I decided to seek counseling because I wanted to sleep with a man from my office, an engineer with hazel eyes and auburn hair cut close to his scalp, a slightly receding chin and a quite large nose, and one dimple, in his left cheek, when he smiled. He came to us from Glasgow to manage the electrical component of the Heathrow terminal five project. Every time he stopped by the finance department he would hover by my desk and engage me in suggestive banter. Once I said, “I’ll have the report run by the end of the day. Be sure to grab me before you leave,” and he said, “I will, I’ll grab you,” and we both laughed.
I wondered if he was married, and discovered, by procuring his personnel file from a temporary admin assistant in HR, that Ned was not married. He was only horrendously busy with the electrical infrastructure of the Heathrow project. We’d been flirting harmlessly all those months until the day he began talking about Palms of Goa, an Indian restaurant on Charlotte Street close to our office. He was asking me to lunch.
“I don’t like Indian restaurants,” I blurted. I shook my head and tried to recover. “I know you’re thinking this must be some kind of racial self-hatred. The truth is my mother is English, and my father died when I was sixteen.”
“It doesn’t have to be Indian,” he said.
I wanted to clarify that I disliked Indian restaurants, not Indian food, and certainly not Indian people. “We went to an Indian restaurant for my tenth birthday. It didn’t go well. My mother was very fussy.”
“We mustn’t recreate bad childhood memories,” he said.
“One of my best mates is Kashmiri. I’ve had lovely meals with her family.”
He nodded wearily. “Italian then?”
“I can’t,” I said. I had meant to say today. I can’t today. I needed a little time, a day or two, to prepare for a lunch with him.
He backed away from my desk, undoing his strident approach. I almost cried watching him back away. After that, his avoidance of me was brutal.
I chose my counselor, Nicole, because she looked energetic and kept a tidy office, and because, like myself, she was of mixed parentage—a Jamaican father and Welsh mother. She listened to my story about Ned and asked, “Why didn’t you go to lunch with him?”
That’s when I told her I had never been with a man. I was twenty-eight years old and a virgin. Nicole looked at me with a kind of greedy sympathy. In the world of talking therapies, adulthood virginity must be as sexually deviant as sadomasochism.
After gathering some more details about the particulars of my condition, she asked me about my relationship with my father. I suppose I should have expected that, though I wanted to go back to talking about Ned.
“He died. Cancer. When I was sixteen. I have happy memories of him.” This was a massive understatement, but I felt in that moment that I could see myself as Nicole saw me. Lost. Repressed. But not irredeemable.
I waited for Nicole to ask another question. In turn, she waited for me to continue, just nodding. I’ve never been able to handle pauses in conversations, which either meant I would make rapid progress or spend the rest of my life in counseling.
“He was a chemist. He was from India, as you know…,” from my detailed recounting of Ned’s failure to take me to Indian for lunch. “He was a nice man. Hardworking. There was nothing very complicated about him. He loved sightseeing.”
“He was well-traveled?”
“No. But he knew London well.”
Silence again. This time I held my ground.
“How was it for you, to lose him?”
“Oh, God, we’re not going to do that, are we? I hate feeling sorry for myself.”
Nicole smiled. It was very natural and genuine, and it lightened the mood considerably. I laughed it off as well.
“It was very hard. Of course, it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. But people lose their loved ones all the time. Why should it be any worse for me?”
“Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps you simply haven’t had a chance to grieve.”
“It’s been twelve years,” I reminded her.
She said it was the quality of the grieving that was important, not the time passed. She asked me to tell a story about him, something I remembered.
“Well, this is funny. I didn’t know he was from India until I was nine years old!” I knew she wasn’t looking for entertainment, but I didn’t want to be boring. We had just walked from the British Museum to Piccadilly Circus on one of our frequent father-daughter excursions to London. It was a warm, gray day in summer, no rain. Dad and I were sitting on the steps by the statue of Eros, watching the traffic circling and the tourists aiming their cameras at the curved neon adverts for Fujifilm and Sanyo. My feet were tired from walking. I linked my arm through my father’s and leaned heavily against him, perfectly tranquil.
