in India, I had heard this all the time when I was a boy. Just a few years ago, Smita Patil had died soon after giving birth. But this was only an abortion, what had gone wrong?
The nurse’s tag said Paula. She was in her forties.
— Jennifer would like you to come inside.
A door opened into a narrow hallway and Paula allowed me to walk into the room alone. Jennifer was lying on a bed, a sheet covering her up to her waist. She had been crying, her eyes were red. An untouched cookie and a cup of water waited on the side table. When I asked if she was in a lot of pain, she shook her head and, as if she was cold, pulled the sheet up to her neck.
— I don’t want the car to get towed. Can you put more quarters in the meter?
Why hadn’t I thought of this myself?
— Yes, yes. Do you want anything else? Would you like me to get you some tea or juice? Why did it take so long?
Jennifer wasn’t really saying anything and that is why my questions were so rushed and jumbled together. I went out in a hurry, not waiting at the door for the Middle Eastern woman who was coming into the clinic. She wore the hijab and holding the door for her was a thin man with a toddler in his arms. I shouted back an apology. There was a ticket under the wiper. Twenty-five dollars. I put it in my pocket, telling myself that I would pay it immediately but wouldn’t tell Jennifer about it. And, with my hand still inside the pocket of my jacket, I thought I’d cook basmati rice and chicken in coriander for Jennifer. She liked that. And I’d make some dal. Keep some red wine handy, if she wanted it. I must bring her flowers. And wash her sheets if they were bloody. Would the sheets have blood on them? I didn’t know the answer to the question but I was certainly going to be generous and attentive.
I didn’t recognize at that moment what I already knew, that nothing I could do would ever be adequate. It seemed that Jennifer had made a discovery about me, a discovery that I wasn’t privy to. It was as if a policeman had stopped by one evening when I wasn’t there and asked a few disturbing questions about me. And at the end of the conversation, Jennifer had risen and gone to a drawer in my room and found the evidence. All that was required now was for an accusation to be aired in the open.
Read more: Writers At Work | Amitava Kumar
Early evening. I had placed a bouquet of fresh flowers near her bedroom window, white and red carnations, a couple of asters and yellow daisies, a stem of tiny white spray roses. Now I brought her dinner with a small glass of red wine on the tray. Jennifer sat up on the bed and looked at me.
— I appreciate what you’re doing but really I’d just like to be alone. Will you please take that bottle of wine and leave?
— I’ll go in a bit. Why don’t you eat first? I want to make sure you eat something.
— No, I’m sorry… Why am I even saying sorry? I’d like to be alone. Go. Please go.
My first thought, Thank god, I’m wearing these sandals. I had brought them from India. They were inappropriate for the season. But they were proving useful now, I didn’t at least have to upset her by taking time to put on my shoes.
First Published: Jun 30, 2017 21:08 IST