It's 5 a.m. when Christian's cell phone vibrates across the motel nightstand for the third time in ten minutes. Next to him, the young woman groans, grazes his leg with her calloused toes, cold and grainy like cement. "Mmm," she says, her voice weighted with sleep. "All right." Christian sneaks his phone beneath the covers and squints at the display. It's been two weeks since he scrolled down his contacts and deleted his ex-fiancé's name from his address book. The act, then an empowering gesture of picking up and moving on, strikes him now as a hollow, empty sort of victory. He had, of course, committed her number to memory the week they'd first met, and tonight, six years since, he cannot help but decipher Archana Rai's name from the familiar, ten-digit sequence.
Archana is the first to speak. She apologizes for calling so early and, though Christian denies it, for waking him. "My mom's setting up a puja," she says. "I tried to talk her out of it, but you know how she gets. And my dad, he just wanted to make sure you're packed and all. He says that it's these international flights—especially since 9/11. You have to be early, you know."
"I know," Christian whispers. He asks Archana if that's everything she's called to say.
Archana tells him no—there's one more thing. "I just wanted you to know that I wouldn't hold it against you if you didn't show."
Incredulous, Christian holds his phone out in front of him. He shakes his head at it as if at Archana herself. "You don't really mean that," he tells her.
"You're right. I don't. Not entirely," she says. "But I'd be understanding if you didn't. I suppose there's a difference."
The fact that Archana can tell he's lying whenever he answers too quickly has always annoyed Christian, and he waits a moment before assuring her he wants to go. He tells her he's been looking forward to spending the next week in India, and he stresses how remaining friends is important to him as well. "Besides, it'd be bad manners to refuse a wedding gift, wouldn't it?"
"Yeah," Christian says, then waits for the display to dim. Sighing, he resolves to lie down for a moment, but the comforter, too thin for the cold room, reeks of cigarette smoke. It irritates him. He eases out of the bed so as not to wake the woman and then begins to scavenge the room for his clothes—gathers his jeans, belt, and collar shirt before retreating to the bathroom where the tiles, a checkerboard of grey and white, sting his feet, the sensation like standing in snow.
It's been three days since Christian took what his mother calls a good, long-and-hard look at himself, and he cannot bring himself to turn the light on and face the mirror. The blondish-brown hairs are still growing in patches around his chin and along the apple-like curve of his neck. Stepping into the shower, Christian runs his hands along his cheeks and estimates some areas at half an inch. Since meeting Archana, he has never gone this long, fourteen days and counting, without shaving. Like her, he's never taken to the feel of facial hair but decides he will stick to his resolution and continue to let it grow until he is back in the U.S. Perhaps it will start to even out in the coming week, Christian thinks. Perhaps he will decide to keep it forever.
Christian pries the bar of soap from its candy-like wrapper and pulls the knob out and all the way to the left. The instant heat of the water pleases him. It is, he decides, the one thing he likes about motels, and in a few seconds' time the bathroom mirror starts to fog, the steam rising in whorls off Christian's chest as he drives the bar hard to scour the scent of cigarettes away.
The woman is awake when he returns. She is leaning against the headboard, the top half of her exposed from the covers, her tanned skin bronze and freckled save the imprint of a bikini that's marked her breasts with identical, pale white triangles. Christian cannot eying her as he searches for the second condom. To him, she is the antithesis of his ex-fiancé, who will not even undress in front of him unless the lights have been turned off. Unlike Archana, the woman seems perfectly at ease, just sitting there, unsmiling and reticent, thumping a pack of Marlboros against her palm while blotched across her cheeks run traces of blush and eye shadow, both of which she wears, Christian believes, to make up for the features that she lacks.
Lifting the bed skirt, Christian discovers the Trojan, dried out and wrinkled there like an abandoned snakeskin. He punctures it with the motel pen and conveys it to the bathroom where it takes two flushes to go down. Returning to the room, he shakes the half-handle of vodka on the vanity. Empty. Unfortunate, Christian thinks and then sets seven twenties and two tens at the foot of the bed. "For the room service," he clarifies, and then takes his leave.
