Anu relaxed her hands, only then realizing they were clenched. "Neil and I were discussing—"
"How Anu's got herself a new boyfriend."
Anu's stomach dropped. He was telling on her to his mother?
"Already? Is it that white man?"
"So what if he's white, Auntie?"
Priya's cheeks flushed, and immediately Anu felt regret. She was not usually so vocal with her opinions. As Neil's girlfriend, she'd tried to ignore Priya's constant demands, her placations and opinions, the way she made and unmade everything they did, like a bed, like a chore. When they got married, she couldn't ignore them; rather, she obeyed them. Now she didn't have to, but she still wasn't used to the idea that she was allowed to do and say as she pleased. In their culture, you couldn't be honest with elders without disrespecting them.
"I'm sorry, Auntie," she said finally, sincerely. She met Priya's gaze. "I didn't mean to snap at you."
"You mean every word, dear. Except the promises you made to my son."
Anu took a deep breath as she tried to remain calm. She was used to the guilt; it was the pain she was still coming to grips with. She chanced a look at Neil. His arms crossed, he was staring out the back window that she'd first climbed through twelve years earlier.
Why couldn't she reach out to him, press her hand against his chest, and make him understand that this was for the best?
He turned around and caught her eye. Staring at her like a stranger, he opened his mouth as if to say something, and then he closed it.
Maybe because, deep down, he knew there was nothing left to say. Not a scrap left to tussle over or work through. This was all that was left. And now wouldn't it be easier to play the cold estranged wife? The one who only eight months into their separation was starting to fall for another man; who would be ready for a divorce when the one-year separation mark rolled around and she was legally entitled to ask for it.
The one who didn't look back.
Swallowing hard, Anu walked out the door and down the stairs, ignoring the throbbing sensation in her ankle. The kitchen and the living room were full of people, and she smiled and nodded at everyone as they greeted her. There was a thundering on the stairs behind her.
"Anu, you forgot her bags," she heard Neil say.
"Thanks," Anu mumbled.
Kanika ran halfway up the stairs to greet her, squeezing her around the middle. Anu fought the urge to cry and widened her eyes so the tears didn't spill. She bent down to kiss Kanika and, following her down the stairs, nodded intently at what her beautiful daughter was saying.
But Anu couldn't hear the words. She could only watch Kanika's tiny, full lips move. Neil's lips.
The way her eyes widened and contracted in animation, the same way Neil's did when he was excited or joyful—a look Anu would probably never witness for herself again.
Coming and going. Going and coming. These were the routines of Anu's life now, except it still didn't feel like her own.
Anu turned toward the voice. Without meeting her eye, Priya handed her a heavy plastic bag.
"It's OK, Auntie. I already ate."
Priya didn't reply as she disappeared into the kitchen.
"Thank you," Anu called after her, but she didn't think Priya could hear her over Kanika's whines and pleas to the entire room as Neil tried to dress her in a coat. She didn't want to leave the party yet, she cried. Why didn't Mommy want to stay? Why didn't Mommy ever want to have fun?
Anu tried not to wonder this herself, but when you married the first man you ever kissed, these weren't the questions you were used to asking yourself. Lately, she was realizing she never stopped to ask herself anything, let alone find the answer. Why had she lived her life like it wasn't her own? Why had she followed the wind without wondering where it was blowing, or why?
Anu took a deep breath—counted in for two, counted out for two—just like her mother had taught her. Clutching the bags in one hand, she gave Kanika her most serious look. "Please, baby. It's time to go."
Kanika pouted—that way she did often, the way she knew worked on everyone. "Can Daddy come, too?"
Every time, it ripped. Just a little bit more.
"Daddy will walk us to the car."