by Manisha Jolie Amin
The secret’s hidden in the lining of her body. A universe of possibility replaced by a hard groove. No entry allowed.
Sheila sits in the clinic waiting her turn and sees a book for new mothers in amongst the faded magazines. The tears start down her face. They taste of both sadness and bitterness. Basil and cumin together.
If souls travel in packs, she thinks, then where must her pack be? Was she the only one on the journey? Later that day, for the first time in a long time, she places an advertisement.
Sheila sits outside at a café, watching sun rays reflect on the deep blue sea. She’s glad she’s picked a table in the shade. Like many new cafés, this one has a liquor licence, modern art and uncomfortable chairs. It’s not her normal part of town, not a place she’d choose for herself.
She wonders what the world sees when they look at her. Do they notice the difference? New haircut, bright make up. Something borrowed, nothing blue.
Her mother’s voice spoke in her mind.
“At least when Angelina Jolie cut off her breasts she already had a man,” Sheila’s mother had said to her best friend, as they sat knitting, and waiting for Sheila to come out of the anaesthetic. “I never thought that God would treat me this way. First no son, then a barren daughter.” She snorted into the handkerchief she lovingly washed and ironed each week for her husband, who never used it.
At the time, Sheila turned her head and bit her lip hard to stop the tears.
Now she smiled and wondered what her mother would have said if she knew what her daughter was doing today.
“What would you like to drink?” asked the waitress.
“Lemon-iced tea.” she responds. It’s a drink she doesn’t particularly like, and she drinks it with short slow sips. It won’t look old or stale by the time he arrives. Her strange man.
She remembers other strange men, the ones she hated. The white man in a mint green gown for instance. “Amazing operation,” he said. “You were lucky to have Dr Roads.” She’d looked at him wondering who he was.
Her shoulders had hurt, as had her head.
“They had you upside down luv,” said the nurse. “Easier for the surgeon.”
The problem with a private room was that it hadn’t stopped doctors from entering. “It’s the first time I’ve seen the machine in action,” said another – all she remembered of him was his blood-clot coloured tie. “I know now why they call it the sausage factory! Incredible,” he’d continued.
She hadn’t known how to respond. She wondered just how many people were in the room, as she lay, upside down, legs in the air, while they made sausages out of her womb. It had been summer then too. But all she remembered was how cold she had felt.
Now, she sat waiting for her date, hidden by the shade cloth and the other customers. Out of sight, but close enough to watch people as they walked past, making their way to the beach at the bottom of the hill. All drawn to the possibility that the beach offered. Old men acting as if they were still young. Groups of girls with firm glowing bodies, for whom those men were invisible.
When she was a young girl, she used to love the beach. In fact, she loved water of any kind. When she was twelve, Sheila had come to this very beach for a school excursion. It was early spring. When the teacher stopped making them draw the creatures in the rock pool, most of the children made sandcastles or looked for ways to sneak to the shops. She took off her socks and shoes, and lay in sand, just at the edge of the surf so the icy waves caressed her toes. Her feet curled and wrinkled in the cold salt water, as she imagined her life as a grown up. By twenty-four she’d thought she’d be married, have children, a great job (environmental lawyer or something related to saving the world). At the time, her husband looked a little like a younger version of Rishi Kapoor, who’d been slim and hot in his old movies. She still remembered the warmth of the sand, the freshness of the water, and the laughter of other children as the foam washed over her legs. That girl was whole and she had a life to look forward to.
Handsome male for Hindu girl, 5’5”, 22 years old. Caste no bar but prefer a Gujarati boy. Professionals with residency or access to residency need only apply.
When she was in her twenties, it was fun, the waiting. Watching men walk past. Wondering which? Where she’d meet him that day? If he wasn’t the one, no matter. Talking to boys on the phone. Exchanging letters. It was all a laugh.
Then one by one, her friends found the one they liked. Sheila couldn’t understand it – the settling. Settling for a family, settling for Mr almost right. For Mr you give up your job while I run the shop or Mr live with my mother and learn to cook. There were the others, too. the men at work, the non-Indian Mr I love Indian food and Indian girls and Mr speak to me in your language – it’s so sexy. Indo-philes the lot of them. Still they were good for a night out…or two. Then one day it stopped being fun. And like her friends she had settled too.