It is a half-hour cab ride to Houston's southwest side. There, Christian instructs the driver to pull along the row of condominiums. He carries his duffle bag up to Archana's unit. Outside, he picks up hints of incense, the smell, like Mrs. Rai's blurring of Hindi and English, striking him as another cultural hurdle he and her mother wouldn't have been able to cross anyway.
Mrs. Rai meets him in the foyer. She is a short, round-faced woman whose ears are always weighted with gold earrings. A white streak runs up the part in her hair, and as Christian slides off his shoes, he notices that there are hundreds of penny-sized mirrors woven into the fabric of her dress. Seeing his face in them, he wonders if Mrs. Rai will comment on his beard, but she's preoccupied with his bag, lifting it up and down as if to discern its contents. She says something in Hindi and then holds her hand to her temple. "How will you fit everything in here, damaad?" she asks, and it is at this point that Archana's father yells at her to leave his son-in-law alone. The couple's combativeness, which had initially intimidated Christian, he now regards as common for a South Indian family.
"I like to travel light, auntie," Christian explains. He moves to give her a hug, but Mrs. Rai steps back.
"What did I tell you?" she says. "You're family now. Call me 'saas.'"
Christian mispronounces the word. Nevertheless, the gesture pleases Mrs. Rai, who pulls him to her by the elbows, her sari crinkling as they hug. Christian cannot recall if he's ever seen her wear anything else.
Satisfied, Mrs. Rai disappears into the bedroom and closes the door behind her. Christian migrates to the living room where Archana's father, a cardiologist in San Antonio, has his feet on the ottoman. He holds the business section across his lap as Archana's boxer, Sampson, lays beside him. Folding the paper, Dr. Rai smiles, shakes Christian's hand and comments on his beard, noting it will fill out sooner or later if he continues to let it grow. Christian thanks him and motions for Sampson to come close. He pets him behind his ear and spends the next few minutes trying to recall the Hindi word for father-in-law when Dr. Rai raises the issue of wedding details—all of which Christian proposes they discuss after his and Archana's return.
Dr. Rai, who likes everything planned in advance, seems disappointed yet concedes. He changes the subject then to his daughter's whereabouts.
"In the washroom," Archana's mother yells from the bedroom.
"It's been ten minutes," Dr. Rai notes. "What's she doing in there?"
"You think she consults me every time she goes in?"
Dr. Rai shakes his head, a silent appeal for his son-in-law's sympathies. "Why the need to raise your voice all the time?" he asks. "Why? I asked but a simple question."
"I don't know," Mrs. Rai replies. "She is probably applying her makeup or something."
"Why should she fight it?" Dr. Rai says. "She'll end up looking like her mother anyway."
Christian smiles. It's the fourth or fifth time Archana's father has told him this.
It was two and a half weeks ago, just days after their split, that Christian decided he would miss Dr. Rai the most out of Archana's family. He and Archana had been dating for three months when he was first given a glimpse of the man whom he would later call his sasur. It was a few days after a long weekend when Archana reached for the shoebox beneath her bed and fanned the photographs across her dorm room floor. She told him she'd been searching for her immunization records when she found them in a crate at the back of her parents' closet. There were dozens in there, she said. Black-and-white stills from her parents' childhoods. Pictures of her father plowing okra fields and of her mother attending temple gatherings where children ate lunches on palm leaves the size of elephants' ears. Pictures that neither she nor her brother knew existed.
The one that interested Archana most was an 8"x10" family portrait from her father's side. The photograph had yellowed with time and, having been folded in half, featured a crease running across its center as well as a small tear in the upper right corner. Accordingly, Archana asked Christian to be careful handling it. Out of the eight she'd taken, this one dated the furthest back. She'd never seen pictures of her father as a child before.
The two spent the next half-hour on their stomachs while Archana pointed out her paternal grandparents seated in the fold-out chairs, her two uncles, three living aunts and finally the fourth and youngest sister, who would be lost to pneumonia in the coming months and whose face was, ironically, Christian had thought, scarred by the horizontal crease. Christian studied the figure of Archana's father the longest, estimated him, the tallest of the siblings and staring a little to the left of the camera, as thirteen years old. Dr. Rai's cheeks were thinner then. He was developing the trimmings of a mustache yet had the same, jet-black hair parted to the side that Christian would recognize months later when Archana introduced the two.