In Piccadilly, the tourists conversed in different languages—German, French, Japanese, Swedish. Suddenly I heard a sharp nasal voice speaking an unfamiliar language. I didn’t lift my head because I didn’t think it had anything to do with me, until I felt a tickle in my ear, a vibration quaking through my father’s body. I sat up and saw my father looking to his left, at an elderly man standing over him—standing over him and unspooling a language I could not name from my father’s throat. The man, I learned later, was Sikh. He wore a maroon turban, as well as a pair of ridiculously thick glasses that magnified his round eyes. A large boxy Nikon camera hung from a strap around his neck. The man was so top-heavy I was afraid he would teeter over and fall into my father’s lap.
I watched my father turn younger, sitting with his hands on his knees, looking up at this old man who had appeared so suddenly. This was my father before I existed, speaking a language he knew better than English. For the length of their conversation, I was alone, orphaned in Piccadilly. I tugged on Dad’s sleeve three or four times before he noticed me. “I have to go to the loo,” I lied. He looked around, past me, as if he were hoping to find my real guardian.
The Sikh man was insistent on my father’s attention. He must have asked about me because they both glanced at me a few times as they went on with their chat. I squeezed my legs together and squirmed as if I were about to wet myself. My father, embarrassed, stood up and made some kind of apology, and we walked then hand-in-hand into Lillywhites, where I pretended to find the toilet and take a wee while he looked at cricket bats.
He was sullen during most of the tube ride home. I looked around at all the passengers standing shoulder to shoulder, their bodies swaying with the pitch of the train. My father did not resemble any of the English men, and I imagined him to be entirely unique, a race unto himself.
I put my hand in his. “Did you know that man?” I asked him.
He seemed to warm to my company again. “No. We come from the same region in India.”
It was the first time he told me he came from India. I suppose he’d never had a reason to tell me before, or else he thought I knew, as I should have by that age.
“How did he know that? You don’t wear a turban.”
“We can tell, sometimes. And I looked at him. I nodded my head.”
I didn’t understand.
“Will we go to India?” I asked.
“No,” he said, looking away. He didn’t explain, and I knew never to ask him again.
Before he died my father forgot his English altogether. From his deathbed, he spoke to us as if we ought to have understood, and when we didn’t, when our English frightened and angered him, we couldn’t guess what ugly things he said to us in his mother tongue. The hardest thing about watching my father die was his sudden ill temper, his foreign rage. He didn’t seem to recognize me at all, not until the last time we were alone. Still speaking Punjabi, he grasped a lock of my hair and said something that sounded like a nursery rhyme. I sometimes wish I had recorded him, tried harder to understand what he was saying.
Nicole was frowning. My memory had disturbed her. “It doesn’t seem like you could properly say good-bye. You were speaking two different languages, weren’t you?”
I began to cry. Oh, hell, she was good at this. That might have been a good time to reveal how much I adored my father, how I could still feel the prickliness of his moustache on my fingers and his stubble on my lips and once I wanted nothing more than to grow up and marry him. He had black eyes and a steady gaze that was warm and fervid, obliterating, but who would say that to their counselor, a perfect stranger?
“You’ve done very well, Sasha. I applaud you for taking this step.” I was startled that we were out of time. What about Ned? I wanted to say, but I would have to wait until next time. I wanted her to understand that I was there to solve this virginity that was destroying my life. I had even started avoiding my mates, who were all coupling up and getting married. None of them had any idea that I was a virgin. I made it sound as if I had a freewheeling sex life that was too exciting to discuss, lest it make them feel bad about their dull boyfriends. But even they were starting to get bored with the routine.
