Finding First Love Under a Beach Blanket
"Chowpatty Beach" by Reena Shah, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Erin Bartnett
Reena Shah has a gift for describing the tangled choreography of the first crush. “Chowpatty Beach” is about the relationship between Naren, a young Gujarati boy, and Veli, the new girl from Manipur he meets in 6th standard in 1970s Bombay. Naren is quiet, observant, reticent. Veli is forthcoming and deliberate. In their first conversation, he tells her he has a television because he wants to impress her. It’s a lie, of course. But he doesn’t regret telling it, not yet.
In her sharp, beautifully insightful prose, Shah lets their relationship develop in the gaps between what Naren does and what he observes. He notes where Veli lives, “behind the Girgaon dump, not far from where his family’s domestic help lived.” Her mother cleans houses for the people who pay her tuition at the school. He is confused about whether any of that should matter. In class, he observes her as “a clear, definite point in a sea of tapping and bumping and scratching.”
They spend afternoons at Chowpatty Beach, experimenting with getting closer and closer to one another under cover of a rough wool blanket. In public, Nalen is afraid to be witnessed at all, and more eager to hide. But Veli accepts the inevitability of being seen, perceived, judged, even ignored. Those surface level assumptions are a lie, and yet she knows how to perform for the people who believe them. She knows when she needs to bury her hands in the sand and when to throw the blanket off. It is her ability to transform that unnerves him.
“Chowpatty Beach” is a story about the assumptions that inform our desires—how these assumptions can both enchant and devastate. The awkwardness, the sincerity, the mystery, the confusion and shame, the stumbling pleasure. Shah expertly crafts each scene so it is freighted with Naren’s confusion about what is safe to assume about his experience and hers. Physically, they move closer together, farther apart, closer again.
What Shah shows us in “Chowpatty Beach” is that sometimes the choreography of a crush is a beautiful tragedy, a series of small lies and unspoken truths that suddenly arrive as a heartbreak we can’t shake. And still, we want to keep dancing.
– Erin Bartnett
Senior editor, Recommended Reading
Finding First Love Under a Beach Blanket
“Chowpatty Beach” by Reena Shah
Naren was in sixth standard when Velinda arrived at Kalbadevi English Medium School, her salwar cuffs soaked through. She hadn’t bothered to fold them. The school was gray with mildew stains climbing the walls and smelled like sour fruit in the rains, a scent he hated.
She told Madam to call her Veli and that she was from Manipur, pointing to a tiny smudge on the faded map. It was 1972, and everyone Naren knew was either Gujarati like him or Marwari or Parsi or Marathi. Sometimes Veli came to school with a ribbon braided through her hair. Her eyes were small and elongated the way he imagined the eyes of Chinese people. Later, he learned that her pupils were enormous.
He tried hard to look at her only in passing. She sat at her wooden desk, her feet flat on the cement floor, her back straight, copying the unending notes that Madam scratched on the blackboard. She was a clear, definite point in a sea of tapping and bumping and scratching.
He learned that her mother cleaned houses for people who paid Veli’s school fees and her father sold betel leaves when he wasn’t drinking. She lived behind the Girgaon dump, not far from where his family’s domestic help lived, an old woman named Malini his father complained they couldn’t afford.
When Veli was called on, she stood and answered with no fear of being wrong. She had a habit of looking behind her to smooth her kameez over her hips. He tried to catch her eye, and when she ignored him, he felt stupid and slighted and silently criticized her. The hairs that made a dark arrow down the nape of her neck. Her dirty heels. Though the times when she saw him, when her cold eyes locked on his, his face lit up like a Diwali cracker and inside he turned with shame and relief.
They were in eighth standard the first time she spoke to him. “What did you write all day?” she asked.
