Four Days

Vimi Bajaj

India

The International terminal is a bustle of activity. Strong lights illuminate a massive stone sculpture, with a dazzling effect because of all the sand particles embedded within it. Vidya tries to make sense of it but can’t. The artistry is lost amid this mass of crowd and noise, neon lights and moving walkways. Jay would have had a meltdown with all this sensory input.

There is a row of French school children, teenagers, standing in line, murmuring and laughing. She wonders if they are on the same flight.

In another huddle, people are watching the departure boards, updates are falling in one by one, some cancellations. Her flight to Paris is listed, thankfully, ‘On Time. Gate 5.’ She walks fast to get there, troubled and excited at the same time.

Once airborne, she feels eager and hopeful. She dwells on what she has left behind.

Lately, Jay had begun to say “Agatha, Agatha, AGATHA.” Repeat. “AgathaAgathaAgatha”, now a run-on sentence. And it had driven her over the edge.

“Who is Agatha, Jay?”

But there was no Agatha. It was all just nonsense. Noise emitted for the sake of noise.

The group of teenagers are scattered in pairs throughout the plane, but they are easily identifiable by the same navy blue sweatshirts. Vidya checks her phone before turning it off. No messages. She closes her eyes.

They would be alright. The sitter had agreed to come even on the weekend. Her husband Arun had a light schedule at work this week. It would only be four days. A prescription for sanity. She has no plan of action once she gets to Paris.

The grey waters of the ocean bring Jay’s face vividly to mind. He loved the water, loved to play in the pool. He was now almost sixteen.

She sees him slapping his palms on the surface, playing patty cake with some underwater phantom. She remembers having to yell every few minutes for him to go to the shallow end. Instead he’d get out and rock back and forth in a gleeful, happy dance. In the spring, she had gotten an adult swim vest for him to wear, just in case he ventured out too far in the water. Earlier that year, she had read an account in the news of an autistic boy found drowned in a pool in Arizona.

In the end, you could not call it desertion, abandonment, neglect. It had been sanctioned by Arun, no less. He could see she needed to go.

 

As they fly over the Atlantic, the air outside seems colder against the pane. The horizon sharpens against the night sky.

Don’t think so much. She looked ahead while Arun remained still, both right in their own way.

She thinks back again, to the pool on a bright summer afternoon. Jay was there. Throwing rocks in like he did. The pink rocks that were packed along the perimeter where the rose bushes grew. He liked to scoop a fistful in each hand and smash them into the water underhanded, like a girl. What did he know about the boy’s way of throwing versus the girl’s? He was autistic. And that gave him the right to throw any way he wanted.

“He’s not going to be on any baseball teams. Face facts. He’s moderate to severe.”

Arun could be so cold, so scientific. Whereas she had let her dark cloud follow her to a depression, he had let his be hidden, in the way he could so easily retreat into his work, into leisurely weekends on the golf course, into buying sprees online, the latest digital cameras, laptop computers, and other distractions.

Jay had been diagnosed, at the age of three. Vidya remembers the doctor’s exact words. ‘He’s autistic, which in my opinion, amounts to a lifetime of slow learning. It’s all repetitive, patterned thinking. They live parallel lives in their own worlds.’

Vidya knew that it was not just autistic children who lived parallel lives. Arun left the advocacy fight up to her. He said she was good at it. And she was, but she was surprised to learn that after so many years, she was no longer consumed by it.

 

The hotel is not far from the airport, just two short stops on the metro. On one side of the street, a small group is huddled around a van, which stands purposefully in the left lane of the intersection, its red flashers on. A few young men are busy hanging some large wreaths on the side of a building. The ornaments on the wreaths include several red and gold balls. One of the youths is gesturing wildly, his arms raised and moving like large scissors, but no one seems to notice. It is a specialized vehicle, specifically built for disabled passengers. A sharp wind blows her scarf into the young man’s face. He stops his gesturing and brings the scarf to her, smiling broadly. He has a slightly disfigured mouth, full of misshapen, angular teeth. It is windy and the clouds move and play above, altering the sunny spotlight, in a caprice of light and shadows. She sees his face now. He has shiny eyes that speak to hers, though he says nothing. He is tall and slim, about twenty-five.  She mumbles a thank you and walks on. She can feel his quiet stare behind her.

