Fiction | June 01, 1985
The Lady from Lucknow
WHEN I WAS FOUR, one of the girls next door fell in love with a Hindu. Her father intercepted a lovenote from the boy, and beat her with his leather sandals. She died soon after. I was in the room when my mother said to our neighbor, “The Nawab-sahib had no choice, but Husseina’s heart just broke, poor dear.” I was an Army doctor’s daughter, and I pictured the dead girl’s heart—a rubbery squeezable organ with auricles and ventricles—first swelling, then bursting and coating the floor with thick, slippery blood.
We lived in Lucknow at the time where the Muslim community was large. This was just before the British took the fat, diamond-shaped subcontinent and created two nations, a big one for the Hindus, and a littler one for us. My father moved us to Rawalpindi in Pakistan two months after Husseina died. We were a family of soft, voluptuous children, and my father wanted to protect us from the Hindus’ shameful lust.
I have fancied myself in love many times since, but never enough for the emotions to break through tissue and muscle. Husseina’s torn heart remains the standard of perfect love.
At seventeen I married a good man, the fourth son of a famous poet-cum-lawyer in Islamabad. We have a daughter, seven, and a son, four. In the Muslim communities we have lived in, we are admired. Iqbal works for IBM, and because of his work we have made homes in Lebanon, Brazil, Zambia and France. Now we live in Atlanta, Georgia, in a wide, new house with a deck and a backyard that runs into a golf course. IBM has been generous to us. We expect to pass on this good, decent life to our children. Our children are ashamed of the dingy cities where we got our start.
Some Sunday afternoons when Iqbal isn’t at a conference halfway across the world, we sit together on the deck and drink gin and tonics as we have done on Sunday afternoons in a dozen exotic cities. But here, the light is different somehow. A gold haze comes off the golf course and settles on our bodies, our new house. When the light shines right in my eyes, I pull myself out of the canvas deck-chair and lean against the railing that still smells of forests. Everything in Atlanta is so new!
“Sit,” Iqbal tells me. “You’ll distract the golfers. Americans are crazy for sex, you know that.”
He half rises out of his deck chair. He lunges for my breasts in mock passion. I slip out of his reach.
At the bottom of the backyard, the golfers, caddies and carts are too minute to be bloated with lust.
But, who knows? One false thwock! of their golfing irons, and my little heart, like a golf ball, could slice through the warm air and vanish into the jonquil-yellow beyond.
It isn’t trouble that I want, though I do have a lover. He’s an older man, an immunologist with the Centers for Disease Control right here in town. He comes to see me when Iqbal is away at high-tech conferences in sunny, remote resorts. Just think, Beirut was once such a resort! Lately my lover comes to me on Wednesdays even if Iqbal’s in town.
“I don’t expect to live till ninety-five,” James teases on the phone. His father died at ninety-three in Savannah. “But I don’t want a bullet in the brain from a jealous husband right now.”
Iqbal owns no firearms. Jealousy would inflame him.
Besides, Iqbal would never come home in the middle of the day. Not even for his blood pressure pills. The two times he forgot them last month, I had to take the bottle downtown. One does not rise through the multinational hierarchy coming home in mid-day, arriving late, or leaving early. Especially, he says, if you’re a “not-quite” as we are. It is up to us to set the standards.
Wives who want to be found out will be found out. Indiscretions are deliberate. The woman caught in mid-shame is a woman who wants to get out. The rest of us carry on.
James flatters me indefatigably; he makes me feel beautiful, exotic, responsive. I am a creature he has immunized of contamination. When he is with me, the world seems a happy enough place.
Then he leaves. He slips back into his tweed suit and backs out of my driveway.
* * *
I met James Beamish at a reception for foreign students on the Emory University campus. Iqbal avoids these international receptions because he thinks of them as excuses for looking back when we should be looking forward. These evenings are almost always tedious, but I like to go; just in case there’s someone new and fascinating. The last two years, I’ve volunteered as host in the “hospitality program.” At Thanksgiving and Christmas, two lonely foreign students are sent to our table.
