It Is Arranged
So I set down the corsage and said to her, “Nayanaprit and I would like—”
She turned from me to her daughter and said in perfect English, “Nayanaprit, would you fetch me a glass of water?”
“A nice, tall drink of water. Take your time.”
Nayanaprit glared at her. Deep brown eyes began to glisten with tears.
“Off you go now. Scoot.”
Nayanaprit stood from the sofa and turned to go. I felt the breeze of her sari as she passed. She stomped into the kitchen. I heard glassware being shoved around.
“Easy in there,” her mom said.
Punjabi words flung into the kitchen.
Punjabi words came clattering back.
Her mom turned to me. “She is a silly girl. And I love her. Now sit down. I need you to listen to me. I have never hidden myself behind vague longings, so this story is no secret I harbor. I will tell you directly that in my life, I have not been happy, but I could have been, and I don’t mind saying so.”
I sat down.
She sat down.
“My grandfather was a beekeeper,” she said. “He kept his hives on a wagon and he fertilized all the almond trees in the valley. After the trees were done, there was the ground cover in the orchards to tend to, tiny flowers blooming, millions of bees at work, and if you snuck into the orchards with a boy, you only trampled the flowers— the story of your assignation plain to see.”
I didn’t know what an assignation was. Perhaps it involved necking—
“Those were troubled days,” she said. “My father hoped for no rain. Flowers that would bloom with no mold. My father worried about rain and he took it out on me, or my mom if I were lucky. Staring at clouds that roiled like stormy thoughts, he cried, ‘Not yet, not yet.’ Then the flowers went to seed and died, and the seeds slept for a year, dreaming of beauty, and the rains could come and be welcomed. You could trample across the flowers like pebbles in a path. Your father’s fists unclenched.”
I was going to say that my dad had grown up on an orchard too, but the fruit was pears and—
“You listen to me. My parents had three daughters, each of us beautiful. I don’t mind saying this. We were as beautiful as my precious daughter you have seen here, so of course boys made trouble for my father. But what did boys know about girls? As a prank, they came one night and turned over the wagon carrying all the hives. This was a stupid thing to do. Who would fertilize the trees anymore? The boys ran. This was simply fearful, as the bees at night were quite docile. My father fixed the hives, fertilized the trees and, when the season was done, he sold honey to those boys’ families. He made his beautiful daughters go with him, door to door, plump jars of honey in our arms. The boys could have the honey, but they couldn’t have the girls. Such things were carefully arranged. Always arranged. Boys would have to wait. Let them retreat to their magazines of American girls. Let them kiss the pictures and more, if they knew how.
Here is what will happen. My husband and I will dress to go out. Maybe to catch a movie. Did you know that he and I do nothing together anymore? Of course not. Nayanaprit will call you as soon as we leave the house. She will wear her hair loose and simple to undo. Maybe she will wear a blouse that is likewise easy. You can imagine that part. The only trick is that you do so. The two of you will leave in your father’s car, which you will have borrowed for the evening. Where you go is up to you but make it a private place, please, perhaps beneath a tree. You will park the car and begin the ungraceful thing. In your clothes. Faces turned. God forbid you should actually see forgiveness in each other’s eyes. You will experience the confusion of beginners, knowing that each of you has a part to play. You’ve seen the movies in Sex Ed class, you’ve read the stories in those insipid magazines, you know how the parts fit together, but not really. The older boys may have told you tales, exaggerated conquests that leave you afraid of getting it wrong, of being laughed at. You pray that you won’t fail to keep erect. That is the great fear, yes, but for you a worse fear will be realized. You will discharge, what is the word, your seminal fluid, onto the floor of your dad’s car, onto my daughter's blouse, onto her beautiful hair. Premature. Disgusting. Botched. This is how you will not get my girl, you see. It is arranged that you will never have her after how badly this goes. A bungled thing is not a thing at all. The failure will toxify the budding romance.
Only silence came from the kitchen now.
“And when my daughter says, ‘I want to go home,’ take her there. This is when you are supposed to hold hands, saying nothing, driving down the road, thinking of her hand in yours as though that soft hand held a world. Actually, your hands will not be touching, but as if they were, you won’t be able to think of anything else. Maybe you’ll get stuck at that infernal train crossing below the neighborhood. Maybe it will be a long train, one of those coal trains that run at night. You’ll think to yourself, ‘This train lasted long enough to have fucked my girl,’ but that possibility expired a long time ago. When you finally come to the house, ask her, ‘Another time?’ She’ll say something like, ‘I’ll have to ask my mom.’ It will be an easy way of saying no. God bless her.”
She put her hand on my arm. Maybe she read my stunned expression. “I’m not stupid. I’m not giving her away. This is no arrangement. I simply know that you have no idea what you are getting into. You don’t know any more than she. In fact, it will sour each of you on the other. She will marry the nice Sikh boy we like. She will never doubt it’s the right thing to do. She will never say your name again, not even think it, and there will be no regrets. Do not worry. You will have your time. You will learn, or you will learn to lie. Do either of those things, and you’ll be a man. Just please, learn on someone else’s body, not hers.”
She folded her arms.
“Because you are nothing. Because when you dream, it is a silent night. In the dark, you listen to patent nothings. That's what you dream about, isn’t it? You can't summon any detail. How long until you to start telling other people's stories in place of the ones you do not have? I don't know. I don't care. I only know you won't be telling this one, with your penis in your palm.
Nayanaprit loves you, I can see that. I was in love once. I don’t need to be told. You don’t need to hide it from me. But I know more than you, specifically, that longings do not last. Does the girl’s body promise the universe to a boy? Our religion says that a loving couple is two bodies with one soul, but I don’t believe that anymore. Now, where is my tall drink of water?”
She left the room for the kitchen. She yelled at Nayanaprit in Punjabi. She used Nayanaprit’s name, her voice growling as deep as a man’s, and the name sounded so different, so otherworldly, so harsh—could we have been talking about the same girl?
Cigarette smoke wafted from the kitchen. No direction to it. I see that now. A thin silky cloud. Nayanaprit’s mom cried, “Jesus Christ!”
Nayanaprit wailed, “Leave me alone! Leave my whole life alone!”
I looked around the living room. I was already alone.
Evan Morgan Williams
has published over forty short stories in literary magazines including Alaska Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, and Zyzzyva. A collection of his stories, Thorn, won the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize from BkMk Press (University of Missouri—Kansas City) and a gold medal in the IPPY series for best story collection. His second collection of stories, Canyons, has been published privately. He is currently at work on a novel.