Anu should have waited to come over until the party had concluded or offered for Kanika to sleep there an extra night. The front lawn was crowded with the aunties and uncles of her community, dressed up in a rainbow of red, saffron, and gold in tribute to Diwali. Some had firecrackers, candles, or sparklers—others watched the festivities from the sidelines. Anu didn't have the energy to face them today, although she knew she would have to on the way out. She couldn't climb out of Neil's bedroom window with a five-year-old in tow.
She spotted Priya climbing up the porch stairs, slowly, leaning her weight onto the handrail, and then Kanika darting past her in the opposite direction, waving two long sparklers. Anu inhaled sharply. Someone had dressed her in a neon pink lengha so long she could trip over it. And why hadn't anyone put a coat on her? Couldn't they feel the biting October wind?
"I know she's not wearing a coat," Neil said behind her. "She refused. She's getting more stubborn every day."
"Just like you."
"I was going to say, just like you."
Anu smiled out the window, watching her daughter prance around the lawn, basking in the attention of being the only child at the party. "Why aren't you down there?"
"There was a minor fire-related emergency."
She spun around to face him. Tucking Kanika's favorite plush walrus into the backpack, he gestured to his right forearm, at a bald patch the size of a baseball.
"Prabha Uncle brought firecrackers, and I got caught in the cross fire when he tried to light one in the kitchen sink."
"He tried to light it inside the house?" Anu laughed. "They make these things childproof. Who knew it needed to be uncle proof."
She went to reach for the bald patch but caught herself just in time. Instead, she planted her hands firmly on her hips.
"It's just hair," he said quietly. "It'll grow back."
She nodded, even though she didn't agree. Not everything came back.
Anu sat down at the foot of the bed, and she wondered if it was the same twin bed Neil had slept in until they got married. She leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. For the first time since he had moved out, they were back on good terms. They were civil, and sometimes on Saturdays during the pickups and drop-offs—on nights like these—they even laughed together.
But she knew Neil, and now everything was about to change.
She opened her eyes. He was examining her more closely as he closed up the backpack with its palm tree zipper.
"Everything OK, Anush?"
She pressed her lips together, cringing at the sound of his nickname for her; the way the tone dropped off at the elongated oo sound. Once upon a time it had been romantic.
"Ryan and I..." She caught his eye, and there was no need to say more.
He dropped the backpack to the floor, rubbed his hands through his hair.
She sat forward on the bed. "Are you OK?"
He didn't reply. She could hear him breathing over the sounds of voices downstairs, chattering filling up the house.
"I haven't told Kanika. She hasn't even met him yet—"
"You...you climb in here like nothing has changed... and just spring this on me." Neil was pacing now, and his voice was on the rise. He was on the cusp of snapping. That temper of his, the one that reared its petty, unruly self so rarely, was on its way up and out. "She hasn't met him yet? Is it serious?"
"Neil, lower your voice." She stood up from the bed, keeping the weight on her right foot. "It's only been a few months, I swear. I didn't want you to find out from anyone else."
"So everyone knows you're with him now? Is that it?"
"Neil, please calm dow—"
'"Beta."' A sharp voice from the doorway. 'Hush.' Her mother-in-law, Priya, was standing at the entrance of the room, her sari a sheath of orange tie-dye. "We have guests." She gave them both a stern look. "What is this nonsense?" She paused, breathing hard. "I thought fighting time was over."