The Right to Hold Her
Dabir flicks the light on. It glints off the prancing, wall-papered giraffes.
“Come back to bed,” he says.
Uma hunches over the crib. Her fingers curl around its top rail. The wind through the window pushes around the plastic sun and moon hung from the ceiling, and the pull chain on the table lamp clacks against its base. The breeze lifts a tuft of hair off Uma’s forehead, but Uma does not move.
“Fine. Stay here then.” Dabir swipes the light off. The glo-stars taped to the ceiling glitter like phosphorescence kicked up in the ocean…a honeymoon long ago. Dabir feels through the starry dark to the room next door and creeps into their bed. He spreads his hand across the empty space beside him. The sheet is cool. So she has been in Nicky’s room for a while.
When Uma finally crawls in beside him, she brings with her the night outside the curtains. Cold sweeps off her body and over Dabir. She used to be fleshy and warm, her humid skin a little tacky. He’d lick the soft, ticklish insides of her elbow and kiss her stomach, fat with their son nestled deep inside. Now, turned away, Uma’s spine strikes hard against him.
Dabir stares at the ceiling where the fan spins lazily. He counts its rotations, then Uma’s breaths. then the days…months, really.
When the window glows with dawn, Dabir closes his eyes to make use of the hour left. The nightly sojourns are beginning to pack themselves into the bags beneath his eyes. He dreams of babies, none of them Nicky, and women, none of them Uma, but one of them the girl who brings him coffee, waters his office plants, and sweeps out the conference rooms.
~ ~ ~
Uma winces. The Wheaties snap too loudly between her husband’s teeth.
“Do you have to?” she says. Dabir slides the cereal box between them. He told her once that in Iran, Wheaties and Coke were his American dream—boxes of both filled a hangar reached every summer by walking a dried-up river. The boys from his village made the journey for the promise of fizzy drinks and cereal, but left with used math books and old Levis.
The math books eventually sent Dabir across the world to the University of Minnesota on scholarship, where Uma met him on campus at Sally’s Saloon. His russet-colored skin and dark lashes packed tight together reminded Uma of the cows she cared for in her 4-H club. When she leaned across the bar to tell him that, Dabir asked, was she calling him a cow? And Uma, a little drunk and a lot embarrassed, continued ordering him Long Islands even after he’d stopped drinking them, until Dabir finally asked her to lunch
“Are you going to work today?” Dabir says. He pats his lips with a napkin, like he eats croissants in Italy and not Wheaties in their tiny, urban kitchen.
“No. Not yet.”
Dabir sets the napkin down. He folds it in half, then half again, then into a tight little triangle.
“Don’t you think it would help?”
If Uma made it past the front door, wrapped her hands around a steering wheel, and found herself at the Target four intersections away, there were still eight hours of scanning diapers and formula and rubber nipples and bent-to-relieve-tummy-gas bottles to endure.
“Tomorrow. I’ll ask Ted about putting me on the checkout lanes tomorrow.”
“How can they do that? Hold that space for you so long?”
They couldn’t. Ted had called four months ago to say he was sorry, but, well.
When Dabir leaves, his napkin still stands like a pyramid on the table. Uma presses its peak with her fingertip. The whole thing comes undone, slow, like a flower opening. Uma wants to work. She just doesn’t trust herself. When she sees a baby, she imagines her breasts, heavy and leaking. She might grab the infant, open her shirt…
Uma wipes out the cereal bowl and picks off the stuck, stranded bran flakes with her nail.
Everything the books had said, Uma had done. Everything the pediatrician had said, Uma had done. They had waited so long for a child—she followed all the rules. She put Nicky down to nap in a crib with nothing but a mattress. No pillows, no stuffed toys. Not even a blanket. Though it was October and chilly, she left him only in footed pajamas. She had the baby monitor turned up. The green line bounced across the screen at a whisper. She’d taken a bath, tossed all the diapers in the wash, scrubbed out the bouncy seat, even had a sip of coffee before realizing she’d accomplished more than normal during his morning nap.
Uma sets the bowl on the counter. She’ll wash it later. She drifts from room to room, rearranging a pillow, or shaking down a curtain, or picking lint off the carpet, missing the clothes and the hard nubs of mud Dabir’s shoes brought in and the unmade bed.
Sometimes, she catches shadows of life on the other side of her fog: coworkers bringing back cake from parties she missed, the neighbor’s teen mowing her lawn, friends on their way to happy hour, sitting uneasily on her couch. Once in a while, she reaches out a hand and touches the tip of a lamp shade or the corner of a kitchen chair or the smooth-edged soap dish on the sink.
