Sam and Ahara Herda never tire of telling the story of how they met. At first, they told the story out of sheer, exuberant joy, unable to credit this wonderful turn in their lives, the sudden good fortune of having found each other. Later on, they told it because they loved the responses it invariably elicited from their listeners: she’s a college professor and he’s a psychiatrist – a personal ad? Really?
Sam maintains that he knew before they met that they were going to be married. When he heard the clear, British accented voice, he felt a strong pull, an immediate response. The voice entered the room as if it had a physical presence. His movements a little unsteady, he took the pan of pasta sauce off the heat, and replayed the message, his heart beat slightly erratic. He knew he had not heard her voice before. yet it seemed familiar. When the message ended, he moved to the glass windows that ran across the wall and looked out at the lights of the city spread below. Something delicate, something he thought long dead unfurled in him and anticipation swelled up, sweet and slow.
Of the four responses to his ad, Sam had called two and met up with one: an Alexander Technique therapist who occasionally drove truckloads of produce between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Over lunch they traded histories, anecdotes and witticisms. They parted warmly with promises to keep in touch. Neither had.
A month before, Sam had answered an ad. The phone conversation lasted three hours. She was smart, with an intellectual bent and a flirtatious way that Sam found attractive. He suggested meeting but she wanted to exchange photos first. A few days later Sam received a buff colored envelope, scented and elegant, while she was exotic with thick auburn curls to her waist. That evening, after deliberating and hesitating for several hours, he mailed a photo. Six days later he received a smaller envelope, unscented. She thought it was best that they not meet.
Two hours into their phone conversation, Sam said to Aherda “Can we meet?” and quickly suggested a place when she agreed. She was new to Berkeley and MO’s Bookstore was on her list of places to check out. She was pleased when he suggested meeting there.
Most weekends Sam browsed in bookstores in the Bay area. He treasured his extensive book collection and was particularly proud of a first edition of the King James Bible. The textures; the supple Prussian blue leather, the elegant gold scrollwork, the fine paper and the beauty of the language gave him pleasure. The contents had long since lost comfort or meaning.
The two days before their meeting passed slowly and in solitude. He had a sense that he was at a turning point, a new epoch, and so, he prepared himself. It was as if he was saying good bye to the many aspects of solitude that he enjoyed: the time to read, to cook and eat luxurious meals or not, to be selfish and to be alone.
On the day they were to meet, Sam woke up to grey skies and wet streets. He’d slept fitfully and woken early. Last December when his younger brother, David and his girlfriend, had visited, Sam had asked Kate to go shopping with him. Kate worked in fashion and since they had been together David had stopped dressing in worn out T shirts and baggy blue jeans and always looked well turned out in a way that suited him. Now, Sam pulled out a blue shirt and grey pants that Kate had helped him buy. As he belted his pants, he noticed the small paunch hanging over the belt. He rifled through his shirts and hesitated at a jute colored Nehru style tunic. How would Ahara feel if he wore that? Was it a bit patronizing or would she appreciate the nod to her culture? Finally he pulled it on and matched it with khaki pants. It was Saturday after all and the tunic hid his paunch. Not wanting to be late, and to get the browsing out of the way, he arrived at the bookstore a half hour before the agreed time. He was looking at the door when she walked in, carrying an umbrella. She was small, her hair long, her smile wonderful. Here comes a first edition, a limited rare first edition.
Sam remembers that Ahara spoke first “Here hold this will you?” thrusting the umbrella at him. “Any idea where the rest room is?” Her manner was natural, unaffected, her voice just as on the phone. He stood guard, holding the umbrella, carefully eyeing the vagrants and aging beatniks. She was out in a short time, her hair a smooth fall.
In the familiar atmosphere, surrounded by much loved books, Sam felt calm but also wonderfully alive. Shyness which usually gripped him on dates and blanketed all meetings with anxiety was held at bay. Soon they conversed as they had on the phone, at ease with each other. He showed her the book he was reading by a Danish writer and read the paragraph about the numerous types of snow out loud. She noticed a cookery book on Malaysian food and told him that she owned a copy.
