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The Talk

ISSUE:  Fall 2013

There are certain things life doesn’t prepare you for, Ravi thinks, attempting to tie a Windsor knot, his fingers moving in the mirror. The tie is lavender silk with purple polka dots—​a bold choice, but Ravi enjoys throwing the unexpected accessory into his work wardrobe for a bit of panache. Citibank, where he works as a wealth-​management advisor, is a sea of grays and blues, muted like the New Jersey winter landscape outside his window. His eyes drift to the maple tree in the backyard. Just a few months ago, the tree had stood so regally, trimmed in gold. It seems to stand in surrender now, its arms, stripped of leaves, astonishingly thin.

Ravi coaxes the thick knot up the rope of silk, imagining his wife, Sarah, looking on appreciatively. Sarah has always praised his sense of style, impressed by his ability to tie an assortment of knots, that he can pull off wearing wing tips with jeans. In truth, the thought of their scheduled phone date had informed his tie choice when, standing before the motorized rack from Brookstone, he pressed the button that sent the colored silks spinning, the burgundies and stripes and patterns whooshing past. He paused on the lavender, his finger touching its thick, quilted weight. As though she would see him through the phone and smile.

He gazes into the mirror, taking in the symmetrical triangle of the finished knot. She will be disappointed when they speak. He had awoken that morning with the knowledge of it in his stomach. Because despite his best intentions, he has been unable to talk to their daughter, Miranda, even though he promised Sarah he would. Tomorrow, he repeats each night. Tomorrow, no question. It is his vow before falling asleep, the words like an incantation that enable him to drift off. His sleep most nights is dreamless and pure, an ether that leaves no trace.

He knows that he needs to have the talk with Miranda, but it has been easy to shirk. Needs, after all, are not always clear. It is precisely what he tells his clients when they come to him with their outlandish requests for beach homes and sports cars. “Temptation can be powerful,” he adds sympathetically. Surely, he is not like them: innocent, accustomed to being indulged. Ravi serves as his clients’ watchdog, preventing them from squandering their fortunes. They never see how easily it might be lost—​the limits of their seemingly endless wealth.

The problem is that at night, when he remembers the talk, he sees no reason to torture himself—​especially when all it takes is that simple incantation (Tomorrow, definitely.) to lift the gates of sleep. And sleep isn’t a luxury item. He is the one who has to rise early each day. He is the one who keeps everything going. 

Beyond the bedroom wall, he can hear Miranda showering. Nine years old, Miranda now gets herself ready in the mornings. When he goes downstairs, he will see the traces of her in the kitchen. Her cereal bowl and spoon will be there in the sink, the last dregs of raisin bran and milk wafting their sweet, warm smell up to him.

Miranda will wait with her backpack as he drinks his coffee. “Ready, Daddy?” she will say after he puts down his mug, and he will follow her dutifully into the garage, half expecting her to start the car.

Ravi won’t need to remind her to bring her hat or wear her mittens. He won’t need to help her tie her shoelaces, bowing down before his little girl, his forehead an inch from her knees. She will be assembled and zipped, her homework neatly packed in her color-​coded folders. There are times when it is she who reminds him to get a scarf or pack an umbrella. “It’s cold today, Daddy,” she will say. “The weather said it might snow.”

In fact, the only thing Ravi still does for her is pack her lunch. It is his final act before bed, and as he stands in the kitchen, nursing a beer, he always finds it comforting to still have this task left. It’s a necessity, he thinks ruefully as he makes her cheese sandwich, but what a luxury it seems. 

The bento box, an elaborate contraption, is a far cry from the brick of aluminum foil they used to send her off with just a year ago. But Miranda insisted that this was what all her friends had. Placing it in the refrigerator at night, Ravi marvels at the finished product: the carrot sticks and yogurt dip and whole-​wheat crackers nesting above the sandwich, the stacked colorful tiers of health. It glows with the light of the fridge, luminous.

