How He Leaves You

This is how he leaves you. Door pulled quietly closed, last glimpse of a weathered leather bag and brown hair matted to the back of his head. You sit on the couch in a pair of running shorts—knees up, legs crossed, heels tucked underneath you. He doesn’t look back.

That night you drink orange juice and vodka and write letters to him, one after another. Some of them you fold into thirds, tuck into envelopes, and stamp with two stamps each before putting them in your desk drawer. Twelve letters until your roommate comes home and pulls away your pen and drink and makes you take a shower as she unbuckles her velvet heels. It’s three thirty in the morning.

The water is too hot and the steam is suffocating. You kneel by the drain, noticing the mold creep across the grout. The monsoon has turned Bombay green and grey and things grow in every crevice of the city. You wonder, as the water pelts your still-plaited hair, as the rain slams relentlessly into the window, if you are crying or just silently screaming.

 *     *     *

He leaves you on a Sunday in June and on Monday you are back at the office checking every e-mail he has sent you in the last two years, watching the signature switch from Best to Kisses to Love.

There’s a drawer of birthday cards and notes that were taped to the inside of your bag on weekday mornings. And underneath, on a crumpled piece of yellow pad paper, is the first letter he ever wrote you and slipped into your purse when you boarded a train to Delhi. You sat in the doorway of your sleeper car that morning, reading his tiny blue scrawl, peeling up words at the corner to look for hidden messages.

I’ll think of you, he wrote. I’ll think of you when I run down Marine Drive, slowing down by the bench where I kissed you for the first time, cutting off your laugh and getting my fingers stuck in your uncombed hair.

The letter looks different under the fluorescent lights, without Indian Railway cars chugging along the Madhya Pradesh countryside. His scratched out words look careless, not spontaneous. The middle paragraph, you realize, was more for himself than you. You fold the letter into a perfect square, slip it back into the drawer and wave off coworkers when they offer you a ride home.

Weaving back through the crooked, cobblestone streets you are so close to the sea that your jeans are damp with salty spray. For a second you lean over the fence and watch the rough grey water and breathe into the empty pit of your stomach until you almost feel full.

*     *     *

August days are long, the nights longer, and in the morning, when sleep finally comes, you stay awake by watching the rain fall on the street where a man peddles flowers for a nearby temple on Pali Hill. An imam calls namaz over the mosque speakers next door. Bells ring at St. Andrews church. There is faith everywhere but your dark bedroom, where light bulbs flicker on and off. Some days you walk the length of your bed, back and forth, raising your hands up to the ceiling as if to throw a question at whatever exists beyond the fan.

Kanika still says, Good Morning, still brings you a cup of chai she makes with all milk and no water. But she is growing restless and you are letting the dust settle in your room, turning your feet black and your books musty. The silk curtains have faded from orange to peach. And when she asks you for rent money it takes you the entire day to find your checkbook.

He owes you money, you remember. Not just a little, but for a flight ticket to Goa because he missed a train. For at least a dozen dinners when he forgot his wallet. For the time his card got declined when he was buying his sister a present. He always said it was the American bank account, but none of the other white guys from his office had the same problem.

You wonder what he would do if you called him right now, asking for the exact amount you penciled in your budget notebook.  But then there’s the chance that you would have to hear his voice and not just the echo of last words.

*     *     *

That voice haunts you. It’s the sound men make when they stop caring. When they no longer notice your long eyelashes and tiny hands. Or the way you say the word water so delicately without the twang of his American South. Wotah, wotah, he used to practice out loud, lying next to you with sweat dripping off his brow. He could never get used to the heat—antsy and frustrated through each Indian summer, complaining when you didn’t want to turn on the air conditioning.

Now that voice keeps you up at night, convinced that he is watching his ex-girlfriend wake up in Brooklyn, his hand on her creamy, perfect white skin, relieved that he no longer has to look at your pockmarked back or the stretch marks where your thighs meet your hips. He used to call them your tiger stripes when you tried to cover them with the palms of your hands in the early days of discovering each other’s bodies. But you both knew they were just scars.

That night you walk into Kanika’s room and leave your phone on her nightstand and tell her to keep it for the week. But she puts it back on your dresser the next day—insisting your mother will call her to find out where you are.

Your mother does call. She calls in the morning and the evening and sometimes at night because she knows the break in your voice. When she asks about Nick you say he flew back to America—that you haven’t heard from him in a while.

Such a nice boy, she says, and you are suddenly furious that he ever stepped foot in your home, corrupting the sacred space where your mother does her surya namaskars each morning, where your father makes ginger tea. You remember how Nick said, I love ghar ka kanna, and charmed everyone by eating yogurt rice with his hands like you taught him. But when you were alone in the room he complained that the food was too heavy, complained that the dessert gave him indigestion.

You wondered that weekend if you loved him but he was already there in your childhood room, reading you lines from your third grade diary and kissing you, it seemed, whenever you wanted to ask him a question. By the end of the night your parents insisted on dropping him off at Pune Station with a bag of sweets and snacks.

He’s not a nice boy, you say into the receiver, and wish for your mother’s cool, strong hands on your forehead. She doesn’t say anything more. When you hang up you don’t miss him, or the chords he strummed each night on the guitar, or his thin pink lips, or his attempt to say your name the right way, with a soft th and a long o. There is anger where the longing used to be, and you put all of your letters and his letters into a plastic bag and walk all the way to the dumpster before you turn back and toss it under your bed.

*     *     *

He leaves you with the start of the rains but it isn’t until the sun dries off the roads that you don’t think of him when you brush your teeth every morning.

You take the train home for Diwali in October and notice some extra space between your ribs, between your brows, in the vertebrae of your neck. Your body has released him and you find yourself in tears because you remember what it was like before his scribbles filled the margins of the story you were writing when he showed up. Before he wooed you with his guitar and his dollars and the way he high-fived the bai who cleaned his house.

When you reach the station you are suddenly so hungry that you buy a huge chocolate bar and eat the entire thing in the taxi on the way to your house, hardly noticing the firecrackers that explode dangerously close to the car, or the driver’s curses.

At home you and your mother spend hours creating rangoli patterns in the driveway—drawing careful lotuses and mango leaves with colored powder and placing tiny, illuminated diyas amid the designs. By the time night falls and the guests start to come, your hands are rainbow-stained and your nails lined with red.

You light lamps until there is no dark spot left in the house.

A_Rao_HeadshotAnkita Rao is an American journalist currently based in India, where she writes about health, education, and worldwide inequality. Her articles and photographs have been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, and Quartz, among others.

 Before moving to India she covered health care disparities and policy at Kaiser Health News, a non-profit news service that regularly serves the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and NPR. At the height of the Obamacare debate, she wrote features and breaking news about how the health law impacts the people most vulnerable to poor access, from coal miners in rural West Virginia to the homeless in Washington, D.C.

Ankita is originally from Tampa, Florida. She attended the University of Florida, where she studied Journalism, Religion, and Creative Writing. She is also an alumnus of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.