Settled by Brinda Banerjee
Illustration by Nick Dewar
Dream mists clear as I wake, and I remember it – the promise of the day ahead. Stretching, I feel well-being flow through my body despite the familiar aches and pains. I am healthy, I remind myself, rising and stepping off our low platform bed. I shower and flick through the rails of long-sleeved tops in my closet. I find a tan sweater and a pair of black trousers and dress quickly, making a mental note to discard the couple of short-sleeved tops still lurking there – I have no use for them.
Downstairs in the kitchen the children have gathered for breakfast and their never-ending spats. Ten-year-old Roli’s precocity and uncanny accuracy in reading my moods always surprises me, while sunny eight-year-old Minu makes me smile. I hug them, my precious children, triggering squeals. Coffee is already brewed in the sensational Tassimo, Kapil’s indulgence. As I busy myself with packing sandwiches Kapil unloads the dishwasher, an incongruous sight in his silk burgundy tie and grey suit.
Kapil finishes his coffee. “Have a good day, learn something new,” he tells the children. He gives me a quick sideways hug, shoulders touching, before leaving for work. I wait until he’s gone, then urge the children to get ready for school.
I quickly outline my lips with muted brown lipstick while mentally running over the route I will take later this morning from work to the restaurant. The phone call last week had momentarily disoriented me. Then I’d closed my eyes and laughed, relishing the sound of his voice, the deep baritone of my innermost dreams. ‘Shila,’ he said, making my very name sound different. He was visiting New York on business. He’d Googled me on a whim he said, to track me down. Would I meet him for lunch on Monday?
I linger on my memories of our heady college romance while driving. My classes were bearable if he attended too. We read the same books; he introduced me to heavy rock and metal. It was not until the final year that we discovered different aspirations. He wanted to pursue a Master’s degree in the USA. My family had already begun searching for a suitable groom. The break up was civil. I’d suppressed thoughts about the lost friendship, busy with my new life and first job in a new city.
I was introduced to Kapil at a wedding. I had no choice but to accept the rapidity with which our families arranged the marriage. I’d felt tenfold my parents’ relief at fulfilling their responsibilities, rushing headlong into marriage and all that came with it – like children, and building a life in a new country, never asking if I had shortchanged myself.
Now, as I arrived at the restaurant, the rushing in my ears drowned the inner voice of reason that asked, “Why are you here, Shila?” Inside was narrow and dimly lit, decorated like a rustic Tuscan kitchen with exposed brick walls. It was almost empty, too early for the regular lunch crowd. A single couple spoke softly, knees touching. At the front sat Nikhil, the only other diner. There were the same chiseled features – slightly thicker now – beneath a baseball cap, a new addition. Was his hair thinning beneath it?
His smiles, his brown eyes melting, exactly as I remembered. He stands, looking dazed; he shakes his head – I knew he would – and smiles again. So, he still admires my looks. I feel warmth spread inside; childishly pleased I can still inspire the same reactions in him.
Over house wine he explains why he has sought me out, his trepidations, his joy at finding I am remarkably unchanged. I cannot help grimacing as I correct him, “Nik, I’ve changed.” I ask about his wife. “It’s over,” he says quietly. “I’m alienated from her. I feel like a stranger in my own home. There is someone else for her I think, a colleague.”
I blink as he says, “Tell me about yourself?” Lunch arrives, allowing me to marshal my thoughts. What can I tell him about my marriage? The words sound stilted as I describe my achievements, my family. I change the subject, we enjoy examining memories each has hidden away.
My heartbeat accelerates when I feel his fingers on my knee. Is he saying we should rebuild our relationship? “Is that even possible? We would be insane to try,” I whisper through oddly dry lips. His fingers are on my face, cupping my chin, stroking my cheeks. I grasp his hand and hold it away from my face. “Stop,” I say.
We sip coffee as he continues to weave his dream. Like a tired salesman’s pitch, the mirage is unconvincing – he’ll move to the east coast just to be with me. I will not have to move away from the children. All I have to do is give us a chance.
I cannot keep the cynicism from my voice as I say, “Remember how we went our separate ways twelve years ago without a single look back?” I imagine my parents’ faces, devastated by news of my divorce. I briefly think of Kapil’s vengeful face. My voice shakes as I say goodbye.
In the car I take deep rasping breaths. My unseeing eyes are fixed on the road; my hands grip the wheel too tightly. Did I just make the wrong choice? But no, I did the right thing. I was right; I think it when I collect the kids from school and later, as I watch them in the backyard, Kapil swinging a giggling Minu in the air. I was right; life would have altered unrecognizably for these children. How could I have been so selfish to even consider it?
Late in the night when Kapil turns to me and the first slap of the day stings my arms I squeeze my eyes shut and think longingly of Nik’s melting brown eyes. For one moment I swing around as if to resist, push back in my defense, tell Kapil he had almost lost me but the next slap would have fallen across my face and I cower instead, hands held up protectively before me, easily sliding back into the familiar routine of eleven years of marriage.
Brinda Banerjee writes short stories and novel length fiction while juggling her other priorities with the support of a loving family. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and their two children, where they enjoy the beautiful summers and brilliant fall colors. She paints landscapes and listens to a wide variety of music – from Hindustani classical to rock and some pop. She is currently learning about colonial India for background for her novel.