▴ ▴ ▴
A few weeks later, I was having tea with my mother in the back garden of my childhood home in Hornchurch. Over slices of strawberry tart, she reprised her adventures at Lloyds where she had been a teller for twelve years, since my father died. Her stories were amusing. She told them with animated gestures, her blue eyes flitting and lively. Occasionally she brushed her long chestnut bangs away from her brow. When I was very young, my hair was the same color as hers.
In one of my sessions with Nicole, I’d said something unkind about my mother, about how she used her Englishness as an advantage in her marriage. To my surprise, Nicole asked me what I meant by that. I assumed she would understand, that something about this would feel true to her, but then again, her mother was Welsh, not English.
When my mother was finished with her tales and asked what was new with me, I told her I’d started counseling.
She was startled. “Psychotherapy? Whatever for?”
“I’ve had some issues.”
“But they can’t be serious. I think you’ve turned out quite all right.”
“Thanks, Mum. It’s just…have you never wondered about my love life? You never ask.”
“That’s your business. It’s not as if I’m desperate for a grandchild.” For some reason, this made her laugh heartily.
I was determined to continue. “Were you happy with Dad?”
My mother shook her finger in the air. “Ah, I know what you’re up to. I don’t need counseling, darling.”
“I wasn’t suggesting you did. I was just trying to discuss something with you. About Dad.”
“Don’t tell me he molested you.”
“Oh my God, Mum, why would you say that?”
“It’s a fad among young women these days, to accuse their fathers of molestation. Makes them feel part of a club of some sort.”
“I’m not that young, Mum.”
“It happened to Jeremy Smalls from up the street. Do you remember him? He adored his daughter and she turned against him.”
“Jeremy Smalls was a creep.”
“Maybe so, but he was no child molester.”
“Don’t you want to know what I talk about in counseling?”
“Your love life, obviously, since you brought it up.”
“We talk about unresolved issues.”
My mother rubbed her temples, but I didn’t let this put me off.
“I didn’t know about Dad’s cancer until he was too sick to hide it,” I said, which was true. “You should have told me sooner.”
“Sasha, what is the point of reliving the past? We didn’t know how to tell you. We knew you’d be devastated. You and your father were so close.”
“But I think Dad felt very alone when he died. I think he missed his family in India. I would have liked to ask him some more things when he was lucid, about his childhood, about my heritage.”
“Don’t be daft, Sasha. Your heritage is right here in England. He didn’t have any family in India.”
“That can’t be true, Mum.”
“Of course it’s true. He was estranged from them. We were his family.”
She often talked about their courtship as if they were orphans who’d rescued each other. When they met, she was sitting on a bench in Hyde Park, forlorn about a boy she’d left behind in Colchester. My father appeared and asked if he could take her picture, and then they walked for hours, and then they were inseparable. She had the photograph as proof, the first of many flattering portraits my father took of her.
I used to hate that I didn’t look like her, especially after the numerous times people remarked they could see none of my mother in me. When I was thirteen, I had a growth spurt, and all of my features became more extreme—my nose wider, my eyebrows thicker, my hair and eyes almost as black as my father’s. My somewhat masculine look made me feel so insecure and unattractive that I started to avoid being seen with my mother, just to spare me the misery. Only when I walked down the street with my father, unmistakably his daughter, did I experience any kind of self-confidence.
“You’re missing the point,” I said. “Don’t you remember how it was at the end? How he wouldn’t speak English?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t remember? He spoke only Punjabi when he was dying.”
My mother scoffed. “No, he didn’t.”
“He did, Mum!”
She insisted that I was wrong, and there was no point in arguing. I stared at her, with rage at first, but she looked so miserable, so determined to remain true to her delusion, that I ended up feeling only pity.
I changed the subject. She asked me how my work was going. There was nothing remarkable to report there, so I told her about Ned. Perhaps my mother had some good advice for me.
“Office romances can be tricky,” she said, “but if you like him enough, go for it!” She then went on to tell me again about her friend Poppy, who’d had a disastrous affair with her boss many years ago. One should know that with Poppy, everything was a disaster.