That first evening at Emory we stood with nametags on lapels, white ones for students, and blue ones for hosts. James was by a long table, pouring chablis into a plastic glass. I noticed him right off. He was dressed much like the other resolute, decent men in the room. But whereas the other men wore white or blue shirts under their dark wool suits, James’ shirt was bright red.
His wife was with him that evening, a stoutish woman with slender ankles and expensive shoes.
“Darling,” she said to James. “See if you can locate our Palestinian.” Then she turned to me, and smiling, peered into my nametag.
“I’m Nafeesa Hafeez,” I helped out.
“Na-fee-sa,” she read out. “Did I get that right?”
“Yes, perfect,” I said.
“What a musical name,” she said. “I hope you’ll be very happy here. Is this your first time abroad?”
James came over with a glass of chablis in each hand. “Did we draw this lovely lady? Oops, I’m sorry, you’re a host, of course.” A mocking blue light was in his eyes. “Just when I thought we were getting lucky, dear.”
“Darling, ours is a Palestinian. I told you that in the car. This one is obviously not Palestinian, are you, dear?” She took a bright orange notebook out of her purse and showed me a name.
I had to read it upside-down. Something Waheed. School of Dentistry.
“What are you drinking?” James asked. He kept a glass for himself and gave me the other one.
* * *
Maybe James Beamish said nothing fascinating that night, but he was attentive, even after the Beamishes’ Palestinian joined us. Mrs. Beamish was brave, she asked the dentist about his family and hometown. The dentist described West Beirut in detail. The shortage of bread and vegetables, the mortar poundings, the babies bleeding. I wonder when aphasia sets in. When does a dentist, even a Palestinian dentist, decide it’s time to cut losses?
Then my own foreign student arrived. She was an Indian Muslim from Lucknow, a large, bold woman who this far from our common hometown claimed me as a countrywoman. India, Pakistan, she said, not letting go of my hand, what does it matter?
I’d rather have listened to James Beamish but I couldn’t shut out the woman’s voice. She gave us her opinions on Thanksgiving rituals. She said, “It is very odd that the pumpkin vegetable should be used for dessert, no? We are using it as vegetable only. Chhi! Pumpkin as a sweet. The very idea is horrid.”
I promised that when she came to our house for Thanksgiving, I’d make sweetmeats out of ricotta cheese and syrup. When you live in as many countries as Iqbal has made me, you can’t tell if you pity, or if you envy, the women who stayed back.
* * *
I didn’t hear from James Beamish for two weeks. I thought about him. In fact I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I went over the phrases and gestures, the mocking light in the eyes, but they didn’t add up to much. After the first week, I called Amina and asked her to lunch. I didn’t know her well but her husband worked at the Centers for Disease Control. Just talking to someone connected with the Centers made me feel good. I slipped his name into the small talk with Amina and her eyes popped open, “Oh, he’s famous!” she exclaimed, and I shrugged modestly. I stayed home in case he should call. I sat on the deck and in spite of the cold, pretended to read Barbara Pym novels. Lines from Donne and Urdu verses about love floated in my skull.
I wasn’t sure Dr. Beamish would call me. Not directly, that is. Perhaps he would play a subtler game, get his wife to invite Iqbal and me for drinks. Maybe she’d even include their Palestinian and my Indian and make an international evening out of it. It sounded plausible.
* * *
Finally James Beamish called me on a Tuesday afternoon, around four. The children were in the kitchen, and a batch of my special chocolate sludge cookies was in the oven.
“Hi,” he said, then nothing for a bit. Then he said, “This is James Beamish from the CDC. I’ve been thinking of you.”
He was between patients, he explained. Wednesday was the only flexible day in his week, his day for paperwork. Could we have lunch on Wednesday?
The cookies smelled gooey hot, not burned. My daughter had taken the cookie sheet out and put in a new one. She’d turned the cold water faucet on so she could let the water drip on a tiny rosebud burn on her arm.
I felt all the warm, familiar signs of lust and remorse. I dabbed the burn with an icecube wrapped in paper towel and wondered if I’d have time to buy a new front-closing bra after Iqbal got home.
James and I had lunch in a Dekalb County motel lounge.
