Tara Isabel Zambrano

The day is running a fever of 46 degrees Celsius when I fall for Sharad. Strong, tall, he strides confidently toward the office where we both work. My body breaks a sweat as I raise my eyes to catch all of him in a single gaze. 

          The first time I wake up in his bed, I shake slightly at his slow-heart breathing. The black turf of his hair on the long pillow we share. His eyes are shut when he says my name–the syllables drown on the slippery edge between dreams and wakefulness. I walk out of the sheets and morning light acquires me. A blackbird with its distinct beak and bright eye ring stares at me from the leafy green confetti of a mango tree. 

          In the conference room, I run a fever, and so does Sharad–we have caught a bug from eating pani-puris in New Market, the kind with extra spicy mint chutney and tamarind sauce. In the evening when the sun rubs stardust on the clouds, we lay shivering, kissing, the ibuprofen cooling us. Then we doze off, our backs pressed against each other like a planet touching its own reflection.

          On a wet, Basant Panchami day in February, we marry. Our wedding is a simple affair, family and a few close friends. The henna illustrates my hand in a paisley pattern, Sharad written in a column of roses on my right-hand index finger. He’s wearing sherwani-churidar and I am wearing a mauve lehenga. That night, in a suite at Le Meridian, tired of the ceremonies, we fall asleep on a bed decorated with jasmine garlands, barely touching each other.

          Our apartment faces East-West. The sun bends our indoor plants in its direction, an enchanter. We paint the walls blush pink, saffron, oxblood red. For my nightdress I wear Sharad’s white cotton kurta–scented with his after shave, sweat and talcum powder. I don’t wash it because it’s passing through time, warm with familiarity, soft at seams. 

          The fever is a constant companion when I root his semen into me and grow a baby. “To give breath to another is the most sacred thing we can do as a human,” my mother says, her hands massaging my swollen feet, my warmer skin recoiling at her soft, cool touch, afraid to lose its fervor. The monsoon has begun, and the damp earth makes me nauseous. A layer of sweat sits on me. I cannot tolerate Sharad’s touch.

          As the day of delivery nears, I grow hotter in body and colder in attitude. Any offering of kindness makes me feel I’ve been ruined. Sharad cooks, and I throw up. I drop things and stand amidst scattered glass like a nervous child. He reaches the dark spaces under the dishwasher, under the cabinets with the long neck of vacuum, the back of his head exposed with thinning hair. 

          Nights, I hardly sleep. I watch the dark condensing as dew in our yard from the bedroom window. The moon rises aimlessly—a balloon—and I wonder if somewhere west the sun is still golden over a boy and girl like Sharad and me, awkwardly kissing for the first time in the back seat of his parents’ car. I’ll never know those people, I think.

          Sharad’s mother comes to help with the newborn. She points out the baby’s wrinkled skin, cupid lips, butt-chin. “Almost as beautiful as my son,” she says. In a rectangle of warmth from the sky light, Sharad’s mother places the baby on his back and rubs olive oil on his tiny torso, his frail legs. “This will give you strength to catch up with the world,” she says as she folds his legs to his chest and straightens them. After the massage, she lowers the baby into my lap and he falls asleep, a ribbon of drool running from his mouth to his chin. I touch his slick, rounded body–soft elbows, knees, little nose. “Someday we’ll crawl under the bed, and you’ll tell me about Treasure Island,” I whisper, my lips close to his forehead, a film of his tender breath intermingled with mine.  

          The clock empties hours into the walls. Shadows lengthen and shorten, but I feel less and less like me. The calendar on the wall is marked with our baby’s growth. After feeding him, I feel like an empty bowl. Every shirt of mine smells of drool and milk, outlines of spills visible on the fabric despite several stain removers and wash cycles. My ears have tuned in to the baby’s sleeping breath, his waking yawn, even the blinking of his eyes. It’s tiring to hear so much. Nights are harder even with their silence. Maybe it’s a flaw in me—I should learn to cultivate the mother in me, instead of wondering: where does one go to be alone?

          Some nights, I walk to my son’s crib and watch him shudder in his sleep, then smile, twisting his face into shapes I don’t understand. I call my mother and ask her about it. 

          “He is shaking off his past lives, his old good and bad karma,” says my mother. 

          I start crying. 

          “What’s wrong?” she asks. 

          “I stand by his crib and am unable to move. Unable to do anything else, think anything else,” I say.

          “It will pass,” she says, and I feel a sudden tenderness for my mother, for enduring all my growing years. After disconnecting the phone, I watch two clouds into the sky, drifting, almost overlapping each other, and then apart, framing the sun in the center.

          I want to hold Sharad, my husband, but weighted with work, his back leans against a chair. He’s no longer the pillar I had. His hands are full of grocery bags and diapers. His chest, my safe place to cry, come, and fist my anger is now lit by the glare of his work computer screen–Amazon Prime is always open in the corner. Our house is full of objects, and I feel I have lost my husband. 

          We start before daybreak to drive to Udaipur for a wedding. On our way, I watch the transmission lines, cell towers slicing the light, the baby asleep in his car seat. Sharad has lost weight and I have gained some and yet we have packed the dresses and suits we wore at our own wedding. They are buried, crumpled under formula and jars of baby food. When he hits the brakes, I can hear the clank of baby spoons against the sippy cups, the plastic rattle of a box of wipes. 

          “Are you with me?” he asks. 

          “Yes,” I say, and turn to look at him.

          “Now you are,” he says and smiles. The thrilled mischief in his eyes, his dimpled cheeks, the braid of muscles sloping from his neck into his collarbones. Outside the sun is inching, and the surfaces of lakes and pastures are covered with the feverish pink of the morning.

          “We’re doing good time,” I say. 

“Yes, how far we have come,” he says, a softness in his voice I can’t make sense of how it feels. Something sad and happy, a deep blue feeling like this space between us even when our hands are touching while passing the baby, when our feet are brushing in our sleep–this air of equilibrium with a lukewarm temperature of marriage. Like going down and up on an escalator, but never landing. 

          In the opposite lane, I see a standing convoy of vehicles. The hood of a car is smashed underneath the side of a truck, perfectly interlocked as if never to separate. The drivers in our lane have slowed down and then picked up their speed, moving on, feeling grateful it’s not them. I keep looking at the crash from the side rearview mirror and realize both of us will turn thirty-five this fall. Inside I know there are things I want to do, but they retreat further and further away like the collision in the rear-view mirror. 

          “Do you think we’ll love each other forever?” I ask and regret it right away because it sounds stupid. Sharad chuckles and starts humming a song, his voice oddly young, as if it came from a time before I knew him. Before we cracked open our hearts for each other without knowing if they’ll be whole again. 

          I understand now that what I fear most is us lasting longer than I can love.

          I join his singing. He rolls down the window. And somewhere in the lyrics, he answers my question and holds my voice before it’s clipped by the wind. Ahead, the highway flattens into a straightaway with no trees in sight. A pair of dull-looking gray birds from the roadside take flight and blend with the sky.

Tara Isabel Zambrano is a writer of color and the author of a full-length flash collection, Death, Desire, And Other Destinations. She lives in Texas and is the Fiction Editor of Waxwing Literary Journal.

© Variant Literature Inc 2021