▴ ▴ ▴
The next time I saw Nicole I had good news for her. My engineer and I were friends again. He’d asked, “Are you all right, Sasha?” and I’d said, “Yes, I’m fine,” and then we started laughing at the formality of it all. Nicole was not as enamored with the story as I was.
“Sasha, what do you want from this man?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you want to sleep with him? Do you want a relationship? Do you want something that doesn’t go any further than the office?”
“Yes, I want to sleep with him,” I said.
“Is that all?”
“No. I want to go to the market with him.” I find food shopping very mundane, and my idea of domestic bliss is strolling down the market aisles and filling the cart up while someone I love amuses me.
“So, you want a relationship with him. You want to become intimate.”
“I think Ned and Sasha has a nice ring to it. We would be Ned and Sasha.”
Nicole liked this. “If that’s what you want, that’s wonderful. What do you think is different about Ned?” I knew what she was getting at. In our previous session, she had asked me about my experiences with dating, from university onward. I told her about all the boys who had chased me, with no luck, not to boast but to prove that my virginity was not from a lack of opportunity.
“I don’t know. He’s confident. He’s funny. He’s successful.”
I assured her that he was, confessing how I had snuck into his personnel file. Nicole did not disapprove of this in the least. She was very glad to hear that he was unmarried, and that I had chosen a man with whom a commitment was a real possibility.
All in all, it helped to talk to someone about my life. I was starting to feel lighter, freer. The following week, I floated confidently through a maze of desks on the engineering floor and landed in Ned’s little office. He stood up as soon as he saw me and waited for me to say something. I was holding a stack of invoices for him to sign, but I’d forgotten all about them. “I’m available for lunch today,” I said.
His eyebrows shot up, then collapsed again. “I can’t today. We have the rail meeting. It’s going to be hell.”
“What about dinner?” he asked.
“Dinner?” I had my counseling session. I hated to cancel. “I have an appointment at five thirty, in Greenwich.”
“Greenwich? Is that where you live? I could come meet you there.”
He lived in North London, in Stoke Newington. I wasn’t meant to know that but of course I did know, his exact street address in fact. It wasn’t an impossible distance, but on a weeknight, after dinner and a few glasses of wine, it was enough to consider another option.
“You could come by my flat. We could get some Chinese takeaway, or I could cook.”
“You don’t know how brilliant that sounds.”
We traded papers—my address and mobile number for the signed invoices—and we finalized our plan. He would come by around eight.
That evening, I stormed into Nicole’s office in a panic. “It’s going to happen. Tonight. With Ned.” I told her in one breath about our dinner plans.
“Sasha, that doesn’t mean you have to sleep with him. You can tell him you’re not ready.”
“I invited him over. What is he going to think?”
“That you want to spend time with him.”
“He’s too old to be deflowering anyone. Do you know that he’s almost forty? I’m sure he’s not up for it. Do you think he’ll notice?”
Nicole gave me a stern look. “Now, Sasha, I’m going to say something, and I want you to listen.” She’d never spoken to me like that before. I shut my mouth and took a seat.
“If you want a relationship with this man,” she said, “it has to begin on a firm foundation. You don’t have to tell him everything straight away, but you can’t hide things from him. You can’t pretend to be something you’re not. Do you understand?”
We practiced some deep-breathing exercises and went over some of the things she’d told me. That there was nothing abnormal about me. That a healthy relationship with Ned was more than possible. She asked me how I wanted to feel at the end of the night, and I said, “safe, comfortable, loved.”
When the session was over, Nicole lit up. “Have fun tonight! Enjoy the attention! You deserve to be happy.”
▴ ▴ ▴
Ned was very punctual, showing up at my door at exactly eight o’clock. He was standing there holding a bottle of wine, still in his work clothes, with his tie on but no jacket. I had on a black dress and wore my hair down. He looked at my hair, at my dress, and said, “You look nice,” but his gaze was more expressive than his language. I stepped aside and let him in.