“It’s very good. Do you like Malaysian food?”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had it”
“Really? I must cook for you sometime. I hear that there’s a really good Malaysian restaurant in Berkeley but I’m not sure where it is. “
The man browsing nearby responded.
“It’s on Parker. Are you from Malaysia? I’ve been there several times.”
He was medium build, glasses and a worn out jacket. Sam noticed his lingering look at Ahara. Sam thought she was very gracious and admired the way she handled the situation. Sam shifted slightly so that he aligned himself with her – a couple chatting with a chance acquaintance.
They walked to the restaurant, the air now soft and clear after rain. When they entered, the smell of spices that he found pleasant but unfamiliar, again gave him the feeling of being at the brink of something new.
Ahara laughed and said,
‘What a coincidence. People I know – she’s a colleague.”
The woman waved- she had short dark curly hair and strong features and the man was tanned and European looking. Sam was relieved when they were led to a table by the window at the other end of the room. Sam told Ahara that she was in charge of ordering and she laughed and said no problem. When she checked on his dietary preferences, he told her that he was a meat eater and only ate vegetables when he had to. She nodded with lowered eyelids and asked about his spice threshold. She smiled when he said bring it on!. When the waiter came over, Sam was pleasantly surprised when she ordered in Malay. He took the opportunity to look at her while she talked with the waiter. Her lips were smooth and he liked the color of her lipstick, a warm brownish red. As she looked up at the waiter, her throat was surprisingly long for her small size. Her dress was a fitted sheath and he made out the full breasts under the thick cotton. It turned out that she spoke three languages as did most people who grew up in Malaysia as it was multi- racial and multi ethnic and multi linguistic. The waiter asked if they wanted the wine menu and Sam said that this was his area of expertise. He had spent a semester abroad in Paris and had fallen in love with the wine regions. Every summer while he was in college he went back to France and stayed at various vineyards and worked in the fields. It was a perfect segue to bring up his French college crush who he had been married to briefly. He made light of it and switched the topic as soon as he could. It was over 15 years ago.
They lingered over lunch, reluctantly leaving when the restaurant closed.
When he got home, Sam called her. and again every day until their next meeting. Sam asked her for a photo and carried it in his jacket pocket. He showed it to his colleagues at the hospital. “This is the woman I’m going to marry.” He compiled a small album of photos of Ahara; his favorite a close up shot of her in black evening dress, her long hair falling over her bare shoulders. There was a photo of the two of them on their first date. Both were glowing and youthful. On their third date, Sam spent the night at Ahara’s place. The sex was exciting but much quicker then he would have liked as if his desire had been pent up for months instead of just two weeks. The next morning they made love again leisurely. He spent most of Sunday with her and left in the late afternoon.
His worried mother cautioned in her slightly nasal drawl “ Honee you’ve only known her six weeks – how can you propose so soon? Surely you realize how difficult cross cultural marriages are? “Reading between the lines, Sam heard “ What if it doesn’t work out and she goes back to her country? Like your first wife went back to Paris. We never see our granddaughter anymore.”
His father a retired army colonel was correct and formal in his congratulation. “Will we meet her at Christmas?” before you get married.
They flew out of San Francisco airport on the first flight on Christmas Eve. It was only an hour’s flight and they were at this parents in time for a late lunch. They were staying three nights. On the last day of the visit, his father said quietly to him as they were mixing drinks for the dinner guests.” Don’t muck this one up.” On the morning of their departure, Sam’s mother asked Ahara to her room. She opened a large jewelry box and said “ I would like you to have these – perhaps you will consider wearing them at the wedding.” The pearls were large and glowing with an exquisite diamond clasp. There were also drop earrings and a ring.