Also on the other side of the haze is Dabir. Dabir, who pleads that they have another one, as if babies grow on trees and wait to be plucked, ripe and squawling. Dabir, who patiently ate dropped off casseroles when Uma couldn’t cook. Dabir, who waters the sunflowers outside Nicky’s window so that Uma might glimpse their sunny heads above the window ledge. Dabir, who cried beside her until one day he dried up like the river back in Iran.
~ ~ ~
Uma sorts the laundry and fills the machine with a load. She returns to the living room and lays down on the couch. Maury morphs into Dr. Phil and then her belly cinches in hunger. She washes down plain toast with a bit of whiskey dribbled into a cup of coffee.
She’s rinsing out the cup when the doorbell rings.
“Oh, baby, you haven’t dressed.” Her mother dumps her purse on the counter, and it clatters with pill bottles and keys. She lifts her arms and folds Uma into them. Uma stiffens. How easily her mother waves her arms and fills them with her only child.
“When’s Dabir getting home? I’ve brought some salmon and potatoes to fry up,” her mother says.
“Did he call you?”
Uma’s mother has grey eyes with the translucency of water. They betray everything floating just beneath their surface.
“Jesus. I’m fine.” Uma slaps her palm on the counter.
“This,” her mother says, “is not fine.”
Uma hasn’t shaved all winter, and now, deep into summer, she still wears Dabir’s sweatpants—their pilled lining catches on her leg hair. She hides the weight of Nicky—her sagging stomach and breasts no longer firm with milk—inside a T-shirt with a cracked U of MN gopher on the front.
Uma’s mother grabs a pan, puts it on the burner, and cranks up the flame. The fish swooshes into the butter. Her mother’s eyes flicker, bright and wet, through the smoke. She smiles. Uma fears that maybe, just maybe, her mother will poke her tongue out. That would be like her—to startle a laugh from Uma, bring her back to life in a way the weekly dinners and dropped off groceries couldn’t.
Uma turns her back and gets busy setting out placemats and plates.
~ ~ ~
After work, Dabir sets his leather case on the front steps, tugs the hose loose from its coil, and turns it on the bright yellow flowers. The grass that borders the strip of garden is the only green left of the lawn. Uma, who typically did the gardening, has let everything dull beneath the sun. Ferns crack off when the hose bumps against them. When he’s done, he pulls the hose back across the brittle grass. The girl at the office had worn an especially short skirt today, the kind that would show off Uma’s lanky legs. Dabir picks back up his leather case. The door opens and his mother-in-law greets him.
“Salmon. I hope you don’t mind.”
Dabir sits between the women. His mother-in-law pushes plates of fish and fries before them.
How was work then?” Uma’s mother asks, passing the tartar sauce as if this is how every evening falls into place.
“Fine.” Dabir says. He lost the proposal with Nature Valley and another one researching protein bars from Jack Link’s. He hasn’t made commission in months. Also, the young woman at the office had bent over to water the plants in that tiny skirt, and his manhood has pushed against the seam of his pants.
“That’s good,” Uma says. Her fingers fold the edge of the tablecloth into an accordion. Uma has a flat nose, vast plains of cheek, and far apart eyes. The last nine months have deepened the hollows and shrunk those distances beneath her once-plush skin.
“Well,” Uma says. She gets up and brings back three glasses and a bottle of Roscato. “To being fine,” she glances at her mother, then pours.
“I don’t think—”
“Yes, absolutely,” Dabir interrupts his mother-in-law. The glass in his hand and the danger of that office girl bending over make him reckless. “To being fine, in all of this…”
Uma squeezes the stem of her wine glass. Her eyes narrow. “In all of what?”
Dabir slides his hands away from his plate and into his lap. He studies the tips of his fingers, his bitten, half-moon nails. Uma wouldn’t clip Nicky’s nails. She worried she’d pinch skin, even with the safety clippers. So Dabir had done it. Just like he waters the sunflowers and shuts Nicky’s window and detangles the mobile every morning.
“To more fineness,” he says. He lifts his glass and the wine makes his thumbnail shine like a crescent moon against a sailor’s sky.
Uma sets her glass down, slowly, slowly.
“What would you have me do?”
“I didn’t mean anything, Uma.” Dabir lifts his hands, to show they are empty, to show he is empty.
“Should we fuck some more out? Maybe sit a few more years in the clinic, hoping and hoping and hoping? Is that what fine is to you?”
Dabir ducks when she throws her arm out. She grabs the bottle instead and raises it to her lips. Her adam’s apple slides with each long swig and pulls the liquid down and down.