I showed him around my flat. He admired the décor and kissed me once in the doorway of the bedroom, and I pulled away smiling, happy to get that over with. I kissed him back, then took his hand and led him to the kitchen. We talked while I made dinner, roast chicken and couscous, and he opened the bottle of wine he’d brought. He said he’d never been to Greenwich. He had expected to have more leisure time, but the Heathrow project was all-consuming.
“Maybe when the project is over,” I said, “I can be your tour guide.” I told him about my childhood spent exploring London, and how I first discovered Greenwich with my father when I was thirteen. There was so much to see, the Royal Observatory, Greenwich Park, and the Old Royal Naval College with its two domes, its perfect symmetry. I recounted our visit to the Painted Hall, where we wandered for hours under the magnificent frescoed ceiling and the gilded arch, gods and angels everywhere. My father had told me it took nineteen years to complete, and when it was finished, it was deemed too grand for its original purpose as a dining hall. He had read me the Latin inscriptions from a brochure. The only one I remember came from the west wall, depicting the arrival of the House of Hanover, a new race of men from heaven.
I turned to Ned as I was finishing my story, thinking I might have bored him. He looked fascinated. “Was your father a professor? A historian?”
I laughed. “No, nothing that interesting. He was a chemist.”
We ate at my small kitchen table by the window and talked more about places, about London and Glasgow and about a wedding he’d gone to in India where the actual ceremony didn’t take place until two in the morning because the time was set by the astrologer.
“My father never talked about India,” I said.
Ned seemed to understand. “It’s not the easiest of places.”
After dinner, we cleaned up the dishes and sat on the sofa with our wine. I asked him about his family, his parents. He told me they were nice people, divorced.
“And you’ve never been married?” I asked.
“No. I came close. I was with someone for ten years. We got engaged. Planned a wedding. Sent out the invitations. One day, before it was too late, we realized we were getting married instead of splitting up, which was what we were meant to do.”
I was surprised. “You cancelled the wedding?”
“We did. She’s happily married to someone else now.”
“It’s very brave,” I said. “Most people would have gone on and done it rather than face the shame.”
“We disappointed a lot of people. Some of them still don’t talk to us.”
“Us? You’re still friends?”
“Of course. We were always friends more than anything else.”
Then he kissed me.
I was happy, of course. I grabbed his collar and put my lips all over the sandy surface of his jaw. Things escalated quickly, and after a while I could feel his stony erection. It is amazing how powerful men are despite this vulnerable appendage. Their arousal or lack of it is always so apparent, no bluffing, no deception. I took his tie off and whispered in his ear. “Will you stay, Ned?”
He put me on my back and kissed my neck, my collarbone, the inside of my thighs. He pulled off my underwear and unzipped his trousers and parted my legs with his groin. I sank into the cushions. He was heavier than I expected, but I enjoyed it, his manly heft.
“Condom,” he said. “In my wallet.”
I pulled his wallet out of his pocket. I watched him fumble for the square foil packet and tear it open with his teeth.
“Wait,” I said.
I pushed his chest lightly, and he shifted so that I could move out from under him. I sat up and folded my legs. He sat up as well, looking alarmed at the way my body closed up so suddenly. It hit me then, the cost of my impatience. Everything that had come to me so easily would be lost in an instant.
“I’ve never done this before,” I said.
He thought he understood. “Because we work together? I’ve never done it either, but we’re adults. I like you very much, Sasha. Do you think it’s a mistake?”
“No, I mean…”
I didn’t know how to say it. I pointed to his erection. “That.”
He was confused. Then he grinned. “I see,” he said, nodding. “Women are much more fluid about their sexuality, aren’t they? Especially, your age, younger women.” He cleared his throat. “The younger generation.” He winced, and I stopped him.
