When Emily Barrett came to Priya’s door with news of the baby, both women’s husbands were meeting with the Indian Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, negotiating the trade of American chicken thighs. Priya was working from home that day and had been growing restless at her computer, as she often did by late afternoon. But, looking at Emily through the peephole, she was reminded of unfinished tasks that suddenly felt important—a calendar invitation to which she hadn’t responded, a text message from her cousin Deepika, and a message to Kiran’s teacher that she had drafted but not yet sent. When she opened the door, she saw that Emily was crying.
“Don’t worry,” Emily said. “They’re happy tears. Can I come in?”
Priya waved her inside and then went into her bedroom in search of tissues, returning with a roll of toilet paper.
“I can’t reach Doug.” Emily pulled a stream of paper loose and wiped her nose. They sat down on the couch.
“They’re working late,” Priya said. Emily’s leg brushed against hers and Priya was unsettled by the intimacy of it all—the wet sounds, the story waiting to surface, and the smudge of lipstick at the corner of Emily’s mouth that she felt a reflex to wipe.
“They found us a match,” Emily said. “A little girl.”
“A little girl?”
“A baby, Priya. We finally got the call.”
“Oh. Oh, my goodness,” Priya said. “Emily.”
Emily had mentioned her childlessness once or twice in the months that she and Priya had known each other, but never with any apparent sadness or urgency. She was a few years younger than Priya and was so maternal that Priya figured that motherhood was just a matter of time for her. She had a girlish affection for Priya’s daughter, Leela, buying her fruit-scented lip glosses that Priya confiscated, and, once, French braiding Leela’s hair at a party so that she emerged looking crowned, ceremonial, and several years older—a look that Priya was unable to replicate the following morning when her daughter came into the living room holding her hairbrush and sat on the floor, her shoulder blades to Priya’s knees. “You made it puffy,” Leela said when Priya finished. “Mrs. Barrett does it better.” She had pulled the braid loose on the way to school and left the tie on her booster seat, tangled with hair.
“You can’t imagine,” Emily said. “We’ve been trying for years. It just never took. And every month, it was like another death. I would look at families like yours and tell Doug, ‘God, I want to be that woman.’”
Priya stared at her, baffled. Deep in her most private memories, she was still a gangly teenager with accented English, a ferocious unibrow, and a wardrobe made up of her older brother’s hand-me-down college sweatshirts. At Tufts, Priya’s freshman roommate, Genevieve, had taken her under her wing in a manner that, looking back, was tinged with condescension and racism, but at the time proved to be very helpful: She waxed Priya’s eyebrows, took her to Filene’s Basement to find a well-fitting bra and stretchy jeans, and cut the neckline of Priya’s T-shirts so that they hung from her shoulders. “This isn’t like, Saudi Arabia,” she’d once said. “You can show some skin.” Later, Priya told her husband, Ben, the story and was relieved that he found it funny, and by her own ability to laugh at the distant thought of Genevieve. By the end of college, she had begun to feel—if not pretty, exactly—in control of herself. She bought a used bike and began riding around the streets of Somerville on the weekends. Her body became tighter and stronger. She pierced her nose and wore her hair in a long braid. She was newly aware that men flirted with her. But Ben was the first man who fell for her, who told her she was sexy and that he couldn’t stop thinking about her. “Let me look at you,” he always said before she stepped into the shower, studying her as though seeing her naked for the first time. He talked about the type of father he wanted to be—sturdy and loving, as his own had been, but more worldly and ambitious. On the afternoon he met her parents, he slipped his shoes off at their door, complimented her mother’s cooking, then hauled their rickety ladder from the garage and helped her father change the HVAC filter. “A nice boy,” her mother said, when Priya announced their engagement. “It’s lucky for us that you found such a nice boy.”
She was lucky. She knew she was lucky. It shocked her, sometimes, to think about all that Ben had given her: the love and adoration, and eventually the children. Still, even now, it was strange to think that a woman like Emily could envy her for any detail of her life. “Well,” she said. “It’s wonderful news.”
“And a girl,” Emily said. “I’ve wanted a little girl since I was a little girl.”
“Virginia,” Priya said to Ben that night. “They are naming the baby Virginia.”
“That’s a nice enough name,” he said. He had come home to a quiet house, the children already asleep, and now stood over the stove, eating pieces of okra directly from the pan.
“An Indian baby named Virginia?” Priya said, handing him a bowl.
“The way I see it,” he said, “Doug Barrett’s going to retire from this job after seven, eight more tours. In the meantime, they’ll probably live on an American compound and send her to the embassy school, then spend some time in the States. Not sure that this will be an Indian baby, really.”
“Being Indian isn’t like being from Maine,” Priya said. “You can’t just leave the place and suddenly you’re not from there anymore. If this baby grows up and has kids, even they’ll look Indian. And then they might wonder, understandably, why their mother’s name is Virginia.”
Ben finished his okra and rinsed the bowl.
“That’s all you’re eating?”
“I’m more tired than I am hungry,” he said.