Dabir’s jaw tightens. His shirt clings damp beneath his arms. His vision blurs so he only hears the quiet glib glib glib of wine rushing down Uma. His mother-in-law touches the cuff of his sleeve, but he yanks his arm away. His fist knocks the bottle from Uma’s lips. Shards shoot across the tile.
Outside the window, children’s voices and the twang of their bounced ball leak through the glass. The neighbor’s lawnmower buzzes across the yard. A sprinkler shushes and clicks.
At last, Uma rises. The table shakes on unsteady legs. She walks stiffly away, hands out in front of her. Her fingers scrape against the hall walls, then a door slams, probably Nicky’s.
Dabir slumps back in his chair.
Uma’s mother sits very still.
“Am I wrong?” Dabir lifts his head.
Uma’s mother sighs, then nudges forward the last bit of fish.
~ ~ ~
The glass glistens beneath the fridge for two days. Uma picks her way around them. Then one bites the underside of her foot, and blood beads across the tile. That morning, Dabir grabs a brush and dust pan and collects the chunks in a paper bag.
Uma’s bringing the bag out to the bin during the afternoon commercials when a Hennepin County Service car rolls up the drive.
She drops the bag and wipes her sweaty hands down her cut-off sweats. August has turned too hot, and she took scissors the day before and cut everything short that had been long….sleeves on her Henleys, legs off her sweatpants, her own hair.
A plump woman wriggles from the front seat. Her sandals worn over nylons hit the pavement, followed by a big huff.
“Hello. Are you Uma Semnani? Is Dabir here?”
Another woman exits, opens the car’s back door, and leans into the back seat. She struggles to pull something out.
“I am. But Dabir’s at work still.” Uma eyes the decals on the car.
“I’m Doris from the Hennepin County Child Protection Services. We spoke with Dabir this morning—about Aini Semnani.” The other woman ducks out of the car and drags with her a thrashing, sweaty creature.
It’s a girl.
“I don’t know any Aini,” Uma says. She eyes the child.
“This is Aini Semnani,” Doris says. She thrusts her hand at the girl who arches against the other woman’s chest and kicks. The girl has a wide, howling mouth, and her sharp teeth shine against the black hole. A globe of sweat dangles on Doris’s upper lip. “Let’s go inside.”
Uma wanders towards the door because the girl’s bawling offers no other choice. The houses here are old, with no central air, and every neighbor’s window is open to the girl’s cries. Uma fumbles the latch, but gets the door pushed open and sweeps her hand around the kitchen.
“Let’s talk in the living room.”
Uma nods. This sudden noise in her quiet bungalow shifts her world just enough. The living room seems slightly off, and she doubts if this is her home at all.
The women pick the sofa, and Uma perches on the edge of the chair. She resists sitting on anything soft since Nicky’s death. The temptation to push her face deep into the cushions frightens her.
“What is this?” Uma says.
Doris’s eyes widen. “You haven’t had a chance to speak with your husband?”
The girl thrashes between the women. Her feet batter the couch like fast, angry heartbeats.
Uma will hate Dabir later, but now: “Just tell me what you need.”
They need Dabir. Dabir and Uma had passed the preliminary background checks, but they need drivers licenses, social security, passports if possible. There are still some questions for Dabir and Uma and a walkthrough and a guarantee to attend Kinship Care classes. Also, a commitment to move towards foster care licensing.
“I don’t understand.” Uma grips the chair arm. “Are we to keep her?”
Doris doesn’t know. It depends on the charges. Dabir’s cousin and his wife drove stolen rifles across the Canadian border. The FBI had them right now. They might both be charged. And then, well, “We could be talking years,” Doris finishes.
Uma stretches to remember this cousin. He was a skinny version of Dabir and wore surplus-store fatigues everywhere. He’d brought a pudgy white girl from South Africa to Uma and Dabir’s wedding. The woman had blonde hair and blue eyes and stood out because no one thought "white" when they heard "Africa."
Uma calls Dabir. Her hands shake. She dials three times to get the numbers right.
“Get here,” she says. She eyes the girl, finally asleep, mouth gaped open, on the couch’s arm.
When Dabir comes, he sits next to Uma. He does not smell like office, though. A musty stench rolls off his body and dizzies Uma with its vague familiarity. She gets up and drifts to the kitchen. The smell comes with her. She grabs a wine glass and searches for the Roscato. Doris and Dabir turn to watch. Uma crosses to the sink and fills the glass with tap water instead.