Christian had also been stealing glances at Archana that night, trying to match the aquiline curve of her nose and high cheekbones, scanning her face for signs of inheritance when she confessed she was looking for someone to help her restore the photo, perhaps to blow it up. It was important that the picture wasn't in pristine condition, she explained. It wouldn't have been the same gesture otherwise. Her father would understand and appreciate more the effort she'd put into restoring it. She and her father were the same in that way. "I want to get it framed for his birthday. A nice one, too—black most likely," she said as she tossed around other possibilities, asking Christian for his opinion along the way.
Christian didn't know how to answer her that night. She had, of course, been asking what he thought with respect to the frame, but Christian wanted to tell her that her intention as a whole probably wasn't the best of ideas, that some people kept their pasts closeted for a reason. In the end, though, he simply played the boyfriend's role and concurred with the last thing she'd said, agreed that black, matted, would be the ideal. He even found an art student who would do the work quickly and for a nominal fee.
Still, Christian is unsure if his esteem for Archana's father stems from the fact that the he speaks exclusively in English whenever he's in the room—if that somehow plays into his belief that Dr. Rai has made the most concerted effort to welcome him to the family—or if it has more to do with their shared experience of having fathers who abandoned their families when times got tough. Out of Archana's family, Christian feels uncomfortable most with deceiving Dr. Rai, who he trusts will be the kindest to his memory after their trip is over and done with.
Archana, with her hair pulled into a knot, does a double-take when she spots Christian's beard. She has always made clear her thoughts on facial hair. She does not like the feel of stubble grazing her skin. Her policy is that he tell her if she needs to tend to the hairs on her legs because she will not hesitate to hand him his razor—which, for Christian, becomes an issue after three or four days. Today, however, Archana doesn't comment on his beard, Christian knows, because she does not want to betray the fact that it's two weeks since the two have seen each other. That conversation would surely raise questions in her parents' minds, and already inquisitive by her nature, Mrs. Rai would undoubtedly ask for what reason the two had been apart. Perhaps Archana would break down and confess that the two are calling off the wedding. Christian can imagine her doing this, telling her side of the story while he sits there, Archana telling them how he's been unfaithful, that he slept with another woman. Christian wonders if he would offer his own side of the story then, point out that it was, in fact, she who cheated first.
Archana, however, handles the situation without incident. That she doesn't act out of the ordinary as they discuss the trip impresses him, and Christian tries harder to find inconsistencies with her character, discovers that she has twisted her—or, more precisely—his engagement ring around so that the diamond lies concealed in her fist. Christian notices, too, that Archana's bangs are wet, her face a quarter-shade lighter than usual, and he begins to wonder if Dr. Rai realizes his daughter isn't wearing makeup, that she's probably been washing her face in the bathroom, something she often does to hide the fact she's been crying. Christian, though, continues to pet Sampson. He keeps his suspicions to himself.
When the puja is ready, Archana's mother stands the two side by side before the vanity, upon which she has placed two, bronze-carved statues of Radha and Krishna, the latter posed as though serenading the former with a flute in hand and a peacock plume rising from his headband. This is the fifth Hindu ceremony Christian has taken part in, and he's since learned to keep quiet while Archana's mother goes through the rituals, explaining the significance of each action along the way. The twenty-dollar bills she has them place at the idols' feet will guarantee them future wealth, she says; the rose petals they drop over the statues will, inexplicably, Christian thinks, bring them good health. Minutes later, Archana's mother dips her finger into a cup of red powder and dots a tikka between Archana's and Christian's eyebrows. When she assures them this will bring them a long, happy life together, the two break out in laughter, each one blaming the other for starting it. When their fit is finally over, Christian has to fight the urge to request Mrs. Rai repeat the last step.
