Jennifer

 
*
 
Two or even three times each week that semester, I would be at Jennifer’s apartment. Then she asked how much the operation would cost. Jennifer was lying on a bed, a sheet covering her up to her waist. I felt guilty at first but then another thought took its place. She was a quiet person but religion brought out her rage. It seemed that Jen­nifer had made a discovery about me, a discovery that I wasn’t privy to. And now this news. I took a seat in the corner and asked for lentil soup and bread. I preferred going to her place rather than having her come over to my cramped room. I shouted back an apology. The man was praying. Jennifer hadn’t changed her behavior with me—or she had changed it in ways that only I noticed. Once I called the bookstore, and God said Jen­nifer was sick, and that she wouldn’t be back until after Christ­mas. I took in the silence and the emptiness. Was there any way of introducing my friends from Delhi into my conversations with Jennifer without turning them into sex-obsessed hooligans? I put it in my pocket, telling myself that I would pay it immediately but wouldn’t tell Jennifer about it. I don’t want you to come inside with me. —Yes, I have an individual named Jennifer here for a two-thirty, but I don’t see her name on the list here… A smattering of people and small dogs. I was content with this; I didn’t want anything more at that time. When we woke up the next morning, Jennifer was her com­posed self again. I left dur­ing Ehsaan’s lecture on Heart of Darkness to meet Jennifer at the bookstore at two in the afternoon. I went up to her and put an arm around her. His right hand, with a large sore on one of the fingers, was resting on a shopping cart filled with black garbage bags spilling with rags. She had been crying, her eyes were red. Who was to be called in case of an emergency? The language appeared heavy-handed to me, the too-deliberate, and somewhat inaccurate, metaphor dragging me into waters muddy with misery. The nurse’s tag said paula. —Yes, yes. —No, I’m sorry… A woman was walking toward me, pushing a stroller with twin girls. A part of me would always feel that I had been shallow and opportunistic. I asked, when the waiter had gone. Keep some red wine handy, if she wanted it. Our eyes met. —If we split it equally, she said, it’ll cost us each a hundred seventy-five. It felt wrong to be inside, however, and I rushed back out into the street to look for Jennifer. It was a cold autumn day. Jennifer hadn’t spoken to me but I heard her on the phone saying she was calling to set up an appointment to confirm a pregnancy. Do you want anything else? One afternoon, in the green plastic basket, she also added a strip of condoms. Across the road was the Ulysses bar, where the white-aproned waiter, short, his hair in a ponytail, took my order for a beer. The inquiring gazes of those women at the door made me ask myself the question, Are we now an item? In the morning, I woke up first and began making coffee. At least another hour passed. We had seized an opportunity for happiness. The pale green paint on the wall of her apartment was still the same and looked dirty. My first thought, Thank god I’m wearing these sandals. Peppermint tea, green tea, and also black tea with chocolate or blood orange, the more austere Sencha, the cloying and unpalatable cinnamon spice, the smoky flavor of Lapsang souchong, which I came to prize. She was waiting for the light to change, or maybe the light had changed once already and she hadn’t moved. I felt ashamed. —I’ve been talking to someone named Colleen, Jennifer said to the man. Will you please take that bottle of wine and leave? There was going to be a consultation and blood tests and an ultrasound. I want to make sure you eat something. We were late by about five minutes. I didn’t know, but also felt that I couldn’t ask. Do you have the money? I heard her ask how long one had to wait for an abortion. When we stepped out in the cold, I touched my friend’s elbow. I went back to my reading and the nurse came closer and spoke to me. He spoke in sonorous tones and acted officious, as if he were calling Congress into session. A five-minute walk from the subway station and we were standing outside the clinic’s beige-colored walls. I couldn’t imagine writing and telling my friends in Delhi, those who had sat laughing and hooting in the dorm only a few months ago, that I was sleeping with Jennifer. —I appreciate what you’re doing but really I’d just like to be alone. The feeling in my heart was one of relief, sure, but also a lot of love. I didn’t know the answer to the question but I was certainly going to be generous and attentive. Jennifer said loudly, still wailing, I’m not okay, I’m not okay. She said she couldn’t stand Andie MacDowell’s smile. More than two hours passed. Over the coming weeks, I would start telling myself that it had been a good thing we had done by getting together. All that was required now was for an accusation to be aired in the open. My classes, everything I was learning, made up my new reality. A large handwritten sign with jagged edges, orange in color, had been pasted to the front door: no public restroom. When she hung up, she stood at her window looking out. Just a few years ago, Smita Patil had died soon after giving birth. Why don’t you first eat? Once again, I stayed in the waiting area. —I’ll go in a bit. I went out in a hurry, not waiting at the door for the Middle Eastern woman who was coming into the clinic. This was a phrase that I had recently acquired; the words appeared strange to me. No, you see, I cannot properly do my work if you don’t do yours… It goes without saying, Your Honor, that theaters are dramatic spaces. Then I realized that the mirror was moving. I didn’t keep a journal till another year had passed and I don’t have any records with me now. The waiter brought the beer in a frosted glass. Twenty-year-olds who looked at women and acted like the two adolescents I was later to watch on American TV, Beavis and Butt-Head. But that couldn’t have been correct.  