She leans against the counter. Dabir’s skin glistens. He speaks enthusiastically, but the skin beneath his eyes pouch. Doris asks the questions while the other woman roams the house. Doris wants to know about Nicky. He was wonderful and it was hard, Dabir says. Doris wants to know about their marriage. It’s wonderful, too, Dabir says.
“Yes, wonderful,” Uma echoes.
That smell. It was the motel Dabir brought her to to escape his roommates. It had frayed carpets and missing laminate in the bathroom and a boxy TV. They’d peeled back the blankets to lay on the stained sheets. That’s what Uma smelled now.
“How lovely.” The woman milling around and tapping the fire detectors, stops in the doorway of Nicky’s room.
“No you don’t.” Uma leaps around the kitchen island.
“Uma,” Dabir yells.
Uma halts, then backs away, to the sink and the glass beside it.
The girl wakes and howls again. The women coo and try to catch at her plump elbows with their fingers, try to grasp her feet with their hands. Finally Dabir whispers something in Farsi, and the girl closes her mouth.
Pain jabs Uma’s throat like she swallowed a shard of glass Dabir had missed that morning. She swallows it down with a gulp of water. He hasn’t spoken in Farsi since Nicky.
Now in English, Dabir calls Uma back to sign the papers and promises.
The county workers leave. It’s been hours. Surely they’re all starving, Dabir suggests. “You watch the girl. I’m going for Thai. Spring rolls?”
“You should have told them no. I don’t want her here,” Uma says.
Dabir lifts his hands. The cracks in his palms flash pale pink. “She’s family. Should we hand her to some stranger? Or worse, back to Iran?”
“Did you know about this?”
“Did I know my cousin was an arms dealer? Did I know that they had a child? Did I know that on this Thursday afternoon, that child would be dropped on my doorstep at his request? No, Uma. But it might be good for you.”
That pain again. Deeper inside her now.
“You don’t get to decide that.” Uma follows him as he collects his wallet, his keys, his phone, his shoes. “Who made you fucking God?”
Dabir stops at the door. Wrinkles ripple down his shirt and the collar flips up on one side. His slacks are creased in ways Uma will have to iron out.
“How dare you,” she says.
Dabir meets her eyes. Wet shines down his cheek. He points.
“Get in the living room and watch the girl.”
Then he leaves.
Uma stares at the girl left behind.
Dabir hadn’t watched his stomach ripple with Nicky’s flutters. Dabir hadn’t rushed to the phone at every contraction. Dabir hadn’t lifted the newborn to his breast and gasped in pain and wonder as the baby latched. Dabir didn’t grab a blue-tinged Nicky from the crib or press that warm-cold cheek to his chest. Dabir hadn’t tried to slap the silence out of their son while searching for the phone. Dabir wasn’t there when the paramedics, who could do nothing for her baby, pushed a needle into her skin when she wouldn’t stop screaming.
~ ~ ~
At some point, PBS had been turned on, but the girl, sitting still, moving only her large, dark eyes, watches Uma instead. Her skin is a tawny, milked-down version of Dabir’s. Wheat-colored curls coil around her ears. They bounce beneath the lamplight and promise the feel of satin. The girl wears hot pink shoes with plastic soles that blink when they bang the couch. If Uma looks too long or too close, she’ll find something of Nicky in those features…the eyebrows that meet above the tipped nose, the slip of dimple in her chin.
“Do you want anything?” Uma says. She reaches out to tuck back a curl.
The girl pops her fingers out of her mouth, opens wide, and screams.
She does not stop screaming, not until Dabir comes back, not until Dabir feeds her a peanut butter sandwich because she refuses the pad thai. Then when Uma tries to check the girl’s pants, feeling for a diaper or trainers, the girl screams louder and allows only Dabir to take her to the toilet, wash her hands and feet, put her in one of Uma’s T-shirts, then lay her down.
That night, forgetful in half-sleep, Uma tiptoes to Nicky’s room and peers into the crib to imagine him there. But the girl bolts upright, startling Uma. The plastic moon and sun clatter against Uma’s head. The girl shrieks, and only Dabir, with words Uma doesn’t understand, calms her.
~ ~ ~
The next morning, Dabir pulls on slacks and pushes his arms through a button-down shirt. Uma, unable to stay in bed after Dabir had brought in a howling Aini, had already gotten up to start the coffee. He grabs the clothes he’d balled up and shoved beneath the chair last night. They reek of yesterday afternoon: the motel and the fruitiness of the girl who made all his appointments. He can’t put them in the hamper like this. He’ll wash them himself later.
Dabir dumps out the plastic bag Aini had come with. A pull-along caterpillar, boardbooks, and a red pair of pants fall on the carpet. He shoves his own clothes inside, then stuffs the bag into the back of the closet.