Her voice vibrated through his chest. He wasn’t prepared for questions. It was dismissal, and they were the last to walk out into the overcooked air. No Madam had shown up that day, which meant most of the class had crowded together trading gossip. But Veli had stayed at her desk and written in her notebook, and because Naren didn’t want to appear foolish when the headmaster arrived with a ruler ready to rap them on their backs, he’d done the same.
“I was revising. Practicing formulas.” He concentrated on the beads of sweat collecting at her temple like cloudy diamonds. “And you?”
“But there are no dramas,” he said. “Just Doordarshan and politics.” This he learned from the radio.
“Do you have a television?”
“Yes, a proper television with signal.”
“We do,” he lied.
“Is it like watching films?”
He ran through the logic of his lie, how he could put off being found out. “It’s better to go to the theater for that.”
She nodded. It was impossible to know if she believed him.
“I’m going to Chowpatty,” he said, which wasn’t true either until just then. “You can come with me?” The uncertainty in his voice embarrassed him.
She followed him down the street, past the ear pickers and idli vendors, the Iranian sweet shop where he sometimes filled himself on rice puddings and salty tea. At that hour, Chowpatty was not yet crowded with evening strollers, and the fishing boats were still out at sea. She hummed a song as they walked, the gray waves to their right, crashing against rocks that had not yet eroded. The song was something he recognized but couldn’t place, and her humming voice was deeper than her speaking voice. His heart was pounding. She walked with her arms swinging despite the heft of her school bag, and soon she was ahead of him and he was following. She held herself differently from other girls, tilted to the sky. They passed street children and hawkers and a large, belly-up crab. She strode quickly to a corner of the beach, and they sat in the sand.
“All of Bombay smells like a toilet,” she said.
“Does it not smell in Manipur?” he asked.
“In Manipur my mother didn’t clean houses.” She worried a hole in the hem of her salwar.
“Did you live in the village?”
“We lived in the castles,” she said and laughed in a way that stung.
She said when her mother was ill she had to skip school to do jharu pocha in people’s homes. Said she squeezed cockroaches between her fingers and wiped their yellow pus on the walls. She was so sly no one noticed. “You can tell who is very rich and who is a little rich and then the people who aren’t rich at all.”
“How can you tell?”
“Oh, it’s obvious. The very rich are the most suspicious but the not-rich don’t even give you tea.”
She looked at him closely, as if to assess what he was, and he did his best to meet her gaze without wincing. He didn’t know if his mother offered Malini tea or even food scraps. She grew irritable if asked to wash anything extra, and he was careful to stay out of her way. He tried to think of something interesting to share, a distraction, but what? Glass laced kite strings had once cut his arm deep enough for stitches. There was his brother’s cruelty and his parents’ indifference, but these weren’t things he wanted to admit.
He could hear people splashing in the Olympic-sized pool at Mafatlal Bath a few meters away. Seagulls often defecated on the gymkhana’s signage, but by morning the white shits were washed clean. He assumed everyone inside wrapped plush white towels around their waists and dove like birds.
“How do you take such fast notes?” he asked. His brother Anoj had once explained to him, “Girls don’t need so much studies,” during a rare moment when he was being neutral instead of mean.
“Notes are nothing,” she said. “Sometimes I write the same sentence over and over again and Madam can’t even tell.”
They made circles in the sand with their feet. He offered to buy her a lime soda, but she shook her head. She buried her hand in the sand between them, and for some reason he did the same. Undercover, she grabbed at his fingers. He nearly pulled his hand away in surprise. Her fingers were little crabs pinching his palm.
It was the first real thrill of his life. Before, he had studied and secretly played with the curling hairs that had sprouted around his groin. When his mother was in the other room, he eyed her older copies of Filmfare, traced Vyjayanthimala’s outline, her thick, penciled in brow, the mole that was sometimes visible on her cheek. But he paid special attention to the heroes, how they tucked their shirts tightly into their pants and looked at the camera like the person on the other end had summoned them.
