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Naresh Unnikrishnan reached the fence of the Upper Reservoir in record time for him – just under six minutes from the subway at 86th and Lex. He had sprinted to make it and now had to rest, a typical once-a-week runner. He had as little endurance as a once-a-month temple worshipper had for squatting and rising, walking in quick circles, around statues of gods. In the park, on his attempt to recommit to sport, his Gore-Tex kept him warm and on top of that it was one of those early spring days in New York, the false hope given by February for a kinder April. His workout, shower, breakfast and drive from the Road Runners Club on 89th Street back to Flushing, where they lived and where his daughter’s preschool was, all had to fit into the next three hours. Then it would be time to pick up his little girl Mary Magdalene and spend the afternoon with her, which he was looking forward to. It was a guilty relief having so many days off when his wife Angeline was still a fourth-year resident at NYU, still at the stage where she either took overnight call or stayed late to finish work nearly every day.
On top of her normal, brutal load of hours, they were both taking on extra shifts too, to bank time for a trip to Chennai to see Angeline’s parents at their estate in Anna Nagar in about a month or so. It would be the first journey to see extended family that their daughter would be old enough to remember. Her parents had been emailing them a few times a day, telling them things they were getting ready for the baby, the people they were inviting to come see her and bless her. The servants they would have at the ready, the soothsayers. Naresh knew that by the time they left, the future of his three-year-old darling would be read. That some boy, his name unknown, would be identified as her ideal match, according to stars, and he and Angeline would be tasked with locating this paragon, this fantasy husband, this anointed person. It struck him as silly, again, that an Indian Christian family couldn’t let go of astrology. Naresh’s own relatively secular grandparents had chosen science. His grandfather, a physicist who worked for Dupont in India, mastering light; his grandmother, a high school organic chemistry teacher at a convent school, summoning smelly and palpable reality from magic 2-D diagrams, encouraging girls to sketch out their own on the board.
Naresh looked forward to seeing them again, but the last trip back to south India had been traumatic in its way – two years ago, trapped on the German airplane for hours while it was full of Indians, indifferent to the oohs and aahs of the half-dozen anonymous aunties and uncles who stopped on their way to the loo or the galley to stop and admire Mary Magdalene, his M and M, as he called her, as a relatively quiet, fair-skinned, rosebud-lipped baby. Up and down with air pressure changes exquisitely painful to tiny tympanic membranes and Eustachian tubes, then off the plane, crying as she was washed in a tub of warm water in preparation for the most unexpected insult only a few hours later – her entire head shaved, the downy hair offered to the Tirupathi, God of the Seven Hills, once the entire family of ten and its three servants had climbed the long, steep flights of stairs of the famous temple, resting only for an occasional sip of water or to bathe their faces with wet handkerchiefs that one of the servants had moistened from his own small water pouch. Then wrapped up like a baby burrito and driven down the mountain in a car that inched forward for hours, trapped in the long line of worshippers abandoning the tradition of walking down all those steps to reflect on the god, eager to get home and watch the All-Asian Games or the latest American blockbuster on Star TV instead. It was Naresh’s father who had insisted on it, made it a condition of blessing the marriage, of buying them their house, which nonetheless Naresh wasn’t so certain the man could afford, but Appa insisted. Angeline had been a good sport about the whole ordeal, crying only when she saw a tiny nick on her baby’s scalp that she was convinced would get infected if they didn’t get back home right away. She’d made no other objection to the Hindu ritual, not even insisting that the child be baptized – he was the one who’d asked about baptism and communion, earning the affection of his Catholic in-laws forever.
Angeline had been completely involved in Mary Magdalene as a baby, often excluding him. He’d known enough to expect that. What he hadn’t expected was how preoccupied she still was now, with their daughter nearly four. It was almost as if her entire day was consumed by thoughts of perfection – the perfect doctor, teacher, housewife, mother. These should have added up to being the perfect wife, but in reality made her the opposite. “I don’t even know what it is you want. You should’ve married a nice Hindu girl who could’ve either stayed home or done something less demanding than this job,” she had shouted at him a few days ago, when things reached a low point after he left dinner midway through to go sit in the bathroom and talk on his cell phone for nearly an hour with a medical student he’d been mentoring. Her name was Lucy. She was beautiful.
