We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
A modest front yard featured three young, bitten trees, barely visible at this hour. The place had been recently painted, a subtle green Sunil liked. It was Sunday, and the neighborhood of well-kept houses and straight yards was quietly active with push mowers and runners stretching in driveways. Kids on bikes grabbed the last rays of light.
The landlady was much older than Sunil expected. Unusually tall. “I was tidying up,” she said and smiled, wide and toothy.
He wanted to trust the woman. He chose to ignore that he and Amy were just two prospective renters among legions, that there could be a garbage mound on the floor crowned by a giant rat and still rivals would draw blood over a well-located one-bedroom.
Then their new landlady said, ‘Of course, you’re married? Stability, that’s the main thing in life.’
The woman opened the second-floor apartment and swept her arms open, as if to say, All this could be yours. “It was my son’s place. Him and his ex-wife.”
Sunil held Amy’s arm. She reached a hand behind his back and covertly pinched the top of his thigh.
The kitchen offered a scuffed linoleum floor, an avocado table, and a beige refrigerator. Beyond was a larger room with gangly potted plants. Windows faced the street, but fortunately little noise floated up. The furniture was floral, the walls hung with drawings of trees with human arms and smiling sunflowers. But the bedroom was painted a cheerful white, and the office had a large window with what seemed to be a view of a backyard. A layer of spring snow flecked the brown earth.
“No laundry?” Amy asked, looking herself like she could use a bath. Amy believed that her sweat was inoffensive, clean, and she often resented showering as a waste of time. Today, she showed up straight from a run, her clothes dry but neck still damp around the collar. It was true, she didn’t smell ripe—he happened to like her undertone of old lemon—but her disregard for impressing the landlady embarrassed Sunil.
The woman said there was a laundromat around the corner. Sunil took note. Laundry was his job. Amy paid the bills and fought the credit card and utility companies.
It was a quiet block, academics and families, the landlady said. There’d be a slight reduction in rent if they mowed the lawn. “If it ever gets to be spring.”
He would mow the lawn. He loved spring, the pulsing, daily greening of the world. The give in the ground, the strengthening sun on his face. Amy slipped from sweaters into fitted T-shirts, like the orange scoop neck she was wearing the day they met. Yet spring signaled summer, the dead months; he had a hard time getting work done during the limp, boneless season. This summer, Amy would need a job. And Sunil would finish his dissertation. He had to.
Sunil looked around again excitedly. They’d take down the floral art and put up pictures of Boston, artful shots of places they’d seen and been together: the courtyard of the Gardner Museum; an Old World street corner in the North End. Buy real flowers from the corner store and set them in jelly jars. The books on shelves instead of the milk crates they used now.
The old woman slid heavily into a chair at the kitchen table. Surely questions about their finances were forthcoming.
Instead she asked Amy to bring her a glass of cold water—“You have to run the tap thirty seconds, dear”—and instructed Sunil to pull the chain on the light fixture. “Now I can get a good look at you.”
Amy delivered the water, then peered intently into the cabinets; she had already opened closets and inspected shelves. She was registering potential improvements—wedges under rickety table legs, hooks on the back of doors. Her silent inquisition made Sunil nervous that they appeared ungrateful, but she would say such inspection was their right. She was also a snoop, though she wouldn’t admit it. Such eagle eyes had discovered, the first night she spent in Sunil’s apartment, a birthday card from two girlfriends ago. She’d brought it to him with sly pride, like a cat delivering a bird.
As the woman looked Sunil full in the face, his hopes began to sink. He prepared himself for some good old Boston Brahmin racism. And sure enough, she said, “What are you?”
Here it was. The white person’s arrogant insistence on knowing not who or where but simply what, as if he were a mineral or some other piece of ground.
“Indian,” he said flatly. He didn't bother saying he was born and grew up in Ohio and didn’t know his parents’ language well enough to understand it, much less speak it. No one ever cared about that.
Unlike a lot of white girls, Amy had known him to be Indian right away, having grown up in a D.C. enclave packed with immigrants. What she never fully fathomed was his distance from his family.
But the woman surprised him by nodding approvingly. “Someday all the babies will be brown, long after I’m gone. Café au lait.”
Standing near the table, girlfriend at his side, Sunil was overcome with longing to sit in this room together in the mornings: reading, typing, drafting their joint lives. He held his breath as Amy slipped off the cap that made her look like a boy and gripped it in her hands behind her back.
