The little table fan provided little relief against the day’s humidity. He felt regretful about not having been able to make things more comfortable on their last day together before his trip home. They mostly spent the day indoors and until a moment ago, before she left to take a shower, they had been intently packing his belongings into two suitcases. The task had seemed impossible at first, so much had he bought for his family. In the end, however, she managed to put her inherent knowledge of folding small and slipping into any nook available to good use, accommodating almost everything.
Finding himself alone, he mindlessly toyed with his new mobile phone. Then, as if remembering for the first time, he knelt and lifted the mattress on his bed where, just under the pillow, he found the small present he had for her. When she returned, only outwardly refreshed, she found him stretched out on the bed, listening to an old song about the unspoken pain of love, eyes closed.
As there was nothing else to sit on in the room that served as both a bed- and living room for him and his roommate, she sat at the foot of the bed and mindlessly started tying her long hair into a high bun. He watched her but didn’t insist she wear her hair down as he normally would. The silence between them didn’t feel as heavy as it felt sad. It was almost time for her to catch a bus back to where she worked as a live-in nanny. If they spoke now, it would only be to say goodbye and neither of them wanted to hasten that moment unnecessarily. Instead they let the words from the songs coming his phone fill the silence between them. Any other day, they would have sung along but today was different. Today was the day they’d always known they would have to face one day but had pretended otherwise. They were pretending still. Several moments passed before he reached over and held her hand, and broke the silence by repeating what he had already said many times over during the course of the day. He told her just how bad he felt about leaving her behind for two whole months, the longest time they would be spending apart. He then placed the present, a small unwrapped box, in her hand. ‘A small parting present,’ he said. ‘So you won’t forget me.’
It was obvious the box held in it a piece of jewellery, and holding it between her palms, she felt herself choke. While he had always been generous with unexpected presents, this would be the first piece of jewellery she received from him. On the top of the black box was a Chinese character engraved in gold that exuded elegance. It didn’t matter that neither of them could read it. The box felt small but comforting, and unwilling to rush what felt like a sweet moment, she held it for a short spell before opening it. Inside, on a velvety cushion was a heart-shaped gold pendant. She stared at it, willing herself not to cry. But when he put his arms around her, unable to hold back, she broke into tears. Desperate to comfort her, he told her how he meant for the pendant to represent his heart. That he wanted her to know he’d always carry her in it no matter where he was. That he wished he didn’t have to go but would be back before she knew it.
Barely listening, she thought how ironic, yet apt, it was that it was him who was sobbing when they first met. In their parting, she was the one left with tears.
Ram and Reshma met for the first time five years ago when they found themselves sitting next to each other on a flight bound to Macau. In the beginning, through the commotion of people boarding and security briefings, their own mixed emotions about leaving home yet again kept them to themselves. Once the plane was firmly in the air, however, its smooth humming confirming there was no going back, Ram found himself weeping. Quietly at first, but when Reshma noticed and asked if he was alright, he began to sob, hiding his face in his palms. The force of his own grief had shocked him so much that after it passed a few minutes later, he apologized. He was not sure whom he felt more apologetic to: the stranger sitting next to him for being put through the discomfort of witnessing somebody else’s tears or himself, for being unable to hold them back. Reshma however was neither disturbed nor embarrassed on his behalf. She only nodded before asking if it was his first time leaving family and home behind.
The flight in fact marked the end of Ram’s third visit home in all of ten years. His job posting had first brought him and his wife, Binu, to Kathmandu from Chitwan. Just a few years in the capital city had changed them and the expectations they held from life. When their first child was six months old, in order to secure for her what his low-ranking job in the police force would never enable him to, he left for Taipa in Macau to work as a security guard at a casino. In exchange for his daughter’s childhood, he would be able to afford for her an expensive education and material comforts. The dreams he had learnt to relish with his eyes open were Binu’s, really. But she had made it clear it was his duty to turn them into reality. In the beginning, having adopted her dreams as his own, the sacrifices he had to make hadn’t felt too unbearable.
