“BE STRONG.” Immediately I feel stupid. Who am I to tell her to be strong? I’m not family. I don’t even classify as a friend.
I’m sitting next to her in a crowded room. The walls are in much need of a fresh coat of paint. There’s no furniture save the king-size bed that eats into the walking space. There are shelves built into the wall covered by a red bed sheet that sways in tune with the ceiling fan. It clashes with the purple bed cover. The apartment I rent from them is in far better shape and much more spacious.
“This was the last salwar he got me,” she says while wiping away the curry she spilt on her duppata. I don’t say anything. There’s nothing I can say, really. Even a smile seems irrelevant in the wake of all the pain. I just sit there, hoping it’s the best thing I can do.
I wrack my brain trying to think of things to say. The truth is I never knew her much. I didn’t even know she was pregnant. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to come.
A woman with a kind face brings her a glass of water. She closes her eyes and says without saying, “No, I don’t need water.” The woman places the glass on the floor and turns around and smiles at me. At once I know she is her sister. They have the same smile.
“Are you her friend?”
I stall for about half a minute. Is the right answer a yes or a no?
Instead I simply say, “I am her tenant.”
The sister leaves the room and we continue sitting in silence. There are a lot of things I want to tell her, a lot of things I should be saying to comfort her, but words fail me. Every time I begin to say something, it seems stupid. I don’t know what she’s going through. The silence becomes deafening. To drown it out I say, “Please don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything.”
I know she’ll never call me. She doesn’t have my number, and I know there will be no exchange of numbers when I leave.
She places her hands on her tummy, rubbing it gently.
Her mother-in-law comes in to tell her she should eat something. She looks ahead showing no signs of getting up.
The mother-in-law is very much like her husband in her hand gestures. The way she places her hands on her hips and talks. He’d come every month to collect my rent. He didn’t believe in bank transfers. He preferred to come in person.
Once in awhile he’d stay for a cup of coffee. During one such visit, he told me how he met his wife, and how it had taken him a whole year to convince his orthodox parents to allow him to marry a girl from a different region, religion, culture.
The mother-in-law, seeing no reaction, tells her she should consider her husband’s child. Harsh. But she still doesn’t move. She looks ahead, through the open door, out into the noise of a priest offering prayers and caterers serving lunch.
Tears roll down from her eyes. Today she’s lost not just her husband, but her only connection to a different culture and religion; one in which her child would undoubtedly grow up in.
The silent tears turn to quiet sobs. I take both her hands in mine. I cannot offer her words I don’t have. She has no use of them anyway. She’s been subject to them the whole morning. I don’t want to add to that.
I gently squeeze her hands in goodbye. She doesn’t respond. I hesitate. Do I tell her I’m leaving or do I just leave?
She falls back on the bed and closes her eyes. I pick up my bag and quietly exit.
On my way out, I pass a group of women sitting on a mat on the floor, waiting for the men to finish lunch. I catch the tail end of the conversation: “I always told them the house was bad for them. If they had listened to me, he would not have to die.”
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