He turns. The girl stands beside him and stares. Her morning tantrum has watered down her brown eyes. The clearness left behind unnerves him. He buttons up his shirt with fumbling hands. Take away the blonde curls. Add more bow to the bottom lip. Subtract a few months from her nearly twenty-four, make her a boy….and they had Nicky back.
The thought slows his fingers. He feels the button’s edges and the coarse threads that hold it in place. He feels the button strain, caught on fabric, then give way and slide into its hole. Outside the window, their basswood jumps alive in green, with just the tops of its leaves white in the morning sun, and the sunflowers press sunny petals against the window screen.
“It’s going to be okay,” Dabir whispers.
He touches the top of the girl’s head with the tip of his forefinger, carefully, as if his hope makes her unreal.
~ ~ ~
“Do you want more milk?”
Uma stands in the kitchen, Aini sits at the table. Dabir has pulled on Aini’s pants and tucked her into a shirt, took her to the toilet and made her a sandwich, then left.
Now Uma’s hands balls at her sides. The humidity and the girl’s presence press down on her. Dabir had tried to kiss Uma at the doorway this morning. The awkward brush left another kind of weight on her cheek.
The girl’s lips quiver.
“It’s just milk.” Uma jabs at the carton.
The girl screeches.
Uma grabs the phone. She dials her mother.
“What the hell are you watching on TV?” her mother answers.
“It’s not the TV. Just come.” There is no point in saying more. Uma can’t hear.
Her mother comes. She doesn’t ask questions. She breezes in, drops her purse, keys, cellphone on the table and lifts the howling toddler from the chair.
“Poor thing, wet her pants.” The decibels drop from airplane level to rumbling bus. “I’ll give her a bath.”
“She won’t let you.” Uma says.
~ ~ ~
Uma listens to the water slosh from the bathroom while she wipes up the urine puddled in the chair. She squeezes the rag out in the kitchen sink to avoid the bathroom. She rinses, then fills, the sink with soap and water until the bubbles knock against her elbows. Uma stands, arms submerged. Sounds of Aini and her mother and the water gurgle together. If she closes her eyes, it could be nine months ago.
“Does she have any extra clothes?” her mother calls from the bathroom doorway. Her mother’s face flushes with pleasure. Uma’s tongue curls.
“Why do you have to do that?” Uma says.
“Never mind, I’ll go look.” She finds a toy caterpillar and books dumped on Dabir’s side of the bed. She picks up the red pair of corduroy pants, so worn that their velvety cords have disappeared. She will cut them short. They will do until Uma can get to the store.
“Here.” Uma tosses them into the bathroom. The girl stands naked on the counter while Uma’s mother holds her by her fat baby hips and peek-a-boos. The girl’s skin gleams with soap. Water trickles from her hair.
Aini catches Uma’s eyes in the mirror. The girl’s mouth wavers.
“Oh, for pete’s sake,” Uma hollers.
Her mother reaches out and slams the door.
~ ~ ~
Uma pulls out the last hundred dollars stashed in Dabir’s old Star Trek VHS tapes. They had watched the entire series one rainy day, after another trip to the clinic to confirm she wasn’t pregnant. Dabir called it their build-a-baby fund. Now she, her mother, and Aini lunch at the corner Denny’s, across from the Target Uma once worked at. They spend the rest of the money at Savers, buying used tee shirts and shorts and bagged, assorted pieces of toddler toys. Uma returns home exhausted. Her mother puts the girl in Nicky’s room, then joins Uma in the kitchen.
“Now, who is she?” Her mother pulls out the wine hidden behind the recycling bin and brings it to the sink.
Eye on the bottle, Uma explains about the county workers and the cousin and the guns. Now this creature.
“You’re not going to dump that,” Uma finishes, and puts her hand out for the bottle.
“You can’t do this. Not when you’re taking care of a child.”
“It’s my house. You don’t have to come.”
Her mother’s knuckles sharpen around the bottle’s neck, and the contents swish and gurgle as if being throttled. Then she sighs. The bottle’s bottom scrapes against the tiled counter. The noise makes the silence suddenly loud.
“Mom, did you take the pillows out of the crib?”
Her mother’s eyes widen.
Uma rushes to Nicky’s room. She bursts inside. The girl sleeps open-mouthed. Uma yanks out the blanket and the teddy bear and the decorative pillow.