By the third visit home however, when he got to meet his second daughter for the first time, feelings had changed. When even his eldest daughter did not recognize him at first, he tried to persuade Binu that it was time for him to return for good. He reminded her how they had only planned for him to be away for a few years. ‘We have a house of our own now,’ he had said. ‘And enough money to start a small business,’ he reasoned. ‘Ma janna aba. I won’t go back. Malai pugi sakyo.’ Binu in turn cut the conversation short by reminding him of their growing brood and explaining in great detail what other families they knew were already offering their children, and just how far behind they still lagged. The answer was no. ‘Namarda jasto kura nagarnus!’ was how it was put.
Belted to his seat thousand of miles above the ground, Ram had explained all of this to Reshma. She listened, adding little, but Ram could see that she understood. She understood in a way his wife could not. Without him having to spell it out, she knew also of the all-consuming, disorienting loneliness that awaited him at the other end. So when he realized she worked and lived only a short bus journey away, Ram knew he wanted to see Reshma again.
Within a month of arriving back in Macau, they got into a routine of meeting every Sunday on their weekly day off. After several Sundays of visiting popular sites and eating out began to dig a deep hole in their savings, Reshma suggested asking Ram’s flatmate to stay away on Sundays. As she had predicted, an offer to pay a bigger share of the rent was enough of a persuasion, and their days together they began to mostly spend in Ram’s one-bedroom flat. It came with a small kitchen and a bathroom shared with three other flats on the some floor. Their new arrangement provided them both a domesticity neither of them realized they had missed. With Ram, Reshma shared more openly and willingly about the children she nannied than Binu did about their own, such that when Ram and Reshma talked, it sounded as if they were discussing their own children. When alone, it pained Ram that he knew more about a stranger’s children than he did his own but when with Reshma, he enjoyed feeling as if he was a part of a parenting duo. On her part, Reshma delighted in having access to a kitchen where she could cook to her own taste, something she hadn’t had since leaving her husband’s house over a decade ago. Ram enjoyed being able to provide Reshma with something that gave her as much joy as much as he enjoyed her cooking.
Her mother named her Reshma owing to the long silky hair she was born with. The youngest of three and the only daughter, she was adored by all and growing up, life had been generally comfortable until her father passed away when she was 12. By the time she was out of high school, she and her mother were at the mercy of her brothers and so when a family with good social and financial standing asked for her hand in marriage, she agreed. When even after eight years of otherwise comfortable marriage resulted in no children, they sought medical advice which confirmed that the problem lay in her. They were told she would never be able to conceive. She could still stay in the family home, her husband had said, after informing her that in the two weeks since they were told their dreams of a family would never materialize, his family had already found another woman for him to marry. She had left her husband’s house the same day, careful to take what little gold jewellery she had received on her wedding day. Such was the nature of the betrayal her body had cast over them all that she knew she would not ask for any other compensation and that none would be willingly offered. With nowhere else to go, she had moved in with her eldest brother and his family.
Word spread and she quickly became the central topic of gossip. There was talk about how she deserved her downfall for having always acted as if she was better than everybody else. About how her mother had pampered her too much but never taught her anything useful. About how had it not been for her hair, there would be absolutely nothing beautiful about her and how she should count herself lucky that her husband put up with her for as long as he did. Her brothers did not speak up for her and turned a blind eye when in their homes she was treated no better than house help. But Reshma had expected all of this. She knew how things worked. What she hadn’t prepared herself for were all the unwanted attention and jibes even at the school where she taught primary school children. When she started exploring options to make a new start elsewhere, her basic English skills and gold jewellery secured her a job as a housekeeper for a kind American couple in Macau, where she got the chance to truly grieve for her loss for the first time.