“It is like a tiffin,” his mother pronounced when his parents visited in September, soon after Sarah left. “Except clear.” His mother stood in the kitchen, watching his movements. He recalled the stainless steel dabba that held his lunch when he was little. This was before they had moved to the States when he was ten, back when people said “Bombay” instead of “Mumbai,” and the memory of the container surprised him. “And what would that make me?” he asked. “A dabbawalla?”

He meant for it to come out lightly, jokingly, to show his mother how good-​natured he was about this domestic chore—​how smoothly he was managing on his own. But with her there, he suddenly saw himself through her eyes, packing food like a servant. With her there, his nightly ritual felt interrupted.

His mother paused. She adjusted her sari, gathering the fabric over her shoulder. “You are much better than any dabbawalla,” she said gently. 

Listening to her slippers on the stairs as she went up for bed, he couldn’t decide if it was a compliment. If she was trying to reassure him, or if she was telling him that he was too good for all this.

“Have you talked to her yet?”

This is how Sarah begins the call. Whatever happened to hello? he thinks. Whatever happened to the lovely little pleasantries? 

He gazes around his desk. The pencils are in parallel lines; the sticky notes form a perfect square. The minute hand had been slow to hit the twelve, so he had occupied himself by creating this tableau. It looks absurd, childish.

“I haven’t,” he admits. “Not yet.”

“Ravi, we discussed this.” His name comes out in her Midwestern drawl, the middle vowel flat, a plain of corn and wheat. When they were dating in college, he used to chide her about it. “Ruh-​vi,” he would say, smiling, and she would repeat it cautiously, a patchy blush dancing across her cheeks. When his name inevitably slipped out in her Wisconsin way a few minutes later, he would smile to himself. He pictured her as a kid, throwing snowballs with her friends and laughing. He stopped correcting her, not wanting her accent to disappear. Not wanting to lose that hesitant blush.

“Listen, I’ve tried,” he says tiredly. “Believe me. But there’s no great way for a dad to bring this stuff up.”

On the train into Manhattan, he rehearsed arguments about gender and biology, like with like: Moms talk to their daughters, fathers to their sons. He found an article from the science section of the Times, encountered during a hasty Google search on his Blackberry. But research and evidence are hard to bring forward when he senses Sarah listening to him with arms crossed and mouth pursed, her limbs an assembly of hard lines. It is the pose she probably took with her students, challenging her political-​science majors to be critical, to sharpen their arguments into fine, piercing points. 

Besides which: Miranda is so young. Nine! he thinks when he watches her at dinner. It is a double-​edged thought. How could she be nine already? Yet: She is only nine, merely nine, still in the single digits of youth. Too young, surely, for this.

“So, what, you think I should talk to her? ‘Hey, honey! Daddy tells me you’re getting boobs!’ Do you really see that working?” Sarah pauses to let this scenario float before them before yanking it away. “She’d wonder why you couldn’t talk with her. She’d feel ashamed.

Ravi feels the unspoken sentiments in the air. He imagines all the things Sarah is tempted to say. “You can’t bury your head in the sand with this.” Or, “This isn’t India.” But she is choosing her words carefully, picking them like produce from a vast array. “This is what’s best for her,” she concludes after a small pause, and he can feel her survey her basket hesitantly, wondering if what she has selected is enough. 

Ravi sighs. She must know, he thinks stubbornly. Their daughter, so competent and dependable, must have some inkling as to what is happening to her body. Why must it be spelled out so cruelly?

At work, he does not tell his clients that they are less rich than they imagine. He would never say it in so many words. Even in the black and white world of finance, there are nuances, upholstered islands of gray. “Here are some less aggressive investment options,” he might suggest in a friendly tone. His clients appreciate his discretion, his ways of cushioning these blows.

And he, too, has been on the receiving end of such mercy. “We’ll tell Miranda I’m on sabbatical,” Sarah announced when she received her grant. “She doesn’t need to know more than that.” Ravi watched her pen move swiftly across the document. He was glad she didn’t look up from her paperwork. He was glad she had given him that bit of space so that he could compose his features. 