She tried to think of something to pull him back, perhaps something charming to tell him about the kids, but tonight there was little to report. Both had been tired at the end of the day and had retreated to their separate corners. Leela had fallen asleep with the bedroom light on, a crayon in hand and her drawing pad splayed open on her chest. Kiran had spent most of the night reading a book called Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, and then quietly slipped off to bed while Priya was washing the dishes. Maybe a year ago Priya would have looked forward to sharing this detail with her husband, but Kiran’s earnestness had become a source of concern, a former detail of their son’s character that now defined him. Priya rarely heard him laugh. In the games of twenty questions that they used to enjoy together, he had become increasingly obscure: Sitting Bull, Sophie Scholl, Chiang Kai-shek. Ben frequently asked Priya if he had friends at school.
“There’s more to this,” she said to Ben as they lay in bed later that night. “I don’t think that’s the full story, that they can just adopt this baby and name her what they want and that’s the end of it.”
“I’d like to make it the end of the story, if you don’t mind.”
“But it isn’t.”
“Priya,” Ben said, sitting up and checking the alarm. “I’ve been talking since seven in the morning. I was in stop-and-go traffic for two hours coming home. I can’t do this right now.”
“Fine,” she said.
“This country exhausts me sometimes. I love being here, and I love that you and the kids are here, but it’s exhausting. I can’t get anyone to listen. They nod and nod. They nod for hours. I’ve never seen people who can nod like this. And in the end, you’ve had seven hours of nodding and no answer.”
“Well, it’s hard to move something nobody wants.”
“Bullshit. It’s USDA high-quality stuff, and we’re selling it below market.”
“It’s a bad deal,” she said.
“It isn’t a bad deal. It’s cheap protein, and we’d be throwing it away in the States. It’s a win-win.”
“You know that’s not true. You can’t make another country take American scraps. Would it ever occur to the State Department to sell chicken thighs to a European country? I can answer you. It would not.”
“It’s all compliant with Indian import regulations,” he said. “All perfectly ethical.”
“Ethical and compliant are different things.”
“It’s my job, Priya,” Ben said. “And that’s the end of it. I’m just doing my job.” He had turned off his bedside lamp but Priya’s was still lit. He leaned across her body and pulled the cord.
She woke up early the next morning, before the children, when Ben was just beginning to stir. He was facing the wall, his back to her, and though he often slept this way, she wondered if it was a slight. She put her hand on his shoulder. “Hey,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
He reached over and squeezed her wrist.
“That was a stupid fight,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with the deal you’re working on. If they accept, they accept. And I’m happy for the Barretts.” She felt a mingling of dread and need, as she always did on the morning after an argument. She wanted either to forgive him or be forgiven. She wanted him to want her, and then to be acquiescent in the way he was after sex.
“I don’t even remember,” he said, turning to her. “What argument?” He slid his hand beneath her T-shirt and she drew him closer, slipping off her underwear and wrapping her legs around his. They fucked in the same way they had nearly every time since the children were born: quickly and quietly, lying on their sides. Afterward, she carried their coffee to the balcony. The air was smoky, like a campfire comingling with sweat and ripe fruit. She had once tried to describe this to Ben before their arrival, but realized that it was an impossible task, that the memory of smell couldn’t be shared or explained.
“It’s good news for the Barretts,” she said. “Complicated, maybe. But best-case scenario, you have two happy parents and a kid who is loved.” She stared at a small, gravelly patch of hair underneath Ben’s chin that he had missed while shaving. She had a brief and childish thought that he could take the day off from work. They could have lunch together, just the two of them, then languid afternoon sex and a long and perfect nap. They used to do this years ago, when they lived in DC. Kiran was a toddler then. They had been assigned their second overseas move, a two-year tour in São Paulo, and were enrolled in a full-time Portuguese course through the State Department—a requirement of the job for Ben, and a spousal benefit for Priya. For some administrative reason that Priya could no longer remember, classes weren’t held on alternating Fridays. On those days, they would drop Kiran at day care, then go for burgers and beer at the pub a few blocks from their apartment complex. Afterward, they always walked home, a little tipsy, and spent the rest of the day in bed, waking up just before five o’clock when the day care closed. In the evening, they would pack a picnic for Kiran and head to their local playground or make him a simple dinner—pasta and pesto, a black-bean quesadilla—and delight in watching him eat. After he went to sleep, they’d sit next to each other on the couch and spread their notebooks on the coffee table. Those were the elements of their lives, then: Kiran, sex, food, class. Thinking back to that time made Priya ache. She missed their lockstep existence.
“They’ll be just fine,” Ben said. “There are a lot of different ways a family can look.”
“I’m not disagreeing with that.”
“I just mean that people are sometimes better than we give them credit for.”
They sat together, alone, until Leela emerged, rubbing her eyes, and climbed onto Ben’s lap. “Daddy,” she said. “Kiran knows how many casualties there were in Stalingrad. On both sides.”
On Priya and Ben’s first date, fifteen years earlier, he told her that his childhood dream was to be a spy, that one summer he had read twelve John le Carré novels in quick succession. He told her that he’d entered a CIA essay contest for high-school students and received an honorable mention for his submission, titled “On the Brink: Diplomacy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” For the years when they struggled—with sleeplessness after the children’s births and a miscarriage in between, a roach infestation in their East Village apartment, a security alert in Guatemala that kept them trapped inside for three days—they would tell each other that they were “on the brink.” Of one thing I am certain, Priya would say—the first sentence of the essay, which Ben still kept in their file cabinet—language can denuclearize. It can pull nations away from the brink.