“It’s not that. I’m not attracted to women,” I said. “It’s just that I had so many conditions, and none of those conditions have been met until now.”
“That’s…well…you flatter me.”
“I shouldn’t have put you in this position,” I said. “I’m so embarrassed.”
His hand moved sluggishly to my knee. “Don’t be embarrassed,” he said. “You have nothing to be embarrassed about. I can only imagine how many poor hearts you’ve broken along the way.”
I moved closer to him. He was so lovely.
“Do you want this?” he asked.
“Yes, more than anything, but it doesn’t have to be tonight.”
He kissed my hand gallantly. Then my wrist.
Soon we were lying on the sofa again and carrying on as we were. It was all going well until he put his hand between my legs and caressed me with his thumb, and we both became aware at the same time that I was sobbing. He tried to kiss my tears away and make soft cooing sounds to soothe me, but I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t breathe, and finally he cried, “My God, Sasha, what happened to you?”
I covered my face and made a sound I didn’t think could have come from my own body. He stayed for a little while, but he didn’t dare touch me again. When he spoke, he was very kind. “I don’t think I can take this on right now.” I curled up and turned my back to him. I listened as he put on his shoes, fixed his clothes, closed the door gently behind him.
After a while, I took a sleeping pill and went to bed, but I slept fitfully. In the middle of the night, I woke up convinced that my father was in the room with me. I could hear his footsteps, smell his wool coat, hear him whispering my name. In the seconds it took me to come fully to consciousness, I had never been so frightened. I remember wondering how often he’d been coming to my room at night, watching me while I slept. This was the answer. I would tell Nicole. I would banish my father from my memory. I would sleep with Ned. I would marry Ned and have children and live a long life.
In the morning, I was groggy but rational again. I went into work late and told everyone in my department that I’d woken up with a migraine. They all agreed I looked terrible. I didn’t leave my desk all day. I’d managed to avoid Ned until I was trying to leave the office at six o’clock. I saw him standing at the elevator with two other engineers from the Heathrow project. He left them, not very subtly, and followed me into the stairwell. “Sasha,” he called after me. He caught up with me on the landing and grabbed me by the waist. I wrapped my arms around his neck. He smelled like cloves.
“Sasha, we have to talk.”
“I miss my father,” I said, kissing his jaw. “Do you want to be my father?”
He pulled away, looking startled and helpless and, in spite of it all, somewhat paternal. I ran away from him, and he didn’t dare follow.
When I got home, I rang Nicole to cancel my next appointment. I made up something about a work trip. Of course, she asked me how things had gone with Ned.
“It was fine,” I said. “Very nice, actually.”
I could tell she wasn’t convinced. “All right. We’ll talk about it next week, yeah?”
“Not next week. I’ll be away.”
There was a pause. “Do you want to come in tomorrow then? I’ve had a cancellation.”
I gave in. I knew she wouldn’t make this easy.
At our appointment, I ended up telling her everything. I think she was surprised by how much of a disaster my date with Ned turned out to be. I even told her what I’d said to Ned in the stairwell. As I described it, I couldn’t keep my composure. I cried until I couldn’t breathe. There was nothing Nicole could do for me, except hand me a box of tissues and a glass of water.
After I had calmed down a bit, she asked me very gently if I could explain what was going through my head at the moment I had shut down. I didn’t know how to explain it. “It was like he wasn’t even there,” I said. “With my eyes closed, it could have been anyone.”
“Anyone? Even your father?”
“No,” I said. I didn’t want her to get it wrong. I owed him that much.
“Sasha, you said Ned could have been anyone. What do you think that means?”
I shook my head. Maybe that wasn’t what I had meant to say. My father was there, but not like that. He was in the Painted Hall, in Greenwich Park, in Piccadilly. He was where he always was, and perhaps when Ned was trying to make love to me, I was somewhere else, sitting close to my father, leaning my head on his shoulder, imagining that I would always feel like that.