“How could you forget?” Uma screams at her mother. The girl wakes and screeches. Uma goes to hold her, because she forgets it isn’t Nicky and because her arms ache so much. She grabs up the girl, but the girl pummels and kicks. Then, just as Uma gets the arms pinned down, Aini leans in, bares those sharp, agonizing teeth, and bites Uma.
“Fuck,” Uma screams.
But her mother pushes past her and takes the girl up in her arms.
Dabir craves Uma’s over-done lamb roasts baked on racks of red onion and bland harissa soup that marked their early marriage. Now he come homes, often late, to find his mother-in-law sopping up kool-aid or stirring boxed macaroni and cheese. Uma has begged her job back and his mother-in-law watches the girl. His wife brushes on mascara now, coaxing eyelashes to darken and spread, pats a little bronze on her cheeks to give valleys to their plains, and dons red shirts with khakis. A new normal springs to life around Dabir. But this is all worse.
The young woman who waters his plants and pushes him notes about meetings with ambitious junior members in the marketing departments of corporate food giants, the young woman he takes to motel rooms or sometimes just out to the car in the parking ramp, begins to want things. He can’t afford the purses she shows him online, or the necklace with a turquoise pendant. He still owes on Nicky’s burial. He tries to tell the girl that she doesn’t really want those things, that she would discover the purse full of emptiness and the necklace too heavy to wear. But she is young still. She has not yet lost anything irreplaceable.
The clothes from their first tryst still sit in the back of the closet, unwashed. Dabir keeps a set of motel clothes in the trunk of the car now. He changes into them on the way there. After a thunderous twenty minutes in the room, he stretches out on the bed and depending on the kind of sex, brings up either Star Trek or CNN videos on his laptop. The girl rolls her eyes and heads to the shower. Once he made her Long Islands, keeping everything chilled in a sink full of ice, but she drank only green tea smoothies. After all this, he changes back into his work clothes at a gas station, then heads home.
“Late again,” his mother-in-law once says with Uma out of range. She hangs her head out of the door and eyes the stretch of once-yellow flowers along the side of the house. Their leaves have curled and browned. The hose has laid coiled like a pinworm for weeks.
“I’m struggling to make any commission.”
His mother-in-law tilts her head and heat creeps into Dabir’s cheeks. Dabir wants to smooth down creases in his shirt that might not have been there that morning, or pick lint that came from the emergency blanket in the back of the car. But he keeps his hands still until his mother-in-law gives up.
The nightly sojourns have ended. Uma stays in bed next to him now. No way would she get up, go to Nicky’s room. “I’m done with her.” Uma had said. He tries to tell her once that’s what hurt things do, they bite the hands that feed them. When he nibbles the office girl’s earlobe, too hard, or takes her taut nipples in his teeth, too furiously, he thinks himself an animal, just like Aini, just like Uma, lashing out at anyone who tries to save them.
~ ~ ~
Uma’s mother informs them at dinner one night that she will be gone next week.
“Your Aunt Minnie’s had knee surgery. I’m just going down for a day or two. Get her settled back in the house.”
“A few days? Who will take care of Aini?” Uma touches the place where Aini had bitten her. The bruise has purpled, then yellowed, then faded to nothing, but the spot still aches.
“ Take the day off. You’ll have to get used to her, you know.” Her mother strokes Aini’s cheek. Aini stops picking at the placemat and tilts her chin towards the finger. The girl’s big eyes relax into a quiet brown, and her tight lips soften into fullness.
Uma can’t bear it. She lays down her silverware.
“Dabir. Please. You’ve been working late. Surely you’re owed some time off.”
Dabir does not look at her. He glances at her mother, then his plate. He drags his dinosaur-shaped chicken strip through ketchup.
“I’ll try, Uma.”
“Oh, hush. Let Dabir alone. It’s not for another week,” her mother says. “Start small. Give her a bath. She doesn’t hate you.”
“Of course she does.” Uma stares at the girl. Aini’s mouth trembles.
They had come to an understanding when Aini sunk her teeth into her. That everyone hoped otherwise only made Aini and Uma despise each other more.
~ ~ ~
Uma did not give Aini a bath. She had gotten the faucet running when Aini turned a purplish, choking hue, opened her mouth, and shrieked. Uma hurled the bar soap at the shower door and cracked its honeycombed plastic.
“Take those days off. Please,” Uma says that night, in bed, when finally, finally, Dabir has wrestled Aini into feeted pajamas, sang a song in Farsi, and tiptoed out.
“Uma,” Dabir says, close to her ear.
Dabir sighs. “I’ll be home early that day.” He migrates to his side of the bed. The sheeted inches turn into miles between them. Uma does not call him back. She’s forgotten how to.