“I knew there was more to the world than Bangor, Maine,” Ben said that first evening. “I wanted a piece of it.”
“And now?” she asked.
“Feels like a kid’s fantasy,” he said. “I can’t get back to it.” He was in his second year as an associate at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, and wore shirts that looked painfully tight at his collar. When they first undressed each other some days later, she would notice a pink band around his neck, as though he had been choked.
“You could do some version of it. Maybe not a spy, per se, but some version.” She told him that her family’s move from Delhi to New Jersey when she was ten years old had been abrupt; her parents described it as a brief vacation, and it was a full school year before she realized that they were not returning home.
She and Ben dated for six months before moving in together, squeezing their few possessions into her studio on Twelfth Street. On the day he passed the Foreign Service Officer Test, they sat across from each other at a Thai restaurant on the corner of their block. They talked about all of the places they wanted to live. Ben was fascinated by Central America, and Priya wanted to get back to India. But beyond that were so many cities they knew they would fall in love with: Riga, Prague, Budapest. Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Taipei. Kigali, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam. Just saying those names made Priya feel as though she and Ben were on the cusp of beginning their lives.
He left for training in DC while she stayed behind to pack the apartment. She found, at the back of the closet, an old pushpin map he had hung over his bed as a child, a small hole marking the two countries he had visited before he left home for college: England and Mexico. The edges were soft and feathered. She smoothed it on the bed, thinking that she would eventually have it framed for him.
They had been in Guatemala for a few months—Ben in his job at the embassy, and Priya working remotely for an international-development nonprofit based in DC—when he said, “I can’t do any more visa interviews. I can’t listen to any more damn stories.”
“You can,” Priya had said. “You have to.” She reminded Ben that her own parents had come to the States through the same type of consular window. Had the officer been too tired to listen, she and Ben wouldn’t have met.
“I know,” he said. “You tell me that every time I have a shitty day. And I would like, for once, to have a shitty day without also feeling guilty about it.” He was lying on the couch with his head in her lap as she mindlessly reviewed a USAID grant application, forgetting the content of each sentence by the time she started the next one.
“A woman just screamed at me today,” he said. “She was maybe my fiftieth visa interview of the day.”
Priya ran her fingers through his hair.
“She said she wanted to see her son. She said he was a US citizen, and she just wanted a tourist visa to see him for a week.”
“I couldn’t justify it,” he said. “It was a textbook case. She would have overstayed her visa, and you know that.”
“You rejected her?” Priya asked. She knew that Ben had turned down other applicants, that he likely approved only a fraction of the people who stood before him, but this was different. A mother who just wanted to see her child. Priya pulled away and let Ben’s head slide from her lap onto the cushion.
“It was a mess, Priya. I haven’t seen anything like it before. She screamed. Banged on the window. I had to call security.”
She stared down at him until he turned away. “You called security on a mother?”
“What was I supposed to do? It’s my job. I’m just doing my job.”
For the next few nights she ate her dinner before he got home from work. She closed the door of her study until after he had gone to bed, then, when the lights were off, lay down and turned her back to him. She wanted occasionally to apologize or forgive but she didn’t know who had wronged whom. A week or so later, she felt the sharp cramping of her period, but the blood never came. Instead, there was intense bloating and periods of crying, then a night when she ate an entire container of dulce de leche and a sleeve of saltines, and a morning when she gagged while brushing her teeth.
“I’m sorry,” he said, kissing her belly.
Priya raised the matter of Virginia with their housekeeper, Gomathi. “The neighbor is adopting a baby,” she said, though she did not know the Hindi word for adopt, so she said instead, receive. The neighbor is receiving a baby.
“That’s good news, madam,” Gomathi said. She was sorting through a thin layer of lentils on the counter.
“You think so?” Priya asked. She could not understand the dynamics of her relationship with Gomathi. Sometimes, the conversation between them was easy and informal. Other times, Gomathi’s language was clipped, her body tightening ever so slightly, as though she were waiting for Priya to leave the room.
Gomathi picked up a small stone, the color of the lentils, and set it to the side. “It’s very good,” she said. “Bahut accha hai.”
Emily had introduced herself by email three weeks before Priya and Ben arrived in Delhi, when Priya was consumed by details of the move. This would be their fourth tour: They had lived in Guatemala City, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires, and by then she was used to all of it—the chaos of packing, the wonder of a new place. But Delhi was different. She spent hours on Google Maps exploring routes between the apartment in which they would live and her childhood neighborhood. She had enrolled in an advanced Hindi course—both of her parents were native Tamil speakers, but they had grown up in Delhi and spoke enough Hindi at home that she had a basic command of it—and on the weekends drove the children to a sitar class and to the Indian grocery store in Silver Spring. She chatted with her cousin Deepika via Skype, assembling her family in front of the computer and once forcing a dismal conversation between Ben and Deepika’s husband, focused mostly on exchange rates. “How much time, exactly, do you think we’ll be spending with your family when we get there?” Ben asked, delicately.