“We love it,” Amy said. “When can we move in?”
Sunil exhaled. He had worried Amy would shy away from saying what she felt. She was not timid, and if she was feeling scrutinized or defensive, she’d order enough food for an elephant, or shout at a stranger who’d jostled her. She’d told him this came from being small all her life; when threatened, she felt that she had to prove she could eat, kick, rage as hard as anyone. Yet sometimes, with him, if she sensed that he felt strongly, she pretended her own desires didn’t matter in order to placate or relieve him. Sometimes her yielding did make things easier for Sunil, but more often he was frustrated by her withholding. He felt locked out. Now Amy moved closer to him. They waited for the verdict. He wondered if Amy had suspected, as he had, that his brownness might interfere. Unlike a lot of white girls in the Midwest, Amy had known him to be Indian right away, having grown up in a D.C. enclave packed with foreigners and immigrants. What she never fully fathomed was his distance from his family, and their so-called culture. She’d been saying for more than a year that she wanted to meet his parents. But he hadn’t seen his parents in longer than that.
“A week should give us all enough time,” the woman said.
Sunil swallowed his astonishment and smiled widely. “Thank you.”
“This is such good news!” Amy bounced on her toes and gave the woman a quick squeeze. Hugging strangers was a behavior he would never understand.
Then their new landlady said, “Of course, you’re married? Stability, that’s the main thing in life.”
As she said this, Sunil realized he’d been thinking it.
But what could they reasonably say? He threaded his hand behind Amy’s back and felt her fingers—lively, anticipating—respond. Then she surprised him. She slipped her small opal ring, a college graduation gift from her parents, from her right ring finger to her left.
“Engaged,” she said, bringing her hand—thin, bright, trembling—into the light to be inspected.
• • •
Here was action, here was progress. They tumbled to their seats inside the Nepalese restaurant, one of their favorite places. Sunil sucked on ice cubes from his water glass, and Amy crunched happily on papadum. “What do you think?” she said.
“Don’t you want to?” he said.
“Of course. It makes sense. I love you. We’ve been together three years. But I wasn’t sure. Do you think she would have rented to us anyway? As we were?”
He shook his head. “No one asks about marriage if they don’t want the answer to be yes.”
Amy looked at him closely. “What’s wrong?”
“Marriage is scary, isn’t it?”
‘Actually, I think I don’t want my parents at our wedding.’
“I’m just thinking about my parents. When one of them is strong, the other becomes weak. It’s an awful way to be.” How did couples keep their individual dignity? “We can’t let our marriage be about power.”
The waiter brought clean white bowls of soupy yellow dal. Sunil lifted the bowl straight to his lips while Amy blew on a spoonful.
“No, we’ll be equally committed,” she said. “Like inmates.” Her hair mussed, her cheeks wide and lit from within. A light scrim of salt lined her temple; he leaned in and lightly licked it off.
He said, “You know, a real wedding, a big one, would be impossible given our families. Your parents wanting kosher, mine wanting their five hundred closest friends from Nairobi, London, Columbus . . .”
“Maybe a five-year anniversary party,” she said. Then, after a long pause, “Actually, I think I don’t want my parents at our wedding.”
“Really?” He was shocked.
“They’re too crazy right now.” A few years ago, Amy’s parents had undergone a radical and confusing conversion to Orthodoxy. Her father had been a business journalist at the Post, but started to crave a more consequential life. Her mother had been a freelance architecture critic, which she decided was a vacuous profession. So they secured jobs at Elie Weisel’s Moment, where the people around them were living the kind of exceptional, purposeful, selfless lives the Kauffmans sought to emulate. The path to such worthy lives, they came to believe, was the Torah.
Their conversion had happened quickly, during Amy’s last few months of college. “I broke out into hives,” she’d admitted to Sunil early in their relationship. “I was afraid of losing them to a relentless fundamentalism. So I treated them like fifteen-year-old anarchists who were going through a phase.”
Sunil always had admired Amy’s toughness, even though he suspected that bottling up her confusion and frustration wasn’t good for her in the long run.
“Are you sure?” He hated how even low-level arguments with her parents knocked Amy off her even keel for a day or two, but he had also seen that there was longstanding love between all of them. A resilient, enduring love that Sunil envied.
“Yes. They’re in Israel now anyway, and I don’t want to wait.”
Together, silently, he and Amy watched the young sons of the restaurant owners slide into the back booth. The boys’ father sat down heavily next to his children and gestured to the worn schoolbooks on the table. For years, when he was a child, Sunil had wanted a brother badly.