Instead, Uma gets up. She wanders to the kitchen. Moonlight slides through the blinds and she finds by its glow a bottle of wine behind the canned sauces.
Dabir is right of course. At some point, she has to go on. But this isn’t the going on Uma imagines. When she dares to imagine, or imagines herself imagining, life going on, this isn’t it.
The wine slips down and her brain hums and the moonlight shifts so that everything of substance—the chairs, the table, the counters—turns black in the greyness.
She passes Nicky’s room on the way back. She no longer yearns to stop there. For that reason, she almost turns around. But she’d only wake the girl, so Uma feels down the hall and into her room and across the carpet.
Dabir lays stretched on her side of the bed. His dark hair loops on her pillow, his fingers are spread wide on the sheet. With the clarity of wine, Uma understands now where he spent all those nights she stayed in Nicky’s room. On her side of the bed. Both of them alone. Both of them wanting.
~ ~ ~
Dabir is wrong. He drives away with the wrongness of it in the silhouette of Uma, staring at him from the front window, and Aini, mouth open, the window glass wavering with her screams.
In his office, Dabir picks up the phone and dials Doris at Child Protection Services. He talks, and at the end of it, she says, “But your first Kinship Care class starts tomorrow. You have no idea the toll this takes on a child.”
Dabir says nothing about Aini’s screaming or the biting, but he’s adamant.
“If you could just keep her until we find suitable foster parents.”
That done, he pulls from his desk drawer the purse he found online. He lays a hand on it. It is a soft purse, as if the leather had been stripped from something too young. He drops into it a turquoise pendant necklace. When the young woman comes with his coffee and asks about tonight, he will hand her these trifles. He will advise her not to lose them. She might buy a new purse, a new necklace, but they would feel foreign and never be quite the same. ~ ~ ~
“She likes the airplane swing at the park. Push her hard. Not those sappy pushes,” Uma’s mother says. “And for snacks, I just give her those goldfish crackers and apple juice. Also, she has to poke her finger through all the holes in that Hungry Caterpillar book before she lets you turn the page.”
Uma blinks. They’ve reversed roles. Now her mother rushes around Uma’s home, as if Uma is some stranger to it—here are the cans Aini likes to bang. The spatulas Aini likes to suck. The CD cases Aini likes to stack.
At last, her mother takes a deep breath.
“Well,” she says. Her mother’s smile stretches too wide to be real.
“I can manage. Dabir will be home in eight hours or so.”
“Of course.” Her mother’s gaze scans the kitchen.
“Don’t worry, I drank it all.” Uma says. She avoids looking at the bottle buried behind the blinds.
Her mother’s hand tightens on her purse. “I’m off then.”
Uma watches from the window as her mother gets into the Buick. Its front window flashes good-bye in the late morning sun. The car pulls away. Uma turns to the living room.
Aini sits on the couch, her legs straight out, flashing the pink-patterned rubber soles on her shoes. She sticks two fingers into her mouth.
Uma makes herself cross the living room. She flicks on the TV and finds PBS. It’s too late for Mr. Rogers. A Mexican cooking show is on. The host slices up pineapple for grilled salsa. Uma does not watch. She goes back to the kitchen. She sucks down a glass of wine.
When she returns to the living room—because it is too quiet in there, nothing but the tinny sizzling of pineapple—Aini is not watching the TV, but staring at the place where Uma had last been standing, and where Uma stands now.
“Lunch,” Uma says.
Uma dumps canned tomato sauce over elbow macaroni. She puts it in a plastic bowl that has a clown at the bottom, something her mother had grabbed from the dollar store. Uma drags over the coffee table and sets the bowl on it.
The girl does not move. She keeps two fingers in her mouth. The show changes over to some travelogue: a young couple covered in tattoos backpacking through Estonia.
Where the hell was Estonia? Uma snaps off the TV. But the silence makes her wish for more wine. Aini still doesn’t take her fingers out to eat. They worm in and out of her mouth. If there is anything worse than her wailing, Aini has found it. Absolute silence.
Uma leans across the coffee table, stretches out her index finger, and plucks out Aini’s fingers.
Uma holds her breath. The silence deepens. The first wail falls like a sheet of rain. The rest follows like a monsoon. Uma leans back and lets herself drown.
How had she missed his slight coos, his last whimper? Did he cry? Or just slip away in silence?
Why had she not heard him?
Uma dreams of him in the downpour, her eyes closed, until the hard rain becomes a child’s screams again.
Uma jumps up. She finds the cans her mother said Aini liked to bang. She grabs the rubber spatulas Aini liked to suck. She lines them up on the coffee table.
