Sudha Balagopal ~ Spring Quarter, 1980

Sumi waits out­side the dorm for thir­ty min­utes before Mary, a fel­low grad stu­dent, shows up. They’re late for the brain­storm­ing ses­sion at Wray’s house.

The radio in Mary’s car crack­les, vol­ume on high since the win­dows don’t roll up. There’s a grassy smell inside the car. Sumi won­ders if it’s mar­i­jua­na. The taxi dri­ver who brought her from the air­port last week said he could smell weed five miles from cam­pus.

Mary asks, “How come you enrolled for the spring quar­ter? Most inter­na­tion­al stu­dents come in September.” She’s wear­ing a shab­by cot­ton skirt and a sleeve­less blouse that reveals unshaven under­arms. Her white skin’s tanned cop­per.

Sumi feels over­dressed in her sal­war kameez.

I didn’t want to wait.”

Back in India, folks asked her the same ques­tion, exert­ing not-so-sub­tle pres­sure. “You broke your engage­ment to Rahul and now you’re going to the States? Do you real­ize how hard it is to find some­one?”

           

At Wray’s house, Mary leads her to the back­yard where an over­sized, claw-foot­ed tub takes cen­ter stage. Sumi bites her lip when she sees embers glow­ing under it.

Wray, bare-chest­ed, runs up and hugs Mary.

Sumi stares at her feet, unwill­ing to look at Wray’s smooth, white tor­so. Her toes are squished into the tight straps of her san­dals.

She remem­bers Rahul’s fat, hairy arms, his gen­er­ous physique. He told Sumi she must eat more.

Hi, beau­ti­ful,” Wray greets Sumi.

The easy trib­ute fits awk­ward­ly, like an over-starched sari she wants to wrig­gle out of.

 

Rahul didn’t believe in com­pli­ments. Her par­ents picked Rahul. At the movies, he fum­bled with her blouse, his hands embold­ened by the right bestowed on him, or per­haps the tit­il­la­tion on the screen.

 

Beer?” Wray asks. “I like your out­fit.”

The beer is bit­ter, smelly. She gulps it.

Wray hands her a paper plate.

The ridged pota­to chips and white, creamy dip taste deli­cious. So does the mac­a­roni and cheese. She accepts a sec­ond beer.

Wray runs his fin­gers through the water.

Come on, ladies,” he calls. “Discussion time!”

Mary takes off her skirt and top to dis­play a biki­ni. She steps into the tub, car­ry­ing her drink.

Sumi chokes on a chip, coughs.

We won’t tell any­one in India,” Wray jokes. “Come in.”

She hugs her book bag, shakes her head, drinks more.

Come on, Sumi. Come on, Sumi,” they set up a chant.

 

Rahul took her to a roman­tic restau­rant by a lake. His eyes roved, rest­ed on a woman at the next table. When he brought his gaze back, he asked her what she thought of the recent ads for a skin light­en­ing cream. The ads promised to make women love­ly.

She picked up her hand­bag and left. He’d shat­tered all illu­sions of romance. Reminded her that this was an arrange­ment: Rahul would insult her, yet he would mar­ry her, the boss’s daugh­ter, in exchange for a mete­oric rise up the com­pa­ny lad­der.

           

She can be free here. She can be brave here. She can step into a tub with strangers.

A phone rings inside the house. “God, that’s my advis­er,” Wray says. “Someday, I’ll have a bet­ter hot tub. Someday, I’ll fin­ish my dis­ser­ta­tion. Someday, I’ll have a great job. Mary, can you answer that, tell him I’m not here?”

Dropping her book bag into a chair, Sumi takes off her sal­war and slides into the hot tub. Her top floats up around her hips.

~

Sudha Balagopal’s recent fic­tion appears in Fictive Dream, Spelk Fiction, Brilliant Flash Fictionand Jellyfish Reviewamong oth­er jour­nals. She is the author of a nov­el, A New Dawn, and two short sto­ry col­lec­tions, There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com