This is an excerpt from Amitava Kumar’s new novel, Immigrant, Montana. I suggested watching Green Card instead. Jen­nifer’s dismissal of me seemed so final, so complete, that I didn’t think I should accompany her. Jennifer didn’t even look at the man when she said she didn’t want anything. They headed for the two women seated together. She knew that I didn’t love her in a deep or lasting way. I felt I was rising and sinking with each passing breath. We had eaten spicy mock duck with steaming bowls of rice. After a while, I stopped looking at her and went back to my read­ing. I thought I should protest, just in case Jennifer was doing this to spare me. She shook her head and turned off the light. She had a black cat and this was new too, stroking the cat as it lay on the wooden floor. Would you like me to get you some tea or juice? We had gone in for a hurried lunch at Ollie’s, the Chinese restaurant near the university gates. I began to worry why Jennifer wasn’t coming out. —I don’t want the car to get towed. And I’d make some dal. What would happen if he said anything to Jenni­fer? She had come to tell me that I could go. I want this to end. Pasta, baby corn with lemon juice and tarragon, roasted leg of lamb without the spices I was accustomed to, or shrimp sautéed lightly and served with chopped scallion. I understood that Jennifer was upset and disappointed. I was already learning that I was moving away from my parents; their world now seemed so different from mine. We have security—
But Jennifer wasn’t going to wait for him to finish. 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. I wrote them fewer letters. I don’t remember our discussing what each one of us wanted. In answer to a question by the person from the other end she mentioned the name of her insurance provider. It was dark and quiet in the lobby of the theater. He looked up. 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. Without warning, she sat down on the ground. I thought perhaps her father in Ohio, who had suffered a mild stroke the previous May, had taken a turn for the worse. The truth was that even at the end of the summer, although I hadn’t told anyone at the bookstore that we spent time with each other, people had noticed. This part of what had happened had been a gift. I’m sorry I came out with you. —Oh man, she said, her voice strained with cheer. I pulled the door shut a bit too forcefully and stepped onto the street telling myself that I needed to eat some rice and curry chicken. I had brought them from India. Late evening. They were going to run a couple of tests—“merely procedural”—and that part lasted only a few minutes. I called Jennifer’s number the next day and for several days that followed but the phone just rang in her apartment. But spare me what exactly? What had gone wrong? He didn’t move when I came out. There’s something definitely happening with my hormones. It was easier to keep the worlds apart, even if doing so meant seeing myself as split or divided. I paid and crossed the street. What had happened to her? I didn’t ask her why. The window where I had often sat and read books had a white fan placed in it. I wondered who lived in the apartment now. —I thought that when we agreed to have a drink you were going to have one too. You’re such an asshole. She liked that. During family holidays we would drive to her parents’ home and each year someone would look at me and repeat the joke about Indians coming to Thanks­giving. Were there hills in Ohio? This time she had brought her car. As we quickly walked the two blocks to the subway, I put my arm around Jennifer’s shoulders and kissed her hair. She would get me to try foods that she thought I would like. I haven’t done this before. It was playing in the same theater and just about to start. I’d like to be alone. You look at the outsize posters showing faces presented in vivid colors and you immediately want to express yourself and, if it suits you, vent. I felt I ought to show that I was big enough to understand this. She was in her forties. There were no other customers. I looked away and walked briskly ahead of my new friend, who, after she became my lover, never asked me anything about Jennifer and so we never discussed what had happened between us. And, with my hand still inside the pocket of my jacket, I thought I’d cook basmati rice and chicken in coriander for Jennifer. Then the door opened again but it was only the nurse. The women got up and hugged the cou­ple. —You know, I intoned in a wet voice, after a pause during which I weighed the implication of what Jennifer had said, the medical advice against drinking doesn’t apply to pregnant women getting abortions. An appointment was made for Monday morning. Jennifer would shop at a co-op close to her house, buying half a dozen kinds of tea. The first line said that she was sorry but she couldn’t talk to me anymore. After that, there was another wait. Then I saw Jennifer. Please go. Jennifer said no.  
