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TwoAugust 2015, New York City
While I scan the sale racks, Zee bumps around the nearby plus-size section yelling, “Mom this one!” every minute or so. I suppose little kids think all ladies’ sizes are the same. I yell back, “Thanks, but no!” The two of us are probably driving the saleswoman crazy with our bellowing.
I show her a polka-dotted dress with cap sleeves, the sort of thing I might have worn in the classroom on a hot September day. Its asymmetrical hem is whimsical, yet age-appropriate. Most years, I’ve done this shopping while in countdown-to-Labour-Day mode, both anticipating and dreading my return to work at Morrison High School. But I gave my resignation two weeks ago, and the year stretches ahead like a flat and deserted highway.
Last year, when Murtuza and I first considered spending his academic sabbatical in India, I applied for a much-needed unpaid leave while he investigated Mumbai teaching gigs. The same week my request was declined, he received an opportunity to teach the graduate course he’s been designing in his mind for years. Lenore, my vice-principal and mentor, suggested I quit, recover from my burnout, and work for her educational consulting business after Murtuza’s sabbatical. So here we are Zee and I searching for a dress I can take on our trip to India.
“Pretty,” Zee assesses, pushing a strand of her short hair behind her ear. Recently she’s begun to have opinions about the clothing I set out for her each day. Last week she rejected half of my choices, so today I’ve encouraged her to make her own selections. She’s wearing a yellow top with an emerald skirt and aquamarine socks, which doesn’t look as bad as it sounds. Me, I’ve matched my beige blouse to a pair of brown shorts. My sandals are a shade in between.
I try on the dress, Zee’s appraising eyes upon me. She cocks her head, her bangs falling into her face. “Mom, it fits, it looks good. But buy it in red, not black.” Her tone is slightly mocking, like a makeover show host’s. The sales clerk rushes to fetch one, taking orders from a girl just turned seven.
Later, on our way to the food court to share an order of Wong’s lemon chicken, Zee stops me at Forever 21. I protest but change my mind when I notice one of my students, Farah, behind the register. She just graduated, and used to walk the hallways like a fashion model. A few months ago, Principal Pereira stopped to scold her for showing too much cleavage. I’d disagreed with the judgment but couldn’t contradict Pereira. Farah reached into her backpack to layer a sweater over her blouse, but it was off again by the time she reached my classroom.
“Mom, look at these!” Zee points out a ten-dollar rack of frilly skirts. “Can I get one? You can get one, too, and we can match!” I call Farah over and she helps us find a size zero that fits loosely over Zee’s straight hips. Not even their largest size, a fourteen, can pass over mine.
“I just bought a size twelve dress at JC Penney,” I complain.
“Yeah, our sizes are super small. Sorry.” Farah shrugs.
“You can still get yours, Zee. It’s a good price.”
“No,” she pouts, “not if you can’t wear a matching one.”
“We’ll look for something while we’re in India,” I console, glad that my daughter still wants to look like me, at least sometimes.
* * *
In the evening, Murtuza and I meet on the couch for the married person’s evening ritual: TV. Along with a nightly bowl of microwave popcorn, we’ve been putting away two episodes of The Mindy Project after Zee is in bed. We guffaw and cringe in the same places; we are diasporic South Asian children of immigrants communing over the embarrassing life of a diasporic South Asian child of immigrants.
While the credits roll, Murtuza leans over, kisses my neck, and says, “Shall we turn it off now, or watch another episode?”
“Sure, Murti, we can turn it off,” I say, sensing his preference. After all, it is Saturday and 9:00 p.m. I’d prefer to hit play, to be distracted by someone else’s awkward world, but I appreciate my husband’s good-natured and consistent initiative-taking. My friends and I talk about our lacklustre sex lives and waning libidos, and I feel like I’m the lucky one amongst us. At least we can say we are still doing it, rather than being in couples’ therapy because we aren’t. Or breaking up because we aren’t. Or having extra-marital affairs because we aren’t.
* * *
I’d never cheated in my life, neither on a test nor a time sheet. When my naturopath directed me to eliminate sugar, dairy, wheat, and caffeine last year to improve my immune system’s functioning, I followed her instructions, to the letter, for sixty days.
How to make sense of the affair, then? It was just over four years ago, when Zee was three. Ian, a guy I once slept with, friend-requested me on Facebook. I recall experiencing a twinge of something, a flutter in my belly I could have interpreted as a prescient warning. I brushed away the sensation and thought, Nah, it’s just Facebook, and it’s been ages since we last saw each other. Plus, I’d heard from a friend in common that he’d moved to England. I thought we’d share a few likes, perhaps a little lurking. No problem.
