She could wear her hair up, in a bun, in an invisible hairnet.
She could wear red in her parting, and anklets, and rings on the pretty toes next to her big toes, not every day, but on the days she wanted to be the gold at the end of the rainbow, not for everyone, only for him.
She could cook dal and roti and rice and sabzi, a four-course dinner every night. She could use the skills her mother had taught her for just such a purpose, use what she’d learned he liked—the rotis charred, the dal sweet-and-sour—from the times he’d come to dinner with her brother, his friend, come to dinner and twirled his mustache and followed with his eyes every movement of her wrist as she ladled the dal, her fine-boned little wrist, which she flicked expertly so her bangles clinked back her reply: she liked him, too.
She could eat. She could get a little plump, not so plump that he wouldn’t like it, but plumper than before she knew him, when she had to stay thin and dainty so she could get married and become plump, though no more than he liked.
She couldn’t work. He wouldn’t like it. But she could study and finish her degree so his mother could say she was educated, as well as pretty, as well as good in the kitchen, as well as docile, so he could say she read books—books!—though she mustn’t read when he was home, must put her books away when he was home, because he didn’t read.
She could no longer bat her eyes at handsome boys, could no longer extend the tip of her tongue and moisten her lips while batting her eyes at them in order to feel her heart beat faster, in order to squeeze her legs together, but no matter, because she could fuck. She could fuck! She could sit on her side of the bed, in the thin nightgown she bought on her trip alone to the store, in the lace bra she bought on the same trip, sit on the bed and wait for him to come in, close the door, take her toe-rings off, take the hairnet off, take the hairpins off, shake her hair out, press her down. She could wait to feel something, wait to feel something, feel him shudder, wait to feel something, feel nothing.
But she could feel his mother’s hard fingers prod her hips, his mother’s rough palms measure her pelvis, size up her potential for babies, and months later, she could feel his mother’s eyes on her when there was no baby.
And so she fucked—no, let herself be fucked—twenty times, fifty times, five hundred times, until a baby came, until five babies came—the last one sliding out as easily as piss, the one that died within a year, whose little shirt she kept under her pillow and caressed every night forever—until her boobs sagged and her belly sagged, when he finally left her alone.
And so she packed twelve thousand lunches, cooked twelve thousand dinners, wiped the kitchen counter fifty thousand times, until the second-last baby grew up and left the house, until the days were long and empty and the dinners, with the gruff, grey-haired man who was by now too spent for her to resent, silent. Dinners after which she looked at old photos, touched the little shirt under her pillow, tried to melt the icicle in her heart.
Her hair turned gray. She dyed it. She looked at the root-like veins on the backs of her hands, puzzled: were these her hands? She stopped dyeing her hair, stopped wearing toe-rings and bangles, stopped shopping, stopped going out. She lived alone now, in a small room in a large bustling place. The people were good to her, but it just wasn’t the same. A son visited. Oddly, he was a little gray too. He wore a grey suit. He was a manager in where? “I told you,” he said patiently, “a car company.” He gave her an update on his two children. He assumed she’d want to know everything about them and spoke loudly and clearly as though she was deaf. He hugged her and helped her to a chair, made her comfortable, made her a cup of tea the way she liked it, spooned soup to her lips. All she saw was his swagger. Look at me, he seemed to say, his chest swelling. Look at my children. Aren’t we worth everything? The answer came to her swiftly, silently. If I could have my life back, I would not do it again, not one thing. He kissed the top of her head and left.