"Tik hai," Archana's mother says. "Laugh. Laugh away God's gifts. Do you not see this, Shankar?" she asks. "How your daughter has learned nothing?"
"Yes, but she will still end up looking like you," Dr. Rai tells her.
Christian starts laughing again. Dr. Rai's joke, it's never been this funny before.
Even though he'd wanted to end their relationship on the harshest terms possible, the fact they can still laugh together pleases Christian, and he suddenly feels pangs of guilt for his plan to abandon her later. The guilt heightens when Archana's parents lead Sampson outside and the two are alone and laughing in the foyer. For a moment it looks as if Archana will touch Christian's beard, but she stops short, disappointing him.
"Looks good on you," she says.
"You don't really mean that."
"You're right. You should shave it," Archana says and then locks the door behind them. Outside, the sun, a mix of pink and orange, is still ascending out of the horizon, though the heat and humidity suggest an hour much later in the day. Squinting, Archana stares at the roof of her parents' minivan. "Can I ask you a question, Chris?"
"Another one?" Christian asks—a play on his familiar tease.
"Where were you last night?"
Christian shakes his head and slips the strap of his duffle over his shoulder. He takes to the stairs and says, "I thought we agreed not to ask each other that question anymore."
The trip, an eight-day, all-expenses paid journey was supposed to be an early wedding gift. It wasn't about having fun, though, Archana's mother warned the two. She instructed them on what outfits to buy for the wedding, which stores to go to in Delhi's Connaught Place. In Bangalore and Hyderabad they were to visit the temples she'd listed on a sheet of paper and perform the pujas bulleted beneath each, taking pictures as proof that they'd been. But have fun, too, Archana's father joked, handing them the tickets.
By the time they decided to end things, though—two and a half weeks before takeoff—the representative made clear that a refund was, unfortunately, impossible. The same held true for changing passengers' names. You can't do that anymore, the woman explained, especially not on international flights, not after 9/11. When asked if alternatives existed, the woman told them that they could, for a fee, push the date back, postpone the vacation, take it together at a later time.
Both Christian and Archana vetoed the idea.
Luckily, the reservations for the chapel for the Christian service, the temple for the Hindu ceremony, and the ballroom for the reception hadn't been finalized. With both weddings to take place over Thanksgiving—still eight months away—they hadn't even chosen among the three final wedding invitations. Save the trip, nothing had been paid for, and when Archana learned she couldn't return the tickets, she started to panic.
She didn't know how to explain it. It wasn't really about the money, she explained over the phone. Ultimately, it would be of little concern to her parents. The real problem lay in announcing their estrangement, the reasons behind it—and with her father constantly pressuring her to finalize wedding details, their disillusionment was next to impossible to bring up. And that was how Archana approached the proposal. She needed the distance from her parents and from her rotations at school. It would be good for the two of them, too, she reasoned. The trip would give them time to settle their differences, to put to rest the accusations of who had cheated on whom first and arrive at the resolution that they could, at the very least, remain close friends. She would tell her mother and father after the trip, but in order to do that she needed them to believe that everything was fine—and for that to happen he would have to come along.
In the end, Christian agreed to go neither as a favor to Archana nor as a means to settle their differences and, as she put it, to remain close friends. Instead, he saw the trip as a point of departure, a moment after which he could cut off contact, and, as if to emphasize his resolve, he scrolled down his contacts after the conversation and erased Archana's entry.
Since, Christian has felt only two pangs of regret: the first this morning when he and Archana shared their first laugh in weeks and now when he and Dr. Rai shake at the airport. The finality of the surgeon's hand against his own makes him realize how, in a way, he is lucky that his own father left him without notice, sometime during a spring morning when he was too tired to notice from his cracked bedroom window that the Chevy rolling down the driveway and along the street was their own. Christian's dejection, however, is alleviated as they pass through the metal detector at security: Archana placing her engagement ring in the bowl before she enters, Christian picking it up once he passes through.
56-A. 56-B. The two place their carry-ons in the overhead and take their seats. When the FASTEN SEATBELT light goes off, Christian undoes his clasp and presses the service button, he says, to fix him a drink.