Mary Magdalen was at preschool this morning, still happy and oblivious to the unmistakable changes in the house, in even how he looked at Angeline’s exhausted face, puffy abdomen, hairy and heavy brown thighs that were nothing like the elegant and pliable objects of his desire when they’d begun dating. As he re-tied his sneakers and set out for a run around the Reservoir, his mind wandered freely over possibilities. Taking Mary Magdalene to Singapore from Chennai and walking through the public gardens with her. Or leaving the child with his mother-in-law for a weekend, where she’d be treated like a princess, and surprising Angeline with a trip to the beaches in Goa, just the two of them.
Even with occasionally bitter arguments that must be inevitable in modern life, in a life not silenced by religious dictums, his marriage had always had a glow of romance that attracted the envy of others. Both he and Angeline prized this envy, he suspected, at times even more than the quiet comfort of the marriage itself. Certain colleagues always asked about “that wonderful husband” and “that lovely wife of yours”, looking at them from the detritus of their own rocky or passionless marriages and fights with live-in boyfriends and girlfriends. He supposed it was medicine – not the contact with any given patient, or getting any particular surgical result – but medicine’s whole culture of appearances; how it was easier to be young and good looking than older and average, and above all, important to look untroubled and healthy – how nurses liked you and responded to you on that basis with trust and confidence even if some tough, demanding, no-nonsense woman colleague had actually been the better resident, and was now, when it came down to it, the better surgeon in some ways. “Doctor,” they had always called him – even when he was nothing but an intern and wet behind the ears. “Sir,” rushing around to get him sutures, scalpels, whatever supplies he needed, even before he’d proven to them that he could get in an art line or intubate on the first try. In contrast Angeline would come home in tears sometimes, talking about how one of the nurses had openly disrespected her that day in front of a patient or an attending, questioning where she had gone to medical school, whether she knew anything, what she was even doing in that hospital.
In those days, he would stop everything to hold Angeline and comfort her. Now she was so capable and fast-moving despite the weight she’d gained. Even her accent, which had attracted him at first, had a new overlay of New York, America – twists of phrase that had crept in somehow without his noticing. The way she said “coffee” or “tawk to you latah” – if you closed your eyes she could have been Brooklyn-born. She’d come to this country when she was just twenty, spent two years doing research while she was taking all the board exams and applying for residency, then started her training still a few years younger than nearly everyone else. She’d chosen psychiatry because it would give her time to be a hands-on mother – she was that confident she’d marry before age twenty-five (considered old in her family, where her own mother had married at nineteen) and have at least three or four kids. Her confidence came from something other than experience – she’d only dated one man before him, while she was still a medical student in Vellore, one of the best medical colleges in South Asia, where a quota seat had been reserved for her because of religion.
A somewhat inhibited Catholic, she’d never consider divorce, and he liked that about her. The loyalty, the way she would take care of him in small ways even when they were just dating. The way she’d cook for him and clean his apartment – which had got to the point of being nearly uninhabitable during his third year – matter-of-factly, without feeling that it was something he ought to appreciate. That had changed once Mary Magdalene was born, and she struggled to make it to the hospital every morning while staying up with the baby every night. By now all that painful work was behind them. She had found good childcare and a good preschool in the end. He’d finished his residency in relative peace and landed a job at a private hospital that finally helped pay for it all, that even gave him some weekdays off.
He couldn’t understand why Angeline still had so much resentment about how hard it had been. Now they had the means to hire as much help as she wanted but she refused it, saving for a better house, for Mary Magdalene’s college, always something in the far distant future that held no immediate pleasures. It annoyed him that she had to be coaxed to go out to a restaurant, to wear high heels again, to even look at brochures from the resorts in Oaxaca where he’d hoped to take her on a side vacation when he flew over there on a volunteer surgery trip. There was nothing wrong with a little luxury while they were going over there to do a little good. Their marriage could use it, he told her, provoking a cold silence that morning which she refused to explain.
As he ran over the West 94th Street Bridge and came within view of the tennis courts, noticing a couple embracing under the trees below, along the Bridle Path, Naresh wondered if his wife would ever forgive him for the years that had been so hard. Then he allowed himself the daily indulgence that had begun the day Lucy, his mentee, had been introduced to him. Lucy’s parents had come from Kenya soon after she was born but settled in Oregon, where Lucy had been a college beauty queen. Lucy still went running every day; in fact, she jogged around this loop, where he ran now, with lingering hope. Lucy’s thighs and entire body were perfect. Smooth and delicious: though he knew this only from the sight of them in the short skirts she wore. Since he’d met her three weeks ago, each day was brightened by the sustained fantasy of making love to her, his hands on her perfect ass as she was riding him, lasting at least ten minutes each day, a series of warm light brown images that carried him through the longer stretches of his run, and one that he was only able to put out of his mind with ever-increasing reluctance.