But Paris was an impulsive decision. They would have to live four days without her. Arun had not been happy about it. She had taken care of everything, up to the most minute details before leaving. A person like Jay needs round the clock care and would probably need it for the rest of his life. Leaving for even a short trip took much planning.

“We’ll be okay, won’t we, bud?” Arun had asked. Jay had replied with more nonsense syllables. “AgathaAgathaAgatha.” He had kissed Jay on the forehead, and Jay had done a happy dance.

She feels tired now as she makes her way toward the hotel after the metro. On a gloomy wall an art show is advertised. She stands for a moment reading the pasted flier among the many duplicates and ripped pages upon the information wall. She is free to go there. She is free to do anything.

In the Parisian nightfall, she wistfully takes in the glows of hundreds of street lamps that line the avenues. The city is filled with lights and the shops seem to respond with their own festive glows, luring the hungry, the lonely, the fun seekers and the joyless souls that walk outside like shadows.

 

When she awakens, it is late afternoon and snowing outside. She decides to take a cab to the art gallery. The driver manoeuvres the cab with caution. She looks up with voyeur’s eye, into a lit window of an apartment. The chandelier is beautiful. What if she never went back? What if she remained in Paris, had her own small apartment in the centre of everything? What if she could do all the things she wanted to do and had read about? She lets the thought go.

The street is impassable. Vidya gets out and stands outside an Asian eatery. The man behind the glass is handling a fish. It is still writhing and flipping in its private death throes. Suddenly hungry, she goes inside, led by the smoky yellow lights.

 

The man stops chopping the fish and follows her movements as she is led to a corner table by his only wait staff at this pre-dinner hour, a busboy. He calls the busboy Charlie and tells him to read out the specials. Charlie nods his head yes but instead, goes in the back. She hears him call the man who is chopping the fish Mr. Lee, who then goes to help him.

Charlie brings the woman a bowl of soup, piping hot. She does not make eye contact but asks for plate number 14 on the menu. Charlie disappears into the kitchen.

 

She eats slowly, respectfully. Mr. Lee watches her with curious abandon. He sees her look around several times at the decor, which he has not changed in fifteen years. A fake orchid on every table. A yellowing portrait of the king and queen of Thailand on the entry wall. It is for aesthetic effect, though he is Vietnamese. Posters of dancers with pointed gold headdresses. Tinsel on the farewell table, bowls of candies, and a plate of peanut cookies.

Mr. Lee continues to observe his customer, a woman of about forty-five, a little overweight, no great beauty. Mr. Lee thinks of his own daughter in Vietnam, and the grandson whom he has not seen. Slave to his business, he rationalizes. He thinks of his late wife. His daughter is probably very different now, from what he remembers. Maybe she would be like this lady here. He has not seen his daughter since the fall of Saigon in 1975. Though he and his wife fled the country and left her with a maternal aunt and the extended family, it was not that uncommon, he tells himself again. All he has left is a framed picture of his daughter and his old remembrances.

Mr. Lee withdraws his eyes from the woman when she looks up from eating. It is unlike him to sit with customers while they dined, but he is thinking about it now.

Mr. Lee approaches the table with a soft drink in his hand.

“I am Lee.”

She looks up. Her eyes are puffed and red.

“I have for you some fresh lime soda,” he says, deciding to leave her alone. He does not want to intrude on a private moment.

 

Vidya feels comfortable here. The tiki hut decor is roughly arranged, and she feels it could easily disassemble with a sneeze. Her eyes then fall on a Madonna figurine in the window. The figurine has been given centre stage in the middle of the bay window, its back toward the street. Next to it is a large bamboo shoot supported and tied, inside a porcelain planter, and adjacent to that, in the window, the eternal figures of Shiva and his consort in a lover’s embrace. The Madonna wears bangles on her hand and on the left foot, which is exposed, a stack of ankle bracelets. The babe in her arms is quiet and peaceful. Vidya feels a sudden calm.