"What? Like alcohol?" Archana asks. "It's not even noon."
"You should adjust that." Christian tells her. "It's almost evening where we're going."
"It's past midnight in Delhi."
"You've got me there," Christian concedes and, thinking that his button is defective, hits Archana's instead. He orders a vodka and gets offended when the stewardess notes there's a five-drink maximum during the flight. "Can you believe her?" he asks Archana. "The nerve."
The plane veers towards the Atlantic, and Archana slides her shade to block out the light. "Don't worry. I'm sure your count resets on the connecting flight."
Christian checks the aisle for the stewardess. He sets his tray table down in anticipation.
They are four hours in when Christian steps out of the lavatory, where he has just ripped the Indian visa from his passport and flushed it. He bumps passengers' seatbacks as he makes his return. He stares for a moment at his sixth vodka tonic, the plastic cup stacked in the five before it. The drinks have made him lightheaded and at ease. Christian knows he's built up his tolerance in the past few weeks, and as he rolls an ice cube around in his mouth, he's unsure if he should feel proud or ashamed of that fact. No, Christian decides. He feels proud and, strangely, more courageous. "Can I ask you a question?"
"I'm not ordering you another one," she says.
"No. Not that," Christian says. "What are you going to tell your parents?"
Archana slips off her eye mask. "What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean. When you get back. Without me. What are you going to say?"
"I haven't thought it through."
"People are sleeping."
"Fine," Christian says. "But you've got some sort of plan, right? You going to buy a dress or two, take a few pictures, prove everything went fine until that fourth or fifth day. But then what? Like, I kill somebody? Start hitting you? You catch me with someone else?"
"Maybe I start to see flaws I didn't notice before."
"Your general personality," Archana says, slipping her mask back on.
The plane touches down in Barcelona at 10 p.m., a half hour behind schedule. When the FASTEN SEATBELT sign turns off, Archana grabs her purse and carry-on and follows Christian to the terminal. Speaking to the attendant, she notes they need to hurry to catch their connecting flight. Archana starts to wheel her luggage when she looks back and sees that Christian hasn't moved, that his duffle bag is on the floor at his feet.
"We're going to be late."
Christian slings the strap over his shoulder. He'd planned on saying something civil yet cold, simple but with a ring of finality, like, 'Goodbye, Archana.' But the thought of those words makes him feel awkward, fake. They remind him of the night when, at fifteen, he told his mother he was going to run away. She hadn't even come out of the kitchen. Just laughed, told him to go on, be like his father—and he'd tried, too, but never made as far as the freeway and came back two days later. Recalling the attempt, Christian wonders if his father had been drunk the night he left them. He wishes he'd saved his drinks for the latter half of the flight. Hoping she'll understand and be the one to walk away, Christian glances at the board. "You're going to miss your connecting flight."
"Our flight," Archana says.
"My visa, I ripped it out. Flushed it over the ocean. It's here or back home for me."
"This trip was supposed to be about us. It was supposed to—"
"Archana, please. I'm not your parents."
"Prove it," Christian says. He follows the hanging SALIDA/EXIT signs and glances back every few seconds to see if Archana is following. When they get to customs and the double doors behind the workers come into view, Christian finds a line and asks without turning. "Going to follow me all the way out there?"
"I won't have to," Archana says. "You can't just stop halfway through your fight and walk out of an airport. You won't get ten feet past those doors."
"I think they work in meters here."
Three or so meters past the doors Archana cannot believe that they're standing on the streets of Barcelona. Christian, likewise, cannot believe they, together, are standing on the streets of Barcelona.
"So what now?" Archana asks.
"No idea," Christian says. He'd planned on finding himself a prostitute.
Returning from an ATM, Christian hails a cab, then hands Archana a slip of paper, and Archana, surprised he's arranged for accommodations, converses with the driver in the Spanish she's retained from high school, instructing him that the sheet lists the name of the hostel where they wish to be taken. The establishment, which Christian found over the internet, is located at the center of Barcelona nightlife and features easy access to different sections of the city: Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia in the southern quarter, the Picasso Museum near the seafront, the hostel itself providing one of the walls enclosing a plaza.