[1] Orgasms of twenty years ago leave no memory, wrote Elizabeth Hardwick in Sleep­less Nights. Here I was, standing close to her, thinking that we were soon going to fuck. I felt she had lived a full life and I hadn’t; I had only begun to experience life, which is to say, sexual life. I had justified it by telling myself that I had not hidden what I wanted. One of them wore a bright red sweater and the other a dazzling white one. You can have your beer. The bottle of wine was in my hand. I also knew that it wasn’t anything I had said, but instead everything that I had left unsaid. I was safe in my apartment, and there was no immediate peril of any sort, but I was overcome by a feeling that took root then and has never left me, the feeling that in this land that was someone else’s country, I did not have a place to stand. But this was an abortion, what could possibly have gone wrong? Why did it take so long? Here, just a few months into my stay in America, I was finally leading a fuller existence. Jennifer sat up on the bed and looked at me. At least I couldn’t tell them anything about her that wouldn’t appear a betrayal. But when we were getting ready for bed, she said, matter-of-factly, that her period was late. My appearance had released something in her, or weak­ened her, it was impossible to tell. I was skimming through the pages, looking at pictures of alligators in Australia, when I suddenly saw Jennifer’s oxblood Doc Martens next to me. Now I brought her dinner with a small glass of red wine on the tray. When they saw me, they hesitated at the door, hands resting nervously on their children. But they were proving useful now, I didn’t at least have to upset her by taking time to put on my shoes. Her face didn’t look sad as much as blank, as if she hadn’t slept at all the previous night, and who knows, she probably hadn’t. I saw that during the previous week the calendar on her kitchen wall had empty black and white squares. Soon I was running toward the subway stop. She didn’t acknowledge me but her upper lip curled up over her teeth in such distress that I was transported to the room in the clinic where I had seen her lying on the bed with the sheet drawn up to her neck. She bent down and asked Jennifer if she was okay. The world had darkened. I saw a future in which Jennifer and I would be married, living in a small town maybe in Ohio, where I’d find a job teaching at a college while trying to write on the weekends. He picked up the phone and dialed three digits. The annoyance I felt was sudden and unex­pected—I frowned but then said that we ought to get a drink after we had purchased our tickets. Two blocks down, I saw that a basement door opened to a tiny Lebanese restaurant. He had heard it was pneumonia. I didn’t recognize at that moment what I already knew, that nothing I could do would ever be adequate. I had said I wanted a beer. The doctor’s name sounded Hispanic. The receptionist had told Jennifer that she could wait a few more days but Jennifer didn’t want that. If I were living in Patna, I’d have immediately thought of marriage, but not here. I picked up a National Geographic from the stack of magazines. I thought I might buy something in the store. Nevertheless, I remember the afternoon we went to watch a movie at a theater on West Fifty-eighth Street. I understood that this new­ness couldn’t be shared with those I had left behind. This was so uncharacteristic that I first thought she was sick. Stepping out of her door, I wondered why she had insisted that I take the wine. She broke the silence to say that her friend Jill, who worked at the campus ID office, had said that she ought to have made the appointment for the morning. —You go ahead, ma’am. —You can tell yourself that, of course. I was with a young woman I liked. Then I realized it was unimportant. A giant hand in the sky had painted the city around me with a black, smudgy substance. They were inappropriate for the season. But we had also been happy. After maybe twenty minutes, a nurse called out her name and held the door open for her. The next time we went to the clinic it was a Friday. A week passed and I got a card from Jennifer. At the same time, however, she reached out and took my hand. For a minute or two, Jennifer searched in her bag and then took a card out. A young woman came in alone, wearing dark glasses, teeter­ing on high heels, giving to the room a sudden slightly illicit air. Read about the notebooks that this novel was based on. Are you sure, et cetera. The first floor had three large rectangular windows with one-way mirrors. —Jennifer would like you to come inside. A man was sitting at the bottom of the steps that led up to Jennifer’s apartment. Except that one day I looked in the mirror and felt the sudden clutch of vertigo. When I looked outside through the grimy bathroom window I saw that the few leaves left on the branches of the trees outside were in danger of being swept away. The food and the wine disappeared in some empty place inside me. Go. But Jennifer was standing up. I knew the coat she was wearing and also the gloves. —I don’t know. I had never bought condoms in my life. When I was close, I called her name, and she turned around, her face crumpling. When she got up, she opened the front door and said she’d be back in a minute. Colleen had said the whole affair would take an hour. In the dark, I tried to work out when she could have become pregnant. A door opened into a narrow hallway and Paula allowed me to walk into the room alone. Whenever the waiter was out of sight, I took swigs from my bottle in a manner that wasn’t very pleasing. And wash her sheets if they were bloody. Can you put more quar­ters in the meter? Is that really true? And at the end of the conversation, Jennifer had risen and gone to a drawer in my room and found the evidence. We would return home the next day, the road winding endlessly into the future. The