He would be sixty-five in July, but not retire till sixty-eight. Then he would live in Tonga, in Fiji, see the world, travel across Europe and North America in a Winnebago. He wouldn’t be tied down. He had five daughters and two grandsons, the younger one aged four, a month older than my son. He had been in the Navy during the war (his war), and he had liked that.
I said, ” ‘Goodbye, Mama, I’m off to Yokahama’.” It was silly, but it was the only war footage I could come up with, and it made him laugh.
“You’re special,” he said. He touched my knee under the table. “You’ve already been everywhere.”
“Not because I’ve wanted to.”
He squeezed my knee again, then paid with his Mastercharge card.
As we were walking through the parking lot to his car (it was a Cougar or a Buick, and not German or British as I’d expected), James put his arm around my shoulders. I may have seen the world but I haven’t gone through the American teenage rites of making out in parked cars and picnic grounds, so I walked briskly out of his embrace. He let his hand slide off my shoulder. The hand slid down my back. I counted three deft little pats to my bottom before he let his hand fall away.
Iqbal and I are sensual people, but secretive. The openness of James Beamish’s advance surprised me.
I got in his car, wary, expectant.
“Do up the seatbelt,” he said.
He leaned into his seatbelt and kissed me lightly on the lips. I kissed him back, hard. “You don’t panic easily, do you?” he said. The mocking blue light was in his eyes again. His tongue made darting little thrusts and probes past my lips.
Yes, I do, I would have said if he’d let me.
We held hands on the drive to my house. In the driveway he parked behind my Honda. “Shall I come in?”
I said nothing. Love and freedom, like grace, drop into our lives. When we have to beg or even agree, it’s already too late.
“Let’s go in.” He said it very softly.
I didn’t worry about the neighbors. In his grey wool slacks and tweed jacket, he looked too old, too respectable, for any sordid dalliance with a not-quite’s wife.
Our house is not that different in size and shape from the ones on either side. Only the inside smells of heavy incense, and the drywalls are hung with rows of miniature paintings from the reign of Emperor Akbar. I took James’ big wrinkled hand in mine. Adultery in my house is probably no different, no quieter, than in other houses in this neighborhood.
Afterwards it wasn’t guilt I felt (guilt comes with desire not acted), but wonder that while I’d dashed out Tuesday night and bought myself silky new underwear, James Beamish had worn an old T-shirt and lemon-pale boxer shorts. Perhaps he hadn’t planned on seducing a Lucknow lady that afternoon. Adventure and freedom had come to him out of the blue, too. Or perhaps only younger men like Iqbal make a fetish of doing sit-ups and dieting and renewing their membership at the racquet club when they’re on the prowl.
October through February our passion held. When we were together, I felt cherished. I only played at being helpless, hysterical, cruel. When James left, I’d spend the rest of the afternoon with a Barbara Pym novel. I kept the novels open at pages in which excellent British women recite lines from Marvell to themselves. I didn’t read. I watched the golfers trudging over brown fairways instead. I let the tiny golfers—clumsy mummers—tell me stories of ambitions unfulfilled. Golf carts lurched into the golden vista. I felt safe.
* * *
In the first week of March we met in James’ house for a change. His wife was in Madison to babysit a grandson while his parents flew to China for a three-week tour. It was a thrill to be in his house. I fingered the bookspines, checked the color of sheets and towels, the brand names of cereals and detergents. Jane Fonda’s Workout record was on the VCR. He was a man who took exceptional care of himself, this immunologist. Real intimacy, at last. The lust of the winter months had been merely foreplay. I felt at home in his house, in spite of the albums of family photographs on the coffee table, and the brutish metal vulvas sculpted by a daughter in art school and stashed in the den. James was more talkative in his own house. He showed me the photos he wanted me to see, named real lakes and mountains. His family was real, and not quite real. The daughters were hardy, outdoors types. I saw them hiking in Zermatt, and bicycling through Europe. They had red cheeks and backpacks. Their faces were honest, and marvellously ordinary. What would they say if they knew their father, at sixty-five, was in bed with a married woman from Lucknow? I feared and envied their jealousy more than any violence in my husband’s heart.
