Photo: The Library of Congress
THOUGH ADMITTEDLY DRUNK off Kingfisher beer — I lost count of how many — the bathroom interrogation remains remarkably clear.
It began shortly after arriving at the small thatched cabin on the edge of the Arabian Sea. My friend Sholeh and I went down to the restaurant for dinner. A big group was finishing up. The men sat at one table, making merry with many bottles of beer. The women and children sat at another table, drinking sodas. I watched as a man, having left the beer table, tried to climb into a hammock.
Sholeh and I sat at a table and ordered beers.
An Indian couple sat across from us, and I could feel them eyeing us, especially the wife. They both drank rum, and maybe she felt some sort of camaraderie with us since we too were drinking women.
They worked up the courage to walk over to our table. “May we have a picture?” the husband asked.
“Sure,” I said, reaching for his camera. “Do you want the sea in the background?’
“My wife would like a picture with you,” he explained.
I imagined the caption on Facebook: Foreign girls at Arabian Sea.
“Okay. Sure.” Sholeh and I posed with the woman, wrapping our arms around her shoulders. She giggled and smiled.
“Why don’t you sit down and join us?” Sholeh asked.
After drinking the restaurant out of their supply of beer, Padmesh and Badra had become our new best friends. They were on holiday from Mumbai, and they wanted to know as much about our lives as we wanted to know about theirs.
Thinking about my newish boyfriend I’d left back at home, I asked them if their marriage had been arranged. I couldn’t begin to imagine who my parents would have picked for me, though admittedly with my last marriage, they might have done better than I did. I was now with this new man, one I was hoping wanted to marry me.
Padmesh said their marriage had been arranged, through the internet, in fact, which he said had become an increasingly popular way for parents to find spouses for their children.
“How do they choose?” I asked.
“By horoscope,” Badra said. “They find the astrological match.”
“But what if your horoscopes don’t match?” Sholeh asked.
“Then no marriage. Or you must go to the temple and pray to see if you can overcome the bad match,” Padmesh said.
I thought about the arranged marriage and reminded myself that whenever we make judgments about others, we are really trying to figure out ourselves. The net of dusk had fallen over the blackness of the Arabian Sea. We were the only patrons left in the restaurant.
“I do have friends who have love marriages,” Badra said. “It is becoming more common. And they are happy, I think.” She smiled at her husband.
The result of Padmesh and Badra’s marriage had been two children whom Padmesh and Badra both adored. They showed us picture after picture on their phones.
Badra was a beautiful woman with hair so black it absorbed all colors, the light reflecting off it, like the sheen off metal. Her eyes were the color of walnuts. Padmesh, the typical business entrepreneur, was soft in the belly but quick to laugh. I wanted to believe they’d found happiness in each other, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Badra’s comment about “love marriages.” Maybe it was because I myself had made such bad choices in men, and I wanted to believe that, at 36, I had finally found the right man, which I hoped would soon result in a happy “love marriage.”
Sholeh and I excused ourselves to find the restroom. Badra followed. As soon as we were safely ensconced in the ladies room, Badra began the bathroom interrogation. Because Sholeh was married, she avoided most of the questioning. Badra was most interested in a creature like me, a woman in her mid-thirties who remained unmarried.
I didn’t tell her that I had been previously married; that seemed too complicated, too difficult to explain after drinking four Kingfishers. Plus, I didn’t want to reinforce the American stereotype of divorce, however true that might be.
“Have you had boyfriends before this current one?” Badra asked me.
“Yeah.” I attempted to fix my wild sea-blown hair in the mirror.
“Sure.” I looked at Badra in the mirror.
“I don’t know. 100?”
“What? 100? What are you saying?” Badra turned me around to face her.
“I don’t know. Give or take. It’s different in America.”
“Did you sleep with any?” Badra now had me pushed up against the sink, the fluorescent lights flickering above us. Badra was now so close I could smell her breath, a mix of cardamom and beer.
“Oh God. Does your boyfriend know about this?”
“Yes. I mean, I guess so.”
“How many?” She demanded.
“How many what?”
“How many previous boyfriends did you sleep with?” she said this between hiccups.
“Not sure. Less than 100,” but Badra didn’t find this funny.
“Oh my God. Will he ever marry you? How could he?” She slapped her forehead, leaving her hand there.
“I’m not sure. Things are different, but maybe you’re right, Maybe he can’t.”
“Well, I suppose he assumes.”
“Have you told him? I mean, you haven’t, have you?”
“No. I’m not sure.” I began to feel dizzy. And more than a little worried.
“Don’t tell him,” she advised, looking serious with her hand still on her forehead. “Is he a virgin?”
“What? God no.”
“And you don’t care?”
“I’ve never thought about it that way.”
“Never thought about it. What is this? I don’t understand.” She looked to Sholeh for help. Sholeh was looking in the mirror, putting on lip gloss. “Did you have boyfriends before you were married?” Badra asked her.
More private than I am, therefore less likely to discuss her sex life with a stranger in the ladies room, Sholeh said, “I was very young when I was married.”
This seemed to satisfy Badra.
Padmesh called into the ladies room, “Are you all right in there? What are you doing? Didn’t fall in, did you?” He laughed, as if he didn’t really want to know, but it was his duty to get his wife out of the bathroom.
Badra called back, “Everything’s fine.” She then turned to Sholeh and asked, “Can I borrow your lipstick?”
Sholeh handed it over, and Badra applied it to her lips, as if that would be reason enough for spending twenty minutes in the ladies with two Americans.
We all left the bathroom, but Badra followed Sholeh and I back to our cottage, came inside, and continued with the questioning. Mostly, she couldn’t believe that a man would marry a woman who had had sex with anyone else, especially multiple partners. She kept repeating, “One hundred boyfriends, are you serious? You can’t be serious. Are you serious? Oh God, you are,” which made me wish I didn’t go into detail.
“What I have seen on the television is actually true,” she said. Then she added, “You must follow this advice. You must not relay this information to your boyfriend. If you do, he will never marry you.”
When Padmesh called to her from outside our cottage, Badra gave each of us a long hug goodbye and placed a glossy kiss on each of our cheeks. She wished me luck, her dark eyes now slit like commas. “Listen to me,” she advised. I nodded, and she waved at us, then retreated into the dark, salty air.