“I just don’t know,” I said. It was no use. I had nothing to offer.
When our time was up, she stood across from me and clasped my hands. “I’m here whenever you need me,” she said. She must have known I would never go back.
▴ ▴ ▴
It was difficult for me to face Ned after that. He tried to make me comfortable, but how many times can a man fall into the same hole without learning to walk around it? When his phase of the Heathrow project ended, he went back to Glasgow. I imagined cornering him at his farewell party and kissing him good-bye. I imagined telling him not to go, and at night, I used this fantasy to masturbate to the point of orgasm. After doing that enough times, actual penetration didn’t feel that far off. I ended up losing my virginity to a bloke in an Arsenal jersey.
Without Nicole, I had to become my own counselor. After assessing the evidence, I concluded that my mother and father had a difficult marriage, and that I had become some kind of emotional proxy for my father, a surrogate wife, and while that wasn’t the healthiest relationship we could have had, it wasn’t anything insurmountable. This was all I needed to move on with my life. In a few years, I met a man very unlike Ned, married him and had children, and after a while I didn’t know why I’d made such a fuss. My mind became blissfully uncomplicated.
But at some point, after my mother herself was diagnosed with cancer, she told me something that would have mattered long ago. I had temporarily moved her into our home in London during her treatments. With two young children, it was difficult for me to make frequent trips to Hornchurch to look after her, and I couldn’t bear the thought of her being sick in that house, where my father had not recovered. It had been a good decision. She was handling the treatments well and, I dare say, she was enjoying the attention. She loved being pampered by me and entertained by the children. We tried to distract her from her illness and keep her mind fixed on the future, on the things we would do when she was feeling better, so that she could think of her cancer as nothing worse than a bad flu. My mother, in this regard, was a good patient. She understood the rules.
But one day she started to sum up her past in a way that concerned me. She said she always expected to have a glamorous life. She’d had the looks to be a model, or an actress, had come to London to be discovered, but apparently only my father had noticed her. During their first walk in Hyde Park, he told her he had a wife and young daughter in India, who were waiting to join him in England. She invited him back to her room anyway. She never became an actress or model. In the end, causing a man to forget his family was the only remarkable thing she’d ever done. She was pretty, an English rose, and my father loved England.
As I sat there listening to her, I was back at my father’s deathbed, my palm absorbing the chill of his bony hand as it held on to a lock of my hair. The rhyme he recited, the adoration and sorrow in his last gaze upon my face, none of it had been for me. I remembered vividly how he kept mispronouncing my name. Sa, Sa, Sai, Saila, Saila, Sailaja, Sailaja, Sailaja. A girl’s name, but not mine.
I only asked my mother one question. “What language was Dad speaking when he died?”
She seemed to have no recollection of that time in her garden, when she could have said something, anything to assure me that the weight I had been feeling was real, even if it was not what I thought it was.
“Punjabi?” she asked herself, as if she couldn’t remember where he came from. “Yes, I believe it was Punjabi.” She was trying so hard to sound earnest.
When I didn’t say anything, she went on about how she’d wanted to tell me, but she had promised my father that I would never know. Whether or not this was true, her struggle failed to move me. “I didn’t want to take this secret to my grave,” she said.
I sighed. “You’re not dying, Mother.”
My mother let her head sink into the pillows and closed her eyes. “You don’t know how I suffered,” she said. “I asked him to stay, and it was the last thing I ever got from him.”
I wondered what would have changed if she hadn’t waited so long to tell me the truth. I scrolled through various scenarios that were still possible. I imagined dropping by Nicole’s office, or sending an email to Ned, whose movements I still managed to track from Glasgow to Beijing to New York. I spent some time looking up flights to Chandigarh, thinking about finding my sister. Invariably I was interrupted by my children, my adorably ferocious tyrants. When I showed them pictures of their grandfather, we could see what was always there, the greatness of the effort, the constant clenching of his heart.