“Still, I do need to finally meet your parents,” Amy said. “It’s time, and it’s only fair.”
“Fair to whom?”
Amy raised her eyebrows, which lifted the boyish cap off her ears. “Don’t you think I need to know what I’m getting myself into? I’ve given you a full disclosure.”
Sunil groaned. “That’s exactly what I don’t want.”
He believed that Amy could handle his mother’s abrasiveness and his father’s unsettling quiet. What worried him was what dark behavior Amy would suddenly see in him when they were all in the same room.
Sunil tried to push these thoughts away. He looked at Amy across the shiny Formica table and saw the future. Of course she would meet his parents, but they would marry without either the Kauffmans or the Chandarias present. He ripped a naan in two and gave her the larger half. She ate greedily, and demanded another from his hand.
• • •
‘He works so slowly—I’m not even sure what he does all day at the library. How could he not have made any progress in six months?’
The next morning, Sunil woke singing one of his blurry, half-awake love songs: Amy is my cuckoo clock, and I love my cuckoo.
The coffee was already started when Amy emerged from the bedroom and slipped down the stairs barefoot, in short shorts and sleeper T, to get the Globe. Sunil wove into his song her grumpy expression and slept-in hair, her nose reddened from the morning cool.
Amy read every square of the front page, then the travel section. Over yogurt and granola, she mockingly read aloud the last paragraph of the pro-Bush op-ed. Some conservative was arguing that Dubya had significant foreign policy experience because Texas was a border state. A few minutes later, Sunil left to work in Widener, leaving her the kitchen table, the only available workspace in the apartment. Amy—who ran and biked and swam in all the public health charity athletic events (good health, good networking)—always, irritatingly, urged him to walk to the library because he didn’t get enough fresh air and exercise.
An hour later, Sunil was back on his street; he’d forgotten a book. From outside their apartment door, Sunil heard Amy on the phone: “He works so slowly—I’m not even sure what he does all day at the library. How could he not have made any progress in six months—maybe more?”
More. It was more. But she didn’t know that.
He pushed open the warped door. Amy was sprawled on the floor, phone to her ear. He fetched the book and waited until she was done. “Who were you talking to?”
“Monica,” she said. “I realized I couldn’t get married without my sister, so I called to invite her.”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“I’m sorry, love. I didn’t mean for you to overhear that. I just feel like I can’t ask you what’s going on because you’re so stressed out. But I should’ve just talked to you.”
“And said what?” He pressed his heels into the cracked floorboards until his toes tingled.
“That you seem to be reading endlessly to keep from writing.”
“You know what I’m doing is really hard, right? Coming up with something new to say after two thousand years of analytic philosophy. It’s not like we have new data to work with, like in medicine. Philosophers have to think up something new using the same evidence we’ve always had.” He winced as he heard himself speak, adding “analytic” like an ass.
Data, in fact, was a point of contention between them. For Amy, “I looked it up” was a favorite, argument-ending phrase. Like her journalist parents, Amy believed most answers were out there in the world to be discovered. Like he used to think about moral truths.
“I know it’s really hard, but if you just keep at it, the writing, the words will come.” She paused. “I wish you had a course to teach. Teaching was so good for you.”
It had been. Sunil’s scholarship did not allow him to teach, unlike almost everyone else at Harvard, who’d been TFs, teaching assistants. But last fall he had begged Bernardston, the department chair, to let him do so for just one semester. James, Sunil’s adviser, had strongly discouraged the idea: Sunil needed to devote all his time to his dissertation; teaching was a distraction. But Sunil had persisted. And Lieberman, who could be credited with planting the seed of his dissertation, had supported him; she agreed it would be good for him to explain material to students, and to know if the teaching part of the academic enterprise was something that he could be good at.
Bernardston could not bend the rules of his scholarship, but he had offered Sunil a chance to sub for him while he was off at Oxford giving a series of lectures. It would be the most difficult of any teaching situation, at mid-semester, but Sunil had immediately accepted.
The morning he was to lead the class, Sunil threw up his breakfast. His hands shook. Bernardston normally wore jeans and a sport coat to class. Sunil didn’t own a jacket, so he wore his nicest button-down. At some point halfway through, he realized his shirt was misbuttoned, one side dragging lower than the other. Heat flushed through his entire body, but he forced himself to think It could be worse and kept going.