In school, nothing changed. The glances and Veli’s effortless industry. If anything, he tried harder not to look at her and ignored the quickening in his stomach. A month passed. They did not go to Chowpatty as often as he would have liked. Sometimes he had tuitions or she had to help her mother clean houses after school. When they did go, they continued the game with their hands under the sand, and later he tried his best to recreate the sensation of her fingers. It was a medicine.
“You could bring a blanket,” she said one day, pointing to a couple at the far end of the beach with a blue sheet over their legs.
He stole a blanket from the upper reaches of his mother’s metal wardrobe later that evening. Their flat was small, just two bedrooms. He and Anoj slept in the one that smelled like fish. Anoj got the largest cot furthest from the window, and Naren had to make do with the thin cotton mat where the smell was strongest. But the lane was quiet and leafy. If you leaned out the window at sunset, you could see the gold-plated ocean.
The blanket was green wool with pink mangos embroidered along the edge. It was itchy and coarsely made. An ugly thing.
“I guess this one is fine,” Veli said when he gave it to her. She placed it on the sand and instructed him to sit on one end. She sat next to him and wrapped the other half over their laps.
“Did you watch television yesterday?” she asked. He felt her arm against his arm and was afraid to turn his head, afraid of seeing her face so close to his.
“We can’t watch it every day.”
“Oh. Where do you put it?”
“In the sitting room. On a table. We keep it covered when it’s not turned on.”
She nodded like what he’d said was very sensible and placed a hand on his thigh, just above his knee. He focused his attention on the hand and on keeping his face completely still. The sea at Chowpatty wasn’t yet toxic. The foam was still white, and waste didn’t bob in the water, though even then no one swam in it. He placed his hand on Veli’s thigh, too, higher than he intended. Her leg was surprisingly fleshy. He squeezed and his thumb sunk in. When her fingers tapped, his tapped, too.
“Did you go to school in Manipur?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Then how do you know all your sums?”
She rubbed his thigh. The blanket was thick enough that it didn’t move. “I’ve always been good at sums. You just think of it in your head. See the numbers move from one column to the next. Or jump from group to group. It’s easy if you make a picture of it.”
It was unfair that she was so clever. He was told that he was very good at sums, but Veli was always done before him, and Madam rapped her notebook with approval for her speed. He was not a fast thinker that way.
His hand was beginning to sweat under the blanket, but he didn’t dare move it. Soon he’d have to run home to complete his schoolwork before his father returned from the office and demanded attention. He shouted about the other clerks who wasted their time and counted so slowly. He poured his tea into a saucer and slurped loudly. Then he made each son read aloud the newspaper while he sipped his evening herbs and turmeric and bitterroot, oil floating on top like amoeba.
“I’ll have to go soon,” he said.
“That’s fine.” As she pulled her hand away it brushed his erection. He shivered. She wrapped a rope of hair around her finger, placed it in her mouth, and crossed her eyes. He laughed like he was little.
During the Diwali holidays, Naren slipped out of his building compound each afternoon to comb the beach. For days he didn’t see her and had no way to reach her. He brought the blanket and laid it out and pretended to read his textbook.
Anoj often made fun of him. He was light-skinned and quick with words and good at cricket. He said that in a film Naren would be cast as the villain’s weak and feminine jailer. It made no difference to fight back. Let Anoj think that he went to Chowpatty to throw trash at the monkeys and stare at the sea. Let him sneer, “He thinks he’s a poet.” Naren would focus on pitying him. This poor brother who read with a stutter and was susceptible to funguses. He leered, licked his cracked lips, gave wicked smiles to the girls who passed, but he couldn’t possibly know the things that Naren now knew.
On the last day of vacation, Naren was leaning against the mildewed wall that separated the beach from Mufatlal Bath, the chai vendors screaming with the gulls, when he saw her. She wore a bright yellow salwar kameez, and two oiled braids flanked her ears, tied with yellow ribbons. A large brown purse swung from her shoulder, and a silver cuff clasped her wrist. He’d only seen her in school uniforms, which were always old and frayed. She didn’t appear to be looking for anyone.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” he said.