Miranda accommodated their new arrangement adeptly and without complaint, not asking why her mom was going abroad. “I’ll be doing research,” Sarah told her brightly. “Isn’t that exciting, honey?” Ravi prayed that Miranda would have a smart-​aleck moment, saying, “Mom, aren’t the guys you teach already dead?” Or, “How can you do research there when you don’t even speak French?”

No, Miranda has gone along with it all, talking with Sarah on the phone in her earnest way, showing no signs of stress or strain. She does not complain that there is no one to braid her hair—​the optimal arrangement for her thick mane. She does not mind that the presents for friends’ birthday parties sit misshapen and lopsided, the crumply gift wrap resisting him. Mrs. Freidman, her plump fourth-​grade teacher, had nothing but good things to report at the October parent-​teacher conference, to his slight dismay. “Miranda is a wonderful student,” she said, her eyes studiously avoiding the vacant seat to his left. “I wish they could all be like her.”

Ravi’s eyes travel across his desk. The sticky notes and pencils wait expectantly. “I wore my lavender tie,” he wants to tell her. “The one you said sets off my eyes.”

“I know how hard it is,” Sarah continues. “But we don’t have another option right now.”

“But there is another option,” he blurts. “You could come home.”

The words tumble out before he can stop them, before he even realizes the thought has formed. He listens in disbelief, the last word reverberating in the air. A considerable pause ensues. He imagines her standing at the window in her flat, her hand parting the sheer curtain. Would her ring catch the light? Or had she stopped wearing it?

“I don’t think so,” she says finally. “Not yet.”

Ravi puts his head down after the line clicks off. The surface of the desk is cool against his cheek. 

“How are you guys?” he had hoped she would ask. “How are you, really?”

He gazes at the phone cord that had connected them so briefly and imagines it winding from his Midtown office into the Atlantic. He pictures it touching the ocean floor, the thick braid of wires smoothed into a sleek cable by a knowing hand, then emerging intact on the shores of France. What a novelty it must have seemed when it was built! What a feat, to connect two people so intimately across an ocean, bringing his voice into the dark crevices of her ear.

But he is being foolish. Sarah, surely, had not thought about their voices traveling that long way. She had not marveled at the miracle of the phone. She has probably left her flat already, off to the library or a café. It was silly of him to wear the tie she liked, to seek hope in her “not yet.” It is better to keep moving. Better to keep such thoughts at bay.

“Come for just a visit” is of course what he should have said, he reflects as he settles his briefcase onto the overhead rack. “Come home” was too final, too loaded, too much. “We’ll do the talk together,” he might have told her in a voice of solidarity. Or there could have been harsh evocations of guilt: “I know you don’t want to be here, but you’d think you could at least squeeze in a week for your daughter.” Guilt was once effective on Sarah.

He watches through the window as the train departs Penn Station. It is the same line he rides every day, the musty New Jersey Transit, Maplewood to Midtown and back. It always smells of burnt coffee and old newspapers, the fluorescent lights buzzing, the cranberry vinyl of the seats torn. But he looks forward to it, despite the surly conductors who lurch through the aisle, clicking their punchers menacingly. Despite the way the lights suddenly blink off while he is reading, the train going mysteriously quiet before the electricity surges back again. He has come to love the shuttle that takes him back and forth in its steady way. 

At home, the talk with Miranda awaits like a fanged monster beneath the bed. Every ounce of parental competence evaporates at the thought—​just the thought—​of sitting down with her to say it. How to even begin? “Mira, dear, you remember that talk they gave you at school about boys’ and girls’ bodies?” “Yes, Daddy,” she would reply promptly, “about sexual reproduction and babies.” That is her way, so frank and forthright that it makes him long for his own childhood where nothing was said about the body, especially between fathers and daughters. 