He read the email from Emily first, addressed to Priya but sent to both of them, then waved her to the computer. Dear Priya, Emily had written. We are so excited to be neighbors when you and your family get here. We’ve loved our time in Delhi. There is a HUGE American community, and lots of amenities. We don’t have kids (yet), but we’ve heard that the embassy school is amazing! Though we will sadly be on a (much-overdue) trip to Italy when you arrive, we would happily arrange for you to borrow our housekeeper. She’s a great cook and speaks great English. Let me know!
“Borrow,” Priya repeated to Ben. “Borrow?” She had been chopping green chiles that night and the tips of her fingers burned, a sensation that, months later, she would still associate with Emily Barrett. “Would anyone say this about a French or German housekeeper? Here, borrow her. I won’t need her back for a week. Go nuts.”
“I doubt she meant anything by it,” Ben said. “And I spent twenty minutes talking with your cousin’s husband about aluminum exports. So, in the spirit of diplomacy, could you just send her a note of thanks?”
In lieu of the housekeeper, the Barretts had left them a welcome basket when Ben, Priya, and the children arrived in Delhi: Red Delicious apples, sliced white bread, and two jars of peanut butter—one chunky and one smooth. There was a Domino’s Pizza menu on the table with a Post-It stuck to it that read, They deliver until midnight! In the fridge were a carton of eggs, a six-pack of Michelob Ultra, and a half gallon of Horizon milk, all stamped with the distinctive mark of the American commissary. “Good thing,” Priya said to Ben. “Because certainly there are no cows here. God knows we can’t buy milk locally.”
Ben snorted and kissed her on the head.
Though she knew the children would be tired from travel, Priya had scripted the first hours of her family’s arrival. They would walk to Khan Market for kebabs, sounding out the Hindi print on road signs and storefronts. They would explore Lodhi Gardens, where Priya recalled playing with her grandfather when she was Leela’s age, though once, when she had mentioned this, her mother had declared it impossible. Neither of her grandfathers, she had told Priya, had spent time in Delhi. “I’m positive it was thaththa,” Priya told her mother, who simply restated her position: It must have been somebody else. Her grandparents hated traveling. They rarely left Chennai, and certainly never visited them in Delhi. Priya was embarrassed by what she realized was a jumble of unreliable memories, forced into place the way Leela sometimes affixed two puzzle pieces together that did not match, pressing one set of spokes hopefully into the gaps of another.
“I was thinking we could explore the city,” she said, as Ben opened a beer. “See the gardens. Get something to eat.” He tipped the open bottle toward her and she shook her head, walking instead into the dining room where Kiran had made himself a sandwich and Leela was spooning peanut butter directly from the jar into her mouth. They did go out that night, but made it only two blocks before Leela started crying. She was tired, she said. Her legs didn’t work. Ben carried her home and they ordered pizza—the fusion tandoori special—which arrived topped with mint chutney and chunks of vegetable and paneer. Kiran wolfed it down, but the sight of it made Leela cry again. “I hate bell peppers,” she said.
The Barretts invited them for cocktails the following week. Emily set out a platter of oatmeal cookies and a bowl of Goldfish crackers. She pulled from her closet a set of American Girl dolls and arranged them on the floor for Leela, later giving her one to take home—a redhead named Maryellen that came with her own tiny suitcase and a set of plastic brushes.
“Emily’s fine,” Ben said afterward. “She was very sweet with the kids, if you didn’t notice. Give her a chance.”
“I never said she wasn’t,” Priya said.
“Both of them are fine,” he said. “What you see is what you get. And we should return the gesture sometime soon, once we’re settled in.”
Emily wasn’t fine, though, Priya felt. She reread the email sent before their arrival, signed the Barretts. “She’s the type of woman to change her last name. And they’re the only other diplomatic family in the building, which means that we will have to be friends.”
“Most women change their last names.”
“Doubtful,” Priya said. “It’s become a fringe practice.”
Ben settled the matter through Google. “Eighty percent of American women,” he said. “Those are the numbers. What else you got?”
“A hunch,” Priya said. She watched their daughter arrange Maryellen on the floor and run a brush through her hair.
Deepika still lived in the flat that her family and Priya’s had shared when they were children. For nearly the first decade of their lives, the two of them slept in the same bed, like sisters. “If I had married into more money, I would have sold it and bought a newer development,” Deepika had said on Priya’s first visit. “The suburbs are becoming very nice. Very classy.”
Priya had never heard the word classy used without ironic intention. Had she been less struck by nostalgia she would have laughed. “It’s still beautiful,” she said. She touched the wooden frame of the balcony door, then twisted the knob. The tightness was familiar, swollen from heat just as it was when she was a child.
“It would be nicer if we could have an electric stove,” Deepika said. She followed Priya onto the balcony where the children’s clothes dangled from the line.
On the evening after Emily shared the news, Priya went to Deepika’s flat and they sat across from each other at the kitchen table. Deepika split a pomegranate in half and Priya pulled one side toward herself, prying the seeds from their casing and dropping them into a bowl. “You remember that family you met at our place?” Priya said. “Our neighbors. They’re adopting a baby girl. From Pune.”
“Lovely,” Deepika said. “What a wonderful thing.”
