All winter Ivy had kept her feet in socks and old leather loafers, but the skin had hardened around the heels and cracked. In this web of fissures dark dirt had settled. She soaks her feet in water as hot as she can bear, water with a dollop of Sunsilk shampoo in it, and a teaspoon of salt, she coaxes the grime out with a pumice stone and a long nail file. Later, in the high, narrow bathroom, she runs bucketsful of water and washes and soaps herself. There’s only a little runny, colorless foam. She will get out, she will pull on one of the cotton nightdresses she has had for years, and, and—she’ll
paint her nails blue, no, pink, like candy floss or flamingoes, or velvety tulips (she had never seen flamingoes, and tulips only in florists’ windows). Pink is happier than blue. Yes, she’ll drag the little brush along her fingernails, leaving the whites carefully blank. This will take a while, if you counted the minutes it took the varnish to dry between coats, and then she would heat whatever was in the fridge and eat it in the living room, in front of the television. By this time, she’d be tired out, her limbs deliciously laden with sleep, but she would try to read a little before she slept (all she read these days were articles of a kind, urging feminism on much younger girls, and of another kind pushing special diets and self-care routines at them), and when she woke up it wouldn’t be Leila’s wedding day anymore. Ivy hadn’t thought she’d have to think up ways to keep herself busy while Leila, for the third time, decked herself out (in a tomato-red custom lehenga this time, she sent pictures) and said her vows to an unremarkable investment banker (his second time) she had brought to lunch once, months ago. She did say something about the wedding being small, not because she’d gotten into the way of getting married once every decade since the nineties but because her father, her bapi, her backer, was sick - his liver was in bad shape, and he-was-going-to-die-within-the-year-the-doctors-said and therefore, Leila and her banker had to wind up this business of getting married quickly, Leila didn’t think anybody had to be there at all, except for family and very, very close friends. Of course, said Ivy doubtfully, looking up over the rim of her glass of vibrant drink at Jasmine and Mehr - that was the last time they had all been together - and Jasmine had chosen that moment to excuse herself, she needed to pee, but Mehr, candid, fervent Mehr, Mehr who’d showed up at wedding one in a gossamer saree worn with a glittery bra and to its sequel stoned, had drawled, “She doesn’t mean us, do you Leila?” And Leila spewed, for some minutes, the kind of extravagant blather that was her specialty, something about a “tiny” pre-wedding party - just drinks and fooling - that they could “pop up” at, just a very informal do. None of them did, for Mehr died in the wake of their rendezvous, her heart gave up on her without warning as people had, she died alone (”Don’t we all?” used to be her constant, cheerful refrain), and Jasmine was in Denmark at a residency for women who were looking for ways to tell stories with photographs and paintings, and after work, Ivy crossed the city to see her mother at the old people’s home. Her mother was shapeless and yellow, like the yolk of a soft-boiled egg. She didn’t seem to know who Ivy was, but noted that she’d put on weight, and criticized in her vague babble the kurta she’d worn. And tonight, the evening of Leila’s wedding, she - Ivy - had given herself a pedicure, bathed, done her nails. She rubs cold cream in wee circles into her feet, Jasmine had showed her how to rub it in but not dab it down, they were fourteen then, fresh into high school. She thinks of Leila and her banker now, her new husband, in post-nuptial relief, looking into cameras, sipping from coupes; Leila’s terrible skin reposing under layers of makeup; Leila’s last shiftless spouse who couldn’t get it up, no licking-rubbing-coddling-kindness could get his damn thing convivially prepared to make love; Leila’s wealthy first husband, the spoiled fucking sonovabitch, beating her to pulp, “royal beatings”, Mehr would say, Mehr read all the time (Mehr dead!), through lunch at school and all night long when they were at college, Ivy smiled at the remembrance. Leila was making another go of it, Leila was forty-four, not all that old really, she was dropping the dalliance she had with the idea of living in a way that would let her enjoy the things she emphatically preferred - dress expensively, eat well, travel. Keep certain relationships without having to bother about special tact. Be free. Leila was giving in, Leila was giving up her mad notions with this third marriage. She would work out a domestic routine, plan meals, see a therapist and discover why, despite all the men and all the fixes money can buy, she felt like she carried a chasm within her. Regardless, she would be a good wife, she believed she could learn to be one. She puts down her untidy signature below the banker’s. She smiles for the polychrome crowd before them, made up of allies (his) and family (hers). Then it’s time to say their vows, she’s written them out specially, because the standard oaths have done her little good. “I promise to cherish—” she begins, but that’s not it. “In sickness and in health I’ll remain with you, Madhav…” and Leila falters again. People wait, Madhav, who’s just signed, waits. But Leila finds she’s forgotten her lines. Every word.