During the first few months in the quiet expat neighbourhood, she kept busy all the time, learning quickly the ways and preferences of her new employers. She was grateful for the work and refuge but more importantly, for the time and space to wallow in her grief alone, which she was most days. Sensing sorrow, the newly pregnant Julia was kind and generous. For Reshma, however, the kindness of a stranger only exacerbated the pain inflicted by people she thought of as her own. Before long, despite herself, jealously of Julia’s swelling belly consumed Reshma. When, unaware of the conflict and jealousy in Reshma’s heart, Julia still continued to be kind, she felt ashamed. Almost as an act of repentance, she started going out of her away to ensure Julia was well fed, rested and comfortable, and in doing so, somehow convinced herself that it was in fact her child taking shape inside another woman’s womb. By the time baby William was born, such had been her devotion that Julia and her husband asked if she would be his nanny.
It was during these years of tending to William’s every need and watching him grow – during the quiet lull after humming him to sleep or times when she lay awake at night listening to his slow, deep breathing through the baby-monitor – that she came to realize what love felt like. This in turn shone light on the fact that she had never really loved her husband. What she had felt for him was a kind of respectful devotion, the kind her mother had held for her father. It was driven by a sense of duty and the acceptance that he, as her husband, had a certain right over her, which kept her from perceiving his actions as ever being unfair or cruel. She, like her mother, had truly believed that her husband knew better and would do the best for and by her. The ache that seemed to have taken a permanent position in her heart now was therefore not from the loss of love, for there had never been any, but from the sense of disappointment from having that all she had once believed in destroyed.
So, the first time her heart broke for love, she was caught completely unaware. When William turned four, the family decided to return to America. They gave her plenty of notice, a big bonus and found another family who would take her in as a nanny. None of this mattered. To Reshma, being told she couldn’t keep somebody else’s child forever felt worse than being told she couldn’t have children of her own. During her last weeks with the family, when alone in her room, she cried and begged for some mercy to no one in particular. In front of Julia and her husband, she kept a stoic face. William, she hugged tighter and longer whenever she could, and the fact he held her back said to her that he understood. She loved this child that looked nothing like her, and he loved her back. This was the only thing that gave her comfort and kept her going.
It was after William left with his family that Reshma made her first and only visit home. Instead of the balm she was hoping for her broken heart, the trip left her feeling more scarred and battered. On the flight back her head spun with all the news people had relished sharing with her. How her ex-husband now had two sons. How her mother had called for Reshma, her only daughter, during her final moments and had therefore died pining a year ago. How the money Reshma had sent for her treatment hadn’t been enough. When Ram, a stranger then, began sobbing next to her, it was as if he let loose on her behalf her the barrage of emotions she herself was determined not to show.
It was in the early hours, not very long before Reshma was due to arrive and help him pack, that the finality of his trip home dawned on Ram. When he realized for the first time that Binu would make it impossible for him to return, just as she had made it impossible for him to stay when he first left. He would not be returning to Macau. Not to his job, not to Reshma.
Binu had found out about Reshma. Who informed her, she would not say but Ram suspected it was his flatmate or somebody from his group of friends. He did not feel angry as he expected himself to. If anything, he was surprised it took as long as it did, for the grapevine was tight and effective. Over the years, sitting alone at his duty station, keeping watch on the world around, he had pictured many times the moment of confrontation with his wife. Some days the scene unfolded with him choosing Reshma over Binu, others with him cutting ties with both. But in all the versions, there was one constant. In all of them Binu was always hysterical, even threatening. Unexpectedly then, when in reality Binu only asked if he was planning to come back to her or stay with ‘the other woman’, Ram was caught unprepared. Binu held on tightly to her dignity, making no allowance for the possibility of dismissing her as unreasonable or melodramatic. Her not asking if what she had been told was true was her way of saying she was not interested in his rationale behind the betrayal. There was no expectation that he might claim innocence. It was as if she expected this to happen, as if she knew it would happen even before it did. Only now, she was no longer interested in playing along. To answer her question of whom he meant to keep, he booked a return ticket home. In reality, he wanted to keep them both.