She took the blanket from his hands. “Let’s go over there. By the rocks. The gulls give me a headache.”
He laid out the blanket behind a dome-shaped rock that smelled like piss and wet cement.
“We don’t need to cover,” she said when he tried to place it over their legs. “It’s so itchy.”
“What if someone comes?” The other couples with blankets over their laps were older, the women wearing marriage bangles. Should Veli wear marriage bangles? Where would he get them? Yet what were they doing except sitting on a blanket staring at the sea? He was indignant that anyone should judge them and swallowed his terror. It was possible she would want him to marry her some day. Pride mixed with acid in his belly.
“No one will come here. I don’t want to wrinkle my dress.” She took out a ball wrapped in foil. “I’ve brought you a new year’s ladoo. Sal Mubarak.”
The gesture did not match her face, which was stern and squinted. They passed the sweet back and forth and sat with their legs in front of them. He let his foot touch the edge of her foot. She pressed it closer. The fabric of her kameez was thinner than her uniform. He brought his face near hers and inhaled deeply.
“You smell like laundry soap,” he said.
He placed his lips on her cheekbone and left a wet mark that he wanted to wipe away. He worried she’d laugh at him, but instead she took his hand and positioned it under the kameez.
“I feel better with the blanket,” he said.
She sighed and let him drape it over their laps. Her hand carefully moved up his thigh until the silver cuff bumped against him and she held his erection over his pants. The feeling was hot like pain but also like falling. He moved his own hand up until it rested on her stomach. Her skin here was colder than he expected it to be. He also expected an undergarment, like the bandiyu he wore, but there was nothing. When he touched her nipple she gasped and it turned hard. She leaned her head on the rock behind her and closed her eyes. He did the same and felt pleasantly like he was disappearing.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” he said and pulled away sharply. “I didn’t mean—”
She giggled and opened the flap of her purse. With the tips of her thumb and index finger, she took out a folded wad of tissues. The mess was thick and the chemical smell stuck in his throat. She wiped her fingers with the tissue and threw it over the rocks. It landed near a gull that poked at it with its beak.
“Are you thirsty?” he asked, though he never wanted to drink anything again.
She stood up and pointed to the newly painted Ferris wheel down the beach. “I’d like to go on a ride.”
He shook out the blanket and rolled it carefully so it would fit under his arm. He felt both empty and full, and when he stood his vision went black and he had to steady himself. She hopped over the rocks and didn’t wait for him. They stood in line, and Veli said they should wait for a yellow cabin to match her dress. He paid one of the operators who looked at him like he was a small, inconsequential animal. The man helped Veli into the cart, stepped aside so Naren could get in, and then slammed the door sharply. Had his fingers been there, they would have been cut off. The man’s brown shirt flapped open as he climbed the lattice frame and used his weight to pull it down, while his partner climbed. Tufts of hair covered his belly and lower back.
The ride made Naren sick. The two men climbed and fell easily and each time the wheel flew around faster. Veli jutted her chin into the wind and the cords in her neck jumped when she laughed.
Once it was over, Naren swallowed the bile in his mouth and steadied himself against a trash bin.
Short strands of her hair curled in the breeze. She looked happy and bright-eyed, like everything was before them. A thin luster of sweat painted her upper lip. It was this image he returned to over and over again, like a keepsake.
Sundays he was allowed to sleep in. His father went out for his weekly walks up and down Marine Drive, and the flat was quiet until he returned with a paper cone of peanuts that smelled better than they tasted and a strand of jasmine for his mother’s hair.
He heard his mother explaining how the teacups were supposed to be left on the windowsill to dry and not put in the cupboard still wet. “Otherwise they smell like sickness,” she said. It was not the voice she used with Malini, who she’d come to trust, but the one she used to cut someone down.