He discovered that it was easy for him to create simple, stark paradoxes for his students. He could make them understand why personal identity was not a simple matter of a singular brain yoked to a singular body. What if brain and body were cloned, was You2 still you? What about memories? If I don’t remember what happened yesterday, is that yesterday-person me? Students had arrived in the classroom with low visors, droopy eyes, yet he had been able to induce many of them to think for fifty minutes. There were awful moments of demoralizing, vacuum-packed silence, but by the end of the class, his prodding had yielded results. Hands in the air!
At the end of the semester, Bernardston had called Sunil in to his office. “I have to say you’ve set up something of a problem for me. Because of the class you taught, now my students are asking for more discussion.”
“So, they got something out of it?”
“I don’t know, but they liked it.” Bernardston smiled.
Now Amy said to Sunil, “When you sit down to write, can you pretend that you’re teaching someone? Could that be a way to reboot?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But it’s a good idea.” He kissed her on the cheek, and headed back to campus.
• • •
Rosie’s was strewn with peanut shells and smelled sour, but there were free pretzels and three-dollar pitchers before four. Sunil’s and Andrew’s beers arrived with mozzarella sticks. Sunil wasn’t hungry, but he ate. It was his mother’s ingrained injunction: food wasn’t worth eating when it cooled past piping. He swallowed roughly as the cheese sticks scratched his throat.
Shifting in the hard wooden booth, he announced, “Amy and I are getting married.” It was the first time he’d said it out loud, put those striking words together in a sentence. But he didn’t get the charge from them he’d expected. He still felt awkward, nervous.
“Hey! That’s some good news! What did her parents say?”
‘I know you are an ethicist, this is what you study. But what do you believe?’
Andrew had been the one to point Amy out in the café where they met. Blond, petite, color in her cheeks and forehead. Playful. In the thick of a spirited game of timed Scrabble with her roommate. She was five years younger than Sunil, but driven, ambitious, certain. When he was her age, he’d been flat, directionless. Amy’s dreams had shape and promise.
“She doesn’t want to invite her parents to the wedding. She’s worried a civil ceremony would only offend them, so we’re not going to tell them until it’s done. It’s the first major decision she’s ever made without her parents.”
“Won’t that be worse? Them finding out after the fact?”
Sunil nodded. “Probably. Especially because she wants her sister to be there. Which means her parents will feel even more slighted. It’s just conflict avoidance. Amy hates fighting with her parents. Their conversion made her angry, but she doesn’t want to show it because she’s worried it will put more distance between them.”
“It sounds like disagreements with the Kauffmans are inevitable,” Andrew said. “I’m thinking of that ‘anti-God’ conversation you told me about.”
“Exactly,” Sunil said.
The Kauffmans liked Sunil—Ariel affectionately called him “duckling” because of his boyish face and out-turned toes—but he wasn’t a Jew, and they were skeptical of his moral compass. During a bitter spell this past winter, over a meal at Legal Seafood, Ariel had said to Sunil, “I know you are an ethicist, this is what you study. But what do you believe? I’ve read that Jains aspire to ‘the three jewels’: right belief, right knowledge, and right conduct. But you say you’re not an observant Jain.”
Sunil had told her that he did not believe in transcendental codes—laws that came from a divine power. “So you’re both anti-God and amoral,” Ariel said. “Because morality comes from God’s commandments.”
Sunil had responded, gently, that he could not be against something that didn’t exist. And before he could address the charge of amorality, Amy had exclaimed, “Mom, how can you say that!” The meal had ended with a no-hard-feelings sharing of crème brûlée, but Sunil was left with a worrisome taste in his mouth. He didn’t know whether the Kauffmans had felt the same.
Sunil slowly shook his head. He said to Andrew, “I have no idea how this is all going to go down.”
“Well, they are out of the country, right? Aren’t yours, too?”
“They left for Nairobi a couple days ago. They’ll be gone for two weeks.”
“Maybe that’s your excuse?”
Sunil sighed. “Not one that holds much water.”