Once the finality of the situation was clear, the fact that he would never see Reshma again sat heavily on his heart. He practiced telling Reshma this, but knew words would fail him like they always did in front of her. Reshma was too good for him, and he knew under normal circumstances, their paths would not even have crossed. For this alone he felt grateful for the time he had with her. She had always been kind and generous to him, but never seemed to expect anything back. What she probably never realized was that by being so forgiving of his many shortcomings, she made him all the more aware of them and he always felt he was letting her down. And now he was about to let her down further by leaving for good and not even telling her. It was then he remembered seeing a small jewellery box among his things as he was emptying out his suitcases few days before. Despite his flatmate’s protest from the top of the bunk-beds, he turned on the lights and dug through his things until he found it again. In it was a heart-shaped gold pendant. He was impressed by how apt a present it would make. What his words would fail to convey, this piece of metal would. When he couldn’t remember how he came to acquire it, he convinced himself that he had bought it for Binu a long while ago. He deliberated on the appropriateness of such a present, and then decided it would look better on Reshma, making her a more suited recipient, and went back to bed elated.
It was not meant to be like this. It was impulsive and thoughtless of him, yes. Yet she knew he meant no malice. It was like it had always been but it seemed to Reshma as if things were working in opposite ways. She might have borrowed somebody else’s husband, but his heart was meant to firmly belong to her.
A few months after they arrived back in Macau together, one Sunday afternoon Ram got a call with news that Binu had miscarried. And that complications meant she was unlikely to conceive again. Reshma, who was next to him at the time, had not known Binu had been pregnant nor that Ram hoped it was a boy he could himself raise. Still, when Ram was overtaken by grief, she held him in her arms and comforted him. The following day, still grief-stricken, Ram called to say he had decided to go home and asked if she could come and help get him organized. At Reshma’s suggestion, Ram agreed it would be wise to get Binu a special present . Later, too bereft to think of something thoughtful himself –
and also to realize the inappropriateness of such a request – Ram asked Reshma if she could pick something for him to take. In the end, Ram’s leave wasn’t approved and the present sat unopened among his things. He never remembered to reimburse Reshma and she never asked.
Her flight to Seoul was booked for the next day. For the last month she had been speaking over the phone to Mohan, a man her cousin had introduced her to. A week ago they had decided for her to join him in Korea where he owned and ran a restaurant. All going well, they planned to marry the following month. Even if she decided against it, Mohan had said he would help her find her footing. He knew everything there was to know about her, expect for her Sundays with another man and her pinning for William, whom she still thought of as a baby. She was more surprised, than pleased, for being accepted so readily. So deeply flawed she thought of herself that she had never told Ram why her marriage had ended.
After she composed herself, she closed the box with the pendant still in it and handed it back to him.
‘Give it to Binu,’ she said. ‘She deserves to be in your heart more.’
‘But I wanted to..didn’t want to go without…..’
‘I don’t need anything to remind me of you. Consider it a present for her, from me. This is the least I can do.’
And that was that. At the bus stop they held on to each other, not something they would normally do in public, until there was no delaying their separation. There were bittersweet tears of gratefulness and affection. And of sadness, for although they told each other they would be reunited soon, they both knew they would not see each other again.
Later that evening, he would seek comfort in a cheap bottle of whiskey then walk the cobbled streets that she loved so very much, and dream of a life in which they could have walked through them together, forever. He would sit on the steps on an old church and cry for his loss. Cry for feeling he was only picking his children he barely knew over her out of a sense of duty, not choice. Cry for the only woman in his life he had been thoughtful and considerate towards, and yet knew had failed.
Quiet tears would sting and blur her vision while packing her own bags. She would fold all the little snippets of the future she had dreamt of, him at the centre of each of them, and pack them neatly with her few belongings. By the time she finished packing and closed the suitcase, however, she would decide to leave it all behind.
That she had never really allowed him a piece of her heart had come back to confront her in an elegant black box. In the quiet of the night, waiting for the dawn to mark a new phase of her life, things would finally make sense to her for the first time. She would know for certain that she had done the right thing by returning to Binu what had only been hers on borrowed time.
She would leave early next morning with nothing but a set of change of clothes, a toothbrush and a few pictures of William from when he was a baby. He would leave a few hours later lugging things he hoped would win his children’s affection and wife’s forgiveness. Nobody would miss them in the city they discovered and let go of the closest thing to love either of them would ever find.