“Yes, Madam,” the maid said, louder than it should have been. A sure, solid voice. A girl’s. A gray lizard darted across his ceiling and then stopped for no reason.
He felt more caught than surprised. It was improbable and yet inevitable, fateful even, though he didn’t believe in such things. Malini asking Veli’s mother and the mother sending Veli to sweep their hall, squat on her haunches. Through his fear he felt a tingle in his stomach. He laid his hands flat on the cot and tried to smell something besides fish.
She didn’t have to know. He could listen for her, wait until she was sweeping in his parent’s bedroom and then hide in the bathroom. If he were very quiet, forgotten even, he could continue to be the boy with a television in the hall covered with a silky cloth. He could pretend, like he sometimes did, that he didn’t live here with these people who made up his family, like they were strangers to be studied. Though it wasn’t right to think these things directly. It could leave you with nothing some day.
“Sleeping beauty, get up.” Anoj nudged him with his foot.
“I don’t feel well,” Naren whispered and turned toward the window. He heard water running in the kitchen, the sound of steel cups hitting steel plates and the earthenware sink, like a rattling chain.
Anoj sat on the edge of the cot and placed the back of his hand against Naren’s neck. Outside, Marathis shouted for tilapia and pomfret and katla at less than market value. “There’s nothing wrong with you. Stop acting.”
“You don’t know anything.”
Anoj pushed him again but more gently this time. “Come. There’s a new jharu pocha girl who looks like a dark Vyjayanthimala with squinty eyes. I think she likes me.” He made a round shape with his hands and wagged his tongue. “We can follow her home. Make her lift her kameez.”
It was meant to cheer him. A kind of invitation that, despite everything, filled him with hope. He secretly longed to be friends with Anoj, like the Gandhi brothers on the fourth floor who never cut down each other’s kites during Makar Sankrati. They stole mangoes as a team.
Naren sat up on his elbows. “My stomach,” he said.
Anoj shrugged. “Your stomach is fine.”
Naren shook his head and stared at his feet. He hated the look of them, ashy and small, like a dirty child’s.
“You stupid boy,” Anoj said and pushed hard with both hands.
Naren hid in the bathroom. It had already been cleaned and smelled like Dettol. The swish of the broom came closer until it was just outside, ready to sweep aside the door altogether. He felt her weight against the flimsy wood and was tempted to push back, but he didn’t dare breathe until she continued down the hall. He pictured her lifting the mat in his room to find a cockroach underneath, its antennae fighting as she squeezed. Maybe she’d wipe her fingers on his bed where the stuffing poked through before covering it with a sheet.
He heard the front door open and shut and waited until the flat went quiet before stepping out. The floor was still wet and he left foggy footprints in the tile. He looked for Anoj but his brother was gone. From the balcony, he combed the street, then rushed down the hall, ready to chase after them, though which way could they have gone? Nothing felt right anymore.
At the door, his mother caught him roughly by the chin. “Staying in bed all day, like this is your father’s kingdom,” she said. “I should hit you.”
“Ammi,” he cried out, but she held tight, the pads of her fingers burning his chin. Her eyes went wide.
“Ere, baba, my ring is missing,” she said. “Help me find it.”
He pulled up cushions and searched under wardrobes, heat pouring through his face, misting his vision. When his mother cursed the young maid, and then cursed Malini for sending her, saying how such people could not be trusted, Naren began to cry and she put the back of her hand to his neck. Anoj returned, flushed and docile, and Naren wanted to reach inside his head, snatch what he’d seen.
“Ammi, he’s an actor,” Anoj said and grinned at him unpleasantly.
His mother frowned, licked her fingers, and smoothed his eyebrows.
Naren saw the lines around her eyes for the first time, the way her mouth became tight with judgment and self-pity. He was the youngest son and someday it would be his job to light her funeral pyre. Not Anoj’s. Not his father’s. But his.