• • •
Walking home from the bar, having reached the bottom of the pitcher and the end of happy hour, Sunil felt a clammy tightness in his chest. He was starting to fret about money, about his ability to succeed at what he’d set out to do. Why couldn’t he be calm and focused like his father, who every morning ate the same bran cereal with applesauce. Who woke and went to sleep, taking all that came his way, with the same mild expression on his face. Premchand could go days without even talking, leaving the house early on weekend mornings without telling them where he was going or when he’d be back. This mute stoicism had made Sunil worry that his father was so unhappy he’d leave them, and because of this, he had hated his father’s absences. But most of all he had resented being left alone with the livid, changeful emotions of his mother, who had ruled their world and made Sunil feel powerless. He knew he was hard on his mother, but she had been hard on him. He couldn’t quite summon the same anger for his father, whose reasons for leaving the house Sunil had always understood. And despite his father being gone a lot, Sunil couldn’t help but admire his steadiness, as well as his dedication to his profession, to work that he found fascinating.
His mother had come to the admissions interview and asked if they could get their money back if the teachers were unable to provide the structure needed to guide a lazy boy’s mind. Sunil had just turned ten.
Sunil remembered the day he’d been admitted to Pick Academy. He had not been a good student, but Pick needed pleasant brown faces for their catalogs, and he’d been elated to leave public school, where he was trailed by kids who tapped their mouths to make ow-ow-ow sounds.
Private school had been his father’s idea, and his father had helped him with the application. But his mother had also come to the admissions interview and asked if they could they pull Sunil out and get their money back if the teachers were not able to improve him very much, if they were unable to provide the structure needed to guide a lazy boy’s mind. When his father insisted that it was worth paying money for good teachers and a better quality of classmate, she’d exploded. Why didn’t he care as much about her, and her happiness, as he did about their godforsaken, do-nothing son? Sunil had just turned ten.
Sunil didn’t remember, did not in fact know, the exact phrase she’d used, but it was a curse worse than buckwass, worse than benchod, which he’d been slapped once for mindlessly repeating.
He knew now that his mother had been cursing out his father, not him. When he’d brought it up, years later, she’d been embarrassed. But when his father’s car had pulled out of the driveway after that fight, headlights sweeping across his bedroom window, Sunil had felt as though the whole neighborhood had tuned in to the immigrant family who could not get along.
Sunil had finally escaped to college, but still he shouldered a collection of injuries and insults. Over the past year, Sunil had made numerous attempts to cast his worries aside and tackle his dissertation. But every time he tried to articulate his argument, several serious objections reared their heads, and Sunil abandoned what he’d begun. Sunil possessed his mother’s ferocity, but he lacked his father’s sureness and discipline. At every stop he felt his weaknesses, his lack of entitlement to the elite position he now occupied.
• • •
In the apartment, he found Amy in yoga clothes, surrounded by boxes. Her hair was pinned up in a ridiculous mess, fine hairs falling loose as she danced to Janet Jackson on a small travel radio. She flipped her elbows and knees out and in like the Tin Man in a chorus line. Breasts compacted by a sports bra, thighs and butt bopping to the beat, her whole glistening body unselfconscious and exuberant.
“Hey, crazy hair,” he said. He looked around at the taped-up cells of their lives. She’d packed most of their clothes, plus her books and photo albums. His books lay scattered around the apartment still, as well as a few old pairs of shoes, not yet worn enough to discard. The one thing they’d bought together, the toaster oven, was still on the counter.
“I’m going to need these cool moves in our new apartment, don’t you think?” she said. “I’m so happy we’re moving.”
“I can tell. You must really hate this place.”
‘Are you trying to get rid of me? We’re engaged, remember?’
“Loathe it. Abhor it. Execrate it.”
The rusty water that sometimes emerged from the taps gave Amy’s hair a brownish sheen, and two of the four burners on the stove had been broken for a year.
Amy turned the radio off and said, “I’m starving. What did you bring us?”
With just three days left in this warped and worn place, they’d stopped buying groceries. Sunil remembered he was supposed to pick up sandwiches on his walk home from campus.
“Shit, I’m sorry. I spaced. I’ll go back out.”
“You forgot our dinner?” While she had been home packing. She growled. “Don’t bother. I’m too hungry.” She opened the freezer and pulled out a carton of ice cream, which they ate with sliced bananas and salted nut mix. Amy served herself more than she could possibly eat—nearly half the gallon—to show how put out she was by his forgetfulness.
Sunil started to tell her what he’d been thinking about on the way home, but she cut him off. “No,” she said, “you don’t get to forget dinner, then hijack the conversation.”
“You’re right,” he said. “Tell me about your day.”