But the changes are undeniable. A few weeks ago her class pictures arrived. He opened the envelope to the group shot with Miranda in the back, the tallest girl. And then the portrait of her against the soft blue background, in her button-​down shirt and sweater-​vest. Suddenly he had seen it. His daughter was no longer adorable in that little-​girl, bathtub, flawless way. Her eyebrows were fuller, the down above her lip darker, and a hint of something—​pending acne or changing hormones—​was in the skin, the pores opening to the world. 

He had noticed that night the swells through her T-​shirt when she carried her plate to the dishwasher. Had sat frozen at the table thinking, God, oh God, how am I going to do this? And had nearly wept at the thought, staring at his empty plate, that his baby was growing. His flat-​chested, round-​bellied toddler, her skin the color of an almond. She was unstoppably on her way.

He hadn’t been able to tell Sarah about it in their already too-​short conversations, scared that it would upset her. But he had seen their daughter, their miraculous little girl, in a moment that made him light-​headed. They had been watching TV, their new Thursday night ritual of ice cream and sitcoms. She was perched on the sofa arm, stretching her leg to see if her big toe could touch the coffee table’s lip, when suddenly a shadow crossed her features as she leaned in, an Oh! passing across her face. He watched out of the corner of his eye as his little girl pressed herself into the arm to replicate the feeling with an earnestness that made him dizzy. “Mira,” he said sharply, “fetch me some water, if you don’t mind.” “Okay, Daddy,” she said, hopping off the couch. She brought back a glass of water and plopped down next to him as though nothing had happened and he had imagined it all.

That night, he dreamt his mouth had sealed over. The skin stretched across his lips like a muzzle, no sound escaping. A fish out of water, he wanted to say, but he couldn’t say it, and he woke up sweating, his heart pounding, his hand in a panicked search for the lamp. 

He took a sip of water, cautiously clearing his throat to ensure it still worked. He waited for his pulse to slow. It was only when he reached to turn off the lamp that he saw the blue journal on the nightstand.

Sarah had bought it for him months ago. “For your dreams,” she had said encouragingly. This was during couple’s therapy; their shrink was the type who placed great stock in dreams and memories. When Ravi confessed that his sleep was dreamless, Sarah made a huffing sound of impatience. “Everyone has dreams,” she told him. “You just need to try harder to remember them.”

He paused for a moment, staring at the blue journal, and then clicked the light off. “What do you think the dream means?” the therapist would have asked.

“Please,” Ravi thought, turning over on the mattress. “Obviously there’s a talk I don’t want to have, don’t know how to have.” But the shrink would have wanted more. Like Sarah, he was not placated easily.

“The loss of voice,” the shrink would have said, turning the pencil like it was a mustache, “signifies a loss of power. A feeling of impotence, if you will. I can’t help but wonder if you feel impotent in your life, Ravi. Now that Miranda is growing, coming into her sexuality. Perhaps that stretch of skin, over the mouth—​”

Ravi shook off the thought, smacking his pillow back into shape. How easy it was to be a shrink. All of the I can’t help buts and if you wills. And weren’t shrinks supposed to listen instead of talk?

Ravi ignored the journal the next morning, humming to himself as he got ready, crossing the room, his eyes averted to show it who was boss. He refused to shut it away in a drawer, refused to call its bluff. You don’t threaten me, he thought, clicking off the lamp at night, resting his glasses on top of it. The dream had not returned, and Ravi felt smug about this. If there was something so urgent his unconscious needed to say, surely it would speak again.

In the parking lot, he unlocks his car. In truth, there are many talks he is not having. He has not told his parents, for example, about the specifics between him and Sarah. How could he?

They know Sarah is in Paris. The problem is that they bought the story too quickly. Ravi didn’t have a chance to spin his version of events. About how Sarah’s fellowship would bring her closer to tenure. About how she would get to work with a certain trendy political scientist often quoted in the Times. Sarah is ambitious, he would explain. And he, Ravi, is supportive.

He had practiced the tone he would take, benevolence in his voice. But his parents didn’t ask a single follow-​up question about her fellowship. “Paris!” they merely exclaimed. He imagined his mother sifting her sari as she took this in, the fabric rustling. “What are you going to do?”

