Lalita breathed in the cold air as it swirled around her and licked her cheeks raw with a stinging finality. As it entered her chest and lungs, it seemed to freeze her from the inside and snake its way into the pockets of uncertainty she still felt about her decision, filling them up with cracked ice that stabbed at those spots most vulnerable. She opened her mouth and watched white mist spool out of it in puffs.
She was seated atop the banks of the Delaware River, on the Pennsylvania side, usually a vast green and brown landscape littered with sticks and branches hurled there by sporadic storms and violent winds. Now, though, it was a sea of blinding white, the ground concealed by thick sheets of hard snow. Seemingly soft and powdery from a distance but, in reality, harsh and rough to the touch like stone.
She was leaving him today, though he didn’t know it. She planned to make a clean break of it. It wasn’t one specific word or action that had precipitated the plan. It had all been building below the surface for so long that, like an iceberg, it threatened complete destruction and devastation if they didn’t change course soon.
“So you’re leaving her just like that?” Donna couldn’t keep the morbid fascination out of her voice.
“Better that it be fast. Don’t want to drag it out and hurt her anymore than necessary. And besides, it’s not just like that. It’s been a long time coming.” Sanjay fidgeted with his necktie and readjusted the position of his silverware to be parallel with his plate.
“You could try a separation?” Donna saw a wrinkle in his jacket sleeve and reached out to smooth it for him. Her hand then remained there. His eyes snapped up to meet hers, but he didn’t move his arm away.
“She used to steam them.”
“My suits I mean. Iron, press, steam– whatever they needed, she was always on top of it. I never had to think about if they were ready to wear to court or not. They just were.”
Donna’s eyes glittered playfully. “Surely that’s not why you’re abandoning ship now?”
He forced a smile that looked more like a grimace. “Of course not. Don’t be stupid. Anyway, a separation, no, definitely not. Just dangles the false promise of a reconciliation. No. Where is our check?”
Lalita could only think of him with irritation now. Just that morning, he’d helped to fortify her resolve.
“Toast?” he’d asked.
“You’ve hardly eaten for days,” he said. “You’ll be hungry. Let me just fix you some toast.”
“I said I’m fine.”
Always thinking he knew best. He didn’t know what was best for her. If he did, maybe she’d be hugging the twins right now instead of her own knees to her chest.
“I’m so sorry. I never knew that happened.” Donna leaned forward to take hold of and caress Sanjay’s trembling hand.
“How could you? It was all before you joined the firm and it’s not something I talk about.” Sanjay eased his hand out of hers. “I try to never even think about it.”
“Losing them both– it didn’t bring you and your wife closer together?”
“At first it did. While it was all happening in the hospital. We were each other’s life preservers. If we didn’t hold on, we couldn’t have stayed afloat.”
“So what changed?”
“She did. Once it became real, that they were gone and not coming back, she started to blame me.” Sanjay closed his eyes and massaged his temples. “The doctor told me while she was unconscious and hooked up to all those machines– she’ll never understand what that was like. I really thought I was going to lose her. He said it was her or the babies. That if they didn’t come out right away, she wouldn’t survive. But that if he took them out so early, they probably wouldn’t.”
“Oh Sanjay.” Donna’s voice now hushed, she sat back in her chair.
“Doesn’t she know it haunts me everyday? That it killed me? I did what I had to do. She slept. I was awake. I had no choice. I didn’t know if I kept her alive, our marriage would die along with them.”
In Lalita’s imagination, the twins had grown up to enjoy tubing down the river with her, one of her favorite pastimes in the sweltering summers. At night in her mind, they created many a memory, floating and laughing together.
As she stared out onto the choppy steel colored Delaware now, her eyes devoid of feeling and awareness, it morphed into a golden blue instead, both warm and inviting. “Amma! C’mon, faster!” her children would urge her, she was sure of it. “You’re practically asleep.”
She’d shake her head at them, lazily drifting along and allowing the river to carry her as it may, respecting its slow and easy pace. “This isn’t a race. It’s a beautiful day and they don’t last. Just enjoy it.” Lalita would tilt her head back further, dipping the frizzy ends of her hair into the green tinged water and basking in the friendly glow of the sunlight sprinkled across her face like raindrops.
Somehow she knew they wouldn’t have been like her. They’d have been like Sanjay, plagued by his eternal impatience with whatever activity lay before him, always longing for and imagining what could be next. What could be better.
“Come on,” Donna said. “Let’s head back to work.” Her expression made clear that Sanjay was to come pull her chair out for her. He sat there for almost an uncomfortable passage of time before getting up to do so.
“Sure, I just need to make a quick stop at home first.” Sanjay rested a casual hand on the small of her back as they departed the diner.
The wind continued to howl and whip Lalita’s dark hair around her face at an ever increasing rate. As darkness began to settle in on her and the bare trees, she felt closer to the meaning of it all than ever before. Some almost lyrical voice of wisdom seemed to speak to her and fill the cold, empty silence that was threatening to swallow her whole.
She stood and took one more deep breath of the inexorable winter air. She slowly began to weave her way down the snowy bank, sidestepping the slippery patches, until she could feel the water caressing her feet. The shouting of the panicked voice behind her was muffled and unimportant as she descended further into the cold, treacherous water, spreading her arms out and pushing away the jagged shards of ice surrounding her with numb fingertips.
Probably Sanjay found the note. He must have gone home early. She’d better hurry.
As she lowered her head beneath the dark gray water and the cold stole through her veins, she felt her muscles seize up. And yet the painful tight tension in her chest lifted for the first time in years. She thought she saw their smiling faces as she prepared to finally join them.