Today her project model for addressing multidrug-resistant TB had passed departmental approval. She simply needed to write up the final pages describing existing community resources. Then she listed the job applications she’d sent to public health research orgs and nonprofits all over Boston. She thought continuing TB work would be interesting, because it was localized within certain intimate populations, like prisons, but she also wanted to work with immigrant women. “You’re looking only in Boston?”
“Are you trying to get rid of me? We’re engaged, remember?”
He smiled. “I remember. I just don’t want you to limit yourself. You always said you wanted to work at the NIH.” Amy’s grandmother had been a biologist and was one of the first women to head up her own research team in the forties, during the war. He did not know how he could live alone, without Amy, but she was too young to restrict her options.
“Someday,” she said.
But it bothered him that she refused to own up to her own ambitions. It didn’t make her desires less real, just less transparent.
After dinner, Sunil washed and dried their bowls and spoons, and they sat on the couch, looking at the room, empty except for the TV—the NBA playoffs had started. Amy lifted her feet into his lap. He was tired and bloated from the ice cream, but she wiggled her toes insistently.
“Do you think being married will change anything?” she said.
“I won’t love you any less,” he said. “Plus I’ll get to call you the old ball-and-chain.”
“What am I supposed to call you? The ball peen-hammer? The Phillips-head?”
“I don’t even know what those things are.”
“I know. That’s why it’s funny. How about the old rusty pitchfork? Or just the tool?” She was quiet for a moment, then she said, “I suppose we are following a long, proud line of practicality. My parents married because my mom was pregnant. Your parents’ marriage was arranged. We’re doing it for a good deal on an apartment.” She said this breezily, happily, then closed her eyes to enjoy the pressure of his thumbs on her feet.
“We’re not like them,” he said. “Neither of them. Why would you say that?”
“Say what?” She opened her eyes.
“Draw our parents into this. You really think their examples are that relevant?” The thought terrified him.
“Of course they are. You know they are.”
“But their values, their wants, what makes them happy or unhappy—we don’t have to deal with any of it. We can start fresh. That part is really important. We don’t have to take their baggage with us.”
She withdrew her feet from his lap and placed them firmly on the floor.
He wished he hadn’t raised his voice. He thought of how his father turned his head and showed his profile when taking on his mother’s fury, and her own rapid headshaking when she was overcome.
“We’re not. I’m the one who said I didn’t want my parents at our wedding,” Amy said. “But we can’t erase our upbringing. Our parents are the closest examples of real marriages we have.”
Sunil sighed. “Yes, of course, I just don’t want to be like them. They don’t, they aren’t—” He couldn’t finish.
“Listen, love. Whether your parents love you or love you enough is not the only fact about them. It’s impossible for our parents to be irrelevant. What matters is how we deal with them.”
He was silent for a moment. “I agree with you. Maybe I’m just trying to prepare you. I don’t think you’ve met anyone like my mother. She is deaf to me—so unbending. And she can be mean, explosive. She’s not going to accept you easily.”
Amy nodded, as if trying to ready herself. “Even so, we’re the children. We’re the ones who have to imagine, and believe in, good outcomes,” she said quietly. “As much for us as for them. C’mon, philosophers excel at thought experiments.”
“So we say.” He leaned in, embraced her. Inhaled her. Did not let go.
Yet Sunil still felt that Amy didn’t understand how important it was for the two of them to be unconstrained, to be able to love without holding on to the obligations of their parents.
Yes, he had his idealism—he would prefer to call it having standards—and perhaps that tainted his view of his childhood. This idealism sometimes gave rise to self-righteous anger. But didn’t anger make him good at philosophy? He had ideas, good ones. He wanted to think about these things for the rest of his life; he wanted to teach, to make progress. There were good people on his side. He would not let them down.
Amy said she had reading to do and went into the bedroom. Sunil turned on the TV and watched the end of the Lakers game.
Three minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Lakers were down by eight. Sunil leaned in, sensing a momentum change. Something was about to happen. Then Kobe rolled off a pick, received a pass, shook his defender with a crossover dribble à la Tim Hardaway, and shot from downtown with a hand so close to his face he could’ve licked it. Twenty seconds later, Kobe scored again. Sunil swore happily and muttered the triple double, 25-10-11. Commercial break.
The phone rang, and Amy padded to the kitchen to answer it.
She appeared in front of him with wide eyes, covering the receiver with her palm. “Your mother.”
His mother never begged. She demanded, she threatened, she guilt-tripped, but she had never said please, please.
He grabbed the phone and jumped around Amy to see the resumed play. “Mom? Are you all right?”