Priya looked across the room at the girls. They were playing a game called ponythat seemed, from the fragments of conversation that Priya overheard, to have nothing to do with actual ponies. “You be the owner,” Leela was saying. “And I’ll be the mom. And tomorrow there will be a party.”
“You don’t think it might be complicated?” Priya asked. “An American couple and an Indian baby? They’re naming her Virginia.”
“It’s better than an orphanage,” Deepika said. “They’re terrible places. It’s common knowledge. The girl is better off, and she will grow up knowing that.”
“I don’t think it’s as simple as that,” Priya said. She imagined it all as it appeared in Deepika’s mind—Emily Barrett turning on her electric stove, tossing pink onesies into a dryer, raising Virginia with all the ease of American life.
Deepika shook her head. “I know what I know,” she said.
It was a line she used often, one that Priya first noticed when Deepika, some weeks back, declared her firm support for Narendra Modi.
“He’s a genocidal maniac!” Priya had said, wanting to stand and scream and realizing, when she didn’t, the dulling effect of familial love.
“He isn’t,” Deepika had said, waving her hand. “All rumors.”
“Deepika,” Priya had said, quietly so the children wouldn’t hear. “The man orchestrated the killing of people. He killed them.”
Deepika shook her head. “He’ll make the country safer,” she had said. “I know what I know.”
Shaken but eager to recover the ease of their evening, Priya tested her memory of Lodhi Gardens on Deepika. “Didn’t we go there as children with thaththa?” she asked. “Didn’t he take us there on weekends?”
Deepika shrugged. “You ask the strangest questions. Who remembers what they did at those ages?”
“When is the baby coming?” Leela asked at dinner.
“Next week,” Priya said. “They have to go get her.”
“Because she’s at an orphanage?”
“How did she get to the orphanage?” Leela asked.
“Her parents left her there,” Kiran said.
“That isn’t true,” Priya said, though she was uncertain, as she often was, how much truth to parcel out to the children, especially on matters that even she could not fully grasp herself. Her image of an orphanage had not been updated since she was Leela’s age, so she pictured it as her daughter likely did: A clapboard house in the middle of a small village where one might adopt Anne Shirley, the Boxcar Children, Mowgli.
“That isn’t quite how it happened,” Ben said.
Priya put her hand on his knee and squeezed it beneath the table.
“People have it very hard sometimes,” Ben said. “They aren’t able to give their children all that they want to. And because they love them so much, they have to do this very hard thing.”
“So, if you had a hard time and you had us, you’d put us in one of those?” Leela asked.
“Possibly,” Kiran said.
“No,” Ben said. “We certainly would not. We would never, ever do that.”
“But you love us,” Leela said. “Wouldn’t you want us to have better parents?”
“If you had a hard time,” Kiran said. “Just if. Hypothetical.”
“No,” Ben said to Kiran. He stroked Leela’s hair and kissed her head. “You can hold the baby when she gets here next week. She’s Mr. and Mrs. Barrett’s now, and that’s all we need to know.”
It occurred to Priya, only on the morning before Emily and Doug were expected to return from Pune, that she should leave a gift to welcome the baby. She raised the issue with Mala, her office accountant, a stern mother of four who wore a large red bindi and the same frayed cardigan every day but had surprised Priya, in her first weeks, with a frank discussion of menstrual cups.
“Gold is customary,” Mala said, in English.
Priya considered responding in Hindi, but she didn’t have the energy. “I was thinking something simpler. And the family is American. I don’t think customs matter.”
“Indian American?” Mala asked.
“No. White American. They’ll be taking the baby back to the States eventually.”
Mala raised her eyebrows and Priya marveled at the perfect centeredness of her bindi. She could not imagine bothering with such an accessory. The sight of it made her itch.
“Gold definitely, then,” Mala said. “She’ll need something to remember her country.”
Priya stopped at the fruit market on her way to the children’s school but could see nothing that the Barretts would eat. Apples, the only import, were dusty and bruised, mealy-looking. She bought a bag of mangos and a cluster of red bananas, though she suspected that Emily would leave them, untouched, for their housekeeper. She picked up Leela and Kiran from school, unpacked their lunch boxes as they washed their hands, and reviewed Kiran’s weekly vocabulary words. Then she left the children with Gomathi and took a rickshaw to Khan Market, to a boutique that she had noticed in the past but never had occasion to step into.
Even from the outside, she could tell it was a high-end children’s store, the American equivalent of which she would never set foot in. Yet in that moment, she found it enchanting—the sandalwood smell, the gauzy handloom cotton, the rows of ayurvedic creams and talcum powders. She ran her fingers across a row of soft kurtas with delicate paisleys and flowers scattered across them.
The salesperson was bent over a book at the register when Priya entered. She placed it down and watched Priya for a moment before approaching her. “Something for a baby?” she asked, in Hindi.
“Boy or girl?”
“You want a dress?”
“Maybe. I haven’t decided.”
“If it’s American baby,” she said, switching to English, “get bigger dress. American babies always wear bigger size.”
Priya looked up to respond but changed her mind. She held the dress against the light, then realized that she was unsure of Virginia’s age. She picked out a stuffed elephant, quilted together from patches of sari material. Then she returned to the rack of children’s clothes, followed the cascading sizes upward, and chose a yellow dress for Leela.
