by Jahnavi Acharya
Belly full of fish and I’m sitting by the fire.
I’m sitting by the fire reading a letter from the boy. Julian.
I think I’ve always loved fish but I can’t remember. The boy writes to me, every month, and he tells me things about myself that I don’t remember. But he didn’t tell me about the fish. I’m thinking that on my own.
Julian is all grown up now; he probably thinks of himself as a man. I will always think of him as a child, although he is not mine; in my mind he is still a young, defenseless thing, playing in the garden or allowing me to buckle him into the backseat of the limousine. How strange the memories that you keep, when you are forgetting.
He was always a very docile child. A good child with a good heart, Alice used to say. She was supposed to keep to the menu that the missus gave out at the beginning of the week, but she and the other maids in the kitchen would always be making treats for the boy and sneaking them to him when no one was looking.
I was always looking, but I suppose she didn’t count me. We both spoiled him, even if we agreed on little else.
Warm feels good on these old joints.
He says he has a new girlfriend. They are thinking of buying a home together. I don’t understand this new-fangled idea of living with a woman before you have married her. I suppose the boy would call me old fashioned. I suppose I won’t tell him what I really think, if he asks. If he is happy I suppose that may be enough.
He says he is coming to visit next week. Coming to visit me! It will be good to see him again. I will have to erase the picture of the child in my mind, and replace it with the one of him on the mantelpiece. He smiles at me from the picture frame, his arm around a pretty girl – the old girlfriend. He has no concept of longevity in a relationship. But then again, who am I to reproach him? I am just an old man sitting alone by a fire, and I have had my fair share of failure.
He is still young. He has time to learn. I hope that he will not end up alone, as I have.
Julian visits just after the first frost. He brings the new girlfriend with him. I guess she’s not so new anymore. When she is talking to me she raises her voice and speaks very slowly. More and more people are starting to talk to me this way, as if I am deaf. She tells me about their apartment; they went curtain shopping last week. Do you need new curtains, William? She asks me solicitously. I look at my curtains. They are frayed and faded, perhaps, but they are my curtains, and I don’t want new ones. I don’t need new ones.
No thank you, I tell her.
She looks temporarily taken aback, as if offering one curtains is customary and my refusal is somehow unexpected.
Can I get you some tea, then? She tries again.
I hold up my cup, still full of tea that I made myself before they arrived. No, thank you, I say again.
She looks insulted.
There is more tea on the stove, I say, if you would like to help yourself. I raise my hand and point to the kitchen.
I think I will, she says. Will you come with me? she asks Julian pointedly.
He looks at me with a smile like an apology and follows her into the kitchen.
I can hear them in the kitchen, opening cupboards looking for teacups. I’m just trying to be nice, she says. I don’t know why she thinks I cannot hear her. Just because I am old does not mean I am deaf.
You don’t have to treat him like a child, Julian says. He can take care of himself, he’s not a charity case. You didn’t have to offer to buy him curtains, for Christ’s sake.
Oh please, she says and laughs, but it is not a pleasant laugh. You’re a good guy, Jules, but look at him. He’s like a million years old. He doesn’t work anymore, for you or for anyone. He’s the definition of a charity case.
Is that what you think? Says Julian. That I come out here because I feel sorry for him? Or obligated or something?
Silence. Then the opening of more cupboards.
The cups are in the cupboard above the sink, I call. I don’t want to be the cause for their fighting.
Thanks William! Julian calls back. We’ll be just a minute.
When they walk back into the living room the girlfriend looks somewhat chastened. I am sorry to be the cause of her discomfort but I am not sure I should say anything, especially because I think she does not know I have heard the exchange in the kitchen. I very much want to like her because the boy wants me to like her, and I have always tried to keep the boy happy.
The girlfriend smiles at me through tight lips. I don’t like this girl very much, I am thinking, but I keep my mouth shut.
Later the girlfriend offers to wash the teacups. I allow her to do it, if only to spend a few minutes alone with my boy.
Julian waits until she is safely in the kitchen, then leans toward me. What do you think, William? He wants to know if I like this girl. Truth be told, I don’t think I do – but how can I be sure in just one afternoon? I want to tell him about Alice, I want to tell him that after all those years together I still wasn’t sure if I loved her, how can I be sure what I think of the girl washing dishes in my kitchen.
She seems nice, I say. Attentive.
I think she might be it, he says. I don’t want to date around anymore, you know. I want to settle down. I hate being alone.
I am thinking marrying because you are lonely is different than marrying for love; it is not the right thing to do, I think. I want to share that with the boy but I don’t know how.
You’re not alone, I tell him earnestly. You have me.
He looks at me with something like doubt in his eyes. Neither one of us wants to acknowledge that he may not have me for much longer.