The display on the dashboard reads just before midnight when they enter the heart of the city, the streets congested with passersby. Christian watches the scenes pan through the window: the bright lights of restaurants, sidewalks lined with white-clothed tables under spread umbrella awnings, a group of performers dancing for a crowd, young men and women smoking, drinking, having a good time.
"Do you think they'll let us get on the same flight back?" Archana wonders. Her parents, she notes, are supposed to pick them up.
"Both of us?" Christian asks, then apologizes and lets the matter drop. He admits that he hasn't thought that far ahead, though not thinking ahead is, in many ways, the point here. "Your best bet would probably be to get on the plane that connects to that one."
"The flight from Delhi?"
"Yeah," Christian says. "Sorry."
An hour later Christian finds himself sitting on a knee-high wall outside the hostel, next to him a liter of milk he's purchased from one of the vendors. He's been watching the crowd for some time, fiddling with Archana's engagement ring, seeing how far he can force it down one finger before trying the next. Though Christian isn't tired, it is a little over two hours past midnight, and the scene has begun to die down as the men and women, mostly younger than him, Christian estimates, pass him on their way home. Most of the few dozen who remain are couples, and Christian, taking a few pulls from the bottle, cannot help but study them. It is a habit of his and Archana's to observe couples in public places and guess how long they've been together, which date they are on, if it will work out. Here, though, Christian realizes the game is harder, or maybe it's just different. The Spanish are far more affectionate than Americans.
Christian watches a man and woman at the other end of the plaza, whose ages he cannot discern due to the distance. The two are a peddler and busker pair, the woman carrying a basket of roses, the man, dressed a white shirt and black vest, with a viola below his chin. They're working their way across the courtyard, making stops at each of the remaining couples, soliciting the men into buying a flower or a song or both for their companions. Trying to pull the ring off his pinky, where he's again managed to force it all the way down, Christian wonders, vaguely, if the peddlers, too, are a couple.
Archana steps out of the hostel a few minutes later. Christian slips the ring into his breast pocket, swirls the milk and takes another drink, coloring the tips of his moustache white.
"Never thought I'd see you drinking milk," Archana says.
"It's different here," Christian explains, scooting to make room. "Real milk. Straight from a cow to this glass. None of that pasteurization stuff."
"The pasteurization makes it safe," Archana says. Still, she takes a sip. Her face contorts as she hands it back. "Tastes awful," she says.
"Mixed it with rum," Christian explains and swirls it around to take another drink. "You get in touch with the airlines?"
"They've got me on the next flight out."
"Delhi. They said I'd have no problems getting on the connecting flight back home then."
Christian smiles. He licks his moustache. "Like none of this ever happened."
The two watch as another couple exit the plaza. Christian turns back to the peddlers, who are at a different table now, the woman, accepting a few coins, sticking the stem of a white rose into a bottle of red wine. At this distance, the two seem older than Christian first guessed, and he wonders if Archana feels anxious that they'll probably approach them soon. "How long you suppose those two have been together?"
Archana asks for the bottle and then takes a sip—a habit of hers when it comes to alcohol that annoys Christian and makes him want to say, If you want to drink, then drink. Archana takes a second sip, a third and asks, "The ones sitting or standing?"
"Standing," Christian says.
"Forever and a day," Archana says and then hands the bottle back.
The man lowers his bow to the strings, and Christian, listening for a moment, says, "Back at your house, outside the door. I wasn't admitting to anything, you know."
"I know," Archana says and then lets out a resigned laugh. "Technically, this would be my second failed attempt at marriage. My mom was still pregnant with me then. She'd come to an arrangement with one of her friends who'd gotten pregnant a few weeks earlier."
"Complications, you might say. I came out a week first."
"And that was the deal-breaker, was it?"
"Our stars didn't match up anymore. That's what she told me."
Christian takes another drink and holds the bottle at eye-level. He wants to ask what the boy's name was, though to do so would be providing a new context for the question he promised he'd no longer ask. Instead, he swirls the milk again. "You never told me that story."