“Bang. Bang away,” Uma hollers. Aini’s face puffs up pink, her sweaty blond hair webs across her fat cheeks. Uma would never have a child that ugly.
Aini doesn’t touch the cans. Uma gets a sweater and pushes Aini’s balled up fists into its sleeves. When she picks Aini up, the girl planks. Uma can not bend her into the car seat, so she lays Aini on the car’s back floor. She drives to the park. She pulls out the screaming Aini. She holds her away from her body the whole way up the slope from the street and over the grassy ballfield to the bucket swings. She stuffs Aini’s rigid legs through the holes in the swing’s rubber. Aini wails and Uma smiles at the mothers who stare.
“Do you need help?” one woman ventures, her own two-year-old watching bug-eyed.
“Never mind,” Uma says. She drags Aini out of the swing, across the ballfields, down the slope, packs her in the car, and drives back home.
“Go to bed.” Uma says. It is only two in the afternoon. She lays the girl prone in the crib that once was Nicky’s. She’ll lie down herself. She goes to her own room. She stretches across the bed. The girl’s cries thump against the walls. Uma gets up. There is a box of Nicky’s toys, saved up for his first birthday, in the closet somewhere. She’ll get them out, look at them while listening to Aini’s cries.
Uma opens the closet. Dabir’s shirts hang organized by sleeve length, then by color. His shoes toe the edge of the door in a meticulous line. Uma’s heels lay behind them. Black heels. Red wedges. Strappy sandals. Fossils from some other life. She bends and touches the cold leather straps of her taupe heels, worn to a wedding years ago. Wonder and repulsion sting her. These shoes belong to another woman.
Uma straightens and pushes aside hangers. There is no box of toys on the shelf behind them. Not on the top shelf either.
Next door, Aini’s cries grow wider and sharper. Uma clenches her teeth. She will find Nicky’s toys. She will lay them all out. She will touch them.
Uma kneels and digs into the back of the closet. Her fingers close on a plastic bag. She pulls it out. It is the one Aini had come with, only it doesn’t hold anything of hers. These are Dabir’s clothes.
Uma draws them out. She recognizes them—the ones Dabir wore the day that Aini came. She pushes his shirt to her nose and smells the cheap motel they first made love in.
Uma’s hands close tightly on Dabir’s shirt. The buttons dig into her palm. The howling from Nicky’s room seeps inside her, until Uma opens her mouth and lets it out.
Finally, finally, when her throat begins to throb, Uma folds the clothes, puts them back in the bag, puts the bag in the closet, and closes the closet door.
When she turns, there is Aini in the doorway. She’s peed all down herself.
Uma approaches. The girl bares those terrible, biting teeth.
Uma stops. She reaches out. She slaps that wet cheek.
The noise stops. There is nothing but the crack of her hand on that cheek.
“Oh my god,” Uma cries. She grabs up the girl, who tries to bite her. But Uma won’t let go. She carries the girl to the living room, where the sunlight trickles in through the front trees and lights up the dark TV screen.
Uma bears down on the couch and forces the girl’s legs to bend so that the girl sits in her lap. Uma uses the slapping hand to keep the girl down and yanks her shirt and bra up with the other, so that her breasts tumble out. She pushes the girl tight to them. Tight, so tight. Then tighter still. Uma’s nipple hardens, though no milk comes. The girl’s legs kick but Uma does not let go. She pushes the girl’s head further into her flesh until the girl’s cries turn to gasps for air.
“You’re. Not. Nicky. And I’m not your mom.”
Uma lets go.
Aini does not turn her head away, not even when Uma drops her hand. The girl keeps her face burrowed between Uma’s breasts. A flutter of fingers fall on Uma’s stomach. Uma gasps. She lifts her hand, as if to shove the girl off her, hesitates, then lays her hand over Aini’s small one.
The girl fills Uma’s arms. Her heart beats straight through Uma’s skin. Uma rocks, back and forth, until the beat slows to sleep. The sunlight drops lower into the room and shows their silhouette in the TV screen. Uma does not recognize the mother or the child in the TV’s dusky reflection, she does not recognize the shadow that comes in with the click of a door, and grows up behind them until it takes on the shape of a man, and touches not just the woman in the TV, but Uma’s own shoulder. It seems as if they have always been there, those reflected figures, waiting for Uma and Aini and even Dabir to take up their same positions, right there, on that couch, across from them, that only until then, could they all be brought back to life.
At last, the mother in the dim TV bends her cheek to the girl cradled in her arms.
So does Uma.
“Enough,” Uma whispers into the girl’s ear. “Enough.”