At home she quickly repacked the fruit and delivered it, along with the stuffed animal, to the Barretts’ housekeeper, Jaya. She was soothed by the papery roughness of Jaya’s hand when she accepted the gifts, a message from Ben that he would be home in time for dinner, and the sound of the children speaking Hindi with Gomathi. She felt herself loosening, giving in to the allure of a baby in the apartment above them. The feeling would carry her for the next several hours, sinking only after the children’s bath, when Priya pulled the dress over Leela’s frame and saw that it was too small.
Virginia was six months old, Emily and Doug had been told, but to Priya she looked not much bigger than a newborn. Her entire torso fit in Priya’s palm. “She’s lovely,” she said. She hadn’t looked closely at a baby since Leela and was astonished by her alertness. Her eyes searched the room. She had a quiet reticence that struck Priya as meditative until Emily explained that babies at the orphanage quickly learned that crying was futile.
“Jesus,” Ben said, and his sadness over that miserable fact made Priya want to pull him toward her, to run her hand over the stubble on his cheeks, and to hold him even though her arms were fully occupied by Virginia.
Emily nodded. “That’s why this whole thing is so amazing. We were expected to spend four hours each day at the orphanage.”
“Right,” said Doug. “Two in the morning, two in the afternoon.”
Priya rested her thumb on the baby’s belly and felt her hand rise and fall with Virginia’s breath.
“So, they wanted us there for four days,” Emily said. “They said all the paperwork would be done in twenty-four hours, but they like to oversee the bonding. They say it’s just good for everyone.”
“Virginia reached for Emily,” Doug said. “Reached for her. Tell them that part, Em.”
“I mean reached is maybe a strong word for it, but she definitely turned to me, and I felt her sort of settle in when I held her. You know? Like, you can feel it when a baby wants you to hold her. They told us they had never seen a baby take to her new parents the way Virginia took to us.”
“Never,” Doug said. “I mean, she’s starved for love. Don’t get me wrong—those people are saints there, but what we can give, I mean, that’s a whole next level. We asked to hold her the entire time we were there. Emily wanted as much skin-to-skin contact as we could get.”
“It really was like she knew,” Emily said.
By the end of the evening, the men had shifted to the side of the room. Priya assumed they were discussing work, but when she tuned in for a moment, she noted that they were talking about Doug and Emily’s upcoming trip to the States. “We’ll probably spend most of it with Em’s folks,” Doug was saying. “Her mom’s retired, and this is the first grandchild.”
Priya had never thought much of Doug. He seemed so dull, so all-American, and she assumed that Ben thought the same of him. But some months ago, the men had traveled to Kolkata for an agriculture conference and returned with something that resembled a friendship. A few weeks ago, they had woken up around six in the morning to watch the NCAA finals together. “It’s kind of nice to have another guy around,” Ben told Priya.
Emily slid closer to Priya and stroked Virginia’s cheek. “We’ve decided to practice attachment parenting,” Emily said. “You’re practically the first person I’ve even trusted her with. Doug and I plan to hold her the entire time she’s awake. She spent enough time in an institution. I even gave Jaya afternoons off so that we could bond, just the two of us. Mother and daughter.”
“That’s nice,” Priya said. “But at some point, you will want to brush your hair or eat a sandwich. Just know that we’re downstairs every evening and would be happy to have her.”
“I have a sling,” Emily said.
“You might need a moment to yourself,” Priya said. “It’s for your sake as much as hers. It’s a win-win.”
“Maybe,” Emily said. “But not for long, of course. I don’t want her to have any confusion.”
The first few evenings, Emily brought Virginia to Priya’s apartment for only twenty-minute stretches while she showered. She was breathless when she returned, her hair dripping and her T-shirts translucent at her chest and back. “Everybody tells you this,” she said. “But I didn’t actually believe it. That there’s no time to eat, much less shower.”
“You’ll catch a cold if you keep running around like this,” Priya said. “How about you take a few extra minutes and dry your hair?”
Even Kiran was curious. “She’s cute,” he said.
“She’s the cutest baby in the world,” Leela said, pressing her pale nose against Virginia’s cheek.
“She puts her feet in her mouth,” Kiran said. “It’s weird. She chews her toes.”
“Babies do that,” Priya said. “They’re very flexible. And it’s a good sign. It means they’re moving their muscles. They’re becoming stronger.”
“Did I do that?” Leela asked.
“You both did,” Priya said, holding Virginia up so that she could survey the room.
Caring for a baby again jogged Priya’s memories of Kiran and Leela’s infancy. “You used to love eating lemons,” she said to Leela. “You would suck all the pulp out and chew the rind.” To Kiran, she said, “You cried whenever anyone flushed a toilet.”
She talked about Virginia at work and on the phone with Deepika. “She’s so alert,” she said. “And she wants to try real food. You should see her when the children are eating. She reaches for it.”
“You should have another baby,” Deepika said. “Or it will hurt too much when she leaves.”
“Maybe,” Priya said, though she and Ben had decided, even before the children were born, that two was the right number.
“I speak to her in Hindi,” she told Mala. “I don’t know that it makes a difference to her, of course, but sometimes I think it’s more comforting.”