"My mom didn't tell me until after we were engaged. She brought it up because she was lecturing me about the proper way to propose."
Christian smiles. That is something he can imagine Mrs. Rai doing. "And then came the second suitor."
"She wanted you to ask them first, you know. Like for my hand in marriage."
"Would I have had to get down on a knee before her?"
Archana laughs, then opens her purse. She pulls out a felt box and holds it carefully like a secret, like a flame. "If you wouldn't have, I would have, you know. Asked you to marry me, I mean. Six and a half years is a long time to make a girl wait."
Though he's perfectly aware of what's inside, Christian asks her what it's supposed to be. But there's no mistaking it, the felt exactly like the one he petted with his thumb for hours before proposing at the restaurant where they'd celebrated their six-month anniversary.
"It's a gift," Archana says. "I wanted to give it to you on our wedding day."
"You should return it," Christian tells her.
"Misplaced the receipt."
Christian smiles. He pulls out Archana's ring from his pocket and places it in her hand.
"No," she says. "No. Yours was much more expensive."
"No," Christian tells her. "This is yours. You keep it."
"Never thought I'd hear you say that. Not drunk, not sober."
"Must be the milk talking. It's unpasteurized, you know."
"I know," Archana says and opens the felt box. She takes Christian's hand and eases the silver band down his finger, the process smoother than Archana's proved to be.
"An un-wedding," Christian says.
"The best," Christian says and turns his attention to the peddlers. It's clear that they're older than he imagined, and as the pair cross the plaza, Christian suddenly realizes that they must think they've witnessed an engagement. Shaking his head, he holds his hands out in protest. "No, no, no. No hablas Español," he shouts.
The man gives him a look. "Pero hablandos Español."
The woman smiles beside him. "Para tu prometida," she says.
"No. No, thank you," Christian says. "Gracias. No."
Getting up, Archana starts to sift through the flowers. "Cuantos?" she says, and the three converse while Christian sits and takes a pull from the bottle, picking out from their conversation the few Spanish words he's learned. Then, when Archana pulls some money out of her purse the woman gasps as if chastising her.
"She says you should be the one buying them."
"Of course I should be the one buying them," Christian says. Except for the euros he left on the nightstand, the set of twenty-dollar bills are all he has left since tipping the vendor for the milk and rum. Resignedly, Christian hands the woman a twenty. He tells Archana to get as many as she can.
Archana picks out four roses, three white, one red. She hands a white one to the man and a white one to the woman, both of whom look baffled and are, Christian guesses, asking Archana what she thinks she's doing. Accepting the scarlet flower, he, too, wants to ask Archana what she thinks she's doing. "Well, we all have one now. Great."
"Musica," Archana says.
The man sets his viola and looks to Christian, expectantly.
"No," Christian says. "No musica."
Except for five or six others, the plaza has emptied, and the two move slowly in a circle, Archana leading because Christian cannot dance. Going around a few times, Christian starts to feel at ease with Archana's arms around his shoulders, her cheek against his chest, and each time the peddlers come into view, he cannot help but think that the two must be happily married, the old man always dedicating his songs to his wife in secret. The thought pleases Christian, albeit in a sad way—to know that the man and the woman are happy together, just as they must assume he and Archana will be.
Perhaps things would have been different if she hadn't cheated on him, Christian thinks, or, in some strange way, if he had cheated on her first. But it is too late for that now, Christian knows. In the morning it will be over. Six years, eight months, and he does not know how many days. Going around another time, Christian wonders what Archana will tell people when she gets back. For most, he is certain that the news will come as a complete surprise. Everyone seemed to conclude that they were just right for one another, that the two would make the perfect interracial pair. The blue, almost gray-green of his mother's eyes, the golden brown of her father's complexion. Just think, their friends and family had all told them, your children will be gorgeous.
Rajesh Reddy earned his MFA in creative writing from Indiana University-Bloomington, where he also earned an MA in English. While there, he was the recipient of the Omar S. Castaneda and Booth Tarkington awards in fiction. His work has appeared in The Yellow Book, Narratives, and The Interlochen Review.