On Monday, the blanket looked pathetic in his hands. Still he laid it out in the shadows of Mafatlal Bath, and they sat on it as usual. She hummed a tune from Prem Nagar, the new Rajesh Khanna movie, but did not fold the blanket over their legs. The silver ribbon in her hair glinted in the sun.
He played with the sand at his feet, drilling down until he felt the damp earth. He searched for some signal, a hint of guilt or shame or hurt or accusation in the weight of her face. But he could read her even less than before.
“For once, let’s do something fun,” she said and motioned toward the gymkhana entrance. “There are always people wandering in and out. No one will notice if we just take a look.”
“But our uniforms,” he said and stared at the blanket.
“You always want to be worried.” The edge in her voice cut through him.
She stood up and tucked their school bags behind a potted tulsi at the front of the club. Naren worried they’d be stolen but followed her to the entrance. The guard eyed them suspiciously. “Bhai Sahib, our parents are inside. We’re late for the party.” She spoke with the lilt of a private school student, making the soft syllables hard and the hard ones soft.
“What party?” the guard asked. Naren took a step back, ready to be shooed away.
But Veli had read the block letters on the board outside. “The Sabnanis’ party. Please find them for us, Bhai Sahib.”
The guard glanced at him. “This is my sister,” Naren said.
“You wait here,” he said gruffly and disappeared down a dark hall.
“Count backwards from thirty slowly,” Veli whispered and when the guard didn’t return she started down the same hallway. It smelled like chlorine and kebabs. The pool was bluer and brighter than anything he’d ever seen, as if light beamed through its surface. It was ladies swim hour, and they watched from under a tablecloth, women in caps and bathing skirts that clung to their flanks, their tiny ankles kicking behind them. No one was wearing towels or diving from the board. But he didn’t care. The water looked like every possibility.
“It’s like watching a film,” he whispered. “But you can touch them.”
“I dare you.”
“Dare me what?”
“What nonsense,” he said and picked at the flaking skin on his heals.
“Watch,” she said and slipped out from under the table. She collected an empty cup and then another and another, kept her gaze down and hunched her shoulders in a way he’d never seen before. None of the women stopped their swimming to notice her, and slowly she made her way to the pool, plastic cups clenched in her fingers. Naren held his breath as she skimmed the water with her big toe, like she was performing a duty.
They returned to the beach before the guard could find them. She was herself again, but he couldn’t look at her. “What did the water feel like?” he asked.
“Chi! Like warm piss.”
“That can’t be true.”
“Then you should have tried it yourself.”
“I don’t really care.” He shrugged.
Her eyes scurried over his face. “If you have a television then why don’t you invite me one day?”
“You wouldn’t like it.”
“There’s really only one program. It’s always the same,” he said.
She folded and unfolded the hem of her uniform. “Don’t lie.”
“It goes on and on, just a man talking.”
“What does he talk about?”
“Everything. So many things that they don’t make sense and sound like gibberish and then you get tired of looking at him.”
“You’re lying to me. That’s what you’re doing.”
“You can believe what you want.”
“I don’t believe anything you say,” she said and spat in the sand between them. For a split second he thought it was true. He wanted to ask what had happened when the boy followed her down the road, what he had done, what he had asked for. And had she offered? Had she smiled? He wanted to lie and tell her he had chased after his brother’s sharp laughter dribbling down the road. He wanted to mention his mother’s missing ring and watch Veli’s face fold with guilt. He wanted to believe that she couldn’t have taken it. That she wouldn’t have. That his own lies were small and inconsequential. That if she didn’t live behind the big Girgaon dump where the rag pickers constructed mountains of trash, there might be something between them. That she couldn’t transform completely.
“Some day everyone will have a TV and no one will care,” he said.
Her upper lip curled in disgust. He felt a terrible desire to take her head and place it on his shoulder. He had never seen two people kiss on the lips and he wouldn’t be able to do it himself until he married. The idea hit him with such force he could barely breathe.