“There was an accident,” she said. Her voice was thinner than he remembered. He hoped it was a bad connection.
“You? Is Dad all right? What happened?” He gestured for Amy to turn off the TV.
“Yes, yes, fine, fine. Bimal has been in a terrible car accident.” She started to cry. Noisy, heavy sounds. So loud that Amy stepped closer, but Sunil held up his palm.
“Is it serious? Is Dad there?” He’d get better information from his father. He wished his father had been the one to call.
“Dad isn’t there?”
“I want you to come here,” she said. “I will buy you the ticket.”
Sunil sat, stunned.
Amy watched him, tentative.
“Mom, I’m really sorry, but I can’t just go to Nairobi. I have a lot of work here. Bimal’s going to be okay, isn’t he? He’s conscious and everything?” Bimal was the cousin closest to him in age, and the one Sunil knew best, but they hadn’t seen each other since they were young teenagers. Sunil pictured a skinny, shirtless boy on the beach waving to a low-flying plane.
“That is what they are saying.”
“What? What are they saying?”
“That he needs to stay in hospital for a while, but he will survive. Please, please come.”
His mother never begged. She demanded, she threatened, she guilt-tripped, but she had never said please, please. She was crying harder. Amy was moving her hands and mouth, but he couldn’t read her. Was she saying to accept? Or just to take a deep breath?
He took a deep breath. “If I go there,” he began. “Amy has to come too.”
“What’s this, your girlfriend is not family. This is serious!”
He tried again, but his voice was overrun by a barrage of sobs mixed with words that he couldn’t understand.
His eyes on Amy, he said, “Mom. Listen to me. Amy is not just my girlfriend. She’s my wife.”
This silenced her, for a moment. “Liar,” she said.
“No,” he said softly. “I’m telling you the truth. We got married. I just haven’t been able to tell you before now.”
“Why do you insult us? You think we are just some after-the-fact thoughts?”
Sunil wound the phone cord around his wrist. “You’re the first person we’ve told. It just happened.”
“—anything you want, and we were so proud . . . and Harvard . . . but we are your parents! Heartless, just like your father. No one in our community has ever done such a thing.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“Can I talk to Dad?”
“Then let me talk to Sarada Aunty.”
“Everything is my fault, chho? You think I have caused this accident? No. It was fate. Now you listen to me. I am going to tell you something.” There was a strange pause. “Bimal is your brother.”
“Mom! Don’t say stuff like that just to get me to come. I’m really sorry about Bimal’s accident, but he’s going to be all right. And I haven’t seen him in fifteen years.”
“I am talking about brother-brother, blood brother!”
Was the shock making her confused? He walked into the kitchen and back to where Amy lay on the floor doing anxiety sit-ups. She stopped and looked at him for explanations.
“I am telling you, Bimal is your 100 percent brother. Born before you, in Kenya. It was a bad time. We gave him to your uncle. We thought it was the right thing, but you—you.” She swallowed what came next, but Sunil was sure he heard the word mistake.
“What are you talking about? You said you only ever wanted one kid. You always said that’s why I am your only child!”
“No,” she said gravely. “You are not my only child. I have two children. Two sons.”
Sunil gripped the phone with two hands. “You lied to me? For thirty years?”
“Yes, I lied to you. I had to lie. If you come to Nairobi, come home to us, I will explain. I will tell you everything.”
Then his mother was gone. Sunil stared. He shivered. He reached for Amy, who embraced him with both arms.
“What’s going on?” she asked. “Who is Bimal? Why did you tell her we were married?”
“Because we will be.” He pulled her down with him until he felt her warm breath on his neck, and the weight of her pressed against his quavering heart. “And then we’ll go to Nairobi.”
Excerpted from The Limits of the World, published by Delphinium Books, 2019. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Jennifer Acker is founder and editor in chief of The Common, and author of the debut novel The Limits of the World. Her short stories, essays, translations, and reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, Literary Hub, n+1, Guernica, The Yale Review, Off Assignment, and Ploughshares, among other places. Acker has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and teaches writing and editing at Amherst College, where she directs the Literary Publishing Internship and LitFest. She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
In later years I will come to avoid him, but for now, I am eight years old, and the man everyone says is my father is sitting in the living room.
The Harper brothers acted as if they didn’t see Lola or her car, right in front of them, plain as day.
Duchess, the dog that Jack and his dad brought home, is sitting by the kitchen table in a pair of women’s underpants.