“It will be embedded in her,” Mala said. “She will take the language with her.”
Priya was fairly certain this would not be the case, but she smiled and nodded.
“She’s a pound heavier,” Emily said one afternoon. “They weighed her today and said she’s made so much progress.” There was a bandage padding Virginia’s heel and Emily lifted it to her mouth. “We had to get shots and blood tests today, the poor baby. I felt so terrible, it just killed me.” She kissed her foot.
“It’s hard to see them go through these things,” Priya said, though Ben was the one who couldn’t bear the sight of the children’s blood, becoming dizzy after Leela’s birth when the nurse pricked her foot to check her bilirubin count. “Even if you know they have to, it’s still hard.”
“I hardly see you anymore,” Deepika said. They had taken the children for ice cream after school and now sat in Nehru Park. In the distance, Ambika leaned forward and licked the side of Leela’s cone.
“I’m trying to be helpful,” Priya told her. “You know how the first few months are.”
“The first years. Last night, Ambika woke me for water twice, and then to go to the toilet. She doesn’t like to go alone.”
“Americans have a name for what you do,” Priya said. “They call it attachment parenting.”
Deepika shook her head. “I’ll never understand Americans,” she said. “It’s called motherhood. That’s the only name for it.”
Three weeks after they brought Virginia home, Doug came to the door alone. Emily couldn’t talk, much less leave their apartment. “It’s like she’s catatonic,” Doug said.
The embassy had called both Emily and Doug into the clinic on the morning they received the bloodwork results. “They wanted us there the same day, so we figured it was urgent,” Doug said. “But then we also figured it was something manageable.” He rested his elbows on the counter and pressed his forehead into his hands. Emily was saying it was probably anemia. We could have handled that. But HIV. I mean, what the hell are we supposed to do with that sort of news?”
Priya stepped back and stood in the kitchen entryway.
“You don’t have to explain anything,” Ben said. “Let Emily know: if she needs anything—” He looked at Priya and raised his eyebrows, as though prompting her to come back and finish his sentence. Instead, she turned and walked to their room, then lay on the bed. Ben’s and Doug’s voices had the clipped sound of an exchange in its last few moments. “Buddy,” she heard Ben say as he opened the door. “Anything you need.” She closed her eyes when Ben came inside. He sat beside her and she felt her body sink with his weight.
“They’re going to send her back, aren’t they?” she asked.
“Priya. Come on.”
“You know the answer to that. They have to.”
He stroked her thumb, then gripped her entire hand.
“They’ve made her theirs, Ben. If one of our children had been born terminally ill, would we have sent them off? To go die somewhere alone?”
“It’s different, Priya. She isn’t their child. She hasn’t even been with them a month.”
“Right. They borrowed her.”
“That isn’t fair. What is fair is the two of them doing what they need to do. And Doug looking out for his wife’s well-being.”
“I can’t tell Leela,” she said. “Can you think of a way to do that? I can put her off for a few days, tell her the baby’s sick. But that will only last so long.”
“You’ll think of something,” he said.
“You’re the fucking diplomat,” she said. “You think of something.”
She expected Ben to protest. Instead, he wrapped his arm around her.
“I would have kept her,” she said. “I would have done everything. Really done everything.”
“I believe that,” Ben said. “You have your limits and the Barretts have theirs.”
Priya stood to get a glass of water, but on her way back went into Leela’s room and lay beside her as she slept. She pulled her close, folding her arm across Leela’s chest and pressing her nose against her cheek. She stared at the bureau where the yellow dress sat loosely rewrapped, a reminder of the errand she planned to take care of eventually, though she knew she would likely put it off until it no longer mattered.
Jaya was holding Virginia the next evening when she opened the door. “Madam is sleeping,” she said.
Priya put out her arms. Virginia leaned her body just slightly toward her and Priya cupped her cheek. “How is she?” she asked.
Jaya didn’t answer.
“I’ll come back,” Priya said.
On the following two evenings, Jaya answered the door holding the baby. On the third, Virginia lay on the mat in the Barretts’ living room, clutching her feet and staring at the ceiling. Priya thought she could hear movement through the closed bedroom door.
“I’ll tell her that you came,” Jaya said.
“You have to understand if she doesn’t want to see you,” Ben said later that night. “She might not want to talk. You can’t put words to some things.”
“I won’t force her to,” Priya said. “I just want to see her and understand.”
Ben sat on the bed and pulled off his socks, leaving them on the floor. He took her hand and ran his finger between her knuckles. “Just don’t be forceful. Or didactic. At the end of the day, it’s their choice and not yours. When you get down to it, it’s not our business.”
“You know what I loved about you when I first met you?” she asked Ben.
He looked surprised by the question.
“You made everything your business. You were interested in the world. You wanted to actually live in it.”
“I am living in it, Priya.”
She shook her head. In bed, he tightened his arm around her. She lay still and pretended to fall asleep.
The next night, Emily came to the door. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you’ve wanted to see me, but I haven’t been ready.”
“Emily,” Priya said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for you all.” She looked behind her. The children sat at the table playing Go Fish, an act of generosity from Kiran that Priya had been too distracted to notice when the game began. She was relieved that neither of them looked up, though she detected a shift in Leela’s posture that suggested she was listening. “How about a walk?” she said.