In her mind, she sees a man walk across the hearth. As tall and slim as Pankaj had been when she’d first met him, a lifetime ago. Her mother had taken to complaining again, “Twenty-five men you’ve been connected with. Trips to India, calls to London even that visit to Melbourne. And the cost of phone calls! We could have become bankrupt. Twenty-five. This will be number twenty-six. In my day if he came from a good family and had all his teeth the answer was yes. None of this picking and choosing.” Sheila wondered how she’d been born of her mother, who reminded her of a short fat duck. She promised never to be like that with her children.
That day she’d decided that the next man she met, would be the one. Because he’d be the man who would take her out of her home. And when she saw Pankaj that evening, with his crooked smile, and warm eyes, she decided he could be the one. She willed herself to fall for him. When he told her he didn’t mind that she earned more than him, she knew he would be the one. Pankaj was the man with whom she was going to share a home and family. They would have lovely children. He was her ticket to a different life. They wed within six months, and divorced three years later.
By the time the man arrives, her drink is half finished even though she’s been sipping it slowly. His face is shadowed against the bright sun. He sits next to her. She smiles and they touch, briefly when she gives him her hand. It’s warmer than his.
“Been waiting long?” He asks.
“No,” she says, “Not that long.”
They only stay for a few minutes. He leads her away, and she follows. “You’re younger than I thought,” he says as they reach the pavement. “It’s the Indian skin”, she replies. He turns to her again, this time looks at her more critically. Next time, she thinks, I’ll just say thank you. She doesn’t add that he looks older. Soft, fine skin, thinned by the wind and years of living. She wonders how it will feel when she finally touches it. So different from her skin. So different from Pankaj’s too.
Pankaj had wanted to start a family straight away, put down roots. She wanted to breathe, to travel, to see the other side of the ocean.
“You’re being so shell-fish Sheila”, he’d rant, when she asked him to wait until they knew each other better. Selfish, Self –ish, shell-fish… she’d play word games in her head and wonder if she’d just swopped her mother for someone just like her.
They went on a holiday to Mauritius and as the warm soft water lapped across her feet she realised that perhaps she was being a little selfish, or scared, that a child could only add to this feeling of contentment that she had by this strip of ocean.
And then when they returned to Sydney, when she finally thought she was ready, they realised that she couldn’t have children. And as the doctor told them the news, Pankaj removed his hand from her back. And never touched her again.
Family man for professional woman in 30’s. Good income, Divorcees with children welcome, good family. Age no bar.
Divorced, no children, became part of her name. “There’s Sheila-divorced-no children… her poor parents, I hear she wouldn’t have children. Now look at her. All money no man.” The words would follow her like smoke when she attended community functions. She would have rather been Sheila, slept with three men or Sheila, too busy earning money, than pity. She didn’t feel pitiable.
“I heard that she wasn’t the best at looking after him you know. Now Pankaj has two boys. And his wife seems very sweet.”
“Sheila,” the man says, recalling her to the present. The weight of his hand encasing hers grounds her. She looks at him sideways, wondering where they’ll head next. It’s been a long time. He smells nice. Clean. “So, have you been doing this long?” he asks.
She doesn’t have to ask what ‘this’ is, they texted for a week before finally speaking by phone. “You’re the first,” she says.
They stop outside a small boutique hotel. It’s on the promenade and has a wooden man in a striped red bathing suit holding the sign. The Dive Hotel. The place is small but anything but a dive.
Single brown female looking for male. Short term. Clean bill of health. No strings.
She knows that his body will be hard and soft. And in a few moments – she’ll feel whole again. She smiles, as his hair brushes against her face and for now, the world is once more full of possibility.
Manisha Jolie Amin moved to Australia with her family when she was five. Sydney is her home, although she travels frequently to both India and England to visit family. She has written one novel – Dancing to the Flute, and a number of short stories.