“Me?” It wasn’t a question he had anticipated. “What do you mean?”

“We can come stay with you,” his mother offered.

“We’ll pick up Mira from school,” his father elaborated. “We can drop her off in the mornings.”

Ravi imagined his parents holding separate cordless receivers, not even needing to look at one another to consult on this. After so many years together, they worked like one being, fused in their decisions and thoughts.

“No, no,” he scoffed. “Mira’s so easy now. I’m fine.”

“We will at least visit,” his mother compromised. “Remember,” she added, before hanging up, “we are always here for you, raja.

The term of endearment surprised him. It was what his parents used to call him when he was little, before they all started speaking in English. Raja, he thought wistfully. The word conjured a room filled with silks and gold, an embarrassment of riches. To his parents, at least, he was still a prince.

Exiting the parking lot, it occurs to him that he could consult Laura and Dan, having already shared some of his dilemma with them. But he fears he relies on them too much as it is, that when he drops by on Fridays, he is imposing. He has been meaning to come up with a different plan when the weekly sitter arrives. Occasionally he toys with the idea of letting her go, but finding a replacement would be a nightmare. This way date night is still in place if Sarah returns. 

“We can’t believe it,” Ravi confided the previous week, taking a long pull from his beer. “Sarah and I never expected to have to deal with this stuff so soon.”

Laura nodded sagely while chopping tomatoes. “Girls are hitting puberty earlier than ever.” She extolled the benefits of the almond milk they gave Wendy and Tyler, their twins, to prevent exactly this early maturation. “There’s an article I can e-​mail you on hormones,” she added, her knife working through the pulpy red.

“But that doesn’t help him now, babe,” Dan pointed out.

Ravi envied their easy camaraderie, Laura and Dan, the endearments they traded (babe, honey, sweetie) across the kitchen. They touched often, without realizing it—​a hand on a hip while one passed behind the other, fingertips touching as they traded a bowl.

“So is Sarah coming back anytime soon?” Dan asked casually, wiping his hands on a towel.

“Dan!” Laura reprimanded, her wooden spoon aloft, as though to a dog.

Dan looked up, startled.

Couples usually don’t call each other by name, Ravi realized. Only when one is in trouble.

“It’s okay,” Ravi assured them. In fact, he was grateful to Dan for asking the question, for saying aloud what they surely wondered in private. Besides, Dan’s question had saved him, coming in the nick of time. Because Ravi had been about to muse, “Maybe for our next one.” And how ridiculous he would have sounded, imagining future children. 

“The article sounds great,” he said earnestly to Laura as she wiped a red drip from her spoon. “Thank you.”

It had all started during therapy. Ravi turns on the burner for the rice. He adds water to the pot, up to his first knuckle.

He returned each week to that Eames chair with a feeling of dread. Sarah, in the chair’s mate, a side table between them with a box of Kleenex and a clock they could not see, was the star pupil. She opened to the therapist like a flower, words and memories and feelings—​so many feelings!—​pouring forth. Ravi looked on, astonished, while she and the therapist volleyed, trading insights and theories. “I can’t sleep when I haven’t done the things on my list. It’s like I can’t let myself off the hook.” 

The therapist nodded, “Good, good,” pausing to scribble in his notepad, his pen a flourish of approvals. 

When they turned to him expectantly, Ravi could only stammer out that he wished to work on their marriage. Isn’t that, he said, clearing his throat, why they were here? An embarrassed silence ensued. Sarah sighed, the long, patient exhalation of a suffering whale. 

Sarah treated Paris as the logical outcome of therapy. “It seems clear,” she said hesitantly, avoiding his eye, “that this is what I need to do.” Ravi nodded. He held back the thick wave of questions threatening to overwhelm him. Questions like: You’re seriously going to leave Miranda? And: What about what I need? Instead he swallowed and said, “If this is what you want,” his voice strangely calm. He was only dimly aware of Sarah shaking her head.