Speaking of being alone, he says. I was thinking, maybe you should move closer to the city.
You’re so far away, out here in the country. There’s no one to check up on you. No one to make sure you’re okay.
But I am okay.
William, he tries to reason with me. What if something happened to you? What if you slipped in the shower or had a heart attack or something? It would take hours for me to drive all the way here.
Don’t worry about me, I tell him. I’m fine on my own. I can’t stand all that city noise, anyway.
What’s wrong with the city? He asks. You liked it well enough when you were living there with Alice.
It’s for young people, I tell him. Like you. What would I do in the city now, living in a big apartment all alone?
Maybe you wouldn’t have to be alone, says Julian. He lowers his voice. Kate and I are talking about buying a house – if we get married, you know. It’s up in the air. But I could talk to her…maybe she wouldn’t mind you living with us.
I am touched by the innocence of the offer, but I don’t think the girlfriend would ever agree to such a scheme. Thank you, I tell him, as gently as possible. But I’m fine here. Really.
Julian looks like he is about to argue further, but the girlfriend abruptly comes out of the kitchen just then, wiping her hands on her jeans. There was a towel next to the sink. Perhaps she didn’t want to use it? Too faded for her, maybe.
We should go, she says stiffly.
We’ll visit again soon, says the boy, as if he is reading my mind, but I don’t know if I believe him. I don’t think they will be visiting again if this girl has anything to do with it.
Please do, I tell him, clasping his hand. I don’t see you enough. I feel my eyes watering in spite of myself.
I’ll pull the car around, the girlfriend says shortly, and walks out into the cold. She leaves the door open and cold wind gusts into the cabin, erasing all illusion of warmth that the fire has created.
I’m sorry about her, says Julian. She doesn’t take well to meeting new people – she doesn’t know the good times we’ve had.
We did have some good times.
Remember when I was at boarding school, you would let me borrow the car to take girls on dates? He chuckles. I still can’t believe you let me drive the limousine.
I remember, I tell him, but don’t let your father hear you talking about that!
Julian’s face sobers. He’s dead, William, he tells me gently. My father’s dead.
The breath catches in my throat but now I remember; all of us dressed in black and the coffin lowering into the ground. Of course. He has been dead for some time now.
I’m sorry, I say. I forget.
I know, says Julian. It’s okay. He was never around, anyway. You and Alice were better parents to me than mine even tried to be.
You mustn’t say that, I chasten him, but it makes me happy to hear him say what I already know.
Alice is dead too, I say, but in my mind it is also a question.
She was good for me.
I know. She was good for me too. He pauses. I’m sorry she passed away. It must be really awful without her, living all by yourself.
He has given me an opening, and I know that I should tell him now that I don’t deserve his sympathy, that living alone was a choice I made. But how to say it? How to tell him I am not who he thinks I am, I am not as perfect as he has made me out to be? I want to tell him all about Alice and all of the mistakes I made, but I cannot bring myself to alienate him. I want to tell him that just because we were good to him does not mean we were any good at being married to each other. I want to tell him that he should marry because he is in love, not because he is lonely; but then he would want to know why I think so and I cannot bear to tell him, I do not want to rob him of the illusion that Alice and I were happy together. I want to tell him to make the right choice but I don’t know what it is, I don’t know.
The girlfriend drives up to the front of the cabin and honks. She’ll warm up to you, Julian says. She’s a good catch, really.
I shiver in the cold; the door is still open, the way she left it. There’s a difference between a good catch and a good person, I want to say.
Instead, I draw him close for a moment. I don’t care that she is honking. Let an old man have a moment with his boy. As long as you are happy, I say.
As I am getting ready for bed I think about what Julian has said. I imagine in the dim firelight it would be easy for me to stumble, to fall, maybe on my bad hip. I would not be able to reach the phone. If Alice was here, I think, I would not have to worry. But she is not here, by my own doing, and if I am alone and I fall on my bad hip it is only my own fault.
I shake my head to rid myself of the image, but the thought of Alice lingers. Some days I picture her sitting by her own fire, perhaps with someone else, living out the remainder of her days without me; other days, I remember what Julian has told me: that she is dead. I hope she was happy; I hope it is not true, as her parents told me, that she died of a broken heart. I do not think the boy knows it was not death that tore us apart. I wonder if it is to protect him or to protect myself that I do not tell him the truth, that I left her long before she left all of us.
Some days I wish I had not left her, but mostly I regret marrying her for companionship and not love. It occurs to me that the boy is talking of marrying for the same reasons I did; I hope he will not make the same unhappy mistakes I have made.
No, I do not regret leaving her.
I hope the boy will visit again soon.