Love on the decline is hard to tell from love on the rise. I have lived a life perched on the edge of ripeness and decay. The traveller feels at home everywhere, because she is never at home anywhere. I felt the hot red glow of blood rushing through capillaries.
His wife came back early, didn’t call, caught a ride from Hartsfield International with a friend. She had been raised in Saskatchewan, and she’d remained thrifty.
We heard the car pull into the driveway, the loud “thank you’s” and “no, I couldn’ts” and then her surprised shout, “James? Are you ill? What’re you doing home?” as she shut the front door.
We were in bed, sluggish cozy and still moist under the goosedown quilt that the daughter in Madison had sent them as a fortieth anniversary gift some years before. His clothes were on top of a long dresser; mine were on the floor, the stockings wrinkled and looking legless.
James didn’t go to pieces. I had to admire that. He said, “Get in the bathroom. Get dressed. I’ll take care of this.”
I am submissive by training. To survive, the Asian wife will usually do as she is told. But this time I stayed in bed.
“How are you going to explain me away, James? Tell her I’m the new cleaning woman?” I laughed, and my laugh tinkled flirtatiously, at least to me.
“Get in the bathroom.” This was the fiercest I’d ever heard him.
“I don’t think so,” I said. I jerked the quilt off my body but didn’t move my legs.
So I was in bed with the quilt at my foot, and James was by the dresser buttoning his shirt when Kate Beamish stood at the door.
She didn’t scream. She didn’t leap for James’ throat—or mine. I’d wanted passion, but Kate didn’t come through. I pulled the quilt over me.
I tried insolence. “Is your wife not the jealous kind?” I asked.
“Let’s just get over this as quietly and quickly as we can, shall we?” she said. She walked to the window in her brown Wallabies. “I don’t see any unfamiliar cars, so I suppose you’ll expect James to drive you home.”
“She’s the jealous type,” James said. He moved toward his wife and tried to guide her out of the bedroom.
“I’m definitely the jealous kind,” Kate Beamish said. “I might have stabbed you if I could take you seriously. But you are quite ludicrous lounging like a Goya nude on my bed.” She gave a funny little snort. I noticed straggly hairs in her nostrils, and looked away.
James was running water in the bathroom sink. Only the panicky ones fall apart and call their lawyers from the bedroom.
She sat on my side of the bed. She stared at me. If that stare had made me feel secretive and loathsome, I might not have wept, later. She plucked the quilt from my breasts as an internist might, and snorted again. “Yes,” she said, “I don’t deny a certain interest he might have had,” but she looked through my face to the pillow behind, and dropped the quilt as she stood. I was a shadow without depth or color, a shadow-temptress who would float back to a city of teeming millions when the affair with James had ended.
I had thought myself provocative and fascinating. What had begun asan adventure had become shabby and complex. I was just another involvement of a white man in a pokey little outpost, something that “men do” and then come to their senses while the memsahibs drink gin and tonic and fan their faces. I didn’t merit a stab wound through the heart.
It wasn’t the end of the world. It was humorous, really. Still. I let James call me a cab. That half hour wait for the cab, as Kate related tales of the grandson to her distracted husband was the most painful. It came closest to what Husseina must have felt. At least her father, the Nawab-sahib, had beaten her.
* * *
I have known all along that perfect love has to be fatal. I have survived on four of the five continents. I get by because I am at least moderately charming and open-minded. From time to time, James Beamish calls me. “She’s promised to file for divorce.” Or “Let’s go away for a weekend. Let’s go to Bermuda. Have lunch with me this Wednesday.” Why do I hear a second voice? She has laughed at me. She has mocked my passion.
I want to say yes. I want to beg him to take me away to Hilton Head in his new, retirement Winnebago. The golden light from the vista is too yellow. Yes, please, let’s run away, keep this new and simple.
I can hear the golfballs being thwocked home by clumsy mummers far away where my land dips. My arms are numb, my breathing loud and ugly from pressing hard against the cedar railing. The pain in my chest will not go away. I should be tasting blood in my throat by now.
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