At the time, I couldn’t admit to myself that it was cheating. There were no secret liaisons in two-and-half-star motels we’d paid for in cash. No late-night phone calls. No sexy photos. Leave it me to have an affair without ever really having an affair.
I layered on a thick foundation of denial until Murtuza found out. On a cool autumn evening, I returned home from Fresh Food Mart, lugging two heavy totes. When I saw his pained expression, I dropped the groceries, my fingers refusing to pretend that things were normal. Oranges rolled across the floor and I scrambled to collect them, glad for the small diversion of runaway citrus.
I’d left my computer on, my account open. Normally he wouldn’t have used my laptop, but he’d forgotten his at his office and needed to order a book online. That’s what he told me, anyway. I hope it was nothing more than that. I heard somewhere that eighty percent of betrayed spouses know when something is amiss and ambivalently search for evidence to the contrary. I don’t like to think about Murtuza being a part of that statistical majority. A part of me was self-righteous and indignant about the breach of privacy (“What were you doing snooping around on my Facebook account, anyway?”), but that fell flat when he looked at me beseechingly. “Why?” he asked, tears streaming down his cheeks. I wanted to dry his tears before they dripped off his chin onto the floor.
I sputtered a denial, “Nothing happened!”
He picked up my laptop and read aloud the latest message I’d sent to Ian. I went silent, and Murtuza continued reading, his voice growing louder, my indiscreet sentences to Ian booming and echoing off the kitchen tiles. I still said nothing, couldn’t form words, imagined Murtuza leaving me, our marriage ending over something so stupid. I felt like a failure, to both my husband and daughter.
He stomped down to the basement, and I crept upstairs to check on three-year-old Zee, who was fast asleep despite all the yelling. I watched her breathe and wept for the end of my good life. Then I headed to the kitchen, unfriended Ian, and turned off the laptop. I considered padding down the stairs to talk to Murtuza, but I knew it would be pointless. His questions and thoughts and feelings would swarm around me like angry wasps and I’d be unable to do anything but bat them away.
Murtuza slept on the basement pullout for three days. Each time he emerged to look after Zee or make himself a snack, I attempted impromptu explanations, wishing I was more articulate,
had rehearsed a few repentant lines. I’ve never been good at communicating my feelings when overwhelmed. He moved back to our bedroom but wouldn’t talk to or touch me for another three days, despite my pleas and cajoling. Then, at last, on the seventh day, he threatened to end the marriage unless we saw a professional. He quoted facts and figures about infidelity and the importance of seeking immediate help. It was probably Murtuza who told me the statistic about cheated-on partners looking for clues.
Dr. Stanley met us together for the first session, during which Murtuza did most of the talking. I scanned the spacious office, which was mostly outfitted with Ikea furniture. Between nodding at Murtuza’s statements of why we were there, I mentally listed: Malm, Hemnes, Ektorp, Flöng, some of the items that fill our home. For years after we bought our bed, we referred to it as our Brimnes, our private joke. When had we stopped doing that?
During the following week’s one-on-one session that she called an “assessment,” Dr. Stanley wore her steel-grey hair in a single braid down her back, instead of loose, as she’d done during the couples’ session. She recommended that I break off contact with Ian, and I pouted and told her I’d already completed that act of contrition. She might have misinterpreted my stiff embarrassment as lack of guilt because she leaned forward in her seat and spoke loudly, perhaps thinking that her increased volume would help me comprehend the gravity of my situation. She insisted that I commit to owning the cheating, and I imagined it was like an expensive, later regretted, purchase. I understood what she was getting at but couldn’t help protesting, “But I didn’t even kiss him! I didn’t get to do anything! Nothing actually happened between us during those two months of messaging each other!” I was like a snot-nosed kid who’d been caught before tasting a shoplifted candy bar.
“Do you wish you had?” She puckered her lips and nodded, perhaps in an effort to look sympathetic. Had she ever cheated on the bald guy in the portrait on her desk? Maybe she understood my longing?
“Yes and no. I never wanted to hurt Murtuza.” I didn’t meet her gaze and instead focused on the hypnotic blue lines winding their way through her area rug. I wondered what its Ikea name might be. Then my hour was up.
Murtuza had his own individual session that week. I asked him how it went and he said, “Fine. You?” I said my session went fine, too.
A week later, Dr. Stanley began our session with a monologue mostly addressed to my side of the room. She suggested that I was seeking something lost, something left behind that wasn’t literally Ian, but a part of myself that I’d once expressed with Ian. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but my eyes welled up in response.
Murtuza took my hand, and his own eyes moistened, his black lashes made even prettier by his tears. I hated myself for hurting this man with pretty eyelashes. I hated myself for almost sabotaging my marriage to this man with pretty eyelashes.