bookstore’s insurance plan provided its employees access to three abortion clinics and Jennifer chose one on Seventy-eighth Street. Image ©   Faber & Faber We passed through a metal detector and, once inside, we waited together in silence. It was the wrong thing to say, and I regretted it the moment I had said it. I’m sorry. Twenty-five dollars. —It’s okay, she said. I knew I had failed in the way one knows one has failed in a dream: you might not know the cause, but the proof is avail­able to you, the train is coming closer, you hear a clanging, there is only the feeling of vast regret that you have no legs and you can’t possibly snatch away to safety the small bundle lying on the tracks. I had failed. Her period was late, she said, by five days. The door to the inside opened and a young woman and a man in a camouflage T-shirt came out. —I don’t want it. I stayed silent because I was looking at Jennifer. The sidewalk wasn’t very crowded. It was as if a policeman had stopped by one evening when I wasn’t there and asked a few disturbing questions about me. I told myself I needed to pay for the beer. A youth with a large blue visor over his forehead leaned on the counter near the popcorn machine. She wore the hijab and holding the door for her was a thin man with a toddler in his arms. The reverse was also true. The wind made the sound a kite makes when struggling to get off the ground. Histrionics. —Do they allow others to come in? It was unclear whether the woman had been operated upon, or whether she had only gone in for a consultation. I must bring her flowers. I would eat a bit and drink, and yet, as I said this to myself, I also experienced a clutching sadness. I recognized the brand; Jen­nifer kept a similar strip under her mattress and reached for it on days that were marked with an X on her wall calendar. —I will but I don’t think you’re getting my point. People died during childbirth in India, I had heard this all the time when I was a boy. The woman called Colleen had told Jennifer on the phone that the operation wouldn’t take long. 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.[1]
On a Friday morning, while I was there, Jennifer went down­stairs to the store to buy a pregnancy-test kit. I thought she looked fine. —Are you with Jennifer? Was it two weeks? They unlock our instinct for performance. I discov­ered that Jennifer had played the piano since she was a child, and gave lessons to little kids on the weekends. Jennifer wasn’t really saying anything and that is why my questions were so rushed and confused. A hand holding a briefcase raised high in the air to hail a taxi. After a few moments, she shut the door. Inside, the same guard we had seen the other day, a middle-aged, gray-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. She had changed me, and I had changed her. In Jennifer’s apartment, I learned to enjoy tea from China and South Africa and Malay­sia; I liked sitting on her rocking chair, which I would drag into a rectangle of sunlight; I spent afternoons reading books from her shelves, writers like Jean Genet and Angela Carter, whom I hadn’t encountered before. I’m thinking now of the day only last year when I had walked past the store above which Jennifer had lived. I didn’t get up. The man who had been praying near the door hadn’t moved at all. The woman at the counter didn’t even look up when she rang up the condoms, a bar of Kiss My Face soap, a candle, celery sticks, a cucumber, a bottle of tomato sauce, and a packet of ravioli. There was an imbal­ance in our histories. I drank half of it in one go. —Why don’t you have a beer too? I didn’t read any further than the next line, which said, All pos­sibilities are stillborn. Why hadn’t I thought of this myself? Cyrano de Bergerac, with Gérard Depardieu as the lead. She was wearing a thin brown coat and I wanted to catch sight of her shoulders. Jennifer didn’t look at me as she left. 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. She unclasped her purse and took out her keys. Then I asked whether she had seen a doctor. —Stay in the waiting room. She was brittle, maybe she was angry and blamed me. Young mothers, who appeared to be of Jennifer’s age, brought their children to the apartment. Did he know what was wrong with her? There was a ticket under the wiper. I was about to tell her that I wished I had drunk a Tsingtao. An untouched cookie and a cup of water waited on the side table. She was crying helplessly and people turned to stare. Why am I even saying sorry? Would the sheets at her home get blood on them? She appeared carrying a blue-and-white paper bag in her hand. It has to match what is inside. Through the half-open bathroom door I caught sight of her sitting on the toilet bowl. A stupid, cruel remark. —I’m going home. There was a forty-minute wait. Jennifer lay in bed longer than was usual, perhaps more than an hour. More to the point, was it I who had remained locked in my own silence ever since finding out about the pregnancy? —I do, I said. I was reading a book by Rachel Carson but now and then my eye wandered outside. You have to understand we keep this list here for your safety. I began to pretend I was reading, aware that my stomach was churning. And also the sentiment. I was not to see Jennifer till a year had passed and it was win­ter again. It was improbable that she had lingered. Although I had expected to see other men there, the only others in the room were two matronly women, maybe in their forties, sitting together with their bags in their laps. Often, I would be asked where Jennifer was, or what time she was coming to work. She had called me late the previous evening and said she wanted me to be with her. An old woman stopped near us; she was thin, gaunt even, wearing glasses, and she looked at me sternly. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t ask any questions. It was going to take hours. I pulled her up gently.