To Sam, she said, “She’s what you’ve always wanted and what I’ve always thought you needed – a successful woman who is nurturing. “
They were married on the six month anniversary of their first date. Why wait they said? Both had been around the block and both knew what they wanted. Of course Sam and Ahara knew that this thrilling in their veins, this unbelievable happiness would not last. It would settle down, become ordinary but it would be a good relationship. They had so much in common, shared a similar vision for their future. Both were forty, had been in significant relationships that had not worked out, and were highly qualified professionals who had worked in academia for many years. They felt that they had arrived at the same place in their lives. Their marriage was the most momentous event in both their lives; more life changing then moving to the US for Ahara, or her father’s death; more weighty than his career change from college professor to psychiatrist for Sam.
The day after the wedding, Ahara’s mother had a heart attack.
Ahara stayed at the hospital until her mother was moved out of intensive care. When she got home, she dialed her sister’s number in Kuala Lumpur. There was a twelve hour time difference and it would be Monday morning there. She pictured Tara, her short hair waving around her face, grabbing breakfast before heading out of the door. The long windows with the view of the big spreading Casurina tree, the spacious apartment bright with morning sun, cool before the mid day heat. She heard the ringing tone and mentally composed several sentences. But at the sound of her sister’s clear, much loved voice, ugly wrenching sobs broke out of her. As Sam gently took the phone, she could hear Tara’s voice, urgent with fear, “What is it? Ha? What is it?” Sam’s arms were around her and the caught the occasional phrase, “prognosis is good,” “as well as can be expected”. Gratefully she thought, “how well he’s doing this” and then uneasily ‘I’ve never heard this voice before –what is this tone?” She realized that it was his professional manner and that he was dealing with Tara like a patient. He was kind and comforting but slightly detached, a certain reserve implicit in the words and tone.
She stepped away, blew her nose, took several steadying deep breaths and signaled that she wanted the phone back.
“Hi Tara, I did a good job breaking the news to you didn’t I?” Her voice was thick
“You poor dear – what a start to your marriage. And it took you long enough to get married.”
Ahara laughed, wiping the trickle of tears with the back of her hand.
“You’re a fine one to talk.”
Tara was four years older and had spent the last ten years building a thriving business in Public Relations.
“Ah but I have a lot of money. She is Ok isn’t she Hari? “
Ahara smiled at the childhood name, at the same time noting the uncertainty in the voice.
“They say she’s going to be fine. She was really tired at the wedding but I thought it was the flight you know. And I hadn’t seen her in four years so I thought well, she’s getting older –she’s seventy. But she’s doing well now – really.”
Sam had wondered off to the kitchen. Lowering her voice, Ahara said ‘ Tara, er, I don’t know why I’m bringing this up now. But ..hmm.. its about Sam and me. I had this weird feeling.”
“When Ma had the … pause. “I felt well, I had this really strange feeling. It’s a bad omen isn’t it? ‘ she whispered.
“Ah yah, Ahara Gopalan Herda- I can’t believe what I’m hearing! You sound like a superstitious village woman. Are you a farmer’s wife or an educated woman with a PhD in economics?
‘I know, I know. Feel so stupid. But did you know that Ma wanted to check our signs with the astrologer? “
Ya, she told me .
“Was she upset when I didn’t let her?”
“You know she’s not like that. She said you should do what you want. But she felt she should offer – it was her duty.”
“Perhaps I should have let her”
“Right and if a half-naked old man in a loin cloth had said that you were incompatible, would you have broken up with Sam?”
“No way. And they dress in suits these days – some of them are quite young too.”
“All right Ms. successful Businesswoman with the “I have lots of money”. Point taken. When are you getting here? “
“I’ll call as soon as I get my tickets booked. I can stay in a hotel if you don’t have space.”
You just try that.
Ok , I just didn’t want Sam to have an overdose of female relatives – poor guy. I’m really looking forward to meeting him. “
“Ya, that’s why you didn’t come for the wedding. “
“Hara, you know I was all packed. What can I do if my biggest client ends up in jail and needs me to work with the crisis management team? “
Come anyway. But she did not say it.
“Well I’m sorry it’s taken this but I can’t wait for you to get here.”