Emily shrugged. “Doug said Delhi isn’t safe at night.”
“It’s five o’clock,” Priya said. “The sun’s still out.”
Emily nodded slowly. “He might be okay with it if I’m with you.”
They walked down the stairs and then toward Lodhi Gardens, Priya taking Emily’s hand at the intersection. At the park they found a bench. Emily drew her legs up and wrapped her fingers around her ankles. “I’ve always been afraid to cross the street in Delhi,” she said. “I knew a lady once who would pay a rickshaw driver just to take her to the other side.” She paused. “Just so you know. There are some people worse than I am.”
Priya looked at her for a few seconds, then said, “You did just fine.”
“I’m going to bring her back to Pune,” Emily said. “Doug’s insisting on coming too. I’m not just going to give her to some stranger here to take her back.”
“Have you told Leela?” Emily asked.
“Two days back.”
“What did she say?”
“She was quiet,” Priya said. “She didn’t say much. Mainly just stared at us. Then she asked if you were going to bring the baby back when she was better.”
Emily was crying now and Priya took her hand again.
“I don’t know whether to hold her all the time or just let go,” Emily said. “Doug is terrified. He wants me to get tested. There’s no way I could have contracted anything, really. But she had terrible diaper rash when she came to us. She was cracked and almost bleeding, so he thinks that it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
“Doug doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Priya said. She hadn’t meant to say anything so direct, but once she did, it was cathartic.
“Excuse me?” Emily said. “He does know what he’s talking about.”
“It isn’t a death sentence,” Priya said. “It isn’t what it used to be.” She had devoted the past two nights to a dizzying series of medical-journal articles. Eventually, she had located the phone number of a distant family friend, an infectious-disease specialist she had not seen since elementary school, when he wore thick glasses bound in the back by a purple strap. Now he announced himself by title, saying “Dr. Sundaram” when he picked up the phone, and frequently used the word actually. “This is actually a common misconception,” he had said. “What HIV has become, actually, at least in wealthy, industrialized nations, is actually more of a chronic challenge, akin to diabetes, an inconvenience. Actually, what we battle is stigma more than anything.”
“See!” Priya had shouted to Ben when she hung up. She felt a flash of cinematic triumph, like a heroine who had found the antidote in the final moments.
“It’s still their choice,” Ben had said. “And it’s out of your hands.”
“Virginia was my sister’s name,” Emily said. “She died when she was eighteen. An aneurism. She was healthy and happy and everyone loved her. I don’t think my mother has been able to walk straight since she died. I mean that. She’s been bent. Literally hunched over.”
Priya pulled her dupatta loose and offered the edge to Emily. She let the silence linger for a few moments and then said, “I’m so sorry about your sister. I am.”
“I am too,” Emily said. “I think of her every single day. Every birthday it’s another loss. Another age she’ll never be.”
“Emily,” Priya said. “This isn’t a death sentence, Virginia’s situation. She can live a long life. She can die when she’s seventy. Or in a tragedy when she’s eighteen years old, like all of our children can. I can barely think about it, but it’s true. It’s what we sign up for.” She recalled Deepika’s voice. “It’s called motherhood,” she said.
“I can’t do it, Priya. I hear what you’re saying. I do. But I’m not burying a child.”
Ben called from the taxi. “We closed the deal,” he said. “The Indian army bought the meat.”
“You must be relieved,” Priya said. She found a forgotten Go Fish card peeking out from beneath the placemat, a smiling octopus winking at her, and ran her finger along the edge.
“It’s done, at least,” Ben said. “They needed the meat too. And they couldn’t have bought it at market rate.”
“Look,” Priya said. “You don’t have to explain it to me.”
He was quiet for a moment. “I want to, though. It’s a flawed deal, but it’s a done deal. That means something to me.”
“I know,” she said.
At the apartment Ben bathed Leela, settled both children into bed, then sat beside Priya on the couch.
“I talked to Emily today,” she said. “They’ve made up their mind.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“You have no reason to be sorry.”
“I do,” he said. “I don’t know when I became such a pragmatist.”
Priya pulled his head into her lap. “There are pragmatists and there are pragmatists,” she said. “You wouldn’t have returned a child.”
“No,” he said. “You’re right. I wouldn’t. I hate the thought of it too, Priya.”
“Do you remember when I told you I was pregnant with Kiran?”
He looked up at her, and she remembered so clearly the way he had looked that night. How boyish and scared he was. The way he had kissed her belly. How desperate to resolve the anger between them.
Even three years later, when the name Virginia was so well worn that the sound of it hardly registered, Priya occasionally was reminded how odd it was, how ill-fitting. “It’s not what I would have chosen,” she explained to her parents and Ben’s, to a shopkeeper at Khan Market, and to the family who eventually moved into the Barretts’ apartment. But none of the diminutives that they played with stuck. On their final morning in Delhi, Ben woke their youngest girl just when it was time to leave for the airport, while the older children were hauling their suitcases to the front door and Priya was washing the last of the breakfast dishes. He tucked her stuffed elephant into her backpack, pulled her gently to her feet and said, “Come on, Virginia-girl. Time to head home.”