Mr. Lee feels it too. He walks over again and points near the window to a black and white picture of a child in a beautiful oxidized silver frame, determined to chat.

“This is my daughter. She is forty-one now. She is in Vietnam. My wife is gone. She died a few years ago.” The child is in a white dress, and is seated on a table before a leafy plant. She has such beautiful dark eyes, wispy hair, a look of such innocence, as if bewildered at her placement in this world. She holds a half-eaten biscuit in one plump hand.

“I have a son too. He’s almost sixteen.”

“You came here alone?”

“Short holiday.”

“I see. We all need that from time to time.”

This makes her cry again. Mr. Lee hesitates, but after a momentary pause, he sits down at her table. He gives her a tissue. She is apologetic. Mr. Lee listens to her tell him about her child, about coming to Paris alone.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I am not a careless mother. And it’s only four days. I’ve wanted to come here for so long.”

Vidya’s gaze is still on the photograph of his daughter, who sits like a baby doll, her head at a natural tilt. He leaves now to answer the phone behind a latticed counter.

Vidya thinks of her son. When Jay did something bad or destructive, there was no point in scolding, in punishing. He wouldn’t get it. You use gentle correction; she had learned that, and then you hoped he would get it sooner or later. Even after many repeat offenses, and many subsequent corrections, you hoped he’d get it. That he’d grow into some maturity with time. That he’d know that it was not good, not good at all to go out without his pants on, that it wasn’t good to pick up scraps of food from the floor in public places, that it wasn’t good to voice up loudly in a restaurant, or to touch a woman’s stockings or a breast, or to steal someone’s gum out of their purse.

Through the kitchen doors, a ferocity of cooking is going on. She hears the clang of a spatula against a large wok and imagines the cook wiping the sweat off his brow with the back of his other hand. Her insides growl in anticipation.

‘Wheel of Fortune’ is on in the background. The busboy has come out and is wiping down glassware with a napkin, his eyes on the TV mounted from the ceiling. Jay too, liked ‘Wheel of Fortune’. The busboy’s mouth is open as he watches the television. He holds his gaze steady on the TV set, and only puts each glass away in the display cabinet after his show is over.

His mouth has a scarred appearance, the teeth sloping and angular. It is the same boy she had seen earlier, with the group and the van. The one who had handed her her scarf. She watches his movements, possessively now. She wants to follow him behind the shining swing doors into the kitchen. She wants to rest her eyes there, at his work station, if he has one. She wants to see if there is a picture schedule or a timer, if he gets a nod of direction from the employer, prompting him to go on to the next task.

For Jay, picture schedules worked best. Natural Environment Training with a therapist at home. Alternating fifteen minutes of one to one teaching at the table, and forty-five minutes of NET, for a total three-hour session per day, after school. Fifteen to twenty hours per week. Schedules and timetables, otherwise the consequences were disastrous. Regression, emergence of bad behaviours, loss of acquired skills. He knew her name when prompted. Mommy. Twelve years old and he still only called her mommy when prompted by a therapist.

She quietly guesses that this busboy is the man’s only ‘family’ in town. She could see him closing every night, the same routine.

After finishing her meal, she leaves a very large tip. As if reading her thoughts, Mr. Lee tells her about him.

“Charlie came around with that group of his. They wanted me to hire him. I needed a busboy. He can do the work of three staff.”

She sees the boy seated at a table folding clean napkins into triangles. She sees him rocking forward and back, as if to some inner music, as he sits listening to this praise. It is a gleeful happy dance.

“Now that you are here,” Mr. Lee is saying, “you take it all in.” She thinks he means Paris. But he makes a sweeping motion with his arms, as if to say, ‘take this all in, my restaurant, my place, take it all in.

 

But there is not much here. And yet the busboy, seated at the corner table, has been a part of the man’s flourish.

 

Vimi Bajaj is the Assistant Fiction Editor for Panorama.