It was the first major disappointment of her relationship – that her beloved sister and her husband took an instant dislike to each other. She’d realized that Sam’s shyness and his large lumbering build, his long slovenly hair did not make a great first impression. Sam was one of the most intelligent and well read people Ahara had ever met. He could hold an in-depth conversation with experts on almost any subject: how to build a rocket ship, the inner workings of the middle ear or Flaubert. But Sam had very little small talk and even less inclination for making it. She had seen the forced smiles and heard the false notes in her friends’ voices after their first meeting with Sam. But somehow she had expected him to get on with her sister; that he would open up to Tara as he did with her. Or that Tara would manage to reach him, would read beyond the first page. He’s like one of those stories in the Vedas that we grew up with she wanted to say to Tara. So simple that you tell them to children as bed time stories but also so rich that they reward a lifetime of pondering.
Tara insisted on paying for the medical bills, refusing to let Ahara and Sam share the cost. “You’d better keep your money – your husband needs your help” she’d said, her voice, carefully neutral. Sam was making good money- or he would be as soon as he got a full time job, and as soon as they paid off his college loans. He was in debt to the tune of $80,000 but the market was good for psychiatrist, his qualifications impeccable. It was just a matter of time. In the meantime he was subbing at two clinics and moonlighting at a third.
After Ahara’s mother was discharged, she stayed in their spare room. They cancelled their honeymoon to Bali. There would be other holidays Sam assured Ahara. He was not in the least upset he said. They had their whole lives together; they had forever. The doctor had advised against travel for Mrs Gopalan for at least a month. It was now three months and they had not had a single night alone since their wedding. Ahara’s mother was a model patient: undemanding, grateful and in good spirits. She insisted that they go out on Saturday nights and that she was happy staying in and watching the Bollywood movies that Ahara rented for her. But she had a lot of visitors. Highly religious, she said prayers every morning and evening. When Sam came home in the evening, the sound of chanting and prayers greeted him as he got out of the car. The small house brimmed over with people from the nearby temple. The smell of incense was strong and in the spare room, next to his collection of first editions, was an altar.
Both wanted children but recognized that age would be an issue. Adoption both said would be perfectly fine; perhaps a child from India. What could be more rewarding? When she was late, Ahara put it down to the stress of her mother’s illness, working summer school to pay the bills, and her new role as wife. They were overjoyed but also stunned as they had only been married five months. Could it be that their dreams were coming true? Ahara especially had been secretly and deeply anxious about becoming pregnant; after all she had just turned 40. When the doctor confirmed the pregnancy, the world suddenly seemed to be lit a soft golden color. She felt waves of happiness flowing through her. The pregnancy was unexpectedly enjoyable and as each month passed by, she grew more confident of this wonderful new role she had taken on. The world seemed truly amazing, the air smelt fresh and fragrant, Sam was the most wonderful husband in the world and her friends were exceptionally nice people. After the years of struggle and academic poverty, and the loneliness of moving far from family and close friends, she felt she had finally reached a place where she wanted to be.
During graduate school, her room mate had majored in social work and Ahara had volunteered with the Down Syndrome Association for a year. After a relatively smooth and swift delivery, when the little bundle was placed in her arms, she recognized the features immediately: the overlarge head, the slightly flat features, the flaccid feel. A long moment of darkness. She was in a void, the world disappeared. She was numb and uncomprehending. Then her daughter gurgled – a little merry sound. Years later, Ahara would examine that first moment carefully, grateful for the sound that had triggered love and banished revulsion. Her daughter’s hair was abundant, black with red streaks in the sunlight, her mouth a tiny red slash. Her skin was flushed and it was difficult to tell the exact color. Ahara cradled her overwhelmed by tenderness and protectiveness.
When the doctor broke the news to him, Sam walked slowly down the long corridors to the nursery. He felt empty as if he could be blown away. He focused on placing his feet carefully, one in front of the other. The corridors seemed endless. Finally he reached the nursery, a large sunny room with rows of cots and babies. A smiling nurse rolled a cot to him. With the glass divider between them, he stared for several minutes down at the tiny thing that had forever changed his world. When the nurse, her smile grown slightly strained, mimed carrying actions, he turned and slowly walked away. He left the hospital without visiting Ahara.