“Let’s ride the Ferris wheel,” he said and stood up without waiting for her response. He knew she’d follow.
The same attendants sold them their tickets but didn’t recognize them. They again waited for the yellow cart. He took her hand and placed it on his knee. She tried to pull away but he held it there until she stopped resisting. The attendants began to climb the spokes like artists, a loose-limbed sureness that made him long for the same.
There were few girls in his ninth standard class. Naren became the top maths student, though sometimes he felt so sleepy during lessons, like his entire body was stuffed with wet rags. At night he lay awake, his eyes aching from the effort of squeezing them shut.
His mother made him special drinks with jaggery and ghee that left his lips soft and warm for hours. She sometimes pulled below his eyes, as if seeing him for the first time. His father excused him from reading some nights and let him have his extra roti.
He did well on his tenth standard exams and while he did not get admission in IIT, he still earned a place at a good engineering program. He studied late into the night and sometimes he felt his father looking at him with a kind of wonder that pleased him. He stopped visiting Chowpatty entirely, and when his parents took the family for bhel puri on Sunday evenings, he was excused for the thick textbooks he was expected to understand. On those nights, he sat on his cot and stared at the dry wall under the peeling paint and let himself bring back her fingers on his skin, the way they left a trail.
Anoj became a bank clerk like their father, a job he earned through favors because he didn’t do well in Commerce. He married a girl from the same caste and jati, the daughter of a family friend. Overnight his brother turned into an attentive groom, a person with a wife. His sister-in-law wore a happy smile as she stepped in the vermillion and then onto a sheet of paper to mark her entry. Her footprints were fat and perfect, and his mother taped them to the door. When the missing ring showed up on her finger, the thin band newly polished, it made him sick to see it. Naren stared at his mother but found no shame there to absolve his own guilt. “Anoj found it swept under the wardrobe,” she exclaimed. She was exuberant—a daughter-in-law at last.
He shifted his cot to the living room while his parents took their old bedroom and Anoj and his wife moved into the master suite. At night Naren could hear her bangles moving long after everyone else was asleep.
He took to studying at the Iranian café near his old school, and during one of these sessions he spotted Veli. At first he wasn’t sure. Her back was to him, a bright lace salwar kameez that stood out in the dim café filled with men. But the set of her shoulders, the way she swung one arm back and forth while she waited for her snack. He only saw a sliver of her profile as she walked out, the hard bone of her jaw. He could have stayed where he was, let the moment go, but instead he packed his things to catch up to her.
“Veli!” he called and waved when she turned around.
Her arms were no longer skinny and her cheeks had filled. Her face was made up, each feature outlined for startling effect. Her jewelry looked real. But the way she stood with her feet planted and her neck long, anger and amusement just under the skin—all that was the same. Then he saw that her belly protruded to a point.
“Be happy for me, Naren,” she said with a laugh that chilled him. She placed a hand on her belly and then dropped it. “Come. Let’s go to the beach.”
They walked along the water that pooled in some places like sludge. She held up her salwar with both hands. They could easily have been mistaken as married and expecting.
“I think it will be a girl,” she said.
“She might look like you.”
The beach was crowded. A man walked next to them with a leashed monkey and a drum with a ball on a string at each end so it played like a rattle.
“You know, they now show films on Sundays,” she said. “On television. You must be watching them.”
“I don’t have time for films,” he said and immediately regretted it. “Too many studies.”
“The heroines are always too beautiful.” She spoke like he wasn’t there, like the thought had just occurred to her. “More beautiful than the heroes.”
“But in real life who knows,” he said.
“I’m going to America. All the way to California.”
“Really?” A child hollered from the Ferris wheel, her sandals flying out across the sand. “In America everyone has a television.”
She touched him lightly on his arm. She walked unsteadily in the sand, like a straight line was impossible, the distance between them growing and shrinking with each step.