Sarah wouldn’t remember now. Now that she is in Paris, in the flat he has never seen but could only imagine. But she had initially eschewed therapy, insisting they could fix any problem themselves. “Maybe we should see someone” had, in fact, been his own bravely uttered phrase.

The therapist seemed like a necessity at the time; Ravi felt they needed a professional to guide them. But maybe therapy was like the beachside condo he counsels his clients against, a luxury for fools. Maybe if they had never gone to that beige office, she would be beside him now. Helping him with dinner. Touching his waist, her fingers grazing his.

Tonight, a Thursday, he and Miranda will watch their sitcoms after dinner. He will mute the commercials out of habit, just as he and Sarah used to do. It was a habit they fell into after Miranda was born. “Commercials these days are like soft porn,” Sarah used to explain to guests. 

He and Sarah would chat for a minute or two while the Victoria’s Secret and Viagra ads went by, catching up on the things they had forgotten to ask about over dinner. “How’d your afternoon go?” “Did you remember to e-​mail Laura about the party?” They unmuted the television when the show returned. They had perfected the art of these ninety-​second swaps, her feet resting under his thigh for warmth, the subject picked up right where they left off. “You were saying, about your meeting?” As though the conversation between them was the main feature, the real show. Because back when they talked, even for ninety seconds, it was better than anything on TV.

He stirs the curry in its pot. Miranda had requested it over the weekend when he asked her what he should make. Ravi sensed that she didn’t actually want it—​that she requested it politely, knowing it was one of the few things he could prepare.

And grateful though he is for her cooperative spirit, forkfuls of Indian food making their way into her mouth, his parents having taught him how to make a few recipes during their visit, he secretly wishes she would complain. He wants her to act out, to throw a fit, to fold her arms across her chest and refuse to eat. He wants her to rebel, to slam her fists on the floor in an alternating barrage the way she used to when she was a toddler, that stage of pouting tyranny. He wants her to ask him a question with a trembling lower lip, a question that would make him wince. He wants her, in short, to do something he would have to pass along to Sarah. “Miranda threw her dinner plate the other night,” he would tell her with a sigh, and they would join forces once more.

Instead, dinner is a tranquil affair, the TV and gadgets turned off, the conversations between them so pleasant and proper that it makes him want to scream at the portrait of domestic harmony in his home. The one that reveals none of the dysfunction beneath.

Miranda sits at the dining table now, finishing her spelling homework. In a minute he will fill their water glasses and ask about her day. In a minute he will set out the trivets and forks, the paper napkins with their pastel print. 

He has already listened to the answering machine, hitting the “play” button with feigned casualness. No message from Sarah. Only one, from Laura, apologetically indicating that she and Dan are tied up that Friday. “But next week we’re totally around,” she assured him.

Ravi’s waking life has taken on the quality of a dream. How strange it feels, going through the motions of each day, his new routine at once easy yet baffling. And he still does not know if he could have done anything to prevent it. If he had written in the blue journal, would it have changed anything between them? If he had tried a little harder, would it have made a difference? Ravi gazes into the liquid in the pot, thick and bubbling.

That’s the real feeling in a nightmare, he wants to say—​to Sarah, to the therapist, to anyone who will listen. It isn’t about the details: whether it’s your voice you lose or your power. It’s about that sense of doing things without knowing why, that feeling of incomprehension. Accepting your muzzled mouth rather than setting yourself free. And why? Why do we go along with things that make us miserable? And if we can’t change our dreams, how can we possibly change reality?

When he gets the place mats, Miranda will put away her homework. The sound of the place mats on the table (tap, tap!) serves as a conductor’s baton, signaling that everything else fall away. 

Father and daughter, percussion and flute, they will sit down to dinner as though it has always been just them. As though their strange duet at the table—​formal, delicate—​is not something forced but entirely natural. As though they are practiced at this and do not mind the long pauses, the sounds of their cutlery, the swallowing of their food. As though their two hearts are full. As though they could dream of no greater need. 


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