predicted it: how he alone would manage to have it both ways at once.
* * *
Sachin puts the children to sleep. He has an easier time of it than Mala. From Mala, Vivek demands songs and stories; Shivani plays with her mother’s hair. Sachin simply lies there, a child in the crook of either arm, and waits. Most of the time he goes to sleep alongside them, as he does tonight.
So Mala kneels and unzips the red wheeled suitcase, which is full of wrapped presents, while I go to our stash in the walk-in closet. I stacked our presents against the wall. They are hidden by Abhi’s Arrow shirts. On the shelves above them, I store my sarees in crinkly Asopalav bags. They remind me of the photographs in which I wore them rather than the occasions themselves. Old-fashioned albums, sticky background with a plastic oversheet, small envelope containing negatives stored in the back. Each negative the bookmark in a finished book. Mala used to hold them to the light, squint at our dark teeth and luminous hair, and declare, “Ghosts! Everyone’s ghosts!”
I touch my old sarees and marvel at this country where silk can lie folded so many years and no moths find it. So clean, this part of the world. Sterile, almost. Uncrowded by people, uncrowded by bugs.
The saris stay in my mind as Mala and I place the gifts around the tree. Ronak has already stacked his in a tower and gone back upstairs. We mix our boxes with his, making something arbitrary but aesthetic with the different box sizes and the three kinds of wrapping paper. Ronak and Mala have gotten Abhi and me two things each, even though they know we do the tree and gifts for the children. Ronak wanders downstairs again as Mala is putting candy canes in the stockings, which she has hung beneath the peacock-filigreed show plate on our mantelpiece. He has gift cards. He slides them casually out of his wallet.
“You still get stuff for Shivani from Babies ‘R’ Us, right? Or is she too big for that place?”
Mala cocks an eyebrow. “You’re really asking me? You’ve got three of your own, don’t you?”
“Amber handles that kind of stuff. Kid shopping.”
“You didn’t ask Amber?”
“Is this going to be any use to you or no?”
“Of course. Nipples and onesies.” Ronak shows no comprehension of what even I understand to be sarcasm. His hand is still in midair. Mala grins. “Amber’s a saint the way she treats you. What’d you get her for Christmas?”
Ronak drops the card in the stocking. “Massage treatment. One of those spa things. She likes that.”
“Any guesses what Sachin got me this year?”
Ronak glances at me. He knows Mala’s cuts at Sachin pain me. The first year, Sachin had gotten her nothing—like Abhi and me in our first years here, Sachin assumed Christmas, like Halloween, was for children. Abhi had advised him to get Mala “something special,” and the next Christmas, Sachin had purchased some earrings. He called Abhi over to record him as he handed her the gift. The smallness of the box might have made the gift seem bigger, had not the Kohl’s bag (receipt still inside) sitting on the couch armrest. We have coached him since. He has gotten better.
Ronak now senses a cut coming, just as I do. “Ooh,” he says to Mala, as if he has just noticed her baby candy canes. “Can I have one of those?” She offers him one, and he plucks it playfully from her fingers and taps it on her forehead, successfully diverting her attention. “Thanks!” he says, and makes an escape upstairs.
I watch as Mala rearranges the gifts one more time, steps back, then unhooks a silver ball and a reindeer and switches their places on the tree. “Let’s see it with the lights on.” She plugs in the lights Abhi has strung on the tree. They begin to blink. She thumbs a small device along the cord, and the fifty nipples of white light hold steady. She assesses the tree, and I know what she is thinking: When they come down the stairs, this is how it’s
Patricia D. Eddy, Jennifer Senhaji